You’ve Got Mail; You’ve Got Music; (at the UN) You’ve Got Trouble

Dear Friends:

What a week for Cuba news.

Mail: This week, the U.S. and Cuba began face-to-face talks, diplomat to diplomat, on the question of whether the countries can agree to resume direct mail service which was cut off forty-five years ago.  This is precisely the kind of diplomatic engagement that can solve problems, build mutual confidence, and lay the groundwork for a serious and respectful relationship between our two countries.

Music:  On Sunday, Juanes and more than a dozen artists hit the stage in Havana for his much-awaited “Paz Sin Fronteras” (Peace Without Borders) concert, timed to coincide with the United Nation’s International Day of Peace.  Here, you will find out how to follow the concert; we hope and believe that what you’ll hear is not just music, but how a future U.S.-Cuba relationship will sound.

Trouble: In the coming days, President Barack Obama’s policy toward Cuba will be debated – and likely denounced – on the floor of the U.N. General Assembly for continuing our unilateral embargo against the island nation.  It will be the 18th year the U.N. has considered a resolution on the embargo.  President Obama missed a golden opportunity to take a decisive step away from this failed policy when he renewed the Trading with the Enemy Act authority on which the embargo is based.   This week, Cuba issued a report on the economic damage this policy inflicts on the island.  More importantly, the diplomatic damage we do to ourselves was reflected in comments by the Presidents of Brazil and El Salvador, promised to vote against the U.S. when the General Assembly takes up the resolution.

These issues plus – religion and reform in Cuba, fines and migrants in the U.S., and calls saying “travel for all” echo from the Governor of New Mexico to the NBC Evening News.

Aren’t you lucky?  You’ve got mail, you’ve got music, you’ve got trouble, and you’ve got the news summary.

Who could ask for anything more?


U.S. and Cuban officials meet to discuss mail

U.S. and Cuban officials met on Thursday to discuss the possibility of resuming long-suspended direct mail service. The talks are viewed as an effort to build trust and mend long-broken U.S.-Cuba relations, Reuters reported.

The Cuban delegation released a statement indicating that the two sides discussed issues including “transportation of mail, postal security and methods of payment for the service” and that the talks were “broad and useful.”

“We are satisfied with the development of this first meeting, which allowed us to examine issues that make it difficult to normalize the exchange of mail,” the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, who headed the Cuban delegation, said in the statement.

The talks were held in Havana and the U.S. delegation was led by Bisa Williams, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and officials from the U.S. Postal Service. Williams is the highest-level representative of the Obama administration to travel to Cuba, Voice of America reported.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly described the talks as “exploratory,” and said they are part of the administration’s efforts to “improve communication with the Cuban people.”

“These types of things are key for creating confidence and putting in motion positive dynamics between the two governments,” said Kevin Casas-Zamora of the Brookings Institution.

Obama extends trade embargo one more year

President Obama has extended for one more year the Trading with the Enemy Act, which provides statutory authority for the Cuba embargo, the Miami Herald reported.  Obama’s move was largely symbolic; Congress would have to pass legislation to remove it. However, White House approval for continuing the Act shows executive support for the policy.

Groups that favor improved relations between Washington and Havana urged Obama not to sign the act as a signal to the Cuban government that his administration was truly interested in rapprochement and a decisive change in the U.S. government’s failed policy toward the island.

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas, said that although the extension was symbolic, Obama had forfeited a chance to send a message to Havana and the rest of Latin America that he supported removing a foundation for the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

“I am disappointed that President Obama has missed several opportunities to do things that may not get any attention here in the United States, but that would send a signal to the region,” Ms. Stephens said.

Preparing for UN Debate, Cuba Releases Embargo Report

Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, speaking in Havana, called on the Obama administration to eliminate the near-half century old embargo against Cuba, as the Cuban government released a report on the impact of what they call “the blockade,” days before the U.N. takes up Cuba’s resolution denouncing the U.S. policy.

For 17 consecutive years, the U.N. has debated the embargo and voted a succession of resolutions urging the U.S. government to lift it.  Last year, the General Assembly approved the resolution 185 to 3 (with only the U.S., Israel, and Palau in opposition).

