New Year’s Eve Edition: U.S. calls flights to Cuba “vital part” of foreign policy; reforms and a revocation top the news.

This is our final news blast for 2010.

While the year is coming to an end, the news never stops.

Over the holiday weekend, we hope the following catches your attention as it caught ours:

  • The U.S. Department of Justice has called charter flights to Cuba from the U.S. a “vital part” of U.S. foreign policy in a filing in a lawsuit seeking $27 million from the operators of flights from the U.S. to Havana.
  • Cubans have seen a surge in remittances following the approval of new rules that allow Western Union to pay cash transfers sent from the U.S. in Cuba’s currency. The Obama rule overturns a Bush-era barrier to the sending of funds.
  • Soap and toothpaste are out as free items provided Cuban citizens on the ration card, but job applications for private sector employment and businesses are going up.  More evidence of the sweeping and serious nature of Cuba’s reforms.
  • A skilled and savvy diplomat, Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.S., will return home for the second time, as relations between the U.S. and Venezuela continue to curdle.  Bernardo has one of the toughest diplomatic assignments in Washington, and he has dealt with these fluctuations with optimism and good humor. The Obama administration revoked his visa to retaliate against Venezuela’s refusal to admit our Ambassador-designate, Larry Palmer.

What we need and want in the New Year is a forward-looking foreign policy toward Latin America and the world (starting, Mr. President, with an Executive Order opening up Cuba to additional forms of travel!).

Until then, we wish you a próspero Año Nuevo.


U.S. Justice Department: Cuba charter flights are vital to U.S. foreign policy, end the suit

The U.S. Department of Justice filed court papers this week asking a judge to end a lawsuit filed by a woman seeking $27 million from eight charter companies that operate flights from Miami to Cuba, mainly for Cuban-Americans to visit their relatives on the island, the Miami Herald reported.

Ana Margarita Martinez won a lawsuit against Cuba’s government (which never contests law suits filed in the U.S.) for damages caused after she married a Cuban man who was, unbeknownst to her, an intelligence officer.  Since Martinez has not collected the majority of the funds she was previously awarded, she decided to go after the companies that operate flights to Cuba.

However, the Justice Department is arguing that she has no right to seek money from the charter companies to satisfy her 2001 legal judgment against the Cuban government. Furthermore, the Justice Department warns that Cuban charter flights are a “vital part of U.S. foreign policy.” A decision in Martinez’s favor would likely bring the flights to the island to a halt.

New rules lead to an immediate surge in remittances

New rules approved by the Obama Administration and Cuba’s government allowing Western Union to pay out remittances to Cuba in local currency are being met with enthusiasm on the island, according to reports from the Associated Press and BBC News.

In 2004, Cuba imposed a 10 percent tax on cashing in U.S. dollars in response to difficulties U.S. sanctions create when Cuba tries to use dollars on the international market. That tax is still in place when changing dollars into Cuban pesos, but will no longer be enforced on transfers from Western Union.  In practice, the new rules mean that Cubans sending and receiving remittances through Western Union receive 10 percent more cash than someone arriving at the Cadeca (the Cuban money exchange bureau) with U.S. dollars.

“It’s good news,” Zoila Rodriguez told the AP as she waited in line at a Western Union branch in Havana on Monday. A Western Union employee told BBC News that the flow of remittances had immediately picked up. “Last year on this same date we closed at noon because there was no work,” she said, adding that she has been much busier over the last few days this year.

On his blog, the Cuban Triangle, Phil Peters takes a further look at the policy change, the benefits for Cubans sending and receiving remittances, and the effect it will have on “mules” carrying cash remittances. He also provides a link to the original Bush Administration directive that allowed remittances to be provided to Cubans in any currency but their own.

Miami to Havana: Families, Gifts…Pigeons and Guns?

New rules that allow unlimited, and for the most part unrestricted, family visits to Cuba have led to a huge increase in people, gifts and cash flowing from the U.S. to relatives on the island, especially around the holidays (as the AP reported: Cuban Americans play Santa). This week two bizarre cases regarding U.S.-Cuba travel made the headlines. One gentleman entered a guilty plea in a Florida court, admitting that on multiple occasions he snuck highly-sought racing pigeons from Cuba into the U.S.

