We’re back from Cuba bringing you two weeks of news

Last week, as a delegation from the Center for Democracy in the Americas visited Cuba, we quickly noticed that we were not alone.

The Vice President of China had filled the Hotel Nacional in Havana with an enormous delegation visiting the island for talks with Cuba’s leadership.  His visit was a powerful reminder that China’s footprint and influence in Latin America is growing, and that the long-running Chinese-Cuban relationship powerfully combines political and economic interests that will only grow over time.

President Hugo Chávez was also in Cuba at the same time.  He and his delegation inked agreements for 116 joint projects with Cuba before he was felled by an illness requiring surgery.

These two unconnected visits prompted a member of our delegation to quip, “Everyone’s here except the U.S.”

Although hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans exercise their legal rights to visit families in Cuba, and tens of thousands more are empowered to do so by President Obama’s new travel rules, our country which resides closest to Cuba’s borders maintains an uncomfortable distance from the island as our allies and our competitors charge in.

Rather than engaging with Cuba now – constructively and directly – as virtually every country on the planet does, U.S. policy leaves us isolated from Cuba’s people and traps U.S. policy makers in a stale debate that never seems to end.

Our news summary contains abundant examples of how much heat and how little light that debate offers.  We focus on the USAID program, over-the-top attacks against the nomination of U.S. Interests Section Chief, Jonathan Farrar, and the continued captivity of Alan Gross.

We think these stories make a point about the policy:  the people of the United States – and the people of Cuba – deserve better.  We believe a new policy that emphasizes engagement, and respects Cuba’s sovereignty, would have a lasting and beneficial impact on both U.S. and Cuban society, and serve our nation’s larger interests in Cuba and across Latin America.

Next week, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, which so proudly publishes this weekly news blast, celebrates its fifth anniversary.

As an organization we’ve devoted much of our work to visiting Cuba, doing research on the impact and implications of U.S. policy, and distributing information so that this stale debate can be changed by new ideas and perspectives.

Thank you for reading the News Blast and supporting our work.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

The battle over Sen. Kerry’s hold on “democracy promotion” funds continues; Freedom House returns USAID funding

The battle over $20 million in U.S. government funding for “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba, blocked since April by Senator John Kerry due to his concerns about the transparency and effectiveness of the programs, heated up this week, AP reports.

USAID’s controversial Cuba programs – funded by regime change provisions of the Helms-Burton law – have been more visibly questioned since the imprisonment of Alan Gross. He entered Cuba on a tourist visa and was later arrested for distributing highly-regulated electronic equipment on the island.  Mr. Gross, employed by a company under contract to USAID,  was sentenced to 15 years in prison in March for violating Cuban law.

This week, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, released a statement attacking Kerry’s position and arguing that “U.S. democracy promotion programs in Cuba advance our foreign policy goals of helping to bring freedom to the Cuban people and to facilitate a transition to democracy.”  Ros-Lehtinen also wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reiterating her belief in the importance of the programs.

The State Department responded formally last week to Kerry’s thirteen written inquiries regarding the USAID Cuba program by, according to one account, leaking responses that didn’t answer Kerry’s questions to the media.

Separately, a new requirement was placed on entities receiving USAID funding, requiring prior vetting and approval for every contractor and subcontractor involved in Cuba programs.

Freedom House, a U.S.-based human rights organization that is currently under a 3-year contract with USAID has returned the final year’s funding, approximately $1.7 million, stating that the new requirements were “not just onerous. They really raise the risk of what we do, especially in the age of Wikileaks,” reports the Miami Herald.

Members of CDA delegation meet with Alan Gross

As we covered in our abbreviated blast last week, members of a delegation visiting Cuba organized by the Center for Democracy in the Americas were permitted to visit Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor, in the prison hospital where he is confined, as the Associated Press and other news organizations reported.

