Raúl Castro’s government faces a number of critical issues, including the deteriorating health of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the potential loss of his oil and Cubans' impatience with the government’s timid economic reforms. Who would have thought that a slight, humble woman of 37 years figured among them?
Yet the actions of the Cuban government and their sympathizers in Brazil have proved that despite looming economic and political problems, they clearly consider Yoani Sánchez one of their biggest challenges. The question is, why?
Despite the fact that Cuba has one of the lowest rates of access to the Internet in the world, Sánchez has a following of more than half a million outside Cuba. She is emblematic of a generation disaffected with the revolution and its legacy. She is not the only one. She is one of a whole group of bloggers, many of them women, who have taken to the Internet to complain about the daily indignities of living in Cuba today.
In spite of receiving awards for her journalism from Europe and the United States, the Cuban regime had consistently denied Sánchez the right to leave the island. But then this year, the Castro government instituted a new travel policy that grants to Cubans—with some exceptions—the right to travel out of the country (a right enjoyed by people in most countries). So far so good, right?
A few days ago, Yoani Sánchez arrived at her stop, Brazil. There her greeting party consisted of Cuban government-organized demonstrators that have—at almost every appearance—threatened her and tried to prevent her from speaking. It must have felt like home, since the use of government thugs to intimidate and physically threaten dissidents is a common occurrence in Cuba.
A delegation of U.S. lawmakers led by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) returned from Cuba on Wednesday without jailed USAID subcontractor Alan Gross. The seven-member delegation left for Cuba on Monday with the intent of freeing Gross, who was arrested in 2009 for bringing communications equipment as part of a "democracy-promotion program" and is currently serving a 15-year sentence.
The lawmakers-including Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) from Gross' district in Maryland-met with Gross in prison, though they did not comment on his condition. The delegation also met with President Raúl Castro for three hours, according to Cuban government sources. Sen. Leahy said afterward that he and Castro "discussed the continuing obstacles and the need to improve relations," adding that that a rapprochement "is in the interest of both countries." The group also met with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla and Parliament President Ricardo Alarcón.
Other delegation members included Senators Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA). Cuban officials have made it clear that there will be no progress on freeing Gross until the Cuban agents imprisoned in the U.S. for treason, known as the "Cuban Five," are let go. Despite the political stalemate and the unmoving embargo, engagement between high-level government officials from both countries can create opportunities for changing otherwise static policy.
Renowned Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez began an 80-day international tour on Monday, after receiving her passport with the relaxation of travel restrictions that eliminated exit visas for Cuban citizens. Sánchez arrived in the Brazilian coastal city of Recife for a screening of Conexión Cuba Honduras (Cuba-Honduras Connection), a documentary featuring her life and work directed by filmmaker Dado Galvao who begun the fundraising campaign to fly Sánchez to Brazil.
Despite overwhelming support from bloggers and local activists, Sánchez’ visit encountered some resistance as a group of protesters backing the Cuban government blocked the screening of the film and called her a “mercenary.” Sánchez expressed her disappointment, but acknowledged that she was expecting the situation.
After her visit to Brazil, Sánchez will attend the Inter-American Press Association’s (IAPA) conference in Puebla, México, where she will present her first report as vice chair for Cuba in IAPA’s Press Freedom Committee. She will later travel to the U.S. in March to participate in “The Revolution Recodified”, a symposium on digital culture and the public sphere in Cuba that will take place in New York City between March 15-17. Sánchez is also expected to travel to Washington DC and Miami, followed by trips to the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Peru, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
After five decades of restricted travel for Cuban citizens, Sánchez’ trip is seen as a test for the new Cuban law. Still she noted that it “seems like the reform we dream of, that of freedom of association and expression is still far away.”
No sooner had Cuban President Raúl Castro returned to Havana from Chile, where he was sworn in as the new president of the Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—CELAC), than Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders—RSF) repeated his own words back to him. The French-based NGO released a letter Monday urging the Cuban leader to release journalists currently held in Cuban prisons and called on Castro to reject, in Cuba, the “aggression, threats and use of force” he mentioned during his CELAC acceptance speech.
