Travel Ban Vote Delayed, Cuba Moving on Without U.S.

As we reported earlier this week, Congress postponed consideration of legislation to lift the ban on travel by all Americans to Cuba.  Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who has fought for decades to restore the rights of Americans to visit Cuba, delayed action on the proposal after Congressional leaders decided to recess the House earlier than expected in advance of November’s elections.

In the run-up to Berman’s decision, an active coalition that included retired military officers, human rights advocates, national groups representing farmers and business interests, foreign policy experts, and non-governmental organizations urged action on the measure (which eliminated restrictions on travel to Cuba and agriculture sales to the island).  Their efforts were bolstered by diverse expressions of editorial support by newspapers including this one in Florida and nationally.

In the end, however, Cuba policy once again took a backseat to politics.  Decision makers who know better – or who ought to – remain captive to the tyranny of the political calendar and the lure of easy money and immune to even the best reasoned arguments.  So, delay, or is it denial, remained the order of the day.

While the can gets kicked down the road in Washington, Cuba – with its own challenges, its rights and wrongs – is continuing to move forward, always marching to its own drummer, but often in curious or surprising ways.

Over the next month, we will hear the annual drumbeat of anti-embargo sentiment that will culminate later in October in another vote by the U.N. General Assembly condemning our half-century old set of sanctions against the island.  Our president, himself younger than the policy, has nonetheless embraced the useless dinosaur with passion and vigor.  So he will get his share of criticism for enforcing sanctions he once so sensibly opposed, and for maintaining such a studied silence in the face of reforms and political changes in Cuba that rhetorically, at least, he has more recently hoped would take place.

Meanwhile on the island, Cuba carries on – releasing political dissidents from jail, following through on layoffs with gradual market reforms so its small private economy can absorb the unemployed, working to find oil in the Gulf of Mexico, searching for a set of economic and social arrangements to extend its revolution in the 21st Century, and watching the tired comedy of American politics with a weariness (or is it indifference?) of its own.

It shouldn’t be this hard for Washington to get this right.  And the challenges don’t only spring from Cuba.

In Venezuela, balloting for the National Assembly took place in a country often condemned by Washington as “undemocratic.”  As happens when the facts and theory are at odds, the fact that Venezuela’s opposition captured more than a third of the legislative seats and won, quite possibly, a majority of the votes cast by the country, escaped much notice in Washington.

At the end of the week, however, when police in Quito staged an uprising against Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa, who was forced to take refuge in a hospital before loyal military units broke him out, the State Department did speak sensibly – out loud – against what appeared to be a coup.  Still, it was hard to edge from memory Washington’s accommodation to the Honduran military when it seized President Mel Zelaya from his bedroom, dumping its constitutional order, and sending that democratically elected president into exile where he remains.  Memories linger.

The United States has an abiding set of interests in Cuba and in Latin America more broadly.  The region itself has complex issues ranging from income inequality to the stresses faced by all political institutions.  If we don’t take these interests and issues more seriously – and with greater consistency – the gap between our ideals and aspirations on one hand and the arc of the region on the other will simply continue to widen and expand.

This week in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Congress delays vote on Cuba travel ban

Representative Howard Berman, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has postponed a planned vote on legislation to lift the U.S. travel ban to Cuba.  In a statement released Tuesday, Rep. Berman said he would delay consideration of the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement act, H.R. 4645, “until a time when the Committee will be able to hold the robust and uninterrupted debate this important issue deserves.” Berman said lawmakers “had too much to do to stick to plans for the panel to debate and vote on the Cuba measure” this week.  Later, the House recessed so Members could return home to campaign for the November congressional elections.

The postponement leaves little time for the bill to be approved by the year’s end, according to Reuters.  Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, responded to the news, saying “I think it’s a shame that when real economic and political changes are taking place right now in Cuba that neither the President nor Congress is able to acknowledge them until after the November elections,” a statement echoed by many advocates of H.R. 4645.

Supporters of current U.S. policy were pleased by the delay.  “While I’m glad that Democrats chose not to push through a last-ditch effort to vote on lifting the U.S. travel ban on Cuba in the Foreign Affairs Committee this week, we shouldn’t be having this vote in the first place until the Castro brothers make serious concessions to ensure freedom and improve human rights on the island,” said Rep. Connie Mack. “Real democratic reforms are needed in Cuba, including free and fair elections, the release of all political prisoners, and a free and independent press that is allowed to operate without fear of oppression or violence.”

