New Cuban Travel Opportunities on the Horizon 

In the latest development in the long process of diplomatic and commercial normalization between the United States and Cuba, the Obama administration is lifting a five decade ban on ferry services from Florida to Havana. By fall of this year, American tourists should be able to shuttle across the 225-mile shipping route separating southern Florida from the Cuban capital with any of four U.S. Treasury Department-approved commercial ferry services -including Havana Ferry Partners in Fort Lauderdale, Baja Ferries in Miami, United Caribbean Lines Florida in Greater Orlando and Airline Brokers Co. in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

Robert Muse, a lawyer for Baja Ferries, told the Associated Press that the White House’s move, which was made public on Tuesday, was “a further indication of the seriousness of the Obama administration in normalizing relations with Cuba, we’re now going from the theoretical to the very specific.” Muse said that the new ferry services will provide American vacationers to Cuba with an affordable alternative to air travel.

Obama’s decision to reauthorize commercial ferry services to Cuba comes less than a month after the U.S. State Department removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Many in the U.S. and Cuba are hopeful that Tuesday’s news will portend the full legalization of American tourism to Cuba, which -despite some recent and significant regulatory changes- remains at least formally prohibited.

“We are approaching the project not just as a ferry operation but as a new, important economic driver for both countries, and development of a ferry system for the Caribbean,” Bruce Nierenberg, president of United Caribbean Lines, explained to Newsweek. Nierenberg was optimistic that, with the U.S. government’s blessing, his company would soon be operating ferry services to Cuba out of Miami, Tampa, Port Everglades and Key West.

Also this week, JetBlue announced that it would soon begin offering weekly round-trip flights to Cuba out of the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Outside of Florida, the New York metropolitan area maintains the highest concentration of Cuban Americans in the U.S.; JetBlue’s upcoming service was likely developed with this population in mind. The new nonstop flights, which will commence on July 3, should last about three and a half hours.

The company’s announcement capped off a recent two-day trip to Cuba by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo designed to promote closer trade and travel ties between his state and the Caribbean island. “By leading one of the first state trade missions to Cuba as the United States reestablishes diplomatic relations, we placed New York State businesses at the front of the line for new prospects in Cuba, that will in turn support jobs and economic activity here at home,” the governor told the press on Tuesday.

JetBlue is the first commercial airline to seize on the opportunity presented by President Obama’s initial easing of Cuban travel restrictions earlier this year. Currently, about 600,000 Americans make their way to Cuba every year -often chartering private flights to do so. Some fly to Cuba through third-party countries like Canada. New direct and over-the-table flight’s, of the type JetBlue is planning to offer, promise to normalize and grow this irregular market, encouraging greater U.S.-Cuban tourism in the process.

  

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New Report Tracks Political Repression in Cuba 

There were at least 338 political arrests in Cuba this April according to a report released on Monday by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN). The figure represents a significant reduction from the 610 Cuban politically motivated arrests that the Commission counted in March. Even so, the CCDHRN, which is the only organization in Cuba tracking such arrests, argues that April saw an intensification of other forms of political repression in Cuba.

The monthly “Acts of Political Repression” report cited increased instances of Cuban law enforcement employing physical aggression, verbal intimidation, vandalism and so-called “shows of rejection” -when police and state security forces pose as regular citizens in plain cloths and stage counter-protests in opposition to anti-government demonstrations- against dissidents last month as evidence of a government crackdown on political opposition.

Throughout April, one dissident organization in particular, the Ladies in White, were the victims of chronic police harassment during their weekly rallies. The Ladies in White gathered every Sunday last month and held public protest “masses,” where the group distributed images of political prisoners to onlookers and decried the Castro regime’s human rights violations. Large assemblies of this kind are strictly prohibited under Cuban law and are regularly broken up by the government.

During the most recent of these “masses,” in Havana on May 3, 51 Ladies in White and 38 other activists were detained by the authorities for six hours. The director of the Ladies in White, Berta Soler, reported that activists were denied food and water during their detainment on Sunday and that many were “brutally beaten.”

