With the holiday season before us, and a hugely consequential year of Cuba news nearly behind us, there is one report we’re still eager to file that hasn’t made news quite yet.
There’s still time this year for the President to issue an executive order that will open Cuba to non-tourist travel. We’ll gladly blast the headlines over the holidays if he decides to take this step. We hope he does.
During the campaign, the President promised to move our country past the stale debates of the 1960s, and pledged to end the practice of political figures talking tough in Miami and doing nothing in Washington to change Cuba policy. Broadening opportunities for travel would help push the Cold War a little further into America’s past, and put engagement and progress on the issues that both Cuba and the U.S. care about more prominently on the front burner.
President Obama has repeatedly said he would tie loosening of U.S. sanctions to progress in Cuba on political prisoners and economic reform, and that progress is being made. We have reported for months on prisoner releases and Cuba’s plan to reform its economy, starting with the layoffs of 500,000 state workers and reforms that they hope will enable the private sector to absorb them. In light of these steps, the consistency and credibility of the Obama policy depends on moves like opening up non-tourist travel.
This action is not only right, but it would also be popular. There is broad support throughout the United States and among a majority of Cuban Americans in Florida for changes in the rules on travel. The polling shows this as does the support that has come from the religious and human rights communities, business and labor, farmers and the supporters of trade from both political parties.
The president has the authority under law, and he should use it. He can expect some backlash, but we strongly suspect it will be overwhelmed by the applause he will receive for fulfilling his commitment, breaking from the past, and doing something that will put our nation on the right side of history.
Sure, he’ll take some flack from Cuban American political figures who represent precincts in Florida and New Jersey, but consider this: their constituents already have the unlimited right to travel to Cuba and provide financial support to their families on the island, thanks to President Obama. Not one of these elected officials proposes taking this right from them. Nor should they try and thwart the ability of other Americans to visit Cuba as their constituents can and do.
Instead, President Obama should empower another group of ambassadors from our country -delegations of religious travelers, academics and cultural figures, athletes and others – people who can share their ideas with Cubans during this moment of uncertainty on the island, and listen and learn from the Cuban people at the very same time.
While we support travel for all Americans, an Executive Order broadening travel to Cuba is an action that President Obama can take now, one that will serve the U.S. national interest and convey real benefits to the people of Cuba as they find their place and build a new future on a new paradigm for their country.
It’s the right thing for the President to do, and were he to act this month, it would be a great holiday gift for us all.
This week in the news blast, we provide updates on the case of Alan Gross, the trial of Luis Posada Carriles, detailed information about the reform debate on Cuba, and a summary of the real news that continues to pour forth from WikiLeaks. Enjoy!
This week in Cuba News…
U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS
According to Ricardo Alarcón, President of Cuba’s National Assembly, the case of Alan Gross is being handled in accordance with all the “legal procedures” that cases are normally afforded, the Associated Press reported. Alarcón, speaking with reporters following an event on the case of the “Cuban Five,” said that Gross “violated Cuban laws, violated national sovereignty and committed crimes that would also be severely punishable in the United States.”
“He’s lucky that he is in jail in Cuba and not in the United States…not at the base at Guantanamo, but in the free part of Cuba,” said Alarcón. He told reporters that the case of the “Cuban Five,” five Cuban agents serving long sentences in the U.S. for espionage, is completely different and the cases are being treated “separately.”
Cuba insists the five agents were monitoring violent exile groups in Miami and received an unfair trial resulting in excessive sentences. There was speculation that Cuba would try and trade the “Five” for Gross, a contractor for USAID with a history of setting up high-tech communications devices and carrying out work in over 40 countries, who was arrested in Havana last December. He has yet to be charged, but Cuba has accused him of providing high-tech satellite equipment to dissident groups. The U.S., stating his case is a “severe impediment” to further improvements in bilateral relations, claims he was helping Havana-based Jewish groups connect to the Internet, a claim the Jewish community in Havana says is false.
