As soccer enthusiasts know, the Copa de Oro, or Gold Cup, is currently underway in stadiums across the United States, providing desperate fans with a much-needed fix of consequential, nationalism-laced games to hold them over between World Cups. Held every two years, the tournament comprises teams representing North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Without the participation of South American heavyweights such as Brazil and Argentina, the tournament provides a chance for the hemisphere’s weaker teams to show the world what they’ve got and face off against traditional powerhouses like Mexico and the United States. Unfortunately, Cuba didn’t have much to “show” last night against Mexico, losing 5-0.
But that wasn’t a colossal shock. As we all know, in Cuba, it’s baseball that reigns supreme. Soccer never swept the island nation that way it did most of Latin America. The government of Fidel Castro declined to endorse the sport in a meaningful way, instead dedicating precious government resources to sports in which Cuba already had the beginnings of a strong international reputation such as baseball and boxing. While Cuba did send a team to the third-ever World Cup in 1938 and has continued to make a respectable showings at the Gold Cup in recent years, soccer has remained on the sidelines of Cuban culture. Not even Argentine soccer deity Diego Maradona’s extended stay in Cuba for drug-rehab in the early 2000's was able to spark much excitement for the sport.
In contrast, soccer in the U.S. has enjoyed a surge of popularity over the last 20-25 years. The 1994 FIFA World Cup, hosted by the U.S., reignited American interest in soccer, and led to the subsequent launch of Major League Soccer (MLS). According to The Nielson Company, an estimated 111.6 million U.S. viewers watched the 2010 World Cup, a 22% increase in viewers from 2006 World Cup viewership. From the 2002 to 2006 World Cup, viewership increased an astounding 90%. As MLS Commissioner Don Garber said, "It's not the NFL, but we're 10 years old, (and football has been played here for) over 100 years."
Late last week Guillermo Farinas began another hunger strike, apparently his 24th in 15 years, to demand that the Cuban government prosecute those involved in the beating of dissident, Juan Wilfredo Soto and his subsequent death. (Reports differ as to what extent the alleged beating by police officers brought about Soto’s death, but Farinas and others insist it did. In contrast, Sotos’ doctor and sister told Cuban media that his death was unrelated). Farinas’ announcement came on the heels of news that four individuals accused of distributing anti-government pamphlets in Havana were sentenced to 3-5 years in prison for acts of “defiance” and “public disorder.” The four men were apparently detained in January or throwing pamphlets in the air with the slogans including, “The Castros are assassins” and ” Down with the Castros.”
For those of us outside Cuba, it is often difficult to independently verify details of events on the island. This is particularly problematic when it comes to clashes between the government and anti-government activists. Indeed, after Soto’s death, prominent international human rights organizations including Amnesty International called on the Cuban government to conduct a thorough investigation saying, “There are too many unanswered questions.” Fortunately, in regards to last week’s case, Human Rights Watch was able to obtain a copy of a document sent from the state prosecutor to the Havana Criminal Court which indeed corroborates that the four men were detained for the offense as it has been reported.
If so, and the incident was a classic exercise in the repression of dissent, it seems Havana is of late, of two minds about how it wants to deal with such acts, incidents that seem to be on the rise. In recent months, the Cuban government tended to rely on a policy of “catch and release” in responding to dissident agitation, detaining individuals and imprisoning them for short periods of time. In contrast, the 3-5 year sentences handed down last week signified a notable shift. On this issue, Elizardo Sánchez of the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights told El Nuevo Herald,
My ears perked up last week upon hearing that after six months of being detained in North Korea, American citizen Eddie Jun was freed last week on humanitarian grounds. Jun, a Los Angeles business man, was detained by North Korean authorities last November for alleged proselytizing while in North Korea on a business visa. As with Cuba, U.S-North Korea relations are colored by years of distrust and miscommunication. But unlike Cuba, North Korea is a nuclear power. That means that in world of finite U.S. diplomatic resources, North Korea demands our attention in a way Cuba never will. So despite, in indeed perhaps because of, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's proclivity for belligerent and provocative acts, the U.S. continues to rely on a mix of both sanctions and engagement in its dealing with Pyongyang.
