For the past several years, with almost predictable regularity, The Associated Press (AP) has been producing a series of articles supposedly revealing the secret, unaccountable cloak-and-dagger misdeeds of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in its Cuba program. For all the implied sinister intentions, bureaucratic overreach and shades of John le Carré-like intrigue, though, all the AP has exposed are really just democracy programs—not that different from those that have been conducted in many other countries, often with the support of human rights organizations, local citizens and the international community. The problem is, this is Cuba, where nothing’s ever straightforward.
To be sure, there’s plenty to complain about and cloud U.S. policy toward Cuba even—or especially—when it comes to the work of the U.S.’ official development agency, USAID. First, there’s the odious, ridiculous policy of a 50-plus-year embargo on the island. Sadly, USAID’s democracy work was added to that failed policy in 1997, when Congress forced USAID to develop a democracy assistance program as a component of the Helms-Burton Law.
The law politicized USAID’s democracy work from its inception. Helms-Burton (or, as it is officially and unironically named, the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act) codified the U.S. embargo into law, and established an unprecedented set of human rights and democracy standards that would have to be met before the president could even ask Congress to lift the embargo, thereby unconstitutionally tying the president’s hands in conducting foreign affairs. It also explicitly tied USAID’s development policy to Congress’ political agenda and was (let’s just say) a unique law in U.S. foreign policy.
This week’s top stories: USAID is accused of running a secret program in Cuba; Mexican energy reform passes in the lower house; U.S. Republicans pass immigration bills before recess; the value of the Argentine peso drops over debt woes; a bridge in Montería, Colombia collapses.
USAID and Cuba: In a statement this morning, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has criticized an Associated Press report that alleges that the agency secretly sent non-Cuban Latin American youth to Cuba to recruit anti-government activists on the island. USAID states that their work “is not secret, it is not covert, nor is it undercover,” and that it was part of “democracy programming in Cuba.” The program, which the AP says was run by USAID and the Washington-based Creative Associates International, allegedly recruited a dozen young people from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico to “identify potential social-change actors” while running civic programs in Cuba, such as an HIV prevention workshop.
Mexico’s lower house passes energy reform: Mexico’s lower house passed secondary legislation to reform the Mexican energy sector on Saturday, making small modifications to proposals submitted by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and the Mexican Senate. The reforms, which must now be re-approved by the Senate, are expected to bring billions of dollars of investment in the production of Mexican oil and shale gas. The reforms will allow private companies to produce oil under production-sharing and profit-sharing contracts with the Mexican government for the first time in nearly seven decades. One of the most controversial components of the legislation is a requirement that the federal government, financed by Mexican taxpayers, pay a portion of Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) and the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE)’s pension liabilities.
Immigration bills: In last-minute votes on Friday before the August recess, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed two bills that would modify a 2008 anti-human-trafficking law in order to make it easier to deport unaccompanied minors from Central America, and also block the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which defers deportations for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. The Republican bills have come under criticism from Democrats and U.S. immigrants’ rights groups, who say that the legislation would return children to the violent situations in their home countries that they are trying to flee. Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the legislation “a low point for our country.” Those in favor of the bills say they will strengthen enforcement and reduce incentive for young immigrants to come to the United States. The legislation approved $694 million in funding for federal agencies to address the surge of migrants, far less than the $3.7 billion requested by President Barack Obama. Congress is on recess this month, and the measures are unlikely to become law due to strong opposition. President Obama said on Friday that he was “going to have to act alone” due to the lack of funding to respond to the surge of young migrants.
Argentine peso could drop 10 percent in value: After last month’s failed negotiations between Argentina and holdout creditors over Argentina’s debt, investors expect a 10 percent drop in the value of the Argentine peso over the next 90 days. Traders’ expectations for the peso hit a six-month low on August 1—at 9.15 per dollar—two days after the country missed its July 30 deadline to pay $539 million in interest to restructured bondholders. The Argentine government has argued that the country is not in default because it has continued to make deposits to its bondholders with the BNY Mellon, though the payments are being held back due to the court ruling by the U.S. district court judge Thomas Griesa, who ruled that holdout creditors must be paid first. Argentina has asked Judge Griesa to find a replacement for mediator Daniel Pollack as negotiations continue, saying that he has been biased in favor of the holdouts.
