At LASA: Scholars Protest Cuba Visa Denials; Romney’s Regime Change Redux; Ricardo In, Restrepo Departs

Scholars who lead the Cuba Section of the Latin America Studies Association (LASA) met Thursday evening and debated moving future conferences of the organization outside the U.S. after their ranks were depleted by Obama administration denials of visas for nearly a dozen Cuban academics.

Approximately 5,000 regional experts from nations across the globe arrived in San Francisco this week for the annual meeting of LASA.

The Obama administration has refused to discuss in public its reasons for denying entry for some of Cuba’s most vibrant and candid intellectuals, as they were described in Politico by Sarah Stephens and Phil Brenner, or what threat they constituted to the interests of the United States.

As an editorial in the Washington Post said this week:

The reasons for the rejections are mysterious and mystifying. Of the 11, many are well known and internationally respected academics with long-standing ties to top American scholars. One is a former ambassador to the European Union.

Does the United States feel threatened by Milagros Martinez, vice rector of the University of Havana, who has relentlessly pushed scholarly exchanges with American universities? By Soraya Castro Marino, a serious commentator on U.S.- Cuban relations? By Rafael Hernandez, a scholar and editor who has taught at Harvard and Columbia universities?

LASA scholars, however, said the injury extended further, to their academic freedoms and their rights to hear the Cuban intellectuals speak about developments on the island, U.S. policy, and a variety of subjects ranging migration to race relations in Cuba.

The organization could have been celebrating decades of academic relations with Cuba, whose purpose one academic described as allowing “Cubans to come to academic conferences and speak for themselves and about their own reality.”

That celebration was cancelled.  Instead, the Cuba section paid a silent tribute to the scholars by setting up ten empty chairs adorned only with the names of those who received letters from the United States calling their entry into the country detrimental to U.S. interests.

The visa denials were a throwback to Bush administration policies which regularly prevented Cuban scholars from attending LASA meetings in the U.S.  After it denied visas to all 75 Cubans whom LASA had invited in 2003, the organization vowed not to return to the U.S. until visa policies changed.  With the recent actions by the Obama administration, the Cuba section will ask LASA to hold its annual meetings outside U.S. borders beginning in 2014 until our nation supports the right of Cuban scholars to travel and express themselves freely.

A decision by LASA to stop coming to  the U.S. will hurt our nation’s economy and the vibrancy of our discussions about the entire region. But silence against the infringement of these basic freedoms would constitute acquiescence to a painfully stupid and counterproductive policy.

This week in Cuba news…

U.S-CUBA RELATIONS

Romney’s Regime Change Redux: If elected, Cuba to feel “full weight of American resolve

Former Governor Mitt Romney released a public statement coinciding with May 20, the date hardliners celebrate as Cuban Independence Day, promising action against Cuba if elected.

Echoing statements made during primary debates and while campaigning in Florida, Romney accused the Castro government of sustained human rights abuses and argued that President Raúl Castro’s recent reforms are not indicative of a move towards more political openness on the part of the government, The Hill reports.

Romney closed his statement with a ‘declaration of resolve’…

Today, we join Cubans around the world in celebrating independence and remembering the brave men and women who gave their lives in the fight for freedom. And to those who continue the fight, I offer not only words of support, but the promise of action. 

If I am elected President, the Castro regime will have no reason to doubt our unwavering commitment to your cause. The regime will feel the full weight of American resolve.

In a practice that started with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gov. Romney will become the twelfth U.S. president to commit himself to overturning Cuba’s government if he is elected later this year.  

Florida Democrats attack Mariela Castro’s visit to the U.S.

As Mariela Castro Espín, director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), and an outspoken advocate of LGBT rights in Cuba, began a program of activities at the Latin American Studies Association meeting, the Obama decision to grant her a visa to attend LASA was attacked by top Democrats in Congress.

In a written statement, Senator Bill Nelson, running for reelection in Florida, a state where President Obama trails Mitt Romney, said “Allowing Raul’s daughter to come to the U.S when the regime still holds Alan Gross makes no sense.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-20), told the Miami Herald, “The Bush Administration set a bad precedent by granting Mariela Castro a waiver in 2001 and 2002 as I believe that such visa requests should not be accepted because of the ongoing human rights abuses in Cuba.”

Wasserman Schultz was appointed chairman of the Democratic National Committee by President Obama in 2011.  She told the Herald at time that Cuba policy was “not going to be something that creates any daylight between the president and myself.”

Despite reactions in Washington, Ms. Castro’s visit to the United States was cheered by academics attending the LASA meeting.

According to news accounts, Felix Kury, a lecturer in the Latina/Latino studies department at San Francisco State University, said the protests elsewhere over Castro’s visit amounted to political theater.

“I’m glad the Obama administration showed a little backbone and let her come,” Kury said. “She’s sharing and giving information that is relevant to people in both countries.”

