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Here We Go Again: Syrian Deja Vu

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The recent escalation in Syria, with the US attacking for the first time directly the Syrian territory, has taken many by surprise and confusion. To some commentators, is the sign of the unpredictability of Donald Trump, for others the continuous with a policy always directed to the change of regimes, for others more is the sign of end of Assad regime.

What is more striking, however, is the parallelism with the Iraqi War and its build up, as well as the confirmation of the “emotional diplomacy”, which affects mainly the West and its allies. There are no easy responses, or solutions, although an objective analysis requires to try to see the events with all eyes and minds in Washington, Moscow, Damascus, London, Bruxelles, Tehran, Beijing and Pyongyang.

All started with an attack, still not proven or completely investigated, on which a likely chemical substance (or more than one) has been used against the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in north-western Syria. On one side, the US and its allies accused the Damascus regime, on the other, Moscow and its allies talked about “involuntary chemical use” or accuses rebel fighting groups.

The bottom line in this terrible story, where more than 80 people have been killed, is that no one has a shred of proof or started a formal investigation to establish the exact causes. On this it is like  going back to the initial stages on the Syrian war, when the western countries were taking every single excuse to put  foot on Syrian ground. At the same time it is a deja vu of the Iraqi WMD fiasco, when not only proof was nonexistent but even fabricated.

Nevertheless, we cannot deny that Syria is home to a huge chemical arsenal, that under the US-Russia agreement should have been secured and stocked for dismantling. This amount, not known, added to the security on the ground difficult to establish, surely jeopardized any attempt to clear the area: Damascus has still chemical weapons? Yes. Have the rebels access to weapons following occupation of some areas? Yes. Has ISIL access to chemical weapons? Yes.

Under these conditions, it could be true that Damascus used prohibited substances, as well as it is likely that rebels bombarded the wrong area or ISIL used them against civilians. International Law and diplomacy have for decades worked on the same assumption of civil and penal justice: innocence until proven in court. A golden rule, followed most of the time, to avoid bloodshed and major conflicts, a necessity to give peace and mediation a chance. However, history teaches us that “incidents” have been used to justify military actions, incidents that could be see and proven: Tonkin incident, the Afghan “communist” conversion to open soviet invasion, etc.

The problem is that in recent years too many “incidents” have been unproven action by belligerents, and used to justify quick military solutions that proved disastrous in their consequences. One of the main pillars has been the “emotional diplomacy”, where after a deplorable action by warring parts, another country acts moved by sentiments, by “humanitarian” scopes. Like a child with a tantrum, bombs dropped as apples from a tree shaken by a storm, causing more death, destruction, and especially no solution. Or at least not a lasting solution, but a piloted result to benefit the Samaritan intervening.

This is the calculation made in Washington, Moscow, Tehran, Damascus, Ankara when they continuously switch their policies and alliances, not in the interest of Syrian people, nor for global peace, but for geopolitical equilibrium (Moscow) and change of regime policy (US) to destabilize Russia, China, Iran.

Therefore, can we even try to make some sense in all this? The US accuses Assad of war crimes, probably true but still unproven, for a simple reason: change the regime. This was the pillar of American policy with Bush and with Obama found in the so-called Arab Spring the lever to tilt regimes in Middle East that were unfriendly, historically. They instigated revolution in Egypt for then backtracking and supporting General Al Sisi in the repressions and coup that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power. Democracy has its strange ways of work. In Libya they accomplished the ousting of Gaddafi (thanks to a Russian/Chinese diplomatic suicide at the UN), while in Iran failed from the start. Syria was to be their final step, but the Russian strong opposition and support denied the change. It is not surprising that any attack made by Syrian forces receives wider coverage on Western medias than the thousands of people killed by terrorist groups and rebels armed with American weapons in Syria and Iraq. Nor is news the silent and censored war in Yemen, where not only chemical weapons have been used and thousands have been killed by Saudi’s aerial bombardment on civilians. Skepticism is the least, then grows when you read that 59 tomahawk missiles have been fired against a military base and that just 2 days later was again ready to use! Either all those missile failed the objectives or they bomb the wrong place.

Russia is defending Assad and his regime, under a status quo paradigm: losing Syria, will wipe out Russian presence from eastern Mediterranean, closing the Black Sea Fleet in a prison with the key held by the erratic Turkish President Erdogan. Russia support Syria to strengthen border control against terrorism, as many foreign fighters are from the Caucasus, and Russia already experienced first hand the change of regime policy with the “coloured revolutions” that engulfed Eastern Europe. However, Russia is not the sparring partner anymore, Yeltsin’s years have been forgotten like a day after being drunk. Russia, regretted the Libyan error, and since then responded tit for tat: Ukraine and Crimea are just a warning. Russia accuses the US of fabricating news and arming rebel and terrorist groups (whether directly or not, it is still not proven), and closing an eye or two when they make their massacres. Russia accused the US of interfering in the peace process that Moscow was silently building with Turkey and Iran.

A key to understand the Syrian puzzle is Turkey, and the actions of the two powers is a reflection of Ankara unpredictable policies. Erdogan at first was a fierce critic of Assad, threatening invasion to support Turkmen (covertly to wipe out Kurds and PKK), and conducting a strong anti-Russian campaign. Unfortunately for the US, Turkey made a big mistake by shooting down a Russian fighter jet, plunging its economy into disaster and becoming soon a central stage for terror attacks: ISIS ones following the western sponsored policy of open frontiers, and PKK ones taking advantage of Turkish foolishness in lowering their security. Timely and precise came the attempted coup against Erdogan, again with multifaceted interpretations: a US sponsored coup (Gulen supporters) to block a Russian rapprochement or a backfired coup that was used by Erdogan to increase his control, cut the ties with the US and change the foreign policy into a Russian backed solution of the Syrian crisis? Now this chemical incident once again saw Turkey siding with the US, but on the other they still seat at the table with Russian and Iranians to try in solving the conflict.

Many say Trump could be too impetuous on decisions, or even dangerous for world peace, but looking closely he has just reconditioned a well used machine that in the last two decades has made of the Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Matteo Figus

10/04/2017 at 20:49

Trump vs The Media: Fake News for Fake Politics

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The election of Donald Trump as US president sparked controversy and debate around the world about his suitability to lead the world most powerful country. Trump, with his unconventional and out of protocol actions, has been under intense scrutiny, and judgment, as no other politician has ever been around the world.

Actions and presidential decrees, united to statements outside the official channels, only contributed to highlight even further the division in America and the unwelcome feeling around the world.

Aside from the recent controversy following his immigration decrees, the security challenges, and the accusations of Russian meddling into US elections, one of the Trump’s key horses has been the campaign against on what he calls the fake news.

His crusade, and refusal to talk or release interviews to major US and international networks, accused to distort reality and of depicting him in a bad light all the time, opened a debate on whether he is trying to censor the media or raising an actual warning.

The message from Trump is not new and while is wrong in the form is right in the substance, although the hypocrisy of the media and of the major political courts in Europe deny this. Trump’s crusade against the media is clearly a personal attack to defend himself from the constant denigration and undermining of his position, it is a personal objective that has nothing to do with his politics and programme. The form of the attacks, highlight a situation similar to that lived by Italians when Silvio Berlusconi was PM. Constant attacks on his figure, business empire, the collusion with criminality and control over the media he owned, only strengthened his power even more. His counteraction against newspapers and TV networks outside his control where made just to stop inquests over his interests.

