2011 and new beginnings: The Posada Carriles Trial in Texas; Cuba’s year of uncertainty; Obama’s Cuba policy

From time to time, we have criticized the Obama administration for its lackluster performance on Cuba policy and its reluctance to more fully engage Cuba’s people and its government to move past the policy he inherited from President Bush.

But something truly historic is about to take place in a court room in El Paso, Texas, for which the administration deserves credit.

Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA asset, is going on trial in El Paso starting January 10th on charges of immigration fraud, in connection with his illegal entry into the United States in 2005.  But this is no mere immigration case.  Because of additional perjury charges brought by the Justice Department, it marks the first time the U.S. government will present formal evidence of Posada’s involvement in terrorism directed at Cuban targets.

After a relationship with the U.S. government that started in the 1960s, Posada was murderous in his opposition to Cuba’s government.  He was the alleged mastermind of the 1976 midair bombing and destruction of a Cuban airliner – on which all seventy-three passengers and crew were killed.

According to his own confession during a New York Times interview, Posada was behind the hotel bombings in the 1990s that killed Fabio Di Celmo, an Italian businessman, and injured eleven others.  He was arrested in Panama in 2000 for attempting to blow up an auditorium where Fidel Castro was set to speak.  After he illegally entered the United States in 2005, he roamed among his followers and admirers in some quarters of Miami with apparent impunity.

The Bush administration mounted a desultory and unsuccessful effort to charge Posada in connection with his illegal entry into the United States.  But because of actions initiated by the Obama administration to include perjury charges linked to his false statements about involvement with terrorism against Cuban targets, the trial in El Paso takes on added significance.

“To some,” as Sarah Stephens said at a recent press briefing on the trial, “charging Posada – a resolute and unrepentant advocate of terror – with immigration fraud and perjury is like charging Al Capone with tax evasion.”

But the trial can become a turning point in the history of U.S.-Cuba relations – an accountability moment, after decades of violence directed at Cuba sponsored or tolerated by the United States, as well as a redemptive moment for the families of the victims of his terrorism.

As Peter Kornbluh said, “It is truly poetic justice that the same government that in the early 1960s fostered, trained, created the ‘Frankenstein’ that we now know as Luis Posada Carriles is all these years later now prosecuting him for lying about the terrorist crimes he committed.  It is an opportunity because it is the first time that the U.S. government is going to present formally the evidence of what he did in the hotel bombing cases at least in Cuba, and that hopefully will have an impact not only on U.S.-Cuban relations, but also (be) a general repudiation of this violent past that the U.S. sponsored in the 1960s and 70s against Cuba.”

Dr. Julia Sweig, who has previously criticized Obama’s Cuba policy, praises the administration for taking these steps against Posada, for their larger foreign policy significance:

“It is a case in which we see the Obama administration becoming conscious of the damage that  something like the Posada case does to the American standing and image globally and within Latin America, and the need of this particular administration, which came into office talking about having a healthy respect for the views of others, to do what it could to reduce hypocrisy with respect to counter-terrorism; counter-terrorism is an essential aspect of American foreign policy, and will remain so…. (T)he fact that it is taking this step albeit on immigration charges is enormously significant and it should be commended for doing so.”

As Livio Di Celmo, Fabio’s brother, reminded journalists at the briefing, Posada has substantial support in Miami and among Florida’s representatives in Congress.  He has been welcomed as a hero in Miami, and there are always the historic rationalizations about Florida politics that have hamstrung U.S. policy toward Cuba in the past.

In this instance, however, the Obama administration has set aside domestic considerations and put the national security and core values first.  This decision is to be commended, and should be the hallmark of U.S. policy toward Cuba going forward.   That would truly be a new beginning to celebrate as 2011 unfolds.

And now this week in Cuba news…


2011, a year of uncertainty as reform rolls in

As 2011 rolled in, several news agencies analyzed what life in Cuba during the New Year could be like as economic reforms and changes to the Communist Party leadership are implemented.

BBC News notes that “Cuba is not about to revert to capitalism but a new class of entrepreneurs and small businessmen will start to emerge,” adding that “the long-term political implications of this growing sector are hard to judge but the coming year could also see a degree of social upheaval as redundancies bite and subsidies shrink.” The report suggests that the key issue between the governments of Cuba and the United States is the case of Alan Gross, but regardless of the outcome of the Gross case, few now expect 2011 to be the year that “these former Cold War adversaries might finally settle their differences.”

