Sour Notes from Miami as Juanes Seeks to Sing for Peace in Cuba

It’s time to stand up for Juanes.

The hardliners in Miami, who turned the other cheek when President Obama took off restrictions and enabled Cuban-Americans to travel freely to Cuba, are tied up in knots because Juanes is planning a peace concert in Havana.

Juanes, the Colombian-born rock star with 17 Latin Grammy awards to his credit, lives with his wife Karen Martinez and daughters Paloma and Luna part-time in Miami, Florida.  An activist, Juanes has been honored all over the world for his work against landmines, helping people with disabilities, and promoting the Spanish language.

A year ago, he organized a peace concert on the Colombia-Venezuela border just weeks after the Andean countries were consumed by tensions and the threat of military actions following a cross-border incursion by Colombia into Ecuador’s territory to pursue members of the FARC.

None of this activism seemed to bother the hardliners in South Florida, until Juanes began planning a “Peace without Borders” concert scheduled to take place September 20 in Havana.

Then they awakened (cue the incendiary invective).  Now, they’re calling Juanes immoral, an accomplice to the Cuba government, and they threatened him with boycotts against future performances in Miami. They’ve even promised to “destroy his music” by crushing his CDs on the streets of the city, and have slashed posters bearing his image.

Juanes could not have asked for a better demonstration of why a peace concert is needed, now more than ever.

Of course, it’s no surprise that he is under fire from some in Miami who don’t want him or anyone else to promote understanding between Cuba and the United States, who fear that a peaceful cultural event in Havana belies their narrative about the “tropical gulag” that is Cuba.

Their attitude appears to be: it’s fine for the Cuban-American community to visit Cuba without restrictions.  But they feel obligated to stop others from traveling to Cuba, or from seeing how the Cuban reality contrasts with their carefully constructed definition of “other.”  They just don’t want the rest of us to see how much we and the Cuban people have in common.

That’s why we need unrestricted travel to Cuba for all Americans, and why we need to support Juanes and projects like his peace concert.

It isn’t easy to stand up to this kind of pressure. The best thing we can do is to stand with Juanes and the other artists who will perform with him.  Please sign the petition supporting Juanes and the “Peace without Borders” concert here.  This is your chance to be heard.

***

Everyone needs a summer break, and next week, we’ll be taking ours.

But, before we go, here’s your blast of Cuba news…

IN CUBA

Fidel Castro turns 83

On August 13, Fidel Castro marked his 83rd birthday, the Agence France-Presse reported.  Although no public events to celebrate were planned, the famed Hotel Nacional in Havana opened a new exhibit with pictures of Castro, many taken recently.

One photo, taken by his son, shows Fidel looking healthier than he has in recent pictures; he is wearing a blue baseball cap and shirt underneath a black sports jacket.  The exhibition, named “83 motivos,” was organized by the Jose Martí Cultural Society and also includes pictures of Fidel with other world leaders, including deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya taken last March.

Pastors for Peace also released a set of photos leaders of their group took with Fidel recently. Pastor for Peace leaders Rev. Lucius Walker, Ellen Bernstein, and Rev. Tom Smith are shown in various pictures with the ex-President.

New mechanism for Cubans to report corruption anonymously

Ordinary Cubans will be able to report cases of corruption and the mismanagement of public funds to the new Comptroller’s General Office, the Argentine news agency Telam reported. President Raúl Castro first announced the conception of the office in December of 2008 and its creation was approved last week by Cuba’s parliament in attempts to weed out corruption on the island.  Castro has called corruption a “deadly cancer” eating away at Cuba’s economy.

José Luis Toledo Santander, the president of the parliamentary commission on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, admits that corruption has worsened since Cuba opened its economy to foreign investments in the past decade. He said that the problem does not only stem from corruption, but also from indiscipline and a lack of economic controls and bookkeeping for state businesses.

In support of the new office, Toledo Santader says that denouncers of corruption have the right to keep their identity secret and for protection for themselves and their families.  It will replace the Ministry of Auditory and Control and will have more sweeping powers over the government.

Rights Group says political prisoners number up by one

Over the last six months the number of political prisoners in Cuba has increased by one to 206, the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation said Monday, the Associated Press reported.

The report said it’s the first time the number has increased in the last three years under Raúl Castro. The commission had the number at 219 last summer and 205 in January.

