Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Odds and ends

  • Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s idea for a Havana arts festival was an open mike, a red curtain backdrop, one minute per speaker, and two attendants dressed in fatigues behind the podium to place a white dove on speakers’ shoulders. This exercise in freedom of expression yielded calls for greater freedom of expression, from bloggers and others. Coverage (with video) at Penultimos Dias and Encuentro, and in English in today’s Herald.

  • More on Cuba policy from Vice President Biden, via AFP: “Over in the next decade and sooner there is likely to be – and needs to be – changes in the relationship between Cuba and the United States, and the United States and Cuba, as well as with the hemisphere…President Obama and I campaigned on a platform that said we are willing to reach out, and I think you will see us reach out.”

  • El Nuevo Herald reports on the House and Senate bills to end U.S. travel restrictions. The Senate bill will be presented in a press conference today; the House bill has 121 cosponsors.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Cuba summit?

President Obama will make his first big foray into relations with Latin America and the Caribbean at the April 17-19 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. It’s fair to ask whether the predominant issue – in press coverage, not necessarily in the proceedings – will be Cuba.

To be sure, it seems far-fetched to think that the summit’s news coverage would be dominated by the one country in the region that is absent from the event.

But two factors – a no-news summit agenda, and a vocal regional consensus calling on President Obama to change his Cuba policy – could combine to produce just that result.

Ask yourself which is more interesting – an all-against-one political dispute involving a new American President, or the contents of this page?

As for the regional consensus, consider this sampling of recent statements and actions:

  • Trinidadian Prime Minister Patrick Manning, the summit host, says “we don’t want to corner anyone,” but “Cuba is on everyone’s lips,” and he is sure that some leaders will bring it up at the summit. He has “no doubt” that Cuba will be joining future summits. (AP English here, AFP Spanish here.) (Manning, by the way, was scheduled to travel to Cuba last weekend for a check-up following surgery he had performed there last December.)

  • Last December at a summit in Brazil, 33 governments of Latin America and the Caribbean called for an end to the U.S. embargo. At the same event, Cuba was admitted to the Rio Group, a forum of Latin American governments that does not include the United States.

  • Also last December, a Caricom summit called on President Obama to end the embargo. “The Caribbean community hopes that the transformational change which is underway in the United States will finally relegate that measure to history,” Antiguan Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer said.

  • In his recent visit to the White House, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva called for a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba. He told AFP, “What I said to President Obama, and I hope he will make it happen, is that there would be closer ties with Venezuela, closer ties with Cuba, closer ties with Bolivia.” Later, in New York, he said this when asked about the embargo: “There is nothing any more from the political perspective, from sociological perspective, from the humanitarian perspective that impedes the reestablishment of relations between the United States and Cuba.” A few days later, one of President Lula’s advisors said that a normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations would have “an extraordinary effect for the image of the Unied States.” He urged the United States to make the first gesture, unilaterally. And he said the Cuba issue will be raised at the Trinidad summit “because there is a very widespread sentiment in Latin America that the embargo no longer makes sense.”

  • President Zelaya of Honduras appealed for (among other things) an end to the embargo in a December letter to President Obama that was just released and reported by EFE.

  • President Ortega of Nicaragua says the Trinidad summit will be a chance to discuss the “urgency of lifting the blockade, the embargo, once and for all.” He says the Central American governments are in agreement on that, and in Trinidad they will also call for Cuba’s inclusion in future summits.

  • At Brazil’s instigation, the Cuba issue was brought up, of all places, at a meeting of 12 South American defense ministers on March 10. “Today, we see favorable conditions with the new President in the United States to put an end to this discriminatory and unjust situation,” Argentina’s representative said.

  • Finally, there was the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba by Costa Rica and El Salvador, which ended the chapter of the Cold War where all the region’s countries except Mexico broke relations with Cuba nearly 50 years ago. Costa Rican President Arias’ statement sounded as much like an appeal to President Obama as an explanation of his own decision. The United States is now left as the only government without normal relations with Cuba.

Get the idea?

It may be an exaggeration to say it will be a “no-news” summit, although this snoozer of an op-ed by Vice President Biden in Argentina’s La Nacion does nothing to dispel it. If you dig around looking for more (here, here, or here), it doesn’t get any better.

So it’s little wonder Vice President Biden is talking about the need for a “transition” in U.S. policy toward Cuba. He may be getting an earful about Cuba in his Latin American travels, indicating that unless the Administration makes some Cuba moves, “Obama gets an earful about Cuba” may be the headline next month from Trinidad.

Diplomacy with Iran -- and Cuba

During last year’s campaign, President Obama expressed a willingness to engage in diplomacy with Cuba. Here’s how he addressed the issue in a speech last May:

“After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions. There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda. And as President, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.”

