Holiday Edition: the last Cuba Central News Blast of 2009

Dear Friends:

This is our last blast of Cuba news for 2009.

Thank you for sticking with us.  It is our profound hope that each time you read our news summary you came away a little better informed about Cuba and U.S. policy than you were before…that you were entertained by the writing…that we left you a little more inclined to believe that the Cuba travel ban and the embargo really ought to end.

If we accomplished those things, then we succeeded in our work, and we hope that you will join us next year as we try to understand why a country like the United States would stick with a policy that’s so dumb.

The year that began with high expectations ended on some bittersweet notes.

To be sure, we’re thrilled that Cuban-Americans can now travel to the island and support their families without limits.

We’re grateful that artists like Carlos Varela are now being permitted to come to the United States to talk about how cultural exchange can quickly bring people together – much faster than their governments seem ready to do.

We’re hopeful that direct negotiations on matters like migration and the delivery of mail will at some point next year prove that engagement is better than confrontation.

We’re pleased – but not surprised – that the latest polling shows 70% of the American public favoring the freedom to travel, and that the Seattle Times is joining newspapers around the country in calling for an end to the embargo itself.

But we’d be a lot happier if President Obama opened the doors to travel, and if Congress reciprocated by ending the ban altogether.  We’d be more hopeful if our country wasn’t sending American workers to violate Cuban law in a hapless effort at regime change.  We’d feel a lot better if the Cuban government permitted the imprisoned contractor to come home for the holidays.  We’d look to the future with greater anticipation if both governments lowered their rhetoric and got serious about reconciling their differences.

To paraphrase our friend Carlos Varela, it is painful to be this close and yet feel so far away.
See you again in 2010.


Raúl Castro calls out President Obama in National Assembly Address

In a speech to the Cuban National Assembly, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro strongly criticized President Obama for the first time since Obama was elected.

Castro referenced the arrest of an American contractor, accused of distributing satellite equipment and other electronics to dissidents, as evidence that “the United States won’t quit trying to destroy the revolution and bring a change to our economic and social regime.”

“In the last few weeks we have witnessed the stepping up of the new administration’s efforts in this area,” Castro told the parliament. “They are giving new breath to open and undercover subversion against Cuba.”

Castro did not elaborate on specific charges against the U.S. citizen, but said he was “working to illegally distribute sophisticated methods of satellite communication to members of the ‘civil society’ which they hope to form against our people.”

Castro reiterated that he is ready and willing to enter into a dialogue with the United States as long as it is based on sovereignty and mutual respect.

“If the American government really wants to advance relations with Cuba,” Castro said, “I recommend they leave behind the conditions of internal governance that they are trying to impose on us and that only Cubans can decide.”

Cuba criticizes Obama’s actions in Copenhagen

Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez accused President Barack Obama of being “imperial, arrogant” and dishonest during last week’s global climate conference, Reuters reported.
Rodriguez said in a televised press conference that Obama lied during the United Nations summit in Copenhagen and is making a habit of it after less than a year in office.

“He lies all the time, deceives with demagogic words, with profound cynicism,” Rodriguez told reporters. “In this summit there was only an imperial, arrogant Obama who doesn’t listen, who imposes positions that even threaten developing countries,” he said.

General McCaffrey cancels trip to Cuba

Barry McCaffrey, U.S. Army (retired), an advocate of unfettered travel to Cuba, has decided not to travel to Cuba next week because of the recent comments made by Cuba’s top officials, the Miami Herald’s Cuban Colada blog reported.

In a message to Wayne Smith, director of the Cuba Program at the Washington-based Center for International Policy, McCaffrey said that he had read reports that Cuba’s foreign minister had “denounced President Obama at the Copenhagen Conference as an ‘imperial and arrogant liar’ in what McCaffrey called the most vile and personal terms imaginable.

“This type of shallow and vitriolic 1960s public diplomacy also makes Cuban leadership appear to be non-serious, polemical amateurs.  President Obama is the most thoughtful and non-ideological U.S. Chief Executive that the Cubans have seen in 50 years. This Foreign Minister Rodríguez speech probably slammed the window shut on U.S. Congressional and Administration leaders being willing to support bringing Cuba back into the community of nations,” McCaffrey wrote.

The General said that based on the recent statements he sees little reason to visit Cuba.

Florida senate contenders appeal to Cuban-American elites

The top four candidates to become Florida’s next U.S. senator met Monday with conservative members of the Cuban American community to explain how each would be the toughest on Cuba if elected, the Associated Press reported.

Gov. Charlie Crist, GOP challenger Marco Rubio, and Democratic candidates Rep. Kendrick Meek and former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre addressed the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee (PAC), which supports a hard-line against the Cuban government and makes financial contributions to Members of Congress to influence their votes on Cuba policy.

According to the AP, Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants who has increasingly chipped away at Crist’s lead, was the candidate to receive the largest applause from the audience of more than 300.  A recent report by a non-profit that tracks political donations showed the PAC and its supporters have given more than $10 million to congressional campaigns over the last seven years.