Nevertheless, what makes different the Trump position is that in the substance what he is saying is not wrong. Fake news is not an invention of Trump, for decades we are under the constant bombardment of supposed “breaking news” and to the brainwashing campaigns used to legitimate the processes advanced by the politicians in command. We all remember the Iraqi lessons on WMD, the supposed intelligence reports on chemical weapon ready to be used, and the missiles to destroy the West. Let’s not forget how the Arab spring of 2011 has been hijacked by western media to support US change of regime policy in Libya and Syria, while had backfire in Egypt and Iraq leading to the growing of IS.

More recently, the Ukraine, Burma and Philippines cases, were all portrayed in different manner correspondent to the interest of what the major powers need. Has the Ukraine issue been covered in a fair and objective manner, including the diplomatic and historic issues behind? The answer is no. No one of the major media advanced the same bad overage of Russia intervention, to the constant NATO harassing and military buildup in the East, a clear message of destabilization. What it would happen if Russia was to build up his military presence for example in Cuba or Venezuela?

The fake news are around us, all official media and state’s TV are brainwashing people on the political objectives of the established power. Even Trump’s actions are modified to benefit the moment, like the cancellation of the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Many citizens, even before Trump, were opposed to it, especially the EU as it would have relegated their market to a second position. When Trump actually put to end to any possibility of a US participation into the TPP, the news was just relegated to the dark, concentrating instead on other more questionable political choices of Trump. What about the infamous wall on the border with Mexico? Everyone is shouting at the humanitarian disasters, but where are all the media condemning the Israeli wall against Palestinian people in the West Bank?

Trump is going to be an over the line president, an unconventional politician, an easy target to constant propaganda to undermine his status, but the media that constantly follow him on any move are just reflection on how political standards just sank to a level of indecency. It us, surrounded by technology and access to information at no price, that we should open our eyes and ears and question whether this battle is just another way to distract the conscience from the actual problems.

Written by Matteo Figus

14/03/2017 at 12:46

Posted in Analysis, North & Central America

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US-Cuba Thaw, 2nd Round: Formalising Intentions, Testing Obstacles Ahead

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The meeting between US President Barak Obama and the Cuban leader Raul Castro, held in Panama during the Summit of the Americas, was the first formal talks between the two countries in more than fifty years.

The talks follow up the historic thaw announced in December 2014 when both leaders agreed it was time to discuss their relationship and put behind years of tension defined as outdated.Obama Raul Castro

Cuba was participating at the summit for the first time, a move welcomed by all Latin American countries and judged a signal of the clear intentions to pursue the road of reconciliation.

Both leaders confirmed their intentions to reopen a channel for discussion and at the same time confirming the limits of it. President Obama described the meeting as candid and fruitful confirming that the two countries will obviously have differences and mutual interests, with the right of disagree. Cuban leader Raul Castro also repeated the same line quoting that “we are disposed to talk about everything, with patience. Some things we will agree with, and others we won’t”. He also defended the Cuban revolution and its political system but at the same time he described President Obama as an honest man who is not responsible for the past wrong doings.

The meeting, however, was not an official talk to take decisive steps towards the normalisation, and instead was for many the official declaration of intentions and a formal reintroduction of Cuba into the Summit of the Americas.

The fact that the road is going to be long and full of obstacles in not a heresy and on both parts there are suspicions and dangers ahead.

 

Still Ahead Between Cuban Justified Diffidence and US Certified Ambiguity

Cuba is open to a dialogue to restore full diplomatic relations and move away from hostility but is not ready to discuss any political change in the structure of power. For Cuba the immediate necessity is the end the embargo that is strangling the island and its people, a remnant of the Cold War which is not only outdated but inhumane and hypocrite.

Cuba’s cautious overture is also based on the fact that it still sees the US as a danger to its stability and independence, a common view shared with other Latin American countries. Cuba’s declaration of openness to discuss everything but with the right of disagree is a clear message that every meeting should be on the same level and that Havana will not accept diktats or attempts to limit its independence. This position has been especially reinforced by the Lider Maximo Fidel Castro who, breaking silence lasting months, expressed diffidence towards the US, declaring that he does not trust them. Nevertheless, he also supported his brother’s policy and the necessity to open a dialogue with the Washington.

Therefore for Cuba the positive conclusion of this process will rely especially on US shoulders and their willingness to lift the embargo, clear Cuba from the states sponsoring terrorism, the acceptance of Cuba’s political system.

On the other side the US are on the verge of an historical move, but it also expect from Cuba some concessions such addressing political structure, how to liberalise opposition to the government, cooperation in human rights investigations. For the first time in decades there is a clear sign in the US that the embargo may see its last days, as it cuts across the political spectrum although with different views and perspectives. Nevertheless, it is also true that US politics towards Latin America have not been all roses and ribbons, and Fidel Castro’s views are not unrealistic and found support across the continent. This is especially true when we take into account the relations with some of the governments in the region. From the reluctant acceptance of moderate leftist governments in Brazil, Uruguay and Chile, to the sometimes hostile approach to Peronist Argentina, to the open opposition to the socialist-radical block that put relations with Washington on a red line.

Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador on several occasions accused the US of political interference and neo-colonial approach even with assassinations attempts, whilst ties between Venezuela and Washington remain fractious since the successful Bolivarian revolution of former president Hugo Chavez. Especially the relations with Socialist Venezuela and President Nicolas Maduro for many analysts resemble the old US tactic of political interference for a change of regime. The US imposed sanctions last month on a group of Venezuelan officials it accuses of human rights abuses. President Obama also issued an executive order declaring Venezuela a threat to US national security that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has described as “disproportionate”.

The summit also highlighted differences between President Rafael Correa of Ecuador and the US. The Ecuadorian president said the US had failed to live up to its ideals by declaring: “Let’s talk about human rights. In Ecuador we don’t have torture, the death penalty or extrajudicial renditions”. In response, President Obama said the US does not claim to be perfect and to be open for change.

However, and it may sound a paradox, it is not only the above international dimension or the US incoherent approach to Latin America that can harm this process, it is also the uncertainty surrounding next year US presidential elections that could postpone or even block the dialogue altogether.

 

Make it or Brake it: How US Elections Could Affect the Dialogue

Unlike Cuba, where the one party system will not create surprises at the leadership, in the US the next year presidential elections will see the end of Obama’s administration and a new chapter opening. The Democrats will have in Hillary Clinton their main candidate, but even her victory will not automatically pave the way for an acceleration of the process which will depend on how the Congress will shape and whether Democrats will regain the majority. Nevertheless, Hillary Clinton is the best chance for Cuba to continue the dialogue as she has been behind the thaw and long ago she advanced the necessity to end the embargo. Whether is a necessarily economic move, a change of regime in disguise or simply an electoral move to obtain the so called “Latino votes”, Obama’s thaw surely scored the first strike by dividing the Republican field and giving to Hillary Clinton an important gift. This is not anymore a monolithic block when discussing the Cuban issue and it may surprise that the two candidates Mr Rubio and Jeb Bush, by supporting hardliners, may find themselves reaching for full votes in Florida but losing the moderate and immigrants votes elsewhere. Inside the Republican Party there will be a struggle on how to balance carefully the choices and where to put its weight, especially after Obama attacked Israeli PM Netanyahu’s policy and the Jewish community vote is now more important than ever. By backing the status quo, that some republicans see as an outdated and counterproductive policy both economically and diplomatically, they may end up losing more than accepting a change which will open a wider support across the continent. The fact that many republicans are not concerned by Cuba is backed by rhetoric with which they attack Obama’s policy on the Iranian nuclear programme, its relations with Israel and especially what they consider a softer approach to Russia.

