Friday, October 31, 2008

Pastors for Peace Construction Team Ignores Embargo and Travel Ban

October 31, 2008

Solidarity Without a Visa: Pastors for Peace in Pinar del Rio

Once again members of the Pastors for Peace organization defy the US
blockade against Cuba, this time to help out with the recovery effort
in Pinar del Rio.


With the same determination that they have handled the most absurd and
brutal pressures of the US government to keep them from delivering
humanitarian aid to Cuba, members of the Pastors for Peace
organization have joined the recovery effort in Pinar del Rio.


They have come without the permission of their government because they
believe that nobody has the right to impose limits on the fraternal
love between sister peoples. The decision could wind them up in jail,
but they assure that their commitment with Cuba is above any risk.

The still fresh memory of the tragedy lived in New Orleans after
Hurricane Katrina brought a uneasy feeling about what they would find
here; nonetheless, the reality of the island has once again surprised

"We were expecting to find the streets covered with mud, dejected
people, but everything is organized. We've seen clean towns, houses
and schools being rebuilt, children receiving classes, the health
centers operating. It's been a great surprise to see that Cuba is
standing," said Rev. Manolo de los Santos Gonzalez, who heads the
brigade of 20 including masons, carpenters, plumbers and electricians
who responded to the call from the interfaith religious organization.

Based on our experience in other parts of the world where there have
been similar disasters we thought the situation would be similar.
After Katrina, Pastors for Peace went to New Orleans. "We were there
gathering bodies," he said.

The reverend said that even today in New Orleans it looks like a
hurricane just hit. "Everything is the same. The houses are ruined.
The people are dispersed throughout the country. The only thing that's
been rebuilt is the tourist zone, which serves to continue enriching
the government."

Here, in contrast, you wouldn't think two hurricanes had hit, said
Manolo de los Santos. "Despite the destruction, everybody is working.
They haven't stopped to lament the damage, but instead are
concentrated on what needs to be done to advance. It's something we
want to take back to the United States so that people know that the
recovery after a natural disaster depends above all on the will of the
government and the people."

When a little over three months ago Manolo visited Puerto Esperanza as
part of the Pastors for Peace Friendship Caravan he never imagined he
be back so quickly.

"When we saw the news of the hurricanes we knew we had to do
something. We sent letters to progressive organizations and the people
responded immediately. The goal was to obtain 20 persons and more than
50 offered. This demonstrates the affection felt by people in the US
for Cuba," said Manolo de los Santos.

Since their arrival in Puerto Esperanza on October 21 the brigade
members have worked in the reconstruction of the Santos Cruz Special
Education School, a center that was severely damaged by the winds of
Gustav and Ike.

"Today you see things that a week ago weren't there: a roof, the pipes
and the electric systems ready," said Manolo, noting however that the
greatest inspiration is communicated by their presence alongside the
victims, at the risk of facing severe punishment when they return to
their country.

"Those of us that are here did not ask the US government for a license
because we believe that no administration can regulate the way one
people shares with another.

"We believe that the blockade is the most immoral and diabolical
instrument conceived against a country and must end. For that reason
Pastors for Peace comes each year without asking for authorization.

"It's true that each time they cause more problems. They threaten us
with fines. They tell us that they are going to take us to court, that
they will imprison us. But nothing will make us renounce our
commitment with Cuba," concluded Manolo de los Santos.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Coping with Food Shortages

In food crisis, Cuba limits sales so all can eat

By ANNE-MARIE GARCIA – 20 hours ago

HAVANA (AP) — Cuba is limiting how much basic fruits and vegetables people can buy at farmers' markets, irritating some customers but ensuring there's enough — barely — to go around.

The lines are long and some foods are scarce, but because the government has maintained and even increased rations in some areas, Cubans who initially worried about getting enough to eat now seem confident they won't go hungry despite the destruction of 30 percent of the island's crops by hurricanes Gustav and Ike last month.

"Of the little there is, there is some for everyone," 65-year-old Mercedes Grimau said as queued up behind more than 50 people to buy lettuce, limited to two pounds per person.

"I'm not afraid that I will be left without food, but it's a pain to think about all the work we are going to have to go through," Grimau added. "Two or three months ago the farmers markets were well-stocked."

Cuba's government regularly stockpiles beans and other basics, and Economics Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez said authorities are ready to increase the $2 billion they already spend on food imports annually. The world credit crisis won't affect much of those imports because U.S. law forces communist Cuba to use cash to purchase American farm goods. But imports from other countries bought with credit could become more difficult or expensive.

