President Obama: This year in Oslo and next year in Havana

Dear Friend:

By now almost everyone knows the startling and stirring news that started cascading around the world shortly after 5am; namely, that U.S. President Barack Obama will receive The Nobel Peace Prize for 2009.

Just as quickly this announcement was met with reactions that ranged from surprise to cynicism.  But it was hard for us to feel anything but pride especially after we took the opportunity to read the text explaining the award that was issued this morning by The Norwegian Nobel Committee.

They said they were giving Obama the Peace Prize for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”  They said he has created a “new climate in international politics” in which “dialogue and negotiation are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts,” where “diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.”

Finally, and importantly, for those who are asking “why Obama?  Why now?” Even “what’s he done to deserve this prize?”  The committee answers by saying “For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world’s leading spokesman.”

This award is recognition that President Obama has changed the tone and approach of U.S. diplomacy and an encouragement to him and other leaders to continue pursuing this course.

The United States is facing a variety of foreign policy challenges where these principles will be tested, but it is our hope that the President will continue expressing them as guiding lights for his diplomacy toward Cuba.

This is certainly the direction he has taken so far – loosening unjust restrictions on Cuban-American travel, joining regional allies in lifting Cuba’s suspension from the OAS, and restarting direct U.S.-Cuba diplomacy on matters like migration and resuming postal service.

Now, with this dramatic endorsement by the Nobel Committee of President Obama’s diplomacy, his preference for dialogue and negotiation, and his desire to situate America’s leadership in the context of values shared by the world, he has the opportunity to move further and faster on normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba.

The agenda for doing so is straightforward and clear.

The President should build on the negotiations already underway with Cuba with engagement and cooperation on security issues, civil defense, health research, energy development, and academic exchange as we proposed here.

He should signal to Congress that his initiative to restore the travel rights of Cuban Americans should be joined by the passage of legislation restoring the constitutional rights of travel to Cuba for all Americans.

He should also use the powers of his office to reverse restrictions imposed by President Bush on everything from the sale of U.S. agriculture products to visas for Cuban officials, and he should stop denying licenses to institutions like the New York Philharmonic who are trying to advance our diplomatic objectives through cultural exchange.

Most of all, he should use precisely the tools that won him the Nobel Prize for Peace to reassure the people of Cuba and their government that the days of denying Cuba’s sovereignty and independence are over and that a process leading toward normalization has begun.

This will not be easy or without complications.  But it is the right thing for the President to do, and it would vindicate completely the trust placed in him by the Nobel Committee today.

Before getting to the news, we would like to thank our generous friends who made donations last week! Your contributions are invaluable to us. And if you haven’t done so yet, don’t worry; it’s not too late to make a donation.

Now, this week in Cuba news….


Workplace Cafeterias Closing

Four government ministries began to close their free lunch cafeterias this week as part of a pilot program to test ending subsidies. Workers will instead be given an extra 15 Cuban pesos each work day to be used toward preparing a lunch or purchasing food at private or state restaurants and cafeterias.

According to BBC News, if the trial is successful, then all such workplace canteens could be abolished. President Raúl Castro has said that many subsidies “are ineffective or, even worse, make some feel that they don’t need to work”.

Authorities have also been discussing making changes to the monthly ration card (libreta), which provides each family with a supply of heavily subsidized staples, such as rice, beans, cooking oil and chicken. That system would be adjusted for a more means-based system that would offer subsidized goods to only those in real need of receiving such help, BBC reported.

The end to the free lunch program should save the state $350 million a year. Many say it is also an attempt to cut out a program that was filled with corruption and theft, as a good portion of the food products were stolen by employees.

Agence France-Presse caught up with employees from the ministries that are part of the new program and the owner of a private restaurant who says her business has picked up.

“Now that they don’t have lunch, they have to come here,” said Idalmis Zayas, owner of shop that sells pizza, ice cream and refreshments on Obispo Street, near one of the four ministries.

“At this time two days ago I was dying from boredom, today I haven’t stopped for a second, but I’m not complaining, this measure is good,” a smiling Zayas told AFP.

“We have to wait because it is just starting, but I think it’s good that one can choose what they want to eat,” said Lisset Fraga, an employee of the Finance Ministry, while she waited in line to buy a pork sandwich.

Government pushing for more energy reduction

Raúl Castro’s government is calling on Cubans to further limit the consumption of energy in their homes and workplaces as part of a strategic plan to reduce energy overconsumption on the island, Europa Press reported.

