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

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!

This week in Cuba news…

IN CUBA

May Day celebrations as Cubans await the release of approved reforms

Traditional May Day celebrations took place in Havana and across the island this week, the BBC reports. This year’s events were especially designed as a show of support for economic reform. President Raúl Castro led a march in Santiago de Cuba, while newly-appointed Second Secretary of the Communist Party José Machado Ventura led the Havana march, EFE reports.

Salvador Valdes Mesa, President of Cuba’s principal trade union opened the Havana parade with a speech to the massive crowd, saying that Cubans were celebrating “with happiness and enthusiasm renewed” by last month’s Party Congress. “We [celebrate],” he continued, “because we support the accords of the Party Congress and the guidelines of the economic and social policy of the revolution.”

The final version of the guidelines for economic reform ratified at last month’s Sixth Communist Party Congress, however, have still not been released, AP reports. The draft guidelines (original Spanish available here), released late last year, contained 291 provisions that were discussed in the process leading up to the Congress. The final document contains several modifications and additions, resulting in 311 guidelines, according to state media source Juventud Rebelde. There has been no word as to when the final document will be released.

Mary Murray of NBC News takes a fresh look at how Cubans like “Orlando” are faring in Cuba’s new climate of economic reform.

Cuba sentences Max Marambio, former Castro confidant to 20 years in prison

On May 5th, Max Marambio, a Chilean businessman and friend of Fidel Castro, was convicted and sentenced in absentia to 20 years in a Cuban prison for fraud and bribery, reports the Associated Press.  Marambio is the former CEO of Alimentos Rio ZaZa, a food and drink production company that was partially owned by the Cuban state. His co-conspirator and former Minister of Food, Alejandro Roca Iglesias, was also convicted and given a 15-year sentence for his crimes. According to La Nación, Marambio was convicted of crimes of “bribery, fraud and falsification of bank or commerce” and Roca was convicted of “crimes of bribery of a continuing nature and acts to the detriment of economic activity or employment.”

The Cuban government issued a statement through state newspaper Granma, officially announcing the conviction and sentencing of both men, stating that:

The Tribunal, after weighing the vast amount of evidence presented at trial, decided that the Prosecution’s account of events was well-proven, and ruled that the crimes committed constitute a grave injustice and require a strong judicial response, in correspondence with the harm committed by the accused to the national economy and the chaos created by both to the ethics of various officials and employees.

Marambio and Roca are among the most senior figures to have been penalized in an ongoing anti-corruption drive initiated by President Raul Castro. According to BBC News, this is the first corruption case in Cuba to end with a government minister being jailed.

Cuba to resume practice of mixing coffee with peas to cope with rising prices

The practice of mixing coffee with ground peas for the monthly coffee ration provided to Cubans will resume as a measure to deal with the rising price of coffee, BBC reports. Cuba imports a large portion of its food, including coffee, and has been hit hard by rising international food prices. Despite significant investment and efforts to modernize coffee production on the island, Cuba still imports about ⅔ of its coffee while the price of coffee has risen from $1,740 to $2,904 per ton over the past year, Granma reports.

Many Cubans are accustomed to the coffee and pea mixture which has been used to cut costs in the past. Juan Hernández Pedroso told the Associated Press, “I like it better with peas. I don’t know, maybe it’s because it’s what I’m used to.” However Froilan Valida, an unemployed gas bill collector, stated, “It’s much, much more bitter than pure coffee, which is smoother. But many people here are accustomed to it. The habit makes the monk.”

Struggle to end homophobia in Cuba continues as activists push Party to include gay rights in reform process

The status of the LGBT community in Cuba continues to evolve as activists and some government entities push to end homophobia and open spaces for expression. This week, Mariela Castro Espín, leader of the government-run National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), stated in an interview that the economic reforms being promoted by her father, President Raúl Castro, will advance the cause of gay rights in Cuba, AFP reports. Ms. Castro indicated that she has met with “ideological” departments of the Party following last month’s Congress, in order to ensure the Party’s support for CENESEX’s campaign against homophobia and marginalization, stating:

Things are changing, it seems like they aren’t, but they are. The support we are getting from the PCC (Cuban Communist Party), their position that this problem must be addressed, gives us a clue that something is going to move very quickly.

According to Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, better known as Paquito el de Cuba, while it is generally no longer accepted to be homophobic in intellectual circles, there is still much resistance from public institutions and the general population, reports La Jornada. Rodríguez is an activist and author of a blog dealing with issues of sex identity in Cuba. The Havana Times also looks at the history of homophobia in Cuba and outlines recent developments.

