On U.S.-Cuba Relations: Do you believe in the power of ideas?

Today, on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, a conference is taking place titled: Cuba & California, Prospects for Change and Opportunity.

Our colleague, Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat, and until last month a distinguished professor at the University of Havana, was scheduled to give a keynote address today on Prospects for US-Cuban Relations.  Dr. Alzugaray arrived very late, which reveals little about his usual penchant for punctuality and much about the prospects for a changed relationship with Cuba.

Invited to speak at the conference months ago, Dr. Alzugaray applied for his visa and went through the ritualistic process of being interviewed once again by U.S. consular officials in Havana,to justify his reason to visit the United States. He had been a visiting scholar at several U.S. universities over many years, most recently last Fall at City University of New York.  After his multiple inquiries and a long delay, the U.S. Interests Section informed him yesterday morning to expect his visa at noon, giving him just enough time to catch his 4:00 p.m. flight to Miami. By 1:00 there was still no visa, and at 4:30 p.m. he learned there had been an unexplained delay, and the visa would not be available. He went for a walk with his granddaughter and at 5:30 p.m. returned home to learn the visa would be waiting for him at the Interests Section until it closed at 6:00 p.m. A kind consular official waited there until 6:30, and Dr. Alzugaray managed to get on an 8:00 p.m. plane to Miami and an early morning flight to California. Adding insult to this shameful – and at the least incompetent – exercise in disrespect, TSA officers detained the 69-year old professor for three hours when he arrived in Miami.

Another colleague, Rafael Hernández, editor of the internationally acclaimed journal Temas, wasn’t so lucky.  Although he’d been invited to speak at the same conference and applied for a visa at the same time Dr. Alzugaray had applied, Dr. Hernández still has not received notice of whether his visa application has been approved or denied. He had to cancel his trip.

If you think this is bizarre behavior by a country that is deeply critical of the Cuban system, and any restrictions on travel and freedom of expression, we couldn’t agree more.

The battle over U.S.-Cuba relations has been long fought, is deeply complicated, and never works out well during the heat of a presidential election amidst dueling definitions of “American exceptionalism.”

One set of battle lines in this debate, however, seems pretty simple and clear.  One side believes in isolation, blocking Americans from visiting Cuba and stopping Cubans from visiting the U.S.  They don’t want our fellow citizens exposed to the realities of Cuba (the good or the bad) and don’t want Americans hearing speeches by people like Carlos Alzugaray or Rafael Hernández, because they want us to be ignorant of Cuba, its complexity, and prefer us to live with the mysteries and fears dating from the beginning of the Cold War that linger to this day.

That side, centered among the hardest of hardliners in Miami, exerts staggering control over U.S. policy toward the island, and games the system to extend that control, sometimes in peculiar and tawdry ways.  If you don’t believe us, you might read this story from the Miami Herald about the scandal engineered by Rep. David Rivera in his reelection campaign that will astonish those who still refer to publications as “family newspapers.”

The other side believes that Americans are smart enough to figure out Cuba for themselves and ought to be given the opportunity to do so – not only by visiting the island but also by having opportunities, like many should have in Berkeley today to hear Cubans visiting the U.S. speak.  These opinions, incidentally, are increasingly held by Cuban Americans in Miami and elsewhere who are now traveling to Cuba by the hundreds of thousands every year.  Together, this is the side that believes in the power of engagement, debate, and ideas.

So, it came as a surprise and a disappointment to us that someone sitting in Washington, who works for the Obama administration and has the power to approve visa applications, didn’t behave like we were on that side of the engagement versus isolation debate.   Of course, that might change after the election.  Or not.


USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah speaks on democracy aid in Cuba

Rajiv Shah, Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, addressed the controversial nature of democracy aid in Cuba during a one-day trip to Miami, reports The Miami Herald. Shah, while emphasizing positive relationships between USAID and the governments of countries where they work, acknowledged the lack of a relationship with Cuba’s government, and described Cuba as “unique compared with the rest of the world” in this sense.

