Weekly Newsblast

April 3, 2009

Dear Friend:

According to late-breaking news bulletins, President Barack Obama will fulfill his campaign promise and remove all restrictions on the rights of Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba and to visit and support their families.

This is an enormously important act of healing because it will end the delays, the bureaucratic hurdles, and the pointless limitations on the ability of families to visit and support each other.  It is our hope that this is a day of profound joy in Miami and elsewhere across our country where families here with families in Cuba can celebrate and look forward to closer ties very soon.

While these travel restrictions are properly viewed in the Western Hemisphere as features of our domestic politics, the fact that President Obama took this unilateral decision just days before the Summit of the Americas meeting in Trinidad and Tobago is good for U.S. relations with the region.

There is more to be done.  Under our laws, the president does not have the authority to repeal the restrictions on all Americans; that authority rests with the Congress, and is time for Congress to act now that the President has done his part.  Neither President Obama nor the legislative branch should be satisfied with a two-tiered system of constitutional rights for travel to Cuba, under which Americans of Cuban descent can travel to the island, but the rest of us remain sidelined.
What we need is not travel for some, but travel for all.

This was the message that echoed from one end of the Capitol to the other this week as Members of the House and Senate spoke on behalf of the Freedom to Travel legislation introduced in both chambers with a strong and growing list of supporters in both bodies.

It will take a great deal of work for us to secure these travel rights, but we should savor the step that our country has taken, thanks to a president who had promises to keep...and kept them.

There is a lot of Cuba news to report this week, but the great shot of momentum that our campaign for full travel rights got leads the news.



Obama to lift ALL restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba

President Barack Obama plans to lift a longstanding U.S. ban on family travel and remittances to Cuba, a senior administration official said Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The timing of the announcement was unclear, but Cuba experts assume that it will be come before this month's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, April 17-19.

You can read the Wall Street Journal article here.

Travel for All

A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House and Senate called for a repeal of America's 47-year-old travel ban to Cuba, saying the proposal will weaken the Castro regime and "make a difference for democracy," Fox News reported.

Supporters of the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act held press conferences this week to unveil a growing list of cosponsors in both Chambers who are support the legislation.

Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) were joined by representatives from the American Farm Bureau Federation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Human Rights Watch.

"This is a failed policy that has failed for 50 years and it is long past the time to change the policy," Sen. Dorgan said. "Punishing the American people in our effort to somehow deal a blow to the Castro government has not made any sense at all."

No date has been set for the legislation to be taken up in the Senate, but proponents of the bill say they have the sufficient votes to move forward with the measure.

Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has joined Dorgan, Dodd and Enzi as the original four co-sponsors of the bill. The bill now has 20 co-sponsors, including eight Senate full committee chairmen.

 "The US embargo on Cuba is a 50-year failure, and lifting the ban on travel is a good first step toward a more rational policy," said Myron Brilliant of the Chamber of Commerce.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, said the current policy "has neither weakened the Cuban government" nor improved conditions for Cuba's political prisoners, reported the Miami Herald.

"Under Bush, we had 'travel for nearly none'; under Barack Obama, we have progressed to 'travel for some'; and under this legislation, we can realize the goal of 'travel for all,'" said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

According to the Washington Post, "there is new momentum in Washington for eliminating the ban on most U.S. travel to the island nation and for reexamining the severe limitations on U.S.-Cuban economic exchanges."

At a separate event, Congressmen Bill Delahunt (D-MA) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) were joined by colleagues in the House of Representatives and prominent Cuban-Americans, including Miami Auxiliary Bishop Felipe J. Estevez, in calling for passage of the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act.

The House bill has 125 sponsors, and it is supported by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., according to a report by the St. Petersburg Times.

Rep. Delahunt said the bill was "critical to the freedom of both Americans and Cubans," the Telegraph reported.

Rep. Flake, the primary House co-sponsor of the bill, said there's momentum building for it to become law, the Catholic News Service reported.

