In a statement at the White House, President Obama paid tribute to Nelson Mandela who died Thursday at age 95:
“Today, he has gone home. And we have lost one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us — he belongs to the ages.
“For now, let us pause and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived — a man who took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.”
Nelson Mandela earned these beautiful words and even greater accolades long before President Obama was elected. But, the President’s comments were noteworthy because they were a sharp departure from how Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement he represented had been regarded by U.S. foreign policy.
“Until five years ago,” as AFP reported this morning, “(Mr.) Mandela and other members of the ANC remained on the U.S. terror watch list because of their armed struggle against the apartheid regime.”
In what it considered to be Cold War battlefields, in places like South Africa and Angola, where the battles were actually being fought over colonization and racism, Washington drew a tough line. South Africa and its ally Cuba fell onto the other side. For decades, Mandela and his African National Congress were considered terrorists by the United States. This also worked to the convenience of the hardline anti-communist opponents of the Cuban government.
Beginning in the early 1980s, Cuba was put on the State Sponsors of Terror List; punished, in part, for its intervention in southern Africa. This has done enduring damage to Cuba’s economy, with the sting of sanctions still being felt every day by Cubans and by international businesses engaged in commercial transactions with their government.
At times, Washington’s Cold War preoccupation with Cuban troops in Angola led it in odd directions. One of President Reagan’s National Security Decision Directives, dated May 7, 1987, contemplated using U.S. information efforts “to undermine Cuba’s ability to deploy troops in Angola through specially focused radio programming broadcast to Cuba by Radio Martí,” which suggests that the National Security Council had no idea the signals were jammed and that no Cuban could be affected by propaganda they couldn’t hear.
Cuba’s alliances in southern Africa meant something entirely different to people like Nelson Mandela. He called Cuba’s decisive role in Angola “a victory for all of Africa.” In a speech Mandela delivered in Cuba not long after he emerged from his 27-year imprisonment, he said:
“We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us.”
In the same speech he also said:
“We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of a vicious, imperialist-orchestrated campaign. We too want to control our own destiny.”
[You can see the gratitude he felt toward Cuba in this historical video when he implores Fidel Castro to visit South Africa.]
The same trip that brought Mandela to Cuba in 1991 also saw him come to the United States and brought him into contact with Americans who weren’t ready to canonize him.
An article published earlier this year, “When America Met Mandela,” relates a pointed exchange with Nightline Host Ted Koppel who challenged his right to meet with leaders of “rogue states” like Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, and Col. Gadhafi. “They support our struggle to the hilt,” Mandela told Koppel and proceeded to lecture him on gratitude and self-determination. “Any man who changes his principles according to whom he is dealing,” he told Koppel to applause from the audience, “that is not a man who can lead a nation.”
Those comments, according to the Miami Herald, “caused an official welcome planned for him to be rescinded,” and led five Cuban- American mayors to cancel their meeting with Mr. Mandela, sending a letter instead calling his comments “beyond reasonable comprehension.”
As he edged closer to the end of his life, cooler heads at least in Washington prevailed. In 2008, Congress passed, and President George W. Bush signed, legislation removing the African National Congress from the terrorist watch list.
You can see the bill here. Its evidence of how the United States finally came to view Mandela not as a terrorist but as a global leader of unparalleled moral standing.
Cuba was listed as a state sponsor of terror for reasons that included actions that Nelson Mandela believed led to his own freedom and the end of apartheid. The president could hardly offer a more fitting tribute than by removing Cuba from the terror list in Mandela’s memory and name.
On the fourth anniversary of his arrest in Cuba, Alan Gross, the former USAID subcontractor, wrote a letter to President Obama, describing the impact of his imprisonment on his life and his loved ones, and urged the president to take “whatever steps are necessary” to gain his release.
“As I reflect on these last four years, I find myself asking the same question – why? Why am I still here? With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government – the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare – has abandoned me. [Administration] Officials have expressed sympathy and called for my unconditional release, and I very much appreciate that. But it has not brought me home…
“I refuse to accept that my country would leave me behind. Mr. President, please take whatever steps are necessary to bring me home.”
Jay Carney, the White House Press Secretary, read a prepared statement about Mr. Gross when asked about his letter during the daily briefing. Carney said the President has personally engaged foreign leaders and other international figures to use their influence with Cuba to promote Mr. Gross’s release.” He called upon the Cuban government to release Mr. Gross, and said his detention “remains an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba.” But, when a reporter asked him if the President had seen Alan Gross’s letter, Mr. Carney said “I don’t know.”
