Can Valenzuela fill the void? Cuba’s economy declines; Cuban-American support rises for ending the travel ban.

Dear Friends:

Valenzuela, falling into the void or filling it?

Arturo Valenzuela, not Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, was nominated by President Obama to run Latin America policy for his administration.  DeMint apparently thought otherwise and blocked Valenzuela’s appointment for months, because the Obama administration had its own ideas (he thought, as did we) for addressing problems like the coup in Honduras and reforming our painfully outdated and self-defeating Cuba policy.

Valenzuela was one of several highly qualified candidates to serve as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.  He was nominated on May 12th, but his nomination was blocked (with his predecessor Thomas Shannon) when President Mel Zelaya was driven from office by a coup in Honduras and coup supporters like Senator DeMint strode aggressively into the debate.

While U.S. diplomacy, at the outset, was aligned with regional allies and the Organization of American States, insisting on the return of President Zelaya and opposing the denial of democratic and political rights of Hondurans, DeMint and other allies became cheerleaders for the coup and aggressive opponents of the administration’s position.

Here things festered.  The state of crisis in Honduras dragged on for four months; the state of suspended animation in which Valenzuela found himself lasted five.

Finally, we were heartened when Secretary Shannon and other administration officials went to Honduras late last month and appeared to negotiate an agreement that would see an end to the political crisis in Honduras, restore democratic order, reinstitute President Zelaya, and provide a path to political legitimacy for the Honduran government before the presidential elections set for November 29th.

But as we said at that time:  “We urge the administration to be equally vigilant and tough minded as the world monitors the implementation of this accord.”  It now turns out, what was portrayed as an exercise in diplomacy may have been nothing more than an exit strategy.

Days later, the accord is falling apart, actors in Honduras seem ready to block President Zelaya’s return, and the new position of our State Department seems to be ‘we’ll just let Honduras take it from here.’

And just as the State Department relinquished its position on returning President Zelaya to office, Senator DeMint released his hold on Arturo Valenzuela’s nomination.  He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Thursday night.

DeMint is as content as a clam, and sounded like the winner:  “I am happy to report the Obama administration has finally reversed its misguided Honduran policy and will fully recognize the Nov. 29 elections.”

If that is an accurate representation of U.S. policy, we have flip-flopped in a very damaging way.

Think of where this leaves Honduras, and where it leaves the U.S.

Honduras remains mired in a crisis of political legitimacy.  The U.S. appears to have blundered and blunted its role as a force for democracy.   And allies in the region – many with fresh memories of coups in their own national histories – are left to question our intentions.  This crisis of confidence blankets not just Honduras but our intentions about the region more broadly.

To say the least, Mr. Valenzuela steps onto the stage at an incredibly awkward moment.  He must take decisive steps to demonstrate – and not just symbolically – that he, and not Senator DeMint, speaks for the U.S. when it comes to foreign policy toward the region.  But even more important, what Valenzuela says when he speaks is of greatest concern.

Whether it’s democracy in Honduras, progress in El Salvador, making sense of our policy toward Cuba, or aligning our nation with the aspirations of people in the region who are simply seeking a better life – these are the places where the Obama administration should be taking us in a new direction.  It is where Valenzuela’s voice must be heard; where he can insure that his confirmation fills the void that ideology and politics created to the great detriment of the United States in Latin America.  We hope that he is heard from very, very soon.

Let us now turn to Cuba’s economy, the new polling on Cuban-American travel (hint: they’re for it, and in a big way), and other news of the week.

IN CUBA

Cuba says foreign trade down 36 percent in 2009

The global economic crisis continues to hit Cuba hard. At this year’s trade fair, the government announced that foreign trade is down 36 percent from 2008, Reuters reported. Total trade from January to August of this year has been estimated to be around $10 billion, down 36 percent from last year.

Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment, said the decline was mostly due to decreased imports, reflecting Cuba’s attempts to tighten its financial belt. The economy has suffered from the global recession, the effects of last year’s hurricane season, and domestic shortcomings in productivity that the government is trying to reform.

Malmierca admitted that Cuba had stopped payments to many foreign suppliers, but said Cuba planned to pay up eventually. “I can assure you that we have the greatest willingness for dialogue with our economic partners and that Cuba will continue to be a reliable partner,” he said.  Commercial sources have estimated the total amount of frozen funds in the hundreds of millions of dollars, La Jornada reported.  Spanish diplomat Miguel Angel Moratinos said that President Raúl Castro promised him “personally” to unfreeze the accounts of Spanish businesses. In the past weeks, some firms have received notice that some of the funds from their accounts will be returned, but not all.

