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

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!

IN CUBA

Progress on Economic Reforms

Government loosens restrictions on internal migration

Cuba’s government has officially relaxed laws limiting internal migration to the capital city of Havana, the AP reports.  According to the law published Tuesday in the Official Gazette, spouses, children, parents, grandparents, grandchildren and siblings of Cubans who legally reside in the capital will no longer be required to ask for permission to move to Havana.

This new decree modifies existing law, which states that anyone found in Havana who cannot prove legal residence or an official reason for being there can be deported from the city and fined. The policy was adopted during the so-called “Special Period,” after the fall of the Soviet Union, to prevent a mass migration to the capital during a time of economic crisis.

It has not been specified how citizens will be asked to prove that they have close relatives living in Havana.

Cuba’s mail service to be restructured into government holding company

Next year, Cuba’s state mail service will be restructured into a government holding company in an attempt to increase efficiency, the AP reports. Eighteen regional mail service offices and two nationwide entities will comprise a national mail service “business group,” according to Opciones, the Cuban business journal. In addition, regional offices will enjoy more autonomy than in the previous, decentralized system. According to the article, the postal service currently operates more than 1,000 post offices on the island and employs about 13,600 workers. Raúl Marcial Cortina, national strategic director of the current postal service, stated:

It was unthinkable that such a big company could achieve perfection…This is going to have a positive impact on efficiency and on workers’ benefits.

Cuba’s Sugar Ministry recently underwent a similar restructuring from a government ministry into a holding company with plans to close all but 26 of the 178 bureaucratic entities associated with sugar production, and lay off an unspecified number of workers to cut administrative costs by 55%.

Farmers now allowed to sell directly to tourism industry

This Monday, Granma carried a report that farmers will be able to sell their “non-industrialized” products directly to the tourism industry after December 1st. Previously, farmers were banned from selling directly to the tourism industry, with the state playing a “middle man” role in the process. Reuters reports that this change seeks to improve the variety and quality of food available to the tourist sector, cut transportation costs, and reduce food losses resulting from inefficiencies in getting harvested products to market.

In addition to allowing direct transactions between farmers and the tourism industry, the law lets buyers and sellers to set their own prices on these agricultural products. Specific legal changes can be found as published in Cuba’s Official Gazette.

Cuba evaluates expanding cooperatives beyond farming sector

Cuba is creating the basis for an expansion of cooperative business models, which have proven successful in the agricultural sector, Prensa Latina reports. “Cooperatives … should become a dynamic element of the Cuban economic model and will contribute to diminishing budgeted expenses and elevating the population’s standard of living,” stated Dr. Claudio Alberto Rivera Rodríguez, president of the National Association of Cuban Economists’ Center for Studies about Cooperative and Communal Development. Rivera went on to suggest that the cooperative model could be applied to industries such as food service, transportation, housing material production and construction, and artists and artisans, distribution networks, Notimex reports.

Corruption crack-down targets foreign companies

An article by Paul Haven for the Associated Press details how President Raúl Castro’s battle against corruption has recently targeted several foreign enterprises. Castro announced his intention to crack down on corruption involving foreign businesses in 2009. So far, the past two years of investigations have resulted in at least 52 people being sent to prison and the expulsion of over 150 foreign business owners and operators.

According to members of the business community interviewed in the article, the crackdown has some wondering if President Castro is doing the Cuban economy a disservice at a time when the country should be encouraging foreign investment to resuscitate its economy. “It’s like an earthquake,” says one foreign business adviser. “It is a time of opportunity, but also great risk because of what is happening: the arrests, the closures…Everybody is nervous. Everybody is looking over their shoulder to see who will be next, who is the next victim.”

Others, including Cuban economists and government officials, insist that discouraging graft is essential to real economic reform and worth whatever pause it might give to interested foreign investors. “This is not a campaign, what is happening in the fight against corruption,” said Attorney General Dario Delgado. “This is permanent. This is systemic. There is a will on the part of the state…that corruption cannot be permitted.”

