Oswaldo Payá – On parting as friends

Oswaldo Payá, a humble but determined figure in Cuba’s opposition, who believed in non-violent activism as a means for achieving political change on the island, died in a car accident on Sunday.  Also killed was Harold Cepero Escalante, a fellow dissident.  A Swedish citizen and a Spaniard, reportedly at the wheel of the car, were injured in the crash.   We report other details below.

Payá, a Catholic layman, and founder of Cuba’s so-called Christian Liberation Movement, was best known as the main organizer behind the Varela Project, a petition drive that collected thousands of signatures, which called upon his country’s National Assembly to propose new laws to open Cuba’s system.

News of Payá’s death was received by Cuban allies and friends internationally with sadness and mourning for his activism and his abiding belief that change could occur organically on the island.

His loss also occasioned dark suggestions – expressed by grieving family members and in the opinion pages of the Washington Post –that his vehicle was intentionally rammed.  But Elizardo Sanchez, founder of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission told the Associated Press,“We rule out any conspiracy theory.” Diplomats connected to the Europeans traveling with Mr. Payá, told Reuters “they believe it was a genuine accident and it appeared the car was speeding.”

Despite these statements, members of the U.S. Senate introduced a resolution calling upon the island’s government to “allow an impartial, third-party investigation in the circumstances surrounding (his) death.”

That Mr. Payá’s passing would be a source of contention, even politicization, is hardly a surprise.  His unique approach attracted support and courted controversy during his life.

By technique and demeanor, Payá didn’t fit any stereotype of a regime opponent.  As the New York Times reported, Mr. Payá “created a new model with his humility, his public rejection of both American aid and the American trade embargo, and his effort to draw Cubans into the movement.

“By trying to reform the Castro government,” the Times said, “Mr. Payá placed himself in the middle of two extremes. Reviled by the government, he was not much loved by hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami, either; they appreciated the attention he garnered but said he was naïve.”

They called him naïve because he wouldn’t hew to their line that regime change supported by the U.S. was the only way forward.

In a meeting with visitors from the U.S., Payá once said “we don’t have arms, we don’t believe in coup d’état, we don’t believe in outside intervention.  We Cubans must bring about the change.”

While he was no fan of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, he challenged visitors to think not about U.S. policy, but instead to focus on the economic, political, and social problems that affected everyday Cubans. A man with a lowered voice and an outstretched hand, he would say about disagreements in our perspectives, “if we cannot be partners, we can at least be friends.”

What decency.

Our hearts go out to his family and friends, colleagues and allies, who are suffering because of his loss.

This week in Cuba news…

IN CUBA

Dissident leader Oswaldo Payá dies in car crash

Oswaldo Payá, leader of the Christian Liberation Movement in Cuba, died Sunday in a car crash in the eastern province of Granma, reports Reuters. According Cuban officials, Payá, aged 60, and a fellow dissident, Harold Cepero, died when their car went off the road and hit a tree. Also in the car were Aron Modig, a Swedish politician and chairman of the youth wing of Sweden’s Christian Democrats party, and the driver of the car, Angel Carromero Barrios, vice president of Spain’s Popular Party’s “New Generations” movement, reports Reuters. Carromero Barrios and Modig sustained minor injuries and were discharged from the hospital in Granma on Monday.

European diplomats stated that Modig returned to Havana, but Carromero remained in Granma after being released from the hospital, facing possible charges of reckless driving and involuntary manslaughter. The diplomats also reported that Carromero was driving far above the speed limit when the car hit a large pothole and swerved off the road, hitting a tree.

Cuban authorities released an official report this afternoon regarding the crash. The report explains that Payá died instantly due to head trauma when the speeding car drove over a patch of gravelly road under construction causing it to skid off the road and hit a tree.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega spoke at Payá’s crowded funeral mass, held Tuesday in Havana, and passed along Pope Benedict the XVI’s condolences to the Payá family, reports Reuters. Honoring Payá for his religious and political activism, Ortega stated,

Oswaldo had a clear political vocation, and this, like a good Christian, did not take him from his faith and religious duties…Quite the contrary, he always looked to his faith for inspiration in his political activity.

