USAID Spigot Back On; Human Rights and Hunger Strikes; Policy Makers and Experts Say Trade and Travel is the Answer

Dear Friends:

The Obama administration appears determined to play “regime change roulette” with the lives and safety of USAID contractors.

As Alan Gross continues to sit in a Cuban prison, detained in December for engaging in “democracy promotion” activities funded by Helms-Burton and illegal under Cuban law, and as senior legislators in the House and Senate demand answers to questions about the effectiveness of these efforts, the Obama administration has now told Congress it wants to resume spending funds under these programs.

We think these programs are a huge mistake.  They put at risk the very people the U.S. is trying to help, they do nothing to promote political change, and they involve activities which, if conducted in our country, would violate our laws as well, and thus put the Americans who carry them out in Cuba in jeopardy of arrest, just like Mr. Gross.

We urge the Cuban government for humanitarian reasons to release Alan Gross, and we urge the Obama administration to hold the funds and free American citizens to travel to Cuba without restrictions instead.

If hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans can travel to Cuba – and under President Obama’s rules they can – and if millions of other Americans could travel to Cuba once we ended the travel ban – and they will – won’t these travelers make a bigger difference in the lives of the Cuban people than the undercover operators funded by USAID?

If we could afford a ticket to the Florida fundraiser President Obama is attending in Miami next week – and at $30,400 a couple, it is frankly beyond our means – this is the message that we’d deliver to the President about how best to communicate our country’s values to the people of Cuba.

If you want to engage in democracy promotion, do it through the front door.  Set an example for those countries which restrict the movements of their citizens by eliminating the limits that our government –and your administration –places on our citizens and our rights to travel to Cuba.

This week in Cuba news….

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

USAID Cuba programs will resume despite scrutiny

The Obama administration has notified organizations involved in delivering money, technological devices and other goods to the dissidents in Cuba that they can start making trips again, the Miami Herald reported. The trips were halted after the arrest of Alan P. Gross, a USAID subcontractor arrested by Cuban authorities for distributing satellite communications equipment to individuals on the island.

According to officials at organizations that receive USAID funds, word that such travel could resume was accompanied by a caution: “Do not take to the island more equipment or money than you can explain if you’re stopped by Cuban officials,” the Herald reported. Those involved in the programs said the move showed the Obama administration is “toughening its posture after Havana’s recent abuses.”

The Associated Press reported further on the scrutiny surrounding the USAID Cuba programs, pointing out that Creative Associates International, which was awarded the largest contract of $6.5 million in 2008 and is now being considered for another $2.5 million, hired Caleb McCarry, the Bush administration official tasked with bringing a “transition to democracy in Cuba,” just two months after the company won its first contract.

It notes that Creative Associates International and Development Associates International, the company that hired Alan Gross, had no experience in Cuba prior to receiving large grants in 2008 and have not published the work on their websites.

In late March of this year, Sen. John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Howard Berman, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, put holds on the funding, asking the administration to clarify concerns they have with the program. “We are asking hard questions about fraud, waste and what actually works to benefit the Cuban people,” said Berman, who has also long been opposed to the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

Meanwhile, Cuban state media continued to criticize the program as “political-ideological subversion against the Cuban Revolution.” Outlining the history of funding for the programs, Prensa Latina said the funds are used “to offer financial support to supposed human rights activists, those who call themselves independent journalists, and non-governmental organizations opposed to the revolutionary government.”

Castro, Granma defend the government’s position on hunger strikers

Cuba is saying that it will not be “blackmailed” by hunger strikers’ demands. Cuban President Raúl Castro made his strongest statement yet regarding the political opponents on hunger strikes in Cuba, Reuters reported. Castro said the dissidents are being used as tools of the U.S. in an effort to oust Cuba’s communist system. “Everything possible is being done to save (striker Guillermo Fariñas’) life,” Castro said in a speech at the Communist Youth Summit. “But if he does not change his self-destructive attitude, he will be responsible, together with his backers, for the outcome we don’t want.”

