UN General Assembly Votes on US Cuba policy; Embargo loses in a landslide

Dear Friend:

This week at the United Nations, those of us who care about America’s image in the world were provided a powerful reminder of what has been and an equally powerful warning of what could come.

Six days before the presidential election, the General Assembly voted on our Cuba policy and we lost in landslide, 185-3.

There are countless reasons to oppose the embargo – the cruelty it imposes on the Cuban people, the restrictions it imposes on the constitutional rights of Americans who wish to visit Cuba, the economic impact on the island and here in the United States, and the lost opportunities we see, time after time, day after day, to cooperate with the government of Cuba on problems that matter to us both.

But the cautionary note sounded in New York was about what the embargo does to our national image not only in Latin America but across the world. While our fellow citizens don’t always take the UN seriously, it is long past time to pay attention.

From problems ranging from the global financial crisis to global climate change, the U.S. cannot continue acting as if it can go along. What our allies and adversaries think of us matters enormously. When all of Europe; when the G-7; when Brazil, Russia, India and China; when most of our largest recipients of foreign aid; when countries we helped gain their independence-when these and others all vote against us on a policy that helps no one and hurts so many, it begs the question of why we continue to cling to our position.

That’s what the next U.S. president needs to think about, whoever he may be.

The United States should not be coming back to the United Nations, year after year, losing votes and defending a Cuba policy that has failed us for almost fifty years.

The next US president should break from the past, start listening to the rest of the world, and get to work on measures – like legalizing travel to and trade with Cuba – that will lead to the embargo ending, once and for all.

We’ve just lost the last embargo vote on George Bush watch. Now, the problem belongs to his successor.

This week in Cuba news:

UN General Assembly Votes on US Cuba policy; Embargo loses in a landslide

The 192-member United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly — 185-3 with two abstentions — to condemn the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States against Cuba, CBS News reported.

Only Israel and Palau voted “no” along with the United States.

It is the 17th consecutive year that the world community has voted against the U.S. sanctions against Cuba, which have caused more than $93 billion in economic losses since its implementation in 1962, according to the Cuban government.

Last year’s vote was 184-4, but the resolution is non-binding, and the U.S. has continued its policy of enforcing sanctions against Cuba, U.S. citizens and corporations, and third parties outside the United States that fall within the embargo’s extra-territorial reach.

A report released by office of the Secretary General in advance of the vote reveals that our allies in the region and throughout the world not only oppose the embargo, but harshly condemn the policy.

Brazil called our policy a violation of international law. Mexico condemned the embargo as an abandonment of diplomacy. Colombia, our closest ally in the region, said of the US embargo “this kind of action should stop.” The European Union, now negotiating directly with Cuba on human rights, objected to the “extra-territorial nature of our sanctions.”
Perhaps more than anything else, though, the U.N report details in a painstaking way the cruel impact of our sanctions on average Cubans.

The embargo blocks critical medical technology from reaching Cuba’s shores. The report names specific U.S. firms that were stopped from sending to individual Cuban health facilities a series of devices and spare needs critical for the detection of cancer or for use in heart surgery for pediatric and adult patients. The United Nations Development Program reports that Cuban medical authorities are forced to buy needed antiretroviral drugs from secondary suppliers in grey markets, at significantly higher prices – straining an already thin public health budget. The Food and Agriculture Organization describes how seed, export markets, and even high-tech chicken coops are denied a struggling agricultural sector.
No comments -by 117 Member States, the European Union, and 22 UN organizations – were filed in support of our policy

According to published reports, with a new President being elected next week, Cubans are hoping that the U.S. will heed the U.N. resolution and end the embargo.

“I hope there will be a more balanced approach and a change in the policy that the United States has maintained toward Cuba until now,” said Cuban documentary filmmaker Lisette Vila.

You can read the CBS News article here.

You can read the Secretary-General’s report here.

