Venezuela Votes, Cuba Exhales — keep beating the drum for travel for all

Dear Friend:

What happened this week in news around Cuba?  Plenty.

Cubans breathed a sigh of relief this week as Venezuelans voted their support to continue President Chavez’s political project and repealed term limits for the president and all other Venezuelan officeholders.  The reaction in Washington was positive and muted – talk about changing the tone!

Meanwhile, heads of state kept rolling into Cuba with visits by the Presidents of Chile and Guatemala; the foreign minister of Ireland came to the island nation as well.

Nearer the Potomac, the word from the grassroots reached the warrens of Capitol Hill with calls being issued to Members of the House and Senate to cosponsor The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act.   The legislation was also profiled in The New York Daily News this week.  Readers, ask your representatives in Congress to do the right thing, and make the call…for travel for all.

Finally, how does it feel to own your own TV and Radio stations?  Too bad there’s such a small audience.

The news of the week and more….in your news summary.

Venezuela Votes, Cuba Exhales

In the latest demonstration of how balloting in one country can affect the fortunes of another, voters in Venezuela approved a constitutional referendum, by a “resounding” 54% to 46% margin, that will allow President Hugo Chavez to run for a third, six-year term in 2012 and in elections to follow.  Venezuela’s constitution had limited presidents to two, six-year terms.  President Chavez has been in office ten years and his current term expires in 2013.   Venezuelans defeated a constitutional amendment in 2007 that would have lifted term limits for the president only.  The measure now adopted in Venezuela has the effect of removing such limits on all officeholders.

In perhaps no other country was this outcome more anticipated or welcomed than in Cuba.  Prior to the balloting, former President Fidel Castro wrote in an op-ed column, “Our future is inseparable from what happens next Sunday…(t)here is no alternative but victory.”

The Reuters news agency termed the Chavez referendum win “a relief for Cuba, where oil supplies and support from its socialist ally are seen as essential to economic recovery.”  A Cuban economist, speaking on background, told reporter Marc Frank that the likely continuation of Chavez’s term in office means “steady oil supplies and income from the medical services we provide.”  Venezuela, the article says, has poured billions of dollars into Cuba’s coffers in exchange for Cuban health, education, and other technical assistance.  Approximately 40,000 Cubans work in Venezuela, and Cuba receives shipments of Venezuelan oil amounting to 90,000 barrels per day.

Sarah Stephens, executive director of The Center for Democracy in the Americas, who observed the referendum in Caracas, told Reuters, “As evidenced by his victory speech last night, which included ‘Viva Cuba’ chants, and the message of congratulations from Fidel…[President Chavez is] making it clear that he will do everything in his power to maintain and strengthen the bond with Cuba.”

In what the Associated Press termed “rare praise,” a spokesman for the U.S. State Department characterized the referendum vote as “fully consistent with democratic process.”

Time Magazine, in its reporting, placed the referendum victory in the context of similar ballot measures – passed in Ecuador and Bolivia, and being contemplated in Colombia to extend the term of President Uribe.  [For more on this trend, see “Recommended Reading” below.]

Coverage of Fidel Castro’s comments on Venezuela’s referendum can be read here.
Reuter’s coverage of how the referendum’s passage affects Cuba can be read here.
The U.S. reaction as reported by AP can be read here.
The story in Time can be read here.

President Bachelet’s visit to Cuba ends in controversy

A trip that started with camaraderie ended in controversy for Chile’s President, Michele Bachelet.  Her visit marked the first by a Chilean head of state since 1972, when Salvador Allende came to Cuba.   Her agenda included meetings with President Raúl Castro and former President Fidel Castro, as well as the ceremonial opening of Cuba’s International Book Fair, which was dedicated this year to Chile.  Her delegation included top government officials, such as Foreign Minister Alejandro Foxley, as well as business leaders and cultural figures.

In remarks at the Book Fair, President Bachelet expressed her confidence that Chile and Cuba “will become a little closer” and be able to “construct a better future.”  The Chilean government was able to release photographs of her meeting with Fidel Castro, with pictures showing the former Cuban leader “in apparent good health,” as the U.K.’s Telegram reported.

While President Bachelet had “nice things to say about Castro and their 90-minute meeting,” she had barely concluded her visit to Cuba before Fidel Castro published a column criticizing the “vengeful and fascist oligarchy (that) restrains the Chilean nation,” the Miami Herald reported.  Former President Castro also voiced his support for demands by Bolivia, a land-locked nation, for territory on the Pacific Coast which it lost to Chile during the 1879-1883 War of the Pacific.  His comments were met by official Chilean government displeasure and ignited a firestorm of criticism among members of Chile’s political opposition and of the ruling coalition.

Coverage in Chile of President’s Bachelet’s Cuba trip can be read here.
Granma‘s story on the book fair can be read here.
You can see a photograph of Fidel Castro and Michelle Bachelet here.
The Miami Herald‘s take on Fidel’s photos and later reflection can be viewed here.
Chile’s response to Fidel’s endorsement of Bolivia’s coastal claims can be seen here.

The President of Guatemala also came to call

The visit of President Alvaro Colom to Cuba was punctuated by a surprise apology by Guatemala’s leader for that country’s role in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.  Colom’s visit to Cuba was the fifth by a regional leader this year.

In October 1959, U.S. President Eisenhower approved a secret program to depose Fidel Castro’s government.   Part of the plot included an ill-conceived plan to send 1,400 Cuban exiles to Cuba as part of an invasion organized and armed by the Central Intelligence Agency.  In July 1960, the exiles who had trained in Florida were transferred to a training camp run by the CIA located in the Sierra Madre mountain range in Guatemala.   The invasion ended in failure after just a few days with about 100 invaders killed and more than 1,000 captured by Cuban forces.

