Cuban Prisoners Released; U.S. Inspects and OK’s Drilling Rig; a Tale of Two Visits

Just before Christmas, in an address before Cuba’s National Assembly, President Raúl Castro announced that the Council of State agreed to pardon more than 2,900 prisoners.  The list reflected reviews by various Cuban state institutions, requests from family members, and “a number of religious institutions,” he said, including the Council of  Churches and the Conference of Catholic Bishops.

He continued:  “The announced visit to Cuba by Pope Benedict XVI and the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, have also been taken into account.”

In relation to the Pope’s visit, President Castro said:

Our people and government will have the honor of welcoming His Holiness with affection and respect.

We Cubans have not forgotten the sentiments of friendship and respect left in 1998 by the presence on our soil of Pope John Paul II.

Pretty significant. Cuba’s Catholic Church and the Vatican have pursued a policy of engagement with Cuba’s government and reaped the rewards that flow from the position of respect from which they have operated.   Releases of political prisoners in 2010 and 2011 – as well as the actions undertaken in December –demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach.

Elements of Pope Benedict’s itinerary were released this week; among the highlights:  he will celebrate Mass in Revolutionary Plaza in Havana before an audience that will include Cuban Americans from Miami who are now organizing a pilgrimage to be among the faithful.

News about his plans, however, may well have been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding another visit to Cuba, by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

We do not minimize in any way the concern people feel about Iran’s nuclear program and the threat that nuclear weapons pose to world peace.

But while the reaction it generated may have obscured the news about the Pope’s itinerary, we think in the tale of these two visits, we expect more to come from his visit in March than anyone has to fear from the visit of Iran’s president this week.

The Pope’s trip– coming at a time when Cuba is reforming its economy and considering changes in areas like migration that can give greater opportunity to Cuba’s people – can be as historic and meaningful as his predecessor’s in 1998.

This is the power, even the magic, of engagement.


Cuba releasing 2,900 prisoners in lead-up to Pope’s visit next spring

On December 23rd, Raúl Castro announced in a speech to Cuba’s National Assembly that the ruling Council of State had decided to grant amnesty to 2,900 prisoners, adding that the Council of State had “taken into account” the upcoming Papal visit, scheduled for this coming spring, as well as requests by Catholic Church officials in Cuba and family members of the prisoners, among others, in deciding on the release.

Alan Gross, the American contractor in jail since December 2009, was not included in the amnesty. Those to be released include many prisoners who are more than 60 years old, female prisoners, people who are ill, youth, and some first-time offenders. Also freed were 86 foreigners, convicted of drug trafficking or prostitution.

Four days after the announcement, the AP reported that the government seemed to be making good on its promise, and had already freed some 2,500 prisoners.  In 2010 and 2011, Cuba freed more than 100 political prisoners in a deal negotiated between the government and the Catholic Church.

In other highlights of his National Assembly address, President Castro:

  • Reported that the Cuban economy under-performed to expectations and blamed smaller than predicted economic growth on a lack of investment and shortages of inputs for agriculture, the food industry, and construction;
  • Ramped up his rhetoric regarding his government’s commitment to the fight against corruption, citing examples of fraudulent agriculture sales and the theft and slaughter of beef cattle, and declared that the Cuban state will treat corruption as harshly as it dealt with the threat posed by drug trafficking;
  • Promised to welcome Pope Benedict to Cuba with “affection and respect,” and paid tribute to the late John Paul II’s visit to Cuba in 1998; and,
  • Said that “family ties,” in a reference to the Cuban diaspora in the U.S., demonstrate how positive relations with the U.S. could be, despite – in his view – the disappointing performance of the Obama administration in its relationship with Cuba.

Raúl Castro attempts to tone down expectations for Party Conference in press comments

In rare comments made to the press upon the departure of Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Raúl Castro stated that people should not raise their expectations so high regarding the Party Conference scheduled for the end of this month, adding that the Conference is an “internal matter,” EFE reports. He added:

The Conference is in progress, but there’s no reason to have so many expectations… the Party Congress was the definitive [event]. Now it’s an internal party matter of perfecting it.

