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…
Cuba’s government is continuing to relax restrictions on the private sector, reports the Miami Herald. The official report printed in state newspaper Granma announced that all 178 categories of legalized private enterprise will now be allowed to hire non-relatives. When the categories for private enterprise were expanded in November of last year, only 83 of those categories were permitted to hire people who were not family members. More than 200,000 Cubans have received licenses to open private businesses since last year’s expansion.
In its meeting over the weekend, Cuba’s Council of Ministers formally extended the period for laying off more than 500,000 state workers, though it stopped short of providing a new timeline. President Raúl Castro announced the lay-offs last year, stating that they would take place by the end of the first quarter of 2011. Earlier this year, however, Castro delayed the plan, saying that it would take longer than expected.
The Ministers also discussed rising international prices of food and other import products, as well as the outcome of this year’s sugar harvest which, “though far from optimal, was enough to carry out plans to increase exportation of sugar and sugar products,” Granma reports.
Juan Tamayo with McClatchy Newspapers takes a look at the reform process through a critical lens, arguing that initial excitement among Cubans has turned to indifference due to slow movement and few concrete or specific changes, and calling the finalized guidelines released last week “little more than a wish list.” Another article from the Associated Press details the private restaurant business in Cuba, which has flourished as a result of the expansion of the private sector.
Orlando Lugo, the leader of Cuba’s National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), has called for additional reforms in the agricultural sector, Cuba Standard reports. In an interview with Juventud Rebelde that coincides with ANAP’s 50th anniversary, Lugo discussed the changes taking place in the sector as a result of the current reform process and lays out several areas that need policy changes. Lugo hopes for reforms that would allow farmers to sell their products directly to end users and negate the requirement that they sell the majority of their produce to Acopio, the state company in charge of national food distribution:
If in Cuba there is private and diversified production, you can’t have monopolized distribution. We have to look for many ways of buying and selling. If you ask me, it must be direct. If a cooperative wants to sell products and wants to establish a point of sale, then they should have it. If a hotel wants to buy products from a cooperative, why can’t they do it? Why does it have to be done through a company? We have to continue insisting on direct commerce between the producer and the network of purchasers. There are some provinces that have some experience in this. I know that it is something that is being studied, but certainly, it is still a subject that has not been resolved.
Lugo reports that 23,000 young people have moved to work in the agricultural sector due to the agricultural reform law. In addition, he states that over 10,000 farmers have received credits, which were legalized earlier this year, and used them to purchase supplies for their farms. An issue that has arisen out of the expansion of small farming, however, is a lack of rural housing. Lugo expressed hope that the prioritization of home construction in rural areas, emphasized at last month’s Sixth Communist Party Congress, will bring a solution to this problem.
Iván Martínez, Deputy Minister of Cuba’s Ministry of Basic Industries, has announced plans to re-open a gold mine in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba Standard reports. The project will be funded by Venezuela and the ALBA trade agreement, and is part of an initiative to resume gold mining at five locations. According to data from Geominera, the state company that will manage the project, the open-pit mine has reserves for five years. The mine, located in the town of El Cobre, was originally closed in 2001.
Independent transportation workers, whose occupations were legalized last year under an expansion of private business, have begun to join labor unions in Havana, the Associated Press reports. According to Trabajadores, a publication of the Cuban Workers Confederation (CTC), the majority of workers joining these syndicates are bicycle taxi operators, but car washers and repairmen have also begun to join. Carlos Reyes Martínez, who has been in the transportation business for 14 years, offered his reasons for being in the union: “It’s very important. We are organized and attended to, our rights are looked after, and we all fulfill our obligations. In this way, we can also address concerns.” These concerns include the establishment of designated taxi stands in order to create an organized system and avoid territorial conflicts between drivers.
The Cuban LGBT community and supporters participated in a march in Havana last Saturday in commemoration of the International Day Against Homophobia, reports AP. The march was organized by Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), led by Mariela Castro, the daughter of President Raúl Castro. CENESEX has played a key role in promoting gay rights in Cuba, and this month organized a series of events for the campaign to end homophobia.
Inspired by the May 17th International Day Against Homophobia, several opinion and editorial pieces were published this week exploring the status of the LGBT community in Cuba. Two pieces, one in the Havana Times and the other in BBC Mundo emphasize the lack of legislative action protecting the rights of the LGBT community; the authors claim that campaigns to create laws have been sacrificed for campaigns to raise societal awareness. Both articles also raise the issue of a police force that continues to be insensitive toward Cuba’s LGBT citizens.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Esteban Lazo, Vice-President of Cuba’s Council of State made a trip to Port-au-Prince this week to meet with Haitian officials leading up to the inauguration of President-elect Michel Joseph Martelly, Radio Ángulo reports.
Lazo met with President Rene Preval and thanked him for awarding Haiti’s top honor to the Cuban medical brigade, which has brought thousands of Cuban doctors to Haiti since the tragic January 2010 earthquake, in recognition of their work to fight Haiti’s cholera epidemic. Lazo also met with President-elect Martelly, who expressed his desire to maintain cooperation between the two countries. The Cuban delegation, which also includes First Deputy Foreign Minister Marcelino Medina, will attend Martelly’s inauguration, to be held on Saturday.
Several family members of ex-prisoners who accepted exile in Spain last year as a part of a deal between Cuba’s Catholic Church, Cuba’s government, and the government of Spain, have been denied visas to visit their home country, EFE reports. These family members had previously received assurances from then Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos that they would be allowed to return to the island, but Cuba’s government has reportedly denied the requests of 12 former political prisoners to return, temporarily or permanently. Spain’s Foreign Ministry has taken a hands-off approach to the issue, stating that the granting of permission to enter Cuba is the sole responsibility of authorities on the island.
