La política no cabe en la azucarera

Last week, when we wrote about new legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to extinguish people-to-people travel to Cuba, we knew it was bad.

We write today with a greater urgency.  A deeper analysis of the proposal by Dawn Gable, CDA’s assistant director, demonstrates how far-reaching an effort to gut travel this amendment represents.  Moreover, the political climate has become more uncertain after the seizure of Cuban cargo hidden beneath brown sugar that may violate the UN arms embargo against North Korea.

First principles first:  We believe in engagement.  We believe that Cuba and the United States are trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of animosity and distrust because the two governments rarely talk and because both publics have historically been walled off from normal contact.  In the last five decades, both governments have circled each other suspiciously and bad conditions have often been made worse because of the absence of normal dialogue.

That is why we believe so strongly in the value of travel and engagement, because they bring people together, and why we are alarmed by efforts in the Congress to shut down people-to-people travel, stunt Cuban American family travel, and bury an already burdened government office under a mountain of paperwork which will hurt every day Cubans.

Dawn’s analysis highlights the trouble spots.  One provision of the Treasury Department budget bill ends people-to-people travel by defunding its licensing process.  The people-to-people program isn’t perfect and it only reaches a fraction of the U.S. citizens who are interested in visiting Cuba.  But, according to one estimate, more than 103,000 non-Cuban American visitors came to Cuba in 2012, and people-to-people travel made the overwhelming number of them possible.

Groups that sponsor travel including – colleges, museums, environmental groups, groups that do economic research and urban development groups, groups that support medical and other forms of cooperation, peace groups, and foreign policy groups – these and many others – would no longer have licenses to sponsor travel to Cuba.  The legislation would airmail us back to the travel ban days of President George W. Bush.

Wait, as the saying goes, it gets worse.  Today, Cuban American families can visit their relatives in Cuba as often as they wish and provide them unlimited financial support, also called “remittances.”  Family remittances help relatives make ends meet for the tight household budgets of Cuban families, and are increasingly feeding the growth of private sector businesses opened by every day Cubans under President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms.  The visits and the support do not require licenses or paperwork of any kind.

That would end.  If this bill became law, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) the agency inside Treasury charged with implementing U.S. trade sanctions would be required to report to Congress on “all family travel” as well as all travel involving the legal carrying of remittances to Cuba, including by family of USINT employees. The report would include: number of travelers; average duration of stay for each trip; average amount of U.S. dollars spent per traveler; number of return trips per year; and total sum of U.S. dollars spent collectively in each fiscal year.

OFAC could not compile the report without imposing new requirements on remittances provided by families and on remittances by Americans of all backgrounds to support new businesses or religious organizations or U.S. students studying legally in Cuba.  The only remittances that would not have to be reported would be those paid to Cuba’s political opposition.

To be clear, if you believe that Cuban Americans and all Americans should enjoy the right to travel to Cuba and support everyday Cubans financially, we ask that you heed calls for action by the Latin America Working Group (here) and the Fund for Reconciliation and Development (here) and urge Congress to oppose this bill and President Obama to promise he will veto it.

“A larger, slow-moving thaw,” as the Associated Press reported, had recently seemed to return to bilateral relations in recent weeks.  A member of the Cuban Five returned to the island for good.  Diplomats from both countries, as we report below, had easier times traveling.  Mail service talks took place last month; migrations talks took place this week.

After the North Korean vessel was seized in Panama this week, however, with 220,000 sacks of Cuban brown sugar piled atop a cache of weapons from Cuba, this pattern of progress is now at risk.  We report on this incident in detail later in the blast.

Unsurprisingly, supporters of sanctions on Cuba, its placement on the terror list, and ongoing efforts to overthrow the Cuban government reacted before the facts were in.  In her statement, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said, “I call on the Department of State to immediately cease its migration talks this week with the Cuban regime until it provides clear and coherent answers regarding this incident.”  She also joined several colleagues who wrote Secretary Kerry urging him to pour more sanctions on any country found to be violating the UN embargo.

Rather than gagging diplomacy, this seemed an appropriate time for the two countries to talk, and her demand was ignored by the Obama administration.   More to the point, the State Department refused to get ahead of the facts or to point fingers at Cuba, with Marie Harf, departmental spokeswoman saying, “I would underscore that the issue of the ship isn’t a U.S.-Cuba issue.”  As AFP reported, the UN took the same tack, stating “The Secretary-General awaits the outcome of the investigation into the matter in question and is sure the 1718 Security Council Sanctions Committee will promptly address it.”

