Before the Deluge, Zero for 19, News for Judy Gross

For nearly two years, President Barack Obama had an opportunity to work with a reasonably friendly Congress on issues of importance relating to Cuba and, more broadly, to Latin America.

Obama, who, as presidential candidate, offered at times to sit down with President Raúl Castro, has made more modest modifications to the policy since taking office.   Because of Obama, Cuban Americans now have the unrestricted right to visit Cuba as often as they wish and to provide unlimited financial support to their kin on the island.  They are doing so with gusto.

Diplomatic contacts with Cuba’s government are better and more frequent than during the Bush administration; migration talks have resumed, direct mail service has been discussed, diplomatic pull-asides take place on subjects ranging from cooperation in Haiti to the fate of jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross.   The tempo and frequency of cultural exchanges are up, visas are up, and cooperation has taken place on matters like the BP oil spill. All of this is to the good.

Writing just four days from a national election, it is still hard not to think that President Obama may have missed his moment – missed his opportunity to transform this relationship in a meaningful way.

While the Cubans decry linkage, Obama observes it.  As we have discussed before, he has tied loosening the restrictiveness of the policy to Cuba making progress on political and economic reform.  He remained silent as two House Committees worked hard to repeal the ban on travel to Cuba and boost food sales to the island. And, he reacts to the release of more than forty political prisoners, sweeping state layoffs, and affirmative steps to increase economic activity in Cuba’s private sector with a skeptical glance.

Count him unpersuaded.  He is unwilling, apparently, at this stage to move forward to loosen travel rules – under the authority delegated to him by Congress – as administration sources promised he would do.  Why?  He says he hasn’t seen the full effects of what Cuba is undertaking.

Maybe he will see the full effects of the reforms after Election Day.  What he will almost certainly see, however, is a dramatic change in the balance of political power in the U.S. Congress.

Josh Rogin, writing on-line for Foreign Policy, profiles ten Members of the House and Senate who he believes will speak with louder, more influential voices in the 112th Congress on matters relating to defense, foreign policy, foreign aid, and U.S. relations with regions like Latin America and countries like Cuba.

To put it kindly, they are skeptics – skeptics of nuclear arms control, immigration reform, funding for the United Nations, development assistance, and, of course, engaging with Cuba or allowing more Americans to travel there.

Rogin says Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is poised to take over as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee if her party wins control of the House, is “likely to scuttle the drive to ease sanctions and travel restrictions on Cuba,” although she will presumably not interrupt her own constituents’ plans to visit their families or to invest in their small enterprises.

Rep. Ros-Lehtinen and her allies on the Appropriations Committee will be able to do far more than that, if they want to bar spending for other Cuba reforms, undertaken by the Executive Branch, and we can’t predict the administration’s willingness to challenge their ability to do so.

The President can be the vital center of action in our system, and we hope he chooses to occupy that space in addressing the unfinished business of Cuba policy reform.  He’s made progress, but he hasn’t really made Cuba policy a priority in the first half of his term.  If the crowds in Congress are marching in the wrong direction, we’re eager to see him go the other way.  It will make not just for a good contrast, but a much better policy, very much in America’s national interest.

Before the deluge in the U.S. midterms, there was a pounding on the floor of the U.N. General Assembly, as the U.S. embargo won global condemnation for the 19th year in a row.  News of that pounding and news for the family of Alan Gross headline this edition of your weekly news summary.


U.S. Goes Zero for Nineteen as General Assembly urges end to embargo of Cuba

For the nineteenth consecutive year, the United Nations General Assembly voted to urge an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba, Bloomberg and other news agencies reported.  The vote to condemn the embargo was 187-2, with only the United States and Israel voting in favor of maintaining the policy.  Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands were the only abstentions, reported the Associated Press.

Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, responded to the vote, saying “the U.S. policy against Cuba has no ethical or legal basis, no credibility or support,” reported the Miami Herald.  While U.S. President Barack Obama called for a “new beginning” with Cuba at the beginning of his presidency, Rodríguez told the General Assembly that the embargo has actually “tightened” this year, even though Cuba has released more than 40 political prisoners (with signs that more will be released).

Ronald Godard, the U.S. Senior Area Advisor for Western Hemisphere Affairs, defended the United States during the debate saying “it is the view of the United States that a new era in U.S.-Cuban relations cannot be fully realized until the Cuban people enjoy the internationally-recognized political and economic freedoms that this body has done so much to defend in other countries around the world.”  Nevertheless, all European Union nations and U.S. allies (aside from Israel) voted against the embargo or abstained from voting at all. Every Latin American and Caribbean country stood with Cuba.

Commenting on the U.N. vote, Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas said: “This lopsided vote in the U.N. ought to be a lesson for U.S. policy makers that the sell-by date on this flawed policy is long in the past and it should be replaced with engagement without further delay.”