Cuba denies rumor about closing private markets

The Cuban government is denying reports that it is closing private markets, El Financiero reported. State media did say that private vendors must now present an official document regarding the origins of the products being sold. While there is still fear that private markets will be placed under even more government control, Jorge Garcia, the director of the Empresa Provincial de Mercados, assured citizens that “there will always be room (in Cuba) for free commerce.”

Brazil and Cuba deepen economic ties

Representatives from the governments of Brazil and Cuba met Thursday to analyze ways to improve economic and commercial cooperation between their two nations, Europa Press reported.  The International Trade Fair of Havana included a Brazilian pavilion for the first time. Brazil is helping Cuba develop the Port of Mariel, located outside of Havana, to maximize the potential for tourism and trade. Cooperation in agriculture, biotechnology, and pharmaceuticals is also being expanded.

The trade fair, in which 32 Brazilian businesses participated, coincided with a visit by a Brazilian delegation for the first meeting of the Brazil-Cuba Working Group, created last July to foster economic cooperation between the two countries, Prensa Latina reported.  Miguel Jorge, Brazil’s Minister of Development, Industry, and Trade, attended the inauguration of the Trade Fair and led the delegation.

Meanwhile, the heavy machinery that will be used to refurbish and improve the Port of Mariel has begun to arrive from Brazil, the Associated Press reported. The construction of the port will require $600 million, half of which Brazil will provide in credits, which Cuba is using to employ construction companies from Brazil. The construction will begin early next year. Under the first phase, Brazil will finance $110 million to create highway access and put in a train station, among other things.

According to Jorge, regardless of the outcome of presidential elections in 2010, Brazil will maintain good relations with Cuba, La Jornada reported. “No matter who is Brazil’s president, there will not be a step back from relations with Cuba,” he said. Jorge met with President Raúl Castro during his trip.

Cuba-China cooperation continues

China was the third largest participant in this year’s trade fair, following Spain and Canada. With a yearly trade volume of 2.3 billion US dollars, China is Cuba’s second largest commercial partner, coming only after Venezuela.

According to Chinese state media, “the Chinese electronic hardware company Haier has proven to be the brand of choice for Cubans.” Over the last few years, Haier has put 2.3 million refrigerators and 1 million televisions on the market in Cuba, along with a large number of washing machines, computers and other home appliances.  Haier’s representatives in Havana said the company hopes to build factories for its products in the Caribbean in the near future.

Chinese and Cuban representatives signed a contract Monday for the delivery of a donation of $500,000 worth of materials to help reconstruct housing on the island, La Prensa reported. China is also considering whether it will participate in a project to refurbish a petroleum refinery in Cuba with support from Venezuela, El Universo reported.

Russia state oil company to explore for oil in Cuba

Zarubezhneft, Russia’s state oil company, reached an agreement Tuesday with Cuba to embark on a search for oil along the island’s northern coast, Reuters reported. Cuba has similar deals with eight other countries. Although exploration has been slow, the government remains confident that there are around 20 million barrels of still untapped oil.

“We assume the oil in that area (the northern coast) will be similar to the heavy oil we have in Varadero, but we’re also hoping to find natural gas,” said Yadira Garcia, Cuba’s Minister of Basic Industry. Should this prove successful early on, Russia may be interested in exploring several more offshore blocks in the Caribbean region.

Two million tourists have visited Cuba this year

Cuba received its 2 millionth visitor to the island on October 31st, 15 days earlier than when the 2 millionth visitor arrived in Cuba in 2008, Prensa Latina reported. Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism said it’s the 6th year in a row that the island has hit the 2 million mark.  According to the World Organization of Tourism, the tourism industry fell by 5% globally this year. Cuba, however, has experienced an accumulated 3.9% increase of arrivals to the country. However, while visits are up, revenues from tourism are down.

EU Development Commissioner to Cuba

The European Union’s development commissioner, Karel De Gucht, was in Cuba on a three-day trip this week. During his trip, De Gucht met with top Cuban officials, including Cuban President Raúl Castro, the Associated Press reported. Following the meeting with Castro, he called on Cuba to show a renewed dedication to protecting human rights, saying the “position of the EU is not regime change,” but “on Cuba’s part, dialogue implies gestures be made on universal human rights.”

Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said the EU Common Position toward Cuba is “unacceptable” and that Cuba is ready to “find a mark of bilateral cooperation that substitutes the current common stance on the issue,” Agence France-Presse reported.  De Gucht said that his discussions with top Cuban officials were “open, frank and constructive.”  The high-level talks are seen as a sign of warming relations between the EU and Cuba after five years of hostilities over Cuba’s human rights record.

The European Union (EU) had a pavilion at the Havana Trade Fair this week after an 8-year absence. The pavilion will be independent from individual EU trade partners, such as Spain and Italy, who will have their own representation, Agence France-Presse reported.

Vatican Official requests greater access to media for Cuban Church

The President of the Vatican’s Council of Social Communications, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, arrived in Cuba on Wednesday for a four-day visit. Celli is expected to meet with government officials in the communications sector, church sources said. Celli said that he will ask the Government for “normal” access instead of “sporadic” access to the media for the Cuban Church, Ansa Latina reported.

“My hope is that the Cuban Church will gradually have normal access to the greatest means of communication that the new technologies of the day offer us. I’m talking about radio, television and Internet” said Celli.

Cubans say access to online market site is blocked

The Cuban equivalent of Craigslist, known as Revolico.com, has recently been blocked, most likely by the government. The site, which according to Reuters had over 1.5 million page views last month, is now automatically redirected to Google.com when typed in or clicked on from a web search engine in Cuba. In the past the Cuban government has blocked access to websites labeled as “counter-revolutionary.”

Revolico.com allowed Cubans to buy or sell many items (including cars and computers) that could not be found in government stores. There were also posts advertising people looking for arranged marriages to leave the country and other illegal activities. Some Cubans felt like restricting access to the site would make it harder to find black-market goods. “There you can find all the things the government sells you at brutal prices and freely pick exactly what you want,” said Alberto, who recently used Revolico.com to buy a computer that was not available in the stores.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Cuban Americans support ending travel ban

A shift in attitude among Cubans living in the United States may see the travel ban from the U.S. to Cuba ending sooner than later, reported Time Magazine. A recent poll shows that 59 percent of Cuban-Americans believe there should be no travel restrictions to Cuba.  Forty-eight percent of the older Cuban-American population believes the ban should be lifted, which is up from 32 percent in 2002. According to Time, Cuban-Americans “no longer see the travel ban as an inseparable component (from the embargo). In fact, they see lifting the ban as a way of throwing a bigger ball into Havana’s court,” one that might oblige Raúl Castro to make reforms.

According to the article, Ricardo Herrero, 31, a staunch supporter of the embargo and travel ban, has now changed his tune, as have many Cubans who have visited family on the island. “Cuban-Americans…always come back (from Cuba) saying it was a completely eye-opening experience, and have changed their views because they witnessed firsthand the ineffectiveness of the current policy.”

Cuba’s 10 points for dialogue

Last week, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez, addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations regarding the U.S. embargo and relations between Cuba and the U.S. According to Cuban state media, Rodríguez laid out Cuba’s priorities to start a “sincere discussion” with the United States.

  1. Lifting the economic, commercial, and financial embargo;
  2. Removing Cuba from the state-sponsors of terrorism list;
  3. Eliminating the Cuban Adjustment Act and the “politics of wet foot-dry foot”;
  4. Compensation for economic and human harms;
  5. Returning the territory occupied by the Naval Base at Guantánamo;
  6. Ending radio and television aggressions from the United States against Cuba;
  7. Stopping the financing of internal subversion;
  8. Liberating the five Cuban anti-terrorists that have suffered unjust prison sentences in the United States for eleven years;
  9. Initiating discussions about cooperation on confronting drug trafficking, terrorism, and human trafficking;
  10. Initiating discussions about cooperation to protect the environment and confront natural disasters.

Fidel Castro accuses Obama of treating Latin America with contempt

Fidel Castro accused President Barack Obama of treating Latin America with “contempt” for signing an agreement with Colombia to put seven new military bases in “the heart of our America.” “This is not an act from Bush’s administration; it’s Barack Obama who endorses that agreement, violating legal and constitutional laws,” he said. Castro also reminded that “the military coup in that Central American country was carried out under the current administration.”

“Never have the Latin American peoples of this hemisphere been treated with greater contempt,” wrote Castro. You can read the full reflection here.

