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

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…

IN CUBA

Cuba’s government releases ratified Economic Guidelines

Cuba’s government released its finalized Guidelines for the Economic and Social Policy of the Party and the Revolution, ratified at the Sixth Communist Party Congress held from April 16-19, 2011. The document outlines the process for “modernizing” the Cuban economic system.

An earlier draft released last year was debated by about 7 million of Cuba’s 11.2 million citizens. Their principal concerns, along with those of Party delegates chosen to attend the Congress, resulted in modifications and additions to the Guidelines, which in its final form contains 313 provisions in a 38-page document.

The approved Guidelines outline several important changes to Cuba’s economic model, including:

  • The purchase and sale of homes, and facilitation of other ways to transfer property. Currently, citizens are only allowed to trade homes in a complicated and bureaucratic process, called “permutas.” However, the concentration or accumulation of property will not be allowed.
  • The creation of cooperatives outside of the agricultural sector with the ability to hire employees and obtain microcredit.
  • The purchase and sale of automobiles.
  • Gradual elimination of the ration card, or “libreta.”
  • Movement toward the unification of currencies. Currently, there are two forms of currency in Cuba: the National Peso, which is used by most Cubans, and the Convertible Peso, used mostly in the tourism industry and to purchase luxury or imported goods.
  • The development of wholesale markets to sell goods at non-subsidized prices for the private sector.
  • The increased availability of credit for citizens to facilitate the purchase of goods and services.
  • Plans to “study a policy that would facilitate” Cubans to travel abroad as tourists. Currently, an exit visa is required to leave the island. The process to get the visa, called a “carta blanca,” is complicated and in many cases the visa is denied. It is not clear how the government plans to incorporate this vague provision into the plan of updating the Cuban economic model.

The explanation pamphlet which accompanied the finalized Guidelines, titled “Information about the Results of the Debate on the Economic and Social Policy of the Party and the Revolution,” describes the new guidelines and those that were modified or combined in the final, ratified document.  The pamphlet also summarizes the fundamental reasons for these changes.

The finalized document, however, provides few specifics about how the changes outlined in the 313 approved guidelines will be implemented. It does call for a government-created commission to manage the implementation of the Guidelines, including the development of a legal and institutional base to support the changes. No timeline is given for the creation of the commission or implementation of the Guidelines.

According to the Associated Press, copies of the final Guidelines were available for 1 peso ($0.04) starting Monday at Cuba’s newsstands and post offices. The 48-page explanation accompanied the Guidelines at a cost of 2 pesos ($0.08).  For photos of Cubans purchasing the Guidelines on the street, click here.

Dissident dies in Santa Clara, activists blame government but the state denies responsibility

Political dissident Juan Wilfredo Soto died in a Santa Clara hospital this past Sunday, and the circumstances surrounding his death are the cause of a heated debate between dissident leaders and Cuba’s government, CNN reports.

Dissident sources claim that Soto’s death was the result of an alleged police beating while he was detained at a park. Dissident Guillermo Fariñas claims that several sources saw at least one policeman club Soto after he had been handcuffed for refusing to vacate the park.

Cuba’s government firmly denies any responsibility for Soto’s death, stating in a communiqué in the state newspaper Granma that while Soto was detained last Thursday, there was no incidence of violence, and he was released after three hours of detention. The communiqué additionally states that Soto’s death was due to acute pancreatitis that arose from long-term health problems including high blood pressure.

This statement was supported by several of Soto’s family members, in another article in Granma on Thursday, who said that Soto had several chronic health problems, and did not follow his doctor’s instructions, EFE reports. The article also includes an affirmation from the medical examiner that completed Soto’s autopsy. Amnesty International has called for the immediate opening of an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Soto’s death.

Reforms may provide little relief for Afro-Cubans

A report released this week by Cuban academic Esteban Morales argues that the process of economic reform in Cuba has the potential to hurt the most vulnerable sectors of the island’s population and specifically Afro-Cubans, reports Mercopress.

Morales claims that government-proposed job cuts could disproportionately affect Afro-Cubans and mulattos, who “have always been, historically, the sectors with the least qualification, the least favored in employment, holding the worst jobs, the lowest salaries and the lowest retirement benefits.”

He adds that the focus on expanding entrepreneurial sectors of the economy is unlikely to help, as Afro-Cubans have less access to capital through remittances due to the fact that there are fewer Afro-Cubans living abroad. In his report, Morales advocates for the implication of affirmative action policies in order to counter this disparity, the Miami Herald reports. He also encourages the government, specifically the National Statistics Office, to include racial breakdowns when collecting economic and social data.

Cuba meets projected sugar output for 2010-2011 harvest

Cuba’s Ministry of Sugar (MINAZ) has announced that this year’s harvest has met the government’s projection, EFE reports. This year’s modest production goal had been to meet last year’s level of 1.1 million tons, the lowest output since the 1905-1906 season. The Sugar Ministry reported this week that this level has been met and slightly surpassed for a total production of about 106% of last year’s amount. Sources from the industry indicated that the season will be over in a few days, as only six facilities are still functioning to refine the last of this year’s harvest.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

U.S. focuses on people-to-people connections with Cuba, claims no evidence of opportunity to “do more”

This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech at the 41st Washington Conference on the Americas, an annual conference, hosted by the  U.S. Department of State, dedicated to addressing regional issues of economic development and democratic reform.  This year’s attendees included Mexican President Felipe Calderón and President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador.

