Watch the United Nations next week.
On Wednesday, October 29, the UN General Assembly will vote for the seventeenth consecutive year on a resolution condemning the United States’ embargo on Cuba. Last year, the resolution was adopted by a vote of 184-4. The outcome, this year, is not really in doubt. The question, as before, is whether anyone in our government – now, or in the next administration – is listening.
Our nation has tried for fifty years to replace Cuba’s government with one more to our liking. Diplomatic and economic sanctions have been the principal instrument of this policy. Ten American presidents, starting with Eisenhower, have pursued this goal. President Bush will leave office having tried and failed to achieve regime change. The next president will inherit a failed and futile policy that hurts Cubans and sullies our nation’s image around the world.
The UN debate takes place against the backdrop of Cuba recovering from four hurricanes and tropical storms that caused $5 billion and more in devastation.
Our discredited sanctions policy is now being used to block the sale of construction materials to repair Cuba’s housing stock, and to block Cuban-American families from helping their relatives on the island with the process of recovery. Only a few US hard-headed policy makers are hard-hearted enough to view a policy like this with satisfaction. More and more of us view it as a national disgrace. A strong majority of Americans want our Cuba policy to change.
The vote in the General Assembly also comes six days before our election. In years past, Americans have held the UN in low regard and paid it little heed. This year could be different. Our policy toward Cuba leaves the United States increasingly isolated at a moment in our history when we can ill afford to go it alone. Were the United States to replace our policy of sanctions with one of engagement, we would have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
We are reminded of these issues by these highlights in our news summary:
• The UN providing $30 million more in hurricane relief
• Cuba and European Union reestablish cooperation
• Cuba and Mexico sign new migration agreements
• Cuba speaks out on the upcoming UN vote
This week, in Cuba news…
The United Nations in Cuba announced this week that it is seeking $30 million dollars for reconstruction efforts after four tropical storms and hurricanes hit the island between August 16 and September 10 causing over 5 billion dollars in damage.
United Nations agencies intend to distribute the funds, which are part of the Post-Hurricane Plan of Action 2008, through an immediate response phase ($13.8 million) and an early recovery phase ($16.2 million), according to a statement on Reliefweb.com.
UN agencies will implement the plan in collaboration with their partners on the island over the next 12 months. The projects and activities of the plan “will complement the actions prioritized by the Government of Cuba and will strengthen local capacities to respond to the impacts of the hurricanes,” the statement said.
The statement also praised Cuba’s hurricane preparedness and response saying “due to the excellent preparedness of the Government, up to three million people–approximately 28 percent of the country’s population–were evacuated and very few lives were lost.”
The $30 million for the Post-Hurricane Plan of Action 2008 is in addition to $8.7 million already contributed by different UN agencies and the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).
Cuban courts are handing out stiff sentences for price gouging and other post-hurricane crimes, the Associated Press reported, citing local media reports.
An article published in the Granma newspaper this week said that courts are imposing maximum fines and sentences for people caught stealing government materials or trying to set prices above new government limits after Hurricanes Ike and Gustav. The article said that one-fourth of people arrested for post-hurricane related crimes have been given jail sentences.
“The tribunals are acting with the greatest severity…against those who try to obtain illicit personal gain from the situation created by the hurricanes,” said vice president of the Supreme People’s Tribunal, Eduardo Rodriguez Gonzalez.
The crimes cited in the article include stealing telephone and electrical cables, the illegal slaughter of cattle, price speculation and the theft of construction materials.
Since the hurricanes hit, Cuban authorities have promised to crack down on people who try to take advantage of the hurricane hardships for personal gain.
“While the majority of the population is working to reconstruct towns, repair factories and replant, some commit social crimes. This entails the necessity to adjust the policy to confront such conduct…and increase the rigor and effectiveness of action taken by the courts,” the article said.
Cuban economists are unsure exactly how the Cuban economy will be affected by the global financial crisis and the damages caused by hurricanes Gustav and Ike, IPS reported. Gustav and Ike caused at least $5 billion in losses and although the Cuban economy is somewhat isolated from international markets, experts predict that it will still be affected.
“It is practically impossible to escape the impact, although Cuba is relatively protected, and Latin America is also in a better position than it was a few years ago,” Esteban Morales, a researcher at the University of Havana’s Centre for the Study of the Hemisphere and the United States (CEHSEU) said in an interview with IPS.
Cuba has seen three years of high economic growth and the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy (CEEC) forecast GDP growth of 5.1 percent for 2008, based on the expansion of investment and growth in sectors like professional services and tourism.
Even before the storms, soaring prices for Cuba’s two main imports, food and fuel, increased Cuba’s foreign debt by 14.3 percent in 2007 and caused concern among Cuba’s creditors.
Meanwhile, the price of nickel, Cuba’s main source of foreign exchange, has plummeted in recent months to about $15,000 per ton, less than a third of the price a year ago. Tourism has declined two years in a row and experts predict that with markets affected throughout the globe, tourism revenues will further decline this year.
Economist Pavel Vidal said “nickel exports and tourism will initially be hit the hardest,” however their price reduction “could be offset by lower bills for oil and imported food.”
“A marked slowdown in the growth of Cuba’s gross domestic product (GDP) is likely,” said Vidal.
He said that one of the determining factors will be the state of professional services, mainly consisting of doctors working in Venezuela, who produced an income in 2007 that represented more than 70 percent of Cuba’s GDP.
“Prospects for GDP growth will depend largely on maintaining the expansion in exports of professional services, although these may be limited by restrictions on the Venezuelan economy caused by the fall in the price of oil,” Vidal told IPS.
CUBA’S FOREIGN POLICY
Cuba and the European Union officially reestablished cooperation yesterday after 5 years of diplomatic sanctions in a dispute over Cuban political prisoners, the Reuters news agency reported.
