A visa “compromise” detrimental to the interests of the United States

You know how Washington works (when it works).  Opposing factions come together and “give something to get something.”  At a time when the machinery of government is so obviously broken, some would argue that more compromise is needed.

For a variety of reasons, a compromise that the Obama administration seems to have brokered – with whom we do not know – has badly backfired and compromised some pretty important principles.  It comes as no surprise that this story is about an egregious misstep on Cuba.

By way of background, the Latin America Studies Association (or “LASA”) will meet next week in San Francisco.   LASA, the most important organization of scholars who study the region, stopped coming to the U.S. for its meetings because the U.S. would not grant visas to Cubans who wanted to participate and it decided not to return to the U.S. until the problem was fixed.

Or so it thought. For next week’s conference, approximately 80 Cubans were invited and applied for visas so they could enter the United States to do so. According to this afternoon’s State Department Daily Press Briefing, of 77 received applications, 60 have been approved, 11 were denied and 6 are pending – for a conference that begins just five days from today.

Who got selected and who got rejected?  Mariela Castro Espin, the renowned champion of gay rights who heads the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, who previously visited the United States under a visa granted by the administration of George W. Bush, was among those Cubans allowed entry to attend LASA next week.

But Soraya Castro Marino, who came to the U.S. in 2010 as a visiting scholar at Harvard was, according to The Washington Post, “found ineligible this time because her presence would ‘detrimental to the interests of the United States’.”  Rafael Hernandez, a scholar who also taught at Harvard and the University of Texas, Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban Ambassador to the European Union, Oscar Zanetti, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a scholar at American University, and several others who had previously received visas from the administration over the last several year were denied visas now –  because their presence would be detrimental to the U.S.

The Obama administration is enforcing no consistent principle for determining who should enter and attend LASA.  If decision makers thought welcoming some and turning away others would win them plaudits they were sadly mistaken.

Phil Brenner, a professor and Cuba scholar at American University, called the decisions “arbitrary, shameful, and cowardly.”  He observed that many of the scholars denied visas “have a history of advocating for improved relations with the United States.”  Ted Piccone, an official at the Brookings Institution who was expecting Carlos Alzugaray at an upcoming event, called it “baffling.  I wish I knew what their thinking was.”

If the administration’s strategy was to buy cheap grace with the hardliners who oppose any dialogue or engagement with Cuba by denying visas to some of Cuba’s most open and incisive intellectuals, this was a total failure.

As the Miami Herald reported, the decision to issue a visa to Mariela Castro, President Raúl Castro’s daughter, drew “irate criticism” from Cuban Americans in Congress.

Senator Bob Menendez said the U.S. government and LASA should not be “in the business of providing a totalitarian regime, like the one in Cuba, with a platform for which to espouse its twisted rhetoric.”  Senator Marco Rubio called the decision an “outrageous and enormous mistake.”  Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called the decision “beyond comprehension.”

The administration was wrong to compromise not just because it satisfied no one or because no one “gave something to get something.”  It was wrong because the compromise was truly detrimental to the interests of the United States.

The U.S. has a policy of punishing Cuba because we object to features of the Cuban system that limit the rights of travel and expression.  The policy has accomplished none of its stated objectives for half a century.   Our government undermines whatever moral credibility the policy has left by stopping intellectuals from Cuba – who think freely and speak openly about repairing the U.S.-Cuban relationship – from traveling to our country so they could participate in an academic conference…for goodness sakes.

Is it possible that one Cuban invited to attend LASA could utter what Senator Menendez calls “twisted rhetoric” if given the chance?  Perhaps.  But we think our country is strong enough to withstand the shock.  And even if what the Cubans have to say isn’t controversial, we should be committed to their right to come and speak.  That is, what might call, the American way.

Obama should reverse the denials and welcome them in.


House approves defense bill barring contracts with companies doing business with countries on list of State Sponsors of Terrorism

The House of Representatives has passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal year 2013 that bars the Department of Defense from contracting goods or services from people or businesses that do business with nations on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. A statement from the office of Rep. David Rivera says:

The amendment stops the flow of taxpayer dollars to business entities that do business with terrorist states and closes the loophole that allows foreign companies like Repsol to partner with State Sponsors of Terrorism while simultaneously profiting from American taxpayers through their subsidiaries.

According to the statement, Repsol, the Spanish oil company that has pursued exploratory drilling for oil off Cuba’s shores, currently has more than $300 million in contracts with the Department of Defense. The number and size of contracts with other companies doing business with countries on the list are unknown.

Mariela Castro receives visa to speak in the U.S.

The decision to grant Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, a visa to speak at the Latin American Studies Association meeting in San Francisco evoked strong responses from Cuban-American politicians, who call her an apologist for the Cuban government.

