The key to the Gulf: A look at the board

HAVANA — Without striking a deal, each one with its own peculiarities, political vision and interests, Brazil and Mexico are moving toward Cuba.

The Brazilians have almost gained Marielan nationality, thanks to their giant investment in the Port of Mariel (they also run the 5 de septiembre sugar factory in Cienfuegos province), while they negotiate investments in other sectors.

And Mexicans prepare to enthusiastically relaunch their trade relations with the island, to which end they have begun by wiping out 70 percent of Cuba’s 500-million-dollar debt.

Odd. These are two Latin American governments with different political-ideological positions. The Brazil of the Workers Party, Lula and Rousseff has a special sensitivity toward Cuba (call it socio-political affinity) and is the new major power. President Raúl Castro called it “the older brother” on one occasion.

For Rousseff to have continued, strengthened and expanded Lula’s policy toward Havana, to meet with President Castro (Raúl) and the Cuban leader, Fidel, is normal.

She is something else. She comes from the hard times of anti-dictatorial guerrilla and was carried to the presidency by the Workers Party and the labor leader Lula, who foresaw what today is the CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), an effort at integration, defense of sovereignty, cooperation and a fairer distribution of wealth.

I must say that Brazil is well aware that it is Brazil, an emerging power and a strong regional competitor to the United States, to whose interests it appears (I underline “appears”) to be drawing a line in the sand — precisely at the Cuban meridian.

quote1Whatever happens on the island, hands off. Latin American and Caribbean soil are off limits. You may invest and cooperate, yes. You may not intervene, no. The Great Motherland is our affair, our entire domain from the Río Grande to Patagonia.

For its part, Mexico is very close to us in history and geography, so close that I wouldn’t exaggerate if I said that on a clear night the people at Cabo de San Antonio can hear the music being played in Cancún.

And now, under the presidency of Peña Nieto and his party, the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party], Mexico maintains a solid commitment to Washington and is tied to Canada by the NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement]. Yet Peña Nieto goes to Havana, participates in the CELAC Summit, talks with President Castro and revolutionary leader Fidel and announces that he will rearticulate relations with Havana.

There’s always leaks, some careless, some intentional. Before the CELAC Summit, I heard from reliable sources that the momentum responded to the interests of entrepreneurs and investors who, for a long time, had tried to turn the music from Cancún into the “ka-ching!” of revenue for both countries and societies.

Not much time went by before that information was confirmed; the news is here.

Jaime Torres Escuen, president of the Mexican Business Council for Foreign Trade (COMCE), told the newspaper La Jornada that a delegation of Mexican businessmen will visit the island soon “to reposition Mexico in Cuba after the precipitous drop in bilateral trade during the 12 years of PAN rule [National Action Party], resulting in an increased participation by Venezuela, China and, so far, Brazil.”

Heading the delegation will be Ildefonso Guajardo, Secretary of the Economy. According to La Jornada, the visit will occur this month [February]. The projects and explorations are not limited to PYMES (small and medium businesses); also targeted are sectors like oil, metallurgy, pharmaceuticals and tourism.

What’s happening? Why this rapprochement to Cuba? Why do business with “the accursed island”?

Havana, keeping its own pace, cautiously and in stages, is carrying out a series of economic reforms that are impacting on the social fabric, on the attitudes of citizens and on the scale of values. It is no longer a static reality but a movement that opens opportunities gradually, I repeat, gradually to foreign investment and also to national investors.

Cuba has been renegotiating its debts. Much of the debt has been forgiven (Cuba owes Russia about $3.2 billion, payable in 10 years) and Cuba is moving toward the unification of its currency. As a result of the latter, Cuba clarifies its own accounts and offers security to investors, as well as duty exemptions, especially in the Mariel Development Zone.

The island’s natural resources, poorly exploited, lacking markets and the indispensable know-how, make Cuba desirable, especially considering the great potential of the technical-scientific skills of a high percentage of its labor force.

The whole of Latin America considers unjust and inefficient the isolation and siege to which Cuba has been subjected for decades by the United States’ successive administrations.

Plenty of diplomats now comment, sotto voce, a graffiti written on the walls of politics: “The embargo [blockade] has embargoed the U.S.” And they “justify” the rapprochement of their respective nations to Cuba as a way to pull us out of the quandary. I can say this from personal experience.

Noteworthy: President Obama himself arrived at the same conclusion. The Washington design hasn’t worked and he issued a call for creativity. However, so far he has not acted on his statements and has pocketed his call for a fertile imagination.

Evidently, there’s a lot on the board of the Key to the Gulf but what’s unquestionable is that Latin America and the Caribbean are betting on full recognition for Havana and joint action in the process of transformation. Some of them will respect the dynamics of the people-government relationship and the interests that emerge inside the island; others will try to influence that dynamics.

The bottom line: Though it may pain some, Cuba and the government of President Raúl Castro emerged stronger from the CELAC Summit and have cast a pall over the full realization of the Summit of the Americas, set for 2015.

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