Talk about travel, Progress on prisoner releases, Rumors of reforms

There is a cacophony of opinion being expressed on travel these days.   As we wait for the President and Congress to act, now is the time to raise our voices so that the pro-travel position is heard – and heeded – in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

Why is this moment so important?  President Obama has pegged future progress on reforming Cuba policy to actions by the Cuban government on issues such as releasing political prisoners.  While Cuba rejects this linkage, the government has worked with Spain and Cuba’s Catholic Church on an agreement that provides for the release of all 52 prisoners rounded up in March 2003, a significant breakthrough.  The credibility of the president’s policy now depends on the U.S. responding in an affirmative way.  Congress is also watching the president carefully, with legislation to end the travel ban pending in the House.

Silence on our side would be a huge mistake.  The powerfully influential pro-embargo lobby has already pressed its case.  Last week, five Cuban American Members of Congress challenged the legal basis of expanding categories of travel in a letter to President Obama.

In it, they warn the President against using his authority to expand travel to the island – whether it’s adding new airports to accommodate more departures or providing general licenses for cultural and academic exchange, even religious travel – labeling such changes as tourism and violations of Helms-Burton.   The full text of the letter can be found here.

Left unsaid, however, is this inconvenient truth.  The president’s decision to remove restrictions on what is called ‘family travel,’ motivated by his well-founded desire to reunite divided families, has also led to a double-digit jump in tourism by Cuban Americans to Cuba, according to statistics provided to us by a foreign investor in Cuba’s hotels, including visits to beachfront hotels.

But you don’t hear the opponents of travel by other Americans demanding the rollback of travel by Cuban Americans, even though ‘travel supports the regime,’ as they like to say, and you never will.

We have no beef against family travel, just the opposite.  The Cuban family has suffered decades of separation – made worse by Bush-era rules that tried to eliminate even Cuban American visits to the island – and the Obama administration was right to restore them without limits as it did last year.  We are thankful that many Cuban families in this country have the resources to take their kin on the island for vacations they could not afford on their own.

But nothing as fundamental as the right to travel should be diluted or degraded by a form of second-class citizenship.  That right belongs to us all – no matter our heritage – and that is why this moment in the debate is so important and commands our attention and active involvement.

First, as we have said for several weeks, now is the time for President Obama to use the fullest extent of his authority to restore all of the categories of travel that opened during the Clinton administration but were banished by Bush.  Three of our Congressional champions – Reps. Jim McGovern, Jo Ann Emerson, and Rosa DeLauro – make this case, sharply and clearly, in this well-argued letter to the President.  They speak for scores of their colleagues in Congress and for all of us.

Second, once Obama acts, this will be a profoundly important signal to Congress to finish the job and to open all forms of travel to Cuba for all Americans.  That is where our activism is especially needed now.

The Latin American Working Group (LAWG) has posted this petition on Change.org that asks the Congress to end the travel ban for all Americans.   Signing this petition will result in an email being sent to your Representative in Congress signaling your support for H.R. 4645, the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act – the bill to open travel for all of us, and to increase the sales of food to help average Cubans on the island.

We want President Obama to act and hope he does so soon.  But remember – only Congress has the authority to open up travel to Cuba fully, and they need to hear from us to ensure that we capitalize on this moment to move Cuba policy in the right direction.

Now is the time for us all to be heard.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Executive changes to Cuba policy could lead to Congressional action on Travel to Cuba

Speculation continued this week about how and when the Obama administration will ease restrictions on travel to Cuba. CNN reported that the proposed changes would reinstate travel as it existed under President Clinton, noting that “purposeful” visits of students, performers, and humanitarian groups would increase, but that tourism to the island would remain off-limits until the full travel ban is lifted by an act of Congress.

According to TIME Magazine, supporters hope the changes implemented by the Executive Branch will encourage Congress to pass H.R. 4645, which proposes both ending the travel ban and making modest improvements to spur sales of food to Cuba.

TIME questioned whether President Obama is committed to following through on increasing travel to Cuba, especially considering his unwillingness to “spend political capital on Cuba, or the rest of Latin America for that matter.”

The rumored reforms prompted five Cuban-American members of Congress to write President Obama asking him not to implement the changes, CNN reported. Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Albio Sires, and Senator Robert Menendez wrote that the changes would “significantly undermine U.S. foreign policy and security objectives” and “run contrary to statutory requirements and prohibitions.”

In response, letters of support came from Representatives Jim McGovern, Jo Ann Emerson, and Rosa DeLauro, who encouraged President Obama to change the travel regulations, and from the Center for Constitutional Rights which restated the legal basis for making the changes.