Meanwhile, opinions in the United States continue to vary on exactly what Gross was doing in Cuba and whether his activities should have been considered hostile. A group of Jewish community members in Washington, DC, led by Rabbi David Shneyer, attempted to deliver a petition to the Cuban Interests Section this week saying “the equipment he brought was intended for humanitarian purposes, not for the dissident community,” arguing that his detention “is both arbitrary and cruel” and urging that he be freed “as a humanitarian act, for the sake of his family and for the sake of creating good will between our peoples.” The Interests Section did not accept the petition, which was addressed to President Raúl Castro, the Washington Jewish Week reported.
In the Baltimore Sun, Cuba experts Anya Landau French and Arturo López-Levy also call for Gross’ release but point out the inconsistency in the claims that he was helping the Jewish community:
- Cuba’s Jewish community leaders have denied working with Mr. Gross or being informed about his work. According to Adela Dworin, who runs one of Havana’s three synagogues and its adjoining community center, which boasts a computer lab with Internet access, her community already enjoys plenty of connections with Jewish communities around the world. Many groups come through Havana to make private donations and work with the community and don’t run afoul of the Cuban government.
- State Department officials have suggested that Mr. Gross would not have been arrested for similar activities in other countries around the world, but this ignores the fact that the U.S. does not explicitly fund regime change efforts in any of those countries. And it is likely for this reason that for years, Cuba’s religious leaders, including Cuba’s small Jewish community, have refused U.S. government support.
Alan’s wife Judy Gross seems to share the view expressed by Landau French and López-Levy. In an interview with the Jewish Daily Forward, Judy Gross says that Hillary Clinton’s call on the Jewish community to protest on Gross’s behalf “was a bit confusing” and has backed away from the notion the case demands special attention from Jews. “I think his cause needs to be taken up as a humanitarian cause, and I think it needs to go public, but I don’t think it’s a Jewish issue,” she said. “The problem is between Alan and the Cuban government.”
The presiding judge in the U.S. government’s case against Luis Posada Carriles has announced that the trial will not be delayed, Cuba Debate reports. Judge Kathleen Cardone’s denial motion is available here. She has also denied the defense’s motion to exclude documents obtained from Cuba and Guatemala. While saying she was “disappointed” in the government’s failure to provide the documents to the defense earlier, she noted that the defense did not request the assistance of the court in obtaining the documents. The Cuban News Agency adds that this will be the first time these documents will be used in court.
The documents relate to Posada Carriles’ involvement in a string of 1997 hotel bombings and include the false passport he used in Guatemala. Posada Carriles is charged with immigration fraud and obstructing an investigation of international terrorism. The case is set to begin on January 11th in El Paso, Texas.
Visits by Cuban-Americans and Americans of non-Cuban descent to Cuba continue to increase, leading to numbers “not seen since the 1950s,” NPR reported. The number is expected to reach 400,000 by year’s end, more than five times the number in 2008, the year before President Obama removed restrictions for those with family on the island.
With more than 1,000 travelers from the United States arriving each day, and around 50,000 expected in the month of December alone, Cuba is in the process of expanding the capacity at Havana’s terminal 2, which receives flights from the U.S. Nick Miroff, reporting for NPR, says the scenes of “tearful Cuban émigrés rushing to embrace their relatives, their baggage carts loaded with Santa-sized sacks of gifts,” are increasingly common.
We’ve reported on this development before, but the NPR story is well worth hearing.
WikiLeaks 2010 – Cuba
A series of new cables regarding Cuba was released this week. The cables, which represent the opinions of certain U.S. officials and foreign diplomats, provide new insight into U.S. policy toward Cuba from “behind the scenes.”
Dissidents have little support in Cuba: In a cable dated April 15, 2009, U.S. Interests Section chief Jonathan Farrar reports that the dissident movement in Cuba is largely ineffectual, due to factors including internal conflict, outsized egos, preoccupation with money, outdated agendas and infiltration by Cuba’s government. “The greatest effort is directed at obtaining enough resources to keep the principal organizers and their key supporters living from day to day,” he wrote, concluding that “the most immediate successors to the Castro regime will probably come from within the middle ranks of the government itself.” Reuters has the story here.
