Coming soon: “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba…” Coming now: calls for the US to lift the embargo and the travel ban.

Dear Friend:

Every once in a while, we have to toot our own horn.

In January of 2009, The Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) – whose Freedom to Travel campaign brings you the news summary each week – will be releasing a report titled “9 Ways for US to talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US.”

In the report, the CDA identifies nine critical areas where Washington and Havana can work together, and build relationships of confidence and trust, by solving problems in both countries’ national interests.  A high-powered team of scholars and experts offer their ideas for cooperation in military affairs, migration, energy, trade, health, academic exchange and other fields which could then encourage both countries to make the kind of progress that has eluded our diplomats for fifty years.

The days of the embargo are clearly numbered, and U.S. policy will eventually change in ways that recognize Cuba’s sovereignty.  But the question remains: how do you get there from where we are today?

This report offers a way forward.  Watch this space, as the saying goes, for more information about the “9 Ways Report.”

Until then, we present this week in Cuba news:

Cuba sees Obama’s proposals as first step

Felipe Perez Roque, Cuba’s foreign minister, said that U.S. President-elect Barack Obama’s proposals for easing Washington’s restrictions on the communist-run island would be a welcome initial move to improve ties with Havana, the Reuters news agency reported.

The foreign minister’s remarks were the Cuban government’s first official response to Obama’s campaign pledge to ease limits on travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans.

“If he does this it would be a positive first step,” Perez Roque told reporters. “It would just be the start, because our people should be able to hope that at last their right to choose their own path will be respected.”

According to Reuters, analysts expect some improvement in relations under Obama, such as increased cooperation on migration and anti-drug operations. But they also realize that Cuba is unlikely to be a priority as Washington tackles wars in the Middle East and economic woes at home.

“The notion of Obama sitting down and meeting with Raúl Castro fresh into his presidency is hard for me to imagine,” said Julia Sweig at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They have talked about having conditions met first and we don’t know what those conditions are.”

You can read the Reuters article here.

Human Rights Day in Cuba

The Cuban police detained up to 100 activists from the opposition movement this week to prevent their participation in marches to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights (CCDH), news agencies reported. EFE reported that all but one of those detained have been released.

The head of the CCDH, Elizardo Sánchez, described it as a “new wave of political repression” with “between 60 and 100 detained.”  Those detained were apparently planning to take part in various marches and demonstrations to celebrate Human Rights Day, El Pais reported.

The Ladies in White, an organization of women relatives of 75 dissidents jailed in 2003, marched peacefully through the city and onto the steps of the capitol building without being detained.

Meanwhile, Felipe Perez Roque, Cuba’s foreign minister, spoke favorably about Cuba’s human rights record, the Associated Press reported. Although Perez Roque admitted that there are some “imperfections,” he said that “Cuba can celebrate this day with its head held high.”

He outlined the fact that Cubans have not been the victims of state sponsored killings and torture, as has been the case in other Latin American countries.

“Here in Havana you will not find a single child at a traffic light washing windshields,” Perez Roque said.

He told reporters the ratification of the U.N. human rights conventions on civil and political rights that Cuba signed 10 months ago is an ongoing process.

“Normally, countries take their time in the internal constitutional process, but there must be no doubt that our decisions are serious, they’re principled and coherent. We will never do something for the sake of public propaganda,” Perez Roque told the EFE.

He also said that Cuba will undergo a review by a U.N. rights council earlier next year.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

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

You can read the Latin American Herald story appears here.

Caribbean nations call for Obama to lift the embargo

The leaders of the 15-member Caribbean bloc CARICOM have added to the growing list of those urging president-elect Obama to lift the United States embargo on Cuba, BBC News reported. The call came during a meeting in Santiago de Cuba of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to discuss the current financial crisis and other regional issues.

“As we gather today in Cuba, the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America is still in place,” CARICOM president Baldwin Spencer told the gathering. “The Caribbean community hopes that the transformational change which is underway in the United States will finally relegate that measure to history.”

