August Vacation and the Freedom to Travel

Just so you know, we are clearing out of the office for a week, which means we won’t be sending a fresh edition of the Cuba Central News Blast until August 29th. We’re going on vacation!

Of course, if we were working in Europe we’d have longer leave (and a better Cuba policy).  But, we still consider ourselves lucky, and still count ourselves as baffled that U.S. law frustrates the ability of most Americans to visit Cuba.

These restrictions on what Americans can do are imposed on us by the U.S. government in the name of advancing freedom in Cuba.  Which itself is altogether odd, when you consider that it is more restrictive, more bureaucratic, and more costly for nearly all Americans to receive permission from our government to visit Cuba than it is for Cubans to visit the United States or any other country.

Even worse, some policymakers in Congress would like to increase the restrictions on Americans who want to visit Cuba at a moment when more Cubans are coming to the U.S. and traveling the world than at any time since 1959.

Even worse than that, these same policy makers — the ones who restrict our rights to travel as a method for bringing democracy to Cuba — are also the biggest fans of our totally messed up “regime change” programs run out of USAID.  Read Fulton Armstrong’s recent piece about them here.   They want to shut the front door to Cuba while sending in a cast of amateurs and subversives through the backdoor.  To do what?  To break Cuba’s information blockade?   Isn’t that what travel’s for?

George Orwell could’ve designed the policy.  Some Americans — Cuban Americans, academics, and journalists — are more equal than others.  If you cannot be stuffed into one of these categories, you can journey to the island on a people-to-people program.  But it can be costly and the U.S. stipulates what you can do or can’t do once you arrive.

For most of Cuba’s post-revolutionary history, the government put tight restrictions on the right of their people to travel anywhere. The U.S. State Department is still handing out copies of a speech that President George W. Bush delivered in 2007, in which he said: “In Cuba it is illegal to change jobs, to change houses, to travel abroad…”

But, in January 2013, Cuba eliminated the requirement that its travelers obtain exit visas.  As Human Rights Watch reported this year, “Nearly 183,000 people traveled abroad from January to September 2013, according to the government. These included human rights defenders, journalists, and bloggers who previously had been denied permission to leave the island despite repeated requests, such as blogger Yoani Sanchez.”

The end of travel restrictions has begun a blossoming of economic and social openings for Cubans.  Cuentapropistas (self-employed Cubans, since it is now legal to change jobs) have reaped incredible material and professional gains from being able to purchase much needed inputs — at better prices and higher quality — and to meet their counterparts in the U.S., who share knowledge, experience and insight with them.

Our friend, Niuris Higuera, owner of Atelier Paladar in Havana, said she went home with “her head spinning from all the projects she wanted to develop in Cuba,” based on ideas she picked up in the States.

The experience was even more profound for young participants in a summer exchange program arranged by the Center for Democracy in the Americas and Cuba Educational Travel (CET) to bring four young Cubans to the U.S. to do homestays and internships.

As Collin Laverty of CET wrote us, Yoan Duarte, who graduated from the University of Havana in June and hopes to become a fashion designer, spent the summer in New York City shadowing some of the industry’s best. “The first few weeks I was constantly slapping myself in the face, thinking I was going to wake up in Havana at any moment. Now I’m eager to get back and put to work all the new skills I’ve acquired,” he said recently. Yoan plans to start his own clothing line upon return to Cuba.

Earlier today, the White House posted this paean to the travel industry, praising the growing number of jobs it is creating, the upward spiral of spending on travel and tourism-related goods and services, and how the U.S. hopes to welcome 100 million visitors per year by 2021.

We can only imagine what a stir would be created if Cubans and Americans of non-Cuban descent enjoyed the unrestricted right to exchange ideas and experience without any restrictions.  It would be good. It would be human.  But, today, that is not reality.

But the President can change that.  He has executive authority to broaden revenue-producing, information-exchanging, re-humanizing, and demystifying travel between the island and our country, which has outsized benefits compared to secreting USAID contractors into Cuba masquerading as advocates working on AIDS prevention, when they’re really trying to incite rebellion.

