Historic First Step: House Committee Lifts Ban on Travel to Cuba

Dear Friends:

With courage and determination, Rep. Collin Peterson, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, won passage of legislation to end the travel ban for all Americans to Cuba and to remove key restrictions on U.S. food exports to the island.

Against great odds – a tough political climate, the shower of campaign contributions from supporters of the embargo, intense pressure from Members who serve on other Committees, and cries of “dictatorship” from vested interests against the chairman – Peterson mustered a majority of his Committee to win approval for his bi-partisan legislation that offers a decisive change in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

While Committee action in the House is the first step in a lengthy legislative journey before the bill can become law, it is also a historic step, made all the more so by the leadership of Chairman Peterson, a relative newcomer to the issue.  Peterson and his twenty-four supportive colleagues deserve our thanks.

Sanctions against Cuba have existed for five decades, and by any reasonable measure they have failed in their intent and hurt U.S. interests.  They have denied Americans the freedom to travel, cost our economy thousands of jobs, and harmed our credibility as an advocate of democracy in Cuba and the region, even as Cuba’s government and system have remained in place.  Growing majorities of Americans, growing majorities of Cuban Americans, and voices representing the people of Cuba themselves all want the U.S. government to change our policy.  Cubans want to decide their nation’s future for themselves and want our country to be allied in their effort.

According to press reports, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department declined to say whether the Obama administration would support the legislation.  But silence is not a policy and the status quo does not measure up – either to our nation’s values or the historic moment.  The travel ban should be lifted this year with the administration’s active support.

This week in Cuba news…


House Committee Votes to End Travel Ban and Boost Farm Sales to Cuba

The House Agriculture Committee voted 25-20 to pass legislation, the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, to end the travel ban and ease rules governing the sale of agricultural commodities to the island.

Commenting on the vote, Rep. Collin Peterson, Committee Chairman, and author of the legislation, said, “We have tried isolating Cuba for more than fifty years and it has not worked…Today’s vote demonstrates that Congress is ready to change our nation’s approach on this issue.”

Rep. Jerry Moran (R-KS) who co-sponsored Peterson’s bill commented that “today’s vote is a step in the right direction and a victory for America’s farmers and ranchers. This legislation will standardize our trade policies, increase export sales and create thousands of American jobs without increasing the deficit.”

The legislation would have a significant economic impact in the United States.  One study released by the U.S. International Trade Commission estimated that lifting the travel ban and changes in U.S. export rules would boost sales of farm goods to the island by $924 million to $1.2 billion annually.  An earlier report by the Brattle Group, international economic forecasters, saw increases in U.S. economic output from $650 million to $1.08 billion annually from a repeal of the travel ban, creating upwards of 15,000 new jobs.

Action on the legislation breaks a years-long deadlock in Congress over restoring the right to travel.

The bi-partisan bill, co-sponsored by 65 members of the House, received broad support across a spectrum of interests.  Letters from the business and farming sectors on the eve of the Committee vote, op-eds, and Letters to the Editor, helped demonstrate the breadth of the coalition behind the measure and made an important impact on the Committee.

During its consideration, opponents of the bill expressed concerns that opening travel would only serve to bolster the Castro government. “We should continue to facilitate the shipment of food to Cuba and streamlining that process is important,” said Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, the committee’s ranking member. “However, this bill goes beyond that aim and effectively, I believe, repeals the embargo the United States has had in place to prevent the enrichment of Castro’s regime. Removing travel restrictions for tourism has nothing to do with technical barriers to exports. The Cuban people are desperate for access to affordable food, not tourists.”

Tom Rooney, a Florida Representative, expressed a similar view.  “At this juncture, lifting the ban would amount to yet another bailout – only this time, we’d be bailing out a brutal dictatorship on the brink of collapsing.”

In the end, using his considerable influence and parliamentary prowess, Chairman Peterson was able to win majority support for the measure.  In comments issued after the vote, Peterson said, “We have tried to isolate Cuba for more than fifty years, and it has not worked…As it has in other countries, perhaps increasing trade with Cuba will encourage democratic progress.”

