What a World! U.S. to Cuba, “Let’s Talk” U.S. to Region, “Not So Fast,” Microsoft to Cubans, “Stop Talking”?

Dear Friend:

Moments into the holiday weekend, the Obama administration sent word to the Cuban government it was ready to restart the migration talks that had been broken off under President Bush.  Sure, it would have been nice if they had dropped the subtle veil of the holiday news cycle and shouted from the Washington roof-tops – we’re ready to engage – but this has the prospect of meaningful progress written all over it.  We’ll leave it to the administration to design its own media strategy, but when they decide to engage with the Cuban government in acts of diplomacy, we’re ready to lead with a round of applause.

Not so fast, you say?  Days before a meeting of the General Assembly of the Organization of American States, the position of the administration on lifting Cuba’s suspension from the OAS is looking a little, well, murky.  Not long ago Secretary of State Clinton told the Congress that the U.S. was opposed to any effort to readmit Cuba.  But reports out of the region now indicate that the U.S. may be softening its approach and preparing to offer a resolution that would start a debate.   The U.S. ought to get over this business of presuming to speak for the region on who gets to join the OAS and who doesn’t.   Multi-lateral engagement with the Cubans makes just as much sense as bi-lateral engagement (see note above).

But this makes no sense what-so-ever.  Several news sources are indicating that Microsoft has cut-off access by Cubans to its Messenger program (as well as access in Syria, Iran, Sudan, and North Korea).  Read this item below carefully.   We don’t know if this effort has been joined by Google and AOL.  Nor do we know whether these steps were taken voluntarily or at the behest of OFAC.

But as one friend told us, “This is beyond absurd, as it relates to Cuba, especially since the President has recently authorized U.S. telecommunications companies to do business in Cuba in order to increase communications between Cubans and Americans.”  It’s absurd across the board – we need communications and greater exchange of information with precisely the kinds of people whose governments limit their access to the Internet.

We all get crazy when we lose our Blackberries.  But does anyone think we’ll change the course of Cuba’s history by cutting the island off from IM???

Give us a break.  Read, now, the news…

With the OAS General Assembly preparing to convene in Honduras next week, the United States is at odds with majority sentiment in the region which favors ending Cuba’s suspension from membership in the multi-lateral organization.
Cuba’s membership was suspended in 1962 because its Cold War era links to the Soviet Union.
Since last fall, Cuba has been engaged in a regional diplomatic effort to pressure the United States to change its policy toward Cuba and lift the economic embargo.  Taken up by nations across the region, this campaign has included demands to lift Cuba’s suspension from the OAS, a move that had been opposed by the U.S. and met with disinterest, in public statements, by representatives of Cuba’s government.
As the Washington Post reported this week, “The U.S. government is fighting an effort to allow Cuba to return to the Organization of American States after a 47-year suspension. But the resistance is putting it at odds with much of Latin America as the Obama administration is trying to improve relations in the hemisphere.”
Dr. Julia Sweig, who runs the Latin America program for the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Washington Post, “Fifty years after the U.S. . . . made Cuba its litmus test for its commercial and diplomatic ties in Latin America, Latin America is turning the tables.”  Now, she said, Latin countries are “making Cuba the litmus test for the quality of the Obama administration’s approach to Latin America.”
As the General Assembly meeting has drawn closer, U.S. resistance to some form of debate about Cuba’s entry into the OAS has started to wane.
The United States announced that it is willing to discuss Cuba’s return to the OAS and offered a resolution which reaffirms the long-standing U.S. position on Cuba but also displays a growing willingness for dialogue with Havana, the Reuters news agency reported.
The resolution notes that “some of the circumstances since Cuba’s suspension from full participation in the Organization of American States may have changed,” and says a “frank and open dialogue” is one of the hallmarks of multilateral relations. It instructs the OAS Permanent Council “to initiate a dialogue with the present government of Cuba regarding its eventual reintegration into the inter-American system.” It calls on the Council to report back on the talks in a year.
You can read the resolution here.
The resolution marks a slight change in the U.S. approach to the issue. Secretary of State Clinton told Congress last week that the United States would not support Cuba’s re-entry to the OAS until it met certain conditions.
An OAS task force has been created to evaluate the U.S. proposal along with proposals introduced by Honduras and Nicaragua.
The resolution submitted by Nicaragua calls for Cuba’s suspension to be lifted because it is an ”unjust affront to the OAS” and ”violates international law.” Honduras’ proposal is also more direct in asking for the reinstatement of Cuba.
Originally Costa Rica offered a third proposal, which would have called for a study of the issue before an OAS legal commission, but that was scratched at the last minute and replaced by one from the United States.