US Commentary on UN Embargo Vote

Even before votes on the embargo were cast in the General Assembly, U.S. newspapers and other publications carried editorials and comments urging a change in our policy toward Cuba.

The Los Angeles Times wrote that the embargo has failed:

More astonishing than our willingness to raise the ire of nearly the entire world with our embargo is that it has survived this long in the face of overwhelming evidence of its failure. For 50 years, this country has been trying to produce regime change on the island by strangling it economically. Last we checked, a Castro was still in power, and even the economic devastation wrought by the two worst hurricanes in Cuba’s history weren’t spurring mass popular uprisings.

The Palm Beach Post addressed the same theme:

The embargo has failed for practical reasons: the Castro government, now under Fidel’s brother, Raul, remains in power nearly half a century after the embargo was supposed to bring regime change. The embargo has failed for humanitarian reasons: Since 2004, the Bush administration has restricted visits to Cuba by family members in America to once every three years. The administration also has limited how much money Cuban-Americans can send to the island.

An essay in the Huffington Post discussed what the next president should do:

This is where ten American presidents have left us – with an embargo that imposes cruel hardships on the Cuban people, a diplomacy that isolates the United States from the rest of the world, and a Cuban government proudly preparing to celebrate its fiftieth year in power.

Given the enormous diplomatic and domestic challenges the new administration will face, some might ask “why fix Cuba policy now”? In fact, no action would cost us less and do more to recapture our image and influence in Cuba and around the world than tearing down the embargo. The way forward is to legalize trade and travel, and to engage Cuba in areas like migration, drug interdiction, and academic exchange, all with an eye toward normalizing relations between the governments.

No matter who wins the election in November, the eleventh president of the Cuba embargo must also be the last.

You can read the entire Los Angeles Times editorial here.

You can read the entire Palm Beach Post editorial here.

You can read the entire Huffington Post essay here.

Brazilian President Lula da Silva visits Cuba

Brazil’s president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, arrived in Cuba this week to meet with his counterpart, President Raúl Castro, news agencies reported.

Lula is expected to sign an agreement between Brazil’s state-run oil company PETROBRAS and its Cuban counterpart CUBAPETROL for offshore oil exploration in Cuban waters and to produce oil in the Caribbean island.

No details on the oil agreement have been made public.

Lula also extended an invitation to Raúl Castro to travel to Brazil in December to attend the Latin America Summit, which would be President Castro’s first international trip since he began serving as President more than two years ago when Fidel Castro became ill.

The Latin American and Caribbean Summit of Integration and Development will take place December 16 and 17 in Salvador, Brazil.

“The Summit is an opportunity for President Raul Castro to visit Brazil and later he would be able to have bilateral discussions,” a Brazilian diplomatic source told AFP.

Cuba’s Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque said that Cuba “still can’t confirm the decision to attend the summit,” but it is significant because it is the first time that “the governments of Latin America and the Caribbean will meet without the participation of foreign actors.”

Brazil has said that it would like to be Cuba’s number one trading partner. As part of that process President Lula will inaugurate the office of the Agency of Promotion of Exports and Investments of Brazil (APEX) in Cuba on Friday.

Trade between the two countries reached $450 million in 2007, which made Brazil Cuba’s second biggest trade partner in Latin America, behind Venezuela.

The Granma reported that Lula’s visit is also “to express the solidarity of Brazil to the people and government of Cuba, after the damages caused by the hurricanes.” Lula will meet with the head Civil Defense in Cuba, Colonel Ramón Pardo, who will discuss Cuba’s disaster response system.

Brazilian officials also announced that their agriculture experts will help Cuba begin large-scale soy farming operations on former sugar lands, the Associated Press reported.

Experts will be sent by the Brazilian association of small farmers, with the aim of eventually having 40,500 hectares (100,075 acres) of soy planted in Cuba. They said they’ll first need to test various types of soy seeds to determine which ones will work the best in Cuba.

