¡Tú tienes correo! Waiting decades to hear: you’ve got mail

On January 4, 1999, an article headlined “US to Allow More Contact With Cuba” crossed the Associated Press wire at 8:06pm:

“The Clinton administration plans to allow more contact between Americans and Cubans …a senior official disclosed Monday.  President Clinton also plans to approve the opening of direct mail service to the island…

“The senior official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said the measures are not intended to improve relations with the Cuban government, but to show support for the Cuban people.  She added that the U.S. embargo against Cuba, imposed 37 years ago, will remain in effect.

“Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the proposals are a mask to hide the administration’s ‘true intention of normalizing relations with the Cuban dictator.‘”

Then, fourteen years later, an article headlined “US, Cuba to resume talks on direct mail” crossed the Associated Press wire at 5:34pm:

“U.S. and Cuban diplomats and postal representatives will meet in Washington on Tuesday and Wednesday for technical talks aimed at ending a 50-year suspension in direct mail between the United States and the communist island.”

Despite the passage of time, another State Department spokeswoman was ready with a familiar-sounding caveat:

“The reason we’re doing this is because it’s, of course, good for the Cuban people. This is something we feel is good for us. But it’s not meant to be a signal of anything or indicate a change in policy.”

Recycling the talking points, just as the State Department did in 1999 and 2013, also worked for Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, who said:

“The regime is once again manipulating the US Administration in this game because it wants us to lift the embargo and make further concessions.”

Perhaps Lily Tomlin is right:  “Maybe if we listened to it, history would stop repeating itself.”

How did we get here?

The year was 1963.  It cost a nickel to send a letter by first class mail.  The U.S. and Cuba were living in the scorching heat of a Cold War.  Direct mail service was suspended, as the Washington Post noted, “the year the Kennedy administration tightened the trade embargo with Cuba and made all but a sliver of travel there illegal for American citizens.”

Decades passed, and “anyone wanting to send letters to the U.S. mainland from Cuba and vice-versa have had to do so via third-party countries.”

Periodically, when the U.S. made overtures about resuming mail service, as the Congressional Research Service has reported, Cuba’s government responded “by maintaining that the two countries would need to enter into a civil aviation agreement.”  Thanks to the U.S. embargo, the only scheduled airline travel between Cuba and the U.S. takes place through charter activity that relies only on U.S. companies.  Cuban commercial aviation is not welcomed in the U.S.

In 1992, when the U.S. Congress enacted The Cuban Democracy Act, which toughened and codified anti-Cuba sanctions, it also ordered the U.S. Postal Service to “take such actions as are necessary to provide direct mail service to and from Cuba, including, in the absence of common carrier service between the two countries, the use of charter service providers.”  But, neither the Bush (41) nor the Clinton Administration got the job done.

An agreement between the U.S. and Cuba in 2009 restarted the mail via third countries, a process imposing delays of weeks or months before letters are delivered.  In the wake of a parcel bomb terror threat from Yemen, Cuba halted some deliveries because new security screenings meant that “large amounts of mail were refused entry (into the U.S.) and returned to (Cuba) in the following months.”

This week, the two governments tried again.  As the Washington Times reported, “José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez, the chief of mission at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, and Lea Emerson, the U.S. Postal Service‘s director of international postal affairs” sat down in Washington this week to discuss delivering the mail.

The Cubans called the talks “fruitful,” but raised a familiar refrain in the press statement they issued at their conclusion:

“The Cuban delegation emphasized the fact that it would not be possible to implement a stable, quality and safe postal service based on the principles and standards established by the Universal Postal Union both countries are members of, as long as the obstacles resulting from the blockade policy imposed by the United States Government against Cuba are not removed.”

Even this was too much for the hardliners.  One critic looked past the humanitarian appeal of direct mail service and saw a sinister plot to bailout the U.S. Postal Service budget (no, really).  Connecting the dots – recent decisions to grant a visa to a top Cuban diplomat for talks at the State Department, the mail negotiations, and new talks on migration set for July 17th – Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said, ” It’s concession after concession from the Obama administration.”

This reaction is not just misplaced, it’s odd.  Time and again, hardliners say the Cuban government maintains “an information blockade” against its people.  Yet, when offered real changes to open up trade and travel, or resume the direct delivery of the mail – actions that could really spur a two-way exchange of information and ideas – they won’t hear about it.

This isn’t about concessions; it’s about contact.  If we ever plan on bringing this Cold War-era conflict to an end, Cuba and the United States need to talk to each other.

