Double Talk at State and Doubling Down on USAID’s Regime Change Strategy

We report on a flurry of activity concerning the case of Alan Gross, just days before the third anniversary of his arrest in Cuba, an event marked at a press conference in Washington this morning by his wife Judy Gross, understandably disconsolate, with his lawyer, Jared Genser, by her side.

Together, they said the Obama administration had failed to pursue vigorous diplomacy sufficient to secure his release.  He feels “dumped and forgotten” by the U.S. government, Mrs. Gross said, like a soldier left to die.  The lawyer’s message to the U.S. government was also direct:  “You sent him there; you have an obligation to get him out.”

In fact, they laid blame at the feet of both governments for being obstacles to the settlement of his case.  They said the Cuban government, which publicly calls for direct negotiations to address his case and the captivity of the Cuban Five, was either unable or unwilling to talk.

But they also made a special point of noting that the Obama administration had actively sought and won the release of Americans imprisoned abroad, and said the administration should pick an envoy close to President Obama, with full White House support, to go to Cuba and negotiate Alan Gross’s release.

Significantly, they called his captivity an obstacle to improvements in U.S.-Cuba relations, and urged both parties to work for his release.  In saying so, they parted company with the most ardent embargo supporters, who warn the Obama administration not to negotiate for his release.

As Senator Bob Menendez said this week in an interview with the New York Times “I’m not into negotiating for someone who is clearly a hostage of the Cuban regime.” Judy Gross correctly diagnosed the hardliner’s position as a surefire recipe for continuing his captivity for years.  “He is a pawn of these very radical right-wing Cuba haters, for lack of a better word, who don’t want to see any changes happen, even to get Alan home.”

Mrs. Gross pled for her husband’s release on humanitarian grounds, and demanded access by doctors for an independent examination of a mass on his shoulder that the family believes could be cancerous.  For its part, the Cuban government released this week the results of a biopsy conducted October 24th, and an examination by a physician who is also ordained as a Rabbi, who concluded that the growth is not cancerous.

Two weeks ago, attorneys for the Gross family filed a law suit against the U.S. government and his employer, the USAID contractor DAI, seeking $60 million in damages.  In the complaint available here, they concede that his activities were “to promote (a) successful democratic transition” in Cuba and that when he was at risk of detection by Cuban authorities, USAID failed to comply with provisions of the “Counterintelligence Manual” to save him before his arrest.

Mr. Gross knew of the dangers associated with his activities in Cuba, writing in one of the trip reports filed with his employer under the USAID contract, “In no uncertain terms, this is very risky business.”

In light of these facts, it is hard to understand why his legal representatives still argue that all he was doing in Cuba was trying to improve Internet access for the Jewish community.  This benign explanation was long ago overtaken by the facts.

Even so, it is a position that remains front and center in the U.S. State Department’s talking points.  Victoria Nuland, the department’s Spokesperson, responded to a reporter who asked about the Gross case, by saying:

But again, just to remind that this is a guy who’s been incarcerated for no reason for three years and ought to come home.

Alan Gross was given a 15-year prison term simply for the supposed crime of helping the Jewish community of Cuba communicate with the outside world.

Old tropes die hard, especially when the U.S. government decides we can’t handle the truth.  This failure to concede why Mr. Gross was arrested and convicted not only contributes to the lack of movement in his case, but is especially alarming now that we know the Obama administration is doubling down on the program that led to his arrest.

As Tracey Eaton reports in Along the Malecón, the U.S. government “The U.S. government has hired a former CIA agent,” named Daniel Gabriel, “to create and manage a team of at least 10 journalists in Cuba.”  Gabriel’s Linked In profile concludes with this heartfelt endorsement:

“Dan is one of those dream clients you get once in a blue moon: totally risk tolerant, possessed of a voracious appetite for learning, and the drive to turn pontification into action.”

We could not think of a clearer case for why these programs need to end.

IN CUBA

Tax reforms to take effect January 1

Under a recently-published revision to their country’s tax code, more Cuban citizens and businesses will soon be paying taxes, according to Reuters. In keeping with President Raúl Castro’s market-oriented reforms, the government will introduce 19 different taxes including on inheritances, land, sales, and transportation. The sliding scale income tax, in place since 1994, will remain for the self-employed and small businesses, but the new tax code will also include significant deductions meant to stimulate economic growth.

