Silence in Santa Clara; Eyes on Havana; (Still) Waiting in Washington

Dear Friends:

After several noisy weeks in succession, silence was the operative word in the news this week coming out of Cuba.

In the four years since he succeeded his brother, Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro has ushered in a new era of plain-spoken oratory.  Short speeches.  No big demonstrations.  Actions over words.  Some in Cuba, fatigued by politics, welcome the new national brevity.  Others complain the government doesn’t say enough to let Cubans know what the next play will look like.

Commentators – in Cuba and abroad – have been left to parse through a shrinking pile of tea leaves in order to analyze for the rest of us what they couldn’t know themselves. At no time has this gap between speculation and reality been wider or more apparent than at the beginning of this week.  After being told that Raúl Castro would address the Cuban nation to commemorate National Rebellion Day, July 26th, to spell out the next chapter in Cuba’s economic reform project, President Castro greeted guests, helped give out awards, and said absolutely nothing in public, about reforming Cuba’s economy or anything else.

His next appearance takes place before Cuba’s National Assembly in the coming days.  Modesty and experience suggest we should all stay tuned.

As Cuba’s parliament assembles, the U.S. Congress prepares to disperse.  But the effort to pass legislation to repeal the travel ban continues to move forward.   Representatives Michael Doyle, Edward Markey, and Jesse Jackson signed on as cosponsors of the Peterson-Moran legislation, to open travel and boost trade to Cuba, in the hours before Congress is scheduled to recess for the summer.  Editorial voices from Kansas to Texas were also raised in favor of the bill.

Not so the President’s voice.  His trumpet remains muffled, at best, despite Cuba’s moves to release political prisoners.  Imagine that; Garbos in both capitals.

Detailed reports about these (quiet) developments, and a final word, this week in Cuba news.

IN CUBA

Present but Silent: July 26th celebrations take place without address by Raúl Castro

For the first time in modern Cuban history, the July 26th celebration that commemorates the attack on the Moncada Barracks, which marked the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, took place without a speech by President Raúl Castro or by his predecessor, Fidel.  Despite high expectations that Raúl Castro would discuss economic reforms during this year’s celebration, Raúl did not speak at the main ceremony in Santa Clara, the Washington Post reported.  The principal address was delivered instead by Cuba’s First Vice President, José Ramón Machado Ventura.

The celebration that took place confounded predictions by analysts and the press.  First, in light of the economic challenges facing Cuba, Raúl Castro was expected to address the Cuban public and provide a sense of direction for the future.  Second, after multiple public appearances that took place in the days following the prisoner release agreement, there was speculation that Fidel Castro would appear at the event.  He did not.  Also absent was Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, who had planned to attend but cancelled after escalating problems with Colombia ended with Venezuela’s decision to break off diplomatic relations. Alí Rodríguez, Venezuela’s former ambassador to Cuba, filled in for President Chávez, and blamed the U.S. for the conflict.

Raúl watched as Vice President Machado Ventura told the crowd of 90,000, “We will not accept external pressures.” Instead, Machado promised that Cuba would implement changes at its “own rhythm” while remaining loyal to the ideals of the Revolution. Machado Ventura’s speech reprised a number of Raúl Castro’s priorities, stating that the “economic battle” is at the forefront of the ideological battle and that increasing agricultural production is crucial for Cuba. His speech ended with a salute for the “indestructible brotherhood between Cuba and Venezuela.” Other speakers called on the Cuban people to be more productive and to fight corruption, and also criticized U.S. policy.

According to the New York Times, Raúl may be waiting to announce reforms when he addresses Cuba’s National Assembly. Recent changes have allowed farmers to lease state lands and purchase their own supplies, but the island’s bureaucracy still hampers effective distribution of agricultural supplies. NPR coverage of the 26th of July ceremonies can be heard here.

Though not present at the main celebration, Fidel Castro did appear in Havana to lay a wreath on a memorial to national hero Jose Martí. Later in the day, he met with intellectuals and artists, including singer Silvio Rodríguez, to answer questions. Two days earlier, Fidel greeted people at a site containing the remains of combatants who died during the failed Moncada raid, left flowers in their honor, and read a short message, according to Invasor.

On recent occasions, Fidel has appeared in a track suit, but in his last two appearances he wore an olive green military-style shirt which, according to Reuters, “has raised eyebrows because he wore a military uniform for most of his 49 years in power.” Cuba’s former president has appeared in public several times this month, following four years of absence from public life due to health problems. His return to the public eye comes as Cuba has begun releasing 52 dissidents who were imprisoned under his leadership in 2003.

