The Cuba Central Newsblast and a note to our readers

As ever, we are sending along a blast that is chock-a-block with news about Cuba, including a hint that more bilateral negotiations could be in store on the long-unresolved issue of restarting direct mail service in both directions.

It is good that both governments maintain their interest in talking especially now as clouds of war appear to be gathering half a world away.  War has oft been characterized as a failure of diplomacy or imagination.  The cold state of war between the U.S. and Cuba has always struck us as a combination of both.

We remember the anxiety and apprehension a decade ago as we visited Cuba on the eve of the war against Iraq.  We suspect those feelings are shared globally today as well.

For those readers who have the bandwidth to think about Cuba today, we are pleased to deliver the blast.  For those whose attention is turned elsewhere, we will surely understand.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Russian newspaper claims U.S. pressure on Cuba to block Snowden entry, Fidel Castro denies claim

Kommersant, a Russian newspaper claims that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden was stuck in the Moscow airport’s transit zone because Cuban officials blocked him from flying to the island, Reuters reports. According to the article, which cites sources including one “close to the U.S. State Department,” Cuban officials bowed to pressure from U.S. officials, stopping Snowden from boarding a flight to Havana at the last minute.

Analysis from the Pan American Post cautions that this report should be taken with a “grain of salt,” citing a disclaimer from Reuters that they were unable to independently verify the claim. The Post notes, however, possible reasons why Cuba’s government might have cooperated with the U.S. government, such as recent signs of a possible rapprochement between the two countries. Giving another possible reason why Snowden may not have made it to Cuba, the Pan American Post offers an older article by Anya Landau French, citing assurances made by Cuban officials not to accept any more U.S. fugitives, in order to bring the remaining four imprisoned members of the Cuban Five back to Cuba.

On Wednesday, ex-president Fidel Castro countered the claim by Kommersant, stating that it was a “lie” and “libel”, adding that “It is obvious that the United States will always try to pressure Cuba … but not for nothing has (Cuba) resisted and defended itself without a truce for 54 years and will continue to do so for as long as necessary,” reports Reuters. The entire remarks are available (in Spanish) from Cubadebate.

On Thursday, the Washington Post published newly-leaked information from Snowden, detailing the structure of the United States’ intelligence “black budget.” Knowledge about the nature of spending for the “black budget,” totaling $52.6 billion for fiscal year 2013, has never been available to the public. The article mentions ongoing counterintelligence spending directed toward Cuba, listed as a “priority target” country alongside China, Russia, Iran, and Israel.

Second round of talks on direct mail service to start in September

Cuba’s government has invited a delegation of U.S. officials to Havana for a second round of talks on resuming direct postal service between the two countries, reports the Miami Herald. If successful, the dialogue would restart direct mail service after 50 years. Currently, packages sent between the two countries must go through a third country like Mexico, Canada, or Panama. The first round of talks was led by Alex Lee, acting U.S. deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, Cuba’s foreign ministry director general for U.S. affairs.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Panama officials cite draft UN report: Cuban arms shipment to North Korea violated sanctions

Panamanian officials have cited a yet-to-be published report by UN inspectors stating that the weapons shipment intercepted en route from Cuba to North Korea last month was “without a doubt” in violation of UN sanctions against North Korea, Reuters reports. A diplomat on the UN Security Council was quoted saying, “There are still questions about the Cuban angle in all of this,” adding it “will take time” to fully investigate the incident. North Korean diplomats, who declined to comment on the preliminary findings, met with Panamanian officials Wednesday to discuss the release of the ship’s crew, currently detained in a former U.S. base, and the ship, which is stationed in the port of Manzanillo. Cuba’s government has yet to comment on the draft report.

CDA provided a detailed report on the incident last month, including responses from Cuba’s government and the United States. To read it, click here.

Russian oil company Zarubezhneft begins oil recovery project

Russia’s state oil company, Zarubezhneft, has begun an oil recovery project using experimental technology, such as steam technology, in the Boca de Jaruco oil field, Cuba Standard reports. The project’s goal is to recover oil from abandoned deposits. Zarubezhneft signed a 25-year agreement with Cupet, Cuba’s national oil company, for exploration in that oil field in 2011.

Last May, the Russian oil company announced that it was halting further offshore exploration, a project which cost some $120 million. Cupet has said that Zarubezhneft plans to begin a second stage of drilling offshore from the island next year.

Cuba’s rail company purchases passenger trains from Russia

Cuba’s rail company, Unión de Ferrocarrilles de Cuba (UFC) has ordered 300 two-car passenger trains from a Russian rail manufacturer, reports Cuba Standard. Cuba is currently updating its railway system, which is largely deteriorated. As a part of the overhaul, UFC has purchased at least 164 diesel-electric engines from China.

According to Russian press reports, Cuban technicians are being trained in Murom, in west-central Russia, so that they may later assemble the train cars at a plant near Matanzas. The International Railway Journal reports that the first shuttles will be used on a new line between Mariel and Havana. Cuba is currently collaborating with Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht in a multi-million dollar project which would deepen and expand the port at Mariel, expected to be completed in 2014.

