Hardball with Ileana; A trial date for Posada Carriles; Hanukkah candles in Havana and Cigars in Chicago – Holy Smokes!

On this International Human Rights Day, here’s what’s leading the news this week.

Elections have consequences.

The incoming House Majority voted to hand the gavel to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who will chair the Foreign Affairs Committee, and pledged to play hardball and isolate our adversaries.  At least one diplomat in the region took notice (check out his essay in our section, Recommended Reading) and outlined the risks that are now being posed to U.S. foreign policy by the resurgent Cold Warrior mentality in Congress.

The end of ‘justice delayed’?

We’re one month away from the opening of the long-delayed trial in El Paso, Texas, which will determine the status of Luis Posada Carriles, the mastermind behind the bombing of Cubana Airlines Flight 455, who entered the U.S. illegally five years ago and is charged with perjury and naturalization fraud.  This week, the Miami Herald foreshadowed the trial which is set to begin on January 11th and the unique development of an American prosecution offering evidence jointly collected by Cuban and U.S. investigators.  While some liken this immigration case to charging Al Capone with tax evasion, we may be seeing justice after decades and decades of delay in dealing with this hardened terrorist.

A happy Hanukkah for some, but not for all.

President Raúl Castro lit a menorah with the Jewish community in Havana, and while he didn’t mention jailed contractor Alan Gross, he did urge Cubans to debate the economic reforms that will fundamentally shift the paradigm in Cuba and alter relations between the state and its citizens, their benefits, and livelihoods.  We cover both the President’s comments and, separately, the continuing controversy in the U.S. and Cuba over the USAID regime-change program that landed Mr. Gross in prison more than one year ago.

Close, but no cigars.

Somebody tried to smuggle at least 30,000 Cuban cigars into the United States through Customs at O’Hare International Airport.  But you can’t fool the crafty agents standing guard in Chicago, where they normally confiscate between 10-12 cigars each week.  70,000 more stogies are under inspection.  That embargo – what a pain in the ash!

This week in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Ros-Lehtinen ‘ready to play hardball’ as Chair of House Foreign Affairs Committee

Not wasting a moment, the bloggers at Capitol Hill Cubans hit the send button on their announcement at 12:23 Wednesday afternoon:  It’s Official!

Their scoop?  The incoming Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives had officially chosen Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to lead the House Committee on Foreign Relations once the 112th Congress convenes in January. Ros-Lehtinen, an anti-Castro Republican born in Cuba, succeeds Rep. Howard Berman as chair of the panel.

Upon her selection, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen released a statement saying, “My worldview is clear: isolate and hold our enemies accountable, while supporting and strengthening our allies. … Rogue regimes never respond to anything less than hardball…I pledge to do all that I can to isolate U.S. enemies while empowering and strengthening our allies, and I will not make apologies for doing either.”

Ros-Lehtinen perceives the results of the last month’s elections as a mandate to control spending and sees her principal goal as cutting current State Department and foreign aid budgets, reports AFP.  Ros-Lehtinen also stated her intentions to use U.S. dues in international organizations as leverage, and to cut off money to “failed entities.”

Foreign Policy suggests that Ros-Lehtinen’s cuts could “severely complicate the Obama administration’s mission to elevate both diplomacy and development as instruments of national power…  It could also cause difficulties for the State Department’s plan to take over more responsibility in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and rebuild the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).”

Terrorist’s trial in the U.S. to be marked by firsts

The Miami Herald reports that the upcoming trial of Luis Posada Carriles will mark the first time that evidence gathered by Cuban authorities and the FBI will be presented in a U.S. courtroom.

Posada will be tried in El Paso in January 2011 based on an eleven-count indictment including one count of naturalization fraud and seven counts of making false statements on his naturalization form and in interviews with federal agents.  The perjury charges relate to his denial of involvement in orchestrating a bombing campaign against Cuban tourism properties that killed an Italian visitor to the island.

Reportedly, jurors will hear Posada Carriles’ taped interview with a New York Times journalist in which he admits to masterminding the 1997 string of hotel bombings in Havana.  He later claimed that he had mistakenly made this admission due to language issues.   Federal prosecutors hope to provide evidence of Posada Carriles’ involvement in the Havana attacks proving their accusation that he committed perjury in 2005 when he told U.S. immigration authorities that he wasn’t involved in “soliciting others” to carry out a hotel bombing.

To read the 1998 New York Times article in which Posada Carriles assumes responsibility for the 1997 hotel bombings, please click here.  Another New York Times article from 1998 relating to Posada Carriles can be found here.  And finally, the Congressional Research Service produced a detailed background memo this week concerning the Posada Carriles trial.

