Labor Day Weekend “No Apologies” Edition

Dear Friends:

Thank you for welcoming us back.

While we were on holiday last week, the Associated Press reported, “The U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general has determined Jay-Z and Beyonce’s fifth-anniversary trip to Cuba last year was legal under rules allowing educational travel to the island.”

Did the AP get this story wrong? After all, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart reached his own conclusion more than one year ago without going through the “formality” of an investigation: “It has become obvious that, in this case, the line into tourism was crossed. The Beyoncé and Jay-Z trip is a high profile example of why the ‘people-to-people’ category of travel should be eliminated. It amounts to tourism.”

Yet, after the Inspector General issued a report saying,we believe OFAC’s determination that there was no apparent violation of U.S. sanctions with respect to Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s trip to Cuba was reasonable (emphasis added),” we visited the Congressman’s Media Center and found no evidence that he’d retracted his statement.

As Stephen Colbert is fond of saying, we accept your apology.

Time and again, we’ve seen this “never explain, never apologize, never retract” strategy used by hardline defenders of U.S. sanctions over the years.

Remember when Cuba’s government scrapped the exit visa requirement established five decades ago that made it impossible for nearly all of Cuba’s citizens to travel abroad? At that time, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen dismissed the reform as propaganda. She said, “These so-called reforms are nothing more than Raúl Castro’s desperate attempts to fool the world into thinking that Cuba is changing, but anyone who knows anything about the communist 53-year old Castro dictatorship knows that Cuba will only be free when the Castro family and its lackeys are no longer on the scene.”

On behalf of the 185,000 plus Cubans who traveled abroad last year, including 66,000 to the U.S., and on behalf of Cuban dissidents –Guillermo Fariñas who received his Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought after he traveled to Europe last year, and Yoani Sánchez, welcomed from Miami to the White House – we accept her apology, too.

Remember when it seemed like every poll conducted in Florida and nationally supported rolling back the embargo and normalizing relations with Cuba? When Florida International University’s 2014 survey showed that Cuban Americans now support three big changes in U.S. policy – ending the embargo, ending restrictions on travel, and recognizing Cuba diplomatically – by the widest majority the survey has ever recorded?

Mauricio Claver-Carone, who supports increasing sanctions on Cuba, told readers of his blog to dismiss the findings of this highly regarded poll, saying “FIU has gone from having its polls sponsored by ideological non-profit organizations to ideological, for-profit lobbyists.” As a lobbyist himself immersed in partisan and ideological causes, this was hardly a strong argument against FIU’s data, confirmed by so many others.

Not to be outdone, when a reporter with the New York Times said to Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, “Regardless of just the Cuban-American community, the American public, clearly a majority supports a change in policy in Cuba,” he responded, “That is an absolute lie.”

Gentlemen, you may start your apologies.

We could talk about the deceptive defenses of USAID’s Cuba programs, when Rep. Albio Sires, Democrat from New Jersey, was fast to his fax machine to issue his statement,“There is nothing new here.” We could also talk about their attacks on Cuba’s economic reforms, which have already enabled about 500,000 Cubans to find meaningful work, better pay, and greater autonomy in the private sector, and much more.

But, we don’t expect to hear apologies or anybody saying “I am sorry,” during this Labor Day weekend. We expect, instead, they’re out traveling like everyone else.

But, after Senator Marco Rubio compared coming to Cuba to visiting a zoo; after he scolded Tom Donohue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for going to Cuba, because “the U.S. should not make it easier for the Castro regime to enrich itself and fund its repression with American dollars”; after Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen cited the Smithsonian for engaging in legal travel to the island, saying “It is deeply disappointing that the Smithsonian [Institution], primarily funded by American taxpayers, is facilitating access to U.S. dollars, which enables the Castro regime to make a hefty profit,” it would be nice if they were called to account for what they have said about travel, and spent at least one weekend feasting on their own words and at their own expense.

Then, perhaps Jay-Z and Beyonce could tell them, “apology accepted.”


Costa Rica will investigate USAID’s “democracy programs” in Cuba

Costa Rica’s government will open an investigation into USAID’s covert programs that sent Costa Rican citizens to Cuba to foment political unrest, reports the AP. Mariano Figueres, Costa Rica’s Director of Intelligence and Security, told the Associated Press last week that USAID did not inform Costa Rican officials about the program:

If we can confirm all this, of course we’re not going to agree that our national territory be used to attack a friendly government, regardless of what ideological side you’re on.  It’s a matter of sovereignty and respect … and we’re very alarmed that they used Costa Rican citizens and put them at risk.”

