The New York Times once described him as “a cheerful, box-shaped man with a face like a friendly bulldog.” Like a bulldog, Francisco Aruca was resolute and courageous, friendly with strangers and, when provoked, he was a force to be reckoned with.
So, we were stricken when friends like Silvia Wilhelm, Bob Guild and Marazul Charters (which he founded), and the Miami Herald and Progreso Weekly (which he also founded), circulated the sorrowful news that he had died unexpectedly at age 72.
Aruca’s life reflected, La Jornada aptly said, “the fundamental trajectory of recent Cuban history.” He supported the revolution. Soon after, as the New York Times reported, “he organized student strikes against the government’s crackdown on free speech and was promptly arrested and sentenced to 30 years in jail.” But, he wasn’t imprisoned very long.
He liked retelling the story of his escape; how his youthful appearance enabled him to convince his guards that “he was a child visiting family in prison.” He got away and spent more than a year in asylum in the Brazilian embassy, before he came to the U.S.
Studying at Georgetown University, he earned an economics degree, graduating in 1967. He taught economics, as the Miami Herald reported, in Virginia and Puerto Rico. Along with other Cuban-Americans in 1974, he founded a magazine, Areíto, from which he put forward the idea that the Diaspora had to talk with the Cuban government, an utterly radical idea at the time. It was so controversial “among Cuban exiles that bomb threats forced its editors to move from Miami to New York (where it stayed until 1987).”
Aruca was among the pioneers who advocated dialogue leading to the reconciliation of the Cuban family. He participated in those talks – including foundational ones in 1978, 1994, 1995 – because he wanted to do the hard and necessary work of building trust and clearing the obstacles that had existed since 1959.
He was among the group, later known as the Comité de 75, who negotiated with Fidel Castro for the release of 3,600 Cuban political prisoners in 1978, and also made it possible for exiles to visit Cuba. The next year, Aruca’s Marazul Charters was founded to provide travel for tens of thousands of Cuban Americans to visit their relatives for the first time since they had left Cuba.
This was (and still is) dangerous business, in Florida and elsewhere. Marazul’s windows were “routinely smashed.” His offices were firebombed. Carlos Muñiz, an exile and colleague of Aruca living in Puerto Rico who operated a sister travel agency was shot in the head and killed.
In 1994, after Miami residents attended the first meeting between Cuban exiles and the Cuban government in nearly fifteen years, they returned home and were besieged by death threats, bomb threats, verbal assault, acts of violence, and economic retaliation, as Human Rights Watch reported.
Aruca himself received a fax that called him “Communist, vendepatria [homeland-seller]…and traitor,” among other names, and went on to say, “Be very careful, as I think there are many who would like to see you dead.”
Advocating the right to travel or speaking your mind about improving relations with Cuba are incendiary acts in some Miami precincts. As WSVN reported: “3 Miami companies doing business with Cuba were attacked by firebombs,” in 1996, “a string of bomb attacks attributed mostly to anti-Castro radicals haunted the city in the 1970s and 1980s. The violence recently earned Miami a rank among the nation’s top 5 terrorism ‘hot spots’ by researchers studying the last 40 years of attacks on American soil.”
Not one to be intimidated, Aruca was a champion of travel and free speech. He started a morning program Radio Progreso, which debuted in 1991, “where he discussed Cuba-related issues from a perspective that had never been heard publicly in Miami.”
As Vivian Mannerud, a fellow agency operator, whose own business was firebombed in Coral Gables last year, remembered, “Those were times when people tuned in to Aruca’s radio programs but kept the volume real low so their neighbors would not know. It was a difficult time. It’s called democracy.”
For Aruca, it was about democracy, but more fundamentally, about family. As he told the Hartford Courant in 1999, “We Cubans have a very strong sense of family,” Aruca said. “If there were 300 relatives [seeing off passengers] at the airport today, there are 600 waiting in Havana tonight.”
Aruca lived to see Cuba’s government abolish nearly all travel restrictions on its people, but not long enough to see his adopted country abolish every restriction on the rights of Americans to visit Cuba.
But, according to the most recent estimates, the pioneering work he did enabled as many as 440,000 Cuban-Americans visit their families in Cuba in 2011 alone, a figure that will only grow so long as legislators like Senator Marco Rubio don’t gain enough power to roll back family travel licenses.
Shortly after Aruca’s death became known, Senator Rubio addressed a luncheon fundraiser for the Cuba-Democracy PAC where he made light of people who visit Cuba. He said:
“These trips that are traveling to Cuba: Look, God bless them, I know they mean well. But I have people come to me all the time and tell me and say, ‘Oh, I went to Cuba. What a beautiful place, I feel so bad for the people.
