Fidel Makes Way

Dear Friend:

During the time that Cuba celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its revolution, former president Fidel Castro was absent; he was neither seen in public nor did he release one of his oft-published “Reflections,” where he frequently opines on global events.

Yet, two days after Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States, Fidel Castro published a column in which he praised America’s 44th president.  But then the former Cuban president went further, to discuss his own mortality and to say that he had slowed his writings to avoid interfering in the work of Cuba’s government or getting in the way of the decisions that officials must make.

We will have to wait to see if Castro follows through and becomes less involved in governing. However, it’s hard to view the fact of this statement, its timing, and its substance without seeing what one storied Cuba expert called “an olive branch” and a pretty significant olive branch at that.

During decades of U.S. foreign policy, the presence of Fidel Castro has always been an obstacle for policy makers to move toward normal relations with Cuba.  When, in the midst of inauguration week, the former Cuban president publishes a column and says he is not governing and that he is unlikely to see the end of Obama’s first term in office, these statements must be seen as part of Cuba’s on-going signaling that it is ready to engage with the United States, and the new administration should take notice.

How should President Obama respond?  Not like the administration of President George W. Bush.  On December 17, 2007, when President Castro used a previous column to signal his diminishing role in Cuba’s government, the U.S. State Department spokesman responded, “I don’t think, unfortunately, these remarks represent any kind of fundamental change in the views of the Cuban regime.”  They were, of course, wrong.  Within weeks, Fidel Castro had resigned, Raul Castro had been elected president, and a series of reforms had been unveiled in a process that continues to this day.  The U.S. government acknowledged none of this, and nearly a year has been lost.

Instead, we would urge the Obama administration to be respectful, silence is much better than animosity or skepticism, and to continue the tone of its new Secretary of State and its Treasury Secretary-designate, both of whom answered questions about Cuba before the committees that considered their nominations, closing no doors and referring instead to their commitment to review the entire policy.

Independently, and on its own timetable, the administration could do what it promised to do in the campaign, eliminate restrictions on the right of Cuban-Americans to visit their families and to provide them with financial support.  It should signal to Congress a willingness to sign legislation legalizing travel for all Americans.  And it should also take other steps to engage with Cuba – on matters of concern to the neighborhood like law enforcement, migration, and environment protection – where there are easily achieved and meaningful benefits for both countries and an opportunity to start a larger conversation about the consequential issues that must ultimately be resolved to the satisfaction of both Cuba and the United States.

There’s a lot on President Obama’s plate, and he is already demonstrating a determination to do things on his terms and at his own pace.  But in a week when Fidel steps further back and Guantanamo is set to be closed, it is our hope that the new administration will see the opportunities of the moment and act in ways that advance progress and serve our country’s larger interests in Cuba, the region, and the world.

This week in Cuba news…

IN CUBA

Fidel Castro praises Obama, says he will not interfere with government in 2009

In a new reflection (essay) released by Fidel Castro yesterday, Cuba’s former president said that he has “reduced the Reflections as I had planned this year, so as not to interfere or get in the way of the (Communist) Party or government comrades in the constant decisions they must make.

“I am well, but I insist that none of them should feel bound by my occasional Reflections, my state of health or my death,” wrote Castro referring to government officials who he said will have to make tough decisions this year.

Commenting on Barack Obama beginning his term as president, Castro wrote that he does not expect to be alive when Obama finishes his first term, but the majority of the column consisted of praise for President Obama.

“The intelligent and noble face of the first black president of the United States … had transformed itself under the inspiration of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King into a living symbol of the American dream,” he wrote.

But although Castro “does not doubt the sincerity” of Obama’s words, he suggested Obama’s power will not be enough to save the U.S. from the problems of its economic system.   “What will he do soon, when the immense power that he has taken in his hands is absolutely useless to overcome the unsolvable, antagonistic contradictions of the system?”

You can read the complete reflection here.

