Monthly Archives: May 2017

Trump administration nearing completion of Cuba policy review

CNBCThe Trump administration is nearing completion of a policy review to determine how far it goes in rolling back former President Barack Obama’s engagement with Cuba and could make an announcement next month, according to current and former U.S. officials and people familiar with the discussions.

President Donald Trump’s advisers are crafting recommendations that could call for tightening some of the trade and travel rules that Obama eased in his rapprochement with Havana but which are expected to stop short of breaking diplomatic relations restored in 2015 after more than five decades of hostility, the sources said.

The policy review, coordinated by the National Security Council, is expected to pick up steam now that Trump has returned from his first foreign trip, one administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump threatened in a tweet shortly after his election in November to “terminate” Obama’s approach unless Cuba made significant concessions, something its Communist leadership is unlikely to do.

The White House said in February that Cuba policy was under comprehensive review and that human rights on the island would be a major part of any revised strategy.

Obama implemented his Cuba normalization measures through executive actions that bypassed Congress, and Trump is believed to have the power to undo much of it with the stroke of a pen.

Divisions in Trump administration

But there are divisions within his administration over to what extent he should go, especially given that Obama’s opening to Washington’s former Cold War foe has created opportunities for American companies ranging from telecommunications to airlines.

Some aides have argued that Trump, a former real estate magnate who won the presidency promising to unleash U.S. businesses and create jobs, would have a hard time defending any moves that close off the Cuban market.

A group of 54 U.S. senators reintroduced legislation last Thursday to repeal all remaining restrictions on travel to Cuba, signaling support for U.S.-Cuba detente on Capitol Hill.

But the Republican administration has been under heavy pressure from Cuban-American lawmakers such as U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart to take a much harder line than Trump’s Democratic predecessor.

There is little support in the administration, however, for a full-scale reversal of Obama’s steps that began with a breakthrough with Cuban President Raul Castro in 2014.

Among the options under consideration are tightening restrictions on U.S. firms doing business with Cuban state or military enterprises and re-imposing stricter rules on Americans traveling there, according to people familiar with the discussions.

It remains unclear, however, which recommendation will make their way to Trump, though the sources said a list was likely to be ready for his consideration in coming days or weeks.

“We’re getting closer,” an administration official said.

An announcement of changes could come as soon as June, according to the official and people familiar with the matter.

The Daily Caller newspaper reported on Sunday that Trump would announce policy changes in a June speech in Miami, citing sources from a group opposed to the broader U.S. economic embargo that remains in place against Cuba.

But the timing could also depend on factors such as whether Trump fills key Latin America posts at the State Department and elsewhere that remain vacant, sources told Reuters.

The White House considered making a Cuba announcement on May 20 to mark the 115th anniversary of Cuba’s independence, but that coincided with Trump’s overseas trip and the review also was not yet finished, the sources said.

No USAID funds for Cuba in Trump budget proposal

The Miami Herald

USAID programs in Cuba, which have been highly controversial in recent years, aren’t funded under the Trump administration’s proposed State Department budget for Fiscal Year 2018.

“As we work to streamline efforts to ensure efficiency and effectiveness of U.S. taxpayer dollars, we acknowledge that we have to prioritize and make some tough choices,” said a USAID spokesperson. “Focusing our efforts will allow us to advance our most important policy goals of protecting America and creating American jobs.”

There are no economic support funds for Cuba in the State Department’s 2018 budget proposal, which was released Tuesday. Such funding, which is appropriated by Congress and provided to USAID by the State Department, reached $20 million in fiscal year 2016.

The Trump administration proposed slashing the overall State Department and USAID budget by around 30 percent to $37.6 billion. In his letter to Congress justifying the budget proposal, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the budget addresses “the importance of defending our national security interests” but also acknowledges that “U.S. diplomacy engagement and aid programs must be more efficient and more effective.”

The proposed budget cuts are expected to face a rough slog through Congress.

Assistance to Cuba is governed by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act and the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which among other things, authorizes donations of food to non-governmental organizations or individuals as well as other assistance to individuals and organizations to promote nonviolent, democratic change in Cuba.

Cuba has always said the USAID programs aren’t welcome.

Cuba programs that USAID advertised last year included $6 million in grants offered over a three-year period to organizations to “provide humanitarian assistance to political prisoners and their families, and politically marginalized individuals and groups in Cuba,” and a $754,000 program to bring Cuban young people to the United States for internships.

