Will “the Five” become “the Four? People to People Progress. Regime Change Redux SMS-Style

The Cuban Five could almost be the Cuban Four, if only the Cold War didn’t get in the way.

This morning, René González, age 55, was released from federal prison after serving thirteen years of a 15-year sentence.  González was part of a spy ring, with four other Cubans, convicted a decade ago for attempting to infiltrate U.S. military installations, watching militant exiles, and reporting back to Cuba on politicians and others whose activities they believed posed a threat to Cuba.   The Cuban Five are venerated on the island as heroes for protecting Cuba against terrorism and paying a fearsome price for having done so.

González received a ten-year sentence for acting as an unregistered agent of Cuba and another five years for conspiring to do so.  Very tough terms for this kind of violation, and he was forced to serve his sentences consecutively.  We’re advised that in other cases, foreign nationals have been sent home or served more than one sentence concurrently.  But in the poisonous atmosphere that reigned in South Florida when the trial and sentencing occurred, as Miami was dealing with the aftermath of the Elián González episode, the book was thrown at them all.

With his sentence concluding, René González’s family, his lawyers, and supporters wanted him to be permitted to return to Cuba rather than being forced to stay in the U.S. on probation where his life might be in danger.  But the U.S. district court has so far refused to modify his probation.  The chief prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Caroline Heck Miller, opposed the move because she says, “he poses a particular, long-term threat to this country.”

This reasoning is absurd on its face.  Even two prominent hardliners – José Basulto of Brothers to the Rescue and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, hardly supporters of Mr. González to be sure – were still reported in the Miami Herald this morning as opposing efforts to keep Mr. González in this country.

And as Mr. González’s wife, Olga Salanueva, told the Associated Press in Havana, “If they say René is a danger to that society – well, he’s no danger to ours.  So the logical thing is to send him home.”

We agree.  Whether you think Mr. González’s presence in the United States endangers national security, as the government contends, or his return to Cuba would be a long overdue act of mercy and justice, as we believe, the right place for him now is not here but in Cuba.

This shouldn’t be difficult.  One thing we’ve learned over the last ten years is that when the U.S. is determined to send a foreign national away, it finds the legal rationale to make it so.  The only obstacle we can see blocking René González’s return is that he wants to go back to Cuba.   Someone should tell the Department of Justice that the Cold War is over so that he can return home and “the Five” can become “the Four.”

This week in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Seventeen former political prisoners now on U.S. soil

Seventeen of the 115 ex-political prisoners released by Cuba to Spain between July 2010 and April 2011 have now immigrated to the United States, EFE reports. All migrated legally after receiving permission from the U.S. government. Their main motivations include the lack of social connections and the lack of jobs in Spain. Two other ex-political prisoners have left Spain, one to Chile and the other to the Czech Republic.

OFAC fines Texas-based flow management company

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has fined Flowserve, Corp. in the amount of $502,000 for violations against U.S. sanctions against Iran, Sudan and Cuba, Cuba Standard reports. The Irving, Texas-based company which designs, delivers and supports integrated flow management systems, disclosed that domestic and foreign affiliates had exported $2.1 million worth of pumps, valves and related parts to Iran, Sudan and Cuba. The release from OFAC does not provide details, only stating that “[Flowserve’s] foreign affiliates engaged in transactions involving property in which Cuba or a Cuban national had an interest.” Transactions were made without obtaining U.S. licenses in 2005 and 2006.

People-to-people travel continues to expand; Key West approved for direct flights

People-to-people travel to Cuba continues to increase opportunities for cultural interaction between Cubans and U.S. citizens. The Wisconsin State Journal reports on an instrument repair specialist who traveled to Cuba with the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “Horns to Havana” program, and his unique experience repairing and servicing instruments with limited supplies in Havana.

In the U.S., Chucho Valdés, the renowned Cuban jazz pianist will play Carnegie Hall this February as a part of the We Always Swing Jazz Series. Last winter, Valdés played shows in Havana with legendary American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Salsa band Orquesta Aragón, established in 1939 in Cienfuegos, will be performing in Chelsea, New York this coming Tuesday, the New York Daily News reports.

Beyond music, John Dowlin, co-founder of U.S.-Cuba Sister Cities Association and TailLight Diplomacy, suggests in an op-edthat Hershey, PA partner with Hershey, Cuba to hold joint antique car shows.

