The News Blast is back in your in-boxes with a new edition packed with news about Cuba.
We report on Senator John Kerry’s call for freedom to travel to Cuba; with Freedom House’s call to open up travel for all Americans to Cuba; with the Pope’s call to end the embargo against Cuba; with the British Ambassador’s call to….you get the idea.
We provide extensive coverage of Carlos Varela’s return to the U.S. The renowned Cuban singer-songwriter, who’s performed with Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Sting, Juanes and many others, was granted a visa by the Obama administration to spend three weeks in the United States. Blocked by President Bush from entering the U.S. in 2004, this is Carlos Varela’s first trip to the United States in eleven years. In the articles summarized below, you will read about his calls to open up Cuba and the U.S. to cultural exchange – arguing, in essence, why wait for the governments to move, when music and art can bring the two countries closer together?
There’s also news about efforts to start hurricane cooperation between Cuba and the U.S., reduced sentences for members of the Cuban Five, and disturbances in Cuba aimed at disrupting a march by the Ladies in White and threatening the husband of blogger Yoani Sanchez. Mark our words; we cover it all.
Also, mark your calendars (your new calendars). Our organization, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, is about to release its fabulous new calendar for 2010. Starting with artwork by Matt Wuerker, the finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in political cartooning for 2009, this great calendar ushers in each month of the coming year with gorgeous photographs and imagery from Cuba and around the region. Sneak a look here. We’ll be sending along information on how you can obtain your very own copy by making a special year-end contribution to the CDA.
Now, it’s time for the news.
In a column published by the St. Petersburg Times, Senator John Kerry (D-MA), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared his support for ending restrictions on travel to Cuba for the first time. According to Kerry, “We need a Cuba policy that looks forward, brings our strengths to bear, and builds on what works to help the Cuban people shape their country’s future.”
He applauded the steps the Obama Administration has taken – allowing family travel, mid-level talks about immigration and postal relations, and turning off the “Orwellian electronic billboard” at the U.S. Interests Section – but argues “they are only a start.” In a floor speech, Kerry advocated restoring purposeful travel (academic, religious, cultural, etc), reviewing wasteful programs like Radio and TV Marti, and having Congress pass the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which would allow all Americans to travel to Cuba. According to Kerry, the legislation “is good policy inside of Cuba…Americans can be even greater catalysts of change.”
According to the Catholic News Service, Pope Benedict XVI criticized the U.S. embargo on Cuba, and called for more religious on the island, while welcoming the new Cuban ambassador Eduardo Delgado Bermudez to the Vatican. The Pope said that the embargo, the financial crisis and recent natural disasters have “particularly struck” poorer families. He also emphasized the importance of the government’s recent willingness to allow more religious freedom, highlighting the fact that the Church intends to kindle the Catholic spirit of the Cuban people, not interfere with the government.
In a letter to The Hill, Daniel Calingaert, the Deputy Director of Programs at Freedom House, reaffirmed his organization’s support for ending the travel ban to Cuba. According to Calingaert, the current policy violates the rights of its citizens to choose where they want to travel and is discriminatory because Cuban-Americans are currently allowed to travel to Cuba whereas all other groups of Americans are not.
In a letter to the Havana Note, Dianna Melrose, the British Ambassador to Cuba, denounced U.S. policy toward Cuba as outdated and harmful to the Cuban people. The ambassador argued in favor of lifting the travel ban for all Americans, saying, “If they [Cubans] were able to talk to U.S. citizens, with whom they share so many sporting, cultural and historical links, they could benefit from learning about the civil liberties and economic freedoms which U.S. citizens enjoy.” Her statement comes at a time when members of the European Union have become more vocal about their disapproval of the U.S. embargo and travel ban.
The State Department announced that the second round of migration talks with Cuba have been delayed until next year, Voice of America reported. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the talks will take place in February after bureaucratic concerns derailed talks that had been scheduled for early December in Havana. “At the Cuban government’s request, the talks have been rescheduled for February,” he said.
Migration talks between the U.S. and Cuba took place this past July for the first time since they were suspended by the Bush Administration in 2004.
