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On successive Fridays in August, our team was on a research trip to Venezuela and Ecuador – making site visits in rural areas to see how oil revenues are being used to improve living and economic conditions in Venezuela, to meet with a cross section of Venezuelan leaders, and to visit Quito in advance of a delegation sponsored by the Center for Democracy in the America’s planned for 2009.
During our trip, we kept a watchful eye on developments in Cuba, but we delayed publishing a news summary until our return from the region.
From accounts about Fidel Castro’s birthday to reports on human rights and new signs of growth in Cuba’s sugar industry, we are pleased to present (without further delay!) this week in Cuba news.
Fidel Castro turns 82
Fidel Castro turned 82 in Cuba on Wednesday. A youth concert and a silver medal won at the Olympics were dedicated to the former president, and he received a letter from the Cuban workers.
The Cuban rock group Buena Fe gave a concert in Havana’s Revolutionary Plaza on Tuesday evening to commemorate International Youth Day and the former president’s birthday, the Juventud Rebelde reported. The show started with a promise that the youth will remain loyal to the homeland and Fidel.
On Tuesday, the Granma published a letter from Cuban workers to the leader of the revolution that concluded: “Today we dedicate our best thoughts, we express our biggest desires for your total recuperation and we reiterate our gratitude for your teachings and your example.”
Judoka Anaysi Hernández dedicated her Olympic silver medal to the leader of the Cuban Revolution. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sent him a portrait of South American Independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Castro has not made a public appearance since falling ill two years ago and has only been seen in photos and videos. His illness has been kept a state secret.
There has been speculation over the last few months that his health has improved after meeting more often with foreign dignitaries and submitting writings for publication in the state press more frequently.
The Reuters News Agency published this “FACTBOX” on Fidel Castro:
* Fidel Castro led Cuba for 49 years and was the world’s third longest-serving head of state, after Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and the King of Thailand. He has not been seen in public since illness forced him to hand over day-to-day control to his brother Raul Castro in July 2006. The transfer of power was formalized in February, when the National Assembly elected Raul Castro as president.
* Castro holds the Guinness Book of Records title for the longest speech ever delivered to the United Nations: 4 hours and 29 minutes, on September 29, 1960. His longest speech on record in Cuba was 7 hours and 10 minutes in 1986 at the III Communist Party Congress in Havana.
* Castro claims he survived 634 attempts on his life, mainly masterminded by the Central Intelligence Agency. They allegedly included poison pills, a toxic cigar, exploding mollusks, and a chemically-tainted diving suit as well as powder to make his beard fall out so as to undermine his popularity.
* Despite the CIA plots, a U.S.-backed exile invasion at the Bay of Pigs and four and a half decades of economic sanctions, Castro outlasted nine U.S. presidents, from Eisenhower to Clinton, and faced increased hostility under President George W. Bush, who tightened enforcement of financial sanctions and a travel ban.
* Castro, once a cigar-chomping guerrilla fighter, gave up cigars in 1985. Years later he summed up the harm of smoking tobacco by saying: “The best thing you can do with this box of cigars is to give them to your enemy.”
* Castro has at least eight children. His eldest son, Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, who is the image of his father and is known as Fidelito, is a Soviet-trained nuclear scientist. His daughter, Alina Fernandez, escaped from Cuba disguised as a tourist in 1993 and is a vocal critic of her father’s rule. Castro has five sons with his second wife Dalia Soto.
You can read the Reuters article here.
Cuba expects to meet domestic sugar demand in 2009 for the first time after a major restructuring in 2002 of a once-critical industry, the Associated Press reported.
According to Juan Godefoy, the Vice Minister for Sugar, the sugar harvest that ended earlier this year yielded 28 percent more than the harvest in 2007, which would mean that this year’s harvest was around 1.5 million metric tons (1.65 million tons).
Godefoy stated that Cuba will be able to “satisfy national needs” for the crop and continue to develop existing and new sugar cane derivatives. Cuba currently produces about 80 derivatives from sugar cane, including alcohol for beverages, medicine, and building materials.
Sugar was once Cuba’s main export, reaching 9 million tons in the 1980′s, but Cuba began restructured the industry in 2002 after falling harvests and low world sugar prices.
In an effort to reduce imports, ten refining plants across the country were reactivated this year: four in Villa Clara, two in Camagüey and one each in the provinces of Ciego de Avila, Granma and Santiago de Cuba, the Cuba News Agency reported.
The price of sugar on the international market rose from $316 per ton in 2007 to the current price of $400. Each ton produced in Cuba costs around $200.
The Cuban Commission on Human Rights issued a report this week concluding that the human rights situation on the island is “very unfavorable” and not likely to get better soon, the Reuters News Agency reported.
The report found that the number of political prisoners had fallen by 15 to 219 in the first half of 2008, but that short-term detentions of dissidents had increased.
The have been “at least 640 arbitrary detentions of political dissidents this year” compared to “at least 325 short-term detentions” in all of 2007,” said the commission.
The report, which comes out every six months, said that “the situation of civil, political and economic rights continues being very unfavorable.”
