Senators seek to roll back Obama travel reforms; Update on Alan Gross case and Posada trial; Cuba unblocks dissent on the Internet

This week, two Members of the United States Senate with significant Cuban-American constituencies – Senators Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Marco Rubio of Florida – submitted amendment 61 to the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act which seeks to roll back President Obama’s travel reforms.

The amendment calls for a “prohibition on expansion of flights to locations in countries that are state sponsors of terrorism.”  Such an amendment, if enacted into law and signed by the President, would block everyone who has now been empowered by the recent presidential directive from visiting Cuba, but leave in place the right of the Senators’ Cuban-American constituents to visit the island without restrictions.

The Senators were strong critics of the presidential directive when it was issued on January 14, 2011.  Menendez called it “a gift to the Castro brothers.”  Rubio said he would “strongly oppose” the measures.  The announcement by Cuba’s government that it will bring jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross to trial is now offered as a new justification for reversing reforms the Senators opposed from the beginning.

Their amendment, of course, carves out exceptions for their constituents, and offers a paradoxical response to the Gross case – namely, punishing Cubans by denying them new information and new economic opportunities that would both come from opening the island to more travel by American religious delegations and academic visitors, for example.

No one has suffered more in the last fourteen months than Alan Gross and his family, who have endured anxiety, separation, and illness during the prolonged period of his detention.  It is our hope that the announcement last week of charges speeds an end to their suffering.  We suspect, however, that the conclusion of this painful chapter is much more likely to be written in venues other than the floor of the United States Senate.

This week, the NewsBlast covers the case of Alan Gross, the trial of Luis Posada Carriles, more signs that Cuba is opening up to the Internet, economic reforms, and more news about prisoner releases.

Before we get to the news, however, two people deserve special mention.

U.S. Rep. Jane Harman, a tough-minded national security Democrat, is a strong advocate for reforming U.S. relations with Cuba.  Our Center for Democracy in the Americas had an opportunity to visit Cuba with Rep. Harman, and she has been a consistent supporter of legislation to permit travel to Cuba by all Americans.  As the Los Angeles Times reported, Rep. Harman has announced her plans to leave Congress to serve as the new head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She starts her new job February 28th.  We wish her well in this new position, but we will truly miss her in the House.

Leonard Weinglass has been a lawyer for over fifty years and a ceaseless advocate for justice and peace.  His work combined a vigorous belief in the law with aspirations that the United States could be goaded and led into directions that reflected our highest values.   He has served as the lead appellate attorney for the five Cuban intelligence officers convicted in Miami over a decade ago for espionage-related activities.  Mr. Weinglass is seriously ill, and we wish him only the best.

This week in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Developments and reactions continue on Alan Gross’ case

After Cuba’s government released an official note in state-run newspaper Granma indicating that the Alan Gross case would soon come to trial, and that the government would seek a 20 year sentence for “acts against the independence or territorial integrity” of Cuba, the U.S. government responded.

The U.S. State Department issued a press release stating that Gross has been imprisoned for too long and is “a dedicated international development worker who was in Cuba providing support to members of the Cuban Jewish community.” When asked in a subsequent press briefing if the U.S. would consider negotiating for Gross’ release in exchange for the release of the so-called “Cuban Five” – five Cuban nationals serving long sentences in the U.S. following convictions for spying – Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip Crowley stated: “We’re not negotiating on his – we’d like to see him released. And his case should not be attached to any other.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and newly-elected Sen. Marco Rubio, both from Florida, also condemned the announcement, and argued it should be used to put a  stop to President Obama’s recent directive to relax restrictions on non-tourist travel and remittances to the island, and Senators Rubio and Menendez appear poised to try and block the decision as the Senate considers air traffic safety legislation.
In contrast, Gross’s lawyer, Peter Kahn, saw the announcement as a “positive development,” indicating forward movement on the case, CBS Miami reports. Kahn will be allowed to travel to Cuba and attend the trial, along with Gross’ family and U.S. diplomats in Havana.

A “Western diplomat” interviewed by Reuters speculated that the trial will begin soon, and that Gross will plead guilty and be returned to the U.S.  But as a source told Reuters, “Until it’s done, anything is possible.”

Meanwhile, ten Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle who support the freedom to travel to Cuba sent this letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner asking that the new regulations, stemming from President Obama’s presidential directive, be enacted in the most flexible way to allow for a broad interpretation of the rules.

