CubaBrief: Former Mexican Foreign Minister tells New York Times readers that 21st century socialism is dead. Carlos Montaner and HAVANA TIMES report on the coming collapse of of Sandinista Nicaragua.

Former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda, now a professor at Columbia University, explained in a recent New York Times column that 21st century socialism is dead in Latin America. The Times editors should take heed. On this CubaBrief you may also read to important articles focusing on Nicaragua: Carlos Alberto Montaner’s.

The loneliness of Daniel Ortega and ‘la Chayo’ Murillo” and from HAVANA TIMES”NICARAGUA:THE CIVIC REBELLION AND THE REGIME’S FINAL STAGES.”

The Bankruptcy of 21st Century Socialism

By Jorge G. Castañeda

Mr. Castañeda was foreign minister of Mexico from 2000 to 2003.

June 2, 2018

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 A tattoo depicting Fidel Castro, in 2016. Going forward, Cubans will now have to deal with major issues without Fidel or Raúl Castro’s prestige.CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times

MEXICO CITY — It is difficult to say whether the Cubana de Aviación airliner’s crash in Havana a few weeks ago or the mock elections in Venezuela on May 20 are the best illustration of the utter bankruptcy of the 21st century socialismthat Hugo Chávez and Raúl Castro have so loudly touted. They are both tragedies that have cost avoidable deaths and caricatures of what is to come in both countries.

Cuba paid a heavy price for the initial, and perhaps enduring, successes of its revolution: education, health and dignity. But from the very beginning — with the exception of a few years between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidies to Cuba in 1992 and the advent of Venezuelan support in 1999 — it always found someone to pay the bills. The next option was meant to be the United States. That no longer seems possible.

Venezuela, for its part, embarked on a perilous course with the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998 that was spurred further after a failed national oil workers strike in late 2002 and early 2003: building socialism after the Cold War, with support from Cuba and practically no one else. Cuban intelligence and security backing for Caracas continues, but high oil prices disappeared in 2014, and so did the Venezuelan government’s Saudi Arabian-like generosity to Havana. The glory days have been over for a long time; all that matters today is survival.

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A soup kitchen run by a Catholic church on the outskirts of Caracas in 2016. The economic crisis in Venezuela is causing massive food shortages and skyrockting prices, making food difficult to access for middle- and working-class Venezuelans.CreditMeridith Kohut for The New York Times

Barely months after the beginning of a transfer of power from the Castro era to a different, if not entirely new, arrangement in Havana, the island once again faces enormous economic and social challenges. They stem from three problems with no solutions.
First, is the fall of tourism from the United States and the new tough line on Cuba adopted by the Trump administration. Through March of this year, the number of visitors from the United States is down more than 40 percent compared with 2017. This is partly because of travel warnings over safety issued by Washington, partly because of new travel restrictions put in place by President Trump and because after the initial boom of nostalgic tourism, Cuba is now competing for normaltravelers with the rest of the Caribbean. Its beauty and charm do not easily outweigh other destinations’ far superior services and infrastructure, and lower prices. Today myriad start-up businesses — always thought to be too small and numerous to survive — that sprang up for United States visitors are failing as a result of falling tourism. 

Second, American sanctions and Cuban fear of economic reforms have rendered the push for greater foreign investment somewhat futile. After an initial rush of highly publicized announcements, some United States companies have proved reluctant to run risks, particularly given Mr. Trump’s hostility toward all things Obama, and his dependence on Florida for re-election.

The economy has stopped growing, scarcities have re-emerged and new opportunities for employment and hard-currency earnings are not appearing. If one adds to this the government’s decision to suspend new cuentapropista or private self-employment permits, it is no surprise to discover that economic prospects are dim. Hence the appropriateness of the metaphor regarding the crash outside Havana: like the Cuban economy, the plane was old, poorly maintained, leased by the national airline because it was the only one it could afford, and the rest of Cubana de Aviación’s domestic fleet had already been grounded.

Which brings us to the third source of concern. Venezuela is no longer able to subsidize Cuba’s transition to a Vietnam-style socialist economy the way it did before.

