Happy New Year Edition; travel, trouble, and the bridge to the future

Dear Friend:

As we usher in 2010, and wish all of our readers and members a Happy New Year, we remembered a holiday story with a lesson for today.

A few years ago, we took out a small print ad that asked who cancelled Christmas in Havana?

The answer then was President George W. Bush.  In the months before the 2004 election, he tightened the rules on travel and financial support for Cuban-Americans with relatives on the island, leaving families longing for their relatives especially during the holidays.

It took five years, but with the election of President Obama, who ended limits on family travel and financial support, Cuban-Americans can now travel freely to Cuba.  His decision to reunite families undoubtedly made this Christmas a happy one for those Cuban families with relatives here in the United States.  For them, relations are starting to normalize, and that is a good thing.

But as we enter another year, the kind of change President Obama delivered for Cuban-Americans in 2009 is needed for us all.

A change in Cuba policy would restore to every American the constitutional right to travel.  It would level the playing field for American manufacturers and service industries so that they could compete in the Cuban market with our economic allies and adversaries who trade with Cuba every day.  It would replace the sloganeering and Mad Magazine style “Spy vs. Spy” gestures that dominate the discourse between both governments with real engagement and diplomacy.  It would produce a dialogue in which both capitals speak and treat each other with the respect they deserve.  It would send the kind of open and generous signal to Cuba and to the region that is desperately overdue from the U.S. of A.

The politicians are not yet ready to go there, in either country.  That’s why, even under President Obama, our government is sending USAID contractors to violate Cuban law, and why one of them is still locked away (now, finally, with consular contact established by our U.S. Interests Section).  It’s why President Raúl Castro is still delivering speeches before the Cuban National Assembly about the U.S. trying to undermine or overthrow Cuba as his brother was able to deliver for five decades.  It’s why another conga line of Senate candidates in Florida promised yet another hardliner audience in yet another political campaign that they will never, ever change this failed policy no matter what. It’s why after a 2008 election filled with so much promise, Cubans and Americans ended 2009 asking “can’t we do better?”

At least the artists get it.  The New York Times this week documented Carlos Varela’s three-week stay in the U.S. with a powerful portrayal of what the cultural community is trying to do to bring our two countries together.

As Carlos himself said, music can’t stop wars or end embargos, but it can help. “Music is not going to move governments. But it might move people. And people can move governments.”

Let’s hope that movement happens, this year in 2010.  We’d love to see Americans in Cuba and Cubans in America without having to ask their government’s permission to be there – not just at the holidays but all year ’round.  That’s the change we’re after.

This week in Cuba news.


U.S. diplomats visit arrested American contractor

A U.S. diplomat visited an American citizen jailed in Cuba for handing out high tech communications equipment to dissident groups on behalf of the U.S. government, the Associated Press reported. A U.S. official in Havana said a consular official visited the American contractor at an undisclosed location where he is being held following his arrest in early December.

“We were given access by the Cubans yesterday,” said Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Interests Section. “He was visited by a consular representative from the U.S. Interests Section.”

A State Department spokesman in Washington said the Obama administration remains “focused on the welfare of the detained U.S. citizen,” but refused to say more. Neither government has released the identity of the detainee, who was a subcontractor for Development Alternatives Inc., an international development group that receives U.S. government money to “strengthen civil society in support of just and democratic governance in Cuba.”

The incident has been mentioned only once by the Cuban government. Raúl Castro referenced the incident in a Dec. 20th speech to the National Assembly, saying it was evidence “the United States won’t quit trying to destroy the revolution.”

Arrest of U.S. government contractor shines light on controversial program

According to the Washington Post, the detention of a U.S. government contractor in Cuba has “once again put the spotlight on a secretive U.S. pro-democracy program… that has faced persistent questions about its management and effectiveness.” According to many experts, the program is counterproductive by “exposing dissidents to charges that they are U.S. puppets.”

“It taints them. It is almost a gift to the Castro regime to do that,” said Ted Henken, a sociologist at Baruch College who is an expert on the Cuban blogosphere. Prior to the arrest, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for a review of the program.

In April, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asking for “a more robust mechanism” to track the spending and results of the “problematic” program, the Post reported.

