“Un-confuse the policy!” Plus a Happy PAC, a Mack Attack, and Pres. Castro’s reform promise for 2011 and beyond: ‘There’s No Going Back.’

This exchange, which took place at the U.S. State Department, caught our eye this week.

A correspondent submitted this question:

Does the United States put any restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to North Korea?

And the State Department’s press office answered:

(T)he United States government does not restrict travel to North Korea.

Unlike North Korea, Cuba poses no military threat to the United States, it isn’t shelling its neighbors, it doesn’t have nuclear weapons, and it seeks a peaceful, respectful, and engaged relationship with the U.S.  Yet, it’s harder for almost all U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba than it is to go to North Korea.  Confusing, right?

But wait, there’s more.

Read this week’s news summary.  Wikileaks quotes the Cuban blogger, Yoani Sánchez, telling a State Department official that political change on the island depends on better relations with the United States.  President Raúl Castro, who asked for a direct channel to the White House (where better communications could lead to better relations), was apparently told to talk to our Interests Section in Havana if he had something to say.

When a reporter asked why we wouldn’t want direct contacts, the State Department said that would be contingent upon fundamental change in Cuba.  But, the reporter said, “I thought this Administration and this President campaigned on engagement with one’s enemies in order to change the behavior.” (So did we!)

Then P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman replied: “There’s no cookie-cutter approach to this. Our approach to Cuba doesn’t necessarily have to mirror our approach to Iran, which doesn’t necessarily have to mirror our approach to North Korea.” [emphasis added]

We remember Ralph Waldo Emerson’s line about how “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” but our policy toward Cuba is both inconsistent and foolish.

The pathway to the future of better relations is clear in the minds of most Americans, most Cuban Americans, our allies and adversaries around the world, and often, but not always, present in the expressions of President Obama himself.

That pathway to progress is engagement, and not continuously imposing new conditions that prevent communications and better relations between Cuba and the U.S. to move forward.

Addressing the National Assembly this week, President Castro said the economic reforms taking place in Cuba today are irreversible. At precisely this moment, when the system is being changed in fundamental ways, we think it is a good idea to send more delegations of Americans to engage with everyday Cubans, and learn how they are reshaping their lives in view of the reforms.

As we have reported since August, an executive order to legalize more travel by Americans to Cuba is ready for the President’s approval.  He should be dismantling these restrictions, straightening out the differences between Cuba and say, North Korea, and bringing the conduct of our policy toward the Cuban people more in line with our hopes for the season and the interests of our country.

It’s long past time to un-confuse the policy.

With that, we wish you Happy Holidays, and offer you a week’s worth of Cuba news.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Obama Administration approves Western Union remittance transfers in Cuban Pesos

Western Union recently received approval from the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to begin processing money transfers to Cuba in local currency, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), which according to Western Union is “great news for our consumers!”

Previously, Western Union was forced to pay out remittances in U.S. dollars, which then had to be exchanged into local currency. Cuba’s government, in an effort to de-dollarize its economy because of restrictions on using U.S. currency in the international market, levies an additional 10% tax when U.S. dollars are converted in Cuba. Western Union outlined the new rules on its website:

  • On December 20, 2010, Western Union will have the ability to send funds to Cuba in CUC and will eliminate the U.S. dollar payout for Cuba.
  • Consumers will receive money in CUC at the exchange rate set at the time the money transfer transaction is sent.
  • Pay out in local currency will relieve Receivers of the 10% tax imposed on U.S. dollars.
  • The send amount limit restriction of $5,000 for Family Remittance transaction has been raised to $10,000.

By removing the requirement to pay out in U.S. dollars and implementing local currency pay out, recipients in Cuba will no longer incur any additional fees when receiving funds in Cuba, and therefore 100 U.S. dollars should provide the recipient approximately 90 CUC. The previous policy resulted in recipients ending up with only 80 CUC for a 100 U.S. dollar transfer after all fees were applied. Western Union’s statement on this policy change is available here, and an EFE report in English can be read here.

When President Obama removed restrictions on sending remittances to Cuba in 2009 his administration criticized Cuba for implementing the 10% tax on U.S. dollars, but continued to attack Cuba’s dealing in dollars on the international market – Cuba’s justification for the tax – through sanctions on third country banks and did not allow Western Union to deal in CUCs. The new policy will result in more money for families in need, more startup funds for entrepreneurs in Cuba, and increased credibility for Western Union and the U.S. Government.

WikiLeaks 2010 – Cuba

Newly-released WikiLeaks cables include additional information about U.S. policy toward Cuba and developments on the island.

