After the Hurricanes: Still time for Congress to Act, Video Footage of Determined Survivor, Political Winds Blow

Dear Friend:

We again highlight stories that focus on Cuba’s recovery from the hurricanes.

Congress, as it deals with the financial storms battering the U.S. economy, can still pass legislation freeing Cuban-Americans to help their families on the island, before its Members leave Washington to campaign for reelection.

Cuba, while receiving international donations, continues to turn down donations from the U.S. administration. At the same time, a high-level delegation of Cuban officials visited the United Nations at the opening of the General Assembly. The debate later next month on the annual resolution condemning the U.S. embargo will assume higher visibility in the context of Cuba’s hurricane recovery.

Meanwhile, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told an audience at Harvard University that the administration would resist efforts to loosen the embargo, since damage from the hurricanes might help force changes in Cuba’s system.

Despite the Secretary’s brutal cynicism, there is an important shift in opinion and tone in South Florida where the focus is on “what can we do to help.”

That’s the spirit we all need in the face of this crisis.

The supporters and readers of Cuba Central have demonstrated their decency and concern these last weeks by making generous contributions for Cuba hurricane relief.

You have contributed $15,664 to relief efforts in Cuba. Thanks to your help, aid shipments by Catholic Relief Services, Global Links, MEDDIC, Daughters of Charity, Jewish Solidarity, and other organizations can make their way to the Cuban people.

Make no mistake; many more contributions are needed, but these donations will certainly be put to good use.

The Cuban government has officially classified hurricanes Gustav and Ike as “the most destructive in the history of the meteorological phenomena in Cuba with respect to the magnitude of the material damage caused.”

The government estimates that more than 200,000 people will be homeless for some time and that there will be food shortages for at least six months. Total losses from the two hurricanes are estimated at around five billion dollars.

A delegation from the Center for Democracy in the Americas just visited Havana and municipalities in the West, including the hard-hit town of Los Palacios. To hear a description of what happened and what was lost, you will be interested in our video interview with Miguel Martinez, a tobacco farmer in Viñales, which we posted in our media gallery.

While many of the Cubans who talked to us voiced their satisfaction with the government’s response, we’re concerned about the issue of food security – crops and food reserves were destroyed and it will take a considerable period of time to replace what was lost and return to the normal cycles of production.

The Cuban people still need our help. Please visit our Cuba Hurricane Relief Page to find out how you can assist them in their efforts to recover.

You can see the Cuban government’s initial damage assessment here.

Now, let’s turn to the news:

Movement in Congress

Last week, Senators Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) introduced legislation to provide hurricane relief to Cuba that had three provisions to ease the embargo for six months in the aftermath of the hurricanes. The Senate was not able to move their bill.

Now it’s time for the House of Representatives to do the right thing.

Congressmen Bill Delahunt (D-MA), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ), introduced legislation (HR 6962) that would temporarily ease restrictions on direct family travel, remittances, and relief packages to Cuba for 180 days.

HR 6962 would cost taxpayers nothing. It would allow families to take care of their own, and it would send an overdue signal to the Cuban people that the United States is willing to rise above domestic politics and respond to their suffering.

As of this writing, prospects for passage of this bill are uncertain, but we urge the House to take up the bill and free Cuban Americans to help their families.


We can’t let a generation of Cubans wonder, as they rebuild their country and plan their future, where was the United States when our help was needed. It’s in the national interest of our country for the Congress to do the right thing, and that means making humanitarian aid available to help the people of Cuba.

Send this message to your Representatives and Senators in Washington: When it comes to hurricane relief, we need to put people over politics.

You can find your representative’s contact info here. Cuba will not accept aid from the U.S. government

Cuba has repeatedly refused to accept relief money from the U.S. government and is accusing the U.S. of lying about aid, the Reuters news agency reported.

The United States initially offered $100,000 in aid to Cuba under the condition that an American disaster assessment team be allowed to travel to the island. The Cuban government rejected the offer saying that they have their own assessment team and that the U.S. should consider lifting the embargo if it really wants to help.

After receiving harsh criticism for playing politics at a time of need, the U.S. government increased the offer to $5 million. The Cuban government once again rejected the offer and requested that the United States ease the embargo so that they can purchase housing materials and electrical supplies, even for a period of only six months.

The embargo only allows for agricultural sales, through a complicated hard currency payment process.

The State Department then released a statement saying it had given $100,000 in aid to Cuba through NGOs working on the island and accelerated the approval of $250 million in agricultural sales from U.S. companies.

Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said the Bush administration was conducting “a propaganda operation” and that the licensing of agricultural sales, permitted under the embargo, was routine procedure and did not represent aid. Cuba, after all, pays in cash for what it buys from U.S. farmers.

In regards to the $100,000, “we don’t have the slightest idea where they’ve distributed this money nor have we asked for it,” he said.

According to a U.S. AID statement released last week, the U.S. government dispersed $100,000 in cash relief assistance to Caritas and another unnamed humanitarian organization in Cuba immediately after each of the two hurricanes hit.

