Food and visitors for Cuba, protests for Zapata Tamayo, relief efforts for Chile

Dear Friends:

Hours after we sent you the last issue of our news summary, a devastating earthquake visited death and destruction upon the people of Chile.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the Chilean people.  We ask our readers, as we did when Haiti was leveled just a few weeks ago, to consider donating to reputable charities who are offering aid to the Chilean people.  They need it.

Our news blast concludes with information on how you can make contributions.  We hope that our readership will be generous.

But we begin this week with news from Capitol Hill: the House Agriculture Committee will hear expert testimony next Thursday on sales of U.S. food to Cuba.  The hearing follows the introduction of bipartisan legislation – sponsored by Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-MN) and Rep. Jerry Moran (R-KS) – that would boost food exports to Cuba and repeal the travel ban.

We refer to it as “the hybrid bill,” but it should be called “common sense.”

We have a choice in our country between keeping Cuba policy just as it is – a policy which has accomplished nothing in five decades and which alienates our country from the Cuban people – or looking at new approaches which better reflect American interests and American values.

This bill is an ideal example of what we should do – take down barriers to U.S. exports and travel to the island.

Selling more U.S. food to put on the tables of Cuban families, and putting more American travelers on Cuban streets, will create more jobs for the U.S. economy, and offer the Cuban people and the American people more contact and opportunity to share ideas.

This legislation is focused on the future, while right now there is turmoil in the U.S.-Cuba relationship, and understandably so.

We cover in this week’s news summary the continuing repercussions that Cuba is facing following the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo and the detention of Alan Gross.   These are serious and important issues on their own terms.

But they hardly represent a vindication of U.S. economic and diplomatic sanctions; they are in fact evidence of their failure to change anything.  Rather than punishing the government of Cuba, instead they harm the Cuban people and penalize Americans by restricting their liberties and their livelihoods.

In this climate, we think the House Agriculture Committee is doing the right thing by examining how increasing food exports to Cuba and repealing the travel ban would represent a helpful and hopeful turn for U.S. policy.

They deserve our thanks and encouragement.

This week in Cuba news…

U.S. – CUBA POLICY

Cuba trade and travel legislation moves forward

The House Agriculture Committee will hold a hearing on March 11 on the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, H.R. 4645, which would take a number of steps to enhance trade and travel with Cuba. The bill would allow Cuba to make direct wire transfers to U.S. banks and turn over payment for agricultural products upon receiving the goods, two changes that would facilitate increased agricultural sales. It would also end all restrictions on travel by Americans to the island.

Organizations that support agriculture have lined up to endorse the House bill, the Western Farm Press reported. “Even though U.S. firms offer reliable trading partners, quality products and competitive prices, current U.S. policy hampers their ability to supply the Cuban market — if the United States is not the supplier, the European Union or Brazil will be happy to take our place,” said Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union (NFU) president.

“USA Rice Federation has proactively worked for the past 15 years to remove agricultural trade barriers with Cuba,” said Betsy Ward, USA Rice Federation president and CEO. “Cuba has the potential to be a 400,000 to 600,000 metric ton market for U.S. rice and we applaud Chairman Peterson’s proposed legislation, which would not only provide Cubans with more of the rice they have said they prefer, but would also help boost the U.S. economy.”

The president of the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), Jerry McReynolds, said he will testify at the hearing and advocate for the passage of the legislation because of the benefits for the wheat industry, the Ellsworth Independent reported.

U.S. AID Cuba money on hold

According to the Associated Press, Cuban-American groups and others that take part in U.S. AID-funded Cuba democracy programs are upset that funds allocated for Cuba are on hold. Congress approved about $20 million for 2009 and 2010, but the Obama administration has not yet requested proposals from groups interested in applying for the funds to conduct the program.  Long criticized for non-competitive bidding, a lack of oversight, theft and failure to produce results, the program has come under increased scrutiny since Alan Gross, a U.S. AID contractor was arrested in Havana in December.