The choice ought to be clear to the President who, after all, got to go on vacation a week before us (which is, like, totally fair, ok?).

Happy vacation.


Cuban women entrepreneurs visit Miami

Five Cuban women, who work on the island as cuentapropistas, or self-employed workers, visited Miami last week to share their experiences starting and running businesses in Cuba, the Miami Herald reports. Their ten-day trip to the U.S. was organized by the Cuba Study Group.

The delegation included Yamina Vicente, a former economics professor at the University of Havana who started a decorating and party planning business with her sister, and Niuris Higueras, who runs Atelier, one of the most popular restaurants in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. Vicente and Higueras came to the U.S. last November with the Center for Democracy in the Americas, where they met with officials in Congress and the White House, and were featured at CDA’s conference, “Cubans in the New Economy: Their Reflections and the U.S. Response,” at The George Washington University. See brief video of their appearance here.

In Miami, the cuentapropistas said they have been successful so far, making good profits and experiencing little difficulty in obtaining business licenses, a process that some Cubans report as an obstacle. The panelists said that the principal challenges they face include the sparse availability of capital and difficulty securing leasing contracts.

Increase in number of Cuban immigrants crossing the Mexican border into U.S.

Of the nearly 21,000 Cubans that have entered the U.S. through immigration control points this fiscal year, almost 14,000 arrived by crossing the Mexico-U.S. border, an increase of 150% since 2009, reports Café Fuerte. The majority of these Cubans request asylum upon reaching U.S. Border Control, invoking the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which grants permanent residency to Cubans that reach the U.S. and stay for a year.

Emigration from Cuba has risen since President Raúl Castro’s 2013 migratory reforms, which dropped the requirement that Cubans obtain an exit visa in order to leave the island. The increase in Cuban immigration through the Mexican border coincides with a rise in the number of Cubans intercepted in the Strait of Florida. Over 1,500 have been stopped so far this year — the most since 2008.

Cubans with Spanish nationality have also been arriving in record numbers, reports Café Fuerte. A 2008 law passed in Spain allows people who have a Spanish grandparent to become naturalized Spanish citizens. Cubans that obtain a Spanish passport using the 2008 law can travel to the U.S. without visa requirements, as is the case with all European Union countries.

Cuba policy re-emerges as issue in Florida gubernatorial race

The campaign to re-elect Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott released a video on Wednesday that shows Charlie Crist, Democratic gubernatorial candidate, and Annette Taddeo, Crist’s running mate, taking contrasting positions on the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Following the video’s release, Cuba policy has resurfaced as a hot-button issue in an already heated race, reports the Nuevo Herald.

Crist supports lifting the embargo to benefit Florida businesses, but on Monday Taddeo told reporters she “[doesn’t] think we should be doing business with Cuba.” Earlier this year, Crist announced his intention to visit Cuba only to cancel his travel plans weeks later. Crist says he still wants to see the island, but will wait until after the November election.


27th round of peace talks between Colombia and the FARC begins in Havana

Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the group that has waged a guerrilla war in Colombia since its formation in the 1960s, resumed on Tuesday in Havana, EFE reports. This session of talks, the 27th in a series that started in November 2012, focuses on “recognition and reparation” for the conflict’s victims — the fourth objective in a five-part peace plan. The negotiations have already addressed land and rural development, political participation, and illegal drugs. The fifth stage of the plan aims to end the conflict altogether.

EFE reports that FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño said that the current round will be particularly complex:

“It will have to be explained to [the victims] what happened, why they were treated in this way, and then those responsible for that will have to be brought to light. The victims will have to have the satisfaction of having explained to them what happened, whatever the causes, and that needs to be clear not only for them but for all Colombians.”

Because of the delicate nature of this round of negotiations, Londoño said that a peace deal will not be finalized this year. EFE reports that five delegations of victims will participate directly in this round of talks; the first delegation will arrive August 16. During the 50 years of conflict, 220,000 victims died, 25 thousand were disappeared, 5.7 million were displaced, and 27 thousand were kidnapped, according to Colombia’s Center for Historical Memory.

