More Storm Damage, More Diplomacy, & More Calls for US to drop the embargo

Dear Friend:

We’ve been busy on the Cuba news front this week.

The first thing we talk about is the weather. The island was lashed by Hurricane Paloma. While the storm destroyed more homes and infrastructure, Cuba’s skill at civic preparedness helped affected residents survive their material losses. Surveying the damage, Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, reminded the Cuban public that with climate change, horrific hurricane seasons were likely to be an on-going fact of life.

Our second subject is reform. The BBC asks “what happened to the reform process?” It has been stalled since the onset of hurricane season. Other press reports discussed a shortage of veterinarians and other technicians on Cuba’s agriculture cooperatives, saying that these human resources has been concentrated in Cuba’s massive state farms which are less productive. For the second time since becoming president, Raúl Castro replaced a member of his cabinet, installing a new minister for Foreign Investment.

Finally, we address diplomacy. There were three more calls this week – from Russia, Brazil, and Amnesty International – for the U.S. government to remove its embargo against Cuba. While the United States continues to be the odd man out, Cuba is newest member of the Rio Group, an organization of Latin American and Caribbean nations. Also, the presidents of Russia and China will be visiting Cuba (and with no preconditions) later this month. Finally, Fidel Castro has released a book “La Paz en Colombia (Peace in Colombia),” about Cuba’s role in efforts to bring the warring sides in Colombia together.

As usual, we close our news blast with a menu of recommendations – for reading, for listening, and for advocacy.

Enjoy – from top to bottom.

This week, in Cuba news:

IN CUBA

Hurricane Paloma

Hurricane Paloma brought torrential rains and strong sea surges to coastal towns in Camaguey and Las Tunas, completely destroying thousands of homes and severely damaging thousands of others, IPS reported.

The storm also took out communication towers and left the streets littered with telephone poles, electrical wires and other debris.

In Santa Cruz del Sur in Camaguey, 9,889 homes were damaged, including 1,353 that were totally destroyed.

“My life was saved, but I lost everything,” one woman told the local TV station on Sunday.

Santa Cruz del Sur was hit 76 years ago on Nov. 9, 1932 and due to a lack of planning and response, over 3,000 people in from the same area were killed.

“There are still people alive who survived that storm on Nov. 9, 1932. Entire families were killed. It was terrible,” Digna García, a retired high school teacher from Camaguey, 534 km from Havana, told IPS.

Meanwhile, President Castro said that with the damages caused by Paloma, “we are almost reaching 10 billion dollars” in losses since storms pounded Cuba beginning in August.

Cuba has “no choice but to adapt” to storms

After three hurricanes caused a total of 10 billion dollars in damages this hurricane season, Cuba has “no choice but to adapt” to the storms, President Raúl Castro said this week.

“As a result of climate change, hurricanes are going to become increasingly frequent and intense. We have no choice but to adapt,” Castro said during a tour of Camaguey and Las Tunas, two east-central provinces whose coastal areas were pounded by Hurricane Paloma on Saturday, IPS reported.

He said that 47 municipalities were affected by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike and said that Cuba must get ready to “coexist” with hurricanes.

Experts cite the “combined effects of the increasingly aggressive climate, poor quality of construction materials, lack of regular maintenance of infrastructure and location of homes in low-lying areas” as reasons why some towns are increasingly susceptible to the frequent hurricanes and tropical storms.

The National Housing Institute recently issued a report saying that “only reinforced concrete roofs withstood the winds, and that the worst damages were sustained by homes with thatched roofs or roofing materials of wood or fiber-cement tiles, all of which are common in rural areas.”

“We are going to try to lay the foundation for a construction materials industry, because until every house in this country has a solid roof, we will be replacing roofs over and over again,” said the president.

You can read the IPS article here.

Is somebody slowing down the reform process?

Many Cubans are discussing why there has been a slowdown in the reform process started by President Raúl Castro and many are debating who may be influencing the sudden halt, BBC News reported in an article titled “Cuba: Is change being stopped?”

According to the article, there has been a stand-still in the reform process, including a pause in high priority government reforms to the agricultural sector, since the destruction caused by Hurricanes Ike and Gustav

One farmer told the BBC that where he lives idle land is not being given out to local farmers because “they are giving another opportunity to the state farms to see if they can produce over the next six months.”

The article suggests that someone or some group is pushing to protect the large state farms that have proven to be unproductive over the last half-century.

