Raúl’s Reform Report and Retort, a Cardinal in Washington, and Soldier of Fortune Blasts the Embargo!

In this week’s edition of the news blast, we provide detailed coverage of President Raúl Castro’s address before Cuba’s National Assembly.

In short, it was a reform report and retort – meaning, Cuba will shrink its public payroll and loosen the strings on businesses and self-employment, but do all this and more under a socialist rubric. The remarks of Cuba’s president included a rebuke of “self-titled” Cuba analysts who are predicting the demise of Cuba’s system as a means of restoring Cuba’s economy.

In this week’s edition of “Brother, where are thou?” we report on former President Fidel Castro’s plan to address Cuba’s National Assembly about the prospects for nuclear war and global conflict.

In our continuing reports on Cuba’s prisoner release and its potential impact on U.S. policy, read about Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s second visit to Washington, DC this summer, his official audience with National Security Advisor James Jones, and his media comments stating that all prisoners will be released “soon.”

Given our perpetual fascination with just how out of step U.S. policy toward Cuba continues to be, we could hardly resist the news that the embargo will be blasted in October’s issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine in an article co-written by the former news director of Radio Martí and the former Latin America editor of the Miami Herald.

Who’s left supporting the embargo besides the Cold Warriors who have lost track of time, the hardest of the hardliners in the exile community, and, gulp, President Obama?

To be fair, the President has inched U.S. policy in the right direction – restoring family travel to Cuba, opening direct talks with Cuba’s government on migration and mail, offering a significant rise in non-immigrant visas, and encouraging limited increases in cultural exchange.  It’s all good.

But it’s not enough.

We’re troubled by news this week that President Obama has once again (falsely) identified Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, something that U.S. national security professionals regard as a political prevarication and an argument for Raúl Castro’s comment about the U.S. – nothing has changed.

We’re puzzled by the administration’s meager response to Cuba’s agreement to release 52 political prisoners, since the President made significant changes in U.S. policy conditional on exactly such actions by Cuba.

We’re mystified that while Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor, continues his confinement in a Cuban prison, the administration is offering more funding for subcontractors to distribute funds  to Cuban citizens, in an effort to stimulate Cuba’s private sector, that remain illegal for them to accept.

We would like to believe that Mr. Gross – who presumably violated Cuban law by entering the country on a tourist visa to distribute communications equipment, without registering as an agent of the U.S. government – could be freed from custody on humanitarian grounds, especially after an eight-month detention in which he has not yet even been charged.  We would like to see him reunited with his wife, his family, and his congregation.

But we are astonished that as the U.S. government demands his release, it is simultaneously creating new opportunities for more arrests and detentions by individuals receiving USAID funds who would carry out this new private sector program without a host country agreement with Cuba.

Instead, as the Miami Herald reports, letters from USAID to contractors include the warning: “Given the nature of the Cuban regime and the political sensitivity of the USAID program, USAID cannot be held responsible for any injury or inconvenience suffered by individuals traveling to the island under USAID grant funding.”

It reminds us of the famous disclaimer on Mission Impossible– “The Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”  It isn’t funny; it’s irresponsible.

It’s also frustrating.  We continue to believe the President knows better.  We strongly believe that the correct course is more travel, more trade, and more engagement.  That’s a simple statement that applies to U.S. policy toward virtually every country in the world.  It ought to apply to Cuba.  Even Soldier of Fortune knows that.

This week in Cuba news…

IN CUBA

President Castro announces reforms while maintaining “socialist nature” of the economy

In a nationally televised speech to the National Assembly, President Raúl Castro said that Cuba’s government will soon implement “a package of measures” to be undertaken gradually, which will lead to a “reduction of inflated rosters in the state sector.”

The government will lay off unnecessary workers employed by the state, adjust current controls on private businesses, allow more self-employment, and institute a new tax system, Castro announced.  It plans to have the changes implemented by April 2011.

While the government plans to expand the private sector, it denies that major free-market reforms are on the horizon. Castro also shot down claims that stark differences exist between sectors aligned with him and his brother Fidel over how to manage the economy. Castro mocked “self-titled” Cuba analysts who predict the “application of capitalist formulas,” try to “describe the existence of a struggle between tendencies in the leadership,” and promote “changes along the lines of dismantling socialism.”

He said all changes to the economy have been thoroughly discussed and “constitute a structural and conceptual change in the interest of preserving and developing our social system and making it sustainable in the future.” Economy Minister Marino Murillo echoed Castro’s comments, saying “We are studying an updating of the Cuban economic model in which socialist economic priorities will be at the forefront, and not the market,” BBC reported.

