TIME Cuba

How Venezuela’s Collapse Helped Thaw Cuban-American Relations

Cuba's President Raul Castro shakes hands with Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro during the opening session of the 10th ALBA alliance summit in Havana
From Left: Cuba's President Raul Castro shakes hands with Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro during the opening session of the 10th ALBA alliance summit in Havana on Dec. 14, 2014. © Enrique de la Osa / Reuters—REUTERS

The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez helped keep the Cuban regime propped up, but that's not possible in an era of low oil prices

“We have two presidents: Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez,” declared Cuba’s then Vice President Carlos Lage in a visit to Caracas just under a decade ago. A couple of years later, in Havana, then Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez added, “At heart, we are just one government.”

It is likely not a coincidence that talks between the United States and Cuba—which culminated yesterday in an announcement that the two countries would begin to resume full diplomatic relations—began just after the death the former Venezuelan president who had bankrolled Cuba’s Revolution.

Today a beleaguered Venezuela no longer has the spare cash to fund the island’s beleaguered economy. The Castros likely realized this as Chávez’s presidency was coming to an end and were not keen for a return to the scarcity of the euphemistically titled Special Period of the 1990s, after the collapse of Cuba’s first patron, the Soviet Union. “We had nothing, no food and no money,” one elderly man told me in Havana not long ago. The Cuban economy contracted 35 percent between 1989 and 1993, and oil imports decreased 90 percent. Cuba was in desperate need of money.

Chávez, then a nascent politician on the make in Venezuela, saw Castro as a political mentor, a simpatico ally against the elites and imperialists who he blamed for the world’s ills. Chávez also oversaw some of the world’s largest oil reserves. Venezuela currently sends almost 100,000 barrels per day of oil to the island—more than half of Cuba’s consumption—as well as aid thought to be worth in total between $5 billion and $15 billion a year, or some 15% of Cuba’s GDP. (More precise figures are hard to come by given the opacity of both governments.)

But Chávez is dead, and today Venezuela’s economy is in tatters, exacerbated by a fall in the price of oil, which provides 96% of Venezuela’s foreign revenue. The country’s local currency on the black market has fallen 35% in the last month; annual inflation is at more than 60% and there is serious talk of default on Wall Street. Many economists are talking of a “perfect storm” brewing for current Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose approval ratings have fallen to the mid-twenties.

The lack of guaranteed support from Caracas would have made Cuban President Raúl Castro “much more eager to negotiate and given the U.S. leverage,” said Ted Henken, President of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy and author of several books on Cuba.

As Havana makes peace with Washington, Venezuelan authorities are left increasingly isolated. While Cuba and Venezuela held onto leftist principles, other countries in the region have in recent years taken more pragmatic policy decisions. “Obama has pulled the rug out from under Maduro,” said Christopher Sabatini, Senior Director of Policy at the Council of the Americas. “It’s going to be a lot easier for other U.S. allies in the region to swing away from Venezuela.”

In the last couple of weeks, in response to sanctions by Washington on top Venezuelan officials for alleged human rights abuses, Maduro has rallied against the U.S. “It shows a lack of respect!” boomed the mustachioed president to a few thousand supporters in Caracas on Dec. 15. “They can shove their US visas.” On Wednesday, though, Maduro praised Obama’s “gesture” towards Cuba. “How sad it is to have a government who 72 hours ago launched an anti-imperialist diatribe against Obama and now describes him as ‘courageous,’” said Jesús Torrealba, head of Venezuela’s opposition coalition.

Cuba learned its lessons from the Special Period and in recent years began to diversify. On the ground, rules have been loosened on private restaurants, guesthouses and the buying and selling of property. Cubans are even allowed Internet access, though only about 5 percent of the country can reach the Web. On a more global scale, international investors have come in; the Scarabeo 9 oil rig sailed into the Florida Straits in January 2012. It was Chinese-built, Italian-owned, and was to be used by Spanish, Norwegian and Indian firms, among others.

Cuba was likely well aware those small reforms would not be enough in the long run. There are a mixture of elements that have come together to allow this historic moment: from Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro themselves to mediators in the Vatican and Canada. Yet, the unwitting spur for the restoration of relations between the U.S. and Cuba may be Hugo Chávez himself, and the inability of his successors to manage Venezuela’s economy.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: December 16

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Micropayments and digital currencies will ignite an explosion of disruptive innovation.

