More than words – talking to Cuba and Congress – about diplomacy and travel

We begin with the telling reminders that Cuba has normal relations with most countries across the globe except us.

In just the last week, the Presidents of Vietnam, Algeria, Cyprus, Mali, and Zambia, the Prime Minister of Lesotho, and the President of the Palestinian Authority all made official visits to Cuba to sign cooperation agreements and to behave, well, diplomatically.

Small wonder that it was big news when it was learned that our acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, when she visited Cuba in September for direct talks on mail, spent a total of six days on the island, and met with Cuban government officials, political dissidents, and others.

It seemed for a brief shining moment that engagement may be working its way back into the diplomatic playbook of the United States of America.  Finally…and not a moment too soon.  For this week, also, Cuba framed the debate that the U.N. General Assembly will soon have on the embargo by inviting the U.S. to end its policy of isolation and talk to Cuba about a host of bilateral priorities.   This was another powerful reminder that it truly is time for the United States to talk to Cuba.

We were also reminded this week that ordinary people have the power to do extraordinary things.

Thanks to the leadership of our allied organizations – including the Latin America Working Group and the Washington Office on Latin America – an amazing group of academics and advocates, church leaders and local officials, Cuban-Americans and concerned Americans of all kinds converged on the U.S. Capitol to talk with their elected representatives about the importance of travel to Cuba.

Sponsors of the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, Representatives Bill Delahunt and Jeff Flake, told the assembled group that our numbers of committed cosponsors for the legislation climbed to 180, with additional layers of support from legislators who have promised to vote for the bill when it is presented on the House floor.

Only 218 votes are need to pass the legislation, so it is nothing short of inspirational that 180 Members of Congress are already so committed to the bill that they have formally cosponsored the measure.

This progress has occurred in no small part because citizens across the country, many of whom read this NewsBlast weekly, have raised their voices on behalf of changing U.S.-Cuba policy, starting with repealing the ban on travel.

As the Obama administration does its part – having face to face negotiations with Cuba, just like the visiting leaders from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East did this week – we can also do ours.  That means, urging Congress to make it possible for all Americans to travel to Cuba, so that the work of bringing these two countries together can be shared by us all.

And now – on to the news.


U.S. and Cuba hold high-level talks

In a sign of improving relations between the United States and Cuba, State Department official Bisa Williams held talks with high-level officials in Havana during her visit in September, the New York Times reported. Williams, who was in Havana for discussions about resuming postal service between the two countries, extended her visit to 6 days for meetings with Cuban officials and political dissidents.

She met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez to discuss issues that included improved cooperation on migration and the fight against drug trafficking.  She  also toured a Cuban agricultural facility and areas affected by hurricanes in the Western province of Pinar del Río. She attended a gathering at the U.S. Interests Section where she met with 15 dissidents, including Marta Beatriz Roque and Oscar Espinosa Chepe.

Ms. Williams, an acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, is the highest-ranking State Department official to visit Cuba since the Bush administration ended twice-a-year migration talks with Havana.  The Obama administration restarted those talks this year, hosting a Cuban delegation in New York this summer.

Experts highlighted the importance of the talks and said they are another step by the Obama administration to engage Cuba.

“Look at the momentum; look at the pace of these steps,” said Julia E. Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s a departure from many, many years of practice.”

“While neither side is saying what was discussed,” said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, “I believe that the president has authorized these talks because he has a plan for bridging the chasm between Cuba and the United States that has existed for 50 years.

“This did not have to happen,” she added. “These talks are taking place because the president decided it’s the right thing to do.”

U.N. Debate on U.S. Embargo framed by Cuba’s foreign minister

The debate in the U.N. General Assembly on our nation’s embargo against Cuba began this week in New York, with Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, telling the world body that his government is ready to normalize relations with the United States.

According to the Associated Press, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said that Cuba had approached the American government with “a set of essential topics” it considers imperative to improving bilateral ties, including reforms to U.S. immigration preferences for Cubans, a return of territory occupied by the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, and an end to U.S. federal funding for anti-Castro government radio and television broadcasts beamed to the island from Florida.

