2017: Happy New Year in Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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Brazilian President Michel Temer surrounded by members of his party in mid-2016. His government will continue to face questions of legitimacy in 2017. / Valter Campanato / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The year 2016 laid down a series of challenges for Latin America in the new year – not the least of which will be adapting to a radically different administration in Washington.  Last year saw some important achievements, including an elusive peace agreement in Colombia ending the region’s oldest insurgency.  Several countries shifted politically, eroding the “pink tide” that affected much of the region over the past decade or so, but the durability and legitimacy of the ensuing administrations will hinge on their capacity to achieve policy successes that improve the well-being of the citizenry.  The legitimacy of Brazil’s change of government remains highly contested.  Except in Venezuela, where President Maduro clung to power by an ever-fraying thread, the left-leaning ALBA countries remained largely stable, but the hollowing out of democratic institutions in those settings is a cause for legitimate concern.  Across Latin America and the Caribbean, internal challenges, uncertainties in the world economy, and potentially large shifts in U.S. policy make straight-line predictions for 2017 risky.

  • Latin America’s two largest countries are in a tailspin. The full impact of Brazil’s political and economic crises has yet to be fully felt in and outside the country.  President Dilma’s impeachment and continuing revelations of corruption among the new ruling party and its allies have left the continent’s biggest country badly damaged, with profound implications that extend well beyond its borders.  Mexican President Peña Nieto saw his authority steadily diminish throughout the course of the past year, unable to deal with (and by some accounts complicit in) the most fundamental issues of violence, such as the disappearance of 43 students in 2014.  The reform agenda he promised has fizzled, and looking ahead he faces a long period as a lame duck – elections are not scheduled until mid-2018.
  • The “Northern Triangle” of Central America lurches from crisis to crisis. As violence and crime tears his country apart, Honduran President Hernández has devoted his energies to legalizing his efforts to gain a second term as president.  Guatemala’s successful experiment channeling international expertise into strengthening its judicial system’s ability to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials is threatened by a weakening of political resolve to make it work, as elites push back while civil society has lost the momentum that enabled it to bring down the government of President Pérez Molina in 2015.  El Salvador, which has witnessed modest strides forward in dealing with its profound corruption problems, remains wracked with violence, plagued by economic stagnation, and bereft of decisive leadership.
  • Venezuela stands alone in the depth of its regime-threatening crisis, from which the path back to stability and prosperity is neither apparent nor likely. The election of right-leaning governments in Argentina (in late 2015) and Peru (in mid-2016) – with Presidents Macri and Kuczynski – has given rise to expectations of reforms and prosperity, but it’s unclear whether their policies will deliver the sort of change people sought.  Bolivian President Morales, Ecuadoran President Correa, and Nicaraguan President Ortega have satisfied some important popular needs, but they have arrayed the levers of power to thwart opposition challenges and weakened democratic institutional mechanisms.
  • As Cuban President Raúl Castro begins his final year in office next month, the credibility of his government and his successors – who still remain largely in the shadows – will depend in part on whether the party’s hesitant, partial economic reforms manage to overcome persistent stagnation and dissuade the country’s most promising professionals from leaving the island. Haiti’s President-elect Jovenel Moise will take office on February 7 after winning a convincing 55 percent of the vote, but there’s no indication he will be any different from his ineffective predecessors.

However voluble the region’s internal challenges – and how uncertain external demand for Latin American commodities and the interest rates applied to Latin American debt – the policies of incoming U.S. President Donald Trump introduce the greatest unknown variables into any scenarios for 2017.  In the last couple years, President Obama began fulfilling his promise at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to “be there as a friend and partner” and seek “engagement … that is based on mutual respect and equality.”  His opening to Cuba was an eloquent expression of the U.S. disposition to update its policies toward the whole region, even while it was not always reflected in its approach to political dynamics in specific Latin American countries.

 Trump’s rhetoric, in contrast, has already undermined efforts to rebuild the image of the United States and convince Latin Americans of the sincerity of Washington’s desire for partnership.  His rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – more categorical than losing candidate Hillary Clinton’s cautious words of skepticism about the accord – has already closed one possible path toward deepened ties with some of the region’s leading, market-oriented economies.  His threat to deport millions of undocumented migrants back to Mexico and Central America, where there is undoubtedly no capacity to handle a large number of returnees, has struck fear in the hearts of vulnerable communities and governments.  The region has survived previous periods of U.S. neglect and aggression in the past, and its strengthened ties with Asia and Europe will help cushion any impacts of shifts in U.S. engagement.  But the now-threatened vision of cooperation has arguably helped drive change of benefit to all.  Insofar as Washington changes gears and Latin Americans throw up their hands in dismay, the region will be thrust into the dilemma of trying to adjust yet again or to set off on its own course as ALBA and others have long espoused.

