The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) covertly created “ZunZuneo”—a Cuban version of the online messaging network Twitter—to cause civil unrest in Cuba, the Associate Press reported on Thursday. The program functioned through cell phone messaging to avoid the Cuban government’s controls over internet use, and planned to build a network that could mobilize quickly and potentially “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society."
The program was activated in 2010 shortly after USAID subcontractor Alan Gross was arrested for distributing communications equipment in Cuba. It ended in 2012 and, at its peak, drew more than 40,000 Cuban subscribers. According to the Cuban press, ZunZuneo disappeared suddenly in 2012 when its funding ran out, and its users were unaware that the network had any ties to the U.S. government.
White House spokesman Jay Carney has denied that the program was covert, stating that it was “discrete” in order to ensure long-term success of the mission and that it was debated in Congress. According to Carney’s statement, the White House supports "efforts to help Cuban citizens communicate more easily with one another and with the outside world."
Cuba Approves New Foreign Investment Law: The Cuban government on Saturday unanimously approved a law that provides new incentives for foreign investment in the island. The law will reduce taxes on profits from 30 to 15 percent in most areas, will speed up the approval process for foreign investment, and will exempt new investors from paying taxes for eight years, among other incentives. The government hopes that the new law, which will come into force in three months, will help triple the country’s economic growth. However, the law will not become official until the full text is published in the Gazeta Oficial, which is expected to happen sometime this week.
Troops Clear Venezuelan Protest City: Venezuelan troops retook control of the western city of San Cristóbal this weekend, according to a top military commander. General Vladimir Padrino said that troops cleared barricades throughout the city and reported that no one was hurt in the operation. Meanwhile, San Cristóbal’s mayor, opposition member Daniel Ceballos, has been removed from office and sentenced to 12 months in prison for failing to order the removal of the barricades himself. The countrywide protests began in San Cristóbal nearly two months ago, and since then, at least 39 people have been killed. Last Friday, the Vatican said that it was willing to help facilitate a dialogue between the Venezuelan government and the opposition to resolve the crisis.
Solís Lacks Opponent in Costa Rican Presidential Runoff: Costa Rican presidential candidate Luis Guillermo Solís still has no opponent in Sunday’s presidential runoff between the ruling Partido de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Party—PLN) and Solis’ Partido de Acción Ciudadana (Citizen Action Party—PAC). PLN candidate Johnny Araya dropped out of the race on March 5 due to financial troubles and a poor showing in the polls, where PAC candidate Solís enjoyed a 44 percent lead. However, Araya’s name will still remain on the ballot, and he said he would accept the presidency if voters gave him a majority—though Solís’ victory seems assured.
Brazilian Troops Occupy Maré Favela: Brazilian security forces raided the Maré favela in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday in an effort to take control of the neighborhood, which is home to 130,000 people. More than 1,000 troops entered with tanks and reportedly took control of the area in 15 minutes, seizing guns and drugs. But later that day, more violence erupted between rival gangs, a 15-year-old boy died, and three other people were taken to a hospital. Maré is located near Galeão/ Antônio Carlos Jobim International Airport, a major transit hub that will bring thousands of tourists into the country for the FIFA World Cup in June.
Chinese Mining Company Halts Toromocho Project in Peru: Chinalco Mining Corp. International has halted its operations at the Toromocho copper project after the national environmental agency said on March 28 that the company had failed to adhere to environmental standards. Inspections carried out by the Organismo de Evaluación y Fiscalización Ambiental (Environmental Evaluation and Fiscalization Organism—OEFA) earlier this month detected contaminants in Lake Huacrococha and Lake Huascacocha, which are located near the mine. Mining work, which began in December 2013, will be suspended until the issues are resolved.
The Cuban Council of State called an extraordinary session of the National Assembly in order to debate and approve a new foreign investment law on Saturday, March 29, the state-run Granma newspaper announced Wednesday.
The new law is meant to replace that current cumbersome 1995 law that requires foreign companies to pay both a profit tax and a labor tax and is seen as a part of massive reforms taken under President Raúl Castro to aid the ailing Cuban economy. Along with the upgrading of the Mariel Port and the creation of the Special Development Zone that will exempt businesses from the 12 percent profit tax for 10 years, the Communist Party Congress approved over 300 economic reforms in 2011, including moving 20 percent of state workers into the non-state sector and authorizing the sale of homes and cars.
