If it’s Friday, this must be the Cuba Central News Blast!

This week we’re reporting on the embargo, economic reform, more prisoner releases, and a new plea for justice in the case of the Cuban Five.

In the days before the U.N. General Assembly vote on a resolution to condemn the U.S. embargo, Cuba is continuing its factual assault on the status quo with new information about the costs of sanctions to Cuba’s economy.

In the weeks before the November election, at least one candidate is campaigning for office in the U.S. on a platform that hopes to spark expanded trade with the island.

In the aftermath of the agreement on releasing dissidents from Cuban jails, the government added three more prisoners to the list of those who’ll be released and also told the family of the late Orlando Zapata Tamayo and five other dissidents they could emigrate from Cuba to the United States.

In keeping with its conscientious activism for human rights, Amnesty International is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to review the cases and convictions of the Cuban Five.

In Cuba Central’s finest tradition of bringing you updates and analysis of events and developments that matter – in Cuba and in U.S.-Cuba relations – we offer you this week in Cuba news…

IN CUBA

More dissidents to be freed, who will emigrate to the U.S.?

According to a wire service report, Cuba has authorized the family of Orlando Zapata, who died in February 2010 after an 85-day hunger strike, to emigrate from Cuba directly to the United States.

Zapata’s death led to global condemnation of Cuba, a follow-on hunger strike by Guillermo Fariñas, and later, an agreement among Cuba’s government, the Cuban Catholic Church, and Spain, that is resulting in freedom for at least 52 political prisoners.  Fariñas ended his fast after the prisoner release agreement was announced and has since spoken out on behalf of legislation to end the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba.

Zapata’s mother told AFP about the government’s decision.  His four adult children along with their families are authorized to travel to the United States.  Catholic Church officials agree that they should leave because, in the words of the late dissident’s mother, “we are being harassed, we cannot live here.”  Nevertheless, she added, “I’m not going until they give me my son’s ashes.”

In a related development, three Cuban political prisoners who were not part of the original agreement that freed the 52 will also be released, according to CNN.  The Catholic Church identified the three additional prisoners as Rolando Jiménez Posada, Arturo Suárez Ramos and Ciro Pérez Santana.

And finally, five former political prisoners were offered the opportunity to immigrate to the United States, reports AFP.  The prisoners were arrested in 2003 but released in 2004 due to health problems.  Oscar Espinosa Chepe, one of the released dissidents, declined the offer saying that he didn’t want to leave his homeland “definitively,” preferring instead to have the ability to leave and re-enter Cuba whenever he wanted.  Another dissident, Jorge Olivera, also reportedly declined the Cuban government’s offer, while the remaining three have seemingly accepted the proposal.

Cuba may accept foreign microcredit during reform process

Cuba may accept credit from foreign nations in order to help spur economic reforms, reports El Financiero.  Spain has offered $5.5 million in microcredit to Cuba, which could be very beneficial for the island nation, and other nations have also pledged financial support.

Reuters reported that political sensitivities prevent foreign lenders from providing loans directly to individuals, but microcredit recipients would be allowed to open bank accounts in hard currency.

For more analysis on this development, see The Havana Note and The Cuban Triangle.

Economic issues openly debated in panel hosted by Temas

A recent debate at the Fresa y Chocolate Cultural Center in Havana discussed the Cuban economy, reports The Havana Times.  In front of a diverse crowd, a former economic minister, an economic analyst, and a renowned sociologist discussed the Cuban economy of the 1990s and the changes that Cuba will need to make to its economy.  Strikingly, the panelists occasionally disagreed with one another, and audience members were given forms on which they could (anonymously) write their opinions about what was expressed at the discussion.  These forums are held by the magazine Temas and have dealt with many issues in contemporary Cuban society, such as Internet use and problems besieging the Cuban economy.

Laid-off workers to be employed at Cienfuegos port

Petrochemical projects between Venezuela and Cuba are materializing in the port city of Cienfuegos, helping to stimulate the economy of the city, reports Cuba Standard.  Officials have announced plans to expand a refinery from 65,000 to 150,000 barrels of oil a day, construction of a regasification plant and several petrochemical plants, and the overhaul and expansion of the city’s port, which is estimated to create 14,500 jobs.  While Venezuela is funding the projects, many contractors will come from third countries, such as China, Italy, Australia, and Germany.  As Terra observes, these new jobs could be given to some of the 500,000 state workers who will be laid off in the upcoming months.

