Ending the Embargo: Can “Brand America” Bail Obama Out?

September 26, 2014

Not a great week for President Obama or his resilient support for the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

With heads of state and government gathering at the United Nations for the 69th Session of the General Assembly, Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia, and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, President of El Salvador, spoke out strongly against the U.S. embargo.

Santos said, “I have faith that the United States and Cuba can form a working relationship that allows the United States to lift the embargo that from my point of view has failed.”

In his first General Assembly speech as president, Sánchez Cerén said, “In the pursuit of peace efforts, and of equitable development there is no place for the disdain of fundamental principles and freedoms which is found in the economic, trade and financial blockade against the sister republic of Cuba.”

These strong words, coming from leaders of America’s staunchest allies in the hemisphere, merely echo what has already been said by influential foreign policy voices – like Hillary Clinton, Yoani Sánchez and, yes, John Oliver.

Earlier this year, former Secretary of State Clinton described to Jorge Ramos why she now favors lifting the embargo.

“I think it has propped up the Castros because they can blame everything on the embargo…You don’t have freedom of speech, you don’t have freedom of expression, you know, you’re still having political prisoners, everything is blamed on the embargo.”

Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban dissident, who has gone from communicating with the outside world with flash drives, to winning a Yahoo! fellowship at Georgetown University, wants the U.S. to end the embargo for a similar reason.

“I come from a generation of Cubans that have grown up with an official discourse constantly running through my ears that has expertly used the embargo as its foremost excuse — blamed for everything from the lack of food on our plates to the lack of liberty in the streets.”

Commenting on President Obama’s decision this month to extend Cuba’s status as the only nation on Earth subject to trade sanctions under the World WWI-era Trading with the Enemy Act, John Oliver told his HBO audience this week:

“Cubans blame the embargo for everything — the economy, the weather, the complete collapse of Homeland in its second season which, to be fair, Cubans probably haven’t seen but if they do they’ll hate it and they’ll blame the embargo for it.”

Clinton, Sánchez, and Oliver make a point President Obama has not fully absorbed; namely, it’s possible to have differences with Cuba’s government, political system, and economy and still see that the embargo, started by the Kennedy Administration and held together by a law enacted in 1917, has completely “failed.”

If the President wanted to consider a “newer” approach, he might read the remarks on Burma by Charles H. Rivkin, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs.

As you may know, our State Department is extremely critical of Burma’s systemic human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, restrictions on speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement, and for its 45 prisons, 100 government labor camps, and 60,000 prisoners.

In Burma, however, Rivkin sees no place for an embargo. He’s heard “what American companies faced — or have faced in the wake of sanctions. They range from other foreign investors taking advantage of our absence to our own reporting requirements.”

Instead, he believes the U.S. business community – representing “Brand America” – will help take Burma where it needs to go: “towards a more connected, vibrant, and prosperous future.”

He argues this: “When people buy American, they buy into our values and beliefs as well as our culture of practicality and trust in the open market.”

Admittedly, this is the homeliest argument we’ve heard for ending sanctions and promoting U.S. investment in countries whose political systems we oppose. But, if the President buys it and applies it to Burma, he should seize it as a rationale for ending the embargo of Cuba — particularly now.

In the next few weeks, the UN General Assembly will turn its attention to Cuba, where resolutions condemning the embargo have been adopted by increasingly lopsided margins for 22 consecutive years.

As John Oliver observed Sunday night, “It’s been a while since Cuba was a genuine threat, and by continuing the embargo, we’re not just pissing them off, we’re pissing off almost the entire world.”

We can’t do any worse than the vote in 2013, which the U.S. lost by 188-2, even after the U.S. has spent the last year cranking up the embargo machinery against many of our closest allies.

But why even try?

If “Brand America” can ride to the President’s rescue, he should probably saddle it up.

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Let the ends justify the means

March 7, 2014

“That is an absolute lie.”

This is what Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart told the New York Times, after its correspondent, Damien Cave said “clearly a majority” of the American public supports a change in policy in Cuba.

Except it’s not a lie. The American public made up its mind years ago that the embargo ought to go. The results Mr. Díaz-Balart questioned from last month’s Atlantic Council poll weren’t off the mark; their results track just what Florida International University found in its 2011 poll and numerous others have, before and since.

Rep. Díaz-Balart disparaged the Council’s survey just as he did in February, using the same language Elliot Abrams used  on Valentine’s Day; how Robin Wapner described the poll in the Los Angeles Times today. They call it a “push poll.”

Except, it wasn’t.  Why would Glen Bolger, the highly-respected Republican pollster of Public Opinion Strategies — who’s worked for the Florida Republican Party, Governor Jeb Bush, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and the Wall Street Journal — produce a survey that rattled the embargo establishment and relied on what experts call  “an unethical political campaign technique… masquerading as legitimate political polling.” Why would he do that? [Hint:  he didn’t.]

Then there’s the case of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who delivered a speech on the Senate floor after visiting  Cuba for a trip that examined “the strengths and weaknesses of Cuba’s public health system.”  This was not Harkin’s first trip to the island; he first visited Guantánamo as an active duty Navy jet pilot during Vietnam, flying missions in support of U-2 planes that spied on Cuba.

This was too much for Senator Marco Rubio (neither a veteran nor a visitor to Cuba), who gave a floor speech that  “ripped” Harkin, “destroyed” Harkin, “blasted” Harkin, and “unloaded” on Harkin, as his blogosphere fans said, for using what Rubio called unreliable statistics provided by Cuba’s government to admire the country’s infant mortality rate.

Except, Harkin was right.  There are many statistics used to measure Cuba’s health system that are accepted globally — for example, to demonstrate that Cuba has fulfilled the primary education, gender equality, and child mortality Millennium Development Goals, or to gauge Cuba’s progress in achieving national literacy, expanding life expectancy, and reducing infant mortality, as the World Economic Forum has done.  This doesn’t mean the figures should not be debated, they should; but it’s hard to dismiss them outright.

