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‘There is no food, money or work’: how shortages fuelled Cuba protests

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‘There is no food, money or work’: how shortages fuelled Cuba protests

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Cuba’s communist revolution is one of the world’s great survivors. The Soviet Union may have crumbled, the Berlin Wall fallen and China and Vietnam turned to a form of capitalism, but Havana still stands as a lonely outpost of Marxist central planning. Only North Korea can rival it for longevity and unreformed socialism.

So when thousands of Cubans took to the streets in apparently spontaneous, uncoordinated protests lacking visible leaders last Sunday calling for freedom and demanding action over dire shortages of food and medicine, a shockwave rippled across the Caribbean island. Public dissent is forbidden yet these were the largest protests in decades, probably the biggest since Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries seized power in 1959.

Protesters in different cities overturned a police car, broke the windows of a hard currency store to loot scarce goods inside, gathered outside the National Capitol building in Havana to shout anti-government slogans and fought with plainclothes police, according to videos shot at the time. Some shouted the words “patria y vida” (“fatherland and life”), echoing a protest song released by Miami-based Cubans in February.

Across the Florida straits, Miami’s excitable Cuban-American community rejoiced: this looked like the moment they had long awaited, when ever tighter US sanctions would finally strangle Cuba’s economy, prompting the population to rise up and overthrow communism.

Police set up a road block near the National Capitol Building in Havana on Monday
Police set up a roadblock near the National Capitol Building in Havana on Monday © Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

Some exiles called for a flotilla to invade the island and Miami mayor Francis Suarez even suggested air strikes on Havana, home to 2m people. “We have NEVER seen a day like today in #Cuba,” tweeted Cuban-American Florida senator Marco Rubio, “62 years of misery, repression and lies boiling over into organic, grassroots protests in over 32 cities.”

The communist government is facing a major challenge to its authority for the first time without a Castro in charge. Fidel personally confronted demonstrators on the capital’s Malecón seafront boulevard in the last major protest in 1994, but he died in 2016 after a long illness. His brother Raúl retired as de facto ruler in April and in June turned 90.

It fell to Miguel Díaz-Canel, a party bureaucrat lacking any revolutionary pedigree, to respond. Looking rattled, the president initially made a blood-curdling call to arms. “The streets belong to the revolutionaries. I am ordering you to combat,” he declared on Sunday in an emergency broadcast. But a public appearance in San Antonio de los Baños — the town 25km outside the capital where the protests began — failed to resonate in the same way as Fidel Castro’s landmark stand.

Thousands of Cubans took part in demonstrations last weekend against the communist government
Thousands of Cubans took part in demonstrations last weekend against the communist government © Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

“The deference and the fear of the Castros has ended,” says Carlos Malamud, senior Latin America researcher at the Royal Elcano Institute in Madrid. “There is no clear direction this will go. The opposition is divided, fragmented and very penetrated by the security services . . . we will see in the next few weeks what the opposition’s ability to mobilise is.”

Cuba’s government may not be able to guarantee food supplies but it has mastered the art of control. Special forces and police flooded the streets and within hours the protesters had dispersed, mostly without confrontation. Internet connections were cut across the island, preventing dissidents from organising. For the rest of the week, the streets stayed mostly quiet.

Juan Pappier, lead Cuba researcher at Human Rights Watch, says more than 200 people have been detained since Sunday, though he says this is a conservative estimate. The government, he says, exercises “the maximum repression possible with the least visibility and they go to great lengths to prevent bloodshed”. The authorities said that one person died in the protests.

But if Cuba’s government has been able to tamp down Sunday’s protests, it remains unclear how long it can maintain control with an economy in ruins.

A poster of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana
A poster of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana © Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

‘Our president is no use’

José, 50, says he will always be a supporter of Fidel Castro but he is hungry. He earns 2,600 pesos a month — about $100 at the official exchange rate — as a security guard at a state-owned company in Havana. “I don’t understand why we have a president who wasn’t in the revolution,” he adds, speaking on condition his real name is not used.

“Fidel really had balls. In 1994 when there was a much smaller uprising . . . Fidel arrived to speak to the people. That’s what I call a real president, he loved us. This one we have now is no use, he’s had a plane crash [which killed 112 people in 2018], a hurricane, Trump and currency changes which nobody understands.”

Shortages lie at the heart of the protests. Cuba’s inefficient state-controlled farming sector has never produced enough to feed the 11m population, forcing the authorities to use ever-scarcer hard currency to import staples. Díaz-Canel admitted in a recent speech that food imports now stood at just a quarter of 2019 levels.

Tourism, a big export earner and source of dollars, has been devastated by the pandemic
Tourism, a big export earner and source of dollars, has been devastated by the pandemic © Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

In state-run shops, the shelves sometimes have only one product in stock, such as floor cloths or bottles of mineral water, and ration books must be used to buy food. Prices in hard currency stores are out of reach for most Cubans, so the black market is thriving. 

Cubans are taking scarce flights to Florida and Latin America to bring back as much as they can for lucrative resale. In a tacit recognition of the importance of these “mules” in relieving shortages, Cuba this week lifted limits on the duty-free personal import of food, medicines and hygiene products.