The government is delivering all items distributed each month on the universal ration that provides Cubans with up to two weeks of food — including eggs, beans, rice and potatoes — at very low cost. In some hard-hit provinces, extra food has been added.

But the rest of the food Cubans supplement their diets with at supply-and-demand farmers markets and government produce stands has dwindled, prompting the government to limit consumer purchases and cap prices on items including rice, beans, root crops and fresh greens.

Rodriguez has sought to dispel speculation about a replay of the desperate early 1990s, when shelves were bare and people survived for weeks on one small meal daily. Cubans who lived through deprivation after the Soviet Union's collapse say the current food situation doesn't come close.

"It is true that it will take us some time to bring the agricultural production up to the levels that existed before the hurricanes," Rodriguez told state television this week. "Nevertheless, there is no reason to speculate or assume that there will be any hunger."

Although Cuba's relative financial isolation partially protects it from the jolts of the world economy, an extended credit crisis could stunt the island's foreign currency income if Cubans living abroad lose jobs and stop sending family remittances, or if potential tourists can no longer afford to travel.

But now, Cuba's top challenge is to increase local production of fruits and vegetables sold at the farmers' markets.

Waiting at one market on a recent morning, 55-year-old homemaker Regla Suazo said, "At least with the measures I know I can buy something." Shortly thereafter, the first truck of the day pulled up with green beans, green onions, guavas, avocados, corn, squash, cassava root and sweet potatoes.

But quantities were much smaller than usual. Vendor Nadia Gomez, who received nothing that day, said police checkpoints leading into Havana now turn away trucks unauthorized to market produce in the capital or have been ordered send their goods to harder-hit areas.

Cuban agricultural officials expect six months of food shortages, and are increasing short-cycle crops such as salad greens and taking other measures to ensure everyone gets enough to eat.

At Cuatro Caminos farmers market, among Havana's largest and most varied, vendor Juan Carlos Martinez lamented he had only papayas, guavas and pineapples to sell. "This isn't the business it used to be," he said.

Friday, October 10, 2008

US Blocks Direct Family Assistance Through CANF

Cubans in Florida frustrated that U.S. cut off their aid to island

Foundation appeals decision by government,0,1640950.story

South Florida

By Alexia Campbell

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

October 9, 2008

Click here to find out more!

One man wants to send his niece in Cuba money to rebuild a room of her flattened home. Another man wants to get arthritis medicine to his aunt, who moves around in a makeshift wheelchair. One woman looks for ways to send food to a cousin who waits for promised government aid.

For two days in September, it was easy. Cubans in the United States could send money directly to hurricane victims on the island, thanks to a temporary easing of federal restrictions on remittances.

But federal officials last month amended the license they granted to the Cuban American National Foundation.

Now it prohibits direct aid to people on the island.

As the foundation appeals the decision, South Florida Cubans struggle to keep hope alive in their homeland.

"It's completely frustrating," said Pedro Abigantus, a Pembroke Pines resident whose niece was left homeless in eastern Cuba after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike plowed through her house more than a month ago.

Current U.S. law limits Cubans in America to sending no more than $300 every three months to immediate family members in Cuba.

Abigantus, 71, can't send money to his niece unless someone travels there.

He wants to help his niece and her husband piece together a room for themselves and their little girl.

"To find one nail — it's impossible," Abigantus said. "They straighten out the same old nails and use the same old wood."

About 1,200 people wired money to Cuba through the foundation after the U.S. Department of Treasury first granted the license and after hurricanes damaged more than 100,000 homes on the island.

Two days later, the $250,000 limit the license allowed was hit, the foundation said.

Federal officials didn't explain why direct aid was briefly allowed and then taken away, said Sandy Acosta Cox, spokeswoman for the foundation.

The Treasury Department now won't publicly confirm or deny that the license was ever issued.

"There are no words to describe this," said Acosta Cox.Fred Valdes, 60, of Hollywood, heard news that part of the roof at his aunt's house near Santa Clara blew off. His aunt, who lives alone and suffers from arthritis, moves around in a wheelchair made from a chair mounted on two bike wheels. Her house has no power and she drinks water from a well in her yard, he said.

"Enough is enough," said Valdes, who wants to send her medicine and money. "Forget the politics, let the help go in."

Copyright © 2008, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Food Shortages

Cuba bolsters food rations to counter shortages
Wed Oct 8, 2008 4:33pm EDT

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - Fruits and vegetables are getting hard to find across Cuba after hurricanes wiped out crops, but the government is tapping food reserves to bolster the monthly food ration that Cubans have received for decades.

