Friday, January 30, 2009

Odds and ends

  • The Cuban government has invited Manfred Nowak, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on torture to visit Cuba, Reuters reports. Nowak says he expects the visit to be arranged this year, EFE reports, and that he will visit “all kinds of jails and prisoners,” “including the political” prisoners, “without advance notice.” He added: “The Cuban government knows perfectly my conditions for visiting a country. I want to meet alone with prisoners and their families.” An English summary of the EFE story is here.

  • AP has a nice story on the Hemingway documents at the JFK Library in Boston, thanks to the persistence of Rep. Jim McGovern.

Memorial to the Soviet Internationalist Soldier

With Raul Castro in Russia, I’m reminded of the Russian president’s recent visit to Cuba, and a wreath laying at the “Memorial to the Soviet Internationalist Soldier” covered by Prensa Latina here.

By chance, I ran across the memorial while finding my way back into Havana from the southwest. There was a guard (and a dog, a lot less fierce than he looks), but no one who could explain the significance of the memorial. Readers, please chime in.

The name makes one think of Soviets dying in combat, but as I asked around, I was told that the soldiers honored there were stationed in Cuba in the early 1960’s and died mainly in accidents and training. The dates on the markers honoring each soldier are from that period.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Cuba to face human rights review

Cuba will undergo its “Universal Periodic Review” in the UN Human Rights Council at 2:30 p.m. Geneva time on February 5. It promises to re-ignite the clash between two visions of human rights, one centered on things that government provides and one centered on the spheres of citizen activity where government may not interfere.

The Council is successor to the UN Human Rights Commission, which for years was the arena where the United States and Cuba faced off over resolutions condemning Cuba’s human rights record. Whereas the old Commission reviewed country human rights practices selectively, the Council has the Universal Periodic Review, which it describes as “a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States once every four years.”

Cuba’s review session, and a subsequent one where the report on Cuba will be adopted (February 9, 5:30 p.m. Geneva time) will be on a webcast.

Cuba’s report to the Council, described in this AP story, is found in English on the front page of the Cuban foreign ministry website. Here’s a view of the process from a Cuban foreign ministry official.

A summary of opinions on Cuba’s human rights situation submitted by non-government organizations, and provided last November to the UN General Assembly, is here (pdf). Radio Marti reports that organizations within Cuba have sent documents on prison conditions and other human rights issues.

Odds and ends

  • Cuba’s roster for this year’s World Baseball Classic is here; if you click the “change country” field you can check all the other countries’ rosters. The tournament schedule is here.

  • Alien smuggling arrests: in Mexico, a Russian and another person were detained while trying to smuggle Cubans across Mexico’s southern border, and a Hialeah man was arrested Monday and charged yesterday for bringing eight undocumented Cubans to Boynton Beach, Florida by boat.

  • The Wall Street Journal has a no-byline article on a Cuban family’s 50 years of political disillusionment and the trials it has faced in years of work to assist child cancer patients and their families. The conclusion of Carmen Vallejo: “No more revolutions, please. My life has taught me that change should be gradual. No more revolution. Never again.” The article is accompanied by a short video that describes the electronic signboard on the U.S. Interests Section as an element of “information warfare” that sends “unauthorized news and provocations into Cuba.”

To market

Monday, January 26, 2009

Odds and ends

  • The National Security Archive publishes on its website a selection of declassified documents, starting with the Kennedy Administration, about U.S. diplomatic contacts with Cuba.

  • The Herald’s Renato Perez Pizarro does some repair work on Granma’s translation of the latest Fidel “Reflection.”

  • The Spanish government supports collaboration between Spanish and Cuban universities with 2 million Euros, EFE reports.

Oil shuffle

Cuba has terminated its oil production sharing contract with Canada’s Pebercan, Reuters reports, and the company will receive a $140 million lump sum payment. Friday’s announcement came from Pebercan; so far there seems to be no comment from the Cuban ministry or the Cuban oil company, which is odd considering that Cuba is trying to show that its investment climate is attractive for foreign partners in the oil business.

La Jornada’s report notes that as of last November, Cuba was $108.5 million behind in its payments to Pebercan.

This report from the United Arab Emirates lumps Cuba’s move with those of other countries that are putting “oil industry nationalization back on their agendas.”