Although the meeting was held in Cuba they are not currently a member of the CARICOM.  In an opening statement made by Raúl Castro he stated that it is “the world’s poor that will bear the brunt of this reckless disaster caused by speculation, individualism and greed,” referring to the economic crisis.

A statement released at the end of the summit said that the governments “call for an end to the economic, commercial and financial embargo against the Republic of Cuba.”

Meanwhile, CARICOM awarded its Honorary Order to former President Fidel Castro “in recognition of his irreproachable human conduct and unconditional support for the region’s progress and wellbeing,” the Granma reported.

Spencer noted that “throughout the years, Fidel has cultivated and nourished a strong relationship with CARICOM, based on friendship, good will and mutual respect and solidarity.”

At the summit’s opening ceremonies, during an event at Santiago’s Plaza of the Revolution, Raúl Castro said of the U.S. economic sanctions that “we have learned to resist for half a century, and we are prepared to fight for another half century.”

You can read the BBC News article here.

You can read the Granma article here.

Brazilian Defense Secretary advocates end of embargo to Albright, Gates and Jones

The Brazilian Secretary of Defense Nelson Jobim advocated for the end of the Cuban embargo in meetings with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and General James Jones, who will be National Security advisor for Obama, the Patagonico newspaper reported based on an article in the Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paulo.

According to Jobim, Madeleine Albright insisted that she believes Cuba should “make the first gesture” in order to negotiate the end of the embargo. He said that Albright listened to her arguments and later stated that “they (the Cubans) have to make the first gesture,” although she didn’t specify what that signal should be. In response, Jobim apparently told her that “the ones that should make the first gesture are the ones that decide on the embargo, the United States.”

Jobim reported that Secretary Gates “didn’t say yes or no” about the proposal to lift the embargo on Cuba and close the military base in Guantanamo Bay. He reportedly asked Gates: “After all of these years of the embargo on Cuba, what have you achieved? Only two things: a very poor country and a very proud population.”

The Minister said that he was “very clear” in his meeting in Washington about the U.S.’ image in the region.

“I told that that the image of the United States in the region is really bad, incredibly bad, and in order to improve it they have to revise Guantanamo and relations with Cuba.”

You can read the Patagonico article here.

Cuba Study Groups urges repeal of all restrictions on travel to Cuba

The Cuba Study Group issued a report on December 10 that calls on the U.S. government to lift all restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba for all Americans – not only for Americans of Cuban descent but for all Americans.

They argue in the report that the benefits that come from increasing travel outweigh the advantages that such a change in U.S. policy would provide to Cuba’s government and they say rather pointedly that U.S. sanctions that restrict the freedom of travel violate the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

The significance of the Cuba Study Group report, which eluded the U.S. media, should not be overlooked.  An organization that has consistently advocated a tough line on Cuba policy has now endorsed a more expansive policy than president-elect Obama articulated during his campaign.
Obama’s platform did represent progress.  As we have written before, he is the first candidate to win election to the White House promising a loosening of the embargo – the elimination of restrictions on remittances and travel for Cuban-Americans.  But the Cuba Study Group report, which calls for the U.S. government to eliminate all restrictions unilaterally, goes significantly further.

Report of the Cuba Study Group on lifting sanctions against travel to Cuba for all Americans:

Raúl Castro headed to Venezuela, invited to Trinidad and Tobago

Venezuelan Information Minister Jesse Chacon has confirmed that Raúl Castro’s first official trip abroad since assuming Cuba’s presidency will be to attend a summit in Venezuela, the Associated Press reported.

According to Chacon, Castro will be in Venezuela’s capital on Dec. 14 for a meeting of the regional trade bloc known as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas.

The meeting will be attended by representatives of 18 Central American and Caribbean countries that reap benefits from Venezuela’s Petrocaribe oil program, which sells oil to members at preferential prices.

Venezuelan President Chavez announced two weeks ago that Raul Castro would visit Venezuela in the “upcoming weeks,” but the trip had not been confirmed prior to Chacon’s statements.

