Movement on Prisoners, Talks on Migration, Dissidents Dissent and a Candidate’s Descent

Dear Friends:

This was a really interesting week for the constellation of issues we care about concerning Cuba and U.S. policy.

The Cuban government began to implement its agreement with the Catholic Church, freeing a political prisoner and moving others to jails nearer their homes.  Cuba started talks with the Vatican’s foreign minister, and a church-led conference in Havana kicked off broad, lively debates on issues beyond the boundaries of the church-state dialogue.

Speaking of dialogue, the U.S. government convened with Cuba another round of talks under the migration rubric, but our diplomats expressed pessimism that the discussions could produce progress against the backdrop of the continued detention of U.S. contractor Alan Gross.

Last week’s letter by 74 of Cuba’s most prominent democracy advocates triggered additional attention for Rep. Peterson’s legislation to repeal the Cuba travel ban and increase the sale of U.S. food to the island.

The Scripps-Howard news service editorialized for the legislation, highlighting the dissidents’ letter, and said: “After 48 years, the U.S. trade and travel embargo on Cuba has failed at everything except as an excuse for the Castro government’s failed economic policies.”

After questioning the authenticity of the dissident letter, calling upon Chairman Peterson to apologize (oddly, we thought) for sponsoring his legislation, and calling supporters of Cuba policy reforms unscrupulous, desperate, and shameful for promoting the letter signed by Yoani Sánchez, Guillermo Fariñas, Miriam Leiva and other credentialed campaigners for political change in Cuba, the pro-embargo hard-liners changed strategy and got a letter of their own signed by other Cuban dissidents. These signers don’t attack the Peterson bill but say that change in Cuba won’t come from travel and trade, but from within.

And as the dissidents dissent, we saw a political candidate’s descent in cynicism which commanded our attention and demanded a comment.  Florida’s Governor Charlie Crist, who once favored tighter restrictions on travel and money sent to Cuba, who even signed legislation to punish Florida travel providers who served Cuban Americans visiting their families on the island, is now aligning himself with the Obama administration’s policies on Cuba and stuffing campaign cash into his coffers from the very industry that facilitates travel to Cuba.

We mention this not because it is unique to see a politician flip-flop or to rent his principles and positions for campaign contributions; regrettably, this is all too familiar.   What’s new is that our position – the pro-reform side – is now sufficiently safe politically for a cynic in Florida to move in our direction.   By American political standards, that’s called progress – and we’ll take it.

This week in Cuba news…

IN CUBA

Cuba releases one prisoner and moves six others

This week, Cuba’s government released one political prisoner, Ariel Sigler, and transferred six others to jails closer to their homes, according to the Associated Press. Sigler, a paraplegic, had been serving a 25-year sentence for treason since the spring of 2003. The six transferred prisoners were also a part of the “group of 75” arrested in the round-ups seven years ago. This brings the total number of prisoners relocated this month to twelve.

The release and transfers are part of the Cuban government’s agreement with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, and occurred as Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s Foreign Minister, visits Cuba.

P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, called the release a “positive development,” and said that the U.S. hoped that it would lead to more prisoner releases.

Josefina Vidal, the director of the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s North American Affairs office, responded to the U.S. government, saying, “Cuba doesn’t recognize any authority by the State Department or its spokesman to pass judgments on internal matters.…. Moreover, the United States doesn’t have moral authority to give lessons to anyone.”

Crowley lobbed his comments back across the Florida Straits, remarking that the U.S. feels that it has a “right and responsibility” to comment on the human rights concern in every country, including Cuba.

Vatican Foreign Minister arrives in Cuba

The arrival of Archbishop Dominique Mamberti in Cuba will facilitate the direct discussions taking place between the Church and the Cuban government, the Associated Press reported. The landmark talks have been ongoing since mid-May.

In a sign of respect, Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister met Mambertí at the José Martí Airport, where they held their first meeting.  Rodriguez praised the recent discussions with Church leaders, saying: “We appreciate the constructive role of the Church in these matters and we think that all conditions exist … for these fruitful exchanges to continue.” Mamberti echoed these sentiments, adding: “The dialogue that is happening now makes us happy, and I hope that it will be strengthened through my visit.”

Recent discussions between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government have led to the liberation of one political prisoner and the transfer of twelve others to jails closer to their homes. The AFP reported that Mamberti may meet with Raúl Castro during his visit. He will not, however, be meeting with dissidents, according to ABC.

The Bishop of the eastern Holguin province expressed his hope that the Pope could visit Cuba in 2012, which would be the 400th anniversary of the “discovery of Cuba’s patron saint.” The Vatican has not commented on this possibility.  The late Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998.

Both Cuban and the Catholic officials expressed optimism that these talks will continue and will hopefully produce more breakthroughs in the treatment of dissidents and political prisoners.

