Straight Talk from Cuba; Clear thinking on diplomacy and economics from the U.S.; a readers’ survey from us

Dear Friends:
This week, we got a blast of straight talk from Cuba on issues ranging from the embargo to corruption to Cuba’s economy to life itself:

  • In his July 26th speech, President Castro exhorted Cubans to focus on improving agriculture and not to blame the U.S. blockade for all of Cuba’s problems.
  • Cuba’s National Assembly will create an office charged with rooting out government corruption.
  • A leading economic commentator called for greater economic reforms, more government decentralization, and a reconsideration of how Cuba defines private property in order to make the island’s economy more productive.
  • In a surprise announcement delaying Cuba’s first communist party Congress in twelve years, President Raul Castro is quoted saying “Because of the laws of life,” this will be the last Congress led by the historic leadership of the revolution — a comment you might not ordinarily hear from the government.

Not to be outdone, we on the U.S. side made news over and over again on diplomacy and commercial relations with Cuba:

  • The U.S. “news ticker,” an irritating artifact from the Bush era, was shut off by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana after a three-year run.
  • Legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate to open a loophole in the embargo so U.S. firms could drill for oil.
  • State delegations from Arkansas and Colorado set off to build better commercial relations between their agriculture sectors and Cuba.
  • Airports in Key West, Houston, and Tampa signaled their interests to receive U.S. government permission to serve as departure points for travel to Cuba.
  • The Denver Post newspaper editorialized on behalf of Cuba trade, rejecting arguments from the anti-Castro lobby that selling food to Cuba hurts the Cuban people.
  • The Florida Sun-Sentinel urged the Cuban and the U.S. governments to push beyond symbolic diplomacy and make progress on the larger, political issues that have divided the two countries for half a century.

We sure hope that policy makers – in the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress – are tracking all of this really positive movement.

It just seems to us, after a week when the President and his cabinet met with the senior leadership of China, after the administration eased trade sanctions against Syria, after the U.S. special envoy for Sudan called for the unwinding of sanctions against Khartoum, there is every justification for moving forward with greater speed and openness when it comes to U.S. diplomacy toward Cuba.

Let’s not allow all of this straight talk and progress go to waste.

We cover all of this important news from Cuba, and also seek to bring you up to date on the Honduras crisis.  You’ll see some updates, some reading, and some new videos – please read and screen them all.

Finally, keep your eye on your mailboxes for our first readers’ survey that will focus on U.S. policy toward the Western Hemisphere.  We’ll send it out early next week – and we want to hear from you!

But first, this week in Cuba news…

IN CUBA

In news that broke right at our deadline, Reuters reports that Cuba’s Community Party has postponed what would have been its first Congress in twelve years, “saying it may be the last under the aging ‘historic leadership of the revolution and must be done right’,” and attributed this statement to state-run media.

The Congress sets the future direction of the country and was anticipated to determine whether Fidel Castro would stay on as head of the party.

Quoting state run media, the Reuters report cites Raul Castro as saying, “Because of the laws of life, this will be the last (congress) led by the historic leadership of the revolution,” referring to age and time.

On July 26th, Raúl Castro calls revival of agriculture Cuba’s top priority

In his annual address marking Cuba’s Revolution Day, President Raúl Castro said that the country must stop placing blame for their problems on the U.S. embargo and start taking responsibility for domestic problems such as poor farm production.  The Associated Press reported that Castro, pounding the podium, stated that “it is not a question of yelling ‘Fatherland or death! Down with imperialism! The blockade hurts us'”, and urged Cubans to take advantage of a program that turns unused state-owned land over to private farmers.

“The land is here, the Cubans are here and the land is waiting for us,” he said.

Attempts to revive the agricultural sector are top on Castro’s list of priorities as his government attempts to lessen the effects of the economic crisis on the island. According to the Associated Press, many Cubans feel as though the changes promised by Castro are coming too slowly.

Castro spoke for just 34 minutes and focused primarily on domestic issues.

Carlos Alzucaray, a researcher at the Center for Studies of the United States, told CBS News that there were two things that particularly struck him about Raúl Castro’s speech:  First, that he announced the upcoming meetings of the Council of State and the Communist Party plenary. “These kinds of meetings are not usually spoken about publicly.  I think this reflects a new openness and reinforces Raúl’s insistence on institutions and organization,” said Alzucaray.

