As Cuban Layoffs Are Announced, and More Prisoners Released, Where’s Obama?

We return this week to a theme that has preoccupied us for months – why, in the face of really big changes taking place in Cuba, is the President so utterly failing to capitalize on these developments, even to help realize the goals of his own policy?

For some U.S. political figures in both parties, there is nothing that Cuba could do – short of dissolving its government and economic system unilaterally to curry favor with the United States – that would satisfy their definitions of progress.  But President Barack Obama was not supposed to be from that school of thought – not because we imagined him or wanted him to be different, but because he declared himself to be.

Let us not forget in the 2008 presidential campaign that he expressed his willingness to meet with President Raúl Castro, with an agenda and with pre-planning, if there were something real to discuss.   He said on one occasion “I would never, ever, rule out a course of action that could advance the cause of liberty.”  He promised not to substitute posturing for serious policy – “we have seen too much of that in other areas over the past six years.

He said before the Cuban American National Foundation and in an early op-ed column in the Miami Herald that political prisoners in Cuba required justice, that a goal of U.S. policy was to make Cuban families less dependent on the Castro regime, and that efforts by Cuba’s government to liberalize its system would be met by steps to help solidify openings into lasting change.

As we published this news summary, Cuba’s Catholic Church revealed the names of four more political prisoners to be released, under the agreement it made with the government this spring, which will bring to 36 the number of dissidents freed.  The agreement calls for all 52 of the remaining prisoners from the 2003 round up to be let go.  As we previously reported, this agreement is not uncontroversial among hardliners in the government or the Cuban communist party, but it is being honored nonetheless.

This week, Cuba’s government also announced that it would layoff 500,000 Cuban citizens on state payrolls and take steps to help the private sector economy absorb them, which sounds an awful lot to us like they will be less dependent on the government.

These changes, along with others already made, are redefining, as many analysts have written, Cuba’s social contract with its own people, and represent extraordinarily difficult decisions taken even in the context of a one-party state.

In other words, the conditions that President Obama articulated as core to his policy toward Cuba are beginning to be realized.   While Cuba rejects the notion that actions it takes can or should be linked to gestures that liberalize U.S. policy – that is Obama’s policy.  Which is why, we have argued, week after week, that the President is undermining the credibility of his Cuba program by failing to act in response to what Cuba is doing.

We were heartened earlier this summer by repeated declarations by Administration officials – admittedly under the cover journalists call “background” – who promised action.  Obama would use his executive authority to ease limits on travel short of tourism (academic, religious, cultural, sports, and the like) not expressly to reward the prisoner release, but doing exactly that in practice.

But as summer rapidly turns to fall, the prospects for positive action are appearing to dim.

Given a chance to reflect on reforms in Cuba resulting in layoffs for ten percent of the nation’s workforce, P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman said, “I mean, we’re looking for action by Cuba, but I don’t have a particular comment on what they’ve announced.”

Democratic leaders are being advised that action on travel – by the White House or Congress – would be politically inconvenient before November.  According to Congressional Quarterly, Rep. Albio Sires said “this is not something you want to do now,” but changing Cuba policy is something he opposes all the time.

Others – like Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela – blame Cuba for continuing to detain Alan Gross, saying action on liberalizing policy is not possible while he remains in prison.  Well, we have called repeatedly on Cuba to release Mr. Gross, but making progress on ideas like the freedom to travel hostage to a resolution of his case is not going to spring Mr. Gross any time soon.

Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Jewish Cuban-American, recently reminded us that Alan Gross is a prisoner because he was perceived by the Cuban government as “a promoter of regime change caught in enemy territory,” and that ending the travel ban would honor his purpose in traveling to Cuba, by bringing information and contacts to the Cuban people by the thousands through the front door, rather than by one-by-one efforts funded through regime change programs entered through a dangerous back door.

