On LASA, Lame Ducks, Empty Hands, and more

Dear Friends:

A warm and friendly “shout out” to the scholars and friends visiting Toronto, Canada for the annual meeting of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA).

LASA has 6,000 members, forty-five percent of whom reside outside the U.S., and calls itself the “largest professional Association in the world for individuals and institutions engaged in the study of Latin America.”

LASA used to meet in the United States.  During the Bush administration, however, U.S. policy made it so difficult for LASA members who hailed from Cuba to attend the meetings that the organization simply stopped coming to the U.S. for its most important and inclusive conference.

Several of the papers that will be presented today explore the core dilemma of U.S. policy toward Cuba and Latin America more broadly.  Why does a presidency that has the capacity to break from tradition and engage more creatively and responsively toward the region represent instead such continuity with the Bush administration and others that preceded it?

Yes, the President remains more popular in Latin America than he is in several regions of the United States.  It is also the case, as administration officials so often explain, that the “tone” of U.S. policy has changed…somewhat.  But, the substance reflects not change but more of the same.

Trade, immigration, counter-narcotics, and security policies, as well as relations with progressive governments in the hemisphere, are on a pretty consistent arc when you consider the policies this administration inherited from the last.

After making incremental changes in Cuba policy last year, progress has fairly ground to a halt.  Looking at the big picture, the Cuba embargo generally and the travel ban specifically remain in place.  The U.S., which makes liberalization of its policy toward Cuba contingent on political and economic reforms, remains frozen in the face of prisoner releases and a significant restructuring of state payrolls and the private economy.  Speculation about the U.S. administration opening categories of travel – talk encouraged by “spokesmen” and other anonymous sources this summer – is now officially tamped down.  Major irritants in relations between our countries remain firmly in place.

The U.S. demands freedom for Alan Gross, the USAID contractor jailed without charge in Cuba nearly a year after he was picked up for implementing the U.S. regime change program (we too would like to see Mr. Gross released on humanitarian grounds), but our government belittles Cuba for wanting justice for its Cuban Five and the victims of the Cuban airliner blown from the skies in 1976, in the notorious act of terrorism orchestrated by Luis Posada Carriles, who remains free in Miami, Florida.

Where you stand on these matters depends a lot on where you sit.  We would like to see something more substantial than a change in tone; we would like to see a change in policy – expanded travel, trade, and direct diplomacy with Cuba; a vindication of the president’s promise to move forward with a new sense of partnership toward every nation in the hemisphere; and real support for the democratic choices made by the people of the region.

Nothing would make us happier than giving the members of LASA a chance to study and discuss such a new direction in U.S. policy at a conference convened at a future date in a welcoming location in the United States.

Until then, you can study our reports on lame ducks, empty hands, and much more….this week, in Cuba news.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Business groups to push for Cuba vote in the lame-duck session of Congress

According to The Hill, a number of business associations are planning a lobbying blitz in favor of repealing the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba during the lame-duck session of Congress.   Looking to a less favorable environment on Capitol Hill for Cuba policy reform in the next Congress, business groups hope to have the House of Representatives vote on the legislation (H.R. 4645) before the new Congress is seated.

“This is our best opportunity to pass it through the House. At least that would give us a precedent for the next Congress, a leg up,” stated Chandler Goule, vice president of government relations for the National Farmers Union.

Trade and business associations support H.R. 4645 because it would open Cuba to travel and remove impediments to the already legal sale of U.S. farm commodities into the Cuban market, which in turn would give a boost to the U.S. economy.  Powerful Cuban-American PACs, and their beneficiaries in Congress, are opposed to the bill because they fear it will provide a similar increase in economic activity on the island and benefit the Castro government.

Before Congress went on recess for the elections, Reps. Jim Moran (VA-8th), Jose Serrano (NY-16th), Al Green (TX-9th), Danny Davis (IL-7th), Donald Payne (NJ-10th), Michael Michaud (ME-2nd), Russ Carnahan (MO-3rd), and Kathy Castor (FL-11th) signed on as cosponsors of H.R. 4645.  The legislation now has 81 cosponsors.

U.S. plans to accept majority of Cuban dissidents currently in Spain

A senior official at the U.S. State Department told the Associated Press this week that the United States is working on a plan to bring the majority of the recently-released Cuban dissidents currently living in Spain to the United States.  Many of the freed prisoners have expressed their interest in relocating to the United States with family members, and one family’s case has already been processed.  The dissidents would enter the U.S. as part of the Significant Public Benefit Parole Program, without formal residency status, but with the possibility of applying for residency once they arrive in the country.  Additionally, they would be given work permits almost immediately.

Senator Dodd completes trip to Havana without news of prisoner swap

Senator Christopher Dodd, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, spent five days in Havana this week for talks with officials concerning ways in which to improve relations between the United States and Cuba, AFP reported.

