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

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…


Illinois state lawmakers will travel to Cuba in effort to increase trade

About a dozen lawmakers from the state of Illinois will embark on a six-day trip to Cuba next week in a hope to boost state exports to the island, the Chicago Tribune reports. The trip’s leaders, Rep. Jack Franks of Marengo and Dan Burke of Chicago, said that no taxpayer dollars would be spent on the trip, with some lawmakers paying from their own pockets and others using campaign funds to cover expenses.

Rep. Franks chairs the House of Representatives International Trade & Commerce Committee. His stated interest is for Illinois to regain market share of exports to the island, which once peaked at $650 million in mostly agricultural products.  Illinois enhanced its trading relationship with Cuba in 1999 after Governor George Ryan became the first sitting U.S. governor to travel to Cuba and meet with then-president Fidel Castro. According to Rep. Franks, Illinois exports to Cuba are now only one-tenth of what they once were.

Of the trip, Franks stated “We figured, if we went down, maybe we could re-establish these connections that we had before that now seem to have fallen dormant,” adding that the trip is motivated by the “state’s desperate need for money.”

Jewish organization releases petition for release of Alan Gross

The Jewish Community Relations Council, a U.S.-based Jewish organization, has begun an online petition to Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, and Chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington Jorge Bolaños to ask for the release of jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross. The petition appeals to the Cuban officials to release Gross as the Jewish High Holidays approach this fall. The petition states:

We understand that Alan’s actions may have offended the Cuban government. But we believe that after nearly two years in prison, Alan and his family have paid an enormous price for Alan’s work in helping the Cuban Jewish community improve its access to the internet. As Alan, himself, has stated, he never intended any harm to the Cuban government or the Cuban people, and he would never involve himself in the domestic politics of a foreign country in which he was a guest.

The petition asks for Gross’ release on humanitarian grounds based on his own deteriorating health and his mother and daughter’s current battles with cancer.

A recently-released WikiLeaks cable from former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Jonathan Farrar, details Consul General Martha Melzow’s December 2009 visit to Alan Gross, describing his health and living conditions in the facility where he is being held.

U.S. oil-spill chief heading to Cuba to evaluate country’s drilling plans

Bill Reilly, the former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and co-chair of the Presidential Commission that investigated the BP Oil Spill will visit Cuba next week “to help evaluate that country’s plans for developing its oil resources,” according to the Dow Jones newswire.

Reilly is an advocate for joint talks among Cuba and Mexico with the United States to provide for the environmental protection of the Gulf.  The delegation will include representatives from the International Association of Drilling Contractors and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Ex-wife of spy cannot garnish money paid to Cuban government by travel service providers

A Miami court has ruled that a woman attempting to collect funds owed to her based on a civil case against Cuba’s government cannot, as compensation, seize the funds that travel service providers pay to Cuban entities, the Miami Herald reports.

Ana Margarita Martinez won a $27 million dollar judgment against the Cuban government in 2001 after arguing that the government had forced a spy to marry her before he returned to Cuba in 1996. She was attempting to collect on this ruling by garnishing funds that are paid to Cuba by U.S. travel service providers for lodging, transportation and other travel costs. The Miami judge ruled that she could not receive this money as she does not have the appropriate license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control in order to handle Cuban funds.

Pablo Milanés gives emotional performance for the first time in Miami

Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés performed in Miami this past Saturday in an emotional show at the AmericanAirlines Arena, the Miami Herald reports. Milanés sang several of his classic pieces including the love song Yolanda, but did not include any of his more revolutionary ballads. Outside, about 200 demonstrators protested the concert, criticizing Milanés as a supporter of Cuba’s government. Toward the end of the concert, a man came out to drape a Cuban flag on Milanés’ shoulders.

National Geographic receives people-to-people license, announces Cuba trips

National Geographic Expeditions has announced that they have been granted a people-to-people license by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), and will begin hosting trips as early as November. The website provides a description of the 10-day trips, which will include stops in the cities of Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Viñales. As a part of OFAC’s requirement for meaningful contacts, the itinerary includes a full schedule of interactions with Cubans on the island, including historical briefings, conversations with cuentapropistas, or self-employed Cuban entrepreneurs, and cultural interactions.


Ladies in White meet with Cuban Catholic Church, continue to denounce harassment

Members of the Ladies in White met with representatives of the Catholic Church in Havana this week to denounce the harassment of their group by state forces and pro-government groups, EFE reports. The representatives met with Monsignor Ramón Suarez Porcari, chancellor of the Havana Archdiocese, and Church spokesman Orlando Marquez, who said that they would communicate the concerns of the group to Havana archbishop Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

Cardinal Ortega, through dialogue with President Raúl Castro, has played a mediating role between the Ladies in White and Cuba’s government in the past year, including negotiating the release of 126 political prisoners, many of whom were exiled to Spain.

Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés, performing in Miami , addressed the situation of the Ladies in White in a letter to the Miami Herald, in which he stated, “When I see that some women dressed in white protest in the street and are mistreated by men and women, I cannot help but be ashamed and indignant.”

Nearly 180,000 Cubans have joined the agricultural sector in the past three years

According to Cuba’s Agricultural Minister Gustavo Rodríguez, more than 178,000 people are currently cultivating about 1.2 million hectares of previously idle land on the island, AFP reports. These land parcels have been distributed as a part of the government’s agricultural reform policies which provide new farmers with small parcels of idle land in an attempt to boost production and provide employment opportunities.