Finally, Key West International Airport, the closest U.S. airport to Cuba, was approved this week for direct flights to the island, reports Keysnet.com. However, each flight may have no more than 10 passengers unless the airport upgrades its facilities.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

British Ambassador to Cuba expresses concerns about reports of increased detentions

Dianna Melrose, Great Britain’s ambassador to Cuba, released a statement this week in which she expressed concern about the treatment of political and human rights activists, especially in the eastern provinces. The statement, released on the website of the British High Commission, reads:

We are concerned about increased reports of political and human rights activists being detained for short periods. The high number of detentions in Santa Clara and Eastern Cuba are a cause of particular concern, as is the aggressive treatment of the Damas de Blanco, and we urge the Cuban authorities to allow peaceful activists to go about their work free from arrest or the fear of it. President Raúl Castro has emphasized the need to tolerate different views and we hope this will translate into reality.

Cuban government authorities use short-term detentions to break up protests and marches, or to prevent people from attending such activities. In recent months dissident groups have reported an increase in the use of such detentions.  A report by Hablemos Press cites 486 political arrests in September and the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reports 563 arrests.

Cuba and Bahamas sign maritime border agreement

After fifteen years of negotiations, Cuba and The Bahamas signed an agreement in the capital city of Nassau on Monday to demarcate the maritime boundary between the two archipelagos, The Bahamas Weekly reports. The largest implications of this agreement relate to both countries’ planned offshore drilling projects. According to a release from the Bahamian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the agreement also includes plans for scientific cooperation projects, navigation security and environmental protection, and underlines interest in “promoting joint oil exploration.”

About this development, Jorge Piñón, an energy expert at the Florida International University stated, “This demarcation of maritime borders in the Florida Straits justifies the high probability of possible hydrocarbon reserves in the adjacent waters of both countries…It is a strategic decision for both parties.” According to Café Fuerte, executives of the Bahamas Petroleum Corporation, which holds all the off-shore licenses in that country, are confident that they will be ready to begin offshore exploration in 2012.

Peruvian Vice President visits Cuba, meets with Raúl Castro

The Vice President of Perú Marisol Espinoza visited Cuba this week where she met with José Ramón Machado, Vice President of Cuba, and President Raúl Castro, reports ANSA. This is the highest ranking member of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala’s administration to visit the island since President Humala took office at the end of July.

IN CUBA

Reporters Without Borders criticizes the planned deportation of Cuban journalist

The French-based international NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has released a statement criticizing the current detention, of Cuban journalist Calixto Ramón Martínez Arias of the independent news center Hablemos Press. Martínez is currently detained in Havana and awaiting deportation to his hometown of Camagüey. According to the release, has been arrested three times this year. RSF stated:

We had hopes after the last journalists were freed, including those held since the 2003 “Black Spring” wave of arrests, and after the lifting of censorship of several websites and blogs. These gestures of opening-up by the authorities have naturally spurred demands for more civil liberties, including the right to keep people informed and to move around freely. The case of Martínez symbolizes the absurdity of the new repression…Before the situation can be called a genuine opening-up, news diversity must be accepted, non-government media allowed, punishment for holding opinions ended and all Cubans allowed to have access to an uncensored Internet.

RSF also criticizes the international community, and specifically other Latin American countries, for not speaking up in favor of more civil liberties in Cuba.

Minister of Culture calls for a “deflation” of bureaucracy within the ministry and a space for artistic freedom

Cuba’s Minister of Culture Abel Prieto stated this week that his ministry is working to “deflate bureaucracy” within the state’s cultural institutions, the AP reports. Prieto also expressed the need for debate within cultural spaces regarding current changes taking place on the island:

I believe that debate is a necessity of society…We have to arrive together, within a free interchange of ideas, open to the truth. Our political culture remains…in the idea of greater creative freedom coming from a compromise of the people with the destiny of this country. I believe that at no time can there be a danger to creative freedom in our political culture, there can be no steps back. That policy is reinforced, and it is based on respect for diversity and discussion.

Statements were made at events commemorating the 40th anniversary of the death of “Bola de Nieve,” one of Cuba’s most celebrated musicians.

Around the Region

Obama meets with Honduran President Lobo, hails “restoration of democratic practices”

President Obama and Honduran President Porfirio Lobo met in Washington to discuss bilateral relations, especially in the context of drug violence and organized gangs, reports the AFP. Obama also expressed his desire of “ensuring that human rights are observed in Honduras.” The international human rights community has continued to express concern regarding the status of human rights following the 2009 coup that forcibly removed President Manuel Zelaya from office. Sixteen journalists have been murdered in Honduras since 2010, the highest rate of slain journalists in the region after Mexico, AFP reports.