It said it would step up imports when needed to make sure no one goes hungry, a situation that could arise by December when diplomats estimate Cuba's reserves will run out.

A survey of major cities and the hardest-hit provinces found that supplies of vegetables and fruits had dried up, even in the usually well-supplied black market. But starches and proteins could still be found with an effort.

"The problem is you have to be at the markets when something comes in, because supply is irregular," said Carlos Pena, a state worker in Holguin province.

Hurricanes Gustav and Ike struck the communist-run island in a 10-day period starting August 30, causing $5 billion in damage and wiping out of 30 percent of Cuba's crops.

Cubans say the monthly ration usually provides enough basic food to get through about two weeks, and then they have to supplement it with purchases.

Across much of the country the ration has been increased with additional rice, beans, sugar, cooking oil, a few cans of fish and meat, crackers and other basics, according to people interviewed.

They said they had been told the additional food would be provided through March, which is when the government has said it expects the shortages to ease.


In the few provinces where there was little storm damage, which includes Havana, rations have not been increased and some food that normally would have gone to the Cuban capital was being diverted to needy parts of the country.

As a result, Havana food markets have been more barren than before the storms.

At one of the city's urban gardens begun to increase food supply during the deprivation that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, at least 100 people stood in line on Wednesday to buy the day's primary offering, lettuce.

"I don't think we'll have enough lettuce for everybody in line," one of the vendors said.

In measures that some critics say have only worsened the storm-induced shortages, the Cuban government has slapped price controls on staples and limited how many pounds of rice, for example, an individual can purchase.

It also has cracked down on sales outside the state-controlled distribution system and pressured farmers to sell only to the state.

Street vendors have disappeared across the country and what is available at private markets has dwindled.

Camaguey resident Evelio Cisneros said he got basics such as rice and beans at a state store on Tuesday, then found pork and avocado at a private market.

"There is much less since the storms, but there is food at a decent price to buy," he said.

(Editing by Jeff Franks, Michael Christie and Xavier Briand)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Insight from Inside: A Cuban View of the Migration Risk

There is no doubt that a worsening of economic and social conditions in Cuba will provoke an increase in legal and illegal immigration, mainly to the US. It can get out of hand, but not easily.

In previous situations, Boca de Camarioca in the 60’s, Mariel in the 80’s and the last one in the mid 90’s, always the Cuban authorities had, in some justified way, allowed it to go on until the US authorities were forced to some kind of agreement. But it was always first provoked by rigid US policies that did not take in consideration the consequences of such policies.

I think that the Cuban Government and Party have the means and political tools to avoid such a situation today, but it is obviously a possibility.

As you have been probably able to watch, the destruction in Pinar del Río, Holguín and Las Tunas, but not only in these provinces, has been enormous and it has hit private houses in the worst way. Just as much, it also hit agricultural production and electrical energy infrastructure.

There is already a certain scarcity of sweet potatoes (bonitato), malanga (I don’t know the name in English), bananas and plantain, fresh pork and goat meat and others basic food in the “agromercados” and it will get worse. There is also a problem in the CUC ("dollar") stores to get cooking oil (you can only get soya oil), tomatoe paste, canned fish and meat, frozen chicken, cheese and fresh meat.

The only solution is a rapid recuperation of agricultural production. The private agricultural sector is the main producer, but can not do it by itself, It is needed that the state farms under their various forms of organization increase production, something they have been unable to do in 50 years, without huge investment in machinery, fertilizers, insecticides and other inputs that are no longer available.

As the destruction is shown by TV, people get surprised to see how poor the houses were before the hurricanes, and slowly everybody is starting to realize that it will take decades to bring housing to, even, the previous poor situation.

An immediate political result of the destruction is the solidarity and unity of purpose that brings among the people. This is probably true in every country. In Cuba it is even more so, as the Government and Party had created a solid organization that includes more and more people to people solidarity, to confront hurricanes and heavy rains. Also because of the quick and effective response to start reconstruction, that includes, even, cultural groups with well known artists performing in the more severely affected areas. Of course the limited resources are the main problem.

But, is difficult to predict how the mood will change as the reality of an even poorer country, with even more economic and social problems, takes hold slowly of people's minds.

