Monday, July 20, 2015

U.S. and Cuba reopen embassies in each others' capitals (July 20, 2015)

The much anticipated reestablishment of formal diplomatic ties between Cuba and the U.S. took place today at midnight, as the special interests offices each country had established in the other's capital formally became embassies. More than fifty years after breaking off relations during the Cold War, the two neighboring countries are finally beginning to bridge what has been a quintessential rift in the hemisphere's international relations. 

The thaw comes after 18 months of secret negotiations between the two countries, and more than a quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, observes the Miami Herald.

But those expecting a 21st century version of the Berlin Wall falling will no doubt be disappointed. The change in Cuba will be fairly subtle at first. "For now, the change is imperceptible from the outside, arguably a metaphor for the state of Cuba itself," says the New York Times. Diplomats will be formally registered, and allowed to travel freely in the country. And they'll work like members of other diplomatic corps: ie, they'll be invited to functions.

The U.S. embassy in Havana created a new Twitter account and posted a photo on Facebook as part of the announcement of its new name, reports the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. festivities in Havana will have to wait till August, when Secretary of State John Kerry will visit -- the highest-level trip by a U.S. official to Cuba since the 1959 revolution, reports CNN. But starting today the Cuban government will pull back some of the tight cordon of security that had surrounded America's diplomatic mission in Havana and no longer record the names of Cubans entering the building, according to U.S. sources.

Travel and limited trade between the two countries is already easier, but there are still significant restrictions.

The real change -- the one that will have economic impact -- is still a few years away and will involve lifting the U.S. economic embargo. It also involves changing regulations in Cuba, where President Raul Castro has promised to jump-start the national economy, though many of the changes have not panned out quickly. Cuba will change, yes, but at its own pace and with no apologies, says the NYTimes. 

Much of the onus now lies with Congress, which will have to act to fully lift the trade and travel embargoes. Most U.S. companies are currently prohibited from doing business in Cuba and traveling there from the U.S. as a tourist remains illegal, explains the Wall Street Journal.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that the Obama administration hadn't made progress in encouraging Congress to lift the embargo but that Mr. Obama could still take steps on his own that couldn’t be blocked by opponents in Congress.

There are several bills in both houses of Congress aimed at lifting the embargo. The White House and its supporters of the policy shift are working toward a piecemeal approach, in which the travel ban would be lifted first, followed by the trade embargo. Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate have said it would be a challenge for the Obama administration to win the removal of sanctions imposed by Congress, reports the WSJ.

Though nobody expects much change from the Americans, it's worth noting that getting this far in the rapprochement between the two countries is already a sea-change in U.S. foreign policy. The Guardian focuses on the reopening of the Cuban embassy in Washington, where Cuba's foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla is set to take the hugely symbolic step of raising his country’s flag at a newly designated embassy in Washington today.

Kerry and Rodríguez will give a joint press conference in Washington later today and are expected to discuss telecommunications, human rights and law enforcement issues. 

Cuba is planning a small ceremony at its DC embassy building, which was closed after diplomatic relations were severed in 1961 and has served only as an interests section, under the supervision of neutral Switzerland, since 1971. Cocktails will be served, reportedly from a small bar in the mansion that is named after Ernest Hemingway. 

More than 500 people will attend the Cubans’ festivities in Washington, including members of Congress. No invitations went out to hardline anti-Castro lawmakers. The U.S. delegation will be headed by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, reports Reuters.

U.S. President Barak Obama still faces significant domestic challenges to the thaw, which might delay his nominating an ambassador, who would have to get Congressional confirmation, notes the Guardian piece.

Yet -- despite opposition by some Republicans -- reaction to the thaw has been remarkably low key says the Miami Herald, noting that a generation ago the Cuban-American community in Florida would have been up in arms at renewed diplomacy between the two countries.

The New York Times has a separate piece looking at American property claims regarding business that were expropriated by the Cuban revolutionary government. United States officials have said that resolving such claims is a priority. But resolving them is a complicated mess, made more difficult by half century that passed since Castro began confiscating land and businesses. The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, an independent agency at the Department of Justice estimates claims worth about $8 billion, including interests.

