Circles Robinson Online

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Location: Havana, Cuba

is a blog to give a fresh angle on a fascinating and beautiful Caribbean Island country that, despite being relatively small and with only 11 million people, has been a major player in American and world politics for a half century. I also suggest you try

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Africa Could Bring Cuba and Obama Closer

By Circles Robinson

Obama’s election has opened a window of hope in the world. In Cuba, the hope is for a semblance of normalization in US-Cuba relations. The task is formidable with five decades of inertia propping up an outmoded policy of hostility and blockade.

Finding a common ground to get beyond the animosity could be a key step towards easing tensions.

Attention will be focused come January on the Obama campaign promise to allow Cuban-Americans to travel freely to the island and send remittances to their relatives; many analysts feel that these will become reality during his first months in office.

Not far behind will be the growing demand of US citizen’s rights groups to scrap the travel ban on Cuba all together and the plea from business people to loosen trade sanctions and provide opportunities for US farmers and exporters.

Those Congress people and citizen groups seeking broader change in US-Cuba policy, with an eye on totally eliminating the US blockade, will be measuring their strength in the new legislature and proceeding accordingly.

One factor that makes any decisions a little easier for Obama is that he won the state of Florida, and would still have taken the presidency without it. This fact will lessen the influence of the old guard Miami - Cuban crowd that has wielded disproportionate clout in shaping US foreign policy.

On the other hand, Barack Obama needs to kick start a US economy heading into the throes of recession. He says that creating jobs is top priority and there probably is no quicker way to do so in Florida than by lifting the blockade against Cuba. Travel agencies, food and building material companies, the entertainment industry, convention centers, shipping companies, importers etc. would be some of the areas where long-term jobs could be created in a relatively short period.


Far from the Congressional arena, another strategy for improving longstanding poor relations could be found many thousands of miles away on the African continent.

It’s logical to think that Africa will receive far greater attention under the Obama presidency than it has under previous administrations, which generally assigned the continent a very low priority.

Likewise, there is no other country in the Western Hemisphere that dedicates more resources to assisting impoverished African nations than, yes, surprise, Cuba, which has been providing doctors, educators, scholarships and sports trainers for decades.

HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention is one of the areas where the Cubans have helped out, but the scope of the problem is beyond their capacity to go it alone.

Speaking at the United Nations on June 25, 2001, Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage, publicly offered to send 4,000 Cuban doctors and health personnel to create the necessary infrastructure to treat millions of persons and to train a large number of local specialists in HIV/AIDS, including nurses and health technicians.

Cuba also offered to provide sufficient professors to establish 20 medical schools, with a staff of Cuban teachers, selected from among the doctors working in those countries.

The island was ready to provide diagnostic equipment and kits necessary for basic prevention programs and follow up and anti-retroviral treatment for 30,000 patients.

The only hitch was obtaining what Cuba doesn’t possess and couldn’t buy.

“All it would take is for the international community to provide the raw materials for the medicines, the equipment and material resources for these products and services. Cuba would not obtain any profits, and would pay salaries in its national currency, thus taking on the most expensive part for international health agencies, as well as the most difficult part, which is to ensure that the professionals are prepared and ready to begin their work,” Lage told the UN.

What could have been an amazing humanitarian undertaking never took place. The Cuban offer went unanswered because of the blockade and uncaring politics.

Now with Barack Obama in the White House, and an ear predictably more sensitive to Africa and African-Americans, the offer should be restated and reconsidered. If the deal gelled a lot of people would benefit, and Cuba and the US would be a new footing.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Damage Assessment Begins after Paloma

Hurricane Paloma weakened considerably inside Cuban territory late Saturday and early Sunday and is no longer considered a cyclone.

With daybreak, assessment now begins of the damage caused to homes, power lines and other infrastructure mainly in Camaguey and neighboring Las Tunas province.

The storm entered Cuban territory near Santa Cruz del Sur, Camaguey as a Category 3 hurricane with winds of 125 MPH early Saturday evening. Once over land, the storm began to weaken and later dissipated at an accelerated rate.