To read the full text of Cuba’s report to the UN concerning the effects of the U.S. embargo, click here.  For an English translation of Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez’s speech to the United Nations, click here.

Compared to the 2009 vote, the U.S. actually lost ground; Palau abstained, rather than voting with the U.S. as it has done in the past.  According to La Alborada, this “is no small matter for an isolated nation in a commonwealth with the U.S.,” making this vote the “most spectacularly embarrassing outcome” since the U.N.’s first condemnation of the U.S. embargo in 1992.

Cubans in Europe demand lifting of embargo and freedom for Cuban Five

A group of Cubans residing in Europe has demanded that the U.S. lift its embargo on Cuba and that the Cuban Five be released, according to Prensa Latina.  The declarations came out of the 5th Meeting of Cubans Residing in Europe, during which delegates also demanded that the European Union eliminate its Common Position toward Cuba.

Wife of detained U.S. contractor writes letter to Cuba’s president

According to Alan Gross’ wife, she and her husband have been able to talk by phone more often after she wrote a letter to President Raúl Castro in August, reported the Associated Press.

Judy Gross, the wife of USAID contractor Alan Gross who has been detained in Cuba since December of last year under suspicion of spying, wrote a letter to Cuba’s President Raúl Castro stating that her husband never meant the Cuban government any harm, reports the AP.  Mrs. Gross also expressed her desire for her husband to return to the United States to help care for the couple’s 26-year-old daughter who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.  The Cuban Interest Section in Washington, DC confirmed that President Castro read the letter.  According to reports by Reuters, Alan Gross’ fate is still in limbo following nearly a year of being detained in Cuba.

Changes in Cuba fall on deaf ears in the U.S. as midterm elections near

With the U.S. showing no substantive reaction to the release of jailed dissidents or to changes in the Cuban economy, CNN reported this week that Cuba still remains on the backburner of the political agenda of the United States.  As Republicans expect to make gains during the midterm congressional elections, the resulting power shift could complicate a normalization of relations with Cuba, affirms AFP.

The Miami Herald explores this possibility further stating that Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is “poised to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee if Republicans take control of the House in November, effectively quashing congressional efforts to ease restrictions on Cuba.”

According to Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, “right now they have the votes [to end the travel ban], but after November it’s a whole new ball game.”

Despite the current lack of action on the Cuba issue, presidential impulse could bring about a change in policy toward the island, argues Stephens.  “In recent years, the biggest modification of the embargo occurred in 2000, with a Democrat in the White House and a Republican-controlled Congress, when the United States began selling food to Cuba.”

For his part, President Obama has stated that the U.S. needs to examine whether or not Cuba is moving toward actual democratic change prior to normalizing relations.

CNN explores how a freeze of the status quo has replaced a promised thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations in this video segment.

U.S. bishops to visit Cuba

A delegation of U.S. Catholic bishops will visit to Cuba next week to observe the opening of a new seminary for training priests, reports EFE.  The delegation, led by Thomas G. Wenski, Archbishop of Miami will be in Cuba from November 3-6.  As the Orlando Sentinel reports, this is the first seminary opened in Cuba in more than fifty years.  A video report on the upcoming trip can be viewed here.

Is music helping thaw relations?

Musicians may be a force for improving relations between the United States and Cuba, in light of an uptick in cultural exchanges between the two nations.

Cuba News Headlines reports that Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés was in New York City performing as part of an exchange with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and Valdés is scheduled to perform at concerts in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Hanover, New Hampshire.

This represents Valdés’ first U.S. concert tour since 2003.  Valdés is one of the few Cuban musicians who, despite the U.S. embargo, have been able to maintain a fan base in the United States.  According to the New York Times, Valdés has done much for the exchange of information via music between U.S. and Cuban artists.

The New York Philharmonic, which was forced to cancel a trip to Havana last year when its funders were not granted visas, has resubmitted its application to the U.S. government, reported the New York Times. The Philharmonic hopes to make their trip to Cuba in early February.

In other “musical diplomacy” news, pianist/bandleader Arturo O’Farrill, the son of Chico O’Farrill, will take the New York-based orchestra his father created to his father’s native Cuba, reported NPR. The main highlight of the December trip will be a performance at the Havana International Jazz Festival, led by Chucho Valdés and other Cuban musicians.

The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra will have a “deeper musical and emotional resonance” because of the “O’Farrills’ family history in Cuba and the presence of other musicians in the band with cultural and familial connections to the island nation.” Chucho Valdés has dedicated the festival to Chico O’Farrill.


New tax code and self-employment licenses made available

Economic reforms announced last month which aim to revitalize Cuba’s hard-pressed economy went into effect this week, according to the Associated Press.  The new regulations establish 178 private enterprise activities for which licenses can be granted.  According to EFE, the hopes that laid-off state workers will find jobs in the private sector or become self-employed.