Undersea Venezuela-Cuba fiber optic cable delayed further

An undersea cable from Venezuela to Cuba to improve Cuban Internet and telecommunications will not be ready until July 2011 and will prove to be more expensive than originally thought, reports Bloomberg.  The cost of the cable has risen from the estimated figure of $63 million to $70 million.

EFE reports that one cable will connect Santiago de Cuba with La Guaira, Venezuela, while another cable will connect Cuba to Jamaica.  Cuba has long accused the United States of not allowing Cubans to access U.S. fiber optic cables in order to further isolate Cuba, according to AP.

Cuba’s oil could be “game changer”

Cuba’s anticipated development of its offshore oil resources would affect not only Cuba’s political economy, but also Cuba’s relations with the United States, reports Oil & Gas Journal.  China could also play a major role in Cuba’s oil industry, and drilling could ultimately reduce Cuba’s dependence on Venezuela.

Cuba’s government officials believe it would be logistically easier for Cuba to do business with oil companies in the United States rather than with companies in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia.  However, the main obstacle to this is the U.S. embargo, which restricts U.S. companies’ interactions with Cuba.

Cuba promotes new form of tourism

According to DT Cuba, Cuban authorities are promoting “congress tourism” as a means of bolstering the island’s tourist industry.  Cuba is implementing a strategy to host international congresses, bringing it into strong competition with other Caribbean countries.  By August 2010, Cuba had hosted 161 events of different kinds, which were attended by some 35,000 delegates.  Some 300 international meetings are scheduled to be held in Cuba next year.

In the spotlight: Women’s issues in Cuba

BBC Mundo has released an article concerning gender equality throughout the world.  According to a study executed by the Worldwide Economic Forum, no country in the world has achieved full equality between men and women, but Iceland has the highest degree of gender equality in the world, followed by Norway, Finland, Sweden, and New Zealand.  Cuba has the second-highest degree of gender equality in Latin America and the Caribbean, behind only Trinidad and Tobago, and it ranks 24th in the world.

Tropical Storm Paula, downgraded from hurricane, dumps rain on the island

Cuba, whose economy is still recovering from a storm battering it took in 2008, caught a break late in this year’s hurricane season, when Hurricane Paula became Tropical Storm Paula, and the destructive effects were limited to heavy rains and the loss of electrical power in limited parts of the island.

Earlier this week, Cuba’s government issued a hurricane alert for the western province of Pinar del Río and the Isla de la Juventud as Hurricane Paula moved toward the island, reported Prensa Latina.

As the Associated Press reported, however, Paula behaved “far less destructively” than the hurricanes that devastated Cuba in 2008.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

U.S. might have invested $2 billion over 10 years without embargo, and still no change in Washington

This week, Cuba’s state newspaper Granma reported that without its political and economic sanctions against Cuba, the U.S. would have invested $2 billion during the past decade.  EFE reports that since the embargo against Cuba was enacted in 1962, Cuba has been barred from acquiring U.S. technology and funds for internal development.  Cuban officials have also stated that in 2009 alone, the effects of the U.S. embargo cost the island more than $155 million.

And, according to Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, despite softer rhetoric from the White House, U.S. policy toward Cuba has not changed, reports Prensa Latina.  Alarcón affirmed that Latin America is currently undergoing many changes, but that the United States has not fundamentally changed its policy toward Cuba.  Alarcón cited the examples of the continued imprisonment of the Cuban Five and the impunity of Luis Posada Carriles as evidence that the United States has not done much to change its stance on Cuba.

New agencies authorized to offer travel to Cuba

The U.S. government has allowed the opening of nine new travel agencies offering travel to Cuba, reports Café Fuerte.  The list, published by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, shows that the majority of the travel agencies are based in Florida, but there are also agencies in California and New Mexico.  The announcement comes just in time for the Christmas season, when the number of Cuban-American visits to Cuba traditionally increases.  Currently, 250 travel agencies arrange travel to Cuba, the majority of which are located in Florida.

Violent exiles celebrate 50th anniversary of “Guerilla Warfare against the Cuban Government”

The Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami organized an event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the start of the “guerrilla struggle against totalitarianism.”  During the ceremony, Orlando Bosch, a Cuban exile and criminal terrorist wanted in several countries for acts such as the October 6, 1976 bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner in which all 73 people on board were killed, was recognized for his participation in the “guerrilla struggle.”  Pressure to pardon Bosch on charges he violated his parole was led by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as she ran for Congress. Videos and photos from the event can be found here.  Only in Miami…

Commissioner for Agriculture kicks off Cuba Week in Alabama

Ron Sparks, Alabama’s State Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries, and a candidate for governor in this year’s election, was the keynote speaker at the University of Alabama’s Cuba Week.  The program featured more than two dozen panel presentations by UA faculty and their Cuban counterparts in higher education.  Topics for this year’s event include the early history of Cuba, Cuban arts and the biodiversity of Cuba.  More than two dozen Cuban officials, scholars and academics will visit the University of Alabama’s Cuba Week before it concludes, reports Tuscaloosa News.

