Come Clean with Cuba on Oil Spill, Castro and Clerics Address Political Prisoners, News about Reforms and Alan Gross

Dear Friends:

There’s a lot of important news this week, but we begin with oil upon troubled waters.

According to Brad Johnson, a climate researcher at the Center for American Progress, oil carried by the Loop Current is likely to reach the Florida Strait by Monday, May 24 posing a direct threat to Cuba’s marine environment.

News agencies are reporting that U.S. diplomats in Havana informed the Cuban government just days ago of details on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and where it is likely to move.

A State Department spokesman said, “It is incumbent upon us to inform all of our neighbors . . . those countries that could be affected by disasters that happen within our territorial waters.”

The United States needs to come completely clean with Cuba – and with all of us – about the size, location, extent, and severity of the disastrous flow of oil and chemical dispersants into the Gulf of Mexico following the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon Rig that took place on April 20th and killed eleven workers.

We know already that figures released by BP concerning the volume of oil pouring into the Gulf since the accident on April 20th woefully underestimate what most experts believe is actually occurring.  In addition to the millions of gallons of oil released, there is now more than 600,000 gallons of chemical dispersants in the Gulf being used to contain the spill.

The extent and boundaries of the oil plume beneath the surface of the Gulf are unknown. The toxic effect of the dispersants being used to control the spill is unknown.  The U.S. is expanding the closures of fisheries in our territory, but questions surrounding this decision are yet to be fully answered.  Is the entire 20% contaminated?  Should Cuba take a similar action?  If so, why?

The U.S. should be communicating all of this to the Cuban government so it can make its own risk assessment and establish its own priorities for the policy actions it should consider taking to protect its people, its climate, its fisheries, and its tourism industry.

As Robert Muse and Jorge R. Piñon wrote recently in a Brookings Institution issue brief, there are international frameworks under which the two countries could and should cooperate to protect their shared interests.

However, there is a larger point at stake.  We shouldn’t have to be talking about how, or whether, or to what extent we should be cooperating with Cuba in the face of this crisis, just as we don’t have to invent or improvise a relationship with Mexico to do so.  But our policy of not talking to Cuba, not having diplomatic relations with Cuba, demanding concessions from Cuba to engage with the U.S. cooperatively has precisely this kind of cost, and produces this kind of outcome.

So let the discussions confirmed by the State Department take place.  Let’s hope they’re comprehensive and fruitful.  Let’s hope the U.S. government discloses more information to the Cubans – and to all of us – about the dangers to which the Gulf has been exposed. But let’s also hope that the bigger lesson of this crisis is learned and acted upon; we don’t have to like the Cuban system to benefit from a normal relationship with the Cuban government, and we shouldn’t allow ideology and domestic political concerns to block the orderly transfer of information about a disaster to a neighbor who shares with us stewardship of a gorgeous but now threatened eco-system.

Read on, and you will learn about a meeting between President Raul Castro and two of Cuba’s most important religious leaders, that could offer hope for a breakthrough on political prisoners with great implications for U.S.-Cuba relations.  We also carry reports on reforms taking place in Cuba’s agriculture and transport sectors.   In our concluding section – Recommended Reading – we link to the Washington Post and its profile today of the family of Alan Gross.

This and much more, this week in the news blast.


U.S. and Cuba talking about oil spill, not yet cooperating

U.S. and Cuban officials are holding “working level” talks about responding to the deepwater oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Associated Press reported. “It is incumbent upon us to inform all of our neighbors, not just the islands, but those countries that could be affected by disasters that happen within our territorial waters,” said State Department Spokesman Gordon Duguid.

He also said that the U.S. Interests Section in Havana sent a diplomatic note to the Cuban government to inform it about the spill and its projected path. “We provided background related to the cause of the spill, stressed that stopping the oil leak is our top priority and explained the projected movement of the spill,” Duguid said. “We also communicated the U.S. desire to maintain a clear line of communication with the Cuban government on developments.”

Alberto Gonzalez Casals, a spokesman at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, said the country would be “ready to prevent this kind of oil spill,” the Miami Herald reported. “I can tell you we are aware of the situation, we are preparing in any case of the oil spill coming to Cuba to take measures,” he said, adding that Cuba doesn’t expect to be affected, but is in a “position to cooperate with the United States.”

