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

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.

IN CUBA

Saving Socialism with market reforms

The 32-page economic reform plan released last week by Cuba’s government (Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy) continues to generate support, criticism and further explanation by the Party. The document, which was released now to steer discussions about economic reform ahead of Cuba’s Communist Party Congress set for April 2011, calls for the use of market mechanisms and increased foreign investment to revitalize Cuba’s economy and permit the absorption of laid-off state workers.  It also announced plans to eliminate the ration system and liberalize the real estate market.  These are significant departures from the system envisioned by the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the conduct of the state ever since.

However, Cuba’s government has also made it clear that it will not be abandoning the tenets of socialism, claiming that “socialism is the only way to overcome our difficulties and preserve the gains of the Revolution” and clarifying that “as we update our economic model, planning will be paramount, not the market,” reports the Global Post.

President Raúl Castro and members of his cabinet met with Communist Party officials last weekend to discuss the proposed reforms and those that are underway already.  At the meeting, President Castro indicated that the island has “no alternative” but to embrace the reforms, which he says are based on Fidel’s ideas, reports Miami Herald.  He also stated that mass participation will be a crucial element for the Congress that will be held in 2011, reports Cuban News Agency.

State-run newspaper Granma echoes President Castro’s call for a change of mindset for Cuba’s people, claiming that without such a change the economic reforms Cuba plans to implement cannot succeed.  Granma stated that while the Cuban people are not used to “economic processes,” they need to adjust to the changing situation, reported EFE.

Some orthodox members of Cuba’s political establishment consider the document and the economic reforms it outlines a “turn toward capitalism and perhaps even a risk for the revolution,” according to the Miami Herald.

By contrast, some dissidents are less than enthusiastic about the plan for other reasons.  Óscar Espinosa Chepe, an economist and political dissident, has called the proposal a “wish list,” saying that the reforms don’t go far enough to deliver the radical changes that Cuba needs.  “They don’t get to the root of the problem,” cautioned Espinosa Chepe.  “The mentality continues to be the same: tight control by the State and the Party.”

NPR reports on Cuba’s proposed economic reforms here.

Hundreds of Cubans gather to discuss upcoming reforms with government officials

Nearly five hundred Cubans participated in a second seminar in Havana on economic changes this week.  The conversation was dedicated to analyzing the implementation of economic reforms, reports Radio Nacional de Venezuela.  Party members, economists, journalists, and government workers were among those who attended the meeting.  José Machado Ventura, the First Vice President of Cuba, gave a speech explaining the challenges and perspectives of Cuba’s economy, and highlighted the importance of the Party Congress that will be held next spring.

Fidel expresses support for Raúl’s reforms

Fidel Castro threw his support behind the reforms being implemented by President Raúl Castro, his younger brother and successor, in some of his most direct comments about the state of affairs in Cuba, according to the Associated Press.

In a mid-week speech to a group of students celebrating International Students’ day, the elder Castro said he was “pleased, because the country is working, despite all of the challenges,” according to AFP.  More specifically, the elder Castro expressed his support for Raúl’s suggested “subsidies or grants, only for essential and vital things. … The only thing not allowed,” Fidel said, “is the irresponsible … squandering of resources,” reported the Miami Herald

Fidel Castro has avoided commenting on domestic affairs since illness forced him to hand over the reins of power in 2006.  Since his reappearance on the public stage in July he has focused on international issues, “fueling speculation that he was at odds with his brother over the economic changes,” according to CNN.  His recent statements in support of his brother’s leadership demonstrate their unanimity about the reforms being debated in Cuba.

Full text of Fidel Castro’s remarks in Spanish can be found here and in English here. Video coverage of his speech can be viewed here.

Cuba frees political prisoner who refused exile deal

Cuba has begun releasing prisoners covered by last summer’s agreement with the Catholic Church who had refused exile in Spain, reports the BBC.  The first, dissident economist Arnaldo Ramos Lauzurique, was released, allowed to remain in Cuba under parole, and has already begun speaking out on economic and political reform.

In regard to the economy, Ramos Lauzurique stated that the reforms will simply move the country from “stagnation to chaos,” reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.  “Without real economic liberalization – though there should also be political freedom – I don’t believe the government can solve its current problems,” said Ramos Lauzurique.

Concerning politics, Ramos Lauzurique said that he will continue his fight for democracy in Cuba.  “Nothing has changed.  Seven years have passed, but I will continue doing what I’ve done since before I was incarcerated,” said Lauzurique, according to El Universal.