The Cuban government said U.S. trade sanctions have cost the island $96 billion in economic damage since they took their current form in February 1962 as part of the Trading with the Enemy Act.

Rodríguez called President Obama “well-intentioned and intelligent” and said that his administration has adopted a “modern, less aggressive” stance toward the island.

But he shrugged off the White House’s April decision to lift restrictions on Cuban-Americans who want to visit or send money to relatives in this country, saying those changes simply undid a tightening of the embargo imposed by President George W. Bush, the Associated Press reported.

“Obama was a president elected on a platform of change. Where are the changes in the blockade against Cuba?” Rodríguez asked. Cuban officials have for decades characterized American trade sanctions as a blockade.

According to a story filed by Inter Press Service, Havana calls the blockade the main hurdle to economic development in Cuba.  “Seven out of 10 Cubans have spent their entire lives under the embargo, which Rodríguez termed “genocidal” because of decades of restrictions on the sale of medicine and food to this country, which were loosened, however, in recent years,” IPS reported.

Lula will call for an end to embargo at UN General Assembly meeting

At next week’s United Nation’s General Assembly meeting, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, will call for an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba, his spokesman Marcelo Baumbach, said on Thursday.

“It is a matter that concerns President Lula in a special way. In his speech before the UN he plans to explicitly mention the necessity of the end of the blockade (embargo), a blockade that the President considers outdated and condemned by public opinion,” said Baumback, Agence France Presse reported.

Lula “already spoke with Obama about the subject, and nothing will impede from him doing it again, whether personally or in a phone conversation,” he added.

Cuba asks Obama for freedom for the ‘Cuban Five’

During a large demonstration in Cuba’s capital, the Cuban government once again urged the release of five Cuban intelligence agents from the United States, Agence France Presse reported.

Ricardo Alarcon, President of the National Assembly, characterized President Obama as a ‘decent person,’ and said Cuba never would have pleaded for their release when there was a “gangster” in the White House, referring to former President George W. Bush.

Last weekend marked the 11th anniversary of the arrests of the five Cuban agents, who have been held in the United States since September 12th, 1998 on espionage-related charges. Alarcon told a crowd of thousands that Obama “doesn’t have anything to do with the disgrace committed…but he has the authority, the capacity to find justice.”

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez made a similar plea on his Sunday program ‘Aló Presidente,’ EFE reported. “Where are you Obama? To be or not to be?” said Chavez.

According to Prensa Latina, marches against their incarceration were also held in Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Bolivia, Sweden, Ukraine, Peru, Equatorial Guinea, Belgium, Lebanon, Spain and the United States.

Governor Richardson supports ‘full travel’

Speaking to students and faculty at the University of New Mexico, Governor Bill Richardson said that he opposes the embargo and supports Congressional legislation to end the travel ban for all Americans, the New Mexico Independent reported.

“Full disclosure-I am for getting rid of the embargo,” Governor Bill Richardson told the audience. “I want some things in return…but I don’t think it’s worked. It’s hampered our two nations.”

He was later asked by a member of the audience if he would support two bills before the U.S. Congress (The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, H.R. 874 and S. 428) that would lift travel restrictions for all Americans.

“Let anybody go to Cuba. If you want to categorize it, we can do that,” he said. “…My view is that people can change foreign policy. … Change has to be supported by the American people. This is why travel is important.”

When asked about urging New Mexico’s Congressional delegation to sign-on to the bills as co-sponsors, Richardson responded: “I’ll speak to them about it, but you all should, too.”

Colorado Company fined for dealings with Cuba

Platte River Associates was fined $14,500 last week in U.S. District Court for “trading with the enemy” after pleading guilty in October to working on a project that involved Cuba, the Denver Post reported.

PRA sells computer software that aids in oil and gas exploration. The charge was a result of PRA’s collaboration with a representative of a Spanish oil company, Repsol, who was using PRA’s assistance on analyzing data pertaining to oil and gas exploration in Cuban waters.

