Air Tragedy in Cuba

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.

***

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…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Midterm elections in the U.S. affect Cuba Policy

Political control of the U.S. House of Representatives will change hands in January following the electoral “shellacking” by Republicans in Tuesday’s mid-term elections.  As we reported last week, elections have consequences, and the new political alignment in Washington will affect U.S. policy toward Cuba and Latin America.

A leading indicator of change is the likelihood that Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) will assume leadership of the House Foreign Affairs Committee from Democratic Chair Howard Berman (D-CA).  According to Foreign Policy, Ros-Lehtinen’s presence will change the Committee’s agenda and tone.  Ros-Lehtinen is expected to thwart attempts to lift sanctions on Cuba and will likely not defer to the Administration on other foreign-policy priorities.  Ros-Lehtinen is a strong supporter of Israel, a Russia skeptic, and supports a hard-line stance against Iran.  She is also on video stating her support for any assassination attempt on the life of Fidel Castro.

In its analysis of midterms, Just the Facts examines the positions of prominent Republicans, Latin America, and the issues which concern them.

To generalize: the incoming Republican powerbrokers favor a tougher stance toward leftist governments, especially Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, and support “free trade” agreements with Latin American nations.  In 2009, Reps. Ros-Lehtinen and Connie Mack, who is expected to chair the Western Hemisphere Affairs Subcommittee, were outspoken defenders of the 2009 coup d’état in Honduras.

Family visits for prisoners, but no prisoner swap

The wife of Gerardo Hernández, one of five Cubans currently jailed on convictions for spying in the United States, visited her husband in prison, reports the Miami Herald.  The visit reportedly took place in September, and it was the first time that Hernández’s wife, Adriana Pérez, had seen her husband in 12 years.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen reportedly “raised hell” when State Department officials briefed her on the visit after it had taken place.  She “raised the fact that they are treating Alan Gross and this convicted spy as equals,” despite assurances that there was no linkage.

According to Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the linkage “that exists is the common humanity of the Gross and Hernández families, and a decision to allow spouses to visit their husbands should be commended – not condemned – for its decency.”

According to the Miami Herald’s Cuban Colada blog, the U.S. Departments of State and Justice responded to a concerned letter from Congressman Lincoln Díaz-Balart, reassuring him that the United States was not planning to release Gerardo Hernández, in exchange for the Cuban government’s release of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor who has been imprisoned in Cuba since his arrest last December.  The letter reiterated that the U.S. government is not considering a prisoner swap and will continue to search for a diplomatic solution to secure Gross’ release.

Ferries from Fort Lauderdale to Cuba may not be too far off

The Sun Sentinel reports that a Paris-based company is currently seeking a U.S. government license to start a ferry service between Fort Lauderdale and Cuba.  Ferries would leave the U.S. port in the evening and arrive the following morning in Havana.  This would be a much cheaper option for Cuban Americans and others authorized to visit Cuba – the ferry service could cost passengers less than $200 roundtrip, including luggage, while airfare and luggage fees on authorized charter flights from Miami to Havana cost more than $600.

According to the Sun Sentinel, “Companies are hot on ferry service now, because U.S. travel to Cuba is growing. President Obama ended Bush-era restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting relatives on the island, now allowing them to travel whenever they wish. Plus, there’s talk that the administration may ease restrictions on U.S. academics and others to pursue more ‘people-to-people’ exchanges with Cuba.”

Variety of groups petition Obama for opening of purposeful travel

President Obama heard this week from church leaders, international educators, institutes of higher education, and a coalition of organizations encouraging him to loosen regulations on so-called purposeful travel to Cuba.

Well-known U.S. Christian leaders, including the Reverend John McCullough, met with President Obama to press him to take a stronger stance on poverty and hunger.  The group also discussed travel restrictions on U.S. church groups to Cuba, reports The Christian Post.  The group argued that current U.S. travel restrictions hinder church groups’ ability to support and partner with churches in Cuba.  Reportedly, McCullough said that Obama “seemed very receptive to deepening the dialogue” on religious travel to Cuba.  Adelle Banks of the Religion News Service commented that this is the first time since the Clinton Administration that such an ecumenical delegation was received in the White House.

Also this week, the Association of International Educators, and the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA) sent a letter to President Obama asking him to include academic exchange trips to Cuba “in the package of new policies” that the United States is contemplating for Cuba.  The letter said that by “lifting the current regulations on academic travel to Cuba, our institutions could begin to offer many more opportunities for students to study abroad in Cuba, to learn about the rich culture and history of the island nation, and begin to make personal connections that can serve as a valuable platform for developing mutual understanding between our countries.”

