Berman Determined, Castro Candid, and the Loss of Lucius

These items caught our eyes as we scanned and gathered the headlines for this week’s news summary.

Racing against the deadline of the Congressional recess and elections looming in November, Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed his determination to find the votes he needs to pass legislation – this year – to end the ban on travel to Cuba for all Americans.

Berman, a Member of Congress since 1983, has made better relations with Cuba a cornerstone of his career’s work.  Action on the travel legislation in his committee will advance prospects for travel reforms by the administration and in the Congress.

In a series of candid comments, Cuba’s former president, Fidel Castro, took issue with anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in Iran, and later told Jeffrey Goldberg of Atlantic magazine, “The Cuban (economic) model doesn’t even work for us anymore,” when he was asked if it was something still worth exporting.

Since his recent return to prominence in Cuba’s media, the elder Castro appears to be clearing political space for his brother, President Raúl Castro, to mend the Cuban economy and address Cuba’s standing globally, while also tending to his own legacy.

Finally, we pay our respects – and he earned them – to Reverend Lucius Walker, age 80, who passed away his week, after leading 21 annual caravans to Cuba, providing supplies and support for the Cuban people, in defiance of the U.S. embargo.  His work was guided by the notion that the arc of history bends toward justice, and his open, honest activism for better relations between Cuba and the United States will be missed.

These developments and more are covered this week in Cuba news…


Valenzuela: “We need more, not less contacts with Cuba”

Speaking at a forum in Washington this week, Arturo Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said the U.S. values recent steps taken by Cuba’s government to release political prisoners, but believes they are “not sufficient.” Cuba reached an agreement with the Catholic Church and Spain to free 52 political prisoners over the next few months, many of whom have already been released and traveled to Spain.

Valenzuela, who said he expects additional prisoners to be released, reiterated President Obama’s opinion that “we need more, not less contacts with Cuba,” opining that “the more interaction we have with the Cuban people the better.” He said that policies like allowing more visits to the island “can be a force that will contribute to liberation” on the island, EFE reported.

Speaking at the same event, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said U.S. – Cuba relations are in a “positive phase,” but “more needs to happen.” Richardson, who visited Cuba last month, urged the United States to acknowledge the advances Cuba has made so far, AFP reported.

Still no announcement about changes to Cuba travel policy

Another week passed without an announcement by the White House about changes to restrictions on travel to Cuba. Sources inside the State Department said weeks ago that the Obama Administration would soon announce changes in policy. However, when asked by reporters on Thursday, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said he had “nothing to announce.” According to Crowley, the U.S. continues to engage with Cuba on “specific issues of mutual interest,” EFE reported.

“We’re watching developments in Cuba closely and we’ll see what happens,” he said. Crowley also reiterated that the U.S. hopes all political prisoners will be released as well as Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor who is detained in Havana for distributing high-tech communications devices in Cuba while traveling to the island on a tourist visa.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times reported that Gross’ detainment and the ongoing USAID program are “hampering” U.S. efforts to ease relations with Cuba. According to the Times, uncertainty about Gross is why new changes to allow more Americans “to visit or send money to families on the island nation have been repeatedly delayed.”

House Committee Chair hunting for votes to pass travel legislation

On a conference call with bloggers this week, Rep. Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, committed to pressing forward on legislation to end the Cuba travel ban.

“For me, this is an issue about Americans’ right to travel,” said Berman, in this account of the conference call reported by Along the Malecón. “We’re not quite there in terms of the votes,” he said. “We have 19 hard votes. I want 24.”

Berman told the bloggers that his committee should enact the legislation regardless of what is happening on the island.  “What Cuba does is, in one sense, not relevant. This is about Americans’ right to travel.”  On whether the continued detention of Alan Gross poses a barrier, Berman said, “I want them to release Gross, but I don’t think we should be basing our actions on what Cuba does.”

On June 30, the House Agriculture Committee approved H.R. 4645, The Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, H.R. 4645, which removes impediments against U.S. farm exports to Cuba and ends the travel ban to the island for all Americans.  Berman’s House Foreign Affairs Committee has jurisdiction over the travel provision, and the Chairman plans to take up the bill and pass it before it can be considered on the House floor.  For information about the legislation and its backers, read more here.

