Drilling Getting Closer; René’s Family Reunion Still Distant; GOP Frontrunners Silent on Cuba; and a word from “the blasters”

We’re delivering the goods again this week with:

  • Video from CNN’s Fareed Zakaria calling out the embargo for blocking cooperation with Cuba oil drilling
  • Troubling news about a court decision that will delay a long-awaited family reunion for a member of the Cuban Five
  • Reports on how Cuba’s crackdown on corruption has focused on Canadian firms, and
  • Hopeful indications that tourism and coffee production on the island are both on the rise.

Sometimes readers wonder – when the rest of the world is fixed on the opening of the United Nations or the roiling financial markets—who is hard at work tracking developments on the island or the twists and turns in U.S. policy toward Cuba?

That would be us – your friends at Cuba Central.

This week in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Oil experts continue to express concerns about U.S. preparedness in the event of a spill

Debate surrounding the environmental and economic implications of Cuba’s planned oil drilling continues to mount. Spanish oil company Repsol plans to begin deep-water drilling in the Florida Straits off the Cuban coast by mid-December with the arrival of a Chinese-built, Italian-designed oil rig currently en route from Singapore, the Miami Herald reports.

CNN’s Fareed Zakaria broadcast an opinion segment in which he recalled post-BP oil spill promises to never let such a disaster happen again and criticized the US. embargo of Cuba for setting the stage for another potential spill:

You see, the nearest and best experts on safety procedures and dealing with oil spills are all American, but we are forbidden by our laws from being involved in any way with Cuba. Our trade embargo on Cuba not only prevents us from doing business with our neighbor but it also bars us from sending equipment and expertise to help even in a crisis. So, if there is an explosion, we will watch while the waters of the Gulf Coast get polluted. Now, this is obviously a worst case hypothetical, but it’s precisely the kind of danger we should plan for and one we can easily protect against if we were allowed to have any dealings with Cuba.

A piece from energy expert Jorge Piñon in the Cuba Standard  provides suggestions for tangible, easily implementable solutions that would address issues of safety and regulation and prepare both countries to respond to a spill.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas released this report on Cuba’s offshore drilling plans earlier this year.

René González’s request to serve out probation in Cuba is denied

Last week, we reported on an appeal from the attorney of René González, one of five Cuban counter-intelligence agents currently imprisoned in the U.S., to allow González to complete three years of mandated probation in Cuba upon his release from prison on October 7.  But U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard denied this request on procedural grounds, stating that the terms of González’s supervised release cannot be modified until he is released from jail and begins to serve probation. González may re-file the motion on October 7.

Vigils held for Alan Gross today in Washington and New York

The family of Alan Gross is organizing two vigils this evening, in Washington and New York, the AP reports. Gross’ wife Judy will attend the Washington vigil, which will take place in front of the Cuban Interests Section, Washington Jewish Week reports. The New York vigil will be held in front of the Cuban U.N. Mission. Participants plan to deliver a petition for Gross’ release to Cuban authorities.

An editorial piece by Arturo López-Levy in Progreso Weekly advocates for a humanitarian release considering the upcoming Jewish High Holidays.

No ferries foreseen to Havana, Fort Lauderdale initiates direct flights

A State Department official has ruled out ferry service from the U.S. to Cuba as an immediate option for legal travel, according to a post from Café Fuerte. In an interview with the blog, an unnamed State Department spokesperson stated:

The establishment of methods of transport such as ferry and cruise services are not currently authorized and will require an inter-institutional process that can guarantee that security, border control and other requirements are ensured…Additionally, licenses are directed at facilitating travel with a specific purpose; tourist travel is against the law, and continues to be against the law under the new travel regulations.

Travel providers have long pushed for an opening of maritime travel to the island. Proponents argue that such travel would be more affordable, allow travelers to carry more cargo, and create more than 500 domestic jobs. It is estimated that a trip between Fort Lauderdale and Havana would take around twelve hours and cost about $200. Currently, most flights fall within the $400 range.

September 17th marked the first direct flight from Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport to Cuba in nearly 30 years, NBC Miami reported. The charter flight, operated by JetBlue, was preceded by a party in the terminal that included live music and food. Fort Lauderdale is the fifth airport to have direct flights to Cuba, and travel service providers continue to announce flights: The inaugural flight from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International to Havana will take place on December 7th, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

Just 2 Republican President Candidates Address Cuba During Fox Debate

Two Republican presidential candidates debating in Orlando, Florida on the Fox Network expressed their views on U.S. Cuba policy.  Debate moderator Brett Baier directed this question to former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson:

Governor Johnson, here in Florida, charter flights from Ft. Lauderdale to Havana, Cuba, have resumed. Is there a problem with that? And what are your thoughts on U.S.-Cuba policy?

Johnson replied:

With regard to flights to Cuba? You know, I’m — I’m in favor, I think, of the whole notion that trade promotes friendship, as opposed to not. So I would be inclined to looking at establishing or supporting those kinds of flights.

