52 years of Revolution, 48 years of Embargo

Dear Reader:

This week, we celebrated a truly baleful birthday.  February 3rd marked the 48th anniversary of President Kennedy’s imposition of the embargo against Cuba. It seems strange and rather sad that the Obama administration still thinks the embargo and the policies alongside it – including the ‘regime change’ programs funded by the U.S. Department of State – are ever going to produce results.

And yet, the policy grinds on, with very little variation, and no apparent room for imagination.

The President asked Congress this week for twenty million dollars to fund regime change programs in Cuba.

He kept North Korea off the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism List, and left Cuba on it, even as the intelligence community estimate on Cuba released this week never mentions Cuba financing, supporting or taking part in any terrorism-related activities or of any threat the country poses to the U.S.

Travel restrictions and export impediments remain on American citizens and American agriculture, even as the administration seeks to produce jobs and double exports, keeping wholesome, high quality American and reasonably priced food off of Cuban tables, and equally wholesome and high quality American visitors off of Cuban streets.

The administration puts an open Internet at the front of its foreign policy even as U.S. providers cut Cubans off from accessing instant messaging and open source software from American websites.

The list goes on.  And yet, we know that we can do better.

Our policy in neighboring Haiti is forceful and generous.  The U.S. Treasury Department today is calling for the international community to provide Haiti with debt relief.  U.S. policy makers are searching for ways to “get it right” in the hemisphere. The House Agriculture Committee is poised to examine changes in regulations and policy that could free up the Cuban market for our farmers and make Cuba a better customer.

The administration’s long shake down cruise should be over.  It’s been more than a year.  It has the personnel in place.   The economy has been pulled back from the abyss.  What is needed now is some very clear thinking about Cuba, and how our policy toward the island, if it were made coherent and consistent with American values, could benefit not just the Cuban people but the American people and our nation’s role in the region and the world.

Think about it, as you read the news summary that follows…


Cuba expands health care contingent in Haiti

Gail Reed, the International Director of Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC) filed an update on the Havana Note with new details on Cuba’s assistance to Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake. There are now 938 Cuban and Cuban-trained health professionals operating on the ground in Haiti. A team of 7 U.S. doctors who received a free medical education at Cuba’s Latin American Medical School (ELAM) joined that group in Haiti.

Of the 938 health care providers in the Cuban-led teams on the ground thus far, 280 are young Haitian doctors, and at least 60 more are Haitian medical students enrolled at the school. According to Reed, “over the next few weeks, they will receive reinforcements of their peers in a number of Latin American, African and Caribbean countries.”  The Cuban team has treated over 50,000 patients and vaccinated some 20,000 Haitians and international volunteers with 400,000 tetanus vaccines donated by Cuba and additional vaccines donated by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) against whooping cough, rubella, measles and diphtheria.

Raúl Castro: Cuba will be in Haiti as long as necessary

Cuban President Raúl Castro announced this week that Cuban doctors will remain in Haiti as long as it is deemed necessary, La Prensa reported. Castro was attending an event at the Haitian Embassy in Havana where Haiti thanked Cuba for its support.

U.S.-Cuba cooperation still possible?

According to Arturo Valenzuela, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, the United States has maintained “a conversation directly with the Cubans … (about) the possibility of directly supporting Cuban doctors working in Haiti,” EFE reported.

Secretary Geithner Voices Support for International Debt Relief for Haiti, Financing of Recovery Through Grants

Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said today that he supports international debt relief for Haiti, and the U.S. is committed to working “with its partners around the world to relieve all debts owed by Haiti to international institutions and to ensure grant financing to support Haiti’s reconstruction and recovery from the devastating earthquake in January.”

“Today, we are voicing our support for what Haiti needs and deserves – comprehensive multilateral debt relief,” said Geithner.

Geithner welcomed the IMF’s call to provide full relief for Haiti’s outstanding IMF debt and said the U.S. intends to seek a commitment with other donors for the relief of Haiti’s debt to the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the International Development Association “in a manner that provides direct and immediate grant support to Haiti.”


52 years of Revolution, 48 years of Embargo

Wednesday, February 3rd marked the 48th anniversary of President Kennedy’s decision to ban trade with Cuba. January 1st of this year marked the 52nd anniversary of Fidel Castro’s Revolution.

Terror list: Cuba remains on, North Korea remains off

President Obama announced this week that he would not put North Korea back on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of  Terrorism, after a classified study determined that the country “does not meet the statutory criteria” for that designation, the New York Times reported.