While details of the law remained unclear, it is expected to make Cuba more attractive to investors who have pulled out of the island over the past 12 years due in part to Cuba’s burdensome tax system. Cuba’s economy only grew 2.7 percent in 2013, and with its commercial relationship with Venezuela at risk due to ongoing protests in the South American country, the Cuban economy could contract 4 to 7.7 percent this year.
As tensions between the United States and Russia over the future of the Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula continue to rise, Moscow officials may look to beef up their country’s stronghold in Latin America.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced on February 26 that his country is planning to expand its long-standing military presence in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, possibly bringing the U.S. and Russia’s icy diplomatic standoff into the Western Hemisphere.
Although Shoigu mentioned that Russia would also boost its armed presence in Vietnam, Singapore, the Seychelles and several other countries, Moscow’s anticipated embankment in Latin America will surely be perceived as a threat to U.S. defense policymakers.
“The talks are under way, and we are close to signing the relevant documents,” Shoigu said in a press conference in Moscow. “We need bases for refueling near the equator, and in other places,” he explained.
It is still unclear, however, whether Russia will construct new Moscow-owned bases in the proposed countries. Russia may only seek permission from already-existing naval defense ports to increase its access to military stations with refueling, maintenance and repair capabilities. The country’s only naval base outside the country is located in Tartus, Syria.
The United States released the second member of a group of five Cuban prisoners—known as the “Cuban Five”—from an Arizona prison on Thursday. Fernando González, 54, was convicted in 2001 of spying on military bases and Cuban exiles in South Florida, and is expected to be deported back to Cuba within days.
René González, a native of Chicago with dual citizenship, was the first member of the group to be freed in 2011, and returned to Cuba last year. The other members, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labaniño, will complete their terms in 2017 and 2024, respectively. The last member, Gerardo Hernández, is serving a double life sentence for conspiracy to commit murder after two planes flown by a Cuban exile group, Brothers to the Rescue, were shot down in 1996.
Over the last decade, the “Cuban Five” have been at the center of diplomatic tensions between the U.S. government and the Castro regime. The Cuban government allegedly offered to release the jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross in exchange for the freedom of the five Cuban prisoners, but Washington rejected the deal, saying that Gross did not engage in any intelligence-gathering on the island. The Cuban government jailed Gross on charges of committing crimes against the state, and he remains in prison.
González’ release comes two weeks after a national poll found that the majority of Americans support normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations.
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Florida sugar magnate Alfonso Fanjul said he is ready to do business with Cuba “under the right circumstances.” The questions are: “what are the right circumstances?" and “who benefits when American companies ‘do business’ with communist Cuba?”
The Fanjul family left Cuba in 1959 when Fidel Castro confiscated all of its holdings. Eventually settling in Florida, the family rebuilt their lives and fortunes, benefitting from the price supports extended to American-grown sugar by Congress, and Fanjul corporations are now international in scope.
As reported in The Post, Alfonso Fanjul’s comments and meetings with Cuban government officials were promptly condemned by Cuban-American members of Congress who didn’t hesitate to point out that the interview included no discussion of the absence of civil liberties and labor and human rights in Cuba that foreign corporations already exploit.
Foreign companies “doing business” in Cuba are best described as “minority partners” of the Cuban government. Such companies don’t “do business” with Cuban entrepreneurs, they “do business” with the Cuban government, which obligingly “rents” those companies a compliant, uncomplaining labor force.
Cuba’s government sets the rental price that companies pay to the government. In turn, the government pays the employees somewhat less (usually a lot less), and keeps the difference. Complaining employees are fired —not by the company, but by the government—and replaced by someone “willing to work.” This is how Cuban communism works and finances the repression that sustains it.
As the two-day CELAC Summit closed in Havana at the end of January, leaders of the 33 Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) nations that compose this body adopted a triumphant pose for the assembled photographers.
