Legislation to End Cuba Travel Ban Set for Committee Vote

Earlier this week, Congressman Howard Berman said, “I am totally committed to getting rid of the travel ban” that stops Americans from freely visiting Cuba.

Late Wednesday evening, Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, made good on that commitment and scheduled a legislative mark-up of the legislation, H.R. 4645, that would enable all Americans to visit the island.

Berman has been trying since 1986 to get rid of the travel ban.  It’s easy to argue that it’s never a bad time to end a bad policy.  But just days before the Congressional recess, and weeks before 2010 Congressional elections, Berman has chosen a very difficult moment to challenge the stranglehold that embargo supporters have held on progress and to force committee consideration of this measure.  Yet, circumstances in Cuba and here in the U.S. have compelled him to try.

For its part, Cuba is taking strong and difficult measures to address its economic conditions.  As one analyst said, when the state announced layoffs of 500,000 workers from its payrolls, it was multiplying its official rate of unemployment six-fold, without assurances that the modest reforms it announced would enable Cuba’s nascent private sector to absorb the unemployed.

This is larger than an economic decision; it is a sharp departure from a social contract that has existed in Cuba since the Revolution.  We said this last week and it bears repeating – even in a one-party state, this is a tough decision to take politically, and it is happening at the same time as Cuba is making good on its promise to release dozens of political prisoners.

Cuba’s government is taking these steps to revitalize its society, not to salve relations with the United States, but these are measures we’ve been asking them to take for decades as the price for changing U.S. policy.

Berman is not standing alone in recognizing that this is the right time to act.  In the last week, there has been a remarkable chorus of editorial opinion in U.S. newspapers – starting with calls to change U.S. policy and an endorsement of the travel legislation, but culminating in calls for an end to the embargo itself.

In Loveland, Colorado, the Reporter Herald said:

The U.S. can either continue to shun Cuba and punish Fidel Castro for the actions of a previous generation, possibly leading to a new wave of immigrants washing ashore in Florida, or we can reach out and try to help both of our nations recover from this recession.

The Providence Journal said:

Cuba has been bankrupt for 20 years, since the Soviet Union, which used to buy its sugar crop at inflated prices, went south, but this is the country’s first real step away from a planned economy. As such, it comes very late — the process will have many more steps and take a long time. In any event, the U.S. should end its trade embargo and travel restrictions regarding Cuba.

The Journal Star of Peoria wrote:

For too long the Cuban government has used the U.S. embargo as an excuse for the ongoing deprivation its citizens endure.   Not only did this provide their autocratic government with a convenient whipping boy – don’t blame us, blame the Americans! – it also permitted their leaders to retain a stranglehold over the island by overseeing state-run industries in nearly every economic sector and being the only source most Cubans could turn to for food, clothing and shelter.  In any case, nearly 50 years of trade restrictions haven’t achieved the desired result….

The Chattanooga Times Free Press said:

The long-standing embargo that restricts trade between the United States and Cuba remains in place. The ban has never been effective. Its main accomplishment is negative rather than positive. It keeps U.S. firms out of the Cuban marketplace as others, particularly from Europe and other hemispheric nations, rush in to take advantage of the looser regulations now governing trade and commerce in Cuba.   Congress should end the trade embargo.

The Boston Herald Editorial Board, in an editorial called “Hit Reset on Cuba,” said this about U.S. policy toward Cuba:

With Cuba giving up communism, the United States should give up its trade embargo against the island. There is no point in beating this proverbial dead horse.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch endorsed the legislation before Berman’s Committee saying:

The hardest of Cuba’s hardliners are softening their rigid doctrine. The U.S. government should remain skeptical to ensure that any changes are real and fundamental. Yet the anti-Castro hardliners in Miami and a vocal minority in Congress no longer should reflexively block U.S. policy changes that would further open Cuba.

