Breaking News from Capitol Hill…House Committee sets vote to end travel ban; Hopeful News from Cuba…Catholic Church Produces Progress on Prisoners; Members of Congress Challenge Clinton on Rights in Honduras

Dear Friends:

Legislation to end the travel ban is scheduled for committee consideration on Capitol Hill.

Cuba’s Catholic Church and its engagement with Cuba’s government continue to produce progress for political prisoners and to open a larger debate on the island.

It’s amazing, but defenders of the embargo continue to excoriate dissidents, who support ending the travel ban, and also the Church, for engaging in a dialogue with Cuba’s government, irrespective of the results.

Cuba and the United States met for the third time under the migration talks’ rubric, a meeting overshadowed by substantive events on the island, and characterized as producing progress but no agreements by both governments.

On the eve of June 28th, the one-year anniversary of the coup in Honduras, twenty-seven Members of the House of Representatives warned Secretary Clinton in a letter released today, that they would be loathe to countenance additional support for the government of Honduras, without a prompt and reliable report on human rights conditions in that country, and a plan for addressing them effectively.

We cover this, and more, and then offer a final word, this week in the news summary…

BREAKING NEWS

House Agriculture Committee to vote on legislation ending the travel ban

“It’s time,” the simple but powerful message from Rep. Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, as he announced his decision to have the committee vote on legislation to end the travel ban and increase the sale of U.S. food to the island.

The committee will meet on June 30, 2010 to consider the legislation introduced by Peterson and cosponsored by a bi-partisan group of 62 Members of the House.  Peterson’s bill, the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act (H.R. 4645), has been endorsed by over 130 organizations that represent agriculture and business, foreign policy and national security, religious, labor and human rights, and other advocacy groups that support a new U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Comments supporting Peterson’s decision came quickly.

“This is the moment for making a decisive change in Cuba policy; a change that will put money in the pockets of American farmers and workers, put better food on Cuban tables, and put more Americans on Cuban streets and in Cuban homes.  A policy that ends the travel ban and sells more food to Cuba puts our country on the side of the Cuban people, and we applaud the Committee for scheduling the legislation,” said Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

“It’s time for a decisive change in Cuba policy.  U.S. citizens want their right to travel restored. Rather than waiting another fifty years for Cuba to change, sending American food and tourists to Cuba will make life better for the Cuban people now. We support Chairman Peterson in moving ahead with a vote in the Agriculture Committee on this legislation,” said Mavis Anderson of the Latin America Working Group.

“Moving to end the travel ban and to sell more food to Cuba is not only good for Americans and Cubans, but also critical for restoring relevance to U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.  Engaging the Cuban people, as this effort would do, will enhance the U.S. image and our effectiveness in the region. This is welcome news to those who think it is long past time to change our outmoded approach to Cuba,” said Anya Landau French of the New America Foundation.

“The Peterson-Moran bill takes U.S. Cuba policy in a sensible direction.  It moves away from the unilateral sanctions we’ve imposed for fifty years, and expands travel, communication and dialogue, while opening up sales opportunities for U.S. businesses.   We’re pleased that Chairman Peterson is moving the bill toward a vote,” said Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America.

The decision to go to mark-up by Chairman Peterson comes just a few weeks after 74 of Cuba’s most prominent political dissidents endorsed the bill and called for tourism by Americans and increased food sales to help the Cuban people.

IN CUBA

Vatican Foreign Minister meets with President Raúl Castro, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez

Archbishop Dominic Mamberti, the Vatican Foreign Minister, closed his five-day visit to Cuba this week by meeting with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro. MercoPress reported that Mamberti emerged from the meeting, which he called “very positive,” characterizing relations with Cuba as “cordial, continuing and on the rise.” The Cuban government said that Mamberti’s visit “showed the favorable development of relations between the state and the Catholic Church in Cuba.”

Castro and Mamberti discussed an “international agenda,” but the meeting spurred hopes that more political prisoners in Cuba would be released or relocated.  A European diplomat told the Financial Times that “the church expects a number of prisoners to be released soon, though it may be after the visit, as the cardinal stated his efforts were unrelated.”

In a press conference with Cuba’s Minister Bruno Rodríguez, the Vatican official applauded the discussions between Church officials and the Cuban government, and Mr. Rodríguez said that Mamberti’s visit comes at a “very favorable” moment for Church-State dialogue.  He added that the Church has taken a constructive role in these talks, leading to “fruitful exchanges” with the government. The pair discussed bilateral relations and international topics during their meeting, according to Europa Press.

