Eighteen Months? Fifty Years? What are we waiting for? A new policy!

Dear Friends:

In his closing essay for “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US,” Louis A. Pérez, one of the world’s leading scholars of Cuba, wrote the following:

The embargo has assumed a life of its own.  Its very longevity serves as the logic for its continuance, evidence of the utter incapacity of U.S. political leaders to move beyond the policy failures of their own making…That the embargo has not yet accomplished what it set out to do, in exquisite Kafkaesque reasoning, simply means that more time is required.

We recalled these words this week as we read the statement printed below by President Obama’s principal White House advisor for Latin America, Dan Restrepo, who counseled us not to expect the administration to lift the embargo any time soon since we have not seen positive action by Cuba’s government on human rights in the last eighteen months.  If the subject weren’t so serious, we might respond: “I’ll see your eighteen months and raise you fifty years.”

Each administration takes office thinking itself different, better able to change the world than those that came before it, a mindset that springs from the optimism and strength characteristic of the American spirit.  But Lou Pérez has it right – more time is not required.  Placing conditions on Cuba government doesn’t work, hasn’t worked, and is unlikely to ever work, no matter who is president.

Next week, Assistant Secretary of State, Arturo Valenzuela, is scheduled to be in Miami and address a fundraising event to benefit the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF).  The speech is scheduled for the day – May 20th – that opponents of Cuba’s government celebrate the island’s independence (from Spain), a day that candidate Obama used two years ago to announce a new strategy toward Cuba that would begin, if he were elected, with the resumption of Cuban American family travel, a promise he fulfilled.

To its credit, the administration has also liberalized other elements of the failed policy, including inviting more Cuban artists and intellectuals to visit the United States and supporting some face-to-face diplomacy with the Cuban government on matters ranging from migration to direct postal service.  These are meager steps, but they can form a foundation for further progress.  Not waiting for a gesture from Cuba’s government, but building on the real strengths our fellow citizens bring to the table.

We’d like to hear Secretary Valenzuela tell CANF that the administration is going to remove obstacles to travel.

The religious community has called on the President to relax restrictions on their ability to visit the island; it seems only practical and fair that believers not apply on bended knee to the Treasury Department in order to share their faith with their Cuban counterparts.

Scholars and cultural figures, athletes and scientists also have a compelling case. Although it can only be accomplished through legislation, we also strongly believe that tourists have just as many rights to visit the island as any other American.  All of these ideas would represent progress and movement in the right direction.  Cuba policy should be based on American interests and values, not the long unfilled hope that American policy – so flawed for so long – should remain frozen essentially in place waiting for Havana to respond.  The last eighteen months – or fifty years – has certainly taught us that.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Restrepo: the embargo will not be lifted soon

Daniel Restrepo, Director of Hemispheric Affairs at the National Security Council, said last week that “we are far from” seeing the lifting of the embargo against Cuba, Europa Press reported.  According to Restrepo, one of the Obama administration’s main advisors for Latin America, the U.S. has not “seen positive action in regards to the fundamental rights of the Cuban people over the last 18 months.”

Religious leaders again call on Obama to change policy toward Cuba

Leaders of the National Council of Churches and Church World Service are again calling on President Obama to lift the restrictions on religious travel to Cuba, calling the current U.S. policy toward Cuba “ineffective and counter-productive,” the Christian Post reported.

In a joint letter to President Obama this past week, the two organizations said the “impractical restrictions” that resulted from a Bush administration-era interpretation of the rules governing travel to Cuba by religious groups have reduced their ability to send delegations to Cuba, limited their opportunities to accompany and support their Cuban church partners, and have the effect of “severely limiting” participation in Cuba missions by U.S. churches and congregants.

“Churches across the theological spectrum have called for the elimination of these restrictions which have now interrupted relationships, fellowship, and exchanges which began more than 125 years ago…We urgently ask that you now change the Cuba policy of the United States in ways that will assist the churches in their work and have wider benefits for our country and for the people of Cuba,” the letter concluded. You can read the full letter here.

Silvio Rodríguez gets a visa, Varela making waves

The U.S. government has granted a visa to Silvio Rodríguez, a Cuban musical icon and founding member of Cuban Nueva Trova, so that he can perform in the United States, the Nuevo Herald reported.  Rodríguez was persona non-grata in the U.S. for decades and was unable to attend a tribute to folk legend Pete Seeger last year when his visa was not processed in time.  Bill Martínez, a lawyer who helped Rodríguez with the visa, confirmed that the musician received notice of the approval this week and diplomatic staff at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana was helpful throughout the process, Reuters reported.