Over the weekend Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Patrick Manning extended an invitation for Castro to visit Trinidad and Tobago, the Trinidad and Tobago Express reported. “The T&T Prime Minister sent greetings to Cuban Revolution leader Fidel Castro and said he would like to welcome President Raúl Castro in his country,” the paper reported.

Manning who was in Cuba for the CARICOM summit was also scheduled to undertake a routine medical check-up on his pacemaker. He underwent a pacemaker procedure in Cuba in 2005 and has made regular visits there for check-ups since.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

You can read the Trinidad and Tobago Express article here.

Cell phone fees cut in half for Cubans

The Cuban telephone monopoly Etesca is reducing the fee to activate a cellular phone from $120 to about $65 – a change that could help make phones more accessible to more ordinary citizens, the Associated Press reported.

In one of the more publicized changes under Raúl Castro, the government opened cellular phone service to any Cuban who can afford it in April of this year. Previously, only Cubans holding key government jobs could activate cell phones. Many Cubans also bought lines or had lines activated by foreigners who were able to open new lines without restrictions.

Customers still must buy a phone card to make and receive calls. Outgoing and incoming local calls cost about 30 cents a minute.

Meanwhile, Telecom Italia SpA had informal talks with Telefonica SA on the sale of its 27 percent stake in Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba ETECSA, Bloomberg news reported.

According to reports, Telefonica may offer as much as $500 million for the holding, while Telecom Italia is seeking up to 600 million Euros ($779 million), Corriere della Sera daily reported.

The two companies aren’t officially negotiating yet and Telecom Italia may decide to hold an auction for its stake supervised by Cuba’s government, which controls the mobile-phone operator, the report said.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

You can read the Bloomberg article here.

Cuba tourism stays strong as neighbors struggle

In the midst of the world economic crisis and declining tourist visits in the Caribbean, Cuba’s vacation industry has remained busy, the Associated Press reported.

According to the Cuban government, the island is booked solid through December and expects a record 2.34 million visitors this year. They attribute the steady numbers to the fact that global financial woes have so far been softer on Canada, its top source of visitors.

The government said that the tourism sector luckily escaped major damage from a devastating hurricane season that destroyed thousands of homes and buildings.

So far this year about 35 percent of tourists have been Canadian, with 635,000 visiting through September, one-fifth more than in the same period last year. Russian tourists increased by 40 percent to top 28,000 through September, and Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero traveled to Moscow last month to promote more trips to the island from Russian vacationers.

After Canada, visitors from Britain, Italy, Spain and Germany are the top visitors.

“Canadians are going to keep coming, especially with snow at home,” said Canadian Helen Lueke, who has vacationed in Havana about once a year for decades.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

Cuba lowers the price of gasoline by 27%

The Cuban government passed a decree immediately lowering the price of gasoline by 27% and diesel by 28%, due to the lower international oil prices, El Universal reported. The decree was published in the official gazette and state media.

“Taking into account that in the recent months the world market price of oil products has reduced, beginning today December 8th new prices will be enacted for gasoline and diesel in the service centers,” said the announcement by the Ministry of Finance and Prices.

Exactly three months ago, in between the two devastating hurricanes Ike and Gustav, the Government increased the price of gasoline by 68% and the price of diesel by 86%, but stated that the increases would be analyzed three months later. That move angered many residents who couldn’t understand why the price of gasoline was being increased at the same time that world oil prices were decreasing and the country was recovering from a major natural disaster.

Cuba consumes 158.000 bpd of oil, 95.000 of which are imported from Venezuela and the rest obtained through domestic production.

You can read the El Universal article here.

Recommended Reading:

“Debemos luchar por la pluralidad en Cuba,” La Vanguardia

Interview with Eusebio Leal, Havana’s city historian and Communist Party member, about reforms under Raúl Castro, relations with the United States and other issues (in Spanish).

A respected coalition of academic institutions and others, ECDET, called upon President-elect Obama to repeal restrictions on education-related travel to Cuba.  Articles about this effort were printed in a number of publications. You can read the Nuevo Herald article here (in Spanish). You

‘Che’ film gets thumbs up in Cuba, CNN

Around the Region:

Latin America: Preparing for tougher times, The Economist

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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