The day that the economic reforms went into effect, long lines of Cubans wishing to obtain a license for self-employment formed at government offices throughout Havana.  The AP stated that “officials took down personal details and told applicants to come back in a couple of weeks for more information. It was not clear how long it would take to process the licenses.”

Last week, Cuba’s government published an article in Granma in which it announced, in somewhat convoluted and confusing terms, a new tax code that would be friendlier toward self-employed Cubans.  This week, the government released legal documents further detailing the new tax regulations that will govern the layoff of state workers, self-employment, and the tax regime.  Al Jazeera reports that the majority of the newly allowed private businesses will be eligible for a simplified tax system that establishes a monthly quota regardless of revenue.

Reuters describes the new tax codes more extensively:

The rules published Monday detail four kinds of taxes for the private sector: a sliding personal income tax, a sales tax, a public service tax and a payroll tax. It also establishes minimum monthly fees for different kinds of businesses, as well as deductions Cuban can take to reduce their tax burden. … The rates will range from nothing for those making 5,000 pesos – equivalent to $225 – or less a year to 50 percent for those in the highest bracket, which is more than 50,000 pesos, or $2,252.

CNN also produced a piece on economic reforms in Cuba which can be viewed here.

Freed Cuban dissident leaves Spain for the Czech Republic

Rolando Jiménez Posada, a dissident who was released from a Cuban jail and exiled to Spain, has moved to the Czech Republic, where he plans to reside with his family, reports EFE.  In the Czech Republic, Jiménez Posada will have the status of a political refugee and will receive economic aid from the Czech government.  Czech authorities have expressed their willingness to grant asylum to up to ten Cuban dissidents.


EU looks toward talks with Cuba

EFE reports that the European Union is exploring ways of rapprochement with Cuba, while still working within the constraints of the Common Position which links relations with Cuba to improvements in human rights and democratization on the island.

Foreign ministers of the 27 countries of the European Union mandated that EU High Representative, Catherine Ashton, should establish political contacts with Cuba to explore possible ways for a bilateral relationship. Ashton will seek contacts with Cuban authorities, though she is not scheduled to travel to the island to do so.

Trinidad Jimenez, Spain’s new Foreign Minister, had requested that the EU give “a signal” to Cuba that it wants to build a new bilateral relationship and help consolidate the reform process in the island. The decision is a victory for former Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, who argued in favor of taking into account the latest developments on the island, including the recent release of political prisoners.

Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, said there will be no “normal” relations between Cuba and the European Union if the “Common Position” is not permanently revoked, reported El País.

Spain calls on Cuba to extradite ETA member

Spain has called on Cuba to extradite José Ángel Urtiaga Martínez, a suspected member of the ETA (Basque nationalist and separatist organization), reports El Mundo.  Urtiaga Martínez has also been accused of collaborating with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).  Spanish authorities have traced Urtiaga Martínez to Havana, and are moving to submit a formal request to the Cuban government to extradite Urtiaga Martínez.  Urtiaga Martínez is reported to have contacted a lawyer to help him in the upcoming case.

Around the Region:

Kirchner’s death is ‘game changer’ for Argentina, AOL News

The sudden death of former Argentine President Néstor Kirchner, long favored to take the presidential reins from his wife when her term ends in 2012 just as she did from him in 2007, has flung open the doors to next year’s presidential election in Argentina.  The big question now, analysts say, is whether the next president will espouse Peronism, the populist mix of nationalism and social democracy named after former president Juan Perón and largely adopted by the Kirchners.

Venezuela welcomes possible cancellation of US-Colombia military accord, Venezuelanalisis

In response to reports that Colombia may not open seven of its military bases to United States military personnel as previously planned, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said the decision reflects “rationality, common sense, and responsibility.” The vice president of the Colombian Senate, Alexandra Moreno, told the news agency EFE last week that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos does not plan to present the US-Colombia military accord to the Colombian Congress for approval.

Honduran teachers on strike, Honduras News

Teachers in Honduras stopped work this week, demanding the government pay back wages, and comply with the agreements they signed in August. The strike was called by the Federation of Teaching Organizations, which represents approximately 65,000 educators from five unions.

Recommended Reading:

Q&A with USAID

Along the Malecón’s Tracy Eaton has published the transcript from her interview with a USAID representative to discuss USAID programs in Cuba.  Many of the questions revolved around the detention of U.S. contractor Alan Gross and pro-democracy programs on the island.

Of note:

The Lisner Auditorium at the George Washington University is hosting a Cuban jazz singer and Grammy-winning member of Buena Vista Social Club, Omara Portuondo, who will perform on November 6th.  A “living legend” in Cuba, Portuondo has brought her rich, soulful brand of jazz and balladry to some of the most important and beloved Cuban bands, and soared to international fame with the Buena Vista Social Club. For more information, and to purchase tickets, click here.

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