“We will never give in to blackmail by any country or any group of countries no matter how powerful they are, no matter what happens,” Castro said. Fariñas responded that he is prepared to die for his cause.

In a front-page editorial, the Communist Party newspaper Granma accused the strikers of launching a “new crusade to demonize” the island and “discredit the revolutionary process, destabilize the country and provoke conditions for the destruction of our social system.”

Relatedly, dissident Franklin Pelegrino del Toro announced that he has ended the hunger strike he began 40 days ago to press for the release of political prisoners, EFE reported. “The demand and the clamor of the internal opposition, my family, who needs me, and even the churches and the brothers in exile, convinced us that I’m needed here alive, to fight for Cuba,” Pelegrino said by telephone from the eastern city of Holguin. He started his hunger strike in February, five days after Orlando Zapata Tamayo died from an 85-day hunger strike. Another hunger-striker, Guillermo Fariñas, said he will continue to refrain from eating.

U.S. satisfied that Spain is unable to change EU’s common position toward Cuba

The U.S. Ambassador to Spain, Alan Solomont, said that “it would be a shame” if democratic countries like Spain don’t support the role that political dissidents are playing in Cuba or defend the importance of respecting human rights to Cuban authorities, Europapress reported. Speaking at a breakfast with reporters in Madrid, Solomont said that the Obama administration is satisfied that Spain has been unable to modify the EU’s common position toward Cuba, Nuestro País reported.

Miguel Moratinos, Spain’s Foreign Minister, defended his country’s position on Thursday, saying that Spain and the rest of the EU should maintain a “critical dialogue” with the Cuban government and all sectors of society, including the dissidents. “The unilateralism of the Common Position is no longer ‘common,’” said Moratinos. “A bilateral approach is essential in order to have a dialogue with Cuban authorities about the necessary reforms that need to be enacted and respect for human rights.”

Policy Makers and Ag Experts Urge Passage of Peterson-Moran Legislation

The Center for Democracy in the Americas, working in coalition with groups in Washington to open Cuba to travel for all Americans, hosted a media conference call during which U.S. Representatives Jo Ann Emerson and Marion Berry, former Agriculture Secretary John Block, National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson, and Parr Rosson, an agriculture economist at Texas A+M, spoke about the economic and political advantages of opening Cuba to trade and travel.

Participants noted that Congress is currently considering legislation by Congressmen Peterson and Moran and 40 cosponsors to remove barriers to agriculture exports to Cuba and to end the travel ban.

The call included these comments by the participants:

Rep. Marion Berry: You just don’t have to be all broke out in brilliance to understand and figure out the value of opening up trade to Cuba and travel to Cuba.  It’s a very simple matter.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson: The only way that I believe that we can deal with (the human rights issue on Cuba) is that we shouldn’t hold our policy and American citizens’ freedom to travel hostage to the Castro family.  And I think that the only way that Americans can actually stand with the “Ladies in White” in Havana is to reform travel policy.  We have lots of dissidents that we know support the ending of both travel restrictions and export restrictions.

Sec. John Block: For 50 years, we’ve been trying to isolate Cuba in order to leverage them into getting rid of Communism and doing, whatever, this or that.  It has failed, totally failed.  Now is the time to try a different policy which would be engagement – that means trade and travel.  And there are a lot of positive things that can come from that.  It can mean markets for agricultural products which can be jobs here in the United States that we desperately need today.  We could more than double our exports of food – I’m talking food to Cuba and agricultural products – if we just have normal trading relations.  So this policy with Cuba doesn’t make any sense.  It’s time to just take a new look, turn the page.  Let’s get on with the future.  It’ll be good for everybody.