Rep. Howard Berman, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, also released a statement in support of the bill, which said “letting U.S. citizens travel to Cuba is not a gift to the Castros – it is in the interest of our own citizens.  It’s time to trust our own people and restore their right to travel.”

Hard-line opponents of the measure viewed the historic Committee action very differently.

Capitol Hill Cubans, the voice of the hard-line, pro-embargo lobby, condemned the vote and called the House Agriculture Committee “Chairman Peterson’s dictatorship.”

Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) vowed to block the legislation if it is proposed in the Senate. “Repression is repression and dictatorships are dictatorships,” he said, “no matter where they are located or whether you want to use their resorts.”  His colleague from Florida, Senator George Lemieux, issued a similar threat.

Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Mike Enzi (R-WY), cosponsors of legislation to repeal the travel ban, replied with statements of their own indicating that they have enough support in their chamber to defeat a filibuster against the legislation.  Dorgan said “It makes no sense to punish the American people by restricting their right to travel simply because our country is trying to punish the Cuban government.”

Before reaching the Senate, the legislation has to be passed by the full House.  While the Agriculture Committee’s vote was only the first step in the process, “supporters view it as a significant step toward normalization of the relationship” between the U.S. and Cuba, the AP reported.

As Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas said, “this bill, which will put more American food on Cuba’s tables, and put more American visitors on Cuba’s streets, will be good for our economy and provide needed support for the Cuban people.  The U.S. needs a new Cuba policy, and the Peterson-Moran bill is a decisive change in the right direction.”

Cuba’s Archbishop Jaime Ortega travels to Washington

Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Archbishop of Havana, traveled to Washington for an unannounced seven-day visit during which he met with members of the Obama Administration.  Orlando Márquez, media director for the Archdiocese of Havana offered Progresso Weekly confirmation of the visit: “Ortega ‘held meetings’ with various persons and said that the meetings ‘were coordinated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops,’ but abstained from identifying the people with whom the Cardinal met.” Cardinal Ortega has visited the U.S. on previous occasions, but both timing of this trip, in the midst of increased dialogue between Cuba’s government and the Catholic Church, and its secretiveness made it significant.

Catholic.net also reported that Cuba’s Archbishop Dionisio García Ibáñez of Santiago appeared live on American television this week. His appearance on the EWNT Español program ‘Nuestra Fe en Vivo’ marked “a first for an American television network.”

Georgia Governor Perdue defends his trade mission to Cuba

Sonny Perdue, Georgia’s Governor, is facing criticism for trips he took to Cuba, Argentina, and Uruguay last month. Though private businessmen and journalists on the 43-person delegation to Cuba paid for their own travel, taxpayers paid for travel expenses for Perdue, his aides, and his bodyguards. The final bills have not been officially counted, but the Morris News Service reported that the combined cost of the two trips exceeds $100,000. The governor’s office “defends both trade missions as part of the state’s strategy for minimizing future economic slowdowns.”

Critics in Georgia complained about the timing of the trips, which coincided with the governor’s deadline for approving budget legislation. Nonetheless, an editorial from the Athens Banner-Herald argues that leading these delegations sends a strong message about Georgia’s interest in economic relations. Georgia’s farmers already export soybeans, chicken, and pork to Cuba, and could benefit from any loosening of the restrictions on U.S.-Cuba trade. Perdue’s delegation returned to the U.S. shortly before Committee consideration of H.R. 4645, which would allow increased agricultural sales to Cuba.

Onset of oil drilling off Cuba worrying Floridians

Against the backdrop of the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Floridians are expressing concern about the onset of deep water drilling off the coast of Cuba which may commence as early as next year.  “We have one of the world’s largest coral reefs and a protected marine sanctuary there,” said Dan McLaughlin, a spokesman for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). “We should not be drilling there.”

Maria Ritter, a spokeswoman for Spanish oil company Repsol YPF SA, said it plans to drill off Cuba, about 60 miles south of Key West, Florida, early next year. If successful, this would likely kick off a spate of exploration, the Wall Street Journal reported.


