A Message About Walls and Doors from your Friends at Cuba Central

Some build walls, and others open doors.

We participated at a conference this week, convened by the Center for International Policy, where speakers from Cuba and the United States explored racism and racial identity in Cuba.  These are tough and tricky subjects in both countries, with their respective legacies of racism, but the discussion was open and honest and free of political posturing and agendas.

Cubans and Americans – led by Wayne Smith and James Early on the U.S. side, by Esteban Morales and Heriberto Feraudy on the Cuban side –demonstrated what door builders know.  Even hard subjects can be discussed when people address each other with respect.  Respect opens doors.

We report this week on promising examples of cultural exchange.  A student orchestra composed of musicians from Harvard and Radcliffe played this week in Cuba.  A Florida orchestra this fall will become the first professional orchestra since 1999 to play in Cuba under an agreement it has made.  Our good friend Jackson Browne is welcoming the composer of Muros Y Puertas, Carlos Varela, for his tour later this month in the United States.  Music opens doors.

The conference on race and the musical tours were all made possible, in part, by decisions that the United States government made to allow these extremely healthy exchanges to take place.  That is to their credit.

But the fact is they could do a lot more.  We have repeatedly discussed the fact that with Cuba soon to drill in the Gulf of Mexico the U.S. has no effective plan in place to deal with a potential oil spill.  We reported recently the former EPA Administrator Bill Reilly, who led the BP Spill Commission, has been told to ‘pipe down’ his advocacy for talks among the U.S., Mexico, and Cuba to protect the Gulf.

This week we’re reporting that the Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, went to Spain to talk to the oil company Repsol, Cuba’s partner that will kick-off the drilling later this year, about safety.  But we’re still not talking directly to Cuba about it!  It’s time to open that door.

We also report this week on a significant human rights issue, the sentencing of four Cubans to sentences of up to five years, for scattering pamphlets critical of the government.

Our decision to isolate Cuba diplomatically, which effectively builds a wall around us, makes it impossible for officials of the U.S. government to sit down constructively with their Cuban counterparts to ask why these Cuban citizens were treated so harshly.

After more than 50 years, it’s time to tear down the wall, and open the door.

Please enjoy the news summary this week and mark your calendars.  On Friday June 10th, we’ll be returning from a research trip to the island and we’ll not be sending you the news.   We bet you miss us already.


Dissidents handed up to five-year sentences for distributing anti-government materials

Four men arrested in January for dispersing anti-government leaflets in two public spaces in Havana have received sentences of up to five years in jail, Reuters reports. Three of the men received five-year sentences, while the fourth received a three-year sentence, on charges of disorder and insulting national symbols. The pamphlets included phrases like “Down with the Castro dictatorship” and “Freedom for political prisoners.” According to EFE, the four belong to a dissident group called the Force of Truth.

Human Rights Watch released a statement following the sentencing, calling on Cuba’s government to “stop imprisoning peaceful dissidents.” José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, stated: “With this new round of prosecutions, the Castro government is sending a clear message to dissidents that the status quo has not changed in Cuba. Publicly criticizing the government can still earn you a harsh prison sentence.” The statement also criticizes the recent sentencing of two brothers recently given two and three year sentences in the province of Holguín, also on charges of public disorder and insulting national symbols.

Cuba cuts back on healthcare workers

Employment in Cuba’s health sector has decreased by 14% according to Cuba’s National Statistics Office (ONE), AP reports. Layoffs over the past year were largely concentrated in less-skilled technician and auxiliary positions, such as X-ray technicians and dental assistants, which saw a drop of 34% from 134,000 to 88,000. Meanwhile, the number of people working in high-skill positions, like doctors and nurses, remained mostly constant.  In addition to the layoffs, 602 family medical consultation offices have also been closed, Univision reports.

President Raúl Castro announced last year that more than 500,000 workers would be laid off by the first quarter of 2011, though in February he stated that the process would take longer than originally expected, without providing a new timeline. The healthcare sector was singled out in an official report released by the Ministry of Health in November of last year, titled “Necessary Changes in the Public Health System.” These new statistics represent one of the first indications that large-scale layoffs are already taking place.

