Give Thanks to Cuba Central; We Follow Reforms, Releases, and even Ros-Lehtinen, all for you!

November 26, 2010

To our readers in the U.S., we wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving weekend.

Despite the short holiday week, your team at Cuba Central dug deep into the news as you were digging into your Thanksgiving meals, because we know that you are always hungry for more – more news about Cuba and everything about U.S. policy toward the island.

This week, you can read about the lively debate about economic reform taking place on the letters to the editor’s page of the Cuban newspaper Granma.  You can read about China’s increasing role in Cuba’s effort to exploit its energy resources.  Here, you will also find new information about the release of political prisoners in Cuba.  And we’re keeping track of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – the future chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, exercising power she doesn’t even have yet! – shutting down a promising diplomatic opening between Israel and Cuba, and putting ‘dangerous governments’ on notice in the region, that she and her committee colleagues find them a threat to U.S. national security (ugh, sorry to spoil your holiday reading).

Nowhere can you find the reporting, the analysis, and the concise collection of news about Cuba quite like we deliver it here at Cuba Central. We love doing this for you, and we hope you love receiving it.  If you do, please let us know by making a donation to CDA today. You’ll be giving us one more reason to be grateful this holiday weekend.

To make a donation electronically, please go to http://democracyinamericas.org/donate, or you may send a check to us at P.O. Box 53106; Washington, DC  20009.

Thank you, and Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Now, this week in Cuba news…. Read the rest of this entry »

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“Got Religion?” Cuba Central’s got news about reform, oil, and a lot more

November 19, 2010

This week, the U.S. State Department issued its annual survey of religious freedom around the globe.  Its section on Cuba contained both criticisms and reports of improving conditions for people of faith on the island.  At no point, however, did the report discuss (or condemn) restrictions imposed on U.S. church leaders and congregations by the U.S. government, who must apply to the Treasury Department for licenses permitting them to visit the faithful and their counter-parts in Cuba in compliance with U.S. law.

Similar restrictions apply to academics, artists, and athletes, to individuals and groups seeking to provide humanitarian assistance to the Cuban people, and to others engaged in what some call “purposeful” or “non-touristic” travel – to say nothing of those Americans who would simply like their constitutional right to visit Cuba restored.

We would like to see all restrictions on travel removed for all Americans wishing to visit Cuba.  Their rights to see the island and engage with the Cuban people should not be accorded less value than those of our Cuban-American citizens who can visit the island any time they want and as many times as they want.  Unfortunately, this principle of equality under the law can only be vindicated by an Act of Congress, and the Senators and Representatives who served the last two years were unable or unwilling to defend it.

President Obama has executive authority to eliminate restrictions on purposeful travel, which would enable people-to-people visits, albeit not tourism, to take place.  Such activities were promoted under different circumstances by presidents who believed that Americans should visit Communist countries during the Cold War, and conditions for purposeful travel existed during portions of President Clinton’s term in office before they were extinguished by George W. Bush.

Politicians in the U.S. who posture about changing Cuba’s political system rarely comment on the fact that clergymen here in the U.S. must apply on bended knee to civil servants in Washington for the right to distribute Bibles and baptize believers in Cuba.  Among all the people who would defend such an absurd state of affairs, it is surprising and dispiriting to think that President Obama is among them.

As we have reported before, an executive order that would bring back purposeful travel is apparently sitting in the White House.  With the elections behind us, and a season of economic and political reform unfolding in Cuba, the White House should get it out.

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A peso for your thoughts: U.S. to retain capitalism, Cuba to stick with socialism

November 12, 2010

The chairs of a government commission, after meeting in secret, release an economic reform document that some say cuts to the heart of the relationship of citizens and the state.  The head of the largest labor federation says its message to workers is “drop dead.”   Retirement, medical, even defense programs are targeted for cuts.   Government workers are to be laid off; government salaries cut.  Benefits are to be better targeted at the most vulnerable.  Should the program be adopted, even home ownership will be affected.

Such are the changes envisioned for the United States by a deficit reduction commission chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson.  They have aroused great controversy here in the U.S., even emotional condemnations (“drop dead”?).  No one, so far, has called the plan a blueprint for abandoning capitalism.  The path for turning the secret plan into public policy is at best unclear.

Societies great and small are confronting the need to make significant adjustments in their approaches and obligations toward their citizens in order to regain fiscal balance and preserve and extend the essence of their systems.  The United States, with its 14 trillion dollar Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is starting a debate to address these challenges.  Cuba, and its 40-50 billion dollar GDP, has dramatically embarked on its own course to save its economy and system.

In recent years, the short-comings of Cuba’s system have been magnified by the roiling global economy, destructive seasonal storms, and the continuing burden of the U.S. embargo.  The Associated Press reports that Cuba lost $10 billion of its income due to fluctuations in sugar, tobacco, and nickel prices, hikes in the costs of imported oil and food.  Additionally, over the last four decades, 16 hurricanes have caused an additional $10 billion in damage, a figure which represents twenty percent of Cuba’s GDP.

