Never Mind the Debates; Cuba Knows Brazil; Term Limits Adopted; Gross Documents Release

In his perceptive essay, “The Debate the GOP Didn’t Have in Florida,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, expresses discouragement at the Republican candidates who debated in Florida twice last week.

He writes:

To the extent Latin America was treated at all, the discussion has been dominated by phantom threats and tired bromides.

Shifter is right.  Here’s a powerful example.  Of course we heard much in the debates about the candidates’ bright shining objects – Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, migration, terrorism, etc. But when we scanned the transcripts from Tampa and Jacksonville, debates which occurred last week before the Florida primary, the word Brazil was never mentioned by any of the four candidates, amidst the hundreds that they uttered.

How is this possible?

Maybe this U.S. ally with the growing economy that is marching millions from poverty into the middle class with an increasingly dominant energy production profile, and an upcoming World Cup and Olympics somehow slipped their minds.

Or perhaps the blind spot stems from Brazil’s very different perspective on the region, which was certainly on display this week during President Dilma Rousseff’s visit to Cuba.

In Cuba, President Rousseff:

  • Met with President Raúl Castro and, as IPS reported, felt “immensely honored” to meet former president Fidel Castro;
  • Visited the Mariel container port where Brazil is investing $640 million as part of a $900 million modernization of the facility;
  • Signed agreements, as Reuters reported, involving Cuba’s biotechnology and pharmaceuticals industry;
  • Agreed to give Cuba $400 million in credits to purchase food from Brazil and invested $200 million in Cuba agriculture; and,
  • When the subject of human rights came up, she “chided the United States for continuing to operate its Guantanamo Bay prison,” according to UPI, and denounced the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba.

As we might expect, there was carping in some precincts about the president’s decision not to publicly confront the Cuban government on the issue of human rights (although Brazil did grant, coincident with the visit, a visa to the dissident blogger, Yoani Sanchez).

But, as Arturo Lopez-Levy argues in The Havana Note, the choice is not between whether to confront Cuba or engage with Cuba, but what kind of engagement takes place.  “Brazil, “he wrote, “is a strategic partner for Cuba in its process of economic reform and Cuba’s foreign policy objectives.”

In other words, this gives Brazil special influence –not in the abstract, not to check a box—but through productive dialogue behind the scenes.  It also demonstrates how a nation can effectively tie together its values and its national interests.

That approach may be a little too subtle for candidates running for high office in the U.S., but it contains a useful reminder of how differently Latin America views its own issues, and how more productive U.S. diplomacy could be if we followed Brazil’s example.


Romney wins Florida primary

After former Governor Mitt Romney’s win in the Florida presidential primary, focus has intensified on the Cuban American vote, how it affected the primary election, and how the general election candidates will address the Cuban American community as November approaches.

Leading up to the primary, both Governor Romney and Speaker Gingrich increased their hardline Cuba rhetoric, promising to tighten sanctions on Cuba and push for a regime transition. Romney decisively won the state’s primary with 46% of votes and, according to exit polls, 53% of the Latino vote, the Miami Herald reports.

David Firestone for the New York Times penned an opinion piece that gives a humorous blow-by-blow account of what he calls the long-time tradition of “watching how low politicians can go in catering to the Cuban-American vote.”

However, recent pieces – like this one from Kevin Grey for Reuters– have analyzed demographic shifts in Florida’s Latino population – namely the decrease in the prominence of the Cuban American community – as people of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent have increased their share of the state’s population.  Hence, hardline rhetoric on issues like immigration which worked in the primary may not work as well in the general.

Repsol begins drilling for oil in gulf

Spanish oil company Repsol has begun drilling for oil off the northwest coast of Cuba, Reuters reports. Scarabeo 9 began drilling into the sea floor on Tuesday night, according to industry sources. It is currently drilling in 5,600 feet of water, which the oil industry refers to as “ultra-deep water.” Such wells usually take around 60 days to complete, according to sources close to the project.

The exploratory drilling – planned by Repsol and other Cuban partners – will help determine how much oil Cuba’s offshore Exclusive Economic Zone possesses; current estimates range from five to twenty billion barrels.

U.S. policy makers continue to debate Cuba’s drilling efforts, and how the U.S. should respond. Rep. John Mica (FL-7), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, held a meeting of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation at a Florida hotel, hosting several Florida elected officials, as well as Coast Guard and oil industry representatives. At the hearing, Rep. David Rivera (FL-25) stated:

We need to figure out what we can do to inflict maximum pain, maximum punishment, to bleed Repsol of whatever resources they may have if there’s a potential for a spill that would affect the U.S. coast.

