Cuba-Central America relations thaw, Summit Speculation heats up, Black Spring remembered

Dear Friend:

This week, we journeyed to El Salvador and watched a remarkably peaceful election take place.  Just seventeen years after their peace accords signaled an end to a bloody and brutal civil war, supporters of the incumbent ARENA party and its rival, the FMLN, voted together and accepted the results of an historic presidential election together.  Mauricio Funes, the candidate of the FMLN, will be sworn in as El Salvador’s president on June 1.  Funes ran as the candidate of (safe) change and consciously modeled his campaign after Barack Obama’s.

The people of El Salvador deserve great credit for rejecting political violence and for voting their hopes rather than fears for the future.

In his first foreign policy pledge as president-elect, Mr. Funes promised that El Salvador would reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since 1959.  Costa Rica, which suspended its relations with Cuba in the 1960s, promised to do the same.   These developments, joined by the actions of Brazil’s president Lula, and other leading actors in Latin America and the Caribbean portend an important challenge to US diplomacy in the coming weeks.

Regional unity with Cuba – and a regional commitment to urge the United States to break its embargo against the island – is a theme that will greet Vice President Biden when he meets with Central American countries at the end of March, and face President Obama when he attends the Summit of the Americas beginning April 17.

As President Obama prepares to meet heads of State from the region for the first time, the issue of U.S. policy toward Cuba will be before him and he will have to address the outlier status of our foreign policy, our isolation, compared with the policies of engagement now unanimously adopted by the nations of the region.  He is confronting a point of challenge, but also a moment of great opportunity.

President Obama is highly regarded in the region as a figure who can transform the image of the United States and engage with the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean from a position of mutual respect, a sharp departure from the diplomacy of our recent past.   He can pursue the values of his presidency, and earn the U.S. a new hearing in the region, by modernizing the approach of U.S. foreign policy – his foreign policy – toward the people of Cuba.   Like Mauricio Funes, he can borrow a page from his own campaign.

Follow our news summary to the very end, and we will link you to powerful expressions of hope from the people of El Salvador who talked to our camera on the day of their historic presidential election.  In today’s summary, you will encounter the other stories that made Cuba news this week – the developments in the region, the preparations for the Summit, the commemoration of Black Spring, and EU cooperation with Cuba on human rights.  These stories…and more.


Costa Rica and El Salvador to re-establish relations with Cuba

El Salvador’s president-elect, Mauricio Funes, who was elected on Sunday, said this week that his administration will restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, suspended since 1959 when Fidel Castro took power.

Funes made the announcement just hours before meeting with Thomas Shannon, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

“We have to open ourselves up to the world and why not do it with Cuba first,” Funes said.

“It’s incredible that we are the only country in Latin America that doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Cuba, all of Central America has relations with Cuba, there are even businesses here that have relations with Cuba,” he added.

Costa Rica’s President Oscar Arias announced earlier this week that his country would move to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Cuba’s foreign ministry issued a statement which accepted the offer to normalize relations, saying the decision is “consistent” with its “mission of integration and unity” with the people of Latin America and the Caribbean, Voice of America News reported.

These announcements came a week before Vice President Joe Biden will visit Costa Rica to meet Central American leaders ahead of the Summit of the Americas.

President Arias accompanied the announcement with a written statement, which Phil Peters translated into English on his blog, the Cuban Triangle. The statement includes the following talking points:

  • “Costa Rican diplomacy cannot be measured by the countries that it excludes, the governments it ignores, or the peoples it ignores. Ours should be diplomacy capable of opening pathways and building bridges…We wish to be recognized abroad by our friendship, not our animosity, for our disposition to help rather than our intransigence.

  • “Today the world is diametrically different…we should be capable of adjusting to new realities. Hence I will proceed to sign an executive decree to re-establish diplomatic relations with the Republic of Cuba. This is a step that I have considered with deliberation and responsibility. It is a step I take convinced that times change and Costa Rica has to change with them. It is a step that brings coherence to our foreign policy.

