Over what was an especially painful weekend here in the United States, as the nation reeled over an elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, a small bit of good news broke for one Spanish citizen, Angel Carromero, held in a Cuban prison since the summer. Carromero, a young conservative politician who traveled to Cuba last summer to bolster dissidents on the island and tragically ended up driving the car in which two Cuban dissidents - including Nobel Prize nominee Oswaldo Paya - lost their lives last summer, is heading home to Spain to serve the remainder of his prison sentence for vehicular manslaughter. How did a similiarly politically charged case such as Carromero's get defused in less that six months, while an American, Alan Gross, remains in a Cuban prison for more than 3 years now? Apparently, by way of bilateral negotiations. That, and what looked to me to be a small, tactical charm offensive undertaken by the Spanish government.
It has become commonplace to say that Latin America was absent from the 2012 election campaign in the United States. It is understandable, because the region was mentioned only once in the candidates’ foreign policy debate (by Governor Romney, when he referred to the potential of free trade agreements in the hemisphere), and it got almost no attention in campaign speeches. However, as with much conventional wisdom, the devil is in the definitions. If Latin America’s impact on U.S. politics is viewed in terms of relations between governments, the statement is correct; if, on the other hand, the concept includes the public, then the region was present like never before in the elections.
It is time to think about Latin American policy within a broader framework than old-fashioned nationalism. The political borders of transnational societies in the U.S. and the rest of the hemisphere have little to do with their legal boundaries. Latin America and the United States do not start or end with the Rio Grande or the Caribbean Sea. With their many, non-exclusive identities, Latin American and Caribbean Diasporas are increasingly important in the U.S. and in their home countries. The rigid cultural/linguistic/religious divide between indigenous/Hispanic/Catholic “Latin America” and “Anglo-Saxon/Protestant/white” United States needs to be revised.
Could the end really be very, very near for Venezuela's Hugo Chavez? If it comes before his January 10, 2013 swearing in, thus triggering a new presidential election just 30 days later, can his vice president, Nicolas Maduro step into his shoes and keep his coalition together to continue governing in his mold? Or, could it mean that Henrique Capriles, whom Chavez defeated in this fall's presidential election, gets a second shot at the presidency?
These are the questions Venezuela watchers are asking as they anxiously wait to see how Chavez, who has traveled this week to Cuba for his third cancer surgery in the last year and a half, pulls through this latest test. The fact that Chavez's cancer returned so quickly after his announcement last summer that he was cancer-free doesn't bode well for the Venezuelan president's prospects (not least, his prospects of being able to take office and govern in the coming months). And with Chavez himself acknowleging the precariousness of his situation by naming his preferred successor, his vice president, it seems all but certain that Venezuelans are in for a change in leadership in the coming days, weeks or months. This possibility naturally could have profound implications for Venezuela's economy, which faces significant and growing challenges ahead, especially given the outsize role oil (and oil prices) plays in the economy.
These questions may again be put off if Chavez manages to recover and take office for some months. But with the writing clearly on the wall, many Cuba watchers note that the Cuban government, so reliant on Chavez's close economic cooperation and patronage, can not afford to push its own urgent questions aside. What would happen if a new Venezuelan does not continue heavy investment in and assistance to Cuba? Will Cuba's economy go into a freefall if Venezuela backs off?
With the Obama administration and Congressional Republican leaders’ current stalemate over the so-called fiscal cliff negotiations as the appropriate backdrop, an American government subcontractor serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba hopes to force the most infamously stalemated parties of all – the United States and Cuba - to the negotiating table.
Three years ago, as he completed his 5th trip of the year to the island, Alan P. Gross was arrested and after a lengthy investigation, was found guilty of crimes against the "sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Cuba. Gross was hired on a $600,000 subcontract (his employer was USAID grantee DAI) to set up several wireless internet networks around the island which could be hidden from the Cuban government using an "alternative SIM card" often used by U.S. intelligence agencies. Three years and more than 100 pounds (lost during his incarceration) later, Gross wants the U.S. and Cuba to sit down together and negotiate a non-belligerency pact.
Given the history between our two countries, such a pact would mark a true turning point, but it may be as hard to come by as ever. The State Department is refusing to move its own agenda forward with Cuba while Gross remains in prison. But having tied its hands thusly, State has also not taken any (visible) steps to secure his release. Though former Governor Richardson made a private trip to Havana more than a year ago to seek Gross's release, and says he suggested "a process" to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of terrorist states, the Cubans rebuffed him, perhaps because they were unwilling to negotiate with someone who did not represent the U.S. government, perhaps because he pushed too hard, too publicly - threatening not to leave until he saw Mr. Gross - and perhaps because Cuban officials were indignant about being offered, as a political trade, removal from a list on which they don't think they belong.
Of Mr. Gross’s activities, State officials have said little other than to claim that he was merely trying to connect the Jewish community across Cuba with better access to each other and to the world, and to insist on his immediate, unconditional release. The U.S. government has sought to paint Gross as nothing more than a humanitarian aid worker who broke no Cuban laws. It’s hardly an invitation to a serious discussion with Cuban authorities holding Mr. Gross when it is clear that Gross did break Cuban laws (more than one), and that the U.S. government sent him there specifically to do so.
For its part, Cuba has not been much more cooperative. While Cuban officials have made very plain their position that Gross – and the U.S. law that authorized his and other USAID activities on the island – violated Cuban sovereignty, they’ve dropped few and often contradictory clues as to whether Mr. Gross could hope for any early release. It could well be because there are dueling opinions in the highest ranks in Havana about whether to make a gesture which could go unanswered, or to extract something from the U.S. for his return.