Justice for one; a memoir and book party for another

While some await justice for Posada Carriles, others celebrate the career of another notorious terrorist who continues to walk free.  As Tracey Eaton recounts in Along the Malecón, Orlando Bosch has released a memoir and the fans of his violent exploits – including Posada Carriles himself – came out to celebrate his latest literary effort.  Bosch has not hurt a soul, the celebrant-deniers are quoted as saying.   As FBI documents demonstrate, thanks to the National Security Archive, this book, if it goes to the library, shouldn’t occupy space in the non-fiction section. Bosch was clearly at the center of planning, financing, and carrying out of terrorist operations, including the airline bombing, and attacks against Cuba and other countries he deemed as supporting the Cuban government.   Bosch was ultimately pardoned by President George H.W. Bush after an effort that began during the congressional campaign of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Cuba commutes Salvadoran bombers’ death sentences

In a related matter, Cuba’s Supreme Court commuted a death sentence given to Ernesto Cruz León, a Salvadoran man convicted of terrorism for his role in the campaign of hotel bombings allegedly orchestrated by Luis Posada Carriles, reports The Washington Post.  Cruz León’s sentence has been commuted to thirty years from an original death sentence. The change in verdict comes two years after President Raúl Castro announced that all death sentences would be up for review and suggested that nearly all would be commuted.

Three days after the announcement on Cruz León’s sentence, fellow Salvadoran Otto René Rodríguez Llerena’s death sentence was also commuted to thirty years, according to Cubadebate.  Rodríguez Llerena is accused of planting a bomb in the Meliá Cohiba Hotel in Havana that caused damage to the premises but no fatalities.

Cuba says WikiLeaks shows U.S. confuses diplomacy with espionage

Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, was the first representative to raise the issue of WikiLeaks during the recent Ibero-American Summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina.  Rodríguez, according to Europa Press, stated that the leaks show that the United States confuses diplomacy with espionage and illustrate the arrogance, cynicism, and hypocrisy of U.S. diplomacy.

One U.S. diplomatic cable made public late this week by WikiLeaks revealed that in February of this year, when the cable was written and sent, the U.S. believed that Cuba’s economy “could become fatal” within two to three years and that the country could be insolvent by as early as 2011, according to the Associated Press.

U.S. policy makers have predicted the demise of Cuba’s economy for years, but this cable details a meeting between U.S. diplomats, and representatives from “some of Cuba’s main trading partners, including China, Spain, Canada, Brazil and Italy, as well as France and Japan, both of which are among the island’s top creditors,” according to the Associated Press.  “All diplomats agreed that Cuba could survive this year without substantial policy changes, but the financial situation could become fatal within 2-3 years,” the cable said.

The cable, however, was sent several months before Raúl Castro announced a restructuring of the Cuban economy.

According to yet another leaked cable, the United States has attempted to halt the progress of the Misión Barrio Adentro, a social welfare program instituted by President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, TeleSUR reported.  State Department cables say the U.S. encouraged Cuban doctors working in the Barrio Adentro program to defect to the United States.

USAID Cuba program remains controversial

U.S. government programs aimed at supporting dissidents and boosting Cuban democracy remain controversial in both the United States and Cuba, reports the Miami Herald.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has spent at least $140 million on pro-democracy programs in Cuba since 1996.  USAID states that it has used the money to help dissidents, political prisoners and their families, to strengthen civil society organizations, and to improve the flow of communication to and from the island.  Critics of the USAID program have demanded greater accountability since the Government Accountability Office reported in 2006 that some grantees had kept poor records and misused funds.

Cuban authorities, noting the so-called civil society programs carried out by USAID reflect the regime change strategy outlined by the 1996 Helms-Burton Law and are funded by Congress for that purpose, have detained USAID subcontractor Alan Gross on suspicion of covert activities for more than a year.

The United States considers Gross’ detention to be a violation of international standards of due process and judicial procedure, according to Europa Press, and the U.S. State Department has stated that Gross’ continued detainment is an obstacle to advancing talks between the United States and Cuba, reports EFE.

Spanish officials mediate between U.S. and Cuba on dissidents wanting to move to U.S.

Europa Press reports that Spanish officials are aiding negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba regarding Cuban dissidents who are currently living in Spain and wish to move to the United States.  Two dissidents have already relocated to the U.S., and others wish to do so in order to be closer to their Cuban-American families.  Minister of Exterior Relations and Cooperation, Trinidad Jiménez, states that despite a small minority of released dissidents who have expressed they are not happy with their current situation, most of the dissidents who have moved to Spain are content and well-integrated.

U.S. travel to Cuba spikes to more than 1,000 daily

Diplomatic and travel sources report that U.S. citizens now comprise the second-largest group of foreign travelers to Cuba, according to Reuters.  U.S. charter companies flying to Cuba say business has boomed since President Obama loosened restrictions on Cuban-American travel to the island.  It is expected that nearly 330,000 U.S. citizens will legally visit Cuba by the end of this year.  To deal with the surge in flights, Havana’s airport is expanding the terminal that receives flights from the United States.

