BREAKING NEWS: PRESIDENT OBAMA EXPANDS TRAVEL TO CUBA; MOVEMENT REPORTED IN THE CASE OF ALAN GROSS

BREAKING NEWS

The White House announced today a long-awaited decision by President Obama to expand travel to Cuba – and increase support for the Cuban people – in fundamental and important ways.

  • The President expands travel opportunities for academic research, educational travel, cultural travel, and religious travel;
  • Return of people-to-people programs to essentially where the rules were at the end of the Clinton administration;
  • The President allows all Americans to send financial support to the Cuban people, which will allow them to expand private sector activity at a time of restructuring in the Cuban economy and the Cuban system;
  • The President expands the number of airports that can serve the Cuban market;
  • The rules explaining each of these changes will be issued in a matter of weeks.

STATEMENT FROM THE CENTER FOR DEMOCRACY IN THE AMERICAS

Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas released the following statement in support of President Obama’s Executive Order expanding travel to Cuba:

“This is an important step forward for our Cuba policy.

“At a time when Cubans are changing their system in fundamental ways, it is a good idea to have greater engagement, more Americans traveling to Cuba, and more opportunities to learn from each other as everyday Cubans reshape their lives and their country.

“It is my hope that Members of Congress who represent Cuban Americans – a community that can travel to Cuba without any limits at all – will not make efforts to thwart what the president has done.  This step authorizing non-tourist travel is a basic and positive step to take at this time.

“The president is to be commended for taking this step to improve our policy and, ideally, to move forward on reforming U.S.-Cuba relations.

“We will continue to press for the freedom to travel to Cuba for all Americans.”

In today’s news summary

Alan Gross: This is another important story we are following.  There are welcomed signs emanating from Havana that there is finally movement in the case of Alan Gross.  Following the fourth round of renewed migration talks, Cuba allowed a senior State Department official to meet with the captive American, and the AP reported that Cuba may now charge, try, and possibly free Mr. Gross based on time already served.

If this actually occurs, it would provide long-sought relief for Mr. Gross and his family, who have been separated for thirteen months.  It would also demonstrate the importance of face-to-face negotiations – the migration talks were suspended in 2003 by President Bush and reopened by President Obama.  Finally, it would be a reminder to U.S. policy makers that the program and funding which led to Mr. Gross’s imprisonment in December 2009 – activities designed under Helms-Burton to lead to the overthrow of Cuba’s government – should be ended once and for all.

Posada Carriles: The trial of Luis Posada Carriles opened in El Paso, Texas this week with testimony from a U.S. Department of Homeland Security official about the immigration fraud and charges and the allegations of perjury that link the former CIA asset for the first time to terrorism committed against Cuba.  According to the official, Posada confessed to an FBI agent in 2000 his involvement in the effort to assassinate Fidel Castro in Panama.

Rubio’s Rhetoric: Even before today’s announcement, Senator Marco Rubio planned to pierce what he called a “trial balloon” floated by the Obama administration on a further opening of travel and trade with Cuba.  In a Spanish-language radio interview, Rubio said that he’d help educate lawmakers about why loosening restrictions against Cuba was ill-advised given the human rights realities on the island.

In a curious shot against his new colleagues, Rubio said they weren’t aware of these realities, “not because they’re communists,” but because many are from farm states and want to sell agriculture products to the island.  He went on to insist that U.S. policy toward Cuba should be tougher.

As President Obama has clearly recognized, this is not the time to double-down on a failed policy.  The U.S. needs to get out of the business of trying to overthrow or undermine Cuba’s government and to normalize the relationship through direct engagement.  Cuba is undergoing significant changes in its own right.  So should we.

This week in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Immigration talks possible prelude to movement on Alan Gross

As expected, when U.S. and Cuban diplomats met in Havana this week under the rubric of the periodic migration talks, the U.S. delegation called for the release of Alan Gross, the U.S. subcontractor imprisoned for over a year in Cuba for illegally entering the island and distributing communications equipment.