The mail talks are a decent place to start.  As Dr. Phil Brenner, professor of international relations at American University, a CDA board member and Cuba scholar told us:

“The consequences of the talks themselves will not bring major changes — fewer people every day use snail mail for communication…[But] the Obama Administration is shifting the framework of US policy, from merely reacting to Cuban actions to a positive policy that focuses on engaging Cuba in ways that can serve U.S. interests.”

Such a shift is long overdue.  We can’t wait to read the AP headline about that.

This week, in Cuba news…


U.S. and Cuba to restart migration talks this July

Migration talks between Cuba and the U.S., halted for more than two years, will resume this summer, with delegations from the U.S. State Department and Cuba’s Foreign Ministry planning to meet on July 17thin Washington, D.C., reports the AP.

Following the last meeting, held in January 2011 in Havana, Philip Crowley, then-Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, released a statement which said that “the agenda for the talks reflected long standing U.S. priorities on Cuba migration issues,” and that the U.S. delegation had called for the immediate release of Alan Gross.

Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, stated that “whether it’s migration or conversations about direct mail, engagement is the right direction. Those who want relations to remain paralyzed can’t stand the idea of treating Cuba as a sovereign nation, and prefer the fiction that if we don’t talk, one day Cuba will be transformed into the system that they want.”

William Ostick, State Department spokesman, explained the decision to restart the talks as consistent with U.S. foreign policy saying, “Continuing to ensure secure migration between the U.S. and Cuba is consistent with our interests in promoting greater freedoms and increased respect for human rights in Cuba.”

U.S. State Department report on human trafficking rates Cuba among worst offenders

The U.S. Department of State released its annual report on human trafficking, designating Cuba as a “Tier 3” country, the worst rating issued for noncompliance with the State Department’s recommended measures for eradicating human trafficking, outlined in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).  Each report since 2006 has identified Cuba as a Tier 3 country.

The report calls Cuba a “source country for adults and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor,” and says “child prostitution and child sex tourism reportedly occur within Cuba.” The report also concludes that Cuba’s government has not divulged sufficient information about measures it takes to prevent human trafficking.

Josefina Vidal, Director of the North American Department at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, issued a statement rejecting the report and declared that “Cuba is not a source, transit or destination country for human trafficking.”

Paul Haven of the AP noted that, like Cuba’s continued designation as a State Sponsor of Terror, the State Department’s identification of Cuba as a Tier 3 country will likely impede efforts to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations.

Penalties for Tier 3 countries include the imposition of sanctions (which, in Cuba’s case, are already in place), and “U.S. opposition to assistance from international financial institutions” including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The President may override “all or part of” the sanctions or the prohibition of assistance if he determines that such measures would be in the U.S.’s national interest or if the measures would cause “significant adverse effects on vulnerable populations, including women and children,” according to the report.

Cuban dissidents Guillermo Fariñas and Elizardo Sánchez will travel to D.C.

Guillermo Fariñas and Elizardo Sánchez, two well-known members of the Cuban opposition, will travel to D.C. next week and speak at an event organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Sánchez is the president of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission, while Fariñas, a psychologist and independent journalist, has held more than twenty hunger strikes for various protests against Cuba’s government. Since Cuba took action and relaxed restrictions in January on the rights of most Cubans to travel, a steady stream of dissidents have made trips to the U.S., Europe and Latin America.


Cuba experiences slight decline in tourism in 2013

Statistics released by Cuba’s National Statistics Office indicate that in the first quarter of 2013, the island has seen a 1.4% decline in tourism compared to the same period last year, reports Cuba Standard. The drop can largely be attributed to smaller numbers traveling from the U.S. and from European countries that are currently enduring economic hardships. Tourism from the U.S. dropped 13.4%, which Johannes Werner, editor of the Cuba Standard business journal, speculates could be due to a “[flattening] out” of an initial wave of interest in travel following President Obama’s easing of travel restrictions in 2009 and2011, reports the Miami Herald. The greatest drop was a 39.5% fall in tourism from Spain, where unemployment reached 26.8% this April. Tourism is a significant source of income for Cuba, and the government has recently focused on efforts to diversify options for visitors, including the construction of several upscale resorts.

Wholesale produce market run by non-state cooperative to open July 1

A wholesale produce market to be run by a non-state cooperative, the first of its kind in Cuba, will open July 1, reports Reuters. The market site will be owned by the state, but leased to the cooperative that, according to state media, will run the market “on the basis of supply and demand.” The opening marks the initiation of a still-developing system of produce sales to be implemented in Havana, as well as in Artemisa and Mayabeque provinces.

