Bush cell phone policy a “disconnect”? Plus Money and Politics News in Cuba and the U.S.

Dear Friend,

This week, President Bush reversed course, acknowledged at least one reform in Cuba (cell phones), and announced that he’ll allow Cuban-American families to send mobile telephones to their kin on the island. While it would have been far easier to repeal limits on travel, and remove restrictions on the financial support that families can provide their relatives, the pretzel logic of the president’s Cuba policy prevails.

We also report this week on revelations that the Chief U.S. diplomat in Cuba personally facilitated the transfer of cash to select Cuban dissidents and the source of the funds was identified as an organization headed by an imprisoned anti-Castro militant.

Think of it: at a time when President Bush places firm limits on the amount of cash that Cuban-Americans can send their families, a U.S. official is acting as a courier for cash transfers to favored political opponents of Cuba’s government. What a foreign policy!

You can also read in our featured section, Florida’s Foreign Policy, about visits to Miami by the chief contenders for the U.S. presidency, and a passionate call from one Florida resident, a Cuban-American, for the candidates to stop repeating the same old, same old on Cuba.

This and much, much more. Read all about it – in your Cuba news summary…


President Bush will allow cell phones to be sent to Cuba

President George W. Bush announced this week a change in U.S. policy that will allow Americans to send cell phones to relatives in Cuba, now that the Cuban government has removed restrictions on phone ownership, as AFP and other news organizations reported.

“Since Raúl is allowing Cubans to own mobile phones for the first time, we are going to change our regulations to allow Americans to send mobile phones to family members in Cuba,” President Bush told a White House gathering. “If Raúl is serious about his so-called reforms, he will allow these phones to reach the Cuban people,” Bush said.

The president said he was launching the inaugural “day of solidarity with the Cuban people” and hoped Washington would continue to mark the day each year “until Cuba’s freedom.”

If the Cuban people can be trusted with mobile phones, “they should be trusted to speak freely in public,” he said.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas hosted a press availability for Congressman Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and other Cuba policy experts to discuss the President’s speech.

Dr. Julia Sweig, a Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, whose task force recently issued a new report on U.S. policy toward Latin America, called the president’s action on cell phones “like our own version of the ‘ration card,’ and it is unfortunate and ungenerous to see just a tiny gesture of the Bush administration, to the Cuban people.”

Phil Peters, Vice-President of the Lexington Institute, discussed how a growing number of Cuban dissidents had asked President Bush to go much further “to allow Cuban-Americans to travel freely and send remittances freely,” naming Martha Beatriz Roque, Oscar Espinoza Chepe, and Hector Palacios having issued such calls. “I think the message is,” Peters said, “that the Bush administration is willing to talk to dissidents but not listen to them.”

Congressman Flake, while expressing approval of the President’s move, said “Cell phones are now allowed, but here’s a list of items that still cannot be sent: Clothing, personal hygiene items, seeds, veterinary medicine and supplies, fishing equipment and supplies, soap making equipment…It simply seems wrong to me.”

The Washington Post quoted Francisco J. “Pepe” Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, calling Bush’s announcement “absurd…With all due respect” to Bush, he said, “you can’t eat cell phones.”

Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, was interviewed by CNN about the President’s speech. A clip of the CNN story can be viewed here.
The AFP report on the Bush speech can be viewed here:

The Washington Post article on the speech can be viewed here.

The full text of President Bush’s speech can be viewed here.

Cuban government backs calls to combat homophobia

Last week, Cuba’s gay community celebrated unprecedented openness – and high-ranking political alliances – with a government-backed campaign against homophobia, the Associated Press reported.

The meeting at a convention center in Havana’s Vedado district may have been the largest gathering of openly gay activists ever on the communist-run island. President Raúl Castro’s daughter Mariela, director of Cuba’s Center for Sexual Education, led the gathering.

“This is a very important moment for us, the men and women of Cuba, because for the first time we can gather in this way and speak profoundly and with scientific basis about these topics,” said Castro.

