Flashback/Fast Forward: Obama, Cuban Docs, and the Summit of the Americas

As President Obama makes his way to Colombia for the Summit of the Americas – “to tout his trade record and convince millions of Hispanic voters back home he cares about the region,” as Reuters tartly reported – we found ourselves thinking back three years when he last attended this regional meeting.

At a concluding press conference, the president recounted what he learned about the activities of Cuban doctors in the region thanks to their nation’s commitment to “medical internationalism”:

One thing that I thought was interesting — and I knew this in a more abstract way but it was interesting in very specific terms — hearing from these leaders who when they spoke about Cuba talked very specifically about the thousands of doctors from Cuba that are dispersed all throughout the region, and upon which many of these countries heavily depend.

The Cubans have been helping nations around the world react to crises and natural disasters, and to meet their people’s primary care needs, since 1960. The achievements of this program -chronicled by scholars such as John Kirk, and non-governmental organizations like MEDICC -were well known outside the United States when President Obama heard about them in April 2009.

Following the earthquake in Haiti, however, when Cuban doctors already stationed there were the first to respond, became the backbone of the fight against cholera, and continued helping Haitians recover and build a new health care system long after many in the international community diverted their gaze, the full extent of Cuba’s commitment to public health outside its own borders was hard to ignore even in the United States.

With the president attending the 2012 Summit of the Americas, we have to ask this: Who benefits from his decision to continue a Bush-era policy of coaxing Cuban doctors to leave their medical missions and defect to the United States?

In 2006, the Bush administration started the “Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program” to encourage Cuban medical personnel saving lives internationally, most often located in rural areas or slums of the world’s poorest countries, to leave their posts. The Program promised special U.S. immigration rights for these Cuban doctors and health personnel, today numbering nearly 39,000. Although Cubans who reach the United States seeking asylum already enjoy preferential immigration status when they arrive, this program makes Cuban medical personnel eligible for parole abroad.

As Fox News Latino reported, the program was “the brainchild of Cuba-born diplomat Emilio González, director of the U.S. Citizen & Immigration Services from 2006 to 2008…a staunchly anti-Castro exile. He has characterized Cuba’s policy of sending doctors and other health workers abroad as ‘state-sponsored human trafficking’.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 1,500 Cuban doctors and health care personnel received visas under the program issued by U.S. consulates in 65 countries by the end of 2010. The promise to enter our country at the head of our long immigration line to practice medicine in the United States is a powerful inducement, as Cubans devoted to working in the medical system freely admit. “You’d go, too, if you could triple your pay,” said Juan Bautista Palay, chief of physical therapy at Havana’s 10 de Octubre Hospital.

It would be bad enough if this program simply functioned as its authors intended, to undermine an appealing, humanitarian feature of the Cuban system, no matter what it meant to patients in the developing world. But the story gets worse.

Once Cuban doctors arrive, many are prevented from practicing. Sometimes, records substantiating their credentials are withheld by Cuba’s government. Others are disqualified from gaining residency because they were once members of the Cuban communist party.

Yes, as the Miami Herald reported without a trace of irony, “Questions about party membership remain on residence and citizenship application forms, as relics from the Cold War, when the United States deemed communism its chief enemy.”

For Cuban doctors lured here, it’s Lucy and the football meets the “Red scare.”

But most often, the reason Cuban doctors cannot hit the ground running as practicing physicians in the U.S. is because one piece of crucial information was withheld in the “parole promise”: they cannot hang out their shingles until they pass the three-part US Medical Licensing Exam, for which many US medical students bone up for years, through special and costly preparatory courses…not to mention the several thousand dollars in exam fees themselves. Other health professionals face similar hurdles.

President Obama should have ended this nonsense unconditionally three years ago after encountering the region’s reaction to Cuba’s doctors; or two years ago after their heroic work in Haiti made such a decisive difference; or even this month before attending the Summit in Cartagena. He might have even laid out a program of medical cooperation with Cuba, as our friend Dr. Peter Bourne recommended, to make the most of what Cuban doctors have to offer for the medically-underserved in this hemisphere. But he didn’t.