So, yes it is almost certain that there will be an increase of emigration. Whether it will be massive and illegal, depends of many factors. Of course the impact of a limited in time lift of the embargo, or the increase in remittances and traveling, will help to avoid that this problem gets out of hand. As has happened in the past, I doubt the US Administration will take in consideration the consequences of their fanatic anti-evolution policies. Even without massive emigration, it is always safer for you not to provoke problems to your neighbor that can affect you in the long run.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Washington Post on Hurricane Impact There and Here

Hurricanes Shift Debate On Embargo Against Cuba

By Joshua Partlow

Washington Post Foreign Service

Wednesday, September 24, 2008; A01

LOS PALACIOS, Cuba -- A pair of devastating storms have prompted new calls for the United States to end its long isolation of Cuba, including from hard-line exile groups that are pushing for the Bush administration to loosen restrictions they had long favored.

For the first time in the 47-year history of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, Washington has offered direct aid to the island's Communist government, long dominated by Fidel Castro and his younger brother, Raúl, who is now nominally in charge. The offer marks a slight softening of the Bush administration's policy toward Cuba, motivated in part by a new generation of Cuban Americans who think a more open approach to the island during a time of political transition could help bring about a lasting change in government.

But even the most hawkish Cuban exile groups are pushing the Bush administration to go much further. Traditionally a voice for greater isolation of the Castro government, the Cuban exile lobby has asked Congress to lift the four-year-old rules that limit Cuban Americans to sending $300 every three months to immediate family on the island and to making just one trip to Cuba every three years. Some have even proposed a temporary suspension of the trade embargo, a cause taken up by a few members of Congress.

So far, though, the Cuban government has rejected the U.S. offer, preferring instead to rely on relief aid that arrives daily by the planeload from Russia and other more sympathetic countries. The Cuban government has mobilized the military to help in the reconstruction effort, including here in this hard-hit stretch of western Cuba, while legions of volunteers are picking coffee beans and other crops to salvage this year's harvest and working to repair damaged homes.

"I will not be surprised if we're looking at a major immigration crisis in the next few months," said Silvia Wilhelm, executive director of the Miami-based Cuban American Commission for Family Rights, an organization that promotes closer U.S.-Cuba relations, who visited the island after the hurricanes. "We're talking a situation that is very critical for the Cuban people."

The question of who should help the Cubans in times of need and to what degree has shaped Cuba's relationship with the United States for decades. The severe damage done by the storms appears now to be changing the debate. The hurricanes, which hit the island one after the other in just over a week, damaged an estimated 500,000 homes and ruined 30 percent of the nation's crops.

Four days after Gustav struck Cuba on Aug. 30, the U.S. government offered to send an assessment team to the island and $100,000 in emergency funding for humanitarian groups. The Cuban government has estimated that the damage from the two storms totals $5 billion, and it dismissed the offer as too paltry to be serious.

But on Sept. 13, six days after Hurricane Ike barreled into the island of 11.4 million people, the Bush administration raised its offer to $5 million, which U.S. officials called an unprecedented proposal of direct aid to the Cuban government. In the past, U.S. aid to the island has been channeled through nongovernmental relief organizations. The Bush administration has authorized an additional $8 million in private U.S. donations to be distributed in that way.

The Cuban government requested building materials instead of the blankets and "hygiene kits" the aid included, said José Cárdenas, the U.S. Agency for International Development's acting assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean.

"These people are in dire need," he said. "We certainly hope that they would just accept it and get this stuff to the people who need it."

In an attempt to fulfill the request for building materials, the U.S. government on Friday proposed sending 8,000 "shelter kits," which include zinc roof sheeting, lumber, tools and wire. Cárdenas said the value of the aid is $6.3 million. So far, the Cuban government has not responded.

But Fidel Castro, who because of illness handed over official power to Raúl in February but remains highly influential, has signaled that the Communist Party would reject the U.S. aid on principle.

"Our country cannot accept a donation from the government that blockades us," he wrote recently in Granma, the party's daily newspaper. "The damage of thousands of lives, suffering, and more than $200 billion that the blockade and the aggression of the Yankees has cost us -- they can't pay for that with anything."

Despite the offers, many Cuban exiles who favor more contact with the island have sharply criticized the Bush administration.

"A whole group that you could consider extreme right-wing a year ago is now in favor of two very important changes," said Alfredo Duran, a Miami lawyer and a member of the Cuban Committee for Democracy, a moderate exile group that favors dialogue with the Cuban government. Referring to proposals to lift restrictions on remittances and travel to Cuba and the fuller debate emerging among Cuban exiles about the embargo itself, Duran said: "A lot of people in the past would not even talk about it. They basically shunned the issue."

Last week, El Nuevo Herald, a traditionally hard-line Spanish-language newspaper in Miami, published an editorial supporting a proposal by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) to lift the restrictions on remittances and travel for six months. Even in "normal times," the editorial read, the measures were "highly unpopular."

