An old spat and bilateral reforms below the radar

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…


Cuba criticizes Obama’s speech to the U.N., Obama doesn’t see reform in Cuba

Following President Obama’s UN address, Fidel Castro, Cuba’s former president, penned a “Reflection” in Granma in two parts (available in Spanish here and here), criticizing the U.S. president’s  speech and foreign policy, including Mr. Obama’s decision to veto any resolution to recognize Palestine as a state, the refusal of the U.S. to sign the Kyoto protocol, and the role of the U.S. in NATO’s intervention in Libya. Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez echoed these criticisms in his own address to the UN on Tuesday, additionally calling for an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Earlier in the week, Mr. Rodríguez, in New York, also addressed the case of U.S. contractor Alan Gross, jailed in Cuba since December 2009, the New York Times reports. Rodríguez left the door open for a humanitarian solution for Gross, stating, “I do not see any way in which we can move on towards a solution of the Mr. Gross case but from a humanitarian point of view and on the basis of reciprocity.” He also encouraged the two nations not to enmesh Gross’ case with other areas of conflict between the U.S. and Cuba, stating:

I believe that establishing a link between pending bilateral issues to a humanitarian solution in the case of Mr. Gross is a mistake…it is not right to merge this with political issues or add it to the bilateral agenda, which is quite hefty already.

For his part, President Obama in an interview this week stated that the White House would need to see more change in Cuba in terms of political freedoms and human rights before easing U.S. policy, including the 50-year old embargo, Reuters reports (a video of the interview is available here). Obama’s statements warranted yet another Reflection from Fidel Castro, Reuters reports. In response to Obama’s statement that “If we see positive movement then we will respond in a positive way,” Castro responded, “How nice! How intelligent!…So much kindness has not permitted him still to understand that 50 years of blockade and of crimes against our homeland have not been able to break our people.” Anya Landau at The Havana Note also responded to Obama’s comments, saying:

Statements like these reveal a White House either oblivious of or uninterested in the actual changes that are taking place in Cuba.

Members of Congress warn Repsol not to drill with Cuba as others continue to push for dialogue

Thirty-four Members of Congress sent a letter to the Spanish oil company Repsol warning them that they could face legal and commercial risks if they follow through with plans to drill off the coast of Cuba, Reuters reports. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, produced the letter, which was signed by Republicans and Democrats including Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-20), who also serves as Chairwoman of the National Democratic Committee. The letter warned Repsol that its Cuba drilling plans could put its commercial interests with the U.S. at risk, and reminds Repsol Chairman Antonio Brufau that the U.S. has “comprehensive” trade sanctions against Cuba. In a public statement accompanying the letter, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen stated:

The decaying Cuban regime is desperately reaching out for an economic lifeline, and it appears to have found a willing partner in Repsol…This oil drilling scheme endangers the environment, and enriches the Cuban tyranny.

The letter itself makes no reference to the potential environmental hazards of offshore drilling. Repsol representatives did not confirm whether the letter had been received, but stated that: “The planned work in Cuba on these exploratory wells complies with all current U.S. legislation covering blockade as well as exploration safety matters,” Reuters reports.

Energy and Cuba policy experts continue to express concern that there has been no dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba’s government officials regarding safety and regulations, and that the embargo prohibits Cubans from using U.S. technology for worker and drilling safety.

Articles addressing the continuing pressure to open dialogue were published this week by Darren Goode for Politico and Tim Padgett for TIME.

Sarah Stephens, Executive Director of the Center for Democracy in the Americans, wrote an op-ed for The Hill along with Jake Colvin, Vice President for Global Trade Issues at the National Foreign Trade Council titled U.S.-Cuba policy, and the race for oil drilling, which states:

As we have already done with Mexico and Canada, the U.S. should join Cuba in crafting a crisis response agreement covering on-scene coordinators, a joint response team, response coordination centers, rapid notification protocols, customs and immigration procedures, and communications.  The plan should be written, signed, tested, and implemented as quickly as possible.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas released this report on Cuba’s offshore drilling plans earlier this year.