Lula said that he is not sure if he will meet with ex-President Fidel Castro, but is definitely open to the possibility. “It depends on the Cuban authorities. It’s not on the agenda, but there is surely interest” that it is included, he told AFP.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

Cuba and Russia reactivate military cooperation

Russia sent an important military delegation to Cuba this week to reactivate defense cooperation, the Agence France-Presse news agency reported.

Russian Coronel Igor Konashenkov said that the mission is focused on air defense, systems of management and telecommunications, and to discuss training Cubans in how to use an air defense system.

The visit is seen as the most important military mission from Russia to Cuba since 2005, when the head of the Russian Army, General Yuri Baluyevsky, met with Fidel Castro, who was head of Cuba’s armed forces at the time. They expressed interest in increasing military cooperation during that visit.

According to the Russian ambassador, the Minister of Communications, the Minister of Transportation and the Vice-Prime Minister Igor Sechin will all visit Cuba this week. “It’s an avalanche of visits in search of a closer relationship, the goal is to restore relations and if possible, make them like they were before,” a Russian diplomat told AFP.

During a visit to Havana last week, the First Vice-President of the Russian Parliament, Liubov K. Sliska, said that the two countries are looking to increase joint projects in energy, oil, the pharmaceutical industry and tourism.

Russia is Cuba’s 10th biggest trade partner, with $363 million in trade in 2007, and was the first country to send humanitarian aid to the island after this year’s devastating hurricanes. The two countries ruptured relations at the end of the Cold War when Russia withdrew much of its financial and military support of Cuba.

You can read the Agence France-Presse article here (in Spanish).

Venezuela to help Cuba triple oil refining capacity

Cuba and Venezuela plan to spend billions of dollars to triple Cuba’s refining capacity over the next five years, the Reuters new agency reported, citing Cuban state-run radio.
Cuba currently has the capacity to refine 130,000 barrels per day (bpd), but with the increased investments they hope to reach 350,000 bpd by 2013.

Cuba’s Basic Industry Minister, Yadira Garcia, said that the two countries plan to construct a new refinery in the central province of Matanzas. They are also expanding a joint venture refinery in the central province of Cienfuegos and doubling the capacity of a refinery in eastern Santiago de Cuba.

The announcement came despite falling oil prices which some analysts have predicted will slow Venezuela’s plans to build a dozen refineries in the region.

Cuba consumes about 150,000 bpd of petroleum products, around 92,000 bpd of which is shipped in from Venezuela.

The increased refining capacity is expected to be used so that Cuba can serve as a bridge to supply other Caribbean nations with crude and derivatives at preferential rates. It would also be needed if Cuba’s deep sea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico begins to produce results.

You can read the Reuters article here.

Cuban academics say Cuban oil discovery could affect U.S. policy

The discovery of a major offshore oilfield in Cuba would probably lead the United States to modify its policy towards Cuba, a Cuban scholar told IPS, but also warned that it could increase the possibility of U.S. intervention.

“When there are important economic interests at play, in terms of market and resources that are strategic for Washington, the ideological components that have driven U.S. Cuba policy come tumbling down,” said Luis René Fernández, assistant director of the Centre for the Study of the Hemisphere and the United States in Havana.

Cuba announced last week that oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico may potentially yield over 20 billion barrels of extractable crude, twice the previous estimate. The Spanish oil company Repsol will resume drilling in the spring.

Fernández predicted that an oil find would not force the embargo to be lifted “overnight,” but it’s obvious that there are interests that will “start lobbying to eliminate the restrictions” that prevent U.S. companies from participating in a possible oil boom in Cuba.

He also warned that Cuba would face a potential risk for a U.S. attack if it turns into a significant oil producer.

“The possibility of a U.S. military intervention in Cuba would increase in the event of an acute economic crisis accompanied by social unrest and the government’s inability to control it,” which would provide Washington with a scenario that would involve relatively low costs, he said.

