While the U.S. and Cuban Governments Squabble, Varela Wows Washington

Dear Friend:

This was another week of watching the prospects for a better U.S. Cuban relationship wax and wane, but it did end on a very hopeful note.

The U.S. Senate stepped up – and passed legislation making it easier for U.S. farmers to sell food to Cuba by reversing rules that inhibited sales issued by the administration of George W. Bush.

The Cuban tourism ministry reached out – and joined a conference call with travel industry representatives during which they said our companies could make more than $1.1 billion annually if the U.S. travel ban to Cuba was lifted.

The Obama administration messed up – when it was learned this week that a U.S. contractor was arrested for distributing communications equipment in Cuba (violating a law), and U.S. Interest Section diplomats were filmed marching with protestors in Havana.

Cuba’s government lashed out.  President Raúl Castro attacked the U.S. position for recognizing the results of the Honduran election, while former President Fidel Castro went after the U.S. for its base agreement in Colombia.

But, all the while, our friend Carlos Varela, the famed Cuban troubadour, able to visit the U.S. for the first time in eleven years, thanks to a visa from the Obama administration, brought his hopeful message about the power of cultural exchange to move relations beyond the Cold War stalemate that has frozen the U.S.-Cuba relationship all these many years.

After a series of meetings with five Members of Congress, a senior official from the White House, panel discussions on the importance of culture, and interviews with major news organizations, he concluded his stay in Washington  with a powerful performance of his music and question and answer session at the New America Foundation (NAF) and with questions posed by Tim Golden and Eugene Robinson, both of whom are great journalists, Cuba experts, and lovers of Carlos’s music. You can view a video of the event here.

Songs, he said, can feed the souls of men and women, even the ones who create embargos and wars.  For if they listen to the music, it will help them make the world a better place.

Audiences across Washington had ears to hear that message.  This was the most hopeful sign of all.  We only hope that both governments were listening.


Senate approves measure to make agriculture sales to Cuba easier

The Senate approved a provision to make farm sales to Cuba easier, overturning restrictions put in place by the Bush administration, Reuters reported. The measure returns to the definition of “cash in advance” prior to the Bush administration’s interpretation, so payment will now be required before goods are delivered in Cuba rather than before they are shipped from the United States. The measure was added to a spending bill that funds dozens of federal agencies for the rest of the 2010 fiscal year, which runs through September 30, 2010.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said the change will “restore Congressional intent and make it easier for American producers to export during a critical time for our economy.” Cuban American Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) complained about the measure being tucked into the spending bill, but still voted for it.  Anya Landau French of the New America Foundation offered an analysis of Menendez’s actions on the Havana Note.

U.S. Government contractor detained in Cuba

A U.S. government contract worker has been detained in Cuba for distributing communications equipment to civil society groups. The man was detained on December 5th, and the New York Times broke the story on December 12th after speaking with U.S. officials.  The man’s name has not been released, but he is an American citizen working as a subcontractor to a third party under a USAID contract to Bethesda, MD-based development company DAI.

The man apparently entered Cuba on a tourist visa, which Cuban officials say is an immigration violation. It’s unclear exactly what type of communication devices he was distributing aside from cell phones and laptops. When asked if the materials included things like GPS and satellite phones, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley responded: “I think it is the ability to communicate globally.”

American officials are still waiting for a response to a request for consular access to the man, but said “they were encouraged that the Cubans had not publicized the detention, and they said they were hopeful that he might be quietly released,” the New York Times reported.

The Cuban government has not said anything publically about the case, but Politico reported that “Cuban authorities have confirmed elements of a foreign agent case to bring against him based on confirmation from various US authorities of his status as a USAID subcontractor.” The Cuban government considers USAID programs to promote democracy a violation of Cuba’s sovereignty and an attempt to overthrow the current leadership. Under the Cuban penal code, it is illegal to take part in activities and programs funded by the U.S. government.