The next time the heads of government from the region gather at the Summit of the Americas, we expect Cuba’s to be among them.

By then, our government should stop the shameful -and we think un-American- practice of plucking Cuban doctors from the world’s poorest countries where are they are serving patients and doing so much good.


Cuban sugar harvest nearing end

With this year’s sugar harvest entering its final phase, sources close to the industry report that the harvest will surpass one million tons, Reuters reports. This figure is still 450,000 tons short of official projections made in December.  However, local reports indicate that there is enough sugar cane to achieve the year’s projected harvest – if refining continues well into May, when the warm weather and humidity generally reduce output and can damage aging industrial equipment. Notimex reports that production is, on average, thirteen days behind schedule.

This past weekend, Sancti Spíritus was the first of 13 sugar-producing provinces to reach its goal of producing 88,000 tons of sugar. Other provinces are expected to continue refining well into May in order to reach their goals. A local expert stated: “Sugar production can go on to May but there comes a moment this month when maintaining the harvest could be more costly than ending it before reaching the production goal…the decision will depend on the weather conditions and the crop yields, which will significantly decrease in May.”

Cuba consumes 600,000 to 700,000 tons per year domestically, and exports 400,000 tons to China. This year’s harvest is the first following Cuba’s decision to replace its Sugar Ministry with Azcuba, a state business group focusing on the sugar industry, as part of the island’s economic reform process. Last year’s harvest yielded 1.2 million tons of sugar.

Cuba invests 10 Million USD to modernize honey production

Cuba is moving forward with a program to modernize honey production, as international demand for honey has been increasing, AFP reports. Under the beekeeping and honey production investment initiative, Cuba will be investing up to $10 million through 2015 to upgrade facilities, including laboratories. State business journal Opciones laid out the plan, stressing the need for expertise and training of beekeepers as new challenges arise from climate change.

Cuba produced over 6,600 tons of honey in 2011 from 1,500 producers and 160,000 beehives. Through the program, the country hopes to  reach production levels of at least 10,000 tons of honey annually from 200,000 beehives by 2015, and have 30 types of different honey products.


Calderón visits Cuba, signs memorandum of understanding on oil

Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón visited Cuba this week with a mission to strengthen ties and create a “new agenda” for the two nations’ cooperation, reports Reuters.

On the island, Calderón met with President Raúl Castro and other top officials, specifically discussing cooperation in the oil sector, the AP reports. Following discussions, oil representatives from both countries signed a memorandum of understanding. Calderón added that Mexico’s state oil company, Pemex, will “evaluate the possibility of participating and investing in the exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbons in Cuba in the blocs adjacent to Mexico’s exclusive zone.” Exchanges were also agreed upon in the areas of health and sports.

Before departing Havana, President Calderón stated that his trip had been a “re-encounter” between the two nations, adding:

These have been two extraordinary days for Cuba and for Mexico in that their mutual affection has been rediscovered.

This “re-encounter” follows what has been a somewhat bumpy relationship recently between the two countries. In 2010, former president Fidel Castro called Mexico’s 2006 election fraudulent, saying that Calderón had lost to the leftist candidate Manuel López Obrador. In 2009, Castro accused Mexico of holding back information about the swine flu outbreak, and the countries temporarily recalled their ambassadors under Mexico’s President Vicente Fox in 2004.
Vietnam donates 5,000 tons of rice to Cuba, nations ratify “friendship”

Cuba’s President Raúl Castro and Nguyen Phu Trong, Secretary General of the Communist Party of Vietnam, met in Havana to ratify the “solidarity and friendship” between Cuba and Vietnam, EFE reports. Speaking at the ceremony, Nguyen stated “We’ve always been together in the fight for independence and freedom, and today we stand shoulder to shoulder in the building and defense of socialism.”

Vietnam has also confirmed the donation of 5,000 tons of rice to Cuba, EFE reports. The Cuba-Vietnam rice program’s aim is to produce seeds and promote specialized rice production, which to date covers over 8,000 hectares, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture. Rice is a staple food in Cuba, and the island imports over 400,000 tons annually, making up 60% of the total amount consumed annually by Cuba’s 11.2 million people. The two nations engage in bilateral commerce that has surpassed half a billion dollars in recent years.


