To Ring in the New, we have to Wring out the Old way of Doing Things

At the beginning of 2013, there’s a lot of attention being paid to the precarious health of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, fighting his cancer in a Havana hospital.  While some of the analysis seems genuine and reality-based – see, for example, Caracas Connect here, Just the Facts here, and the New York Times here – there is also a lot of the same ghoulishness and immaturity that arises whenever the health of former President Fidel Castro appears uncertain.

Any idea of advancing the U.S.-Venezuela relationship, such as posting ambassadors in either country’s capital, appears to be captive to Mr. Chavez and his mortality.  It’s not just an odd, but also a self-defeating way to run relations with one of our most important trading partners in the region.  Worse, it’s based on a broken model (see the Helms-Burton prohibition on the U.S. government recognizing Cuba’s government until both Fidel and Raúl Castro have parted from the scene).

But this is all very much part of an enduring flaw of U.S. foreign policy; namely, its preoccupation with the identity of who is running a country and its subordination of things which matter more – like deciding what demonstrates our national character or what defines and realizes our national interest.

Consider, for example, the retirement of Harry Henry, age 82, and Luis La Rosa, age 79, who recently completed six-decades of service as Cuban nationals working at the Navy’s Guantanamo Air Base in Cuba.  As the Miami Herald reported, they left work in December after a celebration of their service, but with complete uncertainty about whether they would be paid by the U.S. government the pensions that they earned.

Today, the Herald reports that a solution was found, but those of us who pay taxes in the U.S. to support the Pentagon will not be told which public servant in the Department of Defense allowed his sense of character to prevail over his government’s ideological inflexibility in order to work with Cuba to find a solution and pay the pensioners what they are owed.

Or consider the news from the peace talks brokered by Cuba and other nations, conducted in Havana, between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.  Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that Colombia’s President Juan Miguel Santos “insisted” that the talks not be held in Colombia, but pressed the FARC to have the negotiations in Cuba “for security above all because it guaranteed confidentiality,” according to the brother of President Santos.

We don’t know whether the talks will succeed, but it forces us to wonder whether a public servant in the U.S. Department of State might be stricken with conscience and speak up before his ideologically inflexible government continues listing Cuba as a state sponsor of terror because it allows members of the FARC in Cuba.  Taking Cuba off the list, as a column in the Los Angeles Times said earlier this year, “would restore some degree of seriousness to the exercise…and pave the way for further counter-terrorism cooperation between [our two] countries,” important benefits for the national interest.

And, finally, consider the question, who is running our policy really?  In “Can Kerry make friends with Cuba?” Nick Miroff writes:

Regardless of Kerry’s record on Cuba policy in the Senate, analysts say he will face several obstacles to major change, not least of which will be the man likely to replace him as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), a Cuban American.

“On Latin America, in general, I think Kerry has a longer and broader vision,” said Robert Pastor, professor of international relations at American University. But when it comes to Cuba…changing US policy is not a high priority for him, but not changing US policy is the only priority for Bob Menendez,” Pastor said.

As a nation we begin the new year much as we left the old: with a policy that long-ago outlived any usefulness it offered during the Cold War, driven by personalities, and held captive by the medical conditions of leaders with whom our government disagrees, rather than being guided by what, in fact, is in the national interest and consistent with the national character of the U.S.

The alternative is what the editors of Bloomberg wrote on December 31st:

“We hope that the 51st year of the U.S. embargo against Cuba will be its last. Obama eased some restrictions in his first term — and he won half the Cuban-American vote in November. He can now encourage free-market advocates in Cuba by lifting sanctions that even most Cuban-Americans don’t think serve any purpose — the sooner the better, given the flood of Cuban émigrés that new travel freedoms may begin to unleash this month.”

Happy New Year.


State jobs declining, private sector and non-state employment on the rise

Cuba’s economic reforms led to a 23% increase in private or non-state employment and a 5.7% decrease in the state employment sector in 2012, according to a report by the Economy Ministry submitted to the National Assembly, reports Reuters. Farmers, carpenters, taxi drivers, retail shopkeepers and seamstresses make up the majority of the newly self-employed. The report also noted that the unemployment rate reached a record high 3.8%. More changes are expected this year, including the conversion of hundreds of state-run medium businesses into cooperatives as part of a pilot program that may expand to the rest of the country.

