President Rousseff goes to Cuba: Towards a more effective Brazilian policy.
Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff's visit to Cuba has generated considerable debate. Some question the appropriateness of the presidential visit after the death of Wilmar Villar while others go further by criticizing what they identify as appeasement and under emphasis of human rights in Brasilia's relationship with Havana. It is obvious that Brazil's policy is not as effective as could be and that new initiatives could increase Brazil’s impact on Cuba's reform process. That said, it is important to recognize the merits of the policy designed by the Itamaraty in light of Cuba's political liberalization, rather than democratization, and the inherent synergy between a transition to a mixed economy and the expansion of rights and freedoms.
Brazilian policy toward Cuba is not one-dimensional. It implies a convergence of economic interests and strategic regional leadership with values from a Brazilian left committed to democratic governance. The Brazilian Foreign Ministry also employs a combination of principles of international law. As emphasized by then-President Cardoso during the democratic crisis in Peru 2000 and Venezuela in April 2002, state sovereignty is not a shield to violate human rights but as a principle should be respected. That position is reflected in the critical distance that Brazil, since its own transition to democracy, has taken toward the U.S. policy of confrontation aimed at forcing a regime change in Cuba.
President Rousseff’s condemnation of the U.S. embargo and Brazil’s active role in undermining its effects are nothing new. Brazil does not have the political will or the ability to change the human rights situation in Cuba through a policy of confrontation.A bombastic Brazilian declaration about Cuban internal affairs could create a crisis in bilateral relations and score rhetorical points in the US press, but it would not make any positive impact on the political climate of the island. Ultimately, such behavior would only damage the potential of a long-term diplomatic course to promote change in Cuba through engagement.
The Brazilian dilemma is not then between confrontation policies or engagement, but what kind of engagement policy strikes the optimal balance of Brazilian national interests and democratic values towards Cuba. It is worth noticing which the available instruments to achieve such balance are. Brazil is a strategic partner for Cuba in its process of economic reform and Cuba's foreign policy objectives (Latin American integration) give the Rousseff government significant bargaining power with Raul Castro. However, the context is key: Brazil's special influence on the Cuban elite is not in the abstract, but rather as a helping hand for Raul Castro’s economic reforms.
Brazil, Cuba and human rights:
Has Brazilian policies contributed to improving the human rights situation in Cuba? What metric should be used for measuring such progress? A policy that aims to improve human rights through a process of liberalization and economic reform should not be measured with indicators related to supporting the political opposition because that is not its purpose and does not promote the international standards that Brazil defends.
Should President Dilma publicly condemn the Cuban government for denying Yoani Sanchez permission to travel or for the death of a Cuban prisoner? It depends. No one disputes the desirability of discrete intercession with Cuban authorities regarding these symbolic cases, but before creating a bilateral conflict one should take pause. If the daily lives of thousands of Cubans improve as a result of economic reforms supported by Brazil, and travel rights for most Cubans are expanded, then a more comprehensive assessment is required. Solidarity with political opponents is important. They face the greatest political hostility. But the Brazilian policy must be measured by its effect on the majority of the population, not only in those dramatic cases of media attention.
Itamaraty doesn’t have any viable option for impacting Cuban reform through supporting the opposition. The Cuban opposition is not the source of most of the processes of change taking place in Cuba. Those who claim that President Rousseff now, or President Lula in 2009, should condemn the death of prisoners Orlando Zapata and Wilman Villar ignore: 1) the cost of taking a high-decibel approach to promoting changes that make a difference in a context of liberalization, whether or not this scores rhetorical points; 2) the Cuban government's skill at transforming rhetorical encounters with outsiders into nationalist mobilizations.
Political liberalization is a sequential process. It first expands the rights and opportunities of the elite and the general population, in ways that such benefits are delayed for the opponents of the regime. They receive them, when it is harder to capitalize on these issues politically. The best guarantee of progress in Cuba in the long term is to empower those civil society actors who have earned a place in Cuban politics through engagement strategies, supporting the transition to a mixed economy, a gradually more open political system and civil society autonomy. More important than Rousseff meeting opponents would be a dialogue with Cardinal Jaime Ortega to listen his views about how Brazil can contribute to these processes.
Since the government of José Sarney, but especially since FH Cardoso's presidency, when the issue of human rights was formally included in the bilateral dialogue, Brazil has encouraged Cuba to institutionalize its relationship with the humanitarian international order. Under the government of President Raul Castro, Havana has signed international conventions on civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights. Respectful and patient dialogue with the Cuban Foreign Ministry, by Itamaraty and some Western European counterparts, particularly Spain, as well as Canada played a significant role in that decision.
