Bush to Depart, Obama to Begin writing a new chapter in U.S.-Cuba Relations

Dear Friend:

The closing: This is the last news summary we will publish during the presidency of George W. Bush.  While every president since Eisenhower tried and failed to replace Cuba’s government and economic system with models more pleasing to the United States, no one pushed the policy harder or on a more sustained basis than President Bush.  He becomes the tenth president to leave office thwarted by the resilience of Cuba’s government and its absolute unwillingness to succumb to five decades of U.S. pressure, from outright violence to an increasingly unenforceable and ineffective embargo.   As is the case all over the world, the Bush presidency ends with America’s image in tatters both in Cuba and throughout the region.   This unfortunate chapter in U.S.-Cuba relations is finally coming to a close.

The opening: In just a few days, we in the United States will have a new president, and Cuba offers a compelling opportunity for Barack Obama to show the region and the world that the White House and U.S. foreign policy are both under new management.  There is clearly a diplomatic opening offered from the Cuban side – with the region organized to oppose the embargo and Raúl Castro expressing his willingness to talk to the United States – and we see signs that the incoming administration appreciates the significance of the moment.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton affirmed that Obama would honor his campaign commitment to repeal restrictions on Cuban-American travel and family support.  But she went further in questions about agricultural trade, cooperation on energy, and Cuba being included on State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism List, and responded by saying:

“We anticipate a review of U.S. policy regarding Cuba and look forward to working with members of the Committee and other members of Congress as we move forward to the consideration of appropriate steps to take to help advance U.S. interests and values in the context of relations with Cuba.”

Reasonable men and women of good will can differ with the new administration in its views of Cuba policy.  We believe that the embargo should be ended, that the constitutional right to travel belongs to all Americans, and that our relations with the region could move to an entirely different and more positive course if we ended this policy, an artifact of the Cold War, and we should embrace the world as it is today.

The new administration hasn’t reached this point yet.  In fact, they aren’t even in office yet.  And once they are, there are surely going to be bumps in the road going forward, and we’ll be there to criticize them when they occur.  But recognize this:  there is nothing that we can see in Senator Clinton’s testimony that forecloses U.S. foreign policy moving in this new direction.  That is exactly what a policy review can produce.

There is no shortage of ideas from which the new administration can choose.   In case President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton need to fill out their reading lists, we’re pleased to offer here what CDA and others have written and produced to ensure the new administration is ready to reform this policy on Day One.

Recommended Reading for the Obama Administration:

9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Memo to President Obama by Julia Sweig and Talking with Castro by William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh. Both are from the January 2009 edition of Cigar Aficionado, which is not available online but can be purchased at newsstands now.

Reach Out to Cuba, William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh

Religious Leaders Letter on Cuba Travel Policy, National Council of Churches, Church World Services and other Christian leaders

Purposeful Travel, American Association of State Colleges and Universities and others

Lifting Restrictions on Travel and Remittances to Cuba: A Case for Unilateral Action, The Cuba Study Group

Reexamining U.S. Cuba Policy, American Farm Bureau Federation, American Society of Travel Agents, Grocery Manufacturers Association, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others

Charting a New Course on U.S.-Cuba Policy: Seizing a Historic Opportunity, ENCASA/US-CUBA

An Opening with Cuba Can Give Obama Momentum Internationally, Wayne Smith, Center for International Policy

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

“The Case for a New Cuba Policy,” Jake Colvin, National Foreign Trade Council

Obama Administration Should Pursue New Approach to Promote Democracy in Cuba, Freedom House

Re-Thinking U.S.-Latin American Relations: A Hemispheric Partnership for a Turbulent World, the Brookings Institute

U.S.-Latin America Relations: A New Direction for a New Reality, Council on Foreign Relations

Now that we’ve brought this week’s opening to a close, it’s our pleasure to introduce this week in Cuba news…


9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk

This week the Center for Democracy in the Americas released its new report, “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US,” which urges cooperation in 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 free copy of the report can be downloaded here. Or, make a donation of $20 or more to the Center for Democracy in the Americas. We will ship you a complimentary copy of the published book today. Your donation will go a long way toward helping us maximize our outreach effort and ensuring that The 9 Ways gets into the hands of all the right people — including every member of the U.S. Congress and the foreign policy chiefs in the new Administration.