On a visit to the island, EU Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel signed an agreement with Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque pledging new cooperation in trade, the environment, science, technology and other areas. Michel called the moment “a turning point for EU-Cuban relations.”
The European Commission announced that they will donate 2 million Euros to aid recovery from recent hurricanes. It also issued a statement saying it may invest between 20 and 25 million Euros in joint projects.
The sanctions, which were put in place in 2003 following the arrest of 75 dissidents, were lifted by an EU vote in June.
“What appears most important to us is that this dialogue can approach all these issues, including the issues most difficult, but always over a base of mutual respect,” Michel said to Perez Roque in their signing ceremony in Havana.
Meanwhile, U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said the U.S. will not mimic the EU with a policy of engagement.
“People still don’t have freedoms so I don’t know why anyone would say that any other strategy appears to be working. Nothing has changed,” he told Reuters.
The head of Cuba’s Interest Section in Washington, Jorge Bolaños, told the Associated Press this week that “the last eight years have seen the most ruthless and inhumane application of the blockade,” referring to the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
Bolaños said that Cuba is gearing up for next Wednesday’s vote at the U.N. General Assembly, where member states will vote on a resolution calling on the United States to end the trade embargo. Every year for the past 17 years, the Assembly has approved Cuba’s resolution, but the United States has not changed its policy.
Last year the General Assembly adopted the resolution by a vote of 184-4. The United States, Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands voted against the resolution while Micronesia abstained.
“It is the most isolated issue at the U.N.,” Bolaños said, and the U.N. has “a psychological and moral effect.”
“Eleven million Cubans live under the blockade’s effects,” he said. “Each day, each of them, child, woman, man, elder of whatever social position or religion, suffers without distinction, the perverse effects of the blockade.”
He said that sick Cuban children have been unable to receive proper medical treatment because the U.S. would not approve the export of catheters and some materials for the blind, which are also prohibited.
Citing Cuban government figures, Bolaños said the economic embargo has led to $93 billion in losses for Cuba. However, it has failed to oust the Cuban government “because of the irrevocable will of the Cuban nation to defend its legitimate right to self-determination,” the ambassador said.
As for improving relations with the United States, Cuba is ready to talk “if the U.S. considers Cuba an equal partner in negotiations,” he said.
Cuba’s Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque traveled to Mexico this week to sign into action the memorandum of agreement on migration that the two countries announced last week. Pérez Roque described some specifics of the agreement to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, which the Miami Herald’s Cuban Colada blog has translated.
Speaking about Cuba’s decision to accept Cubans detained in Mexico after entering from a third country, Pérez Roque said that “most of the Cubans who enter Mexico illegally [...] have not arrived directly from Cuba but from other countries. If we want to prevent the trafficking of illegals and the work of the mafias [that take them] to the United States, we have to accept the repatriation of other Cubans who left Cuba legally and went to Central America or other countries and then entered Mexico.”
He also offered assurances that Cubans who are repatriated will not face any criminal charges upon being returned to Cuba.
“Those who attempt to emigrate illegally do not face any legal action after being returned to Cuba. The act of emigrating is not penalized, unless [the migrants] have committed some crime. We understand that emigrating is a right and a worldwide trend. What’s specific about Cuba is the fact that the United States has tried to stimulate illegal emigration from Cuba as part of its policy of siege toward the Cuban Revolution,” he said.
The agreement also calls for cooperation between Cuba’s Coast Guard and the Mexican Navy, reported the Mexican newspaper Milenio.
“Dialogue and international cooperation is indispensible to fight these illicit activities,” said Mexico’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Patricia Espinosa.
The text of the memorandum also accused the United States’ Cuban Adjustment Act and “wet foot/dry foot policy for the migration phenomenon.
“United States immigration policies toward Cuba stimulate illegal migration and the illegal trafficking of Cubans, and complicate the efforts to effectively fight the criminal organizations that profit from these crimes.”
While in Mexico, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque met with Mexican business leaders to discuss economic reforms in Cuba and other issues, the Associated Press reported.
Pérez Roque said that a reform to ensure that workers earn a salary more commensurate with their positions and how hard they work is progressing. In June, the Cuban government announced that it would start paying workers on the basis of individual, rather than group, production so that workers who don’t do their share or are frequently absent don’t earn the same as those who work harder.
“We are in a salary reform that allows people to earn for what they do and resolves the contradiction in Cuba … in which the bellboy of a hotel or the employee of a restaurant, with tips, earns more than a surgeon,” he said.
He cautioned that it wouldn’t happen over night and “has to be done in phases.”
Pérez Roque also said that Cuba is working towards establishing one single currency, but said that the merger will have to be gradual and will depend mainly on increasing productivity.
“If they just start throwing money in the streets without support, there will be inflation and it will damage our currency,” he said.
In an interview with La Jornada, Pérez Roque spoke about Fidel Castro and the possibility of Barack Obama being elected president in the U.S.
Speaking of an Obama presidency, Pérez Roque said that Cuba has “very moderate expectations” about Obama as President. He said that he believes Obama will reverse restrictions on Cuban American travel and remittances to the island. As for further cooperation, he said that it is the United States’ decision whether or not to accept “the olive branch that Raúl Castro has extended.”
When asked about Fidel Castro’s current role in the government, Pérez Roque said that Castro continues to be the First Secretary of the Communist Party, but has no official duty in the government. However, he said that Castro is not exercising his role as First Secretary of the Party.
More videos from la Isla de la Juventud.
How Cuba’s Oil Find Could Change the US Embargo, Time Magazine
Around the Region:
U.S. cuts off trade benefits to Bolivia, Associated Press
Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team