We’re delivering our summary of news about Cuba and U.S. policy just in time for our readers in the U.S. to enjoy this update before they start the three-day, Independence Day holiday weekend.
There are a lot of important and interesting things to report.
People to People travel: One result of the Obama travel reforms is that licenses are becoming available for people-to-people travel. This will result in a far broader set of opportunities for Americans to visit Cuba than have existed for more than a decade.
See the item below on people-to-people travel and remember – as we remind ourselves – that while the President could and should be doing more to end U.S. restrictions relating to Cuba, what some have derided as “small victories” are really amounting to much more.
Homes and Cars: Cuba, albeit slowly, is making good on its commitment to economic reform. See the item below on new legislation that will finally permit Cubans to more freely purchase and sell their homes and automobiles. Opening markets for the sale of these assets will help Cubans accrue capital and live more independent lives.
Human Trafficking: The U.S. State Department this week issued a rebuke to Cuba in its annual report on human trafficking. We cover their report and the retort offered by Josefina Vidal of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry.
Cutting off Cuban-American Travel: As we reported last week, the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut off most travel by Cuban Americans to the island. Their amendment returns the policy to the days of President George W. Bush, when family members from the U.S. were prevented from attending weddings and funerals, or helping sick relatives under rules with no humanitarian exceptions.
This week, we carry comments and recommended readings from Tomás Bilbao, Miriam Leiva, and Oscar Espinosa Chepe who protest the proposal to cut off family travel. They remind us that in this period of Cuban economic reform, more visits by average Americans to the island are not only good for us but they’re also good for everyday Cubans.
You’ve heard or read the sad justification for the inhumane policy of dividing families; namely, that travel to Cuba provides revenues to the Castro government. But this week, as Tracey Eaton reported in Along the Malecón, a new argument – eye-popping to us – is being offered in defense of Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s proposal to stop family travel. It dismisses some of the travelers … as welfare recipients!
Mr. Eaton interviewed one advocate of the cutback who said this:
Obama’s “biggest mistake” was allowing Cuban-Americans to visit the island as often as they want. Some of the travelers have only been in the United States for a year. They emigrate to the U.S. and start collecting government welfare checks. They stay for a year, then begin traveling back to Cuba, where they spend much of their time – and their money.
It’s hard to know where to begin. But as the Washington Post asked this morning, “Who knew Florida’s welfare payments were so generous? The Miami-Havana round trip costs about $450.”
There should be no restrictions on families or on any other American who wants to visit the island. But as we have this debate, let’s not denigrate the people who visit Cuba to support and keep up with their families.
The House may consider the legislation cutting off travel the week of July 11.
Finally, for the last two years, the readers of this publication have benefited from the hidden hand of Kendra Seymour, assistant director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, and a contributing writer, editor, and distributor of the Cuba Central Weekly New Blast. Kendra, a crack photographer, is leaving to explore worlds beyond our own. We know our readers will miss her, because she helped craft this product every week. We’ll miss her because she did much of the heavy lifting. Her leadership role will be filled by our colleague Lisa Llanos.
Please join us in saying, “Thanks, Kendra, we’ll miss you. It’s been a blast!”
Happy July 4th weekend to you all.
Several travel agencies have recently been granted licenses to provide people-to-people travel services to Cuba as a result of relaxed restrictions announced in January 2011 by President Obama.
The New York Times highlights several of the groups now offering such trips, which include travel agencies and alumni associations. According to Todd Popper, President of recently-approved trip organizer Insight Cuba, “all a U.S. citizen has to do is sign up for an authorized program and they can go to Cuba. It’s as simple as that.”
In order to meet requirements for people-to-people travel, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which oversees U.S. sanctions, requires that trips “have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”
Insight Cuba began organizing people-to-people travel beginning in 1999 under Clinton-era rules, but had to stop when President Bush tightened restrictions in 2003. Groups that are planning trips have reported an extremely high level of interest and long wait lists.
According to the New York Times, OFAC has approved eight licenses so far this year, and there are still 35 pending applications. Janet Moore, the owner of an authorized Cuba travel service provider, states, “They are not issuing them with any kind of speed. … The bottom line is yes, they have issued some licenses, but they are doing it at a snail’s pace.”
People-to-people travel, however, is not without its critics. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18), chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee and advocate of U.S. sanctions against Cuba, sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to suspend cultural and educational travel due to Cuba’s classification as a “Tier 3” country in the State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report. According to Ros-Lehtinen, “The tyrants use these exchanges as a political instrument to promote their communist agenda while maintaining absolute control over the daily lives of the Cuban people.”
John McAuliff of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, responding to the letter, told the Nuevo Herald that Ros-Lehtinen is “desperately searching for a way to keep Americans and Cubans from coming to their own conclusions.”
Meanwhile, the Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers was also approved this week as the 12th U.S. airport now authorized to offer direct flights to Cuba, the Cape Coral Daily Breeze reports.