Meanwhile, also on Friday, AP reported that Cuba’s oil company signed a memorandum of understanding with a group of Russian companies. The memo mentions possible collaboration in all parts of the oil business, but is not binding.

Friday, January 23, 2009

New scholarship program

In 2002, President Bush announced an Initative for a New Cuba, which included a scholarship program. “Our government will offer scholarships in the United States,” the President said, “for Cuban students and professionals who try to build independent civil institutions in Cuba, and scholarships for family members of political prisoners.”

The program didn’t get very far. Last time I checked, a $400,000 USAID grant to Georgetown University resulted in only two Cuban students coming to the United States.

From the Administration’s point of view, this was another case of the Cuban regime denying opportunity to its citizens. From the Cuban government’s point of view, one can surmise that there was little inclination to cooperate, by granting travel permits to students, with what it viewed as a program to train a new generation of political opposition.

Hence the U.S. goal of regime change (“hastening the end of the dictatorship”) and the tactic of engagement through academic exchange didn’t mix. (I always wondered why the Administration would not have been happy to include young Cuban Communist Party members, since they presumably need the education.)

At any rate, it turns out that the Bush Administration made a very constructive change last year. On the website of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana are announcements of two scholarship programs; one is a five-week program, the second is for one year. The programs have no apparent political criteria for applicants, and are offered to students from many other Latin American countries. Since it appears that they are not funded by the USAID program, maybe these programs will actually work.

A good move. If it’s not too late to praise the Bush Administration, I’ll do so now.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Fidel on his future

Fidel Castro published another “Reflection” today where he praised President Obama and explained that he is writing less this year, so as not to get in the way of the people running the party and the government.

He said, “I am well;” he noted that he has had the “rare privilege” to have followed world events for more than 50 years; and these days he receives information and “meditates quietly” about the news. His final sentence: “I do not expect to enjoy that privilege in four years, when the first presidential term of Obama will have ended.”

"80 percent...about the local agenda in Miami"

A columnist for El Nuevo Herald asks why, when dissidents make a formal complaint about the quality of Radio Marti, it provokes no discussion in Miami.

And a BBC reporter interviews dissidents Martha Beatriz Roque and Vladimiro Roca; Roca says that “80 percent of the station’s programming is about the local agenda in Miami.” BBC story in Spanish here.

The dissidents’ letter to the State Department has not been released.

Odds and ends

  • Fidel Castro, messing up the conventional wisdom, holds a meeting with the President of Argentina; AP coverage here. His comment on the meeting here.

  • Juventud Rebelde’s on-line edition runs the text of the Obama inaugural address.

  • OAS Secretary General Insulza says Latin Americans want to discuss Cuba with the United States, and he believes that Cuba’s inclusion in the OAS could happen by June when the OAS General Assembly meets. ANSA report in Spanish here. Since the OAS operates by consensus, such a move would only come with the Obama Administration’s assent.

  • California’s state Medical Board has recognized Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine, which allows graduates of that institution to apply for California medical licenses. The announcement is in this newsletter (pdf) and the staff report is here (pdf).

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Advice to Obama: Change the policy [Updated]

There is a lot to be defined in the Obama Cuba policy, but if the new Administration decides to move toward engagement, there’s lots of off-the-shelf advice to draw upon.

Take the issue of diplomacy. In his inaugural address, President Obama promised the world that “America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.” That was a message for foreign publics; when it came to governments, he spoke clearly to Cuba and other countries:

“To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Does that mean no diplomacy at all – or just no Presidential or other high-level contact – with a country such as Cuba until there’s a change in human rights practices?

If it means the latter, there is plenty that could be done to initiate and expand cooperation on the issues that affect Cuba and the United States as neighbors. For example, it seems reckless to me that we are not talking to Cuba about environmental protection, especially since Cuba plans more oil drilling in its territorial waters. A spill there would become our problem in the very brief time it would take for the Gulf Stream to carry the oil from Cuba’s waters to Florida’s.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas recruited nine specialists to discuss this and other issues where diplomacy and cooperation could potentially bear fruit for both countries. The result is a new publication, 9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US, described here with a link for free download.