While a Republican victory is still considered for Cuba the worst case scenario, at the same time we will should probably not hurry in conclusions and not forget that history has many times put the historic changes in the unlikely hands of those “gifted with stubbornness” and Republicans may be on the verge of something similar.

President Obama will have a hard job ahead for the last year of his presidency to try and push further the dialogue and end the embargo which will be the start of an irreversible process. However, for President Obama, more than Cuba’s reluctance to open political dialogue or Fidel Castro’s heavy shadow, the main battle is at home, where the contenders for the presidency, and the factions inside the parties, will use this opportunity for increase or blow up their chances of becoming the first US president to visit Havana since the revolution.

 

Written by Matteo Figus

14/04/2015 at 18:00

US-Cuba Historic Deal: Reasons Behind and Difficulties Ahead

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World leaders have welcomed the historic deal reached between Cuba and US on easing their diplomatic tensions and restrictions as a concerted aim to reverse 50 years of hostility.While the agreement is seen as the major achievement in the diplomatic relations between the two countries it leaves nonetheless a long road ahead to normalise completely the relations and inevitably raise the major question on the embargo’s fate.Obama and Castro at Nelson Mandela's Funerals

US-Cuban relations are frozen since early sixties, becoming the best synonym of Cold War antagonism: US failed attempt at the Bay of Pigs, the near nuclear holocaust in the missile crisis, a long list of failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, Cuban military actions in Africa, support for Latin American guerrillas, the infamous embargo to strangle the regime and its people.

The two presidents, Barak Obama for US and Raul Castro for Cuba, in a contemporary TV speech announced the end of travel restrictions and efforts to re-establish diplomatic relations following more than a year of secret talks in Canada and at the Vatican, directly involving Pope Francis. The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, whose country never broke off ties with Cuba, welcomed what he called an “overdue development”. Pope Francis joined leaders from Latin America and Europe in praising the historic deal.

As part of the deal, US contractor Alan Gross, 65, was released from Cuban prison in return for three Cubans held in the US. President Obama also said the US was looking to open an embassy in Havana in the coming months. In exchange for Alan Gross, who was in poor health, and an unnamed American intelligence officer, Washington released three members of the so-called “Cuban Five” who were serving lengthy sentences for espionage.

In addition, it has also been agreed that the amount of money, which can be sent in remittances, will quadruple from $500 (£320) to $2,000 per quarter. Telecom providers will be allowed to improve Cuba’s infrastructure so that more Cubans can access the internet. Cubans will also be able to import construction materials to build private homes, a move aimed at easing the severe shortage of suitable homes on the island. Travel restrictions to Cuba will be relaxed, making family visits and cross-border humanitarian projects easier.

 

Reactions: same old, same old

The reactions around the world welcomed in large part the agreement and mark even more, if there any need, the total distance from reality of those opposing the deal.

The European Union, which is in the process of normalising ties with Cuba, described the move as a “historical turning point”. All Latin American countries hailed the announcements as a historic day for the entire subcontinent. Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz hailed it as “the beginning of the end of the Cold War in the Americas”. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose predecessor Hugo Chavez was a close ally of Fidel Castro, said it was a “moral victory” and “victory for Fidel”.

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said increased US engagement in Cuba in the future should “encourage real and lasting reforms for the Cuban people and the other nations of the Americas should join us in this effort”.

However, not everyone applauded the move, with dozens of Cubans living in exile in the US state of Florida protesting after the announcement on Wednesday. Mainly they see this as a betrayal, a unilateral concession to Castro’s regime and accuse Obama of being a traitor. Hardliners within the Republican Party, like Senator Marco Rubio, slammed the deal as “inexplicable”, adding that it did nothing to address the issues of Cuba’s political system and human rights record.

The important community of Cuban bloggers welcomed in large measure the deal, seeing in this a great opportunity for a growth of Cuban civil society and a step forward for political progress.

However, the power to lift the embargo stay within the US congress, dominated by Republicans, and although even the media are calling for a lifting, signalled a shift among US opinion makers for a softening of the US stance on Cuba, it is clear that a long and difficult battle awaits Barak Obama. He is likely to face stiff opposition from representatives from Florida, where many Cuban exiles who fled Castro’s Cuba settled. Florida Senator Marco Rubio promised on CNN to block the nomination of any US ambassador to Cuba and other anti-Castro legislators suggested Congress would remove funding for any normalised ties with the country. However, if it is true that this anti-Castrist block is still powerful and may have also ears in Washington, on the other it would be erroneous thinking to it as a monolithic group. To many analysts, Obama’s move cannot have happened without an assessment on the real positions on the matter within and beyond the Democratic Party, suggesting that President Obama has considerable support in Congress. Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America programme at the Wilson Center, says that there are many Republicans who are not resisting this or are neutral. In addition, it was highlighted the fact that the plane that brought Alan Gross back to the US had three members of Congress on board, including Republican Jeff Flake, from Arizona.

But if these were the reactions, mostly expected and understandable, is the the speculation on what it led to this historic rapprochement, what reasons and political calculation is behind the two presidents’ agreement.

 

US and Cuba Isolation is the Key to the Change

When In December 2013, at Nelson Mandela’s funerals, US President Barack Obama and Raul Castro shake hands in the first such public gesture since 1959, many analysts saw that as something more than a simply diplomatic good etiquette. During the following months, speculation on talks, pressure on embargo lifting in the US and EU media and the question surrounding Alan Gross’ deteriorating health have contributed to further the claims that something was going on between Cuba and US.

The reasons behind the agreement cannot be explained under a simplistic Cold War historic paradigm, instead there are political, economical, strategic and propagandist reasons more suitable to sustain the argument.

For both Cuba and US, the issue of prisoners started to assume a central focus in the dialogue: Alan Gross and his possible death while in detention and the unpopular arrest of the Cuban five where two major embarrassment for both presidents. The deteriorating health of Alan Gross has been behind the rapid overture as his death in a Cuban jail would have been an almost insurmountable obstacle for any possible negotiation. On the other side, this was also the opportunity for Cuba to close the issue surrounding the Cuban five and obtain the release. In few words, both countries had more to lose than to gain in leaving unchanged their positions.

Nevertheless, if this is true that the hostages exchange was the first point of contact and the first reason of starting negotiations, what made these talks evolve into a diplomatic breakthrough is something else.

US: A necessary deal, a potential Trojan horse

President Obama on his TV speech said the “rigid and outdated policy” of isolating Cuba had clearly failed and that it was time for a new approach. He defended the US policy as justified at the time but counterproductive on the long term, failing to achieve the supposed target. The reasoning under a Cold War paradigm, that Cuban communism could infect US or spill to other countries in not believable anymore and died 24 years ago. Recent political development in Latin America have nothing to do with Cuba or its revolution, the “turn to left”, more or less radical, has been obtained through the legal democratic electoral process and not with an armed revolution. Even considering the Zapatista’s Chiapas, the only real recent uprising under a guerrilla strategy, its results created more uneasiness in the Mexican government rather than in the US.

