There is much to report this week – on a trial date set for Alan Gross, the continuing trial of Luis Posada Carriles, new prisoner releases in Cuba, and the one-year anniversary of the death of hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo.
Before we turn to news made by others, we’d like to call your attention to news made this week by us – the Center for Democracy in the Americas – and the report we have just issued, “As Cuba plans to drill in the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. policy poses needless risks to our national interest.”
Our organization opposes the U.S. embargo against Cuba and looks for opportunities to replace this failed, counter-productive policy with policies and new ideas that will lead to a normalized relationship.
It seems to us that energy policy and environmental protection are classic examples of how the embargo is an abiding threat to U.S. interests, and classic opportunities for us to forge a new course in our relationship with Cuba that would benefit both our countries.
Cuba and its foreign partners are preparing to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Although the state of the art rig ordered by Repsol – from China, and built to specifications that avoid violations of the embargo – will arrive for drilling to begin later than planned, drilling is expected to take place in the third quarter of 2011.
Drilling in deepwater along Cuba’s coast is no longer simply on the horizon, it is coming – it is going to happen – as sure as you can count the more than $750 million that was spent on building the rig in the first place.
Yet, with this activity imminent, the U.S. is utterly unprepared for what is to come.
The embargo prohibits American companies from joining Cuba in efforts to extract offshore resources, denies Cuba access to U.S. equipment for drilling and environmental protection, ties the U.S. government’s hands leaving it unable to plan adequately for a potential spill, and puts our coastal assets in peril.
After living through the BP spill, the United States cannot maintain the illusion that the embargo will stop Cuba from drilling. In fact, legislative efforts to tighten sanctions – as proposed by Republican and Democratic Members of Florida’s Congressional delegation – would not protect Florida or its environment, should a spill take place.
Instead, our organization believes that the U.S. should adopt new policies to protect U.S. economic, environmental, and foreign policy interests, and a new outlook that accepts Cuba’s sovereignty, its right to drill, and the benefits that can accrue to both nations, were we to cooperate with Cuba on matters ranging from drilling to environmental protection and safety.
In our report, we make ten recommendations that include unilateral actions the Obama administration can take without seeking new authority in areas such as licensing, enforcement and information sharing; cooperation with Cuba principally on environmental approaches; new authorities that would permit U.S. firms to join in the exploration and fully participate for environmental safety; and, perhaps most important, a different approach toward Cuba that recognizes its sovereignty and how an economically stable Cuba best serves U.S. interests.
As we say in the report, there is much to be done and relatively little time left to prepare. Our hope is to contribute to the debate and to a sense of urgency that produces positive action.
Press accounts describing our report can be found here in the Financial Times, here courtesy of Fox News, here in an oil and gas trade publication, and (reported in Spanish) by EFE and Telesur. CBS radio news carried coverage of the report as did Radio Marti.
This week, in Cuba news…
Cuba’s government has released seven more prisoners, all but one of which have accepted exile in Spain, the Associated Press reports. Iván Hernández, among the group of 52 dissidents arrested in 2003 that Cuba’s government agreed to release last year, will remain on the island. Of the group of 75 originally arrested in the Spring 2003 crackdown, six remain in prison.
Hernández is a journalist and has stated that he will “keep writing and working as an independent journalist just like before they convicted me,” BBC reports. Reporters Without Borders released a statement this week urging the release of all jailed journalists.
Wednesday marked the anniversary of the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a Cuban dissident and prisoner who died last year following an 83-day hunger strike. The anniversary occasioned an increase in state surveillance of some 50 known dissidents and the detention of about 40 others, allegedly to thwart plans for protests surrounding the anniversary, the Miami Herald reports.
The U.S. State Department released a statement commemorating the anniversary, and calling on Cuba’s government to release all political prisoners. President Obama also released a statement that called for an end to the harassment of Zapata Tamayo’s mother and other known dissidents. President Obama’s request was echoed in releases from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Accounts of what actually occurred on the anniversary vary. It appears that dozens of people were detained and that some dissidents remain under house arrest. Most reports indicate that those detained were quickly released, but it is unclear if any remain in custody. An article from the Associated Press reports that members of the Ladies in White congregated at the home of Laura Pollán, the leader of the group, and were heckled by a group of pro-government activists.
