Category Archives: Cuba

REUTER – Post Chavez: Can U.S. rebuild Latin American ties?

By Peter Hakim

MARCH 27, 2013

The funeral of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez earlier this month was a massive celebration of a vitriolic foe of the United States. This tribute should make Washington take a fresh look not only at its relations with Venezuela but also with all of Latin America.

Virtually every Latin American country sent a high-level delegation to show its esteem for Chavez, who, during his 14 years in office, regularly vilified the United States, disparaged its leaders and campaigned tirelessly to end the U.S. role in the region. The presidents of Latin America’s six largest nations — including the closest U.S. regional allies, Mexico, Colombia and Chile — traveled to Caracas for the burial ceremonies. Never in Latin America, as many commentators noted, has a deceased leader been given a grander memorial — not even Argentina’s adored Juan Domingo Peron back in 1974.

This extraordinary acclaim for Washington’s most virulent adversary in the Americas was probably not intended as a deliberate snub. There were other reasons that so many of Washington’s friends ended up applauding a committed antagonist of the United States.

Some leaders, concerned with politics back home, were seeking to appeal to constituencies on the left, who idolized Chavez. Some who have benefited from the financial largesse distributed by the president of oil rich-Venezuela are eager for his successor to continue that support. Still others were reluctant to stand apart or isolate themselves from their neighbors — so they became part of the crowd.

Yet the fanfare accompanying Chavez’s funeral suggests a troubling degree of indifference to the United States in Latin America — as if Washington no longer counted.

Aside from his ability to hold onto power and sustain the devotion of so many Venezuelans, Chavez’s accomplishments hardly warranted this level of attention. His autocratic rule and reckless spending merit no praise from Latin America’s democratic and fiscally responsible leaders. Make no mistake, however, the foreign leaders came mostly to praise Chavez, not just to bury him.

To be sure, after his presidency, Venezuelans are considerably less poor and unequal than when he came to power in 1999 — though many other Latin American nations did the same, or better, than Venezuela in this period. They achieved this without a huge oil windfall and without pushing the economy toward shambles and undoing the country’s democratic and civil institutions.

Chavez does, though, deserve credit for Petrocaribe, a program that supplied discounted oil (and low-interest loans to buy oil) to poor and energy-deficient countries in Central America and the Caribbean. Cuba got the largest subsidy — some $4 billion to $6 billion a year — without which the island might today be facing a humanitarian crisis. But 13 other nations, some in great need, were also assisted — and are grateful.

This is the kind of aid program that Washington should consider emulating for the region’s low-income countries.

The Chavez funeral is not the only reason for unease about Washington’s relations with Latin America. Two months ago, Cuban ruler Raul Castro, another determined U.S. adversary, was elected to head the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations (CELAC), a new organization that includes every nation in the Western Hemisphere — except the United States and Canada. Next year’s meeting is scheduled to be in Havana, though CELAC’s charter requires that members be governed democratically.

At the 2012 meeting of the Summit of the Americas (every country of the hemisphere except Cuba), the discussion, despite Washington’s objections, focused on two topics: drug policy andCuba. Both are sources of long-standing tension between the United States and Latin America. The assembled Latin American heads of state closed the meeting by warning Washington that, unless Cuba is included in future summits, they would no longer participate.

The problem is not that Latin America has retreated from democratic rule. Though democratic governance has deteriorated in some countries, it is still the overwhelming regional norm ‑ and getting stronger in many places.  The commitment of Latin Americans to democracy. however, now largely applies to their own countries. What they have given up on is the idea of collectively defending democratic practice in countries other than their own. Regional solidarity is now a higher priority than democracy, a reflection of the many ideological and political differences among Latin American nations.

On economic matters, developments have been more encouraging for Washington. It is true that China and Europe have made considerable inroads, diminishing U.S. economic preeminence in Latin America. But U.S. exports have more than doubled in the past 12 years, and U.S. investments have grown apace — along with considerable Latin American investments in the United States. Washington now has free-trade agreements in force with 11 of 19 Latin American countries — three in South America, six in Central America and the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

Yet all is not well here, either. Latin America is now effectively (and unfortunately) divided into two economic zones. One includes all the countries that trade freely with the United States. Another seven are members or soon-to-be members of the Brazilian-led South American Market (Mercosur).

