Cuba, Obama, and the quickening pace of change

Dear Friend:

Read the news summary this week and see if you agree with us – the pace of change is accelerating and there is more pressure on the incoming Obama administration to take bold steps on Cuba.

On the diplomatic front, Spain has urged the administration to change U.S. policy – and its attitude – toward Cuba, if it wants to be influential in the process of change on the island.  Visits by Latin American heads of state to Cuba have begun in earnest following the anniversary of Cuba’s revolution.  President Raúl Castro has made new comments on the record talking about negotiations with the United States and spelling out terms for talks from Cuba’s perspective.  The strategy of intensifying pressure from the South on the U.S. to change our policy toward Cuba continues moving forward.

On the issue of U.S. policy reform, the line of organizations calling for a total repeal of the travel ban grew longer this week.  Previously, the Catholic Bishops, key elements of the travel and tourism industry, mainline Protestant denominations, and the Cuba Study Group added their names to the call for repeal of the travel ban.  Now, Freedom House, a human rights group long critical of Cuba, added its name.  The center of gravity of the Cuba debate has shifted significantly – not just since Mr. Obama called for repeal of restrictions on Cuban-Americans in September 2007, but since his election last November.  There is now more room domestically for Obama to go beyond his campaign pledges.

On the issue of reform in Cuba, the government took steps to permit Cuban citizens to build their own homes using private funds.  Support gathered in Cuba for steps the government is taking to reform wages and benefits to emphasize productivity and merit.  Cuba’s government made public more economic statistics showing greater governmental transparency.  This news, along with reports that the Catholic Church is working together with the government to distribute aid, provide additional evidence of change on the island itself.

In response to this, what should President-elect Obama do?  It’s time for the U.S. and Cuba to talk.  On Monday, January 12, we will be releasing our report, “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US,” which features dozens of recommendations by experts in a variety of fields for actions the U.S. and Cuba could take together to solve problems and build new relationships of confidence and trust.  Visit our website on Monday, when we’ll make this timely report available for download.

But for now, here’s this week’s news.


Spain calls on the U.S. to “change its attitude” towards Cuba

Spain’s Secretary of State for Ibero-American Affairs, Trinidad Jiménez, today recommended that President-elect Barack Obama institute a “change of attitude” towards Cuba if he wants his administration to influence a “process of change” on the island, Europa Press reported.

Jiménez made the comments after having breakfast with his counterpart from the United States, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Thomas Shannon.

Jiménez said that Cuba is the “most complicated” subject in U.S. relations with Latin America and said that even if the U.S. is not going to enact immediate concrete policy changes, they should initiate an attitude of “greater respect toward Cuban authorities, of not imposing any position and not publically pressuring.”

He also noted the “disposition” on the part of Raúl Castro to find “an understanding and dialogue, even in the most informal way” and in his judgment, “in the way that there are gestures coming from one side, there could be some from the other.”

Finally, Jiménez said that the recent incorporation of Cuba in the Rio Group and the normalization of relations that they have achieved with the rest of the region “obligate” Washington to “maintain a different position” toward the island.

Secretary Shannon advocated a policy that focuses more on human rights and democratization in Cuba, but also said that he has advised the Obama team to “deepen” its relations with Spain to have more “success” in Latin America.

Spain was the principal actor behind the European Union’s decision to end sanctions toward Cuba and follow a path of engagement.

You can read the Europa Press article here (in Spanish).

Visits by Latin American leaders send a message to Obama

Journeys to Cuba this week by Panamanian President Martin Torrijos and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa kicked off a series of visits by Latin American heads of state designed, according to analysts, to signal to President-elect Barack Obama that a change in U.S. policy towards Cuba is needed, the Reuters news agency reported.

“With the succession of visits by Latin American presidents, the region is sending a strong message to the Obama administration: it wants Washington to end the embargo and open up political and economic relations with Cuba,” said Michael Shifter of Inter-American Dialogue.

Torrijos visited over the weekend, Correa arrived on Wednesday and Argentine President Cristina Fernández will begin her visit on Saturday. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet will visit in February, and Mexican President Felipe Calderon is also expected to make a trip to the island in the first part of 2009.