People-to-people travel brings classes to Cuban jazz schools, Americans to run the Havana Marathon, Cuba’s youngest ambassadors on tour in the U.S.

People-to-people travel is increasingly opening doors for interaction between Cubans and citizens of the U.S., as an article this week in Jazz Times reports. Jazz flautist Erika von Kleist traveled to Havana along with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The “Horns to Havana” trip, which we have previously covered, brought an estimated $250,000 worth of musical instruments to the island for Cuban students. In the article, von Kleist reports on her plans to continue collaboration with Cuban students, stating:

I think it really bridges the gap in jazz education…I brought some copies down there with me and the director of the conservatory said that it was exactly what their curriculum needed there. I am hoping to not only have the book translated into Spanish but also do some sort of residency there teaching the students jazz harmony and theory specifically.

Tampa’s Florida Orchestra is currently on the island participating in workshops, with students, and is scheduled to perform in Old Havana later tonight, the AP reports.

Cuba Standard reports that U.S. marathon runners will have the opportunity this year to run a marathon few of their fellow Americans have participated in: Havana’s Marabana Marathon. According to the press release from trip organizers Insight Cuba, the trip may also include meetings with the Cuban runners’ association and disabled athletes, in addition to a tour of the Ministry of Sports and a visit to a local school.

On the U.S. side, La Colmenita, a Cuban children’s theater group that has been designated as a UN Goodwill Ambassador is planning a tour of the states, according to a press release. The group will have performances in San Francisco, Washington, and New York, with a private performance at the United Nations. Their Washington, DC performance will take place on October 15th at American University’s Kay Chapel. This is their second trip to the U.S. since the group’s formation in 1990.

New Jersey couple suspected of murder caught in Cuba, returned to U.S.

A couple from Voorhees, New Jersey who are charged in connection with a murder last year were apprehended in Cuba and returned into U.S. custody this week, the New Jersey Courier Times reports. U.S. marshals were allowed to land briefly in Cuba in order to make the prison transfer. According to the release from the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, Denis Catania and Diana Camacho had fled to Florida, and then to various Caribbean nations before arriving in Cuba. The couple, along with a third suspect, are charged with murder, kidnapping and aggravated arson in the case of Ross Heimlich, whose remains were found in his torched car in a parking lot last September.

According to Café Fuerte, since Raúl Castro assumed the presidency, at least six fugitives seeking refuge on the island have been turned in to U.S. authorities.

Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann predicts another missile crisis

Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann claimed that Cuba has been working with Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Bachman stated that Hezbollah is seeking missile sites in Iran, adding that, “When you’re 90 miles off shore from Florida, you don’t want to entertain the prospect of hosting bases or sites where Hezbollah could have training camps, or perhaps have missile sites or weapon sites in Cuba.”

Political commentator Ed Schultz addressed Bachmann’s statements during the “Psychotalk” segment of The Ed Show, stating “She was apparently referring to an un-sourced report in an Italian newspaper picked up by conservative blogs. But the report didn’t mention anything about missiles, that part was a Bachmann special.”

U.S. democracy programs in Cuba: Youth, new media are top priorities

Tracey Eaton is continuing his indispensable analysis of the USAID’s so-called democracy promotion programs.  Among his several observations: an outfit called the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe got a million and a half bucks during the Bush administration – a handsome return for things like its “Raise Awareness of Freedom Campaign.”  U.S. taxpayers: read it and weep.


Cuba closes Sugar Ministry, Agriculture ministers discuss reforms and setbacks

The Council of State announced Thursday that it will shutter the Ministry of Sugar (MINAZ), reports Reuters. A government spokesperson stated that “The Council of Ministers, after an analysis of the sector, decided to close the Sugar Ministry as today it carries out no state functions.”