Cuba, for its part, says America owes Cubans more than $100 billion for the harm caused by the embargo, reports the WSJ.

The CNN piece delves into some of the difficulties faced by the special interests sections at the hands of their host governments, including surveillance and exclusion from local dog shows.

One diplomatic incident in 2006 was sparked by U.S. diplomats who installed an electronic ticker across the top floor of the Interests Section to display information the Cuban government didn't want reported. The Cuban government responded by erecting a "forest" of 138 flag poles to block out the offending American messages. Eventually both the ticker and the flags came down.

For history buffs, Quartz has a pictures from the period when the two countries broke off relations back in the Eisenhower administration.

News Briefs

  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff received another political punch on Friday, when Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the lower house of Congress announced that he was breaking from a coalition with the governing Workers Party. The move could empower lawmakers' efforts to impeach Rousseff, who is facing calls for her ouster over a sweeping graft scheme at Petrobras, the national oil company, reports the New York Times. The rupture came after a consultant for a Petrobras contractor, who reached a plea bargain with prosecutors, testified this week that Cunha had solicited and accepted a $5 million bribe. Cunha denies the accusation and says Rousseff's administration has orchestrated a conspiracy to weaken him. Cunha said he would also try to convince his PMDB party, Brazil’s largest, to break with the ruling coalition, which would make it nearly impossible for Rousseff's administration to advance its legislative plans, reports the Wall Street Journal. Cunha, a religious conservative who is believed to have presidential aspirations, controls the levers of power in the lower chamber. He has already stymied several austerity measures pushed by Rousseff, which is trying to close a budget gap to stave off a threatened downgrade of Brazil’s sovereign credit rating. The rupture increased the allies' pressure on President Dilma Rousseff to make changes in the core of her political articulation, reports Folha de S. Paulo. In the allies' words, the exchange would "oxygenate" the government higher spheres and open a new channel for dialogue with representatives and senators. However, Rousseff has shown resistance to it, according to the piece.
  • Any attempt to relax austerity measures this year would inevitably extend the duration of the current fiscal adjustment program, said Finance Minister Joaquim Levy said in a newspaper interview published on Sunday, reports Reuters.
  • U.S. authorities sought the extradition of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán before his escape from maximum security prison reports the New York Times. The request, issued on June 25, was made public after testimony by the attorney general raised new questions about the relationship between the nations. Whether Guzmán had been warned about the American extradition request, or whether that had any influence on the timing of his escape, is unclear. Attorney General Arely Gómez told Mexican legislators at the hearing that her office had been analyzing the extradition request before filing it to Mexican courts, based on Mexico’s extradition protocols, reports the Wall Street Journal. Mexican authorities have vowed to get to the bottom of the escape. So far seven people, either prison officials or others in the penitentiary system, have been arrested. Guzmán will likely head back to his home state of Sinaloa, reports the Washington Post. There catching him will be a daunting task, given the difficult terrain, the local support for the drug lord, and the astounding wealth and evasive skill of Guzmán’s inner circle. Up and down the hills are networks of spotters, often teenagers on four-wheelers. Residents tend to back Guzmán, whose business interests permeate the Sinaloa economy, from vegetable markets to real estate to auto sales. Several downtown blocks in the state capital, Culiacán — not a border city — are lined with money-changers under sun umbrellas to accommodate the volume of U.S. dollars entering the city, a sign of the drug trade. After Guzmán’s arrest last year, hundreds of people marched in Culiacán in protest.
  • The fascinating jailbreak also shows the weakness behind Mexico's policy of targeting cartel leaders, argues Brian Phillips in the Washington Post. He argues that leadership removal might be effective against relatively political groups like terrorists, but is especially prone to backfire against criminal organizations in particular. Research on Mexican criminal organizations consistently finds that leadership removal on drug-trafficking organizations usually leads to more violence, says Phillips. Organized crime is unlikely to simply go away if a leader is taken out. Criminal groups often replace leaders, or arrested leaders can continue to run the business from prison, as El Chapo apparently did. And instead of a weakened organization plodding along, criminal groups often fragment into competitive factions fighting each other for territory. Even if one group disintegrates, others emerge to battle for valuable turf. This fragmentation and rivalry, caused by leadership removal, has been a substantial source of Mexico's increased violence.
  • In a New York Review of Books piece, Alma Guillermoprieto says "the most damaging consequences of Guzmán’s latest great adventure will not be suffered by the government of the ever less popular Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, or by those with whom Chapo has scores to settle, or the drug troops of enemy cartels he will necessarily do battle with, or the soldiers, journalists, judges, politicians, and police he may order hits on, though they may add untold thousands more to Mexico’s narco graveyard. The Sinaloa drug clans have not suffered greatly during his time in jail, and business appears to be stable; the drug world has already reconfigured itself, and there is some small chance that we could be spared a major increase in violence even when, as seems inevitable, Guzmán is recaptured, or killed." Rather, the danger lies in the appeal this adds to the drug trade for poor youths. Despite the jokes that are all the rage on Mexican social media now, "one laughs only until the rage sets in," concludes Guillermoprieto.
  • A careful analysis of Mexican cartels must look beyond the violence to the business factors that drive their interests — and their bankrolls argues a piece in Business Insider that looks at the "economics of cocaine."
  • The New York Times also has a piece on Guzmán's newly enhanced legendary folk hero status (the Los Angeles Times and others reported on that facet last week, see Wednesday's briefs.) A march in Culiacán, the capital of Guzmán’s home state of Sinaloa, last week celebrated his escape and for many Mexicans, he is an unusual combination of Robin Hood and billionaire, a source of mirth, grudging respect and even outright reverence because of his repeated ability to outfox the country’s deeply unpopular government, according to the piece. He fought the law, and he won. He beat what many Mexicans see as a corrupt and feckless governing class. And Mexico, just like America, loves an outlaw.
  • And the BBC has a piece Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's failed legacy, which will be linked to El Chapo's escape, but also severe human rights violations by security forces and allegations of corruption linked to his family. The piece quotes Duncan Wood of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, who says El Chapo's escape just adds to the disillusion, disenchantment and disappointment that the Mexican people already have with established politicians. 

