Conscience and Courage on Cuba

Dear Friend:

Reasonable men and women of good will can and do differ over U.S. policy toward Cuba.  We are strong dissenters against the status quo and earnestly believe that our country is weakened by inflexibly pursuing policies that have hurt average Cubans and failed to produce results over the last several decades.

But voices of conscience were raised this week about problems with human and political rights on the island, and those voices, which dominated the policy debate, also dominate our reporting today.

President Obama spoke about Cuba for the first time this year when he released a statement expressing deep concerns about the death of hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo and efforts to still dissent that took place on Cuban streets over the last week.

Members of Congress, House and Senate members, Democrats and Republicans, from across the political spectrum, called upon the Cuban government to release U.S. AID contractor Alan Gross, detained for violating Cuban law, who has been imprisoned since early December but not yet charged by Cuban authorities.

There were also demonstrations in Miami commemorating the arrests of political dissidents that took place in Cuba seven years ago that reflected the values and concerns of the Cuban-American community broadly.

Some critics of Cuba used these events to double-down their commitment to freezing the policy in place.  This is what they always do; using evidence that the current policy has failed in order to justify prolonging it.

Others – like Senators Dorgan and Kerry – took the debate in a better direction, with Mr. Dorgan arguing for ending the travel ban and Mr. Kerry, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, proposing a harder look at the so-called “democracy promotion programs” that have tainted the recipients of U.S. funds in Cuba, that have seen waste and corruption here in the U.S., and that placed Mr. Gross in jeopardy in the beginning.

Their voices deserve to be heard, too.

This debate is complicated.   You need to look no further than the item we also feature about how Cuban Americans are visiting the island in record numbers…or the item about the very conservative governor of Georgia who is eagerly awaiting the chance to sell his state’s farm products on an upcoming trade mission to Cuba…or the story we didn’t want you to miss about the U.S. and Cuba having a conversation about cooperating together in the on-going relief efforts in Haiti.

It is this mix of conscience and courage, of honesty and engagement, of adherence to principle and the search for practical solutions that represents in our judgment the better angels of our country’s nature.

Criticism is easy and at times it is certainly warranted.  But the easy path seldom leads to the future.

This week in Cuba news…

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

President Obama says Cuban government continues to rule with a “clenched fist”

President Obama released a statement on Wednesday saying the “death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the repression visited upon Las Damas de Blanco,” and the “intensified harassment” of others are “deeply disturbing.” “Cuban authorities continue to respond to the aspirations of the Cuban people with a clenched fist,” and “I join my voice with brave individuals across Cuba and a growing chorus around the world in calling for an end to the repression,” the statement read.

“During the course of the past year, I have taken steps to reach out to the Cuban people and to signal my desire to seek a new era in relations between the governments of the United States and Cuba.  I remain committed to supporting the simple desire of the Cuban people to freely determine their future and to enjoy the rights and freedoms that define the Americas, and that should be universal to all human beings.”

According to Reuters, dissidents in Cuba applauded a “new and tougher attitude on the part of President Obama.”

Members of Congress call for release of Alan Gross

Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and 40 other Members of Congress sent a letter this week to Ambassador Jorge Bolaños, Chief of Mission for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, urging Cuban officials to release Alan Gross.  Gross, who lives in Congressman Van Hollen’s district, has been in jail in Havana since December.  He still has not been charged, but the Cuban government has accused him of engaging in activities that violate Cuban law.

Members of Congress write that it’s their understanding that “Mr. Gross was in Cuba to help the Jewish community improve their ability to communicate with Jews, both in Cuba and overseas.” They write that his “work in Cuba emanated from his desire to make a positive impact for others of his faith on the island” and his family is “struggling to get through this ordeal.”

The letter concludes: “The arrest and imprisonment of Mr. Gross is viewed with great consternation by the government of the United States, including both Democrat and Republican Members of the United States Congress, whether liberal or conservative.  It has caused many to doubt your government’s expressed desire to improve relations with the United States.  We cannot assist in that regard while Mr. Gross is detained in a Cuban prison.”

Senator Dorgan: releasing Alan Gross would help efforts in Congress to open up travel

While announcing that he will continue to fight for an end to the travel ban on Cuba, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) told a crowd of tourism officials and business representatives at a U.S.-Cuba tourism conference in Cancun, Mexico that Cuba should free Alan Gross to help persuade Congress to support easing sanctions. Dorgan concluded with a statement reaffirming his desire to see the travel ban lifted: “I think it’s just plain wrong that Cuba is the only country in the world that the U.S. government says it’s criminal to visit without a license,” the Associated Press reported.

