U.S. Colleges look toward Cuba

Capital News Connection:

WASHINGTON – Most Americans are barred from traveling to Cuba, but the nation’s college students may soon be packing their bags to visit the island.

President Barack Obama’s recent decision to ease travel restrictions for academics and church groups prompted many of the nation’s colleges to plan new programs for study in Cuba.

Janis Perkins, assistant dean of the University of Iowa’s international studies program, said her school has been waiting for Obama to ease travel rules since the president was sworn into office. “We’re ready to go to Cuba as soon as we can,” Perkins said.

The University of Iowa hopes to sponsor a culture and language program in Havana during the school’s next winter break. There are also discussions about holding an Afro-Cuban drum and dance workshop in Cuba and perhaps a global health program.

“Over time students have asked to go and I’ve had to say ‘no, we can’t do it.’ Now we’re poised and ready,” Perkins said.

The University of Iowa sponsored trips to Cuba under former President Clinton’s “people-to-people” policy that encouraged “purposeful” contacts between Cubans and Americans while keeping a ban on tourism travel. But former President Bush tightened travel rules to Cuba in 2004, and most academic trips to the island stopped.

Indiana’s Butler University sent hundreds of American students to the University of Havana to study advanced Spanish before it was forced to end its program in 2004.

The school is now hoping to start up its Cuba program again.

“It falls within our mission, which is to provide meaningful academic and cultural opportunities abroad,” said Joanna Holvey-Bowles, executive vice president of the university’s study abroad program.

Trevor Nelson, director of the study abroad program at Iowa State University, said Americans should travel to Cuba to learn more about the island.

“There’s a lot of misinformation about the country and it’s just 90 miles away from us,” Nelson said. “We need to know a great deal more about our neighbor.”

Obama seems to agree. On Jan. 14 the White House announced that accredited universities could sponsor trips to Cuba without asking the government’s permission. So could religious organizations.

Other proposed changes include:

-Universities will be able to sponsor workshops and conferences in Cuba

-Non-academic groups will be able to sponsor Cuban conferences, but will have to apply to the Treasury Department for a license to do so.

-Americans will be able to send up to $2,000 a year to Cubans who aren’t government officials

-Airports will be able to apply to host direct charter flights to Cuba. Currently, only airports in New York, Miami and Los Angeles are authorized to do so.

Regulations detailing the White House’s changes to the embargo are expected to be announced in the Federal Register in the next few weeks.

“We see these changes, in combination with the continuation of the embargo, as a way to enhance civil society in Cuba,” said an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He said increased contact between Cubans and Americans would make the Cuban people less dependent on their government.

But Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., a Cuban American lawmaker who supports the embargo, said Obama’s changes “will not help foster a pro-democracy environment in Cuba.”

“These changes will not aid in ushering in respect for human rights. And they certainly will not help the Cuban people free themselves from the tyranny that engulfs them,” she said.

Before Obama announced his changes, only certain groups of Americans could freely travel to Cuba. Those include journalists, government officials and farmers seeking sales of food or agricultural products to Cuba. Food sales to Cuba are allowed under a 2000 law.



USCCB backs Obama on easing travel to Cuba

Catholic Culture:

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has praised President Barack Obama for his executive order easing restrictions on travel to Cuba.

Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, New York, the chairman of the US bishops’ committee on justice and peace, said that the executive order took “modest but important steps” in allowing for greater travel and direct assistance to the people of Cuba. He predicted that “greater people-to-people assistance to Cubans will be another step toward supporting the people of Cuba in achieving greater freedom, human rights, and religious liberty.”

The US bishops, along with the Vatican, have frequently called for an end to the 50-year-old embargo on Cuba, arguing that restrictions on trade and travel have harmed the country’s people rather than the Castro regime.


Cuba set to free 52 dissidents: church officials

HAVANA (AFP) – Cuba has agreed to release 52 political prisoners, including five dissidents to be freed within hours Wednesday, after breakthrough talks led by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.

If the move goes ahead it would be the biggest prisoner release since President Raul Castro took over the reins of power from his hardline brother Fidel in 2008.

