Cuba

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

John Paul Rathbone

2013 may well be the year that biology trumps ideology – if not in attitudes to global warming then in the increasing actuarial possibilities that both Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez will soon die, writes JP Rathbone.  Read more

John Paul Rathbone

FARC commander Mauricio Jaramillo, is flanked by FARC rebels Ricardo Tellez (left) and Andres Paris, during a press conference in Havana, Cuba, on Sept. 4. Photo AP

For many FT readers, the guerrilla conflict that Colombia has suffered over the past 50 years, and the possibility that it may now end, probably seems like a sordid tropical war taking place in a corner of the world of little interest, and less importance. It is otherwise. In this corner of the Americas there is, in fact, a great and complex geopolitical game at work, in the same way that there was a great game at work in central Asia in the 19th  century.

Only 12 years ago, Colombia was considered an “almost failed” state. That is why the United States – under an initiative begun under President Bill Clinton, and continued under President George W Bush and President Barack Obama – launched “Plan Colombia”: a program of military and development aid that constitutes one of the US’s biggest, and one of its most controversial, foreign policy initiatives. To date, the US has committed some $8bn under this plan, which is designed to combat insurgent guerrilla forces in Colombia and curb drug trafficking. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

Teofilo Stevenson waves to the crowd at the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980. (AP Photo)

Teofilo Stevenson at the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980. (AP Photo)

Havana has just lost a hero. Teofilo Stevenson, perhaps one of the world’s greatest boxers, has died of a heart attack. He was 60. Ironically, the 6ft 3-1/2 inch super heavyweight is most famous for a fight that never happened: a bout with Muhammad Ali.

Stevenson was reputedly offered $1m by Don King, the promoter, to fight Ali after he won his first Olympic gold medal in Munich in 1972. Stevenson said he didn’t want to go professional, and replied, “I would rather the affection of eight million Cubans.” Sports Illustrated ran the headline: “He’d rather be red than rich.

Inevitably, Stevenson’s reputation was carefully cultivated by the Cuban government. Yet sport, they say, transcends politics and so I don’t suppose I really care about that. Instead, what I remember best is of holidays in Miami in the 1970s and 80s with my Cuban family, when we would all gather round the television and cheer Stevenson along. Read more