What Obama can do to stop driving the world and Brazil nuts

This week at the United Nations General Assembly, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rouseff, earned global attention with a strongly-worded condemnation of the NSA surveillance program that violated the privacy of her own email, telephone calls, and text messages, and that of communications throughout Brazil.

“We face,” she told the General Assembly and an audience of world leaders, “a situation of grave violation of human rights and of civil liberties; of invasion and capture of confidential information concerning corporate activities, and especially of disrespect to national sovereignty.

We expressed to the Government of the United States our disapproval, and demanded explanations, apologies and guarantees that such procedures will never be repeated. The problem, however, goes beyond a bilateral relationship. It affects the international community itself and demands a response from it. Information and telecommunication technologies cannot be the new battlefield between States.”

Not since Hugo Chávez, the late president of Venezuela, likened then-president George W. Bush to the devil, and accused him of acting “as if he owned the world,” has a UN General Assembly address by a Latin American leader generated this much news.

What makes this development different – and, for U.S. foreign policy more disconcerting – is that President Rouseff cannot be dismissed as easily as President Chávez often was for representing what Cold Warriors called “the pink tide.”  She is the leader of the largest economy in South America, the sixth largest in the world. Her county is among those most likely to be next made a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.  Brazil is a huge export market for the U.S. – just ask Boeing – and they are the global destination for FIFA’s next World Cup and the IOC’s next summer Olympic Games.

Moreover, she is not alone, and what is dividing the United States from its natural partners in the region and other nations around the world is not just U.S. snooping but their growing willingness to diverge from the U.S. on issues where we have historically expected them simply to fall into line.

Chilean President Sebastian Piñera urged greater reforms in the Security Council than the U.S. supports.  Others displayed divisions over reforming drug policy.  El Salvador’s President, Mauricio Funes, among our closest allies in Latin America, broke with the U.S. over Cuba policy, and called what he termed the blockade “a relic of the past.”

Sometimes, what is said at the UN can really matter.  So, it is heartening that when President Obama spoke to the General Assembly, he ruled out American support for regime change in Iran, as he pursued a diplomatic end to its nuclear weapons programs, and that he later declared, “We are no longer in a Cold War. There’s no Great Game to be won.”  Those of us who think about U.S.-Cuba policy could hardly help nodding our heads.

But, we can only gauge what words are worth by measuring the actions taken in their wake.  If the president can reach an accommodation with Iran’s government that acknowledges its legitimacy; if he can say to the world, in the context of Russian diplomacy on Syria, that the Cold War is over, how much longer must we wait for him to apply these conclusions to his management of U.S.-Cuba relations?

We know he knows better.  YouTube has the evidence on tape (take that, NSA!).  We know the world is impatient for the U.S. to come around; we face global condemnation in the next few weeks at the U.N. for maintaining the embargo against Cuba, and a regional boycott at the next Summit of the Americas if the U.S. tries again to exclude Cuba.

Now is the time for the president to act. It is time to take the good and important things he does below the radar – the negotiations, the travel reforms, the tamped down rhetoric – and make a public commitment to end the Cold War in the last theater where it is still being waged.  It will modernize a policy that has been flawed and failed for decades. It will help the Cuban people.  It is in our national interest for him to do this.

Even more, if in the course of normalizing relations, the president shows the world that we need not listen to their phone calls to actually hear what they are saying, the importance of this action will resonate loudly beyond the boundaries of Cuba.  That can – and should – be his legacy.


Cuba approves new economic reforms that will establish cooperatives and private businesses

Cuba’s government has approved new economic reforms as it continues modernizing and developing its economic model, reports Granma.  The Council of Ministers approved 73 non-agricultural cooperatives in the industry, commerce, restaurant services, transportation, and construction sectors.  The new cooperatives will be able to use both national (CUP) and convertible (CUC) currencies, request bank loans, and set prices according to conditions on the market.

The government also created eighteen new categories of private business, reports the Associated Press.  These professions include real estate agents, construction workers, auto body workers, iron welders and repair and maintenance service providers.  There are now 199 approved independent employment professions. According to the latest figures, 436,342 Cubans are currently employed in the non-state sector.

