Cuba steps up diplomacy as the 2008 hurricane season comes to an end

Dear Friend:

China, Venezuela, and Brazil have at least one thing in common – they believe that their countries have a stake in Cuba’s future. Which begs the question: why don’t we?

This is the striking thing about the news this week. The president of China has just visited Cuba, offered economic aid, and signed agreements that more closely bind the two nation’s economies. President Raúl Castro will soon make his first foreign trip, since his election in February, to Venezuela. Brazil will welcome the Cuban president afterwards with economic aid that will help Cuba reinvest in its infrastructure and energy sectors.

U.S. foreign policy used to think of such developments as “meddling in our region.” The other countries call it “diplomacy.”

They have real interests in the region and so do we. But our policies of not talking to Cuba and confrontation toward governments in places like Venezuela and Bolivia are obstacles to our country realizing those interests.

Think about Cuba and where cooperation could lead. As we report this week, the United States is on track to sell more than half-a-billion dollars in food and agriculture products to Cuba, but we could sell a lot more if we dismantled aspects of the embargo that force up Cuba’s costs and impose licensing and financial impediments on our own producers. Taking this step would put more money in the pockets of American farmers and more food at better prices on Cuban tables.

Another step would be to expand cooperation with Cuba on hurricanes and disaster preparedness. We also report this week that the 2008 hurricane season is finally over. What a relief! The storms cost Cuba more than $9 billion in damage and seven Cuban lives. However in our country, fifty-two Americans died as a result of our storm season. Wouldn’t we benefit from a greater understanding of why our civil defense gets this so wrong, when Cuba gets it so right?

We will return to the subject of cooperation, again and again, in this news summary during the course of this year. For today, our focus is diplomacy. From selling more food, to learning how the Cubans cope with extreme weather, what is needed is diplomacy, and a sign from our government that it recognizes what the leaders of China, Venezuela, and Brazil already see.

Like these countries, we have real interests in working with Cuba. But our diplomacy needs to be modernized so that something as simple as sitting down with Cuban leaders is able to be accomplished. It’s long past time for us to talk to Cuba. We’d find that there’s a lot for us to talk about.

This week, in Cuba news:


Chinese President Hu Jintao visits Cuba

Hu Jintao, president of the People’s Republic of China, visited Cuba this week to meet with Raúl and Fidel Castro, signing new cooperation agreements between the two countries, postponing debt payments and leaving behind donations, news agencies reported.

The two leaders discussed “the economic, social and political spheres in the midst of the complex current international situation, directed at strengthening socialism in line with the characteristics of each country; they also examined the development of bilateral relations and discussed diverse issues of regional, multilateral and international interest and confirmed their agreement on important subjects such as the defense of Cuban sovereignty and the principle of ‘one single China,'” the Granma reported.

President Hu Jintao agreed to put off some of Cuba’s debt payments and gave the island $80 million for hospital modernization and other projects, the Reuters news agency reported.

According to Reuters, the two countries signed accords on Tuesday that put off for 10 years payments for an unspecified trade debt Cuba ran up through 1995, and for five years a $7.2 million credit China granted in 1998.

The full amount that Cuba owes China has not been disclosed, but many loans are starting to come due at a time when Cuba is facing financial difficulty after suffering an estimated $9 billion in damage from hurricanes this year.

Twelve new accords were signed between the two countries on Monday calling for, among other things, China to continue buying Cuban sugar and nickel and to provide agricultural products.

With $2.3 billion in trade in 2007, China is Cuba’s second largest trading partner after Venezuela. China buys 400,000 tons of sugar and 75,000 tons of nickel from Cuba each year.

Reuters reported that President Raúl Castro was in such good spirits on Tuesday that he led 200 Chinese students studying in Cuba in an impromptu sing-along of a Chinese song about late China leader Mao Zedong.

He said he remembered the song from a Chinese delegate at a 1953 youth rights conference in Austria.

“I don’t have the memory that Fidel has, but I remember that song,” Castro said.

You can read the Reuters article here.

You can read the Granma article here.

Raúl Castro will visit Venezuela

Raúl Castro will visit Venezuela “in the next several days,” said President Hugo Chávez on Tuesday, while addressing supporters at a rally in the Caracas Polyhedron, the Associated Press reported.

It will be Castro’s first trip abroad since he became president in February of this year.

“I am pleased to say that Raúl Castro…has told us in the last few days that he has been invited to visit Brazil, China, Russia and other countries but that he is not going to visit any other country before coming to Caracas,” Chavez said at a speech to supporters.

“You will be welcomed with every honor, Raúl, comrade, president and friend,” Chavez said.

