Cuba debated in Florida primary; Inquiry seeks to stop people-to-people travel; Brazil’s president to visit Cuba next week

As we predicted last week and wrote about in the Huffington Post, the primary campaign in Florida has turned into a Cuba policy pander-fest.

Three of the four candidates campaigning for the Republican nomination to be president promised to overthrow the Cuban government, returning U.S. policy toward Cuba and the region to the Cold War footing that existed in the 1960s.

Legislators in the U.S. Congress echoed the candidates’ calls for a cutback in travel to Cuba and opened an inquiry into a people to people travel program authorized by the U.S. government and sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.

Apparently missing the memo about avoiding travel to the island, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, prepared to visit Cuba, meet with President Castro, and sign pacts to expand cooperation with the Cuban government.

President Rousseff will visit the island on Tuesday just as Cuba’s Communist Party Conference will complete its meeting this weekend which, according to President Raúl Castro, will focus on internal party issues – though many had hoped for new announcements on economic reforms and migration.

In a snapshot, the week’s events reminded us of how U.S. policy toward Cuba remains suspended in a state of arrested development, still struggling to escape the politics and ideas of the Cold War, unable to contemplate economic reforms, oil drilling, or the broader changes taking place in Cuba, while Brazil – like the rest of Latin America – is on a trajectory that builds on engagement and mutual respect; on a trajectory that leads to the future.

This week in Cuba news…


Hardline Cuba rhetoric continues leading up to Florida Republican primary

Just days before Florida’s January 31st primary, the Republican presidential candidates reiterated their positions on Cuba in campaign appearances and during primary debates in Tampa and Jacksonville this week, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

  • Speaker Gingrich delivered a speech at Florida International University in which he attacked the Obama administration and promised to overthrow the Cuban government, Fox News Latino reports.  “They worry about an Arab Spring in Egypt,” he said, but “I don’t think its occurred to a single person in the White House to look south and propose a Cuban Spring…We are in fact not going to allow a negative future of new generation dictators to replace the Castro brothers.”
  • Governor Romney spoke at an event sponsored by the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and released a White Paper on Cuba and Latin America.  He said that President Obama had adopted a strategy of “appeasement” toward Cuba, called the restoration of Cuban American travel to the island unilateral concessions, and promised to return the travel limits to Cuba to the reduced levels put into place by President George W. Bush in 2004.  The Romney White Paper also called for increased support for the regime change programs that landed U.S. contractor Alan Gross in prison.

During the Tampa debate, when moderator Brian Williams asked former Governor Mitt Romney what he would do if he received a “3 a.m. phone call” telling him that Fidel Castro had died and that as many as half a million Cubans were fleeing the island for the U.S.  Romney said he would “thank Heavens that Fidel Castro has returned to his Maker” and that his administration would engage with Cuba’s new government and support the island’s dissidents, the New York Times reports. He then criticized Obama for easing restrictions on travel and remittances, and for not doing enough to help the Cuban dissident movement.

As he has done in the past, Speaker Gingrich advocated for aggressive “overt” and “covert” pressure to bring about a “Cuban Spring” within the next four years.

In Jacksonville, Senator Santorum asserted that President Obama rewarded “thuggery and Marxism” by opening up travel and remittances to Cuba.

By contrast, Rep. Ron Paul said that sanctions, however well-intentioned, “help the dictator and hurt the people.”  He said in Tampa:

I don’t like the isolationism of not talking to people…I think we’re living in the Dark Ages when we can’t even talk to the Cuban people. It’s not 1962 anymore and we don’t have to use force and intimidation and the overthrow of governments, I just don’t think that’s going to work.

Congressman Paul, to his credit, also brought the debate — and perhaps even the candidates — back to a semblance of reality, if only for a brief moment. When he was asked by CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer what he would say if Raul Castro called him in the Oval Office, Paul said, “Well, I’d ask what he called about, you know?”

The White House issued a statement, also below, saying “We will remain steadfast in our outreach to the Cuban people through unlimited Cuban American family visits and remittances, purposeful travel, and humanitarian assistance to dissidents and their families in support of their legitimate desire to freely determine Cuba’s future.”

Statements continue to be released regarding the death of Wilman Villar

The death of Wilman Villar, a Cuban dissident arrested in November, following a 56-day hunger strike, has generated numerous responses from Cuba, the U.S., and the international community. From Washington, the White House press secretary released a statement saying:

Villar’s senseless death highlights the ongoing repression of the Cuban people and the plight faced by brave individuals standing up for the universal rights of all Cubans.  The United States will not waver in our support for the liberty of the Cuban people.  We will remain steadfast in our outreach to the Cuban people through unlimited Cuban American family visits and remittances, purposeful travel, and humanitarian assistance to dissidents and their families in support of their legitimate desire to freely determine Cuba’s future.

