No Introduction

“Let me now introduce someone who needs no introduction.”

It is a weird custom of the Washington windbag to follow sentences like this with a lengthy introduction of the next speaker.

Normally, this is pointless, since that person is most often well-known to everyone within the sound of the speaker’s voice, but the introduction is made nonetheless.

In that spirit, we’d like to begin the News Blast this week with some introductions of our own.

Let’s start with Assistant Secretaries of State Roberta Jacobson and Tom Malinowski who, as McClatchy reported, testified this week against imposing punitive economic sanctions on Venezuela.

Jacobson, who spoke for State’s Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that hitting Venezuela’s government with sanctions as a tactic to cool its political crisis “would serve to reinforce a narrative of the Venezuelan government standing up to the United States — rather than the Venezuelan people standing up for themselves.”

Malinowski, speaking for State’s Human Rights Bureau, added on sanctions:  “They work in some places, they don’t work everywhere. Timing is extremely important.”

These top State Department policymakers who oppose sanctions on Venezuela should discuss their “counterproductive” effects with the people who maintain our fifty-plus year old embargo on the government and people of Cuba.

While we’re at it, let’s also introduce the State Department policymakers who track Cuba on the fight against illegal drugs and terrorism.

In March, when the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs released a report giving high marks to Cuba’s counter-narcotics efforts, it said “Cuba demonstrates increasing willingness to apprehend and turn over U.S. fugitives and to assist in U.S. judicial proceedings by providing documentation, witnesses and background for cases in U.S. state and federal Courts.”

Yet, barely one month later, when the Bureau of Counterterrorism released the 2013 Report on the State Sponsors of Terror, it said “The Cuban government continued to harbor fugitives wanted in the United States” to justify keeping Cuba on the list.

Different fugitives, we know.  But, shouldn’t these guys talk?

Our last introduction is for Secretary of State, John Kerry, who gave a speech about the importance of entrepreneurship at a gathering of the Council of the Americas this week.  At the end, he zeroed in on Cuba.

Secretary Kerry is worried that the Cuban people will “continue to be left behind (economically) as the rest of the hemisphere advances,” unless more can be done to strengthen “the emerging micro-entrepreneurial sector in Cuba.”

There is no shortage of ideas for stimulating more economic activity in Cuba.  One came from Gary Becker, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, a staunch conservative and an anti-communist.  In March, Becker, who died this week, wrote: “It is time to end the embargo on the export and import of goods and services between the United States and Cuba. The Cuban people will benefit almost immediately.”

Also this week, the Boston Globe, Secretary Kerry’s hometown newspaper, made the political case for economic engagement with Cuba:

“There’s a reason why the United States doesn’t normally cut all ties to countries with repressive regimes. Economic engagement can be as powerful, or more powerful, a force for change than isolation. It doesn’t erase tensions with offending regimes, but rather puts more pressure on them. It expresses to the people living under the regime a desire for cooperation; opportunities to better understand each other; and a closer look at American-style freedoms and democracy.”

Despite these powerful arguments — that ending economic sanctions would provide Cubans with greater economic opportunity and the chance for greater freedoms, just as Secretary Kerry said he wanted in his speech — there’s a catch.   To accomplish these goals, we’d have to introduce him to the same person who kept Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terror List and who will not advocate publicly for increased travel and trade opportunities for Americans and Cubans.

By now, we’re sure you’re on to us.  There is a reason the Venezuela sanctions people don’t need an introduction to the Cuba Sanctions people, or the officials tracking drug fugitives to the policy makers who keep the terror list, or the supporters of microenterprise to the supporters of economic sanctions.

They’re all the same guys.  A lot of them smart and really good people.

It is the problem that needs no introduction, familiar to all within the sound of our voice.

Until our leaders confront the hardliners in Congress and the political culture that keeps these irrational, inconsistent, and ineffective policies in place, they’ll just go on behaving like people who’ve never met.


Four Miami-based exiles arrested in Cuba over terror plot

On April 26th, Cuba’s government detained four Miami-based Cuban exiles for allegedly planning to attack military stations in Cuba, Reuters reports. According to a statement by Cuba’s Interior Ministry, José Ortega Amador, Obdulio Rodríguez González, Raibel Pacheco Santos, and Félix Monzón Álvaro “admitted that they were planning an attack with the objective of inciting violence.”

Cuba’s government has not explained why it delayed announcement of the arrests until this week: a delay that coincided with the U.S. government’s latest report on State Sponsors of Terrorism, which kept Cuba on the list.

