Attitudes in the United States favoring changes in U.S.-Cuba policy are resilient. Polling this week continues to show strong and stable majorities for opening up trade, travel, and diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Congress gets the message. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, coauthor of the bi-partisan, Travel Restriction Reform and Export and Enhancement Act, continues to beat the bushes for votes to push through reforms that would open Cuba to travel and increased U.S. agriculture exports.
The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee on Trade announced a hearing set for next week on these very same issues, saying sanctions don’t work, and reforms already undertaken by the Obama administration need to be expanded.
But don’t ask Terry to wait. Terry McAuliffe, former candidate for governor in Virginia, took a trade delegation from his state to Cuba earlier this month, and has arranged for new sales to the island, including wine. He sees the job-creating potential of opening further the Cuban market.
In a candid and wide-ranging interview, a call for change was issued by Cuba’s Catholic Cardinal, Jaime Ortega. The Cardinal focused on the need for economic and other reforms on the island, urging the government to quicken the pace of change, and expressed support for political prisoners and the Ladies in White.
In this week’s news summary, we carry additional coverage on human rights, bilateral diplomacy, and much more, and we close with a report on the Elian Gonzalez fiasco remembered on its tenth anniversary by Time Magazine.
It’s all right here…
U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS
This week, the Reuters news agency reported on a poll showing that 58% of Americans surveyed support full diplomatic relations with Cuba, and only 33 percent opposed it. The poll also showed that 61 percent of respondents believed that all U.S. citizens should be allowed to travel to Cuba, while 57% thought companies should be allowed to do business in Cuba.
These figures are in line with polling conducted through 2009 that consistently showed strong support for trade, travel, and diplomacy with Cuba – including majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Cuban Americans.
In line with public opinion on travel and trade, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) is pledging to plough forward on his legislation to repeal the travel ban and remove obstacles to sales by American agriculture into Cuba’s export market. Predicting action on his legislation, Peterson said it “could come up in late April or the first part of May. We’re in the process of nailing down the last couple of votes to move it out of committee and it looks like we’ll get there.”
The Ways and Means Subcommittee in the U.S. Congress, which holds sway over trade legislation in the House, will hold a hearing on April 28th on U.S.-Cuba trade policy. The hearing, announced by Subcommittee Chair John Tanner (D-TN), will focus on relaxed Cuba travel and trade restrictions with the purposes of advancing United States economic objectives as well as promoting democracy and human rights in Cuba.
Tanner said in a statement: “It is clear to me that the United States’ policy toward Cuba is not working. The embargo has failed to achieve its objectives and has shut U.S. workers, farmers and businesses out of the Cuban market. The Administration has taken us in a new direction, but more needs to be done. It is time to expand our approach to promote U.S. economic interests and support democracy and human rights in Cuba as well.”
Despite existing barriers to travel and trade, state delegations still manage to visit Cuba in hopes of striking deals for agriculture exports to the island. As the Washington Post reported this week, Terry McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a candidate last year for his party’s nomination to be governor of Virginia, led a trade delegation to Cuba this month during which he “persuaded the Cubans to accept more Virginia poultry, apples and soybeans — and, for the first time, Virginia wine.”
“There is a tremendous opportunity to create jobs in the U.S. by doing business in Cuba,” said McAuliffe, who chaired Hilary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and is a close friend of former President Bill Clinton. “Most importantly, we got them to agree to open up the market for Virginia wines. We are going to export Virginia wines to Cuba for the first time ever.” The delegation met at the Havana offices of Alimport, the Cuban entity that signs all contracts with U.S. food and agriculture companies which sell to Cuba.
When the magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, a medical brigade from Cuba was already in place and formed the leading edge of the international health response to the tragedy in Haiti. From the outset of the crisis, there were calls for U.S.-Cuban cooperation, and diplomats representing both countries have met and discussed the issue.
According to reporting by Agence France Presse, however, while both sides continue to talk, an agreement on how cooperation might take place is still elusive.
The two longtime foes, which have had no diplomatic relations for half a century, have met three times so far to discuss cooperation on Haiti and could meet again soon, said Jorge Bolaños, who heads the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
Havana’s top diplomat in Washington, Jorge Bolaños told AFP, “We have to continue because we have not produced any agreements” on how to coordinate bilateral aid to impoverished Haiti.
