News Flash? Has the Administration rediscovered Latin America?

Today, as we put cursor-to-screen, we were struck by a few facts – some present, some absent –that could augur a welcome change in U.S. relations with Latin America and Cuba.

As Tim Padgett wrote this week, it appeared as if “the Obama Administration is suddenly interested in Latin America and the Caribbean after four years of indifference.”

Not only did President Obama visit Mexico and Costa Rica last month, he’ll soon be hosting the presidents of Chile and Peru at the White House, and Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff for a state visit and dinner in the fall.

Vice President Biden visited the region and published this op-ed piece about what he learned.   Without giving an inch on the U.S. vision of democracy for Latin America, strikingly absent from his chosen words were references to Cuba or criticisms of Venezuela.   He was speaking with a lowered voice.

More so, as Padgett noted, “For once the region can feel as though Washington is approaching it from a standpoint of pragmatism instead of paternalism.”   Biden closed his column saying, “The defining question for U.S. policy is no longer ‘what can we do for the Americas?’ It is ‘what can we do together?’”

Year after year, U.S. relations with Venezuela were poisoned when Washington confronted Caracas and tried to divide Latin America along Cold War lines; when both governments demonized each other’s leaders, sent home both nations’ ambassadors, and pretended neither country played important roles diplomatically or economically in the regional or the world.

So, it was unusual to see Secretary of State John Kerry shaking hands with Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, striking to read Jaua propose “having better relations between the two countries on the basis of mutual respect,” and heartening to learn that an American filmmaker, who had been jailed on espionage charges in Venezuela, had been freed.   Both countries will now engage in a high-level dialogue aimed at restoring diplomatic relations, as the Miami Herald reported in December they would ultimately do.   Even if you strained to hear the bellicosity, it just wasn’t there; another absent fact.

Here are some more.  Last week, we discussed how the Obama administration has progressively watered down the case for keeping Cuba on the terrorism list.   Previous criticisms of Cuba’s record on terrorism – that Cuba denounced U.S. counterterrorism efforts, its demand for the return home of the Cuban Five, Cuba’s record on extradition requests, many of the excuses for keeping Cuba on the list – have simply vanished.

Present, but subtly presented, was this finding in the terrorism report that “There were no known operational cells of either al-Qa’ida or Hizballah in the hemisphere,” refuting a constant Cold Warrior call to arms, to militarize U.S. policy, divide the region, and question the administration’s vigilance against terror.

More subtly still, no one in Washington this week announced what Cuba government has told CNN; namely, that it would allow Alan Gross, the USAID “regime change” subcontractor, to receive a medical exam from a U.S. doctor, a break from Cuba’s earlier expressed position.

How did this come about?  Maybe it is connected to the U.S. government welcoming Josefina Vidal from Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, giving her a visa and a State Department meeting, with the apparently controversial thought that when countries have disagreements they should sit down with each other to discuss them.

Don’t get us wrong: All is not well.  While the State Department gave a visa to Ms. Vidal, it also stopped a dozen Cuban academics from attending last month’s LASA meeting in Washington by denying them entry.   The government may have slimmed down the false accusation that Cuba’s belongs on the terror list, but it still kept Cuba on it.  While the Vice-President asks, “what can we do together?”, our government remains in unilateral pursuit of a high-cost, low-probability “regime change” solution for Cuba.

We can’t know now if the facts we saw this week form a pattern, or a trend, or signal anything larger.  Whether this new interest in Latin America is motivated by economics, as Tim Padgett argued, or the administration is engineering a slow turn in direction after its disastrous performance at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, or it will later revert to indifference, time will tell.

But, when the administration starts doing things that ground U.S. policy toward the Americas in mutual respect, or engage in dialogue with governments with which we’ve been at odds, we simply had to take notice.

IN CUBA

Cuba’s economy grew by 3% in 2012

According to Cuba’s National Office of Information and Statistics (ONEI), Cuba’s economy grew by 3% in 2012, reports Reuters.  Previous reports had pegged Cuba’s 2012 economic growth at 3.1%; the new, slightly lower figure takes into account damage from Hurricane Sandy and subsequent repair efforts, reports Granma. ONEI’s updated report found that the manufacturing industry grew by 2.3% in 2012, transportation and communications each grew by 2.8%, while the agriculture sector declined by 1.2%.

Private middlemen to enter Cuba’s agriculture industry

Cuba’s Council of Ministers announced that intermediaries will be allowed to supply and buy from farmers, reports Cuba Standard. According to an article in Granma, the sale of fertilizer, seeds, fuel, equipment, specialized services, and animal feed will gradually move to wholesale and retail markets with no set prices. Previously, inputs and equipment were made available to Cuban farmers at subsidized prices.

Marino Murillo, one of Cuba’s vice ministers who helped design and run the island’s economic reforms, stated that “It’s urgent to put the conditions of all producers on equal footing, free the productive forces, and promote their efficiency.” Of the elimination of subsidies, he stated that “measures will be taken in order to avoid, where possible, the price increase affecting the general population.”

