Losing through intimidation

The political debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba has never been for the faint-hearted.  It’s always raucous, highly emotional, sometimes violent, often absurd, and now increasingly irrelevant.

The U.S. is castigated in the region and globally for the policy, and we’re increasingly marginalized – politically and economically – as allies and adversaries alike engage with Cuba.

What keeps otherwise intelligent and reality-based U.S. policy makers committed to something proven not to work?

Many are reluctant to urge reforms in our failed policy because of their honest objections to Cuba’s political system.  For others, Cuba is just not a priority.  Their states or Congressional districts aren’t affected.  Business interests are broadly reluctant to endorse controversial changes.  Defenders of the status quo spread huge donations to lock in political support for the embargo and travel ban.

Still others know that if they speak out, they will be castigated by some hardliners, intimidation in the service, we’re told, of supporting liberty in Cuba.  Ironic, perhaps, but not what the Founding Fathers intended.

Just this week, one critic asked:  “Has the Catholic Church become the new political pulpit for tyrants?”  Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who led a pilgrimage to the island for five planeloads of Cuban Americans, was labeled “elitist.” Rep. Kathy Castor was accused of having a “preference for dictators,” because she met with Ambassador Jorge Bolaños, Cuba’s Interest Section chief in Washington, and described as taking meetings with “Castro’s business partners,” leaders – we must point out – from the Tampa Florida business community in her own district.

Then, there’s the case of Carlos Saladrigas. He left Cuba at age 12 with his family in 1961, and organized demonstrations against John Paul II’s trip in 1998.   But he returned to Cuba for Pope Benedict’s visit.  At an event sponsored by the Catholic Church, attended by “professors, dissidents, clergy, bloggers, leftists (and) diplomats,” Saladrigas – according to today’s Washington Post – said socialism no longer works and urged a greater private sector opening for Cuba’s state run economy.

And yet, Saladrigas too was denounced, his legitimacy to speak on Cuba questioned, for seizing the opportunity to express views so contrary to the system in Cuba.

We were present for the Pope’s trip and know that many Cubans were inspired and nourished by his visit.  We think it’s important for Members of Congress to meet with the chief of the Cuban Interest Section, where they can directly communicate their feelings about issues ranging from commerce to human rights to the imprisonment of Alan Gross.  We strongly believe that trips to the island by Cuban American families can move reconciliation forward.  We also support the expression of views contrary to our own about these and other issues.

This kind of unfettered debate is core to the democratic ideal in the U.S.; our Founders wanted their fellow citizens and now ours to speak their minds without fear of retribution.

Unfortunately, intolerance of free discourse and new ideas is not unique to the Cuba debate (see #healthcare, #TheFed, #etc.).  On Cuba, rhetorical excesses occur on both sides – and we’ve been called out occasionally for committing them.  The issues alive in this debate are fundamental and emotional, and that’s true for nearly everyone who participates in it.

But the harder and more coarse the condemnations become, it’s tough to see this week’s exercise in intimidation as anything less than a tactic to get leaders on the Cuba issue to pull back and to prevent followers from becoming leaders.

Thankfully, it won’t work; and ultimately, it will backfire.  Support for the old policy is changing before our eyes, even as the stalwarts in Congress and elsewhere cling to the status quo.  Travel to Cuba is rising significantly.  Facilitated by President Obama, and led by Cuban Americans, travelers by the tens of thousands are seeing Cuba each month with their own eyes.   Some experience feelings of reconciliation or become determined to change the policy.  Others visit and don’t like what they see.

But no one we’ve encountered returns from Cuba wanting the drawbridges to be pulled up to prevent fellow citizens from having the same opportunity and the same freedom to reach their own conclusions about the island and U.S policy.  That’s good, because we need a respectful and broadminded debate about the right way for the U.S. to engage with Cuba.

We have faith that a discussion that is consistent with our ideals, based on the right to speak and not intolerance, will ensure that good sense finally prevails.


