Should He Stay or Should He Go? President Obama and the clash over Cuba attending the Summit of the Americas

President Obama, who campaigned for office promising to engage in aggressive and principled bilateral diplomacy with Cuba, must now consider whether to engage in calm and business-like multilateral diplomacy with Cuba, when the Summit of the Americas convenes in Cartagena, Colombia, April 14-15.

Hardliners in the U.S. Congress want him to boycott the whole thing.

Here’s the issue.

TheSummitof theAmericasis where periodic meetings take place among leaders from theWestern Hemispherenations so can they address common challenges and problems.  The 34 nations in attendance are the members of the OAS.

Cubahas never attended theSummitof theAmericas, which has been held since 1994, because it remains suspended from the OAS.  In 1962, the organization decided thatCuba’s Marxist government was not in line with its democratic objectives.

A June 3, 2009 resolution opened the door toCubarejoining the OAS. Cuba’s membership is contingent upon “a process of dialogue initiated at the request of the Government of Cuba, and in accordance with the practices, purposes, and principles of the OAS.”

For a variety of reasons, that process has not taken place, not the least of which is that Cubaprofesses no interest, as the BBC recently reported, in rejoining the organization.

However, at a recent meeting of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas, President Rafael Correa of Ecuadorproposed that ALBA nations boycott this year’s summit – to be hosted by Colombia  – if Cuba is not invited.Cuba has indicated that it would accept an invitation to attend the summit.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wants President Obama to boycott the summit if Colombia  invites Cuba. Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement that “Cuba has no right to participate in thisSummit because it is not a member of the OAS and does not meet the basic criteria to become one.”

But it is Colombia, and not the OAS, that has the ultimate say over which nations are invited.  So far, Colombiahas remained neutral.  That said, the possibility of Cubaattending for the first time has been brought to the table, and this is why hardliners in the U.S.are wringing their hands. 

Saying the prospect of Cubaattending will turn the summit into a “hate fest,” Rep. Ros-Lehtinen argues the ALBA leaders are attempting to hijack the meeting, and that Obama should shun the event entirely and pass up the chance to engage withCuba and other summit members.

This comes as no surprise: Rep. Ros-Lehtinen and other Cold War Warriors in Congress have a track record of opposing multilateral forums in the region.  Last year, she and several Floridacolleagues passed legislation in the House Foreign Affairs Committee to stop U.S.funding for the OAS, accusing the organization of being anti-American and of supporting Cuba, Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez, and former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya. The U.S. gives the OAS $48.5 million annually, and President Obama’s new budget increases that amount by $1.5 million.

At the same time, Ms. Ros-Lehtinen and her allies are claiming thatIran’s increasing ties toLatin Americaconstitute a looming national security threat. These allegations are largely unsubstantiated.  But even if they were true it would be dangerous for remove itself politically from Latin America, boycotting the only body where theU.S.interacts with Latin American countries at the level of a regional organization.

What in fact is so wrong with having Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro at the same summit?  There’s much to be gained if the two countries were to start talking and, compared to the status quo, nothing to lose.  We’ve been waiting since 2009 for both presidents to be in the same room; getting them together in a multilateral setting is a good idea to kick-start the conversation.

We don’t really expect President Obama to heed the call for a U.S.boycott of the summit if Colombiainvites Cubato attend.  But if he has any doubts, he could address them by reading the speech he delivered in April 2009 when theSummit of theAmericas was last held inTrinidad and Tobago.

To move forward, we cannot let ourselves be prisoners of past disagreements….Too often, an opportunity to build a fresh partnership of the Americas has been undermined by stale debates. And we’ve heard all these arguments before, these debates that would have us make a false choice between rigid, state-run economies or unbridled and unregulated capitalism; between blame for right-wing paramilitaries or left-wing insurgents; between sticking to inflexible policies with regard to Cuba or denying the full human rights that are owed to the Cuban people.

I didn’t come here to debate the past — I came here to deal with the future. 

Obviously, he should go.


