Friday, October 31, 2008

CNN on the Miami Congressional race

A look at the Diaz-Balart/Martinez House race:


True to form, it wasn’t a cliffhanger. For the 17th year in a row, the UN General Assembly approved the resolution urging the United States to end the embargo. The vote this year was 185-3, with two abstentions.

184 voted “yes” last year, and Cuban media report that Albania voted “yes” this year to bring the total to 185. Cuban media are happily comparing this year’s vote to 1992, when there were only 59 affirmative votes.

The Marshall Islands changed its usual “yes” to an abstention this year.

The Los Angeles Times editorialized on the vote and the “blunt instrument” of the embargo. If this vote prompts a new Administration to take a fresh look at U.S. sanctions, so much the better.

Odds and ends

  • The Voice of America: “Democratic Support Growing Among Cuban-American Voters.” The Herald looks at high-dollar contributions to the Miami House races, and reports that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee “has spent $1.1 million against the Diaz-Balarts.”

  • A new blog, “In the Americas,” from the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, Admiral James Stavridis.

  • Comcast offers a 79-cent/minute rate for phone calls to Cuba, but apparently only for customers who sign up for a certain combination of services. That’s exorbitant compared to rates to other countries, but from what I know, it’s a bargain compared to other rates to Cuba. AT&T starts at 92 cents per minute, the Herald reports. A more skeptical view is found here.

  • The President of Brazil is in Cuba, reportedly to sign a deal to allow Petrobras to explore for oil in Cuban waters, and to advance cooperation in soy farming.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Today's UN vote

Today the UN General Assembly will vote on a resolution (text here, pdf) that urges the United States to end its Cuba embargo.

There are lots of reasons, depending on your point of view, not to pay attention to this event. It’s a top priority of Cuban diplomacy. The debate will feature Cuban assertions about the embargo’s damages to the Cuban economy ($3.77 billion in 2007) that can’t be verified, and that ignore the cost to Cuba’s economy of Cuba’s own economic policies. The resolution has no teeth and the UN has no enforcement power. The resolution asserts that the embargo violates international law, as if the United States lacks the right to refrain from trade with another country. In the debate, Cuba will go one better and call U.S. policy “genocidal” not just rhetorically, but as a matter of international law.

On top of all that, the resolution has been presented, debated, and voted upon 16 times before, every year since 1992. The score so far: Cuba 16, United States 0.

If there has been any drama in this, it has been the slow movement of U.S. allies over the years. They used to abstain, but now vote in favor of the resolution. Last year the vote was 184-4, with Palau, the Marshall Islands, and Israel joining the United States. (Israel trades with and invests in Cuba.)

So if the vote today brings the score to 17-0, it will not exactly break new ground, but it will remind us of a few things.

First, Cuba knows how to do multilateral diplomacy.

Second, while many governments agree with U.S. criticisms of Cuban human rights practices, virtually all agree, as the resolution says, that U.S. sanctions have “adverse effects” on the Cuban people. And virtually all are willing to vote to urge the United States to lift the embargo.

Third, if a new U.S. Administration decides that it wants to work more closely with allies and other countries on the Cuba issue, U.S. sanctions – from the embargo to direct action against third-country banks and companies – are an obstacle.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Odds and ends

  • The Sun-Sentinel reports on the post-hurricane crackdown on black market activity involving food. More here from AP, and from Cubanet, from Santa Clara.

  • The UN’s World Food Program announced a $5.7 million program to provide food, storage facilities, and cooking equipment to areas hit by the hurricanes. About one in six Cubans, 1.78 million people, will be served.

  • Cuban Colada notes a Russian newspaper story that gives one Russian analyst’s explanation for Russia’s decision to help Cuba with air defense.

  • Encuentro is asking Cubans to write their advice to the next American president. Three letters have been published so far, from Dagoberto Valdes (editor of Convivencia) and opposition figures Manuel Cuesta Morua and Martha Beatriz Roque. Valdes (indirectly) and Cuesta (very directly) oppose current U.S. sanctions. Roque limits herself to advising a new U.S. president to take Latin America seriously.

Fewer arrivals at the Mexican border

El Nuevo Herald has a report on Cuban migration to the United States in just-concluded fiscal year 2008.

