Anger, Anguish, and the Amistad

Dear Friends:

The U.S.-Cuba relationship encountered another period of rough seas.

The Cuban government reacted angrily this week to a decision by the U.S. government to loosen restrictions on U.S. technology companies that offer services like Instant Messaging to citizens of countries under U.S. sanctions.  Cuba said the moves didn’t go far enough and were simply aimed at destabilizing the country.

Cuban state media marked the fiftieth anniversary of sanctions imposed against the island nation under President Eisenhower and said current U.S. policy continues to aim at destroying the Revolution.

In Cuba, protests that commemorated the 2003 crackdown against the political opposition were broken up by police and counter-demonstrators.  The protesters also chanted the name of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the Cuban hunger striker who died in a Cuban prison last month.

The presidents of Bolivia, Uruguay, and Ecuador stood up for Cuba, the Foreign Minister of Mexico criticized Cuban authorities but also testified to the strength of the Mexican-Cuban relationship, the U.S. government continued its condemnation of Cuba’s human rights practices, and additional concerns were expressed for the health of Guillermo Fariñas, a dissident, who is also engaged in a hunger strike.

With anger and anguish clouding the relationship, we did encounter one piece of news that should inspire us all.

The Freedom Schooner Amistad, a replica of the Cuban coastal trader that sailed from Havana in 1839 with a cargo of African captives who rebelled on board and seized the ship, will soon sail through Havana harbor for a ten-day tour.   The tour is a reminder of the dark history of slavery, the captive’s courage, and how the cooperation that made this visit possible should be a model for how the U.S. and Cuban governments can work together.

We salute all of our friends who helped make this happen.

This week in Cuba news…


Cuba says Treasury’s easing of rules on technology aimed at destabilization

Responding to an action last week by the U.S. Treasury Department about easing restrictions on Internet services to Cuba, Iran and Sudan, the Cuban government accused the U.S. of trying to “destabilize” the country by only allowing certain products to be exported, Agence France-Presse reported.

The government said it is hypocritical for the U.S. to block Cuba from accessing fiber-optic Internet cables and banning the sale of software and computers, but allowing certain services for individual citizens. “The government of the United States has said clearly that its objective is to use these services as a tool of subversion and destabilization,” said Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, director of the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s North American Affairs office.

Vidal said the new Treasury measures would apply only to individuals, not businesses or institutions, and would do nothing to loosen the grip of the embargo, the Associated Press reported. “It shows once more that the U.S. government is not interested in changing its policies nor in developing normal communication with Cuba,” she said. “This is not a measure that loosens the blockade against Cuba.”

On Monday, a U.S. Treasury official said that selectively loosening U.S. sanctions against countries like Iran and Cuba can serve foreign policy goals by encouraging democratic change through greater Internet freedom and other means, Reuters reported.

Adam Szubin, director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which enforces U.S. sanctions, told a conference such “smart sanctions” would help the U.S. government further its goals of fostering greater freedom and democracy. Szubin said that the increased use of the Internet and social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instant Messaging “are integral to seeing democratic change come to some of the most oppressive regimes on earth.”

“So we are doing our part … to open that world up to the people of Iran, to the people of Cuba and to the people of Sudan,” said Szubin, adding that OFAC will seek to make its overall sanctions enforcement more effective by clearly focusing and targeting its actions on major violators.

A BBC video report on the issue can be viewed here.

Cuba notes the “50th anniversary of U.S. declaration of unilateral war”

This week marks the 50th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s enactment of the Program of Covert Action against Cuba, the Granma reported. The start of the program 50 years ago “gave the official green light to all kinds of illegal operations aimed at overthrowing the revolutionary government.” The article said the anniversary takes place in light of “another hostile media campaign by Washington,” regarding the death of Zapata and ongoing dissident protests. Just like 50 years ago, the “attempt to destroy the Cuban Revolution is still latent within the government of the United States,” the Granma concludes.