Cuba’s government to consider opening economy further

Cuba’s government has begun analyzing the impact of a number of recent economic reforms, according to Europa Press. The government will also discuss ways to stimulate further economic growth, including authorizing new small, private businesses, AFP reports.

Cuba’s 12 parliamentary commissions will meet this week in Havana to discuss ways to stimulate Cuba’s lagging economy in advance of the full parliamentary session to be held on Sunday. During the parliamentary meeting, Raúl Castro is expected to outline future developments in social and economic policy on the island.

Among the initiatives likely to be reviewed are reforms enacted in the past few months to liberalize the sale of construction materials to individuals and allow barbershops to operate as private businesses.

Commenting on reforms, the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) 2009 report, released this week, stated: “The measures announced since the end of 2009 by … Raúl Castro point towards imprinting efficiency and competitiveness on the economy with a long-term vision.” It predicted that current reforms will continue to “emphasize high value-added service exports,” like healthcare and education. The report also faulted limited credit as a main reason for the sluggish economic growth of 1.7 percent in 2009. Cuba’s National Office of Statistics (ONE) reported that the number of tourists is up this year from 2009 levels, though only by one percent.

Revitalizing Cuba’s coffee industry

Cuba’s National Assembly will discuss measures to restore Cuba’s coffee industry when it meets next week, according to AFP. The island produced 60,000 tons of coffee in the 1960s, but that figure has declined by 90% over the last 50 years. Cuba now imports $50 million dollars of coffee each year. Government officials attribute the decline to the deterioration of the plantation system, the exodus of coffee producers, low international prices, and the lack of government policies to promote investment in coffee production. The parliament will discuss ways to revitalize the industry and reinvest money saved on imports into Cuban coffee cultivation.

Cuba reports lower than expected deficit

In figures approved by Cuba’s Economic Affairs Commission, and published by the Communist Party newspaper Granma, Cuban officials announced that the budget deficit for the first half of 2010 was “far below” what was forecast, the Associated Press reported. The deficit for the first six months of this year totaled nearly $410 million, significantly less than the predicted $1.7 billion. Lina Pedraza, Minister of Finances and Prices, attributed the lower deficit to higher taxes, changes in the retirement age from state jobs, and increased contributions to state pension funds.

Balancing the budget has been a priority of Cuba’s government. Cuba has drastically reduced imports and has begun restructuring government payrolls to deal with its internal economic problems.

Cuba examines oil spill preparedness

Cuba continues to monitor the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and has begun to examine its own drilling practices, EFE reported. Yadira García Vera, the Minister of Basic Industry, told the press that the country must be “alert” to the consequences of an oil spill. Cuba has formed a working group with members of the Civil Defense and high-level specialists to toughen restrictions on oil-drilling platforms and ensure that foreign assistance is available in the event of a spill.

Fidel Castro to publish book on revolution

In August, Fidel Castro will publish a book about the revolution’s fight against Fulgencio Batista, CNN reported. The book, called “The Strategic Victory,” will include photos, maps, and illustrations of weapons used to defeat Batista’s forces, as well as a small autobiography. Cuba’s former president announced the book’s publication in his most recent edition of “Reflections from Comrade Fidel,” a series of essays posted to a state-run website, EFE reported. He wrote the book while he was recovering from surgery – a time when he was mostly absent from public life. He is currently working on a second book, called “The Final Counteroffensive.”

New punishment for infrastructure theft

Cuba’s government will punish the theft of its electrical, rail, and communication systems parts with “maximum rigor,” according to El Nuevo Herald. The new sanctions, which were approved in June, create new penalties, including fines, confiscation of possessions, and restrictions on work permits. Parts of the country’s infrastructure, including cables and tower construction materials, have been widely stolen in the past few years. Construction materials are regulated in Cuba, and stolen materials are often sold through the black market.