He has yet to fill in the blanks, such as who in his Administration would propose to talk with Cuban officials – or when, where, and on which topics talks would take place.

When it comes to Iran, another country that has the “state sponsor of terrorism” designation and where President Obama criticized the Bush Administration’s approach, the blanks are beginning to be filled in.

Iranian and U.S. diplomats are discussing Afghanistan issues face-to-face, and the President addressed Iran’s people and government leaders in a March 20 video message on the occasion of the Iranian New Year.

The President spoke respectfully, referring to the “Islamic Republic of Iran” and seeking “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect” to address “the full range of issues before us.” He stated no preconditions regarding human rights practices or any other issue, although it’s clear that Iran’s nuclear program remains a top concern for the United States. He held out the prospect of a future with “renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce.” He praised Iran’s culture and achievements and invoked the “humanity that we all share” as he sought “the promise of a new beginning.”

There’s no way to tell if this message gives clues about a future approach to Cuba, and U.S. relations with Cuba are quite different than the non-relationship with Iran.

American and Cuban diplomats have direct channels of communication through diplomatic missions in each other’s capitals, and there are channels of limited cooperation (drugs, migration) that even the Bush Administration kept in operation.

In Cuba’s case, the ties between the peoples are much closer.

Cuba constituted a security threat in the past, while Iran represents one now, and has directly threatened our ally, Israel.

Above all, Cuba has no nuclear program – which means that diplomacy with Cuba offers no big payoff in terms of international security. On the other hand, it wouldn’t demand lots of high-level attention, especially if it were to focus initially on matters that affect the neighborhood.

When the Obama Administration makes its decision, it will answer several questions. Does it make sense to talk to the entire Caribbean region about drugs, migration, and other local security issues, but not to Cuba? Does it make sense not to talk about protecting the marine environment with a neighbor that is preparing to drill for offshore oil? Can the President better advance his concerns about human rights in Cuba through direct talks, or only through public statements? And as the Administration builds its relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, does it want to use a new approach to Cuba as a sign of change.

Vice President Biden talked about a “transition” in U.S. policy toward Cuba. Even if the embargo is to remain, opportunities abound.

Bacardi building, Havana

Odds and ends

  • Amnesty International says Cuba Should be part of the Summit of the Americas April 17-19 in Trinidad, and for good measure calls for the end of the U.S. embargo. Cuba’s is the only government excluded from the summit.

  • Notimex: A Cuban government decision allows a Germany-based charity to repair and renovate four churches in Havana province. Last month I wrote about one of those churches, in Guira de Melena. Some coverage in English at The Herald’s Cuban Colada.

  • The Council on Hemispheric Affairs takes a look at Cuba’s admission to the Rio Group last year. Cuba’s inclusion marks the “continued decline of the United States’ standing in Latin America,” the report says. Also this: “While Cuba’s new role is of unquestionable benefit to the island, it could pose an element of risk in that it may breed complacency in the regime and discourage the Castro government from making the necessary political and social concessions that would promote democratic values and reform some of the more Stalinist aspects of the economy.”

Will Obama change travel regulations?

The Washington Post previews a Tuesday press conference where Senate sponsors of a bill to end U.S. travel restrictions will make their case. The bigger news may be in the fourth paragraph:

Although the decision is not yet final, Obama is expected to further loosen remaining travel restrictions for all Americans by the time he goes to the April 17-19 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, senior administration officials said. Such restrictions were first imposed in 1961 and have been progressively tightened since then. Removing all sanctions requires congressional action, but one senior official said that Treasury has wide leeway to ease the licensing requirements that limit travel.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Biden: "transition" needed (Updated)

Vice President Biden said in Chile that the Administration is not planning to lift the Cuba embargo. No surprise there, but what did he mean by this?

“Obama and I made it clear during our campaign that we thought there’s a need for transition in our policy toward Cuba.”

[Update: Fidel Castro thought Biden meant “an internal transition in our country.” His commentary is here, Reuters story here.]

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Odds and ends

  • On Monday, Granma published the first official notification of the Obama Administration’s easing of travel regulations governing Cuban American family visits: a minimal change that leaves the embargo “still standing,” but a “setback for the anti-Cuban mafia and its representatives in Congress.” AP story here.

  • With Cuba no longer barring its own citizens from staying in Cuban hotels, and with the Obama Administration easing rules for family visits, what happens? “The increase in travel will end up with the whole family (“familiĆ³n ”) staying in an all-inclusive hotel on the beach in Varadero,” a Spanish hotel worker tells El Pais.

