The Miami Herald Said What? Movement on Travel, Momentum on Prisoners

Dear Friends:

Some people oppose engagement with Cuba over principle.  Some people oppose engagement with Cuba over politics.   But the Miami Herald set aside those considerations in an editorial this week to talk about what is really at stake:  vacant hotel rooms in Las Vegas.

We kid you not.

In its editorial, “Is now the right time to open up travel to Cuba?” the Herald to its credit does support lifting travel restrictions for all Americans “to stimulate more people-to-people contacts that bypass the Cuban government’s chokehold on information.”

This approach seems entirely sensible.  We could never understand why the pro-embargo crowd wanted to stop Americans from traveling to the island if they were concerned about improving the access of average Cubans to information.  So, when the Herald says, “yes, more travel to the island makes sense,” we are right there with them.

But then the editorial sends the logic train hurtling off the rails into utterly uncharted territory.

“The question members of Congress should ask now is whether this is the right time to be opening all travel to Cuba – in the midst of a recession where tourist meccas from Miami to Las Vegas are hurting with empty hotel rooms.”

Really?  Now is not a good time to open up Cuba to travel because there are penthouse vacancies at the Bellagio?  Because bookings at the MGM Grand aren’t so….grand?

In fact, if the Miami Herald really thinks we should make this decision on the basis of what’s happening to tourism in America, they could ask the National Tour Association (NTA) what it thinks about travel to Cuba.  Because the NTA believes that Americans should have the opportunity to explore the world unfettered by travel and currency restrictions and be able to experience the rich diversity of Cuban culture and heritage.

Or, they could ask the American Tourism Society, Expedia, the Interactive Travel Services Association, the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association, Orbitz, Sustainable Travel International, the United Motorcoach Association, and the United States Tour Operator Association, who along with NTA, signed a statement recently that said unrestricted travel to Cuba will be a boon for the United States travel economy while increasing the free exchange of information for Cubans and increasing their exposure to Americans and our values.

What these tourism professionals are saying is that the Miami Herald is offering a false choice – we don’t have to choose between our principles and our travel industry profits when it comes to the question of whether we should have the freedom to travel to Cuba.  Allowing all Americans to travel to Cuba is both good for the industry and good for what our country believes in.

We do encourage Members of Congress to listen to travel industry professionals when considering the Freedom to Travel to Cuba legislation.  We also encourage them to listen to farmers.  We encourage them to listen to Cuban-Americans.  And we especially encourage them to listen to their own constituents.  The most recent polling says that 67% of Cuban-Americans – in fact, 67% of all Americans – support ending the ban on legal travel to Cuba.

That’s where we hope the Miami Herald also ends up.  Without reservations.

TRAVEL LEGISLATION

Passage of the Freedom to Travel to Cuba act likely in the House

With the backing of the U.S. travel industry, dozens of newspaper editorials, large agricultural companies, former Secretary of State George Shultz, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and groups that traditionally oppose U.S. sanctions on the island, “bills in Congress to allow all travel to Cuba are increasingly drawing support among U.S. lawmakers and the public  — but they still face an uncertain future,” writes Juan Tamayo in the Nuevo Herald.

Rep. Delahunt, the author of the Freedom to Travel Act, “has a pretty impressive list of sponsors. That bill looks good in the House,” said a former Bush administration Cuba expert. “Delahunt will pass the House,” added an Obama administration official, reported the Herald.

As passage in the House becomes more likely, supporters and opponents agree the bills will face the most difficulty in the Senate, “where the Democrats have a smaller majority and the bills face stiff opposition from Bob Menendez, a powerful Cuban American Democrat from New Jersey and Florida’s Bill Nelson,” also a Democrat.

Miami Herald supports Travel for All

Meanwhile, in an editorial titled “Is now the right time to open up travel to Cuba? As Washington debates tourism to Cuba, consider the timing,” the Miami Herald seemed to say it agrees with ending travel restrictions to Cuba, but doesn’t want it to happen now.

“The Miami Herald has long supported maintaining the trade embargo on Cuba because of its dismal human rights record but lifting travel restrictions to stimulate more people-to-people contacts that bypass the Cuban government’s chokehold on information.

“Even if American tourists stay in gussied-up areas and few get to see the desperate situation that most Cubans are forced to live, these same tourists can leave a mark on Cubans…So, yes, more travel to the island makes sense.”

However, the Herald writes: “The question members of Congress should ask now is whether this is the right time to be opening up all travel to Cuba — in the midst of a recession where tourist meccas from Miami to Las Vegas are hurting with empty hotel rooms.”

