The Freedom to Travel: Where are you going for the holidays?

The Associated Press reported this morning that Miami International Airport is jammed with Cuban Americans traveling to the island to celebrate the holidays with their families.

After the threat that Christmas in Cuba would be cancelled by the U.S. Congress, this is a joyous moment.

These family reunifications have been taking place in increasing numbers since President Obama totally eliminated restrictions on family travel (and financial support) in 2009.  It is our hope that the momentum behind this decent, humane policy will protect it against the inevitable political attacks we anticipate seeing in 2012 and beyond.

“Stopping it?” Professor Andy Garcia said to the AP.  “Impossible. It is the people-to-people contact we want and need, and it is already happening.”  This is wonderful for people in the U.S. with family in Cuba.

Unfortunately, there are two sets of bystanders waiting for these liberties to be commonly shared.

For most U.S. citizens, travel to Cuba remains forbidden fruit, despite the loosening of the rules by President Obama early in 2011 which restored categories of non-tourist travel that were abolished by President Bush.

The restrictions that still exist for the overwhelming majorities of Americans make no sense.

A goal of U.S. policy – bringing more information to the Cuban people – remains unfulfilled by Cold War era impediments to travel that block contact, exchange, and engagement by Americans with everyday Cubans unless they can fit into a category crafted by Congress and approved by the executive branch.

To say the least, it is an affront to our constitutional rights and awkward for a country that so often lectures others about liberty.

By the same token, the Cuban government continues to impede the right of its citizens to travel.  The difficulty Cubans encounter should they want to leave the island and return is, as Reuters reports, “one of the biggest gripes about life under the government in power since Cuba’s 1959 revolution.”

As a 60-year old woman told Freedom House earlier this year, “I wish we had more freedoms to travel, I wish people could go out of Cuba for vacations.”

In the hours before we went to press, Cuba’s National Assembly was meeting to hear from President Raúl Castro about the status of the Cuban economy.  There had been speculation, as the Associated Press reported, that the parliament might ease the “travel restrictions that keep most Cubans from ever leaving the island.”  Whether or not this happens today, it is inevitable.

Our organization, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, has received a license from the U.S. Treasury Department to organize legal trips to Cuba, which we have done for better part of a decade for delegations that regularly include U.S. policy makers.

We have spent wondrous days and evenings in the company of everyday Cubans – artists, academics, and others – with rare opportunities to talk, listen, and understand each other better.

We always leave such encounters hoping that meetings like these will, someday, no longer be rare but commonplace; sparked by people who got together because they could and not because they belonged to the right family or asked their government’s permission to travel so they could enjoy a freedom that should belong to everyone.

Wherever you – our readers – are going for the holidays, we wish you safe travels.

In the meanwhile, this week in Cuba news….

IN CUBA

New housing laws are under way

More than360 home sales took place during the last weeks of November, following the legalization of the purchase and sale of homes on November 10th, EFE reports.  In a statement before the Parliament Commission of Industry and Construction, the National Housing Institute said there have been an additional 1,579 donations and 409 house swapping transactions. As part of Cuba’s economic reforms, Cubans now enjoy unprecedented flexibility in property transactions and the law now allows the sale, donation, or swap of homes as long as all properties are registered with current information.

New credit laws go into effect

A new credit law has gone into effect allowing small business owners, farmers, and those looking to repair or improve upon their homes to take out bank loans, IPS reports. Radio Cadena Agramonte reports that farmers holding a land lease or ownership title can request a minimum credit of 500 pesos; those interested in purchasing building materials and paying for labor associated with home construction may request a minimum of 1,000 pesos, and the self-employed can request a minimum of 3,000 Cuban pesos. 500 bank offices have been set up across the country to grant credit and provide financial advice.

Government lowers taxes on entrepreneurs, now numbering more than 357,000

Cuban state media has announced that individual income taxes will be decreased and the taxes that contracted workers must pay will be revised in an effort to provide them greater financial resources and flexibility, El Universal reports. However, the report did not give specifics, or reveal when the changes would take effect or what labor categories they would apply to.

