We begin the weekly news summary with some food for thought.
We’re for ending the ban on legal travel to Cuba, and we hope that you are too.
Increasing travel to Cuba is not only the right thing to do (for American citizens and for the Cuban people), but it would also give U.S. agriculture a real boost.
Cuba imports more than 80 percent of the food its citizens consume. Since 2003, the United States has supplied more agriculture products annually to Cuba than any other country, accounting for 35% of all Cuban agricultural imports during 2003-2008. But we could be selling a lot more. U.S. producers are not meeting anything near their potential in selling food to Cuba because of our government’s restrictions on travel to Cuba and obstacles to the financing of agriculture sales.
In fact, the U.S. International Trade Commission says, with restrictions lifted, 2008 U.S. exports to Cuba would have been approximately $924 million to $1.2 billion (an increase of $216-478 million).
But to see these increased sales, the U.S. Congress must adopt the provisions of “The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act.”
Ending the travel ban would increase U.S. tourism to Cuba annually by 500,000 to 1 million visits. An influx of U.S. tourists would boost the demand of imported agriculture products, particularly higher-valued products from the United States, and bring more hard currency into the country, allowing Cuba to buy more agricultural products for the domestic population.
This would help average Cubans because a majority of the food Cuba imports goes to Cuban citizens and only a fraction goes to tourists.
Our opponents still believe that an embargo and a travel ban will someday lead to the fall of Cuba’s government, no matter how much hunger and hardship this policy imposes on average Cubans.
We believe this failed and cruel policy must come to an end.
Passing legislation to lift the travel ban would restore our constitutional rights to travel, bring needed engagement to the Cuban people, and raise Cuba’s income, so that the Cuba’s government could buy more food from U.S. producers. It’s a winner for all concerned.
Read the news blast, and then tell your Representatives, pass the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act – it’s good for average Cubans, good for Americans, and really good for U.S. agriculture.
This week in Cuba news…
Barry R. McCaffrey, a retired Army general and the U.S. drug czar from 1996 to 2001, wrote in the Miami Herald that the Obama Administration’s initial steps on Cuba policy are “excellent,” although incremental changes “are positive, they are also insufficient.” McCaffrey urged a “decisive break from past policies,” and argued “there are both economic and security incentives for moving forward.”
In recommending a “realistic policy shift on Cuba,” General McCaffrey offered the following suggestions to Congress and the administration:
- Remove Cuba from the State Department list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.
- Repeal enforcement of the “Helms-Burton” legislation. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton signed provisions allowing for waivers of the outmoded law’s provision.
- End the economic embargo on Cuba. Market forces should determine the level of trade between our nations.
- End U.S. restrictions on travel by American citizens to Cuba. There are no similar restrictions on travel to other non-democratic nations, including North Korea.
- Close the detention facility at Guantanamo and return the base to Cuban sovereignty. The place has become an international embarrassment to us.
- End the “Wet Foot/Dry Foot immigration policy”‘ and treat illegal immigrants from Cuba as we do those from Mexico or any other country.
- Formalize coordination on anti-drug trafficking matters with Cuba’s law enforcement and security forces.
- Provide significantly increased funds to the U.S. Agency for International Development so that we can support economic development as democratic political transition inevitably occurs in Cuba.
- End U.S. opposition to Cuban participation in the Western Hemisphere multilateral fora (lifting Cuba’s suspension from the OAS was a good start) because diplomacy and engagement, not shunning, will open Cuba to liberal political ideals.
For defenders of the status quo, the General countered: “The hard-liners here who are counseling that we tighten the noose now in hopes that we’ll break the regime’s back would allow average Cubans to suffer mightily, put our security interests at risk with a massive boatlift, and turn the rest of the region against us for decades. Strangulation is no solution.”
Five Cuban dissidents received a top award by the National Endowment for Democracy and received a message of support from President Obama. However, according to the Washington Post, unlike in past years, their representative was not invited to the White House.
The President of the endowment, Carl Gershman said the organization asked weeks ago for President Obama to meet with Bertha Antúnez, the sister of one of the dissidents, receiving the award on his behalf, but never got a response. The endowment, which receives funding from Congress, said it was the first time in five years the winner of the award had not met with the president.
“I am disappointed and also surprised since the President said in the campaign that Libertad would be the touchstone on his Cuba policy,” Gershman said in an e-mail to the Post.
The endowment also asked Obama to issue a message to the Cubans. The message from arrived right before the ceremony with an apologetic note from a National Security Council staffer, saying the dates had been confused.
Antúnez, who lives in Miami, said she was disappointed she didn’t get to meet Obama. “What I’d like is to have the opportunity to tell the president about the situation of the country . . . and tell him of the hope the Cubans have placed in him,” she said, adding that she hoped Obama would not alter Cuba policy, because “any change could give strength to the government.”
In an editorial, “A Dissident Deflected: Why doesn’t President Obama have time for Cuba’s pro-democracy opposition?” the Washington Post attacked Obama for “snubbing” the democracy activists.
The editorial accused Obama of making concessions to oppressors in the region, while turning his back on democracy advocates.
