Cuba: Preparing for President Trump

By Fulton Armstrong

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Photo credit: Day Donaldson / Flickr / Creative Commons

Cubans are already calibrating their expectations for relations with the United States under President Trump – hoping the normalization process does not unravel but preparing for a return to a sanctions-based policy from Washington.  Conversations in Havana reveal deep concern that the President-elect’s tweets and statements about Cuba, Mexico, and Latinos in the United States will translate into efforts to slow, stop, or reverse normalization.  The past two years of dialogue have focused on mutual interests, without ignoring remaining differences between capitals but not allowing them to blot out hopes of mutually beneficial cooperation.  Cuba will interpret a return to bombastic rhetoric, exaggerated conditions to reach a “deal,” and the pressure tactics of the pre-Obama era as a sign of U.S. willingness to put bullying a small neighbor eager for improved ties ahead of its own national interests.

Cubans present the stiff upper lip in conversations and, not surprisingly, defiantly note that they’ve already survived decades of U.S. pressure, but their disappointment is palpable.

  • Most concerned are entrepreneurs in Cuba’s small but growing private sector, who depend on investment from U.S.-based relatives and friends. More than 100 Cuban private businessmen wrote a letter to Trump last week urging restraint.
  • Nationalism has precluded Cubans from saying that normalization would be a major driver of their long-promised economic reforms, but few deny that improving ties with the United States would eventually present Havana important opportunities. U.S. retrenchment will remove important incentives for the government to move ahead with its reform strategy.
  • Rumors about tensions between Cuban proponents of normalization and conservative opponents may have some merit, but Cubans across the spectrum will close ranks if Trump gets aggressive.

Cuba’s reactions to Trump’s election, including President Raúl Castro’s congratulatory message to him, so far suggest that it will hold its tongue and resist being provoked.  A U.S. return to full-bore Cold War tactics would not pose an existential threat to Cuba, even considering the country’s difficulties dealing with unrelated problems such as the crisis in Venezuela.  Popular reactions to the passing of Fidel Castro last month are being construed as evidence of residual political legitimacy for the government and support for it to deliver on promised improvements.  Moreover, Cuba’s progress in normalization; its effective contribution to the Colombia peace accord; its new political dialogue and cooperation agreement with the European Union; and the recent Havana visit of Japanese Prime Minister Abe have boosted the country’s international image – and blame for collapse of normalization will surely fall solely upon the United States.  However difficult it will be for the proud people of Cuba to resist rising to whatever bait the Trump Administration throws its way, showing forbearance in the bilateral relationship and moving “without hurry but without pause,” as Raúl Castro said, with its national reform plan would protect the investment that Cuba has already made in normalization.

December 19, 2016

Implications of Fidel’s Passing

By Fulton Armstrong

KODAK Digital Still Camera

As a tribute to Fidel Castro, flowers and posters adorn the gates outside the Cuban Embassy in Buenos Aires. / Gastón Cuello / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The death of Fidel Castro last Friday night has drawn largely predictable reactions from largely predictable quarters, but the analysis of the meaning of the comandante’s passing that matters most belongs to the Cuban people.  History may ultimately absolve Fidel of his most egregious excesses and errors over the last six decades, but Cubans are the ones who will decide which parts of his revolution to keep – and which to reject or allow to fade away.  By all accounts, Cubans want to preserve some of the gains of the revolution, including their sense of national dignity and some social benefits, while seeking a vastly improved living standard.  But no one can claim to know exactly what “the people” want – and how they want to achieve it.