Senator Kerry has a hold on U.S. AID Cuba money

In an editorial applauding President Obama’s statement calling for the “unconditional release of all political prisoners in Cuba,” the Washington Post reported that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-MA) has placed a hold on U.S. AID money that funds democracy programs in Cuba. The program has been under scrutiny in the past for theft, corruption, and waste and more recently for whether it operates in Cuba legally, after a contractor, Mr. Alan Gross, was arrested in Havana with sophisticated global communications devices. The facts surround Gross’ activities are still unknown, but the Obama Administration called for a review of the program.   The Post criticizes Kerry’s hold, calling it the “wrong time” to withhold support for the “courageous dissidents.”

U.S. and Cuban officials discuss cooperation in Haiti

[We apologize for missing this positive article, which was buried beneath all of the negative news last week.]

Reuters reported that U.S. and Cuban officials met in the Dominican Republic on Wednesday, March 17th to discuss international cooperation on assistance for recovery efforts in Haiti. According to diplomats, Cheryl Mills, counselor and chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and another senior State Department official, Julissa Reynoso, met in Santo Domingo with Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Rogelio Sierra and a senior Cuban Health Ministry official, Reuters reported.

Few details have emerged, but diplomats said officials from the two countries discussed aid for Haiti, including Cuba’s capacity to help provide medical care for the hundreds of thousands of injured and homeless Haitian quake victims. Health and foreign policy experts have advocated for joint U.S.–Cuba response efforts, either bilaterally or multilaterally, to help the Haitian people and to build confidence between Cuba and the United States.

Cuban mission to the U.N. requests additional security

The Cuban mission to the United Nations in New York has requested additional security following recent protests, Spain’s ADN reported. “Cuba requests that U.S. authorities guarantee the security and physical integrity of the mission and its personnel,” said the Cuban Ambassador to the UN, Pedro Núñez Mosquera. According to the mission, a “dangerous and provocative incident” occurred on February 28th when over 30 people “yelled offensive and insulting remarks” until they were dispersed by police.

HUMAN RIGHTS

State security urges Fariñas to end hunger strike

According to a spokesman for hunger striker Guillermo Fariñas, a top Cuban state security official visited Fariñas in the hospital this week and requested that he end his month-long protest, Agence France-Presse reported. Hector de la Fe Freire, the head of Cuba’s department of counterrevolutionary activities, “asked Guillermo Fariñas to end his strike, telling him his health was so poor that he risks dying,” Licet Zamora, Fariñas’ spokesman, told AFP by telephone.

Spain’s ABC reported that Fariñas told de la Fe Freire that he won’t stop until 26 political prisoners in poor health are released, to which the Cuban official did not respond. Fariñas said the two had “a very professional conversation, and that nothing abrupt happened.”

“In the end we talked about baseball, because we are both fans of Villa Clara,” said Fariñas.

Gloria Estefan, Luis Posada Carriles and others march in Miami

Thousands of people, dressed in white, marched in Miami on Thursday in solidarity with Los Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), a group of wives, mothers and sisters of political prisoners, Euronews reported. Cuba says the jailed men are not political prisoners and have been convicted of conspiring with the United States to create instability.  About 20 members of the Ladies in White marched in Havana, but were quickly met by a group of about 300 university students who shouted at them, Reuters reported.

Singer Gloria Estefan and her husband, Emilio organized the march. “Here we are with our hearts in our hands,” Estefan said. “We have sent a message to the world and to Cuba that we love freedom and freedom belongs to every human being. It is our right on this earth.” The Miami Herald streamed the march live on its website.

Reuters reported that Luis Posada Carriles, former CIA agent and self-proclaimed terrorist, also took part in the demonstration.

NBC Miami reported that former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz also organized a Cuba freedom rally at Harvard’s Institute of Politics on Thursday. NBC wrote that Diaz, who is attending Harvard to improve his political skills, “probably shouldn’t miss any classes on politics after nearly running the city into the ground financially over the past decade.”

Senators offer resolution on Zapata Tamayo

Senators Nelson (D-FL), McCain (R-AZ), Kerry (D-MA), Menendez (D-NJ), Dodd (D-CT) and Lemieux (R-FL) submitted a resolution “recognizing the life of Orlando Zapata Tamayo” and calling on the “United States to continue 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.” You can read the full resolution here.