Amid reports that flooding and an outbreak of disease have contributed to one of the worst food shortages in years, North Korea recently took the unusual step of asking for help from some of its most long-standing foes, including the United States. Against this backdrop, the detention (and subsequent release) of American Eddie Jun was seen as part of the North’s strategy of re-engaging the U.S. in a conversation about providing food assistance to North Korea. (U.S. assistance stopped in 2008 after North Korea expelled food aid monitors there to verify that aid was going to the neediest North Koreans, not being siphoned off for use by government officials.)
The debate about food aid to North Korea is a heated one, and has been since the international community’s first major humanitarian response to widespread famine in North Korea in the early 1990s that killed nearly one million people. The two sides of the debate go something like this- proponents argue the assistance is humanitarian, and to withhold it is a human rights violation, while those who oppose aid argue that reinstating it would amount to rewarding Pyongyang’s bad behavior, and would only serve to strengthen the North Korean regime. Sound vaguely familiar Cuba-philes?
“YES YOU CAN” encourages the website of a travel provider specializing in tours of Cuba. Itineraries are listed for nearly every remaining week of 2011 and most of 2012. “The floodgates have opened,” it proclaims, offering visitors endless itineraries for educational and cultural tours. According to the Cuba's National Office of Statistics, the island has already received more than a million visitors this year, an increase of 11.9% over the same period in 2010. While the origin of Cuba’s visitors in 2011 mirror patterns of previous years, the majority arriving from Canada, Russia, Argentina, the UK, Chile and France, it seems Americans may very soon be walking Cuban streets in the greatest numbers seen in more than a decade.
U.S.-based Cuba travel service providers are ramping up operations in the hopes that large numbers of Americans will take advantage of the Obama Administration’s changes to regulations governing people-to people travel to Cuba, announced in January of this year. The changes greatly expand opportunities for educational and religious travel via general license, (the general license does not require the traveler to be pre-authorized for travel) as well as more limited opportunities for travel under the more cumbersome and restrictive, specific license which continues to govern travel for cultural and humanitarian purposes. (For a more detailed explanation about the regulations, see this excellent analysis by the Latin America Working Group)
Last week, I offered a rather bleak but honest assessment of the Obama administration’s track-record on Cuba policy thus far. As it happened, just a day or two later the Associated Press published an article about the potential up-tick in American visitors to the island in 2011 that may result from the the new travel policy. “The forbidden fruit of American travel to Cuba is once again in reach,” reads the opening sentence.
I couldn’t help but dwell on the absurdity illustrated by the juxtaposition of these two realities. On the one hand, we have an Administration that makes what is essentially its first major endorsement of a policy of greater exchange between Cubans and Americans late on a Friday afternoon, as if it were the ugly step child of its Latin America agenda, yet there are potentially tens of thousands of Americans eager to travel to Cuba, and their right to do so just happens to be supported by Americans and Cuban voices that span the political and ideological spectrum.
At roughly this time last year the headline of a Reuters article proclaimed, “U.S-Cuba relations under Obama fall to lowest point.” The article chronicled a number of prickly moments between Washington and Havana, but largely attributed the backslide to the arrest of U.S. contractor Alan Gross in late 2009 and the unfortunate death of Cuban prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo which occurred just a few months later.
Given President Obama’s remarks about Cuba to Univision last week, one might conclude U.S.-Cuba relations have reached a sort of second nadir. In response to a question about the reforms currently underway in Cuba, the president said,
“For us to have the kind of normal relations we have with other countries, we've got to see significant changes from the Cuban government and we just have not seen that yet.”
While senior Obama Administration officials have been following those same talking points for months, (see Cuba Central’s helpful chronology here), to hear them again, precisely as Cuba begins to implement some of the wide-ranging policy reforms recently endorsed by its political leadership, is a troubling signal of where this Administration is on Cuba policy. Despite the past year being one in which Cuba began an historic process of reform and agreed to a major prisoner release brokered by the Cuban Catholic Church, Obama’s comments have the ring of an all-too-familiar refrain that is increasingly incompatible with the facts on the ground in Cuba.