“It’s further proof of the Cuban government’s intolerance towards people who think differently,” Soler told the press.

The CCDHRN is also calling for an investigation into the recent killing of Yunieski Martinez in the Matanzas province of Cuba. The Commission alleges that the unarmed 30 year-old, who was shot in the back, may have been murdered by a state security official affiliated with the Interior Ministry.

April’s CCDHRN report went on to criticize the Cuban government’s tone at the recent Summit of the Americas meeting in Panama, arguing that President Raul Castro’s rhetoric during his remarks at the conference, which included a defiant denunciation of the United State’s hemispheric influence, represented a refusal to “accept international standards on issues of civil, political, and labor rights, as well as other fundamental rights.”

Although the Cuban government regularly participates in several regional summits, this year marked the first time that Cuba was invited to the Summit of the Americas -a conference historically dominated by the U.S. Cuba’s groundbreaking inclusion at the multilateral meeting last month is likely a result of the diplomatic normalization efforts publicly initiated by Havana and Washington last December.

Soler remains skeptical that the Castro regime’s current rapprochement with the American government will substantively improve the human rights situation in Cuba. She claims that President Castro’s new policy with respect to the U.S. -far from reflecting a genuine intent to implement political reforms in Cuba- is solely motivated by the need to access “credit with powerful countries to keep himself in power, due to the fact that Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela, can no longer comply with the support that former president Hugo Chávez offered Cuba.” 

  

House GOP Attempts to Abort U.S.-Cuba Normalization 

Congressional opponents of President Obama’s new Cuba policy have finally initiated a legislative effort to counteract the recent thaw in relations between America and Cuba. On Tuesday, a contingent of Republican hardliners in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a provision into an upcoming House Department of Transportation appropriations bill that prohibits government spending on the promotion of travel from the U.S. to Cuba.

The measure specifically bars the American government from using public funds to facilitate any air transportation from the U.S. to Cuba that would land on or pass through property confiscated by the Cuban government. In addition, the provision restricts the ability of the U.S. government to issue operating certificates and licenses to any maritime vessels that have recently docked within seven miles of property appropriated by the Castro regime. If ultimately enacted, these limitations would severely limit any regular travel and trade between the U.S. and Cuba.

“U.S. law prohibits tourism in Cuba, and U.S. law also allows for those whose properties were confiscated by the Castro regime to sue those who use, or benefit from using, those confiscated properties,” Florida congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a vocal critic of President Obama’s efforts to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations, explained in an attempt to justify the new regulations that he personally introduced into the transportation bill. “Despite these clear provisions in U.S. law, the Obama administration has expanded travel to Cuba and turned a blind eye to the property claims of Americans.”

Prior to the 1959 Cuban revolution that toppled the government of the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, 85 percent of Cuba’s arable land was owned by American multinationals and investors -holdings that would be worth $2.8 billion today. After seizing power, Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government unveiled a land reform program that would’ve redistributed that land among Cuba’s landless peasants. The plan promised to monetarily compensate the American parties involved for their losses. When the Eisenhower administration balked at this initiative, severing the U.S.’s commercial ties with Cuba and launching a long-term covert campaign to overthrow the new Cuban government in the months after the revolution, Castro abandoned the reform plan and simply confiscated and nationalized the properties in question. The Castro regime also seized the private businesses of countless native Cubans in the wake of the revolution.

The poison pill that Republican lawmakers attached to the House transportation bill on Tuesday is expected to face stiff opposition from congressional supporters of President Obama’s new policy of Cuban détente. If the bill is passed as is however, the president may be compelled to step in and utilize his veto power to block the legislation. This would be controversial as the the larger transportation bill in question is considered urgent must-pass legislation by many. Still, it’s unlikely that the president will sit back silently while a clique of hardliners in the House attempt to effectively nullify several of the changes his administration has made to U.S.-Cuba travel and trade regulations since December. Certainly any future efforts at normalization would be sabotaged if the new restrictive measures were allowed to be implemented.                

