Cold Warriors in the Congress and the lessons of overreach

Finally, they overreached.  All too often, Congress’s Cold Warriors thwart changes in U.S.-Cuba policy and obstruct U.S. relations with Latin America – always with “red menace” rhetoric (think Obama and “appeasement”) at the ready. Few stand up to oppose them, which is costly to our national interest and the U.S. image in the region.

Consider the torment of Mari Carmen Aponte.  She was confirmed this week as U.S. ambassador to El Salvador after years of obstruction. A Washington lawyer by training, a Hispanic activist born in Puerto Rico, she had ample qualifications to serve as Washington’s representative in San Salvador.

At the outset her nomination was stalled in the Senate due to decades’ old allegations about her relationship – that ended almost 20 years ago -with an man accused of being a spy for Cuba’s government. After months of delay and politically-charged accusations, President Obama gave her a recess appointment that lasted through the end of 2011.  Until a cloture vote ended debate in the Senate this week, her nomination was given up for dead.

During her tenure in El Salvador, she built bridges to political figures and civil society leaders across that polarized society’s political spectrum. She hosted President Obama’s visit to El Salvador and another by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Unlike ambassadors in previous decades, she is fluent in Spanish. Despite her interim appointment, Mari Carmen Aponte was effective, and she was applauded by Salvadorans, left and right.

And yet, the Cold Warriors played her nomination like a cat toy.They ignored  her qualifications, her performance, and the centrality of the U.S.-El Salvador relationship – because they have an exaggerated sense of ownership of over U.S. policy, they oppose our relationship with El Salvador’s progressive left government and, frankly, because they could.

Finally, a political light bulb was illuminated over the heads of United States Senators with electricity provided by 400,000 voters in Florida of Puerto Rican descent.The obstructers, who, in their minds, stood on principle, suddenly adopted the “principle” of flexibility.  Her nomination carried by a 62-37 margin, just enough to beat a filibuster. It should come as no surprise that Senator Marco Rubio of Florida switched sides and supported her to avoid undermining Latino relations in the Sunshine State in a very important presidential election year.

The Cold War Warriors will undoubtedly be back – attacking the State Department for giving Cubans visas to visit the U.S., attacking travel to Cuba, castigating Cardinal Ortega and the Catholic Church for negotiating with President Castro, raising alarms about security threats posed by the ALBA countries – because that is what they do.

They’re not always wrong.We share their concern for Cuban human rights activists recently detained in Cuba for their testimony phoned in from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, one of whom was allegedly beaten, and are deeply concerned by reports at the deteriorating health of Alan Gross.

But they remain wrong about the big picture: wrong about the U.S. embargo against Cuba, wrong about engagement with nations with which we disagree, wrong about bullying nominees in pursuit of their own narrow political interests.

It’s great that someone had the good sense to remind Latinos in Florida that an eminently qualified nominee who shares their Puerto Rican heritage was being denied an appointment as ambassador by a willful minority that is still re-litigating the Cold War a generation after the Berlin Wall came down.

Let’s hope the light bulb stays on as a reminder that the best way to respond to people trying to intimidate you using really dated and foolish arguments is to stand up against them.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Dutch Bank ING to pay $619 million to U.S. for violating Cuba sanctions

ING NV, a Dutch bank which faced charges of violating U.S. law primarily by doing business with Cuba, has settled its case and agreed to pay a fine of $619 million, reports the Associated Press.  The settlement includes stipulations that prevent further action against the company by the Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, and the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), all of which were investigating ING’s practices. A press release by the Treasury Department called the fine the “largest ever settlement reached in a sanctions case,” and said that the alleged violations involved a number of countries including not just Cuba, but also Iran, Myanmar, Sudan and Libya, Cuba Standard reports.

According to Treasury’s release, ING moved money through the U.S. financial system for Cuban and Iranian clients, and attempted to hide its involvement by intentionally deleting information regarding the transactions. The Treasury Department said that records indicate ING routed some $1.6 billion through U.S. banks illegally. ING was charged with violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which empowers the President to regulate international trade in reaction to foreign threats, and the Trading with the Enemy Act, a part of the legal architecture which restricts  trade with Cuba.

Cuban dissident detained, allegedly beaten after testifying at U.S. Senate hearing

“Antunez,” the Cuban dissident José Luis García Pérez was detained and allegedly beaten after he testified by video conference before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana last Thursday, reports CNN. His wife, Yris Tamara Pérez Aguilera, stated by phone that she was briefly detained when she attempted to see her husband, and that her husband was beaten and pepper-sprayed in his cell.

