Monday, September 21, 2015

Pope angles for more open Cuba (Sept. 21, 2015)

Pope Francis doesn't shy away from geopolitical games, but he's carefully navigating the difficult waters of Cuban politics.

He's avoided meeting dissidents, and kept possible criticisms of the island's revolutionary government to what might be called "pope code ... the sort of oblique asides that could be interpreted as disapproval — or explained away as anything but," reports the New York Times

He has been condemned for not scheduling meetings with dissidents, and critics the Church's policy of gently gaining space in Cuba is too meek, according to the NYTimes.

After his success in bringing Cuba and the U.S. to the table, many Latin American countries hope for (or fear) his intervention in other long standing conflicts: Bolivia's dispute with Chile over sea access, Argentina's claim to the Falklands Islands and Colombia's war with the FARC, for example.

And indeed, he urged Colombia's government and Marxist FARC guerrillas to successfully conclude three years of peace talks (which are taking place in Havana) and end their "long night" of war, reports Reuters.

But his main goal in Cuba is more subtle: to open up the island's government to the Church, according to a New York Times piece on Saturday. The Church is excluded from primary schooling and health services in Cuba, focusing its services on alleviating poverty and complementary education, such as English classes. (See Friday's post.)

He is also seeking to promote a more open society in Cuba, according to Reuters.

In the Plaza de la Revolución yesterday, Francis called on Cubans to embrace a Christian ideal of service, saying that "Whoever wishes to be great must serve others, not be served by others ... Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people." Tens of thousands of people attended the open-air mass.

The Associated Press called it a "subtle jab" at the communist system, while the Washington Post said his speech might be interpreted by many as a negative commentary on the bureaucratic culture of Cuban socialism.

Francis didn't explicitly mention human rights in his speech but said he would pray to Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, "for all her Cuban children and for this beloved nation, that it may travel the paths of justice, peace, liberty and reconciliation," reports the AP.

Afterwards, he met with Fidel Castro, and spoke about religion and world affairs, according to Reuters.

Though dissidents were left off the official agenda, the Vatican embassy in Havana did make calls to some leaders as a sign of acknowledgement, reports the Associated Press. Yet several dissident groups reported being prevented from attending the Mass yesterday.

The head of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, the country's largest dissident organization, José Daniel Ferrer, said that more than 60 people had been arrested before and during the pope's visit, reports the New York Times.

Yesterday evening he addressed a large crowd of young Cubans standing outside in the rain. He told them to "dream" and resist the temptations of a "spiritually sterile" life, encouraging them to embrace others who think differently, reports the Washington Post. "What a cool pope!" the crowd chanted as he bid farewell and retired for the evening. 

Francis will celebrate Mass in Cuba's eastern cities of Holguin and Santiago before leaving Cuba tomorrow. 

Holguín is the country's third-largest city. Though it's never been graced with a pontifical visit up till now, Francis' stop there is likely so he can scope out Bishop Emilio Aranguren, a possible replacement for Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega, reports the Miami Herald. (See Friday's post.)

Next stop: United States and the U.N. General Assembly. Stay tuned ...

