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    Major Developments in Cuba for 2014

    Major Developments in Cuba for 2014
    January 2, 2015
    By Café Fuerte

    President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, during a historical phone
    conversation with Raul Castro on December 16.
    HAVANA TIMES — Below, readers will find 12 highly important events that
    made headlines and had a significant impact on Cuba and Cubans during 2014.

    These were selected on the basis of their impact on the country’s
    political, economic and cultural spheres and are listed in chronological
    order, not in terms of their importance.

    Selecting news always means placing these in a hierarchy and involves
    possible omissions and disagreements among you, the readers. That said,
    the year’s top news item both for and in Cuba was doubtless Barack
    Obama’s announcement that relations with Raul Castro’s government were
    being normalized and a new era of bilateral relations was beginning.

    We are also aware of the fact that, in the last 48 hours of the year, a
    wave of arrests involving human rights activists, artists and
    independent journalists took place, as a result of Tania Bruguera’s call
    to participate in an artistic performance at Havana’s Plaza de la
    Revolucion.

    Though the incident is significant in and of itself, it is still
    developing and its repercussions extending into the beginning of 2015,
    which is why we have decided not to include it in this selection.

    1. The European Union begins negotiations with Cuba. The 28 members of
    the European Union (EU) decided to green-light negotiations aimed at a
    political and cooperation agreement with Cuba, a process which the Cuban
    government agreed to. The step taken by the EU marked the beginning of a
    thaw in relations between the European bloc and the island, stagnant
    since the adoption of the Common Position, which in 1996 had made the
    re-establishment of bilateral cooperation dependent on political reforms
    and respect towards civil liberties. With this measure, European
    countries seek to support the reforms undertaken by Raul Castro’s
    government and foster greater respect towards human rights in the
    country. Cuba is the only Latin American country with which Brussels has
    no cooperation agreement. To date, two rounds of negotiations have been
    held in Havana and Brussels (in April and August). The third round,
    originally scheduled for January 8 and 9 in Havana, has been postponed
    at the request of the Cuban government and a new date has not yet been
    set. The EU is confident a new political and commercial agreement will
    be finalized in a little less than two years.

    2. Cuban medical doctors desert in Brazil. Doctor Ramona Matos Rodriguez
    abandoned Cuba’s medical mission in Brazil in February and became the
    first professional from the island to break with the Mas Medicos program
    and request asylum in the South American country. 51-year-old Matos’
    desertion unleashed an avalanche of desertions from the Cuban mission in
    rural areas of Brazil and public statements condemning the established
    contracts, serving as the catalyst for changes to the payment system
    used with professionals sent to the country by Raul Castro’s government.
    Cuban doctors began earning US $ 1,245 a month, a considerable bump from
    the US $ 400 they had been receiving till March. An additional 600
    dollars that were being deposited in accounts held by the professionals
    in Cuba began to be paid directly to these as part of their salaries in
    Brazil.

    3. The Zunzuneo scandal and its repercussions for Cuba policy. In May,
    the Associated Press (AP) revealed that the United States Agency for
    International Development (USAID) had implemented a program based on
    cell phone messages known as “Zunzuneo,” especially designed to send
    messages to Cubans on the island. Though the program was discontinued in
    2012, the Zunzuneo scandal prompted the US State Department to review
    some of the programs aimed at promoting democracy in countries that are
    hostile towards the United States. The AP later published a series of
    reports on other USAID operations and programs that involved the hiring
    of Latin American contractors, paid to travel to Cuba and establish
    contacts with young people in the country and consolidate cooperation
    initiatives that would have an impact on the island’s hip-hop movement.
    USAID denied at all times that these programs were secret or covert, but
    the reprimand was inevitable. At the close of the year, USAID Chief
    Rajiv Shah announced he would tender his resignation.

    4. A New Foreign Investment Law in Cuba. The Cuban government set in
    motion a new Foreign Investment Law, approved by the National Assembly
    of the People’s Power during an extraordinary session held in March.
    With the new legislation, which came to replace Law 77 of 1995, the
    Cuban government seeks to inject some US $ 2.5 billion a year into its
    ramshackle economy. The law, which came into effect in June, envisages
    up to 15% in profit tax cuts and offers other benefits to incentivize
    investors. The area Cuban authorities are most interested in is the
    Mariel Special Development Zone (though the legislation applies to all
    of the country’s economic sectors).

    5. Cuban baseball players break into the Big Leagues. 2014 was a year
    when many Cuban baseball players made it to the Major Leagues. It also
    saw a wave of desertions and losses that have placed Cuban baseball and
    its regular series in a profound crisis. Some 30 Cuban players figured
    in the official rosters of Major League teams during the 2014 season,
    taking in a total of US $ 92 million. Five of these players were in the
    Stars Game, and Yoenis Cespedes won the Home Run Derby for the second
    consecutive time. Around 40 Cuban players were in the Minor Leagues,
    while 73 await permission from the Treasury Department or contracts with
    a franchise. Jose Dariel Abreu (now with the Chicago White Sox) was
    chosen Rookie of the Year. In August, Rusney Castillo signed a US $ 72.5
    million contract with the Boston Red Sox, the highest figure offered a
    Cuban-born player. Yasmani Tomas followed in his footsteps in November
    with a US $ 68.5 million contract signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

