Tag Archive | "cuba"

Cuba and US Formally Restore Diplomatic Relations

Castro and Obama met in Panama in April (photo courtesy of US government)

Castro and Obama met in Panama in April (photo courtesy of US government)

Diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba have been formally restored as of today, after 54 years of broken ties.

After five decades of shunning one another, the former Cold War foes have re-established embassies in each other’s capitals. Opening a new chapter of engagement and in the presence of Cuba’s Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno Rodríguez, the Cuban flag was raised over Havana’s embassy in Washington for the first time since 1961, when the US broke off relations with Communist-ruled Cuba.

The breakthrough was announced by US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro on 17th December 2014, after two years of negotiations that have culminated on the re-establishment of embassies, agreed to on 1st July.

The historic milestone is hoped to fully normalise relations between the countries, although the process is expected to proceed slowly as differences remain. Although travelling for nationals of the two countries will be easier, it will remain subject to restrictions. Also, the US economic embargo against the island will remain in place, as only the current Republican-majority Congress can lift it.

“The historic events we are living today will only make sense with the removal of the economic, commercial, and financial blockade, which causes so much deprivation and damage to our people; the return of occupied territory in Guantánamo, and respect for the sovereignty of Cuba,” said Rodríguez.

In 1977, during the Carter administration, Cuba and the US opened Interest Sections in their former embassies. Starting today, the US interest section in Havana will perform the functions of an embassy; however, the country’s flag will not be raised until US Secretary of State John Kerry visits Cuba next month.

The US embassy in Havana will be run by the chief of mission at the interest section, Jeffrey DeLaurentis.

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Uruguayan Luis Almagro Elected OAS Secretary General

Luis Almagro (photo: Wikipedia)

Luis Almagro (photo: Wikipedia)

Former Uruguayan Foreign Affairs Minister Luis Almagro was elected as the new Secretary General of the Organisation of American States (OAS) by an overwhelming majority. He will take office on 26th May.

Almagro was Foreign Affairs Minister under José Mujica’s administration, between 2010 and 2015. He will replace current Secretary General José María Insulza, from Chile, and will serve a five-year term. Almagro was elected by 33 votes in favour and one abstention, out of a total of 34 votes.

“I’m not here to administer any crisis, but to facilitate and coordinate a renewal” of the OAS, said Almagro. He also indicated that one of the priorities of his administration will be to re-incorporate Cuba, which was expelled of the OAS in 1962 and has refused to return to the organisation, instead favouring other bodies such as CELAC.

“I think the OAS has the obligation to follow the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba,” said Almagro. “It has the obligation to generate a positive dialogue agenda with Cuba, with negotiations to bring the parties together and to resolve the main pending problems that Cuba and the OAS may have.”

Almagro affirmed that, in the short term, his sights are set on the Summit of the Americas, which will take place in April in Panama, and which he considers “a historic opportunity to move forward towards a hemisphere without exclusions, through the presence of Cuba in the inter-American stage, for the first time in decades.”

The OAS was founded in 1948 and brings together all of the American countries, except Cuba, with the aim of “promoting social and economic development in the Western hemisphere through cooperation.”

The organisation, however, has become increasingly irrelevant as other international bodies have taken more prominent roles in resolving conflicts within the region.

“The context of this election is one in which the relevance of the OAS is being tested,” said Carl Meachem of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, “as there are other organisations such as Unasur and CELAC which nowadays are the ones that intervene to help resolve conflicts in the region, a role that used to belong to the OAS.”


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CELAC: Summit Closes with Support for Cuba, Argentina

Foreign Affairs Ministers at CELAC Summit (photo courtesy of CELAC)

Foreign Affairs Ministers at CELAC Summit (photo courtesy of CELAC)

The third annual Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Summit wrapped up on Thursday, with advocacy, dialogue, and a dose of criticism of the US State Department. Support for Cuba and Venezuela against US sanctions and encouragement for Argentina in the ongoing fight against New York hedge funds were key issues in speeches from some of the 33 world leaders in attendance.