  • Colombia's FARC rebel group ordered a unilateral cease-fire to begin today, following two months of intense violence. The move is the first in what should be a series of reciprocate actions by both the rebels and the state that seek a significant deescalation of violence that have put ongoing peace talks at the brink of failure, says Colombia Reports.

  • Colombian rebels released a soldier they had held for nearly two weeks yesterday, President Juan Manuel Santos said. The move came a day before a unilateral cease-fire declared by the group was set to start today, reports Reuters. The release operation was carried out under a strict news blackout at the Tres de Mayo airport in the town of Puerto Asis near the Ecuadorian border,reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • The Venezuelan government presented a draft of the four year Human Rights Plan being formulated by the National Human Rights Council last week. The body was created by President Nicolas Maduro in April 2014 as part of the dialogue process spurred by the cycle of protests that year. The initiative represents a difficult effort by the government to position itself with respect to the international discourses and institutions of human rights, say Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde on Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. "The initiative also shows the difficulty a state that considers itself revolutionary has, in recognizing its own human rights violations."

  • A former Venezuelan state governor, Pablo Perez, says he has been barred from holding public office for 10 years. Perez is the third opposition politician to be disqualified in the past week, reports the BBC. (See last Wednesday's post.)

  • Earlier this month the Bolivian Congress approved a measure to extend presidential pardons for certain people imprisoned on drug crimes punishable with eight to 10 years of jail time. The pardon was for pregnant women with more than 24 weeks of gestation, grave disability or those who are terminally ill. But it will now be extended to all of those who have completed one fourth of their sentence reports La Razón. The new bill will benefit approximately 1,270 inmates.
  • The Los Angeles Times has a feature on the Colombian navy's tactics against drug smugglers, complicated by drug runners' technological innovations and the rapid expansion of Colombian cocaine production. Remote control technology is a troublesome advance from the point of view of controlling smuggling.
  • Conservative Horacio Rodriguez Larreta won Sunday's mayoral run-off election in Buenos Aires. But the results are bad for his party's presidential candidate, Mauricio Macri. Such a close tie (51.6 percent to 48.4) on his home turf bodes ill for his popularity the upcoming national election, reports the Associated Press.

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