6th Anniversary edition: Arson, Oil, Economic Reform, and Supporting the Cardinal

This week, when you read the news summary—and our analysis of the news about oil drilling in Cuba, economic reform, attacks on travel in Congress, and attacks on Cardinal Ortega on Radio Marti – don’t forget how it all came together.

The Cuba Central News Team travels to Cuba, takes Members of Congress to the island, does the research and the translation, gets the access and asks the right questions, in order to get the reporting  right….on Cuba and developments in U.S. policy in Washington.

We deliver this package week after week, every Friday, before we close up and head home for the weekend.  We deliver the news and we don’t pull punches when talking about the need to reform Cuba policy and normalize relations.

Cuba Central is a project of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) – a non-profit, non-governmental organization based here in DC.  We take no government money, of course, but instead depend on the generosity of people like you, who appreciate what we do and share our love for the power of the written word and even more powerful ideas.

In a little over a week our organization is celebrating its sixth anniversary.  In the spirit of that milestone, we are asking you to join with us, even if you can’t be here in person to raise a glass, by supporting our work.

If you like the work we do – and you want us to continue delivering the news to you each week in the way that only we can do it – please consider making a donation to CDA today.


Cuba considers including private sector in labor code; new wage data released

Cuba’s government is considering updating the country’s Labor Law, passed in 1984, to cover the quickly-growing private sector, the Havana Times reports. Vivian Aguilar, president of Cuba’s highest labor court, stated that the government has “the tools necessary to ensure the adequate protection for these workers,” including rights to wages, rest, and social security protection. According to figures released in Granma this week, the number of self-employed workers reached 378,000 at the beginning of last month.

Cuba’s Office of National Statistics (ONE) published a report this week detailing average wage statistics in Cuba for state workers in 2011. The report showed that the average monthly salary has risen 17% since 2006, from $16 per month to $19 per month, according to AFP.  The data show that the salary range in Cuba is very small, from $17/month for unskilled labor to $24 for highly-skilled labor. Construction workers are the highest paid state workers in the country, La Informacion reports.

Malaysian oil firm drills after Spain’s Repsol in the search for Cuban oil

On May 24, the Malaysian state oil company, Petronas, began to drill off Cuba’s coast using Scarabeo 9, the oil platform that Repsol used for r its exploratory well that turned up dry, according to an announcement released by Cuban state oil company CUPET and later published in Granma, reports AFP. Once this exploratory effort is complete, the rig will be taken over by PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-run oil company. Scarabeo 9 will perform its third exploration near Cabo San Antonio, where PDVSA has reserved an off-shore plot.

Cuba to resume taxing imported non-commercial food June 18

Cuba’s customs agency announced in a public note that a tax on Cuban travelers bringing non-commercial amounts of food into the country will resume on June 18th, the Havana Times reports. The tax was originally suspended in 2008, when Cuba was hit by three major hurricanes, causing widespread damage and food shortages throughout the island. In response, the government suspended the tax on food that Cuban travelers were bringing into the country for families and friends. The official statement notes that since the exception has been in place for nearly four years, it is now time to reinstate the tax.

Survey of Cubans’ opinions by the International Republican Institute on economic reform

The International Republican Institute (IRI) has published a survey of Cuban public opinion regarding the economy and economic reform. The survey found that reforms have sparked optimism on the island, but also that nearly 75% of the people polled said that their family’s economic situation is the same or worse than a year ago. In addition, the poll discusses how Cubans feel about salaries, high prices, a capitalist economy, freedom of speech, and the level of Internet access. The poll involved face to face interviews of 787 Cuban adults from February 29 -March 14 of this year, reports The Cuban Economy, and was funded by USAID, according to Along the Malecón.

Senior aide to Ricardo Alarcón and wife detained on corruption charges

Miguel Álvarez Sánchez, the top aide to Ricardo Alarcón, President of the National Assembly, has reportedly been detained, along with his wife, on charges of corruption, the Miami Herald reports. According to a colleague quoted in the article, Álvarez and his wife Mercedes Arce, were detained March 3rd in Havana and remained in custody as of Monday.

Miguel Álvarez has long been known as Mr. Alarcón’s right-hand man. His official position was as senior advisor on international and political affairs. His wife, Mercedes Arce, had previously been assigned to Cuba’s diplomatic mission to the U.N. in New York.

According to the website Penúltimos Días, which originally broke the news, authorities initially began an investigation of Arce for “charging commissions and other corruptions,” which led to the involvement of Álvarez. The arrests have not been reported in Cuban state media.


Odebrecht sues Florida over law banning government contracts with companies tied to Cuba

A Florida-based subsidiary of the Brazilian engineering and construction conglomerate Odebrecht sued the State of Florida on Monday over its recently enacted state law banning government contracts with companies that have business ties to Cuba and Syria, the Miami Herald reports. Odebrecht is arguing that the law is unenforceable and unconstitutional, because it oversteps the bounds of state power by setting foreign policy. Odebrecht USA stands to lose at least $1 million in Florida government contracts because COI Overseas Ltd., a different subsidiary of its parent company, is currently doing work in the Port of Mariel in Cuba.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed the law about a month ago, only to cause controversy soon after by releasing a statement deeming the law unenforceable. In response to a vocal backlash from many in Florida’s Cuban American community, Scott reaffirmed his commitment to the law, saying that it would take effect on July 1st. He said at the time that the law’s constitutionality would most likely be challenged, but pledged to defend it.

