Trade and Travel to Cuba; What’s happening on the island; All the news that’s fit…to tweet?

Dear Friend:

In the news this week:

Congress once again heard the case for opening Cuba to travel and trade from a diverse panel of witnesses.  The news summary opens and closes with reports from the hearing.

Houston, Texas is fired up and ready to go.  Houston’s port now has the go-head to ship goods directly to Cuba.  Its $85 million a year business is likely to skyrocket.

But some in Congress just can’t believe the Cold War is over.  The appointment of Mari Carmen Aponte to be ambassador to El Salvador remains snagged in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over decades-old allegations she had a honey who was tied to Cuban (and American!) intelligence.

We carry new and important reports about corruption in Cuba, drought in Cuba, flu in Cuba, dissent and repression in Cuba, cell phones, video games and homes in Cuba.

We bring the good news that Carlos Varela is returning to the United States, not to do politics but to play music.  We even carry Hugo Chávez’s appeal to former President Castro:  it’s time to tweet.

But we close with wise words from John Block, whose testimony reminds us that support for a new Cuba policy stretches beyond party, philosophy, and time.

This week in Cuba news….


House Trade Subcommittee reviews bill to open Cuba to travel and trade

Representative John Tanner, chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, held a hearing to discuss legislation that would end the travel ban to Cuba and facilitate agricultural sales to the island. Tanner, who supports the bill, said “lifting these travel and trade restrictions is about what is best for the United States,” adding it would create U.S. jobs through additional farm sales and help the Cuban people through increased tourism, Reuters reported.

Representative Kevin Brady, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, argued that Cuba must pay the United States six billion dollars in compensation for expropriated businesses and property before the U.S. ends the embargo (although ending the embargo is not part of the legislation).  Human rights, business interests and former government officials testified in support of changing the current policy.

“We believe the proposed legislation represents a necessary step toward ending a U.S. policy that has failed for decades to have any impact on improving human rights in Cuba,” testified José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. Further, according to John Block, former Secretary of Agriculture under President Ronald Reagan, allowing Americans to travel to Cuba will “create a virtuous circle that will boost profits and jobs for U.S. agriculture and provide better nutrition and more economic opportunity for average Cubans.”

Also testifying were: Dr. Wayne Smith, Center for International Policy; Geoff Thale, Washington Office on Latin America; Myron Brilliant, U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and Michael Kelly, Creighton University School of Law.

Texas receives permission to ship directly to Cuba

Texas is ready to ramp up its exports to Cuba in 2010 after the Port of Houston Authority was granted permission to send shipping vessels directly to Cuba, the Texas Tribune reported. Previously Texas could not ship directly to Cuba, but the recent policy change, approved weeks ago by the U.S. Commerce Department and Cuba’s state-run Alimport agency, means that TEU (20-foot equivalent) and FEU (40-foot equivalent) containers loaded with food staples and other approved products can move through the port.

Texas sent $85 million worth of goods to Cuba last year, the second highest of any state in the U.S., but still a far cry from Louisiana’s $241 million.  With their newfound access to the island, however, Texas is now “poised to become the nation’s leading trade partner with Communist Cuba,” the Tribune reported.

Cuba challenges the U.S. to lift the embargo

After casting his ballot in Sunday’s municipal elections, Ricardo Alarcón, President of Cuba’s National Assembly, challenged the U.S. to lift the embargo against Cuba.  Responding to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent claim that the Castro brothers want the embargo to remain in place to rationalize Cuba’s domestic problems, Alarcón said: “If she really thinks that the blockade benefits the Cuban government — which she wants to undermine — the solution is very simple: that they lift it even for a year to see whether it is in our interest or theirs.” Alarcón said there are many other things Clinton could do “with a stroke of the pen” to improve relations, such as allowing visits by the wives of two of the five Cubans serving prison sentences in the United States for espionage, Agence France-Presse reported.

U.S. couple who spied for Cuba cooperating

Walter and Gwendolyn Myers, a couple who spied on behalf of the Cuban government for over three decades, are cooperating with U.S. authorities, the Miami Herald reported. Since pleading guilty to sending U.S. secrets to the Cuban government in November, the couple has met with federal officials between 50 and 60 times to discuss their criminal behavior. These meetings are expected to end in the next four to five weeks, and the couple’s sentencing has been set for July 16.  Walter Myers, a former employee of the State Department, has agreed to accept a life sentence, while Gwendolyn is expected to make a plea that would put her sentence between six and seven years.

