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

President Obama’s Visit to Buenos Aires: An Important Gesture

By Katherine Hite*

Parque de la memoria Argentina

Parque de la Memoria, Argentina. Photo Credit: Jennifer Yin / Flickr / Creative Commons

While most eyes are on U.S. President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, the timing and agenda of his follow-on travel to Argentina – while controversial – also is a significant opportunity for the United States to burnish its image in Latin America.  Obama arrives in Buenos Aires on the 40th anniversary of Argentina’s military coup d’etat, marking a brutal period of systematic human rights violations in which the United States lent tacit support.  In an important attempt to ameliorate the controversy over his timing, Obama will be delivering a cache of declassified documents on both what the U.S. knew regarding the 1976-1983 repression and on the green light that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave the dictatorship’s dirty war against political opponents during the final year of the Ford presidency.  In addition, the President will visit the Parque de la Memoria, site of a memorial to the thousands of victims of the military regime.  He’d expressed interest in a visit to the ex-Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), notorious former clandestine detention site where an estimated 5,000 Argentines were imprisoned, 90 percent of whom were murdered, but political sensitivities in Buenos Aires precluded it.

Argentina has pioneered efforts to come to terms with the past, from prosecuting and jailing former military officers guilty of violations, to “recuperating” former clandestine detention centers, where citizens were tortured, executed, and made to “disappear.”  Human rights activists have converted several of these former centers, such as the ex-ESMA, into spaces to remember and to educate the public with a message of accountability and of “never again.”  Some memory sites also seek to connect human rights violations of the past to ongoing violations, including police brutality and the abuse of the incarcerated, as well as to present-day struggles for social justice.  Argentine school children learn about their past and study the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is an important moment for the U.S. president publicly to recognize the U.S. historic role in Argentina’s tragic past – and for Argentines to show Washington, itself accused of torture and clandestine detention in recent years within its “War on Terror,” that such abuses can never be tolerated and that perpetrators must be brought to justice for a democracy to be healthy and stable.  Countries throughout the region, including Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, and Guatemala, have similarly created memorials and museums of memory.  Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights gets over 10,000 visitors a month.  It houses a large permanent display documenting the 1973-1990 dictatorship, and like the ex-ESMA, opens its spaces to human rights organizations, artists, theater groups, and others for workshops, plays, movie series, and more.  In El Salvador, the Museum of the Word and the Image sponsors an exhibit on the roots of the country’s civil war as well as memories of the suffering and resistance.  It has also sponsored exhibits on Salvadoran migration to the United States during the war and connects past to current violence, both within El Salvador and in close relation to the United States.  Together these efforts invite acknowledgment, reflection, and dialogue.  President Obama’s activities in Argentina, like President Clinton’s apology in Guatemala for the U.S. role in past violations in that country, are an important gesture that, within a broader U.S. commitment, could help facilitate a less tarnished image for Washington in Latin America along with his historic shift in policy toward Cuba.

March 21, 2016

* Katherine Hite is professor of political science at Vassar, with special interest in Latin American politics, social movements, and the legacies of violence for governments and societies throughout the Americas.

A Divided Court on U.S. v. Texas: A Safety Net for the Administration?

By Dennis Stinchcomb

Supreme court Scalia

Photo Credit: Ted Eytan / Flickr / Creative Commons

The passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia reshuffles the deck of possible outcomes in the highly politicized case involving President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.  When the White House petitioned the Court to review its dispute with Texas and 25 other states, it could not have imagined a result that now appears to be possible: a tie.  An evenly split decision would mean that the injunction against the measures issued by the lower court – the Fifth Circuit – would stand, an outcome that critics of Obama’s executive actions would herald as a triumph.  It may, however, also prove to be a safety net for the Administration and the over five million undocumented immigrants whose status is at stake because the law stipulates that a tie vote is not precedent-setting.  That means that the underlying case would proceed to trial in Texas district court – and could then potentially find its way back onto the Supreme Court’s docket, perhaps under more favorable conditions for a future Democratic administration.

