Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Castro to step down tomorrow (April 17, 2018)

Cuban President Raúl Castro will step down as president this week, the first time the island will be led by a non-Castro brother in 60 years. The handoff is part of a broader shift of power from the revolutionary of leaders to the so-called "lost generation" born after the revolution that has always followed orders, reports the Associated Press.

The historic National Assembly session in which Castro's successor is to be officially chosen was moved up a day, from Thursday to Wednesday. It's not clear if this means the changeover will happen a day early or whether the session will last two days, reports the Miami Herald. The session will conclude on Thursday, a day of symbolic importance as it marks the anniversary of Cuba’s 1961 defeat of a CIA-backed Cuban exile invasion at the Bay of Pigs, reports Reuters.

Castro will likely be succeeded by first Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, though most experts agree little will change immediately. Continuity is the last thing Cuba needs, according to a Washington Post editorial that strenuously criticizes the Cuban government. "While authoritarianism is enjoying a comeback in Russia, totalitarianism in Cuba never left. Dissidents are regularly rounded up; there is no freedom of information, press or association; and a tired system of Communist Party loyalty and monopoly on power lumbers on. The country is run by a clique — one that in recent years has been getting rich, too — and most Cubans have no say whatsoever in how their country is governed."

To be clear, Cubans do not actually vote for their president, rather they vote for National Assembly representatives -- only one candidate per post, that they can vote for or against -- who then select the leader, explains the Miami Herald separately. Critics call the electoral system a single-party farce. Even among supporters of the government, there are growing calls for a directly elected president.

Nonetheless very fact of a changeover at all is significant. " In a country where transfers of power are rare, the one about to occur is momentous," according to the Economist. "The post-revolutionary generation will bring a change in style and raise Cubans’ expectations of their government. It is unclear whether the new leaders will meet them."

A leaked video of a recent private Communist Party meeting, shows Díaz-Canel railing against the loosening of the U.S. embargo, calling it an attempt to destroy the revolution. He promises to shut down critical media and throttle civil society. But some experts say this was an example of posturing in order to assure his political rise.

Public gestures by Díaz-Canel, such as standing in line to vote in National Assembly elections last month, seem to indicate that the new leader will seek to govern differently from his predecessors. In his home province of Villa Clara, where he served in a gubernatorial post, he"gained a reputation as a hard-working public servant with a conspicuously modest lifestyle," reports the Associated Press. As a provincial official he undertook efforts to reach out to citizens and respond to their everyday problems. More recently, as minister of higher education he was praised for modernizing curricula and introducing computer technology to many university programs. And Díaz-Canel has a moderating role in the government's attitude towards some political opposition, according to the AP.

Relations with the U.S. have returned somewhat to Cold War rhetoric since Donald Trump got to the White House, but meetings have continued to be held on matters of technical cooperation ranging from human trafficking to environmental protections, notes the Miami Herald. Hawks believe the transition is an opportunity to continue exerting pressure on the Cuban government, while engagement proponents say it's time to further deepen relations between the two countries.

Last week the Washington Office on Latin America urged U.S. officials to "maintain and deepen" cooperation with Cuba. "Failing to do so will only imperil U.S. national interests and threaten progress made on important areas of mutual concern." (See last Friday's briefs.) Not that Trump was always anti-Cuba, as William LeoGrande writes at the Conversation.

Just last week, U.S. Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo promised to build up U.S. diplomatic presence in Cuba if he is confirmed. However, as the Herald notes, it is not clear what kind of a relationship Díaz-Canel aspires to. 

Castro steps down in the midst of economic reforms that are still being implemented and tinkered with, reports Reuters in an explainer piece. Díaz-Canel will inherit a complicated scenario -- the country is in the midst of its first recession since the fall of the Soviet Union and its deficit reached 12 percent of the GDP last year, notes the Economist. The economic situation is in fact worst than when Raúl Castro took over from his brother Fidel, and it's not clear whether a leader without the Castro credentials will have the social goodwill required to tackle the problems, according to a separate Associated Press article.

