Now that Prisoners are being freed, what’s next for U.S. Policy?

Dear Friends:

A delegation hosted by the Center for Democracy in the Americas touched down in Havana hours after the news broke that 52 political prisoners would be freed from prison thanks to an agreement reached by Cuba’s government and the Cuban Catholic Church.

At dinner last Thursday evening, a civil society leader said to our delegation: “Fariñas won, Spain won, the church won, and Cuba won.”  Of course, he made no mention of the U.S. since we played no role.

This is the right moment to test the logic of America’s foreign policy toward Cuba.  It has been predicated for decades on “conditionality,” the idea that the U.S. could not loosen the embargo against the island, and should not directly engage Cuba’s government, unless it made gestures in our direction by democratizing or releasing political prisoners.

Now that Cuba has agreed to release every remaining prisoner from the dissident roundup in 2003, the Obama administration and supporters of the embargo face the dilemma so neatly summarized by Dr. Julia Sweig: will they take yes for an answer and reply to the prisoner release with reforms in U.S. policy – such as expanding travel and trade?

Stunningly, a number of diehards hope the answer is no.  This week, Senator Robert Menendez, took note of the prisoner release, and reiterated his commitment to filibuster legislation to end the travel ban.  Even as prisoners covered by the agreement began to enjoy their freedom, the Senator raised doubts that Cuba would fulfill its pledge to release them all.  Along the same lines, the Washington Post said, “Mr. Obama has wisely linked major changes in U.S. sanctions to significant movement toward democracy and freedom by Havana. That condition is still far from met.”

For whom were they speaking?  Not for Guillermo Fariñas, the hunger striker who endured a fast lasting 135 days to compel action for the prisoners, who called the agreement “a victory for all,” and asked for “generosity” toward Cuba’s government.  He went on to say that “the United States should seize the moment to ‘move’ and authorize the travel of American tourists.”  El País quotes Fariñas saying, “The visits of millions of U.S. citizens would without a doubt change this country (Cuba) as it was transformed by the arrival of exiles in 1979.”

Nor were they speaking for Miriam Leiva, an independent journalist in Cuba who endured the imprisonment of her husband, Óscar Espinosa Chepe, who said freeing the prisoners both “resolves a great injustice” and reduces an issue “that has stood in the way of any type of internal or external opening.”

Or for Pablo Pacheco, who received a 20-year sentence in the 2003 crackdown, who said upon arriving with his family in Spain, “I think Raúl can become the man who changes things in Cuba.”

Spain, whose Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos joined the leaders of Cuba and the Catholic Church as the agreement was made public, is taking yes for an answer.  Spain will continue to press the membership of the European Union to change its “Common Position” that places “soft sanctions” on economic cooperation with Cuba linked to human rights.

Here, the Obama administration’s dilemma comes into sharper view.

El País is reporting that the Obama administration is tracking the release of prisoners to ensure that all 52 are set free and allowed to stay in Cuba if they wish to do so.  Further, it is willing to “adopt reciprocal measures if the circumstances allow,” but wants to avoid setting expectations of a significant response from Washington.   This is one explanation for the administration’s markedly muted response to the prisoner release.

There is a darker alternative.  Tim Padgett argued in Time Magazine this week that the administration may fail to offer a gesture back to Cuba to avoid taking on another political controversy, thereby passing up the opportunity “to change the dynamic in one of the most intractable problems of U.S. foreign policy.”

But if the United States fails to respond to the prisoner release with concrete actions of its own, where will we be?  Divided from the dissidents and prisoners in whose name we have perpetuated sanctions.

Divided from Europe, which will further open up to Cuba economically and diplomatically.

Divided, as always, from Cuba’s government, which will have called our bluff and demonstrated that our government, like Cuba’s, doesn’t really believe in conditionality, because when Cuba took this significant step and freed the prisoners, we were unmoved or unable or unwilling to respond.

Divided is no place to be.

This week in Cuba news…


Nine political prisoners released

Nine political prisoners were released from their Cuban prisons and flew to Madrid, Spain with their families.  They are the first of the group of 52 prisoners that the Cuban government has pledged to release following talks with Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Spain’s Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos.

The U.S. State Department released a cautiously positive statement applauding the efforts of the Catholic Church and the Spanish Foreign Ministry to secure the dissidents’ release.

Of the dissidents who have not yet been released, at least ten have stated that they wish to stay in Cuba, according to Argentina’s La Nación. Four have stated their wishes directly to Cardinal Ortega, while six others have indicated their preference to family members.  In an interview with El País, Guillermo Fariñas, a Cuban dissident and former hunger striker, observed that, after pledging to release all 52 prisoners named, to not release those who wish to stay in Cuba would “be incomprehensible and would have consequences.”