Cuba declares Good Friday a holiday for 2012, considers making it permanent

Cuba’s government has declared Good Friday a holiday this year, following Pope Benedict XVI’s request during his visit to the island last week, reports Reuters.  The Pope had made his request during a meeting with President Raúl Castro. Former President Fidel Castro had ended all religious holidays after the revolution, but reinstated the Christmas holiday after Pope John Paul II made a similar request during his visit in 1998.  State media reported that the government will later discuss making Good Friday a permanent holiday.

Number of self-employed Cubans continues to increase

There are now 371,200 cuentapropistas, or self-employed entrepreneurs in Cuba, reports Opciones, a Cuban state business journal. Following the legalization of about 200 categories of private businesses in 2010, the number of new entrepreneurs has been steadily rising. José Barreiro, Vice Minister of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, reported that 66% of those now participating in the non-state sector were previously unemployed.

About 75% of cuentapropistas work in the restaurant and food service industry. Other common fields are passenger transport, house leasing of casas particulares (rooms in Cuban homes), sellers of home products, and messengers, among others.

Cuba’s government has predicted a significant increase in cuentapropistas this year, according to its 2012 Economic Plan.  The government hopes that increased employment in the non-state sector will make up for government lay-offs:

Employment will increase by 70,000 workers, the result of a decrease of 170,000 jobs in state entities and an increase of 240,000 in non-state employment.

This increase would mean a total of more than 600,000 cuentapropistas by the end of 2012.

Cuba eases rules on cash export and import

Cuba has removed a 1994 restriction on exporting hard currency, allowing travelers leaving the island to take with them up to $5,000 USD and up to $2,000 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), the Cuba Standard reports. Similarly, travelers arriving in Cuba must declare amounts above $5,000 in foreign currency. Previously, those arriving in the country were required to declare anything over $5,000 National Pesos, or about $192 USD.

Pavel Vidal, an economist at the University of Havana, said that “[t]he measure is very favorable,” adding that:

It relaxes enormously the previous restriction on exporting cash…The limitations on the extraction of Cuban pesos and CUC are logical given that these currencies are not foreign, and you don’t want to allow the creation of CUP and CUC markets outside Cuba.

This decision was taken as economic reforms have created an increased capital flow to Cuba, in support of the island’s growing small business sector.

You can read more about Cuba’s economic reforms here.

Cuba to rearrange Ministry of Agriculture

After an internal review, Cuba’s government has decided its Ministry of Agriculture is in need of broad reform, Reuters reports. At a meeting of the Council of Ministers, Marino Murillo, the minister in charge of Cuba’s economic reform process, stated that:

Speaking generally, the diagnosis concluded that the mentioned ministry has been in an unfavorable economic financial state for several years, which negatively influences business management.

He emphasized a “need to transform [the ministry] in the long-, medium-, and short-term” in order to “perfect its operation, structure and composition.”

Cuba’s agricultural reform program, which began in 2008, has been successful at distributing thousands of hectares of land to new farmers; however, farmers regularly complain of inefficiencies and bureaucratic hurdles, and the program has only recently produced some increases in food production. Food imports are a huge cash drain on Cuba’s economy, which is 80% reliant on food produced and purchased abroad.

Spanish firm joins National Center for Sex Education to create a tour for gay activists

A Spanish travel agency has organized a trip package for people interested in participating in annual LGBT rights marches and activities on the island to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia, the AP reports. The 10-day trip includes visits to conferences, drag shows, and university workshops.

To create the program, the agency collaborated with Cuba’s Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), led by Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raúl Castro. CENESEX is a firm advocate for LGBT rights on the island, and annually organizes parades and celebrations to raise awareness and gain support for the island’s LGBT community.