Elements of ZunZuneo, another USAID program that developed a “Cuban Twitter” intended to turn Cubans against their government, were managed by USAID contractors in Costa Rica. In April of this year, the Associated Press called the contractors’ presence in Cost Rica “an unusual arrangement that raised eyebrows in Washington.”

Presciently, the story went on to say:

“In 2009, a report by congressional researchers warned that OTI’s work [USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives] ‘often lends itself to political entanglements that may have diplomatic implications’.”

Costa Rica officially became a neutral state in 1949 after it abolished its military, and according to one Costa Rican congressman, the use of Costa Ricans for anti-government programs in Cuba threatens to “undermine” that neutrality. In March 2009, Costa Rica reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba’s government which had been severed 47 years before.

CDA’s past coverage of the ZunZuneo scandal can be found here, here, and here.

Cubans can now download Google Chrome

Google announced in a post on Google+ last week that its web browser Google Chrome will be available for download in Cuba. The announcement cited U.S. restrictions as the primary cause for the delay in making the service available to Cubans, even though the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control, which regulates U.S. sanctions against Cuba, has allowed U.S. companies to export free web services since 2010.

Ric Herrero, director of CubaNow, released a statement that praised Google’s decision and criticized U.S. policy toward Cuba. “Even now, many Internet services remain unavailable not just because of the Cuban regime’s obstruction, but also our own restrictions. That doesn’t help move Cuba toward a freer and more open society, it makes it harder.”

Google CEO Eric Schmidt criticized the U.S. embargo after visiting Cuba in June along with other top Google executives.

Cuban Interests Section to continue services through 2014, despite lack of financing

The Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. has announced that consular services will still be available for those who have reserved travel to Cuba through the end of 2014, reports the Associated Press. The statement, issued last week, condemned the “extraterritorial enforcement of the blockade,” which has resulted in hefty fines for foreign banks that do business with Cuba’s government. Earlier this year, the Interests Section suspended its consular services after its bank in the U.S. would no longer provide it financial services because it risked facing fines from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control.

U.S. District Court upholds Florida ruling in damages case against Cuba

A federal judge in Manhattan has ruled that a Spanish bank cannot reject a Florida court’s decision to award over a billion dollars to the families of three men allegedly killed by Cuba’s government, the Courthouse News Service reports. Separate lawsuits had been filed in Miami courts under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which allows foreign nations that sponsor terrorism to be sued in U.S. courts.

The lawsuits were filed on behalf of three men: Robert Fuller, who was executed for “counterrevolutionary activity” in Cuba in 1960; Aldo Vera, a Cuban counterrevolutionary assassinated in Puerto Rico in 1976; and Gustavo Villoldo, whose family says he committed suicide in 1959 after “relentless torture and harassment” by Cuba’s government.

The Villoldo family was awarded $2.79 billion as a result of their suit. Fuller’s family won a $454 million judgment in a federal court in 2008, and Vera’s was handed a $49 million ruling from a Florida Circuit Court in 2011. The lawsuits sought rulings against nearly a dozen banks in which Cuba’s government is thought to be keeping money.

Spain’s Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA) attempted to dismiss the case, claiming that the courts had reached beyond their jurisdiction. Last week, however, a U.S. District Judge in New York rejected the BBVA’s dismissal. The New York judge’s decision has been met with some derision since, as Courthouse News Service reported, “the allegations in all the families’ cases predated Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Robert Muse, a Washington-based attorney active on legal issues relating to the U.S. embargo against Cuba, who called the judge’s finding “inexplicable,” said “You had to demonstrate that Cuba had been listed as a state sponsor of terrorism at the time of the acts.”

Beyoncé and Jay-Z trip confirmed to be legal

The investigation conducted by the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Inspector General has confirmed that Jay-Z and Beyonce’s 2013 visit to Cuba was legal, reports the Associated Press, and found no reason to contest an earlier decision by the Office of Foreign Assets Control not to pursue a formal investigation.

The report reads in part:

“Based on our review of the applicable laws and regulations, OFAC guidelines, the OFAC case file for the non-profit organization including related correspondence between OFAC and the organization, and inquiry of OFAC officials, we believe OFAC’s determination that there was no apparent violation of U.S. sanctions with respect to Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s trip to Cuba was reasonable (emphasis added).”

The celebrity couple’s trip generated controversy after speculation arose that they took part in tourist activities that are not approved by the U.S. government, which requires those visiting Cuba to obtain academic, religious, journalistic or cultural exchange licenses. The investigation concluded that the trip classified as cultural exchange, stating that the couple visited an art school and a local theater group during their stay.


