Hillary and the Embargo; Dissent and Debate in Cuba; State clips ties to barber shops; Obama and Cuba Over Drinks at Gloria’s

Dear Friends:

There’s a lot of compelling news about Cuba this week, and we’re inclined to get right to it.

We start with Secretary Clinton taking a question at a public event in Kentucky, where she started to unpack an unusual explanation for why we should get rid of the embargo, but she finally found her footing and repeated talking points that took us back to the Clinton administration.  Her comments and the Cubans’ response lead the news summary.

We cover several stories relating to human rights – from the end of a hunger strike and a disrupted demonstration to the dissent uncovered by Marc Frank of Reuters, the protests being made by farmers and the surprising news that Havana is paying them heed.

President Raúl Castro has privatized Cuba’s barber shops and beauty salons – a small sounding change, but a signal that cuts in state bureaucracy and increased inducements for Cuban workers to earn better wages remain on the government’s agenda.

Congressman Mike Honda published an essay this week in the Miami Herald saying it’s time to lift the embargo.

We suggest you read his column and another posting about the evening that President Obama is spending raising political money at the home of Gloria Estefan.

For those whose interests extend beyond Cuba, may we also recommend material we provide on the Chinese President’s trip to Latin America and how China’s agenda in the region should affect our country’s priorities as well.

We’re also asking all of you to respond to our questionnaire about how our President – Barack Obama – is doing with his foreign policy toward the region and its people.  We’re using the results of this survey to inform our own views of what the President has done during his first year in office.  So here’s your chance to contribute to our thinking.

Our final word spends a moment considering the contemporary meaning of this week in history.

Read it all, this week in Cuba news…

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Clinton: Castros want the embargo

Following a speech on nuclear terrorism at the University of Louisville, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton answered the following question about Cuba:

Question: Given the fact that probably the Cuban missile crisis may be the greatest example of a deterrent, that’s been almost 50 years ago. Is there any talk within the Department of maybe normalizing relationships with Cuba?

Secretary Clinton: That’s a really – that’s a topic of conversation a lot. I don’t think that there is any question that, at some point, the people of Cuba should have democratically elected leaders and should have a chance to chart their own future. But unfortunately, I don’t see that happening while the Castros are still in charge. And so what President Obama has done is to create more space, more family travel, more business opportunities to sell our farm products or for our telecom companies to compete dealing with common issues that we have with Cuba like migration or drug trafficking. In fact, during the height of the terrible catastrophe in Haiti because of the earthquake, we actually helped some of the Cuban doctors get medical supplies who were already operating there.

So there are ways in which we’re trying to enhance our cooperation. But it is my personal belief that the Castros do not want to see an end to the embargo and do not want to see normalization with the United States, because they would then lose all of their excuses for what hasn’t happened in Cuba in the last 50 years. And I find that very sad, because there should be an opportunity for a transition to a full democracy in Cuba. And it’s going to happen at some point, but it may not happen anytime soon.

Cuban state media responded by accusing Clinton of being a cynic, the Associated Press reported.  Radio Reloj said Clinton’s comments “mixed ignorance and falsehoods at an infinite level.” A report on the station’s website said “if cynicism needed an expression that would immortalize it, the American Secretary of State gave it.” Her remarks were also posted without comment on Cubadebate, a government Internet site popular with intellectuals on and off the island.

Miami Herald: Standing up to Cuba’s crisis

An editorial in last Friday’s Miami Herald, titled “Standing up to Cuba’s crisis,” argued that “Raúl Castro is feeling the heat…” (and) “sees the walls closing in.” According to the Herald, “It is likewise impossible for the regime to act sensibly to resolve the political crisis sparked by hunger strikes.” Arguing that the political and economic challenges are hard to surmount, the paper concludes that “easing the policy toward Cuba makes no sense when the regime’s hard-line leaders refuse to soften their own grip.”

Cuban diplomat defects to the U.S.

Yusimil Casanas, a 25-year-old Cuban diplomat who had been working in Mexico but then disappeared, has reportedly defected to the United States along with her husband, the Miami Herald reported. Casanas, who held a job in the passport section of Cuba’s embassy in Mexico City contacted her mother in Cuba this week and let her know she is safe in the U.S., without disclosing her location.