You can see a new interview Rodriguez did with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell here.

US Interests Section meets with Cuban artists and intellectuals

BBC News reported that for the first time in ten years, the U.S. Interests Section held a gathering with Cuban civil society in which dissidents were not invited.  Instead, U.S. officials invited artists, intellectuals and academics, of which 200 attended.

“The majority of the people that attended live in Cuba and are in some way linked to the Government. None of them had attended one of these receptions for over a decade, when relations with the government of George W. Bush became tense,” BBC reported.

Among those invited were the painters Fabelo, Choco and Medivez, and ceramic artist José Fuster and musicians Chucho Valdés and Juan Formel, director of the popular group los Van Van.

An official from the Interests Section confirmed that “the dissidents were not invited” and that for the first time since the Clinton administration, “invitations were only given to artists, intellectuals and academics.”

“I received an invitation and no message to the contrary and I decided to come. I have never been prohibited from attending but they would advise me that the opposition would be coming and I opted to stay home, I don’t like being used for propaganda” said José Fuster.

When the members of the Interest Section were asked whether Cuban officials might be invited to future events, they said, “You can’t run before you learn to walk.”

Exiles support the Juanes concert

A new poll, based on 400 interviews with Cubans living in Florida, New Jersey and New York showed that an initial approval rating of 27% before the concert nearly doubled to 53% after the concert, the Miami Herald reported.

The poll also found that 50-80 year olds were the age bracket most likely to have watched the concert. The pollster said that, “They were not interested in rock; they were interested in the politics.  Despite their resentments, most of them concluded the concert uplifted the Cuban people.” Half of those polled also said they would like to see more cultural exchanges between the United States and Cuba.


Judge blocks disclosures in Cuban Five Spy Case

As we published our NewsBlast today, word came from Miami that a federal judge has “halted a U.S. search for national security damage assessments that could assist three convicted Cuban spies in getting more lenient sentences.”

The U.S. government has been resisting disclosure of classified documents in the case of five Cuban agents convicted of espionage related charges, the Associated Press reported.

A judge had ordered the government to release information contained in confidential documents in order to do an assessment of possible national security damage done by the defendants in the case. If there is no evidence of national security damage, three of the five Cuban men who were convicted in 2001 could receive reduced prison sentences.

In today’s decision, U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard without comment issued a stay sought by federal prosecutors, who want more time to appeal the original order they say was far too broad and improperly required disclosure of top secret government information, the Associated Press reported.

“The government has made a diligent and thorough search for the material the defense requested, and this search has yielded no formal damage assessments,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Caroline Heck Miller in a court filing.

For years, the Cuban government has made release of the men, called on the island “The Five Heroes,” a top priority and have long demanded that the men be freed and return to Cuba.

October New York Philharmonic Trip to Cuba Is Off

According to The New York Times, the New York Philharmonic called off a trip to Cuba to play concerts at the end of October because the U.S.  Treasury Department denied permission to a group of donors to travel with them. The players and staff members were granted permits, but without the donors the trip could not be funded. Spokesman Eric Latzky says that the group plans on contesting the judgment and another date may be set in the future.

The White House, the State Department, the Treasury Department, Senator Charles E. Schumer and Representatives Charles B. Rangel and Steve Israel all supported the trip.


Constituents educate their Representatives on Travel to Cuba

More than 70 people from across the country visited the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to meet with their Members of Congress and discuss the importance of the freedom to travel to Cuba, Agence France-Presse reported.

Congressman Bill Delahunt (D-MA) and other Representatives who support the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, legislation to repeal the travel ban, announced that 180 Members of the House have now cosponsored the legislation, which needs 218 votes to pass.

Congressman Bill Delahunt, lead sponsor of the legislation told the group “now is the moment to end a policy that has been an abysmal failure.”