This is, of course, purely speculative as a complex web of scenarios remain in play, including:

  • A 5-3 Decision in Favor of the Administration: If the Court finds that the states do not have the right (or standing) to sue the President, the case will be immediately dismissed.  A decision recognizing the states’ right to sue would force the Court to address the other two matters at stake – whether the President’s actions are consistent with existing immigration law, and whether he met the requirements for public notice and comment.  Some experts believe that members of the Court’s conservative wing may side with the Administration on these questions, striking down the injunction and allowing the deferred action programs to proceed.
  • A 3-5 Decision in Favor of Texas: A majority ruling against the Administration seems most plausible on the constitutional issue of whether the President abdicated his responsibility to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”  Though the Court had appended the separation-of-powers question to the roster of issues under consideration, it is under no obligation to hand down such a wide-reaching decision.  But should the case become a constitutional showdown, it is not inconceivable that a member of the Court’s liberal bloc might side with conservatives to prevent what would amount to be a significant expansion of executive authority – and an undermining of the judiciary’s ability to curb excesses.  Observers say it is less likely that a liberal would find the Administration in violation of immigration law or public notification procedures.

Beyond the struggle between the President and his opponents in the U.S. Senate over whether a successor to Scalia should be confirmed this year, the prospect of a tie in U.S. v. Texas and the potential for a rematch down the road has raised the stakes in this U.S. election year.  Candidates from both parties have been calling on voters to transform the November election into a referendum on the Supreme Court.  At least on the immigration front, the presidential nominees and voters alike will have to wait until the Court announces its decision in mid-summer to find out what exactly has been won or lost, and what more can be done or undone.  Though a tie would leave open the door for the legal merits of the case to be revisited by a full complement of justices under a new president during a non-election year, such a scenario is hardly ideal for the outgoing Administration.  The possibility that victory in the short-term for immigration conservatives could translate into a permanent victory should the Republican nominee win the presidency is a gamble the Administration would rather not face. 

 February 29, 2016

 

Brazil-U.S.: Implications of Postponed State Visit

By Luciano Melo

Picture2The postponement of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s state visit to Washington was officially cast as the consequence of the lack of a good explanation for the National Security Agency’s cyber-espionage targeting her, the cabinet, Petrobras (the national oil company), and others.  Although the Brazilian Foreign Ministry issued a letter stating that both countries agreed to the postponement, Dilma’s remarks at the UN General Assembly on September 25 about NSA’s activities were so harsh that it was clear that frustration with the Americans’ widespread spying on Brazilians remains extremely high in Brasilia.

Experts agree that economically the postponement and bilateral tensions hurt the United States more than Brazil.  Contracts worth billions of dollars between Boeing and the Brazilian air force (FAB) are at stake, as are agreements that would favor cooperation in oil exploration and development of biofuels and others that would facilitate the transfer of “sensitive technologies.”  For Brazil, on the other hand, the postponement jeopardizes progress in talks to allow Brazilian citizens to enter the United States without visas – a project long-desired by Brazilians that was on the agenda for the state visit. Some observers in Brazil also speculate that, with the overall Brazilian economic slowdown, Dilma may actually prefer to have Brazilians spending their reais at home, not in the United States.

In a tactical sense, Dilma may have feared that Edward Snowden will leak more damaging information during her visit to the U.S., causing her even greater embarrassment at home and abroad.  In this way, fear and self-protection certainly played a role in her decision. On the other hand, the Brazilian president almost certainly saw domestic political advantages in a good old fight between the Brazilian David and the American Goliath.  She is desperately in need of boosting her popularity after the demonstrations against corruption in the country.  In fact, opinion polls show that public approval of her leadership increased from 45 to 54 percent just since the NSA dustup.

In strategic terms, the postponement fits Brazil’s strategy for claiming its position as a global player – and expressing unhappiness when it feels frustrated.  Dilma already had told President Obama in 2011 that Brazilians would seek a “more balanced relationship” with the United States. The postponement, like the speech at the UN, clearly reflects Brazilians’ desire to be treated better by the United States.  Obama’s speech at the General Assembly the same day, on the other hand, was interpreted by many Brazilians as emphasizing the United States’ traditional role as world policeman – not as the respectful neighbor in a new, multi-polar world order.  In this battle of self-images, Brazil sees itself as one of the global leaders, while the United States sees itself as the mighty one, considering only the European powers as full equals.  The broad base of Brazilians that Dilma is reaching out to is not “anti-American” in sentiment, and indeed wants a robust and respectful U.S.-Brazil relationship.  That is in the interest of both countries, but for this shared objective to be achieved, Washington will need to recalibrate its responses to Brazilian concerns.

Luciano Melo is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at American University.