Thanksgiving Edition: Shout-outs and holiday helpings of news

As we prepare for the holiday and gird for stormy weather in the U.S., we offer you light reading and simple gratitude in today’s Thanksgiving Edition.

In the final days of 2014, we have reached a moment to savor: the table has been set for President Obama to make decisive changes in U.S.-Cuba relations.

A remarkable group of women and men – here and in Cuba – began the good fight long before we hit send on the first edition of the Cuba Central News Blast.

This year, truly exceptional table setters drove progress in ways that built on their decades-long efforts. In the spirit of this holiday, we remember events and the people who took actions that made us thankful in 2014:

  • Big shifts in support for normalizing relations – nationally, and especially in Florida and its Cuban American precincts – documented precisely and honestly in surveys by Florida International University, the Atlantic Council, and the Miami Herald.
  • Bold leaders – retired U.S. officials, regional experts, and historic opponents of Cuba’s government – whose letter to President Obama demonstrates that real reforms are a mainstream expression of U.S. foreign policy interests.
  • Comics and pundits who made us laugh and think as they talked about ending the embargo.
  • Families who allowed reconciliation to replace revenge in their hearts; a once lonely process is now engaging thousands of families today.
  • Investigative journalists, whistleblowers, and others who did the bold and persistent work to bring the scandalous activities of USAID’s Cuba program to light.
  • The men and women who are working quietly and diligently so Gerardo Hernández,Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, and Alan Gross can return home.
  • The New York Times Editorial Board for making the case, again and again, to the public and our national leadership that ending the embargo is in the national interests of the U.S.
  • Scholars and historians whose new books built a stronger foundation for change.
  • Smart, courageous allies who make the reform case in really creative ways.
  • Readers that support the Blast whose donations let us share what we learn and think with all of you.

In the days and months to come, we will keep working and continue urging President Obama to transform U.S.-Cuba relations. The times demand it and he has the power to do it.

We know you believe this, just as we do. We invite you to join us by raising your voices and supporting our work.

You won’t hear from us until the first Friday in December.  Between now and then, Alan Gross will mark the fifth anniversary of his arrest.  There are empty seats at his family’s Thanksgiving table and in the homes of the Cuban Three who have been locked away in the United States considerably longer.  A real reform must encompass a solution for them all.

The table is set and it’s time for the President to act.

Happy holidays!

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Spain’s foreign minister in Cuba is said to carry message from U.S.

José Manuel García-Margallo, Spain’s foreign minister, visited Cuba this week for meetings with Cuban officials, carrying with him “very concrete messages” on behalf of the U.S. government (see EFE for an English version). The reporting is based on communications received by the Spanish newspaper El País from “diplomatic sources” in Spain’s Foreign Ministry.

El País speculates that the undisclosed message is related to the upcoming Summit of the Americas, which will take place in Panama next April with participation by Cuba for the first time in the Summit’s history.

As El País notes, neither the State Department nor the White House has confirmed the claims. In Monday’s press briefing, U.S. State Department spokesperson Jeff Rathke declined to comment on the report:

QUESTION: Thank you. On Cuba, the Spanish foreign minister arrived last night in Cuba and –which has – officially, it has been labeled from Spain with very concrete messages from the U.S. Government to Havana [.…] I was wondering if you can confirm that there’s been any kind of messaging or talks that Spain might deliver a message from the U.S. to the Cuban authorities.

RATHKE: I’m sorry. What sort of a message are you referring to?

QUESTION: If – Spain is saying that he comes with very concrete messages from the U.S. to the Cuban authorities.

RATHKE: And this was said by whom?

QUESTION: The official source is from the Spanish foreign ministry.

RATHKE: No, I have nothing to confirm about that.