  • According to a 2009 cable, Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez told U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, Bisa Williams, during a visit to Havana that “an improvement in relations with the United States is absolutely necessary for democracy to surge here.” She also asked the U.S. to remove e-commerce restrictions against Cuba to be able to buy products online.
  • Similarly, a cable from 2004 stated that Cuba was a “difficult subject” for Brazilian President Lula da Silva, but that a top adviser at the time relayed this message to their counterparts in the United States: “If the Government of the United States allows business and private contacts with Cuba, the island ‘would be unrecognizable in 5 years.'”
  • Another diplomatic cable, dated January 31, 2008, states that Cuba banned Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary, Sicko, which features the Cuban health care system, because it showed health facilities available to foreigners but not the general population. However, in response to the cable, Moore said the movie was actually shown on state television twice and called the diplomatic note “a stunning look at the Orwellian nature of how bureaucrats for the state spin their lies and try to recreate reality (I assume to placate their bosses and tell them what they want to hear).”
  • Other cables show that the U.S. is unhappy that Canada and other democratic countries refuse to meet with dissidents when high level officials visit the island and often don’t make public statements critical of the Castro government’s human rights records. In one cable, Jonathan Farrar, the current head of the U.S. mission in Havana, complained that Canada “failed to meet with the independent civil society or make public pronouncements [on human rights] after the visit of Minister Kent.”

FLORIDA’S FOREIGN POLICY

Happy PAC:  Cuba lobby group celebrates anti-Castro congressional allies

The U.S. Cuba Democracy political action committee (PAC), the leading lobby group in support of U.S. trade and travel restrictions against Cuba, held a luncheon in Miami this week to thank outgoing Members of Congress, welcome new ones, and celebrate “getting through the last two years without any significant change in U.S. economic and travel policy toward the communist island,” the Miami Herald reported.

The PAC, which contributed more than $450,000 to Democratic and Republican political campaigns in the 2010 election, celebrated the election of two new Cuban-American hardliners to Congress: Florida Republicans Marco Rubio to the Senate and David Rivera to the House, both of whom have long opposed any engagement with Cuba. (Of note: Rivera is under state investigation for possible illegal payments of more than a half-million dollars from a dog track company, the Herald reported).

Based on the Herald‘s reporting, outgoing Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart appeared to be the star of the show, saying he would remain active on the Cuba issue despite his retirement from Congress and calling on the Cuban military to avoid a Tiananmen Square massacre in Cuba.

According to the Herald, Diaz-Balart was praised by a parade of sympathetic politicians, including his brother, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-21), Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (MI-11), and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18), the incoming chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  Diaz-Balart also received praise from Democrats who accept funding from the PAC and strongly support the embargo, including Sen. Bob Menendez (NJ) and Reps. Albio Sires (NJ-13) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-20).

Mack Attack:  Will defend freedom and markets against Latin American governments in new Congress

Congressman Connie Mack (FL-14) was officially named Chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere for the 112th Congress this week. Mack took little time to use his new position to attack the left in Latin America, releasing a statement that may serve as a preview for his tenure as Chairman.

“With freedom and free markets under continuous assault by thugocrats like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and the Castro Brothers in Cuba, the United States must remain committed to countering the influence of these socialist leaders in the region. We must also work to … keep a watchful eye on the dangerous ties between Russia, Iran, and Venezuela.”

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the incoming Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman, also released a statement conveying her happiness that Mack will lead the subcommittee: “Congressman Mack does not hesitate to call a dictator a dictator, or, as is his preferred term, a ‘thugocrat.’  Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa are all placing democracy under siege in Latin America, and I am happy to have Connie standing up to their tyrannical advances as Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.”

‘TIS THE SEASON TO TRY TERRORISTS

Salvadoran given 30 years for role in terrorist acts against Cuba

A Salvadoran man who has admitted working with Luis Posada Carriles and Miami-based Cuban exiles to bomb Cuba tourist hotels in the 1990s was tried and convicted on terrorism charges this week in Havana. Francisco Chávez Abarca was arrested earlier this year in Caracas, Venezuela after entering the country on a false passport. According to Cuban and Venezuelan authorities, he quickly confessed he had traveled there to carry out violent acts to destabilize the country. He was then deported to Cuba where he faced charges for past attacks against Cuba.

Reuters reported that Chávez Abarca was tried by a special tribunal for crimes against the security of the state and given a 30-year sentence. In the past, convicted terrorists have been sentenced to death, but President Raúl Castro called for the abolition of capital punishment in 2008.