Castro also warned that “there will be no impunity for the enemies of the homeland, for those who try to endanger our independence,” apparently aiming his remarks at dissidents. In reference to the U.S., Castro said that “in essence, nothing has changed.”

“Although there is less rhetoric and occasional bilateral talks have taken place on specific and limited issues, in real terms, the blockade is still being implemented and we shall continue acting with the serenity and patience that we have learned during more than half a century,” he said.

There was speculation that Fidel Castro may attend, but his seat at the head table remained empty. The parliamentary session was also used to approve a new road safety law and reorganize the country’s provinces. President Castro’s full speech can be read in English here.

Expanding Private Employment

During his National Assembly speech, Raúl Castro announced that private employment will be expanded and a new tax system will be implemented so that private sector employers can contribute to the state. Details about the new policies were not released, but here is what  the president did say about employment:

The Council of Ministers also agreed to extend the exercise of self-employment and its utilization as another job alternative for surplus workers, by eliminating various existing prohibitions on the granting of new licenses and the marketing of certain products, thus making labor contracts more flexible.

At the same time, the abovementioned meeting of July 16-17 approved the implementation of a taxation system for the self-employed sector that responds to the new economic scenario and also guarantees that workers incorporated into this activity will make their social security contributions, pay tax on their personal income and sales; and that those hiring staff will pay taxes for utilizing a workforce.

According to Fernando Ravsberg of the BBC, most important is the language referring to “hiring staff” and “making labor contracts more flexible,” which many analysts believe is an indication that small businesses will be allowed to be formed. In the past, self-employment has been limited to individuals or to an individual and his or her family members.

Dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe applauded the change, telling Reuters “it will be very difficult to reverse the process. This opens the possibility of creating small- and medium-sized companies in fields like gastronomy and construction. This can give tremendous agility to the Cuban economy.”

The Associated Press reported on the speech and economic reforms here and here, and the Cigar Aficionado has an interesting report here. Reuters assesses various scenarios with private employment here, AFP (en Español) reported on the possibility that foreigners will soon be allowed to own condos at golf courses in Cuba here, and a Miami Herald editorial appears to attack and downplay the changes.

Cuban food production down

Despite efforts by Cuba’s government to bolster agriculture productivity via reforms, domestic food output for the first six months of 2010 is down compared to last year. Changes in government economic policy have raised prices paid by the state for produce, provided new land leases to farmers, reorganized state farms and cooperatives, and allowed producers to sell more of their produce directly to consumers. However, according to Reuters, food production fell 7.5 percent from January to June. Production of a few items rose, including yucca, milk, non-citrus fruits, and bananas.

In President Castro’s speech to the National Assembly, he blamed administrative errors and a continuing drought for the production shortfalls. Some economists and farm experts believe the government needs to make more radical policy shifts. “Until the state frees up farmers to own outright the land, sell directly what they produce and purchase what they need to do it, production will not significantly improve,” one local agriculture expert told Reuters.

Fidel Castro back in the spotlight, expected to address the National Assembly

Former president Fidel Castro is expected to address a special gathering of Cuba’s National Assembly on August 7th.  In recent days, the retired president has penned several essays and addressed various groups regarding the risks of nuclear war as tensions escalate on the Korean peninsula and the U.S. imposes tougher sanctions against Iran.  He requested a special session of the parliament be convened to debate the issue. An official note released by the Cuban state media does not specify that Castro will be present, but AFP and CBS News reported that Castro will likely address the lawmakers for the first time since 2006.

This week, Cuba’s former president also released a new book. “The Strategic Victory” focuses mainly on a key victory against then-dictator Batista’s forces, and reveals “little new about his youth,” reported the Associated Press. The book includes maps, photos, and illustrations of the weapons used by Castro and his comrades. He spoke for an hour at a private book launch ceremony at Havana’s convention center, which was attended by Elian Gonzalez, and read excerpts from the book. Organizers announced that they will make 3,500 copies available in a few days and that they plan to publish 50,000 copies in total. Castro will turn 84 on August 13th.

Bloomberg reported on how Castro’s improved health could affect policy making here.

Human rights group demands release of 69 prisoners

The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation asked the Cuban government to release 69 political prisoners, the AP wrote. The group said the prisoners have served at least half of their sentences and should be eligible parole. Forty-three of the prisoners on the list have been accused of violent crimes which means many international groups would not consider them prisoners of conscience.

