What happened in the Cuba policy arena this week?
We lead the news summary with reports from the hearing at the House Agriculture Committee where the American Farm Bureau, the National Farmers Union, and spokespersons for the top commodity groups all testified in favor of The Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act – legislation that ends the travel ban and strikes down impediments in U.S. rules that reduced our farm exports to Cuba.
Similar legislation was introduced in the Senate by Democrat Amy Kobuchar and Republican Mike Enzi. A temporary fix to the export problem was also adopted by the U.S. Treasury Department, but the House and Senate bills offer permanent solutions.
John Block, former Agriculture Secretary under President Ronald Reagan, appeared in a full-page advertisement in Roll Call saying closer trade and travel ties with Cuba reflected “the conservative values” that brought him to Washington thirty years ago.
Ten months after the Center for Democracy in the Americas first complained to the U.S. Treasury that Cubans were cut off from using Instant Messaging, the U.S. Treasury also issued a clarification of the rules to permit U.S. technology companies to offer I/M, chat, and other services to citizens in sanctioned countries.
Cuba continues to deal with the repercussions following the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo whose hunger strike in Cuba culminated in his death. A resolution has been introduced in the Congress condemning what occurred, and the European Parliament voted to condemn the “avoidable and cruel” death of Orlando Zapata and the “alarming state” of Guillermo Fariñas, another Cuban engaged in a hunger strike.
The U.S. Department of State issued its annual report on Human Rights and we link to that report’s detailed discussion of Cuba.
Cuba’s economic challenges are highlighted this week in articles on the decline in sugar production, the increase in nickel production, and the government’s approach toward privatizing segments of the country’s economy.
In our section titled “Around the Region,” we highlight an essay on El Salvador’s president, Mauricio Funes, his trip to see President Obama, and the importance of our nation’s relationship with El Salvador. We also recommend a strong analysis about U.S. policy toward Honduras, and close with this tantalizing hint, who is Todd Palin pallin’ around with?
Lastly, Senators Menendez and Nelson have written their Senate colleagues urging them not to allow their staffs to visit Cuba. We discuss this letter in our “Final Word.”
All of this and more, this week in Cuba news.
U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS
The House Committee on Agriculture held a hearing Thursday to discuss The Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, which removes obstacles on food sales to Cuba and allows all Americans to travel to the island. The legislation, introduced by Reps. Collin Peterson (D-MN) and Jerry Moran (R-KS), would allow Cuba to make direct payments to U.S. banks, rather than transferring money through third country banks, and the “cash in advance” clause would be interpreted by statute as requiring Cuba to pay for the product before the title and product exchanges hands, rather than before the product leaves from the United States. Further, the legislation would remove all restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba, which supporters say would restore Americans’ right to travel freely and provide a boost to the U.S. economy.
“The restrictions on agricultural trade with Cuba have failed to achieve their stated goal, and instead they have hand-delivered an export market in our own backyard to the Brazilians, the Europeans, and our other competitors around the world,” Agriculture Committee Chairman Peterson said at the hearing. “It’s time we ask ourselves why we have in place policies that simply do not work and that only harm U.S. interests.” The American Farm Bureau, the National Farmers Union, and representatives of rice, wheat, corn, soybean and dairy producers all testified in support of the legislation.
Meanwhile, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) introduced a companion bill with the same title and identical language, the Bemidji Pioneer reported. “American famers can greatly benefit from access to new markets in Cuba at a time when our economy needs it most,” said Klobuchar. “This bill will create jobs by promoting U.S. agriculture exports.”
John Block, who served as President Reagan’s agriculture secretary a strong advocate for the legislation, appeared in full page ad in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call saying: “I have a passion for trade, for agriculture in all countries, and I have felt for years it is truly ridiculous that we don’t have an open relationship with Cuba.”
Human Rights Watch, a strong critic of the Cuban government, issued a statement arguing “the proposed legislation, as well as similar legislation in the United States Senate, represents a necessary step towards ending a U.S. policy that has failed for decades to have any impact whatsoever on improving human rights in Cuba.” According to HRW, “efforts by the U.S. government to press for change by imposing a sweeping ban on trade and travel have proven to be a costly and misguided failure.”
The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) will temporarily interpret the “cash in advance” regulation of selling agricultural goods to Cuba as “payment before the transfer of title to, and control of, the exported items to the Cuban purchaser,” which means the U.S. company can receive the payment while the product is en route or after it has arrived in Cuba. The change was posted on OFAC’s website this week. This is the way sales were conducted from 2000-2005. In 2005, the Bush administration reinterpreted “cash in advance” to mean the U.S. entity had to receive the payment before the product left the U.S. port, a change which agriculture experts said turned the U.S. into an unreliable supplier.