Reuters takes a similar approach, reporting that analysts are watching carefully to see if the government can successfully “reduce its role while maintaining control of an economy that will have a bigger private sector and less state spending.”  However, they add that “it could get long-term help if offshore oil exploration due to begin in 2011 is successful.” A consortium led by Spanish oil firm Repsol YPF is scheduled to drill an exploratory well in Cuba’s part of the Gulf of Mexico in the first part of the year, with the arrival of a rig built in China. Reuters lays out key economic and political issues to keep an eye on in 2011:

  • The numbers and performance of the newly self-employed
  • The effects of government layoffs
  • Agricultural production
  • Nickel prices and the start of golf course project
  • Repsol’s exploratory well in Cuban waters
  • China’s growing presence in Cuba’s energy sector
  • The fate of U.S. government contractor Alan Gross
  • The continued release of political prisoners
  • U.S. and EU reaction to Cuban reforms

According to Reuters, “U.S.-Cuba relations have thawed only slightly and prospects for improvement are dim,” but Cuba continues to “steadily build relations with other key countries, among them China, Brazil, Russia and Spain.”

El Nuevo Herald published a piece predicting that “the economic restructuring under way in Cuba could ultimately hurt the Castro brothers,” basing its analysis on dissidents on the island.

Similarly, dissident Oswaldo Paya, Head of the Christian Liberation Movement, opined that the economic transition is not being carried out democratically and could lead to the country being “left hanging between unbridled capitalism and socialist totalitarianism,” the Catholic News Agency reported.

Finally, CNN has a report on Cubans’ New Year’s wishes, featuring interviews with the newest members of the private sector on the island and others that have been self-employed for several years.  It also highlights Central Park’s infamous “hot corner,” where baseball fanatics congregate to argue about their favorite teams.

State sector layoffs begin amidst difficulties

According to Salvador Valdes, head of the Cuban Workers Confederation, the government has begun its first layoffs in its program to cut the jobs of up to a half-million state workers, EFE reported. Valdes states that the initial layoffs are taking place in sectors related to sugar and agriculture, tourism, health, and construction.  Aimed at slashing government expenditures and increasing efficiency, the job cuts are expected to affect ten percent of the country’s workforce.

Cuba Standard reported that the layoffs are not being implemented as fast as planned due to delays in some workplaces that formed councils to decide who would be let go. Citing the observations of those familiar with the job-cutting procedure, Cuba Standard reported that “the formation process has been slow because few employees are willing to participate on the panels.”

Meanwhile, Reuters reported on rumors that the layoffs “were postponed for a time while the self-employment licensing program was being set up because the government was wary of creating too much social dislocation.”

Mayda Vega, an office manager in the Agriculture Ministry, seemed to confirm to Reuters that the job cuts would not happen overnight: “I imagine it will be a gradual process and not traumatic.”

Cardinal Ortega: eleven remaining prisoners will be released

Speaking at a New Year’s Day Mass, Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega assured those in attendance that “in coming months” Cuban leaders will release the eleven remaining political prisoners as promised under a deal between the Church and government, Reuters reported. “A clear and formal promise from the Cuban government exists that all those prisoners will be freed,” said Ortega.  He added that “not only those [eleven] prisoners will be freed, but [also] others of a larger group of prisoners sanctioned for some type of act related to political actions.”

Cuba scholar Phil Peters analyzes the prisoner releases thus far and their significance both in Cuba and with the government’s relations abroad. According to Peters’ blog, the Cuban Triangle, if the eleven remaining individuals who are part of the pact between the government and the Church are released, along with others considered to be imprisoned for politically-related activities, then:

  • Cuba’s population of prisoners of conscience would be reduced to very few, or to zero.
  • The Ladies in White, female relatives of political prisoners, will be changed, as many of their members are outside Cuba and their cause for weekly protests will have been addressed.
  • There is no sign that either Europe or the United States will react to that development. That is remarkable even taking into account the questions one can raise about the prisoner releases, or the fact that they do not end Cuba’s human rights problems. If there is no reaction, the message to the Cuban government would be to act for its own reasons and not to expect reciprocal gestures, even when Cuban actions address an issue that Washington and Europe have pressed, with vehemence, for decades.