Cuban-American Congressmen go south on Crist

As the Miami Herald reported, Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart pulled their endorsements of Gov. Charlie Crist for the U.S. Senate.  In a phone interview with the Herald, Lincoln Diaz-Balart offered few details, saying only that Crist had “left us no alternative and he knows why.”

Although the Representatives – brothers and Cuban-Americans-declined to throw their support to any other candidate, the withdrawal of their endorsements will strengthen the candidacy of Marco Rubio, the former Florida State House Speaker, a prominent Cuban-American who is challenging Crist for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate.

What caused this rupture?

According to the blog, Along the Malecon, the dispute was not over Crist’s sagging poll numbers or simple political patronage.  Tracey Eaton argues that the falling out occurred over differences in how U.S. taxpayer dollars funding “pro-democracy” efforts in Cuba would be controlled.   Under his theory, the Diaz-Balarts wanted control, but Crist did too.

At least it was over principle.


Seattle Times: End Embargo

The Seattle Times has called for an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba, arguing that an agriculture provision in a recent spending bill to facilitate farm sales to the island was good, “but we should go much further.”

The Seattle Times said it would “allow Americans to visit Cuba without threatening them with fines under the Trading With the Enemy Act. We would repeal the Helms-Burton Act and allow Americans to invest in Cuba, and we would allow some Cuban investment here. We would allow the importation of Cuban sugar and other lawful products.”

It advocates changing the policy “not because we support the system in Cuba, but because we support the rights of Americans to make their own decisions about it,” and urge their state’s Senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray “to be much bolder on this issue.”

U.S. public overwhelmingly supports freedom to travel to Cuba

Two experts in International Policy Attitudes argue in a letter to the Florida Sun-Sentinel that Congress should take into account public opinion about policy toward Cuba. A national survey by in spring, 2009 shows that a large majority (70%) of the public thinks that “Americans should be free to visit Cuba;” a position taken by clear majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.

Stephen J. Weber and Alicia Bonner of World Public Opinion note that the Cuban government is unpopular in the U.S., but most Americans (71%) feel that increasing travel and trade “will lead Cuba in a more open and democratic direction,” not that it will “strengthen the communist regime in Cuba.” The two argue that Members of Congress should take note of the desires of their constituents after a failed policy has produced nothing in 50 years.


Cardinal to give Christmas message on state TV

For the second straight year, Cuba’s Roman Catholic Cardinal will read a Christmas message on state television. The Associated Press calls it “another small sign the once officially atheist communist government is warming to religion.”

Cardinal Jaime Ortega will reportedly give thanks to the fact that Cubans living in the U.S. are now allowed to visit their loved ones for the holidays and send money to the island. In November 2008, President Raúl Castro attended the beatification of Friar Jose Olallo Valdes in the city of Camaguey. Castro’s first diplomatic meeting after becoming President in February 2008 was with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Pope Benedict XVI’s secretary of state, who was in Cuba marking the 10th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit.

Valdes and Bejerano made VPs of Council of State

Cuba’s National Assembly elected revolutionary commander Ramiro Valdes and comptroller Gladys Bejerano as vice presidents of its supreme governing body, the Council of State, on Sunday. Valdes, who is also communications minister and a Cabinet vice president, is a former rebel leader who fought with the Castro brothers and the former minister of the interior. Bejerano is the head of a new office created over the summer to oversee state spending and corruption. Bejerano is the first female ever to be elected vice president in Cuba, Granma reported.

They replace revolutionary hero Juan Almeida, who died in September, and Carlos Lage, the de-facto economics czar who resigned in March during a leadership shake-up, the Associated Press reported. The Council of State is made up of President Raúl Castro, first vice president Machado, five other VPs, a secretary, and 23 others.

Cuba allows Spanish businessman on house arrest to travel to Spain

Cuba will allow a Spanish businessman awaiting trial on corruption charges to travel to Spain for the holidays, EFE reported.  Pedro Hermosilla, president of the AGEM Group, was arrested in September during a business trip to Cuba.  He was detained under house arrest on October 20th following a visit to the island by Spain’s foreign minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos.  Hermosilla will travel to Madrid to spend Christmas with his family but has agreed to return to Cuba if his case ends up going to trial. The AGEM group has done business in Cuba for several years, selling laboratory materials and instruments.

Cuba only Latin American country to eradicate infant malnutrition

Cuba is the only country in Latin America that has been able to eradicate severe infant malnutrition, UNICEF confirmed in a report this Tuesday. According to UNICEF, there are around 146 million children under the age of five that suffer from malnutrition, 45 percent live in Africa, 15 percent in Asia, 5 percent in Central and Eastern Europe, while about 7 percent live in Latin America and the Caribbean.


Cuba imported food products worth $1.5 billion in 2009, farm production grew by 4.5%

Cuba spent $1.5 billion dollars on food products in 2009, a year in which the government faced a liquidity crisis and began an effort to substitute imports with domestic productions, AFP reported. The government spent $2.5 billion dollars to import food in 2008.

