Travel For All

Dear Friend:

Travel for all.

Not travel for none, and not travel for some, but travel for all.

After our failure to normalize relations with Cuba, the biggest defect of our foreign policy toward the island is represented by the tight travel restrictions our government imposes on our fellow citizens.

The idea that we are going to force Cuba to buckle to its knees by denying Americans the right to travel to the island has surely been disproven in the last fifty years, even as the isolation it imposes on the United States from the people of Cuba has become an increasing drag on our image in the region and the world.

The previous administration tried its best to curtail travel — travel for religious, cultural, academic and athletic purposes; it divided Cuban families and imposed cruel restrictions on them.  Its policy could be summarized as “travel for none.”

President Obama took a courageous step in his campaign when he promised that he would eliminate restrictions on Cuban-Americans’ travel to Cuba.   In fact, he was sent to the White House after pledging to reduce the U.S. embargo against Cuba, and that is a wonderful thing.

However, once he fulfills this promise – which he should do without further delay, debate, or modification to the policy he began articulating in 2007 – it will restore the unrestricted right to travel only to Americans of Cuban descent.  Travel for some – better, but not enough.

Americans must have the unrestricted constitutional right to travel.  Our government places no similar limits on the right to travel to any other country in the world.

If what President Obama says is right; namely, that Cuban-Americans can (and should) be ambassadors for our values and providers of support for their families that must also be right for all Americans.

In recognition of this idea, legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives and now also in the Senate to repeal the travel restrictions and allow every American the right to travel to Cuba.  The House legislation, H.R. 874, was introduced by Rep. William Delahunt with what has become a growing list of Republican and Democratic cosponsors.  In the Senate, S428, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act was introduced by Senator Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota). The original cosponsors are Senators Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut), Michael Enzi (R-Wyoming) and Richard Lugar (R-Indiana).

It reflects the core principal of “travel for all,” which empowers businesses, workers, religious groups, cultural figures, and tourists to interact with Cubans in order to contribute to a climate of openness in Cuba and understanding on both sides of the Florida Straits.

By restoring travel for all, the legislation would multiply the political and economic impact of bringing Cubans and Americans in contact with one another.

Travel for all will also move us in the direction of normalizing relations with Cuba’s government and its people, and help us finally end this last remnant of the Cold War.

You can read the text of the legislation, read a newspaper report about it, and hear three Members of Congress talk about the need to change our policy by using the links we’ve provided below.

Find out here what you can do to urge your member to act.

An article from the Florida Sun-Sentinel can be found here.

The full-text of the bills appear here: Senate Bill, House Bill.

Here you can see new interviews with Representatives Donna Edwards, Jeff Flake and Marion Berry to hear what they think about Cuba policy.

Senator Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) has introduced an identical Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act in the Senate. The original cosponsors are Senators Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut), Michael Enzi (R-Wyoming) and Richard Lugar (R-Indiana). Please call your Senator and ask him to cosponsor S.428 the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act.

Introduction of this important legislation leads the news this week.  But read on!  And learn about the signals that some policy makers are sending from the U.S. side, the statements that leaders and diplomats are making from the region, and the important developments in trade and technology – all summarized here as in no place else.

This week in Cuba news…

Castro brothers sending positive signals to the Obama Administration

According to a senior State Department official, “the Obama administration has taken note of remarks both by Cuban President Raúl Castro and by his brother, former President Fidel Castro, expressing, in part, positive sentiments about Barack Obama and the significance of his presidency,” according to U.S. News and World Report.

Both President Raúl Castro and his brother Fidel have made positive statements about Obama’s character, the historic significance of his presidency and their hopes that U.S. foreign policy will change.

“I think the statements are important. They’ve registered,” said the State Department official.

The official also commented on reforms enacted by Raúl Castro. Since officially taking over in February, Raúl has restructured some salaries for some professions, ended prohibitions on consumer purchasing, and decentralized the agricultural sector.

“The steps have been very small. They’ve been very controlled,” said the official. “They’re looking for ways to signal they’re capable of economic change.”

About the domestic situation in Cuba, he sees a “significant desire, and even pressure, on them [Cuban officials] for social and economic reform.” The official added, “The Cuban government has to respond in some fashion.”

You can read the U.S. News and World Report article here.

U.S. and Cuba work together on drug interdiction

Anti-drug efforts are one of the few areas of cooperation between the United States and Cuba and half of the drugs confiscated by Cuba last year were the result of a joint operation with the United States, the Reuters news agency reported.

A story in Cuba’s state newspaper, the Granma, said that the biggest seizure in 2008, 2,020 pounds (916 kg) of marijuana, was the result of information provided by Cuba to U.S. authorities about a suspicious boat in Cuba’s waters.

