Cuba Docs and U.S. Supplies; Shrouds of Secrecy and U.S. Contractor; Washington Post Puts Havana in the Driver’s Seat

Dear Reader:

Uppermost in our minds is the suffering of the Haitian people and the steps being taken to help them.  We again urge our readers to provide financial assistance to help address this humanitarian crisis.  Today, we are providing new opportunities for donations through MEDICC and Global Link, respected NGOs.

Our friend, Gail Reed, International Director of MEDICC, sent this information about what the Cuban doctors have been doing since the earthquake first hit Haiti:

  • Cuban medical teams have treated over 13,000 patients in the Haitian capital, operating on just over 1,000 (including 550 major surgeries).
  • Cuban teams, Haitian physicians trained in Cuba and 60 Haitian medical students from Cuba’s Latin American Medical School in Cuban are working with relief personnel from other countries in field hospitals, medical posts and public parks–as well as in three hospitals in Port-au-Prince.
  • They have begun vaccinating patients with the 400,000 tetanus vaccines donated by Cuba.
  • As thousands pour out of the capital seeking help, the Cuban team has set up another two field hospitals in Jacmel, some 75 kilometers from Port-au-Prince, where Cuban medical personnel were working before the quake. Headed by Dr. Mercedes Cuello, the local team includes internists, pediatricians, orthopedic surgeons, general surgeons, ob-gyns, other specialists and nursing staff.
  • The Pan American Health Organization is providing logistical support, supplies and other materials to the Cuban contingent.

Against this backdrop, we bring news this week on the possibilities for U.S.-Cuba medical cooperation to help the people of Haiti.

As we and others have mentioned, the strength of Cuba’s response could be augmented in powerful ways by U.S. cooperation with its medical brigades, especially by providing supplies to the Cuban doctors and their Haitian counterparts trained in Cuba.

This message now appears to be getting through.  As we report below, the Secretary of State and the State Department’s spokesperson both commented favorably this week on the prospects for such cooperation.

Later, we mention the continuing plight of Mr. Alan Gross, a U.S. contractor, imprisoned in Cuba since early December, and a new effort by the Washington Post to use his case – rather cynically in our view – as an excuse for blocking the travel rights of all Americans to Cuba.

In the stories that follow, we cover efforts to increase trade between the U.S. and Cuba, another editorial calling for ending the embargo, new trade opportunities for our competitors in Canada and Vietnam, an important new human rights report from inside Cuba, and the declining popularity of President Obama among average Cubans.

At the end, we offer a final word about someone who cared deeply about improving U.S.-Cuba relations as part of his larger commitment to express and redeem our nation’s highest values and ideals.

But first, this week in Cuba news.


Cuban doctors treat thousands in Haiti, room for U.S. – Cuba cooperation

CNN’s Shasta Darlington has done some important reporting on the work of Cuban doctors in the relief efforts in Haiti. According to her latest story, a dozen Cuban hospitals and makeshift clinics run by Cuban doctors are treating thousands of people. The Cuban medical team, among the first on the scene, consists of over 450 Cuban medics and 400 Haitians trained in Cuba. By earlier this week, they had treated over 10,000 patients. They were also being assisted by medical personnel from other countries as they waited to have their own field operations set up.

CNN has additional video reports here and here.

Last week, Cuba opened up its airspace to U.S. aircraft involved in emergency relief efforts in Haiti.  U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thanked the Cuban government for the opening and said the U.S. “would welcome any other actions that the Cuban Government could take in furtherance of the international rescue and recovery mission in Haiti.”

This week, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, Darby Holladay, is quoted as saying that the U.S. is prepared to provide medical supplies to Cuban doctors:  “The United States has communicated its readiness to make medical relief supplies available to Cuban doctors working on the ground in Haiti as part of the international relief effort.”

For its part, Cuba said it responded “immediately” to the request and is willing to further cooperate with the U.S. in relief efforts.

“Cuba is ready to cooperate with all the nations on the ground, including the U.S., to help the Haitian people and save more lives,” said Josefina Vidal, director of the North America department of Cuba’s Foreign ministry, the Gulf Times reported.

“Cuba has the necessary infrastructure in Haiti to help treat victims, and medics from other countries are welcome to collaborate with us, including the United States,” she added.

