Holiday Edition: Memorial Day, Obama, and Cuba

Dear Friends:

This weekend in the U.S., we celebrate Memorial Day.  Started in 1868, following the Civil War,  this holiday has served as an annual remembrance of the nation’s war dead.  Flowers and American flags are placed at grave sites of service members who were casualties in the nation’s wars.  It was first called “Decoration Day.”

President Barack Obama spoke on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend at the National War College on U.S. counter-terrorism strategy.

The speech, available in full here, is summarized in a New York Times editorial The End of the Perpetual War, which reads in part:

For the first time, a president stated clearly and unequivocally that the state of perpetual warfare that began nearly 12 years ago is unsustainable for a democracy and must come to an end in the not-too-distant future.

Of course, no counter-terrorism speech by a U.S. president, even one about dismantling some of the dangerous policies his administration inherited from its predecessor, would be complete without a list of interventions, swords and ploughshares, which will remain active parts of U.S. foreign policy going forward.

But, of critical interest to us, Mr. Obama also said the following:

  • Now is the moment to ask hard questions about the nature of today’s threats and how we should confront them, because what we do affects our standing in the world and our vital interests in the region.
  • He warned that “Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.”
  • He quoted James Madison, our fourth president, who said “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
  • Most of all, he defined the current threat as “lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates; threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad; homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism.”

Tellingly, in a speech that ran to nearly seven-thousand words and defined the future of counter-terrorism policy, President Obama never mentioned “Cuba”.  Not once.

And yet, this is the same President Obama who decided to keep Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list for the thirty-first consecutive year.  The same president who – we are now told – is excluding from entry into the United States some of Cuba’s most important scholars so they cannot attend a meeting of the Latin American Studies Association in Washington next week.  Some states of perpetual war, as George Orwell might have said, are more equal than others.

Just a year after Decoration Day was first celebrated, African-Americans in Baltimore turned out for a demonstration.  As the Baltimore Sun reported, “A procession including the Sons of Gideon, Lincoln Rangers and the Hannibal Club formed in downtown Baltimore and marched to the cemetery under the banner held aloft by Capt. William H. Butler that proclaimed, ‘Give us equal rights and we will protect ourselves.’”

By turning out to remind their city of the wartime sacrifices by all soldiers, black and white, they expressed their democratic faith in an effort to make their country better.

On the eve of this Memorial Day, we simply express the hope that when the subject of Cuba and the terror list next arises, President Obama will remember the remarks he delivered at a time when he set politics aside and apparently said what he actually believes.


U.S. reportedly to deny visas of Cuban scholars headed for LASA… again

As we went to press, a Cuban colleague wrote to us that the U.S. Interests Section in Havana had expressed its intention to deny visas to several Cuban scholars who planned to attend the International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, next week in Washington, D.C. Those individuals denied entry by the State Department include Milagros Martínez, Vice Rector of the University of Havana, and Rafael Hernández, director of the internationally respected Temas magazine.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that this has happened. Last year, eleven academics were similarly denied visas at the last minute, with a Washington Post editorial stating that “the reasons for the rejections are mysterious and mystifying. Of the 11, many are well known and internationally respected academics with long-standing ties to top American scholars. One is a former ambassador to the European Union.”

The reasoning behind this year’s denials is equally mystifying. What is certain is that the State Department’s denial of visas to Cuban academics, year after year, threatens the academic exchange enjoyed at LASA’s annual conference, and is inconsistent with what President Obama calls “the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends.”  During the Bush Administration, the exclusion of Cuban academics forced LASA to move its meeting elsewhere for several years, to the detriment of U.S. cities and businesses that missed the opportunity to host and provide services to the event, which convenes some 5,000 scholars each year.

Once again, these scholars will stare at empty chairs and name plates, instead of engaging with their Cuban counterparts in discussions that are unique to the community brought together by LASA – just the type of meaningful interactions that the U.S. should facilitate, not hinder.