“Our responsibility is to confront problems in food security, and in correspondence with that initiative some changes have been made, motivating workers and turning over empty lands to producers,” said the Minister of Agriculture, Ulises Rosales.

Rosales said that domestic agriculture production grew by 4.5% in 2009, mainly because of the policy of giving idle lands to farmers. “We have turned over a little bit more than 50% of the land that we had to give out, it’s an ongoing process and should be done with efficiency.”

Cuba’s economy will grow 1.4 percent this year

Cuba’s economy will grow by 1.4 this year, the Cuban government announced on Sunday, falling below initial projections and marking the slowest growth rate in over six years, Reuters reported. “The Cuban economy will grow 1.4 percent, below the 6 percent that was initially planned on the basis of more favorable circumstances that didn’t materialize,” Economy Minister Marino Murillo said.

The slow growth is mainly attributed to the global economic slowdown, which has reduced revenue from tourism, tobacco, nickel and other products. Cuba’s economy grew by 4.3 percent in 2008.


Los Van Van headed to the Keys

Los Van Van will make a long-awaited return to the U.S. next month, Reuters reported. The group often referred to as the “Rolling Stones of salsa,” will perform on January 28th in Key West, Florida. Reuters reports that Los Van Van “will be the latest group of Cuban artists to benefit from a quiet resumption of cultural exchanges under current U.S. President Barack Obama.”

The group will head to Europe after the show in Florida but return for a 70-concert U.S. tour starting in April.

Band leader and bassist Juan Formell says he hopes “the tour will exorcise memories of one of the group’s last U.S. appearances,” referring to a 1999 concert in Miami when U.S. anti-riot police had to keep angry Cuban exile protesters from harassing concert-goers. Formell believes the atmosphere in Miami has changed. “I was in Miami recently and nobody treated me poorly. On the contrary, people wanted to have pictures taken with me, they asked for autographs. It has changed a lot … there is a new, younger generation that thinks differently,” said Formell.

La Charanga Habanera to perform in Miami

As the Nuevo Herald writes, “a few years ago nobody would have believed it,” but on New Year’s Eve one of Cuba’s most popular groups, La Charanga Habanera, will perform in the heart of the Cuban exile, Miami. After performing in San Francisco on Tuesday, the group will perform at the Dolce Club in Miami Beach on Saturday, in Hialeah on Sunday and on New Year’s Eve at Club Ache in Little Havana.

“The show is full of ‘Cubania.’ Our intention is to connect with our Cuban brothers regardless of where they are,” said the group. “When we leave Cuba to make music we bring the feeling of the Cuban people. We don’t make politics; we just transmit what we learn from musicians like Beny More and others.”

Kool & the Gang rock the Malecon

The veteran American funk disco band Kool & the Gang performed a free concert along Havana’s seafront, the Malecon, on Sunday. Over 100,000 Cuban’s danced and sang along with a group that has been popular in Cuba for many years, BBC News reported. The group said that they were in Cuba for the music and did not have any political message.

“We are not politicians, we are musicians,” maintained founder and band leader Robert ‘Kool’ Bell. “We come to bring good music and it’s great that we are here. Hopefully we won’t have these political questions and problems in the future.”

The concert took place at the Anti-Imperialist Plaza, which is located in front of the U.S. Interest Section. Thousands of fans waved signs, such as “After 30 years we still love you” and “Kool We Love U,” BBC reported. Many Cubans interviewed said they hoped it would be the first of many visits by musicians from the United States.

You can see a BBC video report on the concert here.

More on Carlos Varela’s visit to the United States this month

PRI’s The World Correspondent Betto Arcos aired this story about Carlos Varela, a Cuban musician who is urging Congress to change the U.S. travel ban and to allow Cuban and American artists to travel freely to each other’s countries.

You can also see a video of Varela taking part in a panel discussion and playing music at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC last week.

Recommended Viewing:

This website offers beautiful panoramic photography of many of the most beautiful places on earth, including many parts of Cuba. Check out searches for Cuba, Havana and Santiago de Cuba to see some great views.

Recommended Reading:

From the American People, Tom Garofalo on the Havana Note

As more details unfold about the detention of a U.S. citizen in Cuba it becomes clear that the Obama Administration formula that “we’ve done our part, now it’s Cuba’s turn” is open to debate.

Did OFAC Cancel Christmas?

Just when you thought our policy toward Cuba couldn’t get worse, this just in from the Export Law Blog on how OFAC Stole Christmas!

The dispute arose from a dilemma that the U.S. sanctions against Cuba posed for Santa’s planned delivery of toys to children in Cuba. If Santa delivers toys for U.S. children first, there will be toys destined for Cuba in the sleigh in violation of 31 C.F.R. § 515.207(b). That rule prohibits Santa’s sleigh from entering the United States with “goods in which Cuba or a Cuban national has an interest.” On the other hand, if Santa delivers the toys to Cuban children first, then 31 C.F.R. § 515.207(a) prohibits the sleigh from entering the United States and “unloading freight for a period of 180 days from the date the vessel departed from a port or place in Cuba.”

And to all, a good night!

The Cuba Central Team

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