Stories before the Storm – News about Cuba as Irene approaches the US

Here on the East Coast of the United States, Hurricane Irene is approaching and our country is engaged in the serious business of trying to protect lives and property from destruction and danger.

As we put the finishing touches on our Cuba Central News Blast this week, we couldn’t help writing, as we have in the past, about how the subject of hurricanes illustrates so much about the U.S.-Cuba relationship – what’s good and what ought to be fixed.

The storms which cut across Cuba and then land on the U.S. coast are a reminder that we’re bound together by more than geography and weather.  We share a common interest in finding better ways to predict the paths of these storms and protect the people placed at risk by them.

There is a conceit among some in our country that we have nothing to learn from the Cuban people and that there’s just no sense in talking to them.  But we know that when it comes to hurricanes and civil defense – as with much else – that just isn’t right.

A reasonably modest earthquake near Washington DC last week resulted in traffic jams and raised the same unanswered questions about safely evacuating the Capital that were raised after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Roughly 1600 Americans died during Katrina in 2005, and we’ve seen scores killed in storms that hit areas in the U.S.  less populated than New Orleans just this year.  But as hurricane expert Ivor van Heerden wrote in our 2009 report – 9 Ways for US to talk with Cuba and for Cuba to talk to US – Cuba’s civil defense record is much better than ours.

Between 2005 and 2008, a period that included deadly damage here from Katrina and Ike, an average of just 3 Cubans lost their lives in storms.

Fortunately, U.S. and Cuba do talk and exchange some information about hurricanes.  The U.S. has especially good data and tools for predicting the tracks and intensities of storms. Cuba cooperates with the U.S. government by allowing over-flights by “hurricane hunter” aircraft.

NGOs, like the Center for International Policy (CIP), lead delegations to Cuba that bring local governments and civil defense officials into contact with their Cuban counterparts, and its sensible that they get the permission needed from both countries to make these exchanges work.

But more needs to be done.

With greater cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba, our government could have better information about storms forming in the Caribbean, benefitting scientists and prediction modelers alike.  But the U.S. embargo prevents Cuba from having access to the kind of oceanographic and weather data buoys – and upgrades for their weather stations – that would help our country do a better job protecting our own people from these weather events with better information from Cuba.

CIP recently released a report, U.S.-Cuban Cooperation in Defending Against Hurricanes, which details civil defense strategies used by Cuba – how they handle evacuations, equip hospitals, and engage children in evacuation drills – from which we in the U.S could really learn how to better address the dangers of severe weather events.  Direct talks between the governments and more exchanges held in the open with government blessing would facilitate those lessons.

In this era of climate change, storms like Irene are likely to be more frequent and more ferocious; so greater cooperation and engagement with Cuba on this issue makes a great deal of sense. And, as we pointed out in the “9 Ways,” and CIP says in its report this month, conversations on hurricane preparedness can boost confidence and trust between both governments which they surely need to address the other issues which so often divide us.

Ideally, even if Irene cuts the power on the East Coast, a light bulb could still shine over Washington.

And now, this week in Cuba news…








Reports of continued harassment against Ladies in White 

Throughout the week, there have been reports of aggressive actions by Cuban authorities against the dissident group Ladies in White.  Leaders of the group in Havana have reported that two of their members were taken from their homes and arrested, EFE reports.

Amnesty International has released a statement calling attention to arrests that have taken place in Havana and Santiago de Cuba and calling on the government to end intimidation and detentions.

National Congress to discuss racism at January meeting

Ricardo Alarcón, President of Cuba’s National Assembly, called for the “complete eradication” of racial prejudice on the island, and announced that the subject of race would be discussed in January’s National Communist Party Conference, the Miami Herald reports. In an interview with the digital publication Cubarte, Alarcón stated:

The legislative commissions should assure that all organisms and entities in the country take duly into account the element of ethnicity, and work to completely eradicate any form of discrimination.

Alarcón added that President Raúl Castro “has spoken about the importance of changing mentalities” and “will not rest until, in terms of women and black people, the full exercise of equal rights is a reality.”

Government deregulates the sale of cement and corrugated iron, specialist urges further changes in milk production

The sale of cement and corrugated iron has been deregulated by the Cuban government in an effort to address the high demand for construction materials for citizens to repair and construct homes, Diario de Cuba reports. Cement will be sold both in solid and liquid form. Pilar Fernández González-Pardo, head of the Non-food Retail Sales group of the Ministry of Interior Commerce, stated:

We are conscious that what we offer will not satisfy, for now, the urgent demand of the people to repair or construct their homes, but the decision to sell, for example, liquid concrete, and not just bagged concrete, is a mollifying measure so that the product can reach consumers.