The rig is 80 miles from Florida, and at its location and, according to some estimates, the Gulf stream and other currents could bring any spilled oil to Florida in five to ten days.

Oil expert Jorge Piñon penned an editorial for Progreso Weekly in which he urges Cuba to “temper” expectations and, in the event of a big find, to avoid the “resource curse,” depending on oil while ignoring other key sectors.

Oil or not, Cuba should continue to advance its current energy conservation and efficiency policies, programs, technologies, investments, and behaviors; and the economic development of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro, sugarcane biomass and bio-fuels, and other less-developed sources such as tidal power and sea currents as part of a comprehensive national energy plan.

To read the Center for Democracy in the Americas’ publication on Cuba’s offshore drilling, click here.

Director of National Intelligence: Cuba is changing slowly to avoid instability

James Clapper, U.S. Director of National Intelligence, has released the Unclassified Statement for the Record on the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, compiled for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In its section on Cuba, the report states:

Cuban President Raul Castro has begun a delicate, cautious process of reform designed to revive the island’s flagging economy without loosening political control…Wary of instability, authorities are only gradually implementing economic reforms announced last year.  For example, the delay in the planned layoff of a million state workers reflects the sensitivity of the Castro regime as it observes uprisings elsewhere in the world.

The report adds that Cuba’s government is concerned that reform will “increase pressure on them for a political opening and greater individual rights.”

Meanwhile, administration representatives continue to indicate that the reform process is not enough to open relations. Wendy Sherman, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, traveled to Colombia this week to inspect preparations for April’s upcoming Summit of the Americas – to be held April 14-14 in Cartagena and attended by 34 world leaders from the Americas, including President Barack Obama, according to Colombia Reports. In an interview with El Tiempo, Sherman, the State Department’s No.3, stated:

The offer of the United States has always been to lift the embargo when Cuba truly takes the necessary steps towards an opening of its electoral system, towards a real democracy and other changes that demonstrate that they are really putting their people first, not a political system whose time passed long ago.

Orlando Airport receives permission for Cuba flights

Orlando International Airport has received permission to host direct flights to Cuba, the Miami Herald reports. Though permission has been granted, there are no scheduled flights at this time. Orlando will join Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, and Key West as Florida cities that now offer charter flights to the island.

Prior to President’s Obama’s relaxation of travel regulations on Cuba trips in January 2011, Miami was the only Florida airport providing flights to Cuba. Following the President’s directive, more than a dozen cities nationwide have been approved to host such flights.


Two-day Communist Party Conference ends, term limits and renovation of leadership confirmed

Cuba’s Communist Party held its first national conference this past Saturday and Sunday. In his speech concluding the conference, President Raúl Castro indicated that the party would continue to move ahead with the legislative framework for imposing a limit of two five-year terms for top leadership positions, the Miami Herald reports. He added that such a policy, once approved by relevant institutions, could begin to be implemented before being brought to a Constitutional referendum. Such a limit would mean that Castro, who came to power in 2006, would have five years left to govern the country. The conference also passed a resolution providing for the replacement of up to 20% of the Party’s 115-member Central Committee, addressing concerns over an aging party leadership. The Committee will have two plenum meetings per year to oversee the economic reform process.

The party conference was scheduled as a follow-up to the 6th Communist Party Congress held in April of 2011. As the meeting closed, President Castro took the opportunity to speak about his anti-corruption campaign, indicating that there are large-scale investigations currently taking place and that “In due time, following the decisions of the corresponding courts, our entire population will, at length, know these findings.”

The Associated Press reports that a video currently being shown to top-level officials and bureaucrats provides detailed evidence as well as confessions from suspects in two cases involving bribery, embezzlement, and the diversion of funds.

In his speech, Castro also defended Cuba’s one-party system, stating that “In Cuba, based on its experience in the long history of the fight for independence and national sovereignty, we defend the one-party system instead of the demagoguery and commercialization of politics,” Reuters reports.

Photos from the conference are available from CubaDebate

Rising food prices in Cuba

Food prices in Cuba increased by nearly 20% last year, according to newly-released data from the National Office of Statistics (ONE), Reuters reports. The data indicate that meat prices increased 8.7%, while produce prices went up 24.1%. The average increase among all categories of food was 19.8%.