Tourism, a big export earner and source of dollars, has been devastated by the pandemic. Cuba received just over 88,000 visitors between January and May this year, according to the government, just 9 per cent of the same period last year.

Miguel Díaz-Canel reacts as Raúl Castro raises his hand during the closing session of the 8th Congress of the Communist party in April
Miguel Díaz-Canel reacts as Raúl Castro raises his hand during the closing session of the 8th Congress of the Communist party in April © Ariel Ley Royero/ACN/Reuters

The public health system, long a source of pride, lacks medicines and equipment. The authorities controlled the pandemic well last year but, desperate for hard currency, reopened tourism from Russia this year. Infections rocketed and Cuba now has more new Covid cases per capita than any major Latin American nation.

Remittances have been restricted since the Trump administration imposed sanctions on the Cuban military-run agency handling payments. In 2020, Cuba’s inflows of foreign exchange fell around a quarter, according to Díaz-Canel, and they declined again this year. According to official figures, gross domestic product shrank by 10.9 per cent last year and another 2 per cent in the first half of 2021.

Cubans queue to buy food in Havana in May. Díaz-Canel has admitted that food imports stand at just a quarter of 2019 levels
Cubans queue to buy food in Havana in May. Díaz-Canel has admitted that food imports stand at just a quarter of 2019 levels © Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

Making matters worse, Díaz-Canel implemented economic reforms at the start of 2021, devaluing the peso from parity with the dollar to 24; it has since sunk to 60 on the black market. Inflation has soared — economists estimate prices are rising 500 per cent a year. 

“During two long periods the regime found crutches which allowed them to maintain the system without needing to change anything,” says Malamud, referring to subsidies from the Soviet Union and Venezuela. “The elimination of the dual currency system had been planned for a long time but they kept delaying it . . . and they ended up doing it at the worst possible time.”

Pleas to open up

In the days after the protests, Díaz-Canel softened his tone. On Wednesday, he acknowledged that the demonstrators had some legitimate concerns, though he continued to pin most of the blame on the US. In another televised appearance, he and his cabinet explained in great detail efforts to keep the lights on and to pay for cargoes of food.

But the president has little to offer until more people are vaccinated and tourism resumes. Cuba is not a member of the IMF or World Bank, leaving allies Russia, China and Venezuela as potential sources of support. Venezuela’s socialist regime is near bankrupt, while Moscow and Beijing are reluctant to bail out a serial bad debtor yet again.

People shout slogans against the government during last weekend’s protests
People shout slogans against the government during last weekend’s protests © Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

“Before the winter season no major pick-up of tourism can be expected,” says Bert Hoffman, a Latin America expert at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg. “So if for the next months the state has no better ability to import food and other goods and no rapid increase in domestic production, it is likely that severe shortages will persist.”

Economists argue that Díaz-Canel should do more to support private businesses, which still lack legal status. “The government needs to open up every opportunity possible to the private sector,” says Cuban economist Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva a former University of Havana professor.

But if the Cuban government has few good options, experts say the same is true of the US administration, which is already battling multiple international crises, including the July 7 assassination of the president of Haiti, Cuba’s Caribbean neighbour.

President Joe Biden has surprised some Cuba-watchers by keeping in place tighter Trump-era embargo restrictions on the island and criticising Havana harshly. On Thursday, he called Cuba a “failed state” which was repressing its citizens and denounced communism as a “universally failed system”. 

Political analysts say his approach reflects concern about Democrat electoral losses in Florida last year and the need to have key administration nominations confirmed by senate committees — containing influential Cuban-American hawks — in the coming months.

“Cuba policy has been held hostage to the need to get [Senator Robert] Menendez and Rubio on board for confirmations,” says Christopher Sabatini, senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House. “It’s a tragedy and 11m people are suffering.”

In Little Havana, émigrés react to reports of the protests in Cuba against the deteriorating economy, in Miami, Florida
In Little Havana, Miami, émigrés react to reports of the protests in Cuba against the deteriorating economy © Maria Alejandra Cardona/Reuters

A senior US official said on Thursday that the Biden administration had been reviewing Cuba policy but that the harsher crackdowns implemented by Havana since the start of the year had affected its thinking.

Vulnerable to Republican attacks over a surge in migration, the last thing the Biden administration wants is a repeat of the 1990s, when Fidel Castro allowed more than 35,000 “rafters” to leave on makeshift boats for the US. In a hint that such a policy could be repeated, Cuba’s foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez said Washington risked “incitement of irregular and disorderly migratory flows”.

A man is arrested in Havana during the demonstrations. The communist government is facing a major challenge to its authority for the first time without a Castro in charge
A man is arrested in Havana during the demonstrations. The communist government is facing a major challenge to its authority for the first time without a Castro in charge © AFP via Getty Images

With both Havana and Washington limited in their ability to respond to the protests, the survival of Fidel Castro’s system will depend on whether the demonstrations die down or return with greater force as shortages persist.

Carmen, not her real name, lives with her 15-year-old daughter in a dark, tumbledown house in Guanabacoa, half an hour from Havana. Last Sunday her neighbours went out to the street to protest and threw stones at the police but she did not join them for fear of losing her house.

