That there would be a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations seemed inevitable. After all, the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the Castro brothers are getting on in years.
And yet, there is a sense that a new era is beginning with the joint Barack Obama–Raúl Castro announcement, and an air of optimism and hope in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The fact that Pope Francis, Obama, Castro, and the government of Canada all converged to bring an end to a relic of the Cold War is a major part of the story. My country, Canada, never went along with the U.S. embargo, imposed in 1960. This made Canada a facilitator, and a credible factor in bringing two mutually suspicious parties together. Meetings in Toronto and Ottawa occurred throughout 2013 and 2014 with Canadian assistance.
The first pope from the Americas, who seized the opportunity to make a difference, to build bridges, and to improve the lot of the Cuban people by using his good offices, may have been the closer on the deal. If Obama is the commander-in-chief, Pope Francis is the inspirer-in-chief.
Obama deserves much credit for his courage and his vision. Clearly, this president knows his history. Just as Nixon went to China and Truman set up the Marshall Plan for Europe in the post-World War II era, Obama knew that he had to do something different with a nation just 90 miles off the U.S. shore. In the realm of values and legacy, setting up diplomatic relations with Cuba is far better than sending prisoners to Guantánamo.
Author's Note: A year ago, I wrote a blog about a handshake between U.S. President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba. While the gesture was one of courtesy and little else, I expressed the hope that the relationship of isolation and embargo, started in 1960, would be replaced by one of engagement. Today, both countries restored full diplomatic relations. One of the remaining relics of the Cold War era is now a matter of the past. This is an historic day .
Pope Francis, who did some significant behind-the-scenes diplomacy , was quick to express his support. Canada is also said to have played a significant role, and this should not be a surprise. Canada has maintained a relationship with Cuba despite the U.S. embargo.
There remain some outstanding issues to be resolved. There may have been a humanitarian component behind the release of Alan Gross, the imprisoned American aid worker, but this was, above all, a political event and diplomacy at its best.The embargo remains with some easing, but the future is most promising. This will be part of Obama's legacy and marks the beginning of a new dynamic in Latin America.
I invite you to re-read my blog post on December 16, 2013. It is still relevant.
During the course of the first leg of the Mandela funeral celebrations last week, one event made news around the world—U.S. President Barack Obama shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro. Speculation immediately surfaced about whether it was a planned event, and whether it meant an eventual new beginning for Cuban‒U.S. relations.
Judging from the reactions of both presidents’ spokespeople, it was a circumstantial meeting. To not shake hands would have been more significant.
Back in the spring of 2012, both Canada and the United States could not agree with their Latin American and Caribbean partners on a communiqué about the outcome of the sixth Summit of the Americas—in part because both the Canadian and American leaders opposed the formal inclusion of Cuba at the next summit. Last week’s event between Obama and Castro should not be interpreted as a change of heart.
Yet, basking in the accolades and homages to Nelson Mandela and his spirit, one cannot escape the thought that Mandela himself would have approved of the gesture as a first step to an eventual normalization of relations between these two antagonists.
Top stories this week are likely to include: Cubans re-elect President Raúl Castro in one-party elections; Argentine Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman travels to London; Paraguay investigates the death of Lino Oviedo; Argentina reacts to the IMF after being censured; Mexican authorities conclude rescue efforts after PEMEX explosion.
Parliamentary Elections Begin in Cuba: Cuba’s nearly 8.5 million voters went to the polls yesterday to elect 612 national assembly members and members of the country’s 15 provincial assemblies in the country’s one-party elections. Eighty-six year-old revolutionary leader Fidel Castro—who had not been seen in public since October—made a surprise appearance at the polls on Sunday to cast his vote in Havana’s El Vedado neighborhood. His brother, Cuban President Raúl Castro, was re-elected for a second five-year term—his last, if the president’s decision last year to introduce two term limits is upheld. "This parliament will be in place at an important time in the history of the revolution; though they likely will not have the power or diversity to positively affect the course of reforms or leadership changes," says Christopher Sabatini, Editor-in-Chief of Americas Quarterly.