According to Granma, MINAZ will be replaced by the Business Group of the Sugar Agroindustry, a holding company of 13 provincial companies that will allow opportunities for foreign investment and the closure of inefficient mills. During the island’s peak sugar production years, MINAZ oversaw the annual production of 8 million tons of raw sugar. Production plummeted after the collapse of the Soviet Union production, reaching a low of 1.1 million tons in 2009. Last week, we reported that Cuba has projected that it will produce 1.45 million tons in the coming harvest that begins in December.

In an interview with BBC Mundo, two officials of the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI) discussed the implementation of reforms in the sector and the problems perceived by them and by some small rural farmers. Such small-scale farmers, either individually or through cooperatives, produce over 50% of the island’s agricultural goods.

Vice Minister Ramón Frometa defended established protocols from criticisms that MINAGRI regulations are the main obstacle to agricultural development, arguing that it is important to have regulatory oversight. He specified that the ministry must perfect its policies in regard to allowing farmers to build houses on land recently given to them by the state and stated that the prohibition of donated machinery from the exterior is due to the fact that Cuba must follow an appropriate and government defined importation strategy.

Pedro Olivera, Director of the National Center of Land Control within MINAGRI, reports that the ministry has so far distributed 1,131,000 hectares (about 2.8 million acres) of idle land to new farmers. He also stated that farmers can expect improvements in the contractual terms of idle land that is given to farmers, as well as with the issue of housing.

Cuba legalizes private car sales, places Social Workers Program under Ministry of Employment and Social Security

Cuba’s government has published two important laws in the Official Gazette (Gaceta Oficial). One of these legalizes the sale of cars from one private owner to another, reports the AP. Car sales have been restricted since the 1959 revolution.  Effective October 1, provisions of the new law allow open sales with a 4% tax on the buyer and the seller, the ability to sell or transfer ownership of a car by someone who emigrates, and the ownership of more than one car. However, supply will be mostly restricted to the cars already on the island, the BBC reports, since automobile imports will remain restricted for now, reports the New York Times Wheels Blog.

Additionally, the Decree-Law 286, also published in  the Official Gazette, moves the previously independent Social Workers Program into the Ministry of Employment and Social Security (MTSS), reports EFE. The Social Workers Program was created in 2000 by Fidel Castro as a part of the “Battle of Ideas” initiatives, designed to strengthen and defend the ideals of the Cuban revolution through new social, political and economic initiatives.

The law gives the program 60 days for the MTSS to present “a proposal for the activity and destination of the [assigned] financial, material, and human resources.” Additionally, it allows 180 days for the elimination of the budgetary unit of the program, as its budget will now be part of MTSS.

Marc Frank of Reuters  has authored a comprehensive review of several reorganizations that have recently taken place and others that are in planning stages, including an overhaul of the Basic Industry Ministry.

Dissident group blocked from marching by pro-government manifestation

Members of dissident group the Ladies in White who had organized a protest were blocked from leaving the home by a pro-government group that formed to prevent the march, the AP reports. Several pro-government blogs have recently called for youth to turn out to counter protest dissident marches. Dissidents allege that such groups are organized by the government.


World leaders call for end of embargo during speeches to UN General Assembly

At the meeting of the UN General Assembly, multiple heads of state have called for the U.S. to lift the embargo against Cuba.  Included among these are the leaders of El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Namibia, Bolivia, and Venezuela. CubaDebate quotes President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador, who in his address stated that the embargo is “not only an anachronism and a past episode of history from which we want to definitively move on,” but also “an obstacle to the course of history that weakens [the Americas] as a continent.” Similarly, Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba requested the “immediate and unconditional” lifting of the embargo against Cuba.

Around the Region

Obama nominates Jacobson as Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs

On Tuesday, President Obama nominated Roberta Jacobson to be the new Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. She has been serving as the Acting Assistant Secretary since Arturo Valenzuela vacated the post on July 15 to return to academia, according to policy blog Bloggings by Boz.

