Governor Scott steps on a rake; the Cuba Transition Project loses the plot

Last week, we reported on Governor Rick Scott’s decision to sign legislation to stop Florida’s municipalities and state agencies from doing business with companies that have dealings with Syria and – the intended target – Cuba.  At the time, we called him “cynical” for signing legislation that is probably unconstitutional and bad for business and the economy of his state just to score points with hardliners in the Cuban American community.   It turns out we gave him far too much credit.

On Tuesday, Scott signed the bill at a ceremony staged at the Freedom Tower in Miami to impress the hardliners who sponsored and supported the legislation most strongly.  But immediately after the event, he issued a letter indicating the law might be unconstitutional. Scott didn’t utter a word about his doubts or about his letter while the signing ceremony was taking place.  The Miami Herald said that “No governor in recent memory has signed a law and then called it unenforceable in his bill signing.” His cheering section felt blind-sided and betrayed.  Congressman David Rivera threatened to sue Governor Scott.  Cowed by controversy, Scott doubled back, promising to enforce the law.

What was he thinking?

Scott’s office issued a statement that got close to the truth:  “After consulting with all interested parties and thoroughly weighing all sides of this issue, Governor Scott signed House Bill 959 into law on May 1, 2012.”  He didn’t just weigh all sides; he adopted virtually every position imaginable on the law before buckling under the weight of a P.R. stunt gone bad.

Moving from the farcical to the tragic, let us briefly take up the promising signs coming from Cuba that Cuban citizens might soon enjoy greater freedoms to travel from and return to the island, and the Cuba Transition Project’s puzzling, even dour, reaction to this news.

Cuba maintains a complicated and costly set of rules that prevent the Cuban people from leaving or returning to the island without their government’s permission.  Cuban citizens are vocal and plain-spoken in their desire to travel freely without having to apply for exit visa, the carta blanca, requests which are often denied. These restrictions are condemned annually by the U.S. State Department and organizations like Human Rights Watch.

As the Associated Press is now reporting, “Cuba appears on the verge of a momentous decision to lift many travel restrictions.”  Some travel controls could be scrapped – cutting the fees to apply for the exit visa, ending limits on how long Cubans can live abroad, and increasing the number of Cubans allowed to travel abroad for work. According to AP, the U.S. State Department “would certainly welcome greater freedom of movement for the Cuban public.”  The news agency quotes a shop worker in Cuba saying “It’s absurd that as a Cuban I must get permission to leave my country, and even worse that I need permission to come back.”

You might well expect the scholars at the Cuba Transition Project, which calls itself “an important and timely project to study and make recommendations for the reconstruction of Cuba once the post-Castro transition begins in earnest,” to regard these reforms as important and, if not timely, certainly long overdue.

Well, instead, they seem quite miffed, very concerned, and surprisingly negative about the whole thing.  In a broadside titled “Is Cuba Planning a Legal Mariel?” Jaime Suchlicki, the Emilio Bacardi Moreau Distinguished Professor and Director, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami, worries that:

  • Cubans will line up in front of foreign embassies to request tourist visas and that the U.S. Interests Section – since most Cubans want to visit the United States – would be most impacted;
  • Airlines will benefit financially from Cubans who fill their seats in flights away from Cuba;
  • It might make Cubans on the island happy(!) because the reform will eliminate one of their major complaints;
  • It’s all a secret plot by President Raúl Castro to relieve internal pressure on the island because so many Cubans will want to come to the United States.

But Dr. Suchlicki has a plan to foil the plot.  Tighten the number of visas the U.S. can give Cubans to visit here.  Stop Cuban Americans from traveling to Cuba (and giving money to their relatives who might want to make reciprocal visits).  And reduce the presence of U.S. diplomats in Cuba so fewer personnel can process an increased number of visas requests.

Why would he suggest such measures?  Because, perhaps, if Cuba’s reforms take place and Cubans can travel freely to the U.S. and elsewhere, the only government restricting its citizens from traveling to Cuba will be ours.  He seems to be saying, forget the liberty interests of average Cubans; Dr. Suchlicki just doesn’t want us to be embarrassed.

CDA IN THE NEWS

This week, the New York Times published two pieces by Luisita Lopez Torregrosa on gender equality in Cuba and Latin America.  Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, was interviewed for both. The first, “Cuba May Be the Most Feminist Country in Latin America,” reports on Cuba’s efforts toward achieving gender equality, and looks at what remains to be done. The second, “Latin America Opens Up to Equality” discusses gender equality in Cuba within the broader context of Latin American countries opening up to female political leadership.  CDA is engaged in research on issues of women and gender equality in Cuba, which will be the subject of the next book in our “21st Century Cuba” series.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Cuba charter business allegedly fire-bombed

Arson is the suspected cause of a fire that gutted a Cuba charter flight business in Coral Gables, Florida, WSVN reports.