  • Last week an EFE reporter in Honduras quoted Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon saying that the Obama Administration is looking for a rapprochement (“acercamiento”) with Cuba. Not so – he was misquoted, the State Department says in a letter in Armengol’s blog.

  • From Encuentro, a report that three Cuban Americans, caught in Cuba during a botched 2007 attempt to smuggle Cubans out by fast boat, are appealing to the Council of State to reduce the 23-year sentences they are now serving in Cuban jails.

  • Granma on the black market business of providing DirecTV service in Cuba for 30 convertible pesos per month, and a police operation that broke up one such business…DirecTV’s content, Granma says, includes programming intended to “discredit and destabilize the Cuban Revolution.”

Nuevo Vedado

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Opposition debates

  • The Miami Herald on differences between the leaders of the independent library movement in Cuba, and those in the United States. We don’t “take orders from abroad,” said leader Gisela Delgado from Havana.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A little help, please

Agriculture is the one sector where the Raul Castro government has put forward a comprehensive reform: increased prices paid to producers, distribution of idle state lands to private farmers, changes in the distribution system, and a restructuring of the bureaucracy to decentralize decisionmaking.

There have been many reports (mine is here) on the first two tasks, which are clearly proceeding. As for the others, the picture isn’t so clear.

A long article in yesterday’s Juventud Rebelde reports that the state has given parcels of idle land to 56,000 applicants, 80 percent of which had no land before.

That’s the good part.

The rest of the story, Juventud Rebelde’s reporters found, is that the new farmers don’t always have what they need to produce.

The new farmers are eager to work their land and have knocked themselves out clearing it of weeds and brush, the report says. But it found cases where they don’t have the tools they need, they can’t get wire to fence off their land to prevent grazing, or they can’t acquire fuel even after arranging for a tractor to come work their land.

One farmer wishes that officials would visit for some reason other than “to ask when I’m going to deliver” product to market.

The report recounts that in Ciego de Avila, a bumper crop of tomatoes couldn’t be handled by the state enterprise that should buy them because, according to a local, “the industry was saturated [with supply] and Acopio [the enterprise] doesn’t have vehicles” to collect the crop.

An analyst cited in the article summed up that the new farmers are “beginning to be part of a large system, Cuban agriculture, and it is a chain with many rusty links that do not always connect well.”

The anecdotes in the article call out for a simple solution: credits to allow individual farmers to buy supplies, fuel, and labor, and to pay back at harvest time. It’s a solution, the report says, that many farmers are suggesting.

Credits might not solve all supply problems in a system where the state alone imports and retails farm supplies, but they would certainly help. The article doesn’t include any comments or interviews on the credit question or other policy issues.

Cuba’s private farmers are their country’s most productive, and it’s good news that the state seems to be on the road to expanding the number of privados working the land. If the roadblocks to productivity are removed – Is this article a sign that someone wants them removed? – there will be new jobs, more food production, and less need to import food.

And unlike other economic challenges, such as finding offshore oil or boosting tourism, the decisions on agriculture are entirely in Cuban hands.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

There's always next time

Cuba fell to Japan last night, 5-0, and was eliminated from this year’s World Baseball Classic.

The New York Times notes that it’s the first time in 50 years when Cuba has not placed first or second in an international baseball competition. MLB.com coverage is here.

Before the game, Fidel Castro published this commentary where he criticized Cuban players’ habit of not swinging until after the first strike. One has to wonder if his comments caused the Cuban batters to overcompensate last night, as many swung at the first pitch. Japan’s starter threw only 22 pitches against the first nine batters.

For many around the world, the amazing infield play in this video will be the enduring image of Cuban team’s participation in this tournament:

Your move now, Obama

Costa Rica and El Salvador are re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba after breaking them, respectively, in 1961 and 1959.

These moves close a chapter in Cold War history. Costa Rica and El Salvador are the last Latin American countries to resume ties with Cuba after the entire region, with the exception of Mexico, broke them when the socialist government came to power five decades ago.

One might dismiss the resumption of relations by El Salvador’s new FMLN government because it is, well, an FMLN government.

Costa Rica is quite different. President Oscar Arias is famous for his Nobel peace prize, but his advocacy for peace has long been rooted in advocacy for democracy and human rights.

In 2006 Arias compared Fidel Castro to the just-deceased Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet: “Fidel Castro began with the execution wall killing people who opposed him. There is no difference. The ideological age is different but both were savage, brutal, and bloody.”

Cuba’s foreign ministry responded by calling Arias, among many other things, a “vulgar mercenary,” an “egotist,” a “servile parrot of yankee imperialism,” “mediocre,” and someone who “cannot be taken seriously.” (Don’t you wish the State Department could write like that?)

