Migration Talks Resume (but do we mean it?); Cuba counts new voters, guns, and mules; Yoani calls out the U.S. Embargo

Dear Reader:

As we publish today, Cuban and American officials are meeting in Havana to resume migration talks between our two countries.

In an important, early step in his administration, President Obama called for direct negotiations with Cuba’s government on migration, regular discussions that had been broken off by President Bush in 2003.   The first such discussions took place last July in New York.

Cuba, for its part, cancelled a following round that was supposed to take place late last year, without explanation, but around the time that U.S. AID’s contractor, Alan Gross, was detained by Cuban authorities for engaging in activities that violated Cuban law.

We are strong supporters of these talks – and other forms of engagement – because they advance U.S. and Cuban interests, recognize Cuba’s sovereignty, and return diplomacy to its proper place in the two countries’ relationship.

These talks can also be a place to air other issues unrelated to migration; it is our hope that Cuba and the United States can talk about the case of Mr. Gross and that he can soon be reunited with his family in the United States.

As the negotiations begin, however, we wonder whether the Cuban foreign ministry took note of the article which caught our eyes in the New York Times this week (thank you, Helene Cooper) which seemed to suggest a “defining-diplomacy-down” approach to negotiations inside the administration.

During Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign – primary and general – he promised a return to diplomacy and engagement especially with those governments with which we are at odds in order to make practical progress on issues that divided us.

The article suggests that the administration may have downsized its ambitions and now sees reaching out more as a means of inoculating itself against charges that it won’t deal with adversaries diplomatically – that it’s just P.R.

We hope that’s not the case, because there’s more to be done, much more progress to be made – with Cuba, with Latin America, and with the world.

And if the administration is looking for clues that this is the case, it needs to look no further than a recent interview with Cuba’s dissident/blogger, Yoani Sanchez, in which she calls the U.S. embargo a blunder and says what pro-embargo forces always deny; namely, that U.S. policy strengthens Cuba’s government and hurts the Cuban people.

We should repeal it.

Elsewhere in the news summary, you will see that Cuba is counting new voters on its roles, counting guns legally owned by farmers and former members of the military, even counting its mules in the countryside (please raise your hoof, one wag wrote).

It’s all here and more; this week in the news summary:

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Second round of migration talks resume in Havana

U.S. government officials arrived in Havana this week to take part in migration talks with their counterparts in the Cuban government on Friday, AFP reported.

The delegation will be led by Craig Kelly, the principal deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, marking the highest-ranking envoy to be sent to Cuba under the Obama administration. Envoys of his rank went regularly to Havana for the dialogue before it was suspended by the Bush administration in 2003.

According to a State Department press release, “the discussions will focus on how best to promote safe, legal and orderly migration between Cuba and the United States.”

The Associated Press reported that the talks will take place “under a cloud of mistrust” and dashed hopes, indicating that earlier hopes that the election of President Obama could mean quicker progress toward ending a half-century of U.S.-Cuban enmity have not been fulfilled.

Detained contractor’s wife pleads for his release

Judy Gross, the wife of a U.S. government contractor imprisoned in Havana, released a video on Thursday in which she called for the release of her husband, who she said was innocent of wrongdoing, news sources reported. “Alan has done nothing wrong, and we need him home,” she said.

Gross said her husband, Alan P. Gross, was working for the U.S. government to help members of the Jewish community in Cuba connect to the internet. Members of the Jewish community have not acknowledged receiving any help from Mr. Gross and it is still unclear exactly what type of global communications equipment he was distributing on the island. The Cuban government has said that he was involved in illegal activities and is under investigation, but no charges have been filed. He was arrested the first week of December.

Mrs. Gross released the video the day before the migration talks between the two countries were scheduled to start. “The focus is migration,” but the Gross case “is an issue we raise with the Cubans at every opportunity,” said Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, the Washington Post reported. U.S. consular officials have visited Gross twice and his wife has spoken with him briefly over the telephone on three occasions.

“I believe the Cubans arrested him to force the U.S. government to focus on the provocative nature of these aid programs, which are designed to push for regime change,” said Julia Sweig, director of the Latin America program at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

White House: engagement policy “is not about dialogue or understanding with adversaries”

Focusing on U.S. policy toward Iran, the New York Times questioned whether the diplomacy that President Obama spoke of during his campaign and the early months of his presidency has led to real attempts at engagement. White House officials maintain that they have not abandoned Mr. Obama’s pledge of engagement, and point to the numerous times in the past year that he reached out to Iran and other questions. Officials contend that Obama’s openness to dialogue and the change in discourse from the Bush Administration has paid off and put countries on the defensive. The “biggest benefit of Mr. Obama’s engagement policy now is not dialogue or understanding with adversaries, but simply a defusing of a worldwide view that the United States is part of the problem,” officials said.