No prisoner swap in the works

The State Department said this week that rumors about a potential prisoner swap between the U.S. and Cuba are incorrect, the Miami Herald reported.  There has been speculation in Miami that the Obama administration may be in discussions with the Cuban government to trade some or all of the “Cuban Five,” five Cuban intelligence agents imprisoned in the U.S., for Alan Gross, the U.S. government contractor detained in Havana for distributing high-tech communication devices while traveling illegally to Havana on a tourist visa.

“The United States is not considering the release of any member of the Cuban Five in exchange for Alan Gross,” Mark Toner, director of the State Department’s press office, wrote in a statement e-mailed to El Nuevo Herald. Five Cuban-American Members of Congress recently wrote to the Departments of State and Justice stating their strong opposition to any possible negotiations with Cuba regarding prisoner releases.

Rev. Lucius Walker passes away

The Rev. Lucius Walker, a long-time activist for sovereignty and independence in Latin America, died of a heart attack this week at the age of 80. Walker, who headed the nonprofit Pastors for Peace, has led annual pilgrimages of U.S. aid and volunteers to Cuba for decades – delivering everything from walkers and wheelchairs to clothing and computer monitors to the island, the Associated Press reported. The Pastor’s for Peace’s website expressed sorrow for “the passing of our beloved, heroic, prophetic leader, Rev. Lucius Walker Jr.” Walker last visited Cuba in July, where he met with Raúl and Fidel Castro.

Walker helped establish an agreement with Cuban authorities whereby  low-income Americans can study medicine at Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine and return to their underserved communities in the U.S.  State media in Cuba widely reported on Walker’s death, with the Granma stating: “Cubans, in gratitude, have to say that we don’t want to think of a world without Lucius Walker.” Tracey Eaton’s Along the Malecón blog has further details about Walker’s activism in Cuba.


Castro: “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore”

Fidel Castro met last week with Atlantic magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the first American journalist he has seen since recovering from his illness.  Goldberg is releasing a three-part series of articles on the Internet about his conversations with Castro and his time in Cuba.  According to Goldberg, Castro discussed global issues, including the situation in the Middle East, and threw in one important comment about domestic issues.  “The Cuban (economic) model doesn’t even work for us anymore,” Castro responded when asked if it was something still worth exporting.

Castro, who has refrained from commenting on domestic issues since his brother took power, did not elaborate, but analysts said it was an indication of his support for recent reforms Raúl Castro has implemented. According to Dr. Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations, who accompanied Goldberg on his trip to Havana, Castro’s statement was not a rejection of the ideas of the Revolution, but an “acknowledgment that under ‘the Cuban model’ the state has much too big a role in the economic life of the country.”

“One effect of such a sentiment might be to create space for his brother, Raúl, who is now president, to enact the necessary reforms in the face of what will surely be push-back from orthodox communists within the Party and the bureaucracy,” said Sweig.

Fidel Castro’s role in Cuba decision making

There has been much speculation about Fidel Castro’s role in policy making, and the influence he holds over domestic policy. Last week, he gave his first major public speech in five years at the University of Havana, focusing completely on global politics.

The Associated Press questioned whether the fact that Castro wore “military duds for 1st time since stepping down” could be a “possible sign of larger role.” Similarly, the Christian Science Monitor reported on the fact that “many international observers have speculated about the degree to which Castro opposes his brother’s ideas.”

However, as Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Washington-based Cuba Study Group, pointed out, ever since Castro has returned to public life he has “stayed away from talking about domestic issues which in itself is the best thing he can do to support his brother’s running of the country.”

One analyst, Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, criticized the United States for not recognizing the importance of what’s happening in Cuba, Bloomberg News reported. “We are witnessing what could be the most transformative moment in Cuba’s relationship with the outside world,” Birns said. “The Obama administration would be foolish not to engage in an effort at rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba.”

Castro has focused mainly on the threat of nuclear war as tensions in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula escalate, this week criticizing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for “denying the Holocaust.” In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Castro urged Ahmadinejad to understand the “unique” history of anti-Semitism, stating that the “Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours.”