U.S – Cuba cooperating on drug interdictions, Cuban frustration with Jamaica’s lack of assistance: In a cable dated August 11, 2009, U.S. Interests Section chief Jonathan Farrar outlined several instances where the U.S. and Cuba cooperated on smuggling, including a case when information from the U.S. Coast Guard helped the Cuban Border Guard intercept a vessel carrying 700 kilograms of marijuana. The cable also stated that Cuban Interior Ministry officials had “on multiple occasions” voiced frustration and concern to the U.S. Coast Guard drug interdiction specialist assigned to Havana that the government of Jamaica was not cooperating in the fight against drug smuggling to the Bahamas and the United States. CNN reports on it here.
Jamaica’s Prime Minister Bruce Golding responded to the cable on Thursday, saying Cuba also voiced concern directly to him and his government shook up an anti-drug police unit following the complaints, the Associated Press reported. Since then, there has been “full and active cooperation between Jamaica and Cuba on counter-narcotics surveillance and interdiction, and no concern has been expressed by officials of the Cuban government,” Golding added.
U.S. embassy does not foresee demonstrations or massive migrations when Fidel Castro dies: In a cable dated January 15, 2009, U.S. Interests Section chief Jonathan Farrar wrote that the USINT does “not believe the announcement of Fidel’s death will spark either violent demonstrations or a quick surge in migration. The security arrangements noted in the previous paragraph and the Cuban people’s generally conservative nature after 50 years of repression, combined with still significant admiration for Fidel personally, argue against short term disturbances. Far from generating a surge in migration, the announcement of his death could cause a drop in such activity as Cubans wait to see if Fidel’s passing brings any change to the island.”
Cuba wanted to open up secret talks with the U.S. to address bilateral concerns: Cuba’s President Raúl Castro wanted to open secret talks with the White House in late 2009 as the only way his government could “make major moves toward meeting U.S. concerns,” according to senior Spanish diplomats, the Miami Herald reported. The press corps opened this issue with State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. You can read the exchange here.
U.S. sought bad news about Cuba’s health care: In a cable dated June 5, 2006, former U.S. Interests Section chief Michael Parmly, wrote that the U.S. Interests Section “is always looking for human interest stories and other news that shatters the myth of Cuban medical prowess, which has become a key feature of the regime’s foreign policy and its self-congratulatory propaganda.”
USINT thought Fidel Castro almost died in 2006: In a cable dated March 16, 2007, former U.S. Interests Section chief Michael Parmly said he had received secret information about Fidel Castro’s health, writing that he almost died in 2006, on an airplane, when he suffered a perforated intestine. After the incident, an unnamed doctor offered the following prognosis: “He won’t die immediately, but he will progressively lose his faculties and become ever more debilitated until he dies.” According to the cable, Castro’s sickness was from diverticulitis of the colon and an intestinal perforation, but he refused a colostomy to treat the problem.
Debates about plans to reform the Cuban economy are taking place in neighborhoods and workplaces across the country. The Associated Press received permission to attend one worker’s assembly at the Antillana Steelworks company, where workers voiced concerns about the elimination of government subsidies that keep food on the table, blamed red tape for the island’s crippling inefficiency and complained about not being able to make ends meet on wages of less than $20 a month.
According to the AP, workers appeared to speak bluntly about a wide range of concerns during the three-hour encounter with union and Communist Party leaders, as well as management representatives of the state-run enterprise.
Cuba’s 611-member National Assembly convened this week to discuss the government’s proposals for reforming the economy. State media said the delegates would debate a 32-page list of guidelines for next April’s Communist Party Congress, where the country’s five-year economic plan will be cemented and approved. “We’re going to talk about the economic plans. The main focus is going to be to allow the delegates to debate the guidelines,” said Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón.
The session was not broadcast live, but a summary was shown on state television in the evening. Economic and Planning Minister Marino Murillo and Finance Minister Lina Pedraza explained in detail changes to self-employment and proposals to reform Cuba’s tax system. Here are reports by the Associated Press, EFE and AFP.