                            

Puerto Rico: the Caribbean Greece?

Last week, leading financial officials in the Puerto Rican government issued a dire warning to their island’s top lawmakers, including Governor Alejandro Padilla. In a letter that left little room for interpretation, the experts claimed that the Puerto Rican government’s continued inability to grapple with its longstanding financing problems would likely lead to a government shutdown within three months. 

“A government shutdown is very probable in the next three months due to the absence of liquidity to operate,” the statement cautioned. “The likelihood of completing a market transaction to finance the government’s operations and keep the government open is currently remote.”

Puerto Rico has an overall debt of about $71 billion and is struggling to remain solvent. The government of the U.S. territory routinely turns to transnational hedge funds for financing, but these foreign lenders are now demanding that San Juan implement economically harmful austerity measures as a precondition for further funding. Without serious tax increases and spending cuts, Wall Street cautioned, the island would be cut off from the financing that it has come to rely on to stay afloat. In a move that reinforced these threats, Standard and Poor’s downgraded Puerto Rico’s general obligation debt rating from B to the junkish CCC+ grade last Friday.

The authors of last week’s warning letter, which included Puerto Rico’s Treasury Secretary, forewarned of the economic consequences of sustained inaction: “A government shutdown would have a devastating impact on the country’s economy, with payroll and public service cuts, with a painful recovery and of a long duration.”

In an effort to secure $2.95 billion in revenue, stave of a shutdown in the near term and please foreign lenders, the Puerto Rican government is currently pursuing an unpopular and regressive value-added tax (VAT) initiative. The new policy would radically restructure the island’s taxation system by cutting income taxes on businesses and individuals and introducing new levies on the sale of goods and services to Puerto Rican consumers. 

Critics of the VAT policy argue that the new taxes on necessary commodities like food could seriously undermine consumer demand and worsen Puerto Rico’s longstanding recession. They point to the harmful impact of a similar taxation experiment in nearby St. Lucia, where the introduction of new VATs on goods and services in 2012 contributed to sizeable increases in poverty and unemployment, as a vindication of their concerns. Puerto Rico’s stagnant economy is already suffering from a 14 percent unemployment rate (a figure which doesn’t account for the many workers who have simply dropped out of the labor market and is thus likely vastly understated) and a staggering 44 percent poverty rate. Government austerity under these circumstances could transform Puerto Rico into a Caribbean Greece and throw its economy into a tailspin.

San Juan is stuck between a rock and a hard place. If it caves to Wall Street and bucks domestic public opinion by opting for austerity, a bitter medicine which so often kills the patient it is purportedly designed to cure (e.g. Europe in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis), the already struggling Puerto Rican economy could be crippled. Still, the price of inactivity is likewise unattractive; nobody wants a government shutdown, with all the social and economic dislocations that would undoubtedly accompany one.

  

LGBT Singing Group to Travel to Cuba

Several dozen members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. will be traveling to Cuba this summer for a week of performances in the Havana area. The tour was coordinated with the help of the Youth for Understanding organization, an international group that promotes cultural and educational trips to Cuba, and is intended to highlight LGBT issues on the Caribbean nation. The deputation is scheduled to arrive in Cuba on July 10 and will leave eight days later, after five concerts.

“We have an incredible opportunity to help make a difference in the perception of the U.S. and of LGBTQ people with this historic visit,” Chase Maggiano, executive director of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, said in a public statement. “We’re thrilled to have this opportunity to help advance the dialogue by serving as cultural ambassadors.”

The Cuban government has an unfortunate track record when it comes to LGBT rights. Former president Fidel Castro, the leader of the revolution that ousted Fulgencio Batista and installed Cuba’s current regime, cracked down on gay Cubans after taking power in 1959, sending many to forced labor camps throughout the 1960s and 70s. Homosexuality was banned and cruelly punished in Castro’s Cuba until 1979, and, although the situation for LGBT Cubans has significantly improved since then, human rights activists argue that homophobia is still prevalent in the highly Catholic island nation.

