A Summer Reflection on the Right to Travel (in both directions)

When you last read the Cuba Central News Blast, our team headed out on vacation even as we awaited word about the intrepid Ben Friberg, trying to become the first paddle boarder to cross the Florida Strait from Cuba’s Port Hemingway to Key West, Florida.

With our vacation behind us, and summer’s end just before us, we were reminded how much we love travel and how the cause of restoring the rights of all Americans to travel freely to Cuba motivated us to create this news summary in the first place.

Ten years ago, travel rights hung in tatters. After President Clinton encouraged family travel, permitted all U.S. residents to send remittances, allowed more direct flights to Cuba, and opened broad categories of people-to-people travel, President George W. Bush totally reversed course.

His administration wanted to design a new, Made in America future for the Cuban people. He ended people-to-people travel.  He tightened limits on family travel and humanitarian assistance by executive action.  He convened a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which wanted to cut off travel in the belief they could bring the Cuban system to its knees by curtailing the flow of most tourist revenue to its government.

The Bush administration’s coordinator of the Office of Cuban Affairs calculated that travel restrictions cost the Cuban economy $375 million annually, and said in a speech in Miami: “To my way of thinking, these measures are already having their effect, and we are seeing it now in Cuba.  Will it move us toward that which we want, a democratic transition?  We don’t know…”

Well, we know: the policy didn’t produce changes in Cuba, but it kept blinders on the Americans who wanted to visit the island, so they couldn’t compare what U.S. government policy said about Cuba to the Cuban reality itself.  As Aldous Huxley famously said, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”  U.S. policy allowed for no such discoveries, which is why the pro-sanctions crowd really finds travel restrictions so useful.

But, they never could shut off the tourists from every other nation who could visit Cuba without asking their government’s permission to go.  Any void created by the absence of U.S. visitors continues to be filled by tourists from the region and the rest of the world, more than a million and a half of whom visited Cuba in just the first six months of 2013.

To his credit, President Obama has taken steps to restore unlimited family travel for Cuban Americans, reopen people-to-people travel, allow more U.S. airports to serve the Cuban market, and renew opportunities for sending remittances to qualified Cubans for all U.S. residents.

We still haven’t reached the goal – freedom to travel for Americans – and the restrictions on U.S. travelers to Cuba remain tight.  The Associated Press bureau in Havana said it well earlier this summer:

“While millions of tourists visit Cuba each year from Canada, Europe and elsewhere, Washington’s 51-year-old economic embargo still outlaws most American travel to the island. However, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens are now visiting legally each year on cultural exchange trips. These so-called people-to-people tours are rigidly scheduled to comply with embargo rules...”

That said, when American travelers in increasing numbers can see Cuba’s architecture and cultural origins, reach out to its Jewish and gay communities, and experience its environmental diversity, on trips licensed by the U.S. Treasury; and when U.S. policy goes further, and loosens restrictions on the ability of Cubans to visit our country, thanks to epic staff work at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, as reported by Fox News, these are all steps in the right direction.

A year ago, the State Department told Congress that the president’s new travel policies were achieving its goals:  As Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said, “The administration’s travel, remittance and people-to-people policies are helping Cubans by providing alternative sources of information, taking advantage of emerging opportunities for self-employment and private property, and strengthening independent civil society.”

The administration should do more.  Members of Congress are urging President Obama to expand people-to-people travel by making it permissible under a general license, and now is certainly the right time for him to act. The summer travel season may be ending here, but the need to secure two-way travel rights for all Cubans and all U.S. residents goes on.

One other thing:  Ben Friberg will go down in history as the first paddle boarder to cross from Cuba’ to the U.S., Caribbean 360 reports. He made the 28-hour, 111-mile journey: “to promote peace and understanding between Cuba and the US and to promote a healthy lifestyle.”  In doing so, he also became a symbol for the right to travel.


U.S. doctors conducted visit to Alan Gross in July

Alan Gross’ lawyer confirmed that a team of U.S. doctors examined the imprisoned USAID subcontractor in Cuba last month, but the family is declining to release additional word about his medical condition.

Ten months ago, Mr. Gross’s legal team released a finding by a doctor, who had reviewed Cuban medical records but never visited Cuba to examine the patient, that declared he had “a potentially life-threatening medical problem that has not been adequately evaluated to modern medical standards,” as Reuters reported at the time.

Judy Gross then released a statement addressing President Raúl Castro which said, in part, “”Please let us have Alan diagnosed by a doctor of his choosing before it is too late.”

