Fidel’s 86th Birthday; U.S. and Cuba in the Present

On Monday, Cuba’s former president, Fidel Castro, turns 86.  For decades, every milestone he celebrated and every difficulty he encountered was an intense source of interest in the United States.  When illness forced his retirement from office, U.S. officials gave him only a couple of months to live and some in Miami planned a party to celebrate his demise.  Six years later, even as the aging former president has largely faded from view, U.S. policy remains stubbornly Castro-centric.

The conversation in Cuba has changed enormously since Fidel Castro stepped down as president and was replaced by his brother Raúl.  Read the news items that follow:  they are debating how fast and how effectively Cuba is reforming its economy, what are the bottlenecks to expanding non-state jobs, how can Cuba support its aging population as it searches for an economic model that works.  These are ideas worth discussing, and some represent developments worth supporting.

Despite welcome but modest reforms, in areas like travel for Cuban Americans and people-to-people exchanges, President Obama has kept the essential architecture of U.S. policy in place.  The goal remains using diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions to force the Castros from power and to cause Cuba’s economy to fail.  We cannot even directly discuss the human rights or political problems that divide us, because it’s our policy not to sit down and talk to Cuba.

For Fidel Castro, having both countries bound together in antagonism suited his outlook just fine. Six years into his retirement, we find it odd that U.S. policy continues to dance on a string he no longer even holds. On his 86th birthday, that is quite a testament to his longevity.   What it says about U.S. policy is something else indeed.

IN CUBA

Cuba finds offshore oil, but discovery’s not “commercial”

Although an exploratory well drilled off of Cuba’s northern coast found oil, the discovery is being considered unsuccessful for Cuba’s oil program, according to a statement released by Cubapetroleo, Cuba’s state oil company. The well was drilled by a Malaysian oil company Petronas and Gazpromneft, a Russian company, which concluded their exploration on July 31st, reports the Associated Press.

According to the statement by Cubapetroleo, geological investigations turned up an “active petroleum system that could extend to other parts of the four blocs contracted by PC Gulf and Gazpromneft, and even beyond their limits.” However, the statement continued, the area of the drilling site had very “compact rocks,” making that spot unsuitable for commercial drilling.

Cubapetroleo announced that Gazpromneft and PC Gulf will study the information gained from drilling to evaluate other parts of the four blocs they have reserved offshore. The oil rig Scarabeo 9 will now change hands to PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company, which will drill another exploratory well. After that, Sonangol, an Angolan company, has an option to drill.

Then, Scarabeo 9 will be sent to fulfill a contract in Brazil, with no return to Cuba planned. Zarubezhneft, another Russian company, will begin exploratory drilling with a different rig, the Songa Mercur, off Cayo Coco in November 2012.

Tourism revenues rise 12.8%, reports Cuba

A report released by Cuba’s National Office of Statistics (ONE) shows that tourism revenues rose by 12.8% in 2011, the Associated Press reports. In 2011, 2.7 million people visited the island, generating income of about $2.5 billion, compared with 2.5 million visitors and $2.2 billion in revenues in 2010. Though the number of foreigners visiting Cuba has continued to increase in recent years, visitors were spending less money. The increase in revenue marks a return to profit levels that were seen before the global financial crisis in 2008.

According to AP, “The report also gave other selected indicators on the state of the Cuban economy. It said overall international trade in goods and services rose 24.7 percent last year to nearly $32 billion.  That included $6 billion in exported goods, an increase of 31.4 percent over the previous year, and $14 billion in imports, up 31.1 percent.”

Cuba’s methods for calculating these numbers are not public, but the figure takes into account services provided by Cubans abroad, such as the doctors working in medical missions in Venezuela in exchange for highly subsidized oil.

Cuba’s hard currency stores to have one price for staples

Cuba’s Ministry of Finance and Prices has approved a resolution creating a set list of prices for more than one hundred staple products sold in convertible pesos (CUCs), reports Cubadebate. The resolution attempts to address significant price differences between stores for the same products – including food, personal care items, and cleaning products. Convertible pesos are used in the tourist industry and by Cubans who have access to the hard currency, often through remittances. Many products, such as imported and luxury goods, are only available in CUCs. The resolution was approved in June but made public Monday, according to Havana Times.

Inés Argüelles Gutiérrez, Director of Prices for the Ministry of Finances and Prices, stated that the published list will continue to be evaluated and that the Ministry is studying other products for possible inclusion. She also indicated that prices will be reconsidered at least once a year, taking into account such factors as the prices of raw materials and import costs. Míriam Rodríguez Garriga, Director of Prices of Consumer Goods and Services, reiterated that these price lists are only applicable in hard-currency (CUC) stores.

Journalist Fernando Ravsberg penned an opinion piece on the new policy, saying that it will make it harder for corrupt store owners to charge higher prices and take advantage of the poorest Cubans.