Pope Benedict XVI has appointed Bishop Thomas G. Wenski, archbishop of Miami. Bishop Wenski will succeed Archbishop Favalora. He will also become the first native of the Archdiocese to become its archbishop. He will be installed on June 1, 2010. Bishop Wenski has had close ties to the Catholic Church in Cuba for nearly fifteen years. In 2009, he published this op-ed piece after visiting Cuba and reported on the condition of the church on the island. According to press reports, Wenski speaks English, Spanish and Creole, and the Miami archdiocese has a large Cuban and Haitian community.
Cuban authorities blocked the weekly protest march by the dissident group “Ladies in White” on Sunday and had government supporters shouting and jeering at them for more than two hours, Reuters reported.
The incident appeared to signal the government’s determination to end the silent marches the women have conducted for seven years seeking the release of their family members from prison.
Nine women from the group showed up on Sunday at their traditional gathering point, a mass at the Santa Rita Catholic Church in Havana’s Miramar neighborhood, but when they went out to make their usual silent walk along Fifth Avenue, officials said they could not unless they had a permit.
“We are not going to stop until you give us an order in writing that we need a permit,” leader Laura Pollan told authorities before the crowd set in.
Yoani Sánchez, Cuban blogger and human rights advocate, has posted an appeal for signatures on the Huffington Post on a petition calling for improvements in human rights in Cuba. According to Sanchez, “the campaign has been quite successful: the letter has been signed by more than 46,000 people in over a month.”
The Secretary General of the Organization of American States asked the Cuban government to free ailing political prisoners, as demanded by hunger-striking dissident Guillermo Fariñas.
“There’s a hunger strike going on, that of Mr. Fariñas, which is really terrible. I hope this can be resolved quickly,” José Miguel Insulza told EFE after speaking in Madrid at a seminar about relations between the European Union and Latin America.
The release of “political prisoners who are ill” would be a demonstration of goodwill that would not weaken the Cuban regime,” the OAS chief said. “Far from weakening it, I think it would improve its image.”
The Ladies in White Support Group of New Jersey is calling for a march to support the Ladies in White in Cuba, to demand freedom of all Cuban political prisoners and respect for human rights in the island.
The demonstration will begin at 4:00 pm on Sunday April 25th, 2010 in West New York, NJ. A communiqué by the organizers will be read in front of the José Martí monument on 42nd Street, and they will attempt to establish communication via mobile phone with the Ladies in White in Cuba, and with Guillermo Fariñas.
A follow-up demonstration is planned for Washington, D.C. in May to fuel momentum worldwide for the release of political prisoners in Cuba, and to express support for the “Ladies in White,” political prisoners’ wives and mothers who hold peaceful marches dressed all in white, The Record website reported.
Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega told church publication Palabra Nueva (New Word) there was a national consensus that the government should “make the necessary changes quickly” to end “economic and social difficulties” on the Communist-led island.
“Its delay produces impatience and unease in the people,” he said. “Our country is in a very difficult situation, certainly the most difficult we have lived in this 21st century,” said Ortega, whose public statements are generally cautious. Ortega, 73, said the longstanding U.S. trade embargo against Cuba also affects the island, as do “the limitations of the type of socialism practiced here.”
According to the Associated Press, he said that many differ over how to solve the nation’s woes, but that all agree on one thing: “that the necessary changes are made in Cuba quickly.”
In a wide-ranging and candid interview, Cardinal Ortega said the Catholic Church has done all it can to win political prisoners their freedom. The archbishop said that “the church has historically done everything possible to procure their freedom, not just for those who are sick but for the others as well.”
The cardinal called “painful” the mobs insulting the mothers and wives of several prisoners, especially the Ladies in White, who in the last few weeks have been repeatedly harassed by supporters of President Raúl Castro’s government.
A singing scientist who says the key to Cuba’s agricultural future lies in its agrarian past has become the first Cuban to win a U.S.-based Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s biggest award for grassroots environmentalism.
Humberto Rios Labrador’s campaign to let Cuban farmers choose the crops and seed varieties best for their lands helped him win one of the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prizes — known as the “green Nobels.”
“I want the seed to adapt to the people, not the people to adapt to the seed,” the 47-year-old, self-described hippy told The Associated Press during a recent visit to this farming town 20 miles east of Havana.