"Now, they offend intelligence and sensibility," the paper said. "That absurd strategy does not benefit North America's best interests nor puts pressure for the return of freedom to Cuba."

The Cuban American National Foundation, historically the most powerful Cuban exile organization, still supports the embargo. But it is now actively campaigning to eliminate the travel and remittance restrictions, and recently sent a letter to President Bush urging him to waive them. The president of the foundation, Francisco Hernandez, said the Cuban government is taking advantage of the storms to win international political support while the Bush administration is "tying the hands of its friends, the Cuban American community."

"We all have, down here in Miami, a terrible sense of frustration at this administration at this time, because we are wasting the greatest opportunity for those who want freedom and democracy in Cuba to help and to be agents of change in Cuba," said Hernandez, who took part in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and described the current U.S. policy as an "even bigger mistake."

Meanwhile, Russia has sent planeloads of supplies to help storm victims; Brazil and Spain have also contributed. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, a close Cuban ally, visited Havana this week and is expected to give a lucrative aid package.

Havana, the seaside capital, was largely spared the brunt of the storms. But many important industries suffered serious losses.

The winds flattened fields of sugar cane, the coffee harvest was hurt badly, and tobacco-curing sheds collapsed. Millions of acres of crops were damaged in the storms. The destruction left an estimated 200,000 people homeless and left others facing severe damage and long delays in the arrival of building supplies to repair what remains.

"Everything was destroyed -- look at this," said Linda Meléndez, the sun beating down into what was her living room before Hurricane Gustav tore the roof off her home here in this city of 40,000 people set among cultivated fields.

The Cuban government had classified her house as a partial loss, she said, preventing her family from receiving wood to build a temporary backyard hut.

"How long can we wait for materials?" she said.

On the way west out of Havana, metal electricity towers, one after the other, lay on the ground, their cables slumped between them. Houses had been shorn of their corrugated roofs.

Here in Los Palacios, every house appeared to have sustained at least some damage. But the rebuilding effort, in comparison to the chaos of neighboring Haiti, has been orderly.

Rubble and debris have been swept into piles along every street. Several residents said the government had assessed the damage and outlined the building materials they were supposed to receive. Many people were living with friends and neighbors, had moved into public buildings or were constructing small wooden shacks in their yards until the supplies arrived.

"I have never seen a storm like this; it was terrible," said Mario de Jesús Fuentes Campos, a 55-year-old retiree who lost his roof and the big mango tree in the back yard.

His family went 15 days without electricity. Prices of gasoline and cooking oil have risen. The stores have shortages of rice, he said, and there is hardly any meat at the butcher's.

"We have no money now," said his mother, Encarnación Campos, 81, who has a son living in Riverside, Calif. "It's unfair the Cubans can't send help to their relatives in Cuba. I don't agree with these rules."

Letter from Cuba Stiudy Group Executive Director

Thursday, September 25, 2008


For observers of the diplomatic chess match being played between Havana and Washington over humanitarian relief to the victims of hurricanes Gustav and Ike in Cuba, it is easy to overlook the positive steps taken by the U.S. government following its initial timid offer of $100,000 in assistance.

Despite at least five rejections by the Cuban government of U.S. offers of assistance, the administration has moved quickly to get assistance to the victims of the hurricane damage in Cuba.

These measures include: expediting licenses for nonprofit organizations wishing to send assistance to Cuba, delivering approximately $1.7 million in aid through nongovernmental organizations working in Cuba, and authorizing the sale of $250 million in agricultural goods to Cuba, including lumber.

The latest U.S. offer includes $6.3 million worth of construction materials to help Cuba rebuild. Though these offers fall short of the immense estimated need for the Cuban people (projected to be between $4 billion and $5 billion), they represent positive steps that deserve praise.

U.S. officials have proved their willingness to work with Cuban officials (even sit down with them) to make the legitimate U.S. offer of assistance more palpable for a regime with an already bruised ego.

This tragedy has presented the U.S. government with a unique opportunity to demonstrate the generosity of America. U.S. officials' willingness to take these positive steps is evidence that some in our government understand the importance of this opportunity.

Recognizing the Cuban government's stubborn unwillingness to accept U.S. assistance, these officials would do well to press on the administration the value of family-to-family assistance in circumstances such as this and advocate to suspend restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba by Cuban-Americans.

The U.S. government's willingness to take these steps stands in contrast to a cruel regime that rejects the assistance its people so desperately need and prefers to play politics rather than ensure the well-being of its citizens.


Executive director

Cuba Study Group