"The Cold War is over. Isolating the people of Cuba at a time of potential change is an extremely bad idea," said Ignacio Sosa, a Cuban-American board member of Friends of Caritas Cuba, who is the son and nephew of former prisoners captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Bishop Estevez, a Cuban-American who arrived in the U.S. in 1961, said that he believes travel and contact offer the best ways to bring about change.

"Within me are strong feelings of love for the country of my birth and longings for greater freedom, democracy and respect for human rights in Cuba," he said. "I am a firm believer in direct contact as the best way for promoting change."

A diverse group of human rights organizations, business groups, non-governmental organizations, and cultural organizations support the legislation, including: American Farm Bureau Association, Amnesty International, The Center for Democracy in the Americas, Church World Service, Emergency Network of Cuban American Scholars and Artists and US-Cuba Cultural Exchange, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Latin America Working Group, The Lexington Institute, National Council of the Churches of Christ, NFTC, National Security Network, National Tour Association, The New America Foundation, TransAfrica Forum, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Dairy Industry, U.S. Wheat Industry, U.S. Rice Industry, USA Engage, Washington Office on Latin America.

You can see statements issued by each of these organizations here.

Videos of the House of Representatives press conference can be viewed here.

You can read the St. Petersburg Times article here.

You can read the Catholic News Service article here.

You can read the NY Daily News article here.

You can read the Fox News article here.

Members of U.S. Congress to visit Cuba this weekend

A delegation of U.S. representatives is arriving  in Cuba, MSNBC News reported.

The trip is being led by Rep. Barbara Lee (CA), who will be joined by Reps. Marcia Fudge, (D-OH), Mel Watt, (D-NC), Emanuel Cleaver, (D-MO), Mike Honda (D-CA), Laura Richardson (D-CA), and Bobby Rush, (D-IL).

"The election of President Barack Obama presents a great new opportunity to rethink U.S. foreign policy in many regions of the world," Lee said in a statement yesterday. "America's harsh approach toward our nearest Caribbean neighbor divides families, closes an important market to struggling U.S. farmers, harasses our allies and is based on antiquated Cold War-era thinking."

The members are expected to be in Cuba for about four days and will deliver a report to the White House with their findings upon their return.

You can see a video of Rep. Lee discussing travel restrictions here.

You can read the MSNBC News article here.

VP Biden: "transition" in Cuba policy needed, no plans to lift embargo

During a visit to Chile, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was asked if the United States is planning to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, the Associated Press reported.  Biden said the U.S. is not planning to scrap the embargo, but that a "transition" is needed in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

The "Cuban people should determine their own fate and they should be able to live in freedom," Biden said, adding that he was in Chile "to talk about the economy, not Cuba."

Two days later in Costa Rica, Biden said Washington expects a 'firm commitment' that Cuba is moving towards democracy and respect for human rights before lifting the US embargo on the island, the Agence France-Presse reported.  "President Obama and I campaigned on a platform that said we are willing to reach out," Biden said, "and I think you will see us reach out."

You can read the Associated Press article here.

You can read the Agence France-Presse article here.

Fidel Castro reacts to Biden's comments

Fidel Castro quickly reacted to Biden's comments, publishing a "reflection" in which he wrote Biden's "professional lamentations make one feel sorry for him, especially when there isn't one Latin American or Caribbean government that doesn't perceive [the embargo] a burden of the past."

"Anyone reading the statements of the devout Catholic Joe Biden in Vińa del Mar, discounting any lifting of the economic blockade of Cuba, and yearning for an internal transition that, in our country, would be frankly counterrevolutionary, is in for a shock," Castro wrote.

"What are the underlying ethics in the policy of the United States? How much Christian content is left in the political thinking of Vice President Joe Biden?" Castro questioned.

You can read Fidel Castro's reflection here.

Judge dismisses Cuban lawsuit on Havana Club trademark

A Cuban lawsuit over the termination of U.S. trademark rights for its Havana Club rum was dismissed on Monday by a federal judge, the Associated Press reported.