Since arriving in Cuba, Chávez Abarca has confessed his role in past terrorist acts against Cuba and outlined the role that Luis Posada Carriles and the Cuban American National Foundation played in organizing and funding violent campaigns. In September, Cuban state television aired a confession in which he said Luis Posada Carriles hired him to take part in attacks on hotels in the 1990s which injured dozens and left an Italian tourist dead.

A Telesur news report on Chávez Abarca’s activity in Venezuela and extradition to Cuba is available here, and Cuban television has a report on his arrival to Havana hereCubaDebate offers a three part series on terrorism against Cuba that features an interview with Chávez Abarca, in which he outlines his relationship with Luis Posada Carriles and the Cuban American National Foundation and retraces his steps in placing bombs in tourist establishments in Havana and Varadero.

Posada Carriles, a former CIA agent, now lives in the U.S., where he was arrested in 2005 on immigration charges. He is out on bail and awaiting trial, set to begin January 10th in El Paso, Texas. The Granma reported that during his trial Chávez Abarca “admitted to having completed direct orders from Luis Posada Carriles, confessed author, among others, of the attack against a Cuban airliner in Barbados, in 1976, that killed 73 people.” AP reports on the trial here, and IPS has a story on how Chávez Abarca’s co-conspirators recently had their death sentences commuted to long prison sentences.

Judge denies Cuba depositions in Posada Carriles case, trial will begin as scheduled

Elizabeth Cardone, presiding judge in the case against Luis Posada Carriles, has for a second time denied the defense’s request for a continuance, Cuba Encuentro reports.  Posada Carriles’ lawyers had stated that they needed more time to review documents received from the Cuban and Guatemalan governments that have been approved for use as evidence. Just last week, Judge Cardone denied a similar request. The trial is scheduled to begin January 10th.

Also relating to the case, the Miami Herald’s Cuban Colada adds that Judge Cardone has rejected the prosecution’s request to travel to Cuba to receive depositions from two Salvadorans currently incarcerated on the island who have confessed to having ties with Posada Carriles. Judge Cardone found no evidence that extraordinary circumstances existed or that the “interest of justice” would be impeded without the inclusion depositions. She further explained her decision by stating that uncertainty arises given that the U.S. and Cuba do not have official relations, and that the request came too late.

Judge Cardone’s ruling can be viewed here.

Orlando Bosch in critical condition

Meanwhile, 84-year-old, violent anti-Castro activist Orlando Bosch was hospitalized this week and appears to be in “very critical condition,” Along the Malecon reported. Despite advice from the Justice Department to deport Bosch for his involvement in “more than 30 terrorist acts,” President George H.W. Bush pardoned him, allowing him to walk free in South Florida. The political pressure to grant Bosch a pardon was begun during the congressional campaign run by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and overseen by her campaign manager Jeb Bush. According to the Guardian, the pardon saw huge celebrations in Miami, in what was then called “Free Orlando Day.”  Ros-Lehtinen will lead the House Foreign Relations Committee in the 112th Congress.

IN CUBA

President Raúl Castro on opening the economy: “This time, there will be no going back”

President Raúl Castro addressed over 600 legislators last Saturday to wrap up a four-day debate in the National Assembly that featured key economic policymakers explaining plans for restructuring the Cuban economy. The top leadership, including Castro in his closing remarks, repeatedly argued that the changes are aimed at “bolstering socialism” and not pushing Cuba toward capitalism.

“The measures we are applying, and all of the changes that are necessary for the modernization of the economic model, are aimed at preserving socialism, strengthening it and making it truly irreversible,” said Castro in his speech. Cubans are debating the proposed economic changes at workplaces and neighborhood meetings across the country in the lead up to the Communist Party Congress, which will produce a five year economic plan laying out Cuba’s new economic course.

Castro, who stressed that expanding the private sector is not the only change being made, called on ending stigmas against self-employment and a socialism that stresses the importance of efficiency and accountability. “Many Cubans confuse socialism with handouts and subsidies, equality with egalitarianism,” said Castro.

Addressing critiques, including those from the United States, that Cuba has often opened its economy only to close it again, Castro stressed this time is different: “We can assure you that, this time, there will be no going back.”

  • The Cuba Standard reports on a central element of the economic reforms, which was reiterated by Raúl Castro’s point man on the economy, Marino Murillo, over the weekend: state companies that are in the red will not be saved. Over the four-day exchange with deputies from the National Assembly, Castro and Murillo repeatedly pointed out that state companies that produce losses are running out of time and will be gradually stripped of subsidies.