That was 2006. Here are excerpts from President Arias’ statement yesterday on resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba:

“Costa Rican diplomacy cannot be measured by the countries that it excludes, the governments it ignores, or the peoples it ignores. Ours should be a diplomacy capable of opening pathways and building bridges…We wish to be recognized abroad by our friendship, not our animosity, for our disposition to help rather than our intransigence.

“Today the world is diametrically different…we should be capable of adjusting to new realities. Hence I will proceed to sign an executive decree to re-establish diplomatic relations with the Republic of Cuba. This is a step that I have considered with deliberation and responsibility. It is a step I take convinced that times change and Costa Rica has to change with them. It is a step that brings coherence to our foreign policy. Above all, it is a step that shows faith in humanity’s future, and confidence that peoples can renew themselves and choose new directions.

“As a democrat of conviction who believes in an American hemisphere of freedom and solidarity, I have not stayed quiet about those things that concern me in the hemisphere. But I also believe in the old adage that ‘only those who are willing to help have the right to criticize.’ I would not want to maintain the official silence that has reigned for decades between Cuba and Costa Rica: that silence will produce no benefits for our peoples. The time has come for a direct and open dialogue, for official and normal relations that allow us to broach our agreements and disagreements face to face and with sincerity.

“If we have been able to turn the page with regimes so deeply divergent from our reality, as occurred in its time with the Soviet Union, or more recently with the People’s Republic of China, how are we not going to do it with a country that is geographically and culturally much closer to Costa Rica?

“For now, as the oldest democracy in Latin America, as the little republic of peace, we extend our hand to the Cuban people, and we send an olive branch across the seas and the breezes, to begin again the good work of building friendship.”

President Obama will meet his counterparts from Latin America and the Caribbean at a summit in Trinidad next month.

In statement after statement from Caricom, the Rio Group, and individual countries; in a string of visits to Havana; in declarations by the President of Brazil; and with these moves by these Central American countries, we have unanimous opinion from this democratic hemisphere. Countries with a full range of views about Cuba’s political system all agree that the way to deal with Cuba is “face to face,” as President Arias says.

President Obama’s message of change, “turning the page,” and listening to allies was heard abroad as well as home. “It’s time for more than tough talk that never yields results,” he has said about Cuba. Cuba will surely not be the central issue in the summit, but it’s hard to see how it will not be an issue, and the potential for news coverage to focus on an all-against-one political dispute is high. The question becomes whether the Administration will fill in the blanks in its Cuba policy before the President gets on the plane for Trinidad.

Turning the page

A reader wrote to ask why the link I provide (right) to the State Department’s Cuba page was no longer working. The reason is that the page has been revamped and moved, and it’s now here. The link is now fixed.

The State website has now archived much of the Bush Administration’s Cuba policy materials, alongside those of the Clinton Administration. But there’s still information on the Bush Cuba commission, and there are fact sheets explaining why U.S.-Cuba migration talks remain suspended, and explaining the ins and outs of the Bush policy that gives Cuban medical personnel on missions abroad a special track for immigration to the United States.

Odds and ends

  • The University of Miami will release tomorrow an exit poll of Cuban American voters from the 2008 election; its press release is titled, “Majority of Cuban-Americans Support U.S. Embargo.” Partial results have been released already; the Sun-Sentinel covers them here, and Generation Miami writes about them here.

  • Treasury issues additional guidance (pdf) on the new rules governing Cuban American family visits.

Open air

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Six years

Fifty-four of the 75 dissidents and independent journalists arrested in 2003 remain in jail today. Their wives and mothers, joined together as the Damas de Blanco, are marking the sixth anniversary of their arrests and calling for their release.

There’s debate in Cuba, and I have heard some of it in the United States too, about the 75 and their activities, and there are allegations that they were acting as agents of a foreign power. I’m no fan of the Bush policy, which I think was counterproductive in almost every respect – but I don’t buy it, and I certainly don’t buy that such a charge could be brought and satisfactorily proved in the very brief time it took to arrest, try, and sentence these people. They deserve release.

Reuters coverage is here, AP’s here.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Odds and ends

  • Last weekend, Brazil’s president talked with President Obama and said afterwards, “What I told President Obama, and I have hope that it will happen, is that it is necessary for there to be a rapprochement with Venezuela, a rapprochement with Cuba, a rapprochement with Bolivia.” AFP Spanish coverage here.

  • Cuba eliminated Mexico with a 7-4 win and faces the loser of tonight’s Japan-Korea game on Thursday night.

  • El Nuevo Herald reports that a Cuban television technician left the team and is now in Miami.