According to the Cuban Meteorology Institute, what’s left of Paloma is now a broad low pressure area that continues over the island in the eastern part of Camaguey Province and western Las Tunas, but is no longer a serious threat.

Civil Defense authorities will now begin their effort to assess the damage caused by the storm, the third major hurricane to hit Cuba in the last 70 days.

When a similar storm hit Santa Cruz del Sur on November 9, 1932 some 3,000 people died. However, this time around, no deaths have been reported, attributed to the island’s early warning system and massive evacuations of hundreds of thousands of people.

The Cuban Meteorology Institute said at 6:00 a.m. that sea swells would continue on the south coast of Camaguey to Guantanamo, gradually lessening throughout Sunday.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Eerie Feeling Before Hurricane

By Circles Robinson

Once again we are in that strange, eerie time just before a hurricane strikes. While Havana, where I live, is far from the eye of this storm, concern mounts for the provinces and people about to be affected.

It’s been one heck of hurricane season. If Hurricane Paloma crosses the island as expected, it will be the third major storm to hit Cuba this year.

Instead of trying to concentrate on the prospects posed by the soon-to-be Obama administration in Washington, Cuba must once again put all its priority on Civil Defense.

As of Saturday morning a hurricane warning stretches from Sancti Spiritus, Ciego de Avila and Camaguey in Central Cuba to the Eastern provinces of Las Tunas, Granma, Santiago de Cuba and Holguin. Tens of thousands of people are being evacuated.

The storm, now a Category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson Scale, is expected to touch land in Cuba sometime early Sunday. The hurricane packs winds in excess of 140 MPH.

Strong air currents from the southwest have made it hard to predict the exact landing point of Hurricane Paloma on Cuban soil, reported the Cuban Meteorology Institute.

Cuba is still amid what will be years of recovery from the powerful hurricanes Gustav and Ike that hit the country between August 31 and Sept. 10. Over 400,000 homes were damaged or totally destroyed and losses were steep in industry infrastructure and agriculture.

To keep up on developments of Hurricane Paloma check out:

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Sister Cities vs. Runaway Hysteria

Interview by Circles Robinson for

While Cuba-US government relations have fluctuated from cold to icy over the last 50 years, a citizen’s movement has kept the candle burning between communities of the two neighboring countries. Several US cities have sister city relationships with Cuban counterparts, the effort often spearheaded by individuals who based on their own experiences believe that such an exchange is mutually beneficial.

On the eve of the US elections, Havana Times interviewed Lisa Valanti, the national president of the US-Cuba Sister Cities Association.

HT: What was the first US city that established an official sister city relationship with a Cuban city? What was the last?

LISA VALANTI: The first U.S. city to establish an official sister city relationship was Mobile, Alabama. The relationship was the inspiration’ of City Archivist, Jay Higginbotham, who happened to discover an old treaty between the Port of Mobile and the Port of Habana in the city archives that preceded the U.S. embargo. So Jay, and a group of forward-minded Mobil residents, simply used that pre-existing treaty as the legal foundation of their sister city effort, and formed the Society Mobile-La Habana.

Jay had been previously active in forming a sister city with a community in the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, and understood how people-to-people exchanges could defuse, or at least add perspective to runaway political hysteria.

The last sister city to form an official relationship was Ann Arbor, Michigan with Remedios in the province of Villa Clara. I think it might be interesting to perhaps feature different relationships since many of them have existed for almost two decades now.

HT: Are sister cities only a formal relationship that entails occasional visiting delegations and speeches about fraternity or is there more to it?

LISA VALANTI: A sister city, county, region, or state relationship is a broad based, officially sanctioned, long-term partnership between two communities, towns, cities, counties, regions, or states in two countries.

Sister city partnerships have proven to be more effective than any other international program in carrying out the greatest possible diversity of activities because they are naturally inclusive of every type of municipal, professional, business, educational, humanitarian, scientific, and cultural exchange or project.

Sister city programs are unique in that they concurrently engage the communities’ three main sectors: local government, business, and a variety of citizen volunteers representing every sector within the community.

