Big news this week on travel, trade, and more.
Seventy-four of Cuba’s most prominent dissidents wrote Congress this week to urge enactment of legislation to end the travel ban for all Americans to Cuba and to eliminate restrictions on the sale of U.S. farm goods to the island.
The Cuba Study Group made the letter public this week; it is an amazingly powerful read.
The signers call these policy changes good for human rights, good for alleviating hunger, and good for spreading information and showing solidarity with the Cuban people.
In making this appeal to Congress, the dissidents demolish every remaining justification on human rights grounds for keeping U.S. policy in place; in doing so, they thin the ranks of supporters of the status quo, and beg the question: Now that the dissidents have spoken, is there anyone left who thinks the policy of barring Americans from traveling to Cuba to punish Cuba’s government is a good idea?
If there are, we’d like them to tell us on whose behalf they are speaking. The dissidents – like towering majorities among Americans and Cuban Americans – believe that ending the travel ban and increasing food exports is the right way to support the Cuban people.
Also this week, a conservative U.S. Governor, Sonny Perdue of Georgia, returned from the island convinced that trade with Cuba will result in “opportunities for better jobs and prosperity in the United States.” Perdue also learned from traveling to the island that “People are people. And while our countries have had our political differences, the warmth of human nature shines through.” Score another one for the benefits of travel.
We cover these stories and much more, and then we close with a tribute to a wonderful friend of ours who had an incomparable passion for bringing Cuba and America much closer together.
This week in Cuba news…
U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS
Seventy-four of Cuba’s most prominent dissidents signed a letter this week urging the U.S. Congress to pass the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, H.R. 4645, introduced by House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson and Congressman Jerry Moran, according to the Associated Press. The legislation authorizes expanded agricultural trade and unrestricted travel to Cuba
Signers of the letter, made public by the Cuba Study Group, included blogger Yoani Sánchez, hunger striker Guillermo Fariñas, Elizardo Sánchez, head of Cuba’s largest human rights organization, Oscar Espinosa Chepe and Miriam Leiva.
About the provisions opening Cuba to travel and expanded trade, the dissidents write, “The supportive presence of American citizens, their direct help, and the many opportunities for exchange, used effectively and in the desired direction, would not be an abandonment of Cuban civil society but rather a force to strengthen it. Similarly, to further facilitate the sale of agricultural products would help alleviate the food shortages we now suffer.”
If passed by Congress, the bill would strike down several restrictions on agricultural trade with Cuba, allowing for direct transfers between U.S. and Cuban financial institutions and eliminating the “pay in advance” policy. The measure also includes provisions to authorize travel to Cuba for all U.S. citizens. The Obama administration has authorized unrestricted travel for Cuban Americans, as promised during his presidential campaign, but most U.S. citizens are still barred from traveling to Cuba.
Chairman Peterson released a statement about the letter which said: “When the strongest pro-democracy activists in Cuba say that the current travel and agriculture trade restrictions only support the Castro regime, you have to ask yourself why we would keep these restrictions in place,” Chairman Peterson said. “The statement of these pro-democracy, anti-Castro dissidents supporting H.R. 4645 is a strong indication that people who oppose this bill are not speaking on behalf of the Cuban people, regardless of what they say. Who are we helping by continuing a policy that has been in place for 50 years and has yet to change anything?”
Mauricio Claver-Carone, Director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which lobbies Congress to maintain sanctions against Cuba, quickly denounced the letter, accusing the organizers of signing on dissidents who did not understand the contents. According to Claver-Carone, “this letter was not based on the volition of Cuban dissidents.” However, one signer, Yoani Sánchez, blogged about it and another signer sent written confirmation of the letter’s authenticity. The Center for Democracy in the Americas played no role in organizing the letter, as the PAC charged, but does energetically support the policy recommendations the group is advocating.
Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas called the letter “a gentle rebuke to all Senators and House Members who believe they can force change in Cuba by keeping restrictions on the right of Americans to travel.” As the dissidents say: “Because the ability to travel freely is the right of every human being, we support this bill.”
The Miami Herald reported this week that the State Department has freed up $15 million for democracy-promotion programs in Cuba. Senator George LeMieux (R-FL) responded to the decision saying, “I am pleased the State Department has finally released these important funds.” The State Department and USAID will be responsible for distributing the funds to Cuban civil society groups “in the form of supplies such as computers, medicines and aid to the families of jailed dissidents.”
Congress is still blocking the release of $5 million, including $2.6 million set aside for the employer of Alan Gross, detained without charges in Cuba since December 2009, for allegedly distributing telecommunications equipment – an activity illegal under Cuban law.
