Notes from the Alternate Universe Known as Reality

Sometimes the news about Cuba, U.S. policy, and the region can be as bright as the sum of its parts.  This is what we mean as we put the news of this week together.

President Obama’s travel reforms are working.  When President Obama reopened people-to-people travel opportunities for Americans of non-Cuban descent, he included permission for more U.S. airports to serve the Cuban market.  For the first time since 1962, as Sean Kinney reported this week, “regularly scheduled air travel between Key West and Havana is returning.”  The airline Air MarBrisa, which already is running flights out of Tampa, along with Miami-based Mambi Travel, will provide the service.

This is not entirely a surprise: statistics confirm that visits by U.S. travelers to Cuba are increasing, so demand is strong; polling by the Cuban Research Institute shows that there is broad support among Cuban-Americans in Florida for travel by all Americans to the island; and, the new flights from Key West bringing more travelers will generate economic activity in Florida and Cuba.

Perhaps there is one surprise: Key West’s Representative in the U.S. Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who denounced people-to-people travel seven months ago for funding “the machinery of oppression that brutally represses the Cuban people,” said nothing about the opening of Key West flight service to Cuba, but did issue a statement about legislation in Congress reflecting her view that “supporting American jobs should be our top priority.”  The allure of travel may be more powerful than we think.

Cuba is changing – no, really. We reported last week that Cuba’s government is embarking on a process for ending its system of two currencies, initiated to protect the country’s economy from the fluctuations of world markets, but which produced distortions and bedeviled Cuban consumers.  Hardline supporters of U.S. sanctions often dismiss Cuba’s reforms as fake or insubstantial, but experts recognize that ending the two currency system is evidence of real change.

For those who remain skeptical, however, there were two additional developments this week that really ought to give them (all of us) cause to think anew.  As the Associated Press reported this week, thanks to the economic reforms, Cuban entrepreneurs are opening businesses where their countrymen can play video games, don pairs of 3-D glasses, and watch terror films such as “Saw 3D.” That might not float your boat, but as one Cuban told the AP, ”We have some more options these days, at least.”

These backroom video salons are competing with state-owned theaters, and offer another illustration that the reform process is not stalled.  In fact, Cuba also ended its monopoly on public toilets.  As the Miami Herald reported, the government issued a 7-page resolution that builds on a private sector public toilet pilot project started in Havana in 2011 to allow “the rental of state-owned bathrooms to private persons who hold government licenses as “public bathroom attendants” – one of 182 categories of self-employment permitted by the government.”  Truthfully, we don’t know why this was thought of as state monopoly in the first place, but allowing competition with state-owned facilities – as with 3-D movies, barber shops, and the like – demonstrates a further relinquishing of government control.

The U.S. knows how to say thank you — to Cuba! There was good news this week for the family of Kevin Scott Sutay, a former U.S. Marine, who was seized last summer in Colombia by the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.  As USA Today reported, Sutay was released to U.S. government representatives at Bogotá’s airport, examined by a doctor from the International Red Cross, and pronounced fit to travel so that he could be reunited with his family.

But the story does not end there.  Almost immediately, Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement thanking not only the Government of Colombia for its tireless efforts in working for Mr. Sutay’s release, but also recognizing “the contributions of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Governments of Norway and Cuba in securing” his freedom.  Unlike previous administrations and previous instances, where Cuba could have been recognized for a positive act but was instead marginalized by silence or hostility, this was a welcome departure from past practices.  As Cuba continues working as a peace-broker between the Government of Colombia and the FARC, ideally at some point we’ll see more of what should otherwise be common courtesy.

One last example of how reality isn’t really so bad:  this week, The Economist published a poll by Latinobarómetro with findings about the mood of Latin American publics toward democratic governance in the region.  The findings included that Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have some of the highest public support levels in all of Latin America for the idea and ideals of democracy.  Publics are satisfied with the functioning of democracy in their countries; majorities believe their country is being run for everyone’s benefit; and, region-wide, sixty-nine percent view the U.S. favorably.

We share these results to remind our readers that the Cold Warriors who perennially view the region as if the sky were falling on democracies in Latin America, thanks to the pernicious influence of left-wing governments, simply do not have the facts on their sides. The U.S. can also take some comfort from the fact that even though the resolution condemning the embargo against Cuba won the unanimous support of Latin American governments and carried the UN General Assembly by a landslide margin (188-2), we do have a base of support in the region to build on.  Dismantling the embargo would put an even brighter shine on that reality as well.


Travel abroad by Cubans up 35%

International travel by Cubans has risen 35% since travel reforms initiated last year took effect in January, reports Al Jazeera America. Trips abroad have reached 226,877 since January, Col. Lamberto Fraga, an immigration official, stated Monday at a press conference in Havana. 167,684 trips occurred during the same period in 2012.

