Monday, February 23, 2015

February 23: A Big Day for Uruguay’s Marijuana Experiment

Note: I originally wrote this post for an e-mail list of policy experts interested in tracking the politics of drug policy reform in Uruguay. Contact me at if you are interested in receiving future updates.

Uruguay’s experiment with legal domestic cannabis cultivation is about to enter a new phase, marking a key opportunity for the country to demonstrate what an effective enforcement model for the law will look like in the future.

Until now, Uruguayan cannabis-growers have been allowed to register their existing plants with authorities, but moving forward they will have to obtain prior permission to legally possess the six flowering female plants permitted under the law. This is because February 23 marked six months since the Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA) launched its registry of cannabis home-growers, and federal regulations issued in May 2014 require this grace period to last just 180 days.

Uruguayan officials have consistently said that undercutting the criminal networks that profit from selling cannabis is a primary goal of regulating the black market. However, the fact that there has been no major surge in applications to grow marijuana at home indicates that commercial sales and cannabis clubs (the other two methods of access under the law) will have to bear the brunt of this responsibility.

According to the figures last cited publicly by National Drug Secretary Julio Calzada, just 1,300 people have signed up so far to grow cannabis plants in their homes. Sources close to the IRCCA have said that this figure is now closer to 1,600, but still the number likely falls short of the total number who currently tend marijuana plants already. There is no official figure for this, but home-growing is not uncommon among Uruguayan cannabis users and some estimates have placed the number of growers as high as 10,000-30,000.

The end of the grace period is also important as it represents an opportunity for Uruguay to clearly demonstrate how it will enforce violations of its cannabis law. It remains to be seen how strictly the IRCCA—which is still a nascent institution with a small staff and a tight budget—will ensure that new applicants to the home growers’ registry do not already possess cannabis plants. Doing so may even hinder efforts to get users to “go legal,” as it is unlikely that many potential applicants are willing to destroy their current plants in order to obtain growing licenses.

There have been other indications that a better-articulated enforcement strategy is needed in Uruguay. In the fourteen months since the cannabis regulation initiative was signed into law by President Jose Mujica, several raids on large-scale cannabis plots have made headlines, as have arrests of some smaller-scale sellers or offending growers. In many cases, however, the latter are the result of a lingering disconnect between the letter of the law and how it is actually enforced by police. On November 25, for instance, an IRCCA-registered grower in the northern city of Bella Union was arrested and falsely accused of violating his license by having 11 cannabis plants in his home. However, a judge subsequently released him and returned his plants when it became clear that the extra five were males or seedlings, which do not have a psychoactive effect and do not count as contraband.

The event prompted an investigation in newsmagazine Brecha, which described an environment in which the small towns of the Uruguayan interior are still battling “for what used to be a crime to stop being one in the minds of those with the power to use force.” Julio Rey, President of the Uruguayan Federation of Cannabis Growers, claims his fellow growers have seen similar treatment not only in the rural interior, but in the capital city of Montevideo as well. Rey told Brecha that he himself was recently threatened with arrest for consuming cannabis openly by a police officer in Montevideo, despite the fact that cannabis use is permitted in the same places as tobacco use under the law, and the use of illicit substances has been decriminalized in Uruguay since 1974.

Instances like these show that when President-elect Tabaré Vázquez takes office on March 1, the new phase of home-growing registration presents an excellent opportunity for his administration to better educate Uruguay’s police force on the law. Though Interior Minister Eduardo Bonomi clarified to La Diaria this week that implementing the law does not fall under his duties, the Ministry of Interior is reportedly already working with the National Drug Council to develop a protocol on the law’s enforcement. Upon Vázquez’s inauguration, he might reasonably be expected to ensure that National Police offices, as well as the general public, are properly briefed on these new operating procedures.