However, Cuba hard-liners in Congress, including Representatives Ros-Lehtinen, Diaz-Balart and Rivera, and Senators Rubio and Menendez used the occasion to criticize Cuba’s government and to call for a tightening of U.S. policy toward the island.

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry responded with its own statement, rejecting the U.S. government’s position and stating that the comments “yet again demonstrate the permanent policy of aggression and meddling in Cuba’s internal affairs, and are astonishing for their hypocrisy and double standard,” citing instances of human rights abuses within the U.S. prison system, the AP reports.

Cuban journalist Fernando Ravsberg penned a piece in which he described the complexities of reporting on a death that has parties on both sides exaggerating and slanting the truth.

International human rights organization Amnesty International released a statement saying that Cuban authorities are “responsible” for Villar’s death, while Human Rights Watch commented that the tragedy has “highlighted repressive tactics” on the island.

Following his death last Thursday, Villar was buried in a local cemetery in his hometown of Contramaestre in the Santiago de Cuba province, AFP reports.

Following trip, Senator Durbin calls for more diplomacy between U.S. and Cuba

Following his trip to Cuba last week, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois is calling for increased diplomacy between the U.S. and Cuba, the Peoria Journal Star reports. The trip was Sen. Durbin’s first to the island. During an interview after returning to Washington, Durbin stated:

New diplomacy with Cuba is long overdue…We felt with our old foreign policy that we could oust Fidel Castro. It turned out that old age ousted Fidel Castro, not our foreign policy.

While in Cuba, Sen. Durbin, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on human rights, pressed the government for the release of American contractor Alan Gross. He also noted signs of economic change in the government of Raúl Castro, stating, “I think his leadership is trying to measure the amount of change Cuba should experience…Little by little they are inching into the 21st century…If they do I think there will be an appetite for more.”

Durbin emphasized the potential economic benefits of increased trade, specifically mentioning grain exports and Caterpillar Inc., which is based in Peoria. The Illinois Farm Bureau has similar interests, and is planning a March trip to island.

House investigates Smithsonian people-to-people trips

The Committee on House Administration has requested information from the Smithsonian Institution regarding planned people-to-people delegations, following criticisms from Rep. Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18) in which she claimed that “The Smithsonian’s 10-day trips to Cuba will amount to little more than a tropical vacation,” The Hill reports. In response to the inquiry, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen stated:

I commend the Chairman for his leadership and for promptly addressing my serious concerns shared by so many about Smithsonian Journeys’ poor judgment in facilitating trips to the repressed island of Cuba…It is my hope that through this investigation, Congress ensures that no taxpayer dollars have been used to promote tourism travel to Cuba.

The Smithsonian’s trips are offered through its People-to-People Cultural Exchange Program. According to the McClatchy news service, Linda St. Thomas, a Smithsonian spokesperson, responded to Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s accusations, stating:

There isn’t one single day at the beach, not one single day…It is not that kind of vacation. Otherwise they wouldn’t qualify for the people-to-people exchange trips. It is not a Caribbean vacation.

St. Thomas added that it “goes without saying” that the institution would provide the requested information, and that they had no intention of canceling the four trips planned by the Smithsonian for this year.

Expert proposes U.S.-Cuba cooperation on transexual health

Lin Fraser, president of the Worldwide Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), praised the work of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) and called for cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba on issues relating to transgender health, AFP reports. Fraser, who lives in California, attended CENESEX’s VI Congress on Sexual Education, Orientation, and Therapy, which took place Jan 23rd-26th. Fraser added that the attendance of six WPATH experts at the conference, held in Havana, could provide a “starting point to increase cooperation.”

Through the efforts of CENESEX, which is run by Mariela Castro, Cuba’s government began providing free sex-change operations to Cubans in 2008. CENESEX has spearheaded campaigns on the island to eradicate homophobia, and Ms. Castro has stated that Cuba’s National Assembly will consider legalizing same-sex civil unions this year.


Party Conference to begin on Saturday

A special conference of Cuba’s Communist Party is scheduled to meet this Saturday and Sunday. Nick Miroff for NPR reports that while many had hoped that important decisions on some key issues – like migration and term limits – would take place at this meeting, President Raúl Castro has, in recent weeks, attempted to tone down expectations that any new announcements on economic reform will follow the conference. Instead, he has emphasized that the focus of the conference will be on internal party affairs.