President Obama’s budget request for fiscal year 2011, released in February, also includes $20 million to “continue to promote self-determined democracy in Cuba.”  Commenting on the program last month, 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.”

Ricardo Zuniga, deputy director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Cuban Affairs, said the administration wants to ensure the assistance reaches people in Cuba and therefore a review of the program is underway, the Miami Herald reported. “It’s not unusual to have a careful look, not when you want to make sure the programs adhere with the overall policy direction of the new administration,” Zuniga said.

Lawsuit puts U.S.-Cuba direct flights at risk

The ex-wife of a Cuban spy has filed a lawsuit against charter companies that provide flights to Cuba in order to collect $27.1 million she was awarded for emotional damages following her relationship with her ex, EFE reported.

Ira J. Kurzban, attorney for the Miami-based charter firms, said that the lawsuit brought by Ana Margarita Martinez, could lead to Havana suspending their landing rights, according to a court document released Tuesday. The eight companies are the only authorized providers of direct flights from the U.S. to Cuba. They pay the Cuban government a fee for landing rights at Cuban airports. Martinez’s suit demands that money be paid to her.

In the early 1990s Martinez married alleged Cuban spy Juan Pablo Roque, who later fled when U.S. authorities arrested a group of Cuban intelligence agents in the U.S. In 2001, Circuit Court Judge Alan Postman ruled that because Martinez was deceived by Roque, legally he committed sexual battery, and that the woman was the victim of rape, torture and terrorism.

The attorney representing the charter companies asked U.S. District Judge Frederico Moreno to deny Martinez’s plea; if they do not make the payments, the Cuban government will cancel all direct flights.

Cuba will not participate in the Central American and Caribbean Games

Cuba announced last week that it has decided not to participate in the Central American and Caribbean Games in Puerto Rico because it was not guaranteed the same conditions as other delegations, safety of its athletes, or permission for Cuban reporters and officials to participate, the Associated Press reported.

Cuba had requested assurances that its airplanes would not be confiscated by U.S. authorities. Due to lawsuits filed against the Cuban government, Cuba feared its aircraft could be seized as assets. It also requested visas for Cuban journalists and assurance that all trainers and managers would be given visas. The government is also angry about new regulations for 14 countries considered risks for terrorism, which mean Cuban athletes would be subject to humiliating searches and security measures. Finally, Cuba said that in the past their delegations have been harassed by anti-Castro groups in Puerto Rico, and said they did not receive assurances that adequate protection would be provided.

According to the Granma, members of past sporting delegations to Puerto Rico, most recently the World Baseball Classic in 2006, “still remember with just displeasure the constant aggression, provocations and insults, and the constant pressure to which they were subjected by Cuban counterrevolutionary groups which act with impunity and which have made terrorism, intolerance and fascism in its U.S. variety a way of life that is well-paid and sponsored by different U.S. administrations.”

“After thoroughly evaluating every step taken and the position taken once again by the U.S. government of creating obstacles and not agreeing to just requests, the Cuban Olympic Committee and the Cuban Sports Institute (INDER), have decided to officially announce that Cuba will not participate in the Mayaguez 2010 Central American and Caribbean Games,” the Cuban Olympic Committee said in a statement.

IN CUBA

Heavy winds and flooding in Havana

Heavy winds sent waves from the Caribbean Sea crashing over Havana’s malecón (seawall) on Wednesday, resulting in small scale flooding in the streets of Vedado, the Associated Press reported. No major damage was reported, but young men played in the crashing waves and homeowners did their best to keep the flood waters out of their homes. “It’s been years since I’ve seen something like this, especially since we’re not in hurricane season,” Maria Hernandez, a security guard who watched 6-foot waves crash into the street, told the AP. You can view a slideshow of a few photos taken of the waves here. If you are familiar with Havana, you’ll notice some of the pictures are taken at Malecón and Paseo, near Hotel Meliá Cohiba, and others are taken near Hotel Presidente at Malecón and G (Avenida de los Presidentes).

