Benedict and the Balancing Act; Googling the Heritage Foundation; U.S. Ponders Oil Crisis Response Plans

As old saying goes, where you stand depends on where you sit.  As the New York Times reported this week, Cuba’s Cardinal Ortega, the priests, the faithful, the protestors in Cuba, the diaspora in Miami, official Washington, and many others have assigned great expectations to the visit of Pope Benedict XVI.

There’s a real balancing act ahead. Not everyone wants the visit to succeed; and it is hard to imagine that everyone will be satisfied.  But it might be nice for the Pope’s visit to take place – and for Cubans who plan to worship with him in the Plaza of the Revolution to have their chance to do so – before the grades are assigned, the political analysis is completed, and the crowd moves on to the next chapter in the Cuba story.

We’re sending a team to Cuba to observe what happens and to talk to Cubans about their reactions to Benedict’s trip.  We’d like to learn what they think first, before we try and understand whose expectations might have been disappointed or met.

In this issue of Cuba Central, we survey some of what’s been written and said – in Miami, by Amnesty International, by the Vatican, and others – as the Pope begins his journey, stopping in Mexico before he reaches Cuba early next week.

We’re also keeping an eye on René González, the paroled member of the Cuban Five, who has gained permission to visit his ailing brother in Cuba; a newly discovered document that spells out the Federal oil spill disaster plan that could be used in connection with drilling off the coast of Cuba; Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s surprising attack on USAID (she’s accusing the agency, which engages in regime change activities of “supporting” Cuba’s economic reforms); as well as Fidel Castro’s warning that an attack on Iran is a road to disaster.

There’s much to read and reflect about, this week, in Cuba news…

SPECIAL SECTION: Cuba prepares for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI

Vatican denounces embargo, calls for new models of government in Cuba

On the eve of Pope Benedict’s trip to Cuba and Mexico, the Vatican has denounced the U.S. embargo against Cuba, Reuters reports. Answering a question at a briefing about the trip, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi stated:

The Holy See believes that the embargo is something that makes the people suffer the consequences. It does not achieve the aim of the greater good…The Holy See does not believe it is a positive or useful measure.

Some have speculated whether Pope Benedict himself will condemn the embargo during his trip, as the late Pope John Paul II did during his 1998 trip to the island.

The Pope left Italy this morning en route to Mexico, where he will remain until Monday.  Then he will depart for Santiago de Cuba, in the eastern part of the island, Reuters reports. Speaking on the plane that left from Rome, the Pope also encouraged a change in the Cuban model of government, stating:

Today it is evident that Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality…New models must be found with patience and in a constructive way….we want to help.

Cuba’s government has not yet responded to the comments from the Vatican or the Pope.

A website created by Cuba’s Foreign Ministry with information about the Pope’s visit is available here. Finally, for more analysis on the status of the Church in Cuba and the significance of Pope Benedict’s visit, please read this essay by Dr. Meg Crahan.

Amnesty decries detentions, Vatican says visit will help democracy

Cuban police detained roughly three dozen of the Ladies in White early on Sunday morning before the group could participate in a regular march in the Miramar neighborhood in Havana, reports the AP.  About 30 other supporters were able to attend the march, but state security forces also arrested them when they tried to expand the march to streets they do not normally use. The White House released a statement from Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council condemning the arrests, and State Department spokeswoman Neda A. Brown criticized the detentions as an “assault on peaceful members of Cuba’s civil society, ” the AP reports.

With the increased detentions of dissidents by Cuba’s government, Amnesty International has published a new report on the state of human rights in Cuba, and criticized the government’s strategy of short-term arrests and detentions of protestors, according to the AP.  The report also placed four current prisoners (brothers Antonio Michel and Marcos Maiquel Lima Cruz, and husband and wife Yasmin Conyedo Riveron and Yusmani Rafael Alvarez Esmorei) on Amnesty’s list of “prisoners of conscience.” In a press release, José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch stated that “[t]he arrests, beatings, and threats against dissidents in the lead up to the Pope’s visit suggest the Cuban government will do everything in its power to quash any dissent while the world’s attention is on the island.”