  • When Cuba ended support for communist guerillas in the 1990’s, the most cited cause was the loss of Soviet support. But another change occurred in those guerrilla movements – some turned to electoral politics, most notably El Salvador’s FMLN, which won the presidency on Sunday.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Congress disappoints the Herald

A Miami Herald editorial doesn’t like the way Congress handled the Cuba issue in the appropriations bill last week – welcome to the club. It also doesn’t like the fact the President promised more with regard to Cuban American family travel than he delivered last week, and that he has yet to fulfill his campaign promise to end family remittances restrictions. The editorial goes on to express worry about the rules governing agricultural sales to Cuba, but it’s based on a confused reading of the legislation, which did nothing to change the law that requires Cuba to pay for U.S. exports in advance. The Bush regulations, which require payment before shipments leave a U.S. port, remain in force. A separate provision, which allows U.S. exporters to travel to Cuba without prior permission to promote their sales, has nothing to do with payment terms.

I’ll bet that nearly everyone on both sides of this debate would agree with the editorial’s implicit point – that we would be better served by an open debate on Cuba policy, in the normal legislative process.

But Congress doesn’t always use the normal legislative process, which is why last week it funded half the government in a single bill, halfway through the fiscal year. And it’s why there are many examples of unusual procedures on Cuba legislation alone, and it’s why there probably always will be.

Odds and ends

  • Off the reservation: Former GOP Congressman Bob Barr, President Clinton’s famous nemesis during the impeachment proceedings, calls for Obama to make an opening toward Cuba. And Patty Khuly, niece of one of the men killed in the 1996 Brothers to the Rescue shootdown, hs changed her mind about the American approach toward Cuba. Interviewed by journalist Reese Erlich, she said: “In retrospect, Helms-Burton is one of the silliest pieces of legislation. It’s one of these ‘big stick’ laws that do nothing but get the rest of the world angry at us…Cuba needs to have as much influence from the outside as possible,” she said. “The embargo needs to die as quick a death as possible.”

  • The Louvre has arrived in Havana with an exhibit of 100 high-resolution photos of paintings in its collection. The exhibit, “Images of the Louvre: Six Centuries of European Painting,” is on display outdoors through May 18 in Old Havana near the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. AP article here; a note from the Havana city historian’s office is here.

Russia rattles our cage (Updated)

Russian General Anatoly Zhikharev spoke to reporters in Moscow on Saturday and raised the specter of Russian bombers landing in the Western hemisphere while conducting long-range patrols. Venezuela has offered landing rights, he says – “We land, we complete the flight, we take off.”

As for Cuba, Zhikharev says the island’s runways are “entirely acceptable,” and he would be happy to use them if “the will of the two states is there.” So it’s not clear whether Russia has asked for landing rights, and if so, how Cuba has responded.

Reuters report is here, AFP’s here. My discussion of this issue from last summer is here. University of Miami professor Jaime Suchlicki’s discussion from last July is here, where he judges it “not likely” that Cuba would host bombers, a move that could “violate the Kennedy/Khrushchev 1962 accord.” That’s the exchange of letters that ended the Cuban missile crisis and included a U.S. commitment not to invade Cuba.

Update: The Herald’s blog Cuban Colada notes two stories. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez saying he did not offer basing rights to Russia, but that he “told President [Dmitri] Medvedev that whenever Russian strategic aircraft need to touch down in Venezuela to fulfill their strategic plans, Venezuela is at their service, as we were not long ago.” And a Russian political analyst says the military’s statements are “a kind of warning” of what Russia will seek to do if Russian concerns about missile defense and NATO expansion aren’t addressed. This is getting to be almost an exact replay of last summer’s episode.

Meantime, AFP reports that the Pentagon is brushing the whole thing off: “That would be quite a long way for those old planes to fly,” a Pentagon spokesman said. And another official said the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “is not overly concerned about other nations trying to forge bilateral relations with other partners and friends.”

Ouch

Six innings of Daisuke Matsuzaka on the mound was too much for Cuba’s hitters, and Cuba fell 6-0 to Japan. Tonight’s game against Mexico (11:00 p.m. Eastern) is now a must-win for Cuba to remain in the tournament.

If you wonder who was playing the trumpet from the stands during the games in Mexico, it seems that this three-minute video from the New York Times has him. Plus a brief interview with star second baseman Yulieski Gourriel, and others, while the team was in Mexico for the first round.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Cuba advances, undefeated

Cuba defeated Mexico 16-4, faces Japan on Sunday in San Diego. A short video wrapup of the game is at mlb.com.

And here’s an article from the New York Times on Cuba’s baseball tradition, and the current Cuban team.