  • The economic reforms that President Raúl Castro launched years ago have been halting and hampered by policy contradictions and bureaucratic obstacles rooted in elites’ fears of losing political control. Processes like the 7th Party Congress’ Conceptualización have been so muted as to undermine change and breed cynicism among the population.  Raúl and his team have a roadmap that, while as unorthodox as ever, will move the economy in the right direction.  Fidel’s departure is a signal that the old-timers, perennially blamed for slowing change, represent an eventually diminished threat.  The next generation of Party leaders knows full well that their legitimacy is going to have to come from concrete results, especially improving living standards, and it needs to move ahead with the hundreds of lineamientos, laws and regulations that have already been approved.  It’s their own plan, and the excuses for non-implementation of at least the easier measures are getting thin.  Major reforms such as unifying exchange rates will be a big challenge, as for any country, but the new team at some time will have to bite the bullet.
  • On the political side, Raúl lags even farther behind. Fidel’s passing puts a lot of pressure on him to flesh out his plan to step down as President in 15 months (a commitment that so far seems solid).  Some of Raúl’s actions indicate a desire to build institutions, perhaps even the National Assembly as it moves back into the Capitolio this month; improve decision-making processes; and reduce party intervention in day-to-day matters.  But his handover of power to a new generation won’t work if his policy team stays in the shadows forever.  His vision entails them learning how to do politics among themselves and, increasingly, with the Cuban people – which implicitly entails respect for the plurality of legitimate views across Cuban society.  The Cuban people have shown they’ll not form lynch mobs the moment political space opens up.

Cubans can find support for their evolutionary change in every corner of our Americas, except perhaps one.  Reactions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean differed in tone and effusiveness, but they uniformly showed respect for the deceased comandante and support for the Cuban people.  Regional leaders called him a “giant in history” and “a leader for dignity and social justice in Cuba as well as Latin America” and the like, while one merely tweeted “condolences to the Cuban government” and had staff explain he’d miss the funeral because the logistics of flying to Cuba were “not easy.”  But the region’s best wishes for Cubans to find a stable path from a Castro-dominated past into the future that they collectively – in the Party and “the people” – wish to find were strong.

The outlier is, again, the United States.  President Obama and Secretary Kerry’s messages were statesmanlike and consistent with Washington’s sensitivity toward any country in mourning even if it has different interests and values.  President-elect Trump took a different approach.  His condolence statement focused on issues from the past and his affiliation with combatants from the Bay of Pigs invasion who tried to oust Castro in 1961 and endorsed his own candidacy last month.  He tweeted that he will “terminate the deal” of normalization if Cuba is “unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban-American people, and the U.S. as a whole.”  Obama’s staff prematurely declared normalization “irreversible,” and Trump may be equally premature in threatening to reverse it.  Cuba’s changing on its own, and Fidel’s passing will probably give change on the island, if not in Washington, a push.  Efforts to return to a Cold War posture would probably put Cuba on the defensive and slow its transition processes – but not even Fidel could stop the march of time.

November 29, 2016

Cuba: Time to Move Ahead with Reforms

By Ricardo Torres*

cuba-economy

Oil drums and a tobacco curing hut near Viñales, Cuba / Adams Jones / Flickr / Creative Commons

The economic challenges that Cuba currently faces probably do not signal the beginning of a new Período Especial – the profound crisis Cuba experienced in the 1990s – but they are a painful reminder of the country’s chronic structural problem: the inability to generate enough hard currency to develop the economy and the failure of efforts to overcome that obstacle so far.  The immediate predicament was caused by a combination of internal and external factors, including the Venezuelan crisis and the low prices for certain Cuban exports.  (Ironically, oil byproducts from a refinery in Cienfuegos, which Cuba jointly owns with Venezuela’s PDVSA, have become a leading export.)  Venezuela is affecting income from services that Cuba sells there (in particular that of medical doctors) as well as a drop in the supply of oil products, which has covered about a half of Cuba’s needs.  This has placed extreme stress on Cuba’s external finances and forced a significant economic adjustment.  The government has imposed restrictions on energy consumption and a reduction in imports and investments – with important recessionary effects on an economy that desperately needs growth.  The energy rationing has fueled fears that the country could repeat the deep shortages of the early 1990s and again experience one of the most powerful symbols of that period: blackouts.

The situation is serious, but a crisis on the scale of the Special Period does not appear to be on the horizon.  Cuba today has a more diversified economy and produces a significant portion of its own energy, and the majority of the population has other sources of income to cushion themselves during bad times.  Most creditors and suppliers have shown confidence in their ability to move ahead.  In July, important contracts were announced for French companies to expand and operate Havana’s airport, which has been overwhelmed by the increase of international visitors (one of the few bright spots in the economy this year) in tandem with the improvement in relations with the United States.  Early this month, Cuban officials made presentations to firms from around the world on the government’s timely interest in renewable energy.  They emphasized the great opportunities that exist, not just current problems.

