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November 17, 2009
APEC summit brings Chile-Peru tensions to the fore

An old man in Chinchero, Peru. Photo: Flickr user VautrinBaires

One of the more surprising outcomes of the Asia-Pacific summit meeting in Singapore this past week had nothing to do, as might have been expected, with Barack Obama or his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao.

Instead, Peruvian President Alan Garcia raised tensions with neighboring Chile by choosing to complain publicly about an espionage case in which a Peruvian intelligence officer has been charged with sending military secrets to Chile.

Historically, relations between Chile and Peru have had their ups and downs (they’ve gone to war or have been on the brink more than once).

Recently, the countries have an ongoing disagreement about their maritime borders – a case that was brought to the International Court of Justice. Part of the disagreement is whether or not they have a dispute in the first place.

Peru filed the complaint at the world court, but Chile says it has no problem and accepts international treaties on the boundary. That’s a little like the confusion that came up after Garcia’s comments at the Asia-Pacific summit.

Peru has arrested a Peruvian Air Force intelligence officer, Victor Ariza, saying that Chile gave him a monthly stipend over the last five years for passing along military secrets.

Garcia raised the issue with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet during the Singapore summit; Bachelet denied the spy charge and complained about Garcia having raised the issue in the first place.

The implication was that Peru wanted to embarrass Chile at the world meeting – especially since Ariza had been arrested two weeks earlier.

Garcia stormed out of Singapore a day earlier than planned, canceling meetings there, while Bachelet’s spokesperson declared “Chile doesn’t spy.” Garcia, for his part, has described the espionage case as “repugnant.”

Ordinarily, a good person to calm tempers and mediate would be the head of the Organization of American States. But the OAS secretary general, Jose Miguel Insulza, is Chilean.

Insulza was in Santiago over the weekend, on the campaign trail with his friend Eduardo Frei, a candidate in Chile’s upcoming presidential election. In any case, it’s not clear that the Chilean government will be able to turn down the temperature on its own.

Foreign Minister Mariano Fernandez reiterated Monday that his country was not conducting espionage against Peru. “Chile has nothing to do with this case,” he said, implying it was an internal Peruvian problem.

“We ask above all that the Peruvian authorities get to the bottom of this and stay calm so that the public can be told the truth about what has happened, as I say, among officials of the Peruvian Armed Forces.”

– Peter Eisner

November 12, 2009
Argentinians debate a new media law

Argentinian man views the daily newspapers in La Cumbre.
Photo: flickr user Adam Jones, phD.

The Kirchner era in Argentina has been characterized by mixed signals. First there was Néstor Carlos Kirchner Ostoić, little-known as governor of Santa Cruz until he vaulted into the Argentine presidency in 2003. In a country that endured military coups, an economic collapse and a lack of confidence in institutions, the fact that he completed his term of office in 2007 – unlike others before him – was an accomplishment.

He was succeeded by his wife, Cristina Elizabet Fernández de Kirchner, in December of 2007. Both Kirchners have faced rising criticism since then, along with defections and demands that she resign or be stripped of the office before her four-year term ends.

The confusion about the Kirchners is trying to figure out what they are up to and what they stand for. They are members of the Justice Party, successors to Juan Domingo Perón , the dictatorial leader who governed on and off in the 1940s and 1950s with a reprise in 1973.

They have staunchly supported human rights and accountability for crimes during the military dictatorship after Peron’s death. But they have also been accused of arrogance, of an unwillingness to consider opposing views and of railroading their policies into law without debate.

Now President Cristina Kirchner (with Nestor just off stage) has promulgated a new national media law. Supporters say that it ends the practice of media monopolies and democratizes the news media; detractors say that it is an attack on freedom of the press.

One thing for certain—the Kirchners have no love lost for the news media. By happenstance, I, along with several colleagues at the Washington Post conducted the first interview with Nestor Kirchner after he took office in 2003. After that, I fielded calls from reporters in Buenos Aires asking for my impressions, since they hadn’t had the chance to talk to him.