    “We have companies in Cuba that have had 10 years of losses,” Murillo told the deputies. “Either they get out of their losses or we shut them down. It’s not possible to have four or five consecutive years of a company making losses and the state subsidizing the losses. This makes no sense.”

  • One of Cuba’s greatest economic and social challenges, an aging population and a dwindling workforce, was reinforced by updated numbers that show the country will close 2010 “with a population that is not only smaller than last year but also continuing to grow older, where within twenty years some thirty percent of the inhabitants will be over sixty years old,” EFE reported. The island’s population will diminish slightly in 2010 due to a reduction in fertility, and that Cubans will number 11,240,841 at the close of this year – 1,787 fewer than last year, the report added.
  • The Miami Herald reports on criticism Cuba’s government is facing from the left on the island over pronounced economic reforms, to which it refers as a “draconian plan.” The report cites blog postings by leftist scholars – such as Pedro Campos, a historian, Communist Party member and former diplomat – who agree with the reforms, but do not concur in how they are being carried out. Although it takes some criticism out of context, the report offers a wide range of opinions and disagreement the government must take into account as it moves forward.
  • PBS NewsHour’s Ray Suarez, reporting on the economic reforms in Cuba, concludes, among other things, that the debate is unique due to “high rates of literacy. High levels of awareness or at the very least an imagined understanding of the pay and opportunity of people in Canada, the United States, and Western Europe.”

    “Add to that the dissatisfaction of a people marching in place economically. They know change is coming, but wonder what it will mean for them. They want very much to do better. But they also understand that the risks involved in removing the state from the economy also hold the possibility of doing worse.”

  • Renown singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez has voiced his support of the Cuban government’s reform process. Regarding the Parliament’s meeting this Monday, Silvio said that he was hopeful about the direction being taken by Raúl Castro to conserve the revolution while correcting errors and promoting sustainability. He added, “For those of us who compose songs, people who admire our work often tell us that we express what they would have liked to say. And this Parliament has expressed what I would have liked to say.”
  • Alfredo Guevara, founder of the Cuban Film Institute, as well as a close friend of Fidel Castro and respected voice in Cuban culture and politics, had the following to say about the reforms: “The de-statization of Cuban society is irreversible.  Society will break free – it seems – from the prison of the State.  The government will release its prey, whether it wants to or not,” reported the Havana Times.
  • The Havana Times has an interesting report on Pepe, a Havana resident with an entrepreneurial spirit, looking forward to taking advantage of the opening in the private sector to establish a food business.  However, the article outlines the challenges he faces, including bureaucratic obstacles and a lack of credit.

Ortega encourages leaders to honor promise to free dissidents

Havana Archbishop Jaime Ortega, instrumental in brokering a deal with the Cuban government to free dissidents jailed in a 2003 crackdown, told reporters this week that he hopes leaders will honor their “formal promise” to free the remaining imprisoned dissidents.  He said he can’t speculate when the final releases may happen, but said “hope springs eternal” that it will happen, the Associated Press reported.

Tourist visits up to 2.5 million in 2010, Cuba hopes for 2.7 million in 2011

Cuba’s tourist sector saw a four percent increase in the number of visitors to the island this year, and is expecting to end 2010 with about 2.5 million tourist visits, EFE reported. Despite increased visits, revenue from the tourism sector did not reach levels forecast for the year. The government announced last week that it hopes 2011 will see a 10.3 percent increase in the number of visitors and 29.5 percent increase in revenue. José Manuel Bisbe, the Tourism Ministry’s marketing director, said that the promotion of cruises and the landing of “three or four” cruise operations next year should have a significant impact.

The Associated Press has another report on the throngs of Cuban Americans headed to the island for the holiday season “carrying everything from electronics and medicine to clothing and toiletries to help relatives back home.”

Ballet legend Alonso given honorary ballet to mark 90th birthday

Cuban dance legend Alicia Alonso was given a “ballet and music-filled gala” to mark her 90th birthday this week, the Associated Press reported. Considered a living legend of international ballet and a national hero in Cuba, the audience at Old Havana’s Gran Teatro broke into a standing ovation when Alonso arrived. The program was filled with tributes from dance luminaries worldwide dedicated to Alonso, who continues to lead the Cuban National Ballet. EFE reported that President Raúl Castro, who sat with the ballet legend at the tribute, visited Alonso earlier in the day at her residence with flowers, perfume and other gifts to celebrate her birthday.  Telesur has a video report on the performance here.