Pope Benedict wants to meet with Fidel Castro during Cuba visit

A Vatican official has stated that Pope Benedict XVI has expressed interest in meeting with Fidel Castro, Reuters reports. The official noted that such a meeting would depend on Castro’s health. The Pope will visit Cuba right before Easter, starting on March 26th.  When he arrives, the Pope will be received in Santiago by President Raúl Castro, hold talks with him in Havana the next day, and depart on March 28th.Cuba’s Cardinal, Jaime Ortega, will also receive Pope Benedict.

Eduardo Delgado Bermudez, the Cuban ambassador to the Vatican, remarked that Cuba has not made any demands on the Pope as a precondition to his visit, stating in an interview that:

We are not asking anything specific from the pope but if His Holiness feels that there has to be a new pronouncement (on the embargo), he will do it. But Cuba has not made any requests or set any pre-conditions…we are not asking, we are not begging, we are not soliciting for the help of others.

Paul Haven of the AP reports on why openings between Cuba’s government and the Church, such as the successful prisoner release negotiations between Ortega and President Castro in 2010, have led to hopes that the trip will further promote relations between the Cuban government and the Catholic Church.

Amnesty concerned over human rights in Cuba on the anniversary of Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s Death

Amnesty International has issued a press release that condemns authorities in Cuba for preventing members of the Ladies in White from entering a building for an event commemorating the second anniversary of the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo. Tamayo died while in prison on February 23, 2010 following an 86-day hunger strike.  Javier Zuniga, Special Advisor at Amnesty International, stated:

It is unacceptable that the Cuban authorities would not allow human rights activists from remembering one of their colleagues in peace…Authorities must urgently stop harassing activists and preventing any of the “Ladies in White” from celebrating the memory of Orlando Zapata.

According to Amnesty’s release, Cuban authorities diverted traffic from passing in front of the headquarters and have stationed police officers checking the identification cards of all pedestrians passing through the area.

Another release issued by Amnesty International states that former prisoner of conscience José Daniel Ferrer García’s whereabouts are unknown after his alleged arrest on February 21st.

Minister of Economy granted additional post as vice president of Council of Ministers

Adel Yzquierdo, the Cuban Minister of Economy, was recently named a vice president of the Council of Ministers, elevating his rank and making him among the most influential members of Cuba’s government, the AP reports. His promotion came at the recommendation of President Raúl Castro and was approved by the Council of State. Seven other Vice Presidents sit on the council. In addition to his new post, Yzquierdo will continue in his position as Minister of Economy.

Video on corruption continues to be shown to state officials, more details arise

More details have arisen regarding videos about corruption that are currently being shown to senior staff and party members, Reuters reports. Security is reportedly kept tight at the screenings and viewers are required to leave belongings at the door in hopes that the footage will not be leaked.

One video follows a network of farmers and officials that cost the state millions of pesos over fake sales of onions and garlic. Another follows a Canadian trading company’s payoffs as they spread into high levels of government. The video reportedly shows Cy Tokmakjian, CEO of the Tokmakjian Group, confessing that he gave packets of money to Cuban officials to ensure an estimate $110 million in annual business with Cuba.

These videos are a part of President Raúl Castro’s campaign against corruption. Juventud Rebelde recently published an interview with Gladys Bejerano, the current Comptroller General – a position that was established by Castro in 2008. In the interview, Bejerano discusses what she believes to be the root causes of corruption.

Canadian firm Sherritt predicts decreased production in Cuba

Cuba’s largest private foreign investor, Sherritt International, has predicted that the production of nickel, oil, and electricity will decrease in Cuba in 2012, Cuba Standard reports. The predicted decrease in nickel production is due to a lower grade ore being extracted, the decrease in oil production is due to diminishing natural reservoirs, and the related decrease in electricity generation is due to gas supply shortages.

The company is increasing its investments in nickel and electricity production, mainly to replace outdated machinery, transport nickel ore from farther distances, and continue construction on an expansion of a power plant in Boca de Jaruco.  At the same time, Sherritt reported that it will decrease its investments in oil and natural gas production in Cuba.  Sherritt’s profits and revenues in Cuba increased during 2011, though both profits and revenues decreased in the fourth quarter.

Cuba’s government educates self-employed on paying taxes

Many Cubans are filling out tax forms for the first time, as recent economic policy changes have allowed hundreds of thousands of cuentapropistas, or self-employed small business owners, to obtain licenses and open their own businesses. According to the BBC, Cubans who have started privately-run businesses are being reintroduced to the concept of taxes, since personal income tax was abolished in the late 1960s.