Here, we end where we began.  We are heartened that the State Department called people-to-people travel in the national security interest of the U.S. just this afternoon.  Because, none of this will go any easier if this incident becomes a predicate for stopping Cuban Americans from visiting or supporting their families on the island, or cutting off educational travel; nor will we get to the bottom of it faster by cutting off diplomacy between the United States and Cuba.


Migration talks resume

After a two-year hiatus, migration talks between the United States and Cuba have reopened in Washington, reports Reuters.  Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, head of North American Affairs for the Cuban Foreign Ministry, and Alex Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, led a discussion of migration policy and other issues based on the 1994-95 U.S.-Cuba Migration Accords.

Following the talks, Cuba’s delegation issued a press statement that said the meeting took place “in a climate of respect,” but also stressed that human trafficking would not be eradicated, and legal, safe and orderly migration between the countries would not be achieved, as long as the wet foot/dry foot policy and the Cuban Adjustment Act, which encourage illegal migration and irregular entry, remain in force.

The delegation also offered evidence of action to refute Cuba’s designation as a Tier 3 country in the State Department’s Human Trafficking report.

“The Cuban delegation announced the ratification by the Government of Cuba of the Protocol against Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, which are both supplementary instruments of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.”

For its part, the U.S. delegation “ highlighted areas of successful cooperation in migration, including advances in aviation safety and visa processing, while also identifying actions needed to ensure that the goals of the Accords are fully met, especially those having to do with safeguarding the lives of intending immigrants.”

But echoing what the Department reported in its summary of the 2011 meeting, spokesperson Marie Harf said “The U.S. delegation reiterated its call for the immediate release of Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen imprisoned in Cuba since December 3, 2009,” and she restated the department’s official position that Gross was arrested “solely for trying to facilitate communications between Cuba’s citizens and the rest of the world.”

As investigative journalist Tracey Eaton has made clear in his analysis of numerous documents, including an affidavit from Alan Gross, the subcontractor’s actions under the USAID regime change program were far more extensive and known to be illegal under Cuban law.

Cuban, U.S. diplomats increasingly allowed to travel

Permission by both governments has increased in-country diplomatic travel and reflects progress in U.S.-Cuba relations, reports the Associated Press. Currently, Cuba’s representatives at the United Nations are not allowed to travel 25 miles beyond Columbus Circle in New York City, and the country’s envoys in Washington, D.C. must stay within the Beltway. However, last week, two of Cuba’s diplomats were allowed to travel to Miami to speak with business owners interested in taking advantage of increased business opportunities in Cuba, as well as with exiles in regards to travel reform. Wayne Smith, former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba, expressed surprise upon learning that the State Department had approved the travel, saying: “The State Department usually said no, but in this case, it was, ‘Yes.’ And I would say [in] a somewhat different tone. A more positive one.”

Tessie Aral, President of ABC Charters, Inc., a travel agency that arranges chartered flights to Cuba, said, “It’s always helpful to meet with officials of either government who can explain to us how we can better help our customers.”

In contrast, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) said it was inappropriate to allow Cuban officials to travel within the U.S. while USAID subcontractor Alan Gross is still incarcerated in Cuba. She stated, “While a U.S. citizen languishes in a Castro jail on trumped-up charges, the tyranny’s spies are allowed to visit Miami to further advance their espionage activities.”

People-to-people travel now by ship

Road Scholar, an educational travel group, has announced plans to take people-to-people trips to Cuba by boat rather than via charter flights, reports the Associated Press. The cruise ship will sail from both Jamaica and Miami, stopping at different locations to give travelers a full “Cuban” experience. As a result of President Obama’s 2011 resurrection of people-to-people cultural exchange licenses, there has been a marked increase in U.S. travel to Cuba. As we reported, this could cease if legislation before Congress becomes law.

International friendship baseball tournament begins

The Cuban national baseball team is in the U.S. for a series of games, sponsored by the International Baseball Federation, against the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, reports Cuban News Agency. According to the Des Moines Register, over a hundred MLB scouts were to attend the first game, which took place Thursday in Iowa, in which the home team won 2-1. Two nights before the exhibition game, a Cuban pitcher defected.

According to the Des Moines Register, the 24-year-old Southpaw has not presented himself to any U.S. officials and his whereabouts are unknown.

