Friday, September 18, 2015

Two media favorites colide: Pope in Cuba! (September 18, 2015)

Brace yourselves for a Pope and Cuba frenzy as the People's Pontiff visits the island this weekend. Pope Francis arrives in Havana tomorrow, the first stop on a nine-day Cuba and U.S. trip that will have everybody revisiting his key role in the rapprochement between the two countries and speculating what other geopolitical feats he might be aiming for.

Setting the scene: The New York Times has a "State of Cuba" feature, with paragraph entries on topics such as race, political freedom and tourism, along with nice photography. Contradiction is one of the island's defining features, it says.

Building on his previous success in bringing the U.S. and Cuba together, many in Cuba hope the two-country visit will help transform the diplomatic thaw into real benefits for the Cuban people, reports the Associated Press. According to the piece, few people are concerned with the papal pastoral message, and are instead in a frenzy over the potential political ramifications of his visit.
The Vatican is opposed to the long standing U.S. trade embargo because it hurst ordinary people the most, said the Holy See's secretary of state, reports the Irish Times. He is expected to express this opposition, but not dwell on it, according to Reuters.

Francis' challenge on this visit is to open the island to the Roman Catholic Church, says the New York Times. He is expected to push authorities to allow the Church more of a role in social services, in a country where it is forbidden from running schools or hospitals. A few days ago the Associated Press had a piece on the Church's social outreach in Cuba, which is making inroads in areas such as food and education where the state traditionally has held a monopoly on the island. The NYTimes notes that the Cuban church has made headway by providing food and services to the needy -- stepping up in areas the government is struggling to afford.

But, while the Church now offers everything from English language and computer classes to care for the elderly and and disabled, the government is highly unlikely to allow it to encroach on K-12 education, reports the Washington Post. Public education is still relatively strong, and the government is wary of a return to stratified pre-revolutionary schooling. The Church will likely be able to expand its complementary services, however, notes the piece.

The NYTimes piece looks at contemporary Cuban church politics, including Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, the archbishop of Havana, who favors a smooth transition into a more democratic and capitalist country. Critics say he's too conciliatory to the government.

The Pope plans on meeting pretty much everybody in Cuba -- except for political dissidents, according to the Associated Press. His agenda doesn't feature any meetings with the political opposition, a stance that hews to the Church strategy of advocating for change within the bounds laid by the government. But Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the place to bring up human rights issues is in private conversation, not public proclamations.

About 200 Florida Catholics will fly to Havana today to visit local churches and participate in Francis' Sunday Mass in La Plaza de la Revolución, reports the Miami Herald.

And the thaw continues. Raul Castro will visit the U.S. for the first time in half a century -- in order to address the U.N. General Assembly at the end of the month. CNN reports that Obama might visit Cuba next year.

Amid all of this, the U.S. is set to loosen commercial regulations, allowing for a wider range of U.S. business activity on the island. The changes, which could be announced today, would allow U.S. telecommunications companies to open locations as well as bank accounts in Cuba, reports the Wall Street Journal. They might also make travel easier between the two countries and allow U.S. firms to set up Cuban subsidiaries. In many ways its a continuation of the changes enacted since the two governments announced a warming in relations in December of last year, but might provide the business community with more commercial traction, reports the Miami Herald. Changes could include amendments to licensing policies, creating more exceptions available for companies seeking to do business with Cuba.

It's all part of an Obama administration push to chip away as much as possible at the trade embargo -- shifting policy enough to make it difficult for a future administration to reverse the thaw. Only Congress can lift the long-standing trade embargo though.

U.S. side note: The Guardian has a piece on a humanitarian organization that's hoping for the Pope to question U.S. migration policy during his visit.