Unexpected, however, was news from Cuba that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jackson had met with Gross, and that administration officials now believe that Cuba is prepared to move on the Gross case; to charge him, try him, and possibly free him for time already served.

“This morning [Thursday] Roberta Jacobson had the opportunity to meet with Alan Gross, also with representatives of the Catholic Church in Cuba,” said State Department spokesman Philip Crowley in Washington.  The Department released no additional information about the meeting between Deputy Assistant Secretary Jackson and Mr. Gross.  Members of the U.S. delegation, including Jacobson, also met with a group of Cuban dissidents, to the displeasure of Cuba’s government, according to the Latin America Herald Tribune.

On the heels of Crowley’s announcement, the Associated Press reported from Havana that ‘a senior State Department official’ heard encouraging signs from Cuba’s government that Gross, held for over a year on suspicion of spying, might be tried and allowed to return to the U.S.

“I am cautiously optimistic because of things we hear that that would be the case,” said the official. When asked if the optimism was based on direct conversations with the Cuban government over the fate of Alan Gross, the official responded: “Yes.”

U.S. officials have said repeatedly that Gross’s imprisonment is an obstacle to improved relations with Cuba.

Representatives from Cuba and the U.S. met in Havana for talks concerning the 1994 Migration Accords.  The talks were suspended by President George W. Bush in 2003, but this was the fourth round of the semi-annual meetings since they were resumed by President Obama in 2009.

In addition to discussing the captivity of Mr. Gross, “The U.S. delegation highlighted areas of successful cooperation in migration, while also identifying issues that have been obstacles to the full implementation of the [U.S.-Cuba Migration] Accords.”

The Cuban Interests Section’s statement about the migration talks made no mention of Alan Gross, but described the meeting as “developed in an atmosphere of respect.” The leader of Cuba’s delegation, Vice Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez Barrera, said the two sides discussed ways to combat people-smuggling across the treacherous Straits of Florida, saying “It was a fruitful exchange aimed at … the establishment of more effective mechanisms of cooperation to combat illegal migrant smuggling.”  The two countries agreed that risky, illegal departures from Cuba to the United States have decreased significantly due to cooperation on the issue.

Senator Rubio states opposition to lifting travel restrictions

Politico reports on an interview with newly-elected Florida Senator Marco Rubio on a Miami station, Radio Mambi.

Rubio made clear that he opposed any loosening of restrictions, and that reforms by Obama would be blocked once he and his like-minded colleagues educated other lawmakers about why reforms would be ill-advised given the realities of Cuba. He also stated that he is opposed to the changes that the Obama administration has already made.

Politico summarizes a portion of what Rubio stated in the interview this way: “A lot of elected officials don’t know about the political reality in Cuba, not because they’re Communists but because they come from states where the issue isn’t discussed — or where agricultural interests persuade them to let them sell their goods on the island.”

Rubio then took advantage of the occasion to reiterate his hard-line position on the embargo:

It’s important that this community and especially our elected officials, especially those holding federal office, express clearly that our position hasn’t changed and won’t change.  If there’s something that has to change here, it’s in Cuba, there needs to be a change in government there.  And if U.S. policy should change toward Cuba, then it should become even more tough.

Making the policy “more tough” would include suspending the right of Cuban-Americans to visit Cuba, right Senator?

Trial of Luis Posada Carriles begins in El Paso, Texas
The trial of Luis Posada Carriles on charges including immigration fraud and perjury began this week.  Following jury selection, the court heard testimony from Gina Garrett-Jackson, a Department of Homeland Security lawyer, regarding Posada’s entry into the United States and Posada’s denial under questioning of his involvement in a string of bombings in Havana against tourism facilities, the Miami Herald reported.  New information also emerged about a conversation Posada had with an FBI agent in 2000 during which he confessed his involvement in a plot to kill Fidel Castro in Panama.

The Associated Press reports that there was some tension regarding the intention of Arturo Hernandez, Posada’s defense attorney, to make an extensive case relating to human rights violations and judicial interferences of Cuba’s government. The U.S.’s lead prosecutor, Timothy Reardon, objected, stating, “This is not the History channel. The regime in Cuba is not the defendant.”