According to Cuba’s Interior Ministry, the four visited the island on several occasions since mid-2013 to prepare. Cuba Debate also reports that, in 2009, Raibel Pacheco registered a company in the state of Florida named the “Cuban Liberation Force, Inc.” based in Hialeah. The company’s one blog post explained the organization was founded “at the request of members of the armed forces who are inside Cuba, as well as members of organizations and the people” and that its goal is to “topple the regime,” reports the Miami Herald.

The Ministry said that the plan was organized under the direction of three other Miami-based Cuban immigrants, Santiago Álvarez, Fernandez Marina, Osvaldo Mitat, and Manuel Alzugaray.

In 2006, Álvarez and Mitat pled guilty to criminal conspiracy in Fort Lauderdale Federal Court in order to avoid more serious charges related to the possession of machine guns, ammunition, and a grenade launcher. Another weapons cache in the Bahamas was linked to Álvarez.

According to press coverage at the time, prosecutors did not directly accuse Álvarez and Mitat of using the weapons to attack Cuba’s government, but did present evidence of Álvarez financing a failed 2001 incursion against Fidel Castro, as well as other paramilitary activities. According to the New York Times, Álvarez said that the weapons found “were C.I.A. relics, but were not going to be used in the plots he had hatched with senior Cuban military officers who planned to conspire against the government.” Álvarez received a 30-month sentence, while Mitat received a two year sentence. For further background on their case, see here.

Cuba’s Interior Ministry claims that Álvarez, Mitat, and Alzugaray “maintain close ties” with Luis Posada Carriles. As the Washington Post wrote during the 2006 trial, “Before his arrest, Álvarez may have been best known for his advocacy on behalf of Luis Posada Carriles, a CIA-trained Cuban immigrant linked to the bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people in 1976 and to other violent plots. When Posada sought asylum in the United States last year, it was Alvarez who helped present his case to the public.”

But, Posada Carriles’ attorney, Arturo Hernández, said, “We categorically deny that Luis has absolutely anything to do with this or has any knowledge of any of these individuals who were allegedly arrested in Cuba,” reports the Associated Press. Álvarez, Alzugaray, and Mitat also denied any connection to the plot or the individuals arrested.

Only days after publishing the State Sponsors of Terror list, the Department appeared not particularly curious about Cuba’s allegation that four Miami-based exiles had visited the island on four occasions to plan a terror plot.

In a press briefing on Wednesday, spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters that the State Department had no more information than what appeared in the Interior Ministry’s statement. No reporter appears to have even asked about it today.

Cuba’s Interior Ministry has stated that it will communicate with U.S. authorities regarding the case:

“The necessary arrangements will be made with the relevant U.S. authorities to investigate these incidents and prevent the actions of terrorist organizations based in that nation from endangering the lives of people and security of both nations.”

According to the Associated Press, this is the first specific terrorist threat of its kind that Cuba has reported in years. In 2001, three Cuban-Americans were detained after arriving on the island with guns and ammunition, and 9 years later were prosecuted for alleged plans to place a bomb in Havana’s Tropicana nightclub. Cuba’s government later released a recording of Álvarez discussing the possible bombing of the nightclub with one of the men in custody, Ihosvani Suris de la Torre.

According to a 2008 report by Kirk Nielsen in Salon, Álvarez claims, “he was not involved in the operation and was only trying to help Suris; he knew the call was being recorded, and that Suris faced the firing squad, so he wanted to say something that would make Suris appear to be providing valuable assistance to his captors.”

Four Members of Congress meet with Cuban officials and Alan Gross

Representatives Barbara Lee (CA-13), Gregory Meeks (NY-5), Emanuel Cleaver (MO-5), and Sam Farr (CA-20) have just returned from Cuba following a trip that was led and hosted by the Center for Democracy in the Americas. The delegation met with Cuban officials, including Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez and given access to see Alan Gross, reports Reuters. The Members of Congress were also briefed before their departure to Cuba by U.S. officials.

In a press conference that took place in Havana on Monday, the Representatives urged President Obama to negotiate with Cuba’s government for the release of Mr. Gross. As Rep. Lee stated:

“It is time that both countries make a serious commitment to engage in negotiations with no preconditions, and we will communicate that to the White House upon our return.”

While in the past Cuba’s government has sought to link Alan Gross’s release to that of the Cuban Five, Cuban agents jailed in the United States on espionage charges, Scott Gilbert, Gross’s attorney, says that Cuba’s government has been offering to enter into talks without preconditions for approximately a year. For its part, Reuters reports, the U.S. government has disregarded these offers as merely efforts to secure the release of the Cuban Five.