POLITICAL PRISONERS

Ariel Sigler arrives in Miami; Hunger striker Guillermo Fariñas released from the hospital

Political prisoner Ariel Sigler, the first to be released following talks between the Catholic Church and Cuba’s government, arrived in Miami for medical treatment this week, the Associated Press reported. At the airport, Sigler “greeted 100 well-wishers who cheered as the paralyzed former boxer called for the overthrow of the Castro government.” He gave a short speech and chanted “Down with the dictatorship. Down with the Castro tyranny. Down with the assassins Castro” with the crowd. The Cuban American National Foundation and a group of young Cuban Americans who collected donations for the former prisoner handed Sigler checks, and he was then taken to the hospital for treatment. Sigler, 44, was arrested along with 74 others in the spring of 2003 and was serving out a 25-year sentence for treason. Though he entered prison as a heavyweight boxing champion, he suffered from a number of health problems and was released for medical reasons last month.

Meanwhile, Guillermo Fariñas, Cuban dissident and political prisoner, was released from the hospital and returned home this week following his 134-day hunger strike. “We feel a bit run down physically, with a lot of neck pain because of the blood clot, difficulties in walking and using a wheelchair,” Farinas told the Associated Press. Fariñas called off his hunger strike earlier this month after the agreement to release political prisoners. Fariñas told reporters that he was leaving the hospital with instructions from his doctor and the hope to return to his work as an independent journalist, El Tiempo reported. Fariñas said that he was skeptical that all 52 political prisoners would be released, and would remain skeptical until November 7, the date by which all dissidents are to be freed pursuant to the agreement between Cuba’s government and the Catholic Church.

International response to dissident release

Miguel Ángel Moratinos, Spain’s Foreign Minister, continues to urge the EU to change its Common Position toward Cuba in response to the prisoner release. Most recently, in a press conference, he emphasized the role he played in brokering the prisoners’ release and expressed certainty that the EU will change its policy when it meets again in September. “The time has come” to change EU policy toward Cuba because current policy “does not correspond to Cuba’s new realities or the relationship Cuba hopes to have with Europe.” He also rejected any skepticism that not all dissidents will go free.  “How is it not clear? … all, all the prisoners of conscience” will be released, he told reporters.

Jorge Moragas, a member of Spain’s parliament, published an editorial asking the EU to maintain its position until movement toward a more democratic government materializes. Despite recent prisoner releases, Moragas wrote “Cuba has not yet changed.” He points out that the freed dissidents have not received amnesty, and conditions for an eventual return to Cuba are unclear. Members of the group of 52 prisoners who want to stay in Cuba are still in jail. Further, the laws under which the dissidents were imprisoned remain in effect. Moragas argues that the prisoner releases may be “another tactic by the Cuban government to buy more time” and “divide the Cuban opposition.”

Sources within Spain’s government have criticized manipulation of the Cuban dissidents who have arrived in Spain, according to El Universal.  Juan Pablo de Laiglesia, the secretary of state for foreign and Iberoamerican affairs, said that there has been “excessive pressure” put on the dissidents since they arrived in Spain and “clear attempts to manipulate” them.

José María Aznar, Spain’s former prime minister, met with 35 Cuban dissidents in Spain including several released this month. He called the release of political prisoners “the victory of liberty in the face on oppression” and called for “political courage” to ensure the protection of dignity in Cuba.

Spain’s Partido Popular organized a ceremony to pay tribute to Cuban dissidents, Europa Press reported. Some of the 20 dissidents who have arrived in Spain attended.

Representative Lincoln Diaz Balart flew to Madrid to meet with the newly arrived Cuban dissidents, the El Nuevo Herald reported. The Florida Congressman, who is known for his support of the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba, demanded the unconditional release of all political prisoners. He also publicly opposed Moratinos’ efforts to change the EU’s Common Position and asked European countries to continue to pressure Cuba to make changes around democratization and human rights.

Visa status of Cuban dissidents

The Miami Herald wrote this week that because the released prisoners did not come to Spain through standard immigration procedures, they are stuck in a “maze” of immigration rules. Spain has offered the dissidents Assisted International Protection, a flexible immigration status that allows them to apply for permanent residency and a work permit, to return to Cuba, or to gain Spanish citizenship in four to five years. The government has also promised financial assistance for necessities with a small amount of spending money. Some dissidents have expressed a wish to apply for political asylum, which will make it easier for them to bring family members who remain in Cuba to Spain.