“Cuba is not a zoo where you pay an admission ticket and you go in and you get to watch people living in cages to see how they are suffering,” said Rubio, adding “Cuba is not a field trip. I don’t take that stuff lightly.”
Rubio’s disdain for travel is not news, but comparing travel to Cuba – a place Rubio has never visited – to visiting a zoo seemed especially odious and over the line, even more than his earlier declarations that travelers visiting Cuba were supporting the activities of a terrorist state.
Our experiences in Cuba are altogether different from Rubio’s fact-free imaginings. We have been embraced by Cubans of all political persuasions and life circumstances every time we have visited their country and their homes.
To learn something about Cuba and U.S. policy, he could listen to his constituents, for example, the faithful who joined Archbishop Wenski who went to witness the visit of then-Pope Benedict XVI the and 400th anniversary of Cuba’s patron saint –the Virgin of Charity (la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre) – Cuba’s patron saint.
Or, he could pay attention to Senator Patrick Leahy, who responded to Rubio’s preference for isolating Americans from Cuba by saying:
“It has been obvious to any objective observer for a very long time that isolation has not worked, and it is demeaning for a great and powerful nation like ours, for instance, to forbid U.S. citizens from traveling where they want to travel. It is in our national interest to take a fresh look at how to effectively address our differences with the Cuban government, such as the imprisonment of Alan Gross and many other matters.”
That is the kind of engagement Francisco Aruca spent the better part of five decades fighting for. His son, Daniel, emailed Alvaro Fernandez, editor of Progreso Weekly, with a reminder of Aruca’s words that defined his life: “If I die tomorrow, I know I have lived a very full life and that I lasted much longer than anyone ever expected.”
Aruca, the bulldog we remember and loved, lived a full, big, courageous, and uniquely American life.
Timothy Roche, Consul General at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, gave a rare interview with Cuba’s state newspaper Granma, in which he reviewed the paperwork and process required for Cubans to obtain a visa to travel to the U.S., the Associated Press said. Roche clarified that “on the U.S. side, migration regulations have not changed in any aspect,” and specified that those seeking tourist visas must demonstrate that they have strong ties to the island and are not coming to the U.S. to find work. Roche also said that the U.S. sees Cuba’s changes to its travel policies as “positive.” When asked about the Cuban Adjustment Act and the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program, Roche had “no comment on those issues.”
A workshop for agricultural companies interested in doing business with Cuba will take place in Washington, D.C. on April 8th, according to AgriLife Today. The workshop is co-sponsored by Texas A&M Extension Service and the Texas-Cuba Trade Alliance and is aimed for an audience of export service providers, food processors and distributors, and agricultural producers and policymakers. Participants will learn about the Cuban market for U.S. agricultural products, export inspection requirements, and how to receive a license to travel and export goods to Cuba.
According to the Washington Post, “A federal grand jury in Miami is investigating Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), examining his role in advocating for the business interests of a wealthy donor and friend, according to three people aware of the probe.”
The Post says federal agents have questioned witnesses about the interactions between Menendez and Dr. Saloman Melgen,a donor, businessman, and friend of Menendez, whose investments, regulatory problems, and corporate jet excursions to the Dominican Republic for vacations have embroiled the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in scandal. The Post added, “A grand jury probe, which involves a prosecutor pursuing allegations with an eye toward possible indictment, typically represents a legal escalation, though it does not always lead to a prosecution.”
In response to the Post’s report, a spokeswomen said the Senator would “welcome any review” of his conduct, Bloomberg reported.
Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez arrived in New York for a speaking engagement at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and will continue on to Washington, DC next week, reports El Nuevo Herald.
Ms. Sánchez will participate in a three-day seminar organized by New York University and the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy. While in Washington, she will meet with Members of Congress from both political parties, and has accepted invitations from Sen. Bill Nelson (FL) and Rep. Joe Garcia (FL), according to the Orlando Sentinel. Referring to Ms. Sánchez’s established stance against the embargo, the article notes, “she may tell embargo proponents some things they don’t want to hear.”
Three Cuban rock bands, Agonizer, Escape, and Ancestro, are slotted to perform at the renowned “South by Southwest” festival in Austin, Texas reports Havana Times. The festival, which also features conferences and film, began its music portion on March 12 and will continue until March 17. Agonizer, Escape, and Ancestro are all scheduled to perform today.