According to the Miami Herald, Hernandez defended himself by saying: “This is a case about lying but it’s also a case about where the evidence is coming from to show that lie…I have a right to prove the Cuban government’s motive to fabricate.” Judge Kathleen Cardone has reportedly rejected the defense’s plan, stating that this information was irrelevant to the Posada Carriles case, however, she has yet to issue a formal ruling.

An extensive trail of documents ties Posada Carriles to numerous violent actions against Cuba and the Castro government, including the bombing of a plane that killed 73 people in 1976, and a string of hotel bombings in Havana in 1997.   Although the charges in this case stem from immigration violations, the perjury allegations mark the first time the U.S. has brought charges against Posada in connection with terrorism against Cuba. The Daily News, New York Times and RT offer helpful background information on the case.

You can read about last week’s press briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, DC regarding the trial here.

‘Where in the world’ is Pedro Álvarez?

After rumors and unconfirmed posts circulated that Pedro Álvarez, former president of Cuba’s Chamber of Congress, had left the island and arrived in Miami, the New York Times picked up on the story: “The newspaper El Nuevo Herald and several Cuban-American Web sites reported that Pedro Álvarez, 67, the former head of Cuba’s state food importing company, and a crucial figure in legal Cuban purchases of American farm products, had defected to the United States.”   An anonymous source told Spain’s El Mundo that Álvarez had “taken refuge” in the U.S.  El Universal reports that an unidentified U.S. State Department official has stated that they do not have any information regarding Álvarez’s whereabouts.  Álvarez was under investigation for corruption in Cuba.

Álvarez was a familiar figure to visiting U.S. delegations interested in attracting additional purchases of U.S. produced food by Cuba’s government.

Co-chair of BP oil spill task force calls for U.S.-Cuba collaboration regarding oil

Bill Reilly, co-chair of BP’s oil spill task force, joined former Florida governor and Senator Bob Graham in calling for cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba regarding the oil ventures being explored offshore between the two countries.

Reilly stated:

The problems that we confront in energy, in the oil and gas industry, are like so many environmental problems: We cannot solve them alone as a country, even.

The Gulf of Mexico is shared to a very large degree with Mexico, which has indicated intentions to go into deep water within the next two years. Cuba has also expressed interest in possibly drilling 14 wells, some of them 50 miles off the coast of Florida…

…And one hopes that Cuba can be drawn into this conversation as well so that all of us practice the same level – have the same standards, the same protections as our industries go about mining those resources.

Reilly’s comments put him at odds with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, recently elected Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and author of legislation in 2010 to impose sanctions under Helms-Burton on foreign entities and U.S. individuals who work with Cuba on the recovery of its off-shore resources.

“Free the Cuban Five” billboard goes up in Miami, taken down the same day

On Tuesday, a billboard went up in the center of Miami’s Little Havana with the words “Free the Cuban Five,” along with a picture of the five Cuban nationals who have been imprisoned in the U.S. since 1998 after being convicted of espionage, Havana Times reports. The Cuban Five are viewed as heroes by many in Cuba who see them as wrongly imprisoned for working to infiltrate terrorist groups in Miami that were planning attacks on Cuba’s government.

The billboard, purchased by the organization Alianza Martiana only lasted about 24 hours and was taken down early Wednesday morning after protests from Miami’s vocal Cuban-American community. El Nuevo Herald reports that Clear Channel’s statement denied political motivations and claimed that the billboard display was due to “an involuntary error in our reservation process for the approval of publicity material.”

IN CUBA

Cuba chooses delegates in preparation for Party Congress

Leading up to the Party Congress in April, EFE reports that 1,000 delegates will be selected for participation. This is a smaller number than in previous congresses, and Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura has encouraged the municipal and provincial assemblies that choose the delegates to favor candidates with knowledge of economics, Escambray reports.  The main topic of the Party Congress will be the economic reforms proposed by President Raúl Castro which are in the early stages of implementation.

