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

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….

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Cuba says Alan Gross case proceeding like a normal case

The case of Alan Gross, a U.S. government contractor detained in Cuba, is still under investigation and official charges have yet to be filed, Cuba’s Attorney General Dario Delgado said in Havana this week, Reuters reported. Gross has been in jail in Cuba for almost a year after being detained for allegedly distributing high-tech communications devices to dissident groups. The U.S. government has admitted he entered the country on a tourist visa, failing to register as a foreign agent, but says he was helping the Jewish community connect to the Internet.

“It remains in the same situation. It still hasn’t concluded. It’s still being worked and when it finishes, the answer will be given,” said Delgado.

Cuban law stipulates defendants be charged within 90 days of being arrested, but 90-day extensions can be granted. According to sources familiar with the case, Cuban authorities have requested and obtained at least three extensions. Delgado said the case was being handled under normal circumstances. “This adheres to Cuban law. There’s no problem. Everything moves ahead as was foreseen,” he said. “It’s a normal case.”

Alan’s wife, Judy Gross, recently published an opinion piece in The Miami Herald in which she urged Presidents Obama and Castro to “be different from your predecessors, change the tide of bilateral relations,” and not to use her husband’s case as an obstacle to better relations.

New poll finds that Americans favor end of sanctions, 2-1; Congressional outlook bleak

According to a new poll commissioned by Cuba Standard, Americans strongly favor ending sanctions on Cuba. The poll, which has an overall margin of error of +/- 3%, found that forty-seven percent of those polled said “yes” to lifting the embargo, compared to 22 percent saying “no”, and three in 10 (31%) were unsure. It also found that Americans in favor of lifting the embargo and allowing travel to Cuba are also stronger in their belief that the policy should change, with double the number saying “definitely yes” (18%) than those saying “definitely no” (9%).

Despite public opinion, the outlook for Congress passing legislation to allow unfettered travel to the island is bleak.  According to Congressional Quarterly, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will not mark up a bill to lift the ban on U.S. tourist travel to Cuba during the lame-duck session.  When asked if he still planned to hold a committee vote on H.R. 4645, current committee Chairman Howard Berman responded that he was not. Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – a fierce advocate for sanctions against Cuba – will likely become the new committee chair. Rep. Ros-Lehtinen has already announced her commitment to measures against “dangerous” governments in Latin America.

Rep. Ros-Lehtinen scolds Israel over potential diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba

Fidel Castro’s recent remarks that Jews and Israel have suffered greatly over the years, and his criticism of Iran for denying the existence of the Holocaust, led to praise by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a friendly letter from President Shimon Peres.  Some hoped it could lead to improved relations between Cuba and Israel, the only country in the world that voted with the U.S. at the United Nations in support of the embargo this year, but any such progress might have been short-lived due to interference by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

According to published reports, Ros-Lehtinen, set to become the powerful chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, contacted Israeli officials to convey her displeasure to Israeli government officials about their offered hand to Cuba, leading to an apology from Netanyahu, Politico reported.

Despite continued restrictions, academic exchange with Cuba expanding

Despite continued restrictions on academic exchanges that were put in place by the Bush Administration, some universities are reinstating suspended academic exchange programs.

Neil Leonard, a professor in Berklee College of Music’s Electronic Production and Design Department, is set to bring the Berklee Interarts Ensemble to Havana, in December for a week-long, cross-cultural collaboration with local student musicians, composers, and dancers, Berklee News reported.   It’s the first time that a Berklee student group has gone to Cuba; and, according to Leonard, it will be beneficial to artists and students on both sides of the Florida Straits.

“The students will interact with the strongest artists that I’ve met during 25 years of visiting the island,” said Leonard. “They will see how Cuban artists, despite the inherent difficulties of the third world, have consistently produced some of today’s most compelling work in music and the contemporary arts. I’m expecting that this experience will resonate with our students for years to come.”

After a six-year hiatus, Middle Tennessee State University’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures has revived its successful Cuba study-abroad program for summer 2011, DNJ News reported.

