Ryan’s Conversion on the Road to Havana

Rep. Paul Ryan flip-flopped on Cuba.  Before voting to support the embargo in 2007, he opposed sanctions and spoke passionately against them.  Now, the Romney campaign and its supporters in Florida have gone to great lengths to reassure their conservative Cuban American base that Ryan isn’t the Cuba contrarian now that he appeared to be less than a decade ago.  That’s the end of the story, but not the moral of the story.

First, let’s be clear: Romney’s position on Cuba, and U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba should he be elected president, was never in doubt.  On January 30, 2012, Governor Romney told a campaign rally in Florida:

If I’m fortunate enough to become the next president, it is my expectation that Fidel Castro will finally be taken off this planet.  We have to be prepared, in the next president’s first or second term, it is time to strike for freedom in Cuba.

This tough rhetoric was buttressed by a ten-step white paper on Cuba that calls for reinstating restrictions on travel and remittances, and taking other strong measures to toughen an already tough policy.  This all-in commitment won Mr. Romney the support of Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart last year, and it is unthinkable that the addition of any vice presidential running mate would have caused him to dilute a position which started with the assassination of Fidel Castro.

Second, let’s be clear that Congressman Ryan opposed the embargo for a part of his Congressional career and supported unrestricted travel to the island. This is not to say Ryan didn’t feel strongly about conditions in Cuba as he saw them.  In a speech delivered before the Congress, excerpted here in the Cuban Triangle, he called Cuba a “brutal totalitarian regime.”  But he went on to say:

…it has been a bedrock principle of American policy that travel is a device that opens closed societies.  American travelers are our best ambassadors.  They carry the idea of freedom to people from communist countries.  There is no reason to make this exception for Cuba.

Mr. Ryan also told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2002, that Cuban-Americans “have their reasons” for supporting the embargo “and they’re very passionate about their reasons, I just don’t agree with them and never have [emphasis added].”

But after voting against the embargo as recently as 2004, something changed, and Ryan has supported the embargo ever since.

Members of Congress change their minds all of the time.  But what interests us is this.  Despite Ryan’s plain-spoken references to totalitarianism and his clear opposition to the embargo, the whitewashers of history felt they needed to explain his transformation further in ways that undermine his image as a principled, passionate intellectual.

He just wasn’t talking to the right people.  As Univision reported a few days ago, Governor Romney “explained that Ryan changed his position after meeting with South Florida lawmakers Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart.”

He was naïve, as Capitol Hill Cubans explains here:

“Upon arriving in Congress, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) was an unconditional free trader. Thus, Ryan initially opposed sanctions towards practically any country in the world, including Castro’s Cuba. To his credit, Ryan’s position has evolved over the years, as he learned of the brutal realities of the Castro brothers.”

He was unschooled, as Rep. Ros-Lehtinen picks up the song here:

“Paul has spent time learning the true nature of the Castro regime….”

He had to grow up, as former Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart explains:

“He was a free-trader and we explained to him the human-rights and terrorist record of the Cuban dictatorship,” Diaz-Balart said. “His record ever since is one of a strong supporter for freedom in Cuba. He is a strong ally.”

Poor Mr. Ryan:  For the hardliners, it wasn’t enough that he changed his mind.  Governor Romney and his supporters had to recast the Ryan story into a parable of how the Florida delegation took someone into a backroom – who was thought to be brainy, principled, and above common politics – and got him to overcome his passion for free trade and see the realities of Cuba that they wanted him to see.  How humiliating.

There are three million Floridians over the age of 65, among whom many probably take strong exception to the Ryan plan on Medicare.  They will never have that kind of chance to argue their case.

What more do we need to know about why our country remains stuck with such a dumb and counter-productive policy toward Cuba – to the great detriment of their citizens and to us?

IN CUBA

New tax break for Cuba’s farmers

As a part of its new tax code, Cuba will suspend taxes on farmers for two years who are working on previously idle state land, reports AFP (in English here). The announcement was made in an article about the new law in Granma, which was passed by the National Assembly at its meeting in July, but has not yet been released publicly.  According to the article, the suspension of taxes can potentially be extended to four years for farmers who take over land that requires extra work before it can be cultivated; for example, in areas overtaken by the invasive Marabú plant.

The article states: “With these special tax regulations, the country seeks to stimulate national production, substitute imports, and increase exports.” Under these same goals, Cuba’s government has distributed 1.4 million hectares of idle state land to some 163,000 farmers since 2008, and recently began offering credit – previously unheard of on the island – to small farmers. The new tax law is expected to be released in its entirety this month, and will enter into effect in January 2013.

This week, The Cuban News Agency also reported success in direct sales by farmer cooperatives and private farmers to the tourism industry, which was made legal in December of 2011. According to Hanois Sánchez, an official with the National Small Farmers Association, local cooperatives and farmers closed contracts with twelve hotels in the Jardines del Rey tourist center on Cayo Guillermo to sell vegetables and other produce.