So, they are very complex, diverse and inclusive in their potential, although the blockade has hindered their potential. Still, we are committed and plan to outlast the blockade.

What makes a sister city relationship official? Do unofficial ones also exist?

LISA VALANTI: A sister city becomes ‘official’ when it is officially adopted by a formal resolution in the local government, that creates a sustainable bilateral partnership. A sister city is always an expanding ‘work in progress,’ and yes, people can state their intentions to create a sister city and work for years to build that partnership until they are able to get official sanction. They are unofficial, or ‘engaged’ until they ‘marry’.

Most of the original sister cities took a decade of community organizing to succeed in getting approval from our local governments. The whole process became almost standardized for sister cites formed after 1999, when we formed the national organization. We were able to give them advice and mentor new initiatives. So much so that we think it was the eagerness of ordinary people in the U.S. wanting to embrace an end of the blockade, and wanting to create mutually beneficial community exchanges that made Bush determine to sever and end people-to-people diplomacy.

How does a sister city relationship go about being established. What does that entail?

LISA VALANTI: It starts when a person or group decide they want to create one. Each sister city has a unique story, and builds as it gains support, person-by-person, institution-by-institution. It reflects local people finding issues in common to build relationships on. U.S.-Cuba sister cities have been initiated by US communities, and by Cuban communities that have reached out to US communities.

Has Cuba been receptive to your “citizen diplomacy”?

LISA VALANTI: Cuba has been very supporting and receptive to all of our efforts. Actually, Cuba has been the stronger partner, because they actually represent their community and can dedicate resources to the relationship, whereas US residents are totally impeded by US policy, especially under the Bush regime.

What’s the difference between a sister city relationship and a Cuba-solidarity group?

LISA VALANTI: Sister Cities don’t involve themselves in Cuba’s internal affairs. Rather than ‘solidarity’, we seek to show respect for the human right of self-determination by the Cuban people to build their society without outside intervention of any sort. We seek to exchange ‘best practices,’ and explore our differences, looking for ways we can learn from each other and support each other, but adopting a authentic good neighbor policy, which means we respect the local communities with which we partner. We try and maintain political neutrality, and partner simply as equal shareholders in humanity’s future.

What’s it been like on the US side to get an official sister city designation with a city in a country the White House calls its enemy?

LISA VALANTI: We don’t accept that designation of Cuba, nor its population. We challenge stereotypes. For instance, the Cuban flag flies every day in the Pittsburgh City Council Chambers, because Pittsburgh and Matanzas have been officially partnered for over ten years now. Sister cities refuse, and actively work to defuse, the demonization of Cuba and its government. Cuba is part of our global family, and our firsthand experiences help inform our communities not to fall for US propaganda.

Has the travel ban and stepped up blockade blocked all sister city activity or has some exchange been able to slip through the cracks?

LISA VALANTI: Since a sister city serves as a local ‘umbrella’ group, and is a diverse entity, many facets of sister cities have still found ways to maintain their relationships with our counterparts, mostly in healthcare, sister churches, and some educational exchanges. They share their experiences with the rest of the community, and help support and sustain those people who want to expand into currently forbidden arenas.

The US cities have far more material resources than their Cuban partners. Is the relationship a one-way street or do the Cuban counterparts have something to offer their US partners?

LISA VALANTI: In general, US cities don’t really have more accessible resources. Because of the blockade they can’t use them to develop their relations with Cuba. So Cuba has really invested more in supporting these relationships, until we can end the blockade. Since these relationships are being built with upon the idea of permanence, in time, as policy changes, US cities will invest more. But there is the exchange of ideas, and we have much to learn from Cuba.

Could you tell me a few anecdotes of how the sister cities have had an impact on peoples’ lives both in the US and Cuba?

LISA VALANTI: I have never met a person who hasn’t had their life changed in some profound manner by a visit to Cuba. Sometimes, what changes is people’s thinking about how we live in the US, and our own relationship to our government. Sometimes it helps us understand that many people in the world live differently than we do in a first world nation.