In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and David Rivera of Florida wrote, “The administration’s appalling decision to allow regime agents into the U.S. directly contradicts Congressional intent and longstanding U.S. foreign policy.” The letter also argues that admitting “high-level agents from a State Sponsor of Terrorism with an extensive espionage network” is “reckless and dangerous.”

Amid the criticism, the U.S. State Department cited its policy of not commenting on individual visa applications. When pressed the following day, a White House spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, stated that “We have to follow U.S. law, and if we are going to deny visas, we have to do so under one of the stipulations in the visa law.”

Ms. Castro, director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) will be presenting on a panel entitled “A look at sexual diversity from the political perspective.” Her presentation, “Sexual education as government policy in Cuba,” will be presented on May 23. Castro is currently advocating for the legalization of civil unions in Cuba and recently said that her father privately supports gay marriage. She hopes a decision on it will be made this year.

After the LASA conference, Castro is also scheduled to speak at the New York Public Library on May 29.

Fire at Coral Gables Cuba travel service provider ruled intentional

Fire investigators in Coral Gables have officially declared that a fire last month at Airline Brokers Co., in Coral Gables, FL was set intentionally, reports the AP. The travel company organizes trips to Cuba, including recently a high-profile pilgrimage by Catholics to the island for the Pope’s visit in March.

Investigators found the remnants of a lighter, a green bottle, and a piece of asphalt at the scene, and theorize that a projectile and liquid accelerant was used to start the fire.  In the ‘70s and ‘80s, similar acts of violence and intimidation were commonplace in the Miami area, but have significantly decreased, to the point of being unheard of in the last decade. Though Vivian Mannerud, the owner of Airline Brokers Co. reported receiving death threats in the past, she stated that she had not received any prior to the fire.

USAID releases new document on Cuba program

In his blog, Along the Malecón, Tracey Eaton analyzes a document released by the U.S. Agency for International Development regarding a $1.47 million Freedom House project in Cuba. Eaton requested the document along with others in October 2011 under the Freedom of Information Act.

As has been the case with other documents released by USAID at Eaton’s request, it came with many important details redacted, including the cost breakdown of how the $1.47 million was spent, the names of the personnel, and the entire project proposal. The bottom line, according to Eaton: “USAID says almost nothing about how it spent $1.47 million and Barack Obama’s pledge for a more open government is just that – a pledge, little more.”

Eaton’s post also analyzes the information that he has been able to obtain regarding USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives’ work in Cuba and its opaque operations and reporting processes.

U.S. changes requirements for people-to-people licensees organizing travel to Cuba

The U.S. Treasury Department has tightened requirements for organizing travel to Cuba using people-to-people licenses, The Miami Herald reports. Whereas applicants were always required to affirm that the majority of meetings would not be with government-related officials, new language requires further explanation of any meetings with any state institutions or officials (our emphasis):

For meetings hosted by a prohibited official(s) of the Cuban Government as described in 31 C.F.R. 515.337 or a member(s) of the Cuban Communist Party described in 31 C.F.R. 515.338, specify how each such meeting advances purposeful travel under the people-to-people program by enhancing contact with the Cuban people and/or supporting civil society in Cuba, and/or how it promotes independence from Cuban authorities.

As Phil Peters outlines in the Cuban Triangle, the new language also clarifies that trips must be accompanied by an employee or consultant of the licensee, and that itineraries should serve one or more of three objectives: enhancing contact with the Cuban people, supporting civil society, and promoting independence from Cuban authorities.

This change in requirements has come as opponents to people-to-people travel have protested against the itineraries offered by some license holders that include visits with representatives of the Cuban government or state institutions — recently including an inquiry by the House Administration Committee into the Smithsonian Institution’s use of its license.

The updated version of the comprehensive guidelines for travel to Cuba is available here.

U.S. will not renew Pernod Ricard’s Havana Club trademark, Bacardi to use name

Pernod Ricard SA, which sells the Cuban rum Havana Club in every country except the U.S., has lost its trademark of the use of Havana Club name in the U.S. after the Supreme Court decided not to intervene in the company’s dispute with Bacardi Ltd., Bloomberg reports.

Last year, a Washington appeals court blocked Pernod Ricard from renewing the trademark registration under a provision that had been inserted into a 1999 budget bill. Section 211 prohibits the recognition of Cuban trademarks nationalized after the revolution, and has been condemned by the World Trade Organization and the U.S. Chamber of Congress, the Cuba Standard reports. A Pernod Ricard spokesman announced that the company will launch a new brand, Havanista, if the embargo against Cuba is lifted.