  • “As a democrat of conviction who believes in an American hemisphere of freedom and solidarity, I have not stayed quiet about those things that concern me in the hemisphere. But I also believe in the old adage that ‘only those who are willing to help have the right to criticize.’ I would not want to maintain the official silence that has reigned for decades between Cuba and Costa Rica: that silence will produce no benefits for our peoples. The time has come for a direct and open dialogue, for official and normal relations that allow us to broach our agreements and disagreements face to face and with sincerity.

  • “For now, as the oldest democracy in Latin America, as the little republic of peace, we extend our hand to the Cuban people, and we send an olive branch across the seas and the breezes, to begin again the good work of building friendship.”

Thomas Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told reporters that he believes that Central America’s improvement in relations with Cuba is “important,” EFE reported. He also said that President Obama is evaluating various aspects of U.S. policy towards Cuba in order to establish “steps for a rapprochement with Cuba.” He made the comments during a visit to Central America this week.

You can read the Voice of America article here.

You can read Phil Peter’s full blog post here.

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

Lula calls for an end to the embargo after visit with Obama

Following a meeting with President Obama, Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva called on the United States to end its economic embargo of Cuba, the Associated Press reported.

Speaking at a Wall Street Journal-sponsored investment forum in New York, Lula said that the policy makes no sense in the 21st century and is widely opposed across the region.

“There is nothing any more from the political perspective, from sociological perspective, from the humanitarian perspective that impedes the reestablishment of relations between the United States and Cuba,” Lula said. “It’s not possible in the 21st century to make policy looking toward the 20th Century, let’s think about looking toward the 22nd century.”

Lula did not directly say that he discussed Cuba during his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, but the Associated Press reports that “it was likely among the top issues discussed.”

You can read the Associated Press article here.

Cuba will be main topic at the Summit of the Americas

Cuba will be one of the main themes at the Summit of the Americas in April, the first meeting of leaders from the region since the election of Barack Obama, according to the prime minister of the host country, Trinidad and Tobago, the Agence France-Presse reported.

Prime Minister Patrick Manning said that he has “no doubt” that Cuba will soon be part of the Summit of the Americas, which will be attended by the leaders of Latin America, the Caribbean, the United States and Canada from April 17-19.

“The Cuba issue” is among the concerns “in the international community since discussions about the summit began,” Manning said after meeting with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

“Cuba is on the lips of everyone, we have had some discussions, and I think that there is concurrence on how the question of Cuba should be approached,” he said.

“We don’t want to corner anybody (…) especially the U.S. President,” he added.

Manning said that it would be “premature” to make a formal request for Cuba to participate in the forum, but said he is sure “that some leaders will bring it up.”

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

U.S. Approach to the Summit

Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon has told reporters that the United States is interested in deeper engagement with countries in the region at odds with the U.S., ABC News reported.

“We are intent on engaging all countries constructively,” Secretary Shannon said.

This policy of engagement and dialogue will be tested when President Obama attends the Summit of the Americas where presidents Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Daniel Ortega and other leaders that have been at odds with U.S. policy in the region will be present. Leaders in the region from across the political spectrum have urged President Obama to change U.S. policy toward the Americas, and specifically to end the embargo on Cuba.

“We will be going to the summit with an open and constructive attitude,” Shannon said, but also pointed out that it’s not only up to Washington.  “Ultimately, our willingness to engage constructively with countries around the region depends on a reciprocal willingness on their part to engage with us,” he said.

You can read the ABC News article here.


Sixth anniversary of the Black Spring

Tuesday marked the sixth anniversary of a Cuban government crackdown resulting in the arrest of 75 activists and independent journalists.

Cuban authorities assert that those arrested were guilty of receiving financial and tactical support from the United States to undermine Cuba’s government.

Of the 75 dissidents arrested and sentenced in 2003, twenty have been released on medical parole or into exile, and one other, Reynaldo Labrada, completed his six-year sentence in January.