All I could say was that he had spoken passionately about bringing justice to the country after the Dirty War, in which 20,000 to 30,000 people were killed by the right-wing military.

I was in Argentina during Cristina’s non-campaign for election in 2007 – she gallivanted around South America and beyond, with photo appearances in Brazil, Europe and the United States, while avoiding interviews and the campaign trail at home. All along, the polls had showed her way ahead and her handlers probably didn’t want to ruin a good thing by campaigning.

So there are reasons to suspect the context in which the new media law takes effect.

Eduardo Bertoni, an Argentine attorney and prominent advocate of press freedoms, says that the law has its merits. The previous law “suffered from illegitimacy from the outset – it was a law created during the military dictatorship,” he said. Bertoni is director of the Center on Freedom of Expression Studies at the University of Palermo in Buenos Aires. He also served at the Organization of American States as the special rapporteur for freedom of expression of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.

But he also understands the concerns of critics, who say that the government could have given itself too much power in deciding which media companies are allowed to grow, and how they operate. He says the
government “could do much to take any suspicion of bad faith off the table,” if it were to promote open debate about the measure.

So the question is: will the Kirchners use the law to promote democracy, or will they use their power to punish their critics?

– Peter Eisner

November 3, 2009
Looking beyond the Honduran political crisis

A young woman in Minas de Oro. Photo: Flickr user lonqueta

The United States has been actively engaged lately in solving the Honduran presidential crisis. The U.S. State Department officials have helped broker a deal to end the sometimes violent dispute between Mel Zelaya, the deposed Honduran president, and Roberto Micheletti, designated as president when the Honduran military escorted Zelaya out of town in his nightclothes. Let’s hope the crisis is resolved once and for all today.

Consider me an idealist, but I’m thinking beyond that — about steps that might solve the underlying social issues that plague Honduras.

As the months-long battle between the two presidents in Honduras moves toward a rational resolution, what about the abjectly poor Honduran majority?

Honduras needs financial support, economic relief, and definitely social help – why can’t the U.S. and other nations increase their involvement? Fifty percent of Honduras’ 7.7 million people are below the poverty line, and almost 40 percent are children. There is talk of a national unity government by the end of the year. Will that government be able to change the paradigm without international aid?

Inevitably, the U.S. has a role. It has characteristically abandoned social concerns once it finishes with its little wars and interventions. Don’t we have an ongoing responsibility in Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and the rest of the region?

Twenty-five years ago, probably the only positive part of turning Honduras into a U.S. staging base for American adventurism in Central America was that American military field hospitals scheduled regular health clinics in the countryside.

I remember seeing poor people waiting in line weekly medical screening, checkups and even surgeries that otherwise would not have taken place. I’m positive that thousands of Hondurans who rarely otherwise had seen a doctor benefited from American military largesse, even though the ulterior motives were not crystalline. It was part of the “hearts and minds” doctrine.

But development aid and social support are more than a handout. Stability in the Hemisphere is good for everyone.

First things first: Solve the political problem and then deal with underlying issues.

Honduras has taken a step backward during this crisis, according to Human Rights Watch.

“Honduras urgently needs to address the serious damage to human rights since the coup,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director at Human Rights Watch. “Honduras needs to roll back repressive legislation and give unequivocal orders to security forces to end their abuses and cooperate with the investigations of the human rights unit of the Attorney General’s office.”

– Peter Eisner

October 23, 2009
Argentina’s ‘Valijagate’ is $800,000 cash in a suitcase

Valijagate threatens to embroil at least one South American leader. Photo: Flickr user quecomunismo

There’s a story in Argentina that has become widely known under a simple title: La Valija (the suitcase). It should be destined to become that country’s version of Watergate. “Valijagate” refers to the discovery in August 2007 that Guido Antonini, a Venezuelan-born American, was carrying a suitcase containing $800,000 in U.S. currency when he arrived on a private plane at the Buenos Aires city airport, Aeroparque Jorge Newberry.