Hillary Clinton’s Testimony on Cuba

Senator Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State-designate, left open the possibility of increased engagement between Washington and Havana, which many believe could lead to a broader process of normalization, Inter Press Services reported.

“The President-elect is committed to lifting family travel restrictions and the remittance restriction,” Senator Clinton said when asked about Cuba policy at her confirmation hearing this week.

“…We hope that the regime in Cuba — both Fidel and (President) Raúl Castro — will see this new administration as an opportunity to change some of their typical approaches, let those political prisoners out, be willing to, you know, open up the economy, and lift some of the oppressive strictures on the people of Cuba, and I think that there would be an opportunity that could be perhaps exploited,” she added.

Clinton said that there is no timetable for lifting the restrictions on Cuban American travel and remittances. She also reiterated that President-elect Obama does not believe it is time to lift the embargo, which is “an important source of leverage” for further change on the island.

However, in response to questions submitted by Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Clinton said that the incoming administration plans to “review” U.S. policy toward Cuba in several areas.

When asked about agricultural trade, cooperation on energy, and Cuba being included on State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism List, Clinton responded by saying:

“We anticipate a review of U.S. policy regarding Cuba and look forward to working with members of the Committee and other members of Congress as we move forward to the consideration of appropriate steps to take to help advance U.S. interests and values in the context of relations with Cuba.”

When asked about cooperating with Cuba in the fight against drug trafficking, Clinton responded:

“Given the threat poised by narcotics trafficking, it is important to cooperate with Cuba where such cooperation is effective in stopping trafficking.”

These statements could set the stage for further progress on Cuba policy.

“Senator Clinton not only made clear that the Obama administration would honor its commitment to restore Cuban-American family travel and financial support,” said Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), “but she also left the door open to significant additional opportunities to engage down the road.”

You can read the IPS article here.

You can read Sen. Clinton’s written responses to Sen. Lugar’s questions here (page 59)

You can read a transcript of Sen. Clinton’s testimony here.

Brazil offers to mediate between Obama team and Cuba

Brazil offered to serve as a mediator to help foster reconciliation between the future administration of Barack Obama and Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia, the Spanish news agency EFE reported.

Brazil’s minister of strategic affairs, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, told a Brazilian newspaper that he proposed the idea to advisors for President-elect Obama in a meeting last week.

Unger, in a statement published by the newspaper, O Estado de Sao Paulo, said that he proposed the idea of Brazil acting as a mediator in order to improve relations between the U.S. and the three countries.

Unger, who was a professor for Obama and several of Obama’s advisors at Harvard, said he was authorized by Brazilian President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to meet informally with members of Obama’s team to discuss bilateral relations. Unger did not specify with whom from Obama’s staff he met.

You can read the EFE article here.

Bush sends last message on Cuba, dissidents “disappointed” with his Cuba policy

U.S. President George W. Bush sent one last “message of hope” to Cuba this week, but much of the dissident community expressed discontent with the results of his Cuba policy, Agence France-Presse reported.

“This message of hope is directed especially to those who have made pleas for freedom only to be silenced by tyranny and oppression,” Bush said in a statement on Tuesday.

He said that his administration had continually challenged Havana to push for political and economic changes and improve human rights on the island. He described Cuba as “one of the cruelest dictatorships this hemisphere has witnessed.”

However, the dissident community in Cuba reacted to Bush’s outgoing statement with mixed reviews of the successes of his Cuba policy.

Marta Beatriz Roque, a member of the opposition group Agenda for Transition, and long considered one of the dissidents closest to the U.S. Interests Section, described Bush’s Cuba policy as “disappointing.”

Dissident Manuel Cuesta said that Bush’s policy was so extreme that it failed to produce any positive results and said he hoped that “Obama doesn’t inherit it.”

Vladimiro Roca, also from Agenda for Transition, said that although Bush’s policy was “one of the most supportive the U.S. has shown for the people and the opposition in Cuba,” it resulted in little change.