CUBA’S FOREIGN POLICY

Canadian teen headed back to Canada

A Canadian teen that had been prohibited from leaving Cuba following a car crash near the Varadero beach resort can now to return to Canada after months of bureaucratic delays, CTV Toronto reported.

Cody LeCompte, 19, was on vacation in Cuba when a car he was driving crashed into a dump truck, causing injuries to Canadians and Cubans present in his rental car. Cuban authorities had prevented his departure from the island while the case was investigated.  The Canadian government got involved after months passed and Cody’s family became burdened financially by lodging fees to keep him in Cuba. The accident happened in April.

Cuba seeks arrest of Chilean businessman

The Cuban government issued an arrest warrant for Chilean businessman Max Marambio, the head of Alimentos Río Zaza S.A., a joint-venture company with the Cuban government, which has been at the heart of a corruption scandal, the Associated Press reported.

A corruption probe began in April.  Soon after, a top Chilean executive who worked for Marambio was found dead in his Havana apartment, and Rogelio Acevedo, the head of Cuba’s aviation and border security, was arrested for suspected fraud and embezzlement involving improper use of state aircraft.

The notice by the Interior Ministry did not specify if an international arrest warrant has been issued for Marambio’s capture, or if it is just a local order. His whereabouts are unknown, although it’s suspected that he is in Santiago, Chile.  He previously said that if ordered, he would travel to Cuba to face charges.

Marambio is said to have been a close friend of Fidel Castro in the past. Raúl Castro has pledged to stamp out corruption from his government. The Cuba Standard provides more details on the case here.

China and Cuba sign new cooperation agreements

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visited Cuba over the weekend, meeting with both Raúl and Fidel Castro during his stay, Xinhua reported. According to Havana Times, government officials ratified memorandums of understanding to strengthen “economic and commercial cooperation” as well as “high-level” exchanges between both countries.

There are currently 13 Cuba-China joint ventures, seven of them in communications, agricultural production and tourism. According to the Cuba Standard, bilateral trade rose 34 percent to more than $900 million during the first half of this year. The two countries are celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations. Cuba was the first Latin American country to forge diplomatic relations with China on Sept. 28, 1960.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Cardinal Ortega in Washington

Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega returned to Washington, D.C. for the second time this summer, the Miami Herald reported. Ortega came to the U.S. to receive the Gaudium et Spes Award at the annual conference of the Knights of Columbus, the organization’s highest honor.

During his stay, Ortega met with General Jim Jones, President Obama’s National Security Advisor, and Arturo Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere. Following the meeting, the National Security Council released this statement:

Earlier this afternoon, National Security Advisor General Jim Jones met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega to discuss Cardinal Ortega’s recent successful efforts to secure the ongoing release of political prisoners in Cuba. General Jones commended Cardinal Ortega for the role the Catholic Church played in securing the freedom of those jailed standing up for the basic rights of the Cuban people and reiterated the United States government’s desire to see all political prisoners unconditionally released from jail in Cuba with the right to remain in Cuba upon release. General Jones also underscored our consistent call for the immediate release of Alan Gross, who has been held without charge since early December 2009.

In an interview with the Catholic News Service, Ortega said the prisoner release is a “hopeful sign for the country,” and successfully diffused tensions in Havana which “were threatening to become as volatile as they were around the 1980 Mariel boatlift.” He said that “all political prisoners will be released soon.” According to Ortega, the release is not as important domestically, where economic issues are the main concern of Cuban citizens, but is significant at the international level. “In the internal life of Cuba, this is not very important,” Cardinal Ortega said. “But for foreign relations, it’s very important.”

He also said the current discussions with the government “have been unprecedented, and they bring about a new situation of social appreciation for our Catholics. We hope that this process of dialogue, in which we are immerged (sic) now, ends successfully.”

Ortega said he met with officials at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana prior to the prisoner release regarding prisoners that want to travel to the U.S., but the U.S. said that it could not help in the short-term and that it wanted to maintain a “low-profile.”

See more about the church in “Recommended Reading” below.

U.S. keeps Cuba on the state sponsors of terrorism list

The State Department released its annual report on terrorism and counter-terrorism around the world, once again listing Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. As the Washington Post reported, “the report, like last year’s, uses softer language on Cuba than was the case in the past.”

The report acknowledges that “there was no evidence of direct financial support for terrorist organizations by Cuba in 2009” and that “Cuba no longer supports armed struggle in Latin America and other parts of the world,” but goes on to accuse Cuba of permitting U.S. fugitives to live legally in Cuba, providing safe haven to members of the FARC, ELN, and ETA, providing them with living, logistical, and medical support, and “remaining critical of the U.S. approach to combating international terrorism.”