Robert Muse, an attorney who specializes in Cuba issues, and Jorge R. Piñon, former president of Amoco Oil Latin America and a research fellow at the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, published an essay this week titled “Why U.S.-Cuba Environmental Cooperation is Critical,” under the auspices of Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

Muse and Piñon write “the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform and the resulting discharge of millions of gallons of crude oil into the sea demonstrated graphically the challenge of environmental protection in the ocean waters shared by Cuba and the United States.”

They conclude that both sides should begin talking before another accident occurs. “While Washington is working to prevent future disasters in U.S. waters like the Deepwater Horizon, its current policies foreclose the ability to respond effectively to future oil disasters – whether that disaster is caused by companies at work in Cuban waters, or is the result of companies operating in U.S. waters.”

More information about the benefits of engagement with Cuba on issues from energy to regional security can be found in “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US” published last year by the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

More Cuba travel companies being approved for licenses

The U.S. government has approved licenses for 42 new companies that provide travel and other services related to travel and remittances to Cuba, compared to none in 2009, McClatchy News reported. The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces Cuba sanctions, said the increase resulted from efforts to approve a backlog of applications and the Obama administration’s policy favoring Cuban-American travel to the island. Travel industry experts said the additions are not the result of increased demand, as the existing list of providers easily handled the flow of U.S. citizens and residents traveling to the island.

Valenzuela says policies of the past have failed, but vows to help Cubans with better Radio and TV Marti

Arturo Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, gave a speech at the Cuban American National Foundation on May 20th, the anniversary of Cuba’s 1902 formal independence from Spain which the exile community celebrates as Cuba’s Independence Day. The Cuban government does not consider May 20th a day of independence because formal independence from Spain resulted in agreements allowing for U.S. interference in Cuban internal affairs.

In his speech to Cuban exiles, Valenzuela sent his regards to the Ladies in White, recognized that “polices of the past have failed,” and talked about the importance of cultural exchange and renewed family contact. He said that approval of licenses to travel to Cuba are on the rise, with approvals for cultural licenses up eight percent, religious licenses up 25 percent, and a 16 percent increase in licenses for academic visits, El Nuevo Herald reported. According to Valenzuela, direct support for average Cubans will increase with improvements in the “effectiveness of Radio and TV Martí.”


Cuba may be ready to address political prisoner issue

This week, Cuba’s Episcopal Conference leader Archbishop Dionisio Garcia and Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega met with President Raúl Castro.  Following the meeting, AFP reported that Castro might be ready to resolve the issue of Cuba’s jailing of political dissidents.

“This issue was talked about and I believe both sides are ready and want to resolve it and we hope this will be done. I believe this will be done,” Garcia said after an unprecedented discussion with Castro.

Ortega said that while “we hope” political dissidents will be released, “regarding the sick ones, we expect it,” for humanitarian reasons.

Granma, the Cuban government newspaper, noted the meeting but did not mention the issue of political prisoners, stating only that the Church officials spoke with Castro on “various issues of mutual interest, especially the favorable developments between the Church and the Cuban government, as well as the current national and international situation.”

According to El Pais, this meeting is the first of its kind since Raúl replaced Fidel Castro and it “has raised many expectations and reinforced, according to analysts, the role of the Church as a possible mediator to settle the issue of prisoners and other conflicts.”

The meeting came ahead of a visit by Monsignor Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s official in charge of foreign relations, which is scheduled for June 16-20 to coincide with the anniversary of 75 years of ties between Cuba and the Holy See.  Many dissidents and human rights activists hope the upcoming Vatican visit can bring about the release of political prisoners, much like Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit when then-president Fidel Castro released more than 300 prisoners.

Fariñas completes 80 days of hunger strike

Guillermo Fariñas, a Cuban dissident, completed his 80th day of a hunger strike in a public hospital, Milenio reported.  Fariñas has said his hunger strike is “for the liberation of 26 sick political prisoners.”  Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who recently helped broker a compromise between the Cuban government and the Ladies in White so they can carry out their weekly protests, along with government officials from various countries have asked Fariñas to take a more flexible position. The Cuban government has said it will not be pressured by threats and has referred to Fariñas as a “mercenary at the service of the United States.”