Rufino Blanco, 47, and his daughter, Claribel Blanco Cuellar, 21, admitted that 72 unhatched pigeon eggs – which apparently looked like plastic Easter eggs – found by airport inspectors in June, were intended to be hatched and sold at Blanco’s pet store, El Morrillero. The Miami Herald has a report on the case here.

In a separate incident, a South Florida man headed to Cuba has been arrested at Miami International Airport after security screeners found a loaded gun in his fanny pack. Juan Manuel Baldoquin, who was traveling with his family to Cuba for the holidays, told police officers that he had forgotten the gun was in his bag. The gun was reported stolen in 1996 and Baldoquin now faces charges for grand theft and carrying a concealed firearm, the Associated Press reported.

Renovated Terminal 2 at Havana Airport reopens

Terminal 2 of José Martí International Airport, which serves flights departing to and arriving from the United States, was reopened on Christmas Eve after undergoing extensive renovations and expansion, the Cuba Standard reported. The easing of family travel restrictions by the Obama Administration led to a surge in U.S.-originated visits to the island, making the U.S. the fastest-growing source for travelers to Cuba.

Wikileaks 2010 – Cuba

Cuba has begun to translate and publish Wikileaks documents pertaining to Cuba on government websites. So far, eleven documents, translated into Spanish, have been posted on, which highlight U.S. “imperialist” policy and efforts to “subvert” the Cuban revolution, the website says.

Several of the cables that Cuba has decided to post include criticism by the U.S. Interests Section about the ineffectiveness of the dissident movement and their efforts to focus on Yoani Sanchez and other young bloggers. Other cables address the effectiveness of Cuba in the fight against drugs and efforts by the U.S. to influence Spain’s policy toward Havana.

CNN has a report on Cuba’s publication of the documents here.


Soap, toothpaste and detergent to be removed from the ration card

As Cuba’s government moves to cut what it considers unsustainable subsidies and benefits, it announced further cuts to the monthly ration that all citizens receive. According to a resolution published in the official Gazette, soap, toothpaste and detergent will no longer be offered for free and will be sold in stores at prices between 5 and 25 Cuban pesos, the equivalent of between 23 U.S. cents to $1.13, Reuters reported. Earlier this year the government removed cigarettes, potatoes and other vegetables from the ration card, which has been in use since the 1959 Revolution.

Unemployed Cubans form  the majority of applicants for self-employment licenses

A new article published in the Communist Party’s daily newspaper Granma says that applications and approvals for the private sector, an object of Cuba’s new economic reforms, are pouring in. The majority of applicants so far have been individuals not currently employed, meaning they could be people previously working in the informal sector, retirees or previously unemployed. According to the article, since the process began in October:

  • “Thousands of Cubans” have applied for documents to go into business for themselves – earlier this month, official media said that over 45,000 new licenses for non-state employment had already been authorized and were being processed.
  • The applicants have been “predominantly people without formal employment, in more than 60 percent of the cases.”
  • Among the 178 private-sector activities available, the preferred options are food preparation and sales, buying and selling discs, and the making and selling of household articles.
  • It reiterated the call for the expansion of self-employment not be “stigmatized,” and called on authorities to “untie the knots of bureaucracy that are holding up the prompt issuing of licenses to self-employed workers.”

Two prisoners to be freed; 11 covered by Church-State pact still await release

According to the Associated Press, the archdiocese of Havana, which has been at the center of talks to release political prisoners, announced that Miguel Angel Vidal Guadarrama and Hector Larroque Rego are to be released “shortly” and will be sent to Spain. Both men were convicted of carrying out violent acts. Vidal was convicted on terror charges in 2003 and sentenced to 15 years in prison, while Larroque was convicted in 2000 on charges including robbery, illegally possessing arms and piracy.

The two men were not part of the agreement reached by the government and the Catholic Church in July to free 52 prisoners who remained in jail following the 2003 arrest of 75 dissidents. All but 11 of those prisoners have been freed and traveled to Spain upon release. One was released and remained in Spain and several other individuals serving long sentences for acts against the government were also released.