Havana food production fails to meet expectations

Production of fruits and vegetables in Cuba’s capital and surrounding farmlands is 40 percent lower than expected so far this year, the Associated Press reported. Despite reforms to the agricultural sector, Havana province fell far short of the targets set for the first two months of the year. According to an article in the Granma, the lack of production is largely because of government ineptitude. “The frequently semi-empty stalls at the markets are signs of these failures and the difference between what is produced in the countryside and what is sold,” the newspaper said.

“Cooperatives and farmers did not receive fertilizer and the chemicals needed to protect their crops during the last four months of 2009,” Granma reported, adding that other factors such as the late arrival of imported seed added to the crisis, Reuters reported. Granma gave numerous examples of state regulations hampering food production and distribution, including the state’s domination of the distribution process.

Cuba offers plan to repay foreign companies

The Cuban government recently introduced a plan to repay foreign companies’ money frozen in Cuban bank accounts, Reuters reported. The government will reportedly pay foreign businesses two percent annual interest over five years, diplomatic and business sources told Reuters.

In November of 2008 the government froze bank accounts of many companies doing business in Cuban currency that didn’t have their accounts backed up in foreign currency. By February 2009, hundreds of companies had an estimated $1 billion frozen in Cuba’s banks. The government began unblocking accounts in August 2009, but many remain frozen. The government hopes the latest plan will encourage the companies to continue doing business, while the country works out its liquidity problems.

“Some people are taking the deal. At least the funds go from a nonperforming asset at no interest to a performing certificate of deposit,” one western commercial officer told Reuters.

Jamaica-Cuba undersea cable link

The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that Britain’s “Cable & Wireless PLC (CW.LN) is close to agreeing a deal to expand its Caribbean operations to Cuba through an undersea cable link between the island and Jamaica.” However, a spokesperson for the company said on Monday that although the company “is interested in Cuba’s telecoms market” and is competing for the subsea cable deal linking Cuba with Jamaica, “it is not close to agreeing on a deal,” Total Telecom reported.

The spokesperson also said the company is not interested in acquiring a share in Cuba’s state-run telecommunications company, Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba, known as Etecsa. Telecom Italia holds a 27% stake in Etecsa, but is reportedly looking to sell.

OTHER NEWS

Cuba defends human rights records at U.N., accuses west of hypocrisy

Speaking at the United Nations Human Rights Council on Wednesday, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla accused the U.S. of stepping up subversion against the communist-ruled island. Rodriguez categorized the U.S. economic blockade as genocide, and accused President Obama of maintaining a policy that “is taking a toll on the lives of Cubans.” Rodriguez labeled Orlando Zapata Tamayo a common criminal, and said his death sparked a new escalation of subversion against the island, Reuters reported. He said the West’s self-appointed role as the global human rights watchdog is hypocritical because “they are the ones who bear responsibility for the present international economic order that silently murders tens of millions of human beings who fall victims of starvation, poverty and preventable and curable diseases.” Rodriguez’s full speech can be read here.

Israel wants “Cuban embargo” of Iran

Israel, one of a few countries that votes annually with the U.S. on a resolution denouncing the Cuba embargo presented each fall at the U.N., is urging the U.S. to impose “unilateral” sanctions against Iran similar to the way it developed current sanctions on Cuba, Reuters reported. “I think that from now on Israel should perhaps change its Iran policy a little, and we should ask the United States to adopt the Cuban model … Here the United States alone can do everything in order to stop this (Iranian) program,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Israel, which says it is concerned about Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons, is pushing for a more aggressive approach to dealing with Iran. Lieberman expressed high hopes for Cuba-style sanctions, stating that “if the United States adopts the legislation and the entire Cuban model toward Iran without awaiting understandings and consensus within the Security Council framework, this would be enough to strangle and bring down the Iranian regime.”

Louisiana inmates refurbish wheelchairs for Cuba

Louisiana State Penitentiary inmates recently shipped off 400 wheelchairs to Cuba that they spent weeks refurbishing and restoring to usable condition, the Associated Press reported. The Angola correction facility is one of 17 prisons across the U.S. that has partnered with Joni and Friends Wheels for the World project, which collects wheelchairs, has them refurbished by offenders, and then donates them to developing nations.

