Focus on Prisoner Release; More in the Offing? Floridian Breaks Ranks and Supports Freedom to Travel. From Hanoi to Havana?

Dear Friends:

This week, we cover news about the recently-freed political dissidents, their complaints and concerns about life in Spain, reports that additional prisoners could soon be freed, and the implications for European and U.S. relations with Cuba in the wake of this breakthrough.

Although it hasn’t quite attracted the attention it deserves, we’re pleased to report that Representative Kathy Castor from Tampa, Florida became the first Member of Congress from her state to cosponsor legislation to abolish the travel ban for all Americans wishing to visit Cuba.  As a Floridian, for her to take this step in the midst of a stormy reelection season took guts.  We salute her for it.  Twenty-six other Members of Florida’s delegation in Congress should be so bold.

It also took courage, fifteen years ago, when President Bill Clinton normalized relations with Vietnam. You remember the story.  Vietnam in the 1990s was still a wound from which millions of Americans had not yet recovered.  A wall in Washington reminded the nation of a conflict that claimed the lives of more than 58,000 U.S. service personnel.  Yet, he determined that reconciliation simply couldn’t take place at a diplomatic distance.  What seemed impossible and so controversial at the time – especially for a president who hadn’t served in the military before running for office – seems decidedly less remarkable today.

Hillary Clinton, our First Lady then and the Secretary of State now, visited Hanoi this week and marked the fifteenth anniversary of our normalization with this former enemy, still a one-party socialist state.  After announcing agreements on climate change, preventing pandemics, education and training, she promised a heightened level of coordination between the United States and Vietnam on trade and investment, and pledged to do more to ameliorate the suffering of Vietnamese still feeling effects from the Agent Orange used by our military as a defoliant during the war.

And then in a public appearance with their Deputy Prime Minister, she chastised Vietnam’s government for arresting people for peaceful dissent, for attacks on religious groups, and curbs on Internet freedom.  Hers were polite but pointed remarks on Vietnamese soil in the context of a normalized relationship.

This is the model for what is possible in the U.S. relationship with Cuba.  We can normalize and recognize, without pulling punches on disagreements relating to human rights, democratization, or anything else.  We might even decide, as we have with Vietnam, to disagree with Cuba’s system without using sanctions, diplomacy, or violence to overturn it.

This is not to say that strong feelings don’t still exist in our country, or in Cuba, about what has transpired between us these last fifty-plus years.  But here, again, Secretary Clinton speaking in Vietnam seems to have gotten it right.

“Thirty-five years ago we ended a war that inflicted terrible suffering on both our nations and still remains in living memory for many of our people,” Clinton said. “Despite that pain, we have dedicated ourselves to the hard work of building peace.”

It just takes guts.

This week in Cuba news…

POLITICAL PRISONERS

Cuba may free more than 52 prisoners

After Spain’s foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, told El Heraldo that the prisoner release he brokered with Cuba included more prisoners than the fifty-two originally identified, a high-ranking Cuban official is confirming that more releases may be in the offing.  Ricardo Alarcón, the President of Cuba’s National Assembly, said “It was very clear from the discussions that the government’s wish is to free all the people [marked as political prisoners],” with the exception of those who are implicated in murder charges, AFP reported.  Alarcón also suggested that prisoners who wished to stay in Cuba would still be released and allowed to remain on the island.

Spanish government officials emphasize that the dissidents and their family members came to Spain voluntarily.  Moratinos and Catholic Church officials have stated that leaving Cuba “was an offer, not a condition for the release,” but some of the Cubans who arrived in Madrid contradicted that statement, calling their travel to Spain “exile” and “deportation.” They claimed that there will be no change in Cuba as long as prisoners who refuse to leave the country remain in jail. “That’s our main struggle, for he who wants to remain in Cuba to be free,” said dissident Julio César Gálvez. As the prisoner releases continue in the coming months, time will tell whether the Cuban government will, in fact, allow released prisoners to remain on Cuban soil.