North Korea was removed from the list by the Bush administration as part of a deal to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, but last year it broke the deal and conducted a second nuclear weapons test. However, administration officials said that test did not meet the criteria of sponsorship of terrorism and there is no evidence that the North had aided terrorists or conducted terrorist acts for many years.

Annual Intelligence Community Threat Assessment

Dennis C. Blair, the director of National Intelligence presented the Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence this week. Although Cuba remains listed as a State Sponsor of Terrorism by the U.S. government, there was absolutely no mention of Cuba financing, supporting or taking part in any terrorism-related activities or of any threat the country poses to the U.S. Here’s what the report said about Cuba:

Cuba has demonstrated few signs of wanting a closer relationship with the United States. Without subsidized Venezuela oil shipments of about 100,000 barrels per day, the severe economic situation would be even worse. President Raúl Castro fears that rapid or significant economic change would undermine regime control and weaken the revolution, and his government shows no signs of easing his repression of political dissidents. Meanwhile illegal Cuban migration to the US, which averaged about 18,000 per year from 2005 to 2008, decreased by almost 50 percent in 2009 mainly because of the US economic slowdown and tightened security measures in Cuba. While we judge the chance of a sudden Cuban mass migration attempt is low, if the regime decides it cannot cope with rising public discontent over economic conditions, it could decide to permit more Cubans to leave the island.

Cuban intelligence collects against US activities for insight into our operations and intentions globally. Cuba maintains intelligence liaison relationships with a number of US adversaries and competitors.

President Obama requests more regime-change funds

The president’s budget request for fiscal year 2011, released on Monday, includes $20 million to “continue to promote self-determined democracy in Cuba.” The request specifies that the “funds will be used to provide humanitarian assistance to political prisoners, their families, and other victims of repression; advance human rights; strengthen independent civil society organizations; and support information sharing into and out of Cuba.”

Poder 360 reported that the funding is under strong criticism by those who say it is wasteful in hard economic times, besides being a demonstrable failure with Cuba recently celebrating the 52nd anniversary of its communist revolution.

Commenting on the administration’s budget request, Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, said “Many activities funded by this program are illegal in Cuba, would certainly be illegal if Cuba conducted them in our country, and they have long histories of wasteful spending in the U.S. and hurting the intended beneficiaries in Cuba.”  Stephens went on to note that a cost-free alternative the administration should adopt is simply repealing the travel ban and enabling Americans to visit the island freely, bringing information and their ideas with them.

Caribbean Security Initiative without Cuba?

Also included in the president’s FY2011 foreign aid request are funds for a “multiyear, multifaceted effort by the U.S. Government and Caribbean partners to develop a joint regional citizen safety strategy to tackle the full range of security and criminal threats to the Caribbean Basin.” Just the Facts has an outline of the new program. While the initiative includes 15 countries of the Caribbean Basin (Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago), it excludes Cuba, the largest country in the Caribbean and a leader in combating drug trafficking and related violence and organized crime, rule of law activities, and maritime security, the very activities the program hopes to tackle.

In 2009, The Center for Democracy in the Americas published a report, “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US,” with specific recommendations for the U.S. government to pursue in areas of security cooperation and law enforcement.

U.S. will permit more fluid citizen connections with Cuba in 2010, but urges Europe against relaxing its policy

Speaking to reporters in Spain this week, Assistant Secretary Valenzuela said in 2010 the Obama administration “wants to reverse some of the measures taken by the previous U.S. government not to permit more fluid connections between U.S. citizens and their counterparts in Cuba,” EFE reported. Valenzuela did not specify what measures the administration is contemplating, but it could mean removing some restrictions on religious, academic, scientific and other categories of “purposeful travel” that were put in place by the Bush administration.

He said the U.S. also plans to resume some of the conversations held with Havana on matters of common interest. “And in that sense, we have set conversations on immigration issues, postal issues …” he said, emphasizing the “efforts” of the U.S. administration to “have a direct dialogue with the Cuban government.”

But Valenzuela, America’s top diplomat for Latin America,  has also indicated that the European Union’s changing attitude toward Cuba may not be a good thing, EFE reported. “At this time, in our judgment, we don’t necessarily see the change in the Common Position as positive, but it depends a lot on how changing it is handled,” Valenzuela told reporters during a visit to Spain.

The EU currently has a common position on Cuba, which conditions the bilateral relations of member countries and Cuba to concrete advances in democracy and human rights on the island. Spain, the current leader of the EU, has said it hopes to eliminate the common position and allow countries to determine their own relationship with Havana.