Rep. Michelle Bachman, however, offered a different view:

I’d like to weigh on this, because according to the State Department’s website, there are four nations that are state sponsors of terror. Cuba is one of those nations. We would never have flights between the United States and Cuba. It’s a state sponsor of terror.

No other candidate expressed his opinion.

IN CUBA

Cuba shuts down second Canadian company in corruption investigation

Cuba’s government has shut down a second Canadian trading company as it investigates corrupt import-export practices, Reuters reports. The company, Ontario-based Tokmakjian Group, is one of the most important companies doing business on the island, with an estimated $80 million in annual business with Cuba, mostly selling transportation, mining and construction equipment.

This most recent shut-down comes after Cuban authorities shut down another Canadian firm, Tri-Star Caribbean, on July 15 and arrested the company’s president. A western businessman stated:

Apparently Tri-Star Caribbean was just the beginning. They brought in more than 50 state purchasers for questioning, arrested some of them and broadened the investigation from there…As far as I know up to now just Canadian firms are involved, but you can bet every state importer and foreign trading company in the country is on edge.

The whereabouts of Cy Tokmakjian, founder of Tokmakjian Group, are unknown, but one source has stated that he has been detained by Cuban authorities. This shut-down is the latest action in President Raúl Castro’s vowed fight against corruption, which has already implicated high-level officials in the country’s nickel, communications, cigar, and aviation industries.

President Castro visits project at port of Mariel

President Raúl Castro visited the port of Mariel on Saturday to oversee its continued industrial expansion, reports EFE. The port of Mariel is undergoing a multi-million dollar expansion project to become the main industrial port of Cuba, replacing the port of Havana, which faces limitations due to its size and depth, as the island’s main commercial port.

The project at Mariel includes a 700-meter dock able to support deep-draft ships, which are physically unable to enter the Havana port. The expansion is a joint venture between a Cuban construction company and the Brazilian company Odebrecht, S.A., reports Granma. Brazilian investment could reach up to $500 million, bringing total investment in the project up to $800 million. Odebrecht, S.A. is the same company that will be upgrading the cargo wharfs of the port of Miami, according to the Miami Herald.

Cuba plans management courses for new self-employed workers

Cuba’s National Association of Cuban Economists (ANEC) is designing a training program for new self-employed workers and small business owners, EFE reports. The courses will educate new participants in the private sector on basic principles of accounting, expenses, costs and taxes. The number of self-employed workers has been growing since President Raúl Castro legalized almost 181 categories of private business. Most recently, the government has announced that there are currently more than 330,000 cuentapropistas, or self-employed workers.
Cuba already has two million tourist visitors in 2011

The Cuban Tourism Ministry (MINTUR) announced that the two millionth foreign visitor of the year arrived to the island, marking the eighth consecutive year in which international tourism to Cuba has exceeded two million visitors, reports the Cuban News Agency (ACN). This year, the 2,000,000 mark arrived more than a month ahead of the date than in 2010. Cuba is still expecting the arrival of a large percentage of this year’s visitors, as the high tourist season in Cuba comes during its “winter,” roughly mid-October to April.

MINTUR reports that the highest number of visitors come from Canada, followed by the United Kingdom and other European countries. However, Cuban statistics consider Cuban Americans to be nationals, and do not include the estimated 350,000 Cuban Americans arriving annually from the U.S., reports Reuters. Figures including Cuban Americans estimate that the U.S. is the second-largest source of visitors to the island.

Cuba optimistic about increase in coffee and sugar production

Cuba expects its coffee harvest to be 10% larger than last year, state newspaper Granma reports. Of the 6,433 tons expected, around 5,500 tons are produced in the eastern provinces of Santiago and Guantánamo. This growth comes as Cuba has continued the process of agricultural reform in an effort to increase national production and decrease imports. Reuters reports that in 2009 Cuba imported 30,000 tons of coffee at $45 million to supplement the close to 6,000 tons it produced.

The government plans to seed 8,200 hectares (close to 20,300 acres) of coffee in 2012, with the goal of producing 22,000 tons by 2015. Orlando Lugo Fonte, president of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), has emphasized the critical role of individual farmers and cooperatives. Lugo spoke to cooperative farmers in the eastern mountains over the weekend, calling on them to fix inefficiencies and recognizing their importance in the island’s future production of coffee, the Cuban News Agency reports.

In the sugar sector, Cuba’s government is also optimistic about this year’s harvest, reports Reuters. The Minister of Sugar released estimates predicting around 1.45 million tons of unrefined sugar this harvest, a 19% increase over last year. These numbers still pale in comparison to Cuba’s production before the collapse of the Soviet Union:  Cuba produced 8 million tons in 1990 and then reached a century low of 1.1 million tons in 2009. Domestically, Cubans consume around 700,000 tons of sugar annually.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Chávez and Morales in Cuba, Morales calls for “decertification” of U.S. anti-drug policies

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s President Evo Morales arrived in Cuba together on Saturday night, CubaDebate reports. Chávez is on the island for his fourth round of chemotherapy, and Morales made an official visit en route to the UN General Assembly.