Not the last word

If you were wondering how Wednesday’s announcement by the Treasury Department fits with President Obama’s campaign promise to “immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island,” a quote in today’s Herald from White House spokeswoman Gannet Tseggai clears it up:

“The guidance issued yesterday by the Treasury Department was issued pursuant to a law passed by Congress. The President was not involved in the drafting of that provision, and it does not take the place of his own review of family visits and family cash remittances.”

Meanwhile, here are two letters from two Senators weighing in on Cuba policy: Senator Chris Dodd on the rules governing travel to promote agricultural sales, and Senator Mel Martinez on family travel.

Havana province

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Odds and ends

  • Cuba and Mexico play tonight to complete Pool B play in the World Baseball Classic; both will advance to the next round in San Diego, where the winner will face Japan and the loser South Korea, both on Sunday. I missed Fidel Castro’s commentary criticizing the Cuban team’s base running errors in the first game; it’s translated in the Herald’s blog, with a link to the original. Granma’s special section on the tournament is here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Obama opens up Cuban American travel

The Obama Administration has repealed the 2004 Bush rules that imposed new restrictions on Cuban American family visits.

The Treasury Department action is explained here (pdf). It liberalizes Cuban American travel significantly but falls short of the Obama campaign promise to “immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island.”

Today’s regulatory action quickly cleared up a strange situation created by the Cuba family travel provision in the catch-all 2009 appropriations bill that the President signed today. This new law didn’t repeal the Bush regulations; it simply bars the government from enforcing them until October 1. That’s why the owner of a Miami travel agency was cited in today’s Herald saying that he would continue to follow the Bush regulations, because they were still in force. No more.

Now, Cuban Americans no longer need to apply for and obtain a Treasury license to travel, they may visit family once per year, there is no limit on the length of their visits, and they may seek permission for additional visits. And the narrow Bush definition of family has been repealed; it now includes, in addition to immediate family, “‘close relatives,’ defined as any individual related to the traveler by blood, marriage, or adoption who is no more than three generations removed from the traveler or from a common ancestor with the traveler.”

Plus, there’s good news for those who have relatives in Cuba who are not Cuban nationals – such as the American medical students at the Latin American Medical School. They can visit too, under the same rules.

This is a good, humane move. But President Obama, what about the rest of us?

Yosbany for President

The real story of the night was the Netherlands’ second amazing win over the Dominican Republic, this time in extra innings. But let’s note that Cuba also won to advance to the next round of the World Baseball Classic, defeating Australia 5-4. The victory was thanks to an eighth-inning pinch-hit home run by Yosbany Peraza of Pinar del Rio.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Small steps on Cuba policy

Congress has sent a bill to the President that liberalizes Cuba policy for the first time since 2000.

A catch-all spending bill to fund U.S. government operations through the end of the fiscal year (until October 1) contains three provisions (discussed earlier here) that make modest changes to Cuba policy.

The Herald has posted a Treasury Department letter to Senator Menendez regarding a provision that eases regulations governing travel to Cuba to promote agricultural and medical sales. The letter explains that instead of writing to ask for permission and waiting for the government to send a license allowing the travel, these travelers will have to inform the government in advance and report again afterward.

A second Treasury letter addresses the “cash in advance” issue regarding agricultural sales. At issue is whether U.S. exporters should be required to receive payment from Cuba before their goods are delivered in Cuban ports (pre-Bush regulations), or before their goods leave U.S. ports (Bush regulations). The bill addresses this issue, but only symbolically, because it suspends enforcement of the Bush regulations instead of repealing them outright.

The letter also notes that Cuba policy is under review in the Obama Administration.

Both letters responded to concerns from these and other pro-embargo legislators. Senator Menendez had expressed concern that the legislation would allow credit to be extended to Cuba, but that was never at issue. Senator Martinez told reporters yesterday that Treasury had agreed to issue new regulations governing agricultural sales to Cuba, but the text of the letter shows his statement to be inaccurate.

The third provision, suspending enforcement of the Bush Administration’s once-every-three-years rule for Cuban American family visits, apparently drew no opposition.

These are modest provisions, and two of three are really symbolic. I continue to believe that the truly significant actions and debates will occur later this year. Still, in the absence of Bush veto threats, Congress has now acted on Cuba policy, and when the bill is signed, it will mark a change in direction.

AFP coverage here.

[This rewrites a post from 2:30 this afternoon.]

Monday, March 9, 2009

Odds and ends

  • The Cuban team hit six homers and beat South Africa, 8-1 in the first round of the World Baseball Classic. Cuba faces Australia in its next game Tuesday night; story here, remaining schedule here.

  • The BBC’s Havana correspondent writes on his Spanish-language blog about Radio and TV Marti: “I don’t know anyone in Cuba who has seen TV Marti.”

Friday, March 6, 2009

Cuba, an influential economic basket case

Just ran across this item from last month: the February 12 “Annual Threat Assessment” testimony by Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence.

