Obama Delivers Half a Loaf; Richardson Delivers a Normalization Plan; Cuba and the U.S. Discuss Delivering the Mail

In April, President Obama announced that he would honor his campaign promise to end restrictions on the right of Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba, visit their families, and provide them with financial support.

His Treasury Department has finally made good on this humanitarian goal and issued new regulations to implement this action nearly five months after the announcement itself.

The new rules also implement a loosening of restrictions on mobile phones and telecommunications, and liberalize the visa policy for agriculture and medical sales.

This decision reversed a series of loathsome restrictions imposed by President Bush during the 2004 presidential campaign that nearly ended family visits to the island in an attempt to starve Cuba’s government of cash and advance the policy of regime change.  Lifting the Bush rules – as Obama pledged during the 2008 campaign – was a rare act of political courage.  Finalizing them, while long overdue, is a welcome step in the right direction.

But consider where we are now.

While the President has united Cuban families, he has left 99.5% of the U.S. population out of the travel picture by only legalizing Cuban-American travel.  It ill-befits our country and our president to distribute the constitutional right to travel on the basis of any citizen’s national origin.  Every American is as entitled as our fellow Cuban-American citizens to visit the island, and to experience what they enjoy when they visit Cuba – the reciprocal act of meeting Cubans, offering our perspective and learning theirs.

Simply put, the Obama policy of “travel for some” is an improvement over where things were left under President Bush, but it ought not be where the Obama administration’s policy begins and ends – we need travel for all, the unrestricted right for every American to travel to Cuba.  And after that we need full commercial and diplomatic relations as well.

Cuba policy, as we have said before, has been frozen in the amber of its own ineffectiveness for decades.  To us, it is unthinkable that President Barack Obama, whose election wrote an important new chapter in U.S. history, would willingly continue a policy left-over from the Cold War that has failed and will never work.

We believe instead that he has – and will take – an historic opportunity to turn the page and move the U.S.-Cuba relationship in an entirely new direction.  We applaud the steps taken this week, but hope and expect much, much more.

In this week’s news summary, we cover the new rules in detail.  We also report on Governor Bill Richardson’s proposals for sending the U.S.-Cuba relationship down a speedier path toward normalization.  We also carry reports about new negotiations with Cuba on restoring the direct delivery of mail, and on Amnesty International’s call for the complete elimination of the embargo itself.

All of this and more – because when it comes to the news, we deliver!


U.S. POLICY

Changes to Cuba Relations

Changes on family travel, remittances and telecommunications first announced by President Obama in April were finally put in place. The Treasury Department issued their interpretation of the President’s executive order, outlining the new regulations.

Travel and Remittances

The Treasury Department formally lifted nearly all U.S. restrictions on family travel to Cuba

  • Travelers may visit “close relatives” (including, for example, aunts, uncles, cousins, and second cousins) who are nationals of Cuba.
  • There is no limit on the duration of a visit to these “close relatives.”
  • There is no limit on the frequency of visits to these “close relatives.”
  • When in Cuba they are limited to spend the same “maximum per diem rate” as all other travelers to Cuba, which is currently $179 for Havana.

It also removed restrictions on sending remittances to relatives on the island.

  • U.S. citizens and residents may send remittances to “close relatives” who are nationals of Cuba.
  • There is no limit on the amount of such a remittance.
  • There is no limit on the frequency with which persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States may send such remittances.
  • Authorized family travelers may carry up to $3,000 of such remittances to Cuba.
  • Can’t send remittances to a “prohibited official of the Government of Cuba” or a “prohibited member of the Cuban Communist Party,” as defined in the CACR.

“This gets the U.S. government out of the business of regulating the separation of Cuban families,” an anonymous State Department official told the Miami Herald.

“It’s about time!” said Maria Brieva, owner of Machi Community Services, which sends packages to Cuba. “Its hurricane season and people were beginning to get anxious.”