The remaining 47 dissidents will be freed within the next three to four months by the island’s Communist authorities, Roman Catholic church officials said in a statement.

The statement did not identify the political prisoners to be freed, nor did it mention high-profile dissident Guillermo Farinas, who is said to be near death from a months-long hunger strike.

But the news of the dissidents’ imminent release came after Spain’s top diplomat met with Cuban leaders in a bid to free the political prisoners and save Farinas’s life.

Moratinos met in Havana with President Raul Castro, dissident leaders and top church officials to achieve the breakthrough.

The statement from Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, said Ortega was informed that in the coming hours, the five prisoners “will be released and will leave shortly for Spain in the company of their families.”

The dissidents were among 75 people arrested in 2003, many of whom now are in ill health.

Farinas’s deteriorating condition has been reported, unusually, in the official communist party newspaper Granma in what observers say is an attempt to defuse international criticism should he die.

He has been refusing food since February while demanding the release of 25 political prisoners with failing health.

After the start of the church mediation, Farinas said he was willing to end his fast if 10 to 12 prisoners were released, but on Wednesday his spokeswoman Licet Zamora told AFP Farinas was waiting for official news.

“I just spoke with him by telephone, he is skeptical and in disbelief,” she said. “No one has communicated anything officially, the church has not contacted him. Until such time, he will not consider ending the hunger strike.”

The Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission (CCDHRN) — an outlawed but tolerated dissident group — estimates there are 167 political prisoners in the Caribbean nation of more than 11 million people.

The church began a dialogue with the government on May 19 in the face of hunger strikes that drew attention to the plight of dissident prisoners. As a result of the talks, one prisoner was released and another 12 were transferred to facilities closer to their families.

Moratinos has said if his visit was a success, it would help toward lifting the EU common position on Cuba, which has, since 1996, conditioned relations between the European Union and Havana on progress in human rights here.

The news was welcomed by Cuban dissidents living in Spain, who said it was a “positive gesture” as long as the prisoners were not forced into exile.

If they are forced to leave then the releases would “only be a smokescreen aimed at convincing the European Union to change its stand,” said Ernesto Gutierrez, head of the Spanish Federation of Cuban associations.

Spain wants a bilateral cooperation agreement with Cuba, but many other EU nations have opposed taking a softer stand to Havana.

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Cuba’s Santeria Priests See Unrest in 2010

HAVANA (AP) — A panel of Afro-Cuban priests are predicting a year of social and political unrest, struggles for power, treachery and coups d’etat, and they say the world will see the death of an inordinate number of political leaders in 2010.

In the forecast announced Saturday, they recommended older leaders move aside and make room for the young, a politically delicate statement in a country that has been led by brothers Fidel and Raul Castro for more than half a century.

”The older generations should pass their experience on to young people because times change, and the younger generation is better prepared,” said Victor Bentancourt, one of the island’s leading Santeria priests, or babalawos. ”Time is growing short” for such a change.

The priests announced their forecast following a secretive New Year’s Eve ritual in which they performed religious chants and sacrificed chickens, goats and other animals.

A rival Santeria group, which enjoys official sanction from the government, came out with its own predictions later Saturday, saying 2010 would be a year of improving health.

Santeria, which mixes Catholicism with the traditional African Yoruba faith, is followed by many people in Cuba, where about a third of the 11.2 million population is of African descent.

The ceremony in Cuba is one of several New Year’s religious traditions in Latin America. Indigenous shamans in Peru last week performed good-luck rituals for peace in 2010, asking for eased tensions between Venezuela and Colombia and for President Barack Obama to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations.

Mexico’s ”Brujo Mayor” or ”Great Witch” is scheduled to announce his predictions on world events and celebrity affairs on Monday, and Venezuela’s Santeria priests are expected to make their own New Year’s predictions.

Cuba’s communist government has tolerated Santeria and other religious practices for years, though it long denied religious leaders official recognition. In the 1990s the government began to allow greater religious freedoms, and today even some members of the Communist Party openly practice Santeria.