The Minister of Basic Industry, Yadira García Vera, again asked Cubans “to intensify the methods of saving energy that the country has been taking.” She also said that “it’s necessary to be more rigorous and systematic in the controls taken” by the government, which have demonstrated the “lack of preparation of the inspectors at the time of carrying them out,” resulting in “violations” like “not abiding by the usage plans.”

Meanwhile, IPS reported that through the energy savings plan, Cuba has been able to reduce the excess of petroleum consumption from 40,000 to 19,000 tons.

Cuba cutting back on cigar production

Cuba will cut back by more than 30 percent the amount of land devoted to growing tobacco as the “global recession and worldwide spread of smoking bans bite into sales of the country’s prized cigars,” the Reuters news agency reported.

Demand for Cuban cigars is reported down by 15 percent in 2009 after falling 3 percent in 2008.

A report by Cuba’s National Statistics Office said only 49,000 acres would be used to plant tobacco next year, down from 70,000 acres this year. The report also said the coming crop was expected to be 22,500 tons, down from a planned 26,800 tons, attributing the drop to “financial restrictions that made it impossible to count on the necessary resources.”

Cuban bloggers test government limits

BBC News reports that Cuba’s bloggers continue to test government limits “with posts ranging from vivid accounts of everyday life to sometimes risky calls for political change.”

According to BBC, bloggers are trying to move the debate away from the established official doctrine to exploring social and economic issues. “The emerging Cuban blogosphere has established itself as distinct from both the government and the dissident movement,” said Manuel Vazquez Portal, a Cuba-based journalist and dissident.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported last month that “bloggers, mainly young adults from a variety of professions, have opened a new space for free expression, while offering a fresh glimmer of hope for the rebirth of independent ideas in the country’s closed system,”

However, over the last few months, the blogging community has been more direct in demands for greater civil liberties and in its critique of government policies.

One blogger called for the “resignation of the president of the Council of State and the entire National Assembly, multi-party elections and overhaul of the security forces.” Another described the Communist Party’s Central Committee as an “old machine that can’t be fixed.”

Up until now the government has not clamped down on independent bloggers. According to Dan Erikson, a Cuba expert at the Inter-American Dialogue, despite their harsh words, “independent Cuban blogs are not being used as tools to mobilize people for political action.”

Tribute to Che

The French musician Manu Chao will offer two concerts in Cuba as part of a tribute to Ernesto Che Guevara, Reuters reported.

The first concert will take place today on the steps of the University of Havana, a favorite place of Fidel Castro to give speeches and a common location for musical performances. The second show will be held Monday in the province of Santa Clara, 270 km east of Havana, where the remains of Guevara are kept.

“Manu Chao will pay tribute to the Argentine guerilla Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara with two concerts”, concert organizers said to Europa Press. Manu Chao arrived in Havana on Tuesday with Polish artist Jacek Wozniak, who will work with Cuban painters to create a mural dedicated to Che.

Bolivian President Evo Morales took part in a tribute to Guevara yesterady in Vallegrande, the town in central Bolivia where his body was displayed after he was killed Oct. 8, 1967, the Associated Press reported.

Guevara was captured and killed by CIA-aided Bolivian soldiers 42 years ago while trying to foment revolution in this Andean nation.

Guevara was “invincible in his ideals,” Morales said at the ceremony. “And in all this history, after so many years, he inspires us to continue fighting, changing not only Bolivia, but all of Latin America and, better the world.”

Thomson Cruises headed to Cuba

The British cruise line Thomson Cruises will offer its first-ever calls in Havana, Cuba in the winter of 2010-2011, reported. The cruises will be operated by the new 1,506-passenger, 54,000-tonne Thomson Dream, which will join the fleet in April 2010.

“Havana is an exciting choice because not many cruise lines visit the Cuban city, due to U.S. restrictions on travel there,” says The U.K.-based Fred Olsen has only four cruises calling in Havana in 2010 and the German line Hapag-Lloyd offers just a couple of calls in Cuba, as well.


George Shultz: Travel for All!

As reported by The Washington Note, and our colleague Steve Clemons, George Shultz, who served as Secretary of State for President Reagan has released a letter saying that the U.S. embargo against Cuba should “simply be lifted” and calling repeal of the travel ban for all Americans “a step in the right direction.”

You can read the letter by Shultz here.

On a related note, Governor Bill Richardson, during an address at the NDN today, said “My goal in the next six months is to get rid of the travel ban.”

Members of the Obama Cabinet – If a Reagan Secretary and a Clinton Secretary can say this…?

Fewer Cubans trying to reach the U.S. illegally

Statistics from the U.S. government show that the number of Cubans trying to enter the United States illegally has fallen off sharply, Reuters reported.