Assistant Sec.  Roberta Jacobson defends U.S. Cuba policy, rejects Senators’ criticisms

Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, held a hearing called “The Path to Freedom, Countering Repression and Strengthening Civil Society in Cuba,” which included testimony by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson on U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), the Subcommittee’s ranking member, was the only other Senator to attend the hearing, The Hill reports. Both senators criticized the Obama administration’s Cuba policy, including the relaxation of travel restrictions to allow people-to-people trips, and the State Department’s granting of visas to high-profile Cuban officials.

In her testimony, Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson defended the White House’s current policy toward Cuba, including the legalization of people-to-people travel.  She stated:

In Cuba, the Obama administration’s priority is to empower Cubans to freely determine their own future. The most effective tool we have for doing that is building connections between the Cuban and American people, in order to give Cubans the support and tools they need to move forward independent of their government. U.S. citizens, engaging in well-defined, purposeful travel, are the best ambassadors for our democratic ideals.

Cardinal Ortega meets with Ladies in White

Cardinal Jaime Ortega met this Thursday for almost four hours with members of the dissident group Ladies in White, ABC reports. At the meeting, representatives of the Ladies in White asked for the Cardinal to negotiate with the government to stop repression of the dissident organization. Following the meeting, Berta Soler, a leader of the group, told journalists “It was an open dialogue where he listened to us and we listened to him…We are very happy.”

In 2010, Cardinal Ortega facilitated an agreement between dissidents and the Cuban government, which resulted in the release of more than 100 political prisoners.

The meeting came as Cardinal Ortega has faced intensifying criticism in Miami and by the U.S. Government for working with Cuba’s government in his efforts to promote reconciliation.

In response, Fulton Armstrong, formerly of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, penned a piece for Foreign Policy, calling the attacks on Ortega a “failure to communicate.” He criticizes the arguments against the Cardinal, which recently included an editorial published by U.S. government-funded Radio Marti, saying:

The primary reason for this campaign is that the church supports evolutionary change in Cuba rather than the regime-collapse scenarios preferred by certain sectors of the Cuban-American community.

Finally, a special report from Progreso Weekly includes a debate on the Cardinal with comments by prominent figures in Cuba and the U.S., including Aurelio Alonso, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Carmelo Mesa Lago, Arturo López-Levy, Peter Hakim and Julia Sweig.

FBI releases security camera photos from Cuba travel agency arson attack

In its continuing investigation of the April 27 arson attack of Airline Brokers, a Miami-based Cuba travel agency, the FBI has released three security camera photos featuring a “vehicle of interest” near the agency just before the fire, reports the Miami Herald. The press release revealed no further information or evidence on the case, but requested that the public assist in the identification of the vehicle.

Gerardo Hernández of the Cuban Five files motion with Southern District Court of Florida

Lawyers for Gerardo Hernández filed a motion on his behalf with the Southern District Court of Florida on Thursday requesting an Oral Argument and Discovery. Its primary goal is to investigate whether the United States government funded negative publicity during his original trial, including hiring journalists to publish false, negative and biased information before and during the trial. The motion lists twelve allegations to confirm or deny, outlined here. If any or all of the twelve allegations are confirmed, it could raise due process concerns about the original trial.

U.S. Secretary of State meets with Alan Gross’ wife

Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, met with Judy Gross, wife of  Alan Gross, the American USAID contractor imprisoned in Cuba, last Tuesday, reports AFP.  At the meeting, Sec. Clinton pledged to continue to work toward securing Gross’ freedom. She described Gross’ incarceration as unjust and urged other governments, prominent figures traveling to Cuba, and religious leaders to call for Gross’ release. State Department spokesman William Ostick said in a statement after the meeting between Secretary of State and Judy Gross “We have used, and continue to use, every appropriate diplomatic channel, publicly and privately, to press for Mr. Gross’s release.”

On its Facebook page, the Western Hemisphere Affairs bureau continues to press the debunked administration line that Mr. Gross was in Cuba to hook the Jewish community to the Internet.


Cuba’s foreign trade minister visits Qatar and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia

Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba’s Foreign Trade Minister, traveled to Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in an effort to strengthen commercial and investments relations in the Gulf region, the Cuba Standard reports. In Qatar, Malmierca held several high-profile meetings, with the new Prime Minister, as well as the Economy Minister and the Health Minister.

Malmierca met in Kuwait with Prime Minister Jaber Al-Mubarak Al- Sabah. Kuwait has agreed to fund the reconstruction of water and sewer lines in Havana, which are chronically in a state of disrepair, making necessary the distribution of water by tank trucks to thousands of residents. Previously, Kuwait has funded the reconstruction of water and sewer infrastructure in Santiago de Cuba and Holguín.

