Frozen food prices in Havana, Frozen visas in the United States and Frozen foreign policy laws in Florida

Dear Friend:

When we looked at the news in Cuba this week, we saw a series of fascinating but troubling contrasts.

On the issue of hurricane relief and recovery: Cuba’s government has taken steps to thwart price gouging, and it continues to receive support from the United Nations and other nations, notably, this week China.

Meanwhile, Congress is likely to recess this week for our elections without removing restrictions on the right of Cuban-Americans to help their families cope with losses from the storms.

On the issue of diplomacy: We look at talks between Cuba and the European Union; our European allies still hold to the “quaint” notion that you can mediate differences and disagreements between nations by sitting down and talking.

Meanwhile, our government is pressuring the government of Cyprus not to open an embassy in Havana.

On constitutional rights: A federal court held this week that a state law passed in Florida, requiring travel service providers to post a quarter-million dollar bond, is probably unconstitutional, and stayed enforcement of the law pending a trial.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government denied visas to two Cuban working journalists who have covered the UN for three years.

By the way, this action comes nearly a year after a speech by President Bush in which he offered to provide loans to Cubans once the Cuban government did things like offer protections for freedom of the press, and it comes just a few weeks before the UN votes on whether to condemn the US embargo for the seventeenth year in a row.

This is a story that the Cuban journalists should be allowed to cover, don’t you think?

Now…let’s get to the news:


Cuban Government freezes food prices, won’t tolerate price gouging

In a statement published on the front page of the Granma and other state-run newspapers, the Cuban Government said there will not be price increases “for basic goods, either rationed or sold at regular prices in Cuban pesos or at hard-currency stores” in the aftermath of two hurricanes and higher import costs.

People taking advantage of the situation and selling hard-to-find food products will be harshly punished. The note warned that violations “will receive a rapid and energetic response” and that the courts “will apply the existing penal code with maximum rigor” to those committing criminal acts in the current special circumstances.

Food on sale at farmers markets will be sold at the price determined by the Provincial Administration Councils from September 29th until further notice. In markets where farmers are allowed to sell goods based on market prices, the maximum prices for a range of basic products cannot exceed their pre-hurricane prices.

The statement did not specify which food items would be included in the price freeze.

The government also said that “the nation is working with order and discipline” and that food security is one of the country’s first priorities, along with the restoration of housing and electricity. It assured readers that imports have been increased to make up for the “temporary reduction in supplies of root vegetables and fruits that will persist over the next few months.”

It gave credit to the press for exposing complaints and concerns about the abuses of hoarders and speculators and said that some individuals convicted of “hoarding, theft or the illicit sale of foodstuffs and construction materials; theft of fuel, electric and telephone cables, high-tension tower brackets; and other crimes of a similar nature” have already been sentenced.

You can read the statement in Granma here.

You can read an analysis of the price freeze and its implications for Raúl Castro’s overall policy by Phil Peters on his Cuban Triangle Blog.

China offers additional $1 million in aid to Cuba

The government of China donated an additional one million dollars to Cuba this week, Prensa Latina reported. The donation was received by the Minister of Foreign Investment, Marta Loma.

Zhao Rong Xiag, the Chinese ambassador to Cuba announced the additional aid in Havana on Tuesday. He noted that cash and material donations from the Chinese
government, the Chinese Red Cross and other Chinese entities to Cuba in the wake of the hurricanes now total $2.5 million dollars.

You can read the Prensa Latina article here.

The United Nations increases humanitarian aid to Cuba

After a second visit by a United Nations team to the zones affected by Hurricanes Ike and Gustav, the U.N. has allocated an additional $4.8 million dollars for Cuba relief efforts, the Mexican news agency Notimex reported.

The total U.N funds allocated for hurricane response in Cuba now total over $8.6 million dollars.

The additional funds come from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), which supports short-term emergency relief efforts in housing, health, food, education, water, sanitation, and agriculture. The CERF funds are destined for emergency response efforts in the eastern part of the island, which was hit hard by Hurricane Ike on September 9th.

Susan McDade, the resident coordinator for the United Nations, announced the additional money for Cuba and said that the U.N. will “continue working with national and local authorities in reconstruction efforts in the upcoming months.”

You can read the Notimex article here (in Spanish).


Cuba’s political dialogue with the EU to resume

Representatives of Cuba and the EU will “soon” meet to resume their political dialogue, the Agence France-Presse reported. The political dialogue will include a variety of topics, including political prisoners and human rights.

“There will soon be a meeting, which will be official, between the French presidency of the EU and Cuban authorities,” Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said Tuesday.

He did not specify a date or location for the talks but said the goal of the meeting is to “definitively formalize the opening and the start of the political dialogue between Cuba and the EU.”

Earlier this month, the EU representative in Havana, Javier Nino, said the Cuban government had accepted the resumption of political dialogue with the 27-nation bloc.

“On terms of equals, we are open to discuss any topic” and “we have said that we are open, that we accept the proposition of dialogue,” said Felipe Pérez Roque, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Meanwhile, Pérez Roque met at the UN General Assembly with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister, where they discussed conditions for a possible end to EU sanctions. Steinmeier told reporters that they discussed the political situation in Cuba “which for the first time in 50 years is showing gradual movement”.

He said the European Union had welcomed Havana’s decision in February to sign an international pact on civil rights committing it to respect rights, including freedom of expression, association and movement. He also said they took note of reforms including greater access to mobile phone service and the Internet and the release of dozens of political prisoners, but the EU expects more changes.