On Monday, Morales met with President Raúl Castro and the two “confirmed the excellent state of bilateral relations” and discussed regional and multilateral issues, according to CubaDebate. Additionally, Morales visited the University of Havana, where he received an honorary doctorate in Political Science (pictures of the ceremony are available here).

During his speech accepting the honorary degree, Morales stated that the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) should “decertify” the U.S. for its counternarcotics policy, reports the AP. By using the term decertify, Morales referred to the U.S. blacklist of countries that the U.S. president determines have not done enough in the “War on Drugs.” Bolivia, Venezuela and Burma are the only three countries on that list considered to have “demonstrably failed.” Morales argues that the origin of narco-trafficking is U.S. cocaine consumption, not Bolivian coca production, and consequently the U.S. should be symbolically decertified.

Around the Region

IACHR rules that Leopoldo López should be allowed bid for presidential election

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered this week that the Venezuelan government lift a ban on the electoral participation of Leopoldo López, former mayor of the Chacao district of Caracas, the Latin American Herald Tribune reports. The ban on holding public office was placed on López in 2008 based on corruption allegations that he had accepted illegal donations from state oil company PDVSA, where his mother worked. López was not formally charged. Hugo Chávez has denounced the IACHR decision, saying that it is “worthless” and “means nothing,” the AP reports. The government stated that it would await a decision by the nation’s Supreme Court to make any decision on the case.

If the Supreme Court rules in his favor, López could present himself as another candidate in an opposition movement that does not yet have a clear front-runner. Tim Padgett for Time Magazine has an editorial piece on the IACHR decision, in which he argues that Chávez should allow López to run and avoid giving opposition voters “an injustice to rally around.”

Venezuela hands out thousands of free laptops

A project to distribute laptops to Venezuela’s entire elementary school population has so far issued more than 750,000 computers to students, the Miami Herald reports. In a program that was initiated in 2009, President Hugo Chávez has promised to provide free laptops to the more than five million primary school aged students. This year, the government expects to deliver at least 900,000 more, issuing three million by 2012.

Most of the laptops, called Canaimas, are imported from Portugal, but Venezuela has announced plans to expand national production with a factory that will produce 500,000 Canaimas each year. According to some sources, there has been difficulty in training teachers and students on how to use their laptops. Issues with theft have been addressed by software that completely shuts down a laptop if it does not log-in to a school network every 48 hours. In order to provide more widespread and quicker access to the Internet, the government is expanding Venezuela’s fiber-optic network from 200 to 700 municipalities over the next several years, in addition to a plan that would subsidize Internet for the poor.

U.S. Senate report on Central America Violence

Senators Dianne Feinstein (CA) and Chuck Grassley (IA), co-chairs of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, released their report Responding to Violence in Central America.

The Caucus report outlines steps that the U.S. can take to help Central America reduce drug-related violence.  The key recommendations of the report are to:   speed up security assistance; increase drug traffickers’ extraditions; support witness, judge and prosecutor protection programs; map sources of violence; and reduce the U.S. demand for drugs. The entire report can be found by clicking here.

Recommended Reading

Trips back to Cuba draw fire, Adrian Campo-Flores, the Wall Street Journal

“One recent morning at the airport here, Enrique Verea waited to check in to his flight to Havana, Cuba, with a luggage cart piled high with bags of food, clothes and medicine for his family. That could be his last trip to the island for a while if a bill proposed by Republican Rep. David Rivera of Florida passes Congress. The measure, which would amend the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, is aimed at people like Mr. Verea, who, in Mr. Rivera’s view, are violating the spirit of the act.”

Cuba’s opposition tries to plot fresh course, Andrea Rodríguez and Paul Haven, the Associated Press

“Now, the Ladies [in White] and the rest of the island’s dissident community stand at a crossroads, as they struggle to redefine themselves and connect with a public that has never appeared particularly receptive to their message.”

Renewing the U.S.-Latin American Alliance for Progress, 50 years later, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Atlantic

“A great nation defines itself not by what it fears and opposes but by what it believes in and champions. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Alliance for Progress, President Kennedy’s visionary effort to promote social justice and economic development in Latin America. The Alliance had a short ten-year life, but its influence was real, and its vision of the Americas is still relevant today.”

Cuba, Salvaging a Revolution?, NACLA Report on the Americas

The latest issue of the North American Congress on Latin America’s publication Report on the Americas includes articles on the subject of Cuba’s current process of economic reform, from scholars in the U.S. and in Cuba.

Recommended Viewing

Why our Cuba embargo could lead to another Gulf oil disaster, Fareed Zakaria, CNN

“…[T]he nearest and best experts on safety procedures and dealing with oil spills are all American, but we are forbidden by our laws from being involved in any way with Cuba. Our trade embargo on Cuba not only prevents us from doing business with our neighbor but it also bars us from sending equipment and expertise to help even in a crisis.”

La Otra Cuba, Stephen Heyman, The New York Times Magazine

A photo slideshow of Michael Connors’ Splendor of Cuba, highlighting Havana’s architectural history, and Michael Dweck’s Havana Libre, “a sun-baked ‘Who’s Who’ of Cuba’s cultural elite.

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