The president’s comments seemed to be aimed at toning down expectations surrounding the upcoming Conference, perhaps including speculation that a reform or relaxation of migration policy could be announced.

In a post from her blog Generation  Y, entitled “Conference Rhymes with Patience” (as it does, in Spanish), Yoani Sánchez comments on general skepticism leading up to the conference, and regarding the reform process in general.

Details released on dates of Pope’s visit and Miami pilgrimage

The Cuban Catholic Church released dates and a partial itinerary for Pope Benedict XVI’s planned trip this spring, now confirmed for March 26-28, the AP reports.

The Pope will arrive in the western city of Santiago, where he will be received by President Raúl Castro and then driven through the city in the “Popemobile.” The next day, he will visit the sanctuary of Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre, about 12 miles west of Santiago. The Pope will then fly to Havana, where he will meet with Cardinal Jaime Ortega and other Church leaders, followed by a private meeting with President Castro. Finally, on the 28th, Pope Benedict will perform mass in Havana’s Revolution Plaza, the same site where Pope John Paul II gave mass to hundreds of thousands of attendees in 1998.

Pope Benedict’s trip is shorter than Pope John Paul’s 1998 visit, when he stayed in Cuba for five days and visited the cities of Santa Clara and Camagüey, in addition to Santiago and Havana.

The Virgin of Caridad del Cobre completed its 16-month tour of the island at the end of December, and on December 30th some 3,000 people attended a ceremony celebrating the return of the saint to its sanctuary at El Cobre Basílica, Reuters reports. Cardinal Jaime Ortega led the mass, giving a speech that encouraged Cuba’s economic reforms and called for reconciliation between Cubans at home and abroad:

Our people appreciate peace as a superior good and have prayed much asking the Virgin of Charity that it include reconciliation…Mother, come again over the sometimes agitated waves of our history, and with your mantle, that the waters can never dampen, cover all the Cubans, also those that live outside of Cuba.

Thomas Wenski, Archbishop of Miami who was also in attendance, echoed Ortega’s sentiment, reports the Miami Herald.  “I’ve been able to come here today as a way of expressing that the Cuban people wherever they are, are still one people,” he told reporters. In regards to Pope Benedict’s upcoming visit to the statue’s shrine in El Cobre, Wenski said he thought that “a lot of Catholics here in South Florida would be very happy to be able to participate in the pope’s visit in some way…This is the closest Pope Benedict has come to South Florida.”

Archbishop Wenski also announced details of his planned pilgrimage of Cuban Americans to the island for the Papal visit, EFE reports. The pilgrims will attend the Pope’s mass on March 26th in Santiago, and then fly to Havana to attend the mass there, returning to the U.S. on March 29th.

Economic reforms advance in agriculture, restaurants and housing

Cuba’s government will lease more than 200 formerly state-run cafeterias to private owners in the western province of Holguín this year, Reuters reports. The cafes will be leased out as part of an experimental program that has not been reported on by the national media, presumably because it will go nationwide sometime in the future, according to the article.

State-run cafes, which have existed since the Cuban Revolution, have long been criticized for their dreary appearance and for having bad service and food. This new program comes as the cafeterias for the first time are facing stiff competition from more attractive, privately-run restaurants, cafes, and snack shops, following the liberalization of restrictions on such businesses. Another article from Reuters reports on last year’s boom in home-based restaurants, called paladares, noting that more than 1,000 were registered in less than 14 months.

The Cuba Standard reports on developments since the government’s December 2nd decree enabling direct food sales from agricultural cooperatives to restaurants and hotels catering to the tourism industry.  According to the article, state newspaper Juventud Rebelde reported that 71 agreements for direct food sales between agricultural producers and tourism companies had been confirmed as of last week. The first agreement was signed in early December, between a farm cooperative in the province of Matanzas and a hotel in Varadero.

