Latin America to Obama: End Embargo!

Dear Friend:

This is our interpretation of events cascading out of Latin America.

Cuba is engaged in a diplomatic offensive- along with the other nations of the Americas – that is anticipating the changing of the guard in Washington, DC.  The target audience for this activity is President-elect Obama.  It is strategic.  It is coordinated.  It is unfolding in plain view.

While the message is greater than the sum of its parts, the parts are pretty interesting by themselves.

President Raúl Castro has made another offer to engage in dialogue with President-elect Obama, and he publicly discussed a prisoner exchange offering to release political prisoners in Cuba for return of The Cuban Five.

Thirty-three Latin American and Caribbean heads of state issued a unanimous call for the United States to drop its embargo against Cuba.  The Presidents of Ecuador, Argentina, and Mexico announced plans to visit Cuba early in 2009, joining President Michelle Bachelet of Chile, who previously announced her intentions to visit the Island next year.

Cuba and Venezuela signed agreements on energy, Cuba and Jamaica agreed to cooperate on tourism, and Cuba is about to host naval vessels from Russia for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

How do we read all of this escalating activity?  On one hand, Cuba is offering to engage in diplomacy with the United States, and is putting the onus on Mr. Obama to decide whether he will be a willing partner once he enters the White House.  To add to this intriguing new posture, President Castro put the subject of political prisoners in the mix, a reference to Obama’s campaign position on how he would move the U.S.-Cuba relationship forward.  Like a chorus adding its encouragement, the entire region is raising its voice urging an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba, another sign that the incoming president must consider.

At the same time, Cuba has another message – no matter how President Obama decides to respond to this opening, Cuba is moving forward aggressively to mend and extend its relationships in the region and the world, giving the United States another incentive to participate or risk being marginalized.

That’s our interpretation; what’s yours?  And, what’s Obama’s?

This week was an extraordinary week in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA DIALOGUE?

Castro offers to dialogue with Obama as “equals”

Raúl Castro reiterated his offer this week to engage in a dialogue with President-elect Obama if it is done as “equals,” the Granma reported.

Referring to the embargo, which Cuba calls a blockade, Castro said: “It’s been almost 50 years now, it’s time for it to end; it’s dying.  It’s time to start getting ready, because the blockade has no perspective; the gentleman, the president of the United States said during his election campaign that he will ease the blockade, but if it’s maintained, that is the carrot and the stick.”

“Mr. Obama, president of the United States, whose virtues we acknowledge, should know that now is the moment of truth,” the Cuban president added.

Referring to comments former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made to Brazilian officials last week, Castro said it is not fair to expect Cuba to make the first gesture.

“Why don’t they lift the blockade?  Mrs. Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state in the William Clinton administration, stated that for that to happen, Cuba had to make gestures. Gestures of what? Gestures for what? Why gestures by a small country under attack?” he said.

He suggested that Cuba and the United States could work out their differences through respect and dialogue.

“The world would be a very boring place if we all had to think alike; difference is a virtue. We have to know how to deal with discrepancies, respecting others, but demanding respect for ourselves,” said Castro.

Prisoner exchange

Raúl Castro suggested that he would be willing to release political prisoners as a “gesture” to the United States as long as the gesture was returned, BBC News reported.

When asked about political prisoners by reporters, Castro responded by saying: “Let’s do it gesture for gesture,” essentially a call for the U.S. to release five Cubans held on espionage related charges.

Castro, referring to the political prisoners, told reporters: “These prisoners you talk about – they want us to let them go? They should tell us tomorrow. We’ll send them with their families and everything. Give us back our five heroes. That is a gesture on both parts.”

René González, Antonio Guerrero, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino and Fernando González have served more than 10 years in U.S. jails and are considered national heroes in Cuba.

In reaction, the U.S. State Department said that the proposal would not be accepted, the Agence-France Presse reported.

“The issue of political prisoners held against their will, merely for making peaceful protests, is independent of the case of the five spies tried and convicted under due process of the U.S. judicial system,” the Department’s deputy spokesman Robert Wood told AFP.

The five Cubans were convicted in 2001 of espionage and sentenced to long prison terms, but the Cuban government argues that they were only monitoring violent Cuban-American groups in Miami that planned terrorist attacks on Cuba.

You can read the Granma article here.

You can read the BBC News story here.

You can read the AFP story here.

DIPLOMACY

Leaders from the region demand U.S. end embargo of Cuba

Latin American leaders meeting in Brazil have demanded an end to the 46-year-old U.S. embargo on Cuba in a joint declaration endorsed by 33 heads of state from the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean, the Agence France-Presse reported.

“We ask the Government of the United States of America to fulfill the requirements of the 17 successive resolutions approved by the United Nations General Assembly and put an end to the economic, trade and financial blockade it maintains against Cuba,” said a statement released at the conclusion of the summit.

One month before President-elect Obama is set to take office, the leaders urged the “immediate” scrapping of measures reinforcing the embargo introduced under President Bush over the past five years and slammed the 1996 Helms-Burton law that blocks foreign investment and sources of finance for Cuba.