More freed dissidents arrive in Spain

CNN international reported that five more Cuban dissidents arrived in Spain, along with dozens of relatives, bringing to 20 the number of freed dissidents accepted by Spain.

Spain’s government plans to grant the Cuban émigrés “assisted international protection” status. Spanish officials confirm that it is similar to refugee status, which some of the dissidents have requested, because it would allow the former prisoners to live and work in Spain. Cuban prisoners left as émigrés so that they would be allowed to return to Cuba if they chose to do so, which Moratinos explained was part of his agreement with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro.  Under “political refugee” status, Cuban dissidents would no longer be allowed to return to Cuba and they would be prohibited from engaging in any “political activity.”

Cuban dissidents criticize services, treatment in Spain

Cuban dissidents accused Spain’s government of falling through on its promises, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported.  Spokesperson Julio César Gálvez said they had not received legal counsel, financial support, or help finding housing. They also complained about the lack of privacy in the hostel where they are staying and their unclear legal status in the country.

The governor of Madrid, Esperanza Aguirre, also criticized the treatment of the freed prisoners. According to El Universal, Aguirre said that the Spanish government has given the dissidents nothing more than “a shirt and a tie,” and “denies” them work and residency permits.

According to Europa Press, María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, Spain’s First Vice President, responded to these complaints saying, “They won’t lack any type of support.” She said the government is trying to find housing that fits each dissident’s needs. She clarified that the visas they have received should give them “the same rights as resident citizens in Spain.”

Olatz Cacho, the head of Amnesty International’s Cuba project, told the press that releasing prisoners is only the “first step” in human rights reforms and demanded that the prisoners receive treatment for their medical and psychological needs while in Spain.  José Javier Sánchez Espinosa, the Deputy Director of Migration at the Red Cross, assured EFE that the Red Cross is following established guidelines for working with refugees and vulnerable persons.

Moratinos assured the Spanish public that the Cuban dissidents would receive residency and work visas within three to four months, and called for understanding and patience in the face of this “bureaucratic process.”

Political prisoners decide on permanent homes

The first dissidents to leave Cuba are beginning to establish permanent homes abroad. AFP reported that Pablo Pacheco, a dissident journalist now in Spain, traveled by train to Málaga this week.  He will live in housing provided by the Red Cross with his wife, son, and two other family members for the next few months. According to Málaga Hoy, Omar Ruiz Hernandez and his relatives also relocated to Málaga. Two other prisoners moved to Valencia and Guadalajara. Another, Omar Rodriguez, received an offer to move to Asturias, but has not yet announced whether he will relocate. Rodriguez and the other dissidents who first arrived from Cuba remain in the Madrid hostel.

Antonio Villareal, who left Madrid for Logroño, La Rioja this week, announced that he will settle in Miami. His wife and two children will travel with him, while another son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild will stay in Spain.

José Ubaldo Izquierdo Hernández, another dissident, was granted asylum in Chile, according to La Nación. He plans to immigrate to Chile after arriving in Spain. The Chilean government was among those that offered to accept political prisoners from Cuba. Izquierdo’s wife, two children, a nephew, and in-laws will travel with him.

U.S. diplomats meet with families of political prisoners

Officials from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana arranged to meet this week with family members of each political prisoner who has refused to leave Cuba or who has not been contacted by the Catholic Church, AFP reported. Spanish diplomats and representatives of the Catholic Church were also invited.  Alejandrina García, the wife of prisoner Diosdado González, informed the media, however, that a group event was cancelled in favor of individual meetings with each dissident’s family.

CNN reported that the U.S. government is encouraging freed Cuban political prisoners and their families to “explore their options” when deciding where to emigrate, including possible travel to the United States. Though the U.S. pledged to accept political prisoners, families of six dissidents told the AP that U.S. representatives told them that going to Spain would make it “more difficult” to apply for asylum in the United States.  Family members reported that the U.S. offered asylum “to all those who want it,” but unlike travel to Spain, the offer was not immediate. Some dissidents and their families now feel that they have to choose between departing for Spain immediately and waiting to see if they can receive asylum in the U.S. If they wished to move to the U.S. from Spain, they would have to apply for a regular immigration visa.

