Larger role for Cuba’s media; Domestic football kicked back over the Florida straits; New Video and More

Dear Friend,

During most of 2008, we have focused on news coming from Cuba about reforms announced and implemented by Cuba’s government in areas ranging from the decentralization of agriculture to the new availability of consumer items like cell phones and DVD players.

This week, our attention was captured by more subtle yet no less important developments. These include reports on how the state-run media is now doing investigative journalism; how Cuban officials foresee the prospects for additional, significant economic reforms – such as doing away with Cuba’s system of two currencies, distributing ration cards based on need rather than universal access, and a gradual opening to more foreign investment; how one respected journal, Temas, is leading a debate on once-forbidden topics ranging from race relations to the study of transitions in other parts of the world.

In U.S. domestic developments, the debate here could hardly be described as subtle. The ritual of making speeches about Cuba in Miami, and about Cuba for Miami, was reenacted as we reported last week. We carry the coda in this week’s edition of the news blast – Senator Obama’s speech before CANF was critically reviewed by Fidel Castro in a reflection published a few days after – the call-and-response between a former president and one who might be. We’re also continuing to follow a constitutional challenge to restrictions on Cuban-American travel to the island.

It was a very interesting week, so we urge you to “read on”!

***

But first, a word from your publisher:

The Center for Democracy in the Americas is pleased to produce this news summary each week for our eager and growing readership. This is more than a series of Google Alerts (not that there’s anything wrong with getting your news that way). We follow and translate global reports on Cuba. We follow what’s happening in Cuba not just by reading the press, but also by traveling to the island and by filing reports and filming videos. We have a perspective – we think U.S. policy is wrong, we want travel and trade restrictions lifted, and we favor normalization – but we make room for a variety of perspectives, because we know our readers want to decide for themselves.

You get this and more from a small non-profit organization that takes no money from governments or political parties. About half of our funding comes from private foundation grants, and the rest comes from tax-deductible donations from people like you.

Periodically, we appeal to our readers for additional support, and this is one of those times. We love getting feedback from our readers, but we also love getting “greenbacks” from our readers. Donating via PayPal couldn’t be easier. We appreciate your commitment to the news summary and we hope that you will express it by following this link.

And now…this week in Cuba news.

Reform

A more critical press

Raul Castro is allowing more debate in the Cuban press, and the Juventud Rebelde is rising to the occasion, according to National Public Radio. The newspaper has run several critical stories after encouraging its reporters to investigate what’s not working in their country. Reporter Dora Perez ran a critical three part-series about the state of Cuban agriculture titled “Trip to the Center of the Earth.”

“[We heard] nothing but complaints,” Perez says. “Our report was very critical. We’re bad in agriculture, and we have to say so.”

She followed that story with an investigative series about the education system and the frequency of parents paying private tutors to make up for lack-luster classes at school.

Herminio Camacho, deputy editor of the Juventud Rebelde, says it’s time for Cuba to focus less on the United States and acknowledge its own failings.

“These articles aim at raising people’s awareness,” Camacho says. “People need to know that things don’t have to be like this here. We’re bringing up problems that can’t be blamed on our shortages, or on outside forces, or the embargo, or the world situation.”

The newspaper has even reported on cases where statistics provided by the authorities were inaccurate, publishing a story about officials underreporting the number of unemployed youth. In one province, they found it was 18 times higher than what the government claimed.

The Juventud Rebelde even eliminated the beat structure so that all reporters are now generalists, not specialists, and forced to report on different topics.

“Journalists who take charge of one particular issue can lose their broader vision,” explained Camacho. “They develop a close relationship with whoever they’re covering, because they see them day after day. It makes it harder to be critical. In order to do this kind of journalism, we had to change that structure.”

You can read the NPR report here.

Upcoming Congress of the Union of Cuban Journalists

The 8th Congress of the Union of Cuban Journalists will be held in July and, according to the Juventud Rebelde, there will be “a deepening of debate about areas of the current press, focusing on the need to banish the ‘instrumentalist’ vision that some have of the profession.”

Meetings were held by journalists throughout the country aimed at increasing discussion in areas where journalism can be improved. “The Cuban press loses its credibility when it offers incomplete reporting, when it leaves obvious holes and omissions, which are then covered by the forces hostile to Cuban socialism or merely left for the cloudy street of speculation,” said prominent Cuban journalist Hugo Rius.