Roger Johnson: This could mean as much as a billion dollars worth of new sales for the U.S.  It used to be that Cuba imported 60% of all their food from the U.S. and we certainly should return to that position.  This bill really only does two things: it lets our citizens travel there like we can travel anywhere else in the world; and secondly, it allows for us to sell, as Congressman Moran said at the hearing the other day, it isn’t even about trading with Cuba.  It is just about us selling one way – us selling to the Cubans.  So it’s a win-win for us.

Dr. Parr Rosson: We would expect our exports to increase by about $365 million per year and that’s from a base in 2009 of about $528 million.  And in addition to those exports they would also create additional economic activity of about $1.1 billion a year, and about 6,000 new jobs.

The fact that we need to create jobs at home, and the fact that we’ve lost the dominance of U.S. products such as soybean meal, corn, and wheat, not even to mention rice which we haven’t shipped to Cuba in a number of years.

As Sarah Stephens, executive director of CDA said, “there are important principles at stake in that debate.  We believe that opening Cuba to trade and travel is in the interests of the United States.  At this time of recession in the U.S. and political challenge in Cuba, expanding travel and trade will help American farmers and provide direct benefits to the Cuban people.”

A complete transcript from the call can be found here.  An audio recording can be heard here.

IN CUBA

Castro addresses the economic situation

Speaking at the Ninth Congress of Young Communists, President Raúl Castro outlined the challenges of a “very complex economic situation,” hinting at more economic changes to come, but warning that it will take time to implement economic reforms. Some excerpts from his speech are below:

  • Without a sound and dynamic economy and without the removal of superfluous expenses and waste, it will neither be possible to improve the living standard of the population nor to preserve and improve the high levels of education and healthcare ensured to every citizen free of charge.

  • If the people do not feel the need to work for a living because they are covered by extremely paternalistic and irrational state regulations, we will never be able to stimulate love for work or resolve the chronic lack of construction, farming and industrial workers; teachers, police agents and other indispensable trades that have steadily been disappearing.

  • We know that the budgeted and entrepreneurial sectors have hundreds of thousands of workers in excess; some analysts estimate that the surplus of people in work positions exceeds one million. This is an extremely sensitive issue that we should confront firmly and with political common sense.

  • We are convinced that we need to break away from dogma and assume firmly and confidently the ongoing upgrading of our economic model in order to set the foundations of the irreversibility of the Cuban socialism.

  • Those who are asking us to go faster should bear in mind the list of issues that we are studying, of which I have mentioned only a few today. We cannot allow that haste or improvisation in the solution of a problem lead to a greater one. With regards to issues of strategic dimension for the life of the entire nation we cannot let ourselves be driven by emotion and act losing sight of the necessary comprehensiveness. As we have said, that is the only reason for which it was decided to postpone for a few other months the celebration of the Party Congress.

Cuba sugar industry to be reformed

Cuba has announced plans to close its Sugar Ministry in the near future. According to Reuters, it will be replaced by a state-run corporation which will allow for foreign investment. Plans to close inefficient sugar mills on the island are also near completion.  The move marks the latest reform by President Raúl Castro to restructure the economy and the way that government institutions run.

One Cuban economist told Reuters that “the new structure will give decision makers in the industry more autonomy and allow them to keep a percentage of revenues for re-investment.”

While Cuba was once the largest exporter of sugar in the world, the industry’s collapse began with the folding of the Soviet Union in 1991. Also, in 2002 Cuba massively downsized its sugar industry, closing 71 of the country’s 156 mills and moving 200,000 sugar workers to different occupations. Today sugar sales make up just 5% of Cuba’s foreign exchange earnings.

Young communists in Cuba debate ways to “preserve the revolution”

The Union of Young Communists met this week in Havana. According to La Jornada, the focus of the meeting was to discuss methods of preserving the revolution. Over 800 members attended the two day congress, most between the ages of 15 and 35.

La Jornada notes that the average age of high-ranking Cuban governmental officials is 79.5 years old, but the Union discussed strategies for youth participation in economic and political processes. Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez recently noted that “the concepts of socialism and revolution are distant to Cuba’s youth.”

