Slow but Steady Progress

Dear Friends:

When Lincoln served in Congress, he reportedly said during a debate, “I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.”

If you look at what happened in Cuba news this week – as we do every week – what leaps off the page are indications of steady progress.  Many of us who work on these issues are impatient and want the Obama administration to move forward faster on normalizing relations with Cuba.  But the reality is that progress is happening on many levels – it may not be flashy, but it is happening without much controversy and – and that is a major departure from the past.

Here are five examples.

First, the U.S. and Cuban militaries participated in joint military exercises, as they have done in the past, but our administration allowed the press to cover what had occurred.  Our organization has previously proposed expanding military cooperation, and going public with these exercises will lay the groundwork for doing exactly that.

Second, officials from Tampa, Florida, traveled to Cuba for meetings with government officials about expanding trade ties.  You remember Florida, right, the state that serves as the massive political obstacle to getting something real done on Cuba.  The political climate is changing.  Not that it didn’t take courage for the delegation to make that trip; but this kind of courage is contagious.

Third, New Orleans wants to get into the act.  Mayor Ray Nagin wants charter aircraft service between his city and Cuba just like Los Angeles and Miami have.  The embargo against Cuba is not simply bad foreign policy and bad for our constitutional right travel, it is also foolish and self-defeating economically, and increasing numbers of Americans (and their elected officials) get that.

Fourth, Senator Byron Dorgan, a fearless crusader for changing Cuba policy, won approval in a Senate Committee for an important proposal that will expand agriculture sales to Cuba.  Dorgan is also sponsor of the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, the Senate bill to repeal the ban on legal travel for all Americans, and he understands that expanding travel will result in increased Cuban demand for food produced in the U.S.

Fifth, the migration talks restarted by the U.S. and Cuban governments took place in New York.  Both countries issued positive statements suggesting that progress is being made.  We were able to confirm the reality of that diplomatic happy talk in private meetings this week with foreign policy officials from both countries during our visit to Cuba with seven high-ranking staff people from the U.S. Senate.

It takes time to dismantle a policy that has been in place for fifty years, long after it was evident to almost everyone that U.S. policy toward Cuba was hurting us a lot more than it ever hurt them.

But in just the last three months, we have seen real changes – the elimination of travel restrictions on Cuban-American families, U.S. cooperation in the effort to lift Cuba’s suspension from the OAS, and now the resumption of migration talks.  We may be walking slowly, but we’re not walking backwards, and we see the prospects of a lot more progress to come.

Before sending you off to the news, please remember this.  We are also tracking developments taking place in Honduras and efforts to resolve the crisis.  You can follow the events we’re following by turning to our Honduras page here.

But first, this week in Cuba news…


U.S. and Cuba conduct joint military exercise

The U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba played host to a mock disaster relief mission by the U.S. and Cuban militaries, the Miami Herald reported.  The Cuban Frontier Brigade and the U.S. Navy collaborated on two drills, one to put out a staged wildfire and another to deal with a mass casualty situation.  The joint exercise has taken place for more than a decade; however, under the Bush Administration, the U.S. Department of Defense never formally acknowledged that such collaboration with the Cuban military took place.

According to retired U.S. Marine Corps General Jack Sheehan, who served as Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic and Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Command, the greater public exposure of this year’s drill shows that the Obama Administration is experimenting with the idea of increasing military diplomacy with Havana.  Although Sheehan views it as an “incremental process” of engagement, he told the Herald it may be another example of President Obama’s intention to change the U.S. relationship with Cuba.

9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US,” a report issued by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, outlines ways in which the U.S. and Cuba can expand military cooperation to build confidence and improve overall relations. The chapter on military-to-military cooperation, written by General James T. Hill, former Commander, United States Southern Command, can be downloaded here.

Voice of America: U.S. interest in pursuing constructive discussions with Havana to advance U.S. interests on issues of mutual concern

In an editorial titled, “Engaging Cuba,” Voice of America wrote that during last week’s migration talks, “American and Cuban diplomats took the first small steps toward improving relations between our two countries.”