Man pleads guilty to 1968 air hijacking to Cuba

Luis Armando Pena Soltren, a 67 year-old American, pled guilty in a Manhattan court room this week to a 1968 air hijacking in which he forced a plane to land in Cuba, the Associated Press reported.  Pena Soltren will be sentenced in June and faces a potential life sentence.  Pena Soltren remained in Cuba from 1968 until last October when he voluntarily returned to face charges. Two other men involved in the hijacking were convicted in the early 1970s. According to his lawyer, Pena Soltren hijacked the plane because he wanted to see his father, who was still living in Cuba. Soltren reportedly worked in the fields in agriculture during his years in Cuba.

U.S. cruise lines say opening up to Cuba would be good for everybody

With cruise line companies maintaining a high interest in returning to Cuba, Cuba’s current port infrastructure would require a major upgrade to accommodate increased traffic if U.S. policy were to change, Reuters reported. “Our business has grown so much that these ports in Cuba that were (established) in the time of the Spanish conquistadors, that size of ports, they’re going to need a lot of infrastructure improvement,” John Tercek, vice president of commercial development for Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, said at an industry conference in Miami.

Experts expect the potential opening of Cuba to draw initially a boom of interest, and decrease traffic to other Caribbean nations for a short period of time. However, they say, in the long run the increased travel to Cuba would spill over to other nearby islands, benefitting the entire region. “The moment Cuba comes into the market, I think it’s another star,” said St. Lucia Tourism Minister Allen Chastanet.

Historical vessel set to sail from the U.S. to Cuba

On March 22, the Freedom Schooner Amistad will sail through Havana’s protected harbor for a 10-day tour, reported the Associated Press. Amistad, a U.S.-flagged vessel, will visit Cuba as part of the United Nations commemoration of March 25 as the global Day of Remembrance for the victims of the Atlantic slave trade. The visit marks one of the highest profile American vessels to visit Cuba in the last decade and needed approval from the governments of Cuba and the United States.

“Obviously we have serious differences, disagreements,” said Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA). “But in this particular case the two governments, while not working together, clearly were aware of the profound significance of this particular commemoration.”

The Amistad is a replica of the Cuban coastal trader that sailed from Havana in 1839 with a cargo of African captives who rebelled on board and seized the ship. After being captured off the coast of Long Island, the African captives were granted freedom in 1841.  The ship later became a symbol of the abolitionist movement.  The event is a remembrance of the historic “triangle of trade” connections between America, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, and serves as a symbol of both a dark 19th century past and modern public diplomacy.


“Ladies in White” march in Havana

Female police officers forced members of the “Ladies in White” opposition group onto a bus and drove them away to break up a protest march on Wednesday, Reuters reported. The police interceded after government supporters chanting “Viva Fidel, Viva Raúl” surrounded the women. The group has held three marches in the past week to protest the imprisonment of their sons, husbands and fathers who have been imprisoned since March 2003 when a major crackdown on dissidents took place in Cuba.

The protesters chanted “Zapata lives” in reference to the recent death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a prisoner who died after an 85-day hunger strike. Cuba alleges that the opposition movement within Cuba is orchestrated by U.S. and European agents. A BBC video captured the confrontation between government supporters and the protestors.

According to a report by EFE, the Cuban government issued a statement accusing an official from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana of participating in and inciting the “counterrevolutionary activities.”   The state-run Prensa Latina said Lowell Dale Lawton participated in one of the marches held this week by the Ladies in White. The article accused the U.S. and Europe of being behind the marches and the death of Zapata.

On Thursday, Gordon Duguid, acting deputy spokesman at the State Department, said the pictures of the march being broken up “speak for themselves about the Cuban Government’s attitude towards peaceful protest.” The U.S. is “dismayed that a peaceful march was disrupted by the Cuban Government authorities who interfered with the right of Cuban citizens to peacefully assemble and express their support for their family members who are prisoners of conscience,” he added.

Amnesty calls for more freedom in Cuba

Amnesty International has called on the Cuban government to release its political prisoners and reform laws that infringe upon fundamental personal freedoms, using the anniversary of the spring 2003 arrests to call for change, the Associated Press reported. “Cuban laws impose unacceptable limits on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly,” Kerrie Howard, Americas deputy director at Amnesty International, said in a statement Tuesday. Howard said Cuba “desperately needs political and legal reform to bring the country in line with basic international human rights standards.” The Cuban government routinely refutes claims made by human rights groups, calling them agents of the United States.