The interpretation is temporary, valid only for the remainder of fiscal year 2010, and therefore will have a limited impact. At the Havana Note, Anya Landau-French writes more about the limited effect of OFAC’s new interpretation, and the need for Congress to pass legislation that will have long-lasting benefits for American farmers, the U.S. economy and the Cuban people.
The U.S. Treasury Department on Tuesday said it would lift restrictions on the export of Internet communications software to Iran, Sudan, and Cuba in an effort to promote human rights in those countries. A general license can now be used for the export of free personal Internet services and software geared toward the populations in all three countries, allowing Microsoft, Yahoo and other providers to get around strict export restrictions, Information Week reported.
“Consistent with the Administration’s deep commitment to the universal rights of all the world’s citizens, the issuance of these licenses will make it easier for individuals in Iran, Sudan, and Cuba to use the Internet to communicate with each other and with the outside world,” said Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin, in a statement.
Bob Boorstin, Google’s director of policy communications, said his company will now be able to offer additional products in those countries, such as Google Earth, Picasa and Google Talk. “This is a great accomplishment,” Boorstin told a human rights meeting in Geneva, the Associated Press reported.
Sarah Stephens, Executive Director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, said it is “an important step,” but argued that “if we need exceptions and clarifications to ensure that information reaches the Cuban people – and others living in sanctioned countries – it would be far easier and more effective to open up Cuba to travel and trade without exceptions so that Cubans can more freely access our ideas without impediments from U.S. policy.”
Although Cuba is included in the change, the specifics are more complicated because of the trade embargo. The clarification issued by Treasury says that “the exportation of goods and technology, including software, to Cuba must be separately licensed or otherwise authorized by the Department of Commerce.” In the past, getting approval from Commerce for shipping medical supplies to Cuba has at times been a bureaucratic obstacle that has prevented the donation of certain medical goods. It’s unclear what guidelines Commerce will use for its licensing or authorization of tech services.
Furthermore, the language in Treasury’s statement is specific to “instant messaging, chat and email, and social networking.” It does not mention open source software, which has also been affected by U.S. sanctions. It’s unclear whether SourceForge and others dealing in open source software would qualify under a general license or would have to apply for a specific license – a process that requires a significant investment of time and money.
On May 29, 2009, The Center for Democracy in the Americas wrote Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and asked the U.S. Treasury to investigate why companies like Microsoft and other instant messaging providers had severed access to these programs for Cubans and others living in sanctioned countries, and attributed these decisions to the potential for enforcement actions against them under the existing sanctions regime.
CDA learned that the cut-off of instant messaging had stopped many Cubans from enjoying informal, cost-free contacts with family members and friends living outside the island. On February 1, 2010, CDA contacted Treasury again, when it learned that Sourceforge.net, a site that makes open source software available to users, had taken similar measures.
Politico reported on stepped-up efforts by the family of Alan Gross, the U.S. AID contractor imprisoned in Cuba, to secure his release. Arrested three months ago for distributing high-tech global communications devices in Havana, in activities that are still unclear, Gross has been visited by U.S. diplomats only a few times and has spoken briefly with his wife on four occasions. The Cuban government has not announced any charges. His wife Judy Gross says Alan’s health has started to decline and he has lost over 50 pounds. The family has hired a Chlopak Leonard Schechter, a PR firm previously retained to represent the coup government in Honduras, to help secure his release. According to Politico, the family is encouraging friends and family to contact Members of Congress to encourage them to sign on to a bipartisan letter by Congressman Chris Van Hollen to the Cuban government seeking Gross’ release.
In the U.S. House of Representatives, Reps. James McGovern (D-MA) and Howard Berman (D-CA) introduced a resolution recognizing the life of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died on February 23rd after a weeks-long hunger strike. The resolution also calls for the immediate release of all political prisoners detained in Cuba; pays tribute to the courageous citizens of Cuba who are suffering abuses for engaging in peaceful efforts to exercise their basic human rights; supports freedom of speech and the rights of journalists and bloggers in Cuba to express their views without interference by government authorities; and calls on the United States to pursue policies that focus on respect for the fundamental tenets of freedom, democracy, and human rights in Cuba and encourage peaceful democratic change consistent with the aspirations of the people of Cuba.