Another released dissident arrives in Spain

Luis Enrique Ferrer García, who had originally refused exile, has reportedly been released from prison this week on the condition that he would be sent to Spain.  The government has given Ferrer García assurances that his family will be awarded rights to his house in Cuba.  In an unexpected turn of events, following his release from prison Ferrer García was allowed to visit his imprisoned brother José Daniel in Las Tunas, reports Radio Martí.  This is an unprecedented gesture by the government, which has escorted all recently-released dissidents to the airport following their release from prison.  José Daniel was also arrested in 2003, but has refused exile in Spain.

Dissident blogger wins Danish human rights award

Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez received a prize from Danish think tank Center for Political Studies (CEPOS) on Tuesday, which she called a measure of consolation for years of government harassment and a loss of personal freedoms in Cuba.  CEPOS stated that it awarded its $54,000 to Sánchez for her struggle for freedom of expression in Cuba despite the risk of imprisonment, according to AFP.

Sánchez has been invited to attend the award ceremony in Denmark, but it is still unknown whether she will be able to do so.  She has applied for permission to travel outside of Cuba to accept an award and, if granted permission, also plans to go on a tour of Europe, including Spain.  During her trip, Sánchez plans to present her latest book, A Blog to Talk to the World, in which she discusses her life, reports Europa Press.  Sánchez must now wait for the Cuban government to approve her trip.

Cuba’s population to decrease

Cuba’s population is aging, and this fact will affect the workforce and economy going forward, according to People’s Daily Online.  Cuban authorities state that the population entering the workforce will be fewer in number than those in retirement, and that the number of childbearing women will decrease due to the aging population of the island.

Cuba hopes cruise industry slump is finally over

A Spanish cruise ship has docked in Havana, raising the Cuban government’s hopes that, after a three-year slump, Cuba’s cruise ship business will pick up, bringing with it a much-needed influx of cash for the island’s ailing economy.  The U.S. embargo on Cuba prevents U.S. cruise ships from docking in Cuba, and also forbids ships that have sailed to Cuba from entering the United States for six months, reports Reuters.  However, Spanish, British, Italian, and Russian cruise ships are reportedly gearing up to travel to Cuba.

The warm reception for Spanish cruise ships contrasts with the attitude on the island in 2005, when Fidel Castro lashed out against the cruise industry, complaining that the ships dumped their trash in ports of call.

You can view a video report about Cuba’s cruise ship industry here.

Famous “La Guarida” paladar reopens

La Guarida, the Havana paladar in which the film Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) was shot, has reopened after being closed for more than a year.  El Nuevo Herald reports that Cuba’s government has lifted many of the restrictions on paladares, allowing them to sell shrimp, beef, and lobster; increasing the number of seats allowed from 12 to 20; and allowing owners of paladares to hire employees who are not family members.  La Guarida is a world-famous paladar and has played host to celebrities such as Steven Spielberg, Naomi Campbell, and Pedro Almodóvar.

Cuba sets out to have digital TV by 2020

Cuba is in the process of producing one million TV sets (of a Chinese brand) in the hope of developing Digital Terrestrial Television (DDT) by 2020, reports Europa Press.  DDT transmits television signal digitally through a network of terrestrial repeaters, allowing for compression of the signal (requiring less bandwidth for transmission).  Additionally, the digital encoding provides better picture and sound quality to viewers.  Cuba’s use of these technologically-advanced Chinese TV sets is considered one of the first steps to acquiring a DDT network.  In addition to using the newly manufactured TV sets for domestic uses, Cuba also hopes to export some of the sets to other countries.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba and UK in anti-drug smuggling talks

The HMS Manchester sailed into Havana this week on the 491st anniversary of its founding by Spanish colonists, becoming the first British warship to dock in Havana harbor since the Cuban Revolution.  The British Navy arrived in Cuba to hold talks on how to strengthen counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean, reports the BBC.  The ship’s commander, Rex Cox, stated that the purpose of the visit was to strengthen collaboration on counter-narcotics and disaster relief.  A report by Prensa Latina indicates that the British Navy would like to return to Cuba often.

In addition to British sailors, there was a contingent of U.S. Coast Guard officers on board the HMS Manchester; reports indicate that the U.S. government gave the officers permission to take shore leave while docked in Cuba.

