Fundraiser in Miami, U.S. AID Funds Blocked for Americans but Offered to Foreigners, Cuban and U.S. Officials Talk about Haiti health cooperation

Dear Friends:

According to news reports, President Barack Obama will travel to Miami, Florida later this month for a fundraiser at the home of Gloria Estefan, where couples will pay $34,500 in donations to the Democratic National Committee for the privilege of attending.

Ms. Estefan is a leader in the Cuban-American community and an outspoken advocate – as is her right – for hard-line policies against Cuba’s government.

Recently, she helped lead a march in the Miami community –also her right – protesting human rights conditions in Cuba.  But joining her parade was Luis Posada Carriles, the man responsible for the first act of mid-air terrorism in our hemisphere.  This took place on October 6, 1976, when a bomb exploded on Cubana Flight 455, causing the plan to plunge into the ocean and killing all 73 crew  and passengers aboard, many of them Cuban teenagers.  Posada Carriles continues to walk free, and the U.S. continues to list Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.

And now that Luis Posada Carriles has marched with Ms. Estefan, Ms. Estefan is holding a fundraiser for the President.

Public Campaign reported last year that supporters of sanctions against Cuba have donated nearly $11 million to Members of Congress since 2004 in what the Miami Herald called “a largely successful effort” to prevent changes in the policy.

Now, thanks to Ms. Estefan, a sizeable chunk of campaign funds will land in the hands of the DNC and could help defray the costs of the President’s political activities and 2012 presidential campaign.

Normal people – and high-level donors –think that politicians are influenced by such massive contributions.  One of them is President Obama.

The President has often said that he is committed to prying the hands of the special interests off the levers of government.  At $34,500 per couple, the people lining up to attend the Gloria Estefan fundraiser better hope that he’s kidding.  The rest of us hope that he is isn’t.

U.S. policy toward Cuba – flawed and failed as it is today – should reflect both the national interest of the country and the views of all Americans, not just the fortunate few who can pay the freight and get close, private access to the most important official who decides what the policy ought to be.

That, dear readers, would be change we could believe in.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Officials from the U.S. and Cuba discuss Haiti aid efforts

Officials from the United States and Cuba met this week to discuss coordinating medical relief efforts in Haiti. The Associated Press described it as “one of the highest level encounters in years between the Cold War enemies.” The meeting between Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and Cheryl Mills, the chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, took place at a United Nations donor conference that raised $9.9 billion for Haiti.

“We don’t agree with Cuba and Venezuela on very much, but we all agree on the importance of assistance to Haiti,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters. He said that the meeting was quick and specific to Haiti, but Mills did bring up the case of Alan Gross. Cuba issued a statement confirming the meeting and saying it hoped to see more of such dialogue. “We would hope that future exchanges of this nature are a possibility,” the statement said.

Cuba plans to donate health services worth $690 million to Haiti to aid in the reconstruction efforts, Europa Press reported.

Is a U.S. House Committee Close To Adopting Trade and Travel Reforms for Cuba?

An influential House Committee Chairman is counting votes for legislation (the Peterson-Moran bill) before his committee that would ease restrictions on agricultural trade to Cuba and legalize travel to the island nation.

According to Bloomberg News, “Congressman Collin Peterson…said he needs backing from one more lawmaker to assure the panel will pass the legislation.”

Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said he thought the legislation would only pass if it included both changes to agriculture and travel restrictions. “I don’t think we’ll be able to get the agriculture changes by themselves,” Peterson said. “There’s a lot of support for lifting the travel ban, and if you put that together with the agriculture, I think we have enough votes to get it through the House.”

According to estimates by the U.S. International Trade Commission, the U.S. could supply as much as two-thirds of Cuba’s agricultural imports, up from the current 38 percent, if legislation like the Peterson-Moran bill were to pass. According to Ag Network, the recession in the U.S. caused agricultural exports to Cuba in 2009 to fall by more than $180 million.

Peterson’s optimism in the current political climate demonstrates his commitment to pursuing the Cuba issue.

Regarding the travel portion of the bill, Cuba’s Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero is confident that the island has the resources to handle the potential rush of American tourism, as “nine hotels are set to break ground by the end of this year.” Travel Agent Central reported that National Tourism Association President Lisa Simon, who attended the U.S.-Cuba Travel Summit in Cancun last week, came away impressed. “The Cubans have provided us with a fairly complete picture of their tourism product and future opportunities for U.S. businesses to work in this market,” she said. “We are very excited to have this information and look forward to a follow-up conference next year in Cuba.”

Dissidents approve of Kerry’s hold on U.S. AID funds

Just last week, the Washington Post editorialized on Cuba, praising President Obama for a tough statement on human rights, and offering implied criticism of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry for having blocked temporarily U.S. AID money that funds democracy programs in Cuba.

