Frustration or Rebellion? Cuba’s In or the Summit’s Out, Region Tells President Obama

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Last Sunday, the Sixth Summit of the Americas ended without a formal declaration but with the United States chastised and isolated by its regional allies.

Nearly everything has been said about the Summit – setting aside for a moment the Secret Service scandal – and nearly everyone has said it.  But a few comments are worth highlighting, a few observations worth repeating, and a few articles merit special mention.

Why does the Summit’s outcome even matter?  As the late columnist Robert Novak might have asked, ‘isn’t this just one more yack-a-thon hosted by and for the benefit of the ‘striped pants cookie pushers’ of the region’s various foreign ministries?”

Actually, no.  Time Magazine’s Tim Padgett called our attention to a pre-Summit report by the Inter-American Dialogue which makes this persuasive case that diplomatic dysfunction has its costs:

The United States and Latin America, after a decade of profound change, are increasingly going their separate ways. According to the report, without a rethinking of the relationship and resolution of three stubborn, long-standing problems—immigration, Cuba, and drug policy—the drift and distancing are likely to continue, potentially producing new tensions and risks for hemispheric affairs.

This Summit could have been known for progress on matters cited by the Dialogue or on bringing electricity to the region’s rural poor and coping with natural disasters, as Richard Feinberg suggested. Instead it got bogged down by the stale and counterproductive debate over whether the Summit should include Cuba.

Why does the Cuba issue matter?  With the curious exceptions of Canada and the United States, the hemisphere is united in its insistence that Cuba be allowed to participate in the Summit of the Americas.  The U.S. insistence on Cuba’s exclusion only calls attention to the failure of our policy, to use the embargo and diplomatic isolation to upend the Cuban system, in the name of fighting for democracy.  Read the reaction of the Los Angeles Times editorial board which wrote:

The policy of banning Cuba from the gathering of the hemisphere’s leaders for nearly 18 years is backfiring.  It hasn’t led to regime change any more than the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo has; it hasn’t persuaded President Raúl Castro or, before him, his brother Fidel to embrace democratic reforms…Instead, it has fueled frustration among Latin leaders.

Frustration or worse?  “I think this is a rebellion of Latin American leaders against the U.S.,” Bolivia’s president Evo Morales said.  Let’s not pretend the feelings, however, are simply harbored by the region’s ALBA bloc.

The leaders of Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia made it clear that they will not attend the next Summit, scheduled for Panama in 2015, without Cuba’s participation.   Colombia’s PresidentSantos emphatically called Cuba’s exclusion and the U.S. embargo “unacceptable,” as the Financial Times reported.  These are among our staunchest regional allies.

Why is this debate happening now?

President Obama tried suggesting that the region’s reaction to Cuba’s exclusion somehow amounted to Cold War baggage he had managed to set aside:

Sometimes I feel as if…we’re caught in a time warp, going back to the 1950s, gunboat diplomacy, and Yankees and the Cold War, and so forth, and not addressing the world we live.

But President Santos put the baggage of history back where it belonged.  “There is no justification for that path that has us anchored in a Cold War overcome now for several decades.”

Perhaps the justification is U.S. domestic politics.  Although President Obama denied it, the New York Times suggested the U.S. stance could simply be attributed not to substance but to cynicism; “by refusing to sign a statement that would have called for the next summit meeting to include Cuba, Mr. Obama avoided antagonizing some Cuban-American voters in Florida.”

Whatever the reason, as Richard Feinberg said, our current “Cuba policy entails real diplomatic costs and gives regional competitors a powerful emotional wedge issue.”

Our Cuba policy is not only a failure, but a distraction.  As the Inter-American Dialogue noted, we face a gap between the region’s arc away from the U.S. and our nation’s interests in addressing issues that matter; a gap that will simply broaden the longer we scold them and fail to listen what they’re actually trying to say and do.

And speaking of a good scolding:  Last June, when Secretary Clinton released the State Department’s “Trafficking in Persons Report,” the U.S. government took Colombia to task for its various failures to prevent women and girls from being subject to the sex trade in Latin America and offered eight policy recommendations for them to get right with the U.S.

The Summit’s conclusion was a powerful reminder of what can happen to our nation and its image in the region when we punish others for failing to live up to standards we do not meet ourselves.


The Summit of the Americas

The Summit of the Americas concluded with no formal declaration for the first time since the regional meeting was organized in 1994.  Disagreements –over Cuba’s exclusion, the dispute between Argentina and Britain over the Falklands, and the failed drug war – scuttled any chance for unanimity; rather than indicating failure, President Santos of Colombia, the host nation, said this was a sign that “a more sincere dialogue” about North-South issues had taken place.