Stores that sell in CUCs now accepting Cuban national currency

Cuba’s government has implemented an experimental plan to allow Cubans to use their debit cards, which hold their salaries and pensions in national currency, to make purchases in stores using hard currency, or convertible pesos (CUCs), reports CubaNet. Stores operated by state export/import corporation CIMEX, such Carlos III in Havana, announced that the cards would be accepted by any hard currency store with card reading machines, and that prices would be exchanged at the steep official rate of 25 national pesos for one CUC.

Not many Cubans have been rushing to use this new service. Cuban salaries average around 300 pesos per month, and according to a cafeteria worker at the Carlos III store: “Until now almost nobody has used this system because if they pay 100 pesos for a hamburger and 25 for a beer that would consume more than a third of their monthly salary.”

Last week, the government released a list of set prices for more than a hundred staple products sold in hard currency stores.

Woman in Camagüey reportedly dies of dengue

Café Fuerte has reported that a woman died of dengue in the central city of Camagüey, though the report has not been confirmed independently, according to the Associated Press.  According to a hospital employee quoted by Café Fuerte, the city was put on red alert at an August 8th meeting of the Office of Provincial Public Health. The AP reports that state media has warned of high concentrations of mosquitoes and provided information on the eradication of breeding pools, but that there is a “low perception risk” among Cubans.

The presence of dengue-carrying mosquitoes has been detected in a total of 98 municipalities in Cuba, reports Mercopress; however, the level of infestation in 75 of those municipalities hasn’t reached the point of disease transmission. The Pan American Health Organization has warned that dengue transmission in the Americas has increased in recent years, despite government efforts to combat the mosquito-borne disease. PAHO says that in 2011 over 1 million cases and 719 dengue-related deaths were reported.

Over 2,000 fines issued after outbreak of foodborne illness

Cuba’s Ministry of Health has issued more than 2,000 fines and rescinded over 40 food-handlers permits for self-employed Cubans over failures to meet hygienic standards, reports Juventud Rebelde. Despite these efforts, more than 36 outbreaks of foodborne illness have recently occurred, affecting over 400 people. Officials from the Ministry of Health called on citizens to avoid food that has been left out for too long or has been uncovered.

Census offices open across Cuba

On Wednesday, 1,500 Census offices, employing 15,700 people, opened in Cuba, reports the Prensa Latina.  The last census was in 2002 and the 2012 census will take place between September 15th and 24th. The National Bureau of Statistics expects the population to decline by 0.7% by the end of the decade.  The census will focus on studying trends in Cuba’s decreasing and aging population, and updating information on housing issues that Cubans face after hurricanes in 2008 caused damage to one million dwellings.  The census will also evaluate the status of Cuba’s million college graduates since the 1959 revolution.

Cuban dissident detentions

Cuban dissident Angel Moya and five others were detained in the town of Pedro Betancourt over the weekend, reports EFE. Five were released Sunday night, but Ángel Moya was not released until Tuesday. He said that he was held in a jail located in the swampy and mosquito-infested Playa Larga.

Three dissidents handing out leaflets supporting a human rights initiative were reportedly detained later on Thursday in Havana, reports the Miami Herald. The Herald also reported that Marcelino Abreu Bonora remains in custody after throwing leaflets in the air and shouting anti-government slogans, and that José Daniel Ferrer Garcia has said that six members of his dissident organization were temporarily detained on Wednesday to prevent their attendance at a meeting.

Amnesty International has recently issued a call for the Cuban government to end its “cat-and-mouse game” of arbitrary detentions of dissidents.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Prosecutors to request that Spanish citizen in Payá crash receive 7 years

Cuban prosecutors are seeking a seven-year sentence for Ángel Carromero, a Spanish citizen and the driver of the car in the crash that killed dissidents Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero, reports BBC.  He has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, which carries a sentence of 1-10 years in Cuba, and prosecutors are seeking a 3.5 year sentence for each victim.  The trial date has been set for August 31st in the provincial court of the city of Bayamó. Spanish authorities are hopeful that, if convicted, Carromero would be allowed to serve his sentence in Spain.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Cuban exiles launch fireworks in view of Malecón

A fireworks display was organized by members of the Miami-based Democracy Movement off the coast of Cuba, to coincide with a summer carnival that draws thousands of Cubans to the Malecón, reports AP.  The turn-out for the carnival celebrations was decreased due to heavy rainstorms, but the hundreds of people who came out to celebrate were able to see the fireworks on the horizon.  According to the organizers, the purpose of the display was to inspire the desire for democratic change and increased Internet access in Cuba’s citizens.

Such displays annoy Cuba’s government and are potentially dangerous if vessels enter Cuban waters.  U.S. officials do not support or condone these actions, but do not have the legal authority to stop them from taking place in international waters.  The group previously organized displays for International Human Rights Day and during Pope Benedict’s trip to Cuba.

