Talking, Traveling, and Trading with Cuba – even Colbert gets into the act!

Dear Friend:

The choice on Cuba policy boils down to this: change versus more of the same.

Next week, supporters of the status quo will be beating the drum in Congress for a resolution that would bring further changes in Cuba policy to a crashing halt.  Their proposal says this:

That it is the sense of Congress that with respect to the totalitarian government of Cuba, the United States should pursue a policy that insists upon freedom, democracy and human rights, including the release of all political prisoners, the legalization of political parties, free speech and a free press, and supervised elections, before increasing American trade and tourism to Cuba.


That resolution does nothing more than restate the existing policy – a policy that after 50 years has done nothing to advance the values of human rights and democratization and everything to marginalize and isolate the United States from Cuba and its people.
After decades of failure, the United States needs a new approach – an approach that reflects American interests, that represents our highest values, and that lets our government, and not the Cuban government, determine what our foreign policy should be.

That means the freedom to travel for all Americans.   That means lifting the embargo and restoring a commercial relationship with Cuba.  It means talking with Cuba, acknowledging its sovereignty, and giving confidence to both governments that we can debate and discuss (and make progress on) the issues that have divided our countries for decades.    Not papering over differences, or being dishonest about disagreements, on policy, politics, or human rights.  But making a sharp departure from policies that have gotten us nowhere, and engaging Cuba with respect and determination.

That would be a real change.  And that would make a big difference moving forward.

As we report this week, Cuban officials are calling once again for a respectful dialogue between the governments in Washington and Havana.   Actions are underway to restore Cuba’s participation in the OAS.  European diplomats are engaging their Cuban counter-parts in dialogue.  The debate about lifting the travel ban and the commercial embargo is attracting new actors here in the United States.  Even Stephen Colbert is talking about trading with Cuba – and that’s no joke.  There is reason to look forward, and not to look back, or to freeze this policy in place any longer.

This week in Cuba news…

U.S. POLICY

Cuban Government Officials: no preconditions for talks

Speaking at a conference in Canada, the President of Cuba’s Parliament, Ricardo Alarcon, said that nobody should expect an overture or gesture from Cuba in response to President Obama’s recent executive order, eliminating restrictions on family travel and remittances to the island, the Associated Press reported.

“In other words Cuba must change and behave in accordance with Washington’s wishes,” Alarcon said.

“That attitude is not only the continuation of an illegal unjustifiable and failed policy it is also the consequence of a profound misconception, a false perception of itself that lies as the foundation of (the) U.S. role in the world.”

The director of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry’s North American Department, Josefina Vidal, speaking at the same conference, told attendees that dialogue will not occur if there are preconditions and that Cuba won’t negotiate sovereignty or its political and social system.

“Cuba cannot be asked to give up its form of government as a condition to re-establish normal relations with the United States – that position is a non-starter,” said Vidal.

Mariela Castro, Raúl Castro’s daughter, also advised that the Obama administration should negotiate with an attitude of equality and not as a greater power, The Canadian Press reported.

“Obama has to have a dialogue with Cuba without putting conditions on that exchange and without telling us what to do,” the 46-year-old told The Canadian Press through a translator.

Cuba, the U.S. and the OAS

The OAS General Assembly is set to meet in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on June 2-3 and Cuba’s status is on the agenda. Secretary General Insulza has repeatedly called for reengaging Cuba, and as the Phil Peters pointed out on his Cuban Triangle Blog, Insulza recently said that the OAS should simply repeal the 1962 resolution that suspended Cuba’s membership.

The 1962 resolution determined that Cuba’s political system was “incompatible” with the Inter-American System.

As Peters notes, Insulza said that by repealing Cuba’s suspension “it would merely open the door to Cuba – it would not in itself result in Cuba’s re-integration, and Cuba could begin by attending meetings on social issues and similar matters,” stressing that Cuba is not the only member state that has problems meeting all the requirements of the Democratic Charter.