The Ladies in White, a group made up of female relatives of those jailed in Cuba’s “Black Spring” of 2003, marked the anniversary with a prayer ceremony and a letter to Raúl Castro demanding the “immediate and unconditional” release of the remaining prisoners, the Associated Press reported.

Co-founder Laura Pollan, whose husband is serving a 20-year prison sentence, read the letter demanding the prisoner’s release.  Their activities were “not considered criminal in any country that enjoys a true democracy,” the letter said.

The group said it planned to carry out six days of activities, including marches to various churches, and other unspecified events, the Latin America Herald Tribune reported.

Raúl Castro has suggested that his country would be willing to release the remaining 54 prisoners into exile, if the U.S. frees five imprisoned Cuban agents convicted of spying.

However, Pollan told reporters that most activists reject the possible prisoner swap.

“Most of the prisoners do not agree with being exchanged for any agent. They are people who were in their own country, they have no false names or pseudonyms, they were fighting for a better Cuba, to defend human rights, so they can’t be exchanged for those people,” she said.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

You can read the Latin America Herald Tribune article here.

Read an essay (in Spanish) about the anniversary by Miriam Leiva, founding member of the Ladies in White group: ¿Cuanto Tiempo Son Seis Años? (How much time is six years?)

State Department on the Black Spring

State Department spokesman Robert Wood issued the following statement:

Today represents the sixth anniversary of the Cuban Government’s arrest and prosecution of 75 journalists, human rights monitors, librarians and other civil society activists across the island.

The 75 were sentenced to jail terms ranging from 14 to 30 years for their non-violent advocacy of political, social, and economic reforms in Cuba. Fifty-five of the original 75 detainees remain in prison, many of them under harsh conditions. We call upon the Cuban Government to immediately release these and other political prisoners being held in Cuban jails, and to undertake measures to improve human rights conditions in Cuba.

You can read the transcript of the State Department Press briefing here.

Cuba and the EU agree to discuss human rights

As part of the renewed relationship between Cuba and the European Union, the two nations will meet in Brussels in May for a political dialogue that will include a discussion of human rights, the Reuters news agency reported.

Bruno Rodriguez, Cuba’s new Foreign Minister and EU Development and Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel made the announcement at a joint press conference.

The EU and Cuba reestablished cooperation last year after a five-year rift over the 2003 crackdown on the political opposition. The meeting between the two took place on the sixth anniversary of the arrests of the 75 dissidents.

“Cuba is willing to continue the political dialogue with the EU on various topics, among them the field of human rights,” said Rodriguez.

You can read the Reuters article here.

Freed Cuban dissident arrives in Miami from Mexico

Attorney and journalist Mario Enrique Mayo, one of the 75 imprisoned in the 2003 crackdown, arrived Wednesday in Miami on a commercial flight from Mexico, El Nuevo Herald reported.

Mayo has been free since December 2005 after suffering from hypertension and other health problems. While in prison, Mayo tried to commit suicide twice and took part in several hunger strikes, reported the Herald.

In February 2008, journalists Jose Gabriel Ramon Castillo and Alejandro Gonzalez Raga, sentenced to 20 and 14 years respectively, were freed after the Spanish government worked for their release.

You can read the Nuevo Herald article here.


Senators upset about Treasury’s interpretation of Cuba Ag. provisions

Fifteen U.S. senators wrote the Treasury Department this week accusing it of failing to implement the changes that would ease restrictions on trade with Cuba as called for under a new law signed by President Obama, the Reuters news agency reported.

Provisions in the spending bill directed U.S. Treasury not to enforce Bush rules on food payments by Cuba.

Federal law adopted in 2000 permitted agriculture exports to Cuba as long as they were paid for with “cash in advance.” The Bush administration determined in 2005 that “cash in advance” meant payment had to be received before shipments left U.S. ports.  Last week’s change to the law was written to allow U.S. companies to ship food to Cuba and be paid before the goods were unloaded.

However, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner sent a letter to Senators Menendez (D-NJ) and Nelson (D-FL) promising to interpret narrowly the provisions meant to ease restrictions.

