Monday, March 21, 2016

Obama is welcome in Cuba -- dissent isn't. (Also Brazil's Castelo de cartas) (March 21, 2016)

Cubans lined Havana streets last night in the pouring rain to catch a glimpse of U.S. President Barack Obama and shout encouragement. The first visit from a sitting president in nearly 90 years.

He received a surprisingly warm welcome from an island steeped in Cold War ethos, notes the Miami Herald. Instead of "Yanquee go home," the president and his family were received with chants of "USA."

Yesterday Obama visited the Cathedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana, where he met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who played a key role in setting up the rapprochement between the two countries, reports the New York Times.

Today met with Cuban President Raúl Castro in Havana's Palace of the Revolution, a meeting that will give clues as to whether Obama's sharp U-turn in policy will be fully reciprocated, reports the Associated Press. Later the two leaders will address reporters.

This will be their fourth meeting, and likely the most substantial, notes Reuters.
Obama will be giving a much anticipated speech tomorrow, that will be broadcast by Cuban media. 

Every step of the visit is fraught with history, notes the Washington Post piece which reviews a lot of it, from the 1898 Havana Harbor explosion of the USS Maine which launched the American invasion of the then-Spanish occupied island, to the former Texaco oil refinery nationalized by the Castro government in 1960.

The Cuban government has tightly controlled all aspects of the visit -- from the newly pastel painted buildings lining the U.S. president's route through Old Havana to the arrest of dozens of dissidents yesterday morning and previous preventative detentions, reports the New York Times.

Dozens of arrests were made at the weekly march of Ladies in White, a prominent dissident group. They march outside a suburban church most Sundays, and yesterday was seen as a litmus test for how the Cuban government would tolerate dissent during the visit, reports the New York Times (separate piece). "The arrests confirmed that Cuba was maintaining its long history of repressive tactics, if not intensifying their reach." In the lead up to the visit they have stepped up intimidatory practices with well-known dissidents as well, according to the piece.

Significantly, the media spotlight on the protest and the proximity of Obama's visit were apparently not deterrents to repression, notes the Miami Herald. So far this year politically motivated detentions are on the rise, rather than wane. 
Obama is scheduled to meet with with dissidents tomorrow, including a Ladies in White leader. Their detention highlights a challenge of his trip: how to forge relations with the government while maintaining a critical stance of its human rights record.

Obama acknowledged in the interview with anchor David Muir that "we still have significant differences around human rights and civil liberties" but argued that making the trip at this time "would maximize our ability to prompt more change," reports the Associated Press.

Obama has promised to talk about freedom of speech and assembly in Cuba, according to Reuters. In a letter to the Ladies in White earlier this month he said he'd raise those issues directly with Castro.

The Guardian has more interviews with dissidents in which they denounce abuses by the Cuban government.

Miami Herald's Andrés Oppenheimer interviews a leading dissident and is skeptical of any real change on the human rights front. 
One of Obama's key events today will be meeting with small-business people from the island -- the "cuentapropistas" -- and visiting American business executives, reports the Associated Press.

Obama will announce a Google coordinated internet upgrade for the island during his visit, according to the AP. Western Union will also be announcing expansion onto the island, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The political scene in Brazil is boiling over. It's so epic that the constant comparisons to the Netflix series "House of Cards," almost seem apt. (In fact Nexo has a fun quiz "Did it happen in Brazil, or House of Cards," republished by America's Quarterly in English.)

The convulsions were coming once a week, then once a day, and now, hourly, laments Eliane Brum at the Guardian. As she picturesquely put it: "On Thursday 17 March, Brazilians tuned in to watch as former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was sworn inas a cabinet minister. Then they went to use the toilet or get a drink, and by the time they came back his appointment had already been blocked by a judge."

President Dilma Rousseff's naming of Lula as her chief of staff last week  was immediately countered by several injunction orders by judges around the country. Though two of those were challenged and fell on Friday, that same day a Supreme Court judge decided to suspend the appointment, until until a panel of Supreme Court justices makes a final ruling following an appeal by the government, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The latest series of volleys in the ongoing war that is Brazilian politics have been led by the judicial branch notes, the AFP. As judges have dropped one bombshell after another in recent days, some critics have accused the judiciary of trying to destabilize the already crisis-hit government.

