“When I saw the rockets being fired at Mario’s house, I swore to myself that the Americans would pay dearly for what they are doing. When this war is over a much wider and bigger war will begin for me: The war that I am going to wage against them. I know that this is my real destiny.”
Fidel Castro wrote these words in 1958, the decisive year of his guerrilla war against Dictator Fulgencio Batista. Mario was a peasant from Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountain range whose house was bombarded by the regime’s U.S.-equipped air force. Although Fidel Castro had expressed an adolescent admiration for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by 1958, he was acutely aware that a clash with Washington was probable if not inevitable. In Latin America, Washington’s support for dictators such as Batista was the norm, not the exception. No matter how terrible they were with their people, dictators were considered a safeguard against communist penetration in the hemisphere. Following this logic, not only communism but most types of nationalism were considered anathema to Eisenhower Washington.
Regardless of how long he lives, Fidel Castro has an influential role in shaping the political discourse in Cuba. Fidel skillfully mixed Marxism and nationalism and made a revolution that changed the history not only of Cuba but also of the whole Western hemisphere. He was the most popular leader in a generation of Cubans, a political giant who reached world dimensions during the Cold War. As professor Jorge Dominguez from Harvard University said, If there have been competitive elections in the early 1960’s, Castro could have won them all. He didn't have the chance. In the most difficult moments of the Cold War, the United States, as the hegemonic power in the Americas, didn't have tolerance for a nationalist leader who aspired to an independent neutralist course not to mention a socialist one, no matter how popular Castro was among his people.
Early in March, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cuba to tell Raul Castro that he could not invite him to the VI Summit of the Americas in Cartagena de Indias due to a lack of hemispheric consensus. Once back in Bogota, Mr. Santos said that Colombia had "put out a fire" and pledged to discuss Cuba's participation in the inter-American system at the summit in order to prevent this issue from flaring up again before the next presidential conference scheduled for 2015 in Panama.
The Colombian decision triggered reactions from both Cuba and the US. It's hard to say whose discourse was more anachronistic. The statements made by Cuba's Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez read as an impassioned harangue to the revolutionary Tricontinental of 1966. Hillary Clinton's responses to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen before the House Foreign Affairs Committee appeared to be addressing a rest home for Cuban-Americans who landed in Miami in 1962. Instead of adopting a conflict resolution approach, Cuba and the US traveled back to the Cold War, to a multilateral inter-American system that no longer exists. With one swipe, they erased five decades of changes in the hemispheric balance of power and the adoption of standards such as ideological pluralism, non-intervention and democratic governance.
Meeting dissidents should not be a litmus test for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba (A response to the March 19 Washington Post Editorial).
As the visit of Benedict XVI draws nearer, Cuba's internal opposition is stepping up its activities in an effort to use his presence on the island as a sounding board. The Ladies in White, a group of mothers and wives of dissidents who were given long prison sentences in 2003, have eased up some since all of their relatives were released as a result of mediation by Cardinal Ortega. Now they are asking for a meeting with the Pope. In 2010, the Cardinal also managed to secure eight city blocks for them to hold their Sunday marches after mass at the Santa Rita Church in the Havana neighborhood of Miramar. On Sunday March 18, the group, which has never managed to fill the ceded space, pushed further, and were detained by the government only to be released several hours later.
Don’t get me wrong. In the Cuba I dream of, without an American embargo and with representative democracy, opposition forces would have the right to demonstrate peacefully. But that is not the issue here. The gradual recovery of social spaces has been central to the Catholic Church's strategic adaptation to the post-revolutionary system. Unlike the political opposition calling for the government’s acceptance of a disorganized partisan pluralism that has no relevance on the street, the Church gradually recovers social spaces and then negotiates government recognition. The Cuban Bishops demanded the right to parade the Virgin of Charity through the towns of Cuba after parishes overflowed with worshipers, not before.
One might expect that a terrible coincidence such as an American prisoner in Cuba and a paroled Cuban prisoner in the U.S. each desperately seeking permission to visit beloved relatives dying of cancer in their home countries might finally move both governments to do the right thing and send each man home. But so far, both governments have dug in their heels needlessly regarding the prisoners in their own custody, while at the same time, insisting that clemency should be shown towards their own citizens held in the other country.
