What the FARC is going on in Cuba? And what does it mean for President Obama and the crowd of hardliners in Congress we call the Cold War warriors?
We figured something was up last Sunday, when former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe accused current president Juan Manuel Santos of holding secret peace talks with FARC rebels in Cuba, according to Colombia Reports. “This is incomprehensible,” said Uribe during a speech in the northern Colombian city of Sincelejo, “security deteriorating while the government is negotiating with the FARC terrorist group in Cuba.”
President Santos, who had initially dismissed the allegations as “pure rumors,” confirmed on Monday that the Colombian government has not only been negotiating with the FARC in Havana but that the two parties had agreed to restart formal peace talks, which had collapsed in 2002.
According to foreign sources, here and here, the deal was broken on Cuban soil with help from Venezuelan, Cuban, and Norwegian officials, and the talks are scheduled to commence in Oslo on October 5th. Santos also extended an invitation to the National Liberation Army (ELN) to participate.
Reuters reported that “U.S. President Barack Obama is aware of the process and is in agreement.”
We can’t know now what this breakthrough means for Colombia, although we surely hope it leads to peace. What we do know is this: Cuba’s contribution to the Colombia deal undercuts a key rationale for U.S. sanctions against the island – with implications both for the anti-Cuba hardliners in Congress and the president himself. The irony is that it was Uribe, a staunch Cold warrior, who helped bring the talks to public attention.
Cuba has long been accused by the U.S. of harboring FARC members. These allegations are one of the State Department’s main justifications for designating Cuba a State Sponsor of Terrorism. The fact that Cuba has been providing neutral ground for a peace agreement between the two parties, however, creates serious problems for the State Department’s rationale for listing Cuba as a state sponsor of terror.
It’s also a blow to the Cold War warriors who use Cuba’s presence on the list to fuel their rhetoric and to oppose any relaxation of U.S. policy. When the Republican Party adopted its foreign policy platform in Tampa, it called Cuba’s government “a mummified relic of the age of totalitarianism (and) a state-sponsor of terrorism.”
The Colombia breakthrough also has implications for President Obama.
When his administration argues in public that having the FARC in Havana is a cause of keeping Cuba on the terror list, even as Mr. Obama approves in private a peace process brokered in Cuba to have the FARC and Colombia sit together to make peace, it damages our nation’s credibility – not just in Latin America but everywhere the U.S. encounters resistance to our policies against terrorism. It’s a contradiction crying out to be addressed.
And it’s also a terrible position for the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize who was, after all, honored by the Norwegian Nobel Committee “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”
Early in his administration, President Obama should have taken Cuba off the list as he has been advised so often. He should not have relisted Cuba every year since.
As naïve as it may be to suggest he act in this election year to remove them, he should consider this: If the Colombian government has the courage to sit across the table to negotiate peace with the insurgency in its civil war, his administration should at least have the nerve to tell the Cold War warriors in Congress that the facts have changed and he’s removing Cuba from the terror list.
We’re reasonably certain that the hardliners are the only ones who will really care, and their offense will be drowned out by the applause of those who will appreciate a show of guts and the recognition of reality.
Cuba’s National Office of Statistics (ONE) has released a report detailing labor force and salary statistics for 2011. According to the report, 22% of Cuban workers were employed by the non-state sector in 2011, an increase from 16% in 2010, reports the Associated Press. About 391,500 people were self-employed in 2011 compared to 147,400 in 2009, when the government began loosening restrictions on small private business. There are also some indications of a reduction in bureaucracy, and Reuters points out that the number of “directors” fell from 380,000 in 2009 to 249,000 in 2011.
The non-state sector continues to grow as Cuba’s government implements a series of reforms in an effort to cut state jobs. However, the report reveals significant challenges facing the reform process. Unemployment has nearly doubled since 2009, from 86,100 to 164,300 in 2011, and wages have increased only slightly.
A report released by Cuba’s National Statistics Office shows that Cuba is producing less food than five years ago, despite significant efforts to increase agricultural production, Reuters reports. The report showed gains in some export crops and output measures: domestic production of rice increased to 566,400 tons, compared with 439,600 tons in 2007, and bean production increased to 133,000 tons from 97,200 in 2007. However, overall output remained below 2007 levels.
The same report said that food prices rose 20% in 2011, further adding to the already high costs of importing food. Cuba currently imports about 70% of food consumed on the island. The agricultural reform process, which began in 2008 after Raúl Castro took over the presidency in 2008, has the goal of reducing food imports. The reforms, with many dimensions, are largely centered on distributing idle state land to small farmers to increase crop production. At the end of last year, credit was made available for the first time to small farmers seeking loans to buy equipment and make other investments necessary to cultivate their land. Marino Marillo, who is leading Cuba’s economic reform process, has also announced plans to privatize state-run cooperatives.