As Rep. Cleaver noted:

“In the fog of conflict, clear communication is normally the first casualty. And what we have seen since we’ve been here is that there is a need for clear communication both ways….We understand and we want the world to understand and the people of our country as well as people here in Cuba, we are talking about real human beings. Alan Gross is a real human being with flesh and blood, with family and friends, and this is not some game; this is real life, for all of us.”

Click here to see photos from the trip. Click here to see Rep. Lee’s interview on MSNBC.

Crist, candidate for Governor of Florida, plans to visit Cuba this summer

Charlie Crist, former Governor of Florida, who is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination to run against Governor Rick Scott in the November election, announced plans to travel to Cuba this summer, reports Tampa Bay Times. At Versailles Restaurant in Miami’s Little Havana, Crist stated:

“We ought to think big. We ought to lift the embargo on Cuba and work with the President and get things done….We’re the gateway to Latin America. We’re the gateway to South America….We’ve got to be doing more and doing better.”

Kevin Cate, Crist’s campaign spokesperson said:

“The embargo has done nothing in fifty years to change the regime in Cuba or end the suffering of the Cuban people. Governor Crist is exploring every opportunity to help bring economic freedom and democracy to the people of Cuba.”

Crist spoke out against the embargo for the first time in February, making waves in Florida’s Cuban-American community. His latest statements reflect a major shift in position. While Governor from 2007 to 2011, he backed U.S. sanctions and created state legislation to crack down on travel agencies doing business with Cuba, the Miami Herald reports. In 2010, he reiterated his support for the embargo, describing the current policy as “responsible.”

Crist’s opponent in the gubernatorial race, incumbent Governor Rick Scott called the statements “insulting,” and has reiterated his support for sanctions. Marc Caputo writing for the Miami Herald notes that Crist’s opposition to the embargo could be a plus given the results of a recent Atlantic Council poll which found that 56% of Americans and 63% of Floridians support more direct engagement with Cuba.

Secretary Kerry invites Cuban scientist to attend conference in June; The AAAS and Cuban Academy of Sciences sign agreement to advance cooperation

Dan Whittle, Director of the Cuba Program at the Environmental Defense Fund, has tweeted that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has invited a leading Cuban scientist, reportedly Fabián Pina, to attend the 2014 International Ocean Conference in June. Whittle called Kerry’s move “Big news and [a big] step forward.”

U.S. regulations have historically made it difficult for U.S. and Cuban scientists to collaborate, but there is growing political space to do more.

Last month, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Cuban Academy of Sciences signed a landmark memorandum of understanding to advance scientific cooperation between U.S. and Cuban scientists, reports AAAS. An AAAS-led group of U.S. scientists and policy experts visited Cuba in April for three days to engage in conversations that led to the signing of the agreement. The agreement seeks opportunities for sustained cooperation in the areas of emerging infectious diseases, brain disorders, cancer and antimicrobial drug resistance. John Caulfield, the Chief of Mission of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, and AAAS President Gerald Fink both expressed support for the visit. Fink remarked:

“This trip was a wonderful opportunity to reinvigorate the long-standing friendship between U.S. and Cuban scientists and to form a more specific plan of action.”

Secretary Kerry talks Cuba at Council of the Americas’ 44th Conference on the Americas

In a speech at the Council of the Americas’ 44th Conference on the Americas devoted to familiar themes — education, free trade agreements, small business, and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also discussed Cuba at the end of his remarks:

“None of us want to see the Cuban people continue to be left behind as the rest of the hemisphere advances. Since 2009, President Obama’s Cuba policy has been geared towards loosening the dependence of Cubans on the state and strengthening independent civil society. There’s an important overlap between U.S. policy and the emerging micro-entrepreneurial sector in Cuba.

“President Obama’s goal has always been to empower Cubans to freely determine their own futures. And the most effective tool we have to promote this goal is helping to build deeper connections between the Cuban and American peoples. The hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans who now send remittances and who travel each year under the President’s policies, they are critical to ensuring that the Cuban people have more of the opportunities that they deserve.”

Other speakers included Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere; Rep. Ed Royce (CA-39), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Sen. Tim Kaine (VA), a Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Visit of Women Entrepreneurs from Latin America kicks off this month

This month the U.S. State Department is hosting twelve women entrepreneurs and women who work for organizations that support female entrepreneurship from Latin America as part of the Women’s Entrepreneurship in the Americas (WEAmericas) International Visitor Leadership Program.

As Secretary Kerry mentioned in his Council address, the WEAmericas program was first announced by President Obama at the 2012 Summit of the Americas. The women will visit five U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C., to meet with business leaders and organizations that encourage women leadership and that will provide a network for the Latina entrepreneurs. After the trip, the women will also participate in further training and mentorship activities.