Continued growth of private sector licenses and businesses

Cuba’s government has continued its opening of the private sector and granted work licenses for more than 75,000 Cubans, EFE reports. The government has been steadily approving these licenses in an effort to provide self-employment opportunities for workers affected by the 500,000 layoffs from the state sector planned for this year.  Thus far, a total of 83,403 licenses are either authorized or being processed, and 68 percent of those are for people with no formal employment.

AFP reports specifically on the growth of Cuban paladares, independently owned restaurants, stating that the largest portion of private business licenses being requested (about 22%) are for the food service industry. Presenting an alternative view of current economic reorganization, dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez documented the challenges of one laid-off employee on her blog, Generation Y.

Cuba’s trade surplus doubles

According to Reuters, Cuba’s National Office of Statistics (ONE) announced a 12.9 percent increase in exports and a 3.3 percent decrease in exports, resulting in a 2010 budget surplus of $3.9 billion. The increase in export revenues can likely be attributed to higher prices for several of Cuba’s export products, including “nickel, petroleum derivatives and medical and other technical services,” as well as boosts from the tourism and communication industries.

Cuba has also restructured much of its national debt in addition to freezing foreign bank accounts. “Western diplomats and businessmen said Cuba was gradually unblocking the funds but at the same time still moving slowly on foreign debt payments and dividends owed its foreign partners operating in the country,” Reuters reports.

An article in Mexico’s La Jornada estimates that 80% of income from exportation of services comes from the Cuban doctors that are currently working throughout the developing world.

A vaccine to combat lung cancer

Cuban doctors announced the release of a breakthrough therapeutic vaccine to combat lung cancer, EFE reports. Gisela Gonzalez, head of the project for the Center of Molecular Immunology, stated that the drug, CIMAVAX – EGF, can convert advanced lung cancer into a chronic, controllable illness. Spain’s Europa Press also reported on the vaccine, adding that Cuban officials had reported that they are going through the process of registering the vaccines in “other nations,” although they did not specify which ones. You can read about this development in English here.

CUBA’S FOREIGN POLICY

Cuba’s collaboration with Haiti

Marking the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, an article in Prensa Latina highlights the role that Cuban doctors and medical professionals have played in Haiti, before and after the quake. Cuban doctor first arrived in 1998 in response to Hurricane George. The doctors and other representatives now provide a wide range of healthcare services as well as literacy and other educational initiatives.

After the earthquake, Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela presented the United Nations with a Program for the Reconstruction and Strengthening of the Haitian Healthcare System. The program is now being implemented in collaboration with Brazil. Solvision adds that there are currently 1,200 Cuban doctors working in Haiti. The article also notes that in response to the disaster, Cuba’s government approved the use of airspace above the island for U.S. planes.

This week, ex-president Fidel Castro also came forward with a warning of possible violence if fighting between political parties breaks out in Haiti. EFE reports that in one of his Reflections published this week, he hoped that the global community could help avert a crisis breaking out in the midst of the poverty and devastation that remains after the earthquake.

Arrival of drilling platform for Cuba’s off-shore resources is delayed

An offshore drilling project by Spanish oil company Repsol faces a setback due to the delay in the arrival of a drilling platform from China, Reuters reports. The platform was scheduled to arrive within the first trimester of this year, but has been delayed. Repsol is one of many foreign companies investing in drilling projects off the coast of Cuba. U.S. companies are barred from participating in these ventures due to the trade embargo. An article from Cuba Standard delves into the specifics of the rig, adding that it is now expected to arrive in Cuba in June or July of this year.

Progress on telecommunication cable between Cuba and Venezuela

The Cuba News Agency reports that engineers in Cuba are preparing for the arrival of a fiber optic cable currently en route from France that will run between the coasts of Santiago, Cuba and Camuri, on the northern coast of Venezuela. The cable is 1,630 km long and will cost approximately $70 million. According to the current work schedule, installation of the underwater cable is set to begin next week in Camuri, arriving in Cuba the first part of February.  A bifurcation of the cable will also run to Jamaica. The cable, named ALBA-1, is expected to improve Internet connection on the island, while also reducing costs. Radio Nacional de Venezuela has an additional article (in Spanish), with a useful map of the cable’s planned course. The project was first announced by President Chávez in 2007.