The Laurel Leader Call reported on the First-Trinity Presbyterian Church of Laurel’s efforts to install water purifying systems in Matanzas, Cuba over the last few years.

Texas sees sales to Cuba diminish as Havana opts for preferential financing from other nations

The New York Times reported that similar to overall sales from the U.S. to Cuba, Texas farmers have seen their sales to Cuba diminish in 2010. According to experts, the decline is due to cash flow problems in Cuba combined with their preference to trade with countries that offer trade incentives, such as  Venezuela, China, Brazil and Vietnam. Despite the declining sales, Todd Staples, the Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, said his state should continue to expand the dialogue – and trade opportunities – between Cuba and the United States.

“I support allowing Texas farmers and ranchers to engage in fair competition when selling their agricultural products to Cuba,” Mr. Staples said in a statement. “Texans will benefit through job growth, and Cubans can see the success of democracy and a free-market society.”

A seven-person North Dakota trade delegation led by Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring       recently visited Cuba in hopes of securing new trade deals.  “The Cubans recognize the quality and dependability of North Dakota commodities, as well as our determination to maintain a friendly trading relationship. This is an opportunity for us to cement that relationship and to expand the market for our agricultural products,” Goehring told the Dakota Farmer.

CUBA’S FOREIGN POLICY

China to invest $6 billion in Cienfuegos’ refinery expansion

A Chinese company is set to lead a $6 billion expansion project at the Cienfuegos refinery, in what will be one of the largest investments ever in Cuba, Reuters reported. China’s Eximbank will finance work done by a unit of China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), backed by financial guarantees provided in the form of oil from Venezuela.

The expansion will increase capacity from 65,000 barrels per day to 150,000, and add a liquefied natural gas terminal, capable of processing 2 million tons of gas annually, and an electricity generation plant. As a result of the project, China, Cuba’s number two trade partner, will have an expanded role in the island’s energy sector. “It is one of the biggest investments in the history of Cuba. It’s a minimum of $4.5 billion just for the refinery and another $1.3 billion for the LNG terminal,” an executive involved with the project told Reuters.

According to analysts, the modified refinery will play an important role in processing oil extracted from deep-sea wells in Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil companies from dozens of countries have entered into agreements to explore for oil as early as next year. Cuba has been installing oil storage tanks in Matanzas along the northern coast and reconstructing a pipeline that runs from there to Cienfuegos, said Jorge Piñón, an energy expert at Florida International University. “The pieces of the puzzle are falling into place,” he said.

A Financial Times report reveals that Venezuela is now a partner in almost all of Cuba’s downstream infrastructure through the 50-50 joint venture between PDVSA and CUPET, called Cuvenpetrol, which includes a planned 150,000 b/d refinery in Matanzas province, east of Havana.

Energy expert Jorge R. Piñón writes about China’s strategic objectives in Cuba in the Cuba Standard.

Brazil and Cuba collaborate to fight cholera in Haiti

Brazil and Cuba are teaming up with Brazilian universities to respond to the cholera outbreak in Haiti, Brazil’s Health Ministry announced this week, AFP reported. The two countries, along with Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and Federal University of Santa Catarina, will build a treatment center in the capital, set up a network of health clinics and train 2,340 health workers in Haiti.

“All the activities will be organized with the collaboration of health teams from Haiti and Cuba made up of doctors, nurses and epidemiologists,” the statement said. Cuba is also expected to sign an additional agreement with the World Health Organization for its medical experts to create a treatment center to contain the cholera epidemic. The cholera epidemic has killed more than 1,300 people and infected over 57,000.

President Funes extols Cuba’s medical assistance

During the re-inauguration of the San Juan de Dios National Hospital in the city of San Miguel, El Salvador, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 2001, Maurico Funes, president of El Salvador, thanked Cuba for its help in the restructuring of the nation’s medical program, which will focus on community health services, one of Cuba’s areas of expertise, the Cuban News Agency reported.