The State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons Report this week. In the report, Cuba is, as it has been in previous years, categorized as a “Tier 3” country, the lowest rank.
The report claims that adults and some children are subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. The report includes criticism about prostitution in Cuba, citing the fact that it is not criminalized for anyone over the age of 16, which is the age of legal adulthood in Cuba. The report also criticizes Cuba’s government for holding the passports of medical professionals as they fulfill international missions, which some medical professionals claim keeps them “in a state of exploitation.”
However, the State Department report gives few details about forced labor or sex trafficking on the island, stating that “The scope of trafficking within Cuba is particularly difficult to gauge due to the closed nature of the government and sparse non-governmental or independent reporting.” The report’s largest criticism is that Cuba does not regularly report on or publicize human trafficking statistics and that the country has “limited” anti-trafficking and prevention efforts.
Josefina Vidal, Director of North American Affairs of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry has denounced Cuba’s classification in the report, calling it “shameful slander” and “deeply offensive to the Cuban people,” AP reports.
Adam Isacson at the Washington Office on Latin America posted this piece about the State Department’s report in which he lays out the rankings of Latin American countries on a map, noting that while Cuba and Venezuela are the only countries that received Tier 3 rankings, the one country that received a Tier 1 ranking was Colombia. Isacson states:
The situation in Venezuela and Cuba is bad, but is it really that much worse than the rest of the region? Is Colombia really superior to all the others? Or is the current status of diplomatic relations coloring perceptions?
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has provided some answers to questions about the deportation of Cubans. Previously, it was believed that the only Cubans who could be deported to their native country were those included in the 1980 Mariel exodus who had committed crimes both in Cuba and the United States. The names of those “deportable” Cubans were agreed upon in a 1984 accord between the Reagan administration and then-Cuban president Fidel Castro. That list, however, has remained confidential.
This week, as questions arose surrounding the deportation of a Cuban who had not entered the U.S. during the time of the Mariel exodus, ICE’s press secretary in Washington, Barbara González, stated: “The 1984 accord contains the names of convicted Cuban criminals who arrived in the U.S. pre- and post-Mariel,” the Miami Herald reports. This statement marks the first official confirmation that non-Mariel Cubans are included in the list and are therefore “deportable.”
According to the Miami Herald, only 665 of the original list of 2,746 “deportable” individuals remain in the U.S., and at least three non-Mariel Cubans have been deported to the island in the past five years.
After President Raúl Castro concluded a 3-day meeting of Cuba’s Council of Ministers, an article in the state newspaper Granma was published announcing that new legislation will allow the purchase and sale, donation, or exchange of homes, between natural Cuban citizens and permanent residents.
The meeting of the Council of Ministers, called to discuss “complex economic subjects,” was also attended by party leaders, members of the National Assembly and the worker’s union, and provincial representatives.
Reporting by the AP provides new details about reforms that were announced at the culmination of Cuba’s Party Congress in April regarding the purchase and sale of both homes and automobiles.
The legislation on the purchase and sale of homes, which were previously only allowed to be swapped in a complicated bureaucratic process, will include requirements that:
- The official Property Title and property appraisal be updated;
- The property must be registered in the national registry;
- The transaction must take place directly in front of a notary, at the location of the property, but without the requirement of previous authorization from municipal housing authorities;
- And, the Tax on the Transfer of Property and Inheritances must be paid.
The limit of one property per person will remain. In a reform of the property exchange process, the article announces that the “concept of disproportion” between two properties to be exchanged will no longer be applied, but that compensation for a disparity in the value of exchanged homes will be recognized. Previously, the government had to determine that houses were of comparable value in order to be exchanged and no money was allowed to change hands. Despite these limitations, many people made arrangements and exchanged money under the table.
Additionally, the new laws will allow property of deceased persons to be transferred to family members or to anyone who has occupied the home for at least five years. In the case of Cuban national who permanently leave the country, properties may be transferred to spouses, ex-spouses, and relatives up to the fourth degree of lineage who have lived permanently on the property for five years, as long as any pending debts are liquidated. In all transfers of homes, taxes must be paid both by the vendor (income tax) and by the purchaser (inheritance/transfer of properties tax).
Laws regulating the purchase and sale of automobiles have also been modified significantly. The newly-conceived reforms will do away with the previous limitation that only allowed pre-1959 automobiles to be purchased, sold, or donated. The requirement that anyone owning a car and receiving authorization to buy another must transfer the existing car to the hands of the State will also be eliminated. People who permanently leave the country will be able to transfer vehicles they own to spouses or relatives, with the payment of an inheritance tax.
According to Granma, the new laws will go into effect before the end of 2011. Before then, a training process will take place for all officials that will be in charge of their implementation.
