Cutting Cuban American Travel: A “pay phone policy” in a cell phone age

According to Cuba’s National Statistics Office, Cubans owned one million cellphones at the end of 2010, up by more than 800,000 since the end of 2007.

Small wonder U.S.-Cuba relations continue to be on-hold with a U.S. foreign policy invented during the heyday of the pay phone.

While changes take place in Cuba – as economic reforms proceed, as foreign actors like Singapore take the lead managing a vast expansion of Cuba’s port and container capacity at Mariel, as the U.K. signs a new accord with Cuba to boost tourism – U.S. policy makers remain rooted in the past and addicted to their old “regime change ways.”

We have written before about the amendment offered by Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, which may be considered in the U.S. House next week.  It cuts back drastically on the right of Cuban Americans to visit and provide financial support to their families and wipes out new channels opened by President Obama for all Americans to provide remittances to qualified Cubans.

With no humanitarian exemptions, the Diaz-Balart amendment, by wiping out most family travel and ratcheting down on remittances, seeks to starve Cuba’s government and economy of cash and accepts as collateral damage the pain inflicted on the Cuban families it would divide and punish on both sides of the Straits.

Family travel and remittances provide information and contact for Cubans, and the extra money has, in part, fueled the expansion of cell phones which is just one lasting benefit of this valuable form of engagement.

For just these reasons, the amendment has been denounced by Cubans on the island and here in the U.S., and rightly so.  Leading Cuban dissidents, Miriam Leiva and Oscar Espinosa Chepe, in separate essays, condemn its goal of denying average Cubans financial support and cutting off their access to information and hope from the U.S.  They say it poses economic risks that could tip deprivation into instability with tragic consequences for Cuba and the United States.  They call it an effort to collaborate with Cuban oppression.  But their voices alone cannot stop it; that job falls to Congress and the Executive Branch, if they pay attention and have the spine to act.

That shouldn’t take much courage.  One side tries to elevate the acts of dividing and impoverishing families into a matter of principle, after fifty years of using the same tactics to upend Cuba without any success.  The other side need only speak about reuniting families, expanding economic opportunity, acting in accord with our allies, and advancing our interests and our values.  They could practically phone it in.  But against a determined, if backward, opposition, they’re going to have to do much better than that.


Statistics show aging population, increased cell phone use, but slow progress in computers

Statistics released by Cuba’s National Statistics Office (ONE) show that the island’s population is continuing to age, due to a long life expectancy, a low birth rate, and a high level of emigration, especially among the island’s young population, the Miami Herald reports. According to the report, close to 18% of Cubans are now 60 or older, compared to 11.3% in 1985.

A report released the same day shows that the number of cell phones in Cuba has increased five-fold since 2007. According to the report, one million cell phones were registered on the island by the end of 2010, compared to 621,000 the year before and only 198,000 in 2007.  Cuba’s President Raúl Castro relaxed restrictions on cell phone use shortly after assuming office in 2008, making cell phone use legal for all Cuban citizens and lowering activation costs. The number of computers on the island has increased slowly, reaching 724,000 at the end of 2010 from 700,000 at the end of 2009. The number of personal computers remains low, at only 64,000.

Legalized categories of self employment seek to address the prevalence of the black market in Cuba

New available categories for legal self-employment seek to address Cuba’s prevalent black market economy, instead bringing such business out into the open, AP reports. The article takes a look at Cuba’s informal economy, a necessary means of survival for many Cubans. According to Canadian economist Archibald Ritter,

You could probably say that 95 percent or more of the population participates in the underground economy in one way or another. It’s tremendously widespread…Stealing from the state, for Cubans, is like taking firewood from the forest, or picking blueberries in the wild. It’s considered public property that wouldn’t otherwise be used productively, so one helps oneself.

In another story on economic changes in Cuba, NPR reports on new “cuentapropistas,” or self-employed small business owners, who have set up shops and restaurants across the island, many times in their own front yards.