Argentine Foreign Minister Declines to Meet with Falkland Islanders: With little over a month before Falkland/Malvinas Islanders vote in a March 10 referendum on their island's political status, Argentine Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman has arrived in London to make the case that the disputed islands belong to Argentina. Timerman will make a presentation at the Argentine Embassy in London to discredit the upcoming referendum, in which the islanders are expected to affirm that they are British. Timerman had originally planned to meet with British Foreign Secretary William Hague in a bilateral meeting, but he declined the invitation after Britain insisted that representatives of the island’s government also be present.
Paraguay Investigates Death of Presidential Candidate Lino Oviedo: Paraguayan President Federico Franco has declared three days of national mourning after third-party candidate Lino Oviedo was killed along with his pilot and bodyguard in a helicopter crash late on Saturday. The cause of the crash, which witnesses say was accompanied by an explosion, has not yet been determined, but authorities have called the death an accident. However, members of Oviedo’s Unión Nacional de Colorados Éticos (National Union of Ethical Citizens—UNACE) party have demanded an investigation into whether the politician was assassinated. Oviedo was a retired general who helped overthrow Paraguayan dictator General Alfredo Stroessner, and was also charged with organizing a failed coup in 1996 against former Paraguayan President Juan Carlos Wasmosy, for which Oviedo served time in prison.
Argentina's Next Steps After IMF Censure: Last Friday, Argentina became the first nation to be censured by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for its widely-disputed inflation data, which the national statistics agency reports at 10.8 percent. Argentine Minister of the Economy Hernán Lorenzo reacted to the fund’s decision by saying that his country is being punished for “protecting national industry and jobs, financing itself without the markets, and saying ‘no’ to vulture funds.” According to the IMF, Argentina must address "inaccurate data" by Sept. 29, 2013 to avoid suspension. If the country fails to comply with the IMF by implementing remedial measures such as creation of a new consumer price index, Argentina faces further sanctions, which could include suspension of voting rights or expulsion.
Investigation of Thursday's Pemex Blast Continues: Mexican authorities will continue to investigate the cause of the blast that killed at least 36 workers at a Pemex office complex in Mexico City on Thursday. The death toll rose on Sunday as rescue workers found three more bodies over the weekend, but it now appears that rescuers are concluding their efforts to search for survivors—though one woman who worked as a secretary at the office remains missing. Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam declined to say on Friday whether the explosion was an accident, due to negligence, or part of an attack, but he added that there should be more information available in the coming days.
Brazil is once again seeking to enhance its international profile. But this time, rather than engaging in close partnerships with its fellow BRICS club members—Russia, India, China, and South Africa—Brazil is collaborating with a smaller nation: Cuba.
Since assuming office in 2011, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has worked closely with Cuban President Raúl Castro to strengthen their partnership in the hopes of further bolstering Brazil's economic advantages and regional influence. She is achieving this by providing financial and technical assistance to help restructure Cuba's economy while at the same time advancing Brazil’s economic interests through strategic investments in port infrastructure. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez' quickly deteriorating health has created incentives for Dilma to fortify her ties with Castro, gradually replacing Venezuela—Cuba’s biggest benefactor—as Cuba's most important ally in the region.
But instead of bullying Cuba into following Brazil's lead, Dilma is also gaining something in return for her citizens: technical assistance from Cuba to address educational illiteracy, a long-time developmental challenge for Brazil. In so doing, Cuba benefits by displaying its impressive success in education reform, while highlighting its potential to be an amicable partner in hemispheric affairs.
Top stories this week are likely to include: post-election protests in Mexico; OAS to issue its report on Fernando Lugo’s ouster; anti-mining protests continue in Peru; Raúl Castro arrives in Vietnam; and ASEAN-Latin America Business Forum gets underway.
PRD Alliance Questions Peña Nieto’s Victory: Although officially declared the winner on Friday by the autonomous Instituto Federal Electoral (Federal Electoral Institute—IFE), Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto still faces criticism of fraud by second-place candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PRD) . Ricardo Monreal, AMLO’s campaign manager, accused the PRI of vote-buying at a press conference this morning. In addition, tens of thousands of demonstrators claiming to belong to no political party protested over the weekend in Mexico City decrying the IFE result. Will the situation turn to a repeat of 2006? AQ Senior Editor Jason Marczak notes there’s a clear difference between the 2012 election and what happened six years ago: “With only a few hundred thousand votes separating López Obrador and Calderón in 2006, AMLO saw an opening for a recount through protests and pressure on a still fragile electoral process. But this time, in losing by about 3.5 million votes, AMLO will only serve to discredit his nationwide appeal by crying foul and once again being a sore loser.”