Fariñas receiving fluids intravenously in hospital

Dissident Guillermo Fariñas remained in a Cuban hospital this week in stable condition, the Miami Herald reported. According to his mother, Alicia Hernandez, he is “stable but weak and suffering from severe headaches” at the intensive care unit of the Arnaldo Milan Castro hospital in his hometown of Santa Clara. He is receiving fluids intravenously but continues to refuse to eat or drink, Hernandez told the Miami Herald by telephone from the hospital. Fariñas has been on a hunger strike for over three weeks to protest the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo and to demand the release of 26 political prisoners who he says are in poor health.

Mexico expresses concern about the health of Fariñas

This week, the Mexican government publicly expressed its desire to see Cuba protect the health of hunger striker Guillermo Fariñas, Milenio reported. The statement by Mexico’s Foreign Ministry called on the Cuban government to “protect the health and dignity of all of their prisoners, including those who are accused or have been found guilty of dangerous crimes against the state.”  They are said to be concerned about the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo and the ongoing health of Fariñas.

Regarding Mexico’s relationship with Cuba, the Mexican Foreign Minister, Patricia Espinosa, said relations continue to be good. “Our countries have developed a frank and honest dialogue,” Espinosa said. “It allows us to share experiences and discuss differences. We are looking to maintain this constructive dialogue regarding these issues.”

Correa, Morales and Mujica side with Cuba on Zapata death

Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa this week criticized the international condemnation of Cuba over the death of Orlando Zapata, El Comercio reported. “Raúl Castro informed me himself that Zapata was not a political prisoner, but rather a delinquent, accused of various criminal offenses. And there is immense propaganda about the death of a jailed dissident.”

“Cuba is a sovereign country and we are always willing to mediate to resolve conflict, especially humanitarian ones. We try to intercede for everyone, but if we are going to talk about the supposed political prisoners in Cuba, why don’t we talk about the five Cubans in jail in Miami,” Correa added, referring to five Cuban agents jailed in the United States.

The presidents of Bolivia and Uruguay, Evo Morales and José Mujica, also defended Cuba when asked by reporters about the case this week, Agence France-Presse reported.

“It’s an internal problem of Cuba, but it is made into an international scandal because it was a Cuba who died in the hunger strike. How come you don’t ask me how many people capitalism and its economic policies kill each day? Why don’t you ask how many people die each day from U.S. military intervention?” responded Morales when asked about Zapata.

“The ‘rich’ world should renounce the right to impose and judge others while not accepting the most minimal responsibility and judgment of their own files. It would be good if they would realize that we live in a distinct, diverse and contradictory humanity, with different cultures and we should all be respectful.” added Mujica.

I Accuse the Cuban Government

A group of artists and intellectuals from several countries have launched an on-line petition, titled “Orlando Zapata Tamayo: I accuse the Cuban government,” which criticizes the government’s human rights record and demands the immediate release of all political prisoners in Cuba.  The on-line petition demands the respect for the life of those who, like Zapata, risk their lives to prevent the Castro government from vanquishing its critics.  To date, the letter has gained 25,459 signatures.

The Writer’s and Artist’s Union of Cuba (UNEAC) has responded to the petition, calling it a “shameless campaign working to damage the image of Cuba.” In their words, Cuban writers and artists said that while hundreds of Cuban doctors are saving lives in Haiti, the corporate media and hegemonic interests are shamelessly lying about the government’s alleged practice of eliminating peaceful critics and opponents. They claim that in the history of the Revolution, there has never been a tortured prisoner, and Orlando Zapata was merely a common criminal with a proven track record of violence, who had declared a hunger strike in order to have a telephone, kitchen and television in his cell.

Brazil says it deals “with governments, not with dissidents”

Despite being urged to do so, the Brazilian government announced this week that they would not be publicly speaking on the behalf of Cuban dissidents, Noticiero Digital reported. A Brazilian official justified the decision by reminding Brazil’s critics that the country “has relations with governments, not with dissidents.”