Bill Richardson in Cuba seeking trade, loosening of U.S. travel restrictions, and the release of Alan Gross

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was in Cuba on a trade delegation this week, also using his time to discuss bilateral relations with top Cuban officials.  Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations, has often acted as an informal negotiator for U.S. administrations, engaging in high-level talks with North Korea, Sudan and Iraq.  The Obama administration asked him to press for the release of Alan Gross during his trip. Gross, a USAID contractor, has been detained in Cuba since last December for allegedly distributing high-tech communications devices to opposition groups.  “My objective is very clear: See if I can get [Alan] Gross out, or make it easier for somebody else to do it,” Richardson told CNN.

In an interview with MSNBC, Richardson stressed that he was “not [in Cuba] as an administration envoy,” and that his motivation for the trip was trade. “I’m trying to sell chili, salsa, green chili to the Cuban government,” said Richardson. However, he said he was encouraged by the release of prisoners in Cuba and the possibility the Obama administration will allow more U.S. citizens to visit the island, concluding: “We need to get involved here. There’s enormous potential for investment. But easing the travel ban is a way that Americans of all stripes, of all types can visit the island. President Clinton did that. It moved in a good way the relationship. And, hopefully, this will happen soon by the Obama administration.”

The Miami Herald report on Richardson’s visit can be viewed here.

Straightening out the facts in the case of Alan Gross

Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Jewish Cuban-American and expert in U.S.-Cuba relations, published a new essay, “In Cuba, a Hostage of International Brinksmanship,” clarifying the case of Alan Gross.

“Gross was not arrested because he is Jewish, nor is it likely that he was detained because of his alleged activities in helping the Cuban Jewish community with technology, which already had a computer lab, e-mail and access to Internet before he arrived to Havana on his several visits. As a recipient of one of these USAID contracts, Alan Gross was perceived by Cuba’s government as a participant in the asymmetric political war between the U.S and Cuba; a promoter of regime change caught in enemy territory,” said Lopez-Levy.

He says that on a recent trip to the island, “in conversations with many of my brothers and sisters in the Jewish communities, including some of the leaders, they expressed a hope to see Gross released as soon as possible but did not refrain from rejecting the so-called ‘Democracy Programs.’”

Lopez-Levy believes that ending travel restrictions to Cuba may be the key to securing Gross’ release:

The cause of Gross’ release will be advanced not by more hostility but by reaffirming American Jews’ support for ending the travel ban, so that any American may freely travel to Cuba through the front door, rather than on a risky semi-covert government-funded mission. The travel ban is the cornerstone of an interventionist regime change strategy. Thus, any attempt by Congress to condition the end of the travel ban on Alan Gross’ release would only hurt both causes.

Ending the travel ban would…offer a stark contrast to the restrictions which Cuba’s government places on its own citizens while exposing the futility of the U.S. regime change policy in Cuba.

U.S. open to admitting Cuban political prisoners, thanks Spain for its efforts

The U.S. State Department announced this week that it is open to accepting released political prisoners from Cuba on a “case by case basis.” No formal request for entry into the U.S. has been made by any released prisoner, but several of the dissidents who arrived in Spain have stated their interest in settling in the U.S.

According to Europa Press, some dissidents are currently in discussions with the U.S. Embassy in Madrid.  Philip Crowley, a State Department spokesman, told reporters “We will evaluate those cases… on a case-by-case basis,” AFP reported.  Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thanked Miguel Ángel Moratinos, Spain’s Foreign Minister, for his help in the negotiation of the Cuban prisoner’s release, Reuters reported.

U.S., Cuba, Mexico should cooperate on oil drilling

As Cuba intensifies its search for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, it hopes to “work with its counterparts in the United States and Mexico to promote safe drilling practices and avoid the kind of well blowout and spill seen recently in the Gulf of Mexico,” Reuters reported.

Lee Hunt, President of the Houston-based International Association of Drilling Contractors, is part of a fact-finding trip in Havana this week to explore the issue. “Cubapetróleo (CUPET) is interested in joining and we have an interest in them being a member of the international drilling community,” said Hunt, a leading drilling industry expert, after two days of talks in Cuba with local industry officials and regulators.

Due to the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, the Houston-based Association of Drilling Contractors, “representing 90 percent of the world’s drilling companies, will need approval from the Obama administration for CUPET to actively join it as a member,” Reuters reported.  The Obama administration has previously said it would allow U.S. companies to assist in a clean-up effort in Cuba should the need ever arise.

“We are promoting the concept that there is one Gulf, shared by the United States, Mexico and Cuba and want a trilateral industry dialogue on safe practices to ensure unfortunate events such as have occurred in Mexico and more recently in the United States do not happen off the shores of Cuba,” Hunt said. The Center for Democracy in the Americas recently led a delegation of energy experts to Cuba to explore potential U.S.-Cuba cooperation on energy and environmental issues.

