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

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 …

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Senators hold appropriations bill hostage over Cuba provisions

Legislation to fund the budgets of several federal agencies stalled in the Senate on Tuesday due to opposition among hardliners to provisions that liberalized Cuba policy, The Hill reports. Budgets funds for the fiscal year that began on October 1st for agencies including the Treasury Department, State Department, Interior and Energy Departments, were affected, reports Foreign Policy.

Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, joined by Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson of Florida, blocked the bill because it contained two sections that would have made it easier for U.S. farmers to sell food to Cuba.

During the Bush administration, rules affecting agriculture sales to Cuba, permitted under the U.S. embargo, were tightened, making it more difficult for farmers to sell into the market and more costly for Cuba to buy food from the United States. Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas, a long-time supporter of trade with Cuba, had won approval of legislation in the budget bill to restore the more permissive rules that enabled U.S. producers to provide low-cost and quality food to every day Cubans. The provisions authored by Senator Moran were removed in a legislative maneuver this week.

According to Anya Landau-French with The Havana Note, the agricultural provisions could reappear in a debate over an amendment adopted in the House by Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (FL-21) which would block several categories of travel opened up by President Obama since taking office.

Chief of Cuban Interests Section in Washington traveling to Ohio

Jorge Bolaños, Chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. is traveling to Ohio to speak on the subject of U.S.-Cuba relations, Café Fuerte reports. After being received by the Mayor of Columbus, Michael B. Coleman, Ambassador Bolaños presented on Thursday at Ohio State University’s Mershon Center for International Security Studies. He is scheduled to speak today at Youngstown State University.

Cuban diplomats assigned to the Interests Section in Washington must clear their travel outside the city in advance with the U.S. State Department (U.S. diplomats in Havana operate under similar restrictions). This is Ambassador Bolaños’ first authorized trip since coming to the U.S. posting in 2007.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18), condemned the State Department for granting permission for Bolaños’ trip, stating that “These so called ‘diplomats’ are known for their prolific spying activities against U.S. citizens and strategic installations so it is quite disturbing to learn that the State Department approved this trip.”

One week ago, the State Department had denied permission for two other representatives of the Cuban mission in the U.S. to visit Tampa, FL for a series of events organized by the Chamber of Commerce, airport and port executives, and other business representatives. William A. Ostick, a State Department spokesman, stated:

They [the Cuban diplomats] have to request permission to travel outside of the Washington DC area and they are obligated to provide information about the itinerary and the purpose of travel…permission is granted based on a case-by-case analysis.

Tampa Bay Port seeks to increase business to Cuba

As lawmakers bumped heads over trade restrictions in Washington, 75 local businesspeople attended a Cuba forum hosted by the Tampa Port Authority, Tampa Bay Online reports. The forum focused on potential opportunities to use the port as a hub for Cuba business and a connection point for ships traveling between Cuba, the Gulf of Mexico, and other ports in Latin America.

Last week Steve Michelini, the managing director of World Trade Center Tampa Bay, called on the port to initiate plans to position Tampa for travel and trade opportunities with Cuba, another Tampa Bay Online article reports. The Tampa Bay group had recently traveled to Cuba, and reported upon their return that Cuba is improving port facilities to host the transport of cargo, passengers and livestock. In his letter to Tampa port director Richard Wainio, Michelini stated that “Being prepared for the next level of interaction should be a principal objective which is not only achievable but needed to prepare Tampa for the changes.”

In an e-mail response to the letter, John Thorington, the port’s senior director of communications and board coordination stated:

Current U.S. trade policy only allows for the shipment of certain agricultural and medical products to Cuba…As trade policy is modified, however, the Port of Tampa is very well positioned to accommodate an expansion of maritime business with Cuba given our geographic location, historic ties and the fact that we have modern cargo and cruise terminal facilities in place ready to serve this trade.

Federal investigation over premature announcement of BWI-Cuba flights

Following an announcement last week that Baltimore’s BWI airport would begin direct charter flights to Cuba next March, federal government officials have noted that Island Travel & Tours Ltd, the travel service provider planning to charter the flights, is not yet licensed to fly out of that city, the Baltimore Sun reports. Officials of the U.S. Department of Transportation are looking into whether the announcement violated rules prohibiting advertising before authorization. Bill Hauf, the president of the company, maintains that he has not violated any rules and that the announcement was put out by a third party.

