As Cuban Prisoners Move, American Policy Stands Still

Dear Friends:

U.S. policy remains frozen in the amber of its own ineffectiveness.

As an agreement struck between Cuba’s Catholic Church and Cuba’s government starts being implemented – and political prisoners (who remain in jail) are moved closer to their families and homes – a State Department spokesman “hopes” they will all be released.  We hope so too.  But hope isn’t a policy, and the U.S. certainly needs a new approach toward Cuba after 50 years of failure.  The prisoners have begun to move not because our country isolated the Cuban government, but because the Catholic Church sat down with the Cuban government and won an agreement that reflects humanitarian goals all of us should share.  It’s not perfect, but its progress.

Not everyone feels this way.  In its email publication we received today, Capitol Hill Cubans compared the Catholic Church to the Cuban government, calling both non-democratic and non-representative.  Three days after the agreement, they published this note saying: “Despite the week’s speculation, as of tonight, no political prisoners have been transferred or released.”  In spite of the news that prisoners are actually moving, they cannot concede they were wrong or even skeptical prematurely.  Instead, their note today derides the Church for working to create the political space that led to this agreement.

To some of Cuba’s harshest critics, no announcement of progress, no incremental change that even makes lives marginally better for prisoners, can be accepted; because for them, nothing but keeping the current policy and “hoping” for regime change matters.  It seems awfully cynical.

The United States should get off the sidelines and really start to engage.

For now, we’re stuck.  But stuck as we are, Cuba and the world keep moving forward.  After reading the good news about prisoners, you will find stories about El Salvador’s president planning to visit Cuba, about a Chinese contractor laying cable that will provide Cuba with a faster connection to the Internet, about Spain trying to move the EU toward more engagement with Cuba, about a more lively political debate in Cuba concerning economic reform.

Read these stories and more, this week, in Cuba news…


Closer to home: Cuba begins relocation of political prisoners

Cuba’s government began relocating political prisoners to facilities closer to their families this week, offering the first concrete results of an agreement made last month with Catholic Church leaders, according to the Associated Press.

In a note published in State media, the Archbishop of Havana’s office announced that six prisoners (all arrested during the Spring 2003 crackdown on government opposition) had been moved to prisons closer to their homes. These actions came ten days after Catholic Church officials announced the government’s commitment to relocate a number of “prisoners of conscience,” as the church calls them.  The government maintains that Cuba has no political prisoners and that all individuals are jailed for legitimate crimes.  Dissident leaders have claimed that President Raúl Castro’s agreement with Cardinal Jaime Ortega “includes an understanding that some of the 26 ailing political prisoners would be freed,” but government officials speak of relocating them to hospitals instead. In the meeting, Castro also “signaled the possible release of an unknown number of prisoners,” according to an earlier Reuters article.

Many see the negotiations and prisoner relocations as a promising sign.

“This could be the starting gun,” said Elizardo Sanchez, the head of the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.  Sanchez, who monitors dissident activity, is holding out, however, for the government to release prisoners suffering from illness, which he says was part of the agreement.  Approximately 26 prisoners of the 75 dissidents arrested in 2003 are said to be in poor health.

Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas told EFE: “This is extremely hopeful news that the Cuban government is beginning to implement its agreement with the Church on political prisoners, an action that could be transformative for U.S.-Cuba relations.” Stephens continued on to say, “this is an important achievement for the Catholic Church and a real lesson for U.S. policy makers.  Talking to the Cuban government directly and candidly, not using sanctions to pry concessions from them is the most effective way to achieve progress on the issues that concern us.”

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. continues “to hope that prisoners of conscience will be released, rather than just relocated,” as soon as possible.

The organization Cuba Democracía ¡Ya! criticized the government’s actions, saying that the relocation of prisoners is meant to distract the attention of the international community and “weaken the advances of the opposition,” reports Europa Press. The Florida Sun–Sentinel had a different take on the move, arguing that “efforts by Cuba’s Catholic Church to improve the prisoners’ conditions deserve strong support and encouragement.”