Blaming Gross, blaming politics, and blaming Fidel Castro are excuses for inaction, posturing instead of policy making, and precisely what, as a candidate, the president promised we would not get from him.

Failing to act has real consequences.  It says to the Cubans that Obama, despite his words to the contrary and some very positive but small steps, is not the sharp departure from the past that he said he would be.  Inaction sends a message to Cuban hardliners that the U.S. is simply unreachable and unreasonable no matter how many reforms the government undertakes.    Inaction will also send them a message about the reforms that Obama is undertaking of the now discredited and dangerous USAID program that landed Mr. Gross in prison in the first place.

The National Security Program of the Third Way recently argued that refusing to engage Cuba or to help the reforms move forward puts the U.S. in weak position to criticize the Cuban government.  By opting for silence over action we ignore the history of transitions, as Tomas Bilbao wrote recently, which teaches us to encourage even incremental steps when they happen.

What we’re asking Obama and the Congress to do isn’t politically difficult.  After all, we are asking them to restore the constitutional rights of Americans to travel, to create jobs and profits here in America by opening up the Cuban market to travel and trade, to put money in the pockets of Cuban families by creating more tourism jobs on the island when their economy needs more private sector activity, and to honor the pleas of the Cuban people that we end the ban on travel as a sign of solidarity to Cuba’s civil society.

It’s all easy in comparison to what Cubans are experiencing.  We should be on their side and acting – strongly and promptly – as the President led us to believe he would do.


Reports: No movement on Cuba legislation until after November elections

Congressional advocates for reforming Cuba policy said that floor votes on legislation to end travel restrictions to the island will not take place until after mid-term elections, Reuters reported.  According to Rep. Collin Peterson, Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and sponsor of the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, legislation has the best chance of passing after the Congressional elections on November 2.  “I think this would be a candidate for a ‘lame duck’ session,” said Peterson.

The bill, which was approved by the House Agriculture Committee d in June, still has to clear the House Foreign Affairs Committee before going to a vote on the floor.  If the House does not vote on the bill, sponsors would have to start from scratch in the new Congressional session.

In a letter to Chairman Berman and Ranking Member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the ACLU expressed its support for the bill, arguing the “right to travel is a necessary predicate for an individual’s meaningful exercise of fundamental rights.” According to the ACLU, such a right is protected by the Fifth Amendment of the United States, as well as Article 13 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Similarly, members of the Montana Farmers Union met this week with legislators in Washington, DC to push for increased trade with Cuba, KRTV reported.  MFU member Justin Downs explained, “We trade right now a little bit, about $270 million dollars worth, which is a very small piece of the pie that we could have…they’re 90 miles away…and they have a huge demand.”

Cuba prepares for UN vote, says U.S. embargo has toughened under Obama

Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, held a press conference this week to discuss Cuba’s view of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba in 2010 amidst preparations for this year’s vote on the policy at the United Nations.

According to Rodríguez, President Barack Obama missed a “golden opportunity to improve relations” and has performed “below expectations” despite his promises of change. Cuba believes that although Obama has lifted some minor restrictions on travel and telecommunications, heavy fines have increased and the embargo has actually been enforced “stronger” by the Obama administration, Reuters reported.

“The policy of the blockade under President Obama … hasn’t changed at all, and one could say that in several aspects, enforcement of the blockade … has gotten even stricter,” Rodríguez said. He said that the embargo has cost Cuba $751 billion over the years and should be ended “unilaterally” by the U.S.

Rodríguez’s comments, also covered by the Associated Press, were part of Cuba’s preparation for the in the U.N. General Assembly on a resolution offered annually to condemn the U.S. embargo of the island.  The resolution has passed in eighteen consecutive sessions.  Last year, the vote was 187-3, with only Israel and the tiny Pacific island of Palau siding with the United States. The 2010 report by Cuba on the embargo, released this week, is available in English here.