“The European Union has reacted and said that if this course continues, we would lift the sanctions that have been suspended, however with the agreed condition that a review of the human rights situation in Cuba takes place again next year,” Steinmeier said.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat anything. I said again during the meeting today that we firmly demand that Cuba continues to pursue its policy of opening up and ensures the rule of law in its own country.”

The talks between the two foreign ministers represented the first bilateral meeting of its kind since Raúl Castro was voted president last February.

You can read the AFP article about Cuba’s talks with Germany here

Cuba detains three U.S. fugitives

Cuban authorities have detained three U.S. fugitives who fled the U.S. earlier this year, the Miami Herald reported.

Carlos, Luis and Jose Benitez, all brothers born in Cuba, fled the United States earlier this year after being charged with defrauding $119 million from Medicare. According to U.S. law enforcement officials, the three fugitives were arrested in Cuba on immigration violations in mid-September.

The State Department did not immediately respond for comment and, Judy Orihuela, the spokesperson for the FBI’s regional office in South Florida, declined to comment about the brothers’ status.

It is unclear whether U.S. authorities are trying to negotiate with the Cuban government on the release of the Benitezes. According to United Press International, since the United States has no formal relations with Cuba, the FBI has not formally asked the Cuban government to turn them over.

In July, Cuba handed over fugitive Leonard Auerbach to the United States. Auerbach was on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “most wanted list” for having sexual relations with and possessing pornographic photos of a girl in Costa Rica.

Last year, Cuba handed over several fugitives to the United States and deported drug lord Luis Hernando Gomez back to Colombia where he was wanted for extradition by the United States to face trafficking charges.

“We seem to have had good cooperation from the Cubans on these law enforcement and drug issues. It is not given much publicity,” a U.S. diplomat told Reuters at the time.

You can read the Miami Herald article here.

You can read a Reuters report from last October here.


Law requiring state bond for Cuba travel agencies is unconstitutional

A judge in Florida has issued a preliminary injunction stating that a new Florida law requiring travel agents who book trips to Cuba to post a higher bond is likely unconstitutional, the Associated Press reported. The law, which would force agencies that sell trips to Cuba to put up a $250,000 state bond, cannot be enforced until a trial on the law’s constitutionality is held.

U.S. District Judge Alan S. Gold found that the law likely violates the constitutional mandate that the federal government is responsible for foreign policy, not the states. Agencies selling travel to Cuba already put up a federal bond.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

The United States denies visas to two Cuban journalists working at the U.N.

The United States refusal to grant visas to two Cuban journalists authorized to cover the United Nations in New York has led press advocacy groups to demand an explanation, the Associated Press reported. After they returned to Cuba for a brief vacation, the U.S. refused to grant visas to Tomas Granados Jiménez and Ilsa Rodríguez Santana. The married couple has covered the United Nations since 2005.

The two reporters work for Cuba’s official Prensa Latina news agency and their U.N. accreditation is valid until early next year.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders called on the U.N. Secretary-General’s office to intercede on their behalf saying that the United Nations ”must demand an explanation from the U.S. State Department and ensure that Granados and Rodríguez are able to return to their posts,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

The Committee to Protect Journalists also issued a statement, which said that they are “concerned by the decision of the U.S. authorities to deny the renewal of visas to Prensa Latina reporters accredited to cover the United Nations. They urged the “U.S. authorities to explain the reasons for their action.”

The State Department has not responded to requests for comment.

According to Prensa Latina, U.S. authorities in Havana would not explain why the visas were refused and only presented them with a document referring to a regulation allowing the U.S. president to deny entry to individuals considered a threat to the country.

‘Since when could journalists who have been accredited to the United Nations for three years suddenly pose a ‘threat’ to the United States?” the Reporters Without Borders statement asked.

At the time this news summary was being prepared for delivery, the Associated Press reported that the United States had reversed its decision. A footnote on a State Department press statement said that “in accordance with our U.N. headquarters agreement, we have decided to issue visas to the two individuals in question.”

You can read that article here.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

President of Cyprus pressured by the US not to open embassy in Cuba

The foreign minister of Cyprus, Markos Kyprianou, made the first visit by a representative of a European Union member country to Cuba since diplomatic sanctions imposed on the island were removed in June, the Spanish news agency EFE reported.

Kyprianou arrived in Cuba on Monday and met with his Cuban counterpart, Felipe Pérez Roque, who said the visit “marks an example that should be followed and
opens a path of respect.”

He was scheduled to meet with Marta Lomas, the Minister of Foreign Investment on Wednesday.

According to the Granma, Kyprianou said that Cyprus will contribute $100,000 dollars to Cuba for hurricane relief efforts.

He also announced that Cyprus plans to open an embassy in Havana sometime next year.

However, the Cyprus daily newspaper Cyprus Mail is reporting that “President Demetris Christofias has been pressed by US politicians not to open an embassy in Cuba” during his visit to the United Nations in New York.

According to the article, “opposition to the opening of a Havana embassy did not come from State Department officials but from personalities…like the Cuban-born Senator Robert Menendez.”

You can read the Cyprus Mail article here.

Around the Region:

What goes around comes around? After decades of receiving lectures from the United States about the proper conduct of fiscal policy, leaders in South America are voicing their concerns about the impact of the U.S. financial crisis on world markets, including their own.

Recommended Reading:

The Center for Democracy in the Americas sent a small research delegation to Cuba last month to assess hurricane damage and relief efforts. You can read the delegations’ report here.

Phil Peters summarizes a new article
by the UK’s former ambassador to Cuba, Paul Hare, about the European Union’s policy toward Cuba between 1996 and 2008.

Recommended Viewing:

Orlando Marquez, director and editor of Nueva Palabra, the archdiocese of Havana’s magazine, talks about the role of the Catholic Church in hurricane relief efforts:

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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