In Other News:

  • The fact that the IRCCA has narrowed the field in its bidding process for the 3-5 licenses to grow cannabis for commercial sales has made international news. As Bloomberg reported on February 11, there are currently 11 companies vying for the licenses, which include companies from the United States, Germany, and Canada. Last month, leading Uruguayan daily El País reported that the IRCCA was on the verge of announcing five finalists, and that three of them would be Uruguayan while the other two would be foreign-owned. 
  • Someone in the incoming Vázquez administration has confirmed to the press what many Uruguay watchers have suspected for months now: sources close to the president-elect told El País earlier this month that Vázquez has said there “is no hurry” for the next stage of implementation (commercial sales) to be set up. The new president reportedly wants it to be created “seamlessly,” and intends to take time before rolling out pharmacy sales. 
  • Last week, El País published an excellent update on the status of Uruguay’s cannabis clubs, which under the law can have between 15 and 45 members and grow up to 99 plants. According to officials cited in the paper, there are 20 clubs that have begun the process of registering with the government by presenting the IRCCA with business and security blueprints for their operations. As I have previously noted, Uruguay’s cannabis clubs seem to be far more heavily regulated than similar experiments in places like Spain’s Catalonia and Basque Country. But as the El País article notes, the Uruguayan clubs that have developed so far require steep initial investments. According to the paper, some clubs are already charging an initial membership fee of 400 U.S. dollars to get their groups off the ground, and then roughly 75 dollars every month after that. 
  • For drug policy reform advocates, there is more good news out of Uruguay this month: outgoing Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro, who is currently running unopposed to be the next Secretary General of the Organization of American States, has signaled that he may take his country’s reform-minded approach to drug policy to the OAS. El Observador reports that in a meeting with civil society organizations in a visit to Washington D.C. last week, Almagro named marijuana legalization among a list of other human rights issues on which his country has made progress, adding: “I think these are issues that the OAS should take on in these times.” 
  • Recent weeks saw the first press coverage of an issue that Uruguayan officials have been weighing for months: varying the set price of cannabis that will eventually be sold in pharmacies for recreational and medicinal use. When the law was first passed, officials claimed it would be sold for the equivalent of roughly $1 dollar per gram, a figure intended to price out the cheap, imported Paraguayan product that is widely consumed in the country. But after consultation with local and international experts, El Observador reported on February 6 that National Drug Secretary Julio Calzada stated that officials have decided to offer various strains of the plant at various prices according to their potency, to discourage users from automatically turning to high-potency strains. A potential drawback to this plan was subsequently noted by the GlobalPost's Will Carless, who reported that this meant medicinal-grade marijuana will cost more to patients than recreational cannabis. However, Presidential Undersecretary Diego Cánepa told Carless that this is not necessarily the case, and will have to be settled at a later stage by the Ministry of Health.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Latest on Uruguay's Cannabis Law: Continuity on the Horizon

Milton Romani to Head Uruguay’s National Drug Council

With the return of Milton Romani as Uruguay’s drug czar, and with the medicinal use and commercial sale elements of the country’s cannabis law taking shape, incoming President Tabaré Vázquez has given his clearest signal yet that he will support its rollout when he takes office on March 1.

Even though Vázquez shifted his tone following his electoral victory, and insisted that he would implement the law to the letter, as recently as December 4 he publicly expressed doubts about current President Jose Mujica’s claim that the measure will have an impact on insecurity and take a bite out of criminal profits. These doubts were often repeated in local and international press, and led to more than a bit of speculation over whether the law would go “up in smoke” under the new president.

Yet despite all this hand-wringing, this week brought excellent news for drug policy reform advocates watching Uruguay. On February 2, newspaper La Diariareported that Milton Romani, former drug czar and Uruguay’s ex-ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), would be resuming his post as national drug secretary under Vázquez. On February 5, Romani confirmed the news in an interview with El Observador, in which he himself described his nomination as a signal of “continuity.”

Romani will bring a unique combination of policy expertise and political influence to the job. He not only occupied the same post from 2005 to 2011, he also was one of the first voices in Uruguay to publicly call for regulating the black market for marijuana. Indeed, Romani advocated for the creation of state mechanisms to “regulate and control the markets of production, sale and consumption” of illicit substances in a report published by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)in April 2012, two months before Mujica made headlines for a similar proposal.

Additionally, Romani has firsthand experience with diplomatic engagement at the OAS and at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna. This will no doubt come in hand next year at the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drug policy, where Uruguay will be well-positioned to advocate for reforms to international drug treaties on the world stage.