Col. Fraga did not mention the number of Cubans traveling abroad, but did state that 24,000 Cubans took multiple trips off the island in 2013, adding that over a quarter of the trips were to the United States, 13% to Mexico, and 9.3% to Spain, reports El Nuevo Herald. The main age group participating in travel is 41-50 years-old.

During the conference, Fraga stated, “The new migration measures have had a positive impact…Cubans are not fleeing, they are traveling normally.” He mentioned that 58% of travelers have already returned to the island after departing earlier this year, and that over 3,000 Cubans living abroad have requested to resume residency in Cuba.

The reformed immigration policy eliminated the exit visa requirement and extended the length of time Cubans can remain abroad without jeopardizing their citizenship to two years. “We seek to normalize this phenomenon, even if U.S. immigration policy doesn’t change, we are going to continue normalizing ours,” Fraga stated.

More than 1,400 people evacuated as heavy rain continues to fall in central Cuba

In Cuba’s central province of Villa Clara, approximately 1,433 people have been evacuated due to heavy rain storms, reports EFE. About 1,354 evacuees are staying with family or neighbors while the rest are in shelters. October is typically one of the rainiest months on the island. The municipalities of General Carrillo, Remedios, Camajuaní, Caibarién and Santa Clara have already seen rainfall accumulating between five to thirteen inches over the last few days.


United Nations condemns U.S. embargo against Cuba

The United Nations General Assembly voted for the 22nd consecutive year to condemn the U.S. economic, commercial and financial embargo against Cuba, reports the Associated Press. 188 countries voted for the resolution calling for an end to the U.S.-imposed embargo. Only the U.S. and Israel voted against the resolution while Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands abstained.

At this year’s UN General Assembly meeting, many countries expressed their interest in continuing and strengthening relations with Cuba, including those within the European Union, which took issue with U.S. trade sanctions affecting their own trade with the island, reports AFP. U.S. Ambassador and Senior Advisor for Western Hemisphere affairs, Ronald D. Godard, defended to the General Assembly the U.S.’s use of the embargo as a tool “to encourage respect for the civil and human rights” of Cubans. In his remarks, Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, stated:

“Seventy-six percent of Cubans have lived under its devastating effects since the day they are born. It provokes hardships and is a mass, flagrant and systematic violation of human rights. The fact that 53 years later the same policy still prevails is something extraordinary and barbaric.”

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, issued the following statement about the UN vote to condemn the U.S. embargo against Cuba:

“While the UN has voted, year after year, to condemn the U.S. embargo for its punitive effect on the Cuban people and the unilateral reach of the policy, this year’s decisive defeat, against the backdrop of the NSA scandal, is another cautionary lesson about the dangers of US foreign policy when we stand alone.”

FARC frees hostage from the U.S.; U.S. “appreciates” Cuba’s contributions

FARC leaders in Colombia freed former U.S. Marine Kevin Scott Sutay on Sunday, reports Reuters. Sutay was kidnapped by the FARC in June after ignoring police warnings and knowingly choosing to hike through a guerrilla-controlled area. He was released in Guaviare, Colombia, to members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and a delegation representing the governments of Colombia, Cuba and Norway. U.S. Embassy officials in Bogotá are now working to facilitate Sutay’s return to the U.S.

The FARC’s release of Sutay may help further the peace negotiations taking place in Havana between the FARC and Colombia’s government. Following Sutay’s release, the governments of Cuba and Norway reiterated their support for continuing peace talks between the two parties, and for continuing efforts to put an end to the armed conflict in Colombia.

The U.S. released a statement following Sutay’s release, thanking parties involved in the process. In addition to thanking President Santos of Colombia and Rev. Jesse Jackson for their efforts in securing Sutay’s release, Secretary of State John Kerry remarked that, “We also appreciate the contributions of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Governments of Norway and Cuba in securing Mr. Sutay’s freedom.”

Charter flights from Key West to Havana to start in November

Miami-based Mambi Travel and Air Marbrisa will begin offering charter flights from Key West, Florida, to Havana, Cuba, beginning on November 15, reports the Miami Herald. Flights, which will have a 10-person capacity, will be offered each way three days a week. A round-trip ticket will cost $449.

The launching of flight service has been stalled since 2009 when requests were made for Key West to become an official point of entry, and then while Key West International underwent a $2.25 million upgrade. U.S. Customs and Border Protection approval is still pending, but the companies have moved ahead with ticket sales. The proposed flights will mark the first air travel between the two cities since 1962.