Asked about the letter at the NATO summit, Secretary of State John Kerry implied that the U.S. could be involved in a negotiation, saying, “…these things are often best resolved in quiet diplomacy, under the radar screen, behind the scenes, and that is exactly what we have been pursuing.” The U.S. State Department released a statement calling, as it has in the past, for Cuba to “release Alan Gross immediately and unconditionally.”
During a vigil held outside the White House, the Havana Times reports that Judy Gross, Alan’s wife, rejected the State Department’s call for Gross’s unconditional release, and said if the U.S. government does not drop the, “‘unconditionally’, this will be a death sentence for Alan… Please Mr. President don’t leave Alan to die in Cuba.”
In November, a bipartisan group of 66 Senators wrote to President Obama urging him to “act expeditiously to take whatever steps are in the national interest to obtain his release.” This week, Sen. Patrick Leahy (VT) remarked that “instead of simply demanding Mr. Gross’ unconditional release – which has achieved nothing in four years, and which his family regards as a death sentence – they should not shrink from the obligation to negotiate for his freedom.”
Gross was sentenced to 15 years in Cuban prison for smuggling highly regulated satellite equipment to the island. Cuba’s government reiterated its willingness to negotiate Gross’s release with the United States. A statement released this week by Cuba’s Foreign Ministry states,
“Cuba understands the humanitarian concerns in the case of Mr. Gross, but believes that the United States government has direct responsibility for his situation and the situation of his family and as such, should work with Cuba’s government in search of a solution.”
NBC News reports that Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, Director General of the North American division of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, further expressed Cuba’s desire to negotiate stating:
“The Cuban government reiterates its readiness to immediately establish a dialogue with the United States government to find a solution to the case of Mr. Gross on a reciprocal basis, and which addresses the humanitarian concerns of Cuba relating to the case of the four Cuban anti-terrorist fighters in prison in the United States.”
Students with Semester at Sea, an undergraduate study abroad program, will dock in Cuba on December 9 for the first time in nine years, reports AFP. According to the program’s website, restrictions imposed during the administration of President George W. Bush kept the program from returning to Cuba since 2004. Semester at Sea obtained a license from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for educational travel to Cuba last June. At that time, the program issued a statement that said:
“Past field experiences in Cuba were some of the most powerful in the history of Semester at Sea for students, lifelong learners, faculty, and staff given the cultural richness and significant political history of the island nation… gaining approval to go back has remained a top priority for the Institute.”
Aboard the ship this semester are 586 students from more than 200 different, mostly U.S.-based universities. Students will dock in Havana for two days and, according to José Febles of the University of Havana, “attend lectures on history, politics and scientific development… and have interchanges with other students. They will … above all, have the opportunity to see firsthand the reality of Cuba.”
The Cuban Baseball Federation (CBF) received approval from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to participate in the 2014 Caribbean Baseball Series for the first time in 53 years, reports Prensa Latina.
The Caribbean Confederation announced the participation of Cuba’s team in June but, according to Prensa Latina, the U.S. State Department vetoed the decision on the grounds that it would violate the embargo.The CBF is waiting for formal confirmation from the Caribbean Baseball Series organizers, and to learn exactly on what terms their team will participate, reports Xinhua. Cuba plans to send its Villa Clara team, champion of the last National Series, to the competition. According to Renato Bermudez of ESPN Radio, the CBF will have to seek the renewal of approval from the U.S. Treasury Department every year.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Following a two and a half hour meeting with President Obama, Colombia’s President Santos answered a question about U.S. policy toward Cuba stating: “I believe that Cuba would be willing to change, and both sides have to give in some way. More freedoms and reforms in Cuba, and more understanding from the United States,” reports the AP. President Santos referred especially to “young people [in the U.S.] who see the blockade as obsolete and ineffective.”
In reference to the ongoing peace talks in Havana between Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrilla group, he said Cuba was chosen as the site because FARC members were more confident about their personal safety in Cuba. Cuba’s government “has been extremely collaborative” during the peace talks, he stated, adding that “I believe we made the right decision.”
The Cuban News Agency pointed out that Santos used the term “blockade and not the US-coined term embargo” in his remarks.
Bulgaria has agreed to cancel one of Cuba’s major debts to the country’s International Investment Bank (IIB), a sum of 178 € million, reports Standart. The loans were granted in the 1980s under the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON). The IIB will also restructure a separate debt of 35 € million. Mexico announced last month that it would forgive over $340 million of Cuba’s debt.
The number of foreign tourists visiting Cuba is down 1.2% since this time last year, reports Cuba Standard. Travel from the “Other” category, which includes the United States, has seen a 3.8% decrease, while travel from several European countries has also declined. However, travel has risen 1.8 % from Canada, 5.5% from Germany, 10.3% from Mexico, 18.9% from Venezuela, 31.5% from Chile, 4.9% from Colombia, and 15.1% from China.