Case of Alan Gross is hindering progress on improving ties

Arturo Valenzuela, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, repeated a call this week for Cuba to free Alan Gross, saying the case is impeding further improvements in ties, Reuters reported.  Speaking at a conference in Miami, Valenzuela said Gross’ detention “is an impediment to being able to move ahead with certain kinds of measures that we would take with regard to Cuba.”

“It is an obstacle for attempting to move ahead on what might be more of a dialogue between the two countries,” the U.S. official added, saying Washington had made this clear to Cuban authorities.

Gross was arrested in Havana in December 2009 for distributing sophisticated communications devices to opponents of the Cuban government, but Cuban authorities have yet to charge him. He has been held at Villa Marista state security headquarters in Havana, where he has been allowed to meet with U.S. consular officials and receive legal counsel.

12th anniversary of the Cuban Five’s imprisonment

This week marked the twelfth anniversary of the imprisonment of the Cuban Five, with supporters and analysts still hoping for some solution to what many see as an injustice resulting from excess sentences. Truthout has a detailed report on the case and its implications for U.S.-Cuba relations.  It says that despite domestic and international support for the Obama administration to resolve the situation, any progress is “heavily circumscribed by the five Cuban-Americans in Congress.”

The Cuban Five, convicted spies in America who are considered heroes in Cuba, have never denied being government agents, but contend that they were observing violent Cuban-American terrorists that planned attacks on the island, and never conducted any surveillance on the U.S. government or obtained classified material.

Claims by the Five that they were unable to receive a fair trial in Miami have been echoed by Robert A. Pastor, a professor of international relations at American University, and a National Security Council Director for Latin America under President Jimmy Carter.  According to Pastor, “holding a trial for five Cuban intelligence agents in Miami is about as fair as a trial for an Israeli intelligence agent in Tehran. You’d need a lot more than a good lawyer to be taken seriously.”

Earlier this week, Marco Aurelio Garcia, the Special Adviser for International Affairs of the Brazilian presidency, called for the release of the Cuban Five from U.S. prisons, Prensa Latina reported. “We hope that they can be freed and return to their homes very soon,” said Garcia, who added that it would contribute to improving relations between the United States and Cuba.

A press conference organized by the National Committee to Free the Five featured several analysts calling for the Obama administration to intervene in the case. Wayne Smith, head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana under President Carter, and Larry Wilkerson, U.S. Army Colonel and former Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, argued that releasing the Five is in the interest of the United States and would be a major step in a rapprochement with Havana.

Leonel Fernández proposes U.S.-Cuba prisoner swap involving Gross and the Cuban Five

According to La Nación Dominicana, Leonel Fernández, President of the Dominican Republic, has offered his services as an intermediary between the U.S. and Cuba in pursuit of a prisoner exchange. Enrique Fernández, a spokesman for Fernández told a local radio station that Fernández traveled to Cuba and the United States recently to propose the possibility of a deal that would involve exchanging the five Cuban prisoners in the U.S. for Alan Gross, a USAID contractor detained in Cuba for distributing high-tech electronics equipment to opponents of the Castro government.

According to Fernández, the prisoner swap could take place in Dominican territory sometime before December, a timeline that Fidel Castro has also announced in the past. The State Department has denied that there are any talks of a prisoner exchange, something Cuba would likely agree to.

Scientists from Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. will meet to study Gulf of Mexico

Scientists from the United States, Mexico and Cuba will meet to discuss ways in which the three nations can work together to study and preserve the Gulf of Mexico, as well as deal with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the St. Petersburg Times reported. The scientists said they are interested in knowing what happens in other parts of the Gulf to have a better, and more complete, understanding of the area, as well as prepare for disasters. “Mexico had that terrible spill in 1979 and now we have the Deepwater Horizon spill in our waters,” said Kumar Mahadevan, president and chief executive of Mote Marine Lab Inc., “Cuba is getting ready to drill for oil off their coast, so I think they can really benefit from the experience that the U.S. and Mexican scientists have had to prevent the same kind of issues.”