Telecommunications

  • An individual in the United States may contract with and pay a U.S. or third-country telecommunications company to provide cellular telephone service for a phone owned and used by that individual’s friend in Cuba.  Moreover, a U.S. telecommunications services provider may enter into a contract with a particular individual in Cuba to provide telecommunications services to that individual.
  • Telecommunications services providers that are persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction are generally licensed (1) to make payments incident to the provision of telecommunications services between the United States and Cuba and the provision of satellite radio or satellite television services to Cuba and (2) to enter into and perform (including making payments) under roaming services agreements with telecommunications services providers in Cuba.
  • Transactions incident to establishing facilities to provide telecommunications services linking the United States and Cuba, including fiber-optic cable and satellite facilities, are authorized by general license.
  • Two general licenses have been added authorizing, with certain conditions, travel-related transactions incident to authorized telecommunications transactions.

“Part of what you have is removing the U.S. government as an impediment to the kinds of activities people recognize the value of,” a U.S. official told the Miami Herald. “The real question here now is the Cuban government.

“The Cuban government likes to blame the limited access to information on limited bandwidth, and they blame that on the United States. After these regulations, to the extent there is limited flow of information in Cuba, it will be very clear that those limitations are coming from the Cuban government.”

Experts were still unclear of exactly what ramifications the new telecommunications guidelines may have.

Agriculture and medical sales

The department also eased licensing requirements for visitors engaged in agricultural and medical sales, allowing those individuals to travel on a general license. They will be required to submit written reports to OFAC at least 14 days before departure for Cuba and within 14 days of return.

The measure easing the sale of agricultural products was not part of the changes Obama initially announced, but it was pushed by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who said in a statement Thursday that the change “will make it easier for our producers to sell their goods to Cuba, and it makes good economic sense for family farmers in North Dakota and across the country,” the Washington Post reported.

Unfortunately, the general license for visitors engaged in medical sales applies to pharmaceutical and medical companies involved in commercial transactions, but does not apply to humanitarian organizations that donate medicine and medical supplies. They will still be required to seek a specific license from the Treasury and deal with bureaucratic licensing procedures at the Department of Commerce to deliver their goods.

Amnesty International: President Obama should take the lead on lifting embargo against Cuba

A new report by Amnesty International, The US embargo against Cuba: Its impact on economic and social rights, concludes that US sanctions are particularly affecting Cubans’ access to medicines and medical technologies and endangering the health of millions.

“The US embargo against Cuba is immoral and should be lifted,” said Irene Khan. “It’s preventing millions of Cubans from benefiting from vital medicines and medical equipment essential for their health.”

The report found that due to the embargo, “Cuba faces severe restrictions in importing medicines, medical equipment or technologies from the US or from any US company abroad. The sanctions also limit other imports to the island and restrict travel and the transfer of money.”

Amnesty urged President Obama to take the first step toward dismantling the embargo by not renewing sanctions against the island under the Trading with the Enemy Act, as the September 14th deadline for the renewal of sanctions under the Act approaches. The Act is now part of US law and can only be overturned by Congress, but Obama’s decision not to renew it would send a message to Congress and the world about where he stands on the policy.

“This is the perfect opportunity for President Obama to distance himself from the failed policies of the past and to send a strong message to the US Congress on the need to end the embargo,” said Irene Khan, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

The press release and the report can be viewed here.

U.S. and Cuba to begin discussions on resuming direct mail

After decades without direct postal service between the U.S. and Cuba, talks aimed at resuming the service are set for mid-September, the Associated Press reported. The negotiations, set for Sept. 17, will follow the resumption in July of bilateral talks on migration, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

Direct postal service between the United States and Cuba was terminated in 1963 after numerous bombs sent from exiles exploded in Cuban post offices. Since then, mail between the countries goes through third countries and takes weeks or months to arrive, according to the AP.

“The idea of postal service is in keeping with what appears to be an administration policy of moving ahead in a measured way and to try to engage with the government of Cuba,” said Peter DeShazo, a former senior State Department official who is now the Americas program director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Bill Richardson offers a plan to improve relations

During his recent trip to Cuba, New Mexico’s Governor Bill Richardson discussed plans for normalizing relations with the island. Richardson told Mexico’s La Jornada that he spoke with Cuban authorities about ‘reciprocal actions’ that can be taken to improve relations. He also stressed that he was not there as a representative of the Obama administration or the State Department, but that he will make recommendations to the White House.