Agricultural output down from 5 years ago, but sugar shows promise

Efforts to increase food production, a priority in Cuba’s economic reform program, are not paying off and being impeded by a lack of financing, inadequate reforms, and bureaucratic obstacles, Reuters reports. Reuters cites government statistics showing crop yields for potatoes, root vegetables such as malanga and yucca, bananas, garden vegetables, corn, beans, and fruits were down in 2010 compared with five years ago. Exports of sugar, coffee, tobacco and pork were also down.

One local agriculture expert, who asked not to be named, implied that the reform process was taking too long, stating, “The government is moving way too slowly to implement reforms, which in many cases are half measures in the first place.”

Since taking office, President Raúl Castro has sought to lower Cuba’s imports of food through several measures including giving idle state land to small private farmers. The government has granted 128,000 leases, covering about 2.9 million acres. Small micro-credits are also now available to new farmers. As a next step in the reform process, the government is expected to increase the amount of land that one individual can cultivate and extend the original 10-year lease. Many farmers, including small farmers and new farmers benefitting from these leases, have pushed for an end to the state monopoly of food distribution. Currently, only 10% of food is sold on the open market.

Another article from Reuters reports that high sugar prices on the international market have inspired Cuba’s government to provide incentives for farmers to grow sugar. According to a local sugar expert who asked not to be named, “The ministry is clearing and plowing land, providing seed and some other services to individuals who lease fallow state acreage under a government program begun in 2008.” Another industry expert stated that new farmers are choosing to plant sugar, and other established farmers are switching to the crop as a result of lower starting costs due to government incentives. Officials from the Ministry of Agriculture reported that output for 2011 was 7 percent higher than expected.

Raúl Castro turns 80, proclaims he is in great shape

Today, President Castro is celebrating his 80th birthday, and he claims to be in better shape than a lot of 60-year-olds, Reuters reports. “How do I look, girls?” Castro asked while speaking informally to reporters after seeing off former President Lula of Brazil who wrapped up a visit to Cuba. Castro also joked that despite his proposal at April’s Communist Party Conference to put term limits of two, five year terms on the leadership, he would only try and serve one five-year term.

A correction to last week’s news blast: We reported that María Blanca Ortega Barredo was replacing Jacinto Angulo Pardo as the Minister of the Interior. This should have read the Minister of Interior Commerce. In this position, Ortega Barredo will oversee domestic commerce, including reforms currently being undertaken on the national level.


Cuba in recently released Wikileaks cables

Cuba has been mentioned in recently-released cables from the U.S. embassies in Mexico, Haiti and Panama.

A 2007 cable from Mexico written by then-U.S. Ambassador Anthony Garza reveals that then-Attorney General of Mexico, Eduardo Medina Mora and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff feared a mass exodus of Cubans in the case of a regime collapse on the island following Fidel Castro’s death. Medina Mora warned against the dangers of destabilization from a rapid collapse of the post-Castro regime, and affirmed that a “semi-authoritarian” regime, which would evolve toward democracy, would be best for the stability of the region. Mora was also of the opinion that the displaced elements of the Cuban regime, particularly of the Armed Forces, could “present the danger of organized crime in the hemisphere, similar to the Russian mafia in Europe.”

A cable written in December 2007 by Thomas Tighe, then-Chargé d’affaires of the U.S. embassy in Haiti, claimed that Venezuela and Cuba were “taking advantage of a yawning electricity gap in Haiti” when Venezuela funded the construction of three electricity generators, to be built with the help of Cuban technicians. The cable criticizes Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez for pressing then-President René Preval to attend a “splashy public ceremony” for the inauguration of construction, though adding, “Haiti will accept this kind of assistance from any source. We do not believe the Preval administration is ideologically motivated in accepting aid from Venezuela or Cuba.”

Another released cable from Panama details the scene surrounding then-President Mireya Moscoso’s pardon of four anti-Castro Cubans, including Luis Posada Carriles, who were imprisoned in the country for planning the assassination of Fidel Castro in 2000. The cable explores the motives for the pardons saying “Both Moscoso and her sister have strong ties in Miami, where they own real estate and spend a considerable amount of time.”

Former President of Brazil visits Cuba, meets with top officials

Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visited Cuba for two days this week as part of  his tour of five Latin American countries, reports AFP. During his stay, Lula visited the seaport town of Mariel, where Brazil has invested $300 million dollars toward improving the port’s capacities, including construction of railroads and a highway. Mariel will be the base for Cuba’s oil-exploration projects, set to begin at the end of this summer, and the principal site of oil industry production should exploration projects prove successful, AP reports.