Second, “Raúl focused only on domestic issues with only the briefest mention of his recent trip to Africa and the global economic crisis. He didn’t even mention Honduras.”

You can read Raúl Castro’s speech here.

More economic changes?

A Cuban state T.V. analyst suggested this week that new sectors of the economy should become decentralized, the Reuters news agency reported.  Ariel Terrero, the top economic commentator, suggested decentralization and privatization reforms being carried out in the agriculture sector may be beneficial to other areas such as food service and retail trade, given their diversity and breadth.

“In the Cuban economy, there’s a need to look for formulas more dynamic, more intelligent, of understanding property, of running a business, of running a cafeteria. I think this diversity requires new thinking about the concepts and manner of understanding property in the Cuban economy” he said.

“The leasing of state lands, which in the end is the placing of state property in the hands of producers, could be applied in other sectors, for example food services, retail trade, and other areas where really it is impossible, given the diversity and breadth, for the state to administer directly,” he said.

Terrero’s comments follow a Cuban government report by the Economy and Planning Ministry that argues for greater efficiency by state-run companies and blamed structural problems for part of the tough financial situation Cuba is facing.

“State-run socialist companies must be efficient and for that what they need for their optimal performance must be guaranteed.” the report said.

New agency to fight corruption

Ariel Terrero also announced that Cuba’s government will create a new agency to fight corruption, the Reuters news agency reported.

The Comptroller General’s Office will be created through legislation by Cuba’s National Assembly, and its primary task will be to ensure that state revenues are used properly. The agency will be attached the Council of State and have broad authority to audit all government and economic entities, replacing what was previously the Ministry of Auditing and Control.

“This will … help avoid or limit the possibility (of corruption) and respond to corrupt acts,” Terrero said his weekly spot on state television, Reuters reported.

Cuba ranked 65 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s 2008 corruption index and foreign businessmen and diplomats report that corruption at the very highest level of government is rare. However, kickbacks are relatively common among state-run company managers and at government offices where Cubans go to take care of housing and other problems.  Petty workplace theft is rampant, with many people selling black market goods openly in the street.

President Raúl Castro has called corruption a “deadly cancer” and vowed to crack down.

Russia to drill for oil in Cuban waters

Russian Deputy Premier Igor Sechin visited Cuba and signed contracts that will permit the Russian oil company Zarubezhneft to begin drilling for oil in Cuban waters, BBC News reported.

The oil fields lie in Cuba’s exclusive economic zone, which the government divided into 59 blocs, 21 of which are under contract to lease to foreign oil extractors.  The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that Cuba off its shores has about 5 billion barrels of oil and 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, Reuters reported.

Russia also granted Cuba $150 million worth of credits for Cuba to receive Russian agriculture and construction equipment to help rebuild areas hit by the three hurricanes that hit Cuba last year.

“Every time I travel through the region, I come to Cuba to advance our joint economic-commercial projects, and I take every opportunity to communicate with my colleagues,” Mr Sechin told local media.

U.S. POLICY

U.S. Interests Section turns off news ticker

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana has turned off the large “news ticker” that electronically scrolled news from an upper floor of the office building housing U.S. diplomats in Havana.

The five-foot high ticker ran through windows inside the U.S. diplomatic mission and was launched in January 2006, reported the Financial Times. In response, then-President Fidel Castro erected 138 flag poles flying black flags with stars and billboards with anti-American messages in front of the ticker to block the running headlines.

Many took the decision to shut off the ticker, a symbol of the hostile U.S.-Cuba relationship during the Bush Administration, as another step by the Obama Administration to ease tensions and engage Cuba with a more diplomatic tone.

The Cuban government removed the anti-US billboards from the front of the U.S. mission soon after President Obama took office. Similarly, there have been no marches past the building since Raúl Castro officially took over as President in February 2008.

One Western diplomat noted that after the Interests Section shut off the ticker, “the Cubans could have howled victory – but [they] said nothing, indicating they are serious about improving relations.”

Transcript from a State Department news conference where the ticker’s removal is discussed:

QUESTION: A different topic in the region. On Cuba, do you have anything to say about your decision to switch off this news ticker at your Interests Section?

MR. KELLY: Yeah. As I understand it, the news ticker was turned off in June. The – we believe that the billboard was really not effective as a means to delivering information to the Cuban people. It was evident that the Cuban people weren’t even able to read the billboard because of some obstructions that were put in front of it. We think that some of the measures that the President announced on April 13 to increase the free flow of information to the people of Cuba will ultimately be more effective in trying to promote the free flow of information.

