Castor’s Got Courage, But Has Kerry Got Game?

Kathy Castor, Tampa’s representative in Congress, has got courage.  Of the twenty-seven members of Florida’s delegation, only five have more Cuban Americans in their districts than she has living in hers.  None but Castor has made the effort, as she did a few weeks ago, to visit Cuba.

When Ms. Castor returned home, she wrote President Obama and urged him to modernize Cuba policy.  She asked the president to support Cuba’s economic reforms, end the travel ban, lift trade restrictions, engage Cuba in a dialogue on human rights, and, critically, to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terror List.

Such clear, forward thinking was too much for Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa attorney, who “pinned the label ‘terrorist’ on Castor,” as the Tampa Bay Business Journal reported, and said “she joins all terrorists of the western hemisphere in solidarity with the (Castro) regime and tyranny that has brought pain and agony to my people.”

Such rhetoric was sad, but not surprising, and the tactic was all too familiar.  The noisiest critics of the system in Cuba like to stanch free debate in America to stop courage like Castor’s from becoming contagious.

In this case, the name-calling backfired, and emboldened constituents rose to her defense.  Patrick Manteiga, publisher of Tampa’s La Gaceta newspaper, donated space for a full-page ad in last week’s issue that saluted Castor “on her historic trip to Cuba” and he got more than 300 area residents to sign on…in Florida.

This is further proof that the politics around Cuba issues is changing, that the Cuba Lobby, which has petrified politicians and paralyzed policy for decades, can be challenged not just by rare instances of courage but by compelling examples of common sense.

It may take time for this truth to move from Tampa Bay to the halls of Congress, but we hope it’s heard in Foggy Bottom and that the U.S. State Department gets the message fast.

By April 30th, Secretary of State John Kerry must decide whether Cuba should be removed from the list of countries designated as State Sponsors of Terror.

Kerry has previously spoken sensibly on terrorism.  Presiding over the confirmation of Hillary Rodham Clinton to serve as Secretary of State, John Kerry, then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said:

In the last seven years, we have spent the treasure of this nation – young American soldiers, first and foremost, and billions of dollars – to fight terrorism, and yet grave questions remain as to whether or not we have chosen our battles correctly, pursued the right strategy, defined the right goals.

Now that Kerry is running State, it’s time for him to pursue the right strategy and act decisively by removing Cuba from the terror list.  The merits are clear.

“None of the reasons that landed Cuba on the list in 1982 still exist,” as the Los Angeles Times explained recently. “A 2012 report by the State Department found that Havana no longer provides weapons or paramilitary training to Marxist rebels in Latin America or Africa. In fact, Cuba is currently hosting peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and President Juan Manuel Santos’ government.”

This is just the point Rep. Castor made to President Obama.  “One of the reasons used to justify Cuba’s presence on the State Sponsors of Terror List was its support of the FARC.  This rationale is no longer valid, and it provides our nation with an opportunity to remove Cuba from the list and focus on global actors who need our attention.”

After returning from Cuba, on a trip led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, Rep. Castor never stopped working.  She used contacts she made at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to connect grandparents in her district to Cuban and U.S. officials, trying to facilitate the return of Chase and Cole Hakken, children abducted by their parents in Tampa and taken by boat to Cuba.

The same Tampa attorney who called out Castor assured local media that the parents, who were fugitives in Cuba, were safe, “there’s no extradition…There’s nothing that can be done.”

Soon after, the Cubans arrested the parents and returned them to Florida where they face a variety of serious charges, and the boys, ages 4 and 2, were reunited with their grandparents proving, as Rep. Castor said, “the value of engagement” and the importance of reforming the policy.

Whether it takes common sense or courage, something can always be done.  Kathy Castor proved it, and so can John Kerry, if he’s got game.


Mariela Castro denied visa to attend conference in Philadelphia

The U.S. State Department denied Mariela Castro’s request for a visa to attend a conference next week in Philadelphia, reports the New York Times. While she was granted a diplomatic visa to attend meetings at the UN headquarters in New York, where she arrived this week, that visa does not allow her to travel more than 25 miles from New York. Mariela Castro is the daughter of President Raúl Castro, and directs Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX). She was to receive an award at the Equality Forum 2013 for her work advocating for LGBT rights.

