EU drops sanctions; House panel drops travel limits; you drop a line to Congress

Dear Reader:

As the blast was loaded and readied for publication, the European Union voted to remove diplomatic sanctions against Cuba imposed five years ago. The move was opposed by the United States but defended by Spain in recognition of reform in Cuba.

A panel in the U.S. Congress voted to lift restrictions on travel by Cuban-Americans to visit their families on Cuba. The limits were imposed by President Bush during the last presidential campaign, and his administration opposes removing them. Action is expected soon on this measure and we need your involvement to express support, see this action item below.

We know the policy is wrong, but are the politics right? Don’t be so sure: a new poll in two key Florida congressional districts shows that majorities now favor removing the limitations. The numbers must really be startling; one of the incumbents now wants to talk about health care. Now that is news.

These stories and much, much more…

REFORM
European Union Vote Alters Sanctions Policy

The European Union voted to remove its diplomatic sanctions against Cuba despite opposition in the United States. As part of its action, the EU also approved conditions on Cuba in return for what the Associated Press called “sanction-free relations.” These include the release of all political prisoners; access for Cubans to the Internet; and a double-track approach for all EU delegations arriving in Cuba, allowing them to meet both opposition figures and members of the Cuban government.

The EU external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said Brussels felt it had to change the policy in order to encourage changes in Cuba, the Guardian newspaper reported. The removal of sanctions is an attempt to both acknowledge and encourage more reforms by President Raul Castro.

In recent weeks the U.S. has sent Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Guiterrez and Caleb McCarry, the administration’s so-called “Cuba Transition Coordinator,” to lobby European governments against lifting sanctions. State Department Deputy spokesman Tom Casey said that the United States hasn’t seen any real change in Cuba. “We certainly don’t see any kind of fundamental break with the Castro dictatorship that would give us reason to believe that now would be the time to lift sanctions,” he said. “We would not be supportive of the EU or anyone else easing those restrictions at this time.”

Spain led the push inside the European Union to drop the sanctions. Commenting on the vote, Spain’s foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, said, “The United States has its policy on Cuba. We don’t share it … In the end, we have our interests and our autonomy in foreign policy.”

You can read the Guardian article here

Anti-Corruption Sweep

Cuban authorities shut down 13 factories and 10 warehouses involved in illegal manufacturing during a major anti-corruption sweep, the Agence France-Presse reported. The factories were involved in producing plates, cups, hair accessories and other products made out of plastic or aluminum.

A Havana province official said about 50 people were fined and that authorities confiscated machinery as well as plastic and aluminum goods. The official, Guillermo Perez, said the investigation was carried out by the “Fight Against Social Indiscipline Task Force.”

The government of President Raul Castro has made anti-corruption work a key priority.
According to EFE, Cuban state media has denounced the failure of some state businesses to deal with certain issues like theft and labor indiscipline that contribute to low production.

The operation against illegal factories and businesses took place at a moment when President Raul Castro has called for increased production. The government has made significant structural changes in the farming system, sending decision making from Havana to the provinces and to farmers themselves, and has made reforms in the payment of wages so workers who meet productivity or quality benchmarks can earn more.

In Progreso Weekly, Manual Alberto Ramy writes an article about how and why a toilet is cheaper to buy on the black market than in the department store. Ramy takes a look at the underground economy, which he says has been created from the “detours,” “shortages,” “miscalculations” and other terms invented by the bureaucracy so as not to call the practice by its true name: theft.

You can read Progreso Weekly’s toilet saga here.

You can read the EFE report here (in Spanish):

ALSO IN CUBA

Fidel Castro seen in rare TV appearance

Video footage of Fidel Castro was released to the public for the first time since January, CBS News reported. No pictures were released during earlier presidential visits by Hugo Chavez in March and Evo Morales in May.

In the video released on Tuesday evening, a “thin but animated Castro” was seen both sitting and standing, making his trademark hand gestures as he speaks, according to Portia Siegelbaum, a CBS producer. Nothing was said about the state of Fidel Castro’s health, and it is impossible to glean any information since he cannot be heard speaking nor seen walking in the video.

The government news anchor present at the meeting said the three were discussing the global food crisis and the U.S. elections. Before leaving Cuba, Chavez described the five-hour meeting over two days as “revising the entire plan for energy exchanges and for the strengthening of refinery capacity and production of petroleum and petrochemicals.”

The Central Intelligence Agency has been looking closely at the video to see what it can learn about Castro’s health, MSNBC News reported. An unidentified intelligence official commented that the video was carefully edited, apparently to show Fidel Castro as animated and alert, and that there was no clumsy attempt to show Fidel Castro moving around as there had been in a video released last year. He also noted that the video was silent so as to prohibit analysts from determining the strength of Fidel’s voice.