US and Obama’s administration had other reasons for this change: political (Latin America rapprochement, worldview of US role, electoral strategy), economic (review on embargo’s effects, growing competition), strategic (set a foot back in Latin America, counterbalance of powers, change of regime policy).

Obama’s administration had to revert its policy on Latin America that became synonym of disinterest and distrust. The turn to the left of several countries, the open opposition of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, the ambiguities of the Plan Colombia, their silence on the Falklands/Malvinas have further isolated and weakened the US. By reaching an agreement on Cuba, the US can start not only a dialogue with Raul Castro but also with the leftist governments of the subcontinent, change its image from a country opposed to independent political will to a country now ready to sat at a table and negotiate at the same level.

The Cuba’s agreement is also a necessary condition to change on the world scenario what is perceived as a “double standard” or hypocrite figure: promoting democracy where is convenient and blocking it where US interests are at stake. Including Cuba on the states sponsoring terror while keeping an eye shut on the repression in Egypt post Mubarak, appeasing the brutal military intervention, is a major embarrassment for example. The US have no problem in discussing with China and have normal relations, although their poor score on human rights, or recently the re-approaching with Iran in anti ISIS efforts just show how unbalanced and discredited is their policy: hailed in the Western allied government, despised by all the developing countries.

Finally, there is a purely internal political dimension. While Obama will not stand for the next presidential election, and seen the recent humiliating defeat in the Congress dominated by Republicans, the Democrats will have to find a good strategy to recover. CIA scandals, accuses of racism within police forces are used by Republicans to distance the minority groups from their usual electoral recipient. This deal, if on a side may anger Florida’s Cuban community, on the other it is also true that the Latino community as a whole welcome the move and may have effects on electoral polls.

Considering President Obama own strategy, he has been accused from all fronts in this second term: Republicans attack him for being too soft against Russia, Syria, Iran and North Korea, many Americans for being unable to sort arms controls, speed up reforms, control of terrorism and lately racism on police forces. This deal inevitably put a new light on his administration, as being the first American president to actually do something real for addressing this remnant of Cold War history. He may not be able to lift the embargo straight away but by opening the debate inevitably put the responsibility of the failure on the opposition and on the Cuban Government. If successful, he will make history and the Democrats will surely benefit.

On the economic sphere, the approach is to review in the long term the relations with Cuba aiming at end of the embargo. Its continuation is not only a heresy for trade market and capitalistic system on which the US is found, but it is also a loss of investments in an island that could offer the US incredible revenues. The risk of isolating itself is to give to competitors an advantage that will be impossible to recover when the embargo will be lifted. In addition, while the US cannot trade, others are already doing it or plan to do, with the risk also to have at the doorstep powers that are certainly not US friendly such China and worst of all Russia. Dialogue and embargo lifting will also undermine the role of regional powers like Venezuela that is the major partner and economic supporter of Cuba.

This inevitably opens the strategic scenario. The US 21st century policy is inevitably looking at the Pacific to contain the rising of China’s military might, but in the immediate Russia is the major obstacle and Cuba could be seen as dangerously needed by Moscow to thwart US interests. The strategy could be this time to pull Cuba on US side by reaching a deal and avoid pushing it towards Russia. By setting a friendlier relation with Cuba and assuring a sort of barrier against possible enemies, will allow Washington to reset its Latin American relations and damage the radical block represented by Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. This is the reason why Cubans and all other traditional US antagonists while welcoming deal, on the other are also conscious that the “change of regime policy” may be hidden somewhere. The Cuban regime therefore will surely continue to keep an eye on the communication agreement to avoid that this will be a Trojan horse to fuelling unrest.

 

Cuba: an unexpected diplomatic window to keep open with prudence

President Raul Castro gave his speech at the same time as President Obama announcing to Cubans this historic deal. He delivered his speech in a sober manner, with none of the triumphalist notes one could have expected on the day when a US president announced a major shift in relations with the “Communist-monster”. He mentioned his brother Fidel Castro a number of times, implying not only that the talks had been given the approval of the leader but also as confirmation that the Lider Maximo has been part of it indirectly.

However, Cuba like the US is also at a crossroad. Politically Cuba has to break the isolation and any US pretext for further sanctions or worst a change of regime. The recent changes in the Latin American political scenario have strengthened Cuba’s position, with all countries more or less in favour for an end of the embargo. Politically, as said the hostages issue has surely helped Cuba in negotiating with the US, but as per Obama political calculation in Havana is not a coincidence. Castro knows perfectly that a probable next republican government will not only block any Cuban effort to rediscuss the embargo but also its hostility can even mean a direct attempt for a change of regime. The time is also right for Raul Castro to change his image from being simply Fidel’s brother and achieve a status of his own, a real president, that exact like Obama has for many been subject of critics.

Exactly as per the US, in reality many of the reasons that may explain the willingness of Cuba to discuss are also strategic. Venezuela, due to falling oil prices is in economic decline, its support is not as strong as it used to be and without this source the already fragile Cuban economy will surely reach the bottom. In addition, Venezuela itself is subject of US sanctions and desire for a change of regime, which Cuba consider to be only a matter of time before the US will turn to Cuba again. Nevertheless, the paradox is that exactly the US double standard policy combined to the counterproductive stance with Russia has in reality opened a diplomatic space for Cuba to move. Russia is an immediate and present danger for US policy in the world, and Cuba may be seen as an attractive tool in Moscow for the tit-for-tat Cold War policy style: if the US are playing near the Russian border, so can do Russia with Venezuela and Cuba. But Cuba is probably also playing its cards in avoiding to get embroiled into the renewed US-Russia competition, and instead using this as an opportunity to obtain the maximum from both. A sort of neutrality which will be very welcome in Washington. Strategically speaking, on the embargo matter, the US are isolated in keeping a non sense blockade generating suffering on people, while from UN to EU, from Latin America to Pope Francis the calls are increasing for the end of this historical failure.

Conclusions

The US-Cuban deal is a start of a long road to close 50 years of distrust, hatred and isolation. While the short term goal is for both to dialogue and reopen a communication channel, on the long term is the embargo issue that may be the real challenge. No negotiation will be successful without addressing the embargo lifting and promoting a free Cuban trade, but on the other both countries are required to make further steps by abandoning the Cold War mindset and not using this renewed opportunity to unbalance the adversary. Unfortunately, recent political developments give less hope that powers will act sensibly or a far from echoes of world dominance and control. The embargo could be difficult to end and may be thicker than the Berlin Wall, but keeping it alive will make this world less safe and a dangerous weapon to revert to a division that was thought to have been relegated to history books a quarter of a century ago.

 

 

 

 

Written by Matteo Figus

20/12/2014 at 17:36

The Cuban Embargo: The Last Piece of the Berlin Wall?

