Political Risk Latin America Blog @PolRiskLatam

Cuban Parliament Holds off on Deeper Economic Reforms

Posted in News and Articles, Political Risk by politicalrisklatam on August 3, 2011

by Roque Planas for Americas Society / Council of the Americas, August 2nd, 2011.

Cuban head of state Raúl Castro surprised observers Monday by announcing the possibility reforming the island’s restrictive immigration laws. Cuba remains one of the few countries that requires its citizens to apply for permission to leave. Castro said the rule made sense in the 1960s when the revolutionary government adopted it as a way to protect itself from hostile political exiles, but did not make sense today, given that most Cuban migrants leave for economic reasons. Castro has previously indicated intentions of reforming a state-dominated economy that has grown sluggishly since the onset of the worldwide recession in 2008, posting GDP growth of 1.4 percent in 2009 and 1.5 percent in 2010. While the possibility of immigration reform stole the show at Monday’s day-long congressional session, the National Assembly did not publicly address Cuba’s many pressing economic challenges.

Some observers expected the Cuban Parliament to finalize game-changing rules permitting home sales at its Monday meeting for the first time since the 1960s. The body did not do so. Despite putting the task off, the Cuban government says it will finish crafting rules governing home sales by the end of the year. Even without the law on their side, The Miami Herald points out that Cubans have already begun advertising their homes on Revolico—a website for classified announcements. And foreigners may soon get the right to buy Cuban property. Canadian company Standing Feather International, which has a contract to build a luxury golf resort in Holguín, says the Cuban government will allow both foreigners and nationals to purchase property there in perpetuity. Previously, foreigners could only lease Cuban property for 50 years, a ceiling Raúl Castro raised to 99 years in September of last year.

Cuba is also struggling just to feed itself. In preparation for Monday’s legislative meeting, Minister of Agriculture Gustavo Rodríguez announced Friday that the government would have to import even more food this year than planned, because the state failed to produce as much as it anticipated in 11 categories of foodstuffs during the first six months of 2011. It was the second time this year the government was forced to bump up its outlay for foreign food purchases. Costs continue to mount despite a 2009 agricultural reform that distributed usufruct rights to 150,000 families to farm fallow land. BBC correspondent Fernando Ravsberg says the reform has yet to boost production because it does not address the main problem of lack of access to basic resources such as fertilizers, tools, seeds, tractors, and other inputs. Cuba imports somewhere between 60 percent and 80 percent of its food (official and private estimates vary widely).  (continue reading… )


Washington’s newest Cuba problem

Posted in News and Articles, Political Risk by politicalrisklatam on July 8, 2011

by Ian Bremmer for Foreign Policy Magazine, July 8th, 2011.

Cuba. Oil. Two words that tend to get U.S. politicians hot under the collar, though usually not in the same sentence. That could change as the 2012 campaign season heats up in the U.S. and as Cuba’s plans for offshore oil exploration materialize. The Chinese-built, Italian-owned Scarabeo 9 rig is scheduled to enter Cuban waters in August or September, and a consortium of international oil companies is set to begin drilling soon after. The struggling island nation, which currently depends on generous oil deals from its friend and neighbor Venezuela, has high hopes that its potential offshore resources might rev up its sagging economy. (Cuba claims that it has 20 billion barrels of “probable” oil in the continental shelf just off Havana, while the U.S. Geological Service thinks that number is closer to 5 billion barrels.) But as the rig makes its steady way from Singapore, officials in Washington are getting anxious. Many lawmakers doubt that Cuba has the regulatory capacity or expertise to drill safely, particularly without the U.S.-manufactured equipment that the more than 50-year-old embargo has kept out of Cuban hands. And with BP’s spill in the Gulf of Mexico still fresh in the U.S. public’s mind, politicians are flagging the possibility of a Macondo-like spill 50 miles off the Florida coast.

The specter of such a disaster has already prompted several legislative efforts to punish foreign firms that drill in Cuba — or at least those who chose not to comply with U.S. safety standards. Since January, Congressional hardliners from Florida have introduced three bills proposing to deny contracts to such firms or visas to their employees. The bills are designed to appeal to anti-Castro constituencies in the run-up to the elections, but widespread haggling over the issue is set to increase as Cuba’s drilling plans progress, and the issue could become a talking point for presidential candidates in battleground states. For its part, Cuba will keep scrambling to convince the international community that it will uphold international safety standards. But those PR efforts will do little to cool the heated debate brewing on the Hill. (continue reading… )

Hugo Chávez Convalesces in Cuba, as Problems Mount at Home

Posted in News and Articles, Political Risk by politicalrisklatam on June 24, 2011

by Roque Planas for Americas Society / Council of the Americas, June 23rd, 2011.

