It’s time to throw mud and misunderstanding at U.S. travelers to Cuba

As more high-profile delegations from the U.S. Congress and the business community visit Cuba, critics of President Obama’s Cuba opening are ramping up their anti-travel campaign. Those who are doing the work and making the trips know exactly what the hardliner’s intentions are.

This weekend in Regla, an Afro-Cuban community outside Havana, we had a conversation with Alexey Rodriguez and Mágia Lopez, two renowned hip-hop artists, and three Members of the U.S. Senate who had come with us to get a better understanding of Cuba.

Engaging with the Senators in his living room, Alexey said that the value of these exchanges “is that it helps us find a Cuba inside we didn’t know was there.” The journeys by outsiders, especially Americans, bring ideas and perspectives that help sharpen his understanding of what is missing from his life in Cuba and what he can do to fill it in.

Alexey and Mágia use their recordings and concerts to evoke discussions in Cuba about racism in areas like policing, or in the writing of Cuba’s history where acts of violence against Afro-Cubans are unacknowledged, or contributions by them are airbrushed out.

If you didn’t know that the founders of Obsesion, like other artists in Cuba, push the frontiers of expression through their music, despite Cuban restrictions which are real, we’re not surprised. The folks who oppose travel don’t want Americans seeing that part of Cuba for themselves.

On our trip, we and Senators McCaskill, Klobuchar, and Warner had honest and direct exchanges with officials from Cuba’s foreign ministry. But we didn’t stop there. We always try to triangulate the Cuban reality; so, over the weekend, we also talked to leaders of the Jewish community and the Catholic Archdiocese, met Cubans in their homes, had exchanges with small business owners who are earning their living independent of the Cuban state, and got exposed to the thinking of people who are trying to change how they live and work in the Cuban system acting from within.

These conversations are not just essential, powerful really, for their own sake. They also expose as myth the notion perpetuated by hardline supporters of the status quo, that Cuba can be neatly divided between supporters of the communist state and political dissidents, and that no other Cubans or Cuban perspectives exist.

We have met Cuban dissidents on the island and here in the United States. We know many to be good, decent, and brave people. We also know that Cuba’s government reacts strongly to those Americans who see dissidents when they visit.

We also know that dissidents are nearly anonymous on the island, and that none of them are able to speak for all Cubans. In a nation as diverse and complicated as theirs, no one could.

And yet, those who want to keep using American sanctions to squeeze Cuba are perpetuating the myth that only political dissidents have the standing to speak for Cubans in an effort to discredit those who visit Cuba and reach beyond them to a broader community of witnesses to the Cuban reality.

Just as we got home, there was a poignant and ultimately sad story about the organization of Cuban political dissidents known as The Ladies in White. They were formed by the wives and family member of dissidents rounded up in 2003. A video had just been released, as the Miami Herald reported, showing a large group of Ladies in White members booing Alejandrina García de la Riva, co-founder of the group, and screaming ‘Down with traitors!’ for disagreeing with the group’s direction under the leadership of Berta Soler.

Upon seeing the video, sixteen original members of the group likened de la Riva’s treatment to an “act of repudiation typical of communist behavior” and called upon Soler to step down. The Miami Herald’s columnist, Fabiola Santiago, said the group appeared to be disintegrating, which she and others blame, in part, on financial support The Ladies in White receive under regime change programs underwritten by the U.S. government.

This is one risk that comes when Washington decides who ought to be cast in the roles of representing the real Cuba and pays people to play the part. Real Cubans are visible all over the island. You only have to go there to find them without being distracted by the outsiders shouting from the sidelines who hope you don’t.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

US Senators optimistic about US-Cuba talks and trade

Three U.S. Senators, Amy Klobuchar (MN), Claire McCaskill (MO), and Mark Warner (VA) were in Cuba over the weekend for meetings with Cuban diplomats, trade representatives, and civil society groups, as members of a delegation led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

The congressional delegation met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and with Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s lead negotiator for the normalization talks.

Senator Warner addressed the talks in a statement he released upon this return, “As the relationship moves forward, it is very important that we see steady progress by the Cuban government in loosening restrictions on religious and free speech.” He added, “Both countries have to get past their old mindsets, and realize if this is a new day, both sides will have to move.”

At a press conference, Senator McCaskill told reporters, “Frankly, I’m optimistic, because the negotiators are two women, and we know how to get things done,” McCaskill said.

During their visit, the Senators were also able to tour the Mariel Port special economic zone, which Cuban officials hope will one day become an important hub for regional trade.

