The Post, The Times, and the Cuba Consular Service Cut Off

This week, it seemed like the train left the tracks at the Washington Post.

In its editorial, “Cuba’s changes are no more than window dressing,” the editorial board’s routine scolding of Cuba’s government became unusually frenzied when it compared the digital alteration of pictures, removing a hearing aid normally seen in Fidel Castro’s ear, to “the modern day version of Stalinist airbrushing.”

A similar tone of desperation marched into coverage by TV Martí, which recently spent more than 3 minutes of its news broadcast questioning Rep. Kathy Castor’s motives for bringing Cuba’s top diplomat in the U.S., José Ramón Cabañas, to her Tampa, Florida district on a trip that was approved by the U.S. State Department.

We share the wonder of CAFÉ, Cuban Americans for Engagement, when one arm of the United States government, Radio/TV Martí, spends taxpayer money attacking a member of Congress for helping to carry out the policies of the executive branch.

While newspapers in our country don’t speak with one voice – and the Los Angeles Times showed again this week how it whips the Post in its understanding of what’s really happening in Cuba and globally – we do expect clarity and competence from the U.S. government in implementing its policy, and we think it should be called out when it doesn’t meet that standard.

For more than six months, the administration has known that M&T Bank was pulling out of the business of providing financial services to embassies’ consular operations.  While there’s never been a particularly clear explanation for its decision, we do know that M&T – like others in its industry – faced regulatory risks in the post 9/11 environment, and that M&T had a takeover delayed by the Federal Reserve because of its concerns with the bank’s anti-money-laundering compliance program.

Even as the State Department and Cuba’s government have labored to find a financial institution willing to submit to the risks which drove M&T from the business – and thus enable American travelers to Cuba to have their visas processed by the Cuban Interests Section – this is not getting to the larger problem.

We have an incoherent U.S. policy that promotes travel by Americans of Cuban descent and other hand-picked categories of U.S. travelers, but makes it illegal for most other Americans to visit the island; one U.S. policy that identifies travel as a unique means for reaching out to the Cuban people, while others – including Cuba’s false, politically-driven inclusion on the State Sponsors of Terror list –  put real restraints on the financial transactions needed for families to visit families in Cuba and for people-to-people exchanges to take place.

Of course, Cuba should be removed from the State Sponsors List. No, we don’t believe that Cuba’s government is engaging in “blatant emotional blackmail,” as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen alleged. Using the travel cut-off to pressure the U.S. into unwinding its position on the terror list simply doesn’t make sense because, frankly, tourism is good for Cuba’s economy and the businesses of its private entrepreneurs.

A temporary work-around that gets banking services restored to Cuba’s consular services will be a good first-step, but more is needed.  As we reported last week, a majority of Americans and an even larger majority of Floridians believe that fundamental changes in U.S. – Cuba policy ought to be made.

Among them, as the Associated Press previously reported, is a Cuban-American powerbroker named Jorge Pérez.  His wealth just enabled him to open a museum in Miami and, unlike the Washington Post, Mr. Pérez probably knows a relic when he sees one.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Blame-casting follows failure to resolve U.S. travel visas cut-off

A week after Cuba’s government shut down visa processing following the loss of its banking services with M&T Bank, the search for solutions to the problem is now sharing the stage with a blame-casting competition.

As we reported last week, the Cuban Interests Section was forced to suspend consular services after it were unable to find a bank to replace M&T. M&T announced last year, without much explanation, it was pulling out of the consular affairs business, but continued extending services temporarily to the Cuba’s government until a replacement bank could be found.

As Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive asks, “Why, amidst a thaw in relations, hasn’t the administration found a solution to this very aggravating problem?”

After reaching out to more than 50 banks in order to find a solution, the U.S. Department of State says it identified a “workable solution” but Cuban officials failed to pursue it effectively, as The Hill is now reporting.

However, the Cuban Interests Section says in a statement that it has made “huge” efforts over the last eight months to find new banking services, but U.S. policy impedes its ability to do so:

“In spite of the huge efforts made, as a result of the restrictions in force, derived from the policy of economic, commercial and financial blockade by the U.S. government against Cuba, it has been impossible for the Interests Section to find a U.S.-based bank that could operate the bank accounts of the Cuban diplomatic missions.”