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The recent anniversary for the fall of Berlin Wall, united with the increased tensions between Unites States and Russia have brought to attention the Cold War in both the memory of what it used to be and what it can be in the near future.  If the official Cold War ended from the wall disappearance, it is also true that not everything was confined to the past and some remnants of that era survived and maybe could be at the centre of a renewed version of that tension. If the Warsaw Pact was dismantled thus paving the way and hopes (soon disillusioned) of a more peaceful world, on the other NATO did not cease to exist continuing in its controversial role as a western military umbrella. But it is another heredity of the Cold War years that is increasingly generating attention and discomfort in the West and even in the US: the Cuban embargo.untitled

Since the collapsed of the Soviet Union, the Cuban embargo, which limits American businesses from conducting business with Cuban interests, is still in effect and is the most enduring trade embargo in modern history.

El Bloqueo: Origin and Consequences

The United States embargo against Cuba, known also as el bloqueo, is a commercial, economic, and financial embargo imposed on Cuba on 19 October 1960. Currently, the Cuban embargo is enforced mainly with six statutes: the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the Cuba Assets Control Regulations of 1963, the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, the Helms–Burton Act of 1996, and the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000.

All these acts introduced further restrictions to the existing embargo of which the most important are:

  • The Cuban Democracy Act, signed into law in 1992, with the stated purpose of maintaining sanctions on Cuba so long as the Cuban government refuses to move toward “democratization and greater respect for human rights”.
  • The Helms–Burton Act, passed by Congress in 1996, which further restricted US citizens from doing business in or with Cuba, and mandated restrictions on giving public or private assistance to any successor government in Havana unless and until certain claims against the Cuban government are met.

Despite the nature of the embargo, the US blocked physically the island with a naval action only during the Missile Crisis on 1962. In fact the US does not block Cuba’s trade with third-party countries which are not under their jurisdiction. Nevertheless, many points at the fact that in an unbalanced alliance where the US are clearly the major market and a strong player and influencers, foreign countries that trade with Cuba could be penalised in which has been condemned as an “extraterritorial” measure that contravenes the sovereign equality of States, and freedom of trade. Cuba on the other end can, and does, conduct international trade with many third-party countries and it has been a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) since 1995.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the embargo costs the U.S. economy $1.2 billion per year in lost sales and exports, while the Cuban government estimates that the embargo costs the island itself $685 million annually. The self-proclaimed non-partisan Cuba Policy Foundation estimates that the embargo costs the U.S. economy $3.6 billion per year in economic output.

The embargo has been criticized for its effects on food, clean water, medicine, and other economic needs of the Cuban population. Criticism has come from the Cuban government, citizens and groups within Cuba, international organizations and leaders including Barack Obama. Some academic critics, outside Cuba, have also linked the embargo to shortages of medical supplies which have resulted in a series to epidemics of specific diseases, including neurological disorders and blindness caused by poor nutrition. George P. Shultz, who served as Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, calls the continued embargo “insane”. Some American business leaders openly call for an end to the embargo as, they argue, as long as the embargo continues, US business cannot benefit from market restrictions especially against those countries that actually trade with Cuba. Some religious leaders oppose the embargo for a variety of reasons, including humanitarian and economic hardships that imposes on Cubans. In 2010 seventy-four of Cuba’s dissidents signed a letter to the United States Congress in support of a bill that would lift the U.S. travel ban for Americans wishing to visit Cuba. The signers include blogger Yoani Sanchez and hunger striker Guillermo Farinas, as well as Elizardo Sanchez, head of Cuba’s most prominent human rights group and Miriam Levi, who helped found the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, a group of wives and mothers of jailed dissidents.

A 2008 USA Today/Gallup Poll indicated that Americans believe that diplomatic relations “should” be re-established with Cuba, 61% in favour, 31% opposed. In 2009, U.S. Polling indicates that the American public is currently in favor of ending the embargo, 51% against 36%. In January 2012, an Angus Reid Public Opinion poll showed 57% of Americans calling for the end of the travel ban that prevents most Americans from visiting Cuba, with only 27% disagreeing.

After taking office, the current US President Barack Obama outlined a series of steps that Cuba could take to demonstrate a willingness to open its society, including releasing political prisoners, allowing United States telecommunications companies to operate on the island and ending government fees on U.S. dollars sent by relatives in the United States. President Obama stated that, without improved human rights and freedoms by Cuba, the embargo remains, U.S.–Cuba relations stay frozen and Cuba also remains one of the four countries (Iran, Sudan, and Syria) in the world designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism by the United States Department of State. Nevertheless, President Barack Obama also introduce some changes as easing the travel ban, allowing Cuban-Americans, students and religious missionaries to travel to Cuba if they meet certain restrictions. Beyond Cuba’s human rights violations and its “state sponsored terrorism” designation, the United States claims $6 billion against the Cuban government.

 

The Last brick of the Berlin Wall or the first brick of a new one?

Born as a reprisal for Cuba’s alignment with the Soviet Union, the embargo was defined also as a sort of cordon sanitaire against communism spreading to the rest of Latin America and as a warning to other countries. All NATO members observed the embargo quite strictly during the Cold War, but since its end its existence started to create uneasiness even in the US allies.

US still support the embargo even though the USSR collapsed in 1991, the Warsaw Pact has been dismantled and thus disappearing any sort of threat to US security. The idea of claiming that Cuba in itself could pose a threat to US stability is as unrealistic as unjustified, especially when compared to more aggressive countries such North Korea or Iran. Although it is true that Cuba maintained an efficient military apparatus, that proved to be quite strong during the Cold War, it is now clearly on a position to self defence and cannot be a match to the military might of Washington. Cuba does not interfere in other Latin American countries policies nor tries to overthrow any government. Nevertheless, Cuba was included by the Bush administration into the “axis of evil” that, even among US allies, generated perplexities and questions whether this was a farce.

One of the main reasons advocated by US for keeping the embargo is Cuba’s poor performance on freedom and democracy, although other countries that do not score better than Cuba, like China, have political and trading relations with the US. For many the embargo is a bitter revenge for daring an independent action and is judged also a sort of cowardly attack on a country clearly incapable to stand the challenge. On the other hand many questions that the same reasons that led to the Cuban embargo forty years ago are not dissimilar from the recent experiences in Venezuela or in Bolivia, therefore highlighting that the rules of the Cold War do not apply anymore.

Whilst President Obama and the Democratic Party are possibly open to a discussion if there is willingness in La Havana, the republicans on the other that count on the electoral support of Cuban dissident in Florida, are more cautious or even hostile to an end of the embargo. For these irreducible lifting the embargo would be considered a sign of weakness especially under the current international scenario.

The problem is that the risks associated with the status quo are probably more dangerous than the prospect of an end of the embargo.

On foreign policy the main risks associated could be the “hijack” of the Cuban issue for a new Cold War scenario, possibly now developing. Russia may find a renewed interest in supporting again Cuba to undermine US strategy. On the other side, fuelling the tensions and leaving the embargo in place could well be the pretext to keep it in place for the irreducible in Washington.

US will also face scepticism in their mission for world’s democratic change whilst blocking Cuba and still having relations with some countries that have questionable regimes, such in Middle East, China or Iran.

