White House: Diaz-Balart language is ‘veto bait’

As harsh and partisan as Washington is, here’s an interesting fact about President Obama.  Since becoming president in 2009, he has vetoed just two bills presented to him by Congress.

In fact, he hasn’t vetoed a single bill passed by the current Congress even after the majority in the House passed from the Democrats to the Republicans.

That’s why this statement issued by his Office of Management and Budget on July 13th seemed so clear and strong:  “If the President is presented with a bill that…reverses current policies on Cuba, his senior advisors would recommend a veto.”

The bill in question is the 2012 Treasury Department budget bill.  As we have reported, it contains the amendment by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart to restore horribly restrictive limits on travel to Cuba by Cuban Americans and on the financial support – called remittances – that Cuban Americans and now other Americans can provide to the Cuban people.

Tight limits on visits and remittances were imposed by President Bush in hopes of bankrupting the Cuban government.  As with most other sanctions imposed by Washington for the last five decades, these restrictions didn’t exactly cause Cuba’s government to cry “Uncle.” Instead, they cruelly divided families and caused cash-short Cubans to suffer even more.

Mr. Obama redeemed a campaign promise in 2009 by providing unlimited travel and remittance rights to Cuban Americans.  This year, he moved further to grant all Americans the right to provide remittances to qualified Cubans and offered a special dispensation for remittances relating to religious work.  These are the policies which Rep. Diaz-Balart seeks to roll back, and now the President has stood up to defend them.

He is not doing so alone.

This week, Yoani Sanchez, the celebrated Cuban blogger, posted a piece in opposition to the amendment, remembering what financial support from abroad meant to her:  “Without that help, once sent to me from Florida, my life would have been totally different.  I would not have finished high school, probably I would have sailed – on a wooden door –during the rafter crisis, or I would have sunk into conformity with no horizons.”  And she said cutting off remittances now would interrupt the ability of thousands of Cubans to “rest in the arms of solidarity extended from outside.”

The Cuban American Commission for Family Rights, a non-profit organization comprising a broad coalition of Cuban Americans from Florida, took out a full page ad in the Miami Herald, condemning the amendment and calling it “cruel and discriminatory.”

Their voices are teamed with the president, with other Cuban dissidents, with Members of Congress from both parties, with those fighting for jobs and the ability of Americans to travel where they please as a matter of right.

We don’t expect Mr. Diaz-Balart or his allies in the House to be influenced by Cubans on the island or the majorities that exist in their own precincts who want travel rights not only for Cuban Americans but for all Americans.  They’ve long proven numb to reason and are hopelessly hooked on their Havana-bashing habits.

But we do take solace from the comments of Patrick Griffin, President Clinton’s Legislative Affairs Director, who told Cuba Central today, “In the current political environment, an OMB recommendation to veto a proposed piece of legislation is a virtual nail in the coffin of that legislation unless the objectionable policies within it are removed.”

In other words, in the Senate or later in the legislative process, reason will prevail.


Cuba’s second most important nickel plant goes offline following breakdown

The Che Guevara nickel plant, located in Moa in the province of Holguin, has experienced a breakdown and is currently not functioning, Reuters reports. The announcement, made on the provinces’ state-run channel Tele Cristal on Thursday, said authorities had decided to perform an “overall maintenance” of the plant during the downtime following the breakdown. Officials have not announced when operations are expected to resume. Other plants remain in operation.

National nickel production in Cuba was short of its target last year according to government statements, though the precise tonnage has not been reported. The Che Guevara plant has a daily capacity of 80-85 tons. Cuba is one of the world’s largest nickel producers, and according to the Ministry of Basic Industry, supplies 10% of the world’s cobalt.