Although Cuba's Havana Club cannot be sold in the U.S. due to the embargo, the company received a trademark for the name in 1976, anticipating opportunities to sell the rum in the U.S. after the lifting of the embargo. However, three years ago the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control refused to allow renewal of the trademark, causing Cubaexport, Cuba's state-owned export enterprise, to file a lawsuit.

The ruling is a victory for Bacardi, which has attempted to take over the brand name as its own in the United States, and feared that Cuba's Havana Club could become a threat to their rum sales in the United States after the lifting of the embargo. Bacardi lobbied hard to get Congress to pass a law in 1998 that prevents the registration or renewal of trademarks connected with companies nationalized by the Cuban government. That law was cited in Monday's ruling.

You can read the Associated Press article here.


Cuba will come up at the Summit of the Americas

Trinidad's ambassador to Washington, Glenda Patricia Morean-Phillip, said that although Cuba is not on the official agenda, it is clear it will come up, the Miami Herald reported.

''One issue that is expected to come up -- especially from your president -- is Cuba, because that's on everybody's mind,'' Morean-Phillip told the Herald. ''Latins are very much in favor of admitting Cuba to the hemispheric organizations. I think there is a lot of sympathy and support.''

Trinidad's Prime Minister, Patrick Manning, is currently in Cuba getting a health check-up and met with President Raúl Castro on Sunday, the Herald reported.

According to ambassador Morean-Phillip, it's unclear whether Obama will announce major Cuba policy changes at the forum, "but he'll have to say something."

''I know there will be conversations with respect to that subject,'' she said.

You can read the Miami Herald article here.

U.S.: Cuba should not come up at the Summit

Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow, the special advisor to the White House for the Summit of the Americas, said that President Barack Obama does not believe that the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba should be brought up at the Summit of the Americas.

"We do not believe that Cuba is a topic of discussion at this summit," Davidow said yesterday in a phone interview with the Trinidad Express.

Davidow went on to add that "We do not believe that Cuba should be at the summit because the summit is for the community of democratically-elected heads of state."

You can read the Trinidad Express article here.

Senator Lugar says Summit is "unique opportunity" for Cuba policy shift

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to President Obama this week asking him to begin making changes to U.S. policy towards Cuba.

Lugar wrote that the with the Summit of the Americas taking place this month, President Obama has a ""unique opportunity for you to build a more hospitable climate to advance U.S. interests in the region through a change in our posture regarding Cuba policy."

He said that Cuba provisions included in the omnibus appropriations bill "serve as a modest starting point for reforming U.S. policy towards Cuba," but that more should be done.

In the letter, Lugar encouraged Obama to end opposition to discussing the reincorporation of Cuba in the Organization of American States, which would "signal a preference for consultation, partnership, and pragmatism."

He also recommended that the Administration consider creating a Special Envoy for Cuba, who would report to Secretary of State Clinton. The Special Envoy would begin to engage in direct talks with the Cuban government on drug interdiction, migration and other issues in the security interests of the U.S.

"U.S. policy should be driven by our interests and from Washington, not by events in Cuba," Lugar wrote.

You can read the letter here.

You can read a Washington Post article about it here.

Amnesty International says Cuba's absence from Summit "not helpful"

"The exclusion of Cuba from the Fifth Summit of the Americas is not helpful in achieving improved respect for human rights in Cuba," Amnesty International said in a statement this week.

The absence of Cuba, the only country to be excluded, will diminish attempts to find regional solutions to regional problems.

The US government maintains a policy of isolation that has reached its limits, has not achieved its stated objectives and is impeding Cuba's growth and development.

The group urged the U.S. government to lift the embargo against Cuba, which it sees as "detrimental to the fulfillment of the economic and social rights of the Cuban people."

According to Amnesty, the embargo "obstructs and constrains efforts by the Cuban government to purchase essential medicines, medical equipment and supplies, food and agricultural products, construction materials and access to new technologies."

"The absence of Cuba, the only country to be excluded, will diminish attempts to find regional solutions to regional problems," the statement said.

You can read the Amnesty Statement here.


Ortega is the ninth Latin American President to visit Cuba this year

The president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, arrived in Cuba this week, making him the ninth Latin American president to visit the island this year.