From October 2007 to May 2008, the number of Cubans entering via land borders (last year, 90 percent came from Mexico) was unchanged from the previous year’s levels. From June through September 2008, the numbers fell 40 percent, which supports the theory, discussed here, that the new Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program is causing a reduction in alien smuggling.

El Nuevo links to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security here.

On the balcony

Monday, October 27, 2008

"Transition" advice

Here’s an excerpt, with emphasis added, from the Bush Administration’s 2004 Cuba transition report. It’s a recommendation that Cuba “Establish a Secondary Mortgage Market System:”

“A secondary mortgage market affords two principal advantages. First, it lowers the cost of mortgage finance by allowing credit risk and interest rate risk to be separated and borne by those best able to bear it. Second, it levels the cost of finance by connecting local housing markets to international capital markets so that borrowers have access to the lowest cost funds, not just those available locally. As mentioned above, a credit enhancement for lenders in a secondary mortgage market would provide them a liquid source of funding by permitting lenders and investors to easily sell and buy bundles of mortgage loans without regard for the underlying credit risk. Establishing a secondary mortgage market would require a governmental entity, similar to Ginnie Mae, to underwrite a security instrument backed by mortgage loans and guarantied against loss from credit risk that could trade in international capital markets.

Odds and ends

  • Miami New Times reporter Francisco Alvarado predicts that both Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart will lose their seats – you can take the prediction or leave it, but the article is a good, detailed look at the campaign.

  • Cuban American National Foundation Chairman Jorge Mas Santos, writing in the Washington Post, on the keys to winning the Cuban American vote. One key: repealing President Bush’s 2004 regulations that added restrictions on Cuban Americans’ travel to Cuba.

  • A Russian military delegation is due in Havana this week, and Reuters reports from Moscow that assistance in air defense will be on the agenda.

  • Venezuela’s El Universal looks at the difference between Brazil’s economic reations with Cuba, and Venezuela’s. Brazil’s president plas a visit to Cuba in January.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Hurricane relief -- report from Oriente

Mexico’s La Jornada has filed stories from Camaguey and Holguin on hurricane damage and relief efforts. The stories are in Spanish only. They present a mixed picture; some residents remain in shelters, some have received temporary housing, some have received building materials, others are waiting. And even for those with hard currency to get materials in state stores or on the black market, there are shortages.

Holguin’s Catholic bishop, Emilio Aranguren, says, “As everything is centralized in state organizations, people wait for things to be given to them…they note that the pace is very slow in relation to…the amount of things that have to be done.”

Meanwhile, Cuba is requiring reporters to get advance permission to visit areas affected by hurricane damage, according to an e-mail from Cuba’s International Press Center excerpted by Rui Ferreira.

UN report on embargo

In advance of the UN General Assembly debate on the Cuban resolution opposing the U.S. embargo, the UN Secretary General released a report on the “implementation” of last year’s resolution (pdf here, 112 pages).

At first glance, it consists mostly of brief statements from member states explaining that they have no embargo against Cuba and oppose that of the United States. Cuba’s statement, 27 pages, is the longest; the United States did not respond. At the end are statements from UN agencies, many of which are substantive, including that of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (p. 86).

Musing about Obama

Even with election day ten days away, people are speculating about the impact of an Obama win, and in the case of two professors cited here, they’re speculating about the impact on Cuba.

Here’s a very original take from an American professor, Jose Buscaglia, who says of an Obama victory, “Nothing could be more threatening to the long-held views of the Cuban ‘comandantes’ and generals, as well as to the institutions they have carefully developed over the last half century to keep their country under the tightest control.”

And from Havana, a specialist in U.S. relations speculates about a possible dialogue between the two governments. His remarks (or at least the remarks quoted in this article) seem to assume that the talks would focus on trade issues. My guess is that that would be the least likely possibility.

From Nuevo Vedado

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Colonel Simmons, call your office!

Silvia Wilhelm, one of the Americans smeared by Lt. Col. Chris Simmons, has made a strong statement in response.

In it, she notes that during the program, host Oscar Haza asked Simmons if he was aware that Wilhelm is married to a high-ranking military officer. “I did not know that,” Simmons replied. This was a truly absurd moment – Haza was apparently referring to the former commander of the U.S. Southern Command, General Charles E. Wilhelm (Ret.), who is not, and never has been married to Silvia. Although as Silvia points out, a different Charles Wilhelm, a physician, is indeed her husband.

