February 21, 2008

Raul Disses Hugo

Are we seeing the first indications that a Raul Castro-led Cuba will want warmer relations with the US? Yesterday, Brazil's Folha de Sao Paulo reported that Raul thanked Hugo Chavez for assisting Cuba, but thinks that US-friendly Brazil makes a better dance partner for the future (via Brian Faughnan):

The newspaper reports that during the January Brazilian presidential visit to Havana, Raul Castro praised Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez for having helped Cuba “in a particularly tough moment of the ongoing confrontation with the United States George W Bush administration”.

Nevertheless Fidel Castro brother is quoted saying that Brazil “is a far more convenient associate than Venezuela’s Chavez”, for the transition period. ....

“In the words of one of the ministers, Brazil is one of few countries in the world capable of having a dialogue with the Cuban regime, with Chavez and with the US government”. Besides “he’s far more useful for that purpose than the conflicting Chavez who is at loggerheads with United States and Colombia”.

Raul reached out specifically to Brazil and Lula da Silva because of da Silva's influence in the US. He wants Brazil's assistance in easing the embargo, which the Bush administration tightened after Cuba jailed dozens of journalists and dissidents. Raul understands that Chavez' clowning at the UN and in Venezuela makes it more difficult to improve Cuba's economic situation.

Brazil made it clear that their help comes with strings attached. Da Silva insisted that Raul would have to start releasing dissidents from prison and show large improvements in human rights. Economically, Cuba would have to rethink its hard-line communist policies. The Brazilian leader told Raul that even a Chinese model of economic liberalization with iron-fisted political rule would not be enough. Raul would have to reform both economics and government -- and Raul still prefers da Silva to Chavez.

Could this be a gesture to the Bush administration? As I wrote earlier, the retirement of Fidel Castro gives the US a window to adapt a 49-year failing policy of embargo with something that could increase our influence to see some real change in Cuban rule. Raul would only make those changes grudgingly, but if we can build our influence in Cuba, we could help direct the next generation of leaders there much more than if we remain adamant about demanding a counter-revolution first. Da Silva could serve as a conduit -- and that could help us marginalize Hugo Chavez in Latin America as well.

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