Cabinet Reshuffle

AFP reports that Ramiro Valdes, who fought alongside Fidel Castro during Cuba’s Revolution, will shed his position as minister of Information and Communications.  According to Café Fuerte, “The decision will allow Vice President of the Council of Ministers Ramiro Valdes to pay attention to the Construction and Basic Industries sectors as well as the Information and Communications sector itself.”  Valdes is succeeded as minister of Information and Communications by Mercado Diaz.

Additionally, Construction minister Fidel Figueroa was removed from his post, according to the news agency report, for “errors committed in his job.”  Figueroa, according to the Havana Times, is replaced by Rene Mesa Villafaña, a civil engineer.

Cuba saw its lowest ever infant mortality rate in 2011

Cuba experienced its lowest ever infant mortality rate in 2011, local media reported. Cuba, a leader in health indicators in Latin America and the world since 1959, experienced an infant mortality rate of 4.5 per 1,000 live births. According to Solvision, the rate was similar across all of the country’s provinces “thus corroborating the fairness of the Cuban social system.”

Hotel Nacional turns 80, Russian visits on the rise, cruise ships rolling in again

Cuba’s infamous Hotel Nacional turned 80 last week. According to the Associated Press, “the carpets are worn and the rooms have a musty feel, yet Havana’s iconic Hotel Nacional…wears its slightly shabby elegance with pride, an aging beauty a bit past its prime.”

As the AP reported:  “Opened in 1930 as a rum-soaked getaway for Mafia dons and Hollywood starlets… Its register reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the 20th century. Luminaries such as Winston Churchill and Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, rubbed shoulders with mobsters including Lucky Luciano. Errol Flynn and Rita Hayworth slept under the same roof as Mickey Mantle and Fred Astaire…Today, Steven Spielberg, Kate Moss, Javier Bardem and Sean Penn occasionally light the place up.”

In other tourism news, 56,234 Russian tourists visited Cuba in 2010, which represented an increase of nearly 19,000 from 2009, Prensa Latina reported. The Russian airline Aeroflot has a daily flight from the Russian capital to Havana.

Finally, a 1,500 passenger British cruise liner, which officials described as among the biggest ships to visit Cuba in years, docked in Havana this week. Jose Manuel Bisbe of the Tourism Ministry said the arrival of the Thomson Dream highlighted a recent resurgence of cruise traffic to the island. BBC News reported the visit as a “sign that European cruise companies are starting to return to the island.” According to Bisbe, only about 10,000 cruise passengers visited Cuba in 2010, down from around 100,000 passengers in 2005. He told the Associated Press that each passenger spends an average of $50 to $200 a day, which means increased traffic could help pump “several million dollars” into the economy this year.

According to the Cuba News Agency, cruise visits decreased by 89% from 2005 to 2007 when U.S. Royal Caribbean bought Spanish Pullmantur, owner of the Holiday Dream that used to dock in Cuba. Due to the embargo it could not dock in Cuba any longer.

Cuban Babalows: 2011 should be the year of “fresh minds and new ideas”

Each New Year, Cuba’s Santeria priests, known as “babalows,” produce a message with broad economic, political and social predictions for the upcoming year. With Cuba’s sizeable Santeria following, the prediction garners significant attention on the island.

The 2011 “Letter of the Year,” similar to last year’s, predicts sudden changes in political systems, warns of the danger of wars and military interventions, and foresees the deaths of public figures. Regarding the economy, the letter predicted increased trade, an increase in exports and imports, and prosperous outcomes for fishing and merchant marine, EFE reported.

In his presentation of the letter, babalow Lazaro Cuesta said that this year – marked by the economic reforms promoted by President Raúl Castro’s government – it will be very important that there exist a “harmony between head and body,” meaning between the leaders and the people. He also stressed the need to give “fresh minds and new ideas” a chance and recommended the elimination of “old political schemes in order to benefit from a new social order.”


Cuba and Brazil to step up cooperation under Rousseff

Cuba’s First Vice President José Ramón Machado met with Brazil’s new president, Dilma Rousseff, this week in Brasilia. Machado was one of the first foreign dignitaries to meet with Rousseff, Brazil’s first female leader.