Collapse of bridge in Montería, Colombia leaves at least 27 wounded: A bridge being built to reduce traffic at Los Garzones airport in the city of Montería in northern Colombia collapsed around 9 p.m. on Sunday and left at least 27 workers wounded, while one worker remains trapped in the debris. It is unclear why the bridge collapsed, although some believe that it may have been an error in engineering in the construction’s wooden framework. Transport Minister Cecilia Álvarez will visit the zone today to make an inspection.
Chinese President Xi Jinping kicked off a two-day tour of Cuba last night, stirring hopes that the China will invest heavily in Cuba’s developing economy. President Xi will meet with President Raúl Castro today in Havana before flying to the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.
While China and Cuba are close political allies, instability in the Cuban economy stifled efforts to act on deals signed by the two countries for large Chinese investments in Cuba’s nickel, hotel and oil industries between 2000 and 2009. President Castro’s economic reforms—along with the new foreign investment law that offers tax breaks for joint-ventures and more investment security, and development of the Mariel Special Development Zone, which will offer tax and contract incentives unavailable elsewhere on the island—are expected to be used as an incentive for Chinese investment in Cuba’s pharmaceutical and automotive sectors.
President Xi’s visit to Cuba culminates his four-country tour of Latin America. During his visit to the region, the Chinese executive also met with Argentine, Brazilian and Venezuelan officials to finalize key investment deals and launch the new Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) development bank.
China is currently Cuba’s largest creditor and second-largest trade partner.
I, like many others, was one of those who sent an e-mail to the U.S. State Department inquiring about the visa status of a number of Cuban economists coming to the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) last week in Chicago. Most, though not all of them, received visas after becoming lodged in the State Department’s labyrinthine processes.
Sadly, I couldn’t have done the same for Manuel Cuesta Mora, a Cuban human rights activist who requested a visa from his government to travel to the same LASA conference. The Cuban government denied his visa, and I don’t have much pull with those guys, unfortunately.
Denied. [But the Joke’s on the Cuban Government]
The news of Cuesta Morua’s visa denial arrived just before the LASA conference started. According to the Cuban government the reason for Cuesta Morua’s inability to leave his country was that he had previously been arrested for participating in a peaceful protest in late January 2014, expressing citizen opposition to yet another regional platitudinous summit that failed to recognize the democratic values it purports to uphold.
In this case it was the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit held in Havana. Dozens of activists were rounded up by the Cuban government to preempt any embarrassing expressions of “democratic-ness.” And most Latin American presidents didn’t say a word, though many have benefitted from the sort of democratic openness or its defense under other less-leftist regimes.
Cuban dissident Yoani Sánchez launched 14ymedio, an online-only newspaper, on Wednesday morning. The outlet is meant to be an alternative to the state-controlled media, but Sánchez said that it will not serve as a platform to criticize the government. Rather, it will “contribute information so that Cubans can decide, with more maturity, their own destinies,” Sánchez said.
Activist Reinaldo Escobar, the paper’s editor-in-chief and Sanchez’ husband, said 14ymedio would avoid tension with the government by remaining a digital-only title and steering clear of loaded words like “dictatorship” and “regime.” While the first edition ran an interview with jailed opposition writer Ángel Santiesteban, the paper also covers issues beyond politics, like sports and style.
14ymedio will likely have limited readership, given that Internet access is sparse in Cuba and information is tightly controlled by the government. Three years ago, the Venezuelan government built a high-speed fiber optic cable, bringing more online access to the island. And though there are now some 300 public Internet cafes across the country, Internet use is prohibitively expensive—sometimes costing a week’s worth of public employee wages.
The Cuban government announced a process of decentralization as part of what President Raúl Castro termed Cuba’s “most complex” series of reforms, in the state-run Gaceta Oficial on Monday. The new reforms allow the more than 2,800 state-run enterprises—which represent 80 percent of Cuba’s economic activity—to open secondary businesses outside of the enterprises’ primary focus, retain 50 percent of their profits, sell excess goods at market prices, and set their employee’s salaries independent of the state.
While state-run enterprises will still be subject to government production quotas, Granma—Cuba’s official newspaper—reports that the reforms are part of a “gradual decentralization process” that transfers more responsibility to the companies’ directors. The new reforms come on the heels of Cuba’s much-anticipated Foreign Investment Law approved by the National Assembly on March 29.