True, reports from Houston last month suggested that Petróleos de Venezuela, known as Pdvsa, the country’s state-owned oil firm, purchased $440 million of crude oil on the open market and delivered it to Cuba at below cost and on credit. Cuba consumes roughly 170,000 barrels of oil a day and produces about 50,000. The difference has been made up by Venezuela, which formerly dispatched enough crude to address all of Cuba’s needs, allowing it to re-export some at a profit and pay for it through highly subsidized mechanisms. The fact that Pdvsa had to shop on the open market for Cuba´s oil shows that Venezuela no longer has that capacity. The country’s hard currency shortfalls, because of collapsing oil production — down 28 percent over the last 12 months — has also cut its ability to pay top dollar for Cuban doctors, teachers and intelligence personnel.

The alternative for Cuba was thought to reside in normalization with the United States, which has stalled following the end of the Obama administration. Venezuela, however, means more to the island country than hard currency and oil. Despite ongoing flirtations with China and Russia, it is Cuba’s only unconditional ally in the world, which is why the Venezuelan debacle is so worrisome.The international community has intensified sanctions against President Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship. But this will produce little effect in Caracas unless Washington imposes oil-related restrictions: expropriating Citgo, the Pdvsa-owned oil company, or forbidding oil exports and imports to and from Venezuela. But for this not to play into Mr. Maduro’s hands, the Latin Americans and the Europeans would be obliged to support the measures and adopt similar ones.

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President Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba, left, and his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolás Maduro, reviewing the honor guard at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana, in April.CreditYamil Lage/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Herein lies the central question involving Venezuela, and ultimately, Cuba itself. At its annual assembly on June 5, the Organization of American States might consider a motion to suspend Venezuela; it will probably fail, but a stand will have been taken by the region’s democracies.

In the ensuing confrontation, anything can occur. The international community can decide, cynically but not illogically, that the country’s crisis is too dangerous to be left to Venezuelans. In this case, the only way to press the Maduro government to change course seems to be oil-based sanctions, led by but no limited to Washington.
This outcome would hit Cuba especially hard. If the current severe economic downturn produces widespread discontent (as in 1994, for example, with the so-called Maleconazo), the island regime will face a social crisis lacking the two fundamental remedies it always enjoyed. First, of course, was the Castros: Miguel Díaz-Canel, the new president, will have to deal with a major predicament without Fidel or Raúl Castro’s prestige. Second, he cannot count on the safety valve used repeatedly by the ruling brothers: migration to Miami, because the end of the wet-feet-dry-feet era entails the end of sailing, smuggling or swimming to the United States. Cuba has not faced discontent without those factors since the Revolution, in 1959.
It is anybody’s guess how the regime will fare if unrest flares. The only certainty is the utter failure of so-called 21st century socialism, in Venezuela as such, in Cuba by another name.

Jorge G. Castañeda, Mexico’s foreign minister from 2000 to 2003, is a professor at New York University, a member of the board of Human Rights Watch and a contributing opinion writer.


Nicaragua: The Civic Rebellion and the Regime’s Final Stages

 June 3, 2018

Stagnation or prolonged conflict? The stages and timing that define Nicaragua’s inevitable future.

By Manuel Orozco  (Confidencial)

Rosario Murillo and Daniel Ortega hope the protesters against their government will tire out and turn things in their favor to remain in power for years to come.

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HAVANA TIMES – Political conflicts like the one affecting Nicaragua pass through several defined stages: rupture of the status quo; intensification of the violence and the conflict; general fatigue from the former; and the final break, culminating in a change of regime. There are few instances of dictatorships, military regimes and other autocracies holding on to power for more than 40 years. In this case, a political change for Nicaragua is inevitable, but the key question is the timeline.

Our political situation requires a complete renewal of the democratic institutions, including the legislature, the judicial branch, the Supreme Electoral Council, the Central Bank, the autonomous entities and the Police and Army. Such a restoration involves free and fair democratic election of new authorities, as well as the selection and nomination of carefully scrutinized public functionaries within a Constitutional framework.

Meanwhile, there are at least three factors that define the pace of such broad-based political change: the level of cohesion within each of the opposing factions; the pressure each can exert; and the resilience and unity of each side in response to this pressure.

Applying a calculus of political risk, the protagonists determine how much to invest in accelerating or prolonging the situation, depending on where they’re situated strategically as subjects of change. However, the inevitability of the end is a given, because the regime has lost its legitimacy.