The letter also called for the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to ease protocols on the granting of licenses for academic travel to Cuba.  The letter was signed by nearly thirty institutions of higher education, including many state universities.

Another letter encouraging a loosening of regulations on purposeful travel was sent to the president by a coalition of non-governmental organizations and individuals including the American Farm Bureau Federation, Amnesty International, the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights, John Block, the former Agriculture Secretary for President Reagan, and the National Tour Association.  According to the letter, people-to-people exchange will allow “our best ambassadors to interact with average Cuban citizens, sharing with them American ideas and values which can help to foster a more open society and greater enjoyment of human rights on the island.”  The coalition urged President Obama to take these steps following recent economic reforms and the releasing of political prisoners by Cuba’s government.

Cultural exchange with Cuba

The American Ballet Theater traveled to Cuba for the first time in 50 years, and is paying homage to Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, according to a report from Reuters.  American Ballet Theater executives said that they were happy to be in Cuba due to Alonso’s historic role in their company and because they have the chance to return to Cuba after a fifty-year absence.  The American Ballet Theater’s trip to Cuba comes on the heels of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra’s trip to Cuba in October and is part of an ongoing cultural exchange between the United States and Cuba.

As this news summary went to press, we also learned that the New York Philharmonic Orchestra has received approval from the U.S. government to travel to Cuba early next year to perform in concert.  An earlier request was denied.

IN CUBA

November 7 deadline to release dissidents approaches

To comply with this summer’s agreement struck with the Catholic Church and Spain, Cuba must release 13 more dissidents by November 7th, reports BBC Mundo.  The agreement provided that Cuba would release all 52 dissidents within three or four months.  November 7th will mark the end of the fourth month.

Unlike the 39 dissidents already released by Cuba’s government, the last 13 have said they wish to remain in Cuba and will not accept exile in Spain.  The prisoners also want to be released without parole.  While it is unknown whether the government will meet the November 7 deadline, dissident groups such as the Ladies in White and prominent opposition figures, such as Guillermo Fariñas, have said that they will protest if the government does not release the dissidents.

“By releasing [the dissidents], the government improves its international image and removes a weight off its back.  If it does not, it will gain only the world’s condemnation,” said Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.  “Not freeing them would be unthinkable,” reported the Canadian Press.

Cuba set to release three additional dissidents

The Canadian Press has reported that the Cuban government has offered freedom to three more jailed dissidents, none of whom were arrested in the 2003 “Black Spring” crackdown.   The Catholic Church has reported that the three dissidents will be released “shortly” and exiled to Spain.  According to Reuters, among the three dissidents was Cuba’s longest-held political prisoner, Adrián Álvarez, who has been jailed for the past 25 years for allegedly stealing rifles to lead an anti-government rebellion.

Catholic Church opens first new seminary in Cuba in decades

The Associated Press reports on the opening this week of Cuba’s first Catholic Seminary since the 1959 Revolution.  The opening was attended by President Raúl Castro as well as a U.S. delegation, led by Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami.  Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who was largely responsible for negotiating the release of 52 political prisoners jailed since 2003, inaugurated the new institution. “The new seminary, where students will be trained for the priesthood, is a symbol of just how far Church-state relations have improved in recent years,” says the BBC‘s Michael Voss in Havana.

Cuba’s Energy Future

Cuba is set to increase the role of natural gas in its future energy mix, reports Jorge Piñón, Senior Research Fellow at Florida International University, in an article in Cuba Standard.  Cuba’s natural gas production has increased since 2005 and is found within the country’s crude oil reservoirs.  Natural gas, as the cleanest of fossil fuels, emits fewer pollutants, and helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The city of Cienfuegos, which is home to a refinery expansion project and the construction of a petrochemical hub, is expected to become Cuba’s primary oil refining and petrochemical center.

Cuba highlighted its commitment to renewable energy through its participation as an observer at a recent conference concerning renewable energy in Dubai.  While there, the Cuban delegation reached out to the delegations of Kuwait, Algeria, Iran, and Spain, reports Cuban News Agency.

Additionally, the International Conference of Mechanical Engineering and Energy will be held in Santiago de Cuba November 9-11, announced Prensa Latina.  The event will analyze the effects of engineering on the environment.  Additional topics of discussion will include renewable energy and environmental degradation.

