Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Obama's Cuba visit spurs exchanges and (maybe) impossibly high expectations (March 22, 2016)

Cubans watched a question session between President Raúl Castro and American journalists in shock, reports the New York Times. Topics in yesterday's forceful exchange with the American press included Cuba's human rights record and political prisoners.

That the live-broadcast news conference with the two leaders happened at all is already a reflection of intensive diplomatic negotiations. In a country where few dare to publicly question the Castro brothers, the exchange was revolutionary, reports the Associated Press.

The event was marked by a jarring juxtaposition of diplomatic formality and public jousting, according to the Washington Post.

The conference underscored both the distance traversed since the initial agreement to work towards reestablishing relations 15 months ago, and the deep obstacles that have yet to be overcome, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The interchange was left out of official state television reports of the day, indicating likely discomfort on the part of Cuban officials. Castro was visibly nervous, and had an antiquated perspective, criticizes 14 y Medio.

The encounter was unexpectedly spirited. Castro used the opportunity to demand the return of Guantanamo Bay and a full end to the U.S. trade embargo. He also attempted to change the focus of human rights critiques, notes the Guardian. Asked about human rights, the Cuban president argued that no country in the world guarantees all rights or freedoms.

"There are profound differences between our countries that will not go away," said Castro. "In our view, civil, economic, social and cultural rights are indivisible, interdependent and universal ... We find it inconceivable that a government does not defend and secure the right to healthcare, equal pay and the rights of children. We oppose political double standards in the approach to human rights."

When questioned about political prisoners, Castro testily responded that any political prisoners who could be identified would be released by evening. There's some disagreement as to whether there are political prisoners -- according to Amnesty International there are no current prisoners of conscience, but the group notes more than 8,600 politically motivated detentions of government opponents and activists in 2015. (See yesterday's post.)

The White House suggested the administration would not immediately respond to Castro’s call for a list of people who the U.S. claims are political prisoners. National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes notes that the problem is they are detained for infringing Cuban law and are not considered political prisoners by the government.

But within minutes human rights organizations released lists of people they say are serving sentences for political crimes, reports the Miami Herald. Different groups released different lists, showing the difficulty of obtaining information from Cuba's penal system and the fact that short-term detentions mean some of the people have already been released.

The episode was not without awkward scenes, notes the Guardian. Castro berated the U.S. for its own civil rights record and attempted to lift Obama's arm in the air. Because words are not good at transmitting what happened there, the Miami Herald has a breakdown of what it calls "the most awkward ending to a presidential press conference in recent memory." The U.S. president left his hand limp, depriving the Cuban government of an important photo-op. Obama is attempting to toe a difficult line between warmth and critiques of the regime's human rights record. 

Both governments say they want to start a new chapter in their countries’ relations, but not all tensions could be glossed over, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Obama welcomed "constructive dialogue" in reference to Cuban criticisms of U.S. healthcare and race relations. But he also lobbed a thinly veiled critique of socialism, saying "there are some economic models that just don't work," reports the Guardian.

He also stated that the two countries cannot fully normalize relations if the Castro regime doesn't improve its record on democracy and human rights, notes the WSJ.

Cuban-Americans' reactions to Obama's trip reflect a changed perspective in the exile community, reports the New York Times. While many still hope for regime change, many see the visit as part of an agenda of incremental advances towards a more free Cuba.

(Cuban criticisms of U.S. race relations aside, Obama's visit is spurring a local conversation about race, which has long been considered an off-limits topic, reports the Los Angeles Times.)

The Associated Press refers to the strategy as one of "nudging Cuba toward democracy." The visit was "grounded in the notion that direct interaction with Cubans would do more to empower them and bring about change than decades of isolation ever did," and Obama's speech later today at the Havana Grand Theater will be critical, according to the piece.

Cuban dissidents are calling on Obama for a sharper rebuke of his host's human rights record, reports the Guardian. White House officials sought to downplay such expectations.

Nonetheless, Cuban officials are also making their point that not everything wrought by the revolution needs changing. The opportunity is one for a more nuanced debate, leaving behind the Cold War binaries argues Elaine Díaz in the Guardian.

Díaz runs Periodismo de Barrio, an independent digital media outlet. It's one of two profiled by El País, both run by Cuban youths.

While Díaz calls for an end of overly endowed symbology, Yoani Sánchez emphasizes the relevance of Obama's carefully orchestrated overtures towards the Cuban people --including a skit with a well-known local comedian -- and the contrast he casts with the aged and white island leadership.

The expectations he is creating might be too high she suggests. "People want Saint Obama to work miracles." The Huffington Post has the English translation of her piece, in which she writes: "Thousands of parents across the country are putting on the shoulders of the visitor the responsibility of convincing their children not to leave on the rafts of despair. They believe that he will be able to stop this incessant flow that is bleeding the country, if only he manages to persuade them that a new Cuba is just around the corner." The Atlantic reviews the piece.