Berman told Reuters, “I’m not going to bring it up to lose.”  He should not have to try.  Along with editorial expressions of support for changing U.S. policy, the voices of reasonable men and women of good will should also be heard.  There are many ways to express your opinion about why the travel ban should be lifted, but there isn’t much time left to do so.  The Latin America Working Group offers a convenient way to tell policy makers to do the right thing in Berman’s Committee next week.

The easy way out is for Congress to say it’s a bad time politically, but that’s not leadership and it’s not the right way to act at this critical time.  As former Senator Gary Hart liked to say, “The easy path is the beaten path, but the beaten path seldom leads to the future.”

The mark-up will be available for viewing via webcast on the committee website.  You’ll be able to see for yourself which path the committee has chosen.


Opinion, analysis, speculation on Cuba’s economic shift and the U.S. response

A week after Cuba announced its biggest restructuring of the economy in decades and the biggest shift toward decentralization and privatization since the start of the Revolution, analysis about the Cuban economy’s future and how the U.S. should react continues to pour in.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the recent announcement “is a dramatic shift for the communist government as it urgently tries to salvage the flailing economy,” but questions whether the “plan still falls far short of the kind of capitalism China and other communist regimes have embraced.” The New York Times reports that “the mix of consumerism and authoritarianism that one finds in Vietnam and China is presumably a more palatable model — privatization, but with the state in firm control.”

A Reuters report about the role exiles could play in providing start-up cash for new businesses states that Cuba “has long seen the Cuban diaspora as a ‘strategic reserve’ for times of crisis,” and “capital flows from immigrants were key for modernizing other socialist economies such as Vietnam’s in the 1980s.” It reports that many Cubans thinking about opening businesses, or expanding on ones that already exist in the shadows, will look to their relatives in Miami for capital. A similar New York Times report finds that Cuban exiles are waiting for “proof of a new path” before believing the reforms will be as far-reaching as reported.

NPR has an interesting report on private farmers, which it describes as the “new face of Cuban socialism, a private entrepreneur with a sense of social responsibility.”

Concerning U.S. policy, Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, wrote on the Huffington Post that despite major changes in Cuba, “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.” She concludes that the United States “should be on their side and acting – strongly and promptly – as the President led us to believe that he would do.”

Similarly, Dr. Louis A. Pérez Jr., a Cuba expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote that “ending the embargo would imply respect for the Cuban people, an acknowledgment that they have the vision and vitality to enact needed reforms, and that transition in Cuba, whatever form it may take, is wholly a Cuban affair.”

Finally, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria reported that the “future of Cuba’s economic system probably lies in the hands of one man.  But it’s not Fidel Castro.  And it’s not Raúl Castro… It’s Barack Obama. The one thing that could be truly transformative for Cuba would be open trade with America.”

Alan Gross’ wife visited him in Havana in August

According to sources familiar with the case, the wife of an American contractor detained in Cuba since December was allowed to visit him recently. Judy Gross, sources said, visited the island in mid-August where she apparently visited with her husband Alan at a beach home provided by the Cuban government. Reuters reported that the Cuban Catholic Church helped arrange the visit.

Alan Gross has been detained for nine months. Cuban officials have accused him of distributing high-tech communications devices to dissidents on the island while traveling on a tourist visa. They also hint that he may have been involved in espionage, a charge that U.S. officials deny. The U.S. admits he entered the country on a tourist visa, but claim he was assisting the Jewish community learn how to connect to the Internet, something some representatives of Cuba’s Jewish community in Havana have denied.

It is unclear if the visit means the case is any closer to resolution, the Associated Press reported. Jose Pertierra, a U.S.-based lawyer with close ties to Cuba, told Reuters it was unlikely Gross would be freed soon without Cuba receiving something in return. He believes the Cuban government would most want the release of the five intelligence agents serving time in the U.S. and an end to the U.S. pro-democracy programs that sent Gross to the island, Reuters reported. “From Cuba’s perspective, he was in violation of Cuban laws and he was part of an American war against Cuba, so there’s every reason to keep him in jail,” Pertierra told Reuters.