A new book, Los Secretos de la Valija (The Secrets of the Suitcase), is just out in Argentina, written by an Argentine colleague, Hugo Alconada, a journalist with La Nacion and the newspaper’s former Washington correspondent. (Full disclosure: Hugo is a friend, and he mentions me in the acknowledgments of the book, but I didn’t work on the investigation itself).

Alconada’s story percolates with intrigue and new revelations about the suitcase and Antonini, who ultimately said in a Miami trial that he was carrying the loot on behalf of a top Argentine official and that the money was from the Venezuelan oil monopoly, PDVSA.

But that came only after he wore a wire and became a cooperating witness with the U.S. Government. In resulting tapes, Venezuelan handlers promised him protection for claiming the suitcase was his, and not revealing that the suitcase was sent to the presidential campaign of the now-president of Argentina, Christina Kirchner.

Argentinian officials have denied involvement and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has charged Antonini was employed by the Bush administration in a campaign to malign his government.

Alconada’s book, so far only in Spanish, deserves publication in English in the United States. His extensive investigation reveals:

  • The plane carrying Antonini and the suitcase that was transporting much more than the $800,000 — a total of $5 million.
  • Despite government denials, Antonini went to the Argentina presidential palace, the Casa Rosada, after the money was seized at the airport. Moreover, the book details a plan in which Argentine and Venezuelan officials coordinated a cover-up of the case.
  • It also notes that Antonini had a history of working for Chavez. He helped organize trips to 24 countries in Africa, Southeast Asia and Pacific islands in a 2006 vanity campaign by the Chavez government to promote Venezuela’s appointment to a temporary slot on the UN Security Council.

There’s an interesting sidelight to the cloak and dagger story. A funny thing happened earlier this month as Alconada answered questions at a bookstore to promote his story. At some point, possibly when a questioner approached him as a distraction, his briefcase, which contained notes about three of his current investigations, disappeared.

A similar black briefcase was left in its place.

Alconada doesn’t get it and jumps to no conclusions. “My newspaper wrote a small piece about it, and it became a big deal. I don’t know how to explain what happened.”

– Peter Eisner

October 12, 2009
Nobel Prize’s impact changing the course of war to peace

I was at Heathrow Airport last week when the news came along that President Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The award made sense there. The buzz in Europe is hopeful, and people are asking any American they can find: “Will Obama be able to make a difference?”

The Nobel Prize choice is more sensible than the analysis spread forth even by so-called middle-of-the-road news media, let alone the explosive rants on the cable-news-right, where some bloviating big mouths seemed likely to explode in the gross, gluttonous style of a Mike Myers character in Wayne’s World.

A lot of people in Europe are troubled by strident ignorance on the extreme right in the U.S.

Yes, of course, the award is political. The Nobel committee and millions of others outside the United States think that Barack Obama embodies their optimism in what they think the United States is all about.

The prize also applies pressure at a time when the president has big decisions to make – think Afghanistan, where the choices of troop involvement and fighting terrorism are monumental. It’s a call to the U.S. – find the peaceful solution.

Sure, as one cartoonist joked, it’s the No-Bush Prize; another said that in one way it’s like giving a gold medal to a runner at the starting line. And of course, President Obama could have refused the award with a “thanks anyway,” saying he hadn’t done anything yet.

But that all would be missing the point. First of all, you can’t separate the award from the context. President Obama, in part, said this:

…throughout history the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement; it’s also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes.

That is why I’ve said that I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations and all peoples to confront the common challenges of the 21st century.

World opinion supports President Obama’s move toward changing the world order – something simple, like saying that sometimes, we have to speak to countries identified as “our enemies,” instead of just threatening to invade and bomb them. Now, the Nobel Committee reminds him that the world is watching – on Afghanistan, Iran and the Middle East, above all.

Less than a year after his election, the U.S. has grown vastly in international public esteem.

Suddenly, people admire the U.S. once more.