“In my career, I have never seen a single piece of legislation with this many co-sponsorships before going to a vote,” said Congressman Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who introduced the legislation with Mr. Delahunt.

Among those advocating for a new policy on travel were John Block, Secretary of Agriculture under the Reagan Administration, and Wayne Smith, former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana (1979-1982), EFE reported.

“We travel and do business with China and Vietnam. We aren’t hypocrites with Cuba? We should open up trade with Cuba, because with the embargo we keep giving excuses to the regime in Havana,” said Block, a supporter of the travel bill.

For his part, Smith said that things haven’t moved fast enough. “We need to begin a dialogue, and lift travel restrictions,” he said.

U.S. missing out on tourism in Cuba

USA Today has published two articles about tourism in Cuba and American’s inability to visit.  An article titled, “Cuba: Close, but no cigar for U.S. tourists,” stated “Cuba and its tourism industry are ramping up with hip hotels, Chinese-made tour buses and restaurants serving trendy international dishes, partly in anticipation of an influx of Americans and their greenbacks.”

According to Cuban officials, only 41,000 of last year’s 2.3 million visitors were from the U.S., a number that includes legal travel by Cuban Americans as well as Americans who made trips to the island in defiance of the travel ban.

Officials in the tourist industry say many Americans are eager to visit the island.  “If Americans don’t like the policies of the government of a country, they (can) choose not to go. But a lot of people want to see Cuba because they’ve been denied the right,” said United States Tour Operators Association president Bob Whitley.

One part of the island that would greatly benefit from an influx of U.S. tourism is the beach resort Varadero, reported the USA Today in an article titled, “Future looks bright for Cuba’s Varadero Beach.”

“There’s overwhelming interest,” in Varadero, says Scott Berman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, a top U.S. Cuba hotel analyst. “It’s a question of readiness” to handle what Cuban officials and hotel analysts say could be 1 million to 2 million Americans the first year of a lifted embargo.

Canadians are the No. 1 source of tourists for Varadero, with direct flights from Toronto, Montreal and other Canadian cities. However, the U.S. is much closer and is viewed by many as a natural partner for tourism.  Varadero has beaches,  golf, an airport, and is a quick flight from Miami.

Developers planning new resorts are “getting ready for the U.S. market,” says Toronto-based hotel consultant Charles Suddaby. “The hotel capacity is not there yet … but I think Cuba can be a powerful force (among American vacationers) in the Caribbean.”

Chinese hotel project in Cuba geared toward American travelers

Reuters reported that China’s state-run Suntine International-Economic Trading Company and Cuba’s Cubanacan hotel group are partnering on a 600-room luxury hotel project called Hemingway Hotel. The hotel will be situated west of Havana in the Hemingway Marina, named after famed U.S. author Ernest Hemingway, where construction is already underway.

Tourism industry sources have said that the project was started with the expectation that U.S. boats will soon be coming to Cuba. They also say that representatives from some major U.S. hotel companies have ‘quietly’ visited the island this year, anticipating the reform of U.S. travel laws.

Suntine and Cubanacan also are joint venture partners in a 700-room luxury hotel in Shanghai’s Pudong business district, managed by Spain’s Sol Melia.


Spain’s Foreign Minister to visit Havana

Spain’s Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos will visit Havana this month, Spain’s La Verdad reported.  Moratinos’s trip will be in preparation for a future visit to the island by Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero, a response to an invitation transmitted last year by Cuba’s President Raúl Castro. No prime minister from Spain has visited Cuba since 1986.
Moratino hopes to reinforce political dialogue with the Cuban government and inform them of Spain’s objectives in its term as president of the European Union in the first half of 2010.

Madrid has been the main supporter of Havana in the European Union. The Spanish government promoted the end of the diplomatic sanctions adopted against the Cuban government in June of 2003.   Spain is also in favor of the elimination of the EU’s Common Position on Cuba, which calls for all member countries to agree on the same policy toward Cuba.