Cuba-EU negotiations resume in Brussels

Representatives from Cuba and the EU met on Wednesday to open the second round of negotiations aimed at reaching a bilateral agreement, El Nuevo Herald reports, and made “substantial progress.”

Mauricio Claver-Carone, a lobbyist in Washington dedicated to keeping U.S. sanctions on Cuba, was not impressed by reports the negotiations are making progress. He asks, “Why in the world would anyone trust Europe in dealing with any tyrant? Unless, of course, you are rooting for the tyrants.”

But, according to Christian Leffler, the top EU diplomat for the Americas, the talks are making substantial progress. As he told EFE, the Spanish News Agency:

“We have met with a very well-prepared Cuban team who came to Brussels with a constructive spirit of compromise, something that allowed us to make substantial progress in narrowing our positions to arrive at a common vision on how the chapter of cooperation should be.”

The first round of negotiations began in April, when the parties agreed to guidelines for future talks and an outline for a future accord. The second round focuses on commercial and investment aspects of the deal.

The EU’s Common Position, which in 1996 suspended the EU’s relations with the island pending “improvements in human rights and political freedom” and an “irreversible opening of the Cuban economy,” will remain in effect throughout the negotiations, according to EFE.

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.

Colombia’s military and the FARC begin face-to-face meetings

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian military had their first in-person meeting in Havana last week, reports Reuters. Peace negotiations have been underway in Havana for nearly two years, and the FARC and Colombia’s government have already reached agreements on three of the points in their five-point agenda. This is the first face-to-face meeting between active duty members of the Colombian Military and the FARC. They plan to brainstorm terms for a ceasefire should the two sides come to a peace agreement.

President Juan Manuel Santos sent General Javier Flores, head of Colombia’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several other decorated military officials to Havana as representatives of Colombia’s military, the AP reports. Iván Márquez, the lead negotiator for the FARC, believes the two parties have made progress. “It is undoubtedly important that for the first time representatives of the active armed forces … and the FARC have sat at the table under equal conditions,” he said. “Now is the time for us to get rid of our (military) uniforms.”

Foreign investors still hesitant to do business with Cuba

Despite opening a Special Development Zone in the Mariel Bay last November and passing a new foreign investment law in March to cut taxes and lower customs barriers, Cuba has not brought in any foreign direct investment thus far, Reuters reports. President Raúl Castro has told the National Assembly that the country needs to bring in at least $2.5 billion in foreign investment in order to reach their targeted annual growth rate of 5%. So far this year, however, Cuba’s economy has grown only .6%, prompting the government to lower its annual growth forecast from 2.2% to 1.4%.

The Mariel Bay Special Development Zone caught the attention of some investors following its introduction, but poor infrastructure and bureaucratic constraints led companies to delay negotiations. The Economist reports that the 23 firms that applied to operate in Mariel are still waiting for approval. Peter Schechter of the Washington-based Atlantic Council comments: “Cuba’s foreign investment law and its Mariel development zone are emblematic of most of the recent reforms on the island. Many of the changes are in the right direction, but not happening fast enough.”

Cuban program improves literacy rates in Guatemala

Yo sí puedo,” a program designed by Cuba’s government to improve literacy rates around the world, has taught nearly 20,000 Guatemalans how to read and write over the past seven years under the tutelage of 28 Cuban volunteers, reports TeleSUR. Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the hemisphere – more than 99% of its population can read and write. The program’s educational model uses audio/visual tools and incorporates local vocabulary, adapting to the various locations where the program is implemented. “Yo sí puedo” has served four million people in over thirty countries.

Bank of Ireland halts financial transfers to Cuba

Cash transfers to people living in Cuba were indefinitely blocked by the Bank of Ireland on Monday, according to the Irish Times. Transferring money to Cuba is legal in Ireland and throughout the EU, but the transactions are processed through U.S. banks, which are subject to restrictions imposed by the U.S. embargo. In a response to the announcement, Ireland’s Cuba Support group coordinator said: “On the one hand we have the EU voting as a single bloc against the blockade and on the other they introduced financial regulations which facilitate it.” EU member states have supported UN resolutions condemning the U.S. embargo against Cuba.


Mariela Castro records first “no” vote in Cuba’s Parliament

Mariela Castro, a member of Cuba’s National Assembly and the director of Cuba’s CENESEX, the National Center for Sex Education, voted against a workers’ rights bill that was implemented this summer, arguing that the bill did not go far enough to protect those with HIV or those who do not fall into traditional gender categories, the AP reports. Castro’s vote was the first “no” recorded in the National Assembly, which, until Castro’s vote, passed all laws unanimously.