Significant drop in Cuba’s agricultural production

Statistics released this week from ONE, the Cuban government agency that provides data on the Cuban economy, show a notable decrease in Cuba’s agricultural production over the first three quarters of the year, reports Café Fuerte. Cuba’s pork production dropped 9% and citrus production is down 27.6%. Cuban officials are particularly concerned about citrus production since 2011’s citrus harvest was already down 24% from the year before. Staple crops like potato and yucca are down 21.9% and 4.8% respectively.

Cuba imports more than eighty percent of its food requirements from foreign sources, and increasing local production has been a primary focus of the economic reforms introduced by President Raúl Castro since he took office.  While the production of others foods such as milk, fruit, and beef have increased, the drop overall raises concerns that Cuba’s government may have to augment its projected budget for food imports at a time when state spending is already squeezed due to the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Cuba suspends licenses of two charter flight companies

Cuba’s government has suspended operating permits for chartered flights to Cuba for both Airline Brokers and C&T Charters, reports Caribbean Media Corporation. Airline Brokers currently operates seven flights a week, from the Miami and Fort Lauderdale Airports to Havana and Cienfuegos. C&T Charters operates flights to Havana and Camaguey from Miami, Chicago, and New York.

The agencies are two of only eight companies that offer charter flights from the United States to Cuba. The six remaining companies include ABC Charters, Gulfstream Air Charter, Cuba Marazul, Cuba Travel Services, Wilson International, and Xael.

Airline Brokers is making arrangements with another service to accommodate passengers who had already bought tickets and has promised to provide full refunds to customers who will not be able to travel. Ticket holders have also been warned about scammers attempting to collect non-existent tariffs, reports El Nuevo Herald. The Airline Brokers offices were firebombed earlier this year. The incident is the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation.

First transgender person elected to public office

Adela Hernández has become Cuba’s first openly transgendered person to hold public office, reports the Associated Press. In the 1980s, Adela was reported to the authorities by her father and spent two years in jail for “dangerousness.” She affirmed that her election reflects a shift toward acceptance. “As time evolves, homophobic people – although they will always exist – are the minority.” According to EFE, she also expressed “My community accepts me as I am and that’s my victory.”

Cuba creates two permanent groups to drive economic changes, eliminates one ministry and forms another.

The Government Group for Business Improvement and the Executive Business Improvement Group were created by President Castro in order to strengthen state control over economic management and boost economic changes, reports Café Fuerte. Both groups will be under the control of the Council of Ministers. In addition, the Ministry of Basic Industry (MINBAS) has been eliminated and replaced by the Ministry of Energy and Mines, according to Havana Times.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Colombia-FARC negotiations take place in Havana

Peace negotiations between Colombia and the FARC began in Havana on Monday, November 19th, after some delays, reports Reuters. The first round of talks concluded November 29th and were adjourned until December 5th reports RTT. Some tension and animosity seems to have dissolved, reports CNN. FARC spokeswoman Tanja Nijmeijer stated: “During the talks it’s very good. There is even space for little jokes, for laughing. It’s a really good atmosphere.”

As a goodwill gesture during the negotiations, the FARC announced a unilateral, two-month cease-fire. The FARC, however, has already received criticism for breaking it, although they claim the incident in question occurred before all FARC members had been notified of the cease-fire, reports Americas Quarterly. Cuba and Norway are facilitating the peace process with support from Chile and Venezuela.

Russian state oil company to spend $126 million on offshore oil exploration

Starting in December, Zarubezhneft, the Russian state oil company, will begin near-shore exploration off north-central Cuba, investing nearly $126 million in the process,reports Cuba Standard.  Russian Comptroller Sergei Stepashin stated that the exploration is an “investment in the future” and that he hopes to find “big oil” which would be “of enormous help to the Cuban economy and a step ahead in our relations, as well as a response to the defenders of the [U.S. embargo].” The results of the first exploration will be announced in May 2013.

Brazilian-Cuban joint venture to produce cigarettes

Barscuba S.A.will soon start producing, Plaza, Brazil’s popular brand of cigarettes, in Cuba, according to published reports in EFE.  By mid-2013, this joint venture, between Cuba’s state-run tobacco company Tabacuba and Brazilian tobacco company Souza Cuba, plans to begin exporting the product to Brazil, according to Ernesto Tabio, the firm’s director of exports. The volume of Barscuba S.A. exports will continue to increase until it reaches around 50 million units by 2017.