Travel may be closer than ever

“Traveling to Cuba may soon become a reality for Americans. Hard as it may be to believe, the possibility is closer than ever,” wrote Albor Ruiz of the NY Daily News.

The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which is supported by 68% of likely American voters, according to a Zogby/Inter-American Dialogue poll, faces recalcitrant anti-Castro politicians and lobbyists, but “a bipartisan coalition could pass the legislation this year,” said Ruiz.

“All of our goals – for U.S.-Cuba policy, for regional diplomacy, for boosting the U.S. economy and for advancing our values and remaking our nation’s image – are best served by replacing our policy of isolation with engagement, starting with travel for all,” said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Cuba allows U.S. diplomats to visit prisoners with dual nationality

Last month, the Cuban government is now allowing U.S. diplomats to visit prisoners of dual U.S. and Cuban nationality, Agence France-Presse reported.

“During the visit of Bisa Williams (Deputy Assistant Secretary), the Cuban government informed us of its decision, that from here on, it will give access to citizens (prisoners) of dual nationality,” said a spokesperson from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

Prior to William’s visit, the United States had access to U.S. citizens incarcerated in Cuba, but not to people with dual nationality. The Miami Herald originally reported that Williams actually met with prisoners, but the State Department said that report was incorrect.

U.S. fugitive returns from Cuba

A Puerto Rican man who spent 41 years living in Cuba after hijacking a 1968 Pan American flight turned himself in to U.S. authorities on Sunday after voluntarily boarding a commercial flight from Cuba to the United States.

Luis Armando Pena Soltren, 66, who is accused of hijacking a flight that left John F. Kennedy International Airport bound for Puerto Rico on November 24, 1968, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to kidnapping and aircraft piracy charges, Reuters reported.

Soltren, a U.S. citizen born in Puerto Rico, had approached U.S. authorities in Cuba over the past several years wanting to return to the United States, apparently because he wanted to be reunited with his wife.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said on Monday that the Cuban government had authorized Soltren’s departure.   His defense lawyer, James Neuman, said he was not aware of any high-level negotiations between the United States and Cuba over his client’s return.

One of Cuban Five has his sentence reduced

A federal judge in Miami reduced the sentence of one of five Cubans convicted in 2001 of spying, the NY Times reported.  The sentences of three of the five agents were thrown out last year by an appeals court, which found the punishments excessive because the government had never proved that they had traded in “top secret” intelligence.

The men are considered political prisoners and heroes in Cuba because they were investigating anti-Cuba terrorists who were planning attacks on Cuba. There was a series of hotel bombings and other sabotage attempts carried out by exiles in the late nineties.

On Tuesday, Judge Joan A. Lenard, the same judge who handed down the original sentence, replaced the life sentence for one of the men, Antonio Guerrero, “with a sentence of 262 months, or almost 22 years, which means he will be out of prison in about seven years, counting time served since his 1998 arrest and time off for good behavior.”

Prosecutors and Mr. Guerrero’s lawyers had asked for the sentence to be reduced to 240 months, but the judge handed down a stiffer penalty. “It was odd,” said Leonard Weinglass, Mr. Guerrero’s lawyer. “You have a man who was on a military base but who didn’t take a single classified document and no one testified that he injured U.S. national security, but the judge still rejects the prosecutors’ request to lighten the sentence.”

The Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has said the United States should either retry or release the so-called Cuban Five. “Holding a trial for five Cuban intelligence agents in Miami is about as fair as a trial for an Israeli intelligence agent in Tehran,” said Robert A. Pastor, who was President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser for Latin America.

New Orleans Mayor in Cuba for emergency preparedness meetings

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and a delegation of city and state officials are in Cuba today on a delegation to exchange ideas with the island about preparing for hurricanes, the Times-Picayune reported. According to a Press release by the mayor’s office, Nagin will become the first mayor in 50 years to make an official visit to Cuba. He is scheduled to return October 22nd.

Accompanying Nagin are state Rep. Karen Carter Peterson,  City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell,  Chief Administrative Officer Brenda Hatfield,  Police Superintendent Warren Riley,  Fire Department Superintendent Charles Parent,  EMS Director Jullette Saussy,  Director of Emergency Preapredness Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed,  New Orleans Louis Armstrong International Airport Chairman Dan Packard,  Regional Transit Authority Chairman Cesar Burgos,  “and others, ” according to the release

Cuba blames U.S. embargo for blocking IBM sponsorship of computer contest

Cuba says that the U.S. embargo prevented IBM from sponsoring one of the regional stages of the International Programming Collegiate Competition that is to be held in Havana on October 22-24, Agence France-Press reported.

