Two heroes in the U.S. Senate, Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan, announced their decisions to retire at the end of this Congress and not run for reelection. Their leadership deserves special mention at the top of this week’s news summary.
Dodd, the son of a Senator, answered President Kennedy’s call to public service by joining the Peace Corps, serving in the Dominican Republic from 1966 to 1968. He brought to the Congress a direct experience in Latin America that few of his colleagues have, and was a consistent and clear voice against the tired American approaches in Latin America of neglect on one hand or reckless intervention on the other. An expert on Western Hemisphere affairs and a courageous leader on Cuba, Senator Dodd fought for policies like repeal of the U.S. travel ban and for a sensible strategy of engagement with the region.
Byron Dorgan, an advocate for farmers in North Dakota and across the United States, had a simple and straightforward disdain for the ban on travel to Cuba. Dorgan took particular pride in the speeches he delivered on the Senate floor that brought Congressional and public attention to the plights of victims of the U.S. travel ban. We’ll never forget his tributes to folks like Joan Slote, the bicycling grandmother, or Joni Scott, the Christian missionary, both fined for traveling to Cuba without a proper license, or Sgt. Carlos Lazo, on leave from the Iraq war, who was stopped in the Miami Airport and prevented from visiting his sons in Havana – often illustrated with gigantic posters of the affected citizens and speeches that rang with the common sense voice of the American prairie.
Unburdened by the task of running for reelection, we can only hope that they will put their formidable skills to work – as legislators and communicators – to help lift the travel ban to Cuba, to remove needless restrictions on agriculture sales to the island, and to awaken the Obama Administration to the increasing costs to America’s image and influence of our status quo approach to Cuba policy. Our country has benefitted before from their leadership; we need it now more than ever.
As you read what we cover this week – the continuing controversy over the imprisoned U.S. contractor in Cuba, new concerns over Cuba’s on-going inclusion on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and more, you’ll know exactly what kind of help Dodd and Dorgan could provide.
This week in Cuba news….
In the first statement by a Cuban official since President Raúl Castro’s speech on December 20th, Ricardo Alarcon, President of Cuba’s National Assembly, said the American government contractor detained in Cuba was “working for American intelligence,” the Associated Press reported.
The contractor was arrested on Dec. 4 and is accused of handing out communications devices to opposition groups. The State Department and a USAID funded organization, Development Alternatives Inc., have confirmed that he was working for the U.S. government to “strengthen civil society in support of just and democratic governance in Cuba.”
Alarcon said the man was in good health. “I can assure you that he is much better, much better than the victims of those (U.S. government) contractors around the world,” Alarcon said, a reference to evidence that American contractors and intelligence agents have tortured terror suspects, the AP reported.
“As Raúl said, he wasn’t a contractor. You know that this is a new institution in the United States made up of agents, torturers and spies, who are contracted as part of the privatization of the war,” added Alarcon, according to the EcoDiario.
On Thursday, the United States denied the man is a secret intelligence agent. “Those charges are false,” State Department spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters. “This person is not associated with our intelligence services.”
Cuba is not pleased about extra screening for Cuban citizens flying into the United States. Cuba, along with Iran, Sudan and Syria, is on a State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism. Passengers departing those countries, along with ten other “countries of interest” face extra security measures when entering the U.S. following the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a flight arriving in Detroit. Cuba summoned Jonathan Farrar, the head of the U.S. Interests Section, to complain about the rule, which they consider a “hostile action,” the Associated Press reported.
Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, director of the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s North American affairs office, said the new security controls were “discriminatory and selective.” She said Cuban diplomats in Washington also filed a complaint with the State Department. Cuba has been on the terror list since the 1980s, but the Cuban government and many analysts and security experts in the U.S. claim the designation is purely political. The Cuban newspaper Granma called the rule a result of U.S. “anti-terrorist paranoia.”
In the Washington Post, columnist Eugene Robinson writes that the new rules prompted by the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack show the absurdity of Cuba’s inclusion on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Among Mr. Robinson’s arguments:
- Cuba presents a threat of terrorism that can be measured at precisely zero.
- Cuba is not a failed state in which swaths of territory lie beyond government control
- The island nation would have to be among the last places on Earth where al-Qaeda would try to establish a cell, let alone plan and launch an attack.