But don’t be deterred, Lt. Col. Simmons...a quick Google search – which seems to be what Haza relied upon for his revelation – reveals that General Wilhelm has traveled to Cuba!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Slow going

What do sugar and ethanol, golf course development, and deep-water oil exploration have in common?

They are all on the list of possible foreign investment projects in Cuba, and they are all slow to develop.

I have commented before that when it comes to golf course/real estate projects, the announcement-to-action ratio is off the charts; see here, here, and here.

Sugar projects are slow too. The reason may be that even though Cuban government policy is to encourage foreign investment generally, and not to exclude ethanol development, Fidel Castro has voiced reservations about using food crops to produce fuel. So I speculate that that is the reason for the slow going. At any rate, last week there was yet another statement, this one from the sugar minister, about Cuba’s openness to foreign investment in the sugar sector.

When it comes to offshore oil, it’s slow going too. Cuba made news last week by announcing estimates of its offshore reserves that are double those of the U.S. Geological Survey. But a manager of Cuba’s state oil company also announced that the much anticipated drilling by Repsol will take place in mid-2009 – fully five years after its exploratory well was drilled – and that Canada’s Sherritt has relinquished rights to two offshore blocs rather than proceed to the drilling phase. In Repsol’s case – where the formation of a consortium with Norsk Hydro is a positive sign – the reason for the delay may be simply that higher oil prices have made deep-water rigs scarce.

More on the Cuba-Mexico accord

The Cuba-Mexico migration accord did not go over well in Miami. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart said that because Mexico will return Cubans who arrive illegally, “Mexico is doing the work of the [Cuban government’s] forces of repression.” I suppose he would say the same about the U.S. Coast Guard, which returns many Cuban migrants intercepted at sea. (More in El Nuevo Herald here.)

The two governments didn’t mince words in blaming the U.S. “dry-foot” policy for the growth in alien smuggling via Mexico. In their joint statement, they said, “United States immigration policies toward Cuba stimulate illegal migration and illegal trafficking in Cubans, and hamper the efforts to fight effectively the criminal organizations that profit from these crimes.”

The Herald’s blog has a good summary of the accord’s provisions here.

Cuatro caminos

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Damas de Blanco, off the reservation

The White House held another videoconference last week, this time with several of the Damas de Blanco in Havana talking with First Lady Laura Bush and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

The White House issued a brief statement. Secretary Gutierrez was on Radio Marti (story and audio here). He said the conversation was “unforgettable,” covering the situation in Cuba after the hurricanes, the U.S. offers of aid, economic and human rights issues, and prison conditions.

Neither the Radio Marti story nor the White House statement mentioned that the Cuban women asked that the Bush Administration suspend its sanctions “that affect the sending of direct aid,” as El Nuevo Herald paraphrased the words of Laura Pollan, who participated in the videoconference. In response, according to Pollan, “They stated that they were going to analyze it [the request]. Hopefully, the penury and suffering would be less that way…We explained to Mrs. Bush that there is widespread desperation.” El Nuevo’s story didn’t make clear whether Pollan was asking for the suspension of the Administration’s family sanctions, or something broader. A brief English summary is here.

Good for these women for raising this issue with Mrs. Bush, who is probably the only person in Washington who could possibly have an impact.

One can’t say the same for our Secretary of Commerce, who has been on these videoconferences before, and has heard the same kind of request, before the hurricanes. Still, he said last month, “What we are hearing from Cubans in Cuba is they don’t need money because there’s nothing to buy.”

The impact of Ike and Gustav in Cuba may be fading from the news, but Cubans still suffer. What governments should do in a case like this is to put politics aside and send help. President Bush put humanitarian concerns above politics when he offered aid to Cuba, and Cuba did the opposite when it turned that offer down. Still, the United States is standing in the way of direct, effective aid by maintaining sanctions against families – their visits, their cash assistance, even the contents of their gift parcels – that are truly draconian at a time when crops, food supplies, and housing have been wrecked from one end of the island to another.