Cuba institutes new curbs on sales of imported goods

New regulations in Cuba were announced this week which place restrictions on the resale of imported goods by Cubans working in the private sector, reports Reuters.  The regulations, which go into effect in thirty days, will prevent retail services from selling imported goods at a lower or higher price than the state. It also includes stricter definitions of legal categories of state employment, specifying, for example, that the description of a seamstress “does not include the sale of manufactured or imported clothing.” Likewise, the description of a household goods salesman now states that it “does not include articles obtained from retail stores or imported (electric appliances, furniture, clothing and shoes, among others.)”

While many Cubans interviewed appeared to be against restricting the sale of imports, the article also shows support for stopping the resale of products purchased locally and resold at higher prices. As one woman stated,  “I am against the import ban. I can’t tolerate the shoddy clothing the state stores sell, they are very expensive and of poor quality. At the same time, things like plumbing and electric supplies that they buy in the stores to resell at twice the price, that’s unbridled robbery.”

Currently, many Cubans operate stores from which they sell items such as clothing and electronic appliances that they have often obtained through the use of so-called “mules,” that travel from the U.S. and other countries, such as Ecuador, and Panama, and return to Cuba with goods  .One such vendor, in reaction to the new regulations, stated: “I sell a lot of locally crafted things, but also stuff from abroad. There is no doubt they have closed the door on me, and if I can’t balance the books I’ll hand in my license.”

Supreme Court decision retroactively legalizes prior illegal home purchases

In a case first reported by Mirella Betancourt for Cubaencuentro (English version available here), and later picked up by Phil Peter’s Cuban Triangle (her husband), Cuba’s Supreme Court released a decision that effectively legalizes home purchases made before the purchase and sale of homes was legalized in 2011. Previously, homes in Cuba could only be exchanged through swaps called permutas, though sales often took place in the black market. In 2011, Decree-Law 288 made it legal for homes to be bought and sold in Cuba, but contained no provision for homes illegally purchased before the law.

The specific case addresses purchaser Bertha Bouly, who bought an apartment from Roberto Andux for $5,000 in an agreement where they were to marry, divorce, and transfer the title of the house in the divorce settlement. However, Andux later recanted and attempted to keep the house. After the new law took effect, Bouly asked a provincial court to apply it to her purchase, but that court ruled that the law did not function retroactively for purchases made before the law was passed. After a series of appeals, the Supreme Court ruled that the home sale was valid, and ordered that the title of the house be transferred to Bouly.

With this ruling, the Supreme Court has issued a notice to all lower courts, government houses and law firms to make sure that its decision is essentially converted into law.

Cuba publishes rules and regulations governing the Mariel Special Development Zone

As we reported last week, Cuba’s government has signed legislation to create the 180 square-mile Mariel Special Development Zone, centered on the port which is currently being renovated in collaboration with Odebrecht, a Brazilian firm, and is expected to surpass Havana as the island’s major port. The port is due to open in January. Cuba’s government has published the rules and regulations that will govern that zone, reports Reuters.

These rules go into effect on November 1st, and include tax and custom breaks for Cuban and foreign companies.  Investors will not have to pay labor taxes and will not be asked to pay a 12% profit tax for 10 years. While current investors are only given 25-year contracts, the new rules allow for 50-year contracts with the opportunity for renewal.  Within this contract, investors can also have up to 100% ownership.  One stipulation that will remain requires investors to hire labor through the state-run labor company, which investors say is restrictive.  Additionally, supervision, approval policies, conflict resolution, and insurance will all be managed through Cuban companies unless otherwise stipulated in individual contracts.

Oscar Espinosa Chepe dies in Cercedilla, Spain

Oscar Espinosa Chepe lost his battle with chronic liver disease and passed away on Monday at the age of 72 in Cercedilla, Spain, reports the Associated Press.  An economist and independent journalist, Chepe served in several governmental positions before falling out of favor in the early 1990’s for his criticisms of Cuba’s economic policies.  Chepe leaves behind his wife, Miriam Leiva, a co-founder of Ladies in White, who pressured Cuba’s government to release him and other men from prison following a 2003 crackdown on dissidents.  Chepe was in Spain receiving medical treatment for his liver problems. His funeral was held in Madrid.

Last month, when Cuba Central learned of Chepe’s failing health, we published an essay recalling his life and work, available here.

