After much speculation on Twitter about Fidel Castro’s whereabouts, including rumors of his death, Cuba’s revolutionary leader broke months of silence on Thursday by publishing a letter in the Cuban government-run newspaper, Granma. The last time Castro was seen in public was in March, when he met with Pope Benedict XVI during the pontiff’s visit to Cuba. Previous to Thursday’s letter, Castro had not written one of his opinion columns, known as Reflections of Fidel, since June 19.
In his letter, Castro acknowledged the founders and graduating students of the Havana medical institute El Instituto de Ciencias Básicas y Preclínicas Victoria de Girón (Bay of Pigs Victory Institute of Basic and Preclinical Sciences) on its 50th anniversary. He reminisced that shortly after the institute opened in 1962, it was converted into an anti-aircraft installation during the Cuban missile crisis, which occurred 50 years ago this week. "In that spirit, the tradition of that medical institution was born and grew,” wrote Castro, adding that the institution “was able to forge tens of thousands of professionals and take our country to the highest levels of prevention and health."
Rumors about Castro’s own health have been making the rounds in recent weeks, after Castro was conspicuously absent in congratulating longtime supporter Hugo Chávez on his re-election to the Venezuelan presidency on October 7. Castro claims that he has survived more than 600 assassination attempts. Whenever rumors of his death circulate, Castro tends to make public appearances to prove that he remains alive.
Top stories this week are likely to include: Fidel Castro’s birthday; Buenos Aires subway shutdown continues; public teachers to end striking in Panama; talks to renew in Colombia between the government and the Indigenous Nasa; and a possible dialogue over Venezuela’s detained U.S. Marine.
Fidel Turns 86 Years Old: Cuba’s revolutionary leader and former president, Fidel Castro, turns 86 years old today. He faces health issues, having stepped down from the presidency in 2006 after undergoing intestinal surgery—and has not been seen in public or mentioned in the news since June 19, according to Reuters. AQ Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini notes of the occasion, “Six years ago when Fidel Castro stepped aside to pass the torch to his brother Raúl, people thought the end was near. Give the man's staying power credit, but really, what modern country in the region and in the world remains as centered and fixated on an 86-year-old man? It's a sign of how little Cuba—and U.S. policy toward the island—has progressed. We're all stuck in the past.”
Subway Shutdown in Buenos Aires: A strike by union employees of Buenos Aires’ municipal subway system is entering its tenth day today, with no end in sight after talks broke down on Friday with the administration of Mayor Mauricio Macri. The subway shutdown has inconvenienced between 600,000 and 1 million daily commuters. Macri, the most prominent figure of the opposition Propuesta Republicana (Republican Proposal—PRO) party, is blaming the ruling Frente para la Victoria (Front for Victory—FPV) party, to which President Cristina Fernández belongs. Macri is accusing FPV operatives of inciting the union workers, who are demanding a 28 percent increase in pay. Buenos Aires Deputy Mayor Maria Eugenia Vidal stated that the city officials “just don’t have the means to pay for this.” Pay attention to see if there will be any breakthrough in negotiations this week.
Teacher Strike to End in Panama: Leaders of a teacher strike in Panama reached an understanding with the government on Saturday to end the weeklong strike today. Teachers were protesting over issues such as decaying classrooms and insufficient pay.
Santos-Nasa Mediation To Resume in Colombia: Leaders of the Indigenous Nasa group expect to set a date by this Tuesday for the resumption of mediated talks with the government of Juan Manuel Santos. More than 10,000 Nasas marched in the department of Cauca yesterday demanding the government return to the table. Cauca, in southwest Colombia, is home to many rebels belonging to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC). The Santos administration, therefore, has placed many Colombian soldiers in Cauca as part of the ongoing internal conflict with the FARC, which the Nasa view as a threat to their territorial sovereignty. The Nasas and the government, however, hope to reach an agreement through mediation.
Venezuela-U.S. Showdown Over Detention: After Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced late last week that police have detained an American citizen who claimed to be a former U.S. Marine, tensions have flared between the U.S. and Venezuelan governments. According to the Associated Press, a State Department official said that the U.S. authorities were not notified of his arrest. Chávez has openly suspected that the detainee, whose name has not been released, may be a “mercenary” scheming to destabilize Venezuela. Stay tuned to see if there may be more updates on this case in the coming week.
EXTRA, Rio 2016: After yesterday’s closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the world’s attention turns to Rio de Janeiro for 2016. But is the city ready? Check out AQ’s television segment on Brazil and the Olympics on the “Efecto Naím” program on NTN24.
This year is already proving that it will be an exciting one for news. Take the U.S. elections, for starters. The presidential election, as it's been said by at least one GOP nominee, represents a battle for nothing less than America’s soul.
As for Latin America, what should we expect to make headlines?
Before ticking off possible headlines, it’s important to note the substantial—and frustrating—distinction between what should be covered and what will likely be covered. There are so many issues that never make it to (online) print or broadcast, given the tough competition for airtime and eyeballs.
Here are my top-10 most anticipated stories:
10) Health of Hugo Chávez: There will be many reports well-timed with Venezuela’s election cycle—Venezuelans go to the polls in October—that cite “well-placed, unnamed” sources claiming President Hugo Chávez is healthier than ever after his surgery last summer in Cuba to remove a cancerous abscess. These reports will appear within days of other stories that cite other unnamed sources professing to know the awful truth of just how horribly sick Chávez is and how he is trying to hide his fatal illness. Both stories will include hypotheticals (and wishful thinking) on the future direction of chavismo and bolivarianismo when Chávez ultimately leaves power, one way or another.
