Gov. Richardson and Catholic Bishops Urge Obama to Move Further, Faster on Cuba Policy Reforms

President Obama, having made important but incremental changes in Cuba policy, picked up two crucial allies this week, if he were to move more forcefully in the direction of reform.

Governor Bill Richardson, the former U.S. representative to the United Nations, and a veteran diplomatic trouble-shooter, interrupted a trade trip to the island and called for repealing the travel ban to free all Americans to visit Cuba.

Reaffirming previous commitments, a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, visiting Cuba to monitor how hurricane assistance provided by the church had been distributed on the island, called on President Obama to end the embargo and speed the pace of reform.

We hope the White House heard these passionate and principled calls for change.

Substantively, the case for President Obama moving further and faster on Cuba policy reforms has been made by experts and advocates from across the political spectrum.

You know the arguments well.

Ending the travel ban would restore to Americans their full constitutional rights to travel.  It would increase interaction between Cubans and Americans.  It would put money in the pockets of average Cubans.  It would create jobs here in the U.S.  It would improve our standing in Latin America.  It would make our policy consistent with our allies in Europe and the region.  And it would create political space and incentives for the Cuban government to move more quickly on its own program of reform.

These ideas and others like them have been expressed and endorsed before – by leaders like Senator Richard Lugar, respected institutions such as the Council on Foreign Relations and Brookings, groups in civil society such as The Cuba Study Group, Freedom House, and Human Rights Watch, and a growing coalition of economic interests from agriculture to travel and beyond.

Now, the President can take even greater comfort from the blanket of political cover that dropped from the sky this week to strengthen and surround him.

When a respected former Member of Congress, a veteran diplomat, and renowned Hispanic leader like Bill Richardson urges action on the travel ban, and is joined by the principled voices of the U.S. Catholic Conference calling for much more vigorous changes in policy, one might be tempted to ask: What greater encouragement does the President need in order to move decisively to change the policy?

In the coming weeks, Congress will reconvene and we will be able to report additional support among Members of the House and Senate for ending the travel ban.  We look forward to September 30, when delegations from across our country will descend on Washington armed with a simple and clear message – travel for all Americans – that they plan to bring to legislators from key states and districts.

The indispensable element for all of this is Presidential leadership.  The substantive case, the popular support, and the political cover are all in place.  It is our hope that the President’s voice will soon be heard.

Now, this week in Cuba news…


Richardson Calls for End of Travel Ban

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, in Cuba this week on a trade mission, called for the end of restrictions on travel by Americans to the island, the Associated Press reported.

Richardson said his trip was aimed at forging new trade relations between his state and the Caribbean island and he was not delivering any message from the White House. However, he did say that he would report his impressions from the trip to President Barack Obama.

Richardson negotiated the 1996 release of three Cuban political prisoners with Fidel Castro, and his visit immediately stirred speculation that it was aimed at improving policy toward Cuba.
Speaking from the historic home of U.S. novelist Ernest Hemingway just outside of Havana, Richardson was clear in his support for the repeal of the travel ban. “I’m for enhanced tourism travel for Americans,” Richardson said, adding that travel should go beyond the so-called people-to-people educational and cultural contacts promoted by the Clinton administration.
“I think enhancing cultural and artistic and educational ties is a prelude to diplomatic and commercial ties. It always happens that way,” Richardson told The Associated Press.
American Bishops visit Cuba, hope for more of a thaw

In accordance with their long-held support for lifting the embargo, U.S. Catholic Bishops visiting Cuba last week voiced their frustration at the slow pace of improving relations between Cuba and the U.S.  The delegation, led by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, met with Cuban church leaders and assessed hurricane reconstruction efforts financed by the Catholic Church after three hurricanes ravaged the island last year.  They also met with officials at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and with Ricardo Alarcon, President of the Cuban National Assembly.

According to Reuters, one of the main goals of the trip was to send a direct message to the White House that the Catholic Church is disappointed in the progress being made towards the normalization of relations with Cuba. One member of the delegation, Father Andrew Small, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Collection for the Church in Latin America, said, “Isolation doesn’t help change. There has to be greater contact. And the Obama administration has been, unfortunately, encouraging but painfully slow.” According to Father Small, “We need some radical changes, particularly from the U.S. perspective.”