QUESTION: Would you – was this something that the Cubans had asked you specifically not to do in any of the meetings that took place? And then, was this kind of a sign of goodwill?

MR. KELLY: Well, I will note that the Cubans, for their part, did dismantle a few very negative billboards and graffiti around the U.S. Interests Section, which we do see as a positive gesture. But whether or not this was specifically raised in these talks, I just don’t know.

QUESTION: Would you – would we interpret this as a goodwill gesture by the U.S. towards Cuba, or is this solely because you don’t think it was effective?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think what we’re trying to do here is we’re trying to do all we can to promote the free flow of information between the U.S. and Cuba. That’s why the President announced these measures. We are looking for ways that we can do that in the best way possible. And we just felt that this – these dueling, disparaging – not – well, disparaging is the wrong word, but these dueling billboards, if you will, was not serving in the interests of promoting a more productive relationship.
Senate bill would allow Cuba oil drilling

A new Senate bill, S-1517, would allow American companies to participate in Cuba’s offshore oil exploration, if enacted into law.  The bill, introduced on July 24th by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski encourages offshore oil development in U.S. waters.

According to the Cuban Triangle Blog, Section 6 of the legislation allows Americans “to explore for oil, extract oil, and sell equipment for those activities in “any portion of any foreign exclusive economic zone that is contiguous to the exclusive economic zone of the United States,” which if passed, would allow the U.S. to participate in drilling off Cuba’s coast.

Three of the “Cuban Five” to be resentenced in October

Last year, a federal appeals court determined that three of the Cuban agents convicted on various espionage-related crimes, Fernando Gonzalez, Luis Medina and Antonio Guerrero, received excessive sentences and needed to have their sentences reviewed.

U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard will impose new sentences on October 13th in Miami, the Associated Press reported.

U.S. denies visa to violent anti-Castro Cuban

The BBC reported that Tomás Ramos has been denied a visa by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, citing a history of violent activities carried out against the Cuban government.  He was released from a Cuban prison last year after completing an 18-year sentence and quickly applied for a visa to emigrate to the U.S.

Ramos’s anti-Cuba activities date back to the 1960s, when he carried out clandestine operations while living in Florida. He reports receiving funds and arms from the CIA to carry out missions such as destroying communications towers and contacting Cuban officials to organize a coup against the Cuban government.

Ramos says that he feels abandoned by the U.S. government, which had previously provided him with training in the Everglades, arms and even a course on explosives.

TRADE & COMMERCE

U.S. airports scramble to be ports of entry for flights to Cuba

Airports throughout the U.S. are clamoring for permission to initiate flights to Cuba, the Wall Street Journal reported.  Travel to Cuba by Cuban Americans has greatly increased since the Obama administration eased restrictions in April and cities across the country want to get their foot in the door for any future increases in travel.  Currently only Miami, New York, and Los Angeles have Treasury Department permission to operate flights to and from Cuba.

Key West International Airport Director, Peter Horton, recently wrote the Treasury Department to request that his airport be added to the list of facilities eligible for travel to and from Cuba. Houston business leaders have pressured the international airport there to do the same. Tampa made the same request last week and the mayor of New Orleans’ recently expressed his desire for his city to begin flights to Cuba.

The Miami Herald reported that air travel from Key West to Havana was the first international commercial flight from the United States. It was suspended after Castro took power.  The appropriate Customs and Immigration infrastructure already exists at the Key West International Airport, requiring no additional expenses if flights to Cuba resume.  Regional charter airline Cape Air said it is interested running the flights, estimating a round trip cost of $220.

Colorado looks to boost sales to Cuba

The Department of Agriculture in Colorado is spearheading an effort, supported by Governor Bill Ritter and various business groups throughout the state, to expand Colorado agricultural sales to Cuba, the Denver Post reported.

According to a spokesman for Colorado governor’s office, the state wants to position itself for changes by the Obama administration that will allow greater trade opportunities with Cuba.

“The state is preparing for the likely adoption of new federal legislation that would allow companies to more actively promote trade exports,” said Evan Dreyer, spokesman for Gov. Bill Ritter. “We do what the Colorado marketplace demands. We serve them … within the framework established by the federal government.”

Sales from Colorado to the island totaled $1 million in 2008.