Granma said almost all of Cuba’s drug seizures were made from the sea, but that 25.30 kg (24.03 of cocaine and 1.27 of marijuana) of narcotics were also detected in 13 operations at Cuban airports. It said that those caught either intended to transport the drugs to a third country or sell it in Cuba. Individuals caught in those interdictions arrived in Cuba from the U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Spain and other countries, and included Cubans with residency outside of Cuba.

It also said that 121 foreign tourists were caught with small amounts of drugs and were arraigned under applicable laws.

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

You can read the Reuters article here.

You can read more about the benefits of engagement with Cuba on law enforcement and eight other areas in our report, “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US,” which is available for download here.


Chilean President Michelle Bachelet in Cuba

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet visited Cuba and met with her Cuban counterpart Raúl Castro, news agencies reported.

Bachelet timed her trip to Cuba to coincide with the International Book Fair, which is dedicated to Chile this year, making her the first Chilean leader to travel to the island since Salvador Allende visited in 1972.

President Bachelet was accompanied by a large delegation of business leaders, cultural figures and government officials.

She used her visit to speak out publicly against the U.S. embargo of Cuba and emphasized that it is even more important that it be lifted now in the midst of the current international economic crisis.

“Chile has always opposed prolonged discriminatory trade practices and our stance remains the same, acquiring even more urgency today while we face an international financial and economic crisis,” stated Bachelet during a meeting with business leaders in Havana, the Mercurio reported.

“I am referring to something very concrete, the United States embargo against Cuba, which is severely affecting the living conditions of the Cuban people,” she said, emphasizing that Chile has consistently manifested its stance in opposition of the blockade “at every international opportunity.”

Bachelet attended a ceremony for the signing of a memorandum of understanding on biotechnology with Cuba, the Latin American Herald Tribune reported. Accords on foreign investment and agriculture were signed as well, according to the Granma.

She was also expected to have a private meeting with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana.

Cuban dissidents contacted by the Press expressed regret that Bachelet would not meet with them. Opposition economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe said the Chilean leader’s decision was “very regrettable … (and) inconsistent” particularly since dissidents on the communist island “are suffering now what she suffered” during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

The Chilean government made clear weeks ago that Bachelet was not scheduled to meet with the dissidents, arguing that it is customary to follow the agenda established by the hosts.

You can read the El Mercurio article here.

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

You can read the Latin American Herald Tribune article here.

Bachelet meets with Fidel Castro

Bachelet met with Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro on Thursday evening and described the 82-year-old as “very well” and “active.” She said that the hour and a half meeting was “very nice” and “important” and that Castro appeared “in very good shape.”

Fidel Castro published an essay describing the encounter with the Chilean President, which he described as “friendly” and predicted the ideals of Salvador Allende would “triumph permanently” in Chile.

You can read Castro’s essay here.

Cuba on the agenda for meeting between the U.S. and Argentina

Next Wednesday, officials from Argentina and the United States will take part in the first high-level meeting between the Obama administration and a Latin American government, Clarin reported. The agenda will include bilateral and regional issues, including issues relating to Cuba and Venezuela.

Argentina’s Ambassador to the United States, Héctor Timmerman, and Vice-Foreign Minister Vitorio Taccetti will meet with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Thomas Shannon, and other state department officials.

Ambassador Timmerman told reporters that although the agenda will include bilateral issues, the meeting will be more focused on dialogue about regional themes, such as the financial crisis, regional development and preparation for the Summit of the Americas that will take place in Trinidad and Tobago in April.

Cuba and Venezuela are also expected to be topics of discussion and, according to Clarin, Argentina wants to transmit to the U.S. “Cristina’s [President Kirchner] vision about Cuba after her recent trip to Havana,” where she met with Raúl and Fidel Castro the same day that Obama was inaugurated.

Ambassador Timmerman plans to present letters in favor of Washington improving relations with Havana, although the article didn’t specify from whom. Timmerman also said that two democratic Congressmen recently called him to ask for his opinion about how he sees relations between the U.S. and Cuba and how he believes they could improve.

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


Cuba spent a record $710 million on U.S. farm imports last year

Cuba spent over $710 million on U.S. agriculture products in 2008, a 61 percent increase over the previous year, the Associated Press reported.

The record sales were due both to rising food prices during the first part of the year and increased purchases during the second half of the year, as three hurricanes hit the island, crippling food production in many parts of the countryside, said a report by the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

Cuba’s agriculture imports from the U.S. have increased each year since 2001, after the U.S. modified the embargo to allow the direct, cash-only sale of farm goods to the island. The U.S. has since become Cuba’s top foreign source of food.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

North Dakota organizing another trade mission to Cuba

North Dakota’s Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson said he will lead another delegation to Cuba for the International Trade Fair in Havana schedule for November 2009, the Associated Press reported.