According to the AP, Christmas came and went without any further word on when the remaining 11 will be freed. “Christmas is a family holiday, and for eight Christmases, there’s been an empty seat at the table. We hope that next year, that won’t the case,” said Laura Pollan, a leader of the Ladies in White, a group made up of the wives and mothers of the dissidents.

Sentence commuted for last remaining prisoner facing the death penalty in Cuba

Cuba’s Supreme Court on Tuesday commuted the death sentence against a Cuban-American who was the last person remaining on death row, the Associated Press reported.  Humberto Eladio Real had previously been sentenced to death for murdering a Cuban citizen in 1994 when he and six other members of a Florida-based exile group came ashore in northern Cuba, heavily armed with assault rifles and other weapons, and tried to carry out attacks against military units and government institutions to destabilize the country. Elizardo Sanchez, the head of a group that monitors the human rights situation on the island, said that Real’s parents notified him of the Supreme Court’s decision.

Cuban media reports on the decision here, saying that the court reached the decision based on “a Council of State decree on April 28, 2008, (by) which the death penalty of several convicted criminals were commuted, as well as the remorse demonstrated by Real Suarez regarding the crimes committed.”

President Raúl Castro had previously said that Cuba would refrain from using capital punishment and earlier this month, Cuba’s Supreme Court commuted the death sentences against two Salvadoran men convicted for their roles in bombing tourist facilities in the 1990s.

Cardinal Ortega gives Christmas Eve Mass at Havana prison

Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega, a key figure in brokering a deal with the Cuban government to release jailed dissidents, gave Mass at a Havana prison for a group of less than two dozen prisoners on Christmas Eve. Several of the 11 dissidents remaining behind bars are being held at the Combinado del Este prison outside of Havana where he offered Mass, but it was unclear if any dissidents were in attendance, the Associated Press reported.

Relations between the Church and government have improved over the last few years. Ortega and other officials give Mass at prisons periodically and visit with prisoners on a regular basis. The Church has also received increased access to state media with some ceremonies and messages transmitted on radio and television, especially around the Christmas holiday.

Cuba moving toward open-source software

Cuba’s Customs agency became the first Cuban institution to fully migrate to open source software, and the ministries of Education, Culture, Health, and Information and Communications are in the process of following suit. According to Xinhua news agency, Cuba has set a strategic goal to migrate most of its computers to open-source software in 2011, “a move designed to strengthen the country’s technological security and sovereignty.”

Once the migration is fully implemented on the ground, the Cuban Nova Linux will be the operating system used in 90 percent of all working places, and Microsoft Office will be replaced by Open Office in all government institutions, said Vice Minister of Information and Telecommunications Boris Moreno. He said that a similar goal to replace Internet Explorer with Firefox is underway.

Separately, the Azerbaijan government ratified a cooperation agreement in the area of information and communications technologies signed with Cuba in October, Azerbaijan’s ABC reported. Computer production is Azerbaijan’s second-largest industry, and both countries have discussed the assembly in Cuba of Azeri computers for distribution in Latin America, reported the Cuban Colada blog.

Living legend goes out in style; experts debate how Cuban players abroad would affect MLB

After dominating hitters for two decades, Pedro Luis Lazo, one of the greatest pitchers in Cuban baseball history, officially retired this week. The right-hander is Cuba’s career win leader, with a 257-136 record over 21 seasons and 2,426 career strikeouts. He played in four Olympic tournaments and both World Baseball Classics in which Cuba participated.

Prior to his former team’s game on Sunday, Lazo made his entrance from the outfield in a horse-drawn carriage accompanied by his family. The carriage came to a halt at the pitcher’s mound and Lazo stepped off to greet his former teammates and address the chanting crowd. A fan captured a video of Lazo’s farewell and posted it on YouTube here. The AP reports here.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports writes that if Cuba does allow baseball players to sign contracts abroad it may not help Major League Baseball in the U.S. First, the embargo prohibits payments to Cuban nationals, so teams will be unable to sign contracts with Cubans who don’t defect. Second, most Cuban players would sign contracts with teams in leagues in Japan, South Korea and Mexico, all of which have agreements with the U.S., making it unlikely an MLB team would be able to sign a player that walks out on his contract in those countries.