 January 4, 2017

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

The Cataclysm that the Latino Vote Couldn’t Stop

By Eric Hershberg

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Presidential candidate preference, by race or ethnicity / Pew Research Center

In unprecedented numbers, Latino voters flexed their muscles in the bitter and destructive U.S. presidential campaign, but that wasn’t enough to elect a competent but mistrusted centrist and block an erratic TV showman espousing policies anathema to their interests.  Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lost in the electoral college, which in the American system is what actually matters, but she won the popular vote by a slim margin – little consolation to Latinos.  Donald Trump and the forces that will accompany him into the Executive branch have pledged to begin efforts to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, build walls to keep Latin Americans out of the country, and reverse decades of policies meant to strengthen ties among the Americas.  The election highlighted deep cleavages in U.S. democracy:

  • An inclusive coalition of the well-educated, urban dwellers, youth, and racial and ethnic minorities lost to a bloc of angry white working-class, rural, and small-town voters rallied by a man whose behavior and rhetoric were called repugnant by leaders of even his own party. The outcome testifies to the degree to which vast segments of the American population feel ignored and denigrated by political and cultural elites and alienated by profound social changes that accelerated during the Obama administration, including shifts regarding such issues as gender and sexual identity and, particularly, racial diversity and empowerment.
  • The Trump-led “whitelash” has been largely rhetorical up to this point, but it will soon be manifested in public policies with life-changing consequences for immigrants, minority populations, and impoverished citizens. There’s a possibility that, once charged with running the country, the Trump faction will moderate on some issues, but it’s frightening to recall that no fewer than 37 percent of German voters mobilized behind an analogous cocktail of racial resentment and violent impulses in 1932.  In 2016, nearly half of the American electorate did just that, with profound implications for civil discourse, tolerance, and respect for sometimes marginalized sectors of the country’s population. If Trump’s exclusionary rhetoric becomes translated into concrete policies that diminish the country’s diversity, the U.S. will lose its status as among the most dynamic and creative places in the world.

The Latino vote was expected to be among the decisive factors that would sweep Clinton into the White House and swing the Senate back to Democratic control, albeit by the slimmest of margins.  But while it was influential, diminishing Trump’s margin of victory in reliable Republican strongholds such as Arizona and Texas, and enabling the Democrats to eke out victories in states such as Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado, the Latino vote was insufficient to rescue Clinton’s fortunes in the pivotal states of Florida and North Carolina.  Whereas in 2012 Obama had an estimated 71-27 percent advantage among Latinos against his opponent, Clinton failed to match that total – exit polls indicate roughly a 65-29 percent split – even against a candidate explicitly targeting Latino interests.  Trump called for mass deportations of the country’s 10 million undocumented Latino residents and a rollback of the Obama administration’s efforts to provide safe haven and legal status for at least half of this vulnerable segment of American communities.  Whatever the reasons for their low participation, these communities now confront existential threats.

  • If Trump follows through on his promises, the impact will be manifested in numerous domains beyond immigration and related human rights that have profound implications for the welfare of U.S. Latinos, including the composition of the Supreme Court and its commitment to voting rights; protection against discrimination in employment, housing, and financial services; access to health care for 20 million people who for the first time gained coverage through the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”); opportunities for pre-school and tertiary education; and environmental regulations needed to protect public safety and health.

Political scientists and informed citizens must now revisit their assumptions about the impact that a growing Latino population may have on the outcome of presidential elections.  The gap separating the two parties in terms of Latino preferences is vast and increasingly consolidated, suggesting an enormous and enduring disadvantage for the Republicans.  But whether the Latino vote can become a decisive, rather than merely influential, component of the electorate is much less certain.  The anger among white voters – at least this time around – carried the day.  This “whitelash” may or may not be a transitory phenomenon, but the prospects for efforts to make the United States a force for good in the world, and to make government an agent for social and economic justice for all, will depend in large part on the future mobilization of the Latino community.  Arguably, the future of the United States – and by extension the world’s – hinges on the capacity of Latino voters to make America great again.