Cuba to expand use of employee-run cooperatives

In the latest change to the Cuban economy, the Castro government plans to transform some small-scale manufacturing and retail services into cooperatives, Reuters reported based on conversations with communist party officials. The new policy will convert illegal private businesses that already operate into legal and taxable entities. “There are already local workshops that have received approval to move to a cooperative form of production and administration,” one government insider told Reuters.

Cooperatives have been successful in increasing initiative and production in the agriculture sector, and those familiar with the plans said they are a part of Raúl Castro’s strategy of decentralization and searching for economic solutions at the local level. The plan is expected to be implemented over the next few months. A mid-level functionary in Havana’s food service told Reuters that thirty restaurants in Havana “have already been selected to become cooperatives and their presidents named. They should begin the process soon.”

It’s still unclear how government controls and market elements will be incorporated into the cooperatives. “The state should let them operate through supply and demand, not begin to cap prices and tell them where and what they can and cannot sell. In other words exercise only indirect control, for example through a tax on sales,” said an economist involved in the debate.

Castro government will carry out new census in 2012

The Cuban government will conduct a census in September 2012, the first since 2002. The last census determined the population residing on the island to be about 11.2 million people, who live in approximately 3,534,327 households, EFE reported.

The census, the fourth to be conducted in post-Revolutionary Cuba, will also include information related to the territorial distribution of the population, skin color, and educational levels, as well as examine the state of housing in Cuba. Shortages of housing and poor quality housing continue to be among the most pressing problems facing the government. The census comes at a time that the government is reforming the economy, altering pensions and salaries, and reducing products offered on the monthly ration card.

New Zombie film highlights increased tolerance for critique

A new zombie film being shot in Havana includes critiques and satire of sensitive issues in Cuban society, such as media censorship and restrictions on private business. “Juan de los Muertos (Juan of the Dead)” is a joint production of Spanish film companies and the state-run Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography. Production began this week and it will be promoted in Spanish speaking markets abroad, as well as Europe and the United States, when it is completed in 2011.

Themes in the movie include U.S. backed Cuban exiles being responsible for the zombie take over, a free-market minded salesman taking advantage of the zombie attack to make a quick buck, and whether Cubans should remain on the island during the crisis or take off, “a politically sensitive topic in a country divided between those who have lived through the revolution for better or worse, and those who have left for exile in South Florida and elsewhere,” the Associated Press reported. IndyPosted reported on the film here.

Drug confiscations down slightly in Cuba

Cuban authorities seized 1.5 tons of illicit drugs during the first six months of 2010, the Ministry of the Interior announced this week. The figure is 28% lower than the total confiscated during the same period in 2009. The majority of the drugs were trafficked by sea, with a smaller amount also being confiscated at national airports, reports Associated Press. “Even though the amount of drugs seized is low, and the number of cases reported in Cuba in 2010 is even lower, the problematic nature of drug trafficking in neighboring countries, economic partners, and countries that are sources of tourism to Cuba obliges us to fight this battle [against drug trafficking],” the Ministry said in the report.

Cuba commemorates 30th anniversary of first Latin American in space

Cuba has commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the first Latin American astronaut in space, AFP reported.  On September 18, 1980, Cuba’s Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez became the first Latin American to participate in a voyage to space, which he did aboard the Soviet shuttle Soyuz 37.  State media lauded the operation, stating that Tamayo Méndez’s accomplishments have had significant consequences for Cuban science and applications in “the study of [Cuba’s] natural resources.”

New nanotechnology center to open in Havana

Cuba will soon open a center for the study and development of nanotechnology. Cuba’s Center for Advanced Studies will be open to scientists and scholars from across Latin America and around the world, AFP reported. The announcement was made by nuclear physicist Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart, former president Fidel Castro’s eldest son, at the Third International Workshop of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology in Havana. According to Castro, Cuba is committed to developing nanotechnology and wants to use its advances in education and science to collaborate with scientists around the world.

No mass mobilizations for coffee harvest

EFE reported that the Cuban government will not “mobilize” groups of students and workers from other sectors to help with the coffee harvest this year. According to the Granma, the government can no longer “bear the heavy expenditure on fuel, food, footwear, and other resources and inputs that generate the thousands of workers from other sectors and students who annually go to the collection of coffee.” The Granma, which referred to the coffee sector as a “disaster,” said that cooperatives can handle the harvest without the help of mobilizations, which have been part of socialist development since the early years of the Revolution.