With the first group of prisoners freed and sent to Spain, concerns have been raised that “exile” for those imprisoned for their beliefs is not an appropriate solution.  According to the New York Times, however, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Archbishop of Havana who played a critical role in negotiating the releases, suggested that leaving Cuba would be an option, not a requirement, for the former prisoners.  Others may choose other countries or decide to stay in Cuba, church officials said.

Oswaldo Payá Sardinas, a long-time democracy activist in Cuba, responded to the government’s announcement by emphasizing the role the Cuban Catholic Church played in securing the releases. “We sincerely hope this gesture will create a new climate of dialogue among Cubans,” he said, in an interview published in the National Catholic Register.

The exact number of political prisoners currently in Cuba is heavily debated, reported the New York Times. Amnesty International has reported that, if the Cuban government follows through on the release of all 52 persons they have agreed to release, only one political prisoner would remain on the island. The independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights, however, counts 115 remaining political prisoners after the release of the group of 52.

According to El País, the United States government was informed of the agreement to release prisoners before it was officially announced.  Cardinal Ortega met with Arturo Valenzuela, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and other government officials during his unannounced visit to Washington at the end of June.

While the exact reasons for Raúl Castro’s decision to release prisoners are unknown, Cuba experts say the move is expected to “[enable] Raúl Castro to reduce political friction both inside and outside Cuba, and focus on pulling the island out of financial crisis,” according to Reuters.

Spain calls for opening of EU-Cuba relations

Spain’s Foreign Minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, said that Cuba’s pledge to release 52 political prisoners eliminates any justification for the European Union’s “hard-line” policy, EFE reported.

Since 1996, the EU has held a Common Position that makes better relations with Cuba conditional on democratization and human rights concessions. According to Moratinos, other European diplomats had said they would reconsider the policy if political prisoners were freed. “I hope that now my European colleagues live up to what they had pledged,” he said.

Fidel Castro makes first public appearances in four years

At a think tank, at a fish tank, on national television, and a walk-about, Cuba’s former President Fidel Castro made a series of public appearances, including his first televised interview in four years.

Mr. Castro visited the National Scientific Research Center (CNIC) and met with the center’s directors, the Latin American Herald Tribune reported.  Cuban state media released five photos of the visit.

On the heels of the CNIC visit, and just hours before the first wave of political prisoners were released and flown to Spain, his recently-recorded interview segment appeared on the state-sponsored evening talk show Mesa Redonda (Round Table), according to the Miami Herald.  Castro, who last appeared on Mesa Redonda via taped segments in 2007, discussed his views about the Middle East and the conflict between North and South Korea, but made no reference to the announcement about the release of 52 political prisoners. Though his speech was labored and he twice confused North and South Korea, the elder Castro appeared lucid and “alert.”

La Jornada offered some context for Fidel’s public reemergence, noting that his appearances demonstrated the competence of both brothers at a time when Cuba’s President Raúl Castro is initiating far-reaching reforms.

Former hunger striker and activist Guillermo Fariñas seemed to agree in an interview with RCN Radio, stating, “Fidel, with all his virtues and shortcomings, is the historic leader of the Castro regime. He appeared for the world to realize that his hand is behind the [prisoner] liberation.”

Review of economic reforms

The Telegraph this week listed economic reforms that will change benefits provided to Cubans by the state, showing belt-tightening amidst the economic crisis and a willingness to discard doctrine to meet the challenges of the day, possibly spelling an end to the ration book itself.

Cuba’s government has begun to shutter workers’ cafeterias to cut costs, forcing employees to provide their own lunch with the help of modestly increased wages.  Hundreds of state-run barber shops and beauty salons have been handed over to employees in what was hailed as the start of a long-expected privatization drive, the Telegraph reported.

Previous measures have included giving unproductive state-owned land over to private farmers, allowing Cubans to construct their own homes, and permitting private contractors such as taxi-drivers to run their own business.

President Raúl Castro also lifted the ban on Cubans owning computers and mobile phones and allowed them to rent cars and spend nights in hotels previously only accessible to foreigners.

New media and technology expand in Cuba

Prensa Latina reported this week that Cuba’s cell phone network has exceeded landline usage.  Cuba currently has 1.007 million mobile users and just 1.004 million land line users. Máximo Lafuente, the vice president of Cuba’s telecommunications company, attributed this growth to the expanding role of social services on the island, and insisted that the Cuban government should lower cell phone prices to make them more accessible to all Cubans.  Twenty municipalities still don’t have access to the mobile network.

The Brookings Institution also hosted an event this week to examine the issues of accessibility to new media and technology in Cuba.  Three leading policy experts on Cuba stressed the importance of a change in U.S policy concerning telecommunications in Cuba.