More recently, the Cuban government has begun taking steps to improve the status of LGBT Cubans. Mariela Castro Espín, the daughter of the current Cuban President Raul Castro and director of the National Center for Sexual Education, has emerged as a vocal leader of Cuba’s growing LGBT rights movement. She is expected to meet with members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington at some point during their trip to Cuba in July. The American group will also likely perform for a Cuban dance troupe composed of the children of LGBT parents during the tour.

“Cuba is cracking open the door to LGBT equality and we’re excited to be on the frontlines of that,” Maggiano explained, acknowledging the opportunity presented by changing social attitudes in Cuba.

The use of choral music as a vehicle for advancing gay rights in the U.S. was first popularized in San Francisco in the 1970s. The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington was a direct result of this movement, it’s first performance taking place in 1981. Members of the Rock Creek Singers and Potomac Fever, two of the D.C.-based choral organization’s smaller ensemble groups, will provide the members of this summer’s musical delegation to Cuba.

In February, Juana Mora Cedeño, a prominent Cuban LGBT rights advocate and critic of the Castro regime, met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and other American officials during a congressional trip to Cuba. American representatives of the progressive Metropolitan Community Church plan to travel to Cuba next week and meet with LGBT religious leaders there. July’s visit from Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington promises to build on these earlier trips.

  

         

Unprecedented Opposition Candidates Defeated in Cuban Elections

For the first time in decades, two candidates unaffiliated with,  and highly critical of, the Cuban government and the long-ruling Cuban Communist Party were able to run in Cuba’s local elections on Sunday. Though both dissidents ultimately conceded defeat after failing to muster enough votes against their individual opponents, the fact that they were able run in the first place is relatively groundbreaking.

The two candidates -Hildebrando Chaviano, a 65-year-old lawyer and independent journalist, and Yuniel Lopez, a 26-year-old member of the Independent and Democratic Cuba Party (an outlawed Cuban political party)- sought seats on their respective municipal assemblies, which are responsible for local issues like water supplies, street repairs and insect fumigation. Cuba’s municipal assemblies nominate half of the candidates for her provincial assemblies, which, in turn, choose half of the candidates for Cuban National Assembly. The National Assembly elects Cuba’s ruling Council of State, and this body chooses Cuba’s president.

Had he been elected, Chaviano would have would have represented the Havana-based Plaza de la Revolución municipality; Lopez was running in the Arroyo Naranjo municipality in south-central Havana. Both men had to be selected by a show of hands during official neighborhood meetings before being authorized to run in Sunday’s municipal elections. 

Since the 1959 revolution that swept the Castro family into power, Cuba has been governed by the the Cuban Communist Party in a one-party political system. Generally speaking, political opposition to the government is suppressed there; Cuban law bans campaigning and the participation of political parties in elections. To guarantee perpetual Communist Party dominance, a government electoral commission handpicks half of the candidates in municipal and provincial level elections. 

The only information about candidates that Cuban voters are permitted is a short, government-written biography, along with a small photo. Chaviano and Lopez’s pre-election biographies described them as “counterrevolutionaries” and linked them with foreign anti-government groups.

In the weeks leading up to Sunday’s elections and their eventual defeats, Chaviano and Lopez appeared optimistic about their electoral prospects.

“Some people say that there is fear in Cuba, and I say that people have lost their fear,” Lopez proclaimed.

“No-one from the government was expecting us to be nominated and even less that we would become candidates,” Chaviano explained, acknowledging the uniqueness of his and Lopez’s positions. “We have to take advantage of the moment.”

According to information from Cuban electoral authorities, Chaviano ultimately received 138 votes during Sunday’s elections, a figure the dissident subsequently described as a “significant amount.” Chaviano said that the elections appeared to have been carried out fairly.