Through a law published today in Cuba’s Official Gazette, the Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC) will be re-organized, reports Café Fuerte. The MIC will now only focus on government-related communications, rather than government-related communications and state-run company communications, as had previously been the case. State-run enterprise communications will now be the responsibility of Cuba’s Business Postal Group and Cuba’s Business Information and Communications Group.
In a suspenseful contest that came down to the last inning, Cuba was eliminated Monday from the World Baseball Classic with a loss to the Netherlands in the quarterfinals, reports the New York Times. Narrowly ending Cuba’s hopes to advance to the finals in San Francisco, the 7-6 loss will instead allow the Netherlands to compete in the semifinals against Japan.
Thirty-five new biogas plants will be built in the eastern province of Holguín this year, adding to the 32 biogas generators currently in operation, reports Havana Times. The original Chinese design will be adapted so the generators can produce methane gas used for food cooked for human and animal consumption. Despite increases in the production of biogas, fossil fuels remain the principal source of energy in Cuba.
The majority of the 13 sugar-producing provinces in Cuba will have to extend their sugar milling past April in order to meet industry requirements of 1.7 million tons of unrefined sugar for this year’s harvest, reports Reuters. Sugar milling on the island has suffered several setbacks due to the breakdowns of mills, problems in transportation, sugar cane growth rates affected by Hurricane Sandy. This is another blow to the sugar industry: AZCUBA, the state-run company in charge of the sugar industry, had announced plans in December to close the majority of its sugar mills before May, as a combination of heat and humidity put equipment at risk the later in the season that the machines remain in use.
Amnesty International has issued an Urgent Action with regard to imprisoned independent journalist Calixto Martínez Arias, reporting that he has been placed in solitary confinement as a consequence of his launching a hunger strike. Martínez was arrested in September last year while investigating the cholera outbreak on the island, and has not been formally charged.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been named Pope Francisco I, the first non-European and Jesuit pope in history, reports Havana Times. He received congratulations from Cuba’s President, Raúl Castro on Wednesday. The Havana Times also reports that the new Pope had traveled to Cuba in 1998 alongside Pope John Paul II, enabling him to write a book entitled “Dialogues between Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro.”
The new Pope has faced accusations of passivity during Argentina’s Dirty War, and of involvement in the torture of two Jesuit priests, accusations the Vatican rejected Friday, reports the New York Times.
Weeks after Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev signed an agreement with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro to partially forgive and refinance Cuba’s unpaid debt accrued during the Cold War, creditor governments of the Paris Club also involved with the issue said they were not told of the agreement, reports Reuters. An informal assemblage of nineteen creditor governments, including Russia, Germany, the UK, Switzerland, Japan, and the U.S., the Paris Club does not issue multilateral loans. As of 2010, Cuba collectively owes member-countries $30.5 billion, a sum which includes Cuba’s lingering $25 billion debt to Russia (not taking into account the February agreement between the two countries.
A diplomat representing one member country told Reuters that the Paris Club learned of the agreement between Cuba and Russia on the news, and that they were concerned at not having been consulted or informed. Richard Feinberg, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution indicated that despite the displeasure expressed by Paris Club members, if Cuba and Russia’s partial debt forgiveness and refinancing agreement comes to fruition, “Cuba will be in a stronger bargaining position to restructure its remaining Paris Club debts with Western governments.”
Representatives from Colombia’s government and the FARC reconvened Monday in Havana to continue peace talks, reports Xinhua. Each group expressed optimism about this round of negotiations, as Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos stated his hope this week that accords between the government and the FARC could be reached by the end of 2013, reports El Espectador.
This round of negotiations, during which the delegations will continue to discuss land and rural development, follows the successful completion of a unilateral, two-month ceasefire on the part of the FARC, which took place between November 20 and January 20, AFP reports. Cuba, in addition to hosting the peace talks, will continue to serve as a guarantor of the process.
Around the Region
Venezuela: Chávez homages continue as Maduro and Capriles gear up for elections
Developments in the wake of Hugo Chávez’s death have moved quickly. Homages to the deceased president have included Fidel Castro mourning the loss of Cuba’s “best friend,” saying “Not even he himself suspected how great he was,” (in English in Havana Times and in Spanish in Juventud Rebelde). Tributes also came from the United Nations General Assembly, where officials remembered Chávez’s dedication to social justice, reports the UN News Center. There, General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic stated:
“Throughout his term in office, he remained committed to the cause of social justice, working hard to improve the lives of Venezuelans, especially the most underprivileged amongst them…Under his strong leadership, Venezuela made great strides towards fulfilling the Millennium Development Goals, to the lasting benefit of a great and proud nation.”
Original plans to embalm Chávez’s body have apparently been set aside, reports the Associated Press.