Cuba exports cement to Venezuela in wake of recent floods

Cuba’s government plans to send a total of 9,000 tons of cement to Venezuela to help with construction after devastating floods in 2010, Cuba Standard reports. Venezuela’s El Universal adds that “Cuba will also donate 500,000 square meters of cement roof mesh, 200,000 meters of tiles, and 32,000 mattresses for use in shelters.” Building materials are in high demand and short supply in both countries.

The article quotes the Cuban ambassador in Caracas as saying: “This is our contribution to the Venezuelan people amid adversity, as did Venezuela with the Cuban people when we needed it most.”

Mexican party leader meets informally with President Raúl Castro

This week Beatriz Paredes Rangel, president of Mexico’s PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) party traveled to Cuba and met informally with President Raúl Castro and Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez.  Escambray reported that conversations centered on the current state of relations between Cuba and Mexico and other topics of international interest.

Paredes served as Mexico’s ambassador to Cuba in 1993 and is the current vice president of Socialist International.  EFE reports that she will leave her post as president of the PRI in March. The PRI maintained political control in Mexico from 1929 until 2000, and seeks to regain the presidency in 2012.

Around the Region:

Honduras congress votes to allow referendums on term limits, re-election, Canadian Press

More than one year after the coup against President Manuel Zelaya, the same Congress that supported the military intervention approved a measure that will allow referendums on polemic matters like re-election and term limits, the same issues that put an end to Zelaya’s government. The new measure modifies the law governing referendums to remove a reference to the ban on such “set-in-stone” constitutional clauses. It would have to be approved a second time after a new session of congress begins on Jan. 25 before taking effect. The measure could be challenged by the attorney general’s office or by the Supreme Court.

Also in Honduras, Juan Chinchilla, an activist from the National Popular Resistance Front was kidnapped over the weekend but managed to escape. Chinchilla speaks of incidents of torture and says he believes his abduction is connected to on-going land disputes between peasant groups and large landowners in Bajo Aguán.  Chinchilla says his captors included “foreigners,” some speaking English and others speaking in a language he did not know.

The interview can be read here in English and here in Spanish.  Also, Professor Dana Frank comments on the repression against peasant groups in Bajo Aguán, the same area where Juan Chinchilla was kidnapped.

For reactions from former President Mel Zelaya, among others, please see the Hemispheric Brief.

Bill Richardson named Special Envoy for Organization of American States, Canadian Press

Bill Richardson, former Governor of New Mexico, has been named by Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza as a Special Envoy for the Organization of American States.  Richardson finished his second term as governor at the end of last month. He held a similar post with the OAS in 2006, but left it after launching a presidential bid in 2007. The secretary general said in a statement that the details around Richardson’s missions as a goodwill ambassador will be determined in the next few weeks, but the former governor will focus on immigration and economic development.

Recommended Viewing:

Luis Posada-Carriles: A CIA made terrorist, RT

“Miami, Florida is home to one of the most infamous international terrorists in the Western Hemisphere; Luis Posada-Carriles.  Coined the ‘Bin Laden of the Americas, the anti-Castro Cuban was the CIA’s dirty secret in South and Central America. Trained as an explosives expert at the notorious School of the Americas, Posada’s acts of terrorism span five decades and impacted half a dozen countries.”

Recommended Reading:

Disappointment may yield to distrust, IPS

IPS’s Jim Lobe talks with Professor Abe Lowenthal and others about the state of US-Latin American relations, both during the first two years of the Obama presidency and moving forward. After early signs of change, Lowenthal calls the last two years “more than disappointment.” “In Latin America, there is great appreciation for major differences [from the George W. Bush administration], on key issues,” he notes, “but there’s a lot talk about ‘decepcion’, or …being misled.”

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