Obama nominee for Ambassador to El Salvador still on hold over Cuban connections

New objections emerged this week against the nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte as the next ambassador to El Salvador, The Cable reported.  Republican senators are demanding more information about Aponte’s relationship with a Cuban-American that occurred more than 20 years ago. The Cuban-American in question, Roberto Tamayo, apparently had ties to both Cuban and American intelligence.   Led by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, Republicans are demanding more information before making a decision about Aponte’s confirmation. Senator Bob Menéndez (D-NJ), an outspoken foe of Cuba’s government, has expressed his support for the nomination based on the fact that no security risks have been identified.

U.S. doctors prohibited from attending conference in Cuba

Nicholas S. Hill, a Boston-based doctor, and vice president of the American Thoracic Society, criticized the U.S. government for barring a group of American doctors from attending a conference in Cuba, El Universal reported. “Many scientists from my country wanted to come to Cuba to participate in this event,” he said. “And we couldn’t because of the obstacles put in place by my government. It doesn’t make sense to prohibit an exchange that would not hurt anyone.” According to Hill, doctors and scientist from the U.S. decided not to attend the International Symposium on Mechanical Gases and Ventilation after they failed to receive permission to attend from the U.S. government.

Carlos Varela and his band to launch U.S. tour in May

Cuban singer Carlos Varela, often referred to as the Bob Dylan of Cuba, is set to begin a six-date tour of the U.S. starting next month, Reuters reported. Varela has not played an official concert on American soil since 1998, but did perform impromptu sets for Members of Congress in December during visits sponsored by the Center for Democracy in the Americas. Varela’s tour is part of an increase in cultural exchange projects that have artists from both countries traveling back and forth. According to Varela, “art in general can contribute a lot to relations among neighbors. We can’t spend so many years so far away and yet so close.” Varela and his band will perform in Los Angeles, Oakland, Boston, New York, Miami and Puerto Rico. More information about concert dates and tickets is available here.  Varela is coming to the U.S. to play music, not to meet with policy makers, and this makes the decision by the U.S. government to grant him a visa even more important.


Corruption investigation continues

An investigation into Chilean businessmen suspected of corrupt practices in joint ventures with the Cuban government is ongoing, Agence France-Presse reported.

Roberto Baudrand, a Chilean businessman who headed Río Zaza, a company with joint-ventures with the Cuban government, was found dead in his Havana apartment last month. The cause of death has not been revealed, although some reports indicate a heart attack and others suggest suicide.   Baudrand, along with several other Chilean businessmen and high level Cuban officials, was being investigated for corruption.

The case is related to the firing of Division General Rogelio Acevedo González, who was removed as president of Cuba’s Civil Aeronautical Institute in early March. His wife, Ofelia Liptak, is the commercial director of Río Zaza.  It has been alleged that General Acevedo was using Cuban airplanes to transport commercial goods in other countries and keeping the profit. Government officials said this week that further explanations about the cases will be released only once all details are clarified. The Cuban government said it is communicating with the Chilean government about the investigation and hopes it will not affect bilateral relations.

Esteban Morales, a well-known scholar at the University of Havana, published an essay last week arguing that corruption is penetrating certain levels of the government and poses a real risk to the Revolution. According to Morales, “corruption is a lot more dangerous than the so-called domestic dissidence. The latter is still isolated; it lacks an alternative program, has no real leaders, no masses. But corruption turns out to be the true counter-revolution, which can do the most damage because it is within the government and the state apparatus, which really manage the country’s resources.”

H1N1 persists on the Island

With 93 new cases of H1N1 reported in Cuba last week, occurrences of the virus have now increased for five consecutive weeks, the Cuban News Agency reported. According to Periódico 26, Cubans have been instructed to “strictly follow personal and collective hygiene measures indicated by health authorities and to visit the doctor as soon as any symptoms of flu appear.” Over one million Cubans have been vaccinated against H1N1.

Cuba facing serious drought

Around half a million Cubans are receiving water from tankers, due to a long drought on the island, one of the worst Cuba has experienced in the last 100 years, EFE reported. The lack of rain has also affected electricity distribution throughout the country, resulting in some blackouts. Furthermore, it is affecting agricultural production in areas that are short of water. Cuba’s Civil Defense has called on the population to conserve water as much as possible to prevent further shortages.

