Just before our colleague got on a plane from Mexico City heading back to Washington, she wrote to ask what had happened in Washington since she left.
When we said, the government was about to default on its debt and that political chaos was reigning in the Congress, we considered the irony; in the 1980s, that is what travelers said was going on in Latin America after they came back. Now, the shoe is on the other foot, and it pinches.
Yes, there is a stormy and dispiriting debate taking place in the U.S. over the size of the state, the role of the government, and the nation’s finances. And yes, at the end of the debate, we expect that the U.S. government will be forced to cut back its spending and its programs and be less present (or intrusive, depending on your perspective) in our citizens’ lives.
Except, worryingly, in these related areas.
First, if majorities on the House Appropriations and Foreign Affairs Committees get their way, the Federal government will actually increase its meddling in the choices U.S. citizens get to make in where they choose to travel. As we previously reported, these panels want to sharply cut back on the rights of Cuban Americans to visit their families in Cuba and some legislators want to go further and take away recently granted rights for other Americans to visit the island under non-tourist, people-to-people programs as well.
These proposals not only intrude on U.S. citizens’ travel rights, but they will also cost the U.S. Treasury millions of dollars if they become law, because they will also diminish federal revenues based on the taxes collected on airline tickets.
The Associated Press is reporting that the threat of renewed restrictions on travel has some in the Cuban American community fearful. “Of course the (Cuban) government gets some of our money, but what are we going to do? Should our families starve?,” asks Sonia Rodriguez.
To be clear, a majority of Americans – and strong majorities of Cuban Americans – support increased travel to Cuba, not less. Cutting travel also imposes humanitarian barriers on the ability of families to unite and provide support, and travel restrictions cut U.S. government revenues. In other words, at a time when Washington is debating on how to cut spending and curb the role of government, restrictions on travel to Cuba achieve the opposite results.
If this is confusing to us, we can only imagine how confusing it is to our readers living elsewhere in the region.
Which brings us to the second development: democracy promotion.
There is still funding in the State Department Budget for the USAID “democracy promotion programs”. Perhaps they could use some of this money to hire consultants who can explain why stopping Americans from traveling to Cuba will someday inspire Cuba to end restrictions on the rights of Cubans to travel to travel here.
We’re kidding, of course. We think the U.S. would set a much better example if it ended the debate, paid its bills, honored the travel rights of the American people, and saved the money it would otherwise spend on democracy promotion by doing the right thing here at home.
This week in Cuba news…
The twelve standing committees of Cuba’s parliament are meeting this weekend to prepare for a plenary session of the National Assembly which will convene August 1st. One purpose of the meeting will be for the National Assembly to review the progress made on the economic reforms following last April’s Communist Party Congress, among other concerns of the Cuban people, reports EFE. About four hundred of the parliament’s more than 600 members are taking part in these planning sessions leading up to Monday’s plenary.
While several economic reforms have been announced since the Party Congress in April, it is the role of the National Assembly to codify and enact any laws required to implement the reforms, reports AP. Some analysts predict that new regulations published in Cuba’s official media last month regarding the sale and purchase of homes and automobiles will be codified during this session.
An article from the Associated Press looks into Cuba’s housing crunch, detailing the hurdles Cubans currently face when looking to transfer homes, and the prospects for recent steps toward opening the island’s housing market.
Each year, Cuba’s government holds celebrations marking July 26, 1953, the date of a failed attack led by Fidel Castro on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, as the anniversary of the birth of the Cuban revolution. At ceremonies this week, Vice President José Ramón Machado Ventura addressed crowds gathered in the main plaza of the central city of Ciego de Avila, using the occasion to urge Cuban citizens to work harder consistent with President Raúl Castro’s calls for ambitious economic reforms, reports AP.
In his speech, Machado said: “We must make a definitive break with the mentality of inertia … (and) evaluate how much more can be done with what is available,” adding, “The government is moving without haste but without pause…We are not using patches or improvising. We are looking for definitive solutions to old problems.” President Raúl Castro was present but did not speak.
Cuba’s government has put the island’s traditional summer youth work programs on hold for reasons of economic efficiency and practicality, reports EFE. The decision was attributed to difficulty in finding positions that took full advantage of participants, as many complained of not feeling needed in their placements.
Yoel Pérez, a member of the National Office of the Union of Communist Youth, affirmed her organization’s commitment to work-study despite this decision, labeling such work as a founding principle of Cuban education in an interview with Juventud Rebelde. Official estimates report that some 500,000 Cuban youth have taken part in previous summer youth work programs.
Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health announced the island’s plan to begin a large scale fumigation campaign against the dengue-carrying Aedes aeygpti mosquito, reports Café Fuerte. The Ministry expressed concerns over a possible outbreak due to heavy rains, high temperatures, drought in part of the country and the abundance of refuse and standing liquids in residences. The vice minister of Public Health, Luis Estruch Rancaño, specified that efforts will be concentrated on all 15 municipalities of Havana, as well as the cities of Pinar del Rio, Mariel, Santa Clara, Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba, Bayamo and Guantanamo. Fumigation in Havana will begin on August 15th.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Cuba and Ecuador agreed to expand cooperation on energy issues this week with a new series of agreements, reports EFE. In 2005, Cuba began a massive overhaul of its energy system under a program they named the “Energy Revolution”. The program has replaced Soviet-era generators with newer more efficient generators and promoted the use of more energy-efficient home appliances. Cuba has since seen significant improvements in the efficiency of its energy sector and is considered a model for other Latin American countries according to Esteban Albornoz, Ecuador’s Electricity Minister, AFP reports.
One of the three agreements signed commits Cuba to providing Ecuador with 110 megawatts of thermal [ENERGY] in exchange for what could be as much as $100m in fuel-oil generators from foreign suppliers. The other two agreements promise “efficient ways for training in the electric sector” and increasing collaboration for energy efficiency, reports Cuba Standard. These new agreements are apparently an amendment to a previous memorandum of understanding on energy cooperation signed between the two countries in 2009.
Senator John Kerry (D-MA) has lifted his hold on $20 million of USAID funding for its Cuba “democracy promotion” programs, reports the Miami Herald. Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had blocked the funding since April 1st over concern about the effectiveness and management of the programs. Kerry’s spokesman Fredrick Jones has stated that Kerry agreed to lift the hold after USAID promised to undertake a thorough review of the programs. Part of the funding is still on hold by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who chairs a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee with authority over foreign aid spending, the Associated Press reports.
Spanish oil firm Repsol predicts that offshore drilling in Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico will commence this November, EFE reports. Repsol’s General Finance Director Miguel Martínez added that he has not received “any calls or messages” from U.S. authorities about the planned drilling.
While some experts have praised the quality of Repsol’s equipment and adherence to environmental standards, the National Journal reports that U.S. trade restrictions on the island are forcing Cuba to pursue drilling with “second tier” equipment, stating:
Under the embargo’s terms, the oil drilling and safety equipment used by those companies must be less than 10 percent U.S.-made. But all of the most technologically advanced equipment for drilling and preventing or stopping oil spills is made in the United States or by U.S. companies.
To avoid violating the embargo, Repsol contracted with an Italian firm to build a Chinese-made semisubmersible rig that complies with the limitations on U.S. content. The rig is expected to arrive at the end of hurricane season.
Despite the proximity of the drilling to the Florida Keys, the U.S. government has refrained from engaging publicly with Cuba in order to plan for drilling safety or the possibility of a spill.
The Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) released a publication this year detailing Cuba’s plans to drill for oil in the Gulf, and the dangers presented by lack of dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba on the subject.
Nineteen U.S. citizens graduated from Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) this week, reports MEDICC (Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba). ELAM educates students from 110 countries at no cost, training them to be physicians. Students complete two years of training at the school in Havana, before leaving the Cuban capital for four years of clinical training and education at health science faculties across the country.
Gail Reed, the International Director of MEDICC, stated: “Our heartiest congratulations go to these wonderful young people from across the United States…And we want to let them know how much they are needed back home, where health disparities continue to plague our communities along lines of race, gender and income.” A profile of some of the American students graduating this week is available with the MEDICC press release.
The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued a statement on its website this week stressing the “meaningful” nature of people-to-people Cuba trips. The statement is likely a response to a letter by the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18), who wrote OFAC earlier this month criticizing the department for allowing travel agencies to advertise what she referred to as illegal tourist trips to Cuba, reports AFP. OFAC’s statement reiterated the definition of people-to-people travel as “educational exchange programs to promote contact with the Cuban people.”
Since the relaxation of Cuba travel regulations by the Obama administration, OFAC has granted nearly 30 Cuba travel licenses to different travel service providers, reports The Miami Herald. For trips to qualify as people-to-people exchanges travellers must keep to a busy schedule of educational and cultural activities. Travel service providers have reported high interest in these people-to-people trips, and approved provider Abercrombie & Kent has reported that all thirteen of their planned trips between September and next April are sold out.
The Government of Cuba has granted landing rights to the Tampa International Airport this week, meaning the airport will now be able to offer flights between Cuba and the U.S., according to an airport press release.. The airport had already received permission for the flights from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, but had not received landing approval from Cuba.