A senior Cuban official confirmed to the Associated Press that the negotiations had been delayed, but said it was at Washington’s bidding, not Cuba’s. “We were ready to hold the talks in December,” he said.
Cuba’s state newspaper Juventud Rebelde accused Google of blocking some of its applications and sites from users in Cuba, including Zeitgeist search trends tool. Cubans are blocked from using Google Earth, Google Desktop Search, Google Code, Google Toolbar and Google Chrome, the newspaper claimed.
PEOPLE TO PEOPLE EXCHANGE
Carlos Varela, the renowned Cuban singer-songwriter, was featured in a discussion about cultural exchange last week at American University. The discussion, organized by the Center for Democracy in the Americas and American University, concluded with Mr. Varela playing some of his hits for an appreciative and often emotional audience.
Prior to the discussion, Mr. Varela had lunch with a White House official, in what Reuters referred to as “a new sign of a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations.” Varela also met with U.S. Representatives Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and John Tierney of Massachusetts, and said he plans to speak with more officials about using music and culture to “build bridges between the American and Cuban people.”
The Hill called the approval of Varela’s visa to the U.S. a sign of the “softening by the Obama administration of U.S. policy toward its communist island neighbor.” Echoing the publication’s sentiment, Varela himself is encouraged by the first year of the Obama presidency. “Obviously, culture can’t eliminate differences that exist between the two governments,” Varela said, “but culture can give the people of the two countries a clearer vision of how people are, of how people think, of how people live.”
In an interview with EFE, Varela called on musicians in Cuba and the US to help “build bridges” between the two countries, pointing out that “while American citizens cannot travel to Cuba, if American musicians could, it would help a lot.”
In 2004, 1,700 tickets had been sold for a concert Varela was to perform in Miami, but because the Bush administration was restricting cultural exchanges with Cuba, Varela was denied a visa. Mr. Varela is participating in several discussions focused on cultural exchange in Washington, DC and Los Angeles and will meet with American musicians to discuss opportunities to collaborate. He hopes to bring his band to the U.S. next year for a tour.
The Shreveport Times reported that retired Army Lieutenant General Russel Honoré called for strengthened relations with Cuba because of its effective hurricane prevention and preparedness programs. He is the same general who lifted New Orleans from the depths of Hurricane Katrina in late 2005. Honoré was a keynote speaker at the Conference on U.S.-Cuban Cooperation in Defending Against Hurricanes, organized by the Center for International Policy last month in New Orleans, to work on the issue and promote further cooperation between the nations. Currently, Cubans allow hurricane hunter planes to fly over Cuba, and the two countries’ hurricane centers communicate. “We’ve got to move forward, not looking through the rear-view mirror, work through this embargo issue and encourage travel,” Honoré said.
Last Friday, older U.S. and Cuban softball players ended a “friendship” tournament in Havana that they hope will serve as an example for their governments, reported Reuters. Organized by the Eastern Massachusetts Senior Softball Association and the Cuban Softball Federation, the games were more about promoting unity than winning or losing. The players, who were all over 55, swapped jerseys and mixed up teams. “It’s important that we showed we can co-exist,” said Alan Bresnick, a 71-year old former corporate executive from Boston. “It has been 50 years of bad relations and maybe it’s time to reconsider.”
About 50 wives, mothers and other female relatives of Cuban political prisoners marched through Havana on Wednesday, followed by hundreds of government supporters shouting insults and pro-government slogans at them, the Associated Press reported. The women usually march silently along Fifth Avenue each Sunday, with little reaction from government supporters or the general public.
Wednesday’s march took place in Central Havana and lasted over an hour. The organizers said it was in anticipation of International Human Rights Day, which is celebrated on December 10th. They waved copies of the universal declaration of human rights and shouted: “liberty, liberty, liberty.” Hundreds of government supporters followed them chanting “Fidel! Fidel!” and yelling derogatory terms at the group. No injuries were reported.
According to the Associated Press, Reinaldo Escobar, the husband of the internationally acclaimed dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, was punched and shouted at by a pro-government mob after challenging state agents to meet him on a street corner for a “verbal duel” last month. He proposed the “duel” in response to the alleged attack on Yoani Sanchez a few weeks ago by government officials who allegedly forced her into a car and threw her purse. When Escobar showed up with two companions on the corners of 23rd and G, the mob gathered and shouted remarks such as “The street is Fidel’s!” After about ten minutes Escobar and his company were placed into unmarked cars and driven away. You can see a YouTube video of the incident here.