Costa Rica names first ambassador to Cuba since relations ended in 1961

José Maria Penabad López was named Costa Rican ambassador to Cuba this week, Ansa Latina reported. Mr. López is a journalist, writer and diplomat who served as Costa Rica’s  ambassador to Portugal. The naming of an ambassador comes after Costa Rica and Cuba renewed diplomatic relations in March of this year, after a 48-year gap.

Vietnamese President visits Cuba to amplify trade and cooperation

Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet met separately with Raúl and Fidel Castro, as well as other officials during a trip to Cuba this week,VOVnewsreported. Triet and Fidel Castro reportedly discussed global issues such as the financial crisis and climate change and agreed that developing countries should strengthen their solidarity and cooperation in dealing with these issues.

During the visit, Cuba and Vietnam signed an Action Plan for the period of 2009-2010 designed to boost cooperation, Xinhua News reported. The plan aims to boost rice harvest in Cuba and to extend the road infrastructure. It also includes efforts to increase textile production and to create a joint venture in electronics. President Triet also announced his country will donate 3,000 tons of rice, 500 televisions, 500 computers, 8,000 laptop computers, and 600 pairs of shoes to Cuba.

President of Algeria travels to Cuba

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika arrived in Cuba for an official three-day visit, Univision reported. The purpose of the trip was to reinforce bilateral cooperation, and President Bouteflika’s visit follows a three-day visit Raúl Castro made to Algeria in July.

Cuba and Algeria maintain tight political ties and shared points of view regarding many international issues. In 2005, they developed an economic cooperation by signing five agreements in the areas of health, sports, and culture. The two countries signed additional agreements focusing on consolidating bilateral ties and facilitating more human exchange in areas such as science and health, Prensa Latina reported.

Cyprus’s President attends the opening of embassy in Cuba

The President of Cyprus, Dimitris Christofias, was also in Cuba on an official visit this week, Prensa Latina reported. Invited by Raúl Castro, the leader of Cyprus arrived in Havana to attend the inauguration of his country’s new embassy in Cuba.

Christofias said the opening of the embassy will contribute to even better relations between the countries.  During this visit,  the two countries signed 8 agreements of cooperation, including accords on economic, industrial and technical cooperation; agriculture; renewable energy, oil and gas; and an agreement between the ministers of culture on increased tourism opportunities, among others, Prensa Latina reported.

The President of Mali visits Cuba

The President of Mali, Amadou Toumani Touré, arrived in Havana Monday on an official visit to Cuba upon invitation by Raúl Castro, the Cuba News Agency reported. Touré planned to use the trip to further strengthen political ties, speak with Raúl Castro, and visit landmarks with historical importance in Cuba. There are over 100 Malians studying medicine in Cuba and 150 Cuban professionals working in Mali in the health field, and teaching arts and sports.

Zambian President visits Cuba

The president of Zambia, Rupiah Bwezani Banda, also arrived to Cuba on Monday, Xinhua reported. Bwezani hailed the good diplomatic relations between the two nations and thanked Cuba for its support for Africa’s struggle for independence. The Zambian president also planned to visit with Cuban soldiers who fought in Africa over the years.

During his three-day stay in Cuba, Bwezani met with Raúl Castro and was awarded the Order of Jose Marti, which is Cuba’s highest honor for foreign leaders. TheZambia Post also reported that Zambia will award Fidel Castro with the Order of the Zambian Eagle.

The President of the Palestinian National Authority visits Cuba

The President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), Mahmud Abás, also met with Raúl Castro during an official visit to Cuba over the weekend, El Confidencial reported. During his three-day visit, Abás declared that bilateral relations with Cuba will develop and strengthen and three new agreements were signed between the PNA and Cuba.

Two agreements were signed relating to Higher Education and Culture, and another for sports training cooperation. Abás arrived in Havana from New York, where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama.

Prime Minister of Lesotho arrives to Cuba on an official visit

The Prime Minister of Lesotho, Bethuel Pakalitha Mosisili, arrived in Havana Wednesday on an official visit, Prensa Latina reported. Mosisili said the visit is to strengthen cooperation with the Island and celebrate the diplomatic relations established between the countries on June 14th, 1979. Historically, the countries have cooperated on issues of health, education, and sports.