Spain: Support the process of reforms through dialogue and greater opening

The Latin American Herald Tribune has translated excerpts of a recent interview with Trinidad Jimenez, Spain’s foreign minister, in which she reflects on Spain’s approach for how to best help Cuba move forward on the reform process announced by Raúl Castro. Jimenez took over as foreign minister earlier this year for Miguel Ángel Moratinos, who pushed hard for greater engagement with Cuba and helped negotiate the release of dozens of political prisoners. Jimenez made the following points about policy toward Cuba and developments on the island:

  • “There has been an important change” in Cuba, and a good sign of it has been the freeing of 54 political prisoners over the past six months, most of whom have subsequently traveled to Spain.
  • The release of the prisoners is “a fact of extraordinary relevance” and Jimenez believes that a “vote of confidence” in the Cuban authorities must be maintained.
  • As far as the 11 people who have not been released because they have said they prefer to remain in Cuba, the Spanish government is supporting the idea that “through the Cuban Catholic Church … these people, for humanitarian reasons, be allowed to remain in their country.”
  • Regarding the recent statements of Cuban President Raúl Castro about reforming the economy, Jimenez said that “it’s relevant that the top official has expressed the need and the urgent requirement that changes be made.”
  • As far as a policy approach, Jimenez said that “the international community should be aware that the best thing that we can do for the island is support that process of reforms through a dialogue and greater opening toward Cuba,” adding that “the decision that the European Union took is heading in that direction.”
  • In regards to the current environment in Cuba, Jimenez said that “there is a climate of greater openness on the island and a greater willingness to introduce changes and reforms. Clearly, the formal changes have not yet occurred.”

Cuba: Despite economic woes at home, foreign assistance will continue

In an interview with the Jamaican Observer, Bruno Rodrigues Parrilla, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, said Cuba would maintain its assistance program for other poor nations despite economic pressures at home. “The international economic environment is very difficult at present,” Rodriguez Parrilla said. “We have lived up to our commitments, for example to train 100,000 medical doctors from the Caribbean and Latin American over 10 years and we have already covered that period this year.”

“We committed ourselves to teach how to read and write to three million persons and that goal has already been met. We have performed almost two million eye surgeries, but our commitments are firm and we will maintain the present cooperation levels. At present we have cooperation with as many as 79 countries in the whole planet and Jamaica will always be a priority to us.”

The foreign minister noted the effects of the U.S. embargo on Cuba’s development situation, but also acknowledged mistakes in planning. “We have also made our own mistakes and we have not managed to turn our economy into an efficient one. Right now, we are having a national debate looking at the Cuban economic model and introducing the necessary adjustments,” he added.

Around the Region:

Venezuela’s Chávez dares U.S. to expel Ambassador, U.S. obliges, Bloomberg

Relations between the U.S. and Venezuela continue to deteriorate.  Earlier this year, Venezuela strongly objected to comments made by ambassador-designate Larry Palmer during his confirmation hearings to be Ambassador to Venezuela.  Caracas later indicated that it would reject the Obama administration’s choice for the post.

This week, President Hugo Chávez dared the U.S. government to expel his ambassador from Washington in response to Venezuela’s rejection of Larry Palmer. According to AP, Chávez said “if the government is going to expel our ambassador there, let them do it!” Chávez also added that “if they’re going to cut diplomatic relations, let them do it!”

Washington has just retaliated and revoked the visa of Bernardo Álvarez, Venezuela’s Ambassador to the U.S. Álvarez has skillfully navigated roiling diplomatic waters over the course of the last two administrations.  Washington and Caracas engaged in tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions during the Bush administration.  Mr. Álvarez has been a partner in this somber dance before.