Other “In Cuba” news…

Cuba provides flu shots for 600,000 people

Cuba will offer flu shots to more than 600,000 people susceptible to respiratory ailments in a vaccination campaign that began Monday, EFE reports. According to the announcement in Granma, vaccines will be available to Cubans over age 85 (a population of some 160,000 people), those with chronic illnesses and immune deficiencies, disabled people, and pregnant women between the second and third trimester, as well as doctors who are at risk of contracting the virus. The vaccine, a single injectable dosage, provides protection against the H1N1 virus, as well as the influenza B virus and the seasonal H3N2 virus. The vaccination campaign will continue until December 21.

ETECSA to make Internet available to Cuban nationals in Camagüey

Cuban nationals in the city of Camagüey will now be allowed to access the Internet at a “tele-punto” or cyber cafe, operated by ETECSA, the state communications enterprise, CubaNet reports. According to the article, official sources within ETECSA made the announcement last week.  Although there were previously no official restrictions on allowing Cuban nationals to use the cafes, access was limited to foreigners and Cubans with foreign residency.  One woman who is a resident of the city stated:

It was a shame to see the computers in the cyber cafe not being used by anybody. Because few foreigners come to Camagüey, they would have to lower the prices because Cubans can’t pay five dollars for an hour of use.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Flights inaugurated from Tampa to Holguín

Direct flights between Tampa Bay, Florida and the city of Holguín in Eastern Cuba began on Tuesday, News 13 reports. Janet Zink, a representative of Tampa International Airport, stated

It goes to Holguin, Cuba…and this is a really significant flight because we’re only the second airport in the country to offer service to a City in Cuba other than Havana. We do have the third largest Cuban-American population in the United States…And prior to this, they had to drive to Miami in order to get to Cuba and that did keep some people from going.

Airport officials have reported that nearly a thousand passengers boarded flights to Havana in September, and project that the number of travelers to the island will reach almost 4,000 by the end of next month.

An opinion piece in the St. Petersburg Times from Johannes Werner and Jason Busto, editors of online journal the Cuba Standard, argues that U.S. policy towards Cuba is hurting Tampa interests. The authors cite the experience of inviting Jorge Bolaños, Chief of the Cuban Interests Section, to Tampa for a business forum.  The ambassador was denied permission to leave the Washington area by the State Department, with no reason given other than requests are evaluated on a case-to-case basis.

Orientation for college and university staff pursuing Cuba programs

The Fund for Reconciliation and Development is organizing an orientation to be held in Cuba from January 6 to 15, for college and university staff preparing to send short term faculty led programs to Cuba. According to the announcement by John McAuliff:

It will incorporate meetings and visits to universities and non-governmental humanitarian, environmental and religious organizations, as well as previews of potential student experiences, in Havana, Matanzas, Cardenas, Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, Trinidad and Cienfuegos.  

Articles about short term student programs already undertaken can be found at http://cubapeopletopeople.blogspot.com. For application form, full program and costs, those interested can contact the Fund for Reconciliation and Development at director@ffrd.org.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba’s relations with Spain may be affected by conservative victory at the polls

The defeat of Spain’s Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) in Sunday’s elections have lead some to contemplate the implications of the results for relations between Cuba, Spain, and the EU, the Miami Herald reports.

On Sunday, the right-wing Popular Party (PP) won an absolute majority in the Spanish Parliament, ending the rule of PSOE Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. When asked last week about Cuba, Mariano Rajoy, the leader of the PP who will now become prime minister, stated “I want democracy. I want freedom. I want human rights. Well, not just me. The whole world wants that.” His campaign, however, focused mostly on Spain’s domestic economic situation.

Some analysts, such as Joaquín Roy, a Spaniard and head of the European Union Center at the University of Miami, argue that both governments have more important domestic issues and so will maintain cordial bilateral relations. Yet, dissidents and others argue that it will be difficult to maintain a cordial relationship because Cuba’s government has been historically thin-skinned toward any criticism.

Blogger Yoani Sánchez published this post about the 12,458 Cubans who for the first time were allowed to vote in Sunday’s Spanish elections due to the so-called “Law of Grandchildren” that allowed them to become naturalized Spanish citizens.

Cayman Islands Detention Centre expecting increase in migrants

According to CayCompass, the Cayman Islands Immigration Detention Centre is experiencing a renewed influx of Cubans detained while trying to leave the island. Thirty-six immigrants have been taken into custody at Grand Cayman in the last two months, and Chief Immigration Officer Linda Evans stated that she expects immigrants to increase:

[The migrants] mention that because of the financial problems [in Cuba], there’s not as much patrolling along the coasts as there used to be…We think we’re going to experience a lot more boats.

