Rubio Flight Amendment “Grounded”; “Democracy Promotion” Funds Renewed; Hardliners Rallied: Cuba Drilling Report Readied

These are among the stories we’re following this week.

An effort by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio to block the expansion of travel to Cuba ordered by President Obama last month was grounded in the Senate.  Although Senator Rubio filed the amendment (to legislation providing funds to the Federal Aviation Administration for the next two years), it never came up, and it was not agreed to..  Rubio’s office promised to pursue the initiative on other measures.

In his budget proposal for fiscal year 2012, President Obama wants to pour another $20 million into the so-called “democracy promotion” program for Cuba.  These are the regime change funds, for activities illegal under Cuban law, which financed the work of Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor, who faces an upcoming trial in a Cuban court, and a possible sentence of twenty years.

Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela testified before the House and Senate this week, and was put on the defensive by Republican and Democratic Members on subjects ranging from rolling back President Obama’s travel policy to Cuba to, well, rolling back Venezuela’s government.  He even received complaints about President Obama’s plans to visit Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador.   The hearings are a signal that the administration’s relatively modest initiatives on Latin America will be subject to attack by hardline legislators from both parties and in both Chambers.

See also our coverage of the path-breaking legal analysis, prepared at the request of the Cuba Study Group, on additional actions the President can take to modify sanctions on Cuba; new prisoner releases; new information on economic reforms; and efforts by Reps. Flake and McCollum to cut wasteful spending on Radio and TV Martí.

As you read and think about what we’re reporting this week, we want to put you on notice about a story we will be carrying next week – a report on Cuba’s plans to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico and its implications for U.S. policy and Cuba’s future.

Watch this space!

This week in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Rubio amendment to block expansion of U.S. flights to Cuba fails

As we reported last week, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (FL) proposed an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding bill, cosponsored by Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), to undo President Obama’s recent directive relaxing restrictions on travel to Cuba.

The amendment, Sen. Rubio’s first proposal in the Senate, would have prohibited any additional flights from the U.S. to countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism by the U.S. Department of State.  Rubio’s amendment was never taken up by the Senate, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

“Nonetheless,” says Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos, “if the administration insists on pursuing its flawed policy to expand direct flights with state sponsors of terrorism, Senator Rubio will continue offering this bipartisan measure to stop it.”  The only country on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism (which currently includes Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria) to which President Obama has expanded direct flights is Cuba.  There are no travel restrictions on Americans who chose to visit the other countries on the list.

Robert Rohrlack, Jr., the President of the Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce, wrote a letter to Senator Rubio requesting that the Senator withdraw his amendment because its enactment would be detrimental to businesses in Florida.  The Chamber of Commerce also encouraged readers on its site to submit letters to Senator Rubio expressing their displeasure over the proposed amendment.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, advocates for free trade with Cuba in Florida believe that Rubio is attempting to protect the monopoly on trips to the island that is currently held by Miami International Airport and approved travel providers.

AmericanTours International, a tour operator approved under the new OFAC regulations, aims to make travel from the U.S. to Cuba easier and is one of the businesses who would have been thwarted by Rubio’s amendment.

An analysis of the amendment as it was proposed has been provided by Lonnie Anne Pera, a partner with Zuckert Scoutt & Rasenberger, LLP, a Washington, D.C. law firm that represents airlines, travel agencies, and other travel suppliers.  Pera’s analysis is available here.

An editorial published in the St. Petersburg Times says that by proposing this amendment Rubio ignores millions of his constituents who stand to benefit from facilitated travel and instead echoes the “outdated thinking of a small and shrinking number of Miami hard-liners.”

Human Events interviewed Sen. Rubio this week. The transcript, which includes the Senator’s views on U.S. policy toward Cuba, is available here. Rubio’s sentiments were echoed this week by Florida Governor Rick Scott who, when briefly asked about Cuba following a press briefing on high-speed rail stated, “The Cuba embargo should continue,” WCTV reports.