May Day march aims to counter international criticism

A massive parade is being organized by the Cuban government to commemorate Labor Day (Primero de Mayo) on the island, state media reported. The May 1st gathering is an annual event, but in general marches and political demonstrations have been less common under Raúl Castro. However, the government is stressing the importance of a large turnout as the country faces international criticism about the human rights situation on the island.

The government announced that special attention will be given to women, youth and gender rights, with ten thousand female representatives marching during the event. Also, sixty thousand youth representatives will participate from different schools and colleges. “On May 1, you will receive from our people and workers a resounding and unequivocal answer in support of the revolution,” proclaimed an April editorial in the state newspaper, the Granma.

Cubans hold municipal elections

Cuba held municipal elections on Sunday. Representatives of the Municipal Assemblies are the point people for contact with the citizenry on issues affecting everyday life, such as electricity or transportation.  They also help select delegates to Provincial Assemblies and the National Assembly. The government reported that 94.7% of Cuba’s 8.4 million eligible voters cast a ballot. That number was just below the 95.4% turnout reported in the 1997 Municipal elections. According to the Miami Herald, 8.91% of votes were null or blank, which “was higher than in three known previous elections – 7% in the 1993 national legislative elections, 7.2% in the 1997 municipal elections.”

Although voting is not mandatory, critics say that people feel pressured to vote and always support the official candidates. The government says the turnout shows how high political participation in Cuba is. Cuban television showed a ballot reportedly filled out by ex-President Fidel Castro being cast. The ballot arrived in a sealed envelope to a voting center at a Havana high school where it was deposited in the ballot box, EFE reported.

Cuban state media reported that more than 500 carrier pigeons were used in remote areas throughout the country, including the mountainous areas of Sagua de Tánamo, Moa and Mayari, to relay election results.

Government lowers cell phone rates in search of new clients

Cuba’s government expects to have one million cell phone users by the end of 2010, and also expects to increase that figure to 2.4 million by 2015, Juventud Rebelde reported.  A change in policy announced two years ago to allow ordinary Cubans to obtain cell phone contracts legally has increased the amount of users from 43,000 in 2003 to 838,000 this year. Calls, currently ranging from 60 cents to a dollar per minute, will be reduced to 45 cents a minute during the day and 10 cents a minute between 11 pm and 6 am.

The Guardian also ran an interesting piece on how Cubans often use cell-phones more like pagers, and opt for text messages over calls.

Cuba eases the process for some to build their own homes

Following the passage of a resolution last year to allow Cubans to build their own homes, licenses allowing such construction to begin will now be distributed to anyone meeting the guidelines set out in the resolution.  Previously, building permits were granted to private parties only in special circumstances and a bureaucratic application process was required. According to local media reports, “now all interested parties that meet the legal prerequisites may request a construction license,” EFE reported. A reporter on the state-run Radio Rebelde said the permit includes the case of houses in bad condition and the possibility of adding to existing homes.  The government will institute mechanisms for the sale of construction materials.  Following the destruction caused by seasonal storms in 2008, the housing shortage on the island reached 600,000 homes. The Miami Herald’s Cuban Colada blog features translations of comments posted on a Cuban government website about the new policy.

Cuba introduces new videogame that portrays Cuban life

A new videogame that recreates the lifestyle of Cubans has been introduced by experts to counter the growing influence of foreign cultures on the youth of the island, Agence France-Presse reported. “The Family,” designed for children under 12 years, is the first video game in 3D created by Cuban technicians.  The videogame is set in modern day Cuba and includes different levels of tasks that must be met by Cubans on a daily basis, such as finding transportation and dealing with food shortages.

50 year anniversary of Fidel-Hemingway encounter

Cuba is planning to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first meeting between Cuban leader Fidel Castro and American writer Ernest Hemingway next month, EFE reported. The government has arranged a series of activities, including exhibitions, lectures and cultural galas on May 12, 13 and 15 coinciding with the date in which Fidel and Hemingway met in 1960 during the annual Ernest Hemingway Marlin Fishing Tournament at the then-Barlovento Marina.


Ladies in White prevented from marching

Cuba’s Ladies in White were once again met by state security and government supporters as they attempted to march last Sunday in Havana. The group, made up of female relatives of political prisoners, was advised by the Cuban government earlier this month that they could no longer organize marches without requesting permission 72 hours in advance. The women, who have marched down 5th Avenue almost every Sunday for the last five years, have refused to request permission to march. According to news reports, nine women from the group were met by over 50 government supporters. The two groups exchanged chants and, after a seven hour standoff, the Ladies in White were driven home by state security. This week’s squabble with the Ladies marks the third week in a row that the group was not permitted to demonstrate.  MSNBC has photos and a video from the incident.

