From the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. AS/COA Online's news brief examines the major—as well as some of the overlooked—events and stories occurring across the Americas. Check back every Wednesday for the weekly roundup.
Uribe out, Santos in, Chávez Back
Speaking before his country, outgoing-Colombian President Álvaro Uribe bid farewell after eight years in office, apologizing for his administration’s mistakes and urging Colombians to defend their freedoms and support incoming President Juan Manuel Santos. Upon assuming office on August 7, Santos began efforts to restore ties with Venezuela, sent into a tail spin after the Uribe administration accused Caracas of harboring FARC rebel camps within its territory. Meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez three days into his presidency, Santos and his counterpart agreed to restore bilateral ties, improve military patrols along the border, and initiate a joint security commission to help monitor terrorist groups.
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria begins a tour of several Latin American countries today with the goal of extending its diplomatic reach and attracting investment in Syria. Assad is scheduled to arrive in Caracas, Venezuela, on Friday and will visit then Brazil and Venezuela—countries with significant Syrian expat communities. Syrian media also reports that he will be visiting Cuba. The visit reciprocates previous official visits to Damascus by Fidel Castro in 2001, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003 and Hugo Chávez in 2006.
The president’s trip, his first to the region since taking power in 2001, comes as Damascus seeks to continue opening diplomatic channels with the West. This follows their involvement in brokering a deal with Iran to send low-enriched uranium abroad for reactor fuel, in cooperation with Brazil and Turkey. Damascus is also seeking over $40 billion in investments over the next five years, nearly 80 percent of Syria’s annual GDP, to repair and replace Syria’s ageing infrastructure.
The majority of the millions of Syrian-origin émigrés in Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela are businessmen, engineers, doctors, and politicians including former Argentinean president Carlos Menem. President Assad also plans to meet with members of the Arab communities during his visit.
“Bilateral relations and developments in the Middle East and Latin America” will dominate discussions during the trip, according to the official SANA news agency. Brazil plans to sign trade and technology cooperation protocols with Syria, and Argentina is anticipated to sign nine transportation, tourism and cultural agreements.
Cuba’s Raúl Castro shook up his Cabinet big time this week—the largest change in decades—when he ousted, promoted or shifted around more than 20 officials.
Most prominent—and surprising to many here in the United States—was the dismissal of Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque and Vice President Carlos Lage, known as the brains of recent economic reforms.
The next day, Raúl’s older brother, Fidel, wrote a letter saying he had been consulted about these changes (oh, but of course he was!).
This week, two small steps for U.S. policy on Cuba.
First up: Sen. Richard Lugar’s new report, “Changing Cuba Policy-In the United States National Interest.” In short, it calls the existing policies ineffective, finding major reform in the United States’ best national (and economic) interests.
The recent leadership changes in Washington and Havana have created an opportunity to “reevaluate a complex relationship marked by misunderstanding, suspicion and open hostility,” Sen. Lugar wrote in his letter to fellow senators.
Several traditional realists, like Pedro Burelli, a former member of the PDVSA—Venezuela’s state oil company—board of directors have applauded this report’s recommendations as pragmatic, rather than “coming from the perspective of the teary-eyed leftist camp.”
And, the report, I’m told, has largely received positive feedback.
Frankly, the Cuban embargo has always been a difficult issue for me. Publicly I’ve avoided the issue largely because I’ve always believed it’s been a huge distraction for what is the main issue concerning Cuba: the almost incomprehensible level of repression and control that the Castro regime exercises over its population. So, in my often-failed objective to avoid discussing the embargo, I want now (in the heightened debate over President Barack Obama’s Cuba policy) to try to weigh the pros and cons as I view them in my own humble opinion. Fortunately, as a very thoughtful and balanced recent staff trip report by the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations demonstrates, a number of groups are trying to bridge the divide that has traditionally hamstrung policy toward Cuba.
Cuba defies modern explanation, especially in this hemisphere: constitutional and legal restrictions on the rights of citizens to congregate, denial of citizens to express political views, sham elections in which only one party is allowed to compete, the regular detention and harassment of human rights activists by the police or state-controlled neighborhood committees, and jailing of dissidents through kangaroo courts on trumped up charges of treason and violence. In a 1997 report, Human Rights Watch described it best in the title of its study, Cuba’s Repressive Machinery.
This level of institutional, legal and political control is incomprehensible for many in a hemisphere that experienced (in all but country—Cuba) the third wave of democracy starting in 1978. In part, I think, Cuba's hemispheric anomaly explains the lame and sometimes pathetic response of many regional human rights groups to the abuses on the island. Many quite simply can’t fathom that level of control, having grown up under more bloody but less subtle forms of authoritarianism.
On January 1, 2009, the Cuban government celebrated the 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara’s triumphant march into Havana that marked the end of the reign of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship and the beginning of the Cuban revolution. The occasion was quite frankly sad, not just for what it said about a revolution that has persisted despite its failures, but also for the persistence of U.S. policy that seems almost designed to prop up the Castro brothers.
The two phenomena—a regime and a policy both frozen in time—co-exist in mutual dependency. The Cuban government and its geriatric leadership (average age over 70) has been able to blame the chronic failures of its failed economic system on U.S. policy, deflecting legitimate popular frustration with food shortages, lack of medicine, lack of opportunities, and economic stagnation.
At the same time, the January 1 celebration came just 20 days before Fidel Castro will see the inaugeration of 11th president of the country that since the early 1960s has sought his removal from power by all means possible. Assasination plots, an invasion by former countrymen, isolation, and an economic embargo established first in 1960 and tightened in 1996 with the passage of the Cuban Liberty and Solidarity Act (otherwise known as the Helms-Burton Law) are among the least surreal.