Archbishop Mamberti’s trip to the island was organized to honor 75 years of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the Holy See, and coincided with a conference sponsored by the Catholic Church to explore its pastoral agenda.  Mamberti acknowledged that one of the Vatican’s diplomatic objectives was “to support the dialogue between local churches and the authorities of various countries.” Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who also characterized Mamberti’s stay as “very positive,” asked the Archbishop to pass along his invitation to the Pope to visit Cuba in 2012.

A recent article published by EFE notes that the final vote on whether to maintain the European Union’s Common Position toward Cuba was postponed until September to await the outcome of the Church-state dialogue on the island. A number of countries have opposed changing the position due to human rights concerns.

Jailed Cuban dissident going home after trial

Darsi Ferrer, a vocal opponent of Cuba’s government, was convicted this week of purchasing cement on the black market, and was allowed to return home, the Associated Press reported.  The eleven months he spent in prison before his trial was counted as “time served.”  The charge is common in Cuba, and, according to the AP, is often overlooked or punished with a fine.

Mr. Ferrer’s wife said that she believed his sentence “was the fair outcome. It’s what we’ve waited for since the beginning.” Ferrer will serve the final four months of his sentence under house arrest in Havana.  He told reporters that he is still “committed to freedom for the Cuban public” and will “keep pressing to win reforms.”

Ferrer attributed his release to Church efforts to improve conditions for prisoners of conscience in Cuba.  Ferrer told El País that he believes dialogue is the key to easing tensions. “The dialogue of the Church and civil society; between the people and the government; between the diaspora and Cuba; the dialogue between the European Union and the Cuban government…that is the solution for the Cuban people.”

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley issued a statement calling Ferrer’s release “a positive development, although he should never have been arrested or imprisoned.”

This case had troubled a number of European Union countries, including Sweden, Germany, Poland, Hungary and Britain, who all sent representatives to Ferrer’s home last year to express their unease with Ferrer’s arrest, Reuters wrote. The trial and release comes as the EU postponed its decision to renew its Common Position toward Cuba.

Released dissident Ariel Sigler gets visa to come to U.S.

Dissident Ariel Sigler, who was released from prison last week due to serious health concerns, has received a humanitarian visa from the Unites States.  Elizardo Sánchez, who leads the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission, announced that Sigler would be traveling to the United States to receive medical treatment, EFE reported.  Sigler is now working through the legal process of securing permission from the Cuban government to leave the island, which may take weeks. Sigler was arrested along with over 70 other dissidents in 2003. He was hospitalized in 2008 after suffering numerous ailments in prison, and was set free last week as part of an agreement reached between Catholic Church officials and the Cuban government.

2.5 million acres redistributed to private farmers

According to the Associated Press, the Cuban government has redistributed nearly 2.5 million acres of unused state land to 110,000 private farmers and 1,715 cooperatives and agricultural organizations.  This acreage represents just over half the area it hopes to redistribute in its agriculture revitalization effort.  The state will retain the title to the land but offer up to 10-year leases (renewable for an additional 10 years) to approved “individual farmers, cooperatives and others who can prove they will put it to good use.”  Prior to the reform, government-run farms were only utilizing 29 percent of state land.

Church’s role in Cuba and where it leaves dissidents

The Catholic Church has become a formidable actor in brokering improvements in human rights in Cuba over the past couple of months, and some dissidents feel left out.  As Europa Press reported last week, Oswaldo Payá issued statements criticizing Vatican Foreign Minister Dominique Mamberti for not meeting with dissidents during his trip to the island.  He criticized the Catholic Church’s efforts to negotiate for better conditions for political prisoners without the input of a broad section of the Cuban public, namely the country’s dissident activists, calling them “exclusionary.”

Mauricio Claver-Carone, a lobbyist who supports U.S. sanctions against Cuba, is also troubled by these developments. He writes on his blog, Capitol Hill Cubans, that it “shouldn’t come as a surprise,” however, because “both the Castro regime and the Catholic Church are essentially non-democratic, non-representative entities.” The Cuban Triangle summed up this reaction to the church’s role in this way:  “Amazing.”

Church sponsors ‘Social Week’ conference, invites Cuban-American scholars

A four-day conference sponsored by the Catholic Church to discuss a broad range of issues drew to a close this week. The conference explored some of the most sensitive topics in Cuban society, the AFP wrote, from economic conditions in Cuba to reconciliation among Cubans and Cuban Americans. With the conference, the Cuban church is addressing a range of social issues in Cuba not directly related to religious freedom or the church-state dialogue.