Romani’s nomination is not the only major drug policy-related news to come out of Uruguay in recent weeks. On January 28, Presidential Undersecretary Diego Cánepa told Radio Espectador that the regulatory agency responsible for monitoring the new marijuana law, the Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA), is on the verge of announcing the five companies that will be granted licenses to grow cannabis for retail sale in pharmacies. At time of writing, these companies have not yet been publicly identified, but El País reports that three of them will be Uruguayan, while two will be foreign-owned.

This is a significant step forward, as pharmacy-based sale is the only commercial method of accessing marijuana under the law (the others being home-growing and cannabis clubs). The bidding process for commercial growing began in August, and initial reports that the first harvest could be completed by Vázquez’s inauguration proved to be off base. As it stands, it looks doubtful that sales will begin before mid-2015. As current National Drug Secretary Julio Calzada told Espectador this week: “We can suppose that within three or four months this [process] could be working.”

In Other News:

  • On top of the advancement made on production for commercial sales, the Mujica administration has made progress on the issue of medicinal and scientific cannabis use. On February 4, the executive branch released a set of regulations (PDF) which authorize the scientific community to obtain the substance for study, and lays out the framework for medical marijuana, allowing physicians to prescribe the drug to patients in monthly increments. The primary goal of this, as Calzada explained in a separate interview, is toprevent any abuse of medicinal cannabis by recreational users, or as he phrased it, “veiled non-medical use,” a concern that Mujica himself raised in May 2014, when he described the Colorado state marijuana law’s medical component as “a fiction.”
  • February 23 is a day for drug policy analysts watching Uruguay to keep on their calendars. As the IRCCA recently announced in a reminder posted on its website, the date will mark 180 days since the IRCCA launched its home-growing registry. According to the regulations released last May, this will also mean the expiration of the current “amnesty period,” under which individuals interested in growing up to six plants for personal use are allowed to register plants they already have. Moving forward, applicants must obtain prior permission from the IRCCA. According to the latest publicly released figure, made by a National Drug Council official to Spanish news agency EFE on January 30, some 1,300 have signed up so far. The total number of individuals who are currently growing plants illicitly is unknown, but some estimates have placed it as high as 10,000-30,000.
  • Recent days have seen back-to-back notable instances of cannabis-related coverage in local press. On February 1, leading daily El País published an article with a positive slant on the law, reporting on the fact that many analysts in the country are beginning to see the legalization of commercial cannabis sales as a springboard for other, more lucrative industries, namely medical cannabis and hemp production. This is an unusual shift for El País, a conservative paper that is historically affiliated with the opposition National Party and has published numerous editorials against the new law. Then, on February 2 El Observador (which has the second-largest circulation after El País) published a harshly critical editorial attacking the government’s security narrative for the law. According to the paper: “To believe that this measure will impede drug trafficking organizations inside and outside of this country, which have massive financial strength and operational efficiency that despite being illegal surpass the unguided organizational experience of the Uruguayan state, is to live in the clouds.”
  • Police in Uruguay have continued raids on unlicensed cannabis cultivation, with two notable operations making headlines this month: the first was theseizure of some 200 plants in the beach town of Punta del Diablo, and the second was the arrest of an individual for growing 17 plants in the city of Pando.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Changes at the Pan-American Post

For the past three and a half years, I have had the pleasure of using this space to provide regular summaries and analysis of political and civil society issues in Latin America. Starting in 2015, however, the Pan-American Post will see some important changes.

I’m pleased to announce that I have been hired to work as a Digital Communications Officer for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and will be starting in January. While I plan to keep using the Pan-American Post blog and my Twitter page to follow regional politics from a more editorial angle, I will no longer be posting daily news briefings here.  A successor will be taking them over in the coming weeks and posting to the associated Google mailing list.

Writing these daily press roundups has been a wonderful opportunity to improve my familiarity with the region, and I’m grateful to readers for following them.