EU and Cuba to resume talks August 27 in Brussels

The second round of negotiations to establish the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement between Cuba and the European Union (EU) will take place in Brussels on August 27 and 28, according to an “EU source,” reports EFE. In the first round of talks, which took place in Havana in April, the parties agreed to a format for negotiations and an outline of the future agreement.

Since December 1996, the EU’s relations with Cuba have been governed by the Common Position, which, like the U.S. Helms-Burton Act of the same year, stipulates that economic and diplomatic cooperation with Cuba will depend upon “improvements in human rights and political freedom” and an “irreversible opening of the Cuban economy.” EFE reports that the EU will continue to maintain its Common Position during its negotiations with Cuba. All 28 EU member states must reach a unanimous agreement to repeal the measure. Even so, the EU has sought to deepen its ties with Havana while encouraging the reforms the island has already undertaken.

Americas Quarterly recently published an article by Sarah Stephens, CDA’s executive director, arguing that the EU’s willingness to engage with Cuba should serve as a model for U.S. policy. Read it here.

WTO director visits Cuba, applauds foreign investment efforts

Roberto Azevedo, director of the World Trade Organization (WTO), visited Cuba this week during a tour of Latin America that also included Mexico and El Salvador, reports EFE. In Cuba, Azevedo met with Vice President Ricardo Cabrisas, Rodrigo Malmiercas, Minister of Foreign Commerce and Foreign Investment, and Abelardo Moreno, Deputy Minister of Foreign Relations. He also met with officials in charge of the Special Economic Development Zone at Mariel Port.

OnCuba reports that Azevedo was encouraged by Cuba’s Foreign Investment Law, which went into effect in June, as well as the Special Zone at Mariel. He said to Cuban media, “There is a need to attract foreign investors, and it looks like Cuba is now in that process of finding its recipe.”

Azevedo also advocated for “overcoming political and geopolitical tensions that lead to restrictive measures,” referring to the U.S. embargo. Azevedo continued, “To the extent that it is possible to move forward with dialogue, to move in the direction of normalization of relations, is always the preferable path.”


Cuba celebrates Fidel Castro’s 88th birthday

Cuba celebrated the 88th birthday of former President Fidel Castro with a photo exhibit and the restoration of his birth home in Birán, reports the Associated Press. The photo exhibit “Fidel is Fidel” opened Tuesday at Havana’s Jose Martí Memorial and features images of Castro taken between 2005 and 2012 by photographer Roberto Chile, who photographed Castro over a 25 year period.

In Birán, construction workers and specialists from the Havana Historian’s Office restored Castro’s birth home, a school he attended, and other homes, hotels and public facilities. Castro’s rural estate home in Birán, which serves as a museum, is a replica of the original family home that burned down years ago, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.

Although he rarely appears in public, the retired Cuban president periodically contributes to newspaper columns and meets with foreign dignitaries.

Cuban court sentences three baseball players in human trafficking operation allegedly run by MLB star Yasiel Puig

A provincial court in Cienfuegos imposed five-year prison sentences on three Cuban athletes for planning to smuggle baseball players out of the country as part of a trafficking operation. The scheme was allegedly run by Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Miami resident Raúl Pacheco Hernández, reports Café Fuerte.

The convicted were Eduardo Antonio Soriano Díaz, Dumay Pedroso, and Ramón Eusebio Navarro. The case began when Noelvis Etenza, a pitcher for Cienfuegos and member of Cuba’s national team, reported to Cuban State Security that Puig had offered to pay for him to leave the country by speedboat in order to play baseball in the U.S. Etenza claimed that the three Cuban players involved in the operation had approached him on multiple occasions to encourage him to accept Puig’s offer.