Large shipment of Cuban cigars seized at O’Hare International Airport

U.S. customs officials have seized 30,000 Cuban cigars shipped from Europe to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in the last two weeks and are inspecting another 70,000 that they believe are from Cuba, reports the Chicago Tribune.  U.S. customs routinely confiscates Cuban cigars, as it is illegal under the embargo to import them. However, there has never been such a large seizure of cigars.  Officials say the seized cigars will be destroyed.

IN CUBA

Raúl Castro encourages Cubans to join discussions on economic reforms, receives mixed results

President Raúl Castro has asked Cubans to express themselves without fear during discussions about the restructuring of Cuba’s economy, reports El Universal.  During his participation in a Hanukkah celebration at a Havana synagogue, Castro stated that Cubans should not be worried about providing any suggestions that they feel necessary in order to revitalize Cuba’s economy.  Castro has announced economic reforms and the layoff of 500,000 state workers in an attempt to help Cuba’s struggling economy. But he has insisted that Cuba will be modifying, not abandoning, the socialist model.

However, the BBC reported this week that at a community meeting organized to discuss Cuba’s economic reforms, participation was limited with most people remaining silent. At a meeting reporters attended in the neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado, the only debate that arose was in relation to the subject of professional athletes playing outside of Cuba. Some people spoke out against the reforms, defending the socialist model of a centralized state and small private sector. In the end, the economic reform package was approved without opposition.

Law School Dean suggests economic reforms necessitate further changes in legal system

José Toledo, president of the Commission of Constitutional Affairs and the dean of the University of Havana Law School, stated that Raúl Castro’s proposed economic changes would necessitate new laws, as some of the changes lack legal foundation, reports AFP.  “It’s obvious that we need wide-reaching legislation to implement the changes laid out in the economic reforms,” stated Toledo.  “I think that we need to make a law about socialist enterprise that explains the principles upon which this enterprise was founded, what kind of work it will require, financing, and other aspects.  What do we do when the enterprise isn’t efficient?” Toledo adds that it will also be necessary to revise legislation regarding cooperatives and self-employment.

On the eve of International Human Rights Day

The Associated Press is reporting that five dozen members of the Ladies in White and their supporters held a protest in Havana on Thursday, but were hounded throughout their march by pro-government demonstrators calling them “worms” and “traitors.”

Earlier this year, The Ladies in White had their peaceful marches disrupted by threatening counter-demonstrations, a pattern that was finally interrupted when Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega directly complained to President Castro and the so-called “acts of repudiation” ceased.  The Ladies in White (or “Damas de Blanco”) are female relatives of Cuban dissidents rounded up by the government in March 2003.  More than 40 of the 52 who remained in prison this year have been freed under an agreement struck between Cuba’s government and the Catholic Church.

In an early commemoration of International Human Rights Day, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recognized The Ladies in White for their work in Cuba.

Cuba to begin charging for medical service exports

As part of an overhaul to make the Cuban healthcare system more efficient, the government is planning to charge for some of the medical services provided abroad, according to Cuba Standard.  However, only countries that can afford it will be required to pay, states Cuba’s Public Health Ministry.

Currently, 38,000 Cuban workers are stationed at health missions in 77 countries worldwide, most of them in Venezuela.  The Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina (ELAM) in Havana is currently training 7,200 doctors and graduates approximately 1,500 students per year.

Castro attends Hanukkah celebrations

President Raúl Castro lit the first candle of the menorah at a Hanukkah celebration in Havana on Sunday, reports The Miami Herald’s Cuban Colada.  Castro stated that he would like to meet with members of the Jewish community on another occasion to “speak about the fabulous history of the Hebrew people,” reported Cuban state newspaper Granma.

During the ceremony at the Havana synagogue, Castro stated that the holiday of Hanukkah reminded him of the Cuban rebels’ first major combat on December 5, 1956.  He also spoke about the island’s economic reforms.  According to the Miami Herald, Castro wore a suit and a yarmulke to the ceremony.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post published an editorial this week about the continued detention of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross.  The U.S. government has defended Gross’s activities, deemed illegal under Cuban law, saying he was simply attempting to facilitate connections for Cuba’s Jewish community to the Internet.

CUBA’S FOREIGN POLICY

Venezuela, Cuba, Angola to create oil joint venture

Petroleum World reports that the Venezuelan National Assembly has approved the creation of an oil joint venture among Venezuela, Cuba, and Angola.  The enterprise will include the Venezuelan oil corporation PDVSA, Cuba’s oil company Cupet, and the Angolan enterprise Sonagol.  The development plan includes activities such as the search for crude oil fields and oil and natural gas extraction.  PDVSA will own 60% of the company’s shares.