In the next several months, approximately 200 additional wholesale markets for various products, all to be under non-state cooperative operation, will open on the island. The government has also licensed non-state sector truckers and vendors as part of ongoing economic reforms. About 400,000 people currently estimated to be working in Cuba’s non-state sector, according to the article.

Cuba makes economic reform information available online

Cuba’s government will launch a website that will publish laws and policies relating to the island’s economic reforms, reports Cuba Standard.  Marino Murillo, one of Cuba’s vice presidents and the designated leader of the reform process, described the goals of the website: “What we will do now is prepare a site where each policy and all regulations can be found, in order to make it easier to understand.” Though these documents are currently available to the public, the new website will compile information to facilitate access. This announcement comes just weeks after the government opened 118 new Internet centersaround the country that charge 1 CUC per hour for national sites and 4 CUC per hour for international browsing.

Cuba to build biomass power plant

Cuba is planning the construction of a biomass power plant in the province of Matanzas that will be fueled by the byproducts of sugar productionreports Cuba Standard. The plant will be built with Chinese technology and technical support and will cost an estimated $60 million. It will be the second such plant on the island; last November, Cuba’s government announced approval of another mill to be built as a joint venture with a British company in the Ciego de Ávila province.

The plants are a part of the government’s policy of increasing the share of renewable energy resources to 16.5% of total energy consumption by the year 2020. Other projects includes solar and wind farms, as well as plans to increase hydropower capacity.


Canadian businessman gets nine year prison term

Sarkis Yacoubian, the Canadian businessman who was recently convicted of corruption in the Havana Criminal Court, has been sentenced to nine years in prison, reports the Toronto Star.  Yacoubian’s family stated that while they do not plan to appeal the ruling, they will work with Yacoubian’s lawyers to allow him to serve out his prison sentence in Canada through the prisoner transfer treaty that has existed between the two countries since 1999.  During the trial last month, 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, and continued the practice after founding Tri-Star Caribbean.

An anonymous source told Reuters that British businessmen Amado Fakhre and Stephen Purvis, held on corruption charges since October 2011 and March 2012, respectively, were found guilty of minor charges and released on time served. A trial date has not yet been set for Cy Tokmakjian, the owner of Canadian trading company Tokmakjian Group, who was taken into custody in September 2011, when his firm was raided and closed. These high-profile cases involving foreign businessmen are a part of the government’s crackdown on corruption, and depart from the practice of deporting foreign nationals suspected of corruption, rather than initiating trial proceedings.

Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s number two, visits China and Vietnam

Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s First Vice President, traveled to China and Vietnam this week, and is scheduled to continue his trip with a visit to Laos, Cuba Standard reports.  In China, he and China’s President Xi Jinping pledged to increase bilateral cooperation between the two countries.  In a meeting with China’s Vice President Li Yuanchao, Díaz-Canel witnessed the signing of three accords for a monetary donation to Cuba, an interest-free loan, and for credit to be used by Cuba when purchasing agricultural equipment in China.  While in Vietnam, Díaz-Canel toured the country’s High-Technology Agricultural Zone as well as the Tan Thuan export manufacturing zone.

Around the Region

U.S. Senators inquire into the accountability of aid to Honduras

On Tuesday, Senator Benjamin Cardin (MD) announced that he and 20 other senators had sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, requesting an investigation into the use of U.S. aid as it relates to human rights abuses in Honduras, reports the Associated Press. Citing reports of death squads and political oppression, the senators seek to ensure that U.S. assistance is not being given to those committing human rights abuses.

Honduras has taken “very limited” steps in the recognition of human rights violations that occurred after the 2009 military coup, reports Human Rights Watch. In the past, U.S. officials have assured the public that the recipients of foreign aid are thoroughly vetted; however, all police units are run by Director General Juan Carlos Bonilla, who has personally been accused of violations, as the AP highlights.

At a press briefing, the State Department responded by reaffirming confidence in its support, affirming, “We continue to support the government’s efforts to reform and professionalize the Honduran National Police, which is an effort to kind of address a number of the concerns they (the senators) raised that we agree with.”

Recommended Reading

Norway’s Foreign Policy in the Americas: A Better Way Forward?, Kevin Edmonds, NACLA

Kevin Edmonds explains some of the progressive practices that Norway has undertaken in Latin America. He highlights their support for Cuba’s medical efforts in Haiti as well as Norway’s role in the peace process in Columbia. Edmonds suggests that a new approach, based on engagement, is possible and is being demonstrated by Norway.

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