Sixty prominent African American leaders from the U.S. sent a letter to Cuban officials last month saying that there is a “‘callous disregard’ for Afro-Cubans, that their civil liberties are restricted ‘for reasons of race,’ and demanding an end to ‘the unwarranted and brutal harassment of black citizens in Cuba who are defending their civil rights,” the Associated Press reported. The letter also called for the release of Darsi Ferrer, a physician and opposition leader who was arrested for obtaining construction materials on the black market. The letter was signed by Princeton University professor Cornel West; Jeremiah Wright, pastor of President Barack Obama’s former church in Chicago; and Susan Taylor, former editor of Essence magazine, among others.
The Cuban government responded with a five page statement calling these accusations a “delusional farce” and accusing the signatories of the letter from the United States of “attempting to suffocate our sovereignty and national identity.” The letter also called attention to Cuba’s offers to help with disaster relief after Katrina hit New Orleans that were rejected by the government of the United States, the thousands of Africans who have received medical training in Cuba, and other benefits of the Cuban revolution for blacks on the island. One of the signatories, Miguel Barnet, a prominent writer on race who is also the head of the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists, emphasized that “blacks have opportunities like never before in our country.”
“The revolution did deal an institutional blow to racism, but also incorrectly declared a centuries-old problem solved,” Cuban dissident Dimas Castellano told CNN.
One signer of the letter, Makani Themba-Nixon, executive director of The Praxis Project in Washington, D.C., later requested that her name be removed, saying it was “being manipulated to undermine the legitimacy of the important social project underway in that nation, El Nuevo Herald reported.
Two of the Cuban Five had their sentences reduced this week after an appeals court ruled their original sentences were too harsh. Ramon Labanino and Fernando Gonzalez were part of the Cuban Five group, jailed in the US in 2001 for spying for the Cuban government, BBC News reported. Another member of the group, Antonia Guerrero, had his life sentence reduced to 22 years in October.
Labanino’s life sentence was reduced to 30 years. Gonzalez, who had originally been sentenced to 19 years, had his sentence reduced by only one year. He and his lawyers had hoped for a much greater drop in his sentence. But U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard, the same judge who imposed the original sentences, defended her judgment, saying it was “important that foreign governments know that such activities are not tolerated in this country”.
The men did not access any secret material, and the Cuban government argues they were on a mission to prevent anti-Castro exile groups from launching what it called terrorist attacks on Cuba. The president of Cuba’s National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon, said the new sentences were “not without importance,” but still “unjust” and called on the U.S. to release them.
The Miami Herald reported that a retired State Department official and his wife have been sentenced for their participation as spies for the Cuban government in the U.S. for 30 years. The couple, upset by U.S. policy and moved by Castro’s revolution, began providing classified U.S. information to the Cuban government in 1979, though they received little payment from the Cubans. Walter Kendall Myers, whose area of expertise in the State Department was Western Europe, will spend life in prison without parole. His wife will receive a reduced sentence of 6-7.5 years for her full cooperation in the case. Through the loss of assets, they will repay the government $1.7 million. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has ordered an assessment of any national security damage the couple may have caused; the assessment is ongoing.
Thanksgiving weekend marked the tenth anniversary of Elián Gonzalez’s arrival in the United States. Delfin Gonzalez, who calls himself Elián’s favorite uncle, maintains a small museum commemorating the boy’s time in Cuba within his Miami home, the Miami Herald reported. Gonzalez held a small ceremony to mark the anniversary, and is still hopeful that the boy, now 16, will one day return to the United States. “So many years later, people still stop me on the street and ask me about Elián. I always tell them, “He’ll be back here any day now,” said González.
Meanwhile, in his hometown of Cardenas, Cuba, Elián Gonzalez celebrated his 16th birthday on December 6th by attending a Union of Young Communists rally, NBC reported.
The leader and five members of an operation that conspired to smuggle Cubans into the United States were arrested in South Florida this month, the Miami Herald reported. The six men conspired to bring 20 Cubans into the U.S. in March of last year, said the indictment.
