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

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.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Obama renews embargo, states that “Cuba has not been sufficiently aggressive in reforms”
President Barack Obama told Spanish-language correspondents in Washington on Monday that Cuba is not being “sufficiently aggressive” in its reform process, reports the AP. Obama stated:

You are seeing enormous changes taking place in the Middle East just in the span of six months you are seeing there are almost no authoritarian communist countries left in the world, and here you have this small island that is a throwback to the 60s.

Monday’s statement served as a prelude to Obama’s reauthorization of sanctions against Cuba under the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act, reports the Atlantic. Every president has signed this renewal on a yearly basis since 1977 when Congress passed legislation requiring annual renewals of existing presidential authorities, the Havana Note reports.
Travel providers continue adding flights from Florida, eyeing first flight connecting the capital cities of U.S. and Havana

As airports and travel service providers gain approval for hosting and organizing air travel to Cuba, announcements of new flights to the island continue. Tampa International began flights last week and Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International’s inaugural flight is this Saturday, with travel services providers continuing to plan more flights, the Miami Herald reports. The article contains comprehensive information about which airports are currently offering or planning to offer flights and the travel service providers that are functioning out of those airports.

William Hauf, president of Island Travel & Tours, is tentatively planning an inaugural trip from Baltimore Washington International Airport, the Miami Herald reports. Hauf stated: “It will be the first time for a charter linking the two nations’ capitals together…It’s a good connection point…and perhaps over time it will lead to more dialogue between the two countries.’’

Amendment in Senate Committee will restore direct cash transfers for farm sales to Cuba

The Senate Appropriations Committee has adopted an amendment offered by Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas to restore direct cash payments from Cuban buyers to U.S. financial institutions for authorized agricultural and medicine exports, WIBW Radio reports.

Food sales to Cuba have been legal under the U.S. embargo since 2000.

The amendment to the FY2012 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill addresses a 2005 ban by the Treasury Department on direct cash transfers designed by President Bush to increase Cuba’s costs for food imports. The ban forces payments to be routed through a third party in a foreign country, which drives up transaction prices, making U.S. exports less competitive. Sen. Moran stated:

Current U.S. trade policies hurt American farmers and ranchers by making it more expensive for Cuba to purchase agriculture products from the United States…This means Cuba is buying more of its food from countries such as Vietnam and China. The change is an important step to increase American export sales and support thousands of American jobs without increasing the debt.

The amendment additionally changes the definition of “cash in advance” so that payments are due when Cuban buyers receive their goods, as opposed to the current definition which requires that payments be made before ships leave U.S. ports.

The bill was voted out of committee and will now pass to the Senate floor for a vote. Anya Landau French has more details on the passage of the amendment at The Havana Note.

New Chief of U.S. Interests Section arrives in Havana

John Caulfield, newly-appointed Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, arrived on the island this week to assume his post, AP reports. Caulfield replaces Jonathan Farrar, who had served in that position since July of 2008 and left Cuba this July. Caulfield formerly served as chargé d’affaires of the U.S. embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. He spent much of his time in charge of that mission, as the U.S. does not currently have an ambassador in Venezuela. A career diplomat, Caulfield has served at posts throughout Latin America, as well as in Europe and the Philippines, for more than 30 years.

In a brief statement released by the Interest Section, Caulfield stated, “It is an honor for me to serve President Obama and the American people in Havana…The United States and Cuba share a long and complex history. I am looking forward to getting to know Cuba and the Cuban people while advancing U.S. interests here.”

One of the “Cuban Five” to complete sentence next month, wants to return to Cuba immediately

René González, one of five Cuban counter-intelligence officers convicted of spying in the U.S on behalf of Cuba’s government will complete his prison sentence next month, and his legal team is pushing for him to be allowed to return to Cuba upon release, the AP reports. The appeal is made on humanitarian grounds, as González’s sentence mandates that he serve three years of probation in the United States upon completion of his prison term.

Federal prosecutors argue that González remains unrepentant, and that if he were allowed to serve his probation time in Cuba as he is requesting, it would be impossible for the United States to monitor his activities. “The modification he seeks is essentially to terminate and eliminate supervised release before it has begun,” stated Assistant Attorney Caroline Heck Miller.

Phil Horowitz, González’s attorney, expressed concern for González’s safety if he is to serve his probation time in the Miami area, where he would face open hostility from members of the city’s Cuban-American population.

González could renounce his U.S. citizenship, making him eligible for deportation, the Washington Post reports. Regarding this option, Horowitz stated: “If René were to renounce his U.S. citizenship before his release, while in the United States…he would have to go through deportation proceedings,” which would oblige him to remain incarcerated until they were completed. Horowitz added, “My client’s position is that he is willing to renounce if that allows him to have dinner with his family at home in Cuba on October 7.”