Catholic Church to hold conference to address economy and other issues

The Catholic Church is organizing a four-day conference this week in which Cuban intellectuals – including three Cuban-Americans – will discuss a host of issues, branching out “beyond Church questions” to address the economy, migration and “the relations between Cubans at home and abroad.”

The panelists include professors, researchers, writers and members of the clergy, including Cuban-American scholar Jorge Domínguez from Harvard. Catholic Church spokesman Orlando Márquez told journalists that, “under the present circumstances, it is important to listen to the views of these people who are experts in their various fields of politics, society or the economy and make use of that contribution in benefit of the Church’s pastoral work.”

The conference coincides with the visit of Archbishop Mamberti, and occurs in the midst of what IPS called a climate of “warming of relations between the government and the Church.” Aurelio Alonso, a sociologist who will also be taking part in the event, said that he expected the conference to “take on a critical tone at times, and would highlight unfulfilled hopes and expectations.”

Cuba expands program to cut free lunches

By July 1st, Cuba will have eliminated free lunches for 5% of the country’s official workforce, the Associated Press reported. Government employees have traditionally received free meals in workplace cafeterias, but under the new plan 225,000 workers will have to purchase their own meals with a 70-cent stipend. This measure expands a pilot program that cut the benefit for 2,800 employees last October. New sectors to be affected by this change include the state bank, and Cuban government ministries for tourism, transportation, foreign investment, basic industry and foreign relations.

This move aims to reduce bureaucracy, improve efficiency, and cut federal costs.  Cuba’s economy has suffered due to devastating storm damage in 2008 and the global recession.  The plan will save an estimated $27 million.

Farmers cleared to sell more to market, Cuba replaces Agriculture Minister

The Cuban government announced that it would allow farmers to sell more of their products directly to Havana’s produce markets, Reuters reported.  Farmers have long complained that their products were not efficiently distributed to Cuba’s markets, while Cubans often report that produce is “scarce and of poor quality.”  The new measure is intended to address these issues.

State-run television announced that 56 of the 400 markets in Havana are already being directly supplied by farmers, with plans to include 88 more to the “new food sales strategy.”  The government’s decision implies that previous efforts to improve the efficiency of agricultural distribution, a main priority for President Raúl Castro’s government, have not been successful.  The president’s previous strategy, launched a year and a half ago, “shifted state distribution from the Agriculture Ministry to the Interior Trade Ministry in a move to solve bottlenecks,” but was widely unpopular.

In the government’s push to spur agricultural production, President Castro also replaced the country’s agriculture minister.  Former Agriculture Minister Ulises Rosales del Toro, who previously held the post of Sugar Minister, was replaced by the first Vice Minister Gustavo Rodríguez.  Rosales would now be freed, the government explained, to focus on improving agricultural production through his post on the Council of Ministers.

President Raúl Castro has gradually allowed farmers in provinces to sell a portion of their produce directly to consumers, but has been hesitant to do the same in Havana.

Cuba continues to prepare for impact of BP oil spill

Cuban authorities are preparing coastal communities for the possible arrival of oil from the April 20th BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The Guardian reported that officials are still unsure whether the spilled crude oil will reach Cuba, but are taking precautions to minimize its impact. “We are preparing with everything in our power,” said General Ramon Espinosa, the Vice Minister of the armed forces. But, he added, the arrival of oil could be an ecological and economic disaster. “In Cuba, we have had small spills involving tankers on our coasts but we’ve never had to confront anything of this magnitude.”

Dr. Wayne Smith, former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, was part of a delegation to Cuba with Texas legislators in the wake of the BP oil spill. He wrote that U.S.–Cuba cooperation on the spill is crucial. “Not to cooperate in the face of this danger that confronts everyone on the Gulf Coast, should be unthinkable,” he argues.

New report ranks Cuba as more peaceful than the U.S. and other developed nations
The Associated Press reported that Cuba is more peaceful than the United States, according to the Global Peace Index created by the Institute for Economics and Peace based in Sydney, Australia. Cuba ranks 72nd out of 149 countries included in the report. The United States is 85th. New Zealand is the most peaceful country in the world and Iraq is the most violent. Crime levels, social unrest, and military spending are all factored into the rankings. The report added that as a whole, the world has become more violent since the rankings began in 2007.