U.S. diplomat interacts with blogger and tweeter gathering in Havana

Conrad Tribble, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, attended a street meet-up of Cuban bloggers and tweeters this week, many of whom hold critical views of the U.S. mission on the island, reports the Associated Press. The meeting was organized by a group of social media users who had once before held the informal gathering, organizing under the hashtag #TwittHab.

Tribble, who has served in Havana for nine months, has an active Twitter account through which he interacts with a number of Cuban users. His arrival prompted some mixed and surprising reactions, particularly given the demure approach he reportedly took, mostly listening to the exchanges taking place. He further explained his appearance in a response to a Cuban blogger here, writing “Dialogue, in spite of political or ideological differences, is essential to diplomacy.”

Some strong supporters of Cuba’s government criticized Tribble’s visit, while others thanked him for his participation, and encouraged further online discussion. Former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray wrote,

“Opening the doors to Mr. Tribble is an intelligent, courteous and appropriate step. The response cannot be silence. … If Mr. Tribble wants to know how we Cubans think about all trends and opinions; receiving and listening to him strengthens us, it does not weaken us.”

Josefina Vidal, Director of North American Department of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, meets with U.S. Department of State

Josefina Vidal, director of the North America Department of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, met with U.S. State Department officials to discuss bilateral issues during a trip this week to Washington, D.C., reports Café Fuerte. Included among the topics discussed were the status of Alan Gross, combatting drug trafficking, and environmental protection. Vidal also offered condolences to the United States for the deaths caused by the tornado in Oklahoma last week.

CANF offers scholarships to Cuban dissidents to study in the U.S.

The Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), once the epicenter of support for a hardline against the Castro government, has announced a program providing scholarships to Cuban youth on the island to study at U.S. universities, reports Martí Noticias. Jorge Mas Santos, CANF’s president, says that his organization has put up $500,000 to fund the program and has hired well-known dissidents Berta Soler and Guillermo Fariñas to travel the island as coordinators, establishing regional representatives.

In an effort to “empower dissident leaders” the two will also participate in choosing grantees. Although another of Mas Santos’s organizations has provided around 100 such scholarships since 1997, the CANF president says he is now working with U.S. government officials to institutionalize the project, which will be advertised on Radio Martí. A video report on the new program is available here.

Oregon University System begins travel to Cuba program

Next month, 15 students from three universities in the Oregon University System will travel to Cuba for the first time as part of a new study abroad program, reports Oregon University newspaper The Daily Barometer. In preparation for the trip, the students will take a course dedicated to Cuban society and culture through film. Once on the island, students will be enrolled in courses on different themes, such as education and health care, in addition to seeing and meeting Cubans working in those respective fields.


Cuba lifts import restrictions on high wattage appliances

Cuba’s General Customs Office has published a resolution, effective immediately, that lifts previous restrictions on the importation of high wattage appliances, reports Cuba Standard. In 2005, then-president Fidel Castro banned such imports as a part of the “energy revolution,” a campaign targeted at reducing energy consumption, which also saw the replacement of old refrigerators and air conditioning units, and the introduction of energy-efficient light bulbs.

According to the new regulations, travelers may import appliances to Cuba as long as the imports are not commercial, and fall within new limits: each traveler may carry up to two AC units with a capacity under one ton; two electric stoves or ovens with a consumption of under 1,500 watts; two microwaves with consumption under 2,000 watts; and up to two electric water heaters, shower heads, deep fryers, irons and toasters. Such appliances are in high demand in Cuba as many citizens are starting small businesses, such as restaurants, food carts and beauty shops.

Amnesty International releases annual human rights report

Amnesty International has released its “State of the World 2013” report, an annual review of the status of human rights in 155 countries and territories. Its summary on Cuba states: “Repression of independent journalists, opposition leaders and human rights activists increased. There were reports of an average of 400 short-term arrests each month and activists traveling from the provinces to Havana were frequently detained. Prisoners of conscience continued to be sentenced on trumped-up charges or held in pre-trial detention.”

