A painful anniversary and a hopeful call for action

Dear Friends:

One year ago, Alan Gross, a subcontractor to USAID, was detained by Cuba’s government, where he remains in custody and without charges.

The U.S. and Cuba offer conflicting explanations of the activities that led to his arrest, though even the most benign description of them (including his entry into Cuba on several occasions using a tourist visa, and the disputed suggestion he was helping Cuba’s Jewish community connect to the Internet) on their face portray violations of a more than decade-old Cuban law.

Also in dispute is whether Mr. Gross knew the risks associated with his trips to Cuba.  His family maintains that he did not, which implicates both his employer and the U.S. government in rather insensate acts of cruelty and risk-taking.  But even if he did know, Mr. Gross (like so many others on both sides of the Florida Straits) is another victim of a policy designed during the Cold War to upend Cuba’s government that is both ineffective and horribly flawed.

Whatever Mr. Gross’s state of knowledge at the time of his arrest, this much is clear: he and his family are suffering immensely.  He is in captivity with no knowledge, now, of his fate.  He and his family are separated.  His daughter is ill with breast cancer, and her father is unable to comfort her.  His congregation and his friends miss him dearly.  His wife faces all of this largely alone.  We wish they would be reunited right away.

Judy Gross has soldiered on bravely for a year since her husband’s arrest.  Her perspective on his case was summarized eloquently several weeks ago in the Miami Herald.  She wants him to come home, and her pleas for a humanitarian release to Cuba’s government have, to date, gone unheeded.

The State Department and hardened opponents of Cuba policy reform invoke Alan Gross’s case as a rationale for delaying or blocking meaningful reform of U.S. policy toward the island.  Judy Gross apparently feels quite differently.  As she wrote in the Herald:

This is my plea to Presidents Obama and Castro: Be different from your predecessors, change the tide of bilateral relations. I call on President Obama, in whom my husband believes so much, to not forget his pledge of a “new beginning” in relations with Cuba. And I call on President Castro to continue working on improving Cuba’s human rights record. To both, I beg: Do not make Alan’s case an excuse to fall further apart, but rather an example of a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations (emphasis added).

Judy Gross is right.

U.S. policy at its core contains the source of its greatest failure.  By definition, whether we tighten or loosen the policy depends on what Cuba says or does. We dance on the end of a string held in Havana.

Rather than sticking with a failed policy guaranteed to fail further, there are better ways to serve the interests of U.S. foreign policy:  it begins with engagement and a greater focus on U.S. interests and ideals.

We believe that citizens of both countries should be able to visit Cuba and the U.S. without needless government interference.  The U.S. should take the first step and set an example by repealing the ban on travel to Cuba for all Americans.  Congress failed this year to enact legislation to achieve this objective, despite significant support in the House and Senate among both political parties.  With the upcoming change in the House of Representatives taking place in January, that goal appears even further out of reach for the foreseeable future.

President Obama, as we have reported since August, has been contemplating an Executive Order that would use his administrative authority to open travel to Cuba – not to tourism, as we would support – but for delegations serving cultural, sports, and research objectives as well as more expansive academic purposes.

These so-called People to People exchanges are precisely in line with larger U.S. policy objectives.  They foster dialogue and produce new sources of information for Cuba’s people.  They would expand the benefits already being produced by Obama’s decision last year to free Cuban Americans of the Bush-era restrictions against travel to the island to visit or support their families.

They will help create additional political space for an increasing pattern of engagement in both nations.  Acting now would be consistent with the President’s off-statement commitment to loosen restrictions on U.S. policy in response to measures taken by Cuba’s government to release political prisoners and to make economic reforms that would make Cubans less dependent on their government.

Supporters of the status quo always have a reason for keeping this policy, unchanged or worse, no matter what is happening in Cuba.  They operate in a fact-free zone that long ago pulled its roots from reality or objective analysis.  That may be the right place for them, but it is no place for President Obama or for reasonable men and women of good will who want to see progress.

We’re honored and thankful that Mrs. Gross, especially in view of her hardship, supports this new direction.  It is time for the President to join her – and us – in charting a new, more hopeful course.

Please join us in expressing these views in support of travel to Cuba to the President.  The Latin America Working Group has posted this petition which we hope you will sign.

This week is The Cuba Central Team reports in depth – on economic reforms in Cuba, the latest news about prisoner releases, and revelations about U.S. foreign policy, concerning Cuba and Latin America, laid bare by the WikiLeaks disclosures.

