Hello Havana, Washington and Geneva – this week in Cuba news

Dear Friend:

Day after day, Cuba made headlines this week.

This week in Cuba, the government revealed statistics regarding a major step to increase food production by leasing more than a million acres of land that was in state hands.  Former President Fidel Castro continued his reflections on the Obama presidency.   Cuba will begin drilling for oil in shallow waters off the Gulf of Mexico in one project without international partners.

In Geneva, critics of Cuba took the government to task on issues relating to political prisoners and freedom of expression.

In the U.S., agriculture interests expressed their beliefs that farm trade with Cuba would step up under the new Obama administration.  Cuban-American political leaders took potshots at our “9 Ways” report.   One organization allied with hardliners in Miami put out what some analysts called a “push poll” purporting to show Cuban-American sentiment still in opposition to Cuba policy reforms.

In Washington, those of us who are working for a new Cuba policy – led by repeal of the ban on travel – look to the Executive Branch for action on the Obama campaign’s promise to repeal restrictions on Cuban-Americans and look to the Legislative Branch to redeem the promise of our constitutional rights and to legalize the freedom to travel, not for some but for all.

This is our news summary – with information for just about everyone.


Largest land distribution since the 1960s taking place in Cuba

Cuba’s government has approved 45,500 land grants as the country turns to the private sector to increase food production, the Reuters news agency reported.

The Granma, Cuba’s state newspaper, reported Monday that “96,419 applications had been received as of January 22 … for 1,300,000 acres of land…of which 45,518 were approved.”

Land has not been distributed on such a large scale since large land holdings were nationalized after the Revolution in 1959.

The land lease program lets private farmers who have been productive lease up to 99 acres for 10 years, while cooperatives and state farms can request unspecified amounts of additional land to work for 25 years. Reuters reported that the majority of leases have gone to individuals seeking land for the first time and small family farmers.

In an attempt to increase domestic food production and decrease reliance on imports, President Raúl Castro has decentralized agriculture management, increased farm supplies and doubled and tripled amounts the state pays for most agricultural products.

You can read the Reuters article here.

Fidel weighs-in on Obama again

Fidel Castro wrote another essay this week saying that he does not blame U.S. President Barack Obama for the “crimes” of his predecessors, but questioned whether he is capable of solving many of the world’s problems.

Castro noted that any opinion or criticism made by him of Obama has been classified negatively.

“Without exception, any criticism of mine is qualified as an attack, a charge or other similar nouns that reflect a lack of consideration and courtesy toward the person to whom they are directed,” Castro wrote.

He questioned whether Obama has been briefed about all of the hostile activities towards Cuba that have occurred under previous administrations.

“Maybe one of his various collaborators has informed him at some point of the sinister actions against Cuba undertaken by presidents, from Eisenhower and those who followed him…including the mercenary Bay of Pigs invasion, campaigns of terror, the smuggling of vast quantities of weapons and explosives into our territory and other similar actions?” Castro asked.

Castro went on to criticize the “Buy American” campaign launched by House Democrats and question how Obama will handle trade and development issues with the third world.

Castro concluded that “as an old politician and fighter” he is “committing no sin by modestly expounding these ideas.”

You can read Castro’s reflection here.

Cuba is urged to release political prisoners

Western nations meeting at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva joined to challenge Cuba to release its political prisoners and to allow unfettered freedom of expression, but Cuba’s allies, including Russia and China, closed ranks behind their ally, the Reuters news agency reported.

The review of Cuba’s human rights record took place as part of a UN procedure known as universal periodic review in which the human rights records of all member states are reviewed.

The Associated Press said that President Barack Obama’s administration is reviewing U.S. policy toward the council.

“The United States remains deeply dedicated to the cause of promoting and protecting human rights around the world, and will adopt a course of action most likely to advance that cause,” the U.S. mission to the U.N. in Geneva said in a statement.

You can read the Reuters article here.

You can read the AP story here.


Castro leaves Russia with $354 million in loans and credits

Cuban President Raúl Castro hailed the “very positive” results of his visit to Moscow, walking away with aid pledges of $354 million, the Reuters news agency reported.

Russia agreed to provide Havana with $270 million in soft loans, mostly to buy and lease Russian agricultural and construction machinery, the head of the Finance Ministry’s State Debt Department, Konstantin Vyshkovsky told Reuters.