Political differences, not economic interests, are what keep the two groups apart. Prospects for an economically integrated hemisphere, once a key aspiration of most countries, have faded and seem unlikely to be revived anytime soon.

Whether Washington can remake its relationship with Latin America is in question. A sensible and humane reform of U.S. immigration legislation would remove one critical obstacle to more productive relations with many countries, as would a more flexible approach to drug-control policy.

Recent developments suggest, however, that for Washington to regain clout in regional affairs, it must it end its standoff with Cuba. U.S. policy toward Cuba sets Washington against the views of every Latin American and Caribbean government. Long-standing U.S. efforts to isolate and sanction Cuba, have, counterproductively, brought every country in Latin America to Cuba’s defense with a general admiration of Havana’s resistance to U.S. pressures.

Because this U.S. policy is viewed as so extreme, no Latin America country is willing to criticize Cuba — almost regardless of its words or actions. Chavez, with his close association with Cuba, possessed some of that immunity — with his neighbors leaving him unaccountable for his violations of democracy, human rights and decency.

His funeral made it clear that the United States has a lot of work to do to prevent that immunity from spreading.

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Economist – The Castros unveil their successor

EVER since Raúl Castro replaced his ailing brother, Fidel, as Cuba’s president in 2008, he has made clear that his overriding aim is to organise an orderly political and economic transition to ensure that the ruling Communist Party remains in power after both men die. Progress towards that goal has been painstakingly slow, and sometimes crablike. But another step was taken at the opening of a newly installed National Assembly on February 24th, when Raúl began a second presidential term. Not only did he repeat that it would be his last. He also hailed the appointment as first vice-president of Miguel Díaz- Canel, a former higher-education minister, saying this represented “a defining step in the configuration of the country’s future leadership”.

“Who’s he?” was how one Havana resident greeted the news. Mr Díaz-Canel may not be exactly a household name in Cuba but he has been tipped for the top for several years. He has stood in for Raúl on a couple of recent foreign visits. Aged 52, his elevation means that the Castros, both of whom are in their 80s, are at last passing the baton to a generation born after the 1959 revolution. (Fidel gave a short speech at the assembly, in a rare public appearance which could be read as giving his blessing to the new appointment.)

Mr Díaz-Canel is an electrical engineer who spent 15 years as a provincial party secretary before becoming a minister and, last year, vice-president of the Council of Ministers. He is unexpressive in public, but is said to be affable and accessible, with a quick wit and sharp mind. Until fairly recently he wore his hair long, another reminder of the fact that he is a child of the 1960s, not the 1930s. He is known to be a fan of the Beatles, an enthusiasm once frowned upon by the regime.

Whereas Fidel liked to surround himself with young acolytes, Raúl has long shown that he values the practical experience of provincial party officials, to whom he has devolved some powers. Another rising star, Mercedes López Acea, the Havana party secretary, was promoted to the rank of vice-president as well.

As higher-education minister Mr Díaz-Canel expanded a scheme under which Cubans taught students from Venezuela, Cuba’s chief benefactor. He forged close ties with Venezuela’s leaders, including Nicolás Maduro, the de facto president. With Mr Chávez seemingly dying of cancer, it is vital for Cuba’s leaders that Mr Maduro should succeed him and continue to provide subsidised oil.

Raúl once praised Mr Díaz-Canel for his “ideological firmness”. The new man’s private views are unclear. In the 1990s he was linked to a group of communist reformers that surrounded the then foreign minister, Roberto Robaina, who openly argued for economic liberalisation in Cuba.

Raúl Castro has allowed Cubans to buy cars and homes, to lease farmland and to set up small businesses. Last year he scrapped curbs on foreign travel. As a result, this month Yoani Sánchez, a blogger and opponent of the regime, has been able to visit Brazil—though she has faced protests organised by the Cuban Embassy in Brasília and members of Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party.

There are signs that Raúl is running out of reformist steam. His tone in his speech to the assembly seemed at times almost resigned. “I was not chosen to be president to restore capitalism to Cuba” he stressed (Mr Díaz-Canel nodded in agreement). He announced no new economic reforms. It will be Mr Díaz-Canel’s job to get to grips with the “issues of greater scope, complexity and depth” that Raúl said the government was grappling with. First among these is allowing private wholesale markets.

