This is news: U.S. Says Something Nice about Cuba (but it still can’t attend the Summit of the Americas)

The U.S. rarely has a kind word for Cuba or its government.  So, it was noteworthy this week when our State Department released its 2011 annual reports on drug trafficking and money laundering and Cuba received good marks for its counter-narcotic efforts.

The brief section on Cuba in the report, which details problems identified by the U.S. government in the enforcement of controls against narcotics globally, speaks in brief but clear, declarative sentences about what Cuba is doing in the fight against illegal drugs, and it turns out Cuba is doing well.   The U.S. finds that –

  • Cuba’s counter-narcotics efforts have prevented illegal narcotics trafficking from having a significant impact on the island.
  • Domestic production and consumption of illegal drugs remained very limited
  • Cuba continues to demonstrate a commitment to fulfilling its responsibilities as a signatory to the 1988 United Nations Convention against illicit trafficking in drugs
  • Cuba regularly participates in international counter-narcotics conferences
  • Cuba maintained a significant level of cooperation with U.S. counter-narcotics efforts.

And so on.  It reports these and other positive indicators – without hedging or suggesting areas where Cuba’s performance lags.

No matter what grade it gets, Cuba finds its appearance in such reports by the U.S. endlessly irritating.   Diplomats from Cuba’s foreign ministry have told us on numerous occasions that Cuba is subjected to double-standards by the U.S. government in assessing its actions on matters ranging from drugs to child trafficking, and they simply don’t believe the U.S. is suited to judge the behavior of other countries.   Cuba cooperates with reporting conducted by international organizations where it thinks it will get a better shake.  They will likely derive little satisfaction from the positive mentions it received in this year’s report on drugs.

But, we offer kudos to the State Department for telling the truth about Cuba’s anti-narcotics record.

We can only add, let’s hope that this experiment in honesty takes hold.  It would be nice, for example, if President Obama took note of the sweep and significance of Cuba’s economic changes, or if he took another look at Cuba’s false and politically-motivated inclusion on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, and acted accordingly.

Ideally, candor is contagious, and we’ll get a better policy toward Cuba, and even the possibility of a better, two-way relationship down the road

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Rep. Flake re-introduces bill allowing U.S. energy industry role with Cuba

Rep. Jeff Flake (AZ-6) has reintroduced The Western Hemisphere Energy Security Act, legislation to permit U.S. companies to participate in oil exploration with Cuba. Currently, trade sanctions bar U.S. oil companies from activities in Cuba ranging from exploration and drilling to clean-up.  The interest in changing the application of the embargo on the energy industry stems from Cuba’s drilling for oil offshore in the Gulf of Mexico which began this year.

Specifically, Rep. Flake’s legislation would permit U.S. persons to:

…engage in any transaction necessary for the exploration for and extraction of hydrocarbon resources from any portion of any foreign exclusive economic zone that is contiguous to the exclusive economic zone of the United States, or for oil spill prevention and clean-up activities in such a portion of any foreign exclusive economic zone.

In addition, the bill allows U.S. companies to export any equipment related to oil exploration, extraction or clean-up, and to import the resources extracted.

Rep. Flake previously proposed the bill in 2009. It was first introduced by Sen. Larry Craig (ID) in 2006.

License for Cuba trips denied to ferry company

At least one of five companies interested in chartering ferries between the U.S. and Cuba been informed by the U.S. Treasury Department that its request for a license been rejected, the Cuba Standard reports.  The notification occurred two weeks after the company, Havana Ferry Partners, publicly complained about inaction on its application.  The letter from the Office of Foreign Assets Control states:

To date, only air charter services have been permitted for the transportation of authorized travelers between the United States and Cuba…A White House initiative expanding purposeful travel to Cuba to broaden U.S. outreach to the Cuban people included, among other things, increasing the number of U.S. airports available for the operation of direct charter flights. Ferry services were not included in the group of policy changes. After consultation with the Department of State, OFAC has determined that the issuance of specific licenses … is beyond the scope of current policy.

Bruce Nierenberg, a cruise industry executive, stated that any decision would have to come from the White House, and he wouldn’t be seeking a license until after Nov. 12 as he doesn’t believe there will be any change in policy before the presidential elections.

Nobel Prize winner is confident U.S. and Cuba can work together

An American scientist, Peter Agre, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, expressed optimism that U.S. and Cuban scientists could “work together” in the near future, EFE reports. Speaking Monday at the conference titled “Havana Biotechnology 2012,” Agre said that he came to Cuba “to learn, to teach, to work together,” and was declared the honorary president of the event. The event brought together 600 participants from 39 countries.