“Our hope is that culture, academia and science will not just be a bridge between the U.S. and Cuba, but a pathway that will lead to more opportunities – for cultural, scientific, medical, academic and environmental cooperation – ultimately leading to everyday Americans and Cubans being allowed to travel back and forth without restrictions,” the Center for Democracy in the Americas said in a news alert applauding the visa approval.

Meanwhile, Carlos Varela, a Cuban musician heavily influenced by Silvio Rodríguez, is making waves on his U.S. tour. The Boston Herald reported that 25 Boston area high school Spanish students joined Varela on stage in Massachusetts on Wednesday night, where Varela exclaimed: “We’re doing what politicians haven’t been able to do for 50 years.”

The Miami Herald reported on Varela’s upcoming concert in Miami, where he had to cancel a 2004 show because his visa was denied. “Music can’t get rid of a war; it can’t get rid of an embargo. It can’t get rid of an economic crisis; it can’t get rid of hate,” Varela told the Herald. “Music can’t stop the tank. But it can touch the heart of the person driving the tank.”  José Varela of Progreso Weekly wrote that hardliners in Miami love Varela when he supports the dissidents but vehemently oppose him when he defends the Cuban Revolution.

New traveler’s insurance being disputed in death of Cuban-American

Questions have arisen about Cuba’s new policy of requiring medical insurance for visitors to the island.   A Florida couple of Cuban descent was at a family party in Santiago, Cuba earlier this month when two men with cement tubes attacked them.  The attack resulted in the death of Laida Licet Recio and serious injuries to Rolando Suárez. The family of the victims, devastated by the tragedy, is organizing a collection in Miami to raise money to have Recio’s body shipped back to Florida for burial.

The family said the Cuban government has requested $10,000 to ship the body, but it is unclear if the couple had purchased the newly-required medical insurance, and whether it would cover costs associated with the death, InfoBae reported.

Officials from travel agencies that offer flights to Cuba said the insurance should cover up to $7,000 in expenses related to the death of a passenger. The Miami Herald reported that the family is unsure about whether the couple bought insurance and whether it will cover the shipment of the body.

Cuba will file for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of one of the “Cuban Five”

The Cuban government will file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, one of the five Cuban agents who has been detained in the U.S. for over 12 years, with the objective of having him receive a new sentence, Europa Press reported.  Currently, Hernández is serving two life sentences for spying.  Cuba claims that the five men were not spying on the U.S. government, but rather collecting information on Cuban-American groups in Miami that were planning terrorist attacks against the island.  Family members said that lawyers are preparing the brief and the petition will be filed at the end of the month.

Bank fined for dealing with Cuba and other sanctioned nations

A bank formerly known as ABN Amro Bank N.V. agreed this week to pay the U.S. government $500 million for facilitating the movement of illegal funds through the U.S. financial system. According to the Associated Press, the bank, now named the Royal Bank of Scotland N.V., helped the countries of Iran, Libya, Sudan and Cuba evade U.S. laws. Aside from the fine, the Justice Department said ABN Amro will be under a deferred prosecution agreement and the U.S. will recommend dismissal of the charges in one year if the financial institution cooperates with U.S. investigators.

Senators seek to block Obama nominee to El Salvador post over Cuban romance

Congressional staffers, speaking off-the-record, said this week that Republicans will put a hold on the nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte as the new U.S. ambassador to El Salvador based on past connections with a suspected Cuban spy.  According to the Miami Herald, the hold will force supporters of the nomination to obtain 60 votes in the Senate to confirm her to the post.  The FBI cleared Aponte after having a relationship with Roberto Tamayo, a businessman with past ties to both U.S. and Cuban agents, decades ago.

Several migrants returned to Cuba

More than 30 Cubans were returned to the island after trying to reach Florida last week in different incidents. Some of them were transferred to Guantanamo Bay without further details, according to UPI.

IN CUBA

Journalist freed as she awaits appeal

Dania Garcia, an independent Cuban journalist, has been freed as she appeals a sentence for hitting her daughter, the Associated Press reported.  Garcia writes for CubaNet, which is funded by the U.S. government, and on her own blog, which Reporters Without Borders said is “linked to a radical anti-Castro group based in Miami.”  The details of her case are not well known, but  Reporters Without Borders said the official charge against Garcia was “abuse of authority” for throwing her 23-year-old daughter out of her home.

Meanwhile, the Ladies in White said they are hopeful that some of their family members may be freed before or after Dominique Mamberti, the foreign minister of the Vatican, visits Cuba in June, Agence France-Presse reported. “The representative of the Vatican can influence the liberation of many men, not only political prisoners, but also common ones, like what happened during the visit of the Pope John Paul II in 1998,” said Berta Soler, one of the leaders of the group.