Colombia’s president Santos praises Venezuela for capturing leftist rebel, Dow Jones

Nilson Terán Ferreira, a field commander in the National Liberation Army, or ELN, was captured on Christmas Day. The rebel fighter was convicted in 2007 for kidnapping and murdering a rancher in a state that borders Venezuela. Santos praised Venezuelan authorities and specifically thanked President Hugo Chávez for his leadership role in the capture. Santos called it a sign of the “growing collaboration that [Colombia and Venezuela] are having on all fronts including, as this demonstrates, the security front.”

Gunmen kill 10th journalist in perilous Honduras, AFP

Unidentified gunmen shot and killed radio reporter Henry Suazo, the 10th journalist to be killed this year in Honduras. “We urge the authorities to clarify the facts, the motives and the perpetrators of this crime,” said the Radio HRN station, for which Suazo was a correspondent in the Caribbean port city of La Ceiba. The 39-year-old also worked at a local television station. Human rights activists said that Suazo’s death reflects the “atmosphere of insecurity and helplessness” in Honduras for both journalists and the general population.

Venezuelan ex-president Carlos Andrés Pérez dies in Miami, Associated Press

Carlos Andrés Pérez, whose popularity soared with his country’s oil-based economy but who later faced riots, a severe economic downturn and impeachment in his homeland, has died in Miami. More than 100 mourners attended his funeral, informed the Miami Herald. President Hugo Chávez offered condolences, but also said that “may the form of politics that he personified rest in peace and leave here forever,” according to The New York Times. Perez survived two coup attempts in 1992, the first led by Chávez, then a young army lieutenant colonel. In recent years, Pérez lived in Miami while the Venezuelan government demanded he be turned over to stand trial for his role in quelling bloody 1989 riots.

Lula disappointed with Obama’s Latin America policy, EFE

Relations between the U.S. and Latin America have not changed in any meaningful way under President Barack Obama, Brazilian head of state Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said this week. “The truth is that nothing has changed and I view that with sadness,” he pointed out. Lula also said that despite having several conversations with Obama about the need for “a change of vision” in Washington’s relations with Latin America, he is not confident the message has been received. With millions of Latin Americans living in the U.S. Lula said he does not understand why Washington continues to behave as an “empire” in its ties with the region.

Recommended Reading:

It is Time to Make Your Move on Cuba, Mr. Obama, The Havana Note

It would be hard to imagine a better opportunity to improve the people-to-people contacts between Cuba and the United States than the last two years.  Barack Obama won the presidency with a foreign policy platform emphasizing soft power and dialogue with friends and foes alike over hostility and unilateralism.

Recommended Viewing:

Skyrockets at night spark holiday delight, CNN

For 200 years, folks in Remedios, a small town in the Cuban countryside, have shared the legendary tale of Father Francisco Vigil de Quiñones. As the story goes, Father Vigil was annoyed that so few of his parishioners were attending his church’s Christmas Eve midnight Mass. So the Catholic priest had an idea. He employed a few of the town’s children to create a ruckus that would get people out of bed and into the pews. Additional videos of the unorthodox ceremony are available here and here.

Preventive health care in Cuba – role of medical expertise abroad in foreign policy

Ray Suarez of PBS broadcast new reports on the Cuban health care system and its policy of assisting developing countries with medical personnel and expertise. The first report focuses on Cuba’s emphasis on preventive medicine. According to Suarez, “In an era when countries are struggling to do more for less with limited health care dollars, Cuba’s successes in prevention are likely to be closely watched.”

In the second report, Suarez looks at how providing doctors and medical assistance to countries in the region and throughout the world plays into Cuba’s foreign policy strategy. A diverse group of experts and individuals involved in Cuba’s medical field and programs are interviewed and offer varying opinions. One American student featured in the video, Pasha Jackson, was actually a professional football player for the Indianapolis Colts before an injury led him to pursue a medical career unaffordable and unavailable to him in the U.S. The report highlights Cuba’s international medical assistance to various countries throughout the world and the work of Cuban and Cuba-trained physicians in Haiti following this year’s earthquake.

The Best Cuban Athletes of 2010

Cuban wrestler Mijain López and triple jumper Yargelis Savigne were selected 2010’s best athletes in Cuba, according to the survey carried out by the national Institute of Sports, EFE reported. A YouTube video with some of López’s highlights is worth checking out.

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