In response to suggestions that Cuba’s government will exploit the Pope’s trip as a tool for propaganda, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State responded:

I don’t believe the visit will be exploited by the government…In fact, I think the government and Cuban people will do their utmost to welcome the pope and show him the esteem and trust that the leader of the Catholic Church deserves… after 14 years (since John Paul’s visit) … there’s no doubt that the current visit of Pope Benedict XVI will help the process of development toward democracy and will open new spaces for the church’s presence and activity.

Miami Cubans’ softened approach to this Papal visit

In Miami, Reuters reports that the reactions of Cuban exiles to this Papal visit represent a general softening in sentiments toward the island. In 1998, more than 10,000 people in Little Havana protested Pope John Paul II’s visit, shutting down a planned pilgrimage from Miami. This year, a similar pilgrimage is set to take place, and no street protests are planned. Carlos Saladrigas, a Cuban American businessman and co-chair of the Cuba Study Group, attended the 1998 protest. Now he, along with thousands of other Cuban Americans, is planning to be in Cuba for Pope Benedict’s visit.

Paid labor holiday, airport terminal closure during Pope’s visit

The Cuban Labor Ministry has announced that workers in the cities of Havana and Santiago will receive paid time off to attend events being held in honor of Pope Benedict’s visit reports the AP.  Another note in state newspaper Granma announced that on Saturday Havana’s main airport terminal will be reserved for the Pope’s arrival and all other flights will be moved to other terminals.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Judge says René González can visit ailing brother in Cuba

A U.S. judge has granted René González’s request for permission to visit Cuba to visit his ailing brother, AFP reports. González is a member of the Cuban Five, who was released from prison in October and is currently being kept in the U.S. on probation. Florida immigration judge Joan Lenard issued the court order, which provides the following conditions:

  • Defendant must obtain all necessary permission, licenses, and/or clearance from the United States Government, including the Department of State and Department of the Treasury, separate and apart from this Order.
  • Defendant shall submit to his probation officer a written, detailed itinerary of his travel, including flight numbers, routing, location, and contact information, as well as copies of all necessary clearances and licenses obtained from the United States Government.
  • During his absence from the district of supervision, Defendant shall report telephonically to his probation officer as directed by his probation officer.
  • The terms of Defendant’s supervised release shall remain otherwise unchanged, and Defendant must return to the United States and to the district of his supervised release within two weeks of departure.

González’s attorney Philip Horowitz stated that González was elated at the decision, and promised to return to the U.S. following his two week visit, the AP reports. He stated:

If he doesn’t [return], he’s going to be an international pariah…No. 2, there’s still four more of his fellow countrymen in the United States prison system that are eventually going to get released. If he doesn’t comply with the court order it may reflect badly on them, and he has absolutely no desire to do that.

Horowitz added that he was not sure when his client would travel. Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor serving a 15-year sentence for activities funded by the regime change programs of the Helms-Burton law, filed a similar petition to visit his mother, who is also battling cancer. In response to the decision to allow González to travel, Judy Gross, Alan’s wife, stated, “I empathize with René Gonzalez’s need to visit a dying family member…and am pleased that he has been granted permission for a temporary visit,” AFP reports.

State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said that the decision provided “an opportunity for us to again renew our calls for his unconditional release immediately.”  She denied that there was any discussion of a prisoner exchange between the two countries.

Google and Heritage Foundation Join Forces at Conference on the Internet and Cuba

Jared Cohen, the director of Google Ideas, and a former State Department policy advisor to Secretaries Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, joined forces with conservative activists at the Heritage Foundation this week, to sponsor a conference examining issues on Cuba’s Internet policies and how to promote “uncensored information to Cubans.”

The conference featured Mary O’Grady, an editorial board member of the Wall Street Journal; Roger Noriega, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under President Bush; Dr. Ray Walser, Latin America advisor to the Romney presidential campaign; Maurico Claver-Clarone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, all conservative critics of Cuba’s government.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio spoke on Wednesday at the conference about how expanding Internet access on the Island would make Cuba’s government “crumble,” a prediction that has been made about the U.S. embargo and democracy promotion activities for decades.

A video of the conference is available here.