You can read the AFP article here.

Bush suspends Title 3 of the Helms-Burton Law again

After releasing one final statement criticizing Cuba and defending his policy, President Bush on Thursday suspended for six months the application of Title Three of the Helms-Burton Law, the Miami Herald‘s Cuban Colada blog reports.

Title Three of the law, which was passed in 1996 to strengthen the embargo, “allows for lawsuits to be filed against foreign individuals or companies doing business with Cuba that involves property confiscated from U.S. citizens.” It also denies the right of entry into the U.S. for executives of companies that deal with property in Cuba determined to be confiscated U.S. property.

Bush has consistently suspended the application of Title Three throughout his presidency as did President Clinton.

You can read the Cuban Colada blog post here.

Cuban-Americans in California discuss the lifting of travel restrictions

Many Cuban-Americans are buoyed by President-elect Barack Obama’s promise to lift travel restrictions for them to visit relatives on the island and the cap on the amount of remittances they can send to family on the island, the Press Enterprise reported.

Omar Gonzalez, who has an ill grandfather who’s condition is worsening, says he doesn’t know how much time his grandfather has to live and is nervous U.S. law will prevent him from seeing him again.

Gonzalez traveled to Cuba in August to visit him, but since Cuban-Americans can only visit family members once every three years, he is not allowed another visit until 2011.

“The United States is trying to suffocate Castro and his government, but the United States is not suffocating Castro,” said Gonzalez’s wife, Zaima. “They’re suffocating the people who have family members in Cuba. The government will survive.”

President George W. Bush hardened restrictions in 2004, when he reduced family travel from once a year to once every three years and limited visits to immediate family members. The Bush administration also restricted Cuban-Americans from sending remittances outside their immediate family.

Sergio Montoto, of Riverside, supports the restrictions, which limited family travel to once every three years and capped the amount of money permitted to be sent through remittances.

“If the government hasn’t really changed,” Montoto said, referring to Raul Castro assuming the presidency from his brother Fidel last year, “why should I travel there and leave money for the government to hurt Cubans? The money helps keep them in power.”

Recent polls show that Montoto is now in the minority, with more than half of Cuban-American citizen voters supporting a relaxation or elimination of travel and remittance restrictions.

Cuban American Rudy Ruibal, 81, said he hoped that Obama would not only ease travel and remittance restrictions for Cubans, but it would be the first step in the eventual lifting of the embargo.

“I always thought the embargo was the stupidest thing the United States could do,” Ruibal said.

You can read the Press Enterprise article here.


More Private Taxis & market based fares

Under a new law announced this week, Cubans with cars are being encouraged to apply for licenses to use them as taxis and to set their own prices, the Associated Press reports.

No new taxi licenses have been approved since 1999, and the new law and the corresponding announcement did not specify how many new cabs will be allowed. It does offer officials to decide what number of “autos, jeeps, panel trucks, microbuses, three-wheelers and motorcycles” are most suitable for each area’s needs.

The measure also allows for more private cabs to decide fares based on supply and demand. A state commission will be enlisted to establish limits on fares to discourage overcharging.

It also encourages owners of motor vehicles in the countryside — including cars, trucks and even sidecar motorcycles – to use them to transport passengers at prices set by the state. This effort will be focused on areas where bus service is poor. The drivers will receive fares from passengers and subsidized gasoline from the government.

This new policy differs greatly from policies for taxis under Fidel Castro, who often accused private taxis of “getting rich,” overcharging and fomenting a black market for stolen state-subsidized gasoline.  He frequently ordered crackdowns on taxis operating without licenses through increased control and stiff fines.

Taxi drivers and clients interviewed by Associated Press seemed to be pleased with the announcement.

“It could be a great help, an economic help to the family but also to the entire population since public transportation is still very difficult,” said Havana retiree Barbara Costa, adding that she would encourage her son-in-law to use his car as a taxi.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

Cuban youth not motivated to work

According to a report by the Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, getting a job has dropped to priority five in the ambitions of Cuban youth, the Indo-Asian news service reported.