Although the smuggling of baseball players out of the country is treated as a serious crime in Cuba, top talent is enticed by the possibility of multi-million dollar contracts in the U.S. Major Leagues. Puig himself defected to the U.S. in 2012, securing a $42 million contract, and first baseman José Dariel Abreu left Cuba to sign on to a $68 million contract with the Chicago White Sox in 2013. Because of the continued drain of high-level Cuban athletes, government officials in Cuba have placed pressure on players, encouraging them to deliver information on trafficking activities.

For more on Yasiel Puig’s alleged involvement with smuggling, see this piece that ESPN Magazine ran in June.

Catholic Cubans plan to build first new church since the Revolution

A group of Cuban Catholics are awaiting official permission to begin construction of the first Catholic Church to be built in Cuba since the 1959 revolution, reports BBC News. The church will be built in Santiago de Cuba, where it will replace another church that was destroyed in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy, which left Santiago’s Catholics with few places to worship after destroying seven churches and damaging twenty-eight.

The group still needs to raise $250 thousand to finance the project, but Fox News Latino reports that parishes abroad plan to contribute most of the funds. The St. Lawrence parish in Tampa, Florida, which is primarily composed of Cuban exile families, has already pledged funds to support the project.

Fausto Veloz, the project’s engineer, hopes to build the new church using the twenty-five tons of scrap metal that were left over from the stage constructed for Pope Benedict XVI’s 2012 visit, which took place just months before Hurricane Sandy. For Veloz, “reusing the metal means keeping alive the memory of something good for us Catholics. It gives it new life, so it can serve future generations.”

Although Cuba has been a secular state since 1992, laws from an era in which Cuba was officially atheist remain on the books, posing a challenge to those who wish to build new churches.

To watch the accompanying BBC News video, see here.

Cuba to shift focus to renewable energy and onshore oil wells

Cuba’s government plans to re-focus its energy exploration efforts on improving the efficiency of existing onshore wells while also developing renewable alternatives, reports Reuters. Cuba’s recent push for offshore oil exploration produced grim results — the three wells drilled in 2012 by several foreign firms came up dry, and the Spanish, Indian, Malaysian, and Russian companies that were previously interested in drilling in Cuban waters have abandoned the endeavor.

Cuban officials had hoped that the discovery of deep-water oil fields would reduce their dependence on Venezuelan oil imports, but the combination of readily available oil fields in other parts of the world and tough U.S. sanctions, which require that Cuban oil rigs contain no more than 10% U.S. technology, also discouraged potential foreign investors.

Despite the failures offshore, Russia, China, and Canada have agreed to help Cuba improve its existing oil extraction efforts onshore, and Cuba will seek investors in renewable energy opportunities like biomass and wind. Over the next 15 years, Cuba plans to invest $3.6 billion in alternative energy, with the goal of reducing the percentage of reducing oil’s share of energy generation from 96% to 76%.

At the same time, leading environmental organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund continue to press for changes in U.S. policy to protect the ecosystems that Cuba and the U.S. share. Listen here to a recent radio report about their work.

Retired professors to be re-hired, paid extra

Retired professors in Cuba will be able to return to their jobs and receive their pre-retirement salary as well as their retirement pension, according to a new policy printed in the Gaceta Oficial, reports Cuban state newspaper Granma. This measure is an attempt to improve the quality of higher education, better prepare graduates, and mitigate the shortage of professors in several subject areas, including “agriculture, accounting, economics, natural sciences, and engineering,” said Ana Karell Rodríguez, Director of Human Resources at the Ministry of Higher Education.

She also described the process for re-hiring the retirees:

“It is not an automatic process, as not all those that are retired will be re-hired without a previous analysis. That will depend on the needs of each university, the results accumulated by the professor during his career, and how up-to-date that person is on the materials to be imparted.”

According to Granma, 35 thousand professors and researchers are employed in the 67 institutions of higher education across the country, 9 thousand of which are “teachers and teachers’ assistants” and 4 thousand of which have doctorates in science. Sixty percent of professors are sixty years old or older, and the average age is fifty.

