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.
U.S. acting deputy assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, Edward Alex Lee, and Cuban director-general of the U.S. Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, met in Havana on Thursday to discuss accords on safe, legal and orderly migration between the two countries.
This was the second meeting on migration between the two parties since July 2013, aimed at examining the status of accords signed by both governments in 1994 and 1995. The accords were put into place to combat illegal immigration and smuggling, after the Cuban government allowed thousands to leave the island on makeshift rafts prompting the balsero crisis of 1994. The discussions were suspended by President George W. Bush in 2003 and again in 2011 after Cuba sentenced American USAID contractor Allan Gross to 15 years in prison.
Cuban representatives criticized the U.S.’ “wet foot, dry foot policy,” which gives asylum to Cubans who reach U.S shores, saying that it is the main cause for illegal departure of Cuban citizens to the United States. The U.S. issued 24,727 Cuban immigrant visas in 2013.
The meeting took place in a “respectful environment” according to a statement released by the Cuban government on Thursday. They also expressed willingness to continue dialogue around issues of mutual interest between the two countries, including resuming direct postal service. The Obama administration has stated that the talks do not imply changes in U.S-Cuba policy, but will only ensure safe migration.
The Cuban government announced yesterday that it will be loosening restrictions on the purchase of new and used foreign-made cars. Under the new policy, Cubans will no longer need a permit issued by the Transportation Ministry to purchase cars from state vendors.
Until 2011, Cubans could only buy and sell cars made before 1959. But the new regulations approved by the Council of Ministers on Wednesday will “eliminate existing mechanisms of approval for the purchase of motor vehicles from the state,” according to state newspaper Granma. As a result, the paper reported that “the retail sale of new and used motorcycles, cars, vans, small trucks and mini buses for Cubans and foreign residents, companies and diplomats is freed up.”
Despite the change in policy, the Cuban government will maintain its monopoly on the sale of all cars on the island. According to Bert Hoffman of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, this will cause car prices to remain high due to lack of competition in the market.
The change in policy comes in the context of Cuba’s reforms—knows as the lineamientos (guidelines)—which are led by President Raúl Castro and are meant to modernize the socialist regime’s struggling economy.
On Saturday nights in central Havana, a scene unfolds that defies stereotypes on this communist island famous for its salsa, strong rum and revolutionary heroes.
With the hiss of a fog machine, the country’s iconic rock star, Diony Arce, emerges from the darkness inside a local theater. He grabs a microphone and launches into a gut-wrenching scream that echoes through this quiet, residential neighborhood.
Diony is the lead singer of Zeus—the gods of Cuban metal. As the loud, abrasive music kicks in, this crowd of several hundred young fans unleashes a pent up flood of emotion.
They violently push and pull at each other while shouting up to Diony to play their favorite songs.
“Vamos a la Silla Electrica!”—“Violento Metrobus!”—“Viven en Mí!”
Diony and the band have performed in Havana since the 1980s. They’re the longest-running metal band in the country and they have the scars to prove it.
When the band first started performing, this American-influenced music was officially banned by the Castro government. It was seen as "music of the enemy." Long-haired, tattooed rockers—or “freakies”—were thrown in jail, and concerts were broken up by state police.
Thirty years later this music is accepted, but only within the official Agencia Cubana de Rock (Cuban Agency of Rock), a government institution overseeing the country’s rock scene. Formed in 2007, the Agency has created a space for rock bands to perform their music and gather crowds without worry of police crackdowns. The trade-off, however, is a government system managing the freedom of artists.
This small opening for rock music is a sign of the changing reality in Cuba, but it is also a difficult compromise for the country's artists.
The Cuban Mission to the United States halted nearly all consular services on Tuesday after its primary bank severed its client relationship with the political institution. According to the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, consular services including passport and visa processes will be shut down in the U.S. until the Cuban Mission can find a new bank, though humanitarian cases will continue to be processed.
M&T Bank, which formerly managed the Cuban Mission’s accounts, informed clients in in July that it would stop providing services to all foreign missions. The Interests Section blamed the Mission’s difficulty in finding a new bank on restrictions stemming from the U.S. economic embargo. It also warned that the suspension could have a negative impact on cultural and family visits to the island, as well as on Cubans who are not U.S. citizens but live in the U.S. and need to update their passports regularly through the Mission.
The U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, and has maintained the embargo on Cuba since the early 1960s. Tuesday’s news comes only one week after U.S. Secretary of State Kerry implored Havana to do more to foster personal freedoms on the island in a speech to the Organization of American States. Sec. Kerry added that the U.S. is “committed to human interchange,” referring to the people-to-people exchanges allowed under 2010 policy reforms.