Backlash: Ozzie Ozzie Oy Oy

Comments made by Ozzie Guillén, manager of the Miami Marlins baseball team, to TIME Magazine about his admiration for Fidel Castro caused a political firestorm and media frenzy in South Florida, reports the Associated Press.

As reported by the Miami Herald, Guillén told the magazine, “I respect Fidel Castro.  You know why?  Many people have tried to kill Fidel Castro in the last 60 years, yet that [SOB] is still there.”

The comments incited a huge backlash from the Cuban American community and others.  As AP reported, “Francis Suárez, chairman of the Miami city commission, said Guillen should be fired, and Joe Martínez, chairman of the Miami-Dade county board of commissioners, called on him to resign.”  Demonstrators mobilized in Little Havana and at the Marlins’ new baseball stadium protesting Guillén’s comments and calling for his head.

The Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bud Selig, who visited Cuba in 1999, and watched baseball with Fidel Castro sitting in his box, expressed his “extreme disappointment” at the manager’s remarks.

Tom Weir, a sports writer for USA Today, who enjoys the protections of the First Amendment, said the perfect punishment for Guillén would be to send him to Cuba to manage the national baseball team.

The Marlins announced that the manager would be suspended for five days, shortly before he held a press conference where he said he was misinterpreted and publicly apologized for his statements.

Christine Armario for the Associated Press writes that this episode demonstrates, despite changes in the composition of the community and its concerns, how Fidel Castro still represents an extremely sore subject. She notes that some have questioned the ferocity of the response, saying:

The reaction to Guillen’s comments struck more than one note: If many Cuban-Americans leave the island because of a lack of freedom of expression, some wondered, wasn’t it somewhat hypocritical to limit Guillen’s?

The best explanation for all of this came from Álvaro Fernández who wrote in Progreso Weekly:  “Fidel Castro is still the most influential person in Miami.”

“Free the Five” billboard taken down after restaurant owner receives threats

A billboard advertising a video that calls for the release of the Cuban Five was put up above a Honduran restaurant in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood around noon on Wednesday and was removed by 7:00PM after the restaurant owner received phone threats, the Miami Herald reports.

Max Lesnick, a Radio Miami personality and a leader of the Alianza Martiana group, stated that the Alianza had paid for the advertisement. The billboard promotes the video “Freedom,” which features Ricardo Alarcón, President of Cuba’s National Assembly, defending the five Cuban counter-intelligence agents sentenced in 1998 to lengthy jail terms for spying in the United States, and demanding their return home. The video is publicized on Radio Miami’s website.

Liliana Vasquez, the restaurant’s owner, stated that she called the police after receiving several anonymous phone threats, with one person telling her “We’re going to destroy your place.”

More than 36,000 Cubans received U.S. residency in 2011

Over 36,000 Cubans became permanent U.S. residents last year, making them the sixth largest national group to do so in 2011, Café Fuerte reports. The Department of Homeland Security reported that 36,452 Cubans gained permanent resident status – a slight increase in the 2010 when 33,573 Cubans received residency. Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who arrive in the U.S. are allowed to remain in the country and request residency a year later.

U.S. participates in Cuban International Construction Fair

The United States is participating for the first time in the Cuban International Construction Fair (FeCons), which began on April 10th in Havana, reports EFE. The U.S. delegation, which consists of more than 20 people, hopes to interact with businesspeople on the island and sponsor discussion of themes related to engineering education and corruption.

Ángel Vilaragut, president of the organizing committee for the event, emphasized the government’s commitment to development through recent reforms in the availability of construction materials and increased opportunities for self-employment for contractors. Cuba’s construction sector faces a dearth of materials while attempting to address a chronic housing shortage and many deteriorating buildings.

Around the Region

Obama interview with Latin American newspapers, other coverage leading up to the Summit of the Americas

Prior to his departure for the Summit of the Americas, President Obama held an interview with the several Latin American newspapers in which he addressed current events in the region, Infobae reports. Obama praised recent economic “progress,” especially in Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia, and voiced concern over inequality, extreme poverty, and violence related to drug trafficking. Bogotá newspaper El Tiempo has a transcript (in Spanish) of the interview.