Excerpts:

  • Cuba, though an economic basket case, can still influence the Latin American left because of its so-called ‘anti-imperialist’ stance.”

  • “President Raul Castro’s record since formally taking power in February 2008 indicates his primary objective in the coming year will be to make Cuba’s dysfunctional socialist economy more efficient. His task has been made more difficult, however, by the extensive damage to the country’s already weak agricultural sector and infrastructure by three major and successive hurricanes last year. The global economic downturn will further slow growth, diminishing the regime’s options for addressing public dissatisfaction with living conditions.”

  • Havana’s competent and immediate response to the hurricanes underscores the effectiveness of regime controls and indicates that it remains capable of preventing a spontaneous mass migration. Nevertheless, we judge that at a minimum the annual flow of Cuban migrants to the United States will stay at the same high levels of about 35,000 legal and illegal migrants annually that have prevailed over the past several years.”

  • “Raul almost certainly will continue to proceed cautiously on any reforms to the economy in order to maintain elite consensus and avoid raising public expectations beyond what he is able or willing to deliver.”

  • “We assess Raul will continue his efforts to bolster Havana’s international legitimacy by projecting a more moderate political image. Nevertheless, Cuba almost certainly will remain heavily involved behind-the-scenes in counseling and supporting authoritarian populist governments in Latin America and otherwise seeking to undermine US influence across the region.”

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The other shoe drops

Carlos Lage and Felipe Perez Roque have resigned their remaining government and party posts; both were members of the National Assembly and the Council of State, and Lage was a vice president of the Council of State, which meant he was in the line of succession to the presidency.

Their resignation letters were published in Cuban media; Lage’s is here, Perez Roque’s is here. MSNBC reports that Fernando Remirez, international relations chief at the Communist party central committee, has left his job too.

Phony war [Updated]

The first months of World War II, when war was clearly under way but there was more military positioning than fighting, was known as the “phony war.” Something similar is happening in Congress with regard to Cuba policy.

The huge catchall spending bill that the House approved, and that the Senate seems poised to approve, contains three Cuba provisions. All were written in committee last year, none were debated fully in a normal legislative process, and only weeks ago it became known that all had made their way into the final version of the bill.

Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey calls it “the crudest process I can imagine – without analysis, without inclusion, and without debate.” That’s a fair point – and one he could probably make about dozens, if not hundreds of other legislative items each year.

The three provisions are relatively small potatoes. One provides that Americans who wish to sell agricultural products to Cuba may travel under “general license” to promote their sales, i.e. they will no longer need to write the government and wait for a letter granting permission to travel. That’s a positive step, considering that the sales have been legal since 2000, but not a momentous policy change.

A second provision says that no funds may be spent to implement or enforce President Bush’s 2004 regulations that reduced opportunities for Cuban Americans to visit relatives. A third says that no funds may be spent to implement or enforce 2005 regulations governing the terms of agricultural sales to Cuba. These provisions are constructive too, but largely symbolic – they leave the Bush regulations in place, and it would be still illegal to violate them, although if you violate them and the feds decide to go after you, it may take them some time to get to you.

Senator Menendez took the floor Monday to oppose the provisions and to complain about the process. Senate Majority Leader Reid joined him and expressed solidarity. Later, Reid told reporters he doesn’t like the Cuba provisions but believes they will be enacted. Additionally, Senator Menendez is reportedly holding up two Obama Administration nominees in protest, which is earning him some fire from the left.

All in all, it seems like a show of force, an effort to signal the kind of opposition that would be mustered if more substantial policy change is considered later this year.

Surely, a real debate will be joined later this year about changing Cuba policy. The Administration, during confirmation hearings, stated that it is reviewing the policy. At some point it will have to decide how much citizen contact it wants to permit, and it can use its regulatory authority to change travel regulations as it pleases. (If it merely implements the Obama campaign promise to allow unrestricted Cuban American family visits, it will render this week’s legislation moot.) And Congress could act on travel, or on other fronts.

So this has been the phony war, the real debate is to come. If this week’s legislation shows one thing, it is perhaps that in the absence of the old Bush veto threats directed at any bill that liberalizes Cuba policy, this Congress has more options, and more political will.

New York Times coverage here.

[Update: to the contrary, this Orlando Sentinel report says the bill does not face smooth sailing.]

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Odds and ends

  • Here’s a report on a different kind of Cuban transition: Cuban players adapting to the big leagues, from MLB.com.

  • Medicare fraud in South Florida looks easy and very, very lucrative, according to this report in the St. Petersburg Times. “Dozens” of immigrants from Cuba are reportedly involved, and many have fled to Cuba.