I’d also like to thank Hannah Stone, Elyssa Pachico and James Bargent, with whom I split the press briefings in 2011-2012, for their excellent contributions. They continue to produce brilliant research and journalism on political and insecurity-related issues in the Americas, and I invite readers to follow their latest work on Twitter. Joshua Frens-String, from whom I took over the press briefings in 2011, also deserves a shout-out for his outstanding analytical capabilities. 

Un cordial saludo y feliz año nuevo, 

Geoff Ramsey

Rios Montt Trial Slated for January 5, But Amnesty Ruling Pending

Guatemala’s Constitutional Court -- the same court that annulled Efrain Rios Montt’s guilty sentence on genocide charges in 2013 -- has paved the way for the ex-dictator to face a new trial next month. But while human rights advocates have welcomed the news, an overdue ruling on a 1986 amnesty decree could sink the case altogether.

Amid all the reporting on last week’s breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba relations, another important story got lost in the headlines. On December 18, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled in favor of an appeal filed by the attorney general’s office against a lower court decision that sought to reverse the Rios Montt trial to the investigative phase it moved out of in November 2011. The trial, in which Rios Montt and former intelligence chief Jose Mauricio Rodriguez will face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, has been scheduled for January 5.

Last week’s ruling is a welcome development in the struggle to prosecute the former dictator, whose ill health and advanced age -- he turned 88 this year -- left some worried that he could pass away before a verdict was reached on his alleged crimes. But it comes too late for some of the victims in the Rios Montt case. Edgar Perez, a lawyer with the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) who represents the victims, has told the Associated Press that three witnesses of civil war-era atrocities have died since the trial was annulled in May 2013. Nevertheless, Perez said that his clients are prepared to return to the courtroom to repeat their accusations against the general.

Even the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala has issued a statement on the scheduled trial, promising to follow it closely and noting in no uncertain terms that “the outcome of this case will reflect the status of rule of law in Guatemala.”

Still, it is too soon to celebrate the Constitutional Court ruling. Rios Montt’s defense lawyers have long maintained that he is exempt from prosecution under the terms of an amnesty for civil war abuses issued in 1986. As El Periodico reports today, this motion has been sitting in an appellate court for months, and more than 60 judges have excused themselves from issuing a ruling on the matter. The Guatemalan paper claims to have made repeated inquiries into the case, each time receiving no answer as to why the appeal had not been resolved.

This silence is worrisome, and leaves open the possibility that the three appellate judges currently reviewing the amnesty -- perhaps already bristling at international outcry over the rampant corruption behind their nominations --- could rule in favor of Rios Montt’s claim at the last minute.

News Briefs
  • The Chinese firm behind Nicaragua’s planned interoceanic canal, which the AP notes has been opposed by environmental groups and affected residents, will officially break ground in the project on Monday. Writing for Fusion, Tim Rogers has an excellent rundown of the biggest controversies surrounding the planned canal, noting doubts over its alleged economic impact, environmental concerns and worries over increasing Chinese influence in the country.
  • A new development appears to have complicated the FARC’s unilateral ceasefire, announced on Saturday. El Colombiano and El Espectador report that rebels in Cauca province captured a soldier during an ambush the day before the ceasefire went into effect, and the army claims he is being held hostage.
  • All of the reporting on the shady ties between the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and construction firm Grupo Higa has made an impact. Animal Politico reports that the company has dropped plans to bid on a proposed high-speed train linking Mexico City to Queretaro, following reports that linked the company to a luxury home belonging to the president’s wife.
  • Venezuela is mounting a full court press against U.S.  plans to issue targeted sanctions against officials linked to human rights abuses. Ultimas Noticias reports that the Venezuelan diplomatic mission in the OAS is pushing for the regional organization to include language rejecting the sanctions in a proposed resolution on improved U.S.-Cuba ties. Meanwhile, Buzzfeed reports that the Venezuelan government is hiring a new lobbying firm, Hogan Lovells LLP, to look out for its interest on Capitol Hill.
  • The Guardian reports on efforts to fight human trafficking in Peru, which have been complicated by economic growth and changing migration patterns even as officials demonstrate increased willingness to tackle the issue.
  • The government of Cuba has pushed back against recent  remarks by U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who told reporters that improved relations would increase the likelihood of Cuba handing over fugitives on the island like Assata Shakur. The Cuban head of North American affairs has told the AP that the island reserves the right to shelter such fugitives.
  • NPR, the Miami Herald and the L.A. Times all report on an interesting detail in the release of the Cuban Five prisoners: the U.S government allowed one of the detained men to artificially inseminate his wife as “something of a humanitarian gesture,” thanks to the advocacy of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).
  • The Associated Press profiles the extent of child labor in Honduras, where officials estimate that 500,000 minors-- or some 15 percent of the youth population -- hold jobs.
  • The Washington Post takes a look at Brazil’s deepening Petrobras scandal, in which dozens of politicians have been accused of taking bribes and kickbacks from companies linked to fixed contracts. For many transparency advocates in the country, the investigation represents a hopeful sign that Brazil has turned an important page in the fight against corruption.