Antonio Castro asks that baseball players who leave for the U.S. be able to play for Cuba

Antonio Castro, son of former President Fidel Castro and the doctor for Cuba’s national team, has asked for a change in national baseball policy, to allow Cuban players who have left the island to play professionally in the U.S. to return to play on the national team, reports Havana Times. At least 16 Cuban baseball players who left the island now play major league baseball in the U.S. including Los Angeles Dodgers star, Yasiel Puig. This September, the government announced that baseball players would be allowed to play in foreign leagues during the off-season of the Cuban league.

The new immigration policy established in Cuba this January allows Cuban athletes who left the island through irregular routes to return to the island if they have spent at least eight years abroad. The first player to take advantage of this policy was José Contreras, a pitcher who played for ten years in the U.S. Castro remarked, “Many want to return and live here to teach children, is that bad? No, of course not. Contreras returned and is working for children, for the development of baseball. I love this idea.”

Berta Soler of Ladies in White meets with Vice President Biden

Last week, Vice President Joe Biden met with Berta Soler, a leader of the Ladies in White, reports Miami Herald. She also met with Ricardo Zuniga, a former U.S. diplomat to Havana who now presides over the Latin America desk at the White House National Security Council. Subsequently, Soler appeared before the Organization of the American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human rights along with six other Cuban dissidents, reports El Nuevo Herald.

On October 29th – the same day as the U.N. vote against the U.S. embargo on Cuba – Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez conducted a Google Hangout with Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere.  Her topic:  the future of women’s political participation in Cuba, reports EFE. During their conversation, Sánchez announced her efforts on a “collective project,” a digital newspaper which would be “competitive,” to “21st century standards.”

U.S. Methodists granted permission to open church in Cuba

A group of Methodist parishioners from the U.S. have received permission to build a church in the central Cuba province of Ciego de Ávila, reports Martí Noticias. Wesley United Methodist Church in Harlingen, Texas, raised $30,000 for the project. The missionaries traveled to Cuba last month with 2,300 pounds of materials.


Cuba cooperates with U.N. investigators

Investigators from the sanctions committee of the UN Security Council completed a visit to Cuba where they interviewed high-level government officials as part of a detailed investigation into the Cuban weaponry found on board a North Korean bound freighter this July, reports Café Fuerte. The weaponry was seized after being discovered by Panamanian officials under 10,000 tons of sugar.

The Miami Herald reports the team could not have flown to Cuba without the government’s approval, which could signal Cuba’s willingness to cooperate with the UN investigation. The visit also coincided with Panama’s decision to release all but two of the freighter’s crew members that had been detained since July. The captain and his aide, as well as the freighter, weaponry and sugar remain under Panama’s control.

Mariel Special Development Zone office opens for business

The Regulatory Office in charge of receiving and managing foreign investment requests for the Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM) will open today, reports EFE. The Regulatory Office will partner with the Council of Ministers to oversee foreign investment in the zone, as per the September decree-law that established the Office.

In January, Raúl Castro and Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff plan to inaugurate the first phase of the container terminal, a $9 billion project in which Brazil invested $6.4 billion. Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba’s foreign trade and investment minister, recently embarked on a mission that includes stops in Russia, Brazil, and Vietnam to attract investment for the port, reports Cuba Standard. The ZEDM will be one of the main features at Havana’s annual trade fair, which opens Sunday, reports AFP.

During his trip, Malmierca also sought the business of Chinese investors. Trade relations between Cuba and China have jumped 25% between January and August 2013, with Havana exports to Beijing totaling $450 million, reports El Nuevo Herald.

Mexico to forgive over $340 million of Cuba’s debt

Luis Videgaray, Mexico’s Finance Minister, announced on Mexican radio that Mexico will forgive 70% of Cuba’s $487 million debt, reports Reuters. Cuba’s government borrowed the original sum from Mexico’s national foreign trade bank Bancomext 15 years ago. Videgaray stated that the remaining balance after the waiver is to be paid in 10 years. The gesture is reportedly an attempt by Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to solidify relations. The Finance Minister views it as a necessary step so that “things would flow well” between the two countries.

Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez recently arrived in Mexico for a two-day visit, reports Prensa Latina. While there, Rodríguez plans to hold a meeting with his Mexican counterpart, José Antonio Meade, and will deliver a lecture at the Foreign Ministry headquarters.

India’s Vice President Ansari visits Cuba to launch economic relations

Mohammad Hamid Ansari, the Vice President of India, visited Cuba for an official two-day state visit this week focused on launching economic and commercial relations, reports EFE and Press Trust of India. In addition to attending a festival celebrating Indian culture, Ansari also expressed his desire to launch bilateral links with Cuba in the economic and commercial sphere, and signed an agreement extending cooperation in broadcasting. Cuba and India have had diplomatic relations since 1960 and have maintained a positive level of cooperation within international organizations. While on the island, Ansari met with President Raúl Castro and Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, and had a “very warm and affectionate” meeting with former President Fidel Castro.