Cuba approved a plan to gradually unify its dual monetary system, a statement carried by official newspaper Granma revealed yesterday. The measure is part of a set of reforms adopted by the Communist Party in 2011 aimed at introducing market mechanisms and decentralizing the Cuban economy. "(Unification) is imperative to guarantee the reestablishment of the Cuban peso's value and its role as money, that is as a unit of accounting, means of payment and savings," the official statement said.
Cuba has had two currencies since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1994 when the country introduced the U.S. dollar as its second currency. Cuba's monetary system currently consists of the peso (CUP)—in which most wages are paid and local goods are priced—and the convertible peso (CUC), used in the tourism industry and foreign trade. Introduced in 2004, the CUC is pegged to the U.S. dollar and is currently valued at 25 pesos at exchange offices. However, companies must exchange dollars and CUCs with the government at the official exchange rate of one peso.
Last July, Cuban President Raúl Castro recognized that the dual currency is one of the “greatest obstacles for the country’s progress.” The system greatly complicates accounting, the evaluation of performance, and trade in the island. It is also very unpopular as sought-after imported goods—such as toothpaste and cooking oil—are far from reach to those who earn their salaries in pesos.
According to Cuban economists, the unification of the two currencies will take up to 18 months, and will involve devaluing the CUC and slightly revaluing the peso. The government has not provided a timetable for the reforms, but it has already begun adjusting the official exchange rate by allowing some companies to exchange dollars earned abroad for up to 12 pesos instead of one. The Cuban central bank has pledged it will back both currencies during the process to give Cubans enough time to convert their savings.
The Brazilian government intends to hire 4,000 Cuban doctors by the end of 2014 through its newly established Programa Mais Médicos (More Doctors Program). An initial group of 400 doctors arrived in late August from Cuba, through a cooperation agreement brokered by the Pan-American Health Organization between the governments of Cuba and Brazil. The doctors will be sent to rural municipalities in the North and Northeast regions of Brazil, where systemic poverty and low rates of human development persist. These municipalities have been unsuccessful in attracting Brazilian and other foreign medical professionals who enrolled in the Mais Médicos Program but who are unwilling to work in the impoverished communities.
Criticisms of the Programa Mais Médicos are prevalent in Brazil. The Ministério da Saúde (Ministry of Health) has been criticized for indirectly hiring Cuban doctors through a brokered agreement with foreign government agencies, rather than hiring them individually. Contrary to foreign doctors who are in private practice in Brazil, Cuban doctors enrolled in the public health program will only receive 25 to 40 percent of their monthly salary), the rest of which will be sent directly to the Cuban government.
On August 23, the Associação Médica Brasileira (Brazilian Medical Association—AMB) and the Conselho Federal de Medicina (Federal Council of Medicine—CFM) filed a joint lawsuit in the Supremo Tribunal Federal (Federal Supreme Court—STF) to suspend the program, claiming that the Cuban doctors’ medical practice in the country was illegal. The AMB and CFM require foreign doctors to be certified by the Exame Nacional de Revalidação de Diplomas (National Diploma Revalidation Exam) in order to practice medicine in Brazil, a condition that was not u the Cuban doctors participating in Mais Médicos. Critics argue that disregard for the legal framework governing medical practice will have negative implications for the quality of health care in Brazil, and say that the entry of foreign professionals to the domestic market will not compensate for existing deficiencies in the Brazilian health care system.
Padilha responded to criticism of the program by saying that it generates controversy because it is "bold and courageous." In an interview on August 24 at a health center in the Estrutural favela of Brasília, he said the decision to hire foreign doctors is legally sound: "The government has won every legal action. We have a great deal of legal security in what we are doing. [Medical professionals] can criticize and now make suggestions on how to make improvements, but they will not threaten the health of our population, which lacks doctors."
Next up on the world’s stage of Theater of the Absurd: Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro. Like his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, Maduro has as his mentors—in things big and small—Fidel and Raul Castro of Cuba. Always the masters of deception, the Castro brothers were caught red-handed this summer trying to ship weapons to North Korea. Now it is Maduro whom might have been caught red-handed, or should we say “red-faced,” trying to sneak Cuban intelligence agents into the United States.
Maduro had planned a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. He never made it. Traveling on Cubana Airlines with a Venezuelan delegation that included his wife, son and daughter-in-law, a hair dresser and a bevy of Cuban security experts carrying Venezuelan passports, his plane landed in Canada for refueling, on a return flight from China. ABC, Madrid’s daily broke the story reporting that the United States denied visas to the Cubans, part of Maduro’s entourage. But according to U.S. government sources, what happened was that Maduro ordered his aircraft “to turn away when the US wouldn’t give them assurances that they would not be denied entry.” The State Department spokesman said that “No visas have been denied for the Venezuelan delegation to this year’s UN General Assembly.”
Maduro left in a fury vowing retaliation and “drastic actions.” Caracas’ El Universal quoted Maduro saying that “he dropped his trip to New York in order to safeguard his physical integrity.” El Universal also reported that the Venezuelan president “fingered former US officials Roger Noriega and Otto Reich for allegedly planning ‘a provocation’”. The possibility of Noriega and Reich, two Republican political appointees, directing any initiative of any kind by the Obama administration is zilch.