On Thursday, the European Parliament voted to condemn Cuba for the “avoidable and cruel” death of Orlando Zapata and the “alarming state” of Guillermo Fariñas, the Associated Press reported. “We cannot afford another death in Cuba. We call for the immediate release of all political prisoners,” Jerzy Buzek, the president of the European assembly, said.
Cuba’s National Assembly quickly released a statement characterizing the EU vote as “hypocritical, wrong and offensive.”
“Following a sullied debate, the European Parliament has just passed a condemnation resolution against our country, manipulating sentiments, distorting facts, deceiving people and obscuring reality,” the National Assembly statement said.
“Cubans find offensive this attempt at teaching us lessons,” the declaration continued.
The U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report was released on Thursday, strongly criticizing the Cuban government. According to the report, “the government continued to deny its citizens their basic human rights, including the right to change their government, and committed numerous and serious abuses; authorities interfered with privacy and engaged in pervasive monitoring of private communications; and there were severe limitations on freedom of speech and press.” The report also states that there were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings or of politically motivated disappearances. You can read the Cuba section of the report here.
Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas, on a hunger strike for over two weeks, passed out early this morning and was transferred to a hospital, EFE reported. He was taken by ambulance to the Arnaldo Milián Castro provincial hospital in Santa Clara and admitted in the Intensive Care unit. He is being fed sugars and serum intravenously.
Prior to the collapse Fariñas was suffering from heart arrhythmia and severe dehydration, but refused to be hospitalized, his spokesman told reporters on Wednesday. Doctors have visited him at his house periodically and tried to persuade him to be hospitalized. However, he “insisted he will only (accept treatment) when he becomes unconscious,” Agence France-Presse reported.
“He is very fragile, dehydration is quite marked, his skin is dry and scaly and his eyes sunken,” said Ismel Iglesias, a doctor who has been aiding him. Fariñas is demanding that the government free all political prisoners, especially those that are in poor health.
In defense of the charges that the government caused the death of hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo, and the ongoing hunger strike by Guillermo Fariñas, Cuba has warned that it will not be “blackmailed” by such acts. In an article published Monday, Granma said forced tube feeding would be “unethical” and the government cannot give in to “blackmail.”
“There are bio-ethical principles that require a physician to respect a person’s decision to start a hunger strike,” the statement in Granma read. “Therefore, there’s no way he can be forced to take food, as U.S. authorities do regularly at the prisons and torture centers in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram.”
According to Granma, Fariñas has been jailed twice for violent acts, once for hitting a woman. His first crime was in 1995 when he “physically assaulted a woman, an employee of the health institution where he worked, causing multiple wounds to her face and arms. He was given a sentence of 3 years for the crime and a fined 600 pesos.” The paper stated that the crime was not linked to politics.
Fariñas’ hunger strike, the 23rd of his life, is in pursuit of the release of 26 political prisoners who are in bad health. A previous hunger strike he endured was in the name of free Internet access on the island, Reuters reported.
At the request of the Cuban government, Spain offered to give Fariñas asylum in Spain, but the dissident refused, EFE reported. On Monday the third-ranking official at the Spanish Embassy, Carlos Perez-Desoy, traveled to Santa Clara for the second time in less than a week to meet with Fariñas.
“It’s not in my plans to accept that proposal. I’ve always been a political prisoner or an opponent on the street. I don’t accept that proposal either to go to Spain or to any other place in the world,” Fariñas told reporters after Perez-Desoy’s visit.
“I’m going to accept this challenge until the final consequence. I would like to live, if my conscience allows me to do so, when I’m sure that nobody else is going to die,” he added.
Dissidents in Cuba have called on Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to urge for the release of political prisoners, “without interfering in internal affairs,” EFE reported. However, Lula, who staged hunger protests against the Brazilian dictatorship in his younger days, said this week that hunger strikes should not be used as a device for getting prisoners released from jail.
“We have to respect the decisions of the Cuban legal system and the government to arrest people on the laws of Cuba, like I want them to respect Brazil…Imagine if all the criminals in São Paulo went on hunger strike to demand freedom,” President Lula said, BBC News reported.
“I’ve been on hunger strikes and I would never do it again. I think it’s insane to mistreat your own body,” he added. Lula said he believed there was hypocrisy involved in the criticism of Cuba: “It’s not just in Cuba that people died from hunger strikes.”
Meanwhile, the foreign relations committee in the Brazilian Senate passed a resolution stating its “solidarity with the prisoners of conscience in Cuba.”
Reuters reported that production at a Sherritt International joint venture nickel plant broke production records in February. The Pedro Soto Alba plant, a joint venture between state monopoly Cubaniquel and Canada’s Sherritt International, produced 106 tons of mineral daily, putting it on track to produce 38,000 tons this year. Production at the plant was a record 37,328 tons last year.