In the letter to the Treasury, the Republican and Democratic senators accused Treasury of failing to enforce the law as Congress intended.

“The intent of those provisions was to facilitate already legal agricultural trade with Cuba,” the Senators wrote in the March 16 letter.

They said Geithner’s letter to Senators Menendez and Nelson was “contrary to the intention of the provisions included in the omnibus legislation to halt this use” of the Bush-era regulations.

The letter was signed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and Senators Jeff Bingaman, Tom Harkin, Blanche Lincoln, Jon Tester, Patty Murray, Mary Landrieu, Tim Johnson, Richard Lugar, Mike Enzi, Pat Roberts, Mike Crapo, Kit Bond, Mark Pryor and Maria Cantwell.

You can read the Reuters article here.

Sixto sentenced for stealing Cuba democracy money

A former White House aide to President Bush was sentenced to jail for stealing around $600,000 in government funds intended to promote democracy in Cuba when he worked at the Center for a Free Cuba, Hispanic Business reported.

Felipe Sixto, who pled guilty to theft in December, requested probation or home confinement. He explained to the judge that he stole the money out of greed, selfishness, and because he “wanted to provide a lifestyle for my family I could not afford.” However, Judge Reggie Walton sentenced him to 2.5 years in prison, three years of supervised release and fined him $10,000.

The Center for a Free Cuba receives funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development for travel, rent and equipment such as computer laptops and shortwave radios.   Sixto acknowledged that he overcharged the center when purchasing shortwave radios and then pocketed the profit.

The theft along with irregularities found at other organizations receiving Cuba democracy funds from the U.S. government led Congress to temporarily freeze the money in July 2008.

You can read the Hispanic Business article here.


Cuba eliminated from the World Baseball Classic, ending 50-Year Streak

Cuba was eliminated from the World Baseball Classic on Wednesday evening after a 5-0 loss to Japan. The loss marked the first time Cuba has been eliminated before a major international tournament’s final game for the first time in 50 years, the New York Times reported. Cuba had reached the final of all 50 major tournaments it had entered since 1959, winning 43 of them.

Cuba was stunned by Japan three years ago in the finals of the 2006 Classic. Japan moves on to the final round with Korea, Venezuela and the United States, while the Cuban team will head home.

“They were much better than us, and that’s why they deserved the victory,” Cuba Manager Higinio Vélez said in a statement. “They do deserve to go on to the finals. So the only thing left for us to do is to continue to fight for our great game, baseball.”

You can read the New York Times article here.

Recommended Viewing:

New Videos: The FMLN, El Salvador’s former rebel party, won its first presidential election on Sunday, ending two decades of rule by the ARENA party. Check out these election day videos to see what the Salvadorian people had to say about their elections and El Salvador’s relations with the U.S.

Statement by US Rep. Jim McGovern on the Salvadoran Elections.

Recommended Reading:

We think: President Obama making gains in archaic policy with Cuba, Orlando Sentinel

The Obama administration took a small step toward reappraising U.S.-Cuba policy this month. Americans should hope a much larger one is announced next month.

Get a Glimpse of Cuba’s Underwater Treasure Trove, NBC News

Cuba’s southern Isle of Youth was battered by two powerful hurricanes last summer, including Gustav, the worst storm to hit there in 50 years.  But in what seems to be nothing short of a miracle, the fast-moving storms only minimally impacted the coast and natural wildlife.

Around the Region:

U.S. Congressman meets with President Chavez

Massachusetts Congressman William Delahunt met with President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela last week and says he’s encouraged about the possibilities of improved relations between the United States and Venezuela.

Delahunt said he had a “very positive and constructive conversation” with Chavez.

Around the World:

Obama reaches out to Iran with video message

President Barack Obama is reaching out to the Iranian people in a new video with Farsi subtitles, saying the U.S. is prepared to end years of strained relations if Tehran tones down its bellicose rhetoric.

Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team

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