Next, consider Cuba’s economic reforms.  More than ten percent of state jobs — close to 600,000 thousands positions — have been eliminated since 2009.   Estimates vary, but at least 450,000 Cubans can now work in private sector jobs because of liberalizations championed by President Raúl Castro.  This is a big change for Cuba, as we reported in Cuba’s New Resolve, and published this year on what the reforms mean for Cuban women.

We also hosted five Cuban nationals on a trip to the U.S.  last year, who explained to the Washington policy community how the ability to start a business, employ other Cubans, make more money, and take their own decisions gives them greater ownership over their lives.  Cuban-Americans in Florida sense that too; as the New York Times documented this week, “Some Who Fled Cuba Are Returning to Help,” they are sending investment capital, sharing business expertise, and promoting bilateral engagement – many after spending decades fighting the Castro government.

The naysayers about economic reform in Cuba are not the people making the trips to the island, but rather are the elected officials and embargo lobbyists who refuse to go, who won’t concede the Cuban economy is reforming, and who seek instead to maintain the embargo just as it is.  Time and again, when Damien Cave asked about the Cuban-Americans who are traveling to Cuba and helping the reforms along, Rep. Díaz-Balart answered his question with a defense of the embargo.

This is a classic confusion of ends and means.  Even if you support the embargo — we don’t, and we’re part of a large majority that even includes Yoani Sánchez hoping for its demise — what you presumably want is good things for Cuba’s people, not a perpetuation of the embargo for its own sake.  And yet, if economic reform produces more prosperity and choice, or if public opinion among Cuban-Americans has shifted and they want to achieve their vision of Cuba through different means, the response of the hardliners is attack, discredit, rip, blast, and unload.

This strikes us as wrong.  Democracies function better when they debate ideas rather than deny them.  Without accurate information, democratic politics becomes impossible.  If the embargo is more important than that, then what’s the point?

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The Post, The Times, and the Cuba Consular Service Cut Off

February 21, 2014

This week, it seemed like the train left the tracks at the Washington Post.

In its editorial, “Cuba’s changes are no more than window dressing,” the editorial board’s routine scolding of Cuba’s government became unusually frenzied when it compared the digital alteration of pictures, removing a hearing aid normally seen in Fidel Castro’s ear, to “the modern day version of Stalinist airbrushing.”

A similar tone of desperation marched into coverage by TV Martí, which recently spent more than 3 minutes of its news broadcast questioning Rep. Kathy Castor’s motives for bringing Cuba’s top diplomat in the U.S., José Ramón Cabañas, to her Tampa, Florida district on a trip that was approved by the U.S. State Department.

We share the wonder of CAFÉ, Cuban Americans for Engagement, when one arm of the United States government, Radio/TV Martí, spends taxpayer money attacking a member of Congress for helping to carry out the policies of the executive branch.

While newspapers in our country don’t speak with one voice – and the Los Angeles Times showed again this week how it whips the Post in its understanding of what’s really happening in Cuba and globally – we do expect clarity and competence from the U.S. government in implementing its policy, and we think it should be called out when it doesn’t meet that standard.

For more than six months, the administration has known that M&T Bank was pulling out of the business of providing financial services to embassies’ consular operations.  While there’s never been a particularly clear explanation for its decision, we do know that M&T – like others in its industry – faced regulatory risks in the post 9/11 environment, and that M&T had a takeover delayed by the Federal Reserve because of its concerns with the bank’s anti-money-laundering compliance program.

Even as the State Department and Cuba’s government have labored to find a financial institution willing to submit to the risks which drove M&T from the business – and thus enable American travelers to Cuba to have their visas processed by the Cuban Interests Section – this is not getting to the larger problem.

We have an incoherent U.S. policy that promotes travel by Americans of Cuban descent and other hand-picked categories of U.S. travelers, but makes it illegal for most other Americans to visit the island; one U.S. policy that identifies travel as a unique means for reaching out to the Cuban people, while others – including Cuba’s false, politically-driven inclusion on the State Sponsors of Terror list –  put real restraints on the financial transactions needed for families to visit families in Cuba and for people-to-people exchanges to take place.

Of course, Cuba should be removed from the State Sponsors List. No, we don’t believe that Cuba’s government is engaging in “blatant emotional blackmail,” as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen alleged. Using the travel cut-off to pressure the U.S. into unwinding its position on the terror list simply doesn’t make sense because, frankly, tourism is good for Cuba’s economy and the businesses of its private entrepreneurs.

A temporary work-around that gets banking services restored to Cuba’s consular services will be a good first-step, but more is needed.  As we reported last week, a majority of Americans and an even larger majority of Floridians believe that fundamental changes in U.S. – Cuba policy ought to be made.

Among them, as the Associated Press previously reported, is a Cuban-American powerbroker named Jorge Pérez.  His wealth just enabled him to open a museum in Miami and, unlike the Washington Post, Mr. Pérez probably knows a relic when he sees one.

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Sanctions on Diabetics in U.S. Fail to Topple Cuban Government

October 18, 2013

It is well known that the U.S. embargo causes suffering in Cuba.

Supporters of U.S. sanctions say that strangling Cuba’s economy will lead the system to fail (someday), and motivate Cubans to rise up against their government and establish a multiparty liberal democracy.

The rest of us – the majority – are supposed to be okay with substituting sadism for diplomacy; and, since a cornerstone of sanctions is blocking travel to Cuba by most U.S. residents, the fact that our policy contributes to joblessness and hunger on the island remains hidden from most of us.

Less well known, however, is that we also imposed the embargo on ourselves. We’re not just punishing Cubans but also exacting real hardships on our families and our neighbors.