Retired Generals urge U.S. to lift travel ban

In the days before Rep. Berman’s decision, a senior group of retired military officers urged repeal of the travel ban on national security grounds.

According to Politico, nine retired officers wrote a letter addressed to Chairman Berman which argued that while Cuba does not pose a security threat to the United States, ending the travel ban would enhance our security by “removing unnecessary sources of discontent in a country so close to the United States.”  Among the signatories were General Paul Eaton (ret.), who currently serves as a senior advisor to the National Security Network, and Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (ret.), who was an advisor to former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Brigadier General John Adams (ret.), who served as deputy U.S. military representative to NATO, separately published an op-ed column in the Rockford Register Star which concluded: “Fifty years of our failed policy toward Cuba is long enough. It’s time to try an approach that has met success time and again in other countries where we wished to harness the power of our American freedoms.”

U.S. Senators urge President Obama to open trade and travel to Cuba

Twenty-four U.S. Senators have sent a letter to President Obama asking him to open wider categories for Americans to travel to Cuba and to ease restrictions on agricultural trade with the island.  Specifically, the letter asks the President to lift the cash-in-advance restriction for food sales to Cuba allowing for more open and expeditious trade.  The letter concludes: “If we work together to increase U.S. food exports, and allow our citizens to travel freely to Cuba, we can establish and strengthen ties that benefit the American and the Cuban people.”

International Condemnation of U.S. embargo against Cuba continues to grow

As the United Nations General Assembly gathered in New York this week, several U.N. delegations criticized the U.S. embargo against Cuba, reported the Cuban News Agency.  Among others, representatives from Russia, Bolivia, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Laos called on the U.S. to lift its embargo against Cuba.

As the Associated Press reported, Spain’s Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos called the United States’ embargo against Cuba “useless and senseless.”  El Nuevo Herald reported that Moratinos also urged the European Union to respond to gestures made by the Cuban government, such as releasing 52 political prisoners, and that it is time for the European Union to modify its “obsolete” policy toward Cuba.  “Cuba is keeping its word and abiding by the time frame on which we agreed.  Now it is time for the European Union to respond.”

Criticism of U.S. policy has also come from other sources in the Western Hemisphere.  Prensa Latina reported on a resolution approved by the American Association of Jurists, condemning the embargo.

Wynton Marsalis, Lincoln Center jazz group to tour Cuba

The U.S.-based Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and trumpet player Wynton Marsalis will play four concert dates in Cuba in October, accompanied by Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés, reported The Independent.  According to El Habanero, the Orchestra will tour music education centers throughout Havana.  The concerts are scheduled for the first couple of weeks in October, and will be held at the Mella Theater in Havana.

IN CUBA

Cuba continues to release political prisoners

Cuba’s Catholic Church has released a statement identifying three more political prisoners to be freed.  Horacio Julio Piña Borrego, Fidel Suárez Cruz, and Alfredo Felipe Fuentes are expected to be released soon, yet it is unclear whether they’ll be allowed to remain in Cuba or will instead be sent to Spain, reported CNN.

The number of prisoners freed under the agreement between Cuba’s government and the Church raises the total of releases to 39.  The agreement covered 52 prisoners who remained confined following the March 2003 crackdown against dissidents.

According to some reports, Cuban dissidents who are freed by the Cuban government and want to remain in Cuba will be released under some form of parole, according to El Nuevo Herald, a move denounced by relatives of the jailed dissidents.  Cuba’s government for its part has announced that the prisoners who do not want to go to Spain will be among the last to be released.

Freed dissidents request to move to the United States

Twenty-one of the recently-freed political prisoners from Cuba who are currently residing in Spain have requested permission from the U.S. Embassy to move to the United States in order to be reunited with family members, according to EFE.  American officials have stated that they will evaluate the granting of visas to the prisoners and their families on a case-by-case basis.  While it is still unknown when the visas will be granted, it is likely that the process will “take some time” due to the high number of visa requests.

