Happy Labor Day edition of Cuba Central’s News Blast

This is the beginning of the Labor Day weekend in the U.S.  We begin by wishing our U.S. readers a happy holiday.

A day celebrating the rights and lives of American workers was made a national holiday by an Act of the U.S. Congress in the 1890s, in the midst of horrible and violent strife in the U.S., when workers were asserting their rights and the government and big corporations acted in concert against them.

Although the movement for creation of a day to honor workers had been growing for some time, protests against the harsh methods used to put down strikes crystalized the political forces in the U.S., and legislation was adopted unanimously by both Houses of the Congress to create Labor Day just ahead of the 1894 elections.  This story was well told by PBS here.

The law was offered as an act of reconciliation.  Although the intervening years for working Americans have not always been easy, the symbolism of devoting at least one day to peace (and yes, backyards, baseball, and barbeques) remained quite strong.

As we enter the Labor Day weekend, readers in the U.S. saw unemployment climb a notch to 9.6% and, with that, increased rumblings among politicians about various ideas to jumpstart the economy.  One proposal, awaiting action by the House Foreign Relations Committee, is the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, H.R. 4645, the Peterson-Moran bill.

This legislation would lift the ban on travel to Cuba for all Americans, and remove key impediments to agriculture sales by U.S. farmers and ranchers to the island, creating thousands of jobs in agriculture, travel and tourism, retail and financial services.  One estimate sees $365 million in new export earnings and $1.1 billion in additional business activity.  Adoption of this legislation would be good for U.S. workers and their families, and would cost taxpayers nothing.

Talk about reconciliation.  Champions of the freedom to travel to Cuba and enhanced agriculture sales include groups who often occupy opposite sides of the political divide:  the AFL-CIO, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Freedom House and Human Rights Watch.

What brings them together is an understanding that what has divided the United States and Cuba in the past can better be addressed by bringing both countries closer together.  Our economies would be stronger, and the prospects that average Americans and Cubans could live more prosperous and independent lives would improve if we dismantled the sanctions and suspicions that have characterized our relations for more than fifty years.

Just think about how reconciliation could change what we report each week by reading the news below.  No more declarations putting commerce with Cuba under the Trading With the Enemy Act.  No more barriers to U.S. businesses discussing piracy in the Cuban market.  No more incentives in U.S. law for illegal migration from the island.  An end, finally, to the U.S. sitting on the sidelines while Spain and Cuba’s Catholic Church engage in respectful but productive discussions that produce positive political changes.

Let’s hope President Obama and the Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee think creatively after the holiday weekend about creating jobs and a pathway for reconciliation with Cuba.  The President should open up Cuba for all categories of previously authorized purposeful travel, and then tell Congress to lift the travel ban for all Americans.  Achieving the goal of reconciliation is a job for us all.


Obama extends the Trading With the Enemy Act

President Barack Obama has renewed the 48-year-old trade embargo against Cuba for another year. Obama extended the Trading With the Enemy Act (TWEA) because it is “in the national interest of the United States,” the White House said in a statement. Congressional action is needed to reverse the embargo, but each year, in a largely symbolic act, the president issues a memorandum requesting the embargo’s continuation. If Obama had not issued the memorandum, all regulations would have remained in place, but it would have signaled his openness to Congress acting to end the embargo.

Amnesty International, the renowned human rights group, has repeatedly called on President Obama not to extend TWEA.  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.

“The embargo is a dead end, so rather than just renewing it, as the President has done today, I am hopeful that the President will also move in a different direction by opening up Cuba to more categories of travel and signaling to Congress that we need to end the travel ban once and for all,” said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

The extension is good for a year, meaning President Obama will have to decide whether to renew it again before September 14, 2011.

Lack of formal relations with Cuba results in piracy, hurts U.S. companies

The lack of formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba makes it difficult for U.S. companies to raise trade and piracy issues with Cuban authorities, resulting in a plethora of pirated U.S. goods in Cuba. According to Reuters, “half a century of U.S. sanctions have turned Cuba into a piracy haven and a missed opportunity for U.S. businesses.”

