The ruthlessly efficient political economy of our nation’s pro-embargo Cuba policy was on full display this week.
Item: Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, whose major legislative achievement is a law that places much of the President’s power to make foreign policy toward Cuba in the hands of Congress, announced this week that he will retire once he completes his ninth term in office.
Item: Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, apparently tearing a page from Emily Litella’s book on politics, announced he’d stop representing his own Congressional district and run for election to the Congress in his brother’s district, with no apparent concern that he was leaving his own constituents or that his brother’s might harbor any doubts about voting for him.
Item: The Wall Street Journal and other news agencies broke a story this week that U.S. Senator Bob Menendez wrote Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke urging him to approve the sale of a bank in New Jersey whose officers made tens of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions to Menendez and other allies of the pro-embargo cause.
Item: Marco Rubio running for Senate in Florida raised over $800,000 in campaign cash in the last two weeks to fuel his conservative challenge against Governor Charlie Crist for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Cuba sanctions supporter Mel Martínez. He has also won endorsements from Senator Jim DeMint and Congressman Mike Pence.
Item: That same Congressman, Mike Pence (a possible Indiana Senate Candidate), both Diaz-Balarts, Todd Tiahrt (running for Senate in Kansas), and four other House Republicans sent a letter to President Obama urging him to cut off the bilateral talks on migration with Cuba scheduled for February 19th. The letter was sent only two days after the Director for National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, informed Congress that the only national security threat he could see emanating from Cuba was the potential of a migration crisis.
Item: U.S. AID contractor Alan Gross remains locked up in a Cuban prison. We call on Cuban authorities to release him. Gross was picked up in Havana for distributing communications equipment to Cubans, a violation of a decade-old Cuban law. He was hired under a U.S. AID “regime change” program that the embargo lobby previously used to buy Nintendo Games and Godiva chocolates. This plainly ineffective program remains on the books, even under the Obama administration, because the pro-embargo camp won’t let go of it.
This is how the system works. A Congressman retires and his brother replaces him. Campaign contributions come in; letters to influence bank regulators in the midst of a financial crisis go out. The Cuba issue lubricates cash contributions, candidacies, and counter-productive policies not just in Florida, but Indiana and Kansas and across the country. Policies that harm the national interest; policies that potentially expose the United States to a migration crisis; policies that kill profits and jobs; policies that put the liberties of American citizens at risk.
Last year, we devoted substantial space to a report by Public Campaign that detailed the ten million dollars of political donations made by the network of political donors since 2004 who work every day to freeze U.S.-Cuba policy in place.
At that time, the director of the U.S.-Cuba PAC, Mauricio Claver-Carone, offered this statement in rebuttal. “I will not apologize for the Cuban-American community practicing its constitutional, democratic right to support candidates who believe in freedom and democracy for the Cuban people over business and tourism interests.”
That’s completely fair. No apologies are needed or should be offered for the exercise of anyone’s constitutional rights.
But this is the problem: one lobby’s tireless devotion to its own constitutional rights has resulted in the twisting of U.S. public policy toward Cuba for five decades in ways that are plainly harmful to the national interest, and its self-reinforcing political power has taken on a remarkable degree of conceit.
This week in Cuba news….
U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS
U.S. Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the leading advocate of U.S. sanctions against Cuba, announced that he will not seek re-election in his Florida congressional district, the Miami Herald and other news agencies reported.
Diaz-Balart said that he would continue to work to bring change to Cuba. “I am convinced that in the upcoming chapter of the struggle, I can be more useful to the inevitable change that will soon come to Cuba, to Cuba’s freedom, as a private citizen dedicated to helping the heroes within Cuba.” he said.
Lincoln’s younger brother, Mario Diaz-Balart, who currently holds the congressional seat for Florida’s 25th District, said that he would run for Lincoln’s seat in the 21st District which is considered more reliably Republican.
Analysts said that Lincoln’s retirement and his brother’s decision to run for the safer seat reflects changing opinions about engagement with Cuba in South Florida and a shift in priorities for voters. “He understands that his base is changing and shifting,” said Carlos Saladrigas, the head of the Cuba Study Group, Reuters reported.
More pointedly, Giancarlo Sopo, a political analyst at Bendixen & Amandi in Miami, said of the younger Diaz-Balart’s decision to move out of the district he’s represented since 2003, “Mario’s being run out of the district because it’s changing.”
The Herald quotes Sarah Stephens, Executive Director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas saying, it’s “hard to mourn the retirement of such a virulent and effective Cold warrior,” but she hoped for a Diaz-Balart replacement “who has a better sense of America’s national interest and a modern approach to Cuba.”
The Miami Herald printed the text of Diaz-Balart’s statement here.
