Early Bird Edition of the News Blast: Massive Prisoner Release to Occur in Cuba

Dear Friends:

No, it’s not Friday.  We’re publishing early this week, because several of your writers and editors are en route to Cuba with a delegation to examine issues relating to energy and the environment.

What they’re likely to encounter is change in the air, with the announcement by Cuba’s Catholic Church that it has reached an agreement with Cuba’s government that will see 52 political prisoners freed over the next three to four months, including 47 that remained in confinement following the dissident round-up in 2003.

The imprisonment of political dissidents on Cuba has long concerned U.S. policy makers.

But now that Cuba’s government has agreed to the largest release of jailed dissidents in more than a decade, as the Miami Herald reported, the Obama administration had little to say:

“We would view prisoner releases as a positive development, but we are seeking further details to confirm” the church’s announcement, said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Virginia Staab.

Although this is fresh news, and deserves thoughtful comment, we hope the Obama administration will get off the sidelines and applaud this agreement, and by doing so, help create a virtuous circle of activity on Cuba, where actions by the government that we have been asking them to take for decades receive not silence not criticism and not a “time out” to await further details, but real encouragement.

Part of the problem may be an uncertainty among administration officials about the status of U.S. policy toward Cuba, even who is making the decisions about it.  In the aftermath of the recent House Committee vote to end the travel ban, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs declined to comment on whether the Obama administration would support the legislation, saying “that’s above my pay-grade.”

Six days later, a spokesman for the National Security Council was described by the Washington Post as “non-committal” on the substance of the legislation, saying the White House supported Congress’ “robust” discussion of Cuba policy as an example of the type of democratic freedom that it would like for the Cuban people.  Brilliant.

If the administration is truly at a loss for words, perhaps they could crib from the editorial pages of the Spartanburg Herald Journal which wrote plainly and honestly about the policy this week, saying “What we’ve done for half a century hasn’t worked. It hasn’t improved the lives of Cubans or the lives of Americans, it hasn’t caused an uprising against the Castro regime, and it hasn’t freed political prisoners or created a free press.  Nor has it made any sense,” and then they called for ending the travel ban.

Finally, a day after the prisoner releases were announced, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a tentatively encouraging comment, describing the releases as “a positive sign,” and stating that the move was “overdue but nevertheless very welcome.”

The larger lesson here, however, is not about the reluctance of the administration to dip its toe into a debate that is happening right before us – right now – and react either to the fast-paced news of a prisoner release or the passage of legislation that has been before the Congress for months (even years).

What we want people to focus on is the hard and necessary work that is done by the Cuban Catholic Church, which has slowly but persistently engaged with Cuba’s government, and pursued its values through negotiation.

Clearly this breakthrough took longer than it should have – surely societies should not jail their citizens for their political views – but this dramatic release vindicates the Church’s approach of talking to Cuba’s government.   Isolation and sanctions have never produced the kind of progress we have seen and should celebrate this week.  Policy makers take note.

Now, on to this week’s Cuba news…

IN CUBA

Massive release of political prisoners announced; Fariñas abandons hunger strike

The Catholic Church announced that Cuba’s government will free 52 political prisoners, including the last 47 still in jail since the spring 2003 round-up of 75 dissidents.  Five prisoners will be released immediately and will fly to Spain. The rest will be freed in a three to four month process, the Associated Press reported. This release is the biggest since Pope John Paul II visited in 1998.

The announcement came after an extraordinary meeting between Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Spain’s Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez.  Moratinos had just arrived on the island this week to discuss political prisoners, support the dialogue between Cuba’s Government and the church, and “obtain results,” according to BBC.

The Spanish government stated that it is willing to receive all 52 prisoners and will facilitate the process if any of them want to travel to a third country, according to ABC España.  Moratinos spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to inform her about his trip to Cuba and the announcement of the releases, reported the Associated Press. According to Moratinos, this event “should have an effect” in Washington. “It is the most significant release from a political point of view that has taken place in the Island for a long time.”

Following their conversation, Secretary Clinton stated, “We think that’s a positive sign. It’s something that is overdue but nevertheless very welcome.”

The list of prisoners to be released, according to the Associated Press, can be found here.

Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas said she hoped the release would encourage U.S. policy makers to move away from the decades-old trade embargo and toward greater dialogue.  “This is joyful news … and a lesson for U.S. policy makers that engagement – talking to the Cubans with respect – is accomplishing more, right now, than the embargo has accomplished in 50 years,” she said.

Reuters reported that the release of these prisoners could create momentum for a more open U.S. policy toward the island. But Ms. Stephens cautioned, “the history of U.S.-Cuba relations is filled with examples of our policy makers ‘moving the goal posts’ and imposing new conditions on Cuba before we engage with them, and I hope that is not what happens on this occasion.”

Before the announcement of the prisoner release, the Ladies in White, a group made up of wives and relatives of jailed dissidents, expressed their hope that the Spanish Foreign Minister’s meeting with Cuban officials would lead to the release of additional prisoners.