The younger Lopez was considerably less conciliatory in the wake of his own loss, pointing to irregularities at his municipality’s polling stations and a “campaign against him,” including voter intimidation, as the primary reasons for his defeat. 

Sunday’s elections saw about eight million Cuban voters turnout at the polls. 27,379 candidates stood for 12,589 municipal posts across Cuba. For those constituencies where no candidate was able to garner at least 50 percent of the vote, another round of elections will be held on April 26.

Current Cuban president Raul Castro, the 83-year-old ex-revolutionary and brother of former president Fidel Castro, has vowed to reform the Cuban political system.
  

Tiny House Essay Contest Entry

We’re living through a frightful era; one in which food rots in pantries of privilege while less fortunate children stir hungrily in their restless sleep. It’s an age of man-made scarcity. In the so-called developed countries of the world, people willingly sacrifice their autonomy at the alter of consumerism. Such people have long since forgotten how to cultivate sustenance and have instead turned to cheap, often genetically modified, industrial poison as a source of nourishment. They squander their futures on grotesque McMansions bought with credit from predatory lenders and isolate themselves in highly atomized gated communities. Here the hapless consumers obsess over frivolous products and entertainment, expertly marketed by cunning spin doctors in corporate boardrooms, and distract themselves from the horrendous faraway resource wars which enable their hollow lifestyles. In these suburban bastions of American consumerism, where humanitarian dissent is ridiculed and conformity celebrated, very little is sustainable, much less moral. 

I, for one, intend to bow out of this cruelly comical rat-race and rediscover a more simple, fulfilling means of survival. It’s not that I plan on retreating from our imperfect world; I hope to reform it. Acquiring a tiny house and educating myself and others about the benefits of alternative living would be a fitting first step in this process. I’m weary of reading longingly of the tiny house movement. I want to finally join its ranks and spread its gospel. The time for complaint has passed. We have arrived at a crisis point. Environmental degradation, homelessness, hunger and a plethora of other manufactured global problems demand immediate action and innovative solutions. Engaging in sustainable, tiny living won’t just clear my conscience and improve my life personally; it will substantively contribute to a peaceful grassroots revolution already underway. It’s a revolution that will ultimately reshape our world for the better.   
The late Robert Hart, the indomitable father of the modern food forest movement, once said that problems of hunger and resulting illness could be solved, “if only the know-how could be equalled by the will-to-serve.” I am strong-willed in this regard.
  

Cuba Removed From U.S.’s State Sponsors of Terror List

Cuba will finally be removed from the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism according to statements by White House officials on Tuesday. The announcement comes on the heels of a historic face-to-face meeting between American President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro in Panama over the weekend during the Summit of the Americas -a multilateral regional conference attended by representatives from the Cuban government for the first time this year.

Cuban officials have consistently cited the U.S. government’s continued designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism as a major obstacle to the preservation of the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement so recently publicly initiated by President Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro. The White House’s pronouncement today promises to reignite this, seemingly stalled, process of diplomatic reengagement between the two formerly hostile governments and paves the way for the long-awaited opening of formal embassies in Washington and Havana.

More broadly, the State Department’s stubborn and persistent inclusion of Cuba on its infamous list has become something of a diplomatic embarrassment for the United States, uniting Latin and South American governments in opposition to what many see as a politically-motivated, outdated policy of U.S. imperial hostility toward the Caribbean nation. Cuba’s removal from the list can only serve to improve relations between the U.S. and its neighbors to the south.

“We will continue to have differences with the Cuban government, but our concerns over a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions fall outside the criteria that is relevant to whether to rescind Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism,” White House press secretary Josh Ernest explained to the media.

Cuba’s material and moral support to anti-colonial, nationalist and/or leftist third world insurgent groups first landed it on the American government’s state sponsors of terrorism list in 1982. Today, only Iran, Sudan, Syria and Cuba remain on the State Department’s list. 