And now, this week in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Alan Gross still detained without charges, after a year

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the arrest of U.S. contractor Alan Gross, reports UPI.  Cuban authorities arrested Gross last December on “suspicion of espionage and providing illegal satellite communications equipment to government opponents,” reports Reuters.  Gross claims he was helping Cuba’s Jewish community connect to the Internet, a claim echoed by U.S. officials. When Philip Crowley, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, was asked about Alan Gross during a press briefing on December 2nd, he described Gross as “a contractor” who was “trying to help connect communities in Havana to the rest of the world.”

The Associated Press reports, however, that leaders of the two main Jewish groups in Cuba deny working with Gross, stating that while he may have been one of hundreds of people who visited synagogues in Havana, they did not have any formal relationship with him.

The U.S. State Department released a statement today addressing the continued incarceration of Mr. Gross in Cuba.  The statement provided the strongest on-the-record statement to date about the consequences for bilateral relations based on the case: “We will continue to use every available channel to urge the Cuban Government to put an end to Mr. Gross’ long and unjustifiable ordeal. We have made it very clear to the Cuban Government that the continued detention of Alan Gross is a major impediment to advancing the dialogue between our two countries.”

Cuba’s government has thus far rejected his family’s plea for a humanitarian release.  According to the Miami Herald, Gross has not been formally charged.

Wikileaks and Cuba

According to Cuban Colada, approximately 2,000 of the recently released Wikileaks documents, which have unleashed a global furor about U.S. foreign policy, refer to Cuba.

El País reports on one cable from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from February 2009.  The document describes the harassment of dissidents, Cuba’s control of all organizations (including street demonstrations against the U.S.), and the presence of ELN, FARC and ETA members on the island.  However, the cable also states that there is no proof that any group or representatives  of other states in Cuba plans hostile or terrorist operations against the U.S., or that Cuba’s government allows such activity.

The Miami Herald reports on other recently released cables indicating that Cuban diplomats had direct access to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and that these diplomats were so influential that Venezuela’s own intelligence agency was often relegated to a back seat.  EFE states that the cables revealed that the United States was worried about the presence of 40,000 Cubans in Venezuela and their activities in local and national government.

North Dakota aims for more trade with Cuba

State officials from North Dakota are finalizing an agreement for the sale of an additional one thousand metric tons of dry edible beans to Cuba, according to Farm and Ranch Guide.  North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring led a seven-member delegation to Cuba for a four-day trade mission. Goehring stated that the trip was “very successful in further strengthening our trade ties with Cuba,” and says that on the trip, he learned Cuba was interested in purchasing North Dakotan sunflower seeds for oil and barley malt, two potentially very lucrative products for North Dakota’s farmers.

For first time in half-century Cuban television to be broadcast in U.S.

Olympusat has announced that it will establish Cuba Play Televisión, a channel that will feature only Cuba-produced TV programs and will be available for distribution in the United States and Puerto Rico.  Business Wire reports that Cuba Play TV will likely be distributed by DirecTV, DishNetwork, and Comcast.  The channel can already be seen in some parts of the U.S., such as Miami Beach, reports Café Fuerte.  Movies, educational programs, and documentaries are among the programs to be distributed.  This marks the first time in 52 years that Cuban TV programs will be available for viewing in the United States.

Díaz-Balart to change venues

For nearly two decades in the U.S. Congress, Representative Lincoln Díaz-Balart (FL-21), an unrequited Cold Warrior, spearheaded efforts to isolate Cuba diplomatically and strangle Cuba economically.  According to the Miami Herald, Díaz-Balart plans to remain active in Cuba-related causes following his retirement from Congress at the beginning of next year, and will head a nonprofit organization dedicated to the overthrow of Fidel Castro.

In an article on the stalled effort to lift the travel ban to Cuba and the Díaz-Balart retirement, Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas stated that it is “hard to mourn the retirement of such a virulent and effective Cold warrior.”

IN CUBA

Economic Reforms

Space for public debate of reforms officially opens

December 1st marked the formal opening of public debate on Cuba’s proposed economic reforms, according to Granma.  Cuba’s government is encouraging everyone to provide opinions and ideas for the process, and says that the people will ultimately decide the direction in which they want the economic reforms to progress.

Prensa Latina reports that the government has said the debates will be transparent and open to all, and that participation was the duty of every Cuban citizen.  According to AFP, state media have encouraged Cubans to change their mindset as well, stating that Cubans need to understand that the government will no longer be able to provide for every Cuban as it has in the past.