For its part, Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations released a statement outlining their argument for Cubaexport’s right to the Havana Club name and foreshadowing reciprocal action:

This action constitutes a grave violation of the agreement of the United States on intellectual property, which obligates them to protect the brands of Cuban companies and institutions…If the U.S. government doesn’t act, it will be held responsible for the theft of the Havana Club brand from its legitimate owner, the company Cubaexport, and for the negative consequences that may derive from this decision, for reciprocal protection of intellectual property.

Eusebio Leal, City Historian of Havana, visits U.S., meets with Ban Ki-Moon

Eusebio Leal, historian of the city of Havana, traveled to New York and met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon this Wednesday, Café Fuerte reports. Leal is in the U.S. to talk about projects restoring historic sites in Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As part of the trip, Leal met with high-level UN officials and briefly spoke with the Secretary General. Leal, who also serves as a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations, was in New York City by invitation of the New York Public Library, where he spoke at a conference on Tuesday about restoration efforts in Havana.

Leal then traveled to Washington DC, where he spoke at the Brookings Institution on the balancing act between re-developing and restoring Old Havana for tourism while also preserving its heritage. Leal spoke alongside Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Richard Feinberg and Robert Puentes, Senior Fellow and Director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative.

Senate hearing: “Cuba’s Global Network of Terrorism, Intelligence, and Warfare”

On Thursday, Rep. Connie Mack held a hearing before the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs titled “Cuba’s Global Network of Terrorism, Intelligence, and Warfare.”

Featuring testimony from retired Defense Intelligence Agency Counterintelligence officer Christopher Simmons, and National Security Concepts, Inc. president Michelle Van Cleave, the hearing focused on allegations about what Mack calls “the Cuban regime’s pervasive, global intelligence network, collection methods, and their willingness to share critical U.S. military and policy information with U.S. adversaries.”  Witnesses focused on alleged information collecting and sharing by Cuba’s intelligence services with countries and organizations including Pakistan, Iraq, Hezbollah, and Colombia’s FARC.
“Proyecto Paladar,” part of Havana biennial art festival, brings together Cuban and American chefs

Ten prominent chefs from NY will meet with Cuban chefs from Cuba’s rapidly developing private restaurant industry for “Proyecto Paladar,” part of Cuba’s biennial art fair currently taking place in Havana, the AP reports.  Paladars, small independently-owned restaurants run out of private homes, are a growing industry in Cuba and provide increasing options of foods from various cultures, a change from the food served at many state operated restaurants on the island.

The program is financed by donations from individuals in the United States and receives no financial support from Cuban state institutions. The chefs cook for five seatings of 12 people every evening in remembrance of the maximum number of guests the Cuban government allowed at private restaurants when they first opened in the 1990s.

Private restaurant owners in Cuba have difficulty obtaining ingredients due to shortages, and Proyecto Paladar offers them the opportunity to experiment and learn new techniques. According to Chef Sara Jenkins,

The easiest and most interesting way to understand another culture is through the stomach, and the easiest and least complicated way to create friendships is to share bread at the same table.

The event has left participants feeling optimistic that Americans and Cubans can have closer ties in the future, as The New York Times reports in a survey of participants’ reactions. Robert Coffland, one of the participants, stated: “It’s the small actions that sometimes have a huge impact. That’s what builds ties between countries.”


Repsol reports dry well in Cuba exploration

Spanish oil company Repsol has reported that the exploration well it drilled off the coast of Cuba was unsuccessful, Reuters reports. A Repsol spokesman stated, “I can confirm that the Repsol well in Cuba has been reported to be unsuccessful and that we are proceeding to plug and abandon the well.” An industry expert commented, “It’s a bust. It doesn’t mean there’s not oil out there, but it looks like they missed the reservoir.”

There are currently two other exploration wells planned off of Cuba’s coast. According to the article, the Scarabeo 9 drilling rig is scheduled to be handed over soon to the Malaysian state-owned oil company Petronas, which has plans for an exploration well in partnership with the Russian company Gazprom. The second well will be about 100 miles west of the current site. PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company, also has tentative plans for a third well.

This announcement could be a blow to the island’s hopes for oil exploration. According to industry experts, a dry hole in deep water generally costs at least $175 million, a cost that Repsol will share with its partners.

Foreign investment in Cuba is lagging

Plans to expand foreign investment previously announced by Cuba’s government under its program of economic reform have lagged as Cuba has focused on regulating foreign companies already operating on the island, Reuters reports. Cuba has approximately 240 foreign investment projects, which is down from the 258 announced in 2009. A decade ago, more than 700 such projects operated on the island.

The country’s investment reform plan, announced last year, emphasized foreign investment, promised an overhaul of the bureaucratic approval process, highlighted the need for special economic zones, and planned for the elaboration of tourist attractions. Such projects would require a significant inflow of foreign investment, and new projects could ease the effects of the government’s plans to lay off thousands of state workers.

