An old spat and bilateral reforms below the radar

September 30, 2011

The old spat

The defining – and depressing – moment of the week was the exchange between the U.S. president and Cuba’s leadership, past and present.  Fidel Castro called Mr. Obama’s speech before the UN “gibberish.”   Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez speaking before the General Assembly blasted the embargo but restated Cuba’s interest in bilateral cooperation and normalizing relations.

President Obama – as he has on multiple occasions over the last year – said the U.S. would only change its stern policy toward Cuba if Havana took steps to justify lifting the embargo, but that he could detect no positive moment on the island.

In other words, aren’t we stuck in the same old, same old?

But look below the radar

On the U.S. side, we bring news this week of exchanges taking place bringing musicians, musical instruments, and marathon runners to Cuba, while a children’s theatre group, La Colmenita, gets a national tour of the U.S.  These developments join other signs of progress – such as the growing list of U.S. airports approved to serve the U.S. market and the increasing numbers of U.S. visitors doing non-tourist travel.

On the Cuban side, we report today on a long-awaited reform opening a legal market to the private sale of automobiles, reforms and consolidations affecting Cuba’s government ministries, and U.S.-Cuba law enforcement cooperation leading to the repatriation of two fugitives from murder charges back to New Jersey to face justice.

What we believe

Cuba’s government is involved in a huge undertaking to reform its economy and some modesty is called for here in the U.S. as they make changes in a model that remained essentially static for fifty years.  President Obama knows only too well that it’s hard to make sweeping changes aimed at addressing an economic crisis – while your people wait for results and your detractors waste no time criticizing your policies.

We believe it is a mistake to stick with the embargo as the president has – he recently renewed the statutory framework for another year – and that Mr. Obama should be more publicly encouraging of what Cuba is attempting to do, because a prosperous and more economically diverse Cuba will serve the interests of the Cuban people and the national interest of the United States.

At the same time, we do not minimize the practical and important effects that his travel and remittance reforms have already made and will continue to make (so long as they are not reversed by policy makers in the future).  What is happening at the level of reality should not be obscured by what is happening at the levels of rhetoric and politics.  It would be nice if they were in better alignment, but that might be asking more of the American system than it can deliver at this time.

This week in Cuba news…

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Drilling Getting Closer; René’s Family Reunion Still Distant; GOP Frontrunners Silent on Cuba; and a word from “the blasters”

September 23, 2011

We’re delivering the goods again this week with:

  • Video from CNN’s Fareed Zakaria calling out the embargo for blocking cooperation with Cuba oil drilling
  • Troubling news about a court decision that will delay a long-awaited family reunion for a member of the Cuban Five
  • Reports on how Cuba’s crackdown on corruption has focused on Canadian firms, and
  • Hopeful indications that tourism and coffee production on the island are both on the rise.

Sometimes readers wonder – when the rest of the world is fixed on the opening of the United Nations or the roiling financial markets—who is hard at work tracking developments on the island or the twists and turns in U.S. policy toward Cuba?

That would be us – your friends at Cuba Central.

This week in Cuba news…

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U.S.-Cuba Relations after the Richardson Mission, Obama Renews Embargo, Senates Eyes Easing of Ag Sales, and Florida Takes Flight

September 16, 2011

After former Governor Bill Richardson’s mission to Cuba ended with an exchange of recriminations, this much remained clear:  Alan Gross – convicted in March for acting in Cuba to deliver banned electronic equipment paid for by “regime change” programs – remained in prison, and U.S.-Cuba relations were once again stuck and distant.

It’s hard to know what to make of what happened in Havana.

The Governor and his spokesmen say he was invited by Cuba to discuss Gross’s imprisonment, the Cubans were “ready to negotiate,” there was no specific offer from the U.S. to Cuba to ease his release, and that he got “stonewalled” at the end.  Governor Richardson, who spoke often with the international media while he was in Cuba, referred to Mr. Gross as a hostage, and left saying that he’d not return to the island as a “friend.”

The New York Times cited four sources in reporting two solid offers – a process for removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and waiving probation for a soon to be freed member of the Cuban Five – Richardson had been authorized to make to break the impasse over Mr. Gross.

Cuban officials said Richardson visited “on his own initiative,” that he was never given an indication he could leave with Mr. Gross, and that his reference to the captive as an American hostage was a slander.