The slowly thawing relationship between the US and Cuba was a central topic. Participants of CELAC did endorse improvements between the two countries, following US President Barack Obama’s announcement last month that he would ease some sanctions through executive order.

But Cuba’s President Raúl Castro underscored his remaining conditions at the Summit in San José, Costa Rica. The main problem, he said in a speech on Wednesday, is an economic blockade that caused “enormous human and economic damage”. Castro demanded compensation for both. He cited mutual steps that have improved the climate between the two countries but demanded lifting the embargo and returning “territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base”.

“If these problems are not solved, this diplomatic [agreement] between Cuba and the United States would not make sense,” Castro said. He also declared “strong opposition” of UN and US sanctions against Russia.

President Obama has long said he supported closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. “But the Naval base is not something that we wish to be closed,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday.

The Summit released 27 special statements over two days, including a plan to combat weapon trafficking, regional poverty, climate change, and a plan for food security.

“We need to work together so as not to ignore the level of political and administrative corruption that is present in the region,” said Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet. “The rise of inequality deepens the crisis of legitimacy which sees our democracy suffer.”

Another CELAC statement released this week denounced British control of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands off the coast of Argentina.

CELAC also supported Argentina in the ongoing conflict with New York hedge funds, with a statement touting the “right of each state to negotiate debt restructuring” that “should not be frustrated or impeded by interest groups”.

The statement advocated for what was described as a solution consistent with Argentine national development policies, and does not compromise the development and welfare of the Argentine people.

Next year’s summit will take place in Ecuador, with Rafael Correa as president pro tempore.


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Cuba: US Talks ‘Productive’, but ‘Profound Differences’ Remain

US and Cuban delegates open historic talks in Havana  (Photo: Adalberto Roque/AFP/via Télam)

US and Cuban delegates open historic talks in Havana (Photo: Adalberto Roque/AFP/via Télam)

Delegates from the US and Cuba have described two days of historic talks in Havana as “productive”, though acknowledged “profound differences” on issues such as human rights.

The talks were part of the first official face-to-face bilateral meeting of high-level diplomats in decades, coming a month after the historic decision by Cuban President Raúl Castro and his US counterpart, Barack Obama, to reopen dialogue.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson and Cuba’s foreign minister, Josefina Vidal, said that discussions had centred on taking the first formal steps to normalising diplomatic relations between the two countries, including the re-opening of embassies.

Other issued explored included the potential for greater business ties and co-operation in areas such as aviation security, drug trafficking, and epidemics. Vidal, meanwhile, also urged Obama to remove Cuba from its list of states that sponsor terrorism and to push US Congress towards ending the embargo of the island economy.

However, there was already evidence of some of the major differences between the two sides in a dispute over discussions about human rights.

In a statement issued at the conclusion of the talks, Jacobson noted that: “As a central element of our policy, we pressed the Cuban government for improved human rights conditions, including freedom of expression.”

However, in the Spanish version of the statement this was translated as ‘presionar‘ which can mean “to pressure”. Vidal responded by denying that this vocabulary had been used during the talks, adding that “Cuba has never, and will never, respond to pressure”.

Vidal also indicated that dialogue must continue “without interfering with national independence and the sovereignty of our people.”

US officials later stated that the Spanish translation of the statement was unintentionally misleading.

Both parties recognised that these talks were just the very beginning of what will be a lengthy process.

“We have to overcome more than 50 years of a relationship that was not based on confidence or trust,” said Jacobson. “This will be a long and complex process that will require work from both sides, and which must resolve ongoing issues in the bilateral agenda,” added Vidal.

So far a date have not been set for the next round of talks between the two sides.

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Cuba: US Eases Travel and Trade Restrictions

Raul Castro announces the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the US (photo: EFE/Ernesto Mastrascusa/telam/dsl)

Raul Castro announces the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the US (photo: EFE/Ernesto Mastrascusa/telam/dsl)

New rules for trade and travel between the US and Cuba came into force today, as part of the recent bilateral decision to restore diplomatic ties after more than 50 years.