News Briefs

  • With impecable timing, restrictions on travel, commerce and investment were loosened on Friday, in keeping with President Barak Obama's commitment to reestablish ties with the island. The new rules, which take effect today, allow U.S. companies, including telecommunications and Internet providers, to open locations and hire workers in Cuba, facilitate financial transactions between the two nations and remove limits on the sums that can be taken to the island nation, reports the New York Times. The new regulations would also allow U.S. cruise ships to dock in Havana and ferries to run from Florida to Havana, reports the Los Angeles Times. And U.S. companies will be able to sell building materials, equipment and tools to private individuals and builders' cooperatives.Though the Obama government is hoping that Congress takes action to lift the long-standing embargo, aides say it's not likely that will occur. Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro President Obama spoke by phone to discuss the latest shift, according to the LATimes.
  • Venezuelan and Colombian presidents Nicolás Maduro and Juan Manuel Santos are set to meet today in Ecuador to try to resolve an ongoing border situation between the two countries that has led thousands of Colombians living in Venezuela to flee back to their native country, as Venezuela cracks down on smuggling in a widely criticized operative. (See last Thursday's post.) Santos said he is going to the meeting "without great expectations," reports Reuters.
  • Maduro announced the purchase at least 12 fighter jets from Russia, in order to replace the Sukhoi plane that was downed last week on the border. The augmented fleet would be used in anti-drug operative and for defense, according to Noticias 24.
  • Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights' David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz published a border crisis Q and A last week. It is likely that the government sincerely believes that the crackdown will help stem the flow of low cost basic goods across the border, helping alleviate shortages in Venezuela, they say. Another motivation for the Venezuelan government are the legal currency exchange establishments on the Colombian side of the border, especially in Cúcuta that freely exchange Bolívares for Colombian pesos, they explain. Venezuelan government officials want the Colombian government to stop these establishments, which they blame for the wide disparity between the black market currency exchange and the official rate. They give a great overview of the situation in Venezuela and conclude that: "If the border closing proves popular with the broader population, works to reduce shortages and effectively complicates opposition campaigning in the region, the State of Exception and border closing could well be prolonged until after the elections."
  • Venezuelan border disputes are in fashion. British Guyana continues to be embroiled in a high stakes dispute with Venezuela over where exactly the border between the two countries lies. At stake are recently discovered massive oil deposits off the Essequibo region of Guyana, reports the Miami Herald. Maduro already recalled Venezuela's ambassador in July and accuses newly elected President David Granger of mounting attacks. Granger is expected to raise the issue in his first U.N. General Assembly address later this month.
  • Venezuela's opposition held small protests in the country's main cities on Saturday to decry the near 14-year jail sentence handed to politician Leopoldo López and galvanize support for the December parliamentary elections, reports Reuters. (See Sept. 14th's post.)
  • The U.S. State Department issued a new travel advisory warning citizens of rampant crime in Caracas and the rest of the country. "Street crime can take place at any time, and upscale residential areas where many U.S. citizens live and visit are not immune from street crime and home invasion robberies. Recently, heavily armed criminals used grenades and assault rifles to commit crimes at banks, shopping malls, public transportation stations, and universities."
  • Brazil's "pioneering" and "widely admired" Bolsa Familia program of monthly cash allowances for the poor will not receive cuts, despite the country's ever deepening economic and budgetary woes, reports the New York Times. The program transfers cash to poor households, conditioned on members meeting certain conditions such as vaccinating children, mandatory prenatal care and school attendance. The program has contributed to an 82 percent reduction in the country's undernourished population since its inception a decade ago.
  • Relaxing drug laws does not incentivize use of illicit substances, says OSF's Pedro Abramovay in an interview with El País. The ongoing (and paused) debate in the Brazilian Supreme Court could set standards for defining drug traffickers and avoid discrimination. (See August 13th's post.) The current law, which aims at punishing traffickers with stiffer sentencing than mere users, fails to set standards to differentiate between the two. As a result, "the rich are considered users and the poor are traffickers," Abramovay said. Drug use must be treated as a public health issue, not a crime, he argues.
  • On the legalization side of things, the Uruguayan government expects to raise $140 million next year from the sale of marijuana production and investigation licenses, reports El Observador. The national cannabis regulation body will use those funds for its own administration, and projects quadrupling its revenue over four years.
