Presidential candidates headed to Miami, CFR calls for an end to the embargo, Internet in Cuba

Dear Friend:

Welcome to this week’s news summary.

As one Cuba scholar joked before a Washington audience this week, America is most unlikely to have a new foreign policy between now and January 19, 2009.

But if you wanted to imagine what a real foreign policy looked like – one which dealt seriously and openly with the problems not just of Cuba but of Latin America region-wide – you need to look no further than the report released this week by an independent task force of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The two presumptive presidential nominees appear in Miami next week. Here, we should have an opportunity to see who among them is prepared to embrace the region with fresh eyes and new ideas.

Meanwhile on the island, the debate over economic reform marches forward. We highlight the discussion in Cuba’s central bank over how and when to merge Cuba’s system of two currencies, a cardinal source of complaint among Cubans seeking a better standard of living.

Meet the new boss – The U.S. government announced this week that the new chief of the U.S. Interests Section will be Jonathan Farrar. It’s a tough posting; the diplomat stationed there has to defend an awful policy.

As the Council on Foreign Relations reminds us, however, this too could change.

If you’re like us, and you read this blast each week, you want a new U.S. policy toward Cuba and all of the Americas. That’s why the Council’s task force report on Latin America struck such a chord with us – it’s what our organization is fighting for. Join us! Support this work by making a financial commitment today. Follow this link, it’s easy to do, and you’ll be making a strong statement about the ideas and issues that bring us together every week.

This week in Cuba news…

New report from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) calls for an end to the embargo

An independent task force of the Council on Foreign Relations released a detailed report on Latin America this week, and its findings included recommendations to set aside twelve years of sanctions and put U.S.-Cuba relations on an entirely different footing.

Chaired by Charlene Barshefsky, the former Clinton Administration US Trade Representative, and James T. Hill, a retired four-star general, the task force endorsed significant changes to our policy such as:

• Permitting freer travel to and facilitating trade with Cuba. The White House should repeal the 2004 restrictions placed on Cuban-American family travel and remittances.

• Reinstating and liberalizing the thirteen categories of licensed people-to-people “purposeful travel” for all Americans, instituted by the Clinton administration in preparation for the 1998 Papal Visit to Havana.

• Holding talks on issues of mutual concern to both parties, such as migration, human smuggling, drug trafficking, public health, the future of the Guantánamo naval base, and on environmentally sustainable resource management.

• Working more effectively with partners in the western hemisphere and in Europe to press Cuba on its human rights record and for more democratic reform.

• Assuring Cubans on the island that the United States will pursue a respectful arm’s-length relationship with a democratic Cuba.

• Repealing the 1996 Helms-Burton law, which removed most of the executive branch’s authority to eliminate economic sanctions.

The report which begins “Latin America has never mattered more for the United States” covers a range of issues important to the entire region, including poverty and inequality and threats to public security. The nineteen-member Task Force included Meg Crahan, Alberto Coll, and Julia Sweig, respected scholars and friends of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

Unification of the two currencies to be gradual

Cuba’s Central Bank is urging the government to unify gradually the island’s parallel currencies and cut back on “indiscriminate” subsidies, according to a leaked internal memo, the Associated Press reported. The document says that Cuba would be more efficient with one currency, but it warns that the transition should be gradual, with incremental revaluations to narrow the gap between the two pesos over time.

The Central Bank warns that suddenly boosting the peso against its convertible counterpart would drive Cubans to buy expensive, imported goods at drastically reduced prices – leaving state stores with little income to restock shelves and sparking shortages. It also suggests that the government reduce “indiscriminate” subsidies to cut state expenses and ease the burden of strengthening the currency. It affirmed what many Cuban officials have said over the last year, that the process will be gradual and depend on increasing production.

Michael Parmly will be replaced by Jonathan D. Farrar

The State Department confirmed that Jonathan D. Farrar will succeed Michael Parmly, the chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba this summer. Farrar is currently the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. He studied at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and has been employed at the State Department since 1980.

Farrar took part in a videoconference with dissidents in Havana last March in which he unveiled the State Department’s annual report on human rights. He came under tough questioning from some of the dissidents about US policy during the exchange.

In the videoconference, former political prisoner Oscar Espinosa Chepe blamed the Bush administration for obstructing the human rights agenda on the island by restricting the ability of Cuban Americans to travel back home.

“There are Congressional proposals to loosen the travel restrictions on our compatriots living in the U.S. so as they can help their families. This is an important issue for us. It can inject considerable democracy in Cuba and spread the values inherent in U.S. society.”

He asked Farrar point blank: “What are you doing about it?”

Farrar responded that the “issue was beyond the scope of the State Department review.”