In just a few short months, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio has jumped from worst to first in the Florida Republican primary for the United States Senate.
According to Real Clear Politics, Rubio’s lead over Florida’s Governor Charlie Crist in polls conducted this year now averages 9.7%, spoiling the Governor’s designs – and the expectations of moderate Florida Republicans – to fill the seat vacated last year by Mel Martínez.
Along with confounding the political expectations, Rubio is now in a virtuous cycle of raising considerable sums of money. While he may currently lag Crist in contributions, the vigor has shifted to Rubio’s side. According to CQ Politics, Rubio raised an eye-popping $800,000 in ten days. “That total, raised from over 11,000 donors, is equal to about half the $1.75 million Rubio raised during the last three months of 2009. Rubio reported just over $2 million in the bank at the end of last year,” CQ reported.
He continues to attract key conservative support from Congress, including endorsements from Senator Jim DeMint (S-SC) and Congressman Mike Pence (R-IN).
The Rubio train rolls on.
As Representatives Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt gear up for the Republican primary to fill the spot of retiring U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, their differences on policy toward Cuba are stark. Moran says that “after nearly 50 years we should try another way,” and argues that “opening up travel and economic opportunities for Americans in Cuba increases the chance the government of Cuba will change.” Tiahrt says he is “for free trade, just not with Cuba,” and that “expanded trade and travel would just be funding the Castro brothers.”
Bob Beatty of the Kansas Morning Sun wrote that Moran is right when he says reforming Cuba policy “will allow Kansas farmers to sell their products and gain a market.” According to Beatty, “beyond restricting Kansans from freely travelling or studying where they wish, the policy has impeded access to a market for the state’s agricultural producers.” He says “what on the surface seems like an irrelevant difference” has “real-world consequences for Kansas’ economy,” and should play a prominent role in the campaign.
Cuba’s imports of food and agriculture goods from the United States fell 26 percent in 2009 to $528 million, after peaking at $710 million the year before, the Associated Press reported. The numbers, released by the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Economic Trade Council, reflect Cuba’s efforts to reduce imports amidst a cash crunch and seek deals with countries like Vietnam that will provide credits and advantageous financing.
The U.S. is the largest seller of food to the island, and food and agriculture products have been exempt from the embargo since 2000. But U.S. companies are prohibited from providing credits and Cuba must pay in cash through complicated third country bank wires prior to the arrival of the goods. Imports from other major trading partners such as Venezuela, China and Spain are also down. President Raúl Castro has enacted a number of reforms in the farming sector in an effort to substitute domestically produced food for expensive imports.
The Associated Press reported that for the first time Voice of America (VOA) and the U.S. Office of Cuban Broadcasting are sharing resources, which “officials hope will enhance both services and which could blunt longtime criticism of the Cuban broadcasts.”
Miami-based Radio and TV Martí, the government’s only foreign broadcasts based outside of Washington, have long been criticized for being ineffective, partisan, and wasteful. Studies have shown that most Cubans, including dissidents, disapprove of the content of Radio Martí and have trouble listening to it. TV Martí is completely blocked by the Cuban government and not viewable on the island.
Media specialist Nicholas Cull from the University of Southern California said the move was likely aimed at improving the Martís’ reputation. Congressman Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a long-time critic of the Martís, said he hoped it was the beginning of the end for the flawed broadcasts. “I think they realize they’re on borrowed time with the Cuba project, so I think they’re trying to merge it in as much as they can with Voice of America,” he said.
The Obama administration’s 2011 budget request included $206.8 million for VOA, slightly more over previous years, and $29.2 million for Cuban broadcasting, similar to previous levels. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said she would ensure the move wasn’t aimed at reducing the role of the Martís. “I am looking into this issue to ensure that this is an effort to maximize resources to expand U.S. coverage in the region and not a back door to reducing U.S. broadcasts to Cuba,” she said.
David Loret de Mola, a first-generation Cuban-American, wrote in the Sacramento State Hornet that “it’s time to end our embargo with Cuba.” According to Loret de Mola, the embargo has only given Fidel and Raúl Castro an excuse for their country’s failing economy and “lifting it would help this country get back some of the wealth it has lost.”
Commentator William Lange of Vermont Public Radio writes that fifty years after President Eisenhower ordered an embargo of Cuba, “We citizens of the Land of the Free are still not free to travel to Cuba.” In Lange’s view, “the way to free oppressed people” is to “show them what they’re missing and help them attain it: the old how-ya-gonna-keep-’em-down-on-the-farm technique.”
“Literally only half an hour farther from New England than the airports of Florida are a place and a people we’ve neglected for so long we’ve forgotten why the island has for over 500 years been called the Jewel of the Caribbean. It’s time for us freezing Vermonters once again to lead the way,” he concludes.