In her speech, Secretary Clinton stated:

Now, we’re putting a particular focus on people-to-people connections in Cuba. From the very beginning, the Obama Administration believed that the best way to advance fundamental rights in Cuba – in fact, to advance them anywhere – is to support exchanges and constructive relationships. And there’s no better ambassador for our values than a teacher or an artist or a student or a religious leader, a Cuban American who has made a new life in the United States. That’s why we have eased our restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba. We could do more if we saw evidence that there was an opportunity to do so coming from the Cuban side because we want to foster these deeper connections and we want to work for the time when Cuba will enjoy its own transition to democracy, when it can look at its neighbors throughout the hemisphere and the people in Cuba will feel that they, too, are having a chance to choose their leaders, choose their professions, create their businesses, and generally take advantage of what has been a tremendous, great sweep of progress everywhere but Cuba.

President Obama’s January presidential directive, titled “Reaching Out to the Cuban People,” opened the door for several categories under which Americans can now legally travel to Cuba, including people-to-people cultural exchanges.
The Chicago Sun-Times reports that Dominican University in River Forest, outside of Chicago, is the first university to establish a short-term study abroad program in Cuba under the relaxed restrictions.  According to the article, American students will study Cuban culture, including the island’s economy and healthcare systems, at the University of Havana.

Cuba presents details, plans and safety standards for oil-drilling projects, some movement from U.S.

As discussed above, Cuba continues preparations for oil drilling projects off its northern shore, and presented their drilling plans and detailed safety standards at a two-day conference of international oil drilling contractors which ends today in Trinidad and Tobago, reports Reuters.  Through its presentation, Cuba hoped to counter U.S. concerns about its plans for offshore oil exploration.

Spanish company Repsol is on track to begin exploratory drilling in Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico this fall, and NPR reports that the coastal town of Mariel has been a hive of activity, preparing the local industry to support oil production.

Some in the U.S. government seem to be moving toward accepting Cuban oil drilling as an inevitability that is better addressed than ignored. According to Cuba Standard, Senator Bill Nelson, who in 2008 proposed a bill that would sanction all oil executives that drill off the coast of Cuba, has adopted a new approach. Sen. Nelson is now proposing a new bill, S. 405, which would amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to only sanction executives who also have drilling projects in Cuba that do not present the Department of the Interior with adequate assurances of preparations in case of an oil spill in Cuban waters which could affect the U.S.

Senator Nelson’s bill requires that an oil spill response plan include at least one “worst-case-scenario oil discharge plan” and evidence of sufficient financial and other resources necessary for a cleanup effort.

New Cuba bills introduced in House

This week, Rep. Rangel (NY-15) introduced three bills – one ending travel restrictions, one lifting the trade embargo, and another facilitating the export of U.S. agricultural goods, removing restrictions on exporting medicines and medical devices, and establishing an agricultural export promotion program. Congressman Rangel was joined by ten other representatives for the travel restrictions bill, three for the bill lifting the trade embargo, and two for the exportation and trade promotion bill.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Ortega in Brussels advocating change to EU’s Common Position

Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Archbishop of Havana, travelled to Brussels last week hoping to meet with Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, in order to encourage a change in the EU’s Common Policy toward Cuba, reports Spain’s ABC. Cardinal Ortega was unable to coordinate a meeting with Ashton, but did meet with her spokesman, Pierre de Boissieu.

The European Union has been exploring possibilities for improved relations with Cuba over the last several years while still working within the constraints of the Common Position which calls for Cuba to make improvements in human rights and democratization in order to reestablish full diplomatic relations with the EU. Ashton met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez more than a year ago to discuss rapprochement between the EU and Cuba, but no tangible change in policy has come to fruition.

In Mexico, the Seventh Mexico-Cuba Interparliamentary Meeting takes place

The Parliamentary bodies of Mexico and Cuba are seeking to rekindle relations between the two countries at the Seventh Mexico-Cuba Interparliamentary Meeting, inaugurated this week in the city of Mérida, Notimex reports. Diplomatic relations between the two countries cooled when the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) took control of Mexico’s government with the election of President Vicente Fox in 2000. The chairman of the directive board of Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies, Jorge Carlos Ramírez Marín, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), stated that the meeting is an opportunity to “relaunch” economic, political and social relations between the two nations. The meeting will include an examination of the economic reform process taking place in Cuba, as well as discussions on the subjects of trade cooperation and climate change. Cuba’s delegation will be led by the President of its National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcón.

Cuba and South Africa negotiate trade deal

This week, Cuban and South African delegations wrapped up a number of trade deals aimed at promoting commerce between the two countries. Although the countries have enjoyed friendly relations over the years, South African exports to Cuba have steeply declined in recent years. In 2008, South African exports to Cuba amounted to $11.5 million, while in 2010 they dropped to just $144,00, according to Cuba Standard.