Construction specialists stated that the type of cement deregulated for retail sale, PP250, is ideal for constructing and resurfacing walls and producing tiles, mosaics and blocks.

This week, director of the state-run Institute of Animal Science (ICA), Omelio Borroto, made a call for the decentralization of milk production in statements to the weekly newspaper Trabajadores, stating:

According to data from specialists, our country needs 1.8 billion liters of milk for its population… Today we produce about 500 million [liters] annually. Further, it is fundamental to decentralize producers and companies so that their incomes can be invested in relation to need.

Despite efforts to increase production, according to Cuba’s National Statistics Office (ONE), milk production in the first part of this year was 197 million liters, an 8% decrease from the same period last year, AFP reports.

Scarabeo 9 oil rig sets sail for Cuban waters

The Chinese-built oil rig that will enable Cuba to explore for oil offshore in the Gulf of Mexico with its foreign partners is set to depart Singapore within days on its voyage to the Caribbean, Reuters reports.

The rig, named Scarabeo 9, is owned by Italian oil company Eni SpA’s offshore unit, Saipem, and was contracted for use in Cuba by the Spanish oil firm Repsol YPF. The voyage from Singapore to Cuba will last 80 days, according to an Eni spokesman.  A Western diplomat in Havana says the rig will stop in South Africa and Brazil before reaching Cuba in November, where it will begin drilling shortly after arrival. Scarabeo 9 was built in China, with foreign content to avoid conflict with the U.S. embargo; it has the latest technology and is capable of drilling in up to 12,000 feet of water.

Offshore drilling represents a huge potential source of income for the cash-strapped island. Estimates of the amount of untapped oil in Cuba’s portion of the Gulf of Mexico range greatly; the U.S. Geological Survey estimates reserves at 5 billion barrels while some Cuban experts say reserves could amount to 20 billion barrels.

An analysis released this week of Cuba’s 2010 oil and gas sector by energy expert Jorge Piñon is available from Cuba Standard.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas released this report on Cuba’s offshore drilling plans earlier this year.
Retired baseball player calls for policy change to address issue of defections

In comments to state media, Cuba’s legendary former baseball player Victor Mesa reiterated a call for an adjustment of policy to “stop the robbery of players,” the Associated Press reports. Facing the ever-present problem of athletes and artists leaving the island in order to pursue their careers, many have urged for the possibility for Cubans to legally obtain foreign contracts without having to leave the island. As recent reforms have allowed Cubans to start their own businesses and be self-employed, Mesa stated that it is unfortunate that “there is no proposal to contract athletes to play abroad.” He suggested allowing Cubans to play in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Japan, South Korea or Mexico after eight seasons at home, and did not mention the U.S.

At April’s Sixth Communist Party Congress, there was reportedly a general “reference to athletes being hired abroad,” but no official steps have been made towards a new policy.

“Organoponic” urban farms net more than 1 million tons of vegetables per year

Urban farms have in recent years proven to be an alternative to providing crops in the face of insufficient agricultural production that results in 80% of food being imported to the island, EFE reports. Urban farming was initiated in Cuba in 1987, but had its biggest boost in 1994 in the midst of Cuba’s “Special Period,” when the economy was reeling from the loss of the island’s biggest trade partner, the Soviet Union. Nelso Companioni, director of urban agriculture of the Institute of Fundamental Research in Tropical Agriculture, stated this week:

The national program of urban agriculture has had a great impact on the entire country, not just to guarantee food supply; further, it has been important in promoting the agricultural, nutritional, and environmental culture of the population.

These small urban farms total more than 10,000 hectares of land and have an output rate of about 4.5 pounds per square meter per year. Almost 80% of leafy vegetables included in the Cuban diet are cultivated in urban farms, and the projects have provided employment to more than 380,000 people, including more than 10,000 professionals.


Cuba assumes rotating chair of UN body on disarmament

Cuba assumed the chair of the UN Conference on Disarmament, a body of 65 nations created by the international organization in 1979. The UN body has been stalemated since writing the nuclear test ban treaty in 1996. Cuba assumes leadership of the conference from North Korea through a regular alphabetical (in French) rotation. Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Rodolfo Reyes Rodríguez stated to diplomats that it is unacceptable that almost 23,000 nuclear weapons still exist, including 7,560 ready to use.

In 1962, the conflict named the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Since stepping down from office, former president and historic leader Fidel Castro has concentrated several of his speeches and written pieces on the urgency of nuclear disarmament.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, ridiculed Cuba’s new position saying, “”It’s hard to fathom a more ludicrous image than Kim Jong Il passing the chair of the Conference on Disarmament to the Castro brothers, but that’s what passes for change at the U.N.”