As Cuba’s government continues to gradually implement new economic policies laid out in the “Social and Political Guidelines,” ratified in April at the end of Cuba’s  6th Communist Party Congress, state news outlets have criticized the international media of manipulating the language surrounding these “guidelines,” EFE reports. While official state releases and media refer to the process as an “updating” of the Cuban economic model, international coverage regularly refers to the “changes” and “reforms” taking place on the island. The government’s focus on the messaging about its policy shifts reflects its intent to maintain the socialist model established after Cuba’s 1959 revolution.

Committee for the Protection of Journalists reports on the repression of Cuban journalists

In a report released this week, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) criticized Cuba’s government for using arbitrary detention and other repressive tools to censor journalists. The report states:

A CPJ investigation has found that the government persists in aggressively persecuting critical journalists with methods that include arbitrary arrests, short-term detentions, beatings, smear campaigns, surveillance, and social sanctions. Today’s tactics have yet to attract widespread international attention because they are lower in profile than the Black Spring crackdown, but the government’s oppressive actions are ongoing and significant.

The so-called “Black Spring” crackdown occurred in 2003, when 75 dissidents, including 29 journalists, were arrested and put in jail. The last of those 75 prisoners have been released over the past year after negotiations between Cuba’s government and the Catholic Church.

The report also criticizes the low availability and high level of state control of Internet access on the island, which it claims allows the state to promote the work of state-affiliated bloggers while censoring independent bloggers. A New York Times article released this week details Yoani Sánchez, author of the blog Generation Y, calling her “the voice of a blog generation.”

In related news, Oscar Elias Biscet, a prominent dissident who was arrested in 2003 as a part of government crackdowns, has reportedly been told this week that he will be required to check in monthly with the police unit closest to his house, the Miami Herald reports. According to the article, Biscet is the only known case of a freed dissident who is required to have such check-ins with the police.

French businessman and 8 Cubans accused in new corruption case

Jean-Louis Autret, a French businessman, is currently on trial in Havana on money-laundering  charges, AP reports. In addition to Autret, eight Cubans have been implicated in the trial. The charges against Autret include money laundering to fund the trade of illicit narcotics. According to a report in the state newspaper Granma, Cuban prosecutors are seeking a fifteen year prison term for Autret, while the Cubans face possible sentences of three to seven years. The Frenchman is the third foreign businessman to be involved in a corruption case this year, with Chilean businessmen and brothers Max and Marcel Marambio convicted in absentia for fraud and falsification of documents in relation to their food import business.

Dengue carrying mosquitos reappear in Guantanamo

Aedes aegypti, a kind of mosquito that transmits the dengue virus, has reappeared in the eastern province of Guantanamo, CubaDebate reports. This month, seven of the province’s ten municipalities have seen an increase of instances of larvae found during home inspections. The reappearance of the mosquito is blamed on heavy rainfall, high temperatures, and human negligence, as most larvae were found in sitting water in or surrounding homes. The cities with the highest instances are Guantanamo and Caimanera, where larvae were found respectively in 0.66% and 0.32% of houses visited. The level of infestation considered acceptable to protect against dengue transmission is 0.05%. Until this recent resurgence, infestation of this particular mosquito had been kept under control until since May of 2009.


Chávez announcement sparks debate about what his illness could mean for Cuba

Chávez’s surprise announcement that he had cancerous cells removed during a series of procedures in Havana has ignited a debate about what his illness could mean for Cuba, the Associated Press reports. There is great uncertainty surrounding the announcement – while Chávez could potentially achieve a full recovery from the cancer, if he were to fall ill again, he does not have a clear successor in Venezuela.  A replacement, particularly from Venezuela’s opposition, could cut off or severely decrease trade with Cuba, which was greatly expanded under Chávez.