Archbishop of Orlando Thomas Wenski wrote in an op-ed to the Miami Herald, “At a press conference held in Havana at the retreat house where we stayed, reporters asked a variety of questions. What was our position on the embargo? No change: Both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as well as the Cuban bishops have been opposed to the economic embargo for decades. It has failed to change policy but has inflicted needless suffering on the Cuban population.”

U.S. Government seeks to keep documents in Posada Carriles case confidential

The Miami Herald reports that the U.S. government will be able to keep some documents in the case of anti-Castro militant Luis Posada Carriles confidential, but will have to make their case to a court in Texas to keep any more evidence private. Posada Carriles, 81, is being charged with immigration fraud, perjury and obstruction of justice after sneaking into the United States in 2005.

The U.S. government made the request in June citing information relevant to national security. The Miami Herald and the Associated Press filed a motion to have full access to documents related to the case, which was partially granted by the court; the two items that will remain private are tapes and transcriptions of a 1998 interview with Posada by reporter Ann Louise Bardach, and the medical records of third parties.

Arturo Hernandez, the principle lawyer for the defense, said that he is in total disagreement with the court’s decision to regulate what remains confidential, but that his main focus was protecting the interviews from 1998 which was successful. In the interview, Posada Carriles takes credit for acts of terrorism in Cuba, including a string of hotel bombings in 1997. Other documents in question are FBI reports and classified materials about Posada’s time as an agent with the CIA.

Australian bank fined millions by US Treasury for deals with Cuba

The Brisbane Times reports that ANZ, an Australian bank, has been fined $6.95 million for breaking U.S. trade regulations by entering into deals with Cuba and Sudan. The fine from the U.S. Treasury is in response to at least $50 million in deals with Cuba and Sudan between 2004 and 2006.

The transactions did not breach Australian laws or United Nations sanctions, but since ANZ operates with a U.S. banking license they are subject to U.S. penalties. According to Prensa Latina, “this is the biggest fine imposed by the OFAC regarding Washington’s blockade (embargo) of Cuba since 2004 when it fined the Union Bank of Switzerland with $100 million.”

The Granma published a front page story on the matter titled, “The blockade remains the same, fines of millions to ANZ bank.”

Potential for increased U.S. – Cuba storm cooperation

As hurricane season gets underway, the New York Times reported on how Cuba and the U.S. can and should work together on storm preparedness and response.  Hurricane-related activity has long been one of the few areas of cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba.

Wayne Smith, a former American diplomat in Havana who is now a fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy, has brought dozens of American officials to Cuba in recent years to look at Cuban disaster preparedness and response.

However, cooperation has not always been easy. During a 2007 summit in Mexico to discuss hurricane cooperation, an American government meteorologist was contacted by the State Department and told he could not attend the event.

“The State Department called me at the airport and said, “You’re not allowed to go to the meeting,'” Lixion Avila, a Cuban-born hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, told the Times. “I told them that we meet Cuban meteorologists regularly.”

According to Ivor van Heerden, a hurricane expert at Louisiana State University, an opening towards Cuba could boost oceanographic and weather data collection.  Mr. van Heerden also believes the US could learn from Cuba’s evacuation plans, post-disaster medical support, and citizen disaster education programs.

“No matter how much our government may decry the Cuban regime, it is a fact that they are very successful in orchestrating evacuations and meeting the public health and medical needs of their population during disasters,” As cited by the New York Times, Mr. van Heerden wrote about hurricane preparedness in the report “9 Ways For US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US” published by the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

Fewer Cubans coming to the U.S. illegally

Fewer Cubans are attempting to cross the Florida Straits, with 2009 seeing the lowest migration numbers from Cuba in a decade, the Associated Press reported.

To explain the decline, experts offered various analyses saying a struggling U.S. economy, stepped up enforcement of smugglers, and eased restrictions on family travel and remittances to the island could all be factors.

With unemployment in Miami running high, there is less incentive for would-be migrants to risk the journey and less money for Miami Cubans to use to pay smugglers. Federal smuggling prosecutions in Miami have quadrupled in the last few years, with 35 prosecutions in 2006 up to 125 in 2008.

Immigration officials have also made the process of petitioning a family member to immigrate legally a little faster. Leydi Tasse, who came from Cuba legally last year, told the AP she believes this has resulted in less illegal attempts to make it to the U.S.

“I think they’re looking for more secure options,” she said.

Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said “there’s a wait and see attitude” as to how Cuban President Raul Castro is going to handle the country’s economic crisis, which could also be a factor.


Juanes moves ahead with concert plans despite death threats

The Juanes “Paz Sin Fronteras” concert continues to roil Miami.  The concert, scheduled for September 20th in Revolutionary Square, will feature Juanes as well as Olga Tañon, Miguel Bosé, and two Cuban acts, Silvio Rodriguez and Los Van Van.  Tensions are high in Miami, where vociferous exiles have charged Juanes with supporting the Cuban government and he has received threats on his life.

Juanes denies any intended political significance of the concert, saying in an interview with the Miami Herald that he wants to bring the people together, regardless of ideology.

“This is not about politics. Nobody called us, nobody invited us to Havana. I am not a communist. I am not aligned with the government. I’m not going to Cuba to play for the Cuban regime. Our only message is one of peace, of humanitarianism, of tolerance, a message of interacting with the people,” he said.

At one point Juanes considered canceling the concert because he received threatening messages on his Twitter account. In an Aug. 15 police report, he reported that someone sent him a message on Twitter, which said, among other things, “I hate what you are saying but you will die for defending your right to say it.”

Spanish singer Julio Iglesias said he supports the effort and understands that Juanes’ intention is “to sing in Cuba and nothing more,” EFE reported.

Some of the artists who were originally going to join him in Cuba have dropped out. He and his manager have been seeking sponsors but so far have not found any, and say they will cover the approximately $300,000 cost themselves, the Miami Herald reported.

“I don’t need to do this,” Juanes says. “I’m doing this because I really believe that music is powerful.”

Please join us in supporting Juanes by signing this petition applauding his initiative.

Top Chinese legislator to visit Cuba and the U.S

China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) announced that Wu Bangguo, China’s top legislator, will visit Cuba, the Bahamas, and the United States from the end of August to mid-September, Xinhua News Agency reported.

In Cuba, Wu will be the guest of the president of the National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada.  Wu was invited to the United States by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Allegiant Travel to stop Cuba charter service

Allegiant Air, a small luxury airline company, has abruptly ended its charter service to Cuba according to a report by the Associated Press.  The company claims that it has stopped the profitable flights to Cuba because of a company policy to “keep things simple.”

Allegiant Air CEO Maurice J. Gallagher explained the decision, saying “While our Cuba flying has been and continues to be profitable, these programs are exposing the airline and its people to operational complexity inconsistent with our operating philosophy. Keeping things simple is a key attribute of our business model, and since we are not short of profitable opportunities consistent with operational simplicity, we decided the sensible thing was to remain true to our proven operating philosophy and return our people and aircraft to such efforts.”

It’s unclear what type of “operational complexity” led to the change.

Tampa Officials push for direct flights from Tampa to Cuba

With increasing numbers of people traveling to Cuba, politicians and airport officials in Tampa continue to pressure the Obama administration to add their city to the list of those permitted to handle direct flights to the island, the St. Petersburg Times reported. The list is currently limited to Miami, New York and Los Angeles.

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa argues that it makes more sense for those living in western Florida to fly directly to the island, rather than facing the added expense of going through Miami. “If you are going to lift those travel restrictions for families, then make it easy for those families to follow through and visit their loved ones,” she added.

“It would make a lot of sense to fly to Cuba out of Tampa, not just for Tampa Bay, but for North and Central Florida as well,” said Henry Mendoza, president of Agencia 12 y 23, a travel agency that arranges travel to Cuba.

Louis Miller, director of Tampa International Airport, said they support the idea.  “Charter companies have contacted us and said they would like to do it,” said Miller.


Fidel Castro looking healthy in new video, photos

Fidel Castro has recently appeared in photos with President Rafael Correa of Ecuador and in a 24-minute video chatting with Venezuelan law students.  Though information about Castro’s health is closely guarded, the 83 year-old appears healthier and more animated than in past appearances.

A front-page photograph of Castro meeting with Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa was published last Sunday in the newspaper Juventud Rebelde. Correa was on vacation with his family in Cuba. It was the first photo state media published of Castro since his February 17 meeting with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

A seven-minute video of Castro meeting with students from Venezuela was originally aired last Sunday as well. On Wednesday state media broadcast a longer, 24-minute version. Castro discussed climate change and other global issues with the youth.