According to BBC Mundo, the wait for a regular visa could take from 18 months to three years.

About 20 of the dissidents have rejected the offer of travel to Spain. Some are holding out for asylum in the United States, and others, including Óscar Elías Biscet, have voiced a desire to remain in Cuba, AFP reported.

Ariel Sigler granted exit visa

Ariel Sigler, the political prisoner released on June 12th, has received permission to leave Cuba and travel to the United States to be with his family, according to the Associated Press. The State Department had granted Sigler, who suffers from a number of health conditions, a “humanitarian parole” visa to travel to the U.S while he was still in jail.

According to Europa Press, Sigler will fly to the U.S. next week to receive medical treatment in Miami. Sigler received the exit visa, family sources say, thanks to the help of Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega who procured the release of 52 of Cuba’s prisoners of conscience. Though Sigler will be permitted to leave the country, he will not be allowed to return. His exit visa is for a permanent leave from Cuba.

Dissidents in Cuba respond to prisoner releases

Cuban journalist and dissident Alejandro González Rega celebrated the release of prisoners, but said that he feared the move would be “fatal” for opposition movements in Cuba, Ecodiario reported.   Óscar Espinosa Chepe, one of 75 dissidents arrested in the Spring of 2003, was more optimistic. He said that the government has taken a step in the right direction by releasing the political dissidents, but must take advantage of the situation to create and implement reforms. He says that economic reforms, along with the release of the 52 political prisoners, would strengthen the sense of “movement” by the government.

Spain’s Moratinos calls for an end to the Common Position, dissidents say no

Spain’s government is calling for the end to the European Union’s Common Position on Cuba after the promised release of 52 political prisoners from Cuban jails, according to El País. The Common Position conditions relations with Cuba on the improvement of the human rights situation in Cuba.

Spain’s foreign minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos has been working to drop the EU Common Position since he came to office in 2004.  He told parliament this week that he expects Cuba’s decision to free dissidents would lead the EU to change its policy toward the island nation.  Moratinos also predicted that the move “will have political consequences in U.S. relations with Cuba, (such as) the lifting of the embargo,” the Associated Press reported.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. is stressing that it hopes Cuba will release all the political prisoners.  But he said how far and how fast the Cuban government will go is a major question.

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, examines the implications of the prisoner release for U.S. policy here.

Four countries—Germany, France, the Czech Republic, and Sweden—are blocking changes to the Common Position.  German officials have called the release of prisoners “a step in the right direction,” but a Czech spokesperson warned that “it is early to draw conclusions.”

Ten of the first 11 Cuban dissidents to arrive in Spain released a statement asking the European Union to maintain its Common Position on Cuba, AFP reported. They wrote that the “Cuban government has not taken steps that evidence a clear decision to advance toward the democratization of our country.”

According to the Washington Office on Latin America, four of the prisoners who issued the statement opposing an end to the Common Position were also among the 74 signers of the letter to House Agriculture Chair Colin Peterson supporting legislation to end the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba.

UN chief encouraged by prisoner release

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, welcomed the promised release of 52 political dissidents from Cuba, calling the move “encouraging” and asking for the island to “build on” these steps, according to the Associated Press. He called for “more reconciliatory measures [to be] taken by Cuban authorities, establishing the rule of law and respecting human rights.”

IN CUBA

Communist Party to cut state jobs, initiate reforms

Cuba’s Communist Party is beginning to reorganize its state-paid workforce, Reuters reported. It plans to reduce “unnecessary” state workers, cutting up to a million employees, or one-fifth of the workforce. Eighty-five percent of Cubans work for the government. According to party officials, the government will cut its payrolls over five years, or at a rate of 200,000 workers per year, in order to reduce government spending and increase efficiency.

