News about Travel, TWEA, Testing the Embargo, and a shark cage!

Dear Reader:

This has to be a metaphor for something.

Diana Nyad, a former world-record holding American swimmer, who is renowned for long distance aquatic feats such as circling Manhattan Island in just seven hours, has set her sights once again on swimming from Cuba to the United States, a distance of approximately 103 miles.

Nyad last tried to cross the Florida Straits in her bathing suit in 1978, but was pulled from the water, as Florida Today describes it, after more than 41 hours of swimming had taken her horribly off course in a raging sea.  Now, at the doorstep of her 61st birthday, she is planning to repeat and finish the swim she started thirty-two years ago – without a shark cage! – so long as she gets approval from both governments for her to do so.

We hope she gets permission.  But we’d like to point out that most Americans are barred by U.S. law – not by Cuba’s government, but by our government – to make this journey through more conventional means for any purpose – be it tourism, evangelism, or the pursuit of art or culture.

Thankfully, the Obama administration acted a year ago, ending a cruel and politically-driven barrier erected by the Bush administration, to restore the rights of Americans of Cuban descent to visit their families on the island.  They are doing so in massive numbers, providing support – emotional and financial – to their Cuban kin, even taking them on vacations to Cuba’s resorts.

This right to travel, however, is and ought to be the birthright of every American, regardless of his heritage or heroic athletic endowments.  A bill to end the travel ban is currently before the Congress.  The effort to pass the Peterson-Moran bill, H.R. 4645, before the legislative session ends, would become much easier if the Obama administration were to make its support for broader travel opportunities to Cuba better known.

It may be poised to do so.  Press reports – explored in detail below – strongly suggest that the Obama administration will loosen regulatory restrictions on so-called “purposeful travel” as early as this month.  We do not know how extensive these changes might be.

But if the President were to open broadly categories of travel to Cuba that existed during the Clinton Administration, that would be a clear signal that the President wants to change policy, and an invitation to the Congress to complete what the President has started.   Only Congress has the authority to repeal all limits on travel against the right of Americans to visit the island, and it should do so this year.

And if the Congress is politically fearful to take this step, we know where they can find a shark cage to protect them.

This week in Cuba news…

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Will Obama announce executive changes to Cuba travel policy?

Several news organizations report that President Obama may soon use his executive authority to ease some travel restrictions to Cuba. Analysts said the announcement will most likely come while Congress is out of session for its August recess, but there is a lack of reliable information about how sweeping the changes will be.

El Nuevo Herald reports that two administration officials recently said a decision had been made and would be announced over the next two weeks. The changes may expand the groups of people authorized to travel under a general license to Cuba to include academic- and religion-related travel, as well as allowing more airports to offer direct charter flights to the island. Currently, only Miami, New York and Los Angeles are authorized to provide direct flights.

The administration has the authority to allow individuals qualifying under 12 categories of “purposeful travel” to use general licenses to travel to Cuba, meaning they won’t need to apply for specific permission each time they visit the island. The Cuban Colada blog reported that U.S. Congressman Bill Delahunt has requested a meeting with Obama to discuss the possibility of allowing Tampa and other U.S. cities to offer flights to Cuba. Delahunt points out that despite travel restrictions being lifted for Cuban-Americans, there has been no change in the number of cities permitted to service flights to the island.

A coalition of U.S. business, academic, and other groups is pushing President Obama to respond to Cuba’s recent release of political prisoners by reversing remaining travel restrictions, Reuters reported.

“You have indicated that further steps would be possible in response to positive actions by Cuba, specifically including the release of political prisoners,” said a letter from the coalition, which included the National Foreign Trade Council, the National Tour Association, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

Michael Hammer, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council said that the administration would “continue to pursue policies that advance the U.S. national interest and support the Cuban people’s desire to freely determine their country’s future,” but would not confirm any upcoming announcements, Bloomberg reported.