Other dissidents want to move to the United States, but establishing residency in Spain makes them ineligible for political asylum. Admission to the U.S. under a regular migrant visa or political refugee status can take three to five years, and admission for “humanitarian parole,” which Ariel Sigler received, can also take up to two years. According to relatives of the prisoners, representatives from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana mentioned the possibility of expediting the process for the dissidents, but U.S. spokespeople have not confirmed the claim.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba strengthens ties with Venezuela at summit

Representatives of Cuba’s and Venezuela’s governments held a summit in Cuba this week to strengthen economic cooperation between the two countries. Cuba’s president Raúl Castro and Venezuela’s Vice President Rafael Ramírez signed 139 bilateral cooperation agreements, Xinhua News reported. Cuba’s Vice President Ricardo Cabrisas told El Universal these agreements were selected from 360 proposed projects because they are “the options more likely to be implemented.” The agreements will also improve coordination between Cuba’s five-year plans and Venezuela’s three-year plans. According to the Cuban News Agency, ministers representing the energy, trade, agriculture, and manufacturing sectors were present.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS


Ricardo Alarcón denounces treatment of one of Cuban Five

Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, denounced the continued confinement of the Cuban Five, particularly in light of the recent health problems of Gerardo Hernández, one of the five prisoners held in U.S. jails for espionage, EFE reported. Cuba maintains that the five were protecting the island through anti-terrorist efforts. Hernández is suffering from high blood pressure and physical pains that may be caused by a bacterial infection common among the prison population. He was put into “the hole” following medical examinations, though an analysis of the infection was not performed. Alarcón criticized the timing of Hernández’s confinement, which came as Cuban officials attempted to “clarify his situation with the prison authorities and with the Department of State in Washington,” and as Hernández was trying to appeal his case. His confinement prevents him from having contact with his lawyer. Alarcón called these conditions “physical and psychological torture” in the Cuban newspaper, Prensa Latina. Alarcón also said that the mistreatment of the prisoners, who have been held in U.S. custody since 1998, promotes terrorism.

Arturo Valenzuela discusses embargo

Arturo Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said the U.S embargo on Cuba “will be lifted if Cuba allows more freedoms,” but no changes will happen “overnight,” the Tribune reported. Valenzuela spoke in the Bahamas during a five-day stop in the Caribbean, and acknowledged that lifting the embargo means that the Bahamas may have to compete for American tourists’ dollars: “Certainly there will be more competition for tourist dollars and that kind of thing, but it seems as if there’s plenty of room for everybody and a country like this beautiful country here will always have a chance to be able to be a good place for people to come and visit.”

Legislation to lift the ban on travel to Cuba, H.R. 4645, the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, was approved by the House Agriculture Committee on June 30th.

Farmers and others urge more travel and trade to Cuba

The Houston Chronicle published an op-ed column arguing in favor of lifting the ban on travel and trade with Cuba. The author, Bob Stallman, a Texas rice farmer and cattle rancher, serves as president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. He argues that American tourists will increase Cuban demand for food bought from the U.S., and that revenues generated in the tourist industry will guarantee that Cuba can pay for its agricultural purchases. According to statistics from Texas A&M University, lifting the ban could create 6,000 jobs and boost sales by $365 million per year. Cleared by the House Agriculture Committee, the bill is expected to be considered by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in September, where four Texans will vote on the measure.

In Kansas, the Wichita Eagle contrasts the positions of Reps. Todd Tiahrt and Jerry Moran, opponents in the Republican Senate primary, on H.R. 4645.  In its editorial, the paper concludes:

“Moran and Tiahrt both want a free Cuba and a free market in Cuba for Kansas agricultural products. But where Tiahrt falls in line with GOP orthodoxy in refusing to compromise on one to achieve the other, Moran favors what’s best for Kansas farmers right now.”

Rep. Collin Peterson, author of H.R. 4645, published this appeal in Capitol Hill’s newspaper, The Hill, urging adoption of his bill, saying trade and travel will help the Cuban people and benefit the U.S. economy.

Meanwhile, Rep. Kathy Castor, the first Member of Congress from Florida to sign on to legislation in the House to end the Cuba travel ban, continues to fight for flights from Tampa to Cuba. “We’re trying to do everything possible to diversify our economy,” she says. “That means travel and trade. … My first motivation is jobs in Tampa and putting pressure on the Obama administration on TIA.”

Food sales to Cuba drop in 2010

U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba fell 35% from January to May 2010 compared with the previous year, Reuters reported. The decline followed a 24% drop in 2009. Cuba imports the majority of its food, and the United States is its most natural supplier, but U.S. regulations prevent farmers from extending credit to Cuban buyers. Cuba must pay in cash in advance for its purchases, and the consequences of seasonal storms in 2008, the global financial crisis, and declining revenues from falling nickel prices and tourist spending have created an economic crisis on the island, according to the Miami Herald.