In Saudi Arabia, Malmierca met with Health Minister Abdullah A. Al Rabeeah to talk about healthcare training, research, the visiting doctors program, pharmaceutical production and the sharing of new technology. Malmierca said that in a meeting with the Deputy Foreign Trade Minister of Saudi Arabia, he spoke about “possibilities of commercial cooperation, business opportunities in Cuba, and other topics.”

Around the Region

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

This report, by CDA’s Senior Consultant for El Salvador Linda Garrett, provides analysis on the most important stories coming out of El Salvador this month, including developments in the gang truce, and the challenges facing Funes in the second half of his term.

World Bank: Arbitration between Pacific Rim and El Salvador to continue under Salvadoran law

On Monday, the World Bank ruled that its court has jurisdiction over a lawsuit from Canadian mining company Pacific Rim against the government of El Salvador, which will proceed and be tried under Salvadoran investment law, reports Mining Weekly.

Eight years ago, Pacific Rim applied for a mining concession, the “El Dorado” mine, in the department Cabañas, and designed and submitted the plans to the Salvadoran government. An exploration permit was granted, which was followed by a massive public outcry in El Salvador over concerns about the country’s water resources, and the Salvadoran government did not issue an environmental permit. Pacific Rim claims that the government’s failure to issue the permit on the grounds of an inadequate Environmental Impact Assessment was illegal under the country’s foreign investment law and is seeking compensation.

In response to the decision, Keith Slack, manager of Oxfam America’s oil, gas and mining program, stated: “We are very disappointed by the ICSID’s decision to rule against El Salvador. It goes against the views the Salvadoran people who are overwhelmingly against mining.” The dispute has caused much local tension, and the assassinations of various environmental anti-mining activists have raised human rights concerns.

For more background, this New York Times article discusses the case in a regional context, and Tim’s El Salvador Blog gives a legal analysis of the case.

Venezuela Supreme Court decisions may block opposition parties from backing Capriles

In decisions released this week, Venezuela’s Supreme Court ousted the established leaders of two opposition parties, Podemos and Patria Para Todos (PPT), citing problems with internal party elections and apparently blocking the parties from endorsing opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in the upcoming presidential elections, reports the Associated Press.

In the case of Podemos, the Court recognized a temporary leader for the party, while in the PPT’s case, the Court voided the party’s most recent internal election, mandating another be held in 90 days. Parties have a Monday deadline for declaring the candidate they will support in Venezuela’s October 7th presidential elections. Ballots in Venezuela typically feature a photo of the candidate, along with the logos of the party that endorses that candidate.

Recommended Reading/Viewing

A Failure to Communicate: Why is the Obama administration using its radio station to attack the Cuban Catholic Church?, Fulton T. Armstrong, Foreign Policy

Fulton Armstrong – who helped run Cuba policy during the Clinton administration and opposed its subsequent decline during the Bush years as a senior aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — reports here on a troubling development under the Obama administration; namely, its opposition to the role that the Cuban Catholic Church is playing to encourage peaceful, evolutionary change on the island.

A Special Report on Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Progreso Weekly

“On the occasion of the controversy raised by the pastoral line proposed by the Archdiocese of Havana and Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Progreso Weekly has asked for the opinion of several prestigious intellectuals: Aurelio Alonso, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Carmelo Mesa Lago, Arturo López-Levy, Peter Hakim and Julia Sweig. Interviewees present their take on this debate and what it will mean for the role of the Catholic Church in Cuba.”

Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela speaks about Alan Gross case, Christiane Amanpour, CNN

“On Tuesday Christiane has the second part of her interview with Mariela Castro on CNN International. The niece of Fidel Castro and daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, discusses Cuba’s political future and her fight for acceptance of gays in that country.”

Cuba-trained doctors making difference around the world, Catherine Porter, The Star

“Today, the tiny country of Cuba, population 10 million, sends more doctors to assist in developing countries than the entire G8 combined, according to Robert Huish, an international development professor at Dalhousie University who has studied ELAM for eight years.”

FOIA update: Is paper trail a rabbit hole?, Tracey Eaton, Along the Malecón

Tracey Eaton, who is currently performing in-depth research on USAID’s Cuba program, recently posted about his difficulties in receiving information requested from USAID and the State Department under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). He has filed five FOIA appeals, the first one almost 300 days ago – so far he hasn’t received a single response.

Eaton also posted this story, about USAID awarding funding to Central American organizations that work in Cuba.

Saddle soar in Havana: the Cuban cyclist aiming for the record books, Associated Press

Many people would be wary of cycling through chaotic downtown Havana, of sharing its narrow, potholed streets with the darting scooters, jaywalkers and hulking 1950s Detroit classics. Felix Guirola does it every day – and not on just any bicycle.  Guirola rides four metres (13ft) above the ground on his homemade, super-tall bike, peering over pickup trucks and even buses, and without a helmet or other protective gear to break a fall.”

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