Valenzuela said that any shift by the EU must make “very clear that what is required” is an “expectation” of a “democratic opening in Cuba.”


Peso-driven pilot programs offer Cubans affordable dining and shopping

Reuters reported that local economies offering restaurants, markets and other retail outlets selling goods and services in Cuban pesos are becoming more common throughout the island. Although most Cubans are paid in Cuban pesos, over the last two decades, many goods and services have been only available in a dollar-linked convertible peso, known as the Cuban Convertible peso (CUC). For many, it makes dinner out unaffordable and essential items like cooking oil extremely expensive.

Now, in what Reuters characterizes as a “pilot project,” peso outlets have started to spring up in Santiago de Cuba and other eastern cities. “There is a special plan, where the party and government allocated Santiago a budget to remodel dozens of establishments and open new ones,” a Communist Party cadre and administrator of various eating places told Reuters.

Restaurants offering meals in pesos are reportedly packed with customers. “They have opened restaurants, pizzerias, cafeterias and pastry shops and set up areas across the city where they sell sandwiches, snacks and soda,” said one retiree in Guantánamo. “The population has welcomed this because before these things were available only in convertible pesos,” he said.

The project is seen as a possible first step toward merging the two currencies. President Raúl Castro has said eliminating the dual currency is a top priority, but that it will take several years to do.

Cuba cutting benefits for unemployed

According to Cuba’s top union leader, Cuba hopes to reduce and eliminate unemployment benefits and place unemployed workers in productive jobs, reported the Edmonton Journal.

“Nobody will fall by the wayside, but we can’t keep going the way we are. Some won’t like the new labor proposal, but the state can’t keep subsidizing available workers,” said Salvador Valdez, the head of the Cuban Workers’ Union (CTC).

He said the move would be carried out “in an orderly and correct” manner, and that unemployed workers will be given jobs in construction, agriculture and other “pressing productive” sectors.

Self-employed artists will be eligible for state pensions

A new law announced this week will allow self-employed artists and performers to begin receiving pensions. The pensions will be based on the taxable income they declare throughout their career, the Associated Press reported.

The new measure will apply to self-employed musicians, writers, actors/actresses, sculptors, painters and others. According to the announcement in the state media, to be eligible artists must have worked for at least 30 years and reported taxes for at least the last five. They will then receive 60 percent of their reported income. Previously independent artists were not available for retirement benefits even though they were required to pay at least 7 percent tax on all income and file an additional yearly tax return that required additional payments.

According to the AP, the reform “appears to be an attempt to encourage workers to report their full incomes – part of increasing efforts to better account for all Cuban employees and the money they make.”

Havana Archdiocese warns of faltering economy

An essay in this month’s edition of the Catholic newspaper for the Archdiocese of Havana warns that Cuba’s economic situation “has become significantly more complicated” and appears to be “plunging deeper into decline,” the Catholic News Agency reported. The author, Father Boris Moreno who holds a Master of Science in Economics, says the worst may be yet to come and suggests immediate economic reforms by the Cuban government.

“The calls to work hard and to work efficiently will not succeed in changing the situation,” wrote Moreno in reference to what he sees as Raúl Castro’s approach to the economy. “The socioeconomic conditions of a country cannot change because of decrees or discourse.”

The priest wrote that among the measures the government can take immediately to improve the economy are: “promoting independent work and protecting such work by law; implementing and amplifying pay for positive results; international investment with better security; and accomplishing a budget with the principle of subsidiary.” He said first, though, the government must create a climate favorable to debate by ensuring all citizens can have an opinion without fear of repercussions.

Cubans given 2 months to register guns

The government announced this week that Cuban gun owners have a two month amnesty to register their fire arms, the Associated Press reported. Those passing aptitude and psychological tests will be granted licenses for their weapons. According to the AP “the move is unusual in a state where almost no one except some active military personnel and plain-clothed state security agents are allowed to possess weapons.”

State media said the “exceptional and one-time only” registration drive is linked to a November 2008 law regulating possession of guns and ammunition. Aside from aptitude and psychological tests, gun owners must be over 18 and “maintain conduct consistent with the appropriate norms of social behavior, meet security and protection conditions for the firearms and pay established taxes.” The government said security guards, detectives and bodyguards will be summoned by the Ministry of the Interior for a separate licensing process.

Cuba’s oldest citizen celebrates 125th birthday

Juana Rodriguez, 125, who Cuba claims to be the oldest person in the world, celebrated her birthday this week in good health. According to Agence France-Presse, Rodriguez was born in the Granma province in 1885 and currently resides in the town of Campechuela, close to where she was born.