Last year, Castro was allowed to attend the annual congress of the Latin American Studies Association in San Francisco, CA. This year’s visa denial could be related to her election this February as a member of Cuba’s National Assembly. U.S. law bars visas for high-ranking members of the Communist Party and government officials.

Tampa City Council members to travel to Cuba

Nearly half of Tampa’s City Council will travel to Cuba in May on a trip organized by the city’s Chamber of Commerce, reports the Tampa Bay Times. Those planning to travel have expressed a desire to better understand the possibilities that future cooperation with Cuba could entail for Tampa. “Tampa is where the future of the relationship between the United States and Cuba will unfold. I truly believe that,” expressed Yvonne Yolie Capin, who will be visiting the island for the first time. The privately financed trip will fly out of the Tampa International Airport, as the participants want to emphasize the city’s position as a gateway to Cuba.

Florida man convicted in Medicare money transfers to Cuba sentenced to four years in prison

Oscar Sánchez, a Florida man convicted of leading a money laundering operation that transferred millions of dollars in Medicare dollars to counterparts in Cuba, was sentenced Thursday to four years in prison and one year of home arrest, reports the Miami Herald.  Initially charged last summer along with three other suspects in the money-laundering scheme, Sánchez was found guilty of collaborating with an offshore remittance company to channel over $30 million, fraudulently obtained from Medicare, from a South Florida bank to one in Cuba. According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, there is no evidence that the government of Cuba was at all involved in the money laundering. Cuba’s government similarly denies any association with the crime.


Cuba’s central labor union invites cuentapropistas to participate in May 1st activities and encourages them to join union

The leadership of Cuba’s national labor union, the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC) is encouraging workers in the non-state sector to participate in public activities planned for International Workers’ Day on May 1st, reports Café Fuerte. Salvador Valdés Mesa, secretary general of the CTC and a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party, stated “Unions exist to organize workers from all sectors, to represent them and shape values, so as not to renounce the active participation of that great mass in the updating of the country’s economic model.”

Although 85% of self-employed workers are a part of the Cuban Workers Union (CTC), which comes with Social Security benefits, active participation remains quite low. Some self-employed workers have advocated for the creation of an independent union, suggesting that such an organization could more effectively represent them.

For first time since 1959, Havana’s Capitol building will host parliament

Cuba’s National Assembly will move to the Capitol building in Havana, where, for the first time since 1959, members will use offices and convene twice-annual parliamentary sessions, reports the Associated Press.

This historic building, the Capitolio Nacional, was built in Havana from 1926-1929, is modeled after but is slightly larger than the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Eusebio Leal, city historian of Havana, whose office has overseen the restoration of the building, stated that while it is still unclear exactly when the Capitol will be ready for its renewed use, the restoration is “a work of great importance for the architectural world and for Havana.”  Leal also told the AP that the Office of the City Historian hopes to reopen Havana’s historic Martí Theater later this year.

Revenues of Sherritt, Cuba’s largest private investor, reported to be lagging

Sherritt International Corp., Cuba’s largest private foreign investor, has reported a 29% drop in net earnings, reports Cuba Standard. The mining and energy company, based in Canada, credited the drop – from $352.3 million during the first quarter of last year to $280.8 million this year – to the cancellation of a coal mining contract in Canada, as well as lower prices for nickel and cobalt, and increased operation costs. Although nickel production in the company’s Moa Joint Venture plant in Cuba was down due to delays in haul truck availability, the company reports that its outlook for 2013 remains unchanged.

Cuba’s biotechnology industry expected to double in five years

Officials from BioCubaFarma, Cuba’s biotechnology company, expect the company to double its operations over the next five years, to produce over $5 billion in export revenue, reports Xinhua.  Launched in 2011 by the Sixth Congress of Cuba’s Communist Party as part of an effort to develop Cuba’s biotechnological and pharmaceutical industries and advance biotechnology and genetic research, BioCubaFarma plans to broaden the array of products it offers domestic and international markets.  The company manufactures generic drugs, vaccines, biomedicines, diagnostic systems, and medical equipment, and also performs research in the areas of neuroscience and neurotechnology.


