Is it a Plane? Is it a Paddleboard? Or is it Grounded?

Today, we consider Cuba policy from the sky, sea, dry land, and through the eyes of a friend.

In the sky:  Congress fled Washington this week without getting much done on the federal budget.  So, this was a well-timed moment for John Hudson, national security correspondent for The Cable, to start his essay “Anti-Cuba effort deserves to die,” with the following:

“It’s difficult to find a more wasteful government program. For the last six years, the U.S. government has spent more than $24 million to fly a plane around Cuba and beam American-sponsored TV programming to the island’s inhabitants. But every day the plane flies, the government in Havana jams its broadcast signal. Few, if any, Cubans can see what it broadcasts.”

Hudson notes that U.S. taxpayers have shelled out over a half-billion dollars to fund programming by Radio and TV Martí since 1985. The Martís were launched as part of the U.S. government’s on-going efforts to overthrow the Cuban government or, as the State Department’s Inspector-General wrote in 2007, to “Undermine the regime’s ‘succession strategy’.”

Unsurprisingly, the Cuban government jammed the signal from the get-go.  But, this didn’t daunt our policymakers.  After failing to overcome Cuba’s disruption of the signal by floating a blimp over the island, they moved to transmitting signals from airborne platforms flying under the banner of AeroMartí.  Since 2006, the government has owned up to spending at least $5.9 million annually to get the Martí’s broadcast content, still jammed by Cuba, to its intended audience.  So far, no such luck.

Ironically, Aero Martí is stuck at its base in Georgia due to the budget cuts – known in Washington speak as “sequestration” – which the gridlocked Congress couldn’t undo before it left on vacation.  You can see a picture of the plane here.  As we report in the blast below, even the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Martís overseers, want to kill the program.  But, Hudson says Sen. Robert Menendez (NJ) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (FL-27) are forcing the boondoggle to continue.

Before leaving town, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen issued a statement announcing her support for unrelated legislation, The Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but said nothing about taxpayers’ rights or saving money by grounding permanently AeroMartí.

On the sea: By the time you read this, we’ll know the fate of Benjamin Schiller Friberg.  Thursday evening, the thirty-five year-old surfer jumped into the water in the Martína Hemingway with a paddleboard aiming to cross the Florida Strait from Cuba to Key West.

Before departing Cuba, he explained why he was taking his risky voyage, “this trip is to promote peace, love and friendship between the peoples of Cuba and of United States, as well as a healthy lifestyle.”

We can only imagine how disdainful the embargo supporters must be – the ones who hold AeroMartí aloft –of a surfer seeking peace and love by traveling across the same waters that Cuban rafters have navigated seeking new lives in the United States.

We hope he reaches his goal safely. Even more, we hope people hear the message he’s sending.  Every day, we read stories (like this one by Jeff Franks of Reuters) about how people-to-people travelers jump through hoops, and carefully observe excessive government regulations, just to visit Cuba. They must do so because our government’s policy is based on the misguided premise of objecting to restrictions placed on Cubans by limiting the freedom of our fellow citizens to visit them.

Every surfboard, every trip like the one taken by Beyonce and Jay-Z, every effort by U.S. scientists to overcome obstacles to work with Cuban counterparts on projects that reflect U.S. interests – these are all reminders that there is much to be gained by promoting cooperation between like-minded Cubans and U.S. visitors, and our government shouldn’t be standing in the way of engagement between them.

On land: At least, President Obama has both feet on the ground when it comes to encouraging contact. Yes, he enforces the embargo with astonishing zeal, and keeps signing budgets that fund the Cold War-style regime change programs.  But, he also clearly gets how good policy can help every day Cubans by promoting two-way travel.

After acting in 2009 to allow unlimited family travel by Cuban Americans, and in 2011 to restore people-to-people contacts, this week his administration expanded opportunities for Cubans to visit our country.  As the Miami Herald explained, the president used his executive authority to “make non-immigrant visas valid for five years instead of the current six months, and good for multiple entries.

“Now, eligible Cubans will be able to visit South Florida — or anywhere in the United States — for the holidays, return for a family wedding or come to tend to a sick relative without applying in person for a new visa each time.”

As the State Department explained it, “this is part of our broader policy to increase people-to-people ties between Americans and Cubans, to increase communications with the Cuban people, to promote openness.”

This approach is far better than the loopy policy of transmitting signals from planes flying figure eights over the island, and offers a more permanent solution than piloting a surfboard across the Florida Strait, so we hope the president keeps at it.

Our Friend: We’re unabashed admirers of Saul Landau.  He’s been in the thick of the reporting and analysis on Cuba and Latin America, often exposing the tragic realities of U.S. policy toward the region, for decades.  In the course of a passionate and productive life, his candid explorations of our nation’s history have educated generations and earned him the respect of journalists and the human rights community.  He’s not feeling so well these days, and we hope today’s blast – like the others before it – gave him as much joy as his work has made us think.  And we’re thinking of him, right now.


