“I am Castro” and the handshake that still grips US

“I am Castro.”

Until yesterday, we knew what they did but not what was said.

According to Cuba’s former president, Fidel Castro, when the Presidents of the United States and Cuba shook hands in South Africa ten days ago, Raúl Castro spoke to Barack Obama in English:  “Mr. President, I am Castro.”

These were not the ten days that shook the world, so why is this event still gripping us?

We can appreciate the impact it had in Cuba. As we described last week, Cubans reacted strongly because they did not expect Mr. Obama to offer his Cuban counterpart the recognition and respect that his greeting conveyed.

After all, a handshake is the physical manifestation of equality; quite literally, no one has the “upper-hand.”

To Cubans – after being marginalized and snubbed by a virtual conga line of eleven American presidents – this gesture offered hope.

That hope may be optimistic, since the two presidents who have done this (Bill Clinton offered a similar greeting to Fidel Castro in 2000) shook with one hand but enforced the embargo, quite aggressively at times, with the other.

U.S. Presidents shake hands with foreign leaders all the time.  But, here in the U.S., Americans are paying close attention to this story.  Why?  Cuba interests us.  More Cubans live in our country than any place on Earth outside of the island itself. And yet, Cuba is a forbidden fruit.  Most Americans can’t travel there.  Most businesses can’t sell there.

Many Americans may not know the Helms-Burton law, which makes it impossible for a president to recognize Cuba unless it forms a transitional government that “does not include Fidel Castro or Raúl Castro.”

But that statute enshrines our isolation from Cuba into law – an isolation that can only end with an Act of Congress – an isolation that will continue when the Cuban government celebrates its 54th anniversary in power on January 1, 2014.

The law is not just a warmed-over Cold War anachronism, it locks us into a strategic error that really hurts U.S. interests.

If we ever hope to end the stalemate between our two governments, and begin a process that seeks to resolve the problems that divide us, the most meaningful agreement we can reach will be negotiated by the man who said “I am Castro,” as reported by his older brother.

No name in Cuba, no bureaucrat who succeeds them, will have the historic credibility to sign an agreement that the United States finds acceptable and make it stick.

If we do not talk now, because the hardliners who wrote Helms-Burton – or the hardliners of today – force us to wait for what some call a “biological solution,” until both Castros leave the scene, our government will be waiting for a favorable solution to this problem for a long, long time to come.

You will not be hearing from us again until January 10th.  We hope you enjoy our break with a happy celebration of your own.


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

Last month, the Center for Democracy in the Americas brought five Cubans to the U.S. to discuss the economic changes underway on the island, and describe how those changes are affecting the lives of Cubans. This video, taken at a conference CDA cohosted at the George Washington University, features our Cuban guests, plus Alex Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14), and several other experts.

Yamina Vicente, who has opened a party decorations business, said: “A couple years ago in Cuba, creating a micro-enterprise was something in books, something in speeches, something in theory. Now, we can see that creating a micro-enterprise in Cuba has transcended discourse and become a reality.”

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

Cuba ends car import ban and allows the sale of new and used cars

This week, new regulations were announced in Cuba’s state newspaper Granma to allow Cubans to buy and sell new vehicles without government authorization, reports Reuters. In 2011, Cuba’s government removed restrictions on the sale of used cars, while maintaining the requirement of a government authorization to purchase new cars from state retailers.

These new rules “eliminate existing mechanisms of approval for the purchase of motor vehicles from the state,” with officials explaining that the authorization letter mechanism had become “inadequate and obsolete.” The article also acknowledges the corruption and black market activities that had plagued the authorization process, saying that “the existence of another market which often sells at prices many times higher than that of state vendors” was a source of anger and frustration for Cubans. Money saved by eliminating the authorization process will be used to fund public transport on the island.

Since officially assuming his office, President Raúl Castro has implemented widespread reforms, opened the economy for self-employment, permitted the sale and purchase of homes and cars, encouraged cooperatives and collaborations between the state and the private sector, and created the island’s first wholesale markets, among other reforms. Most recently, the government has discussed plans to do away with its dual-currency system.

About the process, President Castro recently stated: “We are beginning to see the first encouraging results, however, it is also true that there is a long and complex road ahead in modernizing our economic and social model,” reports Xinhua. Those changes are gradually changing the pace of life in Cuba, reports Peter Orsi for the Associated Press: “Suddenly, automobile traffic is picking up in Havana. There are appointments to be kept, private businesses to tend and deals to be made in a rush to get ahead.”

Travel and remittances to Cuba by émigrés has risen since reforms

More Cuban émigrés have visited Cuba since major immigration reforms that make it easier to enter and exit the country took effect in January, reports AFP. The article reports that athletes and musician émigrés who had previously been considered “deserters” or “traitors” have recently returned to the island to visit and sometimes perform. Among them are musicians Issac Delgado, Tanya Rodríguez y Manolín, el Médico de la Salsa, and Lili Rentería.