Ashton Kutcher’s new movie “Killers” has already been aired in Havana, before even premiering in the U.S.  State television features shows from Disney, NBC and other U.S. channels, and U.S.-made computers, software and video games are widely used on the island.

“The reality is that U.S. products and services are down there whether the companies that make them sell them or not,” Jake Colvin, Vice President for Global Trade Issues at the National Foreign Trade Council in Washington, told Reuters. “Until we fix the relationship, until we have governments that talk to each other and have a better official relationship and we have rules that allow companies to interact and do business in Cuba we are not going to be able to address the problem.”

Reuters previously reported on “mules” in Miami that transport U.S.-made goods to Cuba for a fee.

AT&T, Nokia and Verizon want to do business with Cuba

Leading telecommunications companies, such as AT&T, Nokia and Verizon are urging the U.S. government to ease restrictions on their operations in Cuba, Bloomberg reported.

Despite a loosening of some restrictions announced in April 2009, telecommunications companies are still constrained from entering the Cuban market.  Analysts say that the opening of the Cuban market to U.S. telecommunication companies would increase the percentage of Cubans who have access to mobile phones, and also be very lucrative for U.S. companies.  Currently, Cuba has the lowest mobile-phone penetration in Latin America despite the government having lifted a ban in 2008 on average Cubans owning a cell phone.

The companies said they couldn’t understand why amendments to telecommunications regulations on Cuba did not change more last year. “We don’t understand why the regulations stopped where they did,” José Martínez, head of government relations for Latin America at Nokia, said in an Aug. 20 interview from Miami. “There doesn’t seem to be a desire at the bureaucratic level to change the rules to allow cell phones.”

Cuba travel service providers urging Americans to book “purposeful” travel to Cuba now

With no official statement from the White House regarding a change in Cuba travel policy again this week, Cuba travel service providers began encouraging travelers to make reservations to visit the island even before the policy is changed. The Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that some travel providers expect the number of Americans visiting Cuba to increase by hundreds of thousands and are already “gearing up” for the increase. It’s expected that President Obama will allow increased “purposeful travel” to the island, meaning it could be easier for academic, religious, cultural, sports and other groups to make the journey. Cuba Education Tours, a Canadian firm that arranges short-term educational visits, is urging Americans to start booking trips before the anticipated rules change. “There is no need to wait for changes from Washington and be left out on account of overbooked tours and too few rooms and services,” the group said in a recent advertisement for its licensed services.

Cuba to expand capabilities for U.S.-originating flights to Havana

Cuba is expanding its infrastructure to receive more passengers arriving in Terminal 2 of José Martí International Airport, which is dedicated solely to flights originating in the United States.  The terminal is closing to undergo an expansion, EFE reported, although it is unclear when the upgrade will be completed.  It currently receives an average of six daily flights from the U.S., mostly Miami.

Since 2009, when the Obama administration loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba for Cuban Americans, the island has seen a 50% increase in visits from Cuban relatives living in the U.S.  Last year, more than 50,000 U.S. citizens of non-Cuban origin also visited the island according to Cuba’s Tourism Ministry.

Six kidnapped Cubans freed in Cancun, 25 would-be migrants returned from Florida

Mexican police dodged gunshots as they rescued six kidnapped Cuban immigrants near Cancun on Wednesday, AFP reported. The six Cubans, five men and one woman, had been held captive for over a month by their kidnappers, who were demanding thousands of dollars from relatives in Miami to secure the release of the hostages.

Police arrived at the house after receiving a call regarding a possible kidnapping. “When the officers entered the home, five men and a woman quickly fled through doors and windows,” said Enrique Alberto Sanmiguel, director of Public Security for Quintana Roo state.” The Cubans were “held for over a month, were constantly moved from one house to another, and between $8,000 and $10,000 was being demanded for their release,” he added. EFE reported that officers received fire as they arrived on the scene and the kidnappers and possibly two Cuban immigrants escaped.

The U.S. Coast Guard has also been busy with would-be immigrants arriving from Cuba. In less than a week, the Coast Guard has returned a group of twenty-five undocumented Cuban migrants attempting to cross into the U.S.  The Coast Guard intercepted three vessels at sea last week. Once they were rescued and on board Coast Guard ships, the migrants received “food, water, shelter and basic medical attention” before being returned to the island, Europa Press reported.