Internet in Cuba

The Spanish News Agency EFE reported that there will not be an opening for individuals to gain private connections to the internet in Cuba following the government’s authorization to buy and sell computers. The Vice-Minister of Computer Science and Communications, Ramón Linares Torres, attributed the lack of internet connection in Cuba to the U.S. embargo. He said there still exists a “lack of economic resources and technology to expand the service.”

Cuba inaugurated its internet connection in 1996, but the government says it is forced to limit access because the U.S. embargo prohibits it from connecting to underwater fiber-optic cables operated by U.S. companies. Forced to connect via satellite, the connection is slow and costly.

Linares added that a new undersea fiber-optic cable from Cuba to Venezuela should be finished in 2009 or 2010. The new line will have a capacity of 160 gigabytes per second, well over 1,000 times the capacity of Cuba’s current satellite-based Internet link.

In a recent interview with Nelso Bocaranda, Generation Y blogger Yoani Sanchez weighed in on the lack of internet in Cuba. “All the limitations on internet in Cuba have two fundamental causes. One part is that the US Government does not let Cuba connect to underwater cables and the other part is that the Cuban Government controls and censors internet for its citizens,” she said.

Texas commissioner going to Cuba

Marking the first official visit in 45 years, the state of Texas will send a trade delegation to Cuba in late May, the Associated Press reported. Led by Department of Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, the 24-member delegation will include farmers, ranchers, commodity supplies and port representatives.

In addition to visiting three farms, the delegation will meet with leading government officials in the agricultural sector. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Texas has exported more than $100 million in agricultural products since 2000 when the trade embargo was partially lifted.


Presumptive presidential nominees to speak in Miami next week

Senator Barack Obama will address the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) on May 23rd at the lobbying group’s Cuban Independence Day luncheon in Coral Gables, the Miami Herald reported. Senator John McCain is scheduled to deliver a major speech on Cuba at the Sheraton Miami Mart three days earlier on May 20th.

Obama favors pursuing democratic reforms by talking to the Cuban government and allowing Cuban Americans to freely travel and send money to the island. Earlier this year, when he endorsed Senator McCain, Florida’s Senator Mel Martinez called his colleague “Castro’s worst nightmare.”

”The presence of both candidates here next week will be a landmark for our community,” said Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the foundation. “It’s important not just that they speak, but that they listen to us, our aspirations, our dreams and the voice of the victims who suffer under a repressive tyranny.”

CANF’s USAID report sparks controversy

An article in the Miami Herald this week made publicthe report we recently discussed on waste in the U.S. AID Cuba programs. The report found that less than 17 percent of $65 million in federal Cuba aid funds spent during the past 10 years went to ”direct, on-island assistance” and that the bulk of the money, went to academic studies and expenses of exile organizations, mostly in Miami and Washington.

One of the lead recipients of U.S. AID funds, the Center for a Free Cuba, strongly criticized the report and accused CANF of being infiltrated by Cuban agents.

”First, it’s simply not true,” said Frank Calzón who runs the Center. “Secondly, I am surprised. The assessment among some key policymakers in Washington, D.C., is that somehow the Cuban intelligence services have infiltrated the Cuban American National Foundation.”

A White House aide, Felipe Sixto, resigned as a presidential aide this spring, after it was reported that he had “misappropriated” funds from the Center for a Free Cuba.

The CANF report comes as the Bush administration prepares to award a record $45.7 million in Cuba democracy grants this year, more than three times the amount spent last year.

Recommended Reading:

The Tampa Tribune has editorialized against legislation adopted in Florida that will throw up regulatory barriers to stop Cuban-Americans from traveling to Cuba.

The Anniston (AL) Star has editorialized in favor of expanding U.S. trade with Cuba. Alabama has been a leading exporter of food to the island.

Recommended Viewing:

On May 5th, NBC posted an interview with Rafael Hernandez, editor of the Cuban journal Temas, in which he talks candidly and openly about Cuba’s transition.

Around the Region:

INTERPOL Secretary General Ronald K. Noble advised senior Colombian law enforcement officials that INTERPOL’s team of forensic experts discovered ‘no evidence of modification, alteration, addition or deletion’ in the user files of any of the three laptop computers, three USB thumb drives and two external hard disks seized during a Colombian anti-narcotics and anti-terrorist operation on a FARC camp on 1 March 2008. See the report.

In a letter sent to the media in April, U.S. academics appeal to journalists and editors to “distinguish between facts and allegations.” The Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in Washington, DC released a statement warning “the international community with regards to the serious manipulation that a number of political sectors and news outlets have spread due to the report issued by INTERPOL.”

Until Next Week,

The Cuba Central Team

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