Why the celebratory atmosphere? One might be forgiven for thinking it was connected to the various grand ambitions articulated at the summit–the second since CELAC was created in 2011–in the spheres of education, disaster management, combating corruption and similar hot-button regional issues. But as far as the leaders present were concerned, the greatest triumph was in declaring CELAC a "zone of peace."
"Peace," in this case, is understood as "non-interference." In the words of the summit declaration, each CELAC member state has the "inalienable right to choose its political, economic, social and cultural system as an essential condition to guarantee peaceful co-existence among nations." (My emphasis.)
Put another way, if you are running a one-party state, like the Cubans, or a mafia state that fixes elections, like the Venezuelans, you have nothing to fear. It's perverse, but it's true: even leaders of strong democracies, like Costa Rica, have had the temerity to adopt the language of rights in order to rationalize and justify their silence about the denial of rights to the opposition in non-democratic countries!
I’m not a betting man, but if I were, this is what I’d bet. With a series of statements by leading Cuban-Americans, stories of change inside the island, and growing public pressure and attention to liberalize the U.S. embargo toward Cuba, I’d wager that soon the Cuban government will do something to halt the process.
Further, I’d wager that when it does, hardliners in Congress and the dwindling number of groups that advocate for the embargo will react predictably: denouncing those who argued for more freedom in the restrictions as naïve, and insisting that now is not the time to open up—that in fact, now is the time to close down even those small, but effective, openings that have already been made.
Why do I think this? Because this has been the pattern for decades, whether it was the regime’s crackdown on the broad-based alliance of democratic activists, Concilio Cubano, in February 1996, in the tragic shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes that same year, or the arrest of USAID contractor Alan Gross in 2009.
In each of these cases, talk of easing the embargo had grown just before the act of aggression by the Cuban government. And in each case, hardliners responded to ensure that the Cuban government got what it needs—isolation.
A new poll by the Atlantic Council released yesterday found that a majority of Americans are now in favor of stabilizing U.S.-Cuba relations. Of those sampled nationwide, six out of 10 said they favor policy changes that would allow more business transactions between the two countries, as well as the lifting of restrictions that don’t allow Americans to travel and spend money in Cuba as a result of the embargo.
According to the poll, 56 percent of Americans favor changes in U.S.-Cuba policy. Sixty-three percent of adults in Florida—which holds the largest concentration of Cuban-Americans in the country—and 62 percent of Latinos favor removal of all travel restrictions. Although support is stronger among Democrats, the poll found that 52 percent of Republicans are also in favor of normalizing relations with the country. Sixty-one percent of Americans, and 67 percent of Floridians, also believe that Cuba should not be considered a state sponsor of terrorism.
The poll points to growing disapproval of the U.S.’s economic embargo on Cuba, which has been condemned by the international community 22 years in a row. The trade embargo aimed to collapse the Castro government more than 50 years ago, but has been unsuccessful.
“The Cuba embargo is hampering the United States’ ability to maximize cooperation with allies in the hemisphere at a moment when there is increasing stability, growth, and opportunity,” says the report. Based on the findings, the poll suggests that although the U.S. should demand reciprocal gestures from the Cuban government, such as the release of imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross, naming a special envoy for Cuba could be a first sign by the Obama Administration of its willingness to begin deepen ties with the country.
The thirty-three countries that make up the Latin America and Caribbean Economic Community (CELAC), wrapped up their second summit by declaring the region a “zone of peace,” on Wednesday. Heads of state including Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, and recently elected Michelle Bachelet of Chile signed an accord vowing to resolve conflicts respectfully and peacefully.
According to the summit declaration, the meeting provides an opportunity for coordination within the region and emphasizes the need for pluralistic and respectful cooperation. This year’s summit highlighted issues of crime, economic hardship and inequality in the region, the potential economic benefit of free trade, and support for Argentina’s claims over the Falkland Islands.
The summit culminated with a commitment to non-intervention, cooperation and respect of "the inalienable right of every state to choose its political, economic, social, and cultural system, as an essential condition to guarantee peaceful co-existence among nations," read Cuban President Raul Castro, outgoing CELAC president.
CELAC was created in 2011 as an alternative to the Organization of American States, which has excluded Cuba since 1962. Costa Rica will assume the CELAC’s rotating presidency at the end of the summit.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.