Report examines President’s authority to modify sanctions against Cuba

A legal analysis by Stephen Propst, prepared at the request of the Cuba Study Group, examining presidential authority on Cuba sanctions, was presented this week at an event hosted by the Brookings Institution.  Propst examined the latitude the president has to modify sanctions against Cuba, EFE reports. According to the report, President Obama has “broad discretion” to change the regime of sanctions without approval by Congress.

The areas in which the president could relax existing restrictions include:

  • Changing existing categories of travel to Cuba from “specific” to “general” licenses
  • Allowing the provision of services (such as consulting or marketing services and services in support of musicians) to Cuba
  • Authorizing entry into U.S. ports to vessels engaged in trade with Cuba
  • Permitting the importation of certain goods and services from Cuba
  • Establishing more favorable licensing policies for items to be exported to Cuba
  • Authorizing U.S. banks to process transactions concerning trade with Cuba

Bill Richardson, former Governor of New Mexico, now serving as Special Envoy for Hemispheric Affairs for the Organization of American States, opened the discussion at the Brookings Institution (audio available here).

Richardson recommended the removal of Cuba from the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, a reduction or elimination of restrictions on American travel to Cuba, allowing U.S. citizens to open bank accounts on the island, and for “good-faith” actions that promote economic interaction, Latin America News Dispatch reports.

Richardson also urged Cuba’s government to release Alan Gross, a U.S. contractor arrested in December of 2009 in Havana under suspicion of attempting to distribute unlicensed satellite communications equipment, AFP reports. Richardson stated that Gross’ release could lead to advancements in negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba, although cautioned against a gesture-for-gesture style of negotiations.

NPR and Arturo López-Levy at the The Havana Note also addressed Alan Gross’ detention and its strain on U.S.-Cuba relations.

Obama’s budget funds USAID “democracy promotion” for Cuba, makes cuts across the region

As Alan Gross awaits trial in Cuba, President Obama’s fiscal year 2012 budget was presented to Congress, and it includes level funding for the controversial “democracy promotion” program that landed Gross in prison in December 2009.

P.J. Crowley, State Department spokesman, confirmed that Obama’s proposal maintains the $20 million line item allocated to Cuba programs since 2009 for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Mr. Gross was recently charged with “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state,” and faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in a Cuban prison.

While the President continues to allocate $20 million for USAID’s Cuba program, his budget proposes cuts across the board and included reductions in other funds allocated to foreign aid.  Most cuts came in the areas of military support in Mexico and Colombia, and more modest cuts in economic assistance were made across the region.

A new tool was made available by the Obama Administration as it released the 2012 budget proposal.  The Foreign Assistance Dashboard provides a view of U.S. Government foreign assistance funds and enables users to examine, research, and track aid investments in a standard and easy-to-understand format. The Dashboard is still in its early stages of development, and does not yet include 2012 budget requests, but its Cuba report is available here.

The White House has also produced a visual representation of the President’s proposed budget.

Just the Facts presents aid amounts listed by country, separated by economic and military aid, and offers a comparison to budgets dating back to 2008.

Valenzuela testimony highlighted exchanges over Cuba

This week, Arturo Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, testified before a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on President Obama’s policies toward Latin America.

After Valenzuela’s opening statement, he met by a barrage of questions from Rep. Connie Mack (FL-14), Chairman of the Subcommittee, and Rep. David Rivera (FL-25), both hardliners on Venezuela and Cuba, AFP reports.

Mack criticized the Obama administration for its recent decision to relax travel and remittance restrictions to Cuba, stating that “rewarding dictators only hurts U.S. interests,” the Sunshine State News reports. Rivera was able to get Valenzuela to agree with his characterization that Alan Gross is a “hostage.”

Reps. Flake and McCollum suggest cutting funds for Radio and TV Martí

Representatives Jeff Flake (AZ-6) and Betty McCollum (MN-4) have proposed an amendment that would cut U.S. funding for Radio and TV Martí, operated by the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.  The Martís are considered ineffective because only one to two percent of the 11 million people in Cuba actually listen to or watch them.  But Radio and TV Marti cost nearly $35 million each year; since the program’s inception, the U.S. Congress has appropriated more than $500 million for the stations.