“In the defense of free exchanges and the transparent practice of international trade, the application of unilateral coercive measures that affect the well-being of the people and obstruct the processes of integration are unacceptable,” the statement said.

Raúl Castro, attending his first multilateral summit abroad since becoming Cuba’s president called the meeting “magnificent” and said that he finds the results “very good.”

You can read the AFP story here.

Castro’s diplomacy at the LA-Caribbean Summit

In the past few months, Brazilian President Lula da Silva, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dimitri Medvédev have all visited Cuba to sign new cooperation agreements and strengthen relations with Cuba as talk of some sort of dialogue between Castro and incoming President-elect Obama emerges.  Castro took advantage of his trip to Brazil to further strengthen relations with countries in the region.

Ecuador: President Correa will visit Cuba

The President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, will visit Cuba January 7-10, 2009 to meet with Raúl Castro, according to a document released by an Ecuadorian delegation that attended the Latin American and Caribbean Summit in Brazil, EcoDiario newspaper reported.

According to Ecuadorian Chancellor Falconí, Correa and Raúl Castro met for “more than three hours” during the summit.

The meeting marked the beginning of a “dialogue about the work agenda that Correa will carry out on his visit to Cuba, and also to discuss strategic issues to consolidate relations between the two countries,” he added.

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

Argentina: President Kirchner will visit Cuba

Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will travel to Cuba between January 12 and 15th, El Pais reported.

The working agenda for the trip has not been determined yet, but the two presidents will discuss issues related to energy, health, education and agriculture, Argentinean officials said.

President Kirchner noted that 4 million energy efficient light bulbs produced in Havana arrived in Buenos Aires this week and there is speculation that Argentina may be interested in oil exploration in Cuba’s waters.

Relations under Kirchner’s husband, former President Kirchner, and Fidel Castro went from “excellent” to “cold,” due to the case of Hilda Molina, a dissident who – although previously close to Fidel Castro – has been denied permission for years to travel to Argentina to be with her children and grandchildren.

According to the news site InfoBae.com, Molina has already sent a letter to President Kirchner requesting to “visit her during her time in Cuba to be able to explain to her as a grandmother, woman, mother and a doctor what it would mean for her grandchildren if her situation is prolonged.”

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

You can read the InfoBae.com article here (in Spanish).

Mexico: Mexico-Cuba relations “are magnificent”

Presidents Raúl Castro and Felipe Calderón told reporters that relations between their two countries “are magnificent,” after meeting each other for the first time at the summit in Brazil, La Jornada reported.

Although dates were not announced, Calderón announced that he will visit Cuba and Castro will visit Mexico at some point in 2009.

“There never should have been problems,” Castro said when asked about bad relations between his brother and former Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Calderon said that nothing was left outside of his discussion with Castro, including “the preoccupation that we [the government] and many Mexicans have in respect to human rights in Cuba.”

A press release by the Mexican government said that the two men discussed their satisfaction with an immigration agreement that was signed in October and agreed on the importance of increasing bilateral cooperation in fighting organized crime and drug trafficking.

Meanwhile, the government of Mexico repatriated 34 undocumented Cubans on Monday, making 75 people that have been sent back to Cuba this year after signing an immigration memorandum on October 22nd, EFE reported.

You can read the La Jornada article here (in Spanish).

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

Castro meets with OAS Secretary General Insulza

Castro also met with the Secretary General of the OAS, José Miguel Insulza, on the sidelines of the summit and discussed Cuba’s “reintegration in the inter-American system,” EFE reported.

During their conversation,  Insulza and Castro discussed the importance of Cuba’s participation in the regional dialogue; Cuba, for example, became a member of the  Rio Group in the last few days.

Castro apparently told Insulza that Cuba is not interested in returning to the OAS but understands his position of advocating for Cuba’s return. Cuba was suspended from the OAS in 1962 and Insulza has advocated for their return various times.

Castro also told reporters that Cuba would never return to the OAS.

“We can’t, with the or without the United States, rejoin the OAS; it is an idea that should disappear, it is our opinion, we respect the decision of all of you countries that continue belonging to the OAS. We belong to the Rio Group and will continue belonging to the Rio Group,” Castro said.

You can read the EFE article here.

Cuba, Venezuela sign new accords during Castro’s visit

Raúl Castro traveled to Venezuelan to meet with President Hugo Chávez before traveling to Brazil for a summit with other leaders from the region, making Venezuela the first country he visited since he began serving as (acting) president  in 2006. The meetings between Castro and Chávez resulted in new agreements to expand the capacity of two refineries in Cuba and to construct a third one, the Oil and Gas Journal reported.

According to a statement from PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, the expansion plans will see Cuba’s refining capacity increased to 350,000 b/d from the current 87,000 b/d.

The agreements would boost production at the Cienfuegos refinery from 65,000 b/d to 150,000 b/d; the Hermanos Diaz refinery in Santiago from 22,000 b/d to 50,000 b/d and the proposed refinery in Matanzas would produce 150,000 b/d.