Case in point:  Under the embargo, people with diabetes in the U.S. are not allowed to have access to a promising treatment that could stop needless amputations of their limbs because it was developed in Cuba.

Last week, we carried a report on a drug called Heberprot-P, developed by Cuba’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.  According to the Associated Press, this medication is already at work in fifteen countries and treating more than 100,000 patients.

Because the therapy was developed at an  Institute considered to be an arm of Cuba’s government, it can’t be put to clinical trials or marketed in the U.S. without approval by our government.

Seeking that permission would be pretty big health story, right?

But, when U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia (FL-26) wrote a letter to the Treasury Department urging that it grant a license so the drug could be tested in the U.S., the Miami Herald covered the political controversy that ensued when hardliners asked if “Garcia’s exile bona fides” could still be trusted.

That issue is very interesting to people who live in the Miami media market, and we understand that the Herald was doing its job by covering it.

But this problem is not about politics but diabetes, and it’s a big problem.

According to the National Institutes of Health, 25.6 million adults in the U.S. live with diabetes. Some of them develop peripheral arterial disease and fall prey to “ulcers and infections that may lead to amputation.”  As the AP said last week, an estimated 70,000 Americans undergo an amputation every year due to complications from diabetes.

What if we could drive that number down, closer to zero?

Suppose Cuba has, in fact, developed a treatment that would make many of those amputations unnecessary; wouldn’t we want clinical trials to test its efficacy and safety here in the U.S.?

If it proved to be effective, wouldn’t we want that therapy made available to our family, neighbors, and friends as soon as possible?

Of course, we believe that.  But, not everyone does. Capitol Hill Cubans called a therapy that is already helping people in foreign countries avoid unnecessary amputations “the latest Castro bio-scam.”  Of course, they say that other remedies exist, but what they really want is for Rep. Garcia’s effort to fail.

Really?  They want to block access by their fellow Americans to a potentially transformative therapy before they know whether it works; even if they have to lose their legs?

This is the problem with Cuba policy.

Our country has been stuck for six decades with a policy that doesn’t work, because the embargo  debate has mostly taken place inside a community that’s been preoccupied with exacting revenge on the Cuban revolution since 1959.

When the debate about Cuba and its system gets turned into a discussion of whether Americans should have access to a drug that helps them with a horrible condition caused by diabetes – even if that discovery came from Communist Cuba – it makes some hardliners very nervous.

Because if it suddenly seems sensible to bend the embargo to stop the suffering it imposes on us, it could soon become reasonable to end the embargo because it causes even more suffering in Cuba.

Well, here’s a news flash: U.S. sanctions against Cuba and against diabetics here in America have failed to bring down Cuba’s government.  We need a new policy, not a dumb-bargo.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

U.S. travel to Cuba reaches record numbers

Although tourist travel is still banned, and U.S. residents still require a license before traveling to the island, travel is rising.  The number of U.S. citizens not of Cuban descent going to Cuba has reached record highs, reports Reuters. Cuba’s National Statistics Office recorded nearly 100,000 U.S. visitors in 2012, not counting the 350,000 Cuban-Americans estimated to have traveled from the U.S. This number is up from 73,500 the previous year, and indicates that in five years, the number of U.S. travelers going to Cuba doubled.

In addition to providing unlimited family travel for Cuban Americans, President Obama opened up people-to-people travel to the island in early 2011.  His reforms catalyzed interest in visiting Cuba and opened up new, legal opportunities for U.S. residents to go. “Cuba has so much to offer in terms of culture, history and issues of mutual concern – healthcare, education and the environment – and students, professionals, people of faith are curious,” said Collin Laverty, CDA advisor and head of the travel provider Cuba Educational Travel.

By adding Cuba Travel Services Inc. and Gulfstream Air Charters, Tampa International Airport is hoping to meet demand by increasing to four the number of carriers serving the Cuban markets.  As the Tampa Tribune reported last week, they join Tampa’s other two Cuba carriers, Island Travel & Tours and ABC Charters, which are increasing the number of flights to Havana, Cuba and expanding its destination cities.

Florida-based ferry company presents plans for Cuba service

Havana Ferry Partners LLC presented plans for U.S.-Cuba passenger ferry and cargo routes to the Manatee County Port Authority in South Florida this week, reports Bradenton Herald. The plans include fast passenger ferries with 150-person capacity, as well as cargo service. Leonard Moecklin, vice president of the company, told the Port Authority, “It’s time to go to Cuba,” making his case by highlighting potential multi-sectoral business opportunities.

Last month, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) confirmed that passenger ferry or cruise ship service to Cuba is not authorized under existing U.S. rules, and that it does not foresee approving additional means of travel to the island.

OFAC denied approval to Havana Ferry Partners LLC and several other aspiring providers last year, saying their proposals are “beyond the scope of current policy,” which mandates travel to Cuba must be by way of air charter,reports Cuba Standard. According to the article, Havana Ferry LLC, which has both Cuba and U.S.-based investors, has enlisted a Washington lobbying firm to bolster its efforts.

Oscar Hijuelos, Cuban-American Pulitzer Prize winner, dies in Manhattan

Oscar Hijuelos, the Cuban-American novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner, died of a heart attack last weekend in Manhattan, reports the Associated Press. He was 62 years old. Hijuelos was born in the U.S., the son of Cuban immigrant parents. In 1990, he became the first Hispanic to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.