President Obama might have refused the award, but it would have been wrong. The peace committee, to the extent that singling out any person for any award makes a difference, recognizes this particular person in this case who has the power in hand to change course and make profound decisions on war and peace.

The timing was just right.

– Peter Eisner

September 30, 2009
Quality health care minus the bill in Greece

Political advertisements ahead of the parliamentary election in Greece.

ATHENS — On my trips overseas, I often find myself sizing up the country I happen to be visiting, and looking back by comparison at things going on at home.

Greece is in the final days before a Sunday parliamentary election, with the possibility that George Papandreou, the son and grandson of former prime ministers, may replace Kostas Karamanlis, nephew of a former prime minister.

I was chatting about the state of politics the other day with a Greek friend, and he was wondering out loud why his countrymen couldn’t find candidates besides those named Karamanlis and Papandreou, out of 12 million Greeks. “It’s a little bit like the Republicans and the Democrats,” said my friend, Kostas, trained as an economist. “I don’t think these guys would even be in politics at all if it weren’t for their famous last names.”

“Sounds familiar,” I said.

And the conversation turned to what was happening in the United States. I reminded Kostas that the big item on the table in Washington was the question of universal health care.

He just doesn’t get it. And neither do I. By sheer coincidence, the day after I arrived in Athens last week, I found myself taking my mother-in-law to the hospital at 4:00 a.m. after she’d fallen and sustained a cut on the side of her head. We arrived at the Hippocrates hospital clinic, about 10 minutes by car from our hotel, where we were able to communicate well enough with triage clerks and nurses. The wound was not serious, so they told us to have a seat and wait for a little while. The waiting room was modern, and we were given a number out of a series of priorities which were displayed on a large computer readout at one end of the room. “Don’t worry,” a nurse said. “It won’t take long.”

I saw people coming in with more serious injuries and a couple of older people that might have had heart attacks or similar ailments. They were brought in by efficient ambulances, and were quickly dispatched on gurneys to examination rooms.

My mother-in-law’s number came up after about 15 minutes, and she was ushered in. A friendly, Italian-trained doctor had a quick look, gave her two stitches and a tetanus shot, and told her to stop by his office for a checkup a few days later. “Oh, by the way,” he added, “let me write down your name.” He took notes on what he’d done and gave a copy to us.

That was it. We looked around, waiting, wondering, and the doctor smiled. We smiled. The nurses smiled.

“Nice to meet you,” they said.

What was missing from the picture? The hospital didn’t have an intake desk, didn’t have a pay window, and no billing procedures that we could see. It was free.

“Of course,” my friend Kostas said, “the vast majority of our hospitals are public hospitals. Maybe it’s not the best system in the world, but it’s quite efficient, and we’re happy.”

I told Kostas that a late night emergency room visit to a hospital back home probably –- ball park estimate -– would have cost $1,000.

“Why?” he asked.

“Well, a lot of Americans seem to think that universal health care is socialist. Americans don’t like the word socialist. And powerful people are fighting the idea of free health care.”

Kostas had generally heard of the issue, but couldn’t believe my description of the uninsured, of high insurance rates, and of people being kicked off the roles of insurance when they lose their jobs or get really sick.

“That wouldn’t be a campaign issue here,” Kostas said. Neither the present Prime Minister Kourmanlis, who belongs to a center-right political party, nor his possible successor, Papandreou, a center-left candidate, would ever question the right of citizens to receive quality health care from the government.

“It sounds crazy,” said Kostas.

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ggia under a Creative Commons license.

September 23, 2009
Political standoff continues in Honduras

Protesters at the Brazilian embassy in Honduras.

Peter Eisner describes the political climate in Honduras and shares the observations of a Worldfocus contributing blogger.

There was word of negotiations on Wednesday, but no sign of a quick resolution in the standoff between the de facto Honduran government and the deposed Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya remained holed up in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa for a second day in a stalemate with Roberto Micheletti, the man who took office after Zelaya’s ouster on June 28.

