Latin America Stone Sober

The final presidential debate between President Obama and Governor Romney took place on Monday.  The subject was foreign policy.  Serious business, you’d think, given the state of the world and America’s messy place in it.

Although this third match-up could have had a huge impact on the outcome of the election, the size of the television audience slipped; from a high of 67.2 million viewers in the first go-around to a more modest turn-out of 59.2 million, according to CBS News.

Not only did it excite less interest, but the pre-debate analysis spun into unusual territory: drinking games (as in take a drink whenever Candidate X mentions Y).  The patter started, of course, with college humor; then reasonably harmless jokes about the economy; and moved to the politics of the Middle East – all covered with playful efficiency by the folks at NPR.

What’s our point?  Had you watched the debate and played your drinking game tied to mentions of Cuba or Latin America by the candidates, you would have ended the evening close to stone cold sober.

Eric Farnsworth, writing for the Americas Quarterly, heard the debate as we did and branded it for the failure it was:

This was largely the fault of the moderator, who began promisingly enough with reference to the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis and then, rather than following up with questions designed to elicit new and revealing answers, immediately inquired about Libya…

After an introduction on Cuba, why not ask a logical first question such as “What do you do immediately upon hearing that Fidel Castro has died?” That would reveal the instincts of the commander-in-chief in unpredictable crisis management—addressing historic changes 90 miles from the United States.

It’s not like that wasn’t on people’s minds.  We wrote about the ghouls coming out in force over former President Castro’s health this week, calling our Cold War preoccupation with his mortality the “vestigial tail that our body politic refuses to shake.”

But after a glancing blow by Gov. Romney about Obama’s expiring 2008 promise to talk to leaders like Raúl Castro, they returned to the fog of Middle East war and the back and forth over China and military spending, etc.

Why not spend time discussing the region closest to us?  Again, Farnsworth:

The list of questions is limitless, and a line has to be drawn somewhere. But why is it that the line that is drawn by debate moderators—wherever it is—invariably excludes the geographic neighborhood in which we ourselves live? Perhaps if the candidates were asked about Latin America from time to time, the message would be sent that the region matters as a foreign policy issue. Because, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, it does.

What our leaders say and do about Cuba and the Caribbean, Central and South America, does matter enormously; sometimes for good and often for ill.  We don’t need, for example, a repetition of Woodrow Wilson’s approach, who famously said “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!”

What we do need is a renewed commitment and reengagement with the region that finally gets it right.  Ted Piccone, deputy director of foreign policy at Brookings, wrote how it could all begin with Cuba:

And then there is Cuba, which happened to get the moderator’s opening line about the 50th anniversary of the nuclear missile crisis. How fitting, since U.S. policy remains stuck in a Cold War time warp. To break that logjam, the next president will need to raise his sights beyond electoral politics and calculate that direct engagement with an evolving Cuba will protect America’s national interests better than embargoes and isolation….It can be done if the next president has the wisdom and the courage to take Latin America seriously.

If and when that happens, we’ll say, Mojitos all around.


Hurricane Sandy hits Cuba, leaving destruction and 11 dead

Hurricane Sandy hit eastern Cuba on Thursday with 110 miles per hour winds and heavy rains that claimed 11 lives and caused serious damage to Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second-largest city, and several other provinces, reports CNN and Reuters. The category 2 storm moved quickly through the Granma, Holguín, Las Tunas and Santiago de Cuba provinces early Thursday morning. Torrential rains and strong winds cut power lines, ripped roofs off homes and left the streets strewn with downed trees and debris.

“Everything is destroyed in Santiago. People are going to have to work very hard to recover,” Alexis Manduley, a resident of the city, told Reuters in an interview.

In much of eastern Cuba there is no power, no water and very little transportation. While tomato and coffee crops were affected by the storm, the damage to crops was milder than expected, reports Associated Press.

Fidel Castro makes public appearance, criticizes death-bed rumors

In an article published in Granma on Monday, Fidel Castro said he is in good health, and denounced rumors that surfaced last week stating that that he was on his deathbed, reports Associated Press The former President was quoted saying that he “doesn’t even remember what a headache feels like.”

The article was accompanied by photos of Cuba’s former president standing amid moringa trees and holding Monday’s edition of Granma. On Saturday, he made a public appearance when he met with former Venezuelan Vice President Elias Jaua for several hours at the Hotel Nacional, according to Havana Times. Last week, we reported on speculation surrounding Castro’s health, including a rumor that he suffered an embolic stroke, a rumor stoked by a physician who had previously made unsubstantiated claims about the health of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez.

Later in the week, the leader once known for lengthy public speeches informed the Cuban public that he will no longer be writing his regular column called “Reflections” in the official newspaper because he feels it is not his place “to occupy the pages of our press, dedicated as it is to other tasks the country requires,” reports the Financial Times.