This week, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a watchdog group, reported that the number of political prisoners in Cuba had dropped to 167.  That is 34 fewer than in January, according to CNN and Americas Quarterly. In 2006, when Raúl Castro took power, 316 dissidents were imprisoned. In recent weeks, the Cuban government has transferred prisoners to sites closer to their relatives, and released some dissidents due to health problems. According to the Commission, the reduction in the number of prisoners is a result of the government’s decision to make brief arrests instead of long-term detentions.

Fariñas ends hunger strike

As this publication went to press, reports came in stating that Guillermo Fariñas has ended his 135-day hunger strike.  According to Reuters, Gisela Delgado, one of several dissidents visiting Fariñas in the hospital, told reporters that he had ended the strike “in these moments.”

During Moratinos’ visit to the Island, increased attention was given to Fariñas who had staked the end of his strike on Cuba’s government releasing 10 to 12 of its most seriously ill prisoners, so long as a timetable is created for the freeing of the remaining infirm prisoners.  News organizations reported earlier this week that Fariñas had developed a blood clot that could kill him, and in an unusual development, his deteriorating condition was reported in the Granma.

Before the parties announced the release plan and Fariñas ended his strike, Moratinos said of Fariñas: “We want him to end the hunger strike because I believe that the whole international community already knows his goal of presenting and representing the situation in Cuba,” the BBC reported.  Moratinos did not visit Fariñas while in Cuba, but says other Spanish diplomats met with him and asked him to end the strike, saying his actions have successfully raised international awareness of human rights abuses in Cuba.

Cuban communist party targets intellectual for exposing corruption

More reports surfaced this week regarding Esteban Morales, the Cuban academic who wrote the article “Corruption: the True Counterrevolution?”  Several news organizations reported that Morales has been expelled by local leaders of the Communist Party, or “separated from the ranks,” for his article that criticized unnamed party officials for positioning themselves for personal gain in case the Castro regime fails.  The Associated Press reported, however, that lower-ranking members have rejected the order pending an appeal.

Morales’ article was published on the website of the National Artists and Writers Union of Cuba last April. Though it was quickly removed from the website, it was copied and circulated among Cuban intellectuals and throughout the world.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Venezuela extradites Salvadoran terror suspect to Cuba

This week, Venezuela extradited terror suspect Francisco Chávez Abarca to Cuba to face trial for a series of 1997 bombings.   Reuters reported that Cuban television “showed a disheveled, manacled … Abarca emerging from a plane at the Havana airport where he was met by Cuban authorities.”

Abarca, a citizen of El Salvador, was detained in Caracas’ international airport after attempting to enter Venezuela with a falsified passport.  According to Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, Cuba had put out a ‘red notice’ through INTERPOL for the suspect’s arrest.  Cuban officials believe he is an associate of Luis Posada Carriles, the “man most wanted by the communist government’s prosecutors,” according to the Associated Press.  Abarca will be investigated for his part in bombings which took place in Cuba, killing an Italian tourist.  Venezuelan authorities suspect he was in Venezuela to instigate violence and upheaval before September’s elections for their National Assembly.

Abarca’s wife has not ruled out the idea that her husband was kidnapped by Venezuelans and transported to the South American country against his will, reported El Universal.  “He was in Guatemala; in fact, he told me that his telephone card was running out of balance and that he would call me later. How is it possible that he appears overnight in Venezuela?” she said.

President Chávez, for his part, believes that Abarca was entering Venezuela on a mission to take his life.  “He came to kill me,” Chávez said. “They wouldn’t send such a high-level terrorist to risk his secrets if it weren’t an important mission.”

President of Haiti visits Cuba

Haitian President René Preval visited Cuba this week to meet with government officials and discuss the status of the two countries’ “cooperation projects,” Periódico 26 reported. Haiti and Cuba have cooperation initiatives in the health, education, energy, agriculture, and construction sectors. Cuban doctors have played an important role in Haitian health care since 1998, and 400 doctors were already stationed in the country at the time of last January’s devastating earthquake.

Cuba wants Azerbaijani company to take part in development of offshore oil fields

News.az published an interview with Cuban Ambassador Marcello Caballero Torres in which he said he would like Azerbaijani energy company SOCOR to help develop Cuba’s offshore oil fields.  International companies such as Petrobras from Brazil, Sherritt from Canada, Repsol from Spain, and Gazprom from Russia are already planning to drill in the off-shore waters in the Gulf of Mexico in Cuba’s territory.

Cultural exchange with Cuba highlights Chinese and “Ivy League” Music and Carlos Varela

Cuba News Headlines reported that a Chinese folkloric group performed in Havana on July 2nd to promote the Festival of Chinese Culture that will take place July 17-18 to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Additionally, the Yale Alumni chorus performed in Havana on Thursday, reported TodaNoticia.com.  The concert was part of a ten-day tour of Cuba that began with a concert in Matanzas.