Two newly-freed prisoners arrive in Spain

Political prisoner Alfredo Domínguez Batista was released from prison on Thursday and taken directly to the Havana airport to travel to Spain, accompanied by his wife, two children, grandson, sister, and three nephews, EFE reported. Domínguez, 48 years old and a member of the Christian Liberation Movement, was arrested in the spring of 2003 along with 75 others and was serving a 14-year sentence.  He is the second prisoner released this week, bringing to 28 the total number freed from prison and transported to Spain.

Próspero Gainza Agüero, 53, arrived in Madrid on Tuesday, AFP reported. Four more are expected to be released and sent to Spain next week. In the deal struck between the government of Raúl Castro, the Catholic Church, and Spain, a total of 52 dissidents are expected to be freed, all remaining prisoners from a crackdown that took place in March 2003.

Dozens of released prisoners residing in Spain want to relocate to the U.S.

U.S. Embassy officials have asked the 25 recently-released Cuban political prisoners currently residing in Spain to compile a list of those interested in relocating to the U.S., including family members that are currently with them in Spain, Europa Press reported. So far more than half of the men have expressed a desire to move to the United States, where many of their relatives live.  The U.S. Embassy said it will evaluate the granting of visas on a “case by case basis.”  Embassy staff have yet to provide a deadline for the submission of the list or suggest there is a limit to the number of relatives for whom the dissidents can request visas.

Dissidents denounce new detentions, support the role of the Church

Cuban dissidents have accused the government of new detentions despite moves to free political prisoners, Agence France Presse reported. According to AFP, three activists belonging to the Party for Independence and Democracy in Cuba were detained under accusations of public disorder while protesting on the steps at the University of Havana. Sarah Marta Fonseca, who was arrested with the activists but then released, said the “group was only exercising their freedom of expression.” Reports have also surfaced that five other dissidents were arrested in Guantánamo province on the same day for attending a political meeting at a private home, EFE reported.

Some dissidents have been critical of the role of the Church in negotiations to free prisoners, accusing it of excluding the dissident movement from the discussions. However, the Ladies in White said this week that they fully support the Church’s efforts. Laura Pollán, spokeswoman for the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco), stated: “In Cuba there is no better mediator” than the Church because it doesn’t have a political agenda, Catholic News Agency reported.


Ruling prohibits Florida state funds to be used for travel-related research to Cuba

A challenge to a 2006 law banning state university-funded travel to countries the U.S. deems sponsors of terrorism was struck down this week, the Christian Science Monitor reported. The decision reinstating the law, which will affect travel to all countries deemed sponsors of terrorism by the U.S. government but thought to focus on Cuba, will disrupt research and academic exchange, according to Florida-based international scholars.

The Florida Travel Act prohibits any money that flows to a Florida state university – including grants from private foundations – from being used to travel to “terrorist” countries.  This appellate court decision reverses an earlier Federal court ruling which struck down the state statute which found it in conflict with federal law. A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit of Appeals found that it does not conflict with federal statutes and can be fully implemented, CSM reported.

“This is a very unfortunate ruling. I am terribly saddened by it. I hope this is the last gasp of South Florida anti-Castro politics,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. According to scholars, the decision will “greatly complicate existing research efforts, encourage top scholars to leave Florida, and deter others from studying or working at the state’s public universities.”

Radio/TV Martí boss resigns

Pedro Roig, director of Radio/TV Martí for the last seven years, has tendered his resignation, El Nuevo Herald reported. His decision to leave the post, which he reportedly announced “with regrets,” comes amid growing controversy concerning the nature of the radio and television broadcasts, and the management of the stations themselves.

“The programming is so bad and so boring for the Cuban people that no one listens to it,” dissident Vladimiro Roca told the Miami Herald last year. According to the Herald, it is unclear who will succeed Roig as director of the stations. Progreso Weekly outlined the failures of the Martís in an essay titled: “Martí bottler gets canned.”


Fidel Castro admits he committed errors toward homosexuals in the past

In an interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, Fidel Castro released new details about his illness over the last few years and declared himself responsible for the persecution of homosexuals in Cuba following the triumph of the 1959 Revolution.