In an address before a Cuban audience at the University of Havana, President Colom said that he wished to “ask Cuba for forgiveness” for Guatemala’s role.

He also used the occasion to provide former President Castro with the order of the Quetzal, Guatemala’s highest honor, to celebrate the work of Cuban doctors in his country and across the region.  His decision to grant the award caused several Guatemalan business leaders to decline his invitation to take part in his official trip to Cuba.

The New York Times covers the president’s apology here; the BBC covered it here.
The award was covered here.

Eight years ago, The Charlie Rose Show devoted a portion of his broadcast to a conversation about the Bay of Pigs with famed historian Arthur Schlesinger and with Peter Kornbluh, the noted senior analyst at the National Security Archive and director of its Cuba documentation project.  A link to a video of that program on Youtube can be accessed here.

The “historic” visit of the Irish Foreign Minister

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Michaél Martin, embarked on what the Irish Times called a “historic” five day visit to Latin America and became the first Irish minister to travel to Cuba in an official capacity. Consultations included a meeting with his counterpart, Cuba’s foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque.

“Cuba is undergoing a major transformation, and its relations with the EU have entered a new phase.  I wish to avail of this new contact to discuss a wide range of political, economic, and social issues, including human rights, all of which are included in the agendas for my meetings,” Minister Martin said.

Martin told Perez Roque that Ireland remains opposed to the U.S. embargo, he promised $100,000 in additional hurricane relief for the island, and they discussed closer relations between Cuba and the European Union especially after Spain assumes the rotating EU presidency in 2010.

The Irish Times article can be read here.

Spanish Priest killed

The Associated Press reported that Eduardo de la Fuente Serrano, a 59-year old Roman Catholic Priest from Spain who had lived in Cuba for many years, has been found dead outside of Havana.  His death is being investigated by Cuban authorities.   Orlando Marquez, a spokesman for Havana’s Conference of Bishops, confirmed the death this week.  It was a particularly brutal crime.

The AP article can be seen here.

Travel for All

The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, H.R. 874, introduced by Massachusetts Congressman Bill Delahunt and sponsored by a growing number of the chambers’ Democratic and Republican Members, was endorsed in a column by Albor Ruiz of The New York Daily News.

Ruiz noted that former President Bush had tightened the travel ban during his first term in office, imposing strict limits on the ability of Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island and provide them with financial support.  As a candidate for President, Barack Obama promised to repeal the restrictions, which Ruiz called “hope for real change.”

But the Freedom to Travel Act, he writes, “takes Obama’s promise one step further.  The bill calls for ending the ban for all Americans, not just those of Cuban origin.”  He ended the column asking readers to tell Congress to pass the bill and to let it become the beginning of a new relationship with Cuba.

The Albor Ruiz column can be read here.

Raúl Castro announces cabinet shift

President Raúl Castro restructured his government yesterday, reshuffling his cabinet to include Agriculture Minister Ulises Rosales del Toro, Transport Minister Jorge Luis Sierra, and Communication Minister Ramiro Valdés as vice-presidents of the Council of Ministers. The three, described by the Reuters news agency as “three influential leaders,” will also continue their ministerial duties.

According to an official note read on state television, the decision was made to “more effectively distribute the control and coordination of organisms of the State.”

Raúl Castro announced after officially becoming President in February 2008 that he would aim to restructure the government to increase efficiency. This is the fourth major cabinet shift he has made since last year, Reuters reported.

However, last December he told the Parliament that “important matters” were postponed due to the severity of the situation following a harsh hurricane season. Analysts believe that yesterday’s announcement may signal a return of the restructuring and reform program on the agenda.

You can read a Reuters report here (in Spanish).

Your Own Private Radio and TV Station

Journalist David Adams, Latin America correspondent for the St. Petersburg (FL) Times, takes readers behind the scenes at TV and Radio Marti, where an estimated $500 million in taxpayer funds have been spent in the last generation for broadcasts jammed in Cuba and accessed by less than one percent of the island’s population.

The story was filed after the release of a critical Government Accountability Office report released by the arm of Congress which “revived questions about the effectiveness of the Marti stations, as well as perpetually poor standard of journalism.”

David Adams’ piece can be read here.

The case against the stations was also made recently by Dr. Alberto Coll in his essay for the report by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US.”

A copy of the “9 Ways” report is available for download here.

Around the Region:

You can read a brief article on the trip to Latin America by China’s vice president, Xi Jinping, here.  His official visit to Venezuela was part of an extensive tour with stops in Mexico, Jamaica, Colombia, and Brazil.

Recommended Reading:

Latin America’s Document-Driven Revolutions” is a fascinating report by The Washington Post on a team of Spanish scholars and legal authorities who have helped recast constitutions in Ecuador, Bolivia, and now, most recently, Venezuela. Read it here.

Recommended Reading and Viewing:

The U.S. embargo against Cuba is an obstacle to our countries cooperating in important areas such as medical research.  Cuba is responsible for medical breakthroughs such as a lung cancer vaccine that is helping terminal cancer patients live longer.  CNN’s Shasta Darlington has written has written about the vaccine in an article you can view here.  You can also learn about the benefits that could come from U.S.-Cuba medical cooperation in our “9 Ways” report and by viewing a video of Dr. Peter Bourne. Both are available here.

A photo essay on Fidel Castro’s fifty years as leader of Cuba can be seen here.

Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team

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