Cuban foreign minister expected to set new tone
By WILFREDO CANCIO ISLA AND FRANCES ROBLES
Posted on Tue, Mar. 10, 2009 Miami Herald
The new face of the Cuban government overseas is a man with perfect English, a steady professional style, and more than a decade of experience living in New York as a Cuba representative at the United Nations.
People who have met newly appointed Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez tend to use the same word to describe him: diplomatic. It's not an adjective often used for Cuban ambassadors, who are usually noted for ideological rhetoric.
Rodríguez is a career foreign service officer who takes the helm of the country's foreign ministry at a time of heightened expectation for change between Washington and Havana.
His predecessor was fired and Rodríguez was appointed the same week that the U.S. Senate debated adjustments to Cuba policy. The former United Nations ambassador will be helping shape Cuban foreign policy just after a parade of Latin American presidents visited the island -- and a month before those same leaders meet with President Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas conference in Trinidad.
''Raúl Castro could well be preparing for Obama, because Obama is a complicating factor for all these fellows: Castro in Cuba, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia,'' said Javier Corrales, a Cuba expert at Amherst College in Massachusetts. ``They need to have a response.''
Experts say Rodríguez's response will undoubtedly be the Cuban Communist Party line, but delivered in a manner American politicians are unaccustomed to.
Rodríguez is described as a deliberate, intelligent, great negotiator. His identifying feature is his impassibility: He can say the harshest things without becoming upset or raising his voice.
At 51, he is among the youngest members of the Cuban Cabinet. He was born in Mexico, the son of a Spanish immigrant who was a Civil War refugee.
A law graduate, Rodríguez entered politics as a Communist Youth leader, and was the chief of its international relations department. He served at a mission in Angola, and in 1990, was named to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. He was close to Roberto Robaina, a disgraced former foreign minister.
For a short time, Rodríguez was editor of the Juventud Rebelde newspaper and distinguished himself for his hard line in the face of the changes imposed by perestroika and glasnost. He wrote a harsh review of the 1991 movie Alice in Wondertown, a movie that led Fidel Castro to oust the president of the Cinema Institute.
In 1993, Rodríguez became a delegate to the United Nations, where he honed his political skills until 2004.
He gave fiery speeches defending Cuba after the Brothers to the Rescue shoot-down 1996, and filed a formal complaint when the corner outside the Cuban mission in Manhattan was named after the pilots' group.
''He has never held a job outside government,'' said Frank Calzon, who heads Center for a Free Cuba, an anti-Castro organization in Washington. ``I asked someone in our government whether this guy could be independent and moderate. He answered: Nobody in the Cuban government can ever be independent or moderate.''
To be sure, Rodríguez's political finesse did not mean he was unwilling to take on Cuba's northern neighbor. He railed at the ''yankees'' when Washington declined to condemn the perpetrators of the 2002 coup in Venezuela.
''There will never be any flirting with those who want to chop off our heads,'' Rodríguez said in a 2002 speech. ``There will be no concessions or gestures or dialogue: There will be a struggle without any truce, until the last bullet.''
Mauricio Font, director of the Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies in New York, said Rodríguez will bring diplomacy back to Cuban international relations.
''He would return Cuban diplomacy to a more traditional way of doing things,'' Font said. ``He has made contacts and people respect him. He can represent the Cuban position assertively, but he was not seen as an ideologue. He was seen as a diplomat.''
`A VERY SMART WIFE'
Font and Sandra Levinson, director of the Center for Cuban Studies, a New York nonprofit that advocates normalized relations with Cuba, said many people were particularly impressed with the former ambassador's wife Olga, a sharp and social woman.
''He was very smart and has a very smart wife,'' Levinson said.
She noted that both Rodríguez and Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba's new Minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, were posted at the U.N. mission in New York. Malmierca's father, the late Isidoro Malmierca, was foreign minister from 1976 until 1992.
''It's certainly a sign when you see two people put in positions of authority who were recent ambassadors to the U.N.,'' Levinson said. ``I think they are trying to put people in place who have more professional qualities.''
After his assignment in New York, Rodríguez was first vice minister of foreign relations for five years. There, he was an architect of Cuba's recent diplomatic triumphs in Latin America and the U.N.
Experts say that diplomatic strategy toward Latin America and Europe was conceived to send a message to Obama: The secretary general of the Organization of American States wants Cuba reinstated in the community of hemispheric nations. Already, 31 countries have relations with the island.
Cuba was recently incorporated into the Río Group, reestablished ties with Mexico, strengthened commercial links with Brazil, and played host to a stream of presidents.
Sarah Stephens, who heads a Washington, D.C. anti-embargo organization, cautions against pinning too many hopes on Rodríguez, despite his qualifications.
''I just think we in the U.S. make the mistake of thinking of everything Havana does is about us. It usually isn't,'' she said. ''It strikes me that his predecessor got fired, and he was next in line. I want to think Havana wants better [U.S.] relations and [he was chosen because] he is better at it, but I don't know that I believe it.''
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