Obama’s inauguration received well in Cuba

Cuba’s President Raúl Castro said on Wednesday that Barack Obama “seems to be a good man” and offered him best of luck, the Reuters news agency reported.

“He seems like a good man, I wish him luck,” Castro told reporters during a visit to Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine with Argentine leader Cristina Fernandez.

Ricardo Alarcón, head of Cuba’s National Assembly and the longtime point person for U.S. relations, also signaled his approval of Obama’s inaugural address.

“I think it’s very interesting. First, he is a great orator; very well done (the speech), very well expressed and it should be read with interest,” Alarcón told journalists on Tuesday.

He, however, said that whether Obama will change Washington’s policy toward Cuba remains a “big question mark.”

Meanwhile, ordinary Cubans in the streets expressed their hopes that Barack Obama’s inauguration could bring monumental changes to their island, even though only a small segment of it was broadcast on state television, the Associated Press reported.

“The American people have taken a great step,” said Alain Echeverria, who watched Obama’s address in a hotel lobby. “He comes in with ideas that are different from all the other presidents,” Echeverria said. “The peoples of all the world will receive him with open arms.”

“This country would change a lot if they took away the embargo,” said musician Alberto Romero, 28, after watching the address on satellite TV at a friend’s house. “Most Cubans are hopeful that he’ll do something to change the situation.”

Dissident Oscar Espinosa Chepe also said he was excited about new possibilities with Obama.

“Obama’s victory and his inauguration represent a victory for the United States, but also for Cuba,” he said.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

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

Fidel Castro’s health

Fidel Castro met with Argentine President Christine Fernandez this week and released two new essays, dispelling rumors that he was close to passing away, the Reuters news agency reported.

Castro outlined his admiration for Obama in both essays, characterizing the first African American President as “honest” and having “noble intentions.”

Castro met with Argentine President Christine Fernandez on Wednesday near the end of her three-day visit to Havana.

Fernandez told reporters at the Havana airport that Castro wore a blue jogging suit during their meeting and told her he had watched Obama’s inauguration on Tuesday.

“With much passion, with much conviction, he told me he’s a sincere man, believes absolutely in everything he’s saying, he has many good ideas and a very good history,” Fernandez said of Castro’s views on Obama.

When asked about his brother’s health, President Raúl Castro said: “He is exercising, thinking a lot, reading a lot, assisting me and helping,”

“Soon I’m going to make a trip to Europe. Do you think I could leave from here if Fidel was gravely ill?” he questioned.

You can read the Reuters article here.

You can read an essay by Fidel Castro about his visit with Fernandez.

U.S. POLICY

Treasury Secretary-designate Geithner on U.S.-Cuba policy

This week, the Senate Finance Committee approved the nomination of Timothy Geithner, the current president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, to serve as Secretary of the Treasury in President Barack Obama’s cabinet.

The Treasury Department houses the Office of Foreign Assets Control which administers U.S. sanctions including the Cuba embargo. Members of the Finance Committee asked the nominee to submit answers to their questions on the subject of Cuba policy.

The Committee posted the answers to those questions on its website.  The answers on questions relating to Cuba policy are presented below:

Question 6 from Chairman Baucus, p. 4
In 2003, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) dedicated 21 full-time equivalents – in other words, job slots – to enforce the travel ban against Cuba. In contrast, OFAC dedicated two such personnel slots to tracking the funding networks of Osama Bin Laden and two others to track the funding networks Saddam Hussein. Is this how we should be spending our resources to fight the war on terror? How will you address this imbalance in resources?

Since 2003, I understand that Treasury has worked closely with Congress in realigning its resources to enable the Department to best address today’s most pressing security challenges. If confirmed, I pledge to ensure that Treasury continues to dedicate the necessary resources to most effectively combat terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and other national security challenges.

Questions 37, 38, 39, and 40 from Ranking Member Grassley, p. 37-38:
President Obama has committed to eliminating restrictions on family travel and remittance regulations for Cuban-Americans. Since these restrictions were put into place in response to widespread abuse, how will Treasury guarantee that the elimination of these restrictions will not reopen the door to abuse or benefit the Cuban regime?