Renowned Cuban singer, Carlos Varela will perform at the Chase Latino Culture Festival in New York City on August 6th, according to Cuba News Headlines. Varela toured other American cities this spring, but his performance at the festival will be the first Cuban appearance at the festival in eight years.

European Solidarity Brigade Arrives in Cuba

The Cuban News Agency reported this week that a European Solidarity Brigade arrived in Cuba Monday to “work in agricultural tasks and … participate in lectures, workshops and meetings with members of Cuban grass-roots organizations.”  The brigade’s 13 activists are also demanding the release of the Cuban Five and spreading word about “the truth about Cuba’s reality” which, according to David Gil, secretary of the José Martí Friendship with Cuba Association of Valencia, “is very different from what European media portray.”

7,500 Salvadorans received eye operations under Venezuela-Cuba health plan
In preparation for the meeting of the Community of South American & Caribbean States (CELAC), Venezuelan and Salvadoran authorities signed an agreement to continue the “Operation Miracle” program, VHeadline reports. The program, originally designed by Cuba and Venezuela, aims to provide 600,000 eye operations per year, Venezuela financing the program and Cuba performing the operations. According to 2009 figures, over 7,500 Salvadorans have received successful operations through the program.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Debate continues in Washington following the June 30th passage of legislation in the House Agriculture Committee, the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, to lift the travel ban and increase exports of U.S. food to Cuba. As we reported last week, Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) believe the bill will have enough support to overcome a filibuster in the Senate, according to RTTNews.

Senators Dorgan and Enzi even expressed their hope to have a vote on the bill following the July 4th recess.

In the House, however, legislators are debating whether to send the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, introduced by Reps. Collin Peterson and Jerry Moran, directly to the House Floor, or to permit consideration of the legislation by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

As the Washington Post reported this week, “Supporters of the bill acknowledge that the fight is likely to intensify in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a forum where Cuba’s restrictions on political rights and detention of political prisoners likely will get as much attention as its market for rice, soybeans and frozen chickens received in the agriculture committee.”

Editorial writers issued praise for the legislation in the wake of its approval in the Agriculture Committee.  In “Showcasing Freedom,” the Spartanburg Herald Journal said “the travel ban isn’t a damper on Cuban freedom at all. It is a rule that keeps American citizens from going where they wish.  The ban on selling food to Cuba should disappear. We simply are not the kind of nation that should deny access to food for people who want to purchase it.”

The Gainesville Sun, a Florida newspaper, wrote “Americans have been forbidden to travel to Cuba for decades. That Cold War-era travel ban, along with the equally pointless trade embargo, never hurt the Castro regime but it impinged on Americans’ freedom to travel and it hurt American business and agriculture.”

The decision on sending the Peterson-Moran legislation directly to the House floor was also discussed here.

Seven Cubans trying to reach U.S. by raft sent home

The U.S. Coast Guard sent seven Cubans attempting to leave the island by raft back to Cuba on Tuesday, AFP reported. A passing ship spotted the 13-foot raft 19 miles south of Key West and reported the incident to U.S. authorities. Under the current “wet foot, dry foot” policy, refugees who reach land are allowed to remain in the United States, while those intercepted at sea must return to Cuba.

Around the Region:

Chávez ready to open dialogue with Santos, Colombia Reports

Venezuela’s ambassador to Colombia, Gustavo Márquez, said this week that President Hugo Chávez is willing to reopen dialogue with Colombia, to re-establish relations between the two countries and offer assistance to incoming Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

Elections in Mexico: A Lesson for the Future, The Epoch Times

The Mexican elections Sunday, to decide 12 state governors, has given a clear signal of the country’s future. The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has governed Mexico for 70 years, won nine of the 12 seats. PRI won in Quintana Roo, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Durango, Chihuahua, Aguascalientes, and Zacatecas.

Recommended Reading:

Can the Internet Bring Change to Cuba?

Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch writes about Cuba’s blogosphere, which has created an outlet for a new kind of political criticism.  Although most Cubans are unable to access even unblocked blogs, Wilkinson writes that the bloggers’ appeal and perhaps greatest contribution is their impact on Cuban exiles.  Bloggers are unequivocal, Wilkinson writes, in their condemnation of the U.S. embargo toward Cuba, a position that until recently was taboo within much of the exile community.  The postings elicit passionate replies across the spectrum, however, further adding to the debate.

Cuba’s Battle of Ideas, Havana Times


“I will never ever recommend prudence to anyone; I recommend that they fight – that they express themselves, that they struggle, that they accept to run the risks. Because this time the risks will be of a different nature, and they will be a revolutionary contribution within the Revolution.”

The Cuban Embargo, South American Security, and Teaching America’s “Officers-In-Training”: An Interview with Naval Academy Professor Daniel Masterson, History News Network

How has Cuba changed since Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raúl? And how are U.S.-Cuban relations today? As the U.S.-imposed embargo turns 50 this year – established the year after Castro came to power in 1959 – many Americans wonder if United States foreign policy is still served by the embargo.

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