“Message to Mr. Chávez and the Castro brothers: We can work with you. Message to Cuba’s democratic opposition: We don’t have time for you,” the editorial said.
The editorial conclude that dissidents in Cuba, “like the beleaguered pro-democracy movements of Venezuela and Nicaragua, are hoping that the American president will focus his policy on supporting them. Yet for now, Mr. Obama’s diplomacy is clearly centered on their oppressors.”
Responding to the Post’s editorial, Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas said, “Denigrating the diplomacy of President is both unbecoming and contradicted by history and the facts. To his credit, President Obama is listening to respected leaders from the region like President Bachelet, loosening elements of the embargo, and offering direct talks with Cuba’s government, all actions with greater prospects for success than any White House photo-op.”
A new study by the U.S. International Trade Commission found that lifting U.S. agriculture trade rules and travel restrictions would greatly increase farm sales to Cuba. Among the findings, the study revealed that “with restrictions lifted, 2008 U.S. exports to Cuba would have been approximately $924 million to $1.2 billion (an increase of $216-478 million), equivalent to 49-64 percent of Cuba’s total agricultural imports.”
Cuba agrees with an estimate by the American Society of Travel Agents that 835,000 U.S. tourists a year would come after an end to the travel ban on American tourists, and the tourism industry will have enough capacity for the surge, said Miguel Figueras, an adviser at Cuba’s tourism ministry, Bloomberg news reported.
Cuba currently has about 48,000 hotel rooms, but plans to build 30 new hotels with 10,000 rooms and 10 golf courses by 2014 without counting on changes in U.S. policy, said Figueras. According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, the number of American visitors would increase to between 554,000 and 1.1 million,
“The Americans are welcome here,” Figueras told Bloomberg in an interview this week. “You have to be prepared for that, but you can’t make your development plans depend on whether this happens.”
Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who is a leading co-sponsor of the Freedom to Travel to Cuba bill, says the proposal has the support of Obama and the U.S. business community and will likely pass.
“This issue is being discussed in an absolutely brand new environment, which is drawing support that it has lacked in the past,” DeLauro said in an interview.
Eusebio Mujal-Leon, a professor of Cuban studies at Georgetown University, said the Cuban government may use visas to control the flow of U.S. tourists because it lacks sufficient infrastructure to accommodate them. However, Figueras said there are no plans to limit the number of Americans who will be able to visit the island.
The Associated Press reported that Cuba is one of the few countries in the world that saw an increase in visitors last year.
Cuban agriculture failed to produce better results in 2008, after Raúl Castro called for structural changes to the sector in 2007, the Reuters news agency reported.
The island produced 436,000 tons of rice in 2008, compared to 439,600 tons the year before. The same amount of beans were produced, 97,200 tons, but not close to the 127,000 tons that were produced in 2003, the year when the crisis in the agriculture sector began.
Cuba imported around 70 percent of the food it consumed in 2008 at a cost of 2.5 billion dollars, according to the government.
Last year Cuba produced 2.4 million tons of green leaf vegetables, compared to 2.6 million in 2007 and 3.9 in 2003. Similarly, 758,000 tons of bananas were produced in 2008 compared to 990,900 tons in 2007 and 1.1 million in 2003.
Similar production output was seen in other crops. However, there was a significant increase in the production of chickens, eggs and pork, but the increased production did not result in better prices in the markets.
Raúl Castro has decentralized the decision-making process in agriculture and increased the amount that the state pays producers. He also began a process of turning over idle lands to the producers.
According to Reuters, local and international experts believe it is too early to evaluate the success of those measures and noted that the three hurricanes that hit Cuba in 2008 affected agricultural production.
According to telecommunications data released by Cuba’s National Office of Statistics, telephone, computer and internet access in Cuba is below the hemispheric average, according to Reuters. In 2008, only 1.42 million telephone lines were in place, fixed and mobile, a total density of 12.6 telephones per 100 inhabitants, the lowest in the region. The number trails in comparison to other Caribbean nations such as Jamaica, with a “telephone density” of 111.43%, the Dominican Republic, with 87.75%, and even Haiti, with 27.18%.
Additionally, Cuba only had 630,000 computers, mostly owned by government entities, and only 1.4 million Cubans, 13% of the population, enjoyed Internet connectivity, but in most cases this was to a government-run Intranet. The government blamed the US embargo for the low level of telecommunications on the island and insisted the data for individual use and ownership is misleading as priority is given to social use of telecoms technology, from education and health, to government-operated computer clubs in every municipality, Reuters reported.
A new message service to Cuban cell phones called “Grandpa” was introduced in the last few weeks, and cell phone users in Cuba began receiving articles from the Nuevo Herald and other exile news sources, ANSA reported.
The service, apparently named “Granda” to mock Cuba’s state newspaper the Granma, allows users to select articles from El Nuevo Herald, Cubaencountro and Penultimosdias to cell phones in Cuba.
The messages have reportedly arrived to cell phones in Cuba to people who have and have not subscribed to the service. Cuban journalist Reinaldo Escobar, author of the blog “Desde aquí”, said that “it seems that more than 100 people are receiving the news, stories that you can’t read in the Granma.”