Cuba’s government jams the Martis’ transmissions and the U.S. has responded by offering the signal through the Internet, satellites, and sophisticated aircraft flying above the Caribbean.  But the audience size has not grown.

The Government Accountability Office found in 2009 continuing evidence of bad management, low employee morale, and allegations of fraud and abuse.

For additional information on Radio and TV Martí, John S. Nichols offered a statement before a June 2009 hearing in the Subcommittee of International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight, entitled TV Marti has virtually no audience, violates international law, and should be closed.

Former political prisoners to move from Spain to U.S.

Five former Cuban prisoners who accepted exile in Spain have been approved by Washington to move to the U.S., EFE reports.  Three have already arrived in Miami, while two more are expected to travel soon. According to El Nuevo Herald, about 20 other petitions to move to the U.S. have been filed by former political prisoners and their families, who are still awaiting a decision.

In related news, Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski made a statement this week defending the role of the Catholic Church in negotiating prisoner releases in Cuba, El Nuevo Herald reports. Wenski emphasized that such dialogue is not related to the interests of any country, but solely aims to better the lives of citizens.

Posada trial postponed for another week

After previously suspending the trial of Luis Posada Carriles until early this week, Judge Kathleen Cardone announced Tuesday that she will delay the trial for another week, AP reports.

Defense attorney Arturo Hernández filed for a mistrial, claiming that the prosecution had deliberately delayed the delivery of documents and that one of their witnesses, a Cuban official, had lied about his role in the investigations following the bombing of a Havana hotel in 1997. The prosecution responded, stating that the witness had not lied about his duties, according to José Pertierra, a Venezuelan attorney who is closely following the case.

Another piece of evidence submitted late last week by the prosecution reveals that defense attorney Arturo Hernández closely followed the case against the so-called “Cuban Five,” a group of Cuban counter intelligence officers who were working to gather information about anti-Castro terrorism efforts planned by Cuban exiles living in Miami.

The five were convicted of charges related to espionage and are currently in jail in the U.S. According to the newly admitted documents, Hernández offered his legal expertise and “other forms of assistance” in the case against Gerardo Hernández, José Pertierra reports for CubaDebate.

Plans for Sarasota-to-Cuba yacht regatta cancelled

Last week, we reported on plans for a 150-boat regatta from Florida to the Hemingway International Yacht Club outside of Havana.  The plans have now been abandoned, the Sarasota Herald Tribune reports.

Members of the Sarasota Yacht Club Foundation had grown hopeful after this year’s relaxation of travel restrictions to the island.  However, requests for necessary licenses were not answered. Don Payzant, president of the SYC Foundation, stated “I’ve called them, and I’ve faxed them, and I haven’t heard anything.” There is still some hope for the possibility of a smaller race later this year, pending Treasury Department approval.

Hundreds of pages of CIA documents to be released

The CIA has announced that it will release hundreds of pages of previously classified records of the agency’s activities from the 1950s to the mid 1970s, the Washington Post reports. Illegal actions taken by the CIA, including overseas assassination attempts, kidnappings, domestic spying and the interception of mail, are outlined in these documents. Pushing to keep the records secret in 1974, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned that “blood [would] flow” following the release of such documents, stating: “For example, Robert Kennedy personally managed the operation on the assassination of [Cuban President Fidel] Castro.”

IN CUBA

Economic reforms and Cuba’s agricultural sector

Cuba’s government announced this week that it will liberalize the sale of sugar – which has until now been rationed – by allowing the sale of sugar in shops and markets at non-subsidized prices, the BBC reports. Limited amounts of subsidized sugar will still be available through the ration book (the “libreta”), but this will be phased out. Officials have said that the change will come gradually but have not provided a timeline for the process. This move is part of the economic reforms taking place on the island, and aims to allow entrepreneurs and private business owners to buy sugar at full price, providing much-needed cash for Cuba’s government.