“I can envision ships sitting at Mariel with containers of the finest food produced in the world, coming from my state to Cuba, if we can continue to move this complicated and difficult process along towards normalization,” Sen. McCaskill said.

Last week, Senator Klobuchar introduced bipartisan legislation that would end the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. After President Obama announced late last year that the U.S. and Cuba would begin talks to normalize diplomatic relations, support in Congress for ending the embargo and eliminating travel restrictions has grown.

In January, the Obama Administration released new regulations that allowed greater freedom to travel and trade with Cuba, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson traveled to Cuba to begin negotiation the re-opening of embassies. A second round of negotiations will take place in Washington, D.C. on February 27.

“We look with hope and expectations to the meetings next week in Washington between the Cuban government and the American State Department to make progress,” Sen. Warner said

The group also met with representatives from Cuba’s Jewish community, the Catholic Church, and historically Afro-Cuban neighborhoods outside Havana.

Capitol Hill Cubans condemned the trip as “riddled with comments about trade opportunities (with Castro’s monopolies), agricultural sales (to Castro’s monopolies) and meetings (with Castro’s regime).”

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Senator Klobuchar was asked her thoughts on the view of (Florida Senator Marco) Rubio and other opponents that human rights — not economics — should drive the debate. Klobuchar said it wasn’t an either-or situation. Both issues are important, she said.

“But I believe that when you have 50 years of a certain policy that hasn’t worked to bring change, then it’s time to try something new,” she said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi leads Cuba delegation

As Senators McCaskill, Warren, and Klobuchar left Havana on Tuesday, a House delegation led by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (CA-12) arrived for meetings to assess U.S. and Cuba relations in the wake of President Obama’s opening of U.S. policy in December.

Joining the former House Speaker were Reps. Eliot Engel (NY-16), Nydia Velazquez (NY-7), Steve Israel (NY-3), Rosa DeLauro (CT-3), Collin Peterson (MN-7), David Cicilline (RI-1), and Jim McGovern (MA-2). On Thursday, the delegation met with Cuba’s Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who is expected to take over as Cuba’s president after President Raúl Castro steps down in 2018.

“This delegation will work to advance the U.S.-Cuba relationship and build on the work done by many in the Congress over the years, especially with respect to agriculture and trade,” said Rep. Pelosi in a statement.

Video coverage of the delegation’s press conference held in Havana on Thursday is available in Progreso Weekly.

In U.S., opinions of Cuba highest in decades

A new Gallup poll shows that 48% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Cuba, and 59% of Americans support ending the United States’ 50-year old embargo against the island. The Gallup poll is one of several polls that have been released since the process of reestablishing diplomatic relations began in December.

Another poll conducted this week by Florida Atlantic University shows that seventy-three percent of Hispanics favor reestablishing diplomatic ties, and 56.8% of Hispanic Republicans say they would like to visit Cuba.

Apple takes Cuba off restricted country trade list

Apple, Inc. has removed Cuba from its list of restricted countries, AppleInsider reports. In January, the Department of Commerce and Department of Treasury announced regulatory changes that allowed U.S. telecommunications companies to export to Cuba.

Telecommunications companies have shown great interest in doing business with Cuba, where Internet and cellular network infrastructure is vastly underdeveloped. Last week, Netflix made their video streaming service available in Cuba for the first time.

IDT to open long-distance calling with Cuba

New Jersey-based telecommunications company IDT, the largest U.S. provider of international phone calls, has reached an agreement with Cuba’s Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A. (ETECSA), to start operating long-distance calls between the U.S. and Cuba, Reuters reports. IDT filed the agreement with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Friday for a ten-day review period.

Floridian plans to start ferry service to Havana

Brian Hall, owner of Catamaran dealer KonaCat, hopes to start a high-speed roundtrip ferry service from the Florida Keys to Havana, Cuba, the Florida Keys Keynoter reports. According to the newspaper, travel by ferry between Cuba and Florida was popular before the service was banned by the U.S. government in 1962.

Earlier, similar efforts have failed to secure U.S. Government approval. In 2012, for example, Havana Ferry Partners tried to establish a 500-600 seat passenger ferry service to Cuba, but were denied regulatory approval by the U.S. Treasury Department for being “beyond the scope of current policy.”

Now that the policy is being updated, Hall hopes to have a 200-passenger Catamaran operating between the countries by the end of 2015. A one-way trip, which takes approximately four hours, will cost $169.

Conan O’Brien films in Cuba

TBS late-night show host Conan O’Brien was in Cuba over the weekend filming for an episode of “Conan” that will air March 4, Deadline reports. O’Brien talked about his trip and announced the upcoming episode during his show on Tuesday.