Sparks has stated that if he is elected governor in November, he will seek to expand trade with Cuba.  “One thing I’ve learned is … that 48 years is enough.  It’s time to move on and build a relationship that would be positive for Alabama and the United States of America.  If we don’t, it will be one of the biggest mistakes because of the endless opportunities (with Cuba).”

According to The Crimson White, during his speech, Sparks recounted a meeting he had with Fidel Castro, in which he gave the Cuban president a Montgomery Biscuits baseball cap and a bottle of Alabama-distilled whiskey.

Dodd gets it right on Cuba

Upon his return from Cuba last week, U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) called for the U.S. embargo to be lifted, according to the Journal Inquirer, a Connecticut newspaper.  Senator Dodd, a long-time supporter of Cuba policy reform, says the embargo has failed to weaken Cuba and has instead earned the U.S. international condemnation.  According to an article in the Havana Times, Senator Dodd’s main purpose for the trip was to “get a sense of how recently announced economic changes in the country will affect its economy” and, in Dodd’s words, gauge “any opportunity here for us to try to improve bilateral relations.”

Amnesty International continues to seek review of ‘Cuban Five’ case

Amnesty International (AI) has released a report indicating their commitment to seeking a review of the cases of the five Cubans jailed in the U.S. on various convictions related to spying.  The human rights organization has also written Attorney General Eric Holder asking for a review of the case by the U.S. Department of Justice.

AI, though not taking a position on the innocence or guilt of the Five, seeks a review of the proceedings that ended in convictions for all five Cubans.  The report said “holding the trial in Miami, given the pervasive hostility to the Cuban government in that area, along with media and other events before and during the trial, were factors that made it impossible to ensure a wholly impartial jury.”  In addition, AI expressed its concern regarding the “repeated denials” of temporary visas for the wives of two of the prisoners to visit their husbands, stating that this is a form of further punishment and “is contrary to international standards for the humane treatment of prisoners and states’ obligation to protect family life.”

Cuba and U.S.-Cuba relations discussed at LASA 2010

The Congress of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) concluded in Toronto last weekend, after a series of discussions on the status of Cuba-U.S. relations, reports Prensa Latina.

In his speech at the conference, Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela expressed President Obama’s “commitment to supporting the Cuban people’s desire to freely determine their own future” while stressing the United States’ “openness to direct engagement.” Valenzuela also added that the United States has noted that “Cuba is undergoing profound economic changes that we [the United States] hope will improve the lives of the Cuban people.”

Prensa Latina also reported that delegates from Cuba and the United States approved a resolution calling for the U.S. to lift its embargo on Cuba and to normalize relations with the Caribbean island.  The document also requested that the U.S. facilitate more academic, athletic, and artistic exchanges with Cuba.

Fidel Castro’s latest book, La victoria estratégica (The Strategic Victory), was also presented by Miguel Barnet, a renowned Cuban author, according to Prensa Latina.  According to the Cuban News Agency, Cuba sent more than 70 representatives to the conference, the second-largest delegation, behind only that of the United States.

U.S.-Cuba bonds strengthen through musical exchange

Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center’s jazz band are touring Havana, visiting musical conservatories and theaters and performing for Cuban audiences.  Many members of the Lincoln Center delegation expressed surprise at the level of dedication of young Cuban musicians, reported the New York Times.  Cuban journalist Miriam Leiva also reported on the bonds created by Marsalis’ visit to Cuba writing that “in this new opportunity, with its simplicity, friendship and desire for fruitful collaboration, ties have been established between the peoples of Cuba and the United States, demonstrating the urgent need to lift the ban on travel by Americans to our country, which has been absurdly opposed in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.”

Additionally, Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés, who collaborated with Marsalis on his tour, will be coming to the U.S. for the first time in seven years.  Read more about Valdés’ upcoming U.S. tour and its importance for U.S-Cuba cultural exchange here.