Dissident journalist sentenced to jail for hitting her daughter

Dissident journalist Dania García received a 20-month sentence this week after being convicted on domestic violence charges, Agence France-Presse reported. Dissident groups claimed the charges were politically motivated, but it was García’s 23-year-old daughter who requested her arrest after claiming her mother had hit her.  García collaborates with several dissident media organizations, at least one of which is funded by the United States.

Critical hip-hop group performs for 2,000

“Los Aldeanos,” a hip hop group often extremely critical of the Cuban government, performed at one of its largest public shows this week.  The performance took place at the Acapulco Theatre in Havana in front of more than 2,000 fans, Agence France-Presse reported. With songs that refer to Cuban life as a “nightmare,” and criticize the lack of freedom in Cuba, their music is not often played on the radio and they usually play underground, non-officially sanctioned performances. However, according to the group’s representative, Melisa Riviere, “this concert is breaking the silence.” The group is quick to point out that although they oppose many government policies and are harshly critical, “talking about what is happening here is the way that we take part in the Revolution.” According to group member El B, “criticizing in Miami makes no sense; this is where the (expletive) is hitting the fan.”

Supporters of the Cuba’s government march in Spain, Menendez leads rally in Miami

Approximately four thousand people gathered in Madrid over the weekend in support of the Cuban government, Prensa Latina reported. The protesters said the gathering was in protest of the “campaign to discredit Cuba,” put in place by the U.S. and the European Union. Under the slogan “Cuba is not alone,” representatives of 40 organizations marched throughout Madrid. The Cuban government, facing criticism following the death of hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo, has accused the international media of biased criticism. The coordinator of the movement, Alicia Hermida, explained that the march’s objective was to give voice “to those that profoundly know the reality of Cuba and are not present in the mainstream press,” El País reported.

Meanwhile, Senator Bob Menéndez (D-NJ) led a rally in support of the “Ladies in White” that took place in New Jersey, Voice of America reported. Menendez reiterated his opposition to relaxing travel and trade restrictions against the island. “I am going to continue fighting against those that want to do business with the Cuban regime and only see the color green,” he said. Menendez honored the dissident Orland Zapata Tamayo, who died after spending more than eighty days on a hunger strike.

Miami program to identify Cuban government supporters

Four Cuban-American lawyers and the Miami television station Chanel 41 AmericaTeve have started a campaign – called Cuba, Repression ID – which attempts to publicize the names of government agents and sympathizers of the Cuban regime who participate in the harassment and repression of dissidents, Reuters reported. According to the promoters of the program, the goal is to identify those who take part in the acts with the hopes of prosecuting them in the future. They called on Cubans on the Island and Cuban-Americans in the U.S. to help provide information. AmericaTeve has a page on its site dedicated to photos and videos which visitors can use to identify such government agents and sympathizers. According to EFE, the site asks the following questions: Who are they? What are their names? Where do they work? Where do they live? Television programs in Miami have begun to feature the pictures and ask viewers to help identify those involved as well.


Mainstream media not recognizing Cuba’s contribution to the Haiti relief effort

Writing in the Trinidad and Tobago Express, Norman Girvan, a Fellow at the Graduate Institute of International Relations at the University of the West Indies, analyzed and criticized the mainstream media’s lack of reporting on the effort that Cuba has made to help in the Haitian recovery effort. According to Girvan, at the recent UN Donor Conference, in which 59 countries participated, Cuba’s offer to “rebuild the country’s entire national health service,” arguably the most generous and forthright undertaking of any country at the Conference, was all but ignored by U.S. media outlets. He points out that Cuba’s medical plan would cost $690.5 million which “in relation to its GDP, is 152 times (the contribution) of the United States, which pledged $1.15 billion.” In his analysis of news coverage, Girvan found that of the 38 articles written on the conference by major U.S. media outlets, only one, printed in the Miami Herald, mentioned Cuba’s commitment to help rebuild the health care system.

China and Cuba plan to boost military ties

Alvaro López Miera, chief of the general staff of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces, met this week with Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie. The delegation reinforced military ties and signed several cooperation programs, UPI reported. Both sides said they plan to maintain visits between military leaders of the two countries, saying it guaranteed a smooth development of Sino-Cuban military exchanges and cooperation, the China Daily reported.