IN CUBA

Prisoner relocation may signal approaching releases

Cuban dissident José Daniel Ferrer was moved this week from a prison in Las Tunas to one in his native province of Santiago de Cuba, which may signal Ferrer will be released soon, AFP reported.  Ferrer is one of 12 remaining prisoners from an agreement between Cuba, Spain and the Catholic Church who has refused to relocate to Spain upon being released. According to the Ladies in White, a support group for political prisoners, Ferrer is the last of the prisoners to be relocated to a prison in his home province.

“It could be a sign that they will release him [Ferrer], but we really don’t know, because the other 11 who don’t want to leave the country have been in their home provinces for a while now,” said Laura Pollán, leader of the Ladies in White.

Cardinal Ortega in Spain

Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Archbishop of Havana, is in Spain this week, where he will meet with officials to discuss the release of prisoners in Cuba. Ortega met with Trinidad Jiménez, Spain’s Foreign Minister, as well as with her predecessor, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, who helped negotiate the releases along with the Catholic Church.  Details of the meetings were slow to emerge, but they apparently discussed “the current situation on the island,” including socioeconomic reforms launched in Cuba by President Raúl Castro and the release of prisoners, EFE reported.

Since July 7th, 40 political prisoners who were arrested in the “Black Spring” of 2003 have been released, 39 of whom traveled to Spain upon their release from prison. Two of them have relocated, one to the U.S. and the other to Chile. One prisoner, Arnaldo Ramos, has been released and allowed to remain in Cuba.

An additional 14 prisoners sentenced to prison for violent acts associated with their political activities, who were not part of the agreement between Cuba, Spain and the Catholic Church have relocated in Spain following their releases from Cuba, Spain’s ABC reported.

Cuba came up in the first meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Spanish counterpart Jiménez this week, Radio Martí reported.  The two met during the NATO summit in Portugal, and discussed the prisoner releases in Cuba and the debate in the European Union concerning a modification of the EU’s Common Position on Cuba.

Cuban official: “Cuba is prepared to take advantage of China’s development experience in reform and opening”

Ricardo Alarcón, President of Cuba’s National Assembly, is visiting China to celebrate a half-century of bilateral relations. In meetings with top Chinese officials, Alarcón expressed Cuba’s desire to “take advantage” of the Chinese process of reform and opening.  Speaking with his Chinese counterpart Wu Bangguo, Alarcón said his country “is prepared to take advantage of China’s development experience in reform and opening,” EFE reported.

Bangguo told reporters he hopes the Chinese and Cuban legislatures can work together on “management and administration of government, and on reform and innovation.” Alarcón will also meet with vice-president Xi Jinpin, considered the successor to the current president Hu Jintao, before leaving the country. According to Xu Chichen, an expert at the Latin American Institute of the Academy of Social Sciences of China, Alarcon’s visit is significant because it takes place in the lead up to “the meeting by the Cuban National Assembly to analyze economic reform on December 15th.”

Government prepares economic plan for 2011

President Raúl Castro presided over an expanded meeting of the Council of Ministers that included top officials throughout the party over the weekend, where the economic and budget plan for 2011 was the sole focus, Granma reported.

“The first order of business for all the political leaders is the economy and one has to fully throw oneself into its study, performance and management,” Raúl Castro said at the session, which was also attended by members of the Council of Ministers, members of the Communist Party’s Political Bureau and Secretariat, Union of Communist Youths, the Cuban Workers Union, and Provincial Party leaders, EFE reported.

He urged for further belt-tightening, saying savings programs in Cuba are “the most rapid and secure source for obtaining resources, avoiding waste” with measures that “only require common sense.”

Cuba’s National Assembly will hold its second biannual meeting on December 15.  The meeting normally features a nationally televised address by President Castro, which he has used over the past several years to critique the state of the economy and advocate for changes, EFE reported.

