Let us begin with an apology for our “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” headline.
Sadly, there’s more than a grain of truth to it.
A month ago, the House Appropriations Committee voted dramatic cut backs in travel by Cuban Americans to the island and in the financial support they provide to their families. It also repealed new rules by President Obama that allow all Americans to send remittances to Cubans.
This vote provoked an outcry – led by dissidents in Cuba and Cuban American leaders in this country – and earned a rare veto threat by the Obama administration.
This week, however, things got considerably uglier in the House Foreign Affairs Committee during its mark-up of the State Department Authorization bill. Among the actions taken by the Committee:
- It also voted to cut back Cuban American travel to highly restrictive Bush era-levels.
- It voted to repeal President Obama’s travel reforms that enable increased people-to-people travel to Cuba.
- It voted to cut off all U.S. aid to Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
- It cut off USAID funding to countries that do not vote with the United States in the UN more than 50% of the time (hurting the poorest of the poor).
- n It cut all aid to countries that are below the median of the MCC’s corruption indicators—which is more than 50 countries, including Haiti and Mexico. They generously provided a Presidential waiver, so that Obama can take the heat for funding “corrupt” countries.
- It voted to end all U.S. funding to the Organization of American States (OAS).
Rep. Gary Ackerman called the OAS funding cut off tantamount to turning our back on our own hemisphere. “This is more than folly,” he said, “It’s dangerous. We are on the precipice of leaving this planet.” Republican lawmakers tell the World Where to Go, one headline said.
How did we get here?
There is a systematic effort in the U.S. Congress by hardline legislators to redraw U.S. relations with Latin America along Cold War lines, a campaign that starts but clearly does not end with Cuba; one that is accompanied by a world view that is ossified, ideological, and not always connected with reality.
From the very beginning, these hardliners of both parties opposed President Obama’s policies to gradually increase U.S. engagement with Cuba. Modest decisions liberalizing travel and remittance rules were met, at first, with simply extreme rhetoric.
But their angry words – rewarding the terrorist Castro dictatorship with unilateral concessions, comparing some Cuban Americans who visit family on the island to welfare cheats –are now accompanied by some rather significant threats to those policies and other developments in Cuba.
They’re for cutting off family travel and remittances. Blocking U.S. airports from serving the Cuban market. Browbeating civil servants to stop the Treasury Department from issuing travel licenses that are totally permissible under the law. Threatening oil companies who help the Cubans drill with economic sanctions and withdrawing their rights to drill in U.S. waters because “We cannot allow the Castro regime to become the oil tycoons of the Caribbean.”
The Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has even taken to bullying Foreign Service officers at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana because they held a photo contest for Cubans who might like their pictures posted on the Interest Sections’ Facebook page.
And on and on. Venezuela? Impose sanctions and list them as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. Honduras? Anyone who calls the military ouster of President Zelaya a “coup” is guilty of “the big lie.” The OAS? “Let’s not continue to fund an organization that’s bent on destroying democracy in Latin America,” says Rep. Connie Mack. This, he says, at a moment when Latin America has never been more democratic (or more independent, which we suspect is Mr. Mack’s problem).
This might be funny if these guys didn’t have real power.
The Miami Herald had it right this week: “Diaz-Balart move to tighten Cuba travel could pass in Congress.” It could.
We hope this threat against family travel alarms the travel agencies and the people-to-people programs which are busy announcing new opportunities for non-tourists to visit Cuba. We hope it alarms Cuban Americans who plan to visit their relatives on the island in record numbers this year, and who have enjoyed travel privileges denied to other Americans whose families reside elsewhere. More than alarm them, we hope it spurs them to greater action.
These champions of the Cold Warrior counterattack against Cuba, engagement, and the hemisphere are wrong, to be sure, and they may be standing against the tides of history, but right now they are winning on Cuba and much else. Even armed with the truth, we need to do a better job standing up against them.
This week in Cuba news.
According to the Annual Report on Employment and Salaries released by Cuba’s National Statistics Office (ONE), unemployment increased significantly in the past year, from 1.7% in 2009 to 2.5% in 2010. This increase comes largely as a result of widespread lay-offs occurring in the state sector as part of an effort to decrease inefficiencies and redundancies in government enterprises. Meanwhile, the average salary in Cuba increased slightly by 19 pesos, or about 80 cents, in 2010. While state employees earn an average of 448 pesos per month, farmers and self-employed urban workers earned a respective 700 and 1,023 pesos per month in 2010, reports Café Fuerte.
Statistics also show that the cost of social security increased 2.1% in 2010. Cuba’s social security program continues to grow as the island’s population ages. Currently, 17.8% of Cuba’s population is over the age of 60, and the social security program covers 1.6 million citizens.