Regulations on banking transactions related to Cuba and other sanctioned countries have caused banks to be leery of handling such transactions, Reuters reported in November 2013.

report issued in December of 2013 by the Havana Consulting Group (English breakdown here) found that over 569,000 U.S.-based travelers went to Cuba in 2013. Many of the travelers were Cuban-Americans who spent an estimated $665 million in Cuba. Reuters reported that the suspension of visa services could hurt the already cash-strapped island.

Miami-Dade Commission debates Odebrecht USA contract on Miami International Airport

Another attempt to delay the Airport City development project, planned to encompass Miami International Airport, was stopped by a tied vote by Miami-Dade’s County Commission this week, reports the Miami Herald.

The project has been long delayed by pro-embargo critics because Odebrecht USA, the contractor company selected build Airport City, is tied to Cuba indirectly through its Brazilian parent company, which also has a subsidiary in Cuba.

Although Odebrecht USA was selected for the project and a contract – though not yet signed – had already been negotiated, Commissioner Esteban Bovo proposed that the county consider alternative proposals, reports the Miami Herald. After the tense 6-6 vote, negotiations will be able to continue.

Previous efforts at halting Odebrecht USA’s activities in Florida have included the passage of a law, later declared unconstitutional, banning state government contracts with companies that have any financial ties to Cuba.

Illinois Cuba Working Group to host conference at the Illinois Department of Agriculture

The Illinois Cuba Working Group will host a conference at the Illinois Department of Agriculture next Thursday, reports Cuba Standard. Members of the working group include Illinois State Representatives, the Illinois Farm Bureau, and the Illinois Department of Agriculture, as well as Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, Chamber of Commerce, and Alimport, the government agency that coordinates overseas purchases.

Members of the group from the U.S. want to open a trade office in Cuba and plan to lobby the U.S. Congress to amend the Trade Sanctions Reform Act (TSRA) to allow the import of Cuban products and the sale of U.S. agricultural products on credit.

Miami students host Twitter debate on the embargo

Students at the Miami Lakes Educational Center, a high school and vocational training center, hosted a Twitter debate on the U.S. embargo against Cuba on Wednesday, reports El Nuevo Herald. The activity was organized by the school newspaper The Harbinger. Flavia Cuervo, a Harbinger reporter, told El Nuevo Herald the issue of the embargo interests her because it is normally something that only older generations discuss. According to Cuervo, the activity generated hundreds of Tweets, which she chronicles here. Students, as well as journalists, professors, and the public, were invited to participate using the hashtag “#EmbargoTalk.”

Cuba makes Hemingway documents available to U.S. researchers

Cuba has made copies of more than 2,000 documents belonging to Ernest Hemingway available to U.S. researchers, reports AFP. The documents, located in Hemingway’s former house-turned- museum, Finca Vigia, were digitized and sent to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. The documents include a telegram Hemingway received in 1954 notifying him of his Nobel Prize in Literature (“for his mastery of the art of narrative…demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea,” written in Cuba), as well as passports, letters, bar bills and even recipes.

The release of documents is the second largest from Finca Vigia, following 3,000 digitized images donated to the Kennedy Library in 2008.

The National Association of Sugar Mill Owners of Cuba criticizes Fanjul

The National Association of Sugar Mill Owners of Cuba responded to recent comments by sugar-magnate Alfonso Fanjul with a full-page advertisement in this past Sunday’s Miami Herald, reports CBS Miami. The U.S.-based Association, whose members are former owners of sugar mills in Cuba, joined the protests of Cuban-American elected officials, saying: “…so there is no confusion, this Association stands united with Cuba’s internal democratic opposition and civil society against the Castro regime.” Fanjul, who is a member of the organization and whose family left the island at the start of the Castro government, recently discussed with the Washington Post his regular visits to the island and willingness to consider business opportunities there “under the right circumstances.”

 CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

EU reaches out to Cuba to open negotiations

The European Union has opened negotiations with Cuba’s government to develop  closer economic ties, report Reuters and MSN News. Although the EU is still waiting for an official response from Cuba’s government, the EU is hopeful that engagement will lead to further improvements in relations.

As Gianni Pittella, Vice-president of the European Parliament, told Reuters, “Besides trade and investment, I hope it will be possible to begin a structured dialogue with Cuban civil society and with those who support a peaceful transition on the island.”