From today, US citizens will be able to travel to Cuba without the need for a specific licence, provided the journey is taken for any of 12 authorised reasons. These include: family visits, journalistic activity, humanitarian projects, support for Cuban people, and for certain export transactions.

Travellers will also now be able to use US credit and debit cards when in Cuba, and there will be no limits on how much can be spent in a single day. Tourists will also be able to import up to US$400 in goods acquired in Cuba for personal use, though the limit for alcohol and tobacco is US$100.

“We’re trying to make it much more flexible for people to visit the islands,” a White House official told the press yesterday. “Behind all of our actions was an effort to try to increase U.S. contact with the Cuban people, between our respective populations, and respective citizens.”

It will also be easier for people in the US to send money to Cuba. The new trade rules will allow the US to export certain goods, such as selected telecommunications or construction materials, while US financial institutions will be able to open accounts in Cuban banks so as to facilitate transactions.

The easing of regulations comes days after Cuba confirmed the release of 53 political prisoners, as part of the agreement made between the two countries at the end of last year.

The new measures were welcome cautiously by Cuban authorities. “They mark a step in the right direction,” said an editorial today in the Cuban state-run publication Granma. “But there is still a long way to go to remove other facets of the economic, trade, and financial embargo using the president’s executive powers, and for the US Congress to finally put an end to this policy.”

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Cuba Releases 53 Political Prisoners

Cuban president Raúl Castro (photo: Roosewelt Pinheiro/ABr)

Cuban president Raúl Castro (photo: Roosewelt Pinheiro/ABr)

US government sources have confirmed the release of 53 “political prisoners” from Cuban jails, as agreed by the presidents of both countries in the lead-up to last month’s announcement on the resumption of diplomatic relations.

“We welcome this very positive development and are pleased that the Cuban government followed through on this commitment,” said a senior US official to news agency Efe, who confirmed the US Interests Section in Havana was able to “verify” their release.

The list of prisoners to be released was given to the Cuban administration by Washington as they negotiated the terms for the normalisation of relations between the countries. Their identities have not been revealed.

“These political prisoners were individuals who had been cited by various human rights organisations as being imprisoned by the Cuban government for exercising internationally protected freedoms or for their promotion of political and social reforms in Cuba,” said the US official. The US government has informed all the information will given to Congress.

Next week, US authorities will travel to Havana to begin talks with the Cuban government on migration. US Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will lead the delegation, which will travel to the island on 21st and 22nd January. These will be the first high level talks since the two countries announced they were resuming relations.


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Cuba: Highest Investment in Education in the World

Cuban school children (photo: Wikipedia)

Cuban school children (photo: Wikipedia)

According to a new report by the World Bank, Cuba spends 13% of its GDP on education, a figure that marks the highest investment in the sector in the world. The report follows findings from earlier this year that noted that the country had the highest literacy rate in the region.

Bolivia and Venezuela are the next countries in the region with 6.9% of their GDP going towards the sector, placing them joint 9th in the world rankings. The regional average for Latin America is 5.5% of GDP.

The report highlighted the increase in investment in the sector by Bolivia, which has increased between 2009 and 2013 to a tune of 319% in starter education, 105% in primary, and 306% in secondary. This represents a new record of US$2.3bn.

Bolivian president Evo Morales responded to the country’s ranking during his 2014 annual review of government, saying: “Those of us who have the responsibility of running the country are very encouraged, and such recognition by international organisations is very good.”

Venezuela ends the year with a record number of students, with 10.5m enrolled (of a population of 30m) in education overall, including a record 96% of children completing primary education. There are also a record 2.6m students in higher education, an increase of 294% from 2000. This is the largest number in the country’s history, and the fifth highest rate globally.

The investment in education is part of a larger social plan, recently dubbed a ‘Knowledge Revolution’ by President Nicolás Maduro. Policies to achieve these advances include the establishment of new educational “mission” programs, the foundation of new universities, reinforcing the free nature of higher education, with over 200,000 people awarded grants to study, and the provision of free school meals, textbooks, and laptops to schoolchildren.