More recently, Hijuelos authored a memoir titled, Thoughts Without Cigarettes, in which he details his struggles against the label of being an “ethnic” writer. He also writes of a personal loss of Cuban identity after he fell sick on the island during a visit as a child and, after a year-long hospitalization in the U.S.,lost his Spanish-speaking ability. Hijuelos is survived by his wife Lori Marie Carlson, reports Reuters.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba reinstates ambassador to Paraguay

Juan Domingo Astiasarán Ceballo has been named Cuba’s Ambassador to Paraguay, marking the normalization of relations between the two countries, reports BBC Mundo. Cuba suspended relations with Paraguay in the summer of 2012 after the dismissal of President Fernando Lugo, which Cuba’s government deemed a “Parliamentary coup.” Cuba declared that it “would not recognize any authority that didn’t come from legitimate suffrage and the exercise of the Paraguayan people’s sovereignty.”

Following elections in April, Horacio Cartes’ was inaugurated this August as Paraguay’s president, and Paraguay has been readmitted to Mercosur and Unasur, the diplomatic and economic organizations that foster Southern Hemisphere integration. Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay have also reinstated their diplomatic posts.

Brazilian sugar industry working on $200 million project with Cuba

Representatives of Brazil’s sugar industry met with Cuba’s state company Azcuba in Havana last week to negotiate a $200 million project, reports Cuba Standard. The project aims to revitalize Cuba’s sugar industry through a pilot project at a Cienfuegos sugar mill, seeking to increase sugar production from 25,000 metric tons to 140,000 metric tons. A subsidiary of Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht has been jointly operating the mill since signing a 13-year contract with Azcuba last year.

State-owned Cuba Ron partners with French company Belvédère

Cuba Ron will release a high-end rum through French company Belvédère this month, reports Cuba Standard.  Belvédère, which signed a 5-year contract with the Cuban company, plans to bottle and market the rum to 140 countries. Cuba Ron has long held a contract with French company Pernod Ricard for its popular Havana Club line. The sale of Cuban rum remains illegal in the United States.

IN CUBA

Catholic Church announces business series aimed at cuentapropistas

The Catholic Church in Cuba will begin offering business workshops and a degree program to Cubans wishing to enter the growing private sector, reports the Associated Press. The Compañía de Jesús y los Hermanos La Salle will lead a three-month workshop, as well as a two-year degree program administered through la Universidad de La Salle in Mexico, and the Havana Office of the Archbishop will give a one-month course, reports Diario de Cuba. The programs, to be offered entirely independent of the state education system, will cover a basic entrepreneurial skill-set which includes accounting, tax regulations, and material sourcing.

The series “is designed to teach people basic business management,” said Jorge Mandilego, director of the Office of the Archbishop’s CubaEmprende, who described the program as offering “basic but necessary knowledge to adapt to our country’s plan,” reports the Associated Press.

Through its publications Palabra Nueva and Espacio Laical, Cuba’s Catholic Church has encouraged dialogue regarding Cuba’s economic reform process, often publishing articles on the subject by economists and other academics.

The National Association of Economists and Accountants of Cuba (ANEC) began offering finance and accounting courses to cuentapropistas and cooperative members in both state and non-state sectors last month in the Villa Clara province. In October 2011, the Catholic Church announced an MBA program in collaboration with professors from the San Antonio Catholic University of Murcia in Spain.

Party leader speaks on need to eliminate press “secrecy”

At a meeting of the national committee of the Union of Cuban Journalists (UPEC), Rolando Alfonso Borges, of the Central Ideology Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, spoke against secrecy in the island’s media. Borges stated: “the will of the party is that there not be secrecy. We perceive that there is movement in this direction. The country needs that, and needs balance,” according to an article published by the UPEC news outlet.

During the meeting, Communist Party officials and journalists also spoke at length aboutintegrating Cuba’s youth into the field of journalism. Participants emphasized how important it is to keep up with current technology and to make sure to create clear paths for youth to join the profession. Karina Marrón, one of the participants of the event, notedthat “A lot of young people are writing blogs, and we cannot ignore the richness in them.”

Earlier this month, blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote about the distinctions between “official” and “independent” journalism on the island. Independent journalists and bloggers often face temporary detentions and other obstacles; this week, five journalists for Hablemos Press who had been detained since late last week were freed by Cuban authorities, reports EFE.

Debate in Cuba on private tutoring

An article published in Granma provides a description of private tutoring in Cuba, one of the categories of self-employment legalized in 2010. The article interviews several tutors, as well as students and their parents, discussing the different types of tutoring available, and why parents and students feel that after-school supplementary learning is necessary. The end of the article denounces some school teachers, who are not legally permitted to work as tutors, who are doing so regardless, and quotes a student who says that one of her teachers would not include the entire curriculum during the school day, and would teach subjects not covered only in tutoring. The author criticizes placing pressure on students to go to tutoring, calling such actions a “lack of professional ethics,” reports EFE.

In a response, BBC Mundo reporter Fernando Ravsberg criticizes the article for its rebuke of professors that take on tutoring “to make ends meet,” and suggests that “it would suffice to sit down with teachers to search for solutions that are cognizant of the needs of Cuban society and those of educators.”

Over 400 farm co-ops dissolved since 2008

Since 2008, 434 agricultural co-operatives have been shuttered because they are not sufficiently profitable, reports EFE. The co-ops “did not generate the profits necessary for self-financing,” said Ricardo Monzón, an official for Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture.

Monzón stated that the co-operative’s land would be taken over by private farmers or allocated to other co-operatives. Debts held by shuttered co-operatives “have been renegotiated” with the national bank system, and debts from those cooperatives being run by others “are in the process of being financed for up to 25 years,” reports AFP.

This is another sign of the difficulties Cuba is facing in conquering its dependence on imported food — a national priority.

Cuba denounces damage to health sector caused by the U.S. embargo at the WTO

Cuba’s government denounced the damage that the U.S. embargo has caused its health sector at the World Trade Organization (WTO), reports Prensa Latina. Mónica Rodríguez, Cuba’s representative to international organizations in Geneva, Switzerland, said the embargo has prevented the purchase of medicines and other critical health resources for over fifty years. According to Rodríguez, the total cost of the damage is over one trillion dollars. Rodríguez stated that banks from places like Canada and Zurich have bowed to U.S. pressure, suspending money transfers to Cuba, including money that would have been used for buying products such as flu vaccines. She added that the embargo has negatively affected the work of NGO MediCuba-Suisse in combating cancer and promoting HIV/AIDS prevention. Cuba offers universal healthcare to all of its citizens.