Meanwhile, countries from the region continued to express their support for Cuba’s return at the same time that Fidel Castro reiterated his opposition to the OAS.

In an essay titled “Once Again, The Rotten OAS,” Castro called the OAS a “shameless institution,” making his view clear once again that Cuba is not interested in rejoining.

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, whose country will host the meeting, said that he fully supports Cuba’s reincorporation into the OAS, El Universal reported.  Zelaya classified Cuba’s suspension as “one of the most tragic errors that international diplomacy has ever made.”   He added that although Cuba has expressed that it does not want to return to the OAS, the Presidents of Latin America have made it clear that “the doors are always open for Cuba.”

Colombia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jaime Bermúdez, said his government supports the “incorporation of Cuba to the OAS and other regional mechanisms,” according to a statement his office released in Bogota, the EFE reported.

Peters wrote on his blog that it will be interesting to see how this situation unfolds in the coming weeks.

“Who will present the resolution, how will it be presented, and what will it say? How will the Obama Administration decide to vote – yes, no, abstain – and since the OAS operates almost always by consensus, how will the member states proceed if there is no unanimity?” he wrote.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said this week that the U.S. is looking forward to Cuba’s return to the Inter-American diplomatic system, Agence France-Presse reported.

“We look forward to the day when every country in the hemisphere, including Cuba, can take its seat at this very special table, in a manner that is consistent with the principles of the Inter-American democratic charter,” Steinberg said in a speech at an unofficial gathering of the Organization of American States.

“The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba and we have changed our policy in ways that we believe will advance liberty and create opportunity for the Cuban people,” he said, referring to Obama’s decision to end restrictions Cuban-American travel and remittances.

Speaking at the same event, Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey threatened to attempt to cut funding to the OAS if Cuba is readmitted, the Capitol Hill Cubans blog reported.

“And as the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees foreign assistance, I would expect the U.S. Congress to ask, ‘Should we continue to pay 60 percent of the budget of an institution that just discarded democratic principles as a fundamental part of its Charter?'”

Obama tweaks Radio and TV Marti budgets

The Obama administration budget proposal calls for about $32.5 million for the radio and television services aimed at Cuba, down only $2 million from last year’s budget of $34.8 million, the Associated Press reported.
This year’s proposal requests some changes in format, including shorter, more frequent TV news segments and an all-news radio format, aimed at cutting down on the amount of commentary.  Dissidents on the island and critics in the U.S. both say the broadcasts have failed to provide balanced perspectives and legitimate news.  Investigations here say the services have been mismanaged.
Letitia King, a spokeswoman for the Miami-based Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), told the AP the changes were made in an attempt “to enlarge our audience in Cuba, to streamline certain aspects of programming and to respond to feedback from the limited audience research we are able to do.”
According to the AP journalist, the budget proposal suggests “Obama is moving cautiously in upending the country’s decades-old policies toward Cuba” and “isn’t looking to cut the controversial broadcasts to the island anytime soon.”
OCB director Pedro Roig said they will cut “cut 35 jobs, 10 of them already vacant,” the Miami Herald reported.
A study released last year by the Government Accountability Office found that fewer than 1 percent of 1,200 people surveyed over the telephone in Cuba said they had listened to Radio Martí in the past week and almost nobody had watched TV Martí.
”This is a beginning, but the real issue is what is the rationale for continuing to fund TV Martí?” said Rep. Bill Delahunt. “Why continue to fund an operation that has absolutely zero benefit?”
You can read an analysis of the changes by Phil Peters on his Cuban Triangle Blog here.
Check out this Progreso-weekly interview with an anonymous technician who helped block the Radio and TV Martí signals in Cuba.

IN CUBA

Silvio Rodriguez reiterates his belief that Cubans should also be free to travel

Responding to a letter by a Cuban living in Santo Domingo that was published in a Dominican Republic newspaper, Silvio Rodriguez reiterated his belief that the Cuban government should remove restrictions on the right of Cubans to enter and leave the island.