According to Cuba Standard, cooperation on health issues in Haiti was at the top of the agenda and the two countries will increase aid in light of the cholera epidemic. Brazil has already pledged $80 million under a trilateral agreement with Cuba and Haiti, which includes “renovation and reconstruction of hospitals, construction of clinics and other basic healthcare centers, establishing a national epidemiology center, provision of ambulances, and vaccination campaigns.”

Cuba is heading a $690 million program to reconstruct Haiti’s public health sector and thousands of Cuban health professionals are currently working in Haiti. The two leaders also discussed Brazil’s investment in the expansion of the Port of Mariel, as former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva previously pledged up to $1 billion to the project. Cuban media reported on the bilateral meeting here.

Cuba, Portugal and Venezuela to build pharmaceutical plant

With the help of Cuba and Portugal, Venezuela will ramp up pharmaceutical production of various basic drugs, Cuba Standard reported. According to Sefar, Venezuela’s pharmaceutical company, joint venture plants will be built to produce Atenolol, Vitamin C, Ethambutol, Ibuprofen, Loratadine and other drugs. Construction of the plants is expected to be completed within three years.

Cuba’s First Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura visited Venezuela this week, where he met with President Hugo Chávez, toured medical facilities staffed by Cuban health professionals, and pledged Cuba’s support for damage caused by flooding, the Cuban News Agency reported.


U.S. and Cuba will hold fourth round of immigration talks next week

Senior officials from the U.S. and Cuba will meet next week for a fourth round of bilateral immigration talks. These discussions, suspended by the Bush Administration and renewed by President Obama, were established in 1994 to promote cooperation on legal and illegal migration issues.

Mark Toner, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said that the meetings will take place in Havana on January 12th. The last meeting occurred in June of 2010 in Washington. As the Associated Press reports, the talks are an opportunity for both sides to discuss issues beyond immigration. Toner said the U.S. will use the opportunity to press for the release of Alan Gross, a U.S. government contractor detained in Havana in 2009 for distributing illegal satellite equipment while traveling on a tourist visa.   Gross, after more than a year of captivity, has still not been charged by Cuba’s government.

“We urge his immediate release so that he can return to his family,” Toner said. “We’re engaged with Cuba to promote safe, legal and orderly migration and to prevent the dangers and loss of life associated with illegal migration, but the release of Alan Gross remains an important objective that we’ll continue to advance.”

Non-tourist Travel

Despite rumors of an announcement this week, there has been no word on the Executive Order facilitating U.S. travel to Cuba for academic, religious and other non-tourist purposes. Several blogs reported an imminent announcement to amend the current regulations, but nothing has materialized.

While existing rules make it a time-consuming and bureaucratic process to receive licenses to visit Cuba, some trips continue to occur. This week CBS’ 60 Minutes featured Jazz icon Wynton Marsalis’ recent visit to Cuba. Marsalis opted not to discuss politics, but noted that “culture brings people together.” The 60 Minutes segment is available here, and is certainly worth a look.

CNN reported on a Cuban-American father and son skateboard duo from South Florida that recently traveled to Havana on a mission to donate boards, clothes and other skateboarding accessories to Cuban skaters.

1968 Cuba flight hijacker gets stiff sentence

A Cuban American who pled guilty to hijacking a Puerto Rico-bound plane and directing it to Cuba in 1968 received a harsh sentence this week, the New York Times reported. Luis Armando Peña Soltren, now 67, had voluntarily returned to the U.S. after living in Cuba for 40 years to face charges for the crime. He was sentenced in Federal District Court in Manhattan to 15 years in federal prison.

Soltren said he took part in the hijacking as a way to see his ill father who was living in exile in Cuba at the time, and not because of politics. The judge had little sympathy. According to his sentence, Soltren will not be eligible for parole and can only be released after serving 85% of his sentence. In an interview with BBC News, Soltren’s lawyer said the sentence was too harsh, pointing out the fact that others involved in the crime only served a few years.  Soltren’s lawyer also vowed to file an appeal. Telesur has a report in Spanish here, and Along the Malecon has more on the case here.