According to Cayman’s Memorandum of Understanding with the Cuban government, migrants who land illegally in the Islands are repatriated. While Cuban boats found in Cayman waters are usually allowed to continue, passengers are taken into custody if they have to come ashore.

Around the Region

Funes appoints retired general as Minister of Security amidst protests

Mauricio Funes, the President of El Salvador, appointed retired general David Munguia Payés as Minister of Security on Tuesday, Reuters reports. The appointment marks the first time a military official has served in that position since El Salvador’s civil war. Funes made the appointment despite strong opposition from his FMLN party and inside the Ministry itself. FMLN deputy Sigfrido Reyes heavily criticized Funes’ decision, calling it “a serious step backwards in the process of democratization in this country and in the construction of public security entities in line with the constitution.”

Prior to Funes’ announcement, an unnamed group of top police commanders declared their willingness to resign should a former military official fill the position, reports El Faro. Payés, generally known as a moderate, with previous experience serving as Funes’ Defense Minister, will replace former FMLN guerrilla leader Manuel Melgar, who resigned on November 8th for reasons he would not officially disclose. Many speculate that a principal reason Melgar resigned was because of the United States’ unwillingness to work with him due to his alleged involvement in a 1985 attack that killed three U.S. Marines.

Rep. Jim McGovern honored by Salvadoran Embassy as a “Friend of El Salvador”

Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern was honored by the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington, D.C. this week as a “Friend of El Salvador,” Metro Latino USA reports. Ambassador Francisco Altschul stated,

For more than 30 years, Congressman McGovern has been a defender of human rights in El Salvador and from then on has continued his commitment to this country, to helping it face emergency situations through the U.S. Congress.

McGovern recently visited El Salvador with a bipartisan delegation of Members of Congress to assess damage caused by recent rains that caused dozens of deaths and more than $800 million in material losses. McGovern has long advocated for substantial changes in U.S. policy towards El Salvador. After the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, he worked to condition aid to the Salvadoran military on the improvement of human rights in the country.

The “Friends of El Salvador” awards were initiated this year in all Salvadoran embassies by the Foreign Ministry.

General during 2009 coup registers political party, expected to run for president in 2013

The Patriotic Alliance of Honduras, founded by retired general Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, has filed a 92,000 signature petition to the Honduran Supreme Electoral Court to register officially as a political party, La Tribuna reports. The party’s leadership is made up largely of retired military officers, and party representatives have announced that Vásquez Velásquez is the favorite to represent the party in the 2013 presidential elections. Vásquez Velásquez was the head of the armed forces during the June 2009 coup that ousted then-president Manuel Zelaya.

A piece by Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Econonic and Policy Research, published by The Guardian, criticizes the Obama administration for ignoring human rights violations in Honduras since the 2009 coup, and calls on South America to mobilize to protect activists and organizers who have been the victims of political killings.

Recommended Reading

U.S. can contribute by acknowledging Cuba’s reforms, Michael Shank, the Financial Times

Michael Shank, director of policy and communications for the Institute for Economics and Peace, says the U.S. can make important contributions to Cuba’s economic reforms by acknowledging that the process is real and implementing policies that help Cubans get the cash they need to form small businesses.

Editorial: Rectify the Course, Espacio Laical, Translation by Dawn Gable

This editorial from the Catholic Church publication Espacio Laical is a strong push for continued economic reforms in Cuba. Phil Peters with the Cuban Triangle provides an excellent analysis of this significant contribution to the reform debate.

For Cubans, new property rights – and the return of an old anxiety, Sara Miller Llana, The Christian Science Monitor

President Raúl Castro’s latest reform lets Cubans buy and sell property for the first time in decades.  But the reform has some worried that it could reintroduce pre-revolution class divisions.

Why Cuba is embracing golf, Lyndsie Bourgnon, MacLeans.ca

“In post-revolutionary Cuba, golf was a sport for the rich, the bourgeois. And for 50-odd years, it all but disappeared from the island. (There’s currently only one 18-hole course.) But now Cuban authorities have given preliminary approval to develop four luxury golf resorts. Two of those contracts have been handed to Canadian developers.”

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