Once again, a close partner’s difficulties have put Cuba in a bind – too many times in too short a period.  Moreover, these problems arise at a politically sensitive moment.  Cubans are discussing the new model and development strategy through 2030, and – while Cubans are expecting results after six years of reform – President Raúl Castro has little time remaining in office.  The current complications can further delay essential monetary and exchange reforms.  Cuba needs to fix its foreign trade to supply oxygen for dynamic activities, such as its booming private sector.  Its development potential can’t rely just on its mystique as la Perla del Caribe.  Today’s challenges are an opportunity to remove the obstacles to changes that already have been announced, such as by accelerating the heretofore slow and ineffective implementation of agreed policies on foreign investment.  Some multilateral financial institutions can help, but Havana’s recent agreement with the Corporación Andina de Fomento (CAF), while a positive signal, is not enough.  The short-term answer is clear:  Only a combination of structural measures can guarantee that this latest economic crunch will be the last.

September 12, 2016

*Ricardo Torres is a professor at the Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cubana at the University of Havana and a former CLALS Research Fellow.

Canada-Cuba Relations Poised for Progress under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

By John M. Kirk*

Cuba Canada

Photo Credits: Wisegie/ Flickr / Creative Commons, Pixabay / Creative Commons

After a decade of ignoring Cuba under the government led by Stephen Harper, Canada is on the cusp of an era of a significant improvement in bilateral relations with the island.  Many constants supporting this longstanding relationship remain: Canada, along with Mexico, was the only country in the Western Hemisphere not to break relations with revolutionary Cuba in 1962; Pierre Trudeau was the first leader of a NATO country to visit Cuba (1976) and developed a strong friendship with Fidel Castro (who was an honorary pall-bearer at his funeral); Canadians make up the largest tourist group (1.3 million a year) there; and the largest single foreign investor in Cuba is the Canadian firm Sherritt International.

Justin Trudeau, elected prime minister in October 2015, has undertaken several significant foreign policy initiatives, mainly in Asia and Europe.  Steps to improve relations with Cuba have been taken slowly, but are noticeable.  In May Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez visited Ottawa and Quebec City, while Canada’s Minister of Tourism Bardish Chagger attended the International Tourist Fair in Havana, at which Canada was the “invited country of honor,” reciprocating an earlier visit by her counterpart.  In December the Canadian Senate held a special session to celebrate the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations.  Canada has been invited as the country of honor to the International Book Fair in Havana, in March 2017, and it is rumored that Trudeau will shortly visit Cuba.  Significantly, the gradual improvement of bilateral relations is due mainly to Canadian initiatives, and not to developments in the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

  • Investment and trade, however, have not kept up with diplomatic initiatives. Annual bilateral trade remains about $1 billion, mainly because of uncertainty over Cuba’s economy.  Canadian business has yet to take advantage of its privileged relationship, concerned with existing U.S. legislation and the looming wave of U.S. investment once the embargo is lifted.

After a decade of neglect, Canada and Cuba have the potential to rediscover their deep-rooted ties.  Trudeau’s willingness to work with Cuba and his diplomatic initiatives were unthinkable under the Harper government.  A complicating factor for business has been the arrest and imprisonment of two Armenian-Canadian entrepreneurs, found guilty of corruption.  Canadian civil society ties remain strong, with Canada making up 43 percent of tourists to Cuba.  Again, however, concern exists at how Canadian tourists face skyrocketing prices when Americans are allowed to visit the island.  In sum, Canada-Cuba relations are at this point characterized by political commitment to improve ties, largely untapped commercial potential, and anxiety about the ramifications of closer U.S. ties with Cuba.  The big question is whether Canadian trade and investment will provide the energy to propel relations beyond their special past status into a new era of collaboration.

August 8, 2016

*John M. Kirk is Professor of Latin American Studies at Dalhousie University in Canada.  He is the author/co-editor of 16 books on Cuba, and also works as a consultant on investment and trade in Cuba.