Economic and Planning Minister Marino Murillo told the National Assembly that Cuba was able to meet some economic goals it 2010, but a lack of discipline and other problems still plagues the economy, Reuters reported. Murillo said productivity had risen 4.2 percent in 2010 and salaries were up 4.4 percent, but the production of key agricultural products fell short, and transportation problems plagued the sector, forcing the government to spend heavily on importation of food staples including rice and beans. “We have to have much discipline because if not, we cannot put this economy in order. These are moments of much indiscipline,” he said.
According to the Financial Times, Cuba’s debt crisis and desire to build confidence amongst creditors, especially China, is at the forefront of spending freezes and attempts to increase efficiency. A video of a meeting with over 500 senior officials chaired by President Raúl Castro, and presided over by Economy Minister Marino Murillo, is apparently circulating in Havana, in which the two leaders state “mounting debt and the need for fresh credit had left the government no choice but to put its economic house in order.”
Those familiar with the video said Murillo specifically talks about the need to repay China on time. According to diplomats in Havana, Chinese and Vietnamese officials have repeatedly “suggested” Cuba modernize and offered their assistance. According to the Financial Times, the pressure and need for credits seems to be having an effect, and is helping to push Cuba toward reform.
According to one of Cuba’s leading economists, Joaquín Infante, the next two years are going to be very difficult, and the benefits of the economic adjustments being made won’t start to be seen until 2013. In an interview with Juventud Rebelde, Infante said the changes are going to be for the better in the long run and must take place now. “We don’t have any other alternative…if we don’t do it, we are going to lose the socialism that has cost us so much and given us so much.”
Infante views the separation of the functions of the state and businesses as “very important. “If you are government, you don’t administer. The companies are companies. The government regulates, sets rules and supervises; but it can’t be administrating the economy,” said Infante.
As we reported last week, with Cuba debating new economic policies that will increase the role of the private sector, restructure taxes and possibly create new forms of property that can be sold and rented, laws will have to be adapted to create the proper legal framework.
In a new article on these developments, José Toledo, president of the parliamentary commission on Constitutional and Judicial Affairs and Dean of the University of Havana’s law school, said “It’s obvious that a wide legislative process will have to take place in order to implement the proposals in the (economic) guidelines,” said, AFP reported.
Among the changes, “there will need to be a law about cooperatives…The country does not have a legal norm for cooperatives outside of agriculture,” said Toledo.
The Global Post reported on dozens of vendors of bootleg DVDs and CDs coming out of the shadows and popping up across Havana now that they can conduct business openly. No longer forced to sell their goods in secret, they now carry laminated ID cards recognizing them as authorized, tax-paying professionals. “I’m making money for my family, and I’m making money for the state,” Lupe González told the Global Post, who now runs four separate licensed businesses from her front patio in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood.
Paladars, small private restaurants that were allowed to open in the 1990s, but recently “strangled by regulations and ideological taboos,” are set to make a resurgence in Cuba as the country pushes for the creation and expansion of small and medium business, Reuters reported. One famous paladar, La Guarida, which shut down a little over a year ago due to excessive regulations, is set to reopen, exemplifying the change.
“There has been a 180 degree change. We are now considered businesses, contributors,” said owner Enrique Núñez. “My image in the society has changed. It went from being something almost marginal to being something accepted.”
Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raúl Castro, said in an interview this week that she hopes the proposed economic reforms will lead to a form of socialism that “is better organized and more participatory,” through a process marked by “transparency,” EFE reported.
An investigation into last month’s deadly plane crash that killed 68 people has determined that it was caused by an excessive buildup of ice on the aircraft and mistakes by the crew, Prensa Latina reported.
Cuba’s Civil Aeronautics Institute determined that Aero Caribbean Flight 883, which was en route to Havana from the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, was operating normally until extreme weather conditions caused a “severe” accumulation of ice as the plane was flying at 20,000 feet. Citing data from the plane’s black boxes, the report determined that the icing was combined with “errors by the crew” in handling the situation, but the plane was in good condition prior to the accident. The crash took the lives of 40 Cubans – seven crew members and 33 passengers – and 28 foreign nationals from 10 different countries. BBC News has a report in English here.
