Little idealism on post-Castro Cuba

Brazil should expand its regional cooperation with fellow progressive states instead of thumbing their nose at them.

    Rather than ostracising itself politically, Brazil should cooperate more with its like-minded Latino compatriots, such as the members of ALBA, specifically Cuba and Venezuela [EPA]

    For decades, the Cuban revolution provided vital political inspiration for the Latin left, yet recent social changes on the island may lead some to wonder whether the socialist experiment will endure.

    On the surface at least, one would expect many regional countries to be concerned about protecting the accomplishments of the revolution.

    In recent years, many so-called leftist "Pink Tide" regimes have swept into power in South America and allied themselves to Cuba. Perhaps the most important country forming part of this Pink Tide alliance is Brazil, which has been governed by the Workers' Party for almost a decade.

    Indeed, according to US diplomats, "Brazil is seeking to assert itself as a world power beyond South America, and sees Cuba as a stepping stone into the Caribbean and beyond."

    Reading US cables recently released by the whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, however, it's far from clear what Brazil would like to see in Cuba and the documents are as interesting for what they say as what they fail to mention.

    Obviously, the cables can only reveal what diplomats tell the Americans and don't necessarily reflect what's truly on Brazilian officials' minds.

    During the Lula era, diplomats sought to placate Washington and maintain warm ties. If officials in Brasilia secretly feared that the post-Castro future might eviscerate many of the social and economic accomplishments of the Cuban revolution, it would be wise to avoid any such discussion with US diplomats who have long sought to counteract the left in Latin America.

    My own reading, however, is that Brazil has little in the way of an idealistic agenda in the wider region and operates in accordance with its own cynical and opportunistic goals.

    As revealed by WikiLeaks, Brazilian diplomats hold condescending and patronising views of other leftist Latin nations. Like the US, Brazil sees itself as a beacon of progress in a troubled region, ready and willing to offer assistance to backward countries, and Cuba is no exception.

    To be sure, Brazil sees Cuba as victimised by economic sanctions, and in private Lula's diplomats urged Washington to end the embargo. Even so though, Brazilian officials seem to hold Cuba in low regard.

    Take, for example, a meeting in Brasilia in 2007 during which time international affairs adviser Marco Aurelio Garcia expressed doubt that Cuba could replicate the "China model" predicated on economic opening under centralised political control.

    "China is a civilisation, Cuba is not... they do not have the patience, resources or organisation to emulate China's approach," Garcia declared.

    Moreover, Cuba lacked a concrete strategy for productivity and self-reliance, and though Brazil had offered valuable assistance and markets to the island nation "the Cubans have to define a direction for themselves."

    In its bid to enhance its regional presence, Brazil has indeed poured investment money into Cuba.

    There are a number of Brazilian companies doing business on the island, including tour bus manufacturer Busscar and cigarette company Souza Cruz.

    Apex, the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency, has showcased Brazilian companies at international fairs held in Havana. Moreover, in recent years Brazilian exports including goods such as soybean oil have rocketed to Cuba, amounting to more than half a billion dollars in 2008.

    In addition, Cuba and Brazil have signed several bilateral trade agreements and Brazil's National Development Bank, or BNDES, provides trade finance lines to Brazilian companies doing business in Cuba.

    The debate, then, is not over whether Brazil will continue to play a prominent business role in the Caribbean.

    But in planning for the future, Cuba and the Latin American left must develop an inspiring vision for the future and not just fall back on crass entrepreneurism.

    It is here, on the political front, where Brazil has been sorely lacking. Indeed, reading WikiLeaks documents you can almost feel Brazilian diplomats' deeply held sense of cynicism.

    Speaking to US diplomats, Lula right hand man Garcia threw cold water on the notion that leftist Venezuela would continue to play a significant role in Cuba

    Chavez's brand of "strident" populism, Garcia remarked, had "less space to grow in Latin America than you may think." Venezuela could be easily brushed aside, Garcia said, "if Cubans perceived other openings - especially if the US lifted sanctions on their economy."

    To be sure, lifting the sanctions would be a positive step for Cuba, but open markets on their own won't serve as a panacea for the region's ills. Whatever one's personal or political views about Hugo Chavez, the firebrand leader has long understood the need for greater regional integration along progressive lines.

    When I was in Caracas a couple of years ago, I ran into a Cuban doctor attending poor residents in a dangerous slum. Many Venezuelan doctors probably wouldn't have been caught dead in the neighbourhood, yet the Cuban medic had come into the country as part of Chavez's Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas program, or ALBA - an agreement which allows for barter and reciprocal exchanges between fellow leftist countries.

    The ALBA initiative serves as a necessary antidote to the usual corporate free trade schemes promoted by Washington, and is a big boon for Cuba which has received discounted oil in exchange for sending its doctors abroad to Venezuela.

    Yet, Brazil has chosen not to participate in ALBA and shies away from such innovative proposals. That is a shame, since Brazil is by far the most important country in the region from a political and economic perspective, and could play an influential role in pushing forward a leftist agenda.

    Perhaps, Brazilian diplomats should spend less time superciliously looking down upon fellow progressive regimes and more time trying to develop an inspiring political message for the future.

    Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008).

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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