Cuba’s government plans to invest $50 million in Havana’s electricity grid

Cuba’s government plans to invest $50 million for an “emergency upgrade” to Havana’s electrical system, reports EFE. The aging grid experienced numerous outages caused by explosions and a fire in mid-July, reports Café Fuerte. Since then, a series of prolonged power outages have plagued the central neighborhoods of Habana Vieja, Centro Habana, and Plaza de la Revolución. In a report on national television, Ricardo Mangana, the director of the Electric Union of Havana, said that, “This project was planned to be carried out over 10 years, but the outages have caused us to shorten it to three years.”

Outages resulting from defects in Havana’s 80-year-old electrical grid are common, especially during summer months when the use of domestic appliances such as fans and air conditioning units tends to increase.

Cuba’s Central Bank revises its credit policy to attract private sector

Cuba’s Central Bank is revising its credit policy for the private sector in efforts to encourage more applications, especially for loans not related to construction, reports EFE. As a part of Cuba’s economic reforms, credit has been made available to finance non-state projects whose goal is to contribute to self employment, the increase of agricultural production, or to the rehabilitation of neighborhoods.

According to a report on state television, the Central Bank awarded more than $14 million in credit to 49,900 individuals in the private sector in the first half of this year. The majority of the credit given out was for construction and repair work, and the report stated that only 7,000 applications were made by private farmers; of those, only 79 sought loans to buy tools or equipment for agriculture production. The report indicated that Cuba’s government saw the amount of applications as more “modest” than hoped for, and as a result is reviewing the requirements for those seeking credit.

Mijain Lopez Nuñez wins gold, Yarisley Silva wins silver

Mijain López won Cuba’s second gold medal, its first in wrestling, at the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games, reports BBC. Lopez defeated his opponent, Heiki Nabi of Estonia, in the 120k Greco-Roman wrestling. In women’s pole vaulting, Yarisley Silva won a silver medal for Cuba on Monday evening, reports the Associated Press. A current medal tally is available here.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Swede involved in Payá car crash says he is worried about Spanish driver

Aron Modig, the Swedish politician who was a passenger in the car crash that killed Oswaldo Payá and another Cuban dissident, says he is concerned about his Spanish colleague who was driving the car, and has been charged with manslaughter in Cuba, the AP reports. A Cuban investigation found that Ángel Carromero, who was driving the car when it crashed, failed to heed traffic signs warning of construction and was speeding.

Modig says that he was sleeping and remembers only fragments of the crash, and that he regained consciousness in an ambulance. Of his colleague’s situation, he stated “nobody knows what’s happening to him there.” Of his own interrogation in Cuba, Modig told a Swedish paper: “The questions are always the same: ‘Why are you here? Who sent you?’ They switched between asking questions and scolding: ‘Don’t come to our country and interfere.’ In a dictatorship that’s no good. Of course I got worried.”

Carromero said in videotaped testimony that he lost control of the car when it hit a gravel road under construction, causing the car to skid and hit a tree. In the past several years he has racked up a long list of traffic infractions in Spain, including for speeding, and Spanish authorities were working to revoke his license. He could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister meets with Indian Foreign Minister

Rogelio Sierra, Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister, met with S.M. Krishna, India’s Foreign Minister, on Tuesday in New Delhi, agreeing to strengthen bilateral ties and increase trade between the two countries, reports Havana Times.  The meeting occurred during the first summit between India and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). India confirmed its desire to increase relations with the CELAC nations, and Cuba announced its support of that goal. The CELAC meeting in India represents the bloc’s first meeting outside of Latin America.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

International Port Corp ships 33 tons of goods to Havana

The International Port Corporation shipped 33 tons of goods from Miami to Havana last Friday on the cargo ship Ana Cecilia, reports Havana Times. The regular maritime shipping service for humanitarian aid, which began in mid-July, is the first between Havana and Miami in 50 years.

According to Café Fuerte, the cargo included televisions, washing machines, bicycles, auto parts and clothing. Leonardo Sanchez Adega, a company representative, said: “The popular response to our service has been massive. We’re really surprised, because every day we’re servicing between 100 and 150 customers.” The cost of shipping one 21-pound package is $128, but that could increase in September when Cuba’s customs tariffs are re-implemented; tariffs on aid were lifted in 2008 following a series of devastating hurricanes. According to the Miami Herald, there are certain items that Cuban customs has rejected from the shipments including air conditioners, clothes dryers, electric lawn mowers and car transmissions.

Around the Region

U.S. citizen accused of being a mercenary arrested in Venezuela

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez has announced that a man with a U.S. passport has been detained in Venezuela while crossing the border from Colombia, and is currently being interrogated, reports the Associated Press. Chávez claims that the man’s passport had stamps from countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and that he reportedly tried to tear up a notebook full of coordinates, reports the Wall Street Journal.

According to the Journal, “If it has in fact detained a U.S. citizen, we are confident Venezuela will uphold its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and grant U.S. consular officials access to any detained U.S. citizen without delay,” a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said in response to emailed questions.