Collaboration between U.S. and Cuba, disputes over evidence in Posada case

The perjury and immigration fraud trial of Luis Posada Carriles continued in El Paso this week, as an argument over a key piece of evidence was settled in favor of the prosecution, and testimony from Cuban government officials commenced about the hotel bombings in Havana that lie at the heart of the perjury allegations.

The dispute took place over a key piece of evidence the prosecution wanted introduced in the trial, a false Guatemalan passport with Posada’s picture and the name Manuel Enrique Castillo López.  As the Miami Herald reported, Judge Kathleen Cardone ruled in favor of a defense motion that federal prosecutors had not sufficiently authenticated the passport. The document is a key piece of evidence for the prosecution’s perjury charge; Posada’s indictment states, “the defendant . . . falsely stated . . . that he never had any type of documentation, passport or identification from the Republic of Guatemala when, in fact, he had a passport issued by that nation bearing his photograph in the name of ‘Manuel Enrique Castillo López.’”

The defense’s victory in the exclusion of the passport was, however, short-lived.  Although the passport itself was denied as evidence, Judge Cardone later allowed into evidence several photocopies of Guatemalan documents, including a copy of the passport, that had been properly authenticated, the Associated Press reports.

The first Cuban official, Lt. Col. Roberto Hernandez Caballero of the state security division of the Interior Ministry, took the stand to testify on the damage caused by a series of hotel bombings in 1997, the AP reports. According to EFE, this is the third time this witness has testified in American courts. The prosecution is attempting to show that Posada lied about his role in the bombings, and Lt. Col Hernandez’s testimony included photos of the scenes of the bombings depicting damaged hotel property, blood stains, and the shards of glass from an ash tray that exploded, causing the death of Fabiano di Celmo, an Italian tourist.

Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, reflects on the historical significance of this collaboration between the U.S. and Cuban governments in a trial of a former CIA agent, in a piece published by The Nation.

In Cuba, the government has made two prisoners related to Posada available for interviews with the Associated Press. One of the prisoners, Otto Rodriguez, states that Posada provided him with explosives to carry out a hotel bombing, while the other, Ernesto Cruz de Leon, stated that he knows that Posada was behind the hotel bombing plots. Judge Cardone has denied the admission of depositions from Cuban prisoners in Posada’s trial.

This week in Cuba WikiLeaks

Several cables released this week detail Cuba’s economic situation; these include an analysis of the country’s stability, movements and resistance to economic reforms, and the government’s public response to economic challenges. El Pais reports that U.S. diplomats remain skeptical that Cuba’s government possesses the will to implement economic reforms. One cable emphasizes that the state’s rhetoric has moved toward lessening dependence on the state and encouraging Cubans to “fend for themselves.”

Diplomats recorded these observations before Cuba’s government announced its intention to begin layoffs of state employees, impose benefit cuts, and encourage private sector activities to absorb the unemployed.

One August 2009 cable analyzes the likelihood of a severe economic crisis on the island. It states that a crisis comparable to the “Special Period” of the early 1990’s that saw mass shortages after the Soviet Union fell, leaving Cuba without its principal source of essential imports, was unlikely. The cable notes that Cuba has diversified its trade partners, stating:

Whereas the former Soviet Union represented 80 percent of Cuba’s total trade in 1989, Cuba’s top five trade partners in 2007 represented only 60 percent of total trade (in goods) with Venezuela on top at 20 percent (followed by China with 18 percent, Canada with 10 percent, Spain with 8 percent, and the United States with 4 percent).

Additionally, a July 2009 cable from Moscow responds to State Department inquiries about Cuba-Russia relations. The cable relates that contact with officials in Moscow indicate that Russia has not prioritized relations with Cuba or Venezuela, and does not plan to install any military bases on the island, instead focusing on economic relations.

Last year, Russia and Cuba moved to strengthen bilateral relations.

Growing anticipation for increased Cuba travel

Interest continues to grow about the prospect of arranging non-tourist travel to Cuba. OFAC has posted an updated list of authorized providers of air, travel, and remittance forwarding services to Cuba, and airports, especially in the state of Florida, continue to prepare for increased demand for flights to the island. One Canadian travel company, GAP Adventures, has taken advantage of the changing political scene on the island to encourage educational trips that could be called “political tourism,” La Vanguardia reports.