Cuba to allow many who had left illegally to return

Rafters, doctors, and athletes who left Cuba illegally will be permitted re-entry, Cuba’s government announced Thursday. In statements on national television, Homero Acosta, Secretary of the State Council, said those who left as minors under age 16 or who have humanitarian reasons for coming home to Cuba would also be allowed to return.  Between 70,000 and 300,000 Cubans are expected to benefit from the reform, reports the Miami Herald.

Individuals who defected via the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo will still be banned “for reasons of defense and national security.” According to last week’s announced migration reforms, those who “organize, encourage or participate in hostile actions against the political, economic and social basis of the state,” can also be excluded.

This announcement comes as a follow-up to the migratory reforms announced last week that President Raúl Castro says are designed to contribute “to the growth in the links between the nation and the communities of its emigrants.” Progreso Weekly analyses what it means for the diaspora and its “émigrés”.

Cuba holds municipal elections

Municipal elections were held in Cuba on Sunday, with 8.1 million Cubans participating, reports Café Fuerte. Voters cast ballots to elect candidates for the municipal assemblies that head local governments, reports the Associated Press. Overall voter turnout during this election was 91.9%, a 4.9% decrease from the 95.8% voter turnout in 2010. Compared to the last election, there was an increase in blank ballots, with 396,900 people submitting blank ballots, and a total of 356,400 votes annulled.

Alina Balseiro Gutiérrez, the president of the National Electoral Commission, announced that of the 13,127 delegates elected to municipal assemblies, 33.5 % are women and 14% are young people between 16 and 35, Granma reports. 1,410 candidates, who did not receive at least 50% of the vote, will participate in runoff elections on October 28th.

Modified agricultural reforms to benefit independent farmers

Cuba’s government has published a law to modify the rules governing the delivery of fallow government land to farmers, according to Granma, the state-run newspaper.  Decree-Law 300, which will go into effect December 21, will allow independent and cooperative farmers to hold up to 67.10 hectares of government land, an increase from the current maximum of 40 hectares. The new law’s primary goal is to encourage sustainable production on previously idle land and it also allows farmers to build homes on land leased from the government, reports the Associated Press.

Authorities to allow Cubans to reclaim “undue” taxes on packages

Cuban authorities responded to complaints that have arisen since new import tax laws took effect, by establishing a process to reclaim overpaid import tariffs, reports Café Fuerte. While Cuban citizens and residents are supposed to pay in Cuban pesos (CUPs), and foreigners are meant to pay in convertible pesos (CUCs), cases have occurred in which travelers are charged in the wrong currency, which the new process intends to resolve. The measure stipulates that travelers will have up to one year to request repayment.

Cuba reopens national library

On Monday, the José Martí National Library in Havana reopened its doors, after undergoing a million-Euro renovation financed by Spanish investors, reports EFE. The first phase of this extensive reconstruction project focused on fire prevention, rehabilitating the plumbing network, and making the library more easily accessible to those with disabilities, reports Havana Times. The library, frequently referred to as the “Cathedral of Culture,” will undergo a second phase of renovation in which the focus will be “digitizing everything that is possible to scan,” according to Eduardo Torres Cuevas, director of the institution.

Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, commander in the Cuban Revolution, dies

Revolutionary commander Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, known as “el gallego” for his Spanish roots, passed away last week in Cuba. He died of a heart attack in a Havana hospital at the age of 77, according to the Associated Press.

Gutiérrez Menoyo was a commanding officer in the Cuban revolution, but later turned against the revolutionary government. In 1961, he moved to Miami and began organizing a violent overthrow of the new government, returning in 1964 with hopes of launching an uprising. He was eventually arrested and spent 22 year in prison. Upon release in 1986, he lived briefly in Madrid and then in Miami where he founded Cambio Cubano in 1992, an organization aiming to promote peaceful dialogue between all Cubans and their government. In 2002, Menoyo traveled to Cuba to visit family and decided to stay despite his differences with the government.


Trade with Ecuador doubles in 2012

Antonio Carricarte, Cuban Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment, said that trade between Cuba and Ecuador is on track to grow two-fold this year, reports Prensa Latina. According to Carricarte, significant gains are expected in the export of services, including medical assistance like disease control in Ecuador. He also announced that trade with Ecuador this year had already surpassed 2011 levels by August.
Cuba and Mexico take steps to expand bilateral trade

Last Saturday, representatives of Cuba and Mexico met in Havana to discuss expanding trade between the two countries, reports EFE. The talk could lead to an update of the existing free trade agreement, in place since 2001, particularly in the areas of market access, technical barriers to trade, and health regulations, according to the Mexican Economy Secretariat. Between 2000 and 2011, trade between Cuba and Mexico grew by about 40% and Cuba currently ranks 14th in the region for investment from Mexico.