Last December, South Africa cancelled $149 million of Cuba’s debt and doled out a credit package of $24.5 million to jump start South African exports to the island. Cooperation and trade between the two countries are primarily focused on healthcare services and pharmaceutical goods, labor relations, social security and information and communications technology.

International Coffee Organization says Cuba’s coffee and pea blend should not be labeled “coffee”

Cuba’s Interior Commerce Ministry announced last week that the government would resume mixing coffee with ground peas in its monthly ration to Cuban citizens in order to stretch supplies and cut costs due to the rising price of coffee on the international market. This week, the Executive Director of the International Coffee Organization (ICO), Jose D. Sette, criticized Cuba’s government for calling the mixture “coffee,” declaring that “products that contain more than 5% of material other than coffee should not use the name coffee,” reports BBC News. As a member of ICO, Cuba is banned from exporting the mixture because it violates ICO standards, but domestic sales of the mixture are not affected by ICO regulations.

Around the Region:

Honduras: an urgent need for a new social pact, Patricio Zamorano

The reporting contained in this paper took place during several trips to Honduras, including a fact-finding trip from February 5-8, 2011 – at a time when President Porfirio Lobo’s administration was reaching its first year in power – and a subsequent visit at the first General Assembly of the National Front of Popular Resistance (Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular, FNRP) from February 25 – March 1, 2011. This paper documents what transpired during this historic meeting, and also offers a broad overview of the current political situation in

post-coup Honduras.

Venezuela-Colombia ties remain strong despite Chávez’s reported links to FARC

“The FARC Files: Venezuela, Ecuador and the Secret Archive of Raúl Reyes,” which was published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think tank, addresses the alleged link between the leftist guerrilla organization and Venezuela’s government based on documents found in the computer files of a senior FARC commander who was killed in a 2008 raid.

The report has just been published as Colombia and Venezuela are taking substantial steps toward reconciliation. Colombian Foreign Minister María Angela Holguín said that in conversation with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro both had “agreed that we’ve turned a page,” adding that she hopes the report will not harm the new relationship her country has forged with Venezuela.

Salvadoran president addresses Council of the Americas   

El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes was one of the featured speakers at the 41st annual conference of the Council of the Americas in Washington.  In his address, the president criticized “a quarter century dominated by neoliberal policies” that increased poverty and exclusion in Latin America, and called on investors to support progressive changes in the region. A summary of his address is available here. The full text of his speech in Spanish is available here.

Zelaya expected to return to Honduras this month

Former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya is planning to return to his native country this month, the New York Times reports.  Zelaya was ousted in a June 2009 coup and has been living in exile for nearly two years in the Dominican Republic.

This announcement comes just after a special panel of judges created by Honduras’ Supreme Court to decide on two corruption charges against Zelaya ruled last week to drop all charges.

Their decision and Zelaya’s return could open the door for Honduras to be reintegrated into the Organization of American States, a body from which it was expelled after the coup. An article authored by Viviana Krsticevic for the Guardian criticizes the Honduran judiciary for expelling judges who participated in pro-democracy demonstrations following the coup.  Krsticevic describes these expulsions and the current bias and inefficiency of the judicial system as obstacles to the reestablishment of the rule of law in the country.

Recommended Reading:

Honduras: an urgent need for a new social pact, Patricio Zamorano

The reporting contained in this paper took place during several trips to Honduras, including a fact-finding trip from February 5-8, 2011 – at a time when President Porfirio Lobo’s administration was reaching its first year in power – and a subsequent visit at the first General Assembly of the National Front of Popular Resistance (Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular, FNRP) from February 25 – March 1, 2011. This paper documents what transpired during this historic meeting, and also offers a broad overview of the current political situation in post-coup Honduras. 

Remittance recipients and the present and future of microentrepreneurship activities in Cuba, Manuel Orozco for the Inter-American Dialogue

In his paper, Manuel Orozco explores the extent to which Cuban remittance recipients are responding to the Cuban government’s economic reforms which seek to incentivize entrepreneurial activities as an economic growth strategy and state liberalization policy.

U.S. Cuba programs: the stuff of spies?, The Miami Herald

Frances Robles takes a look at the controversial USAID democracy promotion funds, how they are viewed and portrayed in Cuba, and the secretive nature of these public funds.

“Just Say Yes” to U.S.-Cuba Counter-drug Cooperation, Lilia Lopez on The Havana Note

“While Cuba has 32 bilateral counter-narcotics agreements with other nations, Cuba-U.S. counter-narcotics cooperation is limited to one U.S. Coast Guard officer stationed at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.”

Recommended Viewing:

VIDEO: First transvestite show in Cuba in fifty years

For the first time since the revolution, Cuban transvestites held an unprecedented gala at the Karl Marx theater in Havana as part of this month’s campaign against homophobia in Cuba. The gala and the national campaign against homophobia are organized by Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), which is led by Mariela Castro Espín, the daughter of President Raúl Castro.

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