It may be the first time in years that the political opposition has demanded that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez speak. Since undergoing emergency surgery for a pelvic abscess on June 10 during a state visit to Cuba, the normally omnipresent Chávez, 56, has hardly appeared on television or radio, with the exception of a phone interview with the Venezuelan state press and the release of photographs of him with the Castro brothers, diffused by Cuban state media. The social media-savvy leader who normally posts at least one upbeat, exclamation-pointed tweet to his 1.6 million followers per day has not updated his Twitter account since June 4. His brother Adán, who just returned from visiting the Venezuelan president in Havana, told state television Wednesday Hugo Chávez will return in 10 to 12 days. Despite Chávez’s prolonged absence, Vice President Elías Jaua says there’s no need to make him acting president, and Chávez continues to sign decrees from a Cuba.

Problems mount while Chávez convalesces. Venezuela’s inflation stands at 23 percent and, last week, Energy Minister Alí Rodríguez announced that Venezuela would begin rationing energy in several as-yet-unnamed provinces due to recurrent blackouts. Perhaps most importantly, the Venezuelan government has yet to retake control of El Rodeo prison complex in the state of Miranda, which erupted into violence June 12 between opposing gangs, killing 19 people and wounding 20 more. In Chávez’s absence, the Venezuelan government sent some 4,000 National Guard troops to restore order, but the violence has yet to stop. In the wake of the riot, opposition legislators in the National Assembly called for an investigation into corruption, as well as weapons- and drug-trafficking in Venezuela’s prisons. Chávez supporters, who hold a majority in the unicameral legislature, said Wednesday they would launch an official investigation into what they said was slanted news coverage of the riot.  (continue reading… )

Chavez Governing From Cuba Feeds Questions About Leader’s Health

Posted in News and Articles, Political Risk by politicalrisklatam on June 16, 2011

by Charlie Devereux and Jose Orozco for Bloomberg, June 15th, 2011.

Venezuelans, who in the past decade have grown accustomed to watching Hugo Chavez make national policy in near-daily television appearances, must now get used to him governing from a hospital bed in Cuba.

Since traveling to the communist island June 9 and undergoing unannounced surgery to remove a pelvic abscess, the normally hands-on leader has stayed out of the spotlight, making a single telephone call into state-run television. That’s raised questions about the true state of his health after other medical problems this year, and is forcing friends and foes alike to ask who’s in charge of South America’s biggest oil producer.

Chavez, 56, was last seen in public June 9 walking down the steps of his airplane in Havana with a metal crutch. The former paratrooper said he injured his knee while jogging last month, adding that stress had been building on the joint since his younger days playing baseball and jumping out of airplanes. (continue reading… )

The Chinese are coming…to Cuba

Posted in News and Articles, Political Risk by politicalrisklatam on June 7, 2011

by Pan Kwan Yuk for Financial Times – Beyond Brics, June 7th, 2011.

When it comes to natural resources, Cuba is small fry compared to its southern neighbours Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Yet that has not stopped China from knocking at its doors.

Xi Jinping, the Chinese vice-president who is expected to become the country’s next president when Hu Jintao steps down in 2013, has been in the Communist island over the past three days shoring up budding Chinese-Cuban relations.

China is already Cuba’s second largest trading partner after Venezuela and trade between the two countries reached $1.83bn last year, compared with $440m in 2001, according to Xinhua, China’s state news agency.

For Cuba, the attractions of closer ties to China are obvious. The country, which is the subject of a strict US embargo and is excluded from most international lending organisations, depends on China as a creditor of last resort. And as the government looks to modernise its dilapidated infrastructure and reshape its Soviet-style economy, Beijing is proving to be a reliable source of cheap credit and trade cover – as well as a steadfast political ally. (continue reading… )


The start of a long, slow goodbye

Posted in News and Articles, Political Risk by politicalrisklatam on April 20, 2011

by The Economist, April 20th, 2011.

Age has at last caught up with the Castros and their revolution. New ideas are emerging slightly faster than new leaders

When serious illness forced him to hand over power in 2006, Fidel Castro had been running things for almost half a century. This included an incident when, needing a knee operation, he contrived to have an epidural so that he could remain conscious and therefore in charge. Under Fidel, term-limits seemed less likely in the Plaza de la Revolución than in, say, Buckingham Palace.

But on April 16th Raúl Castro, who formally took over as president from his older brother in 2008, broke with tradition. Speaking at the opening of a four-day Congress of the ruling Communist Party, he declared that senior officials, including himself, should be limited to two consecutive five-year terms in office. “It’s really embarrassing that we have not solved this problem in more than half a century,” Raúl, who is aged 79, said. As the generation that led the revolution of 1959 has grown old in office, Cuba has lacked “a reserve of well-trained replacements with sufficient experience and maturity,” he admitted.

But the Congress largely failed to put Mr Castro’s words into practice. He was duly elected as party first secretary, replacing Fidel. José Ramon Machado, an 80-year-old Stalinist, will remain his number two, and Ramiro Valdés, aged 78, number three. The 15-member politbureau contains only three new faces. Fidel himself made a surprise appearance at Raúl’s side at the end of the Congress. The message seemed to be that change can only happen if the old guard approve. (continue reading… )

Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party: Another Massive Disappointment

Posted in News and Articles, Political Risk by politicalrisklatam on April 20, 2011

by Frank Calzon for Americas Society / Council of the Americas, April 20th, 2011.

