The Roar of the Lion, and the Sound of a Whisper

Dear Friends:

When President Obama described our role in assembling the coalition the United States will lead into war, he called it “America at its best.”

But, when a State Department spokesperson took a question about U.S. cooperation with Cuba on an issue of “security and safety,” she reacted like a character in Harry Potter reluctant to say Voldemort, because “We do not speak his name.”

The backstory, reported below in greater detail, involves a private plane flying from upstate New York to Naples, Florida that lost contact with air traffic controllers. As it headed off its flight plan, two F-15 fighter jets were sent to investigate “an unresponsive aircraft [then] flying over the Atlantic Ocean.” Three persons were unresponsive and presumed dead before the plane crashed into the seas off Jamaica, after flying through Cuba’s airspace.

It should have come as no surprise that U.S. authorities were in contact with their Bahamian and Cuban counterparts. “Obviously,” Marie Harf said at the State Department podium, “this is an issue of security and safety, and so we were in touch as well.”

Nor was it a secret. The FAA had already gone on record with a policy statement, “FAA International Strategies 2010-2014, Western Hemisphere Region,” outlining its objectives relating to Cuba:

  • Work closely with the Department of Transportation (DOT), Department of State (DOS) and other U.S. Government agencies to support the Administration’s Cuba initiatives and policies as well as FAA mission critical operations.
  • Negotiate for the sharing of radar data with key partners adjacent to U.S. delegated airspace: Bahamas, Canada, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Haiti, Mexico, Saint Maarten.
  • Continue to work with the DOS to facilitate safety-critical operational meetings between the FAA and Cuban air traffic officials on a regular basis.

Yet, the terse answers to questions about the plane incident, and if it could be a model for future cooperation, sounded like the State Department was protecting state secrets. Read the full transcript of the briefing here and judge for yourselves.

For example, when Ms. Harf was asked about the flight incident, she offered a sparse 68-word recitation of the facts, before quickly referring reporters to NORAD and the FAA. After saying, “We have been in touch” with Cuba and the Bahamas, she replied, “I don’t have more details on those conversations,” and never mentioned the FAA’s strategy, publicly released in 2010.

As the reporter pressed further on whether the kind of cooperation that took place on the flight could expand to other “issues of national interest, like … security in the region,” she responded with boilerplate about talks on postal service and migration, but concluded, “I don’t have more for you on that issue than that.”

Apparently, there’s a fine line between putting together a Middle East coalition, an occasion to trumpet national pride, and an example of healthy cooperation with Cuba, which got little more than a meek mention at State.

It’s hard not to notice the contrast. CBS News labeled nations in the coalition as “frenemies” of the United States. As the State Department reported this year, citizens living in at least one of those nations, “lack the right and legal means to change their government; [face] pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children, and noncitizen workers.”

While the Administration has engaged with Cuba effectively, on a limited basis and in discrete areas like migration, environment, drug interdiction, and law enforcement, the White House and State Department prefer to keep these activities hidden below-the-radar, as if Parental Discretion was advised in their dealings with the American people.

The U.S. can and should do more. As we said in “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US,” it would be in the U.S. national interest to work with Cuba openly and closely on counterterrorism, military affairs, greater exchanges among scientists and artists and the like, while also developing what the countries have lacked for so long: a language for their diplomacy based on engagement instead of preconditions.

Doing this would reflect the values of Cubans and Americans alike. Such public diplomacy would also strengthen those in Cuba who take risks by supporting reform at home and engagement with the U.S. abroad.

Yes, this will be opposed by Members of the U.S. Congress who conflate engagement with appeasement. But, whispering about working with Cuba has never gotten them to stand down, and it never will.

So we say, stop whispering; engage more, unabashedly. If the Administration used its remaining time to make a more forceful commitment to diplomacy with Cuba, that would give all of us something to shout about.


Cuba to send 165 health workers to fight Ebola

Cuba will send 63 doctors and 102 other health specialists including nurses and epidemiologists to help set up Ebola clinics in Sierra Leone funded by the World Health Organization (WHO), reports CBS News. This is the largest outbreak of Ebola in history, as the CDC has concluded, and Cuba’s commitment to fighting it is the largest so far, according to Margaret Chan, Director General of the WHO. Cuban health workers will stay in Sierra Leone for six months, reports Forbes.

