Momentum: Senate/House Plan “Travel for All” press events in Washington; Justice Department fights anti-travel law in Florida
Watch this space.
Next week, legislators in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives will formally unveil legislation to repeal restrictions on the right of all Americans to travel to Cuba and announce long and growing lists of cosponsors for the measures in both Chambers.
These important displays of momentum – coming just before President Obama travels to a meeting of Latin American and Caribbean leaders, the Summit of the America – demonstrate that removing travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans, as important and just as that is, is only the beginning, and restoring the constitutional rights of all Americans to travel freely and without restrictions to Cuba is the goal that Congress must pursue.
The Senate legislation, S, 428, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, will be discussed in a press conference on Tuesday by U.S. Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Michael Enzi (R-WY) and representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and Human Rights Watch. A separate House event will also take place later in the week.
We’ll be posting statements and news about both bills as developments warrant.
Meanwhile, Cuba took a new and important step to reform its economy by loosening restrictions on expenditures by state companies. Fidel Castro attacked foreign news agencies in his latest reflection for misreporting the retirement of two historical figures from Raúl Castro’s government. Dissidents also made news this week, for a hunger strike outside of Havana and a rift splitting members of the independent library movement.
In the U.S., the Department of Justice sided with travel service providers in Florida against a state law designed to stop them from trying to sell legal travel services to Cuba. And agriculture sales made news too – with new legislation introduced in the House to ease sales, exports from Texas rising, and hopes for additional purchases of rice by Cuba rising as well.
In the first reform action to take place since President Raúl Castro reshuffled his cabinet earlier this month, Cuba has ended a regulation requiring Cuba’s Central Bank to approve all state company expenditures above $10,000, the Reuters news agency reported.
Sources told Reuters that the regulation had slowed the day-to-day operations of state businesses and hurt production. The change will benefit all sectors of the economy by speeding the flow of parts for factories and supplies, “especially those that require the most agility, such as tourism and agriculture.”
Discussing the change, Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute said, “It means less bureaucracy, less central control, and more authority and responsibility in the hands of managers of state enterprises.”
Citing a publication of the Official Gazette this week, foreign news agencies reported this week that two aging leaders with a long history in the Revolution were dismissed at the beginning of the month. The Official Gazette said that Osmany Cienfuegos and Pedro Miret had been “liberated” from their positions as vice presidents in the Cabinet of Ministers, but those moves were not announced along with other cabinet changes on March 2nd.
Cienfuegos, 78, is the older brother of Camilo Cienfuegos, one of the key leaders of the revolution, who died in a plane crash in 1959.
Miret, 82, participated in the 1953 rebel assault on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago, Cuba and traveled on the yacht Granma from Mexico to Cuba with Fidel Castro and other fighters of the Cuban revolution in 1956.
Fidel Castro responded to the reporting by foreign news agency with a reflection titled “Lies in the service of the empire.” Castro said that the leaders were not “dismissed.”
Castro wrote that Pedro Miret, “a magnificent compañero, with great historic merits…has been unable to hold any office for a number of years now, for health reasons.”
“Osmany Cienfuegos always was and is a revolutionary. From long before I became ill, his functions were progressively ending,” wrote Castro.
Castro slammed Reuters and EFE for taking the lead on reporting the “dismissals.”
“In both cases, it concerned purely legal steps. Reuters and EFE are two of the Western agencies closest to the imperialist policy of the United States. Occasionally, the latter behaves worse, although it is much less important than the former,” he wrote.
Former political prisoner Jorge Luis García, better known as ”Antúnez,” his wife, Iris Pérez Aguilera, and three friends have been on a hunger strike for 38 days as of Thursday, the Miami Herald reported. They say the protest is to demand adequate housing for all Cubans, the end of torture for Antúnez’s brother-in-law, and the ratification and publication of human rights accords.