Monday, December 22, 2014

No Immediate Regime Change in Cuba, But So What?

Despite last week’s historic breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba relations, Cuban President Raul Castro has made it clear that a major overhaul of his country’s political system anytime soon.  But while U.S. conservatives will use this as fodder to attack President Obama, some analysts contend that normalizing relations in Cuba is about more than pushing regime change on the island.

In a speech in Havana on Saturday Castro thanked Obama for moving to normalize relations with his country, even as he vowed that his government would stay true to the ideals of the Cuban revolution. “We can't pretend that by improving ties with the Unites States, Cuba will renounce the ideas for which it has fought for more than a century, for which its people have shed a lot of blood and have run the biggest of risks,” Castro said.

As the Associated Press reports, Castro’s speech was heavy on symbolism, and he delivered it to an audience that included Elian Gonzalez and the repatriated members of the Cuban Five. The president also declared that Cuba had “won the war,” and The New York Times notes that he “offered no immediate concessions to demands for improvement in Cuba’s human rights record.”

Of course, conservative opponents of Obama’s shift on Cuba see this as evidence against improving relations with the island. On Meet the Press Sunday, Senator Marco Rubio accused Obama of handing the Castro government a win while asking for nothing in return: “[I]f you’re going to make concessions to Cuba, if you’re going to recognize them diplomatically, if you’re going to have more commerce with them, there has to be some reciprocal opening on their part towards democracy,” Rubio said. “There was none.”

This logic was expanded in a Sunday Washington Post column by Jackson Diehl, who attacks Obama for allegedly failing to make demands for democratic progress as well as for the president’s stated wish to avoid a chaotic “collapse” in Cuba. According to Diehl, several successful democratic regimes have emerged from the rubble of such collapses; and “U.S. ‘engagement’ with Stalinist-style totalitarian regimes, such as Cuba, has never produced such a transition.”

President Obama, for his part, has argued that by normalizing relations the United States will be better positioned to offer incentives and disincentives to the regime to change its behavior. The Washington Post reports that in a Friday press conference, Obama told reporters:  “We will be in a position to respond to whatever actions they take, the same way we do with a whole range of countries around the world when they do things we think are wrong […] There may be carrots as well as sticks that we can then apply.”

Interestingly, Obama’s talk of carrots and sticks and Rubio’s calls for concessions rely on the same logic. Both positions assume that U.S. policy can somehow lead to regime change in Cuba. But as Gordon Adams writes in Foreign Policy, the U.S. holds a mixed -- at best -- record at state-building over the past century, one which he contends has been fueled by “the worst kind of American exceptionalist fantasy.” As he writes:

The fantasy that U.S. policies and actions can reshape another country has been with us for far too long. The ability of the United States to change any country’s internal economy or politics is extraordinarily limited, as our most recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan show, yet again. 
We have spent more than 100 years trying to remake other countries, often by force, sending the U.S. military into Haiti, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Panama, El Salvador, Vietnam, Guatemala, Iran, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, among many, many others. And we have spent billions, if not trillions, on democracy assistance, international broadcasting, and economic support funds to bring about political and economic change in other countries around the world.
Perhaps cynically, Adams argues that it is unrealistic to expect U.S. relations to have “anything more than a marginal impact” on Cuba’s internal system. However, the shift does amount to abandoning a decades-old approach that was not working and did more harm than good, an outcome that ought to be seen as positive in its own right.