Network news anchors Scott Pelley and David Muir have each visited Havana for special editions of their shows in the weeks following the Obama Administration’s easing of trade and travel restrictions. Conan, however, is the first late-night talk show host to visit Cuba since Jack Paar interviewed Fidel Castro in 1959.

IN CUBA

Ladies in White leader faces resignation calls

Berta Soler, who leads Cuba’s dissident group Ladies in White, is facing calls for her resignation after a video appeared on Youtube that shows some members of the group cornering and shouting at Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva, a founding member, for having called Soler’s leadership into question, the Miami Herald reports.

A group of sixteen Ladies in White members currently living in Miami have signed a letter calling for Soler’s resignation and for a round of elections to choose the group’s new leader. The letter calls the behavior seen in the video “fascist… and not of people who fight for democracy and human rights.”

“We don’t know how Berta was elected,” said Aniley Puntes, one of the Ladies in White in Miami who signed the letter. “We were not consulted and we don’t know the way to hold an election in Cuba. If Berta resigns, which I doubt, it must be a problem of the women there to hold an election.”

In early February, Soler visited Washington, D.C. for a series of Congressional hearings on the Obama Administration’s “new course” for U.S. policy toward Cuba.

“Resign? Never,” Soler told a Nuevo Herald reporter. “Those who really count here are the women of the Ladies in White movement who live in Cuba, who are more than 250, and they have not considered elections.”

Dangerous new strain of HIV discovered in Cuba

Researchers in Cuba have discovered a new strain of HIV that progresses to full-blown AIDS in as little as three years if left untreated, The Independent reports. Cuba has one of the smallest HIV infection rates in the world — some 15,000 people, or .1% of the population, were HIV positive as of 2013. That’s at least four times smaller than the infection rate in the United States.

A 2012 New York Times report details Cuba’s efforts to combat the disease: “[Cuba] has free universal basic health care; it has stunningly high rates of H.I.V. testing; it saturates its population with free condoms, concentrating on high-risk groups like prostitutes; it gives its teenagers graphic safe-sex education; it rigorously traces the sexual contacts of each person who tests positive.”

Life sentences handed to two smugglers

Two men were sentenced to life in prison in Cuba for a human trafficking plot that resulted in the death of four people, the AP reports. Another five defendants were handed shorter sentences.

Further details about the case are scarce — 11 people were originally accused of arranging to smuggle money and migrants into the United States, but it is unclear how much money was passed or how the four migrants died.

The “wet foot, dry foot” provision of the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to obtain legal resident status, has unintentionally produced a host of smuggling operations that bring Cuban migrants to the U.S. and stolen American goods into Cuba. The Florida Sun Sentinel recently completed an exhaustive report detailing many of these activities.

Cuba temporarily drops Internet access price

Between now and April 10, the price of accessing the Internet in Cuba’s public cyber-cafes will be $4.50 per hour, 50% cheaper than the previous rate, the AP reports. The rate does not appear to have changed in hotels, where it costs $8 per hour to use the Internet. Cuba’s government has not elaborated on why the rate cut is only temporary.

Last week, Cuba announced it would be adding 136 public Internet access points across the island in addition to the 155 that were opened in 2013. Internet penetration in Cuba is poor — only 5% of the population has unfettered access to the World Wide Web, and approximately 20% can use a tightly restricted intranet of only Cuban websites.

Invasion of Giant African land snails poses threat to Cuban ecosystems

The giant African land snail, one of the world’s most aggressive invasive species, has reached Cuba. Although it is undetermined how the snails got to the island, the dangers they pose to Cuba’s native species is clear. According to a report from the BBC, the African giants “can grow to the size of a rat and are an extremely destructive pest, eating anything green in their wake.”

Cuba’s indigenous snails are also threatened. Most mollusks on the island are unique to Cuba and, despite their diversity, they are all at risk of being overtaken by the new species, which can reproduce starting at 6 months old and lay between 100-300 eggs per month.

The giant African land snail has also wreaked havoc across Venezuela, Brazil, Hawaii, and Florida. The snails are almost impossible to eradicate, a fact underscored by their recent resurgence in Miami-Dade County, despite initiatives that successfully removed 141,000 snails across the state. Beyond their destruction of native flora and fauna, giant African land snails have also been known to carry the rat lungworm parasite, which can cause meningitis in humans.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

New Zealand and Cuba sign bilateral agreement

New Zealand has signed a new bilateral agreement with Cuba to support Cuba’s medical work in the Pacific Islands, the International Business Times reports. In an official meeting this week, New Zealand’s Foreign Affairs Minister Craig Hawke commended Cuba for its medical internationalism and mentioned the stellar reputation that Cuban healthcare workers have internationally.

