US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy signs the order of naval blockade of Cuba, on October 24, 1962 in White House. Getty.

It was on February 7 1962 that John F Kennedy signed the US policy now known as the Cuban embargo into law. The day before, the US president had ordered an aide to buy him 1,000 Petit Upmanns cigars. It was only after Kennedy got word that his request had been carried out that he authorised the new regulations that banned Cuban imports and would have made the purchase illegal.

Today, 52 years later, Barack Obama has partially reversed that law. The changes he has made do not amount to a full repeal of the embargo – that requires an act of Congress. Nonetheless, the changes are profound. They recognise that US policy towards the island has failed to achieve its objective of change – Mr Obama is, after all, the 11th US president to face a socialist Cuba. They recognise that the embargo has often poisoned US diplomacy in the broader region. And the changes recognise that, for over half a century, the US embargo has been emblematic of Washington’s bully-boy approach to the socialist island, which has won Cuba international sympathy that the dictatorship of the Castro brothers would otherwise not have enjoyed. Read more

After changing the constitution so he could run again, Evo Morales has just won another term as president of Bolivia – his third – in a landslide vote. The former union leader won majority control of the Congress and the Senate. He also dominates the judiciary. He now has consolidated control of the country. Any successes or failures over the next five years will therefore be Morales’ alone. The biggest question is if this will be it – or, in five years time, if he will seek a fourth term. Read more

Such is the power of incumbency, that over the past decade no Latin American president who has run for re-election has lost. Juan Manuel Santos, re-elected Colombia’s president on Sunday, has just re-confirmed that trend, although it was close. (An aside:Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who are also aiming for re-election this year, will be relieved.)

The clinchers for Santos, who won with 51 per cent of the vote in a presidential run-off against Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, who took 45 per cent, were threefold. All of them have implications for Santos’ next term. Read more

The Associated Press has just released a fascinating piece of investigative journalism about US psy-ops in Cuba, the plan being to use a Twitter-like service to foment social unrest and weaken Havana’s communist regime.

The story is a must-read that shows how the world of espionage is changing in today’s internet-driven world, and how that espionage can fail for new reasons. It may also hand other governments, such as those in Turkey, Russia or Venezuela, an excuse to crack down on social media using the argument that the misinformation spread is all part of a terrible imperialist plot. Read more

“We could turn Venezuela into Ukraine!” a student protester shouted in Caracas this weekend. It is striking how similar the situations are in the two countries, despite the significant differences.

There have been many tragic deaths in both countries – although about 100 people have died in Ukraine, versus “only” around ten in Venezuela. This difference is one reason why the troubles in Venezuela has not yet captured the same attention as the protests in Ukraine.

Just because Venezuela lacks Ukraine’s immediate geo-political heft – there are no borders in question in Venezuela; Europe’s energy security is not under threat; nor is the reach of Russia’s power or Vladimir Putin’s reputation – does not mean it lacks wider significance.

Caracas provides important economic assistance to Havana, without which Cuba’s economy would sink. Communist Cuba therefore has a vested interest in what happens in Venezuela, just as Russia does in Ukraine – a situation ripe for Cold War style comparisons. Read more

First protests; then inevitable casualties and recriminations. Life is getting harder on the mean streets of Venezuela’s cities. But that does not mean that a change of regime is in the offing.

The street protests that left three dead on Wednesday after pro and anti-government forces clashed came after a week of scattered gatherings across the country. The trigger was the arrest on Feb 6 of four students in western Tachira state. Since then relatively small gatherings, coordinated by social media under the hashtag #LaSalida, the Exit, have gathered in provincial cities.

Some of these protests turned violent after the National Guard attempted to disperse crowds. Wednesday’s nationwide protests were of a different scale. Rough estimates suggest the crowd in Caracas reached 20,000 people. Reports suggest pro-government motorcycle gangs attacked them. Either way, it was the worst unrest since President Nicolás Maduro won last year’s election by a whisker after his mentor, Hugo Chávez, died. Read more

Cuba has long had the kind of car fleet that passes for contemporary in much of the developing world – a mix of late model European and Asian vehicles, Chinese buses, with some boxy Russian Ladas and indeterminate bangers thrown in. Yet it was always the vintage US cars with their retro 1950s fin lines that caught most visitors’ attention and adorned the tourist literature.