The program has been marked by corruption since it was launched in 1997.  A 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office found that groups receiving $4.7 million in grants had purchased Godiva chocolates, Nintendo Game Boys and other questionable items. In 2008, a former employee of one lead grantee, the Center for a Free Cuba, admitted to stealing $600,000. Nevertheless, the program’s budget rose from about $3.5 million in 2000 to $45 million in 2008 under President George W. Bush. The Obama administration has maintained it, allocating $20 million in 2009 and 2010 for the Cuba democracy program.

Cubans living in the U.S. make their way home for the holiday

Christmas in Cuba this year was marked by the return of Cubans living in the U.S. to spend the holidays with loved ones, Agence France-Presse reported. Cuban-Americans arrived en mass to Havana’s airport over the last two weeks, with as many as 10 flights a day coming from Miami, many stocked with Christmas presents for relatives.

Under President George W. Bush, Cubans living in the U.S. could only visit the island once every three years – with no exceptions. In April, President Barack Obama removed restrictions on Cuban-Americans, allowing them to visit as often as they would like.

According to AFP, The holiday was filled with stories of reconciliation. Adrian, a 17-year-old from Florida, where he was born to Cuban immigrants, met his grandfather and other relatives for the first time. “My parents emigrated 20 years ago and I’m so happy to be able to come and get to know my relatives,” he said, grinning. Jose Rodriguez, a 50-year-old mechanic waited at the airport for his 28-year-old niece, who he hadn’t seen in three years. “Cuban families have to be able to come together. The restrictions don’t make any sense, nor does the embargo,” he said. “The people shouldn’t carry the blame of their governments.”

Cuba: Florida Senate race will not lead to improved relations

Cuba says regardless which candidate wins the 2010 race in Florida for the U.S. Senate, it will not help to improve relations between Havana and Washington, the Associated Press reported.

Tuesday’s edition of the Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, referred to Republicans Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist and Democrats Kendrick Meek and Maurice Ferre, all proponents of the embargo, as part of a “Miami mafia machine that dominates the city and North American policies toward Cuba.” All four candidates addressed the US-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee (PAC) last week, arguing why he would be the best to fight for democracy in Cuba.   The PAC supports maintaining the embargo as is.


Trying to Sway America’s Cuba Policy With Song

In an article titled “Trying to Sway America’s Cuba Policy With Song,” the New York Times reported on the importance of Carlos Varela’s recent visit to the United States. The Times writes that Varela is part of a growing “movement by artists, scholars and businessmen to change United States policy toward Cuba from the bottom up.”

Recent concerts by Kool and the Gang and Juanes in Havana, who acquired Treasury licenses for performers and equipment from the U.S., and visits by Cuban artists to the U.S. are evidence of “quietly expanded cultural exchange.” Academics and scientists from the U.S. have also been increasingly receiving permission to meet with their counterparts in Havana, and vice-versa. “I know people are complaining that President Obama has not made any changes toward Cuba, but from where I sit, there’s been remarkable change,” said Daniel Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund, which arranged a delegation to Havana in September to discuss conservation issues relating to the Gulf of Mexico.

Varela argued during his trip that increased engagement would be good for everybody.

“There are some Cuban politicians who use the isolation to their benefit,” Mr. Varela said in a meeting with Representative Howard L. Berman (D-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “But I do not believe that anyone in Cuba could stand in the way if the United States decided to open relations.”

In his meetings with government officials and talks at universities and think tanks, Varela acknowledged that music can’t stop wars or end embargos, but said it can help. “Music is not going to move governments,” he said. “But it might move people. And people can move governments.”

Check out this slide show by the New York Times with pictures and narration from Varela’s visit.

Cuba hopes more U.S. artists will visit the island in 2010

Cuba hopes the Obama administration will give licenses to more musicians to visit the island in 2010. Vice-minister of Culture, Abel Acosta, said that he hopes Calle 13 and the New York Philharmonic will receive permission to perform in Havana, Agence France-Presse reported. Both groups tried to visit Havana in 2009 but were denied permission. Calle 13 did not have their license approved in time to perform at a film festival and the Philharmonic had licenses for donors denied, forcing the group to cancel their trip.

Acosta is hopeful that the Obama administration will allow both groups to travel to Cuba in 2010. Writing on the CubaDebate website, Acosta said the recent concert in Havana by Kool and the Gang is an example of the need for increased cultural exchange between the two countries.