President Obama’s public statements mostly focused on increasing trade relations within the region, as the U.S. trade deal with host nation Colombia is reportedly close to being implemented.  While the U.S. also came under fire for its drug policy, President Obama reiterated his position against drug legalization but agreed that a reinvention of drug policy is necessary.
But the U.S. emerged from the meeting isolated and chastised as it stood with Canada as the only countries opposed to Cuba’s attendance in future summits, the AP reports.  The foreign ministers of Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay stated that their presidents would not sign a final declaration if Cuba continued to be excluded, the New York Times reports.  President Obama took the position that was adopted by the leaders in Quebec in 2001; namely, that Cuba could not participate until a democratic transition occurred on the island.

Also in Cartagena for the Summit, Florida Rep. Connie Mack took an opportunity to rebuke President Santos for his statements on the matter, while Senator Marco Rubio delivered a letter to President Lugo of Paraguay and President Piñera of Chile from the leader of the dissident group Ladies in White, calling for Cuba not to be included in the Summit.

Venezuela’s President Chávez didn’t attend the Summit on doctor’s orders; President Correa of Ecuador boycotted over Cuba’s exclusion, and Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega also failed to attend.

On a lighter note, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was photographed dancing, drinking beer, and apparently having a great time at a salsa bar in Cartagena. Ironically, the chosen venue was a Cuban bar called Café Havana.

U.S. bishops call for an end to the embargo

In a letter to Secretary of State Clinton, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has called for an end to the embargo on Cuba “so that greater support and assistance may be provided to the ordinary citizens of this country,” Catholic World News reports.

Bishop Richard Pates, who sent the letter, is chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice, and was in Cuba during the pope’s visit to Cuba last month, the Washington Post reports. He states in the letter that church staff providing aid in Cuba are “repeatedly told” that the work of Cuban Church officials is hampered by the restrictions of the trade embargo, and calls for the “complete abolition of the embargo and its harmful effects.” He adds:

These burdens are not borne by the members of the Cuban governing elite, but rather by the ‘ordinary’ Cuban and especially by the weakest members of that society. The Catholic Church in our country and in Cuba has long maintained that greater, rather than less, engagement with Cuba can bring about positive change in that country.

René González returns to U.S. from visit with ailing brother in Cuba; Activists lobby DC to Free the Five

René González, the one member of the Cuban Five who has finished his prison term and is on probation in the U.S., returned to Florida following a permitted two-week visit to his ailing brother in Cuba, Reuters reports. In response to some who commented that the trip had received little media attention, González penned a letter in which he stated that he did not want his visit to become a “political act,” and that the purpose of the visit was humanitarian. His Miami attorney, Philip Horowitz, added, “When you have a gravely ill brother, a terminally ill brother, it’s not cause for celebration of speaking out or advancing the cause.”

In Washington, DC, a group of activists did seek to advance the cause of remaining members of the Cuban Five still in prison; they lobbied Congress on April 17th and 18th, visiting 19 Senators and 20 Representatives, state website CubaDebate reports.  The group urged the release of the Cuban intelligence agents, still serving lengthy sentences in U.S. prisons, and permission for them to return to Cuba.

New flight from Ft. Lauderdale to Cienfuegos

Options for direct travel between the U.S. and Cuba continue to increase, as a new flight service from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to Cienfuegos will begin on Tuesday, the South Florida Business Journal reports. The weekly flight is being organized by Airline Brokers Company Inc., which will also add an additional weekly flight to and from Havana. Vivian Mannerud, the company’s president and CEO, stated:

The customer demand for our Ft. Lauderdale-Havana flights has been exceedingly strong since our inaugural flight in September…We’re very excited about the addition of a second rotation to Havana and even more thrilled to be adding a new route into Cienfuegos, which is an historical event.

Cuban orchestra travels to Florida

The National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba is traveling to South Florida for the first time, the Sun Sentinel reports. Their performance in West Palm Beach is not expected to draw any protesters, as was previously the norm for Cuban artists performing in the area. Miami-based music promoter Hugo Cancio, who has previously promoted concerts for the Cuban artists Los Van Van and Pablo Milanés, stated:

We are past all of that. This kind of cultural exchange is the normal process now….This not only helps build bridges of reconciliation, it also exposes Cuban artists to the American audiences that have been anxious to see them.

The Miami performance is only one stop in the orchestra’s 17-city tour, which will begin in Kansas City in October.


