Holiday head-scratcher … if oil led to cooperation … if you only knew what Cubans were using instead of balloons!

Dear Friends:

In the U.S. we’re about to celebrate the Memorial Day holiday.  As we enter the zone of the three-day weekend, we thought we’d open the news summary with this head-scratcher:

The State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs is hosting a day-long meeting with high-level representatives from the Caribbean Community countries, the Dominican Republic, and “non-Caribbean partner nation observers.”

State calls the event “a forum for the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), which will in turn create a framework for partnership and improving security and citizen safety throughout the Caribbean, two core U.S. objectives for the region.  Key goals for this partnership include substantially reducing illicit trafficking, increasing citizen safety, and promoting social justice.”

An event like this should be right in the U.S.-Cuba sweet spot.  But when we asked the State Department this week “Is Cuba invited?” a spokeswoman from the Bureau wrote us back (rather promptly, we should note) and said “No,” and then she listed the attendees who are coming just as they appeared in the press release.

Cuba should have had a seat at the table.

As national security expert Randy Beardsworth wrote about the U.S. and Cuba last year:

Both nations are vulnerable to the scourge of illegal drugs and to global criminal networks…In addition, the U.S. has a strong national interest in countering global financial crimes, especially those that may contribute to terrorist activities.  One could reasonably expect, given these common interests, the U.S. and Cuba would have a robust dialogue in these seemingly neutral, apolitical areas of interest.  But this is not the case, and the lack of functional relationships that would permit dialogue puts our national interests at risk (our emphasis).

From protecting national security to preserving shared resources like the maritime environment in the Gulf of Mexico, the absence of a normal relationship with Cuba imposes profound costs on the United States.

Current U.S. policy – what some people call “conditionality” – requires Cuba to compensate our government with changes in their political system in order to secure meaningful cooperation with us.  Cuba has resolutely refused to play that game for five decades.

What this means is that whenever something really needs to happen, we either set the policy aside (which makes us look dumb) or accept the costs of not engaging with Cuba (which makes us look dumber).

In December of last year, the Obama administration turned down a request from the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC), based in Houston, to send a delegation to Cuba.  In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, now the administration wants them to go, so that IADC can have the kinds of discussions about safe drilling activities it could have had with Cuba before the BP spill occurred.

Why is it better for us to be a step behind events because we’re locked into a policy that hasn’t worked and never will?

It’s a holiday head-scratcher.

This week in Cuba news…

OIL SPILL

Experts: BP oil spill shows the U.S. and Cuba need to work together on energy development and disaster response

As oil from the BP disaster continues to flow into the Gulf from the sea floor, experts say the possibility the effects could be felt in Cuba are increasing, as is the need for the U.S. and Cuba to cooperate on preventing a future accident.

Fortune Magazine reported this week that “among the many good reasons to jettison our failed economic embargo against Cuba is one with timely new resonance: oil.” The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the nation has about 4.6 billion barrels and nearly 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the North Cuba Basin, and possibly four times that much in its portion of the Gulf of Mexico.

However, the embargo bars U.S. companies from being involved in Cuba’s oil development and also dictates that technology used cannot contain more than 10% of U.S.-made components, which makes finding rigs and other technology extremely difficult. However, the Spanish energy giant, Repsol, is bringing a Chinese-made deep-water oil drilling rig to Cuba this fall.

According to Jorge Piñón, a Cuban-American and energy expert, “if substantial reservoirs are found, then the pressure in Washington is going to be such that you will see the embargo, as far as the oil industry is concerned, falling apart.”

Oil experts have said that aside from the economic benefits for U.S. oil companies, the BP oil spill in the Gulf is evidence that we want companies with good environmental standards operating in Cuba waters, some of which are just 50 miles from the Florida Coast, and that the U.S. and Cuban governments should be in a constant dialogue about how to prevent and react to accidents.

A team of Venezuelan experts has been sent to Cuba to help prepare for the possible effects of the spill, the Associated Press reported. President Hugo Chávez announced the departure of the team on his weekly television show, saying the spill “is threatening Cuba’s coasts.” He said experts from Venezuela will help carry out “simulation drills,” something the Cubans don’t have much experience with.