Report finds that 22% of Cuba’s potable water lost to leaky pipes

According to Cuba’s National Hydraulic Resources Institute (INRH), the poor condition of pipes, water tanks, and cisterns are causing 22% of potable water distributed to homes to be lost, reports EFE. Inés María Chapman, director of the INRH, stated that in order to curb this loss due to the deterioration of infrastructure, Cuba’s government will initiate an effort to market water pipes for homes at lower prices, while offering subsidies for those who cannot afford to buy new pipes. As part of this effort, the government will increase its investment in the state company that produces domestic water pipes, which, the INRH found, can currently meet just 40% of demand.

Cuba tears down buildings in Varadero to mitigate beach erosion

Cuba has demolished 19 buildings that were constructed over natural dunes in the beach resort town of Varadero, with another 21 to follow, reports Xinhua. The buildings are being razed in an attempt to curb beach erosion in the popular beach getaway, located about 85 miles from Havana. Ivis Fernández, an official of Cuba’s Tourism Ministry, stated that random construction is a principal cause of erosion at more than 400 beaches around the island, adding that Cuba is losing sand beaches at a rate of more than one meter per year.

José Luis Juanes, of the Oceanology Institute of the Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology, stated that sand is also being trucked in to certain beaches, adding “we’re spreading the sand through a…technique that in a short time restores the natural state of the beaches.”

Tropical Storm Andrea hits western Cuba

Marking the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season, Tropical Storm Andrea hit western Cuba with heavy rain and winds Wednesday and Thursday. Officials declared a weather alarm for the Pinar del Río province following nearly 12 inches of rainfall over 24 hours, while a weather alert was declared for the provinces of Havana, Artemisa, and Mayabeque, reports the Miami Herald. Over 1,000 people were evacuated along the Cuyaguateje River in Pinar del Río, as towns across western Cuba saw 8-10 inches of rain. One tornado was reported in Pinar del Río, damaging three homes. Flooding left some four hundred homes underwater, reports NTDTV.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuban and Argentine scientists collaborate to create therapeutic lung cancer vaccine

A team of Argentine and Cuban scientists have worked together to create the first therapeutic vaccine for lung cancer, which will be available for the first time in Argentina this July, reports EFE. The vaccine does not prevent cancer, however, it activates the body’s immune system in order to promote its destruction. The vaccine has also been approved in Cuba and is licensed to 25 countries in Asia and the Americas.

Cuba signs economic cooperation accords with China

Guo Jinlong, Secretary of China’s Communist Party, traveled to Cuba on an official visit, and signed several accords with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro to promote bilateral economic cooperation between the two countries, reports EFE. The agreements pledged economic cooperation in energy, tourism, transportation, industry, and biotechnology, reports Granma. For their cooperation in Cuba’s tourism sector, Cuba and China will establish joint ventures to complete the construction of golf courses in the Havana and Pinar del Río provinces. Other agreements include plans to cooperate in the biotechnology sector, with the development of monoclonal antibodies for cancer treatment.

Díaz-Canel meets with Syrian envoy in Havana

Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s First Vice President, met in Havana with Mohsen Bilal, a special envoy of Syria’s government, reports EFE. According to state television, both parties spoke about Syria’s current conflict, while Díaz-Canel reaffirmed “the right of the Syrian people to self-determination and sovereignty, without foreign interference or intervention of any kind.”

Jamaica enters new cultural cooperation and exchange agreement with Cuba

On Wednesday, the governments of Cuba and Jamaica signed a pact for cultural exchange and cooperation, reports Jamaica Observer. The agreement builds on an exchange agreement signed in the 1970s, and benefits youth in particular. It was signed by Lisa Hanna, Jamaica’s Minister of Youth and Culture, and Rafael Bernal, Cuba’s Minister of Culture.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Lawyers appeal ruling that dismissed Gross lawsuit; U.S. doctor to visit Gross in Cuba

Following a U.S. District Court decision to dismiss the lawsuit filed by imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan Gross against the U.S. government, his attorneys appealed the ruling, reports the Associated Press.   The court found that federal law immunized the government against suits based on injuries suffered in foreign countries.

Gross, who is currently in a military hospital, will be examined by a U.S. doctor, as per his family’s request, reports CNN. Following these developments, Cuba reiterated its willingness to negotiate over Gross, reports EFE. Johanna Tablada, Deputy Director of U.S. Affairs for Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, stated, “We are awaiting a response from the United States government. I would like there to be no doubt about that.”

U.S. froze $250 million of Cuban assets in 2012

The U.S. Treasury Department has issued its “Terrorist Assets Report” for 2012, which states that $245 million worth of funds and property linked to Cuba’s government or Cuban nationals were blocked by the Office of Foreign Assets Control. This figure is an increase of $4 million over what was reported in 2011.

