“You’ve Got To Keep Meeting This Way” U.S. and Cuban Diplomats Commit Diplomacy in Washington and much more

Dear Friend:

This year, we’ve seen a transformative change in the Cuba policy debate.

The President and the Congress have taken steps to loosen the travel and trade restrictions.  Cuban and U.S. diplomats are talking.   The House and the Senate are building serious coalitions in an effort to pass full travel legislation for all Americans.  The Cuban-American community is embracing change.  Thinkers and leaders and policy activists are all pulling in the same direction.

We still have lots of work to do – to repeal the travel ban on all Americans and to put U.S.-Cuba relations on a new footing – but we’re making progress.  The political conversation has changed from “this will never happen” to “this is going to happen…but when?”

What interests us about all of this progress is that the politicians are finally catching up to where the people are.

Just ask the Washington Post.  Polling released this week shows strong majorities for ending travel restrictions, ending the trade embargo, and having the U.S. establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Think they’re an outlier?  Think again.  The Gallup Poll conducted this survey just a few days before – on travel, the embargo, and diplomatic relations – and got strikingly similar results.

CNN’s numbers released in early April were even higher.

Bendixen & Associates found strong support in the Cuban-American community for Obama’s new travel policy, strong support for eliminating travel restrictions on all Americans, and a virtual split on the question of ending the entire embargo.

You can find huge support for changing the policy in research by World Public Opinion.org, and even in a survey taken this year by Fox News, among Americans more broadly.

All of this is really good news.  Not only has the case for changing the policy never been stronger but the public opinion climate for making a decisive change in Cuba policy keeps getting better.

Policy makers, take note.   This week in Cuba news.


Cuban and U.S. diplomats meet

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Thomas Shannon, met with the head of Cuba’s Interest Section in the U.S., Jorge Bolaños, on Monday, marking the second time U.S and Cuban officials have met this month, the Reuters news agency reported.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood downplayed the meetings, saying they “happen periodically.”

“I’m not trying to make more or less of it,” Wood responded when asked if the meetings were representative of the beginning of a rapprochement.

A senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters the meeting was important, but only the beginning of a long road. “We are certainly nowhere near normal relations with Cuba,” the official said.

Wood suggested that the Obama administration is expecting the Cuban government to make some sort of gesture in response to U.S. decision to end restrictions on family travel and remittances and allow telecommunication companies to do business with Cuba.

“We want to see the Cuban government reciprocate,” said Wood. “We’d like to see some steps coming from the Cuban side in terms of, you know, releasing political prisoners, ending taxes on remittances, that sort of thing. We still wait to see what the Cuban Government decides to do on that score,” he added.

You can read the Reuters article here.

You can read an Associated Press article here.

You can see the State Department Press Briefing on Cuba here.

Cuba remains on the state sponsors of terrorism list

The State Department released its 2008 Country Reports on Terrorism this week, which lists Cuba, Syria, Sudan and Iran as state sponsors of terrorism.  The citation for Cuba consists of three vague paragraphs which contain no evidence of Cuba actually supporting terrorism but which also contain some positive signs.

  • Although Cuba no longer actively supports armed struggle in Latin America and other parts of the world, the Cuban government continued to provide safe haven to several terrorists. Members of ETA, the FARC, and the ELN remained in Cuba during 2008, some having arrived in Cuba in connection with peace negotiations with the governments of Spain and Colombia. Cuban authorities continued to publicly defend the FARC. However, on July 6, 2008, former Cuban President Fidel Castro called on the FARC to release the hostages they were holding without preconditions. He has also condemned the FARC’s mistreatment of captives and of their abduction of civilian politicians who had no role in the armed conflict.
  • The United States has no evidence of terrorist-related money laundering or terrorist financing activities in Cuba, although Cuba has one of the world’s most secretive and non-transparent national banking systems. Cuba has no financial intelligence unit. Cuba’s Law 93 Against Acts of Terrorism provides the government authority to track, block, or seize terrorist assets.
  • The Cuban government continued to permit some U.S. fugitives-including members of U.S. militant groups such as the Boricua Popular, or Macheteros, and the Black Liberation Army to live legally in Cuba. In keeping with its public declaration, the government has not provided safe haven to any new U.S. fugitives wanted for terrorism since 2006.

According to experts familiar with the list, the tempered language and acknowledgement that members of terrorist organizations are in Cuba at the request of the governments of Spain and Colombia, and the acknowledgement that Fidel Castro has condemned the FARC, may reflect an interest by the Obama administration in removing Cuba from the list.

