UN vote to condemn (Obama’s?) embargo

Next week, the United Nations General Assembly is expected to vote on a resolution condemning the United States embargo against Cuba.

If past is prologue, it will pass resoundingly.  The General Assembly has adopted similar measures in each of the last seventeen years; in 2008, by a margin of 185-3.   But that was a condemnation of an embargo enforced, energetically and unapologetically, by the administration of George W. Bush.  The vote this year takes place for the first time on President Obama’s watch, and so has special significance.

The Secretary-General has prepared a public report that catalogues what UN members and UN organizations say about the embargo.  That report can be downloaded here.

This document is a powerful reminder that the U.S. embargo is viewed internationally with great seriousness and in ways that are deeply damaging to U.S. interests and our image overseas.

Lest anyone think this policy is only provocative to nations in the non-aligned world, its opponents include Australia, Brazil, China, Colombia, Egypt, the European Union, India, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Russia.

They are plain-spoken in their opposition.  Australia reminds us it votes “consistently” against the embargo.   Brazil says it is the “Cuban people who suffer the most from the blockade.”  China says the embargo “serves no purpose other than to keep tensions high between two neighboring countries and inflict tremendous hardship and suffering on the people of Cuba, especially women and children.”  Egypt and India condemn the extra-territorial reach of our sanctions, which Japan says run “counter to the provisions of international law.”  Mexico calls these measures coercive.  Russia “rejects” the embargo.  Nations across the planet have enacted laws making it illegal for their companies to comply.

Our policy is especially controversial in our own hemisphere, where the U.S. alone is without diplomatic relations with Cuba, and where forum after forum – including the Rio Group, the Ibero-American Summit, the Heads of State of Latin America and the Caribbean, and CARICOM –has rejected the embargo and called for its repeal.

Beyond our diplomatic interests, the report forces us to move beyond the stale, political debate in which the embargo is most often framed (where every problem on the island is blamed on either Cuba’s system or U.S. policy) and to confront the significant injuries this policy inflicts on ordinary Cubans.

It reminds us:

  • The embargo stops Cuba from obtaining diagnostic equipment or replacement parts for equipment used in the detection of breast, colon, and prostate cancer.
  • The embargo stops Cuba from obtaining patented materials that are needed for pediatric cardiac surgery and the diagnosis of pediatric illnesses.
  • The embargo prevents Cuba from purchasing antiretroviral drugs for the treatment of HIV-AIDS from U.S. sources of the medication.
  • The embargo stops Cuba from obtaining needed supplies for the diagnosis of Downs’ Syndrome.
  • Under the embargo, Cuba cannot buy construction materials from the nearby U.S. market to assist in its hurricane recovery.
  • While food sales are legal, regulatory impediments drive up the costs of commodities that Cuba wants to buy from U.S. suppliers, and forces them in many cases to turn to other more expensive and distant sources of nutrition for their people.
  • Because our market is closed to their goods, Cuba cannot sell products like coffee, honey, tobacco, live lobsters and other items that would provide jobs and opportunities for average Cubans.

This list, abbreviated for space, is actually much longer, more vivid and troubling, as the report documents case after case of how our embargo affects daily life in Cuba.  And for what reason?  Because it will someday force the Cuban government to dismantle its system?  As a bargaining chip?  These arguments have proven false and futile over the decades and what the UN has been trying to tell us since 1992 is that they should be abandoned along with a policy that has so outlived its usefulness.

And yet, it is now the Obama administration supporting and enforcing the embargo – still following Bush-era rules that thwart U.S. agriculture sales; still levying stiff penalties for violations of the regulations; still stopping prominent Cubans from visiting the United States; still refusing to use its executive authority to allow American artists, the faith community, academics, and other proponents of engagement and exchange to visit Cuba as representatives of our country and its ideals.

To his credit, President Obama has taken some useful steps to change U.S. policy toward Cuba.  He repealed the cruel Bush administration rules on family travel that divided Cuban families.  He joined efforts by the OAS to lift Cuba’s suspension from that organization.  He has opened a direct channel of negotiations with Cuba’s government on matters that include migration, resuming direct mail service, and relaxing the restrictions that Cuban and U.S. diplomats face in doing their jobs in each of our nation’s capitals.

This is a start, but more – much more – needs to be done.  Not because the UN says so, but because our country needs to embrace the world not as we found it in 1959 – or in 2008 – but as it exists today.  President Obama can do this.  Our times demand that he do so.


The Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger: Travel for All

In the eyes of the The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest newspaper, legislation to lift the ban on travel to Cuba for all Americans “is gaining momentum” and “is long overdue.”

“Limiting travel to the Caribbean island is rooted in Cold War policies that have been overtaken by world events” and now that the Obama administration has made it possible for Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba, “now is the time to make it possible for anyone to make that journey.”

The Star-Ledger argues that despite the fact that Garden State legislators Sen. Robert Menendez and Rep. Albio Sires and other Cuban American lawmakers from Florida are working to prevent a new track in the U.S.-Cuba relationship, “the older generation of Cubans who regard opposition to Castro as a badge of honor and a litmus test for U.S. politicians no longer dominates the dialogue.”

The newspaper, the largest circulation daily in New Jersey, points out that a majority of Cuban Americans and Americans support allowing travel for all to Cuba and concludes: “The best way to help Cuba on its journey to a more open and democratic society is to allow Americans to travel there.”

Cuban Americans want all Americans to be able to travel to Cuba

A new poll of Cuban Americans shows a strong majority, 59%, believe all Americans should be able to travel to Cuba, “a major shift from a 2002 survey that showed only a minority supporting the change,” the Bendixen & Associates polling firm reported Tuesday.  A presentation on the results can be viewed here.

Fernand Amandi, speaking for the Bendixen firm, was surprised by the magnitude of the swing in just seven years — from 46 percent in favor in 2002 to 59 percent in the Sept. 24-26 survey.  Only 29 percent were opposed in the new survey, compared to 47 percent in 2002,” the Miami Herald reported.

According to Amandi, the poll shows that the argument that travel restrictions on Americans cannot be eased because of the political power of Cuban Americans who oppose it is no longer relevant. “This removes the final fig leaf for why the time has not come to change policy — that Cuban Americans were opposed,” he told the Herald.

Rep. William Delahunt, a key sponsor of legislation to end travel restrictions to Cuba, said the new poll shows Cuban Americans support a more open approach to Havana, except for “a dwindling clique locked into a Cold War mentality.”


Prisoners released following Moratinos visit

Following a visit by Spain’s foreign minister, Cuba released a political prisoner, released on bail a Spanish businessman accused of bribery, and gave permission for a former political prisoner and the wife of another political prisoner to leave the country.

Nelson Aguiar, who was one of the 75 dissidents arrested in 2003 and sentenced to 13 years in prison, was freed on Tuesday morning and is back with his family in Havana. Cuba also agreed to release Pedro Hermosilla who was accused of paying off Cuban officials.  He must remain in Cuba for his trial, diplomats said.

Moratinos was also able to get permission for Elsa Morejón Hernández, wife of Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet, who is serving a sentence of 25 years, to travel to Spain to receive medical attention. Omelio Lázaro Angulo Borrero, who was freed from jail for health reasons but hasn’t been able to leave the country although he has a visa to travel to Costa Rica, will also be allowed to leave the country.

Moratinos was under strong criticism by conservative politicians and Cuban exiles in Spain for not planning to meet with dissidents during his visit. Some dissidents in Cuba also were upset that he did not meet with them.

According to Reuters, Spain viewed the decisions by the Cuban government as a vindication of its policy of engagement, instead of confrontation. A Spanish diplomat in Havana said the prisoner release was the product of what Moratinos called the “new political reality” between Spain and Cuba. “It’s our position that this is the result of a policy of dialogue followed by Spain on a basis of respect,” the diplomat, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

Aguiar thanked Spain for its efforts.

“I want to thank Spain for the effort it made for us and for others. I hope it continues doing it and that the Cuban government will be receptive to those requests,” Nelson Aguiar told Efe.

“Love, not politics, can help change Cuba,”

Responding to a recent column by Frank Calzon, head of the Center for a Free Cuba, criticizing President Obama’s attempt to engage nations with which the U.S. is at odds, Rev. Thomas Wenski, Bishop of Orlando, argues that “Love, not politics, can help change Cuba,” in a letter to the Miami Herald.

“In contrast to Calzon’s tired politics of confrontation, Pope John Paul’s words still offer the best coherent vision of how to build an alternate future of hope for Cuba. Love, not politics, can conquer the fear of changing the unsustainable status quo,” wrote Wenski.

Wenski even points out how counter-productive USAID funding for regime change has been in Cuba.