These changes represent a series of economic reforms championed by President Castro since 2011, meant to stimulate the island’s stagnant economy and attract foreign investment. While the effects of the reforms have been modest—the economy grew by just 2.7 percent in 2013—the non-state sector has grown to 450,000 workers who now make roughly $100 a month, five times that of state employees.
After a 14 year hiatus, there are signs that Cuba is ready to re-enter the world of international finance by reopening debt negotiations with the informal group of wealthy creditors known as the Paris Club, Reuters reported yesterday. Any negotiations would involve the restructuring of nearly $18 billion in debt—which does not include about $18 billion worth of Soviet-era debt forgiven by club-member Russia in 2013—and increased transparency on the part of Cuban government officials.
While the Paris Club includes the U.S. amongst its 19 members, the a special working group on Cuba that would participate in debt negotiations excludes the United States. Since 2011, Cuba has restructured its debts with China, Japanese commercial creditors, Mexico, and Russia, meeting its debt repayment obligations to those countries under the new plans.
Although the U.S. will not be able to participate in the debt negotiations, a recent report released by Americas Society/Council of the Americas’ Cuba Working Group details steps that President Obama can take to ensure that the U.S. isn’t excluded in financially supporting Cuba’s emerging non-state sector, despite the constraints of the 54-year-old embargo.
Since 2000, the Havana Film Festival in New York has been bringing Latin American cinema to New Yorkers—and after 15 years, it is still going strong.
Despite its name, the festival doesn’t limit itself to showing Cuban films. Its goal, said creative director Diana Vargas, is to place Cuba within a larger Latin American context and generate a better understanding of the region. This year’s festival includes 45 Latin American films—of which 26 are Cuban productions from the past 55 years. While the festival hasn’t always featured a majority of Cuban films, this year’s selection centered on films from the island as part of the festival’s 15th anniversary celebration.
Cuban and migrant-themed films dominated the closing night awards presentation at the NYC Directors Guild Theater on Friday. They competed for the Havana Star Prize in the categories of "Best Feature," “Best Director,” “Best Documentary,” “Best Screenplay,” “Best Actor,” “Best Actress,” and “Special Jury Mention.” No one seemed surprised when Conducta (Behavior), the newly released Cuban box office hit about a young boy and his sixth grade teacher, won the “Best Feature” award. Conducta filled the NYC Directors Guild Theater during the opening of the festival on April 3, as well as the Quad Cinema in its second showing the following Saturday evening.
Cuban director Jorge Perugorría's latest film, Se Vende (For Sale), also packed the Quad Cinema on Tuesday night. The audience laughed at the dark comedy’s morbid humor and social commentary. Se Vende tells the story of a young Cuban woman who is forced to sell her deceased parents’ bones for some extra cash. “It is a metaphor for Cuba’s recent economic changes taken to the extreme,” said Perugorría. “As Cubans, we have developed a great capacity for survival. Since we were born, we were in crisis [...] but that hasn’t taken away our will to live.”
This week's likely top stories: a deadly fire ravages Valparaíso, Chile; French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius visits Cuba; Glencore sells Las Bambas mine to Chinese consortium; Venezuela investigates abuses during protests; a shipwreck spills fuel off the coast of Colombia.
Fire in Valparaiso, Chile: At least 12 people have died in a disastrous fire in Valparaíso, Chile that has forced some 10,000 people from their homes. The fire started on Saturday and rapidly engulfed the historic seaside city, whose town center is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of Valparaíso’s buildings are perched on hillsides and susceptible to fire, posing a great challenge to the 1,200 firefighters that have been dispatched to the city. High winds fanned the blaze on Saturday night and the fires could still spread. The Chilean Red Cross has appealed for donations, and President Michelle Bachelet is in Valparaíso to oversee the emergency response. Meanwhile, a forest fire in the Colombian department of Boyaca has consumed at least 250 acres of land in the last three days, also due to high winds.
France’s Fabius Meets with Raúl Castro: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius met with Cuban President Raúl Castro on Saturday to discuss politics, human rights and economic reforms in Cuba, just weeks after the European Union agreed to begin negotiations with Cuba. Fabius’ meeting with Castro was the first visit to Cuba by a high-ranking French official in 31 years. Talks between the EU and the Cuban government are expected to begin on April 29 in Havana.