For me, I now devote my entire life to ending the blockade of Cuba, and have made friends that are as dear to me as my family; we have become a ‘blended family.’

We just had two pretty serious hurricanes hit Cuba causing widespread damage, what was the response from sister cities in the US?

LISA VALANTI: USCSCA has put out a call to collect humanitarian aid, and so far we have contributed over four thousand dollars to Global Links that is working with PAHO and the Ministry of Health to provide urgent aid. We are also supporting Pastors for Peace and many of our local sister cities are actively collecting aid targeted for their sister city. Again, hurricane relief is long-term, it will take years to fully recover, and we hope to be working in partnership with our sister cities to restore and repair targeted hospitals, etc. over at least the next two years.

Is your position a paid full-time job, part-time, or totally volunteer? Are there other paid staff and how do you get your funding?

LISA VALANTI: USCSCA is a 100% volunteer organization. We labor for love. Our membership and supporters pay small dues, and we fundraise for special projects.

We know that sister cites are non-partisan. Nonetheless, with the US elections right around the corner I’d like to ask your personal opinion on a couple things. Some people here in Cuba say that on foreign policy there is nothing that resembles a Republican more than a Democrat and expect little change in policy? Others see a ray of hope if Obama wins. How do you see it?

LISA VALANTI: Because Obama was a constitutional lawyer, I believe if Obama wins, he will restore in increments, US residents freedom to travel, remove limits on remittances, and those two acts will create a public constituency that will demand new openings and policy changes. Since the blockade is older that Obama, I think he will find ways to defuse the Cold War rhetoric, and do what he can to begin to open channels for communication; coast guard, disaster management, immigration, etc. I think we can restore at least the status quo of the Clinton administration. If we can lift just the travel bans, people will demand normalization.

Do you see much at stake regarding Cuba-US relations with Tuesday’s elections?

LISA VALANTI: Yes, I think McCain will continue to demonize Cuba to rationalize more US resources for military adventurism, and maintain the blockade. I think Obama will respond to the public will IF people in the US can make visible the issue of Cuba. Obama will offer possibility, McCain the status quo.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Cuba and the World Watch with Angst

By Circles Robinson

I have a lot of things regarding Cuba that I want to write about, but the US elections on Tuesday have overshadowed my thoughts. I’m not alone. A lot of people on the island are wondering what’s going to happen, as is a good chunk of the world.

Up until the explosion of the current financial crisis, I firmly believed that John McCain was going to be the next president, the same way that I thought George W. Bush would win reelection in 2004.

The race and terror cards and preference for the old but known seemed to me more powerful than anything the Obama campaign could come up with.

I still fear that McCain has a shot to win, but I’m no longer so sure of my predictions for the US electorate.

I haven’t lived in the US for 26 years and totally agree with another ex-pat living in Spain who wrote me yesterday: “This is an interesting election, no? It's a good read on what kind of country it really is.”

Likewise, a letter today from a friend who lives in a small town in Arizona, McCain’s state, and who rarely writes me on politics, made me conclude that what appeared against all odds could actually happen - that Obama and a large Democratic Party majority in Congress may be coming in January.

“In America all is in a state of flux and readjustment, with the "ECONOMY" close to vanishing, as are retirement dreams and budgets of those who weren't ready for such a swift demise. To me, the horizon looks bleak; imagining that what has occurred will simply be the first wave of something deeper and more upsetting to the status quo here.

“Many of the stories are the same as those of old, but the size and scope of what is occurring is completely new and unprecedented.

“Those powers-that-be are going to steal whatever they can, before the political change that should occur next Tuesday will be voted in and then sworn into office in January. That is, unless another election is stolen.

“Folks can no longer deny what is occurring, and I hope that there will be positive repercussions in how we live and use resources, how we spend our money, and our levels of compassion for all people in this global world,” concluded my friend.

There’s a lot of responsibility on the backs of US voters on Tuesday. Cubans like the rest of the world will be watching with angst.

My reports and commentaries from Havana can also be read at:

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