This week, many Cuban dissidents expressed approval of Senator Kerry’s attempt to withhold the funds until revisions in the program are made. According to El Universal, “Ladies in White” leader Laura Pollan agrees with Kerry’s decision, as it will result in transparency for both the programs and the organizations that are sending aid, eliminating any confusion or incorrect interpretation of the intention and content of such aid.

“What Kerry is doing seems just to me,” said dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua, a social democrat. “It’s what should be done, (and reveals)…the real destinations of these resources.”

U.S. AID Funds for Foreign Travelers to Cuba?

In the ‘first time tragedy, second time farce” category – Phil Peters at the Cuban Triangle reports that some funds requested by U.S. AID for its democracy promotion programs on Cuba will actually flow to foreign nationals building people-to-people contacts with Cuba.  Such contacts, which will cost U.S. taxpayers as much as $2.5 million, Peters notes, could take place for free if the Obama administration relaxed the ban on travel by Americans to Cuba.  The politics of this will surely mess up anti-European, “Freedom Fries” crowd on Capitol Hill.

U.S. opposes making charter companies pay unrelated judgment

The U.S. Justice Department declared this week that Cuban charter flight operators should not have to pay a $27 million judgment to a Cuban-American woman claiming she was tricked into marrying a Cuban spy, the Associated Press reported.

Ana Margarita Lopez, a public relations consultant in Miami was initially awarded the money in 2001 when the Cuban government did not appear to challenge the suit. She has only been able to collect about $200,000 and asked a judge to make the charter companies pay the rest of the money. Chief U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno, who has not yet issued a final decision, had asked for the U.S. position.

Defending the importance of the interactions between the people of the United States and Cuba provided by these airline companies, the Justice Department says that it opposes making the companies pay. Ricardo Zuniga, the State Department’s acting coordinator for Cuban affairs said that “the direct flights they provide are vital for maintaining contacts that are in the national interest.” According to Zuniga, “a disruption in licensed air charter service would cause serious harm to U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.”

U.S.-Cuba relations under Obama at a low point

Despite a brief warming last year, relations between the U.S. and Cuba have once again chilled, returning to where they were before Obama took office, Reuters and the Christian Science Monitor reported.

Despite allowing travel for Cuban-Americans to the island, lifting restrictions on remittances and beginning talks on migration and postal issues, a string of events has since occurred signifying setbacks in relations, Reuters reported.

“Neither government is willing to take a significant step that would serve as a demonstration of genuine goodwill,” Timothy Ashby, a former U.S. Commerce Department official in charge of trade with Cuba, told Reuters.

The arrest of American contractor Alan Gross, the death of hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo, and recent protests by the “Ladies in White” have escalated tensions, the Christian Science Monitor reported.  The Cuban government became upset with Obama when he engaged in e-mail correspondence with dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez and the U.S. enacted extra security measures for flights from Cuba – although these measures were recently reformed.

IN CUBA

Silvio Rodríguez calls for greater freedom of expression

As he prepares to release a new album this week, one of Cuba’s best-loved musicians and artists, Silvio Rodríguez, argued that “there are many things that need to be revised in Cuba.” According to La Jornada, Rodríguez’s principal complaint about Cuba’s domestic policy is the lack of freedom of expression.  People worldwide “get to say whatever they wish,” Rodríguez said. “It seems to me that Cubans should do the same.” Regardless of his criticisms of the government, Rodríguez says he “still has many reasons to believe in the revolution.”

Cuban hunger striker says he will continue his protest

The health of Guillermo Fariñas, a Cuban hunger striker, has continued to deteriorate.   Despite his grave condition, Fariñas rejected an offer from Spanish officials who would have taken him to Spain and allowed for his recuperation there, Reuters reported.  According to Agence France-Presse, he is now suffering from sepsis, and is being treated with antibiotics.

Fariñas said he will continue his protest in Cuba until the government decides to “release 26 ailing prisoners.” EFE reported that two other Cuban hunger strikers are joining Fariñas’ campaign for improved human rights in Cuba, including Franklin Pelegrino of the Holguin province who has quietly been on a hunger strike for 34 days, and imprisoned dissident Darsi Ferrer, who has not eaten in 11 days.

UN and OAS Leaders call on Cuba to improve human rights situation

The Secretary General of the United Nations (UN), Ban Ki-moon, called for the respect of the human rights of Cubans this week, El Universal reported. “The Secretary General outlined the importance of respecting the fundamental rights of Cuban citizens contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky.  The UN “continues to be preoccupied” with the troubling situation of Guillermo Fariñas, he added.

José Miguel Insulza, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), called on Cuba to release prisoners who are in serious health conditions. “I am formally asking the Cuban authorities to let these sick people go, which would be a humanitarian solution to the crisis.”   Insulza said, after meeting with Chilean president elect, Sebastián Piñera, in Santiago, “I am making the request with complete humility that you, please, resolve this humanitarian situation because it has gotten very dramatic and it’s not convenient to anyone,” he added, EFE reported.

