Stop Light for Silvio, Green Light for Travel, Spot Light on Trade

Dear Friend:

Progress is never easy.

Silvio Rodriguez, the legendary Cuban singer, and a pro-government figure in his country, was unable to join a concert in honor of Pete Seeger, because U.S. authorities never acted on his visa application, even though it was filed in a timely manner.

This reminded us, regrettably, of an incident six years ago when Ibrahim Ferrer was denied a visa and was unable to receive his Grammy Award for Buenos Hermanos.

In some respects, this was even more damaging, because it came against the backdrop of President Obama calling U.S. policy a failure and promising to pursue engagement – developments that Cubans on the island welcomed as signs of hope and change.  Silvio’s exclusion disappointed the very people to whom Obama was reaching out to and was the subject of considerable coverage on the Mesa Redonda and elsewhere in Cuba’s media.

Let’s hope the failure to allow Silvio Rodriguez into the United States was nothing more sinister than a bureaucratic snafu or a rookie mistake for a new administration that has been trying to break new ground in its historic and hopeful reconsideration of the failed U.S. policy toward Cuba.  Cubans are watching – and so are we.

This week, much of the news you are about to read is rooted in economics.  You’ll see reports about an event on Capitol Hill that featured the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Representative Charles Rangel who talked about ending the Cuban trade and travel restrictions; new legislation to spur agriculture sales to Cuba; new energy at the state level to raise farm sales, and new evidence that reduced restrictions on Cuban-American family travel are already producing more visits to the island.

Supporters of the embargo don’t like to hear talk about the economic dimensions of our policy – condemning it as Americans wanting to make a buck instead of paying attention to human rights.   But there is no evidence that continuing the U.S. embargo against Cuba, a solo enterprise since no other country follows us, is going to do anything in the future other than what it has done in the past:  increasingly isolate the United States and its people from the everyday experience of Cuban life, as it damages our economic, security, and foreign policy interests as part of the bargain.  Perhaps that is why the Orange County Register, a symbol of conservative journalism, recently predicted the embargo’s repeal.

Another thing that supporters of the embargo don’t like to hear about is this: lifting the embargo and normalizing relations with Cuba is becoming increasingly popular among all Americans, including Cuban Americans.

But we’re here to remind you and them of that, too.  This week in Cuba news…

Déjà vu?

Visa delay keeps Cuban musician from coming to the U.S.

Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez planned to attend a tribute to folk music legend Pete Seeger on May 3rd, but says that he had to cancel the trip because U.S. authorities failed to approve his visa in time, the Associated Press reported.

Rodriguez planned to join Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews and other artists at a performance dedicated to Seeger in New York, but when he checked on his visa application the day prior to the trip, it still had not been processed.

In the previous eight years, Cuban musicians, actors and athletes often apply to travel to the United States only to be denied on the basis of being a security threat or because their visa requests were not responded to before their travel dates.   This is the first known exclusion of a prominent Cuban artistic figure under President Obama.

“I think that the State Department’s attitude is very much in contradiction with President Obama’s expressed desire for a rapprochement with Cuba. I still feel as blocked and discriminated against as I have by other administrations. I hope that this will really change some day,” Rodriguez wrote in a letter to Seeger.

Reuters covers the concert Silvio (and most of us) missed here.

Company fined for doing business with Cuba

The Obama Administration recently fined a company $110,000 for exporting technology to Cuba, the Nuevo Herald reported.

The Treasury Department announced on April 30th that Varel Holding, a company that makes drills for oil extraction, paid the fine after admitting that one of its foreign subsidiaries had violated the rules of the embargo.

According to a document released by Office of Foreign Assets Control, between June 2005 and June 2006 “a foreign subsidiary of Varel made eleven unlicensed exports of goods in which Cuba or Cuban nationals had an interest.” Varel voluntarily disclosed the matter to OFAC, the document said.

The fine is the highest given this fiscal year, which began in October, and the second fine that has been given since Barack Obama came to office.

“It’s hard for me to understand the sanctions policy of OFAC, because there are various foreign companies that work in Cuba’s oil sector with U.S. technology and operational experience,” former oil executive Jorge Piñón told the Herald.


Chamber of Commerce calls for open travel and trade with Cuba

Charles Rangel, Chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee, held a briefing this week, where he was joined by the President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other Members of Congress in calling for an end to trade and travel sanctions on Cuba.

Thomas J. Donohue, President of the Chamber, advocated for a complete lifting of the embargo, arguing that engagement and increased trade would help push Cuba toward a more democratic and free society, while helping American and Cuban workers and farmers, the Chamber said in a press release.

“The embargo has failed and it’s time for a change. Prosperity and free enterprise go hand-in-hand,” he said.  “Lifting the embargo will remove Cuba’s excuse for economic failure, promote a transition to democracy, and offer significant economic opportunities to American farmers, businesses, and workers.”

The U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, a political action committee that supports the embargo, released a statement denouncing the Chamber as supporting “21st century mercantilism.”

Rangel, a long time proponent for change in Cuba policy, said that he thought it was “most likely” that the embargo would be lifted by the end of this Congress, the Reuters news agency reported.