Legend goes that when Fidel Castro was a law student, back in 1949, he was such a talented baseball player that he was offered a $5,000 to join the New York Giants team. But he snubbed the offer. That refusal has been widely commented among Cuban baseball fans but also by stars who are divided between those who follow Castro’s example, and those who go.
The greatest, Lázaro Vargas is among the former, having turned down an $8.5 million offer to join the Atlanta Braves, after winning the gold medal in the Barcelona Winter Olympics in 1992. “Castro taught me it is a sweet feeling to walk down the street knowing that no one can buy you,” he once said.
Baseball players live a relatively privileged life in Cuba, and are regularly paraded as national heroes. During my first trip to Havana I remember watching a television program showing a crowd on the concrete steps of Havana's stadium going crazy as Vargas drove a curveball past second base. “"We love baseball more than rum, more than rice and beans; sometimes I feel I love it more than my own life” a shirtless youngster once told me, while playing baseball with a stick from a door and the lid of a plastic bottle in one of the many creaky corners around Nuevo Vedado. “I would love to be able to play in the United States one day, to play American kids, to get that feeling. Do you understand?” he asked me. I did not really then.
Now, after several trips to Havana, having lived in Miami and after writing an article titled Ping-Pong Diplomacy for the Summer 2011 issue of Americas Quarterly (to be released on August 10 and available in Barnes & Noble on August 15) on Cuba and U.S. sports relations, I feel I am getting closer to answering him positively. Despite recent reports that show that around 350 Cuban baseball players have abandoned the Communist-led island over the past several years—virtually all to the U.S.—money is not the only factor.
I wrote an op-ed in the Miami Herald today in reference to an article by Andres Schipani ("Ping-Pong Diplomacy") in the Summer 2011 Americas Quarterly to be released on August 10 and available in Barnes & Noble stores beginning August 15.
In the summer of 1989, U.S. yachtsmen sailed the Black Sea Regatta after the Soviet Odessa Sports Club had participated in the Liberty Cup Yacht Race around the Statue of Liberty. The exchange was one of hundreds of sports-related exchanges between the Cold War enemies that included hockey, tennis, baseball and diving before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In contrast, no such policy — until now — has taken off with Cuba.
Sports have always been an effective tool for fostering cross-cultural awareness and breaking down ideological stereotypes. Consider this: Between 1955 and 1985 the U.S. State Department issued on average 1,700 visas a year to Soviet athletes, artists, scientists and students in a policy of “soft power” diplomacy.
In the same vein, the now-famous ping-pong diplomacy launched by President Richard Nixon with China started with a table tennis match. Those early efforts undermined the communist governments’ efforts to isolate their citizens and were instrumental in building trust between citizens — and effectively weakened control of governments over their citizens.
The full text of this morning's editorial can be accessed here.
Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.
The Sixth Congress of the Communist party of Cuba has convened, and although General Raúl Castro has announced that it should be the last of the historical generation that overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista some 50 years ago, the decisions announced in Havana are just another great disappointment for the 11 million Cubans.
For a half century General Castro has functioned as minister of the armed forces and as such is responsible for the military expeditions that sent Cubans to kill and/or be killed in Africa. He is likewise responsible for the execution of his colleague General Arnaldo Ochoa for the crime of being more popular than Fidel himself. This is in addition to acts of international terrorism such as shooting down two unarmed civilian planes surveying the Florida straits for stranded refugees. Worst of all, he proposes to make Cubans believe that the naming of another octogenarian as vice-president of the Council of State—in this case, José Ramón Machado Ventura—constitutes something new in the sad history of the Cuban revolution.
Raúl Castro now speaks of establishing a limit of two terms of five years each for the present Cuban leadership—this, when he himself is almost 80 years old! Those who see past the charismatically challenged brother of Fidel can easily pick out the figure of Colonel Alejandro Castro, his son and right-hand man. Alejandro also holds a high position in the ministry of interior, the agency of the regime in charge of foreign espionage and domestic repression. Also, General Castro has just appointed Luis Alberto Rodriguez Calleja to the powerful Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba—a man who happens to be married to one of his daughters.
Cuban President Raúl Castro’s Saturday speech at the opening of the Communist Party’s Sixth Party Congress in Havana grabbed global headlines this weekend when he unexpectedly announced a proposal to impose term limits on all Cuban government officials—including himself. Under the proposed rule, future leaders would be limited to two consecutive five-year terms in office. Mr. Castro also urged a “systematic rejuvenation of the whole chain of party and administrative posts” and made clear that he would not be exempted from the rule.
Critics of the five-decade-old regime voiced immediate skepticism of Mr. Castro’s intentions. Activist Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz said the proposal is duplicitous because “the ruling elites are giving themselves 10 more years of totalitarian continuity.” Cuban economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe added that term limits won’t solve the real issue, which is “the monopoly on power by a group whose policies have failed for 50 years.” And Cuban-born U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen referred to the proposal as a “farce.”
The long overdue party congress—the first since 1997—was expected to deal with economic issues, but it is not anticipated to result in a major departure from Cuban socialism. In his speech, Mr. Castro expressed strong support for Cuba’s economic model, particularly in terms of health care and education. Yet he has also supported market-oriented reforms that include decentralization and greater private economic activity.
In his column in the official newspaper Granma, Mr. Castro's brother and predecessor Fidel Castro gave an important vote of confidence to the proposed reforms.