Ernesto Che Guevara plant, owned by state monopoly Cubaniquel, reached 76 tons daily, about 2 percent above original plans. However, at the current rate it would produce around 28,000 tons, well below its 32,000 ton capacity. No information was given about the Rene Ramos Latourt plant, which has a capacity of between 10,000 and 15,000 tons. The nickel industry was severely affected by a number of hurricanes in 2008, which damaged the plants and other infrastructure. Reuters received the numbers from local state media reports.
According to state-media, production at Cuba’s sugar plants has been hit hard this year by inefficiency, a spate of breakdowns and other technical problems, the Associated Press reported. An article in Granma reported breakdowns and other interruptions have idled plants nearly 19 percent of the time so far in 2010. Additionally, around 11 percent of production has been lost due to a lack of sugar cane. The report blamed poor planning and “a lack of discipline” for the bad results.
“Overcoming delays and meeting our goals require that those production centers in crisis eradicate their deficiencies and that the rest maintain their production levels or increase them,” the article reported. “We must defeat a powerful enemy: lost industrial time.”
According to Communist Party sources, Cuba’s economy minister is pushing for less state intervention in the economy, arguing that the government can no longer afford its all-encompassing control and paternalism, Reuters reported. In an attempt to stimulate the economy and reduce bureaucracy, the government is experimenting with legalizing more forms of private enterprise. It has started test experiments of turning businesses over to state employees.
At the end of 2009, Economy Minister Marino Murillo told the National Assembly that the government had begun experiments and was working on others to ease the burden on the state of some services it provides. A number of the experiments are underway or about to be launched in Havana, Reuters reported. For example, a small percentage of taxi drivers are leasing their vehicles rather than working for a wage. “You pay 595 convertible pesos for the car and then after a month 39 convertible pesos plus 40 pesos a day…Overall the drivers are happy. There is still control over what we charge, but we are freer and earning more,” said Elio, a taxi driver involved in the pilot program.
A similar experiment is occurring in Central Havana, where beauty parlor employees were recently called to meetings and informed they would be leased their shops as cooperatives on an experimental basis. “You have to pay rent for the shop, costs such as water, electricity, materials and the wages of anyone you contract…You can charge whatever on the basis of supply and demand and have to pay taxes on your profits,” said a hairdresser participating in one of the programs.
“The government is simply accepting what already exists, adopting new structures to legalize what was before viewed as theft and instead of spending a fortune on useless bureaucrats has begun collecting taxes,” a local economist told Reuters.
President Raúl Castro named Brig. Gen. Ramon Martinez to head Cuba’s Civil Aviation Institute, replacing Maj. Gen. Rogelio Acevedo, state media reported this week. According to the Granma, the Council of State decided to free Acevedo from his position and he “will be assigned other tasks.” No other information was given about the change.
Joining the fight against Dictator Fulgencio Batista when he was 16, Acevedo fought alongside Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara as a teenager. He is a longtime member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee and has run the Civil Aviation Institute since 1989, the Associated Press reported. Gen. Ramon Martinez Echevarria is the current No. 2 in the Air Force air defense unit. He studied to be a helicopter pilot in the former Soviet Union and fought in the war in Angola, the announcement said.
The Civil Aeronautics Institute, which oversees the country’s airlines and airports, has played an important role in the expansion of Cuba’s tourism industry, InfoBae reported. The appointment joins a long list of Cabinet changes that President Castro has made since he became president in February 2008. Last year he announced a significant revamping of his Cabinet, with the dismissal of four vice presidents and eight ministers.
Starting May 1, Cuba will begin requiring foreigners and Cubans living abroad to have traveler’s health insurance when visiting the island. According to El Financiero, this will also apply to foreigners who have temporary residency in Cuba. The specifics of the program have yet to be announced. The government said some foreign insurance companies would be recognized, but not all. The cost of the insurance is still unknown as well, but the Havana Times reported that people in the travel industry have speculated it would cost anywhere between 7 Euros ($10 USD) a month to 5 Euros ($7 USD) per day. The shift is quite significant as over 2.4 million people visited Cuba last year, including 300,000 Cubans currently living out of the country.
Cuba’s Ministry of Information and Communication launched two new government websites this week, Prensa Latina reported. One, www.ciudadano.cu, is a reference site with information about “government processes and public administration,” which aims to help people in their interactions with the government. But at the time of this publication, this site wasn’t functional. The other site, an already existing search engine called 2X3, has been adapted to a format similar to Google and other search engines, with information about events, tourism information, news, and contact information for different businesses.