The visit by the U.S. medical team took place in July, but was not disclosed until this week.  “The family has received the results and, at least at this time, does not have any plans to release them to the public,” he told CNN. Gross, 64, is serving a 15-year jail term in Cuba for his role in USAID’s semi-covert operations on the island.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN requests investigation into death of Oswaldo Payá

At a luncheon for delegates attending the UN Security Council debates this week, Ambassador Samantha Powers spoke to Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s foreign minister, and requested that Cuban authorities investigate the circumstances leading to the death of political activist Oswaldo Payá, according to Latin American Herald Tribune.

Payá, along with Harold Cepero, was killed last year in a car crash in Cuba’s Granma province. The driver of the car, Ángel Carromero, was found at fault for the accident in a Cuban court but was allowed to return to Spain, his country of residence, to fulfill his 4-year sentence. He was subsequently granted “open-regime detention” in Spain, which allows for work release and weekend furloughs. The other passenger in the car, Aron Modig, Swedish political activist, was released by Cuban authorities days after the crash. Both Carromero and Modig testified publicly that the driver lost control and the car hit a tree.

Since returning to Spain, Carromero has claimed that the car was forced off the road by Cuban state security agents. In a recent interview with the Miami Herald, he explains that his previous testimony was coerced and false. Carromero recalls being slapped by an official who told him, “That did not happen.” However, Carromero said, “It wasn’t a beating. A couple of slaps because they wanted me to change my version of events.”  Modig has remained silent.

ACLU says Florida International University cancelled Cuban Baseball Game due to exile pressureball

Retired members of Cuba’s acclaimed baseball team The Industriales arrived in Miami from Cuba on Sunday to play against a team of veteran Industriales players who live in the U.S., reports NBC 6 South Florida. However, the game was cancelled by officials at the expected venue, Florida International University (FIU). In response, the ACLU filed a request to view the original contract and denounced FIU for cancelling the agreement in the “face of political pressure and threat of demonstration.”

El Nuevo Heraldo reports that the team and game promoter Alejandro Canton are looking into the possibility of playing at a baseball complex in the nearby city of Homestead, even though the city is currently involved in litigation proceedings over who can rent out the complex. The two Industriales teams are confirmed to face off in Tampa on the 23rd and 24th.

Buena Vista Social Club to tour the United States

Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club will be touring the United States starting in September, reports Havana Times. Tour dates and information can be found here. While some members of the original band have passed away, others like Guajiro Mirabal, Barbarito Torres, Jesus Ramos, Omara Portuondo and Eliades Ochoa now make up the core of a new 15-member “Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club,” reports Caribbean Journal.


Fidel Castro turns 87, and has a lot to say about it

Fidel Castro marked his 87th birthday this week, surprising even himself, reports Associated Press. In a long essay published in Granma, reminiscent of his marathon speeches of yesteryear, Fidel writes that he never imagined living seven years past the health crisis that caused him to step down from his country’s presidency in 2006. In recent years, he has been “chiefly offstage,” reports Reuters, yet he is said to be in good physical and mental condition.

In “No Man is An Island,” scholar Arturo Lopez-Levy writes about Fidel’s decision to bow out and allow for a smooth transition of power, beginning with his brother Raúl Castro becoming president under term limits, and the various reforms that have followed, some “unthinkable under Fidel’s aegis.”

Sharing the same birthdate, August 13, René González, the first of the Cuban Five to regain his freedom, celebrated his 57th birthday with friends and family in Cuba, reports Radio Havana Cuba. González spent the last 15 years in U.S. prisons. Fernando González is the next of the five Cuban agents scheduled for release in February 2014.

Raúl Castro awards medals to officials who developed migration reforms

Fifteen high-level military officials, who participated in the fine-tuning and implementation of Cuba’s migration reforms introduced in January, have received medals of distinction from President Raúl Castro, reports Café Fuerte. The awards highlight the importance that Cuba’s government places on the changes.

Blanca Reyes, Lady in White, denied permission to return to Cuba

Blanca Reyes, a member of the Ladies in White in Europe, has been denied permission to return to Cuba in order to visit her blind, 93 year-old father, reports EFE. Reyes had requested permission to travel to Cuba at the Cuban Consulate in Madrid, Spain, on June 22, reports ACI Prensa. “My father is 93 years-old and is very ill. I wanted to see him before he dies,” she stated. She said that her father “wanted to touch me before he dies, but now they won’t let me travel.”