Recommended Reading

What Obama’s New Cuba Policy Means for the Rest of the Americas, Arturo López-Levy, NACLA

López-Levy writes, “U.S. hemispheric priorities including economic and energy integration, a multilateral hemispheric dialogue with emerging powers, the accommodation of Bolivarian elites, immigration, public security, and drug policy have all been undermined by the lack of a stable U.S.-Cuba relationship. Obama’s initiatives toward Cuba are thus best understood as an attempt to better the possibilities of U.S. leadership in the Western Hemisphere.”

Havana Calling: Easing the Embargo Will Open the Cuban Telecom Sector, Jose W. Fernandez and Eric Lorber, Foreign Affairs

Cuba’s underdeveloped telecommunications infrastructure is an attractive investment opportunity for U.S. businesses. Many companies, however, are wary of violating any of the sanctions measures that are still in place. To address these fears, “OFAC could issue guidance to clarify that U.S. telecommunications companies will not be punished if they unintentionally violate U.S. sanctions on Cuba while trying to engage in permitted activities.”

Cuba Sees Obama Terror Promise as Healing of Historic Wound, Michael Weissenstein, The Associated Press

The U.S. State Department is currently reviewing Cuba’s designation as a “state sponsor of terror,” and is expected to complete their review before the Summit of the Americas set to take place in Panama in April. This is an important change for Cubans.

Weissenstein writes: “In Cuban eyes, they are the victims of terror, not the U.S. For Cubans, the worst act of aggression against the island since its 1959 revolution occurred when 73 people aboard a Cuban passenger flight from Barbados to Havana died in a 1976 bombing blamed on exiles with ties to U.S.-backed anti-Castro groups. Both of the men accused of masterminding the crime took shelter in Florida, where one, Luis Posada Carriles, lives quietly to this day.”

Return visit to Communist Cuba finds new hope amid change, Anita Snow, The Associated Press

Anita Snow writes about the differences in Cuba under Raul Castro’s modest reforms compared to the tense nature of the island during the 1990s. The possibility of improved relations with the United States, and the economic opportunities that such an opening would bring, seem to have reinvigorated Cuban’s hopes for the future.

Americans May See Appeal of Medical Tourism in Cuba, William Neuman, The New York Times

As the Obama Administration eases travel restrictions from the U.S. to Cuba, medical professionals on the island hope to see Americans taking advantage of their world-renowned healthcare and affordable prices. Thousands of Americans currently travel to Israel, Canada, and the United Kingdom, among other nations, for medical treatment abroad that is more convenient than domestic options. Cubans, however, see the possibility of American medical tourism to Cuba as “literally like winning the lottery.”

In funding Cuba port project, Brazil set to gain key foothold, Tracy Wilkinson and Vincent Bevins, The Los Angeles Times

Brazil has invested some $700 million in Cuba’s Mariel port as part of the country’s larger effort to assert itself as a regional economic power. But, Brazil is not alone — around 100 projects have been proposed for the port’s special economic zone, including a Chinese company that wants to build an automotive factory and an Argentinian company that wants to ship frozen meat to Europe.

ANNOUNCEMENTS

Travel to Cuba with CDA and LAWG!

Two organizations that were at the center of last December’s big change in U.S. policy toward Cuba — the Center for Democracy in the Americas and the Latin America Working Group — are teaming in a special opportunity to bring our supporters to Cuba.

Come celebrate this historic policy victory by hearing from the people that this change will benefit most – Cubans. We will meet with young entrepreneurs, students, and artists about their renewed optimism for the future now that President Obama has significantly eased sanctions and allowed for greater exchange and dialogue between our countries.

The tentative dates for the trip are June 17-22. We will confirm official dates as the date approaches.

Space is limited, so please contact us as soon as possible if you are interested in joining us or if you would like more information.

You — our supporters — were part of this historic diplomatic opening. We sincerely hope you take this opportunity to celebrate with us.

Stephen M. Rivers Memorial Fellowship

CDA is offering a paid, full-time, year-long position in Washington, D.C. for a uniquely qualified undergraduate, recent graduate, or Master’s student with a special interest in Cuba, a thirst for activism, and an interest in pursuing a professional career in the foreign policy NGO community. The Rivers Fellow will work side-by-side with CDA staff on projects that advance our goal of forging a new policy toward Cuba and the region. The fellow will be paid a monthly stipend. Please see this posting for more information.

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