In a statement, the White House said,

The President’s thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Oswaldo Payá…We continue to be inspired by Payá’s vision and dedication to a better future for Cuba, and believe that his example and moral leadership will endure.

According to Reuters, dozens of dissidents chanting “freedom, freedom” broke the quiet as the funeral procession left the church to continue on to Colon cemetery, and were quickly arrested by the police. Most of those detained were released by Wednesday without criminal charges, reports El Nuevo Herald.

The White House also released a statement condemning the arrest of dissident protesters after Payá’s funeral.

Phil Peter’s blog, The Cuban Triangle, provides an excellent round-up of reflections on Payá’s life.

National Assembly adopts first new tax code since 1959 and approves plan on cooperatives; Cuba reports 2.1% GDP growth in first half of 2012

The National Assembly adopted a new tax code, the first comprehensive tax code passed since 1959, during the first session of the biannual meeting of Cuba’s parliament, reports Reuters. Under the new plan, all Cubans will eventually be required to pay income and property taxes for the first time in more than 50 years. The new tax code will also cut taxes for small business by 3-7% and provide benefits for start-ups, such as eliminating the labor tax for business with five employees or less.

Marino Murillo, Chairman of Cuba’s Economic Policy Commission, said during his presentation that some state companies will have more autonomy, will be slightly deregulated, and will be able to sell extra production to an open market after fulfilling state contracts.

Murillo also announced during the parliamentary meeting that a pilot program of 222 non-state cooperatives in various sectors, including food services and transportation, will be implemented by the end of this year, reports the Associated Press.

The cooperatives will lease property and equipment from the state for 10-year increments, function on a market basis, pay taxes, and split profits among members, Reuters reports. Murillo promised that the pilot program will receive the full support of the government, pledging, “For these cooperatives and the non-state entities, in the coming year $100 million is being budgeted which is the financing necessary so they can be assured production, because if we create them and there is no financing, they won’t work.”  He also emphasized the importance of improving state-run enterprises because they will continue to be the most important part of the economy.

Adel Yzquiero, Cuba’s Minister of Economy and Planning, announced Monday to Cuba’s National Assembly that the island’s economy grew 2.1% during the first half of this year, reports the Havana Times. During his presentation of the “Execution of the Plan for the Economy and Budget,” Yzqueiro also announced that trade increased by 7.6 %, the number of self-employed workers increased by 35%, and the number of government-sector employees decreased by 7%.

No immigration reform achieved at National Assembly

The first session of the bi-annual meeting of Cuba’s National Assembly finished Sunday without a discussion of immigration reform, reports Havana Times. President Castro spoke about the issue of immigration reform twice before this National Assembly session began. During his closing speech, President Castro emphasized “the will of the leadership of the party and the state to undertake the reform of the existing legislation in this area and to proceed with its gradual implementation.” No information has been released about when a proposal regarding immigration reform will be submitted.

Havana cultural center shut down 

El Cabildo, a cultural center founded by Ulices Aquino has been closed down, reports Penúltimos Días. The center was intended to provide a sort of Cuban-style Broadway or Cabaret, and was operating under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. According to Penúltimos Días, Reuters reported that El Cabildo was able to pay its artists well, up to four times the average amount Cuban are paid. Subsequently, El Cabildo was shut down, with the Employment Director of the Municipality of Playa stating that the space “is subsidized by the government and the profits from the theater are kept for personal use, among other illegal acts.”

Espacio Laical published a statement on the issue, supporting the right to work and arguing that these cultural projects are important in creating new and dynamic spaces for public life. It goes on to say that those Cubans who have been involved in this issue are “good Cubans,” who care about their country and even those who think differently than themselves, and who are not allied with the United States.  El Cabildo was recently featured in a profile written by Reuters reporter Marc Frank.

Small business rentals to begin in Old Havana

Havana’s Office of the Historian is leasing retail space to small businesses in Old Havana, a prime tourist area, reports the Associated Press. Under this small newly-formed pilot program, renters can deduct any improvements to the space from their rent payments, stated David Viciedo, an economist at the Office of the Historian. Currently, only five businesses operate under this program, but four additional buildings are undergoing improvements to be certified for rental in the future.