“Idleness is one of the problems that hurts the economy, aggravated in some places by the lack of a work ethic,” the report titled “Idleness: an ideological danger” pointed out, arguing that most of the youths on the island do not have “rigor and ambition”.

The report said that the laziness of some people poses a danger for the whole society.

“The presence of individuals who never get their shirts sweaty but rather live better than those who work from sunrise to sunset leads workers to ask: “What’s the use of working if the lazy live just as well or better than I do?,” it said.

The report blamed adults who do not work for transmitting their “disease” to their children.

“How difficult it is for the child of such an individual to nurture and later show feelings and convictions identified with work, if since infancy they have received greater benefits and privileges than other schoolmates,” the report questioned.

The article supports Raúl Castro’s new policies of enacting performance-based pay and removing generalized subsidies.

“The government has maintained people who do not work, giving them the guarantee of a basic food ration, healthcare, education and security,” it said.

“To correct little by little the existing distortions of the salary system, we have to eliminate the unjustified gratuities and excessive subsidies. Otherwise, the accounts simply don’t add up,” Castro said in Parliament two weeks ago.

Castro has said that subsidies must be cut so that Cubans feel the “vital necessity” of working.

“We have to act with realism and adjust our dreams to real possibilities,” Castro also told the parliament.

You can read the Indo-Asian news service report here.


Spain and Cuba to hold third round of talks about human rights

Spain and Cuba are holding the third round of discussions about human rights today in Havana, the Spanish news agency ABC reported.  The meeting is a follow-up to a meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries, Miguel Ángel Moratinos y Felipe Pérez Roque, in Madrid last October.  Among other subjects, the situation of political prisoners will be discussed at the meeting.

Sources from Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the agenda will include “all subjects that are of interest to both sides.”

The mechanism of bilateral dialogue about human rights, which permits investigation of the situation of political prisoners in Cuba, was constructed in April of 2007 during a visit to Cuba by Minister Moratinos.

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

Dissident arrested in 2003 crackdown freed

An opposition activist that was arrested in a crackdown on Cuba’s opposition in 2003 completed his sentence on Thursday and was released from prison, the Associated Press reported.

The Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, the island’s leading independent rights monitor, announced the release of Reynaldo Labrada Pena, who took part in Varela Project signature drive.

According to the group, of the 75 activists that were arrested in the 2003 crackdown, a total of 21 have now been freed.

Labrada Pena worked on the Varela Project, a drive which collected thousands of signatures from Cuban voters requesting a referendum on issues such as freedom of speech, assembly, and press, and business ownership. The group delivered the signatures to Cuba’s National Assembly, which shelved the proposal.

The Cuban government accused the 75 activists of receiving money and training from U.S. authorities to carry out their activities.

You can read the Associated Press article here.


Rumors about Fidel Castro’s health

Fidel Castro has not released a new reflection in over a month and did not meet with the two Latin American presidents who visited the island recently, fueling speculation that he may have suffered another setback to his health, multiple news agencies report.

Castro issued just a one sentence congratulatory message on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Revolution. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and Panamanian President Martin Torrijos visited the island recently and did not meet with Castro.

Although the former Cuban president  has not been seen in public in two years, his essays published in the state media and meetings with foreign dignitaries have dispelled the constant rumors in the past that he was already dead.  Reuters reported that “the frequency of the columns, in which Castro opines about current and past events, had come to be an informal barometer of his health.”

The rumors picked up steam Sunday when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez told viewers of his weekly TV and radio show that Castro would never appear in public again.

“That Fidel in his uniform, who walked the streets and towns late at night, hugging the people, won’t return,” Chavez said.

The Spanish newspaper El País reported that there were military movements after Castro suffered a “possible heart attack,” a claim that was refuted by sources in Havana. Cubaencuentro, a Cuba-focused website, reported that his condition is “irreversible.” South Florida’s Diario Las Americas reported that Castro has fallen into a coma and is on a respirator.

Andy Gomez, an advisor to the Brookings Institution taskforce on Cuba, told the Miami Herald that “high-level sources in Washington have said that Castro is gravely ill.”