As the priests discussed their findings in a crumbling building on the outskirts of Havana, dozens of passers-by came to the front porch to examine a sign posted outside that announced the forecast — known as the ”Letter of the Year.”

As in past years, Betancourt and the other spiritual leaders declined to say what their predictions meant for the Castro brothers specifically, but their 2010 forecast for ”Cuba and the world” would seem ominous for any octogenarian leader.

In their prediction for New Year’s 2008, however, the priests warned of forest fires, war and an increased threat of robbery — but did not mention that the ailing Fidel Castro would step down as president.

Fidel Castro, 83, handed power over to Raul, 78. The elder Castro remains head of the Communist Party, and often comments on current events in essays published in the state-run media.

The priests said 2010 would bring ”dramatic changes in the social order” and ”an increase in the fight for power,” as well as a ”high number of deaths” of political, intellectual and religious leaders. To highlight their point, the priests wrote the word ”POLITICAL” in all capital letters in a statement they read out.

They said the year could be summed up with the saying: ”The King is dead; long live the King” the traditional shout announcing a monarchical succession.

The priests also warned that the year would bring ”treachery and usurpation” at the highest levels of governments, and that there could be coups d’etat or other sudden political changes. They also warned of the threat of climate change, disease and war, among other things.

The priests said their religious ceremony revealed 2010 to be the year of Baba Eyiobe, a Santeria sign that means ”double salvation,” as well as the divinities Obatala and Oya.

According to Santeria teachings, Obatala is a female divinity responsible for the creation of human beings, as well as the patron of reason and intelligence. Oya is the goddess of storms and wind, as well as ancestral spirits.

In 2009, the priests predicted a year of conflict between neighboring countries and warned of the necessity to foment respect within families.

Another priest, Lazaro Cuesta, stressed that Santeria does not teach that the year end predictions are fated to occur, and that there is still time for the world to avoid the unrest and conflict forecast in the ceremony.

”The future is in all of our hands, from the youngest child to the most powerful leaders,” he said.

www.particularcuba.com – Cuba travel agency

Impressions of Cuba: an educated and cultured people, but a feeble economy

Minnpost.com: HAVANA — We’ll call her Elena, to protect her from retribution from her government. I don’t know if we really need to protect her, but every time we asked her a question about her life in Cuba, she looked around to make sure no one was in earshot before answering.

Elena teaches mathematics to engineering students at the University of Havana. In most poor countries, this would make her a member of the economic elite. But this is Cuba, where for the most part the people are educated, cultured, healthy, and poor.

Elena has to moonlight as a tour guide at one of Havana’s oft-visited sites so she can earn enough to pay for food and clothing. We gave her a tip of about 10 American dollars, which is the equivalent of almost a month’s pay for a Cuban worker, even a well-educated professional.

She said she lives in a very small house, where she grew up with her grandmother. It is “her house” now, in a way — she doesn’t even have to pay any rent — but she can’t rent it out or sell it. “In Cuba,” she joked, “the only place where private property is respected is in the cemetery.”

Her daughter is studying archaeology at the university, but Elena says there is no future for the young woman in Cuba. She fears her daughter will find a way to leave, and she will be alone. Other relatives of hers have gone to the United States and Europe, “but they have forgotten me.”

One story of many
We heard so many variations of her story. Angela, a 90-year-old woman, sings and plays guitar in one of Havana’s relatively few privately owned restaurants. Her face lit up when we told her we were from the United States. While we ate another of our monotonous meals, she sang ballads from Cuba and Mexico, tossed in a heavily accented “It’s a long long way to Tipperary” and ended with “Guantanamera.” She told us that because she was from an era when women didn’t work outside the home, she never worked for the government and therefore had no pension. So, at 90, she plays and sings seven nights a week, for the tips.

Angela was pregnant when Fidel Castro took power, she said. Her son studied to be an industrial engineer, and got a job in a factory. But he found he could make as much in one night playing the guitar for tourists as he did in a month doing “his boring factory job.” So he, too, plays.

