On Next Week’s Vote (the U.N.) and Last Week’s Vote (the U.S.)

On November 13th, the U.N. General Assembly will vote on a resolution titled the “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.”

The General Assembly has voted against U.S. policy for twenty straight years.  In 2011, the resolution passed by 186 in favor versus 2 against (Israel and the U.S.), with 3 abstentions (Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau).

We can guarantee you two things about next week’s vote:  The resolution will pass in a landslide, and it will attract little notice in the U.S., which is a disgrace.

U.S. sanctions against Cuba are among the most restrictive our government imposes against any nation. With few exceptions (limited legal travel, some agriculture sales, and highly regulated medical trade) U.S. citizens and corporations are prevented by the embargo from buying or selling into the Cuban market.

The embargo is unilateral.  No one willingly joins the U.S. in enforcing it.  But our sanctions exert pressure on countries that trade with Cuba, foreign companies that do business in Cuba, the international financial system, and humanitarian agencies to try and stop the flow of money, commerce, aid, technology, spare parts, and the like to Cuba.  In doing so, we are trying to run the foreign policies of every state in the world community and they resent it. That’s the point of the U.N. vote; they get to say so.

Next Tuesday, here’s just a brief list of who will line up to vote their scorn of U.S. policy: Australia, Brazil, China, the entire European Union, all the governments in Latin America and the Caribbean, India, Japan, Russia, and South Africa, even the Vatican.

Here, we must point out:  when Pope Benedict the XVI visited Cuba this year, he didn’t have to apply to the U.S. Treasury Department for a license to travel before he went.  Perhaps the Holy See regards U.S. sanctions as a moral issue.

It’s that, and more.  U.S. policy is cruel to Cubans.  It imposes arbitrary limits on our freedom to travel.  It hurts U.S. industries that could do business on the island.  It thwarts direct U.S. engagement with Cuba’s government on security and environmental issues.  And, it’s failed to achieve what the Cold Warriors who designed it intended; namely, to replace Cuba’s political and economic system with parts designed in Washington and installed in Havana.

Finally, the embargo hurts us in Latin America and the world.  So, after twenty years of getting a black eye at the U.N., isn’t it time to blink?  Or think?

Carlos Iglesias, a U.S. Navy Commander and a candidate for a Master’s Degree at the Army War College, believes that the time has arrived.  His thesis, submitted last month, said this about the “longstanding blowback” against the policy globally and concludes it isn’t worth the cost:

“…decades-long sanctions against the island have netted few if any national objectives, all the while depleting substantial national soft power. The cost-benefit analysis to U.S. national foreign policy will remain exceedingly unfavorable, if not outright counter-productive.”

We’re hopeful President Obama understands this intellectually.  Now, he can take command politically.  He’s been reelected to a second term.  He won Florida, and scored an unprecedented victory winning a majority of the Cuban-American vote.  There is no longer any justification for him to remain tethered to this failed policy.

He’s still stuck with much the same Congress, a lagging indicator, so often steps behind public opinion.  But after his victory, the president is free – not to be a laggard but a leader.  He can use his executive authority to start dismantling sanctions first imposed on Cuba before he was born and, by doing so, get our national interest and the international community into alignment.

That’s the right thing to do.

Who knows?  Maybe Rep. Paul Ryan will return to his original pro-travel, pro-trade position that he adopted at the start of his career in Congress, since the campaign is behind him, too.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Election News Round-Up: Who’s in, who’s out, and what it all means for Cuba

In Cuba, President Obama’s reelection was met with a “sigh of relief,” Reuters reports. The article portrayed Cubans as preferring Mr. Obama over Gov. Romney, fearing that the Republican candidate would further tighten restrictions on remittances and travel – areas where President Obama has made modest reforms. Violeta Gutiérrez, a domestic worker in Havana, said “Bush made it really hard for us economically and even to see family who live in the United States. If Romney had won most of the people here would have been really sad.”

