Tag Archive | "cuba"

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.

Repercussions

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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Latin America News Roundup: 29th April 2014


Cuba and the EU Begin Negotiations: Representatives from the Cuban government and the European Union will begin today the first of a round of negotiations in order to normalise relations between the island and the European bloc. The first meeting, which will extend until tomorrow, will seek to “establish a method and a roadmap for the negotiations.” The following meetings will be held alternatively in the Belgian capital of Brussels and the Cuban capital of Havana, according to European sources. Cuba is one of the few American countries that does not have a cooperation and political agreement with the EU, due to a ‘Common Position’ policy implemented by the bloc against it in 1996. In 2008, both parties made the decision to reactivate negotiations, and experts from both sides have already met to exchange information on economic and trade issues, ahead of today’s meeting. Miguel Ángel Martínez, vice-president of the European Parliament, has stated that European governments are now better predisposed to normalising relations with the island, something that, he said, will benefit both Europe and Cuba. The EU ambassador in Havana, Herman Portocarrero, said that these talks will help “update the Cuban socio-economic model.”

Alemão Complex in Rio de Janeiro (photo: Marcello Casal Jr/Agência Brasil)

Alemão Complex in Rio de Janeiro (photo: Marcello Casal Jr/Agência Brasil)

Brazil – New Protests in Rio de Janeiro: Roads were blocked and a Pacifying Police (UPP) station was attacked as residents of a favela protested the death of woman yesterday. The 71-year old woman was killed at the Alemão favela on Sunday as she was walking home with her ten-year old grandson, after getting caught in a shootout between police and drug traffickers, according to the Rio Military Police. Residents of the favela reacted by blocking off roads and setting objects on fire, whilst two young men were arrested for attempting to set a bus alight.

Also in Rio de Janeiro, residents of the Morro de Chapadao protested the death of a 17-year old boy by setting five buses on fire, after making the passengers descend. The boy was also killed in a shootout between police and drug killers, though in this case the police have informed that the victim allegedly had links with drug dealing gangs. These are the latest in a series of protests sparked by incidents with the police, just weeks before the beginning of the football World Cup.

 

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Latin America News Roundup: 4th April 2014


ZunZuneo logo CubaCuba – US Government Secretly Funds Social Network: A report by news agency Associated Press (AP) revealed that the US government funded a social network called ZunZuneo between 2010 and 2012, “aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government.” According to the AP article, the SMS-based social network was secretly funded through aid agency USAID, which channelled U$S1.6m hidden behind a “byzantine system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account.” Through it, the US government would initially spread “non-controversial content” such as information on sports, hurricanes, and music, with the intention to later on “introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize ‘smart mobs’ (…) that might trigger a Cuban Spring.” On a press briefing yesterday, Marie Harf, a spokeswoman for the US Department of State, acknowledged the involvement of USAID in funding the ‘Cuban Twitter’, as it was known, however she stated that “there was nothing classified or covert about this program. Discreet does not equal covert.” She also argued that “we [the US government] were not generating political content of any kind on this platform. We were letting the Cuban people do that themselves.”

Chile – Overfishing Leaves Half of Species in Crisis: A report by the Secretariat of Fishing has revealed that over 40% of the country’s major fisheries are under threat from overfishing. According to the 2013 review of resources, 16 of the 33 main fishing grounds are classed as either ‘over exploited’ or ‘exhausted’. Among the most vulnerable species are the anchovy, golden kingklips, skate, and alfonsin. “The situation is critical,” said Undersecretary of Fishing and Agriculture Raúl Súnico. “This report imposes on us a great challenge to recover the over-exploited and exhausted fisheries and create a more sustainable future for our fishing industry.” Years of poorly regulated industrial fishing have been blamed for the current shortages, with artisanal fishermen critical of authorities for favouring large-scale operations under a new Fishing Law that came into force last year. Fishing is one of the most important industries in Chile, which has the world’s seventh-largest commercial catch.

Mexico and Panama Sign Free Trade Agreement: The governments of the two countries formalised a free trade agreement (FTA) yesterday, which brings Panama closer to joining the Pacific Alliance. The FTA, which was 15 years in the making, is expected to benefit companies which will use Mexico as a manufacturing base and Panama as a gateway for global distribution, according to experts consulted by Mexican newspaper El Financiero. Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli also highlighted that, once the FTA is approved by the congresses of both countries and the Colombian congress, his country will be able to join the Pacific Alliance. “The incorporation of Panama to the Pacific Alliance Group will be greatly beneficial to all Panamanians. [Mexican] President [Enrique] Peña Nieto has promised he will support us in this undertaking,” he said, adding that “Panama would be the natural seat of the Pacific Alliance, being in a middle point between Mexico and Chile.” The Pacific Alliance is a trade bloc made up of Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. New members must sign FTAs with all existing members in order to join in; in the case of Panama, the country only needs to finalise its FTA with Mexico.

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