    6. Rafters crisis in Manzanillo and a new rise in illegal immigration. A
    group of 17 Cuban rafters was rescued by the Mexican Navy off the coast
    of Yucatan at the end of August. They were on a six-meter-long boat
    built out of welded aluminum sheets and sealed with resin. They strayed
    for 24 days. Two of the Cubans rescued died as a result of severe
    dehydration. The scope of the tragedy multiplied days later when
    authorities determined there were originally 32 passengers on board the
    makeshift vessel; that some died of thirst and the survivors had no
    choice but to throw the bodies into the sea, all the while drinking
    blood and urine to remain alive. It is the worst disaster to befall
    Cuban rafters in the high seas in two decades. The case was only the
    most dramatic element of the wave of Cubans who are desperately leaving
    the island by sea and revealing the fragility of the economic reforms
    implemented by Raul Castro. Four corpses also washed up on the coasts of
    Florida at the end of August, following the capsizing of another vessel
    that attempted to reach US soil. At the close of the 2014 fiscal year,
    the figures could not have been more alarming: 2,059 Cubans had been
    intercepted in the Strait of Florida, 815 managed to reach land and
    22,567 entered the country through different entry points and airports
    with the intention of requesting asylum in the United States.

    7. Cuban government puts new Customs measures into effect. As part of a
    new package of measures aimed at combatting the trafficking of goods
    through messengers or mules, Cuban authorities implemented a number of
    drastic restrictions on the import of personal items, household
    appliances and computer equipment on September 1. The resolutions passed
    by Customs and the Ministry of Finances and Prices set strict limits on
    personal use items on a broad range of products (381 different product
    categories altogether), closing the doors on the large cargos of
    products brought by visitors from Latin America and the United States.
    Fees of up to 100 percent the price of the packages sent to Cuba,
    applicable when the package is over three pounds in weight, also began
    to apply.

    8. Cuba sends medical doctors to combat Ebola in Western Africa. As part
    of the global effort to combate Ebola in West Africa coordinated by the
    World Health Organization, Cuba decided to send its medical doctors to
    join the battle against the deadly epidemic. The first brigade of 165
    professionals, made of 62 medical doctors and 103 nurses, was seen off
    by President Raul Castro on October 1. Twenty days after arriving in
    Comakry, Guinea, the first Cuban professional, economist Jorge Juan
    Guerra, died, presumably as a result of malaria complications. At the
    close of November, Cuban doctor Felix Baez Sarria became infected with
    Ebola and was transferred to a hospital in Switzerland. Baez recovered
    and returned to Cuba on December 7, and is planning to rejoin the Sierra
    Leone mission in January. Cuba’s work in the fight against Ebola was
    praised by the United States.

    9. Bailando sweeps the board and becomes song of the year. Bailando
    (“Dancing”), which became the year’s music super-hit, caught on around
    the world. The piece, by Cuban musician Descemer Bueno and featuring the
    band Gente de Zona and Spanish singer Enrique Iglesias, won Best Song of
    the Year, Best Urban Performance and Best Urban Song at the 15th Latin
    Grammy Awards, giving Cuban music much impetus on the international
    market. Enrique Iglesias sang the song for the first time during the
    Billboard Latin Music Awards in April. By October, it had become the
    longest-lasting number one hit in the history of the Hot Latin Songs
    Billboard, breaking Shakira’s 25-week record. With a bilingual version,
    Bailando also made it to the top of the Dance Club Songs Billboard,
    became number 12 in the Hot 100 Billboard and was among the year’s Top
    40 songs.

    10. The New York Time’s anti-embargo campaign. In October, as part of an
    unprecedented editorial campaign for a major US newspaper, The New York
    Times published a series of editorials which questioned Washington’s
    Cuba policy, proposed the exchange of contractor Alan Gross for the
    Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States and called for the
    relaxation of the restrictions imposed on the Castro regime, as a
    strategy for bringing about political change on the island. Ten
    editorials have been published to date, and their proposals fit the new
    Cuba “road map” announced by the White House. An eleventh editorial
    which criticizes the Cuban government’s treatment of the Tania Bruguera
    case was published this past Tuesday.

    11. Alan Gross released in exchange for the three Cuban spies. Following
    a decision of historical importance for relations between Havana and
    Washington, US contractor Alan P. Goss was released in the morning of
    December 17 in exchange for the three Cuban spies who remained in US
    prisons. Though Washington insisted the exchange was actually for a
    Cuban-born CIA spy and that Gross was released for “humanitarian
    reasons,” the reasons behind the exchange were obvious: 65-year-old
    Gross had become the chief obstacle in the way of bilateral relations
    between the two countries.

    12. Barack Obama announces Cuba policy change. Hours after the release
    of Alan Gross, President Obama appeared on US national television to
    announce a new course in Washington’s policy towards Cuba, involving the
    beginning of talks to normalize diplomatic relations between the two
    countries. The announcement marked an unprecedented and pivotal change
    in White House policy towards the Castro regime, setting in motion a
    thaw in the diplomatic and commercial relations which were suspended in
    1961. It is, without a doubt, the most important news for Cuba and
    Cubans in the year that has just ended.

    Source: Major Developments in Cuba for 2014 – Havana Times.org –
    http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=108321