Two more political prisoners arrive in Spain, bringing the total to 32

Two more political prisoners recently released from Cuba’s jails arrived in Spain this week. Víctor Arroyo and Claro Sánchez arrived in Madrid accompanied by 14 family members, AFP reported.  With the arrival of Arroyo and Sánchez, there are now 30 former prisoners that have been released and are currently residing in Spain.

According to the Havana Times, at least 10 of the 22 political prisoners remaining in Cuba have said they prefer to stay in Cuba or go to the United States and will not travel to Spain.

Eight Cuban detainees freed

Eight dissidents who were detained three weeks ago for protesting at the University of Havana were freed this week, AFP reported. One of those arrested, Michel Rodríguez, said he was accused of “public disorder,” while the rest accused the government of detaining them without any formal charge. Three of the protestors belong to the Cuban Independent and Democratic Party.

Cuban blogger named press freedom hero

Yoani Sánchez, a Cuban blogger, has been named the 60th World Press Freedom Hero by the International Press Institute, the Guardian reported. Sánchez, who is not well known in Cuba, has received international fame for her blog, Generación Y, which began as a critique of life in Cuba and has gradually become more directly critical of the socialist government.

Despite limited connectivity to the Internet in Cuba and impediments by the government, Sánchez works with a team of colleagues on and off the island to get her blog posts and twitter messages out in several different languages across the globe. The Cuban government accuses her of collaborating with anti-Castro exiles abroad.

IPI’s interim director, Alison Bethel McKenzie, lauded the Cuban blogger, stating that “Sánchez’s tremendously important work provides a glimpse into what is otherwise a closed world.” Sánchez said the award is a “protective shield” and that it will help her to break the “wall of censorship” in her homeland.

Around the Region:

Honduran repression continues unabated, Baltimore Chronicle

According to this critique in the Baltimore Chronicle, widespread killings and human rights abuses followed the November 2009 presidential election, won by Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa president. Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries anywhere for those speaking openly about government corruption, human rights abuses, and despotism.

Colombian intelligence infiltrated the embassies of Cuba and others in coordination with the CIA

During the Presidency of Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s security service, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS), was accused of committing  espionage against other countries in the region, at times in coordination with the U.S. embassy in Colombia and the CIA, but such accusations were regularly denied.

Now, according to Colprensa and TeleSUR, Germán Albeiro Ospina, a former DAS official, has testified that the CIA was present at that agency’s bimonthly meetings, where topics discussed included the spying and infiltration of the embassies of Cuba, Venezuela, and other Middle Eastern and Latin American countries. The official also said that DAS spied on opposition Senators Piedad Córdoba and Gustavo Petro, and that all information collected was shared with the government of President Uribe and several ministries.  His statements were published in the media after he delivered his testimony to the Colombian Attorney General’s Office.

Venezuelan vice-president: government did not violate hunger striker’s rights, AP

Venezuela never violated the rights of a farmer who died after lengthy hunger strikes, the country’s vice-president Elías Jaua said this week. The government “did everything in our power” to keep Franklin Brito alive and to resolve the land dispute that led to his strike. It was the government’s first detailed response to Brito’s death Monday.

El Salvador President wants U.S. assistance to reduce illegal immigration, AHN News

El Salvador’s president, Mauricio Funes, is urging the U.S. to form a new alliance with Central American countries to reduce illegal immigration through an economic development program. Funes is in Los Angeles this week discussing immigration issues with Salvadorans who live in the U.S.

Recommended Reading:

Cuba drilling poses spill issue, Houston Chronicle

The trade embargo against Cuba could undermine efforts to prevent or respond to an oil spill threatening the U.S. coast after Cuba launches a drilling program in the Straits of Florida next year, a Houston-based industry group is warning.

A fair trade: Opening Cuba to Texas rice, beef seems sensible, Houston Chronicle

Texan farmers and ranchers strongly support HR 4645, a bill which would legalize travel to, and trade with, Cuba.  Texas agriculture leaders believe that Cuba is a prime market for Texan farmers, estimating that passing the legislation would create 6,000 new jobs in the agricultural sector and boost sales of agricultural products by approximately $365 million, from which Texas, and the rest of the United States, would benefit.

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