Cuba experienced its lowest temperatures for December in the last 50 years on Wednesday, setting 31 local records country-wide, the Cuban News Agency reported. The island came close to breaking the record for the coldest temperature ever, which was .6 degrees Celsius on February 18th, 1996, EFE reported. Strong winds and rough seas also brought waves crashing over the malecón, Havana’s seaside boulevard. BBC News has a good slide show of the rough seas and Cubans decked in winter attire.
Cuba launched its own version of Wikipedia this week at Ecured.cu. According to the site, it was launched to “create and disclose knowledge with everyone and for everyone, from Cuba and with the whole world.” Time Magazine outlined some entries among the 19,752 articles currently listed.
On U.S.-Cuban relations: Washington views Cuba “like those who admire a beautiful fruit that will end up falling in their hands.” On President George W. Bush: he has a family history of “dirty business, tricks and government intrigue” and “applied all possible dirty war tricks: clandestine jails, kidnappings, extrajudicial processes, wiretapping.” On the United States: the country “consumes 25% of the energy produced on the planet and in spite of its wealth, more than a third of its population does not have assured medical attention.” It also has taken “by force territory and natural resources from other nations, to put at the service of its businesses and monopolies.” A search for Alan Gross did not return any results.
Due to domestic production difficulties, Cuba will again have to import two times as much rice as it produces domestically in 2011, EFE reported. According to the National Statistics Office, Cubans consume an average of 11 pounds of rice each month, seven pounds of which is guaranteed to each citizen at a subsidized price on the monthly ration card. As the country attempts to phase out the ration card, and subsidies in general, the Agriculture Ministry has set a goal of substituting 56 percent of imports with domestic-produced rice by 2013. However, Juan Pérez Lamas, vice-minister of agriculture, told local media that disorganization, a lack of resources and other difficulties has led to unfortunate losses in rice production.
“It seems that rice production is moving faster than the development of national infrastructure to sustain it,” Workers, a Cuban newspaper, reported. “It is absurd and un-economical that we can’t find the 250 dollars, which it costs to generate a ton of rice here, and then have 500 dollars to bring it from Asia.”
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Cuba is interested in normalizing relations with the European Union even if conditions, such as respect for human rights, are included in the text, EFE reported. Cuba has publicly and privately conveyed its displeasure with and the “inconvenience” of negotiating an accord with the EU as long as it has the Common Position, which conditions the development of relations on progress in human rights and democratization in Cuba, which Havana considers an attempt to meddle in it internal affairs. However, conversations in recent weeks have shown that Cuban authorities could accept getting the negotiation process underway even if the Common Position remains in force.
According to an internal EU document obtained by EFE, representatives from Cuba and the EU may meet next month with the EU hoping to obtain commitments from Havana about freeing all its political prisoners and allowing back into Cuba those who have been freed and sent abroad.
Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas was not given permission by Cuban authorities to travel to Europe this week to receive the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Conscience, the Catholic News Agency reported.
Represented by an empty chair draped with a Cuban flag, Fariñas sent a strongly worded video message thanking the Parliament for the EU’s main human rights award and urging them to stay strong on Cuba, the Miami Herald reported. The refusal to travel “is the most irrefutable evidence that, unluckily, nothing has changed…in the neo-Stalinist regime,” Fariñas said
Fariñas expressed his hope that the EU would not be fooled by the deception of “a cruel and savage Communist regime,” and called on member countries to maintain the Common Position that links EU relations to improvements in Cuba’s human rights record.
Speaking with a Miami radio station, Fariñas said that he had asked Irma Holy, the widow of Jorge Mas Canosa, the creator of the Cuban American National Foundation, to pick up the award for him, El Mundo reported. It was unclear if Holy attended the ceremony.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement congratulating Fariñas for his “remarkable fortitude and courage.” Trinidad Jiménez, Spain’s foreign minister, said that it would have been “a good decision,” if Cuba had allowed Fariñas to travel, EFE reported, but also said the decision should not influence contacts between the EU and Cuba and efforts to normalize relations, El Universal reported.