Meanwhile, Granma published what it calls the first up-close look at the tax system that will be applied to new entrepreneurs, reports Cuban Colada.  The new tax system reportedly seeks to achieve greater equality in Cuba’s society and to improve the current tax regime.  Granma’s analysis (in Spanish) is available here.

Tens of thousands apply for private work permits

More than 81,000 Cubans have applied for licenses to open small businesses or rent their homes since the government’s October decision to expand these activities.  The new licensing system is part of the plan to stimulate growth in Cuba’s private sector and provide employment as the state prepares to layoff more than 500,000 employees next year, reports XinhuaGranma, Cuba’s state newspaper, says that 29,038 permits have already been granted and more than 16,000 requests are currently being studied.  Reportedly, 20 percent of the licenses will be used to produce or sell food, an activity that is in great demand on the import-dependent island. According to EFE, another six percent of the licenses will be used by applicants hoping to work in the transportation industry, including as taxi drivers.

Prensa Latina reports that while Cubans from across the island have applied for licenses, the provinces of Ciudad de La Habana and Matanzas, both located in the western part of the island, and Villa Clara, in the central region, have received the most applications.

Interestingly, 56 percent of the applicants for private work permits have no “vínculo laboral”, which means that they are either not working, have been laid off, or were working in the informal sector, reports The Cuban Triangle.  It also seems that permits are being granted as long as an applicant’s papers are in order.  This is a change from past policy, in which municipal governments strictly limited the number of people granted licenses for private work.

New housing legislation facilitates renting of rooms and houses

Cuban Colada reports that it will be easier to offer rooms and houses for rent in Cuba as a result of the economic reforms introduced by President Raúl Castro.

According to the Cuba Standard, the new regulations were published in Granma, the state-run newspaper. The new rules give homeowners more control of their property but do not legalize the sale or purchase of houses or rooms.

What Granma called “Resolution 305 of the Housing Institute” provides guidelines allowing living spaces to be rented for various activities, not solely for dwelling, and permitting foreigners to permanently rent rooms or houses in Cuban pesos (known as moneda nacional).  The document also states that Cubans living abroad may rent out their rooms and houses on the island and those homeowners can acquire domestic help, which will be taxable.

The full text of the new legislation can be viewed here.

Cuba temporarily cancels import/export licenses to rearrange sector

EFE reports that this week Cuba’s government temporarily cancelled the licenses of 15 state companies in the import and export sector in order to reorganize the country’s trade policy in accord with the economic reforms announced this year.  Juventud Rebelde clarifies that included in this list are the national oil, fish, tourism, and beverage companies, among others. The entity that will take over these industries during the period of reorganization has not been announced.  Additionally, reports Juventud Rebelde, as part of the “reordering of foreign trade activity,” a number of state enterprises will lose their authority to make their own decisions on import and export transactions.

Cuba to import raw materials for small businesses

Cuba’s government will spend about $130 million next year to import raw materials and equipment for private small-scale enterprises, according to the Associated Press.  Of that amount, approximately $36 million will be designated for food imports, reports Prensa Latina.

María Victoria Coombs, director of employment at the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, told Granma that many new businesses emerging from the government’s decision to expand the small business sector will require tools, equipment, and infrastructure, which has precipitated the government’s decision to import materials and equipment.

The granting of new licenses in nine of the newly legalized 178 categories of self-employment has been suspended due to inability of applicants to obtain legally the required equipment, and concern that individuals carrying out these jobs may resort to using material stolen from state centers as a result.

Human Rights

Cardinal Ortega: Cuba will release remaining dissidents

Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega announced that the remaining dissidents imprisoned during the 2003 “Black Spring” crackdown will be released and allowed to remain in Cuba, reports Fox News Latino.  The eleven who have yet to be released have all refused asylum in Spain as a condition of being freed. Although the date of release is not yet known, according to Spain’s ABC, Cardinal Ortega indicated that the prisoners could be released before Christmas.

Cardinal Ortega made his remarks about the  prisoners during his visit to Spain.  There, he met privately with several of the political prisoners who had been freed as part of a deal brokered by the Spanish government, the Cuban Catholic Church, and the Cuban government.  According to Fox News Latino, the released dissidents expressed their concern to Cardinal Ortega over the fates of relatives still living in Cuba, their own legal status in Spain, and their future.  For his part, according to Catholic News Agency, the Cardinal called the meeting “very positive.”