If confirmed, I pledge to work closely with the Under Secretary for International Affairs and the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department and my National Security Council and State Department counterparts to examine our policy toward Cuba. I also recognize that this and other questions must be answered in the context of President Obama’s wider policy toward Cuba. I look forward to working with Congress and my colleagues in the Administration on this important issue.

Under your leadership, how will Treasury pursue enforcement actions in the case of Cuba-related travel service providers? In addition, what specific enforcement actions will Treasury take to guarantee the prohibition of commercial activities with Cuba beyond those allowed under the law (agriculture sales and telecommunications, for example)?

The Undersecretary for International Affairs and OFAC play a critical role ensuring our national security. If confirmed, I will work to ensure that rules and procedures in place are fair, efficient, transparent, and not arbitrary. I am committed to taking great care to follow congressional intent and working closely with members of Congress to ensure that OFAC’s activities with regard to Cuba are achieving its important objectives without unnecessary hurdles or unreasonable administrative delays.

Under your leadership, how will Treasury enforce restrictions on Cuban products entering the United States market?

If confirmed, I pledge to work closely with the Under Secretary for International Affairs at the Treasury Department and my National Security Council and State Department counterparts to examine our policy toward Cuba. I look forward to working with Congress on this important issue.

Mr. Geithner, if confirmed as Treasury Secretary, will you commit to enforcing the Cuban Asset Control regulations?

Yes. If confirmed, I pledge to work closely with the Under Secretary for International Affairs at the Treasury Department and my National Security Council and State Department counterparts to examine our policy toward Cuba. I look forward to working with Congress on this important issue.

Question 8 from Senator Crapo, p. 51:
I have been concerned with some of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC) reinterpretations of congressional intent regarding agricultural sales to Cuba. For example, OFAC’s payment of cash in advance requirements for agriculture commodity sales to Cuba and the administrative delays and periodic denials of Treasury Department licenses to travel to Cuba to engage in sales related activities are unnecessary hurdles that are hindering progress. Can I have your assurance that you will work with me and others in Congress to eliminate excessive restrictions impacting agriculture trade and travel with Cuba?

It is important to have tax policies that work in tandem with our foreign policy and advance our national interest. OFAC plays a critical role ensuring our national security and we should ensure that rules and procedures in place are fair, efficient, transparent, and not arbitrary. I am committed to taking great care to follow congressional intent and working closely with members of Congress to ensure that OFAC’s activities with regard to Cuba are achieving its important objectives without unnecessary hurdles or unreasonable administrative delays.

The entire document can be viewed here.

Venezuela to request Posada’s extradition from Obama administration

Venezuela will soon ask the Obama administration to extradite accused terrorist Luis Posada Carriles to Venezuela on charges that he masterminded the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, the New York Times reported.

According to the Times, the request will “test the new administration’s willingness to engage on a festering issue that has further strained America’s relations with Venezuela and Cuba.”

Posada was imprisoned in Venezuela for nine years while facing charges of plotting the bombing with another Cuban exile, but escaped in 1985 to El Salvador aboard a shrimp boat. He has lived freely in Miami since 2007, when a federal judge in Texas threw out an indictment on immigration violations.

“The Bush administration did not want to extradite Posada, because of its close ties to extremist elements in Miami that protect Posada,” said José Pertierra, a lawyer in Washington who represents Venezuela’s government. “We are hopeful that the Obama administration will see the case differently.”

Venezuela first submitted its request in 2005.

Mr. Posada still faces immigration charges and a criminal investigation in New Jersey linking him to a separate bombing campaign in Cuba in the 1990s.

“U.S. credibility on fighting terrorism makes it imperative for the new administration to move the Posada case toward justice,” said Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba specialist at the National Security Archive.

You can read the New York Times article here.