The name of the arrested man has not yet been released.

Honduran journalist requests U.S. asylum after attempt on his life

Jose Chinchilla, a Honduran journalist, requested asylum in the U.S. after gunmen opened fire on his home in El Progreso, in northern Honduras, reports BBC. Chinchilla is the correspondent for the radio station Radio Cadena Voces in the city of El Progreso. The BBC reports that over 20 journalists have been killed in Honduras over the last three years, and none of the cases have ever been solved.

Meanwhile, members of the media and authorities held a forum in Tegucigalpa this Thursday and Friday to discuss journalist safety, reports Bernama.  The goal of the forum is to develop a plan to better protect journalists, to enhance the freedom of the press, and improve public access to information. Frank La Rue, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Speech, also attended the event, whose recommendations on strengthening the right to expression will be released in an official report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2013, reports AFP.

Film Screening:

Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up, Saul Landau, Avalon Theatre

This film by Saul Landau addresses the cause of The Cuban 5 and will be screened in Washington on August 14, 2012 at the Avalon Theater.  The Cuban Five were tried and sentenced 14 years ago in Miami for committing espionage and conspiracy against the United States.  Cuba’s government has expressed its desire to have a reciprocal humanitarian exchange of Alan Gross for the Cuban 5. Alan Gross is the USAID subcontractor arrested in December 2009, and sentenced to 15 years in prison for engaging in “regime change” activities on the island. After the film, Fulton Armstrong, a retired CIA official will answer questions.  Rabbi David Shneyer of Congregation Am Kolel – where Alan Gross is a member – will moderate the discussion.
Screening: Avalon Theater, August 14 at 8 pm
Seating is limited. Admission is $10. E-mail info@am-kolel.org to make a reservation.

Recommended Listening

Stop-And-Go: Cuba’s Changing Economy, Kojo Nnamdi, WAMU

“Nearly two years ago, Cuba’s government announced reforms to bolster private enterprise and slash public payrolls. The results have been dramatic — the number of Cubans employed in private businesses has skyrocketed 145 percent since October 2010. But steep import tariffs, new taxes and mixed signals from the government have contributed to widespread confusion about the direction of the island nation’s economy and political system. Kojo explores economic developments on the island, and what they mean for U.S.-Cuba relations.”  Guests: Phil Peters and Tomas Bilbao.

Summer Nights: Cuban “Jubans” in South Sudan, John Burnett, NPR

“In Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, there’s a small corner of Havana. A number of Jubans who studied in Cuba have tried to recreate some of the atmosphere of the Caribbean island in their southern Sudanese homeland.”

What the Future Holds for Cuba’s Economy, Talk of the Nation, NPR

“In Cuba, President Raul Castro has plans to reform the economy, but many challenges lie ahead before the country can move forward. Many of the changes are being implemented slowly because of resistance from within the Communist Party.”

Recommended Reading

Another Castro, Another Pope, Tom Quigley, Commonweal Magazine

“What really did happen in Cuba during the pope’s visit? Here’s my view from the ground—the very hard, rough ground of the Plaza Antonio Maceo in Santiago de Cuba and the Plaza de la Revolución José Martí in Havana. I was in both plazas for the papal Masses in 1998 and 2012, and the differences between the two were striking.”

Cuba’s aging population will be a strain on new economic reforms, Andrea Rodriguez, Associated Press

“The scene at Havana’s Victor Hugo Park is unfortunately typical, with a handful of boys kicking a soccer ball through trees while dozens of gray-haired seniors bend and stretch to the urgings of a government-employed trainer. So few children, so many elderly. It’s a central dilemma for a nation whose population is the oldest in Latin America, and getting older. The labor force soon will be shrinking as health costs soar, just when President Raul Castro’s government is struggling to implement reforms that aim to resuscitate an economy long on life support.”

In Photos: Next to one of the most popular parades in Havana, Fernando Ravsberg, BBC

This slideshow provides photos of Carnaval in Havana, which Ravsberg describes as “the collective accumulation of lights, colors, music and sensuality that parades along the Havana seawall to the delight of hundreds of thousands of capital city residents who come out every night of the festival.”

What Would Venezuela’s Entrance Mean for Mercosur? Sebastián Acha, Mark Weisbrot, Thomas Andrew O’Keefe, and Daniel Hellinger, Latin America Advisor

“Venezuela is expected to formally join Mercosur during the trade bloc’s meeting Tuesday in Rio de Janeiro. The presidents of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay agreed to allow the Andean country into the trade bloc after Mercosur suspended Paraguay, whose lawmakers had prevented Venezuela from joining the group. What would Venezuela’s entrance mean for it and for the current Mercosur members? Who are the winners and losers? Does allowing Venezuela into Mercosur through the loophole of Paraguay’s suspension raise larger concerns about the bloc’s operation, as critics of the move have suggested?”

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