Reporters sited officials influencing what stories are published and a lack of reporting leading to the population being informed of important events by foreign press or gossip in the street. They cited recent changes allowing Cubans to stay in hotels as an example where state media failed to report on the important change. Foreign press learned of the change from staff at the hotels and word quickly spread by mouth throughout the country.

You can read the Juventud Rebelde report here.

Temas playing a role

CBS News reported this week on Temas, a Cuban journal, that has been publishing articles that explore Cuba’s political options. Under Editor Rafael Hernandez, the magazine has published articles on taboo subjects, such as domestic violence in Cuba and the problem of racial discrimination on the island.

Temas recently dedicated a full edition to the study of transitions in Chile, South Africa, China, Vietnam and other countries. Although changes have been made and others are expected, Hernandez has warned against comparing Raul Castro to Mikhail Gorbachev or his policies to those of “glasnost” and “perestroika.”

“In fact, quite the opposite,” said Hernandez. “One of the ghosts that is haunting Cuban politics is the fate of Eastern Europe. We must avoid that outcome here. That’s why policy implementation and political reforms are so slow – because the political leadership doesn’t want to let things get out of control.”

Hernandez said that while other models and transitions are being studied to learn from their experiences, Cuba is working to create its own form of socialism.

“I would say that would be a combination of Nordic socialism, Vietnamese socialism, Chinese socialism,” said Hernandez. “But I don’t think there is a model we may follow because we have a unique history – and we need to work out a new socialist model based on that experience.”

You can read the CBS report here.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas interviewed Rafael Hernandez in Cuba a few weeks ago. You can see the video here.

Cuba working towards reforming its monetary system and the two currencies

In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais, the President of the Cuban National Assembly’s Economic Commission, Osvaldo Martinez, said that Cuba will reform its monetary system and eliminate the circulation of two currencies, the national peso and the convertible peso, because it causes division between those with access to hard currency and those without.

Martinez affirmed that reevaluating subsidies, including the ration card, will be part of the process. The ration book (la libreta), which costs the state more than 980 million dollars annually in food alone, distributes its products equally among citizens without taking into account income differences. He insisted that it is not sustainable and will change in the future.

On the topics of increased private property and foreign investment, Martinez said that there are already limited forms of private property in Cuba in agriculture and some private businesses, but that they are examining other areas where it could be extended to. He added that Raul Castro already announced foreign investment will increase, but the process is pending the establishment of new norms.

With increases in incentive-based production, the private farmers and cooperatives will be able to earn more money selling their products to the state or directly to the consumer. If social inequalities become extreme, the president of the Economic Commission says, there is a little-used tool available: income taxes for those who earn the most.

You can read the El Pais interview here.

Florida’s Foreign Policy

Obama speech at the Cuban American National Foundation

In a speech at the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), Senator Barack Obama said he will ease restrictions on Cuban Americans traveling to Cuba and sending money to relatives if he is elected president. He said that he would maintain the embargo against Cuba as leverage to push for democratic change on the island.

Obama, who previously said he would meet Cuban President Raul Castro without preconditions, warned that he would not “sit down to have tea with Raul Castro.”

“I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States,” said Mr. Obama.

He told more than 800 Cuban-American exiles present at the event that he would engage leaders in Havana to demand the release of political prisoners and the start of democratic reforms in Cuba.

You can read his speech here.

Reaction in Cuba

The Ladies in White, a group of wives and other female relatives of Cuban political prisoners wrote to Sen. Barack Obama, expressing hope his policies toward Cuba may help free their loved ones if he wins the U.S. presidential race, the Associated Press reported.

“We have great hope that you can contribute to the immediate, unconditional liberation of the 55 who are still in horrible prison conditions, with serious health problems,” the group wrote to Obama.

One of the founders of the Ladies in White, Miriam Leiva, also sent a letter to Senator Obama, cosigned by her husband, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a former political prisoner. They applauded Obama’s pledge to meet with President Raul Castro and ease restrictions on Cuban Americans who want to travel or send money to the island.

The letter said an Obama presidency could “begin an era of political realism toward Cuba due to increased contact in all areas and with all representatives of society, including governments and leaders.”