The State Department has refused to comment on intelligence pertaining to Castro’s health. Phil Peters points out on his Cuban Triangle blog that “it has been 25 months since our Director of National Intelligence said Fidel had ‘months, not years’ ahead of him.”  That prediction was reported here.

Meanwhile, leaders of exile groups in Miami plan to meet on Saturday to plan a “common position” to the possible announcement of Castro passing away, reported EFE.

Ramón Saúl Sánchez, President of Democracy Movement, announced that a variety of anti-Castro organizations will meet to “exchange criteria.” According to EFE, Sánchez met on Wednesday with officials from the local Miami police departments and an official from the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate the planning of safe demonstrations.

Thousands of Cuban-Americans took to the streets of Miami in celebrations upon the news of Fidel Castro becoming ill in 2006.

You can read the Reuters article here.

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

Castro to visit Moscow

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced on Friday that Cuban President Raúl Castro is planning to visit Moscow, Javno news reported.

Medvedev visited Havana in November 2008, and shortly after a Russian warship sailed into Havana Bay for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

It is the latest sign of strengthening ties between the erstwhile Cold War allies.

“I hope that the coming visit to Russia of the head of the State Council and Council of Ministers of Cuba, Raúl Castro, will give a serious impulse to our bilateral relations,” Medvedev said during a ceremony to accept the credentials of Cuba’s new ambassador to Moscow.

The date of Castro’s planned visit was not revealed.

You can read the Javno news article here.

Growing Jewish community in Cuba

The prospect of emigration is helping fuel a revival of sorts in Judaism in Cuba after a half-century of Communism, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Cuba had as many as 30,000 Jewish citizens in the period right before World War II, but that number fell to about 1,000 individuals by the end of 1980s.  However, the Jewish community has grown to almost 1,500 today and hundreds of others Cuban Jews have recently departed to live in Israel or Florida.

For the first time in decades, more Jewish babies are being born in Cuba than elderly members are dying, Samuel Zagovalov, the current religious director of Sefaradí synagogue. He said that bar mitzvahs also are on the rise, with eight taking place in 2008, after years in which one, or none, usually occurred.

Some of the renewed interest is sparked by the possibility of emigrating. Jews bound for the Holy Land can expect to have the high fees for emigration paperwork and the cost of travel plans to leave Cuba paid for by Israel.

“I would be less than honest if I didn’t tell you that some people want to be Jews because it offers them the chance to leave,” says Zagovalov, who considers the rising interest in Judaism a good thing, no matter how it comes about.

The revival in Jewish life here began in the early 1990s, when the Communist Party lifted the ban on members practicing religion. The interest in Cubans rediscovering their Jewish roots picked up again in the mid-1990s, when “Operation Cigar” was instituted. The operation, barely known at the time, was a three-sided arrangement between Cuba, Israel and Canada, which moved 400 elderly Havana Jews to Israel.

Israel and Cuba had cut diplomatic relations during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, so Israel’s Jewish Agency paid to fly Cubans to Canada to be processed and then make the trip to Israel. Many of the Cuban Jews eventually make their way to the United States.

“My situation has grown very uncomfortable now. Without language, without knowing how this nightmare ends,” María Lores, a recent Cuban arrival in Israel wrote a day after Israel launched its attack on Gaza. “I have no idea why God permits these things.”

She recently applied for a visa to Canada.

You can read the Wall Street Journal article here.

Cuba number 1 in world baseball rankings

The International Baseball Federation (IBAF) released its world baseball rankings this week with Cuba taking the top spot ahead of the United States and South Korea, the Associated Press reported.

The rankings were based on overall performance in official events that took place over the last four years.

Cuba finished second in the 2007 Baseball World Cup after winning it in 2005. They also came in second in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006. Cuba won the silver medal in last summer’s Olympics, losing in the finals to South Korea.

You can read the AP article here.

Recommended Viewing:

Interview with Mariela Castro on the Future of Sex and Socialism in Cuba

Around the Region:

Lula urges Obama to change U.S. view of Latin America, Reuters

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva urged U.S. President-elect Barack Obama on Thursday to drop outdated U.S. views of Latin America as a region of communists, terrorists and drug traffickers.

Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team

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