New head of international broadcasting bureau, another political appointee at Radio-TV Marti

The U.S. Senate has confirmed Richard Lobo to serve as Director of the International Broadcasting Bureau, St. Petersburg Times reported.  In his new position, Lobo will oversee Voice of America and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which operates the controversial broadcast stations, Radio and TV Martí.  Lobo previously managed the Office of Cuba Broadcasting from 1994 to 1995 under President Clinton.

Also this week, Carlos García Pérez, a Cuban-American lawyer living in Puerto Rico, was named the new director of Radio-TV Martí, the Miami Herald reported. García Pérez replaces Pedro Roig, who resigned in August. “García Pérez is a strong leader with a commitment to the editorial competence and professional journalism required of all BBG broadcasters,” said BBG chairman Walter Isaacson in a press release.

However, Poder360 reported that “as with previous federal appointees to the job, García Pérez appears to lack any prior media experience. Instead, he is a political activist with the influential Cuban American National Foundation.” Cubadebate, a Cuban government website, reported that García previously participated in a “secret operation” to send communications devices to dissidents in Cuba from Puerto Rico. According to Cubadebate, the project was funded by the Cuban American National Foundation and had a budget of around $1 million to send “sophisticated communications equipment, and cash through a secret network” to Cuba. Cuban Colada has a translation of the Cubadebate article here.

Cuba offers Obama 19 ways to loosen embargo

Cuba’s annual report on the effects of the U.S. embargo, released last week, contains a section providing the Obama Administration with specific measures it could take to loosen the embargo and improve relations. Among the suggestions are: expansion of the 12 categories of travel for U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba, eliminating the ban on Cuban businesses from participation in the Cuba-U.S. travel industry, and removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.  The AP described the list of suggestions as a “series of small but particular steps the Obama Administration can take” to loosen the embargo.

Cuba has not included policy recommendations in past reports. The release comes at the beginning of the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.  A vote on the resolution, considered annually by the world body, condemning the U.S. embargo will take place next month.

Obama invited to Havana ballet festival, asked to bring his family and the Cuban Five

Cuban ballet legend Alicia Alonso invited U.S. President Barack Obama and his family to attend this year’s international ballet festival in Havana. “I would like to invite the president of the United States to come to the Cuba Ballet Festival with his wife and his adorable daughters to see the beauty of the art, love and life,” said Alonso.

According to AFP, Alonso, who traveled over the summer to the U.S. for the first time in years, knows the Obamas love cultural events and got the idea after First Lady Michelle Obama started the White House Dance Series, which featured performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and the Washington Ballet.

Alonso also asked President Obama to bring the Cuban Five, five Cuban agents serving long prison sentences in the U.S., with him on his visit, CNN reported.  “I would ask a favor also. Please, to make everyone happy and to feel happy with all around the world, bring those five Cubans,” Alonso said in English. White House officials told CNN they had not received any official invitation.

Juanes and colleagues ask Obama to free the Cuban Five, lawyer gives legal update

A group of international actors and singers, including three stars of last year’s Peace Concert in Miami, Juanes, Olga Tañón, and Miguel Bosé, have signed a letter to President Obama asking for the release of five Cuban spies serving long sentences in the United States, Poder 360 reported. The letter, also signed by actors Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Martin Sheen and Benicio del Toro, and film director Oliver Stone, argues that the five men “committed no crime against the U.S. nor posed any threat to this country’s national security,” and that they simply “monitored the activities of violent groups of Cuban exiles in Miami.”

Juanes was a victim of death threats himself by Cuban exiles who threatened to harm him and his family if he went forward with the Peace Concert in Havana.

Radio Havana Cuba has a new interview with Leonard Weinglass, one of the attorneys on the Cuban Five’s legal defense team, in which he gives an update on the resentencing and appeals processes for Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramon Labañino, Fernando González and Rene González.

Cuban religious leader attends Lucius Walker’s funeral, others unable to secure visas from U.S.