An agreement signed between the governments of Cuba and Greece this week will renew official cooperation on political and economic issues, the Havana Times reported. The agreement makes Greece the third member country of the European Union, after Spain and France, to renew official cooperation with Cuba despite the EU’s Common Position.
The Vice Foreign Minister of Greece, Spyros Kouvelis, said the joint declaration was very important to establishing and increasing bilateral ties “not only in the political sphere, but also in other areas such as sea transportation and agriculture.”
South America’s Mercosur trade partners signed a preferential tariff deal Wednesday with 11 developing nations including Cuba, resulting in a 20 percent tariff break on 70 percent of the goods sold among participating countries, Bloomberg reported. The deal, which also included Egypt, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Morocco, should lead to increased economic and political ties between Cuba and Mercosur member states.
Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay formed Mercosur in 1991 with the aim of creating a common market in the Southern Cone of South America. Trade within the bloc including Venezuela, whose entry must still be ratified by Paraguay’s Congress, will reach a record $40 billion this year, AFP reported.
Around the Region:
This week Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez requested that the National Assembly approve an “Enabling Law” to grant him “special powers” to generate decrees without the need of legislative approval, based on provisions contained in the 1999 Constitution.
The provision, which was passed by the National Assembly, provides a term of twelve months in order to enact “urgent and necessary laws” to support the citizens as a result of the emergency left behind by devastating floods that killed approximately 40 people and left some 140,000 others homeless. President Chávez also announced that he has 20 decrees ready to be released, Reuters reported. Opposition groups are accusing the President of outflanking them before a new National Assembly convenes on January 5, 2011.
WikiLeaks’ documents: U.S. tried to curb clout of Chávez, The Seattle Times
U.S. diplomats discussed efforts to counter Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s influence in Latin America and tried to dissuade Russia from shipping anti-aircraft missiles to his government, according to classified documents released by WikiLeaks. One 2008 document from the U.S. Embassy in Colombia said then-Colombian President Álvaro Uribe urged Washington “to lead a public campaign against Venezuela,” adding that the presidents of countries such as Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica were “natural leaders to counter Chávez.”
El Salvador: so far, so good, The Economist
The mess faced by Mauricio Funes when he was elected president of El Salvador last year suggested he was in for a bumpy ride. Amid the global financial crisis, the economy shrank by 3.6%, one of the biggest drops in the region. Rampant gang violence produced the world’s highest murder rate in 2009. El Salvador is not an easy place to govern. Yet 18 months later 79% of voters back Mr. Funes, making him Latin America’s most popular leader.
The climate talks in Cancun are over, and the assessments seem to fall into the modest-but-better-than-expected range, mainly because they set the stage for future talks. Monsters and Critics has highlights here, including a goal by the nearly 200 participating nations to limit the rise in world temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius and the creation of a “Green Climate Fund” to help developing nations adapt.
The Wilson Center in Washington hosted an event this week on Honduras. Captured on video, the event’s participants included: Jorge Ramón Hernández Alcerro, Ambassador of Honduras to the United States; Leticia Salomón, Centro de Documentación de Honduras; José Miguel Insulza, Organization of American States; Eduardo Stein, Honduran Truth and Reconciliation Commission; Facundo Nejamkis, University of Buenos Aires; Julissa Reynoso, Department of State.
Romina Ruiz-Goiriena writes on the Havana Note this week about how Cuba-initiated, Cuba-motivated and Cuba-funded hip hop is much more powerful in creating social change than failed USAID programs.
New Anti-Terror Rules Thwart U.S. Cuban Cigar Trade, Associated Press
It’s an unintended consequence of the fight against terrorism that’s left some cigar aficionados fuming: Terrorists in Yemen try to send bomb-laden packages to the U.S. aboard cargo planes, and now a connoisseur in Iowa can’t get his Cubans from Switzerland.
Plan Colombia: The Measure of Success, Forrest Hylton
Since the outbreak of the Iraqi insurgencies in 2004, as in Central America in the 1980s, counterinsurgency has been the obsession of the U.S. military and intelligence bureaucracies. Within that admittedly limited framework, Colombia seems like a clear example of “success” in the twenty-first century, especially when measured against Iraq and Afghanistan.