In a letter to the Washington Post, former State Department official Gary H. Maybarduk urges the U.S. to cooperate with Cuba to provide medical personnel and supplies to Haiti. “Cuba has a demonstrated ability to provide numerous doctors and nurses quickly, but it is chronically short on medicines,” he writes.

An opponent of better U.S.-Cuba ties, Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, is quoted in as opposing U.S. medical cooperation with Cuba to help the Haitian people, saying it’s “absolutely unconscionable to try to use tragic disasters — such as Haiti’s earthquake — as a springboard for bilateral relations.”


We have listed various options for readers who want to donate to help Haiti, and we hope everyone will continue to be generous.  Today, we are providing additional information on opportunities to help: MEDICC and Global Links are sending material aid to the Cuban-trained Haitian doctors on the front lines in Haiti’s public hospitals and clinics.  There are upwards of 400 such physicians who were already on the ground when disaster struck, serving in 120 communities throughout the country, including Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s hard-hit capital.

Case of the detained contractor “shrouded in secrecy”

Since early December, we have tried to report on the imprisoned U.S. contractor, Alan Gross, and we continue to urge the Cuban government to release him.  However, neither the U.S. nor the Cuban governments are saying much in public about this matter, and much of the coverage we have seen in recent days has come from the Internet, not the mainstream media.

We hope that the silence from the two capitols comes from government’s trying to work this problem out in private.  That said, we think it is important to share what we read and hear.

Larry Luxner, writing for the Washington Jewish Week says the circumstances surrounding the case of Alan P. Gross are “shrouded in secrecy.” He reports that the U.S. government and DAI, the development firm that contracted with Mr. Gross, say he was helping Jewish groups in Cuba connect to the Internet.   However, Adela Dworin, the leader of Cuba’s Patronato Hebreo Cubano, a leading Jewish organization in Cuba, told El Nuevo Herald she has no knowledge of Gross.

John McAuliff, executive director of the New York-based Fund for Reconciliation and Development, says that Jewish groups in Cuba already receive assistance from NGOs on technical issues and it seems odd that they would seek additional help from a U.S. government contractor.”

According to Michael Collins, a program associate for the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy, DAI has received negative attention in Latin American in the past “when it was accused of helping finance opposition groups involved in the failed 2002 coup attempt against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.”

U.S. officials have said little about the case because Gross refused to sign a privacy act waiver that would have allowed disclosures to the media. A senior consular officer from the U.S. Interests Section visited Gross on December 28th and hopes to do so again soon.

Washington Post: Cuba’s imprisonment of an American is a rebuke to Obama

In the eyes of the Washington Post, the arrest of a USAID contractor in Cuba is a “rebuke to Obama” by the Cuban government. The USAID program “has tried to help Cubans join the 21st century by distributing laptops and cell phones and providing satellite Internet connections,” but the contractor, Alan P. Gross, may have been mistaken in “not seeing anything wrong with what he was doing,” the Post reported.  The Post argues that the incident should send a clear message to the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress that Cuba has “no interest in easing repression or in improving relations with the United States.”

A more effective approach, in our view, would be simply repealing the travel ban, and allowing upwards of 60,000 Americans to visit Cuba every month.  It’s hard to imagine why – if the purpose is to expose Cubans to what America can offer – we’d stick with a program of  spending tax money to hire contractors when tens of thousands of American tourists can provide that example at no cost to the U.S. Treasury starting at once.

Houston’s port to begin new shipping route to Cuba

For the first time in 50 years, a weekly shipping route from Houston to Havana will soon become active. According to the Houston Chronicle, the “shipping company CMA CGM of Marseille, France, recently began hauling food, medical products and other items allowed by the U.S. government to two Cuban ports from Houston. Every week, the vessels will stop in Kingston, Jamaica before moving on to Havana and Santiago de Cuba from Houston’s Bayport Terminal.”

Prior to this new route, Texas producers had to haul their Cuba-bound products to ports in Florida or charter an entire vessel to ship to Cuba. Both options added costs and/or delays. “It will definitely be easier for our people to get their product to Cuba out of the port and into a potential other market,” said Ron Hufford, executive vice president of the Texas Forestry Association.