The unity of the central figures

Neither Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, nor the groups at the dialogue table, currently possess enough internal cohesion to generate a common language, a shared agenda and a commitment to risk in order to confront the other.

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Barricades exist in numerous parts of Managua, Masaya, Matagalpa, León and other cities.

On the one hand, Ortega and Murillo have become increasingly isolated within the Sandinista movement, closing themselves into a very small circle of family power. As Oscar Rene Vargas stated, historic Sandinista thought isn’t on Ortega’s side, and those that do continue to support him don’t feel the same about Rosario Murillo. In addition, the shock forces that Ortega uses are displaying changes and fissures in their structure. The loyalty of the other groups charged with the state repression – the Police and the Army – is only partial, based on a reading of Ortega’s value to these two institutions as a factor for short-term national stability.

Finally, the group most loyal to Ortega – the magistrates, deputies and mayors – have been delegitimized by the public outcry, so that they don’t represent a great source of unity within the regime. These great weaknesses in the regime’s political capital don’t show any signs of improving.

Within the opposition, the lack of a common language and agenda regarding the expectations for outcomes from their demands is also evident.  There are a variety of participants involved including business executives grouped in the Supreme Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) and in the American Chamber of Commerce; the Catholic Church; the university students; farmers; civil society; and intellectuals. These diverse groups share the wish to remove Daniel Ortega, but don’t necessarily agree on the methods and the timing. The private sector has assumed a more moderate stance, seeking the regime’s end in a gradual, tiered fashion, while the students, civil society and rural leaders want an immediate change. As a group, they haven’t yet succeeded in coming to agreement with one spokesperson, one agenda and a language that reflects the desired outcome of their unity.

Exerting pressure

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Another key factor is the variety and effectiveness of the pressure tactics available to each side. For Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, the repressive methods have constituted their only means of exerting pressure in favor of the status quo. Their former well-used tactics – delaying, sowing division, political blackmail, and the abuse of the law itself – don’t have the same force they did two months ago.

The May 30th Mothers Day march brought out hundreds of thousands of people. At the end it was brutally attacked by police and paramilitary forces.

The opposition understands that Ortega is happy to let time go by, in order to divide his opponents and utilize the law to control them. However, the current political context no longer allows him to exercise the same pressure with these methods, and as a result the repressive apparatus is the only thing he has at hand. At his hands, the paramilitary forces continue wreaking havoc and death, while Ortega has had the police retreat to use as a “back-up” for the time when the paramilitaries are neutralized.

Meanwhile, the opposition can call upon greater means of pressure. At this moment, the protests in the streets and the roadblocks are the most visible and, in many cases, the most practical methods. This pressure is impacting the government in a way that has weakened its legal and institutional actions.

In fact, the gradual unification of voices in support for democratization, the agreement that compliance with the 15 recommendations proposed by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights is a precondition for continuing the dialogue, and the consensus around the agenda for democratization proposed by the Episcopal Conference are all means of pressuring the government with concrete proposals. The opposition also holds other cards for pressuring the state, such as the use of other economic weapons, including a national strike. The international community is applying pressure and announcing that they will solicit sanctions and wait for results from the negotiations.

The methods employed by both sides haven’t yet been enough to bring about the regime’s submission on the one hand, or to slow the opposition on the other. However, the repression strengthens the common front and increases the resistance. The roadblocks and the protests, for their part, have been effective in weakening the territorial control of the state, as well as the political nexus between Ortega and the mayors that coordinate the paramilitary activities. They’ve also represented a kind of voiced vote. Although they haven’t accelerated the change of government, they’ve served to back the regime further into the corner.


Daniel Ortega has a long history of withstanding pressure in critical situations. His resilience is long-standing, especially with the controlling interventions that Rosario Murillo has imposed. However, this position now depends on the duration of the repressive methods at hand and of the ability of the opposition force to exert further pressure on the regime.

Riot police capturing and beating a protester on May 28th. Photo: Jader Flores/ LA PRENSA

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The repressive apparatus has gone from intimidation, blows and death to the use of murderous paramilitary forces, leaving the police and the army on the defensive end, as a last resort. However, it’s not clear whether the actions of the paramilitary forces are under the complete control of the dictatorial family, and although it creates more chaos in the country, this situation weakens Ortega.