William Reilly, the co-chairman of the BP oil spill panel, stated this week that he was chastised by the Obama administration for insisting on dialogue with Cuba about safety and prevention issues in light of their plans to begin offshore oil-drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, reports The New York Times. According to Reilly, “that’s something that’s very important to us, I think, given that they’re drilling 50 miles off Key West, so I’ve asked to be invited to Cuba to talk about the report and have had my wrist slapped by the administration for raising the sensitive Cuban issue.”
Reilly criticized the U.S. for putting at risk its own interests by refusing to cooperate on such sensitive issues as oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, especially in light of last year’s Deepwater Horizon spill. He insisted that he would continue pushing for a dialogue and the advancement of other drilling-safety measures recommended by the panel.
The policy of avoiding the Cuba oil-drilling issue extends throughout the Obama administration. David Sandalow, Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Energy, made no mention of Cuba in his keynote remarks at the 20th Annual Latin America Energy Conference, held this week in La Jolla, California.
Despite the lack of dialogue, Cuba continues to move ahead with its plans for deep water exploration projects in the Gulf. Industry expert Jorge Piñon penned a positive outlook for Bloomberg, claiming that the projects have a high probability of success and that Cuba’s economy could see a 500% increase in national oil output from these exploration projects. Data from 2009 show that Cuba imported 96,000 barrels of oil per day while only producing 47,500 barrels per day domestically. Piñon estimates that a successful exploration project could increase this number to 200,000 to 300,000 barrels of oil per day domestically if deep water exploration projects are successful. The first exploration project will be undertaken by the Spanish company Repsol, with drilling scheduled to begin later this year.
Rubén Remigio Ferro, the Chief Justice of Cuba’s Supreme Court, announced that the Court is currently reviewing an appeal filed following the conviction of USAID contractor Alan Gross and the 15-year sentence which was handed down earlier this year, Europa Press reports. Gross was arrested in December 2009 after he brought high technology equipment into Cuba, and entered the country on a tourist visa while under a contract from Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI), a company hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) with Cuba program funds. There is no set deadline for the Court to respond to his appeal.
A 2006 Florida law banning the use of state funds for school travel to countries listed by the U.S. Department of State as state sponsors of terrorism, may go before the Supreme Court, reports the Miami Herald. The law is being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Florida state universities have also decried the law as the Obama administration has eased restrictions on academic travel to Cuba, claiming that the law puts them at a disadvantage.
The U.S. Supreme Court has invited the Obama administration to file a brief on the issue outlining the view of the federal government. The administration would be represented by acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal.
Professor Noel Smith of the University of South Florida is among the professors hoping that the law will be taken up by the Supreme Court. Smith ran a flourishing Cuba program when the “door slammed shut” in 2006, reports The Tampa Tribune. “There’s great opportunity to study anthropology, agronomy, migration studies, disaster studies, infectious diseases – just about anything you could think of,” Smith says. “We in Florida share so much with Cuba that we see in our culture, our history and language. We should be the first in the country in research. We should be the first in going down there and creating academic ties and participating in new opportunities.”
Students from Boston’s Berklee College of Music attended the 15th International Cubadisco Fair, held this week in Santiago de Cuba, EFE reports. At the fair, students from the renowned U.S. music school shared the stage with Cuban music students of the Esteban Salas Conservatory as well as other musicians. Professor Neil Leonard, who led the group, stated: “I believe this visit will change the lives of my students. I see our stay here with a vision of the future and I know that the exchange with these Cuban musicians will prove to be a great experience.”
The students are performing today in Havana at the National Museum of Fine Arts, and the program will include pieces composed together with Cuba’s National Laboratory of Electro-acoustic Music and the Higher Institute of Art.
Around the Region:
Ousted Honduran leader Zelaya could return home next week, El Libertador
Former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, ousted in a June 2009 coup, has announced plans to return to his home country next week. The former president has been living in exile in the Dominican Republic since January 2010. His decision to return to Honduras comes after corruption charges that could have lead to his arrest upon entering the country were dropped earlier this month. Though the former president did not give an exact date for his return, Juan Barahona, sub-coordinator of the organized Honduran resistance movement, specified that the former president will return to the country on June 28th – the second anniversary of the coup which ousted him. CEPR’s Alex Main has an excellent recap of recent Venezuela-Colombian mediation in Honduras.
Meanwhile, concerns persist regarding the human rights situation in Honduras, and how the issue will be addressed upon Zelaya’s return. This week, Héctor Medina, a journalist who was covering corruption and local land disputes, was shot and killed, marking the thirteenth media professional murdered in the last 18 months.
As vote tallies come to an end, results indicate that Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa has been successful in passing all ten parts of a popular referendum aimed at modifying the country’s institutions.
The most controversial points included in the referendum would modify the South American country’s constitution to change oversight of the court system and forbid owners of financial or media institutions from having other business interests. Other measures ban casinos and bullfighting. Correa claims the reforms bolster democracy, but critics have accused him of a power grab. Details about the questions included in the referendum can be found here (in Spanish). Official results are available here.
The “Low Point” in U.S.-Cuba Relations – One Year Later, Lilia López, The Havana Note
“At roughly this time last year the headline of a Reuters article proclaimed, ‘U.S-Cuba relations under Obama fall to lowest point.’ … Given President Obama’s remarks about Cuba to Univision last week, one might conclude U.S.-Cuba relations have reached a sort of second nadir.”
Members of a six-person Cuban delegation made comments during a closed-door meeting taped by energyNOW! at an environmental conference organized by the U.S.–based International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC). The delegation’s comments will be aired this weekend on Bloomberg Television at 5:30 p.m. ET Saturday, and at 9:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. ET Sunday. For those in Washington, D.C., you can catch the broadcast on ABC7 at 11:00 a.m. ET Sunday.