Omar Everleny, researcher at the University of Havana’s Center for Study of the Cuban Economy, stated that this conference comes at “one of the most critical moments we have had [in Cuba],” and explained that not even in 1995-96, when the collapse of the socialist bloc plunged Cuba into an economic freefall, was there “such a blunt analysis as there is now about an excess of a million workers and of where they are to go if no investments are made.”

Three Cuban-American professors participated in the conference amid hopes that recent, frank dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government could shepherd in stronger ties, the AFP reported.

Arturo López-Levy of the University of Denver cautioned that reconciliation must be seen as a gradual process. Carmelo Mesa-Lago from the University of Pittsburgh described his experience in Spain’s El País, recalling statements made by Rafael Hernandez, editor of Temas magazine, that political reconciliation is “essential to reaching social stability in Cuba.” Jorge Domínguez wrote about dialogue between Cubans and Cuban Americans, saying “the challenge for Cuba and its diaspora today is how to explore the possibility of a different relationship that doesn’t demand violence…nor prolongs the verbal violence that brands as treason everything that disagrees, that does not exclude those who for multiple and various reasons have become citizens of other countries.”  His comments in Spanish can be read in full here.

Smoking bans and economics hit famed Cuban cigars

Reuters reports this week that global economic woes and the worldwide spread of smoking bans are taking their toll on Cuba’s famous cigar industry, with the just-completed harvest of the country’s finest tobacco down 14 percent over 2009.

Some 200,000 private farmers and family members depend on growing and curing the precious leaf under contract with the government. Tens of thousands of workers earn their living hand rolling the crop into the famous “Habanos” or “Puros” for export.

CUBA’S FOREIGN POLICY

Syrian President to visit Cuba

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has left for a tour of four Latin American countries in his first visit to the region, AFP reported. Assad will travel to Cuba as part of his visit in a move to “strengthen traditionally close ties.” The Syrian president plans to discuss “bilateral relations and developments in the Middle East and Latin America.” His trip also has a strong economic focus. Assad expressed the wish to strengthen ties with the large and often influential population of Syrian émigrés in the region.  He will visit Venezuela, before continuing on to Brazil, Argentina, and Cuba.

Petrobras triples refining capacity, Russian oil firm opens office in Cuba

Reuters reported that Brazil’s state owned oil refining company Petrobras will increase its refining capacity in Cuba, as well as in Mexico and Columbia. Petrobras will add 1.2 million barrels per day to their refining capacity to meet the increasing energy demand in South America.

Meanwhile, Zarubezhneft, a Russian state company, has opened a representative office in Havana, RIA-Novosti reported.  In November 2009, Zarubezhneft and CubaPetroleo signed several contracts regarding “seismic work and hydrocarbon production” – the first long-term contracts in this sector between Russia and Cuba in twenty years.  Nikolay Brunich, head of Zarubezhneft, said opening the office was “without exaggeration … a new stage.” Russian Ambassador to Cuba Mikhail Kamynin agreed, stating the newly-opened office would be “clear proof that Russia is returning to Cuba, not in word only, but in deed.”

First Iranian company opens business in Cuba

Tad Co., an Iranian company that manufactures irrigation systems, became the first Iranian company to open an office in Cuba, according to Agence France-Presse. Trade between the two countries more than doubled between 2007 and 2008 before dropping in 2009 due to Cuban economic woes and the global recession. Iranian Ambassador Mostafa Alaei celebrated the new venture, saying “the office opening is not the goal, but just a new step” in improving Iran-Cuba relations.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Migration talks between the U.S. and Cuba: progress, but no agreements

The United States and Cuba ended the third round of immigration talks held authorized by President Obama last Friday.  Though the parties reached no agreements, the talks centered on ways to implement the U.S.-Cuba Migration Accords.  In their meeting, Cuban and U.S. officials raised some of the most delicate issues between the two countries, including the status of USAID contractor Alan Gross, jailed but not charged in Cuba since December 2009, and the Cuban Adjustment Act, which offers fast-tracked naturalization to Cubans entering the United States.

Deputy Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodríguez, the Cuban government representative, called on the U.S. to end the so-called “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy that provides Cuban nationals preferential immigration treatment.  He said that the policy “goes against the spirit and the letter of the Migration Accords.” The Cuban delegation released a statement on the talks, which is available here.

The two delegations also discussed ways to combat human trafficking, a shared concern of Cuba and the U.S.  The Cuban team suggested convening workshops for experts in both nations to combat the use of false travel documents, according to Prensa Latina.  The Cuban delegation also petitioned for more consular officials at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, while U.S. officials called for an end to restrictions on freedom of movement for diplomats stationed in both countries.