In an election night twist of fate, Florida became largely irrelevant in the hunt for 270 electoral votes, reports CBS News. By the time most networks had called the election for Obama, at around 11:15pm EST, the vote in Florida was still too close to call and its 29 electoral votes were left hanging long after Obama had been declared the winner. On Thursday afternoon, the Romney campaign recognized the president as the probable winner of Florida with a 49.9%-49.2% margin – about 59,000 votes – according to the New York Times. Officials in Florida continue counting votes, including absentee ballots, and the final tally may not be available until Saturday, reports the Orlando Sentinel.

While Florida wades through its results, exit polling data from several sources suggests that the Cuban-American community has decidedly shifted, reports the Miami New Times. Across the board, exit polls showed Cuban-American support for the Republican falling. Numbers vary: according to exit poll data for Miami-Dade County from Bendixen & Amandi International, Romney won 52% of the Cuban-American vote compared to Obama’s 48%.  An NBC News analysis showed that President Obama won Cuban-American voters in Florida over Governor Romney by 49% to 47%. Even looking at conservative figures, the shift marks at least a 10-point jump from the previous record for a Democrat, which was held by Obama in 2008, and implies that Cuban Americans may no longer be a reliably conservative voting bloc.

Incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) defeated challenger Rep. Connie Mack IV (FL-19) with over 55% of the vote, reports the Washington Post. Rep. Mack, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has been a strong advocate for hardline stances toward Latin America. As a member of the Cuban Democracy Caucus, Sen. Nelson has expressed support for human rights in Cuba and for easing travel restrictions, but also favors the embargo.

In other races, Democratic candidate Joe Garcia defeated incumbent Rep. David Rivera by a margin of 54 to 43 percent in the race for the seat representing Florida’s 26th district, reports Reuters.  Garcia, who supports the U.S. trade embargo, said in an October debate that he supports Obama’s people-to-people exchange policy allowing cultural visits and unrestricted travel for Cuban exile families.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18) was comfortably reelected to Miami’s newly-redrawn 27th district. She has, however, reached her term limit as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and is due to be replaced, reports the National Journal. Two subcommittee chairmen, Reps. Ed Royce (CA-40) and Chris Smith (NJ-4) are currently running against each other for the post.

The Hill reports that Ros-Lehtinen has endorsed Royce for the position in a letter to the House Republican Steering Committee. If voted to chair the committee, Royce, who currently heads the Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade subcommittee, has vowed to “work against the Administration’s most harmful foreign policies, and exercise strong oversight over the State Department and other agencies.”

Notable Senate newcomers include Ted Cruz, a Tea Party-backed Republican and Cuban American, who was elected as Texas’s first-ever Hispanic senator, reports CBS News,  and Rep. Jeff Flake (AZ-6), who has praised President Obama’s decision to lift the travel ban for Cuban families, reports the Associated Press.

In a debate last month, Cruz referred to Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro as a “tyrant” and said that U.S. policy toward Cuba should not change until Cuba ceases to be a “totalitarian state,” according to Texas Tribune. He did not explicitly campaign on Cuba policy but is expected to be a strong conservative voice on foreign policy in the Senate.

Earlier this year, Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a longtime advocate of Cuba policy reform, was defeated in his state’s primary by Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock. Sen. Lugar published a comprehensive report in May 2009 that pushed for action to loosen travel restrictions and increase agricultural trade and cooperation with Cuba, among other recommendations. On Tuesday, Mourdock lost the Senate seat to Rep. Joe Donnelly (IN-2).

The Americas Society/Council of the Americas provides a useful summary of results in key races that could impact the future of U.S. policy with Latin America.

U.S. State Department responds to MinRex charges on financing illegal activities

Victoria Nuland, the U.S. State Department spokeswoman, responded to charges by Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations (MinRex) that the U.S. was violating the Vienna Convention by providing dissidents access to the Internet, reports AFP.

