During the research and writing phase for our report on Cuba’s plans to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, Daniel Whittle, Cuba Program Director for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), provided invaluable information and guidance to us.
He has guest written the following opening essay on his organization’s analysis of foreign policy obstacles to cooperation with Cuba to protect the environment and some promising progress that is now being made because our country and Cuba are sitting at the table together:
The Environmental Defense Fund recently released a report called Bridging the Gulf in which we concluded that “current U.S. foreign policy on Cuba creates a conspicuous blind spot” that is detrimental to the interests of both countries. A failure to cooperate on oil spill planning, prevention, and response in the Gulf of Mexico could result in devastating environmental and economic impacts on a scale greater than the 2010 BP oil disaster.
Recently, I witnessed a potential bright spot in US-Cuba relations that could lead to real and meaningful cooperation in protecting Cuban and American shores from future oil spills.
As the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA was preparing to drill off of Cuba’s northwest coast in August, U.S. and Cuban negotiators met in Mexico City to discuss how to work together to prevent and respond to future oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The meeting was the fourth in a series of landmark talks hosted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and included officials from Mexico, Jamaica, Bahamas, and other countries in the region. I was among the handful of industry and environmental representatives invited to attend.
I was struck by the candid back-and-forth discussions on the risks involved in deep water oil drilling and by the constructive exchanges between delegates from Cuba and the United States. I came away convinced that negotiators from both countries are operating in good faith and are committed to making progress on this issue.
That being said, more needs to be done.
Attendees agreed that the BP oil disaster was a wake-up call and that failure to heed the lessons learned from it would be an inexcusable and costly mistake. Chief among those lessons is that oil spills do not observe political boundaries and, as such, joint planning among all countries in the region is critical. The event also taught us that sufficient public and private resources must be available to contain and clean-up oil pollution as soon as possible. In fact, the scale of response needed for the BP spill was unprecedented—6,500 vessels, 125 planes, 48,000 responders, and equipment resourced globally.
Several presenters in Mexico City emphasized that full and timely access to private sector equipment and response personnel, wherever they are located, is fundamental to responding effectively to future oil spills.
This lesson is particularly relevant to the current U.S.-Cuba talks.
If a major oil spill were to occur in Cuban waters anytime soon, the U.S. Coast Guard—as incident commander—would be able to marshal the resources needed to address oil pollution after it enters our waters. The agency has neither the authority nor the mandate, however, to support response and clean-up activities in Cuban waters. Furthermore, the Cuban government would be hamstrung in its ability to solicit direct help from private sector oil spill response companies in the United States. Currently, only a few American companies are licensed by the U.S. government to work in Cuba (actual names and numbers of license holders are not a matter of public record.).
The Obama Administration could solve this problem by directing the Treasury Department to adopt a new category of general licenses to allow U.S. individuals from qualified oil services and equipment companies to travel to Cuba and provide technical expertise in the event of an oil disaster. The Administration should also direct the Commerce Department to pre-approve licenses for the temporary export of U.S. equipment, vessels, and technology to Cuba for use during a significant oil spill.
The U.S. and Cuba have laid an unprecedented foundation for cooperation on offshore oil safety and environmental protection. They should continue their talks in earnest and produce a written agreement on joint planning, preparedness and response as soon as possible.
What Dan describes here, unfortunately, is extraordinary. In fact, it should be typical. Engagement between the U.S. and Cuba on a host of issues is the right way forward, and a means to the larger end of bringing confidence to this relationship that will lead to a discussion of the differences that divide us and, ultimately, normalization. We thank Dan for his leadership and his contribution.
On Monday, Cuba’s customs officials implemented a new tax that increases customs duties, reports the Associated Press. Under the new tax announced two months ago, visitors are allowed to bring 66 pounds of miscellaneous goods into Cuba without a fee. Anything over 66 pounds is taxed at $4.55 per pound. Cuban nationals may pay their baggage fees in the national currency once per year, but after that must pay in the harder dollar-based currency, convertible pesos (or CUCs), which is how non-residents must always pay. Nelida Díaz, a Cuban-American traveling to the island with her husband, was charged $588 at customs. She stated:
We come every year, and they had never charged us like that…There is a lot of irritation among the people.
While authorities defend the duty as necessary to bring order to airport terminals where baggage has gotten out of control, experts say the measure is aimed at so-called “mules” who frequently make trips abroad and bring back to Cuba packed bags of goods for resale. Some are afraid that the new tax will hurt Cuban families that also depend on large quantities of imports as well as travelers, many of whom were shocked by the new fees on Monday.