Among USAID programs for Cuba that have caught flak in recent years were a failed effort to co-opt the Cuban hip-hop scene to spark a youth movement that would speak out against the government, a program to create a secret Twitter-like network called ZunZuneo and an event billed as an HIV prevention workshop that brought young Latin Americans posing as tourists to Cuba with a mission of scouting for “potential social-change actors.”

The Associated Press, which first disclosed these projects in 2014, said the goal of ZunZuneo was first to create a program for Cubans to speak freely among themselves and then funnel political content that could create political unrest.

USAID said ZunZuneo’s goal was to connect Cubans so eventually they could engage on topics of their choice and that only tech news, sports scores and trivia were sent out on ZunZuneo. But a report by the Office of Inspector General found some early messages, which mocked Cuban leaders, contained political satire.

ZunZuneo was starting up just as USAID subcontractor Alan Gross was arrested in Havana in December 2009 for distributing satellite equipment in Cuba to link with the internet. Gross was sentenced to 15 years by a Cuban court that ruled his intent was to undermine the government, but he was released after serving five years on Dec. 17, 2014. It was the day the United States and Cuba announced a rapprochement after more than a half century of hostilities.

There are few direct references to Cuba in the fiscal 2018 budget proposal.

But under Migration and Refugee Assistance programs in the Western Hemisphere, which are budgeted for $51.3 million, is this reference: “In Cuba, resources enable the State Department to support the Migrant Operations Center at Naval Station Guantánamo Bay. Under 306 Executive Order 13276, the State Department is responsible for the care of migrants interdicted at sea, determined to be in need of protection, while they await third country resettlement.”

Amid all the cutting, the budget proposes a $40,00 increase to $2.41 million for the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission (FCSC). This quasi-judicial agency within the Department of Justice adjudicates claims of U.S. nationals against foreign governments. The proposal says the agency’s budget would go for the continued evaluation of claims, to maintain the decisions and records of past claims programs and to modernize such records by creating and updating databases.

While the FCSC deals with outstanding claims around the world, it is the repository of 5,913 certified claims against Cuba valued at more than $1.9 billion. In today’s dollars with interest added, those claims for sugar mills, ranches, utilities, corporate holdings and personal property would be worth around $8 billion.

However, Cuba claims the United States owes it billions in reparations for economic damages caused by the U.S. embargo and for human damages for the Bay of Pigs invasion, the bombing of a Cubana airliner and other deadly U.S.-supported incursions on Cuban soil.

The two sides met to discuss the claims during the Obama administration but at this point they have said little more than they hope their claims can be resolved in a “mutually satisfactory manner.”

Trump will not announce highly anticipated changes in Cuba policy

The Miami Herald

After much anticipation that an announcement on Cuba policy changes would be made no later than Saturday, President Donald Trump — in the midst of various political crises — has not decided what to do, officials said.

The White House had considered holding an event May 20 to commemorate the 115th anniversary of the birth of the Cuban Republic, but Trump will begin an international trip on Friday and the review of the policy toward the island has not concluded, a spokeswoman told el Nuevo Herald.

“The issue of Cuba is extremely complex, and the president does not want to rush it,” said the spokeswoman. “Besides, he won’t be here on May 20.”

The Trump administration is carrying out a review of Cuba policy that involves several federal agencies and is being coordinated by the National Security Council.

Rumors of an imminent announcement circulated around Capitol Hill and even crossed the Florida Straits to the island, although Havana seems less anxious than before, when Trump’s presidential victory and strong statements raised questions about the so-called “thaw” in diplomatic relations initiated by former President Barack Obama in 2014.

“Havana is confident that not much will happen,” said a businessman close to the Cuban government.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a drastic change would not make much sense because the Cuban communist government would quickly adjust to a policy of confrontation with its historical enemy, the United States, and because the island is in the throes of a significant transition — the expected retirement of Cuban leader Raúl Castro, 86, in February.

Continue reading Trump will not announce highly anticipated changes in Cuba policy

Christians in Cuba worry about student’s alleged persecution

Local 10 News

After trip to the U.S., Cuban pro-democracy student gets expelled

A 20-year-old history student dared to publicly criticize the Cuban government. He also defied them when he met with U.S. officials to try to influence President Donald Trump’s policy.