Fariñas receives passport, but still unclear whether he will be allowed to travel

Guillermo Fariñas, the Cuban political dissident whose hunger strike was the prelude to the recent prisoner releases, received his passport from Cuban authorities this week.  He hopes to travel to Strasbourg to receive the Sakharov Human Rights Prize, awarded to him this year by the European Union.  However, Fariñas stated to Diario de Cuba that he is doubtful that he will be allowed to travel to accept the award.

Around the Island

First female Episcopal Cardinal in Cuba assumes post

El Universal reports that María Griselda Delgado has assumed the position as Cardinal of Cuba’s Episcopal Church, becoming the first woman in Cuban history to hold that position. Delgado assumed her post at a ceremony in Havana that was attended by representatives of the Episcopal Church in Canada, Jamaica, and the United States.  Members of Cuban churches also attended, as did members of Cuba’s government.

Cuba contains spread of HIV/AIDS

As World AIDS Day was observed around the globe this week, it was reported that Cuba has managed to contain the spread of HIV on the island.  According to Prensa Latina, Cuba has the lowest rate of HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, with a rate of only 0.1% of the population living with HIV.  Cuba has undertaken a comprehensive approach to combating HIV and AIDS, which includes educational programs and research.  Counseling, free medication (antiretrovirals) and other services are provided to those infected with HIV or those at risk of acquiring the virus.

CUBA’S FOREIGN POLICY

EU Representative travels to Cuba in effort to boost cooperation

Christian Leffler, the European Union’s Deputy Director-General for Development, visited Cuba this week for a “frank” and “constructive” dialogue with Cuban leaders, according to ABC España.  Leffler’s trip is part of a mandate from the head of EU diplomacy, Catherine Ashton, commissioned in October to promote a rapprochement with Cuba to ease tensions, after the EU endorsed the Common Position that Spain wanted to abolish.

The first of Leffler’s meetings explored cooperation in areas such as agriculture and climate change, and were carried out in an “open and constructive” manner that will facilitate the “consolidation of relations.”  Leffler also met with Dagoberto Rodríguez, Vice minister  of Foreign Relations.

France and Cuba renew ties after seven-year gap in relations

France and Cuba have formally resumed bilateral cooperation after breaking ties in 2003, reports the Miami Herald’s Cuban Colada.  The two countries have pledged to “promote exchanges in the areas designated as priorities and mutually beneficial.”  According to Xinhua, these areas include agriculture, health, environment, scientific research, and teaching French, art, and culture.  France broke government cooperation with Cuba following the 2003 crackdown on Cuban dissidents, reported Reuters.

Cuba and Russia strengthen ties and cooperation

Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, was in Russia last week and asserted that the ties between Russia and Cuba were extremely strong, reports Cuban News Agency.  Alarcón expressed his hopes for expanded Russian-Cuban cooperation in economic and commercial fields.

Cuba increases Haiti medical brigade by 300

Havana Times has announced that Cuba will send 300 health professionals to Haiti to strengthen its 1,000-strong contingent in that nation dedicated to combating the cholera epidemic in the country.  Additionally, Ansa Latina reports that Cuban authorities met with Haitian President René Preval in Port-au-Prince to discuss prevention methods to deter the spread of cholera in Haiti.

Around the Region:

Wikileaks cables

The uproar that accompanied the release of 250,000 confidential and secret U.S. diplomatic cables from the website Wikileaks has spread to the Spanish-speaking world.

Most of the cables related to Latin America have been published by El País newspaper, which created special coverage for the cables.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the U.S. Department of State organized a communication campaign to contact most of the Latin American presidencies to warn about the release or to apologize for some of the statements included in them.

Some of the cables include personal observations or “psychological” analyses of Latin American leaders requested by Clinton’s office.  AFP reports that Clinton personally called Argentinean president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to apologize for the leak of classified documents, one of which was a request for an evaluation of the “physical and mental health” of the South American nation’s president.

Similar requests were received by the U.S. embassy in Mexico to evaluate how President Calderón and his officials were reacting to the “stress” over the drug war and the economy. Another leaked cable suggests the U.S. is concerned that the Mexican Army is failing in its fight against drug cartels, according to BBC News.  The cable described the army as “slow and risk averse.”  It also stated that troops were not trained to patrol the streets or gather evidence to convict those detained.  The cables, however, praise Mexico’s government for its “unprecedented commitment” to fighting drugs and gangs.  The documents also quote Mexican leaders as expressing worry that the government was losing control over some of its regions.

A complete article about the first round of reactions early this week can be found here.

