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January 3, 2007

Castro Watch

Kevin E. Dayhoff

We have many things to look forward to in 2007 and certainly at the top of the list is the eventual demise of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Now that deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (who ruled from 1979 to 2003) was hanged December 30, and former Chilean dictator (1973 -1990) Augusto Pinochet passed away December 10; if the "rule of three" works, we will all look forward to the exit, stage left, of Cuban's Castro.

Mostly lost in all the retrospectives of 2006 and the prognostications as to what we may look forward to in 2007 is the prospect of what is the future of the United States' relations with the island nation in a post-Castro era.

The bigger question is what is the future of our relations with Central and South America? To a certain extent, our associations with much of our neighbors to the south have suffered benign neglect in the last number of years.

Yes, of course, there has been the occasional gnashing of teeth over the antics of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. And our relations with Mexico over illegal immigration have certainly received much attention in recent years; but there is much more to Central and South America than Mexico and Venezuela.

Elections in Chile, Bolivia and Brazil have seen populist-socialists come to power. Last year saw what many are beginning to understand as a "radical" left bloc forming between Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela, in contrast with the more moderate leftist governments of Brazil, Chile and Uruguay.

With the exception of the Mexican presidential elections, all the aforementioned countries saw leftist candidates narrowly defeating center-right business oriented candidates in their most recent election.

Meanwhile all the major players in South America seem to be ignoring the United States more than the United States is ignoring them - and that is saying something. And all of them have more influence in Cuba, individually and collectively than the United States. That is a serious problem for the U.S. in the immediate future.

One of the major South American players, Argentina, has seen its economy soar in the last several years as it seems light-years since it defaulted on its international debt in 2002. The country is rich in natural resources and maintains a large, upwardly mobile and highly educated middle class. Its Gross Domestic Product is rapidly rising as are its agricultural and mining exports.

Its young president, Néstor Kirchner, has recently gravitated a great deal to the left and is reported to be closer with Venezuelan President Chávez. He was inaugurated to a four-year term on May 25, 2003, and by all reports he intends to run again in 2007.

Long criticized for maintaining a somewhat closed economy, as the country continues to look beyond its borders, it will not long be ignored, especially considering its substantial agricultural clout. You can bet China knows where Argentina is on the world map.

In Chile, socialist Michelle Bachelet is the first woman president in Chilean history. She took office on March 11, 2006, and is considered to be one of the most powerful women in the world. Paradoxically, she is relatively unknown in the United States.

She lived in Bethesda for several years in the 1960s when her father was a Chilean military attaché assigned to Washington. She attended Westland Junior High School.

A physician by profession, she speaks five languages fluently. In addition to being an accomplished physician, she holds a masters degree in military science from Chile's war academy and is one of the world's leading authorities on military matters.

She is a world leader who will not tolerate being ignored in western hemispheric matters or the world stage. She certainly should not be ignored in a post-Castro era; and it may be best for the United States to build a relationship with her long before it is needed.

Recently elected Bolivian President Evo Morales is another young socialist. He won his election for several reasons, not the least of which was his strident anti-American platform, which included such rhetoric as the "worst enemy of humanity is U.S. capitalism."

Getting back to Cuban President Castro, Monday marked the 48th anniversary of his rise to power. He formed the first communist government in the western hemisphere in 1959 and at this point in time is the longest-serving leader in the world.

Hopefully, by the end of the year, we may all celebrate the end of his brutal regime and look forward to some normalization of relations with "a former" communist island so close to the United States. It is said that you can water-ski to it from Key West.

At 80-years of age, time is not on President Castro's side. Just last July, he turned over his duties as president of the Cuban Council of State to his brother, Raul. At the time, it was reported to be a temporary delegation as he recovered from some sort of abdominal surgery.

His health is a "state secret" and very few outside Cuba really know the true nature of this illness, except Spanish physician José Luis García Sabrido, the president of Venezuela, and Bolivian President Morales.

Meanwhile, today is the anniversary of the date in 1961 that the United States severed diplomatic relations with Cuba. Hopefully, events this year will unfold to see the re-establishment and normalization of relations with a post-Castro Cuba.

According to news accounts, last Saturday, President Castro called the Chinese ambassador to Cuba to wish Chinese President Hu Jintao a Happy New Year.

Chinese investment and interest in South and Central America can easily be characterized as "aggressive." Our efforts can easily be characterized as non-existent. This is a serious problem that simply must be addressed in 2007.

One wonders "what's the plan?"

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at: kdayhoff@carr.org



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