Representative William Delahunt said that his bill to allow full travel to Cuba for all Americans, The “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act (H.R. 874), was gaining momentum and would probably be voted on sometime after October.

“We’re building up support. We have 138 co-sponsors,” Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat, said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told Reuters that the Obama administration was waiting for Cuba to make the next move.

“What the president has said now it’s time for Cuba to demonstrate its willingness to take some steps and show some progress and change in philosophy as it relates to human rights and perhaps releasing some of the prisoners,” Kirk said.

You can read the entire U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC statement here.

Cuba trade proposal could spark another debate among Senate Democrats

According to The Hill newspaper, a bill to ease agricultural trade with Cuba will likely spark another battle on the issue among Senate Democrats. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said he will soon introduce legislation to increase agricultural exports to Cuba. Baucus has introduced similar legislation in the past.

The proposal “will likely trigger a fight with Democratic proponents of the Cuba embargo policy,” led by Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the Hill reported.

Menendez and Nelson threatened to vote against the $410 billion spending bill in March because it contained language that weakened sanctions on Cuba. Menendez supported the bill after receiving assurances from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner that the bill would not significantly alter trade policy towards Cuba.

Alabama: End the Embargo

The Los Angeles Times reported that in the South, Cuba is seen less as a Cold War antagonist and more as a rare growth market, especially in Alabama.

James K. Lyons, director of the Alabama State Port Authority, said he dreams of the end of the Cuban trade embargo, which would mean more barges loaded with even more goods from Alabama.

Alabama sells cotton, corn, soybeans, railroad ties utility poles, and other products to the island, according to John Key, the state Agriculture Department’s director of international trade.

“They are one of our closest neighbors, and a historical trading partner, and we’ve drifted too far apart,” Lyons told the L.A. Times recently. “Where’s the cheapest and best place for them to buy? It’s here.”

Every state agriculture commissioner along the Gulf of Mexico now supports easing the Cuban embargo, with the exception of Florida’s Charles Bronson.   The commissioners in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas are Republicans.

“These people are seeing Cuba as the last economic frontier, especially at a time when markets are shrinking or stagnant,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy for the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. “It’s going to make for a much more favorable climate for lifting the embargo.”

Maryland and Virginia prepare for better U.S.-Cuba relations

Trade officials from Virginia and Maryland are anticipating improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and are moving fast to expand markets for their goods in the case that the two countries normalize relations, the Washington Post reported.

Virginia has steadily increased agriculture sales to Cuba since regulations on food sales were relaxed, increasing exports from less than $1 million to $40 million in five years.  Maryland has also looked to increase trade with Cuba, spending $6,000 on a trade mission to the island last year that led to $12.8-million deal on soybeans.

“There’s just a lot of excitement,” said Todd P. Haymore, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “We feel certain that things are going to happen based on what the Obama administration has already done — just the fact that we’re talking about changing policies in place for 40 years or more.”


Cuban American visits to Cuba on the rise

Cuban Americans visits to Cuba are up 20 percent so far this year and will likely continue to rise, the Cuban tour agency responsible for all U.S. travel said this week, the Reuters news agency reported.

“The flights from the United States carried about 85,000 last year and so far this year arrivals have been about 40,000,” said Antonio Diaz Medina, vice president of Havanatur.

Diaz told Reuters that the increase was a direct result of the U.S. Congress relaxing a law that restricted family visits to once every three years.

Armando García, president of Marazul Charters, which arranges travel to Cuba, said that his agency has seen an immediate increase in reservations due to the measure, the NY Daily News reported.

García said his agency raised booking capacity from 369 seats in March to 480 seats in May, and all the way to 900 seats in June.

“These people had been waiting since 2004, the last year without draconian restrictions,” he said.

Cuba’s tourism outlook

Speaking at the opening of the International Tourism Fair in Havana, Cuba’s Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero, said that although 2008 was “the best year in the history of Cuban tourism,” 2009 “is turning into a difficult year,” Agence France-Presse reported.

According to Marrero, 2008 saw a 9 percent increase in foreign visitors and a 12 percent increase in tourism-related income compared to 2007.

Despite the fact the island closed the first quarter of 2009 with a two percent increase over the same period last year, Cuba expects the global crisis to affect the amount of revenue produced by the tourism industry.

“The global crisis is having an impact on all aspects of the world economy and tourism is not exempt,” said Marrero.

Some 2.3 million tourists visited the island in 2008, with over 800,000 coming from Canada.

Cuban officials played down speculation that a law in Congress could soon end the travel ban for all Americans, resulting in an avalanche of tourists from the U.S.

“There is no reason to make it a big deal now. They could come in three months or three years,” said Antonio Diaz Medina, vice president of Havanatur, the Reuters news agency reported.

“If they come, too, that’s fine. It will simply mean we are going back to normal where all markets are open,” he said, adding inquiries from U.S. tour operators had increased significantly.

Cuba and Qatar to build luxury hotel in first joint-venture in Cuba

Reuters reported that Qatar and Cuba have entered into their first major joint venture, signing an agreement on Wednesday to construct a $75 million luxury hotel on Cuba’s Cayo Largo.