When it comes to discussing engagement between U.S. and Cuban societies, the most powerful recent statement comes from the Cuba Study Group. This Miami-based group has been making quality contributions to the Cuba debate for years through its analyses of U.S. policy, polling, and suggestions for future programs such as microcredits to entrepreneurs. In a new report, it has called for an end to all U.S. restrictions on travel and remittances. Previously, the group had argued that engagement should be conditional, and U.S. travel should be permitted only in exchange for a Cuban concession. The report explains in detail why they changed their mind, and why “the benefits accrued to the Cuban people and Cuban civil society far outweigh whatever financial benefits the Cuban regime may gain from the flow of people and resources.”

[The Cuban American National Foundation reacted by saying that the Cuba Study Group had “decided to join efforts with those who blame the United States first by calling for the unilateral lifting of all travel restrictions.” If you wonder why an end to Cuban American family travel sanctions, which the Foundation supports, would not also be “blaming America first,” ask the Foundation.]

Then there is a very thoughtful paper, The Case for a New Cuba Policy (pdf), by Jake Colvin of the National Foreign Trade Council and a fellow with the New Ideas Fund. The paper focuses on the executive branch, with a set of immediate and medium-term recommendations. It argues persuasively that despite the “codification” of the embargo in the 1996 Helms-Burton law, the executive “retains wide discretion to make significant changes to U.S. Cuba policy” including in the areas of trade, travel, and remittances.

Twelve major U.S. business organizations wrote to the President-elect on December 4, calling for the end of all travel restrictions and removal of “certain restrictions on trade” too. Their letter is here (pdf).

Arturo Lopez Levy, a Cuban American at the University of Denver, wrote this essay on the Cuba policy possibilities under Obama and raises a good question: What to do with the (now vacant) Cuba Transition Coordinator post at the State Department, and what to do with the two Bush transition commission reports? Arturo also knows how to turn a phrase: “In Cuba, unlike in Europe, the U.S. built its own walls in perverse complicity with those erected by the communist system.”

Then there were two surprises.

The human rights organization Freedom House issued a statement January 7 calling for a “strengthened policy” to “advance human rights and democracy in Cuba.” A “key element” of such a policy, the statement reads, “would be the lifting of U.S. legal restrictions on American citizen travel to the island.” Freedom House received the first grant from USAID’s Cuba program in 1996.

And the Council of the Americas issued a report (pdf) that calls for the United States to take steps to “build a positive atmosphere” in advance of the April hemispheric summit in Trinidad, including “a softening of the most punitive measures targeting Cuba, including visits, exchanges, and remittances.”

Finally, a set of recommendations from a Brookings Institute group that I noted here last November.

Your move, Mr. President.

[Update: Senator Lugar's February 2009 call for change in U.S. policy is here.]

Monday, January 19, 2009

Exit Bush

As President Bush leaves office, I’ll say his Cuba policy was strategic, comprehensive, and coherent.

It just didn’t fit Cuba, the real Cuba that turned out to be different than the one on which he based his policy.

As a result, the President’s assumptions – that the Cuban government was “on its last legs;” that Fidel Castro’s absence would prompt systemic change; that U.S. economic sanctions would change Cuba; that it is more important to regulate the flow of hard currency than to allow unregulated contact between Americans and Cubans; that it is against American interests for Cuba to be prosperous; that U.S. government funding is the best way to make Cuban civil society grow; that American policy somehow isolates Cuba, even as our closest allies and the rest of the world have normal relations with Havana – didn’t pan out, and the policy didn’t produce the new political order he wanted in Cuba.

In other words: Right policy, wrong country.

A landmark of the Bush policy was the 2004 transition report, a document that was of political benefit to both Bush and Castro. That report offered future aid to Cuba, but generated perceptions among many Cubans that Washington had a very heavy-handed role in mind. The reaction reminded me of President Reagan’s quip that the scariest phrase in the English language is, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

The report was fodder for several campaigns created by Cuban propagandists; one was a series of billboards (example above) that are still on display, but presumably coming down soon, as the agitation and propaganda guys go back to the drawing board.

Nativity, Havana

Obama watch (Updated)

President-elect Obama gave an interview to Univision and addressed Cuba policy. He said that Cuban American travel and remittances are “a good place to start,” and he is open to talks with Cuba “as long as Cuba is also seriously willing to open up personal freedoms.” That’s my translation from the Notimex report. I searched for a transcript or video of the interview and came up dry. Washington Post coverage here.