Canadian service dog training program results in U.S.-Cuba exchange

A Canadian graduate student’s project, which brings service dogs to Cuba to demonstrate how these dogs can help the disabled, has resulted in a scholarship for a Cuban student to study in training of such animals in California, according to a press release in Canada Newswire. Davis Hawn, a Masters student at Bergin University of Canine Studies, said his “Project Fidelity” was intended to thaw relations “between two Cold War adversaries” and to prove his thesis that “dogs are a social lubricant.” Beatriz Amparo Labrador de la Osa will be the first recipient of the scholarship.


“Obsolete” weaponry on North Korean ship detained in Panama Canal belongs to Cuba

On Tuesday, Panamanian authorities stopped and searched the North Korean ship Chong Chon Gang, finding what has been determined to be old weaponry, buried underneath a shipment of brown sugar, en route from Cuba to North Korea, reports the Associated Press. Cuba’s Foreign Ministry released a statement the same day:

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs wishes to inform that said vessel sailed from a Cuban port to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, mainly loaded with 10,000 Tons of sugar.

In addition, the above mentioned vessel transported 240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons –two anti-aircraft missile complexes Volga and Pechora, nine missiles in parts and spares, two Mig-21 Bis and 15 motors for this type of airplane, all of it manufactured in the mid-twentieth century– to be repaired and returned to Cuba.

The agreements subscribed by Cuba in this field are supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty.

The Republic of Cuba reiterates its firm and unwavering commitment with peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for International Law.

A spokesman from North Korea’s Foreign Ministry stated that the “cargo is nothing but aging weapons, which are to [be sent] back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract,” reports Reuters.

Phil Peters of the Cuba Research Center told Reuters, “Based on what we know, the military impact seems to be negligible. This material has nothing to do with the international community’s core concern about North Korea, which is nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.”

Nonetheless, the incident may indicate a violation of U.N. sanctions on North Korea, including the 2009 Security Council Resolution 1874, which intensified the weapons import-export ban imposed in 2006 with Security Council Resolution 1718. Accordingly, the U.N. Security Council will begin an investigation into the incident in early August, sending five U.N. investigators, including one from the Security Council, to Panama, reports Reuters.

Marie Harf, Deputy Spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, stated in a press briefing Thursday that “[The State Department is] not viewing this as a U.S.-Cuba issue; we’re viewing this as a potential violation of UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea.” Regarding this week’s migration talks between the U.S. and Cuba Harf stated, “we will work with [Cuba], like we did yesterday at the migration talks, on issues that are in our national security interests. That hasn’t changed.”

Several Members of Congress have weighed in. The Chairmen and Ranking Members of each Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee signed a letter urging Secretary of State John Kerry to dispatch the U.S. Mission to the U.N. in order to investigate the matter, and requested that a full report be made to Congress. Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) also wrote Sec. Kerry opining that the incident should prompt a rollback on eased restrictions on travel and remittances to the island, while Sen. Bob Menendez (NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, emphasized that the matter should be left to the U.N. Security Council, reports Reuters.


VP Díaz-Canel meets with Cuban Council of Churches

Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s First Vice President, held a meeting this week at the headquarters of the Cuban Council of Churches (CIC) with representatives from the Cuban Ecumenical Movement to discuss the role of religion on the island and the ways in which the state and religious institutions can cooperate, reports Granma. Granma notes that Díaz-Canel then met with members of the Cuban Pastoral Platform for the Release of The Five, and read a letter that the Platform plans to send to President Obama requesting the release of the four members of the Cuban Five still imprisoned in the U.S.

The Brookings Institution will host a panel on July 29 addressing “The Role of the Catholic Church in Cuba Today,” featuring Orlando Márquez Hidalgo, spokesman for the Church and Editor of Palabra Nueva, the magazine of the Archdiocese of Havana.

Around the Region

Venezuela’s President Maduro demands retraction of statement by Samantha Power

During her hearing before the U.S. Senate to become the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Samantha Power assured that if confirmed, she would fight repressive regimes and contest “the crackdown on civil society being carried out in countries like Cuba, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela.” This prompted Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro to call for a “correction” of what he called a “despicable” criticism of his government, reports Reuters.

Maduro, who has offered asylum to Edward Snowden, implied that Power’s statement was hypocritical, “Power says she’ll fight repression in Venezuela? What repression? There is repression in the United States, where they kill African-Americans with impunity, and where they hunt the youngster Edward Snowden just for telling the truth.”

