Seriously? Breakthrough in the Bahamas; Engagement with the Cubans on oil

Earlier this week, when a government press release announced that State Department and other U.S. governmental officials would participate in a preparedness and response seminar in the Bahamas to discuss offshore drilling safety in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, we looked in vain for evidence that Cuba was participating.  See the press release here for yourself, the word “Cuba” never appears.  “Seriously?” we thought to ourselves.

It turns out that Cuba is at the table, after all, and that’s an important breakthrough for U.S. policy.  Rather than pretending Cuba isn’t drilling for oil in the Gulf (they are), or engaging in the illusion that the U.S. Congress can pass legislation to prevent the Cubans from exploring  in their own territorial waters (it can’t), it appears the U.S. government found a multilateral forum – the International Maritime Organization –under whose auspices a conversation with Cuba could actually take place.

That’s good for the Gulf and good for the U.S.-Cuba relationship.  And, we’d like to see more dialogue, especially direct dialogue, taking place.  As the Orlando Sentinel editorialized this morning:

At least they’re talking to each other. But it makes no sense to engage Cuban officials on international platforms and not in direct talks, too. We hope more engagement is taking place through back channels.

Washington has conducted direct negotiations with Havana on other issues, such as immigration and military matters. Surely drilling in waters close to Florida’s environmentally sensitive and economically vital coasts rises to the same priority level.

The Sentinel is right.  This should not be an isolated event.  And we see this spirit of engagement in other news we’re covering this week:

  • In the trip of Pope Benedict XVI to Cuba, now confirmed for 2012, so that he can honor Cuba’s patron Saint, deal directly with Cuba’s government, and affirm the increasingly important role of the Cuban church in areas from economic reform to the release of political prisoners.
  • In the recently-concluded National Council of Churches visit to the island which ended with a call for normal relations.
  • In the work of U.S. atmospheric scientist Richard Anthes, who engaged directly with his Cuban counterparts in the last few days on U.S.-Cuban cooperation on weather.
  • In the words of Peter Kornbluh and Bill LeoGrande and their column which advocates talking directly to the Cubans about how to obtain the release of Alan Gross.

This is the lesson; if you’re serious and you want to get something done, engagement matters.

This lesson often seems lost on those who speak loudest on issues of political freedom in Cuba, who nonetheless oppose engagement with the Cuban government on anything.

As the Sentinel reminds us – on this eve of International Human Rights Day –talking to Cuba can have and will have a political dimension on which these energy discussions can build.  It says:

We have long advocated democratic and free market reforms in Cuba. No amount of oil-drilling revenue will boost the island’s fortunes without fundamental reforms.

We just don’t believe shunning direct talks on drilling will boost that transition.

***

Before proceeding to the news, we want to thank the generous subscribers to the News Blast who sent us donations in the last ten days after our Cyber Wednesday and Saturday appeals.   Everyone can give something – and the news summary represents a major resource investment for us – so we hope that learning about these donations will inspire more readers to support the work we do to produce this unique source of information about Cuba and U.S. policy every week.

This week, we also want to congratulate Lisa Llanos of our staff (she manages the production of the news summary) for reaching a major milestone birthday.  We celebrate the service of Russell Riechers, who today concludes months of magnificent service as a researcher-writer on the blast.

And, we conclude with A Final Word commemorating the sudden and sorrowful loss of Dr. Héctor Silva, one of the most respected political figures in El Salvador.

This week in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Trinidad Hilton, blocked by U.S. embargo, cannot host meeting of Cuba and CARICOM countries

The Trinidad and Tobago Hilton was unable to obtain permission from the U.S. government to host a meeting of Cuba and the member countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian reports. The U.S.-owned Hilton was to serve as the venue for the opening and the rest of the event; however, the Trinidad and Tobago government was informed last week that the hotel could be not used for this purpose due to the U.S. embargo on Cuba. A statement from Hilton Worldwide said:

The US-Cuban assets control regulations administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the U.S. Department of the Treasury prohibit US-based companies from providing any services that benefit the Cuban government unless specifically licensed.

The statement added that the hotel had worked with the appropriate government channels in the U.S. and in Trinidad and Tobago to secure a license for the summit, but that they had been informed that the license would not be granted, and referred questions to the U.S. embassy in Trinidad and Tobago. According to the U.S. embassy, the license wasn’t denied but was still pending; it was received by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Treasury Department on November 28.  This didn’t allow ample time for a decision ahead of the event, the Trinidad Express reports. Organizers were forced to move the venue of the event (discussed in greater detail below) and the summit proceeded without incident.