The Guinness Book of World Records names 114-year-old Kama Chinen of Japan as the world’s oldest living person, and has not documented anyone living past 122 years. Of its 11.2 million inhabitants, Cuba claims that over 1500 have surpassed 100 years of age, giving it one of the highest longevity rates in the world.


Chavez gets Cuban help with energy woes

Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, has asked Cuba’s Vice-President Ramiro Valdes to head a committee to tackle Venezuela’s power shortages. The country has been facing power shortages over the last few months due to drought, soaring demand for electricity, and failure to invest in improving the power grid over the years.

Chavez said he has requested Cuba’s help because of its experience dealing with electricity problems, Reuters reported. Valdes, a close ally of Fidel Castro since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, is Cuba’s minister of information and communications. He also oversees the ministry of basic industries, which is in charge of energy production and management.

The opposition criticized the decision, accusing Chavez of adding to the “Cubanizaton” of Venezuela. There are thousands of Cuban doctors and teachers in Venezuela.

President Lula to visit Cuba this month

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will visit Cuba, as well as Haiti, Mexico and El Salvador, at the end of this month, Agence France-Presse reported. Lula will be in Cuba on February 24th and 25th and plans to meet with President Raúl Castro. The two presidents last met in December 2008 when Castro traveled to Brazil for a regional summit. Lula was last in Cuba in October of 2008, when he met with both Raúl and Fidel Castro.

Cubans have performed over 100,000 eye surgeries in Ecuador

Since the arrival of Cuban doctors in Ecuador in 2005, over 100,000 people have received free eye surgeries as part of Operation Miracle, the Cuban News Agency reported. The surgeries have been nearly equally split among three different medical centers spread across the country. Cuba issued a press release on Monday when the one-hundred thousandth eye operation took place.

Cuban doctors leave Panama

A group of 16 Operation Miracle doctors left Panama abruptly this week after the cooperation program between the two countries was canceled, Granma reported. Since 2007, Cuban doctors had improved the vision of approximately 50,000 patients for free, according to the Granma. Conservative President Ricardo Martinelli who took power in July of last year decided not to extend the program beyond April of this year. Cuba, upset that it was not consulted about the decision, decided to remove the doctors immediately and coordinate free treatment in Cuba for the remaining patients. It was a “unilateral decision of the Panamanian government” to end the work of Operation Miracle in its country, said the Cuban government.

According to Telam, relations between Cuba and Panama have now become tense. “Behind all of this are the stingy interests of ophthalmologists who, from the beginning of the program, were in opposition to the program. With this new government of the right, we saw this coming,” the leader of the medical mission, Odalys González, said upon returning to Cuba.

Around the Region:

Human Rights in Colombia: Rep. Jim McGovern (D), Huffington Post

A few days ago, I sat down with representative Jim McGovern, a democrat from the third district of Massachusetts. This time the opportunity was an interview for the Colombian daily newspaper El Espectador.

In Haiti, U.S. has chance to improve image in Latin America, Washington Post

Although the mission is undoubtedly a humanitarian one, it has also presented the Obama administration with a political opportunity. With Latin America closely following relief efforts, a successful mission — larger, more expensive and more complex than that of any other country — could advance U.S. diplomacy in a region long suspicious of U.S. intentions, say former diplomats and political analysts who track politics here.

Recommended Reading:

Los Van Van rocks downtown Miami, Miami Herald

If Cuban band Los Van Van’s 1999 Miami concert was a turning point, marked by controversy so intense that it closed the doors that had opened to Cuban music here in Miami, their concert Sunday at the James L. Knight Center seemed to signal another shift – to a new level of openness between Cubans on the island and in Miami.

Cuba’s Internet revolution edges forward, with limits, AFP

Yoan used to earn 25 dollars a month working as a computer technician for a state company – and an extra 500 dollars selling Internet access on Cuba’s vast and varied black market.

Next year in Havana? Tim Ashby

Ending the U.S. travel ban would not, as some opponents allege, ‘put dollars in the Castros’ pockets’ – instead it would accelerate the broad economic changes afoot in Cuba. And it would be a huge shot-in-the-arm for our own economy.

Artists Open New Routes Between Cuba and the US, Miriam Leiva

In a new piece entitled “Artists Open New Routes Between Cuba and the US”, independent journalist Miriam Leiva writes that due to cultural exchange, “sanity is prevailing over the extreme positions on both sides of the Florida straights.” According to Leiva, the trip by Carlos Varela to Washington “tipped the scales.” She argues that there is “something positive about cultural exchange.”

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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