The Times noted that, unfortunately, the scientists are at the “mercy of the political climates in their own country and the others, too,” but this meeting at Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory is a sign that “things are starting to change.” Cuban scientists were banned from visiting the U.S. during the last term of the Bush administration and the embargo continues to hinder scientific cooperation. Muller-Karger said that at one point the scientific exchange between the U.S. and Cuba “almost ground to a halt.” This conference won’t change things overnight, but it can help, he said. “It’s a small step. But every small step is a big deal.”

U.S.-Cuba jazz exchange in October

As part of a cultural exchange between Cuba and the United States, the Lincoln Center’s jazz orchestra will perform for the first time ever in Cuba, and Cuban jazz artists are planning visits to the U.S., ANSA Latina reported.  Following the Lincoln Center’s performance in Cuba (October 5th-9th), three-time Grammy Award winner Chucho Valdés will perform in New York City on October 22nd and 23rd.  “We have been waiting for this moment for years, but now it is finally possible,” said Adrian Ellis, arts director at the Lincoln Center.


Cuba announces 500,000 layoffs

Cuba will cut more than 500,000 state jobs and reduce restrictions on private enterprise to help laid-off workers find new employment.  Rumors of the layoffs and increased private sector activity have circulated for months, but the announcement represented a “major shift” in Cuba’s economic planning, and sparked a debate among analysts about how it will affect Cuba’s future.

A statement released by the Cuban Labor Federation (CTC), which announced the change, said: “Our state cannot and should not continue maintaining companies, productive entities, services and budgeted sectors with bloated payrolls [and] losses that hurt the economy. … Job options will be increased and broadened with new forms of non-state employment, among them leasing land, forming co-operatives and self-employment, absorbing hundreds of thousands of workers in the coming years.”

According to the CTC, the reduction of the state labor force is part of “the process of updating the economic model and the projections for the economy for the 2011-2015 period.”

The layoffs will start “immediately” and last throughout the first few months of 2011, the statement said.  The government plans to help the laid-off workers find work in the private sector by providing an additional 250,000 licenses for self-employment and creating 200,000 non-state jobs largely by converting state businesses into employee-run cooperatives, Reuters reported.

Dr. Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations referred to the reform as a “deep change in the political culture” in an interview with PBS. “It is a major step forward,” Wayne Smith, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba and a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, told the Washington Post. Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute wrote that the announcement “opens a new chapter, one that has a deadline, that will be felt and seen in every town, and that promises to create a much more substantial private sector inside the socialist economy.”

Finally, Ted Henkin, a Baruch College professor who studied previous Cuban efforts to encourage private enterprise, told the Miami Herald that “Raúl’s approach sounds different in that the state is essentially saying we can’t and won’t take care of you anymore and you’ll have to take care of yourselves.”

A total of 823,000 Cubans already work in the private sector, including 144,000 Cuban professionals – tutors, tire repairmen, and taxi drivers to name a few – who are self-employed, the Associated Press reported. The rest are involved in private cooperatives, mainly in the agricultural sector.

Reuters reported that Cubans are embracing the idea of working for themselves, but some also admitted feeling some trepidation. Similarly, Associated Press spoke with many people already involved in the private sector who were encouraged by the announcement, but also reported talking to workers who are nervous about the uncertainty of the future.

Penúltimos Días, a blog that covers Cuba, posted a PowerPoint presentation (which has been circulating in Havana) that provides an outline of the reform for members of the Communist Party.  According to the presentation, titled “Process of Reduction of Payrolls,” eventually the state will only employ workers in “indispensable” areas such as farming, construction, industry, law enforcement and education. The document says workers at the Ministries of Sugar, Public Health, Tourism and Agriculture will be let go first, with layoffs having already begun in July.  It contains a list of “ideas for cooperatives” including raising animals and growing vegetables, construction jobs, driving a taxi and repairing automobiles, but acknowledges that “many of them (new enterprises) could fail within a year.”