According to administration officials, “that is now the central point of the new White House outlook on engagement, and it extends to Venezuela, North Korea and Cuba as well.” They said that Mr. Obama was criticized for shaking hands with Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, at the Summit of the Americas, but the “gesture has helped with Latin American views of Mr. Chavez’s anti-American rhetoric.” The Times reported that the months ahead, administration officials hope they will benefit from a global perception that Mr. Obama has reached out to North Korea, Cuba and even Syria.

Yoani Sanchez: embargo represents blunder in policy toward Cuba

In a new interview with Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez discusses her opinions on the current political situation in Cuba and the effects of U.S. policy toward the island. This is what Ms. Sanchez had to say about U.S. foreign policy:

I believe that these economic restrictions − an “embargo” to some and a “blockade” to others − represent a blunder in American policy toward Cuba. Far from suffocating the ruling class of the Island, these trade restrictions create material difficulties for the population and feed the radicalization of the ideological discourse inside Cuba. The embargo has been an argument to justify the unproductive and inefficient state-run economy, including the total ruin of various sectors. Worse than that, it has been used to support the maxim, “in a country under siege, dissent is treason,” which contributes to the lack of freedoms for my fellow citizens.

In its nearly 50 years, the “blockade” has done nothing to limit the material arsenal of our authorities, not one of them has ceased to enjoy their privileges. An example is the issue of Internet access. They have always blamed the restrictions on Internet access on the fact that the United States has not allowed Cuba to connect to its underwater cable. The victims of these restrictions are ordinary Cubans; we have had to postpone our enjoyment of the World Wide Web, while the police, the censors and the official media seize the few kilobytes of access available to the whole country.

Experts analyze cultural exchange under the Obama Administration

The Havana Book Fair opened on Friday with a panel of experts from the U.S. and Cuba analyzing the state of cultural exchange between the two countries under the Obama Administration, AFP reported.  Members of the panel, “Cuba-United States Cultural Relations: Present and Future,” said that although cultural exchange has “rebounded under Obama” it has not reached “the levels of expectation” that were created when he was elected.

Sheryl Lutjens, current head of the Latin American Studies Association’s Cuba section, said that academics on both sides face “access problems” to information in the other county and difficulty traveling back and forth. Rafael Hernández, editor of the magazine Temas, said that the increase in exchange is “not necessarily led by the governments, but by cultural actors that have become closer and closer over time.”

According to Lutjens, “it’s still not clear if [Obama] is going to support exchange,” but his administration continues to deny licenses to visit Cuba. “We are at a very important moment, a moment of opportunity, where expectations are big, but the challenges are too, and therefore there is resistance to change,” said Cuban academic Carlos Alzugaray.

Cuba Expands Airport for Cubans from the U.S.

Cuba is spending $45 million to expand terminal two of the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana to accommodate Cubans living in the U.S. who visit the island, reported the AFP.  Havana has seen a huge increase in U.S. visits since President Obama eased travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans in April.  The Havana airport receives about 40 daily flights from Miami, and weekly flights from Los Angeles and New York.

IN CUBA

320,000 new voters in upcoming local elections

According to the latest census released by the Cuban government, more than 8 million of the island’s 11.2 million people are eligible to vote and will take part in municipal elections in April, Europa Press reported. Cuban’s over the age of 16 are eligible to vote and encouraged to do so by the government. Cuba’s National Electoral Commission (CEN) reported that over 320,000 Cubans will vote for the first time in the elections to elect representatives to the Municipal Assemblies. Vice President of CEN, Rubén Pérez Rodríguez, said most of the new voters are youth that have turned 16 since the last vote, but some older individuals also registered to vote for the first time.

On April 25, Cubans will elect council members of 169 municipal assemblies. A second round will take place on May 2nd for candidates that don’t obtain at least 50 percent of the vote. Municipal Assembly elections take place every two and half years. The Cuban government claims elections are free and fair because candidates are selected by neighborhood committees and no finances are involved. Dissidents and rights groups argue that opposition parties are banned from participating and the government forces citizens to vote for Communist party members.

Gun registration drive

BBC reported this week on a gun registration drive initiated by Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior, aimed at getting citizens to register their personally-owned firearms. This new ordinance, similar to one enacted during the 1960s, gives citizens two months to register their weapons. Cuba has strict gun control laws – even most law enforcement officials leave their guns at the station – but many farmers and former members of the armed forces have guns in their homes.  According to the new regulations, owners of firearms must be 18 years old, demonstrate operational and safety knowledge, and pass a physical and mental health exam before being approved to carry a weapon.