In his five days on the island, Gov. Richardson did not meet with President Raul Castro or former President Fidel Castro but felt that his trip was “very productive.”

Richardson advocated working on small “humanitarian steps” before delving into the deeper issues like Guantanamo Bay, the embargo and the exchange of political prisoners.   At a press conference on his final day in Havana, he outlined recommendations he had for both governments.

For the United States government:

1. Full implementation of the family travel and remittance changes that Obama called for

2. Expand categories of travel for Americans to Cuba, especially in the areas of sports, culture, business and academics

3. Loosen restrictions on Cuban biotechnology for the U.S. market

4. Allow Cubans to travel to the United States to attend academic, scientific and business conferences

For the Cuban government:

1. End costs and restrictions on Cubans traveling to the U.S.

2. Accept the U.S. proposal to end restrictions on where Cuban diplomats in Washington and U.S. diplomats in Cuba can travel

3. Accept his (Gov. Richardson’s) proposal for a dialogue between Cuban Americans and the Cuban government

Cuba protests US visa denial at the UN

The United States has again denied a visa for Adriana Perez to visit her husband, Gerardo Hernandez, the Associated Press reported.  Mr. Hernandez is one of the so-called “Cuban Five,” a convicted intelligence agent for Cuba. This marks the 10th time that the U.S. has denied Ms. Perez a visa, citing a threat to the national security.

In response, Cuba accused President Obama of following in the footsteps of the Bush administration. Their ambassador to the United Nations, Abelardo Moreno Fernandez, stated in a letter to the Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, “This decision of the United States authorities violates the country’s own law and demonstrates a systematic violation of its international obligations. It is also a systematic and flagrant violation of human rights and an act of torture against Gerardo Hernandez Nordelo – unjustly sentenced to two life sentences plus 15 years in prison – and members of his family.”

According to Amnesty International, “the reasons cited for the denials are based on claims that both women are threats to national security. Yet neither woman has faced charges in connection with such claims, nor has any credible evidence been produced to substantiate the allegation.”

Amnesty International “believes that denying the men visits from their wives is unnecessarily punitive and contrary to standards for humane treatment of prisoners and states’ obligations to protect family life,” the group said earlier this year.

Miami judge awards $27.5 million to mother of a jailed Cuban journalist

A Miami Federal District Court Judge, Alan Gold, has ruled the Cuban communist party and government must pay $27.5 million to the mother of jailed Cuban journalist Omar Rodriguez Saludes, the Guardian reported.

The ruling resulted from a lawsuit filed under the Torture Victim Protection Act and the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows non-U.S. citizens access to courts to challenge violations of international laws or treaties.

Rodriguez was arrested in 2003 and is currently serving a 27-year sentence. He was the director of Nueva Prensa Cubana, an independent news agency in Havana.

Gold ruled: “During his imprisonment, he has been beaten, starved, given poor food, placed in solitary confinement and deprived of medical treatment.” He determined the family deserved compensation for “the intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

The Cuban government did not respond to the ruling.

Cuban Cancer Drug Undergoes Rare U.S. Trial

The Miami Herald reported that a cancer drug developed in Cuba is going through clinical trials in the United States, the first time that has happened since Fidel Castro took power. The drug, nimotuzumab, is meant to cure rare cancer cells like those in glioma, a deadly brain cancer, and is already approved for marketing in 20 other countries.

The Cuban government owns 20% of CIMYM, the company that has the rights to develop nimotuzumab in North America, Europe, Japan and other places. The other 80% of the company is owned by YM Biosciences, based in Canada.

The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control approved the company’s request to test the drug in the U.S.

David G.P. Allan, YM Bioscience’s chief says “we’re in the business of developing drugs. We could care less about the political side.” A researcher at the University of Florida, where one trial is already in progress, calls the drug “exciting, interesting.”

