On Mother’s Day in Havana and Washington

In the U.S., Mother’s Day is a hallmark of our spring calendar, so we wanted to wish a happy holiday to every mother who reads and enjoys the weekly blast.

As you will read below, the organization called Save the Children has released its annual Mothers Index Rating and has once again listed Cuba as the best country in Latin America for mothers.

This will undoubtedly excite an exaggerated reaction from those who can’t stand seeing Cuba presented in a normal or flattering light.

After the New York Times published its piece earlier this month titled “Cuba May Be the Most Feminist Country in Latin America,” the heavy armor was rolled out.  While reasonable men and women of good will disagree about life and living conditions in Cuba, a discussion of the facts simply couldn’t be allowed to stand.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called women “the biggest victims of the Cuban regime,” the author and others holding this view were labeled as apologists, the perspective called “unspeakable,” the New York Times didn’t just publish the article, it ‘squealed,’ etc.

One can only imagine the hail storm that awaits Save the Children.

But this week the hardliners didn’t own the monopoly on absurdity.   Special credit was earned by the U.S. State Department which publicly rejected an offer by Cuba to negotiate with the United States on a broad range of issues, including the Alan Gross case.

Mr. Gross, imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009, for his work in a USAID-funded regime change program, and sentenced to 15 years in prison, pleaded for a brief release to visit his mother, aged ninety, who is suffering from cancer – a Mother’s Day gift they could both enjoy – and made his case in a telephone interview with CNN.

Reacting to the interview, Josefina Vidal, a top Cuban Foreign Ministry official, said that while Cuba was ready to engage in a dialogue with the U.S. on Mr. Gross’s case, Havana wanted “to sit down at the negotiating table with Washington to discuss all outstanding issues in an effort to establish normal relations,” according to CBS News.

Rather than seizing the initiative, the State Department “reacted sharply,” saying Vidal’s statement confirmed its belief that Mr. Gross is a hostage and there is no justification for his continued imprisonment.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration is negotiating with the Taliban on a prisoner exchange that could free an American soldier held hostage in Afghanistan.

Leaving us to wonder what principle is at stake when U.S. decides who to talk to about what.

Our policy of not talking directly to Cuba on subjects core to the national interest, such as protecting our shared environment against an oil spill, or as central to our humanitarian interests as freeing a pawn in our Cold War efforts to topple the Cuban government, both of which we discuss below, might be good politics in some precincts, but it’s a substantial and damaging  failure to communicate.

Our mothers never would approve of that.

 

IN CUBA

Cuba ranked best country in Latin America for mothers

Save the Children’s annual Mothers Index Rating has once again listed Cuba as the best country in Latin America for mothers. The report analyzes 43 “most developed,” 81 “less developed,” and 42 “least developed” countries according to ten factors related to education, health, economic status, and political development, as well as the basic welfare of children. Cuba ranks highest in the category of “less developed” nations, and is followed in Latin America by Argentina, in third place. The U.S. is ranked 25th in the category for developed nations, while Norway won the highest ranking.

Cuban dissident José Daniel Ferrer detained, released

Cuban dissident José Daniel Ferrer, one of the group of 75 political dissidents arrested by Cuban authorities during a wave of arrests in spring 2003, was briefly detained on Wednesday and released 29 hours later, EFE reports. Another dissident who was close by reportedly witnessed the incident, and stated that Ferrer was going to the embassy of the Czech Republic in Havana to access the Internet when he was detained. He was later transferred to police facilities in the eastern cities of Las Tunas and Santiago de Cuba where he was finally released.

While most of the seventy-five were released on the condition that they would go into exile in Spain, Ferrer and eleven others refused. He was released from prison in March 2011 and has been arrested and released several times since then. In April, Ferrer was held for 27 days in Santiago for creating “public disorder” before being released as he awaits trial on that charge. After this most recent arrest, authorities indicated that Ferrer’s movement is being restricted.

Cuba reports record number of tourists in the first quarter of 2012

Over 1.24 million foreign tourists have visited Cuba in the first quarter of this year, a 5.2% increase from the same period  last year, Notimex reports.

The announcement came as Cuba held its 32nd annual International Tourism Fair, FITCuba, hosted this year on the key of Santa María, off of Cuba’s northern coast.  The fair includes participants from Canada, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Spain, France, and the United Kingdom, among others.  This year’s fair has been dedicated to Argentina, which increased its tourism to Cuba by 50% in the past year.