In 2008, a series of devastating hurricanes rocked the island, causing mass disruption of crops and of agricultural infrastructure. Since then, Cuba has struggled to move its agricultural sector to recovery and achieve previous output levels.
Cuba has received more than 2 million tourists since the beginning of this year, a 5.3% increase from the same time period in 2011, reports EFE. This means that the number of tourists visiting the island has been above the 2 million mark for nine years in a row, according to a new report by the Ministry of Tourism. Canada continues to be the largest source of tourists. Cuba expects to have a total of 2.9 million tourists by the end of the year, slightly over the 2.7 visitors it received in 2011.
Travel by Cuban Americans to the island has been increasingly sharply since the travel reforms announced by President Obama went into effect in 2009. What is often called “family travel” was highlighted earlier this year when hundreds of pilgrims went to Cuba to witness the visit of Pope Benedict XVI. But family travel to Cuba continues to rise all year around.
Tropical Storm Isaac forced nearly 50,000 people from their homes last weekend in Cuba, but no deaths or significant material damage occurred, reports the Miami Herald. The storm was strongest on the eastern part of the island, where it destroyed four homes, damaged another 19, and knocked down power lines in the city of Baracoa. In addition, the storm damaged almost 1,100 acres of plantain, cocoa, and coconut plants.
The coffee harvest began a week early after heavy rains caused many coffee bean plants to mature faster than expected, reports Reuters. Last season, Cuba produced 7,100 tons of semi-processed beans- the largest harvest in 10 years. The Ministry of Agriculture hopes to increase production to 8,500 tons this year.
Cuba’s Ministry of Health announced that the cholera outbreak on the island has ended after more than ten days since the last confirmed case of cholera, reports the Associated Press. The Ministry of Health issued a report in Granma that states that 417 people were infected and 3 people died during the outbreak. It notes that heavy rains and high temperatures contributed to the problem. The source of the disease was a contaminated water supply in the city of Manzanillo in Granma province.
An explosion at a gas station Tuesday evening in the city of Santiago injured 31 people, five of whom are in “very grave condition,” reports the AP. The blast occurred after a government-operated truck collided with a gas tank, causing it to spill its contents, which were then ignited by a spark. That fire spread to the vehicles’ gas tanks and caused the explosion. The fire destroyed the gas station but was extinguished before other buildings could be damaged. Cuban authorities are conducting an investigation, according to Sierra Maestra, a state newspaper.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Negotiators from the Colombian Government and FARC signed a preliminary agreement for future peace talks on Monday in Havana, reports the BBC. Reuters reports that according to a Colombian intelligence source, the Obama administration is aware of the process and is in agreement. The first round of formal peace talks between the Colombian Government and the FARC, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, will be launched in Oslo, Norway on October 5th.
The talks will then be moved to Havana as the long-term site of the negotiations. In addition to assistance in the peace talks from Cuba and Norway, Venezuela and Chile will also participate, UPI reports. The Economist’s analysis of the prospects of these negotiations notes that the ELN guerrilla group has also requested to join, and that the announcement has had a positive reception in Colombia. A translation of what has been described as the preliminary agreement text can be found here.
The Brazilian government has offered assistance with setting up the legal framework for a “Special Development Zone” at the port of Mariel in Cuba, reports Cuba Standard. The complex is one of various free-trade areas planned by the Cuban government to attract foreign investment, and at 180 square miles is also the largest such area. Brazil’s involvement with the project has been with the goal of securing a large amount of Brazilian investments once the infrastructure project is completed, according to the article. Brazil’s National Development Bank (BNDES) is paying for 85% of the $800 million dollar project, while Cuba’s government will be paying the final 15%.
In addition, the Brazilian government has finalized a memorandum of understanding with Cuba for a $200 million dollar loan towards Brazil’s “More Food” program, reports Cuba Standard. It is anticipated that the program will allow more than 170,000 private farmers in Cuba to purchase Brazilian-made farming equipment.
Last Tuesday, PayPal notified the Spanish-based crowd-sourcing organization Yagruma that it had suspended the site’s account for failing to comply with U.S. government regulations, according to a post on the site’s blog. The site’s mission is to help Cuban artists secure funding for their projects through an international crowd-funding model.
According to the blog post, PayPal has not responded to the site owners’ inquiry about which regulations had been violated, and as of this past Wednesday, had not responded to Yagruma’s appeal to the company’s compliance department. Yagruma’s owners insist that its business practices have not changed and that the OFAC regulatory framework regarding Cuba includes exemptions for artistic production. The news has forced Yagruma to look for an alternative while the site owners await more details from PayPal.
Last week, we reported that the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has allowed the people-to-people licenses of several organizations to expire, as their renewal applications have gone unanswered. Debate on the subject has continued as trip organizers and supporters of travel to Cuba criticize OFAC for its delays in processing renewals.