[Update: Ernesto at Penultimos Dias has posted the video here.]

Odds and ends

  • AP reports that the fugitives from American justice who have long lived in Cuba are not sure they would welcome an improvement in relations between Washington and Havana.

  • In a column by David Broder, the Bush Administration’s two Secretaries of Health and Human Services talk of the power of medical diplomacy, and one cites the Cuban example.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Dissidents: Radio Marti is boring

“Agenda para la TransiciĆ³n,” the dissident group led by Martha Beatriz Roque, has written the State Department to call for “urgent changes” at Radio Marti, El Nuevo Herald reports. According to Vladimiro Roca, the group’s spokesman, the programming is more in tune with Miami than with the Cuban audience, and “is so bad and so uninteresting to the Cuban people that no one listens.”

The group made other suggestions, he said, “such as returning the station’s headquarters to Washington, which is where it should be and from where it never should have moved.”

Odds and ends

  • The International Republican Institute has published a new survey of public opinion in Cuba (press release here, slides and graphs describing the results are here). Respondents identified economic issues as their top concern. What surprised me was that nearly nine in ten Cubans say they were not affected by the recent hurricanes. They must have been thinking that “affected” meant damage to their home; surely, far more than ten percent had their food supply affected.

  • The electronic sign at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, once used for brief political messages that sometimes seemed to taunt the Cuban people, now delivers brief news headlines.

  • As he departs, President Bush issues a message on Cuba. In Cuba, among dissidents, his “message of hope” and his policy in general fell flat among some dissidents, AFP reports.

Masonic lodge, Artemisa

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Clinton to Lugar: We'll review Cuba policy

Good for Secretary-of-State-to-be Hillary Clinton: She says the Obama Administration will conduct a review of U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Let’s hope it will be a full review of all aspects of the policy, which is long overdue.

The commitment – “We anticipate a review of U.S. policy regarding Cuba” – came in response to written questions submitted by Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the Ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It’s in the responses to questions 104 and 105 in this pdf document; the questions concern Cuba’s position on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, and energy/environmental issues. And in the response to question 102, she said, “We anticipate a review of U.S. policy regarding sales of agricultural commodities toward Cuba.”

More cabs on the way

Last July, Cuba’s transportation minister announced that new licenses would be granted for Cubans to operate private taxis. The reports then seemed to indicate that the licenses would be granted only for those who operate on established routes.

This week, regulations were issued (AP coverage here; the regulations are here at Penultimos Dias). There will be new licenses both for those who pick up passengers along established routes, and for regular taxis that take passengers wherever they want to go and charge what the market will bear. The new service and competition will be good for Cuban consumers. One has to hope that the government’s opening to private entrepreneurs, even at a time when its own transportation services have expanded with a new fleet of Chinese buses, will be a sign of things to come.

Rumor time

Fidel Castro has not written one of his Reflexiones since December 15, he did not appear for the 50th anniversary of the revolution, and his anniversary message was very brief. All this has led to speculation that his health is failing. Reuters summarizes the chisme here. While we’re on the topic, let’s note that it has been 25 months since our Director of National Intelligence said Fidel had “months, not years” ahead of him.

Cuatro Caminos

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Fleeing to Cuba

The Herald reported last Friday on a number of recent cases where persons accused of Medicare fraud are charged, released on bail, and flee to Cuba. Apparently they figure Cuba is not a bad place to live if you have a pile of money stashed away, and it’s out of reach of U.S. law enforcement. (An item on the case of the three Benitez brothers, from last October, is here.) The Herald quotes a federal judge, writing to other judges about the issue of flight risk, saying, “It seems to me that our thinking has to change – that someone from Cuba can flee back to Cuba just like someone from Mexico.”

This would seem to be another item to add to the U.S. list if the new Administration decides to start bilateral talks with Cuba.

On that score, Raul Castro spoke last week in a Cuban television interview; transcript in Spanish here, translated excerpts on the Herald’s blog here.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The diplomatic track

Panama’s president just ended a visit to Cuba, and soon there will be visits by the presidents of Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile.

EFE reports separately on Cuban dissidents’ requests for meetings with the visiting heads of state, and on a statement by the spokesman for President Bachelet in Chile: “There doesn’t exist in any part of Chilean foreign policy a requirement that to go to a country one must meet the opposition.”