Deputy Labor and Social Security Minister José Barreiro announced before the Parliament’s Committee on Economic Affairs this week that there are currently 357,663 self-employed workers in Cuba – more than double the 157,000 reported in October 2010, Prensa Latina reports.

Phil Peters’ Cuban Triangle breaks down the numbers here.

Cuba changes laws on land leases to farmers in attempt to increase productivity

Cuba’s government has changed the land lease laws applying to small farmers, allowing them to rent more land and keep it in their family as if they own it, Reuters reports. The article cites statements from small farmers, adding that the measures were adopted at a meeting of the Council of Ministers and have not yet been publicly announced. The farmers, in a phone interview, reported that they were told in local meetings that they will be able to lease up to 165 acres of land from the state beginning in January, and that leases would last up to 25 years. Currently the maximums are set at 33 acres for 10 years, the same numbers as when the program began in 2008. Farmer Anselmo Hernández stated:

These measures deal with many of the problems we face and give us security in terms of our work…Twenty-five years is a life-time of work and faced with whatever problem the family will be the benefactor of what we have done.

To date, more than 150,000 farmers have leased 4 million acres of land from the government. Many complaints surrounding the program addressed the size of land plots, and the 10-year limit on leases. This week, the Cuban Parliament’s Agrifood Committee advocated for a more efficient process for handing over idle land, Cuban New Agency reports. Pedro Olivera, Director of the National Center of Land Control, related that applications for land grants often take more than 108 days to be processed, adding that there are currently over two thousand overdue applications.

Cuba estimates 4 million ton oil output in 2011

Tomás Benítez , Cuba’s Minister of Basic Industry, stated that the national industry produced an estimated 4 million tons of oil in 2011, EFE reports. A report issued by the Energy and Environment Committee stated that this year’s production is over 98% of planned output and attributed the shortfall to technological difficulties and low results at some new wells.

Cuba has big plans for developing an offshore drilling program in its Exclusive Economic Zone. Scarabeo 9, an Italian-funded, Chinese-built drilling platform, is set to arrive in Trinidad and Tobago en route to Cuba around Christmas, Reuters reports.

To read CDA’s publication about U.S. policy and Cuba oil drilling, click here.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Vatican delegation visits Cuba to prepare for Papal visit, President Raúl Castro declares that Cuba will accept the Pope with “affection and respect”

A delegation from the Vatican visited Cuba this week in preparation for the Pope’s announced visit to Cuba next Spring, EFE reports. President Raúl Castro met with the delegation headed by Alberto Gasparri, the principal organizer of the Pope’s international travels. During the meeting, the Vatican delegation discussed planning for the trip, and President Castro affirmed that he would greet the Pope with “affection and respect.”

The trip will be followed by a stop in Mexico, and is timed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint. It will mark Pope Benedict XVI’s second trip to Latin America; he visited Brazil in 2007.

Canadian banks look towards Cuba

The Financial Post reports that two of Canada’s biggest banks have begun quietly building relations with Cuba for the first time since 1959. The Bank of Nova Scotia recently applied to open an office in Havana to focus on trade finance, while the Royal Bank of Canada is reportedly in the early stages of discussing a potential venture on the island. They will be joining Canada’s sixth-largest bank, National, which has had a representative office in Havana since 1995, the Globe and Mail reports.

 

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Broadcasting Board of Governors finds misuse of power in layoffs at Radio Martí

Radio/TV Martí, the broadcast operation with little-to-no audience in Cuba, but serves a source of employment and funding for Miami, was the subject of an investigation by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the Washington Post reports. The BBG’s 94-page decision on the case brought against its Office of Cuba Broadcasting determined that management misused power to demote or terminate employees in the guise of a reduction of force (RIF).