Cuba to allow athletes to sign contracts and compete in foreign leagues

Cuban athletes, coaches, and sports specialists will be allowed to sign contracts and compete in foreign leagues, according to a new measure approved at a recent meeting of the Council of Ministers, the AP reports. The new law outlines plans to increase the amount of money that athletes are able to earn, and stipulates that Cuban athletes will have to pay taxes on their earnings from foreign clubs. According to an article in Granma, the law also seeks to normalize payment of athletes working on the island, and do away with a complex, irregular payment system.

Each year, Cuban athletes leave the island to seek greater opportunities and lucrative contracts abroad. Though the details of the law have not yet been released, it seems that these changes will do away with some of the restrictions that kept athletes in Cuba and forced them to renounce residency upon leaving the island to pursue their careers. Some significant restrictions remain, for example, baseball players will be required to remain in Cuba for the domestic league, which runs from November to April.

It is not clear how or if this could affect Cubans seeking to play in the U.S. Major Leagues. John Sullivan, spokesman for the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, stated that “A change in Cuban laws does not affect our licensing procedure.”


U.S. and Cuba reach preliminary air and maritime rescue agreement

The U.S. and Cuba have reached a provisional agreement to work more closely on matters relating to the air and maritime rescue of Cubans found at sea on their way to the U.S., reports AFP.  The agreement, titled Operational Procedure for Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue, followed meetings held in Havana between representatives of Cuba’s ministries of Foreign Affairs, Armed Forces, Transport and the Interior; and the U.S. Coast Guard, Transportation Department and State Department, reports Xinhua.

Under the new agreement, the two countries would work together on search and rescue missions operations. It must now be approved by the U.S. and Cuban governments before any further action is taken.

Current policy dictates that Cubans found at sea be repatriated, while those who reach U.S. soil are permitted to remain and obtain residency in about a year, through a provision of the Cuban Adjustment Act.

Latin American leaders denounce U.S. embargo at United Nations General Assembly

Mauricio Funes, President of El Salvador, joined international Heads of State in denouncing U.S. sanctions against Cuba at the 68th U.N. General Assembly in New York this week, reports Prensa Latina. President Funes stated, “I’ve made this request in my previous speeches at this same forum, because I consider Cuba part of the soul of America and the embargo represents a relic of the past,” reports La Prensa Gráfica.  El Salvador is one of the closest U.S. allies in the region.

Others who addressed the embargo in their floor speeches include Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago and current chair the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and the presidents of Bolivia, Antigua and Barbuda, and Uruguay.

The U.N. General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly to end the U.S. commercial, economic and financial embargo on Cuba 21 years in a row. Bishop Richard Pates, committee chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, also recently called for the establishment of “full diplomatic relations” with Cuba in a letter to National Security Advisor Susan Rice, reports Catholic World News.

House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee holds hearing on Cuba’s “Recent History of Proliferation”

Rep. Matt Salmon (AZ-05), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, convened a hearing Thursday titled, “A Closer Look at Cuba and its Recent History of Proliferation”.

The hearing focused on the July discovery of missiles and other arms equipment hidden in a shipment of sugar destined to North Korea. Witnesses argued that the Cuban cargo destined for North Korea constituted a violation of UN sanctions against North Korea on the part of Cuba and North Korea. The incident prompted a subsequent visit of UN experts to Panama in August, but the results of that investigation have yet to be published, reports the Associated Press.

Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli spoke about his country’s seizure of the Chong Chon Gang at the UN General Assembly in New York on Wednesday, reports the AP. He asserted that “Panama complied with its duty as a member state, even in the face of possible risks.” He also stated that he won’t seek action against Cuba or North Korea, but that “Panama aspires and requests the recognition that our actions were founded unequivocally on the desire to abide by what this Organization established,” reports the UN News Centre.

Cuba demands $2.3 million from U.S. for participation in World Baseball Classic

Cuba has demanded that the U.S. pay $2.3 million to Cuba’s national team for its participation in the last two World Baseball Classics, reports AFP. U.S. sanctions against Cuba have blocked the fund transfers to Cuban banks.

According to an article in the Journal of Sports Administration & Supervision, the World Baseball Classic (or WBC) began in 2006 as a promotional strategy for Major League Baseball. Major League Baseball normally splits the profits, 50/50, “with the baseball federations of the participating nations in order of their tournament finish.”