Cuba to use biodiesel as a new green energy source

A biodiesel plant in Cuba’s Guantánamo province is using seeds from the jatropha plant, also known as “bellyache bush,” to create a green energy source, reports AFP.  José Sotolongo, director of Guantánamo province’s Center for Applied Technology for Sustainable Development, said one of the advantages of  jatropha is “its cultivation is feasible in areas of low or no agricultural value.” The small factory, capable of producing over 100 tons of fuel per year, receives its supply from the approximately 130 acres of jatropha planted at the Guantánamo factory. The factory was funded jointly by Cuba and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

President Castro releases statement on cholera “distortion”

President Raúl Castro denounced the recent media attention about the recent cholera outbreak in Cuba as media “distortion” and “propaganda campaigns” during his closing speech before the National Assembly on Sunday, reports EFE. President Castro condemned the “propaganda campaign” against Cuba, citing the recent outbreak: “The latest example is the disproportionate media treatment and distortion of the already controlled cholera outbreak in Granma province, designed to discredit the Cuban health system and its achievements, recognized at the global level,” reports the Havana Times.

President Castro appoints new vice president to the National Assembly 

President Raúl Castro announced in his speech Sunday before the National Assembly that Ana María Machado will replace Jaime Crombet as vice president of the National Assembly, reports Penúltimos Días. Jaime Crombet asked to step down from the position for health reasons.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Japan donates $3 million to Cuba for rice industry

Japan donated $3 million worth of machinery, including tractors, harvesters, mowers and tillers, to Cuba for the growth and harvest of rice, reports AFP. Cuba currently spends about $200 million each year on rice imports. Masuo Nishibayashi, Japan’s Ambassador to Cuba, said of the donation, “I am convinced that through our experience and techniques, we can contribute to increased rice production in Cuba.” Japan’s assistance will support the initiative established by Cuba’s government in 2008 of reducing rice imports by half over the next five years.

New charter flights between Cuba and Japan to begin in August

Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism announced Wednesday that charter flights between Cuba and Japan will begin in August, reports Prensa Latina. Cuban travel agency Cubanacan and Japanese travel agencies will jointly organize the flights. The flights reflect Cuba’s efforts to consolidate and continue the growth of its tourism industry by looking to Japan as a potential source of tourists.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

President Raúl Castro willing to meet with U.S. officials

President Castro announced Thursday that Cuba’s government is willing to talk with U.S. officials and discuss anything, reports the Associated Press. President Castro also stated that he is open to discussing “the problems of democracy, human rights etc. but on equal terms because we are no one’s colony,” the BBC reports. In recent years President Castro, like his predecessor Fidel Castro, has indicated that Cuba is willing to talk with the U.S. and that no topic is off limits. President Castro also spoke about the current economic reforms and the presence of dissident groups. These remarks came as part of President Castro’s address during Cuba’s annual July 26th ceremony, with Thursday marking the 59th anniversary of the failed attack led by Fidel Castro on the Moncada military barracks, which is considered the beginning of the Cuban Revolution.

Mike Hammer, U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, voiced the U.S. government’s response on Thursday, affirming that the U.S. would be willing to “forge a new relationship” with Cuba, but only if Cuba’s government begins “to allow for the political freedom of expression that the Cuban people demand,” adding that “we are prepared to discuss with [Cuba] how this can be furthered,” reports EFE.

New OFAC regulations on Cuba travel 

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control(OFAC) announced new regulations Thursday regarding travel to and from Cuba, reports Along the Malecón.  The new regulations will effect Cuba travel arrangements, airline tickets, ground transportation, Cuban visas and passports. The document also sets regulations for money transfers to Cuba and to Cuban residents.

Florida to appeal judge’s block on law barring contracts with Cuba

Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced Tuesday that the state will appeal last month’s federal court ruling that prevents the enforcement of Florida’s law barring companies doing business in Cuba or Syria from applying for state contracts, reports the Associated Press. The ruling blocked the law from going into effect on July 1st after the Florida-based subsidiary of the Brazilian company Odebrecht Construction Inc. challenged the law on the grounds that only the federal government can set foreign policy. Odebrecht’s parent company in Brazil is currently working on Cuba’s Mariel port.

