Brazilian President and Former Uruguayan President to Meet with Cuban Leaders to Urge More Openness

Lula da Silva with former Uruguayan president Jose Pepe Mujica last January in Montevideo. (Ricardo Stuckert/Presidencia Brasil)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Madrid, 18 August 2023 — In its most recent issue, the Uruguayan weekly Búsqueda reported that the Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, and former president of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, will travel to Cuba before year’s end in an effort to convince the regime to allow “greater openness” in the economy and international relations.

According to the article, the two leftist leaders plan to meet with both government officials and representatives of civil society in order to “help them promote greater openness and offer them local and international support.” This suggests they will not be meeting with opponents of the regime or those with differing political views but rather with businesspeople and self-employed workers.

If it does take place, the visit would be similar, at least officially, to one last May by Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top foreign affairs representative. During that trip, Borell met with Cuban officials and Catholic bishops, and attended a forum for small and medium-sized companies. His counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, was absent during these meetings, claiming he had an infection.

A few days later, however, Borrell himself said in an interview that he had met with relatives of prisoners arrested in the aftermath of the mass protests that took place on the island on July 11. One of them, Barbara Alina Lopez, confirmed that she and other members of civil society, whose names were not disclosed, had met with Borrell. Lopez has since been subjected to retaliations by the regime.

The article points out that Lula and Mujica share a common concern about the current situation on the island with regard to widespread shortages of food, electricity and consumer goods. Another concern, heretofore unexpressed by either men, relates to demonstrations and accusations by Cuban citizens about “restriction of their liberties.”

The Uruguayan government is aware of the trip, which is no trivial matter given that current president Luis Lacalle Pou is, among Latin American leaders, one of the most critical of Havana. There was a tense moment at the 2021 Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) when Lacalle Pou quoted a few lyrics from Patria y Vida, a popular anti-government anthem in support of the July 11 protests, for Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel.*

Mujica’s visit will presumably be in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the government, so Lacalle has no grounds to object. The article notes, however, that the attitude among the region’s leaders towards the trip is positive: “Information about the joint visit of Lula and Mujica to Cuba, which has been under communist rule since 1959, is already making the rounds in diplomatic circles and is viewed favorably by representatives of different governments according to political sources,” reads the article.

The two leaders share a past closely linked to trade unionist and leftist guerrilla movements. Both were jailed in the 1980s. (Lula was detained for a month in 1980 for inciting workers to carry out an illegal strike while Mujica spent 12 years in jail, between 1973 and 1985, under the military dictatorship). Although they have maintained excellent personal and political relations with members of the Cuban regime, each has also served as the democratically elected president of his country on more than one occasion, making them ideal emissaries.

Though he maintained a close personal relationship with Fidel Castro, whom he admired, Mujica has been publicly critical of the regime, especially in the last ten years. “We know all too well about socialist realism — all the troubles of the Cuban revolution and culture — so don’t fuck with me!” he was once quoted as saying. Barack Obama is believed to have asked him to serve as mediator in negotiations for the release of U.S. government contractor Alan Gross from a Cuban prison and to facilitate the subsequent thaw in relations between Cuba and the U.S., so it would not be the first time he has attempted to play this type a role.

As for Lula, he has always been the more ambiguous of the two. His formed a very public alliance with Fidel Castro which lasted until Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in 2019. When Lula won reelection last January, he reestablished relations with both Venezuela and Cuba, and he has never been openly critical of the communist regime. In February, however, he had a meeting with Joe Biden at the White House, at which time the Cuban situation was apparently discussed.

This week, the Brazilian president sent his special adviser, Celso Amorím, to the island in order to make sure he would not have to speak with Bruno Rodriguez again. A tweet from the Cuban foreign minister was the only public comment he made about the meeting, reaffirming “the desire to strengthen bilateral relations and take advantage of existing potentialities.”

*Translator’s note: Diaz-Canel reacted angrily to the remarks, saying, “I believe President Lacalle has very bad tastes in music.”


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