According to AFP, one notable participant in the meetings was Elián Gonzáles, now 16 years old. A Cuban government website, Cuba Debate, ran a headline after the two-day meeting which read “Young Elián Gonzáles defends his revolution in the youth congress.”

Dissident Adrian Leiva drowned while trying to return to Cuba

In an attempt to re-enter Cuba illegally by boat, Cuban opposition figure and Miami journalist Adrian Leiva drowned last month, Spain’s ABC reported. According to Leiva’s colleagues in Miami, he wanted to return to the island after divorcing his wife, but had not received permission from the Cuban government to do so. Leiva left Cuba for Miami in 2005 as a political refugee with his wife, but returned to the island for a three-month visit in 2008, the Associated Press reported. According to his friend, Miguel Saludes, Leiva left Florida at night on March 22nd with “a person who agreed to take him to Cuba and leave him at a point on the northern coast, between Matanzas and Havana.”

There is much speculation surrounding Leiva’s death. The Miami Herald reported that Cuban authorities detained three people who were traveling with him.  ‘Conexión Cubana,’ the website for which Leiva worked , said in an article that “he died in strange circumstances.”  He was criticized with impunity by other Cubans who say they are leading the liberation of Cuba; they accused him of being a “spy infiltrated by the Cuban government,” the article stated.  Leiva favored easing restrictions against Cuba.

Fewer Canadian visitors, more Cuban-Americans

Tourism to Cuba fell by 3.4 percent in the first two months of 2010 compared to the same period last year, Reuters reported. About 513,000 tourists arrived in January and February, down from 531,000 during the same period in 2009, The National Statistics office reported on its website. According to Reuters, the reduction can be attributed to a decline in visitors coming from Canada, the group that generally supplies more tourists to Cuba than any other country. The decline may have been caused by a “pricing spat with a major Canadian tour operator,” tourism experts said, resulting in Canadian tourists choosing to vacation in the Dominican Republic and Mexico early this year, where prices are now lower than those of Cuba.

However, a jump in arrivals by Cuban-Americans since travel restrictions were lifted last spring has helped offset the drop in Canadians. Tourism and related businesses earned Cuba $2 billion in 2009, about 20% of its foreign exchange income.

The Associated Press reported further on Cuba’s ability to handle an influx of U.S. tourists. According to Cuban Tourism Minister Manual Marrero, “with the available capacity, we could be receiving the American tourists without any problem.” At least nine large hotels are set to break ground this year in Cuba, which could help handle increased numbers of tourists, especially from the U.S.  Cuba is also seeking investment partners for 10 golf courses and luxury hotels aimed at Americans, the AP reported. “Havana has been the forbidden city for so long that it will be a boom destination even in the low season,” said Jose Manuel Bisbe, commercial director for the Tourism Ministry.

Cuban laboratory presents advances against cancer

Jose Antonio Fraga, president of a business group in Cuba, announced this week that a pre-clinical study suggests that proteins within the toxins of a scorpion have the ability to fight cancer.  According to EFE, Fraga claims the proteins are being patented and cloned in preparation for further tests on rats in September.   Fraga is the nephew of Raúl and Fidel Castro.

Yoani Sánchez running blogging classes out of her home

The Global Post reported on a blogging academy that Yoani Sánchez has set up in her home in Nuevo Vedado, Havana. The course doesn’t grant an accredited degree, and the classroom is Sánchez’s living room which has no access to the Internet.  And there’s a possibility that the next knock on the door might be the police, reported the Post. About 30 students show up twice a week to take the classes to learn how to use Twitter, or write code in WordPress for their own blogs.

Sánchez remains largely unknown on the island, but has “become a potent symbol of opposition to a one-party socialist system run by men in their 70s and 80s,” the Post reported. The Cuban government views Sánchez’s international fame as part of the broader U.S.-funded campaign to foment anti-Castro activity on the island.