News Briefs
  • Haiti’s ongoing political crisis saw a positive development on Saturday. As the Miami Herald reports, President Michel Martelly named Health Minister Florence Duperval Guillaume as his interim prime minister, and the president has said that later today he will present the opposition with a list of permanent candidates to the position.
  • Two articles in today’s headlines look at the impact of Obama’s Cuba announcement on Venezuela.  In Foreign Policy, Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez notes that for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the announcement is likely a realization that his allies in Havana are adjusting to his own government’s failed policies. Writing for Time, Caracas-based journalist Girish Gupta asserts that Cuba likely learned its lesson from the post-Soviet collapse “Special Period,” and points out the 18-month secret talks between Havana and Washington began in the period of uncertainty following Hugo Chavez’s death.
  • Saturday marked the 25th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Panama, but the Central American country is still grappling with the impact of the operation. The AP notes that President Juan Carlos Varela on Saturday became the first leader of the country to attend a ceremony to remember victims of the invasion, and El Pais reports that a truth commission has been set up to promote reconciliation and address the demands of the victims.
  • Last week, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court issued an important decision in the genocide case against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt. As El Periodico and the AFP report, the court ordered lower judge Carol Patricia Flores to reverse an April 2013 ruling that found that the case should be reset to the investigative phase it moved out of in 2011. Flores has five days to revise her sentence, and the trial is expected to resume on January 5.
  • The FARC’s latest unilateral ceasefire announcement, which will be held “indefinitely” so long as its units do not come under attack, went into effect on Saturday, as the BBC reports. In a Sunday column for Bogota newspaper El Tiempo, editor Marisol Gomez Giraldo marked the news with an optimistic assessment of its ramifications for the peace process. According to her, the ceasefire amounts to a first step towards a bilateral end to hostilities, what some officials have called a “humanitarian de-escalation” of the conflict.
  • Following the appointment of Honduras’ first-ever active duty general as its next security minister (see last week’s post), InSight Crime’s Steve Dudley and David Gagne offer a damning analysis of the state of civilian policing in the country. According to them, the nomination represents the recognition of the sad fact that in Honduras, “the military are officially in charge of all things related to citizen security.”
  • In other drug policy news, tomorrow will make one year since Uruguayan President Jose Mujica signed his country’s historic marijuana regulation bill into law. The AFP reports that its signature component -- a commercial cannabis market -- remains in the planning stages, but cannabis clubs and home-growing have taken off in the country, as evidenced by a boom in marijuana-growing technology and paraphernalia.
  • Mexican news site Animal Politico reports on a new development in the case of two mass killings of migrants that occurred in 2010 and 2011 in the border state of Tamaulipas. According to details obtained by a freedom of information request from the attorney general’s office, municipal police were allegedly involved in the massacres of 72 and 193 migrants in the area, a revelation that had not previously been made public.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Obama Signs Sanctions Against Venezuelan Officials

Yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014, which imposes sanctions on Venezuelan officials responsible for human rights violations linked to the wave of protests earlier this year.

While the law denies visas to these officials and freezes their U.S. assets, Reuters reports that there is still no official list with the names of those who would be affected by the measure. Diplomats in Caracas have told the news agency that the list will probably contain the names dozens of officials, involving mostly security officials with a direct hand in the crackdown on the February demonstrations.

Back in May, the office of Senator Marco Rubio put together a list of names for an earlier version of the bill, which cast a much wider net. Rubio’s list contained 23 names, including Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz, former Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, several state governors and a number of intelligence, military and police officials.

Of course, the debate over the wisdom of sanctioning these officials continues to rage among Latin America policy experts, as the Global Post reports. And as The Guardian notes, some analysts have expressed concern that the incoming Republican majority in Congress could seek other, broader actions against Venezuela in the coming years.

