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What Cuba is Gaining, Losing and Risking

By       Message Guglielmo Tell     Permalink
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I have to confess I'm a bad reporter. If I have a strong opinion about something, it tends to filter the information I get about it. But "good" reporters have the same problem: their so-called "impartiality" simply doesn't exist. Moreover, the restrictive guidelines they follow in their work further compromise their meaning. The only difference between such reporters and me -- and people like Michael Moore -- is that we recognize our inability to be impartial.

Well, let me start with the facts: On Dec. 17, 2014 Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced simultaneously the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba. The agreement was accompanied by an exchange of prisoners. Those returned by Cuba to America included Alan Gross, whose case was publicized in both the US and Cuba, and a mysterious CIA agent who was mentioned by both presidents but not named by either. Prisoners returned by the US to Cuba included three of the "Cuban Five" (one of whom -- Gerardo Hernandez Nordelo-- was serving two life sentences and more). In addition, Cuba released a so-far undisclosed number of persons viewed abroad as "political prisoners," as it had already done on several other occasions, including one years ago during a visit by Pope John Paul II. As with Alan Gross, this latest release may have been based, at least in part, on humanitarian considerations. In any case, both Barack and Raul thanked Canada and the Vatican for the roles they played as mediators.

So, what has been the reaction to these developments here in Havana? Well, for everyday people, the whole thing has seemed like getting doused by a bucket of water. Cubans, however, are sort of used to that. I recall, for instance, a famous TV series back in the '80s about Cuban intelligence officers. Its title, "In Silence It Had To Be," was derived from an oft-quoted phrase by the Cuban national hero Jose Marti: "Certain things have to be done in silence in order to succeed." Marti was talking about the planning underway for the final Cuban independence war of 1895-1898, during the course of which both he and Antonio Maceo, Chief of Staff of the Cuban Liberation Army, died. This heroic endeavor was smashed by the American intervention that followed the explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana Bay in 1898 -- which served as a pretext for a purely political enterprise. Following the war, Cuba was not incorporated into the Union (for racist reasons, Cuban historians argue). Instead, the US forced the Cuban Constitutional Assembly to adopt the Platt Amendment already approved by the US Congress, which gave the US the right to intervene in Cuba whenever it believed US interests required it. The Amendment was used in fact as cover for the US intervention in Cuba in 1906-1909. Afterwards, it continued to condition Cuban foreign policy.

In terms of US economic intervention, American "investors" started grabbing properties in Cuba despite the harmful consequences not only for the country's people, but for Cuba's own entrepreneurs. During conflicts in the North, countries that supply raw materials to the respective sides usually experience a short economic boom followed by a crash after the conflict ends. Cuba's banking crash of 1921 ruined the businesses of both the island's natives and descendants of the Spanish colonizers. Figures show that between 1913 and 1925, American capital in Cuba increased from 205 million to 1,360 million dollars. That expansion was characterized by Oscar Pino Santos, a Cuban revolutionary historian, as an "assault by the Yankee financial oligarchy." To make a long story (too) short, by 1958 Cuba was one of the world's biggest producers of sugar, but at the same time it had one of the lowest rates of per capita sugar consumption. The country's economic (in)stability was contingent upon the American sugar quota.

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Returning now to the Dec. 17, 2014 event, it must be said that the heaviest focus here in Cuba has been placed on the return of Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino and Gerardo Hernandez, the three of the Cuban Five who were still in American prisons. (Rene Gonzalez and Fernando Gonzalez -- not related -- returned earlier after serving their full time.) The family reunions were, of course, extremely emotional, just as they were for Alan Gross in the US. The Three were accorded the warmest possible reception by the people in their neighborhoods. On Saturday, Dec. 20, they attended the closing session of the Cuban National Assembly, and late that night they sang together with Silvio Rodriguez (a singer-songwriter who is one of the symbols of Cuban Revolutionary culture and well-known all over Latin America) in a concert he put on in a Havana neighborhood.

Yes, the members of the Cuban Five deserved this reception. They fought terrorism, and they warned Cuba about preparations for terrorist attacks from US soil that included, among other things, an armed air-attack on Havana's biggest oil refinery and another one against a May 1st demonstration. If, in the end, these attacks based in the US didn't take place, it was quite possibly the result of their actions. And such was the extent of their "espionage" that the first person Fidel Castro informed about everything The Five had found out was Bill Clinton, via a note entrusted to Gabriel Garca Ma'rquez. This was followed by a visit by an FBI delegation to the Cuban Ministry of Interior (not the only one). Fidel Castro made the whole story public in a speech in March, 2003, after promising in 2001 that "they [the Cuban Five] will return."

Right after Raul's TV announcement of the agreement with the US on Wednesday, Dec. 17, university students went out on the streets to salute the return of the Three, and then everything returned to its usual routine. During the night, TV went on with its normal programming between newscasts, showing the usual chapter of the current Brazilian soap and later that of the "Fringe" TV show dealing with parallel universes.

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With the Dec. 17 developments, people here hope for improvements in the economic situation - though Raul, of course, made it clear in his speech that the blockade is still in effect. People who receive remittances may get some benefit (as should the economy via the remittances), although El Nuevo Herald (in Spanish) reports that ordinary tourist travel to Cuba will remain prohibited. The same article says that the value of items brought back from Cuba by American travelers will remain below 400 dollars, including a limit of 100 dollars for cigars and alcohol, which can be bought for personal use only.