“USAID funding has been enormously helpful in much of the world. It has helped fund the Center for a Free Cuba until recently. But it has done little to nothing to support either democratic practices or social development in Cuba. The Catholic social-development agency Caritas Cuba — the only truly nongovernmental entity active there — has consistently rejected USAID funds as overtly political.

“When Cuba was devastated by fierce hurricanes last year, love moved mountains of relief supplies. Caritas Cuba managed to distribute tons of relief supplies sent from people of the Archdiocese of Miami. The people of my diocese of Orlando contributed $50,000 to Caritas Cuba to support this effort. Such solidarity builds relationships that transcend politics and bears witness to authentic hope.”

U.S. Scientists off to Cuba to Discuss Overfishing, Coral Reefs, Ocean Energy and Ocean Issues

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) announced it will send a team of experts to Havana, Cuba, this weekend to discuss “ways to eliminate overfishing, protect coral reefs, conserve coastal areas, and tap potential ocean energy – a signal that greater environmental cooperation may be on the horizon.”

EDF scientists and policy experts will meet with their Cuban counterparts to explore ways the United States and Cuba can work together to protect ocean waters and marine resources shared by the two countries. According to EDF, the meetings come on the heels of a September visit to the United States by Cuban environmental officials.

“The United States and Cuba share many ecological resources, but the countries have different ways of managing them,” said Daniel Whittle, a senior attorney at EDF and director of its Cuba Program.  “Fishing, coastal development, and offshore oil and gas exploration in Cuba can have impacts in the United States, and vice-versa.  The sooner we work together to manage shared resources and find solutions to common problems, the sooner we’ll see benefits for the people, the environment and the economy in both countries.”

Virginia agriculture delegation to Cuba in November

Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Todd Haymore will lead a delegation of Virginia agribusiness leaders and exporters to Cuba next month for the Havana International Trade Fair November 2-7, 2009. After attending the first trade fair in 2002, Virginia agricultural leaders exported $838,000 worth of agricultural products to Cuba in 2003. That number grew to over $40 million in 2008.

Virginia would like that number to continue growing, but according to Haymore, there are still many obstacles.

“Cuba will remain an important foreign market for Virginia’s agricultural exports but the full potential of this market will not be realized until the current trading relationship is improved by addressing all the trade and travel restrictions that hinder Virginia’s agricultural exports,” He told the AltaVista Journal. “Virginia’s geographic proximity to Cuba, combined with our agricultural quality and diversity and our outstanding port facilities will provide Virginia with a competitive advantage as trade barriers are lowered.”

New Orleans Mayor talks about trade, travel and hurricane response in Cuba

New Orleans would like to benefit from improved U.S.-Cuba relations with increased cooperation and direct charter flights between New Orleans and Havana, the New Orleans mayor said during a trip to Cuba this week. “We see a huge opportunity if President (Barack) Obama continues to go in the direction he’s headed,” Ray Nagin said in an interview with Reuters.

New Orleans expects to hear from the Treasury Department as early as January about whether their request for direct charter flights will be approved. They believe increased traffic would benefit both cities in the short term and prepare New Orleans for the eventual opening up of commercial flights.

Nagin and his delegation spent most of their time discussing hurricane preparedness and response with Cuba. According to Nagin, Cuba does “a much better job than we do on knowing their citizens at a very, very detailed level, block by block.” He said the delegation learned a lot from Cuba’s success in responding to hurricanes, but he also believes Cuba needs to do more planning for “the ultimate catastrophe, where 80 percent of Havana is damaged and they have no communications, no electricity and law enforcement agencies are overwhelmed,” he said.

The delegation also met with the Cuban Chamber of Commerce about opportunities for increased trade, which Nagin is optimistic about, the Associated Press reported.

“They don’t have to go to Vietnam for rice, and China for this and that. They could get it directly from us,” Nagin said. “We grow it all.”


Violent anti-Castro militant freed

Santiago Alvarez, a violent anti-Castro militant and ally of terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, was released Wednesday after nearly four years in federal custody, the Miami Herald reported. Alvarez concluded a prison sentence last year, but was being held over the last year by immigration officials after refusing to testify in Posada Carriles’ case. He was serving time for possessing large amounts of weapons and ammunition.

