Momentum! Congressional hearing on Travel to Cuba

Next Thursday, a gavel will bang in the House Foreign Affairs Committee and signal a new and hopeful stage in the effort to legalize travel to Cuba.

The Committee will be called to order by Chairman Howard Berman, an important and influential voice in U.S. foreign policy, and it will hear witnesses for and against the idea that Americans should have the freedom to visit the island, and that Cubans and Americans would both be better off if we did.

This hearing did not have to take place.  Sitting alongside Mr. Berman will be Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the senior Republican on the Committee, an implacable foe of free travel to Cuba, who cannot be happy about sitting through a rational discussion of U.S. travel policy toward Cuba.   But beyond simple comity – the Congressional excuse for inaction wrapped in the sentiment “can’t we all just get along?” – is the matter of priorities.  Cuba, indeed Latin America, often takes second-place or third in the priorities of Congress.  Mr. Berman didn’t have to call this hearing.  But he did.

For more than a generation, Mr. Berman has been a champion in the cause of opening up channels of communication and information between Cuba and the United States.  In 1988, he punched a hole in the Cuba embargo to allow the free trade of ideas, information, and cultural content, in both directions, between our two countries.  Unlike those who posture about the power of American freedoms and ideas, Mr. Berman has had the courage to put them to work.

Often Congressional hearings are “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  We believe this hearing can be different and will accomplish more.  The Cuba travel ban simply cannot withstand scrutiny.  It costs us freedom.  It costs us face in the region.  It costs us Americans jobs.  And what it accomplishes beyond our own isolation has been demonstrated over the decades: it accomplishes nothing.

Our opponents take the position that we must continue to punish Cuba by separating us from them.  Every incident and every problem – like the troubling attack on Cuban bloggers this week -becomes a self-justifying excuse for carrying on this failed policy even longer.  As Lou Perez has written, if sanctions like the travel ban have not yet accomplished what they set out to do, in exquisite Kafkaesque reasoning, this simply means that more time is required.

Cubans in America and on the island in growing numbers are arguing for a different course, travel for all.  “Even by a simple conversation, sharing every day experiences, Americans would demonstrate how your society is capable of constantly deepening and improving democracy, and could help our own efforts for democracy.”  Miriam Leiva and Oscar Chepe Espinosa, Cuban dissidents, said that.

Travel is communication and more.  So, what Congressman Berman says about ending the travel ban during this hearing will be immensely important.  Were he to signal that enacting the Freedom to Travel to Act would be a legislative priority for his Committee that would be a tremendously encouraging sign to the 179 sponsors of the legislation, and an important message for the White House and the United States Senate that this train is starting to move and it’s time to climb aboard.

This week in Cuba news.


Trimming bureaucracy in agriculture and forming cooperatives

Cuba’s agriculture ministry is planning to cut thousands of bureaucratic jobs and reorganize its large state-run farms into smaller plots, Reuters reported. The change was announced in Cuba’s state media as a bid to reverse steadily declining food output.

Communist Party newspaper Granma said that 89,000 employees at state farms, or 26% of their work force, are office workers and that the sector suffers from an “excess of unproductive personnel.” It said at least 10% of those jobs will be eliminated starting in December with the aim of “reducing bosses and functionaries and substituting departments with specialists and technicians on the farms.”

The sector’s workforce will be reorganized into “worker collectives” of no more than 10 individuals who will be assigned specific plots of land and their pay will be based on performance,Granma said. The change is the latest reform to the agriculture sector, where President Raul Castro has made his highest priority to increase production and reduce imports.

Cuba cuts back on rationed products

Cuba has removed potatoes and peas from the products available on the libreta (ration card), in another step to reduce the products and amount of products available at subsidized prices, theAssociated Press reported. The change is another step in reforms to reduce subsidies. In September, free lunches were eliminated from many government workplaces, and an October editorial in the Granma advocated for the elimination of the libreta.

Authorities say the changes are to encourage productivity and decrease the economic burden on the state. According to the AP, the state still pays for or heavily subsidizes just about everything (education, health care, transportation, and housing) and Cubans see the ration book as a “flawed but fundamental right.”  Some people complained about the changes, suggesting that because not enough food is produced, people will begin to hoard goods and the situation will worsen.

More “belt-tightening” urged by Cuba labor weekly

The weekly publication of Cuba’s only legal labor union says residents of the communist-ruled island will have to get used to belt-tightening “with intelligence” amid a severe recession and little prospect of improvement in the short term, EFE reported.

An editorial in Trabajadores said that Cuba’s struggle to cope with the effects of the global slump and last years damage from three hurricanes has left the country with no option buy to “tighten our belts.”