“There is no food, there is no money, there is no work, there is nothing. [And] we are tired of seeing how the government lies on television,” says the 48-year-old. “We are not stupid, we know what happened last Sunday. This president is no good, he has no idea. He wants to be like Fidel but nobody can reach his level.”



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The Cuban Missile Crisis of 60 Years Ago Is Very Much with Us Today 

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The Cuban Missile Crisis of 60 Years Ago Is Very Much with Us Today 
A soldier poses for a photograph on the outer casing of an old, empty Soviet missile on exhibit at the military complex Morro Cabana, Cuba. (AP Photo / Ismael Francisco)

October 16 marks 60 years since the Cuban missile crisis — the 13-day standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union widely regarded as the closest we ever came to global nuclear war. On this anniversary, as we veer terrifyingly close to the brink of Armageddon once again, we should look to that crisis to guide us in resolving our present one.

On October 7, President Biden warned that in the Ukraine war, “for the first time since the Cuban missile crisis, we have a direct threat to the use of nuclear weapons.” The warning is well founded. Top Kremlin ally Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, recently wrote that Russia should consider “the use of low-yield nuclear weapons.” Russian TV and military blogs echo such suggestions. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has stressed that he is willing to use “all means” in the conflict.

It’s impossible to know whether Putin is willing to follow through on his threat. Harvard Kennedy School professor Matthew Bunn pegs the chances at about 10 to 20 percent. But we do know how to reduce the risk of catastrophe. The Cuban missile crisis proved that even in the face of potential nuclear devastation, de-escalation is possible and diplomacy can prevail.

Experts and scholars have relitigated the crisis for decades. But in recent years, archives and memoirs have clarified the picture of what happened during those 13 days starting on Oct. 16, 1962. The tale is clearly articulated in “Gambling With Armageddon,” a 2020 book by Pulitzer-winning historian Martin J. Sherwin that the New York Times declared “should become the definitive account” of the event. The book offers urgently relevant lessons — both about the circumstances that can bring humanity to the edge of annihilation and how we can step back from that brink.

One chilling reminder of how crises are sometimes averted was first offered by former secretary of state Dean Acheson in 1969. Reviewing “Thirteen Days,” Robert F. Kennedy’s posthumous memoir, Acheson, who advised President John F. Kennedy during the Cuba crisis, strikingly contended that nuclear war was averted thanks to “plain dumb luck.” Sure enough, it has since come to light that a nuclear missile came close to being fired not once but twice — once by the 498th Tactical Missile Group on Okinawa, Japan, and once by a Soviet submarine in Cuban waters. In both instances, the resistance of a single individual derailed a launch.

Of course, the world cannot rely on luck alone to prevent nuclear disaster. In 1962, according to political scientist Graham Allison, Kennedy put the odds of nuclear war “between one in three and even.” If Kennedy’s assessment was accurate, then after just a few more comparable confrontations, “the likelihood of nuclear war would approach certainty.” Humanity cannot afford to spin the cylinder again in this game of Russian roulette; we must unload the gun. Our only path forward is de-escalation.

And de-escalation, as Sherwin makes clear, begins with dialogue. During the Cuban missile crisis, people such as Gen. Curtis LeMay argued that negotiation was tantamount to appeasement. But levelheaded discussion is essential to avoiding certain doom. To sacrifice it in the name of jingoistic posturing is not just absurd; it’s potentially apocalyptic. As Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev recalled, “The biggest tragedy, as [my military advisers] saw it, was not that our country might be devastated and everything lost, but that the Chinese or the Albanians might accuse us of appeasement or weakness. … What good would it have done me in the last hour of my life to know that though our great nation and the United States were in complete ruins, the national honor of the Soviet Union was intact?”

Today, as the world faces the threat of obliteration once more, figures of all stripes are calling for dialogue to prevent doomsday. A small but growing list of progressive members of Congress (along with several peace advocacy organizations) are increasingly focused on how best to promote de-escalation and dialogue, inspired by a truth that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has himself maintained: This war “will only definitively end through diplomacy.” Pope Francis issued an unprecedented statement calling for global leaders “to do everything possible to bring an end to the war.” Even former secretary of state Henry Kissinger has reiterated the importance of dialogue. As he recently argued, “This has nothing to do with whether one likes Putin or not. … We are dealing, when nuclear weapons become introduced, with a historic alteration in the world system. And a dialogue between Russia and the West is important.”

We cannot waver from the conviction that nuclear weapons must never be used again under any circumstances. We would be wise at this grave moment to recall the lessons of history — encapsulated in Sherwin’s work — and repeat, loudly and often, the November 1985 declaration of President Ronald Reagan and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, restated as recently as January by the leaders of the five nuclear weapons states: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Globetrotter______________________

Katrina vanden Heuvel is the editorial director and publisher of the Nation and is president of the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord (ACURA). She writes a weekly column at the Washington Post and is a frequent commentator on U.S. and international politics for Democracy Now, PBS, ABC, MSNBC and CNN. Find her on Twitter @KatrinaNation. This article is distributed by Globetrotter in partnership with The Nation.