Meanwhile, Cuba continued to express its disinterest in rejoining the organization. In an article titled “Cuba is proud to be outside of the OAS,” Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez told Cuba’s state newspaper the Granma “there is no discussion about Cuba’s re-entry into the OAS.

”One way or another, the OAS is totally anachronistic; it serves other interests, and we feel that our path, Cuba’s path, is one of Latin American and Caribbean integration, without a presence from outside the continent,” said Rodríguez.
Identifying Washington’s dilemma, Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, told the Washington Post that the Cuba resolution has trapped the Obama administration between two of its priorities: democracy promotion and better relations with its neighbors.

“There’s really two different values at play here: multilateralism versus democracy. You can’t have multilateralism and then let one country, i.e. the U.S., make the decision for a multilateral organization,” Hakim said.

The Obama administration has taken its first step in pursuing a renewed dialogue with Cuba by signaling its interest in resuming migration talks that were suspended in 2004. The U.S. notified Cuba of its desire to renew the talks in a diplomatic note that was delivered to the Cuban Interests Section last week, the New York Times reported.
The high-level meetings became a biannual fixture after Cuba and the United States signed an accord in 1994 aimed at stopping massive waves of illegal migration from Cuba. Under the accord, the U.S. agreed to grant legal entry to at least 20,000 Cubans a year.
The Bush administration suspended the talks in 2004, arguing that Cuba violated the agreement by denying exit permits to Cubans with U.S. visas and refusing visits to repatriated Cubans. The cancelation of the talks, which often touched on subjects outside of migration, effectively shut down one of the most regular avenues of high-level communication between the two countries.
Ian C. Kelly, a State Department spokesman, said the U.S. intended to “use the renewal of talks to reaffirm both sides’ commitment to safe, legal and orderly migration”, adding that the U.S. side would also like to use the meetings to “review recent trends in illegal Cuban migration to the United States;  and to improve operational relations with Cuba on migration issues,” the New York Times reported.
Three Cuban-American Members of Congress issued a joint statement denouncing the Bush administration for reopening the talks, according to the Miami Herald.
“The Obama administration should first insist that the Castro dictatorship complies with the accord before renewing talks,” the lawmakers wrote. “Regrettably, this constitutes another unilateral concession by the Obama administration to the dictatorship,” said the statement issued by Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart, all of whom are Republicans from Florida.
Meanwhile, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) told the Times, “The administration is missing opportunities to make real change in Cuba” and warned it could be a unilateral concession to Cuba.
Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, praised the move, saying, “it is consistent with the President’s values, and a signal not just to Cuba but also to the region that we’re abandoning our policy of isolation and moving in the direction of honest talk and mutually beneficial cooperation.”