Castro admitted that the policy toward homosexuals in the early years of the Revolution was “a great injustice,” saying friction with the United States forced the government to focus on other things, but took personal responsibility for the mistakes. According to Castro, he was unable to devote much attention to the rights of the gay community due to “sabotage” by the United States.

“At the time we were being sabotaged systematically, there were armed attacks against us, we had too many problems. … Keeping one step ahead of the CIA, which was paying so many traitors, was not easy,” he said.  However, he admitted that “if somebody is responsible, it is me.”

In the same interview, Castro discussed the intestinal illness that obligated him to transfer the presidential duties to his brother Raúl.  He said that after undergoing several operations for an intestinal illness, he was at death’s door. “I asked myself several times if (the doctors) would let me live under these conditions or whether they would allow me to die,” Castro said in the interview.

Earlier this week, military commander Guillermo García Frías, one of the “heroes of the Revolution,” unveiled Fidel Castro’s latest book, entitled The Strategic Victory, in an event held in Caracas, Venezuela, EFE reported. The book focuses on decisive events in the Cuban Revolution, such as guerrilla warfare in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

Mariela Castro: Gay rights law to be discussed in 2011, Fidel and Raúl communicating well

The Cuban National Assembly will discuss a new law about sexual orientation and gender identity in 2011, Mariela Castro Espín announced this week, the Diario de Cuba reported. Castro, the daughter of President Raúl Castro, is the head of the National Center for Sexual Education and a leading advocate for gay, bi- and transgender rights. “This proposal will be addressed by the Cuban parliament in 2011. This is very good news for us,” she said.

According to Castro, the Cuban people are “spontaneous” and “very free to opinionate,” but there are “problems with freedom of press, just like in all other parts of the world,” which makes advancing her agenda more difficult. Castro also said that her father Raúl and her uncle Fidel meet every day to discuss political issues and “understand each other well and have been able to overcome their differences as brothers and politicians.” She also said she has no interest in taking up a position of leadership.

State media criticizes pro-oxen farm policy

The Cuban government’s attempt to use oxen instead of tractors in agriculture is being met with resistance by many farmers, EFE reported.  The government is pushing a policy of favoring oxen, arguing the economic and ecological benefits of eschewing heavy machinery.  However, Juventud Rebelde and other Cuban state media have been critical of the policy, which it argues is slowing productivity. Juventud Rebelde has run several reports over the last few years criticizing official state policy and investigating sensitive issues such as government corruption and failures in the health care system.

Fidel Castro meets with the head of Cuba’s Jewish community and U.S. scholars

Fidel Castro met on Monday with Jeffrey Goldberg, a reporter for the Atlantic magazine who has written recently about an Israeli attack on Iran; Julia Sweig, a Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Adela Dworin, the President of the Hebrew Community in Cuba.  According to Cuban state media, Castro invited the three to a dolphin show at the national aquarium and discussed current world events.

Fidel Castro delivers first public speech since 2006

Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro led his first public rally since 2006 this week, according to CNN.   For his first public rally in four years, Castro chose the symbolic steps of the university where he started his political career as a young law student in 1945.  During his speech at the rally, Castro urged thousands of students to help prevent a nuclear war. “I thank you all for your presence and moral support in this fight for peace,” Castro said at the end of his 44-minute speech. “I exhort you to not abandon this battle. As in past fights, we can win.”

Recommended Reading:

Time to reconcile with Cuba, Roll Call

Retired Brig. Gen. John Adams and David W. Jones in an op-ed for the Capitol Hill paper, Roll Call, ask this week: “If we can reconcile with Germany and Vietnam, why not with our neighbor Cuba? Why cling to our failed Cuba policy with its self-isolating diplomacy and unilateral embargo? Our current policy hurts two groups the most: the Cuban and American people. Why don’t we replace it with forms of peaceful engagement that have a proven history of success?”  The writers urge Congress to adopt The Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act which would lift the ban on travel by all Americans to Cuba and help U.S. farmers and ranchers enter the Cuban market.