Without a change in the embargo, if the tests prove successful the drug will still not be legal in the U.S.

DIPLOMACY

China grants $600 million to Cuba during visit of top official

Wu Bangguo, the chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), kicked off his two week visit to the Americas in Havana this week, China News reported. During Wu Bangguo’s visit to the island, China gave $600 million in loans and grants to Cuba to further strengthen ties between the two nations, AFP reported.

The series of agreements were signed by Bangguo and Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba’s national assembly. They include a loan worth $260 million for the purchase of 10 grain shipments and a $300 million loan for improvements in Cuba’s telecommunications network. Beijing also donated nine million dollars in official credit and a one million dollar preferential line of credit for investment in projects of Cuba’s choosing.

Bangguo also met with Raúl and Fidel Castro.

Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, was also in Beijing this week to meet with China’s leadership.

Cuba was the first nation in the region to set up diplomatic ties with China in 1960. Since then China has become Cuba’s second largest trading partner, with bilateral trade reaching over $2.2 billion in 2008. This visit follows numerous presidential and trade delegations between the two countries in the past years.

Raúl Castro names new UN Ambassador

Raúl Castro has named Pedro Núñez Mosquero the new Cuban ambassador to the United Nations, AFP reported.  Núñez is an experienced diplomat who was most recently ambassador to Brazil. One of his immediate tasks as ambassador to the UN will be participating in the annual debate on the UN vote condemning the United States’ embargo against Cuba.

According to the Miami Herald‘s blog, Cuban Colada, Cuba’s previous ambassador to the United Nations, Abelardo Moreno Fernández, may have been recalled for strange behavior.

Cuban Colada reports that “Moreno irked General Assembly president Miguel D’Escoto by upstaging him during a visit to the U.N. by deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya on June 30. Upon Zelaya’s arrival and departure, Moreno broke protocol with overly effusive demonstrations of camaraderie.”

Another possible reason for the recall cited on Cuban Colada is “the two occasions in mid-June when Moreno openly approached top U.S. diplomats in the hallways outside the General Assembly, presumably to start a conversation.  In one instance, the U.S. ambassador walked away from Moreno; in the second, U.S. mission staffers blocked Moreno.”

No other sources have confirmed the Herald‘s reports about Moreno.

IN CUBA

Cuban political prisoners support Juanes

A group of Cuban political dissidents, 18 of whom are in Cuban jails and 6 others who are out on medical release, said they support Juanes’ “Paz sin Fronteras” concert.

“We believe this concert … is a great opportunity to advance reconciliation between all Cubans and to leave behind the hatreds that for many years have poisoned our homeland,” they said in a public statement.

They argue that “today more than ever … we must unite, leaving behind the wrongs of the past and failed ideologies.”

You can read the full letter in Spanish here.

Costa Rican travel agency offers packages to see Juanes in Cuba

The Costa Rican travel agency EASA is offering a “Juanes in Cuba” travel package for visitors to attend his September 20th “Peace Without Borders” concert in Havana, the Miami Herald reported.

Although the concert will be free, the package will include flights, hotels, a tour of Havana, and transportation to and from the concert for anywhere from $404 to $524. The concert is expected to draw 600,000 people to the Plaza de la Revolución.

According to the Examiner, “Cuban exiles in Miami are now upset with Costa Ricans”

Healthier-looking Fidel

Over the past two weeks there has been a surge of photos and video showing a heartier Fidel Castro in Cuban media.  Following the former president’s 83rd birthday on August 13th, dozens of released images showed Castro greeting Latin American leaders, Venezuelan students and a US church delegation.

A video of Castro meeting with Venezuelan students was also released. Castro even called Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega and spoke with a group of students. Most recently he met with visiting Chinese legislator Wu Bannguo.

The Reverend Lucius Walker, founder of a New York-based church group that opposes the U.S. embargo of Cuba, said after a July 31 meeting with Fidel in Havana: “He looked good, like he had gained weight, was sharp and articulate.  He showed tremendous signs of recovery from a very serious illness.”