Insight Cuba, an organizer of people-to-people trips, has launched a petition titled “Save Legal Travel to Cuba!” in which it says that they have had to lay-off 80% of their staff after their license expired at the end of June. Further detailing the strains of these delays on the travel industry, Paul Brady for the Huffington Post highlights the disconnect between travel opponents in Congress, who support curtailing travel which is supported by small business, and their party’s emphasis on job-creation in the election campaign.
The Latin America Working Group has put out an Action Alert encouraging supporters of people-to-people travel to send a letter to the Cuba Desk at the State Department and OFAC telling them to “comply with regulations that President Obama authorized in 2011—and to retain the original intent of the people-to-people licenses without bureaucratic excuses and tangles!” We encourage our readers to participate and add their voices to those calling on OFAC to stop the bureaucratic hurdles.
The topic of Cuba was mentioned on the main stage at the Republican National Convention, which concluded Thursday night in Tampa, FL. Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) opened his introduction of presidential candidate Mitt Romney by asking for a prayer for freedom and liberty in Cuba. In his acceptance speech, Romney mentioned Cuba in a broader condemnation of President Obama’s foreign policy, saying that he has “thrown allies like Israel under the bus, even as he relaxed sanctions on Castro’s Cuba.” The full text and video of his acceptance speech can be found here.
Romney has consistently supported a hard line policy toward Cuba, winning him the support of South Florida legislators such as Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. This ten-step white paper further outlines the Cuba policy that could be expected under a Romney administration.
A recent poll by Beneson Strategy Group shows Joe García (D) with a significant lead over Rep. David Rivera (R) in the race to represent Florida’s 25th congressional district, reports Daily Kos. The poll numbers suggest, however, that voters aren’t aware of what the article calls Rep. Rivera’s “incompetently criminal behavior,” also laid out in last week’s Cuba Central News Blast.
The race is far from decided – a generic ballot generated a 45-37 advantage for the Democratic candidate, but in 2008 the district was split 50-50 between Obama and McCain. The article argues that García is in a favorable position, however:
[W]orst-case scenario, it’s a tied game. And that’s before the DCCC and Garcia campaign start blasting the airwaves with news about Rivera’s ethics.
Antonio Guerrero, one of the Cuban Five, recently received a visit from some of his closest family members at the prison where he is serving his sentence in Marianna, FL. He had not seen several of his visitors in over 15 years. Guerrero recounted his visit in a piece titled “Images that are worth more than a thousand words.” The letter (in Spanish) is available here, along with photographs of the visit taken by a fellow prisoner.
Around the Region
An oil refinery exploded in the peninsula of Paraguaná on Saturday, killing 42 people with 8 still missing, reports the AP. President Hugo Chávez ordered an investigation and refuted claims that a lack of maintenance could have played a role in the explosion, and announced the creation of a fund to help rebuild the plant and surrounding area. Firefighters extinguished the fire at the refinery on Tuesday after battling it for days, reports Reuters. Energy Minister Rafael Ramírez said that the refinery could be operational again by the end of the week. A piece from the Associated Press also notes that social programs could be hit by the explosion, as Chávez uses funds from state oil company PDVSA to finance many social initiatives. Tim Padgett for TIME discusses the politicization of the disaster, including the criticisms of Chávez and his administration’s handling of Venezuela’s oil industry.
Bridging the Gulf: Finding Common Ground on Environmental and Safety Preparedness for Offshore Oil and Gas in Cuba, Emily A. Peterson, Daniel J. Whittle, Douglas N. Radar, Environmental Defense Fund
“Current U.S. foreign policy on Cuba creates a conspicuous blind spot that is detrimental to the interests of both countries. The United States government enacted stricter regulations governing deepwater drilling in U.S. waters in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and has publicly acknowledged a need to better prepare for a potential major spill in neighboring Cuban waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Yet U.S. policy still does not do enough to lessen the likelihood of such a spill or to ensure that sufficient resources will be at the ready to respond to a spill in a timely and effective manner.”
Mining for Gold: A “Pact With the Devil?”, John Cavanagh and Robin Broad, YES! Magazine
“The economic crisis—and the rising price of gold—have spurred North American firms to reopen mines and attack environmental regulations. Here’s what we can learn from El Salvador’s moratorium on new mining permits.”
Gangs’ truce buys El Salvador a tenuous peace, Randal C. Archibold, The New York Times
“They had faced off many times before, on the streets, with guns in their hands. But when top leaders of two of the hemisphere’s most violent street gangs sat across from one another in the stifling air of a maximum security prison here this year, the encounter had a very different aim: peace.”
“One issue vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan will likely avoid in his acceptance speech tonight is his changing stance on the U.S. embargo on Cuba. For years, Ryan was a vocal critic of the five-decade-old embargo, saying in 2002: ‘If we think engagement works well with China, well, it ought to work well with Cuba. … The embargo doesn’t work. It is a failed policy.’” Additionally, Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) provides a report on Ryan’s track record for Cuba legislation.