Dissident hunger striker in critical medical condition

Guillermo Fariñas, a Cuban dissident and independent journalist, is in critical condition due to health problems resulting from his four-month hunger strike, Europa Press reports. According to Ismeli Iglesias, one of his doctors, Fariñas is in danger of suffering a thrombosis in his left jugular vein, a clot that would likely be fatal.  Iglesias told reporters that Fariñas’ situation is “serious, critical, and very delicate.” Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights, said that there is a general worry that Fariñas might “collapse at any moment,” Reuters wrote.

Fariñas, who is currently being treated in a public hospital in Santa Clara, began his hunger strike after the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, another prisoner, who succumbed after a lengthy hunger strike of his own.  While he started his fast to force the Cuban government to release all 26 infirm political prisoners, Fariñas has now connected ending his hunger strike to the government releasing 10 to 12 of the most seriously ill prisoners, so long as a timetable is created for the release of the rest, EFE reported.  The Bishop of Santa Clara paid Fariñas another visit this week in an attempt to convince him to end the strike, reported Milenio.  But Fariñas appears to be determined.  He has even appointed a successor to his strike if he should pass away: Guillermo del Sol Pérez, a dissident who stopped eating to support Fariñas’ efforts.  Recent reports in El Universal indicate that Fariñas’ health has improved, but that he remains in very serious condition. His fever has gone down since the middle of the week, and inflammation in his arm has also subsided.

Zapata’s death strained Cuba’s relations with the EU. The EU recently decided to postpone its yearly vote on whether to maintain its Common Position toward Cuba in order to await the outcome of the Church-State discussions.  Several members want to stick with the existing policy due to human rights concerns, particularly since the death of hunger striker Orlando Zapata.  Spain has driven the effort to replace the EU’s Common Position on Cuba with a policy that favors stronger ties with the island’s government.

Amnesty report criticizes human rights in Cuba

London-based Human Rights organization Amnesty International released a report this week criticizing Cuba’s “repressive legal system [that] has created a climate of fear among journalists, dissidents and activists, putting them at risk of arbitrary arrest and harassment by the authorities,” according to an article on the group’s website.

The report, Restrictions on Freedom of Expression in Cuba, highlights legal obstacles to the freedoms of speech and press, as well as government practices that stifle or deter opposition. The report cites a number of vaguely-worded laws prohibiting actions that are broadly interpreted to silence opponents of the government, the Associated Press wrote. Consequently, the report concludes, “the legal, bureaucratic and administrative infrastructure built up over the years to silence government opponents and maintain the one-party system remains largely intact.”

Kerrie Howard, Deputy Americas Director at Amnesty International, said, “the laws are so vague that almost any act of dissent can be deemed criminal in some way, making it very difficult for activists to speak out against the government,” CNN reported.  The report cited at least 53 prisoners of conscience on the island today.  The AP put the number at 190, based on figures from the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights. Cuba’s government says that it has no political prisoners but, rather, that those individuals are mercenaries hired by the United States to undermine the Cuban system.

Despite the criticism, the report also acknowledged “some limited steps to address long-standing suppression of freedom of expression.” Cuba’s President, Raúl Castro, has recently met with Catholic Church officials in Cuba to broker improved conditions for prisoners of conscience as part of the broader Church-State dialogue.

Spanish Foreign Minister visits Cuba to support Church-State dialogue

Miguel Ángel Moratinos, Spain’s Foreign Minister, announced plans to visit Cuba next week to support the ongoing discussions between the Catholic Church and Cuban authorities that aim “to improve the human rights situation” in Cuba, El Universal reported.  Moratinos told reporters that he viewed improvements in Cuba favorably, saying that “each country has its rhythm” and that Cuba’s “very complex” situation improves with each discussion.  He added that Spain should “respect that the Cuban authorities lead the reform process.”  But Moratinos admitted that the poor health of Guillermo Fariñas was “worrying.”


Cuba reports dramatic cutback in imports, exports

Cuba’s government released a report stating that shipping by Cuban vessels to and from the island fell 60 percent in 2009, from 1.14 million tons in 2008 to 452,000 tons in 2009, Reuters reported. Shipping on international vessels also fell 13 percent. Cuba imports most of its energy, food, machinery, and consumer goods, but the global recession, limited credit, and President Raúl Castro’s commitment to reduce the trade deficit led the country to slash its imports last year.  Foreign businessmen in the country report that the government is continuing to cut imports and that the reductions have led to shortages in consumer goods and food items.