Commenting on the figures, Sarah Stephens, Executive Director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, said “U.S. food sales to Cuba should be rising, not declining, but the barriers to our exports imposed by President Bush and maintained by President Obama are driving away a good, cash-on-the-barrel head customer.  If we want to create jobs and profits for American farmers, we should eliminate export barriers and open the door to travel to Cuba by Americans, which will increase Cuba’s demand for our food and its capacity to pay.”

Increase in cultural exchanges under Obama

The Obama administration has overseen an increase in cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba as more musicians, artists, actors, and writers have traveled between the two countries than under President Bush, the New York Times reported. This month, two Cuban theater groups, Teatro Buendía and Teatro el Público, performed in Chicago and Miami. In June, musician Silvio Rodríguez gave concerts in the United States, and Alicia Alonso, director of the National Ballet of Cuba visited New York. Last March, a delegation of Cuban playwrights attended a Cuban theater conference in Miami. Also, the American Ballet Theater has announced plans to travel to Cuba to participate in the International Ballet Festival of Havana in November.

Around the Region:

Venezuela/Colombia rift: UNASUR unable to reach consensus calls for summit, Mercopress

A meeting of the Chancellors of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) concluded yesterday without agreement on a solution to the diplomatic crisis between Venezuela and Colombia.  The Chancellors, upon confirming the lack of consensus, requested that the temporary UNASUR presidency, currently held by Ecuador, convene a presidential summit as soon as possible, enabling the heads of state to analyze the positions presented at the meeting yesterday in Quito.

Colombian guerrillas should ‘reconsider’ armed strategy: Chávez, Colombia Reports

In a statement about the FARC, President Hugo Chávez has said, “I believe that the Colombian guerrillas should seriously consider what some of us have done. With all respect, the world today is not the same as in the 60s,” Chavez said.

Moderate optimism for the report from the commission of the OAS, Proceso Digital

The OAS report on reintegrating Honduras into the international organization is ready for release. The Honduran government has repeatedly said it believes the report will be favorable, but other analysts are less optimistic. Daniel Ortega, president of Nicaragua, continues to assert that Honduras should not be allowed to return to multinational organizations until sufficient conditions are created to avoid future democratic breakdowns.

Pressured, Nike to Help Workers in Honduras, The New York Times

Facing pressure from universities and student groups, the athletic apparel maker Nike announced it would pay $1.54 million to help 1,800 workers in Honduras who lost their jobs when two subcontractors closed their factories.

Recommended Reading:

Mainstream media omits context and key facts on Cuba, Progresso Weekly

The Washington Post lead story and editorial on Cuba omitted facts readers would need in order to understand the significance of the prisoner release. Both pieces convey the image of a “political prisoner” who is dedicated to expressing unwelcome views, but a number of prisoners were in jail for committing crimes that would have placed them behind bars if they were done in the United States, including working for a foreign government without registering, and committing acts of violence.

In Havana’s Chinatown, a ‘type’ of media freedom, The Washington Times

At Cuba’s only privately run newspaper, it doesn’t take much to stop the presses. But some see in its relative freedoms and that of the island’s tiny Chinese community in general, the way forward if the communist government opts for broader reforms.

Havana Dreaming, Newsweek

After 50 years, the U.S. travel ban on Cuba has not made the island any more free. But those Americans pressing to lift it are now closer to success than ever before.

Recommended Viewing:

José Ramón Machado Ventura speaks at the 26th of July celebrations, Radio Rebelde

Cuba’s First Vice President José Ramón Machado Ventura addressed the crowd at Santa Clara in the main speech of the day.

Fidel Castro appears for Revolution Day in Cuba, Watch Free

Fidel Castro lays a wreath and gives a short speech in honor of the 26th of July celebrations.

A FINAL WORD

Travel – Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz – she was for it before she was against it:

“The freedom to travel is a part of our way of life and if we start denying legal travel abroad, then we give in to Osama Bin Laden, Hezbollah, and other terrorists who wish to change our way of life,” Wasserman Schultz remarked [in 2006] when announcing sponsorship of the bill (The Life Insurance Fairness for Travelers Act, or LIFT Act H.R. 3639).

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