Cuba, Brazil and the Embargo

To say that Barack Obama has launched a new policy toward Cuba is not quite true. He has signaled a different emphasis and mood from the previous administration, but there already have been administrations that have shown particular flexibility in addressing relations with Cuba. Not always very successfully.

Fidel is aware of the dividends generated by playing the role of victim and how his “leadership” is helped by the image of Little David confronting the mighty Goliath. He has never deviated from that scheme. He never has before, and sees to it that it will not change now; old and sick, he is quick to sabotage any positive effect of the policy and the goodwill of Obama toward the island.

The fact that there are fewer restrictions on travel and remittances is of no use to Fidel. In fact, all those who want to travel do so, and the same goes for those who financially help their relatives on the island from the United States. Liberalization in these areas can generate some more movement, but above all, it will involve a transparency that does not suit the regime. It could no longer hide nor justify the expropriation of a good portion of Cuban funds that are sent from the U.S.

Disappearance of the embargo is much less convenient for Fidel. For starters, he, his friends and those who are afraid to deviate from the politically correct, could no longer speak of the “blockade” and could not dodge the issue of human rights violations in Cuba. Justification for economic failures, for limiting freedom, and for sending to jail those who disagree with the regime would vanish. He would no longer be the victim; he would no longer be the alternative permanent “theme”; his business would end, and Fidel knows it and will do everything possible to ensure that this never ends.

President Lula knows this, also, hence his effort that Obama not fall short on measures favoring Cuba. Lula, as well as Itamaraty (the Ministry of International Relations) and the Brazilian Armed Forces (FFAA), know that Brazilian leadership has been restrained and will always depend on the “Cuban myth.” At this stage, it is difficult to eradicate “Fidelism” – which will end only with Fidel’s disappearance – but what Lula does not want is for “Castroism” to continue. A Cuba, victim, isolated and “blocked”, will allow for the myth to continue and would be a means of support for the heirs, and this would not serve Brazil’s interest.

Brazil takes care that Chavez does not enter the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) and try to squeeze its political space, but so far has been unable to prevent his “meddling” in relations with neighbors like Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador and even Argentina. The Venezuelan has managed two powerful arguments: the petrodollars that he has distributed widely (urbi et orbi) and being a type of dolphin and interpreter of Fidel. The first of these arguments has lost strength as the price of oil has weakened; the myth, however, remains in force if Cuba continues being the victim and central topic of the continent.

For Lula, it is clear. Perhaps it is also clear for Obama, but it is not easy. Lifting the embargo requires legislation; furthermore, Obama needs to maintain some equilibrium and be prudent when talking about expunging the past. He must not ignore that Brazil “takes care of its own interests”, that his decision to have him (Lula) as “the interlocutor” for the hemisphere is not new – it is what Kissinger and Vernon Walters argued about for decades – and that this Brazilian primacy is resisted by many Latin-American countries. Nor can Obama believe that governments that have made “anti-imperialism” and anti-U.S. their justification for existence will change. Finally, he cannot risk losing the support of those who do not share that vision and those who, only yesterday, were friends.

It is a complex issue in which the only thing that seems indisputable is that maintaining Cuba as a victim favors only the brothers Castro, their partners and candidate heirs.

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