Cuban medical brigade operating in Chile

A Cuban medical brigade arrived to Chile last weekend and has begun operating an emergency health center in the city of Rancagua, Prensa Latina reported. There are 27 medical personnel among the group, which has set up Henry Reeve Hospital No. 16. Many of the hospitals in or around Rancagua suffered significant damage from the earthquake. Chile’s health minister, Álvaro Erazo, visited the Cuban brigade this week and thanked the country for its support. The Henry Reeve brigade, which specializes in assisting countries affected by natural disasters or serious epidemics, was given its name in honor of a U.S. doctor who fought in Cuba’s war of independence.

REPERCUSSIONS FROM PRISONER’S DEATH, CONTRACTOR’S ARREST

The death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, and the continuing detention of a U.S. AID contractor, continues to command attention globally, in the U.S., and in Cuba.

Protests in Miami and Spain

Approximately 2,000 Cuban exiles marched the streets of Miami on Monday to protest Zapata Tamayo’s death, EFE reported. The Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) led the march along with other exile groups. José “Pepe” Hernández, president of CANF, complained that after 51 years it’s still a struggle so that “the world listens to us.”

Conversations of the organizers speaking live with dissidents in Cuba were broadcast through the speakers at the event. Europa Press reported that the group gathered in front of the Brazilian embassy where protesters chanted insults about Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva for visiting the island last week. EFE also reported that hundreds of Cubans living in Spain protested in front of the Spanish consulate in Madrid.

The Miami Herald reported that Zapata and Gross “have cast a dark cloud over U.S. and Spanish government efforts to engage Raúl Castro’s government.”

Zapata’s death “was a horrible and terrible turn of events, and further proof that we need to try another approach to Cuba,” said Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas. However, “rather than standing just symbolically with Cubans at a distance, as those who embrace the Cuba embargo and all of its facets continue to ask us to do, the better, more courageous, and ultimately more effective course is to stand with them literally, in person, in their country, and to put food produced here in America on their kitchen tables across Cuba,” she pointed out.

Responding to those who are utilizing Zapata’s death last week to argue against all efforts to engage Cuba, and specifically to the Washington Post’s editorial, Anya Landau-French of the New America Foundation reminds us that “the effort to remove U.S. restrictions on travel and food exports to Cuba is not driven by love for Fidel or Raúl Castro.” In her letter to the Post, Landau-French says easing travel and food export restrictions on Cuba is driven by three fundamental ideas: “the right of Americans to travel freely without our government’s interference, advancing the national interest at a time when America needs job growth and export opportunities, and a belief that we can do far more good in Cuba by reaching out to — rather than isolating — the people.”

A letter sent from Zapata Tamayo’s mother, Reyna Luisa Tamayo Danger, to Raúl Castro was released yesterday by the anti-Castro exile group Directorio Democrático Cubano (DDC) in Miami. Tamayo requests Castro “open an investigation into the original causes of the strike” that her son was carrying out, EFE reported.

As Nick Miroff of the Global Post wrote, “for the Cuban government, Zapata’s death has been a public relations disaster.” Some argue that the death has further dimmed the prospects of changes to U.S. policy at a time when relations were already tense due to the detention of U.S. AID contractor Alan P. Gross in December. The event is also affecting Spain’s efforts to convince the European Union to relax its policy toward Cuba. Spanish newspapers have devoted extensive coverage to the story. Spain’s influential daily El Pais published nearly 20 articles and editorials on Zapata’s death in the six days following his death, the Global Post reported.

The Economist wrote that the honeymoon between the U.S. and Cuba “is over before it began.” They point to the death of the Orlando Zapata Tamayo and the arrest of U.S. AID contractor Alan Gross as major impediments, along with the U.S. continuing to consider Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism and refusing to significantly reduce the sentences of 5 Cubans imprisoned in the United States for espionage.