“Let us tighten our belts, but with intelligence: that is the alternative,” the union weekly said.

The editorial also warned of “inevitable restrictions and cutbacks in every sector” as a result of tough financial straits aggravated by the costs of dealing with the H1N1 flu outbreak.

“Extreme measures” expected to further cut energy use

A recently circulated message from the Council of Ministers, seen by the Reuters news agency, ordered all state enterprises to adopt “extreme measures” to cut energy usage through the end of the year. Measures include the closing of non-essential factories and workshops and the shutting down of air conditioners and refrigerators not needed to preserve food and medicine, Reuters reported.

“The energy situation we face is critical and if we do not adopt extreme measures we will have to revert to planned blackouts affecting the population,” said the memo. A memo circulated by the light industry sector said that “company directors will analyze the activities that will be stopped and others reduced, leaving only those that guarantee exports, substitution of imports and basic services for the population.”

Most state-run offices and factories were ordered in June to reduce energy use by a minimum of 12 percent or face mandatory electricity cuts.

Cuba – Venezuela cooperation at $1.49 billion in 2009

According to El Comercio, $1.499 million has been spent on cooperative economic efforts between Cuba and Venezuela to finance 107 projects in 2009.  Among these projects are the Venezuelan medical missions “Barrio Adentro I and II” and “Operación Milagro.” Largely in exchange for Cuban personnel working in Venezuela, Venezuela provides Cuba with enough oil to satisfy half of its demand at a reduced price.

Cuba also assists in various education, culture and sports programs that are offered to the Venezuelan population.  Cuba and Venezuela have cooperative programs in agriculture, tourism, housing, industry, and oil as well.  The two countries recently announced that they plan to increase cooperation at their joint refinery in Cienfuegos where they are constructing a complex petrochemical plan.

Iran extends €300 million line of credit to Cuba

Following their 14th joint economic cooperation committee meeting in Havana this month, Iran and Cuba agreed to a 300-million-euro line of credit to be sent from Iran to Cuba “to finance quick-return projects,” PressTV reports. The amount, which is equal to $445 million, is said to also help the Cubans buy Iranian goods and engineering services. Cuba and Iran have engaged in bilateral cooperation since 1981.


Yoani Sanchez injured and detained

Cuban blogger and government critic Yoani Sanchez said she and two fellow bloggers were detained briefly on Friday by security agents and accused of being “counter-revolutionaries” as they walked to a demonstration against violence, Reuters reported.

Although accounts of what happened have varied among reports, including the extent of Ms Sanchez’s injuries, this was a serious incident that commanded the attention of the U.S. State Department, which released this statement on November 9th:

  • The U.S. government strongly deplores the assault on bloggers Yoani Sanchez, Orlando Luis Pardo, and Claudia Cadelo. On November 6, these three activists were forcibly detained by plain clothes security personnel and beaten while en route to a peaceful demonstration in Havana.
  • The President has proclaimed November 9 World Freedom Day. It is precisely this sort of repression and violence against the voices of freedom and reconciliation that World Freedom Day is meant to expose. We call on the Government of Cuba to ensure the full respect of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all its citizens.
  • We have expressed to the Cuban government our deep concern with the assaults, and we are following up with inquiries to Yoani Sanchez, Orlando Luis Pardo, and Claudia Cadelo regarding their personal well-being and access to medical care.

The Cuban Government has not commented on the incident.

Some House Democrats oppose easing sanctions on Cuba

Fifty-three House Democrats sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, outlining their opposition to “any legislation that would seek to ease or lift sanctions,” arguing that it “would send a devastating message to Cuba’s opposition movement and legitimize an ailing dictatorship.”

According to the Miami Herald, the letter was penned with the intention of demonstrating a large number of Democrats oppose reforming Cuba policy and “to blunt the momentum that proponents of lifting the travel ban have claimed under a Democratic president and Democratic-led Congress.”

Proponents of the legislation, however, remain confident that is will pass, as they already have 180 supporters in the house and are “continuing to gather support.” Jeff Flake (R-AZ) said the letter is a sign that embargo supporters are “getting nervous.”

U.S. Science group in Cuba to discuss increased cooperation

A group led by the head of the United States’ biggest science organization is in Cuba this week to discuss “ways to rekindle scientific cooperation as U.S.-Cuba relations slowly improve under U.S. President Barack Obama,” Reuters reported. Among the scientists in the group is Nobel Prize-winning scientist Peter Agre, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Agre said Wednesday that the group met with government officials and Cuban scientists, all of them enthusiastic about doing science together.