New Tax Law Takes Effect in Cuba to Aid in Economic Reforms

Cuba’s new tax law, aimed at bringing the country’s tax system up-to-date with recent economic reforms, came into effect on January 1st, reports EFE. The code, approved by the National Assembly in July, is expected to be implemented gradually, and many of the taxes will not be effective during 2013. New taxes include a 25% social security tax on businesses with more than five employees, which will be reduced over the course of five years to 5%. In an attempt to encourage food production, taxes on the agricultural sector will be 50% less than other sectors, and many farmers will be exempt from self-employment taxes for two years. Taxes on retail goods and services will also be postponed for one year, while state-owned enterprises will be subject to a 35% tax on profits, reports

Cuba releases second treatment for lung cancer

The Cuban-developed drug Racotumomab, which increases survival rates among lung cancer patients, was patented and approved for use on Tuesday, reports Xinhua. The vaccine does not prevent cancer but kills existing cancer cells and minimizes tumor growth. Racotumomab and CIMAvax EGF, the world’s first lung cancer vaccine, are the result of 25 years of research at Cuba’s Molecular Immunology Center.

Cuba closes nickel processing plant

Cuba’s oldest nickel processing facility, located in the town of Nicaro in the eastern Holguín province, was closed last week after 70 years of production, leaving only two such plants functioning on the island, reports Reuters. An office employee stated, “This is something that has been on people’s minds for a while, because the plant has very old technology and very low efficiency…We didn’t know exactly when it would close, but eventually it would have to because it is not economically sustainable.” Some of the displaced employees are expected to be transferred to a new plant in Moa, a joint venture with Venezuela expected to open in 2013.Cuba is one of the world’s major nickel suppliers and produces 10% of all cobalt, a nickel-smelting by-product.

Cuba has lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America

A report released by the United Nations Children’s Fund in September cites Cuba as maintaining an infant mortality rate of less than 5 per thousand for the fifth year in a row, reports Xinhua.  Cuba has the lowest infant mortality rate in the Western Hemisphere, followed by Canada, the United States, and Chile.


Swiss Bank Zürcher Kantonalbank cancels business with Cuba

Switzerland’s fourth-largest bank is terminating services to Cuba, reports Cuba Standard. The state-owned bank is the third Swiss bank to drop Cuba from its portfolio in the past 7 years, citing pressure from the U.S. government. A bank spokesman told Inside Paradeplatz, a finance newspaper, that ZKB “cannot avoid paying attention to embargoes and blacklists…After prominent competitors bid farewell to the Cuba business long ago, due to the U.S. embargo, Zürcher Kantonalbank is now pulling out of Cuba for the same reason.”

According to the Cuba Standard, the decision will affect the Camaquito children’s aid program as well as numerous businesses. The Swiss-Cuban Chamber of Commerce has filed a complaint to the Swiss Ministry of Commerce.

Cuba helps U.S. Navy find a way to pay Guantánamo retirees

The U.S. Navy has worked out a deal with Cuba’s government to continue monthly pension payments to former Guantánamo base employees, reports the Miami Herald. The question of how payments would continue arose after the last two Cuban nationals employed at the base retired last month. Those employees, Harry Henry, 82, and Luis La Rosa, 79, possessed powers of attorney for 65 other former employees and would cash their checks and deliver the payments. Army Lt. Col Todd Breasseale said that “Cuban officials have agreed to a workable, interim mechanism” that would allow for the retirees to receive their pensions, but would not provide any details.

After the 1959 revolution, the U.S. and Cuba agreed that any workers who had been employed at the base before the revolution would be allowed to continue working there, and a moratorium was placed on new hires.


EU ambassador: first steps are being taken in changing Common Position

Herman Portocarrero, the EU ambassador to Cuba, stated in an interview with the Spanish journal Público that first steps are being taken to change the EU Common Position toward Cuba. Portocarrero said that a disposition toward change has arisen in response to “the changes that we see in Cuban society, [and] the economic reform that is now very openly discussed,” adding,  “there is no reason not to have a normal relation of mutual respect with Cuba, as we have with other states.”

The EU Common Position, adopted in 1996, states that “the objective of the European Union in its relations with Cuba is to encourage a process of transition to a pluralist democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as sustainable recovery and improvement in the living standards of the Cuban people.” Ambassador Portocarrero indicated that a change in the Common Position would open the door for more European investments, as well as cooperation on themes such as “food security and support to the modernization of the economy, taxes, cooperatives and micro credit.”

