Shake up in Cuba, Slow down in Congress, show of support at Trinity College

Dear Friend:

It was a week for shake-ups in Cuba, a slow-down in Congress, and a big show of support for a new U.S. policy at Cuba Consultation Day.

After a year in office as Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro made a major shake-up in his cabinet that cost three of Cuba’s best known leaders their jobs in government while also starting the process of streamlining the nation’s government by consolidating ministries. Several officials with prior experience in the military rose to new positions as a consequence of these changes.  As usual, comments by outside analysts in several media reports focused on what these changes could mean for the United States, but the larger issue is what do they mean for Cuba?

Last week, we wrote about the continuing appropriations bill containing language meant to ease restrictions on Cuban-Americans and U.S. agriculture and threats against the measure by Senator Bob Menendez.  This week, that bill bogged down in Congressional bickering over “earmarks,” but the Cuba language remained intact.  While the language is largely symbolic, enactment of the language would give our work to remove travel restrictions additional momentum.

Scores of grassroots activists gathered at the Cuba Consultation this week, to organize their message and then to descend on Capitol Hill to urge their home state lawmakers to support legislation to provide travel for all Americans.  The turn-out was impressive and their energy was palpable.   It was a great gathering to advance our cause.

In these reports and others – following developments in energy, advocacy, diplomacy, and security – you can catch up with our summary of a really consequential week for Cuba and U.S. policy toward the island.

“Restructuring” begins, Lage and Pérez Roque out

In an official note issued by the Council of State and distributed through state media, Cuba’s president Raúl Castro announced a giant shakeup in his cabinet, which included the firing of two of Cuba’s best known leaders and the merging of several ministries.

According to the announcement the changes reflected  proposals Raúl Castro made in his inaugural speech last February, when he said  that “a more compact and functional structure is required today, with fewer agencies under the Central State Administration and a better distribution of their duties.”

Among the announced changes, the Ministry of Fisheries is being folded into the Ministry of Food Production, and the Ministry of Foreign Commerce is being folded into the Ministry of Foreign Investment and Economic Cooperation. This streamlining of Cuba’s government was something that Castro has said he would do since taking over for his brother last year.

The announcement also said that Vice-President Carlos Lage had lost his post as secretary of the Council of Ministries and that long time Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque would be replaced by his deputy, Bruno Rodriguez. Lage’s post as secretary of the Council of Ministers will be filled by Major General José Amado Ricardo Guerra.

Days later, it was announced that Fernando Remírez de Estenoz, former chief of Cuba’s diplomatic mission in Washington and most recently head of the Cuban Communist Party’s Foreign Relations Department would also be replaced.

While it first appeared that Lage would maintain his more important post as Vice-President of the Council of State, and that Pérez Roque’s future was uncertain, the drama was compounded by an essay released by Fidel Castro that hinted an end to leadership roles for both Lage and Pérez Roque.

In a passage widely interpreted as referring to Lage and Pérez Roque, Fidel Castro wrote:

“Neither of the two individuals mentioned by news reports as the most affected have uttered a word to express any disagreement with the decision. It had nothing to do with an absence of personal value. It was another reason. The sweetness of power for which they had made no sacrifice awoke in them ambitions that led them to an unworthy role. The external enemy was filled with illusions about them.”

Castro also denied speculation that the change represented a shift from “Fidel’s men” to “Raúl’s men,” writing that he was consulted about the move and “the majority of those who have been replaced were never proposed by me.”

On Thursday, state newspapers included copies of letters of resignation from Lage and Pérez Roque, in which they admitted they had committed errors, pledged their loyalty to the Revolution and renounced all official duties, including positions on the Council of State, National Assembly, Communist Party’s Central Committee and Political Bureau.

“I recognize the errors committed and I assume the responsibility. I consider that the analysis made in the past meeting with the Political Bureau was just and profound,” wrote Lage.

“I fully recognize that I committed errors that were broadly analyzed in a meeting [with the Political Bureau]. I assume my full responsibility for them,” wrote Pérez Roque.