As we reported in November, many Cubans residing on the island have also taken advantage of the new reforms to travel off the island. Over 225,000 trips abroad by Cubans have been registered since the reforms took effect in January.

2013 was also a record year for remittances to Cuba, reports Café Fuerte. According to a study by the Havana Consulting Group, remittances to Cuba grew 6.57% over last year. By the end of the year, the report estimates that Cubans living outside of the island will have sent over $2.77 billion to Cuba, with $2.49 billion coming from the United States alone.


Chinese company to supply 34 wind turbines to Cuba

In the biggest wind power deal for Cuba thus far, Xinjiang Goldwind Science & Technology Co. announced that it would supply the island with 34 wind turbines totaling a capacity of 51 megawatts, reports Cuba Standard. This deal comes during a renewed push by Cuba’s government for greater wind, biomass and solar projects. This is Goldwind’s second sale to Cuba; the company previously sold turbines to Cuba in 2009 to help expand the Gibara wind park. The wind turbines will be installed at Herradura beach in the province of Las Tunas, and are expected to be completed by June 2015.

Mais Medicos may contract more Cuban doctors next year

President Dilma Rousseff, announced Brazil’s government will evaluate in March whether the Mais Médicos program will require more doctors, reports Cuba Standard. According to officials, the number of doctors in the program, which serves impoverished areas of the country, will double from 6,500 to 13,000 by the time the program is reviewed in March.

Currently, 5,400 of the 6,500 foreign doctors working in Brazil as a part of Mais Médicos are in the country through a contract between Brazil’s government, Cuba’s Government, and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO). Brazil has already increased the number of Cuban doctors contracted, last month adding 3,000 Cuban doctors to the 2,400 who were then already in-country.

Cruise ship begins journey around Cuba

This week, the cruise ship LV Louis Cristal began weekly trips around the island of Cuba, reports the Miami Herald. Though the ship is owned by a Cyprus-based company, it has been chartered by Canada’s Cuba Cruise for the weekly trips through March 24th. The vessel, which holds 1,200 passengers, will stop in Havana, Holguín, Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and Punta Francés. According to the report, a number of previous attempts at making Cuba into a tour destination failed, largely due to U.S. sanctions which forbid any ship that has docked at a Cuban port from docking at a U.S. port for six months.


Fidel Castro writes about the handshake, meets with Spanish journalist

Cuba’s former President Fidel Castro wrote a column this week discussing subjects including Nelson Mandela, apartheid and the handshake between his brother and President Obama. In the column, he praised his brother, President Raúl Castro, for shaking hands with President Obama, reports Reuters. The column is available in Spanish here. Fidel Castro writes,

“I congratulate Comrade Raúl for his brilliant performance (at the memorial), and especially for his firmness and dignity when with a friendly but firm greeting to the head of government of the United States he said in English, ‘Mr. President, I am Castro.'”

Fidel Castro also met with Ignacio Ramonet, a Spanish journalist, for two hours at his home on Friday, reports Havana Times and AP. Ramonet had previously interviewed Castro for his book, One Hundred Hours with Fidel. This interview was related to his latest book, Hugo Chavez: Mi primera vida. The meeting coincided with the 19th anniversary of the first meeting between Castro and the late President Chávez.

Cuban woman to travel to U.S. to give sister bone marrow transplant

Alina Ortega, a Cuban nurse who was initially denied a tourist visa in order to give a marrow bone transplant to her sister with leukemia, has been granted an emergency visa, after officials at the U.S. Interest Section in Havana reviewed her case, reports the Miami Herald. Originally, Ortega had received a negative response to her visa request which stated that she “had not been able to show that the purpose of her trip to the United States was consistent with classification of the non-immigrant visa” she had requested. According to her sister, she was given another appointment on Thursday. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) stated that officials at the U.S. Interests Section had agreed to the decision after they were contacted by her office.

Around the Region

USAID cancels assistance programs in Ecuador

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has canceled aid assistance to Ecuador after two years of failed negotiations, reports Reuters and the Christian Science Monitor. Ecuador’s government had refused to approve further USAID programming without a new, official agreement governing bilateral assistance. The aid was expected to total $32 million in the coming years.

The USAID office in Ecuador will close in September. Martí Noticias reports that the Technical Secretariat/Ministry of International Cooperation of Ecuador (SETECI) had previously informed USAID that it would not “implement any new activity nor extend implementation deadlines of projects until our Governments negotiate and sign a new framework on the implementation of country assistance that will take place in the context of the next political bilateral dialogues.”

U.S. and Ecuador expelled ambassadors from both countries following a fallout that stemmed from a cable published by Wikileaks in 2011. This is the second time this year that a USAID assistance program had to leave Latin America; President Morales of Bolivia expelled the agency in May.

U.S. Ambassador, in response to Congressional letter, states U.S. will not intervene in El Salvador’s presidential election

“We [The United States] will not intervene in any way [in the 2014 presidential elections],” said Mari Carmen Aponte, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, reports La Página. Aponte’s statements came after 51 U.S. Representatives signed a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asking for U.S. neutrality in the country’s upcoming presidential elections.

