You might know one of the 47,000 federal employees out of work in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale areas, as Álvaro Fernández discussed this week, because of the partisan rancor in Congress.
You might have seen reports about flu shots and the food inspections that have stopped. You might have read about some 800,000 furloughed federal employees, some hiding in Washington, D.C. bars celebrating the improvement in their social lives.
It’s not just social programs being affected. The shutdown has even thinned the ranks of “over 960 PhDs, over 4,000 computer scientists, [and] over a thousand mathematicians” that would otherwise be listening to our phone calls and reading our email at the NSA.
Why is this happening? With very limited exceptions, the law prohibits federal employees whose agencies lack appropriations from going to work. Until the shutdown ends, if they even tried to volunteer their services, they’d risk 2 years imprisonment and $5,000 fines.
Yet, one cadre of federal employees remains on the job. Thanks to a ruling by the Broadcasting Board of Governors General Counsel, Radio and TV Martí are considered part of “foreign relations essential to the national security” and their programming aimed at Cuba will continue just as it did before the shutdown began.
Once we learned to our surprise, and perhaps yours, the Martí’s operations are essential to national security, the bilingual members of our staff did something most Cubans can’t do; they tuned in to see what the broadcasts were doing to protect us.
To the Martí’s credit, they are providing regular news briefs about the shutdown, much like what all of us can hear on U.S. stations. One item said ‘medical reforms’ would bring healthcare to many thousands of Americans but it is being tied to the budget. Yesterday morning, they reported that President Obama and Congress have not resolved the problem that has paralyzed the U.S. government, and Republicans and Democrats continue to disagree over how to end the government shutdown.
Then, of course, we heard the Martí’s standard fare: a story on the anniversary of the re-unification of East and West Berlin, and criticism of Cuba’s government about cholera, control of the Internet, and political repression.
We heard a presenter reading personal sales ads (just like Craigslist ads but said aloud) for people selling things, such as bikes, and a musical interlude that featured a selection by Boyz II Men (whose only connection to the island we can figure is the song Beautiful Women, in which the band fantasizes about women of different nationalities including women from Cuba).
It’s hard to imagine how any of this would interest the Martí’s intended audience. In a country with free health care and a National Assembly that meets twice a year, how could Cubans even process the notion of Congress shutting down the entire U.S. government because one of our two major political parties wants to repeal health insurance?
One source on the island confirmed our instinct. He said, “What is important to average Cubans is that the Interests Section is opening and processing visas. There has been some reporting [on the shutdown] here, but it’s not front-and-center on anyone’s radar.”
Having listened to hours of programming, we can’t say what exactly the Martís are doing to protect our national security or what earned its employees their exemption from the shutdown.
Of course, Cubans couldn’t tell you either. The broadcasts are all jammed. They can’t hear them. They haven’t heard the stations since they were first founded in the 1980s, and the money spent on their broadcasts is being wasted.
Consequently, the decision to keep the Martís running amused at least one senior Congressional staffer who told The Cable, “If the Martís shut down, we risk forfeiting our .001% of marketshare on the island we’ve spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars cultivating.”
Kyle Munzenrieder writing in Miami New Times suggests we think about it this way. As both Martís produce stories about the shutdown, our tax dollars are paying for news reports that Cubans can’t hear about how our government can’t pay for services that we actually need.
We have to give the final word to our new favorite national security advisors: “With all this confusion, everybody’s losin’, when is it gonna be enough? [Must be time to] Throw one up for love.”
Pavel Vidal Alejandro, an economist formerly with Cuba’s Central Bank, says the state has begun experimenting with a 10-to-1 exchange rate between Cuba’s national and convertible pesos for select state-run businesses, reports the Associated Press. Cuba has yet to make official moves to reform its current dual currency system following President Raúl Castro’s emphasis on currency unification in his biannual address to Parliament in July.
In his address, President Castro stated, “The phenomenon of dual currency constitutes one of the most important obstacles in terms of national progress,” alluding to socio-economic effects that have led to a surge of tourism service workers who can make exponentially more than licensed professionals, such as doctors. The CUC has become increasingly coveted to pay for a growing number of everyday goods unavailable at government-subsidized prices designed to accommodate the CUP salary. Castro confirmed in his speech that studies are being conducted to transition away from the system “in an orderly and comprehensive manner.”
