An Embrace Between Equals: Alexander Lukashenko and Raúl Castro / Yoani Sánchez

Raúl Castro and Alexander Lukashenko say goodbye at Havana’s airport. Source: cubadebate

A colorfully painted presidential plane landed at José Marti airport last Sunday, and by Monday afternoon was already taking off again, headed to Venezuela. Alexander Lukashenko’s visit to Cuba, part of a brief tour of Latin America that included Ecuador, lasted just over 24 hours.

To commemorate twenty years of diplomatic relations between Havana and Minsk, Raúl Castro received the man who is considered “the last dictator in Europe” at the Palace of the Revolution. The laying of a wreath at the statue of our national hero, the exchange of hugs between host and guest, a triumphant photo at the foot of the stairs. In short, the protocol of official sympathy upheld in all its glory.

With this meeting an alliance was consolidated between two governments who have become especially close in the last five years. Both leaders are trying to survive increased social unrest within their borders, as well as increased international pressure challenging the legitimacy of their mandates. Hence, they consider their mutual relationship “strategic,” especially at a time when they are suffering growing diplomatic isolation. Both are examples of the solitude that surrounds autocrats.

Trade between Cuba and Belarus now exceeds 50 million dollars, and includes technology, transport and agricultural machinery. This commerce received a new impetus during Lukashenko’s stay on the Island, with the signing of two agreements and three memorandums of cooperation in agriculture, technology, science and health.

Many of the buses that travel the streets of Havana are successive purchases from this former Socialist Soviet Republic. After years of over-use and few repairs many of these vehicles urgently await spare parts. The newly initialed agreements could help in this direction, specifically to reduce the long lines that form at bus stops on the Island.

Also encouraging is the commitment of the Belarus delegation to modernize refineries and repair the national energy system, as well as their interest in our biotechnology research. But the economic bonanza is just a small part of the ties that bind what was once called “White Russia” with the largest of the Antilles.

There is speculation that this has been a visit characterized more by ideology than by economics. Raúl Castro’s government has been supporting Lukashenko and has aligned itself with him on repeated occasions before the Human Rights Council at the United Nations. In 2010, elections in Belarus sparked heavy criticism among the opposition sector, victimized by strong electoral irregularities. The Cuba partisan press, however, reported the issue entirely from the point of view of its counterpart.

On the other hand, the discourse of both leaders is fraught with that anti-imperialist diatribe that tries so hard to hide the fundamental contradictions of their regimes: that between the government and the governed. They have shaken hands in Havana just as the reforms undertaken by the General President, beginning in 2008, have reached a point of stagnation, with people now waiting for other relaxations, most importantly in the area of travel and immigration restrictions.

The well-worn argument that “Raúl Castro wants to implement more changes but the bureaucrats won’t let him,” is less convincing to Cubans every day. Also lacking is any gesture to demonstrate that there are changes afoot in the political and diplomatic order. In this context, the open-arm welcome of Lukashenko seems to signal a direction completely contrary to that which people are hoping to see.

Another important variable in the relationship between Havana and Minsk is, undoubtedly, the presence of Hugo Chavez as the main guarantor of this particular friendship. For Belarus, Caracas stands as the gateway to Latin America, with more than 200 cooperation agreements including 25 recently signed in the areas of oil, gas, petrochemicals, industry and housing construction. Without the third leg represented by Miraflores, the bilateral stool would face too many difficulties to stand alone, and the relationship would likely be more distant.

An association marked by affinities, a pact based on the common character of two totalitarian regimes, are some of the motivations that lie behind this meeting full of smiles and pats on the back. Lukashenko has now ruled his nation with an iron fist for 18 years, and Raúl Castro inherited the presidential chair through blood-ties from his brother in 2006.

They both know they have a great deal to lose were they to allow certain freedoms of expression and association in their respective countries. They sense that their time is passing and that their people could react at any moment. Being together makes them believe they are strong, invincible.

28 June 2012