Miroff points out that many people will be paying attention to any changes in party leadership, and signs of who could be rising in the party ranks, and potentially take over important positions once current leaders -many in their 70s and 80s – are gone. He notes that though while Fidel Castro was in power, several younger politicians were present in the public eye and seemingly being prepared to enter into leadership, most of those people were sacked after being caught on tape criticizing the government.

Rafael Hernández, editor of the journal Temas, predicts that new leaders will rise through party ranks in Cuba’s provinces outside of Havana, adding that:

Most of the Communist Party leaders in every province are very young. And taking into account the importance of Communist Party general secretary in every province, we will find that 40 percent of them are women. Many of them are blacks.

This conference is the first time that the full party leadership will convene since the 6th Party Congress, held in April of last year.

Beach resort town of Varadero to host international golf tournament

Varadero, a beach town a few hours outside of Havana, will be the home to the fourth Montecristo Cup, an international golf tournament, Havana Times reports. The Cup will take place from April 19-21st, and include a tournament for men and women. Cuba has moved toward opening several golf resorts throughout the island, investing a total of more than $1.5 billion in four initial projects in an effort to build the tourism industry, as a New York Times article from 2011 reports. For now, such projects are aimed at Canadian, European and Asian tourists, because U.S. citizens cannot legally travel as tourists to Cuba.


Opening of ethanol production under consideration by Cuban government

Cuba’s government is considering developing large-scale ethanol production on the island, a project that would potentially be open to foreign investment, the Cuba Standard reports.

Former president Fidel Castro has been opposed to large-scale ethanol production, however, Tovar Nunes, the spokesman for Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, stated during his visit to the island last week that “Fidel’s resistance in this field is being overcome,” and that soon investment opportunities in Cuban ethanol production could open up to Brazilian companies. Castro has repeatedly warned against the pressure that crop-based ethanol would put on food production and food prices, thereby hurting Cuba and the global poor. Venezuela and the ALBA bloc have supported Castro, abstaining from ethanol production.

The island has the potential to be the world’s third-biggest ethanol producer, according to Jorge Hernández Fonseca, a Cuban-born researcher at the Brazilian Universidade do Estado do Pará. Brazil is the second biggest ethanol producer in the world, after the U.S. Over the past five years, Brazilian companies have expanded beyond their domestic market and invested in production in the Caribbean and Central America.

Brazilian President Rousseff to discuss trade, investment in Cuba

Dilma Rousseff, the President of Brazil, will visit Cuba for the first time during her presidency on January 31st. Rousseff has reportedly scheduled meetings with various economic and trade officials on the island, as well as requested a meeting with former president Fidel Castro, Reuters reports. During her presidency, Rousseff has emphasized issues of economic cooperation, and her trip will reportedly focus on trade issues. This includes the modernization of the port of Mariel – a project which is being managed by Brazilian engineering firm Odebrecht.

The Cuba Standard reports that President Rousseff will witness the signing of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new agreements, largely arranged in a preparatory visit by Foreign Minister Antonio de Aguiar Patriota last week. These agreements will include a release of the second $230 million (of a total nearly $600 million) in credit for the Mariel project. That project is estimated to be completed by mid-2013. Trade between the two nations increased 30% between 2006 and 2010, when it totaled $488 million, while trade for the first 11 months of 2011 totaled $570 million.

Meanwhile, Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez was granted a visa to travel to Brazil for the screening of a new documentary on Cuba and Honduras, The New York Times reports. Sánchez has not received an exit visa from Cuba’s government, required to leave the country, and has been denied such visas on multiple occasions.

Around the Region

Leopoldo López pulls out of Venezuela primary

Leopoldo López has pulled out of Venezuela’s opposition primary that will take place on February 12, the BBC reports. López made the announcement at a press conference together with leading candidate Henrique Capriles, and told Capriles “you will be the next president,” following his withdrawal from the race. The announcement will be a huge boost to Capriles, now the likely winner of the primary. He would then go on to face Chávez in the presidential election, set for October 7th.

Reuters Factbox provides an in-depth analysis of the remaining contenders in the opposition primary, as well as the electoral climate leading up to the general presidential campaign.

