Breaking news on Alan Gross’ case, prisoner releases and a new momentum

Dear Friends:

This morning, as we prepared to publish, Cuba’s Catholic Church reported that two additional prisoners covered by last year’s release agreement would be freed, with one indicating a “desire to go to the United States,” and another to remain in Cuba.

This afternoon, as we prepared to “hit send,” news crossed the wire that there might be movement on the case of Alan Gross.  We’ll return to that news in a moment.

The story out of Cuba is always complicated, rarely clear, and often subject to change.  But, all week, there was a sense of momentum to many of the stories we are covering.

The New York Times interviewed Cubans who are opening businesses in their country’s private sector and experiencing the joys and headaches of working for themselves.

As members of Florida’s Congressional delegation offered punitive legislation to stop  Cuba’s plan to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, environmentalists, oil industry experts, and advocates for reform spoke truth to power and suggested alternative approaches – cooperation and engagement – as more likely to protect the coast and to advance U.S. interests.

Reuters covered what we’d call a new era of accountability on the island, illustrated by Cuba’s leaders not blaming the U.S. embargo for all of the country’s problems.

Cuban media continued to track the case of 26 patients who died in a mental facility and the convictions and sentencing of staff at the hospital charged with negligence and other crimes in their deaths.

Cuban and international media examined the possible impact of the Egyptian uprising on Cuba, including this story in the Miami Herald: Social Media calls for Egypt-like riots against Castro not getting support in Cuba.

Here at home, the spirited debate over the Obama travel directive continued, with columns about the isolation of embargo defenders and how Obama’s move also puts the focus on Cuba’s government to rise to the occasion.

In that spirit, we also cover the arrest of renowned dissident, Guillermo Fariñas, and note, that while 41 political prisoners have been freed, with two more releases imminent, since July 2010, more remain in limbo.

Meanwhile, as this summary went to press, Cuba’s state newspaper, Granma, posted a note indicating that USAID contractor Alan Gross will be tried “for the crime of ‘Actions Against the Independence and Territorial Integrity of the State,’” with prosecutors seeking a 20-year sentence. A trial date has yet to be set.

What does this mean?  Ideally, Alan Gross’s case is finally moving forward after his fourteen months in detention without charge.  Once he goes to trial, it would be our hope that he is finally allowed to return home on the basis of time served, as indicated in earlier reports.  We also hope that each of the remaining political prisoners in Cuba will have their cases addressed soon.

We cover these stories – and more – in this week’s NewsBlast.

IN CUBA

Breaking News: Cuba to free two more political prisoners and four others

Cuba’s Catholic Church says that two additional prisoners covered by last year’s release agreement will be freed, and one of the prisoners will be allowed to stay in Cuba, reports the Associated Press.  These releases would bring the number of prisoners freed to 43, leaving nine detained who refuse to leave Cuba and accept exile in Spain.

On July 8, 2010, an agreement to free all 52 dissidents who remained in Cuban prisons from the March 2003 so-called “Black Spring” roundup was reached by Cuba’s government and the Catholic Church with participation by Spain.

The Cuban Triangle carries the statement of Orlando Marquez, spokesman for the Archdiocese, about today’s release here

Friday’s announcement follows news earlier this week that four other prisoners, not part of the 52, serving sentences for attempting to hijack boats and leave the island on separate occasions, would be freed and sent to Spain.

AFP reports that last week, Alejandrina García began a hunger strike in protest of the continued imprisonment of the remaining “Black Spring” prisoners, including her husband, Diosdado González, who joined the fast on Tuesday.  On Wednesday Pedro Argüelles, also one of the remaining 11, joined the fast.

Egyptian uprising wins support in Cuba, raises questions on the island

The uprising in Egypt has gained support from Cuba’s leaders and citizens. Fidel Castro, in a reflection published in state newspaper Granma, proclaimed that Mubarak’s fate was sealed, and that the inevitable was happening. CNN reports that the elder Castro also criticized the U.S. for contributing to the original implementation of and continued support for Egypt’s dictatorship. He specifically criticized the U.S. government for providing arms to the Egyptian army while USAID gave money to the opposition.

The news in Egypt provoked questions about whether the people of Cuba would undertake a similar action to protest the island’s government. A Facebook page created by an exile living in the Canary Islands calls for the Cuban people to take to the streets to “promote the right of anyone to peacefully protest in the streets of Cuba, as one more way of exercising freedom of expression. [This is a] right that governments should guarantee.” However, Elizardo Sánchez, president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, told the Miami Herald that he had not heard of the page.