From a domestic perspective, Obama timed his approval of the sanctions quite well. It sends a message to some -- but not all -- of the most vocal elements of the Republican opposition, who are currently slamming the president for being too lenient on Cuba. And as El Universal reports, a number of Venezuelan political analysts have argued that normalizing relations with Cuba punches a hole in President Nicolas Maduro’s anti-imperialist discourse. Still others, as the Miami Herald points out, suggest that Cuba’s eagerness to renew relations with the U.S. illustrates Havana’s growing doubts over the future of Venezuela-subsidized oil imports.

In Caracas, Maduro has given no high-profile reaction to sanctions ever since telling a crowd of government supporters on Monday that the “insolent Yankees” should “shove their U.S. visas where they should be shoved.” However, El Nacional reports that the Venezuelan leader took to Twitter yesterday to characterize Obama as hypocritical for relaxing the hostile relationship with Cuba while pursuing “aggressions” against his government.

In a New York Times op-ed that ran yesterday, Venezuelan National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello makes a similar argument about alleged hypocrisy. In his column the official points to the fact that U.S. lawmakers are criticizing Venezuelan police just as African-American communities around the country are expressing outrage over police killings of unarmed black men.

News Briefs
  • In the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s historic announcement, a number of interesting pieces on the Cuban reaction to the news have been published. The AP has a roundup of local opinions, noting that most people on the island welcomed the news even as some expressed fears that it could lead to future instability or economic chaos.  El Nuevo Herald has a collection of responses to the news from Cuban artists and writers, among whom the reactions are also largely positive. And in an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez describes the positive impact of this week’s news while also profiling the concerns of Cuban civil society about handing the government a “blank check.”  Ultimately, she writes, “We cannot confirm that it will be better, but at least it will be different.”
  • Writing for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, political scientist Greg Weeks and geographer John Weeks take an interesting look at some of the demographic factors that influence support in the U.S. for normalizing relations with Cuba, as well as those which could fuel economic instability in the coming years. Chief among the latter is the fact that the share of the older population on the island is greatly increasing, placing a growing burden on the country’s social programs.
  • Reactions to Brazil’s Truth Commission Report have not all been positive. On Monday, the country’s Superior Military Tribunal released a statement claiming that the report is biased and factually incorrect, and ultimately “failed” in its “goal of clarifying the facts of the time,” Veja and EFE report.
  • The head of one of the two self-defense groups that clashed earlier this week in a Michoacan shootout that killed 11 claims members of the country’s newly-created gendarmerie police force were involved in the clash. A rival autodefensa chief has denied this claim, as EFE reports, but Animal Politico reports that the government has confirmed that 56 members of the elite police squad are currently under investigation over the incident.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Congressional Cold Warriors Stick to Their Guns on Cuba

Yesterday, President Barack Obama announced the biggest change in United States policy towards Cuba of the past 50 years. But while Obama deserves praise for finally taking executive action on the issue, Congress remains the main obstacle to improved relations with Havana.

At noon yesterday, both Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro gave statements announcing the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two countries, as well as the exchange of the remaining imprisoned members of the “Cuban Five” for USAID contractor Alan Gross and another unidentified U.S. intelligence agent. The Miami Herald notes that some analysts have speculated that the man is 51-year-old Rolando Sarraff, who helped identify a number of Cuban spies within the U.S.

The announcement was the result of 18 months of secret talks facilitated by Pope Francis and the Canadian government, which culminated in a 45-minute long phone conversation on Tuesday between Obama and Castro. The New York Times reports that the process was also eased by Secretary of State John Kerry’s direct line of communication with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla.

In his speech, Obama ordered the State Department to end the dubious inclusion of Cuba on its list of state sponsors of terror, and said he would further ease restrictions on travel and allow greater banking ties to the island. He also said he would join his Cuban counterpart at the April Summit of the Americas, though he said he would “insist” that civil society join in the meeting as well. Fusion has a very helpful bullet point breakdown of the concrete policy changes that will result from the announcement.

For Latin America watchers, Obama’s remarks contained an important recognition of the shift’s potential ramifications for the region. The president began his announcement by justifying the move as an attempt to “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas,” and ended it by saying, in Spanish, “Todos somos Americanos.” As the AFP reports, the speech has already been widely applauded by the heads of state of Mexico, Brazil, Peru and Colombia, among other nations.