However, Reuters attributes the delays to requirements that existing and future investments would be subject to “rigorous controls” on “regulations and procedures, as well as the commitments assumed by foreign partners.” Cuban and business sources have stated that this regulation has taken a front seat, delaying plans for increased investments.

Raúl Castro says he will put an end to “illegalities” in urban construction in Cuba

Cuban President Raúl Castro has issued a statement saying that the accumulating illegalities around construction will be halted, reports Xinhua. The task is “immense,” he said, but the problems will be “put in order,” with the Institute for Physical Planning playing an increasingly important role in implementing the law. “The goal isn’t to prohibit construction, but to make clear where construction can take place,” he stated.

The announcement came after a passer-by was killed by falling debris of a deteriorating building in Havana this week, the Havana Times reports. Cuba’s government has recently enacted reforms making it easier to buy construction materials and repair and construct homes, in an attempt to address deteriorating buildings – many of them occupied residences – as well as the country’s housing shortage.

Cuban universities cut intake by 26%

Cuban universities have reduced admissions by 26% according to recently-released figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONE), EFE reports. The drop from 473,309 students enrolled last year to 351,116 enrolled in the 2011-2012 year comes as President Raúl Castro has stated that during the process of economic reform, university quotas must be “at the level needed to develop society and the economy.” Enrollment was slashed in all areas, but social sciences and the humanities received the largest cuts. In 2010, Cuba’s government announced that more than one million students had been graduated through the island’s university system.


Spanish government opposes embargo

The Spanish government has stated its opposition to the U.S. embargo against Cuba because it “violates the basic rules of international commerce” and because it has been condemned on many occasions by the United Nations, La Información reports. This news comes weeks after a diplomatic spat in which Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel Garcia-Margallo stated he would not visit Cuba without being able to visit the Ladies in White and other dissidents, and Cuba’s government responded that an invitation had not been extended.

On a related note, Florida Governor Rick Scott is set to meet with Garcia-Margallo on Tuesday to discuss Scott’s recent legislation prohibiting contracts with companies that trade with Cuba, reports El Boletín. Little else is known about the meeting other than that it is scheduled to take place at 4:30 p.m.

Spain has also named Juan Francisco Montalbán as the new ambassador to Cuba, EFE reports. Montalbán holds degrees in Political Science, Sociology, and Law and  prior to his posting in Cuba he was the ambassador to Bolivia and El Salvador and part of diplomatic missions in Mozambique, Nicaragua, and Mexico.

Around the Region

Venezuela economy grows at fastest pace since 2008

This quarter, Venezuela’s economy has grown at its fastest pace since 2008, reports BusinessWeek. The economy grew at a rate 5.6%, which was above analysts’ projections of 4.1%. In 2008, the economy grew at a rate of 7.8%. Pledges for new social programs to assist impoverished children and the elderly, as well as to deal with Venezuela’s major housing deficit have been the basis of President Chávez’s re-election bid, as recent oil profits have allowed for an increase in government spending.

Upcoming Event in Washington, D.C.

 Overcoming Obstacles to U.S.-Cuba Dialogue: Joint Recommendations from Cuban and American Scholars, The Brookings Institution

 Despite important steps both in Cuba and the United States to increase engagement, tensions between Washington and Havana continue to run high. Nonetheless, a number of academic, cultural and people-to-people exchanges are breaking the ice of Cold War-era politics and creating new opportunities for improving ties between the two countries. In that spirit, the Cuba-United States Academic Workshop (Taller Académico Cuba-EEUU or TACE), led by the University of Havana, American University and CRIES (Regional Coordination for Economic and Social Research), has met six times since 2009 in an atmosphere of open and constructive debate. TACE brings together scholars, former diplomats and economists to discuss relations between Cuba and the United States and search for common ground.

On May 21, the Brookings Institution will host a panel of Cuban and American academics for the first public presentation of the group’s joint recommendations on ways to overcome some of the obstacles to engagement and contribute to a gradual improvement in bilateral relations.

Recommended Reading/Viewing

Come See my Villa, The Economist

“Last year Coral Capital, one of the biggest private investors in Cuba, released a glossy brochure for a property development. “Live in Havana,” said the blurb. “You know you want to.” It was anticipating a new law that, for the first time since the revolution, would allow foreigners to buy property, in this case around a couple of golf courses which the company was intending to develop. Now Coral Capital’s top two bosses, both British citizens, are under arrest, caught up in an investigation that has in equal measure bemused and alarmed foreigners doing business in Cuba.”

Replica of Malecón inaugurated in South Florida, Daniel Shoer Roth, Miami Herald

“As part of an expansion project, the Our Lady of Charity Shrine in Coconut Grove, a Miami landmark for Cuban exiles, unveiled a replica of the famed Havana seawall.”

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