Cuba possesses about 6.6 million hectares of tillable land, but according to the National Statistics Office (ONE), in 2007 only about 3 million hectares were being cultivated. According to the National Center for Land Control, more than 77% of the land that has been distributed since September of 2008 is now being farmed.  Additionally, agricultural production on the island has increased 6.1% in the first part of this year, as compared to the same period of 2010, according to ONE.

Despite Cuba’s focus on agriculture reform – to reduce the cost of imported food and to raise domestic production –problems persist.  Reuters reports that Cuban coffee production at the start of the harvest today is expected to show little improvement.

Earlier this year, the government was forced to increase the amount of money set aside for food imports, which constitute 80% of Cuba’s food consumption, from $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion, blaming high international prices and the persistence of bureaucratic problems.

Fiber optic cable from Venezuela set to begin operation “in coming months”

Deputy Minister of Communications and Informatics Boris Moreno has stated that the much-publicized fiber optic cable, which reached Cuba from the northern coast of Venezuela in February, will become operational “in coming months,” Progreso Weekly reports. The project is expected to increase Internet speed in Cuba, which currently connects a limited number of citizens to the Internet via satellite.

However, recent government announcements indicated that while the cable would increase the quality of current connections, it would not provide increased access for citizens who do not already have Internet. According to Moreno, an additional investment would be needed to develop the infrastructure to provide connectivity in homes.

The $70 million project, financed by ALBA, has experienced several unexplained delays. The cable arrived in Cuba earlier this year, and previous announcements indicated it would be operational in July. Additionally, the management of the project has come under fire after a recent corruption scandal in the Cuban state-owned communications enterprise ETECSA, which is in charge of the project, Reuters reports.


Cuban envoy travels to China, meets with Vice President

José Ramón Balaguer, a high-ranking official in Cuba’s Communist Party, traveled to China as a special envoy this week and met with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, Xinhua reports. The two pledged to uphold friendly relations between their countries and to increase cooperation. Balaguer’s stated purpose of travel was to brief Chinese leaders on the Sixth Communist Party Congress, which took place on the island this April, and to speak about the preparations leading up to the party’s National Conference which will convene in January, Havana Times reports.

China is Cuba’s second-largest trading partner, after Venezuela, and China has an abiding interest in the pace and effectiveness of Cuba’s economic reforms.

Cuba and Paraguay cooperate in literacy campaign, agricultural initiatives

Cuba and Paraguay have announced plans to cooperate in nationwide projects for literacy and agricultural production. Paraguay has decided to use the Cuban method called “Yo si puedo” (Yes I Can) to teach citizens to read and write, Havana Times reports. The program began one month ago, and according to the official in charge, its goal is to reach 30,000 people in different parts of the country by the end of the year.

Cuban and Paraguayan officials are also cooperating in encouraging the cultivation of moringa, a vegetable originating in the north of India, which is known for its nutritional and medicinal properties, reports CubaEncuentro. The program, which is still in experimental stages, seeks to encourage small farmers and family farms in Paraguay and Cuba to plant moringa. One of the varieties of the plant also contains 35% vegetable oil, making it a resource for bio-fuel production.

Around the Region:

These two articles by Reuters analyze the current political situation in Venezuela, both generally and within the lens of the upcoming presidential primaries:

FACTBOX: Key political risks to watch in Venezuela, Daniel Wallis, Reuters

“The uncertain pace of President Hugo Chavez’s recovery from cancer, falling oil output that could slow an economic recovery and rising tensions ahead of next year’s presidential election are the main risks to watch in Venezuela.”

ANALYSIS: Venezuela opposition faces big pre-election test, Daniel Wallis, Reuters

“Venezuela’s opposition has a better chance of defeating President Hugo Chavez at next year’s election than at any time during his 12 years in power, but primary elections will test the coalition’s fragile unity.”

In Chile, Dissent Has a Woman’s Face, César Chelala, The Globalist

“In Chile, a 23-year-old woman has been leading student protests against the government of President Sebastian Piñera. Her high-profile actions are posing a serious challenge to the government – and may lead to a significant overhaul of the country’s education system.”

Recommended Viewing:

Cuba: The times are changing, Rodrigo Vazquez, Al Jazeera

This 25-minute piece by filmmaker Rodrigo Vazquez and presented by Al Jazeera reports on the process of economic reform currently taking place in Cuba. The video crew conducts several interviews with recently-licensed cuentapropistas, self-employed small business owners, to discuss their experiences as a part of this growing class in Cuba. In addition, the crew interviews government representatives, social workers, and everyday Cubans to talk about their opinions surrounding the reform process.

Recommended Reading:

In Cuba, Women Often Prefer Thumbing a Ride, Nick Miroff, NPR

Cuba’s capital, Havana, has good public safety and terrible public transportation. That has led to a curious form of travel, especially for young women in the city: urban hitchhiking. At major intersections, women climb in and out of strangers’ cars, commuting to work or running errands in a way that would be almost unthinkable in any other Latin American capital.”

Detroit Free Press provides slide show of some of the classic American cars that still run on the streets of Havana.

Five Cubans, John Perry, New York Review of Books

John Perry, writing in the New York Review of Books, reviews the legal status of the Cuban Five.

Partnership and its obstacles, The Economist

The Economist focuses on the obstacles faced by President Obama in his efforts to strike a new tone in relations with Latin America.

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