“We are not giving any money to Cuba. It is not typical in our policy to issue loans. Our common rule is support for domestic producers, exporters,” Vyshkovky said.

Another $37 million worth of Russian grain will be given to Havana as aid, Vyshkovsky said, and the state bank VEB will provide $47 million to sell a Russian-built cargo plane to Cuba.

“I very much hope the agreements reached during this visit will be implemented,” said Prime Minister Putin.

“Not just the agreements on loans, but in the real sector,” he said, citing cooperation in communications, oil, machine-building and GLONASS satellite navigation.

You can read the Reuters article here.

Castro in Angola, President Dos Santos calls on U.S. to lift embargo

Cuban President Raúl Castro stopped in Luanda for a three day visit on his way home from Russia, the Angola Press reported.

The governments of Angola and Cuba signed two accords of cooperation relating to Geology and Mining and Industry as well as two memorandums of understanding in the Education field. Castro met with Angolan leader Jose Eduardo Dos Santos and also attended a special session of the National Assembly, the Agence France-Presse reported.

Dos Santos praised Cuba’s achievements in health and education, two areas at the heart of their bilateral cooperation. Over 30 years, more than 10,000 Cuban doctors and health workers as well as 16,500 teachers have come to Angola, while more than 18,000 Angolans have studied in Cuba, according to the state news agency Angop.

“The visit officially is going to focus on the social and economic sectors, but I know from sources it’s also in terms of defense and military forces,” said Paula Roque, who studies the country for the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.

President Dos Santos also used the visit to call on the United States to lift its embargo on Cuba.

“It doesn’t make sense to maintain an embargo against Cuba. For nearly half a century, it has affected the lives of millions of people, constituting a flagrant violation of human rights,” he said during a state dinner with Castro.

“I sincerely hope that the new U.S. President (Barack Obama), who is very sensitive to humanitarian issues, will order an end to the economic embargo against Cuba.”

You can read the AFP article here.


Cuba begins first independently operated horizontal oil drilling rig

Cuba has begun to set up its first independently operated horizontal oil drilling rig in shallow waters off its north coast, the Associated Press reported, based on state media reports.

Cuban engineers trained in Canada are drilling the well near the coastal town of Boca de Camarioca, close to the beach resort of Varadero, marking the first time the island has begun horizontal drilling without support from international partners. It should be operational by the end of the year, Prensa Latina reported.

Cuba independently operates its largest onshore oil field in Varadero, but relies on energy companies from Canada, Spain, Norway, India, Malaysia and China for other onshore drilling operations and for horizontal drilling in shallow coastal waters.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

Cuba Plans New Offshore Drilling for second half of the year

Cuban officials say that exploratory drilling to assess the potential for oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico is likely to resume in the second quarter of this year, Newsweek reported.

The drilling will take place about 20 miles north of Havana and will be conducted by a consortium led by the Spanish oil firm Repsol, working with India’s state-run Oil & Natural Gas Co. and Norway’s StatoilHydro.

Cubapetroleo (Cupet), the Cuban state oil company, has estimated that there are 20 billion barrels of recoverable offshore oil in Cuban waters, while the U.S. Geological Survey estimates about half that amount (between 4.6 to 9.3 billion).

Foreign firms have signed exploration and production agreements for 21 of the 59 blocks Cuba has created for its Gulf waters, with talks underway with foreign companies for an additional 23 blocks.

Companies from the U.S. are restricted from participating due to the 48-year-old American embargo.

If the exploratory drilling is successful, it will likely be followed by commercial drilling, meaning that foreign oil firms could be drilling as close as 50 miles from the coast of Florida.

You can read the Newsweek article here.

*** Clarification: Last week we reported that Cuba revoked an oil sharing agreement with Canadian companies Sherritt and Pebercan. Although Sherritt had partnered with Pebercan on projects in Cuba, and was therefore affected, the oil sharing agreement that was canceled was with Pebercan. Cuba has not canceled any PSA agreement with Sherritt.


U.S. rice optimistic about increased trade with Cuba under Obama

Presenters and attendees at the at the annual joint meeting of the Louisiana Rice Council and the Louisiana Rice Growers Association were optimistic that the Obama administration could restore full trade with Cuba, the Delta Farm Press reported.