“Trading with the enemy is a serious crime, and in this case, a Colorado company has been rightfully held accountable for committing that crime,” said David Gaouette, U.S. Attorney for Colorado.

Mother of stabbing victim given expedited visa

Anais Cruz, the mother of a 17-year-old Cuban teenager who was fatally stabbed in South Florida, has received permission from the U.S. to leave Cuba and come to Miami for her son’s funeral, CBS reported.

Cruz’s son, Juan Carlos Rivera, was stabbed to death in a fight at Coral Gables Senior High School on Tuesday. Cruz was interviewed at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and granted a visa to travel to the U.S.  The Miami-Dade School Board has offered to pay the mother’s airfare, lodging and funeral expenses.

Cruz was immediately given permission by the Cuban government to travel to Miami, El Nuevo Herald reported.


Juanes Concert

Fifteen artists from six countries have confirmed their participation in the ‘Peace without Borders’ concert that will take place on Sunday, at the Revolution Square in Havana to mark the International Day of Peace one day later, reported.

Among the singers who will take the stage with Juanes are Spaniards Miguel Bose, Luis Eduardo Aute and Victor Manuel, Puerto Ricans Olga Tanon and Danny Rivera, Ecuadorian Juan Fernando Velasco and Italy’s Jovanotti.  Numerous Cuban artists preparing to appear include Amaury Perez, Silvio Rodríguez, Los Van Van, Orishas, Carlos Varela, X Alfonso and Cucu Diamantes & Yerbabuena.

The concert is expected to begin at 2:00 p.m. and last four hours. The stage will be located in the same place where an altar was built for Pope John Paul II’s historic mass in January 1998.

Yahoo! En Espanol has created a special page to follow all the action related to the concert. The website will feature LIVE video coverage of the “Paz Sin Fronteras” concert this Sunday.

Aside from the live stream, the site will feature a live micro blog from Juanes where he will share his experience and thoughts on the concert, Flickr photos from the event, comment area, links to blogs covering the event and a survey with a variety of concert related questions.

In a commentary published posted by Reuters, titled “It’s Time to Change Hate for Love,” Juanes repeated his message that the concert was above politics:

A performance in Cuba’s Plaza de la Revolucion on World Peace Day is precisely the opposite of what some think. Being there to send a message of change and hope has nothing to do with politics or with supporting a political party. It’s exclusively about people, with all of us as different nations coming together as brothers with the sole objective of planting a seed of change; a seed that can grow, but only if we all tend to it.

Earlier, BBC and other news agencies reported protests among the exile community in Miami, where Juanes lives, in which he was called a “traitor” and copies of his hit songs were destroyed.  However, on the island, many of Cuba’s best known political dissidents called the concert “a great opportunity to advance reconciliation between all Cubans and to leave behind the hatreds that for many years has poisoned our homeland.”

Sunday, the music will speak for itself.

Cuban revolutionary leader laid to rest

Juan Almeida Bosque, one of three surviving rebel leaders with the honorary title “Commander of the Revolution,” has died of a heart attack at 82. Almeida was also one of several Cuban vice presidents.

A military motorcade carried his remains through the streets of the eastern city of Santiago on Tuesday, while thousands of mourners lined the route, some clutching flowers and wiping away tears, BBC reported.

Bosque, who fought alongside Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro and Che Guevara, was the only black commander in the Cuban leadership. After the triumph of the Revolution, he became a general in the armed forces, a member of the politburo of the Communist Party and the third-ranking member in the Council of State.

El Nuevo Herald reported that Bosque’s son, Juan Almeida García, who has publicly called on the government to let him leave the island, was restricted from attending the funeral.

Cuba to allow religion in state prisons

Raúl Castro’s government has given the green light for inmates to request religious services in Cuba’s prisons, the Associated Press reported.

Individual meetings between religious officials and inmates are common, but ceremonies have not been allowed. This past Christmas and Easter religious services were allowed in jails for the first time in 50 years.

Authorities from the religious affairs wing of the Cuban Communist Party agreed to authorize organized worship behind bars after a meeting with prison officials and the Cuban Council of Churches last week, said Jose Aurelio Paz, a council spokesman who attended the gathering.