Nuland affirmed that the U.S. government is “absolutely guilty” of providing Cubans access to the Internet, but denied that their goal in providing Internet access is to subvert Cuba’s government.  Instead, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana does “regularly offer free courses in using the Internet to Cubans who want to sign up.” Additionally, the U.S. Interests Section has computers available for Cubans to use, Nuland said.

Last week, we reported on a statement by MinRex that accused the U.S. government of providing training and internet access as part of a policy of “regime change.”

IN CUBA

Cuba’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy

Cuba continues to recover from the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, especially in the city of Santiago where only 64% of the electric grid has been restored  and much of the city is still without power, reports Juventud Rebelde. In the surrounding Santiago province, 53% of homes have had their power restored, according to the Miami Herald. The government reports that power lines are down due to thousands of fallen trees, and that they are in the process of being replaced as workers “labor around the clock.”  In the neighboring province of Guantánamo, 99% of power has reportedly been restored.

The government announced that it will offer subsidies and loans for construction materials so that people can rebuild their homes, reports the Associated Press. The notice, published in Granma, states: “The government made the decision for the budget of the State to establish a subsidy of 50 percent of the current prices for construction materials that will be sold to families whose homes were totally or partially destroyed.”

The U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP) is planning to send emergency food aid to provide one month’s worth of food rations for about half a million people in and around Santiago, reports the BBC. Elisabeth Byrs, a WFP spokeswoman, called Sandy “the worst catastrophe in 50 years in Santiago de Cuba.” Aid to the affected areas has also continued to arrive from Venezuela, Russia, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic, according to Havana Times.

One million Cubans return to polls for national election runoff

Roughly one million Cubans voted during the second round of municipal elections on November 4th at 3,201 polling stations opened across the island, reports AFP.  During the first round of elections on October 21st, 13,214 municipal delegates were elected. After the runoff elections are completed, an additional 1,160 delegates will be elected to the Municipal Assemblies of the People’s Power, reports Prensa Latina. The runoff elections were postponed from their original date of October 25th due to Hurricane Sandy.

Runoff elections only took place in neighborhoods where no candidate received more than 50 percent of votes during the first election period, according to Havana Times. In Holguín and Santiago de Cuba, two of the provinces hit hardest by the storm, the runoff elections have been further postponed until November 11th.  Elections for municipal delegates are held every two and a half years

Cuba’s government to allow private restaurants to rent public spaces

Cuba’s government will allow Cubans to rent local government-owned spaces for privately-run restaurants and cafeterias reports Café Fuerte. According to the Official Gazette, the new policy will take effect on December 10th.

Each lease will be valid for 10 years, with a maximum of 5 employees at each restaurant.  In 2010, Cuba began allowing barbers and hairdressers to rent their spaces from the government under a similar arrangement. In addition to rent costs, tenants will be required to pay income tax. Initially, only 200 spaces will be available when the program begins in December, but the government plans an increase to 1,200 spaces by next year.

Dissidents detained in Havana

Several Cuban dissidents, including Yoani Sánchez, were detained on Thursday  in Havana after they gathered in front of a police station to demand the release of other dissidents being held since earlier in the week, reports the Miami Herald. Yoani Sánchez was released late Thursday night but others reportedly remain in detention. According to Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cuz of the Cuba Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, these detentions are indicative of increased repression that has had a “spiral or domino-effect.”

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba to allow foreign management of sugar mill

The Compañía de Obras en Infraestructura (COI), a subsidiary of Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht, is expected to sign a management agreement with Cuba’s sugar holding company, AzCuba, according to Reuters. The agreement will allow COI to manage a sugar mill in Mariel. This agreement would mark the first time since the 1959 revolution that Cuba’s government is allowing a foreign company’s involvement in its sugar industry.  An Odebrecht source stated:

Under the new agreement we will manage the mill for 13 years, upgrade it and bring in new machinery for the harvest and cane transportation…We start next week for this harvest that begins in December.