Gazprom to drill for oil in Cuban waters

The New York Times reports that Gazprom Neft, the oil arm of Russia’s natural-gas export monopoly, will drill for oil in Cuban waters, adding its name to the lengthening list of companies planning to drill for oil off the island.

According to the Miami Herald’s Cuban Colada, Russia’s Gazprom and the Malaysian company Petronas have signed an agreement concerning exploration and development of Cuba’s off shore oil reserves.  Gazprom will hold a 30 percent share in the project.  The agreement will become effective after approval by Cuban authorities.  Once approved, Gazprom will begin operating offshore drilling platforms, which is new territory for the Russian company.  Drilling is scheduled to commence next year, pending approval by Cuban authorities.

On the overall question of Cuba drilling for oil in the Gulf, The Economist had this to say.

Brazil increasing presence of its companies in Cuba

Brazil is set to become the leading business actor in Cuba following the economic liberalization led by Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, reports Ansa Latina.  Brazilian companies, such as Havaianas (which manufactures sandals), have been authorized to develop merchandising in Cuban stores.  According to the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, Brazilian companies in Cuba have already made profits of $48 million, significantly higher than the initially estimated figure of $29 million.

“The Cubans are becoming more aggressive commercially and Brazil wants to respond to this demand,” stated Maurício Borges, the director of the Brazilian Agency for the Promotion of Exports and Investment (APEX).  Meanwhile, the Brazilian ambassador to Cuba, José Felicio, asserted, “Businesspeople are benefiting from the new openness in Cuba.”

Vietnam eager to enter Cuban market

VOV News reports that many Vietnamese businesses are interested in investing in Cuba following the announced liberalization.  Vietnam’s Department of American Markets recently held a trade and investment forum in Havana to help Vietnamese businesses find investment opportunities in Cuba.  Enterprises in the fields of textiles and garments, shoes, wooden furniture, and other businesses participated in the forum.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Cuba: International Religious Freedom Report 2010

The U.S. Department of State has released its 2010 International Religious Freedom Report for Cuba, stating that while Cuba’s constitution protects freedom of religion, the government places restrictions on the free practice of religion.  The report details the religious structure of Cuba, government respect for freedom of religion, and restrictions on religious freedom.  The report also highlighted some positive developments in respect for religious freedom.  Among its findings were:

  • Many religious groups reported improvements in religious freedom since the last reporting period, although significant restrictions remained in place.
  • Most religious groups continued to report increased ability to cultivate new members, hold religious activities, and conduct charitable and community service projects, while at the same time reporting fewer restrictions on politically sensitive expression, importation of religious materials, and travel.
  • There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.
  • Religious groups also reported that it was easier to obtain government permission to maintain and repair existing places of worship and other buildings, although obtaining permission for construction of new buildings remained difficult.
  • In a significant development, in May 2010 President Raúl Castro and the Catholic Cardinal of Cuba, Jaime Ortega, began a series of discussions initially focused on ending ongoing government harassment of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), a well-known civil society group. The group, consisting of female relatives of political prisoners, has been holding marches after attending Mass each Sunday since 2003. In April 2010 police established checkpoints around the church and denied access to some supporters of the group. However, as a result of the high-level discussions, the government relented and the discussions extended far beyond this initial case to include a general conversation about the plight of the country’s political prisoners and jail conditions in general. The cardinal stated that this was the first time that the government had engaged with the church as a mediator, and that he believed it signaled a new phase in state-church relations.
  • Some members of religious organizations, particularly of churches that were not officially recognized, reported that the government harassed them through regular surveillance and occasional detentions, among other means.
  • There were no reports of persons imprisoned or detained for specifically religious reasons. A few religious groups reported cases of members who alleged that the government targeted them for selected prosecution for common crimes because of their religious activities.
  • Leaders of the Apostolic Reformation movement reported continued harassment and arrests of church leaders throughout the country and estimated that in 2009 more than 30 members were detained for brief periods.
  • In October 2009 state security detained two Baptist pastors who were distributing financial aid to several churches in Guantanamo Province. They were held for approximately two weeks before being released without charge.

A copy of the State Department’s report can be viewed here.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski: “New seminary is a sign of hope in Cuba”

Earlier this month, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski led a delegation of Catholic prelates on a trip to Cuba during which the Church and Cuba’s government leaders opened a new seminary for Catholic priests.

This week, the Archbishop published an essay in the Miami Herald in which he calls the seminary a “sign of hope” in Cuba.  Wenski praised the survival of the Catholic Church in Cuba despite a period of 50 years of official atheism, and added that the Church is bringing in new members and now has more space in which to carry out its mission.