TRAVEL

Governor of Georgia headed to Cuba in June

Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, a free-market Republican, is set to lead a trade delegation including state legislators and business representatives to Cuba over the summer.  “While governors, state legislators and agriculture commissioners have traveled to Cuba over the past decade, it’s rare for a sitting Southern governor to visit the nation,” reported the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. However, according to Perdue’s spokesman Bert Brantley, the governor “believes business opportunities for Georgians trump domestic politics.”

“At the end of the day, the governor believes good policy makes good politics,” Brantley said. And “the stakes are high in terms of what Georgia has to sell, particularly in the agriculture industry.”

U.S.–Cuba Travel Summit

The U.S.-Cuba Travel Summit began in Cancun on Wednesday with travel professionals and Cuban officials in attendance, Travel Agent Central reported. The agenda for the summit includes presentations from Cuban travel enterprises and information on current legislation including the Peterson-Moran bill (H.R. 4645) and the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act (S.428 and H.R. 874), which would open up travel to Cuba.

“I am thrilled with the caliber and diversity of attendants for the summit. It will make for some stimulating dialogue on a market that represents great potential for U.S. travel professionals,” said National Tour Association President Lisa Simon. “I know the attendees will walk away with the information and connections they need to meet the coming demand of travel to Cuba when it opens for all American citizens.”

Cuban officials said that the island could manage a sudden influx of 1 million American tourists if the U.S. Congress passes legislation to lift travel restrictions to Cuba. Cuba is planning to expand its hotel capacity by about 50,000 guest rooms with construction starting on at least nine hotels in 2010, Bloomberg reported. In the “medium to long-term” the country plans to add about 200,000 rooms, said Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero. He said Cuba is also seeking investment partners to construct 10 golf courses and luxury hotels aimed at Americans.

Thousands of Cuban Americans visiting relatives in Cuba

Reuters reported that since the U.S. lifted restrictions on family visits to Cuba last year, Cubans are visiting the Island “in such numbers that Cuba has had to remodel the airport terminal for U.S. flights.” About 300,000 passengers are expected in 2010, and beneficiaries include charter companies selling flights, the Cuban government, and most of all, the Cubans who get to visit their loved ones and their relatives on the island who receive them.

According to the charter companies, direct flights by Cuban Americans to their homeland skyrocketed 70 percent in 2009 and are expected to jump another 36 percent this year. The economy related to family travel to Cuba has seen “tremendous growth and 2010 looks incredible,” said Armando Garcia, president of Miami-based Marazul Charters.

IN CUBA

Calle 13 rocks Havana

The Puerto Rican band Calle 13 “brought its edgy mix of reggaeton and hip-hop to Cuba’s capital on Tuesday, rocking thousands of screaming fans from an outdoor stage while serving up a heaping dose of bitterness toward U.S. policy,” the Associated Press reported. The group played in front of towering Cuban and Puerto Rican flags along the Malecón in front of the U.S. Interests Section.

BBC reporter Fernando García wrote that Rene Perez, known as Residente, strongly criticized the U.S. government, including harsh words for the FBI’s role in the killing of Puerto Rican independence activist Filiberto Ojeda in 2005. However, the group also dedicated one song to “the political prisoners, outside of Cuba and in Cuba.” García concluded that “in the end, Calle 13 challenged the limits of a concert promoted by the Cuban government.”

La Jiribilla, a Cuban website, has a slide show of photos from the group’s visit to an elementary school dedicated to Carlos Muñiz Varela, a Cuban-born activist who was murdered in Puerto Rico by Cuban exiles. La Vanguardia has a video of the concert here.

The Amistad arrives in Cuba

A U.S. replica of the 19th century Cuban slave ship Amistad arrived to Havana on Thursday, “a reminder of the countries’ intertwined past and perhaps a small gesture toward a brighter shared future,” the Associated Press reported. The ship flew the flags of the United States, Cuba and the United Nations. Organizers of the voyage applauded authorities on both sides of the Florida Straights for making it possible.

The crew consists mainly of American students, but there is also a man from Sierra Leone aboard. The ship and its crew were greeted by Cuban dignitaries and academics upon their arrival. “For us it’s something indescribable,” said Miguel Barnet, a leading Cuban ethnographer. “This replica is very important because it recalls events that are dramatic and sad … history’s longest holocaust.”

BBC has published a slideshow of the Amistad’s arrival here.