By Walter Isaacson in LinkedIn

2. Latin America is taking the lead with progressive food policies — and putting public health above the interests of the food industry.

By Andy Bellatti in Civil Eats

3. To preserve biodiversity and lift up communities facing hunger in sub-Saharan Africa, indigenous plants might provide a solution.

By Amy Maxmen in Newsweek

4. Teacher preparation programs seek change with a pinpoint innovation approach. It’s time for a broad scale transformation of teaching.

By Kaylan Connally in EdCentral

5. Making clean plastics from biofuel waste could free up valuable farmland for food crops.

By Matt Safford in Smithsonian

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Environment

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon Is Easing Up

An aerial view of a tract of Amazon jungle recently cleared by loggers and farmers near the city of Novo Progresso
An aerial view of a tract of the Amazon jungle recently cleared by loggers and farmers near the Brazilian city of Novo Progresso, Pará state, on Sept. 22, 2013 © Nacho Doce / Reuters—REUTERS

In fact, it just fell to its second lowest level in 25 years

Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has fallen to its second lowest level in 25 years, according to the country’s Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira.

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Teixeira said 4,848 sq km of forest were cut down between August 2013 and July 2014, compared with 5,891 sq km during the same period a year earlier, the Associated Press reports.

The drop is a surprise, since environmental groups have been warning of an increase following the adoption of a controversial 2012 bill that eases clearing restrictions for small landowners.

“The major message is O.K., is good: Brazil has been advancing,” says Marco Lentini, coordinator of the Amazon program for WWF’s Brazil branch, while cautioning: “It doesn’t mean that the deforestation issue is over.”

The Amazon rainforest, considered an essential natural defense against global warming, is gradually being razed to make way for cattle grazing, soy plantations and logging. Sixty percent of the forest is found in Brazil, which has pledged to reduce deforestation to 3,900 sq km per year by 2020.

[AP]

TIME Religion

Border Crisis: Central American Churches Try to Keep Children Home

Members of a Catholic church in a small town along the Guatemala and Mexico border hold a special mass celebrating the Virgin of Shelter.
Members of a Catholic church in El Pedregal, a small town along the Guatemala and Mexico border, hold a special Mass celebrating the Virgin of Shelter for undocumented migrants passing through their town, July 4, 2014. Meridith Kohut—The New York Times/Redux

Pastors in the United States and across Central America and Mexico have a new message: do not send kids to the border.

Thousands of children continue to cross the US-Mexico border without parents, and a growing group of Hispanic Christian pastors is urging churches across Central America to keep their children from making the trip. Their goal is ambitious: zero unaccompanied minors at the border by the end of the year.

The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference/CONELA, a Hispanic Christian network that serves more than 40,000 churches in the US and 500,000 worldwide, is spearheading the campaign along with three other US-based faith organizations, Buckner International, Convoy of Hope, and Somebody Cares International. Together they hope to mobilize their member churches and partners in Central and South America to stop the children’s migration. “I believe it is wrong for parents to send children to the US border when the primary protective firewall for these children lies in a loving Christ-filled home where faith, family and education stand prevalent,” Samuel Rodriguez, president of NHCLC/CONELA, explains. “Correspondingly, as a nation and as people of faith, we must serve, heal and minister to those that have arrived in our nation because theirs, according to Jesus, is the kingdom of heaven.”

For now, the coalition is spreading the message primarily from pulpits and via a media campaign. The group launched a new website, ForHisChildren.net, on Wednesday, and is also beginning a radio ad campaign targeting some 500 radio stations, both secular and Christian, in Central and South America. Their message is direct: “How can we best protect our children? By making Christ the center of our homes, for a family filled with faith, hope and love stands as the primary deterrent against gangs, drugs and violence,” one of the Spanish ads says. “Keep your children home. Do not send them to the US border rather declare like Joshua, ‘As for me and my house, we shall serve The Lord.’”

NHCLC/CONELA leaders took this message to a gathering of 2,000 church leaders from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, in Guadalajara, Mexico, on July 10. The risk and likelihood of physical and psychological hardship, sexual abuse, and gang involvement, Rodriguez explained to the pastors there, outweighs the perceived benefits of letting children try to enter the United States. He asked pastors to share this message from their own pulpits: “Con Fe en Cristo y la familia junta; nuestros ninos tienen un future,” which translates as, “With faith in Christ and the family together, our children have a future.”