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The Bewildering Vote in Chile That Rejected a New Constitution

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The Bewildering Vote in Chile That Rejected a New Constitution
Supporters of "I Reject" option react to early results of the referendum on a new Chilean constitution in Santiago, Chile, Sept 4, 2022. [Photo/Agencies]

On September 4, 2022, more than 13 million Chileans—out of a voting-eligible population of approximately 15 million—voted on a proposal to introduce a new constitution in the country. As early as March, polls began to suggest that the constitution would not be able to pass. However, polls had hinted for months at a narrowing of the lead for the rejection camp, and so proponents of the new constitution remained hopeful that their campaign would in the end successfully convince the public to set aside the 1980 constitution placed upon the country by the military dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet. The date for the election, September 4, commemorated the day that Salvador Allende won the presidency in 1970. On that date, those who wanted a new constitution suggested that the ghost of Pinochet—who overthrew Allende in a violent coup in 1973—would be exorcized. As it happened, Pinochet’s constitution remains in place with more than 61 percent of voters rejecting the new constitution and only 38 percent of voters approving it.

The day before the election, in the municipality of Recoleta (a part of Chile’s capital city of Santiago), Mayor Daniel Jadue led a massive rally in support of passing the new constitution. Tens of thousands of people gathered in this largely working-class area with the hope, as Jadue put it, of leaving behind the “constitution of abuses.” It, however, was not to be. Even in Recoleta, where Jadue is a popular mayor, the constitution was defeated. The new constitution received 23,000 more votes than Jadue had received in the last election—a sign that the number of voters on the left had increased—but the vote to reject the constitution was larger, which meant that new voters made a greater impact on the overall result.

On September 7, Jadue told us that he was feeling “calm,” that it was a significant advance that nearly 5 million Chileans voted for the constitution and that “for the first time we have a constitutional project that is written and can be transformed into a much more concrete political program.” There is “no definitive victory and no definitive defeat,” Jadue told us. People voted not only on the constitution but also on the terrible economic situation (inflation in Chile is more than 14.1 percent) and the government’s management of it. Just as the 2020 plebiscite to draft a new constitution was a punishment for former President Sebastián Piñera, this was a punishment for the Boric government’s inability to address the problems of the people. Jadue’s “calm” stems from his confidence that if the left goes to the people with a program of action and is able to address the people’s needs, then the 5 million who voted for the constitution will find their numbers significantly increased.

Within hours of the final vote being announced, analysts from all sides tried to come to terms with what was a great defeat for the government. Francisca Fernández Droguett, a member of the Movement for Water and Territories, wrote in an article for El Ciudadano that the answer to the defeat lay in the decision by the government to make this election mandatory. “Compulsory voting put us face to face with a sector of society that we were unaware of in terms of its tendencies, not only its political tendencies but also its values.” This is precisely what happened in Recoleta. She pointed out that there was a general sentiment among the political class that those who had historically voted would—because of their general orientation toward the state—have a viewpoint that was closer to forms of progressivism. That has proven not to be the case. The campaign for the constitution did not highlight the economic issues that are important to the people who live at the rough end of social inequality. In fact, the reaction to the loss—blaming the poor (rotear, is the disparaging word) for the loss—was a reflection of the narrow-minded politics that was visible during the campaign for the new constitution.

Droguett’s point about compulsory voting is shared across the political spectrum. Until 2012, voting in Chile was compulsory, but registration for the electoral roll was voluntary; then, in 2012, with the passing of an election law reform, registration was made automatic but voting was voluntary. For such a consequential election, the government decided to make the entire voting process mandatory for all Chileans over 18 years old who were eligible to vote, with the imposition of considerable fines for those who would not vote. As it turned out, 85.81 percent of those on the electoral rolls voted, which is far more than the 55.65 percent of voters who voted in the second record turnout in Chile during the presidential election in 2021.

A comparison between the second round of voting during the presidential election of 2021 and the recent vote on the constitution is instructive. In December 2021, Chile’s President Gabriel Boric—leading the center-left Apruebo Dignidad coalition—won 4.6 million votes. Apruebo Dignidad campaigned for the constitution and won 4.8 million votes. That is, the Apruebo Dignidad vote in December 2021 and the vote for the new constitution was about the same. Boric’s opponent—José Antonio Kast—who openly praised Pinochet—won 3.65 million votes. Kast campaigned against the new constitution and was defeated by 7.88 million voters. That is, the votes against the constitution were twice more than the votes that Kast was able to garner. This figure does not register, as Jadue told us, as a shift to the right in Chile, but rather is an absolute rejection of the entire political system, including the constitutional convention.

One of the least remarked upon elements of political life in Chile—as is in other parts of Latin America—is the rapid growth of evangelical (notably Pentecostal) churches. About 20 percent of Chile’s population identifies as evangelical. In 2021, Kast went to the thanksgiving service of an evangelical congregation, the only representative invited to such an event. Forced to vote in the polls by the new mandatory system, a large section of evangelical voters rejected the proposal for a new constitution because of its liberal social agenda. Jadue told us that the evangelical community failed to recognize that the new constitution gave evangelicals “equal treatment with the Roman Catholic Church because it ensured freedom of worship.”