Head of Ministry of Light Industry to be replaced

President Raúl Castro has removed José Hernández from his post as Minister of Light Industry.  Damar Maceo Cruz, who was Assistant Minister of Foreign Trade, will replace Hernández, a Spanish news site reported.  Maceo is 47 years old, and offers a younger perspective to the Cuban Government.  His appointment is the most recent in a string of high-level replacements.  In February 2009, Castro announced plans to reduce and restructure Cuba’s bureaucracy, which has resulted in the removal of 11 high-level officials so far this year and a total of 30 in the last two years, reported El Financiero.

While the grounds for this replacement were not announced, the two previous ministers were released from their charges for “errors committed” and “performance deficiencies.” Hernández’s removal, however, was not accompanied by critical commentary, and officials announced that he would be assigned to a different post.  The official note, published in the state media, can be read here.

Esteban Morales reportedly removed from the Communist Party

Honorary Director of the Center for U.S. Studies at the University of Havana, Esteban Morales, PhD., has been “separated from the ranks” of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) “for his publication of an article denouncing what he considers the counter-revolutionary corruption and bureaucracy that exists in the country,” according to the Havana Times.  The corruption and bureaucracy are widely acknowledged in Cuba, and articles about the issues have even been published in State media. The Havana Times reported that his Party membership card may have been taken from him, but his “communist commitment remains.”  Morales plans to appeal the decision.

Ten Year Anniversary of Elian Gonzalez’s return to Cuba celebrated on the island

Cuba’s President Raúl Castro attended a religious service this week in honor of Elián González on the tenth anniversary of his return to Cuba. Speaking to press after the service, González expressed his contentment in Cuba.  “It is the land to which I belong, feel good here. … Thanks to the help of a very large part of the American people and our people, today I am with my father and that’s all that is important.”  González is now studying for a career in the Cuban military and is part of the Young Communists.  Articles on the anniversary can be read here and here.

Cuba and Venezuela to build steel plant in one of island’s largest ventures

Cuban and Venezuelan officials announced plans to build a joint-venture nickel steel plant in the eastern Cuban province of Holguín, EFE reports. The investment will be worth $700 million dollars, and when finished, the plant will produce 68,000 metric tons of steel per year. According to Trabajadores, the local newspaper that broke the story, this plant will be one of the most significant industrial projects in Cuba, doubling the island’s nickel-processing capacity. Holguín province is home to over 30 percent of the world’s known nickel deposits. Nickel, a key element of stainless steel, is one of Cuba’s top exports.

Cuba holds international conference on women and gender issues

Delegations from thirteen Spanish-speaking countries met in Havana this week for the Third International Conference on Women, Gender and Law.  Cuba’s Escambray reported that experts and scholars would analyze the impact of the current economic crisis on women’s rights. The agenda also included discussions of gender-based violence, education, legal studies, and sexual diversity, among other topics.

Also in Havana, the Department of Gender, Sexology, and Sex Education at the University of Pedagogical Science is assessing training programs intended to combat sexual inequality that teachers may inadvertently introduce to classrooms, according to the Inter Press Service. Beginning in 2004, the Strategy for Comprehensive Education has trained more than 500 student teachers and 300 other trainees in handling gender issues. Though most Cubans accept the ideals of gender equality, machismo is widespread, and women disproportionately hold lower paying jobs.


Syrian President meets with Raúl Castro in Havana

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Cuba this week in his first-ever visit to Latin America. Assad began a three-day stay on the island with a meeting with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro to discuss political and economic cooperation, the AP reported. The two countries have already agreed to work together to combat drug trafficking and international smuggling, and they are expected to sign further cooperation agreements. Assad arrived in Havana after meeting with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and will continue his tour of Latin America with stops in Argentina and Brazil.

Bolivia to deliver rice to Cuba amid tight supplies

The Latin American Herald Tribune reported that the Bolivian government will donate 3,000 tons of rice to Cuba. The island is suffering from a food shortage as the result of devastating hurricanes and seasonal storms in 2008 and the international economic downturn. The decision to send rice to Cuba was finalized this week after Bolivia’s government determined it would not negatively impact its own domestic grain market. This announcement comes just weeks after President Raúl Castro warned against hoarding rice or selling it on the black market.