State Department officials highlighted the U.S. desire for “constructive discussions with the Cuban government to address U.S. interests,” Europa Press wrote. Cuban representatives also emphasized their interest in these talks and invited the U.S. to continue them in Havana later this year.  Rodríguez said that talks were held in a “respectful environment,” and that “during this round, progress was made” in identifying necessary steps to combat human smuggling – a development which “validates the usefulness of these meetings.”

The U.S. has claimed that the detention of Alan Gross has chilled relations between the neighboring countries, hampering progress, and called for the “immediate release” of Mr. Gross.

Debate on travel to Cuba continues

Just as the Catholic Church in Cuba is being excoriated for negotiating with the Cuban government on behalf of political prisoners, 74 Cuban dissidents who expressed support for the legislation introduced by Reps. Peterson and Moran to remove the U.S. travel ban have been subject to withering criticism by hard-liners in the Cuban American community.

Carlos Saladrigas, co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group, wrote an op-ed about this war of words, lamenting how “dissidents hailed as heroes a week earlier” were being called “vendepatrias (traitors)” by opponents of the bill.

Óscar Espinosa Chepe, a cosigner of the dissident letter and former political prisoner, bristled at the response given to the letter in Miami. He wrote an article criticizing the “storm of gross attacks [that] have fallen over our heads [as a result of the letter], qualifying us as traitors for expressing our opinion.” He called the criticism levied against him by hardliners against the Cuban regime “identical to the ones we have received from the regime for decades.” He also called the letter a “pretext for the discharge of hate against those of us who for years have fought tirelessly for democracy and reconciliation within our national territory.”

Cuban-American professor Carmelo Mesa-Lago and Cuban economist Omar Everleny also expressed public support for the Peterson-Moran bill during a press conference following the Catholic Church-sponsored conference in Havana, EFE reported.

Mesa-Lago, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, said that American tourism could act as a form of “counterweight” to the heavy Venezuelan influence in the country. Everleny, of the University of Havana, called easing travel restrictions “one of the most transcendental measures that could occur.”

Rice producers visit Cuba in search of increased sales

A group of rice producers from Arkansas are currently visiting Cuba to discuss increasing sales, Arkansas’ THV reported. According to Chuck Wilson of the USA Rice Federation, “The Cuban people really like U.S. rice. They like the quality. They like the taste. They like the cleanliness of it, everything that we have to offer, they like. It’s just the situation, the politics and the economics that’s causing a difficulty in that.” Wilson pointed out the complications that current restrictions cause for sales. “If they buy it from the U.S. they would have to go through a bank in a third country. They can’t even use U.S. banks. So there [are] a lot of little factors there that we place restrictions on them that we do not other countries that really is impacting our ability to trade with them,” he said.

“Eliminating the travel restrictions on U.S. citizens will have a direct and beneficial impact on U.S. agricultural sales — particularly rice,” reported the Stuttgart Daily Leader.

Active hurricane system threatens oil cleanup

Meteorologists expect that this hurricane season may be the most highly active the Atlantic has ever seen, according to Bloomberg News.  High sea temperatures and low winds are creating the perfect conditions for tropical storms, the first of which may enter the Gulf of Mexico as early as next week.   Experts fear that the high incidence of tropical storms could severely hamper efforts to clean up the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) forecasts 14 to 23 named storms for this season, five of which are predicted to pass through or near the oil spill area.

U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is running the U.S. response to the spill, says “a hurricane could stop oil-capture efforts and delay drilling of relief wells by ten days.” By some estimates, 60,000 barrels of oil are leaking into the Gulf every day. 

Silvio Rodríguez performs blocks from the White House, calls on Obama to free the Cuban Five

Legendary Cuban singer, Silvio Rodríguez, performed this week at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

The concert was attended by 3,000 cheering fans, many from Latin American countries. Rodríguez was able to tap into the “nostalgia of those who, in times past, fled from repression” throughout Latin America, according to a review of the show published by EFE. “One can live without many things, but it’s difficult to live without music, without poetry,” Rodríguez told the crowd. Rodríguez’s tour was his first in the U.S. in three decades.

Though he spoke little during the concert, he made one plea for the Obama administration to free the ‘Cuban Five.’  “We are a few blocks from the White House,” he said, “with all due respect to Mr. Obama, liberate our heroes.”

Buena Vista Social Club to play in the U.S.

In another sign of increased cultural ties between the U.S. and Cuba, the Buena Vista Social Club has been preparing to make its first U.S. appearance since 2003. Unfortunately, “because of a delay in getting U.S. visas,” the band had to cancel the first of its three performances, Reuters reported.