Earlier this year the country undertook a national consultation for quality in education, in which more than seven million Venezuelans participated, among them teachers, students, parents, and social movements, to define the bases of education policy for the next ten years.

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Cuba and US to Resume Diplomatic Relations

Raul Castro announces the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the US (photo: EFE/Ernesto Mastrascusa/telam/dsl)

Raul Castro announces the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the US (photo: EFE/Ernesto Mastrascusa/telam/dsl)

The presidents of Cuba, Raúl Castro, and the US, Barack Obama, have announced the two countries will embark on talks to resume diplomatic relations, severed 53 years ago.

The historic announcement was made by both heads of state in separate but simultaneous televised addresses, where they also announced a prisoner swap that saw the three remaining members of the ‘Cuban Five’ return home.

Castro and Obama had a telephone conversation yesterday, in which they agreed to improve the relationship between the two countries. Both thanked Pope Francis and the Canadian government for their role as mediators in the process.

In his address earlier today, Castro said that Obama’s decision to release the remaining members of the Cuban Five “deserves the respect and recognition of our people.” However, he added that “this does not mean that the main issue has been resolved (…) The economic, commercial, and financial blockade [imposed by the US in 1960] that causes great human and economic damage to our country must cease.”

“We have agreed to reestablishing diplomatic relations,” stated Castro. “We propose the government of the United States to adopt bilateral measures to improve the climate and move forward towards normalising the links between our countries based on the principles of international law and the United Nations Charter.” Such measures should include changes in “travel [between the two countries], direct mail, and telecommunications.”

Castro considered that his government “negotiated without giving up on any of our principles.”

In parallel, President Obama addressed the citizens of the US, announcing a “new chapter” in his country’s policy towards the island. He proclaimed these to be “the most significant changes in our policy of more than 50 years. We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead, we will begin to normalise relations between our two countries.”

“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach,” said the US president. As part of this new approach, he stated, he has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and re-open an embassy in Havana within the next few months, as well as to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. The US government will also take steps to “increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba.”

“These are the steps that I can take as president to change this policy,” said Obama. “The embargo that has been imposed for decades is now codified in legislation. As these changes unfold, I look forward to engaging with Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.”

Prisoner Swap

President Obama said that representatives from the two governments have engaged in dialogue over the last few months, but the “wrongful imprisonment” of US citizen Alan Gross had been an obstacle to the lifting of restrictions on Cuba.

Earlier this morning, as part of the new stage in relations between the two countries, Cuba released Gross and a US intelligence agent that was also jailed on the island.

Gross, a USAID contractor, was arrested in Cuba on 3rd December 2009, accused of being “a threat to national security” after attempting to establish a clandestine communications network. He was sentenced in 2011 to 15 years in prison and released today “on humanitarian grounds”, due to his deteriorating health. He arrived at the Andrews military base in the state of Maryland this morning.

In turn, the US freed the three members of the ‘Cuban Five’ who were still imprisoned in the country, Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, and Ramón Labañino. President Castro confirmed during today’s address that the three men had arrived safely to their home country.

The five Cuban intelligence agents were arrested in Miami in 1998 and convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. They claim they were not spying on the United States, but rather trying to monitor violent right-wing Cuban exile groups based in the south of Florida who were responsible for attacks inside Cuba. Two of them had already been released —René González was freed in 2011 and Fernándo González earlier this year.


Latin American presidents celebrated the announcement. Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is heading a Mercosur summit in the city of Paraná, considered this to be an “historic” moment and sent “my immense regards and deep respect to the dignity of the Cuban people and their government, who were able to uphold their ideals and today, as equals, normalise their relations” with the US.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said this marked “a victory for morals, for ethics, for values, a historic victory for Cuba, for the Cuban people. He also recognised “President Obama’s brave gesture,” which he considered to be “the biggest step in his presidency”.