November 10, 2016

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

 

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.

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

 

A Major Gig for Buena Vista

By Ana Serra* 

Photo Credit: OtherDrK / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: OtherDrK / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Buena Vista Social Club Orchestra’s performance at the White House last week was a celebration of the ongoing normalization process between the United States and Cuba and of the musical collaboration – considered illegal at the time – that made this group possible.  Playing in commemoration of Hispanic Heritage month and the Educational Excellence of Hispanics, it was the first visit to the executive mansion by a Cuban band in more than 50 years, and part of its Adiós World Farewell Tour including a number of U.S. states before traveling to Puerto Rico and Latin America.  Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC) is a brand, starting as a 1940s club in Havana and revived by a 1997 album produced by Ry Cooder with Cuban and US musicians, a 1999 documentary film directed by Wim Wenders (chronicling concerts in Amsterdam and New York), and decades of fame-garnering recognition of Grammies and film awards.  At a time that the U.S. administration is taking steps to relax the terms of the embargo, the invitation auspiciously recognized Ry Cooder’s inaugural ice-breaker, which was investigated as a violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act.  While tied to the commercial success of the band, the concert inadvertently has progressive implications in a racial context.

The invitation to play at the White House amounts to a diplomatic gesture, and as such it was both cautious and optimistic.  The event resonated with many other people-to-people exchanges that have made thaw a reality, and highlighted the prominence of Americans of Cuban descent among Hispanics in the U.S.  The band is tried and true – if fully predictable – in its powerful evocations of a memorable past.  Its traditional musicians evoke the Havana music scene of the 1940s, a time of intense exchange and collaboration between Cuban and U.S. musicians.  In addition, it may cause for some a nostalgia for a supposedly harmonic relationship between the two countries, despite decades of strong U.S. intervention in political and economic affairs during the two administrations of Fulgencio Batista.  The album’s son, bolero, guajira, and danzón rhythms do not challenge expectations and the lyrics talk about love, beautiful women, and tropical landscapes.  Ry Cooder’s role in forming the original band – he apparently brought piano virtuoso Rubén González away from a shoe-shining job – represents the current dream of many art representatives hoping to go down to Cuba and “discover” or “bring to light” hidden talent.

Fans of Cuban music may be disappointed that far more interesting Cuban musicians – in terms of novel song styles or political messages – were not invited.  BVSC’s tunes have become so familiar as to make the minds of listeners numb: they have been played to exhaustion in tourist sites in Havana, and added to the ambiance of many a foreign venue aiming to evoke the irresistible rhythms of Latin American music.  A silver lining, however, are the progressive implications of what the band represents in a racial context.  The original Buena Vista Social Club was a so-called “club de negros” in the 1940s, in which the 1997 BVSC performer Compay Segundo had played.  These clubs were closed down after the 1959 revolution, since their emphasis on black identity was deemed divisive.  At the time of #blacklivesmatter in the United States, it is fitting that the first African-American president hosted this historic band in the White House.  Beyond the problematic background of a beautiful diplomatic gesture the event establishes a bridge between some of the common struggles in the U.S. and Cuba.

October 22, 2015

* Ana Serra is an Associate Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at American University.

U.S.-Cuba: Must “Democracy Promotion” Obstruct Normalization?*

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo Credit: Martin Burns / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Martin Burns / Flickr / Creative Commons

“Democracy promotion” has been one of the most contentious aspects of U.S. policy toward Cuba – and one of the most counterproductive – but it doesn’t have to be either.  The concept of democracy promotion is ingrained in U.S. policy culture, and the bureaucracies and programs they’ve been charged with conducting over the years are as bullet-proof as any in Washington.  Democracy promotion in different forms has been a main element of U.S. policy toward Cuba for decades. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. Interests Section conducted an array of outreach programs, engaging with Cuban academics, journalists, and officials – people tolerant if not deeply supportive of the Cuban government – as well as human rights activists and others “outside the system.”  These activities informed and nurtured the aspirations of Cubans in and outside the system who were eager to find Cuban solutions to their country’s mounting problems.  The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 moved democracy promotion into a more aggressive mode, explicitly linking it to regime change.  President Clinton spent token amounts on initiatives related to Cuba’s future transition, but the Bush Administration launched an expansion that has since cost U.S. taxpayers more than $250 million.  The arrest, conviction, and five-year imprisonment of USAID sub-contractor Alan Gross shed light on one such operation.  He smuggled sophisticated communication equipment onto the island to set up secret networks.  Associated Press investigative reporter Desmond Butler uncovered other programs involving communications and political operations against the Cuban government.