Once again, the question arises: If we praise the dissidents as future leaders of Cuba and spend millions to support them each year, why can’t we heed their simple request now to ease suffering after a natural disaster?

Finally, a note about Radio Marti. From the story and audio on the Marti website, one would never know that the Damas de Blanco discussed U.S. policy, which is newsworthy by anyone’s standard, and doubly so because it would seem to be the only area of the conversation where there was a difference of opinion and a discussion of possible policy change. If Marti’s broadcasts have included Pollan’s statements, that would be great to know. If not, then it’s an omission that reinforces the idea that Marti is a government radio station with a political slant.

[White House photo.]

Odds and ends

  • Foreign Minister Perez Roque on the Cuba-Mexico migration agreement, and the prospect of returning Cubans who “try to use Mexico to get to the United States.”

  • AP has an interesting account of a Florida man whose boat was stolen by alien smugglers. He tracked its movement by GPS (to western Cuba, then to Mexico’s Isla Mujeres) and recovered it with the help pf Mexican police.

  • A new Russian Orthodox church was consecrated in Havana; it’s on the Avenida del Puerto, facing the bay. BBC coverage here.

  • “When I am president, we are going to pressure the Cuban government to free their people.” --Senator McCain in Miami last Friday.

  • Miami New Times’ blog on reporters’ conflicting readings of the Cuban American vote this year.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lt. Col. Simmons, Episode Two

I finally watched the entire appear-
ance of Lt. Col. Chris Simmons on
Miami’s A Mano Limpia television program; you can watch it in five segments, here, here, here, here, and here.

You can also read his publicist’s press releases, one before his appearance, and one after. And you can watch this trailer from a forthcoming movie in which he is collaborating.

In his latest appearance, Simmons continued in his smear-artist mode. He accused three Americans of being Cuban agents, but offered no evidence, or he referred to evidence (“a transcript,” a “recently acquired confession”) that he is unable to present in public. He stuck with his practice of saying that there’s nothing unfair about his accusations, and if the accused don’t like it they can take him to court. The idea seems to be that Simmons has such authority that his statements are beyond question.

That, at any rate, is how the host Oscar Haza sees it. One again, Haza didn’t interview Simmons as much as he gently guided him through a presentation. Simmons spoke at times from prepared notes. When Haza asked a question, it was big, fat, belt-high, and right in the middle of the plate.

In previous appearances, Simmons has pointed out that he speaks for himself, and that he is a retired Army officer now serving in the reserves.

To the audience last week, it probably seemed that Simmons was speaking for the U.S. government. On the screen, the graphic says, “Lt. Col. Chris Simmons, U.S. Military Intelligence.” For all the viewers knew, his theories and the information at his disposal are all derived from his official duties, which may in fact be the case.

The U.S. government didn’t put that graphic on the screen. But one wonders what connection the intelligence community has with an officer who does media tours where he discusses Cuba’s signals intelligence capabilities or the number of Cuban agents in Florida, and where he accuses a series of American citizens of disloyal, criminal activity.

At the end of the program, Simmons promised to return to name more names.

Alejandro Armengol wrote a sharp column in the Nuevo Herald about Simmons’ appearances. It’s not kind to Simmons and its conclusions about Miami’s political culture are not pleasant; its title is “Anti-American.”

My comments on previous appearances by Simmons are here, here, and here.

Not such a bad guy after all

North Korea was removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism last weekend.

North Korea hates the designation and has long sought removal from the list, and it seems that the Bush Administration took this action as part of the bargaining involving North Korea’s nuclear program.

What seems to be missing is any explanation of how North Korea’s behavior changed – with regard to terrorism, not its nuclear program – in a way that would support its removal from the list. (At the State Department press conference where four senior officials announced the move, no one from the counterterrorism office was there.)

I have seen no explanation since in the press, and there is some commentary chiding the Bush Administration for carrying out “a negotiated exchange of one set of words for another,” without North Korea changing its behavior.

If the list was used in this case as a political bargaining chip that moves us a step closer to containing North Korean nuclear development, then three cheers for President Bush.

But then let’s stop pretending the list is based strictly on evidence, insulated from political or other considerations. If that were the case, in our hemisphere, Venezuela would probably be on the list, and Cuba would be off.