Wenski called the construction of this seminary “a sign of the hope Cuba needs so badly. The seminary played this role not only in the history of the Church in Cuba, but also in its civic history, for inside its classrooms the Cuban national and religious identity was being forged. And that is what it will do in the future as well.”

Cuban church leaders press for end to U.S. travel restrictions

Religious leaders in the U.S. and Cuba are hopeful that restrictions on religious travel to the island nation will soon be lifted, reports Church World Service.  Earlier this week, a delegation of Protestant clergy from the Cuban Council of Churches visited Washington, where they spoke at a briefing for Members of Congress hosted by Representatives Jeff Flake (AZ-6th) and Jim McGovern (MA-3rd).  One of their objectives was to convince President Obama to remove U.S. restrictions on religious travel to Cuba.  The delegation also expressed concern that U.S. restrictions on financial transfers prevent U.S. churches from providing retired Cuban clergy the pension owed them for service during the years when Cuban churches were mission churches of U.S. denominations.

University of Miami’s award to accused Cuban terrorist outrages faculty

More than 50 faculty members at the University of Miami have circulated a letter expressing their outrage over a plaque awarded to Orlando Bosch, the anti-Cuba terrorist, at the University of Miami.  Last month, the Institute of Cuban Historic Memory against Totalitarianism held an event at the University of Miami’s Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies in which Bosch was presented with a congratulatory plaque for his struggles against Cuban totalitarianism, reports The Miami Herald.

For its part, the University of Miami has not released an official statement.  Academics have criticized the director of the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, Jaime Suchlicki, for allowing the event to take place.  Suchlicki states that he never knew that Bosch would be in attendance or that Bosch would be presented with such an award.

Ramiro Gómez, of the Institute of Cuban Historic Memory against Totalitarianism, organized the event and maintains that the Institute did nothing wrong.  “The activity was not for Orlando Bosch; it was for everyone who confronted tyranny using arms, with the idea of a free Cuba in their heart,” he said. “This international scandal was created, because we chose to honor Orlando Bosch, the patriot.”

NODAK Ag Commissioner to lead trade delegation to Cuba

Doug Goehring, North Dakota’s Agriculture Commissioner, is leading a trade delegation to Cuba, according to the Associated Press.  This will be the eighth trade mission to Cuba organized by the state’s Agriculture Department.  According to Goehring, the focus of the meeting will be on the sale of North Dakotan beans, peas, wheat and distilled grains to Cuba.  The delegation returns on November 24th.

Cuba-U.S. could and should cooperate on disease prevention

Cuba and the United States could collaborate to fight the spread of tropical diseases, reports Discovery News.  Cooperation on disease prevention is important in light of recent epidemics of tropical diseases, such as dengue fever, in the Western Hemisphere.  Relaxing restrictions on interaction with Cubans allowed U.S. organizations to create Cuba-U.S. medical exchanges.  However, current restrictions, such as the necessity of licenses from the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, have complicated this bilateral exchange.

Around the Region:

Venezuela deports left-wing ‘rebels’ to Colombia, BBC News

Venezuela has deported three suspected left-wing rebels to Colombia, a sign of improving relations. Colombia says one belongs to the FARC rebel group, while the other two allegedly belong to the ELN. Earlier this year, then Colombian President Álvaro Uribe alleged Venezuela was harboring rebels. The deportations came a day after Colombia promised to extradite a drug suspect, Walid Makled, to Venezuela rather than the United States.

Salvadoran president meets senior U.S. officials on bilateral ties, Xinhua

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes met a senior U.S. trade official and a diplomat to promote bilateral relations Tuesday, news reports said. Funes, during a visit to Atlanta, GA, met U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Lock and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela, a statement posted on the president’s website said.

Recommended Reading:

Prediction for the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations, COHA Director Larry Birns

“Given the new environment in which he will be working, a normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations will only happen if Obama makes it a primary objective, should he decide that it is worth the political investment.”

Valenzuela town hall at George Washington University

On November 3, 2010, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, participated in a town hall meeting at George Washington University.  The topic of discussion was U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America.  The event was live-streamed in English, Portuguese, and Spanish, allowing participation of citizens from all over the Western Hemisphere.  Valenzuela answered questions ranging from the role of China in the region to human rights in Venezuela.  To access a full transcript of the event, please click here.

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