You can read the AP report here.

Meanwhile, Fidel Castro published a reflection in which he described Obama as the candidate most advanced on social issues running for U.S. president but characterized his speech on Cuba as a “formula for hunger.”

The former president criticized the motivations behind Obama’s proposed relaxation on remittances and family travel.

He said he had no reservations about criticizing Obama, who he sees as “without doubt, from the social and human point, the most advanced candidate.”

You can read thereflection in the Granma here.

Update on challenge to the travel restrictions

The constitutional challenge against the Bush administration’s restrictions on Cuban American travel to the island was heard by U.S. District Judge William Sessions III on Wednesday, the Burlington Free Press reported. In Federal court in Burlington, VT lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the Constitution provides a fundamental right to associate with family and that travel restrictions imposed by President Bush undermine that right.

John O’Quinn, deputy assistant U.S. attorney general argued that the government has the constitutional right to restrict travel to certain countries and that Cuba policy is designed to prevent money from flowing to the Castro-led government.

The hearing, which lasted over two hours, concluded with Judge Sessions requesting both sides for more information about why the government offers emergency travel exemptions in some cases but not in others. There is an exemption that allows U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba to visit a U.S. citizen that is traveling there in case of an emergency, but none allowing U.S. citizens to respond to travel for emergencies facing Cuban relatives.

“Is that rational?” he asked O’Quinn.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) joined affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union in filing a joint, friend of the court brief for the case. The CCR has a long and distinguished history in defending Americans harmed by the embargo.

You can see the Burlington Free Press article here.

The US will not respond to non-diplomatic channels

The US Interests Section in Havana said that it will not respond to accusations by Cuba’s government regarding money transfers from private groups to dissidents without receiving a formal complaint, the Associated Press reported. The Cuban government held two press conferences last week to present evidence that Michael Parmly, America’s top diplomat in Havana, carried funds from Miami to activist Martha Beatriz Roque, who allegedly passed them on to other dissidents.

The evidence, consisting of e-mails, letters, videos and audio tapes gathered over a two-year period was presented at an initial press conference and on the nightly news show La Mesa Redonda. At a second press conference led by Cuba’s Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, the government demanded a response from Parmly and the U.S. government. The United States has acknowledged it provides “humanitarian assistance” to dissidents in Cuba, but has not said specifically whether Parmly hand-carried cash from a Miami-based group linked to terrorists Santiago Alvarez and Luis Posada Carriles.

You can see the Associated Press article here.

Recommended Viewing:

New Video: A resident of Old Havana discusses the selection of Raul Castro and recent changes in Cuba. She says “it could have been Carlos Lage or Felipe Perez Roque, but in the end Raul was selected because of his closeness to Fidel” and what he accomplished as head of the armed forces.

You can see it here.

Recommended Reading:
Cuba’s Jewish community reborn, The Chicago Tribune
A Chicago Tribune article about the reborn Jewish community in Cuba. “At one point we were down to about 800 Jews in Cuba, but now it’s back to about 1,500,” said Dworin, a cheerful, intelligent woman who serves as president of Cuba’s Jewish Community.

Editorial: Texas’ Cuban overture, The Dallas Morning News

The Dallas Morning News writes that “eventually, the day will come when Fidel Castro’s influence and the embargo fade into history. Texas farmers and ranchers are wise to prepare for that historic moment.”

Around the Region:

On May 26, Chilean Judge Victor Montiglio ordered the arrest of 98 retired military and secret police officials connected to kidnappings during the Auguston Pinochet dictatorship, marking the largest round-up of Pinochet-era human rights abusers since 1990. http://www.valparaisotimes.cl/content/view/371/1/

Last weekend, Latin American presidents from 12 countries formally constituted the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). One of the biggest initiatives proposed was the South American Defense Council, of which Colombia was the only country refraining from “full” participation. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/3488

Thanks to Elsa and Claire:

Many of you may know Elsa Falkenburger from the Washington Office on Latin Americas and Claire Rodriguez from the Latin American Working Group who have fought hard for changes in Cuba policy over the last few years. They are headed on to new things and we would like to thank them for their hard work and wish them the best of luck in their new endeavors. THANKS!

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team
http://www.democracyinamericas.org/cubacentral

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