Those who were not in favor of the constitution began to campaign against its liberal agenda right after the constituent assembly was empaneled. While those who were in favor of the new constitution waited for it to be drafted, and they refrained from campaigning in the regions where the evangelical churches held sway and where opposition to the constitution was clear. The constitution was rejected as an expression of the growing discontent among Chileans regarding the general direction of social liberalism that was assumed by many—including the leadership of Frente Amplio—to be the inevitable progression in the country’s politics. The distance between the evangelicals and the center-left is evident not only in Chile—where the results are on display now—but also in Brazil, which faces a consequential presidential election in October.

Meanwhile, two days after the election, school children took to the streets. The text they circulated for their protest bristles with poetry: “in the face of people without memory, students make history with organization and struggle.” This entire cycle of the new constitution and the center-left Boric government began in 2011-2013, when Boric and many of his cabinet members were in college and when they began their political careers. The high school students—who faced the brutal police and now answer to Boric—want to open a new road. They were dismayed by an election that wanted to determine their future, but in which they could not participate due to their age.

Globetrotter___________________

Taroa Zúñiga Silva is a writing fellow and the Spanish media coordinator for Globetrotter. She is the co-editor with Giordana García Sojo of Venezuela, Vórtice de la Guerra del Siglo XXI (2020). She is a member of the coordinating committee of Argos: International Observatory on Migration and Human Rights and is a member of the Mecha Cooperativa, a project of the Ejército Comunicacional de Liberación.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.

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The Most Important Election in the Americas Is in Brazil

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The Most Important Election in the Americas Is in Brazil
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, second from left, at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles on June 10.Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Former Brazilian President Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) runs about on stage at the Latin America Memorial in São Paulo. He was there on August 22, 2022, speaking at a book launch featuring photographs by Ricardo Stuckert about Lula’s trips around the world when he was the president of Brazil from 2003 to 2010. Lula is a man with a great deal of energy. He recounts the story of when he was in Iran with his Foreign Minister Celso Amorim in 2010, trying to mediate and end the conflict imposed by the United States over Iran’s nuclear energy policy. Lula managed to secure a nuclear deal in 2010 that would have prevented the ongoing pressure campaign that Washington is conducting against Tehran. There was relief in the air. Then, Lula said, “Obama pissed outside the pot.” According to Lula, then-U.S. President Barack Obama did not accept the deal and crushed the hard work of the Brazilian leadership in bringing all sides to an agreement.

Lula’s story puts two important points on the table: he was able to build on Brazil’s role in Latin America by offering leadership in far-off Iran during his previous tenure as president, and he is not afraid of expressing his antipathy for the way the United States is scuttling the possibility of peace and progress across the world for its own narrow interests.

The book release took place during Lula’s campaign for president against the current incumbent—and deeply unpopular—President Jair Bolsonaro. Lula is now in the lead in the polls ahead of the first round of Brazil’s presidential election to be held on October 2.

Fernando Haddad, who ran against Bolsonaro in 2018 and lost after receiving less than 45 percent of the vote, told me that this election remains “risky.” The polls might show that Lula is in the lead, but Bolsonaro is known to play dirty politics to secure his victory. The far right in Brazil, like the far right in many other countries, is fierce in the way it contests for state power. Bolsonaro, Haddad said, is willing to lie openly, saying offensive things to the far-right media and then when challenged about it by the mainstream media, he tends to feign ignorance. “Fake news” seems to be Bolsonaro’s best defense each time he is attacked. The left is far more sincere in its political discourse; leftists are unwilling to lie and eager to bring the issues of hunger and unemployment, social despair and social advancement to the center of the political debate. But there is less interest in these issues and less noise about them in a media landscape that thrives on the theatrics of Bolsonaro and his followers. The old traditional right is as outflanked as the far right in Brazil, which is a space that is now commanded by Bolsonaro (the old traditional right, the men in dark suits who made decisions over cigars and cachaça, are unable to supplant Bolsonaro).

Both Bolsonaro and Lula face an electorate that either loves them or hates them. There is little room for ambiguity in this race. Bolsonaro represents not only the far right, whose opinions he openly champions, but he also represents large sections of the middle class, whose aspirations for wealth remain largely intact despite the reality that their economic situation has deteriorated over the past decade. The contrast between the behavior of Bolsonaro and Lula during their respective presidential campaigns has been stark: Bolsonaro has been boorish and vulgar, while Lula is refined and presidential. If the election goes to Lula, it is likely that he will get more votes from those who hate Bolsonaro than from those who love him.

Former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is reflective on the way forward. She told me that Lula will likely prevail in the election because the country is fed up with Bolsonaro. His horrible management of the COVID-19 pandemic and the deterioration of the economic situation in the country mark Bolsonaro as an inefficient manager of the Brazilian state. However, Rousseff pointed out that about a month before the election, Bolsonaro’s government—and the regional governments—have been rolling out policies that have started to lighten the burden on the middle class, such as the lifting of taxation on gasoline. These policies could sway some people to vote for Bolsonaro, but even that is not likely. The political situation in Brazil remains fragile for the left, with the main blocs on the right (agro-business, religion and the military) willing to use any means to maintain their hold on power; it was this right-wing coalition that conducted a “legislative coup” against Rousseff in 2016 and used “lawfare,” the use of law for political motives, against Lula in 2018 to prevent him from running against Bolsonaro. These phrases (legislative coup and lawfare) are now part of the vocabulary of the Brazilian left, which understands clearly that the right bloc (what is called centrão) will not stop pursuing their interests if they feel threatened.