Despite criticism from some, including Republican former Gov. Bill Owens who calls Fidel Castro “a cold- blooded murderer,” the Denver Post argues that “politically, there is no clear cost here for trading with Castro and his brother, Cuban President Raúl Castro.” The paper notes that “while anti-Castro Cuban expatriates have considerable clout in places such as Florida, Colorado has just 3,701 Cubans.”

Arkansas also looks to boost sales to Cuba

Meanwhile, Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe embarked on a three-day fact-finding trip to Cuba this week, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported. The delegation included state lawmakers, business leaders and economic development officials.

The group will seek to lay the foundations for new export agreements for rice, chicken and other products.  For Sen. Jim Luker of Wynne, it’s a straight forward economic issue with seven counties in his Senate district relying on sales of rice and other agricultural products.

“It’s a bread-and-butter issue,” Senator Luker said, adding that the embargo has outlived its usefulness. “Any rationale for it has long since gone away.”

Rep. Robert Moore of Arkansas City said it’s simply time to forge a better relationship with a country that lies so close.

“It’s a neighbor so close that we’ve had such a cold relationship with,” he said. “In my experience, that’s not the way to go about doing things.”

The Denver Post noted that since 2000, when Congress exempted agricultural and medical products from the U.S. embargo to Cuba, at least 21 states have led fact-finding missions to the island.

CULTURAL EXCHANGE

Hollywood Visit to Cuba

Hollywood stars Benicio del Toro, Bill Murray, Robert Duvall and James Caan are all in Cuba this week, the Associated Press reported.   Del Toro, star of the 2008 movie “Che,” traveled to the island to receive an award for his role in the movie. The award was presented to him by National Union of Writers and Artists at a ceremony attended by Murray, Duvall and Caan.

According to a spokesman for the group, Murray, Duvall and Caan were traveling under a license granted by the U.S. Treasury Department and are working on a research project.  Reuters reported that their trip could be the precursor for the making of a film in Cuba. When asked about that possibility, del Toro told reporters: “That depends on the governments, on the American government.”

Recommended Viewing:

The Center for Democracy in the Americas interviewed Hondurans who were in Washington this week to discuss the situation in Honduras. See new video interviews here.

Want to see some of what we saw when we visited Cuba last week?  Check out this gallery.

Around the Region:

Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) has circulated this useful fact-sheet to his Congressional colleagues setting the record straight on the military coup in Honduras which drove democratically-elected president Mel Zelaya from office and into exile.

“End the Crisis in Honduras,” Miami Herald

Now that the interim leader of Honduras, Roberto Micheletti, is showing signs of flexibility regarding the return of ousted President Manuel Zelaya, the Obama administration should move quickly to bring the Honduran crisis to an end, writes the Miami Herald editorial board.

Venezuela, Brazil agree to intensify pressure on Honduras’ interim gov’t, China’s People Daily

Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez agreed to intensify international pressure on Honduras’ interim government, the Venezuelan government said on Thursday.

Recommended Reading:

Capitalizing on Cuban changes: As U.S. revises the terms of engagement with Cuba, Colorado interests are wise to position themselves to make the most of it, The Denver Post

The editorial board of the Denver Post newspaper applauds the state’s Agriculture Department for connecting Colorado agricultural interests with Cuban buyers.

Thawing of icy U.S.-Cuba relations welcome, but bigger cracks have yet to form, Sun Sentinel

The editorial board of the Florida Sun-Sentinel, taking note of the U.S.-Cuba migration talks and the steps taken to cool off the propaganda (from and around the U.S. Interests Section), calls for much more to be done:

“At some point, if the two sides are serious about a rapprochement, they will have to talk, message or communicate with each other, perhaps in an informal format free of preconditions. It’s just a matter of someone stepping up to break the ice.   Fifty years is long enough. Both sides in this ongoing Cold War front have made their point – the billboards were proof of that.”

Cuba is ripe for U.S. engagement, Joel Brinkley, McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Joel Brinkley urges the Obama administration to catch up its Cuba policy to where its diplomacy in other regions has taken us.

Protect and Serve? The Status of Police Reform in Central America, Washington Office on Latin America

The Washington Office on Latin America recently issued a report on challenges facing the civilian police forces in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.  The report studies problems in internal administration and organization of the police and weaknesses in expanding the capacity of the force.  Unfortunately, a decline in international attention to the issue of police reform in Central America was accompanied by a surge in crime and insecurity around the region.  WOLA says that the citizen insecurity “poses a serious challenge to governance and rule of law.”

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team
www.democracyinamericas.org

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