According to the group’s lawyer, the delay was due to a “timing issue” rather than U.S. objections to the visit.  The band was scheduled to perform this week in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Band director Jesús Ramos shared the group’s excitement to play again “for American fans, who embraced the band despite many years of hostile U.S.-Cuban relations.” “For us, it’s beautiful,” he told Reuters, “because we left behind a public interested in Cuban music.”

Around the Region:

27 Members of Congress ask Sec. Clinton for assessment on human rights in Honduras

On the eve of the first anniversary of the coup in Honduras, 27 Members of the U.S. House have written Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking her to send Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner to visit Honduras and to “make a prompt assessment of what is occurring there with regards to human and political rights.”  The signers say that “without an early and accurate report [from Mr. Posner], we would be reluctant to see US support for Honduras continue without significant restrictions.” EFE reported on the letter here.

OAS commission for Honduras will have representatives from seven countries, El Heraldo

The fundamental role for the commission is to verify the social, political, and judicial situation in Honduras since the assumption of power by President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa and make recommendations about the reintegration of Honduras to the OAS.

Funes condemns Micheletti’s visit, La Prensa

Former de facto president of Honduras Roberto Micheletti arrived in San Salvador invited by the conservative right and was declared “distinguished guest” by the mayor of the capital.  The president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, condemned the visit.

Recommended Reading:

Active hurricane season could pose risk to food security in Haiti and the region, USAID

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Colorado State University Tropical Meteorology Project expect the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season to be very active, sparking particular concern given the impacts of the January earthquake in Haiti and Tropical Storm Agatha in Central America in May.

Carmelo Mesa-Lago says U.S. and Cuba have two years to solve impasse, Progresso Weekly

Carmelo Mesa-Lago: the possible triumph of the radical right in the United States in 2012 gives the administrations of Barack Obama and Raúl Castro “a window of opportunity of less than two years to solve the impasse” between the two countries.

Liberation of Women: Another failed dream in Cuba, The Huffington Post

Yoani Sánchez blogged this week about the fate of women (and feminism) in Cuba, and the new generation of girls who are trying to get ahead.

Castrocare in Crisis: Will Lifting the Embargo Make Things Worse?, Foreign Affairs

Cubans want the United States to lift its long-standing embargo on Cuba, but any serious easing of trade and travel restrictions between the two countries may badly harm Cuba’s health-care industry.

A FINAL WORD

After a three-year run at the Center for Democracy in the Americas – holding down a bulging Cuba portfolio, helping to run trips to the island, writing this news summary, and so much more – Collin Laverty is leaving this coast for a new post on the left coast.  He’s been accepted to a Masters program at the University of California, San Diego, where he’ll study foreign policy.

If you read and enjoy the news blast, much of what you’ve learned about Cuba and U.S. policy has been filtered through Collin’s discerning eye and inquisitive mind.  He’s lived and studied in Cuba, walked our delegations into Cuban homes, closely covered policy developments in the Congress and executive branch, and done all of this with uncommon decency and respect for the human lives, here and on the island, who are affected by our work and have direct stakes in our success.

We meet and enjoy relationships with a range of friends, allies, experts, and even a few adversaries in the work we do in Cuba and across the region.  Many are exceptional, a few are unique, but there’s nobody like Collin.  We miss him already, and we feel privileged to have been his colleagues and friends.

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One Response to Breaking News from Capitol Hill…House Committee sets vote to end travel ban; Hopeful News from Cuba…Catholic Church Produces Progress on Prisoners; Members of Congress Challenge Clinton on Rights in Honduras

  1. Jo-Ann Crell says:

    GRACIAS DIOS!!!!!! I am cubanamerican. I go to CUBA I live in the US . I am married and have CUban family. I am intelligent. I VOTE> Congressmenand Senators here in the US need to listen to the truth and stop trying to control the wrong people in the wrong way, you are wasting money and time in the lives of many people here and abroad, LET THE CHANGE COME TO CUBA and the US by opening the door to TRADE TRAVEL and FREEDOM! we all need this. Anyone who is committed to preventing this natural and important action is suspect, I believe the ones who say they will work against freedom of the American people to travel and trade with Cuba are probably part of the illegal and imoral systems they say they are trying to stop. It is time to take an action that will bring a change and help our economy, work for US not against US. Cuba will be our closest and strongest ALLY in time , sometday it will be the medical center of the Americas. It is 2010, this is reality. Be real and allow the voice of american people to be heard, it is what WE TH PEOPLE want.

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