Voice of America, which says in its charter that it “will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively,” is an official news outlet of the U.S. government.

According to the editorial, “Washington and Havana have a long way to go if fully normalized relations are to be achieved.  Human rights concerns cloud any discussion of Cuban affairs and the Cuban government continues to suppress its political opponents and stifle a free press. Nevertheless, engaging in migration talks underscores the U.S. interest in pursuing constructive discussions with Havana to advance U.S. interests on issues of mutual concern.”

Dorgan “Cash on Delivery” Amendment Passes Committee

The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved an amendment sponsored by Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), which will ease restrictions on Cuba when buying U.S. agricultural goods, according to AgWeek.

The amendment to the Fiscal Year 2010 Financial Services Appropriations bill would require the Treasury Department to revoke the 2005 interpretation of the rules requiring that when Cuba pays “cash in advance,” as provided under law, it pay for the goods on shipment rather than on delivery.  With Dorgan’s change, the Treasury would return to its initial interpretation of the regulations, requiring Cuba to pay before goods arrive in the country, but not before they leave the port in the U.S.

According to Dorgan, the current rules hurt U.S. farmers, rather than the Cuban government.  The 2009 Omnibus Appropriations bill had included language similar to Dorgan’s current amendment, but Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) threatened to vote against the bill as long as the Cuba provisions remained.  Although the provisions remained in the bill, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner wrote a letter to the Senators stating that the Bush era cash in advance rules would remain intact, a move which upset farm state legislators in the Senate.

Lawsuit challenges U.S. travel ban to Cuba

A lawsuit was filed in New York challenging the U.S. ban on American travel to Cuba.  According to Reuters, the Center for Constitutional Rights, a non-profit legal advocacy group, filed the suit on behalf of New Yorker Zachary Sanders, who was fined $9,000 by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for traveling to Cuba.

The lawsuit, which is pending in the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, disputes OFAC’s right to compel individuals to report on their expenditures while in Cuba.  Attorneys for the Center for Constitutional Rights issued a statement arguing that OFAC is in “blatant disregard for the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination and Eighth Amendment prohibition against excessive fines.”

U.S. regulations enforced by OFAC prohibit citizens from spending any money while in Cuba, essentially resulting in a ban on travel to the island.  According to the lawsuit, Sanders refused to respond to OFAC after the agency accused him of traveling to Cuba without authorization.  Although he initially was fined $1,000, on the last day of the Bush Administration, the Treasury Department increased his fine to $9,000.  The Wall Street Journal reports that the lawsuit names Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as a defendant.

You can read the Center for Constitutional Rights’ press release here.

Cuba demands the U.S. end military support to Honduras

Speaking in Nicaragua on Sunday, Cuba’s Vice President Esteban Lazo demanded that the United States “stop providing military support” to the de facto government in Honduras, the Agence France-Presse reported.

Lazo called on the U.S. government to “cease its intervention” in Honduran affairs and to “remove its staff from Honduras.”

Fidel Castro has also published five “reflections” on the situation in Honduras, strongly criticizing the United States and Costa Rica’s President Oscar Arias, who is serving as mediator for the Honduras crisis.


Tampa officials visit Cuba to discuss trade opportunities

A Tampa Bay delegation was in Cuba this week on a fact-finding visit to create trade opportunities between Tampa Bay and Cuba, in particular at the Port of Tampa, the Tampa Bay Tribune reported.

Tampa Port Authority Commissioner Carl Lindell said the trip reinforced the need for United States to normalize trade with the neighboring nation.

“It’s all about moving people and goods between our countries without restrictions,” said Lindell.

“We have to be pragmatic right now and the first thing to do is get Congress to drop the embargo,” Lindell said.