Cuba’s sugar industry, which has technically been open to direct investment since 1995, has to-date received little interest from foreign investors. The Helms-Burton Law presents an obstacle, as it penalizes companies who invest in properties that were seized from U.S. entities after the revolution. The law also includes a sanction, which has not yet been implemented, that would allow Cuban Americans to sue investors who “traffic” in property that was expropriated after the revolution. Forty-eight of the 56 mills that are currently operating in Cuba and a majority of the land on which sugar plantations are run, as expropriated properties, would be subject to these penalties.

Cuba’s Sugar Ministry was closed last year and replaced with AZCUBA, a holding company that has subsidiaries in every province.

Negotiations between Colombia’s government and the FARC move to Havana

After initial meetings in Oslo in early October, the second round of peace negotiations between the FARC and Colombia’s government are scheduled to begin on November 15th in Havana, reports AFP. Members from both delegations arrived to the island on Wednesday and spent the next two days finalizing the details for the upcoming peace talks, according to the AP. During a preliminary meeting in August, the delegations agreed to a five-point agenda that will guide the peace talks. Cuba is set to be the long-term site of the peace negotiations.

Humberto de la Calle, a former vice president of Colombia, heads the government delegation and Iván Márquez, second in command of FARC, leads the other delegation. Venezuela and Chile are also supporting Cuba and Norway in the facilitation of the peace negotiations.

Madrid in contact with Cuba in hopes of repatriating Carromero

Spain’s Foreign Ministry is in the process of negotiating with Cuba’s government in hopes of repatriating Ángel Carromero, the Spanish citizen sentenced to 4 years in prison for negligent homicide in the car crash that killed Oswaldo Paya and Harold Cepero Escalante, reports EFE. A 1988 bilateral agreement between Spain and Cuba would allow Carromero to serve his sentence in Spain. Following the trial, José Manuel García-Margallo, the Spanish Foreign Minister, stated that it is now up to the governments to “hold talks so the repatriation can take place as quickly as possible.”

International Trade Fair held in Havana

Cuba’s International Trade Fair began in Havana on Sunday, with the focus of encouraging foreign entities to contract with Cuba for medical, education, communications, and other services reports Granma. Cuba’s government is also seeking to attract investment in a planned special development zone in Mariel, according to Havana Times.

During the fair, Ricardo Cabrisas, vice president of Cuba’s Council of Ministers, and Russia’s Minister of Industry and Commerce, Denis Manturov, signed bilateral economic agreements that focus on cooperation in industry, transport, agriculture, nickel, finance, energy, and education over the next eight years, reports EFE. South Africa is also looking to strengthen its ties with Cuba, reports Cuba Standard. Rob Davies, South Africa’s trade and industry minister, is attending the fair in Havana with representatives of 18 South African firms, in sectors including agro-processing, mining, and engineering. China has sent a record 62 companies, which is 22 more than last year, Xinhua reports.

The trade fair is being held at the Expocuba fairgrounds, and will last through Saturday. Some 3,000 representatives from 62 countries are in attendance.

Around the Region

7.4 earthquake kills at least 52  in Guatemala

A 7.4-magnitude earthquake struck near Guatemala’s border with Mexico on Wednesday, reports the AP. The current death toll has reached 52, and many more have been reported missing. This earthquake is the strongest to hit Guatemala since 1976, when a devastating quake left 23,000 dead. The 20-mile deep quake was felt in neighboring El Salvador and in Mexico, as far North as Mexico City. The government of Guatemala has deployed over 2,000 soldiers to help with relief and cleanup efforts, and has also announced it will pay for the funerals of all victims. A photo report is available from the Associated Press here.

World Bank loans issued to Dinant Corporation, implicated in campesino deaths

The Compliance Advisor Ombudsman of the World Bank has issued an appraisal of a $30 million loan to Dinant Corporation, the Honduran palm oil company implicated in the assassinations of over 80 campesino land rights activists, reports Upside Down World. The loan was issued by the International Finance Corporation, the private financing arm of the World Bank. The appraisal calls for an audit of the loan, the first half of which was disbursed shortly after Honduras’ 2009 coup d’etat.