Hauf has stated that he will file a “public charter prospectus” – a flight schedule that is required for all charter flights, not just flights to Cuba – on Friday, and he remains hopeful that this new filing will not push back plans to begin flights in March, stating “We hope this won’t delay anything, as a result of this misunderstanding…The truth is, I should have been more cautious.”

Cuba says U.S. behind illegal wireless networks

Cuba’s government accused the U.S. of supplying equipment and financially supporting illegal wireless networks in Cuba, reports the AFP. On Monday, state newspaper Granma published an article referring to the U.S. government and Cubans with illegal Internet connections as bandits against Cuba’s radio-electronic sovereignty. The article describes how individuals ran unauthorized businesses for profit installing satellite equipment, using components either stolen or smuggled from the U.S., however, their connections to the U.S. government are not clear. These individuals, now under arrest, also set up a satellite connection for international calls that bypassed the Cuban state-run telephone company ETESCA.

American contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba in December of 2009, and later found guilty by Cuban courts of charges that involved bringing unauthorized electronic communications equipment into the country.

An article in the Havana Times argues that it is unfair for the government to label these black market entrepreneurs as bandits because there is a disconnect between the government’s desire for “radio-electronic sovereignty” and the people’s desire for Internet access. The article states that most clandestine operators have nothing to do with the aims of the U.S. government, but are rather trying to meet an unsatisfied demand.

IN CUBA

IACHR concerned about Cuban activist

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has issued a press release expressing concern over the treatment of Idania Yanes Contreras, who since June has been a “beneficiary of precautionary measures” of the organization. The statement is in response to a specific incident on October 31st when Yanes was allegedly arrested, dragged by her hair, and beaten in her head, abdomen, and back after protesting to defend the rights of a dissident on a prolonged hunger strike. She was released on November 3rd and reported to the Arnaldo Milián Castro Hospital with her injuries. The IACHR further noted that it “considers extremely serious” Cuba’s failure to implement protections for Yanes that the Commission had recommended in June because of the threats, attacks, and harassment against her.

Economic reforms continue in multiple sectors

Cuba’s government has continued to implement reforms, released data on others, and announced new projects in a variety of sectors.

AZCUBA, a state holding company, was officially created to replace the Ministry of Sugar, which the government announced it would close in September, CubaDebate reports. AZCUBA is comprised of 25 provincial and service companies, including two research centers and a national training facility, reports Xinhua. Its creation represents a move to a decentralized production model aimed at increasing efficiency. Similarly, Cuba’s government ended the experimental stage of allowing state barbers and beauticians to organize and run their own shops, a video report from the BBC reports. The government considers the experiment successful, and will now consider barbers and beauticians to be self-employed.

In an effort to further advance the move toward the non-state sector and self-employment, the National Association of Cuban Economists and Accountants (ANEC) announced that they will be offering classes to self-employed people on the subjects of taxes and accounting, beginning January 16, Juventud Rebelde reports. Moreover, ANEC is developing other classes in business administration and related fields that will emphasize “ethical values and principles that should guide all economic activity” and provide important knowledge and skills to the population.

The Cuban Triangle provides a brief analysis of this interview of the Cuban Central Bank President Ernesto Medina Villaveirán about changes to lending policies within Cuba. According to the interview, highlights of a new policy would allow small entrepreneurs and individuals to get loans based on their need and ability to pay.

Finally, CubaDebate reports that more than 2,000 cars have been bought and sold since the legalization of that activity on October 1st.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Haiti’s new president makes first official visit to Cuba

This week, President Michel Martelly of Haiti led a 29-member delegation to Cuba for a three-day official visit, Haiti Libre reports. There, he met with President Raúl Castro, former president Fidel Castro, and Haitian medical students studying in the country. According to Haiti Libre, the main topic of discussion was continued cooperation between the two nations, as well as the current state of bilateral relations and “other issues of mutual interest and international reality.”

Cuba has been playing an instrumental role in Haiti, most recently since the earthquake in January 2010, helping its neighbor recover, rebuild its health system, and respond to crises such as the outbreak in cholera discussed in this article in the New York Times.

During President Martelly’s visit, the two governments agreed to improve cooperation in the areas of health, education, sports, technical assistance, agriculture and fisheries, and the environment, according to another article from Haiti Libre. In meeting with Haitian medical students studying in Cuba, the President promised to work to incorporate them into Haiti’s medical system upon their graduation. Photos of Martelly’s meeting with President Raúl Castro are available here.