Jacobson is a career diplomat with long experience in Inter-American issues. From 1996 to 2000, she served as Director of the Office of Policy Planning and Coordination in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. From 2000 to 2002, she was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Perú. From 2003 to 2007, she directed the Office of Mexican Affairs, and from 2007 to 2010 she was the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Canada, Mexico, and NAFTA issues.

According to Al Kamen’s “In the Loop” blog for the Washington Post, there has been some reorganizing in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. Julissa Reynoso, deputy for Central America and the Caribbean, is reportedly a nominee for ambassador to Uruguay with senior adviser for Western Hemisphere affairs Daniel P. Erikson in line to replace her. Finally Juan González, Arturo Valenzuela’s former executive assistant, is now director for Andean affairs at the National Security Council.

Venezuelan opposition coalition agrees to back one candidate

Venezuela’s opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Coalition (MUD), has signed a pact to support one candidate following February’s primary elections, Americas Society/Council of the Americas reports. In the pact, the signers state, “We the signatories of this agreement unanimously support the candidate who is elected in a February 12 primary as the single candidate of the Democratic Unity coalition.”

Reuters has a profile of the main opposition candidates, including Henrique Capriles, governor of the state of Miranda, and Leopoldo López, a former Caracas mayor who was previously barred from holding public office based on corruption charges. After the Inter-American Court of Human Rights overturned López’s disqualification from elections earlier this month, Chávez claimed that Venezuela’s Supreme Court would have final say in the case. The Court has yet to release its ruling.

Finally, a new article from Steve Ellner, published in the Journal of Latin American Studies entitled Venezuela’s Social-Based Democratic Model: Innovations and Limitations, analyzes the model of democratic participation championed by Hugo Chávez, as well as the challenges it has faced in the implementation of social programs.

Recommended Reading

El Salvador Monthly Update – September, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

The Center for Democracy in the Americas publishes a monthly El Salvador update, written by El Salvador consultant Linda Garrett. For a version in Spanish, click here. To sign up for the El Salvador Monthly Update, you can email .

A continuing call for service, Rep. Mike Honda (CA-15), The Hill

“As the Peace Corps celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, it is time to take stock and commit to making it bigger, better and bolder.

“As one of four members of the House who volunteered, I answered former President John F. Kennedy’s call for Peace Corps recruits in the 1960s and served in El Salvador. To say that the Peace Corps changed my life and my perspective, and influences now my modus operandi as a member of Congress, would be a sweeping understatement.”

God and Profits: How the Catholic Church Is Making A Comeback in Cuba, Tim Padgett, TIME

“It’s been a year of resurrection for Cuba’s Roman Catholic Church. Last November, it opened a new seminary — the first since Fidel Castro’s communist revolution all but shut down the church 50 years ago. In May, Cuba’s bishops finished brokering the release of 115 political prisoners…A statue of Cuba’s Catholic patroness, La Virgen de la Caridad (Our Lady of Charity), is being hailed by large, devoted crowds as it tours the island before her 400th anniversary next year. ‘It demonstrates a spiritual desire in Cubans,’ Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Cuba’s top prelate, told me. It is, he adds, ‘a return to God.’”

Cubans marvel at traveling art exhibit that brings Picasso, Warhol to the ‘sleepy provinces, The Associated Press

“A traveling exhibition of art donated by a U.S. philanthropist is giving Cubans outside the capital a rare chance to see works from masters such as Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol that would normally hang in world-class galleries instead of sleepy provincial cities.”

Recommended Viewing

A Cuban-American Choreographs a Dance in Havana, The New York Times

The choreographer Pedro Ruiz is the first Cuban-American to create a work with a Cuban dance troupe in Cuba. This video documents his return to Cuba, including reunions with family and old neighbors, as Ruiz expresses his experience working with the dance troupe.

Afrodescendientes, Guanabacoa-Cuba, Roberto Chile, CubaDebate

An exposition of black-and-white photos of Cubans of African descent taken in the eastern Havana municipality of Guanabacoa by Roberto Chile is currently on display in Habana Vieja, the historic district of Havana.

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