Some Cuba watchers are confused about the intention of his reappearance in state media. “I don’t see the point unless they are thinking he may play a more active or more public role than he has over the past three years,” said Wayne Smith of the Center for International Policy. “Either they are preparing a way to bring him back, or it’s the opposite.”

Vietnam and Russia sign agreement on Cuba’s oil and gas exploration

The state-run Vietnam National Oil and Gas Group, or PetroVietnam, and Russia’s Zarubezhneft Co. have signed a memorandum of understanding on oil and gas exploration in a deepwater area off of Cuba’s shore, NASDAQ reported.

REFORM

Prominent newspaper slams “sickly obsession” with censorship in Cuba

Juventud Rebelde, a Cuban state-run newspaper, lashed out against “unhealthy obsession” and “paranoia” of officials who censor information and turn a blind eye to criticism in the name of protecting the country’s image, EFE reported.

“The unhealthy obsession with protecting the “image” of the country, the ministry, the business, or the territory […] is occasionally paranoia about your own post, your own position, and other trivial things,” wrote columnist José Alejandro Rodríguez.

“Some have come to see the healthy act of criticism […] as an admission of weakness; as giving weapons to the enemy,” Rodríguez wrote. “The truth is that the most dangerous missile that we give to those who want to dismantle a 50-year project is silence, pretense, double standards, and conformity,” he concludes.

In the past three years, under Raúl Castro’s direction, there has been more public debate about sensitive issues.

Granma also calls for an end to the excuses

Cuba’s official newspaper, Granma, also came out and criticized the fact that botched growth is usually blamed on a scarcity of resources, the international crisis, and the U.S. embargo. They reviewed cases such as a building whose builders had received a “business award for excellence” although the building was in very poor shape.

The newspaper called for the realization that “[the Cuban people] can’t continue living with those who make excuses for the shortages and economic downfalls, nor those who make the embargo and the crisis responsible for their own mistakes.”

Vietnam and Russia sign agreement on Cuba’s oil and gas exploration

The state-run Vietnam National Oil and Gas Group, or PetroVietnam, and Russia’s Zarubezhneft Co. have signed a memorandum of understanding on oil and gas exploration in a deepwater area off of Cuba’s shore, NASDAQ reported.

Lunchrooms closing, more cooperative and private food service

Cuba plans to close state-run office lunchrooms and pay employees extra to buy food on their own, Reuters reported based on government sources.

“The order is already out to close the lunchrooms of the ministries in Havana and pay the employees 15 pesos more per day,” a mid-level government administrator said this week, asking that his name not be used.

“If all goes well many more will close in the city and around the country,” he added.

According to Reuters, the plan is in its pilot phase, but if carried out nationally it would “fuel demand for food services provided by private vendors and other state-run food services.” Furthermore, the decision to close lunchrooms comes as the government is contemplating “turning over some retail food services to workers as cooperatives and perhaps increasing licenses issued for private food vendors, frozen in recent years.”

“The daily lunch stipend represents a doubling of Cuba’s average base pay of just over 400 pesos per month and will greatly increase demand on the street for state and family-based food service providers,” said a local economist.

Recommended Reading:

Reverse Course in Cuba, Dan Simpson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

U.S.-Cuban relations from 1959 to 2009 comprise one of those chronicles where at numerous turns in the road there were opportunities to fix the problem. But at each of them, America, the overwhelmingly senior partner in the dance, instead found reasons, sometimes logical ones, to stomp on its partner’s instep.

Collaborating with Cuba, Daniel Whittle, New York Times

Despite deep political divisions between the United States and Cuba, both countries have a strong incentive to collaborate where interests overlap. Hurricanes are an obvious and timely example. Environmental protection is another.

Trademark wars: US goods carry famous Cuba brands, Associated Press

As the U.S. and Cuba consider better ties, such trademark issues would have be settled before any easing of the embargo. The fight between Bacardi and the Cuban government for the Havana Club name already has played out in the U.S. courts and Congress for more than a decade – and is now before Spain’s high court.

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