An editorial from Cuba Encuentro outlines differences between Egypt and Cuba, and suggests why an uprising similar to Egypt’s is not in the cards in Cuba.

Cuban court deals strong sentences to hospital staff for patient deaths

Sixteen doctors, nutritionists, and other staff at the psychiatric hospital where 26 patients died last year during a cold snap were given sentences of 5-15 years, according to the BBC.

CNN reports that the convictions were for negligence, abandonment of disabled persons, and misappropriation of resources after patients were found to be malnourished and lacking of blankets to face the cold weather. Cuba’s state paper Granma reports that in addition to these convictions, severe administrative sanctions were taken.

Supreme Court hears citizen’s case against the government

Last week, we reported on the unexpected decision by Cuba’s Supreme Court to hear a case filed by civilian lawyer Wilfredo Vallín against Minister of Justice María Esther Reus, as reported in La Jornada. The case, which demands that the Minister of Justice provide information so that Vallín can continue the registration process for his business, was heard on January 21st, El Nuevo Herald reports. The hearing was held behind closed doors and lasted only 20 minutes. Vallín has stated that while he expects the case to be dismissed, it is evidence that Cuban citizens can attempt to hold their government accountable to its laws.

After arrest, prominent Cuban dissident hospitalized

Guillermo Fariñas was hospitalized with chest pains on Friday following his arrest in the city of Santa Clara, reports Reuters.  Fariñas and about fifteen other associates were arrested as they marched toward a statue of José Martí, Cuba’s independence hero, to lay flowers to commemorate the 158th anniversary of Martí’s birth.  Fariñas’ arrest was the third time that he was detained in as many days.

The dissident’s mother, Alicia Hernández, told Reuters in an interview that her son had “chest pains” and was “under observation at the Arnaldo Millán Hospital.” The Latin American Herald Tribune reports that Fariñas is suffering from immune deficiency and was experiencing symptoms after going off of his medication regimen.

During Mr. Fariñas’ hunger strike last year, Cuba reached the accord with the Catholic Church to release 52 political prisoners.  He is also among the 74 dissidents who signed a letter urging the U.S. Congress to enact legislation to eliminate restrictions on travel and increasing food sales to the island.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

As Cuba reforms, less blame for U.S. embargo

Cuban officials no longer routinely engage in the practice of blaming the U.S. embargo for all of Cuba’s ills, reports Reuters.

Anger at the U.S. “blockade” has been, historically, a key feature of Fidel Castro’s official discourse, and was used to explain economic hardship on the island following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Since Raúl Castro assumed the presidency in 2008, however, there has been a slight change in rhetoric.  Anti-U.S. slogans no longer dominate the annual May Day celebrations, and President Castro has made jokes in public settings about Cubans’ tendency to blame all of their woes on the U.S. embargo.  This sentiment was echoed by Luis Suárez of Havana’s Higher Institute of International Relations, who stated, “Without denying the negative implications the U.S. blockade has had, and still has, on Cuba’s economy and society, we cannot keep attributing all the country’s problems to it.”

Under new regulations DFW airport seeks to offer Cuba flights

Initial talks are underway between Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), aided by American Airlines, and government officials in an attempt to make DFW the fourth U.S. port to service flights to Cuba, reports The Dallas Morning News.  Following President Obama’s January 14th directive loosening restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, any airport with appropriate security and customs facilities can apply for approval to offer such flights.  Currently only New York, Miami and Los Angeles are approved to do so.

Opening up DFW to Cuba flights would help some of the estimated 190,000 Cuban-Americans living in North Texas get to Cuba.  Unlike other Americans, Cuban Americans are allowed to travel freely to Cuba to visit family.  Initially, however, commercial flights would not be allowed since U.S. tourist travel to Cuba is still not permitted.  However, “if the charter flying is allowed and becomes successful, it could “pave the way for commercial flying down the road,” DFW staff said Thursday.

New regulations for luggage on flights to Cuba

Travelers to Cuba face new regulations if they wish to wrap their luggage in plastic, as is the custom of many on trips from Miami to Cuba.  El Nuevo Herald reports that Sinapsis Trading, the company that won the contract to wrap luggage in plastic at the Miami airport, has issued new regulations under which passengers must pay $15 to have their luggage re-wrapped if it is opened during security screenings. This charge will only apply for those who wrap their own luggage before entering the airport.