The official said that the video might have been an attempt to quell rumors racing through South Florida that Fidel Castro had died. “The timing could have been meant to stick it to the Miami Cubans,” said the official.

You can see the MSNBC News report here.

Dangerous Human Smuggling Operations

Smuggling operations involving Cubans headed to the United States over the last few years have become increasingly violent and deadly. In the last two weeks there have been two more cases that have grabbed the attention of authorities in Cuba, the U.S. and Mexico. Prosecutors in Miami are even considering the death penalty against a suspect in a November operation that left one man dead.

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11- year old boy killed by smugglers

A woman and an 11-year old boy were killed when smugglers fleeing from Cuba’s Coast Guard rammed through a wooden boat loaded with migrants awaiting the smugglers. The Cuban state newspaper Granma said the smugglers, who were charging US$10,000 a head to take 20 people to the United States, drove over the boat filled with people in an attempt to distract pursuers.

The smugglers escaped, but Yudersi Rosabal Rodriguez and 11-year-old Jorge Luis Nunez Sanchez were left dead. The article in Granma,”Killer Law Takes New Cuban Victims,” blamed the Cuban Adjustment Act for motivating the illegal migration which often results in death. “The latest death of innocent persons once again shows the double standard used by the U.S. government under the Cuban Adjustment Act, which encourages Cubans to risk their lives to illegally reach the U.S.,” Granma said.

Immigration bus with detained Cuban migrants hijacked

A Mexican immigration bus with 33 detained Cuban migrants aboard was hijacked at gunpoint by masked gunmen, the Associated Press reports. The 33 Cubans aboard had been found by Mexico’s navy two weeks ago on a yacht off of Cancun. The migrants told authorities they had left Cuba on a small boat and that two men on the yacht had offered them a lift. The migrants and the two men on the yacht, both of Cuban origin, were detained on allegations they brought the migrants to Mexico.

The two Cubans, who live in the United States, turned down an offer of bail, saying they feared for their lives, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office said. The bus carrying the detained Cubans was traveling along a remote jungle highway when the masked gunmen forced seven unarmed immigration agents and two drivers to get off before they fled. The bus was later found abandoned and authorities are unsure of the whereabouts of four Central Americans that were onboard as well.

Mexico, whose Caribbean coast is about 120 miles southwest of Cuba, is increasingly used by smugglers as a route to get Cuban migrants into the United States, avoiding the threat of being caught at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. Several Cuban-Americans have been killed in the Yucatan Peninsula over the past two years, and Mexican officials have said the victims were tied to an international trafficking ring that moved Cubans from Mexico to the United States.

Nine immigration officials and two bus drivers have been detained for investigation of possible involvement in the hijacking, the Attorney General’s Office said. The U.S. Border Patrol detained the immigrants in Hidalgo County in Texas but will most likely let them all enter under the Cuban Adjustment Act.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

Cuba deports another American fugitive

U.S. and Cuban authorities worked together to locate and return to the U.S. an American fugitive who was on the run in Cuba, the Associated Press reported. Leonard B. Auerbach, 61, was on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s “most wanted” list after failing to appear for arraignment in Northern California on charges that he sexually abused a Costa Rican girl and possessed child pornography. Cuba handed him over to U.S. authorities last Friday.

U.S. officials evidently alerted Cuban authorities to his presence on the island, and he was arrested on May 7th, about a month after his arrival. Cuba said it decided to deport Auerbach because his alleged crimes “are of a grave character and strongly fought by our authorities.” The Foreign Ministry added that there is no evidence he committed crimes in Cuba.

Such deportations are an increasingly common example of cooperation between the United States and Cuba. Auerbach is the fourth American fugitive Cuba has deported to the United States since President Raul Castro first took provisional power from his ailing brother Fidel in July 2006.

Mr. Auerbach may have hoped to take advantage of the fact that Cuba and the U.S. do not have an extradition treaty. He sent e-mails to friends last month boasting about his cleverness in choosing Cuba for his escape. “I am in some kind of Paradise here and I’m so safe, it’s laughable,” an acquaintance said Auerbach wrote in one email.


FLORIDA’S FOREIGN POLICY

New polls show South Florida voters favor Cuba family travel

Polls released Wednesday by the Foundation for Normalization of US/Cuba Relations show that a majority of registered voters in Florida’s 21st and 25th congressional districts support the elimination of restrictions on family travel and money remittances to Cuba. The polls also indicate that voters in the two districts are less likely to support a candidate who favors travel and money restrictions.