As these statistics were released, the government announced that close to 15,000 workers in the educational sector have been or will be laid-off in 2010 and 2011 as a part of the “reordering” of the labor force which began on June 6th of last year, Prensa Latina reports. According to the report by the Ministry of Education, 54% of lay-offs will affect non-teaching staff, 8,000 of whom have already begun the lay-off process.
In a move to support the growth of private enterprise, Cuba’s government has begun cutting prices on bulk sales of certain products, reports the Associated Press. This new measure is a response to complaints by small business entrepreneurs over their lack of access to a wholesale market. Under the Ministry of Finance and Prices’ Resolution 163-2011, prices will be discounted when buying such products as cooking oil, tomato sauce, mayonnaise and CDs in bulk, reports Trabajadores. Tobacco, alcoholic beverages and bottled waters are not included under the measure. The official announcement clarifies that bulk prices will be available to the entire population, and not just to those who are operating their own businesses.
Cuba’s government has leased 68% of its idle land to new farmers according to Aníbal Núñez, the Deputy Director of Cuba’s National Land Control Center, Xinhua reports. Núñez reported that about 15,975 petitions for land have been handled between January and June this year, with 12,795 of those petitions receiving approval, reports Prensa Latina. The Deputy Director released these statistics while announcing a project to re-survey the island’s level of fallow land, information which was last collected in 2007.
Núñez also reported that the government has taken back land granted to more than 9,000 workers due to “insufficient use”, EFE reports. When President Raúl Castro assumed office in 2008, the state was estimated to hold 1,800,000 hectares of unproductive land. To date, the government reports that 146,000 Cubans have received fallow land from the government, and that of these 71,000 recipients of land are new to the agricultural sector.
Distribution of idle land is part of an effort to boost production in Cuba’s agricultural sector in order to decrease imports and lower the cost of food. EFE reports that despite agricultural reforms, Cuba still imports 60% of rice consumed by the population, with an estimated 400,000 tons of rice to be imported this year to meet domestic demand. On average, Cubans consume 60 kilograms of rice per person per year.
Cuba’s forest rangers have reported that nearly 700 forest fires were registered in Cuba between February and May of this year, marking the highest number since 1991, EFE reports. More than 90% of these fires were caused by humans, according to the report. Fires covered an area of about 20,000 hectares, with damages estimated at about $17,000 USD. Rangers also blamed increased fires on a lack of rainfall, extended drought, and sparks from agricultural vehicles as well as other vehicles passing through forested areas. The majority of fires occurred in the provinces of Pinar del Rio in the west, and Camagüey in the east, as well as the Isle of Youth.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Peruvian President-elect Ollanta Humala met with President Raúl Castro and Fidel Castro this week as part of a tour of the region, reports Ahora. While on the island, Humala discussed strengthening cooperation between the two countries and expressed particular interest in Cuba’s education campaign, reports CubaDebate. Humala also talked by phone with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who is currently receiving chemotherapy on the island. During his visit Humala addressed the U.S. trade embargo, saying that it is, “an embarrassment that in the 21st century this type of situation exists, which in all honesty doesn’t help with the integration of America.”
Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa also traveled to the island. Correa, Fidel and Raúl Castro, and Hugo Chávez held a meeting together to discuss regional topics, CubaDebate reports.
Cuba and the European Union (EU) have joined forces to establish a million dollar environmental protection program in the municipalities of Las Tunas and Camagüey, reports Cuban News Agency. The program is aimed at promoting more sustainable fishing methods and avoiding the further degradation of the natural environment through destructive fishing practices.
Richard Olano, a specialist of the Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, estimates that if current practices aren’t changed, the marine areas that are being fished will face ecosystem breakdowns in the next ten years, potentially becoming desert zones. The Cuba-EU program will create new protected marine zones and train local populations in less destructive fishing habits.
Cuba has sent 900 agricultural advisors to Venezuela to help teach Venezuelan farmers organic and sustainable farming techniques, reports Cuban news agency Prensa Latina. The advisors are in Venezuela as part of a program initiated by ALBA. Under the program Cuba has sent veterinarians and plant health experts, as well as soil and irrigation technicians to Venezuela, reports the Associated Press. Currently more than 40,000 Cubans are working in Venezuela, primarily in the healthcare sector in exchange for oil resources.
Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, says he has completed “first cycle” of chemotherapy. He returned to Cuba a few days ago to start his chemotherapy treatment for a still unspecified cancer, reported Reuters. In June, Chávez had a cancerous tumor removed while in Cuba. At a public rally, Chavez declared that a recent doctor’s examination had found no malignant cells in his body. Upon taking his leave, Chávez delegated some of his powers to his nation’s vice president and finance minister.
During its consideration of the State Department Authorization bill, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs passed an amendment bill this week that would even further restrict travel, not only limiting family travel but also eliminating people to people travel, EFE reports.