IBM has been the primary funder of the contest since 1997. The contest is carried out by the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), which is the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society.

“From our point of view IBM wants to help, but the U.S. administration blocked them due to the embargo,” said Dovier Ripoll, the Cuban director of the contest.

Fidel Castro says Nobel Prize for Obama is positive measure

Fidel Castro praised the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s selection of President Barack Obama for the Nobel Peace Prize, calling it a “positive step,” the Associated Press reported. In one of Castro’s reflections published in state media, he wrote that the prize is more of a repudiation of the policies of Obama’s predecessors than a celebration of concrete achievements.

“Many believe that he still has not earned the right to receive such a distinction,” Castro wrote. “But we would like to see, more than a prize for the U.S. president, a criticism of the genocidal policies that have been followed by more than a few presidents of that country.”

According to AP, “Castro, long a staunch enemy of Washington, has made a regular habit of praising Obama.”

IN CUBA

New penalties for unlicensed home improvements

The Associated Press reported that a new decree has made it possible for authorities to undo unauthorized home improvements, even going as far as removing extra additions or tearing down balconies. Some punishments are already enforced around the country, but the law aims to clarify the regulations and express that offenders should not be evicted from their homes.

In order to deter bribe-taking from construction officials, the new law requires that they report illegal construction immediately.   It also closes a loophole that allowed Cubans to pay a fine and then finish their projects illegally without consequence.  State building contractors said that many more remodeling projects are being approved and Jardines Lugo, a housing ministry legal adviser, said the law will encourage citizens to go though the legal channels for renovations.

“The objective is to organize and unify measures and halt certain indiscretions,” said Lugo.

Cuba reports first 3 swine flu deaths

Cuba reported its first deaths from swine flu, saying three pregnant women have died from the virus and many more have been treated for symptoms, the Associated Press reported. Deputy Health Minister Jose Angel Portal said a total of 2,100 pregnant women have been treated for symptoms of the disease, 110 of whom were seriously ill, and three passed away. The government said it will use everything at its disposal to prevent swine flu from spreading.

Spanish Foreign Minister to visit Cuba

Spain’s Foreign Minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, will soon visit Cuba, Agence France-Presse reported.  During his stay, he will meet with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, take part in a private ceremony for national hero Jose Marti, and attend the inauguration of the Technical Office of Cooperation of Spain.

Moratinos will not meet with dissidents during his trip. The Spanish Foreign Ministry says the absence of talks with dissidents is due to the “institutional” nature of next week’s visit, EFE reported.  However, he will investigate the status of Cuba’s 210 political prisoners and continue discussing the state of human rights on the island, Foreign Ministry sources said.

Yoani Sanchez wins award, not allowed to travel

Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez was not given permission by the Cuban government to travel to New York to receive a top journalism prize, BBC News reported.

The 34 year-old Sánchez won the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, given by Columbia University to journalists who have furthered inter-American understanding, for Generación Y, a blog critical of Cuba’s government.

“The immigration office just informed me that the ban remains on my leaving the country,” Ms Sánchez told her followers on the social networking website Twitter.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Sanchez accepted the award via satellite video. “At half past 9, the room went silent and Sánchez appeared on the black screen behind the other three awardees and their gold medals.  Sitting in broad daylight, in a park in Old Havana, Sánchez accepted her award as encouragement from the international community for the work that she and other independent Cuban bloggers are doing.”

More Cubans using Facebook

More and more Cubans are “getting a glimpse of the larger world through Facebook, the Internet social network that is allowing contact with the Cuban diaspora in ways previously unthinkable from the communist-run island,” Reuters reported.

With over a million Cubans living abroad and international phone calls too costly for most Cubans, “Facebook provides a new way for the divided Cuban world to come together.” Facebook does not disclose how many people in Cuba have subscribed to the service, but Reuters reports that the number is on the rise.

“It is a way of staying in touch with the rest of the world. You check the pages of your friends living abroad and you see how they live, where they go, who they hang out with. It’s like being there,” said Susana, a 24-year-old pharmacist.

Cuba to expand and modernize major ports

Cuba is expanding and modernizing its three largest ports with financial support from Russia and China, to accommodate larger ships headed for the Panama Canal, the Nuevo Herald reported.  The modernization of the ports of Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and Cienfuegos, which handle roughly 80 percent of all imports, was announced on Sunday.

Miguel González, the director of the Port Service Company of Havana, suggested that ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, will also contribute funds to the project.  González hopes that this modernization campaign will help augment the capacity of the ports. Brazil is also helping to finance the modernization of the port of Mariel, located 50 kilometers from Havana. Brazil has already provided $110 million towards the construction of new infrastructure.