Arturo Pérez de Alejo, a Cuban dissident who was exiled to Spain as part of an accord between the Cuban government and the Catholic Church, has already arrived in Miami, the first of the released dissidents to come to the United States, reported El Nuevo Herald.  Pérez de Alejo was accompanied by his wife and youngest daughter, and was reunited with his daughter Aylin, who had been living in Miami.  Pérez de Alejo stated that he hoped to continue to work hard and keep fighting for freedom in Cuba, according to Proceso Digital.

Cuba moves forward with economic adjustments

Cuba’s Government provided more details about its plan to lay off 500,000 state workers by next March, reported Cuba Standard.

Education, expertise, and discipline will determine which state employees get to keep their jobs.  One high-ranking government official stated that the layoffs “must be followed by pay raises.”  Laid-off workers will have access to a legal process to oppose their terminations, according to an article published by Cuba’s state media, and several complaints have already been filed in Cuban courts.

All laid-off workers will receive a “salary guarantee” (i.e. unemployment benefits) for up to five months.  According to the Associated Press, those who are dismissed will be given an extra month’s salary, with other benefits tied to their length of service. The average monthly salary in Cuba is about $20.

Cuban Vice President Marino Murillo said the elimination of inflated payrolls in the state sector could fund salary increases in the foreseeable future, reported Prensa Latina.  For Murillo, such wage increases would be possible also by eliminating excessive subsidies.  Cuba’s government wants to make the work force more efficient, and strengthen the role of wages and their relation to the results of work.

Granma, Cuba’s state-sponsored newspaper, also published further details this week on the new regulations on self-employment, providing Cubans with information about how they can find work in the private sector, reported the New York TimesGranma listed 178 careers, such as winemaking and janitorial services, that Cubans can enter, according to Bloomberg NewsGranma also stated that some new entrepreneurs may be offered micro-credit.

A Granma article about the new regulations can be found here.

Additionally, Cuba’s state media has reported that Cuba will allow some houses to be rented in U.S. dollars in an attempt to bolster private enterprise following the layoffs of state employees.  AFP reports that the measure will go into effect in October of this year, and will also apply to people seeking to rent out their cars.

Spain to spend more than 13 million Euros on Cuba

Europa Press reports that Spain will spend an estimated 13.2 million Euros on bilateral cooperation with Cuba by the end of 2010, a figure which excludes funds sent to the island in the form of contributions to multilateral organizations.  Spain has upped its monetary aid to Cuba in recent years.  Since 2007, the majority of Spanish cooperation with Cuba has been in the fields of invigorating production and infrastructure, social development, enterprise, the environment, and cultural cooperation.

2009 coffee harvest was worst in history

Cuba had its worst coffee harvest in history last year, producing just 5,500 tons nationwide, according to the AP.  State newspaper Granma warned that Cuba’s government did not have plans to “fill the shortfall with imports.”  While the newspaper did not go into detail about the depressed coffee harvest, it cited inefficiency and negligence as reasons for the drop in production.  Cuba recently abandoned its traditional practice of using student volunteers to harvest coffee, because most of these volunteer teams were ill-trained.  In another development, Cuba recorded its worst sugar harvest in a century, which could suggest a bleak period for Cuba’s famous café con leche.

CIMEX head replaced

Following last week’s replacement of the head of the Ministry of Basic Industry, Eduardo Bencomo Zurdos, longtime head of CIMEX (the Cuban Import-Export Corporation), has been replaced by Army Col. Héctor Oroza Busutin, as part of a drive to reduce corruption.

Cuban Colada reports that CIMEX is Cuba’s largest commercial corporation, and operates jewelry stores, a travel agency, banks, and real estate.  Bencomo Zurdos’ replacement comes after twenty years of heading CIMEX.

Cuban oil exploration moves forward, concerning some; U.S. keeps itself on the outside

In a front page story, The New York Times reports on Cuba’s plans to open up deepwater oil fields off its north shore for exploration by foreign oil companies.  However, there is growing concern, after this summer’s BP disaster, about how Cuba would be able to handle an oil spill.

According to the Times, Cuba is “far less prepared to handle a major spill than even the American industry was at the time of the BP spill,” with “neither the submarine robots needed to fix deepwater rig equipment nor the platforms available to begin drilling relief wells on short notice.”  Further, the trade embargo against Cuba would make the possibility of U.S.-Cuba cooperation in the event of a spill nearly impossible.