USAID paid $818 million to unnamed contractors since 2005

Since 2005, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has signed over 12,000 contracts valued in excess of $818 million with foreign and U.S.-based entities whose names it does not disclose.  This according to records obtained and analyzed by Along the Malecon.

The agreements with 8,325 foreign entities totaled $544,759,760, while 4,424 domestic contractors received $274,058,499.  USAID reported that the payments were made for services such as: “security, office supplies, Internet publishing, personal services, public finances, draperies and household furniture,” but did not release the names of the contractors.

USAID leads government agencies, many with much larger budgets, in the number of unnamed contractors it employs, holding 9,158 foreign contracts, compared to 2,278 unnamed foreign contractors employed by the Department of Defense, 251 by the Treasury Department, 85 by the Department of Homeland Security, and 25 by the Department of State. A full list can be found here.

Imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross was paid by USAID to visit Cuba on five occasions where he engaged in regime change activities known to be illegal under Cuban law.

Cuban softball players travel to Boston for Friendship Games

For the first time in fifty years, a Cuban softball team will play in the U.S., reports Boston.com.  The senior athletes are traveling to Boston to compete against the EMASS Senior Softball League for the Friendship Games from August 23-30.

Over the past three years, 10 U.S. softball teams have traveled to Cuba to play, but this is the first time a Cuban team will travel to the U.S. American players will be hosting the Cubans in their homes, just as Cuban players did when the U.S. teams visited Cuba. The game will take place at the Robert Cusick Field in Boston Commons.

According to the report, “participants will take a moment of silence to honor heavy weight Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson, who won three Olympic gold medals and served as honorary captain of the Cuban softball team until his passing in June.”

Around the Region

Ecuador grants asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

On Thursday, the government of Ecuador announced that it would grant asylum to Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, reports AP.  The British government said it will not allow Assange safe passage from Ecuador’s embassy where he has been living for the past two months, avoiding  an international arrest warrant demanding his return to Sweden to face charges of rape, sexual molestation and sexual coercion.  The British government has said that it may revoke the embassy’s status so that it may arrest and extradite Assange to Sweden.

U.S. diplomats allowed access to man detained at border entering Venezuela

The U.S. consulate was granted access to the U.S. citizen being held by Venezuelan authorities after he was found crossing into Venezuela from Colombia last week, reports Reuters.  Earlier this week the Venezuelan government reported that the man identified as a U.S. Marine.  U.S. officials they could not provide any more details after speaking with the man “due to privacy considerations.”

U.S. withholds some funding to Honduran police, pending investigation of Chief Bonilla

This week, the State Department placed a hold on U.S. funding for law enforcement projects in Honduras, reports the Associated Press. Funding is not to be given to new Honduran National Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla or those working under him until human rights allegations are investigated. Bonilla was implicated in at least three extrajudicial killings or forced disappearances more than a decade ago, and was “tarred with allegations of corruption,” according to a June 1 story published by the Associated Press.

The internal report issued by State Department emphasizes that Honduras still meets the necessary human rights requirements in order to continue receiving aid overall, reports the Pan American Post. The funding hold was in response to a letter signed by over 40 Honduran academics and 300 additional signatories, though the letter pointed strongly to much broader human rights concerns.

The report also states that aid will continue for “special Honduran law enforcement units, staffed by … personnel who receive training, guidance, and advice directly from US law enforcement and are not under Bonilla’s direct supervision, ” an indication that Honduran police forces who have been working with and receiving training from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency are exempt.

Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines recently released an investigation on the controversial DEA-Honduran operations, and the Center for Economic and Policy Research has just released a detailed report on their collaboration. Another controversial security body, known as “Los Tigres,” may also be exempt, reports Honduras Culture and Politics, because this hybrid elite military-police unit reports to different ministries depending on if it is deemed a “time of peace” or “time of emergency.”

Recommended Reading

Cuba: Ups and Downs of Self Employment, Fernando Ravsberg, Havana Times

“The Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Security, Jose Barreiro, explained to us that self-employment in Cuba is a ‘measure adopted while thinking of people coming from the overly staffed government sector as well as others who are not occupationally engaged.’ He was referring to those people who are laid off or are currently unemployed, though government officials always avoid using those terms. Nor do they like to deal with the issue of low wages, even though most people and President Raul Castro consider this a crucial issue.”

About our August 3rd Edition

In our August 3rd edition, we repeated information published in Cuba and the U.S. concerning the circumstances surrounding the accident that killed Oswaldo Payá.  Days later, we received a statement by an official from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) taking strong exception to this report which claimed that a Swedish passenger in the car in which Payá died had met with NDI before he went to Cuba.

The statement said, “Aron Modig did not meet with anyone from NDI before his trip.  What seems clear is that Modig traveled to Georgia (the country) before going to Cuba and while there attended a public event, along with representatives of the youth wing of the local Christian Democratic Party, at which NDI and IRI representatives discussed the political climate in Georgia.”

We appreciate this clarification.

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