The 250-room, five-star hotel, is a joint project between Cuba’s Gran Caribe and the Qatari Diar investment firm.

Qatari Diar chief executive Ghanim bin Saad Al Saad said Qatar views Cuba as ripe for investment opportunities, not only in the tourism sector, and plans to make Cuba one of its principal areas of activity.

“Cuba has strong economic bases, above all in tourism,” he said. “We want to send the clear message to the world that Qatar is at Cuba’s side.”

Cuba provides doctors and other health care professionals for a Qatari hospital and the two countries are also discussing ventures in agriculture, Al Saad said.

Selling trips to Cuba used to be deadly

As family travel to Cuba is on the rise following a relaxation of travel restrictions by President Obama, the Miami Herald reminds us that there was a time when advertising “Viajes a Cuba (trips to Cuba) on a storefront was an invitation to a pipe bombing.”

The FBI investigated more than a dozen bombings of Cuba travel agencies in the 1970s and ’80s in Miami.

Anti-Castro exiles considered the travel agents communist sympathizers and agents and even targeted them with death. Carlos Muñiz Varela, a 26-year-old exile living in Puerto Rico who opened the first Cuba-approved travel agency in San Juan, was gunned down in broad daylight for his work arranging travel to Cuba.

”People were scared for their lives,” Armando Garcia, president of Marazul Charters. “None of the employees wanted to tell relatives where they worked for fear of retribution.”

Cuba exiles often hid the fact that they traveled back to the island to avoid a backlash from the exile community.

”A lot of people were scared of telling their neighbors and friends — they would lie about where they were going on vacation,” Garcia said.

That has changed now as thousands of Cubans make their way back to the island to visit family and travel agents advertise openly in the community. According to the Herald, “it’s no longer a dirty little secret.”


U.S. – Cuba art exchange quickly increasing

Esteban Israel of Reuters reported that a thawing of relations in the U.S.-Cuba art exchange is in “full swing.”

After a long absence during tough restrictions under the Bush administration, U.S. gallery owners, museum directors, curators and collectors are once again making their way to Cuba to view and buy the work of Cuban artists.

According to Reuters, hundreds of Americans attended this years Havana Biennial arts festival, reflecting “both newly relaxed U.S. policy toward Cuba under President Barack Obama and a U.S. hunger for Cuban art.”

Art is exempt from the embargo, but sales have declined since 2004 when President Bush toughened restrictions on travel to the island and severely limited cultural exchanged.

Artists who traveled to Havana for the recent arts festival said the licensing process has become less arduous under Obama and there is less fear of facing prosecution for making the trip illegally.

Cuban artists are hopeful the United States will continue to relax regulations on travel to Cuba, saying they would benefit both in commercial terms and from increased cultural contacts with the United States, said Pamela Ruiz, an American art curator based in Havana.

“This is a very important point in time,” she said. “Only good will come out of this.”

Cuban makes Guinness Book of World Records for biggest cigar

Cuban tobacco roller José Castelar has made the Guinness Book of World Records for rolling the world’s biggest cigar, which is over 45 meters long, Venezuela’s El Universal reported.

Castelar’s cigar, which he rolled over the course of four days last May, was officially measured by a British diplomat who sent the information to the Guinness staff in London for confirmation, the Reuters news agency reported.

This is the fourth time he has broke the record. In 2001 he rolled an 11 meter cigar, in 2003 he reached 14-meters, and then in 2005 he turned one out measuring 20 meters.

“I think I will keep going until I make one the size of Havana’s malecón (the seawall)”, he said smiling.

Recommended Reading:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered an address and took questions at a town hall meeting on May Day at the State Department.  While she spoke constructively about returning ambassadors to their posts in Washington and Caracas, to move our relationship with Venezuela forward, and spoke about building better relationships with Ecuador and Bolivia, she also stood by Washington’s failed policy of conditionality toward Cuba:

“Now, we’re facing an almost united front against the United States regarding Cuba. Every country, even those with whom we are closest, is just saying you’ve got to change, you can’t keep doing what you’re doing. We would like to see some reciprocity from the Castros on political prisoners, human rights, and other matters.”

Although the Secretary is clearly hearing the message of our allies from across the Western Hemisphere, she hasn’t quite internalized it yet.

You can read Secretary Clinton’s full speech here.

Around the Region:

China surpasses U.S. to become Brazil’s biggest trading partner, Xinhua news agency

China replaced the United States to become Brazil’s biggest trading partner on Monday. According to the trade balance released by the Brazil’s Ministry of Development, Industry and Exterior Trade, the sum of Brazil’s exports and imports with China reached 3.2 billion U.S. dollars in April, over the 2.8 billion dollars of its trade with the U.S.

A more mature Ecuador, Los Angeles Times editorial

Rafael Correa’s reelection shows the country’s confidence in the left-leaning president and is a notable step toward a more mature democracy.

Ex-mayor from Chavez coalition accused of embezzlement in Venezuela, Associated Press

Venezuelan prosecutors filed embezzlement and other charges Wednesday against a former Caracas mayor who supports the government of President Hugo Chavez.

Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team

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