In a statement following a meeting in Brazil last month, leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean urged the U.S. to end the embargo. It was the only issue on which the group issued a joint statement.

“All of this intense diplomacy is part of a strategy to involve the United States,” said Sarah Stephens, Director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

“The parade of Chiefs of State arrives just when the Cubans are sending unmistakable signals that they are ready to speak with the United States, ” she added.

Since assuming power, Raúl Castro has improved relations with a number of countries, Russia and Mexico most notably, and carried out a “diversification” of Cuba’s foreign relations. He noted Cuba’s success at strengthening relations in the hemisphere while celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Revolution.

“Today we are not alone in front of the empire on this side of the ocean, like we were in the sixties,” he said.

Oswaldo Paya, the head of the Cuban Christian Liberation Movement, was quoted this week criticizing the impending visit of President Bachelet.  He said the Chilean embassy in Cuba had cut off contacts with his group.

You can read the Reuters article here.

You can read Mr. Paya’s comments here.

Castro again says that he wants to talk to the U.S.

In an interview on Cuban State television last week, Raúl Castro reiterated that he is willing to sit down with the next president of the United States.

He said that although Obama may take “positive steps” on some world issues he believes that expectations of him are “excessive.”

“Although he [Obama] is an honest man, and I believe that he is, a sincere man, and I believe that he is, one man cannot change the destiny of a country, and far less – I mean one man alone – in the United States,” he said.

Castro had this to say about U.S.-Cuba relations:

“Our policy is well-defined: any day that they want to discuss, we’ll discuss, in equality of conditions; as I have already said, without even the smallest shadow over our sovereignty and as equals. And, as is usually the case, or was the case, that from time to time someone would come along to ask us to make a gesture, just as I received a letter from a former president suggesting – before the U.S. elections – that changes were approaching and that it would be good if Cuba was to make a gesture, with the same kindness that he wrote me I responded: the time for unilateral gestures is over; gesture for gesture. And we are disposed to talk whenever they decide, without intermediaries, directly. But we are not in any hurry, we’re not desperate, and, of course, we have said it and Fidel has said it for years: we will not talk with the stick and the carrot, that time is over, that was in another period.”

You can read a transcript of the full interview here.

Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart: No to Policy Changes

Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart apparently disagrees with the increasingly frequent calls for a change in U.S. Cuba policy made by foreign dignitaries, multilateral bodies, human rights organizations and editorial boards.

In response to a Financial Times editorial titled “Prepare the ground for post-Castro era,” Rep. Diaz-Balart submitted a letter to the newspaper arguing that maintaining “a trade and tourism embargo on the Cuban dictatorship is…in the national interest of the US.”

Diaz-Balart calls for “three fundamental developments in Cuba” in order to start talking:

“Number one, the liberation of all political prisoners. Number two, the legalization of all political parties, independent labor unions and the independent press. And number three, the scheduling of free, internationally supervised elections,” Diaz-Balart wrote in the letter.

You can read Rep. Diaz-Balart’s letter here.

You can read the Financial Times editorial here.

Another Human Rights Group calls for an end to Cuba travel ban

Freedom House is asking President-elect Barack Obama to end the ban on most American travel to Cuba immediately, the Associated Press reported.

The group still strongly criticizes Cuba’s human rights record, but asked Obama to re-examine the embargo.  Ending the travel ban would expose Cubans to information about the outside world, Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, said in a statement.

“It is well past time to reassess a policy that impedes the ability of American citizens to freely interact with Cubans on a large scale and thus expose them to unfettered information about the outside world.  We call on the incoming administration of Barack Obama to reexamine the embargo and to immediately lift the restrictions on remittances and travel to and from the island.

“U.S. policy would be even more effective if Americans were allowed to engage more freely with Cuban counterparts,” she said.

Freedom House also noted in its statement that the United States does not impose similar travel sanctions on Americans going to other countries with low freedom ratings, including Burma, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Two other major human rights groups, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have also repeatedly called on the United States to change its policy towards Cuba.   In November, Irene Khan, Amnesty International’s secretary general, said 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.

“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,” she told Reuters during a visit to Chile.
In February, José Miguel Vivanco, Americas’ director at Human Rights Watch, said that it was “a good time for the US government to revisit its failed embargo policy.”