According to Spain’s ABC, the Cuban government has requested that the Ladies of Support, a group of women who march with the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), end their public support of the group.  Ladies in White leader Laura Pollán said no, but other members of the group signed a letter asking the Ladies of Support to refrain from marching so as to further encourage “the promising efforts being made by the Catholic Church of Cuba with the Cuban government.”

Economic debate picks up on editorial page of the Granma

Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba’s government, has been publishing a “jarringly lively and often critical set of letters to the editor” in recent months with suggestions for economic reforms, the Miami Herald reported. “Let us all . . . push for new mechanisms, structures or whatever one wants to call them. But let’s do it without delay because tomorrow, tomorrow could be too late,” wrote J. Rodríguez Pérez in a recent article.

Raúl Castro encouraged public debate on reforms and changes within the Cuban system after he took over as President in 2008. “Academics, artists and others joined in with gusto,” according to the Herald, “writing columns that ranged from calls to ‘democratize socialism’ to attacks on ‘neo-Stalinism.’” Many of the recent letters have been in support of reforms to expand the roles of cooperatives and private businesses in the economy. “Competition and privatization, which so many criticize and fear, are engines driving good-quality services,” J.R. Cepero Donates, a University of Havana student, wrote recently.

Cuba continues to face drought

Cuba is facing a severe drought that began in November 2008, worsened throughout 2009, and has continued into this year, depleting the ground water and reservoirs and endangering access to water for over 500,000 people, Prensa Latina reported.  State media reported that “the situation is becoming more critical,” as rainfall in May only reached 47 percent of its normal level. “At the close of the month, the dams of the country, with a capacity of over 9 billion cubic meters, stored only 3.5 billion cubic meters, which is about 41 percent of their potential,” reported El Financiero.

A “consciousness-raising” campaign has been launched by the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources and the Water Saving and Rational Use Program (PAURA) to educate the public on more efficient water use within Cuba.

Raúl Castro turns 79

Raúl Castro celebrated his seventy-ninth birthday this week in a quiet affair. According to Reuters, the younger Castro’s birthday “was not mentioned in Cuba’s state-run newspapers, possibly because the topic is a sensitive one for the country’s aging leaders.” With “no obvious younger successors” to the country’s dominantly senior leaders, Raúl might be sensitive about celebrating.

In an effort to revitalize the Cuban system, Castro has vowed to reconstruct the country’s economy so that the socialist model will remain in place for generations to come. Today’s Granma featured an article about how Castro has called on his government to work in a “sustained and irreversible” manner to solve “the complicated economic problems” that the country faces, EFE reported.


Spain has one month remaining to lead change of EU position on Cuba

With a month remaining in its EU presidency, Spain still hopes to discuss the possibility of changing European Union policy toward Cuba.  Announcing that the policy will be discussed at the EU’s June meeting, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos continued to argue that the common position on Cuba “can no longer be justified,” EFE reported. Because consensus among EU countries is necessary to eliminate the position, however, he admitted that he “doesn’t know” what will come of these efforts.  According to Moratinos, “the foreign policy of the EU is defined via bilateral, regional accords … And this is the only common position that the EU has (in) the entire world. There are those who defend it who say that it needs to be harsher, but that road does not serve to reach our objectives.”

Ecuadorian Attorney General plans to restrict entry of Cubans into Ecuador

In reaction to large numbers of Cubans obtaining Ecuadorian naturalization illegally, the Ecuadorian Attorney General, Washington Pesántez, has proposed a new policy of “selective migration,” according to EcoDiario. Pesántez complained that many Cubans are entering Ecuador and falsifying relationships to secure citizenship. Many of them, he adds, come to engage in illegal activities. Cuban and Ecuadorian officials agreed to investigate suspected cases of “marriages of convenience.”  Fernando Cordero, President of the Ecuadorian National Assembly, identified a web of illegal trade in such ‘false marriages’ that spans the two countries, stating that several officials are under investigation, Reuters reported. Ecuador does not require tourist visas, making it a popular destination for Cubans.