Head of the commission, Elizardo Sanchez, said that brief detentions are still being used against the political opposition, but have declined by two-thirds over the past six months.

Over 24,000 Cubans have applied for Spanish citizenship under new law

El País reported that since last December, 24,435 Cubans have applied for Spanish citizenship under the Historical Memory Law. The law allows foreigners with at least one Spanish grandparent to receive Spanish citizenship. So far, at least 8,000 Cubans have been approved and 165,000 await appointments to turn in their documentation.  Spain estimates that one million people around the world are eligible for the ‘grandchild’ citizenship, 250,000 of whom are Cuban.

The process of obtaining the proper documentation has been slow on the island.  Meanwhile, Cuban authorities have complained that the demand for documents has overloaded the Cuban registry. Spanish officials recently travelled to the Cuba and have agreed to be more flexible in their requirements to prove ancestry.

Raúl Castro Names New Ambassador to Spain and Venezuela

Raúl Castro named Alejandro González, former Vice-Minister of International Relations for Latin America, the new Cuban ambassador to Spain, Spain’s ABC newspaper reported.

Preceding his post as Vice-Minister, González has also acted as the director for Latin America and the Caribbean in the Ministry of International Relations, the Cuban ambassador to Argentina, and the spokesman for the Ministry of International Relations.  He replaces Alberto Velazco San José who has occupied the post for the past five years.

Diplomatic sources told Europe Press that the change of ambassadors “doesn’t have anything to do with” the involvement of Spanish intelligence officials in the case of Felipe Pérez Roque. Others interpreted the move as the new Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez putting his team together.

The current director of Juventud Rebelde, the communist youth newspaper, has been named Cuba’s new ambassador to Venezuela.  Rogelio Polanco Fuentes will replace Germán Sánchez Otero, Ambassador to Venezuela for 15 years.

Raúl Castro credited Otero with working hard to build the alliance that currently exists between Cuba and Venezuela.

Juventud Rebelde reported that “over the last five years, Polanco Fuentes has served on several important missions related to the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela,” without offering more details.   Polanco is a member of the Cuban National Assembly and appears frequently on the TV program “Mesa Redonda” (Round Table).

Along with González and Polanco, thirty-six other diplomats received their new posts as ambassadors in a ceremony Saturday at the Jose Marti Memorial in Havana.

ECONOMY-TRADE

Cuba imported over $4 billion in food from U.S. since 2001

Cuba has spent $4.4 billion since 2001 for agriculture and food items from the United States despite the trade embargo, reported the Latin American Herald Tribune.  An exception in the embargo allows the sale of food and some medicines.

Cuban officials said that purchases of American agricultural products increased every year from 2001 until 2005, but have decreased in the three years since.  They attributed the decline in food purchases to difficulties in securing credit and tough restrictions imposed by the U.S. government, which make purchasing from the U.S. more expensive.

Alimport, the state-owned company that imports food, said it has begun to replace imports from the U.S. with other, more secure markets that do not encumber exports to Cuba and which provide loans to the island.

Cuban refinery has processed 35 million oil barrels since opening

The Camilo Cienfuegos PDV-Cupet Refinery, located in central Cienfuegos province, has processed 35 million barrels of oil since its opening in 2008, the Cuban News Agency reported.  Repairing and operating the refinery is a joint venture between Cuba and Venezuela.

Executives said that the most important goal facing the refinery is the construction of four new large tanks, which will increase the refinery’s storage capacity to 80,000 cubic meters.  The refinery is currently processing 65,000 barrels per day, a figure that will increase to 150,000 after the expansion is completed.

Price of sugar hits 28-year high

The price of raw sugar has increased to its highest level since 1981, reported the St. Petersburg Times. The price increase is largely due to Brazil converting more sugar into ethanol and a sharp fall in Indian production following a drought.  Cuba has significantly reduced sugar production over the last 15 years, but may consider re-planting idle cane fields to take advantage of the market, the St. Petersburg Times reported.

Toilet paper shortage

Cuba is having a tough time importing enough toilet paper due to current economic difficulties, government officials said last week.

Cimex, the state company responsible for the importation of some goods, said that steps will be taken to address the current shortage, the Telegraph reported.

“The corporation has taken all the steps so that at the end of the year there will be an important importation of toilet paper,” said a spokesman for the state conglomerate Cimex.