Ricardo Alarcón: Cuba to proceed with migration reform in coming months

Ricardo Alarcón, President of Cuba’s National Assembly, has stated that in coming months Cuba will implement a “radical and profound migration reform,” eliminating restrictions on Cubans who wish to travel abroad, AFP reports. Currently, Cubans wishing to travel outside the country are required to apply for a visa called the “tarjeta blanca,” which costs $150 and is often denied to applicants.

He added:

There is another explanation for these restrictions: the need to protect our human capital. The education of doctors, technicians, professors, etc., is very expensive for the Cuban government and the United States does all it can to deprive us this human wealth.

As we wrote last week, the “Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program” initiated by President George W. Bush in 2006, encourages Cuban medical personnel stationed internationally to leave their posts with the promise of special immigration rights.

Alarcón indicated that migration policy is currently being debated at the highest level of government, and that reforms would also affect Cubans who have migrated legally, who he said have a different “profile” from those who left the country during the first years of the Revolution.

Cuba’s exports up 20% in 2011 according to official

Antonio Luis Carricarte Corona, Cuba’s First Vice Minister of Foreign Commerce, reported that in 2011, exports of goods and services created about $9 billion in income, the Associated Press reports. Carricarte emphasized that diversifying exports and moving away from well-established sectors such as nickel and sugar allowed the government to avoid over-relying on products subject to fluctuating market prices. He added that the government envisions further growth in the export of medicines, which made up 15% of exports last year.

According to the AP, non-standard accounting practices make independent valuation of Cuban government figures difficult, as the government takes into account things like the brigades of doctors sent to work abroad. Though Carricarte said that the $9 billion number represented a 20% increase over the previous year, the government statistics office website lists last year’s exports as more than $14 billion. The government has not yet provided clarification.

“HOGS” and Harlistas:  Bikes convene in Cuba for first ever Harley Davidson convention

Cuba hosted its first Harley Davidson convention last weekend in the coastal town of Varadero, bringing together about 50 “harlistas” from across the island to display their bikes. Nearly all of Cuba’s estimated 300 Harley Davidson motorcycles are from before the Revolution, when they were favored by the Bautista regime. Today, Cubans keep their bikes running in creative ways since spare parts are most often unavailable, though in recent years foreign Harley fanatics have begun bringing them as gifts.

This video from the BBC features several interviews, with including one with an “American Harley Davidson Enthusiast,” who said of the convention:

It’s pretty amazing… I think the enthusiasm the Cubans have especially because of their old bikes and the hardships they have to endure to keep them on the road…I think that their enthusiasm is even over and above many people in the States because they have to work so hard at it.

Juan Carlos, a Cuban resident of Atlanta, GA who traveled to the island for the convention, stated:

It’s the first time this is taking place, and it’s a very happy occasion. Here in Cuba they do much more work to maintain the motorcycles. It’s a beautiful thing, and I’m happy to see that they are able to do it. And I hope they can keep on doing it.

Members of Cuban diaspora return for anti-homophobia events

Mariela Castro, director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education, said in an interview that Cubans living in Miami and throughout the world have attended state-organized anti-homophobia events on the island, AFP reports. She stated that:

Many people have come from Miami, Cubans living in the U.S. or in other countries…found out about an event [against homophobia] and they went without knowing exactly what it was about, and once there they were very surprised, and they’ve told me very interesting and wonderful things.

Previously, LGBT Cubans have left the island due to discrimination, abuse and marginalization, especially in the years following the Revolution. CENESEX has organized a yearly awareness campaign against homophobia since 2008, and this year’s events are slated to begin on May 8th.


Spanish foreign minister will not visit Cuba if authorities don’t allow him to meet with dissidents

José Manuel García-Margallo, Spain’s Foreign Minister said Tuesday that he will not visit Cuba if he is not also allowed to meet with Cuban dissidents such as the Ladies in White, reports EFE. He also made it clear that the government of Spain should not diverge from the E.U.’s “Common Position” towards Cuba. Margallo recognized Cuba’s progress with economic liberalization and the freeing of prisoners, but stated that there was “much left to do.”

Margallo also affirmed that his relationship with his Cuban counterpart, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, was one of “permanent dialogue,” and that he expected to see him at the upcoming Iberoamerican Summit in Cádiz. Speaking about the ending of assistance from the Spanish government to Cuban exiles, which has recently drawn protests, he said that the aid “could not go on forever,” and that the Spanish government would be investigating the actual needs of the Cuban exiles on a case-by-case basis.