In her piece on the Huffington Post, Sarah Stephens urged the U.S. 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.” According to Stephens, “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.”

U.S. licenses oil drilling group to visit Cuba for safety practices discussion

The U.S. government has approved travel by the Houston-based International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC) to Cuba.  Reuters reported that the IADC delegation aims to establish cooperation on “safety and environmental practices,” and is now waiting for Havana to set a date for the five-member delegation.

IADC officials announced that the Obama administration “denied it permission to travel to Cuba in December, but reversed the decision apparently due to the attention the BP … well blowout brought to the potential for an environmental catastrophe.” IADC Executive Vice President Brian Petty remarked that “the license was granted, curiously, just after the spill in the United States…We are pleased the government has relented.”

The IADC trip will focus on enhancing “Cuban awareness of global standards in the prevention of accidents, safety procedures and environmental protection.”  Delegates also plan to discuss the prospect of offshore oil drilling with Cuban officials. This trip would mark the first U.S. oil industry delegation to Cuba.

In response to the BP oil spill, U.S. and Cuban diplomats have commenced “working-level talks” on the risks of the Gulf of Mexico disaster to Cuban shores. Oceanographers predict that the powerful Loop Current that flows through the Florida Straits could carry some of the oil slick to Cuban shores, threatening the island’s most popular beach resorts.

Jorge Piñon said that he expects to see “drilling in Cuban waters later this year,” making the need for full U.S. – Cuba cooperation essential. “We are not talking about a transfer of technology.  All we are asking is that, if there is an accident, the Cubans can pick up the phone and call American experts who can bring resources within 24 hours,” Piñón said. “The flexibility must be there.”

The New America Foundation organized a conference this week where experts analyzed the potential impact of an oil spill in Cuban waters, and how the embargo might impact Cuban, international and U.S. responses to such a situation. The event aimed to “consider the risks and offer …recommendations for what action the U.S. should pursue now to protect our shared environment.” A video of the conference can be found here.

HUMAN RIGHTS

Cuba to make some changes in the detention of political prisoners

Discussions between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government have resulted in a new pledge by the government to transfer political prisoners who are in poor health to hospitals and move prisoners kept in distant facilities closer to home. The status of political prisoners was one of several issues discussed between high level church officials and President Raúl Castro when they met on May 19th.

Reuters reported that Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba Dionisio García, who heads the Cuban Bishops’ Conference, said their meeting with Castro was “positive” and lasted more than four hours.  Early this month Cardinal Ortega mediated a negotiation between the government and the Ladies in White so that they could resume weekly marches.

Guillermo Fariñas, a dissident journalist on a hunger strike for over 90 days, commented that he had been informed of a second meeting to be held next week toward “resolving the situation of the prisoners,” BBC News reported.

McClatchy News reported that the talks have “sparked hopes, skepticism” and speculation that Raúl Castro may be “taking a risk by recognizing the Church as a mediator in Cuban affairs.”

When asked about the development, a State Department spokesman responded: “We’ve seen the optimist prognosis (for the political prisoners) and are looking forward to seeing what concrete steps the Cuban government will take. We have urged the Cuban government before to release its prisoners of conscience.”

The Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, spoke favorably of the dialogue, saying the “conversation is a positive signal in a very delicate situation,” Europa Press reported.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas issued a statement asserting that the Castro-Ortega talks were “a real lesson for U.S. policy makers. Talking to the Cubans, not using sanctions … is the most effective way to achieve progress.” Meanwhile, a Miami Herald editorial accused the Catholic Church of “a long silence,” but recognized the Church’s role as a potential “catalyst for change.”

Archbishop Dominique Memberti, the Vatican’s foreign minister, will visit the island next month.  Local church officials, however, said the current talks were between the local church and the government and they hope such discussions will continue.

IN CUBA

Reforms in the troubled construction sector

After years of criticism from Raúl Castro regarding the infrastructure situation on the island, problems remain, according to El Financiero. Additionally, Europa Press reported the launch of a new initiative to pay construction workers after the completion of projects, eliminating fixed salaries. The goal of the measure is to end low-quality performance and increase productivity, according to the Construction Ministry.