News Briefs

  • A Venezuelan fighter jet with two people on board crashed near the Colombian border late yesterday after an "illicit aircraft" believed to be Colombian was found violating airspace, according to the Venezuelan government. Reuters reports that the cause of the crash has not been determined and it's not clear whether the two pilots were killed. The crash comes amid three weeks of heightened tensions between the two countries regarding Venezuelan anti-smuggling operatives that are targeting Colombian nationals in the border area. (Seeyesterday's briefs.) Ahead of next week's meeting between the two countries' presidents, The Guardian has a helpful review of the past few weeks of tension between Venezuela and Colombia and the impact it's had for some Colombian migrants.
  • Mexican officials say they captured an alleged drug-gang member who prosecutors claim was a key figure in the abduction and presumed killing of 43 students from Ayotzinapa last year, reports the Wall Street Journal. Authorities say that Gildardo "El Gil" López Astudillo led the operation to incinerate the bodies of the 43 students. (Last week an independent group affiliated with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights strongly questioned the official narrative of events, saying there's no evidence the bodies were burned in such a fashion. See September 8th's post.) Though the Associated Press calls him a "high-ranking drug cartel member", López Astudillo was more of  a lowly figure, unknown generally before the Iguala disappearances, reports El Animal Político. He landed squarely on official radars with a text message to his boss, the leader of Guerreros Unidos, saying "they'll never find them, we made them dust and threw them into the water," sent a few hours after the incineration of the bodies, according to the prosecutor's office. The piece points to a cryptic message signed by El Gil, however, that in October of last year said the students were still alive.
  • And InSight Crime notes that the identification of a bone fragment recovered from the alleged incineration site belonging to another of the missing students (only the second identification, see yesterday's briefs) might not mean that much, as some have questioned whether the samples were actually recovered in the trash dump in the first place.
  • Mexico is facing a looming migrant crisis, reports Animal Político. About 6 million migrants are expected to return to the country, aged, infirm and without pensions. Yet the government is completely unprepared for this eventuality, according to a new report from Universidad de Zacatecas.
  • An op-ed in The Guardian by Daniel Peña questions the Mexican government's outrage over the Mexican tourists killed in Egypt, in a country with horrible war on drugs casualty rates: 164,000 civilian deaths, 20,000 people go missing and over 70 journalists killed since 2006.

  • A significant number of firearms recovered in Mexico come from the U.S. -- but are actually imports themselves, primarily from Romania, according to a new report from WOLA and the Violence Policy Center. The report recommends U.S. authorities reexamine the importability of semiautomatic rifles, a move that would help keep them out of the hands of out of the hands of criminals, gangs, and drug cartels in the United States, Mexico, and throughout the Americas. The source of the weapons is actually very important, as only the U.S. Congress can restrict the domestic manufacture of certain types of weapons -- and gun rights are an extremely politically divisive issue. But U.S. restrictions on foreign-made weapons rest solely with the executive branch. "If the trafficking of non-US manufactured weapons into Mexico is on the rise ... the urgency placed on an executive ban of foreign military-style weapons only becomes magnified. With the stroke of a pen, the US president could put a sizable dent into the lucrative cross-border arms smuggling industry," notes InSight Crime.
  • New York Times piece asks an interesting question: Why was the death toll so low in Chile's most recent earthquake? Eleven people have been reported dead so far, compared to 525 in a 2010 quake. The earthquake this week was not as powerful, though it was above 8 on the Richter scale. But Chile has also enacted tsunami ready policies to ensure prompt warnings, there have been many earthquake drills and dry runs, and evacuation routes have been clearly marked up and down the coast, explains the piece. In addition, Chile has improved it's emergency response and has enforced a strict building code over the years that makes its modern buildings weather seismic activity pretty well. The Miami Herald also reports on the issue, noting that Chile's stringent building codes played a key role in minimizing destruction. (A separate NYTimes piece has news updates and images of the destruction that has affected coastal cities in north-central Chile as a result of the 8.3 earthquake the hit on Wednesday, seeyesterday's briefs.)
  • In an earthquake counterpoint, The Guardian has a piece questioning Mexico City's seismic activity preparedness. Thirty years after an earthquake reduced the city center to rubble, the urban periphery is full of informal settlements that follow no building code and would be vulnerable to a big earthquake.
  • Haitian election officials removed a convicted cocaine smuggler from the candidate list for the upcoming parliamentary run-off election, reports the Miami Herald. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Haitian Prime Minister Evans Paul yesterday, and noted the importance of the upcoming October elections, in which Haitians will also conduct the first round of voting for the next president. Paul said the government is committed to correcting the problems that marred August's voting round, including violence at polling stations.
  • A new addition to the Pablo Escobar glut, Netflix's "Narcos," has received rave reviews. But Colombian audiences say the accents are off, as is its portrayal of the country’s recent history. In many cases, they're just bored by yet another narco-drama, reports The Guardian.

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