Zelaya seeks a return to power. Micheletti says that is out of the question.

News reports from Honduras and Brazil said that a curfew was imposed in the Honduran capital, with soldiers on rooftops and helicopters hovering around at times.

On Tuesday, the reports said police used truncheons and tear gas to disperse crowds surrounding the embassy. AP reported 18 people were treated for injuries and that authorities had denied local reports that three people had died.

For a time, Honduran officials cut off power and access to the embassy. Finally, United Nations workers were allowed to deliver food to Zelaya, his family and as many as 85 people inside the compound.

There were several interviews with Zelaya and Micheletti published in newspapers and on international news wires. The Washington Post characterized the situation as “a battle of wills,” and and said that representatives of the two men had opened contacts to seek a resolution. The Post also said that U.S. diplomats and others were trying to negotiate an end to the impasse.

Why the Brazilian embassy? Zelaya told the Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo that Brazilian officials had no advance word that he would seek refuge there when he snuck back into Honduras over the weekend.

He told the newspaper that he valued Brazil’s stature in international affairs, but did not consult with its Foreign Ministry before going to the embassy. In fact, the Brazilian newspaper said, there was only one Brazilian diplomat in Tegucigalpa at the time, and that person ranked as minister-counselor, not ambassador.

“Brazil didn’t know about my plans. I took the decision to come directly to the embassy as a matter of strategy, a reserve position, so that the plan would not run a risk.”

Meanwhile, the people of Honduras wait. You can get a glimpse of the tension in the country from one of Worldfocus’ contributing bloggers, a religious volunteer in Santa Rosa de Copán. He wrote last night:

I spent most of today in the house – washing clothes, cleaning the house, reading, checking out the internet, because there has been a curfew. If you are out you could be arrested. But this is very much like a house arrest of about seven million people here in Honduras.

But I went out and talked with some neighbors and went to the pulpería (corner store) up the street. It appears that the police are not overly strict here. A neighbor who went out beyond the neighborhood was turned back gently by the police.

But in the main cities people are not permitted to go out, even to buy basic foodstuffs. This hasn’t stopped hundreds of demonstrators from going out on the streets, especially in Tegucigalpa. But think of the old woman who needs food or the mother of five kids who has no tortillas.

About 6 pm I went across the street (it’s a dirt road) to talk with my neighbors who were outside eating oranges. I guess we were violating the curfew. We talked and then amused ourselves with the silly dog tricks of their dog, Dinky. We laughed heartily – our way of snubbing the fear, insecurity, and sense of isolation that the curfew is supposed to instill in our hearts.

Final note: I hear kids shouting in the street “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.” – “The people united will not be defeated.”

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user vredeseilanden under a Creative Commons license.

September 22, 2009
Deposed president sneaks back to Honduras

Manuel Zelaya’s ouster has fueled passions in Honduras and beyond.

The stealthy return to Honduras by deposed President Manuel Zelaya this week highlights unusual alliances that make it hard to game the outcome. In the old days, there would have been late-night conniving and arm-twisting by a U.S. proconsul who happened to also be the ambassador or a top American diplomat. This time, the United States has not been a leader in solving the problem.

In diplomatic-speak, U.S. officials continue to reject the June 28 ouster of Zelaya and demand his peaceful return to power. At the same time, the Obama administration has seemed to undercut the role of the Organization of American States in performing a meaningful role. You get the feeling that the U.S. position is: Supporting democracy is one thing, but doing anything that might be beneficial to the interests and alliances of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is another.

Zelaya, a businessman, had been taking an increasingly populist, socially conscious stance and his detractors say he was seeking to usurp the constitution in the style of Chavez’ Bolivarian revolution. Zelaya, seized by the military in his pajamas and deposited in Costa Rica, says he sneaked back to Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, over the weekend after a half day of trekking over hill and dale, without saying which border he had crossed. [El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua — where he had taken refuge — are the choices]

Meanwhile, of all places, Zelaya has taken refuge in the embassy of Brazil, a country which until recently had been loathe to play too high a profile in contentious international affairs. Increasingly, however, Brazil has filled in as a mediator and even player — consider President Lula’s ongoing attempts to encourage calm relations between the United States and Venezuela. Brazil also plays an ongoing, difficult role — not given enough credit in the United States — in keeping the peace with a military contingent in Haiti.