Ms. Castro’s itinerary while in the U.S. has included meetings on transgender healthcare, a talk at the San Francisco LGBT Center, and participation in a panel on sexual politics at the Latin American Studies Association conference, reports the Associated Press.   In one appearance, she declared that a “Cuban mafia,” referring to hardline exiles in Florida, controlled U.S. policy.

Meanwhile, with Ms Castro attending LASA and nearly a dozen academics excluded, the Foundation for the Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations (FORNORM) wrote this letter to the State Department protesting the visa denials. The Cuba section of LASA also drafted a resolution to re-evaluate the location of future LASA conferences.

Restrepo Out, Ricardo Zuniga in as White House Latin America advisor

Dan Restrepo, President Obama’s Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council, will leave the White House next month, Politico reports.

According to McClatchy, he will be replaced by Ricardo Zuniga.

Mr. Restrepo has served as Obama’s advisor on Latin America and the Caribbean since 2007, playing an important role in U.S. policy changes toward Cuba, including in the White House decisions to lift restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban Americans in 2009, and to re-open people-to-people travel in January of last year.

The Herald describes Zuniga as a career diplomat, who was posted in Cuba at the U.S. Interests Section during the Bush administration, and who served in recent years as acting head of the State Department’s Cuba Desk.  It quotes Havana dissident Martha Beatriz Roque who said “We all remember him with a lot of affection.”  He is the first career diplomat to hold this position at the NSC since 2004.

In April 2009, Mr. Restrepo made history as the first person to speak from the White House podium in Spanish. According to the report, he plans to spend time with his family before beginning work in the private sector.

Cuba top judge: Furlough for Alan Gross up to the government

Cuba’s top judge, Ruben Remigio Ferro, stated on Wednesday that it is not up to the Cuban courts to decide if Alan Gross can go home to visit his ailing mother, reports EFE. “The issue of exit permits for someone who is serving a sentence, as is the case of Mr. Gross, is an issue that is handled at the governmental level,” according to Ferro. In March, Gross had written to Raúl Castro, requesting a furlough to visit his mother, a request which to date has not been granted.

Cuba’s government has previously indicated its openness to negotiate a humanitarian solution with the United States, stressing its own concern for the Cuban Five, Cuban agents currently serving lengthy prison terms in the U.S. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, some advocates for Gross’ release believe the release of the five agents to be a non-starter, but encourage the U.S. to offer other concessions, such as the granting of visas for the wives of two of the agents, or allowing René González, currently on probation, to return to Cuba.

Latin America Working Group demands reaction by Congress to Miami arson

The Latin America Working Group (LAWG), a Washington-based NGO, is asking Congress to respond to the intentional fire that burned down a Miami travel agency specializing in travel to Cuba, the Cuba Standard reports. LAWG sent an e-mail to followers criticizing that no Member of Congress has condemned the act, which it called “a terrorist attack, plain and simple.” They call for “a serious investigation and prosecution of perpetrators,” adding, “Congress should be interested in this, too.” The e-mail asks that recipients contact their congressional representative and demand a public response.

U.S. to fine Ericsson Panama branch $1.75 million over Cuba shipments

The U.S. Department of Commerce will fine Ericsson, the world number one mobile network equipment maker, a $1.75 million penalty for violating U.S. export sanctions on Cuba through its Panama branch, Reuters reports. The agreement was approved on Thursday but has not yet been made public. It shows that Ericcson’s Panama branch exported broken equipment from the U.S. under a “scheme” where it masked the origin of the equipment. The branch received broken items from Cuba and removed markings and falsified documents before sending them to the U.S.

The settlement showed that Ericsson cooperated in voluntarily disclosing violations to the Commerce Department. Ericsson spokesman Frederik Hallstan said that the scheme was developed by three former employees of Ericsson de Panama, and that “This was not standard Ericsson procedure….We have changed our processes.” Between 2004 and 2007, about $320,000 of equipment was exported in 262 violations of federal regulations, according to the settlement agreement.

IN CUBA

Cuba’s exports of goods and services up 11% from January to March

Vivian Herrera, Director of Exports at Cuba’s Ministry of Exterior Commerce and Foreign Investment, has reported that, according to preliminary data, Cuban exports are up 11% in the first trimester of this year, reports EFE.

Last year, Cuban exports increased a total of 20%, according to official data, generating almost $9 billion in revenue. Cuba’s main service exports are in the tourism and healthcare industries, while its principal goods exports are nickel, high-tech biotechnology products, sugar and tobacco.

Private producers get more than 1.4 million hectares of idle state-owned lands

Cuba’s government has granted over 1.4 million hectares of land to private landowners as part of an agricultural reform program that began in 2008 to increase the productivity of unused state land and reduce Cuba’s bill for imported food, reports the AP.

Pedro Olivera, Director of the Nation Land Control Center of the Ministry of Agriculture, who released this latest figure to local press, indicated that the land has been distributed among 163,000 farmers, 59% of whom are dedicated to ranching and breeding livestock. He added that 79% of the formerly idle land is now being put to use. According to a reform law, producers who fail to utilize the land they are granted lose their plots.