Portocarrero said that it will take at least six months for Cuba and the EU to sit at the table for negotiations, and that an agreement would take a year and a half. In the meantime, the EU will maintain the Common Position.

Ángel Carromero returns to Spain to serve remainder of sentence

Spanish citizen Ángel Carromero has returned to Spain to serve the remainder of the sentence handed to him by Cuba’s courts for his involvement in the deaths of Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero in a July 2012 car accident, reports the Associated Press. The arrangement was made based on a 1998 agreement that allows citizens of Spain and Cuba to serve prison sentences in their respective countries. Upon his arrival to Barajas airport in Madrid, Carromero was taken into custody and driven to a jail in Segovia.  Phil Peters’ blog The Cuban Triangle has more on the case and Carromero’s arrival in Spain.

Cuba to host conference on wind power in June

Conrado Moreno, president of the organizing committee for the World Conference on Wind Power, has announced Cuba as the venue for the 2013 conference to take place in June, reports Cuban News Agency. The event will include experts from over 45 countries, and will focus on the use of wind as a renewable energy source and the use of renewable energy in sustainable development.  The role of renewable energy in tourism, industry, and food production will also be discussed. This is the first time that the conference will take place in the region.

Around the Region

Evo Morales: Hugo Chávez’s situation is “very worrying”

After speaking to Chávez’s family on Wednesday, Bolivia’s President Morales described his peer’s situation as “very worrying” in a video published by The Guardian.

Just three days earlier in Havana, Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s vice-president, read an official communiqué on Cuban television acknowledging further complications in the President’s recovery, related to a previously announced respiratory infection. He said he would remain on the island for “the coming hours” to monitor Chavez’s response to treatment. Still in Cuba on Tuesday, Maduro returned to the air to squelch numerous rumors circulating about Chávez’s condition. In an interview with TeleSur and summarized by The Guardian, he stated that the President is conscious of his situation and called for the people to be kept informed. Rámon Guillermo Aveledo, secretary of the MUD opposition coalition, stated dissatisfaction with what he viewed as sparse information being shared with the public, calling for “an objective and comprehensive explanation of the president’s current health situation” and his medical prognosis.

Chile Seeks Justice for Murdered Singer Victor Jara

Six former military officials have been arrested in connection to the torture and murder of Chilean musician Victor Jara in the aftermath of the U.S.-supported coup against Salvador Allende in 1973, reports The New York Times. Warrants for two other military officials have also been issued, including for Pedro Barrientos Nuñez, who is a resident of Florida. The U.S. has not yet indicated how it will respond to the warrant.

Recommended Reading

In fighting gangs, US should look to El Salvador, Rep. Mike Honda and Dr. Ami Carpenter, Christian Science Monitor

Rep. Mike Honda and Dr. Ami Carpenter examine El Salvador’s approach to citizen security  and other issues posed by the significant presence and influence of gangs in El Salvador, suggesting that the United States and Mexico could learn from the Salvadoran example.

Gross: A prisoner exchange not the only option, Ricardo Herrero, Cuba Study Group

The debate over the incarceration of Alan Gross in Cuba is “an ideological three-ring circus where finding a solution has become a secondary objective behind not appearing to be making concessions,” opines Ricardo Herrero in the Huffington Post. He offers three pragmatic options for reinforcing U.S. efforts to secure Gross’ release and for putting U.S.-Cuba relations on a positive path: introducing alternative terms to the negotiations, pursuing Gross’ release and economic engagement concurrently, and treating the Angel Carromero case as a model.

A page of history: 1 January 1959, Progreso Weekly

“Batista and regime flee Cuba”, read the New York Times headline. This article, reproduced by Progreso Weekly gives a glimpse of how day one of Cuba’s 1959 revolution was perceived and described by the U.S. mainstream press.

Recommended Viewing

Cubans delight in American apples, BBC

This BBC video features interviews with representatives of the Turkey Knob Growers-Bowman Sales company, the first U.S. firm to sign a commercial contract with Cuba post-revolution. This past year, farmers in Virginia sold $65 million in mostly soy and apples to Cuba, making the island the state’s 7th largest export market according to the Washington Post.

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