People are still allowed to pack their own luggage; however, the TSA has warned that delays could result if the luggage needs to be opened.

Chief of U.S. Interests Section in Havana hopeful about reforms in Cuba

Jonathan Farrar, the Chief of Mission of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana’s, said in an interview this week that the U.S. has seen some recent advancements from Cuba’s government, but stated that it was not in the White House’s plans to lift the embargo, Europa Press reports. He said that the U.S. is in the process of working with Cuba’s government on “specific issues” of mutual interest. He also reiterated the concern of the U.S. for Alan Gross, imprisoned on the island for fourteen months without charges.

Speaking of reforms, the New York Times has just published this piece about how Cubans are experiencing life in the emerging private sector following economic reforms.

U.S. lawmakers pressure Cuba on oil

Last year, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18) introduced legislation to punish foreign partners and U.S. individuals who assist Cuba in its plans to drill offshore in the Gulf of Mexico for oil by subjecting them to Helms-Burton sanctions.  According to UPI, Ros-Lehtinen stated this week: “We need to take responsible precautions to ensure that a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill does not happen again. … This must include preventing investments that help the Cuban regime pursue its own wild oil-drilling endeavors so close to U.S. shores.”

Early in this new Congressional term, Rep. Vern Buchanan (FL-13) introduced new legislation to stop deter Cuba’s plan to drill off the coast of Florida by denying access to leases and permits for drilling in U.S. waters requested by companies who explore with Cuba.  According to Keys News, Buchanan stated: “As we have learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, an oil spill can devastate a regional economy and impose serious long-term environmental damage to precious natural resources.  My bill would help eliminate the threat of a similar spill off the Florida Keys by authorizing the Interior Secretary to deny permits for the project.”  The decades old U.S. embargo disallows cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba in planning for possible oil drilling disasters that may affect both countries.

Repsol, the first company expected to drill with Cuba in the Gulf, continues to plan for drilling in Cuba, reports EFE.

Rep. Buchanan explained his position against Cuba’s right to drill for oil off its northern coast in an editorial piece published by Politico.  Five Members of the Florida Congressional delegation, including Reps. David Rivera and Mario Diaz-Balart, signed on to the bill as cosponsors.

Oil industry experts and leaders in the environmental community strongly disagree with this approach.  “The rational approach is a direct dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba,” said David Guggenheim, a senior fellow at The Ocean Foundation in Washington.  According to the Miami Herald, he has been working on marine research and conservation issues with Cuba for nearly a decade.

See also, “U.S. policy pushes Cuba into the arms of our adversaries,” published by Tomas Bilbao of the Cuba Study Group in the Saratoga Herald-Tribune.

Posada Trial

The trial of Luis Posada Carriles, charged with lying about his involvement in a string of Havana hotel bombings and how he entered the United States, continued although it was abbreviated by weather delays.

This week saw the end of the five-day-long testimony of Gilberto Abascal, a Cuban-American handyman and FBI informant who testified that he was on the boat that carried Posada from Mexico to Miami in 2005. Arturo Hernández, Posada’s defense lawyer, continued to attack Abascal’s credibility while attempting to paint him as a mentally unstable spy for Cuba’s government, according to the Associated Press.

Hernández made a fourth call for a mistrial after accusing Abascal, who he called a “scoundrel,” of attacking his character in front of the jury; Hernández’s motion was denied by Judge Kathleen Cardone.

Cletus William, an agent with Customs and Border Protection, was next on the stand, the Miami Herald reports. He testified that he was suspicious of the Santrina, the boat Abascal testified had transported Posada to Florida, but did not have the necessary officers to search the boat. Next, Christopher Torres of Immigration and Customs Enforcement testified that he had been one of the agents assigned to travel to Isla Mujeres, Mexico to verify Abascal’s claim that the boat stopped there to pick up Posada before smuggling him to Miami.

A New York Times article focuses on José Pertierra, the lawyer who represents Venezuela, whose coverage of the trial we have included in previous weeks. Pertierra has spent five years seeking the extradition of Luis Posada Carriles to Venezuela to stand trial for the bombing of a Cubana de Aviación jet in 1976, which killed all 73 people on board. Venezuela claims to possess substantial evidence linking Posada to the 1976 plot. Pertierra’s account of Abascal’s testimony is available here.