Around the Region

Nationals player rescued by Venezuelan police

Venezuelan police rescued Washington Nationals catcher William Ramos from kidnappers last Friday, reports the AP. Ramos had been held in captivity for nearly 48 hours in the mountainous area outside the city of Valencia before police arrived with helicopters. A dramatic shootout ensued, resulting in the arrest of the five kidnappers and no deaths. Ramos stated that the kidnappers spoke with Colombian accents and Venezuela’s Ministry of Justice confirmed that one of them was a Colombian “linked to paramilitary groups and to kidnapping groups.” President Hugo Chavez praised the actions of the police the following day, according to an article from DPA, saying that “there were clashes, but luckily it was a clean operation, and this government respects life.”

Wife of ousted Honduran president to run for his former post in 2013

Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, wife of former president Manuel Zelaya who was ousted in a June 2009 coup, will be the presidential candidate for the recently formed Liberty and Refoundation Party (or Libre), reports Latin America News Dispatch. The Libre party is a coalition founded by Zelaya which represents various parties of the Honduran resistance movement, and was registered as a new party on October 30th of this year. Zelaya also announced that the party would hold internal elections over the next year to choose representatives and nominees for legislative positions, Télam reports. Zelaya himself is barred under the Honduran Constitution from seeking office.

Salvadoran Minister of Justice and Security resigns, allegations of U.S. pressure

Controversy has arisen following the resignation of Manuel Melgar, El Salvador’s Minister of Justice and Security, reports Insight Crime. Though he gave no official reason for his resignation, some within his party suggest that the decision was a result of political pressures from Washington. According to Jose Luis Merino, Melgar’s announcement came shortly after the United States refused his request that they share intelligence on drug traffickers located within El Salvador.

The U.S. State Department has signaled its disapproval of Melgar since his appointment as Minister of Justice and Security, citing his involvement with the FMLN during El Salvador’s Civil War and alleging his involvement in the killing of four U.S. Marines in 1985. According to the Salvadoran digital periodical El Faro, high ranking sources within the Ministry of Justice and Security claim Melgar’s resignation was a prerequisite for implementing the Partnership for Growth program. The solidarity groups Voices from El Salvador and CISPES also offer their analyses of the situation.

Recommended Reading

Reaching Out: Cuba’s New Economy and the International Response, Richard Feinberg, Brookings Institution

A new report by Professor Richard Feinberg, a non-resident Brookings Institution Senior Fellow, urges the international development community to reach out to Cuba to promote its economic renewal. The study analyzes the reform process occurring in Cuba today and describes Cuba’s strategy of engaging with the dynamic emerging market economies, largely overlooked by U.S. analysts. Feinberg asserts that the international financial institutions (IFIs) house a wealth of accumulated knowledge and financial resources that fit well with the needs of a reform-minded Cuba seeking greater economic efficiency and competitiveness.

Unofficial English translation of Guidelines passed at Cuba’s VI Communist Party Congress, Marce Cameron

This is the first English translation we have seen of the Guidelines that were adopted at Cuba’s VI Communist Party Congress on April 18th. The document is available in Spanish here.

Co-operatives set to expand, Patricia Grogg, Inter Press Service

“The creation of co-operatives forms part of the current ‘updating’ of the Cuban economy, even though no official information has been provided about the expansion of this form of business management, which has already been tested, with mixed results, in agriculture.”

The Anniversary of the Jesuit Martyrs & Justice in El Salvador Today, Geoff Thale, WOLA

“Twenty-two years ago this week, Salvadoran troops—under orders from senior military and government officials—executed six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter on the campus of the University of Central America…The legacy of the Jesuits is alive today and evident in two important issues now being debated in El Salvador. The first has to do with amnesty and impunity—whether those with power and influence can commit human rights abuses without fear of prosecution. The second has to do with the strength and role of the military.”

Recommended Viewing

Is it the end of the road for Cuba’s classic cars?, Michael Voss, BBC Video

“President Raul Castro has agreed to allow people to buy and sell cars in Cuba, ending a ban on Cubans selling cars bought after the 1959 revolution that ushered in communism. However, the changes could spell the beginning of the end for many of the island’s classic American cars, which are a key feature of Cuban roads.”

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