State Department official responds to Cuba’s new travel law

Last Thursday, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson gave a press conference in which she addressed the possible implications of Cuba’s new travel law for U.S. policy.  Jacobson said the State  Department is paying close attention to the implementation of Cuba’s new law eliminating its exit visa requirement, in order to assess “what we may need to do to respond.” While calling the change “a very good thing,” she specifically questioned the role of passport renewal and the restrictions that Cuba’s government could place on travel by controlling the passport process.

Responding to a separate question, Jacobson cited Alan Gross’ detention in Cuba as being very significant to the future of U.S.-Cuba relations, but rejected a comparison between the case of Ángel Carromero, the Spaniard charged and sentenced to jail time in Cuba for his role in the crash that killed Oswaldo Paya and that of Alan Gross. She repeated the State Department’s previous call for Gross to be released “on humanitarian grounds.”

A transcript of the press event, which was featured as a preview of the upcoming Pathways for Prosperity/America’s Competitiveness Forum in Cali, Colombia, is available at the State Department website.

Florida Chamber of Congress stands against anti-Cuba contracting law

Florida’s Chamber of Commerce has joined the legal effort to prevent Florida from punishing foreign firms that do business with Cuba or Syria, reports the News Service of Florida.

The case arises from the enactment of a law by Florida’s legislature which prohibits state and local governments from giving contracts to foreign companies that are also working in Cuba and Syria.  A Federal judge in Miami blocked implementation of the law earlier this year, and the case is now before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Chamber’s brief says the law would have “far-reaching implications and unintended consequences that will irreparably harm Florida businesses and the state’s economy…Democratic foreign governments and their businesses will be reluctant to do business in Florida. These are the very foreign companies that Florida has worked so hard to attract.”

As we reported previously, the Federal judge acted after a lawsuit was filed by the Miami subsidiary of the Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht’s against Florida’s Department of Transportation.  The law would have prohibited the company from bidding on over $3 billion in contracts from the department this year. The U.S. district court judge declared the law unconstitutional because it deals with a matter of foreign affairs, which is the prerogative of the Executive Branch of the U.S. government. Odebrecht owns a subsidiary that operates in Cuba.

Recommended Reading 

Rubio hurts Florida with wrongheaded Cuba policy, Tampa Bay Times editorial

“U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio continues to hurt Cuban-Americans, his own Florida constituents and the push for democracy in Cuba with his tired, discredited war against the communist Castro regime. His badgering of tour operators organizing legal trips to Cuba may score him points with some extremist expatriates in Miami. But it is nothing but harassment to academics, other visitors and entrepreneurs, and the Obama administration should move to break down these barriers, not build new ones.”

Hardliners’ autopilot response to travel reforms misses forest for the trees, William Vidal, On Two Shores

“I get that our elected leaders want to lounge comfortably in their status-quo lazy-boys. It remains the safe bet in this community. Embracing a moderate, result-oriented approach toward Cuba would take real leadership, and it would sting.  You’ll have your name trampled on some local TV stations and by the fatally-traumatized callers in Radio Mambi, and you could all but kiss the Leon Medical Center vote goodbye.  Who in their right mind would want to risk that for the greater good?”  See the full article for a chronology of reforms launched by Raul Castro.

Don’t Tell Dad, I’m going to Cuba, Ana Hebra Flaster, New York Times

“I lied to my father, told him we were on Cape Cod when, in fact, we were bouncing around the battered streets of Havana in our friend José’s 1953 Chevrolet Deluxe, the one with the new Toyota engine but no working gauges on the dash. Nothing about Cuba is easy. Not the politics, not the crazy convertible peso and definitely not the getting there. But as a Cuban-American trying to connect with the last twigs of our family tree in Havana, the biggest obstacle I faced was my father’s disapproval.”

Cuba’s New Now, Cynthia Gorney, National Geographic

“‘I love my country,’ Eduardo kept saying. ‘But there is no future for me here.’
“Over nine weeks of traveling around Cuba this year and last, I heard this particular sequence of complaints so often, and from so many different kinds of people, that it began to form a kind of collective national lamentation: I love my country and it doesn’t work. There were loyal optimists among the complainers, to be sure, and after a while, whenever I encountered one, I found myself marshaling ammunition to bring Eduardo. I wanted to hear how he’d respond, but when I was being honest with myself, I realized that I also wanted to talk him out of the boat.”

Recommended Viewing

Significance of Cuba’s municipal elections, Al Jazeera

In a video recorded before last week’s election, Al-Jazeera filed this story on the significance of Cuba’s municipal elections.

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