Mr. Gross is serving a fifteen-year sentence after having been convicted for “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state.”   These activities were made illegal in Cuba over a decade ago after the U.S. Congress adopted the Helms-Burton law which funds “regime change” efforts against the island’s government.  His appeal is currently pending before Cuba’s highest court.

To express humanitarian support for Mr. Gross’ plight, members of the delegation requested permission from Cuba’s government to visit him during meetings that took place at the Ministry of Foreign Relations.  Members of the delegation spent two hours with him on the morning of Thursday June 9th and reported on his condition at a press conference later that afternoon.  Permission to visit Mr. Gross was granted by Cuba’s government without conditions.

Following the press conference, stories were published about the delegation’s visit with Mr. Gross by the Associated Press, Reuters, and CNN International and by Tracey Eaton at Along the Malecón.  On their return, members of the delegation met with Mrs. Gross and provided her with a yellow rose, as her husband requested.

Oakland airport approved for Cuba flights

Oakland International Airport is the latest airport to be approved to offer direct flights to Cuba under recently-approved travel regulations ordered by President Obama, reports the San Jose Mercury News. Oakland will be the first airport in California’s Bay Area able to provide direct flights to the island. The airport will be offering nonstop charter flights, estimated to cost between $689 and $859 dollars depending on the time of year, according to a representative from Cuba Travel Services. Cheryl Pollino, manager of Danville Travel, expressed optimism that the travel ban for all Americans will be lifted in the next few years, citing current changes taking place in Cuba and the recent actions of the administration.

U.S. Representative Barbara Lee of Oakland expressed her support for the addition of Oakland International to the list of approved airports, stating in an interview that, “I think the more people-to-people contact we have, the more likely it is that one day this travel ban and the embargo will be lifted.”

Freedom House releases report on prospects for Cuba’s economic reform

Freedom House, a U.S.-based NGO, released a report last week titled: “Real Change for Cuba? How Citizens View Their Country’s Future.”  The report, summarized in an op-ed for the Miami Herald, analyzes the prospects of the economic reforms process and the general sentiments and concerns of Cuban citizens. According to the report, Cubans are generally apprehensive about economic changes, and concerned about cuts in social services and meeting basic daily needs. More than half of those polled viewed the country as “stuck,” while about a third saw the country as regressing. Many Cubans interviewed complained that they could not find work in the field in which they were trained or educated. Second to economic concerns, according to the report, is a desire for increased freedom of expression. Other complaints include the strict travel restrictions placed on Cuban citizens, and the expensive but limited access to Internet.

The report concludes that while there is some cautious optimism about current reforms, most Cubans do not believe that significant change will take place in the near future.

Outgoing Chief of U.S. Interests Section in Havana criticized by Senator Rubio

As a reshuffling occurs in several ambassador posts throughout Latin America, Senator Marco Rubio (FL) has raised criticisms of Jonathan Farrar, the outgoing Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, accusing him of not taking a strong enough stance against Cuba’s government during his time in Havana, reports AP. Rubio also criticized Farrar for not meeting enough with dissidents. The Senator’s criticisms were voiced as he raised concerns over Farrar’s nomination to a new post as ambassador to Nicaragua. Rubio’s remarks can be viewed here.

The Obama administration has not indicated who will fill Farrar’s position in Havana as chief of mission, a post that does not require Senate confirmation.

U.S. participants take 1st and 3rd place in fishing competition; others participants denied

This past weekend, several U.S. yachts participated in Cuba’s 61st Hemingway International Fishing Festival, while another 20 were denied permission by the U.S. to travel to the island, AFP reports. The deep-sea fishing event takes place every year in commemoration of Ernest Hemingway, who lived on the island for 21 years near Havana, where he wrote his acclaimed novel The Old Man and the Sea.  In response to the denials of permission to participate, tournament spokesman José Miguel Díaz stated, “Hopefully the Obama administration will realize that a fishing tournament, even more than a tourist and sports event, is an encounter between peoples, a bridge of friendship.”