On his final day on the island, Lula met with President Raúl and Fidel Castro. He stated that he was happy that projects between Brazil and Cuba were “going well,” and encouraged Brazil’s new President, Dilma Rousseff, to “make a visit to Cuba after Raúl visits Brazil, to assure that relations continue improving.”

Photos of Lula’s trip to the island are available from CubaDebate here.

Heads of Parliament of Cuba and El Salvador meet in Havana

Ricardo Alarcón, the President of Cuba’s National Assembly and his counterpart in El Salvador, Othón Sigfrido Reyes, announced intentions to deepen the relationship between the two countries this week, reports Cuban News Agency. Statements came as Reyes arrived in Havana for a three-day visit to the island, during which he met with a number of high level government representatives. Relations between Cuba and El Salvador were reestablished in 2009, after the inauguration of the Funes presidency.


Interior Secretary Salazar Talks to Repsol, Not Cuba, about drilling safely in the Gulf

Ken Salazar, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, visited Spain and heard assurances from Repsol that it will follow U.S. environmental standards and allow the U.S. to inspect its Scarabeo 9 rig when the company drills for oil in the Gulf.

According to Fuel Fix, Salazar said in a conference call “Repsol has volunteered to comply with all of the United States environmental regulations for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. That is an offer they have made.”

Cuban officials reiterated this week that the island’s oil sector would welcome the participation of U.S. oil companies in exploration efforts, reports El Informador. An article in the state newspaper Trabajadores of the Cuban Worker’s Confederation, stated that “Cuba has always said that we would welcome U.S. oil companies interested in exploring our waters, despite the economic aggressions practiced by their government.” The U.S. has, to date, avoided diplomatic discussions regarding the drilling to take place in Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

U.S. experts speculate about Cuba drilling projects

As the projected start of Cuba’s off-shore drilling nears, analysts interviewed by The Telegraph this week suggested that if Cuba were to discover significant amounts of oil in the Gulf of Mexico that could push the U.S. to end the trade embargo due to economic pressure and environmental concerns. Mark Jones, an expert on Latin America and professor at Rice University in Texas, stated that “The greater the drilling and production, the greater the pressure will be to engage in a complete overhaul of the trade embargo, either getting rid of it altogether or watering it down substantially.” Meanwhile, John Kavulich of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council argued that “If there is any leverage that could push the Obama administration or the U.S. Congress to push for change it would be from an environmental standpoint.”

Washington conference addresses issues of race in Cuba

A conference convened by the Center for International Policy discussed issues of race on the island, the Miami Herald reports. The conference was attended by Esteban Morales, an Afro-Cuban academic who recently published a report titled “Facing challenges of race as part of the debate for socialism.” In the report, Morales details current problems of race in Cuba, and warns that economic reforms, especially layoffs in the state sector, could disproportionately affect Afro-Cubans. Morales announced that Cuba would be launching a one-year program highlighting programs in Africa and explaining Africa’s importance to the history of the island.

Heriberto Feraudy, head of the Cuban Commission Against Racism, also traveled from Havana to attend the conference. Feraudy noted that the Central Committee of the Communist Party selected at the Party Congress in April showed a 10% increase in black and mestizo members. Feraudy also warned of the challenges that the reform process poses for the island’s black population, noting that white Cubans receive more remittances from abroad and are therefore more likely to have the resources to start their own businesses and incorporate themselves into the growing private sector.

American and Cuban musicians continue to build bridges

The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra visited Cuba last week, playing concerts in several cities including Havana and Santa Clara, reports Reuters. The student orchestra performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Havana and shared the stage with Concierto Sur, a local orchestra in Santa Clara, Prensa Latina reports.

The Florida Orchestra has been granted official approval for a multi-year cultural exchange program and will also be traveling to Cuba, the St. Petersburg Times reports. The program will begin this fall, when a wind quintet will travel to Havana to give master classes.  The group hopes to bring the entire orchestra to the island as early as next season, which would be the first time a professional American orchestra has performed in Cuba since 1999.  José Valiente, chair of the task force set up by the orchestra to pursue a project in Cuba, sees the program as “another way to get people to talk to each other. Music is the universal language that can bring people together. … I think of this exchange as the laying down of another brick on the bridge that is rebuilding.”