However, Caritas and its counterpart in the United States, Catholic Relief Services, said that Caritas had not received and would not accept money from the United States government.

On Monday, an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development said that $2 million of the $5 million in aid that Cuba rejected had been distributed anyway, without saying to which organizations or when.

Fidel Castro wrote last week that Cuba has too much dignity to accept aid from the United States. “If instead of five million the figure were one billion, the answer would be the same,” wrote Castro.

“The damage in thousands of lives, suffering and more than $200 billion the blockade (embargo) has cost, and the Yankee aggressions, can’t be paid with anything,” he said.

U.S. officials said this week that they had offered Cuba an additional $6.3 million in family emergency shelters and building kits to respond to the Cuban government’s plea that the embargo be eased so that they can buy construction materials.

You can read Reuters reports about the US-Cuba aid here: Story 1, Story 2

You can read reflections by Fidel Castro regarding the hurricanes here.

Family Travel Hearing

Rep. Bill Delahunt, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, held a hearing titled “Families Torn Apart: Human Rights and U.S. Restrictions on Cuban-American Travel.”

The hearing focused on whether restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban Americans should be loosened due to the humanitarian situation on the island following two massive hurricanes, ideas behind the Delahunt-Flake hurricane relief bill.

Delahunt said he’d like to lift the restrictions imposed by President Bush in 2004 entirely, calling them “anti-family and anti-American.”

”But I am willing to compromise to avoid a humanitarian disaster,” Delahunt said referring to his bill, which would lift restrictions on family travel, remittances and care packages for six months.

”Americans who have family in Galveston can offer them housing, money, clothes, supplies and emotional support,” said Marlene Arzola, a Miami Beach mother who said she can’t visit Cuba until August 2010 because of the travel restrictions. “If I could, I would be in Guantánamo helping my 78-year-old mother fix her roof. What in the world is wrong with that?”

Phil Peters, vice-president of the Lexington Institute, pointed out that the sanctions are so severe that “they make it illegal for a Miami man to send a parcel containing new clothes and vegetable seeds to a brother in Cuba who saw his home, garden, and possessions wiped out.”

Francisco “Pepe” Hernández, President of The Cuban American National Foundation, testified that politics should be put aside in the aftermath of the two storms.

“It is indefensible and intolerable that this issue be used to play politics while lives hang in the balance and while the ability to assist exists. I must confess that as a Cuban-American I feel ashamed that members of my own community, even in the face of this terrible crisis, continue to lobby the Administration and this Congress to forbid Cubans from helping fellow Cubans.”

You can read the witnesses testimonies and see the video here.

The changing tone in Miami

As testimony before Congressman Delahunt’s subcommittee made clear, the dire situation in Cuba has led to a changing atmosphere in Miami and some of the more conservative voices are even starting to speak out about the 2004 restrictions on travel and remittances for the first time.

In a conference call last week, Katrin Hasting, Associate Director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University said that “even among the more conservative minds, individuals and organizations here in the community we’re seeing voices and actions come up that really show that people are putting politics aside and really wanting to help.”

“There is an enormous amount of support for this legislation to come into effect in terms of lifting the travel ban and the limits in sending, restrictions and also the sale of material goods, particularly construction goods to the island because people – many people here feel that, you know, the Cuban government is – you know, can’t do this on its own and aid is needed from all corners of the world,” she said.

The Spanish-language TV station “Channel 41” in Miami, known for being anti-Castro, hosted a telethon last week for hurricane victims in Cuba that netted about $200,000.

Business and religious leaders encouraged the South Florida community to make donations, and Cuban music stars Isaac Delgado and Roberto Torres gave on-air performances. Besides cash donations, residents also brought canned food and other supplies to the station, which will be shipped off to Cuba this week.

On Sunday, a group of Cuban baseball players who play in the Major Leagues or used to, including Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, organized a charity softball game in Little Havana. The event earned over $30,000 and clothes and food to fill two containers were collected. The money and supplies were donated to one of the Catholic charities in Miami and will be distributed in Cuba.

Last week, El Nuevo Herald published an editorial supporting Sen. Dodd’s proposal to lift restrictions on remittance and travel to the island for six months. It argued that even in “normal times” the measures were “very unpopular.”

“Now, they offend intelligence and sensibility,” the paper said. “That absurd strategy does not benefit North America’s best interests nor puts pressure for the return of freedom to Cuba.”

You can read the Diario Las Americas report about softball fundraiser here (in Spanish).

Gutierrez: Keep the pressure on in the aftermath of the Hurricanes

If the tone in Miami is changing, apparently Carlos Gutierrez didn’t get the memo.

Speaking at Harvard University, U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez faced tough questions and challenges from the audience about the continuing U.S. embargo and travel ban as the Cuban people face hardships in the aftermath of two fierce hurricanes, the Associated Press reported.

Gutierrez told the audience that there will soon be a change in leadership in Havana and defended U.S. policy.