In the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, almost 2,200 Cubans were intercepted in the Florida Straits and nearly 3,000 landed on Florida area beaches, U.S. authorities reported. With less than a week left in the current fiscal year, fewer than 1,000 Cubans have been stopped at sea and fewer than 600 have made it to land.

Even immigration through Mexico, the more popular route for Cubans nowadays, was down from 10,030 interdictions in fiscal 2008 to 5,621 this year.

According to U.S. officials and Cuban affairs experts, the lower numbers are the result of the U.S. recession, enhanced enforcement in the Florida Straits, an immigration agreement recently signed by Cuba and Mexico and faster visa processing for legal Cuba migrants and visitors.

U.S. Fugitives in Cuba “have good reason to fear closer ties to Cuba”

USA Today recently interviewed Charles Hill, a member of the Republic of New Afrika, a black separatist group, who has been wanted in the U.S. for 38 years on charges that he was involved in the killing of New Mexico state trooper Robert Rosenbloom during a highway confrontation.  In November 1971, Hill and two other men skyjacked a plane from Albuquerque to Cuba, where he has been living ever since.

“Despite his denial, Hill knows that the movement towards normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba doesn’t bode well for him and dozens of other U.S. fugitives in this Caribbean Island nation. It will ratchet up the pressure for his return to the USA to face murder and skyjacking charges,” writes USA Today’s DeWayne Wickham.

According to Wickham, the FBI and New Mexico prosecutors are surely hoping that the thawing relationship between the Obama administration and the government of Raúl Castro will cause Cuba to ship him back to the US. Hill disagrees: “Cuba is now my home, and the Cuban government won’t turn its back on me after all these years. I have no worries about that.”

The two countries do not have an extradition treaty and fugitives from Cuban justice are also living freely in the United States.

Fallout from the NY Philharmonic cancellation

Senator Dorgan

Senator Byron Dorgan, D-ND, a long-time advocate of lifting trade and travel restraints, gave a speech on the Senate floor Monday.  His topic?  Cuba and the New York Philharmonic.  In his speech, Senator Dorgan said: the U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba that caused the New York Philharmonic to call off its October trip are outrageous and should be ended.

“This is almost unbelievable what we are still doing with respect to travel policy with Cuba,” said Dorgan.

Dorgan, Senate author of The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, said he has written the Treasury Department to “see if we couldn’t get them to think straight just a bit.”

Dorgan said that while waiting for Congress to act on his legislation to end travel restrictions to Cuba, “we are going through this nonsense of having the federal government and the Treasury Department tell us who can and who can’t travel. Restricting the liberty and the freedom of the American people, it’s outrageous, in my judgment.”

See a video of Senator Dorgan’s floor speech here (please fast-forward through the first minute as CSPAN was experiencing audio difficulties).

Alec Baldwin

Actor Alec Baldwin is also puzzled by the policy, writing on the Huffington Post: “So the Philharmonic is free to bring its singular program of cultural exchange to the former North Vietnamese capital, a nation with whom we were at war with as late as 1975, that war having cost over 55,000 U.S. lives. But it is prohibited from doing so in Cuba because…..?

“The New York Philharmonic, one of the premiere classical music institutions in existence, cannot afford to knock on Cuba’s door without financial support from its generous contributors, especially in these difficult economic times…The embargo on Cuban travel should be lifted, at the very least, for cultural projects like the one by the Philharmonic that was just delayed by the U.S. Treasury Department. If a hundred or so patrons accompany them as a means of facilitating the trip, they should be allowed to go, too.”

Cuban Institute of Music

The Cuban Institute of Music blamed the embargo for the NY Philharmonic cancelling their scheduled trip to Cuba and said Cuba’s doors would always be “open,” the Agence France-Presse reported.

“This shows that the US government is the only party responsible for the failure of this major cultural project,” Cuban Institute of Music vice-president Alejandro Guma said on the official Cuban website Cubadebate.

“This is a project, by the way, that was not conceived by Cuba, but by the American institution, and we imagine that at this point, the organization must be disappointed,” added Guma.


U.S. – Cuba travel on the rise despite no change in policy

Despite the fact that the Obama administration has not officially changed any rules regarding nonfamily trips to Cuba, State Department statistics show anecdotal evidence of an increase in travel between the U.S. and Cuba, the Miami Herald reported.

According to the Herald, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control declined repeated requests to release data showing how many Americans were authorized this year to travel to Cuba. The State Department says that the law is not being interpreted as narrowly as it was under the Bush administration, but no policy change has been made.

“Actually, there has not been an official directive, and there certainly has not been a policy change,” Bisa Williams, acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told the Herald. “There’s a flow up here and down there. We’re just saying we are going back to what’s on the books. There is still a full review of every application.”