This increase in the cost of food comes as the government has emphasized efforts to reduce imports and boost agricultural production as a part of Cuba’s economic reform process. Since 2008, President Raúl Castro has implemented an agricultural reform that gives small land plots to farmers, with the hope that these farmers could increase national food production, and thereby decrease the island’s need to import food. The program has seen limited success: food production increased 2% last year after falling 2.5% the previous year.

The same report indicates that U.S. exports to Cuba fell significantly in 2010 while trade with Venezuela nearly doubled, the AP reports. Cuba imported from the U.S. $410 million in mostly food products in 2010, less than the $645 million imported in 2009. Venezuelan imports went from $3.4 billion in 2009 to more than $6 billion in 2010. Figures from 2011 are not yet available.


Brazil’s President Rousseff visits Cuba, signs trade and investment agreements, meets with Fidel and Raúl Castro

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff traveled to Cuba for the first time during her presidency, Reuters reports. As expected, Rousseff met with President Raúl Castro and former President Fidel Castro, oversaw current Brazilian investments on the island, and signed several important trade agreements.

One of the most significant agreements is a “contract of productive administration” between Brazilian company Odebrecht and Cuba’s Sugar Business Administration Group, for a 10-year cooperative effort to overhaul the industry and increase sugar production, Reuters reports.

The collaboration marks the first time that Cuba’s sugar industry has been opened to foreign investors. One Odebrecht executive stated that “Cuba is opening up the possibility of producing ethanol through energy generation and Odebrecht will build a distillery there.” A source from Brazil’s Foreign Ministry told the news agency that “The subject is on the table. There are investments planned in sugar and there exists a possibility that at some time this will be taken on board by the ethanol industry.”

President Raúl Castro met with Rousseff to discuss the status of relations between the two nations, and accompanied her to the port of Mariel. The port is currently undergoing a more than $800 million renovation project, largely funded through credit given by the Brazilian government, CubaDebate reports (with photos).

During their meeting, Fidel Castro gave Rousseff a copy of two unpublished volumes of his biography, the Brazilian publication O Globo reports. She departed Cuba the next morning for Haiti.

President Raúl Castro travels to Venezuela

Raúl Castro traveled to Venezuela to attend the 20th anniversary celebration of Hugo Chávez’s civic military rebellion, which occurred on February 4, 1992, reports Prensa Latina. During his stay, Castro will also take part in the 11th Summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America (ALBA). He is accompanied by Vice President Ricardo Cabrisas, Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno Rodríguez, and Foreign Investment Minister Rodrigo Malmierca.

Around the Region

This week, we’re pleased to offer you access to two other publications by the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

El Salvador Monthly Update, by Linda Garrett

The Center for Democracy in the Americas publishes a monthly El Salvador update, written by El Salvador consultant Linda Garrett. The latest edition, published this week, reports on the events surrounding the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords that ended El Salvador’s civil war, President Funes’ speech at the site of the massacre of El Mozote, and increasing concerns about the militarization of the country’s police force. This publication is available in English and in Spanish.

Caracas Connect: Venezuela Update, by Dan Hellinger

Our organization has been working on issues connected to Venezuela since 2006. We have observed every national election and referendum since then, run a series of Congressional and research delegations to the country, and formed relationships with government supporters, the political opposition, NGOs, and organized communities in Venezuela. Prof. Dan Hellinger has been our guide to Venezuela all these years, and there’s nobody better qualified to write about these issues.

This month’s update focuses on the political climate leading up to this month’s opposition primary and the general election scheduled for October, as well as Venezuela’s decision to withdraw from the World Bank Arbitration System.

If you are interested in receiving either of these publications in your inbox, please e-mail Lisa Llanos at

Recommended Reading

FACTBOX: Key political risks to watch in Cuba, Jeff Franks, Reuters

An overview from Reuters about the main policy and governance issues facing Cuba, including the process of economic reform, offshore oil drilling and rising food prices.

Lessons for Cuban business, John Paul Rathbone, The Financial Times

“President Raúl Castro wants the recent liberalization of small businesses to bolster Cuba’s sagging economy and absorb the 1m state workers he says will eventually be laid off. But Cuba’s budding micro-entrepreneurs – over 350,000 had registered as of November 2011 – lack almost everything that start-ups need, from premises and relevant skills to capital. Will they ever really get off the ground?”

The Alan Gross “sentencia” summarized, Phil Peters, The Cuban Triangle

Peters reviews Cuba’s evidence in the case against jailed American contractor Alan Gross, which leads him to ask: “If just half of that is true, the real question becomes: Is there a more surefire scheme for sending an American into Cuba to get arrested?”

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