Cuban Tobacco company fights to protect its name in Detroit

Cuba’s tobacco company is suing a Michigan cigar shop for copyright infringement over the shop’s name, Bloomberg reported. The Detroit-based cigar shop is called La Casa De La Habana, while the Cuban franchised shops are known as La Casa del Habano.  Cuba cannot do business in the U.S. because of the embargo, but has a right to protect its trademark even if it can’t export Cuban cigars to U.S. shores. The judge is apparently urging both sides to settle the dispute out of court.

In a separate story, a new policy leading to further scrutiny of international packages entering the U.S. has led to the confiscation of tens of thousands of Cuban cigars at Chicago’s O’Hare airport over the last month, Voice of America reported. An Associated Press report is available here.

Around the Region:

Larry Palmer’s nomination as ambassador to Venezuela expires, his name still stands, AFP

Contrary to statements he made early this week, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley has clarified that the Obama Administration still considers Larry Palmer a viable candidate to be ambassador in Venezuela, even though the Venezuelan government decided not to accept his nomination. Earlier this week, Crowley said that Palmer’s nomination “formally expired with the closure of the last Congress” and that “we will have to re-nominate a candidate” to be ambassador.

In both cases, he did not specify whether the U.S. will actually insist on Palmer’s nomination.

The diplomatic dilemma had a brief break in Brazil, when Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greeted each other and had a short conversation. According to the LA Times, Venezuela’s president told Clinton that “if there’s a rectification” on the part of Washington regarding the ambassador’s situation, his government will respond in kind.  A photo-gallery of the encounter can be seen here.  In retaliation for the rejection of Palmer, the U.S. government withdrew the visa of Bernardo Alvarez, Caracas’ envoy to Washington.

Venezuela ruling party takes control of parliament, Xinhua

The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) took control of the National Assembly this week after three of its members were elected president and vice presidents of parliament. The PSUV enjoys a majority of 98 seats out of the 165 seats of the Assembly. Opposition lawmakers returned to the assembly in significant numbers after an earlier election boycott severely reduced their numbers in the legislative body.  Opposition legislators stated their intention to capture the presidency in the upcoming 2012 elections.

In Washington, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs Arturo Valenzuela criticized the decree powers that the National Assembly recently granted to President Chávez, AFP reporter, calling it an “undemocratic measure” that “violates the shared values enshrined in the Inter American Democratic Charter.”

Former Marxist guerrilla sworn in as president of Brazil, LA Times

As reported above, Dilma Rousseff is Brazil’s first female president, taking over from the immensely popular Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The new president hopes to keep the country’s booming economy on track while advancing her Workers’ Party social agenda. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was among the leaders and representatives from 130 nations who attended Rousseff’s inauguration ceremony.

Recommended Reading:

Posada Carriles trial to begin next week – key moment in U.S.-Cuba relations

For more information about the trial of Posada Carriles, along with some key documents and information about the press event hosted by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, please turn to our website.

Ray Suarez Responds to Critics of Cuba Series, PBS

Suarez: “In her op-ed critique of my recent series of reports from Cuba, Mary Anastasia O’Grady writes, ‘it was hard to recognize the country Mr. Suarez claimed to be describing.’ In reality, it was hard to recognize my series of reports from Ms. O’Grady’s description.”

Russia and China racing for Cuba’s refineries? Jorge R. Piñón

Chinese and Russian companies will be exploring for oil in the Orinoco Basin soon, and within the next five years they will begin exporting their respective equity production of what eventually will be more than 400,000 barrels per day of 32 degrees API upgraded Venezuelan crude. This, in turn, brings up the issue of refining.

U.N. Chief Leaves Women out of Year-End Summing Up, IPS

When Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrote a year-end op-ed piece, he talked about the future of a United Nations facing a new generation of threats: climate change, poverty, nuclear disarmament and human rights. But, he left out one of the biggest political success stories of the world body: the creation of UN Women to promote gender empowerment worldwide. The new agency, with a projected $500 million annual budget and headed by Under Secretary General Michelle Bachelet, began functioning at the beginning of the New Year. More details about his article and the omission can be found here.

Recommended Viewing:

Posada, on tape, with Representative-elect David Rivera, Cuba Debate

The Cuban government website, Cuba Debate, published a video of the fundraiser that Posada Carriles held outside of El Versalles restaurant to collect money for his defense and to pay for travel to the trial in Texas. The video shows freshman Member of Congress David Rivera with his arm around Posada Carriles, who declared that “this year we will be in Cuba.”


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