Yet, domestic tourism has grown 12.6% in the last year. According to recent figures, 339,470 Cubans stayed in tourist hotels between January and July this year, making them the third-largest tourist segment after Canadian and U.S. visitors. Officials estimate that number will grow to 625,000 by the end of 2013.
2,240 families were evacuated in Havana as a result of torrential rains, which have caused flooding and building collapses, reports the BBC and Café Fuerte. There were 201 partial and 26 complete building collapses, and two people died due to a collapse in Central Havana.
Portia Siegelbaum of CBS News depicts the damage in Havana in this video.
In a period of 48 hours, over 15 inches of rain fell in the Havana Province, reports AIN. 841 evacuees were transferred to protection centers, while 1,399 are staying with family, friends, and neighbors. Francisco Sánchez Perdomo, president of the Evacuation Commission, announced that those affected will not be able to return to their homes until the conditions are evaluated and deemed safe; a process he said is already underway.
Heavy rains have also brought flooding to Cuba’s coastal and central regions. In October, approximately 1,433 people were evacuated in Cuba’s central province of Villa Clara due to heavy rains.
A law passed last month took effect in Havana, Artemisa, and Mayabeque this week allowing producers to sell agricultural goods in excess of state quotas directly to consumers at wholesale markets, reports the Argentina Independent. The reforms establish the wholesale markets on an experimental basis. Depending on the results of the trial period, the reforms may be implemented at the national level.
According to state newspaper Granma, some state enterprises will also begin selling other types of surplus items on an experimental wholesale basis, namely the Aluminum Production Enterprise, the José Martí Antilles Steelworks, Suchel Fragrances, Tannery and Leather, the Siguaney Cement factory, and the country’s Salt Enterprise.
José Luis Rodríguez García, who served as Cuba’s Minister of Economy and Planning from 1993 to 2009, estimates that Cuba’s currency unification process will take at least 3 years, reports Australian Associated Press. As we previously reported, Cuba’s Council of Ministers agreed in October to implement a schedule for measures that will lead to the eventual end of the country’s dual currency system, which has been in place for 20 years. The first phases of the reforms are expected to adjust exchange rates for business transactions. More detailed analysis from Rodríguez García is available here.
The convertible peso (CUC) was created in 2004 as a hard currency pegged to the dollar, functioning as the main tender in tourism and international trade, while the Cuban peso (CUP) is largely used to pay state salaries. Cubans have continued to receive their official state salaries in CUP, worth around 24-to-1 to the CUC at official exchange houses. That rate is subsidized for state entities, making the two currencies equal in official transactions. As we reported in October, Cuba’s government has already begun exchange rate experiments for the business sector.
Progreso Weekly recently published an analysis of currency reform in Cuba, featuring input from Rodríguez García and Vilma Hidalgo, a Cuban economics professor. They argue:
“All that monetary unification will do is create the conditions to improve economic activities and their measurement. Overcoming the problems that affect the production of goods and services and the population’s income and well-being will be possible only with a profound structural change in the economy. In other words, the profound structural change would be limited, or ineffective or nonexistent if not done in harmony with monetary unification.”
Cuba’s official newspaper wrote to commemorate the 100th birthday of Ñico Membiela, the famed bolero singer, who passed away in 1998, reports AFP. After leaving the island, Membiela’s music was banned on the radio. Policies toward musicians who left Cuba or were critical of Cuba’s government have become more relaxed recently, as Celia Cruz received airtime after her death, and other musicians have returned to the island to perform concerts.
Around the Region
El Salvador Monthly Update: November, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas
Linda Garrett, CDA’s Senior El Salvador Analyst, gives an update on developments in El Salvador on human rights, security, U.S.- El Salvador relations, and the country’s political landscape in the lead-up to presidential elections early next year. A monthly chronology of the country’s tenuous gang truce and peacemaking process can be found here. If you would like to receive the Monthly El Salvador Update via email, contact: ElSalvadorUpdate@democracyinamericas.org.
Honduras’ Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) will review vote tallies from the country’s November 24 presidential elections following candidate Xiomara Castro’s rejection of the results, which she said were tainted by fraud, reports AFP.
On Saturday, the TSE announced that Juan Orlando Hernández received 36.80% of the vote, while votes for Castro followed at 28.79%. Castro, supporters from the LIBRE party, and thousands of peaceful demonstrators have claimed that the results were manipulated to give the victory to conservative ruling-party member Hernández.