“It’s a big gesture on their part to recognize Fidel Castro’s statements about the FARC,” said Philip Peters of the Lexington Institute. “It sounds to me like Cuba is on its way to coming off the list.”

According to the acting coordinator of counterterrorism, Ronald Schlicher, the report is a “snapshot of the terrorism-related activities” and was not “laying the groundwork for anything.”

Cuba’s minister of foreign affairs, Bruno Rodriguez, dismissed the report and Cuba’s on-going status on the list.

“We don’t recognize the United States as any type of moral authority” to place Cuba on the terror list, said Rodriguez. The author of this report is “himself an international delinquent,” he added.

You can see the full report here. The Cuba specific language is on page 182.

You can read the McClatchy News article here.

You can watch the State Department Briefing on County Reports Terrorism here.

House Panel Examines National Security Implications of Cuba Policy

The House National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the Government Reform Committee held a hearing on “National Security Implications of U.S. Policy toward Cuba.”  The Subcommittee Chair is Rep. John F. Tierney (D-MA), and the Ranking Minority Member is Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ).  Witnesses included: Four-star General Barry McCaffrey, energy expert Jorge Piñon, Rens W. Lee, an authority on international crime, Cuba policy analyst Philip Peters, and Sarah Stephens, co-editor of “9 Nine Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US.”

An overview of the hearing, the statements of each witness and the Subcommittee chairman, can be accessed here.

Raúl Castro says Cuba willing to discuss anything, but the ball is not in Cuba’s court

During a speech at a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Havana, Cuban President Raúl Castro reiterated that Cuba is willing to discuss any issue with the United States on equal footing, the New York Daily News reported. Castro has made numerous offers to sit with the United States without preconditions over the last two years.

“We have reiterated that we are disposed to talk about everything with the government of the United States, in conditions of equality, but not to negotiate our sovereignty or our political and social system, our right to self-determination or our internal affairs,” said Castro.

What appeared to be a response to State Department statements that the U.S. is waiting for Cuba to act, Castro told delegates at the meeting that “Cuba has not imposed sanctions against the U.S.” and “therefore it is not Cuba that has to make gestures.” He characterized recent changes by the Obama administration on family travel and remittances as “positive,” but said that “their reach was minimal.”

“While the measures recently announced by President Obama are positive, their reach is minimal. The blockade has remained intact. There is no political or moral pretext that can justify the continuity of that policy. Cuba has not imposed any sanctions whatsoever on the United States or against its citizens. It is not Cuba that is preventing entrepreneurs from that country from doing business with us. It is not Cuba that is hunting down financial transactions carried out by U.S. banks. It is not Cuba who has a military base on United States territory against the will of its people, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, so as not to make the list interminable; therefore, it is not Cuba that has to make gestures,” he said.

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have said that Cuba should send “signals” if the government is serious about a dialogue, including eliminating fees on changing dollars or the release of political prisoners.

The State Department had this response when asked about Castro’s remarks:

Reporter: Raúl Castro has said today that the steps that the Administration has taken so far are minimal and that the ball is in your court, not in their court. What’s – what is your reaction to this?
Mr. Wood: Well, I think we’ve made very clear – I think the President made very clear by the steps that he took with regard to remittances and travel that we certainly want to take a different approach to dealing with Cuba. But we’ve all called for the Cuban Government to take some steps to show that it’s serious about dialogue with the international community – you know, releasing political prisoners, stopping – you know, the halting of taxing remittances that come back into the country.
Look, we’re interested in a dialogue with Cuba, but I think the international community wants to see some steps from Havana to see, to gauge how serious the government there is willing to have a dialogue about these – this range of issues that we’re all concerned about.

You can read the New York Daily News article here.

You can read the State Department Press Briefing here.

You can read Castro’s full speech here.

Fidel Castro says Cuba will not act like slaves of the U.S.

In a new “reflection,” Fidel Castro criticized calls by the United States for Cuba to make concessions before entering into a dialogue.

“Today they are prepared to pardon us if we resign ourselves to return to the fold as slaves, who after knowing freedom, accept anew the whip and yoke,” Castro wrote.

Castro wrote the essay, titled “The day of the poor of the world,” to reflect on International Workers Day, May 1.

