August 6: Cuba in transition

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The striking thing about Cuba’s long-awaited leadership crisis is how uneventful it has been. With President Fidel Castro apparently recovering smoothly from stomach surgery, Raúl Castro, the 75 year-old defence minister, has quietly moved into the top executive roles. Many of the president’s lesser duties have been handed down to a range of senior but much younger Communist Party figures. These include Carlos Lage, the 54-year old vice president, Felipe Pérez Roque, the 41-year old foreign minister, and Francisco Soberon, the 62 year-old president of the central bank.

So far there has been no sign of any trouble on the streets. Cubans are simply not responding to calls for civil disobedience from the likes of Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the right-wing Cuban-American US congressman. As Oswaldo Payá, the dissident leader, put it in an interview many people identify with the government and there is an atmosphere of caution on the streets.

At the weekend the Catholic church, the only well-organised, properly financed and fully independent institution in the country, said that its followers should pray for the president’s health, not the kind of gesture designed to promote its potential as a focus of political opposition. In addition, calls by President George W. Bush and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice “supporting a future of freedom for Cuba” have had a ritualistic feel about them, perhaps not surprisingly for an administration already bogged down in three separate crises in the Middle East. In any event, such messages are routinely jammed in Cuba, limiting their impact.

At the same time in Florida, home to many 800,000 Cuban-born Americans, the authorities – such as the US coast guard – are giving no encouragement to wilder radical exile groups aiming to dispatch flotillas of boats and aircraft to Cuba. Coast Guard officials said boats trying to make the illegal crossing would be stopped and sent home.

In fact, the contrast between Cuba in 2006 and Eastern Europe in 1989 when Soviet-backed governments collapsed one after another, could not be clearer. As this report puts it the opposition movement is “divided, intimidated by the state and infiltrated by its agents” and “too weak to exploit Fidel Castro’s failing health.”

That is not say that things will always stay the same in Cuba. Few people believe Mr Castro can return to his full duties, as he did after fainting in 2001 or breaking an arm and knee after a fall two years ago. True, the economy has been getting slightly better as a result of Venezuelan oil supplies and cut pressure cookers and electric fans from China. But for many Cubans day-to-day life is still a struggle. Austerity will continue to undermine support for the Communist Party. Without Fidel Castro’s prestige and charisma it will be harder to keep things so calm in future. But change is going to take a long time.

Mexican protests continue

The decision on Saturday of Mexico’s highest electoral tribunal to order only a very limited recount of the votes cast in last month’s disputed presidential election brought a predictable reaction from Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftwing candidate: a call to escalate civil resistance.

Mr López Obrador, who on July 2 narrowly lost out to the centre-right Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN), said not only would the blockade of a principal road in the capital continue but also that he would begin a daily protest outside the tribunal itself.

On one level the strategy is understandable: the tribunal’s decision involves the recounting of votes cast at just under 12,000 of the country’s 133,000 polling stations. That is a long way short of the full recount Mr López Obrador has insisted on, and therefore significantly reduces the chances of him reversing his loss.

But there are at least three reasons why Mr López Obrador’s latest gamble is a mistake nonetheless.

First, the resulting chaos in the capital has started to turn public opinion against him in his biggest political stronghold. Many people who were either supportive or at least willing to back a recount are now growing impatient, and national opinion polls suggest that he is losing popularity. The longer the blockade continues the more support he could lose.

Second, it flies in the face of a law he passed in his former role as city mayor that guarantees the free movement of people in the city. That will only reinforce in the minds of many Mexicans the perception that Mr López Obrador has scant regard for the law – even his own.

Last, it risks alienating key members of his party. Beyond Mr López Obrador’s apparent defeat at the presidential level, his party did exceptionally well in Congress and is now the second biggest political force in Mexico. Party members who won seats will feel increasingly uneasy about sacrificing those gains by supporting an ever more radical movement – whether it be blocking streets or undertaking other disruptive actions.