García Pérez was released from detention in the Villa Clara province four days later, and stated that he is free pending a trial on charges of “spreading false news, resistance, disobedience and assault,” reports EFE. He said that he could face up to ten years imprisonment for those charges.

According to news accounts, a second dissident who testified before the Committee was put under house detention.

In response to news of García Perez’s arrest, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Senator John Kerry stated:

I want to be crystal clear that I strongly condemn any efforts to intimidate Mr. Perez or any other Cuban citizen into silence. I echo the calls of my Senate colleagues, demanding an end to repression in Cuba and urging international observers to conduct an investigation into his detention.

Cuban authorities have made no comments regarding Mr. Perez’s detention.

Alan Gross’ lawyer requests medical records from Cuban Government

In a statement released Wednesday, Peter Kahn, a lawyer for Alan Gross, stated that the Cuban government is withholding the results of medical tests performed on Gross and that Gross’ health is worsening, reports the Associated Press.  Kahn sent a letter Monday to Mr. Jorge Bolaños, the Chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, to request the most recent test results so they can be reviewed by U.S. doctors.

On Thursday, the Obama administration called on the Cuban government to release Gross from custody due to health problems. Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokesperson, stated that Gross suffers from arthritis and is no longer able to walk about his cell, and reiterated requests for Gross’ medical records, reports Reuters.

Odebrecht challenge to Florida law gets hearing date

A Miami federal judge approved an expedited timeline for Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht to challenge a new Florida statute that bans government agencies from contracting with firms that also do business in Cuba and Syria, reports the Associated Press. A hearing is scheduled for June 25th.  The Florida-based subsidiary of Odebrecht is requesting that the judge issue a temporary injunction to prevent the law from taking effect on July 1, because the legislation could cause the company to lose billions of dollars in contracts.  The suit claims that the legislation is unconstitutional because only the federal government has the power to set foreign policy, a principle affirmed in Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council in 2000.

IN CUBA

Cuba  dismisses ministers of Basic Industry and Information and Communication

The government of President Raúl Castro dismissed Medardo Díaz Toledo, the Minister of Information and Communication, and Tomás Benítez Hernández, the Minister of Basic Industry, a move announced without explanation in state newspaper Granma.  Maimir Mesa Ramos, Vice Minister of the Ministry of Information and Communication, will replace Díaz Toledo, who will be reassigned to the Ministry of Revolutionary Armed Forces.  Alfredo López Valdés, Vice Minister of Basic Industry, will be promoted to Minister and Hernández will be reassigned to “other tasks.”

The dismissal of these officials comes after reports of corruption investigations and arrests in those sectors, though no official explanation was given, reports the Associated Press. Such investigations have been a priority in Cuba since President Castro declared his public crusade against corruption.

More Cubans using local Intranet and mobile phones

The number of Cubans connecting to national state-controlled intranet increased by over 40% in 2011, while mobile phone use increased 30%, reports Reuters. Cuba’s National Statistics Office (ONE) reported that in 2011, 2.6 million Cubans out of the total population of 11.2 million were using the Internet (though most use the state-controlled Intranet), up from 1.8 million in 2010. ONE also reported that there are 783,000 personal computers in the country and about half are state-owned. According to the report, as of 2011, 1.3 million Cubans use mobile phones, an increase from 1 million in 2010.

Despite these significant increases, the United Nations International Telecommunications Union rates Cuba as the worst provider of telecommunications in Latin America. A fiber optic cable was connected from Venezuela to Cuba in February 2011 to provide Cuba with faster Internet downloads and the ability to simultaneously handle millions of phone calls. Though Venezuelan officials have reported the cable is working, Cuba’s government has made no mention of the cable of late and there is no evidence that it is working.

1.16 million Cubans affected by water shortage

Cuban state TV  announced that 1.16 million Cubans, around 10% of the population, are suffering from water shortages, reports EFE.  Havana is one of the areas most affected by the shortage, largely due to a deteriorated water supply infrastructure. Cuba’s National Institute of Hydraulic Resources (INRH) reports that 50-58% of water distributed throughout the country fails to reach its destination due to leaks in supply pipes.  In the report, the INRH said it is implementing a project to restore water pipes in 11 Cuban cities, adding that the project is “very complex” because “difficulties have accumulated for years.”

Cuba aims to increase its renewable energy production by 12%

Cuba’s government announced a plan to increase renewable energy production by 12% over the next eight years, reports EFE.  The new plan will work to develop forest biomass, biogas, sugarcane, solar, wind, and hydraulic energy as sources of renewable energy, with the sugar industry acting as a significant contributor to the plan. In 2011, Cuba produced almost four million tons of petroleum and natural gas, which was primarily used to generate electricity.