Multiple-entry visas now available to Cubans

Cubans traveling to the U.S. as visitors are now eligible for multiple-entry visas good for five years, reports the Associated Press. The change, from single-entry visas valid for six months, will make it easier for Cubans to travel to the U.S. and alleviate some of the costs of traveling here frequently. Marie Harf, Deputy State Department spokesperson,expressed the Administration’s goals in the policy change:

“[The administration believes] it increases people-to-people flow that’s really key to promoting civil society, to promoting democratization on the island.”

The change comes two weeks after direct migration talks in Washington between the two countries, but Harf explained that the policy change is not related to the talks.

Granma reported a significant increase in the number of U.S. non-immigrant visas issued to Cubans during the first half of 2013, up by 79% from last year during the same period of time, reports the Associated Press. This past January, Cuba’s government eliminated exit visa requirements, removing a major obstacle for Cubans wanting to travel abroad.

People-to-people by boat canceled

Following a July 18th announcement by Road Scholar, the educational travel company, that it would offer people-to-people travel to Cuba by boat, the company received an amended copy of its people-to-people license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, prohibiting travel to Cuba by boat, reports the Associated Press. Road Scholar released excerpts from its new license that state, “Travel to and from Cuba, whether originating or terminating in the United States or a third country, may not be aboard a vessel.” With this news, Road Scholar was forced to cancel its sea voyages to Cuba, but will continue its charter flight-based programs.

Broadcasting Board of Governors requests that Congress eliminate funding for AeroMartí

In its budget request for Financial Year 2014, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has requested that Congress eliminate funding for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting’s AeroMartí program, reports John Hudson for The Cable in Foreign Policy. The BBG notes that “the signal is heavily jammed by the Cuban government; significantly limiting this platform’s reach, and impact on the island.” Indeed, a 2010 study requested by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations found the broadcasts reached a minimal audience in Cuba, while the Government Accountability Office found Radio and TV Martí to be lax in their “adherence to certain journalistic standards.”

The Cable reports that for the past two years the BBG has asked Congress to decommission AeroMartí, though the requests were not granted. Regarding the AeroMartí program, Sen. Jeff Flake (AZ) told The Cable, “It’s hard to believe that we are still wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on beaming a jammed TV signal – that fewer than 1 percent of Cubans can see – from an airplane to the island.”

U.S. Senate: scientific exchange with Cuba important

Two U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittees included language in their Fiscal Year 2014 bills to facilitate cooperation between Cuban and U.S. scientists and professionals in the areas of “disaster prevention, emergency preparedness, and natural resource protection, including for fisheries, coral reefs, and migratory species.”

The bill funding Foreign Operations directs the Secretary of State to work the Treasury and Commerce Departments to “foster engagement,” while the Financial Services bill is more specific, instructing the Secretary of Treasury to draw up regulations to establish a general license for travel to Cuba for research, meetings, and conferences related to these environmentally related topics.

By contrast, the House Appropriations Committee’s version of the Financial Services bill would pull Cuba policy in the opposite direction by eliminating people-to-people travel and establishing extraordinary reporting requirements for travel and remittances to Cuba by Cuban Americans, as we reported last week.


Report shows Cuba’s overall agricultural production lags

After more than five years of efforts to reform its agricultural sector, Cuba’s government reported little progress in 2012, reports Reuters. Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI) reports that while there has been a 50% increase in rice production, a 28% increase in bean production, and an 8% increase in milk production, the rest of Cuba’s agriculture sector has stagnated. Cuba’s government now spends around $2 billion annually to import 60% of the food that is consumed on the island, down approximately 10% from 2011.

Cuba’s government has been implementing reforms to decentralize the country’s food production system. Recent changes have been aimed at promoting cooperatives, expanding non-state farmer’s markets, and establishing non-state wholesale markets. On Isla de la Juventud a pilot program is planned in which farmers will directly purchase inputs.

Cuba reports highest emigration levels since 1994

Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI) released a report this week showing that 2012 saw the country’s highest emigration rate since 1994, reports Reuters. Last year, 46,662 Cubans left the country permanently, topping the last five years’ average rate of about 39,000 people emigrating annually. In 1994, 47,000 people left Cuba. The figures reported for the last five years reflect the highest emigration rates over a five-year period since the first years of the Revolution.


Russians send navy ships to Havana

Three Russian warships have arrived in Havana, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. Greeted Friday by Cuba’s Navy Band, the ships will remain docked in Havana until December 23.