The question now is whether Judge Sergio Moro will issue an arrest warrant for Lula while he has the chance, according to the WSJ. It is possible that the government move of apparently shielding Lula from Moro's wide-ranging investigation could embolden him to up the ante against the politician. Already Rousseff and allies are accusing him of politically-motivated overreach in releasing tapped phone conversations between Rousseff and Lula in which they seem to be arranging for his protection from the investigation. (See last Thursday's post.)

"It is impossible to predict with any degree of confidence whether the government of President Dilma Rousseff will survive," reports the BBC, giving a bit of the doomsday flavor of reporting out of Brazil. "Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case against the under fire leader ... Rousseff is on the ropes, in the political equivalent of a bare-knuckle fight for her survival." The piece reviews the past decade of Brazilian politics, including the socio-economic divide between anti and pro government protesters. (See last Monday's post.)

A Datafolha poll from Sunday suggested strong support for Rousseff's impeachment, reports the Associated Press. (See last Thursday's post.) Sixty-eight percent of respondents wanted to see the president impeached, a percentage that increases in relation to income: the rich support the move by 74 percent.

Critics say Lula accepted a cabinet post in an attempt to shield himself from a corruption investigation, and his ratings have taken a corresponding hit, according to the survey. He has a 57 disapproval rating; down from a 90 percent approval rating when he left office in 2010. Nonetheless, respondents still rated him the best president the country's ever had.

In the meantime, calls for Rousseff's ouster continue, as the impeachment process continues to wend its way through Congress. The case, which is unrelated to the Petrobras corruption investigation, centers on allegations that she used illegal accounting tricks to mask a deterioration in Brazil's fiscal situation. The vote will likely take place next month or in May, and would require the backing of two thirds of Congress' lower chamber to move forward, reports the Wall Street Journal.

If you, like pretty much anybody else, are confused as to the chain of command and what's going on, the New York Times has a trilingual chart on the main players and what they're being investigated for in relation the Petrobras corruption scandal. It's worth noting that at this stage more members of Congress are facing serious charges (including bribery electoral fraud and homicide) than not.

It's worth noting that the more than 150 members of Congress and government officials who are facing such serious charges, all can only be tried by the Supreme Court, which is facing a serious backlog of cases, notes the BBC piece.
Operation Car Wash aside: Portuguese police arrested a man in Lisbon in relation to the massive Petrobras corruption investigation, reports the Wall Street Journal.

News Briefs
  • A barrage of Cuba related features showing up everywhere:
  • "Cuba on the edge of  change," a photo essay of the island by the New York Times. "Cuba at times can feel like a nation abandoned. The aching disrepair of its cities, the untamed foliage of its countryside, the orphaned coastlines — a half-century of isolation has wrapped the country in decay. Yet few places in the world brim with as much life as Cuba, a contrast drawn sharper amid its faded grandeur."
  • An expanding class of entrepreneurs are opting to remain on the island, betting on Cuba's future despite serious challenges, reports the New York Times. Nonetheless, it's a drop in the bucket compared to those who opt to leave. More than twice as many Cubans went to live in the United States last year than in 1959, when Fidel Castro took power.
  • Obama's visit to Cuba is creating hopes of a flood of investment. But entrepreneurs and consultants who have spent years working towards such goals warn that the island's government, which is suspicious of profit-making enterprise, and the ongoing U.S. trade embargo, will make things difficult despite the good will, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with FARC negotiators in Havana later today. The rebels would first meet the U.S. special envoy for Colombian peace talks, Bernard Aronson, to agree on an agenda, reports Deutsche Welle.
  • As Colombian negotiators work against the clock to meet a peace agreement deadline this week, UNICEF released a report showing the high cost of the conflict with the FARC in recent years. Over the past three years of peace negotiations with the guerrilla group, about a quarter of a million children have been displaced. About 1,000 Colombian children were used or recruited by nonstate armed combatants during the same period, roughly 200 children were killed or wounded in attacks or from land mines or other explosives, and another 200 were victims of sexual violence, reports the New York Times.

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