According to Antúnez, his sister’s house was damaged by last year’s hurricanes and the government has not sufficiently helped to repair it. His brother-in-law, Mario Alberto Pérez, was jailed in 2007 on what the family says were trumped-up robbery charges.
Antúnez says he has not eaten solid food since Feb. 17 and has lost at least 40 pounds.
The activists are upset that the foreign press has not visited the house where they are protesting, which is about 200 miles east of Havana.
“If there was a march here in favor of the revolution, the foreign press would be here,” Antúnez said.
According to the Herald, Antúnez was released from prison in 2007 after serving a 17-year sentence for “enemy propaganda,” sabotage resulting in a public protest, and an attempt to escape prison.
The Herald also reported that the Cuban government presented evidence last year showing that he had received funds from Santiago Alvarez, a hard-line Miami exile activist with ties to terrorism who is serving a prison sentence for arms trafficking.
“Cuba’s independent libraries, one of the key branches of the dissident movement, are suffering through a crisis of leadership that pits its activists on and off the island against each other,” The Nuevo Herald reported.
Gisela Delgado, executive director for the project on the island, said she and other activists involved with the Independent Library Project of Cuba (PBIC) have severed ties with the founders of the organization, Berta Mexidor Velzquez and Humberto Colás, who both live in the United States.
Delgado attributed the split to discrepancies over the transparency of funding and said that the movement does not “take orders from abroad.”
Bibliotecas Independientes Inc., a Florida non-profit registered to Colás and Mexidor to assist the libraries in Cuba, has received grants from the National Endowment for Democracy since 2005.
Delgado, however, said that she did not know about the funding from NED and was not provided adequate answers when she inquired about it. Delgado said that none of the librarians is paid for their work, but that she did not know about the funding until a trip abroad in 2007.
The Herald reported that the Bibliotecas Independientes’ most recent budget shows that only 23 percent of its “$143,166 budget was destined for specific projects in Cuba.”
The first big exhibit of art from the United States in Cuba since 1986 will begin this week, the Reuters news agency reported.
Artwork of over 30 artists from New York City’s Chelsea district will be on display from Saturday until May 17 at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana.
The exhibit is titled: “Chelsea Visits Havana.”
“Art has always been a bridge to culture, and if this is any sign of things to come, it’s a great first step,” said curator Alberto Magnan, a Cuban-American and Chelsea art gallery owner.
The style and focus of the artwork varies, but some of it, such as a piece with the profiles of President Obama and former Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, refers directly to relations between the two countries.
Jade Townsend, one of the visiting artists, said the project would also allow him and his American colleagues a chance to local artwork in the context of Cuba’s political system and culture. “There’s a certain freedom we don’t have and there’s a certain freedom they don’t have,” he said.
Artist Doug Young said that although planning for the event began while President George W. Bush was still in office, the event has extra significance since President Obama has advocated for changing policy towards Cuba. “I think it’s the first stitch in a fabric that will grow to be a big banner of freedom for everybody,” he said.
According to a report by the Catholic News Service, Cuba’s government has approved renovations for four Catholic churches in Havana using funds contributed by the Australian office of “Aid to Churches in Need.”
The organization issued a statement calling Cuba’s decision “one of the best signals yet of improving links between Catholic leaders and Raúl Castro’s year-old administration.”
The U.S. Justice Department has determined that a Florida law passed in 2008 that would make it more expensive for travel agents to book trips to Cuba interferes with current federal regulations on travel to Cuba, the Associated Press reported.
The Justice Department released a 35-page report last week, which found that the Sellers of Travel Act also interferes “with the federal government’s ability to speak for the United States with one voice in foreign affairs.”
The law forces travel agents that book travel to Cuba to pay up to $2,500 in annual registration fees and to post a $250,000 bond with the state.
A federal judge ruled in July that the law is likely unconstitutional and issued a preliminary injunction to prevent the state from enacting it.
More than a dozen Florida-based travel agencies filed a federal lawsuit against the state in June to stop the law from taking effect. They argue that the law discriminates against them because it would drive up their costs.