Díaz-Canel to head Cuba’s delegation at summit of Association of Caribbean States

Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s First Vice President, will lead the country’s delegation at the fifth summit of the Association of Caribbean States, reports Juventud Rebelde. The summit starts today in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  Leaders of the twenty-five member states and of four associate-member states will discuss furthering regional cooperation, and are expected to form an agreement to continue to support Haiti’s reconstruction and development process.

Ladies in White receive human rights prize in Brussels

On Tuesday, Cuba’s Ladies in White received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in Brussels, reports the BBC. The group was awarded the distinction in 2005, but members had been unable to travel to Europe until recently, following Cuba’s migration reforms. Laura Labrada received the award on behalf of the group.

International chess tournament begins in Havana

The 48th annual José Raúl Capablanca International Memorial Chess Tournament began on Sunday in Havana, reports Xinhua.  The tournament is named after the Cuban chess player who held the world chess championship from 1921 to 1927. More than 200 participants from over 21 countries arrived in Havana for the tournament, which culminates May 1.

Around the Region

Caracas Connect: Venezuela’s Elections – Photo Finish and a Lingering Controversy, Dr. Dan Hellinger and Dawn Gable, Center for Democracy in the Americas

CDA witnessed Venezuela’s election, the announcement of the results, and the campaign’s immediate aftermath while visiting Venezuela this month. Dan Hellinger and Dawn Gable offer analysis and eye-witness reports in this edition of Caracas Connect.

As the National Electoral Council (CNE) audits the voting machines used in the vote, President Nicolás Maduro has moved forward, establishing his team and setting his administration’s strategy. On the home front, more than half of Venezuela’s cabinet members were replaced this week, while ministers in key sectors, such as foreign affairs, oil and defense, were retained, reports AFP. Maduro also launched what he has dubbed a “New Cycle of the Revolution,” that will focus on “building peace, security, and coexistence,” reports Venezuelanalysis.

President Maduro has appointed Calixto Ortega as the new Charge D’Affaires in Venezuela’s embassy in Washington. Maduro voiced hopes that Ortega will improve the dialogue between the two nations, according to a release by state newswire AVN. Mr. Ortega formerly served in Venezuela’s National Assembly and participated in the now defunct Boston Group, a friendship alliance between members of Venezuela’s parliament and the U.S. Congress. The group included Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-5) who attended Hugo Chávez’s funeral and who recently expressed his intention to work toward repairing U.S. relations with Venezuela, reports The Hill.

The State Department’s response to this change is positive, yet puzzling. While the U.S. has still refused to recognize formally Nicolas Maduro’s presidency, it did so indirectly through spokesman Patrick Ventrell. “With all bilateral diplomatic relationships, it’s important to establish effective channels of communication between governments,” he said, referring to the appointment of Ortega which he expressed “could be a step in that direction,” reports AFP.

Meanwhile, tensions remain high while the world awaits the results of an audit that, according to CEPR, has a less than one in 25 thousand trillion chance of producing a result different from that of election night. Adding to international tensions, Timothy Hallet, a U.S. citizen has been detained in Venezuela, accused of being an intelligence agent involved in a plan to destabilize the government, reports La Jornada. The U.S. State Department has declined to comment on the situation until it has obtained more information about Hallet’s activities in Venezuela.

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Beatification process to move forward for El Salvador’s slain Archbishop Romero

Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, the Vatican official leading efforts to canonize Archbishop Oscar Romero, said that the process has been “unblocked,” reports the Associated Press. The beatification had been stalled under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, due to the Vatican’s opposition to liberation theology. But, Pope Francis has shown a willingness to move forward with the process. According to La Prensa Gráfica, Salvadoran Monsignor Jesús Delgado claims to have had a conversation in 2007 with Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, in which Bergoglio expressed: “If I had been pope, the very first thing I would have done would be order Archbishop Romero’s beatification.”

Horacio Cartes elected president of Paraguay

Paraguay held its presidential election on Sunday to elect a new leader following the abrupt impeachment of former President Fernando Lugo in June, 2012. Horacio Cartes of the conservative Colorado party won the vote with 46%, reports Reuters.  When Cartes is sworn-in in August for a five-year term, it will mark the Colorado party’s return to power in Paraguay after a five-year break in its sixty-year reign.  The Pan-American Post and Bloggings by boz each provide a roundup of news coverage of the election, and the domestic and regional implications of Cartes’ victory.