New Orleans-Havana flight proposed

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has called for direct charter flights from his city to Havana, says the Associated Press.   In a meeting with officials from the Departments of State and Transportation, Nagin asked for the flights, reportedly as a means to generate greater tourism for New Orleans and create more jobs.

Nagin said federal officials offered no commitments or a timeline for when any response might come.


Castro returns from four country tour, inks new agreements with Angola

Raúl Castro ended his trip to Angola, pledging an additional 230 doctors to the oil-rich southern African nation, reports the South African Press Association.  The two nations also signed new cooperation agreements in telecommunications and research, Angolan news agencies reported.

President Castro spent two days in Angola, a strong ally of Cuba since Angola’s independence in 1975, following the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Cairo, Egypt.  It was his second visit in less than six months to Angola where some 200 Cuban doctors are currently serving.  Castro was on a ten day international trip in which he also visited Algeria, Egypt and Namibia.

Castro also met with President Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia, who said his country wants to increase co-operation with Cuba in infrastructure development, agriculture, fishing and the health sector.

“Your visit provides a valuable opportunity to further consolidate the excellent bilateral relations and the longstanding bonds of friendship and solidarity that exists between our two countries,” President Pohamba told Castro, the Agence France-Presse reported.

EU Foreign Relations Chief in Havana for talks

The European Union Commissioner for Foreign Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, visited Cuba to meet with Cuban government officials about improving bilateral cooperation, reported the Agence France-Presse.

Ferrero-Waldner said that she wants to “deepen the political dialogue” with Cuba on “issues of common interest,” including human rights.

The EU has pledged 41.5 million Euros to Cuba in development assistance for this year, including 37 million in cooperation funds and the remainder in humanitarian aid.

Trinidad and Tobago passes law to allow Cuban doctors to practice in state medical centers

The parliament of Trinidad and Tobago approved a law this week allowing Cuban doctors to receive licenses to practice in State medical facilities, EFE news agency reported.

The new legislation will create a medical entity responsible for granting licenses to medical personnel from Cuba and other countries. The Public Health Minister, Jerry Narace, said the government was obligated to create the new unit due to the fact that the current medical board insisted that Cubans pass a series of exams, including language tests.

The new unit will expedite temporary licenses for doctors headed to state hospitals where there is a huge deficit of medical professionals.


Royal Ballet meets sold out crowds, swine flu in Havana

Britain’s Royal Ballet completed a five-day series of performances, with all shows completely sold out and television screens erected outside to accommodate fans who were not able to acquire tickets, Reuters reported.

Unfortunately, during the visit to Havana, five of the dancers came down with swine (H1/N1) flu.  Although their illnesses caused some brief reshuffling among the ensemble, all five dancers have since recovered.  The closing night was also one dancer’s last performance in her career, according to Reuters.  To honor Alexandra Ansanelli, Cuban ballet legend Alicia Alonso presented the dancer with a bouquet of flowers.

NBC’s Mary Murray reported on how the Cuban National Symphony, which prior to this engagement was generally unfamiliar with the ballet’s 18th century music, practiced over the last few months to prepare for the Royal Ballet’s performance, and was able to perform a “very accomplished execution of very complicated arrangements.”

Cuba slashes projections for 2009 imports, exports

Cuba has drastically revised its economic projections for 2009, Reuters reported.  After reshuffling his economic team in March, Raúl Castro’s new appointees have released dismal news about the Cuban economy, and scaled back expectations for exports, imports, and growth.

The report outlines adjustments to the 2009 plans of the old cabinet, including projections of 2.5 percent economic growth compared to the original 6 percent.  It also says imports will plummet 22.2 percent, or some $3.4 billion, compared with an increase of nearly $1 billion first projected.   Exports are expected to decline by $500 million, compared with an increase of $600 million in the original forecast.

Local analysts say Cuba is facing the toughest economic situation since the early 1990s when the fall of the Soviet Union forced a 75 percent cut in spending.

