Drilling and spilling in the Gulf, Nueva Trova in the U.S., get your news here; (because you won’t get it from the Martís)!

Dear Friends:

As we prepared your news summary this week, this question – “what would be different if we had normal relations with Cuba” – just kept leaping off the page.

If we had normal relations with Cuba –

  • American companies would be drilling for oil and natural gas and not sitting on the sidelines as the Spanish, the Brazilians, and others helped the Cubans explore for resources ninety miles off the Florida coast;
  • The U.S. government would have protocols and contingency plans for cooperating with Cuba if an environmental calamity similar to the one unfolding off Louisiana took place off Cuba;
  • The American taxpayer would not be watching Washington pour millions of dollars down the drain operating Radio and TV Martí, which mock journalistic standards, attract miniscule audiences, get jammed by Cuba’s government, and are suffused with cronyism and corruption, according to a Senate committee;
  • American farmers would be selling more product into the Cuban market without finding the equivalent of trade sanctions imposed by their own government hindering the path to  greater jobs and profits;
  • American tourists would be visiting the island in record numbers – just like their global counterparts – providing direct economic benefits to the Cuban people and more important engaging directly and openly with Cubans, exchanging ideas and enjoying all of what the island has to offer; and,
  • Cultural exchange and other bridges to greater understanding would be commonplace and not subject to bureaucratic denials and delays.

But the Spanish and others are in the Gulf and we’re not.  The protocols for environmental cooperation and environmental mitigation don’t exist.  Powerful political forces keep the wasteful and failed Martí broadcasts on the air.  American politicians are still putting narrow political interests above our economic, agriculture, and constituent interests.  And American tourists can travel to North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Burma, and elsewhere without limits, but are still barred by their own government from visiting Cuba.  We pay these and other costs every day because our political system cannot admit a mistake and engage with Cuba – directly, normally, productively, proudly.  We can – and should – do better.

This week, we cover these issues plus profoundly interesting and important developments in Cuba – more shifts at the government’s highest levels, a new agreement permitting The Ladies in White to march thanks to Cardinal Ortega, accounts of the worst sugar harvest in 100 years, and more.

And we close with a final word about culture.


Cuba moving ahead with oil exploration

Repsol YPF, the Spanish oil giant,  has signed a contract with an Italian oil company for a drilling rig that sources say is bound for Cuba’s still untapped offshore oil fields, Reuters reported.  Repsol would not confirm that the rig, under construction in China, is headed to Cuba, but Reuters located ads on the Internet seeking workers “for a semi-submersible rig being built in China for work in Cuban waters.”

Repsol drilled the only exploration well in Cuba’s waters in the Gulf of Mexico in 2004 and located hydrocarbons.  A second well, Reuters reported has been “awaited ever since,” but “if successful, likely will open the door to full-scale exploitation of Cuba’s offshore,” Reuters reported.  Now, Repsol appears to be moving ahead with exploration of a second and third well. “We have instructions to prepare everything,” a person who is involved in logistics for the project told Reuters.

Gulf oil spill outlines the need for the U.S. – Cuba cooperation on environmental issues

According to the Washington Post, scientists envision the Gulf Coast oil spill leading to devastation for the whole region. Although Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment has said that Cuba’s coasts will not be affected by the spill, Cuba experts are asking what would happen if there were a spill in Cuban waters or one that would affect both countries.

Anya Landau French of the New America Foundation urges the “need for allowing U.S. companies, technology and personnel into Cuba not just when it comes to oil exploration, but to ensure we properly mitigate any risks oil exploration in Cuban waters could have on the United States.” According to Landau French, “the Deepwater Horizon disaster underscores the need to be talking to Cuba about protecting our shared environment.”

Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute writes that if the spill had taken place in Cuban waters, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill would be even more chaotic and disastrous.  Because the U.S. government has “declined to talk with Cuban officials to make contingency plans, we would be scrambling to make initial contact with Cuban officials at the height of the crisis – which is about the worst position to be in.”


Radio and TV Martí scrutinized again in new U.S. Senate report

A new report by the majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee found that U.S. government television and radio broadcasts to Cuba have failed to make “any discernible inroads into Cuban society or to influence the Cuban government,” the Washington Post reported. The report criticized the channels for not meeting journalistic standards, proposed moving the headquarters from Miami to Washington, suggested the station should “clean up its operation” by attracting talent from outside Miami, and “spend less money on measuring audience size and focus more on quality programming.” The full report can be read here.