Spain adds to hurricane relief effort

During a visit to Spain, Cuba’s foreign minister was received by King Juan Carlos, and Spain’s prime minister agreed to visit Cuba next year (but some press reports say only that the invitation is being considered). Spain also agreed to provide $34 million in aid for hurricane relief, to partially restructure Cuba’s debt to Spain, and to extend a new line of credit worth 50-100 million Euros, also for hurricane reconstruction.

Coverage from AP English and EFE Spanish.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cuba-Mexico migration agreement

After many fits and starts, Cuba and Mexico concluded talks on a migration agreement and announced that it will be signed next week.

The text has not been released.

It’s clear that Mexico wants to crack down on alien smugglers who bring Cubans to the United States through Mexico. To that end, Mexico wants to repatriate Cubans who arrive in Mexico without a visa. Initially, Cuba seemed amenable to repatriations, but only in the case of those who arrive directly from Cuba (nearly all of whom are smuggled), and not those who arrive in Mexico from other countries.

From press reports, we learn that Cuba eventually agreed to accept repatriations of Cuban migrants in Mexican custody, whether they arrived by sea from Cuba, or by land from another place. We’ll see how this is stated once the agreement is released.

The agreement also provides that the two countries will share intelligence.

Here’s coverage from La Jornada, AFP, and El Universal (October 2).

Odds and ends

  • AP: Consumers are facing limits in the amount of produce they are allowed to buy at farmers markets in Havana, “ensuring there's enough – barely – to go around.”

  • Via Cubaencuentro, a Channel 41 (Miami) report that remittances to Cuba are up in the wake of the hurricanes, even as U.S. economic troubles have caused a drop in remittances to other Latin American countries.

Havana cruise ship terminal

Monday, October 13, 2008

Bush in Coral Gables

President Bush met leaders of the Cuban American community at Havana Harry’s in Coral Gables last Friday. His brief remarks, sort of a wistful farewell, are here.

[White House photo.]

"Drive me far away"

The United States beat Cuba 6-1 in soccer in a World Cup qualifying match on Saturday night. Before the game, two Cuban players left their Arlington, Virginia hotel and decided to stay in the United States. One gave an interview to the Washington Post where he tells what happened after he slipped out of the lobby: “I ran and ran and then told the taxi driver to ‘Drive me far away’…I was so nervous. I didn’t know where we were going, but I knew I was in a free country and everything would be okay.”

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Odds and ends

  • A University of Miami study on Cuban American voters finds that only one in eight registered voters emigrated after 1980; coverage in El Nuevo Herald here, Herald column here.

U.S. eliminates waiting period for Cuban emigrants

Last week I wrote about Coast Guard data that show a 25 percent decline in interceptions of Cuban migrants at sea between fiscal years 2007 and 2008. A reader points out that the number of Cubans crossing the Mexico-U.S. border also declined during the same period, from about 11,000 to 5,784 in the first eleven months of fiscal 2008 (see coverage on the Herald’s blog here).

The same reader argues that a trend toward lower illegal migration seems to be afoot, and points out a possible cause: the initiation of the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program. The program is explained here and a Q&A (pdf) is here.

This program, special for Cubans as the name implies, makes family reunification immigration easier, where someone in the United States petitions for a relative overseas to come here. The process involves long waiting lists depending, among other things, on how close the relationship is, and waiting times can take up to ten years. This new program for Cubans cuts the waiting time to a matter of months.

The program was instituted last February. All 12,000 petitioners who had filed papers for relatives in Cuba to join them in the United States received information on the program. By April, the first cases were processed, and the individuals started traveling to the United States. There’s no doubt that this program has made family immigration a much easier and faster avenue for legal migration from Cuba to the United States. If a trend toward lower illegal migration takes hold, the program has to be counted as a factor.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Colonel Simmons back on tour (updated)

Lt. Col. Chris Simmons returns to Oscar Haza’s Miami television program A Mano Limpia tonight, and his publicist promises that he will “identify more Cuban spies and their operations in the U.S. More on his previous appearance and his statement that there are Cuban agents in the White House (I’m not making that up) here, here, and here.