Cuba and Brazil to jointly produce 50 million doses of A-C anti-meningococcal vaccine

In response to a request made by the World Health Organization, Cuba and Brazil will jointly produce over 50 million doses of the A-C anti-meningococcal vaccine, Cuban state media reported. The request by the WHO comes as Africa is facing the greatest meningitis epidemic of the last 13 years. The vaccines are produced by the Cuban Finlay and the Brazilian Bio-Maquinhos institutes.

Around the Region:

Clinton operative lobbies on behalf of coup government in Honduras

Roberto Lovato at the American Prospect writes that the pro-Honduran coup forces in Washington have hired a new spokesman – Clinton ally Lanny Davis.  Davis, a D.C. area lobbyist who was President Clinton’s Special Counsel, now represents the Honduran chapter of the Business Council of Latin America (CEAL), the region’s version of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

As Lovato writes, “[Davis] believes that the tragedy of Honduras lies with Zelaya and that the president brought it on himself.”  Human rights activists in Honduras are outraged that Davis, a regular in Democratic politics, would ally with an organization of elite business interests that, according to one group, has roots in the paramilitary Battalion 316 that led death squads in Honduras in the 1980s.

COFADEH, whose recent human rights report is available on the CDA’s Honduras webpage, has documented 1,100 cases of human rights violations since the coup occurred on June 28.  In a letter to the L.A. Times, Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, notes that Bennett Ratcliff, a lobbyist close to Hillary Clinton, is working alongside Davis to promote the Micheletti government.

Valenzuela, Shannon nominations stalled in Senate over views on Honduras

Senate Republicans are delaying nomination of President Obama’s choices for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, and for U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, Thomas Shannon, the Washington Post reported.

Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) has asked Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) to delay confirmation votes for the two individuals because of comments at their confirmation hearing on the recent coup in Honduras.

Bloomberg reports that DeMint cited Valenzuela’s defense of the Obama administration’s decision to condemn the coup and to suspend aid to Honduras, and he said that Shannon “has still failed to show a clear understanding of Honduras’s fight to defend democracy.”  However, Carlos Pascual, Obama’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to Mexico, managed to win his confirmation vote in the committee, despite reports that Sen. Menendez was fighting to block his nomination.

Increased U.S. Military Presence in Colombia Could Pose Problems With Neighbors, New York Times

A plan to increase the American military presence on at least three military bases in Colombia, Washington’s top ally in Latin America, is adding to Colombia’s already tense relations with some of its neighbors.

Recommended Reading:

Trip to Cuba confirms the need to end the U.S. travel and trade restrictions, Seattle Times

Bruce Ramsey, a columnist for the Seattle Times, recently traveled to Cuba and reflects in an opinion piece about his experiences there.  He wonders during his visit, “why does my government not want me here?” and calls the country’s communist system “a dead virus, no longer infectious.”

Cuba’s land distribution plan keeps farmers waiting, Agence France-Presse

Idalmis Garcia is on the cutting edge of Cuba’s bid to boost food production and proudly shows off the small plot of land President Raul Castro’s government put her to work on. Now she wants more. “I asked for as big a piece of land as they could give me, but they gave me 0.95 hectares (two acres), which is not too much, so I applied for more and I’ve been waiting months for an answer,” Garcia, 39, told AFP.

Barack Obama and where he and Hillary Clinton are going with the Cuba issue, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

In the introduction, we argued that the Obama administration is taking slow but decisive steps to change U.S. policy for the better, but we also said that others have the view that these steps are far too cautious.  A good argument for the more critical case is made here, by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.  COHA argues, in summary, that Obama has not departed sharply enough from diplomatic approaches of the past, and that with other foreign policy priorities dominating his focus, Cuba may remain on the sidelines while Washington remains relatively from Latin America. The piece closes saying “with the window of opportunity potentially closing while he casts his eyes elsewhere, Obama would do well by abandoning his slow and familiar rumba and preparing for the up-tempo salsa if he means to get the job done.”

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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