Omara Portuondo to perform in Washington, DC

Omara Portuondo, the “Sweetheart from the Buena Vista Social Club,” will perform at Lisner Auditorium in Washington, DC on February 24th. Portuondo became one of the first Cuban artists in six years to obtain a visa to perform in the U.S., visiting the States in October. In November, she became the first Cuban resident to present at the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards, where she delivered the prestigious Song of The Year award. Information about the show and tickets is available here.


50,000 Cubans with more than one job

Six months after a resolution was passed by the National Assembly to allow citizens to hold multiple jobs, about 50,000 Cubans have more than one job, state television announced on Monday, Reuters reported.  The resolution was passed in June in an effort to increase income and confront the effects of the financial crisis.

Aside from allowing workers to hold multiple jobs, the law authorizes university students to work and study.  The vice-president of labor and social security, José Barreiro, said the majority of people holding more than one job work in the teaching sector.  Cuba’s president Raúl Castro told the National Assembly last week that food production and employment are the two highest priorities for the government in 2010.

Church group unable to enter Cuba due to mix up with paperwork

Fourteen people from a Portland church group traveling to Cuba for humanitarian purposes were not allowed to enter the country due to problems with their paperwork, the Oregonian reported.

The group, Cuba AyUUda, holds a special religious activities license that allows legal travel to Cuba for those affiliated with First Unitarian Church. However, Carol Rossio, a church member, said Cuban authorities said their religious activities license did not match their tourist visas.  The USAID contractor detained in Havana last month is said to have been traveling on a tourist visa.

The Rev. Kate Lore, the church’s social justice minister, said all members of the group are safe and sound and the incident won’t deter church members from returning to Cuba. “This was a paperwork glitch and we will remedy it in the future,” she said.

China to aid Cuba with 1.1 million dollar irrigation project

China will aid Cuba with a $1.1 million dollar irrigation project to develop an irrigation system in Caujeri valley in Guantanamo province, Prensa Latina reported. According to Prensa Latina, the project will aim to restore the irrigation and drainage infrastructure, and establish an efficient operational structure. Cuban officials said the deal is part of Cuba’s movement to revitalize agriculture, especially food production, as part of a strategy to reduce imports and mitigate the effects of the international crisis.

China’s  Liaoning Zhongyi International Economic and Technical Cooperation Co. Ltd is in charge of the new project, and will supply trucks, tractors, trailers, retro excavators, and different kinds of valves. Trade between Cuba and China represents more than $2.6 billion dollars per year, and China is a key source of credit for the island, reported AFP.

La Guarida rumored to be closing

The Penúltimos Días blog reported that the emblematic Havana restaurant La Guarida has permanently closed down. One of Cuba’s most famous paladars (private restaurant), La Guarida was frequented by Hollywood stars, prime ministers, presidents, the Queen of Spain and many other important political and cultural figures over the years. It was also the site of countless cherished meals shared by Cubans and delegations from the U.S. sponsored by the Center for Democracy in the Americas.  A lot of learning about Cubans and Cuba took place at their tables, conversations we at Cuba Central will never forget.

Located on the top floor of a residential apartment building, La Guarida’s reputation came from its movie-location setting – the early 90s film Fresa y Chocolate was filmed in the building.

According to Penúltimos Días, La Guarida “survived for a long time, but the government’s axe finally fell on top of it and broke it into pieces, giving the owner the option of shutting down in order to avoid jail time and a painful process.” No other details have been reported. More information about the restaurant, including photos and the menu, can be found on its website, which is still working.

Cuba’s Tropicana nightclub turns 70

Havana’s famed Tropicana nightclub turned 70 this week. Reuters reported that a packed house celebrated the 70th birthday with “a show that began on Monday night and ended Tuesday morning, marking the club’s opening on Dec. 30, 1939.” The show included a tribute to stars that performed at the Tropicana in the past, like Carmen Miranda and Nat King Cole.

Tropicana began as a casino and nightclub that, especially in its pre-revolutionary years, attracting a steady stream of American celebrities. Cuban officials chose to keep the club open after the Revolution as a way to promote Cuban culture and make money. “This is an emblematic place for Cuba. It is one of Cuba’s most important tourist products,” Tourism Vice Minister Maria Elena Lopez told Reuters.