During the CELAC summit, Castro had said he had “total respect for international law and the United Nations Charter.” In response, RSF requested “that these undertakings quickly be given concrete expression in your own country.”
RSF applauded Cuba’s migration law reforms, which took effect on January 14. “It means that Cubans who want to travel abroad no longer need an exit permit and are guaranteed the right to return,” the group said, though they demanded that the new reforms be applied to all citizens without distinction, including dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, who recently obtained a passport. RSF said that Sánchez “must be allowed to return at the end of the regional trip she plans to begin soon.”
“The door should also be open for all the journalists and dissidents who want to come back after being forced into exile, and for all those in Cuba who would now like to travel,” RSF said.
Top stories this week are likely to include: Cubans re-elect President Raúl Castro in one-party elections; Argentine Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman travels to London; Paraguay investigates the death of Lino Oviedo; Argentina reacts to the IMF after being censured; Mexican authorities conclude rescue efforts after PEMEX explosion.
Parliamentary Elections Begin in Cuba: Cuba’s nearly 8.5 million voters went to the polls yesterday to elect 612 national assembly members and members of the country’s 15 provincial assemblies in the country’s one-party elections. Eighty-six year-old revolutionary leader Fidel Castro—who had not been seen in public since October—made a surprise appearance at the polls on Sunday to cast his vote in Havana’s El Vedado neighborhood. His brother, Cuban President Raúl Castro, was re-elected for a second five-year term—his last, if the president’s decision last year to introduce two term limits is upheld. "This parliament will be in place at an important time in the history of the revolution; though they likely will not have the power or diversity to positively affect the course of reforms or leadership changes," says Christopher Sabatini, Editor-in-Chief of Americas Quarterly.
Argentine Foreign Minister Declines to Meet with Falkland Islanders: With little over a month before Falkland/Malvinas Islanders vote in a March 10 referendum on their island's political status, Argentine Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman has arrived in London to make the case that the disputed islands belong to Argentina. Timerman will make a presentation at the Argentine Embassy in London to discredit the upcoming referendum, in which the islanders are expected to affirm that they are British. Timerman had originally planned to meet with British Foreign Secretary William Hague in a bilateral meeting, but he declined the invitation after Britain insisted that representatives of the island’s government also be present.
Paraguay Investigates Death of Presidential Candidate Lino Oviedo: Paraguayan President Federico Franco has declared three days of national mourning after third-party candidate Lino Oviedo was killed along with his pilot and bodyguard in a helicopter crash late on Saturday. The cause of the crash, which witnesses say was accompanied by an explosion, has not yet been determined, but authorities have called the death an accident. However, members of Oviedo’s Unión Nacional de Colorados Éticos (National Union of Ethical Citizens—UNACE) party have demanded an investigation into whether the politician was assassinated. Oviedo was a retired general who helped overthrow Paraguayan dictator General Alfredo Stroessner, and was also charged with organizing a failed coup in 1996 against former Paraguayan President Juan Carlos Wasmosy, for which Oviedo served time in prison.
Argentina's Next Steps After IMF Censure: Last Friday, Argentina became the first nation to be censured by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for its widely-disputed inflation data, which the national statistics agency reports at 10.8 percent. Argentine Minister of the Economy Hernán Lorenzo reacted to the fund’s decision by saying that his country is being punished for “protecting national industry and jobs, financing itself without the markets, and saying ‘no’ to vulture funds.” According to the IMF, Argentina must address "inaccurate data" by Sept. 29, 2013 to avoid suspension. If the country fails to comply with the IMF by implementing remedial measures such as creation of a new consumer price index, Argentina faces further sanctions, which could include suspension of voting rights or expulsion.
Investigation of Thursday's Pemex Blast Continues: Mexican authorities will continue to investigate the cause of the blast that killed at least 36 workers at a Pemex office complex in Mexico City on Thursday. The death toll rose on Sunday as rescue workers found three more bodies over the weekend, but it now appears that rescuers are concluding their efforts to search for survivors—though one woman who worked as a secretary at the office remains missing. Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam declined to say on Friday whether the explosion was an accident, due to negligence, or part of an attack, but he added that there should be more information available in the coming days.