Recommended Reading

USAID in Cuba: Discreetly secret, Tracy Eaton, Along the Malecón

Tracey Eaton reports on the documents he recently received from USAID, after filing a Freedom of Information Act request more than a year ago. The documents, relating to the International Republican Institute’s activities in Cuba, are heavily censored. Given that USAID is a development organization, Eaton explains, activities can be carried out without legislative oversight.

How Real is Anti-Americanism in Latin America?, American University Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

This blog post reviews a new book by AU professor Max Friedman, which investigates the U.S. policy establishment’s ever-prevalent perception of “anti-Americanism” in Latin American foreign affairs. The post explains: “While not denying the existence of anti-Americanism, [Friedman] demonstrates that anti-Americanism is also a self-serving ‘myth’ that U.S. policy makers repeat to each other, and to the U.S. public, in their unilateral pursuit of policy goals.  As the alter ego of American exceptionalism, it is too often a story we tell ourselves about the rest of the world, increasingly to our own detriment.”

Salsa lives on in Benin though the Cubans have gone, Monica Mark, The Guardian

With videos included, Monica Mark’s article explores the enduring popularity and unifying power of salsa music in Benin. The music’s presence is a legacy with Benin’s past relationship with Cuba, which has survived for decades since the end of its revolutionary period. “I’d guess 80% of kids today still like salsa. There are local bands singing salsa at a quality that approaches what is coming out of the US and Latin America.”

Recommended Viewing

Cuba ballet star seeks to revamp dance school, Al Jazeera English

“One of Cuba’s best known ballet stars is appealing for international help – to rebuild one of his country’s architectural masterpieces. Teresa Bo reports from Havana, Cuba.”

A Final Word: Representative Howard Berman

Rep. Howard Berman thought Cuba policy was some kind of a boomerang or, as the Brits call it in soccer, “an own goal.”  That’s slang for when someone does something to try and get an advantage, but in reality just makes the circumstances worse.

Think of it this way.  Suppose it was a core tenet of U.S. foreign policy that Cubans are wrongly denied information by their own government; and yet, it was a core practice of U.S. foreign policy to stop Americans from visiting Cubans or to prevent us from having a free exchange of information with them.  All of this is true, and Howard Berman knew that it was nutty.

In 1988, his legislation fundamentally changed how U.S. sanctions applied to countries under U.S. embargoes, such as Cuba. Despite the U.S. embargo, the Berman amendment makes it possible for art, music, and information to pass between Cubans and Americans, so they can connect culturally even though the intent of U.S. policy is keep us apart.   Here, Howard was a leader and really had it right.

Berman tried, but was unsuccessful, in repealing the ban on travel that prevents most Americans from enjoying the liberty extended to them under our constitution to visit any country on the planet; except, of course, Cuba.  He thought the travel ban, an “own goal,” was nutty, too.

In 2009, Mr. Berman said this at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee where he then served as Chairman:

Letting U.S. citizens travel to Cuba is not a gift to the Castros – it is in our national interest. Waiting for a concession from Havana before we do something on behalf of our own citizens perversely puts the Cuban government in charge of that decision.

For too long, our policy decisions about Cuba, including the travel ban, have centered on hurting the Castro regime rather than helping the Cuban people. But this has led to the worst possible outcome: In an effort to make the Castros feel the sting, we have made the Cuban people cry.

Berman understood the contradiction of our country’s policies and tried to end them. He wasn’t always successful, working under harsh criticism from less dignified colleagues who opposed him, but at least he tried.  He (and his staff) often made calls to policy makers in the White House, Treasury, and the State Department, trying to get visas approved so that Cubans could come here, or licenses approved so that Americans could travel there. In doing so, he was never a showboat.  He just thought it was the right thing to do.

On Tuesday night, conceding he had lost his reelection, he promised the fellow Democrat who beat him that he’d do “whatever I can do to ensure a cooperative and orderly transition.”  Decent, smart, and brave doesn’t always count in political contests.  But to the people who spend our time doing this work, it meant a lot.

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