Cordero recently returned from a visit to the island, where he bestowed on Fidel Castro Ecuador’s highest distinction of “General Eloy Alfaro,” according to Venezuelan sources.  First Vice President José Ramón Machado Ventura accepted the decoration on Fidel’s behalf.  Cordero praised Cuba’s former President, saying that Fidel left the legacy of “never ceasing to fight, no matter how difficult the circumstances may appear.” Xinhua reports on the event here.

After 50 years, Salvadoran President to visit Cuba

After breaking relations with Cuba 50 years ago, El Salvador re-established diplomatic ties when President Mauricio Funes took office in June 2009.  President Funes recently announced plans to visit the island to further deepen that new relationship, according to the Associated Press. Having been invited by Raúl Castro when Dr. Vanda Pignato, El Salvador’s first lady visited Cuba to celebrate the opening of the Salvadoran embassy, Funes announced that he plans to take the trip at some undetermined time this year. “The purpose of visiting Cuba,” Funes stated, “is to strengthen the cooperation that during 50 years without diplomatic relations was not able to form.”

Technicians moving forward with plan to lay fiber-optic cable between Cuba and Venezuela

This week a Chinese-made ship began mapping the exact route of a fiber-optic cable to be laid underwater between Cuba and Venezuela, Europa Press reported. The Chinese company Cantel Shangai Bell has been hired to install the cable “due to their trustworthiness and commitment, as well as their lack of obligation to comply with United States embargo laws.”  Authorities estimate a start date for installation of the cable early next year, Prensa Latina reported.

At a cost of 70 million dollars, the cable linking Venezuela, Cuba, and Jamaica will be one of ALBA’s largest projects. Most importantly, it is expected to make Cuba’s Internet speed 3,000 times faster than the current satellite-based system.

New luxury foreign investments in Cuban tourism

EFE reported this week that Cuba and China are set to begin construction on a $117 million hotel project in Havana. The luxury complex will have 650 rooms and will span approximately 19 acres of western Havana. Investment in the project will be 51% Chinese-based capital, and 49% Cuban funding. Cuba and China currently have 13 mixed-investment projects underway in a variety of sectors.

In another international collaboration, the Spanish company Barceló has plans to build a four-star, over 350-room hotel in the popular beach destination Varadero. This hotel will link with their existing five-star accommodations to form the Barceló Solymar – Arenas Blancas Resort.

The Chinese – Cuban relationship is one that has long, historic roots in Cuban society, as well as the economy. See this article about the vibrant Chinese neighborhood in Cuba that has persevered thanks to special policies permitting private business operations within this unique community.

Cuban trade plunges in sign of economic distress

Recent figures detail declining trade between Cuba and several of its major trading partners, in the most recent sign that Cuba’s economy is suffering. After being hit by three major hurricanes in 2008, and a global recession and a drop in nickel prices, Cuba has been forced to cut state expenditures. The government has reduced some of the deep subsidies provided to the Cuban people that augment their often limited salaries, and President Castro has suggested that more may have to go. He has also launched reforms to increase domestic food production in an effort to reduce imports. In conjunction with such streamlining efforts, Business Week reported, international trade was down 34% in 2009 from the previous year’s levels

Trade with Venezuela and China, Cuba’s two main trading partners, took the greatest hit. Trade with the U.S. fell by 30%, while Venezuelan trade was down 36%, and China suffered a 21% decline.

In a further economic blow, new statistics released by the National Statistics Office this week showed that “Cuba’s oil production fell by almost 300,000 tons in 2009 from 2008 levels, while natural gas output stagnated,” Reuters reported.


U.S. meets with Caribbean governments (except Cuba) as the region prepares for the worst hurricane season since 2005

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “the Atlantic storm season may be the most intense since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina killed over a thousand people after crashing through Gulf of Mexico energy facilities,” Reuters reported. Cuba, which was devastated by a series of hurricanes and tropical storms in 2008, is gearing up for a “very active” hurricane season, Xinhua News reported. Meteorological experts on the island say that unusually warm Atlantic waters, coupled with a weak El Niño effect contribute to favorable conditions for hurricanes.