The mini-series “El Que Debe Vivir” began to air this week in Cuba. The eight chapter production, which chronicles some of the reported 638 assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, will air every Sunday until its completion. According to El Pais, production of the series took two years, and included “243 actors and actresses, and over 800 extras.”
The first chapter, which aired last week, focused on assassination attempts before 1959. The final installment will cover more recent attempts, including one from 2000 which occurred while Castro was visiting Panama. As Indo-Asian News reported, “attempts have been made to kill Castro with bombs, sharpshooters and poison gas, as well as with poisoned cigars and milk.”
A group of 50 Cuban artists, known as La Brigada Marta Machado, which includes musicians, actors, painters, and comedians, arrived in Haiti this week, ADN reported. The group will put on cultural events for earthquake victims in addition to doctors and specialists helping in the recovery efforts. The group plans to remain in Haiti and “promote happiness” as long as is deemed necessary. Among those included in the delegation is well-known painter Alexis Leyva Kcho, who originally helped organize the brigade in 2008 in response to devastating hurricanes in Cuba, Prensa Latina reported.
In paying for sex changes, Cuba breaks from past, the Associated Press
Gonzalez is living proof of a small but remarkable transformation for the rugged revolution of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and a band of ever-macho, bearded rebels, who long punished gays and transsexuals — but now are paying for sex changes.
Cuba: The smoker’s paradise, BBC News
Smoking may be going out of fashion in many countries, but in Havana, Matt Frei finds Cuba’s love affair with the cigar continues.
Piece aims to bridge the gap between U.S., Cuba culture, The Miami Herald
A groundbreaking U.S.-Cuban theater collaboration that launched in Cuba crosses the Florida straits to Miami this week. La Entrañable Lejania (The Closest Farthest Away), a bilingual, multimedia tale of frustrated love that brings together U.S. actors with their Cuban counterparts via technology.
Around the Region:
Why Should We Care About El Salvador? Linda Garrett on the Huffington Post
We share a complex, sometimes excruciatingly painful history. Many Salvadorans suffered as a consequence of U.S. policy in the 1980s and some in Washington may be uneasy with the new Salvadoran government. But as the Obama administration recognizes the importance of developing consequential relationships with the southern hemisphere, El Salvador can be a key ally.
The Honduran government of Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo remains unrecognized by the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and most Latin American countries.
Piñera assumes Chile presidency amid strong quakes, Associated Press
The strongest aftershock since Chile’s devastating earthquake rocked the South American country Thursday as President Sebastian Piñera was sworn into office.
Arturo Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, offered testimony before Congress on U.S. policy toward the region. Also testifying was Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue. The Hemispheric Brief offers a variety of links here. The transcript and webcast are available on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere website.
Political blogs in Alaska are harpooning former first couple Sarah and Todd Palin for associating with a Venezuelan oil company, in spite of former Gov. Sarah Palin’s condemnations of the Venezuelan government and her calls for energy independence.
Somos El Mundo por Haiti, We Are the World Foundation
Twenty-five years ago “We Are the World” brought people together on behalf of Africa. The We Are the World Foundation is now trying to do the same for Haiti with a new video created to raise funds for the relief efforts following the devastating earthquake in that country.
A FINAL WORD:
Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) have written their Senate colleagues telling them not to allow their staffs to travel to Cuba in light of the abuses of human rights that have recently taken place on the island.
Cuban-American constituents of the Senators from Florida and New Jersey visit Cuba every day, visiting their families and friends on the island, and there is no indication that the Senators are taking public steps to discourage such trips.
Why block Congressional staff – or Members of the House and Senate for that matter – from visiting Cuba and seeing human rights and political conditions on the island for themselves?
Where should Members or staff go to investigate problems or areas where U.S. policy is or is not working? Britain? Bermuda? Of course not. They should visit points of challenge, where they can show support for people who have problems with their governments, where they can urge governments to meet international standards of human rights, or determine whether U.S. policy is succeeding or failing.
The Center for Democracy in the Americas has hosted trips to Cuba for close to 70 Members of Congress and professional staffers over the last decade, almost all trips that occurred during the Bush administration, and U.S. diplomats who met with our delegations always encouraged these trips. They are the right thing to do.
The Senators’ problem isn’t human rights, its reality. They know when people visit Cuba it’s immediately apparent that U.S. policy isn’t working and never will. When these delegations return to the United States, they start asking questions that Menendez and Nelson don’t want to answer. They just can’t handle the truth.