 Self-employed urban workers and private farmers report highest earnings in 2010

According to Cuba’s National Statistics Office (ONE), private farmers and self-employed urban workers reported the highest earnings on the island in 2010, reports AFP.  In 2010, private farmers earned the equivalent of USD$28 per month on average, and privately employed workers in cities earned $41. By comparison, public sector workers earned only $18 on average. The higher earnings are considered to be a consequence of President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms and agricultural restructuring program, both of which have increased labor opportunities outside the public sector.

Party expulsion overturned for Cuban academic

Esteban Morales, a Cuban academic at the University of Havana, announced via his blog that after an appeal, his membership to the Communist party has been reinstated in good standing. Morales’ membership to the party was revoked last year after he published an article criticizing corruption within the government as “the true counter-revolution” on the site of UNEAC, the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists, the Associated Press reports. Morales appealed the decision to the party’s Central Committee, which overturned his “separation sanction.” In his post, Morales promised a continued commitment to addressing the issues discussed in his blog.

The subject of corruption, often seen as a criticism of the government and a taboo subject for many, has recently come into the light with several high-level dismissals and corruption cases, and has been designated a priority by President Raúl Castro.

Officials dismissed

A government-led campaign against redundancies and inefficiency in state-owned enterprises has led to the dismissal of ten government officials, reports Cuban News Agency. According to state news sources, the officials were accused of “superficial planning, a lack of control of resources and resistance to efforts to mobilize workers.”

State has lent “millions” to farmers, state doubles purchase price of sugar

According to Cuba’s agricultural lending institution, the state has provided “millions” in loans to more than 13,000 farmers since initiating the process of agricultural reform in 2008, the Associated Press reports. These statements were made by Ileana Estevez, president of BANDEC, the bank in charge of managing loans and land distribution laid out by Decree 259, which calls for the distribution of fallow land. According to Estevez, who was interviewed in state newspaper Juventud Rebelde, farmers receiving loans pay an interest rate between 3 and 7%, and there is only a 1% default rate on loans given by the bank. Estevez states that the number of loans is increasing:

This loan portfolio is growing progressively and dynamically. Compared to 2009, last year it grew 84% – almost double. And if we compare this past March to December of last year, it has grown 11.3%.

In addition to loans, more than 146,000 agricultural producers across the country have requested and received parcels of idle land from the state, with more than 71,000 of these parcels given to people who are entering the agricultural sector for the first time. Agricultural reform was introduced as a strategy to increase domestic production and decrease the cost of food, and the agricultural sector is also presented as an opportunity for employment considering the current process of state lay-offs.

Cuba’s government is providing other incentives to attract people to the agricultural sector. This week Deputy Minister Nelson Labrada announced that the Ministry of Sugar would be doubling the purchase price of sugar in order to boost production, Cuban News Agency reports. According to ministry sources, over 15,000 of applications to lease fallow land were for the production of sugar cane.
Government to examine civil unions in January, according to Mariela Castro

Mariela Castro, director of Cuba’s Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), reports that Cuba’s government will discuss the possibility of legalizing civil unions at an upcoming meeting in January, Diario de Cuba reports. According to Castro, the discussion will occur at a party conference that was announced this past April at the culmination of Cuba’s Sixth Party Congress. Ms. Castro said:

The documents that will govern the policy to be followed on this matter, and its legal derivations, will be discussed in January at the Conference of the (Communist) Party…It is a historic opportunity. I see the possibility that it will soon be presented as a draft law…We have worked a lot to raise awareness about this issue, we have done a lot of activism. Some results can be seen already, and there is a political answer.

Through her work at CENESEX, Castro has advocated for an end to homophobia in Cuba and pushed for civil unions for the island’s LGBT population. Castro came under criticism this week when Wendy Iriepa, a transgendered woman and employee of CENESEX, handed in her resignation after she claimed she was pressured by Castro over her relationship with a gay opposition activist, reports El Nuevo Herald.