At the first World Baseball Classic in 2006, however, Cuba was initially denied a license to participate by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). A license was only granted after Cuba offered to donate proceeds to Hurricane Katrina relief to keep its participation within the rules of the U.S. embargo. Cuba’s demand was released as part of a larger report published by Prensa Latina, highlighting the effects of the embargo on Cuban sports.


UN Human Rights Council adopts Cuba’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report

The UN Human Rights Council has accepted and adopted Cuba’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report, according to Prensa Latina.  The report contains statements of support from civil society organizations that acknowledged Cuba’s efforts and progress on human rights issues.

Cuba also accepted the majority of the 292 recommendations from a Human Rights Council report prepared in May, while rejecting 20 of the recommendations which touched such subjects as freedom of expression, access to the Internet, and unrestricted activity for dissidents, human rights defenders and independent journalists.

Cuba’s Deputy General Attorney, Rafael Pino Bécquer, argued that the primary obstacle to Cubans’ complete enjoyment of human rights is the U.S. economic, commercial and financial embargo, and said that Cuba rejected recommendations that “reflect a clear political bias against Cuba and have been built on false pretenses,” reports Indian news outlet  IANS.  Cuba’s next Universal Periodic Review process will be held in approximately four and a half years.

Colombia’s President says Cuba and Venezuela are instrumental in peace talks

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos said that support from Cuba and Venezuela will help to end its 50-year internal conflict, reports Reuters.  According to Santos, who spoke at an event at Harvard University, “Venezuela and Cuba are helping us, they are saying ‘Get rid of warfare; today it’s an anachronism.’”

President Santos also stated that ending both the conflict and the cocaine trade will stimulate investment in Colombia.  He insists that, “More investment and effective social investment, more equality, more social justice, that’s a way of building peace…I am hopeful that we can reach an agreement that my kids and my grandkids will see a country and enjoy a country in peace.  I have not been able to enjoy one day of peace.”

In the meantime, NACLA’s Cuadernos Colombianos blog notes growing frustration from the FARC with progress on contentious issues such as agrarian reform.  Peace talks between Colombia’s government and FARC representatives are expected to resume in Havana on October 3rd.

Ecuador to receive 1,000 Cuban doctors for $30 million per year

After visiting Cuba this past weekend, President Rafael Correa announced that Ecuador would be contracting for approximately 1,000 Cuban primary care doctors for $30 million per year, reports Cuba Standard.  The doctors will be working in underserved areas throughout Ecuador.  President Correa also encouraged Ecuador to create a pharmaceutical industry similar to that of Cuba’s and lauded Cuba’s efforts in achieving one of the lowest child mortality and child malnutrition rates in the world.

Cuba is continuing to train 10,000 primary care doctors from Ecuador and has already graduated 1,400 Ecuadorean students from its Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM).  Ecuador is part of a growing group of countries which have for-pay medical service agreements with Cuba including Brazil, South Africa, Angola, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Portugal, Norway and Venezuela.

Domestic tourism and outside travel on the rise in Cuba

An article in Bohemia, a Cuban magazine, notes that domestic tourism is on the rise, with 339,470 Cubans checking into hotels during the first seven months of this year, reports Cuba Standard. This figure represents a 12.6% increase in domestic tourism from the same period last year.

Cuba has seen steady growth in domestic tourism since restrictions banning Cubans from using tourist facilities were lifted in 2008.  Over 600,000 domestic tourists are expected to travel by the end of this year, almost 100,000 travelers more than last year.  Domestic tourists typically travel during the summer months and on August 17th; the one-day record for domestic tourists was broken with 17,000 Cubans staying in hotels.

The number of Cubans traveling abroad has also increased. A report on state television said that nearly 183,000 Cubans have traveled outside of the country for an average stay of one month since exit visa requirements were lifted in January, reports the Associated Press.  Cuba’s government has also relaxed laws relating to residency, extending the time Cubans may travel outside of the country before losing residency rights, and creating measures for emigrants who previously lost residency to return to the island. Though 2012 international travel figures are not available for comparison, the AP report notes that an estimate from Council of State secretary Homero Acosta of travelers going overseas between 2000 and August 31, 2012 averages to about 75,000 per year over that period, not taking any yearly variations into account.

