Tuesday, October 11, 2011

More Cubans Try to Make it to the US, Amid Economic Shake-Up

The number of Cubans illegally trying to reach the U.S. by sea doubled in fiscal year 2011 compared to the previous 12 months, according to Miami-based El Nuevo Herald, with some 1,700 either intercepted by coast guards or landing on U.S. shores. Including those who came to the U.S. by land, the total figure of Cubans illegally arriving in the U.S. was up 14 percent. According to the newspaper, this reverses a downward trend that has prevailed since 2007.

Sister newspaper the Miami Herald puts forward various explanations for the fluctuation, including growing problems with the island’s economy. It also points out that the low figures of illegal migrants in recent years could be due to changing citizenship requirements in Spain and the U.S., which meant that more Cubans could legally leave the country. Cuban blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo told the newspaper that Raul Castro’s government might even be tacitly allowing some to leave, “turning a blind eye to some of the departures as an escape valve for the growing discontent.”

In an illustration of the trend, 19 Cubans were detained after landing a boat on the Cayman Islands last week, in the fifth such landing this year, according to local mediavia the Miami Herald. According to the report, many Cubans who arrive by sea at the British territory say they were trying to go to Honduras, with the intention of crossing into the U.S. via Mexico.

The vigorously pro-free market Cato Institute argued that the rise in undocumented Cubans trying to reach the U.S. is “yet another sign that the much heralded economic ‘reforms’ announced by Havana aren’t working,” and backed the idea that the government might be allowing more Cubans to slip away in order to relieve pressure within the country.

Raul Castro has instituted limited economic reforms since taking over Cuba’s leadership from his brother, Fidel, in 2008. In September 2010 he announced plans to make some 20 percent of the workforce redundant from their government posts, to become self-employed and pay taxes. He legalized certain occupations, including hairdressing and furniture repair, and allowed people to start their own business and hire employees. This came alongside cuts to food subsidies and rations, spending that the government could no longer afford.

However, these moves towards market reform have not sparked significant new prosperity in Cuba. A lengthy report from Havana by Intelligent Life magazine’s summer 2011 edition found Cubans frustrated with the slow pace of change, but with some private enterprises doing well under the new rules. Reuters reported recently that many people were earning significantly more in private enterprises, with wages up to four times higher than the average pay from state jobs, which is around $18 a month. According to government figures quoted in the report, the number of self-employed rose from 148,000 at the end of 2010 to 330,000 in September. However, the news agency noted that pay remained miserably low for many Cubans, and that the state had not managed to cut all the government jobs planned, due to an absence of other employment.

News Briefs

  • A bloody day in Colombia as seven soldiers were killed Monday in an ambush attributed to FARC guerrillas in the southwest province of Cauca, while the government said that as many as 30 guerrillas may have died in an armed forced bombing of a FARC camp. The camp was located in Norte de Santander province, bordering on Venezuela, and 11 bodies have been recovered so far. Aerial bombardment of rebel camps is a tactic increasingly employed by the Colombian Armed Forces, and has claimed the lives of at least two top commanders of the FARC and forced the guerrillas to stay on the move.
  • Meanwhile, Colombian prosecutors presented fresh evidence against the editor of a Stockholm-based news agency, Anncol, which publishes FARC communiques and is considered sympathic to the rebel group. Joaquin Perez Becerra is currently in a Bogota jail after being arrested in Venezuela in April, and is accused of receiving money from the guerrillas to fund the site, and working as the FARC’s representative in Europe.
  • Peru’s new leader Ollanta Humala appears to have made another strong move, in what is shaping up to be a confident presidency, purging 30 of the 45 generals at the top of the country’s national police force. Simon Romero of theNew York Times reports that many of those removed are facing corruption charges. Police chief General Raul Becerra was replaced by General Raul Salazar, a relative outsider, in another example of Humala moving to replace the old guard of certain institutions. As InSight Crime has pointed out, the president, who is himself a former military man, seems keen to bring fresh faces to key posts in crime and anti-narcotics bodies. A notable example is his appointment of Ricardo Soberon, who has opposed the militarized approach to drug policy, as head of the drug advisory agency.
  • The Washington Post reports that Belize, a Caribbean nation the size of Massachusetts that borders on Guatemala and Mexico, is increasingly being used by Mexican traffickers to smuggle drugs into the country. The Obama administration recently added the nation to its blacklist of countries used by the drug trade. Police Minister Douglas Singh told the newspaper; “We’re part of the funnel. Mexico is above us, and Guatemala and Belize are part of the funnel you have to go through to get to Mexico. That’s making a lot of legitimate and illegitimate businessmen here prosper. But it makes us very vulnerable.”
  • The number of cholera cases in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince has gone up three-fold in recent weeks, driven by the return of the rainy season, Doctors without Borders told the Associated Press. The Miami Herald reported in September that more than 400,000 have been infected in the country since the disease made its appearance a year ago, thought to have been carried by Nepalese UN peacekeepers.
  • The Senate Foreign Relations Committee produced a report on social media in Latin America, which argues that it could be an important force in promoting democracy in the region, and calls on the State Department to do more to strengthen this sector through schemes that help the public become more IT-literate, and investing in programs that train software engineers in the region. Titled, “Latin American Governments Need to ‘Friend’ Social Media and Technology,” the report details the rise of Internet access and use of social media in Latin America, and the use of platforms such as Twitter by the governments of Mexico and Colombia, among others.
  • In the latest update on the health of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez announced that he plans to return to Cuba next week for medical tests.According to the Associated Press, the socialist leader, who has undergone treatment for cancer, spoke over the phone at a comedy show on Monday, telling the crowd, "The doctors told me my hair is growing, and I'm thinking of growing an Afro."
  • Chile’s Supreme Court made a ruling that would allow the cultivation of marijuana for medical purposes, overturning the government’s withdrawal of a company’s license to produce the plant. Agrofuturo had applied for a permit to produce marijuana-based tea for theraputic purposes. However, following the ruling, the head of anti-drug body Senda pointed out that it remains illegal to produce marijuana-based medicines.
  • The troubles of Bolivian President Evo Morales continue, as indigenous groups march on La Paz in protest against a road that the government wants to build through an indigenous reservation in Amazon region to the east of the country. They are set to arrive in the capital around the time of elections for members of judical bodies on October 16. Morales has faced a firestorm of criticism following the heavy-handed repression of the march in September, in a country which has a tradition of toppling governments through giant protest marches.
  • The LA Times reports on Palestine leader Mahmoud Abbas’ tour of Latin America to garner support for his country’s bid for recognition as a state by the UN. Colombia and Mexico are the only two major countries in the region that have not supported the move, according to the newspaper. However, the president was warmly welcomed in Colombia, given a symbolic set of keys to the city by Mayor Clara Lopez.