Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Policy Heavyweights Urge Change on Cuba

Yet another mass letter has been sent to President Barack Obama calling for a shift on U.S. policy towards Cuba. What makes this one stand out, however, is the high profile of those who have signed on to it.

The list includes big names like John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence under President George W. Bush, retired Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, and former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela. As the Miami Herald reports, it also includes prominent Cuban-American businessmen like Andres Fanjul, Paul Cejas and Carlos Saladrigas.

In all, 44 high-ranking diplomats, civil servants, military officers and business figures signed the letter. While they stopped short of calling for an end to the embargo, they put forth four main proposals, urging Obama to: 1.) Loosen restrictions on travel to Cuba; 2.) increase support for Cuban civil society; 3.) engage with Cuba on humanitarian and security issues of mutual interest and 4.) allow financial institutions to carry out any necessary transactions associated with licensed activities.

Points one and two are each broken down further, with specific  recommendations like ending limits on remittances, allowing Cuban entrepreneurs to pursue internships in the U.S., and allowing American travelers easier access to money in Cuba.

The broad range of Beltway insiders -- and especially the inclusion of conservative figures like Negroponte -- is sure to build momentum in Washington for further changes in Cuba policy. It comes amid similar calls for Obama to use his executive authority to shift the U.S. approach to the island, as well as polling data suggesting that a majority of the U.S. (56 percent, according to a February Atlantic Council survey) supports engaging more directly with Cuba.

News Briefs
  • Bloomberg reports that just hours after the publication of the letter, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced that its president and CEO, Thomas J. Donohue, will lead an executive delegation to the island next week to assess the impact of economic reforms there. In a statement, Donohue said the trip would provide “first-hand look at changes in Cuba’s economic policies and whether or not they are affecting the ability to do business there.”
  • Last week marked two years since Brazil’s highly-praised freedom of information law went into effect, the result of years of advocacy and lobbying by NGOs. The pro-transparency group Artigo 19, which was instrumental in pushing for the law’s passage, has since submitted hundreds of information requests -- with varying degrees of success. The group has cataloged the 474 information requests sent to some 51 federal entities since the law came into effect on its online observatory, which provides a statistical breakdown of the responses. While most of the requests received some answer, Artigo 19 found a significant percentage to be incomplete or unsatisfactory, a fact which was picked up in an editorial published in today’s Folha de S. Paulo.
  • Efforts by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) delegation to restart the government-opposition dialogue in Venezuela appear to be meeting resistance. While Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo PatiƱo announced yesterday that they had succeeded in “opening up bridges of communication again” between both sides, El Nacional reports that MUD spokesman Ramon Guillermo Aveledo told reporters yesterday that the opposition’s conditions for talks to continue had not been met.
  • The Miami Herald has an investigation into the U.S. assets of the new owners of Venezuelan news channel Globovision, Raul Gorrin and Gustavo Perdomo. They are seen as relatively close to the government of President Nicolas Maduro, and the fact that they own property in Miami has been used by Republican lawmakers as evidence of the need for targeted sanctions in Venezuela.  However, in a Washington Post op-ed, David Smilde argues that these would be counterproductive and only reinforce Maduro’s claims that his government is under attack by foreign, imperialist interests.
  • Ahead of the June 1 inauguration of Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, Spanish judge and human rights advocate Baltasar Garzon has an op-ed in today’s El Pais in which he expresses hope that the new administration will take steps to facilitate investigations into human rights abuses.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is following up on her promise to reform her country’s education system.  The president submitted the first bill of her reform package, which would end state subsidies for for-profit schools, to lawmakers yesterday. It is expected to be followed up by another bill later this year which would guarantee free university education. While Bachelet framed the measure as “following through with what our students repeatedly said: education is a right, not a privilege,” some student leaders have been found fault with the bill. As La Tercera and Wall Street Journal report, University of Chile Student Union (Fech) President Melissa Sepulveda criticized the reforms as not going far enough.
  • Mexican authorities have announced the discovery of 16 bodies in the northern state of Tamaulipas, and Animal Politico reports that state officials said they were victims of an apparent clash between rival gangs in the area. The Associated Press notes that the announcement comes a week after major protests in Tamaulipas, in which thousands participated in a march against violence.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is taking full advantage of the scandal involving his main rival ahead of Sunday’s elections, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga. Referring to the recently-leaked video showing Zuluaga meeting with a hacker accused of attempting to turn up dirt on the negotiators in Havana, Santos accused his opponent of running a “criminal campaign.” Meanwhile, La Silla Vacia has an extremely useful breakdown of the major revelations that have come out since the scandal broke, as well as some of the questions that haven’t yet been answered about the motives behind the video’s release.