Cuba celebrates a week against sexual discrimination

Hundreds of gay and lesbian activists, some dressed in drag and others on stilts waving flags representing sexual diversity, marched through the streets of Havana over the weekend. The marchers, accompanied by Mariela Castro, President Raúl Castro’s daughter, were celebrating a week of events organized to eliminate homophobia. “We have made progress, but we need to make more progress,” said Mariela Castro, the leader of Cuba’s National Sexual Education Center (CENESEX) and a movement on the island for gay, lesbian and transgendered rights, the Associated Press reported

The government recently agreed to pay for sex change operations for transsexuals and government officials have attended many of the anti-homophobia activities.  Mariela Castro and other activists are now asking the state to legalize gay marriage and allow adoption by gay and lesbian couples.

Performers with El Mejunje, a cultural center that has become a haven for Cuba’s transvestites, took their show out onto the streets for the first time. According to EFE, “for the first time in its 26 years, El Mejunje managed to get the authorities to close one of the main streets in the central city of Santa Clara so the center could set up a stage displaying the Cuban flag and the rainbow banner of the gay movement, and bring together transvestites, musicians and dancers to celebrate sexual diversity on the island.”

Experts from CENESEX are also training police officers on how to deal with gays, lesbians and transgendered individuals. Agence France- Presse reported that 41 officials from the National Police force received training about how prejudices affect police action.

A video news report on the festivities in Santa Clara is available here. A video of the march in Havana is available here.

Blogger’s sentence is canceled

A Cuban appeals court wiped out a 20-month jail sentence against a blogger with ties to the Ladies in White and radical exiles in Miami, the Associated Press reported. Dania Garcia was convicted of mistreating her daughter and ordered to pay a fine rather than serve time. Garcia was convicted and originally sentenced to jail for “abuse of authority” for having thrown her 23-year-old daughter out of the house. Human rights organizations assert that the case was politically motivated. Garcia is an active political dissident who writes for multiple opposition websites, “linked to a radical anti-Castro group based in Miami,” Reporters without Borders reported.

Religion on the rise in Cuba

According to Ana Celia Perera, a researcher at the government’s Center for Psychological and Sociological Research (CIPS), a religious “revival” is occurring in Cuba, as new groups and actors are flourishing, and the devout are extending their social involvement, IPS reported.  Perera claims that a religious upsurge reached its peak in the early 90s, a time of great economic hardship for Cubans, but that other factors have also aided religious expansion, such as constitutional changes supporting equality between believers and non-believers, authorization for people subscribing to a religious faith to participate in the country’s political functions, and the vigorous outreach of religious organizations, resulting in increased religious acceptance on both social and institutional levels. According to IPS, there’s now even talk about building socialism from both Marxist and a religious points of view.


Carlos Varela’s emotional concert in Miami

Jordan Levin of the Miami Herald, reporting from the scene of Carlos Varela’s show in Miami last weekend, saw a mixed audience of “people who had left Cuba as adults, others who grew up here…but clearly these songs spoke to all of them.” In Levin’s words, the “concert made me think that art and music have a power beyond what anyone can control, even the artists who make it. If the music is real and any good, you can’t calculate what it means or how it might move or inspire someone. And that is worth something. To the people at the Gusman Saturday, it was worth something incalculable.”

Speaking to a packed house, Varela asked “Why are we so far and yet so close for all these years?” There were apparently 20-30 people outside the concert protesting Varela’s presence in Miami, but there “were 1,700 people inside, and they had Cuban flags, too, one of which ended up draped across Varela’s shoulders.” A compilation video from the concert is available here.

Silvio Rodríguez says Cubans are fighting for change, outside pressure doesn’t help

Responding to criticism by intellectuals in Spain about the situation in Cuba, Silvio Rodríguez wrote that outside pressure is not helping Cuba’s internal transformation. In an essay on CubaDebate, Rodríguez wrote: “Cubans want changes as well, but ones formed by us. These transformations will come sooner or later and the only policy capable of accelerating them is the end of the blockade (U.S. embargo).” He said the declaration by Spanish intellectuals is “an insult to self-determination” and an “inadmissible interference.”

According to Rodríguez, Cubans on the island are discussing changing many things. “We don’t believe we need a centralized government forever. We see it more as an emergency concept, a necessary negative that our national emancipation forced on us to survive.” Fuego Entertainment has announced that Rodríguez will play a Washington, DC concert on June 19th at 7:30 PM in DAR Constitution Hall.