A letter written by Adrián Leiva, published in the Nuevo Diario, offered sympathy to Rodriguez for his recent visa denial to the United States, but questioned when Cubans would also be free to enter and leave Cuba without permission from the Cuban government.

Rodriguez responded to the letter by saying that he has been in favor of eliminating restrictions on travel for Cubans and will continue to work towards changing that policy.

“Various times I have publicly denounced what I consider an error in our migratory policy, like the ‘carta blanca’ which is permission to enter and leave the national territory, a measure that I consider obsolete and that should be eradicated. I am convinced that when this absurd impediment doesn’t exist anymore our country will be better and all of us Cubans will feel better,” wrote Rodriguez.

Rebellion.org has a copy of both letters in Spanish.

Government cracking down on illegal taxis

The Cuban government announced this week that it will begin cracking down on illegal taxis in Havana now that the public transportation system has improved, the Reuters news agency reported.

The plan, which will take effect today, was issued by Havana’s Provincial Commission of Transportation and published in the Granma and other state media.

The Miami Herald’s Cuban Colada Blog published a translation and breakdown of the statement:

Under the rules, The following violations — among others — will be punished:

  • To use (or allow the use of) a vehicle owned by a state-run organization “for activities not authorized for it, or [for activities] that generate personal profit.” In other words, don’t use the company bus to pick up paying passengers.
  • To provide or authorize the use of a vehicle for the transportation of cargo or passengers if the driver does not have a carrier’s license. In other words, no “gypsy cabs” or privately leased trucks or buses are allowed.
  • To use a vehicle (engine-driven or animal-drawn, the article specifies) of a type for which the driver does not have a license, and to use it for profit.
  • A repeated infraction will be punished by confiscation of the vehicle.

Study finds that Raul Castro’s wage reform is not being implemented sufficiently

According to a new report in the official Bohemia Magazine, a wage reform pushed through by Raúl Castro over a year ago, has yet to be implemented at most companies, the Reuters news agency reported.

The reform was supposed to lift wage caps and replace a collective wage system with one based on individual output in order to increase Cuba’s economic output.

The Bohemia reported that a recent labor ministry inspection found that “only 25 percent of the companies inspected used some variant of the new system” and that most workers and managers know little about new law.

Castro pledged to fight Cuba’s bureaucracy and improve production and efficiency by creating a wage system that is less egalitarian and more linked to productive output.

Cuba blocks Internet access for Cubans in hotels

The Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that Cuba is further limiting access to the Internet through a new resolution barring ordinary Cubans from using hotel Internet services.

There was no official announcement of the change, but the Sun-Sentinel reported the change based on information from an official with Cuba’s telecom monopoly, hotel workers and bloggers.

“Internet use is only for foreigners for the time being,” a worker at the Hotel Nacional reportedly told the Sun-Sentinel. “According to a new order from ETECSA [Cuba’s telecom monopoly] only foreigners can surf the web at hotels.”

Government employees, academics and researchers have Internet access at home and at work, but most ordinary Cubans only have access to email accounts and government websites, but not the World Wide Web. Up until now, ordinary citizens were able to pay to use the Internet at hotels and internet cafes to access the internet.

Some bloggers who are critical of the government viewed the change as an attempt to limit their Internet access.

Castro changes the Minister of Higher Education

Raúl Castro changed the Minister of Higher Education last week, replacing Juan Vela Valdés with Miguel Díaz-Canel, the Agence France-Presse reported.

According to the Havana Times, Diaz Canel is an electronic engineer with a military and Communist Party background and was previously the First Secretary of the Communist Party for the Province of Holguin.

The official announcement did not say if Vela Valdés, the former dean of the University of Havana, would be appointed to a different government post.

Education, which is one of the pillars of the Cuban Revolution, has been heavily criticized by the population in recent years for a lack of quality educators and supplies and other difficulties.

INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

EU-Cuba dialogue

The European Union and Cuba met this week to discuss various topics.  Officials characterized the discussions as open and resulting in a positive dialogue, but stressed continuous concerns over human rights on the island.

The EU ended sanctions on Cuba last year and EU foreign ministers will have to decide in June whether the EU will continue to improve relations with Cuba or if sanctions will be reimposed.

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kohout, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said the talks had been “a real dialogue, not just two monologues,” but said it was not clear if the EU would be able to agree on a common position before the June meeting, the Associated Press reported.

“Our views did converge on the issues of climate change and U.N. reform; they did not in the area of human rights,” Kohout said after the talks, the Reuters news agency reported.

“We came back to the issue of political prisoners in Cuba and their health, and the answer we got was that in Cuba there are no political prisoners,” he told reporters.

Louis Michel, the EU’s development commissioner, said the EU should move quickly to normalize relations with Cuba despite human rights concerns, the Agence France-Presse reported.

“I think that if the European Union does not consolidate the normalization of relations with Cuba, the Americans will do so before us,” Michel said.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, Cuba’s chief negotiator, said that the EU common position is “obsolete, unilateral and an obstacle to the normalization process.”

“Cuba has normal relations with practically the whole world. We want to continue to normalize our relations” with the EU, he added.

Swine Flu and Cuba-Mexico relations

Cuba confirmed two new cases of swine flu this week, bringing Havana’s total cases to three. All three cases were found among Mexican students studying in Cuba. Cuba’s suspension of flights to and from Mexico set off a verbal spat between Mexican President Felipe Calderon and former Cuban President Fidel Castro. The New York Times reported that Calderon may cancel a trip to Cuba scheduled for this summer due to his frustration with Cuba’s response to the influenza outbreak.

“This could be one of the unforeseen consequences of decisions that do not have sufficient scientific basis,” Mr. Calderón, said in a television interview on Thursday night.

Fidel Castro responded by writing a “reflection,” which accused the Mexican government of delaying the disclosure of the epidemic until after President Obama’s visit in April. Obama visited Mexio in mid-April in route to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

“The Mexican authorities did not inform the world of (the outbreak), awaiting the visit of Obama. Now they threaten us with suspending Calderon’s trip,” wrote Castro.

“We and dozens of other countries are paying for the broken dishes (consequences) and on top of that they accuse us of harmful measures against Mexico,” he added.

Calderon’s planned trip was seen as a conciliatory trip after a year of improved relations between the two countries, but the Associated Press reported that Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretary Patricia Espinosa told Cuba’s Foreign Relations Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, that Fidel Castro’s remarks “hurt bilateral relations.”

Although Espinosa called the measures taken by Cuba “discriminatory,” the Mexican embassy in Havana said that relations between the two countries are still normal.

“The bilateral relationship continues to be normal, with all open channels,” a spokesperson for the Mexican embassy said last week, Agence France-Presse reported.

Meanwhile, the Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that Cuba has taken a number of measures to prevent the virus from spreading, including stepped up vigilance at airports, ports and marinas and sending neighborhood-based doctors house-to-house to check for possible new cases.

A statement by the Health Ministry said it had found 84 people from eight countries with flu-like symptoms and that they and 511 other people who had contact with them had been tested for swine flu.

Cuba and the United States together on the UN Human Rights Council

The United States and Cuba were both elected to the UN Human Rights Council this week. While Cuba was a member previously, the election of the U.S. ends a practice began by the previous administration’s of boycotting it.

The Washington Post reported that the U.S. still believes the body is flawed, but decided it was better to participate.

“We are looking forward to working from within with a broad cross-section of member states to strengthen and reform the Human Rights Council,” said U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice.

The council meets three times a year to review global rights issues as well as holding special sessions on crises.

TRADE AND TRAVEL

Orbitz pushing for full Cuba travel

Orbitz, the online travel company, has launched its own “Open Cuba” campaign with the inauguration of a new website, http://www.opencuba.org/, asking for the travel ban to be lifted.