New officials working on Cuba at the State Department

The State Department has two new senior officials working on U.S. policy toward Cuba. Daniel Erikson, previously a senior analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue, joined the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs two months ago. Erikson left his position at the Dialogue for the State Department, where he serves as Senior Advisor for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

According to the Miami Herald, Erikson’s views on Cuba policy are well known through his work at the Dialogue and his recent book, The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United States and the Next Revolution. Erikson has criticized Cuba’s human rights record and the lack of democracy on the island, but favors a policy of engagement. “The best policy is to allow a range of actors in American society to engage with a range of actors in Cuban society, not for the purpose of democratizing Cuba, but for the purpose of trying to create a more open environment between the two countries that will lead to more openness in Cuba,” Erikson said at an event earlier this year prior to leaving the Dialogue.

Meanwhile, Peter Brennan, a career diplomat who has held various posts throughout Latin America, will become the new director of Cuban affairs at the State Department, taking over for acting director Ricardo Zúñiga who has been assigned to serve in Brazil. Most recently Brennan served as the Deputy Chief of Mission in Costa Rica.

Respected journalist David Brooks writes in Spanish about these appointments and other developments as portents for changes in the U.S.-Cuba relationship. He quotes Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, saying “if you look at what is actually happening – Dan Erikson’s appointment, increasing support in the House Foreign Affairs Committee for legalizing travel, and the prospect of a significant action by President Obama on Cuba – you can see conditions being created for more progress in U.S.-Cuba relations than we have seen in nearly a generation. “

Amnesty International urges Obama not to extend the Trading With the Enemy Act

For the second consecutive year, Amnesty International, global advocacy group for human rights, is calling on President Obama not to extend the Trading With the Enemy Act with respect to Cuba. Such a step would not amend or repeal the embargo, but “would surely be welcomed by many U.S. citizens keen to travel to and engage with Cuba” and send a “clear message to Congress, that after 50 years of tension, new avenues should develop in the relationship with Cuba,” Executive Director Larry Cox said in a recent letter sent to the White House.

Amnesty International consistently criticizes the Cuban government for human rights abuses, but simultaneously argues that “the U.S. should unconditionally lift the embargo against Cuba, as it is highly detrimental to the human rights of Cuban people and is contrary to the spirit and letter of the Charter of the United Nations.” According to Cox, “The embargo limits Cuba’s capacity to import medicines, medical equipment and the latest medical technologies, some of which are needed for the effective treatment of life-threatening diseases,” along with presenting other challenges to the Cuban health care system. President Obama has until September 14th to renew the Act.

Embargo-supporting Congressman called out by hometown newspaper

U.S. Rep. Connie Mack has been criticized by his hometown newspaper for his staunch support of the existing Cuba policy. An editorial published by the Ft. Meyers-based News Press called on the U.S. to “further relax trade and travel restrictions to the island” and said “Cuban-Americans and others should take full advantage of opportunities to visit and trade with Cuba.”

According to the paper, congressional leaders have failed to lift the travel ban because of persistent Cold-War attitudes. “Our own Congressman Connie Mack IV, R-Fort Myers, has said easing restrictions would show ‘weakness.’” But the paper argues that it “does not show strength for America to refuse to exchange policies that don’t work for those with much more promise,” concluding that “Congress should eliminate the restrictions on trade with and travel to Cuba.”

Smuggling of food, clothes and goods tests the embargo

According to Reuters, “growing numbers of human ‘mules’ who regularly travel between the United States and Cuba carrying in their bags loads of clothes, food, consumer goods, electrical appliances and millions of U.S. dollars” to Cuba, are testing the decades-old trade embargo. With increased flights to Cuba, the amount of goods and remittances smuggled to the island is also rising.

Bureaucratic requirements in the U.S., and high fees on remittances in Cuba, make formal money transfers more expensive and less attractive to Cubans in the U.S., who can often send money less expensively with a friend, family member, or smuggler headed to Havana.  Although estimates vary, Manuel Orozco, a remittances expert with the Inter-American Dialogue, says that Cuban exiles in the United States sent to the island some $636 million in 2008 and probably slightly less in 2009, about 60 percent of which is sent through informal channels or mules.