Los Aldeanos

This week, Reuters reported on the two-man Cuban underground rap group “Los Aldeanos,” who have become one of the “abrasive voices of a disaffected generation of politically numbed Cubans who grew up during Cuba’s post-Soviet economic crisis of the 1990s.” Although popular throughout the island, the group has not been given access to state radio stations or public venues, and is mostly known through unadvertised gigs at underground venues and mixed tapes passed on burned CDs and memory sticks. They rap about controversial subjects such as prostitution, social inequality and police harassment, and their lyrics are often very critical of the government.

However, the group has chosen to stay in Cuba and work for change from within. “Our work aims at a positive change in society. Not just in the government, but also spiritually … today Cubans step on and humiliate one another,” group member Aldo told Reuters in a recent interview. They criticize Cubans who become critical only after arriving in Miami. “I wouldn’t be a revolutionary man if I didn’t say what I think when asked,” said Aldo.   Juanes and Calle 13 tried unsuccessfully to get Los Aldeanos to join their recent performances in Havana, but the group was recently allowed to perform their first concert in a Havana theatre. They’re hopeful the government will allow them to travel abroad to perform in Spain in Latin America soon.

You can see one of Los Aldeanos’ music videos here, and footage of one of their underground concerts is here.


Small farmers association holds congress, changes announced, more requested

The National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) held a congress in Havana over the weekend, where reforms in the agricultural sector were discussed and the farmers requested additional policy changes from the government, Agence France-Presse reported. Raúl Castro attended the sessions along with ministers involved in economic and agricultural planning. Castro, who has made increasing food production his number one issue, told delegates he is confident they will complete their “number one mission: produce for the people.”

The 350,000 family farmers and members of private cooperatives account for 70 percent of the food produced in Cuba, while using just over 41 percent of the land. Over the last two years, the government has instituted a plan to turn idle lands over to private farmers, but the Associated Press reported that only about half of the land in the reform has been turned over to applicants.

Economy Minister Marino Murillo announced during the close of the congress that private farmers will be able to purchase supplies directly in the future, rather than having them allocated by the state, Reuters reported. According to Murillo, the government is working toward modernizing the economy and soon the majority of municipalities will offer “supply markets where farmers can acquire directly the necessary resources to produce, substituting the current system of assigning resources centrally.”

According to EuropaPress, farmers at the congress called on the government to allow them to sell their products directly to the population. Following the congress, ANAP released a statement recommending that the government analyze the possibly of extending the commercialization process for other products, like they have used for direct sale of milk.

Drivers allowed to rent buses, keep profit

“In another minor move under President Raúl Castro to ease the state’s hand in Cuba’s socialist economy,” the government has begun allowing drivers to rent city buses in Havana, Reuters reported.  Bus drivers are now allowed to keep their earnings after taxes and so far they say they are earning more than the average Cuban salary of about $20 a month.  “You have to work hard to make money, but it gives results,” said one driver. According to Reuters, the changes are beneficial for the driver and passengers, as the reform has improved the quality of transportation around urban areas.

Baseball tournament canceled

Cuba has decided to cancel a national baseball series, which features the best of the island’s players divided onto six different teams, Agence France-Presse reported. According to Higinio Vélez, the national director of baseball, the event was canceled due to the tough economic situation on the island, and the fact that it was going to coincide with the World Cup, which is a very popular event in Cuba.


Cuba attends E.U. – Latin America summit

Cuba attended the E.U. – Latin America summit in Madrid despite “strong tensions with the E.U.,” Agence France-Presse reported.  In his speech at the summit, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, who led the Cuban delegation, said that a new era between the E.U. and Cuba is possible, but the “obsolete” common position must be removed and the two sides should negotiate based on “equality.” Rodríguez said he believes that more European countries now agree with the Spanish government that the common position should be abandoned.

Speaking prior to the summit, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos said, “if the common position had been effective, I would have been the first person interested in defending it, but maintaining a position that doesn’t produce results is a little sadomasochist,” EuropaPress reported. Spain has said that it does not believe it will be able to change the common position toward Cuba.

In an interview with the Spanish website El Publico, Rodríguez was asked why Cuba doesn’t improve conditions on the island immediately rather than waiting for the embargo to end. Rodríguez responded: “There is a rich debate about those themes in Cuba. Do channels of participation need to be increased in order to perfect Cuban democracy? I think so.” The full interview is available here.

