Brazil prez: Blogger's travel for Cuba to decide

January 31, 2012 - 10:15 PM
APTOPIX Cuba Brazil

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff attends a wreath laying ceremony at the Jose Marti monument in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday Jan. 31, 2012. Rousseff is in Cuba for a visit emphasizing economic cooperation. In the background is an iron sculpture of Cuba's revolutionary hero Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano)

HAVANA (AP) — Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said Tuesday that her country acted properly in granting an entry visa to Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, but that it's an internal matter for Cuba as to whether Sanchez is allowed to leave the island.

Rousseff also demurred when asked whether she had any concerns about the island's human rights record, saying it's not her place to judge.

"He who throws the first stone has a roof made of glass. We in Brazil have ours," Rousseff told Brazilian journalists accompanying her on a tour of Cuba and Haiti. The news conference was not open to foreign media based in Cuba, but her office posted audio of the encounter online.

Rousseff spoke on a day with a packed, trade-oriented agenda, including a tour of a port expansion project at Mariel financed with the help of hundreds of millions of dollars from her country.

She met with President Raul Castro to sign new cooperation agreements, and announced credits of $400 million to help Cuba purchase Brazilian food products, plus $200 million for tractors and other equipment to stimulate Cuban agriculture.

"The major contribution we can make to Cuba is to help develop its economy," Rousseff said.

Rousseff was asked about Sanchez, who last week got a visa from the Brazilian Embassy to attend a film festival in February. Sanchez has said she's awaiting word on whether Cuba will grant her the exit permit required for all islanders, and Rousseff declined to weigh in on whether it ought to.

"Brazil gave the visa to the blogger. The rest is not a matter for the Brazilian government," she said.

The issuing of the visa was not particularly surprising: by Sanchez's own count she has received entry visas from 18 different countries in recent years, and each time was denied permission to leave.

But the timing just ahead of Rousseff's trip was interpreted by some in Brazil that the president was departing from the diplomacy of her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was careful not to be seen as interfering in Cuba's internal affairs.

Silva was criticized at home following a 2010 visit to Cuba when he met with Fidel and Raul Castro hours after an imprisoned dissident's prolonged hunger strike ended in death. Silva later suggested that hunger strikes were not a legitimate means of protest for prisoners.

The newspaper Estado de S. Paulo wrote in an editorial last weekend that Sanchez's visa was another sign Brazil had "abandoned Silva's populist showmanship" and made a "clear break with the automatic alignment of everything that was anti-American."

But Rousseff did not criticize her hosts under their own roof, and mentioned concerns about the treatment of terror detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"You can't turn the politics of human rights into just a weapon of politico-ideological combat," Rousseff said. "The world must convince itself that this is something all nations need to take responsibility for, including ours."

Cuba's official website Cubadebate said Rousseff met with Fidel Castro later in the day.

It is Rousseff's first trip as president to the communist-run nation whose revolution inspired leftist resistance movements in countries across Latin America, including her own.

As a young economics student in the 1960s, Rousseff was a leader of the Palmares Armed Revolutionary Vanguard, which opposed Brazil's 1964-1985 military dictatorship. For three years she wrote for an underground newspaper and taught fellow militants Marxist theory, though she says she never took part in violent actions.

Rousseff was captured by military police in 1970 and spent three years in prison, at times subjected to torture.

Leading up to the trip, Rousseff did not speak about human rights in Cuba, emphasizing instead the trip's core mission: developing bilateral trade and the opening of Cuba's economy. Last year commerce between the two nations hit a record $642 million.

Brazil's Foreign Ministry highlighted the country's support for the Mariel port expansion, saying 80 percent of the funding had come from Brazil, totaling about $683 million.

On Monday, Brazilian construction company Odebrecht announced that a subsidiary would ink a 10-year contract to help administer a sugar mill in Cuba's Cienfuegos province.

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Associated Press writers Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo and Marco Sibaja in Brasilia, Brazil, contributed to this report.

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Peter Orsi is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Peter(underscore)Orsi.

(This version CORRECTS state website said Rousseff met with Fidel Castro, not state television.)