Defending equal rights for Cubans, of all sexual orientations, is a key principal of the Cuban revolution she said. “The freedom of sexual choice and gender identity (are) exercises in equality and social justice,” she said.

Mariela Castro joined government leaders and hundreds of activists at the one-day conference for the International Day Against Homophobia that featured shows, lectures, panel discussions and book presentations. A station also offered blood-tests for sexually transmitted diseases.

Cuban state television gave prime-time play Friday to the U.S. film “Brokeback Mountain,” which tells the story of two cowboys who conceal their homosexual affair. Prejudice against homosexuals remains deeply rooted in Cuban society, but the government has steadily become more accepting. Cuba’s parliament is studying proposals to legalize same-sex unions and give gay couples the benefits that people in traditional marriages enjoy.

You can view the AP’s report here.

Check out this CNN special report.

The ACLU joins lawsuit against family travel restrictions

ACLU chapters in Florida, Vermont and Massachusetts joined a lawsuit last week to fight the family travel restrictions on Americans with family in Cuba reported the Miami Herald. The lawsuit was filed in Vermont by Cuban-Americans restricted from traveling to Cuba once every three years. The American Civil Liberties Union Florida affiliate called a news conference this week to publicize the lawsuit.

Two U.S. citizens appeared at a news conference Thursday at Democracy Movement headquarters to complain about the 2004 travel restrictions. Martín Garrote, 53, desperately wants to return to Cuba to see her 85 year old mother, who has leukemia and recently broke her pelvis and hip.

”I will not be able to see my mother until 2010 under the current restrictions we are challenging,” said Martín Garrote. “I pray to God that she will remain alive until 2010 but given her advanced age, her ailment, it may not be possible.”

Ramón Saúl Sánchez, the Democracy Movement leader, said he backs the lawsuit because travel restrictions divide exile families and violate their civil rights. ”We should be in the business of protecting rights and not diminishing them,” Sánchez said. “To deprive the Cuban people in exile of the right to travel to their homeland in the name of freedom constitutes an act contrary to the values of freedom.”

Sánchez said restrictions were partly responsible for a recent increase in Cuban migrant smuggling.

”The imposed family separation by the Cuban regime, coupled with the travel ban against Cuban exiles of three years between trips, contribute to the increase of human smuggling as relatives on both sides of the Straits of Florida miss each other,” he said.

The White House and the State Department had no immediate comment.


Chief U.S. Diplomat in Cuba accused of being a “courier” of opposition group’s funds

Cuba has called on the United States to investigate and explain the actions of the island’s top American diplomat, Michael Parmly, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, whom the Cuban government accused of delivering money from an imprisoned anti-Castro militant in Miami to dissidents in Havana, the Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.

Cuba’s government released evidence that suggesting, it said, that Michael Parmly had delivered thousands of dollars in cash on at least three occasions from Santiago Alvarez to dissident Martha Beatriz Roque.

Alvarez is currently serving time in prison, and is a friend and benefactor of accused terrorist Luis Posada Carriles. Alvarez has recently been charged with possession of large amounts of firearms, explosives and military equipment and lying to immigration officials about Posada Carriles’ illegal entry into the United States.

According to the Cuban Government, Parmly made three cash pickups on his way through Miami from Roque’s nephew, most recently in March.

Parmly, who has been in the U.S. receiving medical treatment, was set to return to Havana this week. The Cuban Government has not threatened to expel Parmly or other officials at the Interests Section, but Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, director of the North America department of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, warned that the “provocations” could be part of an attempt by the U.S. to could lead to the closure of the Interests Section.

“We hope the United States takes pertinent measures to correct the conduct of its diplomats in Cuba,” Perez Roque said.

The U.S. State Department has dismissed the allegations of improper conduct, saying that private American groups are allowed to give humanitarian aid to Cuba.