IN CUBA

Cuba publishes new regulations for self-employed

New self-employment regulations were published in Cuba’s Official Gazette Saturday, legalizing multiple new professions and reducing tax burdens, among other measures, Havana Times reports. The list of 181 legal professions for self-employment now includes wedding and party planning, cargo transportation using draft animals, and an expansion of the street vending category to include farm produce, reports CubaDebate. Moreover, licensed entrepreneurs can now hire employees in all 181 professions. Cuba’s government hopes that expansion of the private sector will help to provide jobs for Cubans laid-off in the state-controlled sector.

At a press conference announcing the new regulations, the Ministers of Work and Social Security; Finance and Prices; Transport and Public Health, along with the National Housing Institute announced that 330,000 Cubans are currently employed in the emerging private sector, CubaDebate reports.

Two of the most prominent categories of self-employment, paladares (small restaurants run out of homes) and the leasing of rooms, or casas particulares, benefit from a significant loosening of the regulations. Paladares can now have up to 50 seats instead of 20, and those renting rooms have had their minimum monthly tax reduced by 25%. Animal-drawn cart drivers can now claim up to 40% of their income exempted from tax for personal expenses, compared to the prior limit of 20%. Additionally, self-employed senior citizens above retirement age (60 for women, 65 for men) no longer have to pay the Social Security tax levied on the self-employed.

An article from The Economist analyses planned taxes and the challenges facing the implementation of a tax system in a country where citizens have not paid significant taxes for more than 50 years.

The official announcement of the new regulations, as published in the Gaceta Oficial is available here, in Spanish, from the Café Fuerte blog.

Camagüey producing wheat for first time in 150 years, suffers shortage of farming equipment

Two tons of wheat seeds were harvested in the province of Camagüey, which will be used to seed 70 hectares (173 acres) for next year’s harvest, reports Reuters. This experiment is part of Cuba’s agricultural reforms aimed to increase production of food crops and reduce imports. It is also the first time in 150 years that wheat has been grown in Cuba, Cuban News Agency reports. The variety used in this harvest is a Brazilian seed specifically adapted to prosper in a tropical environment. It is expect to produce more than one ton of wheat per hectare.

Another facet of agricultural reforms in Camagüey has seen a minor setback, the Cuban News Agency reports. During the month of August, the Domestic Trade Ministry reduced prices on farm equipment in an effort to make equipment more accessible, especially to new farmers who have received grants of idle land from the government. Sales increased significantly due to the lower prices, causing supplies to run out. Equipment producers are scheduled provide distribution centers with more supplies by the end of September.

Members of Evangelical church lock themselves inside Havana church

At least 60 members of the Pentecostal Evangelical Church located in Centro Habana, including 19 children and four pregnant women, have barricaded themselves inside the church on a “spiritual retreat,” reports CBS. The police have closed off the immediate area around the church to all except local residents in order to “protect citizen safety.” Havana Times reports that Cuba’s government released this official note on Sunday:

These persons, gathered at the temple by their own choice since August 21, were called there by Braulio Herrera Tito, who was separated as a minister from his religious denomination for internal reasons in May 2010.

Additionally, the government stated that it been asked to investigate the situation by concerned family members of those inside. The head Cuba’s Council of Churches has labeled the act “religious fanaticism.” Particular concern was paid to the pregnant women facing a lack of medical care and the children who are not attending school, which began on September 5th. A medical team was allowed inside the church to check on the women but no resolution has been reached. A video from the BBC reports that the government has stated it does not plan any further intervention.

Magnitude 5.1 earthquake hits off Cuba’s southern coast, no damages or injuries reported

A magnitude 5.1 earthquake struck off of Cuba’s southern coast early Thursday, Reuters reports. By all accounts the earthquake caused no damage, and was only felt in some parts of the southern province of Granma. The earthquake was reported by several sources as a 6.0 magnitude, but has been confirmed as a 5.1 by the U.S. Geological Survey.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba delivers UN report on negative impact of the embargo

For the twentieth consecutive year, the United Nations General Assembly will consider a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

To set the stage for the debate on the resolution, Cuba’s Vice Foreign Minister Abelardo Moreno delivered a report to the UN General Assembly titled “The necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.”  The report outlines Cuba’s case against the U.S. embargo, including its negative social and economic impacts and the extra-territorial reach of U.S. sanctions in the international economy.