It was not like this during the first three decades of the Cuban revolution, the era when Cuba — despite its fierce desire for independence — was essentially a Soviet satellite state, selling its sugar in exchange for enough economic subsidy to provide most Cubans with a decent standard of living. This gave Cuba the space to build a socialist society based on universal access to education, health care, and a vigorous arts community, with freedom defined as the opportunity to do anything that supported the revolution and nothing that didn’t. Tourism, which had been mob-dominated under Batista, was virtually non-existent. Cubans were not allowed to own dollars.

Concessions after Soviet Union’s collapse
But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Castro had to make some concessions to keep his people from starving in the face of the relentless American economic embargo. He re-introduced tourism, using foreign joint-venture capital to begin renovating and rebuilding infrastructure (Old Havana is now an exciting area to explore), allowed some private entrepreneurship in certain categories of small business, and permitted Cubans living abroad to start remitting hard currency to their relatives on the island. It was all done reluctantly and in a very limited way, because Castro was so ideologically opposed to capitalism. Even today, nearly two decades later — with an ailing Fidel replaced by his more pragmatic younger brother Raul — “almost everyone works for the government here,” as one security guard in a hotel told us.

Even the trickle of capitalism is setting back the revolution’s commitment to equality. Revolutionary Cuba abolished de jure racial discrimination, and blacks are certainly far better off than before the revolution. But the Cubans who are fortunate enough to be getting remittances from foreign relatives are overwhelmingly white, and they are becoming a new elite. (Some, we were told, choose not to work at all, simply living off the remittances.)

“In Miramar (a higher-class suburb), all the people you see in the nice houses and the stores are white,” said a dark-skinned cab driver. “On the other hand, I could take you to an eastern suburb where the apartments are small and ugly and the people are black.”

Baseball and dominoes
In Havana, there is none of the rushing-around-of-suits-with-cellphones that you see in more financially oriented world cities, like New York or Shanghai. From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., large numbers of men stand in a corner of the Parque Central and argue about baseball. During a rainstorm, we dropped into a recreation center in the Centro neighborhood, and saw half a dozen men playing dominoes — a Canadian in the game, in Cuba to study Spanish, told us they play all day, every day: “Before work, after work, during work.”

Though things are better than right after the collapse of the Soviet support system, getting enough to eat is a challenge for Cubans. Some foods, like rice, are rationed, and, as the same cab driver told us, “what they call a month’s ration lasts for 10 days.” You can buy more at the market, but a pound of pork, he said, costs 28 Cuban pesos, almost 10 percent of a typical Cuban’s monthly government salary.

But poverty in Cuba is different from poverty in so many underdeveloped countries.  Every few blocks, it seems, we saw schools filled with what appeared to be healthy, energetic children, and community health clinics dotted the neighborhoods. According to World Health Organization data, Cuba has lower infant mortality and a lower incidence of AIDS than the United States, and about the same life expectancy. Cuba has trained so many doctors that it exports them for humanitarian missions and trades their services to Venezuela for petroleum.

You see almost no advertising for commercial products in Cuba, but (along with billboards with political/ideological messages) you see many public-health messages, such as warnings to girls about the risks associated with teenage pregnancy. We never saw a child begging. (There were some adult panhandlers, mostly elderly people, but not as many as we see in Minneapolis.) There is a lot of prostitution, involving Cuban women with foreign men, and one way the government appears to try to limit it is by not allowing Cubans above the lobby level in major hotels.

A vibrant, sophisticated arts scene
One of the most striking ways that Cuba is not like other poor countries is its vibrant arts scene. Both artists and audiences are highly sophisticated. We were in Cuba during the Havana Film Festival, and at every theater, long lines of locals waited to get into the movies on their inexpensive passes.

Teresa Eyring, former managing director of the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis and now director of the Theatre Communications Group in New York, was on our trip, and she spent the week meeting with many local artists and seeing their work.

“The place is infused with art, music, dance, painting, sculpture and theater,” Teresa told me after she made her rounds. “A distinguishing factor is the high level of sophistication of the people of Cuba. People of all ages and walks of life attend arts events. The prices are low, the work is good, and there is not so much else competing for people’s time.”