Oh, the glories of being a tourist. The long plane rides spent squished in a middle seat; the demeaning airport security checks, the exorbitant baggage fees and bad food. But then there is, of course, the redemption that comes with being reunited with friends and family living abroad, or simply becoming acquainted with new places and sights that provide us with that injection of wonder we seek from time to time to rejuvenate the soul.
Yet for the vast majority of Cubans, leaving their country at all is virtually impossible. Under current regulations, Cubans must obtain a “tarjeta blanca” or exit visa, in order to leave. To get it, applicants must jump though a number of bureaucratic hoops and pay exorbitant fees: a de facto travel ban. Along with preventing ordinary Cubans from simply visiting family in the U.S. or elsewhere, the ban has been used as a political tool to prohibit opposition figures such as Yoani Sanchez or Dr. Oscar Biscet from traveling abroad to accept awards or other honors that confer international recognition and legitimacy on their anti-government positions.
So it is encouraging that the final version of the Lineamientos, Cuba's set of policy reform guidelines, mentions the possibility that Cubans may one day be permitted to travel abroad as tourists. The actual language reads, “Study a policy that facilitates Cubans living in the country to travel abroad as tourists,” (Num. 265). But given the enormity of the injustice that is the de facto ban, this vague statement of intent is hardly satiating to advocates of greater freedom and human rights.
While the Cuban government has for several years hinted it was entertaining such a policy change, ( President Raul Castro said as much back in 2008 shortly after his first formal inaugural address as president), it appears the idea hasn’t progressed much beyond that. Cuba’s incipient reform process has instead been defined by policy changes with comparatively lower political cost/higher economic returns. And if you are calling the shots in Cuba at this critical moment, it’s rather obvious why.
Uncle Sam is giving Cuba high marks for its drug interdiction efforts. At a time when Americans are concerned about the efficacy of Latin American nations’ collaboration with Washington’s “war on drugs” (mind you, there is plenty of Latin consternation about Washington’s collaboration in the effort as well), the 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) tepidly applauds Havana’s efforts both to clamp down on drug flows through the Caribbean as well as to prevent the development of a domestic market. Even more intriguing is the State Department report’s admission that the Cuban government has formally proposed a bilateral counter-drug cooperation agreement.
The U.S. government would be well-advised to take advantage of this opening. In Washington’s short-term outlook it may seem like the drug war is all Mexico all the time, but that is partly due to the success with previous efforts to close down Caribbean drug-trading routes. Anti-drug efforts are notoriously susceptible to the balloon effect, so any future success in the current efforts to crack down on Mexican cartels could end up revitalizing the Caribbean trade.
The massive gathering of people in Mexico City’s zócalo this past Sunday to protest President Felipe Calderon’s war against drugs was a sign of the mounting public frustration with what has been an ineffective and costly campaign against the country’s cartels. But where protest leader Javier Sicilla wants the Mexican military off his country’s street, he also calls on the U.S. to do more to help Mexico fight this epic battle.
The recent exit of former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual made clear that ties with Mexico have hit a rough patch, but no one disputes the need for U.S. and Mexican diplomats to continue engaging each other, and for U.S. law enforcement agencies to continue sharing information with their Mexican counterparts. This cooperation and communication is all the more important given our two countries’ shared struggle against the scourge of illegal drugs.
Like Mexico, Cuba has the geographical bad fortune of finding itself between the largest drug-consuming region in the world, and the largest drug-producing one. While the majority of illegal drugs now enter the U.S. via our border with Mexico, until the 1980s, the Caribbean was the favored route in to the U.S. for South American-made cocaine, heroin and marijuana. While some have claimed Cuba provided traffickers access to Cuban waters, land and airspace during these years, accounts of such collusion, appear to be isolated incidents.
As Cuba watchers continue to digest the VI Party Congress, we wanted to share with you a newly-released New America Foundation (NAF) policy paper, “Change in Post-Fidel Cuba: Political Liberalization, Economic Reform, and Lessons for U.S. Policy”. In this new publication from NAF's U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative, author Arturo Lopez-Levy explores the political context in which the VI Party Congress took place, the reform processes currently underway in Cuba, and the resulting implications for U.S. policy toward the island.