Mexican President Felipe Calderón to visit Cuba this month, discuss oil

Mexican President Felipe Calderón will visit Cuba next week to discuss oil, migration, and other political affairs, the Cuba Standard reports. As it explores for oil reserves in its coastal territory, Cuba considers joint exploration a possible method for settling its $500 million debt with Mexico. Mexico and the U.S. recently signed an agreement about joint exploitation of trans-border oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico.

Following his visit to Cuba, President Calderón will travel to Port-au-Prince, Haiti and then to Cartagena, Colombia for the Summit of the Americas.

Ecuador’s President will not attend Summit of the Americas due to Cuba’s exclusion

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador announced that he will not attend the Summit of the Americas due to Cuba’s exclusion, reports AP.  Correa had previously suggested that the presidents of the ALBA nations should all decline to attend the Summit to protest Cuba’s exclusion. Colombia, as the event host, determined that Cuba would not be invited.  Since that decision, however, the other ALBA nations have confirmed their attendance.

When asked about President Correa’s decision not to attend the summit, State Department spokesman Mark C. Toner, stated:

… we would like to see widespread participation by the countries of the hemisphere. We believe the summit offers an opportunity for the leaders to discuss issues that concern all of the citizens of the hemisphere, but ultimately it’s each country’s own decision to decide whether to participate.

The U.S. had previously voiced its opinion that Cuba should not be included in the Summit.


René González, on probation in the U.S., is visiting his brother in Cuba

René González, a member of the Cuban Five who is on probation in the United States, has arrived in Cuba for two weeks to visit his ailing brother, reports the AFP.  On March 19th, Miami Judge Joan Lenard ruled that González could travel to Cuba as long as he followed several conditions laid out in the court order.

The Cuban Government has not responded to a similar request filed by Alan Gross’ lawyer for him to visit his ailing mother in the United States, the AP reports.  Alan’s wife, Judy Gross, stated:

I am pleased that our government has allowed Rene Gonzalez to return to Cuba to be with his ailing brother. I certainly empathize with his family’s suffering…I pray that President Raúl Castro will find it in his heart to reciprocate the U.S. gesture and give us a positive answer…This is Cuba’s chance to show that they are serious about dealing with Alan’s case on what they themselves have called a ‘reciprocal humanitarian basis.

More on the Saladrigas speech in Cuba

As discussed above, Carlos Saladrigas of the Cuba Study Group, along with the Catholic Church publication Espacio Laical, conducted a town hall in Cuba, the Washington Post reports. Saladrigas stated that socialism wasn’t working anymore on the island, and called for an end to the U.S. embargo and for fostering dialogue between Cubans and Cuban Americans.

Miriam Celaya, a government critic, penned a piece about the panel and the unique space it created, in which she said:

The atmosphere was quiet and respectful, showing that differences can not only coexist with civility, but are also inseparable from it. Representatives from official sectors — such as academics, university professors, political scientists, etc. — as well as numerous representatives of independent civil society generally labeled as dissidents or opponents, shared the space and the microphone without our attacking or assaulting each other, and without dismissing or offending each other, evidence that a context of respectful debate is only possible in spaces not controlled by the government.

Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an independent Cuban economist who regularly publishes papers criticizing the government, noted that people from all sides of the political spectrum criticized both the Cuban and the U.S. governments. He stated that “[t]his was an event of tremendous importance, the first time that a prominent Cuban from abroad could express these thoughts in a large forum.”

Increase in Cubans arriving in the U.S. through Mexico

The number of Cubans traveling through Mexico to arrive in the U.S. has increased, while those arriving by sea have decreased significantly, Café Fuerte reports.

Mexico continues to be one of the most expensive routes for Cubans to arrive in the U.S., requiring large trips across Central America from as far away as Ecuador

According to the U.S. Department of Customs and Border Patrol, 4,446 Cubans arrived in the U.S. via border crossing from October 2011 to March 2012, and 4,032 of those entered through the Mexican border.  By contrast, only 181 Cubans have arrived by sea to south Florida in the same time period. In 2011, a total of 685 Cubans arrived to the U.S. by sea. The U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted 557 Cubans since October, more than half of those captured in 2011.