There was also some speculation that the Venezuelans feared the Cuban 767 would be seized, as Cuban vessels have been detained in various foreign countries in the past due to Havana’s failures to fulfill financial obligations.
Likely top stories this week: Gay marriage begins in Uruguay; Venezuela is not invited to the Paraguayan president’s inauguration; Amnesty International demands the release of Cuban prisoners; U.S. House of Representatives Republicans reject Senate approach to immigration reform; Brazilian police officers are sentenced for the 1992 Carandiru massacre.
Same Sex Marriage Starts in Uruguay: The first gay couple was registered for marriage on Monday morning in Uruguay, 90 days after Uruguayan President José Mujica signed a law legalizing same-sex marriage that was passed by the Uruguayan Senate in April. Rodrigo Borda and Sergio Miranda, a gay couple that has been together for 14 years, were the first to sign their names on a waiting list of couples to be married officially, and will be able to determine the date of their wedding by August 16. When the law was signed, Uruguay was only the second Latin American country after Argentina to make same-sex marriage legal nationwide, followed one month later by Brazil. Uruguay also allows adoption by gay couples and permits openly gay people to serve in the country’s armed forces.
Venezuela Left Out At Cartes Inauguration: The Paraguayan government has not invited Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to the inauguration of Paraguayan President-elect Horacio Cartes, set for August 15. Venezuela is the only country in the region that has not received an invitation, and both countries have recalled their respective envoys to Caracas and Asunción. Paraguay and Venezuela's relationship has worsened since Paraguay was suspended from Mercosur in June 2012, following the controversial impeachment of Paraguay’s then-president, Fernando Lugo. Following Paraguay’s suspension from Mercosur, Venezuela was incorporated as a full member without the approval of the Paraguayan government.
Amnesty International Calls for Release of Cuban Prisoners: New York-based human rights organization Amnesty International designated five Cuban prisoners being held in eastern Cuba "prisoners of conscience" and demanded their immediate release. Rafael Matos Montes de Oca, Emilio Planas Robert and brothers Alexeis, Diango and Vianco Vargas Martin all belong to the Unión Patriótica de Cuba (Patriotic Union of Cuba—UNPACU), an organization that advocates for greater civil liberties on the island, and are considered dissidents. Planas and Matos were convicted of "dangerousness" last September, while the Vargas Martin brothers, who are accused of violence or intimidation against a state official, were arrested in November and December and have not been formally charged with a crime. The Cuban government says that it is not holding any political prisoners.
Republicans Offer Own Approach to Immigration Reform: Members of the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives indicated on Sunday that they have no intention of taking up a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate in June, indicating that representatives would instead opt to take a piecemeal approach to tackling immigration reform rather than addressing the issues of border security, workplace enforcement, and citizenship all at once. Saying that a separate bill on border security should come before any other bill, Rep. Paul Ryan proposed that the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants undergo "probation" in order to "get right with the law." House Majority Leader Eric Cantor promised that "we will have a vote on a series of bills at some point." This month, lawmakers are returning to their home districts for a five-week summer recess.
Brazilian Police Sentenced for Carandiru Deaths: Twenty-five Brazilian police officers who were involved in the October 1992 massacre of 111 inmates at São Paulo's Carandiru prison were each sentenced to a 624 years in jail, yet each would serve no more than 30 years in prison according to Brazilian law. The sentences were part of an ongoing trial to investigate the deaths of 52 of the murdered prisoners, and the process is not expected to be finished until January 2014. At that point, the defense is expected to appeal the police officers' sentences. The police officers, most of whom were convicted of the prisoners’ deaths in April, are currently free and nine of them remain on active duty. O Globo newspaper reported that the nine officers will now lose their jobs. Carandiru prison was closed in 2002 and has been demolished.
The Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—FARC) concluded their eleventh, and shortest, round of peace negotiations in Havana, Cuba, on Tuesday. This round of talks focused on whether to allow the guerillas to hold political office—one of the most contentious points in the five-point peace agenda.
This round of negotiations lasted only eight days and focused on guaranteeing the right of political opposition, particularly after a peace agreement is ultimately signed. And while the talks, which were launched in Oslo in October 2012, have yet to reach a consensus on the FARC’s participation in the political system, both sides did reach a partial agreement on the critical issue of agrarian reform in May.
President Juan Manuel Santos hopes to wrap up peace talks by November. Negotiators will also tackle the illicit drug trade, demilitarization and reparations for the victims of the nearly half-century armed conflict, which has claimed over 600,000 lives and displaced millions of civilians since the 1960s. The Colombian government and FARC will return to the table for the twelfth round of negotiations on July 22.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.