The report found as positive Cuba’s signing in February of two United Nations pacts on civil and political rights and decision by Castro to commute the death penalty for undisclosed number of prisoners.
However, the commission reported that it feared the actions might send “false signals of change” in Cuba.
U.N. Human Rights Council
Meanwhile, an important United Nations human rights body appointed a Cuban law professor and former diplomat to be its chairman for the next three years.
Miguel Alfonso Martinez, the acting president of the Cuban Society for International Law, was elected to preside over its deliberations by the new 18-member Advisory Committee to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council.
Martinez will be joined by two vice-presidents, Vladimir Kartashkin, an expert in Russian law expert and Monar Zulfikar, an Egyptian lawyer and campaigner for women’s rights.
The members of the committee are nominated by their own governments but expected to work independently.
FLORIDA’S FOREIGN POLICY
A key advisor to presidential hopeful John McCain lobbied on behalf of Pernod Ricard, which partners with the Cuban government to sell rum, and also lobbied on behalf of several bills that sought to relax the embargo against Cuba, the Miami Herald reported.
John Green lobbied on behalf of Pernod Ricard, which has been entangled in a long trademark dispute with Bacardi over the rights to sell Havana Club rum. The French company currently sells Havana Club rum in Cuba and around the world but not in the U.S. because of the embargo.
Lobbyist disclosure forms also show that Green lobbied for other bills pushing for loosening economic sanctions on Cuba. McCain has that he would not lift the embargo before political prisoners are released, political parties legalized and free elections scheduled.
Stewart Hall, the director of the lobbying firm where Green works, argued that his firm listed bills that call for relaxing the embargo on disclosure forms because the trademark fight was often tucked into bills that called for lifting trade sanctions.
”Our fight is simply to protect our client’s intellectual property rights for the day that they may be allowed to sell their product. When and if that happens is not our issue,” he said.
McCain’s campaign said the candidate’s position on the embargo ”is clear and consistent” and that regardless of Green’s involvement in the past, he does not hold a policymaking role in the campaign.
You can read the Miami Herald report here.
The Peregrines, the Little League baseball team from Vermont and New Hampshire, are 1-1 on their trip to Cuba, the Reuters News Agency reported. They were defeated 16-5 by the Santos of Cuba in their first game, but bounced back to the Mangos 19-8.
The Peregrines are the first U.S. Little Leaguers to visit Cuba since the Lost Coast Pirates from northern California in 2000, but their trip did not come without controversy.
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL) has expressed serious reservations about the trip and even convened a meeting of the Cuba Democracy Caucus on July 10 to discuss the trip, the Washington Post reported.
According to the Rutland Herald, Senator Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, defended the youngsters and said that “he should pick on someone his own size.”
“I don’t like the idea of the government telling ordinary Americans, let alone Little Leaguers, where and when they can travel,” Leahy said. “The fact that the Bush Administration, which tries to make travel to Cuba nearly impossible, decided it had no basis to deny the team’s request shows how far off-base these critics are.”
The trip has the backing of officials from Vermont and New Hampshire, including Leahy, Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-VT, Rep. Peter Welch, D-VT, and Vermont’s Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie.
“I believe it will lead to a better and more secure world and I believe it’s through grass-roots connections of people-to-people and baseball teams playing one another that we expand our understanding and that’s consistent with the objectives of our initial trips to Cuba,” said Republican Lt. Gov. Dubie.
Meanwhile, the University of Alabama Crimson Tide baseball team announced that they have received approval to travel and play in Cuba in December, the Tuscaloosa News reported.
The trip was arranged through the University’s Alabama-Cuba Initiative, which has been responsible for a number of cross-cultural contacts over the last few years.
Because of the difficulties in arranging travel to Cuba, the brief trip has taken several years to arrange.
Alabama baseball coach Jim Wells said that the trip will be about more than just baseball.
“I think it will be a great experience for our players, particularly as an education opportunity. Some of the university people who have already been to Cuba on other projects showed us a slide show and it was fascinating to see the culture, the conditions there. I think we will get a lot more out of the visit than just a few baseball games,” said Wells.
The schedule is tentative, but the Crimson Tide plan to travel on Dec. 14, practice in Havana on the 15th and play games on Dec. 16, 17 and 18.
You can read the Rutland Herald report here.
You can read the Tuscaloosa News report here.
Check out a new report on Cuba’s reforms from a CDA delegation to Cuba last month.
In an article titled “Patchy Blockade,” the Economist focuses on increased sanctions on companies doing business with Cuba. One European company tells them the best strategy is to “try to stay under the radar and make damned sure you are here when the United States’ government finally sees sense.”
Around the Region:
Marc Frank of Reuters reports on Venezuela’s decision to provide grants to 18 Caribbean and Central American countries to buy fertilizer for the coming growing season. Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s president, calls the plan “a shield against hunger” in the face of rising food prices.”
In advance of his inauguration as Paraguay’s president, Newsweek published this interview with Fernando Lugo.
As CDA travels to the region, we continue to ask our neighbors what they would like in a relationship with the United States. Here, you can see two responses from Ecuador.
Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team