The slowdown in new policies has not only been in the agricultural sector. Since Cuba was hit by the hurricanes no new reforms have been announced. There has been speculation over the last year that there would be reforms in migration policy, the issuance of small business permits, and in other areas.

“Some, both inside and outside of Cuba, believe that it could be that the health of Fidel Castro has improved and he is slowly retaking the reins of the country, returning to the politics that he applied over the half-century that he governed Cuba,” the article says.

Others believe that it is the most orthodox sector of the Communist Party (PCC) that is halting the reforms started by Raúl Castro. Young members of the PCC told the BBC that preparations for the Party’s Congress have not yet begun. Many Cuban scholars believe that the Congress, which will take place sometime next year, will determine the definitive path of the country.

Government officials told the BBC that the slowdown had to do with the election process in the United States, with Cuba waiting to see how U.S. policy will affect their own process. They also noted that the government has made recovery from the devastating hurricane season its highest priority, which pushed economic, social and political transformations off to the side.

You can read the BBC News article here (in Spanish).

Cuba lacking professionals in the farm sector

According to its “Workers” newspaper, Cuba is facing a deficit of 3,000 agronomists and veterinarians as it tries to reform the agriculture sector, the EFE reported.

The article in this week’s edition said that the professionals had left to work in other sectors that offer higher salaries and better conditions. It suggested offering more “incentives” so that they will return to their field.

The article blamed the Agriculture ministry for poor judgment in assigning the technicians and veterinarians, saying that the majority are placed on state farms, while there is a greater need for their services in the cooperatives.

The shortage of professionals is “extreme” in the cooperatives (UBPC), which account for more than 40 percent of the 3.4 million cultivable hectares in Cuba. On average there is less than one expert for each cooperative, reported EFE citing data from the agriculture ministry.

Raúl Castro’s top priority since taking over has been to increase productivity in the agriculture sector. After a disastrous hurricane season that wiped out crops and food reserves across the island, and with high world food prices, Cuba hopes to see quick results. Currently Cuba imports over 80 percent of its food products at a cost that will surpass 2.5 billion dollars in 2008.

In recent months the government has increased payments to farmers for certain products, prioritized working with cooperatives and private farmers, and began granting idle state lands to all applicants “that can produce.”

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

Minister of Foreign Investment replaced

Cuba will replace Marta Lomas, the Foreign Investment Minster, with Rodrigo Malmierca, the Associated Press reported.

The high-profile Cabinet change was announced on state television through a statement from the Communist Party’s Politburo that said they had “decided to liberate” Marta Lomas from the position. They did not elaborate on why the decision was made or what Lomas’ future role in the government might be.

Her replacement, Rodrigo Malmierca, is the former Ambassador to the United Nations and was described in the statement as a diplomat and leader.

Although Raúl Castro has said that he would like to increase foreign investment, the Ministry of Foreign Investment and Economic Cooperation reported recently that the number of state companies with foreign capital this year was 314, a drop of 48 contracts from the end of 2007, according to the Reuters news agency.

This is the second Cabinet switch that Raúl Castro has made since he officially became president in February. He replaced Cuba’s education minister in April.

Malmierca is a trained economist and has served as Vice Minister of Foreign Investment. He was previously director of the European and North American Division of the Foreign Investment Ministry, and then became the Ambassador to Belgium, the European Union and Luxembourg, and eventually Cuba’s Ambassador to the U.N.

Problems involving foreign investment loom large. He takes over as Cuba tries to recover from a disastrous hurricane season, when Cuba is improving relations with and enjoying increased investment by Brazil, Russia and other countries, and at a potential time of improved relations with the United States.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

DIPLOMACY

More calls to lift the embargo from Russia, Amnesty International and Brazil

Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva once again called for President-elect Obama to lift the embargo, Venezuela’s El Universal newspaper reported.

“Removing a blockade (embargo) that doesn’t make sense anymore is the first step to favor the beginning of a transition on the island,” Lula de Silva told reporters in Rome.

“Obama has the power and the political authority to change the relations between Cuba and the United States,” said the Brazilian President, who talked to Obama over the telephone on Tuesday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to rethink the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba this week, the Agence France-Presse reported.

Russia hopes that Obama will take into account “the voice of the international community” and lift the economic embargo that has been in place since 1962, Lavrov said on Tuesday.

Referring to the recent condemnation of the embargo by the General Assembly, the Minister said “We hope that the voice of the international community, that was heard once again at the United Nations, be taken into account. ”

On Monday, Felipe Pérez Roque, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, told reporters in Moscow that Cuba believes that “the government of the United States should revise its policy towards Cuba…since promises of change were the base of Obama’s electoral campaign.”

