How Obama Conquered Latin America (In A Good Way)

President Barack Obama is restoring United States influence on the American continent, a reminder of the importance of neighbors.

Waving a U.S. flag near the just reopened U.S. embassy in Havana.
Waving a U.S. flag near the just reopened U.S. embassy in Havana.


SANTIAGO â€" The image of Barack Obama and Raúl Castro shaking hands at last spring's Panama summit left little doubt that U.S.-Cuba relations have changed forever. But it turns out to be even more than that. By renewing a friendly dialogue with Venezuela and Brazil, Obama has shown that the handshake with President Castro was really an invitation to friendship for all of Latin America.

With Cuba, diplomatic ties were formally restored Monday as both countries moved to reopen embassies. U.S. businesses, like Carnival cruises, were soon announcing plans to snap up the business opportunities the restored ties would create.

Congress must debate President Obama's decision to end the decades-long embargo on Cuba â€" and this will be no formality, given its many members who like neither Cuba nor Obama. But his initiative should prevail, considering the potential it creates for U.S. businesses. For Cuba it will bring in significant investment and access to the giant consumer market next door.

Détente with Cuba was a surprising gesture from Obama, but equally surprising are the recent overtures to Venezuela.

It appears Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was the one to take the first step. In March, when bilateral ties appeared to be at their nadir, Maduro asked for a direct communication channel with the United States. Weeks ago, the U.S. government revealed the channel was in place and working, and this was confirmed by Maduro who praised Obama for aiding its creation.

Venezuela's foreign ministry and the State Department then confirmed on June 14 that Venezuela's powerful parliamentary speaker, Diosdado Cabello, had met with a senior State Department official. They emphasized in that meeting the outlines of a dialogue around shared interests, like Colombia's peace talks with FARC rebels and December's presidential elections in Haiti. That meeting specifically yielded a commitment on Venezuela's part to finance a United Nations team travelling to Haiti in August to poll voting intentions. Cabello observed at the end of the meeting that Venezuela wanted better relations with the United States.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, meanwhile, is another leader whose ties with the United States have gotten visibly warmer in recent months. Two years ago, she cancelled a visit to Washington when it was revealed the U.S. had been reading her emails. But in June, she was in Washington, radiant and wooing investors arm-in-arm with President Obama. She offered deals for public works worth $64 billion, and sought advice on innovation from Silicon Valley wizards. She obtained a promise that the United States would end its ban on Brazilian beef, in place for the past 14 years, and there was talk of a tariffs agreement for 2016.

Dilma Rousseff with Barack Obama on June 30 in Washington, D.C. â€" Photo: Chip Somodevilla/CNP/ZUMA

It is not hard to see the interest of Latin American states in reconciling themselves with the United States. Havana is just 160 kilometers from Florida and renewing its diplomatic and trade ties with the U.S. is far more beneficial to it than to its big neighbor.

Helping Dilma

For Venezuela, falling oil prices have made it impossible for it to continue financing the social programs that have sustained its brand of socialism. Responsible for the country's runaway inflation, with the devaluation of its currency a daily reality, forex reserves creeping toward zero, shortages of basic products and unfettered criminal violence, Maduro has seen his popularity plummet to below 25%. He needs to give his compatriots a piece of good news â€" and becoming friends with Obama is seen as good news here.

In Dilma's case, rapprochement with the United States will also help boost her public standing in the face of a stagnating economy, inflation and the ongoing Petrobras corruption scandals. A successful trip to Washington and Obama's description of Brazil as a global power with interests and values aligned with those of the United States, have proved to be a tonic for a country that has lost a good deal of self-esteem.

Less obvious are the motivations driving Obama's Latin American diplomatic flurry. Very few Americans seem to care about what goes on outside their country, unless it is a terrorist threat. Reconciliation with Castro, Maduro and Rousseff barely registers on the radar of the wider public, and would certainly not seem to earn the U.S. president or the next Democratic presidential candidate popularity.

Obama has a little more than a year left in office, and he seems to want to leave a legacy. After seven years of attending to crises and emergencies, he is taking actions that will shape the United States' future as a global power, and in these endeavors he has shown resolve, intelligence and calm.

Even if it pales in comparison to the Iran nuclear deal, recovering a measure of friendship with three key players in its own hemisphere, Cuba, Venezuela and Brazil, is no minor diplomatic feat. All this is good news for Latin America, especially for Venezuela and Cuba, which can begin to count on U.S. support in exchange for guarantees on human rights, press freedoms and democratic practices. The region benefits from its friendship with the superpower on its doorstep. While China may have become the premier trading partner of many Latin American countries, the United States will remain the region's most influential state for decades.

Having a rich and powerful neighbor can bring either threats or opportunities. It is a reality that Latin American states are always learning to live with it, even if in his last year in office, Obama is making that just a little bit easier.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.



"The truest hypocrisy": the Russia-NATO clash seen from Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale. Here's Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan writing for Kommersant:

The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped to strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan / Kommersant


• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.


"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.



For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.


Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️


"We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today."

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.


Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.


\u200bQueen Elizabeth II talks to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a reception for international business and investment leaders at Windsor Castle during yesterday's Global Investment Summit. Today, the 95-year-old British monarch was advised by her doctors to cancel a two-visit to Northern Ireland, although she is reportedly "in good spirits". \u2014 Photo: Pool/i-Images/ZUMA

Queen Elizabeth II talks to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a reception for international business and investment leaders at Windsor Castle during yesterday's Global Investment Summit. Today, the 95-year-old British monarch was advised by her doctors to cancel a two-visit to Northern Ireland, although she is reportedly "in good spirits". — Photo: Pool/i-Images/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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