Cuba developing new law on water management

According to Orlando Rey, an official at Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology, and the Environment (CITMA), a new law is being prepared to modernize Cuba’s water supply systems, reports Prensa Latina. During a conference in Havana, Rey stated that water scarcity and sanitation, compounded by threats to water access by climate change, are significant issues for environmental planning on the island. Rey did not give details about what will be contained in the new law.

Since Cuba and the U.S. live in the same environmental neighborhood, the costs of climate change are also being borne on this side of the Florida Straits.  Scientists are predicting that “Miami…is doomed,” which makes a clear case for environmental cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba.

Around the Region

Venezuela releases U.S.-operated ship in Guyanese-claimed waters

After seizing a U.S.-operated oil survey ship, and claiming it was violating Venezuela’s maritime territory, Venezuela’s government has agreed to free the ship and its 36 crew members, reports Reuters. The Teknik Perdana is owned by a Malaysian company, was captained by a Ukrainian, and was sailing under a Panamanian flag in territory contested between Guyana and Venezuela. The incident brings to the forefront long-held territorial disputes between the countries.

Foreign Minister Elías Jaua of Venezuela and Foreign Minister Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett met in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad & Tobago, to discuss the incident and the disputed economic zone waters, reports the Associated Press. The governments of Venezuela and Guyana agreed to meet again in four months to discuss how to proceed on the maritime boundaries dispute, reports Stabroek News. The area in dispute, the Essequibo region, is the most substantial territorial and sea dispute in South America, and claims to this area date back to 1897. There has been no word on whether Venezuela will drop the charges that the ship captain still faces.

Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernández, leaves hospital after brain surgery

Five days after undergoing surgery to remove a blood clot from the surface of her brain, President Cristina Fernández was released from the hospital, reports BBC News. She returned to her official residence where doctors advised her to observe “strict rest” for thirty days. There is no set date for President Fernández’s return to work. Previously, Fernández had plans to campaign in support of congressional candidates from her party for the midterm elections taking place on October 27th. Vice President Amado Boudou is currently carrying out her public duties.

Recommended Reading

Featured Q&A: Are Raúl Castro’s Reforms Helping Cuba’s Economy?, The Inter-American Dialogue’s Daily Latin American Advisor

We thank the Inter-American Dialogue for their generosity in allowing us to link to this issue of its Daily Latin America Advisor.  The publication includes an article – Are Raúl Castro’s Reforms Helping Cuba’s Economy – based on a Q+A with experts on reform process. Collin Laverty, CDA Advisory Board member, says, “Albeit slowly, the process continues to be two steps forward, a half a step backwards, and demographics and economic necessity should keep it that way.”

A crime novelist navigates Cuba’s shifting reality, Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker- full version not available online

In this “Letter From Havana,” Jon Lee Anderson tells the story of Leonardo Padura, whom he describes as a “novelist, a journalist, and a social critic who has skirted punishment by the ruling Communist Party.” Anderson explains that the nature of Padura’s work isn’t necessarily perceived as offensive to the regime, but it isn’t meaningless either. In the article, Padura’s views towards the current situation in his country are also portrayed. “There is no current policy of what should or should not be published,” said Padura in a speech mentioned in the article.

Rise in Entrepreneurship Reveals Gender Tensions in Cuba, Sandra Abd’Allah-Alvarez Ramírez, Global Voices

Sandra Abd’Allah-Álvarez Ramírez examines the emergence of women among Cuba’s self-employed and discusses efforts to create a culture of work that supports women entrepreneurs. She highlights a new website, “Mujeres Emprendedoras,” which features an online forum to discuss women in the workplace, opinion articles, and job postings.

This year, CDA published the results of a two-year study on the status of women in Cuba: “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future.”

Cuba ban on private sales of imported goods has some entrepreneurs eyeing uncertain future, Anne-Marie García, the Associated Press

This article takes a look at how a new Cuban law banning private sales of imported goods might affect entrepreneurs, with commentary from those who fear business problems resulting from  the ban.

Avian Artistry, With Smuggled Cigars, Melena Ryzik, The New York Times

A conceptual art piece being executed by Brooklyn-based artist Duke Riley, titled “Trading with the Enemy,” involves homing pigeons trained by the artist to fly from Cuba to Key West, carrying alternately Cuban cigars or lightweight cameras to film the voyage. “I wanted to subvert this billions-of-dollars high-tech system with things that were being used in ancient Sumeria,” says Riley.

In Cuba, murky light thrown by energy saving bulbs, Portia Siegelbaum, CBS

Portia Siegelbaum, the CBS correspondent in Cuba, tells the story of a nation-wide process to reduce energy costs that the island’s government implemented in 2005, profiling its results and consequences. In 2005, households in Cuba changed their usual light bulbs for lower intensity ones provided to them by the government. Today, bulbs are often scarce and highly priced.

Latin America’s ‘bad boy’ leaders enjoy high support, survey finds, Tim Johnson, Miami Herald

Tim Johnson discusses the results of the biannual survey “Approval of Leaders: America and the World.” This survey is conducted by Mexico’s Consulta Mitofsky polling firm and compiles approval ratings for the 19 largest countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The results ironically reflect how the oft U.S.-designated“bad boys” of Latin America and the Caribbean are among the most popular leaders throughout the region.