Updates on Lugo’s Ouster: The Organization of American States (OAS) is expected to release its report today on its fact-finding mission last week to Paraguay to investigate former Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo’s removal from office. The delegation was headed by OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza. The U.S. has said it would wait for the OAS verdict to issue a formal statement on the legality of the ouster—a move that has drawn criticism. With Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro reportedly endorsing a military coup to restore Fernando Lugo to power, the situation in Paraguay is still contentious and perhaps the OAS report will provide more clarity on the issue.
Peruvian Anti-Mining Protests Heat Up: After police clashed with protesters demonstrating against natural resource extraction in northwest Peru, the death toll has climbed to five. A state of emergency has been imposed in the Cajamarca region, and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala has come under fire for his administration’s handling of the demonstrations. Nevertheless, tensions are still high and this week could very likely see a new wave of protests. AQ Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini, who is in Huaraz, Peru this week, notes, “President Humala will have to do something to address the protests, including trying to verify claims of pollution and improving overall access to social services in mining communities—while not appeasing some of the more extreme groups.”
Raúl Castro in Vietnam: After wrapping up a trip to China last week, Cuban President Raúl Castro arrived in Vietnam yesterday for a four-day official visit aimed to strengthen bilateral relations. This is Castro’s first visit to Vietnam as Cuba’s president, and he is scheduled to meet with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, Community Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang. Sabatini observes, “The purpose of the trip is twofold: First, to help Raúl and the group better understand the process of economic and limited political reform that has taken place in Vietnam as a model for Cuba—though the comparison is thin. But second, Cuba—in this and other efforts it has made—is trying to diversify its economic relations and lifeline beyond Venezuela.”
ASEAN, Latin America Deepen Commercial Ties: The third annual business forum between Latin American nations and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members takes place today and tomorrow in Jakarta, Indonesia. The theme of the forum is: “Towards a Sustainable Future.” ASEAN is comprised of Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. For more information on the forum, including programs, speakers, organizers, and partners, access its website.
Top stories this week are likely to include: Dominican Republic presidential results; Raúl Castro’s daughter travels to the U.S.; Honduran uproar over counternarcotics operation; Colombia responds to last week’s assassination attempt; and Brazil’s economy slows.
Medina Leads in Election Returns: With over three-fourths of the vote counted in yesterday’s presidential election in the Dominican Republic, ruling party candidate Danilo Medina leads challenger—and former president—Hipólito Mejía. The tally has Medina ahead of Mejía by 51 percent to 47 percent, according to the BBC, which would cross the majority threshold to avoid a runoff. However, more votes remains to be counted; the Dominican expatriate community could play a deciding factor. Stay tuned for the announcement of a winner.
Mariela Castro to Visit the U.S.: The daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro and outspoken gay rights activist, Mariela Castro, will begin a weeklong visit to the United States this week after being granted an entry visa by the U.S. government last week. She will make stops in San Francisco and New York City. In San Francisco, she will chair a panel on sexual diversity at the forthcoming congress of the Latin American Studies Association. Ms. Castro will also give a talk at the New York Public Library next Tuesday, May 29. What does this mean for the future of U.S.-Cuba exchanges? AQ Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini comments, “While the decision to grant Raúl Castro’s daughter a visa likely indicates a shift in U.S. visa policy, the decision not to grant visas to well-known academics like Rafael Hernandez and others is odd and unfortunate.”
Honduras-DEA Fallout: After a Honduran counternarcotics operation last week involving the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) ended in the death of four innocent civilians, local Honduran civil society groups are demanding an end to U.S. presence in their country with a consortium of five Indigenous groups declaring the DEA agents “persona non grata.” Residents burned down government offices last week in protest and U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs Ranking Member Howard Berman called for a review of U.S. assistance to Honduras. AQ Senior Editor Jason Marczak points out that “the Hondurans and the U.S. government are both saying that no shots were fired by DEA agents. But still, this incident will likely force a re-evaluation of what should be the exact terms of the U.S. support role.”