USAID’s Cuba programs have also been intensely debated in the United States. Government Accountability Office reports have found that millions of dollars have been distributed to groups in Miami without competitive bidding or oversight, resulting in millions of dollars in misused and stolen funds. In 2008, the Bush administration vowed to overhaul the program, to award contracts to groups outside of Florida, and to focus more on delivering communications equipment to the island.

José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch criticized Cuba’s “draconian laws” that make handing out cell phones illegal, but also argued that the “contractor’s covert conduct raises questions about whether Mr. Obama would fulfill his promise to break with the confrontational tactics that Washington has employed toward Havana for five decades.”

A statement by DAI President and CEO Jim Boomgard, stated “In 2008, DAI competed for and was awarded a contract, the Cuba Democracy and Contingency Planning Program, to help the U.S. Government implement activities in support of the rule of law and human rights, political competition, and consensus building, and to strengthen civil society in support of just and democratic governance in Cuba.”

NPR reported on the case here.

Arturo Valenzuela on Cuba

The top State Department official for Latin America, Assistant Secretary Arturo Valenzuela, who took office last month, met with reporters last week and talked about Cuba policy. As Phil Peters points out on his Cuban Triangle Blog, Valenzuela’s words indicate that we might see more actions to expand people-to-people contacts and diplomatic engagement:

QUESTION: Yesterday, you said that you are not – you are thinking – you are going to go slowly on Cuba. And I wanted to ask you, it is because you’re seeing the Cuban Government is on a more open track and you want to give them time, or because you think they are not ready at all? […]

ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Well, on the first question, I think we’re moving ahead with the kind of speed that you would want in a situation like this where we’re examining both the situation in Cuba; at the same time, looking as we have done at measures that we can take to do two things – on the one hand, to expand the people-to-people contacts through the various different measures that we’ve taken. And we’re going to look to see whether there’s some other elements of that that we can look at, and then secondly, the engagement that we’ve had on issues that are of mutual interest to both countries. We’ve had these talks on postal matters, on migration questions, and we expect others to come up.
This week Valenzuela addressed the concerns of U.S. Senator George LeMieux (R-FL) over the Obama administration’s Cuba policy. LeMieux had placed a hold on the nomination of the former Assistant Secretary for Latin America, Thomas Shannon, as Ambassador of Brazil over his handling over U.S. policy toward Cuba and Honduras. Following meetings with State Department officials and receiving the letter from Valenzuela, LeMieux said he would remove the hold.   A copy of the letter can be read here.

Raúl Castro criticizes U.S., State Department responds

Cuban president Raúl Castro, who has rarely spoken about relations with the United States over the last year, criticized the Obama administration for helping to legitimize what he called an “electoral farce” in Honduras, Al Jazeera reported. “The people of that Latin American nation have had their constitutional rights denied and a usurper government has been imposed with the support of the North American [US] administration, which they’ve attempted to legitimize with an electoral farce,” Castro said. Responding to Castro’s comments, the US State Department said in a statement to Al Jazeera that Castro had no room to talk. “Millions of Hondurans voted in the recent competitive election won by Porfirio Lobo. When Raúl Castro was named president, there was only one vote that counted – his brother’s. If Raúl Castro wants to lecture about democracy, he should start practicing it as well,” the statement said.

Fidel Castro: despite Obama, the real intentions of the empire still exist

Fidel Castro says President Barack Obama’s “friendly smile and African-American face” are hiding Washington’s sinister intentions for Latin America. In a letter to Hugo Chavez that the Venezuelan president read at the close of the ALBA summit and that was reprinted in State press, Castro said the U.S. “empire is on the offensive again” in the region.

“The coup d’état in Honduras and the deployment of seven military bases in Colombia are recent events which have occurred after the inauguration of the new President of the United States. His predecessor had re-established the Fourth Fleet half-a-century after the latest world war had concluded, when the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union was no more. The real intentions of the empire are obvious this time behind Barack Obama’s nice smile and Afro-American face,” wrote Castro.