Few workers have been laid off under the just-announced plan. When possible, the government will offer workers new jobs in a different sector or unemployment insurance for up to six weeks. Analysts speculate that this change signals upcoming liberalization in private industry to support new jobs for workers who will be laid off.

These reforms come after the release of a study that found a “bloated” state agency payroll.  Earlier in the week, the press speculated that summer furloughs in the tourism industry might indicate preparation for broader labor reorganization. Raúl Castro told El País that he would introduce political and economic reforms “in a few weeks.”

Health Minister replaced in latest Cabinet shake-up

Cuba has removed its health minister, José Ramón Balaguer, the Associated Press reported. The 78-year-old physician was replaced by a much younger doctor, Roberto Morales, who has served as first vice minister of health. Cuba provides free health care to all of its citizens, making the health minister a highly influential government post. Government officials gave little explanation for this change. The Cuban Communist Party has replaced several influential government appointees this year, including the transportation minister, attorney general, and overseer of air transport.

Chilean facing corruption charges in Cuba

Max Marambio, a Chilean businessman who was once “considered a protégé of Fidel Castro” has been accused of bribery, embezzlement and fraud in connection with one of his businesses in Cuba, the Associated Press reported. Charges against Marambio were considered “the first public movement” in the corruption case of Marambio’s Río Zaza beverage company since Roberto Baudrand, the general manager, was found dead in his Havana home.

Marambio announced that he would be traveling to Cuba in response to the Cuban prosecutions’ summons. In a statement released by his attorney, Marambio announced “We have decided to appear before this request, to testify and to provide all the background information in our possession on the issues under investigation.”

Mariela Castro: Things must change in Cuba

Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuba’s president Raúl Castro, is calling for changes on the island so that, “from an economic point of view, it would make sense for [younger generations] to stay” in Cuba.  Ms. Castro, the director of the National Center of Sexual Education, says that the island needs growth and a better quality of life for everyone.

Fidel Castro makes another public appearance to talk to ambassadors

Following last week’s appearances in public and on Cuban television, Fidel Castro stepped out of seclusion again to meet with 115 Cuban ambassadors, Prensa Latina reported.  Cuban diplomats stationed across the world are meeting in Havana.  He used this appearance to warn, once again, against aggression toward Iran and North Korea, hinting that the United States might like to overthrow the current government of Iran.

Cuba reformulates pentavalent vaccine

Cuban researchers have reformulated the pentavalent vaccine to allow all components of the vaccine to be stored in a single bottle instead of four separate containers, Cuba Headlines reported.  The medication protects against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B, and influenza. Luis Herrera, director of the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, said that the new medication is ready for use.

CUBA’S FOREIGN POLICY

President of Chile calls on U.S. to end embargo

Sebastián Piñera, president of Chile, said that the U.S. embargo against Cuba “must be revised,” Terra Noticias reported. He continued to say that Cuba does not have a “real democracy” and “lacks respect for human rights,” but that countries must act to promote change instead of putting ineffective sanctions in place.

Heads of State visit Cuba

Kuwait’s prime minister made an official visit to Cuba last weekend, Xinhua reported. Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Ahmad Al-Sabah and Cuba’s first vice-president, José Ramón Machado Ventura, signed agreements promising cooperation in culture and trade. The two countries have had diplomatic relations since 1974 and, according to Prensa Latina, Kuwait will soon open an embassy in Havana. This was the prime minister’s first visit to Cuba.

Mauricio Funes, President of El Salvador, is also planning a trip to Cuba in the first visit by a Salvadoran president since relations were broken in 1961, Europa Press reported.

Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela, will visit Cuba to commemorate the 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks that led to the Cuban Revolution, according to the Havana Times. It is unclear, however, whether Fidel Castro will appear publicly during the commemoration.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Floridian breaks ranks: Rep. Kathy Castor supports lifting Cuba travel ban

Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-11) is cosponsoring legislation to lift decades-old travel restrictions to Cuba, becoming the first Member of Congress from Florida to do so.