Dates and specifics on the respective stakes of the two sides in the joint venture were not revealed.

The meeting’s final ceremony included a “program of general collaboration” for 2009, which contemplates the continuation “of 137 development projects and another 36 new projects” with a total investment of $2 billion, the Latin American Herald Tribune reported.

According to figures from mixed Venezuela-Cuba Commission, the two countries have carried out a total of 76 projects worth $1.35 billion this year.

You can read the Oil and Gas Journal article here.

You can read the Latin America Herald Tribune article here.

Jamaica, Cuba to work together on tourism

Jamaica and Cuba will sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) within the next few weeks, which will allow them to work together on joining destination marketing and airlift arrangements between the islands, the Jamaica Observer reported.

Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett said the MOU evolved out of negotiations between Prime Minister Bruce Golding and President Castro during Golding’s visit to Cuba earlier this year.

Bartlett said code-sharing arrangements between the two countries would allow them to maximize on European tourists that often visit Cuba and said that Jamaica could benefit from the possible lifting of the United States’ economic embargo on Cuba.

“Jamaica and Cuba, as you know, enjoy a good relationship, and in our marketing, we have looked beyond the opening, not as a threat, but as an opportunity for co-marketing and for regional co-operation,” said Bartlett.

You can read the Jamaica Observer article here.

Russian warships visit Cuba

Russian warships were set to arrive in Cuba for the first time since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Associated Press reported.

The Russian naval ships, the Peter the Great cruiser and the Admiral Chabanenko destroyer,  have been on a month long visit to Latin America where they carried our military exercises with Venezuela and passed through the Panama Canal.

However, the U.S. military commander for the region, Adm. James Stavridis, head of the U.S. Southern Command, said that there is no reason to be concerned about the Russian naval activity.

“They pose no military threat to the U.S.,” Stavridis said.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

ECONOMY

Tough Economic Times

Three hurricanes and the global financial crisis have left Cuba short on cash, forcing the government to delay debt payments and seek new financing, the Reuters news agency reported.

According to foreign diplomats, Japan and Germany were notified a few months ago that Cuba could not meet debt payments, which led to some sort of restructuring.  Now France has been notified that Cuba would like to reschedule upcoming debt payments, French business sources said.

The Cuban government did not respond to a request seeking comment, but Jose Luis Rodriguez, Cuba’s planning and economy minister, recently said that Cuba, like all countries in the region, is facing the fallout of the world economic crisis.

Foreign businessman contacted by Reuters said that payments from Cuban state-run banks have slowed recently.

“It appears they do not have the cash on hand so they delay and then pay you and delay payment to someone else,” said one Western businessman.

Few businessmen or local economists feared that Cuba would stop debt payments altogether.

Cuba’s economy has grown steadily in recent years, but Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma caused an estimated $10 billion in damage this year and the price of nickel, Cuba’s main export, has declined dramatically.

Although the economic forecast is bleak, it is nothing like tough times in the 90s and the Cuban government has taken steps to minimize the effects of the financial crisis, said one local economist.

“The situation is very difficult, but nothing like the crisis of the 1990s when the Soviets collapsed. We have strategic partnerships with Venezuela and China to fall back on, are part of regional integration efforts, and are mending fences with the European Union and Russia,” he said.

Vice-President Machado agrees

Meanwhile, First Vice-President, José Ramón Machado Ventura, said this week that Cuba is facing a “very difficult” economic situation and predicted tougher times ahead due to the international financial crisis, El Publico reported.

Machado Ventura, admitted that the problems the country is facing can not be solved at “the desired pace” after the crushing hurricanes Gustav and Ike in August and September.

“Unquestionably, internal problems, as well as external problems, are hitting us hard,” he said during a Congress for the Committees of the Defense of the Revolution.

“Therefore, not all advances can be made and problems be solved at the desired rate. We must be able to transmit this message with clear language, especially to those affected by the hurricanes,” he added.

UN accepts Cuba’s subsidies and services in GDP calculations

After years of dispute, a United Nations economic commission agreed this week to accept Cuba’s inclusion of social investment in calculations on the country’s Gross Domestic Product, the Reuters new agency reported.

Cuba has long argued that the U.N. Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) uses methodology that is biased against non-market economies.

“We have worked all year with ECLAC, including its top officials, to perfect the method that can really measure our growth,” Oscar Mederos Mesa, director of the Cuban National Statistics Office, told Reuters.

The dispute centered on whether or not Cuba could include estimates of the market value of free social services and subsidized goods, as well as exported medical and technical services in its growth calculations.

You can read the Reuters article about debt payment here.

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

You can read the Reuters article about GDP calculation here.

Recommended Reading:

Obama and the New Cuba, By Philip Peters

For Most Cubans, Film Is the Only Way to Travel, The Wall Street Journal

‘Obama Effect’ Highlights Racism in Cuba, New America Media

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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