This week, the Treasury Department released an updated list of authorized travel service providers.  Café Fuerte provides a list of the most recently approved providers.

Family of late political prisoner and hunger striker move to U.S., bring his ashes with them

The family of deceased hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo moved to Miami this week, and brought his ashes with them to the U.S., Reuters reports.  Zapata’s mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, reported that she and her husband, along with 11 other family members, would be moving from Havana to Miami. She also stated that her son’s ashes would be interred in a mausoleum along with the ashes of veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Miami Herald reports. Zapata Tamayo died while imprisoned last year after an 85-day hunger strike.

IN CUBA

Cuba’s government reports that oil output was up, natural gas down in 2010  

Figures released by Cuba’s National Statistics Office (ONE) show that national oil output increased in 2010, while natural gas output decreased, Reuters reports. With the addition of several new wells, oil input increased 11% from 2009 to just over 3 million tons. Over the same time period, natural gas output decreased 7% from 1.155 million cubic meters to 1 million cubic meters.

A local industry expert attributed the oil production increase to new wells drilled in the province of Matanzas. These wells were built using technologies provided by a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), which has an increasing presence in Cuba’s oil sector. The horizontal wells allow drilling up to 7 kilometers off shore. Affiliates of Cuba’s state oil company Cubapetroleo (Cupet) in Matanzas also report an additional 8% increase in oil production through May of this year compared with the same period in 2010 according to Reuters

According to industry expert Jorge Piñon, “The crude oil production increase reflects success in enhanced oil recovery methods and new production from their own horizontal record-breaking 6,000 meters Varadero Oeste prospect in the Matanzas town of Camarioca.” Earlier this year, Cupet announced that it had drilled 25 wells in 2010 and planned to drill 20 more this year.

The New York Times published a piece this week reporting that the International Energy Association says the world will increasingly be turning to North and South America to satisfy its need for oil.

15 convicted on corruption charges relating to Cuba’s state-owned airline

A Chilean businessman, Marcel Marambio, and fourteen Cuban nationals were convicted in Cuban courts this week on charges of bribery, fraud and the falsification of documents in relation to their work with state-owned airline Cubana de Aviacion and tourist agency Sol y Son, reports CNN.

The Cuban nationals included government officials and businessmen, all of whom received sentences ranging from three to ten years, reports the Associated Press. An official message read on state television stated, “Marambio Rodriguez took advantage of the mixed company Sol y Son Viajes SA to defraud the Cuban side (of the venture) for his own gain, hiding information and bribing Cuban officials so they would go along with his shady dealings.”  However, no further details about the “shady dealings” were provided. Granma reported that the officials involved worked to subvert the flow of goods in order to profit.

Marambio, who resides in Santiago, Chile, was sentenced in absentia to fifteen years in prison, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. Marcel’s brother Max Marambio, a former friend of Fidel Castro, was recently sentenced in absentia for similar corruption charges. Investigation into the business dealings of Max Marambio’s business conglomerate Rio Zaza, of which Sol y Son is a part, began in 2009, as a result of President Raúl Castro’s ongoing campaign to combat corruption. Cuba has issued arrest warrants for both brothers.

Cuba’s cigar industry recovering

Cuba’s National Statistics Office (ONE) reported this week that cigar sales increased to 81.5 million last year, from 75.4 million in 2009, Reuters reports.  Despite the increase, last year’s sales were still well below 2008 numbers, when Cuba exported 100 million of their internationally renowned cigars. Cigar sales, along with other luxury goods, were affected after the 2008 global financial crisis. Sales have also suffered as a result of a global increase in smoking bans. China has proven to be the quickest growing market for Cuban cigars and is the third largest importer of Cuban cigars after Spain and France.