We previewed several excerpt of the paper a few weeks back, but are now pleased to be able to share it with you in its entirety.
Here are a few excerpts:
On the Cuban government and domestic opposition.
“Facing a more plural society, the government is being compelled to bargain in response to the emergence of citizen advocacy groups rather than simply rely on confrontation. Totalitarian practices have softened. There is undoubtedly a clear policy of confrontation employed against openly political opposition groups; however, in the last few years, a gray area has emerged where intellectuals and groups that promote citizen interests without directly challenging the state’s power are tolerated.”
For VI Congress-watchers, the weekend brought colorful images of Cuban school children cheerfully waving miniature Cuban flags, the appearance of a gleaming Granma, and the fiery sounds of salsa music blaring as Cubans marched toward the Plaza de la Revolución. While Saturday’s parade communicated a cheerful, confident, and orderly Cuba, the reality that prompted the VI Congress is a far different one.
At the core of the Congress is the Lineamientos document, a set of proposed reforms for which the government has been soliciting input since November 2010. In his two-and-a-half hour address to Congress delegates on Saturday (the text of which can be found here), President Raul Castro made his case for the reforms “in order to secure the continuity and irreversibility of Socialism as well as the economic development of the country and the improvement of the living standard of our people combined with the indispensible formation of ethical and political values.”
In the weekend’s biggest news, Castro effectively proclaimed the end of Cuba’s Castro era when he announced the introduction of term limits for high-ranking party officials. Two consecutive periods of five years and you’re out. If these new limits are applied retroactively, it could mean that Castro himself would be forced to vacate office as “soon” as 2018, leaving Cuba without a Castro at the helm for the first time in more than 50 years and definitely ushering in a new generation of political leadership in Cuba.
As soon as Raul Castro took power in 2008, speculation commenced about who would succeed him. With the 2009 ousting of Felipe Perez Roque and Carlos Lage, who, until then, had been considered the most likely candidates, the scratching of heads only become more furious. While we still lack clear indications about the identity of Castro’s successor, (new economic reform czar Marino Murillo and Secretary of the Communist Party in Santiago de Cuba, Lazaro Exposito have been mentioned as possibilities) we now have a timetable that will force these decisions to be made sooner rather than later.
Some other notable excerpts from Saturday’s speech:
It’s finally here. Cuba’s historic Sixth Party Congress begins tomorrow, and with it, the official embrace of a radically new economic model that has gradually been unveiled by President Raul Castro since taking power from brother Fidel back in 2006.
To help shed some light in what is driving this VI Party Congress, its implications for Cuba’s future, and that of U.S.-Cuba relations, lecturer and PhD Candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, and frequent Havana Note contributor, Arturo Lopez-Levy has authored an excellent new report that addresses these questions and much more. The report will be made public at the New America Foundation’s U.S-Cuba Policy Initiative website next week, but in the meantime we wanted to provide you with a few excerpts here.
On President Raul Castro’s economic reforms:
“Most of these ideas about economic reform are in their initial stages. It is not yet clear just how mixed the new economic model will be and whether Raul Castro’s government will be able to efficiently implement its adjustment plan. There are obviously many impediments and flaws to the process, the most important of which is the lack of funds to ameliorate transition costs and speed up the implementation of the new policies. Equally important is the Cuban leadership's preference for gradualism. Shaped largely by what is seen as Russia's horrific experience with a shock-therapy approach to economic reform, this predilection for slow change has seemingly rendered Cuban leaders oblivious to the problems associated with excessive gradualism.
A great challenge for the reform process will be addressing the fact that workers in Cuba’s social services, such as education and health, have already been disadvantaged by the development of Cuban tourism and other industries with access to hard currency, or CUC. The reforms are obviously generating winners and losers and it is difficult to determine what kinds of policies the government will use to compensate the latter. There is no evidence that in the coming years, even if the economy prospers, health and education professionals will share in rising wages or improvements to living standards. The same can be said about the reforms' impact on the most vulnerable and poor segments of the Cuban population.”