JPMorgan to pay $88.3 million to OFAC for sanctions violations

The Treasury Department has fined JPMorgan Chase $88.3 million over transactions involving the sanctioned countries of Cuba, Iran and Sudan, the New York Times reports. According to the Department’s website, JPMorgan processed wire transfers totaling about $178.5 million for Cuban nationals between late 2005 and 2006.

The notices states that “another U.S financial institution” alerted JPMorgan that a corresponding account might be processing wire transfers involving Cuban nationals in November of 2005. JPMorgan subsequently conducted an investigation that confirmed this information, however, “the bank failed to take adequate steps to prevent further transfers.” JPMorgan has been fined in the past for transfers in violation of sanctions to Iran and Sudan.

Inaugural Puerto Rico – Cuba flight marks first flight between the islands in almost 50 years

A direct flight between Puerto Rico and Cuba will be inaugurated today, marking the first time since the implementation of the U.S. embargo nearly fifty years ago that a flight will make the connection between the two islands, AP reports. The flight will be between San Juan, Puerto Rico and Santiago de Cuba, and includes Cuban Americans as well as students and people traveling on licenses for religious work. It will return to Puerto Rico on Monday.

Cuba rejects continued inclusion on US list of terror-sponsoring nations

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry has released a condemnation of the island’s continued inclusion on the U.S. State Department’s list of “State Sponsors of Terror,” released last week, reports the Associated Press. The statement, published in Granma, argues that Cuba has an “unblemished” record in fighting terrorism, and accuses Washington of using the list as a tool for political manipulation. The statement also accuses the U.S. of harboring known terrorists and using anti-terrorism as a guise for foreign interventions.  Cuba has been included on the list since 1982.

Our essay published last week on the terror designation can be read here at the Huffington Post.

Miami court awards $2.8 billion in damages against Cuban government to Miami Cuban

A Miami judge has awarded $2.8 billion in damages to Gustavo Villoldo, a Cuban exile, the Associated Press reports. The damages relate to Villoldo’s claim that persecution by Cuba’s government lead to his father’s suicide. Villoldo lives in Miami and formerly worked with the CIA, participating in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and aiding in the tracking down of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Villoldo’s attorney has stated that he will attempt to collect damages by tapping frozen Cuban assets in the U.S. and international businesses linked to Cuba’s government. The government has not responded to this lawsuit or to another similar lawsuit two years ago, and has refused to comment on the case.

Around the Region:

Salvadoran war crime suspect arrested in Massachusetts

Inocente Orlando Montano, a former colonel in the Salvadoran military accused of participating in the planning of the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador, was arrested in Massachusetts this week, the Boston Globe reports.

According to prosecutors, Montano, who was living in Everett, tried to flee the country last week after a story revealed that he had been residing in the Boston suburb for years. It is not known if Montano will be extradited to Spain to stand trial for the killings. Montano is formally accused of lying on annual applications to remain in the U.S. under temporary protected status since 2002 when he first filed, answering negatively to questions about military training and affiliation and use of weapons against other people.

UNASUR foreign ministers meet, discuss global crisis

The foreign ministers from the twelve UNASUR nations met in Buenos Aires this week and agreed on measures to protect the region from the economic problems facing Europe and the U.S., Reuters reports. Argentine Deputy Economy Minister Roberto Feletti stated:

There are three points: multilateral payments in local currency, consolidation of a development bank of our own, and coordination in using reserves. This was approved in the meeting of foreign ministers and in addition the technical decisions that go with this decision were pushed through.

With the Paraguayan Senate’s approval of Paraguay’s membership in the regional body this summer, UNASUR now represents all twelve South American nations.

Recommended Reading:

The Cuban Economy: Recent Trends, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

“This publication examines the contemporary state of Cuba’s economy at a time of great transformation. Using econometric and other macroeconomic analysis tools, its authors have taken advantage of the recent availability of official economic statistics to offer new insights into longstanding questions about Cuba’s economic behavior.”

Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics and Culture under Chávez, edited by David Smilde and Dan Hellinger.

An interdisciplinary group of contributors, led by Dan Hellinger, CDA’s board president emeritus,  and David Smilde, offer studies of the forms of participation that have emerged in communal councils, cultural activities, blogs, community, and media forums, that focus o on everyday life, not just conventional political activity or the figure of Chávez himself.   The editors are renowned for their scholarship and understanding of what is actually taking place in Venezuela.

Good job, José; Good night Irene

As we hunker down in the Eastern United States awaiting Hurricane Irene, José Pertierra cheered our spirits by circulating this video of The Weavers singing “Goodnight Irene.”  Thanks, José, what a great idea.

We shouldn’t have been surprised, but we were still somewhat floored to find versions of this Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Lead Belly) classic by Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Johnny Cash, and a host of others.

We hope you have a chance to enjoy them – so long as the power stays on.

In the meanwhile, we wish all our readers shelter from the storm.

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