Cuba’s second solar farm of 2013 now operational

Cuba has inaugurated its second solar farm of 2013 in the city of Santa Clara, reports Fox News Latino. The facility, which contains 5,200 panels, has the capacity to “supply 750 homes daily” and will save Cuba about 380 tons of crude oil annually once it is fully operational, according to the chief specialist of the project. A 14,100-panel solar farm was introduced in Cienfuegos in April of this year and others are planned in the provinces of La Habana, Guantanamo, Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba and Isla de la Juventud. Currently, renewable sources of energy account for 4 percent of the Cuba’s electricity.

English-language bookstore, “Cuba Libro,” opens in Havana

Cuba’s first English-language “bookstore, cafe, and literary salon,” dubbed “Cuba Libro,” has opened in Havana, reports the Associated Press. The group-owned private enterprise is the project of five Cubans and one U.S. expat, Conner Gorry, also the Senior Editor of MEDICC Review, the author of Here is Havana blog, and creator of the Havana Good Time app.

Mariela Castro: Sex education does not “encourage sin”

This week, Mariela Castro, Director of the National Sex Education Center (CENESEX), attended the First Regional Meeting on Population and Development in Montevideo, Uruguay, reports Havana Times. There, she spoke about the importance of sex education, saying that education does not “encourage sin,” but rather “provides knowledge and capacity, especially to adolescents and youths, to make free and responsible decisions,” reports EFE. An interview that Mariela Castro gave with IPS in Montevideo regarding women’s reproductive rights can be found here (in Spanish).


UN experts conclude inspection of North Korean ship in Panama

Six officials from the United Nations have  finished inspecting the Chong Chon Gang, the North Korean ship detained in Panama while in transit between Cuba and North Korea on July 15th,  reports the Associated Press. The purpose of the inspection was to determine if the undeclared arms found hidden under 10,000 tons of sugar violate the UN ban on the transfer of weapons to North Korea. The inspection report will be presented to the sanctions committee of the UN Security Council in the next couple of days, according to Café Fuerte.

Panama’s Ministry of Public Security released a statement which says that Panama will continue to pursue the case under Panamanian law. According to Café Fuerte, while UN fines for the violation of these sanctions could reach $10 million, the Panama Canal issues its own fines for similar violations ranging from $10,000 to $1 million. It is unknown whether the UN officials met with the ship’s crew of 35, who will remain in Panama’s custody for at least a few more weeks, reports Reuters.

While Cuban officials have mostly remained silent on the issue, Fidel Castro offered a review of  Cuba’s historical relationship with North Korea, writing that in the 1980s, when then-Soviet leader Yuri Andropov commented that Cuba would have to face the possibility of an U.S. invasion on its own, North Korea sent Cuba 100,000 AKs and ammunition at no cost, reports Reuters.

ALBA moves closer to common medical market, Cuba may benefit

The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, (ALBA) is moving forward with the creation of its own common market for medical and pharmaceutical products, reports Cuba Business Standard. The project, called ALBAmed, will include a regulatory institution and a centralized registry of medical products, and could open up Cuba’s pharmaceutical industry to some 70 million people. ALBAmed will create a regional approval process for pharmaceutical products, and expects its regulatory institution to be operational at the beginning of 2014.

Sherritt, Cuba’s largest foreign investor, announces spending cuts

Sherritt, a Toronto-based mining and energy company which is Cuba’s largest foreign investor, has announced losses in the second quarter of this year, reports Cuba Standard. Sherritt will implement $7 million in spending cuts at its Moa nickel joint venture, but will more than double its spending at the Boca de Jaruco power plant, to $23 million.

Cuban biotech plant in Ghana funded by Venezuela

Cuba has begun construction of a biolarvicide production plant in Ghana using funds provided by Venezuela as part of a trilateral program to fight malaria within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), reports Cuba Standard.

When applied on surface waters where mosquito breeding sites are located, biolarvicides aid in the fight against the transmission of malaria and other infectious diseases.

The plant will manufacture a biolarvicide developed by Cuba’s biotech company Labiofam. Two such plants have already been built under the program in Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria. A third, recently built in Tanzania, was funded by South Africa.

Cuban literacy program brings Ecuadorian illiteracy rates from 6.5% to 3.5%

Over 300,000 Ecuadorians learned to read and write in the first phase of literacy campaign that began in 2011, reports Cuban News Agency. Using Cuba’s “Yo Sí Puedo” teaching method, 54 Cuban facilitators helped Ecuador bring down its illiteracy rate among those over the age of 14, from 6.5% to 3.5%.