A third round of migration talks between the U.S. and Cuba will take place in Washington on June 18th, according to anonymous sources. Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Dagoberto Rodríguez, is expected to head the Cuban delegation. The Havana Note broke this news based on information from unnamed White House sources.
Sonny Purdue, Georgia’s Governor returned from a 3-day trade mission to Cuba, calling for free trade between the U.S and Cuba, stating “when we go back (to Georgia) what we will say is that there are opportunities for better jobs and prosperity in the United States as a result of trade with Cuba,” Reuters reported. Perdue also said, aside from the benefits of increased trade, the most important thing he learned on the trip was that “people are people. And while our countries have had our political differences, the warmth of human nature shines through.”
Forty-three representatives from eighteen companies joined Governor Perdue on the trip which focused on “boosting the state’s exports to Cuba” according to Global Atlanta. Governor Perdue said, in a statement prior to the trip, “Our intent with this mission is to develop relationships that can bring more business for our companies and for the state.” He also hoped to promote Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as “a gateway to the U.S. for Cuban visitors.” A local Fox News anchor Russ Spencer blogged and reported on the trip.
Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) took part in a delegation of several U.S. Congressmen to Spain for a meeting between U.S. and European Union officials, according to La Gaceta. Diaz-Balart called on the EU to keep its “common position” toward Cuba to show “solidarity with the Cuban people,” rather than “the Cuban regime.” Diaz-Balart criticized efforts by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos to replace the existing policy with diplomatic engagement without preconditions. He also angrily complained about the fact that Porfiro Lobo, the president of Honduras, was unable to attend a summit in Spain last week, accusing Moratinos of not inviting him. El País reported that Diaz-Balart’s harsh criticism and tone in the exchange led Moratinos to accuse the congressman of being “ignorant” about the issues and refused to let him speak a final time in the meeting.
The Common Position was established by conservative Spanish president José María Aznar in 1996. On June 17th, the EU will review its policy toward Cuba, as it does annually. Moratinos met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez later in the week to discuss a variety of topics, including human rights.
Silvio Rodríguez gave his first performance in the U.S. in over thirty years to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall this week. According to the New York Times, Rodríguez “sang about dreams, uncertainties, disillusionment, death, love and willful hope in lyrics that offered more ambiguities and yearnings than slogans.” But his gentle voice could not calm the protestors outside.
According to EFE, protestors for and against the Cuban government gathered outside Carnegie Hall to voice their political concerns. A group of Cuban exiles carrying pictures of the Damas de Blanco and the recently deceased political prisoner Orlando Zapata shouted things like “free elections” and “freedom for Cuba.” Only yards away, and separated by police officers, another group showed their appreciation for Rodríguez, shouting things like “Cuba yes, embargo no,” and demanding the release of the “Cuban Five”.
At a recent meeting of Cuba’s National Defense Council, President Raúl Castro pledged to make rectifying economic woes his top priority. Castro urged top-ranking officials to work “in a sustained and irreversible way” to fix the country’s “complex economic problems,” EFE reported. Aside from addressing the country’s frail economy, Castro also stressed the importance of improving the country’s response to “disaster situations.” As part of that push, President Castro announced that he wishes to “[consolidate] and [strengthen] the nation’s command structure.” The meeting analyzed Cuba’s defense capabilities and the results of a recent military exercise – the largest in the past five years. Castro also addressed other types of disasters, including natural disasters and environmental damage, like the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Cuban government announced plans this week to split Havana province into two separate provinces, to be called Mayabeque and Artemisa. This move, according to Reuters, comes as Raúl Castro seeks to improve efficiency island-wide. Splitting the province, which encircles the city of Havana, is expected to improve local government efficiency as well as to increase local political influence. Hopes are that this measure would improve access to services and cut travel time for government employees.
In the face of the worst sugar harvest in a century, sugar industry insiders say that Cuba might open to foreign investment for the first time since Fidel Castro rose to power, Reuters reported. Foreign business representatives have been negotiating co-administration agreements for several sugar mills, but the change had not been reported in the Cuban media until recently. Sources report that the Sugar Ministry may soon be replaced by a state-run holding company. Popular television commentator, Ariel Terrero, announced the low sugar output and backed the idea of foreign investment in the sugar sector in his weekly segment on the Cuban economy. The sugar industry, with some restructuring, he explained, can be profitable thanks to high sugar prices and increasing demand for other sugar-based products, particularly energy.