Around the Region

Funes administration pledges protection for El Faro

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a spokesperson for Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes has confirmed that “El Salvador is committed to guaranteeing the safety of El Faro and its staff so they can continue their investigative work.”

El Faro staff recently reported being followed and photographed as a result of their investigative reporting on government negotiations with Salvadoran gangs to come to a truce and thereby reduce violence in the country. The CPJ reports that while Funes denied any involvement with those negotiations, he admitted during a press conference on March 28th that his administration had “facilitated” the truce by moving 30 gang leaders to lower-security prisons. The Funes administration has argued that the Church in El Salvador have been the ones negotiating with the gangs, and that the prison transfers did not constitute a form of negotiation.

On April 4th, however, El Faro reported that Security Minister David Munguía Payés felt that the Security Ministry’s strategy in countering violence had been set back by El Faro’s revelations, and that since the prison transfers were reported, much time had been wasted on the government explaining its actions rather than moving forward.

Seeking to curb inflation, Venezuela adds price-controlled products

The Venezuelan government, taking measures to control rising inflation, has added new products such as bottled water, laundry detergent, toothpaste, and other household goods to its list of price-controlled items, Bloomberg reported. The Chávez administration instituted price controls in 2003, and this week’s 19 additions are a result of the Law of Fair Costs and Prices, which was approved in 2011. Karlin Granadillo, the government official in charge of the price caps, warned businesses that violations of the price controls may be fined or temporarily closed, while many businesses have asked for additional time to adopt the prices and warned that they could lead to shortages. The law will require a reduction in price between 4 and 25 percent, depending on the product.

Venezuela has had the highest inflation in Latin America for the last six years. Hugo Chávez is likely trying to stabilize the economy leading up to this October’s presidential elections.

Recommended Reading

Yes, they’re abierto: Cubans open their doors to small business, Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times

This piece reports on the increasing number of self-employed small business owners in Cuba, and the effects that they are having on Cuban society.

Work of Cuban doctors praised in Haiti cholera outbreak

In a special New York Times report outlining the errors, missteps and bureaucratic delays surrounding Haiti’s cholera outbreak, Cuban doctors were recognized for their quick and effective response to the crisis.

What Cuba can teach us about food and climate change, Raj Patel, Slate

“The Studebakers plying up and down Havana’s boardwalk aren’t the best advertisement for dynamism and innovation. But if you want to see what tomorrow’s fossil-fuel-free, climate-change-resilient, high-tech farming looks like, there are few places on earth like the Republic of Cuba.”

Cuba could be key to Caribbean Basin, Patrick Burnson, MarketWatch

“ With the Panama Canal expansion on schedule for completion in 2014, supply chain specialists are anticipating a logistical hub to surface in the Caribbean Basin. For those investors and traders eyeing opportunities in Cuba, the timing couldn’t be better.”

Cuba meets the challenges of the 21st century, part III: an interview with Ricardo Alarcón, Salim Lamrani, Huffington Post

Alarcón has been President of the Cuban Parliament since 1992 and is third in line to the Cuban presidency.  In the interview Alarcón discusses economic reforms, the challenges that Cuba faces, and the Cuba’s relationship with the United States.

Recommended Viewing

Photos from the Pope’s visit to Cuba, Paula Nelson, Boston.com

“Pope Benedict XVI is back in Rome following his week-long-travels to Mexico and Cuba. In reviewing almost 4,000 images that documented his historic travels to the two countries, I decided to concentrate on Cuba, a country that because of travel restrictions, still remains a bit of a mystery to most of us.”

What Our Kitchens Might Say About Us, John Asante, NPR

An article about Ellen Silverman’s series “Spare Beauty: the Cuban kitchen,” which features colorful photos of kitchens on the island.

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