Lee Hunt, president of the International Association of Drilling Contractors, traveled to the island as part of a delegation in August.  Hunt says “this isn’t about ideology. It’s about oil spills. Political attitudes have to change in order to protect the gulf.”

According to reports by the Cuba Standard, scientists and environmentalists from the United States, Mexico and Cuba are meeting in Florida this week to finalize discussions on an agreement for research and conservation of the Gulf of Mexico.  The U.S. granted 20 visas to participants from Cuba, one of the “largest contingents of Cubans officially visiting the United States in recent years.”

Fuel prices rise in Cuba

The Miami Herald reports that fuel prices in Cuba have risen by as much as 18 percent, increases especially hard-hitting for private individuals such as taxi drivers who, according to the Associated Press, will not be allowed to increase their rates.  While few people on the island will be affected by this price hike, taxi drivers are almost certain to grumble.  “I already work just to pay the license fees,” said Alexander Rodríguez, a Havana taxi driver.  “For a Cuban, this price hike is really tough.”

Cuba to host meeting on sustainable tourism

Cuba is set to host the International Conference on Sustainable Tourism in November in Havana, according to the Cuban News Agency.  The conference seeks to “raise the international awareness on the importance of developing sustainable tourism by connecting education, culture and environment to the leisure industry.”  Cuba was selected as host for the conference due to “international recognition of its beauty, vibrant culture and educational system, assets that make it an ideal destination for the development of the emerging tourism model.”

According to the National Office of Statistics, 1.76 million tourists visited Cuba in the first eight months of 2010, a 1.8% increase from the number of tourists who visited Cuba during the same period in 2009.  According to Europa Press, Canada continues to be the largest source of tourism, followed closely by the United Kingdom and Italy.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuban TV airs confession of Salvadoran terrorist

Cuban state television broadcast Francisco Chávez Abarca, a national of El Salvador, confessing to participation in a 1990s bombing campaign against tourist installations in Cuba, reports the Associated Press.  Chávez Abarca stated that he was “hired to plant bombs” by Luis Posada Carriles, who also conspired to bring down a Cuban aircraft destroyed in 1976, but who lives with apparent impunity in the United States.  Chávez Abarca was arrested in Venezuela in July and extradited to Cuba while traveling on a false passport.  The Salvadoran also stated that he received support for the bombing campaign from the Cuban American National Foundation, according to Reuters.

Cuba and China celebrate ties

Chinese leaders said that Chinese-Cuban relations are experiencing “their best moment” during a series of conferences between leaders of both nations.  Prensa Latina reports that Din Shan, political adviser at the Chinese Embassy in Havana, praised increased cooperation between China and Cuba and reiterated his commitment for increased Chinese cooperation with Cuba at a meeting held in Ciego de Ávila.  At the meeting, which was held to celebrate the 61st anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and the 50th anniversary of the creation of the CDRs (Comité de Defensa de la Revolución), both leaders praised the strong relations and cooperation between the two nations and reiterated their common goals.

Cuba and Vietnam sign cooperation accords

Following four days of discussion, Cuba and Vietnam have signed the Protocol of the 28th Meeting of the Cuba-Vietnam Intergovernmental Mechanism for Scientific, Technical, and Economic Cooperation, reports Cuban News Agency.  The document was signed by Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment, Rodrigo Malmierca, and Vietnam’s Construction Minister, Nguyen Hong Quan, who “checked on the state of ongoing accords and analyzed the possibilities of future exchanges” in a variety of fields.  Malmierca has stated that the Protocol is a “new step toward the strengthening of bilateral relations amidst a complex international situation.”

Biocon and CIM to collaborate in immunology research program

Biocon Limited, Asia’s premier biotechnology companies, and Cuba’s Center of Molecular Immunology (CIM) have joined forces for an integrated immunology antibody program.  Following a decade of bilateral cooperation, Biocon and CIM have successfully created drugs that have been approved for use in India and other countries, reports Indian Express.  Biocon and CIM are currently focused on “moving to create an innovative product pipeline focused on autoimmune diseases and cancer.”