  • El Nuevo Herald’s Wilfredo Cancio reports that Cuba’s police force is beefing up and adding to its presence in Havana. In English here, in Spanish here.

  • Methodists gone wild: the Lakeland (Florida) Ledger reports that the Cuban government wants to dissolve an eleven-year-old agreement governing the relationship between the state’s Methodists and their counterparts in Cuba. A Florida church leader, the paper says, believes that the “Cuban government is concerned about the relative freedom some American citizens have had while visiting Cuba.”

More calls to change the policy

I’ll briefly note for the record two new calls for change in Cuba policy that were amply covered when I was away.

Senator Lugar released a staff report on Cuba policy (pdf here), and said this as he released the report: “Economic sanctions are a legitimate tool of U.S. foreign policy and they have sometimes achieved their aims, as in the case of apartheid in South Africa. After 47 years, however, the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of ‘bringing democracy to the Cuban people,’ while it may have been used as a foil by the regime to demand further sacrifices from Cuba's impoverished population. The current U.S. policy has many passionate defenders, and their criticism of the Castro regime is justified. Nevertheless, we must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests.”

And the Brookings Institution released a “roadmap” of policy recommendations for the Obama Administration (pdf here), urging that the U.S. government “not publicly link the initiatives to specific actions of the Cuban government,” because to do so “would give the Cuban hierarchy a veto over our policy.”

A collection of other recent reports and recommendations on U.S. policy is found here.

Cuatro Caminos

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Fidel weighs in

Fidel Castro has issued a commentary on yesterday’s announcements, saying he was consulted in advance regarding the personnel changes although it wasn’t necessary that he be consulted.

While the Council of State’s statement gave no indication that any of the officials were being removed for bad conduct or job performance, Fidel writes that in the case of the two most mentioned in press reports, it had to do with “the honey of power,” which “awoke in them ambitions that led to an unworthy role. The external enemy filled itself with hopes about them.” If, as seems apparent, one of those two is Carlos Lage, then we should stay tuned.

With that, Fidel turned to baseball, saying it’s unacceptable that political gossip should divert attention from the World Baseball Classic, which begins this week. He talked some trash to Hugo Chavez, who still doesn’t understand “why his magnificent pitchers and batters will be defeated by our athletes.” (In that spirit, here are the 2009 World Baseball Classic schedule and brackets. Cuba faces Mexico, Australia, and South Africa in the first double-elimination round, played in Mexico City; its first game is Sunday against South Africa.)

Back to the subject at hand, the big question on everyone’s mind is whether these changes point to a new direction in some area of Cuban government policy. I don’t see it, certainly not based on anything in the Council of State’s announcement.

But it is interesting to note that the announcement regarding Otto Rivero, former vice president of the Council of Ministers, says that the programs under his purview had concluded. Does that mean that the “Batalla de Ideas” is ended, or that it will no longer be funded as before?

Finally, on the bureaucratic front, the Council of State’s announcement says that further streamlining may be forthcoming in addition to the modest actions taken yesterday. (Two ministries, fishing and foreign commerce, were dissolved and folded into two others.) The announcement recalled Raul’s statement that “institutionality is one of the pillars of the invulnerability of the Revolution on the political front.”

Here is La Jornada’s coverage of yesterday’s announcement and a separate article about Perez Roque, Lage, and Rivero.

Granma has published short bios of the new ministers.

AP summarizes the personnel changes here.

[Photo from this Australian humor website, h/t South Florida Daily Blog.]

Monday, March 2, 2009

Goodbye Felipe, Hello Bruno

When he took office in February of last year, Raul Castro made it clear that he didn’t like the government organization chart he inherited, and he intended to streamline it. An announcement from the Council of State today tells us that he did some streamlining: the Ministry of Fisheries is now folded into the Ministry of Food Production, and the Ministry of Foreign Commerce is now folded into the Ministry of Foreign Investment and Economic Cooperation.

Apart from that, the announcement seems to indicate that Raul is putting some of his own people into key positions, most notably with the replacement of foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque by his deputy, Bruno Rodriguez.

Economics czar Carlos Lage is out of his post as secretary of the Council of Ministers but remains Vice President of the Council of State, which means that he keeps his more important job, the one that puts him in the line of succession.

Beyond that, the terse announcement gives no indication of Lage’s future role. It does minimize the importance of the job Lage is leaving, noting that it has no “decisionmaking capacity in government matters, nor does it have any protagonism at all in the leadership of the government.”

Does any of this have implications for relations with the new U.S. Administration? My guess is no, unless the new foreign minister announces new policies or sets a new tone. Given that Raul Castro has himself stated clearly his own views on relations with the United States, I think change is unlikely.