A new law went into effect on Monday ending the requirement for Cuban citizens to have a government permit and an invitation letter from abroad when applying for a passport. With anticipation growing since the measure was first announced last October, thousands of Cubans formed lines at consulates throughout Havana, including the U.S. Interest Section, to apply for foreign visas.
The new law is not likely to result in a mass exodus of Cubans off of the island, however. The government can still deny passport requests by those deemed risks public safety or national defense. It can also limit travel by professionals considered vital to Cuba, including military officers, scientists and world-class athletes. Still, the end of the unpopular exit visa—in place since 1959—is a major reform of the regime’s stringent travel policy. "There is a palpable concern among some government officials about this process of reform getting a little out of control, that it's slipping out of their hands," says Christopher Sabatini.
Many foreign governments are watching Cuba closely, to see how the law will play out. "We will see if this is implemented in a very open way, and if it means that all Cubans can travel," said Roberta Jacobson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. One of the first Cubans in line to apply for a visa on Monday morning was dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, who says she has been denied an exit visa 20 times in recent years.
In addition to doing away with the exit visa, the law also increases the amount of time Cubans can spend abroad without losing residency rights at home, from 11 months to two years. The move is believed to be an attempt to increase the flow of remittances, which have become a lifeline for Cuba’s ailing economy.
This is a rush, unedited transcript of the presidential debate on foreign policy at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida on October 22, 2012:
Welcome and thanks, 50 years after the Cuban missile crisis and as a segue I want to ask about...Libya...talking point...Afghanistan in 2014, maybe, maybe not...talking point...Iraq!...horses and bayonets...Iran will never get nukes...talking point...the 1980s called and they want their foreign policy back...talking point...you want to cut defense...do not...do too...sequestration will NOT happen...liar, liar, pants on fire...talking point...Iran will NOT get nukes...the U.S. economy is bad...it’s better...it’s worse...I know how to fix it...you have never done foreign policy...Iran!...China is a big country far away, they do bad things to their money, it hurts us...it helps your off-shored investments...yours too...talking point...we are the world’s beacon of hope...did I mention Iran?...please vote for me...please vote for me.
This is only an approximation of how the “foreign policy” debate went. Still, the evening was a play for undecided voters in swing states—with the economy as the hook. An outside observer would be hard-pressed to believe that U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century had to do with anything beyond the Middle East; Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel, Libya, Iran, Iraq, and Syria were all discussed at some length over the course of 90 minutes. What about Europe? China was debated briefly at the end, and received what seemed like cursory attention especially since much of the viewing audience had long gone over to watch baseball and football games. Governor Mitt Romney purposefully brought Latin America into the mix on the trade and economic front, but the issues were not pursued and were quickly dropped.
Nuclear proliferation? Global climate change? The South China Sea? Japan? The use of force? Nothing.
On Tuesday the Cuban government announced that on January 14, 2013 it will remove one of the most visible and anachronistic symbols of the Castro regime: prohibitions on its citizens traveling outside the island. The question—as with all the recent reforms announced in Cuba—will be how much and how quickly. Little discussed though is also what it will mean for the United States’ own perverse and anti-democratic policies governing U.S. travel to the island.
The change, promised by Raul Castro earlier this year, lifts the 50-year requirement that Cuban citizens have a government-issued exit visa to travel abroad. It’s worth stopping here briefly to reflect on how bizarre the policy is in today’s hemisphere. Imagine any other democratic government autocratically selecting which of its citizens can leave its borders. And the Cuban regime exercised this rule with repressive precision, regularly denying exit visas to political opponents including denying independent blogger Yoani Sanchez an exit visa 20 times in the last five years.
Despite the expectations it raised in Cuba, it’s unlikely that the change will actually allow full freedom of travel. The announcement promised that all that will be necessary to travel overseas is a Cuban passport and—in cases where required—a visa from the country to be visited. But a closer look between the lines reveals that the Cuban government will still retain the right to deny individuals from leaving the country for several reasons including for “national security”—a loophole large enough to permit the Cuban government to prevent democratic opponents (which it often labels as threats to national security) from leaving its borders. In short, no different from what exists now.