In an analysis for Cuba Standard, Vidal explains the potential effects from altering the value of the Cuban peso:
“The devaluation of the official exchange rate of the CUP will have effects on balance sheets and inflation, correcting assets and liabilities and relative prices towards a more precise and transparent valuation of economic facts. Likewise, devaluation will open windows of opportunity in the tradable-goods sector due to a rise of competitiveness. At the same time, it will allow the CUP to become convertible, thus promoting other benefits, such as the integration of the economy, incentives for direct foreign investment, and in general a strengthening of the domestic market.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. dollar circulated in tandem with the Cuban peso (CUP) starting in 1994, when the island began to re-open the tourism industry. In 2004, the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), a national hard currency pegged to the U.S. dollar, replaced USD circulation, functioning as the main currency in tourism and international trade. Cubans have since continued to receive their official state salaries in CUP, worth 24-to-1 to the CUC at official exchange houses. That rate is subsidized for state entities, making the two currencies equal in official sector transactions. The businesses reportedly experimenting with the new 10:1 rate are in substantial industries such as sugar, hotels, and non-agricultural cooperatives.
An article in Granma reports that more than half of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy last year in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba have yet to be fixed, reports Cuba Standard. The report estimated some $2.7 billion in total damage from the storm, with 171,000 buildings affected and 16,000 of those collapsed. Of those buildings, 79,000 have been fixed.
The article states that more than 92,000 individual cases, representing more than half of those presented following the storm, have yet to be resolved. A local housing official stated that bank credits of 437,000 in national currency (CUP) have been granted to 104,032 families; however, the article notes that shortages in construction supplies, limited by national production capacity, have exacerbated difficulties in resolving cases.
At its national meeting, AZCUBA, Cuba’s state sugar company reported that raw sugar production in Cuba is expected to increase by 20 percent for the upcoming harvest, according to Reuters. This increase would bring the total expected raw sugar production to 1.8 million tons. While Hurricane Sandy, inadequate machinery and organizational problems caused last year’s harvest to fall to 1.5 million tons from the projected 1.7 tons, the abundant rainfall of the last six months is expected to help crops for the new harvest. AZCUBA hopes to produce about 2.4 million tons of sugar by 2015 in efforts to reverse the severe decline in sugar production that the country has faced since 1990, when the industry produced 8 million tons. The new harvest season begins in December and concludes in April.
As in previous years, Freedom House has given Cuba a “not free” ranking in its annual review of Internet freedom, reports the Miami Herald. The report claimed that though a fiber optic cable, the ALBA-1 was turned on this year, “only select government entities” have benefitted. In addition to reporting on state surveillance and lack of access to Internet, the report also mentioned detentions of dissident bloggers as well as the blocking of their phones. Freedom House notes that this year Cuba opened cyber cafés throughout the island providing access to the Internet, as well as the national Intranet.
Earlier this year, investigative journalist Tracey Eaton wrote about the Freedom House Internet Freedom Project and its attempt to smuggle satellite dishes into Cuba by disguising them as boogie boards.
Reverend Jesse Jackson traveled to Cuba to engage in talks with religious leaders about poverty and Cuba’s relations with the U.S. and the rest of the Caribbean, reports the Associated Press. Rev. Jackson, who has visited Cuba several times before, arrived for this trip as a personal guest of the Catholic Church, according to Reuters. He contributed this statement on U.S.-Cuba relations:
“If West Germany and East Germany reunited, if blacks and whites are joined together in South Africa, if Germany and Israel have diplomatic relations, if President Obama can talk with the president of Iran, I believe that President Obama and President Castro can also talk. I hope that happens.”
Rev. Jackson requested a meeting with imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross, but was told that one could not be arranged in time, reports the AP. He did meet with leaders of the FARC, currently in Havana holding peace talks with the Colombian government, Reuters reports. FARC leaders requested his assistance in negotiating their release of a former U.S. war veteran whom they had kidnapped in Colombia this summer. Colombia’s President Santos rejected Rev. Jackson’s help, saying that he did not want to create a “media spectacle.” President Santos contends that only the Red Cross will be authorized to facilitate the handover of a FARC hostage. Rev. Jackson plans to travel to Colombia next week to further negotiate the war veteran’s release, reports the Associated Press.
On December 4, ABC Charters will begin flights between Tampa and the central Cuban city of Santa Clara, reports the Tampa Tribune. Santa Clara is the third Cuban city to be served from Tampa, which already serves Havana as well as the eastern city of Holguín. Both ABC and Island Travel & Tours, the other charter company that serves the Cuban market from Tampa, will also add an additional weekly flight to Havana in November.