No details of the actual date of the visit were announced, but Chavez indicated it would be before Castro travels to Brazil in December to attend a summit.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

Brazil will offer aid to Cuba during Raúl Castro’s visit

Brazil plans to offer financial aid to Cuba for energy, industry and infrastructure projects during Raúl Castro’s visit in December, the Reuters news agency reported.

The aid was announced by Marco Aurelio Garcia, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s foreign policy adviser.

“We’ll discuss the production of buses, building roads, as well as oil investments,” Garcia told Reuters.

Brazil’s state development bank, BNDES, was exploring different ways to finance the projects, despite global financial turmoil.

“There’s always money to export services,” Mr. Garcia said, referencing a government line of credit to export Brazilian goods and services.

President Castro will be participating in a summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Salvador, Brazil on December 16th, but will travel to the capital Brasilia to have talks with President Lula the following day.

You can read the Reuters article here.


Fidel Castro’s doctor says Castro is in “very good health”

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro “is in very good health” and “could return to power” if he desired, Spanish physician José Luis García Sabrido, said in an interview published in the Argentine newspaper Perfil, EFE reported

García Sabrido, who treated Castro when he became ill in 2006, said that although he is capable of it, he did not believe that Castro wanted to return to power.

“Today, Fidel is doing very well; he leads a normal life and could return to power if he wanted to. He has no physical or medical impediments,” said Garcia

In regards to the possibility of Castro returning to power, Garcia Sabrido said the former Cuban president had entered “another stage in life” that is “more reflective.”

“I believe he does not want to return (to power). He gave up power to a second group of officials he trusts and with whom he is very pleased,” he added.

“Fidel is very inquisitive; he always asked me in detail what we were going to do, like he does with everything. It’s the problem in dealing with an educated person: they ask, ask, ask, and you have to reply,” the doctor said.

Dr. Garcia, citing doctor-patient confidentiality, repeatedly denied that Castro had cancer and refused to specify his illness.

You can read the full interview here (in Spanish).

You can read the EFE article here.

Fidel Castro met with Chinese President Hu Jintao

Fidel Castro met with President Hu Jintao and other members of the Chinese delegation on Tuesday morning. The two discussed the “current, complex international situation, on the importance of this visit and the agreements to be signed between Cuba and China,” the Granma reported

According to China’s Xinhua news agency, “the two leaders warmly shook hands, exchanged greetings and had a long conversation in a sincere and friendly atmosphere.” Hu Jintao commented on Castro’s condition, saying that the former president looked like he had recovered.

“I see in person that you have recovered and have been energetic, so I feel very pleased,” Hu apparently told Castro.

“We are old friends. I am happy to see that you are as energetic as when I met you last time,” Castro replied, according to Xinhua.

“The Chinese people will never forget that thanks to your concern and effort that Cuba became the first Latin American nation to forge diplomatic ties with China 48 years ago,” Hu told Castro.

He also thanked him for the Cuban doctors that were sent to China in response to a massive earthquake in May.

You can read the Granma article here.

You can read the Xinhua article here (the article also has a new photo of Fidel Castro).


2008 is a record year for agriculture sales to Cuba

According to the U.S. Trade and Economic Council, Cuba has spent a record $536 million for American agricultural goods through the third quarter, already surpassing yearly totals since 2001, the Associated Press reported.

The Council related the increased figures mainly to price increases, and not quantities. Cuba imports more than 80% of its food products, mainly from the United States. Raúl Castro has implemented reforms in the farming sector in hopes of increasing domestic production after higher fuel and shipping costs and increasing prices forced Cuba to spend millions more to import food.

Although, the trade embargo prohibits nearly all trade between the two countries, Cuba has been permitted to purchase U.S. food and agricultural products since 2000. However, the purchases must be paid in cash through banks in third countries before the products arrive in Cuba.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

Virginia Cashing in

Meanwhile, Virginia growers are taking advantage of trade with Cuba and the state expects to see exports to the island increase, the Southeast Farm Press reported.

Todd P. Haymore, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), and Charles Green, VDACS marketing director, recently hosted a booth at International Trade Fair in Cuba and was joined by Virginia exporters Perdue AgriBusiness, Crown Orchard and Smithfield Foods.

“I predict exports will increase significantly as a result of trade agreements reached during the FIHAV trade event,” said Commissioner Haymore.

It “will result in more Virginia producers being able to take advantage of this opportunity. The fair was successful in strengthening our relationships and hopefully will provide more trade opportunities for our Virginia farmers and agribusinesses. Our Cuban hosts were very gracious and indicated they want to do more business with Virginia,” he added.

Virginia first signed a contract with Cuba to export apples in 2003. They sold $1.2 million’s worth to Cuba in 2007 and expect that this year’s sales could increase by 20 or even 30 percent.