FLORIDA’S FOREIGN POLICY

Cuba hardliners continue to control policy

Despite changing dynamics in Florida, where Cuban-Americans now favor lifting restrictions on travel for all Americans to Cuba and engaging the Cuban government, Cuba hardliners continue to control U.S. policy toward Cuba. According to the National Journal, “while the hardliners’ ranks may be thinning, the passion and campaign cash that fuel their success are still in plentiful supply.”

According to Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a long-time advocate for overhauling Cuba policy, “Embargo boosters in Congress horse-trade and twist arms to get their way.” A crucial factor is Cuban-American campaign cash, which “continues to push undecided lawmakers into their column,” reported the Journal. The U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC gave $828,000 in the 2008 election cycle to 205 House and Senate candidates. It plans to give similar amounts to candidates in this year’s elections.

Rivera tries to keep Cuba-bound exports from receiving certificate of approval

Staunchly anti-Castro Florida lawmaker David Rivera (R-West Miami) has introduced a bill that would keep exports going to Cuba from being sent with a “certificate of free sale” label.  As the Miami Herald reported, the sale, which accompanies all exports from Florida, certifies that the exports were indeed manufactured in Florida.

Sending goods with the certificate, according to Rivera is like “sending a virtual stamp of approval” to the Castro regime. While it is not a legal mandate that exports from Florida be sent with the certificate, should the bill pass, it is possible that Florida products will become less attractive to Cuban importers, thus “reducing the flow of goods.” Rivera is running for the U.S. Congress in Florida’s 21st District. He has authored several bills regarding Cuba in the past, including legislation to require expensive bonds for travel agents dealing with Cuba, which the Florida Supreme Court found unlawful.

Bacardi wins lawsuit in Havana Club rum case

A U.S. judge in Delaware rejected a lawsuit by Pernod Ricard SA (PERP.PA) to stop rival Bacardi Ltd. from selling “Havana Club” branded rum in the United States, Reuters reported.

Both companies sell rum under the Havana Club name, Pernod outside the United States and Bacardi within it, and they have been battling in courts for more than 13 years over which company controls the trademark. Pernod also accuses Bacardi of false advertising by misleading consumers into believing that its rum is made in Cuba, as Pernod’s is, when in fact it is made in Puerto Rico. Pernod officials plan to appeal this week’s decision, BusinessWeek reported.

CUBA’S FOREIGN POLICY

Chinese oil exploration in Cuba

The St. Petersburg Times reported this week on Chinese involvement in Cuban oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. Responding to a statement on the website of Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL) saying that China will soon be drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, the Times says his statement is only half true. According to Stearns’ campaign website, “Cuba wants to let the Chinese drill in some of the very parts of the gulf that American producers are currently forbidden to touch, as close as 45 miles off the Florida coast.” However, the Times points out that Cuba has leased exploration blocks to oil and gas companies based in Spain, Norway, India, Malaysia, Venezuela, Vietnam and Brazil, but not China.

Jorge Piñon, a former oil executive with Shell and Amoco who is an expert on Cuba’s energy sector, said China has an onshore, land-based lease in Cuba but not an offshore lease. The China National Petroleum Corp. is negotiating a lease for four areas in the waters northwest of Cuba, Piñon said, but they are blocks farther away from the U.S. In 2008, then-Vice President Dick Cheney made headlines when he said “oil is being drilled right now 60 miles off the coast of Florida. But we’re not doing it, the Chinese are, in cooperation with the Cuban government.” His statement was completely false.

Cuba and Iran to increase cooperation in biotechnology and sugar

After meetings this week between the vice-chancellors of Cuba and Iran, an agreement to further cooperation regarding biotechnology, the iron and steel industry and sugar production has been reached, Reuters reported. “Both countries have elevated their commercial exchange, and, through economic cooperation, have been able to reach a considerable advancement,” said Seyed Amir Mansoor Borghei, Iran’s vice-chancellor. Terms of the new agreement between the two countries were not released. In 2008, commercial exchange between Cuba and Iran was valued at $50 million dollars – a little over double the amount in 2007.