If successful, offshore drilling operations currently taking place off Cuba’s coast could also give a huge boost to domestic oil production and lessen dependence on Venezuela, which provides subsidized oil to Cuba in an oil-for-doctors program.

Cuba experienced an increase in air pollution and acid rain in past two years

Cuba experienced an increase in air pollutants from November 2008 to April 2010, according to data collected by Cuba’s national surveillance network, state newspaper Granma reports. Increased levels of sulfate and nitrate emissions from local industries in Cuba caused the air quality to deteriorate, leading to higher incidences of acid rain in the eastern provinces of Holguín, Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba. According to the article, the Center for Pollution and Atmospheric Chemistry (CECONT) in Cuba is in the process of determining the maximum amount of emissions for sectors that are most responsible for the deterioration in air quality in an effort to decrease air pollution.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba’s Foreign Trade Minister meets with French businesspeople

Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba’s Foreign Trade Minister, met with French business representatives during a stopover in Paris on the way home from his recent tour of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, reports Cuba Standard. According to a Cuban government press release, the meeting, held at the headquarters of MEDEF International, a public-private business organization, was an opportunity to continue negotiations following a visit by a MEDEF delegation to Cuba in March.

Sri Lankan President in Cuba
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is visiting Cuba, reports Sri Lanka’s Daily News. A Memorandum of Understanding will be signed between the two countries to enhance academic cooperation in the study of International Relations. President Rajapaksa will continue on to the Rio+20 Summit afterwards, reports AFP..

India’s External Affairs Minister travels to Cuba

S. M. Krishna, India’s External Affairs Minister, traveled today to Cuba to meet with Cuban leadership and chair the annual Latin American and Caribbean Regional Heads of Indian Missions Conference in Havana, reports Indian Express. The conference will take place June 16-17. Krishna will also discuss bilateral, regional and international issues with Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s External Affairs Minister, and meet with other Cuban leaders during the trip.

Around the Region

Nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte as ambassador to El Salvador approved by U.S. Senate

The Senate confirmed Mari Carmen Aponte, President Obama’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, this Thursday after a lengthy approval process, the AP reports. Aponte’s confirmation came six months after her appointment was considered dead due to Republican opposition.

After Central Florida’s Puerto Rican residents pressured Senator Rubio (R-FL) to support Aponte, who is Puerto Rican, he broke ranks with conservative Republicans to ensure her confirmation, reports the  Orlando Sentinel. Republican Senators originally opposed Aponte citing rumors that a former boyfriend was a Cuban spy, and criticizing an op-ed she wrote during her recess appointment as U.S. ambassador to El Salvador defending gay rights.

President Obama’s recess appointment of Ms.  Aponte  ended in December 2011. The Senate voted 62-37 Thursday to stop debate and move towards approving Aponte. The White House issued a press release in which President Obama expressed his support for Aponte and his confidence that she will continue to have a positive impact on the U.S. relationship with El Salvador.

Recommended Reading/Viewing

Mariela Castro on Ending Embargo & Swapping Cuban Five for Jailed U.S. Contractor
Alan Gross, an interview with Democracy Now!

Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, calls on the U.S. to release five Cubans jailed for spying on anti-Cuban militants in Florida in exchange for Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen jailed in Cuba: “I want the Cuban Five to go back to Cuba and for Alan Gross to go home,” [Mariela] Castro says. “I want an end to the financial, commercial and economic blockade that violates the human rights of the Cuban people, and the normalization of relations between both countries.”

Cuba’s cardinal under fire for comments , Paul Haven, the Associated Press

“For months, Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega has been under fire: called a lackey and political ally of Raul Castro’s communist government, asked to resign over his treatment of protesters and ridiculed in Miami as a snobby elitist. Now, Cuba’s Roman Catholic Church is fighting back. Church officials on the island have launched a full-throated defense of their leader, and Catholic publications have harshly denounced his critics. Analysts say the increasingly virulent back-and-forth is extremely unusual on an island where the church has traditionally preferred to exercise influence quietly, behind the scenes.”

Cuba’s next step on capitalist road: advertising, the Associated Press

“For decades there’s been no such thing as a commercial radio or TV spot in Cuba. Ditto for billboards, website banner ads, and newspaper classifieds. It can be a refreshing change from the global marketing onslaught, but the lack of traditional advertising opportunities creates a problem for the thousands of budding entrepreneurs who have embraced President Raul Castro’s push for limited free-market reform. It’s one thing to open your own business, but how to let potential customers know you exist?”

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