Illinois View: A welcome step in 50-year U.S.-Cuba grudge match, Rockford Register Star

Good news appears to be coming soon on one of the last remaining fronts of the Cold War, with signals coming out of Washington recently that President Obama may order some travel restrictions dropped for Americans wanting to visit Cuba.

The Read and the Black, Newsweek

Why are Latin American democracies suddenly attacking the free press?

Around The Region:

Hugo Chávez denounces international media campaign against Venezuela, Periódico 26

President Chávez accused CNN en Español News Channel, Spain’s Prisa Group, the New York Times and other international media outlets of having orchestrated a war against his government. In his Sunday column titled “Las líneas de Chávez,” he said that there is a truly specialized and powerful media war aimed at making the world believe that the Bolivarian Government is illegitimate and terrorist.

CRLN calls on Under Secretary Otero to continue efforts on human rights in Honduras

The Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America (CRLN) sent a letter to María Otero asking her to demand that President Lobo halt the repression against school teachers who organized protests in Honduras, and to support the call of the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP) and signed affidavits of 1 million Honduran citizens for a fully inclusive Constituent Assembly to draft a new national Constitution.

Drug cartel suspected in massacre of 72 migrants, MSNBC

Mexican security forces are delivering refrigeration equipment for the bodies of 72 Central and South American immigrants massacred by drug cartel gunmen at a remote ranch in northern Mexico.  Meanwhile, investigators continue their attempts to determine the identities of the 72 victims and why they were gunned down 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the U.S. border.

Ecuador warrant against Colombia’s Santos revoked, Reuters

An arrest order against Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was revoked by a provincial judge, but the case stemming from a 2008 bombing in Ecuadorian territory remains open. As Colombia’s defense minister, Santos ordered the 2008 raid against a Colombian rebel camp on Ecuador’s side of the border. The judge cited “judicial equity” in his decision, saying it would not be fair to arrest only Santos considering that other Colombian officials involved in the case were not being sought for capture.

A Final Word:

On this Labor Day weekend devoted to reconciliation, let’s remember that the political obstacles to a new Cuba-U.S. relationship are less important than the ties that already bind us together.  If you need proof, enjoy the following:

One Cuban pitcher debuts throwing heat, another hangs up his cleats

The current buzz in Major League Baseball is all about Aroldis Chapman, a 22 year-old pitcher who defected from Cuba and signed a million dollar deal with the Cincinnati Reds. He spent the season in the minor leagues, but was called up to the majors to make his big league debut this week.  Chapman, who has often thrown a fastball over 100 mph, is considered the future of the Reds franchise. Sports Illustrated reported that as Chapman made his entrance, “the 19,218 fans in the park sounded like Game 7 of the World Series.” He did not disappoint. Coming in as a reliever in the 8th inning, Chapman threw four pitches that topped 100 mph – maxing at 102.7 – and finished a perfect eighth inning, Yahoo Sports reported. Seven of his eight pitches were strikes.

Hitting expert Matt Bynum of Hillerich and Bradsby, the company that produces the Louisville Slugger, researched the difficulty of hitting Chapman’s fastball. “(Chapman’s) 104 mph fastball takes only .39 seconds to reach the plate,” Bynum wrote. “Factoring a stride of about 5 feet, that time is reduced to .36 seconds. The average human eye blinks at a speed (between) three-tenths and four-tenths of a second. So if you are the batter and you blink at the point of Chapman’s release, the ball will pass you before you open your eyes again.”

Videos of his entrance and first strike out are available here and here.

Meanwhile, Pedro Luis Lazo, the Cuban pitcher with the best ever win record in the Cuban league, announced that he will retire when the 50th Cuban National Baseball Series starts at the end of the year. The 37-year old, nicknamed the Cuban Skyscraper, will be part of the Cuban National Team at the Pre-World tournament in Puerto Rico, taking place this weekend. According to the Havana Times, “while one-time fellow Pinar ace José Contreras opted to flee the island in 2003 for the lure of big league dollars, Lazo remained at home to rewrite the Cuban League record books.”

A short essay about Lazo written by Peter C. Bjarkman, widely considered a leading authority on Cuban baseball, is available here.

Happy holiday to all,

The Cuba Central Team

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