Castro and Zelaya meet in Havana

Raúl Castro met with ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya last week, the Associated Press reported.  Zelaya, who was driven out of his country in a military coup last June, is now living in exile in the Dominican Republic. El Pais reported that Zelaya’s visit to Cuba was part of his tour around the region in which he wishes to gain the consensus of other leaders on how progress toward greater human rights and political reconciliation might be made in Honduras

Cuba continues to help with the health care system in Haiti

According to the Cuban News Agency, Cuban health specialists in Haiti are providing assistance in 11 new hospitals, Cuba has equipped 30 Rehabilitation Centers, and eight out of ten Comprehensive Diagnosis Centers have been built as part of a joint effort by Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti.  These are all parts of Cuba’s offer to rebuild Haiti’s public health system following the earthquake.  MEDICC’s Field Notes blog has some powerful posts about the Henry Reeve emergency response medical brigade working on the ground in Haiti.

BBC News reported on Desandann, a 10-piece choir that spent two month-long tours in Haiti as part of Cuba’s relief project following the January earthquake. “Every time we sang to people in Haiti it was like they were reborn,” says Teresita Miranda, a member of the Cuban Creole choir.

Spanish businessmen visit Havana

Salvador Santos, the president of Madrid’s Chamber of Commerce, is leading a delegation of businesses from Madrid in Havana. The delegation hopes to “open or consolidate” business relations with the Cuban government, specifically in the areas of technology, sanitation, energy and construction, Agence France-Presse reported. Spain is Cuba’s third largest trading partner, preceded only by Venezuela and China. Santos said that the delegation spoke with the Cuban government about late payments and the freezing of foreign bank accounts and “it seems like the situation is being fixed,” EFE reported.

Around the Region:

IACHR concerned about human rights violations in Honduras

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) visited Honduras May 15-18 to follow up on its on-site visit of August 2009 and its report “Honduras: Human Rights and the Coup d’État.” The delegation was composed of IACHR Chair Felipe González, First Vice-Chair Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Executive Secretary Santiago A. Canton, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Catalina Botero, and staff of the Executive Secretariat.

Considerations on the Implementation of the Truth Commission in Honduras, CEJIL

CEJIL has analyzed the decree creating the Truth Commission in Honduras and has set out the main aspects of this initiative, which contradict international standards on transitional justice and truth commissions.

Dear Congress: Haiti Can’t Wait, Latin America Working Group

Micheline Fleuron lives with her two boys in the median on the road in Carrefour, Haiti. Her home, the pile of rubble across the street from where she is now, collapsed during the earthquake and killed her seven-year-old daughter. Before the earthquake, Micheline had a small business selling food items. She lost that in the earthquake. She says food aid has been distributed near where she is but she has not been able to get any of it. She says hunger is difficult and “dust from the street is eating us.”

Mexican President speaks to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, New York Times

Mr. Calderón dedicated much of his 35-minute speech to underscoring the centrality of the relationship between Mexico and the United States, and he drew warm and frequent applause.

Recommended Reading:

Judy and Alan Gross’ family is at heart of standoff between Washington and Cuba, Washington Post

When Alan Gross didn’t arrive at home as planned, his wife Judy didn’t panic, until the phone rang, and she learned that her husband was in Villa Marista, the Cuban state security prison.  The Washington Post profiles his family, and explores the issues surrounding the detention of the “gadget geek” who is suspected of violating Cuban law, but has yet to be charged with a crime.

Getting cell phones into Cuban hands, Global Post

A cell phone is a handy device on this under-wired island; just not for making phone calls. Cuba’s state-run wireless monopoly, Cubacel, has some of the steepest rates in the world, charging the equivalent of 50 cents per minute for outgoing and incoming calls. In a country where the average salary is less than $20 a month, half a day’s wages can disappear with the first “Hola.”  Cubans, instead, are using them to send texts and as pagers.

Cuba’s medical diplomacy, Financial Times

When word reached Juan Carrizo that Hurricane Katrina had struck New Orleans on August 29 2005, he reacted with military precision and began mobilizing specialists to assist the thousands of Americans affected by the disaster.  Washington rejected Havana’s offer of help, but Cuba’s medical response to natural disasters has been indispensable ever since – as evidenced by the island’s contributions to recovery in Haiti and Chile just this year.

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