Cuba prepares population for natural disasters ahead of hurricane season

José Rubiera, director of the National Center of Weather Forecast, warned that high temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and a weaker El Niño effect in the Pacific could trigger more hurricanes in the Caribbean region during 2010, reported EFE.  Rubiera stated that “we must always be prepared, no matter the (weather) predictions,” but conceded that natural disasters are likely to continue affecting the island in the near future and preparation is essential in order to minimize damages.

Rubiera participated in Meteoro 2010, a program launched last week to train Cubans how to react in the face of natural disasters.  The program uses practical exercises, and holds “health workshops and scientific conferences…on any adverse or unpredictable situations” Cuba may face, Radio Havana Cuba reported.

Last week the island suffered a small magnitude 3.0 quake that affected the provinces of Granma and Santiago de Cuba.  No deaths or material damages were reported, according to Prensa Latina.

Cuba criticizes world healthcare system as 100-plus population increases

Cuban Deputy Health Minister José Angel Portal denounced developed nations for not honoring their commitment to extend and improve healthcare services to the poorer nations of the south, as agreed at the World Health Organization’s Millennium Summit.  According to the Cuban News Agency, Portal claimed that, despite the embargo and economic hardship, Cuba has “38,000 health workers now offering their services in 78 nations.”  Portal is now calling on developed nations to bolster their efforts abroad.

Meanwhile, new statistics show that one out of every 7,000 Cubans lives at least 100 years, the Associated Press reported. According to Eugenio Selman, Fidel Castro’s former doctor and the current head of the 120 year old club which works to improve living conditions for older citizens, there are currently 1,541 Cubans living on the island who are more than 100 years old.

Associated Press: “Cuba in an all out corruption fight

Bolivia’s Anti-Corruption Minister Nardy Suxo arrived in Havana last week to meet with Cuba’s Comptroller General, as well as officials from the Attorney General’s Office and the Ministry of Justice.  According to Xinhua News, Suxo intended to share experiences of Bolivian corruption and advise officials on how to “curb fraud and corruption” in “state enterprises and institutions.”

Cuba announced in April that Gladys Bejerano, the Comptroller General, “would launch a new crackdown against corruption,” starting with audits of 750 companies. Progreso Weekly featured an interesting essay, Comptroller vs. Corruption, at that time, and renowned Cuban academic Esteban Morales recently wrote that corruption is the biggest threat to the revolution.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Cultural exchange continues with Cuba’s National Ballet set to visit DC in 2011

For the first time since 2001, Cuba’s National Ballet will perform at the Kennedy Center from May 31st to June 5th 2011.  Although tickets are not yet for sale, the Center announced this week that the prestigious group will include The Magic of Dance and a version of Don Quixote as part of the program.

The full text of Arturo Valenzuela’s recent speech at the Cuban American National Foundation was released by the state department this week. Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said the administration would continue to prioritize facilitating artistic and cultural exchange between the U.S. and Cuba. “The ‘Peace Without Borders’ concert in Havana and performances in the United States by noted Cuban artists such as Carlos Varela demonstrate in concrete terms our desire to promote greater communication between the people of the United States and Cuba.”

In an essay published in the Miami Herald, dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe calls on the Cuban government to reciprocate the U.S. government’s opening by allowing Cuban exiles to perform on the island. “The repeated friendly gestures made by the American authorities should be reciprocated by the Cuban authorities. At a time when the economy sinks swiftly, we should take advantage of Washington’s stance to begin to settle the differences that for so many years have separated our countries.”

Agricultural trade good for Cuba and Texas

Texas rice and wheat producers affirmed their support for H.R. 4645 to lift travel and trade restrictions to Cuba this week. Steve Pringle, legislative director for the Texas Farm Bureau, said that “passage of H.R. 4645 could have direct, immediate impacts on Texas with some $35 million worth of additional economic activity and more than 300 jobs hanging in the balance.”  Opening up agricultural trade with Cuba would also help to mitigate food insufficiency on the island, according to Go San Angelo.  “Cutting off the food chain to a country’s people because of the politics of its government often ends up starving folks who have no idea why,” Jerry Lackey writes.

The Latin America Working group is organizing constituents to contact their representatives and urge support for H.R. 4645. For more details, click here.