Regarding Venezuela, one cable from 2004 mentions a contact made by the U.S. embassy in Caracas with Herma Marksman, a former wife of President Chávez. She advised not to “underestimate” the President, and also points out that Chávez trusts just a few people, mainly his brother Adán and Fidel Castro. In another cable, then-Ambassador Patrick Duddy warned about a systematic campaign organized by the Venezuelan government to undermine the U.S. image within the country. Duddy requested extra funds to organize a communications campaign to oppose those efforts, to be implemented through the use of newspaper ads, billboards, TV and radio spots and artistic events.

Several of the cables also show the United States’ concerns about Iran’s growing influence in Latin America, including Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. However, many diplomats believe the fears of Venezuela sending uranium to aid Iran’s nuclear program are baseless, according to the Associated Press.  Diplomats also expressed their belief that there is more bark than bite in Hugo Chávez’s relations with Iran and Russia.  A report by U.S. diplomats concluded that it was “highly unlikely” that Venezuela and Bolivia were providing uranium to third countries, and a June 11, 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy stated that Venezuela was “incapable of substantive nuclear cooperation with Iran/Russia.”

Regarding Honduras, one of the cables describes the events surrounding the June 2009 coup in Honduras.  It reported a flurry of illegal actions by every branch of government, including the successor of the deposed president, according to a diplomatic message signed by U.S. ambassador Hugo Llorens.  In one leaked cable, Llorens noted that Zelaya’s “forced removal by the military was clearly illegal, and (Speaker of Congress Roberto) Micheletti’s ascendance as ‘interim president’ was totally illegitimate.” Also, President Zelaya said the Wikileaks document demonstrates the U.S. government was fully aware that the events of June 28 constituted a military coup. “This document implicates … the U.S., which, knowing of the crime, justified it and supported the criminals,” he said.

Other stories

General Secretary Insulza calls for readmission of Honduras to OAS, EFE

OAS Secretary General José Insulza reiterated his support for the reintegration of Honduras into the Inter-American System of Human Rights, yet he stated that he respected Argentina’s decision not to invite the country to the XX Ibero-American Summit being held in Mar del Plata.  Several Latin American countries, including Argentina, have not recognized the legitimacy of the Lobo government, elected last year after the June 2009 coup deposed Manuel Zelaya.

Also this week it was announced that Lanny Davis, a former aide to President Clinton, has been hired by the Embassy of Honduras to help improve relations with the United States. Last year, Davis lobbied on behalf of the Honduran chapter of CEAL, a Latin American business group that supported the June 2009 coup that removed Manuel Zelaya from power. Specifically, Davis will assist Honduras with communications and media strategy.

President Ortega tries to expand powers for martial law and security-related areas, Tico Times

This week, with just a few days left before the National Assembly year-end recess, President Daniel Ortega sent to the legislature three national defense bills that would apparently give the executive branch greater control over the military and civilian population during times of “emergency.”  The bills, which include sweeping new provisions for martial law, national defense policy and border-security measures, were introduced Tuesday for immediate approval.  Nicaragua’s opposition is warning that the bills are “warmongering” and “possibly confiscatory.” Ortega controls the majority in the National Assembly, which could allow him to get the bills passed before the recess.

The request comes amidst a border dispute with Costa Rica, according to AFP.  The dispute over a small island in the San Juan River has lead to increased tensions between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, while the Organization of American States has called a meeting of foreign ministers in early December to try to defuse the tensions.

Recommended Reading:

Cuba: Issues for the 111th Congress, Congressional Research Service

Mark Sullivan, a specialist in Latin American affairs with the Congressional Research Service, authored this report detailing Cuba-related issues.  Issues discussed include the recent prisoner releases in Cuba, Cuba’s economy, and Cuba’s foreign policy.

An opening in Cuba? U.S. must step up, CNN

Arturo López Levy and Anya Landau French argue that the recently proposed reforms and upcoming Communist Party Congress in April represent an ideal opportunity for the U.S. to “step up” relations with Cuba. They analyze how the U.S. has enhanced relationships with other Communist nations such as China and Vietnam, and warn the U.S. not to miss this opportunity to advance a mutually beneficial relationship.

The Latinobarómetro poll: The democratic routine, The Economist

Support for democracy in Latin America continues to grow, as does support for private enterprise, according to Latinobarómetro.  Latin Americans also list crime as a bigger concern that unemployment, according to the poll.  Support for democracy has risen primarily in countries along the Pacific Coast of the region, such as Peru and Mexico.  However, only about half of respondents in Mexico and Brazil, the region’s two most populous countries, are convinced that democracy is preferable to any other form of government.  Forty-four percent of respondents in Latin America stated that they were satisfied with how their country’s democracy works in practice.

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