Nickel production marks ten year low

Reuters reported that Cuba’s unrefined nickel plus cobalt production was the lowest in a decade, finishing off the year with between 60,000 and 65,000 tons produced, according to local media reports. Cuba has produced an average of 74,000 – 75,000 tons of nickel annually over the last 10 years and is one of the world’s largest producers. Scattered news reports said production at a joint-venture plant with Canadian mining company Sherritt International’s (S.TO) topped 37,000 ton, but output at two plants owned by state-run Cubaniquel was well below capacity.

Hurricane Ike, one of several storms that battered Cuba in 2008, made landfall at Holguin’s northern coast, home to three key nickel processing plants, affecting key infrastructure, housing and the plants themselves.


Spain will push for new EU policy toward Cuba

One of Spain’s main initiatives after assuming the presidency of the European Union in 2010 will be to get rid of the EU’s Common Position toward Cuba. Established in 1996, the unilateral Common Position conditions cooperation on respect for human rights. Spain hopes to replace it with a policy where EU members establish bilateral relations with Cuba on an individual basis.

According to Spain’s foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, his country will use the presidency to “open a debate about reaching an agreement so that relations with Havana are formed through bilateral policies,” Agence France-Presse reported. Moratinos said the Common Position has been “an error” and a “firm and respectful dialogue would be the best way to advance relations between the EU and Cuba.”

Abolishing the Common Position does face stiff opposition from some, including the Czech Republic, Sweden, the conservative opposition in Spain, and some Cuban dissidents.  Moratinos said that there are 200 political prisoners in Cuba, which is an “unacceptable” figure. However, he noted that when the administration of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero took power in 2004, there were 300 dissidents in jail, many of whom were released with Spanish mediation.

Cubans escape from detention center in Mexico

Three Cubans disappeared from a migrant detention center in Mexico over the weekend, EFE reported. The Cuban nationals, Yoel Francisco Escalante Machado, Roxana Alfonso Roche and Jose Miguel Falla Yera, appeared to have received help from officials at the National Migration Institute in Central Mexico. The NMI issued a statement saying it would “not tolerate corruption inside the institution.”

Cubans often enter Mexico illegally in an effort to reach the United States. Mexico and Cuba signed an immigration agreement in October 2008 allowing for illegal migrants from Cuba caught in Mexico to be returned to the island. The agreement has led to the repatriation of hundreds of Cubans and a reduction in Cubans arriving illegally in Mexico. However, on several occasions Cubans have escaped or been forcefully removed from INM facilities by suspected traffickers.

Recommended Reading:

In Cuba, Hopeful Tenor Toward Obama Is Ebbing, New York Times

When President Obama came to office, the unflattering billboards of George W. Bush, including one outside the United States Interests Section of him scowling alongside Hitler, came down and the anti-American vitriol softened. Raúl Castro, who took over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2006, even raised the possibility of a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Obama, which would have been the first time one of the Castros met with a sitting American president.

CUBA-US: Stuck at a Standstill, IPS News

Relations between Cuba and the United States are still bogged down in longstanding political and ideological differences, in spite of the signals of greater openness and opportunities for dialogue when Democratic U.S. President Barack Obama arrived at the White House.

Top 10 Export Stories of 2009, Export Law Blog

OFAC and BIS amended the rules implementing the Cuba sanctions to allow more exports of computers, peripherals and digital devices to Cuba.

Around the Region:

Anti-Mining Activists Killed in El Salvador, Democracy Now

For the second time in a week, a prominent anti-mining activist has been assassinated in El Salvador. On Saturday, thirty-two-year-old Dora “Alicia” Recinos Sorto was shot dead near her home. One of her children was also injured in the shooting. Sorto was an active member of the Cabañas Environment Committee, which has campaigned against the reopening of a gold mine owned by the Vancouver-based Pacific Rim Mining Company.

Death of Honduran gay activist illustrates spike in hate crimes, Miami Herald

The recent killing of gay activist Walter Tróchez in Honduras shows a troubling increase in hate crimes in the past six months in the Central American nation that has been marred by a political crisis.

Chavez says Obama “illusion” over, Reuters

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez said in a New Year’s message the “illusion” around President Barack Obama was over and rich nations had left the world on the verge of ecological disaster.

And to all, a very happy new year!

The Cuba Central Team


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