Joe Lopano, Tampa International Airport’s CEO, said that the growth in service “speaks to the Tampa Bay area’s demand for more flights to Cuba,” adding that the region is home to the nation’s third-largest Cuban-American population, reports Tampa Bay Times. Flights from Tampa to Cuba resumed in September 2011 after a 50-year hiatus, following President Obama’s relaxation of regulations for airports hosting flights to the island. The Tampa Tribune reports that since then, more than 85,000 passengers have flown to Cuba from Tampa.
The theme of Cuba Study Group’s Second Conference on Reconciliation and Change, currently taking place in Miami is “The German Experience,” reports Associated Press. Cuban academics and policymakers will discuss Germany’s reunification experience, the 23rd anniversary of which was commemorated this week, in hopes of applying it to “an eventual process of reconciliation among Cubans.” Featured speakers include Günter Nooke, a representative to Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, and Dagoberto Valdes, a magazine editor in a Western Cuban province, in addition to Cuban-American leaders.
Josefina Vidal, head of the department of North American affairs within Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, spoke about ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba at Columbia University, according to the University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Vidal, in New York for the UN General Assembly, stated that “The Cuban-American community supported Obama in record numbers in 2012, and one of the reasons they did it was because they were supportive of the opening measures towards Cuba that he took in the first term.”
In remarks at the event, entitled “Cuba-U.S. Relations: Possibilities for the Future,” Vidal stressed the importance of academic and cultural exchange programs, and pointed to growing support within the United States for ending the embargo. Speaking about changes taking place on the island, she said that “The U.S. is wasting opportunities to participate in the transformations taking place.”
As recently as July 12, 2013 Members of the U.S. Congress led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen have urged the Obama administration to deny a visa to Ms. Vidal so she could attend events like the one hosted by Columbia University coinciding with the opening of the General Assembly.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Yukiya Amano, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) completed a three-day official visit to Cuba this week, reports EFE. Cuba is a founding member of the IAEA and has maintained relations with the agency through its international cooperation in areas such as agriculture, health and the environment. In a keynote speech on the island, Amano recognized Cuba’s efforts in strengthening activities related to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, such as science and technology, with emphasis on human health, reports Prensa Latina. Cuba supports the creation of an International Convention on Nuclear Disarmament, opposes nuclear weapons testing, and is a party to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Abelardo Moreno, Deputy Foreign Minister of Cuba, addressed fellow foreign ministers at a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement during the UN General Assembly, reports Prensa Latina. The Non-Aligned Movement was founded in 1961 and is comprised of 120 UN states that are unaligned with or against any power blocs. Moreno called for the Movement to continue to uphold its founding principles of independence and peace, and to remain unified in the face of threats to sovereignty and peace. He elaborated that,
“The use of interventionist policies and the manipulation of concepts such as the protection of civilians and the responsibility of protection to justify a lust for imperialist power and domination demonstrate that there is no solution other than preserving the unity of our movement.”
Moreno also spoke out against the U.S. embargo and the country’s continued presence at Guantanamo Bay. In relation to ongoing violence in Syria, he reiterated that Cuba would oppose any use of force that violates international law or the UN Charter.
On a related note, Foreign Policy in Focus has a piece on anti-interventionist stances by Latin American nations toward the crisis in Syria, available here.
Ricardo Martinelli, Panama’s President, approved a law that will authorize the state to contract foreign doctors, reports Martí Noticias. President Martinelli stated that these health specialists will work in the remote parts of the country which are difficult to access. The Panamanian government will issue these contracts for a year, though they will have the option to be renewed. These foreign doctors will not be paid more than Panamanian doctors and will not qualify for employee or retirement benefits. According to the report, Panama is currently reviewing records and looking to contract doctors from Cuba, Spain, and the Dominican Republic.
Panamanian health professionals have since gone on strike, claiming this measure is an attempt to privatize health care. Hundreds of striking doctors and nurses marched to the capital and burned a doll symbolizing President Martinelli right before the law was approved. The strike is now into its eighth day and has caused the cancellation of thousands of doctor’s appointments and hundreds of surgical operations. The strike has not affected emergency cases, youth at the Children’s Hospital, cases in the capital and nursing technicians.