As the New York Times concluded:  “For now, (Mr. Gross’s) release – along with many issues involving Cuba – appears to be caught in an echo chamber of grievances shaped by decades of failed attempts at warmer United States-Cuba relations.”

Things appear to be on a dismayingly familiar path.  This week, President Obama repeated an assertion – which we think is in error – that Cuba has been insufficiently aggressive in its reforms, a statement belied by economic changes and anxiety about them among everyday Cubans that we have seen with our own eyes.  He then punctuated his comment with renewal of Cuba’s status under the Trading with the Enemy Act that provides the legal underpinning for continuation of America’s long, failed embargo, just as he renewed earlier this year funding for the regime change programs that got Mr. Gross jailed in the first place.

For its part, Cuba released its report on the impact of U.S. economic sanctions, which it said amounted to nearly a trillion dollars in economic damage to the island, endless complications with Cuba’s trading partners, given the extra-territorial reach of the embargo, and great harm to the Cuban population.  For the 20th consecutive year, the United Nations General Assembly will consider a resolution in late October condemning the United States for imposing and maintaining economic and diplomatic sanctions against Cuba; a vote that Cuba has never lost and the U.S. has never won.

We admire Governor Richardson, believe in engagement, think there’s a place for citizen diplomacy, and wish that Cuba would grant Mr. Gross a release from prison on humanitarian grounds.  Our delegations have twice been granted permission while visiting Cuba to see Mr. Gross and we have some understanding of what his captivity has exacted from him and his family:  They are suffering enormously.

But both countries are trapped in a framework that doesn’t work. For five decades, U.S. policy has been myopically focused on upending Cuba’s political and economic system and Cuba has spent fifty years resisting us.  The status quo paradoxically satisfies hardliners in both countries who prefer the false comfort of deadlock against the risk that engagement could lead to normalization and the possibility of discussing our differences, directly and openly.   We have long known where that leaves both countries, and this week we were reminded where that leaves Alan Gross.

In this week’s edition of the Cuba Central News Blast, we also look at some positive developments in U.S. policy and Cuba’s economic reforms, and conclude by talking about our friend Carlos Dada who won some well-deserved recognition for his brave journalism in El Salvador.

This week in Cuba news.

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Living in this world together

September 9, 2011

“We have to learn how to live in the world together.”

So said Fabelardo Arteaga, age eighty-nine, born in the U.S. and raised in Cuba, in a TV interview before he got onto a flight to Havana leaving from the Tampa International Airport.

On the weekend when we remember 9/11, we salute Mr. Arteaga and all the people who make the trip back and forth to Cuba.  They are forces for reconciliation between our two countries, especially when the two governments don’t speak to each other nearly enough.

Among the stories we cover this week:

  • Richardson rebuffed in effort to see Alan Gross
  • Tampa, Florida flights to Cuba begin
  • Ex-EPA administrator leads drilling safety delegation to Cuba

This week in Cuba news…

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Labor Day Weekend ‘Getaway’ Edition of the Cuba News Blast

September 2, 2011

As our readers in the United States head out the door to celebrate Labor Day with a well-deserved long weekend, we wanted you to have the latest news from Cuba and about U.S.-Cuba relations.

Among the stories we’re following this week:

Two hundred demonstrators protested a concert in Miami by Pablo Milanés, calling him a supporter of the Cuban government, at the same time the Cuban singer-songwriter was expressing his indignation at the treatment of the Ladies in White, a leading Cuban dissident group, who are being harassed on the island.   It was the singer’s first performance in Miami.

A WikiLeaks cable released this week provides new information about the arrest and treatment of Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor jailed in Cuba since 2009.   Mr. Gross was subjected to “very intense” interrogation by Cuban authorities prior to a visit from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.  An on-line petition became operative this week urging his release on humanitarian grounds.

Cuba is focused on reducing costly imports of foreign food, and its program of agricultural reform has resulted in new farmers getting access to fallow state land, but the hoped-for bump in production has not been enough to reduce food imports.  Reuters reports today that the coffee harvest, started today in Cuba, is expected to be flat compared to 2010.

We’re providing links to a 25-minute video report from Al Jazeera on Cuba’s economic reforms and commentary on the Cuban Five appearing this week in the New York Review of Books.

We will wish all of our U.S. readers a happy and restful Labor Day. This week in Cuba news…

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