“The stars are finally aligned in favor of Cuba,” said the President of the USA Rice Federation, Betsy Ward. She said efforts are under way to encourage President Obama to change payment requirements for Cuba’s purchases of rice.

Jim Guinn, USA Rice vice president for trade, said the largest sale of rice to Cuba in recent years under restrictive trade terms totaled 175,000 tons in 2004, but that Cuba has the potential to purchase 600,000 metric tons of rice.

Cuba has yet to recover after a series of devastating hurricanes last year, and the cost of recovery limits what the island nation can spend on other priorities including imports of food.

You can read the Delta Farm Press article here.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner wants trade with Cuba to grow

Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said he hopes President Barack Obama will expand trade opportunities with Cuba to restore Cuba as a market for Texan and American products while serving Cuba’s humanitarian needs, North Texas e-News reported.

“Texas agricultural products are the best in the world. I want our producers to expand their trading relationships across the globe, and that includes the Cuban market,” Commissioner Staples said. “After visiting the island nation, I see the opportunity for both countries to benefit by relaxing the current trade restrictions.”

Last year, Commissioner Staples became the first statewide elected official from Texas to visit Cuba on official state business in over 45 years. The Commissioner led a delegation of Texans, which led to cotton and grain contracts totaling nearly $1 million

“In addition to its close proximity as our neighbor, Cuba and its people are in extreme need of America’s leadership,” Commissioner Staples wrote in a recent letter to President Obama.

“I know the diplomatic policy process with Cuba will present extensive challenges, and I ask you to move aggressively toward strong diplomatic relationships that will address concerns and allow for free and open trade with our Cuban neighbors.”

You can read North Texas e-News article here.

U.S. exporters not fully utilizing the Trade Sanctions Reform Act

A new report by Sidney Austin LLP finds that “eight years after its enactment, some U.S. exporters still may not realize the broad range of agricultural commodities authorized for export under the Trade Sanctions Reform Act (TSRA). Under TSRA, U.S. agricultural commodities are exempt from unilateral economic sanctions imposed by the United States against countries such as Iran, Cuba and Sudan.”

It goes on to say that although many exporters do not realize it, “the term ‘agricultural commodities’ covers much more than just food, and includes products such as wooden picture frames, cigarettes, wallpaper base, organic and non-organic fertilizers, lumber, paper, dietary supplements, pet food and many others.”

It advises exporters to “revisit” the TSRA to ensure that they are not missing an opportunity to expand their overseas markets.

You can access the full report here.


New poll contradicts previous polls that Cuban-Americans support family travel

A new Cuba-policy poll released this week contradicts the findings of a similar poll released in December, but analysts say the way the questions were posed probably explains the different results, the Miami Herald reported.

The more recent poll was paid for by the Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy, which works to maintain current restrictions on Cuba, and was conducted by McLaughlin & Associates.

It found that 72 percent of those surveyed support continuation of the embargo and 58 percent favor continuation of exile travel restrictions imposed by the Bush administration in 2004. It contradicts a poll released in December by Florida International University’s Institute for Public Opinion Research, which showed that a majority of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade favor lifting the embargo and want to see diplomatic relations reestablished.

Those behind the Cuba Democracy PAC poll said that it is a clear message to President Obama that Cuban-American voters in Florida support the embargo and restrictions on Cuban-American travel to the island.

”The Cuban-American community remains unified in its views, regardless of party affiliation, in regards to Cuba policy,” Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy.

However, Hugh Gladwin, director of the FIU group, said that the disparity in the poll conclusions may center on the way questions were formulated. He said that the questions were “suggestive.”

The travel question: “Do you support or oppose the current U.S. policy of maintaining the trade and tourism embargo on the Cuban regime until the Castro regime releases all political prisoners, respects basic human rights and schedules free elections?”

“I’m not Cuban, but if asked that question, I would answer no, because to answer yes is to imply you oppose democracy in Cuba,” said Gladwin.

Cuban-American travel question: “Do you believe that Cubans who leave Cuba in order to seek freedom in the U.S. should be allowed to travel to Cuba while the regime they fled from is still in power?”

You can read the Miami Herald article here.

You can check out two great analyses of the new poll by Phil Peters on his Cuban Triangle Blog and by Patrick Doherty on The Havana Note.