In order to receive increasing number of travelers, expansion projects are planned, especially on the keys off Cuba’s mainland, reports EFE. In a report on state-run television, Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero emphasized a plan to construct 45,000 hotel rooms on those keys by 2030. An article in state newspaper Juventud Rebelde this week reported that there are currently 1,618 privately-owned restaurants, or paladares, in Cuba, and 5,207 rooms for rent, or casas particulares, which Marrero stated are in their majority competitive, high quality businesses that complement Cuba’s offerings to tourists.

Cuba to include cuentapropistas in disaster preparedness plan

Cuba will launch “Meteoro-2012,” its yearly disaster preparedness campaign, May 19-20, EFE reports. The project, started in 1986 and organized by the National Headquarters of Civil Defense, is aimed at increasing the population’s preparedness before hurricane season. This year’s campaign will for the first time include preventive measures for Cuba’s growing class of cuentapropistas, or self-employed workers. Miguel Ángel Puig, the head of the Civil Defense operations department, said that planned activities include analyzing the specific risks for each province and each sector of the economy.

Havana biennial art festival begins today

The streets of Havana are bustling with participants in the city’s biennial art festival, Peter Orsi  reports for the AP. The theme of this year’s festival is “Artistic Practices and Social Insertion.” The event includes sculpture displays along the Malecón, Havana’s famous sea wall, with gallery exhibits and performances across the city. Officials say that 180 artists from 43 nations are participating in the festival, which runs through June 11. Jorge Fernandez, an event organizer, stated that more than 1,300 Americans applied for accreditation to take part. José Parla, a Cuban-American artist who painted large murals of senior citizens, stated:

The murals and we artists have been well received because everybody has something very poetic to say, very deep and beautiful. We have enjoyed working here.

Cuba to invest up to $450 million in multi-year program to increase rice production

A televised report indicates that Cuba plans to invest up to $450 million in a program to increase rice production to meet domestic supply by 2016, La Información reports. The television program reported this year’s investments as $108 million, focused on the installation of the high-end technology to reinforce existing agricultural machinery. The plan includes participation by Cuban, Chinese and Vietnamese experts.

Cuba currently imports 400,000 tons of rice per year, 60% of the total quantity of rice consumed on the island.

Increased rail speed in Cuba could be dangerous

Recent upgrades to Cuba’s railroad system have led to trains traveling faster, and increasing collisions involving people who are unfamiliar with the newer speeds, the Associated Press reports. Cuban government officials cited last year’s statistics, reporting 33 rail collisions with automobiles and 47 involving pedestrians, either not paying attention to the train tracks or timing their crossing based on the rail speeds before the recent upgrades. The collisions resulted in 30 deaths in 2011, an increase from the 19 deaths in 2010.  This year so far there have been 27 pedestrian accidents resulting in 10 deaths.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Alan Gross phone-in provokes letter from Cuban Interests Section chief

Alan Gross called in this week to Wolf Blitzer’s The Situation Room. On the phone call from his Havana prison, Gross, jailed in Cuba for bringing highly regulated satellite equipment to the island under a USAID “democracy promotion” program, discussed his captivity in Cuba and asked the Cuban government to allow him to visit his ailing mother.
Following the phone call with Mr. Gross, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated in an interview with CNN:

…well first of all Mr. Gross should not even be incarcerated in Cuba. Mr. Gross was not a spy, Mr. Gross was not an intelligence agent. So there should be a decision by the Cuban government to release him, and we would like to see that happen as soon as possible.

In response to suggestions of some kind of reciprocal agreement regarding the “Cuban Five,” four agents serving sentences in U.S. prisons, and one currently on supervised release, Sec. Clinton stated, “we are well aware that the Cuban government wants to see the release of their intelligence agents” but offered no indication of a willingness to negotiate.

Ambassador Jorge Bolaños, chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, responded to the interview in a letter to Wolf Blitzer outlining the Cuban government’s position on Alan Gross’ imprisonment.  He contested the U.S. government’s continuing position on Mr. Gross’s mission saying he “was not convicted for helping (the) Cuban Jewish (community) to connect to the Internet. All Cuban synagogues have Internet; they had Internet before Mr. Gross came to Cuba. Mr. Gross violated Cuban laws by implementing a U.S. government program aimed…against Cuba’s constitutional order.”
Josefina Vidal, director of the North America division of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, conducted an interview with Wolf Blitzer later in the week, further explaining the Cuban government’s stance on the Gross case and Cuba’s willingness to negotiate a humanitarian solution with the U.S.