For a generation, Cubans had the latitude to operate outside the system in order to make ends meet.  But economic conditions simply outran them.  In a process that many of our Cuban friends found agonizingly slow, Cuba’s government initiated a period of discussion and modest reforms aimed at easing the difficulties of everyday life.

Earlier this year, Cuba’s government announced that half a million workers would be dropped from state payrolls and that economic reform would occur with the goal of equipping the private economy to absorb them.  Some adjustments have already taken place, but there was no formal mechanism for transforming promises into policies.

Now, something bigger and much bolder is taking place.  For the price of a peso, about 3 cents, we’re told that Cubans can purchase on the street corner a thirty-two page economic modernization plan – Project for Guidance on the Economic and Social Policy – that encompasses a sharp critique of the system and significant reforms.  The plan will drive a national debate starting now through the beginning of next year, and culminate in the first Cuban Communist Party Congress in fourteen years.

The plan restates the call for layoffs of state workers.  It aims to pay off Cuba’s foreign debt.  It proposes ending the ration card that subsidizes the ability of households to buy food.  The plan eases restrictions on private enterprise and self-employment.  State-owned businesses will have more autonomy over decisions on who to hire, when to invest, and whether to import. Retail and agriculture will remain on the path of private sector reforms.  The document even proposes opening up the real estate market for Cubans’ privately owned homes.

Foreign direct investment will be further encouraged and targeted at special economic zones to promote development.  Cuba will remain a planned economy – it is not abandoning socialism – but one that relies less on micromanaging the system and more on regulating and taxing businesses.

President Raúl Castro, in an address earlier this week, announced that the plan would be debated from November 15-30 by Communist Party members, and by the population more broadly in meetings convened from December 1, 2010 to February 28, 2011.  He said revisions could take place before the Communist Party meets in April 2011.  Once that meeting occurs, Cuba’s new course will be set.

These are dramatic changes undertaken by Cuba at its pace, at its own discretion, following the beat of its own drum, not a wish list conjured by Washington or U.S. policy.

For those who’ve made the overthrow of the Cuban system a matter of theology, neither the sweep of the reforms nor their homegrown nature will be sufficient.  You can hear it already – “they haven’t abandoned socialism!”  True.  Or “they haven’t finished freeing all of their political prisoners.”  Also true.

But there is another truth.  No matter how much Cubans decide to change their system, for these critics, it won’t be enough, and the new changes will probably excite calls in the U.S. Congress to twist the screws of the embargo harder, or at least hold them fast, and the new conservative majority has the leverage to try and make it so.

President Obama – who has begun to engage in the debate over fixing the U.S. economic system – must decide for himself what to make of these sweeping reforms in Cuba.  Whether he acknowledges them or not, they are going to take place.  His own policy declarations committed our country to encouraging such changes by loosening the restrictions of our policy toward Cuba.  Whether reality or politics prevails, time will tell.  Meanwhile, adjustments in both countries are going to be made.

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Air Tragedy in Cuba

November 5, 2010

As we went to press today, news reports from Cuba indicated that a plane that crashed yesterday evening killed all 68 passengers and crew members aboard.  It is a tremendous tragedy.

The plane was en route from Santiago de Cuba to Havana, as part of a regularly scheduled bi-weekly Port-au-Prince – Santiago de Cuba – Havana flight.

From what we can gather, the cause of the crash is unclear and under investigation.  The pilot reported an emergency but then lost all contact with air traffic control.  Initial reports indicate that weather is not thought to be a factor, but according to the New York Times, witnesses report that the plane made erratic movements before crashing.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that emergency teams, aided by local residents, hacked through thick vegetation at the crash site and found the wreckage in flames. The wreckage burned for hours as rescue workers were hampered by the dense vegetation.  Reuters reports that rescue teams pulled bodies from the wreckage, but found no survivors.

The plane was built by the Franco-Italian Avions de Transport Régional (ATR), was commissioned in 1989, and can accommodate up to 74 passengers.  Flights were scheduled to be put on hold until after the anticipated arrival of Tropical Storm Tomás, which is expected to pass between Haiti and Cuba on Friday.  The flight would have been one of the last to lift off the tarmac before flights were suspended ahead of the storm.

A commission has been created to investigate the accident and find its causes, according to the Cuban Civil Aeronautics Institute.

El Universal reports that this accident is the second deadliest in at least the last three decades, surpassed only by an accident in Havana that took place in 1989, causing 115 casualties.

According to the passenger list, among the foreign passengers, none are reported to be U.S. citizens.  Our hearts go out to the families of the victims.

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This week our news summary covers the results of the 2010 mid-term elections here in the U.S., continuing efforts to change U.S. travel rules for Cuba, the status of prisoner releases on the island, and Cuba’s economic reforms.

All this week in Cuba news…

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