The main risk is therefore associated with a real prospect of isolation and allies leaders keeping distance. Washington could find itself isolated in maintaining a blockade that no one respects, undermining also the ability to fulfil the political targets on the international scenario. The UN General Assembly has, since 1992, passed a resolution every year condemning the ongoing impact of the embargo and declaring it to be in violation of the Charter of the United Nations and international law. Israel is the only country that routinely joins the U.S. in voting against the resolution as has Palau every year from 2004 to 2008. On October 26, 2010, for the 19th time, the General Assembly condemned the embargo, 187 to 2 with 3 abstentions. Israel sided with the U.S., while Marshall Islands, Palau and Micronesia abstained.

Human rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have also been critical of the embargo.

 

Under a financial and economical prospect, the blockade could facilitate the introduction of other competitors in a market closed to US businesses, putting them in a clear disadvantage once the blockade would be lifted. The US have lost a good side of business in all these decades and if at first the soviet motif was a powerful mantra to justify a clear economic loss, today, and with an increasing number of countries now trading with Cuba, is like a “shoot to own foot”. The risks associated with this blockade are also to push Cuba towards countries like China and even Russia that can find in the Caribbean an easy way to counterbalance US policies.

Another risk is associated to the possible meltdown of the Cuban regime. We have already witnessed regimes collapsing with consequent humanitarian and security disasters. Cuba for its vicinity to US borders could pose a grave risk to security in the event of a sudden collapse of institutions without a proper transition. The embargo could facilitate that collapse whilst an end could offer the Cuban leadership the possibility to open and prepare the reforms needed.

 Conclusions

While Russia and United States fight on different terrain, only at word for the moment, that ranges from Middle East to Eastern Europe, and tensions are reaching the Pacific where the US are reshuffling their forces to counter Chinese growth, the risk of a new cold war is far from being impossible. The hope of an era of peace and coexistence has been destroyed after years of ethnic conflicts in the ex Yugoslavia, adventurous military actions to counter terrorism and the recent failed Arab spring dictated from western stereotypes that led to a decreasing security and the raising of Isis from the darkest depths of human brutality.

Of the remnants of the Cold War, the Cuban embargo still survives as a reminder of a dark era, nuclear annihilation and mistrust that today everyone is remembering but not realising that the wall is still in our minds and life, waiting to be erected and reinforced. The end of the embargo is not only the end of an unjust and historic failure but also the opportunity to destroy once and for all the last wall before another one will be built.

 

Written by Matteo Figus

11/11/2014 at 21:51

Latin America’s turn to the left: a 21st century political laboratory

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The recent re-election of Dilma Roussef as Brazilian president confirmed a trend already in motion since the end of the Cold War, a shift towards the left of many Latin American countries. Unlike the European counterparts, where the end of the Cold War put in disarray all socialist and communist parties, in Latin America a new mix of socialist ideals, nationalism, indigenous renaissance paved the way for the rise to power of leftist parties.

The shift is even more remarkable when we consider that Latin America has been for decades under the iron fist of Washington that directly or indirectly applied a sort of “Brezhnev doctrine” to contain and destroy any attempt not only of soviet influence but also of any independent policy or worst of all a repetition of the Cuban example.

Nevertheless, the new socialist course in Latin America is far from being homogeneous, and has assumed different shapes. Some of the roots can be found in the traditional political or guerrilla movements, with some parties developing an innovative mix of policies and experiences, others combining old and new elements. In this way the entire continent has assisted to the rise of leftist governments, more or less radical, with some resisting to today others altering in powers under the electoral process with the traditional liberal and conservative parties.

An analysis of this trend can identify the different methods adopted to access political power and shape it and split them in three groups: the radicals that have obtained power by revolutionary tactics or trough election for then speed up the revolutionary process; the moderates that with socialist ideas have also met compromise with popular centrists and progressive groups, and the old guerrillas fighters who accepted reformism.

 

Roots of socialist resurgence

Latin America has been a puzzle for many leftist and socialist groups in Europe and, although they tried to hail the victory and achievements of their American counterparts, failed to understand these lessons encountering instead disastrous electoral defeats. The end of the Cold War generated in Europe a reaction contrary to the same strengths with which the socialist ideas grew in the 20th century: everything was dubbed obsolete and the market hailed as the winner and the only way to a prosperous future. European socialist/communist parties failed in addressing the dynamics of the new era and tried to act on the surface by renaming themselves in a constant revisionist process thus betraying most of their social links and losing popular support. But in 1994, suddenly from Latin America arrived a shock, not a ghost like in Marx’s manifesto but a new and unexpected protagonist: the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberation Nacional (EZLN). The Chiapas revolution, that caught the world by surprise, was seen at first as a remnant of old Marxist rhetoric, a movement of disillusioned fighters, thus failing to comprehend the importance of that event. While the Mexican state waged war and treated the rebels as criminals or terrorists, the European counterparts used paternalistic views like they were talking of an endangered species on the brink to extinction. The reality could not be more different: Chiapas witnessed a new method of struggle, combining Marxism, ethnicity, requests for land reforms, democracy, freedom and justice for all the oppressed people. Chiapas was the first experiment in addressing the same old problems of Latin America Cold War era in a new model for the 21st century.

Demands for democracy, freedom and justice for indigenous people, treated as second class citizens in their own countries, the need for schools, education, and health system accessible to everyone, appealed not only to Chiapas or Mexico but to all countries in the subcontinent. Nevertheless, Ezln was not exporting a revolution or trying to overthrow the Mexican government, therefore whilst Mexico was left alone in addressing its own problem, the US on the other were not concerned in getting involved in a matter that after all was seen not only as justified but acceptable under the new political standards. What the US did not realise is that this was the starting point for a new political course in the subcontinent that was now increasingly feeling itself as ready to take a more independent policy. Chiapas was not considered a new “Cuba”, and the indifferent approach by Washington paved the way for a repetition of the experiment.

Latin America was not new of revolutionary movements, the continent was a fertile ground being a land of inequality, racial discrimination, political corruption, economic plunder by multinationals. The wonders of the capitalist market never reached the main population which continued to be governed by corrupt and conservative élites obedient to Washington desires. This led during the Cold War to a fertile ground for Marxist groups trying to establish a socialist agenda, but while Cuba succeeded other experiments failed like Che Guevara’s foco in Bolivia, the attempted revolution through the ballot in Chile or the contras war in Nicaragua that undermined the successful Sandinista revolution. The response has been for decades military coups, dictatorships and repressions culminating in the infamous Operación Condor.

With this rich history, the idea of a social revolution never disappeared but at the same time generated in the ruling classes a sort of over confidence in getting this quarantined. The shock could not therefore be stronger when the next political earthquake came from another US staunch ally five years later: Venezuela.

 

The socialists route to power: radicalism, compromise and reformism 

In 1998 Venezuelans elect the populist left-winger Hugo Chavez, a former army officer, who proclaimed a “Bolivarian revolution“, named after South America’s independence hero. Hugo Chavez won the elections reviving the concept of revolution through the ballot after the failed attempt made by Salvador Allende in early 70s Chile. Chavez, brought to a wider international scenario what Ezln has done for Chiapas, but building a new society where Marxism came back at the centre of the stage thus putting Venezuela at the head with Cuba of a new radical group. If in Europe, this time, the reception was tepid, the US were clearly uneasy of losing control of a major oil producer and the change of leadership to the republican George Bush did not help in calming the sentiments. The attempted military coup in 2002 was a sign that a limit was reached and at the same its failure was the end of conservatives and US ability in stopping the trend.