That era may now be drawing to a close, though. This week, the government of President Raúl Castro relaxed restrictions, thereby allowing all Cuban citizens to buy and then sell new imported cars at market prices for the first time in over 50 years. Read more

Barack Obama shakes hands with Raul Castro during the official memorial service for Nelson Mandela (Getty)It is not often that a handshake has such power to titillate. But then it depends on who is doing the shaking. Barack Obama and Raúl Castro briefly greeted each other when they met on Tuesday at the memorial service of former South African president Nelson Mandela – only the second time that leaders of the two countries are known to have shaken hands since 1960, when the two countries broke off diplomatic relations. Yet it is hard to read too much into this. In fact, it would have been awkward for the two leaders to have avoided it. Read more


Michelle Bachelet on the campaign trail

Chile is about to have a new female president, Michelle Bachelet. Brazil already has one, Dilma Rousseff. So too Argentina, in the figure of Cristina Fernández. Add up their three economies, and a combined gross domestic product of $3,000bn will soon be presided over by female leaders. Moreover, this is in a continent more often noted for machismo than women’s rights. It just goes to show how often stereotypes can be wrong. Or are they? Read more

Cristina Fernández is an aggressive politician with a fragile state of health, which makes for a lousy combination. Credibly diagnosed over the weekend with blood on her brain — a possibly but not necessarily serious condition — doctors have ordered the Argentine president to rest for a month. Just three weeks before mid-term elections, this surprise development has the potential to throw Argentina, its politics and even its creditor discussions wide open. For Ms Fernández it is also a medical misfortune that could, ironically, turn out to be a political gift.

Her government faces a crescendo of problems. Its long-running battle in a New York court with a group of holdout creditors could well end in a technical default. Currency controls are strangling the economy and deterring investment while inflation is running at a privately-estimated 25 per cent (not even ministers believe the official figures.) Corruption scandals are a regular occurrence. Meanwhile, Ms Fernández has also picked a series of fights with her neighbours, most recently Chile and Uruguay, losing Argentina its few remaining international friends. As a result, her ruling coalition is expected to lose big in the mid-term elections on October 27. Read more

While Dilma Rousseff and Cristina Fernández face rising political uncertainty in Brazil and Argentina, across the Andes plucky Chile soldiers on in time-honored fashion – that’s to say, predictably.

Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet after winning primary elections in Santiago, on June 30, 2013

Michelle Bachelet, the former president, steamed towards another presidency on Sunday with a romping win in the primaries – which pretty much guarantees her a landslide win in November’s presidential election. But then again, is everything so certain, even in stolid Chile?

Brazil’s recent protests, and student riots in Chile last week over university tuition fees, have led some to wonder if “Chile is the next Brazil?” (Although, truth be told, it would be more accurate to call “Brazil the next Chile” as Chile’s student riots, despite the country’s booming economy, pre-date Brazil’s turbulence by several years; the first were in 2006.) Read more

Edward Snowden is fast becoming a hot potato nobody wants to handle. Russia does not want him – so he can’t leave the legally-grey area of the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on foot. He could fly away – that is Putin’s preferred solution and, indeed, it seems that he now has travel papers, after Ecuador granted him a “safe pass” for temporary travel, according to images of travel documents posted by Spanish language Univision late on Wednesday.

But Snowden’s flight path to the apparent safety of possible political asylum in another country, such as Venezuela (which has offered the possibility) or Ecuador (which has said it would consider it), is blocked by a problem. All commercial flights between Moscow and Quito or Caracas touch down in third countries with which the US has extradition agreements. And that includes Cuba. Read more

Rafael Correa (Getty)