Finally, an article by Marc Frank in Reuters reports on Cuba’s booming housing market, which has arisen after the purchase and sale of homes was legalized in November. Frank reports that throughout smaller provinces, “For Sale” signs adorn windows of houses, and buyers walk streets looking at the homes they hear about by word of mouth, as access to Internet and other means of advertising are limited. He also reports that most houses are being bought with the help of family abroad, which can provide the hard cash necessary to purchase homes, quoting one possible seller who stated “We want $35,000 and have a possible buyer, but she is checking with her family in Miami.”


Offshore drilling rig gets “OK” following U.S. inspection in Trinidad and Tobago

As part of an effort to alleviate concerns, the U.S. Coast Guard and officials from the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement finished their inspection of Scarabeo 9, the offshore drilling platform destined for Cuba, reports the Miami Herald.

The inspection was completed on Monday off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago with the goal of protecting U.S. economic and environmental interests from the ramifications of a major oil spill. Repsol, the Spanish company in charge of the drilling project, invited the United States to inspect the platform and has agreed to adhere to U.S. requirements once they begin drilling, though the platform will function in Cuba’s Exclusive Economic Zone and does not require U.S. approval to operate.

Inspectors compared conditions on the platform with international safety and security standards in addition to U.S. drilling standards for operating in the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf.  The inspection found that the platform generally complies with existing regulations, but does not grant any type of certification or endorsement.

In comments made exclusively to Cuba Central, Dr. Lee Hunt, President of the International Association of Drilling Contractors, had this to say about the inspection:

This comports with our position that Repsol is a reputable exploration and production operator and Saipem (the rig’s owner and operator)  is a world class deepwater drilling contractor. We should expect nothing less than this positive report.

While it is gratifying to see the high level of cooperation given by Repsol to the U.S. government agencies such as BSEE and USCG, the fact remains that the embargo continues to inhibit their access to timely and adequate spill response, capping and containment.  Again this safeguard can be remedied by State and OFAC with licenses that will enable, not hinder, protection of the environmental and economic resources of both the U.S. and Cuban people.

Dan Whittle, Cuba program director for the Environmental Defense Fund, who called the inspection “a significant good first step, still offered caution about the inspection saying, “In and of itself, it’s not enough.  It makes me want to know more.”

As we went to press, an article published in the Miami Herald reported that upon passing inspection, the rig could arrive in the Florida straits in two weeks.

Tampa is No. 2 airport for Cuba flights

Tampa’s weekly charter flights to Havana and Holguín, Cuba are proving so successful; they are now selling more seats than longer established flights from the cities of New York and Los Angeles, Tampa Bay Online reports.

Tessie Aral of ABC Charters stated “We are doing very well…How well things go in the spring will be affected by the economy.” Three charter airlines currently host flights between Tampa and Havana, while ABC Charters added a service to Holguín in Novembers. These four weekly flights still pale in comparison with the number of flights from Miami, which average around 60 per week.

But Tampa’s sizeable Cuban community, the third largest in the nation, is expected to maintain a strong demand for the flights, presenting an opportunity for further growth. Steve Michelini, a director of World Trade Center Tampa Bay, who traveled with a delegation of seven to Cuba on a trade mission last September, stated, “If you expect Cuba to be open, with most restrictions gone in another five years, it’s time now to begin planting seeds to work on relationships.”

Republican convention in Tampa expected to highlight Cuba

Tampa Bay Online also predicts that Cuba will gain attention as a foreign policy issue leading up to the Republican Convention which will be held in Tampa beginning August 27th.   With the exception of Ron Paul, the Republican presidential candidates oppose lifting the embargo or loosening restrictions on trade and travel between Cuba and the United States.  Former Governor Mitt Romney listed Cuba as a “rogue nation” in a 43-page white paper, along with Venezuela, Iran and North Korea.