Cuban doctors revealed several advances during the conference. AFP reports that doctors will begin testing an AIDS vaccine on humans. Other breakthroughs include a dengue vaccine ready for human testing and a nasal therapeutic Hepatitis B vaccine.

Rabbi from New York visits Alan Gross in Cuba

Rabbi Arthur Schneier of New York City’s Park East Synagogue  met with imprisoned American contractor Alan Gross in Cuba on Tuesday, CBS News reports. Gross is serving a fifteen-year prison sentence for bringing highly regulated communications equipment to the island without a permit under a USAID-funded “democracy promotion” program.  Schneier described Gross as upbeat, but concerned about his family back home in the U.S.  Since his arrest in 2009, Gross has lost about 100 pounds.

He has received periodic visits from people traveling to the island, including Senator Pat Leahy (VT) and Senator Chris Coons (DE) last month.  Members of a CDA delegation met with Gross last June and again in August.

OFAC releases advertising guidelines for people-to-people travel

The Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets control has released a document detailing advertising guidelines for people-to-people trips to Cuba. The document clarifies that “OFAC does not prohibit persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction from designing or accepting an advertisement related to licensed Cuba travel and publishing the advertisement in any medium.” The document can be viewed on the OFAC website.

IN CUBA

Minister of Culture Abel Prieto replaced by deputy

Abel Prieto, who held the position of Minister of Culture for over fifteen years, was replaced this week by Deputy Minister Rafael Bernál, and was appointed as a special advisor to President Raúl Castro, the AP reports.

A note published in Granma praised Prieto’s work, and his new position as a special advisor to the president suggests he remains in favor with the Cuban leadership. Often during his time as Minister of Culture, Prieto served as a bridge in the sometimes tense relationship between artists and the government.  In 2011, he stated “I believe that creative freedom can never be endangered in our cultural policy.”

Some suggest that Prieto will return to artistic endeavors. His latest work, “Travels of Miguel Luna,” was presented last month at Havana’s book fair.

Oil production in Cuba decreased in 2011

Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information (ONE) released its latest statistics for industrial manufacturing last Monday, revealing decreases in the production of oil and other fuel sources, Reuters reports. In 2011, production of refined petroleum fell 4.2%, fuel oil output fell 4.0%, and gasoline production fell 11.8%.

This decrease in production comes after several refining facilities were built and refurbished with help from Venezuela. Oil refining almost doubled in 2008, the first year that a new refinery went into production in the central city of Cienfuegos. Plans to work with Chinese companies to increase that refinery’s production to 150,000 barrels/day from its current 65,000 barrel daily output, according to Reuters, “have not materialized.”  Another new refinery is planned for the western province of Matanzas, and a refinery in Santiago de Cuba is also scheduled to be upgraded.

Cuban News Agency reports that Cuba has resumed national production of aircraft fuel. Production was suspended after a steep decrease in production between 1993 and 2005. The production is taking place through a program designed by the government-run Center for Petroleum Research.

Cuba also has high hopes for offshore oil exploration, which commenced in January following the arrival of the Scarabeo 9 oil rig.

Pope Benedict will not meet with santeros in Cuba

A Vatican spokesman stated that Pope Benedict XVI will not be meeting with any Santería practitioners, citing a lack of institutional leadership, and adding that Santería is “not a church” in the traditional sense of the word, Fox News Latino reported.  According to experts, practitioners of Santería (a mix of Catholicism and African religions) and other Afro-Cuban religions outnumber practicing Catholics in Cuba by 8 to 1.

Cuba experiencing pork shortage

The availability of pork, a staple of the Cuban diet, has decreased 70% since January, Hispanically Speaking News reports. According to the article, insufficient coordination between the Agriculture Ministry and the food industry appears to have led to shortages in production in western Cuba and hampered ford transportation from the central region of the country.  In interviews with EFE, Cubans have noted that pork is available on the black market at twice the price at which it is available under government controls. Some official shops have had no pork inventory since New Year’s Eve.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba not invited to the Summit of the Americas

President Santos of Colombia traveled to Cuba and, in conversations with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, stated that Cuba would not be invited to the upcoming Summit of the Americas, to be held in Cartagena, due to lack of consensus on the matter, the BBC reports.

The Summit of the Americas is where periodic meetings take place among leaders from the Western Hemisphere nations so can they address common challenges and problems.  The 34 nations in attendance are the members of the OAS.