The Sun-Sentinel’s report can be viewed here.

You can watch Sean McCormack, spokesman for the U.S. Department of State, addressing reporter’s questions about the accusations.

McCain and Obama address “the Cuba issue”

John McCain told Cuban-Americans this week that he would maintain the decades-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba if he is elected president, and he attacked Senator Barack Obama for his willingness to meet with Cuba’s leader, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“Sen. Obama said he wants to sit down with no conditions and negotiate with Raúl Castro,” Sen. McCain said to boos from the crowd during a visit to a Miami memorial for Cuban political prisoners. “That will not happen when I’m president of the United States,” he said to applause.

Sen. Obama accused Sen. McCain of carrying out a third Bush term. “There’s nothing more naive than continuing a policy that has failed for decades, but that’s all John McCain offered today,” the Illinois senator said in a written response Tuesday.

Sen. Obama has said that he would keep the embargo but allow Cuban-Americans to send money to the island and travel there to visit relatives. Senator Obama is in Miami to address the Cuban American National Foundation.

You can see the full text of Senator McCain’s speech here.

You can see Senator Obama’s response on CNN here.

Don’t repeat tired lines about Cuba

In a letter to presidential candidates published in the Miami Herald, Cuban American Ana Menendez criticized the candidates’ emphasis on Cuba when the state has so many other issues like hurricanes, traffic and a “boom-and-bust” economy that leaves the highest number of empty condos in the country according to the National Association of Realtors.

A Floridian resident, Menendez urged candidates to stop “beating the bongos,” saying what an “evil, nasty tyrant” Castro is and praising the dissidents. “We know about the dissidents, the rafters, the hopelessness, the repression better than you,” she says. “Don’t tell us any more of what you think we want to hear.”

She reminds the candidates what “poll after poll” shows: most Cuban Americans favor lifting the restrictions. She concedes that even the “most hard-line” Cuban Americans “secretly acknowledge that our policies of confrontation have won nothing.” And above all, she calls on the candidates to “tell us something new” about Cuba, “say: ‘I will restore what no politician has the moral authority to take away: your right to set foot in your homeland; your right to give solace to your family; your right to hold your children, comfort you sick and bury your dead.”

Mission of US-funded broadcasts in Cuba debated

The dispute over whether the U.S. Office of Cuba Broadcasting should only run stories that support the U.S. government’s policy toward Cuba still continues two decades later, the Associated Press reports.

According to the congressional charter of both Radio and TV Marti, broadcasts must be operated “in a manner not inconsistent with the broad foreign policy of the United States.” As executive director of Broadcasting Board of Governors Jeff Trimble notes, however, “the journalistic mission is not to do the short-term policy issues of any particular administration.”

Tensions have developed between those who hold Trimble’s “journalistic mission” and those like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen who believe the “mission” is “to advance our U.S.-Cuba policy.”

Critics argue that the networks have been maintained with the intention of wooing conservative Cuban-American votes rather than in the interest of providing Cuban residents with a true scope of foreign policy. Rep. William Delahunt, for example, believes the Martis “fail to show the diverse viewpoints within the United States.”

You can read more courtesy of the Associated Press here.

Recommended Reading

Misreading the Cuban Vote, Time Magazine

Around the Region
Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, focused on energy and other topics, in her state of the nation address.

Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez envisions the U.S. as a partner in fighting injustice. He expressed these and other views as part of an interview with the American Society of Newspaper Editors, according to this story in the Boston Globe.

¡Felicidades a MEDICC!

The Center for Democracy in the Americas congratulates our friends at MEDICC, which produced the documentary ¡Salud!, for winning the prestigious Henry Hampton Award for Excellence in Film and Digital Media. This compelling documentary looks at the Cuban health care system, and how the benefits it offers has spread around the world through medical diplomacy. “In a time when we face a major health care crisis, this story from Cuba has an immense amount to offer us,” said Connie Field, Producer-Director.

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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