Cuba: Implications of U.S. Tourism

By Emma Fawcett*

Tourists on beach in Cuba

Photo Credit: Emmanuel Huybrechts / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

U.S. regulations still technically ban tourist travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, but the Obama Administration’s policies have already spurred significant growth in visitor arrivals to the island – with implications for Cuba and its Caribbean neighbors.  Over the last year, Cuba has experienced a 17 percent increase in total visitors, and a 75 percent increase in arrivals from the United States since Washington expanded the categories of permitted travel and, according to observers, relaxed enforcement.  An agreement to begin commercial airline operations between the two countries promises even more travel.  Other elements of the embargo continue to complicate U.S. travel: most U.S.-issued credit cards still do not work on the island; phone and internet connections are limited; and visitors often face persistent shortages of food items, consumer goods, and hotel rooms.  But the surge almost certainly will continue.

The onslaught of U.S. tourists challenges the Cuban tourism industry’s capacity.  Cuba has one the lowest rates of return visits (less than 10 percent) in the Caribbean; on the other islands, 50 percent to 80 percent of tourists make a return visit.  It has serious weaknesses:

  • While Cuba’s unique appeal may draw in millions of first-time visitors, the still relatively poor quality of service apparently discourages tourists from making the island a regular vacation spot. Sustaining arrivals requires higher marketing costs.  Average spending per visitor, moreover, has been on a fairly steady decline since 2008.
  • About 70 percent of Cuba’s tourists come for sun-and-beach tourism – a sector under state control – but private microenterprises have already demonstrated more agility in responding to demand than the state-owned hotels or joint ventures. The government reported last year that 8,000 rooms in casas particulares, or bed-and-breakfasts in Cubans’ homes, were for rent, and the number is growing steadily.
  • Cuba’s “forbidden fruit” factor may have a limited shelf life as visitors sense the imminent end to Castroism and the arrival of McDonalds, Starbucks, and their ilk. Questions remain about how long Cuba’s current environmental protections will continue when tourist arrivals increase.  Nicknamed the “Accidental Eden,” Cuba is the most biodiverse country in the Caribbean because of low population density and limited industrialization.  But rising visitor arrivals (and the effects of climate change) are likely to increase beach erosion and biodiversity loss.

Ministers of tourism in the other Caribbean countries have downplayed fears about competition from Cuba, but their optimism is sure to be tested.  A successful Cuban tourism sector could conceivably spur region-wide increases in visitor arrivals, but it could also cause other Caribbean countries to lose significant market share.  The official Communist Party newspaper, Granma, has suggested the government’s goal is to almost triple tourist arrivals to 10 million per year.  President Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic, the most visited country in the region (at about 5.5 million tourists a year), has also set a goal of reaching 10 million arrivals by 2022 – setting that country to go in head-to-head competition with Cuba.  Jamaica, the third most visited country in the region, has instead pursued a multi-destination agreement with Cuba, designed to encourage island-hopping and capitalize on Cuba’s continued growth.  Previous attempts at regional marketing and multi-destination initiatives have had mixed success.  But as Cuba’s tourism sector continues to expand, Caribbean leaders – in what is already the most tourism-dependent region in the world – undoubtedly sense that Cuba is back in the game and could very well change rules under which this key industry has operated for the past six decades.

July 25, 2016

*Emma Fawcett is a PhD candidate in International Relations at American University.  Her doctoral thesis focuses on the political economy of tourism and development in four Caribbean case studies: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Mexican Caribbean.

Trumping GOP Resistance to Strengthened Ties with Cuba

By Eric Hershberg

Malecon Twilight

Nighttime on the Malécon in Havana, Cuba. Photo credit: William Beem / Google Images / Creative Commons

One wild card on the horizon in the normalization of U.S.-Cuba ties looks unlikely to materialize.  As pointed out in several CLALS publications (such as here and here), ever since Presidents Obama and Castro announced on December 17, 2014, that they intended to improve relations, there has been a sense of uncertainty regarding whether their successors might roll back the advances they make.  This was particularly so when several Republican politicians seeking their party’s presidential nomination campaigned against President Obama’s “coddling” of the Cuban Communists and his “unilateral concessions” to Havana.  Marco Rubio (Florida) and Ted Cruz (Texas) – two of the Cuban-Americans in the U.S. Senate –made particularly aggressive statements indicating an intention to reverse all or parts of the Obama administration’s executive actions affecting Cuba policy, which, unlike legislation, can be reversed by a subsequent administration.  But they have dropped out of the race as presumptive nominee Donald Trump defeated them and former Governor Jeb Bush, whose Florida political base, family background, and public statements also indicated opposition to normalization.