Effectiveness of U.S. broadcasts to Cuba questioned again

After decades on the air and a half a billion dollars in taxpayer money, it remains unclear whether any Cubans listen to or watch U.S.-funded radio and television broadcasts to the island, according to a new report on Radio and TV Martí, the Miami Herald reported.

The Government Accountability Office report released this week found that broadcasts are often biased and fail to adhere to journalistic standards.

The report also found said that telephone surveys in Cuba found that less than 1 percent of people surveyed said they had listened to Radio Martí in the past week.

The report follows complaints by high-profile Cuban dissidents that say the broadcasts are more focused on Miami politics than events on the island.

The U.S. government spends $34 million a year on the Miami-based radio and television station, but the frequencies are constantly jammed by the Cuban government.

“Rather than spend funds on another study, they should use the money upgrading the technology so Radio Martí transmissions can get into more homes,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami.

Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., who requested the GAO report, said the study underscores the need for congressional hearings.

”How do we know we are getting a return on the investment?” Delahunt said. “I challenge you to find anyone who has watched TV Martí. It’s a TV station in search of an audience.”

You can read the Miami Herald article here.

You can see a copy of the GAO report here.

You can read a statement by Rep. Delahunt here.

Cuban-American lawmakers criticize CDA’s 9 Ways report

El Nuevo Herald featured an article this week about the Center for Democracy in the Americas’ recent report, “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US,” which recommends how cooperation between the two governments on issues such as military affairs, migration, hurricane preparedness and civil defense, would benefit both countries and build confidence and trust between their diplomats.

In the article, Cuban-American lawmakers, opposed to any softening in policy towards Cuba, strongly criticized the report for offering steps to improve relations between the two countries.

Republican Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart classified the report as an attempt of “mercenaries without principles that look to enrich themselves economically without taking into account the total lack of labor rights of the Cuban people.”

State Representative David Rivera, who defends the prohibition of academic exchange and research with Cuba by state universities, said that the proposals made by the CDA “are the voice of a choir of apologists.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wasn’t in agreement either and offered her own proposals for reform.

Rep. Ros-Lehtinen suggests nine different recommendations that the Cuban regime should follow: freedom of expression and of political prisoners, elections, independent press, access to the internet, free [political] opposition, labor unions, private property and the freedom to travel abroad.

You can read the Nuevo Herald article here (in Spanish).

You can download a copy of the “9 Ways” report here.

You can see a video in which Dr. Peter Bourne discusses his “9 Ways” chapter on medical cooperation.

Appellate Court allows censorship of book on Cuba

According to a report published in the Miami Herald, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that “the Miami-Dade School Board did not violate the Constitution in 2006 when it removed a controversial children’s book about Cuba from the public schools’ library system.”

In 2006, members of the school board voted to remove “Vamos a Cuba” from the shelves of the school library system after a parent complained about the book.

Another parent and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the removal on First Amendment grounds. A federal judge in Miami decided that the board’s opposition to the book was political.

A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 Thursday that the board action did not violate the First Amendment.

You can read the Miami Herald article here.

Recommended Reading:

There are problems but “we can come out ahead,” interview with Félix Sautié, Progreso Weekly

Benicio del Toro Talks About Che: The Man And The Movie, Interview by Peter Kornbluh, Huffington Post

Among other things, del Toro comments on U.S.-Cuban relations: “The embargo doesn’t make any sense. I find it silly, obsolete, and archaic. But it is real. It is something the Cubans have to deal with everyday. The embargo creates an atmosphere of still being at war, from the Cuban point of view. I feel for the Cuban people. They get caught in the crossfire. It is amazing how Cuba has been able to stick it out.”

Recommended Viewing:

Dr. Peter Bourne discusses medical cooperation with Cuba

In an exclusive interview with the CDA, Dr. Peter Bourne, a Fidel Castro biographer and leading advocate for medical cooperation between the United States and Cuba, discusses the possibilities for cooperation between the two countries.

Around the Region:

Venezuela Marks 10 Years of Chavez Government, Voice of America

The presidents of Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and other regional leaders traveled Monday to Caracas for a parade to celebrate Mr. Chavez’s 10 years in power.   Foreign delegates praised the Venezuelan leader for his efforts to combat poverty and improve living conditions for many Venezuelans.  Experts see mixed results for the Chavez government during the past decade.  The article features the insights of Dr. Dan Hellinger, the president of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team

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