It is estimated that the Ebola virus has killed almost 2,500 people in West Africa so far this year. Doctors and health workers face a high risk of becoming infected, and the death rate for those who fall ill with the virus is near 50 percent.

Margaret Chan, Director General of the WHO, said in a press conference:

“If we are going to war with Ebola, we need the resources to fight… Cuba is world famous for its ability to train outstanding doctors and nurses and for its generosity in helping fellow countries on the route to progress.”

Cuba is well known for its contributions to international public health and humanitarian efforts. Havana’s Latin American School of Medicine provides free medical education to students from Latin America and Africa, and the country’s biotechnology industry is one of the strongest in the hemisphere. Roberto Morales Ojeda, Cuba’s Health Minister, was unanimously elected President of the WHO’s 67th World Health Assembly in May.

In their exceptional history of the program, “Cuban Medical Internationalism,” authors John Kirk and Michael Erisman write that Cuba’s “first significant foray into medical aid activities occurred in 1960 when Havana dispatched medical teams to Chile (with which it did not have diplomatic relations at the time) to provide short-term assistance in the wake of a catastrophic earthquake there.”

After announcing Cuba’s plans to send workers to West Africa, Morales Ojeda told reporters that the move is “not an isolated event.” Cuba, he says, has a “principle of not giving what is left over, but sharing what we have.”

Cuba sends six tons of medical aid to Gaza

Cuba has sent a six-ton shipment of medical supplies to Gaza, which is recovering from a seven-week conflict with Israel that killed more than 2,100 people, reports AFP. The shipment was sent to Cuba’s embassy in Cairo, Egypt, where it was handed over to Palestinian officials, who expressed gratitude for the “noble gesture” that “will alleviate the difficult situation Gaza is facing.”

Mexico’s Foreign Minister visits Cuba

José Antonio Meade, Mexico’s Foreign Minister, visited Cuba to discuss the agenda of the upcoming Ibero-American Summit, to be held next month in Mexico, and to assess the bilateral agreements reached last year between President Raúl Castro and President Enrique Peña Nieto, EFE reports. Diplomatic relations between Cuba and Mexico were strained in the early 2000’s after a diplomatic falling-out between then-presidents Vicente Fox and Fidel Castro, but relations warmed following former President Felipe Calderon’s 2012 visit to Cuba. Trade between Mexico and Cuba is now valued at over $500 million per year.

Meade’s visit was preceded by an article he wrote in Granma praising the “renewed and ongoing relationship” between the two countries and expressing his support for Cuba’s economic reforms. “There exists a growing interest in the Mexican private sector in being part of the transformations that are taking place on the island,” Meade said in the article. “As a result of this very close friendship, attractive areas for investment in different sectors and cooperation on cultural issues have been found.” Meade has also expressed support for Panama’s decision to invite Cuba to the 2015 Summit of the Americas.

Cuba’s Ambassador to Mexico told reporters on Tuesday that his country would welcome Mexican investment in Cuban industry, and he expressed a desire to increase the export of services like education and health care to Mexico.

Tourism joint venture to be created in Cuba with Chinese investment

Cuba’s state-owned tourism company Palmares will work with Beijing Enterprises Holdings Limited, a Chinese investment holding company, in a joint venture to develop facilities in the Bellomonte golf resort east of Havana, reports EFE. A similar endeavor by British firm Esencia has been underway since 2013. Cuba has sought to increase foreign investment in its tourism sector with long leases for foreign investors and a new foreign investment law that offers tax cuts for foreign companies that enter joint ventures with Cuba’s government. Today, twenty-six such partnerships operate fifteen hotels across the island.


Cuba modifies housing laws

Cuba’s government has announced changes in its housing regulations, reports Café Fuerte. The new legislation will come into effect in January of 2015 and will ease restrictions on changing address, transferring property, and carrying out individual construction work. The measures allow Cuba’s Urban Planning Institute (IPF) to turn over vacant state lots to individuals who want to build new homes. Cubans in areas at risk of natural disaster or in state shelters will be the first to be assigned available state lots. The law also permits Cubans living on the top floor of multi-story buildings to build on vacant rooftops as long as they have permission from the building’s residents and the addition does not threaten the structural integrity of the edifice. Apartment building residents can also grant third-parties permission to build on rooftops.