Additionally, El Nuevo Herald reported this week that Iran will export natural gas to Cuba and Argentina through a plant that it is building in Venezuela.  A representative of the Iranian government stated, “The South American export market is a priority for Iran.  Currently, Venezuela has long-term agreements with Argentina and Cuba.”

Cuba and El Salvador to strengthen relations

During a state visit to El Salvador this week, Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister expressed his country’s desire to strengthen relations with the Central American nation, reports Prensa Latina.  This marks the first time that a Cuban leader has traveled to El Salvador in the history of bilateral relations between the two nations.  El Salvador’s Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez reiterated his nation’s condemnation of the U.S. embargo of Cuba and pledged Salvadoran solidarity with the people of Cuba.

During his visit, Rodríguez laid wreaths on the tomb of Archbishop Óscar Romero and FMLN guerrilla leader Shafick Hándal, reports Prensa Latina.  According to Granma, the governments of El Salvador and Cuba also ratified their support for the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), at a summit taking place this July in Caracas, Venezuela.

South African leader cancels more than $100 million in debt, receives highest honor

This week, President Raúl Castro received his South African counterpart, Jacob Zuma, on whom he conferred the Order of José Martí, the island’s highest honor, reports Fox News Latino.  The two leaders held talks at the Palace of the Revolution, where they discussed current affairs and the “excellent state of bilateral relations.” Additionally, according to Cuban Colada, South Africa cancelled approximately $137 million in debt owed by Cuba and offered $30 million in fresh credits in hopes of reviving trade with the Caribbean island.  Zuma also met with Fidel Castro before leaving the island.  To see photos of Zuma’s trip, click here.

Pope says he is “satisfied” with Church’s mediation in Cuba

Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega has stated that Pope Benedict XVI is “very satisfied” with the Cuban Catholic Church’s efforts to secure the release of political prisoners, reports EFE.  Ortega also stated that the freeing of Cuban political prisoners will continue, and that the Catholic Church will continue to work with Cuba’s government to ensure that all political prisoners are freed.

Cuba calls on rich nations to adopt commitments in Cancun

At this week’s climate change conference in Cancun, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez called on developed nations to make concrete moves on a second period of commitments to the Kyoto Protocol, Cuba Headlines reports.  He stated that international monetary and development organizations like the World Bank are just as responsible for climate change as developed countries, and in order to fight climate change, it is necessary to address issues of poverty and inequality, and for developed countries to transfer technologies to poorer countries.

Around the Region:

Honduras president wants ousted leader’s return, AP

Porfirio Lobo, the president of Honduras, says he is seeking a legal solution for the safe return of ousted President Manuel Zelaya that would avoid Zelaya’s detention. Lobo says he is working with prosecutors to find a way for Zelaya to return to the Central American country to face charges – but without taking him into police custody.

Chávez loyalists rush in new top Venezuela judges, Reuters

Venezuelan lawmakers allied to President Hugo Chávez named nine new Supreme Court judges on Tuesday, squeezing the vote in before a new parliament is formed in January that could block the PSUV party’s picks. Magistrates sympathetic to Chávez already dominate the top court but a September election gave opposition politicians more than a third of seats in the National Assembly, and the retirement of several members could have weakened the government’s grip on the Supreme Court next year. A two-thirds super majority is needed to name Supreme Court magistrates.

Documents show concern over U.S. troops based in Colombia, AHN

The latest WikiLeaks disclosures show deep concern among Latin American countries about the U.S. military presence in South America. Much of the concern focuses on the use of seven Colombian military bases by American troops. Brazilian foreign policy advisor Marco Aurelio Garcia told U.S. diplomats in an August 2009 meeting that American troops ran the risk of alienating neighboring countries. He also said “the only threat to U.S. security in Latin America comes from Mexico,” according to a State Department memo.

Recommended Reading:

The Tea Party’s Vendetta, Foreign Policy

Bernardo Álvarez, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, writes an essay about the foreign policy consequences of the 2010 election.  After two years of Obama’s foreign policy pragmatism toward Latin America, Republicans in Congress are threatening to turn back the clock to Cold War times. That, he says, would be a disaster for the United States and its neighbors.

Cuba opens up…with or without the United States, Foreign Policy

Heather Berkman, an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Latin America practice, writes in this post that as Cuba reforms its economic model and opens relations with countries around the world, the United States will be “left out of the game” if it does not improve relations with Cuba.

WikiLeaks

Bits and pieces about U.S. foreign policy toward the region continue to spill from the release of a quarter million State Department documents.  We want to close with a few that caught our attention this week.

To read two cables regarding a trip to Madrid by then Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, click here. There is also a cable on Senator Mel Martínez’s trip to Madrid where he spoke to Cuban dissidents about the region hereHere are some links to more cables specifically referring to Cuba.

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