The government also announced an increase of about 43%, in the price of rice, AFP reports. The price of rice has risen due to higher demand on the international market. In addition, according to state news, “disorganization” in the island’s rice-producing sector has resulted in losses and a need for Cuba to import double the amount of rice that it produces this year, Cuba Standard reports. Deputy Agriculture Minister Juan Pérez Lamas blames a lack of resources and passivity among growers for “deplorable losses.”

In other commodity news, Reuters reports that the outlook is positive for this year’s coffee harvest. Though last year saw a record low output, officials report that they are expecting a 20% increase in this year’s harvest in order to meet the goal of 6,700 tons of semi-processed beans.

As a part of its economic reforms, the Cuban state has nearly tripled the amount that it pays coffee growers for their product, and redistributed idle coffee plantations for use by hundreds of individuals. Cuba has long-term plans to eventually increase output to 28,000-38,000 tons per year in order to keep up with the population’s high demand for the product.

Planned state layoffs proceeding slowly, union leaders report

Plans by Cuba’s government to lay off 500,000 state workers by April, and up to two million more in the future, are proceeding slower than expected according to union leaders, the AP reports.

In comments after a closed-door assembly between union leaders and state administration, José Manuel Castanedo, a union leader from Havana, blamed the slow start on disagreements between the state and the unions, and a general lack of communication from the Labor Ministry.  He also stated that the commissions formed to determine which workers would be laid off are incompetent. Labor Minister Margarita González added that errors made by these commissions can also freeze the layoff process, Canadian Press reported.

Pavel Vidal, a Cuban economist and researcher at the Center for Studies of the Cuban Economy at the University of Havana has stated that in order for reforms to be successful, Cuba must leave behind the model of centralized planning, and give more autonomy to the private sector, Reuters reports.

Separately, EFE reports that dissidents are pressuring the government to enact deeper economic reforms with less state control.

More political prisoners released, march with the Ladies in White

Angel Moya and Hector Maseda, two political prisoners previously set to be released, were finally sent home last weekend, the BBC reports. Both had refused freedom after their release was initially announced. Moya said he “didn’t want to leave until other political prisoners, who are sick and need attention, were freed…But they forced me to leave,” CNN reports. Maseda, on the other had objected to being released on parole rather than having his record cleared: “I have left prison against my will…I never would have accepted leaving jail on parole.”

Moya and Maseda have both said they will continue political activities, and took advantage of their freedom to march with the Ladies in White (a group of female relatives of political prisoners) in their weekly protest this past Sunday, EFE reports. In an interview with BBC Mundo, Maseda, the husband of Laura Pollán, leader of the Ladies in White, stated that he hoped to unify opposition groups and help them overcome internal disputes.

Clinton criticizes Cuba’s Internet system, Cuba moves toward open-source operating systems for government

In a speech this week at The George Washington University on Internet freedom, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton alleged that Cuba’s government is “trying to create a national intranet, while not allowing their citizens to access the global Internet.” This statement comes following the leak of a video last week capturing a briefing for Cuba government officials on the dangers of a “cyber invasion” by the U.S., which Reuters analyzes this week.

Cuba’s computers currently function on a national operating platform called NOVA. This week, Cuba’s government presented the newest version of NOVA, which is based on the open-source Linux operating system, and marks a major step in the government’s efforts to move toward free and open software the Havana Times reports.

In addition, Cuba’s technical university, the University of Computer Science, has announced that it will migrate more than 8,000 computers to Linux, Prensa Latina.  Abel Firvida, who is heading the software project, stated that NOVA will now be available for use on Windows-based computers that are assembled domestically.

In other computer and Internet-related news, the fiber optic cable that extends from Venezuela to Cuba and is expected to greatly improve Internet speed on the island also reached Jamaica this week, the Jamaica Observer reports.

Last week, we reported the website of Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez was unblocked and now accessible from Cuba.