CUBA’S FOREIGN POLICY

Cuba renegotiates debt with China, receives new interest-free credits

Wrapping up the 23rd Session of the Intergovernmental Commission between Cuba and China in Havana, the two countries signed a cooperation document analyzing trade, joint ventures and economic cooperation, and calling for further economic integration, EFE reported. China is Cuba’s second largest trading partner and there are currently as many as a dozen mixed enterprises underway, seven of them on the island, in the sectors of mechanical and light industries, communications, agriculture and tourism.

Most notably, the two governments renegotiated Havana’s debt to Beijing, which, according to EFE, will also extend new credit to the Cuban government at no interest. The exact amount of the debt or credit was not disclosed, but Cuban state media reported an “exchange of notes postponing for 10 years the start of payments on a government loan.”  President Raúl Castro and his economic team have made ending defaults to trade partners a priority, and emphasized China as a country where confidence needs to be maintained.

The Financial Times reported last week that “rising debt charges are forcing Cuba to reshape its Soviet-style economy, with leading creditor China among those cheering on the changes.”

Angola to enter hunt for Cuban offshore oil

Angola became the latest country to enter into a production-sharing agreement with Cuba for offshore oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico that are expected to be explored next year, Macauhub reported. Sonangol, Angola’s national oil company, signed the contract with Cuba’s Cupet on December 8th to operate two blocks, N23 and N33, in the deep waters off Cuba. The Cuba Standard has an up-to-date chart depicting the blocks that various oil countries from around the world have agreed to exploit.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas ran a trip to Cuba for policy makers and energy experts earlier this year, and reported on Cuba’s plans to drill seven wells over shore in 2011-2011.

Canada and Cuba collaborate to nab fugitive

Cuban and Canadian law enforcement agencies collaborated to detain a Canadian fugitive who fled to Cuba.  Robert Derosa, considered “one of the controlling minds” of a massive marijuana grow-op in a former Molson brewery located in Ontario, was apprehended in Cuba just as he was boarding a plane to Ecuador, the Toronto Sun reported. Unlike the United States, Canada cooperates with Cuba regularly on law enforcement matters. “The Cuban authorities were very cooperative and very eager to assist the OPP’s investigation,” said Ontario Provincial Police Detective Andy Karski.

Around the Region:

U.S., Venezuela at odds on ambassador, Associated Press

Tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela flared over the U.S. nominee to serve as ambassador to Caracas, as President Hugo Chávez warned that the diplomat will not be allowed to enter the country. For months, Venezuela has been warning that Larry Palmer would not be welcome under any circumstances due to critical remarks he made about Venezuela’s government and the military. U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley admitted that it is within Venezuela’s rights to reject the nomination; however, he warned that if any action is taken against it, “there will be a consequence in terms of U.S.-Venezuelan relations.”

Honduras: Prosecute Post-Coup Abuses, Human Rights Watch

According to a Human Rights Watch report released this week, Honduran authorities should take concrete steps to end impunity for abuses committed after the country’s 2009 coup, and to curb ongoing attacks against journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists. The 65-page report, “After the Coup: Ongoing Violence, Intimidation, and Impunity in Honduras,” details the state’s failure to ensure accountability for abuses committed under the country’s de facto government in 2009. The report also documents 47 cases of threats or attacks – including 18 killings – since the inauguration of President Porfirio Lobo in January 2010.

Ecuador approves military agreements with Brazil, Venezuela, Xinhua

Ecuador’s National Assembly approved a defense cooperation agreement with Brazil and a military technical cooperation agreement with Venezuela to boost Ecuador’s defense industry. Lawmakers approved the Cooperation Agreement on Defense with Brazil, which underlined defense cooperation in military technology, exercises, and equipment development.

Recommended Reading:

Chinese Soft Power in Latin America: A Case Study, NDU Press

R. Evan Ellis, Assistant Professor of National Security Studies in the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University, offers an interesting analysis of Chinese “soft power” in Latin America and what it means for the United States.

Recommended Viewing:

Cubans Grapple with Challenges, Promises of Economic Change, PBS NewsHour

Ray Suarez and the NewsHour kick off a three-part series from Cuba with a report from Havana on how the country’s economy is adapting to the gradual economic reforms of President Raúl Castro while maintaining a tradition of socialism.

‘Juan of the Dead’ fends off zombies in Cuba, CNN

It’s another day on location for “Juan of the Dead,” Cuba’s first zombie movie, a mix of camp gore and wry satire. In this version, the communist government blames the zombie invasion on U.S.-backed dissidents’ intent on destabilizing the country.

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