Venezuelan opposition complains about Cuban presence in the country

Members of the opposition to the Chávez government in Venezuela continue to raise their concerns about the presence of Cubans in the country. As “never before in history have citizens of other countries been allowed to assume key positions associated with national security,” said Venezuelan politician Julio Borges, coordinator of the Primero Justicia political party, El Universal reported.

Borges claims that Cuban officials have been given positions “in the administration of ports, communications, oil and energy, immigration, policy, health…and the armed forces,” and demanded an explanation. In February the opposition complained about the presence of Cuban vice-president Ramiro Valdes, whom Chávez had invited to take part in a commission made up of advisors from various Latin American countries to analyze the electricity problems in Venezuela. There are around 30,000 Cubans in Venezuela serving as doctors, teachers and sports trainers.

Cuban Public Health Care Cooperation with Haiti

Together with Venezuela, Brazil and several other countries, and in close coordination with the Haitian government, Cuba has proposed a comprehensive program for the strengthening of the Haitian health system. Officials from the U.S. and Cuba have met briefly on numerous occasions recently to discuss coordinating efforts.

On Wednesday, April 21st The Center for International Policy and MEDICC (Medical Education and Cooperation with Cuba) will host a panel discussion concerning the role of Cuban medical personnel in Haiti before and after this year’s tragic earthquake, and the potential for U.S.-Cuba cooperation in the recovery process. More information on the Washington, DC event is available here.

Recommended Reading:

“Las presiones externas refuerzan la ortodoxia,” Entrevista con Rafael Hernández

Rafael Hernández, director de la revista Temas, defiende el sistema socialista cubano pero pide su democratización desde dentro. Asegura que durante medio siglo la política de Washington hacia su país ha sido nefasta y cree que eso explica muchos enroques oficiales, también la “desconfianza” hacia todo lo que lleve el apellido disidente.

Castro & Co. deaf to Cubans’ frustration, Miami Herald

On Sunday, Raúl Castro said: “Today, more than ever before, the economic battle is the main task.” Yes, the economy is a battle but only because the regime stubbornly refuses to take the market by its horns. Yes, state enterprises need to shed up to a million people from their payrolls, but the regime balks at legalizing the small-business sector. Yes, the state is paternalistic and agriculture woefully unproductive, but who’s to blame if not those in power for far too long?

Around the Region:

Remembering the Romero Assassination, Open Society Institute Blog

Carlos Dada, editor of elfaro.net, an online news outlet in El Salvador, is interviewed by OSI’s David Holiday about a recent 10,000-word article based on an exclusive interview with a former death squad member who participated in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Decades Later, New Details in Oscar Romero Death, NPR

Thirty years after the death of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, new details are coming to light about his assassination and the men behind the plot to kill him. Melissa Block talks to Geoff Thale, program director of the Washington Office on Latin America. He led a delegation to El Salvador last month to mark the anniversary of Romero’s death.

Venezuela arrests 8 alleged Colombian spies, Associated Press

President Hugo Chávez said Tuesday that Venezuela has arrested eight Colombians as suspected spies and charged that several carried identification indicating they are members of neighboring Colombia’s military.

Hu’s visit significant to relations with Latin America: diplomat, Xinhua News

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s upcoming visit to Brazil, Venezuela and Chile will be significant to furthering comprehensive development of China-Latin America relations, a senior Chinese diplomat said on Wednesday.

Venezuela’s socialist cities: A solution to poverty or step in abolishing private property? Global Post

Just last year Sudeibi Salazar lived with her husband and son in a rat-infested shack. Today her home is a three-bedroom apartment in a gleaming white block a few miles up the road.

U.S., Brazil to sign defense cooperation accord, Reuters

The United States and Brazil may sign a new agreement as early as Monday meant to bolster military ties, despite tensions over Iran and signs a U.S. firm might lose a major Brazilian defense contract.

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