The Cuba Standard reports on offshore drilling in Cuba here.

Swimming, paddling from Cuba to Florida

The Miami Herald has a new report about Diana Nyad’s attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida 32 years ago, and complications with her current plan to try the swim one last time. Nyad said she has been waiting to receive permission from the Cuban government to make the swim, but still has not received a visa. Hurricane season has begun, and if the swim doesn’t take place soon the waters may become too rough. According to the Herald, Cuban authorities would have preferred that she swim toward the island rather than away from it, “as it may be construed as symbolic of the Cubans who flee the island.” Nyad said that her efforts are not political and hopes the “swim can show how close we really are.”

Cynthia Aguilar, a 26-year old Miami Beach lifeguard, plans to paddleboard nonstop from Cuba to Key West next month, NBC Miami reported. She hopes the journey will raise $100,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Aguilar paddled 60 miles from the Bahamas to Florida in 2007 and has spent 8 months training for the much longer 130-mile journey. A crew aboard a yacht will follow Aguilar, supplying food and aiding with navigation, but she will paddle without a break for about 36 hours.   According to NBC, to avoid the complications that arise when traveling between Cuba and the United States, Aguilar will begin her paddleboard trip in international waters off Cuba’s coast.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

President Chávez meets with Fidel and Raúl Castro

Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez visited Cuba on Tuesday, holding a five-hour “emotional and brotherly” meeting with former President Fidel Castro, and meeting separately with President Raúl Castro. Cuba’s state media said Chávez and Fidel discussed various issues related to the current international scene. Chávez told reporters that Castro looked fully recovered from the illness that forced him into retirement. The Venezuelan president then met with Raúl Castro to review “the development of the exemplary political and economic links” between the two countries, EFE reported.

Chávez’s visit, which was unannounced, meant he did not appear at rallies marking the beginning of his party’s campaign for National Assembly elections in Venezuela next month. The opposition accused him of being absent because he is suffering from cancer, a charge Chávez denied, Reuters reported.

New laws announced to promote foreign investment in golf and legalize small-time fruit and vegetable vendors

A new law allowing foreign investors to use state-owned land for up to 99 years was published in the Official Gazette on Thursday. Rumors about the change have been circulating for some time as golf course developers have pushed for the change, Reuters reported. According to its text, the new law is aimed at “facilitating the process of participation of foreign investment in international tourism” by giving “greater security and guarantee to the foreign investor in the real estate business.” Previously, land could only be leased for up to 50 years, but developers insisted that was too short of a time to encourage investment in long term projects, such as golf courses and condominiums to accompany them.

Also announced in the Official Gazette this week was a law that will allow small-time private vendors to sell agricultural products from roadside stands. According to Reuters, “the concept has been in use in some parts of the country since last year, but now is official national policy.”

IN CUBA

Subsidized cigarettes out in latest cut to the ration book

Cuba will soon phase out longstanding monthly allotments of cheap, subsidized cigarettes that are given as part of the ration card, the Associated Press reported.   It is the latest move by President Raúl Castro to cut spending by phasing out subsidies that cost the government millions each year. According to Reuters, beginning in September, some 2.5 million Cubans over the age of 54 will no longer get their four packs of discounted cigarettes each month. The government made the announcement on Monday. “The Council of Ministers has resolved to eliminate cigarettes from the rationed family basket as of September as part of the measures gradually being adopted to limit state subsidies,” an official statement said.

Castro has vowed to reform the centralized economy, and honeymoons and vacations paid for by the government have been cut, as have free lunch at state cafeterias for thousands of workers. It’s expected that other items on the ration card will be reduced and eventually phased out.

Castro meets with scientists to discuss the danger of a nuclear war

Fidel Castro met with a group of Cuban scientists over the weekend to discuss his views on the threat caused by a nuclear war. He went into detail about the 1960s agreement to host a Soviet base on the island, which he said was more of a sacrifice for the defense of socialist interests in the world than a real necessity for the island, AFP reported. Castro said that the crisis today is even more dangerous due to the number of nuclear weapons, reiterating his claim that the destiny of the world depends on one man, President Obama, Prensa Latina reported.

Cuba and the Catholic Church

Reina Luisa Tamayo allowed to march

Last week, Church officials worked with the government to stop pro-government mobs from breaking up a weekly Sunday march by Reina Luisa Tamayo, mother of Orlando Zapata Tamayo who died in February after a months-long hunger strike in prison. Tamayo thanked the Church in Cuba for its efforts in ending the harassment, the Catholic News Agency reported.