El Salvador and Honduras have highest murder rates, El Salvador’s new disappeared

According to a UN report released this week, El Salvador and Honduras have the highest murder rates in the world, the AP reports. According to the report Honduras had 6,200 killings in 2010 out of a population of 7.7 million people, and El Salvador had 4,000 homicides with 6.1 million people.

Photographer Frederick Meza of online newspaper El Faro has published a photo essay of what he calls the “new” disappeared of El Salvador. The introduction reads:

In the suburbs of the capital, hundreds of families live their own histories of violence in silence: those of their disappeared. The disappearances are as common as they were during the civil war. In just five municipalities of San Salvador, in the first eight months of 2011, the police registered 625 disappearances. Often, their belongings remain as they were, their parents clinging to the hope of a miraculous return, in spite of the passing of days, weeks, months…

InSight Crime reports that during 2007 and 2008 more than 1,200 disappearances were reported to police. The first four months of this year saw double the number of disappearances in the same period in 2010.

Recommended Reading

Is the U.S. likely to cooperate with Cuba in offshore drilling? Dan Whittle, Inter-American Dialogue

“A delegation from the United States organized by the Environmental Defense Fund and the International Association of Drilling Contractors traveled to Cuba last month to evaluate the Caribbean nation’s long-term drilling plans. Cuba is expected to begin exploring its offshore reserves in November, leading some U.S. lawmakers and industry experts, in the wake of the BP oil spill, to raise safety and environmental concerns.”

Cubans look to private sector to make ends meet, Marc Frank, Reuters

“Cubans are finding that working for private employers instead of a paternalistic communist state is putting more money in their pockets, but they are still struggling to make ends meet.”

FACTBOX: Key political risks to watch in Cuba, Jeff Franks, Reuters

Cuba shut down its once-powerful sugar ministry and has begun a major reorganization of government as it moves ahead with reforms aimed at ensuring the survival of socialism once the current aging leaders are gone.”

Cuba Libre: Contemporary Architecture in Havana, Julia Cooke, the Design Observer Group

“Havana is renowned for its faded elegance…But Claudia Castillo and Orlando Inclán have a different future in mind. In a revolt against nostalgia, they’ve launched a series of initiatives aimed at pushing contemporary architecture into the public discourse.”

Recommended Listening

First Listen: David Murray Cuban Ensemble, ‘Plays Nat King Cole En Español’, Josh Jackson, National Public Radio

NPR provides, in its entirety, the recording of David Murray’s Cuban Ensemble’s tribute to Nat King Cole with such classics as “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” and “Piel Canela.”

A FINAL WORD

U.S. government awards contract for text-messaging blasts to Cuba

Washington Software, Inc. , a Maryland-based IT company has received a contract from the U.S. government to design a mass text messaging system able to skirt Cuba’s government censors, reports the Cuba Money Project. The initial contract, awarded with funds from USAID’s “democracy promotion” funds, runs until September 14, 2012.
Bids for the project – currently budgeted at $84,000 but growing to near half a million dollars –were solicited by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the governmental organization that oversees all U.S. civilian international broadcasting and is responsible for Radio Martí and TV Martí, the South Florida-based news outlets that broadcast news from the U.S. to Cuba.

At a time when social movements across the world are seeking to protect their authenticity – and make great efforts to be independent from outside forces –a project that seeks to send 24,000 text messages per week from the U.S. to cell phones in Cuba seems like a colossal mistake.

The depth of the error is only magnified by the continued imprisonment of Alan Gross, the U.S. subcontractor who was convicted of crimes against the Cuban state, for distributing highly regulated satellite communication equipment in Cuba paid for by similar regime change funds.

This even alarmed a prospective contractor who, in response to the bidding solicitation for the text message program, asked:

We are concerned with the legality of sending these types of notifications to people in another country. Does the US government take all legal responsibility for these messages? Are there legal considerations a vendor would have to be aware of on these kinds of broadcasts?

Undaunted, the BBG replied:

The Agency assumes responsibility for the content of the messages. The Contractor assumes all responsibility under this requirement and should consider all aspects of this requirement before submitting an offer.

Here we go again.

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