He argued that Cuba has been devastated by hurricanes Ike and Gustav and that Raul Castro “will have a hard time keeping it together.”

“We don’t want to give them a lot of breathing room at a time where we believe change will happen,” he said when asked about loosening economic sanctions and travel restrictions against Cuba.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

Hard-hit nickel plants resume production

State-run radio reported on Thursday that just short of three weeks after taking a direct hit from hurricane Ike, all three Cuban nickel plants were back in operation, according to a Reuters news agency report.

“The three Cuban nickel plants in Holguin are now in action,” state-run Radio Rebelde said. “In the next few hours, nickel production will be stabilized at what it was before the hurricane.”

According to the Basic Industry Ministry, Cuba produces 75,000 tons of unrefined nickel per year, and supplies 10 percent of the world’s cobalt.

Two plants in Moa were already working and now the plant in Nicaro has begun operation, all located on Holguin’s northern coast, where hurricane Ike hit hard.

The state-owned Ernesto Che Guevara plant began operating earlier this week and the Pedro Sotto Alba plant, a joint venture with Canadian Sherritt International, resumed operations two weeks ago.

The Rene Ramos Latourt plant at Nicaro Holguin just began operation today.

Nickel emerged as Cuba’s biggest export earner in 2000. It earned more than $2 billion in 2007, with almost all output destined for Canada, Europe and China.

You can read the Reuters article here.

Cuba Begins Transferring Idle State Land to Farmers

State mdedia announced last week that the Ministry of Agriculture would begin processing requests for farmers to take over idle land starting on Wednesday, September 17th. Decree Laws No. 259 and Decree No. 282 authorize and implement the handing over of lands to individuals or legal entities for their rational and sustainable use with the objective to raise food production and reduce imports, reported the Granma.

The measures, which were first announced in July, are aimed to increase domestic food production and their implementation appears to have been expedited after hurricanes Gustav and Ike destroyed crops and food reserves throughout the island.

State media reported that the measures are “a strategic necessity to recover the food capacity in the shortest period of time…which is all the more urgent to contribute to the recuperation from the losses caused by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.”

The Cuban Agriculture Ministry announced that nearly 5,515 applications were presented during the first day of the process, Granma newspaper reported. The number of those who requested to be included in that process had risen to 16,013 by the third day.

According to the Granma, “the country has created organizational conditions to impede any bureaucratic obstacle” and the National Center for Land Control has opened offices in each of the country’s municipalities.

Under the law, landless Cubans can apply for about 33 acres (13 hectares), while productive farmers can increase their holdings to 100 acres (40 hectares) of state land. Private farmers can get concessions of up to 10 years, renewable for another 10. Cooperatives and companies can obtain renewable 25-year terms.

Gilberto Zayas, Arroyo Naranjo’s land control told the Associated Press that the government will encourage those receiving new land to graze milk cows or plant fast-growing, leafy vegetables like lettuce, which thrive in Cuba’s mild climate but are nonetheless hard to find here.

Juan Corales, a 60-year-old retired police officer who said he spent all his life working a small family plot, told the Associated Press that he applied the first possible day to raise pigs, goats and chickens on a tract of land near his home in Havana.

“This is the best thing the state could have done,” said Corales.

“There is a lot of land, and lots of people who want to work,” he said. “But before, there was always fighting and bureaucracy that made everything difficult.”

You can read the Prensa Latina report here.

Russia wants to assist Cuba in developing a space center

Moscow is ready to help Cuba develop its own space center, Russia’s space agency chief told reporters on Wednesday, reported RIA Novosti news.

Anatoly Perminov, director of the Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), said the two countries discussed the possibility of setting up a Cuban space center with Russian assistance during a visit by Russian officials to Havana in mid-September.

The two countries are discussing the implementation of agreements reached by a Russian-Cuban inter-governmental commission in July.

“This primarily concerns the drafting of a cooperation agreement on civilian space programs, another agreement on the Global Navigation Satellite System and navigation support on Cuban territory,” Perminov said.

The proposed Cuban space center would process data received from Russian remote-sensing and navigation satellites.

According to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, Cuba, which at one time implemented an ambitious space program, retains the required infrastructure for resuming large-scale space research.

Russia and Cuba collaborated on space-physics projects throughout the sixties and seventies and in 1980, Arnaldo Tamayo Mendez became the first Cuban cosmonaut and the first person from a country in the Western Hemisphere other than the U.S. to travel to space. He traveled on a Soviet Salyut-6 station.

Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the foreign affairs committee, recently said that Russia, as a major power, needed to maintain its economic and security presence in Cuba.

You can read the RIA Novosti article here.

Jackson Browne’s Going Down To Cuba

Jackson Browne, the troubadour, activist, and a great defender of the right to travel to Cuba, was interviewed on The Colbert Report this week and got a chance to sing “Going Down To Cuba” from “Time the Conqueror,” his new C.D. You can see his interview, hear the song, and learn more about his latest release by visiting the following links:

Check out Jackson Browne on the Colbert Report. New Album.

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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