Glencore Sells Las Bambas Mine to Chinese Consortium: A consortium of Chinese companies announced Monday that it will purchase Peru’s Las Bambas copper mine from Glencore Xstrata for approximately $6 billion. The deal is expected to be complete by the end of September, but the consortium has agreed to cover costs of developing the mine from the beginning of 2014 until the transaction closes. The open-pit mine is currently being constructed and is expected to initially produce two million tons of copper a year.
Venezuela Investigates Abuses During Protests: Venezuela’s strategic command chief, Vladimir Padrino, said that 97 members of the country’s security forces are being investigated for abuses committed during the country’s two months of protest. So far, at least 41 people have been killed since the protests began on February 12, and some 2,000 people have been detained. Padrino said that the Venezuelan military has committed “some excesses,” but added that the officers being investigated represent less than 1 percent of the force.
Drummond Says Diesel Spilled in Shipwreck: A barge carrying construction materials off the Northern coast of Colombia for Drummond Co. Inc—a U.S. based mining company and Colombia’s second biggest coal miner—was shipwrecked on Friday, causing diesel fuel to leak into the sea. Drummond said that the cause of the accident is being investigated, but did not provide an estimate of the amount of fuel that was spilled. The company was fined nearly $3.6 million in December for spilling tons of coal into the ocean in a prior accident off the coast of Santa Marta, and its port was shut down between January and April. The company is still working to comply with new infrastructure requirements designed to lessen spillage.
Unchallenged Costa Rican Candidate Wins Presidency: Luis Guillermo Solís of the Partido Acción Ciudadana (Citizen Action Party—PAC) won Sunday’s presidential election in Costa Rica, claiming 78 percent of the vote. The challenging candidate, Johnny Araya of the Partido Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Party—PLN), dropped out of the running after a March 5 opinion poll ranked his support at 22 percent, compared to Solís’s 64 percent, but remained on the ballot due to constitutional law. The monumental vote marks the first time in 44 years that a third-party candidate has been elected. Solís has vowed to strengthen small businesses and social and environmental programs through an activist government, however passing new legislation may prove difficult as PAC holds just 13 of the 57 seats in the National Assembly. Solís will be sworn into office on May 8.
Pressure Increases on Obama Administration over Deportations: A New York Times report has shown that two-thirds of the nearly two million undocumented immigrants deported under the Obama Administration—a record number of deportations—had either committed minor infractions or had no criminal record at the time of their removal. Only 20 percent of those deported had been convicted of serious offenses, the demographic the Obama Administration has purported to target for removal. The President has typically side-stepped executive authority to act on this issue—with the exception of the 2012 passage of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which temporarily suspends deportation and authorizes approved applicants to work in the U.S. legally—in order to allow Congress time to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform. Yet pressure is mounting on his administration to halt deportations and fix the country’s broken immigration system.
Venezuela Slams Spain for Halting Export of Riot Gear: The administration of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro questioned the “moral authority” of the Spanish government after it halted the export of anti-riot and police equipment to Venezuela. Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Garcia Margallo said on Saturday that his government suspended sales in order to stop adding “fuel to the fire when there is a conflict.” The decision comes after weeks of violence between protesters, police and armed militia that have killed 39 people and injured over 600. A new round of protests erupted on Friday after Venezuela’s attorney general charged opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez with inciting violence, arson, damage to property and conspiracy.
FIFA Admits Brazil Is Still Behind Schedule: With less than 70 days before the 2014 World Cup kicks off in Brazil, FIFA’s Secretary General Jerome Valcke said that preparations are still behind schedule. During a press conference in South Africa on Wednesday, Valcke said, "If you want me to summarize... we are not ready.” Two stadiums, the Itaquerão in São Paulo and the Estadio Beira Rio in Porto Alegre, remain unfinished. Construction at Itaquerão, the venue for the opening match on June 12, has been delayed due to the death of a worker two weeks ago—the third to die while working on that stadium and the seventh preparing for the tournament countrywide. Still, Valcke guaranteed that Brazil would be ready for the start of the tournament, insisting that “there is no Plan B.”
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.