Sales of soybeans, soybean oil and soybean meal to Cuba have seen similar growth.

Virginia has enjoyed dramatic growth in agricultural exports to Cuba and currently ranks in the top five states that export to Cuba. Agricultural exports went from $838,000 in 2003 to over $32 million last year.

However, there are impediments to the trade. The Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 allows products to be exported to Cuba under the condition that they are paid for through a third country financial institution or cash in advance. These restrictions limit the amount of products Cuba can purchase at a time. Furthermore, the third country financial institutions increase banking fees, artificially driving up the cost of products from the U.S.

Difficulties in obtaining required U.S. export and travel licenses further complicates business and delays sales.

“I am hopeful that a new Presidential administration and Congress will thoroughly examine the existing embargo and consider easing or eliminating some of the current trade and travel restrictions,” said Haymore.

You can read the Southeast Farm Press article here.

Drought will not affect pea sales to Cuba

A long drought has depleted pea and lentil crops in North Dakota and Montana – the nation’s top producing states – causing production to plummet in both states, the Associated Press reported.

The drop will not affect the sale of peas and lentils to Cuba from North Dakota, said Chuck Fleming, marketing coordinator for the state Agriculture Department.

Earlier this year, a North Dakota trade delegation led by Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson announced another large sale to Cuba – about 12,000 acres worth of pea production, along with a smaller amount of lentils. Much of the crop was to come from North Dakota.

There was some speculation that the drought would cause cancellation of the sale to Cuba, but the shipment was made early in the year, said Fleming.

You can read the Associated Press article here.


The 2008 Hurricane Season comes to an end

A deadly and disastrous 2008 hurricane season is coming to an end after leaving its mark on Haiti, Cuba and the United States, reported Agence France-Presse. The season is officially over at the end of November, but no other hurricanes are expected in the meantime.

It was a “very active” season, with 16 tropical storms that generated 8 hurricanes, 5 of which were high intensity, indicated a report done by hurricane experts at the University of Colorado.

Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, was gravely affected.

Tropical storms Fay and Hanna and Hurricanes Gustav and Ike left a total of 793 dead and over 300 missing, according to the Civil Protection office. The country also suffered severe crop losses as well as damage to houses and other infrastructure.

Cuba, the largest country in the Caribbean was hit hard as well. Between the end of August and the beginning of November, Cuba was hit by a succession of three hurricanes: Gustav, Ike and Paloma.

The storms caused an estimated 9 billion dollars in damage from the destruction of houses, infrastructure and crops, according to Cuban authorities. Thanks to expertise in hurricane preparedness and response only 7 deaths were reported.

Meanwhile, hurricanes also terrorized the United States, causing more damage than any previous hurricane season. Hurricane Ike caused 52 deaths in its path through 11 U.S. states.

It’s estimated that the 2008 hurricane season caused over 20 billion dollars in damage in the United States.

You can read the AFP article here.

More than 18,000 evacuees in eastern Holguín

Although the hurricane season is coming to an end, heavy rains and flooding in eastern Cuba continued this week, forcing the “preventative evacuation” of over 18,000 people, the Granma reported.

The heavy rains led to overflowing rivers in the province of Holguín, where inhabitants have been evacuated into the homes of neighbors or shelters.

Over 15,000 inhabitants in the municipalities of Sagua de Tánamo and Frank País have been evacuated along with 3,000 in the municipality of Mayarí.

Miguel Díaz-Canel, president of the Provincial Defense Council, said the flooding is a result of the continuous rainfall and a cold front in the eastern part of the island, causing rivers to overflow.

Heavy rainfall is still being reported in Mayarí, Frank País and Sagua de Tánamo, the Granma reported.

You can read the Granma article here.

Recommended Reading:

Cuba, bellwether to Obama foreign policy?
Georgie Anne Geyer suggests that “if a President Barack Obama can create sensible and respectful relations with Cuba, such an act would be of great importance.”

What Cubans expect from Obama, Progresso Weekly

Written by Manuel E. Yepe Menéndez, lawyer, economist, journalist and professor at the Higher Institute of International Relations in Havana. He was Cuba’s ambassador to Romania, general director of the Prensa Latina agency; vice president of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television; founder and national director of the Technological Information System (TIPS) of the United Nations Program for Development in Cuba, and secretary of the Cuban Movement for the Peace and Sovereignty of the Peoples.

Around the Region:

Bolivian President Evo Morales visited the United Nations in New York this week. He took the time to do an interview with Democracy Now and give a speech at American University in Washington, DC. You can see his interview with Democracy Now where he discusses the political process transcending in Bolivia, relations between Bolivia and the United States and other interesting topics.

The Chinese Government’s Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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