Cuba may open up sugar industry to foreign investment

According to business sources in Havana, Cuba may open sugar production to foreign investors for the first time since the 1959 revolution. This year’s poor harvest has increased interest in bringing in foreign partners, sources told Reuters. Sugar, which was once a staple of the Cuban economy, accounts for less than 5 percent of Cuba’s foreign earnings. The fall of the Soviet Union and declining prices led Cuba to greatly reduce production in the 90s. However, prices have been driven up by ethanol demand, so Cuba is turning to sugar once again. “The executive Committee of the Council of Ministers approved plans to pursue talks last November, and again this year to sign administrative agreements,” said a business source. U.S. restrictions will keep American companies out of the bidding for any deals if they move forward.

Cuba replaces Attorney General Escalona

Cuba announced another leadership change on Tuesday, replacing Attorney General Juan Escalona Reguera with Brig. Gen. Dario Delgado, who had been deputy attorney general, La Jornada reported. Escalona, who fought with Fidel and Raúl Castro in the rebel army, was well known for his role as chief prosecutor in the 1989 trial of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, who was executed for drug smuggling and treason. He also presided over the wedding of Raúl Castro and Vilma Espin, the Associated Press reported. The government announcement said Escalona will be assigned “other duties” on the Council of State, Cuba’s highest governing body. Two weeks ago Rogelio Acevedo was removed as the head of Cuban airlines and airports. No reason has been given for his removal, but rumors of corruption have surfaced in Havana.

Small earthquake shakes eastern Cuba

The eastern region of Cuba was shaken last weekend by a magnitude-5.5 earthquake. The quake caused minor damage with cracks and fissures reported in 19 buildings and 316 homes in the country’s second-largest city, Santiago de Cuba, and surrounding communities, but there were no reports of injuries, EFE reported. The earthquake sent residents fleeing into the streets, Reuters reported. “It was very big. I was at my computer and suddenly felt the strong shake and we all went into the street,” Lisset Foster, who rents out rooms at her house in Guantanamo city, described to reporters. Cuban President Raúl Castro visited the area on Monday to meet with affected residents, Prensa Latina reported.

Raúl says Fidel is “doing well for his age”

According to Raúl Castro, his brother Fidel is “doing well for his age,” Agence France-Presse reported. “He does exercises every day. He is more disciplined than ever because now he eats his meals at more reasonable hours,” Raúl Castro told reports during a trip to the eastern town of Mayari, where he was assessing damage from a recent earthquake. “He goes to bed very early and doesn’t work until seven or eight in the morning like he used to,” he said.  Photos of Fidel Castro were last released when Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visited the island two weeks ago.

Recommended Reading:

Cigar aficionados scramble for Cuba’s most expensive smoke, CNN

Such is the anticipation surrounding the Cohiba Behike cigar when it goes on sale in mid-June that experts are warning demand will far outstrip supply, creating a lucrative black market for the stogies. Rarely has such excitement surrounded the launch of a cigar, say connoisseurs in the UK and the U.S., but why? Is the Behike really that good or is this just hype?

La Isla: the secret side of Cuba, Times Online

La Isla is stunning. It has downy pastures dotted with mangos, palms, delicate pines and banana trees. It has soaring granite peaks and pale, shimmering lakes. There is a sense of space and freedom, the empty highway slicing the island lengthways.

For Cuban players, getting off the island means a payday, but also a price, Los Angeles Times

Talented players from the island nation are defecting and signing with major league teams at an ever-increasing rate. But money often can’t buy happiness, when leaving comes at the cost of loved ones left behind.

Ailing Cuba tobacco legend celebrates 91st birthday, Reuters

Cuban tobacco legend Alejandro Robaina celebrated his 91st birthday on Saturday, weakened by ill health but surrounded by friends and family and the tobacco fields that have been his life.

Around the Region:

Shank: Americans Find a Rash of Contradictions in Venezuela, Michael Shank in Roll Call

In Venezuela, what was most apparent in obfuscating improved U.S.-Venezuela relations was the polarized perspective between respective governments. The U.S. presence in Caracas borders on the patronizing, at least in private conversations. Even the term “boys and girls” was uttered in reference to local leaders. There is contempt for all things Chavez and it is evident. President Chavez is equally polemical as he leads the country’s latest revolution in a romantic throwback to the long lineage of preceding revolutionaries.

Hondurans’ Great Awakening, Dana Frank in the Nation

Two powerful forces have swept through Honduras since the June 28, 2009 coup that deposed President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya: one magnificent, the other truly horrible. The first is the resistance movement that rose up to contest the coup, surprising everyone in its breadth, nonviolence and resilience. The second is the new regime’s brutal repression in response.

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