“Since this trade show is where Cuba makes its food purchases for the entire year, it is important for North Dakota to have a strong presence,” said Johnson.

Johnson has led eight trade missions to Havana and is a long-time advocate for more open travel and trade between the U.S. and Cuba.

“We hope that the new administration in Washington will ease or even lift many of the heavy-handed trade restrictions that have slowed or blocked exports of U.S. agricultural products,” he said.

You can read the Associated Press article here.


Cuba launches own free software

The Cuban variant of the Linux computer operating system, called Nova, was introduced at a Havana computer conference on “technological sovereignty” this week and is central to the Cuban government’s desire to replace the Microsoft software running most of the island’s computers, the Reuters news agency reported.

The government views the use of Microsoft systems, developed by U.S.-based Microsoft Corp, as a potential threat since U.S. security agencies have access to Microsoft codes.  The trade embargo also makes it difficult for Cubans to get Microsoft software legally and to update it.

“Getting greater control over the informatics process is an important issue,” said Communications Minister Ramiro Valdes.

“I would like to think that in five years our country will have more than 50 percent migrated (to Linux),” Hector Rodriguez, dean of the School of Free Software at Cuba’s University of Information Sciences. Currently about 20 percent of computers in Cuba are using Linux.

Aside from security concerns and trade restrictions, free software is more in line with Cuba’s world view, he said.

“The free software movement is closer to the ideology of the Cuban people, above all for the independence and sovereignty.”

A similar project is already underway in Venezuela.

You can read the Reuters article here.

Government says it wants to make Internet more widely available

Cuba would like to expand access to the Internet but has been constrained by bandwidth limitations and economic problems, Cuban communications minister Ramiro Valdes told journalists this week, the Reuters news agency reported.

Valdes, speaking at a technology fair in Havana, said the situation was expected to improve when Cuba and Venezuela complete a 930-mile-long fiber optics line next year. The completion of that project will provide more, bandwidth that is less expensive to Cuba, Valdes said.

He told reporters that “conceptually” the government has no problem with making the Internet widely available and that current “restrictions are technological and economical.”

Cuba’s access to Internet comes through a slow, costly satellite connection and the government blames the United States for its lack of connectivity, saying the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the island forbids it from linking to a nearby fiber optics line that stretches from Florida to Mexico.

With limited and costly connectivity, Cuba limits free access mostly to government officials and academics.

Last week Vice-minister Boris Moreno said that the government had no political qualms about allowing more Internet access, but would maintain certain limits for security reasons.

“As happens in all the countries of the world, we’re not going to permit access to sites that stimulate terrorism and encourage subversion of the established order,” Moreno said in an interview.

You can read the Reuters article here.

Russian launches “Express AM-44” communication satellite

Russia launched a satellite this week that will provide a direct communication channel between Cuba and Russia. It is expected to begin functioning by the end of March early April, according to a report by Gaceta.

Speaking for the Russian ministry of media and communication, Ígor Schiógolev, said “in the future the channel could be connected to the fiber optic cable that will run from Venezuela to Cuba and Jamaica.”

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

Cuba cell phone accounts up 60 percent

Cell phone accounts in Cuba have risen 60 percent to nearly a half-million since the government made private service available to all citizens last year, but usage will remain limited and costly for the foreseeable future due to the need to subsidize their social use and ensure communications with isolated areas, Cuban state media reported.

In April the government lifted the ban on ordinary citizens buying cell phones. Since then an additional 180,000 lines have been opened, increasing the number of lines in use from 300,000 to 480,000. The fee to activate new lines was recently reduced from $120 to $65.

The Juventud Rebelde reported that there are 480,000 mobile phones in the country of 11.2 million people, of which the 30 percent priced in Cuban pesos accounted for 80 percent of the traffic and the 70 percent priced in hard currency accounted for 20 percent of traffic.

For that reason, officials said that expansion will continue to be slow.

“The vast majority of cell phone traffic is subsidized by the state thanks to the income from cell phones functioning in convertible currency,” the newspaper said.

Juventud Rebelde said peso priced mobile phones are largely assigned to health, education, security and state administrative personnel, as well as to institutions and homes in isolated areas of the country.

“For this reason and to avoid congestion not only do we have to constantly invest to increase coverage, but have to limit the minutes assigned to social uses,” said vice-president of the phone company, Maximo Lafuente.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

You can read the Reuters article here.

You can read the Juventud Rebelde article here.

Recommended Reading:

New York Times Editorial: Banning Books in Miami

Around the Region:

Latin Americanists Urge Obama to Revamp Policies, by Cynthia McClintock in Foreign Policy In Focus

Sunday’s referendum is a democratic act that actually threatens democracy, La Opinion (Argentina)

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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