Galveston wants the embargo lifted

The Galveston County Daily News argued this week that the trade embargo on Cuba should be lifted immediately. According to the article, dealing with the embargo should not be put on the back burner while the U.S. government focuses on the economy, because open trade with Cuba could help significantly increase exports and create jobs. Galveston in particular could serve as a “logical trade partner if the embargo were lifted,” as it can handle “bulk cargo, including food and timber products.”


Cuba to give Canada more air access to boost tourism

A new agreement between the governments of Canada and Cuba will give Canadian airlines more access to Cuban airspace. Under the deal, four Canadian charter airlines will be permitted to fly between multiple locations after landing in Cuba.

The final details have not been released, but Cuban officials said it will apply to four Canadian charter airlines that currently run tours to Cuba: Air Transat, Sunwing Airlines, WestJet and Canjet Airlines. According to CTV, a record 900,000 Canadian tourists visited Cuba in 2010, accounting for nearly 50 percent of all tourists to the island.

Vietnamese Firm to develop golf courses in Cuba

A joint venture deal has been struck between the Vietnamese Housing and Urban Development Corporation and Cuba’s Palmares SA Group to construct two golf course/hotel complexes in Cuba. According to Vietnam News, both courses would be located about 25 kilometers from Havana. A building application for the two complexes is currently being drafted.


Cubans don’t believe Obama’s smile anymore

Though many Cubans rejoiced upon the election of Barack Obama thinking it would result in improved relations, there is now widespread disappointment and pessimism among Cubans that relations will improve, reported Agence France-Presse.

Many Cubans followed the election closely and were encouraged when Obama ended travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans. However, with increased rhetoric and no further movement in the direction of normalizing relations, Cubans have become frustrated, AFP reported.

“I was very hopeful. He arrived with good intentions, but he doesn’t govern alone, he had to adjust. Now his face is not the same. He hasn’t done anything to deserve a Nobel Peace Prize, it’s pure fanfare,” said one retired teacher.

“He has demonstrated that he’s not the president of change. His discourse doesn’t connect with his actions. His smile seems sincere, but he doesn’t show a real interest in improving relations with Cuba,” said Claudia Aguilar, who will start college this year.

Some remain sympathetic to Obama’s efforts. As Irene, a Cuban doctor says, “you have to remember that he is up against huge monsters,” referring to those in favor of the embargo. “There was a lot of hope in Cuba (when he was elected), but I live with my feet on the ground.”

Political prisoners down, but harassment up, says rights group

According to an independent human rights group in Cuba, while Cuba’s number of political prisoners dropped slightly in 2009 from 2008, short term detentions and harassment have increased, Reuters reported. The Cuban Commission on Human Rights said there were 201 dissidents behind bars, down from 208 at mid-year.

The commission said it documented 869 detentions of dissidents in 2009, which it said is part of a new strategy to prevent organizing without imposing jail sentences that result in international outcry. According to Reuters, the Cuban government views dissidents as mercenaries working for the U.S. government, which has openly supported members of the Cuban opposition. Cuba’s official position is that it has no political prisoners because all have received a legal trial.

State TV airs discussion about racism in Cuba

Cuban state television aired a roundtable of experts discussing discrimination and inequality for blacks in Cuba this week, the Associated Press reported. Thursday’s Roundtable program analyzed the challenges black Cubans face and was titled “A Cuban battle against racism”. Six experts joined the host of the program, Randy Alonso, in a discussion about the need for Cuba to openly debate race relations and discrimination.

“This is a theme of our reality,” said economist Esteban Morales, researcher at the Center for Hemispheric Studies. “This is something that we had solved (racism) but inequality grew during the special period…equality is the project, the desire; inequality is what we experience every day.” Morales said that over years the problem had been “hidden” to avoid internal confrontations while facing an external threat in the United States.

Cuba deals with gender and sexuality issues

Cuba held its fifth Congress on Sexual Education, Orientation, and Therapy this week  Prensa Latina reported.  Experts from across Europe and Latin America were in attendance at the conference led by Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raúl Castro. The conference aimed to “promote the exchange” of knowledge on gender and sexuality issues from a “multidisciplinary perspective.” Mariela Castro is pushing some of the most progressive initiatives in Latin America, including state-sponsored sex change operations and civil unions for gays.

Calling for an end to discrimination against gays in Cuba, Castro said she plans to write a letter addressed to “top leadership” to urge the acceptance of gays in the communist party. Castro, a sexologist, admitted that the discrimination is “not spelled out in any statute, but implicitly they (gays) are rejected,” Reuters reported. She also said that she would urge the legalization of civil unions between same sex partners.

