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Rousseff in Cuba Points to U.S. Human Rights Record

(Corrects story from Jan. 31 to change description of photograph in Sanchez blog in next-to-last paragraph.)

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff pushed back against criticisms of Cuba’s human rights record that have intruded on her first state visit to the communist island, saying a U.S. detention camp for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay is also a concern.

Rousseff, who was inspired by Cuba’s revolution to take up arms against Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1960s, said that while she’ll discuss human rights in meetings today with President Raul Castro and his brother Fidel, their government’s record won’t be the sole focus. All countries, including Brazil, must protect the rights of their citizens, she said.

“We’re going to begin talking about human rights in the U.S., in regard to a base here called Guantanamo,” Rousseff, referring to the U.S. detention camp, which is located on Cuba’s southeastern tip, told reporters in Havana. “It’s not possible to use human rights as a political and ideological weapon.”

The death this month of jailed dissident Wilman Villar after a 50-day hunger strike has drawn attention in Brazil’s media to Castro’s rights record and the government’s refusal to criticize it. While Rousseff has so far ignored requests for a meeting from pro-democracy activists, her government last week granted a tourist visa to Yoani Sanchez after the Cuban blogger invoked the president’s experience surviving prison and torture in an appeal to be allowed to leave the island.

‘Awkward Situation’

Rousseff vowed to make human rights a priority of her foreign policy, and in condemning abuses in Iran, she’s also distanced herself from the policies of her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Urged on by his Workers’ Party, some of whose leaders were exiled in Cuba, Lula refused to criticize Castro or his brother’s government while in power from 2003 to 2010. Following a visit in 2010, which coincided with the death of another hunger striker, the former union leader compared the country’s dissidents to “criminals” in Sao Paulo jails.

“Rousseff is going to be in a very awkward situation by choice,” former Brazilian Foreign Minister Luiz Felipe Lampreia said in a phone interview from Rio de Janeiro. “She didn’t have to go to Cuba.”

Rousseff, 64, said that with “great pride” she would meet Fidel Castro during her three-day tour of Cuba and Haiti, where she’ll head tomorrow to oversee Brazilian troops leading an United Nations peacekeeping force.

No Back-Slapping

While the Brazilian leader is unlikely to address Cuba’s human rights situation publicly, she’s able to talk productively to Castro about his government’s record behind the scenes, said Julia Sweig, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

“There won’t be the kind of back-slapping that we saw when Lula was there,” said Sweig, who is the author of several publications on Brazil and Cuba. “Precisely because of Dilma’s history and her explicit sensitivity to human rights I think she is well positioned for political dialogue.”

Cuba’s government relies on beatings, short-term detentions, forced exile and travel restrictions to repress virtually all forms of political dissent, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report this month. Cuba denies it’s holding any political prisoners and considers dissident activity to be counterrevolutionary.

In the run-up to Rousseff’s arrival yesterday, Brazilian newspapers published almost-daily interviews with Sanchez and activists from groups including the Ladies in White, in which they called for a meeting with the president’s delegation.

Any such requests will be studied by Brazil’s Embassy in Havana, the foreign ministry said in a statement. Rousseff’s agenda doesn’t include any meetings with activists, and underscoring the commercial nature of the visit, her human rights minister is not among the cabinet officials and business leaders making up her delegation.

Port Renovation

Brazil has emerged as one of Cuba’s biggest foreign investors, along with China and Venezuela, as Castro takes steps to ease state control of the economy.

While Cuba isn’t among Brazil’s 30-biggest commercial partners, trade between the two countries has been expanding at a 30 percent annual pace since 2006, reaching $642 million last year, according to Brazil’s Foreign Ministry.

Rousseff will visit today the deepwater port at Mariel, which is undergoing a nearly $1 billion renovation led by Odebrecht SA with funding from the Brazil’s state development bank. The Salvador, Brazil-based construction and raw materials conglomerate said yesterday that it will also sign an agreement to expand a sugar-cane mill operated by state-controlled Azcuba.

Brazil’s role in helping Cuba create jobs, contrasting with longstanding hostility from the U.S., reinforces positive, albeit slow-paced changes taking place on the island under Castro, said Sweig.

Brazil’s investments in Mariel and elsewhere are “fundamental so that conditions for sustainable development are created here for the Cuban people,” Rousseff said.

Economic Overhaul

Since the 85-year-old Castro began handing power to his brother in 2006, the former defense minister has taken steps to open up the economy, which placed 177 out of 179 countries, ahead of only Zimbabwe and North Korea, in a ranking this month of economic freedom by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

For the first time in a half-century, Cubans can now buy and sell property and cars. After the 80-year-old Raul Castro began slashing state payrolls with a goal of eliminating 500,000 jobs, they’re able to seek self-employment as janitors and taxi drivers.

The overhaul comes amid declines in tourism and the price of nickel, the country’s biggest export, caused by a global economy whose prospects for recovery have dimmed, according to International Monetary Fund projections. The government expects Cuba’s gross domestic product to expand 2.7 percent this year, below the IMF’s 3.6 percent forecast for Latin America and the Caribbean region.

U.S. ‘Blockade’

Echoing comments by the Castro government, Rousseff said that a half-century U.S. trade embargo is also holding back the economy.

The U.S. “blockade,” she said, “brings more poverty and serious problems” for Cuba’s population of 11.2 million. Brazil’s investments at Mariel are “fundamental so that conditions for the sustainable development of the Cuban people” take hold, she said.

Political Change

Political change has been slower. Speaking at a Communist Party summit on Jan. 29, Castro vowed to maintain single-party rule, adding that multi-party democracy would buoy U.S. “imperialism” in Cuba.

Still, the government last year freed the remaining 12 political prisoners that made up the so-called Group of 75 journalists and rights activists who were jailed during a 2003 crackdown. The Roman Catholic Church helped negotiate the release, and Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to visit the once anti-clerical island in March.

The 36-year-old Sanchez, a critic of Castro’s government on a blog called Generation Y, referred to Rousseff’s persecution by Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship in her appeal for a visa to attend a screening in Salvador of a documentary she appears in. Sanchez has been blocked from traveling abroad for the past four years.

“I saw a photo of young Dilma sitting in the dock, being judged by men with their faces covered,” Sanchez wrote Jan. 24 on Twitter. “I feel that way right now.”

Rousseff said today that it wasn’t up to Brazil to allow Sanchez to travel or not.

To contact the reporters on this story: Matthew Bristow in Havana at mbristow5@bloomberg.net; Cris Valerio in San Francisco at cvalerio2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at jgoodman19@bloomberg.net

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