Similarly, many informal businesses have sprung up in Cuba, where a Cuban broker provides a list of goods to Cubans on the island and then orders them to be shipped in from Miami by a mule. For example, a $700 flat screen TV in Miami can go for $2,000 in Cuba, Reuters reports.

Texas rice farmers see Cuba legislation as a savior for domestic rice production

Texas farmers are keeping a close eye on legislation in Congress, hoping that trade and travel restrictions on Cuba will be eased, the Associated Press reports. According to Texas farm groups, the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2010, a bill in Congress that would lift the travel ban and allow the sale of more American goods to Cuba, “could be a key to sustaining the Texas rice farming business, which has been hit lately with diving prices and rising production costs.”

According to the AP, for several years Texas rice farmers have been complaining about how difficult it has been to make any money and “they see Cuba as a way to increase profits and allow them to continue growing rice for people in the U.S. and around the world.”

Cruise industry hopeful for access to Cuban market in the near future

The Chicago Tribune reports that the Cruise industry is looking forward to the day when Cuba can become a prime destination for cruise passengers in the Caribbean. Richard Sasso, board chairman of the Cruise Lines International Association, said he is heartened by news reports that Cuba had agreed to release 52 political prisoners, and by increasing congressional support for ending the American travel ban, but that it will take some time before many cruise ships are headed to Cuba. “Right now…they lack the infrastructure and facilities to handle the huge influx of vessels and visitors,” he told the Tribune. “It’ll probably take one, two or maybe three years before the necessary developments are completed. Lots of work has to be done.”

Swimmer waiting for good water and weather conditions to swim from Florida to Cuba

Long distance swimmer Diana Nyad continues to wait for ideal conditions to make the 103 mile swim from Cuba to Florida, Florida Today reported. Completing the swim has been her “dream” since she was forced to end her 1978 attempt after 41 hours due to rough waters. Nyad, who began re-training for the Cuba to Florida swim as her 60th birthday approached, said she is waiting for better weather conditions and government approval in order to go ahead with the swim. At age 61, she hopes to become the first person to complete the swim without a shark cage.

IN CUBA

Fidel Castro addresses the National Assembly

Cuba’s former President Fidel Castro addressed the National Assembly last weekend, using his first official appearance since 2006 to warn about the possibility of a nuclear war. Castro was greeted by approximately 600 lawmakers who shouted “long live Fidel,” before and after he spoke. He took 11 minutes to read a prepared speech dedicated entirely to global politics and the possibility of nuclear war and answered questions from parliamentarians for over an hour. Castro did not mention domestic issues at all. He said that tension between Iran, the U.S. and Israel could lead to a nuclear war, but President Obama, if made aware of the consequences, won’t let it happen.

Castro began by saying that “just eight weeks ago, I thought the imminent threat of war had no possible solution. So dramatic was the picture before me, that I saw no way out unless it was survival, perhaps probable, on the part of this hemisphere that had no reason to be targeted for direct attack, and some other isolated regions of the planet.” However, toward the end of his speech, Castro noted that “the President of the United States is a descendant of Africans and whites, Muslim and Christian” and if he is made aware of the consequences he won’t allow a nuclear war. “He will not do it! If he is made aware of it. That’s what we’re doing here,” concluded Castro.

The Associated Press reported that Castro, who was led to the podium by an aide, was “lively and healthy-looking.”

The text of the speech is available here. A narrated clip of the speech can be viewed here, and a video of the full speech is available hereJuventud Rebelde provides text of the question and answer session between Castro and lawmakers following his speech.

On a separate but related matter, the Washington Note this week called attention to this “must read” piece on the possibility of an attack against Iran.

Fidel Castro’s reemergence

Even prior to Fidel Castro’s recent reemergence in the public spotlight – attending public events, participating in a televised interview, and addressing Cuba’s legislators – there has been much speculation about what role he plays in policy-making on the island. Castro is still the first-secretary of the Communist Party and his brother Raúl, Cuba’s current president, has repeatedly said that Fidel is consulted on everything.

According to CNN, while Raúl Castro has promoted “potentially controversial free-market reforms…domestic issues have been noticeably absent from the elder Castro’s recent commentary.”