Arbitrator S.R. Butler stated that a 2009 RIF was “engineered and targeted at certain employees for reasons personal to them,” adding that the former Office of Cuba Broadcasting director Pedro Riog

…knew that, by sequencing certain reassignments of certain employees, he could shield employees whom he regarded as supporters and punish, maybe even get rid of, other employees who had spoken critically to GAO (Government Accountability Office) investigators — all under cover of a probably-upcoming budget reduction that could be used to justify a RIF — and no one would ever be the wiser. (He was wrong.)

Butler added that BBG management in Washington “either looked the other way or actively continued…Riog’s improperly motivated RIF plan,” and concludes that “the record as a whole convinces the Arbitrator that this was an improperly-motivated RIF from the beginning, and must be reversed in toto.”

This would mean that people laid-off in 2009 could return to their jobs with back pay. BBG spokesman Letitia King stated that the agency plans to appeal the decision.

Sen. Marco Rubio continues to hold Western Hemisphere nominees

Florida Senator Marco Rubio is blocking two of President Obama’s Western Hemisphere nominees to express his continued opposition to changes this year in U.S. Cuba travel policy, the Hill reports. In a speech to the U.S. Senate, Rubio said that he had inquired with the State Department about two specific “people-to-people” travel itineraries by a New York company.  What Senator Rubio called the State Department’s unsatisfactory response prompted him to resume the holds on the nominees:

Then I got this letter today that, to summarize, basically says: ‘Thank you for your letter, but we can’t talk to you about it’. That is not what I expected to get, and so we are going to hold those nominations again until we take this seriously.

Rubio is holding the nominations of Adam Namm to be Ambassador to Ecuador and of Roberta Jacobson for Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere. His announcement comes a week after he spearheaded the successful filibuster of Mari Carmen Aponte’s nomination to be Ambassador to El Salvador. According to the Washington Post, he told GOP colleagues at a lunch last Thursday that he would be willing to drop the holds on Jacobson and Namm and vote to break the filibuster on Aponte if the State Department agreed to change Cuba travel policy and adopt a more aggressive stance towards Nicaragua.

University baseball team from Michigan to play series, distribute humanitarian aid in Cuba

Michigan’s Grand Valley State University has announced that its baseball team will be traveling to Havana for a series of exhibition games in early January. The GVSU program will also be working in collaboration with First Hand Aid, a Grand Rapids-based organization that works to provide Cubans with humanitarian aid. In addition to scheduled games, the students will help deliver medical supplies to hospitals and clinics, and will also donate athletic equipment to various youth organizations. “We are looking forward to the opportunity to take this trip and compete against some of the best baseball players in the world,” said head baseball coach Steve Lyon. He added that he expects the humanitarian work to enrich the players’ experience in the country.

This marks the second time that a university baseball team will travel to Cuba for friendly matches – in 2008, a team from the University of Alabama played several exhibition games in Havana, reports Café Fuerte.

Around the Region

MERCOSUR summit concludes in Montevideo with agreement to increase tariffs

The summit of regional trade organization MERCOSUR met in Montevideo, Uruguay this Monday and Tuesday, Reuters reports. At the summit, member countries Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay agreed to raise tariffs on imports 35% in order to protect national industries from what Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff labeled “an avalanche of predatory imports that jeopardize growth and employment.”

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez attended the meeting in his first official trip abroad since he revealed that he was diagnosed with cancer this June. Chávez stated, “I’ve overcome the most difficult phase of this cancer… I’m fully back on my feet and here to make a strong play for Latin America’s integration and unity.” Venezuela appealed once again to be integrated as a full member of the trade bloc, a move that continues to be blocked by Paraguayan legislators.

During the summit, the organization also signed a free trade agreement with the Palestinian territories, marking the first trade deal between Palestine and a bloc of nations outside of the Arab world, Fox News Latino reports. The deal remains largely symbolic, however, as Israel strictly controls imports and exports involving the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The January 6th 2012 edition of the news blast will consist of analysis on Venezuela’s upcoming election, its potential impact on Cuba, and efforts to increase integration in the Hemisphere by Dr. Dan Hellinger.