The vote took place in December of 2013, but few were aware of it until the law went into effect some weeks ago. Castro has expressed a desire for more debate in Cuba’s 612-member legislative body, saying in an interview last month:

“There have been advances in the way things are discussed, above all the way things are discussed at the grass-roots level, in workplaces, unions and party groupings… I think we still need to perfect the democratic participation of the representatives within the Assembly.”

As NPR reported, “no one could recall anyone voting against a measure in Cuba’s legislature. Some say a dissenting vote has simply never happened in Havana.” Historian and former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray told the Associated Press, “This is the first time, without a doubt.”

Other analysts, however, have argued that the vote was tolerated because Mariela Castro is the daughter of President Raúl Castro, who has shown few signs of opening up a multi-party democratic process.

Cuba’s tourism revenue up from last year

In the first half of 2014, international tourism has generated $1.08 billion for Cuba, an increase of 4% compared to the first half of 2013, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. The number of visitors over this time period has also risen from 1.59 million in 2013 to 1.66 million in 2014. Cuba’s government has set a goal of attracting over 3 million tourists by the end of the year, but state media has admitted that reaching that number is not likely.

Cuba’s private sector sees growth

The number of Cubans working in the private sector has reached almost 500,000, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. According to the report, more than 15,500 people became licensed as cuentapropistas in the last five months. More than half of these workers enjoy the same benefits that public sector employees receive, including social security and days off. Nearly 70% of these self-employed workers were not officially employed before the state began to issue cuentapropista licenses. A third of those currently working in the private sector are women.

Opening the private sector has been a central goal of President Raúl Castro’s Administration, which in 2013 approved new self-employment categories including real estate, agricultural wholesale, and telecommunications. Cuba’s government plans to shrink the public sector by as many as 500,000 state jobs by 2015 as part of an on-going effort to reinvigorate the island’s struggling economy.

Cuba faces teacher shortage

The Ministry of Education (MINED) announced this week that Cuba’s 2014-2015 school year will begin with a 12,000 teacher shortage, reports Café Fuerte. Of the 183,100 teachers needed, only 170,466 are available. Teacher shortages are not an uncommon problem in Cuba, where retired professors were recently called back into service. MINED already draws on pedagogical universities for some 5,000 student-teachers, and it plans to hire 4,000 new teachers and raise the course load for another 1,500 in order to address the deficit.

Cuba’s Central Bank will introduce pesos with new security measures

The Central Bank of Cuba announced last week that it plans to introduce new Cuban peso (CUP) bills with added security measures, reports The Miami Herald. The 20, 50, and 100 peso bills will feature new watermarks in order to hinder potential counterfeiters. Those bills currently in circulation will remain valid.

The security measures come after the government’s decision to consolidate its two currencies, the CUP and the convertible peso (CUC), eventually eliminating the CUC. The government has not provided details or a timeline for the proposed merger, and the bank did not mention the unification plans in their announcement last week. Counterfeit CUC are more common than fake CUP, but the value of CUP are expected to rise after the two-currency system is abandoned.

Recommended Reading

Voices: In Cuba, entrepreneurial spirits sparkle, Alan Gómez, USA Today

Alan Gómez praises the resilience of Cuba’s rising entrepreneurs after meeting five self-employed Cuban women who recently travelled to Miami to share their experiences starting and running businesses in their country. “What people like those five women are showing is that the will and capacity exist in Cuba,” Gómez says. “They just need the chance.”

Havana Retro-Soviet Restaurant a Nod to Nostalgia, Peter Orsi, Associated Press

Peter Orsi reports on a new Soviet-inspired restaurant in Havana. Owned by Ukrainians, Nazdarovie is a new restaurant that serves Slavic food and features Cold War-era decorations (photos available here).

Caregiving Exacerbates the Burden for Women in Cuba, Patricia Grogg, Inter Press Service

Patricia Grogg describes issues faced by Cuban women in the island’s struggling economy. She writes: “The burden of caretaking traditionally falls to women, which sustains gender inequalities and makes women vulnerable to the reforms undertaken by the government of Raúl Castro since 2008, aimed at boosting productivity and the efficiency of the economy, but without parallel wage hikes.”

For more information on the status of women in Cuba, read CDA’s 2013 publication here.

Voices: In Cuba, Economic Contradictions Amid Changes, Jose Gabilando, NBC News

José Gabilondo, a Cuban-American professor at the Florida International University, briefly describes the recent changes of Cuba’s economy. He uses his own experiences in Cuba to illustrate Cuba’s progress.

Recommended Viewing

AP Photos: Cubans trek to beach to cool off, Associated Press

Cubans keep cool at the beach in these Associated Press photos.

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