Human rights activists had high expectations for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's first official visit to Cuba last January 30. Rousseff visited Cuba just few days after the international media reported that Brazil was distancing itself from Iran over the Iranian regime's human rights abuses. Further, just a week before her arrival to Cuba, the Brazilian government gave a visa to a Cuban opponent and blogger, Yoani Sanchez, raising hopes that Rousseff would show some support to dissidents. Many therefore thought that the Brazilian president would have taken a public stand against human rights violations perpetrated by the Castro's dictatorship, but that turned out to be just wishful thinking.
Although Rousseff once said she "prefer[red] a million critical voices over the silence of the dictatorships," in Cuba the Brazilian President preferred business. Rousseff refused to meet Yoani Sanchez or other Cuban dissidents, and focused in promoting bilateral trade. The Americas Society website reports that trade between the two Latin American countries increased 31% from 2010 to 2011, reaching $642 million last year. The Brazilian government is opening a $350 million credit line to Cuba to finance food purchases, and another $200 million to purchase agricultural equipment. Moreover, Brazil's development bank, Odebrecht, is investing in the Cuban sugar industry and also helping to finance an $800 million plan to renovate the port of Mariel, hoping to transform it into one of the most important hubs in Latin America that could be of use to Cuba's nascent oil industry. The Miami Herald's Cuban Colada blog stated that Cuba confirmed the presence of reserves of up to 20 billion barrels of crude oil in waters off the Gulf of Mexico; and the Brazilian oil company Petrobras is negotiating with Cuba for offshore exploration rights. Oil was evidently more attractive than human rights. Reuters sarcastically commented that Rousseff made her first visit to Cuba with capitalism on her mind.
Rousseff, who was a leftist guerrilla fighter inspired by Fidel Castro's communist revolution, nevertheless found the time to criticize the US prison camp at Guantanamo and the US trade embargo against Cuba, but apparently felt it was not relevant to discuss the condition of dissidents in Cuba. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, the Cuban government relies on beatings, short-term detentions, forced exile and travel restrictions to repress virtually all forms of political dissent. In January, the Cuban dissident Wilman Villar died in custody after a 50 day hunger strike. The Buenos Aires Herald mentioned that Villar's death created pressure on Rousseff to raise human rights issues with Cuban leaders, but that she was unlikely to do so publicly.
Reuters notes that Rousseff's trip to Cuba was made just before a visit in Washington set for next month, and mentioned that the decision raised some eyebrows, given Brazil's recent confrontations with the United States over trade. Brazil's economy is one of the fastest growing in the world. In the last few years, in spite of the world's crisis, Brazil's GDP kept growing at an average rate of more than 5%. As the seventh largest economy by GDP, with a population nearing 190 million, Brazil understandably aspires to become a world power and a regional giant. The last two Brazilian presidencies, however, former President Lula da Silva's and Rousseff's, have coupled this legitimate aspiration to an ideological confrontation with the US.
The Americas Society website suggests that Brazil's strategic trade and investments in the Caribbean, and elsewhere in the developing world, are part of the government's global strategy. Matthew Taylor, a Brazil specialist at the American University's School of International Service, commented that Rousseff's policy is to grow Brazil's "soft power" on the international scale to raise Brazil's role in the world. As Taylor told the Wall Street Journal, "Brazil is taking on a bigger role in the hemisphere in terms of aid and finance."
Brazilian commentators, however, mentioned that precisely because Brazil is becoming a raising power, it would have been better for Rousseff not to visit Cuba at this moment. The visit actually provoked strong criticism both in Brazil and worldwide. The Brazilian diplomat Marcos Azambuja wrote that if Brazil wanted to do business with Cuba, he should have sent high government officials, but that Rousseff herself should have not gone. "A [Presidential] visit to Cuba has its price to pay," he wrote, mentioning that even if Rousseff's intentions were only to do business, the end result is that she paid tribute to the failed policies of the Cuban regime.