Cuba hopes that prison closure is first step in the return of Guantánamo

In an interview Thursday with the Russian news agency Itar-Tass, Raúl Castro said Cuba will insist that the Obama administration close the entire U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay – not just the prison camp for suspected terrorists, reported the Associated Press.

“We demand that not only this prison but also this base should be closed and the territory it occupies should be returned to its legal owner – the Cuban people,” Castro said in the interview.

Meanwhile, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Felipe Pérez Roque, said yesterday that he hopes that Barack Obama’s order to close the prison at Guantánamo is the first step in Cuba recovering their occupied territory, reported Prensa Latina.

“We hope that this is the first step in a process in which we can finally recover this land that belongs to us,” said Perez Roque.

The decision by Obama to close the base is “logically correct, but, from Cuba’s point of view it’s not sufficient,” said Perez Roque adding that the U.S. now “needs to close the naval base, which is not necessary for any type of military use.”

Cuba hopes to “be able to exercise sovereignty again at this point of our territory,” said Perez Roque.

You can read the Prensa Latina article here.

Mexican Senate to ask Obama to give Guantánamo back to Cuba and end embargo

The Mexican Senate will ask President Obama to return to Cuba the territory that the U.S. occupies in Guantánamo, Mexican legislator Ricardo Monreal said this week, reported CubaEncuentro.

Monreal, head of the Labor Party (PT) in the Senate, said that the Senate will send Obama a “memorandum” requesting that the U.S. end the embargo and totally return Guantánamo to Cuba.

President Felipe Calderón will travel to Cuba this year to meet with Raúl Castro and Mexico has consistently condemned the United States for its policy towards Cuba.

Gustavo Madero Muñoz, President of the Mexican Senate, said that “it’s an extraordinary signal that Obama is reconsidering the United States policy toward Cuba.”

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

Dissidents in Cuba not happy about Radio Martí

The dissident organization Agenda for the Transition, which represents many of the opposition groups, sent a letter to the State Department this week protesting the radio station’s management and programming, BBC News reported.

They are also refusing to give information to the radio station as a form of protest.

According to the dissidents, the station “serves the interests of Miami politics more than the informational needs of Cuba,” which is the reason why the station was created and receives millions of dollars in federal funding to operate.

Dissident Marta Beatriz Roque says that “Radio Marti doesn’t understand that its mission is to give information to the Cuban people about what happens in Cuba.”

“We have received complaints throughout the whole country, from Guantánamo to Pinar del Río, from dissidents and the population”, she explained and said that “evidently it’s not accomplishing the objective for which it was created.”

She says that they decided to write the letter to Washington and boycott the station after their criticisms were never met or responded to by the station.

“More than 80% of the programming is based on the local agenda of Miami,” says dissident Vladimiro Roca.

The Cuban Government classifies Radio Martí as an instrument of the United States to overthrow them and considers the transmissions aggressive and illegal. They successfully jam the signal and, according to BBC, it is very difficult to hear Radio Martí and TV Martí is completely blocked.

You can read the BBC news article here (in Spanish).

CUBA’S FOREIGN POLICY

Insulza discusses Cuba’s return to the OAS, Obama to attend the Summit of the Americas

The Secretary General of the Organization of American States, José Miguel Insulza, said once again this week that he hopes that Cuba will soon be readmitted to the organization, El Comercio reported.

Cuba’s return to the OAS has to be the result of a consensus between all members, including the United States, but the moment to discuss it “isn’t far away” and it “isn’t a closed issue,” the Secretary General said.

Mr. Insulza added that there is a good chance that Cuba will be part of the agenda when the organization meets May 31-June 2nd in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

The Secretary-General also confirmed that President Obama had called to confirm that he will attend a forthcoming meeting of the Summit of the Americas.

Cuba, a founding member of the OAS, has been suspended since 1962, when member states voted that Cuba’s political system was “incompatible” with the Inter-American system. Insulza said that he considers the suspension a “concept of the Cold War.”