Aleigh Lewis, the filmmaker who with her husband, Sage, produced the theater/film piece that led us to Cuba for its premiere, described Cuba to us as a “meritocracy.” If you are good at what you do in the arts, you will be supported in a big way throughout your career. Some of Cuba’s best artists live in some of Cuba’s best housing, Eyring told me. “The building where Sage, Aleigh and company were staying is an artists’ high rise with sweeping views of the sea. The conductor of the orchestra lives there, and the penthouse is the home of the poet Cintio Vitier.”

Democracy seems a remote concept
So what lies ahead for this nation of highly educated, healthy, sophisticated, politically repressed, proud but poor people? Based on what we saw, it’s hard to guess how fast Cuba will change. Democracy seems like a remote concept; the Castro revolution has been very effective at applying just the needed level of repression to maintain tight control. More likely is something like the Chinese model, in which an ostensibly Communist state commits to improving its people’s standard of living, and employs foreign capital and know-how flowing through joint ventures to make it happen.

So far, of course, the capital flowing into Cuba is limited because of the decades-long U.S. economic embargo, which can make finding the simplest products a headache. Even though Castro always played up anti-Americanism to cement his position domestically, Cubans we spoke to are eager to see relations improve between their country and ours. “We are socialist and you are capitalist,” a woman bookseller in Plaza de Armas in Old Havana told me. “But we are all people, we should be friends, and we should trade.”

The dramaturg for the Lewis’ film/theater premiere, Esther Hernandez, who left Cuba for California in 2001, put it this way: “ It’s time for the old guard in both our countries to get out of the way, and let the young people create something new.”

On one level — Americans’ ability to travel to Cuba — the relaxation seems already to have begun. Under the ominously named “Trading With the Enemy Act,” it is in theory difficult for Americans to travel legally to Cuba. (Cuba is the only country currently covered by the act — North Korea was recently removed.)

You need to jump through a lot of hoops, and say different things to the authorities in the two countries (for example, the United States will approve “humanitarian” missions, but you are advised to tell the Cuban authorities that you are there for tourism). Americans must use only cash while in Cuba (American credit cards and bank cards don’t work), and not bring home any cigars or rum or anything else but artwork and publications.

This can prove to be a real burden. But the Obama administration seems to take a more relaxed view of the matter than its predecessor. When we told U.S. Customs in Miami that we had traveled to Cuba as journalists, and brought nothing home but a CD and a DVD, the official asked for no evidence of our professional work, did not check our luggage, and simply said, “Welcome home.”

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Cuba state media detail Spanish priests’ slayings

HAVANA (AP) — A church statement with details about the slaying of two priests was published Sunday by Cuba’s Communist Party youth newspaper — an unusual step in a country where state-controlled media rarely report on religion or common crime.

Sunday’s story in Juventud Rebelde was the first chance most Cubans had to learn about the investigation into the crimes that have sparked rampant rumors.

The statement, issued by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, said police had arrested the alleged killer of Rev. Mariano Arroyo. The priest’s body was discovered July 13 at his parish in the coastal neighborhood of Regla on Havana Bay across from the capital.

It said a suspect had confessed to murdering the 74-year-old native of Cabezon de la Sal in Spain’s Cantabria region. ”Possible accomplices” also have been captured, according to the statement, though it did not describe them.

The story said authorities also have arrested ”at least one person who has confessed” in the killing of Rev. Eduardo de la Fuente, a 59-year-old Madrid native. His body was found stabbed inside his partially torched car on a highway in a remote area outside Havana in February.

”Those who committed that crime didn’t know their victim was a priest,” it said.

Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega spoke at a Havana Mass in Arroyo’s honor Friday and said that the two killings were not related and that police had made arrests and secured confessions in both cases.

”The Church is aware of the shock, concern and questions that many Catholic faithful have in the face of such unusual occurrences as these,” the statement said.

It went on to say that the “Church is ready to firmly reject any attempt to relate one case to the other, or find religious or political meanings that are totally the opposite of the reality of these criminal actions.”

The communist government never outlawed religion, but expelled many priests and closed religious schools after Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Tensions eased in the 1990s after the government removed references to atheism in the constitution, followed by a visit from Pope John Paul II.

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