A 2013 State Department report found “no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups” in recent years, a conclusion supported by public statements made by former Cuban president Fidel Castro in 1992 renouncing Cuban support for insurgents abroad. Since a government needs to have engaged in terrorist activity in the past six months to be included among the State Department’s designated state sponsors of terror, Cuba’s removal from the list is only natural. 

Still, there will be a 45-day review period before Cuba is officially stricken from the list, during which time opponents of the move, and of President Obama’s Cuba policy generally, in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives could abort Cuba’s prospective re-designation with a joint resolution. Congressional opposition to closer ties between the U.S. and Cuba is bipartisan, but is especially strong among segments of the Republican Party. Earlier today, one of the more vocal critics, Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, decried the White House’s decision in public statement. She argued that Cuba’s removal from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror “would be nothing short of a miscarriage of justice borne out of political motivations not rooted in reality.”

Another hardliner, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, formally announced his 2016 presidential bid yesterday. 

  

            

Justice Department Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department

This report, released after an extensive investigation of the Ferguson Police Department by the Civil Rights Divison of the Department of Justice, to some extent vindicates the claims of countless social justice activists who took to the streets in protest after the killing of Ferguson resident Mike Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. Those who doubt the notion that black and poor Americans are unjustly and especially victimized by significant segments of our criminal justice system should examine the contents of this detailed document and reconsider their presumptions. Ferguson, and its problems, are representative of America writ-large. For that reason alone, this report is required reading for conscientious citizens across the country.

The report- http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf  

  

U.S. and Cuba Spar Over Human Rights

Representatives of the U.S. and Cuban governments met in Washington D.C. on Tuesday to discuss the contentious issue of human rights. At the meeting, the Cuban party was lead by Pedro Luis Pedroso, Deputy Director General of Multilateral Affairs and International Law at Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while Tom Malinowski, Undersecretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, stood for the Americans. The talks served as a preliminary step toward a more formal and substantive dialogue in the near future, though the two governments have yet to set a date for a follow-up meeting.

Although both parties reportedly “expressed concerns about human rights issues” and remain committed to further talks in the future, the meeting laid bare the negotiators’ fundamentally different interpretations of what constitutes a human right and ultimately yielded few concrete gains. 

Predictably, the American representatives castigated the Cuban government for its authoritarian tendencies and lamented Cuba’s lack of political freedoms and civil liberties, rights that the U.S. historically prioritizes above all others. Freedoms of speech, press and assembly are all strictly curtailed in Cuba, and the American delegation focused on these human rights metrics during the talks.

“This preliminary meeting reflects our continued focus on human rights and democratic principles in Cuba,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said of the talks, explicitly linking Cuba’s human rights successes and failures with its level of democratization. 

The Cuban government generally opts to define Cuban human rights in terms of their population’s collective material wellbeing, eschewing individual liberties and instead focusing on their population’s overall social welfare. The Castro regime frequently points to its internationally lauded healthcare and education policies as proof of its commitment to this brand of human rights.    

In response to criticisms leveled against its own government, the delegation from Havana was quick to point out several perceived human rights failings on the part of the American government. They cited “persistent patterns of discrimination and racism and the intensification of police brutality and abuse with discriminatory patterns” in the U.S. as examples of such failings.

In a press release after the talks, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs continued their attacks on the American government’s human rights record; they voiced concerns “about the torture and extrajudicial executions in the context of the fight against terrorism, including the legal limbo of prisoners at Guantanamo,” and “limitations on the exercise of labor rights and union freedoms” in the U.S.

These -and other- barbs aside, Deputy Director Pedroso was optimistic regarding the meeting’s impact: “[I]t was shown that it is possible to interact civilly in the recognition and respect for these [human rights] differences. These conversations confirm the readiness of Cuba to address with the United States any topic on the basis of equality and reciprocity.” 

Tuesday’s meeting took place in the context of a wider diplomatic reengagement effort between the U.S. and Cuban governments, initiated publicly last December. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, who leads the American side of this rapprochement, has called human rights “the area of the most profound disagreement” between Washington and the Castro regime.

  

 

    

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