Cuba faces a housing deficit of some 600,000 homes. These changes seek to alleviate the deficit by encouraging construction efforts by individuals. Last year, only 26,634 homes were built on the island — the lowest rate since 2004. Of the homes built last year, almost half were built by individuals without government help.

Mariela Castro will push for law to protect gender identity

Mariela Castro, director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), will continue to pursue a law to protect transgender people from workplace discrimination, reports EFE.

At the end of last year, the National Assembly passed a new Labor Code that included protections against discrimination based on gender identity and sexuality. Castro, the daughter of Cuba’s president, voted against the measure on the grounds that it did not extend protection to transgender people or people with HIV/AIDS .

As Cuba Central reported earlier this month, her vote was believed to be the first “no” recorded in the National Assembly, which, since the Revolution, had passed all laws unanimously.

On Friday, she announced that she will rework an existing proposal to make it “more comprehensive to gender identity.” She also promised to work on a new Family Code to include families with same sex couples .


Cuba and the U.S. cooperate to track unresponsive aircraft over Caribbean

Cuba and the U.S. took joint action to respond to a small aircraft that crashed near the coast of Jamaica, El Nuevo Herald reports. Cuba’s government authorized three U.S. military aircraft to enter Cuban air space to follow the unresponsive seven-seat airplane until it fell into the Caribbean last Friday, September 5th. According to a note published in Granma, “the entire time [that the aircraft was flying without responding to calls] communication was maintained with U.S. authorities, who were informed of each of the measures taken in relation to this event.”

In 2010, the FAA said that “More than 70 percent of international flights managed by the FAA operate to and from destinations in the Western Hemisphere.” Consequently, it has a long history of cooperation with the nations in the region. Although the U.S. and Cuba lack diplomatic relations, a source at the FAA told Agence France-Presse that “the two countries routinely cooperate on air traffic matters.”

Panama’s Foreign Minister says U.S. “understands” Cuba’s Summit participation

Isabel de Saint Malo, Panama’s Foreign Minister, said Sunday that the U.S. “understands” Panama’s plans to invite Cuba to the 2015 Summit of the Americas, reports EFE. Saint Malo stated:

“We’ve had conversations with both countries [the U.S. and Canada] and both have expressed that they understand that Panama, as host country, has to recognize the outcry from the entire region to invite Cuba.”

Last week, State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a briefing that the Obama Administration wants the OAS to stand by an agreement made at the 2001 Summit of the Americas:

“The maintenance and strengthening of the rule of law and strict respect for the democratic system are at the same time a goal and a shared commitment and are an essential condition of our presence at this and future summits.”

The previous Summit of the Americas, held in 2012, ended for the first time without a final declaration due to a standoff between the U.S. and Canada and the rest of the attending nations over Cuba’s exclusion from the Summit, among other issues. As Al-Jazeera reported at the time, “The foreign ministers of Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay had said their presidents would not sign any declaration unless the US and Canada removed their veto of future Cuban participation.” Since then, the U.S. and Canada have become isolated from the entire region on this issue.

Hemingway’s grandsons, in Cuba to promote environmental conservation, can’t see author’s fishing logs

John and Patrick Hemingway, the grandsons of Ernest Hemingway, are visiting Cuba as a part of a delegation led by the D.C.-based Latin American Working Group to encourage Cuban marine scientists to join conservation efforts in the Straits of Florida, Reuters reports .

Hemingway, who resided in Cuba from 1940-1960, was renowned for his love of deep-sea fishing. What is often called his most famous work, The Old Man and the Sea, about a Cuban fisherman’s days-long battle with a marlin, won both the Pulitzer Prize (1953) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (1954).

The delegation had hoped that Cuba would allow them access to Hemingway’s fishing logs, which contain valuable information on the Florida Straits’ fish populations before they were threatened by industrial overfishing. “We think it’s vitally important that both countries work on this together,” said John Hemingway. “Both [the U.S. and Cuba] use this water.”

But, as the Associated Press reported, the National Cultural Heritage Council declined their request to see the logs. Cuban authorities said they will work to let researchers see them eventually.”

John Hemingway and Robert Peck, a senior fellow for the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, wrote an article about Hemingway’s love for game fish, his detailed research and record-keeping, and the importance of collaboration between the U.S. and Cuba, available here.