“An oil boom, in contrast, would lead to a major improvement in living conditions in general, the country would be strengthened economically, politically and socially” and Cuba would bolster its “defense capacity and, naturally, the people’s support for the cause of resistance” would be boosted, Fernández added.

You can read the IPS article here.


Senator McCain vows to “maintain pressure” on Cuba if elected

The Republican candidate for President, John McCain, campaigning in Miami this week, reiterated his promise to “maintain pressure” on the Cuban government until all political prisoners are released, the EFE reported.

“We have to maintain pressure on Cuba until they liberate the political prisoners” and hold free elections, he said in an interview on Miami’s 98.3 La Kalle radio station.

He assured listeners that he would seek help on the issue from the Cuban-American Members of Congress, Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ross-Lehtinen.

“I believe in them to achieve the liberation of the prisoners,” said McCain.

McCain also criticized the Cuban government for not accepting U.S. assistance after Hurricanes Ike and Gustav caused severe damages on the island. He also criticized his opponent, Barack Obama, for saying that he would speak with Cuban President Raúl Castro without preconditions.

McCain joked about a possible meeting between himself and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, saying that he would not “sit with him, face to face, but that they could talk over the telephone.”

Asked about what he would tell Chávez, McCain said that he would make him understand that “the Venezuelan people deserve something much better.”

You can read the EFE story here (in Spanish).

Miami congressional races are about more than just Cuba policy

Congressional races in Southern Florida that traditionally focus solely on Cuba policy have shifted away from Fidel Castro and become more about domestic issues, especially the economy.

Two incumbent Republican candidates, Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, are facing Joe Garcia and Raul Martinez, both of whom are Cuban-Americans. Martinez, the former mayor of Hialeah, and Garcia, the former head of the Cuban American National Foundation, argue that the Diaz-Balarts have neglected domestic polices while focusing single-mindedly on Cuba, Bloomberg reported.

“I want a congressman who focuses on what our country needs and not on other countries,” said 20 year-old Leodan Soto, who was born in Cuba and plans to vote for Raul Martinez, Lincoln’s challenger.

Both Mario and Lincoln defended their records on issues other than Cuba, arguing that they simply receive more attention for their Cuba work.

Miami’s Cuban-American community has been a powerful voting block in Florida, growing from about 50,000 in 1960 to over 1 million today. However, for the first time, they are no longer the majority of Hispanics in the state. This will affect the South Florida races. Fore example, Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s district is 70 percent Hispanic, but only 58 percent of these voters are Cuban, according to the Almanac of American Politics.

On top of that, experts say that many younger and less well-off members of the Cuban community are more likely to vote Democratic this year. Younger Cuban- Americans “tend to be a little more liberal, some a lot more liberal” than their elders, said Joseph Uscinski, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Miami.

According to a recent Carlos McDonald/Telemundo poll, Lincoln Diaz-Balart still has a 2-to-1 advantage among Cuban- Americans, but the majority of non-Cuban Hispanics and a plurality of non-Hispanic blacks and whites favor Martinez.

The Republican incumbents and their Democratic challengers all argue that the embargo should be maintained, but the Democrats oppose restrictions that limit family visits and remittances to Cuba, which the Diaz-Balarts support.

You can read the Bloomberg article here.

Recommended Listening:

Singer-Songwriter Jackson Browne, whose recently released “Time the Conqueror,” features a song about traveling to Cuba, is leading a benefit concert in Santa Monica, California on November 29th. Funds raised at the concert will benefit hurricane victims in Haiti, Cuba, and the U.S. Gulf Coast.

You can read more about Jackson Browne’s benefit concert here.
Recommended Reading:

Follow Cuba’s emissions standard, The Guardian

Around the Region:

Venezuela launches Simón Bolívar satellite in Orbit
, IPS news

Brazil growth rubs Latin America the wrong way
, Reuters

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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