The trial was suspended on Wednesday and Thursday due to unusually severe winter weather conditions in El Paso.  It was expected to resume today.

WikiLeaks: Brazil urged U.S. to end embargo

A newly-released cable from 2009 reveals that Marco Aurelio García, then Brazil’s Foreign Policy Advisor to President Lula, pressed Clifford Sobel, U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, for an end to the U.S. embargo on Cuba:

Ambassador [Sobel] asked how central discussion of Cuba would be, in Garcia’s view, to establishing relations with the region. “You can’t talk about Latin America,” he responded, “without talking about Cuba.” It has become a “sign” for the region. Garcia urged a “strong” U.S. overture to Cuba “without conditions,” such as removing the embargo. It would be, he said, a small price to pay for a large gain. On the one hand, he said, the Cubans would be astounded and embarrassed, and the United States would gain the moral high ground. On the other, he stressed that, on the basis of his long relationship with Cuba and knowledge of Cuban history, he was certain the Cubans would never agree to a proposal that had explicit conditions attached.

Ambassador Sobel, for his part, noted his concern about Brazil’s apparent eagerness to promote “South-South” relationships rather than prioritizing a relationship with the United States.

Cable implies Zelaya lobbied Castro and Chávez on behalf of the U.S.

Another cable made public by WikiLeaks this week shows that ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya promoted a U.S. agenda in meetings with presidents Raúl Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela in 2009, AFP reports. The cable relates that as Honduras hosted a June meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), Zelaya pressured countries belonging to ALBA, the economic block founded by Chávez, to accept U.S. wording for a drop on the ban of Cuba from the OAS and subsequent democratic requirements for the country to join. Cuba has since made no gestures indicating its interest in rejoining the OAS.  According to the cable, Zelaya also followed up on a promise to the U.S. and did not permit any of the ALBA leaders to speak during the opening of the meeting. Zelaya, for his part, admitted his policy on Cuba “was not completely a Honduran initiative,” but defended his mediation as a victory for Honduras.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba’s foreign minister travels to Ecuador, Bolivia

Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, met this week in Ecuador with his counterpart Ricardo Patiño, EFE reports. The main topic of conversation was immigration between the two countries.  At the beginning of last year, it was estimated that between 100 and 300 Cubans remained in Ecuador each month without legal documentation, but a legal crackdown has motivated those remaining in the country “irregularly” to leave, with an exit last month of 500 Cubans, which was more than the number that entered.

The two ministers also discussed increasing trade between Cuba and Ecuador, in addition to subjects such as health, agriculture, education, culture, science and technology, reports AP.  Patiño praised Cuba’s solidarity, both globally and specifically to Ecuador, Cuban News Agency reports.  Representatives of the two governments released a joint statement expressing satisfaction with their meeting.

Later in the week, Rodríguez traveled to Bolivia and met with the Bolivian foreign minister David Choquehuanca and President Evo Morales, Prensa Latina reports. During a press conference both foreign ministers addressed the uprising in Egypt and condemned international intervention. Rodríguez specifically criticized the United States, as reported by EFE.  Rodríguez also lent Cuba’s support to Bolivia’s demand for direct access to the sea, the Miami Herald reports. The statement is likely to cause a stir in Chile, as the issue is one of great contention between the two countries.

Spain’s Supreme Court denies Bacardi the rights to Havana Club brand

This week, Spain’s Supreme Court ruled that Bacardi does not have rights to the Havana Club trademark, the Wall Street Journal reports, marking the third such ruling in Spanish courts.  The previous two rulings were handed down by lower courts.

The Havana Club brand is currently distributed internationally by the French distiller Pernod Ricard in cooperation with the government of Cuba. Bacardi claimed in the suit that they possessed rights to the trademark after purchasing it from the Arechabala family in 1994. The Arechabala family’s property, however, was nationalized by Cuba’s government in the 1959 revolution. The court emphasized that they based their decision on the fact that the Archebala’s legal register of the brand in Spain had expired in the 1960s.