Cuban Musicians in the U.S.

After half a decade in which Cuban performers were all but restricted from sharing their craft with American audiences, legendary Cuban singer Omara Portuondo will be presenting and performing at this week’s Latin Grammy Awards in Las Vegas and the band Septeto Nacional has upcoming performances scheduled for New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, MSNBC reported.

Long since their last U.S. appearance at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1976, Cuba’s Septeto Nacional, will again perform in the United States in the Bronx this Saturday, New York Daily News reported. Since 2000 the group has performed 367 concerts, recorded 23 albums, and appeared in 33 countries, but not the United States. “There are a lot of famous musicians who live there (New York),” said group member Frank Oropesa. “We would love to discuss musical ideas and trends with all of them.”

Meanwhile, renowned 79-year old Cuban artist Omara Portuondo, made history this week. It took a decade, but for the first time in the history of the Latin Grammys, a Cuban artist living on the island was on stage at the awards show. The diva of Buena Vista Social Club was up for nomination and also presented an award. “It’s something beautiful to be the ambassador of good will,” said Portuondo.

Doctors come from Cuba to visit Pennsylvania Hospital

Two Cuban doctors visited the St. Clair hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Friday to learn about patient care procedures at the facility as part of their working visit to the U.S., the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. The trip, organized and funded by Global Links, a nonprofit organization that donates hospital supplies to Third World countries, brought six doctors to St. Clair hospital for five days of observation and training.

“We haven’t slept in five days — work, work, work. We wanted to come here, to learn even more,” said Dr. Luis Orlando Rodriguez, a urologist and general director of Hospital Pediatrico.  Dr. Carmen Cuba, a director in the Cuban Ministry of Health, was also part of the delegation.

Accused U.S. spies for Cuba in court

An American couple accused of spying for Cuba appeared in a U.S. District court on Thursday for a preliminary hearing, CNN reported.  Prosecutors say Kendall Myers, 72, and his wife, Gwendolyn, 71, were recruited by Cuba as potential spies in 1978. They are charged with conspiracy to act as illegal agents of the Cuban government, wire fraud and providing classified information to Havana, according to court documents. The case against the couple, who pleaded not guilty to a five-count indictment in June, includes allegations of low-tech intrigue such as Morse code messages on shortwave radio from Cuba and swapping shopping carts with a Cuban handler at a grocery store near their home in Washington.

McDonalds Hiring in Cuba

Looking for a job?  The McDonalds on the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, the only McDonalds on the island, is hiring.  Qualified candidates must have a U.S. passport and a passion for Trans fat, McFlurries, and orange jumpsuits.

Around the Region:

Venezuela sends 15,000 troops to Colombia border Associated Press

President Hugo Chavez’s government is sending 15,000 soldiers to the border with Colombia, saying the military buildup is needed to increase security, combat drug trafficking and root out paramilitary groups.

Honduras pact crumbles over unity government Reuters

An agreement to end a four-month political crisis in Honduras collapsed early on Friday after two rival leaders failed to form a unity cabinet to heal the damage from a June coup.

In wake of Honduras agreement, DeMint releases hold on Obama nominees The Hill

“The U.S. must not discard the fundamental principle of returning President Zelaya to office,” said Sarah Stephens, Center for Democracy in the Americas director. “We need to send a message that the U.S. is credible, that it sticks to its word, and that it honors the constitutional and democratic principles that people across the region have fought so hard to reclaim and uphold.”

El Salvador to honor priests killed by army in ’89 Associated Press

El Salvador’s president says the country will award its highest honor to six Jesuit priests murdered by the army in 1989.

Recommended Reading:

Obama must stand firm on Honduras Crisis Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Times, which pays greater attention to Latin America than most other U.S. dailies, called out the Obama administration for wavering on core principles relating to the coup and political crisis in Honduras.

Can U.S. and Cuba work together to protect shared marine ecosystem? Minnesota Post

The sharks, sea turtles and other miscellaneous underwater creatures that roam the Gulf of Mexico could care less about the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, or the island’s one-party communist state. So why should such terrestrial concerns get in the way of marine research?

Senator LeMieux On Wrong Track with anti-Cuba Political Action Committee and State Department Hold

Kind of sad when you see a Freshman US Senator get appointed and immediately hijacked by lobbying groups who have deeply parochial interests that run against the nation’s and even Senator George LeMieux’s own state of Florida.

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