Shah said that Cuba aid is aimed at the creation of civil society and promoting the free flow of information, and should not be branded as aid for the opposition but rather “across the board” support for various groups. Tracey Eaton in his Along the Malecón blog criticized Shah’s characterization of USAID programs, writing:

That view seems awfully disingenuous to me. I mean, isn’t the idea to force a change in Cuba’s system of government? Does Shah really believe that Cubans who accept U.S. assistance, risking jail time, are not opposed to the socialist government? Or maybe he just has an incredibly narrow definition of “political opposition.”

USAID’s programs are illegal in Cuba, and are a constant source of friction between the U.S. and Cuba’s government.
U.S. Senators urge President Raúl Castro to release Alan Gross

A bipartisan group of 44 senators sent a letter to President Raúl Castro urging Cuba’s government to release U.S. contractor Alan Gross, reports Reuters. The letter urges Gross’s release on humanitarian grounds, citing health problems and mental anguish due to separation from his family. The senators also cite Gross’s continued imprisonment as “a major obstacle to any further actions to improve our bilateral relations.”

Cuba’s government on several occasions has expressed its willingness to negotiate with the U.S. on the subject of Gross’s confinement. Representatives of the U.S. State Department have publicly rejected proposals for negotiation and continue to urge for Gross’s unconditional release.

Rep. Paul Ryan Criticizes Obama’s Cuba policy in Miami 

Congressman Paul Ryan, Republican Vice Presidential candidate, visited Little Havana last Sunday where he discussed his position on U.S. policy toward Cuba, and criticized the Obama administration on the subject, reports the New York Times. Ryan promised that a Romney-Ryan administration would reinforce the embargo and implement maximum pressure via sanctions on Cuba. He criticized President Obama’s policy reforms, which have increased travel for Cuban-Americans to the island as well as people-to-people exchanges. As we have previously noted, Ryan’s stance on the U.S. embargo on Cuba has shifted considerably; before, he supported lifting of the embargo and pronounced himself unpersuaded by advocates of the embargo.

Anya Landau-French, writing for The Havana Note, blogs about Ryan’s stint in Miami, and its significance in the context of the changing politics of the Cuban-American community.  Arturo López-Levy also wrote about the subject in a previous post titled “While Miami burns…Obama and Cuban-American politics.”

Cuba’s National Symphony Orchestra to tour U.S.

The National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba will begin its first-ever tour of the U.S. in Ames, Iowa on October 18th. The tour will include stops in 21 cities including New York City, Arlington, VA, Rockville, MD, and several performances in Florida, reports Havana Journal. Tickets to some of the performances are available for purchase here.

Sternad confesses Rivera ran secret campaign

Justin Lamar Sternad has told the FBI that U.S. Representative David Rivera was secretly behind his Democratic primary campaign against the eventual nominee, Joe Garcia, reports The Miami Herald. Sternad told the authorities that Ana Alliegro, his campaign manager, acted as the link between Rivera and his campaign. After figuring out that Rivera was his “mystery investor,” Sternad says he continued with the scheme because Alliegro told him that “D.R.” would get him a better job even if he lost.

The Cuban Triangle reports that the FBI is currently looking into four cash-stuffed envelopes received by Sternad’s campaign. The investigators are checking for fingerprints and handwriting comparisons to tie these envelopes back to Rep. Rivera. The FBI also has six invoices, all marked paid cash and initially made out to the attention of David Rivera, that covered the mailings for Sternad’s campaign, according to The Miami Herald. Ana Alliegro went missing two weeks ago before she was reportedly planning to give a statement to the FBI, and has not been heard from since.



Foreign Ministers of Spain, Cuba meet while attending the UN General Assembly  

Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s foreign minister, met Wednesday with Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, to discuss relations while they attended the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York, according to the website of Spain’s foreign ministry. Among topics discussed at the meeting were bilateral business relations and the case of Ángel Carromero, the Spanish citizen implicated as the driver of the car that crashed and that killed dissidents Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero. No diplomatic agreement was announced concerning the case of Carromero, who is currently awaiting trial in Cuba for vehicular manslaughter.

Business relations between the two nations were also discussed this week in Havana, at the 18th meeting of the Committee on Cuban-Spanish Business Cooperation, which began on Thursday. After years without a formal meeting, the two countries expressed a desire to develop closer business ties, reports El País.  Spain is Cuba’s third-largest business partner after Venezuela and China, and its primary partner in the European Union.