With the Republican convention taking place in electoral vote rich Florida, the article predicts a spotlight on the state’s sizeable Hispanic vote – which is dominated by Latinos of Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban descent – as well as on the rising prominence of the state’s junior senator, Marco Rubio, and his prospects for nomination as Vice President.


Iran’s President visits Cuba, meets with President Raúl Castro and Fidel Castro

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Cuba Wednesday night as a part of his Latin America tour, and was received by Cuba’s Vice-President Esteban Lazo at Jose Martí International Airport, the BBC reports. That evening, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Havana. The next day, he met with President Raúl Castro to discuss the “excellent status” of relations between the two nations, CubaDebate reports. He then met with former President Fidel Castro, reportedly for a two-hour chat, reports the AP.

Some analysts have suggested that this Latin America tour, which included stops in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, was aimed at showing that Iran maintains allies, despite increasing tensions with the U.S. and the European Union.

Canada’s Foreign Minister for Latin America softens Cuba rhetoric before trip to the island

Diane Ablonczy, Canada’s Foreign Minister for Latin America, softened some of her country’s previous stances towards Cuba in statements this week, including expressing praise for the process of economic reform, Canadian Business reports. Ablonczy stated that “We see a very significant process of economic reform and liberalization in Cuba,” in an interview leading up to a trip to the island. However, she added that “Political change is not what Cuban leadership has in mind,” indicating that an opening in the political system might not follow the reforms. She did maintain that “Canada, as an investor in Cuba, with lots of people-to-people contact, wants to play as positive and constructive role as possible.”

Canada and Cuba are key trading partners. Millions of Canadian tourists visit Cuba each year, and two-way trade topped $1billion in 2010. Sherritt International, a Canadian oil and gas company, is the largest foreign investor in Cuba, and partners with the Cuban government to control much of the island’s natural resource exploitation, including natural gas and nickel. Ablonczy has largely been supportive of opening relations in the region, and added that such openings can lead to “important human rights advancement in these countries, providing the economic opportunity that is often key for people breaking free from tyranny and oppression.”

Cuban hospital inaugurated in Dukhan City, Qatar

Qatar’s Emir, H H Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, formally opened a 75-bed hospital in the Dukhan City, Qatar, The Peninsula reports. The inauguration was attended by the Cuban Health Minister, Dr. Roberto Morales Ojeda, and a documentary film about the hospital was shown. The Emir unveiled a memorial plaque and toured its wings, later attending a luncheon banquet.

The state-of-the-art hospital was funded, built and equipped by Qatar. Cuba has provided more than 200 medical professionals, including doctors, nurses, and specialists in the fields of rehabilitation, dentistry, pathology, biomedicine and radiology. Its outpatient clinics opened mid-year in 2011, serving patients taken on a referral basis. A statement issued by the Supreme Council of Health affirms:

The Cuban hospital is a modern facility which has not only been designed to meet the present population and workforce requirements, but it has the possibility of expanding to provide more services to  greater numbers of people in future. Hence, it represents a focal point to promote the integration of the medical care with the other activities of prevention and health education to people in the neighboring western areas of Qatar.

Around the Region

Former Salvadoran soldiers receive Spain’s extradition request

El Salvador’s government has announced that it received formal extradition requests from Spain for thirteen former military officers who have been implicated in the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their house keeper and her daughter, the New York Times reports. Five of the priests were Spanish, and Spain hopes to try a total of fifteen Salvadoran officers, two of whom currently reside in the U.S.

An INTERPOL “red alert” was issued for the soldiers last year, but the Salvadoran Supreme Court did not extradite, stating that such alerts required the location, and not detention and extradition, of the persons indicted.

El Salvador’s Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez stated that the request has been forwarded to the high court for consideration.

Chávez names ally accused of drug ties by U.S. as his new defense minister

Hugo Chávez has appointed as his new Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva, a powerful general and close personal ally who has been accused by the U.S. of drug trafficking, the Washington Post reports.