“The Bush administration should end the trade and travel bans that hurt both ordinary Cubans and their Cuban-American relatives. After a half century of ineffective policies, it’s time for the US to adopt a more pragmatic, multilateral approach in pressing Cuba to respect political freedoms,” he said.

You can read the Associated Press article about Freedom House here.

You can read the Reuters article about Amnesty International here.

You can read the Human Rights Watch statement here.


Cubans to be able to build their own homes

In the latest reform announced by Raúl Castro, Cubans will be permitted to build their own homes and will be able to do so using private funds, news agencies reported.

President Castro said that the policy change will make way for the quick construction of hundreds of thousands of dwellings, the Agence France-Presse reported. Home construction and the sale of building supplies in Cuba have previously been controlled primarily by the government.

They will be told “OK, here you can build. I’ve given you this amount of space, that amount of room for a street, and that amount for a sidewalk. Now build your little home with whatever you can,” Castro said.

Castro also said that Cubans will be given clear guidelines about the dimensions of proposed new dwellings, but did not provide further details about when or how the new policy will be implemented.

Government officials earlier this year announced that they have only been building about half of Cuba’s annual goal of 100,000 new homes per year, and the housing deficit was worsened by hurricanes that destroyed or damaged 500,000 homes.

Castro announced a series of reforms in 2008 including giving land to private farmers, increasing farmers’ pay, decentralizing the agricultural sector and removing prohibitions on Cubans buying cell phones, computers and other electronics and renting cars, staying in hotels and accessing other “tourist” facilities.

You can read the AFP article here.

Workers favor the new emphasis on rewarding individual results

Cuba is putting less emphasis on subsidies and social spending and focusing more on rewarding individual workers in an attempt to increase production, the Financial Times reported.

President Raúl Castro announced in December that subsidized holidays at vacation resorts were being abolished, as well as 50 per cent of international government travel and other unnamed gratuities.

In other speeches and interviews marking the January 1st anniversary of the Revolution, Raúl Castro said repeatedly that workers do not appreciate many subsidies and gratuities and should receive increased pay instead.

“It is well known that the vast majority of people do not appreciate a gratuity or generally high subsidies of goods and services as part of the return for their labor, for which they look only at wages,” Castro told parliament in late December.

President Castro has already lifted limits on salaries and called for the implementation of results-based pay in production and service based areas. In an interview aired last week, Castro said that wages should reflect the value of one’s work and those who do not work should feel economic pressure to do so.

“If we do not take measures…we will not get out of the hole we are in, and we are going to get out of it,” Castro said, without offering details.

According to the Financial Times, many workers support the shift.

“Why, after working 24 years, is my ration the same as people who have never worked?” Nancy Artigas, a resident of Havana, told the Financial Times.

“What’s more, their rights and benefits are the same as mine. That doesn’t seem fair, nor is it a way to get people to work.”

You can read the Financial Times article here.

Cuba’s economic data more transparent

Raúl Castro has demanded more accurate information since becoming President and Cuban statistics that were difficult to obtain just a few years ago are now easily accessible, the Financial Times reported.

In a 2006 speech to the parliament, Castro attacked unreliable and non existent data as “preventing us from knowing what has been done and what remains to be done”.

In the past almost no statistics were accessible online and it took months to obtain printed figures covering the economic and social statistics from the previous year.  However, demands from a more educated public, the information age and the need to better manage affairs has led to the website of Cuba’s National Statistics Office,, making much more information readily available.

The website is staffed by graduates of its University of Information Sciences and Oscar Maderos, the director of the NSO, says the increasing skill of local webmasters and domestic demand are driving the improvement.

“We were swamped with demands for national, provincial and even municipal information due to the universalization of higher education,” he says.

The reliability of some information is disputed and some data still remains secret. For example, recent nickel production figures, and some balance of payments information and crime statistics remain unavailable.

However, dozens of previously secret reports, such as a study of internal migration, have been posted on the site and October 2008 agricultural market sales and November tourism data have already been posted.

Maderos said that some information remains secret due to the threat poised by the United States.

“You can’t forget our situation. We are under siege. It would be great if some day that changed, but for now we remain vigilant,” he said.