Earthquake hits eastern Cuba, no damage or injuries

Last week, a magnitude 5.4 earthquake and 38 aftershocks struck three provinces in eastern Cuba, Reuters reported. According to Cuban state media, no injuries or damage were reported. The quake was felt in all municipalities in Guantanamo, which is located at the eastern tip of the island.

“The ground shook strongly but it happened faster than the Haitian earthquake. Luckily, it passed quickly,” a Communist Party official in the town of Baracoa, at Cuba’s eastern tip and about 35 miles north-northwest of the epicenter, told Reuters.

Cuba Tries to Curb Brain Drain with Incentives

AFP reported this week that the Cuban government has launched incentive policies and value training programs to prevent its large number of scientists from leaving the country in search of higher paying jobs. According to Fidel Castro’s oldest son and nuclear physicist Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, “It’s no secret that there has been emigration, people who have left their institutions” on the island. He said that thousands of Cuban scientists, mainly younger Cubans who have graduated in the last decade, produce over 150 drugs and biotech products that Cuba sells in over 40 countries.

Dissident hospitalized after 75 day hunger strike

Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo, reportedly on a hunger strike for 75 days, was taken by ambulance on Wednesday from prison in Camaguey to a Havana hospital, EFE reported. According to Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, Zapata is in “serious condition.”

Zapata was one of the 75 dissidents that was arrested in the spring of 2003 and convicted on charges of working for the United States. Zapata’s relatives say that he started the hunger strike with a request that he be recognized as a “prisoner of conscience,” which Amnesty International has labeled him, and has been fed through intravenous tubes against his will.

Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called on the Vatican to intervene on Zapata’s behalf, El Universal reported. “Your intervention could make the difference between life and death,” she wrote in a letter to the Secretary of State of the Vatican, Tarcisio Bertone, which she also distributed to the press.

Cuban intellectual calls for dialogue with youth and improved reporting

Graciela Pogolotti, a well know Cuban intellectual, publicly urged Cubans this week to engage in cross-generational dialogue, questioning state-run media and censorship of information. In an extensive article published in Juventud Rebelde, the 78-year-old academic warned that without this dialogue, “there could be very negative consequences.” According to AFP, she urged that the spirit of young people not be identified with counterrevolutionary positions, and instead addressed in an unbiased manner, seeking relevant answers.

Warning that many youth see the state news media as biased and irrelevant, she urged media to broaden its reporting and open up to debate. She said that reporting should comply with certain commitments to Cuba foreign policy, but there should also be room to discuss critical issues in countries that are allies of Cuba.

Cuba is the 9th most visited country in the Americas

Cuba is currently the ninth most popular tourist destination in the Americas, Prensa Latina reported. According to Miguel Alejandro Figueras of Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism, Cuba was 23rd on the list in 1990. Since then the island has added approximately 37,000 hotel rooms, and has received over 29 million foreign visitors.

Mule census underway

The Associate Press reported that the Cuban government has commissioned a census of mules to determine the severity of the shortage they are currently facing. State media said the animals are “very important for the transportation of food in mountainous areas,” but they are unsure of how many they have or are lacking. They estimate the deficit may be as high as 8,000 in highland areas alone. The census is scheduled to take place March 1-10.

FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuban Doctors in Haiti

Two interesting reports on Cuban medical teams working in Cuba focus on the coverage they have received – or not received – in the international media and the diplomatic points Cuba hopes to score through the cooperation.

Despite the fact that 344 Cuban doctors and medical staff were already in Haiti before the earthquake struck, and they were among the fastest responders to the impending health crisis, setting up hospitals, clinics, rehab centers, and other care facilities and sending additional medical personnel in response to the earthquake, news of Cuba’s contributions to the Haiti relief effort has gotten little attention in the mainstream media, reported Al-Jazeera.

Al-Jazeera attributes the lack of reporting on the Cuban aid to the fact that relief NGOs operating on the ground have strong relationships with media outlets, which help them with their media presence. Richard Gott, the Guardian newspaper’s former foreign editor and a Latin America specialist, had a different explanation. “Western media are programmed to be indifferent to aid that comes from unexpected places. In the Haitian case, the media have ignored not just the Cuban contribution, but also the efforts made by other Latin American countries,” he said.