With the risk that oil from the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico will despoil Cuban shores, Cuba is planning its first conference to share expertise in dealing with the environmental consequences of oil exploration. The conference will also discuss how the Gulf oil spill may affect Cuba. Prensa Latina reports that the symposium will convene individuals from a variety of sectors, including academics, naval specialists, and consultants, to discuss contamination and drilling security. The event will also establish contacts between numerous actors who have a stake in maritime and energy issues. Officials look to this conference to inform future energy extraction policy.
Cuba’s focus on environmental sustainability was reinforced further this week as the José Martí International Colloquium opened in Havana. The colloquium was launched to investigate the “survival of the human race and the environment,” according to Venezuela’s RNV. The event will be host to over 300 delegates from over 30 countries, including the UNESCO representative Herman Van Hoof.
Scientists in Cuba have reported an increase in the incidence of acid rain throughout the country, EFE wrote this week. According to reports in Granma, 25% of the rain in Cuba has been found to have some level of acidity. Experts noted that acid rain occurs when moisture in the air reacts with gases emitted by burning fossil fuels. The widespread occurrence of acid rain in Cuba, officials say, is a result of air masses transporting pollutants from urban and industry centers across long distances, as well as an increase in local sulfur and nitrogen emissions.
Luis Manuel Naranjo, the communications director of Cuba’s telephone provider (ETECSA), told Juventud Rebelde that the price of activating a cell phone has dropped eighty percent since they were first sanctioned for private use in 2008, EFE reported this week. Prepay rates for mobile phone activation have dropped from $120 to approximately $43. Current rates are still often prohibitively expensive, but, argues Naranjo, lowering rates requires large-scale investment of capital and resources. According to ETECSA, “economic conditions in Cuba did not allow an accelerated reduction of prices,” leading to a policy of gradual declines in costs. ETECSA announced expectations of over “one million [mobile phone users in Cuba] by the end of this year,” and approximately 2.4 million cell users by 2015.
Europa Press reported this week that 63% of Cubans between the ages of 18 and 24 are currently taking advantage of the country’s higher education system, and another 150,000 are pursuing masters programs and PhDs. According to the rector at the Universidad de La Habana, Cuba hopes to reach one million graduates this year. The majority of students in Cuba are pursuing medicine, science, and innovation. Over the last five years, the Cuban government has directed $10 million to universities to renovate laboratory facilities thereby promoting scientific research on the island.
The Catholic Church said this week that it anticipates conditions for prisoners of conscience on the island to improve, the Associated Press reported. Having brokered a deal to relocate a number of prisoners closer to their families and move infirm inmates to hospital facilities, Church leaders are asking for continued efforts from the government to improve conditions for political prisoners. The Cuban government, which insists that these prisoners of conscience are paid mercenaries hired by the U.S., began relocating inmates last week.
So far, no efforts have been made to transfer any of them to hospitals. Church official Orlando Marquez told a press conference, “any gesture they make would be welcomed by the Church … which wants to improve the situation for the prisoners and their families.” Many on the island suspect that the government is planning further movement of prisoners during Vatican official Archbishop Dominique Mamberti’s visit next week. “Once they made the first step, they raised expectations,” Marquez said. “Even though no other gestures have been made up until now on prisoner transfers, there is nothing to indicate that the process has stopped.”
Manfred Nowak, independent torture investigator for the United Nations, publicly announced his “disappointment” as Cuban officials blocked his first trip to the island. Having received a “clear invitation” from Cuban authorities earlier in the year, Nowak had planed to investigate “allegations of torture and ill-treatment.” The AP reported that Nowak has made a number of “fruitless attempts” to visit Cuba since 2005.
Cuba’s mission to the UN in Geneva issued a statement expressing the “surprise” of Cuban authorities that the visit fell through, the Miami Herald reported. The statement emphasized the sincerity of the Cuban government’s invitation to Nowav, and its efforts to establish a visit for the official that would be in “good faith.” However, despite official efforts to welcome Nowak, the statement continued, “Cuba does not need an objective evaluation of the situation in the country.”
Hector Palacios told the Latin American Herald Tribune this week that 38 dissidents were detained or prevented from leaving their homes in an effort to derail meetings by the Liberal Unity of the Republic of Cuba organization and the Cuban Transition Agenda. All dissidents were later released without charges, Palacios added. Despite these events, the two meetings were held as planned to “discuss the political and economic situation” in Cuba, as well as the “situation of Guillermo Fariñas … and the Ladies in White.” Palacios was one of 75 people arrested and imprisoned during the Spring 2003 political crackdown. He was released in 2006 for health reasons.