While four Member countries “felt it was not yet the time” for negotiations, an EU official said, “in the end, the majority was able to convince them that negotiating with Cuba would be a more effective way of bringing change.”

Meanwhile, Cuba’s government acknowledges its need to expand and diversify its economic allies: “Cuba is becoming more and more realistic in searching for economic partners,” said former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray, adding, “[p]olicy will be nuanced by this more pragmatic and realist approach.”

In the past, EU member countries have been hesitant to promote relations with Cuba, citing the government’s human rights record. However, they now note new Cuban policies, including its five-year plan for economic reforms, are bringing changes to the island. The EU is already Cuba’s largest source of foreign investment, but the EU has eyed potential opportunities, such as seafood trade or at the new Mariel sea port. In a recent segment on state television, Ariel Terreno, economic analyst, suggested that potential foreign investment in state-run businesses be incorporated into national plans for increasing production and wages. This may foreshadow Cuba’s intent to accept the EU’s invitation to engage in talks.

North Korean ship returns to Cuba

A North Korean ship seized by Panamanian officials last July, after a search of the ship found it was carrying undeclared Cuban weapons in an apparent violation of the UN arms embargo, returned to Cuba this week, reports BBC News and Al Jazeera. The Panama Canal Authority released the ship and 32 of the 35 crew members after North Korea paid nearly $700,000 in fines. The captain, first officer, and political officer still face arms trafficking charges that could result in sentences of up to 12 years.

UN sanctions forbid any country from providing North Korea with arms, and the shipment’s discovery resulted in an UN investigation in November. Panamanian officials say they will sell or give away the 240 tons of arms while the more than 200,000 sacks of sugar will be sold to companies interested in converting it into ethanol.

Cuba condemns civil unrest in Venezuela

Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned alleged coup attempts and the destructive attacks on public institutions and vehicles in Venezuela, reports Prensa Latina. Cuba expressed support for Venezuela’s government, concluding:

“Cuba reaffirms, as well, its unconditional support to the brave and visible efforts of President Maduro and of the political-military leadership of the Bolivarian Revolution to preserve peace, integrate all sectors of the country and propel the socio-economic development of that fraternal nation.”

To read the full statement, see here.

John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State, has criticized the “senseless violence” in Venezuela and the detention of anti-government protesters.

IN CUBA

Workers Union annual meeting to address economic reforms, approve new Labor Code

The 20th annual meeting of the Worker’s Central Union (CTC) of Cuba this week will address issues related to the country’s economic reforms process, reports El Nuevo Herald. 1,200 delegates from across the country will attend the meeting to discuss issues such as low state salaries. The meeting convened February 20 and will run through February 22. At the plenary session on February 22, the CTC intends to pass a new Labor Code which Parliament approved last December.

The new Code, the country’s main labor law, has been updated to align with Cuba’s economic reforms process. Ulises Guilarte, president of the organizing committee said that while state employees are most concerned with the need for a higher salary, private sector workers have also asked for greater availability of wholesale goods for their businesses. The CTC has 3.5 million members, 250,000 of which are private sector workers. There are nearly 447,000 private sector workers in the country, 65% of which are unionized, according to El Nuevo Herald. At the end of the meeting, members will elect new leaders for the CTC.

One killed and 71 injured in bus accident

On Monday morning, a truck being used as a passenger bus in the Eastern province of Granma crashed, landed upside down, and left one teenager dead and 71 other passengers injured, report the AP and Café Fuerte. This is the second bus accident in the high-traffic Bayamo area this month; the first, on February 9th, injured seventeen people. Although Monday’s accident is still being investigated, initial reports indicated that the truck was overloaded and not properly equipped to be carrying so many passengers. In Cuba, traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for non-infant children and the number five killer of all age groups. Diario de Cuba reports that in 2013 there were 11,685 vehicle accidents, causing 687 deaths.

New campaign for constitutional reform

Cuban dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua is organizing a campaign to push Cuba’s National Assembly to pass a constitutional reform that would allow for a multi-party system, reports AFP. Cuesta Morua must collect 10,000 signatures in order to submit the measure for consideration. Oswaldo Payá, the now-deceased political activist who led the Christian Liberation Movement, led a similar movement in 2002; however, the National Assembly defeated the measure while affirming that Cuba was a one-party state. Twelve years later, Cuesta Morua thinks now might be a more opportune time for this type of political reform. He stated, “It is more important to change the nature of power than to change those exercising power.”