Raúl Castro says Cuba will maintain socialism as it modernizes economy

Against the backdrop of major economic reforms, the release of dozens of political prisoners, and much speculation about the future of Cuba’s political system and economy,  President Raúl Castro asserted this week that Cuba is not copying any country nor will it move away from socialism as it seeks to revitalize its national economy, reports EFE.  Castro stated that the reforms will allow the working class to fully participate in the “modernization” of the Cuban economy.  He also reaffirmed the Cuban people’s desire to defend socialism, and to adapt in order to help Cuba benefit from socialism.

Raúl Castro expounds on layoffs

Speaking to the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba labor union, President Raúl Castro asked union members to accept layoffs of state workers and economic reforms as the only way to save the Cuban Revolution.  According to Bloomberg, Castro said that unless Cubans make adjustments in order to save the Revolution and weather an economic crisis, Cuba will “fall off a cliff.”  Castro recently announced a decision to lay off 500,000 state workers and relax restrictions on self-employment for laid-off Cubans.

Juventud Rebelde clarified this week that age will not be the defining factor in determining the layoffs of state employees; rather, work ethic will determine who will keep their state jobs.  Many young Cubans, however, fear that the layoffs will adversely affect them more than other groups, simply because they are younger.  Currently, young adults compose 22% of the Cuban workforce, but this could change with current and up-coming economic reforms.

You can read an excerpt from President Castro’s speech to the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba here.

Cuba says its trade figures are improving

According to Reuters, Cuba has “held the line” on imports while increasing exports, all of which is favorable to the Caribbean nation.  In the first nine months of 2010, exports of goods rose 21 percent from 2009.  The country is also enacting economic reforms, which the Cuban government says will be favorable to Cuba’s economic partners.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba hosts international trade fair

Xinhua reports that more than 400 companies from 58 countries attended the 28th International Trade Fair in Havana this week.  The event was aimed at promoting Cuban exports and strengthening Cuban goods in the international market.  Notably, European Union members attended the fair after years of absence.

Cuba and Norway to work together

The Cuban News Agency reports that Norway and Cuba signed a cooperation agreement in Havana this week to aid earthquake and cholera victims in Haiti.  According to reports, Norway signed a donation equivalent to $850,000 for the purchasing and transport of medical resources and other consumables to Haiti.  Voice of Russia reports that this is the second such agreement between Cuba and Norway.

Cuba wins Intercontinental Baseball Cup

The Cuban national baseball team defeated the Netherlands 4-1 to be crowned champions of the Intercontinental Baseball Cup, which was held in Taiwan.  Cuba repeated its victory in the same tournament held in 2006, when they also defeated the Netherlands to take the title, according to Prensa Latina.

Cuba and Italy to consolidate advances in surgery

The Cuban Surgery Society and the Italian Association for the Development of Surgical Sciences have pledged to work together in the development of advances in surgery, reports Televisión Camagüey.  The document was signed during a meeting of the 11th Cuban Congress on Surgery in Havana.  Cuban and Italian officials were present during the signing ceremony.

Around the Region:

Chávez, Santos “committed to not allowing anyone to derail” their relations, El Universal

A meeting between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos ended with the signing of various agreements and the payment of $336 million owed to Colombian exporters. “We are both absolutely committed to not allowing anyone derail us,” said Santos said. “Nobody can derail us,” replied Chávez, who also noted that “regardless of political differences and different approaches,” of their governments, both countries have been “called to become united.

El Salvador: number of homicides grows, Inside Costa Rica

The National Civil Police of El Salvador (PNC) reported an increase in the number of homicides in October, with 344, an average of more than 10 per day. The number in September was 212, an average of 7 every day.  According to the statistics, from January to October 2010, 3,200 murders were committed.

Recommended Reading:

What’s so special about Cuba?, WNYC

Rodolfo de la Garza, in a WNYC opinion piece, explores why Cuban immigrants enjoy more favorable treatment under U.S. immigration laws than do their Latin American counterparts.  De la Garza states that Cuban immigrants are treated as “political refugees” due to the United States’ foreign policy toward Cuba.  As such, Cuban immigrants are eligible for benefits that are unavailable to immigrants from other countries.  De la Garza also argues that Cuban-American political elites have contributed to the maintenance of this policy, and of U.S. policy toward Cuba in general.  De la Garza concludes by saying that the U.S. must end the “favoritism” that it displays toward unauthorized Cuban immigrants.

Key political risks to watch in Cuba, Reuters

The success or failure of Cuba’s economic reforms will be the key issue to watch over the course of the next year. In the economic sector, it will be important to watch how quickly the government moves to implement reforms, the success (or failure) of the newly self-employed, the effects of government layoffs, agricultural reforms, and any other possible future changes.   Cuba has also taken steps to reduce its budget deficit and cut back on imports.

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