By Alejandro Armengol (cubaencuentro.com)
HAVANA TIMES — Cuban president Raul Castro will be making his first visit to Mexico as head of State between November 5 and 7. The gathering promises to be a mix of the old and the new, where former alliances and new strategies will define themselves against Latin America’s changing political panorama, a panorama that, to a certain extent, does not favor Havana. It will also see a Castro whose country is set – both in terms of desire and indebtedness – on defining its future.
Aiming, among other things, to get ahead of this regional change of course, Raul Castro travels to the land where, in 1956, under his brother’s leadership and accompanied by a group of expeditionaries, he once departed from to conquer political power back home. For him, it will amount to reuniting with his past (something he will surely emphasize in his speeches) in order to face the future, the focus of his governmental talks.
The meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Merida visibly aims to reaffirm the re-establishment of cordial relations the two governments secured in November of 2013, and we should not forget the long-standing ties that the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) has maintained with Havana, part of a mutually beneficiary relationship where ideology – and even politics, from the doctrinaire point of view – have always been set aside.
We have heard that Peña Nieto and Castro will “review the main political, economic and cooperation-related issues in the bilateral and regional agenda,” but there is in fact much more at stake.
For Mexico, this will constitute a much-needed political opportunity to revert the disadvantageous and even embarrassing situation of having been neglected as a mediator between Washington and Havana during the negotiations that culminated in what – perhaps prematurely and simplistically – has been called the “thaw.” From the economic perspective, it is a privileged opportunity to explore Mexico’s interest in investing on the island more deeply.
Other issues will also be addressed during the meeting. The signing of new agreements in the trade and tourism sectors, as well as a new memorandum of understanding on immigration, is planned. We also know that the issue of human rights will be left off the agenda.
With respect to Cuba – or the Cuban government, for those who insist on political correction – two important contexts frame Castro’s visit: a national and a Latin American one.
The Cuban Context
Castro travels to Mexico as part of a sustained effort – a plan that has moved both forward and backward -, not only to draw foreign investment to Cuba but also to dissociate himself, at least outwardly, of rigid ideological and political postures.
The last development attesting to this effort is the 33rd Havana International Fair (FIHAV), currently being held in the Cuban capital.
Upon opening this fair on November 2, Cuban Foreign Trade and Investment Minister Rodrigo Malmierca declared that the lifting of the economic, commercial and financial embargo applied by the United States on the island would benefit not only both countries but international economic relations as a whole. That is to say, economic considerations are prevailing over political ones in Cuba today (provided this does not involve relinquishing power).
“The end of the blockade [US economic embargo] will be a step in favor of international economic relations, not only at the bilateral level between Cuba and the United States,” Malmierca underscored during his opening speech before ministers, government officials and entrepreneurs from the near 70 countries that attended FIHAV, the island’s largest business portfolio.
“Our aim is to do good business with serious partners, to the benefit of both parties,” the minister added. He also reported that, during the first half of the year, Cuba saw a 4.7 % increase in its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and that it expected to close 2015 with a growth of around 4 %.
Malmierca stressed the “close attention” the Cuban government pays those issues it considers to be a “high priority,” as is the case with foreign capital.
Before the opening of FIHAV, the Cuban minister attended a meeting of the US-Cuba Business Council, which saw the participation of more than 50 US company executives and the representatives of Cuban companies and organizations.
The US delegation at the forum was headed by the executive vice-chair of the US Chamber of Commerce (USCC) Myron Brilliant, who was accompanied by the executives of such companies as American Airlines, Heinz Kraft, Caterpillar, Home Depot and other tourism, health and telecommunication corporations.
The efforts of the Cuban government are yielding fruits, perhaps not yet in connection with the United States, but clearly with respect to Spain.
Madrid on the Offensive
In Havana, Spanish Minister for the Economy Luis de Guindos stated that Spain “is going to play a key role” in the new panorama of economic and commercial opportunities opening up in Cuba today, EFE reported.
De Guindos and the Spanish Minister for Industry, Energy and Tourism Jose Manuel Soria attended the opening of the fair, where two cooperation agreements and two memorandums in the fields of innovation and technology, trade, industry and energy have already been signed with the Cuban government.
The most important agreement to be signed during the visit of the Spanish delegation will be a convention to refinance Cuba’s debt to Spain in the short term. According to De Guindos, this “lays the foundations of the future” and constitutes a “first step” in terms of bilateral financial relations.
Cuba’s 201.5-million euro (US $222 million) debt – which includes the principal and interests – includes payments due since the year 2000. Though not a high figure, the importance of this agreement has to do with the fact the Cuba is now facing yet another liquidity crisis and has requested an extension of several debts.
On the other hand, the visit of and agreements signed by Spanish ministers reveals that calls from Miami demanding a stop to or extension of Spanish investment on the island are falling on deaf ears. Mayor Tomas Regalado’s trips to Madrid and a recent forum held by the opposition in this connection have run into the sand, to use a popular idiom.
The Latin American Panorama
Latin America is where Cuba’s prospects aren’t too bright, politically speaking.
The last poll conducted in Argentina showed the candidate of the center-right opposition, Mauricio Macri, with 50.3% of the votes in the second round of the presidential elections, scheduled for November 22, whereas Daniel Scioli, the candidate of the government-backed Frente para la Victoria (“Front for Victory”) had 39.7%. In addition, the report speculates that around more than half of those who voted for first round third place finisher Sergio Massa will vote for Macri during the second. The poll was conducted between October 28 and 30 and included 1,300 potential voters around the country.
A Macri victory in Argentina could mean the beginning of the end of what some politicians and analysts have called Latin America’s “progressive cycle,” a process which could be more accurately described as a left-wing tendency sympathetic to the movement begun – and financed – by the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
Should the Kirchnerista presidential candidate be defeated, the traditional Latin American alliance with Chavismo could be severely weakened. This would be coupled with the crisis faced by Dilma Rousseff’s administration in Brazil and the uncertainty surrounding the future of Venezuela, where Maduro is expected to lose this year’s parliamentary elections (whether Maduro will accept or tolerate this defeat is another question).
Cuba’s Official Press Sounds the Alarm
The fear of this change in Latin America’s political course (a partial change, if we bear in mind the governments of Bolivia and Ecuador, which are admittedly less important than Brazil and Argentina) has set off alarms in Cuba’s official press. Three examples of this are:
Yaile Balloqui Bonzon warns that “we must be on the alert in the face of the vulgar strategies used to legitimate attempts at restoring conservative regimes.”
Argentine economist Atilio Boron believes that “reverting what happened in the first electoral round appears a very difficult though not an impossible task. We’ll have to try, to avoid seeing Argentine become the spearhead of a process that we could now justifiably call the end of the “progressive cycle” in the region, something that seemed unlikely until a few days ago.”
Ruben Abelanda tells us that “in recent days, predictions as to the end of the “progressive cycle” have reemerged, adding: “what’s worrying about that far from convincing but coined phrase is that it is being repeated from left-wing positions, and it is generating pessimism and divisions (…)”
A Key Visit
In view of all of these factors, Raul Castro’s trip to Mexico is more than the continuation of the road begun in November of 2013, with the re-establishment of relations and reciprocity for Peña Nieto’s visit to the island at the beginning of 2014. It is an attempt by the Cuban government to maintain its presence in the region with new – or not-so-new- allies that will offer it the support it needs were others (who have been closer, ideologically) fail to do so. Ultimately, what matters in Cuba today is business – and Raul Castro may be an authoritarian or totalitarian leader, but he is certainly not stupid.