Florida official opposes enforcing new law against firms that work in Cuba

Robert Cuevas, the Miami-Dade County Attorney, is advising Miami-Dade County not to enforce a new law prohibiting local governments from hiring companies that also work in Cuba, because states do not have the authority to legislate or enforce their own foreign policies, reports Reuters. Governor Rick Scott has yet to sign the legislation that would specifically prohibit local governments from hiring companies for contracts of $1 million or more and would require firms participating in the bidding process to submit affidavits that they are not engaged in business with Cuba.

While the legislation applies to firms that work in both Cuba and Syria, the main target of the law is Odebrecht USA, part of a Brazilian conglomerate, which has many civil works contracts in Florida and is overseeing construction to modernize the Port of Mariel in Cuba.

Federal oil spill response plan depends on cooperation of neighboring countries

A federal plan dated Jan. 30th, titled “The International Offshore Response Plan,” attempts to create a procedure for ensuring that offshore oil spills are stopped as close to their source as possible. The plan, which has not been publicly released but was obtained by the AP through a Freedom of Information Act request, relies on the cooperation of neighboring foreign governments. However, the strained relationship between the U.S. and Cuba could make response to and cooperation with the plan difficult to predict.

According to the article, the plan encompasses many lessons learned from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but does not include additional research, for example, on how an oil spill might behave in the Florida Strait or what the effects of dispersants on corals and mangroves could include. John Proni, a professor at Florida International University leading a study of university and federal researchers on U.S. preparedness for spills, stated that, “”My view is that the Coast Guard has developed a good plan but it’s based on existing information.”

According to Coast Guard Capt. John Slaughter, multilateral discussions have taken place between the U.S., Cuba, Mexico, the Bahamas and Jamaica since November, including talks about how countries would notify their neighbors about offshore drilling problems. Capt. Slaughter also cited existing channels for communication, such as the Caribbean Island Oil Pollution Response and Cooperation Plan, which is non-binding.

For CDA’s publication on Cuba’s offshore drilling and the implications of U.S. policy, click here.

Fidel Castro warns of U.S. attack on Iran

In a Reflection published this week entitled “The roads that lead to disaster”, former president Fidel Castro warns of the dangers of a preemptive U.S. strike on Iran. Castro argues that the production of enriched uranium is not equivalent to the production of nuclear weapons, and criticizes U.S. aid for Israel’s nuclear program. He also warns against any assumption that Iranians would surrender to a U.S. attack without fighting back. He ends by stating:

On this path, our species will be conducted inexorably towards disaster. If we don’t learn to understand, we will never learn to survive. For my part, I do not harbor the slightest doubt that the U.S. is on the verge of committing, and leading the world to the greatest error in its history.

Rep. Ros-Lehtinen accuses USAID of promoting Cuba’s reforms

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,  Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee,  accused the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on Tuesday of having misplaced priorities in the Western Hemisphere, particularly with Cuba, reports Along the Malecón. At a committee hearing on the USAID budget for FY 2013, Ros-Lehtinen told Administrator Rajiv Shah that she was concerned that the agency was devoting too much funding to “programs that promote the Castro brothers’ sham economic reforms,” and not enough to “important programs that do support Cuban political prisoners and the growing internal opposition.”

It is unclear which AID programs Rep. Ros-Lehtinen was referring to.  Specific information about the recipients of USAID’s “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba is sparse, due to the agency’s insistence that the publicizing of this information could put their grantees work in danger. Last April, Sen. John Kerry put $20 million dollars of aid destined to the program on hold, requesting more information and stating: “There is no evidence … that the democracy promotion programs, which have cost the U.S. taxpayer more than $150 million so far, are helping the Cuban people,” the AP reports. Sen. Kerry released the aid money following assurances from USAID about the effectiveness of the program.

IN CUBA

Vice President on Council of Ministers replaced

José Ramón Fernández, 88,  who served as a Vice President on the Council of Ministers, has been replaced by Minister of Higher Education Miguel Díaz-Canel, 51,  reports the AP. Fernández is a former general who helped command the Cuban armed forces during the Bay of Pigs invasion. He later served at the Education Ministry for two decades, and headed the Cuban Olympics Committee since 1997 (it was not noted whether he would retain that post). Upon his replacement, he was named as a special adviser to President Raúl Castro in recognition of his service to the country.