[Update: I did not see the program, but it is covered in El Nuevo Herald and at Cubapolidata. El Nuevo reports that Simmons claimed to have proof for his new acusations but did not present them on the program. That would be par for the course for this smear artist, and if Oscar Haza didn’t press him for details, that would be par for the course too.]

Bayamo "experiment"

In Bayamo, there’s an experiment under way where goods and services normally provided in hard currency are available for Cuban pesos, AP reports. The effect is to make the purchases, which are now out of reach for most Cubans, affordable.

The article cites local officials saying the initiative is local.

But it doesn’t say what hypothesis the experiment is testing. Maybe this one: if the pesos’s purchasing power is boosted as much as it is in Bayamo today, how much commerce is generated, and how much does the government have to spend to subsidize it?

The answer to that question would be useful to central bankers thinking of strengthening the peso’s value or ending the dual currency system altogether – a step that Raul Castro recently placed at least five years in the future.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Finca Vigia baseball

A terrific story about the sandlot baseball that Hemingway organized for his sons and the neighborhood kids at his Finca Vigia home, from The New York Times. [Photo from the Times.]

[The story says Patrick Hemingway doesn't speak in public about his father, but in the comments section, Tracey Eaton links to an article he wrote where he quoted Patrick Hemingway.]

Middle Eastern investments

“The fact that even allies of the U.S., including the moderate Persian Gulf states of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, are investing in Cuba and collaborating with the government of General Raúl Castro is itself indicative of the Cuban regime’s remarkable ability to continue to circumvent and outmaneuver Washington around the world.”

That quote comes from an interesting paper by the University of Miami’s Cuba Transition Project, “Islamic Investment in Cuba. The paper discusses investments by Qatar, Dubai, and an OPEC development fund. It reinforces my belief that one of the biggest, and least noticed developments in Raul Castro’s Cuba has been a steady renovation of Cuba’s diplomatic relationships, bringing aid, investment, political support, and reduced dependence on you-know-who.

“Islamic investors have demonstrated confidence in Raúl’s vision of a Beijing in the tropics,” the paper concludes, saying a little breathlessly that Cuba could become “a safe haven for Islamic capital and interests” in the Caribbean.

But in case you were wondering, it is “not likely that a substantial segment of the island’s population will convert to Islam in the near future.”

Odds and ends

  • El Nuevo Herald reports (English here) that, according to numerous sources in Venezuela, Cuban advisors are training “guerrillas” at a secret camp in Venezuela. The headline brought me back to the Cold War when I imagined that the “guerrillas” were being trained to take over another country. The story is actually about military training for pro-Chavez Venezuelans so they can acquire “asymmetrical warfare” skills to resist a coup attempt or U.S. invasion. That would fit with Cuba’s “war of all the people” military doctrine, which says that United States certainly has the power to invade, but we’ll make it another Vietnam, and you will regret it if you do.

  • Before the White Sox were eliminated from the playoffs, the Sun Sentinel’s Ray Sanchez visited the Mom of Alexei Ramirez, the Sox’s rookie second baseman, in Pinar del Rio, and wrote this story.

Handball near Prado

Friday, October 3, 2008

Odds and ends

  • According to this press report, Senator Menendez of New Jersey urged the President of Cyprus not to open an embassy in Havana. The United States has more accredited diplomats in Havana than any other country; the article doesn’t say whether the President asked the Senator about that.

  • Not so fast: EFE reports that Cuba’s ambassador in Madrid says Cuba accepted the EU proposal for a political dialogue, but “first it’s necessary to discuss and agree upon the bases on which this political dialogue can occur,” and he pointed out the need for the talks to be between “equals, respecting the independence of the states, the principle of non-interference…” etc.

  • After denying visas to two Prensa Latina reporters to return from Cuba to the UN bureau, where they have worked since 2005, the State Department reversed course and granted the visas.

  • Another story from the British media about potential golf course development: there’s “a frisson of excitement about Cuba,” “a country which is still, in theory, Marxist,” talk of investment by Sir Terence Conran, and a project involving “villas and apartments” and a “a boutique hotel, spa and an 18 hole championship golf course.”

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Florida travel law snagged in federal court

Ignoring the foreign policy prerogatives of the State of Florida, a federal judge has blocked a Florida law affecting travel to Cuba from going into effect. The judge found it likely that the state law “will be found unconstitutional under the Federal Foreign Affairs powers, the Supremacy Clause, the Foreign Commerce Clause and the Interstate Commerce Clause.”