Around the Region

Latin America front and center at UN Security Council

President Cristina Fernández of Argentina personally kicked-off the first debate of the UN Security Council since Argentina’s assumption of its one-month presidency last week, with the theme “cooperation between the United Nations and regional and subregional organizations in maintaining international peace and security.”

In her opening address, she held up regional bodies such as CELAC and UNASUR as models of how the United Nations should operate. “We resolved very grave moments for the South American region with a methodology in which no one got up until the question was resolved by consensus,” she said. In contrast, Fernández opined that the Security Council’s “Cold War logic” frequently prevents conflict resolution. Obliquely commenting on NSA revelations, Fernández called for the “establishment of regulations of a global nature to ensure the sovereignty of states and the privacy of citizens in the world.”

Cuba’s Bruno Rodríguez was among the 12 Latin American foreign ministers in attendance. He spoke on behalf of CELAC, addressing the theme of the debate by reiterating the organization’s conviction that “there can be no lasting peace without development and the eradication of poverty, hunger and inequality.”

Anti-gang and violence prevention measures continue in Central America

Over 200 alleged transnational gang members and associates were arrested throughout Central America in a coordinated effort between regional law enforcement and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, according to an ICE press release. 172 of those detained during the 60-day operation were in Honduras, while the remainder was arrested in El Salvador and Guatemala. Meanwhile, Honduras’ Security Minister Arturo Corrales announced plans to build a 4,500-strong community police force and reorganize the existing police force, reports InSight Crime. The Honduran government anticipates having these community police units deployed by September 1st aiming for a “rapid decrease” of violence in the country.

ICSID dismisses Commerce Group case against government of El Salvador

The International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID,) a World Bank tribunal, has dismissed a petition by the Wisconsin-based Commerce Group, owner of San Sebastian Mining Company, to annul a previous ruling by the court that threw out the companies’ $100 million lawsuit against El Salvador on procedural grounds, reports EFE. The suit claimed that El Salvador’s government violated CAFTA when it refused to renew the Commerce Group’s license to operate. The government cites failed environmental audits as the reason for shutting down their operations. A full background on the case can be found here.

Recommended Reading

Irresponsible Cuban action shouldn’t bring same here, Arturo Lopez-Levy, The Sun Sentinel

Arturo Lopez-Levy argues that despite Cuba’s “irresponsible” decision to send obsolete weapons to North Korea, possibly violating UN Security Council sanctions, the United States should not be deterred in continuing the ongoing migration talks with Cuba, one of the few instances of dialogue between the two countries. Instead of bowing down to pressure to end these talks, Lopez-Levy assesses that the U.S. has the ability and opportunity to follow through with this planned dialogue as an effort to “correct its flawed policy towards Cuba” while also “demanding application of the UN resolutions.”

End the Emotional Embargo against Cuba, Gil Cisneros and Wayne Trujillo, The Denver Business Journal

Gil Cisneros and Wayne Trujillo of the Denver-based The Chamber of the Americas express how criticism of the Chamber’s upcoming trip to Cuba highlights the “interminable feud with Fidel Castro” that Cuban-American émigrés remain engaged in, despite the fact that their “political cachet has diminished”. In addition, the authors state that the embargo is a relic of the Cold War that serves “no purpose or logic, save as an outlet for the frustration and bitterness of a small and previously potent political interest” and ultimately hurts the Cuban people rather than Cuba’s government.

Cuban skateboarders defy the times, Peter Orsi, Associated Press

AP’s Peter Orsi looks at skateboarding culture in Havana, and how it has changed since the sport’s introduction in Cuba nearly three decades ago. Orsi notes that skateboarding is now seen as an acceptable sport, in contrast to the past, when skateboarders were seen as “socially suspicious.” Still, challenges remain, such as obtaining skateboards, which are largely too expensive to purchase, and finding adequate areas to skateboard.

Prison Pit: Welcome to the home of El Salvador’s most notorious gangs, Giles Clarke, “Vice”

Journalist Giles Clark gives a personal account of his trip to El Salvador, where he spoke with imprisoned gang members and documented the severe overcrowding in the country’s jails and prisons.

Honduras works to stop gang-related crimes and extortions, Ángel Servellón, InfoSur

Ángel Servellón examines threats against the gang truce in Honduras, and presents a collection of quotes from various experts and public policy figures in respect to ways to address violence. They note that drug-trafficking networks make violence reduction and the implementation of a gang truce more difficult there than in El Salvador, and highlight the need for reinsertion programs, social dialogue, and efforts against organized crime.

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