Around the Region

Secretary Kerry and Venezuela’s Foreign Minister agree to talks to improve relations

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Elías Jaua, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, during the 2013 General Assembly of the Organization of American States in Antigua, Guatemala, where the two agreed to initiate talks to improve U.S.-Venezuela relations, reports the New York Times. Following the meeting, Secretary Kerry stated, “We agreed today, both of us, Venezuela and the United States, that we would like to see our countries find a new way forward, establish a more constructive and positive relationship,” and announced “that there will be an ongoing and continuing dialogue at a high level” between the two countries. For his part, Jaua also expressed optimism for the future of U.S.-Venezuela relations, remarking, “We have faith and confidence that this meeting marks the start of a relationship of respect.”

Secretary Kerry thanked Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, “for taking the step to meet here on the sidelines of this conference. I think it was a very important step,” reports Venezuela’s Embassy to the U.S. Also this week, Timothy Tracy, the U.S. filmmaker who had been jailed in Venezuela following the April 14 presidential election, was released and sent home to the U.S., reports the Los Angeles Times.

El Salvador Update May 2013, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Linda Garrett, CDA’s senior policy analyst, examines developments in El Salvador including a debate about the nation’s ban on abortion and the controversial gang truce that has resulted in an unprecedented drop in violence.   For more, also see Linda’s recent blog post: “El Salvador: Give Peace a Chance – Again.” Next week, CDA will be publishing a full chronology of the first year of the gang truce.

If you would like to receive the El Salvador Monthly Update via email, contact: ElSalvadorUpdate@democracyinamericas.org

U.S. suspends police cleanup aid to Honduras; row over mass police suspensions begins

The U.S. government has suspended aid to Honduras’ Police Career Investigation and Evaluation Office (DIECP), reports the Honduras Culture and Politics blog. The DIECP is tasked with leading an effort to weed out corruption, administering controversial “confidence” tests to Honduras’ police force. The constitutionality of the police investigation was questioned last year, creating a standoff between President Lobo and the Supreme Court and leading to the dismissal of four judges. Meanwhile, the clean-up efforts have been criticized for delays and a failure to dismiss officers who did not pass the test.

Taking note of the suspension of aid, El Tiempo also quoted a U.S. official expressing that the U.S. government has seen new, “positive signs” from the Lobo administration in its clean-up attempts. The Honduras Culture and Politics blog reports that Arturo Corrales, Honduras’ Security and Defense Minister, ordered that the National Department of Criminal Investigations (DNIC) be merged with the National Office of Special Investigation Services (DNSEI), and points to this development as reflecting a militarization of the country’s police force.

Police clean-up developments this week have also included the issuing of arrest warrants for five Honduran officers, charged with the extrajudicial killing of Barrio 18 gang members.

Ríos Montt re-trial set for April 2014

In the latest chapter in the continuing legal controversy surrounding the trial of Guatemala’s former dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s High Risk Trials Court (“B”) announced that following the annulment of his conviction and sentencing, the trial will resume in April of 2014, reports Siglo21. A trial court headed by Judge Yassmín Barrios convicted Ríos Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity on May 10, sentencing him to 80 years in prison. But, ten days later, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned the ruling, turning the clock on the trial back to April 19. Geoff Thale and Jo-Marie Burt at WOLA offer analysis of the current state of the Ríos Montt trial, in a piece called “The Guatemala Genocide Case: Using the Legal System to Defeat Justice.”

Recommended Reading

Jay-Z and Beyoncé tour stokes demand to visit Cuba, William E. Gibson, Sun Sentinel

William E. Gibson examines the dynamics of a growing demand for travel to Cuba. He notes that according to Insight Cuba, a company that specializes in organizing Cuba tours, inquiries into travel to the island and bookings for people-to-people trips have increased by 10 to 15% since Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s trip to Cuba.

Mesa-Lago: Raúl Castro ‘ha terminado con muchas medidas de Fidel que eran irracionales y fracasaron’, Diario de Cuba

Diario de Cuba reports on an interview given by Cuban economist and University of Pittsburgh professor emeritus Carmelo Mesa-Lago to El País. In it, Mesa-Lago says that Raúl Castro has “ended many of Fidel’s measures that were irrational and failed.” Further, he argues that Raúl Castro’s reforms are “the deepest, most sustained, and market-oriented carried out under the revolution, and considerably more advanced than [the reforms carried out by] Fidel between 1971-1985 and 1991-1996, which were then reversed.” Mesa-Lago goes on to weigh comparisons with China and Vietnamese models, as well as Cuba’s relationship with Venezuela.

Recommended Viewing

Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig hits grand slam for the Dodgers in fourth MLB appearance, MLB.com

Yasiel Puig, who was recruited by the Los Angeles Dodgers last August and made his first MLB appearance this past Monday, hit a grand slam Thursday night against the Atlanta Braves. Cuban Americans For Engagement (CAFÉ), posted a statement in response: “We should keep asking the Cuban and the American governments for changes that allow Cuban players to come to the leagues without any political condition (living in the island, for example, should not be a problem to play in the U.S and take their money back to the island) and also for ending Cuban policies that impose limits to the participation in the national and provincial teams of Cuban athletes in other countries.”

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