Cuba to dedicate more land to the farming of garbanzo beans

Representatives from Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture announced this week in Granma that more land would be dedicated to the cultivation of garbanzo beans. Garbanzo cultivation will be concentrated in the island’s eastern provinces, especially in Las Tunas and Guantánamo, where land dedicated to the legume has increased by 700 and 250 hectares, respectively.  Growing garbanzos has proved attractive for local farmers due to high prices on the international market and relatively low production costs. Cuba’s government has undertaken efforts to teach farmers about the strains of garbanzo most suited for Cuba’s soil and climate and the nature and characteristics of the legume, as well as create a seed production system that maintains the traits of its different varieties through the production process.

Independent lawyers association receives license after appealing to Supreme Court

For several months, we have followed the story of Wilfredo Vallín Almeida, an independent attorney who presented an appeal to Cuba’s court system last year after attempts to register a license for his non-governmental Cuban Juridical Association (AJC) were held up in the bureaucratic process.

The AJC is described by Vallín as an independent organization that provides free legal advice to civil society.

Vallín presented a case against Cuba’s Minister of Justice María Esther Reus in 2009, after he was unable to continue his group’s registration project because the Ministry would not confirm a preliminary step to the process – affirming that there was no other organization with the same name doing the same kind of work. This week, Vallín received the documents in question, allowing him to continue requesting a license for his organization, the Miami Herald reports.

Vallín posted on his website this week that he received that affirms that no organization exists that is functioning under the same name. It also suggests that Vallín’s organization may be duplicating the work of the Union of Cuban Law Professionals and the Organization of Collective Law Offices. In response to this, Vallín stated on his website, “…by referencing the activities that are carried out by the Union of Cuban Law Professionals and the Organization of Collective Law Offices, without mentioning the activities that our organization carries out, which are well known by the authorities, we are given the opportunity to demonstrate…that there is in no way any duplicity between the AJC and these state entities.”

According to the Miami Herald, Vallín is already moving forward on the application to have AJC officially registered as a non-governmental organization.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Vice President of China visits Cuba, meets with Raúl Castro

Xi Jinping, China’s Vice President, made a three day trip to Cuba last week during which he visited with both Raúl and Fidel Castro and signed a number of important agreements meant to encourage cooperation  and strengthen economic ties between China and Cuba, reports AFP. Ten agreements were signed, within which China’s government agreed to extend a new line of credit to Cuba, to restructure two established lines of credit, and to provide a donation and loan toward the modernization of the island’s public health system, reports AFP. Additionally, an official letter of intent detailed China’s plans to expand oil refinery in Cienfuegos, contributing to Cuba’s efforts to increase domestic oil production, Reuters reports.

Xi is considered a favorite to succeed Hu Jintao as the next president of China, and his visit highlights the importance of China’s relationship with Cuba, which counts China as its second largest trade partner after Venezuela, reports EFE. During conversations with President Raúl Castro, Xi stated that “Under these new circumstances, the maintenance and expansion of our bilateral relations is the common aspirations of our two sides, serves our long-term interests and is also conducive to world peace and development,” reports Xinhua.

Hugo Chávez travels to Cuba, signs cooperation accords, undergoes surgery

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez traveled to Cuba last week on an official trip, and was forced to extend his stay on the island after undergoing an unplanned surgery, Reuters reports. The surgery to remove a pelvic abscess was successful, has required several days of recuperation, and Chávez is still recovering in Havana.

Before undergoing surgery, Chávez met with several top government officials, including President Raúl Castro, reports AFP. Bilateral committees met during Chávez’s visit to discuss the progress of cooperation in the energy, agriculture, construction, transportation, education, health, sports and telecommunications sectors, El Universal reports. Meetings between Cuban and Venezuelan officials resulted in agreements to cooperate in 116 joint projects, including the expansion of the Cienfuegos oil refinery and the construction of a natural gas plant.