Republican incumbents in both districts, Lincoln Diaz-Balart in the 21st and his brother Mario Diaz-Balart in the 25th, are facing tough democratic challengers. Both Diaz-Balarts favor restrictions President Bush imposed in 2004 that limited family travel to once every three years and reclassified “family” to not include cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, or more distant relatives.

The 2004 rules also limit money remittances to close family members like spouses, parents or children instead of any relative and reduced the amount Cuban Americans are able to send. The polls showed that the measures are opposed by the majority in the two districts.

According to the Miami Herald, the issue has become central to the Diaz-Balarts’ reelection because their chief Democratic challengers, former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez and former Cuban American National Foundation executive director Joe Garcia, favor lifting restrictions.

”This is now the latest in a series of polls done by third parties that show that Cuban Americans overwhelmingly disagree with the Diaz-Balart-Bush policy on Cuba,” said Jeffrey Garcia of the Martinez campaign. Martinez is challenging Lincoln Diaz-Balart in district 21.

“It’s amazing that with all the issues that need to be addressed, from healthcare to rising gas prices, the one issue this poll chooses to prioritize is how to offer economic relief to a state sponsor of terror,” responded Ana Carbonell, Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s campaign manager.
Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart have been under tough criticism from their opponents for focusing mainly on Cuba while their constituents face other important issues, such as health care and a housing crisis.

The polls found that voters overwhelmingly prefer a candidate for Congress who will focus on domestic issues like improving health care, improving schools, and lowering housing costs as opposed to a candidate who would focus on changing the political system of Cuba.

Polling also was done in the 17th district, which is represented by Kendrick Meek, a Democrat who has remained neutral in the Diaz-Balart races, the Miami Herald reported.

You can see the poll here: www.democracyinamericas.org/pdfs/FLSurvey_June18.pdf

Congress panel votes to loosen Cuba travel rules
A House of Representatives appropriations panel has approved legislation that would ease restrictions on family travel to Cuba, the Reuters news agency reported.

In addition to allowing Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba once a year, instead of once-every-three-years, the bill broadens the definition of family that U.S. residents can visit in Cuba to include first-cousins, uncles and aunts.
“This is not a concession to the Cuban government. This is a concession to Cuban Americans who keep asking for it,” says Rep. Jose Serrano, who chairs the subcommittee that approved the legislation.

The bill would also advance U.S. agricultural trade with Cuba by removing the advanced payment restriction. Rather than making Cubans prepay all shipments in cash, importers will be able to pay upon delivery of the goods.

The language in the legislation is only the beginning. The real work starts now, and it starts with us! Find out how you can be an advocate for easing family travel restrictions for Cuban Americans and faciliatating agricultural sales to Cuba on the Latin America Working Group’s website: http://www.lawg.org/countries/cuba/alert_06-19-08.htm

British bank ends Cuba dealings

The British bank Lloyds TSB has advised several of its clients to cut their ties to Cuba or move their accounts, reported the Guardian. The bank has written to customers who have dealings with Cuba saying they will have to take their accounts elsewhere, apparently in the wake of threats by the U.S. government.

The U.S. has said it will prosecute businesses that have dealings with Cuba and also have a branch in the U.S. Lloyds TSB declined to answer questions on its policy over Cuba and whether it had been subjected to threats of legal action in the U.S. Although it did say that it “recently reviewed its approach to dealing with countries and entities that are subject to government and international sanctions across the globe in order to best protect its customers, its businesses, its people and its reputation.”

The companies affected include the Queenswood Natural Foods Company, which has been buying sugar from Cuba since last year, and a tobacco importer that has been trading with Cuba for more than a century. Many of the other businesses were reluctant to go public while they look for alternative banks.

“It is mystifying,” said one businessman. “We are able to trade with China and Vietnam but apparently not Cuba. It seems like nonsense.”

Around the Region:

The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson joined Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in several trips around the hemisphere at the time of the Andean crisis. He chronicles Chávez’s journeys from Caracas to Santo Domingo to Havana, in this intimate profile of the controversial leader. Read the article here.

Mercopress reports on preliminary talks between the U.S. Army and the Peruvian military to set up an air base in the Ayacucho region. The Peruvian government highlights the benefits for its 30,000 inhabitants, but local press reports have uncovered local suspicion with the proposal. Read the article here.

Recommended Reading:

Phil Peters’analysis of the presidential candidates’ approach on the Cuba issue.

A new online journal that “takes a broad view of the emerging and diverging positions held within Cuba and outside.

China drilling for oil? The Atlanta Journal-Constitution deconstructs “an urban legend.”

Click here to see how the New York Post views the drilling.

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

www.democracyinamericas.org/cubacentral

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