Venezuelan official says fiber optic cable to Cuba is operational

Jorge Arreaza, Venezuela’s Minister of Science and Technology, has stated that the undersea fiber-optic cable that runs from Venezuela to Cuba is fully operational, and that it will be up to Cuba how to use it, the AP reports. The statement comes after another AP article recently raised questions about the cable and the lack of any distinguishable use of the cable or increase in Internet connectivity in Cuba since the cable reached Cuba one year ago. There have been rumors of mismanagement and arrests of several senior telecom officials, but no clear indication as to why the cable is no longer mentioned by Cuba’s government and Internet connection in Cuba has remained the same.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba’s prison system scrutinized by UN; government releases prisoner data

The UN Committee Against Torture held a consideration of its second periodic report on how it implements the provisions of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The Havana Times reports that the UN committee responsible for enforcing the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment called Havana to respond on Tuesday in Geneva, according to AFP.

“We have reports of 2,400 arrests in 2012, of which 420 occurred this past March. These seem to have been short-term detentions but we want Cuba to clarify all of the cases,” said Nora Sveaass, who raised the issue during the hearing on Cuba.

Cuba’s government responded to the request the following day, according to a UN press release.  Attorney General Rafael Pino Becquer, who led the Cuban delegation at the panel, defended Cuba’s record and insisted that “no one in our country has been persecuted or sanctioned for exercising their rights, including those of free expression and association,” the Miami Herald reports. In regard to Alan Gross, Pino reiterated that Gross was imprisoned after “legal proceedings with all legal guarantees,” and that his crime was “to violate Cuban laws while he was working on contract for the United States Government implementing a policy that was openly directed against the constitutional order of Cuba.” Pino said he knew of no reported prison deaths resulting from negligence or abuse by law enforcement officers, and that prison deaths were generally caused by illness, fights, or accidents. He claimed that there is no overcrowding in Cuban prisons, and that prisons are below capacity.

Cuban state-run newspaper Granma also published a report that same day defending its prison system, the BBC reports. The article reports the number of inmates on the island at 57,337.

Spanish Parliament approves motion on democratic transition in Cuba

The Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Spanish Parliament approved a motion asking the EU to promote actions in favor of reconciliation and a “democratic transition” on the island, EFE reports. The resolution urges the Spanish government to “within the EU, promote actions that have as a goal the reconciliation of the Cuban people, as a part of a decisive action in favor of a democratic transition, without the exclusion of any ideological option.” The committee also proved another motion, for Spain not to support any change in the EU Common Position toward Cuba unless the government takes steps toward democracy and frees all political prisoners.

Members of the Socialist Party (PSOE) abstained from both votes. Deputy Francisco González Cabaña of the PSOE stated that his party’s abstention was due to “fatigue” from so many initiatives on Cuba presented to the Parliament, adding, “We do not agree that this should be the permanent tradition of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. Ibero America has many problems of democratic liberties and they are not exclusively in Cuba.”

Recommended Reading/ Viewing

Opportunities for U.S.-Cuban Relations: Working Paper – Proposals for Cooperation in Areas of Mutual Interest, TACE

“This working paper presents a unique effort by Cuban and U.S. scholars to understand and explore ways of overcoming the tension between the countries and improving relations. It intends to be a building block in the development of a respectful and positive Cuban-U.S. relationship, which remains trapped in confrontational interactions after more than five decades.”

Younger Cubans no longer a lock for GOP, Alex Leary, Tampa Bay Times

“Three perspectives on the 2012 election with a common tie: Fajardo, Toledo and Morales are in their early 30s and of Cuban descent. Together, they represent an ideological shift that is altering Florida’s political landscape and may help decide the presidency.”

Revolutionary Doctors: An Interview With Steve Brouwer (Video), NACLA

“Since the creation of the Venezuelan health mission Barrio Adentro, thousands of Cuban medical professionals have provided quality health care for some of Venezuela’s poorest communities. Brauer, author of the book Revolutionary Doctors: How Venezuela and Cuba Are Changing the World’s Conception of Health Care,  lived in Venezuela in 2007-08 where he witnessed the project first hand.”

The Yankee Comandante, David Grann, The New Yorker

“For a moment, he was obscured by the Havana night. It was as if he were invisible, as he had been before coming to Cuba, in the midst of revolution. Then a burst of floodlights illuminated him: William Alexander Morgan, the great Yankee comandante.”

A Chronology of Cuba’s economic reforms, Phil Peters

Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute details steps taken since 2006 by Cuba’s government to implement economic reforms.

Eusebio Leal: The man who would save Old Havana, David Montgomery, Washington Post

“Eusebio Leal, a diminutive, silver-haired man in a dark suit, sips sweet Cuban coffee in an elegant salon of the Cuban Interests Section mansion on 16th Street NW and recalls the day they began calling him crazy in Havana.”

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