Speaking with the AFP, Tamayo said, “I thank the world and the Cuban Church who raised their voices to reject the harassment of this mother.”  She said she was able to march through the town of Banes on Sunday and place flowers on her son’s grave without any problems. “Lord willing this will be the end of the harassment,” she added. Amnesty International and other international observers had also called on the Cuban government to end the harassment. The Associated Press reports on her latest march here.

Juan Almeida García allowed to travel to the U.S.

The Catholic Church announced on Wednesday that it convinced the Cuban government to allow Juan Almeida García, a political dissident, to travel to the United States. Almeida García has frequently criticized the government after being denied permission to travel to the U.S. over the last few years and has been arrested in the past for trying to leave the country illegally.

According to the Associated Press, Almeida suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, a painful, progressive form of spinal arthritis, and he previously received permission to travel to Belgium to receive treatment.  It is possible that his sensitive work in the 1990s as an official of the Interior Ministry made his travel to the U.S. more threatening to the Cuban government. His father, Juan Almeida Bosque, who passed away last year, fought alongside the Castro brothers in the 26th of July guerilla movement and went on to be part of the Communist Party’s Politburo and a vice president.  According to Church spokesman Orlando Márquez, Cardinal Jaime Ortega “got involved in the matter” and personally informed Almeida earlier this week that Cuba’s government had agreed to let him go to the U.S.  El Nuevo Herald reported that Almeida arrived in Miami on Thursday.

Six more prisoners to be released

The Church also announced that six additional political prisoners will soon be freed and will join twenty-six other freed prisoners in Spain, the Miami Herald reported.  The releases followed discussions between the government and Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega. The church named Víctor Arroyo, 57, serving a 26-year sentence; Alexis Rodríguez, 40, serving 15 years; Leonel Grave de Peralta, 34, serving 20; Alfredo Domínguez, 48, serving 14; Próspero Gainza, 53, serving 25; and Claro Sánchez, 56, serving 15, as the next prisoners to be released, the Herald reported.

The Czech Republic, one of the countries which has been the most critical of the Castro regime, has offered to accept “two or three” Cuban political prisoners who are scheduled to be released shortly. The released prisoners would be offered residency, a work permit and some financial aid for schooling.  Czech officials consider the prisoner release a first step toward human rights reform but still not enough, the Latin American Herald Tribune reported.

According to the Miami Herald, some concern exists on the status of ten prisoners who want to stay in Cuba after their release. Their family members voiced their concern with the Church this week about how their determination to remain free within the country will affect their status in the deal.

Lady of Charity celebrations could provide a boost for the Church

The Miami Herald reported on the significance of the events occurring for the anniversary of Our Lady of Charity in Cuba, which are “stirring optimism over the role of the Roman Catholic Church.” According to the Herald, this is the first nationwide public procession of the statue of Cuba’s patron saint since 1952. Other events have been televised and it is estimated that more than a million people will participate in the festivities, which will last until September 8th. Cuban Church activists hope that the increased fervor and devotion to the Virgen Mambisa will spark greater interest and will attract more U.S. Church officials and Cuban-American Catholics.

Around the Region:

Gunmen kill Honduran radio reporter; 10th journalist slain this year, The Canadian Press

Honduran police say a radio reporter has been shot dead, the tenth journalist killed in Honduras this year. National Police say gunmen kidnapped veteran journalist Israel Zelaya in the city of San Pedro Sula on Tuesday.

Chevron fights potentially historic damages case, Reuters

A run-down court building that also houses the local casino in the Amazon jungle town of Lago Agrio, Ecuador is the unlikely venue for the largest environmental damages lawsuit ever tried. Three stories up, in Sucumbios provincial court, the stakes are $27 billion.

OAS praises Colombia-Venezuela truce, Colombia Reports

OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza congratulated Colombia and Venezuela for re-establishing bilateral ties during a press conference in Bogotá Tuesday. Alluding to the two leaders’ agreement to normalize relations at a meeting on August 10, Insulza said the resolution was “very good news.”

Santos, Chávez to talk about binational commissions, El Universal

The presidents will meet in the next few weeks to discuss the work of the binational commissions that were established following the restoration of relations, Colombia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs María Ángela Holguín said.

Recommended Reading:

Ten arguments for lifting the embargo

Delia Lloyd of Politics Daily wrote about how recent developments in the U.S. and Cuba are helping to create an atmosphere where U.S. policy can finally be overhauled.

Additionally, the Center for Democracy in the Americas’ publication In Our National Interest: The Top Ten Reasons for Changing U.S. policy toward Cuba lays out convincing evidence for changing policy.

Cuba and the number of “Political Prisoners”

In a thoughtful essay, Salim Lamrani considers the question of the number of “political prisoners” in Cuba.   According to Cuba’s government, there are no political prisoners in Cuba, rather they are people convicted of crimes listed in the penal code, particularly for the act of receiving funding from a foreign power.

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