Cuban singer songwriter Carlos Varela will begin a tour of the U.S. next week, with shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Clearwater, New York, and Miami. An article from AOL tells the story of the hotel room and the bottle of rum that brought Varela together with Jackson Browne, who is presenting this year’s tour.

Finally, Pablo Milanés, renowned singer-songwriter and a leader of Cuba’s Nueva Trova movement, has announced that he will begin a U.S. tour, including a concert in Miami, on August 25th, AP reports. Hugo Cancio, president of the firm promoting the tour, stated that he did not believe the concert would see protests in Miami, though artists have faced demonstrators in the past. He stated, “Music unites us, and Pablo, through his music, can serve as a vehicle to unite all Cubans and Latinos.”

Around the Region:

Honduras readmitted to OAS after coup, Reuters

Honduras was officially reintegrated into the Organization of American States (OAS) this week almost two years after President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a widely condemned coup. The OAS voted 32 to one to readmit Honduras, with Ecuador opposing the decision, Reuters reports. Ecuadoran ambassador María Isabel Salvador stated that “the conditions do not exist to fully restore Honduras to this organization… Rule of law has not been completed… Repressive impunity continues.”

In an official statement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also expressed that “thanks to the steadfast efforts of President Lobo and his commitment to national reconciliation, and the tireless efforts of several OAS member states, democracy was restored”. The first vice president of Honduras, Marie Antoinette Guillén, addressed the session and said the OAS re-entry “rather than a celebration, deserves deep reflection” because “there were large and small mistakes, and not all attributable to us.”

24 hours before the OAS vote, a letter to Secretary Clinton signed by 87 House representatives warned about the critical situation of human rights in the Central American country and asked Clinton and the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa “to press the Honduran government to end abuses by official security forces and to suspend U.S. aid to the military and the police until mechanisms are in place to ensure security forces are held accountable for abuses.”

According to press reports, Venezuela, which lent diplomatic support for Honduras’ return, after negotiations between Presidents Chávez, Santos of Colombia, Lobo and Zelaya, pressed to include trials of coup plotters as a part of the draft resolution, which sparked a three-hour delay at the beginning of the OAS special meeting. The trials were not included, and Venezuela signed the resolution, although Foreign Venezuelan Minister Nicolás Maduro delivered his approval vote “with reservations.”

A recently released Wikileaks cable, written by U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens, provides a “Who’s Who of the Honduran Coup,” demonstrating detailed U.S. knowledge of the people who were behind Zelaya’s 2009 ouster.

Ricardo Stein, an architect of peace in Guatemala, is dead at 62, LA Times

Guatemalan intellectual and human rights advocate Ricardo Stein, died this week of cancer at the age of 62. Stein was a key architect of the 1996 peace accords ending the country’s long civil war, and he dedicated much of his life to fighting rights abuses in Guatemala and neighboring El Salvador. He served as Executive Director of Guatemala’s Soros Foundation from 1998-2006, and was a special counselor and coordinator for the U.N. Development Program in Guatemala.   He also played a key role in increasing Mayan political participation and leadership in the country.

Venezuela initiates deportation process for former FARC top leader, Colombia Reports

The Venezuelan government has initiated the deportation of former FARC leader Guillermo Enrique Torres Cueter, known as “Julian Conrado,” to Colombia. Colombian authorities are considering his extradition to the U.S., following a red notice issued by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), for charges of drug trafficking and conspiracy. Torres was the former right-hand man of former FARC commander Raúl Reyes, who was killed in a cross-border operation in Ecuador in 2008.

Recommended Reading:

Havana’s Sphere of Influence, The New York Times

In Cuba, where dancers — especially male ones — seem to grow like weeds, ballet is a noble profession. “There, every taxi driver knows the names of the dancers,” Mikhail Baryshnikov said in a recent interview. “This is unheard of. Try it in New York.”

From Cuba, signs that U.S. refuses to see, DeWayne Wickham, USA Today

Mr. Wickham, recently back in the U.S. after a trip to Cuba, contrasts the changes currently taking place on the island with continuing stagnation of U.S. policy.

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