Family members of Casanas, now living in Canada, believe that she is being questioned by U.S. intelligence officials this week, as is standard practice when Cuban officials come to the U.S., Reuters reported. The couple originally disappeared on March 17, and had not been heard from until their reemergence this week. However, the Cuban embassy car in which they were last seen was found in a parking lot by the U.S. embassy, leading to suspicion the couple had requested political asylum.

HUMAN RIGHTS

Ladies in White prevented from marching

Cuban police halted a march by the Ladies in White this week, forcing them onto a bus and driving them home, the Associated Press reported. “There was a mob of government people shouting things,” said Bertha Soler, one of the group’s leaders. The group, made up of wives, mothers and sisters of prisoners, marches down Fifth Avenue in Miramar after church each Sunday, usually without disruption. According to group members, they were recently told by Cuban authorities that they need to seek permission from the government 72 hours prior to carrying out any demonstration, which they said they won’t do.

Another hunger strike ended

Dissident medical doctor Darsi Ferrer has reportedly ended his hunger strike, which he began on March 20th, La Vanguardia reported. This was the third hunger strike he has undertaken since he was arrested in July of 2009 for allegedly buying cement on the black market, a crime for which he says he has not yet been given a trial.  Ferrer had complained about not receiving adequate medical treatment and the lack of a formal prosecution to define his legal situation. According to La Vanguardia, he ended his hunger strike after medical attention was provided and the announcement of a trial was made by authorities.

Tolerated dissent in Cuba

Marc Frank, who covers Cuba for several news agencies, wrote a piece in the Financial Times this week about what type of dissent is being allowed by President Raúl Castro.

According to Frank, President Castro has “responded to rising discontent and the need for economic reform by seeking to engage with the disaffected but he has proved as intolerant to the ‘counter- revolution’ as his brother.” He points out that the same day that hunger-striker Mr. Zapata was buried and the Ladies in White marched in protest, 250,000 small farmers and private co-operative members openly criticized Communist authorities at a preparatory congress about agriculture. “The farmers were every bit as vocal as the women marchers, blaming the government for food shortages and demanding radical change in the state monopoly on resources such as fertilizer, and the distribution and sale of their products.”

“While the Ladies in White received ample coverage and support abroad, they were met by jeering throngs in Cuba,” Frank writes, “Not a soul joined them. No one lit a candle for Zapata. There was no vigil outside the hospital where Guillermo Fariñas, another dissident hunger striker, is receiving intravenous sustenance at his request.”

The farmers, on the other hand, writes Frank, “received no attention abroad but sympathy at home for their demands that state bureaucrats meet their obligations or get out of the way.” According to one Western diplomat, “the trick would be to bring the two currents together.”

Spanish Senate calls for dialogue with Cuba, asks Cuban government to free all political prisoners

Spain’s Senate passed a resolution this week calling on its government to “promote dialogue” with Cuba in hopes of seeing the release of all political prisoners on the island, and condemning the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo and the ongoing case of hunger-striker Guillermo Fariñas.   According to Europa Press, the resolution passed with 248 affirmative votes. Just one person voted against it, while another abstained. In addition to dialogue, the resolution calls on Cuba to allow the Red Cross and U.N. Human Rights representatives to visit Cuban jails where political prisoners are being held.

Concerts against criticism

Thousands turned out on Saturday to government-sponsored “Concerts for the Homeland” in Havana and Santiago on Saturday, EFE reported. The concerts, which featured Silvio Rodriguez, Sara Gonzalez, Gerardo Alfonso, Amaury Perez, Manolo Argudin, Vicente Feliu, Augusto Blanca, Augusto Enriquez and David Blanco, Buena Fe, Baby Lores and others, were held to repudiate criticism of the United States, Europe, foreign media and dissidents over the human rights situation on the island.

According to state media, the concerts were a “repudiation of the media campaign that tries to denigrate Cuban reality at present, as well as to reaffirm the Cuban people’s right to build a free and fair society.”  The AP reported that the concert attracted “a surprisingly small crowd.”

IN CUBA

Cuba privatizes barber shops and beauty salons

In the latest economic reform implemented under President Raúl Castro, hundreds of state-run barber shops and beauty salons across the country are being turned over from the state to employees in “what appears to be the start of a long-expected revamping of state retail services,” Reuters reported.  Barbers and hair dressers will now rent the space where they work and pay taxes instead of receiving a monthly wage. They will be able to charge prices based on market value and expect to earn a good salary. The change has not been publicly announced in Cuba, but Reuters confirmed that the policy is being implemented throughout the country.