Airline Brokers Company, Inc. has operated international charter flights specializing in trips to Cuba since 1982, and most recently was hired by the Archdiocese of Miami to organize a trip of more than 300 pilgrims traveling Cuba to attend the Pope’s visit. Vivian Mannerud, the owner of the company, expressed her suspicions that the fire had been set intentionally.  A K-9 unit was brought in to help with the investigation by sniffing for accelerants, and the dog sat down on various occasions to show it had found possible indications of arson.  According to WSVN, the investigations will need some additional weeks to determine whether the fire was set intentionally.

Cuba oil drilling planned to move West

Cuba’s exploratory off-shore drilling operation is planned to move further west, placing it closer to the Gulf Stream that brings waters to Florida’s southern coast, the Sun Sentinel reports. According to sources familiar with the operations, the new location will be located farther from the U.S. than the current drilling location, but closer to the Gulf Stream, which could potentially increase the risk of contamination of the Keys and the Florida coast in the case of a spill.

Next Thursday, May 10th, the Center for International Policy will be hosting a discussion titled:Oil Drilling Off Cuba’s North Coast: Must the U.S. do more to forestall the impact of a major spill?. The event will be held from 9AM – 12:30PM at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and you can RSVP here to attend.

For CDA’s publication on Cuba’s offshore drilling and the implications of U.S. policy, click here.

First meeting of Cubans living in the U.S. includes videoconference with Havana on immigration reform

Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized its first official meeting of Cubans living in the U.S. at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, DC last Saturday, the Miami Herald reports. The event was attended by about 115 Cuban Americans who called for Cuba’s government to allow them to return to Cuba, and to invest and buy property with the same rights as Cubans on the island. Participants also said that they preferred to be called “émigrés” rather than “exiles,” which has a strong political connotation. Hugo Cancio, a Miami music promoter who attended the event, said that the Cuban government officials present had indicated that Cuba is “on the irreversible path to normalize relations with émigrés.” He added that further inclusion of the Cuban American community could encourage them to do more to oppose U.S. sanctions on Cuba.

The gathering also included a joint videoconference with officials in Havana to discuss immigration reform in Cuba, the Havana Times reports. Several news sources have recently speculated about a change in Cuba’s exit visa requirements, but so far no change has been announced. Dagoberto Rodríguez, the deputy minister of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, spoke to the Cuban American participants, saying, “We know that many people are looking forward to the reform announcement but we must all understand that these are complex issues involving multiple changes and the legal system.”

People to People: choral exchanges, U.S. labor trip to participate in May 1st parade

People-to-people trips continue to foster interactions between Americans and Cubans through organized, non-tourist trips to the island. In the second stage of an exchange program for choral directors, some 35 directors will travel to Cuba this month to participate in a symposium including workshops with seven of Cuba’s most important vocal groups, the Cuban News Agency reports. This trip follows the participation of Cuban choral directors between February and April in regional choral conferences in the U.S.

Miami travel agency Marazul Charters organized a labor-themed trip to travel to Cuba around the island’s annual May 1st celebrations, Martí Noticias reports. The trip included visits at hospitals, meetings with leaders of Cuba’s workers’ union (CTC), and visits to workers centers, schools and hospitals. Travelers also observed Cuba’s May 1st parade in the Plaza de la Revolución.

Finally, a delegation from the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. visited Cuba on a people-to-people license aimed principally at evaluating the process of economic reform on the island, AFP reports. The group met with members of civil society including artists, farmers, academics, and religious leaders, including representatives of the Catholic Church.

Participating in the delegation was Alfi Fanjul Gomez Mena, a sugar industry executive whose family was among the wealthiest in Cuba before the government expropriated its properties following the revolution.  After leaving Cuba, his family built up a successful sugar enterprise in Florida and the Dominican Republic.

Fanjul participated in the inauguration of “Dialogue Between Cubans,” a forum organized by the Catholic Church with participation of Cubans living on the island and abroad. According to church sources, Fanjul spoke in support of reconciliation between Cubans.