The replacement for Fernando Remírez has not been officially announced, but a story in the state media on Wednesday referred to Jorge Martí Martínez as heading that position. The Miami Herald reported that they had spoken with somebody close to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the reports could be confirmed.

Martínez is the former ambassador to Russia.

According to sources in Havana, the changes show that Castro is starting the restructuring process that he has long promised and more changes can be expected.

“For those who still had doubts, these changes demonstrate once and for all that Raúl is the pilot, not co-pilot, of this plane,” Rafael Hernández, editor of Temas Magazine, told the Reuters news agency.

“The fundamental changes were in the economic realm, indicating the intention to carry out a new economic policy, in other words, reform,” he added.

According to an IPS report, both Lage and Pérez Roque belonged to Fidel Castro’s former “Commander-in-Chief’s Coordination and Support Group” and current changes are aimed at eliminating parallel structures, which are no longer necessary.

“The new government wants the ministries to truly fulfill their roles. These parallel bodies created a dangerous duality of power, concentrated in people who did not have to answer to the Council of Ministers – not to mention the fact that they opened a door to the chaotic use of funds,” one academic told IPS.

You can read the official announcement here.

You can read the IPS article here.

You can read the Reuters article here.

You can read an Associated Press article here.

See a “who’s in, who’s out” fact box by the Associated Press here.

Check out bios and pictures of the new ministers here.

You can read the Miami Herald article here.

You can read Carlos Lage’s resignation letter here.

You can read Felipe Pérez Roque’s resignation letter here.

“Earmarks” slow progress on Cuba provisions in Funding bill

Despite efforts by Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Mel Martinez (R-FL), provisions containing modest changes in Cuba policy remained part of a massive appropriations bill funding government departments and agencies for the remainder of fiscal year 2009.  But passage of the measure was slowed by resistance to so-called “earmarks” that were retained in the bill when it was written in Congress last year.

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid said that provisions to ease limits on trade and travel to Cuba were likely to be approved because they were attached in this large appropriations bill that he did not want to delay, the Reuters news agency reported.

“I’m not wild about some of the Cuba provisions in this bill myself,” Reid told reporters. “There are a couple of those that I don’t like very much, but it’s not enough to bring the bill down, in my opinion.”

Because of the conflict over “earmarks,” what some call “pork barrel projects,” a temporary funding measure will have to be cleared through Congress and consideration of the larger bill will be delayed until next week.

Senator Mel Martinez, a Republican from Florida, gave an angry speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday arguing against including the Cuba measures.

“A massive appropriations bill is not the appropriate place to make foreign policy decisions. We shouldn’t unilaterally, without asking for anything in return, make these kinds of concessions to an authoritarian government,” Martinez said in an interview, the New York Times reported.

The provisions would allow individuals involved in agricultural sales to travel to Cuba on a general license and remove the “pay in advance” requirement on sales, which requires payment to be received from Cuba before goods leave the port in the United States. The bill would also remove funding for the enforcement of restrictions on travel by Cuban Americans to Cuba.

Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, also spoke against the measures, in which he claimed the provisions would allow Cuba to buy agricultural goods on credit, a statement which is false.

Talking Points Memo (TPM) reported that in order to avoid a standoff, “Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is working with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to assuage his concerns that elements of the spending bill would excessively relax the trade embargo against Cuba.” A spokesman for another senator with similar concerns over the Cuba language, Bill Nelson (D-FL), told TPM that his boss was prepared to vote for the bill last night.

The key for Nelson is not removing the Cuba provisions, but rather “making sure they don’t have unintended consequences,” Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported Menendez is blocking Senate consideration of two administration nominees who will advise the president on climate change. According to the Post, Menendez placed a ”hold” on President Obama’s nominees to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in an effort to protest new moves on Cuba policy.

Find out below what you can do to tell Menendez to “free the scientists.”

You can read the TPM article here.

You can read the New York Times article here.

You can read the Reuters article here.

