Global Insider: Brazil’s Rousseff is Positioned to Push for Change in Cuba
Global Insider: Brazil's Rousseff is Positioned to Push for Change in Cuba
By The Editors | 15 Feb 2012
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff made her first official visit to Cuba
last month. In an email interview, David Herrero, a research associate
at the Council on Foreign Relations, discussed Brazil-Cuba relations.
WPR: How did Brazil-Cuba relations evolve under former Brazilian
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and what were Brazil's priorities?
David Herrero: Lula significantly expanded political engagement and
commercial ties with Cuba. He visited the country four times as
president and helped launch a $950 million modernization project —
financed mostly by Brazil's development bank, BNDES — at the Cuban port
of Mariel. On the issue of human rights, however, he was at times
criticized. In February 2010, for instance, after a Cuban prisoner named
Orlando Zapata Tamayo died while on hunger strike, Lula was taken to
task for his offhand comment, "Imagine if all the criminals in Sao Paulo
went on hunger strike to demand freedom." Nonetheless, Lula's legacy was
marked more by the blossoming cooperation his government fostered with
Cuba: on agriculture, housing, oil and minerals, transportation
equipment, tobacco, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and other sectors.
WPR: What does President Dilma Rousseff's first year in office and
recent visit indicate about any shifts in emphasis, including in the
area of human rights?
Herrero: With the spotlights trained on Brazilian investment and
economic cooperation, there were no surprises during Rousseff's first
visit to Cuba. She toured the port of Mariel and announced $600 million
in new credits for Cuban food and agriculture. Rousseff proceeded
gingerly on human rights, framing the issue as one that should be
addressed multilaterally. "He who throws the first stone has a roof made
of glass," she remarked, acknowledging that Brazil has its own human
rights issues, and lamenting the U.S. embargo and ongoing operation of
the prison at Guantanamo. Rousseff understands the sensitivity of human
rights issues in the context of relations with Cuba — and the strategic
importance of being kept inside the tent with the Castro government.
Should she so chose, though, she is better positioned than her
predecessor to advance the dialogue on human rights. Rousseff survived
torture as a political prisoner during Brazil's military dictatorship.
She authorized Brazil's vote in favor of a U.N. special investigator on
human rights in Iran and decried the case of an Iranian woman sentenced
to death by stoning — even as Brazil enjoys robust trade with Iran.
Rousseff has also been tough on corruption, which resonates with the
Cuban public and politburo. Cuban President Raul Castro recently called
corruption "the principal enemy of the revolution."
WPR: What role can Brazil play in Cuba's opening, and what is the value
of enhanced ties for Brazil?
Herrero: Castro has made economic productivity the focus of reforms in
Cuba, with new laws targeting housing, private enterprise, agriculture
and sugar — all areas in which Brazil has a role to play. Rousseff is
wise to cultivate strong diplomatic ties with her Cuban counterparts if
Brazil is to continue having a positive impact on Cuban infrastructure
and food security. Brazil is Cuba's second-largest trading partner.
Commerce between the two countries swelled to $642 million in 2011. And
while the trade balance is uneven — Brazilian exports consume the
lion's share of bilateral commerce — Brazilian demand has grown for
Cuban medicines, chemicals and minerals. These economic ties are
significant in a time of changing regional dynamics in Latin America and
the Caribbean, with Cuba pursuing the most transformative economic and
political reforms in decades, while the United States remains on the