The AP reports that missions from the European Union and the Organization of American States acknowledged that up to 30% of registered voters either left Honduras a long time ago or are dead. Castro further claims that polling stations were poorly monitored and that vote tally sheets have been altered.
Cuba embargo perpetuates the problems, Sarah Stephens, Center for Democracy in the Americas
The Miami Herald this week published a written response to its November 24 editorial “Listen to Cuba’s Dissidents” by CDA Director Sarah Stephens.
“Time will tell if the recent remarks of President Obama and Secretary John Kerry herald a change in U.S. policy,” she writes. “On behalf of ordinary and extraordinary Cubans, in Cuba and Miami, who think the embargo perpetuates the problems the Herald seeks to address by keeping it in place, we hope they do.”
Preserving Life in Cuba for When the Climate Changes, Ivet González, Inter Press Service
Ivet González writes about the importance of Cuba’s substantial ecosystem preservation efforts, in the context of the growing threat of climate change. “Nature reserves act as a safe deposit box for biodiversity and contribute to adaptation to climate change,” the author writes.
Cuba reforms seen as changing ideals, values, Andrea Rodríguez, Associated Press
Andrea Rodríguez gives a brief history of Cuba’s “socialist contract,” profiling perceptions in Cuba of the country’s changing economy, from those who have embraced entrepreneurship to elderly pensioners who feel that the recent economic reforms are leaving them behind.
Alan Gross, a soldier left behind in Cuba, Tracey Eaton, Havana Times
Independent journalist Tracey Eaton argues that Gross was essentially a U.S. soldier on a regime-change operation with technology as his weapon.
Analysis: U.S. sanctions make Cuba’s bank account too toxic for banks, David Adams, Reuters
Adams analyzes the recent closure of Cuba’s consulate services in the U.S. due to a lack of banks willing to work with the consulates. He notes that Cuba has refrained from taking “reciprocal action against the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana,” and highlights how contradictory the sanctions against banks are to President Obama’s policy goal of promoting “people-to-people” ties.
U.S.-Cuba money transactions could get more complicated, Juan O. Tamayo, Miami Herald
This article details concern among the travel industry and Cuba experts that in the future additional banks could be unwilling to handle Cuba transactions such as payments for the booking of hotels and remittances. This is a result of the continued U.S. embargo against Cuba and the difficulty of navigating related laws such as the Trading with the Enemy Act, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the Patriot Act, the Bank Secrecy Act, and the Antiterrorism Act of 1996.
Martí-Noticias cheats U.S. law, Yadira Escobar, Progreso Weekly
Yadira Escobar profiles Martí Noticias and claims that its operations are in violation of a U.S. law that prohibits the “broadcast of programs funded by Congress to U.S. territory.” Martí Noticias made news in October when it was revealed that its funding was not frozen during the government shutdown, thus deemed “essential to the national security” by the U.S. government.
Open letter to President Obama on normalizing relations with Cuba, Nelson Valdes, Progreso Weekly
Nelson Valdes, a Cuban-American scholar who first came to the U.S. in 1961 under Operation Peter Pan, urges President Obama to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba through commuting the sentences of the Cuban Five. “In doing so you will be earning the appreciation of the Cubans who are now U.S. citizens as well as of our relatives on the island,” he writes. He argues it would “mark a profound departure from past policies” and “will trigger the release of American citizen Alan Gross….both the people of the United States and Cuba would benefit.”
A Cuba Book For Obama’s Xmas Stocking, Dawn Gable, Havana Times
Dawn Gable reviews Marc Frank’s book, “Cuban Revelations,” which she recommends as a Christmas gift to Cubaphiles and President Obama alike. She writes: “The treatment is appropriately contextualized -temporally, geopolitically, and meteorologically- and told with the preciseness of an old-school journalist, the detail known only by a witness, and the familiarity reserved for those exceptional foreigners who have managed to insert themselves into local life. This book is based on solid sources, first hand investigation, “behind the scenes” access, and an understanding of Cuba and Cubans that is very, very rare.”
After 50 Years, Cuba Says Its Baseball Players Can Go Abroad, Nick Miroff, NPR
Baseball season is just underway in Cuba and for the first time in 50 years, Cuban baseball players will be able to sign professional contracts to play abroad. Nick Miroff details what changes this new policy is likely to bring to the island and to professional teams overseas.
Reasons…Knowledge, Conscience and Realities, Eric Leenson
This video, made in Cuba and directed by Lizette Vila of the Palomas Project, discusses the emergence of social entrepreneurs in Cuba’s rapidly changing economy. The video features interviews of Cuban cuentapropistas, and explores rising interest in social and solidarity economics within Cuba’s increasingly decentralized enterprise environment.