“Now is the time to remove the obstacles and hassles that have prevented Cuban Americans without direct family ties and other Floridians from traveling to Cuba, and for our region to reap the benefits that freedom of travel can bring,” Castor said of the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which was authored by Rep. Bill Delahunt (MA-10).

“I think the policy toward Cuba is going to change, and Tampa has got to be well positioned to maximize the job opportunities,” Castor said of her district.

Castor has been campaigning to secure charter flights from Tampa International Airport and spur activity at the Port of Tampa.

U.S. calls for caution from companies drilling in Cuban waters

When asked about the U.S. response to Spanish oil company Repsol’s plans to drill for oil off the coast of Cuba, State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley responded that U.S.-based companies that provide oil spill mitigation services “can be licensed…to provide oil spill prevention and containment support” within Cuba’s waters.

Crowley said that he expected any company drilling in Cuba’s waters to adopt “adequate safety measures and planning precautions” to prevent future spills in the Gulf. Many within the government, however, are calling for a harder line. Florida Senator Bill Nelson asked President Obama to block further drilling off the Cuban coast, UPI reported this week.

U.S. government confiscates computers heading for Cuba

U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel confiscated five computers donated by Vancouver residents to the Pastors for Peace Caravan to Cuba at a Texas-Mexico border crossing, The Province reported.  Authorities allowed the 85-person humanitarian trip to carry 55 additional computers, 9 school buses for donation, medical supplies, school supplies, construction materials, and sports equipment across the border to Tampico, Mexico, where the cargo will be shipped to Havana.

Though the government said the seizure was to check whether the computers could be used for military purposes, organizer Janine Solanski said that they were taken “to annoy us.”  The group, which includes both Americans and Canadians, is deliberately traveling without a U.S. Treasury Department license to make a political statement against the embargo and travel ban.

High school teacher banned for leading field trip to Cuba

Former history teacher Nathan Turner has been deemed “ineligible to work in public schools” after leading a trip to Cuba in 2007, according to the New York Daily News. A three-year investigation found that Turner ignored instructions from the school’s principal to cancel the trip and placed students at risk of suffering civil or criminal penalties. In explaining why he led the trip, Turner explained that he is a communist and wanted “to see Castro one more time before he died.” Turner resigned from his position in 2008.

Around the Region:

Venezuela severs ties with Colombia, AP

President Hugo Chávez severed Venezuela’s diplomatic relations with Colombia on Thursday over claims that he harbors guerrillas, and he warned that his neighbor’s leader could attempt to provoke a war. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro announced that Chavez’s government has closed its embassy in Bogotá and demanded that Colombia’s ambassador in Caracas leave the country within 72 hours.

Central American leaders approve Honduras’ return to OAS, SICA, Xinhua

Central American leaders agreed to readmit Honduras into two major regional organizations at a summit held in El Salvador. During the summit, the presidents of the member states of the Central American Integration System (SICA) approved Honduras’ return to the Organization of American States (OAS) and SICA.

President Funes: “You are either with democracy or with coup supporters”, El Faro

Mauricio Funes, El Salvador’s president,  called on his Central American colleagues to work together to face the structural problems from which the region is suffering and warned about the existence of sectors within society that are expected to benefit from possible coups. He also warned about several “threats” that exist against young democracies in the Central American region. “Let’s talk clearly, because we can’t do this half-heartedly. You are either with democracy or with coup supporters.”

Recommended Reading:

In their own words: Dissidents discuss imprisonment and release, The New York Times

The New York Times published an editorial by one of the dissidents, Ricardo González Alfonso. He described the physical and mental conditions he experienced in Cuban jails, and called his release a “rebirth.”

Interview with Darsi Ferrer, former prisoner, Hacer Latin American News

Bertha María Carrillo interviewed Darsi Ferrer, who was recently released from prison, about his experiences and his opinions on recent political developments on the island.

Recommended Viewing:

Why Russian tourists are returning to Cuba, BBC News

For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union almost 20 years ago, large numbers of Russians are heading back to their former Cold War ally, Cuba. This time though, they are not going as military or political advisers, but as tourists.

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