Around the Region
Archbishop José Luís Escobar Alas unexpectedly closed the doors of the Tutela Legal human rights office in El Salvador, reports El Faro. The office was established thirty-six years ago and contains reports of over 50,000 human rights violations, including documentation of the El Mozote massacre. Archbishop Alas has given no official reason for the closure. His action comes on the heels of the country’s Supreme Court accepting the first challenge to the amnesty laws that have protected those guilty of crimes against humanity during the country’s civil war.
The archives stored at Tutela Legal contain eighty percent of the total documentation of human rights abuses in El Salvador, reports Tico Times. Wilfredo Medrano, Tutela Legal’s Assistant Director stated,
“The archbishop has made an irresponsible decision for Salvadoran society. He closed [the office] with locks, put up security doors and hired private security as if we were delinquents. … We have ended up like villains after working to defend and promote human rights in this country. The legacy of Archbishop Romero has been destroyed.”
President Funes has said that this closure was not the will of the people. Former Tutela Legal director, Ovidio Mauricio, vowed to hold the Archbishop responsible if any information goes missing, reports La Página.
For more about Tutela Legal, see CDA’s El Salvador Senior Policy Analyst Linda Garrett’s report here.
Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro has expelled the top U.S. diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Caracas and two other envoys after accusing them of plotting with the extreme right to sabotage the economy and electrical grid system, reports the Associated Press. Charge d’Affairs Kelly Keiderling, consular officer David Moo, and Elizabeth Hoffman were accused of conspiring with opposition leaders in various states, with state television provided video and photographic evidence of the meetings. The U.S. embassy rejected accusations, saying that the visits were a part of its “normal diplomatic engagement” in maintaining contacts across Venezuela.
The U.S. retaliated by expelling three Venezuelan diplomats in this country, according to the AP. The three officials were Charge d’Affairs Calixto Ortega Ríos, Second Secretary Mónica Alejandra Sánchez Morales of the Washington Embassy and Consul Marisol Gutiérrez de Almeida of the Houston consulate. President Maduro vowed that cordial relations and communications will not resume until the U.S. begins to respect Venezuela’s sovereignty.
El Salvador Monthly Update: September 2013, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas
This month’s update on El Salvador tracks the controversy surrounding the country’s approval for a second round of Millennium Challenge Compact funds, the ongoing gang truce, and key human rights developments. A September chronology of the country’s gang truce can be found here. To receive updates on El Salvador from CDA, contact: ElSalvadorUpdate@democracyinamericas.org.
Obama speaks to Rohani. Is Raul Castro next?, Hugo Cancio and Arturo López Levy, On Cuba
President Obama recently placed a phone call to President Hassan Rouhani of the Islamic Republic of Iran, signaling a significant step forward for U.S.-Iranian relations. These two authors use this occasion to explore why conditions for a dialogue with Cuba are more favorable than the ones for Iran, and as such, should be pursued.
Sports in Cuba: Go Pro, The Economist
The Economist looks at the possible impacts of Cuba’s recent policy change on athlete’s participation in teams abroad. Despite the reforms, Cuban baseball players could not participate in U.S. professional leagues, as they are required by Cuba to pay taxes, and U.S. sanctions would prevent athletes from receiving salaries paid by U.S. teams.
Cuban cigar makers roll out niche industry in Miami, Zachary Fagenson, Reuters
A few dozen elite Cuban cigar rollers have brought their craft to factories and boutiques in Miami. One company is able to sell a box of 25 cigars for $250. These cigars have even sold as much as $700 per box in Europe. This article details this new industry in Miami and offers perspectives from Cuban rollers including Maria Sierra, who learned how to roll from Fidel Castro’s personal cigar roller in the late 1960s.
One farmers market just outside of Havana attracts many producers and buyers each day. At any given time, there can be over 40 different types of fruits and vegetables for sale. The prices are also lower than those of typical markets and kiosks. This photo gallery includes pictures of farmers and consumers at the 114th Street Market outside of Havana.
‘Castro-Care’ Divides Doctors in Cuba, Brazil, Lourdes García-Navarro, NPR
Brazil is in need of physicians in many of its poorest, rural areas and Cuba has agreed to provide them. While the patients seem to favor this improvement in access to healthcare, Brazilian doctors are not as accepting. This news story includes reports on both sides of the issue.
How Two Brothers Waged A ‘Secret World War’ in the 1950s, All Things Considered, NPR
Stephen Kinzer, author of Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change and Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, has written a new book on the Dulles brothers. This book, entitled The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret World War, details their involvement in six covert operations that attempted to overthrow foreign governments, including in Cuba in the 1950s.