João Paulo Rodrigues, a leader of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) is a close adviser to the Lula campaign. He told me that in the 2002 presidential election, Lula won against the incumbent Fernando Henrique Cardoso because of an immense hatred for the neoliberal policies that Cardoso had championed. The left was fragmented and demoralized at that time of the election. Lula’s time in office, however, helped the left mobilize and organize, although even during this period the focus of popular attention was more on Lula himself rather than the blocs that comprised the left. During Lula’s incarceration on corruption charges, which the left says are fraudulent, he became a figure that unified the left: Lula Livre, “Free Lula,” was the unifying slogan, and the letter L (for Lula) became a symbol (a symbol that continues to be used in the election campaign). While there are other candidates from Brazil’s left in the presidential race, there is no question for Rodrigues that Lula is the left’s standard-bearer and is the only hope for Brazil to oust the highly divisive and dangerous leadership of President Bolsonaro. One of the mechanisms to build the unity of popular forces around Lula’s campaign has been the creation of the Popular Committees (comités populares), which have been working to both unify the left and create an agenda for the Lula government (which will include agrarian reform and a more robust policy for the Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian communities).

The international conditions for a third Lula presidency are fortuitous, Rousseff told me. A wide range of center-left governments have come to power in Latin America (including in Chile and Colombia). While these are not socialist governments, they are nonetheless committed to building the sovereignty of their countries and to creating a dignified life for their citizens. Brazil, the third-largest country in the Americas (after Canada and the United States of America), can play a leadership role in guiding this new wave of left governments in the hemisphere, Rousseff said. Haddad told me that Brazil should lead a new regional project, which will include the creation of a regional currency (sur) that can not only be used for cross-border trade but also for holding reserves. Haddad is currently running to be the governor of São Paulo, whose main city is the financial capital of the country. Such a regional currency, Haddad believed, will settle conflicts in the hemisphere and build new trade linkages that need not rely on long supply chains that have been destabilized by the pandemic. “God willing, we will create a common currency in Latin America because we do not have to depend on the dollar,” said Lula in May 2022.

Rousseff is eager for Brazil to return to the world stage through the BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), and offer the kind of left leadership that Lula and she had given that platform a decade ago. The world, Rousseff said, needs such a platform to offer leadership that does not rely on threats, sanctions and war. Lula’s anecdote about the Iran deal is a telling one since it shows that a country like Brazil under the leadership of the left is more willing to settle conflicts rather than to exacerbate them, as the United States did. There is hope, Rousseff noted, for a Lula presidency to offer robust leadership for a world that seems to be crumbling due to the myriad challenges such as climate catastrophe, warfare and social toxicity.

Globetrotter_____________________

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.

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Sanctions Fuel the Fire at Cuba’s Matanzas Oil Storage

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Sanctions Fuel the Fire at Cuba’s Matanzas Oil Storage
Flames spread like an "Olympic torch" from one tank to the next, the Matanzas governor said. (EPA PHOTO) Credit: EPA

On August 5, a major oil storage facility in Matanzas, Cuba, 65 miles east of Havana, was hit by lightning. A tank that contained 25,000 cubic meters of crude oil caught fire after being struck. Since then, an enormous fire has been raging in Matanzas. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Ávalos Jorge, deputy head of Cuba’s fire department, said that it was impossible to estimate when the fire would be completely extinguished. This tremendous explosion and hard-to-control fire has led to several people being reported missing (including firefighters), many others injured with severe burns, and hundreds more evacuated from their homes. Cuba’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, rushed to Matanzas on August 6, interacted with the local officials who were trying to get the fire under control, met residents of the town, and the next day, interacted with the press and spoke about the heroic work done by the firefighters and the solidarity of the Cuban people. “We are going to overcome this adversity,” he said.

Four of the eight tanks at the storage facility have been impacted by these fires. By August 8, Matanzas Governor Mario Sabines Lorenzo also confirmed that three tanks had been compromised. Clouds of dust now hover over the island. Elba Rosa Pérez Montoya, Cuba’s minister of Science, Technology, and Environment (CITMA), said that scientists from various backgrounds were monitoring the situation to see if the smoke resulting from the fire will lead to any negative health effects for the residents of the surrounding areas. As of that point, she said, “We have no evidence that there are effects on human health.” Nonetheless, strange substances have been detected in the water supplies in Yumurí Valley, Matanzas. Diosdado Vera, an 89-year-old farmer, showed journalist Arnaldo Mirabal Hernández the unusual color and odor of the water in an old bathtub that serves as the water source for her cows. “There are approximately 3,200 particles in the air right now,” said CITMA Minister Pérez Montoya. “The clouds have sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, among other substances that are falling on Matanzas, Mayabeque, and Havana.” Meanwhile, Pérez Montoya said that a team of scientists is investigating the strange substances found in the Yumurí Valley.

This tragedy has also had immediate repercussions for the entire population in the province of Matanzas and the whole island of Cuba since it affects their electricity supply and access to health care, which already are strained under the weight of the U.S. blockade, due to lack of availability of spare parts and scarcity of medicines in Cuba, respectively.