This is the first such visit since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

A Russian official stated, “the main goal of the visit is the development of relations of cooperation between the Russian navy and the Cuban navy, as well as of ties of friendship.” The visit to Cuba follows recent joint exercises with Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Venezuela’s president meets with former president Castro

CubaDebate released photos of Saturday’s meeting between Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro and former President Fidel Castro, who rarely poses for the media these days. The meeting, which Maduro deemed as “a historic reunion,” took place during the 60th anniversary of the assault on the Moncada Barracks, viewed historically as the spark of the Cuban Revolution.

Around the Region

El Salvador Update: July, 2013, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

This month’s El Salvador Update features detailed analysis on the country’s fragile yet continuing gang truce and peace process, with additional information on aid and security developments, election campaigning, and controversial decisions handed down by El Salvador’s Supreme Court. Filmed interviews with gang truce leaders from a recent CDA trip to El Salvador can be found here. If you would like to receive CDA’s Monthly El Salvador Update via email, please contact:

Four Honduran police officers found guilty in death of Rafael Vargas, son of Julieta Castellanos

A tribunal has sentenced four police officers in the 2011 death of Rafael Vargas, the son of Honduras National Autonomous University Rector Dr. Julieta Castellanos, and his friend Carlos Pineda, reports the Associated Press. While two officers were found guilty of firing the shots that killed the college students, the other two officers were found to be the intellectual authors of his murder. After the sentences were handed down, Proceso Digital reports that Dr. Castellanos stated:

“What needed to be done has been done. We asked for justice, and we spent a lot of time and energy gathering proof. (…) We will continue, there is leadership in the police that […] that is also responsible, a leadership allowed these officers to execute youths.”

A 2012 New York Times profile on Dr. Castellanos’ efforts to win justice can be found here.

12th Presidential ALBA Summit

This week, the presidents of member states of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of the Americas (ALBA) met in Guayaquil, Ecuador to discuss pressing regional issues, reports the Havana Times. Among the topics discussed was the creation of, as Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro put it, “a common trade area for joint development,” facilitating trade between MERCOSUR, Petrocaribe, and CARICOM. With Latin American solidarity in mind, President Evo Morales of Bolivia proclaimed that the cooperation would help the region resist imperialist powers. The leaders agreed that the next Summit would be held on September 11 in Caracas, Venezuela.

Recommended Reading

Rare Cuba Trips by Americans All ‘Work’ and No Beach Playground, Jeff Franks, Reuters

Reuters highlights the benefits of the people-to-people trips that U.S. citizens can take to Cuba under rules which strictly limit tourist-like activities. Explaining that beach time is minimal, the article shows that Cubans and U.S. citizens can engage in meaningful ways on these educational trips.

Hurricane Tips from Cuba, Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, New York Times

Friedman-Rudovsky examines the fruitful relationship between the United States and Cuba when it comes to meteorology and hurricane preparedness, and suggests there would be much to gain if more cooperation was allowed between the two countries – such as collaboration on response scenarios. As José Rubiera, the director of Cuba’s Meteorological Institute, puts it, “A hurricane that hits Cuba doesn’t ask for a visa before entering the United States.”

Seven Months in Washington, Emma Stodder, Center for Democracy in the Americas

For the last seven months, Emma Stodder, a rising junior at Columbia University, made an outsized contribution to our work serving as our first  Stephen M. Rivers Memorial Intern.  We named the position in Stephen’s honor, because he was a talented activist for Cuba policy reform who spent a good part of his life cultivating the talents of passionate young people who wanted to make a difference through service or politics.   Emma’s work proved that our model for the Rivers internship worked, and demonstrates that through her “last official act,” a blog post describing her experiences in Washington.

In it,  Emma looks at her time in Washington, taking a big picture view of what she learned here. She writes: “After reading about Stephen, hearing about him from his family, friends and loved ones, and spending seven months with the mindset that my internship at CDA should lead me to carry forward his legacy, I am convinced that if I can achieve some small measure of what he did, with even a fraction of his energy and passion, I will be able to contribute to the causes I believe in.”

Race in Cuba: Essays on the Revolution and Racial Inequality, Vanessa K. Valdés, London School of Economics Review of Books

Valdés reviews the collection of essays from Race in Cuba by Esteban Morales Domínguez. She highlights several essays featured in the compilation and examines their contribution to race relations studies in Cuba.

Recommended Viewing

CDA interviews with leaders of El Salvador’s gang truce, Center for Democracy in the Americas

In May of 2013, staff members of the Center for Democracy in the Americas traveled to El Salvador to gain additional perspective on the controversial gang truce which has effectively reduced violence between the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs. This short video gives the thoughts and reflections of some of the gang leaders, the reasons they believe the truce is important and what role the process can play for the future of El Salvador.

26 Reasons Cuba Could Tempt You to Face A $250,000 Fine, Kiki Von Glinow, Huffington Post

In this photo essay, Kiki Von Glinow shows why travel to Cuba, while limited to U.S. citizens, is “tempting.” Her reasons, captioning her images, range from “the best conversations are had on your front stoop” to simply “the food.”

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