Last year, 186 countries voted with Cuba to condemn the embargo, while only the U.S. and Israel opposed the resolution, reports EFE (three nations abstained).  The UN will consider the resolution against the embargo on October 25th, CubaDebate reports.
El Salvador and Cuba to sign bilateral agreement

Cuba and El Salvador finished negotiations for a Partial-Reach Agreement focused on improving bilateral trade and cooperation, reports Cuban News Agency. Since the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 2009 following the election of FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes to the Salvadoran presidency, annual trade has varied between $4 million and $5 million USD.

According to a statement released by El Salvador’s Ministry of Economy, the agreement  increases cooperation and informational exchange in the areas of science, technology and innovation, and provides safeguards and problem solving measures to protect each nation’s national industries in case of potential negative impacts caused by increased imports, Contrapunto reports.

Around the Region

Venezuelan Presidential Elections Set for October 7, 2012

Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) announced Tuesday that next year’s presidential elections will be held on October 7, two months earlier than the traditional December elections, reports the BBC. President Chavez will run for a third six-year term and has already expressed his confidence in victory, despite having had a cancerous tumor removed from his pelvic area this June and continuing to receive chemotherapy treatment.

The candidate for the opposition coalition, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, will be chosen in a primary to be held on February 12th. Current front-runners include Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor of the state of Miranda, and Pablo Perez, governor of the state of Zulia. The CNE also announced that gubernatorial elections will take place in December 2012 and municipal elections will be held in April 2013, reports the Venezuelan News Agency.

El Salvador added to drug trafficking blacklist

The Obama administration added El Salvador and Belize to a list of 22 countries considered to be major producers of or transit points for illegal drugs, reports BBC. Three of these countries–Burma, Bolivia, and Venezuela–were judged to have “failed demonstrably” in the so-called War on Drugs. Roughly two-thirds of US-bound cocaine is believed to pass through Central America.

Shannon Back to Brazil

As Bloggings by boz notes in a tweet today, confirmation in the U.S. Senate of Wendy Sherman to serve as Under-Secretary of State frees Ambassador Tom Shannon to return to his embassy in Brazil after filling in at the State Department pending her approval.  Shannon formerly served as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Recommended Reading:

Cuba’s armed forces: on the brink of a generational change, Arturo López-Levy, Latin America News Dispatch

“The death of Cuban Defense Minister Julio Casas should remind President Raúl Castro of two things: 1) that he has limited time to replace the old guard, and 2) age and health should be key factors in the selection of possible successors. With an eye toward the Cuban Communist Party Conference scheduled for January 2012, those messages amount to a call to rejuvenate the Political Bureau (average age: 67.5) by incorporating younger leaders and seriously considering substitutes for the key positions of first and second secretaries of the Communist Party (PCC, in Spanish).”

9/11 and the Cuban Hip Hop Revolución, Sujatha Fernandes, Huffington Post

“Over the past decade, the events of 9/11 have been the catalyst for all kinds of political actions, from warmongering and militarization to social mobilizations for inclusion and justice. On the island of Cuba, the events provided a new platform for young people involved in the movement of Cuban rap.”

Recommended Viewing:

Trials of an American reporter in Cuba, ABC News

ABC Action News correspondent Linda Hurtado reports on her experience traveling to Havana and the ups and downs of reporting in Cuba.

Jazz forging new U.S. and Cuba links, BBC News

Jazz bassist Carlos Henriquez and other top American jazz musicians work with Cuban jazz students and provide instruments through their charity effort Horns for Havana.

Toronto 2011: ‘Juan of the Dead’ brings zombies to Cuba, Steven Zeitchik, The Los Angeles Times

“Horror directors often use humor to send up the genre. But it’s not often you see a zombie comedy that’s also a Cuban political allegory.”

The official trailer for ‘Juan of the Dead’ can be viewed here.

A FINAL WORD

Carlos Dada, founder and director of the online journal El Faro, has been awarded the Maria Moors Cabot prize for outstanding reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas reports.

The Prize Board noted, “From its inception in 1998, El Faro has shown how digital media can overcome barriers of cost and tradition and offer honest journalism of high quality in a region where press standards are low and much of the media is highly partisan or even corrupt.”

In an interview with the Knight Center, Dada stated:

This is a great recognition for the journalism we do at El Faro…We practice independent journalism in a complex region with a lot of problems. In the name of all of El Faro, I feel very proud that the Moors Cabot Prizes Committee recognized our efforts to narrate our reality. In a way, this prize also confirms how online journalism has advanced, as just a decade ago it seemed impossible to imagine that we would open the way for being recognized by some of the greatest journalists in the world.

Carlos, congratulations!

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