Fidel Castro says Obama facing racism in the U.S.

In an unusually conciliatory article, Fidel Castro acknowledges that President Barack Obama is trying to make positive changes in the U.S., but says he is being fought by right-wingers who hate him because of his race, Reuters reported.

In his column in Cuba’s Granma newspaper, Castro writes that Obama inherited many problems from George W. Bush and writes, “I don’t have the slightest doubt that the racist right will do everything possible to wear him down, blocking his program to get him out of the game one way or another, at the least political cost.”

EU Embassy representatives meet with dissident’s family

European Union embassy staff visited the wife of a Cuba dissident who is currently imprisoned on Thursday, the Reuters news agency reported. Representatives from Sweden, Great Britain, Hungary, Poland and Germany went to the home of jailed dissident Darsi Ferrer to meet with his wife, Yusnaimy Jorge Soca, and deliver donated food and clothing.

“This is a gesture of solidarity; it’s not a political act,” said Ingemar Cederberg, deputy chief of the Swedish Embassy, adding that keeping an eye the human rights situation is “part of our job here.”

Like most opposition activists, Ferrer is better known in South Florida and Europe than on the island, the Associated Press reported. He was arrested last month for allegedly possessing black market goods, but his supporters say the crime he is accused of is usually punishable by a fine and not confinement.

The visit marked the first public visit to an opposition figure by the EU since they lifted sanctions on Cuba last summer. Cuban officials reacted harshly to the diplomatic visit.

Cuba cuts international rates to $1 per minute

Cuban officials announced that international calling rates for Cuban residents with land lines will be reduced to $1 a minute, the Associated Press reported. The discount will apply to all international calls through Dec. 15.

Previously, residential calls had cost $2.45 a minute to the U.S. and Canada, $3.45 to Central America and $5.85 to Europe. Etecsa, the main phone company, said it will soon notify cell phone users of new international rates as well. No reason was given for the discount.

Production of Cuban nickel behind schedule

Following the hurricane damage of 2008, Cuba’s plan to produce 70,000 tons of cobalt and nickel this year is behind schedule, the Reuters news agency reported.

Nickel is Cuba’s leading export, with most sales going to Canada, Europe and China.

Jorge Cuevas Ramos, First Secretary of the Holguin Communist Party, congratulated workers for their efforts to make up for lost production, without indicating if they would meet production goals.

“These improvements along with other investments are key to leaving behind lagging output in 2009 and resuming next year the productive levels of this industry of transcendental importance for the Cuban economy,” said Ramos.

Recommended Activism:

Please join us in supporting Juanes by signing this petition applauding his concert for peace in Cuba.

Around the Region:

Outcry in South America over US military base pact, The Guardian

Deal to increase access to Colombia bases angers neighbors and damages Obama’s attempts to mend relations with region

US Prepares Further Sanctions Against Honduras Coup Leaders, Voice of America

The State Department signaled Thursday the Obama administration is ready to take tougher action against the defacto leadership in Honduras because of the political impasse over President Manuel Zelaya’s ouster in June. Officials here say Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to make a formal determination as early as Friday that the ouster of Mr. Zelaya was an extra-legal coup, action that would set in motion deep cuts in U.S. aid, and other steps against the interim government.

Big Penalties Loom for Chevron in Ecuador, Business Week

An environmental contamination lawsuit growing out of Texaco’s oil drilling in Ecuador has become a giant legal and public relations headache for Chevron (CVX), which bought Texaco in 2001. The Ecuadoran judge’s ruling may make U.S. companies rethink the strategy of pushing lawsuits into overseas courts.

Hoffa Applauds Salvadoran President’s Decision to Reopen Soto Murder Case

Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa applauded the announcement by the Salvadoran government that it will reopen the investigation into the assassination of Teamsters Port Division Representative Gilberto Soto nearly five years after his death in Usulutan, El Salvador. The reopening of the case was ordered by President Mauricio Funes who has promised to strengthen the judicial system and crack down on crime in El Salvador.

Corre sangre en Cabañas, MS Central America

Community leaders and young journalists who oppose the mine in Cabaña, El Salvador face increased tensions in the region including death threats and violence. The situation has deteriorated in the past few weeks following the assassination of community leader and activist Marcelo Rivera.
Until next time,

The Cuba Central Team

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