Foreign investors unable to repatriate millions from Cuban accounts

Last year, Cuban officials blocked local accounts due to the financial crisis and today foreign suppliers and investors are still unable to access them, Reuters reported. Foreign diplomats and businessmen report that hundreds of millions of dollars are blocked in Cuban accounts.

The international businesses report feeling increasingly frustrated because the Cuban authorities refuse to offer explanations or solutions for the situation, and some are bracing for the possibility of not being able to repatriate year-end dividends paid to their accounts in Cuba. The same businesses are balking at continued sales to Cuba, but since the island is in desperate need for supplies, officials may be reaching out.

Raúl Castro told the National Assembly last month, “Despite our firm desire to honor every obligation, we have been forced to renegotiate debts, payments and other commitments with foreign entities, something quite common these days all over the world. As a rule, we have found understanding and confidence in our partners, to whom we now reaffirm our recognition and the security that we will meet the agreements reached.”


Members of the House of Representatives send open letter to the Honduran Congress

Representatives McGovern, Delahunt, Schakowsky, Farr, Meeks and Becerra sent a letter to the Honduran Congress declaring:

“We believe the coup against President Zelaya was unconstitutional; the absence of a legitimate president, the violations of human rights and the curtailment of civil liberties are unacceptable; and these conditions make the holding of free and fair elections next November in Honduras impossible.

“We understand that you have received visitors from our Congress who represent the minority party, the Republican Party, who have expressed views that differ markedly from those of President Obama’s administration and the Democratic majority party in the U.S. Congress. What unites the persons signing this letter is that we are all members of the majority Democratic Party, we support the Obama Administration’s efforts in Honduras.”

You can see a full copy of the letter here.

Honduras Shuts Down Media Outlets, Then Relents, New York Times

The de facto government backed off Monday from its attempt to shut down protests and limit free speech after congressional leaders warned that they would not support the measure. The revolt by Congress, the first public fracture in the coalition that ousted President Manuel Zelaya three months ago, showed that the de facto president, Roberto Micheletti, faces limits on his power to crack down on dissent.

Latin America to lead world recovery, economist says, Miami Herald

Latin America will see 3 percent growth next year as it helps lead global recovery, said a World Bank economist.


Rebuilding Relations between the U.S. and Cuba, MSNBC

Andrea Mitchell interviews Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez.

Sisyphean Days in Cuba, New York Times. Check out photos of Cuba on the New York Times photojournalism blog.

BlogginHeadsTV, Steve Clemons of The New America Foundation and Ann Louise Bardach, author of the upcoming book “Without Fidel: A death foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington,” discuss the Juanes peace concert, the embargo and other Cuba-related issues.


Cuba Pins Hopes On New Farms Run for Profit, Program Part of ‘New Socialist Model,’ Washington Post Foreign Service

At a major speech honoring the revolution in July, Castro smacked his hand on the podium and announced: “The land is there, and here are the Cubans! Let’s see if we can get to work or not, if we produce or not, if we keep our word. It is not a question of yelling ‘Fatherland or Death!’ or ‘Down with imperialism!’ or ‘The blockade hurts us!’ The land is there waiting for our sweat.”

Russian Lada gets Chinese Rival on Cuban Roads, Reuters

After three decades as the favored car of Cuban nomenklatura, the austere, Russian-built Lada has spotted a Chinese rival in its rear-view mirror.

‘Era of engagement’ includes Cuba, Atlanta Journal Constitution

Anya Landau French of the New America Foundation published an op-ed column on Cuba this week.  In it, she writes about President Barack Obama’s first address to the  United Nations General Assembly. “Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone,” he insisted. “We have sought in word and deed a new era of engagement with the world.” Yet, there remains one obvious exception to this new era of engagement with the world: our continuing embargo of Cuba.

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