Especially under the absentee Latin American policies of former president George W. Bush, Lula’s role was important. And Brazil’s role is significant, especially since the United States has not been clear on what it wants for Honduras.

The Brazilian government agrees with the United States that whatever the outcome in Honduras, the process must be peaceful. But Brazil has allowed Zelaya to raise the animus of supporters from the balcony of the embassy, surrounded by police and demonstrators.

Don’t worry though, the United States is involved in its fashion. The interim (or de facto, acting or temporary, depending on the political connotation) Honduran president, Roberto Micheletti, published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on Tuesday, in which he repeated his claim that the ouster of Zelaya was a perfectly constitutional exercise and not a coup at all. The article had the look and feel of airbrushing and massaging by lawyers at a K St. public relations firm.

The international community has wrongfully condemned the events of June 28 and mistakenly labeled our country as undemocratic. I must respectfully disagree. As the true story slowly emerges, there is a growing sense that what happened in Honduras that day was not without merit. On June 28, the Honduran Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for Zelaya for his blatant violations of our constitution, which marked the end of his presidency. To this day, an overwhelming majority of Hondurans support the actions that ensured the respect of the rule of law in our country.

Underlying all the rhetoric about a military overthrow are facts. Simply put, coups do not leave civilians in control over the armed forces, as is the case in Honduras today. Neither do they allow the independent functioning of democratic institutions — the courts, the attorney general’s office, the electoral tribunal. Nor do they maintain a respect for the separation of powers. In Honduras, the judicial, legislative and executive branches are all fully functioning and led by civilian authorities.

Pay no attention to that man on the balcony of the Brazilian embassy who pretends to be the president, Micheletti tells us. Let us look toward November elections, when, he says, he and his friends will prove that Honduras has been democratic all along.

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user YamilGonzales under a Creative Commons license.

September 18, 2009
Memories of “Dirty War” linger for Argentinians

I haven’t met an Argentinian who wasn’t affected in some deep, personal way by the “Dirty War” waged by their country’s right-wing military from 1975-1983, in which as many as 30,000 people were seized, disappeared and murdered.

It was the Argentine military dictatorship’s organized terror campaign to seize young people, old people, their children, teachers, unionists, students — anyone on the their dread list of names — in the guise of fighting communism.

Some were lucky enough to escape, but suffered the loss of children, mothers, fathers, brothers, grandparents, grandchildren and friends. The wounds never heal.

Argentinians have been increasingly engaged in chronicling those years of atrocities. Stories that relive the past appear almost daily. A recent example is in the Buenos Aires Herald, which describes a new book about its former editor, Robert Cox, and his courageous efforts to publish the truth about the official terror policy of the military dictatorship.

The book, Dirty Secrets, Dirty War, was written by Cox’s son, David Cox. Robert Cox was a lonely voice during the dictatorship: One of the few journalists who dared to tell the story, before he was forced to flee Argentina, facing death threats.

The book is the latest effort by writers and others who feel compelled to chronicle those days. Commemorating 30 years since the Dirty War, there are new films, lectures and plays about that period, all with the aim of never forgetting the crimes, or the victims.

I’ve just come across one poignant example of the remembrance program, first produced two years ago by photojournalist, Gustavo Germano.

Germano produced a series of side-by-side photographs entitled Ausencias, “Absences.”  In each paired set, we see people at the beach,  in snapshots or family portraits — alongside the same scene years later missing those who were snatched from life. The result is ghostly and harrowing; profound.