- The U.S. Interests Section in Havana was one of the few American diplomatic posts in the world to remain open for normal business, with no apparent increased security, in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
According to Robinson, “progress toward a fact-based relationship with Cuba has been tentative and halting ….and obvious steps that could only serve U.S. interests remain untaken.” He notes the importance of Carlos Varela’s visit to the U.S. last month, but points out that roadblocks on travel to and from Cuba have not been removed for most artists or American citizens. Robinson writes that the first step in injecting some realism into policy toward Cuba could be “by ceasing to pretend that looking for al-Qaeda terrorists on flights from Cuba is anything but a big waste of time.”
The State Department doesn’t agree. When asked about Cuba’s inclusion on the list at Tuesday’s press briefing, spokesman Philip Crowley replied: “Cuba is a designated state sponsor of terrorism, and we think it’s a well-earned designation given their longstanding support for radical groups in the region – the FLN, FARC, et cetera.”
In a letter to President Obama, Secretary of Homeland Security Napolitano and Secretary of State Clinton, Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) says that the review of security measures following the Christmas Day incident should include a thorough, robust and judicious review of the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, which will result in Cuba’s removal.
McGovern points out that “the United States has many long-standing political and diplomatic problems with Cuba, but none of them relate to terrorism. In fact, engaging, collaborating and enlisting Cuba in the fight against international terrorism would be to the advantage of U.S. national security.”
As the Obama administration concludes its first year in office, analysts are arguing that his policy toward Latin America represents more continuity than change.
CNN reported that what began as a hopeful ‘new beginning’ for U.S.-Cuba relations, as President Obama once put it, may be settling back into the same old relationship that has gripped the two Cold War foes for half a century, referring to the U.S. contractor detained in Havana and new security checks for Cuban citizens traveling to the U.S.
The LA Times reported that although the “Obama presidency was expected to herald closer ties after years of perceived neglect under Bush…relations have soured amid the Honduran coup and Iran’s increasing ties in the region.”
IPS reported that “nearly one year after his inauguration, hopes that President Barack Obama would bring fundamental changes to U.S. relations with Latin American have faded badly,” citing its failure to oppose vigorously the coup in Honduras, adding military bases in Colombia, and “little movement regarding Cuba.”
“Although President Obama departed from the Bush policy – by restoring Cuban American travel to Cuba, granting visas to some artists, and restarting the migration talks – he has preserved much of the Cold War essence of our policy just like every president since Eisenhower,” Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, told IPS. “And like them, he has nothing to show for it.”
An essay on this subject, written by CDA’s Collin Laverty, appeared on the Huffington Post.
Two Senate leaders on reforming policy toward Cuba announced that they will not seek reelection in November. Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT), have championed efforts to ease trade and travel restrictions on Cuba, and analysts differed on what impact their retirements would have on ongoing legislative efforts.
Those that oppose reforming policy welcomed the change, the Miami Herald reported. Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, which lobbies in support of the embargo, acknowledged they would still fight to pass legislation this year, but added that “it’s a game changer for 2011.”
Sarah Stephens, the executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, said even without Dodd and Dorgan there’s support in the Senate for easing restrictions, but hoped they would push legislation through before retiring. “Our hope is that since it’s been such a priority for both of them that maybe there will be an extra effort during this last period of their tenure to make it happen,” she said.
A group of foreign investors is seeking U.S. government permission to buy claims against the Cuban government for the seizure of American-owned properties after the Cuban revolution, the Miami Herald reported. The investors then hope to swap the claims with Havana in a debt-for-equity exchange. They have applied for a license with the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, but not yet received a response. Tim Ashby, a Miami lawyer who represents the investors’ company, Clarinbridge, said the settlement “would resolve one of the oldest U.S.-Cuba disputes and perhaps open the way for other improvements in bilateral relations.”
According to the Herald, the U.S. officially recognizes about 5,900 claims for American-owned properties seized by Cuba, initially worth about $1.82 billion, but, with interest, the claims would now be valued at $6 billion. Cuba settled claims with all other countries and has at times offered to negotiate settling the dispute over U.S. properties.