The investment has yielded some operational successes, but the impact toward promoting democracy has been negligible and, in important ways, counterproductive.  The program has delivered food, medicines, and other support to the families of imprisoned dissidents (many of whom have been released since Presidents Obama and Castro announced reestablishment of relations last December), but more provocative operations have arguably led only to arrests.  The amateurish clandestine tradecraft of the contractors and program activists, moreover, made it easy for Cuban counterintelligence to penetrate and manipulate their ranks.  The “private libraries” that U.S. taxpayers have paid for do not exist, and communications systems involving expensive satellite gear and satellite access fees have been compromised.  The secretive modus operandi of the operations has given credibility to draconian Cuban government measures, like Law 88 for “Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy,” imposing prison terms for certain contact with foreigners “aimed at subverting the internal order of the nation and destroying its political, economic, and social system.”  Authentic people-to-people exchanges have been tainted as Cubans in the government and on the street are wary that any contact could be part of Washington’s regime-change efforts.

The democracy promotion ideology and bureaucracy seem unstoppable, but Presidents Obama and Castro can take the edge off this irritant with a little effort and flexibility, and even make it mutually beneficial.  The State Department and USAID have pledged to continue the Cuba democracy promotion programs and are asking Congress for $20 million to fund them again this year, but the President’s statement that “it is time for us to try something new” suggests acknowledgment that they need not be so ineffective and counterproductive.  For starters, the Administration could stop citing Helms-Burton authorities, which are explicitly for regime change, and establish criteria for operations in Cuba similar to those in other countries with whom the U.S. has diplomatic relations and is trying to improve bilateral ties.  It could restore and expand what worked in the past, such as the distribution of books and clippings; support for exchange visits; promotion of academic and cultural events; and other non-political activities that include people with government affiliation.  Perhaps most importantly, to decontaminate the programs, the organizations that have already spent millions trying to drive regime change should step aside and let a new generation – based on real people-to-people interests – try something different with the funds.  Both Presidents can trust their citizens to develop the historic roadmap that will define the relationship into the future.  Both the United States and Cuba stand to benefit.

September 25, 2015

*This article is excerpted from the second in a series of policy briefs from the CLALS Cuba Initiative, supported by the Christopher Reynolds Foundation. To read the full brief, please click here.

The Summit of the Americas: Important Progress

By Aaron Bell and Eric Hershberg

VII Summit of the Americas Photo Credit: OEA-OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

VII Summit of the Americas Photo Credit: OEA-OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

The U.S.-Cuba rapprochement has returned the Summit of the Americas (SOA) to the way it was before George W. Bush turned it into a forum in which the U.S. was increasingly isolated – a community of vibrant but respectful debate reflecting the varied perspectives of the hemisphere.  The event in Panama this past weekend was dominated by Cuba’s attendance at its first SOA and Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama’s cordial public encounter and hour-long meeting, the first of its kind between the two nations’ leaders in over half a century.  The next step in improving relations will be for Obama to formally announce Cuba’s removal from Washington’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism,” which the State Department reportedly recommended last week.  Regrettably, the leaders did not take advantage of the Summit as an occasion to announce a target date for the formal restoration of diplomatic relations and the appointment of Ambassadors.  But that, presumably, will come soon, and regardless, in the plenary session Obama set a new tone for U.S. policy when he acknowledged that “the days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity — those days are past.”  Obama clearly articulated a desire to move beyond not only the legacy of U.S. intervention in the region but also the stale ideological debates that, he observed pointedly, pre-dated his birth.

Statements and activities surrounding the SOA also reaffirmed the broad range of perspectives in the hemisphere,  including in attitudes toward the United States.  The “People’s Summit,” held parallel with the SOA, provided a forum for left-wing critiques aimed primarily at U.S. meddling in the region, in particular its foreign military bases and its recent allegation – which it subsequently backed away from – that Venezuela poses an “extraordinary threat to U.S. national security.”  The sanctions it imposed on senior officials drew critiques from around the region, including from Argentina, Colombia, and from Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, who summarized regional sentiment in characterizing them as “counterproductive and inefficient.”  The criticism was overshadowed, however, by widespread applause for changes in U.S.-Cuba relations.  Obama also won points from observers for meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who used the Summit to denounce the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama and present to Obama a list of 11,000 signatures opposing Washington’s sanctions.  Maduro praised the meeting as the “Summit of Truth” and even “cordial,” noting that it opened the door to further discussions on the bilateral relationship.  Obama also seemed to subscribe to a different role for civil society representatives – as opponents of sitting governments – at the summit, choosing to meet privately, for example, with Cuban dissidents opposed to the Raúl Castro and his government.