Russian energy company seeks to do business with Cuba

Gazprom Neft, a Russian energy company, is looking to expand into Cuba and Iran in an attempt to produce 100,000 tons of oil per year by 2020, according to Reuters. The Russian company plans to join Malaysia’s Petronas’ operations in Cuban waters. Cuba estimates that its territory in the Gulf of Mexico holds 20 billion barrels of oil, although the U.S. Geological Survey reports it holds half that amount, still a significant number.

Cuba has divided its holdings in the Gulf into 59 blocks, and has contracted 17 of those to foreign oil companies in joint venture agreements. Company spokesmen have said that Gazprom Neft wants to negotiate similar contracts with the Cuban government.

Cuba elected to Vice Presidency of United Nations Human Rights Council

Rodolfo Reyes Rodríguez, Cuba’s Ambassador to Geneva, was elected to a one-year term as Vice President to the United Nations Human Rights Council last week, Havana Journal reported. Ambassadors from Norway, Angola, and Slovakia also serve as Vice Presidents, and the ambassador from Thailand serves as President. The Council is responsible for “strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe,” according to the U.N. website. The body is composed of 47 member states elected to four-year terms by the General Assembly. Cuba’s term on the Council ends in 2012.

U.N. General Assembly President thanks Cuba for contributions in Africa

Ali Treki of Libya, the President of the United Nations General Assembly, recognized Cuba’s commitment to international rights during an official visit to Havana this week. The Cuba News Agency reported that he met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez. Treki applauded Cuba’s role in developing the Non-Aligned Movement, which supported independence movements in African countries and the elimination of apartheid. “We will never forget what Cuba and Fidel did for the African continent,” Treki told Rodríguez, who thanked Treki in return for the UN resolutions condemning the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

Around the Region:

Poll shows U.S. seen positively by 65% in Latin America, El Nuevo Herald

According to Latinobarómetro, 65% of Latin Americans think the U.S. has a positive influence on the region.  About half that many, 34%, think the same about Venezuela.  Marta Lagos, Latinobarómetro president, said “This is the highest image the United States has had in the region since we started doing this poll in 1997.”

Honduran ex-President: U.S. was behind my overthrow, The Miami Herald

In a letter released on the first anniversary of his ouster, former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya accused the United States of being behind the 2009 coup that ousted him.

Colombia spied on Ecuador’s President, newspaper says, Latin American Herald Tribune

Colombia’s DAS security service intercepted telephone calls to and from the office of Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, the Spanish news agency EFE said, quoting the Quito daily El Universo.

U.S. picks new Venezuela Ambassador amid strained relations, The Wall Street Journal

President Barack Obama has nominated a new Ambassador to Venezuela, a move the outgoing envoy said might lead to a “new phase” for relations between the two countries, which have been strained for years.

Recommended Reading:

The War for Drugs: How Juárez became the world’s deadliest city, Boston Review

Anthropologist Sarah Hill draws the links between the staggering violence of Mexico’s drug wars, in Ciudad Juárez particularly, and the country’s turn toward an export-manufacturing model during the 1980s.

Rep. Honda: U.S. has work to do in Honduras and Latin America, Roll Call

“Swirling south of here, in a gulf between the Americas, a crisis is brewing and already affecting the livelihoods of millions of people, threatening food and energy security, and undermining our nation’s reputation regionally. Yet it has nothing to do with an oil spill… Instead of oil, however, what needs cleaning up this time is Honduras’ democracy.”

The case of the Cuban Five; U.S. shame and how to end it, Center for International Policy

The case of the Cuban Five, sent to spy on groups that would destabilize Cuba, Alan Gross’ case, and how it all reflects on the U.S. justice system.

Recommended Viewing:

Elián Gonzalez video: Youth not mad at Miami relatives, The Washington Post

Elián González says he is “thankful” to a majority of the American public who supported his return to Cuba, but his father continues to be angry about the fiasco.

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