In a speech in the central Venezuelan city of Guarane, Chavez announced that Rangel will be taking over the ministry from Gen. Carlos Mata Figueroa. The U.S. has accused Rangel of aiding drug traffickers and arming the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, including him among three other members of Chávez’s inner circle in its Foreign Narcotics Kingpins list in 2008. Rangel’s inclusion on the list meant that any assets he had in the U.S. were frozen and Americans were barred from doing business with him. Chavez has vehemently denied the charges, calling Rangel a “revolutionary soldier.”

Another article from the New York Times analyzes the appointment, its potential motivations and its likelihood of further straining already frigid relations with the United States.

Arbitration panel reduces award to Exxon Mobil for nationalized Venezuelan oil

An international arbitration panel awarded some $908 million to Exxon Mobil for oil assets in Venezuela nationalized in 2007, the Wall Street Journal reports. Analysts are calling the verdict a victory for Chávez and a setback for Exxon, which had been demanding $7 billion.

According to Exxon spokesman Patrick McGinn, the $908 million “represents recovery on a limited, contractual liability of PDVSA that was provided for in the Cerro Negro project agreement.” Petroleos de Venezuela SA, Venezuela’s state oil company, called the verdict a “successful defense” and said that it would pay $255 million over the next 60 days, after subtracting existing debts.

Recommended Reading

Time to clean up U.S. regime-change programs in Cuba, Fulton Armstrong

A former senior staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Fulton Armstrong, wrote this about the Alan Gross case:  “When a covert action run by the CIA goes bad and a clandestine officer gets arrested, the U.S. government works up a strategy for negotiating his release. When a covert operator working for USAID gets arrested, Washington turns up the rhetoric, throws more money at the compromised program, and refuses to talk.”

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

“Cuba has opened more of its retail services to the private sector and liberalized land lease terms so farmers can rent more state land and keep it in the family as reforms aimed at fortifying the socialist system for the future continue.”

Cuba wraps up dramatic year of economic change, Paul Haven, the Associated Press

“A year at the vanguard of Cuba’s economic revival has not brought Julio Cesar Hidalgo riches…Yet the wide-faced 31-year-old says he is grateful to be in business at all. A year ago, Hidalgo was concocting chalky pastries in a Spartan state-run bakery where employees and managers competed to pilfer eggs, flour and olive oil, the only way to make ends meet on salaries of just $15 a month. Today, he is his own boss, a taxpayer, employer and entrepreneur.”

Holding Honduras Accountable, Los Angeles Times Editorial Board

“Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, according to the United Nations, and its government has long been plagued by allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. A 2009 military coup deepened political rifts and eroded public trust in democratic institutions. And a recent Human Rights Watch report found that officials have yet to bring to justice many of those allegedly responsible for violations committed after the coup.”

Recommended Viewing

Many Cubans unhappy with pace of change, Tom Ackerman, Al Jazeera

“After a year of economic reforms, Cuba marks the 53rd anniversary of its communist revolution. The latest reforms saw carpenters, locksmiths and photographers able to operate independently of the state, but many Cubans feel that this is insufficient.”

Recommended Listening

Pope to Visit Cuba to Endorse Church’s Growing Role, NPR

Nick Miroff, a correspondent for NPR, previews Pope Benedict’s upcoming trip to Cuba, in this report heard on NPR.

A Final Word

Our thanks to Dr. Phil Brenner and Dr. Dan Hellinger for their excellent essays on Cuba in 2012 and the political situation in Venezuela.  We appreciate their analysis and their willingness to pitch in over the holidays.

We also owe many of our readers a big debt of gratitude.  As 2011 drew to a close, we made several appeals to our readership for financial support – support we need to do the best possible job on preparing this publication.

We offered as an inducement a financial match, provided by a generous donor to the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), and the promise that we would continue to make the Cuba Central News Blast a high quality and “go to” source of information about Cuba and U.S.-Cuba relations.  We are deeply gratified by the response which was prompt and generous.  We send our thanks to the readers who wrote us checks and signaled their support for our work.

As we like to say around CDA, more to follow.

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