Sen. Lugar urges colleagues to consider his Cuba recommendations

Senator Lugar sent a letter to his Senate colleagues this week outlining a recent report issued by his Foreign Relations Committee minority staff. In the letter, Lugar calls for a “realistic and carefully phased approach” to Cuba, “which will benefit our long-term economic and security interests in the Straits of Florida and will increase our diplomatic options and influence throughout the Western Hemisphere.”

You can see the letter from Sen. Lugar here.

You can see the Lugar report here.


Cuba guarantees Spain that dialogue will continue despite changes in government

Cuba’s e new Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez, spoke on Wednesday with Spain’s Foreign Minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, to assure him of Cuba’s willingness to continue engaging in a dialogue, the Agence France-Presse.

“Yesterday night I had a telephone conversation with the new Foreign Minister of Cuba, in which he expressed Cuba’s willingness to maintain all of the agreements and accelerate the working agenda that Cuba and Spain have agreed to,” Miguel told reporters Thursday.

According to the AFP, Bruno Rodríguez informed Moratinos that “all of the objectives of his predecessor (Felipe Pérez Roque) are still valid and it is not a rupture but rather a continuity and acceleration of the dialogue process” between the two countries.

Rodríguez reportedly told Moratinos that “the transfer of power is being carried out in normal form and that he was with his colleague (ex-minister) Pérez Roque going over the agenda and working normally,” assured Moratinos.

“The message is clear: continuity and willingness in continuing to advance the agenda that we agreed to in 2009. Things will continue to develop satisfactorily,” assured Moratinos.

You can read the Agence France-Presse article here.

Honduras’ President meets with Castro brothers, speaks out against “absurd” embargo

Cuban President Raúl Castro met this week with the President of Honduras, José Manuel Zelaya Rosales, who was attending the 11th International Encounter of Economists on Globalization and Development Problems, Cuban state media reported.

Zelaya then met with Fidel Castro for over an hour on Wednesday.

Cuba and Honduras reestablished diplomatic ties in 2002 and trade between the two countries reached $17 million USD in 2008.

According to the Cuban press, President Zelaya condemned the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

“We admire and respect Cuba.  We have acknowledged their struggle and raised our voices many times to condemn that absurd and terrible economic, commercial and financial U.S. blockade against the Cuban people,” he affirmed.

Spain’s EFE news agency reported Zelaya described Castro as ”lucid” and added, “the way in which he handles Latin American political topics and the affairs of the [international] economic crisis is extraordinary.”

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

You can read a Cuba News Agency article here.

Dominican President meets with Castro brothers

The President of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernández Reyna, met with President Raúl Castro and former ruler Fidel Castro during his official visit to the island this week, Cuban state media reported.

Fernandez met with Fidel Castro on Monday and then held officials talks with Raúl Castro on Tuesday, resulting in several bilateral agreements in agriculture, culture, scientist-technique and education.

Fidel Castro published this reflection about his encounter with the Dominican President.

You can read the Ahora Cuba article here.


Cuban oil discovery would be “game-changer”

Thomas Omestad of U.S. News and World Report wrote this week that “Cuba’s dreams of major oil discoveries might come true,” allowing the island to move into the petroleum big leagues.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that Cuba’s offshore fields contain about 5 billion barrels of oil and 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. However, in a more recent study, Cuba’s state oil company said the fields could hold 20 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil, which if proved true would compare to those of the United States and turn Cuba into a major exporter.

According to Jorge Piñón, a leading expert on Cuba’s energy, Cuba “can certainly become a major producer of oil.”  Rafael Tenreyro Perez, exploration manager for the state oil company Cupet, says that “Cuba has high potential from an exploratory point of view.”

Experts say it would take at least three years to commercialize oil extraction following a large discovery. Companies from Spain, India and Norway are set to resume exploratory drilling in the second half of 2009.

Because of the embargo, U.S. energy companies and consumers cannot partake in Cuba’s oil business.  However, Dr. Julia Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says that a major oil find in Cuba “would be a game changer.”