At the end of the day, ordinary Cubans worry that not much will change after the visit, reports theMiami Herald.

News Briefs
  • In the meantime, Cuban migrants in Panama, attempting to reach the U.S., sent Obama a letter asking for answers regarding the migratory crisis, reports 14 y Medio.
  • As the two countries advance in rapprochement, Cuba's baseball scene is in crisis due to ongoing high-profile defections. But detente could affect both countries' leagues. Major League Baseball is in talks with both nations' governments on a potential deal that could make it easier for Cuban ballplayers to play in the United States, reports the Associated Press. The island sport "is all but ready to be engulfed by a tsunami of Major League dollars," according to theGuardian. MLB executives and Cuban officials are expected to mingle at today's exhibition game between the Cuban team and the Tampa Rays, reports El País.
  • General Electric and the Cuban government signed memorandums of understanding yesterday. The U.S. firm seeks to provide power, aviation and medical equipment to the Cuban government, reports the Wall Street Journal. Obama's visit comes as U.S. businesses are flocking to the island, reports the Washington Post. U.S. business executives met with Cuban business people yesterday in a series of entrepreneurial sessions, reports the Miami Herald. Obama reiterated his call for the U.S. Congress to lift the embargo, a statement that was met with applause. 
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held an unprecedented closed-door meeting with FARC rebels in Havana yesterday. He also met, separately, with Colombian government negotiators, who are engaged in peace talks with the guerrilla group, reports the Guardian. Protection against paramilitary violence was a central topic of the meeting, according to Colombia Reports. FARC leaders, including Rodrigo "Timochenko" Londoño, gave Kerry an signed copy of the Spanish-language book Resistance of a People in Arms, a compilation of the personal diaries and letters of Farc founder Manuel Marulanda. The inscription in Spanish says the book tells part of the story of an "insurgent organization that today is preparing to transition to a legal political movement." The White House portrayed the meeting as one of many diplomatic dividends in the region stemming from the new Cuba policy.
  • Though tomorrow is the deadline for a final peace accord agreed on last year, the negotiations will likely take a few more months, reports El País. Yesterday the FARC negotiators released a statement assuring the good news would come soon.
  • New York Times' Venezuela correspondent Nicolas Casey was invited to witness a FARC hideout in what is presumably its last days before a final peace accord is reached with the Colombian government. He calls it a "communist time capsule." "An old guerrilla fighter sings songs about Che Guevara on his guitar as a crowd leans in to listen, armed with rifles and grenades. ... They say life is still possible with Karl Marx in one hand and a Kalashnikov in the other."
  • A new study suggests that cholera deaths in Haiti that followed the 2010 earthquake could be much higher than the 9,200 tallied originally, due to underreporting at the beginning of the outbreak, reports the New York Times.
  • Peru's electoral upheaval is far from over. With three weeks until the presidential election, and two front-runner candidates already eliminated for infringing rules, the two current front-runners could still be tossed out on charges of vote-buying. Peru's electoral board said yesterday that it had received a citizen petition to investigate investor favorite Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) for vote buying. The board is already investigating Keiko Fujimori on similar charges, reports Reuters. (See last Wednesday's post.) The two represent nearly 50 percent of voter intent, according to an Ipsos poll.
  • Mercosur foreign ministers are attempting to orchestrate institutional support for Brazil in the midst of its overwhelming political crisis, reports El País. (See yesterday's post.)
  • For those (everybody) still confused as to where the Brazilian political crisis might lead, the Los Angeles Times synthetically analyzes some of the potential avenues of development.
  • Yesterday Brazil's finance minister announced several new measures aimed at reducing a budget deficit and relieving local governments' debts. The measures include spending limits for the federal government and bank policies, but will require Congressional approval, which isn't likely to be easy in the current political climate, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • In the midst of the ever growing investigation into corruption at Petrobras, the state-owned oil company admitted to record losses last year of 9.6 billion dollars, reports El País. The company was impacted by lower oil prices and higher borrowing costs, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Early today the Brazilian police launched another round of arrests and raids targeting construction firm Odebrecht SA, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Harvest time is beginning in the region's biggest legal marijuana farm in Chile. About 1.5 tons of crop will be harvested for medicinal use, reports El País.
  • The "El Niño" weather phenomenon is affecting water levels in the Panama Canal, where ships will be temporarily forced to comply with new depth restrictions, reports Reuters.
  • Ecuador created a new marine sanctuary in the Galápagos Islands to protect the world's greatest concentration of sharks, reports the Guardian.

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