Nidialys Acosta, co-owner of the Nostalgicar car rental company in Cuba, is participating. In November of 2013, Nidialys participated in a conference organized by CDA focusing on economic changes taking place in Cuba and highlighting the experiences of Cuba’s growing community of small business owners. CDA is pleased to see women entrepreneurs from Cuba participating in such activities, as we recommended in our most recent book, “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future.”

Illinois corn growers push for expanded trade opportunities with Cuba

The Illinois Corn Growers Association issued a letter urging President Obama to allow for expanded exports to Cuba and to establish an agricultural trade office on the island, reports the AP. “Illinois ranks sixth nationwide in lost trade opportunities because of the financial and travel restrictions,” explained Gary Hudson, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association. Hudson said that Cuba is an ideal destination for Illinois commodities and food products but that U.S. sanctions on Cuba frustrate business opportunities.

For more detail, listen to this WUIS interview with Phil Thornton of the Illinois Corn Growers Association, in which Thornton speaks about the Association’s reasons for writing to President Obama about trade with Cuba.

U.S. insurance company, Argentina travel company to pay hefty OFAC fines

A major multinational insurance corporation based in the U.S., American International Group, Inc. (AIG), will pay a $279,038 fine to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for selling insurance policies to Canadian companies and travelers between 2006 and 2009 for their activities in Cuba, reports BloombergOFAC announced the settlement, stating: “AIG, including certain members of the institution’s management, had actual knowledge of the conduct. …The compliance programs of AIG’s two Canadian subsidiaries were inadequate.”  AIG received $182 billion in U.S. government support during the financial crisis. Inc., a company that operates out of Buenos Aires but was incorporated in the U.S., will pay a $2.8 million fine to OFAC for transactions in violation of U.S. sanctions against Cuba, reports Cuba Standard. According to OFAC, the company provided travel services for trips to Cuba for 17,836 non-U.S. travelers between 2009 and 2012 without first obtaining proper OFAC licensing. The penalty the company will pay OFAC, was reportedly reduced because the company “self-disclosed” the violations.

Last month, we reported that a prominent Dutch travel company agreed to pay a $5.9 million fine to OFAC, one of the largest assigned to a travel company by the U.S. government for embargo violations and part of a pattern of increasingly stringent enforcement.


Cuba and France sign bilateral trade agreement

Fleur Pellerin, France’s Secretary of State for Foreign Trade and Tourism, and Cuba’s Foreign Trade and Investment Minister, Rodrigo Malmierca, signed a bilateral trade agreement this week that includes the renewal of a short-term line of credit, reports EFE.

The agreement is designed to increase trade between the nations, especially in the food and agriculture sector, according to a statement by France’s Foreign Ministry. Secretary Pellerin noted France also sees potential for investment in the Special Development Zone at Mariel Port and is interested in Cuba’s health and biotechnology sectors. France is currently Cuba’s tenth largest trading partner, and there are approximately 60 French companies doing business in Cuba. Malmierca says the agreement is part of Cuba’s greater economic reform plan, which he called an “ideal” moment for expanding trade relations with the European country.


Further steps taken toward currency unification

Officials from Cuba’s state Export-Import Corporation (CIMEX) made statements this week to Juventud Rebelde about the most recent development in Cuba’s steps toward unifying its two national currencies — the Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUP).

In March of this year, two state-run stores in Havana began accepting payment in CUP (in cash or by debit card) for their products priced in CUC at the official exchange rate of 1 CUC – 25 CUP on an experimental basis. Starting this month, Cuba’s state enterprises now plan to implement this system countrywide, with the goal of making the changes in 28 large commercial centers throughout the island, followed by smaller establishments. Bárbara Soto Sánchez, the Vice President of CIMEX told Juventud Rebelde that she anticipates there will be at least one commercial center per province accepting payment in CUP for products priced in CUC by the end of May.

Though the commercial enterprises in question will begin accepting both currencies, they will continue to maintain all internal accounting and banking in CUC. According to the officials, measures are intended to give Cubans more payment options.

In October 2013, Cuba’s Council of Ministers agreed to put into effect a timeline for measures, originally approved by the 6th Congress of the Communist Party in April 2011, to end the country’s dual currency system. The measures call for monetary and exchange rate unification with “careful preparation and execution.”