Despite the fact that Cuba’s government has announced the planned layoff of about 500,000 state workers as a part of its economic reforms, it seems that there have been no actions taken yet, AP reports. Government officials have acknowledged the slow start, blaming a lack of communication, inefficiencies and errors in the councils that have been set up to decide who will be fired. They indicated that there had been some layoffs in the health, tourism and sugar industries but did not provide any specifics.
Several Cuba experts and economists have mentioned the social risks and anxiety associated with firing such a large percentage of the work force. Some Cubans interviewed have acknowledged the anxiety that has come along with the fear of losing their job and potentially having to learn a new trade or venture into the private sector without any previous experience or training.
The delivery date for Scarabeo 9, a state of the art Chinese-built offshore oil rig destined for Cuba, was set back again this week, Reuters reports. The rig took on water while it was in transit to Singapore, and investigations have been ordered to make sure that the rig is up to standards. The rig is now expected to arrive in August, although the arrival may again be delayed if any problems that require repair are discovered during inspection. The rig was originally scheduled to arrive in Cuba September of 2009.
Sherritt International, the Canadian energy and mining firm that is Cuba’s largest foreign investor, expects moderate production declines in the extraction of nickel (-2%) and cobalt (-2.9%), and significant declines in oil (-7.1%) and energy (-18.7%) production, Cuba Standard reports.
Despite these predictions, Sherritt still plans to increase investment on the island. According to their report, the firm is continuing forward with an increase in investment in its Moa nickel joint venture and “reviewing options for the completion of the Phase 2 Expansion and the construction of the sulfuric acid plant at Moa.” Sherritt also plans to increase investment in oil operations, from $54 million in 2010 to $100 million projected for this year.
Jorge Piñon, an energy fellow with the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy, provides his own analysis of the factors affecting Sherritt’s prospects, specifically citing the effects of high oil prices, the restriction of access to the U.S. market and technologies, and Cuba’s use of crude oil for industrial fuel instead of refining for higher value fuel. Piñon estimates that “if Cuba was allowed to access United States-based investments and technology, it could increase its onshore and coastal production to over 80,000 barrels per day.”
Cuba’s government facing healthcare challenges, urges citizens to be cost-conscious
Issues facing Cuba’s healthcare system received attention from the island’s First Vice President, José Ramón Machado Ventura, and from state media this week. Cuban News Agency reports that at a hospital near Santiago de Cuba, Vice President Machado Ventura encouraged healthcare employees and citizens alike to learn about the costs of public care in order to better understand the accomplishments and the current efforts of the government.
Similarly, state newspaper Granma published an article this week titled “How much would you have to pay for healthcare?” EFE reports. The government is placing more emphasis on citizen awareness and provider efficiency. Odalys Montesino, the head of the Systems and Methods department of the Ministry of Public Health stated that providers often prescribe unnecessary medicine and make “unreasonable use” of expensive high tech diagnostic systems and lab tests “that could be eliminated with a good clinical exam.”
According to Cuba’s National Office of Statistics (ONE), the number of tourists travelling to Cuba in January reached more than 296,000, a 15.9% increase from the same month last year, UPI reports. ONE announced that it will publish more data about tourism by month and by country at the end of February. Cuba’s Minister of Tourism, Manuel Marrero, affirmed at a tourism fair in Spain that the industry is modernizing existing hotels and plans to construct new infrastructure, including golf courses, Europa Press reports. He also signaled that planned economic reforms will diversify the tourism industry by allowing people to open private businesses.
CNN has a report on the history of golf in Cuba, from the government antagonizing the sport after the 1959 revolution to this year’s announcement of the construction of new courses.
As the thirteenth Festival of the Habano kicked off this week, cigar lovers from at least 70 countries arrived in Havana to partake in the festivities. Cuban cigars remain a popular export, as Habanos SA, worldwide distributor of Cuban cigars and the organizers of the annual festival, reported a 2% increase in cigar sales last year, AP reports. This rise has been partially credited to an increase in exports to the Asian market, specifically China, The Guardian reports. According to Javier Terres, Vice President of Habanos SA, sales to China more than doubled between 2007 and 2010, and last year China surpassed Germany to become the third largest importer of Cuban cigars following the opening of cigar shops in several major cities in China. According to the Financial Times, cigars are gaining popularity among the growing class of wealthy Chinese.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Cuba and the European Union discuss return to diplomatic relationship
During a trip to Europe, Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, met in Brussels with Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Diplomacy, to discuss a potential resumption of diplomatic relations. For his part, Rodríguez insisted that the EU abandon its Common Position, which was adopted in 1996 and predicates full cooperation and diplomatic relations with Cuba on improvements in human rights and democracy on the island, Havana Times reports. Cuba’s position is detailed in a release by its Foreign Ministry here.