Ortega met with President Raúl Castro to discuss bilateral relations and was also scheduled to receive a medical exam during his visit.

President Ortega's visit follows trips to Cuba by the Presidents of Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

You can a Granma article about the visit here.

More reform in the farming sector

Cuba is overhauling its food distribution system in an effort to increase production and efficiency, the Reuters news agency reported this week.

According to farmers and cooperative producers, the huge food purchasing and distribution system, Acopio, has been moved from the ministry of agriculture to the domestic trade ministry.

Farmers praised the step, which they said will allow agriculture officials to focus more on increasing actual production and not worry about distribution.

"Acopio functions as an intermediary between farmers and consumers and has no business being part of the agriculture ministry," farm cooperative member Diego Cosme told Reuters over the phone from his home in Holguin.

"It is a good measure linked to others they are taking. Agriculture should not be diverted from producing by other tasks," farmer Alfredo Rodriguez said in a telephone interview with Reuters from the province of Camaguey.

A news report on state television last week said that "agriculture will be left with what has to do with production." It also announced that the number of state-run produce markets would increase from 156 to 300.

You can read the Reuters article here.

Yoani Sanchez and others speak out at art show

An open microphone at an art show in Havana was used by Yoani Sanchez and others to criticize Cuban government control of the Internet this week, news agencies reported.

The event was part of a performance by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera at the art show of the 10th Havana Biennial, a prestigious international festival. The open microphone was provided for attendees to say whatever they wanted for one minute.

To the side of the microphone were two actors dressed in army fatigues and a white dove was placed on the shoulder of each speaker "in an apparent parody of a famous speech by Fidel Castro," the Reuters new agency reported.

As Castro gave a victory speech on January 8, 1959, a white dove landed on his shoulder, leading many to view it as a sign of "divine recognition," the Miami Herald reported.

Sanchez, whose "Generacion Y" blog is critical of Cuba's government, took the microphone and read a statement saying the Internet was opening a "crack" in government control.

"The time has come to jump over the wall of control," she said.

According to the Herald, other Cubans and also took to the podium to protest the lack of freedom of expression on the island.

In response, the Biennial organization issued a statement on the Internet saying it "considers this to be an anti-cultural event of shameful opportunism that offends Cuban artists and foreigners who came to offer their work and solidarity," Reuters reported.

You can see a video of the event here.

You can read the Reuters article here.

You can read the Miami Herald article here.

Recommended Reading:

Crossing Borders with the Afro-Cuban All-Stars: Their music and influence cannot be stopped, The Village Voice

"This band is bringing a message," he says. "Cuba is here, independent of any politician or policy. Our music and our influence cannot be stopped. And it's time for the policy to catch up with the reality," says Juan de Marcos González, the leader of The Afro-Cuban All Stars Band.

U.S.-Cuba policy: Time to end deceitful travel controls, Florida Sun-Sentinel, By Wayne S. Smith

Former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section, Wayne Smith, writes that President Obama should support bills in the House and Senate to allow all Americans to travel freely to Cuba, as they have a constitutional right to do.

How hip hop gives Cubans a voice, CNN News

Cuba has developed a homegrown rap movement, inspired by the sounds and fashions of U.S. hip hop. But what makes Cuban rappers different is that rather than celebrating bling, girls and guns, their lyrics address social issues in a country where free speech is tightly controlled.

Recommended Viewing:

At a time of historic change in a U.S. policy that dates back to the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, we turn to Stephen Colbert for his analysis of the Cold War.

Around the Region:

As Mexico Battles Cartels, the Army Becomes the Law, The Washington Post

President Felipe Calderón is rapidly escalating the Mexican army's role in the war against drug traffickers, deploying nearly 50 percent of its combat-ready troops along the U.S.-Mexico border and throughout the country, while retired army officers take command of local police forces and the military supplies civilian authorities with automatic weapons and grenades.

Venezuelan Government Arrests Chávez Opponent, The Wall Street Journal

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez moved to jail a prominent opposition figure for the second time in recent weeks.

Until next week,


The Cuba Central Team


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