The dual currency system has existed since 1994, when Cuba legalized the U.S. dollar. Subsequently, the dollar was circulated in tandem with the CUP until being replaced in 2004 by the CUC. The CUC was created as a form of national hard currency pegged to the dollar, functioning as the main tender in tourism and international trade, while the CUP is used for the most part to pay state salaries. Cubans have since continued to receive their official state salaries in CUP. That rate is subsidized for state entities, making the two currencies equal in official sector transactions.

Cuban human rights organization reports record number of short-term arrests this year

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) reported a record 3,821 short-term arrests which it considered to be politically motivated in the first four months of 2014, reports Miami Herald. The numbers were reported by Elizardo Sánchez, the commission’s president. Sánchez has not released further information on how he arrived at the figure and the Miami Herald has not independently verified his report. Cuba’s government considers the Commission illegal and counterrevolutionary. In March, CCDHRN reported 1,051 arrests which it considered to be politically motivated during the month of February.

Income tax established for Mariel Special Development Zone workers; Some 23 international investors interested in Mariel

Workers hired at the Mariel Special Development Zone will have to pay a 5% income tax, reports state news outlet ACN. The income tax will be retained by employment agencies and will be contributed to the state budget. Workers will initially receive payment at a rate of 10 Cuban pesos to every dollar, but this exchange rate will be subject to revision during the first quarter of every year while the country undergoes the process of unifying its two currencies. Details and past coverage on payment for workers can be found in Cuba Standard.

The Regulatory Bureau of the Mariel Special Development Zone reports that around 23 international investors have expressed interest in developing projects at the Mariel port. Aspiring investors from countries such as France, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Russia, China, and Holland have submitted documentation to the Bureau. The prospective projects range from the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries to food, agriculture and automobiles.

Recommended Reading

In twilight of Castro regime, failed US embargo must go, The Boston Globe

The Boston Globe’s editorial board argues that while Congress must ease the embargo against Cuba, President Obama must lead the way: “The normalization of relations with Cuba can’t happen with a single brushstroke or act of Congress; it’s a process that needs to develop naturally, organically. But it should begin now. There’s a lot of history to live down, a lot of resentments to overcome.”

Revise restrictions to ensure safe oil drilling, William K. Reilly and Bob Graham, Miami Herald

Writing in an op-ed column for the Miami Herald, the co-chairs of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling – Bob Graham, the former Florida Governor, and William K. Reilly, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency – said the U.S. embargo on Cuba presents an unnecessary danger to each nation as Cuba moves forward with offshore drilling in water that quickly reaches Florida’s beaches. They recommend modest but useful changes in U.S. policy to better protect the coast against a potential spill.

Ernest Hemingway Biopic First Hollywood Film Shot in Cuba Since 1959, Jon Blistein, Rolling Stone

Papa, the first Hollywood film to be shot in Cuba since 1959, will chronicle Ernest Hemingway’s time in Cuba. Papa’s director, Bob Yari explains: “Hemingway was probably the most prominent American to make Cuba his home, and I think the people of Cuba to this day cherish him and love him. And hopefully this film will become an addition to that component of bridging this gap between two cultures and two peoples that have drifted apart.”

For an account of Ernest Hemingway’s time in Cuba, and a behind the scenes view of what took place during the filming of “Papa,” see Peter Orsi’s AP story.

Havana bars: The next wave of private innovation, Richard Feinberg, Cuba Standard

Richard Feinberg, senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, profiles Havana’s privately-owned bars, a popular iteration of Cuba’s growing small business sector.

Raul Castro’s reforms fail to end Cuba’s chronic shortages, Reuters

Reuters features some of the problems associated with shortages on the island, looking at responses by citizens and the state to recent shortages of beer and condoms, as well as the broader history of the black market’s role in Cuba.

U.S. pays Cuban security firm, Tracey Eaton, Along the Malecón

Investigative journalist Tracey Eaton points out that the United States government “trades with the enemy” through the U.S. Interests Section in Havana out of necessity. He writes: “American diplomats spend money in Cuba every day. While some of the money goes into private hands, some winds up supporting socialist enterprises. U.S. officials in Havana often have no choice but to deal with Cuba’s state-run companies.”

Recommended Viewing

Cuban Fidelity: Skating through the past, Eric Mirbach, Red Bull

Videographer Patrik Wallner records professional skateboarders Walker Ryan and Michael Mackrodt as they explore the streets of Cuba… on skateboards. See the accompanying photo gallery, here.

The battle for Cuba: Rarely seen photos of the Spanish-American war found by U.S. Navy deep in neglected archive, Jennifer Newton, Mail Online

For the history buffs out there, Mail Online features a selection of the 150-some glass plate photographs of the Spanish-American war by Douglas White which were rediscovered recently in a military archive.

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