Venezuela currently provides Cuba with billions per year in oil subsidies that Cuba repays by sending thousands of doctors to Venezuela to work in local health programs set up by the Chávez government, The Economist reports. In addition, Venezuela supports various infrastructure projects on the island. Looking at a potential cut-off of Venezuelan trade, Nick Miroff at the Global Post predicts an economic crisis, citing energy shortages and the return of some 40,000 medical personnel to the island at the same time that Cuba’s government is in the process of laying-off hundreds of thousands of state workers in an attempt to shrink the state sector.

Others, while recognizing that an end to Venezuelan trade and assistance would be a shock for Cuba’s economy, predict that the island would be capable of pulling through difficulties. The Economist writes:

Were Mr Chávez’s opponents to take power in Venezuela, they would almost certainly cut aid to Cuba, not least since they face pressing needs at home. Cubans could expect widespread shortages. But things would not be quite as bad as in 1991. Then Cuba had become dependent on selling sugar to the Soviet Union at an inflated price. Now the economy is more diversified: the island is producing more oil; and tourism, nickel and remittances from Cuban-Americans have all become important sources of foreign exchange.

For more coverage about Chávez’s illness and what it means for Venezuela, see the Around the Region section below.

Company from Singapore to run Mariel port

PSA International, a Singaporean port operator, has signed an agreement with Cuba to manage containers for new facilities currently under construction at the port of Mariel, reports Reuters.

The company, which manages several international ports, will take active part in the development of container facilities which are due to open in 2014 in conjunction with the widening of the Panama Canal, which will make it possible for bigger ships to travel through the canal.

Mariel is located close to Havana, and will replace much of the seaborne traffic currently occurring in the capital city’s port. With a capacity to hold 850,000 to 1 million containers, compared with Havana’s current capacity of 350,000, Mariel will represent a huge expansion for Cuba’s container facilities. Though the port will not be fully completed until 2022, it is planned eventually to be a zone for light industry and oil exploration as well as container storage.

UK and Cuba increase cooperation

Cuba and the UK signed an agreement this week to increase UK investment in Cuba, with a particular emphasis on tourism, reports Xinhua. The agreement promises greater political, scientific, cultural, economic and commercial cooperation between the two nations, reports EFE. The UK has also expressed its interest in supporting the new economic reforms introduced by President Raúl Castro.

Dianne Melrose, the UK’s ambassador to Cuba, expressed her hope to increase investment ties between the two countries as trade is currently “very low.” Some UK companies have already expressed their interest in making investments in Cuba’s tourism industry. While Melrose affirmed the UK’s support of the European Union’s Common Position on Cuba, which conditions any bilateral agreements to advances in human rights and democracy, she also advocated for the EU to move forward in its relations with the island.



Cuba’s Supreme Court to hear appeal of American contractor Alan Gross on July 22nd

Cuba’s government has announced through state media that the nation’s Supreme Court will hear the appeal of American contractor  Alan Gross on July 22nd, AP reports. According to the announcement, Gross and his attorney, as well as U.S. authorities, were informed of the court date on Thursday morning.

Mr. Gross has been imprisoned on the island since December of 2009, and is currently serving a fifteen-year sentence after having been convicted for “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state.” He was arrested after bringing highly regulated satellite and Internet equipment into Cuba, and entering on tourist visas while under a contract with a “democracy promotion” program funded by USAID.

This appeal marks Gross’ final legal recourse; if the court does not overturn the verdict, it would be up to Cuba’s government to release Gross on humanitarian grounds before the end of his sentence. Gross’ family and the U.S. government have expressed hope that he could be released as a humanitarian gesture, as both his daughter and his mother are ill with cancer.

Gross’ continued imprisonment has been a cause for friction between the U.S. and Cuba.   U.S. policy makers in the Executive Branch and Congress have declared that no further progress on liberalizing U.S. policy will occur until Gross is released.  His activities in Cuba have also sparked renewed attention in Congress, led by Sen. John Kerry, to the USAID Cuba programs for their lack of transparency and effectiveness.