Meanwhile, Amnesty International issued a statement calling on Obama to lift the embargo as well, the Reuters news agency reported.

“We would like President-elect Obama to lift the embargo against Cuba because we believe that that embargo is contributing to denial of human rights to the people, and is not therefore conducive to human rights change,” Irene Khan, Amnesty International’s secretary general, told Reuters last Friday.

Khan added that changing Washington’s Cuba policy would help Obama restore the United States’ moral authority, which she said was damaged during the administration of President George W. Bush.

You can read the El Universal article here (in Spanish).

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

You can read the Reuters article here.

Cuba becomes a full-fledged member of the Rio Group
Cuba has become a full-fledged member of the Rio Group, RTT News reported.

The Rio Group, created in 1986, comprised of 22 member-states, is the only political grouping for Latin American and Caribbean countries.

The inclusion of Cuba was announced by Mexico’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Patricia Espinosa, at a meeting of the body’s foreign ministers in Zacatecas, central Mexico. Cuba’s Vice Foreign Minister Abelardo Moreno attended the meeting and confirmed that Cuba has joined the Rio Group as a member with full rights.

The decision was made after member states took into account “expressions of interest from Cuba” and a positive evaluation of dialogue, consultations and political agreement, RTT News reported.

Samuel Lewis, Panama’s foreign minister, said Cuba’s entry “reinforces the Rio Group at a time when the international dynamic requires regional approaches that can count on the support of everyone.”

According to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, El Salvador was the only member state to oppose the acceptance of Cuba, but Cuba was accepted without condition nonetheless.

Espinosa said that the decision “enriches and consolidates the plurality and representativeness” of the group.

Cuba is a member of the Organization of American States (OAS), but it has been suspended since 1962.

You can read the RTT News article here.
The Presidents of Russia and China will visit Cuba this month
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will visit Cuba, as well as Venezuela and Brazil, after attending the APEC summit in Peru November 22-23, RIA Novosti news agency reported.

“The big Latin American tour is connected with the APEC summit in Lima, after which the president will visit Venezuela, Brazil and Cuba,” said Presidential spokeswoman Natalya Timakova.

Medvedev also extended an official invitation to Cuba’s President Raúl Castro to visit Russia next year.

Russia announced last week that it had approved a credit of up to $335 million to Cuba to buy Russian goods and services. Trade between Cuba and Russia reached about $300 million in 2007.

Following Chinese President Hu Jintao’s G-20 meeting in Washington he will travel to Cuba and Costa Rica, the China View newspaper reported.

In an interview with the China View, Chinese Ambassador to Cuba Zhao Rongxian said the visit is “to further promote the close ties between both countries.”

He noted that China is now Cuba’s second largest trading partner, only after Venezuela, with their two-way trade reaching 2.3 billion U.S. dollars last year. He said that cooperation is flourishing in the fields of communication, agriculture, transportation and education.

Much of that cooperation stemmed from President Hu’s first visit to Cuba as president in 2004, where he witnessed the signing of 16 cooperation deals.

“Cuba is indispensable for China in its bid to strengthen links with Latin American and the Caribbean countries,” Zhao said.

You can read the RIA Novosti article here.

You can read the China View article here.

Four hundred hours of drafting and analysis

Fidel Castro, Cuba’s former president, has published a new book, La paz en Colombia (Peace in Colombia), which explores Cuba’s role in attempts to end Colombia’s civil war, which has raged for more than four decades, the Associated Press reported.

Granma reported that the Cuban leader spent 400 arduous hours doing the analysis and the writing required for the book. It is being made available both in hard copy and electronically by download for free over the Internet at http://www.cubadebate.cu/. The AP story can be read here.

Around the Region

Congressman Jim McGovern, co-chair of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, and a long-standing leader for progressive policies toward Latin America, visited Ecuador this week on a fact-finding tour that included border visits to sites of environmental degradation and a meeting with Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa.

An article about Congressman McGovern can be read here (in Spanish)
.

A television news report about his meeting with President Correa can be viewed here.

Recommended Reading:

Supporters of closer Cuba ties see a chance with Obama’s win
, Los Angeles Times

Opponents of closer Cuba ties seek to dominate Obama’s policies, Miami Herald

Recommended Advocacy:

Please read – and ideally sign – this important petition urging President-elect Obama to change our country’s direction on foreign policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean, especially including Cuba.

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team
www.democracyinamericas.org

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