Dodd, a frequent critic of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, reportedly appealed for the release of detained U.S. contractor Alan Gross, during his visit to the island. According to the State Department, however, Dodd was simply in Cuba “on a fact-finding trip consistent with his role as a senator.”

Upon his return to the U.S., Dodd stated that he does not believe there will be a prisoner swap between the U.S. and Cuba, reported AFP.  The United States has jailed five Cubans since 2001, under sentences for spying; Cuba maintains that the five were investigating terrorist activities in the U.S. aimed at Cuba.

Alan Gross, an American contractor accused of illegally distributing high tech communications equipment on the island, has been detained in Cuba since December 2009 without being formally charged.

Illegal departure of Cubans down for third year

For the third consecutive year, fewer Cubans have left, or attempted to leave, Cuba for the United States.  Figures compiled by El Nuevo Herald show that fewer than 7,000 undocumented Cubans were interdicted or arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border between September 2009 and September 2010, reports The Miami Herald.

The principle factors for the decrease appear to be the U.S. economic crisis and more efficient patrolling of U.S. land and maritime borders.  Cuba has also increased its patrols to prevent illegal departures, while Mexico has tightened immigration rules for Cubans.  Meanwhile, South Florida agencies have cracked down on migrant smugglers, while Ecuador and Spain have relaxed their immigration policies, making it easier for Cubans to enter those countries.

U.S., Cuba “swing” toward better relations

In Havana, Grammy award-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has played a series of concerts alongside pianist Chucho Valdés and other Cuban artists as part of a cultural exchange program between the United States and Cuba, according to ABC News.

Marsalis, who came to Cuba with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, performed four concerts in Havana this week, and toured classes with promising young Cuban musicians.  Marsalis stressed that he believes that the U.S. and Cuba are united by swing music, proclaiming, “I know what we are here to do, and we are here in the spirit that we always are: our tagline is ‘uplift through swing.’”

The New York Times is covering Marsalis’ concerts in Cuba here.

IN CUBA

Cuba offers freedom to nine more jailed dissidents

Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, says that nine political prisoners have been offered release if they accept exile, according to AP.  These additional release offers were confirmed by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who stated that he expects the Cuban government to release more dissidents than the 52 it agreed to release per an agreement with Cuba’s Catholic Church, according to EFE.

Two newly-released dissidents, part of the original agreement, arrived in Madrid, bringing to 38 the total number of ex-political prisoners released to Spain, reports Univisión.  Horacio Piña and Fidel Suárez arrived Wednesday with dozens of family members.

Economic reforms and layoffs move forward, Cubans respond

Cuba’s government has begun to implement austerity measures that include firing state employees, reports Reuters.  Hospitals, hotels, and now the Special Protection Services Company (SEPSA) are all being forced to lay off employees.

For their part, Cuban authorities are facing discontent among sectors of the population.  At the Habana Libre hotel, Communist Party officials had to be brought in “to calm workers down,” and similar chaos erupted at a Havana hospital and at SEPSA, which will be completely dissolved. The Cuban government has set up committees to determine the fates of workers’ jobs, yet some Cubans complain that this process is unjust.

In a country where 85% of the population works for the state, Cubans are facing an uncertain future.  This week, The Wall Street Journal explored the fears of some Cubans as the government begins to put its economic reforms into action, laying off 500,000 workers and undertaking reforms so the private sector can absorb the unemployed. Some Cubans fear that once the economy recovers and small businesses begin to grow, the government will tighten the noose on private enterprise.  Others are concerned about finding jobs in the private sector and having to fend for themselves without full government support.  The Christian Science Monitor calls this “the end of an era” in Cuba.

Foreign Policy offers a slideshow focusing on private enterprise in Cuba here.

Officials suggest that citizens may pay for healthcare and education

Cuba’s government is making efforts to eliminate “irrational spending” in the health sector, and is now hinting that citizens may have to pay for some health and education services, which are currently offered free of charge. Government officials have pointed to problems, such as too many employees and too few vehicles in health installations, as a reason for needing to reorganize the health sector.  According to La Jornada, Cuba’s government has been encouraging health workers to limit spending in hospitals so as not to overburden the healthcare system since last year.

Yusimí Campos, director of Social Assistance of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, stated that “social welfare is a right conferred by the National Constitution,” yet she did state that there would be a “rectification” in the criteria of how government assistance will be offered.  According to El Clarín, Campos stated that it was possible that families will be asked to pay, according to their ability to do so, for some or all social services offered by the government.