Experts convey on-going concerns about U.S. response to Cuban oil drilling

Energy and environmental experts gathered in Washington, D.C. at an event organized by the Center for International Policy to discuss the implications of the U.S. embargo on Cuba in the event of an oil spill. Across the board, experts felt that the 50-year old policy toward Cuba posed a safety threat, the Miami Herald reports. According to William K. Reilly, former chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President George H. W. Bush,

In every way, I think the Cuban approach to this is responsible and appropriate to the risk they are undertaking. Nevertheless, should there be a need for a response (…) the United States government has not interpreted its sanctions policy in a way that would clearly make available in advance the kind of technologies that would be required.

The panelists also indicated that Cuban offshore drilling is expected to hit an oil reservoir soon, as Spanish firm Repsol moves forward with its drilling 60 miles off the Cuban coast, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

Mariela Castro congratulates Obama’s support for gay marriage

Mariela Castro, President Raúl Castro’s daughter and director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) stated her support for President Obama’s statements in support of same sex marriage, EFE reports.  Castro hopes that Obama’s announcement will lead to other officials announcing their support for same sex marriage due to the global influence of the U.S. and that the publicity will increase public awareness of the International Day Against Homophobia on May 17th.

According to Ms. Castro, the Cuban Parliament is currently considering legislation to legalize civil unions for same sex couples, reports the Telegraph.  She stated that she “has hopes” that legislation will be passed some time this year.

CIA file on Bay of Pigs invasion to remain classified

A final draft of the fifth volume of the CIA’s file on the Bay of Pigs Invasion entitled “CIA’s Internal Investigations of the Bay of Pigs Operations”  will remain classified after Federal Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that its continued classified status is acceptable because it is not a finished work, reports the AP.  The report was never finished because the chief historian ruled that it did not have enough support material.

The National Security Archive asked the CIA to declassify the report, but the CIA argued that the report is protected from the Freedom of Information Act by the deliberative process privilege.

As the AP reported, “The CIA had no problem declassifying an earlier volume of the history in which the author attacked President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, said Peter Kornbluh, who directs the National Security Archive’s Cuba documentation project.

Apparently, the CIA sees no problem in the American public reading a ‘polemic of recriminations’ against the White House,” Kornbluh said.

In her decision, Judge Kessler stated that the report could remain classified to prevent the release of inaccurate historical information and that requiring the CIA to declassify all historical materials would prevent CIA historians from exploring all possible interpretations of events due to fear of backlash.

ING reportedly close to arrangement for fine over business with Cuba

The Dutch bank ING is reportedly close to an arrangement regarding an alleged breach of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, the Havana Times reports. In July 2006, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) declared a subsidiary of ING, the Netherlands Caribbean Bank (NCB), to be in violation of U.S. sanctions for its business with Cuba. The NCB operated from 1993 to 2007 with its main branch in Willemstad, Curacao and an office in Cuba. ING had a 50% share in the bank, and the other 50% was owned held “by two financial institutions of the Cuban state,” according to the article.

An ING spokesman said that the bank had reserved 307 million Euros (about US$397 million) for a “possible settlement,” indicating that the figure would cover most of the U.S. claim.
Cuban-Americans in Congress want meeting with IKEA over Cuban prisoners

Allegations that IKEA used Cuban prison labor in the 1980s has prompted six Cuban-Americans in Congress to demand a meeting with the company’s head in North America, the Miami Herald reports.

Senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio, and Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, Albio Sires, and David Rivera signed an open letter demanding that the Swedish furniture company explain why recently declassified Stasi files state that IKEA production sites were “incorporated in the prison facilities of the interior ministry in Cuba,” Fox News Latino reports. “These are serious allegations and they have caused much consternation in our communities, and rightly so,” said Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen in a statement. “Multinational corporations have a moral obligation to assure their businesses are not violating human rights. We look forward to getting answers from IKEA on our multiple concerns stemming from these accusations.”