Committee Chairman John F. Kerry stated that although such programs may “have noble objectives, we need to examine whether we’re achieving them.” The report is the latest effort by opponents of the programming to highlight the wasteful spending for the programs which are almost never viewed in Cuba. A 2009 report by the General Accountability Office found that “‘the best available research indicates that OCB’s audience size is small,’ and cited surveys indicating that fewer than 2 percent of Cubans tuned in to either station in a given week,” the Post reported. President Obama has only minimally reduced the budget for the stations.

Senator Russ Feingold, a proponent for cutting wasteful spending, released a statement calling for the complete elimination of Radio and TV Martí: “The report is an indictment of the program’s wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars.  Rather than trying to rehabilitate this toxic brand, we should scrap Radio and TV Martí.” Pedro V. Roig, director of Radio and TV Martí since 2003, responded to Senator Kerry’s report in the Miami Herald. His article, Radio, TV Martí meeting goals, can be read here.

Nueva Trova returning to the U.S. – Carlos Varela welcomed back, Silvio Rodríguez awaiting visa approval

Silvio Rodríguez, the pioneer of Nueva Trova, is scheduled to come to the states in June for performances in New York City.  This would be his first visit to the U.S. in over 30 years, the NY Daily News reported. The 63-year-old singer/songwriter has been denied entrance to the U.S. for years.  He was invited to Pete Seeger’s birthday tribute at Madison Square Garden last May, but was unable to attend when he did not receive permission from the United States.

At the time Rodríguez wrote to Seeger that “those who don’t want the U.S. and Cuba to get together, to sing, to talk, to find understanding, didn’t allow” him to attend. According to the NY Daily News, Rodríguez will perform at Carnegie Hall on June 4th and also offer shows in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles and Puerto Rico.  However, the Associated Press reported that although the shows have been booked, “Washington has yet to approve his visa.” Rodríguez, a staunch defender of the Castro government, has recently called for fundamental changes to the system and a more open dialogue with the youth.

One of the younger Nueva Trova stars Rodríguez took under his wing, singer/songwriter Carlos Varela, often referred to as “the Bob Dylan of Cuba,” is currently back in the United States on tour.  Varela and his band arrived in Miami this week where he spoke to reporters about the situation in Cuba and his upcoming tour in the U.S. The Nuevo Herald reported that Varela spoke out against the treatment of the Ladies in White and the actos de repudio (acts of repudiation). “I’ve never liked hate rallies inside or outside of Cuba.  I believe they are something that should be erased from the memory of Cubans,” he said.

Varela was also interviews by the San Francisco Chronicle, where he talked about the ability of artists to help the people of the U.S. and Cuba better understand each other. “I am convinced that as artists we can achieve more than politicians have in over 50 years of bad relations to create a special communication between people who differ in political ideology.  As artists we are more in touch with reality and better understand the priorities of the average citizen,” he said in the interview. Varela and his band will first perform in Sonoma, California and then give concerts in Oakland, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Miami and Puerto Rico. Information on Varela’s tour is available here.


Raúl Castro makes another cabinet shift

President Raúl Castro replaced two high-level government ministers this week in the latest round of changes at top-level government posts, CNN reported.

An official note published in the Granma, Cuba’s Communist party newspaper, cited “errors and incompetence” in the firing of Transportation Minister Jorge Luis Sierra Cruz, who was also removed from the Council of Ministers, and the resignation of Sugar Minister Luis Manuel Avila Gonzalez.  Orlando Celso Garcia Ramirez will become the new Sugar Minister, although it is rumored that the ministry will eventually be transformed into a state-run company.  Transport Director Maside Cesar Ignacio Arocha will become the new Minister of Transport, while Gen. Antonio Enrique Lusson Batlle – a long-time commander in the Cuban army – took over Sierra’s post on the Council of Ministers.  According to the official statement, Gonzalez requested his release because of “admitted shortcomings in his own performance,” and Sierra was fired due to “errors in the performance of duties.”

Raúl Castro has now removed many government officials appointed by his brother Fidel and replaced them with confidants from the army. “The Cabinet is now substantially different to what it was in 2006, and substantially different to what it was in 2008,” when Fidel Castro officially ceded power, said Julia Sweig, senior fellow at Council on Foreign Relations.