Others have brought up the possibility of expanding maritime travel between the U.S. and Cuba. Sailors in Sarasota, Florida are attempting to revive a sailing race from Miami to Cuba that began in the 1930s and ended after the revolution and subsequent embargo, with only one race in 1994 under the Clinton administration, the Sarasota Herald Tribune reports.

Cuban art festival to wow New Yorkers this Spring

This spring, a Cuban art festival named “¡Sí Cuba!” will take place in various venues throughout New York City, the New York Times reports. The festival is scheduled to run from March 31st to June 16th, and will include events featuring Cuban music, dance, theater, literature, painting and photography. Included in the lineup are performances from Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, a rumba and dance group formed in the 1960s which has not performed in the U.S. since 2002, and a dance performance from the group Danza Contemporánea de Cuba, which has never before performed in the U.S. For more information, see the ¡Sí Cuba! Festival site.

IN CUBA

Dissident blog unblocked, government video on potential dangers of the Internet “leaked”

The website of Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez has been unblocked and is now accessible from Cuba, Reuters reports. The dissident’s blog had been blocked on the island since 2008. Sanchez reacted to the unblocking of her site stating that she does not know where this decision came from but speculates that this action by Cuba’s government may be related to the Informatics International Convention and Fair taking place in Havana.

In related news, a video is circulating of an Internet expert briefing Interior Ministry officials about social media and the potentials of wireless Internet, Reuters reports.  The presenter, identified by the Miami Herald as a 38-year-old counter-intelligence officer, accuses the U.S. of encouraging dissent through social media and financing the provision of satellite equipment that will allow people to set up “secret” points for WiFi access. The video also suggested that the government counteract dissident voices on the Internet through their own bloggers. Yoani herself is mentioned several times in the video, El País reports.

The source of the video is unknown, and some, including Phil Peters at The Cuban Triangle, speculate that Cuba’s government itself may have “leaked” the video. The video and English translation is available here.

Changes in Cuba’s telecommunications industry

This week, Cuba opened its 2011 Informatics International Convention and Fair and is hosting an estimated 2,000 delegates from 35 countries for the convention, reports Xinhua News. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is also in attendance.

At the opening of the conference, Jorge Luis Perdomo, Cuba’s Deputy Minister of Informatics and Telecommunications, listed increased Internet speed as a priority of the government. According to ITU’s Secretary General Hamadou Toure, plans are in the works for cooperation with the government of Cuba to support broadband access for social programs. He also stated that the ITU plans to help with the connectivity of Cuba’s new fiber optic cable.

The highly-anticipated and long-awaited underwater fiber optic cable connecting Cuba to Venezuela arrived on the island this week, ABC News International reports. The cable is expected to be fully functional in July and will provide a boost in the speed of Internet access on the island. However, Cuba’s government made statements in an effort to dampen excitement over the cable, explaining that while it will increase Internet speed, it will not immediately provide increased Internet access to all Cubans, BBC reports.

Deputy Minister Perdomo stated that there were not political motivations behind a delay in expanded access, but that extensive infrastructure expansion and construction is required to achieve this end, AFP reports.  Such infrastructure is something with which ITU hopes to assist Cuba’s government.  In the meantime, preference will be given to government workers, schools, doctors and other “priority” users until the infrastructure can be put in place for widespread Internet connectivity on the island.

There has been significant reporting in the past few weeks about the role and structure of Cuba’s state-owned telecommunications industry.  Last week, we reported that Telecom Italia’s shares in Cuba’s telecommunications enterprise, ETECSA, had been bought from Italy by a Cuban state-owned company, as reported by the Cuban News Agency. After that sale, ETECSA now belongs to six national companies, all owned by or directly related to the state.  Deputy Minister Perdomo stated this week that “it is being decided” if Cuba will open the enterprise to a new foreign partner or partners, reports La Jornada.

Meanwhile, Cuba’s government has announced that it is for the first time considering whether to enact a telecommunications law this year, the Cuban News Agency reports, although the law is still a long way from passage.  The head of Regulations and Standards of the Cuban Ministry of Informatics and Communications, Wilfredo Lopez, says that the draft proposed to the Ministry of Justice and the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers this week took two years to write. Lopez stated that the law will be broad so as not to become prematurely outdated, and will determine sovereignty over the radio spectrum, the social role of telecommunications, its prospects and the rights of the operators, whether public or private.