Meanwhile, the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs held a hurricane preparedness workshop at the U.S. Department of State this week in an effort to prepare for hurricane season. Noticeably absent was Cuba. The workshop, conducted yearly, convened the “Department of State, other U.S. government, and foreign embassy officials responsible for responding to hurricanes overseas” to “discuss the 2010 hurricane forecast, past lessons learned, current response plans, and how to most effectively alert U.S. citizens abroad of any hurricane threat through social media and web 2.0 technologies.” Representatives from Grenada, Jamaica, Bermuda, Barbados, Belize, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas all participated in the conference. A transcript of the event can be accessed here.

This workshop comes on the heels of a security conference held among the U.S. and largely CARICOM countries from which Cuba was also excluded by the State Department.

U.S. demands Cuba release jailed contractor

U.S. officials recently met with Alan Gross, an American contractor detained in Cuba, for the fifth time since his incarceration in December 2009.  Phillip Crowley, spokesman of the State Department, demands that Gross be released on “humanitarian grounds.”  He, notably, did not cite legal reasons in his statement.  The Cuban government has yet to charge Gross, but have accused him of providing high-tech satellite equipment to dissidents in Havana.

Cuban Bishops attend ceremony of new Archbishop Wenski in south Florida

Bishops, priests and lay people from around the hemisphere attended the ceremony marking Thomas Wenski as South Florida’s new Archbishop, including two Church leaders from Cuba – Bishop Emilio Aranguren of Holguín and Archbishop Juan Garcia Rodriguez of Camagüey, the Miami Herald reported. According to the Herald, “the gathering marked a rare appearance of the hemisphere’s most powerful Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. It also symbolized the high regard that Wenski – who has extensive experience in domestic and foreign matters as a leader on several committees of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops – holds among Catholics.”

Wenski, a long-time advocate for improving relations with Cuba, spearheaded a relief operation in response to Hurricane Lily in 1996 that marked the first time Cubans in Miami participated in a humanitarian relief effort directed to Cuba. He has been a leader on the issue ever since.

Tampa seeks closer ties to Cuba

In an effort to improve Tampa’s economic prospects, the City Council is “mapping out a strategy” to improve ties with Cuba, reported the St. Petersburg Times. Council members voted 5-0 to “invite Mayor Pam Iorio and representatives of the Hillsborough County Commission, the Tampa Port Authority, Hillsborough County Aviation Authority and the Tampa area Congressional delegation to develop a plan.” Steve Michelini, managing director of the World Trade Center that promotes international business, said, “Tampa must be more active and more aggressive in becoming a trading partner with Cuba…We’re not here talking about whether the current administration in Cuba is going to remain or not, but whether Tampa should become more active.”  Council member Joseph Caetano echoed his sentiment, adding, “Forget the politics in Washington.”

City officials are now exploring opening the Port of Tampa to trade with Cuba and launching daily direct flights to the island.

Since sanctions restricting the sale of food products and medical supplies to Cuba were eased in 2000, many U.S. agricultural companies have been taking advantage of the Cuban market and even promoting the idea that commerce could lead to democratization in Cuba. CNBC explores this idea, interviewing cattleman Ralph Kaehler, who contends that “we’ve never gone to war with a trading partner.”  According to Atlanta Business News, Governor Sonny Perdue, of Georgia, is another firm believer that opening trade with Cuba would be economically and politically beneficial for both nations.  He believes that commerce “opens up cultural exchanges and opportunities to draw closer in other areas.”

In her set-up piece for Governor Perdue’s upcoming trip to Cuba, Anya Landau French of the New American Foundation wrote that he is “about to discover” that “the Cuban people are facing serious economic difficulties, and working in tourism helps many average Cubans to make ends meet.” Noting that “Cuban dissidents on the island and respected human-rights watchdogs have called on Washington to lift the U.S. travel ban,” Landau suggests that if the Georgia governor “hopes to gain more Cuba trade for Georgia, he might have better luck traveling to Washington this summer than to Havana.”

Alonso and Rodriguez arrive in the U.S.