The other countries identified as state-sponsors of terrorism by the United States are Iran, Sudan and Syria.

Cuba quickly denounced its inclusion on the list, CNN reported. “Once again, the United States has put in doubt the seriousness of its commitment to fight international terrorism, and has maintained one of the most irrational aspects of its hostile policy toward Cuba,” said a statement from Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, director of North American affairs at the Cuban Foreign Ministry.

U.S. and Cuban Coast Guard cooperate on capturing boat thieves

The U.S. Coast Guard intercepted four would-be Cuban migrants traveling on a stolen boat and took them back to Cuba, working off information provided by Cuban border control agents, AFP reported. The four Cubans allegedly stole the boat from an East Havana marina and planned to travel to the United States.

According to Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior, two of the alleged hijackers, Manuel Ramírez and Eduardo Puig, were janitors at the marina where the boat was stolen “using force and causing damage to facilities and installations.” The report said that U.S. authorities intercepted and returned to Cuba, on Aug. 2nd the aforementioned nationals and the naval vessel, in compliance with the Immigration Accords that exist between the two countries.

Member of Cuban Five removed from solitary confinement, some call for prisoner swap

Gerardo Hernandez, one of the “Cuban Five” imprisoned in the United States for espionage, has been taken out of solitary confinement after two weeks, EFE reported.

He was returned to his normal cell and allowed to call his wife. Over the last few weeks Cuba’s leadership, including Fidel and Raúl Castro, has criticized Hernandez’s isolation. In Raúl Castro’s National Assembly address he complained that “our valiant five heroes are still enduring unjust incarceration and abusive treatment, such as the cruelty currently being meted out to compañero Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, which has been condemned by this Assembly.” Fidel Castro accused the FBI of being behind the “torture” of Hernandez.

Cuban state media reported that “the State Department, on Monday afternoon, informed Cuban authorities about the transfer.” He was transferred to solitary confinement on July 21st without explanation, and developed health problems during his 12 days in the “hole.” Hernandez has been in prison since 1998 along with four other Cubans: Rene Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez, and Ramon Labañino. The five are considered heroes in Cuba.

CNN reported that after beginning to release a number of political prisoners, the Cuban government is hinting at a prisoner swap to secure the return of the “Five” to Cuba. President Castro had previously said he would release the political prisoners in exchange for the Cuban Five.

“Our president was very clear,” said Hernandez’s wife. “We were waiting for the U.S. to free the Five and we would hand over the prisoners we have in Cuba, even with their relatives. Cuba has complied with its gesture.” According to CNN, “some Cuban officials have pointed to the recent swap of Russian and American spies as evidence that there may be a possibility.”

U.S. calls for the release of Alan Gross

The U.S. government again called for the release of an American man imprisoned in Cuba since December 3 of last year, Reuters reported. Speaking to reporters last week, Arturo Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, said Cuba should release him immediately. “We consider the arrest of Alan Gross … to be an unacceptable act. He was not violating any laws and has not been charged as far as I know,” Valenzuela told a news conference in Trinidad and Tobago. “He is not well, he has lost 80 pounds (36 kg), it’s been more than six months (since his arrest) and we’re encouraging the Cuban government to release him,” he said.

Cuba has not charged Gross for a crime, but has accused him of carrying out activities for the U.S. government while traveling on a tourist visa, possibly being linked to intelligence agencies, and assisting dissidents on the island with high-tech communication devices that are prohibited on the island. The U.S. claims he was helping members of the Jewish community connect to the Internet, although no one has corroborated that account of his activities while in Cuba.

See more in “Recommended Reading.”

USAID targeting private enterprise in Cuba

The Miami Herald reported on adjustments to the USAID Cuba program that will now include $3 million to promote grassroots economic development in Cuba. The agency intends to promote “self-employment and entrepreneurial activities,” which means it will support small private businesses such as bed-and-breakfasts, barbershops, taxi services, farmers, and beauty salons. The announcement coincides with Raúl Castro’s plans to allow more private enterprise.

The funding for USAID is derived from legislation that aims to promote a “transition” in Cuba, interpreted in Cuba as regime change.

However, the Cuban government has labeled USAID funding “subversive” and it is illegal to accept its funds.