Trump and the leading Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, have very significant policy differences on many issues, but apparently not on Cuba.  Clinton in her memoirs about her tenure as Secretary of State, like Trump in his public statements, appears inclined to sustain the current direction of Washington’s engagement with Havana (although Trump claimed last year that “we should have made a better deal”).  The two likely nominees share noteworthy characteristics, including, remarkably, that they are the least popular candidates that either major party has nominated since polling data have been collected. Advocates of full normalization cannot take either candidate’s leadership on the issue for granted. Clinton’s challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders, has pushed her to the left on some domestic issues, but recent press profiles on her indicate that she remains wedded to a hawkish approach to foreign policy.  The endorsement of several key Washington Neo-Conservatives further suggests she could swing to the right on foreign policy matters.  On the other hand, Trump’s zigzagging on Cuba – 15 years ago he was a staunch proponent of the embargo – and his impulsive decision-making style leave open the possibility that he also could reverse Obama’s executive actions and call on the Congress to keep embargo legislation unchanged.

Although mistakes can occur and various wildcards can slow, or even break, the current momentum, the twists and turns of the U.S. primary election season seem to have diminished substantially prospects that a new President sworn in next January would significantly change Obama’s winning formula on Cuba.  Clinton will have no incentives to abandon a policy that she takes some credit for promoting.  Trump has, if anything, proven that he revels in taking on GOP orthodoxy – and will presumably continue to do so on Cuba policy.  His sympathies align much more clearly with the pro-business Chamber of Commerce, an aggressive opponent of the embargo against Cuba, than with the ideologues on the right of his party, and he will give a green light to the many members of Congress who want full trade with and free travel to the island to change the law.  Concerns that a new U.S. president could reverse Obama’s executive actions on January 20, 2017, can now be assuaged, and Congressional proponents of lifting the embargo likely will have time to build momentum to pass legislation rendering the executive measures moot.  One can imagine that the Donald’s criteria of success for Cuba policy begin with the glare of a gaudy neon Trump sign on a casino along the Havana Malecón, but it’s reasonable to wager that the Cuban government will negotiate a better deal.

May 31, 2016

 

Cuba: Raúl Clarifies the Lack of Clarity on Future

By Fulton Armstrong

raul pcc congress

Photo Credit: Alexandre Seltz and Sarumo74 (modified) / Google Images / Creative Commons

The report that Cuban President Raúl Castro delivered to the 7th Party Congress last weekend walked a tightrope between pressing harder for change – embracing the importance of the small, emerging private sector – and reassuring party conservatives that the basic tenets of the revolution will not be touched.  He reiterated his commitment to step down in 2018 and promote younger cadre, but he left unclear what he proposes the Cuban system look like in the future.  He defended his decision to normalize relations with the United States, but used Washington’s continuation of the embargo and “democracy promotion” and immigration policies as a rationale for not letting down the Party’s guard.  Among key points:

On Conceptualización.  Castro said this Congress was basically to give “confirmation and continuity” to policies set five years ago to update Cuba’s economic and social model,  but it kicks off a process of consensus-building around a conceptualización, which he said “outlines the theoretical bases and essential characteristics of the economic and social model that we aim for as result of the updating process.”  Private property is a major topic, and Raúl sought to reassure the party that respect for it does not mean – “in the slightest bit” – a return to capitalism.

On reforms approved previously.  The road has been difficult, he said, held back by “an obsolete mentality that gives rise to an attitude of inertia and an absence of confidence in the future.”  He referred to the foot-draggers as “having feelings of nostalgia for other, less-complicated moments in the revolutionary process,” such as when the USSR and socialist camp existed.  But he insisted that the reforms have continued advancing at a steady pace – “without hurry but without pause.”

On upcoming reforms.  Castro talked more about what will not happen rather than any new vision.  He firmly ruled out “shock therapies,” and he said that “neoliberal formulas” to privatize state assets and health, education, and social security services “will never be applied in Cuban socialism.”  Economic policies can in no case break with the “ideals of equality and justice of the revolution.”  But he confirmed that one of the potentially most disruptive reforms – unifying currencies and exchange rates – must be done as soon as possible to resolve and many distortions.  On foreign investment, he called on the party “to leave behind archaic prejudices about foreign investment and to continue to advance resolutely in preparing, designing, and establishing new businesses.”