Miguel Díaz Canel, Fernández’s replacement, has been mentioned as one face of a new generation of leaders in Cuba, whose aging leadership led President Raúl Castro to list grooming young leaders as a priority for his time as president. Díaz-Canal’s deputy, Rodolfo Alarcón Ortiz, was promoted to the position of Higher Education Minister.

José M. Miyar Barrueco, a veteran Minister of Science, Technology, and Environment, is also leaving his position and has been named the leader of a government organization that will supervise the research, production, and commercialization of medicines. His replacement is Elba Rosa Pérez, who had formerly been in charge of the Science Department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee since 2006.

Around the Region

Chávez has enthusiastic return to Venezuela

President Hugo Chávez returned to Venezuela singing and dancing after spending three weeks in Cuba recovering from surgery to remove a cancerous lesion, reports Reuters.  He has stated that he will undergo radiation therapy to continue treating his cancer.  The Venezuelan leader’s enthusiasm is likely meant to quell questions about his ability to campaign before presidential elections in October, and to hold another term as president if he wins.

Salvadoran government announces pensions for former FMLN fighters

The Salvadoran government announced that leftist guerilla veterans of the country’s civil war will receive $50 monthly pensions, reports the AP.  President Funes’ office stated that over 2,600 elderly veterans will receive the pension.  A survey identified 25,401 living veterans, 90% of whom are living in poverty.

Recommended Reading

Is Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism? Let’s get real, State Department, Brigadier Gen. John Adams, US Army retired, and David W. Jones, The Hill

Brigadier General John Adams and David Jones argue against  keeping Cuba on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and call for Cuba to be removed from the list.

Havana’s New York Accent, Christopher Gray, The New York Times

“When Americans finally do arrive in quantity, New Yorkers will notice something familiar about Havana, for a string of New York architects found it fertile ground a century ago.”

In Havana, Family-Run Dining Goes Upscale, Victoria Burnett, The New York Times

This article explores how economic reforms in Cuba have affected privately owned restaurants and the tourism industry, which is experiencing an influx of Americans traveling to Cuba on people-to-people trips due to the reforms implemented by the Obama Administration.

Revolution in retreat, Michael Reid, The Economist

“Raúl Castro, who formally took over as Cuba’s president in February 2008 and as first secretary of the Communist Party in April 2011, is trying to revive the island’s moribund economy by transferring a substantial chunk of it from state to private hands, with profound social and political implications.”

The Castros, Cuba, and America: On the road towards capitalism, The Economist

“The changes Raúl Castro has introduced are almost certainly irreversible. Much of Cuban farming is, in effect, being privatised. In all, around a third of the country’s workforce is due to transfer by 2015 to an incipient private sector. As well as employing others, Cubans can now buy and sell houses and cars, even as the number of mobile phones and computers on the island is rising fast. This looks like a turning point similar to Deng Xiaoping’s revolution in China.”

Weekend Reading: Terrorism, Papal Visit and The Economist’s Special Report on Cuba, Anya Landau French, The Havana Note

“Looking back on the past year in which change has finally and visibly come to the island of Cuba, and on the cusp of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba, the second papal visit to the island in 15 years, it seems fitting to highlight for readers a few items that offer crucial, and even detailed perspective on where Cuba has been, is going, and how the United States continues to fumble as if blindfolded on Cuba.”

Recommended Viewing

Andrea Mitchell and MEDICC on the Cuban Healthcare System, Tuesday, March 27th at 1PM EST on MSNBC

Gail Reed, International Director of Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC) will appear on the Andrea Mitchell show to discuss Cuba’s healthcare system.

Cuba: Forbidden Fortune, Monday, March 36th on CNBC

“90 Miles off the coast of Key West, Florida is a hidden treasure, one that if opened could generate millions in revenue for US based businesses. That treasure is of course Cuba, a tiny island under the crush of economic sanctions but also on the edge of major transformation. CNBC’s Michelle Caruso-Cabrera brings viewers the story of the communist country’s recent reforms, its people and its untapped potential.”

Special Announcement

Closing Distances, US Documentary Shorts to Tour Cuba, Americas Media Initiative

For the first time, a U.S. documentary shorts program will tour Cuba, visiting five towns. The event is organized by the Americas Media Initiative and The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film.  The dates for the tour are March 25 – April 8, 2012.

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