Contemporary Cuban art explores issues of race

Cubaencuentro offers information this week about “Queloides/Keloides,” an art exhibit that seeks to contribute to current debates about the persistence of racism in Cuba and the rest of the world.  The event will be hosted at the Centro Wifredo Lam in Havana and will then be transferred to the Mattress Factory.  The exhibit includes several art forms – paintings, photographs, installations, sculptures, and videos – and offers novel ways to ridicule and dismantle so-called racial differences.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Iran’s Ahmadinejad says he is ready to increase ties with Cuba

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says that Iran is ready to strengthen ties with Latin America, particularly with Cuba, as Xinhua reports.  In a meeting with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, Ahmadinejad affirmed that Tehran and Havana have prepared well to improve bilateral relations and should seek to expand economic cooperation.   Foreign Minister Rodríguez expressed Cuba’s desire to maintain a high level of support for Iran in the international arena.

“[Iran and Cuba] should tap into all their potential to further deepen cooperation and mutual relations,” stated President Ahmadinejad, according to PressTV.

Cuban officials also expressed their support for “Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities,” according to a report from PressTV.

Cuban Foreign Minister tours Asia to discuss economic reforms

Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, traveled to Malaysia and Singapore to discuss Cuba’s economic reforms, reports Escambray.  In Malaysia, Rodríguez held talks with Prime Minister Najib Razak and Foreign Minister Anifah Aman.  The meetings addressed cooperation on projects in the areas of energy, education, biotechnology, health, and sports.  Rodríguez also met with the Malaysian Cuban Friendship Association.

In Singapore, Rodríguez met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who wished Cuba success on its economic reforms and expressed his desire for increased cooperation between Cuba and Singapore.

Meetings between Cuba and El Salvador continue

Following last week’s visit to Cuba by Mauricio Funes, El Salvador’s President, Ricardo Alarcón, the president of Cuba’s National Assembly, met with members of the Salvadoran Solidarity Committee, who expressed their solidarity with Cuba.  According to Prensa Latina, Alarcón also met with members of the FMLN party.  Meanwhile, President Funes stated that El Salvador would work closely with Cuba in order to reform El Salvador’s healthcare system, reports La Página.

Around the Region:

Honduras Human Rights Platform is awarded 2010 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award, EFE

The Human Rights Platform of Honduras was granted the 2010 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights award by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in recognition of the organization’s defense of human rights in Honduras following the June 2009 coup.  IPS recognized the group for “providing truthful information about the government’s actions” and “demanding that the current government examine the growing number of assassinations of journalists and activists and threats directed against community and civil groups, as well as human rights organizations.

An article about the Platform and the award can be found here, and photos from the ceremony can be found here.

Santos expects full restoration of Venezuela ties this year, Colombia Reports

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos said Monday that he expects ties with neighbor Venezuela to be restored fully by the end of the year. Santos said he was “optimistic” about the progress made by the countries’ ministers and bilateral committees in charge of the restoration of normal relations. “Hopefully nobody will interfere to see if we can fight again, because that’s not our intention. To the contrary, what we want is to improve our relations with Venezuela even more,” Santos said.

When Our Government Trains Armies in Colombia and Mexico, We Become Responsible, Lisa Haugaard in the Huffington Post

In Colombia, there have been reports of civilians being rounded up by the military, shot, and then dressed in guerrilla uniforms to reflect claims by the army that the civilians were killed in battle.  Justice in these extrajudicial killings remains a long way off.  A similar situation is happening in Mexico, with complaints of rape, torture, disappearances, and killings committed by the military.  Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group, explains that in both instances, the U.S. government provided aid to some of the units that committed these crimes.

Recommended Reading:

Columnist calls for lifting of U.S. embargo of Cuba, USA Today

DeWayne Wickham, a columnist for USA Today, calls for the United States to end its half-century embargo on Cuba, arguing that the policy has not succeeded in affecting political and economic change in Cuba, and has only hurt the image of the United States in the global arena.

Recommended Listening:

Cubans Flock to Evangelism to Fill Spiritual Vacuum, NPR

Evangelism has become one of the fastest-growing religious practices in Cuba.  Noting that philosophy and social principles are not enough, many Cubans have turned to evangelical churches in order to obtain spiritual guidance.  Religious discrimination officially ended 20 years ago, and since then, the number of evangelicals in Cuba has grown to roughly 800,000.

Tango, BBC

Musician and writer Banning Eyre travels to Argentina on the bicentenary of the country’s independence from Spain to discover the diverse musical cultures that exist in the South American nation.  In Buenos Aires, Eyre examines the origins of tango music, which resulted from the fusion of Argentine milonga, Cuban habaneras, and the candombé rhythms of African slaves.

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