In the same way, the opposition, no longer led exclusively by the organized youth, is demonstrating greater intensity as the government ignores their demands and resists ceding to them. The strikes, roadblocks and demonstrations continue to show strength and to spread. This is the sign of a resilience that hasn’t decayed. If the killings continue, the opposition will grow and strengthen beyond their immediate power to bring people out.

The political stalemate

In this way, it can be observed that neither of the two sides have the resources to strike a decisive blow in the short term. This situation doesn’t imply a dead issue, but a prolonged conflict. Although neither of the two sides can defeat the other in this moment, with Ortega’s refusal to negotiate the demands put forth by the Catholic Church, the country has entered the second stage of the conflict, a stage where each side measures its forces.  Faced with Ortega’s refusal and the continuation of the regime’s violent repression, the opposition is tipping the balance of power in its favor through its massive response.

In this second stage, if the situation continues, other groups will add their weight on the side of exerting further pressure on Ortega and Murillo. Among them are the large business owners and sectors of the historic circle of the Sandinista Front, including some of Ortega’s allies. This will not only strengthen the opposition but also give it still more instruments for pressure that will weaken Ortega and send the country into the third stage of eroding Ortega’s power.

The great question continues to be how much the COSEP and the large private business sector (these are no longer one unified group) is willing to invest in promoting a short-term transition for Nicaragua. Much of the weight of political change in Nicaragua rests on large business, specifically on the fourteen business figures that are most influential in the economy of this country. COSEP isn’t only a political mover and shaker – the economic weight of its members affects at least a fourth of the country’s gross national product. They also know that they can no longer work with Ortega under the current terms.

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The business sector would prefer a soft landing but the government repressión is making that possibility increasingly more difficult.

One fear within the corporate sector is the question of who will substitute for the current government under the constitutional framework. The country has a lot of talent and work groups capable of comprising a transition government to maintaining a constitutional succession while setting the foundations for a national election. The formation of a transition team consists in taking into account the basic elements of governability in order to turn power over to a legitimately elected representative.

There are five priorities in guaranteeing a stable and secure transition.  The team and leadership must: 1) maintain a public policy that favors economic stability; 2) take on the budget and propose a short-term fiscal reform; 3) determine the risks and lessen the insecurity; 4) verify violations; and 5) bring the corrupt to justice. The country has the leadership to direct such a transition. It has economists with world experience, experts in development and social policy, as well as in venture capitalism and private sector investment.  

There’s no reason to believe that the failed Ortega regime can offer any stability and governance via repression.

The inevitability of change

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The author, Manuel Orozco

If the spontaneous demonstrations continue ever more generalized and larger, the risk-averse are going to change and incline towards giving their support, including possibly adding their weight to a national strike as a means to pressure the government. The central question is whether the spontaneous demonstrations can continue gathering force in terms of reach and density for several weeks more. The current situation indicates that this is very probable.

Political change in Nicaragua is inevitable. Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo have lost national and international legitimacy and the challenge now is how to achieve the transition to a new regime. The timing has sped up more than expected, and the third stage, of erosion, is coming ever closer for the regime. The regime’s calculations that the forces resisting it lack prolonged resilience is mistaken, and the tactics normally utilized by the leadership of Ortega and Murillo have already run dry.

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Published in Spanish by El Blog de Montaner on Saturday June 2nd, 2018. 

“The loneliness of Daniel Ortega and “la Chayo” Murillo”


Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega has been left alone. Alone with his wife and Vice President Rosario Murillo, “la Chayo”, who is even more disliked by the Nicaraguan people than he is. Why is this extravagant but educated lady so rejected? It is not clear, but that’s the way it is.

It’s a very strange situation for them. They were accustomed to having a favorable sounding board built by the USSR and Havana, like the one that hid and condoned the crimes of Sandinismo in the 1980s in the name of a mythical popular revolution that they were building.

In the first place, the whole Church abandoned them. The times are not suitable for the blunders of Liberation Theology. The bishops were not willing to play with a false dialogue. They set the table to talk, but it had to be in good faith. The pain was unbearable. As I write this chronicle, there are already 93 people killed, almost all of them young people.

Read more…