Miami-based Cuba travel company plans to add third destination

Vivian Mannerud, President of Airline Brokers, the travel agency with service to Cuba that was the victim of an arson attack in April, announced last week that the company has applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation to add a charter flight route to the city of Santa Clara, reports the Miami Herald. Mannerud stated that if added, the new flight route will be popular, due to the large number of migrants to South Florida from the area between centrally-located Santa Clara and Havana. Airline Brokers currently charters seven flights to Cuba each week, from the Miami and Ft. Lauderdale international airports to Havana and Cienfuegos.

Around the Region

El Salvador moves towards resolution of constitutional crisis

In an effort to resolve El Salvador’s nearly two-month-old, hotly debated constitutional crisis, President Mauricio Funes convened a meeting on Tuesday of representatives from El Salvador’s political parties. After ten hours of negotiations, the politicians agreed to an Act of Commitment to seek a solution through continued negotiations and inter-party dialogue, reports Prensa Latina. Emphasizing that the solution must be legal and constitutional, President Funes declared that while the resolution of the conflict between El Salvador’s National Assembly and Supreme Court will inevitably be political, “it’s not about winners or losers,” reports Salvadoran newspaper Diario La Página.

Praising El Salvador’s efforts to resolve the conflict through inter-party dialogue, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) released a statement on Thursday:

We are encouraged by the commitment by President Funes and representatives of El Salvador’s political parties to resolve this crisis expeditiously.  We agree with the Department of State that this is a matter to be resolved by Salvadorans through dialogue, and we reaffirm our support for U.S. assistance for El Salvador which addresses a range of mutual interests, from improving law enforcement to combating poverty.

Over the past 30 years, El Salvador has faced many challenges, from civil war, to corruption, to cyclones.  This constitutional/political crisis is the latest test of whether the country’s governmental institutions can emerge stronger, the rule of law strengthened, and its people more united.

For the most recent update from on El Salvador by CDA’s analyst Linda Garrett, click here.

Venezuela withdraws from Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced Tuesday that Venezuela will withdraw from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, reports the Associated Press.

The withdrawal from the court comes after it ruled in favor of Raul Diaz, a man imprisoned for participating in the 2003 bombings of  the Spanish Embassy and Colombian Consulate in Venezuela, reports Reuters. President Chávez said that court was “supporting terrorism” by ruling in favor of Diaz. He said in regard to withdrawing from the court, that “Venezuela is pulling out of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights out of dignity.”

President Chávez also announced that Venezuela will also be withdrawing from the Washington based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, reports the Telegraph. Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro verified that withdrawing from both the court and the commission would involve leaving the Organization of American States (OAS).

Recommended Reading/Viewing/Listening

Cubans Begin to Rebuild Their Real Estate Market, Laura Latham, New York Times

“Since the revolution in the late 1950s, swapping or bartering homes, a process known in Cuba as permuta, was the only way residents could change their accommodations. Property was government owned and private sales were prohibited. In November 2011 the law was amended, giving residents the right to buy property freehold, though they can own only one home in the city and a second one in a rural or coastal location for vacations.”

Guántanamera, Courtesy of the U.S.-Cuban Embargo, Emily Achtenberg, Rebel Currents NACLA

“Like millions of Americans, I learned the iconic Cuban song (and unofficial Cuban national anthem) Guántanamera from Pete Seeger in the 1960s, with its inspiring lyrics by the revolutionary poet José Martí. Last weekend, at a reunion of Camp Woodland—a progressive summer camp that operated during the 1940s and 50s in upstate New York—I discovered that we have the U.S. embargo of Cuba to thank for that.”

Cuba’s World Record Daiquiri Bid, Associated Press

“Who says 9 a.m. is too early for a drink? Especially one that its makers believe will set a world record. Cuban mixologists whipped up a giant daiquiri Saturday morning in the Old Havana tavern where the tropical cocktail was born and where regular barfly Ernest Hemingway made it popular.”

(c) 2012 Center for Democracy in the Americas. All rights reserved.

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