The Associated Press speculated that the latest cabinet shuffle might be related to an ongoing corruption scandal involving Cabana Airlines and Chilean businessmen. The University of Miami’s Transition Project has a helpful bio on Antonio Enrique Lusson Batlle here.

Church mediates in Ladies in White-Government dispute over Sunday marches

The Ladies in White, relatives of political prisoners in Cuba, were allowed to carry out a portion of their weekly Sunday march this week after three weeks of organized confrontations by supporters of Cuba’s government prohibited them from carrying out their routine.  Cardinal Jaime Ortega presided over Mass at Santa Rita de Casia Church, the church the group regularly attends, and told parishioners, including 13 members of the Ladies in White present, that he had spoken with authorities and the women can resume their small protests.

“I gave a sort of guarantee that they are going to do what they have always done,” and no more, the Cardinal told reporters. The Cuban government had been asking the women to request permission 72 hours in advance of any demonstration, which the group refused to do.  According to Ortega, the government’s willingness to talk and negotiate “is a slightly new way of acting. Before, one was answered with silence. Now, we have an answer,” the Associated Press reported.

The Cardinal also said that the church has asked Guillermo Farinas to be more “flexible” and to end his 10 week hunger strike.  “It’s more or less up to him,” Ortega said, adding that a Bishop and local priests have visited him several times.  Farinas’ mother has asked him “to stop his hunger strike, but he refuses,” Agence France-Presse reported.

In a recent interview in Palabra Nueva, the magazine of the Havana Archdiocese, Cardinal Ortega argued that the media coverage following Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s death has not helped the situation. “The tragic event of the death of a prisoner as he was on hunger strike has resulted in a verbal war by the media in the United States, Spain and other countries.  This strong media campaign contributes to further exacerbating the crisis.  It is a form of media violence to which the Cuban government responds in its own way.” (Translation from the Cuba Internal Reform Blog)

Nik Steinberg and Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a piece in the NY Book Review with HRW’s analysis of the human rights situation in Cuba under Raúl Castro, a “nascent blogosphere” in Cuba, and the ineffectiveness of current U.S. policy.

Hundreds of thousands march for May Day in Cuba – called on to support the government’s new economic plan

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans marched under the hot sun to Revolutionary Plaza in Havana to celebrate May 1st, International Worker’s Day, Reuters reported. President Raúl Castro was present but did not speak. His brother and former president, Fidel Castro, was known for giving long speeches at each May Day celebration, but Raúl, who gives speeches much less frequently, has not addressed the crowd on May 1st since becoming president in 2008.

This year’s event was utilized by the government as a response to the international campaign against Cuba, following the death of a hunger striker in February.  Salvador Valdés Mesa, Secretary General of the nearly three-million-strong Cuban Workers Confederation, said it was an “energetic and firm response to those who, from the centers of power in the United States and the European Union, backed by tiny mercenary groups, try to discredit us with false slanders,” the Associated Press reported. Valdés called on the country’s workers to support the government’s economic plan, “which will require extraordinary efforts and sacrifices and is vital to preserving the social system,” La Jornada reported.

Worst sugar harvest in 100 years

State media reported this week that this year’s sugar harvest is the worst in over a century. A separate note published days earlier announced the removal of Sugar Minister Luis Manuel Avila, who “asked for his removal, recognizing the deficiencies in his work.” The Communist party newspaper, Granma, accused sugar ministry officials for lacking “objectivity” in planning and a “lack of control,” MSNBC reported.

Without specifying what the original goal was, the government announced this year’s harvest fell short by 850,000 tons. Granma said the island now has 750,000 hectares (1.9 million acres) dedicated to sugar and 61 mills, but only 10 of the mills met production goals.

Drought in parts of Cuba continues

An extensive drought continues to affect large parts of the island. According to IPS, the drought, which began in November 2008, has reduced reservoirs and ground water, directly affecting the water supplies of around 500,000 citizens. A similar drought in 2004 and 2005 affected 2 million people in 900 villages and towns on the island.