Editorial criticizes government for creating bureaucratic hurdles to reporting

An editorial published in Granma criticizes state entities for creating bureaucratic hurdles that prevent journalists from carrying out effective reporting. The article begins with the statement: “Providing systematic, accurate, diverse, information that addresses the complex reality from all of the complex sources available is not a favor to, but a right of the people.” It then describes the time consuming processes required of journalists in order to obtain approved visits to schools, hospitals, or other sites they wish to enter for journalistic purposes, stating:

…many requests for journalistic pieces stop at the designated board of directors, because often the supposed “communications facilitators” of state entities, including the central governmental agencies and local government structures, give the impression that they are there to hinder the flow of information and even communication.  

In response to this article, a column from BBC’s Cartas de Cuba makes its own criticism of the piece and of official state journalists, accusing them of not doing enough to overcome hurdles to provide essential reporting, stating:

If Granma really believes that information is a right of the people, then they should defend it, overcoming any obstacle and denouncing within their pages those who violate that right, no matter what office they hold. Whimpering for official permissions will not guarantee the peoples’ access to information. If this is the true objective of Granma, they will only achieve it by jumping over all of these prohibitions of questionable legality and no morality.

Manuel Galban, renowned guitarist of Buena Vista Social Club, has died in Havana

Grammy-award winning guitarist Manuel Galban passed away in Havana after suffering a heart attack, BBC reports. Galban participated in several ensembles, and served as the head of Cuba’s national musical ensemble for three years before gaining international fame with his participation in the 1997 release of the Buena Vista Social Club, the record and documentary, which tell the story of the group of elderly musicians. After the success of the Buena Vista Social Club, Galban teamed up with American musician Ry Cooder to record Mambo Sinuendo, which won the 2004 Grammy for best pop instrumental album. Galban was 80 years old.


Cuba’s vice president attends founding celebrations of the Republic of South Sudan, travels to Ethiopia

Cuba’s vice president Esteban Lazo traveled to the newly formed nation of South Sudan in order to participate in the country’s founding celebrations, held this past Saturday in the designated capital of Juba, reports Prensa Latina. Lazo, who traveled along with a delegation of Cuban officials, met for almost an hour with Salva Kiir Mayardit, sworn in on Saturday as the first president of the new state. They discussed the challenges facing South Sudan, as well as Cuba’s current process of economic change, while Mayardit thanked Lazo for Cuba’s historic aid in training hundreds of people in Southern Sudan. Lazo also met with more than 50 Sudanese professionals who graduated in Cuba in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Before traveling to Sudan, Lazo and the Cuban delegation had traveled to Ethiopia, participating in a ceremony in honor of Cuban soldiers who died while supporting the Ethiopian army, Granma reports.


New academic exchanges and people to people travel between U.S. and Cuba

President Obama’s loosening of travel restrictions, which legalized academic exchanges and people to people travel, have resulted in a surge of new university programs and purposeful travel between the U.S. and Cuba.    Michael Wiese-Gomez, a student of Northern Michigan University who recently completed a pioneer student exchange program with Camilo Cienfuegos University of Matanzas, commented, “It’s necessary that U.S. students know the truth about Cuba first hand, by way of open debates with youngsters, beyond the stereotypes spread by the mainstream media to distort the image of the island’s reality,” reports Ahora.

John Coatsworth, Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, in an article by Times Higher Education, encourages the development of more academic exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, as he believes that openings created by President Obama are here to stay. Coatsworth predicts that relations between the two countries will continue improving with the current economic reforms underway on the island.

People to people travel has also been a popular alternative for Americans looking to legally visit and find out more about Cuba.  Programs led by organizations such as Global Exchange and the Center for Cuban Studies seek to offer a variety of themed trip itineraries focusing on issues ranging from food sovereignty to Cuban art, reports The New York Times. According to the article, “Delegations of Americans are good public relations and a promising source of income for Cuba.”

An article from German press wire Deutsche Presse Agentur details increased business on the island from Cubans living outside the island, who are vacationing in much higher numbers after openings by President Raúl Castro in the tourism sector, and Obama’s relaxation of travel for Cuban Americans. According to Cuba’s National Statistics Office, Cuban ex-pats are now the second largest group traveling to the island, after Canadians.