New Yorkers charged with violating the embargo, bank sanctioned by OFAC

A New York man and his lawyer have been charged with conspiracy to violate the Trading With the Enemy Act, Courthouse News reports. Adem Arici of Brooklyn allegedly “invested millions of dollars in Cuban real estate,” according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office,which  announced  the prosecution.  Arici’s attorney, Marc Verzani is accused of spending money in Cuba when he traveled there with a third party, a cooperating witness. On the island, Arici allegedly showed Verzani and the third party a hotel he was building and a house that he owned. Though Arici did not decide to purchase real estate, the three spent money on travel expenses, which is illegal under U.S. law.

Both men are also charged with witness tampering in trying to get the cooperating witness to cover up their trip, and Verzani is charged with giving false testimony in a civil proceeding for denying he went to Cuba. The conspiracy to violate the embargo charge is punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine; witness tampering is punishable by 20 years and a $250,000 fine; obstruction of justice by 10 years and a fine of $250,000.

In related news, OFAC has sanctioned the New York branch of Commerzbank AG, a German-based bank considered the fifth most powerful in the world, Café Fuerte reports. The branch agreed to pay a fine of $175,500 for alleged violations involving a foreign bank based in Miami. The OFAC document states that:

Acting as a guarantor of a letter of credit in the interest of a Cuban national, Commerzbank presented four sets of trade documents to a branch of a foreign bank in Miami that issued the letter of credit to pay for a Canadian company.

The alleged violation took place in September of 2005. According to Treasury Department officials, the aggregate value of the commercial documents exceeds $884,157. The initial fine amounted to $260,000, however, authorities decided to lower the fine after the bank cooperated openly with the investigation, and immediately adopted corrective measures to prevent similar cases from occurring in the future.

Miami Cubans plan a flotilla fireworks show on the U.S.-Cuba maritime border

A coalition of Cubans living in Miami is planning to anchor a flotilla on the maritime border between the U.S. and Cuba and put on a fireworks show in order to highlight the Cuban governments’ human rights abuses, AP reports. The event will be held Friday evening, coinciding with the United Nations International Human Rights Day, December 10th.

According to the organizers of the event, the show is not meant to provoke the Cuban government, and the boats will not enter Cuban waters, which begin just 12 miles off the Florida coastline. The groups plan to have at least six boats participating.

Marilyn Fajardo, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, said that the agency would have cutters and aircraft patrolling the area, but would not bring in additional resources, adding that: “The Coast Guard will not interfere with legitimate law enforcement action of the Cuban government. In other words, if a vessel gets by the Coast Guard and gets into Cuban waters, they are placing themselves in great risk. The U.S. cannot speculate as to the response of another government in this or any situation.”

CubaDebate, aCuban government website, published an article that slammed the event as a provocation that violates international law, accusing organizers of entering Cuban waters illegally, and using such flotillas to smuggle explosives to the island on previous occasions, among other aggressive actions. Cuba’s government also denounced flotilla organizer Ramon Saúl Sánchez as a terrorist and provocateur. The Miami Herald reports that Sánchez, who was involved with violent anti-Castro groups in the 1970s and early ‘80s , claims to have adopted only peaceful practices since he served 4 and a half years in prison in the mid ‘80s after refusing to testify about a plot to kill Fidel Castro.
Western Union announces electronic affidavit for sending money to Cuba

Western Union has announced the launch of an electronic affidavit enabling consumers who meet specific government requirements to send money to Cuba from most participating Western Union Agent locations in the U.S., the Denver Post reports. It previously required the faxing of paperwork verifications. The electronic affidavit will expand money transfer service to Cuba to most Western Union locations, whereas before the service was only available at limited locations.

Flights launched between Atlanta and Cuba

Regular chartered flights from Atlanta to Cuba began this week, the AP reports. The nonstop flights are chartered by Marazul Charters and operated by Delta Airlines. Ivar Fiskaa, a Tampa Bay-based travel service provider, told Global Atlanta:

Of course a lot of the seats will be filled with Cuban Americans returning to see members of their families, but we expect more visitors to be participating in organized people-to-people programs.

Atlanta is one of about a dozen airports that have obtained approval for direct flights to Cuba under a January 2011 White House directive reforming travel and remittance rules.

U.S. and Cuban church leaders meet, call for normalized relations

Church leaders from the National Council of Churches traveled to Cuba for a five-day meeting with the Council of Churches of Cuba, ending with a call for “normalized relations” between the U.S. and Cuba, Religion News Service reports. The groups jointly stated “We declare the following shared conviction: that the half century of animosity between our countries must end.”