While no one knows with certainty where Edward Snowden is heading after leaving Hong Kong on Sunday, Ecuador appears to be his most likely destination – a small country on the equator, as its name tells us, with fiery Rafael Correa as its outsize president. However, Correa is not the only larger-than-life politician that Ecuador has produced for the world. Indeed, for much of its history, Ecuador seems to have drawn its political inspiration from the gigantic volcano Chimborazo depicted on its coat of arms. Furthermore, like many of the titans who have dominated Ecuadorean politics, Correa has brought a rare stretch of political continuity to his country, although, as critics might argue of him but certainly his forebears, it has been at a cost. Read more

Xi Jinping visiting a coffee farm in Costa Rica (AFP/Getty)

Where the US leads, China follows close behind. Or is that vice versa? The question is especially pertinent in Latin America, where China’s president, Xi Jinping, is midway through a regional tour that culminates in Mexico before he meets Barack Obama in California. What makes Mr Xi’s trip noteworthy is that it follows a similar regional tour by Joe Biden, the US vice-president.

For fans of a multi-polar world, Mr Xi’s trip illustrates how fast the world is changing – and how China is prepared to pay to expand its sphere of influence too: in Trinidad & Tobago, Mr Xi stumped up $3bn in loans. Read more

Was it the man or the country? Roberto Azevêdo is a polished negotiator, a seasoned trade diplomat and in many ways a perfect pick to head the World Trade Organization.

He knows his way around the Geneva-based organisation, can hit the ground running fully briefed on all the issues, and is well known and liked around the developing world – not least for his record of criticising the farm-subsidy policies of the USA and Europe. If anyone can revive the Doha round of trade talks, launched 12 years ago in an attempt to cut tariffs and trade-distorting farm subsidies around the world but now on life-support, it is surely him.

Yet Azevêdo, 55, is also Brazilian, a country with a patchy record on trade liberalisation and little openness to the rest of the world. Trade accounts for only 20 per cent of Brazilian gross domestic product. Brazil is also the leading member of Mercosul, a regional Latin American trade pact created in 1991 with great hopes that have since foundered. If Brazil can’t boost trade locally, what chance it can boost trade globally? Azevêdo’s nationality therefore makes him an unlikely leader of the WTO, especially as the organisation’s role as a broker of ambitious trade deals is in doubt given the rise of so many regional trade initiatives, such as the mooted US-European trade deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Read more

Supporters of Venezuelan opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles protest in front of riot police in Caracas on April 15, 2013 (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Supporters of Henrique Capriles protest on April 15 (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

“I will continue governing the country with its people. Street government.” So tweeted Nicolás Maduro on Tuesday night as Venezuela’s president-elect sought to strengthen his hold on the country amid deadly street clashes, a teetering economy and an angry opposition that has disputed his narrow election victory.

It’s a febrile atmosphere: seven people died in riots overnight, 60 were injured and 170 arrested. Back in Europe, fresh from a recent trip to Caracas, many have asked me: is this country nuts?

One way to imagine yourself into the Venezuelan mindset is to picture yourself in an old fashioned American automobile – a yank tank – cruising along one of the rain-stained concrete flyovers that define Caracas’ cityscape. Towering sky-scrapers, built during the 1970s oil boom and now thick with grime, flit by on either side. You have a full tank of gas (it cost just $3 to fill up). It’s tropical hot, and the car’s air-conditioning is broken and unfixable because the spare parts needed to repair it are imported and thus unobtainable due to currency restrictions. No matter: the windows are open. Other cars are jouncing along at high speed in the adjacent lanes. The atmosphere is exhilarating – although you are just making a regular trip to the airport, a half hour drive down to the coast, and your suitcase is in the back.

When I made that trip on the Friday before the election, our way was momentarily blocked by an accident. Think of what follows as just another regular day in Caracas. To avoid the traffic back-up, a white SUV with blue tinted windows was bucking over the concrete lane divider, and then started heading backwards against the traffic towards a slipway a couple of hundred metres behind. Further on, we passed a turning to Ciudad Caribe, a “socialist new town” where earlier that week two police had accidentally shot a child. A furious mob subsequently lynched one of the police officers.

Later, checking in at the airport, I was pulled aside for a routine security check. A bored young soldier rummaged through my suitcase. He found a DVD set of a hit Colombian soap opera I was watching: “Pablo Escobar, Father of Evil”. The badges on his olive green tunic proclaimed him a member of Venezuela’s “National Boliviarian Guard – anti-drugs unit.” His interest perked up, although not for the reasons I expected.