  • Thirteen more people were arrested in relation to Mexican drug-kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán's escape from a maximum security prison in July. (See July 13th's post.) The newly arrested include Celina Oseguera Parra, the country's former national prison chief, and Valentin Cardenas Lerma, former director of the Altiplano prison Guzmán broke out of, reports the Los Angeles Times. The arrests indicate how high up the plot to free Guzmán is thought to go among prison system officials, reports El Daily Post. The piece notes that Oseguera Parra has had a long and controversial career in the Mexican prison system -- including a tenure as head of the Federal District system in a period in which it came under fire for alleged corruption, human rights violations and abuse of authority. In a neat twist, Lerma and ten other male suspects are being held in that same prison. This leaves a total of 20 arrested so far in connection to the spectacular jail-break. El Daily Post's Alejandro Hope says that "El Chapo managing to bribe or intimidate officials on the top echelons of the prison is really bad. It means there is a subclass of inmates that cannot be safely held in a Mexican prison. They should all be extradited as soon as possible." But he also voices concern about the potential infiltration of the intelligence community, which make Guzmán's recapture all the more unlikely.
  • The one year anniversary of the disappearance of 43 students in the Guerrero city of Iguala is fast approaching, but information about the horrific crime that has gripped the country and international community seems to be as scarce as ever. Last week Mexican prosecutors announced they had identified a bone fragment belonging to a second one of the disappeared students (see Thursday's briefs). Now the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team -- an independent group of forensic experts that has been working with investigators on the case -- questioned that announcement, noting that the remains being analyzed were not found in the Cocula dump (where prosecutors say the students' bodies were cremated). Those remains that were found in the dump, according to the Argentine team correspond to victims that have yet to be identified and which could have nothing to do with the 43 disappeared students, and instead belong to victims of another crime or crimes, reports El Daily Post.
  • Mexico's leftist leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) agreed to consider political alliances with the center-right National Action Party (PAN) on a case-by-case basis at its national congress yesterday, reports Reuters. Joining forces for upcoming governors races in some states could help the opposition parties' chances to beat the ruling PRI party in 2018's presidential elections.
  • Television comedian Jimmy Morales may have won the first round of the presidential elections in Guatemala on an anti-corruption platform, saying he embodies the rejection of "politics as usual." But his election in the upcoming run-off election could only be considered a defeat for the #RenunciaYa movement, argues Alberto Fuentes at Nómada. Morales espouses conservative economic and social views and has played racist roles in his acting past. But the real crux of the matter is the influence in his party of certain business and retired military sectors, says Fuentes. Their influence "is also a major source of concern for those who marchd against corruption." Morales' FCN party is supported by groups similar to those which supported former president Otto Pérez Molina: retired military men and businessmen associated with public businesses, he says. "The choice of racist comic, therefore, would only reaffirm the rotten system that the citizen mobilizations sought to change."
  • The Washington Post has a piece on Morales as well, noting that the actor has played a blackface character on TV. The piece also builds on human rights activists concerns regarding the track record of FCN's members who are former military officers associated with the brutal three-decade civil war that killed some 200,000 people, most at the hands of the military. The piece quotes WOLA's Eric Olsen, who says "When you grow up over 30 years of that level of violence and terror, when some of those actors reemerge, it's a pretty frightening thing ...There's a lot of concern about that." Analysts predict that he would have to reach out to rival parties if elected, as his party has few seats in Congress and would be unable to pass legislation without allies.
  • A Guatemalan indigenous activist leader -- Rigoberto Lima Choc -- who opposed the country's palm oil production was killed on Friday outside a court that a day earlier ordered the closure of a factory against which he had led protests, reports the Tico Times.
  • Several Latin American countries have agreed to take in Syrian civil-war refugees. An issue of the InterAmerican Dialogue's Latin American Advisor last week asks experts what the potential impact of the refugee influx might be and what the policy says about how the region views its role on the global stage. Far from representing a change, the welcoming refugee policies are continuation of a historical trend, agree the experts interviewed in the piece.
  • The European refugee crisis is a chance to look at the situation over here in the Americas, argues Human Rights Watch's Clara Long in The Progressive. Some European countries are putting "fast track procedures" to push asylum-seekers back out of the country before their claims can be properly assessed. But the U.S. has had similar policies in place for a decade, she says. "Many asylum seekers who cross our southern border are quickly returned to the places they fled with no chance to tell their story and request protection. That puts people fleeing for their lives at serious risk." She calls on the U.S. to reexamine "flawed border screenings, mass detentions including of families, and summary procedures that flatly turn away those in need."
  • Jamaica has passed a record of nine IMF tests during island's latest loan agreement, said Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, who called the terms of the IMF deal "challenging yet necessary," reports the Associated Press.

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