Cuba provides the best conditions for motherhood among developing countries

According to the 2010 Save the Children’s State of the World’s Mother report, IANS highlights, Cuba holds first place among Latin American countries for “the best conditions for motherhood.”  The report analyzes several factors in each country, including educational status, economic circumstances of the mothers, and basic well-being of children and health. According to IANS, Cuba, “despite its image as a backward nation ruled by a despotic Communist regime – provides the best conditions for motherhood among developing countries.”

Mariela Castro continues the struggle for gay, lesbian and transgender rights

ANSA reports on Mariela Castro’s ongoing efforts to achieve equal rights for gay, lesbian and transgender Cubans. According to Castro, daughter of President Raúl Castro, prejudices still exist, but homosexuality is no longer taboo in Cuba.  “There is a debate within the Cuban society. It is not a deep and silent mystery anymore. People already talk, discuss about it, and that means people are learning and are talking about a reality that previously was not discussed,” added Castro, who is the director of the National Center for Sexual Education.  May 11-18 will mark the third annual Cuba journey against homophobia, which will include a wide range of activities. Last year, government officials attended many of the public events.

30th Annual International Tourism Fair in Cuba

Cuba hosted its 30th annual International Tourism Fair this week, resulting in a spike of interesting news about the tourism sector, including plans for increased foreign investment in the sector, details on the newly required traveler insurance, and the numbers on tourist visits so far this year. This year’s fair was dedicated to Russia.


Long-term land leases for foreign investors

In an effort to attract foreign investment to develop golf courses, marinas and related land projects, the government announced it is making progress in talks with “several potential foreign partners” to grant them medium- to long-term leases of real estate, as Cuba prohibits foreign ownership.  Cuba, which is hoping to recruit travelers who will spend more money, has been trying to attract foreign investment to develop golf courses and high-end condos, but has had trouble working out the details since land ownership is not legal. The long-term leases seem to address the issue. “A policy was approved that permits real estate development associated with tourism, fundamentally golf courses, marinas and other complementary tourist investments,” Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said at Cuba’s annual International Tourism Fair on Tuesday, BBC News reported.

The Associated Press reported that construction of residential projects linked to resorts had already been approved, “possibly opening the door for villas that could one day ring oceanfront golf courses and other vacation getaways.” The new policy allows foreign companies to build, and foreigners to buy, long-term residences in tourist establishments, similar to timeshares.

Sol Meliá, the first foreign investor in tourism, marks 20 years of business in Cuba

The Spanish hotel chain Sol Meliá recently marked 20 years of doing business in Cuba, where its first hotel was inaugurated in 1990, EFE reported. “On more than a few occasions we were considered crazy or not very visionary. However, today we can affirm, with pride, that Cuban tourism has grown,” said Sol Meliá’s President Gabriel Escarrer, who also presented a thank you plaque to be sent to Fidel Castro. The inauguration of the Sol Palmeras hotel in Varadero on May 10, 1990 represented the beginning of foreign investment in Cuba’s tourism sector.  At the time Cuba received only 340,000 tourists a year and was the 23rd most visited destination in the Americas.  Information about Sol Meliá’s Cuba operations is available on their website.

Cuba on pace to break tourism records this year

A little over one million tourists visited Cuba between January and April 2010, double the number of tourists that visited in the same period last year, representing the “highest four-month period in the history of Cuban tourism,” Caribbean 360 reported.  Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said Cuba is working hard to become the top tourist destination in the Caribbean in coming years. Cuba’s state-run Juventud Rebelde newspaper reported that the government will start a new campaign titled “Authentic Cuba” to try and attract foreigners to the historical and cultural features the country has to offer.

Cuban-American visits to the island way up

Cuban-Americans are traveling back to Cuba 50% more often since September 2009, when President Obama eased the travel restrictions to Cuba, Europa Press reported. Around 100,000 Cuban-Americans have traveled back to the island since the restrictions were removed. Under the Bush administration, Cuban-Americans were authorized to go to the island just once every three years, and could not spend more than 50 dollars per day. They can now visit as often as they would like and spend up to $179 daily.

New Travel Insurance policy for Cuba visitors

The Associated Press and the Guardian reported on the enactment of a new Cuban government policy requiring visitors to have travelers insurance upon arriving to the island, or purchase a government-offered plan. The plans offered by the government range from between 2 and 3 dollars a day. The new policy applies to tourists, Cubans living abroad and any foreigners living in Cuba, except for diplomats.