Peace Corps announces scale-back in Central America

Increasing violence has led the Peace Corps to announce that it will pull out of Honduras, and stop sending new volunteers to Guatemala and El Salvador, the New York Times reports. 158 volunteers were withdrawn from Honduras in January, and the training of 29 other recruits was halted. Aaron S. Williams, director of the Peace Corps, stated that the organization plans to “conduct a full review of the program.” For now, officials have decided to keep 355 volunteers already in Guatemala and El Salvador but will not send the 76 recruits scheduled to begin training there next month, instead sending them to other countries.

While Kristina Edmunson, a Peace Corps spokeswoman in Washington, stated that the decision was based on “comprehensive safety and security concerns,” rather than any specific incidents, a blog portal for volunteers has an entry that refers to a volunteer being shot in an armed robbery in Honduras. Edmunson stated that from time to time the organization withdraws or restricts work in the countries where it has volunteers.

Recommended Viewing

The Gardens of the Queen, Anderson Cooper, 60 Minutes

The world has lost 25% of its coral reefs and, according to Dr. David Guggenheim, another 25% is at risk over the next twenty years if nothing is done to protect them.  Guggenheim likens coral reefs to undersea rain forests; the threat to their existence is an urgent, existential, environmental crisis.

What 60 Minutes learned is that coral reefs in Cuban waters and protected by the Cuban government have experienced long-term growth in their fish populations and enjoy unique health by comparison.  The story of these invaluable treasures is told in this video presented by Anderson Cooper and explained by David Guggenheim.

Recommended Reading

Cuban Americans stream to the island for the holidays, Laura Wides-Munoz, the Associated Press

“President Barack Obama allowed unlimited family visits by Cuban-Americans shortly after taking office and removed the $1,200 annual cap on remittances. Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but the Cuban government said earlier this year it expected about 500,000 U.S. visitors annually, the vast majority of them Cuban-Americans.”

Poverty and Progress: poverty continues to fall in Latin America, The Economist

“The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) reckons that 31.4% of the region’s population was living below national poverty lines in 2010. This maintains a steady fall from a peak of 48.4% in 1990. Since 1999, most countries have made strides toward reducing poverty.”

A Cuban dissident remembers Hitchens, Miriam Leiva, Slate

In this tribute, Cuban dissident Miriam Leiva writes about her and her husband’s interactions with Vanity Fair journalist Christopher Hitchens and his family.

In Cuba property thaw, new hope for a decayed icon, Andrea Rodríguez, the Associated Press

“…along the Malecon, many buildings are dank, labyrinthine tenements bursting beyond capacity, plagued by mold and reeking of backed-up sewer drains. Paint peels away from plaster, and the saline air rusts iron bars to dust. Some buildings have collapsed entirely, their propped-up facades testimony to a more dignified architectural era. Now, for the first time since the 1959 revolution, a new law that permits the sale of real estate has transformed these buildings into extremely valuable properties.”

Hemingway’s granddaughter in Cuba marks 50th anniversary of his suicide, Lori Smith, People

“Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel returned to his Cuban home on the 50th anniversary of the famous author’s suicide. Fifty-year-old actress and author Mariel, who is named after a Cuban fishing village that was a favorite of her father Jack and grandfather, visited his Cuban home last month after a restoration project which took two years.”

Cuban Hip Hop Has Its Magic: Interview with Magia López, Yusimi Rodríguez, Havana Times

“One of the emblematic groups of Cuban hip hop is the duo ‘Obsesion,’ made up by Alexei Rodríguez (aka: El tipo este) and Magia Lopez, who is also the manager of the Cuban Rap Agency.  This year they won an award in the Cuban ‘Lucas’ music video clip competition and another one at the Cubadisco awards in the category of rap music for their new recording El Disco Negro.”

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