Increase in tourist visits to Cuba

The number of tourists visiting Cuba grew by 3.3% between January and September 2009, but state earnings from tourism were less than the same period last year, the Associated Press reported.

Cuba received a total of 2.3 million visitors in 2008, an increase of 9.3% from 2007. The majority of tourists came from Canada, England, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Mexico and Argentina.

Miami firm says it will lay first US-Cuba fiber

TeleCuba Communications Inc., a small Miami-based company, announced that it has received permission from the U.S. government to lay the first communications fiber from the U.S. to Cuba, FierceTelecom reported.

If all goes as planned, the company says the cable will be operating by the middle of 2011 and its $18 million cost will be covered by private investors.  The line could drastically cut calling fees as well as improve access to the Internet for Cubans. The company said it did not have the approval of the Cuban government to begin construction yet.

New regulations issued by President Obama in April would allow service providers to build out optical cable and satellite facilities that would link the U.S. and Cuba, allow roaming service agreements with Cuban wireless operators, and facilitate other telecommunications projects with the island.

Venezuela, Cuba to start laying fiber optic cable

Venezuela and Cuba were set to begin construction this week of a 1,013 mile fiber optic cable line to Cuba that will also connect Jamaica, Haiti and other Caribbean nations, Agence France-Presse reported. The $63.4 million project will enhance Cuba’s ability to connect to the Internet, and is seen as a vital element of relations between the two countries, said Venezuelan Science and Technology Minister Jesse Chacon. It is expected to take about two years to complete.

Cuba has long claimed that not having access to US Internet firms’ services has kept Internet access slow and expensive, forcing the island to connect via satellite rather than fiber optic cable.

Recommended Reading:

Cuban-American generational shift brings new attitudes toward Cuba, St. Petersburg Times

Besides fellow artists and some local politicians, Miami-based Cuban rock star Juanes met with a largely unknown group of young Cuban-Americans called Roots of Hope. Made up of young professionals of Cuban extraction, the group’s mission is to foster greater understanding through contact with the communist nation.

Dozens of American Fugitives on the Lam in Cuba, ABC News

There are believed to be dozens of other Americans living in Cuba beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement. Most of them have been holed in Cuba for decades, with many living casually in plain sight. Others, however, are taking no chances and living deep underground.

Reflections of Fidel: A Nobel Prize for Evo, Granma

IF Obama was awarded the Prize for winning the elections in a racist society despite being African-American, then Evo deserves it for winning in his country despite being an indigenous man, and moreover for keeping his promises.

Around the Region:

Ecuadorian community leaders murderer

CDA is saddened by the news that two Ecuadorian community leaders near the Colombian border were murdered last week. Executive Director Sarah Stephens had the opportunity to meet one of the leaders, Miguel Lapo, last November on a trip to the border region with Rep. Jim McGovern. Mr. Lapo was an advocate for peace and loved and respected in his community.

A statement by U.S. Representative McGovern (D-MA) can be read here.

No Honduras deal yet on Zelaya return after coup, Reuters

A tentative plan to end Honduras’ political crisis has not yet been agreed to by ousted President Manuel Zelaya and the country’s de facto leader but a negotiator for the leftist toppled in a coup said on Thursday a deal looked closer.

Honduras: Stop Blocking Human Rights Inquiries, Human Rights Watch

The international community should strongly back the efforts of prosecutors in the human rights unit of the Honduras Attorney General’s office to investigate army and police abuses in Honduras and to overturn a decree by the de facto government that severely restricts freedoms of speech and assembly, Human Rights Watch said today.

World Cup Helps to Explain Latin America: Honduras Results Muddle Negotiations; Argentina’s Win Provokes Maradona’s Reaction, America’s Quarterl

Honduras’ soccer win in San Salvador on October 14, guaranteeing a World Cup berth for the Catrachos in South Africa in 2010, has potentially muddled negotiations to resolve the political crisis that erupted on June 28.  As I noted in this space last week and also in Sports Illustrated, the prospect of a Honduran berth in the World Cup would provide the de facto government with the opportunity to use the result to rally the population around the flag, potentially providing an excuse to remain intransigent in the face of immense international pressure.

Venezuela’s winning system for saving children through music, Toronto Star

When 6th Grader Mairi Padrón was shot in the leg by a stray bullet after school, she wept. But not because of the wound. She was on her way to her first orchestra rehearsal. “I cried because I couldn’t take part,” she explains. “Getting a chance to play was more important than the pain.”

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