Meanwhile, according to Nick Miroff of the Global Post, reports by Cuban state media and columns by Fidel Castro that gloat about Cuba’s medical aid while attacking the United States for militarizing Haiti “are a reminder that the island’s socialist system seems to thrive at the convergence of politics, medicine and international diplomacy.” However, Miroff points out, “for Haitian earthquake victims and others in poor countries where medical care is desperately needed, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

According to Gail Reed, director of MEDICC, a U.S. non-profit that studies Cuban medicine and helps U.S. students receive free medical training on the island, Cuba deserves the praise that it has received internationally. “Whether Cuba gets goodwill from its doctors, or for its global medical cooperation, well, shouldn’t it?” she asked. “Shouldn’t it get some credit?”

“The world responds when there’s a disaster, and responds generously, and that’s wonderful,” said Reed. “The point to me, however, is to build a strong public health system. And the fact that the Cubans have been in Haiti for more than 10 years indicates a commitment to building a public health system.”

Legislators from Cuba and Mexico discuss increasing ties

Parliamentarians from Cuba and Mexico will meet in Havana to analyze ways to increase cooperation, including ways to collaborate in the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking, human smuggling and organized crime, AFP reported. Nine Senators and ten deputies, representatives of all political forces in Mexico, will make up the Mexican delegation, which will meet with a dozen Cuba legislators from the National Assembly, led by Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon. According to Notimex, the two sides will analyze the migration agreement the countries signed in 2008 and discuss increasing commercial, cultural, educational and environmental cooperation.

Spain and Cuba discuss human rights

Representatives of Cuba and Spain met Thursday in Madrid to discuss human rights in the fourth annual meeting between the two countries, AFP reported. The Spanish government said that similar to prior meetings, it expressed its humanitarian interest in several “specific cases” of opposition figures and called for advances in the overall human rights situation on the island.

The Cuban delegation was headed by foreign ministry official Anayansi Rodriguez Camejo, along with Cuba’s ambassador to Spain, Alejandro Gonzalez Galiano. Spain was represented by the directors-general of Foreign Policy, Alfonso Lucini; Ibero-America, Juan Carlos Sanchez, and of the United Nations, Global Affairs and Human Rights, Jorge Domecq, EFE reported.

Spanish officials said that participants “spoke of all matters, without restrictions,” and Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said the interactions allow the parties “to advance, build trust, the promotion and respect for human rights and [achieve] a better level of understanding and cooperation in this area.”

Chilean President-elect says he will fight for democracy in the region

Chile’s newly elected president, Sebastian Piñera, says that he will follow his country’s traditional policy of noninterference but encourage democracy throughout the region. In an interview with Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer, Piñera said he will vocally encourage Cuba and Venezuela to recognize their people’s fundamental freedoms.

“I believe that Cuba is not a democracy, and I also think that human rights are not respected in Cuba…That’s why, as president of Chile, I aspire to do as much as I can to seek that the Organization of American States Charter and the OAS mandate to defend democracy and human rights be made more effective,” Piñera said.

He vowed to push for these changes within the Rio Group, which Chile will chair for two years starting later this month.

Around the Region:

Staffers from the U.S. Congress seek to improve relations with Venezuela

A group of staffers from the U.S. Congress held a meeting today in Caracas with Venezuelan representatives seeking to improve bilateral relations.  Sarah Stephens, the delegation leader and executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, said that the delegation was pleased with the meeting, reported EFE. “We had the opportunity to delve into various issues of international politics and gained a better understanding of how Venezuela manages its foreign policy,” said Stephens.

Recommended Reading:

How to travel to Cuba legally as an American, Matador Abroad

“While it’s still challenging to travel legally, President Obama has eased some of the restrictions and opened up some opportunities. Having just returned from the island, I can attest that the process involves months of planning, tons of paperwork, and plenty of waiting around.”

After 25 years, a visit to a different Cuba, The Boston Globe

“Visiting any country after an absence of 25 years naturally offers a host of then-and-now contrasts. In Cuba they are especially stark. Much of Cuban life remains the same, most notably the stifling restrictions on private enterprise that guarantee the nation’s permanent poverty. There is, however, one striking change: the freedom with which people talk about the failings of their regime and its leaders.”

Dissidents make noise–oops, news, Progresso Weekly

“Anti-Castro Cubans and journalists throughout the western press adore her and festoon her with awards and prizes (John Moors Cabot in New York and Ortega y Gassett in Spain). The fan club, however, does not include other “dissidents.” Representatives of Martha Beatriz Roque, a less cyber-savvy dissident now in second place among the female “Disidencia,” told the Miami Herald her diabetes cause her serious problems.”

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