A new report found that Cuba, which had 11.24 million inhabitants in 2008, will see its population drop by 100,000 people by 2025 and fall below 11 million by 2032, EFE reported. The report, issued by Cuba’s National Statistics Office and the Latin American and Caribbean Demography Center, found that an aging population and a drop in the fertility rate are the most likely causes for the predicted decline. The effects of migration were not mentioned. Cuba is already facing challenges in increasing spending on health and social services to care for the growing number of retirees.
Colombian state-controlled oil company Ecopetrol S.A. plans to explore for oil in Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico, Colombian Energy Minister Hernan Martinez announced after a meeting on Tuesday with Cuban Basic Industry Minister Yadira Garcia, EFE reported.
Ecopetrol will register with Cuba’s National Mineral Resources Organization as the first step in developing the project, “later, a group of technicians will be sent to conduct a geological study” in Cuba’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, Martinez said.
Norway’s Norsk Hydro, Malaysia’s Petronas, Spain’s Repsol YPF, India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, Venezuela’s PDVSA, Brazil’s Petrobras and Vietnam’s PetroVietnam are operating in Cuba’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
South Africa will forgive an undisclosed amount of foreign debt owed to it by Cuba in an attempt to increase bilateral trade, reported El Universal. The announcement came after a meeting between South African and Cuban business leaders in Havana on the fifteenth anniversary of the renewal of relations between the two countries.
Trade between the two nations fell from US$50 million in the 1990’s to only $5 million in 2008, but South Africa has expressed interest in increasing investment in Cuban oil production and the tourism sector, and increasing imports of cigars and rum, the Granma reported. There are currently 500 Cubans in South Africa working in construction, health and hydraulic infrastructure sectors.
“The lock is off, the door is not open. What the resolution says is how to open the door,” Jose Miguel Insulza, OAS Secretary General, said at an event in Washington.
“Everybody wants Cuba back, but not at the cost of the OAS,” said Insulza. “The relationship that exists at the OAS with the United States is very important for countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
According to a Press Release by the OAS, Cuba must be willing to “have the same rights and the same obligations” as other OAS member countries, and Insulza made it very clear that the “next step” must be made by Cuba.
“Now that it’s a unilateral matter, Cuba has to decide what they want to do,” Insulza said, adding Cuba had not approached the OAS so far to begin a dialogue.
The Secretary-General warned that Cuba’s reincorporation will not happen overnight.
“Fortunately things have quieted down since the days of the assembly, because at the beginning everybody wanted to know what was going to happen that week. Nothing is going to happen this week, next week or the next one,” he said. “I don’t think we will have any new movement in the case of Cuba until the Cuban government decides to makes some move,” he added.
Cuba has repeatedly said that it is not interested in rejoining the OAS.
The Presidents of Chile and Mexico, Michelle Bachelet and Felipe Calderón, praised the decision reached about the OAS to revoke the decades long suspension of Cuba and indicated their commitment to consolidate to the Rio Group as a mechanism of Latin American integration, the Associated Press reported.
Bachelet said that the decision of the OAS is evidence of the organization fortifying its institutionalism and “maintaining its use as an organ for the development of multilateralism” in the continent.
“We believe the OAS plays an irreplaceable role in the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and other global subjects,” she said.
For his part, Calderón said “we celebrate in the consensus finally reached in the general assembly of the Organization of American States, the OAS, to remove the clauses that prevented the reincorporation of Cuba in the inter-American system.”
Around the Region:
U.S., Venezuela to restore full diplomatic ties, Los Angeles Times
The nations’ envoys soon will take up their former posts. The move, analysts say, reflects Obama’s desire for better Latin American relations and President Hugo Chavez’s need to improve his image.
EL SALVADOR: Gov’t Clamps Down on Corruption, Inter Press Service
Serious allegations of corruption involving central figures in the government of right-wing former Salvadoran president Antonio Saca (2004-2009) will be investigated by a commission led by Finance Minister Carlos Cáceres.
Honduras heads toward crisis over referendum, Associated Press
A standoff between Honduras’ president and its military, Congress and courts over a referendum on constitutional change escalated, with the leftist leader Manuel Zelaya rejecting the Supreme Court’s decision to reinstate a military chief he had fired.
ALBA Bloc Grows by Three New Member Countries at Summit, Venezuelanalysis.com
During a summit in Venezuela on Wednesday, the Caribbean and South American integration organization, ALBA, solidified its regional presence by adding Ecuador, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda as its newest member countries.
Better relations through Hemingway, By Jenny Phillips and Bob Vila, Boston Globe
As President Obama prepares to open a dialogue with Cuba, he may well want to draw lessons from the collaborations between Americans and Cubans that are already underway. Since 2002, The Finca Vigia Foundation has worked with the Cuban government to preserve Ernest Hemingway’s literary legacy in that island nation.
Holiday Blues in Times of Crisis, Patricia Grogg, Inter Press Service
Anxieties about making ends meet in Cuba are heightened at the start of the summer holiday season, when there is increased demand for food, transport and electricity, all of which are affected by restrictions intended to ease the country’s economic problems, intensified by the global recession.
Until next week,