According to a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Miami, “their arrests come amidst a heightened effort by the Department of Homeland Security to crack down on human smuggling.” The U.S. Attorney’s office said 217 people were charged in maritime smuggling cases in 2008, more than the number charged in 2006 and 2007 combined. So far this year, 80 people have been charged in such cases.
Cuba completed a three day military exercise last month, in which as many as 4 million of the island’s 11 million people took part to prepare for an attack from the United States, Agence France-Presse reported. Cuban Major General Leonardo Andollo stated that the exercise aimed to “raise the deterrent capacity to prevent a military confrontation, under the principle that there is no better way to win a war than by avoiding it.” The exercise, which included command of ground troops as well as artillery practice and military flights, lasted from November 19-21. It was the largest military exercise in five years and the first since Obama became President in January 2009.
A column printed in the Granma last week questioned the lack of transparency in Cuba’s state-run institutions when it comes to allowing press access, questioning, “What are the people who refuse photos and interviews hiding?” Such rejections of access to the media, according to the article, are in opposition to a resolution passed in 2007, which was meant to increase the efficacy of Cuban press by establishing that “aside from military and state secrets, no one has the right to deny us information.”
The author of the article, Katia Siberia Garcia, recalls being prohibited from taking pictures inside of an ETECSA store, Cuba’s communication centers which facilitate phone and internet service on the island, at schools and at tax collection offices. “The fact that many are shielded because of the lack of authorization (to report and take photographs),” she concludes, only contributes to the lack of efficiency in Cuban media.
A massive drive to reduce energy use in Cuba continues, as the government has warned that if such measures aren’t taken, there will be many blackouts in the near future. As Reuters reports, along with turning off lights and unplugging appliances, children have been given the task of going door to door reminding residents to continue such activities. Neighborhoods in Guantanamo are also currently alternating electricity-free hours. Such preventative activities bring back memories of the 18-hour daily blackouts suffered in the 1990s. Cuba’s power conditions, which have been labeled as “extreme,” are set to continue at “extreme measures” at least until the end of December.
Cuba has opened the first of its 44 sugar mills scheduled to grind during the 2009-2010 harvest, Reuters reported. The final output will be between 1.3 and 1.4 million tons of raw sugar by the end of the season. Seven more mills will open this month and the rest will open in January and February, with the harvest scheduled to end in May. Cuba has not yet released data on its last harvest, but Reuters estimates it at about 1.33 million tons. Ten fewer mills, all of which the state owns, are participating in this harvest because of a lack of cane, though officials expect a similar harvest tonnage. 400,000 tons of this year’s harvest will go to China, while 700,000 tons will be consumed locally.
Cuba’s President Raúl Castro announced last week that 600,000 additional hectares will be dedicated to the production of food through a program of “suburban agriculture,” reported EFE. The project, set to begin in January, will set up farms near urban areas to provide milk, small livestock meat, and fruits and vegetables. Raúl Castro has said his top priority is to increase food independence, which he views as a matter of national security.
Mexico’s Milenio newspaper ran an article last week titled, “Cuba: The new attitude of the island’s youth,” reporting on the younger generation’s distance and questioning of its leaders as the country becomes more and more globalized. The paper argues that young Cubans today seem to support pragmatism and individualism more than collectivism and the repetition of political slogans.
At the end of 2008, more than 3 million of 11 million Cubans were between the ages of 20 and 39. According to the article, “the youth of today seems much like the youth of its time. It’s the generation that has grown up communicating a lot more with the outside world using thousands of technological devices.”
Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez assured journalists in a Tokyo press conference last week that Fidel Castro is in good health. Rodriguez said that he is in “permanent communication with Fidel Castro” and his health continues to improve, EFE reported.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez invited his mentor Fidel Castro to visit Venezuela during the coming months, the Associated Press reported. Chavez proposed that Castro visit between now and April during a congress of his socialist party. He also said he hoped Castro would be able to attend next week’s ALBA summit in Havana.
The President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, also said that Castro’s health has improved and he hopes he will be able to participate in the ALBA summit, EFE reported. “I feel like Fidel has recovered very well, and we’ll see if he participates,” said Morales.