Cuba has never attended the Summit of the Americas, which has been held since 1994, because it remains suspended from the OAS.

Members of the ALBA trade bloc, led by Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, have threatened to boycott the event if Cuba is not invited. Similarly, Members of the U.S. Congress led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called on President Obama to boycott the event were Cuba to be invited. José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the OAS, affirmed that any decision to invite Cuba would have to be made by the host country, Colombia.

Santos’ trip to Cuba was the first by a president of Colombia to the island in a decade. The Colombian president added that he hopes Cuba will be able to attend the next summit meeting in Panama. Reuters reports that Castro’s decision not to seek an invitation acts as a victory for Cuba and Colombia, avoiding a diplomatic showdown by making the issue of whether Cuba is invited a moot point, and ensuring that there will not be a boycott by either side.

Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, said the situation was unsurprising, describing it as a “chronicle of an exclusion foretold,” CubaDebate reported. Rodríguez said that “the exclusion of Cuba is the most notorious symbol that the summits are made in the image of the United States government and that they’re instruments to exercise dominance in an undemocratic manner.” He also thanked the ALBA countries for announcing their intention to boycott the event if Cuba was not invited.

Cuban and French business interests explore relations

On Wednesday, a large delegation from the Movement of the French Enterprises (MEDEF) met with business and trade organizations in Cuba, discussing ways to grow commercial ties and identify business opportunities, Prensa Latina reports. The meeting was organized by Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Commerce and Investment and the Cuban Chamber of Commerce.

France is the fourth-largest commercial partner in Cuba, after Spain, the Netherlands, and Russia. Cuba primarily imports wheat grains and additives for lubricants from France, and exports tobacco, lobster, and rum, the Havana Times reports.

Around the Region

New House bill calls attention to Iran’s activities in Latin America

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs unanimously adopted a resolution on Wednesday calling on the State Department to develop a strategy for countering Iran’s influence in Latin America, the Washington Times reports. Written by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012 would require the State Department to present a comprehensive report to Congress on the activities and motives of Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Iranian Republican Guard and Quds Force in Latin America. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Committee chair, issued a statement on Wednesday expressing her support for the bill:

This legislation requires the Secretary of State to use existing funds to create a tailored strategy to fight the aggressive activities of Iran and its proxies in the Western Hemisphere, thereby establishing a strong U.S. policy stance and protecting U.S. security interests.

In her statement, Ros-Lehtinen cites Southern Command General Douglas Fraser, who testified before Congress this week, about alleged links between international terrorist organizations and Latin American drug trafficking networks.

In his testimony, Fraser said he sees no indication of an Al-Qaeda presence in Latin America, and made no mention of alleged terrorist training camps or Iranian missile bases in Venezuela.

Fraser did tell the Committee that he sees evidence of Hezbollah raising money in Latin America through direct donations from sympathizers, as well as illicit means including drug trafficking, counterfeit, and pirated goods. He also voiced concern about the potential for international terrorist organizations to utilize alien smuggling organizations to get terrorists into the United States, though he said he has not yet seen any attempts to do so.

Fraser also caused a stir the following morning at a press conference when he told reporters that Iran intends to build drones in Venezuela, US News reports. Though he said that it is unclear what the Venezuelan military intends to do with the drones, his best guess is that they will be used for internal defense.

Recommended Reading

The Case of Alan Gross: An eye for two legs?, Stephen Kimber, the Huffington Post

“The Cubans appear willing [to release Alan Gross] but only in exchange for the release [by the U.S.] of the Cuban Five, a group of their intelligence agents sentenced in 2001 to even longer terms in American prisons. The U.S. insists there’s no comparison between the two cases. Gross is an innocent; the Cubans were spies trying to steal U.S. military secrets, not to forget helping shoot down civilian aircraft, killing four people. But Americans who truly want Alan Gross freed should carefully examine their government’s rhetoric—versus the reality—about both cases.”

New American tourism wave in Cuba, Marcello Balve, New York Daily News

José Francisco González breathed a sigh of relief when President Obama began easing rules on travel to Cuba. González, who lives in Brooklyn, immigrated to the United States from the island in 2000, but maintained strong family ties in the Havana area. The rules made his life much easier. González’s old pattern of travel to Cuba for certain family events and holidays has become more of a constant back-and-forth.”

Recommended Viewing

Interview with John Block, Former Secretary of Agriculture, Center for Democracy in the Americas

John Block, the former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1981 to 1986 under Ronald Reagan, discusses American agricultural exports to Cuba.

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