International tourism brought Cuba $1.8 billion in 2013

Earlier this week, the Cuban Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI) released data that showed that tourism on the island generated $1.8 billion in 2013, reports El Nuevo Herald. The statistics measure revenues generated through industries that include food, lodging, transportation, and commerce. The figure represents a 2% increase in revenue from 2012 and a 0.5% increase in visitors.

More than 5,000 Cuban patients have received stem cell treatment

More than 5,000 Cubans, living in 13 of the island’s 15 provinces, have benefited from stem cell treatment since it was introduced in Cuba ten years ago, reports EFE. It is used to treat patients with illnesses including ischemia (a restriction in the flow of blood). Cuba considers itself an important player in the development of stem cell therapy, which involves the insertion of new cells into damaged areas to treat disease and injuries.

Around the Region

The crisis in Venezuela: An update

Dr. Dan Hellinger, CDA Advisory Board member and professor at Webster University, writes this month’s Caracas Connect about the recent political violence in Venezuela and what is at stake for the country, giving political context and highlighting the economic factors relevant to the crisis.

If you would like to receive Caracas Connect via email, contact:  CaracasConnect@democracyinamericas.org

El Salvador: Second round polling gives FMLN huge lead

Linda Garrett, CDA’s senior analyst on El Salvador, lays out the most recent numbers in anticipation of El Salvador’s runoff presidential election.

Upcoming Event

March 15th Conference: “US/Cuba Relations, the Second Obama Administration: The Cuban-American Community and changes in Cuba – Building bridges for better relations”

Cuban Americans For Engagement (CAFE), in partnership with FORNORM, Generación Cambio Cubano, and Cuba Educational Travel, is hosting a one-day conference on March 15, 2014 in Miami. Panelists will include Silvia Wilhelm of Puentes Cubanos Inc., FIU Law Professor and CubaNews co-owner Antonio Zamora, FIU Professor Dr. Guillermo Grenier, Yasmin Portales of Proyecto Arcoiris, and Roberto Veiga and Lenier González, co-editors of Espacio Laical. For more information, see this announcement.

Recommended Reading

Cuba: U.S. Policy and Issues for the 113th Congress, Mark P. Sullivan, Congressional Research Service

The Congressional Research Service has released its report on Cuba for the 113th Congress. This is an authoritative briefing published periodically for use by Members of Congress by the research arm of the Library of Congress on policy issues relevant to U.S. relations with the island’s government.

Time for US policy change on Cuba, Financial Times Editorial

Financial Times recaps the recent developments in U.S. – Cuba policy, arguing that, “The moment has never been more propitious for a fresh approach.”

Crist and Cuba: Is Florida Ready for an Embargo Reversal?, Kelley Mitchell and Tim Padgett, WLRN

Mitchell and Padgett look at the why Florida gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist recently adopted a position against the U.S. embargo on Cuba, noting, “it may well stem from the fact that a majority of Cuban-Americans themselves told the Arsht pollsters they want broader U.S. engagement with Cuba.” They ask what the consequences of Crist’s statements will be in Florida’s upcoming gubernatorial elections.

No one will fix it, if they don’t think it’s broken, Mirta Ojito, Miami Herald

Mirta Ojito draws a parallel between those opposed to immigration reform and those opposed to ending the Cuban embargo; in both debates, “stasis” has set in. She writes, “this country, this Congress seems to have lost the art of negotiating. We are stuck in place, recycling old slogans and themes and going for the solution that ruffles the least number of feathers.”

Recommended Viewing

Cuba Calling, Juliana Fanjul, Al Jazeera

Filmmaker Juliana Fanjul’s documentary reflects on the impacts of change in Cuba. In a rural mountain town in Cuba, one telephone unites community members and provides a link beyond the village. As mobile phones arrive, she asks, “What will the social costs of this transition be?”

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One Response to The Post, The Times, and the Cuba Consular Service Cut Off

  1. […] issue arose when the Cuban Interests Section was forced to suspend consular activities in March upon losing banking services. Cuban passports are valid for six years, […]

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