Cuban Government reviewing the U.S. offer

The President of the Cuban National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcón, said the proposal “will be examined with great interest,” EFE reported.
“We have always said that we are willing to sit and discuss with them [U.S.] in conditions of equality, and in regards to migration, we had an experience that was abruptly interrupted” by the previous U.S. President, said Alarcón, speaking at a poetry conference in Havana.
“Now, we have this new proposal, which I am sure will be examined with the greatest interest,” noting that “these meetings took place regularly twice a year until the United States suspended them unilaterally.”
Alarcón, who was the Cuban point person on the bilateral migration talks for many years, said renewing the talks “is beginning to do something that we were doing for many years and that they [U.S.] interrupted.”
Amnesty International’s 2009 Human Rights report on Cuba found that “restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly persisted and journalists and political dissidents faced harassment and intimidation by security officials.”  The report contains criticisms of Cuba’s policies regarding freedom of expression and association, management of its justice system, and the treatment of prisoners of conscience.
At the same time, the report specifically links the U.S. embargo to negative effects on the exercise of human rights.  The key paragraph reads:
The US embargo and related measures continued to have a negative effect on the exercise of human rights. Freedom of movement between Cuba and the USA and family reunification remained severely limited. Also the extra-territorial application of US legislation limited the Cuban government’s capacity to buy, among other things, food, medical supplies and construction materials from Cuba’s trading partners. However, Cuba was allowed to buy staple foods from the USA worth more than US$530 million, which had to be paid for in cash and in advance.
You can read Amnesty’s report on Cuba here:
Microsoft blocks Messenger in Cuba

Internet users in Cuba were surprised over the last week when they were unable to access Microsoft Messenger, receiving an error message that said the service is unavailable to countries “embargoed” by the United States, El País reported.

Individuals attempting to connect received an error message with the number 810003c1, which according to the Messenger help page means the following:
“Microsoft has cut the Windows Live Messenger IM service for users in countries embargoed by the United States; therefore Microsoft will not offer the Windows Live service anymore in your country.”
Along with Cuba, access was blocked for users in Iran, North Korea, Syria and Sudan.
According to a report on the Computerworld Security website, Google and possibly AOL have done the same thing.  Microsoft declined to comment on whether it had been contacted by the Office of Foreign Assets Control or was doing this voluntarily.

Without offering specifics, Cuba has announced it will introduce an austerity program in June to try to offset the impact of the international financial crisis and to reduce energy use, BBC News reported.
Slumping world nickel prices, Cuba’s major export, reduced tourism revenues, last year’s devastating hurricane season, which caused $10bn in damages, and the effects of the U.S. embargo have resulted in serious liquidity problems for Cuba.
The BBC reported that shortages of milk, toothpaste and other products are starting to occur in some shops as the government run low on money to pay for imports.
Ariel Terrero, Cuba’s top economic commentator, explained to viewers that Cuba’s foreign income could be slashed by $1 billion this year, the Reuters news agency reported.
Terrero said the average nickel price so far this year is $11,000 per ton, down from $21,000 per ton in 2008, and if prices continue at current levels, Cuba’s income from nickel this year would be $720 million less than the year before.
Similarly, although tourism visits slightly increased in the first quarter of 2009, revenue fell by 13.7 percent, which could result in a drop in income of $300 million from 2008.
“We are talking about losses that could be $1 billion in a country that brings in about $4 billion for exports (a year),” Terrero said.
“The blow will be very hard,” he added. “The country has at its disposal today less resources. It has available hundreds of millions (of dollars) less and that is affecting the capacity for growth in the Cuban economy.”
The government originally said the economy would grow by 6 percent in 2009, but this weekend Economy and Planning Minister Marino Murillo said the forecast had been reduced to slightly over 2 percent.
Bob Stallman, President of the American Farm Bureau Federation, wrote this week that opportunities are being missed for both business and tourism because of costly restrictions on trade and travel.
According to Stallman, “removing U.S. restrictions on Cuba weaken the totalitarian grip on that nation’s citizens” and “history has shown we can do more to spread democracy by opening travel and trade to other countries.”
Stallman concludes that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. After almost a half century, the time is now to open Cuba’s border to U.S. citizens, businesses and ideals.”
Investors in high risk assets are acquiring Cuban securities at the highest rates ever due to their cheap prices and overtures made by the U.S. government toward the island, the Reuters news agency reported.
The Cuban securities have become more attractive to investors in high risk bonds since April when President Obama made some slight overtures to Cuba.
According to Reuters, “the extremely illiquid Cuban paper had halved in price to single digits by the end of 2008 when the global economy spiraled down and investors moved their money away from risky markets into safe-haven assets.” This has led high-risk investors to view the combination of low prices and speculation about improvements in U.S.-Cuba policy as a reason to invest in the securities, which are valued at around 8 cents to the U.S. dollar.
“The conditions in the U.S., with the arrival of the Obama administration, and in Cuba, with the move to economic reform in the last three years, are driving people to be very interested in the Cuban story,” said Stuart Culverhouse, chief economist at Exotix, a London-based brokerage firm specialized in illiquid bonds and loans of emerging markets.