“Orbitz believes that Americans should have the freedom to travel the world, because our journeys lead to cross cultural understanding and stronger ties between citizens of all nations. The beaches of Cuba were once a premier Caribbean tourism destination for Americans, and they can be once again!” the company said in a statement.

Along with the new website, Orbitz and IPSOS released a new poll on American views on the issue and report that 67% of Americans favor allowing Americans to travel to Cuba, and that 72% feel that expanding U.S. travel to Cuba would positively impact the lives of the Cuban people.

You can read a Chicago Tribune report on Orbitz’s Cuba travel push here.

New Airline gets in the mix of Cuba travel

Allegiant Travel, the parent company of the airline that specializes in delivering people from small communities to resort cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Orlando, recently won a contract to supply charter flights from Miami to four cities in Cuba, the Las Vegas Sun reported.

Allegiant will not be in the business of booking travel, and will only provide the aircraft and the flight crew to separate companies that handle all the reservations. Flights will begin in June.

The article concluded by pondering when restrictions will be lifted for all Americans and Cubans to travel back and forth:

“Who knows, maybe we’ll sometime see a day when Americans will have the opportunity to see Cuba and Cubans will be able to visit their families in the United States whenever they want.”

New Orleans looks future trade relationship with Cuba

New Orleans City Councilman Arnie Fielkow organized a panel this week to discuss ways that his city can prepare for future trade with Cuba if the embargo were lifted, the Associated Press reported.

According to Fielkow, New Orleans and Cuba share a “significant economic history” and the city should take advantage of any further easing of restrictions. Cuba was once a leading trade partner for the Port of New Orleans, he added.

Recommended Reading:

Reopening Channels of Communication With Cuba, Wayne S. Smith in the New York Times

If we have normal diplomatic and trade relations with Communist China and Vietnam, surely we can at least begin a dialogue with the Cubans, a dialogue that can result in reduced tensions and a more propitious atmosphere for the kind of changes we’d hope eventually to see.

Recommended Viewing:

Alarcon on relations with the U.S., CNN News

Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly, discusses President Obama’s call to free political prisoners.

U.S. brands eye Cuba, CNN News

U.S. firms register trademarks in Cuba with hopes of change on Havana’s horizon. CNN’s Shasta Darlington reports.

Cuba/US Trade Relations, Stephen Colbert on U.S.-Cuba Relations

The Colbert Report explored Cuba policy with commentary and an interview with Dr. Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations.  CSPAN and the PBS News Hour have rarely explored this issue with greater intelligence – no, really.

Around the Region:

Obama nominates Arturo Valenzuela for Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Whitehouse.gov

Dr. Arturo Valenzuela is Professor of Government and Director of the Center for Latin American Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is a specialist on the origins and consolidation of democracy; the institutional dimensions of democratic governance; Latin American politics; and U.S.-Latin American relations.

In Ecuador, Resentment of an Oil Company, New York Times

Citing scientific studies, the plaintiffs claim that toxic chemicals from Texaco’s waste pits, including benzene, which is known to induce leukemia, have leached for decades into soil, groundwater and streams. A report last year by Richard Cabrera, a geologist and court-appointed expert, estimated that 1,400 people in this jungle region – perhaps more – had died of cancer because of oil contamination.

Congratulations to the Latin America Working Group on 25 years of hard work

The Latin America Working Group has completed a quarter-century of campaigning for a just U.S. policy towards Latin America.  As LAWG celebrates 25 years, let’s celebrate their hard work to increase U.S. aid for victims of hurricanes, earthquakes and war; to build U.S. counternarcotics policies that are more humane and effective; to promote border policies that respect the rights of border communities and migrants; and to end, once and for all, the Cuba travel ban.

We would like to particularly thank Mavis Anderson and Paulo Gusmao for their dedication to reshaping U.S. policy towards Cuba. Happy 25TH!

Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team
www.democracyinamericas.org


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