Cuba makes debt payments to China, announces an increase in trade

Ricardo Cabrisas, Vice President of Cuba’s Council of Ministers, announced on state-run television Cuba’s plans to deepen economic ties with China, after making payments on its debts to that country, reports AFP.  Cabrisas, following a round of bilateral trade talks, said that Cuba is committed to “strict compliance of our financial obligations with China, including those related to the rescheduling of our debt,” adding that “We are heading into a higher stage [of investment] as part of our social and economic development plan for our country.”

Chen Deming, China’s Minister for Commerce, said that Cuba’s payments “contributed to the restoration of confidence” between the two countries. China is Cuba’s second-largest trading partner, with bilateral trade in 2011 valued at $1.9 billion, and trade for the first half of this year already valued at about $870 million. Cuba’s government has not made public the amount of its debt with China.


Cuba’s government reports on real estate transactions following housing reform in Cuba

Between January and August of this year, 45,000 sales, swaps, and donations of real estate took place in Cuba according to Cuba’s Ministry of Justice, reports AFP. Olga Lidia Pérez, Director of Civil Notaries and Registries, said that the majority of the contracts between individuals occurred in the largest cities in the country, including Havana and Santiago de Cuba.

The sale of homes was prohibited until October of last year when, as a part of Cuba’s economic reform process, President Raúl Castro authorized Decree 288, which modifies the previous General Housing Law of 1988, reports EFE. The changes allow Cubans to buy, sell and gift real estate whereas previously only house swaps were legal, and any transactions had to be done under the table.

Inter-American Press Association calls for immediate release of imprisoned Cuban journalist

The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) released a statement this week condemning the arrest of Calixto Martínez Arias, an independent Cuban journalist. Martínez Arias, who works for the non-state news agency Hablemos Press, was arrested Sunday near Havana International Airport. The IAPA release alleges that his arrest on a charge of criminal contempt is related to two articles written earlier this year, one about a cholera outbreak and another on reported cases of dengue. If found guilty, Martínez Arias could face up to three years in prison.

Cuba’s sugar industry appears to be on the rebound

Cuba’s sugar  industry is showing signs of improvement as more sugar processing plants return to production and there have been reported increases in output, reports the AP.  As the world economy recovers from the global economic crisis, the price of sugar is increasing, and this is allowing Cuba to invest in infrastructure to modernize facilities and increase efficiency.  Officials expect the harvest to increase 20% this year after increases of 7% and 16% in the last two harvests.

Under President Raúl Castro’s initiative to revitalize the sugar industry as a part of the country’s economic reform process, Azcuba, the state holding company which replaced the Sugar Ministry, is allowed to keep 65% of its revenues and make its own decisions about how it reinvests the revenue. Negotiations with a British company on the possible implementation of a bioelectrical plant at one of the sugar refineries are under way, and the industry has attracted the interest of other potential foreign partners, including Brazil.

Around the Region

Behind the Story: TIME’s Tim Padgett Discusses Venezuela’s Coming Election, Kharunya Paramagura, TIME World

“On the contours of the Cordillera de la Costa, the mountain range that dominates the view around the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, sit the precariously balanced slums — barrios known as los ranchos — that have long been the heart of President Hugo Chávez’s political base. One barrio in particular, known as Catia, has been an election bellwether since 1998, when Chávez swept to power as a populist revolutionary figure. Now, as support for el Presidente begins to diminish in a neighborhood whose residents once banged on pots and pans to celebrate his arrival on the political scene in the early 1990s, the hugely popular strongman appears susceptible to defeat in the Oct. 7 presidential election.”

Recommended Reading

Cuban Americans Deserve Better “Choices” On Election Day, Jose Luis Marantes

In this column, published in the Huffington Post, a 28-year old Cuban American with a one-year old son demands a broader debate in his community about politics than a stale replay of the election year discussion over U.S.-Cuba relations.

Hey, hardliners…., In this posting from the blog ontwoshores.com, the author questions the conservative credentials for the hardliner supporters of travel restrictions to Cuba.

In “The gangster,” if you are having a bad day, Phil Peters writes in The Cuban Triangle, Rep. David Rivera’s is far worse.

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