Obama had some sharp criticisms, stating that “in too many countries” throughout the region, “universal rights, such as the freedom of expression and judicial independence, are under attack.” He called for free and fair elections this year in Venezuela, and in comments regarding Cuba, he stated:

We’re looking for a new era in the relationship between our two countries…History shows that the longing for liberty and human dignity can’t be ignored forever. No authoritarian regime lasts forever. The day will arrive when the Cuban people will be free to determine their own destiny.

He stated that in 2009, his administration had collaborated with all of the region to create a path for Cuba’s reintegration into the OAS, based on respect for the organizations democratic charter and human rights on the island, but that “unfortunately and tragically,” Cuba’s leaders have “repeatedly rejected this path.” Earlier in the week, the President’s Senior Advisor on Latin America Dan Restrepo made similar comments on a press call “previewing” the trip, together with Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provided her own comments on “Connecting the Americas,” available here.

Finally, Alex Main for Al Jazeera provides an analysis of the issues facing Obama and the U.S. at the conference, contrasting Obama’s “promising overtures” three years ago with the realities of his administration’s policy toward the region.

As homicides in El Salvador drop, questions arise over police reform

At this point, many have noted the precipitous drop in homicide rates in El Salvador in the month of March, down 40% from the previous month and 30% from the previous year’s average, according to La Prensa Gráfica. According to The New York Times, the deal that was reached between Salvadoran gangs to lower the violence was brokered by a certain high-ranking colonel who is now a member of the Security Ministry, with the specific goal of reaping political gains from the decreased violence.

Meanwhile, InSight Crime questions the long-term viability of the gang truce if it is not also accompanied by reforms to the National Civilian Police, pointing out that more than 8% of the population reported mistreatment at the hands of police last year. InSight Crime also reports that the  Salvadoran Catholic Church is moving ahead to expand negotiations into reducing rates of extortion, and that the Salvadoran Justice and Security Minister David Munguía Payés has been quick to say the government is happy to “facilitate” these talks, in what would seem to be a reversal of his previous denials and self-distancing from the negotiations.

Recommended Reading

Remaking the Relationship: The United States and Latin America, Inter-American Dialogue

This policy report by the Inter-American Dialogue emphasizes the need to change the dynamic of the relationships between the U.S. and Latin America. It calls for an end to the Cuban embargo, and for immigration reform and a more effective drug policy.

For Cuban dissidents, and open phone line, Nicholas Casey, The Wall Street Journal

“Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez became famous for sneaking into state-run Internet cafes to upload posts to her blog, which the Cuban government says is subversive. Part of that process is now a lot simpler: She uploads tweets from an iPhone at home. Mobile phones, once banned from Cubans’ hands, are changing the face and pace of the Cuban dissident movement.”

On the road in Cuba, tales of woe and yearning, Kevin G. Hall, McClatchy Newspapers

“Ostensibly, I was in Cuba to cover Pope Benedict XVI’s visit. But over the week and across the length of the Ohio-sized country, I gave more than five dozen Cubans a “botella” — in Cuban slang, a ride. My riders gave an unvarnished view of the country. They were farmers, housewives and doctors. They were school kids, half a baseball team, an economist and even a judge, who proclaimed herself to be a huge fan of Jack Bauer in the American TV thriller series “24.”

Caracas Connect Venezuela Update: Oil Leaks, Conflict in Chavista Ranks, Prejudice in the Campaign, Dr. Dan Hellinger, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Caracas Connect is CDA’s monthly news and analysis on Venezuela, written by Dr. Dan Hellinger. If you are interested in receiving his updates via email, please contact us at info@cubacentral.com.

Honduran campesinos in the crosshairs, Lauren Carasik, Al Jazeera

“Honduras now claims the dubious distinction of being the murder capital of the world as drug trafficking and gangs play an undeniable role in the violence plaguing the small central American country.However, there is near complete impunity for the forces that have killed more than 300 people since the 2009 coup, including labour, political and land reform activists, journalists and lawyers…The international community cannot sit idly by as these atrocities unfold.”

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