Importantly, telecommunications should improve - in particular the Internet, which I can characterize from personal experience as absolutely terrible. Its technical deficiencies are more significant than the political censorship much publicized abroad, as illustrated by the story of Hugo Chavez's cable. First, the very enterprise of laying the cable was marked by an episode of administrative corruption [at least according to rumors here in Cuba, the only information available in this case]. Then, and without the usual official opening ceremony, it finally became functional only after two delays and Chavez's own death. For "simple" users like me, the cable led only to a small improvement. For its part, the White House announced that its own Internet blog will now include information in Spanish regarding travel between the two countries.

In his own comments about the new US/Cuba rapprochement, President Obama described Cuban "immigration" in the usual terms of "enormous contributions to our country, in politics, in business, culture and sports," while continuing to refer to Cuba itself in the most traditional Cold War terms. Despite all that, it is clear that negotiations leading to the agreements were conducted directly between the American government and the Castros, while the leaders of Miami's exile community were left out. Marco Rubio (in Spanish) swore he would do everything possible to block the dialogue, although others demanded to participate in it (in Spanish). Some of the fiercest fanatics protested (in Spanish) the liberation of the three imprisoned members of the Cuban Five. Cuban TV noted, however, that, in a Miami demonstration against Obama's shift in policy, "there were more reporters than protesters." We also learned that, while the breakthrough came as a surprise, developments leading up to it had apparently been underway for as long as 18 months (in Spanish). In terms of why the two countries were finally seeking a thaw, one American motivation mentioned was a desire to draw clear sea borders in the Mexican Gulf.

As for peripheral news attending the event, El Nuevo Herald (in Spanish) and The New York Times reported that they had identified the mysterious CIA agent released by Cuba as Rolando Sarraff Trujillo. At the same time, however, El Nuevo Herald reported that the man's family didn't know his whereabouts. In further spinoffs from the main story, China demanded that the US blockade ("embargo") of Cuba be lifted as soon as possible, while Russia was said to consider the rapprochement a "right step." Some in the Russian online media even reported that the Vatican and Canada had hosted (in Russian) secret meetings between Cuban and American officers.

Taking a more skeptical view of the agreement, Russian Vice-Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin (in Russian) conjectured that the US will continue to asphyxiate Cuba by "hugging" the island. Ordinary Russian reactions in blogs included heavy doses of racism (in Russian) and "reminders" of money "not returned for (Soviet) friendship." This view conveniently overlooks the interests of the former Soviet Empire in Cuba, which were not only related to Cuba's proximity to the US. In fact, a Russian government delegation discussing energy and science collaboration, which Rogozin himself joined a couple days later, happened to be in Cuba at the time of the announcement of the new US/CUBA agreement.

For its part, Latin America greeted the restoration of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba with a deep sigh of relief. Just as the news broke out, another Mercosur Summit was taking place, this time in Parana, Argentina. Besides the original member states of the block -- Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay -- this summit included Venezuela, which passed the block's rotational presidency to Argentina, and Bolivia (in Spanish), which was admitted as a full member. Maduro characterized Obama's action as "a brave step," choosing terms quite similar to Raul's. Adopting another tone regarding issues related to Venezuela itself, Venezuelan Minister for Foreign Affairs Rafael Ramirez said on Dec. 19 that Venezuela reserves the right to reply to US sanctions by pushing for corresponding measures and actions in international forums. For her part, Cristina Fernandez used the Cuba/US agreement to urge the UK to discuss "the issue" (the return) of the Malvinas.

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Outside Mercosur, Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia, extended his congratulations to the governments of Cuba and the US, and welcomed the opportunity for dialogue on "other issues, such as democracy and liberties." (In peace talks taking place in Havana, the FARC announced an indefinite ceasefire, saying it would be broken only if the Colombian government's army waged an attack against guerilla structures. Unfortunately, despite a request by Colombia's civil society that the government observe a ceasefire at least through the holidays, it refused, as it did last year. In a second positive gesture, this one toward a delegation of victims of the Colombian conflict, the FARC also assumed responsibility for a massacre committed 12 years ago, though it pointed out the fact that in war civilians often get trapped in the crossfire. By contrast, the Colombian government has yet to admit responsibility for its role in other massacres. Victims at the same time continue quite rightly to demand that the right-wing paramilitaries be officially held responsible for multiple rural massacres.

Enrique Peña Nieto, President of Mexico, offered his help to deepen the dialogue between the US and Cuba. (Regrettably, however, Peña Nieto is himself currently wrapped up in political mayhem, following the abduction of 43 teenage students last September in Guerrero State by police who turned out to be on the payroll of organized crime. Relatives of the students and people across Mexico accuse the government and the judicial system of being totally useless in their efforts to find the students and punish the perpetrators, and are demanding the resignation of both Peña Nieto and the Prosecutor General. So far, the governor and prosecutor of Guerrero State have been forced from office, and the Mayor of Iguala -- the site of the disappearance -- has been arrested together with his wife for being a fugitive from justice. At this point, even Jose "Pepe" Mujica, the outgoing president of Uruguay, has said that Mexico gives the impression of being "a failed state." On top of all this, the disappearance in July of another 30 students in a place close to Iguala has now been confirmed.)

As a whole, Latin America has pushed heavily for the inclusion of Cuba in the Summit of the Americas. Rafael Correa, President of Ecuador, has said on multiple occasions that he wouldn't attend another summit without the participation of Cuba. Several weeks prior to the Dec. 17 event, Isabel Saint Malo, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the new Panamanian government, traveled to Cuba to extend an official invitation to Raul Castro, and on Saturday Dec. 20 Raul confirmed his acceptance in a speech to the National Assembly. It's hard to say whether anyone in the governments of the continent knew anything at that time about secret talks aimed at restoring diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US.

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A Russian sociologist residing in CUBA

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