The pattern of increased cultural exchange between the U.S. and Cuba continued as Alicia Alonso and Silvio Rodriguez arrived in the U.S. for their much anticipated visits. The New York Times reported on Alonso’s arrival to New York where she said she came to the U.S. “because they are giving me a wonderful reception, a wonderful feeling of coming back.” “I will talk to you about memories and things like that, and I think we should keep it like that. Don’t you think so?”

The Star-Ledger reported that Rodriguez is now using his voice to express his belief that “Cuba needs to ‘evolve’ internally to avoid being changed by outside forces.” According to Bloomberg, many people are hopeful that the cultural exchange visits will lead to larger steps in the relationship between the two countries.

Fidel Castro claims Obama lives in a ‘fantasy world’

According to the Associated Press, Fidel Castro suggested in an article published by Cuban media that a nuclear strike on Iran – “perhaps even without U.S. authorization” – might hand President Barack Obama a second term in office. Castro has often praised Obama but recently painted him as a “victim of fantasies planted in his mind by sinister advisers.”

Calls to reexamine the case of the Cuban Five

In a press conference this week, community activists and legal advocates called on the United States government to free the ‘Cuban Five’ – a group of Cubans who were arrested on espionage charges in 1998 – based on newly uncovered information related to their trial, the BBC reported.

Evidence that the U.S. government paid ten of thousands of dollars to journalists who published often scathing articles in the South Florida press was made public in 2006, but the National Committee for the Release of the Cuban Five announced that it has new evidence. Government involvement, these organizations claim, made it impossible for the Cubans to get a fair trial. Consequently, they are launching a national campaign to urge Attorney General Eric Holder to free the Cuban Five. The Cuban government maintains that the men were monitoring terrorist activities of anti-Castro groups and were not spying on the U.S. government.

According to Lawrence Wilkerson, “the U.S. government violated the Smith-Mundt Act, by funding activities to influence public opinion with regard to the Cuban Five, thus influencing the jury pool and calling into question their convictions.”  There are those now who are asking that the Cuban Five case be reexamined given these issues.

The Cuban-run newspaper Prensa Latina reported this week that over 100 Spanish women sent a letter to Michelle Obama, asking for her intervention in the case of the Cuban Five.

Around the Region:

Secretary of State Clinton to travel to Latin America for General Assembly of OAS

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to travel to Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Barbados from June 6-10. She will participate in the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) and consult with regional government leaders on “issues of shared interest.”

Ousted president Manuel Zelaya invited back to Honduras

Honduran President Profirio Lobo announced plans to accompany Manuel Zelaya back to Honduras in an effort to ease tensions in the country. Lobo’s declaration was met with significant controversy from critics.

Heavy rains plague Central America

Death tolls in Central America continue to rise after Tropical Storm Agatha ravaged the region this past week. 180 people have died, with Guatemala suffering the most casualties. Damaged infrastructure and an active volcano in Guatemala complicate the rescue process.

Chavez nationalizes largest Venezuelan food producing company

President Hugo Chavez has accused Venezuela’s largest food producing company of hoarding food and jacking up prices in an attempt to destabilize the already debilitated economy around election time (balloting for the National Assembly takes place in September).

Recommended Reading:

More latitude to private farmers as Cuba relaxes restrictions

As Cuba furthers efforts to reform the agricultural system, the government eases restrictions on small farmers. 

Clinton: Haiti is one issue on which Cuba, Venezuela and the U.S. agree

Former President Bill Clinton suggests Haiti recovery efforts are the only area in which the U.S., Venezuela, and Cuba fully agree. The Venezuelan Foreign Minister begs to differ.

Haiti: A report on possible U.S. – Cuba cooperation on public health

This is the final report from the April 21st conference held by the Center for International Policy, together with MEDICC, to discuss the ways in which Cuba provides support to Haiti and Haiti’s needs for the future. The final report is attached.

SIPRI: South American arms spending up

This report documents changes in military spending in Latin America.  Overall South American arms spending may be up, but Venezuela’s military budget is down 25%.

Recommended Viewing:

Photographic journey through the ‘heart and soul’ of Cuba

Cuban photographer Raúl Cañibano Ercilla brings us an intimate portrait of Cuban society, “with all its complexities, wonders, struggles, humanity, love and sense of integrity.”

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