It’s our working, golfing, swimming, and moonwalking Memorial Day edition!

May 27, 2011

Here in the U.S., we’re on the cusp of the Memorial Day holiday, formerly known as Decoration Day, which commemorates the service of U.S. soldiers who died in the course of duty.

This week’s edition of the news summary –with three days of holiday observances, families and fireworks, and the storied Indianapolis 500 auto race before us—aims to get the weekend started off right.

We begin with developments in the unfolding saga of Cuba’s economic reforms, including a tax holiday for certain small businesses, a new emphasis on home construction and repair in the emerging private sector, and the government’s plans for over a billion dollars’ worth of new golf courses and vacation housing being readied for foreign investors.

We also look at the jump in foreign tourism – visitors coming to Cuba from nations other than the U.S. – as well as new sources of legal travel from our country following President Obama’s travel reforms.  And as you will read, at least one American visitor, Diana Nyad, plans to get back to the U.S. without the benefit of an airline ticket.

We also take a look at the diplomat being tipped as the new Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs – who, let’s just say, knows her way around “the Internets” and the dance floor.

So…before you slip on the sunglasses and slap on the sun screen, don’t forget to check out these stories and more in your weekly summary of Cuba news…

Happy Memorial Day.

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Our Advice to Secretary Clinton

May 20, 2011

At the beginning, we want to talk about U.S. policy toward Cuba in the larger context of our nation’s relationship with Latin America writ large.

In an exceptionally valuable piece, the New York Times reported this week that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted a private dinner with at least six former Latin American presidents as “part of a quiet campaign to repair relations with a region that complains it has been ignored by American policy makers.

“Organizers said it coincided with her sense that years of neglect had resulted in missed opportunities in the region. It also coincides, analysts said, with the start of an American election season that is certain to hinge in some part on Hispanic votes.”

The article mentions the administration’s  visits to Latin America, reporting that Sec. Clinton has been to the region more often than any of her recent predecessors; that President Obama has met with seven Latin America presidents since February alone, including an important visit to El Salvador, where he deepened his relationship with President Funes and visited the tomb of Archbishop Romero

But the Times also observes that “less credit is given for miles traveled.” Many in the region call the administration’s achievements “lackluster,” and diplomats and experts told the Times, “When it came to thinking about Latin America, Washington policy makers remained caught up in cold war paradigms.”  At moments when the administration needed to be forceful on issues that matter, it treads around the minefields gingerly.

We have long wished the Obama administration would pay greater attention to Latin America and address issues which affect U.S. interests with greater passion and greater distance from the counterproductive efforts of administrations past.

Everyone who cares about the region will have a wish list or a set of ideas that could help Secretary Clinton improve our nation’s standing relating to Cuba and the rest of Latin America.  But if she is truly thinking along these lines, we’d like to make a few suggestions of our own.

Act in ways that truly advance U.S. interests.  In the coming months, Cuba is going to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico.  Astonishingly, the U.S. remains resolutely unprepared for accidents that could follow despite our sorrowful experience with the BP disaster last year.  William Reilly, who co-chaired the panel that investigated the BP spill, wants to visit Cuba and wants the U.S. to collaborate with Mexico and bring the Cubans into a discussion about protecting the Gulf.  But Reilly says these ideas cause the State Department grief.  The Cubans will drill whether we plan for a crisis or not.  While certain members of the Florida delegation might not approve, engaging with Cuba on drilling safety issues will advance U.S. interests and the State Department should stop feeling grief and move forward accordingly.

Focus on things that really matter.  Mostly on Capitol Hill, but at times in the Executive Branch, the Bush-era fixation with Venezuela rears its head, and fears about the hidden hand of President Chavez course through the policymaking apparatus and in careless rhetoric about the region. As the Washington Post reported this week, however, Latin Americans are not consumed with President Chavez, and the Cold War era temptation to push off against Venezuela is past its sell-by date.  Note to both governments: we need to have ambassadors in both capitals.  Note to our government: while there are concerns about internal issues in Venezuela that are worth watching and engaging Caracas about, the administration should lead, urge Congress to consign the ideological baiting to the recycle bin,  and focus on issues that matter.

Rise above partisan politics.  This week, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey issued a proclamation honoring the 79,000 Cuban Americans who live in his state.  He later visited the Las Palmas Restaurant in Northern Jersey for a Cuban Independence Day Celebration where, according to one press account, “once he entered the restaurant, press still outside of the building were barred from attending the event.”  (We figure he then gave a speech inside on democracy and freedom.)