“The last word has not been said about the future evolution of the current U.S. administration. There are new elements, both of an objective as well as subjective character. We carefully study and observe each one of its steps. We are neither incendiary as some imagine, nor dumb as to be easily fooled by those who believe that the only thing that matters in the world are the laws of the market and the capitalist system of production. We all have the duty to struggle for peace; there is no other alternative,” he added.

“However, the adversary should never have the illusion that Cuba will surrender,” Castro concluded.

You can read Castro’s essay here.

Give Guantanamo Back to Cuba

After a recent visit to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Dr. Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations writes in the Washington Post that the base could be the ideal place for President Obama to merge his initiatives of closing the detention center at the base and reaching out to Cuba. According to Sweig, a careful step-by-step process of returning the base to Cuba could “launch a far-reaching transformation of Washington’s relationship with its communist neighbor.”

As a first step, Sweig says the “the two nations could expand their monthly gate talks beyond the issue of perimeter security to include drug trafficking, human smuggling, refugee processing and disaster preparedness and relief. Such confidence-building talks could lead to deeper cooperation, even on human rights and political prisoners.”

Overtime, Sweig believes that “the Navy could invite public-health professionals from Cuba, the United States and other countries in the region to the base to develop strategies for cooperation,” with an end goal of converting the base to a public health research and treatment center.

She concludes that “returning Guantanamo Bay to full Cuban sovereignty and control is a win for the United States: Aside from the boon to America’s credibility with the Cuban people and throughout Latin America, these first steps would probe the Cuban government’s apparent disposition to use the base as a point of contact with the United States — and gauge the regime’s willingness to move the ball forward even more.”

You can read the full article here.

You can see a video that features Dr. Peter Bourne discussing Guantanamo and his conversation with Fidel Castro about returning it here.

Illegal migration from Cuba down

The number of Cubans illegally entering the United States in the first half of the fiscal year is drastically lower than the same time period in 2008, and could represent the lowest level of illegal migration from Cuba in the last decade, the Nuevo Herald reported.

According to statistics released by the Department of Homeland Security, 4,554 Cubans have sought asylum after landing on U.S. territory since last October, far less than the 14,061 that arrived illegally during the previous fiscal year.

According to experts, the reduction can be attributed to intensified patrols in the Florida Straits, stiff prosecution of smugglers and a new Family Reunification Program, which allows Cubans approved for family visas to come to the United States while awaiting visa processing, as opposed to waiting in Cuba, sometimes for years, to receive them.

You can read the Nuevo Herald story here (in Spanish).

Remittances to Cuba will increase

A new study from the Inter-American Dialogue found that despite the economic crisis, the number of people sending remittances to Cuba will grow this year in response to President Obama’s executive order relaxing the restrictions, Mexico’s La Jornada newspaper reported.

“The number of people sending remittances to Cuba will increase by 50 or 60 percent,” said Miguel Orozco, an expert on remittances at the Dialogue.

Orozco said that the new policy on sending remittances to Cuba would result in more Cuban-Americans sending money through official, legal means and not through friends or “mules” that they previously used to get around the Bush administration-implemented restrictions.

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


Momentum for full travel building in the travel industry

The USA Today reported that “momentum is building for legal U.S. tourism to Cuba” as a tourism trade show is set to begin in Havana on Monday. The International Tourism Fair attracts travel agents, tour operators and cruise and airline representatives from around the world that are interested in doing business in Cuba.

President Obama recently loosened restrictions on Cuban-American visits to the island and Congress is considering legislation that would eliminate all travel restrictions for U.S. citizens wishing to visit Cuba.

“I’m very involved trying to get a law passed to lift the travel ban, and we have lots of (bipartisan) sponsors,” said Bob Whitley, president of the United States Tour Operators Association. “I feel it will pass; the key is whether Obama will let it.”

Alberto Gonzalez Casals, first secretary of the Washington, D.C., Cuban Interests Section, told USA Today that travelers from the U.S. “are welcome in Cuba, like all the tourists in the world” and pointed out that “Cuba has never put any restriction on visitation from North American tourists.

You can read the USA Today article here.

Without restrictions, U.S. exports to Cuba would have been at least 30 percent higher in 2008

Exports of U.S. agricultural goods to Cuba would have been at least 30 percent higher last year, increasing from 925 million USD to 1.19 billion USD, had it not been for tight restrictions on agriculture trade with Cuba, Jonathan Coleman, an analyst from the Commission on International Commerce said this week, the Reuters news agency reported.