Yet as with all things on U.S.-Cuban relations, the bizarreness doesn’t just exist on one side of the Florida Straits. U.S. policy toward Cuba remains frozen in time as well, and with special exceptions and status not enjoyed by other countries. For one, the U.S. maintains a travel restriction that prevents U.S. citizens from traveling to Cuba without a U.S. government license. (Sound familiar?) Cuba is the only country under which there is a specific law that denies U.S. citizens the right to travel to a specific country.
A Cuban jury will release this week the verdict from the trial against the young Spanish politician Ángel Carromero, which took place last Friday in Bayamo, in the southeastern province of Granma. Carromero is accused of vehicular manslaughter, after the car that he was driving on July 22 crashed and killed two Cuban dissidents: the prominent 60-year-old Oswaldo Payá along with Harold Cepero, 27.
The trial gained additional notoriety when the well-known Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez was detained on her way to the courthouse and released 30 hours later.
The international repercussions of the accident have been limited, but it has been recognized as a diplomatic crisis between Madrid and Havana.
The Castro regime is trying to use Carromero, leader of the youth wing of Spain's ruling Partido Popular, to spotlight European involvement with the opposition, especially since Madrid has always taken the lead on Cuba in the European Union. The incident is also being used to start the first political crisis with Spain’s conservative government in the era of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Top stories this week are likely to include: UNGA high-level meetings get underway; Enrique Peña Nieto concludes Latin America tour; mining strike continues in Bolivia; Federico Franco and Mariano Rajoy discuss Ibero-American Summit; and Evo Morales visits Cuba.
UNGA High-Level Meetings Kick Off: The sixty-seventh session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) began last week, and this week the focus shifts to a series of high-level meetings along with general debate among the many heads of state representing the United Nations’ 193 member-countries. The high-level meeting on the rule of law takes place today at the New York secretariat. General debate begins tomorrow morning with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff delivering the first address for the second consecutive year.
Peña Nieto Concludes LatAm Tour: Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto will arrive home today after completing a six-country tour through Latin America in advance of his December 1 inauguration. Peña Nieto visited Guatemala, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru. In his most recent stop, Peña Nieto and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala agreed yesterday to strengthen ties on public security issues, particularly in the fight against organized crime and drug trafficking. The Mexican president-elect called for strengthening the Pacific Alliance and will round out his tour by meeting with 180 Peruvian businessmen today to discuss ways to boost trade ties. “This was a successful trip for Peña Nieto to show the leadership that his government wants to take in the hemisphere and how he will aim to collaborate on key issues for Mexico,” notes AQ Senior Editor Jason Marczak.
Mining Strike in Bolivia: In the escalating standoff this month between the Bolivian government and cooperative-member miners over the Colquiri tin and zinc mine, perhaps this week could see a development. Although the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (Union Federation of Miners in Bolivia) broke off talks on Saturday with a delegation sent by Bolivian President Evo Morales, Minister of Government Carlos Romero called for further dialogue over the rights to Colquiri. The Bolivian government expropriated the mine from a Swiss company in June 2012.
Franco, Rajoy to Discuss Ibero-American Summit: Paraguayan President Federico Franco and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will meet on the sidelines of UNGA in New York this week to discuss the status of Paraguay’s presence at the Ibero-American Summit to be held in Cádiz, Spain in November. Given Paraguay’s suspension from Mercosur and Unasur in response to the impeachment of former President Fernando Lugo, it was revealed that a Spanish diplomat traveled to Asunción recently to dissuade Paraguay from participating in the summit in the hope that Argentina would attend. Look for developments from the Rajoy-Franco discussion this week.
Evo Morales Visits Cuba: Bolivian President Evo Morales made an unannounced stop in Havana enroute to New York for the UNGA, where he was greeted by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez according to Cuban state television. Today, Morales receives a doctorate degree, honoris causa, in political science from the University of Havana.