According to Marco Aurelio Garcia, an executive advisor on international affairs, aligning with the dissidents “would be an inadequate and counterproductive decision.”  The statement was made in response to a letter written to President Lula by a group a Cuban dissidents pleading for his advocacy.  Lula was in Cuba at the time of Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s death.


Salvadoran Foreign Minister makes historic visit to Cuba

Hugo Martinez, the Foreign Minister of El Salvador, visited Cuba this week, in what Cuban state media called “a historic moment in the bilateral relationship between Cuba and El Salvador.”

Upon his arrival, Martinez announced the opening of a Salvadoran embassy in Havana as well as the signing of bilateral accords in “health, education, science and technology.” Martinez and his Bruno Rodriguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, signed a bilateral accord that creates a Bi-national Commission for Understanding, which will be used to identify priority areas of cooperation.

His visit marks the first of its kind in over 50 years. The two countries reestablished diplomatic relations last year when Mauricio Funes became president of El Salvador, and the Salvadoran embassy is the last of all Latin American countries to be opened in Cuba.

Martinez was joined by Salvadoran First Lady Vanda Pignato on the trip, and together the two met with President Raúl Castro. Pignato, head of the ministry of social inclusion, spoke with Castro and Cuban officials about special care for the disabled and elderly, and ways the two countries can cooperate on that front, Agence France-Presse reported. According to Ecodiario, a visit to Cuba by President Mauricio Funes “will take place very soon.”

Spain doesn’t expect to change EU’s common position

Spain has acknowledged that it will likely be impossible to sway the rest of the EU to change its policy toward Cuba, EuropaPress reported this week. “There will not be a change in the EU’s common position this semester because it’s an issue that requires unanimity,” said a high level official from Spain’s foreign ministry.

The Common Position, as it is known, was enacted in 1996, and can only be changed by members reaching consensus on doing away with it.  It was expected to be challenged during Spain’s EU presidency, but with the death of hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo, it is appearing less likely. Spain argues that it would not be a concession to the Cuban government and countries would be better positioned to enter into bilateral talks that include discussions on human rights.


Cuba to close more than 100 inefficient agricultural businesses

Cuban authorities announced this week, that due to inefficiency, there are plans to close “more than 100” agricultural businesses on the island. According to an article in the Granma, the state-run agricultural enterprises will be closed and upwards of 40,000 workers will be transferred to other jobs. Agriculture Minister Ulises Rosales made the announcement at a meeting of the National Association of Small Farmers in the central province of Villa Clara. The government did not specify which particular businesses, or which parts of the country will be affected by the change.

In 2008, hundreds of businesses were closed and the land was turned over to private producers. Raúl Castro has vowed to reform the farming sector in order to substitute food imports with domestic production. The articles said the financial struggles of the farms is “brought on by the international financial crisis, the drop in foreign trade, the continuing U.S. economic embargo” and other factors.

Cuba says foreign ventures slightly up after long decline

Cuba registered a slight increase in the number of foreign investment projects last year, the first rise since authorities began limiting foreign ventures they deemed ineffective or corrupt in 2003, Reuters reported. A report by the Foreign Trade and Investment Ministry said the country was involved in 218 joint ventures last year, compared with 211 in 2008, and had 69 hotels under foreign management, up from 63 the previous year. The increase was the first reported since 2002. In 2003, authorities began closing many of the 404 ventures and 313 cooperative production agreements then in existence, mainly with Western partners, alleging they did little for the economy and were often corrupt.

Excerpts from Palbo Milanes’ interview with El Mundo

Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanes is considered one of the founders of the Cuban nueva trova, a genre of traditional Cuban folk music that emerged after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and combines progressive and often politicized lyrics. On Saturday, Milanes, in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, expressed his desire to see change in Cuba as soon as possible, but on its own terms. Through his music and the press, Milanes has openly criticized what he perceives to be wrong in his country and with the Cuban government.

When asked about the old revolutionaries still in power in Cuba, Milanes said: “We’re stuck in time. History needs to advance with new ideas and new men. They’ve all turned into reactionaries of their own ideas. Because of that, I say we need a new revolution.”