In past elections, members of Congress such as Rep. Rohrabacher (CA-48), and then-Representatives Tancredo (CO-6) and Burton (IN-5) made veiled threats against the immigration status of Salvadorans living in the U.S and their ability to send remittances home to boost the chances of El Salvador’s right in the nation’s elections.

Congressman Juan Vargas, (CA-51), whose office co-sponsored the letter, stated: “I believe is it essential for the United States to support a free, fair and transparent electoral process in El Salvador.”

In a statement released by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, Sarah Stephens said, “Rather than tipping the scales toward one candidate or party, as previous administrations have done, we urge the U.S. government to treat El Salvador like the democracy it is and to allow all Salvadoran voters to express their preferences at the ballot box free of foreign influence – including ours.”

Michelle Bachelet re-elected as President of Chile

On Sunday, Dr. Michelle Bachelet easily won her presidential reelection bid in Chile in a run-off election, reports Reuters and Al Jazeera. President-elect Bachelet was Chile’s first female president, and last held office between 2006 and 2010. This time, she won 62% of the vote, the highest proportion of votes since Chile reinstated democratic elections in 1989. Her opponent, Evelyn Matthei, received 38% of the vote, the worst showing by a conservative candidate in twenty years. Dr. Bachelet vowed 50 reforms in her first 100 days; specifically, she has promised to reform the education and electoral system and to amend the Pinochet-era constitution.

Reforms will require negotiation, as the Chilean Congress is divided. Following her victory, Dr. Bachelet received a congratulatory phone call from outgoing President Sebastian Piñera. She will take office in March. To read a statement by the U.S. State Department congratulating Dr. Bachelet and the Chilean people, see here.

Caracas Connect: December Update, Dr. Dan Hellinger, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Dr. Dan Hellinger, CDA Advisory Board member and Webster University professor writes on developments in Venezuela and U.S.-Venezuela relations, looking at the results of the country’s recent municipal and mayoral elections, as well as the U.S. response to the elections. If you would like to receive Caracas Connect via email, contact: CaracasConnect@democracyinamericas.org.

Recommended Reading

Rapid Changes: A View From Cuba, Jaime Hamre, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Jaime Hamre, CDA’s Stephen M. Rivers Intern, reflects on her time spent studying in Cuba and the changes she witnessed during her stay. Economic reforms are affecting the lives of Cubans, she writes, which is why she was excited to help coordinate CDA’s recent conference about Cuba’s changing economy.

Time to invest in Cuba?, Eduard van Nes, Growth Business

“Times are changing,” Eduard van Nes writes. In this piece, Van Nes takes a look at the inflow of investment on the island from countries other than the United States, as well as economic opportunities, and the growth of entrepreneurship in Cuba.

Tampa man lived history between U.S., Cuba, Paul Guzzo, Tampa Tribune

Abelardo Arteaga shares stories of his lifetime of support for Cuba and the Cuban people with Paul Guzzo of the Tampa Tribune. Now 91 years old, Arteaga has one wish left: “To see the embargo lifted.”

Cuba’s baseball revolution: Why players are turning pro, Sarah Rainsford, BBC News

Recent reforms lifted a ban on Cuba’s athletes, allowing them to compete professionally abroad. This article examines this new opportunity through the lens of Cuba’s most popular sport: baseball. Despite reforms, U.S. sanctions still prevent Cubans from playing professionally in the U.S.

Cubans fall in love with South Korean Soaps, Rigoberto Díaz, Agence France-Presse

Joining existing Latin American telenovelas, South Korean soap operas are now among the most popular shows on the island. Rigoberto Díaz details the growing popularity of South Korean soap operas in Cuba, and discusses how they’ve become so popular.

How US can join El Salvador in combating international gangs, Rubén Zamora, Ambassador of El Salvador to the United States, Christian Science Monitor

El Salvador’s Ambassador Rubén Zamora writes about the need for the United States to cooperate with El Salvador in new ways to combat gang violence and crime.

Recommending Viewing

Cuba economic reforms hurting the poor, experts warn, Portia Siegelbaum, CBS News

While economic reforms in Cuba can be seen as a way to promote economic growth, Portia Siegelbaum reports that investments in Cuba are concentrated in predominantly white, middle and upper class areas, which negatively impacts rural areas and Afro-Cuban communities.

Cuba’s Film Makers Pursue Celluloid Dreams, Daniel Schweimler, Al Jazeera

On the occasion of the 35th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema taking place in Havana, Cuba, Al Jazeera explores the optimism, as well as the frustrations and challenges of independent filmmakers looking to achieve their cinematic dreams in Cuba.

Portraits from the streets of Havana, Cuba, Chris Burkard, Matador Network

Photographer Chris Burkard captures the beauty and wonder of Havana during a recent trip to Cuba. In the photo series, Burkard “aimed to draw viewers in with an intimate look into Cuban culture and its energetic capital.”

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