The law requires that travel agencies that book travel to Cuba – which are already licensed and regulated by the U.S. Treasury Department – post a $250,000 bond with the State of Florida, in addition to meeting other requirements.

In his order, United States District Judge Alan Gold wrote:

“I note that the Travel Act Amendments – which include extraordinary expensive registration and bonding requirements, exorbitant fines and a felony conviction for those who fail to comply with the law – constitute little more than an attempt to impose economic sanctions on travel to designated foreign governments, particularly the Republic of Cuba. But the right and power to impose such sanctions, and to establish foreign policy, remains, under our Federal Constitution, solely within the exclusive domain of the Congress of the United States and the President, and not within the aegis of the State of Florida under the guise of consumer protection.”

The October 1 court order is on this page; find the link at the case called ABC Charter, Inc et al v. Bronson. AP coverage here.

[Photo: Cubans waiting to recive travelers from a Miami flight at Terminal 2 of Havana’s airport.]

Oh, brother

The story of the three fugitives from American justice who are in Cuban custody – Carlos, Luis, and Jose Benitez, three brothers from Miami wanted for Medicare fraud – is very intriguing. These guys had the perverse ingenuity to build a business and defraud the government, if charges are proved, of $119 million within about a decade of arriving on our shores. Amazing.

But their current predicament is more interesting still. They are said to be in Cuban custody for immigration violations. (Sort of a mirror image of Posada Carriles’ former predicament, but let’s not get into that.) Why were they detained – because they committed a fragrant violation of Cuban law, or was it because the U.S. government asked Cuba if they were in Cuban territory, and Cuba then acted?

Since the brothers have so much family outside Cuba, it would not have been hard for U.S. investigators to figure out their whereabouts. If that happened, it would have been natural then for Washington to communicate with Cuban authorities in Havana. Especially considering that in some cases, Cuba and the United States do cooperate effectively in law enforcement matters. Consider this case from earlier this year, where Cuba turned over a fugitive and the United States praised Cuba’s cooperation, albeit obliquely.

The next chapter in this story could be that the three brothers are loaded on a plane with U.S. marshals, en route to arraignment. If so, one wonders whether that would happen before or after January 20, 2009.

"Nothing short of catastrophic"

That’s the bottom line in a paper on Cuba’s recent hurricane damages (pdf) by William A. Messina, Jr., Frederick S. Royce and Thomas H. Spreen, three scholars from the University of Florida. They all specialize in agriculture and have done research on agriculture in Cuba. Their detailed assessment of this sector is worth reading if you want to appreciate the impact of these storms on current food supply and Cuba’s productive capacity in the coming years.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A view from Europe

In this article published by the Brookings Institution, Paul Hare, the UK’s former ambassador to Cuba, reviews the European Union’s policy toward Cuba between 1996 and 2008, including an interesting account of the EU sanctions imposed after the 2003 jailing of 75 human rights activists and independent journalists.

Americans may not like the description of the United States and the OAS as “fringe players,” but it’s good to read a perspective on Cuba where we’re not at the center, and where a group of countries that shares our values grapples with the issues of engagement and leverage.

Ambassador Hare writes in detail about the period before the 2003 crackdown, and surmises that Fidel Castro had reached three strategic decisions before March 2003. First, “no more liberalization of the economy” as Venezuela’s economic support came into play; second, to “decimate the Varela petition activists,” who accounted for more than half of the 75 arrested; and third, to “forestall U.S. Congressional moves to lift the embargo.” He continues:

“[Fidel Castro] has always seen hostility of the U.S. as fundamental to his foreign policy. With a more assertive internal opposition the last thing he wanted was the dropping of the U.S. measures which remained his main justification for the economic and political sacrifices of the Cuban people.”

And the article includes a fact I had not heard before – during the 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela, during the hours when it seemed that President Hugo Chavez was in danger, Havana “asked the EU to charter a plane to carry him to safety to Cuba.”

While we’re on the subject of Europe, Spain’s foreign minister says that an EU-Cuba political dialogue is about to start.

The groom rides shotgun