Approximately 9% of the population is registered as self-employed and will now be expected to file taxes. A state enterprise in Cuba that makes educational materials announced this week the sale of software on CD-ROM designed to help small business owners determine the personal taxes they owe, ANSA reports. The software, named Cuentas Claras, or “Clear Accounts,” was designed according to new Cuban regulations for self-employed Cubans. The deadline for cuentapropistas to file taxes is March 30.


Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy meets with Raúl Castro and Alan Gross

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont left this week for a bicameral, bipartisan Congressional delegation trip to Cuba, Haiti, and Colombia, the NewYork Times reports. The delegation of four U.S. Senators – Patrick Leahy (VT), Chris Coons (DE) Kent Conrad (ND) and Richard Shelby (AL), and two House members – Xavier Becerra (CA-31) and Peter Welsh (VT-At Large), returns when the Congress’s current recess period ends. Leahy chairs the Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations of the Appropriations Committee.

While in Cuba, Leahy along with Rep. Coons was allowed to visit the imprisoned U.S. contractor, Alan Gross, the AP reports. Following the meeting with Gross at the military hospital where he is being held, both Senator Leahy and Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama met with President Raúl Castro for more than two hours and discussed Gross’ release, including offering to take him back with them on their plane. In a telephone interview, Leahy quipped “you can imagine how that went,” and added, “we have a long way to go” in obtaining Gross’ release. He also stated that Castro agreed with him that Gross “was no spy.”

He also indicated that while Castro did not directly link Gross’ release to the cases of five Cuban agents imprisoned in the U.S. since 1998 (one was released in October but remains in the U.S. on probation), he “made it very clear that while we may be concerned for Mr. Gross and have humanitarian reasons to be, they are very concerned about the five (agents) and have humanitarian and family reasons too.”

President Obama extends emergency order on Cuba

President Obama has extended an emergency order on Cuba, initiated under President Bill Clinton in 1996, UPI reports. The emergency order was initially put in place after two small planes flown by members of Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami exile group, allegedly flew into Cuban airspace and were shot down, resulting in the deaths of four people. Obama’s order states:

The Cuban government has not demonstrated that it will refrain from the use of excessive force against U.S. vessels or aircraft that may engage in memorial activities or peaceful protest north of Cuba,” the president said. “In addition, the unauthorized entry of any U.S.-registered vessel into Cuban territorial waters continues to be detrimental to the foreign policy of the United States.

In December 2011, however, a flotilla manned by Cuban exiles floated to within 13 miles of the Havana coast, shot fireworks into the sky, and was undisturbed by Cuban forces.

The order signed by President Obama was previously renewed by President Bush in 2004 and amended to deny monetary and material support to the Cuban government, EFE reports.

American agricultural exports to Cuba continue to fall

Exports from the United States to Cuba continued to decline, with a 6% decrease in 2011, following a 31% decline in 2010, Reuters reports.  Cuba, which imports between 60 and 70% of its food, imported over $1.5 billion in food in 2011.  The nation obtains chicken, corn, soy, wheat, pork and other products from the United States. After reaching peak sales of $710 million to Cuba in 2008, food exports to the island have decreased just over 50%.

The U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council stated that the decrease is based on economics rather than politics. Trade sanctions prohibit Cuba from purchasing goods from the U.S. in credit, and cash-only requirements are prohibitive considering Cuba’s lack of hard currency and the extensions of credit offered by countries such as Canada, Brazil, and Vietnam.

Cuba has bought more than $3.5 billion in agricultural products from the United States since 2001 and has been one of the top ten trading partners of the United States for a number of years.

Direct flights between Baltimore and Cuba postponed until fall

Direct flights between Baltimore’s BWI airport and Cuba have been postponed until fall 2012, in hopes that interest increases enough to fill weekly flights to the island, the Washington Post reports. Following new rules issued for airports hosting flights to Cuba last January, Baltimore received authorization last March to serve the Cuban market. Flights from BWI, easily accessible from Washington, DC, to Havana would mark the first time that the U.S. and Cuban capitals would be linked in a direct flight.