The fire has already led to the Antonio Guiteras thermoelectric plant in Matanzas being out of service due to a shortage of water and the contamination of the water cycle. This will likely lead to severe electricity outages amid record heat waves this summer. Ricardo Ronquillo Bello, president of the Union of Cuban Journalists (UPEC), tweeted that this tragedy will be “another test for Cuban journalism that will know how to honor with its humanism and social responsibility.” Ronquillo was referring to the onslaught of fake news that swept through social media, leading to a sense of alarm during an already difficult period.

In this dire crisis, the people of Cuba and their government have responded immediately, and this has resulted in on-site efforts to contain the fire, prevent a major environmental disaster, and keep the population safe. It has also led to a call for international aid and solidarity. The governments of Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Nicaragua, Argentina, Chile and several others have promptly offered material aid, and some countries like Mexico and Venezuela have also sent experts and firefighters to confront this complex situation. Cuba’s Credit and Commerce Bank (Bandec) has set up an account so that people in the country can donate money to the people of Matanzas.

“Cuba is Matanzas,” said President Díaz-Canel, in the context of both the impact of the fire on the entire island and the solidarity that is visible across Cuba.

Sanctions

The U.S. blockade of Cuba fuels the fire that rages on in the country, despite denials by authorities in the United States. The U.S. government has both been stiffening up the blockade of Cuba and denying that sanctions have any impact on the functioning of the country (in fact, in 2021, then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki had said that the problems in Cuba are not due to the U.S. sanctions but rather are due to “the Cuban government’s economic mismanagement”). The U.S. Embassy in Havana has made assurances that the blockade authorizes U.S. entities and organizations to provide disaster relief and response. But organizations tell us that this is not the case, with the 243 sanctions imposed on Cuba working as a stranglehold against pursuing any activity in the country. Many of these organizations say that the process to send aid to Cuba is lengthy, with a licensing regime in place that requires expensive lawyers. Cuba’s inclusion in the state sponsors of terrorism list means that banks in both the United States and abroad are reluctant to process humanitarian donations.

While Washington says one thing and does another, the firefighters in Matanzas—aided by the reinforcements from Mexico and Venezuela—have been spraying foam on the fire to prevent it from spreading further, and helicopters have been pouring water on the other oil tanks to stop them from combusting. Even after the fire settles and the ashes remain, Cuba will struggle to rebuild these tanks and to solve its energy crisis. These are not merely domestic problems but rather are problems created and exaggerated by the harmful U.S.-imposed blockade that has been in existence for the past six decades.

Not long after the lightning strike, users on social media shared the hashtag #FuerzaMatanzas (be strong, Matanzas) on various platforms. Within 24 hours, the hashtag was shared by nearly a billion users, according to Dayron Avello, social media manager at Clínica Internacional Camilo Cienfuegos. A billion people have signaled their support for Cuba, a solidarity the U.S. blockade is unable to prevent.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

________________________

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.

Manolo De Los Santos is the co-executive director of the People’s Forum and is a researcher at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He co-edited, most recently, Viviremos: Venezuela vs. Hybrid War (LeftWord Books/1804 Books, 2020) and Comrade of the Revolution: Selected Speeches of Fidel Castro (LeftWord Books/1804 Books, 2021). He is a co-coordinator of the People’s Summit for Democracy.

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Mexico’s President Gives Joe Biden a Big History Lesson

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Mexico’s President Gives Joe Biden a Big History Lesson
AMLO presses Biden on bilateral agreement © 2022 Latin American Financial Publications, Inc.

Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) visited the United States on July 12 and offered five proposals to U.S. President Joe Biden. These proposals are based on AMLO’s in-depth knowledge of Mexican history and his reading of the economic crisis in the United States, which seems to be losing its edge as a global leader.

The first of the proposals that AMLO made was about Mexico allowing U.S. consumers to fill gasoline tanks on the Mexican side of the border. By doing so, it is permitting the United States to ease its inflation crisis. AMLO offered to double the supply of gasoline in Mexico in his show of support to further ease the crisis.

Second, AMLO said that Mexico would provide for more than 600 miles of gas pipelines along the U.S.-Mexico border to help transport natural gas from Texas to Arizona, California, and New Mexico. This would benefit 3 million people in the United States. This is indirectly reminiscent of the Texas gas crisis, which cost Mexico more than 65 billion Mexican pesos.

Third, AMLO suggested the elimination of red tape and tariffs on food and general consumer goods to reduce the cost of living for U.S. and Mexican families.

Fourth, AMLO noted that since the pandemic and the war in Ukraine are the main causes behind the current inflation, Mexico will conduct import substitution to reduce some of the import inflation. Production of oil will go alongside the development of alternative energy sources in Mexico, and the country will also enter the lithium industry.

Fifth, given that the United States will need labor to implement its infrastructural modernization plans, AMLO proposed to organize the migration of workers northward to prevent labor shortages and asked the U.S. to provide these workers with temporary work visas for this purpose. He also asked Biden to “regularize” the legal status of the migrant population in the United States to guarantee the rights of the Mexican diaspora.