“You know, for me, Pablo Escobar was one of the greatest of men, ever,” he said fingering the DVDs covetously. Read more

Nicolas Maduro celebrates with his wife, Cilia Flores, after being declared the winner of Venezuela's presidential election (Reuters).

Only six weeks in the grave, and Hugo Chávez’s socialist dream is fading fast. Last night, the chosen successor of “el commandante”, Nicolas Maduro, won Venezuela’s presidential election, but only by a whisker.

Maduro – “the self-proclaimed son of Chavez” – got 50.7 per cent of the vote, versus 49.1 per cent for Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader. That compares to an 11 point win for Chavez in October’s presidential election. Capriles has refused to accept the result until the votes are fully audited.

Assume, for now, that the result stands and no evidence is found of jiggery-pokery. That is still no kind of mandate for Maduro and Venezuela’s ruling socialist party. This is a country split down the middle. Such a close result will also undermine Maduro’s standing within the ruling socialist party. The 50-year old former foreign minister and bus driver will struggle to reconcile chavismo’s various factions, many of whom may think they could do a better job. But the country is in a mess, whoever comes to govern it. Read more

The optimism of the early Chávez years is fading (Getty)

Landing in Maiquetia, Venezuela’s main international airport, is always a bit like stepping through the looking glass no matter where you’re coming from. But arriving from neighbouring Colombia is a stark reminder of just how far the fortunes of these two countries have diverged over the past 15 years or so.

At the turn of the century, Colombia was under the cosh – from the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, drug traffickers, often all at the same time. Bogotá was an austere, gloomy place. The only way seemed to be down. Today, its refurbished El Dorado airport is all gleaming efficiency – perhaps the slickest entrepôt on the continent. The capital’s streets are thrumming, the Colombian personality remains upbeat and can-do, democracy is effervescent (and bumpy, like all healthy democracies), inflation is low, and while the country’s peace talks with the Farc guerrillas is sometimes a halting process, government security officials have a spring in their step. I suspect the talks are going far better than many believe and a deal could be possible in a number of months. Peace could then see the economy really take off and the country properly attack its glaring inequalities and income disparities.

In Venezuela everything is al reves – the opposite. Read more

They say that a bad agreement is better than a good fight. But not, it seems, in Bogotá. Last September, President Juan Manuel Santos launched a formal peace process with Colombia’s Farc guerrillas. This sparked hopes that the hemisphere’s longest internal armed conflict might finally draw to a close. As the Farc has also funded itself with drug-smuggling (although it denies this), the process has other international implications too. The talks, held in Havana, have already proved a hard slog. But over the Easter holidays, they suffered a series of unexpected and damaging attacks – not from the guerrillas themselves, as you might expect, but from two former Colombian presidents.

Álvaro Uribe, who led an all out offensive on the Farc while president from 2002 until 2010, fired off a series of withering tweets, lambasting the peace process as an attempt to “cozy up to terrorists”. Then Andrés Pastrana, who ironically led a failed peace process in 1998, joined the fray, saying that Mr Santos had no mandate to seek peace. Further souring the mood, both former presidents attacked the person and family of Mr Santos. To outsiders, this can look odd as he served with a distinction in both Pastrana’s government (as finance minister) and Uribe’s (as defence minister). Either way, the attacks have fed growing pessimism that the peace talks will succeed. Many Colombians were anyway sceptical at the outset. Read more

It is a common error in politics to underestimate your adversary. Ever since Hugo Chávez fell ill from cancer two years ago, many imagined that his rule and his oil-fuelled socialist revolution would also end with his death, undermined by its own prodigious inefficiency and corruption. But now that the Venezuelan president has actually died, it no longer quite looks that way.

Chávez is now bound for mythology. In the imagination of his mourning supporters, he may come to occupy a space similar to Che Guevara’s – another martyr of the revolutionary left, albeit one without as large a cheque book. Indeed, Chávez’s early death is likely to prolong “chavismo” for a few more years rather than bring it to an abrupt end. Read more