Debate and delays continue as newly opened travel and remittance rules are threatened by House amendment

Analysts, policy makers, members of the business community and Cubans living in the U.S. and on the island continued debating the amendment proposed by Rep.  Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-21) that would roll back travel for Cuban Americans and limits on remittances for all Americans to restrictive levels prospective during the presidency of George W. Bush. The amendment, added to the Fiscal Year 2012 Financial Services Appropriations Bill, was adopted by voice vote two weeks ago during consideration by the House Appropriations Committee.

Cuban dissidents on the island held a press conference this week urging Cuban Americans to actively oppose the amendment, El Nuevo Herald reports. Francisco Chaviano, spokesman of The Agenda for a Cuban Transition, the opposition group that called the conference, stated: “We call on the exile community to help, and to fight this [amendment],” adding that “repression should be fought through openings.” Two other prominent dissidents, Miriam Leiva and Oscar Espinosa Chepe, have penned pieces opposing the amendment, available here.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-11) criticized the proposed amendment for its potential negative impact on local airports and travel providers, stating that “the Diaz-Balart amendment would end or severely complicate Tampa and other airports’ approvals and restrict travel by religious, educational and cultural exchange groups.” Castor’s statements were made in a June 30th letter to the chairwoman and members of the House Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, where the bill originated, Tampa Bay Online reports.

Increased travel has also met delays on the Cuban side, according to Tampa Bay Online. While the Tampa International Airport received approval to provide direct flights to Cuba earlier this year, the airport is still waiting for Cuba’s government to grant landing rights. Rep. Castor, who has lobbied for Tampa International-Cuba flights since February of 2009, said that she has urged the Cuban Interests Section to approve landing rights.

Though people-to-people travel has not been legally challenged, slow progress from the U.S. Treasury Department in license granting has impeded applicants from beginning to offer travel, AP reports. According to a Treasury Department spokesperson, while ten applications are coming in each week, only nine groups have been granted people-to-people licenses since May.

Around the Region:

President Hugo Chávez returns to Venezuela for bicentennial

Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez, who announced on June 30th that he had a cancerous tumor removed while he was in Cuba, made a surprise return to Venezuela this week, where he was present for the country’s bicentennial celebrations, Reuters reports. Chávez did not address crowds at the military parade and celebration, instead choosing to make a statement from inside Miraflores, the presidential palace.

Though Chávez has not announced what kind of cancer he had removed, some stories, including from Reuters and the Wall Street Journal, speculate that it was colon cancer.   It remains unconfirmed whether he is currently undergoing chemotherapy.  Chávez returned to work yesterday, when he addressed soldiers at a promotion ceremony and spoke for more than an hour while presiding over a cabinet meeting, AP reports.

Honduras Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report Released

The Honduras Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) yesterday released its report on the events surrounding the 2009 coup that ousted then-president Manuel Zelaya, reports AFP. The Commission confirmed that Zelaya’s removal from office was, in fact, a coup. In the report, the Commission also found that both Zelaya and the coup leaders broke the law. Zelaya is blamed for interfering with other branches of the government and the coup leaders for their forced removal of Zelaya from the country, reports The Telegraph. Zelaya has denied any responsibility, telling AFP that “I never in my life violated any laws.” President Lobo has said that he will follow through with the recommendations, reports El Heraldo. To view a summary of the report’s findings  in Spanish from Honduran newspaper El Heraldo, click here.

Recommended Reading:

Cuba Travel Restrictions in the Spotlight in Brooklyn and Beyond, Matthew Aho, Americas Quarterly

This piece cites the success of the Cuban Ballet’s recent performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as a positive example of people-to-people interaction. Aho also criticizes Balart’s proposed amendment and other legislators attempt to further restrict access to the island.

FACTBOX: Key political risks to watch in Cuba, Jeff Franks, Reuters

Reuters provides an overview of key issues currently affecting Cuba’s political landscape.

Cuba’s hot publishing house? A house of God., Nick Miroff, Global Post

This article looks at how two publications of Cuba’s Catholic Church have evolved into some of Cuba’s most open and critical news sources.

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