The cost of the flights for charter companies, ranging from $50,000 to $60,000 according to Island Travel and Tours, was not met due to weak ticket sales. Flights from Baltimore are now expected to start in October of this year.

First National Encounter of Cuban Residents in the U.S. called by Cuban Interests Section

The Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. has announced the First National Encounter of Cuban Residents in the U.S., to be held on April 28th, official state website CubaDebate reports. The announcement adds that:

This date is part of the irreversible process of normalizing relations with the country of emigration, initiated by our government during the “Dialogue 1978” and continued with the Conference “Nation and Emigration” held in Havana.

An article from AFP reports on how travel relaxations both in Cuba and the U.S. have led to an increase of exiles returning to the island, and notes that the government has taken some small steps towards opening its relationship with the exile community.


Spain offers to soften EU Common Position on Cuba following steps toward democracy, respect for human rights

Spanish Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Minister José Manuel García-Margallo has changed course in his country’s recent rhetoric on Cuba, offering to soften the EU Common Position toward the island if the government takes steps toward democracy and respect for human rights, the Latin American Herald Tribune reports. This announcement comes in the same week that Cuba’s government criticized García-Margallo for “intervening” and “meddling” in domestic affairs, when he insisted in an interview that Spain would not support any change in the Common Position as long as Cuba makes no steps toward democracy.

García-Margallo’s most recent comments were made in his first appearance before the Foreign Afairs Committee in the Spanish Parliament’s lower house. He added that the Spanish government supports “a flexible interpretation of the Common Position, which allows it to be adjusted as a result of the advances the Cuban government is making regarding respect for human rights and the recognition of political pluralism.

Ricardo Alarcón meets with President of Peruvian Congress, travels to El Salvador

Ricardo Alarcón, President of Cuba’s National Assembly, is in El Salvador for a four-day trip, Prensa Latina reports. Alarcón’s visit includes an official welcome at the Salvadoran National Assembly, a meeting with the Political Commission of Parliament, and the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding. He will also be present at a work session of the Forum of Presidents of Legislative Powers of Central America and the Caribbean. The trip takes place as a Partial Scope agreement between the Cuba and El Salvador is presently before El Salvador’s National Assembly. Leading up to Alarcón’s visit, Salvadoran news outlet Contrapunto interviewed Pedro Pablo Prada, the Cuban Ambassador in San Salvador, who spoke about the current process of economic reform taking place in Cuba, stating that “Cuba is preparing itself for the future.”

Earlier this week, Alarcón met with the President of the Peruvian Congress, Daniel Abutaggás Majluf, who was traveling to Cuba to discuss bilateral and international issues, Cuban News Agency reports.  The Ambassador of the Republic of Peru to Havana, Victor Mayorga Miranda, and Ramón Pez Ferro, President of the Cuban Parliament’s Commission of International Relations, also attended the meeting.  During his visit, Abugattas Majluf also toured the capital to visit areas of historic, economic, and social importance, including a vist with relatives of the Cuban Five at the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples.

Senior Chinese official vows stronger ties with Cuba

Marino Murillo, the Cuban minister charged with overseeing economic reforms on the island, traveled to China and met with senior Chinese Official Li Changchun, reports Xinhua.  The Chinese have promised to strengthen relations with Cuba as it continues the process of economic reform.  Murillo also met with leaders of the Ministry of Agriculture and the National Development and Reform Commission while visiting China.

Li stated that in recent years, bilateral relations have entered a new phase, with the strengthening of political confidence, mutually beneficial economic cooperation and cultural exchanges, EFE reports. During his trip, Murillo also met in Beijing with Minister of Agriculture Han Changfu and with officials of the National Commission of Reform and Development, the main economic planning organ, according to Xinhua.

Cuba is China’s largest trading partner in the Caribbean, and trade between the two nations increased to $1.8 billion in 2010.

Around the Region

Cancer recurrence for Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez raises new doubts over his re-election bid

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez announced on Tuesday that a lesion had been found in the same place where his cancerous tumor was removed last year, Reuters reports. He returned to Cuba today (Friday) for follow-up treatment, saying his return would be “without haste.”