Mr López Obrador is playing a risky game that could soon have him either facing an awkward climb-down from the heights he has scaled or becoming an increasingly isolated figure in Mexican politics.

Dark days in Brazil

The mid-year holidays are over and those returning to Brazil this week found an air of gloom to match the grey clouds covering a chilly São Paulo. Pundits were in sour mood over two initiatives in the week from president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

One would curtail the ability of congressional inquiries to demand access to suspects’ bank, telephone and other personal records. Government has been brought to a near standstill since last year by a series of such inquiries into an alleged cash-for-votes scheme said to have been operated by presidential advisors. Another is investigating accusations that dozens of legislators enriched themselves in a separate scheme involving sales of ambulances to local authorities. Restricting the scope of the inquiries might make sense; neutering them looks like a cover-up.

The other proposal is for a constituent assembly to enact political reform. The reform is much-needed and would face stiff opposition in Congress. But commentators were quick to detect signs of golpismo If the government can bypass Congress on this issue, they argued, why not on others?

On both initiatives there were mutterings about the president steering Brazil towards an elected dictatorship a la Venezuela of Hugo Chávez. This is probably guff. But the moves do seem to reflect a growing sense of unease as campaigning approaches for elections in October.

The pulp dispute continues

Eighteen months ago President Néstor Kirchner confounded his critics by negotiating a debt restructuring deal with creditors. Now the Argentine leader’s bruising diplomatic style may be about to win him another victory: the pulp and paper dispute with Uruguay could be going Argentina’s way.

On the surface that seems odd. After all, the International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled that the pulp mills being built on Uruguay’s border with Argentina will not cause “irreparable” damage, a verdict very much in Montevideo’s favour. Emboldened by this initial success Uruguay has lodged a complaint with a tribunal in the regional trade group Mercosur, which is expected to rule in early September.

These legal advances could count for nothing. Frightened by the environmental protests taking place in Argentina, banks seem to be getting cold feet about financing the $1.7bn paper and pulp projects. Already one bank, ING of the Netherlands, has backed off, apparently unwilling to be caught up in such a sensitive and uncertain project that has sparked off an international dispute.

The International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank, may lend almost $400m to the $1.7bn project, but those loans will be dependent on the outcome of an environmental impact study later this year. What is more, there are some reports that Ence, the Spanish company building one of the factories, is considering abandoning the project. It is just possible that pressure from President Kirchner might have contributed to this change of heart, after two of his ministers met Ence executives during his recent trip to Madrid. Don’t be surprised if Ence does change its plans.

Venezuela’s primaries

Venezuela’s fractured political opposition to President Hugo Chávez may vote in primary elections next Sunday to select what its organisers hope will deliver a single opposition candidate for December’s presidential ballot. Then again, it just might not happen.

Sumate, an opposition-aligned non-government grouping that lobbies for transparent elections and civil participation, has said it is ready to organise primaries for next weekend. However, a key faction of Venezuela’s disparate array of opposition pretenders is cool on the idea. Teodoro Petkoff, a former guerrilla, Julio Borges, of the centre-right Justice First party, and Manuel Rosales, governor of the western oil-rich state of Zulia, agreed earlier this year to work out a single candidacy from among the three of them. Mr Petkoff withdrew his candidacy last Friday, while Mr Borges and Mr Rosales said at the weekend that they will settle their dual between them in the next few days. If that is the case, there will be no point at all to celebrating primary elections.

But then again, there is more to the tragic-comic pantomime that is Venezuela’s political opposition. In the past few weeks, a fresh outsider has taken centre-stage and thrown the opposition camp into further disarray: Benjamin Rausseo, a stand-up comedian better known as “El Conde del Guácharo”, loosely translated as The Count of Guácharo, who owns a theme park on Margarita Island.

Notes by Richard Lapper, Adam Thomson, Jonathan Wheatley, Benedict Mander and Andy Webb-Vidal

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