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro has initiated steps for Venezuela and Paraguay to normalize diplomatic relations, mending the two countries’ ruptured relations following Lugo’s impeachment, reports MercoPress.

Representatives introduce “Countering ALBA Act”

Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) and Albio Sires (NJ-8) introduced a bill Thursday called the “Countering ALBA Act,” urging the OAS to take action against ALBA governments, whom they say are guilty of human rights abuses in their own countries.  The bill encourages President Obama to “stand with the people of ALBA nations” by imposing sanctions on those leaders determined to have been complicit in human rights violations.

Recommended Reading

Cuba: Reconnecting with an old friend, Daniel Whittle, Environmental Defense Fund

Dan Whittle tells a powerful story about the friendship between Hall of Fame Major League Pitcher Jim Bunning and Conrado Marrero, a Cuban-born pitcher who went to play for the Washington Senators in 1950. He writes, “A few weeks ago, I met Connie Marrero at his home in Havana. He was almost 102, and though frail, blind, hard of hearing and no longer throwing a slider, Connie was excited to hear news of his old friend.  He reminisced about playing with Bunning and against Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and other legends. When I told him that Bunning gave him credit for changing his game, he just smiled. I told that story in Tampa as a reminder that U.S.–Cuba relations were once as close as the sliver of saltwater that separates the two nations, and should be so again.”

Special Feature: Along the Malecón: USAID may slash Cuba program, while Office of Cuba Broadcasting carries on as usual

Investigative journalist Tracey Eaton reports on USAID’s proposal to cut funding to its Cuba program, as Senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio called the cuts “out of proportion.”  But even as USAID proposes cuts to its Cuba budget, U.S. taxpayer dollars continue to fund the Office of Cuba Broadcasting’s regime change programs, carried out by “unnamed contractors.”

What the Beyoncé and Jay-Z Cuba uproar teaches us, Luis A. Pérez Jr., Kansas City Star

Luis Pérez Jr. reflects on the recent uproar over Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s recent trip to Cuba, arguing that the time has come for the United States to discard official pretexts and government permission requirements for Cuba travel, and allow all Americans to travel freely to Cuba.

Take Cuba off terror list, George Strain, The Advocate

Professor George Strain writes a letter to the editor at The Advocate, asking why the United States seems unable to remove Cuba from its list of State Sponsors of Terror. He notes that keeping Cuba on the list undermines the credibility of the list itself, as well as the United States’ standing in the region.

The Latin America Working Group (LAWG) delivered a petition of over 8,000 signatures to the State Department today, asking Secretary Kerry to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

The Bay of Pigs and Chronic Hubris, Manuel Gómez, CounterPunch

CDA board member Manuel Gómez reflects on the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion and its place in the history of U.S.-Cuba relations, not as an aberration, but as illustrative of a well-established pattern of the U.S.’s long-held preference for “regime change” policies toward Cuba rather than diplomacy.

How Cuban Villagers Learned They Descended From Sierra Leone Slaves, Emma Christopher, The Atlantic

Filmmaker Emma Christopher investigates a connection caused by the slave trade between members of a small community in Cuba and a tribe in Sierra Leone. Taking note of the similarities in the traditional dances of both groups, she investigates the link to discover that the community in Cuba descends directly from Sierra Leone. The West African tribe, seeing their distinct and local culture alive in Cuba, invited members of Perico, Cuba to visit and rediscover their roots.

The forgotten terrorists of Miami, Vivian Mannerud, Cuba Standard

Vivian Mannerud, owner of the Cuba travel agency Airline Brokers, whose Coral-Gable offices were firebombed a year ago tomorrow, reflects on acts of domestic terror, and the country’s response to last week’s bombing in Boston.

Guatemala in the arc of history, Emma Stodder, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Emma Stodder, CDA’s Stephen M. Rivers Memorial Intern, writes on Guatemala’s trial proceedings against former dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt, which were held up by a number of chaotic judicial pronouncements this week. The search for justice continues, and although trial proceedings are now in question, she reflects that the trial itself is regionally groundbreaking, paving the way for future trials against human rights abusers.

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