The Associated Press comments on that President Chávez’s need for cancer treatment could result in a much closer the presidential race, especially given estimates that one-third of Venezuelans remain undecided. Chavez’s opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski has opted to tread lightly at this juncture, with his campaign manager wishing Chávez longevity and a full recovery.

While little is known about the exact nature of his illness, doctors have confirmed that a recurrent lesion in the exact same place where the first tumor was discovered is not a good sign for Chávez’s health.

Salvadoran general may face deportation for torture, war crimes

Former Salvadoran general Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova has been indicated for future deportation after a Florida immigration judge found that he assisted in acts of torture and murder during El Salvador’s civil war by soldiers under his command, the New York Times reports. The decision is unprecedented in that it is the first time a top-ranking foreign military commander has been deported from the U.S. based on human rights violations under a law passed in 2004, in the aftermath of Sept. 11th that was meant to prevent human rights violators from entering the U.S. The decision by Judge James Grim of immigration court in Orlando was made The Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center, under Immigration and Customs Enforcement, prosecuted the case.

The conviction is specifically related to the murders of four American churchwomen in El Salvador in 1980. Four soldiers were convicted and sentenced for the crime, but this marks the first time that Vides Casanova, who was commander of the National Guard at the time, has been held responsible for those killings in a court under the principle of command responsibility. Judge Grim also found the General guilty in assisting the torture of two Salvadoran men who testified against him in hearings last spring.

Vides Casanova was an ally of Washington throughout his military career in El Salvador, as the U.S. supported the fight against leftist guerrillas in the nation despite evidence of mass human rights violations on the part of the armed forces. Carolyn Patty Blum, senior legal adviser at the Center for Justice and Accountability, stated: “This is the first case where the Department of Homeland Security has taken this relatively new law and applied it to the highest military commander of their country to seek their removal.”

This decision means that Gen. Vides Casanova can be deported, though remaining steps must still take place before the judge decides whether to issue an official order for deportation.

U.S. House Committee to consider bill on addressing Iran in Latin America

Legislation “To provide for a comprehensive strategy to counter Iran’s growing presence and hostile activity in the Western Hemisphere, and for other purposes,” will be presented for consideration by the House Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade on March 1st. The bill, authored by Rep. Jeff Duncan (SC-3), alleges increasing hostile activity by Iran in Latin America, and requires that:

Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State shall submit to the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate a strategy to address Iran’s growing presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere.

The open hearing will be held in Room 2172 of the Rayburn House Office Building on Thursday, March 1st at 10:30 a.m.

U.S. and Mexico agree on oil and natural gas safety protocols

An accord between the U.S. and Mexico would open up over a million acres to deep-water drilling and allow both nations to inspect each other’s drilling rigs in addition to cooperating on safety protocols. After years of delays, the negotiations have been finalized, and the legislation awaits ratification by both U.S. and Mexican lawmakers. Officials stressed that both countries would retain their own sovereignty and regulations, but would be able to better cooperate. This cooperation would be crucial in enabling safer drilling practices and better emergency responses.

The U.S. has thus far declined to negotiate similar protocols with Cuba, which began offshore exploration this January. For a CDA publication on Cuban oil drilling and its implications for U.S. policy, click here.

Biden to travel to Honduras, Mexico

The White House has announced that from March 4-6, Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Honduras and Mexico and meet with Presidents Felipe Calderon and Porfirio Lobo, the AP reports. While in Honduras, he is expected to meet with Central American leaders, and to engage in talks regarding the upcoming Summit of the Americas.

Recommended Reading

U.S. Needs Effective, Mature Policy in Cuba, Rep. Jim McGovern, Roll Call

This opinion piece by Rep. Jim McGovern calls on the U.S. government to use the Alan Gross case as an opportunity to “change our outdated and self-defeating approach toward the island, including shedding a range of ‘democracy promotion’ programs aimed at ‘regime change’ “ and directly engage with Cuba.

Harley Heaven in Havana, Jodi Lai, National Post

“Luckily for Cuban Harley lovers, good ones in working order, although rare, can still be found despite the 50 year-old embargo from the United States.’s the solid build quality that makes Harleys such stalwart machines that continue to ignite passion in motorheads.”

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