Following the example, Bolivia and Ecuador soon joined Venezuela in their socialist experiments. Evo Morales, with the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador joined Hugo Chavez in constituting a radical block opposed to US dominance.

What are the main features of this block? In all these countries the government parties achieved the conquer of power by election, but pushing then the bar further along once a majority has been obtained by introducing constitutional reforms or amendments. Having consolidated wider popular support, referendums were used to pass laws intended to extend presidential powers and limits to re-elections, thus trying to escape the logic of political turnover typical of multiparty electoral systems. The extension of power sought by referendum has also been a valuable weapon of propaganda against opposition’s accusations of dictatorship. In all these countries the electoral results strengthened the power of the socialist parties, giving legitimacy to their policies.

On a political side, these countries shares a strong opposition to market policies and institutions like the IMF and WTO seen as tools of US predominance; nationalisations and social redistributions of resources are the backbone of their programmes aimed at the poorest strata of the population, although many accuse these governments of overspending and fuel a corrupted apparatus growing out of control. In foreign policy this block advocate a total distance from the US and its allies, in general aligning itself with Russia and the emerging countries like India, China or South Africa. They sought to strengthen regional influence through diplomatic and economic overtures towards other South American and Caribbean nations and supporting Cuba.

The second block is formed by countries that although turned to the left, have chosen a more moderate path, where socialist parties have sought sometime an alliance with progressive movements to address social inequality but with an eye to the market. These countries are Uruguay, Brazil, Chile and even Argentina. Brazil started the path with Lula, soon followed by Uruguay with the Frente Amplio and Chile with the socialist governments of Ricardo Lagos first and Michelle Bachelet today. Argentina, although formally under a peronist government, adopted a mix of national-populism and socialist tints with Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to contrast growing opposition. These countries introduced reforms aimed at the poorest and redistribution of resources, but avoided strong nationalisation programmes or attacking directly the bases of the traditional élites. Constitutional reforms to prolong their power are not sought and they follow the normal electoral process relying on the strength of their popular support to stay in power. They share with the radical block an opposition to US supremacy and finance bullying but fell short from joining overtly the revolutionary block. These are also the countries that experienced some of the most brutal dictatorships in the past and although they seek to close with the past by bringing to justice the perpetrators, are also trying to avoid confrontation with a still strong conservative block

The last group is mainly formed by those countries that turned to the left with ex guerrilla fighters now champions of reformism and that brought into power once well known hard-line revolutionary insurgents such the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Frente Farabundo Martí in El Salvador. Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega made his political comeback in the November 2006 elections, having led Nicaragua through revolution and a civil war before being voted out in 1990. Mr Ortega was re-elected to another five-year term with a landslide victory in 2011, winning 63% of the vote. By the time he came to stand for re-election in 2006, Mr Ortega had toned down his former Marxist rhetoric. However, the global financial crisis that began a few years later prompted him to declare that capitalism was in its “death throes”. Mr Ortega has maintained close ties with fellow leftwing populist leaders in the region, in particular Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Although Mr Ortega still enjoys solid support among the poorer parts of Nicaraguan society, his critics have accused him of exhibiting dictatorial tendencies especially after the amendment of the constitution to allow him to stand for re-election.

In Salvador, the Frente Farabundo Martí became a political party after the 1992 peace accords. Mauricio Funes, a former journalist and rebel, inaugurated the first FMLN government in 2009 ending two decades of conservative rule, mostly under Arena Party. He restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and his successor, also a former rebel leader, Salvador Sanchez Ceren won the presidential run-off of March 2014 by a narrow margin. In his inauguration speech, he promised to fight corruption and violence, and to follow a politic of reconciliation for all Salvadorans with security, employment and education as priorities of his government.

Of the three groups inevitably the radical one appears the strongest and able to resist call for change from opposition, able to win every electoral contest due to a solid popular base. The rise of these countries and their radical socialist agenda is then completed by the resistance of Cuba and the survival of the Chiapas Zapatista. But the road has not always been smooth and not all countries managed to turn to the left without encountering a strong opposition or even a government being overthrown.

 

When the turn to the left is to a blind road

After the failed attempted coup in Venezuela in 2002, the accusation by Evo Morales of attempted assassinations or Ecuador denounce of destabilisation from the US, in Paraguay and Honduras prevailed a reaction typical of old times. Both leftist governments were overthrown after being legally elected, both forced out of power by coup, military the first, constitutional the second. President Zelaya was overthrown by military in Honduras in 2009 and leftist former bishop Fernando Lugo was impeached in June 2012 over his handling of a deadly land dispute, a move that several regional governments denounced as a “legislative coup” by the conservative assembly.

In 2005 the Honduras Liberal Party of Manuel Zelaya is declared the winner of presidential elections, but soon his moves in the international scenario created uneasiness especially in Washington. Once a long time US ally, Honduras joins the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), an alliance of leftist leaders in Latin America headed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez; President Manuel Zelaya visited Cuba, the first official trip by a Honduran president to the island in 46 years. In June 2009, the opposition decided has to stop Honduras from becoming another Ecuador, Bolivia or Venezuela and President Manuel Zelaya is removed by the military and forced into exile. The coup was widely condemned with the Organisation of American States (OAS) suspending Honduras.

In 2008 the political earthquake reaches Paraguay, where Fernando Lugo achieves a historic victory in the presidential election, defeating the ruling party candidate and ending 61 years of conservative rule. Soon followed attempts to undermine his power: he accuses his predecessor, Nicanor Duarte, and former military commander General Lino Oviedo of masterminding a conspiracy against his government; in 2009 President Lugo refuses to resign over claims by several women that he fathered children with them while he was a Catholic bishop; in April 2010 security forces launch operation against left-wing rebel group Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) blamed for a spate of violent incidents in northern Paraguay of which Lugo was accused of being complacent and inactive. In June 2012, President Lugo is ousted over his handling of a land eviction in which 17 people are killed. The South American Mercosur trading bloc suspended Paraguay until next year’s presidential election in protest at President Lugo’s ouster, but stopped short of imposing sanctions.

 

Conclusions

After Chavez death in 2013, many questioned if the Bolivarian revolution and its allies would start a descending phase, but Nicolas Maduro managed to stay in power and Evo Morales and Rafael Correa appear stronger than ever. Recent calls to US to review the embargo policy on Cuba united with the re-election of Dilma Roussef in Brazil, of the Frente Amplio in Uruguay gave further boosts to Michelle Bachelet election in Chile and Argentina strong stance against US and UK in recent financial turmoil and post colonial struggle concerning the Falkland Malvinas Islands. Taking into account the above is difficult not to see Latin America as the real political laboratory of the 21st century, with their rising economies, against the grey, zero growth and political dullness of Europe. Their socialist parties, except the name, have nothing in common with the American counterparts, and by promoting austerity measures and financial dependence from IMF they became part of the same establishment that these raising powers are trying to demolish and consign to history as happened to the Cold War.