Haiti’s President visits Cuba

President Michel Martelly visited Cuba this week, where he met with President Raúl Castro. During his visit, President Martelly and Haiti’s Foreign Minister Pierre Richard Casimir, signed a number of agreements that will increase bilateral cooperation between Haiti and Cuba, specifically in the areas of health, agriculture, and literacy, reports the Caribbean Journal.  The bilateral agreements include sending a group of 723 Cuban doctors to Haiti, where Cuban physicians have worked for years, implementing Cuba’s literacy program “Yo Sí Puedo” in Haiti and cooperation in developing the sugar, fishery, and agriculture industries.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Developments in Alan Gross’s legal case

As we previously reported, Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor imprisoned in Cuba sued the U.S. government and Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), a contractor for USAID that formerly employed Gross, for $60 million.  USAID has now replied.

The lawsuit argues that Gross was not adequately trained nor made fully aware of the risks of his work in Cuba, reports the Associated Press. Gross claims that both DAI and the U.S. government should have provided him with “the training and education necessary to minimize the risk of harm.” The lawsuit alleges that “both DAI and the U.S. government ignored Mr. Gross’ repeated security concerns, so that DAI could continue to generate significant revenue and the government could continue to use Mr. Gross as a pawn in its overall Cuba policy initiatives,” reports CNN.

USAID responded with a letter stating that there was “no evidence of any negligence of any employee of USAID” and that Gross was not entitled to compensation under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

DAI also responded to Gross’ lawsuit, saying that they have “numerous disagreements” with the content of the complaint. Steven O’Connor, director of communications at DAI, stated that the company is confident it will “have a chance to tell DAI’s side of this story in due course,” but as of now its highest priority remains bringing Mr. Gross home.

Phil Peters’ Cuban Triangle Blog provides additional analysis of the case, noting aspects of Gross’ complaint which highlight a lack of transparency in U.S. democracy promotion efforts. He notes, for example, a requirement quoted in the filing that USAID and the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba “were required to communicate with each other regularly regarding Mr. Gross’ trips to Cuba.” According to Mr. Peters, U.S. diplomatic personnel stationed in Havana claimed they had no knowledge of Gross’ activities in Cuba upon his arrest.

José Ramón Cabañas, the chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C., released a letter to a number of U.S. government officials on Wednesday regarding Alan Gross’ health and his case, stating: “To demand from and hope for the Cuban Government to take the unilateral decision of releasing Mr. Gross without giving any consideration whatsoever to the legitimate concerns of our country is not a realistic approach.” In addition, the letter reiterated Cuba’s willingness “to establish a dialogue with the United States Government to find a solution.”

On Wednesday, Cuba’s government announced that Alan Gross does not have cancer, and indicated that officials from Cuba and the U.S. met this week in Havana to discuss the results of an October 24th biopsy, reports the Associated Press. Elie Abadie, a physician and rabbi from New York, examined Mr. Gross this week and agreed that the growth is benign. Victoria Nuland, the U.S. State Department spokesperson, repeated the U.S. position that Gross should be allowed to see a doctor of his choosing.

On Friday, when Judy Gross and her legal team spoke to journalists at the National Press Club, attorney Jared Genser called the needle-aspiration biopsy performed by Cuban doctors in October “helpful but not sufficient.” He also argued that a U.S. doctor of Gross’ choice should be allowed to examine him.

U.S. Government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors to set up team of journalists in Cuba

As reported in Along the Malecón, “The U.S. government has hired a former CIA agent to create and manage a team of at least 10 journalists in Cuba.”  The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a U.S. government agency that manages the Office of Cuba Broadcasting which produces Radio and TV Martí, circulated a proposal for running a news operation in major cities in Cuba, including Havana and Santiago de Cuba.

Although the agency says the journalists will be required to “conduct interviews and provide fair, accurate, balanced and objective news [emphasis added],” the director of Radio and TV Martí, Carlos García-Perez, was involved in a scandal earlier this year, when he published a signed editorial calling Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Archbishop of Havana, “a lackey” of the Cuban government.  The editorial column was promptly pulled from the Marti’s website after the Washington Post ran a story about it.

According to BBG’s request for proposals, each journalist hired for this project will be required to produce at least five stories per week in Spanish for “broadcast on radio, television, mobile and web.”  The team of Cuban journalists will be led by Daniel Gabriel, a former CIA covert officer.

Tracey Eaton, who runs Along the Malecón, provided these additional details to us late this afternoon.