In one paired set, the first photo is labeled 1975: Clara Altelman de Fink stands at a dining table looking over the shoulder of her son, Claudio Marcelo Fink. In 2006, the mother stands in the exact same place, hand on empty chair, looking at the camera. Claudio is not there.

In another, brothers Omar Dario Amestoy and Mario Alfredo Amestoy are charging down a grassy hill, filled with youth and vigor. Thirty one years later, we see Mario Alfredo running down the same hill alone.

A portion of Gustavo Germano’s photo series as seen on his Web site.

In a third, a young man, Orlando Rene Mendez, and a woman, Leticia Margarita Oliva, are at Happy Turtle Beach in Concordia, Entre Rios. In 2006, the beach is empty.

We absorb the anguish, the years and the injustice with hardly a word.

Germano’s exhibit was accompanied with a preface written by Horacio Verbitsky, one of Argentina’s most renowned journalists.

More than criminal trials, or journalistic investigations, or philosophical essays, art accounts for the emptiness that unexplained absence provokes….The photos  of Gustavo Germano….evoke that deep trauma of contemporary Argentine identity, and introduce us to the mystery of time with the mute violence of a frozen gesture.

– Peter Eisner

September 16, 2009
Obama sticks to the script in renewing Cuba embargo

Even with the embargo, the United States is Cuba’s fifth largest trading partner — there are exemptions on food sales to the island. Photo: USDA

There’s no reason to be surprised by President Obama’s decision this week to renew the U.S. embargo with Cuba — he was sticking the script followed by presidents since John F. Kennedy.

Not doing so would throw a wrench into his efforts in Congress on universal health care. Without even arguing pro or con on the issue, let’s just state the obvious — the president is dealing with pressing matters that take front-burner attention right now. Cuba and Latin America are way down on the list of problems to deal with.

All this despite the emptiness and loneliness of the embargo. Many Americans don’t realize the oddities of the U.S. stance — it can’t be called a policy. Something like 178 other countries have normal diplomatic relations with Cuba. Even with the embargo, the United States is Cuba’s fifth largest trading partner — there are exemptions on food sales to the island.

A majority of Cuban Americans now support an end to the embargo. Some of the most vociferous supporters of a change are midwestern Republicans, who want to open new markets for their constituents. And it should be made clear: Those suffering the most are the Cuban people, not the Cuban government.

President Obama’s decision therefore may be disappointing to the coalition of Americans who think it’s time to acknowledge the failure of the 50-year economic embargo of Cuba. But they won’t scream as hard as the other side would if the president endorsed a new policy. Obama can’t stand potential defections of support for the health care bill.

Cubans in Cuba and Miami tend to see their own issue as the only issue. But even they know the reality.

The Cuban government has expressed doubt for some time that Obama would strike up a new, close friendship with the Communist country. Ricardo Alarcon, the president of Cuba’s National assembly, told me in Havana this year that he hoped, but didn’t think the new president would live up to his billing as an agent of change.

Watch: Cuba embraces Obama and clamors to end the embargo.

Any idea of quick change comes from an early flurry of talk that Obama might be willing to drop a travel ban to Cuba affecting most U.S. citizens. There was a lot of noise in the spring when Obama suggested changes in U.S. Cuban policy. But he’s taken minor steps other than to eliminate restrictions imposed by George W. Bush on Cuban Americans traveling and sending more to relatives on the island.

Actually, there were two small changes that are worth mentioning. One is that the United States and Cuba have begun holding regular occasional meetings on immigration and other matters. So there is some level of official contact between the countries. There was also an odd contact point recently when Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico paid a visit to Havana and said he held unofficial meetings with high-ranking Cuban officials. It’s not clear whether he was carrying water for the president or not, and it’s also not clear who he really met with, besides Alarcon.

The real point person on Cuba and Latin America should be Arturo Valenzuela, who President Obama has designated as the deputy assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs. He’s not on the job yet — Congress is stalling on confirmation hearings.

Latin America, as usual, is an afterthought in U.S. foreign policy planning.

– Peter Eisner

Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

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