Tomorrow’s News Today — Annual State of the Nation Speech in Cuba, More Florida Foreign Policy Folderol Here in America

Dear Friend:

We don’t know, but the big news of the week may be made tomorrow, when Cuba’s President Raúl Castro speaks to his nation on the 55th anniversary of the July 26, 1953 assault on the Moncada army barracks by the Castro brothers and their followers.

Over the last year, Raúl Castro has made several high profile speeches which announced developments in Cuba’s reform process, and then those words were matched by actions and decisions taken by the Cuban state.

It was in July 2007 when he encouraged a national debate that produced tens of thousands of meetings and over a million suggestions for reform. It was December 2007 when he targeted excess prohibitions and a few weeks later restrictions on the ownership of cell phones and consumers goods and the ability of Cubans to visit tourist hotels were removed. In February 2008, when he was elected by the National Assembly as president, President Castro spoke of a smaller state and less red tape, and Cuba embarked on a significant program of agriculture reform and decentralization.

Against this backdrop, there is profound interest in the speech scheduled for Santiago de Cuba, the birthplace of the Cuban revolution, which President Castro will give just two years since his brother Fidel Castro last addressed the Cuban public.

Here in the United States, Florida’s foreign policy was on full display, from more news about waste and corruption in the U.S. AID Cuba program to Senator John McCain airing a political ad pairing Fidel Castro and Barack Obama. Guess what? He was campaigning in Florida!

This and more, this week in Cuba news…


Government to provide farmers with resources to farm new land

After announcing a decree to allow farmers to acquire more land, the government has begun to offer them equipment and other resources to farm the new land, the Reuters news agency reported.

Hundreds of farmers attended a meeting in central Cuba organized by the Association of Small Farmers to discuss the new land reform and discuss what machinery and other inputs they need to make the best use of newly acquired land. The treasurer of a private cooperative told Reuters that farmers were told not to hold back on their requests.

“They told us to present our requests immediately for what we need and that Venezuela, Iran and other countries had given credit to cover the resources…We can ask for whatever we need. Machinery, spare parts, irrigation systems, wind mills, land clearing kits, you name it,” the cooperative member said.

Private farmers and cooperatives produce just as much as state farms, which control four times as much land. The agriculture system has been decentralized, the state has begun doubling and tripling the prices it pays to producers and private farmers have been encouraged to apply for more land.

“We were told new farmers, state farms and state cooperatives would also get resources, but that the private sector would be treated equally and the resources granted on credit,” the cooperative member said, asking that he not be identified.

Venezuela already finances dozens of manufacturing and agricultural projects and Iran recently agreed to increase trade credits to Cuba from 200 million Euros to 500 million Euros.

“The moves appear significant both politically and economically,” international agriculture and sugar industry analyst G.B. Hagelberg told Reuters.

“Leasing of idle state lands to small independent farmers suggests that the government recognizes the key role of the private sector in solving Cuba’s food problems and has junked the long-held doctrine of the superiority of large-scale collectivist agriculture,” he said.

You can read the Reuters article here.

Another Missile Crisis?

The Russian newspaper Izvestiya reported on July 21 that Russia is contemplating sending strategic nuclear bombers to Cuba in response to U.S. plans to set up a missile defense system in Europe. According to Bloomberg News, Russia denied the media reports arguing that unnamed foreign states were disseminating misinformation through Russian newspapers.

Defense Ministry spokesman Ilshat Baichurin posted a statement on the state television channel saying that “Russia does not establish military bases within the borders of other countries, given its peace-loving policy.”

The original article in Izvestiya cited an unidentified “highly placed source” from the military. However, Baichurin’s statement said that “the ‘insinuations’ were initiated by certain circles within states which are themselves expanding their military bases around the borders of Russia,”

Defense analysts told the Guardian newspaper that there would be little strategic point in using Cuba as nuclear base. Russia’s Tu-160 and Tu-95 aircraft have a range of 2,000-3,000kms – allowing them comfortably to fire a nuclear missile at the US from much further away, defense expert Pavel Felgenhauer said.