Cuba estimates embargo damage at $116 billion

According to Cuba’s annual report to the UN on the impacts of U.S. sanctions against Cuba, the embargo has cost the island $116.8 billion in foreign trade over 55 years, reports Granma. The document was presented by Abelardo Moreno, Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister in Havana this week. He said that Cuba’s foreign trade in the past year suffered a $3.9 billion loss because of the embargo, and that the country could have earned $205.8 million from sales of cigars and rum alone if the sanctions weren’t in place.

Moreno presented the report in preparation for an annual vote in the UN condemning the embargo. He termed the embargo, which Cuba refers to as the blockade, a “vile act.”

For the last twenty-two years, the United Nations General Assembly has adopted a resolution introduced by Cuba to condemn “the U.S. commercial, economic and financial embargo” by increasingly overwhelming margins. As AP reported, the resolution in 2013 was adopted by a vote of 188-2; three countries abstained, and only the U.S. and Israel were recorded in opposition.

This year, the UNGA will again consider the resolution on the “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.” The precise date of the vote is yet to be announced. It is listed by the UN as the 40th Item subject to debate during the 69th regular session of the General Assembly which convenes this month. Typically debate on the resolution is taken up after the General Assembly concludes its General Debate, which ends this year on October 7.

U.S. Interests Section in Havana raises consular fees

Fees for Cubans seeking U.S. family reunification or fiancé visas will increase starting in mid-September, reports Café Fuerte. According to a statement on the U.S. Interests Section website,

“The Department seeks to recover, as far as possible, the cost of providing consular services through the collection of consular fees. The Department regularly reviews these costs and adjusts fees as necessary to reflect the cost of service.”

Visas for fiancés of Cuban citizens will rise to $265, while visas for bringing children, spouses, or other close family members will rise to $325.

Yoani Sánchez is the new Yahoo! Fellow at Georgetown University

Yoani Sánchez, a Cuban dissident blogger who earlier this year launched an online newspaper in Cuba, is now a Yahoo! Fellow in International Values, Communications, Technology and the Global Internet at Georgetown University, according to the University’s website. Sánchez is among the most well-known Cuban dissidents, and her blog Generation Y has more than 14 million visits every month. Sánchez says the fellowship is “an opportunity for me to improve the quality of my work, to empower independent journalism in Cuba, and to interact with students and faculty in order to broaden my perspective on the world and on Cuba itself.”

Recommended Reading

Fulfill the mandates of Rosh Hashanah by saving Alan Gross, Rabbi Steve Gutow, The Jewish Journal

Rabbi Steve Gutow asks readers to send letters to President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and Members of Congress demanding the release of Alan Gross. “For Alan Gross, this Rosh Hashanah must offer a chance to live life fully and to be whole again,” Gutow says. “We as individuals are only as free as those of us who are suffering.”

Francis’ letter to Cubans: Imitate Mary’s joy, haste, perseverance, Catholic News Agency

The Catholic News Agency publishes Pope Francis’ letter to Cuban Archbishop Dionisio García Ibáñez on the feast day of Cuba’s patroness Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.

In Miami, the Cuban school uniform finds a market, Christine Armario, Associated Press

A store that sells replica Cuban school uniforms at a discount rate finds a niche market in Miami. “There’s an old Cuban joke,” says Graciella Cruz-Taura: “What is it that you need to do well in Cuba, to be happy?” The answer: “Family abroad.”

Cuba One Year Later, Diana Nyad, Huffington Post

Diana Nyad reflects on her visit to Cuba one year after completing her historic swim across the Florida Strait. “It was a special day for me, for our entire Team.” Nyad says. “Our Cuba Swim was never a political enterprise. But it was certainly a human statement of connection, our beautiful country to theirs.” Last week Nyad was awarded the Cuban Sports Medal of Honor in Havana.

A cycling tour of Cuba: readers’ travel writing competition, Steve Rocliff, The Guardian

An avid biker won the “journey” category of The Guardian’s writing competition with this recounting of his journey across Cuba by bicycle.

My Mother and I Become Entrepreneurs in Cuba, Yasmin S. Portales Machado, Havana Times

A Cuban woman tells of her and her mother’s venture into cuentapropismo. Both left their jobs to start a school uniform business together.

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