Economic reforms and Cuba’s housing market

People inside and outside Cuba continue to write on the subject of the ongoing change resulting from President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms.

Under the current system, Cubans are prohibited from buying and selling property and limited to the complicated and time-consuming process of swapping houses – a process that often opens the door to corruption, The Economist reports. Housing reforms suggested in last year’s outlines for economic reforms, however, could increase business opportunities, especially in the tourist industry where many Cubans could open their homes to serve as bed and breakfasts for foreign tourists.

This week, an official report reveals that home construction last year by the private home builders in Cuba was more efficient than state-managed construction, EFE reports. Cuba’s housing sector has been one of the hardest hit by the current economic crisis, and the government currently estimates a deficit of some 600,000 homes. According to the report, private construction by individuals using materials provided by the Cuban state surpassed the year’s goal by 158.8%, while state construction did not reach its goal and fell 7.5% below projections.  An article in Juventud Rebelde stresses the importance of a new program that will allow home builders to receive money to buy their own materials instead of relying on state distribution.

Cuba Encuentro has an in-depth report and analysis on how economic reforms and a changing relationship between the State and the Cuban people have begun – and promise to continue – to evolve Cuban society.

State predicts nickel industry recovery, sugar industry reports uncertain outlook

Cuba’s government expects a recovery this month of the nickel industry, reports Reuters.  Estimates indicate that last year, output fell to the lowest levels in the past decade at under 70,000 tons. Nickel and cobalt are a vital part of Cuba’s economy and its biggest export, with most nickel destined for Canada and China. The general director of Cubaniquel, Alberto Panton Graham, announced that in the first month of this year, production was 4% above expectations.

Reuters reports that the outlook is good for this year’s sugar cane harvest. However, in Santiago de Cuba, the harvest so far this season has failed to meet expectations, state newspaper Granma reports.

More prisoners freed, Spain’s government asked to press Cuba for further releases

Late this week Cuba moved to release two additional political prisoners.  Eduardo Diaz was escorted home Friday, and the release of Hector Maseda is expected shortly, reports AFP.  A third, Angel Moya, was offered release last week but has refused freedom until all the infirm prisoners are freed, according to the Associated Press.  All three belong to the group of remaining dissidents jailed in the Spring of 2003 whose release was negotiated by the Catholic Church last year.

The Archdiocese of Havana also announced the release of four prisoners who are not covered by last year’s agreement. All four will travel with their families to live in Spain, the Associated Press reports.

Early in the week, after Cuba’s government announced further prisoner releases, human rights groups renewed their calls for the government to free the remaining prisoners covered in last year’s agreement with the Catholic Church.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists wrote a letter to the government of Spain urging them to place pressure on Cuba’s government to release the remaining prisoners, EFE reports. Amnesty International also released a statement urging the release of all prisoners of conscience in Cuba.

Several dissidents who began hunger strikes almost two weeks ago ended their strikes on different days this week, the AP reports. The strikers ended their fasts after meetings with the Bishop of Matanzas, Manuel Hilario de Céspedes, stating that they did not want to impede the release of prisoners and insisting that the government find a timely solution to their demands. One dissident, Guillermo del Sol Perez, remains on strike and was transferred into medical care this week, the Miami Herald reports.

Renown Cuban actress Maria de los Angeles Santana passes away

One of Cuba’s most beloved and renown actresses, Maria de los Angeles Santana passed away this week in Havana, Notimex reports. She was 96 years old. Her work began in the 1930s as a film star and expanded across theater, television, music, movies and radio. Maria de los Angeles Santana received Cuba’s National Theater Award in 2001 and the National Television Award in 2003, reports the Cuban News Agency.

A video from Televisión Cubana dedicated to María de los Angeles Santana is available here.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Bilateral trade between Cuba and China reaches $1.8 billion

Trade between Cuba and China increased by approximately $254 million to a total of $1.8 billion in 2010, EFE reports. China is Cuba’s second largest trade partner, after Venezuela. The principal products imported from China are cars, buses and electronics, while Cuba exports sugar, rum, and biotechnology devices. Liu Yuquin, Beijing’s ambassador in Havana, noted that relations between the two countries continue to be influenced by the international economic crisis, as well as natural disasters in recent years.