Around the Region:

Lobo convenes inter-party dialogue to discuss Honduras political reforms

President Lobo met for the first time with twelve of Honduras’ political parties in order to discuss possible reforms to the country’s constitution, reports the Associated Press. Included in the meeting was ousted ex-president Manuel Zelaya, who was representing his new party, the Broad Front of Popular Resistance (FARP). Lobo listened as each party put forward its opinion of what actions and changes should be taken to advance the country, reports La Tribuna.

Lobo has proposed holding a series of meetings with different sectors of Honduran society in order to hear what changes each sector wishes to see in Honduras. Today (Friday), he is scheduled to meet with representatives from countryside and labor organizations, reports El Heraldo.

Prison standoff ends and Chavez reveals he expects to undergo chemotherapy

This week, Venezuela saw the end of the month-long prison standoff at the Rodeo II Prison, reports the Miami Herald. After removing 800 prisoners from the facility, without any violations of human rights according to President Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan government restored its control of the prison. An article in The Economist highlights the desperate living conditions inside Venezuelan prisons and the profound problems facing the prison system.

President Chávez has acknowledged that he will be undergoing chemotherapy, but has not confirmed what kind of cancer he had removed during the procedures that took place in Cuba last month, Reuters reports.

Like Water for Gold in El Salvador, Robin Broad and John Cavanagh, The Nation

“Thirty years ago, several thousand civilians in the northern Salvadoran community of Santa Marta quickly gathered a few belongings and fled the US-funded Salvadoran military as it burned their houses and fields in an early stage of the country’s twelve-year civil war. Dozens were killed as they crossed the Lempa River into refugee camps in Honduras.

“Today, residents of this area, some born in those Honduran refugee camps, are fighting US and Canadian mining companies eager to extract the rich veins of gold buried near the Lempa River, the water source for more than half of El Salvador’s 6.2 million people. Once again, civilians have been killed or are receiving death threats.”

Salvadoran group dogged in search for children missing years ago in civil war, Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times

“Two decades after the end of the civil war, many Salvadoran parents — and, often, the children themselves — still search for loved ones, despite dimming memories and a trail that grows fainter each day. For many, the only hope is a determined organization that uses shoe-leather detective work, modern tools such as Facebook and plenty of luck to solve the wartime disappearances. Over the years, it has located nearly half of the disappeared, with the largest number in El Salvador and the second-most in the United States. Adoptees have been tracked to Italy, Mexico, Germany and Belgium.”

Recommended Reading:

Assistant Secretary of State Valenzuela steps down, Geoffrey Ramsey, The Pan American Post

With Arturo Valenzuela’s tenure as Assistant Secretary of State comes to a close, The Pan American Post  admirably “reviews the reviews” of his performance.  Valenzuela is credited for his human rights work, attention to crises, his support for social media, and his efforts to patch up U.S.-Brazil relations.

Latin America simply does not get the priority treatment the region deserves or the U.S. national interest requires.  Secretary Valenzuela understood the limits and did his best.   He is no stranger to the policy debate or positions of responsibility inside of government and made his contributions accordingly.  We wish him well and hope the administration finds a worthy replacement whose nomination is worth fighting for.

The Cuban Grape Vine, James Scudamore, Intelligent Life Magazine

This article provides a fresh look at Cuban society as the process of reform unfolds on the island – all heard through the ears of “Radio Bemba”- or the Cuban version of the grape vine.

Hope in reforms is frustrated, Marc Frank, Reuters

Marc Frank details how elation over announced reforms in the sale of homes and automobiles is also joined by frustrations over why controlling, bureaucratic policies remained in place for so long.

Marc Frank details how elation over announced reforms in the sale of homes and automobiles is also joined by frustrations over why controlling, bureaucratic policies remained in place for so long.

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