Following increased visits by U.S. artists to Cuba, U.S. track and field athletes will compete this weekend in Cuba for the first time in 17 years, the Reuters news agency reported.
Over 240 athletes from 15 countries will complete in Havana on Friday and Saturday, including 13 Americans, in what officials said is a sign of warming relations between the two countries.
“As an organization, we had an obligation to re-establish friendships in the Caribbean and re-establish the people-to-people tradition we had with the Cuban people,” Doug Logan, chief executive of USA Track & Field, told reporters in Havana on Thursday.
“We’re in a different season, with the new president that we have, and I believe that there is a new opportunity with sports,” he added.
The last time U.S. tracksters competed in Cuba was during the 1992 World Cup.
Lawyer Juan Almeida García, son of Commander Juan Almeida Bosque, was detained and complained of degrading treatment by government agents after attempting to leave Cuba illegally, the El Nuevo Herald reported.
”I had no recourse but an illegal departure. You can put me in prison, slip another hood on me or make me disappear in the secret houses, but all I’m asking is to be able to visit a doctor and be near my family,” Almeida García, wrote to the authorities in Villa Marista, headquarters of State Security in Havana, the Herald reported.
Juan Almeida Bosque is the third ranking member of the Cuban Council of State, one of the original commanders of the Revolution and one of a only a few individuals who have received the honorary title of Hero of the Republic of Cuba.
Cuba will begin performing sex-change operations after the government overturned a twenty year old ban, President Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela said at a conference on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.
The Health Ministry authorized the operations last year, but none has been performed yet. The first sex-change operation was conducted in 1988, but subsequent operations were prohibited.
Under Cuba’s universal health care system the government will pay for the operations. Nineteen transsexuals have been determined eligible to undergo the procedure.
Mariela Castro, a sexologist and gay-rights advocate, is head of the Center for Sex Education.
Cuba’s Granma newspaper reported that the suspension on flights to and from Mexico, imposed since April 30th, would be lifted now that the swine flu threat has subsided.
A statement by the Ministry of Public Health said the flights could be reinstated by June 1st. There are normally at least five flights between the two countries each day.
Cuba’s decision to stop the flights angered Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who threatened to cancel a planned trip to Cuba.  Former Cuban President Fidel Castro accused the Mexican government of delaying an announcement about the flu outbreak in fears that U.S. President Barack Obama would cancel his mid-April visit to Mexico. However, government officials from the two countries have said that normal relations continue.

Recommended Reading:

Cuba has endured the decline of oil, extreme weather and an economic crisis. Could it teach us how to do the same?
Cuba has successfully greened its energy sector over the last few years, and is now exporting its energy revolution. Will we soon benefit from Cuban expertise in cleaning up the US energy sector?
Around the Region:
The White House announced Thomas A. Shannon as nominee for Ambassador to the Federative Republic of Brazil and Vilma S. Martinez as nominee for Ambassador to Argentina.
The trajectory of recent U.S. Bolivian relations is a bit like the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland. It isn’t that the roller coaster within the darkened mountain is any more curvy or extreme than the average roller coaster. It’s just that, because you don’t have a clue where you’re headed, it seems more dramatic.

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team


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