Cuba’s government rejects threat of attack against Syria by U.S. or NATO forces

A press release by Cuba’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday denounced the possibility of a U.S. or NATO-led attack on Syria, stating that “an aggression against Syria would cause serious consequences for the troubled region of the Middle East,” reports Xinhua. The statement added that an attack on Syria would be “a flagrant violation of the principles of the United Nations Charter”, and instead, a political solution should be promoted to end the civil war. Former president Fidel Castro echoed the sentiments in a press statement available here.

IN CUBA

Cuba begins transitioning state-owned restaurants into employee-run cooperatives

More than 20 state restaurants in Cuba are set to become employee-run cooperatives in October, in a pilot program that, if successful, could see the transition of hundreds more, reports Reuters. The cooperatives will be run independently, with employees making all business decisions including food purchases and how to divide profits. Since regulations have relaxed, individually-owned restaurants on the island have boomed, with more than 2,000 cuentapropista-run eateries operating today. Under the cooperative model, workers would lease the restaurants from the state, set prices according to the market, and receive tax treatment better than that granted to individually-owned businesses.

Grisell Trista Albasu, a Communist Party official in charge of implementing reform for state businesses, stated last week that, “We are in an experimental phase with a group of cooperatives in certain sectors of the economy. This allows us to follow each project, learning as we go along before they become generalized.” Other sectors in which similar reforms are underway include construction, transportation, agriculture, and light manufacturing.

Cuba’s government reports 163 cases of cholera

Cuba’s government has disclosed 163 new cases of cholera in the provinces of Havana, Santiago and Camagüey, reports the Associated Press. So far, twelve visitors from Europe and other Latin American countries have been identified among those to contract the waterborne disease. No deaths have been reported. The U.S. issued a travel advisory last week in connection with the cholera outbreak, warning U.S. citizens and foreigners alike to avoid ingesting untreated water, street food, and food that may be overcooked or undercooked.

More than 100,000 Cubans have used new state-operated cyber cafés

Cyber cafés all over Cuba drew over 100,000 paying customers in the past three months, reports EFE. The data, produced by the state telecommunications company and published in Juventud Rebelde, also reported that the population in the provinces of Havana, Matanzas and Villa Clara were the three areas where cyber cafés were frequented the most, with over 60% of users accessing the World Wide Web. Other users were listed as using the Internet for email or for accessing the nation’s intranet. As of June, there are over 115 cibersalas operating in Cuba where fees range from 60 cents an hour for access to the local Intranet, to $4.50 CUC to navigate the Internet, reports El Nuevo Herald.

Oil refinery spill in Sancti Spiritus province

15,000 liters of oil spilled in the Sergio Soto refinery in Sancti Spiritus province, described by the plant Director as the most significant incident “of this nature” in over 10 years, reports Havana Times. The cause of the accident, which took place during two separate occasions in early August, was deemed to be operator negligence. Traps meant to stop oil from spilling over into local waters were not properly set. Although 14,000 liters of the oil have already been recovered, Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment stated the situation was “serious,” and that some environmental damage has already taken place. The local population has also voiced concern over the contamination of the water; while it is not a source of drinking water, it is used by farmers to irrigate crops.

Pedro Mendiondo Gómez, Major General of the Armed Forces, dies in car accident

Pedro Mendiondo Gómez, Major General and Chief of Cuba’s Air Force and Air Defense, died following injuries from a car crash, reports AFP. According to a note published in Granma, Mendiondo was driving the vehicle at the time of the crash. His father-in-law died at the scene, and Mendiondo and his mother-in-law were pronounced dead after being transferred to a hospital. The only survivor of the crash was Mendiondo’s wife.

The General joined the armed forces in 1963, did two tours of duty in Angola, and was later named Chief of the Air Force and Air Defense System in 2000. According to the Granma note, Mendiondo’s body was cremated and deposited on Tuesday at the Pantheon of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, at the Colón Cemetery in Havana.

Around the Region

Retired Salvadoran colonel sentenced to 21 months in prison, one year probation

A federal judge in Boston has sentenced retired colonel Inocente Orlando Montano to 21 months in prison for immigration fraud, reports the Associated Press. The sentencing represents a step toward possible justice for the 1989 Jesuit massacre at the University of Central America in San Salvador. Montano is among 20 men from the Salvadoran military who were indicted by a Spanish court in 2011 in connection to the massacre. Presiding Judge Douglas Woodlock stated in connection to Montano’s sentence, “This much seems clear, that there were human rights violations by troops under Mr. Montano’s command and he took no action.”

Judge Woodlock also said that the United States has not yet formally responded to Spain’s extradition request for Montano. But Stanford University Professor Terry Karl, who gave expert testimony on war crimes committed during Montano’s time as Vice Minister of Public Security, expressed happiness at the outcome of the trial, saying it would give time for Spain’s extradition request to be processed.