Internet users and computer access increase in Cuba

Users of Cuba’s national internet network have increased by more than 50 thousand over the past year, and computer access has increased 61% since 2008, reports Café Fuerte. Cuba’s National Statistics Office also reported that the number of personal computers on the island increased from 74 thousand to 90 thousand between 2012 and 2013. While only 515,400 computers on the island are networked, the number of Internet users rose to 2,923,000. Only 15% of Cubans are connected to the Internet because of high prices and access restrictions on applications and services other than email. The state-run Telecommunications Company of Cuba has announced plans to extend Internet access to homes, but has not specified when the plans will be implemented.

Globe Theatre Group performs “Hamlet” in Havana

A group from The Globe Theatre, the Shakespeare theatre based in London, visited Havana last week as part of its “Globe to Globe Hamlet” tour celebrating the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. The theater group put on two performances of “Hamlet” with subtitles in Spanish appearing on a screen.

This marks the first time that The Globe has performed in Cuba, which is also the first Spanish-speaking destination on the theatre’s world tour. The group will travel to Mexico and other countries throughout the Caribbean and Central America in the coming weeks and months. In October, Cuba plans to celebrate Shakespeare at the 24th International Ballet Festival in Havana with a ballet performance of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Recommended Reading

When Washington ‘holds the pen’, Sandra Abd’Allah-Alvarez Ramírez, Progreso Weekly

Sandra Abd’Allah-Alvarez Ramírez of the blog Negra cubana tenía que ser interviews Sarah Stephens, CDA’s executive director, about CDA’s work with policymakers in Washington, as well as the organization’s research in Cuba on gender equality and how women are impacted by economic changes on the island. Last year, CDA published the book Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Futurethe product of more than two years of research.

Supporting private enterprise to thrive in Cuba, Charles Shapiro, U-T San Diego

Charles Shapiro, the president of the Institute of the Americas, writes that the U.S. should remove obstacles to private business owners, or cuentapropistas, in Cuba, starting with allowing them easier access to the Internet. He asks, “What could make more sense than to encourage private Cuban citizens – or the citizens of any country – to open businesses, to compete in the marketplace and to succeed?”

On the series by the Associated Press about USAID programs in Cuba:

We offer opposite takes…

Armstrong, a former CIA analyst, criticizes the lack of transparency and congressional oversight for USAID’s “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba. “Cubans indeed want change,” he writes, “but it’s clearer than ever that they want it to be evolutionary – as seems to be happening now – rather than revolutionary, destabilizing and destructive.”

Sabatini, the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly, argues that USAID’s programs in Cuba “are standard democracy fare.” He contends that, even though the U.S. embargo toward Cuba is an “odious, ridiculous policy,” the AP’s coverage of USAID’s activities on the island is sensationalistic.

Cuban Health Care: Rutgers Students Witness a Different Way to Serve Patients, Andrea Alexander, Rutgers Today

Ten public health students from Rutgers University spent four weeks in Cuba on a service-learning trip to see Cuba’s healthcare system up close. “It was a great opportunity to see a free system,” said one student. “Money is such a big issue when you deal with your health care. Instead of focusing on the money I think we should focus on health and start from there.”

Hello from Cullen, Cullen Moran, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Cullen Moran introduces himself as the new Stephen M. Rivers Memorial Fellow at CDA.

Recommended Viewing

Wife of Alan Gross, American Jailed in Cuba, Says He Is ‘Slowly Wasting Away’, Fox News Insider

Fox News Insider interviews Judy Gross, who says that her husband Alan Gross, who has been in prison in Cuba since his arrest in 2009, is “passively giving up.”

Está Cayendo – Housing in Havana by Alison McCauley, Alison McCauley, FOTO8

McCauley took photographs of the interior of almost one hundred different homes in Havana to capture daily life in a slowly crumbling city.

Cubans Celebrate Havana Carnival, Orlando Matos, NBC News

Cubans take a “joyful break” to celebrate carnaval in Havana with music, dance, and festive costumes.

Fidel Castro turns 88 (PHOTOS), Alex Leff, Global Post

Photographs from Wednesday’s exhibit in Havana celebrating Fidel Castro’s 88th birthday.

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