After the tax increase was announced two months ago, many in Cuba’s new class of entrepreneurs scrambled to stockpile goods before the tax took effect, the AP reports. Others have already been forced to raise prices due to the increased duties. Although the official description makes the duty appear to be aimed at personal-use goods like clothing, soap, and food, it is unclear how importers of other goods will be affected. While the government has sought to expand the private sector, the absence of wholesale stores for vendors means that parts and supplies are often unavailable or extremely expensive for business owners.
PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company has begun exploring for oil off the western coast of Cuba, reports Cuba Standard. “It has already begun, and when we have the results, we will inform the country,” stated Venezuelan energy minister Rafael Ramírez, EFE reports. The company has taken over the lease for Scarabeo 9, an Italian-owned deep-water rig, with the hope of tapping into the 9 billion barrels of reserves that the U.S. Geological Survey s believes to be in Cuban waters.
Scarabeo 9 was first used by a Spanish company Repsol, which drilled an unsuccessful exploratory well earlier this year. It then lent the rig to Malaysian company PRONASOL, whose well discovered oil but not in commercially recoverable amounts. Repsol has contracted the Scarabeo 9 to be in Cuba until July 2013, but has hinted that it will move the platform to Brazil early if no other companies request to use it after PDVSA.
Sources linked to the nickel industry in the Holguín province have informed the Café Fuerte blog that Cuba’s government plans to halt operations at the country’s oldest nickel factory, “René Ramos Latour”. The source indicated that the decision to close the factory, located in the town of Nicaro, was communicated to workers this week. Details about how and when the factory will close were not known. Ana Cecilia Fuentes, a journalist born in Nicaro and currently living in Spain, stated:
The information that has arrived to me from there is that there have been meetings, and strong police presence, but the date when the closing will begin is still not known. There are some who say that the closure will not be traumatic because the workers themselves will dismantle the factory, and some will leave for missions abroad, but the majority of people are very worried.
Another source said that workers would have to seek self-employment. The factory employed more than 5,000 workers in 2009, according to official sources.
This closure comes as global nickel prices have fallen (from $10.56/pound in the second trimester of 2011 to $7.88/pound in the second trimester of 2012), and as the nickel industry in Cuba is rocked by a corruption scandal that last month saw the conviction of several government officials and industry executives, who received lengthy prison sentences.
Sugar industry representatives from Cuba, as well as international business representatives, met this week in Havana for the 50th Congress of the Cuban Association of Sugar Experts, to discuss the future of the sugar industry in Cuba, reports the Cuban News Agency. There were 17 foreign companies represented at the Congress and topics of discussion included sugar cane production, training, and energy and environmental concerns.
Currently, Azcuba, the state holding company that was formed to replace the Ministry of Sugar last year, includes 13 businesses, 56 factories (sugar and sugar-derivatives), two research institutions, and a training center, reports Prensa Latina. Wilson Morel, vice president of Azcuba, stated that Cuba will have 50 sugar mills working during the next sugar harvest, four more than the previous harvest. He added that a similar number is planned to be added by 2014, and two more in 2015.
Earlier this year, Cuba expressed a new openness to using sugar for ethanol production after a visit by Brazil’s Foreign Minister, who offered his country’s support. This video from Press TV outlines the history of Cuba’s sugar production, and the goals of ethanol collaboration between Cuba and Brazil.
Oscar Espinosa Chepe, noted Cuban economist and political dissident, has been hospitalized with “serious liver problems” for the past 10 days, the AP reported. According to his wife Miriam Leiva, 71-year-old Chepe has suffered from cirrhosis for over a decade, but she believes his current condition to be the result of a separate liver ailment. Leiva said Monday that he was responding well to treatment and that though his condition is still serious, his symptoms were improving.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations released a statement on the recently-declared peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC, stating that Cuba’s government, over the course of more than a year, had made “discreet, constructive efforts” to help in the search for a negotiated solution, in response to requests by the involved parties and without influencing “in the least bit” their respective opinions.
The statement confirms that the current process of dialogue is the result of “exploratory conversations” that took place in Havana on February 23, 2012, adding that “The Cuban government will continue lending its solitary support and good offices in favor of this effort, to the measure that the Government of Colombia and the FARC-EP request.” The governments of Venezuela and Chile have also joined Cuba and Norway as international facilitators of the peace process, and will “accompany” the negotiations.
On Tuesday, the FARC called a rare press conference in Havana to discuss peace talks that would end the half century conflict between Colombia’s government and the FARC, reports the AP. At the press conference, senior commander Mauricio Jaramillo indicated that the FARC would first seek a cease-fire. President Santos later responded by stating that the military would not be obligated to cease-fire until an agreement is reached, reports the AP. At the press conference, the FARC also named three negotiators they wish to send to peace talks, one of whom is currently in prison in the U.S., raising questions about whether and how he would participate. Negotiations are set to begin October 8th in Oslo.