Meanwhile, former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda has looked at recent diplomatic activity and wrote in The Wall Street Journal last month, “Never before has Havana harvested diplomatic successes of the sort it has enjoyed in the last few months.” He noted that the “Castro brothers have convinced almost every Latin American government that the main item on the region's agenda with Barack Obama is the suppression of the U.S. embargo with the island.” That’s fair enough; the recent statements from the Brazil summit and Caricom probably came with a Cuban nudge. But Castaneda’s concluding idea that the United States could negotiate “political, if not regime, change with the Latin Americans, in exchange for normalizing economic ties,” doesn’t seem to be based on the Latin America that exists today.

Odds and ends

  • Roger Cohen is no fan of Sean Penn the journalist and interviewer of Raul Castro.

Raul on housing

Raul Castro visited a site in Santiago where “petrocasas,” prefabricated homes donated by Venezuela, were being built, and spoke about “not prohibiting” people from building their own homes on approved sites. Granma’s coverage is here. An AFP story calls it “one of the latest reforms to back off the hardline communism of the past five decades,” which seems to go a little far. It’s not clear that any law or regulation is changing, or if Raul is sending a signal that autorities are going to ease up on inspections and regulatory enforcement. It may turn out to be an opportunity for remittances from Miami to help attack Cuba’s housing deficit.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Odds and ends

  • Hadn’t seen this before – Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart is quoted in this El Nuevo Herald column saying that while he supports maintaining sanctions against Cuba, “this does not mean that one cannot talk about the utility of certain measures taken by the Bush Administration in 2004.” (My translation.)

  • AP reports on a Spain-based e-commerce website that allows you to buy gifts for people in Cuba, including meals in the Hotel Palco restaurant and time at the hotel’s pool.

Time to plant

Raul in Santiago

Raul Castro marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution in Santiago with a reflective speech that used the word “communist” only once. He engaged in no Marxist theorizing about stages of history or where Cuba stands dialectically in the construction of socialism. Instead he described the revolution, as his brother has done many times, as the culmination of the fight for independence that Cuba began in the 19th century.

[AP’s coverage of the “toned-down festivities” that occurred “under the enduring public absence of Fidel Castro” is here. The Herald’s Cuban Colada provides this link to The New York Times of January 2, 1959 where you can see an image of the front page and read R. Hart Phillips’ dispatch on Batista’s flight, the impending naming of Urrutia as president, and the scene in Havana.]

Raul looked back to the revolutionary struggle five decades ago and recalled that, six decades earlier, Cuba had won its independence from Spain but fell immediately into the “absolute domination of the nascent U.S. imperialism, which didn’t delay in showing its true aims in blocking the [Cuban] Liberating Army from entering this city [Santiago].”

“For us it was clear that armed struggle was the only way,” he continued. “We revolutionaries considered again, as Marti had done before, the dilemma of the necessary war for independence that was left unfinished in 1898. The Rebel Army took up again the arms of the mambises [the 19th century rebels against Spain] and after the triumph transformed itself forever into the undefeated Revolutionary Armed Forces.”

Raul looked to the next 50 years and warned of difficulties. He cited Fidel’s November 2005 warning that the revolution could destroy itself from within. He recalled that “one after another,” all U.S. administrations have tried “to force a regime change” in Cuba, “in one way or another, with more or less aggressiveness.” He acknowledged failures – “there are too many past and recent examples” – and declared that “we revolutionaries are our own main critics.”

His generation’s duty, he said, is “to prepare the new generations to assume the enormous responsibility of carrying the revolutionary process forward.” In that, unity will be the guidepost; again tying the revolution to the 19th century independence struggle, he said: “Since October 10, 1868, disunity was the fundamental cause of our defeats. As of January 1, 1959, unity, forged by Fidel, has been the guarantee of our victories.”

Cuba has certainly had its share of external enemies, so it’s natural that they would be discussed on an occasion such as this. And the link between the barbudos of 1959 and the mambises of 1898 has been made many times, starting when the first shot was fired against Batista’s forces. One can debate whether that link is made from conviction or political expediancy (or both), and one can debate the degree to which it resonates with Cubans in 2009.

But the speech leaves me wondering how Raul Castro or his successors will act, what they will say, and how they will locate Cuba in history if, sometime in the next few years or the next fifty, there is no more external enemy.