“It would obliterate the domestic political excuse,” said Sweig.

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

Ambitious plan to recruit more police cadets

Wilfredo Cancio Isla from the Miami Herald reports that the Cuban government is undertaking an ambitious plan to increase police recruits to curb crime in Havana.

The new initiative, under the supervision of Interior Minister Abelardo Colomé Ibarra and Gen. Pascual Rodríguez Braza, head of the National Revolutionary Police (NRP), seeks to attract better-educated recruits to enter in the incentive-based program that allows them to study a university specialty upon completion of their police training.

In a July speech, Raúl Castro cited the lack of incentive to become a policeman and called for the development of a program to reach out to new recruits.

According to the Herald, Cuban state media has begun to broadcast recruiting messages on radio and television and a new cops-and-robber program is now showing on prime time.

You can read the Miami Herald article here.


US cultural leaders call for change in US policy toward Cuba

A national network of artists and arts presenters is calling on the Obama Administration to renew cultural ties with Cuba. In a letter delivered to the White House on March 3, 2009, US-Cuba Cultural Exchange called for Cuban artists to be permitted entry into the United States and for the elimination of restrictions that prevent Americans from traveling to Cuba.

The letter – signed by over 1,100 Americans in the arts and culture, including Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, Harry Belafonte, Bonnie Raitt, Danny Glover, Eddie Palmieri, producer Laura Bickford and representatives of dozens of major arts institutions – requests “A process that can result in the development of normal, respectful bilateral relations between our countries.”

You can read the letter here.

You can see a Democracy Now report about the letter here.

Cuba Consultation Day

A two day “Cuba Consultation” took place in Washington, DC to unite hundreds of activists from various backgrounds, including journalists, academics, business leaders and union representatives, to discuss an effort to push Congress to change U.S. policy toward Cuba, El Pais reported.

Mavis Anderson of the Latin America Working Group, one of the event’s organizers, told conference participants that the climate for change in Cuba policy “has never been better.”  Participants came from as far away as California and Texas in order to meet with their Congressional offices on Thursday and Friday.

You can read the El Pais article here.

Recommended Action:

The SkyWriter Blog is encouraging its followers to urge Senator Menendez to lift a hold on Obama’s science advisors.

Tell Senator Menendez to free these scientists. We need them for the looming battle over science-based climate legislation. You can contact Senator Menendez by email or at any of his offices:

Washington, D.C office:     202.224.4744         202.228.2197 (fax)
New Jersey office:         973.645.3030         973.645.0502 (fax)

Recommended Viewing:

Foreign Policy magazine reported this week that Dan Restrepo, formerly director of the America’s Project at the Center for American Progress, has joined the National Security Council to work on Latin American issues. Restrepo recently revealed his thinking about Cuba in this interview.

Recommended Reading:

Orlando Márquez, spokesman for Havana’s Conference of Bishops and editor of the Havana diocese’s newspaper “Palabra Nueva” (New Word), wrote an editorial this week urging Raúl Castro and Barack Obama to forge a new relationship between the two countries.

Márquez writes that “signs from the two presidents suggest an apparent compromise with the present hour: the hour of change.”

You can read the complete essay, “¿La hora del cambio?” (The time for change?) here (in Spanish).

The Cuban Condition: Migration, Remittances, and its Diaspora, Inter-American Dialogue

The recently released study shows the importance of remittances to migrants and their relatives.

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

Around the Region:

Venezuela’s Chavez turns to confrontation in crisis, Reuters

Brian Ellsworth from the Reuters news agency writes that recent action against the food industry by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez shows “how he will respond to growing economic woes in the OPEC nation with takeovers and tighter controls on business.”

Venezuela Expropriates Cargill Rice Plant that Evaded Price Controls, Venezuela Analysis

James Suggett of Venezuela Analysis writes that the moves taken by Chavez are the result of inspections that showed plants owned by the multi-national food company Cargill were modifying its rice so in order evade price controls on basic food items.

Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team

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