Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Pope's Visit to Cuba Raises Hopes of Reform

The Pope has arrived in Cuba after the first leg of his Latin America trip in Mexico, amid a weight of expectations of what his visit could mean politically for the country.

Pope Benedict XVI was greeted at the airport by President Raul Castro, who clasped his hands but did not kiss his ring, reports the New York Times.

There has been speculation that the Pope might criticize the Cuban regime -- last week he told reporters on the plane on his way to Mexico, “Today it is evident that Marxist ideology, in the way it was conceived, no longer corresponds to reality.”

The trip has raised comparisons to the last papal visit to the island, with the NYT commenting that the 1998 visit “yielded an era of greater religious expression.” On that trip, John Paul II famously said "May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba."

In his first remarks in the island, Benedict XVI said that he carried in his heart the aspirations of all Cubans, including “prisoners and their families,” reports the Associated Press. The AP notes, however, that unlike on John Paul II’s trip, the current Pope did not specifically mention political prisoners. Dissidents were pressured not to attend the Monday mass, with one man removed when he began shouting anti-government slogans -- “Down with the Revolution! Down with the dictatorship!” -- and tried to enter the area reserved for foreign press, reports the Miami Herald.

The pontiff called on the country to “strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity.”

The Miami Herald said that the Pope’s words:
were subtle and appeared to take into account the liberalizing reforms that Raul Castro has enacted since taking over from his older brother in 2006.
Tens of thousands lined the roads as the “popemobile” drove from the airport, with thousands more gathering for his mass.

Today the Pope will pray at the Virgin of Charity icon in the town of El Cobre, before flying to Havana to meet with Raul Castro and possibly Fidel.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady at the Wall Street Journal argues that “The pope on his visit to Cuba today will see and hear what the military dictatorship wants him to see and hear, not the kind of public debate he would witness in a normal country.”

A piece in the NYT notes that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is in Havana for cancer treatment, has not arranged a meeting with the Catholic leader, despite his public image becoming more religious since he announced his illness last year.



News Briefs
  • Colombia’s armed forces killed 36 FARC rebels in a pre-dawn bombing raid on a camp in the central Meta province, reports the AP. This follows the killing of 33 guerrillas last week in another aerial raid on a camp in the northeast province of Arauca. El Colombiano reports that these blows to the rebel army are the first results of the government’s strategy of targeting attacks on 10 regions identified as making up the group’s strategic rearguard. This offensive comes as there are moves towards peace, with the FARC promising to release 10 political hostages, some held for more than 14 years, and to cease kidnapping civilians. El Espectador reported Monday that rumors are growing that President Juan Manuel Santos might be working on peace talks with the rebels, and that on his recent visit to Cuba he had discussions with Chavez and Raul Castro on the subject, with Cuba cited as a possible destination for the rebel leaders when the conflict is over. Colombian armed forces commander General Alejandro Navas rejected the idea that the heavy blows to the rebels could damage the liberation process, saying “the rules of the game are very clear.”
  • A recording has been released which apparently shows Mexican presidential candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota complaining that the government is recording her phone calls, reports the AP. Vazquez is the candidate of President Felipe Calderon’s PAN party, though they are not close allies, and the call seemingly took place during the lead up to the primaries, says the newspaper. In the recording, released by website La Silla Rota, she reportedly tells a campaign aide to “say hello” to Public Security Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, “who is recording us instead of recording El Chapo.” Vasquez’s team has presented a wiretapping complaint to the Attornery General’s Office.
    A recent poll shows Vazquez with 21 percent against PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto’s 33 and the PRD’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at 14.
  • Three land activists from the Movement for the Liberation of the Landless (MLST) were shot dead in the southeast Brazilian state of Minas Gerais when gunmen stopped a car they were traveling in. The grandson of two of the dead was in the car when they were killed, but was not hurt. The couple had been taking part in the occupation of land owned by sugar manufacturers. Police are working on the hypothesis that the execution-style killings were a product of an internal conflict over leadership of the group. The MLST issued a statement to protest against this theory, and warned that at least three other members of their group were on a death list due to land disputes, reports Veja.
  • The Economist blog reports that cracks are beginning to show in Venezuela’s ruling PSUV party in the absence of its cancer-stricken leader Chavez. The president’s brother Adan recently published an article alleged treachery among the inner circle, while there are rumors that the national assembly presidentDiosdado Cabello is a sworn enemy of Chavez’s vice president Elias Jaua.
  • US Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield has announced an “action plan” to fight the drug trade in Honduras, reports El Nuevo Herald. On a trip to the country, he said that the US would post an ex-ambassador to work with the government on the plan, to achieve the “elimination” of drug trafficking in Honduras.
  • El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes has not appeared in public since legislative elections held March 11, reports El Diario de Hoy. This could be connected with the controversy unleashed by reports the government has made a deal with the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs, involving transfers of jailed gang bosses in the days before the election. El Faro, which broke the news of the alleged deal, reports on confusion around a drug reform summit held in Guatemala on Saturday; Funes issued a statement the day before saying the meeting had been canceled, which was quickly denied by the Guatemalan government. The meeting went ahead as planned, but Funes did not attend, nor give a further explanation.
  • The NYT reports that the alleged Salvadoran government deal with the gangs was confirmed to it by anonymous sources in the government and intelligence community, who said that “a high-ranking colonel — part of a new team of former military officers promising to take on crime — put the idea in motion shortly after arriving at the Public Security and Justice Ministry in November, with the goal of reducing homicides by 30 percent and reaping political gains.”
  • El Faro reports on the case against two El Salvadoran former guerrilla leaders accused of killing poet and journalist Roque Dalton in 1975. Joaquin Villalobos and Jorge Melendez were senior members of the ERP rebel group when Dalton, another member, was murdered, accused by the group of being a CIA informant. Now internal ERP documents have come to light which reportedly say that the accusation was a ploy to have him killed, as part of a leadership struggle within the organization. The documents will be used as evidence in the case against the two. Melendez is now a government official, while Villalobos is a political consultant living in the UK.
  • The Financial Times looks at Brazil’s moves to overturn a ban on foreign investors buying farmland, which it says has hit investment. The proposed law will allow private individuals to buy land on a case-by-case basis, but keep the ban against ban foreign state-owned companies, sovereign wealth funds and non-governmental organisations.
  • The Red Cross plans to build a hotel and conference center in Haiti, and use the profits to fund its work on the island, reports the AP. It will be built on a $10.5 million plot of land the NGO purchased after the 2010 quake.
  • The NYT has a report, with video, on the endangered Chaco thorn forest in Paraguay. The forest covers an area the size of Poland, and has “118-degree temperatures so forbidding that Paraguayans call it their ‘green hell.’” Some 10 percent of its area has been destroyed in the last five years, much of it by cattle ranchers from Brazil.
  • NPR has a report on a US anthropology professor who examines and documents items left behind by migrants in the Arizona desert. “For him, these scraps are important. This place is important. He says one day it will be seen as sacred ground.”