Small Farmers Association meeting this weekend

The 10th Congress of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) will take place in Havana this weekend, a meeting that intents to “propose solutions to one of the biggest concerns of Cubans, food supply,” state media reported. Participants in the Congress will “look for a strategy to increase productivity, replace imports and speed up the commercialization process of agricultural products.” Approximately 1,000 delegates are expected to attend and the meeting will be “the perfect stage to design strategies about the variety of problems” already debated in regional farmers’ forums, the Granma reported.

La Jornada published an article this week on a new process of encircling cities with urban gardens – there are now 17 municipalities in Cuba surrounded by rings of gardens. “We are trying to bring food closer to the cities, where 76 percent of the population lives, based on a diversified agricultural model,” said Adolfo Rodríguez Nodals, head of the National Group of Urban and Suburban Agriculture.

Government warns citizens not to hoard and re-sell rice

Facing a shortage of rice, and eager to reduce the cost of importing it, Cuba issued a warning last week for citizens not to hoard the grain, the Associated Press reported. “We are demanding discipline and order in purchases,” state-run Radio Rebelde said during a recent newscast. “Don’t allow, under any circumstances, people to hoard rice so they can later sell it at a higher price.” The announcement said that “certain unscrupulous people are hoarding” rice and warned that action would be taken against those involved in hoarding and speculating.

Rumors of plans for foreign investment in sugar industry

President Raúl Castro recently removed the sugar minister after state media reported that this year’s sugar harvest would be the worst since 1905. MercoPress reported that there are “increasing rumors that foreign investors will be invited to take over the industry.”  Brazil has become more actively engaged with Cuba over the last two years and supplied millions of dollars in credits for infrastructure projects.

Now “there are insistent rumors” that President Raúl Castro has invited Brazilian experts to consider the possibility of attracting investors from South America’s largest economy and a world power in sugar cane production and bio-fuels from sugar cane,” MercoPress reported.

Cuba needs an “enormous effort” to repair railways

Cuba hopes to repair its rail system over the next three to five years, but said it will take an “enormous effort” to do so, Agence France-Presse reported. According to General Antonio Enrique Lussón, vice-president of the Council of Ministers, Cuba will need to repair over 6,000 kilometers of rail lines (about 73% of the total tracks), acquire new equipment, and hire and train new personnel, requiring millions of dollars in investment, Prensa Latina reported.

Transportation in Cuba was severely affected in the 90s as the economy collapsed, and it has never fully recovered. The government also announced that it will open four training centers for students to study issues related to the rail industry.  The first will open in September of this year and the others in 2011.  Cuba sacked its transport minister earlier this month.

Petrobras gets more time to decide Cuba oil plans

Reuters reported that the Cuban government has decided to give the Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras six more months to make a decision about drilling a well in Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Brazil’s involvement in the exploration is the result of an agreement signed in October of 2008 between Presidents Raúl Castro and Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.  Brazil was supposed to inform Cupet, the Cuban state oil company, this month about its intentions, but “given the geological complexity of the block area, it negotiated with Cupet a six-month extension … to finish the work of geology and geophysics,” Petrobras spokeswoman Paula Almada said.

Regarding the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Fidel Castro blamed big corporations for the platform accident that created the spill.  In a newly published reflection Castro wrote that the accident “shows how little governments can do against those who control the capital, who in both the United States and Europe are, due to the economy of our globalized planet, those who decide the destiny of the public.”

Cuba will update earthquake detection ability with Chinese help

Cuba will update its seismological equipment with technology donated by China, which will also send specialists to install the new equipment, EFE reported. The Chinese equipment, which has already arrived in Cuba, includes high-sensitivity seismometers, accelerometers, and portable stations for seismic engineering studies. According to Cuban state media, the installation of this equipment comes at a time when the island’s civil defense system has adopted measures to strengthen its response capability at the onset of powerful earthquakes and tsunamis, in a year that has seen devastating temblors in Haiti and Chile.  The Cuban system is recognized globally for the effectiveness of its disaster preparedness.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Raúl Castro won’t attend E.U. – L.A. summit, Bruno Rodríguez will lead Cuban delegation

Bruno Rodríguez, the Minister of Foreign Relations, will lead the Cuban delegation to next week’s E.U. – Latin America Summit, Europa Press reported.   At the last summit between the two blocs, held in Lima in 2008, first vice-president José Ramón Ventura Machado represented Cuba.   Relations between the E.U. and Cuba have been tense over the last few months following the death of hunger-striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

Among other heads of state missing the meeting are José Mujica, president of Uruguay, and Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, president of Honduras.  Mujica won’t attend for health reasons, while Lobo decided not to participate after the rest of the region, which still considers his government – elected following the 2009 coup – illegitimate, threatened to back out if he attended.

