“E” is for Embargo, Economic Reform, and Exile

Leading the news this week:

Not a big surprise, but as we predicted last week, the United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn the U.S. embargo of Cuba by a whopping 186-2 vote (with abstentions by those three diplomatic powerhouses Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau).

Also this week, Freedom House published the results of a survey it conducted this summer on economic reform in Cuba.  It found a proliferation of self-employed businesses around the island and a big increase in support among Cubans for economic reform, a rise in the expectation that liberalized economic rules can provide better lives for the Cuban people, but deep insecurity among Cubans about where they will find work in the years ahead.

The controversy over Senator Rubio and his family’s departure from Cuba to the United States spilled over into a second week.  Rubio revised his Senate website, rewriting the history of their arrival, without giving an inch on the narrative about his family’s “exile” from Cuba that has driven his rise in Florida and national politics.

Also, we learned that purchases of U.S. food products by Cuba are down 11% over last year, and that the talks between Cuba and the United States over the resumption of mail service – started in 2009! – have still not produced a breakthrough.

The message delivered by these developments is vivid and clear:

The U.S. embargo of Cuba isolates us from the Cuban people and from the rest of the world.  At a moment when Cubans are finding economic spaces to live and lead more prosperous and independent lives, the U.S. is so mired in a Cold War era policy that bets on Cuba’s failure, that our government is unable to support the process of economic change, our country can’t serve as a reliable supplier for low-cost, quality food for the Cuban market, or even deliver the mail directly to Cubans living a mere 90 miles away.  And just as this fifty year old policy is built on a foundation of falsehoods—that economic strangulation and diplomatic isolation will somehow, someday change the Cuban system –at least one supporter of the status quo, well, needs to embellish his own family’s narrative to secure his rise to political power.

This week in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

UN condemns the U.S. embargo on Cuba for 20th time

For the twentieth consecutive year, the United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba, the AP reports. The resolution, titled “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba,” passed on a vote of 186 to 2, with three nations abstaining. Israel voted with the U.S. against the resolution, while Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau abstained.

During the debate, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez stated:

Cuba experienced a big change in 1959…Cuba has continued to change day after day and it has been able to resist thanks to its capacity for renovation… the only thing that has not changed during the last 50 years has been the blockade and the hostile and aggressive policy of the United States, despite the fact that said policy has not worked nor it will.

In his statement preceding the vote, Ambassador Ronald Godard, Senior Advisor for Western Hemisphere Affairs, explained the U.S. position:

For yet another year, this Assembly is taking up a resolution designed to confuse and obscure. But let there be no confusion about this: the United States, like most Member States, reaffirms its strong commitment to supporting the right, and the heartfelt desire, of the Cuban people to freely determine their future.

Godard added that the embargo is a bilateral concern and should not be taken up by the international body, stating that “The U.S. economic relationship with Cuba is a bilateral issue, and is not appropriately a concern of this Assembly,” a curious position for the U.S. to take given the extra-territorial reach of its sanctions.

Before the UN ballot, the Cuban Interests Section hosted a teleconference titled Effects оf thе US Embargo fоr Cuba аnd USA, in which speakers including National Tour Association President Lisa Simon and  president and CEO of the U.S. Rice Federation Betsy Ward advocated for an end to trade and travel restrictions.

In case you missed our Blast last week, click here  for a list of ten reasons the U.S. should end the embargo, authored by a retired General, Ronald Reagan’s Agriculture Secretary, an environmentalist, a physician, an actor/human rights advocate, several scholars, and one of Washington’s leading voices on foreign policy.
Row over the Rubios’ arrival rolls on:  Were his parents exiles on Main Street or economic immigrants?

Last week, we reported on the Washington Post article which revealed that Senator Marco Rubio repeatedly embellished the facts while telling the story of his family’s arrival in the U.S. from Cuba. Records show that Rubio’s family did not flee Cuba “following Fidel Castro’s takeover on the first day of 1959,” as his official Senate biography had claimed, but rather emigrated to the U.S. in 1956, when the dictator Fulgencio Batista was still in power.

Although he modified his website and continued to defend this claims, the row over his family’s arrival has continued.

A story from NPR points out discrepancies and irregularities in Rubio’s recounting of his family’s history, including in an interview with the station in 2009. The Washington Post chimes in again with this analysis of the controversy and its impact on Rubio’s national political aspirations.  In another post, Rick Sanchez, a Cuban-American and former CNN correspondent, accused Rubio of telling a false story to set himself apart from other Latino immigrants:

Rubio says he just, “got a few dates wrong.” That’s how he excuses his falsehood about when his parents fled Cuba. With that story, he convinced Americans that he was the son of political refugees, implying that it somehow made him different from the other Hispanics who he attacks regularly–the ones in Arizona, Georgia and Alabama that he and others want to detain, arrest and kick out. How dare they come here looking for work and to better their lot in life? Marco Rubio made us believe he is different from them when he’s not.

