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An Embrace Between Equals: Alexander Lukashenko and Raúl Castro

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

Sánchez

Translator: Unstated, Yoani Sánchez

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

http://translatingcuba.com/?p=19522

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