Although these positive steps are more diplomatic than political, they are relevant for multilateral dialogue. They move the agenda beyond discussing the content of human rights to focusing on how they are observed and if national and international conditions warrant deviations from the accepted paradigm. This dynamic provides space for reformist voices within the Cuban regime and opportunities for further change once the U.S. ceases its hostile policy.
Economic reform is an area of particular interest where Brazilian engagement in Cuba is mutual beneficial. It is not difficult to identify a positive link between economic openness and improving human rights. Brazilian support for the development of Cuba's infrastructure is an example. Investment and modernization of the port of Mariel (Brazil contributed 640 million of an investment of 900 Billion dollars) and the collaboration of Brazilian agribusiness corporations (A loan of 400 million to buy food and another of 200 million to buy tractors and machinery) in the cultivation of soybeans and the revival of the sugar industry and its derivatives are welcomed by all Cuban actors, including the conservative wing in the government and non-democratic reformists linked to the armed forces.
Such enhanced contact with actors all across the political spectrum provides opportunities to influence the Cuban political and business elites. It would be irrational to put this influence at risk with excessive rhetoric that only could reflect a lack of strategy and discipline to achieve goals of higher importance.
The economic changes towards a mixed economy have created improvements in areas such as personal freedoms (the right to sell and buy cars and houses, expanded opportunities for self employment, and relaxed regulations on building housing, private property ownership, and travel). The same could be said about the expansion of religious freedoms. Although these dynamics are the result of reluctant changes, that serve to strategically adjust the system in a post-totalitarian, still not democratic, manner, they positively affect not only the current state of human rights, but also the future expansion of them.
The amplification of personal liberties does not imply automatic advancement towards political democratization, but it does make it more likely. Brazilian collaboration is not responsible for this transformation, but it has contributed to it. Meanwhile, the full impact of dialogue promoting change has been dampened by the persistent unilateral U.S. policy of hostility. That is why President Rousseff opposed categorically to the “blockade” and denounced it as “unjust”.
Towards a more effective policy:
Brazil’s Cuba policy could be more effective but any improvement should be based on diplomatic outreach and in collaboration with Cuba's gradual reform. For example, business activities should be coordinated in a manner that creates a better legal climate, promotes anti-corruption efforts and transparency, enhances environmental protection, provides better access to information technologies, and prevents racial discrimination. Brazil can empower Cuban actors who are identified with these agendas through its local corporate policies in Cuba and by encouraging educational and cultural exchanges with the island. Currently, Brazil's role in the training of journalists, economists, lawyers, and administrators and likewise the interaction of the civil societies of both countries is meager in respect to their potential.
In the hemisphere, Brazil’s diplomacy must exercise mature leadership, outmaneuvering Chavez’s Manichean polarization, by promoting Cuba’s integration to hemispheric organizations, not just the CELAC. Given the 2009 OAS resolution in San Pedro Sula, that ended Cuba's exclusion from the Inter-American system, Brazil could create avenues for mutually beneficial cooperation between Cuba and hemispheric organizations, without falling for any fevered anti-American position typical of Cuban allies in ALBA. Some potential areas to explore are technical expertise about macroeconomic management and financial consulting, training of healthcare personnel, natural disasters preparation and response, crime fighting, anti-drug trafficking, and anti-terrorism.
Cuba’s integration, at Brazil’s request, to the Inter-American Committee against Terrorism, would complete the hemispheric effort to undermine Cuba’s unfair inclusion on the US State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. When interacting with a multilateral agency, Cuba could offer the necessary assistance, compliance and information to all member countries without making specific concessions to the U.S., which might imply some acceptance of a responsibility for being included. An active Cuban-Brazilian partnership is currently implementing an effective program addressing humanitarian the crisis in Haiti, where even the right to life, the most important human right, is endangered.
President Rousseff's visit to Cuba raises the profile not only of the merits of a more assertive regional policy but also the challenges it faces. Clearly, Itamaraty is still far from maximizing its influence on Cuban's transition. It is also clear that its pragmatic diplomacy, without renouncing principles enunciated by President Rousseff at the UN ("in human rights and democracy, we all should make progress") is not only appropriate, but also realistic.
Dawn Gable contributed to this article.