Tourism festival in Cuba, new golf courses to increase tourism

This week, Cuba played host to the 31st annual International Tourism Fair which brought travel providers and tourist agencies from countries throughout Latin America and Europe to the island. The Fair offered an opportunity to present vacation packages and trips that will spark more travel and revenue for the cash-strapped island nation, reports Prensa Latina. Cuba’s presenters aimed to increase tourism in Cuba; their goal is to surpass the 3 million visitor mark which they have been working toward since the 1990s.

Manuel Marrero, Cuba’s Minister of Tourism, said Cuba received 2.5 million visitors last year (a 4.2 percent increase over 2009), and said arrivals are up 3.5 percent in the first four months of 2011.  Cuba’s National Statistics Office estimates that 2.7 million tourists will visit Cuba in 2011, reports Negocios.org.

One of the most promising ventures that Cuba is looking to expand is golf courses, La Jornada reports. The Cuban government is in the process of meeting with several companies from Latin America and Europe to discuss plans for new courses on the island.  There has been significant interest on the part of British, Spanish, and Mexican investors who would like to hold stakes in some of the 19 golf courses to be built, reports the Miami Herald.

Although, Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism is looking at new ways to spur more travel to the island, it will not cut vacation prices to account for the low season. Marrero explained: “Cuba will never consider the reduction of prices as a solution to the fluctuation between the high and the low seasons, because that will damage Cuba’s image as a tourist destination.”

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Buchanan again seeks to stop Cuba from drilling for oil in the Gulf

Rep. Vern Buchanan (FL-13) announced in an email this week his plans to block Cuba’s government from drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico by offering an amendment to H.R. 1229, the “Putting the Gulf of Mexico Back to Work Act.” The amendment would grant the U.S. Secretary of the Interior the ability to deny contracts to oil companies that “engage in offshore drilling business with Cuba.” Earlier this year Rep. Buchanan introduced similar legislation aimed at stopping Cuba’s deep water drilling plans.

report published earlier this year by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, offers further information about Cuba’s plans to drill in the Gulf of Mexico and how the embargo harms the U.S. national interest by limiting U.S. government cooperation with Cuba and U.S. industry involvement in safety and drilling.

U.S. increasingly using new media to reach Cuba

The Office of Cuban Broadcasting (OCB) in Miami has begun using “ghost” websites that Cubans can log onto without government monitoring, reports the Associated Press.  These “ghost” sites, which were launched two weeks ago, allow Cubans to access the websites of TV and Radio Martí, media projects funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), while blocking Cuba’s government from accessing users’ names and locations. In order to continue this program, the Office of Cuban Broadcasting in Miami changes its websites and phone servers frequently to avoid being blocked by Cuba’s government.

According, to the Miami Herald, since the websites’ debut last month they have received around 400 hits from Cuba, the U.S. and Iran, though the Associated press reports that number at 1,000 hits.  Along with its new “ghost” websites, Carlos Garcia-Perez, the Director of Cuba Broadcasting, says that they also send four informational text messages a day to the island, reports the AP. These latest attempts by the Marti programs demonstrate OCB’s embracing of new technological advances and social media/networking sites in an effort to bring news to the island, reports The Republic.

Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega to receive honorary doctorate from U.S. university

Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who has played a central role in promoting dialogue between Cuba’s government, the Catholic Church, and the government of Spain to ensure the release of political prisoners on the island, is traveling to the U.S. this month to receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Omaha’s Creighton University. He will speak at the university’s commencement ceremonies and will discuss the Catholic experience in Cuba, according to a university press release. Creighton is a Jesuit university.

U.S. professor banned from Cuba

Ted Henken, chair of the Department of Black and Hispanic Studies for Baruch College at the City University of New York, who has made more than fifteen trips to Cuba in the last fourteen years and published numerous articles on Cuban culture and politics, was told his most recent visit would be his last, according to the Miami Herald.  Henken was in Cuba last week researching the work of dissident bloggers on the island and spent twelve days interviewing more than forty of them.  According to the Miami Herald, he traveled to Cuba using a tourist visa and didn’t obtain permission from the Cuban government to conduct interviews.

Based on Henken’s own account, he was aware of the risks of not obtaining Cuban approval to conduct research on the island. Henken states, however, that he respects the sovereignty of Cuba and that he is opposed to the U.S embargo of Cuba.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

WikiLeaks: During Ecuador-Colombia dispute, Raúl Castro wanted to calm diplomatic waters with U.S.

In 2008, a diplomatic dispute arose between Colombia and Ecuador after Colombian armed forces mounted a raid about a mile across the Ecuadorean border that resulted in the death of Raúl Reyes, a leader of the FARC, along with 16 other guerillas, Bloomberg reports. A cable recently-released by WikiLeaks gives an indication as to why Cuba’s government did not publicly support Ecuador, a known ally, in the resulting backlash against Colombia for the unauthorized operation El Comercio reports.