Gabriel’s qualifications include six tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan while with the CIA from 2003 to 2006. His LinkedIn public profile, which was subsequently hidden after the story broken, described him as an expert in irregular and unconventional warfare campaigns.

The Broadcasting Board of Governor’s decision to hire the former agent confirmed some Cubans’ fears – founded or not – that there are ties between U.S. intelligence agencies and democracy-promotion efforts.

Gabriel’s profile described him as an “early advocate for incorporating social media metrics into predictive intelligence and risk analysis.”

The study of social media metrics involves capturing and analyzing millions of pieces of data from such platforms as Facebook and Twitter. Both the U.S. government and private contractors have heightened interest in learning to use social media for military, intelligence and political gain.

Gabriel’s company, which was hired to do social media training for the U.S. Army in 2011 and 2012, specializes in “developing engineered influence for clients seeking to alter their tactical or strategic operational environments.”

The company website states:  “From new media to traditional media to dynamic engineering of social networks: we exploit and leverage perceptions to create new realities on the ground.”

Tracey’s note to us concludes as follows:

It’s unclear what that has to do with the purported objective journalism that the BBG pledges to carry out.

Miami Catholic Archdiocese sends aid to Cubans affected by Sandy

The Catholic Archdiocese of Miami sent four tons of provisions, including powdered milk, rice, tuna, and sausages to victims of Hurricane Sandy in Cuba last week, according to EFE. Caritas Cuba and Daughters of Charity, two Cuban organizations, will distribute the aid to the areas most affected by the hurricane. Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami stated that he is looking into other ways to help.

Around the Region

U.S. resumes sharing intelligence with Honduras

On November 19, the U.S. lifted its suspension of intelligence cooperation with Honduras, reports the New York Times. In August, the U.S. put a hold on radar intelligence sharing, used to combat drug smuggling, after the Honduran Air Force shot down two civilian planes suspected of transporting drugs. State Department officials confirmed that authorities in Honduras have changed their procedures and agreed not to use U.S. intelligence to “damage, destroy, disable or threaten civilian aircraft” in the future. Other forms of security cooperation with Honduras remain frozen.

Recommended Reading

Interests Section goes nuts over screws, Tracey Eaton, Along the Malecón

Tracey Eaton provides links to spreadsheets, detailing the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba’s reported spending, from 2003-2012.  The budget documents he disgorged “show everything from air conditioners and plumbing equipment to the curious purchase of $3,548.76 in screws from a Lake Forest, Ill., hardware company in April 2012.”

Feminists want to paint Cuba purple, Ivet González, IPS News

To mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Partido Popular Feminista (Feminist Popular Party) in November 1912, Ivet González chronicles the history of the feminist movement in Cuba.

FARC: Is Cuba the new Colombian Peacemaker?, Nick Miroff, Global Post

Nick Miroff outlines the role of Cuba in the Colombia-FARC peace process, and highlights the importance of what is at stake for the island in overseeing the negotiations. Miroff states that finalizing a peace deal will bring Cuban “full circle” from “regional outcast” to “Latin American peacemaker.” He also emphasizes that Cuba’s ties to the FARC rebels are the main reason for its continued presence on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, but Cuba’s inclusion would be obsolete if it were to help deliver a permanent peace deal. There is a lot on the line not only for Colombia, but also for Cuba, as the peace talks continue.

Obama, Cuba, and United States, Benjamin Willis, Counterpunch

Benjamin Willis, a founding member of Cuban Americans For Engagement (C.A.F.E.), outlines steps that can be taken during President Obama’s second term in order to bring about normalized relations with Cuba. He calls for the removal of Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, a widened interpretation of people-to-people travel, and for decisive action to be taken regarding the imprisonment of Alan Gross. He writes, “It’s time for the Secretary of State, whomever that may be, to make a historical trip and see if they can earn their paycheck.”

State of Virginia grows agricultural trade with Cuba, Laura Vozzella, Washington Post

This article reports on the history of Virginia’s agricultural trade with Cuba and how its expanding; Cuba has become Virginia’s seventh largest export market.  While total U.S. sales to Cuba plummeted following the recession, Virginia’s agricultural exports to the island “shot up” from about $30 million before the recession to $65 million last year.  The Post reports that Virginia farmers believe “eventually the red tape will fall away, either because of changes in Cuba or in U.S. policy” and help further expand the market.


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