Castro has praised Obama over the last two years and approved of Obama’s winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, but called him “cynical” last week when he announced he was sending 30,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, the Associated Press reported.

State television airs footage of American diplomats with human rights marchers

Cuban state television aired footage on television last Thursday accusing diplomats from the United States Interest Section in Havana of taking part in a march organized by dissidents in Havana. As we reported last week, the civil society protestors were met by a group of government supports who chanted slogans in support of the Cuban government. It’s the first time that state television has aired footage of Interest Section staff working with dissidents since Barack Obama became president. You can see the video here.

Swiss bank fined for Cuba transactions

The Swiss bank Credit Suisse agreed to pay $536 million to settle claims that it helped process payments that let Iran and other nations — including Cuba — avoid government sanctions and gain access to U.S. financial markets, Bloomberg news reported.  Court documents on the settlement state that Credit Suisse made more than $1.6 billion in illegal transactions involving Iran, Sudan, Burma, Cuba and Libya from the mid-1990s through 2006. Without U.S. approval, the bank sent at least 32 outbound payment messages involving Cuba, the document stated.


Travel industry talks travel with Cuban officials

U.S. tourism companies could make over $1.1 billion a year on selling travel to Cuba if the travel ban were lifted, travel industry representatives and Cuban officials said Wednesday during a videoconference, the Associated Press reported. The figure includes $600 million airline sales, $300 million for travel agents and $200 million in U.S. tourism-related exports and services, said Miguel Figueras, a top aide to Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero.

The videoconference, the first of its kind, allowed Cuban officials in Havana to dialogue with travel industry representatives gathered at a hotel in downtown Washington, DC.  According to the American Society of Travel Agents, if restrictions are removed, 1.8 million U.S. tourists would visit Cuba annually.

Cuba expects a million Canadian tourists this year

Cuba is expecting a record-breaking one million Canadians this winter, Toronto’s Star newspaper reported. A little over 800,000 Canadians visited Cuba last year, about the same amount that visited Cuba in the first eight months of 2009. “Our goal to reach one million in 2010 is not that much of a stretch,” says Jesus Garcia of the Cuba Tourist Board in Toronto. “Cuba is known in Canada. We have the capacity, the market and the flights.”

According to the Star, “unlike other fun-and-sun destinations, things seem less crowded in Cuba, where we’re not bumping elbows with our U.S. neighbors.”


President Calderón to visit Cuba in 2010

Cuba and Mexico held positive bilateral meetings last week during a visit by Patricia Espinoza, Mexico’s foreign minister, to Havana, the New York Times reported. In April, the Cuban government suspended direct flights from Mexico in response to the H1N1 influenza outbreak, irritating Mexican President Felipe Calderón. Fidel Castro then accused the Mexican government of not disclosing news of the flu epidemic out of fear that it would interfere with President Obama’s visit to Mexico.

Espinoza met with her Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, and pointed out the long history the two countries have.  “We ought to make sure that our government relations correspond with that history,” said Espinoza. President Calderon planned to visit the island this year, but canceled his trip after the dispute over the flu. However, Espinoza said that he will make the trip in the first part of next year. She also extended an invitation to President Raúl Castro to visit Mexico.

Cuba and Venezuela sign new deals worth $3.2bn

Cuba’s President Raúl Castro and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez signed 285 accords in areas including energy, sports and technology last weekend, totaling more than $3.2 billion in economic cooperation, BBC News reported. The new deals give Venezuela a greater involvement in oil exploration off the Cuban coast and Cuba will buy over $400 million worth of Venezuelan goods, including food, tires and clothes.

BBC‘s correspondent in Havana, Michael Voss, said the deals underscore Venezuela’s role as Cuba’s closest political and commercial ally and come as Raúl Castro struggles to cope with the global economic crisis. Trade between the two countries was around $5.26 billion.

ALBA to start using new currency

Leaders of ALBA, The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, meeting in Havana over the weekend, announced plans to begin using a new currency, the sucre, for trade within the group, the Associated Press reported. No sucres will be printed or coined initially, but the virtual currency will be used to manage payments between governments. Cuba and Venezuela signed the first agreement to use the sucre for a shipment of Venezuelan rice to Cuba.