The Cuban media has fired back about Zapata Tamayo’s death, claiming he was a common criminal and that he received all the proper medical attention he needed.  In interviews with television and print media, doctors who treated Zapata Tamayo, a 42-year-old construction worker, said they tried to get him to eat.

“We explained to him the consequences of his decision at every turn and how much he was endangering his life with this. But he kept it up,” said Maria Ester Hernandez, identified as a doctor for Interior Ministry officials.

A broadcast aired on the nightly news featured Hernandez along with other doctors describing the treatment he received, and the advice and warnings they gave him. The show also featured footage of his mother, Reyna Luisa Tamayo, thanking “the best doctors for trying to give Orlando life.”

Fidel Castro released an essay over the weekend that didn’t mention Zapata Tamayo by name, but defended Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has received some criticism for not speaking out about Zapata Tamayo’s death. “Lula has know for many years that our country has never tortured anyone, never ordered the murder of an adversary, never lied to its people,” Castro wrote.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement calling on Cuba to “release jailed independent journalists – or at least improve their prison conditions,” the Associated Press reported. According to the group, there are currently 22 reporters in jail in Cuba.

“Cuban journalists have paid an extremely high price for exercising their right to freedom of expression… These sentences are cruel and vengeful,” said Carlos Lauria, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. Cuba accuses the dissident journalists of being mercenaries funded and supported by the United States. According to the AP, many of the independent journalists use Internet service provided by the U.S. Interests Section, which “Cuba says is evidence they are stooges.”

Additional Hunger Strikes

The New York Times reported that an additional four prisoners began their own hunger strikes last week, according to human rights activists. It was reported that they began eating again after completing between 4 and 7 days in protest. An additional activist, Guillermo Fariñas, who also started a hunger strike following the death of Zapata Tamayo was hospitalized on Wednesday after losing consciousness. Licet Zamora Carrandi, Mr. Fariñas’ spokeswoman, said that he “suffered a strong pain in his chest and lost consciousness” while at home in Santa Clara, the Miami Herald reported. Fariñas is apparently in poor health as the result of carrying out over 20 hunger strikes.

Around the Region:

Honduras: Investigate Attacks on Coup Opponents, Human Rights Watch

Honduran authorities should ensure that recent killings and other attacks on opponents of the 2009 coup are promptly and thoroughly investigated, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Attorney General Luis Alberto Rubí.

Members of Congress to Hillary Clinton re: Human Rights in Honduras

This week 9 members of the U.S. Congress wrote a letter to Secretary Clinton regarding their concern about human rights violations in Honduras.

An American in Brazil, Julia E. Sweig in the New York Times

In her campaign for the presidency, Hillary Rodham Clinton barely uttered the word Brazil. But as secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton has recognized Brazil as the most powerful country in South America and a rising global power. Her current visit may reflect a political will to make the relationship with Brazil a strategic priority for American foreign policy.

Clinton’s Latin American clangers, Marc Weisbrot in the Guardian

Offensive remarks on Honduras, gratuitous insults in Brazil – Hillary Clinton’s Latin American tour has not been a success.

Recommended Reading:

Adios, Amigos, Michael Shifter in Foreign Policy Magazine

As Hillary Clinton travels through Latin America this week, the U.S. secretary of state will find it profoundly transformed from the relatively serene and accommodating region she encountered as first lady in the 1990s. During that period between the end of the Cold War and the onset of the 21st century, Latin America lacked the political stirrings, fragmentation, and disarray that now define much of the landscape.

Chile Earthquake Relief:

Following the February 27th earthquake and tsunami in Chile, we ask that you consider donating to the recovery effort through the Fondo Alquimia.  Many of Alquimia’s activists and friends are in the most affected areas and need our help to rebuild their homes and lives, and support others. As the 100-year celebration of International Women’s Day approaches, this is a way to support a successful women’s movement in Chile to help lead the recovery efforts. Additional information on the current situation in Chile and how to contribute to the government’s relief efforts can be found on the Chilean Embassy’s webpage.

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