This is what local politicians do.  But we need something bigger from our national leaders.   If Secretary Clinton wants to send messages to the region, the administration might try unhooking itself from its static reading of Florida politics and move faster and further on reconciliation with Cuba.  If the region saw decisions being made about Latin America on their merits and not local politics, it would help persuade leaders and publics in Latin America that we were serious about reaching out and reengaging.

Recognize reality.  As we discussed last week, the President repeats the canard that nothing substantial is happening in Cuba regarding economic reform, and that his perception of their inaction is an obstacle to our normalizing relations. Well, today, Marc Frank reports in the Financial Times that a corruption crackdown in Cuba “has already cost hundreds of senior Cuban Communist party officials, state managers and employees their jobs and sometimes their freedom, as Mr Castro has struggled to shake-up the country’s entrenched bureaucracy and move the country toward a less centralized and more market-driven economy.”  What is happening in Cuba is real, and if the president were to acknowledge substantial actions like these, he would reinforce and hasten a process that advances the interests of Cuban citizens, which is ostensibly the purpose of our policy anyway.

There are real issues and problems that affect our country and the region which merit the administration’s attention.  Admittedly, they’re complicated too.  To solve them, Secretary Clinton is right.  We do need to reengage and reconnect with the leaders and the publics in Latin America.  So our advice boils down to this:

If you talk and behave seriously, and really listen to the people of the region with respect, those you’re trying to reach are more likely to respond in kind.  Give it a try.

This week in Cuba news…

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Oil in the Gulf; Changes in Cuba, but not in Obama’s talking points

May 13, 2011

As we put the finishing touches on this week’s NewsBlast, an important meeting was wrapping up in the Caribbean.  This meeting dealt with Cuba’s plans in the coming months to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, and what happened there says a lot about the state of U.S.-Cuba relations (which is so often a state of denial).

The event was hosted by the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC), a serious-minded trade industry group that represents the global oil and gas drilling industry, and featured serious discussions about how the Cubans are thinking about safety and regulation as they prepare to drill.

To its credit, the Obama administration gave IADC permission to bring Fidel llizastigui Perez, Process Safety/Risk Management Specialist, Office for Environment and Nuclear Safety Regulation (ORASEN) along with a team of Cuban colleagues to the event.  This paved the way for the first dialogue of its kind outside of Cuba with broad participation and discussion of key issues.

Dr. Lee Hunt, the chief executive of IADC, talked to Cuba Central this afternoon about the quality of the Cuban participants.  He said, “We were impressed by the level of preparation and thoroughness of the Cuban regulatory body.  They are searching for the best of the best regulations internationally and incorporating these practices in their own regulations.  They are also asking their operators to indicate how much of the new U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management drilling safety rules they are incorporating on a voluntary basis.”

One attendee told us that even the skeptics about Cuba need to understand they are taking the environmental issues seriously.

That said, there was one troubling piece of news out of the conference.  According to one participant – and after checking the registration information – we are able to report that no one from responsible agencies in the U.S. government – no one from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, or the U.S. Geological Survey – attended the conference.

This matters.  Thanks to the courage and foresight of the IADC, the Cubans and other attendees did discuss issues concerning blowout prevention, responses to spills, containment of environmental damage, and clean up.  According to one participant – Dan Whittle, Cuba Program Director for the Environmental Defense Fund – the conference produced “really valuable dialogue, good will among the Cubans, the industry, and the environmentalists in attendance, and significant new information about Cuba’s regulatory approach and the strength of its standards.”

Industry can play a leadership role, as IADC is demonstrating.  But to protect the safety and environmental quality of the Gulf, a broad U.S. government plan is needed.

Our organization, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, published a study that lays out a series of ten steps that a serious and determined U.S. government should take to address the challenge of Cuba’s imminent plans to drill and reverse our nation’s current unwillingness to plan for this event.

Our recommendations included unilateral actions the 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.

Cuba won’t know for months or years whether the oil that it and its foreign partners are seeking will be transformative for Cuba’s economy.  But the challenges facing the U.S. begin – as we argued in February – as soon as the first drill bit penetrates the sea bed in the Gulf.

As we report this week, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida seems to understand:  It’s time for the U.S. to engage on this issue.  We hope that realization inspires the administration to act.