Various putative dauphins were raised up by Fidel only to fall from grace, accused of corruption or of excessive ambition. One of them was Mr Robaina, sacked in 1999. He now spends his days painting and running a restaurant in Miramar, an elegant district of Havana. Mr Díaz-Canel is presumably aware of the risks involved in his elevation. But this time it looks as if the chosen successor may be the one who actually succeeds.

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El Colombiano – Estados Unidos promete minimizar influencia iraní en Latinoamérica

Publicado el 28 de febrero de 2013

La secretaria de Estado adjunta de Estados Unidos para Latinoamérica, Roberta Jacobson, aseguró este jueves que su país defenderá la democracia ante los “líderes populistas” del continente y minimizó la influencia que tiene Irán en los países de la región.

Jacobson se pronunció así en una audiencia ante el subcomité del Hemisferio Occidental en la Cámara de Representantes de Estados Unidos, en la que habló sobre las oportunidades y retos en Latinoamérica en el segundo mandato del presidente Barack Obama, en el que Estados Unidos tiene un nuevo titular de Exteriores, John Kerry.

“En algunos países del continente, los líderes populistas que son impacientes o incluso irrespetuosos con los procesos de la democracia están cerrando o subyugando medios independientes y buscando controlar tribunales y parlamentos”, indicó Jacobson.

“Estamos trabajando a través de la Organización de Estados Americanos (OEA) para proteger la libertad de expresión“, aseguró. “Seguiremos pronunciándonos para defender instituciones fuertes e independientes de la democracia”.

Estados Unidos ha analizado de cerca la situación en Venezuela, donde el presidente Hugo Chávez, reelegido en los comicios de octubre, no pudo jurar su nuevo mandato (2013-2019) el pasado 10 de enero debido a sus problemas de salud, y opina que en el caso de que el mandatario quede permanentemente inhabilitado para ejercer el poder, deberá haber elecciones en el país.

Al respecto, Jacobson consideró este jueves que, ante la posibilidad de que se produzca una transición política en Venezuela“Estados Unidos tiene un papel que representar”, al defender en la OEA y en sus intercambios con los venezolanos “la necesidad de que cualquier elección sea libre, abierta y justa”.

La responsable de Estados Unidos para Latinoamérica también se refirió a la creciente actividad de Irán en el continente, ante la que el Departamento de Estado está elaborando una estrategia de respuesta que ella misma está coordinando y que entregará al Congreso en junio.

Jacobson reconoció que Irán ha firmado “muchos acuerdos diplomáticos y actividades en la región”, pero aseguró que “no parece que estén dando frutos”.

El informe que elabora Estados Unidos tendrá una buena parte clasificada, según adelantó, aunque también una porción pública que reflejará “lo que hacemos para supervisar la influencia de Irán y responder cuando se violan las sanciones”.

“Gran parte de lo que creemos que es crítico para responder a Irán es trabajar con otros países, para ver si hay información que podamos compartir”, afirmó. “No siempre es posible, pero muchos países están preocupados de no tener la información que necesitan para supervisar ellos también (las actividades iraníes)”.

El Congreso aprobó el año pasado una ley que obligaba al Gobierno de Obama a elaborar una estrategia al respecto y describir detalladamente las actividades de Irán, su Guardia Revolucionaria, sus Fuerzas Quds y el grupo libanés Hizbulá.

Según esa ley, Irán ha construido 17 centros culturales en América Latina y en la actualidad mantiene once embajadas, en comparación con seis en 2005.

El Departamento de Estado también enviará al Congreso “lo antes posible” otro plan: elacuerdo que firmaron hace un año la entonces secretaria de Estado, Hillary Clinton, y el expresidente mexicano Felipe Calderón, para permitir la explotación de los yacimientos de hidrocarburos que estén en la frontera común en el Golfo de México.

El Gobierno de Obama aún tiene dudas sobre si el acuerdo con México es un tratado, que necesitaría aprobación del Congreso, o un simple pacto que no la requiere, según indicó una fuente legislativa al diario especializado The Hill. En caso de que decida que es un tratado,  deberá ser ratificado por el Senado y la Cámara baja antes de que pueda comenzar la exploración conjunta de los yacimientos transfronterizos.

La energía es, precisamente, una de las tres áreas en las que Jacobson ve más oportunidades en el continente, junto a la educación y la defensa de la democracia y los derechos humanos, según indicó.