Silvio Rodríguez and Carlos Montaner debate Cuba

Cuban song-writer and poet, Silvio Rodríguez, and Cuban exile journalist, Carlos Montaner, have undertaken a long epistolary debate through the media about their differing views of the current situation in Cuba.  In an unprecedented public discussion, both men defend their views about Cuba, the revolution, and the Castro brothers’ role in current history, through letters written back and forth.

While Rodríguez highlights the social progress of the regime and denounces the U.S. embargo against the island as immoral and an act of genocide, Montaner urges the song-writer to be critical on the situation of human rights and civil liberties. In his latest response, Rodríguez read a poem at a Havana concert, in which he asked: “If the millions of Cubans that lost family in attacks by the CIA put together a letter to denounce them, would Carlos Alberto Montaner sign it?”

Yoani Sanchez wrote on her blog that “when two figures who have been placed at the far extremes can engage in an argument without resorting to shouts or threats, it is a sign that the injections of tension are no longer working.” The whole exchange so far can be found here (in Spanish).

Cuba continues to import $1.5 billion of food products

According to José Ramón Machado, Cuban First Vice-president, Cuba continues to spend approximately $1.5 billion to import food annually, EFE reported. Meeting with farmers at an agricultural convention, Machado urged producers and distributors in the agricultural community to improve efficiency and productivity, and admitted that several problems and restrictions from the state bureaucracy make the transportation and sale of agricultural products more difficult.  According to state media, Machado held several meetings with the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) to discuss ways the state can help farmers increase production.

Anti-abortion group holds first public prayer

The Catholic News Service reported that the “Pro-life movement gains a foothold in Cuba.” Cuba’s only pro-life organization, Pro-Vida Cuba (Pro-Life Cuba) recently concluded its first-ever public prayer service. The leader of the group, clinical physician Conchita Morales, said the group has long worked to call attention to the dangers of abortion in Cuban society in smaller venues, but this was the first public meeting in 15 years. She said while the organization has not been prohibited from meeting, it has done so largely in private. The Catholic Church has received greater freedoms from the government over the last couple of years, including increased access to the media and the prison system.

23rd earthquake of 2010 shakes Eastern Cuba

Another earthquake shook Cuba on Monday, felt by people throughout the eastern region, Prensa Latina reported. The Cuban Civil Defense reported that the 4.4 earthquake took place near the southern coast of Cuba, about 22 miles southeast of La Plata, a town in Santiago de Cuba. According to the Cuban News Agency, this is the 23rd earthquake felt in Cuba in 2010.

CUBA’S FOREIGN POLICY

Chilean businessman found dead in Cuba

Robert Baudrand, a Chilean businessman working in Cuba for Rio Zaza, the food exporting business of multimillionaire Max Marambio, was found dead in his Havana apartment this week. The cause of death has not yet been determined, but authorities said conditions hinted at suicide.

According to Reuters, Marambio is a close friend of Fidel Castro. However, the Miami Herald reported last week that Baudrand had been detained for investigation, possibly related to an ongoing corruption scandal involving Cubana Airlines. Last year, his company had approximately $23 million in funds frozen during Cuba’s liquidity crisis and investigations into corruption.  Rio Zaza is involved in the production of milk, fruit juices and other foods in Cuba, Reuters reported.  The Cuban press has not reported on the incident.

Chavez travels to Cuba to meet with Raúl and Fidel

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez left for Cuba early this morning to meet President Raúl Castro, reported El Universal. The announcement came after an official visit to Nicaragua, where Chávez met President Daniel Ortega to sign several cooperation agreements on health, tourism, and food supply, as part of the ALBA agreement.

Chinese trains renew transport in Cuba

Eight Chinese-made trains are set to arrive in Cuba in the coming days, according to China’s state news agency. The trains will be used for passenger travel and cargo shipments between Havana and the province of Cienfuegos. Two of the trains are expected to be used for passenger travel, while the other six will primarily bring fuel to the Camilo Cienfuegos oil refinery. The batch of eight trains is part of a 100-train lot that Cuba and China agreed upon in 2005.