Chucho Valdés wins fifth Grammy award

World renown Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés was awarded his fifth Grammy last weekend, the Havana Times reports. The award was given in the category of Best Latin Jazz Performance for his CD, Chucho’s Steps. Valdés lives in Cuba and organizes the annual Jazz Plaza festival in Havana. He has traveled to the U.S. several times in recent years with his band and performed in venues across the country.  Prensa Latina has a more in-depth look at Valdés’ career and accomplishments.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

EU Representative for Foreign Affairs to meet with Cuba’s Foreign Minister

Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Diplomacy, Catherine Ashton, will meet next week in Brussels with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, Europa Press reports. Ashton was given the task of studying a plan for a revised diplomatic policy with Cuba from October to December of last year, but has taken more time to finalize her recommendations than originally anticipated.

The government of Spain has encouraged the EU to abandon the Common Position adapted in 1996 that predicates full cooperation and diplomatic relations with Cuba on improvements in human rights and democracy on the island. Spain’s Foreign Minister Trinidad Jiménez reaffirmed the importance of open dialogue with Cuba this week, EFE reported. While speaking before the Joint Commission for the EU, Jiménez emphasized that the policies of isolation have not resulted in any progress. She also suggested that improved diplomatic relations would ensure the involvement of the EU in the reform process currently taking place on the island.

Cuba’s Foreign Minister travels to Azerbaijan

Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, traveled with a diplomatic delegation to Azerbaijan this week, APA reports. The delegation met with Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, who expressed his satisfaction with current relations between the two countries and hopes for future collaborations. In meetings with other government representatives in Baku, Rodríguez also discussed the possibility of a reciprocal exchange of specialists, to train Cubans in the oil industry and Azerbaijanis in medicine, Prensa Latina reports. Rodríguez is also scheduled to visit Belarus and Ukraine.

Around the Region:

Ecuador Judge Orders Chevron to Pay $9 Billion, The New York Times

A judge in the Ecuadorean Amazon ruled this week that oil giant Chevron was responsible for polluting remote tracts of Ecuadorean jungle and ordered the company to pay more than $9 billion in damages, one of the largest environmental awards ever.

After a 2008 trip to the region, Rep. Jim McGovern (MA-3) made a statement to Congress describing the damage he witnessed after a trip to affected areas in Ecuador. He also wrote a letter to then President-elect Obama encouraging action, available here.

Honduran Congress ratifies polemic constitutional reform, AFP

Late last night, the Honduran Congress ratified a Constitutional reform that will allow for referendums concerning articles of the Constitution that were formerly “set-in-stone.” The reform of Article 5 of the Constitution was approved by the previous session of Congress on January 11th, but required ratification in the new session of Congress before it could take effect. This action modifies the law governing referendums to remove a reference to the ban on such “set-in-stone” constitutional clauses as re-election and term limits. The final vote recorded 104 in favor, eleven against, and one abstention. Government officials who took power in a June 2009 coup d’état in Honduras had justified their actions stating that the constitutional reform, proposed by then-president Manuel Zelaya, was unconstitutional.

Young Honduran activist forced into exile, Defensores en Línea

This week, Héctor Soto, a young activist, director of the Civil Society Group, GSC, had to leave the country after receiving constant death threats and political harassment. The Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras, COFADEH, sent his case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. The organization also filed a case before the Attorney General’s office in Honduras in August 2010, without results.

Recommended Reading:

ANALYSIS: Cuba fights latest U.S. ‘invasion’ – on the Internet, Reuters

“It is 50 years since the last U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba but the island’s communist leaders believe another one has begun – not on the shores of the Bay of Pigs as in 1961, but in the virtual world of the Internet.”

A simmering cyberwar with Cuba, The Global Post

“If the internet is the new battlefield in the long, simmering standoff between Cuba and the United States, then jailed American contractor Alan Gross is the conflict’s first POW.”

The Impact of the Global Crisis on Cuba’s Economy and Social Welfare, Cambridge University Press

The mechanisms by which the world economic crisis has been transmitted from developed to developing economies are conditioned by domestic factors that may attenuate or accentuate external economic shocks and their adverse social effects. Cuba is a special case: it is an open economy and hence vulnerable to trade growth transmission mechanisms, but at the same time, it is a socialist economy with universal social services.”

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