Changes in Cuba; Wasted USAID funds, Florida’s Foreign Policy, New Video from Havana

Dear Friend:

Although we lead this week’s news blast with developments in Cuba’s move toward reform – and they are significant – please pay careful attention to our section titled “Florida’s Foreign Policy” below.

We obtained a report released in March by the Cuban American National Foundation documenting tremendous waste in the USAID programs designed to funnel aid to dissident groups in Cuba. Much like the movie “Casablanca,” you will be shocked, shocked, shocked to discover just how much of this money is staying in Florida, spent on administrative overhead, and fails to produce any measurable gains.

While the Bush administration is trying to reroute this money through cooperative governments and NGO’s in Europe, we’re pretty sure the waste will continue unabated until U.S. policy toward Cuba changes.

The press has not given this report any real attention, but here at the News Summary, we do.

More troubling, however, is legislation passed this week by the Florida Legislature that will impose towering new obstacles on travel service providers operating in Florida aimed at stopping legal travel to Cuba. There is still time to make the case before Florida’s governor Charlie Crist to veto the legislation, and people who believe in our constitutional rights to travel should make their voices heard.

This week in Cuba news…

Raúl Castro at the 6th Plenary of the Central Committee

In a speech at the 6th Plenary of the Central Committee on Monday, President RaúlCastro made several important announcements regarding the death penalty, scheduling the next Communist Party Congress, and creating a seven-member Commission of the Central Committee of the Party.

Death sentences commuted

President Castro announced that all death sentences had been commuted to prison terms of 30 years to life, with the exception of three people charged with terrorism, according to a report by the Reuters news agency.

Two Central Americans charged with hotel bombings in the 1990s that took the life of an Italian tourist, and a Cuban American charged with murder during an attempt at armed infiltration of the island, were not included. Their cases are still on appeal and will be reviewed.

He emphasized that the decision adopted is a “sovereign act that is not motivated by pressure and is in line with the humanitarian and ethical conduct of the Revolution… and that Fidel is in favor.”

The announcement was welcomed by opponents of the death penalty on the island.

Orlando Márquez, director of the magazine Palabra Nueva, published by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Havana, said the announcement was “very good news and a bold and mature step by the Cuban Council of State, taking into account how deeply rooted support for this kind of punishment is among a large part of Cuban society,” according to a report by Inter Press Services.

“Any gesture of clemency and respect for life, of which this is one example, exalts, rather than weakens, the state that makes it,” said Márquez.

Cuba’s use of the death penalty is consistently criticized in human rights reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations.

6th Communist Party Congress announced

President Castro also announced that the 6th Congress of the Communist Party will be held in the second half of 2009, according to a report published in Granma.

Fidel Castro is currently the First Secretary of the Communist Party and Raúl Castro is the Second Secretary. They would both need to be reelected in 2009 to retain their party leadership roles.

Commission created

President Raúl Castro also announced that a special seven-member commission has been created so that “the process of making decisions requiring rapid attention will become more operable and functional and, at the same time, allow for collective evaluation.”

The commission is to be made up of Raúl Castro Ruz, José Ramón Machado Ventura, Juan Almeida Bosque, Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, Carlos Lage Dávila, Esteban Lazo Hernández and Julio Casas Regueiro, who are also the president, first vice president and vice presidents of the Council of State.

President Castro once again pointed out that increasing food production constitutes the central task of Party leaders, which “particularly demands maximum support and monitoring from municipal and provincial Party secretaries, not by way of more paperwork and meetings, but on the ground, talking directly with those in charge of production, and putting into practice the measures that have begun to be implemented in agriculture.”

Wage increases for retirees and court employees

Cuba’s government released a statement on Sunday announcing sizable raises for retirees and court employees, and promised future pay hikes for other government Workers, the Associated Press reported. The pay increases are much greater than the last wage increases that took place in 2005 and will affect almost one in five Cubans.

On February 24th, Raúl Castro stated the need for “living standards to correspond directly with individual’s legally earned incomes.” The government has since passed legislation to do away with wage limits and suggested that it will rework the official salary system, creating incentives to work by allowing government employees to earn as much as they can.

The statement said that “wage and pension increases will take place in a gradual and differentiated way…applied by sector and priority based on a rigorous assessment of economic and financial conditions as a premise for their implementation.”

It concluded that “it is not currently possible to apply across-the-board wage increases, as the country does not yet have the necessary resources.” Read the Granma article here.

Cuba says tourism industry recovering from slump, Cubans expected at hotels in the summer

After a two year slump, Cuba’s tourism industry is reporting growth, according to the Associated Press.