Cuba Reports Little Internet and Telecom Progress

Marc Frank of Reuters discusses a report by the International Telecommunications Union featured on the web page of Cuba’s National Statistics Office indicating that Cuba continues to lag behind its neighbors in telephone and Internet penetration. There is no broadband internet in Cuba, which makes using the internet “agonizingly” slow. Long waits for information are often prohibitive, Frank writes, which “hampers government and business operations.” [Intern1] Cuba blames its difficulties with Internet and telephone coverage on the U.S. embargo.  Cuba and Venezuela have formed a joint venture to lay cable between the two countries, but completion of the project is at least a year off.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

U.S. and Cuba discuss migration, Clinton visits Gross family, Guerrero of ‘Cuban Five’ moved

Talks take place today in Washington between the U.S. and Cuba on migration, the Associated Press reported.  Last year, the Obama administration reopened discussions with Cuba on migration, talks that were initiated in 1994 but suspended by the Bush administration.  Under the rubric of “migration,” discussions ranged in topic from the restrictions placed on the movements of each nation’s diplomats to the proposed resumption of direct mail service between both countries.

Prospects for progress heading into the discussions were downplayed due to the continued detention in Cuba of Alan Gross, an American contractor who the Cuban government accuses of spying. U.S. officials say that there is little hope for improved relations until Gross is released.  State Department spokesman, Michael Tran, says “the United States is focused on the welfare of Alan Gross…this is a matter we have raised on multiple occasions with the Cuban government and that we will continue to raise.” Europa Press observed that Gross’ arrest has slowed progress toward warmer U.S.-Cuba relations”

Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister stated this week that Alan Gross “is being held for violating Cuban laws and committing grave offenses … at the service of the subversive policy of the government of the United States against Cuba,” AFP reported.  Rodriguez insisted that Mr. Gross’ case is being handled “in strict accordance with the Cuban penal code,” and that he will be provided “a guaranteed defense.”

Mr. Gross, who was arrested in December, has been accused of illegally distributing communications equipment, but formal charges are still pending in his case. The U.S. government denies allegations that Gross was spying.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Alan Gross’ wife this week. In a statement following the meeting, she announced: “We will underscore that the continued detention of Alan Gross is harming U.S.-Cuba relations.”

The State Department confirmed that U.S. officials have been granted access to visit Mr. Gross several times since the beginning of the month.

Also this week, Antonio Guerrero, one of the ‘Cuban Five’ imprisoned on charges of espionage in the U.S., was moved from his maximum-security dwellings to a medium security prison in Colorado. Speculation has arisen over the timing of these developments as officials plan to resume migration talks.

U.S. gives Cuba “warning” in report on human trafficking – Cuba indignant

The AP reported this week that the U.S. State Department’s 10th annual review of global efforts to eliminate human trafficking and sexual slavery included a warning for Cuba. The Obama administration warned of possible sanctions on Cuba for not “complying with minimum international standards.” Cuba reacted to the report by the State Department, calling it “shameful slander,” and referred to the allegations as “false and disrespectful,” according to the Associated Press.

Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, director of the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s North American Affairs office, issued a statement calling the U.S. government’s warning “offensive” and affirmed “there is no sexual abuse against minors, but rather an exemplary effort to protect children, young people and women.” Vidal also characterized Cuba’s inclusion on the trafficking list as a political move.  “It can only be explained by the desperate need that the U.S. government has to justify, under whatever pretext, the persistence of its cruel blockade, which has been overwhelmingly rejected by the international community,” she wrote.

The Cuban newspaper Juventud Rebelde responded to the State Department by highlighting UNICEF representative José Juan Ortiz’s comments: “despite being an underdeveloped country, they have been able to apply the UN Convention on Children’s Rights in a way which is truly a model.” Focusing more on the issue of child trafficking, Ortiz stressed the fact that children have been a priority for the Cuban government and that “Cuba is alien to the severe violations that children suffer in other countries, such as child labor, slavery, and lack of schooling and birth registration.”

Dissidents sign letter to Congress arguing against H.R. 4645

Nearly 500 dissidents signed a letter released this week, urging Congress to “maintain a firm and coherent policy of pressure and condemnation toward the tyranny in Havana.” This letter was in response to one sent last week to Congress in support of the H.R. 4645 bill, signed by 74 prominent dissidents in Cuba, including blogger Yoani Sánchez and head of Cuba’s largest human rights group, Elizardo Sánchez.

Though never coming out and overtly opposing the passage of the bill, the 494 signatories of the letter argue that opening the island to trade and tourism will not lead to improved political conditions in Cuba. Rather, they write, such change “will come through the efforts of those, who from within and abroad, fight for democratic change in Cuba.”

Rice federation searches for trade with Cuba

Cuba, once a robust market for rice exports from the United States, has mostly been importing rice from Vietnam, thanks to changes in price and the offer of credit terms unavailable from U.S. producers.

Now, a delegation from the USA Rice Federation will travel to Cuba to evaluate the prospects for American farmers to get back into the Cuban market, according to a report in the Stuttgart Daily Leader.