Rios won for his work promoting a return to more traditional farming techniques focusing on seed diversity, crop rotation and the use of organic pest control and fertilizers to both increase crops and improve the Communist-led island’s environment.
Rios is also a musician and has found music to be a useful tool in spreading his message. At local events, he sings folk and salsa songs that promote biodiversity, good environmental practices — “Recycle, papa, recycle” — and gets the farmers dancing in the fields.
What MSNBC calls “the largest environmental award,” the Goldman prize was started in 1989 by a San Francisco philanthropist, Richard Goldman. The prize honors an activist from each of Earth’s six inhabited continental regions and an international jury picks winners based on confidential nominations submitted by individuals and environmental groups.
CUBA’S FOREIGN POLICY
A former Venezuelan army general has denounced what he called the widespread involvement of Cuban troops in President Hugo Chávez’s military, according to the Associated Press.
Former Brig. Gen. Antonio Rivera, who used to head the government’s emergency management agency, said his decision to retire from the army this month was motivated mainly by “the presence and meddling of Cuban soldiers” in Venezuela’s armed forces.
He told reporters that Cubans are now involved in training troops, including courses for snipers, and are also playing a role in intelligence, weapons, communications and other areas. There was no immediate reaction from Chávez’s government.
A joint communiqué issued by heads of state of the member nations of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of our America (ALBA) meeting in Caracas demanded the “immediate and unconditional end” to the U.S. blockade of Cuba and slated international media corporations for distorting the truth about the continent’s progressive governments.
The leaders also declared that President Barack Obama’s policies on Cuba were “continuing the imperialism that promotes war.”
Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez was joined by Cuba’s President Raúl Castro and the leaders of Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and several Caribbean island states in declaring a “manifesto of independence” that calls on the U.S. government to accept “the will of the peoples of Latin America.”
The manifesto, which celebrates the 200th anniversary of the beginning of Latin America’s fight for independence from the Spanish empire, also demanded the immediate release of the Cuban Five, “anti-terrorist heroes who are unjustly imprisoned in US jails.”
Mr. Chávez pointed out that as well as blockading Cuba, the U.S. still maintained a colonial grip “on Puerto Rico, whose fight for “independence and national sovereignty from U.S. imperialism must be supported.”
Around the Region:
According to the New York Times, a special tribunal on Tuesday sentenced Argentina’s last military dictator to 25 years in prison and handed down stiff sentences to six other former military and police officials for their part in running a concentration camp during this country’s bloody dictatorship.
The former military president, Reynaldo Benito Bignone, 82 years old and already under house arrest, received one of the longest sentences handed down to an official from the era of what was known as the dirty war.
The Argentine courts and the government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner have pushed the last few years to punish some of the more notorious officials involved with the military dictatorship, who previously had been pardoned or granted immunity from prosecution.
Last week, we provided information about Chinese President Hu’s trip to Latin America. Although his trip was cut short due to the devastating earthquake that occurred on the Tibetan plateau, the New York Times is now reporting that China has agreed to extend $20 billion in loans to Venezuela.
The linchpin of the loans appears to be China’s thirst for oil, with the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), agreeing to form a venture with Venezuela’s national oil company to explore for oil in southern Venezuela. Eventually the companies could produce 400,000 barrels a day in the area. Venezuela’s energy minister, Rafael Ramírez, said CNPC would need to pay $1 billion to move the venture forward.
The Washington Post is evaluating Colombia’s progress in addressing high levels of poverty that have historically contributed to drug trafficking and fueled the nation’s civil war. Despite better security and strong economic growth, Colombia has been unable to significantly alleviate the misery that helps fuel a 46-year-old conflict and the drug trafficking behind it.
Global views of the United States have improved markedly over the last year while views of many countries have become more negative, according to the latest BBC World Service poll across 28 countries. For the first time since the BBC started tracking in 2005, views of the United States’ influence in the world are now more positive than negative on average. You can read more about the poll here.
Time Magazine remembers the Elian Gonzalez “fiasco” ten years after the crisis was resolved.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, scrapped an upcoming fundraiser after a Capitol Hill newspaper questioned the invite that asked participants to join an advisory council — for a $2,500 campaign contribution…First reported Tuesday in Roll Call, the invitation promises that “when the GOP regain[s] the majority,” Ros-Lehtinen, who could chair the committee, “would turn to you for advice on pertinent issues affecting our nation.” Whoopsie-doodle.