The Cubans “are nothing other than warm-hearted about this. They would love to see things move forward,” said Agre, who won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2003. Despite a long history of science cooperation, “Cuba has been kind of a dead zone (for cooperation) because of the separation, but the opportunity to be here is something I’m looking forward to,” Agre said. “It’s something we would both benefit from.”

Music group from Cuba to perform in Little Havana

The Cuban musical group Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñero will play at the Hoy Como Ayer club in Miami on November 21st, thus breaking the six year blackout of officially sanctioned music groups from Cuba performing in the city, the Miami Herald reported.

The group began its tour of the US in New York and will also travel to Puerto Rico, San Francisco, Chicago, and Hartford, CT.  According to Fabio Diaz, one of the owners of the club where the group is performing in Miami, the group has been invited because it performs traditional Cuban music that does not have a political message.

Tampa travel agency that arranges flights to Cuba sues state

Agencia 12 y 23, a Floridian travel agency that coordinates flights to Cuba, is suing the state of Florida for excessively regulating its business, the Tampa Tribune reported. The agency, which is named after a Havana intersection in the Vedado neighborhood, says it is already so heavily regulated by the federal government, that there is no need or room for the state to regulate as well.


Cubans adapting to more public criticism

A new report by National Public Radio (NPR)says that Cubans are figuring out how to work in a new atmosphere more open to criticism. President Raul Castro “has warned Cubans that the island’s socialist system must change” and he’s “asking them for something they are not used to giving in public: criticism,” reports NPR. Neighborhood meetings of the Committee for Defense of the Revolution (CDR) have been presented with the task of gathering criticism from Cuban citizens as well as “ideas for how to reform” Cuban socialism.

Issues historically “taboo” but now being discussed openly, include the right to travel, private property and allowing more private businesses. Aurielio Alonso, the editor of a Cuban magazine, openly writes that he would like to see more small business allowed on the island, rather than just seeing government messages to “produce more.” While changes like these are welcomed and being taken into consideration, “major changes to Cuba’s one-party system are not on the agenda for discussion.”

Fidel Castro reading, writing and living modestly

According to the Guardian, after years of secrecy, Fidel Castro has opened the doors of his home to several filmmakers and journalists, including Americans Saul Landau and Oliver Stone. Castro (who now resides next to a defunct golf course) is living a rather unremarkable retirement for most people his age, but according to Cuba expert Dan Erickson, “for one of the most controversial and confrontational personalities of the cold war era, it marks an unexpectedly serene final chapter.”

Other than sporadic monitoring of world events now run by his brother Raul, Castro reportedly stays mostly out of the political spectrum, opting to spend time with his grandchildren and read, theGuardian reported.  He is said to have just read President Obama’s Dreams of My Father, which his staff translated into Spanish for him. And of course, he still regularly writes “reflections,” which are published on government websites and in Cuba’s national newspaper, Granma.

Havana Club Rums to change image in 2010

According to the Cuba News Agency, Havana Club Rum will begin to change its image in 2010. The first changes will take place with the seven year aged rum, which according to Enrique Noste, the sales and marketing manager of Havana Club International, “has high acceptance and leads the super Premium dark rum products worldwide.”

The changes, which are still being discussed, include making the bottle more stylish, and changes in the price. A specialist’s signature certifying that the rum has been aged for seven years will also be added. Havana club has a presence in 125 nations, with its largest consumers being Germany, France, Chile, and Greece.

Around the Region:

Honduras accord is on verge of collapse: Ousted president says U.S. lacks commitment to reinstatementWashington Post

Less than two weeks after U.S. diplomats announced a historic agreement to reverse a coup in Honduras, the accord is in danger of collapse and both Honduran officials and U.S. lawmakers are blaming American missteps for some of the failure.

Rescue efforts ramped up as El Salvador landslides kill 157Agence France-Presse

The death toll from devastating floods and landslides in El Salvador rose to 157 Wednesday as the Health Ministry launched a massive rescue operation.

Murdered Jesuits honored 20 years after their deaths in El SalvadorCatholic News Service

Twenty years after they were killed at Central American University in San Salvador, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, six Jesuit priests are being honored by the Salvadoran government, the U.S. Congress and Jesuit institutions.

Recommended Reading:

Interesting Diplomacy Tidbits for US-Cuba WatchersThe Washington Note

After discussions with both senior Cuban government officials and US officials, there is quite a bit of new opportunity, relaxed posturing, proposals, micro progress on a number of fronts that is not designed to be in the public eye or the media — that is consistent with two parties who have long not trusted one another trying to construct a different kind of relationship that needs confidence-building steps and healthier interaction than has historically been the case.


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