A close analysis of these proposals indicates that the United States finds itself in a position of relative weakness vis-à-vis both its competitors abroad (such as China) and trade partners such as Mexico (as well as the rest of Latin America). The United States’ weakness coupled with AMLO’s active leadership in Latin America, as well as the Mexican national population and diaspora’s historic support for the Mexican government, finds parallels with other moments in the history of U.S.-Mexican relations.

López Obrador’s History Lessons

In his speech in the Oval Office, López Obrador recalled that when former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) came to power after the economic crash of 1929, he found the United States in crisis due to the global recession and stock market crash. At that time, Roosevelt promoted state intervention to develop welfare programs, namely a mixed-Keynesian system known as the New Deal.

In addition to FDR’s New Deal, the United States eased, but did not cease, its interventionist policy in Latin America. It withdrew its troops from Haiti and allowed the elimination of the Platt Amendment, which undermined the sovereignty of Cuba. Driven by the imminent threat of World War II, the United States was forced to seek solidarity in the American hemisphere to protect its interests and its territory from potential attacks.

FDR’s term in office (1933-1945) coincided with that of Mexico’s President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940). Cárdenas, a general in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, is known in Mexican history for his initiatives to ensure the development of public infrastructure, land reforms, the vindication of the rights of the working class, and his socialist education project.

But above all, Cárdenas is remembered for his decree to nationalize oil in 1938. All these actions and positions led to protests by powerful sectors in the United States. However, the internal and external balance of political-economic forces prevented the White House from stopping the nationalist process of Cárdenas, who also had strong popular support within Mexico. López Obrador has also done something similar with public investment in sovereign development projects like the Mayan Train, the Transisthmian Corridor, oil refineries, and the nationalization of lithium.

López Obrador also reminded Biden that during Roosevelt’s presidency, Mexico and the United States created a legal migration program, the Bracero program, between 1942 and 1964, to reactivate the U.S. economy. AMLO closed his White House speech by urging Biden to be bold, to accept the end of neoliberalism in the world, and to stand up to the right wing in the United States: “I know that your adversaries—the conservatives—are going to be screaming all over the place, even to Heaven… But without a daring, a bold program of development and well-being, it will not be possible to solve problems. It will not be possible to get the people’s support. In the face of this crisis, the way out is not through conservatism. The way out is through transformation. We have to be bold in our actions [and] transform, not maintain, the status quo.”

The Political Vanguard of the Continent

López Obrador has not only established himself as the political reference point for the Latin American left but has also been leading the process of integration in the south of the region through the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit and his diplomacy in Central America. He has managed to undermine the interventionist capacity of the United States without losing the friendly relationship with Mexico’s northern neighbor, as this official visit to the United States demonstrates. Besides this, Mexico has proposed solutions to inflation and the global ailments caused by the pandemic and the Ukraine war, encouraging its U.S. counterpart to follow Mexico’s political economy.

Latin America and the Caribbean are increasingly being seen as equals to the United States; are putting themselves on the front line in the battle for the sovereignty of countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela; and are backing progressive processes such as those in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Honduras. Likewise, López Obrador has put on the table a political subject that will be of paramount importance in U.S. domestic life: the rights of the Mexican and Latino migrant workers. AMLO has asked them to use their votes to monitor and shape the immigration legislative reforms in the United States and to ensure that the interests of the Global South are no longer ignored during policymaking in the West.

Globetrotter________________

Rodrigo Guillot works in the International Department of the Instituto Nacional de Formación Política (INFP), the political education institute of Mexico’s Morena (Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional) party. He is a student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City. Find him on Twitter @RodrigoGuillot.

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Venezuela says Those Behind NATO Expansion Should de-escalate Ukraine Crisis

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Venezuela says Those Behind NATO Expansion Should de-escalate Ukraine Crisis
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks in Caracas on Dec. 8, 2020.Manaure Quintero / Reuters file

President Nicolas Maduro insists that Moscow’s conflict with Kiev was ‘provoked’ by the Wes.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro accused the West of provoking Russia’s conflict with Ukraine on Monday, after senior US officials met with his government over the weekend.

In a speech, Maduro said that “those who provoked this conflict with decades of non-compliance with agreements, with decades of threats against Russia, with decades of preparing plans for the extension of NATO are the first ones who are responsible for de-escalating this conflict.”

https://twitter.com/VTVcanal8/status/1501046559936552963?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1501046559936552963%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.rt.com%2Fnews%2F551455-venezuela-says-nato-expansion%2F

Maduro called on those responsible to seek “a favorable scenario of negotiation and agreement” to end the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

The president also said Venezuela was “seriously concerned about the possibility of a war in Europe and an extension to other regions of the world,” and criticized the “public media campaign of hate” and “economic measures that aim to aggravate conditions” and extend the conflict, rather than de-escalate the situation.

Maduro’s words came after senior US officials traveled to Venezuela over the weekend to meet with Maduro’s government in their highest-level visit since the US broke off diplomatic relations in 2019.

While the US refuses to identify Maduro as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, instead recognizing pro-US politician Juan Guaido as the ‘interim’ president, the New York Times reported that the Biden administration was looking to “separate Russia from its remaining international allies” amid Russia’s conflict with Ukraine.

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RT

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