Cuba celebrated the New Year and the 51st anniversary of the Revolution quietly. AFP reported “modest parties” and concerts in town squares throughout the island and short messages from TV and radio announcers, but no speech or official message from President Raúl Castro. An editorial read on state radio transmitted parts of Raúl Castro’s December 20th speech to parliament, calling for sacrifice and discipline.
“We are calling on you to work with more intensity, discipline and efficiency, to improve agriculture, substitute expenses with domestic production and reductions in the social sphere, and increase exports of goods and services,” Castro said.
The 50th anniversary of the Revolution was celebrated last January 1st with concerts, fireworks, parades and a speech by President Raúl Castro.
Cuba denied entry to a Spanish politician who tried to enter Cuba this week on a tourist visa. Luis Yanez is a European Parliament official known to be critical of Cuba’s government and said he was traveling to the island to meet with opposition figures. Cuban authorities did not allow him to leave the airport and sent him back to Spain on the next flight, El País reported.
Spain’s foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos criticized Cuba and summoned the Cuban ambassador in Madrid to explain the expulsion. Moratinos said the expulsion was not a good sign, but said it should not deter advancement in bilateral relations. “This is not good news…but a relationship with Cuba is not a thing of just a day or two. It is a relationship that needs strategic depth and time to advance,” the minister said.
Cuban ambassador Alejandro Gonzalez Galiano explained that the decision stemmed from “application of Cuban domestic laws,” which prohibits the use of tourist visas for non-tourist activities. Yanez said in a news conference in Seville on Tuesday that he and his wife had traveled to Cuba as private citizens, but that he had in fact planned to meet with pro-democracy figures during his stay, the Associated Press reported.
A year after Spain passed the “Historic Memory Law,” which allows people who have or had a Spanish grandparent to receive Spanish citizenship, around 52,000 Cubans with Spanish grandparents have applied so far. El País reported that 23,256 cases have been approved, 2,001 have been denied and the rest are being processed. Around 190,000 Cubans have solicited an appointment to present their documents.
According to El País, Cuba is the country in Latin America where the law has had the most impact and where “contradictions of the law are displayed most openly.” A few hundred Cubans are challenging the legality of a rule that prevents the grandchildren of Spanish women who married Cuban men from being considered. The Civil Code of 1889 meant that Spanish women marrying foreigners lost their Spanish citizenship. Ivón Otero, the granddaughter of a Spanish immigrant and Cuban father, along with 110 Cubans has filed a claim with the Spanish government arguing the law violates the 1978 constitution and discriminates against their grandmothers based on sex. “I feel discriminated against because my grandmother was a woman,” she said.
The New York Times reported on the role Revolico.com, often referred to as Cuba’s Craigslist, is playing in Cuba. The site was started by two Cubans in their 20s living in Spain as a way to make the secretive selling of items on the black market easier. Although Internet access is limited in Cuba, “there is clearly a market for the site, as viewership both on and off the island has steadily climbed and banner advertising, priced in Euros, brings in modest sums,” the Times reports.
The administrators say that the name, Revolico, which means commotion, was chosen because they knew the authorities would scramble to block it. The programmer says that special software is used to make the site easily accessible with slow connections in Cuba. “We chose the name to make an allusion to the disorder that we are trying to organize,” he said. Many of the categories are similar to Craigslist in the U.S., such as computers for sale, apartments for rent and language classes. However, some of the items are strictly Cuban: classic cars, like a 1950 Dodge, a 1956 Chevy or a 1954 Buick; arranged marriages or a pirated antenna.
According to the owners, Revolico has not created or enhanced the black market, but brought it online, giving viewers on the outside a view of life in Cuba today.
For the first time in three years, Cuba finished the year with an increase in population, the Associated Press reported. Cuba finished 2009 with 11,239,000 citizens, 5,610,000 being female and 5,629,000 males. The population only grew by 3,000 people but Juan Carlos Alfonso Fraga, director of the Center for Population and Development studies, said reversing the trend of a declining population was very important.
People over 60 years old make up 17% of the population. The number of newborns was 130,027, the highest amount since 2004. According to the AP, “Cuba is experiencing an aging phenomenon similar to developed nations but in the context of a third world country.”