Cuba modernizes oldest hydroelectric plant with Chinese technology

Salto Piloto, the oldest hydroelectric generator in Cuba, has been renovated on its hundredth anniversary, Xinhua reports.  The new Chinese technology used in the renovation increases the efficiency of the plant and provides a much needed increase in availability of electricity to the province of Pinar del Rio.  Salto Piloto is one of ten hydroelectric plants in the province and 180 plants in the country.

Cuba backs Argentina’s YPF oil nationalization

Cuba’s government expressed its support for Argentina’s decision to expropriate a majority stake in YPF, the largest oil company in Argentina, from Repsol, the current majority shareholders, Reuters reports.  The statement of support said that Argentina “has a permanent sovereign right over all its natural resources.”

Repsol is currently partnering with Cuba in offshore oil exploration, which began earlier this year. This article from state website Cubadebate (in Spanish) provides more details on Cuba’s support of the decision, criticizing the Spanish government for speaking out against the move, arguing that reports have not made it clear whether the nationalization will be paid, pointing out  that YPF was founded by the Argentine government and was public until 1992, and criticizing YPF for not having Argentina’s national development in mind.

Around the Region:

Former judge tells U.S.  law enforcement that Venezuelan officials meddled with Judiciary

Eladio Aponte, a former judge who was dismissed last year, has been flown from Venezuela to the U.S. by the Drug Enforcement Administration and is alleging that high-ranking Venezuelan officials manipulate court cases in that country, the AP reports. Aponte was dismissed on March 20 following allegations of ties with drug trafficker Walid Makled, who is now imprisoned in Venezuela.

Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, dismissed the former judge’s allegations stating:

He’s an absolutely discredited man…He’s an ex-magistrate being prosecuted for his links to drug trafficking…The DEA now takes away this man accused of being linked to drug traffickers’ mafias to turn him into a spokesman against Venezuela. The United States continues to become a sanctuary for drug traffickers, corrupt people, traitors, terrorists.

The specifics of Aponte’s statements to the DEA have not been released. Aponte left Venezuela earlier this month, traveling to Costa Rica before being flown to the U.S.

El Salvador marks murder-free day

On the heels of a truce between major gangs El Salvador this weekend marked its first murder-free day in nearly three years, The Guardian reports. At the beginning of President Mauricio Funes’ term, the country on average experienced about 12 murders a day but that number had increased to nearly 18 daily murders earlier this year.

President Funes, however, has not publicly mentioned the gang truce, and the government has denied involvement. At last weekend’s Summit of the Americas Funes credited his administration’s security measures for the drop in violence.

In other security news, El Salvador’s armed forces are no longer in charge of security duty in the country’s prisons, El Faro reports. The government’s director of Prison Centers, Douglas Moreno, has cited humanitarian reasons as justifying the change, which occurred in early April.

Honduras Reacts as Thousands Occupy Land, The Pan-American Post

Honduras’ former President Manuel Zelaya marched Thursday through Tegucigalpa, the country’s capital, joined by supporters and members of his political party, Libre, expressing solidarity for a recent nationwide land seizure. Wednesday morning, some 3,000 families occupied over 12,000 hectares of arable land in as many as seven different departments (see map). Police were deployed to evict some of the occupiers, particularly in the northern Cortes department. But as of Thursday, at least 7,000 hectares of land remained occupied by 1,500 families, reports the AFP.

Read more on this story from the Pan-American Post here.

Recommended Reading

U.S Cuba Policy Rejected By All, Wayne Smith, Center for International Policy

“The outcome of the recent Summit of the Americas was a total embarrassment for the United States – and not just because of the misconduct of the Secret Service detail. Our Cuba policy was roundly condemned by virtually all other governments and it was made clear that if we stick to barring Cuban attendance, there would be no more Summits, for the other governments would not participate.”

In Cuba, international businesses abound- just not from the U.S., Kevin G. Hall and Franco Ordonez, McClatchy Newspapers

“The embargo, partially imposed in 1960 and fully in place two years later, is not a blockade. That’s clear by the abundance of foreign goods and investment in Cuba. It is a blockade, however, in the sense that U.S. companies are blocked from doing business in Cuba. That hasn’t stopped their international competitors from Canada, Mexico, Brazil and even China from setting up shop.”

A generational divide widens in Cuba, Cecilia Sánchez, Los Angeles Times

“Older Cubans are grateful for the peace and stability of the Castro years. But many younger ones, though grateful for the gains of the 1959 revolution, face a stifled future, and want more.”

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