U.S. Trade “Czar”: Cuba presents an “extraordinary opportunity” for American farmers

Ron Kirk, the U.S. Trade Representative, told a Senate committee this week that Cuba presents an “extraordinary opportunity” for American farmers to expand new markets for their goods, the Florida Sun-Sentinel reported. Pending legislation in the House and Senate would remove obstacles to trade and allow all Americans to travel to Cuba without restrictions, but the Obama Administration has yet to publicly support the bills.

“As the trade embargo on Cuba approaches its 50th anniversary without having had a measurable impact on the behavior of the government of Cuba, it is high time that we consider alternative approaches,” Senator Blanche Lincoln, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told Kirk during the hearing.

The Des Moines Register reported that sales to Cuba are down by 35 percent over the first 5 months of 2010, and business groups believe ending travel restrictions to Cuba may be the only way to recover sales. Cuba is buying more from countries that offer credit and easier terms for transactions when purchasing. “The Cubans over the last couple of years have been sourcing their food imports from our competitors. That’s one of the main reasons we’ve been pushing this so hard,” said Chris Garza, a trade policy specialist with the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Around the Region:

Venezuela takes aim at U.S. ambassador designee

Larry Palmer, the U.S. ambassador designee to Venezuela, provided written answers to questions posed by Senator Richard Lugar, the senior Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that have inflamed relations with the government in Caracas weeks before his confirmation hearings will even take place.

According to CNN and other news agencies, Palmer raised concerns about issues ranging from freedom of expression in Venezuela to the country’s relationship with Colombia’s leftist guerillas, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC.

Venezuela’s government and its allies responded immediately to the release of Palmer’s comments.

“Larry Palmer hasn’t even arrived in Venezuela and he’s already casting stones,” Andrés Izarra, Venezuela’s former communications minister and the current president of the pro-Chavez television network Telesur, said on TV on Tuesday night. “His comments reveal a negative prejudice against Venezuela,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

OAS reports on aftermath of Honduras coup

A special commission of the Organization of American States released a report saying that Honduras has made progress in the year following the coup but still lags in protecting human rights. The complete report is available here. The report prompted Chile and Mexico to restore diplomatic relations and return their ambassadors to the country, the AP reported.

Latin American governments suspended diplomatic relations following the coup, restored relations after Porfirio Lobo was elected in November. Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and Nicaragua continue to refuse to recognize the Lobo government. “We recognize that the elections in which Porfirio Lobo was elected were free elections,” Chile’s foreign minister, Alfredo Moreno, told El Mercurio.

Mario Otero, the U.S. Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, made a two-day visit to Honduras, El Heraldo reported. In her meetings with President Lobo and other government officials, she said that the United States will continue to support the Lobo government, but emphasized the need for progress on human rights.

Recommended Reading:

Kamen Reports October Issue of Soldier of Fortune “Blasts the Embargo”

Writing in his Washington Post column “In the Loop,” Al Kamen offers an exclusive look at a forthcoming article in Soldier of Fortune magazine titled “Fifty Years of Failure: Petrified U.S. Policy toward Cuba.”  The article lambasting the U.S. sanctions regime is authored by Jay Mallin, former news director of Radio Martí, and Don Bohning, the ex-Latin America editor for the Miami Herald.

The ranks of embargo supporters continue to thin.

Focus on Cuba’s Catholic Church

A special report from the National Catholic Register outlines the Church’s complex relationship with the government since Fidel Castro took power in 1959, culminating with the negotiations that led to the prisoner release that is currently underway.

EFE reports on an article published by Orlando Marquez, spokesman for the Havana archdiocese, in Palabra Nueva, the magazine of the Catholic Archdiocese of Havana, days before Raúl Castro’s speech about economic changes.  This eloquent column includes the following observation:

“We must dare to go our own way. Maybe it’s enough to take the first step to discover that the road isn’t that rocky, that excessive controls create more problems than they’re supposed to prevent.”

Alan Gross

In a new essay, “Could Twelve Dozen Equal Five,” Saul Landau discusses the case of imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross, raises questions about the plausibility of our government’s cover story on his activities in Cuba, and explores the possibility of including him in a prisoner swap.

An Essay about Fidel’s Reemergence

The Washington Post published an essay by Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez about Castro’s reemergence. Sanchez describes mixed feelings on the island about Castro’s return to the spotlight.

Carlos Varela as a symbol of rebellion

Leading up to his two New York shows, an article published in the Star-Ledger comments on the symbolism of Cuban music star Carlos Varela. For many people, on and off the island, the music of Varela encapsulates the heartbreaking realities of post-revolutionary Cuba.  Varela hopes that the laws on travel restrictions continue to be relaxed because “we can’t live so long being so near yet so far.”

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