IN CUBA

Cuba eliminated 140,000 state jobs in 2011

Cuba cut 140,000 jobs from the state sector in 2011, and seeks to eliminate another 110,000 in 2012 according to Raymundo Navarro, a leading officer of Cuba’s Central Labor Union (CTC), EFE reports. The total planned cuts for 2011 and 2012 constitute half of the government’s stated goal of eliminating 500,000 jobs from the public sector. Navarro classified this reduction in state jobs, part of Cuba’s process of reforming and “updating” its economy, as the most difficult challenge that the workers’ union has faced since the Cuban revolution.

In a separate interview with the state newspaper Trabajadores, Salvador Valdes, secretary general of the CTC, stated that the wages of state workers will be frozen “until the country, through the measures it adopts, manages to deflate overhead and eliminate subsidies and free services that are improper and that work against increases in productivity.”

Navarro, in his comments, also spoke of the need to integrate the new class of self-employed workers, or cuentapropistas, into the union. According to CTC statistics, about 80% of Cuba’s cuentapropistas, numbering more than 370,000, are affiliated with the union. Navarro stated that “We have to integrate those workers… and break away from everything related to negative ideas or thoughts toward that sector.”

Two special reports this week, from Reuters and NPR’s All Things Considered, chronicle Cuba’s rapidly-growing class of self-employed workers, many of whom work in the restaurant and food service sector.

Amnesty International, Committee to Protect Journalists criticize Cuba’s government

The international organizations Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists have criticized Cuba’s government this week, specifically for repression and censorship of journalists. Amnesty, in a release reporting on dissident blogger Luis Felipe Rojas, states that “independent journalists and bloggers have faced increased threats and intimidation when publishing information critical to the authorities.” The Committee to Protect Journalists included Cuba as one of ten countries with the most media censorship, last published in 2006, reports the AP.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba to partner with Kuwait in renovation of Havana’s water distribution system

The Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development has signed an agreement with Cuba’s National Institute of Water Resources to renovate Havana’s water and sewage systems, the Cuba Standard reports.  According to the Cuba Standard, although no details were given on the deal, the funding for these projects typically is given as a low-interest loan. Cuba’s water distribution infrastructure is in desperate need of renovation, as currently about half of water is lost due to the poor condition of the infrastructure and of water faucets. Many Cubans currently receive their water from water tank trucks.

Joint meeting between Cuban and Mexican Parliaments

Members of the Mexican and Cuban parliaments met in Havana, in the 8th Interparliamentary Meeting between the two countries, EFE. Items on the agenda include oil exploration plans, economic reforms in Cuba, renewable energy, exchanges in the field of higher education, and the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. The meeting comes after Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s visit to the island, intended to mark a new stage of renewed Cuban-Mexican relations.

Cuba buying tractors from Belarus

Belarus’ Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ) has agreed to sell around 100 tractors to Cuba, the Cuba Standard reports. The tractors themselves will be assembled in Cuba. The company is also building a plant in Venezuela at the moment, which anticipates being able to produce up to 10,000 tractors annually that will be sold in Latin American markets.

Around the Region

El Salvador Monthly Update, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

CDA’s monthly El Salvador Update highlights news and analysis surrounding the historic gang truce between the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs, and provides a useful chronology of events leading up to and following the truce. Other reports cover new appointments within the National Police and the resignation of Minister of Economy Hector Dada Hirezi.

The Spanish version is available here. If you would like to receive our monthly reports on El Salvador via email, please contact us at lela@democracyinamericas.org.

Recommended Reading/Viewing

Governor Scott’s flip flops on legality of state’s Cuba sanctions

For more analysis of the legislation, Phil Peters provides a post on Governor Scott’s “pandering” in his Cuban Triangle blog, while Tim Padgett for TIME calls the law “an embarrassment” and “absurd.”
Gender and Health in Cuba, MEDICC Review, April 2012

The most recent issue of MEDICC’s International Journal of Cuban Health and Medicine focuses on issues of gender and health on the island. The issue includes an interview with Mariela Castro, president of the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX).

Soccer gains popularity in Cuba, Randal C. Archibold, The New York Times

“Baseball has long been considered as Cuban as hand-rolled cigars, regardless of the game’s origin in a country that the government derisively calls “the empire.” But in the past few years, soccer has made inroads here. After Cuban television broadcast the World Cup in 2010 and began showing more European matches, pickup games started sprouting across the island.”

Lizards Don’t Eat Cheese: Vintage Cuban Book Covers, 50 Watts

This blog post highlights  images of creative, colorful vintage print book covers from Cuba, published in the 60s and 70s.

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