On Cuba’s economic model.  Castro acknowledged “the introduction of the rules of supply and demand” and claimed they didn’t contradict the principle of planning, citing the examples of China and Vietnam.  “Recognizing [the role of] the market in the functioning of our socialist economy,” Castro said, does not imply that the party, government, and mass organizations stand by and watch abuses occur.

On private and state enterprises.  He said the “non-state sector” – which includes “medium, small, and micro-enterprises” – is providing very important goods and services, and expressed hope for its success.  This sector will continue to grow, he said, “within well-defined limits and [will] constitute a complementary element of the country’s economic framework.”  Castro also called for greater reform efforts to strengthen the role of – and, simultaneously, the autonomy of – state companies, telling managers to overcome “the habit of waiting for instructions from above.”    He noted that the creation of cooperatives outside agriculture “continues in its experimental phase,” with some achievements and shortfalls.

On U.S. policies and intentions.  Castro criticized Washington’s efforts to drive political change in Cuba, which he called “a perverse strategy of political-ideological subversion against the very essence of the revolution and Cuban culture, history, and values.”  He said, “We are neither naive nor ignorant of the desires of powerful external forces that are betting on what they call the ‘empowerment’ of non-state forms of management as a way of generating agents of change in hopes of ending the revolution and socialism in Cuba by other means.” Castro said that U.S. officials recognize the failure of past policy toward Cuba but “do not hide that the goals remain the same and only the means are being modified.”

Rhetoric about forever rejecting capitalism (and multi-party democracy) is standard, especially for a Party event meant to assuage anxieties of conservative factions reluctant to give up their familiar, if failed, models.  The re-election of 85-year-old Vice President Machado Ventura is another sop to the aging right as the country inches each day to its biologically imposed transition, as Fidel Castro made explicit in his closing remarks.  The pace of change in Washington is also slow in some areas, particularly the embargo and the Administration’s “democracy promotion” strategies,  but pro-normalization voices cannot be faulted for lamenting that Cuba could more effectively influence U.S. policy through simple regulatory measures encouraging business deals that will give momentum to embargo-lifting initiatives in the U.S. Congress.  All politics is local, however, and both governments seem content holding off on changing their paradigms for now.

April 21, 2016

Spain: Too Distracted to Play in Latin America?

By An Observer*

Rajoy Latin America

Photo Credit: La Moncloa Gobierno de España and Heraldry (Modified) / Flickr & Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Spain’s political crisis and problems facing the European Union have undermined Madrid’s ability to pursue interests in Latin America at a time of new opportunities.  Amidst countless months of lameduck government and the failure of either the Partido Popular (PP) or the Partido Socialista (PSOE) to form a government, the country is also tied in knots over corruption scandals, including some touching a Cabinet member and the royal family, and Cataluña’s persistent challenges to central authority.  Even before the current mess, Prime Minister Rajoy had shown only modest interest in Latin America, and King Felipe hadn’t yet demonstrated the mettle of his father, who once famously told Venezuelan President Chávez to shut up at an Ibero-American Summit.  Adding to Spain’s distractions are a series of EU challenges, ranging from refugee crises to terrorism and the Mediterranean countries’ debt overhang.  Spanish elites, who remain committed to the EU vision, are seized with concerns about Brexit, the UK’s flirtation with withdrawal, and perplexed by the absence of a renewed integration project.

Madrid’s declining role coincides with changes in Latin America that would normally grab its attention.  President Obama and Raúl Castro’s historic normalization of diplomatic relations has opened the door to at least one major U.S. hotel firm signing contracts to refurbish and manage several Cuban hotels – an industry in which Spain previously had extraordinary advantages.  Having played “good cop” with Cuba for many years, compared to Washington’s “bad cop,” Madrid’s future role on the island is at most uncertain.  The election of market-friendly President Macri in Argentina, where the previous government nationalized a Spanish energy company and adopted other policies causing bilateral estrangement, also represents an opportunity for Spain.  The near-completion of peace talks between the Colombian government and guerrillas should be the crowning jewel of a foreign policy in which Spain made a strong political investment early on, but Madrid has receded to the role of bit player.  At a time that Latin Americans continue to espouse support for CELAC and other regional organizations that exclude Spain (and the United States), Spain-sponsored Cumbres Iberoamericanas since 1991 have – even more than the U.S.-sponsored Summit of the Americas – lacked dynamism and produced little as the beacon of the Spanish transition was dying down