Increasing space in state press devoted to building consensus on economic reforms

The size, frequency and frankness of Letters to the Editor and Editorials in the Communist Party newspaper Granma continue to increase.  This week the paper editorialized about how islanders have become “specialists in domestic figures” because they have to perform “miracles” for their salaries to endure the whole month in a “sort of subsistence economy.”

“We, Cubans, have specialized in domestic figures: some of us perform miracles for wages to last the whole month, others send their bills to relatives abroad for them to ship remittances and there are some naughty who make a living out of nowhere but not from real jobs,” Granma wrote.

According to Granma, the irregularities have created a “subsistence economy, which is divorced from reality” and is unsustainable, which is why all Cubans need to think about the problems and analyze the rules contained in “Draft Guidelines for the Economic and Social Policy,” Europa Press reported.

Similarly, the paper included the opinions of prominent Cubans, as well as ordinary citizens, about the upcoming Party Congress and The Economic and Social Policy Development Project, which includes proposals for reforming the economy. Letters to the editors have included economic critiques over the last few months. However, this edition, which featured letters from steel workers, mechanics, a Captain in the Armed Forces and the head of the Meteorological Institute’s Forecast Center, among others, urged Cubans to take part in the debate in order to make the economy work better.

You can view the letters here.

Cuban government faces difficult housing situation, specialist advocates new policies

According to Miguel Coyula, an urban planner and a specialist in Cuban architecture, Havana has become “a place to live but not a place for living,” reported American Today. Coyula, who is also a professor at the University of Havana, visited Washington last week, where he gave a lecture about the housing situation on the island. Thanks to housing subsidies, the majority of Cubans – about 87 percent – own their homes. However, there are no maintenance subsidies, no private construction sector, or access to affordable building materials.

In his lecture, sponsored by American University’s Comparative Urban Research Initiative and the Center for Democracy in the Americas, Coyula said the government faces an uphill battle, but improved policies could improve the housing situation. Coyula advocates several solutions, including the adoption of more affordable and innovative green building practices, legislation that will create subsidies to help people maintain their homes, the development of design rules to preserve Havana’s architectural history, and an educational campaign to spread the word about resources and practices.

A recording of Coyula’s lecture can be found here.

Cuba heads toward record number of tourist visits in 2010

For the first time in history, two million tourists visited Cuba between January and October, representing a 3.4% increase over the same period in 2009, the National Statistics Office reported. Similar to the previous year, the majority of visitors come from Canada, the U.K. Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Mexico and Argentina.  According to AFP, along with exports of services, tourism is the leading contributor to GDP, earning approximately $2 billion for Cuba each year.

Meanwhile, the Spanish hotel chain Sol Meliá is set to open new hotel, the Buenavista, in Cayo Santa María next month, the Latin American Herald Tribune reported. Sol Meliá, which is considered to be the main foreign tourism company in Cuba, has three hotels in Havana, eight in Varadero, and 14 others spread out across the island, totaling 10,343 rooms. The company recently celebrated its 20th anniversary of operating on the island.

For those planning to travel to the island, the Havana Times has information on the new travelers’ insurance policy for visitors, which was instituted in May.

43% of Cubans overweight or obese

About 43% of Cubans are overweight or obese, according to Jorge Pablo Alfonso, the president of Cuba’s Nephrology Society, Europa Press reported. According to Alfonso, obesity is a consequence of the changing lifestyle of people on the island, and that it is the most common, chronic, non-hereditary disease on the planet.

Cuba considering letting baseball players sign contracts abroad

Cuba’s Federation of Baseball is considering a proposal to allow Cuban players to play professionally in leagues in other countries, El Nuevo Herald reported. According to a source close the federation, Antonio Castro, vice-president of the federation and Fidel Castro’s son, “floated” the proposal to the Cuban delegation at a recent tournament in Taiwan.

The proposal would allow players to play in leagues in countries other than the U.S., including Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Italy, and the players would keep 60 percent of their wages. One prominent former player, Victor Mesa, recommended that allowing players to sign contracts abroad would help slow defections. “Other countries do it, so why can’t we? In the end, they’re stealing our players, even those in the minor leagues,” Mesa said. “I favor they be inserted into foreign teams after eight years of playing in our national series. And through our channels, too, not as free agents.”