Cuba and Russia celebrate 50 years of diplomatic ties

The Vice-President of the Cuban Council of Ministers, Ricardo Cabrisas, highlighted the historical ties between the two countries and the invaluable support that Russia gave to “anti-U.S. imperialism” efforts since the beginning of the Cuban Revolution.   In a formal ceremony in Havana, the Vice-Speaker of the Russian Parliament, Ivan Melnikov, also said that the relations between his country and the island “have passed the test of endurance and continuity,” reported the Voice of Russia.

RNV said that both representatives expect to increase the strategic links between both nations, especially in terms of trade and commercial ties.  The ceremony was also attended by the President of Cuba’s National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcón, and Bruno Rodríguez, the Minister Foreign Affairs.

Spanish and Cuban intellectuals trade barbs

Spanish artists and intellectuals, including world-famous film director Pedro Almodóvar, launched an initiative to push for the democratization of Cuba. “The Platform for Spaniards for the Democratization of Cuba” tries to ensure the defense of “the basic and essential human rights” of the Cuban people, Agence France Presse reported.

A group of Cuban writers and intellectuals on the island quickly responded with their own declaration, EFE reported.

For example, Aitana Alberti, daughter of the renowned Spanish poet Rafael Alberti, read the official response to the Platform, saying that “next to known advocates of anti-Cuban propaganda, honest people, maybe without the necessary information and knowledge, influenced by the fierce and painful media campaign against Cuba, accuse us, and by doing so, adopt a position that tries to harm our country’s sovereignty.”

Cuban writer Arturo Arango published an essay in Spain’s El Pais saying two things need to happen so that a future that benefits the majority of the Cubans on the island can be formed:

  • That the external pressures disappear, which far from helping, paralyze the transformations that are desired from taking place, not only because they represent unacceptable actions of interference, but more than anything, because they don’t relate to the real interests of Cubans.

  • That the Cuban state establish a real dialogue, not paternalistic, in which all Cubans can participate, and in which the youth can exercise the leadership that we need.

Cuba supports preservation of the U.N. and accuses U.S. of terrorism

Pedro Núñez Mosquera, Cuba’s Permanent Representative before the United Nations, defended the international organization during the commemorative ceremony of the end of World War II this week. Núñez also remembered the millions who were killed in the former Soviet Union in the fight against the Nazis, Cuban News Agency reported.

Núñez also criticized the U.S. role in the fight against terrorism, denouncing the United States for its involvement in the killing of more than three thousand Cubans, and for causing billions of dollars in material damages.  He also pointed out that the U.S. government has a double standard in accusing other countries of terrorism while simultaneously not prosecuting Luis Posada Carriles, who has confessed to committing terrorist attacks against Cubans and has been prosecuted for similar acts in other countries. “Cuba condemns all acts, methods and practices of terrorism in all of its forms and expressions, wherever they’re committed and whoever commits them, whoever they’re committed against, and whichever their motivations may be,” Núñez said.

Around the Region:

UNASUR pledges Latin arms trade transparency, UPI

Latin American states within the Union of South American Nations will need to reveal all when buying weapons and military equipment to ensure they don’t trigger a politically destabilizing and expensive arms race on the continent, officials said.

Violence Increasing on Colombia-Venezuela Border, Group Says, EFE

The independent group Fundación Progresar warned of a “serious” increase in human rights violations along Colombia’s border with Venezuela, where some 16,000 people have been murdered and 1,800 have disappeared over the past decade.

Venezuela Takes Action to Address Energy Crisis, Venezuelanalysis

Late last year, the Venezuelan government declared an energy crisis. This led to rolling blackouts in major cities and incentives for businesses to decrease consumption. The main cause of the crisis was a prolonged drought, which immobilized the hydroelectric plants that produce 70 percent of the country’s energy.

Recommended Reading:

For nostalgic Russians, Cuba is a tropical time machine, Global Post

Tourists look for bittersweet traces of Soviet past in Cuba’s present.

Contreras making up for lost time with mom, MLB.com

Former Cuban star reunites with mother after eight years.

Guatemalan seeks answers in Honduran coup, Los Angeles Times

Eduardo Stein, longtime diplomat and ex-vice president of Guatemala, discusses his role as head of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission looking into events surrounding last year’s coup in Honduras.

U.S. – China Human Rights Dialogue

The U.S. and China are undergoing their annual human rights dialogue this week.

On the day Jimmy Carter visited Cuba

On May 12, 2002, Jimmy Carter became the first U.S. president, former or current, to visit Cuba since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.

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