The meeting was called to discuss humanitarian issues, and strengthen ties that were formed when Cuban church representatives took part in the 2010 General Assembly of the National Council of Churches. Reverend Wes Granberg-Michaelson, the former general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, stated:

For over five decades, our policy of trying to economically and diplomatically isolate Cuba has not achieved its goal of changing the regime to our liking. Instead, it has economically and diplomatically isolated the U.S.

IN CUBA

National Assembly to meet December 23rd

Ricardo Alarcón, President of Cuba’s National Assembly, has announced that the next meeting of the National Assembly will take place on December 23rd, Café Fuerte reports. The Assembly regularly meets twice each year. Its agenda was not made public, however.  December meetings often serve to evaluate the nation’s economic performance during the year and to discuss the budget of the next year. This meeting precedes a national Communist Party Conference, which is to be held on January 28th. At that conference, new policies could be approved relating to imposing government term limits and ending certain travel restrictions for Cuban nationals.

Pope confirms visit to Cuba, will announce specific dates on Monday

The Vatican has confirmed plans for Pope Benedict XVI to travel to Cuba this coming spring, and will announce specific dates on Monday, the BBC reports. The trip had been announced, but not confirmed, two weeks ago by a Vatican spokesman. A Cuban Church leader stated that the Pope would meet with government officials. Head of the Cuban Bishops Conference, Monsignor José Félix Pérez, emphasized that the primary purpose of the trip would be to honor the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint. As we reported last week, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski is planning a pilgrimage of Miami Cubans to visit the island for the Pope’s visit.

Reports of increased dissident detentions  

There have been reports of an increase in detentions of dissidents in recent days. According to an article in the Miami Herald, some 48 protesters were arrested Friday as they congregated for a march in the town of Palma Soriano. Those detained reportedly include Angel Moya and José Daniel Ferrer García, part of the group of dissidents arrested in 2003 and released earlier this year. According to the article, 38 of those detained have been freed, and Moya and Ferrer García are among those  who have yet to be released. In addition, dissidents cited in the article have reported increased brutality from police forces.

Cienfuegos refinery has produced 81.2 million barrels of oil since reopening in 2007

According to Cuban authorities, a refinery in Cienfuegos has produced 81.2 million barrels of oil since its reopening in 2007, EFE reports. The plant, which is a joint project between Cuba’s government and the regional organization ALBA, led by Venezuela, is currently undergoing an expansion. According to Humberto Padrón, the plant’s director, oil production following the completion of the expansion will help other members of Petrocaribe, a project of ALBA. According to Padrón, more than 90% of the plant’s production currently goes to serve Cuba’s national market.

2012 edition of ETECSA phonebook to include yellow pages

For the first time, Cuba’s state telecommunications company ETECSA will include a directory of services offered by cuentapropistas, Cuba’s new self-employed sector, in its annual phonebook for 2012, Juventud Rebelde reports. To have their businesses included, cuentapropistas must notify ETECSA by December 23rd and provide all the required documentation. Moreover, there is a 10 CUC (Cuban convertible peso) charge for the entry. Businesses may be listed in multiple sections of the phonebook, and will be required to pay per listing.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Raúl Castro travels to Trinidad and Tobago for Cuba-CARICOM summit

Cuba’s President Raúl Castro traveled to Trinidad and Tobago this week to attend the fourth Cuba-CARICOM summit, bringing him together with heads of state and other representatives of the member nations in the Caribbean Community, Prensa Latina reports. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss opportunities for increased cooperation and investments between Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean.

Castro gave a brief speech in which he marked 40 years since Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago made the decision to recognize and establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, at a time when Cuba maintained diplomatic relations with few other nations in the region. Castro also held private talks with Trinidad and Tobago’s president George Maxwell Richards and a meeting with Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. The Cuban delegation included Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, Vice President of the Council of Ministers Ricardo Cabrisas, and Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment Rodrigo Malmierca.

Cuba seeks to expand rice production in cooperation with Vietnam

Cuba plans to expand a cooperation project using Vietnamese techniques for rice production to 40,000 hectares, EFE reports. Roberto Cabello, of the agro-industrial group of the Ministry of Agriculture, stated that positive results have led to the possibility of a new phase in the project, describing the plan as “a collaboration that has passed through three stages, aimed at developing the cultivation of the grain in this country with Vietnamese technical assistance.”

The director of the project on the Vietnamese side, Bui Van Duong, affirmed that the project has achieved concrete results through the stages of demonstration, evaluation and production. The project began in 2002 in the eastern Granma province, and has since been implemented in other areas throughout the island. Currently, Vietnam is the principal supplier of rice to Cuba, which imports more than 400,000 tons of rice per year – about 60% of the total rice consumed by the population.