***

At times we’re tempted to hope that President Obama isn’t speaking for his administration when he talks about Cuba.

Last night, in an interview broadcast by WLTV, the president said, “I would welcome real change from the Cuban government … For us to have the kind of normal relations we have with other countries, we’ve got to see significant changes from the Cuban government and we just have not seen that yet.”

As we’ve reported, the president has used these ideas in interviews with Spanish and Miami-based media before:

On October 19, 2010, President Obama told a gathering of Hispanic media at the White House: “I think that any release of political prisoners, any economic liberalization that takes place in Cuba is positive, positive for Cuban people, but we’ve not yet seen the full results of these promises.”

In an interview with Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald on March 23, 2011, the president said again: “The Cuban government made some gestures about releasing political prisoners and starting some market-based economies with small business opportunities. (But) we haven’t seen as much follow-through as we would like.”

To some extent, the president is correct.  After all, our continuing strategy to coerce Cuba into ending its political system by the force of U.S. sanctions and diplomatic isolation has failed under the Obama administration just as it did during the ten presidencies that preceded it.   It also does need to be said that the president has made some adjustments in policy – relating specifically to travel and the right to provide Cubans with financial support through remittances – that were long overdue.

But to say that the changes taking place in Cuba today are not far-reaching enough to merit a meaningful U.S. response (as Secretary Clinton also said in a speech this week) is either to speak from a stale set of talking points or to misunderstand the scope of the economic reforms that Cuba’s government is putting into place.

Cuba’s government is shrinking the size of the state, eliminating subsidies and social benefits, planning to lay off hundreds of thousands of employees, and legalizing new private sector activities so Cubans can open small businesses and hire their own workers.  Reforms announced this week will pave the way for Cubans to buy and sell their own homes, enabling them to accumulate capital, and to travel abroad as tourists.

We don’t know where the reform process will ultimately go or whether the changes being adopted now will actually put the country on firm footing economically.

But we do know from having interviewed Cubans across the political spectrum during our recent trips to Cuba that they view these changes as real, and we think it’s important for the President to do so as well.

Our country and Cuba have serious business to discuss – not just about protecting the Gulf of Mexico from risks associated with oil drilling as important as that is, but also about our differing views of political and human rights, the continued captivity of Alan Gross, and the on-going programs to undermine Cuba’s government that put Mr. Gross in jeopardy, to name just a few.

You can’t have those kinds of discussions without being able or willing to engage, and the discussions won’t work if the words we use are simply not up to date with the facts as they exist.

This week in Cuba news…

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From May Day to Mother’s Day, Cuba Central Covers the News

May 6, 2011

It’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment.


According to Save the Children, a non-government organization, Cuba ranks first out of “Lesser Developed Countries” in both the mother’s index and the women’s index, and ninth in the children’s index, in its annual Mother’s Index report, released this week.

By comparison, the U.S., which is in the “More Developed Countries” tier, ranks 31st in the mother’s index, 24th in the women’s index and 34th in the children’s index.

Save the Children reports that 100% of births in Cuba are attended by skilled health personnel. Cuba also has the highest expected years of formal schooling for women in the “Lesser Developed Countries” tier, at 19 years. 

These results mirror similar high rankings Cuba has received in other international studies, including the annual Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum.

Cuba is not without its problems.  But this nation of 11 million people, with a reasonably small GDP of $50 billion, a persisting economic crisis and one party system, somehow manages to out-perform a variety of governments on critical measures of maternal and child health, and life expectancy, among others.

Cuba’s ability to maintain this record will be tested going forward as its undertakes reforms to address its economic problems that shrink the size of the state, reduce benefits, and require more Cubans to make ends meet and find meaningful employment independently.

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, it is our hope that U.S. policy would finally recognize Cuba’s accomplishments in protecting the well-being of its children and its mothers.

We could do this by changing the emphasis in our approach toward Cuba by moving away from sanctions that bet on the country’s failure and toward policies and ideas that would better enable Cuba’s families to succeed, especially during the process of economic reform.

But before we get to the news, let us offer this shout out to Nancy Stephens, Scotty Wuerker, Arlene Winn, Susan Adelman, Silvia Martinez, and Marisol Marte – the Moms of Cuba Central – and to mothers in the U.S. and Cuba.  Happy Mother’s Day!

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