Beyond the humanitarian crisis at the border, the US faith leaders have political incentive to advise constituents to keep kids at home—vast numbers of migrating children continue to complicate the political challenge of passing immigration reform, which the leaders support. From October through the end of June, nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended crossing the US border, and nearly all were from Central American and Mexico. The number of children under age 12 who have been caught at the border has more than doubled this fiscal year over last year, according to data obtained by the Pew Research Center. Earlier this week, NHCLC members met with White House officials and, separately, with Senator Ted Cruz to share their recent efforts to prevent children from illegally coming to the US.

Fermín García, pastor of the 7,000-member strong church Grupo Unidad Cristiana de México (Christian Unity Group of Mexico) in Tijuana, leads the NHCLC Mexico chapter, which includes thousands of Church of God, Assemblies of God, Foursquare and Methodist churches. He is working to spread the message across Mexico pastor to pastor, and this week he met with leaders of the Foursquare denomination at their national convention in Baja California to give them copies of the media spots to share with their local churches. Biblical principles, he explains, are what ultimately change kids lives, and that’s one of the reasons it is so important for pastors to spread the keep-kids-home message. “Parents don’t want children to fall into gangs or with poverty, unfortunately it seems they are finding the same thing, only now away from their family,” Garcia says. “Changes come with hearts being changed, not with money.”

Costa Rican pastor Ricardo Castillo Medina, who serves as president of the Hispanic Federation of the Assemblies of God, was initially surprised to learn of the campaign, but he quickly joined and helped to coordinate awareness and humanitarian aid for children. His network in the most vulnerable immigration zones is large—2,300 churches in El Salvador, 1,750 in Honduras, 2,600 in Guatemala, 5,000 in Mexico. The churches in his network, he says, now have instructions to share messages to keep kids home with their communities. Families need to know, he explains via email, that the risks involved for children seeking the American dream could turn it into a nightmare. “We can avoid children suffering abuse and exposure to inhumane conditions, and besides that it is a social-political problem,” he says.

Whether the overall campaign works on the broad scale remains to be seen. The motivating forces behind the children’s migration, like violence and poverty, have far from an easy fix. “Everything is still new and you can’t yet measure the impact,” Castillo says, “but I think we’re going to raise awareness so that children are not used.”

TIME migration

Central American Migrants Travel North, Hoping to Find Homes in U.S.

Families and children are migrating to the U.S. in huge numbers after hearing they will not be turned away. Associated Press photographer Rebecca Blackwell has been following Central American migrants as they travel through Mexico toward the United States

Unaccompanied child immigrants from Central America have poured across the southern U.S. border in recent months. Mostly spurred by violence and poor economic conditions in Central America, the migrants also believe changes in U.S. immigration policy will allow them to stay.

They aren’t completely wrong. Because border facilities are so overwhelmed, authorities often release children into the care of relatives already in the U.S. and allow mothers with children to enter the country with a notice to appear in immigration court. Detentions of unaccompanied minors at the U.S. border have more than tripled since 2011, the Associated Press reports.

Government officials have hotly debated what to do with the increasing number of Central American migrants, but no easy solution has been found.

TIME Religion

Pope for Legal Dope? Still Nope.

Pope Israel
Pope Francis listens to a speech during his meeting with Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, at the Heichal Shlomo center in Jerusalem on May 26, 2014 Andrew Medichini—AP

The Holy Father is standing firm against recreational drugs, even as his home continent pushes for legalization

Pope Francis is not changing his mind about recreational drug use or marijuana legalization. On Friday morning, the Holy Father made his anti-pot position clear to the International Drug Enforcement Conference in Rome. “Let me state this in the clearest terms possible: the problem of drug use is not solved with drugs!” the Pope said. “Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise.”

Legalization, he continued, should be a no-go. “Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called ‘recreational drugs,’ are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects,” he said.

It is far from a new position, either for Francis or the Vatican. In 2001, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Health Care urged governments to resist legalization even on soft drugs in the manual “Church, Drugs, and Drug Addiction,” published at the request of John Paul II. Francis said no to legalization as a bishop in Argentina when he was still Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. Last summer, Pope Francis condemned legalization when he was in Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day. “The scourge of drug trafficking, that favors violence and sows the seeds of suffering and death, requires of society as a whole an act of courage,” he told the crowd, adding that legalization would not yield “a reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction.”