The cable focuses on a conversation between Michael Parmly, a former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, and Julio Londoño Paredes, Colombia’s ambassador in Havana. According to Parmly, Londoño believed that Cuba’s government remained silent largely because it did not want to hurt diplomatic relations with Colombia. The Colombian ambassador also related that Cuba’s President Raúl Castro had not sided with Ecuador in pushing for a regional forum to address the dispute that would exclude the U.S., adding that the President was interested in decreasing diplomatic tension with the U.S.

Kyrgyzstani opposition politician drowns while on vacation in Cuba

Mukhtar Omurakunov, the speaker of Kyrgyzstan’s alternative or “shadow” Parliament, drowned off of the coast of Cuba’s Varadero beach while vacationing on the island, the Miami Herald reports. His body was flown home to Kyrgyzstan with the help of its embassy in Havana. Though there have been no official statements from Cuba’s government regarding the incident, a Kyrgyzstani news source reports that Omurakunov died when a 3 meter wave swept ashore, and that nine other people were killed by large waves on other Cuban beaches. Radio Free Europe reports that the 46-year-old is survived by his wife and seven children.

Around the Region:

Assistant Secretary of State Valenzuela will resign

According to Fox News and various news organizations, Arturo Valenzuela, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, will leave government service and return to teaching.

From the beginning, Valenzuela’s tenure was marked by difficulty.  His appointment was delayed in a dispute over U.S. policy toward the coup in Honduras.  When Valenzuela took office he initiated the process of redirecting Latin America policy from the confrontational approach favored during the Bush Administration, but he leaves with that task far from complete.  Often, his appearances before Congressional Committees were made difficult by legislators who sought to return U.S. relations with Venezuela and other independent actors in the region to the polarization of the past.

The presence of those administration opponents will be keenly felt when President Obama nominates a successor to Secretary Valenzuela.

Honduran court drops charges against ex-President Manuel Zelaya

The special panel of judges created by Honduras’ Supreme Court to decide on two corruption charges against ousted president Manuel Zelaya ruled this week to drop all charges, stating that Zelaya’s exile after the 2009 coup that expelled him from power was a violation of his constitutional rights.

Zelaya, however, warned that the court’s decision does not foreclose the possibility of future charges that could be brought against him should he return to Honduras.  Given that concern, Zelaya has stated that the conditions for his return will be brought before the Verification Commission created during mediation efforts of the governments of Venezuela and Colombia. The Attorney General can still file an appeal within the next 60 days, though their first attempted appeal was denied.

As for Honduras’ status on the international stage, following the court’s decision to drop all charges against former president Zelaya, the OAS and the U.S. government promptly emphasized that Honduras now fulfills the conditions to return to the international community.

Salvadoran general blamed for killing of six priests during civil war dies at 64

René Emilio Ponce, the army general blamed for killing six Roman Catholic priests in El Salvador in 1989 has died. According to the LA Times, Ponce “served as defense minister and army chief of staff in the last half of the Cold War-era conflict that ended in 1992, becoming one of the U.S.-backed government’s most important military strategists.” At the time of his death, Ponce faced a lawsuit in a Spanish court based on the case of the slain priests.

U.S. Congressional Committee to examine sanctions against Venezuela

The U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs plans to hold a hearing to determine if Venezuela should be subject to U.S. sanctions. Congressman Connie Mack, Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, has regularly accused Venezuela of violating the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Disinvestment Act of 2010 imposed by the U.S. against Iran. The hearing was postponed this week and will be rescheduled soon.

Recommended reading:

Change in Post-Fidel Cuba: Political Liberalization, Economic Reform and Lessons for U.S. Policy, New America Foundation

In his most recent paper on Cuba, Arturo Lopez-Levy looks at changes to the Cuban economy that will bring with them profound political and social implications.

Hard Talk: Will the proposed economic reforms in Cuba succeed?, Americas Quarterly

Omar Everleny Pérez says: “These reforms will update the Cuban model and spur economic growth,” while José Antonio Ocampo says: “The reforms do not go far enough to jump-start the economy and protect the vulnerable.”

Letter to the Editor: Not the Same Old Cuba, The Washington Post

After the Washington Post published an editorial criticizing the outcome of the Communist Party Congress in Cuba, it published this letter to the editor, authored by the director of the Center for Democracy in the America, calling the results of the Congress more than tinkering around the edges.

Recommended viewing:

Significant Change Unfolding in Cuba, Interview with Julia Sweig, Council on Foreign Relations

Julia Sweig shares her impressions and analysis after attending last month’s Sixth Communist Party Congress in Havana.

Black in Latin America: Cuba, the Next Revolution, PBS

This PBS special, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores issues of race in Latin America. Part two of the three-part series looks at the rich history of Afro-Cubans on the island.

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