The report says that seven new “prisoners of conscience” were adopted by the organization during the year; three of those were released without charge. The report also notes, as it has in previous years, that the U.S. embargo has had a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of Cubans, as reported by the WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and other UN agencies.

IRI poll finds Cubans more optimistic about economic outlook

The International Republican Institute has released the results of a survey conducted in Cuba from January 20 – February 20 of this year, reports the Miami Herald. According to the survey, Cubans are more optimistic about their economic future, with 45% of respondents saying that they believed their family’s economic situation would improve in the next twelve months and 35% saying it would stay the same. Last year, only 27% of respondents had expected improvements, and 58% expected no change. In addition to questions about the economy, the Cubans surveyed answered questions about the government, remittances, and the Internet, among others. The Herald also reported that Cubans in large majorities favor direct elections of their president and say the government is repressive. The IRI does not release details about its sampling methodology, but the report says that 688 adults from 14 provinces were surveyed.

Tornado hits town in central Cuba

A tornado hit the town of Potrerillo in the central province of Sancti Spíritus yesterday, damaging 39 homes, two of which were destroyed beyond repair, reports El País. No fatalities were reported. Cuba’s official hurricane season begins on June 1st and lasts until November 30th. Last year, two hurricanes – Isaac and Sandy – caused extensive damage in the eastern zones of the island.


Corruption trial against Canadian businessman begins

The closed trial of Canadian businessman Sarkis Yacoubian began on Thursday, reports Reuters. Yacoubian, owner of the import firm Tri-Star Caribbean, confessed that he began bribing Cuban officials while working for the Tokmajian Group, which recently had its operating license in Cuba revoked. Upon founding Tri-Star Caribbean, he said he continued the practice. Canada’s Ambassador to Cuba, Matthew Levin, attended the trial, reports Reuters. The prosecution of corrupt foreign executives, part of President Raúl Castro’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign, is expected to continue with additional trials against at least three more Canadian and British business executives arrested last year. These proceedings are unusual; in the past, foreign businessmen suspected of corruption were typically deported.

Fiber-optic cable from Cuba to Jamaica activated

A fiber-optic cable that connects Cuba to Jamaica is now active, reports the Miami Herald. The connection will provide Cuba with greater bandwidth and supply back-up if the island’s recently-activated connection to Venezuela has problems. Additional details are provided by the Internet analysis firm Renesys’ blog, here. In order for many Cubans to access the Internet, significant improvements in Cuba’s national telecom infrastructure are needed, reports the Associated Press. But, Doug Madory of Renesys notes, “From a technical standpoint, these are good steps to increase their connectivity to the world and hopefully one day get off of satellite.”

Around the Region

Reversal in Ríos Montt conviction and sentence

On Monday, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned the recent conviction of Efraín Ríos Montt, the country’s former military dictator, reports the Los Angeles Times. Ríos Montt’s conviction for the genocide of over 1,700 Ixil Maya had represented the first time in history that a country’s court held a former leader accountable for crimes against humanity.  Ríos Montt’s trial will now revert to where it stood on April 19, before it was briefly reversed by a lower judge over a technical issue with Ríos Montt’s defense. The Pan American Post writes that while the reversal represents a setback, it takes the trial back to a date when much of the evidence had already been presented and predicts that, given the testimony, a different outcome is unlikely. Kate Doyle in The Nation says the reversal is a continuation of attempts to delay and derail the trial by Ríos Montt’s allies.

On Friday the 24th, protests were called in Guatemala in solidarity with the victims of genocide and to condemn impunity, reports Proceso Digital. In support, human rights organizations in Argentina, Mexico, Honduras, Peru, and Nicaragua will hold simultaneous rallies.