CDA director Sarah Stephens penned an op-ed for Politico pointing out how Cuba’s facilitating role in the peace process undermines the U.S. government’s rationale for keeping Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terror. She writes:
The politics of the terror list works for those who want to keep our Cuba policy frozen in place. But Obama has a higher responsibility. When the White House argues in public that having the FARC in Havana is a reason for keeping Cuba on the terror list, even as Obama privately approves this peace process brokered in Cuba to have the FARC and Colombia sit down together, it damages U.S. credibility. Sometimes politics must yield to reality. Obama could extricate himself from this predicament by recognizing Cuba’s role in Colombia’s peace process and removing Havana from the list. Maybe it’s naïve to think the president will rise to this occasion in an election year. But he has the power to do so — and he should use it.
Finally, a useful timeline of Colombia’s peace process from Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America is available here.
Cuba’s government awarded literacy certificates to Australian Aborigines who participated in the “Yes I Can” program in the town of Wilcannia in New South Wales, reports EFE. This was the second group of Aborigines to complete the program in the town. Pedro Monzón, Cuba’s Ambassador to Australia, presented the certificates, and the graduates expressed their gratitude with a speech they wrote themselves. The “Yes I Can” literacy program has been implemented in 28 countries and won the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize in 2006.
The State Department plans to award $4.2 million to organizations for democracy promotion and human rights in Cuba by the end of this month, reports Along the Malecón. One of the grants promotes the creation of video games as well as other forms of technology to engage Cuban youth in the island’s future. The State Department announced the grants in June in a public notice, and the awards will be granted by September 30th. The grant announcement emphasized that preference that those working as part of the programs be native Spanish speakers and that U.S. citizens or permanent residents traveling to Cuba should be “limited or excluded”. A breakdown of the grant programs from the $4.2 million:
Human Rights $1,050,000
Social Media $750,000
Youth and Technology $700,000
Free Markets $700,000
Freedom of expression $1,000,000
Former President Jimmy Carter expressed his hope that the future president will improve relations with Cuba, the Associated Press reported yesterday. Speaking at the 16th annual conference of the Latin American Development Bank, Carter said that anti-Castro Cuban-American leaders in Florida have an exaggerated influence on the presidential election, and that most Cuban-Americans prefer free travel and an end to the embargo. Carter also called for Cuba’s removal from the State Sponsors of Terror list. Cuba has been listed as a State Sponsor of Terror since 1982.
The Democratic Party has released its official platform, titled “Moving America Forward.” The platform contains language on Cuba in line with President Obama’s actions while in office, namely his support for family travel and remittances, and purposeful travel. The platform also vows to “promote greater freedom in Cuba and Venezuela until all their citizens enjoy the universal rights they deserve,” however, it does not contain the conditional language present in the 2008 party platform:
[W]e must build ties to the people of Cuba and help advance their liberty by allowing unlimited family visits and remittances to the island, while presenting the Cuban regime with a clear choice: if it takes significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the unconditional release of all political prisoners, we will be prepared to take steps to begin normalizing relations.
In 2010 and 2011, Cuba’s government released dozens of political prisoners through negotiations with the Catholic Church, brokered by Cardinal Jaime Ortega. Since then, Obama has said that he is prepared to change Cuba policy if the government shows “a serious intention on the part of the Cuban government to provide liberty for its people.”
Cuba was not mentioned by any of the speakers at the Democratic National Convention in Charlottesville, NC. Spotted in the crowd, however, was Bobby Salazar, a long-time supporter of Cuba travel, who toted two signs proclaiming: “Demand our right to travel to Cuba!”
Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE), a newly-formed organization, has released a petition urging the two major parties to recognize the diverse views of Cuban-Americans, reports Along the Malecón. The leaders of CAFE say that the majority of Cuban-American voters support President Obama’s move to loosen trade and travel restrictions on Cuba, and ask that political candidates end their strategy of “blind support for the embargo” in an attempt to win the votes of Cuban Americans. The group’s leaders also implore Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to abandon the “Cold War rhetoric” he has used to refer to Cuba, notably in calling ending the embargo “appeasement.”
As we reported in our August 24th edition, lawyers for Gerardo Hernández, a member of the Cuban Five, had stated their intention to file an affidavit claiming that the U.S. government had secretly funded local media to provide biased coverage of his case, making it impossible for him to get a fair trial. Along the Malecón reports that the affidavit was officially filed on August 31st, and provides links to:
In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal that the five agents did not get a fair trial in Miami.
Giustino di Celmo, father of Fabio di Celmo, the Italian tourist who was killed by a bomb in the Copacabana Hotel in on September 4, 1997, has released a statement on the anniversary of the bombing, criticizing the U.S. government for its treatment of Luis Posada Carriles and the country’s foreign policy toward Cuba. In his release, di Celmo asks:
How is it possible that a country that says it condemns terrorism harbor this terrorist, with a long list of crimes that include the downing of the Cubana airlines flight, the murder of hundreds of Venezuelans and the death of my son?
