¡Feliz Día de Acción de Gracias! Early Bird Edition of the Thanksgiving News Blast

November 23, 2011

Your Cuba Central News Blast is arriving a little early in your inbox this week.  This enables our staff to enjoy their Thanksgiving holidays, and offers our readers, especially in the U.S., something to chew on over the long weekend.

Here’s just a sample of the sumptuous array of stories we’re serving this week:

For appetizers, let us suggest some bite-sized stories about economic and institutional reform coming out of Cuba.  Reuters is reporting that farmers will be able to directly sell food to the tourist industry eliminating the state as a middle man.  According to another report, the island’s postal service will be restructured and decentralized to improve efficiency and cut costs and turned into a state-run business.  Restrictions on internal travel by Cubans are being relaxed, according to the Associated Press, so that those with close family in Havana will not have to ask the government’s permission to move to the capital.  The scope and meaning of Cuba’s recent reforms in housing are still subject to debate – on the island and here in the U.S. – according to this article from the Miami Herald.

For main course, we’re pleased to recommend “Pull of Family Reshapes U.S.-Cuban Relations,” an intriguing report from the New York Times on how warming attitudes among Cuban Americans toward Cuba – facilitated by changes in U.S. travel policy initiated by President Obama – have led to a jump in travel to the island, a surge in support for families, and greater contributions of items that Cubans need to start their own small businesses.  The article traces how developments in demography (with new arrivals now outnumbering “aging Cuban exiles from the 1960s”) and changing perspectives (the priority is family and not ideology) are contributing to reconciliation for the Cuban families on both sides of the Straits.

For dessert, you might sample this survey from the International Republican Institute.   It’s easy to be skeptical about polling information, here and in Cuba, but results in this poll are fascinating.  They suggest Cubans have a far greater preoccupation with economic issues (salaries, the double currency, and food) than political ones; they are skeptical that the current government will succeed in solving Cuba’s biggest problems in the next few years; they are increasingly positive about the way things are going in Cuba, but uncertain about how things are going to change in the next twelve months.

Now, you’ll notice, we haven’t specifically put turkey on the News Blast menu.  Believe us; with one U.S. political leader calling for a 21st Century Monroe Doctrine in last night’s CNN security debate, it was mighty tempting.

For these tasty morsels and more, we bring you this week in Cuba news…Enjoy!

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“That’ll teach ‘em!” Hardliners in Congress block easier food sales, scoff at free speech (to foster change in Cuba?)

November 18, 2011

They often appear to stand logic on its head. The hardliners in Congress, so devoted to overturning Cuba’s political and economic system, resort to tactics that hardly seem consistent with their own views of tolerance, progress, and freedom.

Here are just a few examples culled from this week’s news.

In 2000, Congress opened a humanitarian loophole in the U.S. embargo of Cuba. It legalized sales of U.S. food products to the island. U.S. farmers and ranchers quickly became suppliers of low-cost, high quality food and fiber for the Cuban people. It made sense – it was good for our country’s image on the island, and Cuba could obtain U.S. agriculture products quickly and efficiently from its neighbor.

President Bush tried to block the sales by rewriting the rules on payments for the food shipments that raised the cost to the Cuban customer and made sales more cumbersome for U.S. suppliers. As a consequence, U.S. food sales to the island have sagged and Cuba has engaged in long-term commercial relationships with more distant but now more reliable suppliers.

For thirty years, public officials from both parties have opposed using food sales as a political weapon. But when Senator Jerry Moran tried again in the United States Senate to repeal the Bush-era restrictions on food sales, Senators Menendez, Rubio, and Nelson tied the Senate in a procedural knot and got the provisions on food sales to Cuba dropped. That’s bad news for Cuban consumers and for American farmers, but why is it good news for the humanitarian or foreign policy interests of the United States?

Similarly, two institutions of higher learning in Ohio – Ohio State and Youngstown State – invited the chief of Cuba’s Interest Section, Ambassador Jorge Bolaños, to speak to their students this week. He made the trip after securing permission from the U.S. Department of State to travel outside the Washington area, as Cuba’s diplomats are required to do (reciprocal restrictions are imposed on the U.S. Interests Section staff in Havana).

Who could be opposed to students hearing about Cuba from its diplomatic chief in the U.S. in settings where students could ask questions and demonstrate the benefits of American academic freedom?

The Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen thought it was a terrible idea. She blasted the State Department for allowing Mr. Bolaños to leave the Beltway. She called it appeasement gone horribly wrong, with results “that would be laughable if they weren’t so tragic.” Huh?

And finally we have the hysterical reaction to the report by Professor Richard Feinberg. Feinberg, a scholar with decades of experience in international economics and Latin America policy, has written a paper “Reaching Out: Cuba’s New Economy and the International Response,” which advocates changes in U.S. policy and restrictions on the role of the international financial institutions for the purpose of supporting economic reform in Cuba.

Reforms in Cuba – based in part on private sector models to boost small business employment and to create a free market in housing and the sale of other property – offer the prospect to Cubans of leading more independent and prosperous lives.

But, of course, Feinberg’s study has unleashed the fury of the hardliners: “Feinberg lobbies for the U.S. to aid and abet the strongmen of the corrupt Castro dictators….” And so forth.

It’s hard to understand how muzzling free speech, raising the cost of Cuban food, and slowing the process of economic reform will do anything in Cuba besides distancing the Cuban people from the United States. “That’ll teach ‘em” may make the hardliners stand up and cheer but, for the rest of us, it’s nothing to be proud of and hardly a strategy for moving forward.

This week in Cuba news …

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Cuba’s New Resolve: CDA Releases Report on Cuba’s Economic Reforms

November 11, 2011

This week, the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) released a comprehensive study on Cuba’s economic reforms titled Cuba’s New Resolve: Economic Reform and its Implications for U.S. Policy, in which we report on the extraordinary steps being taken by Cuba’s government to address its economic crisis and offer a realistic assessment of its prospects for success.

The report makes two central findings:

  • First, what Cuba is doing to update its model is real, irreversible, evolving, and providing new opportunities for Cubans to lead more prosperous and independent lives.
  • Second, it’s time for President Obama and other skeptical U.S. policy makers to accept that these reforms – Cuba’s biggest economic changes in decades – are significant, consistent with the goals of our policy, and merit U.S. support.

Publication of the report by CDA follows a series of fact-finding trips to Cuba; consultations with Cuban officials, experts, and economists; interviews with Cuban citizens in Havana and outlying provinces; additional research and a survey of scholarship by others.

Our report tells the story of fifty years of Cuban economic history; it describes in detail the institutional and economic changes taking place now under President Raúl Castro; it identifies what has already been accomplished and what still needs to be addressed, and concludes with constructive ideas for U.S. policy moving forward.

The report, just released on Tuesday, is already starting debate that we hope will continue.

In his blog on the Cuban Economy, Dr. Archibald Ritter, a distinguished expert on Cuba’s economy, called our report “another well-balanced and eloquent call for a change in the failed US approach towards Cuba, a failure that has endured for a half-century.” Donna Brazile, CNN’s political analyst, called it a “great report on the economic reforms unfolding in Cuba.”

It also received coverage in the Latin American Herald Tribune, TV and Radio Martí, the Havana Note, and the Spanish news agency EFE.

Not everyone liked our findings, to be sure. Capitol Hill Cubans, which fights reform of U.S. policy toward Cuba, devoted this posting to criticizing our findings.

Jaime Suchliki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American studies, criticized our recommendations in an interview with TV Martí, saying “it will give it (Cuba’s government) more dollars, it won’t produce real changes,” and said that economic reforms would keep Cuba as “a poor little island, catering to tourists and working with tourists.”

Other leaders of the embargo industry – the individuals and institutions who have vested philosophical and economic interests in the status quo – are hard at work fiercely rejecting the notion that changes in Cuba are taking place.

For example, José R. Cárdenas, who served in several foreign policy positions during the George W. Bush administration, in this essay titled “Cuba’s smoke-and-mirror reforms,” denies that the decision to legalize the sale and purchase of real estate “will change in any way the regime’s suffocating control of the Cuban population.”

This picture – of Cuba reforming its economy and giving its citizens more choices, not because of U.S. pressure but because of forces and ideas from inside Cuba – is upsetting to the embargo industry. It is inconsistent with the narrative that underlies U.S. sanctions, so they are simply left in denial and saying “what is happening simply isn’t so.”