After the meeting, Rodríguez described Ashton as “respectful and helpful,” and said she had expressed her continued interest on the subject, EFE reports.
As the world has witnessed mass uprisings against Libya’s government, Fidel Castro penned Reflections on Monday and Wednesday in which he warned of an imminent NATO intervention to support member countries’ oil interests, stating,
One can agree with Gaddafi or not. The world has been invaded with all kinds of news, especially using the mass media. One has to wait the necessary length of time in order to learn precisely what is the truth and what are lies, or a mixture of events of every kind that, in the midst of chaos, were produced in Libya. For me, what is absolutely clear is that the government of the United States is not in the least worried about peace in Libya and it will not hesitate in giving NATO the order to invade that rich country, perhaps in a matter of hours or a few short days.
Castro warned that if NATO forces intervene, the result from the current crisis will be further exploitation of the Libyan people. Castro’s Reflections fall short of any condemnation of Gaddafi, who along with Castro has been a strong critic of U.S. interventions.
For its part, NATO said this week that it has no plans to intervene in Libya.
This week, Venezuela and Cuba announced the creation of a joint mining venture, Mineralba, that will function within member countries of the ALBA trade and integration agreement, Cuba Standard reports. The enterprise will be based in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela and provide tools for exploration, geological research, production, processing and distribution of minerals to member countries. 50.5% of Mineralba will be owned by Venezuelan state company CVG Compañía General de Minería de Venezuela, and 49.5% will be held by Geominera SA, a subsidiary of Cuba’s Ministry of Basic Industries.
In an effort to strengthen tourism between Venezuela and Cuba, a newly announced six-times-weekly flight began this week, Radio Nacional de Venezuela reports. The flight between Caracas and Havana is operated by the Venezuelan airline Conviasa.
While visiting Cuba to undergo tendinitis treatment, Paraguay’s President Fernando Lugo met with Raul and Fidel Castro, El Nuevo Herald reports. The meeting was “unexpected” and lasted about two hours. In statements to Cuban media, Lugo described Fidel Castro as being in “enviable health,” and commented on his “lucidity” and “brilliance,” EFE reports. The three discussed the possibilities of trade between Paraguay and Cuba. The two countries currently have no commercial trade, despite diplomatic relations being reinstated in 1999, according to Portal Paraguayo de Noticias.
U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS
Cuba’s government has set a March 4th date for the trial of U.S. contractor Alan Gross. Cuban and U.S. media reported on this development following an early morning tweet from the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. In it, Philip J. Crowley expressed his hope that Gross will be allowed to come home to the U.S. Gross will be tried for violating “Cuba’s independence and territorial integrity,” and could face up to 20 years if convicted, according to an earlier AFP article.
CBS News broke a story about Cuba’s strategy for the prosecution of Alan Gross, a cooperating witness, and some of Alan Gross’s activities in Cuba that could have led to his detention. And Reuters reports on the suffering of Alan Gross’s family in the lead up to the trial.
Gross was imprisoned while in Cuba under a USAID program to distribute satellite and Internet equipment on the island, where access to such equipment is controlled by the state.
The trial of Luis Posada Carriles resumed after Judge Elizabeth Cardone rejected the defense’s fifth motion for a mistrial, the Miami Herald reports. The defense’s motion alleged that the prosecution had deliberately delayed the delivery of relevant documents to the prosecution, and additionally called for the dismissal of three of the eleven charges against Posada. In her statement, Judge Cardone allowed the trial to continue, but sided with Posada’s defense about the delayed delivery of documents, warning that “no further violations will be tolerated.”
The trial then resumed with the continued testimony of Roberto Hernández Caballero, a Cuban official who answered questions from the prosecution about the aftermath of the 1997 string of hotel bombings allegedly masterminded by Posada. Later, defense lawyer Arturo Hernández commenced his cross-examination, aimed at creating the impression that the witness was willing to lie in order to benefit Cuba’s government, according to José Pertierra with CubaDebate.