Cuban Presbyterian Pastor Miriam Ofelia attended the funeral of Lucius Walker, the founder of Pastors for Peace, in New York City on September 17, Cuban state media reported. However, several other distinguished members of Cuba’s religious community were unable to secure visas from the U.S. in order to attend the funeral.

Reverend Raúl Suárez, head of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center; Episcopal Pastor Pablo Oden Marichal, who is also the executive secretary of the Cuban Council of Churches, and Baptist Pastor Estela Hernández, head of the Pastors for Peace Distribution Commission, were all unable to attend when their visas were denied or not processed in time. Walker, a longtime advocate for ending the embargo, died of a heart attack on September 7.


Cuba will make good on its deal to free all 52 prisoners

Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s foreign minister, has reiterated to his Spanish counterpart, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, Havana’s promise to release all 52 prisoners arrested and imprisoned during the spring of 2003, Europa Press reported.

Meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting, Rodríguez told Moratinos that Cuba will make good on the deal – brokered by the Spanish government and the Cuban Catholic Church – but that the prisoners who are not interested in emigrating to Spain will be the last to be released.

Thirty-two prisoners have already been released and sent to Spain, and the Archdiocese of Havana released a statement last Friday saying an additional four prisoners will leave for Spain this week. Nelson Molinet Espino, Héctor Raúl Valle Hernández, Miguel Galván Gutiérrez and José Miguel Martínez Hernández will leave the island accompanied by 33 family members, the statement said. With these releases, 16 prisoners who were part of the deal remain in jail, about 12 of whom are not interested in leaving the country, according to Elizardo Sánchez, president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

According to the Ladies in White, female relatives of political prisoners, by releasing those who want to remain in Cuba last the government is carrying out “psychological torture,” EFE reported. The Miami Herald reported that released prisoners who choose to remain in Cuba will be released on parole.

Also this week, Ricardo Alarcón, the head of Cuba’s National Assembly, told AFP that Cuba would move forward with the agreement, and other releases are also a possibility. “It was very clear from the discussions that the government’s wish is to free all the people” on condition they had not been accused of murder, he said on the sidelines of a conference in Geneva.

Meanwhile, the Miami Herald reported that a dissident hunger striker, Vladimir Alejo Miranda, has been hospitalized after sewing his lips together.

Workers briefed on layoffs and changes to the labor system

The Associated Press reported that Cuban labor officials have been holding special meetings with workers to explain the government’s plans to lay off 500,000 state workers and subsequent opportunities for private enterprise.  Salvador Valdés Mesa, head of the Cuban Workers Confederation, said that the meetings, which are closed to outside observers, are designed to explain to workers “the labor policies that will govern the country in order to achieve the structural changes the economy needs.”

“We are confronting the need to make our economy more efficient, better organize production, increase worker productivity and identify the reserves we have,” Valdés Mesa explained to transportation and port employees present at a recent meeting. According to the AP, the meetings, which range in size from “a few employees from a single office” to “hundreds from a whole city neighborhood,” began on September 15th.

Rosa Martínez of the Havana Times interviewed dozens of Cubans of various backgrounds and employment status in Guantánamo province to get their view of the layoffs. Some fear increased violence; others argue the “higher-ups” won’t be affected but those at the bottom will suffer; and one woman calls for “reduced obstacles” to private enterprise. The interviews make compelling reading.

Brazil offers cooperation to Cuba

Visiting Havana over the weekend, just days after Cuba revealed plans to transition half a million public-sector employees into private cooperatives and self-employment, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim called the move “very courageous,” and offered to help Cuba develop small and medium businesses and restructure its tax system. “We’re ready to cooperate,” he said. According to news reports, Amorim met with Raúl Castro in Havana and offered assistance.

“Our cooperation would entail Cuba learning from Brazil due to [Brazil’s] experience with credit support for small- and medium-scale enterprise,” Chile’s La Tercera reported. BBC News and Cuban Colada reports are available here and here.