On Tuesday, Garcia-Margallo told reporters that he has asked Cuba’s government to allow dissidents arrested in 2003 to freely travel to and from the island. Spain was involved with the 2010 negotiations between President Raúl Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega that freed dissidents imprisoned since the round-up. As Reuters reports, 63 were granted exile on the condition that they leave Cuba and never return. Twelve of the 75 refused to leave the island and were eventually released, but are now prohibited from traveling abroad.

According to the AP, the Foreign Minister also urged Cuba to quicken the pace of economic reforms. “Spain would like to see a more rapid pace to the economic reforms that give more space for private initiative and foreign investment,” he said.

Because of their shared language and history, Spain and Cuba have a unique relationship, and there is a special attraction for Cubans seeking to leave the island. More than 200,000 Cubans have obtained Spanish citizenship under a Historical Memory Law passed by Spain’s government in 2007. Garcia-Margallo met with some of these Spanish-Cubans during his visit. As EFE reports, he predicts that the number of Spaniards living in Cuba will increase to 400,000 in coming years.

Agency responsible for Radio Martí again under fire

The U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the parent agency for Radio and TV Martí, is under fire again for staffing practices that ship agency jobs to contractor firms, raising the BBG’s labor costs, the Washington Post reports.

Like many other government agencies, the BBG already uses its personnel budget to hire outside contractors. As the Washington Post notes, the Voice of America “uses 660 contractors who work on programs in 45 languages.” In this instance, the BBG is ending individual relationships with hundreds of contractors and replacing them with hires from staffing agencies.

As the Post reports, this is controversial because it diverts money from programming to staff for no apparent reason:

“The BBG acknowledges that it expects no significant savings from the new contracting model and increases in per-contractor spending of up to 30 percent. With no boost in funding, that could mean fewer workers and some programming cuts, because the staffing agencies will have to take a slice from the same money pie.”

The BBG and its Office of Cuba Broadcasting have long been under fire for wasteful management practices, retaliation against employees, nepotism and patronage in hiring, and efforts to elude contractually-obligated processes for dealing with unions representing their staffs.

Earlier this year, a U.S. Appeals Court ruled that the BBG had to re-hire 16 employees who had been fired in an effort to keep Aero Martí alive. The agency began compensating those employees last week. The BBG’s Cuba programs have been criticized for decades because they spend millions of dollars annually, as a Government Accountability Office audit showed, to broadcast anti-Castro programs that reach less than 1% of Cuba’s population.

Recently, BBG Watch, a watch dog publication, uncovered allegations that BBG officials may “have violated IRS rules by employing thousands of private contractors as full-time, long-term employees but failing to withhold taxes from their salaries as they were required to do.”

See past Washington Post reports and visit BBG Watch for more materials documenting these and other serious allegations.

Cuban-American awaits seizure of millions of dollars of Cuban assets

The lawyer for Cuban-American Gustavo Villoldo, who in 2011 won a $2.8 billion lawsuit against Cuba’s government, expects banks holding Cuban assets to pay out some $20 million to Villoldo in the next six months, the AP reports.

Villoldo, a veteran of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and other CIA-led operations on the island, and two other Cuban-Americans filed separate lawsuits on behalf of family members whose deaths they allege were caused by Cuba’s government. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act allows foreign countries that sponsor terrorism to be sued in U.S. courts. Cuba’s government has not recognized the lawsuits, and each plaintiff won by default.

Villoldo’s lawyer has since sought to secure his client’s compensation by seizing Cuban assets held in foreign banks. Spain’s Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA) sought to dismiss the case, claiming that the courts had reached beyond their jurisdiction. In August, as Courthouse News Service reported, a federal judge in Manhattan ruled against Banco Bilbao, writing in a statement, “The judgments granted by the Florida circuit court in favor of the plaintiffs and against Cuba are entitled to full faith and credit.”

The Manhattan judge’s ruling was met with criticism, since Cuba was not listed as a State Sponsor of Terror at the time when the deaths took place (Cuba was added to the list in 1982). Robert Muse, a Washington-based attorney and expert on the U.S. embargo against Cuba, called the judge’s finding “inexplicable,” stating, “You had to demonstrate that Cuba had been listed as a state sponsor of terrorism at the time of the acts.”