Cuba to expand port and convert plant in Cienfuegos

Thanks to investments from Venezuela, Cuba is set to expand the port of Cienfuegos with an expansion of a refinery and the construction of a petrochemical hub around the city, which will increase cargo traffic, reports Cuba Standard.  The port will add three berths and a terminal for supertankers.

According to Cuba Standard, Cuba is also seeking bids to convert one generating unit of the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes thermoelectric plant in Cienfuegos to natural gas.  According to power plant director José González Rodríguez, the conversion should be completed by 2012.  González also stated that in the long term, the generator will be fueled with domestically-produced gas.  Presently, liquefied natural gas will be shipped from Venezuela in tankers to Cienfuegos and re-gasified at a plant that is currently under construction near the nuclear plant. El Universal reports that the Cienfuegos plant has refined 55 million barrels of crude oil since its opening in September 2009

Cuba hopes to make cell phones more affordable

Cuba has announced that it is seeking to make cell phones more accessible economically to the island’s population, but it will not subsidize mobile phones, El País reports.  Although there are over one million cell phones in use in Cuba, current cell phone prices are high.  Jorge Luis Perdomo, Vice Minister of Information Technology and Communications, stated that the new policy aims to reduce fees to make cell phones more accessible to the Cuban population.  Perdomo also stated that setting up mobile phone lines was much cheaper than setting up landline phone lines.  “As we set up more lines we will be able to lower prices,” Perdomo affirmed.

Cuban cell phones, however, face the constricting effects of the U.S. embargo, reports Juventud Rebelde.  Due to U.S. restrictions, necessary components for cell phones frequently aren’t available on the island, and some applications from third countries are unavailable as well.

Twitter service disruption causes a stir

The Twitter universe was “aflutter” this week over a disruption in service for Cuban Twitter users who were no longer able to tweet from their cell phones via SMS texting.  Though accusations were made that Cuba’s government was censoring the service, Havana issued a response to the accusations, denying censorship, reported Cuba Debate.  Tomas Bilbao at The Havana Note reported that Twitter responded indicating that a technical glitch was in fact responsible for the disruption.  The Twitter team is now working to restore service or advise customers of the new number to be used for future tweets.

Cuba declares October 6 “Day of Victims of State Terrorism”

EFE reports that Cuba’s government set aside October 6 as the “Day of Victims of State Terrorism,” in memory of all Cuban citizens who lost their lives due to terrorist attacks on Cuba.

In a speech at the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces in Havana to mark the “Victims of State Terrorism Day,” President Raúl Castro asked the U.S. to end its double standard on terrorism.  Castro urged President Obama to clamp down on terrorist acts carried out from U.S. territory against Cuba, reported the Cuba News Agency. The Cuban people, Castro noted, have been the target of state terrorism since the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

“Today we are here to pay tribute to the 3,478 Cubans who have died and the 2,099 that have become permanently disabled due to terrorist acts carried out against our homeland during half a century that add up 5,577 victims.” These terrorist acts include kidnappings, hijackings, sabotage, and assassination attempts, including attempts on Fidel Castro’s life.

During the ceremony, Raúl and Fidel Castro also commemorated the victims of the 1976 sabotage against a Cuban airliner, which claimed the lives of 57 Cubans. Raúl Castro emphasized that Cuban territory has never been and will never be used to organize, finance, or carry out terrorist acts against any other country, including the U.S., and that it abides by 13 international conventions on this issue.

Cuban officials and relatives of victims have criticized the United States for “sponsoring terrorist activities” against Cuba and for allowing the perpetrators to remain freely in the United States.  Relatives of those killed aboard the Cubana de Aviación jet sent a letter to President Obama asking him to put Luis Posada Carriles on trial for his terrorist activities against Cuba, or to extradite Posada Carriles to Venezuela. A copy of the letter (in Spanish) can be found here.

Heavy rains damage crops and homes, force evacuations

Radio Nacional de Venezuela reports that heavy rains over the last week have damaged Cuban agriculture and forced evacuations of residents in the eastern part of the island.  More than 270 homes were destroyed in Granma province, as has a sizeable portion of the island’s coffee harvest, according to Cuban News Agency.  Meanwhile, state newspaper Granma reports that reservoirs, while having collected a lot of water thanks to the rains, are still not completely full, which will require Cubans to be cautious and restrained in their water use.

Iconic guayabera made official garment of Cuba

Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations published a resolution which “makes the guayabera Cuba’s official formal dress garment and mandates that government officials wear them at state functions,” reported the Associated Press. The traditionally cotton or linen guayabera shirt with its four large pockets and pleats down the front has become the island’s quintessential fashion choice, not to mention a roomy and cool alternative to a suit and jacket.