In response to the article, General Norton Schwartz from the U.S. Air Force warned that stationing nuclear bombers in Cuba would “cross a red line.”

There was no official response to the article by the government of Cuba, but in a reflection titled “Machiavelli’s strategy,” Fidel Castro wrote that his brother “Raúl was right to keep dignified silence over the statements published.”

“If you say yes I’ll kill you. If you say no I’ll kill you anyway…no need for explanations, excuses or pardon,” he wrote referring to General Schwartz’s comments.

You can read the Bloomberg article here.

You can read Fidel Castro’s reflection here.


Two USAID Cuba Democracy grant recipients suspended for misuse of funds

Two organizations that receive millions of dollars from the U.S. Agency for International Development for Cuba democracy programs have had their grants suspended while they are investigated for irregularities, the Washington Post reported.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, requested a congressional hold on all 45.3 million dollars of money allocated for Cuba democracy programs amid concerns about fraud in the programs totaling between $500,000 and $700,000. He released the hold after he was given assurances from USAID that Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia (GAD) will be suspended while it is investigated and the Center for a Free Cuba, which had its grant suspended in March, will remain under suspension.

Financial reviews will be conducted on a dozen other groups that also receive the federal money.

A recent audit of the Miami-based GAD found that $11,000 of federal money had been used for “personal items.”

In March, the Center for a Free Cuba had its grant suspended after it was learned that Felipe Sixto, a former employee at the center and aide to President Bush had stolen more than $500,000. Sixto has since resigned from his Bush administration job and returned the stolen money to the Center. He used some of the money to donate in his wife’s name campaign funds to the US-Cuba Democracy PAC, which benefits Federal legislators who vote for sanctions against Cuba, but this money was returned. The case is under investigation by the Department of Justice and the USAID inspector general but no charges have been announced.

The USAID Cuba program has a history of misuse of funds and oversight problems. A 2006 Government Accountability Office report found that nearly all of $74 million USAID awarded in contracts to promote democracy in Cuba over the previous decade had been distributed without competitive bidding or proper oversight. It found that grant recipients were using the government funds to purchase video games, leather coats, cashmere sweaters and Godiva chocolates.

According to the Miami Herald, the Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia (Group in Support of Democracy), currently under investigation for misusing $11,000, was one of the groups criticized in the past for using federal funds to send Nintendo games to Cuba.

Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, accused Chairman Berman of going on his “fishing expedition” because Berman opposes President Bush’s Cuba policy.

“I would say that it is simply motivated by politics. If Mr. Berman were in agreement with the president’s Cuba policy, he would not be on this fishing expedition.”

”Those of us who have been following this issue are alarmed about the program,” said Sarah Stephens, whose organization, Democracy in the Americas, lobbies for a change in Cuba policy.

“We are pleased that Congress has started asking questions and, given what we have learned about possible corruption and waste, we believe Congress needs to stop this funding and continue asking the hard questions.”

You can read the Miami Herald story here

You can read the Washington Post story here

You can read Congressman Howard Berman’s letters about problems with this program here:

LETTER 1 (June 6)

(June 27)

LETTER 3 (July 22)

Rehberg switches position on Cuba embargo

Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg changed his position on the United States’ long-standing Cuba embargo in recent years, from opposing to supporting restrictions at the same time that he began receiving money from a pro-embargo group, the Associated Press reported.

When Congressman Rehberg was first elected in 2000, he spoke out in opposition to the embargo and voted for bills to loosen it.

In September of 2004, he began to support the embargo and voted against an amendment to lift it. Several months later, he received his first donation of $1,000 from the U.S. Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee. Since then they have given him another $10,500.

Rehberg insisted that the money and the votes were unrelated and said his opinion changed after two trips to Cuba in 2002 where he met with dissidents and their families. However, Rehberg visited Cuba twice in 2003 and on the second trip his delegation returned with a deal for $10 million in Montana agricultural products. Upon returning he advocated on behalf of loosening restrictions to travel to Cuba.

He voted for amendments on July 7 and September 21, 2004 that would have loosened the embargo. Then, on September 22, 2004 he reversed positions and voted against an amendment to lift the embargo on Cuba.