Cuba struggles to build new homes

Cuba has built only 20,000 homes in 2009, about 60 percent of the goal set for the year, the Associated Press reported based on reports from Havana. The government had hoped to build 32,000 homes by year’s end. The number was given in a report prepared for this weekend’s parliamentarian sessions. Housing has long been one of the biggest problems in Cuba and a priority of the government. Fidel Castro said in 2005 that the government would build 100,000 new homes per year. That number was never met and in 2008 it was lowered to 50,000.  Raúl Castro cut the projection even more in 2009, hoping for 32,000. Cuba estimated a housing shortage of 500,000 homes in 2006, which was before three hurricanes wiped out thousands of homes in 2008.

Saint Lazarus Pilgrimage

One of Cuba’s most important religious events, the Saint Lazarus pilgrimage, took place on Thursday, Reuters reported. Thousands of Cubans paid homage to a Catholic saint “who doubles as a powerful deity in the Afro-Cuban Santeria faith.” Devotees flocked the a church in the village of El Rincon, a small town outside of Havana, carrying bunches of mauve gladioli, pink bougainvillea and fat cigars to leave as offerings to the saint. According to experts, the mix of Santeria and Christian worship is the result of African slaves in Cuba who pretended to worship Catholic saints, but continued honoring their own deities.

Juanes named Person of the Year

The Colombian magazine Cambio has chosen Juanes as “Person of the Year” for his work as a philanthropist and for being a “peace maker” in Latin American. Despite bureaucratic obstacles, threats and other challenges, Juanes pushed forward with the Paz sin Fronteras (Peace without Borders) concert in Havana in September. 1.2 million Cubans attended the concert and it was broadcast throughout the world.

Recommended Reading:

Cuba’s other revolution is green, not red, The Guardian

In Copenhagen they are debating how to end deforestation, but in Cuba’s Pinar del Río they were replanting 50 years ago, creating lush, unspoiled valleys.

Cuba fighting blogs with blogs, Miami Herald

Viewing bloggers critical of the government as dangerous subversives, Cuba is fighting blog with blog.

Investors sticking it out in crisis-prone Cuba, Reuters

The number of joint ventures and other investment projects in Cuba remained stable this year despite a liquidity and payments crisis, according to testimony before a parliamentary commission published on Thursday.

Around the Region:

Salvadoran activist led probe into killing of 6 Jesuit priests, Washington Post

Leonel Gómez, 68, a Salvadoran human rights activist who investigated for a U.S. congressional commission some of the most notorious assassinations in his country’s long civil war, died of cardiac arrest Nov. 25 in the capital city of San Salvador. Mr. Gómez was the lead investigator on the Moakley Commission, the 1989 task force headed by Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) that identified the Salvadoran army officers who killed six Jesuit priests and their housekeepers, helped put an end to U.S. aid to El Salvador’s army and pushed the Central American country toward peace.

Rights activist who protested Honduras coup killed, Associated Press

Walter Trochez, a human rights advocate who was active in the gay community, was killed Sunday in Tegucigalpa’s Central Park. Supporters of Honduras’ ousted President Manuel Zelaya blame security forces for his death, while police officials deny that claim.

Obama: stand up for women’s rights in Honduras, Christian Science Monitor

Continued political wrangling is bad enough for democracy in Honduras and across Latin America. What’s worse is that the international community, including the Obama administration, is ignoring the widespread abuses of human rights in the coup’s aftermath.

Chile now one step closer to First World, Miami Herald

While everybody was looking at Sunday’s first round of Chile’s presidential elections, led by center-right candidate Sebastian Piñera, a little-noticed event that took place two days later may be remembered as much more important in that country’s history. At a meeting in Paris on Tuesday, the 30-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — the club of the world’s richest democracies — formally invited Chile to become a member.

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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