This week, Cuba’s government also announced the confirmation of Tomás Benítez Hernández as the Minister of Basic Industry. Benítez has held the position as an interim appointment since September of 2010, and previously held leadership positions at the National Electric Union and CUPET, Cuba’s national petroleum enterprise.
According to Cuba’s National Statistics Office (ONE), the publication of books on the island has fallen 82% since 2005, AFP reports. Just 13.2 million copies were published in 2010, down dramatically from 2005’s record of 71 million. More than half, 7.6 million of the books published in 2010, were textbooks for schools and universities. In the 1980s, Cuba’s national publishing industry produced more than 40 million volumes annually; however, the industry was one of the first and hardest-hit sectors during the Special Period of the 1990s, which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Soviet aid to Cuba.
The price of a novel on the island is significantly lower than international standards, with the most expensive books costing around 30 Cuban pesos – a little more than one dollar. However, the selection of nationally-published books is limited. Imported books are sold in Convertible Pesos (CUC), used in the tourism and luxury goods sectors, and are largely inaccessible for Cubans who are paid in the national currency.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
The Government of Spain has announced a new system to make it faster and less expensive to send remittances to Cuba, thanks to an agreement between the two governments, EFE reports.
The new system, to be run through each country’s respective national postal service, will take only fifteen minutes to transfer money from Spain to the island, and is expected to begin operation in early July. While the 104,000 Cubans who are residents of Spain, and their families on the island, stand to benefit most from this system, it will be open to any Spanish citizen that wishes to send money to Cuba. The initiative has also been implemented in nine other Latin American countries, as well as in Portugal and Morocco.
The Spanish Commission of Aid to Refugees (CEAR) has announced that seven of the Cuban ex-prisoners who were released to Spain following negotiations with Cuba’s government and the Catholic Church are being expelled from CEAR residences and assistance programs, EFE reports. The seven Cubans were residing in shelters in Málaga and will be excluded from the residences and from the refugee assistance programs of which they were a part, due to threats made to staff and a physical conflict among the former prisoners.
Last week, five of the seven initiated a hunger strike, as they have been unable to find permanent lodging and complained of the discomforts of the residences where they have been staying since April. The CEAR has denounced these ex-prisoners for continuing conflicts, verbal aggression toward residence staff, and a “lack of commitment” to the professionals designated to help them.
Around the Region:
In an official address on national television last night, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez announced that during medical procedures in Cuba, doctors had found and removed cancerous cells, The Guardian reports. According to his statement, the cells were found during an earlier procedure to remove a pelvic abscess. The statement came after two weeks of speculation and rumors surrounding Chávez’s condition given relative absence in the media and the length of his stay in Cuba after his June 10th procedure.
In a fifteen-minute speech, Chávez stated: “I neglected my health and I was reluctant to have medical check-ups. It was a fundamental mistake for a revolutionary.” He did not specify what kind of cancer had been found.
Chávez’s address included no mention of when he would be returning to Venezuela. As a result of his illness, what was to be the inaugural meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a new regional organization championed by Chávez to focus on regional development and integration, was postponed indefinitely, EFE reports.
The President’s announcement introduces a number of uncertainties as Venezuela looks forward to September 2012 presidential elections. Chávez does not have a clear successor, and until primary elections take place next February, the opposition Coalition of Democratic Unity (MUD) will not be able to unite behind a single candidate. Reuters provides an analysis of the current political scene in Venezuela, and possible implications and outcomes of Chávez’s announcement.
In a plenary assembly of Honduras’ organized resistance movement attended by ousted president Manuel Zelaya, the organization approved the formation of an official political party that will present a candidate in the 2013 presidential elections, El Heraldo reports. The party has been named the Broad Front of Popular Resistance (FARP), and was unanimously approved by voice vote at the meeting. After the formation of the party was approved, Zelaya stated:
We are pushing for a new form of government and organization, we are going to the voting booths to create justice. The people are tired of continuing to endure deceits, we want transparency… We don’t want revenge, but we do want a comeback in the voting booths of Honduras.
The newly-formed party has obstacles ahead of it: it must address issues of internal conflict and, to be officially recognized as a political party for elections, supporters must collect 46,000 signatures on a petition for recognition, AP reports. Lobo applauded the creation of the party during statements after a meeting in San José with Costa Rica’s president, Laura Chinchilla, AFP reports.
Cuban and Cuban American Voices against the Diaz-Balart Amendment:
- Tomás Bilbao, How Undoing Obama’s Cuba Policy Would Harm Entrepreneurs and Civil Society Empowerment
- Álvaro Fernández, Mario Diaz-Balart’s amendment: Still playing with the chain
- Miriam Leiva, Hermanos amados, por su bien suspenderemos las remesas y los viajes
- Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Hardliners por el Castrismo
- Andrés Gómez, Calladito se mueven las víboras en el Congreso contra los viajes a Cuba
A profile of Marino Murillo, the Minister in charge of the implementation of economic reforms in Cuba and a rising figure in Cuban politics.