Players would not be allowed to play in the U.S. because of the embargo. U.S. Members of Congress have proposed legislation in the past that would make an exemption to the embargo for Cuban athletes wanting to play in the U.S., but it has never gained any traction. According to the Herald, the total value of the contracts signed between 2009 and 2010 by Cuban players in the majors exceeds $70 million.

Star baseball player will return to action, no explanation given for brief absence

Baseball star Frederich Cepeda, arguably Cuba’s best player on the island, told a local newspaper that he will play for his team, Sanctí Spíritus, this upcoming season, which begins on Sunday, the Associated Press reported. Cepeda was not invited to participate on the national team that won the Intercontinental Cup in Taiwan earlier this month and the Cuban sports world was abuzz when his name was omitted from Sanctí Spíritus’ roster.

Players are sometimes sanctioned when they plan or attempt to defect, but no reason for Cepeda’s absence over the last month was given. Cepeda who did not elaborate on what could have been the problem, told reporters he’s “happy to be able to contribute to Sanctí Spíritus’ cause in the upcoming season” and said he hadn’t tried to leave the island.

“I didn’t commit any violation, and nobody has said anything to me about being sanctioned. I don’t believe I have any problem with anyone…We all make mistakes, me included. What I will never make a mistake with is being a traitor to my country. One little hole cannot stain my career, I have to jump over it, repair it and move forward.”

Fans on the island remained interested in Cepeda’s brief absence. “They have to say something because Cepeda is the best Cuban batter today, they take him off the national team and now from Sanctí Spíritus, how is it possible?” questioned baseball fan Esteban Rojas.

Around the Region:

Chávez responds to President Obama’s joke about visiting Venezuela:  he would “embrace” president and “eat socialist arepas” with him, Daily Caller

During his most recent television broadcast, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez embraced President Obama, inviting him to join him in the construction of a new world order. Chávez was responding to President Obama’s recent quip about diverting Air Force One in order to pay Caracas a visit. “Well, Obama, if you said that,” Chávez remarked, “we’ll receive you here. I’d shake your hand again.” He also added: “Break the stereotype (…) Don’t listen to those reports, which are filled with lies, saying we are a threat. No, Obama, let’s build a new world where we can all live in peace.”

Groups blame Honduran government for deadly rural clash, Latin American Herald Tribune

President Porfirio Lobo’s government is blamed for the deaths of five peasants this week in a clash with private security guards, Honduran rural and human rights organizations said. The peasants died Monday during a confrontation in the Aguan sector of the Caribbean province of Colón.

Former de facto President Micheletti delivered a report to the Truth Commission, El Nuevo Herald

The document explains the events around the 2009 coup based on his personal view and the role he played in the overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya. Micheletti insisted that the expulsion of Zelaya from power was constitutional. He delivered both oral and written statements to the commission. The exact content of the document was not published immediately.

Recommended Reading:

Remittances to Cuba: With 28 Cents, Havana Times

“Math was never my strong suite, so allow me to round the figure up to $1 billion to facilitate my accounting.  Supposing that 80 percent of Cubans receive remittances, this would then result in each of them getting around $0.28 USD a day.”

Margarita Alarcón: 50 Years of Cuban Embargo is Enough, The Rag Blog

“In 1992, a little over 19 years ago during one typical hot summer season in New York City as the calm was smothering midtown and Murray Hill and the lethargic heat made it almost impossible to lift even an Italian Ice, four guys jokingly referred to as the Four Riders of the Apocalypse conceived of a work plan to fill up those slow muggy afternoons.”

“In 1992, a little over 19 years ago during one typical hot summer season in New York City as the calm was smothering midtown and Murray Hill and the lethargic heat made it almost impossible to lift even an Italian Ice, four guys jokingly referred to as the Four Riders of the Apocalypse conceived of a work plan to fill up those slow muggy afternoons.”

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