The Sixth Congress of the Communist party of Cuba has convened, and although General Raúl Castro has announced that it should be the last of the historical generation that overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista some 50 years ago, the decisions announced in Havana are just another great disappointment for the 11 million Cubans.

For a half century General Castro has functioned as minister of the armed forces and as such is responsible for the military expeditions that sent Cubans to kill and/or be killed in Africa. He is likewise responsible for the execution of his colleague General Arnaldo Ochoa for the crime of being more popular than Fidel himself. This is in addition to acts of international terrorism such as shooting down two unarmed civilian planes surveying the Florida straits for stranded refugees. Worst of all, he proposes to make Cubans believe that the naming of another octogenarian as vice-president of the Council of State—in this case, José Ramón Machado Ventura—constitutes something new in the sad history of the Cuban revolution.

Raúl Castro now speaks of establishing a limit of two terms of five years each for the present Cuban leadership—this, when he himself is almost 80 years old! Those who see past the charismatically challenged brother of Fidel can easily pick out the figure of Colonel Alejandro Castro, his son and right-hand man. Alejandro also holds a high position in the ministry of interior, the agency of the regime in charge of foreign espionage and domestic repression. Also, General Castro has just appointed Luis Alberto Rodriguez Calleja to the powerful Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba—a man who happens to be married to one of his daughters. (continue reading… )

Fidel Castro gives brother key vote of confidence

Posted in News and Articles, Political Risk by politicalrisklatam on April 19, 2011

by Paul Haven for Associated Press, April 17th, 2011.

Fidel Castro apologized on Sunday for not making it to a military parade celebrating the 50th anniversary of his victory over CIA-backed exiles at the Bay of Pigs, then praised brother Raul’s speech proposing major economic changes and term limits for Cuba’s leaders.

The 84-year-old revolutionary icon said in an opinion piece that the speech opening the Sixth Party Congress after Saturday’s parade made him proud, a key vote of confidence in the direction his brother is taking the country.

“It has been worth the trouble to have lived to see today’s events, and it is worth the trouble to always remember those who died to make them possible,” Fidel wrote, adding that he felt “the same feelings of pride” when he heard Raul’s address and saw the faces of the 1,000 Communist Party delegates who attended the speech. (continue reading… )

Catch him if you can

Posted in News and Articles, Political Risk by politicalrisklatam on April 13, 2011

by The Economist – Americas View, April 12th, 2011.

One of the Cuban government’s most legitimate criticisms of the United States involves its handling of Luis Posada Carriles. A Havana-born Venezuelan citizen, Mr Posada helped organise the failed Bay of Pigs invasion that sought to topple Fidel Castro’s regime in 1961. He later headed Venezuela’s intelligence service, and worked for the CIA in operations to undermine Mr Castro and support Nicaragua’s right-wing Contra guerrillas. In 1976 two employees of Mr Posada’s private detective agency blew up a Cuban airplane, killing 73 people, including the country’s entire national fencing team. Over 20 years later he was implicated in a series of bombings of Havana hotels.

Mr Posada has largely managed to evade punishment for these crimes. He was acquitted by a Venezuelan military tribunal in the airplane bombing, and escaped from prison while awaiting a civilian trial for the same attack. He was recaptured and held without a conviction for eight years, but then escaped again. In 2000 Panama found him guilty of plotting to kill Mr Castro during a summit meeting. However, Mireya Moscoso, Panama’s president, gave him a controversial pardon shortly before she left office in 2004.

The following year, Mr Posada sneaked into the United States using false documents and sought political asylum. After Venezuela requested his extradition, he withdrew his asylum application and was arrested. Nonetheless, a Florida judge refused to deport him to Venezuela because of the risk that he might be tortured—a curious ruling, given that Hugo Chávez’s government has no significant track record of torture, while the conditions to which America subjected its detainees in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo were already well-known. (continue reading… )


In spite of release of dissidents, Cuba continues ‘to stifle freedom of expression’

Posted in News and Articles, Political Risk by politicalrisklatam on March 18, 2011

by Merco Press News, March 17th, 2011.

The Cuban authorities are continuing to stifle freedom of expression on the island in spite of the much-publicized recent wave of releases of prominent dissidents, Amnesty International warned ahead of the eighth anniversary of a crackdown on activists.

Hundreds of pro-democracy activists have suffered harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrest in recent weeks as the Cuban government employs new tactics to stamp out dissent.

Of 75 activists arrested in a crackdown around 18 March 2003, (‘Black Spring’) only three remain in jail after 50 releases since last June, with most of the freed activists currently exiled in Spain. Amnesty International has called for the remaining prisoners to be released immediately and unconditionally.

“The release of those detained in the 2003 crackdown is a hugely positive step but it tells only one side of the story facing Cuban human rights activists,” said Gerardo Ducos, Cuba researcher at Amnesty International.

“Those living on the island are still being targeted for their work, especially through short-term detentions, while repressive laws give the Cuban authorities a free rein to punish anyone who criticizes them.” (continue reading… )