Préval receives Cuban health minister

José Ramón Balaguer, Cuba’s minister of health, traveled to Haiti this week and met with Haitian President René Préval. Balaguer and Préval toured areas affected by the quake and clinics staffed by Cuban doctors, Prensa Latina reported.  Préval publicly thanked the Cubans for having sent hundreds of medical professionals to the earthquake-stricken nation, as well as for having trained 556 Haitians in Cuban medical schools.

More than 25,000 Chernobyl patients treated in Cuba

Since the tragic explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in 1990, more than 25,000 patients have been treated in Cuba, Prensa Latina reported. This week marked the twentieth anniversary of the tragic event. Children comprised the majority of the patients, and received special treatment that integrated psychological rehabilitation, balanced nutrition, and cultural activities with standard medical procedures, the paper wrote.

Cuban Government Seeks Churches’ Help in Stopping Corruption

Cuba’s communist party is seeking a spiritual partner in its effort to stamp out corruption and petty theft, the Associated Press reported.

According to the AP, President Raul Castro and other top officials met privately with non-Catholic religious leaders this week.  “Together we should broaden what we do so that all of us Cubans become better, more honest, principled workers,” said Caridad Diego, the Communist Party’s head of religious affairs.

Religious leaders and others on Cuba argue that the economic system forces Cubans to engage in pilferage at the workplace and elsewhere because low state salaries are insufficient for Cuban families to make ends meet and say what is stake is not just theft but the moral impact of the system.

Cuba’s government chose as the date for this meeting the twentieth anniversary of a gathering convened by then-President Fidel Castro with religious leaders, after which, AP notes, Cuba’s government began to soften its stand against religion.

Around the Region:

FACTBOX-Key political risks to watch in Venezuela, Reuters

Anger over power and water rationing, elections that may bolster opposition to President Hugo Chavez, new nationalizations, a floundering economy, and diplomatic tensions with neighbor Colombia are all risks to watch for in major oil exporter Venezuela this year.
Rep. Jim McGovern (MA) on the Hostage Releases in Colombia

It is with great joy that I greet the news of the successful release of Sergeant Pablo Emilio Moncayo, after more than 12 years in captivity.  I send my very best wishes to his family, especially his father, Gustavo, who is well known to me.  I also send my warmest regards to the family of Josué Daniel Calvo, who were reunited with their son on Sunday.

Recommended Reading:

Dissidents and Politics in Cuba, Rafael Hernandez in CounterPunch

Hunger strikes and suicides justified by strong moral, ideological, patriotic or religious beliefs usually touch people’s conscience. … The death of Zapata is a human tragedy but that does not explain how it became a cause celebre. If one tries to understand it in context – something hard to do given the shower of opinions that have inundated the media – one has to take a step back from the news to examine some essential questions.

It’s past time to open trade with Cuba, The Prairie Star

Permitting travel to Cuba would help increase the amount of trade production for America’s family farmers because by allowing U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, U.S. dollars will be put into the hands of Cuban citizens. That extra money could then be used for the purchase of U.S. goods, thus improving the economy in both Cuba and the United States over the long term.

Dreaming of Cuban Profits in Post-Embargo World, New York Times

Would Americans’ playing bingo in a Havana retirement home violate the Cuban government’s socialist ethos? How about avowed capitalists living on their 401(k) accounts in condominiums along the Cuban coastline? Or, horror of horrors, fast food outlets offering Big Macs, Whoppers and buckets of fried chicken along the seaside Malecón?

U.S. Public Diplomacy for Cuba: Why It’s Needed and How to Do It, Paul Hare for Brookings

U.S. public diplomacy with Cuba is an exciting, but also formidable challenge, writes Paul Hare, former British ambassador to Cuba. The principal reason for this is because it has never been tried.   Hare examines current roadblocks and offers solutions and recommendations for developing a successful public diplomacy strategy that addresses the underlying tensions while promoting greater people-to-people engagement.

Recommended Viewing:

A Lesson in Cuban Cigar Rolling

Ever wonder how a Cuban expertly rolls a cigar?  We conclude the news summary this week with a video featuring a young man named Michel Martinez Jr., a tobacco farmer in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province, doing exactly that.

The story behind Michel and his farm family proves a point that embargo supporters are reluctant to admit; when tourists visit Cuba, their travel offers direct economic benefits to average Cubans, helping them raise their incomes and provide for their families, while also offering direct contact with the Cuban people.

The Martinez family sells tobacco under contract to the Cuban government.  Under their arrangement, they hold back ten percent of the crop to make cigars which they sell to tourists.  Currently, they are selling largely to Europeans and could sell a lot more if Americans were allowed to travel.  These visits, by the way, are unobstructed by the Cuban government and provide opportunities for conversation about Cuba and the benefits of other systems.

For now, the American audience – for whom tourist travel and Cuban cigar purchases are illegal – will have to experience the cigar rolling artistry of Michel Martinez through digital video.  But if we changed the policy….

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