Havana continues to be filled with rumors that the government will expand the role of private management to barber shops, cafeterias, bakeries and other businesses, reported the Financial Times. However, three years after the state media began reporting on the shortcomings of the “state-managed retail sector beset by poor management, corruption and abysmal service,” the debate about liberalization continues, and authorities have yet to act.
Cuban President Raúl Castro has insisted on trying to make the economy more productive and efficient. “State companies must be efficient and so must have resources to be so. The rest should adapt to more adequate forms of property given the resources available,” stated a report by the ministry of the economy and planning. According to the Financial Times, many commentators, economists and analysts propose increasing the number of family businesses and allowing employees to form co-operatives like those long established in agriculture. Castro has yet to take concrete action in that area, and there is apparently fierce resistance within the ruling Communist party, especially in the provinces.
Writing in the Financial Times, correspondent Marc Frank notes resistance to reform within the ruling Communist party:
“Cuba is not Havana,” said one provincial-level party official. When pressed, he conceded that the state did not need to run some services, such as every barber shop. But he opposed letting go of larger establishments, such as car repair shops. “Most cars and trucks in this country are owned by the state,” he said.
Another party cadre cited by Frank said the retail sector’s poor performance was not systemic but subjective. Fixing it was just a matter of improving party discipline, she said.
The Global Post reported that over the last several months the letters to the editor page of the Granma has turned into the center of the debate over what “Cubans are calling ‘privatization’ – small-scale liberalization measures that might allow more entrepreneurship and private business.” The Granma has printed many letters for and against increasing the role of private businesses in the economy. The letters contain criticisms of Cuba’s economic ills and the page has turned into “part of a broader re-examination of Cuban socialism called for in speeches by President Raúl Castro,” the Global Post reported.
One letter, sent by D. Gonzalez de la Cruz, stated that “pilfering is so rife at state-run businesses that they’re already being privatized.” He argued that some companies should be privatized in a “rational and well-thought-out process.” However, other readers like J.L. Valdes Carrasco, wrote that “now is not the time to create the conditions for the reintroduction of clever and treacherous capitalism into our homeland.” The one thing most letters have in common is quotes from speeches by Raúl or Fidel Castro used to support their positions.
A group of 35 Cuban dissidents were detained last week for demonstrating on behalf of imprisoned dissident Orlando Zapato, AFP reported.
An illegal but tolerated human rights group, Committee for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), said that the “last three dissidents that were jailed since Wednesday were freed on Sunday.”
Elizardo Sanchez, director of the CCDHRN, said that police arrested the dissidents in the eastern city of Camaguey when they were marching in protest of Zapata’s imprisonment. Zapata, whom Amnesty International has declared a prisoner of conscience, has been in prison since 2003. The CCDHRN claims that there are 201 political prisoners in Cuba. The Cuban government claims there are no political prisoners and accuses those imprisoned of being U.S.-financed “mercenaries” jailed for threatening Cuban national security.
According to Reuters, “Cuba has launched an ambitious project to ring urban areas with thousands of small farms in a bid to reverse the country’s long agricultural decline and ease its chronic economic woes.” The five-year plan calls for producing food products in 4-mile-wide rings around 150 of Cuba’s cities and towns, with the exception of the capital Havana.
A pilot program has begun in Camaguey and the Ministry of Agriculture says the city will eventually have 1,400 small farms surrounding the city. The government hopes they will produce 75 percent of the food for the city of 320,000 people, with big state-owned farms providing the rest. The project is modeled after the successes of urban gardens developed by then-Defense Minister Raúl Castro during the special period in the 1990s.
The Cuban government is studying a proposal to supply farmers with subsidized fuel in an effort to revive the agricultural sector, Prensa Latina reported. According to Orlando Lugo, the president of the National Association of Small Farmers, the plan will be implemented within the coming months. He said the allocation of subsidized fuel “will be directly related to fixed quantities of agricultural foods,” that will be sold to the state.
Cuba and Canada have reached an agreement to allow more airlines to operate flights between the two countries, the Canadian Press reported. Transport Minister John Baird announced Sunday that two additional Canadian airlines, WestJet and Sunwing, will be allowed to offer flights to Cuba. “In the past few years, the Government of Canada has moved at an incredible pace to negotiate new or expanded international air service agreements, and today’s announcement provides even greater options for Canadians traveling south,” said Baird.
Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and Vice-President Esteban Lazo visited Haiti this week to assess earthquake damage and the work of Cuban medical teams on the ground, Europa Press reported. The Cuban delegation visited field hospitals set up by Cuban medical personnel, as well as the Simon Bolivar camp, a medical center funded by ALBA countries.