Guillermo Fariñas has been on a hunger strike for over 100 days and has announced that he would continue until all 26 infirm political prisoners are released to hospitals. Recently, however, he said “if they free the 10 or 12 sickest prisoners, I would abandon my protest so that the government can negotiate with the church the release of the rest on another timetable and without pressure.”
Marifeli Pérez-Stable wrote an op-ed in the Miami Herald this week discussing how the Cuban government’s recent decision to release prisoners is different from previous times. Stemming from internal cooperation, rather than international pressure, she writes, Castro’s decision to move prisoners closer to home signals a change within Cuba.
Around the Region:
Clinton Pleads Case for Honduras, The New York Times
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pleaded Monday with Latin American countries to welcome Honduras back into their circle, a year after the country’s president was ousted in a coup that has left a residue of bitterness throughout the region.
OAS to send delegation to assess political situation in Honduras, Latin America News Dispatch
The 40th General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) voted on Tuesday to send a high-level delegation to Honduras in order to assess the situation in the country. While the resolution does not clearly specify the purpose of the delegation, the decision to send it was apparently prompted by disagreement over whether Honduras should be readmitted to the hemispheric body.
Ecuador faces its own oil disaster, The New York Times
BP’s calamitous behavior in the Gulf of Mexico is the big oil story of the moment. But for many years, indigenous people from a formerly pristine region of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador have been trying to get relief from what has been described as the largest oil-related environmental catastrophe ever.
Mexico anger high as U.S. Border Patrol kills teen, Associated Press
Mexicans are seething over the second death of a countryman at the hands of U.S. Border Patrol agents in two weeks, an incident near downtown El Paso that is threatening to escalate tensions over migrant issues.
The Venezuelan government said that it “strongly rejects” the UN Security Council resolution that issues new political and economic sanctions against Iran.
Cuban wins 2010 ‘Green Nobel’ for participatory crop program, IPS News Agency
Patricia Grogg interviews Humberto Rios, recipient of the “Green Nobel Prize”- a coveted award given to those who try to improve their natural environment usually at great personal risk.
Cuban duo Los Carpinteros exemplify the sentiments of a generation of Cubans that feel that they can be critical of their government without ever leaving the island, in an art installation at Skidmore college.
Fox News reporter Russ Spencer follows Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue and his 43-member delegation as they engage with Cuban civilians, business owners, and government officials about the benefits of easing travel restrictions.
The Havana Times Photo Contest takes us on a photographic journey from Cuban rural life to urban life, and even the unusual side of Cuba. The contest included images from 33 photographers from all around the world.
A FINAL WORD
Our good friend Stephen Rivers made his final journey home this week after fighting a nasty cancer. We couldn’t close our news summary without mentioning his name, acknowledging our debt to him, and saying how much we loved and miss him.
Stephen dedicated an important part of his life to building cultural bridges between our country and Cuba. He traveled there dozens of times, often with huge celebrities like Kevin Costner, Stephen Spielberg, and Benicio Del Toro. His trips made equally big statements about the affinity that Cubans have for our culture and the absurdity of a travel ban that tries to punish the Cuban government by stopping Cubans from meeting Americans and exchanging our greatest and most entertaining ideas.
He was a P.R. guy by trade, but a fighter to reform U.S.-Cuba policy by choice. And he was good at both. He had the confidence of celebrities, political figures like the Kennedy family, and many others. With them, with everyone, he could be discrete, surly, serious, uproarious, the full palette, the entire emotional range; on any occasion, sometimes at once, at times, maddeningly, or endearingly so.
Stephen opened and read this news blast every week. He often shot us emails to correct editing or factual errors. Every once in a while he told us we had done well. We should have said that more often to him. And we’ll miss his every missive, every week.
In the course of Stephen’s leaving, friends from across our country and across the planet waved him moist-eyed good-byes that speak volumes about the impact that he had on most everyone he encountered.
A blogger wrote: “Hollywood publicist must be drinking Mojitos in heaven by now.” A woman left a post, “I feel blessed to have worked with you.” Another said, “You will be sorely missed by your friends in Jordan.” A journalist who knew him in Cuba said, “Que descanse en paz, companero.” A friend from home remembered Stephen for organizing pickets against grocery stores for the United Farm Workers, causing his mother to keep switching grocery stores so she could feed her family. You can see the living memorial that Stephen’s Facebook page has become. The tributes roll on and on, and deservedly so.
Stephen would have loved living long enough to see the travel ban lifted, the embargo end, and all of his good work vindicated. We wish he had. As he left, we hope he did so comforted by the fact – and it is a fact – that his work will continue and that he will live on in our hearts even after that victory is finally won.
Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team