These and other critics would have us forget a Cuban named Yusi, who said to The Observer (UK) about housing reforms this week, “I’m not sure I like Raúl Castro, but maybe I like what he is doing.” Or Margot, who told Reuters, “It’s an opportunity and you have to take risks to get something better.” And Phil Peters, the long-time analyst of the Cuban economy, who said, “Overnight, this represents a creation of wealth for thousands of Cuban families.”

This process is far from over. But we believe Cuba has embarked on real, significant, and irreversible reforms and the U.S. ought to be supporting them.

The report is available for download here. We encourage you to read it and reach your own conclusions.

We wish our U.S. based readers a happy Veterans Day.

This week in Cuba news … Read the rest of this entry »

Cuba dissolves a bureaucracy and opens a housing market; Essay recounts visit with Alan Gross

November 4, 2011

According to news accounts, Cubans lined up yesterday morning to buy newspapers that explained the biggest change to their economy in decades.

Cuba has created a private market for housing. Effective November 10, Cubans will have the right to buy and sell their homes at prices they set. While the government will collect a modest 4% tax at both ends of the transaction, this economic reform will have ripple effects for Cuban families and the Cuban economy that are far-reaching, irreversible, and real.

As Marc Frank wrote in the Financial Times:

The easing of restrictions on property ownership is likely to reshape Cuban cities, spur real estate development and speed renovation of Cuba’s picturesque but dilapidated housing stock. It is also expected to reconfigure Cuban conceptions of class as some homeowners cash in their properties and areas of Havana are gentrified.

Under the current system, Cuban housing has been in crisis. While Cubans were guaranteed places to live, the inability to buy and sell their properties curtailed mobility. Generations of families are crowded into homes, many run down, sometimes with divorced couples living together, because, as the Wall Street Journal succinctly said, “there was nowhere else to go.”

A decision to move from one house to another – which entailed informal efforts to locate properties that people were willing to trade and permission from the government – forced Cubans into grey market activities on one hand and into a cumbersome bureaucracy on the other.

“What happens now is that all that bureaucracy and all that hassle will disappear,” says Dr. Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a long-time diplomat and professor at the University of Havana, who explained in this exclusive interview what this new law means for Cubans.

The immediate benefits are clear. Cubans, especially those with family supporters abroad, will be able to invest in housing and renovate their homes, which will in turn create demand for construction and other services offered by the newly-legalized small businesses in Cuba, raising incomes and adding new private sector jobs. “To say that it’s huge is an understatement,” said Pedro Freyre, an expert in Cuban-American legal relations who teaches at Columbia Law School, in an interview with the New York Times.

President Obama, who has been responsible for incremental but positive reforms in U.S. policy toward Cuba, has time and again voiced his skepticism about the sweep and significance of the Cuban economic reform process, telling Spanish speaking reporters in September this year: “We have not seen evidence they have been sufficiently aggressive in changing their policies economically…”

We suppose that depends on what your definition of “sufficiently aggressive” might be. If it means Cuba must completely undo its economic and political system as required by the Helms-Burton law, we need not hold our breath. Cuba is not going to do that.

But if it means creating private markets in housing for the first time since the revolution, giving Cubans the pride that comes with owning and fixing up their own homes, opening opportunities for capital formation, establishing clear regulations and liberties under the Rule of Law through organic changes that come from within, all of which give Cubans the opportunity to lead more prosperous and independent lives, we think the President of the United States ought to applaud and acknowledge that.

Next week, the Center for Democracy in the Americas will release our comprehensive report – Cuba’s New Resolve: Economic Reform and its Implications for U.S. Policy – that carefully examines what is taking place in Cuba now. The report features interviews with Cubans from all walks of life, it tells the story of the reform process, it highlights the benefits and short-comings of what has been implemented to date, and ends with constructive ideas for U.S. policy moving forward. It will be available for download at no charge beginning on Tuesday.

Before then, we offer the big news of this week. We cover reporting on fears in the U.S. Congress about Cuba’s plans to drill offshore for oil, troubling news about Guillermo Fariñas, and concerns reported by at least one Florida newspaper that Senator Marco Rubio isn’t representing the entire state or every Floridian when he makes decisions on U.S.-Cuba policy.

Finally, we republish a moving and important essay written about Alan Gross, by the Rabbi who visited him last week in prison, who says Mr. Gross has a pretty clear formula for gaining his release and returning home. Read the rest of this entry »