Around the Region

Journalist is shot and killed outside of her home in Honduras

Luz Marina Paz, a radio news host, was shot and killed outside of her home in Tegucigalpa, the AP reports. According to national police spokesman Luis Maradiaga, Paz and her driver were hit by dozens of bullets fired by men on two motorcycles.

Paz hosted a morning radio program called “Three in the News.” The program addressed politics and narcotics trafficking; however, the article reports that she was not especially outspoken or well-known. Paz previously worked at Radio Globo, where she was critical of the coup that overthrew former President Manuel Zelaya in June of 2009.

Human rights advocates say that at least 23 journalists have been killed in Honduras since 2007.

This most recent killing comes as Rep. Howard Berman, ranking member the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, expressed his concern about human rights conditions in Honduras in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The letter expresses concern about allegations of human rights violations by the military and police and the judicial impunity these institutions have received. In addition, there are concerns about the “dangerous intrusion of the military into basic police functions,” especially “due to the lack of institutional checks and balances” on these bodies in Honduras, and about the links of these with drug trafficking and other criminal organizations.

Recommended Listening

Cuba Central Interview with Dr. Richard Anthes: On the Climate for U.S.-Cuba Weather Cooperation, Center for Democracy in the Americas

In late November, Dr. Richard A. Anthes, one of our nation’s distinguished atmospheric scientists, visited Cuba and participated in talks with Cuban counterparts and in the 6th Cuban Meteorology Congress. Upon his return, we talked with Dr. Anthes via Skype to get his assessment of the U.S. scientific interest in working with the Cubans on weather-related issues and to learn what obstacles exist to effective collaboration.

You can listen to the exclusive News Blast interview or read the transcript here.  You can learn more about Cuba and hurricane preparedness from this publication, produced by the Center for International Policy.

Recommended Reading

A Cuban Conundrum, William M LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh

Two highly respected scholars on the history of U.S.-Cuba negotiations published an op-ed column this week on Alan Gross and how the U.S. government should approach getting him home.
A Western Hemisphere, minus the U.S., Los Angeles Times editorial

The Los Angeles Times’ editorial board criticizes legislators whose hardline policies toward the region have contributed to isolating the U.S. from Latin America.

Factbox: Key political risks to watch in Cuba, Jeff Franks, Reuters

“The success or failure of Cuba’s economic reforms will be the key issue to watch in the next year as the government moves to strengthen the economy and ensure survival of the island’s communist system once the current aging leadership is gone. The cash-strapped government is looking for ways to cut spending while increasing income, and could get long-term help if offshore oil exploration slated to begin in 2011 is successful. All this occurs against a backdrop of only slightly tempered hostility with the United States, including an ongoing dispute over a U.S. contractor held by the Cubans on suspicion of spying.”

Tampa business leaders hope to strengthen ties with Cuba, Mimi Whitfield, the Miami Herald

The Miami Herald reports on the emergence of Tampa as a gateway for travel to Cuba, championed by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor despite the dissenting views of a powerful champion of hardline exiles in Miami.

A Final Word…

What a sadness.

Dr. Héctor Silva, one of the most respected political figures in El Salvador, died of an aneurism on December 8th, collapsing during a presentation on the politics of transparency and corruption at the Presidential Palace. The government agency he directed, FISDL (Social Investment Fund for Local Development) was recently acknowledged as a model of transparency.

Dr. Silva, 64, was born in Boston, Massachusetts and educated at University of El Salvador where he received his doctorate in 1972 and later trained at University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins. He was active in the Christian Democratic Youth in the 1970s, then a member of the FDR (Democratic Revolutionary Front) in El Salvador until his exile to Mexico in 1980. He returned to El Salvador in 1988 where he was a founder of the Democratic Convergence (CD) party. He was the first FMLN mayor of San Salvador, where he served two terms (1997-2003) and was respected for his skill as a negotiator and his leadership in modernizing municipal governance. He later served one term as a deputy in the National Assembly. San Salvadoran newspaper El Faro published this homage (in Spanish).

“He was one of the most noble men El Salvador has had,” said CD Deputy Douglas Aviles. Minister of Justice and Security Munguía Payés described Silva as “a man who always fought for democracy in the country and for the benefit of Salvadorans.”  And Assembly President Sigfrido Reyes said he was a man “dedicated to his work and his mission…El Salvador has lost a great citizen.” In addition, U.S. Representative Jim McGovern released a statement that referred to Silva as “an extraordinary leader and advocate for human rights and democracy,” one of the “greatest champions” of the Salvadoran people.

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