Cuba will explore for oil in eastern Venezuela

Raúl Castro met with Venezuelan Vice-President Rafael Ramírez over the weekend, EFE reported. The meeting, not previously announced, took place after two-day meetings between Ramírez and Ricardo Cabrisas, Vice-president of the Council of Ministers of Cuba. The Miami Herald reported that the two countries will jointly develop four oil fields in eastern Venezuela. According to a joint venture between Corporación Nacional de Petróleo, a branch of Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), and Cuba’s Comercial Cupet, the two countries will jointly “carry out exploration, extraction, collection, transportation and storage of crude oil in the states of Anzoátegui and Monagas.”

Around the Region:

Visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao reinforces U.S. neglect of the region

According to experts on Latin American and foreign relations, the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Latin America makes more visible the clear “attention deficit” of the U.S. toward the region.

This will be Hu’s fourth visit to Latin America since 2004 and the second that does not include Cuba, a country with which Beijing maintains strong economic, political and diplomatic ties.

An expert’s teleconference to analyze Hu’s visit was organized by the Center for Democracy in the Americas. A recording of the conference is available here.

Steve Clemons, an analyst at the New America Foundation, warned that Hu’s visit to the region should “serve as a wake-up call” to Washington because it may show “the possible consequences of the structural deficit of U.S. attention to Latin America.”

However, Nader Mousavizadeh, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said that China represents the emergence of alternative options for countries in a multi-polar world.  “These countries want relations with both the U.S. and China and not to have to choose between them … many countries look to China not to emulate the U.S. model but looking for alternatives that allow a stronger role of the State in the economy and society, from the hand of the free market,” he said.

According to Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, “China’s role in the region is not a threat but is a reminder that the United States must revitalize its own role … our absence in Cuba has helped our rivals.”

U.S. defense secretary: Venezuela no military threat, Reuters

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a flight to South America, said on Tuesday he did not see a military threat from Venezuela and suggested its high-profile embrace of Iran was partly an attempt to distract Venezuelans from domestic woes.

Venezuela responds, Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez, Armed Forces Journal

“I read Peter Brookes’ article on Venezuela (“The Chávez challenge,” March), and wanted to respond to some of the claims he made. While he is not the first person to argue that Venezuela poses a ‘threat’ to the U.S. and its national security, he does join a chorus of policymakers and pundits who have strung together unsubstantiated claims and unfounded accusations to weakly make this point.”

Recommended Reading:

Mr. President: For $30,000 a Couple, Listen to Gloria — but Make Sure You Listen to Some Other Folks Too, Washington Note

Sarah Stephens published this comment about the fundraiser in Miami that President Obama is attending and who he should listen to when it comes to Cuba policy.

Congressman Honda: Time to lift the embargo on Cuba, Miami Herald

Congressman Michael Honda (D-CA) says after a trip to Cuba last year it became “clear that the embargo is imprudent politically, economically and socially.”

Cuba’s disaster-hit homes get eco-friendly rebuild, CNN

New houses have gone up all along the hurricane corridor in the western province of Pinar del Rio. Many of them are made entirely or partly of “eco-materials” – local resources turned into construction materials at a low cost – and all done in the community.

Cuba’s major-league cachet, Wall Street Journal

The history of Cuban baseball is almost as long as the history of baseball itself. And despite a half-century embargo – or maybe because of it – Cuba still has a cachet that no other country can match in the American major leagues.

A FINAL WORD

Historically, this represents quite a week.

On April 13, 1998, the Congress passed a resolution recognizing Cuba’s independence from Spain among the events that lead to the Spanish-American War.

On April 17, 1961, 1400 U.S.-trained Cuban exiles launched what became a botched invasion at the Bay of Pigs on the south coast of Cuba. The Cuban armed forces, led by Fidel Castro, defeated the exile combatants in three days.

On April 12, 2002, an alliance of Venezuelan military, media, and business elites temporarily overthrew President Hugo Chavez in a short-lived coup.  The United States moved fast enough to convey recognition of the militarily-installed Carmona government…just before Chavez was returned to power.

These dates – and others like them – remind us of a history that lives vividly in the minds of people from the region, and shapes their view of our country, but they often mean little to U.S. policymakers as they adopt foreign policies that affect our relationships with people who live to our south.

When Cubans demand the right to live and govern their country without U.S. interference, when people of the region express concern about military intervention, when governments and movements doubt our commitment to democracy, their aspirations and their fears are rooted in historic memory, whether our officials remember these events or not.   It’s the job of people who care about the region to remind them.

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