Italy telecom sells share in Cuban telecommunications firm, ETECSA

This week, the share that Telecom Italia possessed in ETECSA, Cuba’s state telecommunications firm, was bought out by the Cuban state, Bloomberg reports. Telecom had possessed a 27% stake that was sold for $706 million. Cuba Standard reports that this decision is a part of the Italian firm’s desire to shed non-core assets, and that they had announced their intention to sell their share in 2008.  The resolution, as printed in the Official Gazette in Cuba, indicates that the other shareholders in ETECSA maintain their percentage of shares while RAFIN Trade, a company incorporated under Cuban law, acquires by purchase Telecom Italia’s shares.

Around the Region:

12th anniversary of the “Bolivarian revolution”: Chávez asks for forgiveness and says that ‘battle has begun’ for 2012 election, AP

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez celebrated his 12th anniversary in power saying he is ready to run for another six year term in next year’s election. In televised appearances, Chávez touted his government’s programs and also apologized for his errors, saying that much remains to be done as he seeks to lead Venezuela toward socialism.  “The battle has begun, and it’s going to be hard and good,” Chavez said of the 2012 presidential election.

While Venezuezanalisis.com highlights the accomplishments of the past 12 years, El Universal comments on the latest Datanalisis poll that reveals a 50% approval rating for President Chávez, although the support for his reelection is much lower at 23%.

El Salvador: FMLN leads parliament; poll shows skepticism toward democracy, Inside Costa Rica

Sigfrido Reyes, representing the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), became president of Parliament amid expectations for the left to take that post for the first time. Reyes explained that while his party holds the most seats in the 84-seat unicameral Legislative Assembly, the four right-wing parties have coordinated efforts for years to block the FMLN.

The change of power within the Legislative Assembly comes while a new poll reveals a lack of commitment among Salvadorans toward democracy, El Faro reports.  45% of those surveyed say that they would support a military regime if that resolved economic and security unrest.  Also, 8 out of 10 said that democracy is not essential.

El Salvador has worst homicide rate of the Americas, followed by Venezuela and Colombia, Latin America Herald Tribune

“Mexico, with 18.4 homicides per 100,000 people registered in 2010, and despite living through its most violent year, ranked behind seven other countries, most of them in Latin America. Brazil (25.3), Jamaica (32.4), Belize (32.7), Colombia (37.3), Venezuela (48), South Africa (49.6), and El Salvador (61), were all above Mexico.”

Hate crimes, killings rising, say Honduras activists, CNN

Hate crimes from beatings to murders are rising in Honduras, but investigations and prosecutions are rare with few victims receiving help. Yndira Mendoza, director of the Catrachas Network, an organization of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender groups, says abuse based on sexual orientation is widespread. Also, in a statement by Human Rights Watch, the organization warns that six transgender women have been murdered in Honduras since November 29, 2010. The latest killing was on January 17, 2011.  No arrests have been made.

Recommended Reading:

Debate continues over Presidential directive

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, writes in Politico about where Cuban American Members of Congress have been left after Obama’s presidential directive on travel to Cuba: “They are not without power. But Cuban-American members of Congress, the most influential advocates of isolating Cuba, are themselves growing isolated. They remain static, even as the Obama administration dismantles barriers to engagement and builds policies to encourage greater contact between U.S. citizens and the Cuban people.”

James Cason, who served as the chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 2002 to 2005, wrote an op-ed in opposition to the directive, arguing, among other points, that Obama’s “soft, unilateral policy concessions” will “bring millions into the Castros’ bank accounts at a time when the island’s economic crisis has forced the regime to take timid steps toward reforms.”
Ted Piccone, senior fellow and deputy director for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institute, followed Cason’s op-ed with a piece of his own, arguing that the embargo is outdated and does not help the Cuban people.

Arturo Lopez-Levy, writing in Foreign Policy, says: “The question now is whether the governments of Cuba and the United States can sustain a successful process of engagement and manage the volume of people-to-people contacts, which is bound to increase. In any case, Obama should continue opening up the United States to Cuban society on his own timetable, not on Raul Castro’s.”

Factbox: Key political risks to watch in Cuba, Reuters

Reuters provides a succinct summary of the current situation Cuba faces as they take on economic reform, oil exploration, new travelers from the U.S., the release of Cuban prisoners, the ongoing detainment of Alan Gross, a severe cash flow problem and other current issues.

Recommended Viewing:

Interactive map of Cuba, Juventud Rebelde

This map of the island clearly shows each of its provinces, and includes the three provinces that have been created out of the original Havana province, including two new ones: Mayabeque and Artemisa. The interactive map shows population, geographical and political administration information for each province.

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