AP reports that Rehberg insists his change of heart and the donations he received are unrelated.

The Cuba PAC gave more than $514,500 to candidates and other political committees in 2007.

Dave McClure, the president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, says his group has long supported loosening restrictions on Cuba and had discussed the votes with Rehberg.

You can read the AP article here.

McCain campaigning in Florida with photos of Barack Obama and Fidel Castro

The Huffington Post reported that the McCain campaign is using ads with Barack Obama placed side-by-side with Fidel Castro. The web ad shows pictures of Obama and Castro together with a quote from Castro calling Obama the “the most advanced candidate.”

The quote refers to a “reflection” that the former President of Cuba wrote about Obama in which the former president heavily criticized him for his words about Cuba but also recognized that he was the most socially progressive candidate for president. Early in June, McCain’s campaign ran a web ad featuring Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accompanied by a caption asking, “Is it OK to unconditionally meet with anti-American foreign leaders?”

Castro has actually been very critical of Obama’s candidacy, arguing that he has not called for serious alterations to U.S.-Cuban relations and his policy is one to promote suffering from hunger. Obama, although favoring dialogue with Raúl Castro, has criticized Fidel Castro as a repeated abuser of human rights.

An email to McCain staffers about the ads in South Florida went unanswered.

You can read the Huffington Post article here.

U.S. denies visa for wife of Cuban prisoner for the 9th time

The United States denied a visa to the wife of one of the five Cuban agents incarcerated in the U.S. for the ninth time, reported the AFP. Olga Salanueva has repeatedly sought a visa to visit her husband René González, who she hasn’t seen in over 8 years. However, this time she was informed that her visa “was denied for having been deported from the United States in November of 2000” and that her “ineligibility is of permanent nature.”

Adriana Pérez, who also submitted a visa application to visit her husband Gerardo Hernández, is still waiting for a response, although she has been denied in the past. The International Committee for the Freedom of the Five issued a press release condemning the visa denial.

“We do not accept the argument they are using to impede Olga Salanueva from visiting her husband…We will not allow a new form of cruel punishment to continue to be placed on these families,” read the text.

Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and René González were arrested ten years ago and charged with spying. The Cuban authorities have admitted that the five are Cuban agents, but assert that they were spying on terrorists groups operating freely in Miami and not on the U.S. government.

You can read the AFP article here.

Congressman to hold conference about attending medical school in Cuba

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson from Mississippi will host A Dream of a Lifetime Conference on Saturday, which will educate high school and college students about going to the Latin American School of Medical Sciences in Cuba, reported the Clarion Ledger.

Rep. Thompson and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus traveled to Cuba in 2000 and then-President Fidel Castro discussed Cuba’s work in providing free medical educations to those willing to serve in medically needy areas across the world. The meeting ended in an offer from Castro to provide schooling for 500 U.S. students who began enrolling in 2002.

105 U.S. students are currently enrolled in the program and nine have graduated. Thompson is interested in getting students from Mississippi to attend, where the state Health Department’s Policy and Planning Office says every county in the state is medically underserved.

Two U.S. students enrolled at the Cuban medical school, Keasha Guerrier and Akua Brown will be on-hand at Saturday’s conference to discuss what studying in Cuba is like.

Some Cuban-American exile groups have attacked the program as “propaganda” and argue that the students come back unqualified. The Florida State Legislature even considered legislation to prohibit U.S. students receiving medical treatment in Cuba from ever practicing in Florida, even in underserved communities.

Like other students, the Cuban medical graduates take the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam, a test both foreign and U.S. students must pass in order to practice in the U.S.

You can read the Clarion Ledger article here.

Recommended Reading:

Are There Some Terrorists that are OK by Lieberman? The Washington Note

Around the Region:

This week, the Washington Post ran a profile of Alberto Vollmer, who runs the Santa Teresa Rum operations, and is a talented and unusual figure in Venezuela.

Vollmer has been a singular force for employment and training, and against violence, for people in the community surrounding his family’s hacienda. You can read about him here:

In Venezuela, a Scion Opens His Family Land to the Poor, The Washington Post

Caribbean ponders McCain, Obama policies
, The Miami Herald

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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