In July, a federal judge said the law was probably unconstitutional and issued a preliminary injunction preventing Florida from enforcing it. The injunction remains in effect until a trial on the law’s constitutionality, which has not been scheduled.
“I think this will definitely help our position,” said Steven M. Weinger, one of the attorneys representing more than a dozen Florida-based travel agencies that filed a federal lawsuit against the state. “The Department of Justice has basically taken the same position that we’ve taken, that the state of Florida does not have the right to punish people who legally try to sell trips to Cuba.”
Cuba’s state media reported for the first time this week on the easing of U.S. restrictions on trade and family travel to Cuba included in spending bill signed into law on March 11th.
The measures had not been previously reported, but Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, issued a detailed account of the provisions on Monday. The changes went unreported in the official press for two weeks.
The article said that the steps “represent an initial setback for the anti-Cuban mafia and its representatives in Congress, (although) in practice they do not change the siege of the Cuban people maintained by successive U.S. administrations.”
It concluded that the “measures do not restore the right of Cubans resident in the United States to travel freely to Cuba or the right of U.S. citizens to visit the island.”
Congressman Jerry Moran, leading a bi-partisan coalition of seventeen cosponsors, has introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that removes barriers to sales of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba, Brownfield Network reported.
The legislation allows direct payments between Cuban and U.S. financial institutions, clarifies the rules on cash payments in advance, eases the ability of exporters to get travel licenses to Cuba, and allows Cuban officials access to visas so they can attend meetings here.
Joining Mr. Moran as cosponsors of H.R. 1737 are Representatives Marion Berry, John Boozman, Charles Boustany, Henry Brown, Michael Conaway, Lincoln Davis, William Delahunt, Donna Edwards, Jo Ann Emerson, James McGovern, Randy Neugebauer, Ron Paul, Mike Ross, Vic Snyder, Bennie Thompson, and Tim Walz.
U.S. rice growers are hopeful that President Obama will further ease Washington’s trade sanctions against Cuba this year, and say that the April 17-19 Summit of the Americas would be the perfect place to do so, the Reuters news agency reported.
U.S. Rice Producers Association President and CEO Dwight Roberts said he expects the administration to do more than the “baby steps” taken earlier this month, referring to the Omnibus Appropriations law that softened some travel and trade restrictions.
“I definitely expect we will see a continuing process of easing the trade restrictions … that is what we are hearing from high-level people in Washington,” Roberts told Reuters last week.
Rice growers say that if Obama were to soften some trade measures U.S. rice sales would soon increase to at least 200,000 tons from the current 30-35,000 tons annually.
“If we remove the obstacles — not even a total dropping of the embargo — if we were able to give credit, have direct banking links, etcetera, we could easily do 200,000 tons (of U.S. rice sold to Cuba) in the first year,” said Roberts.
Amendments made to the embargo in 2000 allow Cuba to buy food with cash. Rice shipments from the U.S. rose from zero to 175,000 tons by 2004, but declined in recent years after the Bush administration enacted stricter regulations, forcing Cuba to make payments before products left the ports in the U.S., increasing cost and complications. Only 30-35,000 tons were shipped to Cuba last year.
Roberts said that as Obama and Congress face pressure to loosen the embargo from “everyone in agriculture and beyond,” the Summit of the Americas would be the perfect place for Obama to make changes to Cuba policy.
“At this event coming in April with the leaders of the Western hemisphere, there will be a lot of pressure on Obama to come out with something on relations with Cuba,” he said.
Farm exports from Texas to Cuba have almost doubled in the last year alone, the Dallas Morning News reported.
Cuba bought between $85 and $90 million of wheat, corn, soybeans and frozen chickens from Texas last year as U.S. farm exports to Cuba grew from $430 million in 2007 to $715 million, said C. Parr Rosson III, a Texas A&M professor and agriculture economist.
“Cuba is a significant market for Texas, and it can grow in the future,” Rosson said.