So what happens now that a federal judge in Miami has approved Rene Gonzalez’s petition for a two week visit to his brother in Cuba? The judge gave her permission so long as Gonzalez obtains the necessary license from the U.S. government, provides his itinerary, keeps up with his parole officer while in Cuba, and returns when his two weeks are up. Lucky for Gonzalez that Mr. Obama delivered on his campaign promise to Cuban Americans back in 2009: anyone can visit close family in Cuba under ‘general license’ authority, so he doesn’t have to ask for further permission. This is good news for Gonzalez and his brother.
But will it mean good news for Alan Gross, in exchange? Unfortunately, it’s hard to argue this can be an ‘exchange’ of humanitarian gestures by the two governments, since Obama’s Justice Department opposed Gonzalez’s deathbed visit to his brother. These kinds of equities – or inequities – weigh heavily in Havana. When former governor Bill Richardson visited Cuba last August and suggested a swap of Gonzalez for Gross, Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon scoffed at the idea – Gonzalez was finishing his term, having served more than a dozen years in prison, whereas Gross had only just begun his sentence of 15 years. And, from the Cuban government’s perspective, Gonzalez was merely trying to protect Cuba, whereas Gross’s work to establish untraceable Wi-Fi networks on the island was funded under a statute calling for regime change in Cuba. (U.S. officials naturally have a different view: they cite national security concerns about Gonzalez, who was an unregistered agent of the Cuban government in the U.S., and they view Gross’s work as purely humanitarian in nature. )
Another reason why Cuba is less likely to grant Mr. Gross a deathbed visit to his mother is that granting a temporary release to Gross is tantamount to simply commuting his sentence. Why would he return to Cuba once reaching the U.S.? Gonzalez is likely return to the U.S. out of a sense of solidarity with the rest of the Cuban Five; if he fails to meet the conditions set out by the judge that granted his motion in the first place, that could impact decisions made on future motions filed by the rest of them. But Gross has nothing else at stake in Cuba, and if the Cuban government is bent on keeping him as a chip for the right humanitarian bargain to come along (say one that includes more of the Five), then granting his deathbed visit request would take away that imagined leverage.
But it’s a mistake to think that Mr. Gross offers any leverage to Cuba.
What’s the best way to gauge if anyone in Washington understands what’s going on in Havana? Try to grill Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
More than once, I’ve complained about the Obama administration’s tone-deafness on the shifting political, social and economic climate in Cuba. We (and by we, I mean they) were slow-to-absent in acknowledging and encouraging the 2010-2011 political prisoner releases brokered between Raul Castro, Cuba’s Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega and the previous (Zapatero) government in Spain, and President Obama himself has highlighted the ongoing economic changes in Cuba only to call them insufficient.
So it was fascinating to watch this exchange at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing this week in which Cuban-American Congressman David Rivera pressed Secretary Clinton for any “tangible” progress towards democracy in Cuba thanks to the Obama administration’s policy toward the island:
By Arturo Lopez-Levy and Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado
Scarabeo 9, the semi-submersible oil rig contracted by the Spanish company Repsol completed its journey from Singapore to Cuba. Repsol’s rig will explore Cuba’s exclusive economic zone, an area in the Gulf of Mexico of about 112000 square kilometers. Oil exploration in the zone is being contracted to several foreign companies such as Venezuela’s PDVSA, Malaysia’s Petronas, and Vietnamese PetroVietnam. Cuba’s Ministry of Basic Industry estimates the oil reserves in the zone are between 5 billion to 9 billion barrels of oil. CNN GPS host Fareed Zakaria referred to Cuba’s total oil potential as between 5 billion and 20 billion barrels of oil.
The start of the oil exploration will not derail Raul Castro’s reform program. At a minimum, oil will not come from the offshore wells soon enough, while the reforms are needed immediately. The Cuban government needs to create jobs for the million and half workers that are supposed to leave the government sector in the next two years as part of the reforms program proclaimed last April by the Cuban Communist Party in its VI Congress. It must also alleviate critical situations of poverty in the five most eastern provinces, where unrest has been rising. With or without oil, the Cuban economy sorely needs to develop an environment in which businesses and individuals feel confident to invest.
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.