Castro also helped lift a ban on sex change operations in Cuba in 2007 and several operations took place in 2008. Though she would not specify the exact number of operations completed to this point, Castro said a little “less than half” of the 30 people approved for the procedure have been operated on, the Associated Press reported.

The operations are covered by Cuba’s universal health care system. “We schedule a certain number per year based on economic circumstances,” Castro said, adding that, because of budget constraints, sex changes are not offered to foreigners who travel to Cuba for medical care.

Cuba will look for more youth and female representation in municipal elections

The Cuban government is looking for greater youth, ethnic and female representation in the candidates for upcoming spring municipal elections, EFE reported. The elections, called by National Electoral Commission, will take place on April 25th, with a second round of voting on May 2nd. The municipal assemblies are the most local parliaments. The last time municipal assembly members were elected was in late 2007.

2009 classified as one of the 10 hottest years in Cuba since 1951

With an average 2009 temperature of 78.64 Fahrenheit (25.93 Celsius), 2009 was one of the hottest years in Cuba since 1951. As Spanish People Daily reported, August and September of last year rank as the fourth and seventh hottest months since 1951, while it was the hottest October since 1970. Ramon Perez of Cuba’s National Institute of Meteorology said he believes the hot summer climate is a result of global climate change.

Recommended Reading:

Muscling Latin America, The Nation

Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, has delivered on an electoral promise and refused to renew Washington’s decade-old, rent-free lease on an air base outside the Pacific coast town of Manta, which for the past ten years has served as the Pentagon’s main South American outpost.

Chile’s Turning Point, The Nation
By Katherine Hite & Peter Kornbluh

A Piñera victory marks a major turning point in the post-Pinochet transition, and perhaps a return to power of some of the hardcore rightists who collaborated with the military regime. (Piñera’s brother served as Pinochet’s Minister of Labor.)

If Haiti is to ‘build back better’, Paul Farmer

If Haiti is to “build back better,” as President Clinton has been saying, there are lessons to be learned from our efforts, not always honorable or effective, to help Haiti over the past two centuries. This can change and must do so, if we are to be real partners in responding to this latest misfortune.

El Salvador’s new vision to the world, Hugo R. Martinez, foreign minister of El Salvador

The political scenario in El Salvador has changed significantly since the signing of the Peace Accords in 1992. We have come a long way from years when Washington and the world talked about us in terms of a long and painful war.

Around the Region:

A Sign of Latin America’s Fading Polarization, The New York Times

With the election of Sebastian Piñera on January 17, Chile will inaugurate its first center-right President since the country’s return to democracy after the authoritarian rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

El Salvador President Apologizes for Civil War Crimes, The Latin American Herald Tribune

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes made a formal apology on Saturday to the victims of the 1980-1992 civil war and acknowledged that state security forces “committed serious human rights violations and abuses of power.”

Zelaya to get safe passage to Dominican Republic, CNN World

Ousted Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya will be granted safe passage to the Dominican Republic as a guest, resolving a diplomatic impasse that kept him trapped in Honduras, Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez said Wednesday.

A Final Word

The powerful tend to back popular causes (Apple Pie, Motherhood) or to use their philanthropy in self-interested ways that further their own financial or personal ambitions.

One powerful exception to this rule was Smith Bagley.  Over the years, Mr. Bagley and his family foundation, the Arca Foundation, devoted a considerable amount of their own fortune to making this world more just, more transparent, more reflective of America’s deepest values.   To make the world work for people who weren’t as fortunate as them.

Some of us knew Smith Bagley starting in the early 1980s because of his support for work that tried to end the civil war in El Salvador.  We knew him because of his decades-long commitment to end the U.S. embargo of Cuba and his support of policies to reconcile our nation with the people of the island.

But wherever he popped up – fighting for consumers, supporting independent journalism, advancing economic opportunity for people at the lowest rung of life’s ladder – Smith always looked and acted the same:  he had an easy smile, an intense commitment to justice, and a limitless number of ideas and suggestions on how the work could be done better.

We couldn’t have asked for a better friend or a more loyal supporter.  He passed away earlier this month, and we will never forget how lucky we are that he passed our way.

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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