CUBA’S FOREIGN POLICY
Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, met with President Raul Castro earlier this month to discuss increased cooperation and trade, the effects of climate change, and the possibility of companies from Singapore participating in the revitalization efforts of Cuba’s ports, Cuban media reported.
Also on a visit to Cuba last month, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni met with Raul Castro and signed an agreement for cooperation on oil exploration, New Vision reported. Under the agreement, Uganda will begin to send oil technicians to Cuba for training. The two countries also discussed increasing cooperation in biotechnology and medicine, beginning with joint efforts to combat and control malaria.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith visited Cuba last month as well, AFP reported. Smith said his trip is “the first step…to enhance good working and productive relationships between Australia and Cuba,” and Cuba’s foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez said he appreciates “Australia’s role in the global community,” and is “deeply thankful for Australia’s vote against the…embargo.”
President Castro also met with Heads of State from Seychelles and Tanzania, and the Prime Minister of Tonga during recent visits.
Furthermore, the Vice President of El Salvador, Salvador Sánchez, became the first high level official from El Salvador to visit Cuba in 48 years, Univision reported. Sánchez met with Cuban Vice President José Ramón Ventura and other officials to explore areas of cooperation after the recent resumption of diplomatic ties. El Salvador had been the only Latin American country that did not have relations with Cuba after Costa Rica reestablished relations in March.
Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, Patrick Manning, was in Havana this week for a routine medical examination. The exam was to follow up on a surgery he had in Cuba last December in which he had a cancerous kidney removed, Trinidad News reported.
ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America will hold a summit in Havana this weekend, the Associated Press reported. The Alliance is currently comprised of nine member states: Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Ecuador, Dominica, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda. Presidents Chavez and Morales have confirmed their participation.
Cuba, Travel and Human Rights, On Point Radio
For decades, most Cuban-Americans in the United States wanted to shut off Fidel Castro as well as shut him down. No trade, no travel. Most still aren’t fans. But since April, Cuban-Americans have been allowed to travel to Cuba. And they like it. Now, there’s a serious push – after years of a U.S. ban – to lift travel restrictions to Cuba for all Americans. Even human rights advocates complaining about Cuba say it’s time to open the floodgates.
Around the Region:
“So now the choice for policy makers is either walking away or using the remaining leverage we have to fight for the right things inside of Honduras which, in turn, would demonstrate to the region that we are serious about being a credible force for democracy (although that task has gotten considerably more difficult).”
What’s the right way forward for the United States and constructive diplomacy in the region? You can read the views of “senior administration officials” on recent developments in Honduras here. You can read our comments at a recent forum convened by the Inter-American Dialogue here.
We believe the U.S. gave away a lot of leverage by agreeing to accept the results of this election in advance, but still can work on a multi-lateral basis to press for human rights in Honduras now, and for a national dialogue on how to reform Honduran institutions going forward.
President Obama Announces New Ambassador to El Salvador, The White House
President Barack Obama announced his intent to nominate Mari Del Carmen Aponte as the Ambassador to the Republic of El Salvador.
Bolivia banks on Morales, Los Angeles Times
The landslide reelection of Bolivia’s leftist President Evo Morales this week comes as no surprise. He is the first Aymara Indian and native Quechua-speaker to lead the country, whose indigenous majority was underrepresented and widely exploited for centuries by a minority of European descent.
Editorial: Cracking Cuba, Los Angeles Times
The Obama administration, to its credit, has relaxed travel restrictions on Cuban Americans, lifted limits on remittances and resumed limited negotiations on issues such as migration, but the engagement stopped there. Meanwhile, the Spanish government, which takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union in January, has indicated that it is seeking gestures from the Cuban government that would allow for normalization of relations with the EU.
Martha Beatriz Roque, a prominent dissident, does not think that lifting the travel ban will produce change in Cuba, but that the travel ban sets the wrong example because it restricts the freedom of the people. Other Cubans are excited about the commerce that tourism would bring, as they are able to keep the profits that they make selling small handicrafts, such as wood carvings and domino sets.
Scientists work to protect Cuba’s unspoiled reef, NPR