According to attorney Robert Muse, an expert on the U.S. trade embargo, “while there may be more travel going on now, what Obama has not done is return to general licenses.”

In the meantime, some cultural and education exchange efforts are still being prohibited.  A group of 30 American scientists were refused permission to attend a medical conference in eastern Cuba this month and the NY Philharmonic cancelled its trip when the funders of the initiative were not given licenses to attend.

Similarly, some Cuban academics have received permission to visit the U.S., while others are still facing difficulties.

“It’s too soon to tell whether there’s been a real change,” said Cuban political scientist Rafael Hernández, who got a visa to attend a conference in New York, and is a visiting professor this semester at the University of Texas.

New England Softball players headed to Cuba

Approximately 60 local slow-pitch softball players from the Eastern Massachusetts Senior Softball Association will visit Havana next month to play a series of exhibitions against Cuban opponents, the Boston Globe reported. The American players, ranging in age from 57 to 74, including two women, will face off against Cuban players of roughly equal age and ability.

The softball league applied and received a license to travel to Cuba from the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the US Department of the Treasury. Only 21 applications were approved in 2008 for travel to Cuba for “public performances, athletic and other competitions,” one of several categories under which travel to the island may be allowed, a Treasury spokeswoman told the Globe.

Diva from the Buena Vista Social Club receives visa to visit the U.S.

Omara Portuondo, “the sultry-voiced diva of the Buena Vista Social Club,” has received a visa from the United States for the first time since 2003, the Associated Press reported.

Portuondo received permission from the U.S. government to perform at the San Franciso Jazz Festival, which will take place on October 20th. She will also give a concert on October 23rd at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The singer and dancer has visited the United States dozens of times, but was unable to receive permission to visit under the Bush administration. Portuondo hopes a dose of her sensuous sound can inspire both countries to improve frozen relations, the AP reported.

“Cuban music is the best medicine,” Portuondo said in a recent interview. “It’s good to be able to share culture, which is the soul of a people.”

Around the Region:

Leader Ousted, Honduras Hires U.S. Lobbyists, NY Times

As President Obama imposed increasingly tougher sanctions on Honduras, the lobbying intensified.

Honduran Security Forces Accused of Abuse, NY Times

Since Mr. Zelaya was removed in a June 28 coup, security forces have tried to halt opposition with beatings and mass arrests, human rights groups say. Eleven people have been killed since the coup, according to the Committee for Families of the Disappeared and Detainees in Honduras, or Cofadeh.

U.S. faces different element of risk in Honduras, San Diego Union-Tribune

Members of the U.S. men’s national soccer team have dealt with batteries, heated coins and bags of unidentified amber liquid cascading from the heavens in World Cup qualifying matches. They have peeked out hotel windows at 3 a.m. to see trucks unloading giant stereo speakers and then a guy turning them on. They have trudged through too many false fire alarms to count. They have heard entire stadiums chant, “Osama, Osama.”

But Saturday in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, adds a whole new element.

Líderes de EEUU dicen que un fracaso de la OEA prolongaría crisis hasta 2010, EFE

La legisladora demócrata Janice Schakowsky y líderes de los sectores político y académico advirtieron hoy que un fracaso del diálogo que fomenta la OEA en Honduras sólo prolongaría la crisis y el aislamiento de ese país.

Recommended Viewing:

Surveillance Camera Footage of Honduras Coup Invasion of Channel 36, Narco News

NarcoNews brings us new footage of the Honduran military raiding private media and removing broadcasting equipment. When military and police troops invaded the studios of Channel 36 on September 28, stealing its transmitters, antennas and other equipment, they forgot to remove the surveillance cameras.

Senator Dorgan’s floor speech on the New York Philharmonic’s canceled trip to Cuba

Senator Byron Dorgan, D-ND, a long-time advocate of lifting trade and travel restraints, gave a speech on the Senate floor Monday. In his speech, Senator Dorgan proclaimed: the U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba that caused the New York Philharmonic to call off its October trip are outrageous and should be ended.

A Brief History of What US Presidents Have Sent To Cuba (Political Cartoon by Matt Wuerker)

Recommended Reading:

The essence of diplomatic engagement, Boston Globe

Diplomacy is likely to be a painstaking process and it may not work with every targeted nation. However, the purpose of such a policy is not to transform adversaries into allies, but to seek adjustments in their behavior and ambitions. North Korea, Cuba, Syria, and Iran would be offered a path toward realizing their essential national interests should they conform to global conventions on issues such as terrorism and proliferation.

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