An analysis of the presentation by Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute found that “entrepreneurs will be able to hire workers (no specifics provided), it points to changes in the tax system (again, no real specifics), and it seems to say that 31 categories of jobs eligible for licensing will be reinstated, and six new ones added.” The Associated Press reported on the presentation here.

Additional reports about the reform were made available by IPS, the Miami Herald, Time Magazine and the Washington Post.

Domestic investments in Cuba fall

Domestic investments in Cuba fell 15% in the first six months of 2010, the Cuban National Statistics Office revealed this week.  Reasons cited for the drop include lack of financing, materials, labor force, and input, El Universal reported.  The drop in investment heavily affected Cuba’s GDP, which some analysts predict will be close to zero in 2010.  In December, Marino Murillo, the Minister of the Economy, announced that the 2010 investment policy would be “to limit new investments to those that generate short-term revenue in hard currency and substitute imports.”  According to the National Office on Statistics, the majority of investments are in the areas of construction, mining, water and gas supply, manufacturing and agriculture.


Cuba-CARICOM Summit outlines increased cooperation and Cuban assistance to Haiti

Foreign Ministers from Cuba and the 15 countries that make up CARICOM, the Caribbean Community, met this week in Havana to “explore new types of economic cooperation, and the situation in Haiti following last January’s earthquake,” AFP reported.

Cuba, along with Venezuela and Brazil, is working with the Haitian government to restructure Haiti’s public health system, and Cuban medics were many of the first to treat victims of the January 12th earthquake. Over 1,000 Cuban doctors and paramedics are currently serving in Haiti, along with hundreds of Haitians and Latin Americans who received training in Cuba.

Brazil’s foreign minister heads to Havana

Celso Amorim, the Foreign Minister of Brazil, is scheduled to arrive in Havana for a two day visit, EFE reported. According to Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, Amorim will meet with Cuban authorities to discuss diverse aspects of the bilateral and regional relationship “in the context of Latin American and Caribbean integration,” as well as “political and economic” issues.  He is also expected to deliver a letter from Brazilian president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, to the president of Cuba, Raúl Castro.

President Funes to visit Cuba in October, Cuba comments lead to tension with the FMLN

Mauricio Funes, president of El Salvador, announced this week that he will visit Cuba at the beginning of October, making the first visit to the Caribbean island by a Salvadoran president since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, AFP reported. “I think I will make the visit before October 10th, although the agenda is not yet complete,” Funes said at an unrelated event this week.

Funes also answered questions about tension with members of his party, the FMLN, over comments he made recently about the Cuban system. “What I have said is that the proposals of the FMLN seem to be closer to the construction of societies like those of Cuba and Venezuela and that will not function for our country, that is my humble opinion,” Funes told reporters.

El Salvador’s El Mundo newspaper reported that Sigfrido Reyes, FMLN leader and next president of the Legislative Assembly, was not pleased with the president’s negative comments about Cuba’s political and economic systems. Reyes called Funes’ statement “undiplomatic.”


Summers getting hotter in Cuba

According to Prensa Latina, June and August of 2010 were the hottest months in Cuba since 1951.  August’s monthly highs and lows were among the highest average recorded temperatures.  Cuban meteorologists say the island’s climate has been getting warmer and summers have been getting longer.  In addition, the length and frequency of droughts have increased, and Cuba has been ravaged by an increasing number of hurricanes in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Last summer also set records for heat and humidity on the island.

Fifty percent of Cuban prisoners complete sentences on parole

According to Cuban state media, up to fifty percent of Cuban prisoners now complete their sentences while on parole, EFE reported.  In accordance with the Cuban judicial system, officials are able to monitor the behavior of released detainees in their place of residence and work, which has contributed to a decrease in repeated criminal offenses by the same offender, officials reported.  According to Rubén Remigio Ferro, 80% of released detainees in Cuba have not repeated criminal offenses.