During a meeting with representatives of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in Washington, Félix Llerena wore a suit and tie. The ten members of the U.S. federal government commission make policy recommendations to Congress, the Secretary of State and Trump.
Llerena documented his trip on social media. He drank coffee under the U.S. flag and visited the Radio y Televisión Martí studio in Miami. The U.S. federal government has been financing the TV station’s programs in Spanish since 1990.

“I am returning to continue the struggle for your true liberation,” Llerena wrote on Facebook during his return flight to Cuba.

Cuban customs’ officials detained him for about four hours when he arrived April 27 at the Aeropuerto Abel Santamaría in Santa Clara. He reported they seized his tablet, flash drives, a pamphlet of the U.S. Constitution, a cap with the Bay of Pigs Invasion Brigade 2506 logo and cards. The alleged harassment didn’t stop there.

Cuban police officers later went to pick him up at his home in the province of Villa Clara’s town of Encrucijada. He told friends that state security agents called him a “terrorist,” accused him of having ties to terrorists living in Miami and threatened him with not being able to go back to the town.

“I am a young Christian, a Cuban, a patriot and a pacifist,” Llerena later said in a statement. “I would never approve of an armed or violent struggle, or of an armed foreign invasion that would hurt my people.”

On Monday, Llerena learned that the Universidad de Ciencias Pedagógicas Enrique José Varona’s administrators decided to expulse him. They attributed their decision to absenteeism.

“They told me that if I wanted to return I had to wait for two years … But of course everyone knows that my expulsion is due to purely political reasons,” Llerena wrote on Facebook.

Llerena traveled to the U.S. as part of a Christian delegation that included Baptist church leaders Mario Felix Lleonart, Yoaxis Marcheco and Raudel Garcia Bringas, and Apostolic Movement Pastor Yiorvis Bravo. They are part of the island’s Christian revival.

The Cuban constitution recognizes freedom of religion. As a result, clergy and academics estimate there are some 40,000 Methodists, 100,000 Baptists and 120,000 members of the Assemblies of God. About 60 percent of Cubans are baptized Catholic, with many also following Afro-Cuban syncretistic traditions such as Santeria.

Llerena also serves as the central region coordinator for the Patmos Institute, a Christian organization that promotes religious liberty on the island. He is also a promoter for CubaDecide, a campaign to request an electoral vote to begin a transition to Democracy on the island.

Mervyn Thomas, the director of the London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide, released a statement asking the Cuban government “to cease its harassment of Felix and to turn its attention to addressing its ongoing violations of freedom of religion or belief as a matter of urgency.”

The protests and the repression in Venezuela continue

TIME

It’s easy to see why huge numbers of furious Venezuelans have hit the streets in recent weeks. Years of mismanagement have left the country’s oil-export-dependent economy in a shambles. To appease the angry poor, President Nicolás Maduro announced a 60% increase in the minimum wage on May 1. That won’t reverse the decline of a country where production is in free fall, inflation is in the triple digits and hunger is now a common problem. It’s hard to find time for work while standing in line for the few remaining staples most of the public can afford.

The latest protests, and government response to them, have pushed Venezuela closer to the brink of collapse. Demonstrations have turned violent, with both protesters and police fueling the fire. There have been deaths, though there are few reliable estimates of how many. Riots have erupted even in working-class Caracas neighborhoods that have been loyal supporters of Maduro and his mentor, the late Hugo Chávez. These people are hungry too, and their continuing loyalty to the government can’t be taken for granted.
The nation’s political structure is also at risk. Maduro has effectively shut down the opposition-controlled national assembly and banned opposition leader Henrique Capriles from seeking office for 15 years. A bid by Pope Francis to broker a deal has gone nowhere.

In the past, the Venezuelan government’s main advantages were the strength of its grip on institutions of power, particularly the courts, and the inability of a fractious opposition to unite behind a single idea or candidate. Now that dominance of institutions gives the government full responsibility for a country close to a breakdown, and the opposition is united in desperation. Venezuela’s economy isn’t going to get better. The price of oil won’t move anywhere near the level that can keep this boat afloat anytime soon, and the government is running out of gimmicks.Maduro remains in power because the leftist Chavista movement has remained almost entirely united around the man Chávez anointed his successor. The police have kept the opposition contained, with help from state-backed gangs. The President hasn’t yet had to call in the army, which may not prove loyal enough to open fire on desperate civilians. That would prove the decisive moment. If the military becomes Maduro’s last option, he’s probably finished.