Saudi Arabia to help Cuba renovate hospitals

Saudi Arabia will help Cuba renovate their maternity hospitals through a development fund coordinated the Saudi Finance Ministry, the Spanish People Daily reported. No specific amount was dollar announced, but the partnership includes a soft 25-year loan and special benefits for repayment. It is the first bilateral loan of its kind between the two countries.

Around the region:

No Iran military presence in Venezuela: U.S. general, Reuters

General Douglas Fraser, head of the U.S. Southern Command, clarified this week that Iranian Special Forces are not operating in Venezuela, contradicting a recent Pentagon report that highlights exactly the opposite. However, Fraser also said that there is a link between the Venezuelan government and the FARC, accusing the Venezuelan government of providing financial and logistical support. The allegations came out weeks after Fraser himself denied the existence of such links.

Valenzuela to travel to Central America

Arturo Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, will travel to the Central American region beginning this weekend to visit El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama, the State Department announced. He plans to meet with Presidents Mauricio Funes, Álvaro Colom and Ricardo Martinelli. Valenzuela will also have meetings with civil society groups.

Recommended Reading:

Corruption: The true counter-revolution? Esteban Morales

Morales writes: “When we closely observe Cuba’s internal situation today, we can have no doubt that the counter-revolution, little by little, is taking positions at certain levels of the State and Government. Without a doubt, it is becoming evident that there are people in positions of government and state who are girding themselves financially for when the Revolution falls, and others may have everything almost ready to transfer state-owned assets to private hands, as happened in the old USSR.”

Golf in Cuba: Is the communist government really game? Associated Press

The two revolutionary icons were playing the gentlemen’s game in fatigues and combat boots. And they weren’t playing well. Che Guevara shot a 127, besting Fidel Castro’s 150 on a par 70 golf course. Their 1961 round a month before the Bay of Pigs invasion was the beginning of the end for golf in Cuba and soon the Communist government had eliminated the sport from the island almost entirely.

Debate: Travel Ban Hurts Cubans and Americans, Jake Colvin

Allowing travel to Cuba, argues Jake Colvin, vice president for global trade issues at the National Foreign Trade Council, could potentially send one million Americans to Cuba per year, which would benefit American businesses, especially airlines, cruise ships and travel agencies. Possibly more importantly, according to Colvin, opening travel would put money directly into the pockets of Cubans, benefiting them economically.

Chávez exhorts Castro (and Evo) to Tweet

Delighted at his cyber success, Venezuela’s new Twitter convert President Hugo Chávez has invited Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Bolivian president Evo Morales to join the micro-blogging site too.

Final word

John Block, who served as President Reagan’s Agriculture Secretary, told this story before the House Trade Subcommittee.  We thought it bears repeating:

I remember vividly the first meeting of President Reagan’s Cabinet (which was actually held a week before his inauguration). We were each asked to describe the priority issues for our departments.  I spoke up and urged the President to take immediate action on his campaign promise to end the grain embargo against the Soviet Union.

Secretary of State Alexander Haig disagreed.  He told the President the grain embargo should only be lifted in exchange for concessions from the Soviets.  But President Reagan, who had no love whatsoever for what he called “godless Communism,” would not go back on his word to the American people or the American farmer.  Within the first hundred days of his presidency, he unilaterally ended the grain embargo, because he believed that selling grain to the Soviet Union was the right thing to do. It would benefit American farmers and Russian families.  It would communicate to the Russian people that the United States of America was their friend, and was committed to their nourishment and ultimately their liberty. Selling grain to the Soviet Union, like President Reagan’s speech at the Berlin Wall, helped to advance the cause of freedom and contributed to the fall of the “evil empire.”

President Reagan was no fan of Fidel Castro, who during the 1980s was supporting military ventures in Africa and in Latin America.  But if Ronald Reagan taught us anything, it was to reach out to foreign citizens, wherever we could, even where they live under communist dictatorships.  Measured by these American principles, President Obama should be opening trade and tourism with Cuba, just the way that President Reagan opened trade and tourism with the Soviet Union.  For fifty years, we have tried to use sanctions to force the Cuban people to get rid of communism, and our policy has totally failed.

Congress and the Obama administration now have the opportunity to change these failed policies and replace them with the kind of policies that worked to end the Cold War: free trade, freedom to travel, the free exchange of ideas. These policies will let the Cuban people know that we Americans are on their side, no matter what their government says about ours.

Until next week,

Cuba Central Team

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