According to the official, the shipment will enable the state-run company “to supply this demand that today is presenting problems.”

Juanes rocks the hardliners

Juanes, the Colombian musician, and a part time resident of Miami, is under strong pressure from members of the Cuban exile community to cancel his upcoming concert in Havana devoted to promoting peace.

Cuban exiles groups, joined by Venezuelans and Hondurans living in Miami, have called Juanes’ attempt to do a peace concert in Havana “humiliating” and “provocative,” and vowed to boycott his music and break his CDs in the street.

“In rejection of this humiliation and provocation by Juanes to the Cuban community, we have prepared ourselves to destroy the music of Juanes.  Out of respect to the Cuban community, we have been joined by Colombians, Venezuelans and Hondurans,” said Miguel Saavedra, president of the Cuban exile group Vigilia Mambisa.

Exile groups say Juanes will be an “accomplice” of the Cuban regime if he performs there without denouncing the “rights violations being committed” on the island.

Juanes has said the concert is 100 percent apolitical and focused on changing people’s minds and creating peace.

“Going to Cuba is a symbol that it’s time to change (people’s) minds,” an opportunity to tell the world that “people have to change” and defend peaceful coexistence among peoples, the artist said in an interview on Univision’s “Aqui y Ahora” program, EFE reported.

U.S. POLICY

Commerce Secretary discusses Cuba policy

At a recent town hall meeting with business and political leaders in Tampa, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke was asked about Cuba. Excerpts of his comments are below (St. Petersburg Times).

  • What’s going to happen in the Congress, I really can’t say. We know that how we take advantage of these overtures could make all the difference in terms of relations five or six or 10 years down the road. If we muff it … it could really hurt both the people of Cuba and United States’ interests for quite some time.
  • We know Cuba will modernize. Their standard of living will increase. So, the question is, will companies in the United States help in that endeavor or will we be left out?

When asked about drilling in U.S. waters off the coast of Florida, Locke responded: “We’re looking at a policy that looks at more utilization of our domestic supply…recognizing where there is a culture and acceptance (of drilling) in the political leadership and the business community. We know one of those key regions is in the gulf area. The administration does know we need to focus on domestic supply.”

Intel to SEC: we didn’t violate the embargo

CNET News reported that the SEC recently contacted Intel about Cuban computers containing Intel parts, something Intel apparently did not properly note in disclosure forms.

In a June 4, 2009 letter the SEC wrote to Intel: “We are aware of a May 2008 news report that PCs in Cuba contain your Celeron processors. Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria are identified by the State Department as state sponsors of terrorism, and are subject to U.S. economic sanctions and export controls.”

It goes on to say that the contacts with Cuba were not noted on disclosure forms and asks Intel to “describe to us the nature and extent of any past, current, and anticipated contacts with the referenced countries, whether through distributors, resellers, licensees, or other direct or indirect arrangements.”

According to the letter, “”The Cuban PCs have Intel Celeron processors with 80 gigabytes of memory (sic) and 512 RAM…Clerks said the PCs were assembled by Cuban companies using parts imported from China.”

Intel responded by saying that it has “no business contacts with the Subject Countries, either directly or indirectly through tacit agreement with its customers.  Intel does not provide products or technology to the Subject Countries…”

The tech experts at CNET News seemed to find the investigation comical.

“Maybe there’s more to this than meets the eye but a lowly Celeron chip (one of Intel’s bottom-of-the-performance-barrel processors) is hardly the chip to designate as a threat to national security. In short, data-crunching server farms–assuming they exist–in Cuba are not built with Celeron processors,” wrote expert Brooke Crothers.

To read a copy of the SEC’s request to Intel, click here.

Obama Administration has imposed $365,000 in fines for violating embargo

During its first months in office, the Obama administration has imposed more than $365,000 in fines on companies who have traded with Cuba, according to an article published Friday in the Cuban state newspaper Granma.

Randy Alonso, lead commentator on the Mesa Redonda nightly news show, wrote that the change promised by Barack Obama has had very little to do with relations between the U.S. and Cuba; “much less with the genocidal blockade that 11 administrations have maintained against the Cuban people.”

Fines related to dealings with Cuba represent one third of all fines imposed by OFAC this year.   Two of the companies that have received fines are MGE UPS, a software producer, and Philips Electronics, both fined for medical related sales.