Destacó el “excelente trabajo” que ha hecho Colombia en la mejora de su seguridad,hasta el punto de que “en muchas ocasiones saben hacer las cosas mejor que Estados Unidos” en esa área; y consideró que la alianza con el nuevo Gobierno mexicano de Enrique Peña Nieto “ha tenido un gran comienzo” en la cooperación de seguridad.

En cuanto a Cuba, confió en que haya “cambios en el terreno político en los próximos cinco años, porque hasta ahora” sólo han “visto avances en los derechos económicos”.

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NYT – Raúl Castro says he will resign

Published: February 24, 2013

MEXICO CITY — President Raúl Castro of Cuba announced Sunday that the five-year term he has just begun will be his last, giving the Castro era an official expiration date of 2018.

The race to succeed Mr. Castro, who is 81, now has a front-runner: Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, 52, an electrical engineer and former minister of higher education, whom Mr. Castro selected as his top vice president on Sunday, making him first in the line of succession.

“It represents a definitive step in the configuration of the future leadership of the nation,” Mr. Castro told lawmakers at a conference of legislative leaders in Havana on Sunday. He added that Cuba is at a moment of “historic transcendence.”

Indeed, Mr. Castro’s speech — attended by his brother Fidel, 86, who made a rare public appearance — had the tone of an unsentimental goodbye. Just as Mr. Castro has inched the island toward free market reforms since taking over from his brother in 2006, his plan for a transition amounts to a slow fade, or, as Mr. Castro put it, the “gradual transfer” of “key roles to new generations.”

And yet, on an island where a Castro has been in charge since 1959, he also seemed intent on changing how his successors will rule. In an announcement more surprising than his retirement plan, Mr. Castro said he hoped to establish term limits and age caps for political offices, including the presidency. Some broad constitutional changes, he said, will even require a referendum.

Not that the country’s controlled socialism is on the way out, he insisted. The leaders he has elevated are all loyalists, including Mr. Díaz-Canel, who came up through the army and then served in provincial leadership before being elevated within the Communist Party. He is widely seen inside Cuba as a technocrat — a “regional czar whose power is discrete but tangible,” said Arturo López Levy, a former analyst with the Cuban government — who earned Mr. Castro’s favor not only with youth and loyalty, but also by being a good manager.

“He was a senior Communist Party official for Villa Clara and Holguin provinces, where there were important openings with foreign investment in tourism,” said Mr. López Levy. He added that Mr. Díaz-Canel often worked as an intermediary between the central government and the military, which has taken an expanded role in tourism under Raúl Castro. “In that sense,” Mr. López Levy said, “he will face the challenge and opportunity to prepare a smooth landing for a new type of civil-military relationship in the future.”

Mr. Díaz-Canel’s rise has been closely watched over the past year. He has appeared on Cuban television more often; in June 2012 he accompanied Raúl Castro to the Rio+20meeting in Brazil and led the Cuban delegation to the London Olympics in July. He has also recently played a central role in meetings with officials from Venezuela, Cuba’s most important ally, which supplies it with subsidized oil.

But even as the meeting on Sunday projected an image of complete unity, there was no guarantee that Mr. Díaz-Canel will be Cuba’s next president. Many other young leaders have been pushed out of power over the years for reasons of scandal or disloyalty, and among the rising ranks, there are other leaders in their 50s who have recently been given more significant roles. Experts say that a power struggle is likely behind the Communist Party curtain, and in front of it as well, over the final five years of Mr. Castro’s presidency.

“Much could happen between now and then, both within the government and in various sectors of Cuba’s emergent civil society,” said Ted Henken, president of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, a research group.

The choice of Mr. Díaz-Canel nonetheless signals a major change. Even with a five-year transition, Mr. Castro’s decision to move Cuba publicly toward a new leader means that the island is now a heartbeat away from being ruled by a person who did not fight in the revolution that brought the Communists to power. The Castros, after aligning themselves for decades with the fighters whom they knew as young guerrillas, appear to have accepted that Cuba will be ruled next by someone whose career developed after the cold war.

“This is the first time the younger generation has a figure who is first in line,” said Philip Peters, a veteran Cuba scholar and vice president of the Lexington Institute, which tracks relations between the United States and Cuba. In an interview from Havana, he said: “It is the first time the older generation admitted the possibility of someone in the younger generation becoming president. We’ll see.”

Randal C. Archibold contributed reporting from Tapachula, Mexico.