Rubio wrote a response to recent criticisms, published in Politico, in which he defends his recounting of his family history, and the qualification of his parents as exiles, stating:

Ultimately what The Post writes is not that important to me. I am the son of exiles. I inherited two generations of unfulfilled dreams. This is a story that needs no embellishing.

But Arturo López-Levy thinks otherwise.  As he wrote this week in the Havana Note:

What Mario and Oriales Rubio did was human, but not an act of political defiance against Castro. The Cuba they left was not the worst country in Latin America, but inequality and poverty along with the corrupt and murderous dictatorship, caused thousands of countrymen to actively resist or flee into exile.  By revising the date and reason for his parents’ emigration, Rubio ingratiated himself with the dominant Cuban exile factions and placed his political narrative into a Reaganesque storyline about freedom.

Cuban imports of U.S. food fall 11% in 2011

U.S. food exports to Cuba have fallen 11% in the first eight months of 2011, compared with the same time period in 2010, reports the AP. The news agency cites John Kavulich, President of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which reported that Cuba imported $240 million worth of food from the U.S. between January and August 2011, whereas $268 million was imported during the same period in 2010.
Kavulich attributes the decrease to factors including generous trade arrangements offered to Cuba by Venezuela and China; the reinvigoration of Cuba’s commercial relationships with Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Mexico, and others; Cuba’s lack of access to hard currency and a decline in the efficiency of lobbying from U.S. businesses in favor of normalized trade with the island.

No progress on restoring direct mail service between Cuba and the U.S.

Eliécer Blanco, president of Correos de Cuba, Cuba’s state postal service is lamenting the little progress being made in re-establishing direct mail service between the U.S. and Cuba since talks on the issue began  in 2009, reports EFE. Blanco stated that “political will” exists in both the U.S. and Cuba to do so, but that any progress depends on the U.S. government accepting an agreement allowing deliveries in both directions. He added that it was “not possible” for a North American plane to bring shipments to Cuba if Cuban airplanes cannot take shipments to the U.S.

Direct service between the two nations was terminated in 1963. Currently, mail from the U.S. travels through Panama to reach Cuba and represents 42% of the mail received by the island.

IN CUBA

Artists weigh in on expression and Cuban media; lay-offs in the state sector not to affect artists

In interview with El País (available only in Spanish), Cuban actor Jorge Perugorría, best known for his film Fresa y chocolate, addressed the unique treatment of artists by Cuba’s government.

In Cuba, cinema and the rest of the arts enjoy a freedom and an understanding with the public that neither the television nor the press has.

In the interview, Perugorría emphasizes the need for change and freedom of expression, and also criticizes U.S. policy towards the island, stating:

Cuba is going to change because of the will of the Cubans, there is no other path, we have no other option, but we will never do it because of the imposition of others. U.S. policy is from the last century and that too has to change, because it has not contributed to bringing liberty to the island. The revolution was a product of youth desiring change, the history of the last 50 years cannot be denied, but now it must renovate and reinvent itself.

Guillermo Rodríguez Rivera, Cuban novelist and poet, penned a piece in which he criticizes bureaucratic media for opposing the process of change in Cuba, and calls for the national press to participate in reforms. In the piece, posted on the blog of singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez, the author argues that “the excuse for concealing a news story is, almost always, that the news would lacerate the revolutionary consciousness of our people. And that is an underestimation of our people.” Rodríguez Rivera also states that “defending the Revolution and the country does not mean defending management that functions poorly.”

An article from Peter Orsi for the Associated Press focuses on how Cubans, especially artists, are testing the limits on criticism of the government.

Finally, Abel Prieto, Cuba’s Minister of Culture announced Monday that planned lay-offs of state employees will not affect artists or workers directly linked to cultural works, reports EFE. According to Prieto, evaluations within the Ministry of Culture will be limited to administrative personnel.

Theater festival opens in Havana, Miami actors to perform

The Havana Theater Festival opens today, and will include four presentations from U.S. theater groups, the Miami Herald reports. Actors from FUNDarte, the Miami-based arts non-profit, will present the play Si vas a sacar un cuchillo, USAlo (If you’re going to pull a knife, USE it), on October 30th and 31st at the Trianon Theater in Havana’s El Vedado neighborhood. The bilingual dance-theater play is based on the works of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. The Ambassadors of Broadway, a Detroit-based theater company, will perform a musical review featuring “the biggest musical numbers from the past fifty years of the history of Broadway.” Finally, producer, director and actor Peter Goldfarb will present two one-man shows.