 

 

 

 

 

The US-Russia Syrian Plan: A System Restore

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The recent US-Russia plan on Syria chemical weapons, approved unanimously at the UN Security Council, has been hailed as a step forward in the resolution of this bloody civil war and at the same time as a milestone of international diplomacy. In reality what represent this plan? Is it really a convergence on a humanitarian and security issue? At a closer look the plan represent a “system restore” to the logic of equilibrium of powers and a return to the superpowers balance since the end of the Cold War.Kerry and Lavrov

In restoring this configuration contributed many factors: from military to security reasons, from international diplomacy to national interests, from wrong calculations to crude real politik; however, this could not have happened without the two major powers involvement: US and Russia. If the American duo Obama/Kerry played the card of a military threat and at the same leaving ajar the door for Russian proposals, on the other the duo Putin/Lavrov was the one who forced the system restore.

Russian Rebuilding: A Putin’s Legacy

Since Putin made his appearance in the international scenario in 1999, Russian role has changed dramatically, from the anarchy and passive stance of the Yeltsin years to the aggressive and old soviet rhetoric of recent ones. The Balkans Wars, which culminated with the bombing of Yugoslavia following the Kosovo War, were the last time Russia accepted passively a western influence and action with disregard for Russian interests. Russia was at the time a country rebuilding itself, militarily and economically, relegated in the international scenario to a role of an old and prestigious power but without any real and serious challenge to put forward. Putin reconstructed Russian forces slowly and today is again a powerful military machine, a strong economic state and has a substantial influence in international politics. If the war on terror, that culminated with US invasion in Afghanistan and Iraq, was condemned in part by Putin, on the other offer to him the possibility to liquidate on the same basis the Chechen rebellion, and to keep the US “busy” in other areas. The turning point, when the passive Russia start to show the teeth, has been the 2008 Georgian War, following an ill pondered and miscalculated action by Georgian President Saakashvili that led to the Russian blitzkrieg. That was the first time, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Russian military forces were actively engaged in a major military operation.

The signal to the West was clear, however not really understood or undermined by many. Since then Putin’s action has been clearly designed in regaining Russian control of its vital space and avoid western influence: USAID operations in Russia have been closed and today is one of the major financer for different countries, plans for the missile shield in Eastern Europe forgotten. Nevertheless, if Libya was seen as a “mistake” or wrong calculation by Russia in abstaining at the UNSC, in reality Putin/Medvedev did not have, as everybody else, any interest in helping a discredited leader such Gaddafi. This position somewhat mislead the West in thinking that Russia will once again push over on the issue of Syria, that once challenged with western threat of military intervention, Russian voice although critic will never be followed by a real action. Today is well clear that this is not the case.

Putin/Lavrov: Challenge the US by Isolating Other Powers

Syria is not a formal Russian ally, but on the same time is a key area of interest due to; past links during the cold war, when Assad’s father Hafiz, the Lion of Damascus, was clearly armed and supported by the Kremlin; has a naval base in Tartus; with Iran, offer to Russia a strong influence in an area otherwise of strong American support.

It must be noted that Russia, as well as the US and the West, only use the humanitarian issue as a façade and in reality it is national interest and international power balance that seeks. The duo Putin/Lavrov know very well that losing Syria will exclude them from the East Mediterranean, will enhance US superiority and weaken other friendly states such Iran. But on the top of Putin’s agenda there was, and still remains, a point: restore the bilateral and direct control with the US, a return to the superpower balance of the past.

Putin/Lavrov’s actions followed some key events:

  1. Supported the UN and the necessity to block a rushed military intervention; they denounce openly US, UK and France for their action in violation of international law and in seeking to side-line once again the UN;
  2. Challenged US claims of Damascus responsibility in the chemical attack, asking for proof which to today are still waited; to ignore rebels responsibilities in similar attacks; to turn blind eyes on Al-Nusra actions in Kurdistan, where the Al-Qaida linked group has been accused of ethnic cleansing;
  3. UK and France have ben totally ignored and relegated by Putin/Lavrov, as they seek direct dialogue with the US only;
  4. A strong claim, maybe a bluff or not, to support militarily Syria in the event of a US attack;
  5. Obama’s strategy, that is more complex than thought, may have helped the Russians with their plan.

The above created the space for Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov as a skilled duo, a ruthless and hardliner the first with a diplomatic and mild character the second, in searching to regain the balance. They skilfully played the event of the G20 in Saint Petersburg to highlight the divisions within the organisation and at the same time to seek direct dialogue with the US by side-lining completely UK and France.

These two European powers, however, are not the only ones left at the window as the Chinese role is also seen differently. If China has been seen as Russian orientated in the UNSC, this was more for internal logic and non-internal interference policy rather than an ally posture. China, as Russia, judges as dangerous the American influence and especially in the Pacific knows that the challenge will soon arise. For China keeping the US at bay is of fundamental importance and, whilst undermining their efforts in other areas of the world, at the same time they are not interested in challenging them in a stronger way. Whether this is a political calculation or a sign that China is not yet a superpower, a fact remain: Putin, when looking to re-establish a sort of Yalta configuration, also look not only to weaken UK and France but also the Chinese, as to maintain a preferential relation with the US seen as the main contender.

At this point we must ask, what about the US? Is Obama really defeated, some even said humiliated? Has the US policy been defeated by the duo Putin/Lavrov? In reality as said there is more than that.

Obama/Kerry Played a Dangerous but Ingenious Strategy

The duo Obama/Kerry, while on one side genuinely condemned the chemical attack actively promoting a strong response, were at the same time well aware of the dangers of a military intervention. Without UN backing, with public opinion still opposed to any other military adventure, NATO allies unsure or still loyal to a UN intervention and especially by the strong Russian reaction they were forced to change their strategy. The Americans, acting as any other Democratic administration, took their time, tried at first to seek a strong alliance that suddenly crumbled in front of the reality of a war with many obscure scenarios rather than secure victory. They had to resist the hawks in the US military establishment pushing for war and the usual arrogance of UK/France acting as they were still leaving in colonial time. In this we may spot not a weakness, but a sapient strategy that the duo Obama/Kerry has played: on one side the put clearly the military strike on the table, on the other rush the Russian to take a position. In other words, by resisting internal pressure for military intervention, they sought to make Russian position untenable in the long term, and pushing them to come out with a solution or show their absence of strategy. This was a risky game as leaving the hot issue in Russian hands could have well ended with their inability to offer a way out, then leaving at the same time the US without any other cards to play other than a military intervention. So, a question arises, were Putin and Lavrov the only masterminds behind this system restore or there was also a convergent US action?

Conclusion

The vote at the UNSC, with all members is favour of the plan, hailed as a triumph of diplomacy signalled most likely the starting point were the two powers will cooperate, openly or secretly, to restore a mutual control to guarantee stability in some areas of the world. Nevertheless, we need to remember that if this is a system restore to a Cold War configuration, the interests on the table still remain the same: political and national pride, security and influence. The problem with this vision is that countries and people will be once again seen by Washington and the Kremlin as checkers in a chessboard, and where often the outcome of their actions will not result in welfare for the population. At the same time it is undeniable that this could avoid major military confrontations, keep down tones and avoid “adventures”, and although small skirmishes and contained conflicts will still happen, this will be part of a strategy to weaken and challenge the adversary. If the above policy is under way, then the spectacular and, for many, unexpected Iranian availability to discuss with the US its nuclear programme could be the result of a strategy expected in Washington and Moscow.

Written by Matteo Figus

01/10/2013 at 10:43

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