By turning inward, Spain risks losing what remains of its special cachet as Latin America’s link to Europe and as a country that made a successful transition to democracy with inclusion, human rights, vibrant media, and increasing transparency.  Its political capital in the region is running low, and budgetary constraints have diminished its aid budgets (from 0.5 percent of GDP to 0.13 percent).  But opportunities remain.  Big Spanish companies – Telefónica, Banco Santander, BBVA, Repsol, and others – and numerous mid-sized firms have shown interest in Latin America.  Cuba’s reluctance to embrace U.S. ties too tightly and too fast gives Spain important space to play a role if it wants.  Moreover, Spain’s diplomatic skills, critical for Central America’s peace processes and elsewhere, could still be a positive force in that subregion.   If it weren’t for former Spanish Prime Ministers’ contradictory roles in Venezuela, where U.S. baggage undermines Washington’s approach to political, economic, and security problems, Spain could be active there too.  But the Prime Minister and his cabinet have not given the Foreign Ministry the green light to get more deeply involved.  It’s not too late for Spain to turn things around and get back into the game in Latin America.  For that to happen Spain needs more consistent governance.

April 18, 2016

* The writer is long-time non-academic observer of Spanish foreign policy in Latin America.

Zika Challenges Mount

By Rachel Nadelman* and Fulton Armstrong

Scientists and Zika

Photo Credit: Pan American Health Organization / Creative Commons / Flickr

While scientists struggle to confirm their theories over the link between the Zika virus and the dread health conditions it apparently causes, national and regional leaders face the monumental task of addressing popular anxiety that’s spreading faster than the virus itself.  The Health Minister in Brazil – site of the largest outbreak of microcephaly – has said he is “absolutely sure” that the virus is causing women to give birth to babies with the condition, characterized by abnormally small heads and serious developmental deficits.  The head of the World Health Organization’s emergency response team said last week (2/19) that the “virus is considered guilty until proven innocent,” but that it will take four to six months to even potentially be sure.  In the meantime, other questions are emerging:

  • Argentine scientists calling themselves “Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Villages” suspect that the outbreak has been caused by pesticides. They note that thousands of Zika-infected pregnant women in Colombia – where the larvicide pyriproxyfen has not been added to drinking water as in Brazil – have delivered normal babies.  El Salvador, also hard hit by Zika, has not reported Zika-related microcephaly cases.  Other scientific authorities, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, question the evidence for this theory, and the later arrival of the disease in these countries means the consequences for infected expectant mothers cannot be fully determined.  Research is ongoing.
  • In lowland Colombia, along the Caribbean Coast, the virus is being blamed for an outbreak of Guillain-Barre syndrome, when victims’ immune systems damage nerve cells and cause pain, weakness, sometimes paralysis, and even death. Scientists are investigating.
  • Mental health experts say the Zika virus closely resembles some infectious agents that have been linked to autism, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. They can’t confirm their suspicions.
  • Entomologists and climatologists are warning that global warming will accelerate the spread of Zika and other diseases transmitted by the mosquito Aedes aegypti, which thrives in warmer, more humid environments. They caution that the number of people currently exposed to the mosquito, roughly 4 billion, will grow steadily.  Evidence is inconclusive.
  • Other theories include that the birth defects are caused by genetically modified mosquitoes released by a British company in Brazil to combat dengue; and by vaccinations given to pregnant women to prevent rubella and pertussis. But doctors and scientists have so far rejected each one.

Regional organizations and governments are taking whatever actions they can while awaiting more conclusive science.  Briefing the OAS, the Assistant Director of the Pan American Health Organization called on countries to “to mobilize to eliminate mosquito breeding sites in every corner where they may be” and pledged PAHO’s support to do so.  Brazil has formed special teams to travel around the country to rigorously quantify cases of Zika and possible links with microcephaly.  U.S. President Obama has asked Congress for US$1.9 billion and approval to reprogram funds left over from Ebola eradication efforts to deal with Zika in Latin America and the United States.  Cuban President Raúl Castro has mobilized 9,000 troops and police to spray neighborhoods and eliminate standing water in which the mosquitoes breed.