The festival, in its fourteenth year, features nearly 80 Cuban and foreign companies representing 16 countries, Havana Times reports.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Petrocaribe to build refineries in Cuba and Nicaragua

Petrocaribe, Venezuela’s oil alliance with the nations of the Caribbean, has affirmed  plans to build refineries in Nicaragua and Cuba, reports EFE. Plans were also announced to expand the existing Camilo Cienfuegos refinery in the province of Cienfuegos, to increase its current capacity of 65,000 barrels per day to 150,000 barrels per day

The plant in Nicaragua will be located outside of Managua, while the plant in Cuba is to be  built in Matanzas. Both will have the capacity to refine 150,000 barrels per day. These announcements came out of the two-day ministerial summit of Petrocaribe held in Managua with participation of its 18 member nations. Other projects of this initiative have installed electricity plants in Haiti, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Nicaragua.

Cuba signs new medical agreements with Ghana and Ecuador

This week, John Dramani Mahama, the Vice President of Ghana, announced a Memorandum of Understanding with Cuba’s government to begin training 250 Ghanaian doctors on the island by next year, reports Ghana News Agency. Mahama also expressed appreciation for the annual posting of Cuba’s Medical Brigade to Ghana.

Cuba and Ecuador signed an agreement this week to implement a Neonatal Metabolic Screening Program in Ecuador, reports CubaDebate. With an investment of $17 million that will fund the initiative through 2014, the program will focus on the detection of four major metabolic pathologies in newborns with the aim of preventing disabilities.

Around the Region

Chávez increases budget by almost 50%

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez has released a public budget that would increase state spending by 46%, Bloomberg reports. The increased budget provides funding for housing, job creation, and agriculture projects.

This increase in spending comes in the lead up to next year’s presidential election to be held in October. Americas Society provides an outlook of the current electoral landscape, on the leading opposition candidates, implications of Chávez’s health, and socioeconomic factors.

Recommended Reading

Citizens’ Views on Reform after the Sixth Party Congress, Alejandro Moreno and Daniel Calingaert, Freedom House

“Economic reforms are causing visible changes and raising expectations in Cuba, a Freedom House survey found. Self-employment is becoming more widespread, and more Cubans now prefer to work independently than for the government. Many Cubans welcome the opportunities that self-employment brings, but others are skeptical or even resentful about the changes taking place in Cuba.”

Cuba Rethinks the Revolution, Michelle Chase, The Nation

“Cuba is undergoing a kind of silent transition. A series of economic reforms are shrinking the size of the state-run economy and making room for a greatly expanded private sector. The socialist dream isn’t over, but it’s been sharply redrawn. That Cuba is becoming a mixed economy is no longer under debate. What is under debate is what exactly that new economy will look like, how widely the benefits will be spread and why the reforms are proceeding so slowly.”

Stop spamming Cuba, Editorial, Los Angeles Times

“Last month, an American company began sending thousands of unsolicited text messages a week to cell phones in Cuba under an $84,000 annual contract with the Broadcasting Board of Governors…The strategy is the cyber equivalent of dropping propaganda leaflets on the island. It is ineffective and, according to Cuba, illegal.”

Cubans test official limits on criticism, Peter Orsi, Associated Press

“President Raul Castro has called on Cubans to openly air their opinions as his government tries to revive the struggling economy with economic reforms. But officials have sent mixed signals about where it draws the invisible frontier between loyal criticism and what they consider to be dangerous attacks on the system.

A prominent socialist intellectual who made a sharp attack on corruption at high levels found himself booted out of the Communist Party for months. But in another case, officials just seemed to shrug when two state economists criticized the country’s economic reforms as insufficient.”

Latinobarómetro: Public opinion on democracy in Latin America, The Economist

Latin Americans are demanding more of their democracies, their institutions and governments; they worry about crime almost as much as about economic problems; and fewer of them think that their country is progressing. Those are some of the findings of the latest Latinobarómetro poll, taken in 18 countries and published exclusively by The Economist. Because the poll has been taken regularly since 1995, it does a good job showing how attitudes in the region are changing.”

Airlines Rev Up for Flights to Cuba, Jack Nicas, The Wall Street Journal

“U.S. airlines are wading deeper into the charter business to Cuba as travel restrictions have loosened, hoping one day to haul American tourists to the island’s unspoiled beaches.

By year-end, four of the largest U.S. airlines will operate about 25 weekly flights to Cuba for charter companies. AMR Corp.’s American Airlines has been flying to Cuba for two decades, and JetBlue Airways Corp. arrived last month. The world’s two biggest carriers by traffic, United Continental Holdings Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc., are resuming weekly service to Cuba after a seven-year hiatus.”

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