Around the Region

Reps. Matt Salmon and Albio Sires write  Sec. Kerry about Salvadoran and Honduran elections

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Rep. Matt Salmon (AZ-5), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Albio Sires (NJ-8), the ranking Minority Member, inquire how much funding U.S. “democracy promotion” organizations, such as the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, will receive to “conduct serious monitoring efforts” of the upcoming elections in El Salvador and Honduras, reports La Página.

Salmon and Sires write that “we want to ensure as much as possible that the corrupting influence of drug trafficker’s money does not sway the elections.” The Congressmen go on to question the “democratic credentials” of leftist candidates Xiomara Castro (LIBRE party) in Honduras and Salvador Sánchez Cerén (FMLN) in El Salvador, as well as noting corruption allegations against former president and UNIDAD candidate Tony Saca.

El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes has recently made allegations about a “dirty campaign” by the country’s right-wing ARENA party to smear the current government. Funes accuses the party of using $10 million in undeclared money to contract a Washington-based lobbying firm, to campaign against the approval of the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s second compact with El Salvador, which would give the country $277 million for development and poverty reduction. President Funes stated that the United States’ Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is investigating this and asked El Salvador’s Attorney General to investigate as well, saying that $10 million in undeclared donations came from a European energy production company and were given to the Washington-based think tank of former Salvadoran president Francisco Flores, the Instituto América Libre, which would have then given the money out for lobbying purposes.

Another Honduran journalist is killed in lead-up to elections

Honduran Journalist Manuel Murillo Varela was found dead on October 24th in Tegucigalpa, reports The Guardian. In 2010, Murillo Varela had previously been kidnapped and tortured by policemen dressed as civilians, reports TeleSur, and the Inter-American Commission on Human rights had issued a cautionary measure, asking that the government of Honduras protect Varela’s life. The Knight Center Journalism in the Americas blog reports that his 2010 kidnapping and torture was likely related to his criticism of the country’s 2009 military coup, and his coverage of the protests that resulted. He leaves behind two young daughters, reports Tiempo.

In other human rights-related news, public attorneys from Honduras’ Attorney General’s office denounced to the U.N. a rotation in their positions, especially of attorneys for the special offices on human rights and against corruption, reports La Tribuna. The new posts are particularly high-risk, the attorneys say, and were given as punishment for their strike to demand a 10% salary increase that had been promised in a previous negotiation.

Recommended Reading

Cuba’s Tower of Babel gives free medical education, AFP

AFP reports from the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), just outside of Havana, where over 17,000 doctors from 70 different nations have graduated since the school’s opening 14 years ago. Recognizing the university’s success providing free, high-quality medical education, the article also addresses the opposition and financial struggles the school has faced.

United States Cuba Relations: Stephen Kimber vs. Capitol Hill Cubans: Let Us Compare Facts, Stephen Kimber

Professor Stephen Kimber responds to blog Capitol Hill Cubans’ critique of his recent Washington Post article, “The Cuban Five were fighting terrorism. Why did we put them in jail?”

Building Peace on the Ground, Not Just in Havana: The Colombian Peace Process According to Ricardo Esquivia, Latin America Working Group

The LAWG blog reproduces here statements by Ricardo Esquivia, a human rights lawyer advocating peace in Colombia’s rural areas, during a talk about Colombia’s peace process and efforts in local communities to build peace. Esquivia’s comments add context to the on-going peace negotiations between Colombia’s government and the FARC in Havana, by discussing the local realities for human rights and land access, as well as the national climate around the talks.

Upcoming event: 

Cubans in the New Economy: Their Reflections and the U.S. Response

The Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University, and the National Foreign Trade Council Foundation are hosting a conference on November 13th to examine what have been called the most far-reaching changes Cuba has made to its economic model in half a century.

We invite you to hear directly from Cubans experiencing these changes, how their lives have been affected, and the challenges they face as Cuba’s growing private sector evolves and occupies a more prominent place in the national economic landscape.

For more information and to RSVP, click here.

2 Responses to Notes from the Alternate Universe Known as Reality

  1. […] Today thousands of Cubans are traveling abroad every month, many leaving the island for the first time. Anabel now finds herself on a two-week trip to Mexico City. She is staying at a friend’s house with women from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Germany, and Mexico. “It’s like a crew of lesbian feminists. It’s amazing. I’m so happy. It’s like a dream come true,” she told me between bites. […]

  2. […] thousands of Cubans are traveling abroad every month, many leaving the island for the first time. Anabel now […]

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