How is it possible that the government of the United States includes Cuba on a list of terrorist countries, when Cuba has only been a victim to terrorist actions organized by criminals that they have protected and paid?
Posada Carriles, an anti-Castro militant and former CIA asset who was the mastermind behind terrorist plots against Cuba, escaped prison in Venezuela while waiting for a trial on the bombing of Cubana Airlines flight in 1976 that killed 73 people. He served a subsequent sentence in Panama after being convicted in 2000 of a plot to assassinate then-president Fidel Castro, but was pardoned in 2004, and traveled to Miami where he has been living ever since. He was acquitted by a jury in early 2011 at an immigration trial that attempted to deport him on charges of lying about his past during his entrance interviews.
Around the Region
Caracas Connect: Pre-Election Update, Professor Dan Hellinger, Center for Democracy in the Americas
This edition of the Caracas Connect highlights news and analysis surrounding the upcoming elections, including an analysis of the latest election polls and a summary of challenges facing President Chávez and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.
The U.S. ship Ocean Atlas is being detained by Venezuelan authorities on suspicion of arms trafficking for over a week now, reports Forbes. Although details continue to emerge and officials have declined comment, this event takes place just one month after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez claimed to have captured a U.S. “mercenary” crossing into Venezuela illegally. At the time of this publication, the captain of the Ocean Atlas has been detained and the rest of the 15-member crew are being held on deck.
Honduras has given the green light to the construction of three privately-run cities to host new industries, reports the Associated Press. Representatives of the Honduran government signed a memorandum of agreement for the project with a group of international investors on Tuesday, allowing investors to begin construction in six months. Once built, the “model cities” will have their own laws, judiciary, government, and police force, and will have the power to sign international treaties and make their own immigration decisions.
The goal of the project is to bolster Honduras’s government, which has remained weak following the 2009 coup, while promoting economic development. Carlos Pineda, president of the Commission for the Promotion of Public-Private Partnerships, said the project “has the potential to turn Honduras into an engine of wealth.” The investment group MGK is set to invest $15 million in construction of infrastructure for the first city near Puerto Castilla on the eastern coast, which would create up to 200,000 jobs in the future. Some civic groups are opposed to the project, as are the indigenous Garifuna people, who claim that the land to be used near Puerto Castilla belongs to them.
Venezuela’s Presidential Elections 2012: Report of a Study Mission, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
The Wilson Center organized a panel on the electoral climate leading up to Venezuela’s October 7th elections. Dr. José Woldenberg and Dr. Genaro Arriagada, who have recently returned from a research trip to Venezuela, outlined their findings, which can also be read in their trip report, available here (in Spanish). Also participating was Dr. Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas Program at The Carter Center.
Cuba chaos: Bilateral snafus interrupt travel, Gay Nagle Myers, Travel Weekly
“The people-to-people educational and cultural programs in Cuba, so highly touted since they resumed last year, seem to have hit brick walls on both sides of the Straits of Florida. The larger problem is on the U.S. side, where dozens of license-renewal applications, which are required by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) each year of organizations running these programs, are backlogged in OFAC offices, waiting to be reviewed by a small staff made even smaller because of recent cutbacks.”
Cuba limbo: Island-bound U.S. groups face licensing questions, Christopher Reynolds, LA Times
“Less than two years after President Obama set off a boom in Cuban travel by relaxing restrictions on “people-to-people” educational trips, Obama’s Treasury Department has again tightened restrictions, forcing cancellations and delays that have put dozens of educational group trips in limbo.”
Cuban Women Face Challenges of Self-Employment, Ivet González, IPS
“Beatriz Lemes took her time deciding, and finally agreed “apprehensively” to take the job of heading a state-run company that is making the transition to financial autonomy, a system that is spreading throughout Cuba and is testing women’s capacities, among other things. ‘Self-financing can work, but there is a need to change people’s mentality. They need to feel like their work belongs to them,’ said Lemes, who is deputy economic director of the Territorial Station of Agricultural Engineering in the provinces of Mayabeque and Artemisa, both of which adjoin Havana.”
Cuba rejiggers its creaky economy, Nick Miroff, The Global Post
“Often in the pages of Granma, the red-and-black-inked Communist Party newspaper that is a daily presence in Cuban life, there is a standard sort of feature article about the island’s economic troubles. Sometimes it’s a story about bread. Other times bus service, or tires, or the sugar harvest. But the theme is generally the same: workers at a Cuban state-run company struggling to meet production quotas and public demand because of supply shortages, broken equipment and a ‘lack of discipline.’”