Honduras: reports of police death squads continue

Disappearances and killings of gang members shortly after run-ins with the Honduran national police continue, reports the Associated Press. During an interview, Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield defended U.S. support to Honduras’ national police, stating:

“The option is that if we don’t work with the police, we have to work with the armed forces, which almost everyone accepts to be worse than the police in terms of the mission of policing, or communities take matters in their own hands. In other words, the law of the jungle, in which there are no police and where every citizen is armed and ready to mete out justice…These are the three options, and although the National Police may have its defects at the moment, it is the lesser evil of the three available options.”

Meanwhile, the report cites Alba Mejía, Deputy Director of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, which has documented hundreds of cases of death squad-style killings since 2000, saying: “We are convinced that there is a government policy of killing gang members and that there is a team dedicated to this activity.” Earlier reporting by the Associated Press on this story can be found here.

Recommended Reading

What I learned in Cuba, Rep. Kathy Castor, Tampa Bay Times

U.S. Representative Kathy Castor (FL-14) outlines what she learned in her recent fact-finding trip to the island with the Center for Democracy in the Americas, commenting on the potential benefits of engagement between the U.S. and Cuba, including for her district of Tampa. She discusses her encounters with cuentapropistas, government officials and other Cubans, concluding that Cuba “has instituted significant changes to its economy.” Rep. Castor uses the recent example of cooperation by Cuba’s government in the two kidnapped U.S. children to show normalizing relations would benefit both countries.

Pro-normalization group honors Tampa congresswoman, Cuba Standard

The Cuba Standard covers CDA’s decision to honor Congresswoman Kathy Castor at our annual event in June, writing, “In a first for U.S. politics, a Florida member of Congress is becoming a figurehead for the U.S. movement to normalize relations with Cuba.” CDA is honoring Rep. Castor for her courage in advocating for a modernization of U.S. policy toward Cuba, and for her work to position Tampa as a gateway to the island.

Gender Equality in Cuba: Is it Real?, Sheyla Hirshon, Havana Times

Sheyla Hirshon reviews CDA’s newest publication Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women building Cuba’s Future and calls it a fascinating and highly readable study of gender relations.  “More than just an academic study,” she writes, “the book is permeated with the authors’ obvious affection and admiration for Cuban women and their struggles.”

Cubans Visit their Ancestral Home in Africa, Emma Christopher, Havana Times

Emma Christopher, director of the soon-to-be released documentary They Are We, writes about the visit of four Cubans to their ancestor’s chiefdom in Sierra Leone. Divided by the transatlantic slave trade over 180 years ago, but connected in tradition and culture, the arrival of the Cubans to the Upper Banta chiefdom was met with tears, drums, dancing and singing in the shared but extinct Banta language. Despite the language barrier, Christopher notes, the Cuban visitors experienced daily village life and left the chiefdom after a week-long stay determined to stay in touch with their newfound family.

Foreign-investments reform, Roberto Veiga González, Progreso Weekly

Roberto Veiga González examines the government of Cuba’s delay in updating the Law on Foreign Investments, originally proposed in July 2012. He points out that the delay and secrecy involved in drafting the guidelines are inconsistent with President Raúl Castro’s criticisms of secrecy, and he calls for institutionalized mechanisms to be created to ensure widespread dialogue, arguing that public consensus would bestow legitimacy on the changes.

Cuba’s sugar mills get new lease of life, BBC

Sarah Rainsford of the BBC explores one town’s return to sugar milling after a seven-year hiatus. The town of Méjico has seen a “fresh buzz of activity,” with over 400 jobs created and new machines invested in place for the mill to re-open. However, Rainsford points out, many challenges remain as machine parts arrive late, young workers lack experience, and the pressure to reach production targets is high.

The Economist Explains: Why is playing golf a revolutionary pursuit in Cuba?, The Economist

A $350 million golf club, to be called the Carbonera Club, has been approved by the government of Cuba, and another golf course may be completed by the end of this year. The construction of these courses is significant; since the Revolution, no new golf courses have been built on the island. With Venezuela’s future less certain, the article points out, Cuba now more than ever must look to attract tourists.

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