Rigoberta Menchu’s books in Havana Book Fair

Guatemalan leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu will be releasing a Cuban publication of her children’s book El Legado Secret (The Secret Legacy) for Cuba’s 20th International Book Fair which opened this week in Havana, Escambray reports. The Book Fair will include the presence of 16 ministers from the region and more than 200 representatives from approximately 40 countries, TeleSur reports.

Japanese foreign relations delegation visits Havana

This week, Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister Marcelino Medina González received a Japanese delegation lead by the nation’s general director of the Latin American and Caribbean Desk, Masashi Mizukami, Cuban News Agency reports. According to a Cuban press release, the delegation “recognized the existing potential to expand and diversify economic and trade links and cooperation between the two countries,” Cuba Standard reports.

Around the Region:

Senior U.S. envoys to visit Brazil and El Salvador, Xinhua News

Several senior U.S. envoys will travel separately to Brazil and El Salvador next week, two stops on President Barack Obama’s planned tour of the region next month. Assistant Secretary of State for Economic, Energy and Business Affairs José Fernández will lead the U.S. delegation in a bilateral Economic Partnership Dialogue to be held in Brasilia.  Meanwhile, Arturo Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, will pay a three-day visit to El Salvador, focusing on the bilateral partnership through the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development.  Valenzuela will be joined by USAID Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean Mark Feierstein.

Also, during his tour to Central America this week, Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield offered $200 million to the region for the fight against drug trafficking. Brownfield told reporters that the money will be sent to seven countries of Central America: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.  The U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa said that Honduran President Porfirio Lobo and U.S. ambassador Hugo Llorens will sign an agreement under which $1.75 million will be given to improve the prisons and border security, as part of the Central America Regional Security Initiative programs.

Anti-mining activists threatened, kidnapped and murdered in El Salvador, Change.org

Since 2009, Salvadoran anti-mining activists have been threatened, robbed, kidnapped and murdered while attempting to keep Pacific Rim, a Canadian mining company, from excavating gold in the northern department of Cabañas. This week, U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities, an international solidarity organization, reported that a disturbing wave of new death threats has hit activists opposed to Pacific Rim’s gold mine. The organization is calling on the Salvadoran government to investigate the threats and the various violent crimes that have been perpetrated against the movement opposed to Pacific Rim’s proposed mine.

Obama’s trip to El Salvador will “seal a strategic alliance” according to Salvadoran foreign minister, Deutsche Presse

El Salvador’s Foreign Minister, Hugo Martínez, stated this week that President Obama’s trip will serve to celebrate the bilateral efforts that have already taken place, and seal a strategic alliance between the two countries. The visit is taking place nearly one year after El Salvador’s President, Mauricio Funes, first traveled to Washington to meet with Obama. The two heads of state will prioritize the subjects of the fight against poverty through development initiatives, clean energy and climate change, commercial endeavors, regional and hemispheric security, and immigration. Exact dates have not been announced, but Obama is expected to arrive in El Salvador between the 19th and 25th of March.

Recommended Reading:

ANALYSIS-Gross case outcome will shape future U.S.-Cuba ties, Jeff Franks for Reuters

“Analysts said U.S. officials should not have expected an easy resolution but Cuba’s tough stance did not necessarily signal its intent to imprison Gross for a long time.”

Alan Gross for the Cuban Five?, Collin Laverty in the Havana Times

When Alan Gross was arrested in Havana “those familiar with U.S. – Cuba relations quickly identified a way for the Obama Administration to get Gross back, make up for leaving President Bush’s Cuba policy on cruise control and rapidly move the bilateral relationship to a much better place…”

Recommended Viewing:

Easing U.S. Embargo on Cuba, Al Jazeera

“For Domingo Amauchastegui preparing Cuban coffee is a daily ritual.  But he says it’s bittersweet, much like his memories of living in Cuba under the U.S. economic embargo.  The US put commercial limits on Cuba when Domingo was just a young man to push it toward democracy.  After 50 years of waiting, Domingo says President Obama’s recent relaxing of some restrictions are just a rehashing of Clinton White House policy…”

Upcoming Event:

Tuesday, February 15th at 2:00 PM:Does the U.S. have a Policy toward Latin America? Assessing the Impact to U.S. Interests and Allies,” Hearing in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.

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