President Juan Manuel Santos, in turn, celebrated “the audacity and the courage of President Obama and the Cuban government to take this decision that opens the door so that in the future, now not too far away, we can reach that dream of having a continent with full peace between our nations.” Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff highlighted the role of Pope Francis in bringing the governments of Cuba and the US together.

The governments of Mexico, Peru, and Ecuador also celebrated the news.

Anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami, however, criticised President Obama’s move. Orlando Gutiérrez-Boronat, Secretary-General of the Cuban Democratic Directory, considered the release of the three Cuban prisoners “a grave mistake”. Testimonies picked up by the media reflect discontent among the Cuban population in the US, with some people calling Obama’s deal “a betrayal”.

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Cuba to Send Medical Staff to Africa to Help Combat Ebola

Cuba's Health Minister at the United Nations (photo by Violane Martin, courtesy of WHO)

Cuba’s Health Minister at the United Nations (photo by Violane Martin, courtesy of WHO)

Cuba’s Health Minister, Roberto Morales Ojeda, has announced that the country will be sending 165 health workers to Sierra Leone to help treat the victims of ebola.

The contingent will include doctors, nurses, and epidemiologists, as well as specialists in infection control and intensive care. The first workers are set to arrive in the first week of October, and will stay in the country for six months. All of those being sent have previous experience of working in Africa.

The director of the World Health Organisation, Margaret Chan, said that their arrival would have a significant impact, as human resources – which are currently lacking – are very important in tackling the spread of the disease.

“I am extremely grateful to the generosity of the Cuban government and to these health professionals for doing their bit in our effort to contain the worst outbreak of ebola we have ever faced,” said Chan in a press conference with Morales Ojeda in Geneva.

She went on to acknowledge the reputation Cuba has for training medical staff and helping developing countries. But she warned that new cases of ebola were growing at a much higher rate than the country’s capacity to treat them.

Some 2,300 people have in West Africa died since the outbreak began in March.

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Cuba: US Sent Youth Undercover to Provoke Unrest

Flag_of_CubaAccording to an investigation published by Associated Press (AP), the US government sent young Latin Americans to Cuba using the cover of health and civic programmes to provoke unrest and political change.

According to AP, the project, overseen by USAID, began in 2009 and saw youths from Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Peru dispatched to Cuba in the hopes of “ginning up” a rebellion. They worked undercover, often posing as tourists, travelling the island and scouting for people they could turn into political activists. They were paid around US$5 an hour for their work.

USAID is said to have worked on the initiative with Creative Associates International (CAI), a contractor that was previously involved in creating ZunZuneo, a ‘Cuban Twitter’, also created to incite rebellion on the island state.

Drawing on documents and interviews worldwide, the AP found the travellers programme went to extensive lengths to hide the workers’ activities.

They were to communicate in code: “I have a headache” meant they suspected they were being monitored by Cuban authorities; “Your sister is ill” was an order to cut their trip short. To evade Cuban authorities, travellers installed innocent-looking content on their laptops to mask sensitive information they were carrying. They also used encrypted memory sticks to hide their files and sent obviously encrypted emails using a system that might have drawn suspicion.

However, there appeared to be no real safety net for the inexperienced workers if they got caught. “Although there is never total certainty, trust that the authorities will not try to harm you physically, only frighten you,” read a memo obtained by the AP. “Remember that the Cuban government prefers to avoid negative media reports abroad, so a beaten foreigner is not convenient for them.”

It was revealed that US officials privately told their government contractors to consider suspending travel to Cuba after the arrest of contractor Alan Gross, who remains imprisoned after smuggling in sensitive technology, but USAID and CAI continued with the programme.

Both ZunZuneo and the travellers programme were part of a larger, multimillion-dollar effort by USAID to effect change in politically volatile countries, government data show.

The travellers programme was launched when newly inaugurated President Barack Obama’s administration was talking about a “new beginning” with Cuba after decades of mistrust, raising questions about whether the White House had a coherent policy toward the island nation.

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