"... But this malaise obscures the emergence of a more complex, diversified economy," writes Richard Feinberg in a February Brookings Institution report. "The private economy has taken off, providing jobs and income to as many as four out of 10 Cubans of working age. Qualitatively, the private economy has advanced from fragile microenterprises to more ample small-scale businesses engaged in substantial capital accumulation. Furthermore, international tourism, with the active cooperation of global partners, is another bright feature."

News Briefs
  • Canada recalled the families of its diplomatic staff in Cuba, following the U.S. example after 10 Canadians continue to show unexplained brain symptoms, reports the BBC. Unlike the U.S., Canadian officials discounted the theory of a "sonic attack" against diplomats, and report by a Canadian medical specialist says that a new type of brain injury may be the cause of a mysterious illness. While there have been no new incidents since the autumn of 2017, diplomatic families that have returned to Canada have continued to experience symptoms, which include dizziness, headaches and nausea, reports Reuters.
  • Fake news is besieging Mexico's presidential race. But a team of reporters at Verificado 18 is fighting back with round-the-clock fact-checking, reports the Los Angeles Times. The platform was forged by Mexico's Animal Politico and AJ+, together with an international organization called PopUp Newsroom, is creating content distributed by about 70 other media outlets, including some of Mexico's most-read newspapers. While all of the five leading candidates have been targeted by smears, front-runner leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been the most affected, according to Verificado 18. Roughly 80 percent of fake stories, memes and videos identified by the group have targeted AMLO.
  • AMLO said that corrupt Mexican governments were to blame for Trump's bad impression of Mexicans, promising to change Trump's perception if elected, reports Reuters.
  • Brazil’s public security minister says that investigators suspect that police-linked militias were responsible for killing Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco last month, reports the Associated Press.
  • An internal U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services report released as part of a lawsuit, counters the U.S. government's claim that conditions on the ground in Haiti have improved significantly since a devastating 2010 earthquake. "Many of the conditions prompting the original January 2010 TPS designation persist," an 18-page October 2017 memo from USCIS said. As of August 2017, the country continued "to be affected by a convergence of humanitarian needs including food insecurity, internal displacement, an influx of returnees from the Dominican Republic, the persistence of cholera and the lingering impact of various natural disasters." The report was written before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security decided to terminate temporary protected status for Haitian nationals living in the U.S., reports the Miami Herald. About 40,000 people will be affected.
  • Ecuadorean authorities said two more people were kidnapped by a dissident FARC group in the conflictive Colombian border area where three people were killed last week, reports the Associated Press.
  • The Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office raised to more than $300 million the amount of public funds allegedly embezzled by former President Elias Antonio Saca, reports EFE.
  • Members of Brazil's homeless workers movement (MST) occupied a beachfront apartment implicated in corruption charges against former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Prosecutors say OAS promised the Guarujá apartment to Lula in exchange for helping the construction company obtain contracts with state oil firm Petrobras. Yesterday morning, around 50 activists occupied the apartment for several hours, reports the Guardian. Another hundred gathered outside the building, chanting slogans in support of Lula. Lula’s lawyers say that there is no material evidence linking him to the apartment and that the prosecution’s case rests on the testimony of the OAS executive Léo Pinheiro, who entered a plea bargain to receive a reduced sentence for corruption and money laundering.
  • The British government apologized yesterday for its "appalling" treatment of some immigrants from the Caribbean who settled in the U.K. legally as children but lack documentation, reports the Associated Press.
  • This New York Times piece goes more in-depth than you ever though possible into potatoes in Peru. "Potatoes come in every texture and color. You can see them in the markets: reds, blues, purples, yellows and pinks, sometimes ringed with two colors when sliced open. ... Some are shaped like a puma’s paw; others, an alpaca’s nose or a cat’s claw. Native to the Andes in Peru and northwest Bolivia, potatoes were domesticated more than 10,000 years ago. And yet new varieties are being discovered all the time."

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