And when questioned about free elections in Cuba, Milanes offered his opinion: “I’m not a fortuneteller, and I’m not a prophet, but I hope [they come] sooner than later. More than elections, we need change in Cuba, because really I don’t believe in elections either. They’re just a democratic game, and are really a farce.”

Calle 13 to perform in Cuba

A free concert by the Miami-based Puerto Rican group Calle 13 is planned for March 23 in Havana, the Associated Press reported. The show will be the group’s first appearance on the island, although they had originally planned to participate in the Juanes-led “Paz Sin Fronteras” concert last September. The hip hop and alternative-reggaeton group won the Latin Grammy for Best Alternative Album last year.

Around the Region:

Senate Republicans stall Obama’s ambassador pick to El Salvador

Senate Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee are stalling President Obama’s appointment of Mari Carmen Aponte as ambassador to El Salvador due to concerns over her ties with Cuba, the Daily Caller reported. Years ago she had a relationship with Roberto Tamayo, a man the FBI suspected of having connections to the Cuban government. Through the relationship she also had contact with personnel from the Cuban Interests Section. However, according to Aponte, she was never “recruited” by the Cuban government and cooperated fully with the FBI when they had questions about Tamayo.

Aponte pulled her name from an appointment she was given during the Clinton Administration due to controversy surrounding the same issue. Senator Jim DeMint (R-CA), the same member who placed holds on President Obama’s top nominee for Latin America, Arturo Valenzuela, and ambassador to Brazil, Thomas Shannon, has requested more time to review Aponte’s file before voting on her appointment, Fox News reported.

In Chile, departing President Michelle Bachelet proved women can lead, The Washington Post

A nurse or a schoolteacher: Those were the classic answers Chilean girls gave when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. These days, however, after Michelle Bachelet’s four years in La Moneda Palace, many of those same young women offer a different answer, without hesitation: “I want to be president of the republic!”

Pentagon says Venezuela a ‘destabilizing force’, Reuters

The chief of the U.S. military’s Southern Command said on Thursday that Venezuela’s socialist government is a “destabilizing force” in Latin America and continues to back leftist guerrillas in Colombia. General Douglas Fraser’s comments in congressional testimony came a week after he told a U.S. Senate hearing that the Pentagon had no evidence of a “government-to-terrorist” connection between President Hugo Chavez’s government and Colombian FARC rebels.

Contradictory Claims over Venezuelan Links to Terrorism Expose Rifts within Obama Administration, Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela

Recent contradictions in statements by senior U.S. officials on links between Venezuela and terrorist groups have exposed rifts within the Obama administration and provide evidence of the politicization of intelligence regarding Venezuela.

Recommended Reading:

Havana does not negotiate under pressure: interview with Rafael Hernández, La Jornada

The case of the dissidents on hunger strikes and the pressures to pardon prisoners affects the progress of the dialogue between Cuba and the United States, as well as the dialogue established with the European Union, Rafael Hernández tells La Jornada.

I Beg to Differ: Academic Exchange with Cuba, El Yuma

It is indeed possible to do “real” research in Cuba. However, as with any research it is the scholar’s responsibility to remain clear sighted about the particular constraints and opportunities of any research context.

Midwestern farmers push for Cuban markets, Star Tribune

Nearly a decade after then-Governor Jesse Ventura met with Fidel Castro in Cuba, a new wave of Minnesota politicians is leading efforts to end travel and trade restrictions with the communist island nation.

Just say no to Cuba

The Washington Post reported this week on the “Dear Colleague” letter written by Senators Robert Menendez (NJ) and Bill Nelson (FL) urging their fellow Senators not to allow their aides to go to Cuba.

Recommended Viewing:

How Oscar Romero Got Disappeared by Right-Wingers…for the Second Time, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart has pointed out that one of the revisions of the recent Texas high school curriculum controversy is the omission of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero from a list of great political/moral figures of the twentieth century.  Viewers may be advised to skip the opening and begin around 2 and a half minutes into the segment.

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