The Pope’s position is similar to the Dalai Lama’s, who also warns against recreational use. “These kinds of substances are generally considered poison, very bad,” he told TIME in February. “The ability to judge reality is something very unique. Our brain is something very special. So if that is damaged, that’s awful. So alcohol and drugs are very bad.”

Francis’ reasoning is not so much about drugs themselves as about the broader suffering they cause, not just for individuals, but also for communities. Drugs dependencies can both hurt relationships and trap people in poverty. “To say this ‘no,’ one has to say ‘yes’ to life, ‘yes’ to love, ‘yes’ to others, ‘yes’ to education, ‘yes’ to greater job opportunities,” the Pope explained. “If we say ‘yes’ to all these things, there will be no room for illicit drugs, for alcohol abuse, for other forms of addiction.”

He is particularly concerned about their impact on young people. “The scourge of drug use continues to spread inexorably, fed by a deplorable commerce which transcends national and continental borders,” he said. “As a result, the lives of more and more young people and adolescents are in danger.”

Even if his words are not new, it is still a significant stand for the first Pope from Latin America to take. The region has been at the forefront of the drug wars for years, and many lawmakers there have been arguing that legalization and regulation are actually the way out of the cycle of violence and poverty associated with the trade.

Last year Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize the marijuana trade—growing, selling, smoking—to try to push traffickers out to the pot business, and President José “Pepe” Mujica was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Argentina, Francis’ home, decriminalized possession of controlled substances in 2009, and Catholic priest Juan Carlos Molina, who serves as the country’s drug czar, called for a debate about whether or not Argentina should follow Uruguay’s example. In Brazil trafficking the drug is criminal but personal use is not punished. Mexico decriminalized small amounts of marijuana in 2009.

Francis may not have directly taken on these policies this morning, it is hard to imagine they are far from his mind, especially since South America is in the global spotlight for the World Cup games. The last major time he spoke out against recreational drugs was also when Rio de Janiero was an international focus for World Youth Day. It’s another reminder that the world’s top Catholic leader knows how to play the political game.

TIME

This Is How You Resurrect America’s Dying Malls

The American mall of the future may look a lot like the kinds of public markets traditionally found in towns and cities in the developing world.

The recession and the rise of e-commerce have left many U.S. shopping malls nearly vacant or completely dead. A new mall hasn’t been built in the United States since 2006, and growth in brick-and-mortar shopping centers has slowed to a crawl. Business owners and mall managers are looking for ways to bring their properties back to life — and they increasingly they see Hispanics as a vital part of the solution.

One in every six Americans is Hispanic, up from one in sixteen in 1980. The Hispanic population in the U.S. today is over 52 million and counting. And with a buying power of $1.2 trillion, Hispanic consumers are fast becoming a valued prize to be won by American businesses.

But some question whether Hispanic consumers are really the answer. The children of immigrants are assimilating fast, breaking free of their parents’ old-world values. Many don’t want to shop in Hispanic malls or listen to mariachi music. Will Hispanics lose their economic clout as their children evaporate into the American cultural cloud, or will the Hispanic consumer become the new American consumer?

TIME Cuba

Report: U.S. Officials Created a ‘Cuban Twitter’ to Overthrow Castro

Washington covertly made ZunZuneo, Cuban slang for a hummingbird's tweet, to woo mobile users with news stories. Once the platform's audience would balloon, the supposed—and failed—goal was to flood it with “content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize ‘smart mobs'

Fifty-three years after the C.I.A. failed to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government with a group of armed Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, the U.S. government is still trying to dislodge the Caribbean island’s communist regime, according to a new report.

The Associated Press, citing documents and people involved in the project, reports the U.S. government has been working covert backchannels with aid agencies funneling money through front companies for years to create a social media platform designed to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”

The social media platform called ZunZuneo, Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet, was designed to entice the country’s mobile users with non-controversial news stories. Later, once the platform had engaged hundreds of thousands of followers, ZunZuneo was then supposed to be flooded with “content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize ‘smart mobs.’”

During its peak, the service attracted 40,000 followers, but fizzled out due to funding issues among the front companies in 2012. In the end, the U.S. government’s Cuban social media platform failed to incite a revolution and Fidel’s brother Raul Castro remains firmly in power.

[AP]

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