Facing pressure from the U.S., Lobo allows drug-related extraditions

The Honduran National Congress has passed an amendment to the Honduran Constitution authorizing the signing of treaties with foreign governments to extradite Honduran citizens charged with drug trafficking, terrorism and organized crime, IPS reports. The law was passed  only 24 hours after a surprise Miami meeting between Honduran President Porfirio Lobo and U.S. government officials last Wednesday.

According to the article, only representatives of the left-wing Democratic Unification party have expressed any concern about the terrorism-related extraditions, however, those representatives still voted in favor of the law. In addition, government officials reportedly lead negotiations with political parties and economic groups in order to secure their approval of the amendment. Previously, article 102 of the Honduran constitution prohibited the extradition of nationals to a foreign country.

This action comes only four days after all U.S. Peace Corps volunteers were withdrawn from Honduras, due to the risks stemming from a wave of violent crime, AFP reports.

According to Honduran diplomatic sources, the U.S. delegation was headed by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson and U.S. Ambassador in Tegucigalpa Lisa Kubiske, and included both narcotics officers and officials of the U.S.  National Security Council. In addition to pushing for purges of the Honduran police to address corruption problems, the U.S. delegation announced that it would be sending two special security advisers to Honduras to work directly President Lobo, who stated “soon there will be U.S. personnel here…and that will contribute to the tranquility of the Honduran people.”

Earlier this week, the Miami Herald published an editorial highlighting Honduras’ security problems, stating that “The country is quickly turning into a disaster zone.” The editorial insists that “Honduras has to become more active in combating drugs, including allowing extradition of indicted traffickers to the United States and taking other strong measures to combat crime,” and blames current problems on corruption and a lack of accountability.

Michael Allison at Central American Politics blog responded to the editorial, arguing that the Herald overlooked the U.S. role in the militarization of Central America during the civil wars of the 1970’s and 80’s, and ending:

I support an effort to hold Honduran leaders accountable for the security situation and corruption. However, the editorial also should have called on the US congress and the executive branch to review their own actions. How have they contributed to the situation in Honduras? How are they going to change the way that they operate?

Finally, in an op-ed published by the New York Times, Dana Frank lays out an argument for why U.S. policy and aid strategy is to blame for many of Honduras’ human rights and security problems, specifically criticizing U.S. policy following the country’s June 2009 coup. Frank argues that the coup and subsequent political turmoil are the primary cause of human rights violations and increased repression in Honduras.

Latin America faces human rights atrocities

This article from The Guardian reports on the various actions being taken in Latin American countries to address human rights violations during past civil wars and dictatorships. It details court proceedings and government actions currently being undertaken in Guatemala, Argentina, Colombia and El Salvador, which move to acknowledge responsibility for state-sanctioned violence during cold-war military campaigns against leftist movements throughout the region, and in certain cases punish individuals for atrocities committed. Specifically, the article talks about Funes’ recognition of military responsibility last week for the massacre at El Mozote, and the court trial of Guatemala’s former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, which began on Thursday.

Recommended Reading

The real Florida winner? Barack. Here’s why, Achy Obejas, WBEZ

Achy Obejas, a Cuban-American author and journalist, argues in an insightful piece that President Obama is the real winner in this race because while candidates in the primaries direct their appeals to Cuban Americans, they no longer comprise the majority of the state’s Latino population and they have concerns outside of issues relating to Cuba.

Coming to Florida: Cuba Policy Pander-Fest, Sarah Stephens, The Huffington Post

“Cuba-bashing by both political parties is a four-season sport in American politics, but it’s always more extreme around election time. With Florida’s primary and two debates immediately before us, it’s worth remembering just how big a role campaigns play in sustaining this failed, Cold War-era policy and toughening the policy between election.”

 Cuba Is Changing, Slowly but Surely, Ted Piccone, the Brookings Institution

“As I sat on the curb in front of central Havana’s Capitolio, the impressive domed hall that resembles the U.S. Capitol building, and watched the 1950s-era Plymouths and Soviet-made Ladas go belching by, I was sure I had entered a surreal time warp a mere one-hour flight from Miami. And yet, after a week of meetings with Cuban and foreign diplomats, journalists, academics and artists, I became convinced that Cuba, indeed, is changing in many ways.”

The cases of Alan Gross and the Cuban Five, Salim Lamrani, the Center for International Policy

“The way may be opening for increased U.S.-Cuban ties…There is, however, the proverbial ‘fly in the ointment’ and that is the case of Alan Gross, arrested on December 3 of 2009 and since then representing a major obstacle to improved relations–along with the case of the Cuban Five on the other side (but more on that later).”

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