Farm exports to Cuba would increase immediately if Cuba didn’t have to pay for the goods in cash to intermediary banks in third countries before the products are shipped, and if U.S. tourists were able to visit the island, sparking the economy and increasing demand for food products, Coleman said at a conference organized by the Center for International Policy.

Despite the current restrictions the United States is the number one food provider to Cuba, which imports over 80 percent of its food products.

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


Brazil calls for Cuba’s inclusion in the IMF

Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega said over the weekend that the International Monetary Fund should “open its doors” to Cuba and welcome their membership, Agence France-Presse reported.

“All we’re saying is that we have to open the doors so Cuba can join,” Mantega told reporters on Saturday during the IMF’s spring meeting in Washington, DC.

According to Mantega, Cuba is in a “process of reintegration” in world organizations, and the IMF should be part of that process.

Mantega said that it would be “an additional step” to help Cuba, “in a climate of (new) understanding.”

By “correcting an omission that has lasted a long time, the IMF could reach its goal of “universal membership,” he added.

You can read the Agence France-Presse article here.

Non-Aligned Movement in Cuba

The Movement of Non Aligned Countries (NAM) held its ministerial meeting this week in Cuba, which is the current chair of the 118 country group.

The Cuban News Agency reported that discussions focused on the current economic crisis, and NAM members called for developing “a new financial international architecture, with equal voice and participation of the underdeveloped countries.”

President Raúl Castro addressed the crowd on Wednesday and held several bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the conference.

The meeting ended Thursday with the approval of a special declaration on the world economic crisis, which member nations labeled “one of the most dangerous threats the world is facing today.”

You can read Cuba News Agency article here.

You can see Raúl Castro’s speech here.


Cuba halts flights to and from Mexico in wake of swine flu

Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health announced this week that among a series of preventive measures, the country would suspend flights to and from Mexico for at least 48 hours.

“In the current case, where the issue is a disease of human-to-human transmission with wide possibilities of being spread all over the world, a series of necessary measures are being taken in airports and ports, flights to and from Mexico are being limited as far as possible, and (authorities) are ready to take any measures necessary,” said a statement by the ministry published in the Granma.

The note also encouraged the population “to intensify personal and collective hygiene” and were encouraged to seek “medical attention” immediately if need be.

CBS News reported that health personnel wearing face masks were greeting all passengers arriving on international flights and travelers were being asked to complete a health questionnaire with information on countries visited prior to Cuba and whether they have exhibited cold symptoms in the last 10 days.

According to local TV reports, any passenger found with symptoms would be immediately brought to Havana’s Tropical Medicine Institute. The director of the Salvador Allende hospital in Havana told reporters the facility is prepared to be the main treatment center should the swine flu appear in Cuba.

So far no cases have been reported.

You can read the statement here.

Cuba celebrates International Worker’s Day

Thousands of Cubans marched to Revolutionary Plaza in Havana to celebrate International Worker’s Day. Many students, farmers and other workers are bussed in from the country-side to take part in the celebration. Similar marches will take place in cities and towns across the country.

According to the Granma, President Raúl Castro will address the crowd in Havana.

The Cuban News Agency reported that although this year’s march takes place in the middle of the economic crisis, Cuban workers have the guarantee of “social wellbeing” and that “temporary” difficulties are the result of the economic crisis and the “U.S. economic and commercial blockade” (embargo).

However, the Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that most Cubans attend the parade out of obligation, but are not pleased with current salaries and other work conditions.

“It’s one more ritual in a country of ritual,” said Graciela, 43, a culture ministry worker who will attend the mandatory festivities. “As a nation, we’re very big on symbolism. But how do you celebrate Workers Day when wages are so low and prices so high and you see no chance of improvement?”

You can read the Cuban News Agency article here.

You can read the Florida Sun-Sentinel article here.

Recommended Viewing:

Amazon Defense Coalition: 60 Minutes To Air Segment On Chevron’s “Amazon Chernobyl” In Ecuador’s Rainforest

The CBS news show 60 Minutes will air a segment this Sunday about Chevron’s complicity in the contamination of pristine rainforest deep in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador.

Around the Region:

Chavez Says Colombia Rebels Unwelcome in Venezuela, The New York Times

Venezuela cuts funds to opposition Caracas mayor, El Nuevo Herald

Rafael Correa wins second term as Ecuador president, The Telegraph

Mexican Army needs oversight, Human Rights Watch says, The LA Times

Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team

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