“The guayabera has been a part of the history of our country for a long time and constitutes one of the most authentic and legitimate expressions of Cubanism,” the resolution said.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

President of El Salvador visits Cuba

Mauricio Funes, President of El Salvador, visited Havana this week – the first visit in 50 years of a Salvadoran president to Cuba.  He proceeded with the trip despite opposition from right-wing politicians, reports Xinhua.  Funes met with Cuban President Raúl Castro and other government leaders, and also traveled to the Latin American School of Medicine where he met with Salvadoran students and highlighted plans for health reform in El Salvador.  Funes also expressed his gratitude for Cuba’s unconditional support for El Salvador during natural disasters, such as the outbreak of dengue fever that ravaged the country in 2000.

El Salvador was the last Latin American country to reestablish political ties with Cuba, which Funes did in June 2009 as his first official act as President, according to El Universal.

During President Funes’ visit, Salvadoran and Cuban government officials signed three agreements in the areas of health, education, and culture.  According to Radio Reloj, these latest agreements reinforce the Memorandum of Understanding signed on October 4, which seeks to strengthen relations between the two countries.  Another delegation from El Salvador is due to visit Havana in the next two months.

Ireland and Cuba establish business network for future cooperation

Last week, while the U.S. House of Representatives postponed consideration of a bill to ease U.S.-Cuba relations by way of opening travel and agricultural trade, Ireland has done just the opposite.  The Irish Cuba Business Network was officially established this week in Dublin, to promote trade and investment with Cuba and to assist Irish companies in doing business in the Caribbean island.  Tax-free profits for such investments are just some of the incentives offered by the Business Network, reports The Post.  Irish firms hope to do business in the tourism sector, which they feel would be boosted by a lifting of the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba.

“Relations between Ireland and Cuba are developing and both sides have indicated interest in strengthening links in various areas,” said Teresita Trujillo, Cuba’s ambassador to Ireland.
“After the visits of both our Ministers for Foreign Affairs in the last year, we have identified the potential for further cooperation in the fields of trade, investment, education, science, culture and sports, among others.”

Fidel Castro may visit Venezuela

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has reportedly invited Fidel Castro to visit Venezuela, but the elder Castro has not yet confirmed that he will make the trip.  This would be the ex-president’s first foreign trip in over four years.  Radio Martí reports that Chávez invited Castro to Caracas, hoping that Fidel will give a five or six hour long speech.

Cuba, Russia discuss plans to “reinvigorate” economic cooperation

In an effort to renew and “reinvigorate” economic cooperation between their two countries, Cuba’s Vice President of the Council of Ministers Ricardo Cabrisas and Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin met on Monday, reported Prensa Latina. The two ministers co-chair the Cuba-Russia Intergovernmental Joint Commission for Economic Cooperation. Issues covered in the meeting included the economy, trade, science and technology, culture, education, tourism, and oil exploration agreements. They also discussed transportation, such as rail, maritime transport, and civil aviation.

Around the Region:

Insulza is convinced that Ecuadoran uprising was a “coup attempt”, El Faro

The OAS Secretary General warned while presenting a report on his trip to Ecuador that coup attempts “have not stopped taking place in the hemisphere and can happen again,” he said. “I have no doubt that the intention of others who probably were not seen in the front row was to use the police insurrection to bring about lawlessness and instability to the government of President (Rafael) Correa.”

On-going coverage of the crisis in Ecuador can be found at the Center for Democracy in the Americas’ website.  We also recommend J.F. String’s coverage and analysis here.

Rousseff falls short of outright win in Brazil election, BBC

Brazil’s presidential election will go to a second round after Dilma Rousseff failed to gain the majority of votes needed for an outright victory.  President Lula’s former cabinet chief has 47% with José Serra trailing on 33%. The Green Party candidate, Marina Silva, who polled 19%, may have cost Ms. Rousseff a first-round win.

How to interpret the legislative elections in Venezuela, Progreso Weekly

According to Collin Laverty, an advisory board member of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, there are several conclusions one can draw about electoral democracy in Venezuela. Participation is thriving. The voting process is transparent.  President Chávez accepted the results, and the elections highlighted a fundamental change in Venezuela’s democracy: the inclusion of previously marginalized citizens in the democratic process.

More information on breaking news in the region

For more about developments around the region, including coverage of Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa’s winning the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, a great daily summary is available at the Hemispheric Brief.

Recommended Reading:

Change Cuba trade policy, Orlando Sentinel

U.S. policy toward Cuba has been ineffective in promoting political or economic reform on the island, nor has it advanced the cause of human rights.  However, there have been hints of change in both the United States and Cuba, considering that the House Foreign Affairs Committee had been poised to vote on lifting the travel ban to Cuba and that Raúl Castro announced some reforms in the economic sector.  By engaging, rather than shunning, Cuba, the United States could partner with Cuba to prevent a disaster similar to the BP oil spill.  Without engagement, there is no hope.

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