Cuba

Consequences of the US-Cuba rapprochement
Following president Barack Obama’s announcement that the United States will begin normalising relations with Cuba, John Paul Rathbone, Latin America editor, joins Gideon Rachman to examine how quickly the island state’s Soviet-style economy is likely to change and the implications for the wider region.

The move by US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, to announce the tentative resumption of diplomatic relations is already prompting talk that the world’s oldest trade embargo may be coming to an end.

Introduced in 1960, the US embargo of Cuba has hit the island economy of 11m people hard over the decades. In its annual report to the United Nations on the subject Cuba in September estimated it lost $3.9bn in foreign trade in 2013 alone because of the embargo. Havana’s running tally for the total economic damage: $116.8bn.

That figure is obviously worth taking with a pinch of salt, as should be any idea that the embargo is going to be lifted soon.

But there is no doubt that a change in US policy would represent a huge economic opportunity for Cuba or that the potential looks alluring to plenty of businesses in the US. Here are some points to keep in mind and some charts worth pondering: Read more

John Paul Rathbone

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

John Paul Rathbone

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

John Paul Rathbone

“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

John Paul Rathbone

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

John Paul Rathbone

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

John Paul Rathbone

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

John Paul Rathbone

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

John Paul Rathbone

Hugo Chávez is in Havana. Venezuela’s cancer-ridden president may be alive in the elite CIMEQ hospital, or he may simply be being kept alive on a life support system as rumours suggest, or he may be getting better, as the Venezuelan government insists. Although he remains, officially, the country’s head of state, nobody really knows the current state of his health – except for the Castro brothers and a handful of close family and government associates. Indeed, since Chávez underwent his fourth round of cancer surgery on December 11, there has been no video of the usually loquacious socialist leader smiling from a hospital bed, no record of him cheering on loyal supporters, no photograph, no tweet even from a president much given to social media (he has 4m followers on Twitter). The only evidence presented that Chávez is still alive, so far, has been a scanned photograph of Chávez’s signature underneath an official decree. But the signature was datelined Caracas, although even the government admits Chávez remains in Havana. Read more