The United States continues to persecute any sale of medical equipment and medicines of North American origin to Cuba, “in a true hunting that has brought about premature death and the deterioration of the quality of life of Cuban citizens,” wrote Alonso.

He concluded by asking: “Where is the change when we talk about Cuba?”

Senate aide endorses unrestricted American travel, trade to Cuba

David Ramseur, Chief of Staff to Alaska Senator Mark Begich, recently back from a fact-finding trip to Cuba, led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, writes that “after 50 years, it’s obvious U.S. policy has worked only to punish the Cuban people rather than their government.”

Ramseur, who spent four days in Havana in July with six other chiefs to U.S. Senators from both political parties, wrote an op-ed in the Anchorage Daily News noting that “U.S.-Cuban relations remain deeply mired in the Cold War” and advocated for unrestricted travel and trade.

According to Ramseur, “the primary barrier to improved relations seems to be a handful of Senators, some with Cuban roots, who represent constituents who fled from Cuba and still resent the Castro takeover.”

He notes that Congress is considering more progressive policies, including S.428, a bill to lift the travel ban.

Ramseur’s conclusion after 18 meetings with journalists, ambassadors, academics, government officials, musicians, organic farmers and the top U.S. official:

“After 50 years, it’s obvious U.S. policy has worked only to punish the Cuban people rather than their government. Unrestricted American travel, trade and ideas will do more to bring enlightenment to Cuba than continuing a misguided policy of an era long passed.”

Recommended Reading:

U.S. Policy, Reforms in Cuba, and the Future of Bilateral Relations, Center for Democracy in the Americas

From July 17-July 20, 2009, The Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) sponsored a trip to Cuba for a bi-partisan delegation of seven Senate Chiefs of Staff. The lessons we learned on this trip centered primarily on Cuba’s economy, its reform process, political developments in Cuba, and the future of U.S. policy and U.S.-Cuba relations. We benefitted from the participation of our Senate staff members, who are extremely knowledgeable in areas such as agriculture policy and international trade. The conclusions in this report, however, reflect the views of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

“After long ban, some Cubans sample tourism luxury,” Reuters

When President Raúl Castro took over from his ailing older brother Fidel Castro last year, one of his first acts was to open all tourist facilities to Cubans.  According to Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero, Cubans have accounted for 10 percent of occupancy at Cuba’s high-end hotels this summer.

“Time is right for opening with Cuba,” St. Petersburg Times

Mary Mulhern, a Tampa Bay city council member, reports after a recent fact-finding mission to Cuba, the clear message she heard was the, “the Cuban government wants a friendly and mutually respectful relationship. They are prepared to meet with Obama or his designee to discuss any and all issues, including political prisoners and human rights.”  She calls for Tampa to re-establish a financial relationship with Cuba and take advantage of this trade opportunity.

Miriam Leiva congratulates Sotomayor on her confirmation

Miriam Leiva, founding member of the Ladies in White, writes about the importance of Hispanics in American society and their ascendance to positions of political, social and cultural prominence.

Recommended Listening:

Center for Democracy in the America’s friend and board member, Carlos Lazo, and his son Tito were recently interviewed about Cuba and U.S. policy on 94.9 FM KUOW, the Washington state affiliate of NPR.

Sgt. Carlos Lazo, a Cuban-American combat medic served with distinction in Iraq, but was barred from visiting his children in Cuba due to restrictions on travel the Bush administration is using to stop Cuban-Americans from visiting their families in Cuba.

To hear the interview click here.

Around the Region:

Members of Congress urge Obama to take further action against Honduras coup government

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) and fifteen other Members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama urging him to “take further measures against the de facto government” in Honduras, including suspending all non-humanitarian aid and freezing the bank accounts of all individuals involved in the coup.  The letter notes the many reports of numerous human rights abuses committed under the current regime, and it urges him to “publicly denounce the use of violence and repression of peaceful protestors.”

Mexican indigenous rights center receives WOLA award

The Washington Office of Latin America has announced that its 2009 Human Rights Award will be given to Tlachinollan Human Rights Center in Mexico.  The organization works in the Mexican state of Guerrero, where Tlachinollan has documented numerous cases of human rights violations.  Rep. Jim McGovern, co-chair of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, said that “the seriousness of the human rights situation in Guerrero underscores the importance of the work being done by the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center.”

Until next time,

The Cuba Central Team

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