Brazil in Cuba, When Pragmatism Overcomes Ideology

Former Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff and former Cuban president Raul Castro at the opening of the Mariel Special Development Zone in Cuba.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 16 February 2019 — A enormous crane lifting a container filled the TV screens of millions of Cubans in January 2014, during the inauguration of the first part of the Mariel Special Development Zone, west of Havana. In the official photo, Dilma Rousseff smiled with Raúl Castro; but five years later, that port has not managed to get the island out of its economic crisis and the former Brazilian president is a political corpse.

Mariel, the coastal area from where, in 1980, tens of thousands of Cubans, fed up with the Communist model, left for Florida, has become the «white elephant» of Castroism in the last decade. All the hopes of the nation were placed in that pharaonic work, financed thanks to the support of Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT).

The construction of the «commercial emporium» was carried out by Odebrecht, the Brazilian conglomerate that shortly after the inauguration became the centerpiece of a corruption scandal that touches several Latin American governments, numerous political parties and hundreds of officials.

However, the main problem has been trying to make Mariel a kind of laboratory of capitalism in a nationalized country led by a group of octogenarians who distrust the market.

When Rousseff and Castro cut the tape to open that first part of the Mariel container terminal, they were also sending a message. Those were the times when starring in the family photo of Latin American presidents were the faces of the representatives of 21st Century Socialism. A brotherhood of comrades who supported each other in international forums and helped hide – reciprocally – their authoritarian excesses.

So the Cuban port, financed with a loan from Brazil’s National Bank of Economic and Social Development (BNDES), was not only part of a strategy of solidarity with the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana, to alleviate its chronic inability to produce riches, but also an ideological intention to make viable a model that, in half a century, had given more than sufficient evidence of its failure.

As the subsidy from the Soviet Union had once sustained the deliriums of Fidel Castro and, later, Hugo Chavez’s patronage allowed him to pass power to his younger brother Raúl, Brazil wanted to lend a shoulder to keep alive “the flame” of the Cuban Revolution. It was an almost archaeological rescue task, an effort to make it seem that a regime was still breathing through its own lungs, though it was incapable of surviving without outside resources.

In January of 2014 several months still remained before the announcement of the diplomatic thaw between Cuba and the United States, but without a doubt the entire port of Mariel was designed to accommodate ships that, having stopped on the island, would end in US ports and vice versa. After five years, the thaw cooled again due to Havana’s inability quickly respond to the opening promoted by Barack Obama in his relationship with the island, and Donald Trump’s arrival in the Oval Office.

Nor does the PT remain in power in Brazil and little remains of that family portrait of the region where you could see faces like Rafael Correa, Rousseff herself or Michelle Bachelet. From those «golden times» Cuba was left with a debt that it can barely pay its former South American partner and a port that is becoming a theme park of the past every day that it fails to attract ships loaded with merchandise or investors willing to settle in its commercial area.

But the Brazilian withdrawal from the island has not stopped there. At the end of 2018 an angry diplomatic dispute between the regime of Miguel Diaz-Canel and Brazil’s then president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, ended in the untimely departure of thousands of Cuban health professionals from the Mais Médicos program.

Bolsonaro accused Havana of practicing modern slavery with its doctors on mission and demanded that they be paid the full amount of their salary, because the Cuban government was keeping 75% of the $3,300 that Brazil paid for each doctor. He also demanded that the doctors pass tests to validate their titles and demonstrate their knowledge, but the Island’s Ministry of Public Health did not accept these terms and slammed the door.

Behind the headlines and the clash between the two administrations, the small stories of thousands of Cubans who are now trying to reconstruct their hopes to improve their lives and that of their families were omitted. Many of them had arrived in Brazil not only moved by the humanitarian instinct inherent in all health personnel, but also driven by their economic needs.

Doctors in Cuba are the best paid of all professionals, however, their monthly salary does not exceed the equivalent of 60 dollars. That is why it is not uncommon to see a doctor with broken shoes, who has not been able to eat breakfast because he does not have the resources to do so, or who has to wait two-hours for a public bus before arriving at an operating room to perform a complicated brain surgery.

Official missions abroad have always been an opportunity for these doctors to access greater financial resources, despite the high percentage of their salary retained by the authorities. But, above all, it is a propitious stage to establish human relationships that allow them to marry, create friendships or contacts to stay in another country or to return later in a private way.

With the vertiginous departure from Brazil, the dreams of many of those doctors were shattered. The same happened with the Port of Mariel that had filled with illusions the inhabitants of the small town in that coastal area west of Havana, as it had many Cubans who for decades have expected the island’s economy to rise so that they might live more decently and not have to watch their children leave for exile.

For all that, right now, to say “Brazil” in Cuba is to mention a dream, the illusion of what could have been and was not; but it is also evidence of the failure of a strategy and the fall from grace of a support that was more ideological than pragmatic.

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Note: A Portuguese version of this text has been published in the Brazilian magazine Crusoé  and is reproduced in this newspaper with the authorization of the author.

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