Around the Region

El Salvador Supreme Court accepts challenge to amnesty law; Sets election date

The Supreme Court in El Salvador has accepted the first challenge to the nation’s 1993 Amnesty Law, according to El Faro.  This will be the first legal challenge since the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled late last year that the amnesty law cannot be invoked by El Salvador’s government in the case of crimes against humanity and ordered an investigation into the El Mozote massacre. Additional background on El Salvador’s amnesty laws is available here.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal determined that the Presidential election in El Salvador will be held on February 2, 2014, reports AFP.  In these elections, Salvadorans will vote to elect both a President and Vice President to a five-year term.  Two political candidates for Presidential office, Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Norman Quijano, recently visited the United States to ask for votes, donations, and general support from Salvadorans living in the U.S., according to Central American Politics.

South America considers the creation of a communications system to prevent U.S. from spying

In light of Edward Snowden’s revelations on U.S. espionage around the world, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) is considering a new project to minimize the risk of U.S. surveillance, reports Reuters.  Ricardo Patino, the Ecuadorean Foreign Minister announced that, “We have decided to begin to work on new Internet communication systems of our countries, of our societies, to avoid continuing being the object and prey of illegal spying that U.S. spying entities have developed against us.”

Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, spoke out against U.S. espionage at the UN General Assembly, saying that the policies violate both human rights and international law.  U.S. surveillance in Brazil included interception of President Rousseff’s personal emails.  As a result, she canceled her state visit to the U.S. and proposed that an international framework to govern the Internet and the interception of communications be created.

Recommended Reading

Cubans granted visas under eased travel laws get a taste of tourism in foreign land, The Washington Post

With the easing of travel restrictions and the elimination of an exit visa requirement, many Cubans are leaving the island for the first time. This article follows Benito Pérez, a taxi driver, who had never been in a plane and who recently traveled to Miami to visit friends and family.

Cuba’s Other Internationalism: Angola 25 Years Later, Kevin Edmonds, North American Congress on Latin America  

The first Cuban troops arrived to Angola at the request of the country’s newly-independent government in 1975. It is estimated that over 300,000 Cuban volunteers – including soldiers, educators and doctors – served in Angola from 1975-1991, and that 2,000 lost their lives while supporting that country’s independence. This article looks at the key role that Cuba played in Angola’s struggle to maintain its independence, and discusses the regional repercussions for South Africa.

The Cubans without a stable roof over their heads, Sarah Rainsford, BBC News

According to Rainsford, “officials say that on average two buildings completely collapse in Havana every month.” This article features interviews with residents of deteriorating, and collapsed buildings in Havana, who sometimes have little option other than to remain in their precarious living situations.

Recommended Viewing

Shining a Light on Cuba, Susan Seligson, Boston University

Boston University showcases the work of its College of Communication’s recent delegation to Cuba. Led by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Essdras Suárez and international journalism professor Stephen Kinzer, the students spent a week reporting from Havana. The work resulted in a GlobalPost web series highlighting everyday life for Cubans as shaped by new economic reforms.

A Final Word:  Real Estate Agents Come to Cuba

When we first began traveling to the island, it was illegal for Cubans to sell their homes.  During our visits to Havana, we’d see Cubans meeting on the Prado to make deals to swap their homes.  This was an extremely informal market, aided at the time by corredores (runners), who would help pair people and take a cut of whatever money was exchanged along with the swap.

We’re told by a friend in Havana that “Allowing real estate agents to operate is important. First, they’ve existed for some time; even when one could only permutar (swap) homes.  More recently, with the legalization of home sales, they’ve been working as official brokers.”

As the Associated Press reported, “Even after the government legalized the buying and selling of homes in 2011 for the first time in decades, it was still technically illegal to make money connecting buyers with sellers.”

With President Raúl Castro’s reforms, as our friend observed, the brokers will “now be able to register and although they’ll pay taxes on their earnings, they’ll have protection both from authorities and those involved in the transaction not to cut them out of the deal at the last minute, which is quite common. That’s all good.”

If real estate agents have come to Cuba, we wonder if the advertising that comes with them in the U.S. will make it there as well.  Ideally, this will be one feature of our system that won’t be as waterproof as Diana Nyad.  Time will tell.

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