Though most of the region -- including Cubans themselves and some Cuban-Americans in Florida -- is celebrating the announcement, the embargo supporters inside the beltway are fuming. Bloomberg reports that the usual suspects (Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Senator Marco Rubio, New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez) have all announced they oppose Obama’s executive action, with most framing it as rewarding a dictatorial regime for poor behavior.

Rubio, a potential Republican White House candidate in 2016, was especially vehement. “Appeasing the Castro brothers will only cause other tyrants from Caracas to Tehran to Pyongyang to see that they can take advantage of President Obama’s naiveté during his final two years in office,” reads a statement released by his office. “As a result, America will be less safe as a result of the President’s change in policy.”

Politico notes that when the Republicans assume majority control of the Senate next year, legislation ending the embargo is off the table, and they will be in a position to block presidential nominations. This would include any ambassador to Cuba.

While their opposition is not particularly surprising, it is interesting to note that these figures are increasingly finding themselves on the wrong side of public opinion. As The Hill notes, polls show that a majority of Americans support ending the embargo, and an Atlantic Council survey released in February found that even a majority of Florida respondents “strongly” or “somewhat” support “normalizing relations or engaging more directly with Cuba.”

News Briefs
  • One element of the Cuba shift that will be interesting to watch in the coming months is how it will play out for the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The AFP reports that a number of regional experts have predicted that it could Chavismo to alter its traditional discourse of a region-wide anti-imperialist struggle. As opposition leader Henrique Capriles put it in a quote to Reuters, “It looks like Raul is cheating on Nicolas!”
  • Maduro, for his part, has not seemed publicly phased by the change in U.S.-Cuba relations. As El Pais reports, the Venezuelan president praised the U.S. leader for his “bravery,” and referred to the release of the Cuban Five as “a victory for Fidel and the Cuban people.”
  • Yesterday saw an important development in the the hemisphere’s other Cold War-era conflict as well. Colombia’s FARC guerrillas announced an indefinite unilateral ceasefire beginning on December 20. While the rebels have announced and maintained previous ceasefires during the holiday season since 2012, this one stands out for the rebels’ willingness to keep it open-ended, albeit on one condition: the ceasefire will end if guerrillas come under attack from security forces. The FARC also invited the UNASUR and CELAC regional blocs to observe its adherence to the ceasefire. According to El Espectador and Semana, while the government has applauded the ceasefire as an important goodwill gesture, it has rejected the involvement of outside actors in monitoring the ceasefire, and maintains that it will not discuss ending hostilities until the current agenda item of victims’ rights is settled.
  • In the latest incident of tension between Ecuadorean officials and indigenous groups, the government is revoking the license of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) to use its current offices. El Comercio reports that the government is refusing to renew its contract in order to use the space to rehabilitate youth substance abusers, but as El Universo notes, CONAIE has framed the order as an attack on its work and is refusing to leave.
  • Following an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report recommending that the Mexican government allow an independent investigation into the case of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa, Animal Politico reports that authorities have agreed to provide the investigation with a budget of one million pesos (some 70,000 USD).
  • Apart from the New York Times’ wave of coverage of the Cuba deal today is an interesting investigation into the ties between an elite Ecuadorean family and figures in the Obama administration. According to the NYT, the administration waived travel bans on individuals accused of financial crimes in Ecuador in exchange for thousands of dollars in campaign donations.
  • Guatemala’s Plaza Publica has an interview with Judge Claudia Escobar, whose October resignation from an appellate court position helped focus international attention on the extent of corruption in the country’s judiciary. Despite her efforts, however, she laments that little has changed on this front.
  • As the country’s standoff over long-stalled elections continues, the AP reports that Haitian President Michel Martelly met with opposition leaders yesterday in talks over the recommendations of an independent commission tasked with ending the political crisis. While no major announcement came yesterday, two opposition activists were freed in accordance with the commission’s report.

  • The Economist casts a critical eye on Brazil’s response to the historic drought in São Paulo, noting that officials at all levels of government have failed to implement rationing or incentive measures necessary to replenish the city’s water reserves.