Miguel Hernandez of the Cuban Council of Churches said that this expansion of religious freedom is an important step in the rapprochement between churches and the Communist government, which is officially atheist.

Cuba to allow new licenses for private taxis

The Associated Press reported on regulations accompanying a new decree allowing more citizens to apply and be approved for licenses to drive private taxis. Under the new law, the state will charge a monthly fee and maintain price ceilings.

The private taxis will only be allowed to drive Cubans, not foreigners, and must pay a fee of about $21.50 a month.   Those applying for licenses say that they expect to earn about $10 a month after paying the fee, taxes and maintenance costs. In contrast, a separate fleet of modern cabs caters to tourists and they charge up to $30 for a single trip through Havana.

Many applicants for a license will use taxi driving to supplement another job or a monthly pension.

A ban on private taxis was imposed in 1999, but was lifted this past January.  By May, authorities were so inundated with requests for licenses that they quickly suspended the program until now. The resumption of the program is in response to transportation problems on the island, with Cuban citizens waiting hours for a bus ride and hitchhiking to work.

Ecuador’s President travels to Cuba for surgery

Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, will travel to Cuba this week for knee surgery, Prensa Latina reported. Correa said he would fly to Havana on an airplane loaned by Venezuela at no cost to the Ecuadorian government.  While in Havana, President Correa will receive an operation on the meniscus of his right knee.

Russia’s top military commander visits Cuba

The chief of the Russian Army General Staff has visited Cuba at the invitation of leaders in the Cuban military, Prensa Latina reported.  General Nikolai Makarov’s agenda included visits to a number of military sites with his Cuban counterparts.

Some Russian military sources have recently indicated that a decision may be made for Russia to resume operations at the Lourdes facility and use airbases in Cuba for refueling of aircrafts, RIA Novosti reported. The Lourdes facility, which was maintained by Russia for forty years to monitor U.S. communications, was shut down in 2001.


14 undocumented Cuban immigrants rescued in Cancun

Mexico’s El Universal reported that 14 Cuban immigrants were rescued from a trafficker by the Mexican army. The migrants were found crammed where they were allegedly held captive and mistreated by the man accused of trafficking them.

The immigrants left a small Cuban island and arrived in Cancun on September 1st after four days at sea in a man-made boat. The men said upon arrival they were ordered to pay upwards of $10,000 per person, and when their family members were not able to pay the fee, they were denied food and physically abused.

Cuban migrants found at Southwest Florida gas station

Six Cuban migrants who appeared to be dehydrated, shoeless and sunburned were found at a Fort Myers, Florida gas station by Border control, Naples News reported. The immigrants requested asylum and were taken to Lee Memorial Hospital by authorities, though all refused treatment.

Federal agents are investigating how the immigrants ended up so far inland, after they gave conflicting stories as to how they arrived in Florida and who helped them get to Fort Myers.

Four suspected smugglers were arrested after being found nearby in a go-fast boat loaded with extra fuel and supplies.

Recommended Viewing:

Is U.S. travel ban to Cuba becoming obsolete? NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams

Cuba presses US to end sanctions, BBC News

Recommended Reading:

Cuba hopes green tourism can keep it in the black, Associated Press

Amid dipping tourism revenues, the government gathered top leaders from its state-run vacation industry and European and Canadian tour operators this week for a conference aimed at boosting a segment of the market that only accounts for 4 percent of all foreign visits, according to deputy Tourism Minister Alexis Trujillo.

Old friends’ Cuba, China strengthen ties, Miami Herald

In a series of deals, China is working to deepen its relationship with Cuba. Trade between the two countries is estimated at more than $2.5 billion.

Cuban Exile’s Plan for a Ferry From Miami to Havana Is Awaiting U.S. Approval, New York Times

Imagine a ferry from Miami to Havana that costs far less than a flight. Cuban-Americans, who can now visit the island without restriction, could eat lechón on deck then deliver a shipping container of food to needy relatives by morning.

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