Foreign Minister of the Vatican headed to Cuba

Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s Foreign Minister, will travel to Cuba to participate in the tenth annual Catholic Social Week, to be held June 16-20. The meeting will discuss “the need for dialogue and reconciliation between Cubans and the challenges of the national economy,” among other issues, EFE reported. Mamberti is the first top Vatican official to come since Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of state to Pope Benedict XVI, visited Cuba in February 2008, the Associated Press reported.  Bertone was the first foreign dignitary that President Raúl Castro met with after officially becoming president on February 24, 2008.

Spanish political party leaders with distinct view visit Cuba

The secretary general of Spain’s Communist Party (PCE), José Luis Centella, made an official visit to Cuba this week, meeting with President Raúl Castro and other top officials, Agence France-Presse reported.

Cuba’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying Centella’s visit came at an “important time” and that the “PCE has energetically rejected the media manipulation and has widely shown solidarity with the Cuban Revolution.”

Meanwhile, Rosa Díez, leader of the Unión, Progreso y Democracia party (Unity, Progress and Democracy), which strongly opposes the current Spanish government’s engagement with Cuba, visited the island on a tourist visa to meet with dissidents.  Díez met with Oswaldo Paya, Dagoberto Valdés and other dissidents in Havana, Europapress reported.

At the end of her visit she gave a press conference where she accused the Socialist government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of wanting “to reduce the demands on the (Castro) regime” during Spain’s turn in the European Union rotating presidency, EFE reported.   In the past, the Cuban government has deported European politicians who travel on tourist visas to carry out political activities on the island.

Around the Region:

Honduran president shuns EU summit after boycott threat, BBC

President Porfirio Lobo of Honduras will not attend an EU-Latin America summit later this month, to avoid a boycott by South American leaders.

Unasur will address “coup attempt Honduras model” in Paraguay, Merco Press

An imminent coup in Paraguay, Honduras-model, with the purpose of ousting President Fernando Lugo was analyzed by Unasur (Union of South American Nations) leaders during the recent summit held in Buenos Aires, according to press reports from Argentina and Brazil.

Colombian Surprise: Green Party Candidate Leads Presidential Race, Merco Press

Antanas Mockus – a former Bogotá mayor, mathematician and philosopher – leads the Colombian presidential race with 38%, contrary to all expectations. Former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, the political favorite, is stymied at 29%, according to an Ipso-Napoleon poll released this week.

Recommended Reading:

Suns using jerseys to send message, ESPN

The “Los Suns” basketball jerseys worn annually by the Phoenix Suns for the NBA’s “Noche Latina” program just went from marketing gimmick to political statement in the wake of Arizona’s draconian immigration law.

A Real Truth Commission for Honduras, Bertha Oliva

My beloved and troubled country, Honduras, desperately needs a truth commission. On June 28th of last year, a military coup d’état shattered our fragile democracy and ushered in a period of arbitrary and repressive rule in which those who opposed the coup were subject to violent attacks, illegal detentions and state-imposed media censorship.

Venezuela trip report, Center for Democracy in the Americas

The Center for Democracy in the Americas hosted a research delegation for Congressional staff to Venezuela earlier this year.  The report from this trip focuses on political and economic conditions that are likely to affect balloting for Venezuela’s National Assembly in September of this year.


As summarized above, a Cuban cultural icon, Silvio Rodríguez, hopes to perform in the United States for the first time in decades.  We hope the Obama administration follows its instincts and values and grants his visa without further delay.

To be sure, things have been getting better.

From the days of the Bush administration, when Cuban artists like Ibrahim Ferrer, were routinely denied visas because their entry into the U.S. was deemed a threat to national security, the Obama administration has moved to a better place and encouraged the kind of cultural exchange that is enabling Carlos Varela to play it the U.S. and enabled Juanes to perform in Havana last year.

These exchanges are short but hopeful glimpses into what a normal future could be.  We will never forget the day of the Juanes concert, when more than ten percent of Cuba’s population crowded onto Revolutionary Square, not to hear a government speech but to hear inspiring and engaging music.  That day, the square really belonged to them, the artists and the people.

Cultural exchange is only the beginning.  We look forward to the time when the Cuban people and American people can enjoy each other’s company beyond sitting or performing in a concert but in the more commonplace settings characteristic of a normal relationship.

The path forward is obvious, and it really shouldn’t be this hard to get there.

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