Obama’s steps to remove the festering U.S.-Cuba issue from the hemispheric agenda have been game-changing, even if some presidents criticized Washington’s continued enforcement of the economic embargo and the Administration’s bewildering inability to move faster to remove Cuba from its highly politicized terrorist list.  This summit may signal a return to the values and respectful debate that Obama, and before him Bill Clinton, espoused at past Summits, and may pave the way for cooperation over contemporary issues rather than Cold War-era ideological hang-ups.  In the final days before the Summit, senior White House advisors had intervened to ease tensions over the State Department’s national security rhetoric vis-à-vis Venezuela, emphasizing with regret that assertions regarding Venezuela’s posing a security threat were an unfortunate procedural necessity rather than a genuine assessment of the situation.  This recognition that “words matter” turned on their head the words used earlier in the week by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson in lamenting that Latin American governments were not using language similar to Washington’s to characterize the deteriorating political situation in Venezuela.  While the correctives from the White House and the focus on the transformation of U.S.-Cuba relations were both conducive to a successful SOA, these developments did overshadow both the official theme of this year’s summit – Prosperity with Equity – and related discussions on energy, the environment, and education.  These crucial issues, all ripe for regional cooperation, are the core of what should become the focus of U.S.-Latin American relations for the remainder of this administration and beyond.

April 13, 2015

A Web Forum: Implications of Normalization of U.S.-Cuban Relations

By Eric Hershberg

Image Courtesy of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

Image Courtesy of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

Anyone concerned with Cuban affairs will remember “D‑17” – the day in 2014 that Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro simultaneously announced their intention to restore diplomatic ties and endeavor to normalize relations.  Catalyzed by a year and a half of secret negotiations by senior confidants of the two presidents, bypassing normal diplomatic channels, the unexpected announcements provoked elation in most quarters.  After 55 years of estrangement and hostility, the two presidents acknowledged that an alternative path based on mutual respect was both possible and desirable.  Momentum toward restoring diplomatic relations is advancing steadily, but the path toward “normalization” is replete with obstacles, for there never has existed a “normal” state of affairs in U.S.-Cuba relations.  Despite widespread relief and optimism, a long road lies ahead.

Countless op-ed pieces have been written since D-17, and many of them have been very insightful, but the genre tends toward soundbites rather than deep analysis of the implications of change.  In this context, the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies at American University and the Cuba Program at the Social Science Research Council today launch a Web Forum that delves more deeply into the ramifications of changes in U.S.-Cuba relations, drawing on the scholarship of the contributors and on the substantial body of academic research that can inform our understanding of the present conjuncture and potential trajectories in the future.

Edited by Eric Hershberg and William M. LeoGrande, the Forum encompasses a variety of themes – from U.S.-Cuba relations, to hemispheric dynamics, to the consequences for ongoing political, societal, and economic change in Cuba.  What does it mean to contemplate “normalization” between two countries with such a fraught history of interaction?  How might experiences of “normalization” between the U.S. and other countries with which it sought to reduce longstanding hostilities provide lessons for those who seek to understand the likely course of events involving the U.S. and Cuba?  To what degree does D-17 and its aftermath alter the landscape of international relations in the Western Hemisphere?  How might Cuban cultural production and everyday life engage differently with U.S. audiences and with members of the Cuba diaspora?  Will rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba have consequences for Cuba’s political trajectory?  What impact will changed bilateral relations and a relaxation of U.S. sanctions have on ongoing efforts to “update” and perhaps transform Cuba’s economic model?  The organizers hope that the Forum enriches debates about these and other matters, with contributions from leading experts from Europe, Latin America, and Canada as well as from the U.S. and Cuba.  We encourage readers to download the essays and to circulate them widely. View the Forum at http://www.american.edu/clals/implications-of-normalization-with-ssrc.cfm

April 2, 2015