Hernández Caballero’s testimony was followed by that of another Cuban official, a medical examiner who had performed the official autopsy on Fabio di Celmo, the Italian tourists killed in the September 1997 bombing at the Hotel Copacabana. Ileana Vizcaíno Díme testified that the explosion of the bomb, placed in a metal ashtray, had sent metal shards flying, one of which fatally struck di Celmo in the jugular, AP reports.
In an opinion piece in El Nuevo Herald, Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) defended his recent proposed amendment that would have blocked the flight expansion made possible by the White House’s January directive loosening restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba. In the piece, Rubio states his belief that “direct flights to countries that are state sponsors of terror…are unilateral prizes to tyrants and regimes that put our security in danger.” He closes by pledging to continue efforts to block travel adding that he “will not hesitate” to propose the amendment again when the opportunity arises.
The next day, Cuban-American documentary filmmaker Joe Cardona published a counterargument accusing Rubio of using the amendment simply to fire up the support of his political base. Of the current policy of sanctions and isolation, Cardona writes that “In the case of Cuba, the ‘pressure cooker’ approach has yielded very little and the human costs have been quite high.” He closes the piece by asking for new alternatives to the “archaic, out-of-touch” approaches currently being offered by politicians.
Separately, Ernesto Morales Licea, a Cuban blogger now residing in the U.S., wrote this essay for the Huffington Post, questioning the democratic credentials of Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez for their recent efforts to strip the travel rights of Americans to visit Cuba. He concludes his column, saying:
But it’s important never to forget that the narrow line that separates democracy from authoritarianism is always crossed by a single first step – believing in the power to decide, for example, how often people can travel to a certain country, or who can travel there and who cannot – and it is the responsibility of those who grow up in fully free societies to never jeopardize their foundations.
Around the Region:
Venezuela’s opposition plans ‘presidential primary,’ Associated Press
A coalition of opposition parties announced that its members have agreed to hold a primary to choose a presidential candidate to run against Hugo Chávez in next year’s presidential election. The coalition said the primary would be held between November 27, 2011 and March 11, 2012.
Venezuela’s political opposition, with its multiple parties, is often fractured and unable to unite around single candidates. A presidential primary affords the opportunity to build a consensus around one such prospective opponent to President Chávez.
Venezuela students end hunger strike, Latin American Herald Tribune
A 23-day hunger strike organized by students in Venezuela ended Tuesday, after student representatives indicated that the government had agreed to review the cases of people the protestors argued were political prisoners. José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) stated, “I am glad to learn that there is dialogue. And if such dialogue put an end to the protest, I am even happier.” The protest ended after students met with Venezuelan Minister of the Interior and Justice Tareck El Aissami. He stated that the conversation with the young demonstrators was “open and respectful” and led them to lift their hunger strike, El Universal reports.
Then-Colombian President Álvaro Uribe authorized “clandestine operations” against leftist FARC guerrillas in Venezuelan territory, according to a 2006 confidential U.S. diplomatic cable published this week by the Colombian press. El Espectador, the newspaper that published the cable, reports that the former president authorized “clandestine cross-border operations against the FARC as appropriate, while trying to avoid a repeat of the crisis generated by the capture of FARC official Rodrigo Granda in Caracas in 2003.”
El Salvador’s Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez reiterated this week that country’s close relations with the U.S., ahead of President Obama’s visit to Latin America in March. Martínez said that Obama will visit El Salvador before any other Central American countries because of “the political stability, the peaceful change in the government, (and) the consolidation of democracy.”
Gender violence on the rise in Honduras, Inside Costa Rica
At least 100 Honduran children have been left motherless so far this year in the wake of an escalation of gender violence. With 50 murders registered so far, many children were left vulnerable because their mothers were single and headed the family, according to local newspaper El Heraldo, adding that these children are now in the care of close relatives or the State.
Women at the Front of Grassroots Organizing, Dahr Jamail, IPS
“Women are playing a leading role in a powerful social movement addressing natural resource protection, adaptation to climate change, and corporate accountability in this coastal village in El Salvador.”
What Do the Budget Battles Mean for Latin America?, Lisa Haugaard and Adam Isacson
Haugaard and Isacson address the following questions: Is the United States really more secure if its neighbors view it as narrowly interested only in its own security? Do we want our nation’s reputation to be more about guns and less about helping to fight diseases and recover from natural disasters? Do we win good will and allies by being perceived as selfish?