Previously banned book about gay rights activist presented in Cuba

Mass for an Angel, a novel about Reinaldo Arenas, an author who became “the icon of dissident homosexuality in Cuba,” was presented this week in Havana, AFP reported. Arenas (1943-90) left Cuba in 1980 after suffering “strong discrimination” on the island and serving two years in prison for being gay.  He published a dozen novels, but only one of them was published in Cuba.  He died from AIDS in New York City in 1990.

The release of the text coincides with Fidel Castro’s recent statement that the persecution of homosexuals in Cuba in the early years of the Revolution was a “great injustice.”

Around the Region:

Venezuelan accused in embassy bombings flees to US, AP

A Venezuelan man accused in the 2003 bombing of Spanish and Colombian diplomatic missions in Venezuela has fled that country and is seeking asylum in Miami.  Raúl Díaz, 36, told the press he was able to escape because he was allowed to leave a Venezuelan jail during the day as long as he returned at night. He had hoped to leave legally so he could one day return but feared being taken back to jail, he said.

Colombia rejects FARC talks, Colombia Reports

Colombia’s Defense Minister stressed that his government will not negotiate with the FARC, after Senator Piedad Córdoba asked the E.U. to pressure Colombia to hold peace talks. Córdoba is currently in Brussels to gather support for her proposed political solution to Colombia’s 46-year-old violent conflict.

Senate Approves Feierstein

Mark Feierstein has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate to service as an assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Agency for International Development.  He was nominated by President Obama on May 13.

Recommended Viewing:

Hints of Dramatic Change Emerge from Fidel Castro, PBS

Margaret Warner speaks with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine and Julia Sweig, a senior fellow for  Latin America at the Council on Foreign Relations, who met with former Cuban president Fidel Castro in Havana and discussed the island nation’s economic system.

Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up

The Institute for Policy Studies is offering a special preview screening of the almost-finished work-in-progress, Will The Real Terrorist Please Stand Up, a new documentary by IPS Fellow and award-winning filmmaker Saul Landau along with Jack Willis. A reception with Saul Landau will precede the screening, a film about the terrorism no one wants to talk about and the case of five men imprisoned in the U.S. for trying to stop it. The event will take place Wednesday, September 22nd in Washington, DC.

Cuba, the accidental Eden

Cuba’s flora and fauna have remained largely untouched by development projects, and this has enabled the island to become a refuge for many rare species. A PBS documentary will follow Cuban scientists in the attempt to preserve the flora and fauna of Cuba. Cuba: The Accidental Eden premieres Sunday, September 26 on PBS (check your local listings).

Recommended Reading:

Capitalizing on Cuba, Los Angeles Times

With Raúl Castro relaxing the communist government’s grip on the economy, it’s time for Washington to end the trade embargo and open the door to U.S. investment.

Fidel’s second thoughts – U.S. travel ban deserves to be dumped, Chicago Tribune

What Congress ought to do is dump the whole economic embargo against Cuba, speaking of things that have proven, over 50 long years, to not work.

Media Manipulation: Generalized Violence in Latin America and Venezuela, Venezuela Analysis

The media discovers periodically that the most vulnerable point in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela is not having known how to confront the endemic violence of a chaotic society.

The confessions of Roger Noriega

A practitioner of the policy of regime change described on radio earlier this year an effort to taunt Cuba into breaking its limited diplomatic relations with the U.S.  Like all other U.S. regime change-oriented policies, it failed.

One Response to As Cuban Layoffs Are Announced, and More Prisoners Released, Where’s Obama?

  1. luisa rimblas says:

    what else can we do? letters to the president, set a format so we all signed.
    luisa rimblas.
    note can your campaing group can do something to improve our traveling to see the family? may be that is something that helps,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,dont you think?

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