The “epidemic,” as some leaders are calling it, will be difficult to respond to even after scientists certify the mosquito-virus link.  Solving the mystery of the higher concentration of microcephaly cases in Brazil, or linked to Brazil, will also be essential to developing an effective public health response.  Eradicating all mosquitos would be a monumental undertaking – further complicated by the fact that the history of pesticides shows equal or even greater risks to citizen health when used widely.  The Aedes mosquito sucks the blood of both rich and poor, but population density and weak infrastructure — allowing for stagnant water – makes lower-income communities much more vulnerable.  Focusing on the mosquito may not be enough, moreover, because there are early indications that Zika can be sexually transmitted.  Traces of Zika have been found in breast milk, but the implications remain unclear.  Such questions fuel popular panic, increasing the risk that governments will make rash decisions that could have  profound costs.

February 26, 2016

* Rachel Nadelman is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service.  Her dissertation research focuses on El Salvador’s decision to leave its gold resources unmined.

U.S.-Cuba: Migration Policy Growing Tortuous, Dangerous

By Fulton Armstrong

Cuban migrants

Photo Credit: Coast Guard News / Flickr / Creative Commons

The surge in Cuban migration – prolonged at this point by U.S. policy paralysis – may show a dip soon but is growing tortuous and dangerous.  Since January 12, chartered aircraft and buses have been carrying about 360 Cubans a week from Costa Rica to El Salvador, and then through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States, where they are admitted with special status.  The US$550 cost of the trip is being paid by the migrants or unidentified “donors.”  The air bridge has begun relieving pressure on Costa Rica, which has been caring for 8,000 Cubans since Nicaragua in October halted the underground railway transporting them up the Central American isthmus.  (Three thousand more are reportedly stuck in Panama.)  Despite the progress, an estimated 1,500 migrants have left holding facilities and turned to alien-smugglers to take them to Mexico (for $800) or to the United States ($1,500), according to press reports.

  • Cubans’ fear of a change in U.S. migration policy since reestablishment of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations is most often cited as causing the surge, estimated at some 40,000 in 2015. It does not explain the estimated 20,000 who crossed into Texas in 2014 and before, when alien-smuggling networks were less developed.
  • Ecuador’s agreement to establish visa requirements for Cubans promises to slow the immediate flow, but the crisis has revealed corruption among migration authorities throughout the region, which will make stopping it difficult.
  • Central American resentment of the welcome Washington gives illegal migrants from Cuba is growing – aggravated in part by the arrival of airplanes from the United States full of deported citizens in the same timeframe. Senior officials from Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala have blamed the surge in trafficked Cubans on the preferences the United States gives them.

The U.S. Coast Guard reports an increase in the volume and violence of seaborne migration.  Migrants interdicted in Fiscal Year 2015 (ending September 30) grew to almost 3,000 – 900 more than the previous year – and, according to press reports, surged to 1,500 in the last quarter of 2015.  The Coast Guard says the migrants have concluded that Cuba’s economy will not improve even after U.S.-Cuba normalization, and they want to go before U.S. migration policy changes.  The service has reported a spike in violent confrontations with Coast Guard officers, violence against fellow migrants, and even suicide threats..

The U.S. government’s mantra that it will not change policy toward either overland or seaborne migrants is not working – and could even be backfiring by reminding Cubans of the special treatment they receive upon arrival.  The airlift and bussing of thousands of migrants from Costa Rica to the United States helps Costa Rica deal with its crisis, but also signals yet again to Cubans remaining on the island how far the United States will go to bring them in.  Violence among seaborne migrants has traditionally been rare, but the increased aggressiveness suggests that migrants have the impression that they can act with impunity and still be welcomed into the country.  Overland migrants’ preference to use coyotes, known for violence, is another red flag.  The United States has expended political capital by washing its hands of the Cuban migrant mess in Central America, and grumbling among the region’s leaders suggests that options like airlifts will disappear soon.  U.S. law, including the Cuban Adjustment Act, fully empowers the President to turn off the green light to undocumented Cuban migration – and reality could very well nudge him in that direction soon.

February 4, 2016