Last week, the Obama’s Office of Management and Budget released a statement threatening a veto against the Financial Services Appropriations bill which now contains a cut-back in Cuban American travel and remittances. The administration has thus far not responded to this latest challenge to its policy.
In another attack on people-to-people travel, a category restored by President Obama in January of this year, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18) sent a letter to the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s director, Adam Szubin, requesting information about what measures OFAC is currently taking to prevent “illegal tourist tours of Cuba.”
In a statement accompanying the letter, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen criticized a photo contest, set up by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, encouraging Cubans on the island to submit photos to a Facebook page under the title “Memories of Summer.” Ros-Lehtinen states that the contest “essentially promotes tourism to the island,” though it is only open to Cuban residents. She has now called for entries to send in pictures of the “heinous crimes” of the Cuban government. Phil Peters with the Cuban Triangle criticizes Ros-Lehtinen’s letter, adding that the photo contest “represents American openness to freedom of expression.”
American contractor Alan Gross, currently serving a 15-year sentence in Cuba, was present today as Cuba’s Supreme Court heard the appeal of his conviction, CubaDebate reports.
Reuters reports that Mr. Gross was permitted to address the court during a closed door hearing after his Cuban defense counsel presented arguments against his conviction and sentencing.
“Alan Phillip Gross, exercising the right to speak granted by the court, laid out the arguments that he considered relevant and expressed thanks for the chance to explain them personally to the judges of the People’s Supreme Court,” an official Cuban statement said in a note on Friday’s hearing.
Mr. Gross, who has been imprisoned on the island since December of 2009, was convicted in March 2011 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 the island tourist visas while under a contract with a “democracy promotion” program funded by USAID.
A senior State Department official has stated that the U.S. government remains hopeful that Gross will be released, the Associated Press reports. Another article from the Associated Press suggests that Gross could be handed a reduced sentence, with the possibility that he would be subsequently released due to time served, age, and good behavior. According to Reuters, local Cuban lawyers who asked not to be named said that while the Supreme Court could throw out the conviction and release Gross, it was more likely that the court would uphold the verdict and possibly reduce the sentence.
No specific date has been given as to when the court will deliver its decision, though the announcement states that one will be given “in coming days.”
In June, members of a delegation hosted by the Center for Democracy in the Americas were permitted to visit Mr. Gross in his prison for more than two hours.
Long distance swimmer Diana Nyad has committed to swimming the 103 miles between Cuba and Key West, a swim estimated to take 60 hours, reports the New York Times. Nyad unsuccessfully attempted the swim when she was 28. Now, at 61 and after having trained for a year and a half, Nyad says she is ready to swim. She hopes that the swim will be an inspiration for other older adults. Dr. Michael J. Joyner, a professor of anesthesiology and exercise research at the Mayo Clinic commented on the proposed swim stating, “If the logistics work out, barring bad storms or currents, it is doable. It’s not a sure thing. But it wouldn’t be a sure thing if it were Michael Phelps.”
Around the Region:
The U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs voted to completely end U.S. funding of the Organization of American States (OAS) during its markup of the State Department authorization bill, reports the Washington Post. The U.S. has been an active member in the OAS since its founding in 1948. In his statement, Rep. Connie Mack (FL-14), who sponsored the amendment, alleged that the OAS is “bent on destroying democracy in Latin America,” reports Foreign Policy. Democrats in the committee expressed their shock and outrage at what they see as a move towards isolationism. Rep. Gary Ackerman (NY-5) remarked,
I might offer an amendment to pull out of the world, to build a moat around the United States and put a dome over the thing. This is getting ridiculous….Here we are for a lousy $48 million willing to symbolically turn our backs on our own hemisphere… This is folly. It’s more than folly, it’s dangerous.
With the committee split in along party lines, the Republican majority (22-20) passed the bill, the Foreign Relations Authorization Act FY2012, with the amendment attached. Other controversial cuts made by the Republicans include a ban on aid to the governments of Argentina, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia, reports IPS.
Venezuela now holds the world’s largest oil reserves, Geoffrey Ramsey, The Pan-American Post
Venezuela’s is now the world’s largest oil-reserves holder, with proven crude-oil reserves which surpassed that of Saudi Arabia in 2010, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries said in its newly-released annual statistics bulletin. Venezuela’s proven crude reserves reached 296.5 billion barrels in 2010, a whopping 40 percent increase from the previous year and higher than Saudi Arabia’s 264.5 billion barrels. The Wall Street Journal has more on the development, which it says may “empower members of OPEC that favor defending higher prices.”
The Bodies of the Martyrs Would be Borne by Us, Yoani Sanchez
An essay by Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, written in opposition to U.S. legislation to cut back Cuban American family travel and remittances, says that Cubans watching the news feel like guinea pigs in a laboratory where all decisions are made by others, far from Cuban shores.