In a new online column, Fidel Castro wrote that over 1,000 Latin American doctors trained at Havana’s Latin American Medical School (ELAM) would soon join Cuban doctors operating dozens of field hospitals in Haiti. “There will be hundreds of field hospitals, rehabilitation centers and hospitals, where more than one thousand doctors and students of the last years of the specialty of Medicine from Haiti, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, Chile and other sister nations will be offering their services,” wrote Castro. He pointed out that “a group of American doctors who also studied at ELAM” arrived last week.
MEDICC reported that an international team of some 50 ELAM-trained doctors from a dozen countries has just arrived in Port-au-Prince. They are the first of a “wave of ELAM graduates expected to number over 200 from 24 countries in the next week.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Cuba on Thursday for a three-day trip to further develop “bilateral economic ties,” Russia’s RioNovosti newspaper reported.
Lavrov met with his Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla to explore increasing cooperation in the electric power industry, transportation, pharmaceutics, high-tech industry and other areas. “The current trade, which totals $260 million, does not reflect the bilateral trade potential,” and Moscow is hoping to diversify its economic and investment ties with Cuba, Russia’s Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said. Russia has said that strengthening relations with Cuba will help advance Russia’s interests in the entire Latin American region.
Additionally, for the first time in three decades members of Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet will perform in Havana, Reuters reported. Cuban state media reported that dancers from the Bolshoi and the Cuban National Ballet will perform pieces from ballets such as “Giselle” and “The Nutcracker” on February 13 in conjunction with the annual Havana International Book Fair, which this year features Russian writers and artists.
Panama is asking the Cuban government to turn over 45,000 files that Cuban doctors took upon ending the Operación Milagro eye treatment program this month, EFE reported. Cuban doctors treated 44,486 patients between March 2007 and December 2009, but left the country earlier this month after the Panamanian government decided not to extend the program. “We are in negotiations because when they left, they brought the files for the patients that were treated, which we need in order to do an audit of the program and know how much it cost,” said the Panama’s health minister, Franklin Vergara.
The President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, arrived in Cuba to receive a second round of surgery on his right knee, Reuters reported. Correa said that he chose this week because of holidays in Ecuador, which would ensure it wouldn’t affect his workload. According to Correa, the treatment he requires is not available in Ecuador and he underwent similar procedures in his country in the past without achieving positive results. He was in Cuba last September for the first treatment.
A gaggle of photographers, relatives and fashion advisors traipse after Yuniesky Collazo as she twirls for the camera in a rented pink ball gown in one of Havana’s picturesque plazas. She is celebrating her quinceañera, or 15th birthday, a sacred rite of passage in Cuba and much of Latin America.
What was Alan Gross doing in Havana?, Politics Daily
Bonnie Goldstein, a contributor and investigative reporter for Politics Daily, delves into the U.S. AID “regime change” programs that landed a U.S. contractor, Alan Gross, in a Cuban prison.
In Cuba, license plates tag drivers, not the car, The Associated Press
Its Cuba’s twist on “you are what you drive”: Here, you are your license plate. A rainbow of colors and an alphabet soup of codes tell the discerning eye how important you are in the egalitarian revolution as you whiz by – your nationality, what you do for a living and often how high you rank at work.
Cuba: Journey to the provincial heart, The Telegraph
Lydia Bell sets out on a road trip, accompanied by her husband, assorted hitchhikers and a pig.
Inside Cuba’s dance factory, The Guardian
Virtually blind and wearing Jackie O sunglasses that might have been bought when Jackie Onassis was still alive, Alicia Alonso has her ballerina face painted on every morning: a wide slash of scarlet lipstick, thick foundation, flaring black eyebrows. She may be approaching her 90th birthday, but she is still the head of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, still the island’s revolutionary prima ballerina absoluta.
Recently, the Washington Post editorialized on behalf of preventing Jose Miguel Insulza from serving another term as OAS Secretary General. The Santiago Times published a must-read response calling the Post “arrogant, condescending,” but offering “exactly what this part of the world should expect from a media that lost its independence and integrity a long time ago..”
Strong letter to follow?
Around the Region:
Fervor being felt in the Bolivia of President Evo Morales stems from the changes he is making not only for the country’s indigenous population but also for its women. Putting more women in key political roles has been a top priority for the newly re-elected Bolivian leader, says the BBC’s Andres Schipani.
Mauricio Funes: His Way, Americas Quarterly
The March 2009 election of Mauricio Funes and the broad coalition of social and political forces that supported his candidacy inspired the Salvadoran people and heralded a new era in the history of the smallest country in Latin America.
Civil-military relations in the region, Just the Facts
In this second podcast, Adam Isacson of CIP discusses recent developments in Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, El Salvador, Peru and Venezuela that indicate the current state of civilian control over the armed forces.
Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team