Recommended Viewing

Cuba photo expo features Indigenous America, Irina Echarry, Havana Times

This photo exhibition is part of the Haydee Santamaría Latin American Art Collection on display in Havana until December at the Casa de las Américas Galería Latinoamericana. The collection continues its celebration of the “Year of Photography” and is titled First Nations: Images of Indigenous America in the 20th Century. The exhibition is comprised of almost entirely black and white photos and depicts indigenous people from Mexico, Perú, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Guatemala.


On Warriors Cold and Happy

September 13, 2013

Here at Cuba Central, we explore all points of view and publish our news summary minus the kind of invective that discourages so many of us about debating ideas that matter.

So, when a group across town bridled at being labeled “Cold Warriors” for, as they put it, opposing “Cuba’s dictatorship,” that made us stop and wonder if they had a point.

It’s very hard to argue the proposition that U.S. policy toward Cuba and all of Latin America was and is based on thinking straight out of the Cold War playbook.

As Thomas Carothers wrote in his book, In the Name of Democracy, “After World War II, the overriding concern of the United States in Latin America became fighting communism, or more specifically, trying to prevent the emergence of left-leaning governments and seeking to oust the ones that did emerge.”

In fact, the U.S. did work to topple governments as it did in Guatemala and Chile, as the National Security Archives documented again this week, with new revelations about Henry Kissinger and the coup against Salvador Allende, and stopped leftist parties from winning democratic elections in places like El Salvador.  Even as the Cold War waned, that is what U.S. policy did.

Much of this has subsided in the hemisphere; except, most notably, in Cuba, where normal trade and diplomatic relations with the U.S. remain suspended.  Where operations -–overt or semi-covert -– are still underway (ask Alan Gross).  Radio and TV Martí, costly broadcast operations jammed by Cuba’s government and hardly heard by any Cubans, are still housed alongside Radio Free Europe.  It’s all stuff of the Cold War, with the occasional spot shine and sheen of social media to give it a modern glow.

Back in the 1950s, Bob Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, made headlines when he called President Eisenhower a “lackey,” and a “conscious, dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy.” Senator Joseph McCarthy accused opponents of siding with the enemy and appeasement.  A Mandarin Chinese term, to kowtow, or knock one’s head, was repurposed to disparage Americans who disagreed with protecting Taiwan and isolating China.

No surprise then that those who defend the hardline against Cuba so often take Cold War rhetoric out of cold storage for use in the debates of today.  Like when the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting declared that Cardinal Jaime Ortega was a “lackey” of the Cuban government after the Cardinal facilitated the release of scores of political prisoners.

Or when Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart said in an op-ed, “Since he took office in January 2009, President Obama has pursued a policy of appeasement toward the totalitarian Cuban dictatorship.”  Or when former Rep. David Rivera double-dipped his pen in Cold War ink and called attempts by the Obama administration to free Alan Gross “Efforts at appeasement and kowtowing to the Cuban regime.”

Such word games over who is wearing a Cold War label would have struck our friend Saul Landau, a happy warrior, funny.  Before he succumbed to bladder cancer this week at age 77, Saul liked to say, “Cancer, smancer, as long as I have my health.”

In a week that marked a string of emotional milestones – the 40th anniversary of the coup in Chile, the 15th anniversary of the arrests of the Cuban Five, the 12th anniversary of 9/11 – Saul’s death in a sad but strangely exquisite way, followed the arc of his singular life.

He produced 40 films and 14 books.  He was a poet and an investigative journalist.  He wrote a detective novel at the end of his career and a play for a mime troupe at the beginning.  The New York Times says his activism was triggered during college in Wisconsin where he joined a club “which advocated the recall of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin over his demagogic attacks on people he accused of being Communists.”

In 1968, after he produced his documentary, “Fidel,” premiers of the film in New York and Los Angeles were cancelled after firebomb attacks on the theaters.

He won an Emmy Award and a George F. Polk Award for his documentary, “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang,” which recounted how the health effects from a 1957 nuclear test were covered up.

His colleagues at IPS called him “a fearless human rights activist,” and for good reason.  After documenting the election of Salvador Allende as president of Chile, he befriended Orlando Letelier, the country’s ambassador to the U.S., who he then helped save after Gen. Pinochet overthrew Chile’s democratically-elected government and tossed Mr. Letelier in jail.

The coup unleashed a torrent of torture, disappearances, and death in Chile, and the murderous hand of the Pinochet government reached all the way to Embassy Row in Washington.  As Phil Brenner told us, “when Pinochet’s thugs repeatedly threatened his life –- after demonstrating their seriousness by killing Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt in 1976 –- Saul persevered in unearthing the evidence that led to their convictions and imprisonment.”

As IPS recalled, his last film, “Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up?” tells the history of U.S.-Cuba relations through the lens of the Cuban 5.

Year after year, Saul followed the courage of his convictions and then a long list of academics and activists, experienced and emerging, inspired by his work, followed him.

Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive wrote us, “He was a rare combination of political activist, philosopher provocateur, storyteller, movie maker and modern revolutionary. Perhaps most important, he taught me and others to ‘stir the waters,’ and he set a standard of energy, commitment, and action for us to follow.”

Andres Pertierra wrote in The Nation, “Saul Landau changed my life.  I will never forget him.”

A powerful lesson of the Cold War is captured by the phrase “blowback.”  In Scripture, it is the message of ‘you reap what you sow’.

As Saul demonstrated time and again in his work, when you support coups, when you march your own soldiers into a test zone to watch a nuclear blast, these things have consequences, and can boomerang. And so he said we must act.

A few years ago, a dozen generals wrote President Obama and sounded just such a theme:

“The current policy of isolating Cuba has failed, patently, to achieve our ends …. When world leaders overwhelmingly cast their vote in the United Nations against the embargo and visit Havana to denounce American policy, it is time to change the policy, especially after fifty years of failure in attaining our goals.”

As Saul might have said, Cold Warrior, Cold Smorrior.