Fifteen Cubans set off for Honduras from Cayman Islands

A group of 15 Cuban migrants were spotted departing the Cayman Islands where they spent the night before continuing their journey to Honduras, reports Reuters. In recent years, Cubans hoping to reach the U.S. are increasingly traveling first by boat to Central or South America and then by land to the U.S-Mexico border, where they are authorized by the Cuban Adjustment Act to request U.S. residency under the practice referred to as “wet foot, dry foot.”

According to U.S. officials, more than 16,000 Cubans have entered the U.S. through the border with Mexico this year, the highest such figure recorded in ten years.

“Rent” will be first U.S. musical in Cuba since revolution

Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, one of the biggest American theater producers, is bringing the popular Broadway musical “Rent” to Cuba, the BBC reports. The production will be the first of its kind since Fidel Castro banned U.S. theater productions in 1959. The Cuban National Council of Performing Arts, which is working with Nederlander, said the production was a “paramount step” for musical theater in Cuba.

Google launches two new products in Cuba

Today Google launched two new products in Cuba: Analytics and Play. This follows the August release of Google’s Chrome web browser for use by Cubans. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has spoken out against the U.S. embargo on Cuba and is a champion for helping companies and countries modernize through the use of Internet technology. Schmidt traveled to Havana in March to promote “a free and open Internet,” reported Time Magazine.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

FARC moves to release captive soldiers

In an effort to save peace talks that have been underway in Havana for over two years, The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) announced they plan to free Colombian Army General Ruben Alzate, and two other hostages captured with him, by the end of this week, Reuters reports. Alzate’s capture last week led Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos to suspend negotiations until the release of the general.

The FARC’s announcement came as they released two other soldiers captured in a separate confrontation two weeks ago. “This is an important step which shows the maturity of the peace process and the gestures of peace all Colombians demand,” President Santos said Tuesday.

Substantial progress has been made in the effort to bring the half-century old conflict to an end, but a ceasefire has not yet been put in place, and each side has continued military operations while the talks are underway.

For more on the Colombia-FARC peace process, see Adam Isaacson’s Latin America Blog.

Recommended Reading

Why I tweet as a British ambassador in a country without free speech, Tom Cole, The Guardian

“Tweeting in Cuba isn’t like tweeting in most other places in the world,” according to Ambassador Cole, but he maintains that social media on the island is still valuable for gaining information, communicating with Cubans, and taking a stand for freedom of speech.

Is Obama contemplating unilateral action on Cuba?, Howard LaFranchi, Christian Science Monitor

Senator Rubio has cited “chatter” and Spain’s foreign minister has reportedly carried “very concrete messages” from the U.S. to Cuba. Is President Obama about to ease relations between our countries?

Cuban Remix, Julia Sagebien and Eric Leenson, Stanford Social Innovation Review

Sagebien and Leenson provide a breakdown of key changes in the private, public, and cooperatives sectors that have taken place as a result of Cuba’s efforts to update its economic model.

Elian Gonzalez: 15 years after his rescue, a quiet life, Portia Siegelbaum, CBS News

Fifteen years ago this week, Elian Gonzalez’s rescue off the Florida Coast resulted in a contentious custody battle and a milestone event in the battle over U.S.-Cuba relations. Portia Siegelbaum remembers the drama and explores it implications for migration and bilateral relations for CBS News.

OPINION: How Ebola could end the Cuban embargo, Arturo Lopez-Levy, Inter Press Service

Lopez-Levy makes a compelling case that cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba in combatting the Ebola crisis in West Africa can help “change the nature of U.S.-Cuba relations, for the public good.” He argues that the U.S. should take the opportunity to propose the creation of a comprehensive continental health cooperation and crisis response strategy at the Summit of the Americas.

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