He pointed out that many of the members of the OAS are asking for an end to Cuba’s suspension and that he understands why Raúl Castro has said that he is not interested in returning to the organization, since Cuba can’t take part in the decision.

According to Insulza, Obama’s fulfillment of promises to lift restrictions on remittances and travel for Cuban Americas “could help to create a new climate” between the two countries, which would help the eventual return of Cuba to the OAS.

Insulza also said that the U.S. government should make some significant decisions regarding policy towards Latin America before the summit.

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

Raúl Castro to travel to Russia at the end of the month

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Relations released a statement saying Cuba’s President, Raúl Castro, will travel to Russia at the end of the month, according to reporting by the Agence France-Presse.

Russia will be the third country that Castro visits since becoming President, following a trip in December to Venezuela and Brazil.

Russian President, Dimitri Medvedev, invited Castro to Moscow when he visited Cuba in November.

Relations between Cuba and Russia were distant after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, and started to improve with a visit to Cuba by former Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2000. However, Putin closed a military base a year later in Lourdes, Cuba, sparking a new standstill in relations, which lasted until 2007 when Russia began expand ties in Latin America.

The Russian-Cuban Intergovernmental Commission of Economic Cooperation Science met this week to prepare for the visit, the Spanish news agency EFE reported.

As part of the preparations, officials said that they would be putting a special focus on the financing of trade between the two countries. The group included officials and businessmen who deal with oil and gas, nuclear energy and metals.

Vice-president of Cuba’s Council of Ministries and co-chairman of the Intergovernmental Commission, Ricardo Cabrisas, said that recent and future cooperation between the two countries is “very important for the economic and social development of Cuba, but is also important for the expansion and development of the productive sectors of Russia with respect to Cuba.”

Trade between Russia and Cuba has grown recently to reach 400 million dollars annually.

Cuba is tenth among Latin American countries that Russia exports to. Cuba exports sugar, citrus, nickel and cobalt to Russia in exchange for machinery and chemicals, as well as steel and other metals.

More active cooperation between the two countries has occurred over the last few years in energy, transportation, tourism, pharmaceuticals and mining, especially in the nickel production, as well as in banking, agriculture, construction and telecommunications.

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

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

Argentina and Cuba sign cooperation agreements

Presidents Raúl Castro Ruz and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner signed 11 bilateral agreements during the Argentine President’s visit to Cuba this week, the Granma reported.

The agreements included expanded cooperation in natural disaster prevention, nuclear energy, geology, mining, the environment, agriculture, food, livestock, forestation, biotechnology, rural development and other areas.

The two countries agreed on the elimination of visas for diplomatic, official and service passports. Agreements were also signed in the field of health, aimed at promoting mutual research and production of anti-retroviral, ontological and other medicines.

There were also preliminary discussions about creating an Argentine-Cuban Bi-national Biotechnology Center for developing pharmaceuticals and vaccines to promote research programs and technology transfer in this area.

You can read the Granma article here.

Spain and Brazil send food aid to Cuba

Spain and Brazil announced the shipment of thousands of tons of food aid to Cuba, Haiti and Honduras, countries that had crops and food reserves severely affected by Hurricanes Ike and Gustav in September, the Associated Press reported.

The Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and Development announced that the two countries will distribute a total of 44,000 tons of rice, 1,105 tons of powdered milk and 4,500 tons of seeds for fruits and vegetables.

The agreement, which Spain’s Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Brazil’s Luiz Inacio da Silva made at a summit last year in El Salvador, provides for Brazil to make the food donation and for Spain to arrange and pay for the shipping.

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

Recommended Reading:

Castro’s `potential immortality,’ Daniel P. Erikson in the Miami Herald

Open Cuba trade – ag groups, USA Rice Federation

Around the Region:

What’s Ahead for Venezuela: Interview with Daniel Hellinger, Venezuela Information Office

The rise of China in Latin America: In response to US neglect, Latin America has asserted its economic independence by fostering commercial ties with China, The Guardian

Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team
www.democracyinamericas.org
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