USA Rice Merchants’ Association Chairman Brian King said the goal of the trip is “to start the dialogue with Cuban trade officials about the potential for future U.S. rice purchases and reiterate our support for legislation currently in Congress that would remove barriers to U.S. agricultural trade with Cuba.” The delegation will meet with officials from Alimport, Cuba’s import agency, and representatives of Cuba’s agriculture, trade, and foreign relations ministries.

Cuba travel supporters raising money for Charlie Crist

According to the Associated Press, Governor Charlie Crist, Florida’s Independent candidate for the U.S. Senate, says he supports Obama’s Cuba policy and considers reforms such as removing all travel restrictions on Cuban Americans to be “compassionate.”

Since starting his independent candidacy, Crist has moved away from hard-line positions on Cuba policy.  He says now that the current U.S. policy is “responsible” in that it maintains the economic embargo even as American family members visit loved ones in Cuba.  As Governor of Florida, Crist approved legislation putting additional restrictions on travel service providers to Cuba.  He is now accepting contributions from members of the industry who opposed the bill he signed into law and says that he is eager “to listen to what they have to say.”

Tampa Mayor asks for authorization to launch charter flights to Cuba

Local officials in the U.S. continue asking for increased access to Cuba for travelers.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorino wrote to President Obama asking him to support direct charter flights from Tampa to Cuba. The letter follows up on a similar request made by Congresswoman Kathy Castor (FL-11) when President Obama lifted travel restrictions on Cuban Americans last year.  Charter flight companies have seen a 100-150 percent increase in travel to Cuba since that time, resulting in a financial boom for those companies. Currently, Miami, New York and Los Angeles are the only cities from which charter companies are authorized to operate.

A number of cities are eyeing the potential economic benefit of more open relations.  In an Examiner editorial, Kelley Nelson writes about Atlanta’s hopes to be a travel hub to Cuba. Georgia governor Sonny Perdue recently returned from a delegation to Cuba that explored possibilities for trade with Cuba, particularly in the agricultural sector

Around the Region:

Honduran journalist shot dead, 9th slain this year, AP

Two gunmen killed television reporter Luis Arturo Mondragón on Monday night as he left Channel 19 station in Santa Clara de Danli, a town outside Tegucigalpa, making him the ninth journalist killed in Honduras this year.

Honduras: OAS group will arrive in two weeks, La Tribuna

In less than two weeks, a group of jurists appointed by the OAS will arrive in Honduras to report on the country’s situation. They are “ready to begin the process of investigation and to turn in the report on July 30th,” announced Foreign Minister Mario Canahuati.

While the OAS resolution authorizing the visit 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, Latin America News Dispatch reported.

Hugo Chávez grants rare interview to western media, BBC

In a rare interview, the Venezuelan president defended his 11-year rule and blamed economic woes on western capitalism. Hugo Chávez said he had high hopes for Barack Obama’s presidency, but was left disappointed by the U.S. president.

Gangs and corrupt officials prey on migrants, The Washington Post

William Booth writes: “As the Mexican government condemns a new immigration law in Arizona as cruel and xenophobic, illegal migrants passing through Mexico are routinely robbed, raped and kidnapped by criminal gangs that often work alongside corrupt police, according to human rights advocates.”

Recommended Reading:

Editorial: End ban on travel, exports to Cuba, Scripps-Howard

Scripps-Howard published a detailed editorial endorsing legislation introduced by Congressman Collin Peterson to end the travel ban and boost agriculture exports to Cuba.  The editorial appeared in newspapers from San Angelo, Texas to Ventura, California.

Now is the time to change U.S. Cuba policy, Huffington Post

Veteran political strategist Bob Creamer writes in the Huffington Post this week that it is time “to reset our relationship with Cuba and create a policy that finally works to maximize American interests.”  Creamer points to the recent letter sent to Congress by 74 prominent Cuban dissidents who are urging passage of the Peterson legislation.  Creamer says, “Our policy should be based on what is good for the people of the United States, and those goals include eliminating the current pointless restrictions on our own citizens’ right to travel, allowing our companies to sell products to Cuba, benefiting from the jobs that increased exports provide — as well as answering the call of Cuban dissidents to open up Cuban society.”

UN Official praises Cuba’s preparedness against disasters, Escambray

Cubans’ organization in disaster prevention, response and recovery in cases of hydro-meteorological or technological disasters was described as surprising by the United Nations on Tuesday.

Isla de la Juventud hospital becomes the first “safe hospital”, Inter Press Service

Isla de la Juventud Hospital rebuilt with international help to be the first in Cuba capable of withstanding demands of natural disasters.

Recommended Viewing:

Col. Larry Wilkerson discusses Cuba, The Real News Network

Is U.S. policy really changing toward Cuba?  Col. Larry Wilkerson weighs in.


[Intern1]This was from me

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