ABC Charter president Tessie Aral, who was involved in efforts to obtain approval, announced that flights will begin September 10th and be available twice each week, reports Café Fuerte. The Tampa Bay Area has the second largest Cuban-American population in the U.S. With the addition of Cuba flights to the Tampa International Airport, Cuban-Americans living in the area will no longer need to drive to Miami in order to fly to Cuba.
As we went to press, we received word that Cuba’s government authorized airports in Santa Clara and Manzanillo to receive charter flights from the United States.
Dutch bank ING has announced that it is under investigation and could face significant fines for business transactions with Cuba and Iran, two countries listed by the U.S. as state sponsors of terrorism, reports The Miami Herald. The U.S has imposed economic sanctions and export controls on these countries, and previously fined European banks at least $635 million for violations over the past decade. An ING spokesman said that the bank is cooperating with U.S. authorities but that they cannot yet estimate what the fines will be, Reuters reports. In the bank’s annual report, released in March, they indicated that fines could be significant, and a source close to the bank speculated to a Dutch newspaper that fines could mount to “several hundreds of millions of dollars”. Cuban officials have frequently advised the Center for Democracy in the Americas that the Obama administration is more vigorously enforcing financial sanctions against the island’s government than the Bush administration did during its two terms in office.
Around the Region:
A letter sent by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Chairwoman and ranking Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee lambasts the panel for drastic cuts to USAID foreign aid programs and the defunding of the Organization of American States (OAS) in the State Department Authorization Act adopted by the Committee last week, reports The Washington Post.
In the letter, Clinton criticizes the bill as, “debilitating to my efforts to carry out a considered foreign policy and diplomacy, and to use foreign assistance strategically to that end.” According to the Post, Clinton warns that she would recommend a veto if the bill in its current form was to reach the President’s desk.
The Committee has already been criticized for adopting an amendment by Rep. David Rivera (FL – 25) to roll back increased travel and remittance opportunities implemented by President Obama. The Latin American Working Group has published a letter that lists all of the Democratic and Republican committee members who voted in favor of the amendment to limit travel to Cuba, encouraging their constituents to contact those Representatives who supported the amendment and express their discontent.
Chris Sabatini of the Americas Society published a piece in the Huffington Post criticizing the Rivera provision, stating:
Leaving aside the moral implications—that in starving the Cuban state you’re also starving Cubans, the very people these policies are purported to help—there is also the strategic implication of greater travel. This asserts that by allowing Cubans on the island to meet with their relatives and gain access to electronic equipment such as cell phones, DVDs or laptops, the policy is actually providing Cubans with the informational and material tools of their own liberation.
Ollanta Humala was sworn in as Peru’s new president on Thursday, AFP reports. In his inaugural address, Humala pledged to focus his attention on helping the one in three Peruvians who fall below the poverty line. He also promised to redistribute the country’s rich mineral deposits, while maintaining and protecting Peru’s solid economic growth, reports Associated Press.
Humala’s inauguration was attended by fourteen heads of state, including all Latin American heads of state with the exception of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo due to health problems, reports the Buenos Aires Herald. After his inauguration, Humala convened a meeting of the South American group UNASUR with the Latin American presidents present.
Legislators in El Salvador have approved an initiative to repeal Decree 743, the contentious legislation that generated an institutional crisis in El Salvador, reports El Faro. The June 2nd legislative decree was designed to rein in four independent judges on the Constitutional Court by requiring unanimous agreements to pass decisions. Roberto Lorenzana, member of the governing FMLN party expressed his hope that the repeal of the decree would open up dialogue between the different government branches, reports AFP.
Cuban Americans fret over travel restrictions home, Laura Wides-Munoz, Associated Press
“Sonia Rodriguez whipped up milk-and-espresso drinks at the Latin American Grill as talk turned to a new push in Congress to tighten restrictions on travel to Cuba. Like growing numbers of Cuban-Americans, she’s worried about the U.S. reinstating strict limits on how often she can visit relatives and even how much money can be sent to loved ones on the island.”
National Geographic’s map of Cuba is labor of love for Cuban American mapmaker, David Montgomery, Washington Post
This article chronicles the story of a Cuban American cartologist Juan José Valdes, who has completed National Geographic’s new map of Cuba and their first comprehensive rendering of the island’s geography since 1906.
Cuba seeks more active role for youth, Al Jazeera
This video report discusses growing calls grow for more power to be given to Cuba’s youth as their government marks the 58th anniversary of its communist revolution.
A FINAL WORD
With this edition of the Cuba Central News Blast, we at the Center for Democracy in the Americas bid a fond farewell to Alex Radtke, who performed indispensable research and editing duties for us doing an all-too-brief tenure as our intern. She was a high impact performer – a Texan who drawled her y’alls – and a spirited force for good in the office. We wish her well and offer our appreciation for a job well done.