Presidents Santos and Maduro to meet, hope to mend relations

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro will meet Monday on the Venezuela-Colombia border to conduct what President Santos referred to as “a full review of the status of bilateral relations,” reports AFP. Relations between the two countries have been strained following President Santos’ meeting with Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles in May, which prompted President Maduro to state that President Santos had “[broken] the rules of the game.”

President Maduro stated this week that he would attend the meeting “in good faith and good will,” with the goal of “the prosperity of the Colombian people and the Venezuelan people, because in the end we are all one people.”

ELN members surrender in Colombia

Thirty members of the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group, peacefully laid down their arms, a move that was warmly welcomed by President Juan Manuel Santos, reports Reuters. “This is what the [peace] process is about. So every member of the ELN and the FARC follows their path fighting for their ideals, but without violence and without arms,” Santos said. Included among the 30 ELN members were three pregnant women.

The ELN is looking to join the peace talks currently underway in Cuba between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Colombia’s government. Colombia’s government has maintained that in order for the ELN to join the talks, members must first surrender their weapons and release hostages.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has recently released a new website,, tracking developments in the ongoing peace negotiations.

Journalists and health care under fire in Honduras

After the charred and mutilated body of yet another Honduran journalist, talk show host Anibal Barrow, was discovered last week, Irina Bokova, Chief of UNESCO stated,

“I trust that the authorities will be able to bring to justice those responsible for this crime which undermines freedom of expression in Honduras and journalists’ ability to exercise their profession. Letting crimes against journalists go unpunished seriously undermines press freedom.”

Reporters Without Borders released a statement condemning Barrow’s death, pointing out that many of the Honduran journalists killed have been critical of the country’s 2009 military coup, and warning of the risk of increased violence during the upcoming elections. Barrow’s son, also named Anibal, is running for a seat in Congress this November as a Liberal Party candidate, reports the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, as reported in the Pan-American Post, problems persist within Honduras’ health system. Salvador Pineda, the new Health Minister, wants to privatize the country’s system for distributing medicine, reports El Heraldo. The former Health Minister, Roxana Araujo, resigned and later alleged that corrupt private interests were involved in the government’s drug purchases. The Pan American Post provides additional details here.

Recommended Reading

Cubans deal out the cards in the new game of be your own boss, Virginia López, The Guardian

Virginia López reports on how economic reforms in Cuba, specifically the expansion of cuentrapropismo, have affected the Cuban population. Those interviewed by López, including Alexey of the hip-hop group Obsesión, express eagerness for these changes but also were quick to note that “The Cuban people will never turn capitalist,” and recalled that race and socioeconomic status still pose barriers to participation in the changing economy.

Cuba’s ‘1 percent’ is not who you think it is, Michelle Caruso Cabrera, CNBC

Michelle Caruso Cabrera examines the unusual economic success of artists in Cuba. Art is one of the few things that tourists from the United States are allowed to take back with them, and Cuba’s government allows artists to keep their profits.

Management Jobs Elusive for Cuban Women, Ivet González, IPS

Ivet González investigates the lack of Cuban women in managerial positions in state-owned enterprises. Despite high levels of education, women face significant obstacles to attaining high-ranking positions due to the pressures of domestic work and discrimination in the workplace. Proponents of expanding access of management roles to women argue that changes such as gender training and “less masculinised management styles” must be comprehensively introduced in order for Cuban women to feel “economically empowered.”

The Center for Democracy in the Americas studied the history and future prospects for gender equality in Cuba in a report published in March 2013.  Such barriers to equality, including the lack of women in positions of power, can be learned about here.

Snowden’s Revelations Rile Latin America, American University Latin America Blog

The Center for Latin American and Latino Studies’ AULA Blog at American University examines the fallout resulting from revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden regarding U.S. surveillance programs in Latin America. Presidents from across the region have condemned the NSA spying programs. AULA notes that much of the rhetoric coming from both Latin America and the U.S. “cannot be helpful to…efforts to revive the Obama Administration’s stated goal of building ‘partnership’ in the region.”

Recommended Viewing

A Visit to Venezuela’s Indigenous University, Havana Times

Photojournalist Caridad takes a 14-hour bus ride followed by a long hike, camera equipment in tow, from Caracas to the village of Tauca in Bolívar state of Venezuela to capture images of members of the Yekwana tribe holding a semester-end celebration at the Indigenous University of Venezuela.

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