According to one Communist Party insider, Castro is “strengthening his brother’s government at a difficult moment,” Reuters reported.

“Fidel’s presence has two objectives: to back Raúl’s efforts to modernize the economy by showing he is still very much around and therefore approves, and to counter the negative international media coverage we received over human rights this year by shifting attention to the United States’ two soft spots, war and the environment,” he said.

In an article titled “Fidel Castro celebrates birthday amid reports of tension with successor,” the Miami Herald speculates about a “bitter struggle” between Fidel and Raúl Castro “that includes mutual back-stabbings.” Similarly, a Washington Post editorial argued that Raúl Castro faces “stiff competition by Fidel Castro — who, after a four year absence, began popping up after the first prisoner release,” and that Raúl is not serious about making reforms anyway. Wayne Smith, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979 to 1982, responded to the Post editorial, arguing that the Obama administration has done nothing so far to stimulate further changes.

When Fidel Castro was asked about his current activities during a Sunday TV interview with Venezuela’s Telesur, he responded: “My role is to say what is happening so that others can decide what to do. You have to understand that the comrades (in the government) are not people I can lead by the finger or hand. What I want is that they think things over.”

“Fidel’s staged performances do not signal his return to power. Instead, his remarks on international issues rather underscore his backing for Raúl’s policies. From leader, Fidel has transformed into legitimator,” Bert Hoffmann, Senior Research Fellow for Latin American studies at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, told Reuters.

The elder Castro turned 84 today, August 13th.

Corruption probe could be responsible for removal and detention of Food Minister

The investigation of Max Marambio, whose joint venture Río Zaza has been under investigation since April, might be connected to the firing and arrest of a top Cuban official, the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio reported.

Alejandro Roca Iglesias, the former Minister of the Food Industry, was removed from his post in March of 2009 when Raúl Castro fired several top officials from his cabinet. An official writ sent from Cuban authorities to the Chilean Attorney General highlights questionable transactions, among other things, between Marambio and Roca over the years.

According to El Mercurio, Roca, who “was one of Fidel Castro’s trusted ministers and held the post for 37 years,” has been detained on the island for the past five months. Cuba has requested the Chilean government’s assistance in questioning or bringing Marambio to Havana to face questioning regarding the case. However, Chile’s Attorney General has requested more information from Cuban authorities in order to determine how to proceed. El Mercurio reported. Cuban Colada has parts of the article translated into English here.

Anti-Castro terrorists charged for 2001 crime

Three men, accused of terrorism-related crimes and arrested by Cuban border guards in 2001, were formally charged last week for the first time since their arrest, the Associated Press reported.

Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said prosecutors took roughly eight hours to present their case against the three Cuban-born exiles. Ihosvani Suris de la Torre, Santiago Padrón Quintero and Máximo Pradera Valdés, also known as Máximo Robaina, were arrested back in 2001 after exchanging gunfire with Cuban authorities off the coast of the island.

When they were detained, the men were allegedly in possession of four AK-47 assault rifles, an M-3 rifle, three Makarov pistols and night goggles, all purchased openly at stores in Miami, according to the Cuban government. State TV programs about the case have also revealed evidence that the three planned to detonate a bomb at the Tropicana, Cuba’s world-renowned cabaret. Sánchez, whose Commission monitors the status of Cuba’s political prisoners, said he did not know why it took so long for the proceedings to begin.

Catholic mass broadcast on state television

Cuban state television broadcast this week’s Catholic mass for the initiation of the pilgrimage to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of the virgin Caridad del Cobre, the patron saint of the island, EFE reported. Only a few masses have been broadcasted on state television over the last decade, but the church and Raúl Castro’s government are enjoying stronger relations after entering into a direct dialogue on several domestic issues, including incarcerated dissidents. The mass took place on Sunday at a sanctuary in Santiago, Cuba and was shown nationally on the education channel on Monday.

Giant “rave” festival features Cuba’s alternative culture and diverse voices

The Rotilla Party, a giant beach-side rave that aims to protect and promote electronic and hip-hop music in Cuba, took place last weekend at Jibacoa beach. This year’s celebration marked the 12th anniversary of the event, featuring DJs, bands, tattoo stands, Cuban rum, and non-stop partying for 72 hours, AFP reported.

Last year’s party was attended by a record 10,000 people, and organizers said around 15,000 people were in attendance this year. The annual event, which began as a gathering amongst friends who “wanted to party without the rules of the city,” has turned into one of the biggest gatherings of the “Cuban underground.”

This year it was announced just hours before it actually began, as organizers feared interest has grown so high that too many people would arrive. The main attraction was a performance by Los Aldeanos, a controversial hip-hop duo that raps about social issues, often strongly criticizing the government, leading to their censorship in state radio and television and difficulty performing in public.

According to AFP, many youngsters attended the weekend event after “hearing that Los Aldeanos would perform publicly, because of expectations of total ‘freedom of creativity'” and the fact that the organizers never “politicize the event.” Reuters reported that the festival also included film screenings and a workshop about how to record videos with cell phones. A video report on the event is available here, and the official website, program and pictures can be accessed here.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba -Brazil -Venezuela cooperate to rebuild Haiti’s health care system

Officials from Cuba, Haiti, and Brazil met in Havana last week to discuss Cuba’s medical assistance program in Haiti, the Cuba Standard reported. The $650 million program to rebuild Haiti’s public health sector is funded by Brazil and Venezuela and mainly implemented by Cuba. Officials toured Cuban clinics and discussed how Haiti might emulate certain characteristics of Cuba’s health care system. According to Prensa Latina, Cuban specialists are currently deployed throughout Haiti, and have treated 403,000 patients since the earthquake.

1,400 Graduate from the Latin American Medical School

According to the Cuban News Agency, 1,400 physicians from over 40 countries graduated from Havana’s Latin American Medical School in this year‘s graduation, bringing the total to 8,500 physicians from 54 countries over the last 12 years. Inaugurated in 1998, the program has expanded to all medical universities on the island, and includes scientific, humanistic and ethical training. Currently, Cuba has over 75,000 physicians, making it the country with the largest number of doctors per capita – about 1 per 150 residents – in the world.

Recommended Reading:

Cuba seeks development alternatives, Leonardo Padura Fuentes

The most recent developments in Cuba — let’s say, since the announcement of the liberation of 52 prisoners, counterrevolutionaries to one side, conscientious resisters to the other — has set off a veritable avalanche of speculation intensified by unexpected factors.

A Cuban adventure with Lee Lockwood, Progreso Weekly

In July 1967, I met Lee Lockwood at the Mexico City ticket counter of Cubana de Aviacion. He had black curly hair, a confident almost smug look and he toted camera bags. “I loved your book, the best, most honest book on Cuba,” (Castro’s Cuba; Cuba’s Fidel which he later updated) I told him. “Brilliant photos,” which he had taken for Life Magazine. “Thanks,” he snorted.

Around the Region:

Colombia, Venezuela restore diplomatic ties, VOA News

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chávez, have restored diplomatic relations that were severed last month by Caracas in a dispute over Venezuela’s alleged support of leftist rebels in Colombia.

Hugo Chávez rejects Larry Palmer as U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, Huffington Post

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on Sunday went through with his threat to reject the diplomat nominated by President Barack Obama to be the U.S. ambassador to Caracas. Chávez said he won’t accept Larry Palmer as envoy because he recently suggested morale is low in Venezuela’s military and raised concerns about Colombian rebels finding refuge in Venezuela.

Car bomb explosion in Colombian capital, AFP

A car bomb exploded in northern Bogotá early Thursday, injuring nine people and damaging buildings in the area, in an early challenge to the country’s new President Juan Manuel Santos. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, and police said they did not know what the target was.

Honduras: the Truth Commission hears of violations against Channels 11 and 12, La Tribuna

The manager of Channels 11 and 12 Digital TV, César Rosenthal presented to the Truth Commission a report on the violations and abuses that his businesses suffered during the government of coup-leader Roberto Micheletti. The report describes multiple raids, harassments, and persecutions using the justice system and intentions of sabotage by legal arguments.

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