Ted Piccone, the deputy director for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, cited the fact that average Cuban citizens have been absent from the evolution of technology and, in some respects, U.S. regulations limiting the export of “anything that can be seen as supporting domestic infrastructure” have hurt the Cuban people.

Carlos Saladrigas of the Cuba Study Group mentioned that the role of the U.S. should not be to “submanage, but rather [to] focus on removing obstacles that are limiting access for the Cuban people.”  He cited the rise in cell phones and the increasing role of telecommunications in civil society, particularly for independent journalists and bloggers, as a step forward in Cuba.


Members of Congress: It’s time to lift the travel ban to Cuba

Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) spoke on the Senate floor this week in favor of ending restrictions on travel to Cuba.  He argued that the embargo is the Castro government’s “biggest excuse” for poor economic conditions and is incongruous with open travel to other communist countries.

He asked Senators to support legislation that, like the Peterson-Moran bill recently approved by the House Agriculture Committee, would end the travel ban. Dorgan and his cosponsor, Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi, say they have the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster.

According to the Associated Press, Wyoming’s entire Congressional delegation vocally supports lifting the travel ban. Senator John Barrasso has pledge his support and Representative Cynthia Lummis was among four Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee who voted in favor of H.R. 4645, the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act.

Polls and study show majority favors opening travel to Cuba

Polls conducted by the Guardian and USA Today are calling for an end to the trade embargo. The Guardian poll asked if the release of dissidents should “trigger the end of the Cuban embargo.” Results showed 72.1% of respondents answered affirmatively, stating that they saw the release of prisoners as a major concession by the Cuban government.  USA Today asked its readers if the U.S. should lift travel restrictions against Cuba. 91% of the more than 7,000 voters said “yes.”

A recent study conducted by Dr. Andy Gomez at the University of Miami showed emerging trends in the attitudes and perspectives of Cuban-Americans.  Interviewees included people who had migrated to the U.S. in various years, as well as those who were born in the U.S.

The survey showed that 64% of Cuban-Americans support lifting the travel ban – consistent with other polls conducted.   Even so, an impressive 92% of the participants felt that any changes Raúl Castro makes will not improve the social and economic situation on the island.   Consequently, the majority of Cuban-Americans support lifting the travel ban to Cuba without anticipating any concessions from the Cuban government.

Farm groups push Congress to ease restrictions on exports to Cuba

Texas farmers discussed hopes for increased trade with Cuba and an end to trade restrictions in an article in the New York Times this week. Currently Cuba is importing much of its rice from Southeast Asia but, according to the U.S.A. Rice Federation, “American farmers could eventually send 400,000 to 600,000 metric tons of rice to Cuba every year,” if export restrictions were lifted.


Secretary Clinton asks Jewish community to go to bat for USAID contractor Alan Gross

According to the AP, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used a reception held this week for Hannah Rosenthal, the administration’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, to appeal for support in efforts to release Alan Gross.  Gross, has been detained without charge in Cuba since December 2009, and is suspected by the authorities of illegally distributing sophisticated communications technology in Cuba.  The U.S. government has denied any wrongdoing on the part of Alan Gross.

“Alan was providing information and technology that would assist this community to be better connected,” Secretary Clinton said.  “Our government works every single day through every channel for his release and safe return home.  But I am really making an appeal to the active Jewish community here in our country to join this cause.”

The event included prominent Jewish American organizations, Members of Congress, foreign diplomats and interfaith nongovernmental organization representatives.  Judy, Mr. Gross’s wife also attended the reception.

Dina Siegel-Vann, the director of the Latino and Latin American Institute of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), commented that she believed there is “an impasse” in Gross’ case. According to The Jerusalem Post, that is why she believes “the Jewish community was asked to get involved.” She said that her organization has been involved from the beginning, and that the AJC would continue to leverage its contacts within Latin American governments to work for the release of Alan Gross.

Cuba plans deepwater drilling in the Gulf

NPR’s Weekend Edition aired a story on oil drilling in Cuba.  Repsol, a Spanish oil company, plans to drill an exploratory well off Cuba’s northern coast, where Cuba has an estimated six billion barrels of oil reserves.  Repsol previously drilled off the coast of Cuba in 2004. The second proposed well will further test the economic viability of drilling. Seven other international companies have purchased oil leases from Cuba, but due to the trade embargo, U.S. companies are not allowed to participate.

Experts are concerned that the oil drilling so close to Florida’s shoreline would dramatically affect Florida’s beaches in the event of a spill.  Jorge Piñon, a former Shell and AMOCO executive, and currently a research fellow at Florida International University, said that legislation or an executive order could authorize American companies to cooperate on oil clean-up if the BP spill reaches Cuba or if there were to be an oil spill in Cuba’s waters. Those provisions, however, must be made now to allow for a timely response.