President of Cuban Supreme Court: still no case against Alan Gross

Rubén Remigio, president of the Supreme Court in Cuba, stated Wednesday that “there still is not a case related to (Alan Gross),” the Associated Press reported.  Remigio added that “he did not know whether prosecutors were working on one.”  To formally file charges in Cuba, a “judicial accusation and the opening of a court case” is necessary. Gross, a contractor for USAID was detained on December 3rd under suspicion of “distributing banned satellite communications equipment,” and has been held at the high-security Villa Marista prison since.

Cuban lawmakers passed a resolution against Arizona’s anti-immigrant law

This week, Cuba’s National Assembly defined the controversial new immigration law in Arizona as “racist and xenophobic” and a “brutal” violation of human rights, according to the Associated Press.  Cuban lawmakers also expressed their fear that similar laws would be enacted across the United States, allowing police to racially profile nation-wide.

The AP also noted that “Cuban citizens are required to carry identification with them wherever they go, and can be stopped by police and sent home if they are found in a part of the island where they don’t belong.”

Around the Region:

El Salvador, in celebrating Roque Dalton, confronted by bitter past, LA Times

Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton was slain by his leftist revolutionary comrades in 1975. As the government celebrates his legacy, his family demands his killers be brought to justice.

Lobo Reverses Stance on Honduran Coup, Americas Quarterly

Last week, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa publicly acknowledged that the expulsion of President Manuel Zelaya from the country on June 28, 2009 constituted a coup. This was a startling admission from a man who won last year’s presidential election in a climate rife with fear, repression and censorship.  Lobo’s belated recognition of the coup suggests pressure to normalize relations with the international community.

Unrest Grows in Jamaica in 3rd Day of Standoff, NY Times

The conflict, which prompted the government to declare a state of emergency over the weekend, pits supporters of Christopher Coke, wanted in the United States on gun and drug charges, against the government of Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who has relied on Mr. Coke’s influence to win votes in the west Kingston neighborhood that both men share.

Two Chávez opponents barred from office in Venezuela, Associated Press

Venezuela’s top anti-corruption official on Tuesday barred two opponents of President Hugo Chavez from holding public office, preventing them from running in September’s legislative elections.

Recommended Reading:

Condoms: not just for sex in Cuba, Global Post

On this island of constant shortages and scarcities, the latex condom has uses that stretch far beyond the bedroom.  At baseball games, concerts and other entertainment events, Cubans blow them up and bat them around the crowd like beach balls.  When Cuban parents can’t afford birthday party balloons or can’t find them, they unfurl a few “Vigor” brand prophylactics and start puffing.

Cuba Travel Ban: Is the End in Sight?, Politics Daily

Over a year ago, in a gesture of conciliation, President Barack Obama lifted travel restrictions on Cuban Americans wanting to visit their relatives on the island. Havana lovers, tourists and travel agents looking for fresh markets jumped for joy. Soon we would all be planning holidays in Varadero and Cayo Coco.

Peripheral Foreign Policy, Real Clear World

You don’t want to hurt feelings in Ankara and Brasilia, because they are emerging powers whom you might need down the road.

EMC helps preserve Hemingway’s Cuba legacy, Metro West Daily News

Comfortable within the confines of Old Havana, Ernest Hemingway was not initially keen on his wife’s plan to move the couple to the nearby Cuban countryside.  But the novelist quickly grew smitten with the mango-filled estate of Finca Vigia. When it came time for stateside medical treatment years later, he expected to soon return and left the stucco villa frozen in time, from half-drunk gin bottles to betting slips for cockfights.

For a special view of Hemingway’s house from the inside, you can visit the Center for Democracy in the America’s website and see a photo gallery here.

Recommended Viewing:

Escape from Havana: An American Story, CNBC

This documentary explores the cases of thousands of children who were sent to the US after the revolution took power in Cuba, some of them without their parents. The program will highlight the stories of five of those children who against all odds were able to succeed as American citizens. “Parents feared that their children would be seized by the Cuban state—fears that were stoked as part of a clandestine plan by the United States government in an attempt to undermine Castro”, says CNBC about this piece that will be aired today, May 27th at 9PM ET/PT.

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