María Elena López, a vice minister of tourism, said that during the first quarter of this year, Cuba experienced a 15% increase in the number of visitors to the island. This past Monday, the number of international visitors topped the 1 million mark. The rise in tourists is being credited to well-attended conferences and trade fairs.

The Government recently ended restrictions prohibiting Cubans from staying at tourist hotels.

In an interview with the Uruguayan newspaper Espactador, journalist Fernando Ravsberg reported that 10,000 reservations have been made for Cubans to stay in the hotels in Varadero beach resort in August alone. He cites sources from the Ministry of Tourism for his numbers. Read the interview here (in Spanish).

Granma reports on decentralization in agriculture

Cuban state media announced that President Raúl Castro has finished shifting control over agriculture into local hands and has cut bureaucracy dramatically in an effort to stimulate food production reported Reuters. An article published in the Granma on Thursday explained that decision-making in agriculture had moved from the national government to the municipal level and that a large number of departments had been eliminated.

“The municipal agriculture delegations — an organizational process that has just concluded — will assume the responsibility for the functioning, development and control… of agricultural production,” Granma said. “The need is more urgent due to the approval of the reorganization of the agricultural system, that involves the elimination of 104 companies (departments) and the shifting of the role of the majority that remain to service providers,” the newspaper said.

The article states that the shift to local decision making is “part of the structural changes necessary in food production.” Read the article here (in Spanish).

Check out an analysis by Phil Peters on the Cuban Triangle blog for a better understanding of what he calls “structural changes on the farm.”

Florida’s Foreign Policy

The CANF releases report on USAID Cuba funds

The Center for Democracy in the Americas received a report this week, published in March 2008, by the Cuban American National Foundation that criticizes waste in the USAID Cuba democracy program.

The report found:

• The US government program in support of a democratic transition in Cuba has been completely ineffective due to restrictive institutional policies and a lack of oversight and accountability of grantee recipients within the United States Agency for International Development.

• Less than 17% of all USAID Cuba funds were used in direct, on island assistance. – The remaining 83% were used to cover operating expenses of grantee organizations, off-island transition studies and US based activities.

• One of the grantees for example, spent an average of 85% of the money given between 1998 and 2005 on salaries, employees’ benefits and office overhead. They spent only 19.4% in direct assistance to the Cuban people.

Felipe Sixto, an aide to President Bush, recently resigned in the midst of an investigation by the Justice Department over allegations he misused U.S. grant money intended to promote democracy in Cuba. The misuse of funds took place while he was working at the Center for a Free Cuba, one of the lead recipients of USAID Cuba funding. The investigation involves the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of dollars. You can read the full CANF report here.

Bill that will further complicate family travel to Cuba passes

The Florida legislature has approved, and sent to Governor Charles Crist for approval, controversial legislation by Rep. David Rivera targeting Florida-based travel agents selling trips to Cuba.

According to Rivera, the new legislation is an “anti-terrorism bill” that would require agencies that provide direct travel to any country on the State Department’s state sponsor of terror list to pay out an increased bond.

Agencies currently put up a one-time bond to the Department of Agriculture of 25,000 dollars, but will now have to pay up to $2,500 in registration fees to the state and provide up to $300,000 in bond money, burdens that many travel providers say will put them out of business.

The need for state regulation of the agencies, which are already monitored by the federal government, was questioned by several lawmakers.

In 2006 Rivera was able to pass legislation banning the use of state money to fund educational trips to Cuba, which is currently under review by the state Supreme Court.

”This bill has little to do with terrorism…. This will make it more difficult and expensive for Cubans in my district to visit their families, their loved ones, in Cuba,” said Rep. Michael Scionti, a Tampa Democrat.

Marazul Charters, a Cuba travel provider, warned that the bill, which will become effective July 1, 2008, may stop all direct flights from Miami to Cuba, because of the tremendously increased financial and legal risks included in the bill for charter operators.

“As a law, it will give South Florida politicians control of the Cuba travel industry in Florida, taking it away from OFAC in practice,” said the President of Marazul Charters, Armando Garcia.

The travel agencies have vowed to fight the law in court if necessary. Florida’s Governor, Charlie Crist must now sign the bill for it to go into effect.

Florida residents (and others) opposed to restricting family travel (SB-1310) should contact Governor Crist here:

New Video:

Emir Garcia Meralla, Cuban Music Historian explains the role music could play in restoring relations between the US and Cuba

Recommended Reading:

The New York Times has a page one story about economic reforms in Cuba.

Around the Region:

Hillary Clinton writes that we can “draw inspiration from leaders like Michelle Bachelet, leaders with grace and courage, leaders who never give up and never give in.

President Rafael Correa breaks with tradition in overhauling the armed forces’ command in the wake of a Colombian incursion.

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team


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