Head of Ministry of Basic Industry fired for “shortcomings”

Yadira García, Cuba’s Minister of Basic Industry (MINBAS), was fired from her position this week for “shortcomings,” specifically for exerting “weak control over resources set aside for investment and production,” an official declaration read on state television said, AFP reported.

The Ministry oversees key industries such as oil, electricity, nickel, rubber and the production of some pharmaceuticals and medical equipment.  García, who has held her position since 2004, joins a long list of Fidel Castro-era high-level officials who have been replaced by Raúl Castro.

The announcement did not say whether her position as a member of the political bureau of the Communist Party will be affected. Since officially becoming president, Raúl Castro has called for an end to unnecessary spending, led to a crackdown on corruption, and attempted to use his military style leadership to improve efficiency in ministries and state entities.

Milanés calls on Castro brothers to address Cuba’s political/economic needs

Cuban singer and composer Pablo Milanés called on the Castro brothers to leave Cuba “in order, with all of the guaranteed freedoms and resolved economic problems” before the former Cuban president dies, EFE reported. According to Milanés, the Castro brothers should make sure the “Revolution doesn’t remain floating in the air and a group of opportunists that are already in power don’t take control of Cuba, of the Revolution or, in the worst case scenario, sell it [the Revolution].”

Milanés made the comments in an interview with the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, where he concluded: “We cannot lose the values, all of the good things that still exist.”

Labor Inspection Office criticizes state-run entities for workplace deaths

A total of 40 Cuban workers have lost their lives in workplace accidents in the first half of 2010, according to statistics released by the National Labor Inspection Office (ONIT), Europa Press reported. ONIT, which gave over 1,000 fines for various infractions, said inspections found that “inadequate investigations of the accidents were carried out,” and that “although a number of the incidents were the result of the workers’ conduct, there was also a lack of supervision and control at various levels of the entities.” The report, which is not always published in state media or so critical of state-run workplaces, said the total work-related deaths in 2010 should end up being less than the 111 in 2005 and 93 in 2009.

New cancer treatment center to open, progress made with scorpion venom in cancer therapy

The Cuban Molecular Immunology Center (CIM) will open a new plant to produce therapeutic monoclonal antibodies to treat cancer using cultured mammalian cells, the Xinhua news agency reported. According to a report in El Comercio, the plant will focus specifically on the production of mononuclear antibodies, such as Nimotuzumab, whose use is directed at tumors in the brain, head, and esophagus.

Meanwhile, Cuban scientists will release a study at the end of the month containing findings about the use of scorpion venom in cancer therapy, EFE reported.  According to Miguel Betancourt, a lead scientist from the Pharmaceutical Biological Laboratory (Labiofam), the use of scorpion venom “has benefited nearly five hundred cancer patients.”  The main species of scorpion utilized is Rophalorus junceus, which is endemic to Cuba and whose venom is extracted via electrical stimulants.

Cuba may allow baseball players to play in U.S. leagues, embargo would make it difficult

ESPNdeportes reported that a source close to Cuban Baseball authorities believes the Cuban government “is seriously studying the possibility of approving a regulation that would authorize Cuban baseball players to sign with professional teams, in the United States and other countries, following eight years of service in the local league.”

According to the source, the plan – which is promoted by the “most progressive sector” of the Cuban sports authority – would contain three conditions for players: availability for Cuban teams in international competitions, representation by “Cuba-Deportes” before international organizations and the payment of 40 percent of their salaries to the Cuban state. Some Cuban players are currently playing in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and other leagues with the permission of the government.  Many superstars have made their way to the United States in search of more recognition and larger contracts.

However, as ESPNdeportes notes, “regardless of the plans the Cuban authorities may have, the major obstacle that confronts any attempt of Cuban players to integrate into American baseball is the embargo.  For a Cuban player to play in the U.S., he must demonstrate that none of the money that he receives will make its way to the Cuban government.” To participate in the World Baseball Classic – organized by Major League Baseball in the U.S. – Cuba had to renounce its right to take home medals made of gold, silver or bronze.