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La política no cabe en la azucarera

July 19, 2013

Last week, when we wrote about new legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to extinguish people-to-people travel to Cuba, we knew it was bad.

We write today with a greater urgency.  A deeper analysis of the proposal by Dawn Gable, CDA’s assistant director, demonstrates how far-reaching an effort to gut travel this amendment represents.  Moreover, the political climate has become more uncertain after the seizure of Cuban cargo hidden beneath brown sugar that may violate the UN arms embargo against North Korea.

First principles first:  We believe in engagement.  We believe that Cuba and the United States are trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of animosity and distrust because the two governments rarely talk and because both publics have historically been walled off from normal contact.  In the last five decades, both governments have circled each other suspiciously and bad conditions have often been made worse because of the absence of normal dialogue.

That is why we believe so strongly in the value of travel and engagement, because they bring people together, and why we are alarmed by efforts in the Congress to shut down people-to-people travel, stunt Cuban American family travel, and bury an already burdened government office under a mountain of paperwork which will hurt every day Cubans.

Dawn’s analysis highlights the trouble spots.  One provision of the Treasury Department budget bill ends people-to-people travel by defunding its licensing process.  The people-to-people program isn’t perfect and it only reaches a fraction of the U.S. citizens who are interested in visiting Cuba.  But, according to one estimate, more than 103,000 non-Cuban American visitors came to Cuba in 2012, and people-to-people travel made the overwhelming number of them possible.

Groups that sponsor travel including – colleges, museums, environmental groups, groups that do economic research and urban development groups, groups that support medical and other forms of cooperation, peace groups, and foreign policy groups – these and many others – would no longer have licenses to sponsor travel to Cuba.  The legislation would airmail us back to the travel ban days of President George W. Bush.

Wait, as the saying goes, it gets worse.  Today, Cuban American families can visit their relatives in Cuba as often as they wish and provide them unlimited financial support, also called “remittances.”  Family remittances help relatives make ends meet for the tight household budgets of Cuban families, and are increasingly feeding the growth of private sector businesses opened by every day Cubans under President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms.  The visits and the support do not require licenses or paperwork of any kind.

That would end.  If this bill became law, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) the agency inside Treasury charged with implementing U.S. trade sanctions would be required to report to Congress on “all family travel” as well as all travel involving the legal carrying of remittances to Cuba, including by family of USINT employees. The report would include: number of travelers; average duration of stay for each trip; average amount of U.S. dollars spent per traveler; number of return trips per year; and total sum of U.S. dollars spent collectively in each fiscal year.

OFAC could not compile the report without imposing new requirements on remittances provided by families and on remittances by Americans of all backgrounds to support new businesses or religious organizations or U.S. students studying legally in Cuba.  The only remittances that would not have to be reported would be those paid to Cuba’s political opposition.

To be clear, if you believe that Cuban Americans and all Americans should enjoy the right to travel to Cuba and support everyday Cubans financially, we ask that you heed calls for action by the Latin America Working Group (here) and the Fund for Reconciliation and Development (here) and urge Congress to oppose this bill and President Obama to promise he will veto it.

“A larger, slow-moving thaw,” as the Associated Press reported, had recently seemed to return to bilateral relations in recent weeks.  A member of the Cuban Five returned to the island for good.  Diplomats from both countries, as we report below, had easier times traveling.  Mail service talks took place last month; migrations talks took place this week.

After the North Korean vessel was seized in Panama this week, however, with 220,000 sacks of Cuban brown sugar piled atop a cache of weapons from Cuba, this pattern of progress is now at risk.  We report on this incident in detail later in the blast.

Unsurprisingly, supporters of sanctions on Cuba, its placement on the terror list, and ongoing efforts to overthrow the Cuban government reacted before the facts were in.  In her statement, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said, “I call on the Department of State to immediately cease its migration talks this week with the Cuban regime until it provides clear and coherent answers regarding this incident.”  She also joined several colleagues who wrote Secretary Kerry urging him to pour more sanctions on any country found to be violating the UN embargo.

Rather than gagging diplomacy, this seemed an appropriate time for the two countries to talk, and her demand was ignored by the Obama administration.   More to the point, the State Department refused to get ahead of the facts or to point fingers at Cuba, with Marie Harf, departmental spokeswoman saying, “I would underscore that the issue of the ship isn’t a U.S.-Cuba issue.”  As AFP reported, the UN took the same tack, stating “The Secretary-General awaits the outcome of the investigation into the matter in question and is sure the 1718 Security Council Sanctions Committee will promptly address it.”

Here, we end where we began.  We are heartened that the State Department called people-to-people travel in the national security interest of the U.S. just this afternoon.  Because, none of this will go any easier if this incident becomes a predicate for stopping Cuban Americans from visiting or supporting their families on the island, or cutting off educational travel; nor will we get to the bottom of it faster by cutting off diplomacy between the United States and Cuba.

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Cuba A-Z (from Aruca to Zoo-bio)

March 15, 2013

The New York Times once described him as “a cheerful, box-shaped man with a face like a friendly bulldog.”  Like a bulldog, Francisco Aruca was resolute and courageous, friendly with strangers and, when provoked, he was a force to be reckoned with.

So, we were stricken when friends like Silvia Wilhelm, Bob Guild and Marazul Charters (which he founded), and the Miami Herald and Progreso Weekly (which he also founded), circulated the sorrowful news that he had died unexpectedly at age 72.

Aruca’s life reflected, La Jornada aptly said, “the fundamental trajectory of recent Cuban history.”  He supported the revolution.  Soon after, as the New York Times reported, “he organized student strikes against the government’s crackdown on free speech and was promptly arrested and sentenced to 30 years in jail.”  But, he wasn’t imprisoned very long.