“This South-South scientific and commercial partnership will continuously provide accessibility to a high standard of therapeutics to a growing population of patients who would otherwise be precluded because of the high cost factor,” says Dr. Enrique Montero, a leading scientist at CIM.

Around the Region:

Ecuador attempted coup: president vows to punish rebels, The Guardian

President Rafael Correa addressed supporters from the balcony of the presidential palace after troops rescued him from a hospital Thursday night. Correa was trapped inside the medical building during a police revolt over austerity measures taken by his government. UNASUR leaders met to condemn the rebellion, and the OAS also repudiated the events, which show the fragility of some Latin American governments. Congressman Jim McGovern released a statement, as well as the Department of State, condemning the rebellion. Congressman Eliot Engel, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, also expressed support for President Correa. A complete video-report can be seen here, prepared by the Associated Press, which includes footage from the rescue operation. The Center for Democracy in the Americas has set up a webpage with complete information about the recent events in Ecuador.

Venezuelans elect a multi-party National Assembly, El Universal

Elections for Venezuela’s National Assembly took place last Sunday with 66% participation and saw the opposition parties regaining seats in the National Assembly five years after their boycott of legislative elections in 2005.  President Hugo Chávez’ party, the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), maintained the majority of the seats, although it will not have the necessary two-thirds required to adopt most constitutional reforms and decree powers.

Both the opposition and the government claim to have won the majority of the popular vote, as they interpret the meaning of the Assembly elections for balloting to take place in 2012 for Venezuela’s presidency.

Despite the results – with 98 seats earned by PSUV, 65 for the opposition, and 2 deputies for the center-left party (the PPT) – President Chávez defended his party’s performance. “We must continue strengthening the Revolution!  It is a new victory of the people. I congratulate you all,” the president said.

Cuba’s former president Fidel Castro wrote a column in support of the Venezuelan government, warning that the “empire … wants to weaken the revolution, limiting its ability to fight, to deprive it of the two-thirds majority of the National Assembly to facilitate its counterrevolutionary plans, increasing its vile media campaign and continuing to encircle Venezuela with military bases,” according to Radio Havana Cuba.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas observed the elections in Venezuela and provides video interviews and photos from the trip on their website.

Secretary Clinton Meets President Funes, Department of State

El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington this week to discuss the newly-signed Building Remittance Investment for Development Growth and Entrepreneurship (BRIDGE) Initiative. The text of the two leaders’ remarks after their meeting can be found here.

Brazil election tightens as Dilma Rousseff slips in polls, The Christian Science Monitor

A week ago, Dilma Rousseff looked on course to win an overall majority in Brazil’s presidential election Sunday and thus avoid a runoff ballot four weeks later. That possibility now hangs in the balance as new polls show her momentum slowing.

Recommended Reading:

Expectations for Change and the Challenges of Governance: The First Year of President Mauricio Funes, The Center for Democracy in the Americas

The Center for Democracy in the America’s report on the first year of the Funes administration was published this month and is now available for Kindle in English and Spanish.  The report reflects what CDA learned in El Salvador through ninety-eight meetings, and from interviews conducted with more than seventy key players (left, right, and center) who collectively are writing this latest chapter in their country’s history.  Additionally, Congressman James P. Mcgovern, who wrote the preface of the book, spoke out this week in support of Zaira Navas, the Inspector General of the Salvadoran National Police, and her efforts to clean up the police force.

Absent at the Creation, Julia E. Sweig in the New York Times

“No one can say for sure what kind of model is emerging in Cuba, and political reform remains distant. But a hybrid of market, state, local and foreign capital has the potential to unleash the resourcefulness and entrepreneurial energy of Cuba’s talented and well-educated citizens.”

Is Cuba following the path of China?, The Examiner

The Cuban government has moved to enact a set of sweeping reforms.  Kevin Price of The Examiner takes a look at the potential consequences of these novel decisions, and compares Cuba’s economic reforms to those enacted in China in the 1990s.

Our view on Cuba: A reflective Fidel Castro provides an opening for U.S., USA Today

At age eighty-four, and more than 50 years after his revolution, Castro is “quietly questioning the viability of the system he created, and taking time to smell the flowers.” Just as the Castro brothers have recognized the problems facing their country, the U.S. must recognize that Cuba is no longer a security threat.

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