An inquiry into the cause of Chávez’s death will take place, reports the BBC. While Vice President Nicolás Maduro emphasized that the United States was not being accused, he stated “He had an illness, a cancer that will be known in time that broke with all the typical characteristics of this illness,” reports CNN.
Maduro was sworn in as the acting president by the National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello last Friday, and will campaign for election to the presidency in elections set for April 14th, Reuters reports, timed to coincide with the annually celebrated anniversary of Chávez’s return to office after the failed coup in 2002.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost to Chávez in last year’s election, will run against Maduro, whom he has challenged to a debate, reports Reuters.
Venezuela’s campaigns (comandos) typically take on a “historical mascot” and Capriles has chosen Simon Bolívar for his. This has Chavistas fuming, reports Aporrea, because the first actions of the coup leaders, upon taking control of the government in 2002, was to remove the portrait of Bolívar from the presidential palace and to strike the word “Bolivarian” from the name of the country.
In the lead-up to the elections, tensions with the U.S. have grown. The State Department has expelled two Venezuelan diplomats, as retaliation for the expulsion of two U.S. Air Force attachés expelled from Caracas the week before, reports the New York Times. The full statement by Victoria Nuland, U.S. Department of State Spokesperson, is available here. Rep. Ed Royce (CA) on Bloomberg TV has called on the State Department to begin broadcasting opposition messages to Venezuela, similar to the Radio Martí broadcasts to Cuba.
Venezuelan officials say they have uncovered a plot from “far-right” U.S. groups to assassinate Capriles, and Maduro has offered Capriles additional security, reports Reuters.
On Venezuela’s relationship with Cuba, Maduro has promised to maintain its “eternal union” with the island, reports EFE. Cuba and Venezuela will continue together “building ALBA, Petrocaribe, and the bonds between their people,” Maduro said.
Cuba finds its footing on LGBT rights, Sarah Stephens, The Advocate
Sarah Stephens discusses the progress and the setbacks affecting the Cuban LGBT community today, as recorded in CDA’s recent report “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future.”
Special Feature: Along the Malecón: Lawyer: Gross can’t collect any money
Investigative journalist Tracey Eaton offers an update on jailed USAID subcontractor Alan Gross’ lawsuit against his employer, Development Alternatives International.
Cross Cuba off the blacklist, Los Angeles Times Editorial Board
The LA Times argues that Cuba’s place on the U.S. State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism is both outdated and an impediment to the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba and other countries in the region. The Times writes that the U.S.’s insistence on labelling Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism “when the evidence for it has passed fails to recognize Cuba’s progress and reinforces doubts about America’s willingness to play fair in the region.”
Got A Question About Cuban Snails? Take a Peek in Mr. Cueto’s Hall, Nicholas Casey, Wall Street Journal
Nicholas Casey explores one man’s collection of all things Cuba, located in an apartment in the outskirts of Washington DC. An exile from Havana, 69 year-old Emilio Cueto is the sole curator of Emilioteca, a collection of books, coins, menus, maps, porcelain jars, shells of endangered snails found only in the Cuban town of Baracoa, and more. Cueto expressed that one day, he hopes to return to Cuba with the collection, but for now, his goal is to collect as many artifacts as possible related to his native country – “Everything is welcome here and nothing is not.”
Chavismo and Human Development in Venezuela, Nancy Folbre, New York Times
In this Economix blog post, Nancy Folbre examines the tangible improvements in Venezuela under former president Hugo Chávez. Using studies published by the World Bank and the United Nations, among other sources, Folbre looks at how the overall health and wellbeing of the population has changed under Chávez. While infant mortality and poverty levels declined impressively since 2003, the most telling indicator was the rate of school enrollment. With the expansion of free public higher education, tertiary enrollment increased far beyond levels in Brazil, Mexico or Peru. Folbre concludes saying: “…much of the public spending he [Chávez] financed with oil revenues represents investment in the human capabilities of Venezuelans themselves.”
The 2014 Elections in El Salvador and the Transnational Electorate, Frederick B. Mills, Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Frederick B. Mills discusses the impact that El Salvador’s first diaspora vote may have on the 2014 presidential elections, and gives a history of diaspora political engagement.
Honduras: simmering crisis, AULA Blog
This American University blog post focuses on Washington’s support for the government elected in Honduras after the 2009 coup d’etat and deteriorating conditions – increased rates of drug trafficking, corruption, and death squad-style killings – under the administration of President Porfirio Lobo.
Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s acting president was the front-man for the 80s rock band, Enigma. Watch him sing and play lead guitar to a full dance floor on what appears to be a live-music TV show.