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cuba this morning to meet with Cuban President Raúl Castro and Hugo Chávez in a visit the Colombian government says has two objectives. The first is to discuss the questions of Cuba’s participation next month in the Organization of American States’ Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. The second is to formally sign an outstanding bilateral trade agreement with President Chávez who is in Cuba recovering from surgery since February 24th.
Although the United States has thus far opposed any possible role for Cuba in the summit, other regional leaders, such as Ecuador President Rafael Correa, have supported inviting Cuba to attend, saying, “it is unheard of that in the twenty-first century, something is called the Summit of the Americas and for certain hegemonic countries some of us are Americans and some of us are not.” Correa further stated that the regional trade alliance, Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA), would boycott the event if Cuba was not somehow involved. As host of the Summit, Colombia will likely have ultimate say over the question of Cuba’s participation.
Another Cuban, Wilmar Villar, died in a hunger strike on the island last week protesting the abuses of the Castro regime. His wife was not permitted to see his body. Yoani Sanchez, the Cuban blogger who has received several international awards and who is not permitted to travel abroad, reported his death on the Internet.
For weeks Cuban exiles had been calling on governments and human rights organizations for help. We do not know if Cardinal Ortega Alamino, who has access to General Raúl Castro, interceded privately with him on behalf of Wilmar who is the father of two children; or if the Cuban Cardinal, who participated in the arrangement where Cuba released political prisoners and forced many of them and their families, including children, into banishment in Spain, alerted the Holy See about the impending death.
The Cuban regime can no longer murder in secrecy; it fears the Internet and the Cubans who are willing to die demanding respect for human rights. But the regime continues to enjoy international impunity for its unspeakable deeds. The opening to Havana sponsored by the Obama Administration has emboldened the Castro brothers who are engaged in a widespread human rights crackdown. Right now Senator Richard Durbin is in Havana, presumably discussing ways of further lessening of U.S. sanctions with Cuban authorities.
The Cuban government announced yesterday that it will allow small- and medium-size private businesses to advertise in the next edition of Cuba’s national phonebook. To list a business name, address and up to two phone numbers in the back of the book, the state telephone monopoly Etecsa will charge the equivalent of $10, a steep fee in a country where the average salary is $20 per month. The deadline for reserving ad space in the 2012 phonebook is December 23.
“The insertion of the services of the non-state sector into the Telephone Directory helps satisfy the demand for that information," reported Granma, Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper. The government's decision comes as a result of extensive economic reforms in the last two years that have created a space for private enterprise in Cuba. This was done to stimulate the island’s struggling economy after the government began laying off thousands of public-sector workers last fall. Since then, more than 346,000 private businesses have been created.
But a study published by the Center for Democracy in the Americas in November found that the Castro government’s reforms, particularly creating opportunities for a new private sector, will not be enough to address Cuba’s economic woes. Cuba's New Resolve: Economic Reform and its Implications for U.S. Policy finds that Cubans will require job training and skill development to operate their business’ successfully.
The government of Cuba announced yesterday that it will permanently close the island’s Ministry of Sugar as part of larger-scale reforms designed to modernize Cuba’s economy and increase efficiency. According to a statement in the official state newspaper, Granma, the ministry “currently serves no state function” and will be replaced by a holding company called Grupo Empresarial de la Agroindustria Azucarera that will manage Cuba’s future sugar exports.
Sugarcane is one of Cuba’s most iconic products and the island was in the 1970s the world’s largest exporter. Years of inefficient management and declining production, however, have reduced the commodity’s importance to the overall economy. Still, the ministry’s closure is yet another symbolic change in a country that has recently begun overhauling its domestic economy. Earlier this week news surfaced that new and used car sales will soon be permitted across the island for the first time since 1959.
There is no word on who will run the new sugar industry management company or whether Cuba will seek any type of foreign investment in the sector. Despite limited details, the move is consistent with recent Cuban government statements stressing the need to decentralize decision-making in state owned enterprises and cut subsidies to inefficient industries.