Around the Region:

Constitutional crisis in El Salvador

A political crisis emerged in El Salvador after a June 2nd vote in the National Assembly when conservative legislators passed – without discussion – a decree requiring unanimous decisions by the five magistrates of the Constitutional Court.   The decree overturned the majority rule that is the norm for constitutional courts. President Funes expressed his support for the reform and signed it immediately although he is allowed up to 18 days to make a decision on any legislation.

The new law limits the Constitutional Court’s capacity to decide on the subjects that fall under its jurisdiction.  Four judges of the court, appointed in 2009, have pursued strategic cases to strengthen national institutions and target corruption within government agencies.  This in turn has created strong opposition from a wide variety of political actors, including political parties, both right and left, which have been affected by the Court’s decisions. The Court issued a press release defending its position and refusing to accept the decree. Political parties are in turmoil, with the powerful and conservative ARENA party calling for repeal, claiming it was “duped” into approving the measure.

Zelaya criticizes Honduras government for detaining former Chief of Staff

Manuel Zelaya, the former President of Honduras deposed in a 2009 coup, is criticizing the current President, Porfirio Lobo, for allowing Zelaya’s former Chief of Staff to be prosecuted on corruption charges, AP reports.

According to Zelaya, a judge’s order to place Enrique Flores under house arrest violates the terms of the Cartagena Accord, the agreement that laid out the terms for Zelaya’s return to Honduras earlier this month. The accord specifically mandates “the return, safety, and freedom of former officials of the government of ex-president Zelaya.”  The Lobo administration has not yet responded publicly to Zelaya’s criticisms.

Flores is accused of illegally redirecting funds to the campaign in support of the popular consultation that Zelaya was trying to pursue when the coup took place. Zelaya informed parties to the Cartagena agreement, the Foreign Affairs ministers of Colombia and Venezuela (María Ángela Holguín and Nicolás Maduro, respectively) about the issue.

Venezuela to begin rationing electricity

The government of Venezuela will start rationing the consumption of electricity to avoid further power outages that have affected several regions, reports AP. The government will also implement surcharges and may require power cuts for industries that exceed 2,000 megawatts amps of consumption, El Universal reports.

The stated goal of this initiative is to reduce power consumption by 10 percent. Major blackouts have taken place in the past three months, and opposition leaders have alleged that the government has not invested enough in new electrical projects to cover growing demand.

Such a decision could have significant political impact, considering that problems of outages and energy shortages have affected Chávez’s popularity in the past. Detailed information has not yet been released about the scheduled blackouts.
The crisis comes at a time when President Chávez remains in Cuba alter facing pelvic surgery. Opposition leaders have argued that Chavez’s absence requires him to delegate his duties, reports AP. However, government supporters in Congress passed an authorization for him to stay outside the country as long as necessary based on his health condition.

Recommended Reading:

Economic Reforms Hitting Women Hard, Dalia Acosta, IPS

Acosta describes the concerns of several gender experts, who warn that economic reforms could disproportionally affect working women.

Helms-Burton Act: Resurrecting the Iron Curtain, Council on Hemispheric Affairs

This report provides a detailed description of the history of the Helms-Burton Act and the embargo against Cuba, concluding with a critique of the policy.

Insider’s Guide to Cuba, CNN

Havana-based CNN correspondent Shasta Darlington shares her favorite destinations in Havana.

Recommended Viewing:

Slideshow: Women’s Delegation to Cuba, Center for Democracy in the Americas

A selection of photos from CDA’s most recent delegation to Cuba. Our trip focused on issues affecting women in Cuba.

Jane Harman on the Andrea Mitchell Show, MSNBC

Jane Harman, a former Member of Congress who now serves as President and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center, talks about her recent trip to Cuba as a member of a CDA delegation, addressing changes currently taking place on the island and the need to open up relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

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One Response to We’re back from Cuba bringing you two weeks of news

  1. […] democracy activists won’t be “brainwashing” children. On June 9, members of the Center for Democracy in the Americas visited Alan Gross in prison in Cuba. They reported that Gross, who was jailed in December 2009 […]

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