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuban officials visit South Korea

A Cuban trade delegation is touring three subsidiaries of South Korean conglomerate Hyundai, reports the Cuba Standard, to explore ways to increase bilateral trade and investment.  The trip marks the first high-level official visit to South Korea, as Cuba has traditionally held strong relations with North Korea. Officials in Havana requested the meeting.

According to an editorial in the Korea Times, South Korean exports to Cuba amount to approximately $200-$300 million annually, largely in the automobile and electronics industries. The two nations do not have embassies or representative offices in their respective countries, however, opening the possibility that strengthening economic connections could push further diplomatic ties between Cuba and South Korea in the coming years.

South African aid to Cuba draws criticism

An agreement granting an “economic assistance package” of 350-million Rand (about $43 million USD) to Cuba from South Africa has drawn criticism from opposition parties, the South African journal Daily News reports. South Africa entered into the agreement when its President Jacob Zuma visited Cuba last year, and the National Assembly’s Committee on Trade and Industry ratified the agreement by one vote this week. The agreement would provide Cuba with a 100m Rand “solidarity grant” that would not have to be repaid, and a 250m Rand credit line. Last year, the South African government wrote off approximately 1.1 billion Rand ($136.3 million) in debt owed by Cuba.

Opponents to the agreement argued that it has no benefits to South Africa, that public money should not be used to maintain the political friendship between the two nations, and criticized the agreement for not having any conditions regarding the state of human rights and democracy in Cuba.

Vietnamese oil company to decide next year if it will drill off Cuban coast

Vietnamese oil company PetroVietnam estimates that Cuba’s coast has a production potential of 3 to 5 billion barrels, El Mundo reports. Company vice-president Nguyen Quoc Thap said they were waiting the initial results of Spanish firm Repsol, as well as following developments of Malaysian firm PETRONAS and Venezuelan firm PDVSA, and would make decisions about their own drilling in 2013. Ngyuen declared that Petro Vietnam’s vision was not for the short term, and that the company was looking in “the medium term” as it calculated its next moves in Cuba.

Around the Region

Attacks on freedom of expression in Honduras

Honduran journalist and LGBT leader Erick Alexander Martínez Ávila was found dead this week with his body showing signs of strangulation, reports the BBC. He had recently been chosen last year as a candidate for a coalition of parties opposing former President Manuel Zelaya’s ouster in June 2009.

Days after the discovery of Martínez’s body, another journalist, Alfredo Villatoro, was also kidnapped, reports BBC. Honduran police have arrested three suspects in connection to the kidnapping, and it is not clear if the kidnapping was related to Villatoro’s work.

Meanwhile, a leading supporter of Honduras’ June 2009 coup d’état that removed Manuel Zelaya from the presidency has been added to Reporters Without Borders’ list of “predators of the freedom to inform,” Honduras Culture and Politics reports. Miguel Facussé, an agro-industrialist and uncle of former president Carlos Flores, has “a private militia that can count on support from the police and army to impose his will.”

Facussé has the rare distinction of being one of the few on Reporters Without Borders’ predators who is not a government official. Since the coup, 22 journalists have been killed in the country, making Honduras one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists according to El Heraldo.

The New York Times covered controversial U.S. efforts to improve the violent situation in Honduras from two angles this week. One, “Who Wants to Buy Honduras?” makes the case for Foreign Direct Investment into “Charter Cities” which, though in Honduras, would be governed by the legal systems of rich countries. The other, titled “Lessons of Iraq Help U.S. Fight a Drug War in Honduras” reported on controversial U.S. military efforts to assist Honduran authorities in fighting the drug war.

Recommended Reading/Viewing

Cuba’s Fortresses Against a Viral Foe,  Donald G. McNeil Jr, The New York Times

The New York Times published several articles looking into the legacy of Cuba’s reaction to the discovery of HIV. Articles published here and here detail Cuba’s response to the virus following its introduction to Cuba from soldiers who returned from fighting in Africa, while an in-depth article provides personal profiles of Cubans living in Cuba with the HIV virus.

Cuban casas particulares turn home into a business, Mimi Whitefield, The Miami Herald

“Norma Arias Puente has been learning the hospitality business for more than a decade from a perch overlooking this city’s Parque Céspedes and the Cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción with its statue of a trumpeting archangel. That would be her apartment in a wedding cake of a building where she operates a casa particular — Cuba’s version of a bed and breakfast — and rents out two spacious rooms.”

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