Brazilian NGO meets with Cubans on Oil Spill Threats

Wildlife rescue technicians from the Brazilian branch of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an international non-profit, marine wildlife conservation organization carried out “a campaign” to exchange oil spill information with community leaders and academics along Cuba’s northern coast.

According to Sea Shepherd’s website, “from July 5th to the 9th members of Instituto Sea Shepherd Brasil and the Centro de Investigaciones Marinas (CIM) of the University of Havana, Instituto de Oceanología, the Cuban NGO ProNaturaleza and community leaders of the traditional fishing village of Cojimar met to exchange experiences on how to mobilize and train coastal communities aiming at the prevention and restoration of ecosystems and wildlife threatened by oil spills.”

Bill introduced to committee to stymie Cuba’s oil drilling efforts

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) recently introduced H.R. 5620, the Caribbean Coral Reef Protection Act of 2010, in an effort to block Cuba from developing its offshore oil resources by subjecting foreign oil firms to stiff U.S. sanctions.

In a statement about the bill, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said that the bill would both protect the environment and support human rights by “preventing an economic lifeline” for Cuba’s government by way of oil sales. She also argued that preventing Cuban oil exploitation would prevent Iran from gaining “back-door access to resources otherwise denied to it under new and expected sanctions.”

The legislation will not stop the development of Cuba’s offshore oil resources.

Obama extends suspension of Helms-Burton

President Barack Obama extended for an additional six months the suspension of provisions of the Helms-Burton law legislation that sanction foreign companies for doing business in Cuba, according to El Universal. The 1996 law penalizes foreign companies who use property in Cuba that belonged to U.S. citizens prior to 1959. The law allows the president to suspend that measure for up to six months, and every president has regularly renewed the suspension twice a year since. Extending the suspension has become routine. In a letter to Congress explaining his decision, Obama wrote that suspending the law will help “accelerate the transition to democracy in Cuba.”

Around the Region:

Venezuela to deport drug traffickers to U.S., Prensa Latina

Venezuela confirmed the deportation to the United States of Carlos Rentería, a recently captured drug ring leader of Colombian origin, and two other leaders of criminal organizations.

Venezuela’s Chávez orders review of Vatican ties, Reuters

President Chávez rebuffed criticism from Catholic bishops by ordering a review of diplomatic ties with the Vatican and declaring that the Pope is “no ambassador of Christ on earth.”

Ousted Honduran president may return home soon: report, Xinhua

Manuel Zelaya may return home next month. His return would be sooner than expected. Rodil Rivera, a spokesperson for the former president, said he believes Zelaya would return before the end of this year.

Recommended Viewing:

Photographs from Cuba, The Center for Democracy in the Americas

Our delegation to Cuba kept a photographic record of our meetings and experiences on the island, July 8-12.  Here is a brief selection of what we saw.

Fidel Castro appears on Mesa Redonda, CubaDebate

Photos and full video of former President Castro’s Mesa Redonda interview (in Spanish only).

Cuba travel rules loosening?, CNN

As Congress considers new legislation to open travel and trade with Cuba, Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas tells CNN: “I think we’re realizing after fifty years of being on the sidelines that it’s time to be engaged.”

Recommended Listening:

Changes in Cuba: Prisoner release, Castro’s role, NPR

In an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation this week, Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations offers perspective on the prisoner releases, Fidel Castro’s role in Cuban politics, U.S. policy toward Cuba and the status of USAID contractor Alan Gross.

Recommended Reading:

Free the Cuban Five!, The Nation

Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy urged the U.S to follow the recent positive developments in Cuba and release the Cuban Five. According to Smith, the release of the prisoners would “help restore the image of the United States, which has been damaged by international condemnation of its handling of the case.”

The tenth anniversary of “Plan Colombia”, The Washington Office on Latin America

Adam Isacson, senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, produced this analysis of Plan Colombia: claims of success don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Castro Care in crisis, Council on Foreign Relations

Will lifting the embargo be catastrophic for Cuba’s healthcare system? Laurie Garrett discusses how easing trade and travel restrictions could mean an exodus of Cuban doctors and nurses.

One Response to Now that Prisoners are being freed, what’s next for U.S. Policy?

  1. luisa rimblas says:

    well is a very good steps specially for the families,
    but i think if the spaniards and european union comes to sit and engage with cuban goverment for trade and social issues is plenty, the united state wants to continue on the stupid blabla, wanting to cuba to be perfect,them to hell with them, we in Usa are perfect and there is a large list of the things we need to fix
    no one is can denied that cuba needs to mend and undo a lot of thing, so is the rest of the world.
    i agreed with sugestions, wich is different from i tell you what to do, and to end i said to the so call hard liner////get toillete paper and wipe out your mouth///bad breath boys.
    thanks luisa

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