British firms could be the first to secure long-term land contracts in Cuba

Up to 25 British firms “are aiming to strike deals that could allow them to develop hotels, golf courses, and renewable energy projects” in Cuba following Havana’s recent policy change allowing for longer land leases for Cuban property. The Guardian reported that representatives of British companies will travel to Cuba from September 26 to October 3, where they will meet with Cuban officials to discuss new investment projects. The new law provides for 99-year land leases, considerably longer than the 25- and 50-year leases previously offered. Experts say the policy, similar to one in Mexico, should help ensure foreign firms their investment will be safe in the long run.

“Cuba is open and prepared to receive foreign capital and to develop mixed projects along with the Cuban government,” said Igor Caballero, of the Cuban Embassy in the United Kingdom. Included among the first projects to be brokered by the Cuban government could be “10 golf course sites, and other projects include a $40m development using a sugar-cane by-product to produce renewable energy to be sold to the Cuban grid, the Guardian reported.

Ecuador and Cuba to regulate migration

The Deputy Foreign Ministers of Ecuador and Cuba met this week to hash out a new agreement to regulate the migration of Cubans to Ecuador, following the revelation that dozens of Cubans have recently become Ecuadorian citizens through fraudulent marriages, El Comercio reported.

Ecuador, which does not require visas for visitors entering the country, has seen its population of Cubans increase to tens of thousands over the last few years, and investigative reports have found that many may be involved in smuggling black market goods to and from Cuba.

A joint declaration released by the two sides said they will “explore new ways to work together and advance the bilateral cooperation mechanisms, which permit a legal, orderly and safe migration flow between the two countries.” It also said the two countries would increase judicial assistance and other legal cooperation on migratory issues.

Cuba to link up to Russian competitor of GPS

Cuba announced plans to connect to Russia’s satellite-based navigation system Glonass, which is a competitor to the GPS system of the United States, RIA Novosti reported.  Cuba first announced its interest in connecting to Glonass in fall 2008, and Mikhail Kamynin, Russia’s ambassador in Havana, said that plans would move forward.

The system, which is designed for both military and civilian use, enables users to determine their positions to within a few meters. Kamynin said the two countries are currently collaborating on several projects related to advanced technology.

Recommended Reading:

The Forever Fidel Obsession, Saul Landau

Anyone who thinks Cuba is going capitalist, however, should check more carefully with the facts and the half-century dedication of its leaders to socialism. The small private sector that will gradually reopen, under President Raúl Castro’s announced reforms, existed until 1968 when the “revolutionary offensive” shut down the small stores, street peddlers, service providers and artisans.

Leonard Weinglass updates legal situation of the Cuban Five, Radio Havana Cuba

Bernie Dwyer, Radio Havana Cuba, interviews Leonard Weinglass, one of the attorneys on the Cuban Five’s legal defense team, by telephone from his office in New York to get an update on the legal situation of Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramon Labañino, Fernando González and Rene González. Leonard Weinglass is Antonio’s lawyer who is now assisting counsel for Gerardo on his habeas appeal.

Around the Region:

Brazil’s huge new port highlights China’s drive into South America, The Guardian

Reputedly the largest industrial port complex of its type in the world, Açu is also one of the most visible symbols of China’s rapidly accelerating drive into Brazil and South America as it looks to guarantee access to much-needed natural resources and bolster its support base in the developing world.

CDA Releases Book on El Salvador President’s First Year in Office

In “Expectations for Change and the Challenges of Governance,” the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) examines accomplishments and unfinished business as President Mauricio Funes completed his first year as El Salvador’s president.

“El Salvador commands our attention as a country addressing its pressing economic and security challenges and as a nation whose foreign policy encompasses both ties with Cuba and a very close relationship with the United States,” said Sarah Stephens, CDA’s executive director.  “How El Salvador and President Funes succeed – on issues ranging from combating poverty to criminal gangs – will say a lot about the stability of Central America and our relationships with the people of the region going forward.”

The report can be read and downloaded here.

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