Alvarez pled guilty in September 2006 to conspiring to possess illegal weapons, acknowledging they intended to use the arms to battle the Cuban government. In late 2007, Alvarez refused to testify in the case regarding Posada’s illegal entry into the US and plead guilty to charges of obstruction of justice. According to Alvarez’s lawyer, Kendall Coffey, ICE has attempted to deport him.

Revenue from US-Cuba phone calls decreases significantly

The US Treasury reported that payments for calls made between the US and Cuba plunged by 22% from the first half of 2008 ($122.5 million) compared to the same period this year ($95 million), the Miami Herald reported.

According to the Herald, the high price of calls to the US from Cuba ($1 per minute) paired with tough economic times could be the reason for the downturn in calls. The end of restrictions on family travel from the US to Cuba may mean Cuban-Americans are visiting Cuba more often and calling less. It’s also possible that callers are using Internet phone services, which tend to be less expensive, but are also difficult to use in Cuba.


Drop in trade shows severity of crisis

Trade between Cuba and four of its top five trading partners has declined sharply this year “in a reflection of the communist-led Caribbean island’s deep economic crisis,” Reuters reported.

The reduction in imports and exports from Cuba with its top partners was between 20 and 50 percent, according to the reports from China, Spain, Canada and the United States. Numbers were not available for Venezuela, the leading trade partner with Cuba.

With China, Cuba’s second largest trading partner, imports from the island fell 48.2 percent to $368 million through August, while Chinese exports to Cuba dropped 12.7 percent to $641.9 million. The United States, which is Cuba’s fifth trading partner despite the fact Cuba can only buy agriculture products and can’t export anything, said sales to Cuba were down 23 percent.

According to Reuters, “Cuba’s government has forecast a decline of $500 million in export revenues this year and slashed imports by 22.5 percent.”

Cuba could sell millions of cases of rum to post-embargo US

If the U.S were to lift the embargo, Cuba would be ready to send 1 million cases of Cuban rum to their northern neighbors, the Associated Press reported. Juan Gonzalez, vice president of Cuba Ron SA, says Cuba has the capacity to produce 6 million cases of rum a year and could export 1 million to the U.S. “in no time” in a post-embargo world.

Cuba’s famous Havana Club rum would not be part of that shipment due to an ongoing trademark battle with Bacardi.

Cuba currently exports about 4 million cases of rum a year to Europe, Chile, Russia and other nations, but cannot sell to the United States. The Cuban rum industry estimates that the embargo leads to $95 million in annual losses, due to lost sells and additional costs from buying supplies and equipments from Europe instead of the U.S.

Recommended Viewing:

Crude: The Real Price of Oil, a Joe Berlinger film

“A fascinating and important story. CRUDE does an extraordinary job of merging journalism and art.” – Christiane Amanpour, CNN Chief International Correspondent

Crude depicts the epic story of one of the largest and most controversial environmental lawsuits on the planet. The inside story of the infamous “Amazon Chernobyl” case, Crude is a real-life high stakes legal drama, set against a backdrop of the environmental movement, global politics, celebrity activism, human rights advocacy, the media, multinational corporate power, and rapidly-disappearing indigenous cultures.

The film is premiering at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington, DC this weekend. If you’re not in DC, check their website to find out when it will be coming to a theater near you!

Recommended Reading:

Cuba’s Brave New World, Daniel P. Erikson and Paul Wander

Cuba, once a lonely communist outcast, is now enjoying a wave of international engagement that was virtually inconceivable even a decade ago.  Since Raúl Castro took over as provisional president of Cuba in July 2006, Havana has hosted over seventy heads of state, including high-profile leaders such as Hu Jintao of China, Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, in addition to influential officials like UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel.

Around the region:

H.Res. 761, introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern and 33 co-sponsors, was approved on Tuesday by the U.S. House of Representatives.  The resolution remembers and commemorates the lives and work of the six Jesuit priests and two women who were murdered in El Salvador nearly twenty years ago.  On Nov. 16, 1989, armed men burst into the Jesuit residence at the University f Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, killing the six Jesuit priests who were there, along with the community’s cook and her daughter.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas is please by the passage of H.Res. 761 and is grateful of this effort by Rep. McGovern and his staff.

Return democracy to Honduras, Doug Cassel in the Chicago Tribune

Latin America has had more than its fill of coups d’état. Lest we turn back the clock to a bygone era of might makes right, the latest Latin coup — the forcible overthrow in June of Manuel Zelaya, the democratically elected president of Honduras — must not be permitted to stand.

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