Since the HIV-AIDS epidemic began 26 years ago, 11,994 Cubans have been infected, 2,063 have died and 1,931 are living on the island and receiving treatment, a public health official said on Wednesday, Notimex reported.
The Vice-Minister of Public Health, Luis Estruch said that the infection rate is on the rise. While about 650 new cases were registered in 2002, “this year we have 1,400 new cases, which indicates an advancement of the syndrome,” he told the Granma. The increase in men was the most drastic, with 8 out of 10 new cases being the result of men having sex with men. Although Cuba has maintained the lowest level of HIV, which leads to AIDS, in the Americas with a rate of 0.1 percent, Estruch said the government will work to raise awareness about risky behavior and prevention.
Cuba’s Internet connectivity was increased by 10% last December as the result of improvements to a satellite connection, the Ministry of Information and Communications announced. Cuba’s Juventud Rebelde newspaper said “the increase is still insufficient for the development of the information sector…but the satellite connection the country is forced to use as the result of the embargo, results in slower connection speeds.”
Vice-Minister Ramón Linares said the government will continue “prioritizing the social use of new technologies, including connecting to the Internet,” referring to Cuba’s policy of prioritizing access for academic, medical and other social usage. The government said it will continue to work on improving access to the Internet over the next few years, including the construction of a fiber optic cable from Venezuela.
According to Reuters, “a five-year government plan to boost output and reduce bulk food imports registered its first results” with rice production jumping 44.6 percent, dried beans 9.6 percent and milk up10.8 percent in 2009. The government of Raúl Castro has made cutting import costs and increasing domestic food production the top priority. Specifically, the plan aims to “slash rice, bean and powdered milk imports — staples of the Cuban diet — 50 percent by 2013.”
In order to stimulate domestic production Raúl Castro has increased the price the state pays farmers for crops, decentralized the decision-making and distribution of agriculture and turned over 50 percent of idle land to individual farmers and private and state cooperatives. Cuba spent over $2 billion to buy food in 2008.
Cuban sugar planting increased close to 10 percent in 2009 compared with the previous year, Agence France-Presse reported. State-media reported an increase of 11,600 hectares (28,660 acres) compared to 2008. “Since 2003, there has not been a sowing plan as big as this one that was completed (in 2009),” Juan Varela Perez, the country’s top sugar reporter said. Most of Cuba’s sugar is consumed domestically, but about 400,000 tons is sold to China.
On a field dominated by men, Yanet Moreno is the only woman to step onto the baseball diamond during Cuba’s national championship. As the only female umpire to call in the National Series — Cuba’s equivalent of the big leagues — Moreno, 35, has set a historic precedent.
Why Obama Defaulted to Bush Foreign Policy Positions, Time Magazine
After a year with President Barack Obama at the helm of U.S. foreign policy, an observer could be forgiven for concluding that the presidency is more like taking over the controls of a train than getting behind the wheel of a car. That’s because you can’t steer a train; you can only determine its speed. So far, the menu of foreign policy challenges, and the Administration’s response to each, is remarkably similar at the close of 2009 to what it was at the close of 2008.
Cuba seeks sustainable socialism in 2010, Al Jazeera
In 2010, Cuba marks the 51st anniversary of the revolution that transformed the Caribbean nation from a sleazy centre of casinos run by US gangsters, to the only outpost of socialism in the Americas – defying US superpower only 90 miles from the shores of Florida. That Cuba’s defiant brand of socialism has survived so many upheavals in the world and a crippling US trade embargo has surprised most observers.
Pat-downs for Nigerians, Pakistanis…and Cubans, Global Post
First there are the bureaucratic hurdles — a visa from the U.S. government, and permission to travel from Cuban authorities. Then there is the cost of the 45-minute flight to Miami, which, at more than $500, can feel like a galling rip-off. Hefty baggage fees further gouge Cuban wallets. And now, Cuban travelers will face pat-downs, body scans and other inspections otherwise reserved for citizens of nations whose cultural devotions do not include salsa dancing and rum drinks.
Around the Region:
6 Charged in Honduran Leader’s Ouster, New York Times
Six military officers involved in the ouster of Manuel Zelaya from the Honduran presidency last year were charged with abuse of power on Wednesday, but the charges are expected to be dropped as part of a deal to ease tensions in the country, officials said.