CDA’s Advisory Board member Héctor Silva Ávalos, who has been following the trial, writes further about Judge Woodlock’s verdict in La Prensa Grafica.

UNASUR considers jointly condemning possible U.S. action on Syria

As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced today that the United States would not wait for the UN to conclude its investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syria’s government against its own people in Ghouta, representatives from the member countries of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) are considering a joint condemnation of possible U.S. action against Syria, reports La Razón/EFEXinhua reports that the governments of Venezuela and Bolivia have placed the issue on the agenda for the UNASUR Summit in Suriname this Friday.

Colombia’s President Santos willing to enter talks with FARC leader

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos has stated he is personally willing to meet with FARC rebel leader Timochenko in order to speed up the peace negotiation process, reports Mercopress. Timochenko is not actively participating in the peace talks in Havana, and is in hiding. As the latest round of talks between FARC negotiators and representatives of Colombia’s government wrapped up this week, a joint statement was issued, saying only: “We continue to make progress on the forging of agreements on the second point of the conversations, political participation,” reports Reuters.

Currently, the contentious points for the negotiation revolve around the Santos government’s proposed legislation which would allow the Colombian public to approve any agreements signed in Havana through a referendum, which would be tied to upcoming national elections in either March or May. The FARC have rejected this, calling instead for a constituent assembly. While the Santos government proposal has led to accusations from the FARC of election-maneuvering, Santos stated that the peace talks in Havana “[are] the most important process that Colombia can have and, if it’s successful, the most important thing that can happen to Colombia in recent history.” Reuters cites a source close to the talks saying that negotiators on both sides are committed to the process.

Recommended Reading

Time to open up to CubaWayne Trujillo, Vail Daily

Wayne Trujillo, a member of the Chamber of the Americas and a participant in the Chamber’s upcoming trip to Cuba, discusses how travel to Cuba is culturally advantageous for U.S. citizens, especially in “removing a long-standing misperception that the American embargo equates to American opposition against Cuba’s people.” Travel to the island has the potential to expand economic reform in Cuba, he adds.

New details on USAID’s Cuba programs, Tracey Eaton, Along the Malecón

The Foreign Assistance Dashboard, a website launched by USAID earlier this summer, includes new, detailed information about spending in the agency’s programs, including its Cuba program. Tracey Eaton links to spending data for USAID Cuba programs in 2013.

Cuban Doctors Bring Eyesight, Healthcare to Haiti, Patricia Grogg, IPS

Patricia Grogg looks into the history of Cuba’s medical missions to Haiti, starting in 1998 in the aftermath of Hurricane George. Since then, Cuban doctors have seen over 18 million Haitians and conducted over 300,000 surgeries, which include restoring sight to nearly 53,000 people. A patient in Port-au-Prince says: “We seek out the Cuban doctors because they treat people well and they don’t charge. We are poor, we cannot afford to pay.”

Prevention and Community Engagement: Keys to Disaster Management in Cash-Strapped Cuba, Elizabeth Newhouse, Center for International Policy

Elizabeth Newhouse reports on the Center of International Policy’s (CIP) recent delegation to Cuba, where U.S. disaster experts looked into Cuba’s civil defense system and its successful tactics in disaster preparedness and prevention. The trip included visits to the Center for Disaster Medicine, a civil defense headquarters, and a meeting with the Deputy Chief of the U.S. Interests Section, who expressed that “the time may be right for an exchange program in disaster preparedness between a U.S. university and the University of Havana.”

Stream of Talent Continues to Flow From Cuba, With or Without Permission, Ben Strauss, The New York Times

Sports writer Benn Strauss comments on the flow of rising baseball stars from Cuba, including newcomers Yasiel Puig of the LA Dodgers, Yoenis Céspedes of the Oakland A’s and José Fernández of the Miami Marlins. This month, first baseman José Abreu reportedly left Cuba and is now seeking a contract in Major League Baseball.

What’s Up with Cuba Policy? William LeoGrande, American University Latin American Blog

William LeoGrande examines in American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies AULA Blog the “tentative, cautious, and incremental” steps that President Obama’s administration has taken during his second term. Despite chilled relations during his first administration due to the imprisonment of Alan Gross in 2009, policy under Obama during his second term has demonstrated instances of engagement and cooperation with the island.

Postcard from CubaMark Easton, BBC

Mark Easton examines how the ongoing economic reforms, particularly the expansion of the private sector, are not only changing the lives of Cubans, but, Easton opines, are a “new chapter” in Cuba’s history.

Recommended Viewing

The Faces of Cuba You Have to See, Peggy Goldman, Huffington Post

Peggy Goldman shares renowned photographer Jeremy Woodhouse’s photographs from his recent trip to Cuba. The gallery, Goldman states, captures the Cuban people as “passionate, hard-working, entrepreneurial, proud, spiritual and deeply connected to their complex culture and heritage.”

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