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.
Likely top stories this week: Michelle Bachelet wins Chile’s opposition primaries; Cuban state-run produce markets go private; President Rousseff’s popularity dips; U.S. immigration reform moves to the House of Representatives; Edward Snowden stuck in Moscow.
Bachelet Wins Chilean Opposition Primaries: Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet won a landslide victory on Sunday in Chile’s primary elections, paving her way to run as the Concertación candidate in the November presidential election. Bachelet received 73.8 percent of the vote, while her nearest rival, Andrés Velasco, earned only 12.5 percent of voter support. The ruling coalition's candidates were much closer, with Pablo Longueira getting 51.1 percent of the vote to Andrés Allemand's 48.9 percent. Longueira will face Bachelet on November 17.
Cuban State-Run Co-ops Go Private: One hundred state-run produce markets in Cuba are scheduled to become private cooperatives on Monday as the country moves ahead with economic reforms. The private co-ops will create an alternative to small and medium-sized state-run businesses, and will be able to set prices and divide profit as they see fit. The co-ops can also purchase produce from individual farmers as well as state farms and wholesale markets. According to the Cuban government, more than 430,000 people now work in the non-state sector, not counting agricultural cooperatives and small farmers.
Protests at Brazil's Confederations Cup Final: Several thousand Brazilian protesters marched outside Rio de Janeiro's iconic Maracanã stadium on Sunday as Brazil's national soccer team won the Confederations Cup 3-0 over Spain. The protests for improved public transport and services that started over a month ago show no sign of abating, while President Dilma Rousseff's approval rating has plummeted from 57 percent to 30 percent during the month of June. More than 80 percent of the 4,717 respondents in the poll by Datafolha, conducted on the June 27 and 28, said that they supported the protests in Brazil.
Immigration Reform Moves to the U.S. House: U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer predicted on Sunday that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will pass the comprehensive immigration reform bill approved by the Senate last Thursday, despite resistance from House Republicans. Schumer said he believed the House would pass the bill "by the end of this year," due to concerns about the party's future in an increasingly diverse country. However, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said that the preference is to “examine each of these issues separately,” rather than take up the Senate legislation.
Edward Snowden Still Stuck in Moscow: Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said that former U.S. contractor Edward Snowden "is in the care of Russian authorities" and reprimanded an Ecuadorian government official who provided Snowden with a travel document that Correa said had been issued without consulting officials in Quito. Correa spoke to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on the phone on Saturday about Snowden, whose U.S. passport has been revoked. Correa said that Snowden’s asylum request would only be considered if he enters Ecuador or an Ecuadorian embassy.
It’s not uncommon for the Castro regime to accuse dissidents of being CIA agents or puppets of the U.S. government. Viral media attacks on Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez are not unique. However, the manner in which they attack Sánchez and other female dissidents, compared to their male counterparts, does seem unique.
Initially, the Cuban government didn’t pay much attention to Sánchez and her blogging. Not really understanding the medium, the government wrote her off as a non-threat because of her gender and ultimately gave Sánchez the space to become the international figure she is today.
Once the regime had become aware of blogging’s influence, it initiated an online civil war between independent Cuban bloggers and the government. The government blocked all of the unauthorized blogs and began a defamation campaign against the independent bloggers—who are officially referred to as “cyber mercenaries” and enemies of the revolution. Cuba’s version of Wikipedia, EcuRed, describes Sánchez as “Cibermercenaria y bloguera cubana” next to a menacing-looking photo of her.
Numerous websites exist solely to insult and question Sánchez’s legitimacy as a renowned journalist, writer and blogger. These insults and accusations are mostly gender-based. Male bloggers’ accomplishments and awards are rarely questioned. Instead, they are labeled (if at all) with epithets associated with a dominant form of masculinity, such as “terrorist” and “traitor.” Meanwhile, the language used to attack Sánchez focuses mainly on her appearance and stereotypes associated with being female.
Each spring, the U.S. State Department releases a report indicating which countries the United States considers “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” Currently the list consists of four countries: Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. This year, John Kerry’s ascent to U.S. Secretary of State generated a discussion about taking Cuba off the list. Given Kerry’s generally reasonable position on Cuba in the past, it was perhaps not surprising that he considered this option.
Nonetheless, on May 1, the U.S. State Department announced that Cuba would remain on its list. It's a serious mistake.
State Department reports from the last decade have provided no substantive evidence to justify keeping Cuba on the list. In fact, the country’s inclusion is based on dubious allegations. The reports allege that Cuba has provided medical treatment and refuge for terrorist groups from the FARC in Colombia to the ETA in Spain. However, the reports do not acknowledge that the governments of both countries have expressed appreciation for Cuba’s cooperation in this arena.
The reports mention some fugitives from American justice who live in Cuba, but neglect to say that the United States stopped honoring the 1904 extradition agreement between the two countries in early 1959. Cuba has sent back most U.S. fugitives and has generally recognized the validity of U.S. courts, but has occasionally offered asylum to people it considers victims of "political persecution," including former Black Panther Assata Shakur, accused of killing a New Jersey highway trooper in 1973.
Shakur’s asylum in Cuba has precedent in international law, as well as in decisions by U.S. Courts that have determined that not all violent political acts are terrorism. Her case constitutes a reason to raise the issue diplomatically and negotiate a new bilateral extradition treaty, but it is not sufficient motive to keep Cuba on the list. It is no coincidence that those Cuban-American politicians who demand that Cuba unilaterally return these few U.S. fugitives are the same ones who have advocated providing refuge for anti-Castro terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles—who in 1976 was responsible for a bomb that took 73 lives (including the Cuban national fencing team) on a Cuban civilian plane. Posada lives freely in Miami.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.