He liked retelling the story of his escape; how his youthful appearance enabled him to convince his guards that “he was a child visiting family in prison.” He got away and spent more than a year in asylum in the Brazilian embassy, before he came to the U.S.

Studying at Georgetown University, he earned an economics degree, graduating in 1967.  He taught economics, as the Miami Herald reported, in Virginia and Puerto Rico.  Along with other Cuban-Americans in 1974, he founded a magazine, Areíto, from which he put forward the idea that the Diaspora had to talk with the Cuban government, an utterly radical idea at the time.  It was so controversial “among Cuban exiles that bomb threats forced its editors to move from Miami to New York (where it stayed until 1987).”

Aruca was among the pioneers who advocated dialogue leading to the reconciliation of the Cuban family.  He participated in those talks – including foundational ones in 1978, 1994, 1995 – because he wanted to do the hard and necessary work of building trust and clearing the obstacles that had existed since 1959.

He was among the group, later known as the Comité de 75, who negotiated with Fidel Castro for the release of 3,600 Cuban political prisoners in 1978, and also made it possible for exiles to visit Cuba.  The next year, Aruca’s Marazul Charters was founded to provide travel for tens of thousands of Cuban Americans to visit their relatives for the first time since they had left Cuba.

This was (and still is) dangerous business, in Florida and elsewhere. Marazul’s windows were “routinely smashed.”  His offices were firebombed. Carlos Muñiz, an exile and colleague of Aruca living in Puerto Rico who operated a sister travel agency was shot in the head and killed.

In 1994, after Miami residents attended the first meeting between Cuban exiles and the Cuban government in nearly fifteen years, they returned home and were besieged by death threats, bomb threats, verbal assault, acts of violence, and economic retaliation, as Human Rights Watch reported.

Aruca himself received a fax that called him “Communist, vendepatria [homeland-seller]…and traitor,” among other names, and went on to say, “Be very careful, as I think there are many who would like to see you dead.”

Advocating the right to travel or speaking your mind about improving relations with Cuba are  incendiary acts in some Miami precincts.  As WSVN reported:  “3 Miami companies doing business with Cuba were attacked by firebombs,” in 1996, “a string of bomb attacks attributed mostly to anti-Castro radicals haunted the city in the 1970s and 1980s. The violence recently earned Miami a rank among the nation’s top 5 terrorism ‘hot spots’ by researchers studying the last 40 years of attacks on American soil.”

Not one to be intimidated, Aruca was a champion of travel and free speech.  He started a morning program Radio Progreso, which debuted  in 1991, “where he discussed Cuba-related issues from a perspective that had never been heard publicly in Miami.”

As Vivian Mannerud, a fellow agency operator, whose own business was firebombed in Coral Gables last year, remembered, “Those were times when people tuned in to Aruca’s radio programs but kept the volume real low so their neighbors would not know.  It was a difficult time. It’s called democracy.”

For Aruca, it was about democracy, but more fundamentally, about family.  As he told the Hartford Courant in 1999, “We Cubans have a very strong sense of family,” Aruca said. “If there were 300 relatives [seeing off passengers] at the airport today, there are 600 waiting in Havana tonight.”

Aruca lived to see Cuba’s government abolish nearly all travel restrictions on its people, but not long enough to see his adopted country abolish every restriction on the rights of Americans to visit Cuba.

But, according to the most recent estimates, the pioneering work he did enabled as many as 440,000 Cuban-Americans visit their families in Cuba in 2011 alone, a figure that will only grow so long as legislators like Senator Marco Rubio don’t gain enough power to roll back family travel licenses.

Shortly after Aruca’s death became known, Senator Rubio addressed a luncheon fundraiser for the Cuba-Democracy PAC where he made light of people who visit Cuba.  He said:

“These trips that are traveling to Cuba: Look, God bless them, I know they mean well. But I have people come to me all the time and tell me and say, ‘Oh, I went to Cuba. What a beautiful place, I feel so bad for the people.

“Cuba is not a zoo where you pay an admission ticket and you go in and you get to watch people living in cages to see how they are suffering,” said Rubio, adding “Cuba is not a field trip. I don’t take that stuff lightly.”

Rubio’s disdain for travel is not news, but comparing travel to Cuba – a place Rubio has never visited – to visiting a zoo seemed especially odious and over the line, even more than his earlier declarations that travelers visiting Cuba were supporting the activities of a terrorist state.

Our experiences in Cuba are altogether different from Rubio’s fact-free imaginings.  We have been embraced by Cubans of all political persuasions and life circumstances every time we have visited their country and their homes.

To fill in what he does not know about zoos, Senator Rubio could join the Congressional Zoo and Aquarium Caucus, yes it really exists, or simply visit its Facebook page.

To learn something about Cuba and U.S. policy, he could listen to his constituents, for example, the faithful who joined Archbishop Wenski who went to witness the visit of then-Pope Benedict XVI the and 400th anniversary of Cuba’s patron saint –the Virgin of Charity (la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre) – Cuba’s patron saint.

Or, he could pay attention to Senator Patrick Leahy, who responded to Rubio’s preference for isolating Americans from Cuba by saying:

“It has been obvious to any objective observer for a very long time that isolation has not worked, and it is demeaning for a great and powerful nation like ours, for instance, to forbid U.S. citizens from traveling where they want to travel.  It is in our national interest to take a fresh look at how to effectively address our differences with the Cuban government, such as the imprisonment of Alan Gross and many other matters.”

That is the kind of engagement Francisco Aruca spent the better part of five decades fighting for.  His son, Daniel, emailed Alvaro Fernandez, editor of Progreso Weekly, with a reminder of Aruca’s words that defined his life:  “If I die tomorrow, I know I have lived a very full life and that I lasted much longer than anyone ever expected.”

Aruca, the bulldog we remember and loved, lived a full, big, courageous, and uniquely American life.

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