You can read the Financial Times story here.


Cuba’s service exports increase again in 2008

The government announced that Cuba’s service exports grew by over 6 percent in 2008, earning over $9 billion in revenue and fortifying their position as Cuba’s most important source of foreign exchange, the Reuters news agency reported.

Most of the income from service exports comes from Cuba’s ally Venezuela, where thousands of Cuban doctors, teachers and sports trainers have worked since a 2004 accord between the two countries, under which the oil-rich South American oil-producing country pays Cuba for massive health care assistance and other services.

Cuba does not reveal exactly what is included within the export category, but officials have said tourism and related revenues, the export of medical and other technical services and donations all fall under the category.

According to government figures, 40,000 Cubans worked in Venezuela last year, 30,000 of them in the health sector.

You can read the Reuters article here.

Iran increases credit to Cuba from 200 to 500 million Euros

The Minister of Industry and Mines of Iran, Ali Akbar Mehrabian, announced this week that Iran would increase credit to Cuba from 200 to 500 million Euros (272 to 680 USD) and also said that the two countries are adopting “very important” bilateral agreements, EFE reported.

“Today we were lucky to have very good meetings about different themes of collaboration,” said Akbar Mehrabian after meeting with Cuban Vice-President Ricardo Cabrisas and Minister of Foreign Affairs Felipe Pérez Roque.

The credit of 200 million Euros was granted by Iran in 2007 to finance the imports in the transportation sector and Cuba bought 550 cargo wagons and 200 railway passenger cars.

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

Domestic oil and gas production slightly increased in 2008

The Cuban State oil company CUPET produced more than four million tons of crude and gas in 2008, a 1.3 percent from 2007, local media reported yesterday.

The national production supplied more tan 60 percent of Cuba’s domestic needs.

The director of CUPET, Joel Pumariega, said that Cuba produces 47 percent of the crude that it consumes and that domestic gas generates 15 percent of the domestic electricity.

In 2007, Cuba produced 2.9 million tons of crude and 1.1 million cubic meters of gas.

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


Church and Cuba’s government distribute aid together

Activists from the Catholic organization Caritas, local government officials and social workers are distributing aid to hurricane victims sent by religious organizations in the United States, Agence France-Presse reported.

“With shipments from the United States, 2,000 families were helped” in the province of Pinar del Rio, according to a recently published report by the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba.

The aid, which includes food, hygiene supplies and roofing materials, is being distributed house by house, except for the medicine, which was handed over to hospitals and other health institutions, the report added.

“This work was carried out by members of the Christian communities together with Cáritas, assisted by local government officials and socials workers,” the report said.

Relations between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government have gradually improved since Pope John Paul II visited the island in 1998, and have improved greatly over the last year.

In the last few months, President Raúl Castro attended the first-ever beatification in Cuba and permitted masses to take place in the prisons around Christmas for the first time in 50 years.

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

Cuba opens Hemingway archive to scholars

Cuba has begun allowing electronic access to over 3,000 documents from Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban hideaway Finca Vigia, the Guardian reported.

Most of the 3,197 documents have never been published before and will now be accessible to scholars all over the world by requesting them from the museum at Finca Vigia, where Hemingway lived from 1939 until 1960.

Included in the documents are the beginning of a rejected epilogue to For Whom the Bell Tolls, a screenplay for The Old Man and the Sea, draft fragments of many novels and stories, coded details of his Second World War exploits and letters from a host of literary luminaries.

The documents were scanned and made available electronically through a 2002 agreement between Cuban national heritage authorities and the New York-based Social Science Research Council.

Another 1,000 documents will also be scanned, but Ada Rosa Alfonso, director of the museum at Finca Vigía, did not give a time frame for completion.

You can read the Guardian article here.

You can look at digital photographs of Finca Vigia at the Center for Democracy in the Americas, taken during our delegation visits to the historic site, here.

Recommended Reading:

An Opening to Cuba Can Give Obama Momentum Internationally, Wayne Smith

A new era for Cuba, Only normal ties would give the U.S. influence over the island’s future, Phil Peters

Around the region:

Texaco Toxic Past Haunts Chevron as Judgment Looms, Bloomberg News

Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: