Waiting in Washington, Drilling in the Gulf, Appointing (Maria del Carmen) Aponte

Every drum roll ought to end in a cymbal crash, every lightning strike ends with thunder, and after one of the longer roll-outs (or worst kept secrets) in the annals of U.S. policy making, someday, perhaps even today, the Obama administration will use its executive authority to drop most regulatory restrictions on the right of Americans to travel to Cuba.

If the enthusiasm of the audience waiting for this change has dissipated somewhat – as anticipation gave way to curiosity and then impatience – the importance of what we expect to happen should not be overlooked.

While the Cuban government rejects linkage, President Obama has repeatedly tied further progress on loosening sanctions to actions such as the release of political prisoners on the island.  In a sense, the President imposed conditions on himself; once Cuba reached a separate agreement with Cuba’s Catholic Church and Spain to free the remaining 52 prisoners who had been captive since the March 2003 round-up, an action by the U.S. in response to the release has seemed inevitable.  Otherwise, the credibility of the president’s policy would be shredded.

Spain and the Church won this agreement because they did something that our government won’t – they sat down with Cuba’s leadership, negotiated, and got it done.  That was in May.  Expectation has built since then for a U.S. response.  Sources chattering to the media in recent days have raised expectations further that an action relating to the freedom to travel, and related matters, is in the offing.

With the Congressional recess in process, a presidential fundraising trip to Florida behind them, the press crescendo is building.  In a twist on the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished,” the administration is already being criticized for changes, not yet unveiled, because they don’t go far enough!

As the Boston Globe editorialized, “America’s embargo of Cuba has taken on the mindless rigidity of a tribal vendetta that continues to be pursued no matter how stultifying it may be to new generations. So reports that the Obama administration is preparing to loosen some restrictions on travel to Cuba for academic, cultural, and religious groups merit only tepid applause.”

Like the Globe, we think all travel restrictions and the embargo itself should be removed unilaterally.  We also live in the real world and know that isn’t going to happen, even though it should.  What we’re hoping for is this:  a robust, not tepid, change in travel rules that takes us beyond where things stood under President Clinton, with restrictions on all visits to the island short of tourism dropped in an exercise of the president’s authority.

Mr. Obama should use the impending changes in travel rules to signal Congress that the old policy of restricting our travel rights needs to be dumped and that a new era of engagement ought to begin now.

Then, we’d like to see Congress use its authority to open up travel for everyone, all Americans, including tourists – not as a gesture for Cuba’s prisoner release, but as an acknowledgment that punishing Cuba with sanctions that hurt Americans is self-defeating and an embarrassment to a nation that views itself as a champion of democratic rights and values.

The White House needs to start the ball rolling.  So, forgive the illusion to Nike, but Mr. President, just do it.

After talking about travel, we discuss news about drilling for oil off Cuba’s North Coast, more prisoner releases and more questions about human rights, and another exercise of presidential authority to fill the long vacant embassy in El Salvador.

This week in Cuba news…

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Obama Administration expected to announce changes to U.S. policy toward Cuba

The Obama administration is soon expected to announce revisions to restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba and other policy changes.  Talking in advance of a formal statement by the administration, sources have told the New York Times and CNN that the changes will focus on:

  • Loosening restrictions adopted under President George W. Bush on academic, religious and cultural groups and returning to the “people to people” policies followed under President Bill Clinton.
  • Allowing direct flights to Cuba from more cities than the three — Miami, New York and Los Angeles — currently permitted.
  • Allowing all Americans to send remittances or charitable donations to churches, schools and human rights groups in Cuba.
  • Shifting the current policy on visas for Cubans to travel to the U.S. to one that gives a “presumption of approval” unless a review discovers a problem with the request.

Congressional and administration officials confirmed the changes would be announced soon, without revealing the specifics or when the announcement would take place.

Governor Bill Richardson and Congresswoman Lee call on Obama to allow more travel to Cuba

Writing about how U.S. immigration policy has distanced the U.S. from its neighbors in Latin America, Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, says that an overhaul in U.S. policy would have a profound effect on improving relations with the region. In a column published by the Washington Post, Richardson wrote:

As a first step to changing our policy toward Cuba, the president should issue an executive order to lift as much of the travel ban as possible. The travel ban penalizes U.S. businesses, lowers our credibility in Latin America and fuels anti-U.S. propaganda. Lifting the ban would also be a reciprocal gesture for Cuba’s recent agreement, negotiated among the Catholic Church, the Spanish government and President Raúl Castro, to release political dissidents… Loosening travel restrictions is in U.S. interests and would be a bold move toward normalization of relations with Cuba.

Following reports that the Obama Administration will announce travel policy changes, Congresswoman Barbara Lee said in a statement that she would “certainly welcome any move by the Administration to remove some of the existing travel restrictions, however, the fact is we should lift the entire ban.” In an essay on the Huffington Post, Lee wrote that moves to allow more “travel by academic, religious, and cultural groups” are “steps in the right direction. But they are not enough.”

Barclays bank pays millions for violating OFAC regulations

Barclays Bank will pay the U.S. government $298 million for violating U.S. trade sanctions while doing business with Cuba, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Myanmar after a U.S. District Court judge accepted a settlement this week, Reuters reported.  Barclays, based in England, was charged with violations that included hiding $500 million worth of transactions between 1985 and 2006 with banks in the sanctioned countries.

Federal Judge Emmet Sullivan accepted the plea agreement, which he called a “sweetheart deal,” after criticizing the fact that no individuals were being prosecuted and that shareholders will pay the fine. According to the plea agreement, Barclays “through its U.S. dollar-clearing operation at its New York branch, followed directions to omit the names of banks in sanctioned countries when sending payments to the United States, stripped off identifying information, routed payments through an internal account to hide links to those countries and deliberately used less transparent ‘cover payments,’” the Washington Post reported.

American Ballet Theater headed to Cuba for the first time in 50 years

The American Ballet Theater (ABT), a leading classical dance company, will perform at Havana’s International Ballet Festival later this year. The group’s visit to the November 3-4 event will mark the first time the company has visited the island in 50 years.  Rachel Moore, executive director of ABT, said the group “eagerly anticipates” its participation in the festival, AFP reported.   “We believe in the power of the arts to connect people and transform lives. We really do believe this trip in November will be a bridge between two artistic communities,” said Moore in a statement.  More information about the performances is available on ABT’s website.

IN CUBA

Additional prisoners released to Spain, some repressive policies continue

Three newly-released political prisoners from Cuba have arrived in Spain, bringing the number of prisoners freed over the last three months to twenty-three, BBC News reported.  Arriving in Madrid were Marcelo Cano, Regis Iglesias and Efrén Fernández, who was reportedly on a hunger strike. All of the releases are the result of a deal agreed to in May between the Catholic Church and Cuba’s government.  All prisoners released under the agreement have travelled to Spain, with one going on to settle in Chile.

Dissident groups on the island are complaining that although prisoners are being released and no new long-term arrests and sentences have been made in some time, short term detentions and harassment are still prevalent, Reuters reported.

“Daily repression appears harsher than ever. There have been more incidents reported since the releases began,” one European diplomat told Reuters. “The releases do not signal a change in the government’s repressive policies.” The Miami Herald reported that 5 protestors were detained after marching on the steps of the University of Havana.

Amnesty International released a statement this week calling on Cuban authorities to stop harassing Reina Luisa Tamayo, the mother of Orlando Zapata, a dissident hunger-striker who died in February after going 85 days without food. Tamayo said police and groups of government supporters have kept her from visiting her son’s grave. Blogger Yoani Sánchez recently posted a video of Tamayo and a group of demonstrators being kept from marching.

Independent journalists Óscar Espinosa Chepe and Miriam Leiva have a new blog, where their articles will be made available.


Cuba to drill test wells in 2011, 2012

According to Reuters, Cuba plans to drill seven exploratory oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico over the next two years. A delegation of energy experts organized by the Center for Democracy in the Americas met with Cuba’s state oil company and with other officials in July for discussions about Cuba’s plans for developing its offshore reserves.  The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the reserves contain approximately 4.6 billion barrels of oil and 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (Cuba’s estimates are higher).

Although the U.S. embargo prevents American firms from participating in the exploration, the effort to gauge Cuba’s reserves will be multinational.   “Repsol, a Spanish oil company, is paying an Italian firm to build an oil rig in China that will be used next year to explore for oil off the shores of Cuba,” Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas told Reuters. Repsol drilled a well in Cuban waters in 2004, but did not find oil in a “commercially viable amount.” However, a second round of drilling with the new rig is scheduled to take place in 2011.  Additional coverage about the energy trip can be read here.

U.S. officials worry about the consequences of a drilling accident in Cuban waters close to the Florida Coast, and the administration will allow U.S. companies to respond to a spill despite the embargo. Cuba currently produces 60,000 barrels per day and receives 115,000 barrels from Venezuela. In its efforts to increase domestic production, it has divided its waters off-shore into 59 blocks, many of which have already been leased to foreign companies.  A slideshow of photos from the Center for Democracy in the Americas’ recent oil-focused trip to Cuba can be viewed here.

Farm supply stores open

Cuba has begun opening farming supply stores in another attempt to revitalize its agricultural sector, Reuters reported. The new stores, where farmers purchase equipment instead of waiting for items allocated by the state, are part of the reforms implemented by President Raúl Castro to increase food output. Castro has also allowed more private retail and manufacturing enterprises, but food security is seen has his “signature issue.” Cuba imports 60 percent of its food and production of key crops such as sugar, coffee, and citrus have fallen in recent years.

There are currently a handful of items available for purchase in the stores – picks, hoes, shovels, machetes, work clothes and gloves – but farmers interviewed by Reuters said a selection of 80 items should be available once the stores are fully up and running. “What’s important is that they are beginning.  I hope that little by little we will be able to purchase the indispensable equipment and supplies that we need,” one farmer told Reuters.

Cubans celebrate Fidel Castro’s 84th birthday

EFE reported that parties and artistic tributes of peace helped ring in the 84th birthday of Cuba’s former leader, Fidel Castro.  In Havana, local artists came together for a festival celebrating Castro’s birthday, named “Con Fidel y por la paz” (With Fidel and for peace). The celebrations included concerts, poetry readings and the unveiling of a new mural on the Malecón. Local celebrations around the island included games and many children’s activities. You can see pictures from the events here.

The Global Post has a new report on Fidel’s resurgence as an “everyday fixture in Cuban homes, as government television cameras track his campaign to warn the world of a coming nuclear war.” Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald lists several theories behind Castro returning to the spotlight, concluding that “Castro is trying to get the media to focus on him,” rather than on the human rights situation on the island.

Cuba treats patients with stem cells

Over 1,800 Cubans have received stem cell treatment since 2004, AFP reported. According to Porfirio Hernández, the coordinator of Cuba’s National Group of Regenerative Medicine, the vast majority of the patients were treated for poor blood, though some patients had orthopedic problems. The treatments, which are free for Cuban citizens, began six years ago, but most occurred between June 2009 and May 2010.

U.S. artists participate in Havana hip hop conference; press covers the art scene

The 2010 Symposium of Cuban Hip Hop took place this week, with over 50 groups of rappers, break-dancers, and emcees from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Haiti participating, EFE reported. The event featured concerts, workshops, and discussions on the role of hip hop in Cuban society. Cuban artists Hermanos de Causa and Brebaje Man performed at the opening ceremony. The annual conference, which began in 2005, is hosted by the Cuban Agency of Rap, the Institute of Music, and the Saíz Brothers Association. A video from the opening of the event is available here.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has an interesting article on the art scene in Cuba, outlining work by ceramicist José Fuster and performances at Havana’s Gran Teatro de La Habana (the Great Theater). The Havana Times also reports on art on “La Rampa,” Vedado’s 23rd Avenue, often referred to as “the ramp.”

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

El Salvador’s President plans Cuba trip

Mauricio Funes, president of El Salvador, announced that he will travel to Cuba during the first week of September, EFE reported. Although the plans for his visit have not been finalized, Funes said he will hold a bilateral meeting with President Raúl Castro and will visit Fidel Castro “if he [Fidel] has the time.”

Funes’ visit will mark the first time a Salvadoran president has visited the island since El Salvador severed ties with Cuba in 1961.  Funes reestablished diplomatic relations between the two countries in his first official act as president in June 2009.  He told reporters he planned to sign bilateral accords during the visit, and will be accompanied by Salvadoran businessmen to explore business opportunities between the two countries.  According to Funes, one of the agreements expected to be signed would facilitate direct flights between the two capitals, San Salvador and Havana.

Panamanian President visits Cuba

Ricardo Martinelli, Panama’s president, met privately with Cuba’s president Raúl Castro over the weekend, La Estrella reported, in an unofficial visit.  Diplomatic relations between Panama and Cuba were severed in 2004 when a previous Panamanian administration pardoned accused terrorist Luis Posada Carriles.

Martinelli called the trip a “personal visit” that had “nothing to do with any diplomatic crisis,” La Hora Cero reported.  Relations between the two countries have been strained since Martinelli’s inauguration when he abruptly ended a medical agreement with Cuba, which provided eye surgery and other services to thousands of underprivileged Panamanians.   “My children asked Commander Castro about the history of Cuba and other topics,” he said.  It was Martinelli’s first trip to Cuba.

Fidel Castro and Piedad Córdoba discuss peace in Colombia

Colombian opposition senator Piedad Córdoba, a leading advocate for negotiations between the FARC rebel group and the Colombian government, met with Fidel Castro last week, according to Colombia Reports. The two met for two hours, along with members of the organization “Colombians for Peace,” to discuss the conflict in Colombia.

Córdoba announced last week that she planned to present a roadmap to peace in Colombia to the former Cuban leader. The new Colombian government of Juan Manuel Santos shot down her attempt, announcing that it would not recognize any negotiations with the guerrilla groups conducted without official authorization.  AFP reported that Córdoba postponed a second trip to the island scheduled for this week after Santos said he would not approve of any outside actors taking part in negotiations.

New reflections by Fidel Castro anger Mexican Government and former Colombian President

Cuba’s former president Fidel Castro published a new set of reflections in which he opined about a past scandal in Mexican politics and Álvaro Uribe’s appointment on a U.N. commission to investigate Israel’s attack on a humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza in May, angering the Mexican government and Uribe.

In a two part essay titled, “The Giant with Seven-League Boots,” Castro attacked the legitimacy of Mexico’s president, claiming that fraud took place in the 2006 election to prevent the leftist candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, from winning. He also accused former and current Mexican politicians of their involvement in a corruption scandal that was created to make Obrador look bad. He was reacting to Obrador’s new book, La mafia que se adueñó de México… y el 2012 (The mafia that took over Mexico … and 2012).

In response, Mexico’s Secretary of External Relations issued a statement rejecting Castro’s claims, which it called an attempt to “discredit Mexican institutions” and promote “unsubstantiated allegations about the country and its development,” while calling on Cuba to hold open elections and improve its human rights record. The statement also expressed the country’s desire to strengthen links with Cuba and congratulated Castro on his good health at age 84.

Castro is still first secretary of the Communist Party, but his actual role in policy-making is unclear.  Former Mexican officials called on the current Mexican government to demand Cuban authorities to clarify whether his comments reflect official government policy, El Universal reported. “There must be limits in the relationships between states,” said Enrique Berruga, former Mexican Ambassador to the U.N.

In a separate essay titled “The UN, Impunity and War,” Castro criticized former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s appointment to a U.N. commission to investigate Israel’s attack on a humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza in May.  According to Castro, “that decision gave Uribe – accused of war crimes – total impunity, as if a country full of mass graves containing the corpses of murdered people, some with as many as 2,000 victims, and seven Yankee military bases, plus the rest of the Colombian military bases at its service, had nothing to do with terrorism and genocide.”

According to Europa Press, Uribe released a press statement in response to Castro, accusing Castro of “slander,” forgetting about eight years of strong relations the two countries enjoyed under his leadership, and of favouring “political protectors of narco-guerrilla terrorism,” without specifying who he was referring to.

Castro’s three essays are available here: “The Giant with Seven League Boots”: Part 1 and Part 2, and “The UN, Impunity and War.”

Around the Region:

Obama pushes through ambassador to El Salvador, Politico

President Obama used his recess appointment authority to fill four vacant posts this week, including that of Maria del Carmen Aponte, who will now serve as the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Politico reported.  Republican Senators Jim DeMint and Jim Risch delayed del Carmen’s appointment citing past ties with suspected Cuban intelligence officers. She was never charged with any crime.

“At a time when our nation faces so many pressing challenges, I urge members of the Senate to stop playing politics with our highly qualified nominees, and fulfill their responsibilities of advice and consent,” Obama said in a statement. “He did the right thing by springing a superbly capable nominee for a critical post that had been left unfilled by shameless Cold War politics,” said Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas’.

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, a strong critic of the Cuban government, supported Aponte’s appointment. “If anyone in this chamber would have concerns about a nominee’s ties to and views on Cuba, it would be me,” he said in a statement. “On the contrary, I wholeheartedly endorsed her nomination, and I look forward to her work as ambassador.”

Colombian court suspends U.S. military base deal, Reuters

Colombia’s Constitutional Court suspended a deal on Tuesday giving U.S. troops more access to Colombian bases, sending the agreement back to President Juan Manuel Santos to seek congressional approval.  Bogota and Washington signed a pact last year increasing U.S. access to the Andean nation’s military bases to boost anti-drug and counter-insurgency operations.  It has been harshly criticized by leftist neighbors Ecuador and Venezuela.

Chávez says ‘impossible’ to accept U.S. ambassadorial nominee Larry Palmer, Bloomberg

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said it is “impossible” to accept U.S. ambassadorial nominee Larry Palmer and called on President Barack Obama to appoint an alternative candidate, something the U.S. has refused to do. “We’d surely have to expel him, which would be worse,” Chávez said late yesterday in a telephone interview broadcast on state television. “I think it’s a decision that even favors the U.S. if it’s true they want to maintain better relations. The healthiest option would be to look for someone else.”

El Salvador rejects U.S. anti-immigrant law, Inside Costa Rica

The government of El Salvador expressed its rejection of the anti-immigrant law in the U.S. state of Florida, considered much more aggressive than the one enacted in Arizona. At a press conference, Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez stated that his government is very concerned about this initiative that criminalizes migrants and proposes severe penalties against illegal immigrants.

Recommended Reading:

Revisiting the Cuba Failure, The American Prospect

Of the coming travel rules, Matthew Yglesias writes in the American Prospect: “It’s a welcome step, but the arguments in its favor merely highlight the larger truth about Cuba: The entire policy is a massive, decades-long case study in policy failure.”

‘Corruption Is an Extraordinary Danger’, IPS

“I still view corruption as an extraordinary danger” to the country, as its “corrosive power” makes it a matter of “national security,” said Esteban Morales, who was expelled from the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) after publishing an article warning of its pervasive effects.

Visiting Gerardo in Prison, TheCubanFive.org

Saul Landau and Danny Glover recently visited Gerardo Hernández, one of the Cuban Five who is serving two life sentences, upon his release from solitary confinement. Glover and Landau write about their conversations with Hernández, the health difficulties he faces behind bars, and his recent stay in what prisoners call “the hole.”

How Muslims cope in touchy-feely Cuba, CNN

There are about 1,500 Muslims in Cuba, but no mosques. That’s why, at the end of each week, Yahya, dressed in an immaculate white cap and tunic, welcomes people for Friday prayer. Women head inside, sitting on the living room floor, while men tend to kneel on the shady balcony.

No ‘reset’ with Venezuela soon, The Guardian

While President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and the new president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, met in Santa Marta, Colombia last Tuesday and agreed to normalize relations after a fierce diplomatic fight, there are no indications that such détente is on the cards for Venezuela and the United States.

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