President Carter to Visit Cuba; Prisoner Agreement Fulfilled; A Lament for Lenny…really

March 25, 2011

This week’s blast is thick with news.

Thanks in no small part to the courage and commitment of Cuba’s Catholic Church, the remaining dissidents from the March 2003 crackdown were released from prison this week.

The releases fulfill the agreement reached last July to free the 52 dissidents who remained in prison.  In the months that intervened, Cardinal Jaime Ortega was branded a “collaborator…with the elites who run Cuba” by hardliners with a vested interest in keeping sanctions and the Cold War antagonism between the U.S. and Cuba in place.  They will never acknowledge the Church’s accomplishment in winning this agreement and seeing it through, nor credit Cuba’s government for honoring it.  It is, nonetheless, a milestone and should be remembered as such.

We congratulate the Cardinal for all he did.

In Havana, the demand for bread is, well, rising.  With the Cuban Communist Party poised to meet next month, and ratify the economic guidelines for state cutbacks and private sector reforms, news out of Cuba’s capital suggests that at least some reforms are already taking hold.  Thanks to the increase in demand for bread from private food vendors, state-run bakeries are producing a third more bread than they did last year, and are planning an increase in production.

In Texas, the prosecution rested its case after days of dramatic testimony by journalist Ann Louise Bardach whose interviews of Luis Posada Carriles were presented as evidence of perjury by the anti-Castro militant.

President Obama concluded his tour of Latin America under the cloud of military action in Libya with appeals to Cuba’s government for more action on political and economic reform.

In New York, sad news that Leonard Weinglass has passed away.  Mr. Weinglass devoted his life to the law and the defense of politically controversial clients including the Chicago Seven and Cuba’s Five Heroes.  He was remembered fondly in Havana and in places across the United States that have been inspired by his devotion to justice.

As our news summary went to press word came that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn will visit Havana, Cuba early next week.  Carter last visited Cuba in May 2002, becoming the first former or sitting U.S. president to travel to Cuba since 1928.  He is a long-time supporter of improved human rights on the island as well as ending the U.S. embargo.  We hope his three day trip to Cuba and his meeting with high-level government officials and other Cuban citizens will be fruitful.

We cast a careful eye on each of these stories, and others, and end the blast with a final word:  really. Read the rest of this entry »

Alan Gross Sentenced; Posada Linked to Bombings; Cubans Voice Concern about Reforms – On the eve of Obama’s visit to the region

March 18, 2011

We write this week just before President Obama departs for a brief but important trip to Latin America.

Accompanied by the First Family, he will visit U.S. allies in Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador.  This is Obama’s first diplomatic trip to Central and South America. The last time the region was visited by a U.S. President was during George W. Bush’s 2007 tour to Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Uruguay and Brazil.

Obama’s visit will have a different tone. After his election, there were high hopes and good will toward the president among the citizens of Latin America, in part because he spoke of a new relationship with the nations of the hemisphere – no junior or senior partners anymore.  There was a sense that he would listen and understand their needs and aspirations better than past U.S. presidents – that he would end the historic U.S. pattern of neglect followed by intervention and begin a relationship of mutual respect.   The president is personally popular in Latin America.

However, two years into his presidency, many in the region are still waiting for real change, and some criticize him for continuing the status quo.

In stops that will bring him to the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, to Santiago where he will give a speech articulating his view of the Pan American region, to the site of Archbishop Romero’s tomb in San Salvador, the president will have an opportunity, through his words and deeds, to rekindle the spirit of partnership and the relationship of peers that he evoked in the 2009 Summit of the Americas.

We wish him well on this visit, and our Around the Region section below summarizes some of the issues and the accompanying analyses that raised the curtain on his trip.

We also report this week on –

  • The sad and consequential sentencing of Alan Gross
  • The trial of Luis Posada Carriles
  • The complaints and concerns of average Cubans about economic reforms, and
  • New prisoner releases undertaken by Cuba’s government

This week in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

10 Prisoners Freed; 9 Airports Approved; No Verdict in Gross Case

March 11, 2011

We want to highlight stories in our summary this week which are auguries of change – in Cuba and the U.S.

Thursday evening, the Archdiocese of Havana distributed an email saying ten new prisoners – including Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet – will be freed from Cuba’s prisons.  Cuba’s government is allowing Biscet, who refused exile to Spain, to remain in Cuba.

Biscet’s release is rich with significance.  His case has long been championed by the exile community in the U.S.  He was awarded, in abstentia, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 by President George W. Bush.  With Biscet’s release, just three dissidents arrested in the 2003 crackdown by Cuba’s government – and covered by the release agreement negotiated by Cuba’s Catholic Church – remain imprisoned.

Since the negotiation last year, about 80 prisoners have been released.  While Cuba rejects linkage between its actions and changes in U.S. policy, the U.S. government has historically linked reforms in its policy of isolating and punishing Cuba to progress in areas like political prisoners and human rights.  That said, these releases are milestones; the Church’s role (maligned in some quarters) needs to be remembered and celebrated; and the importance of these actions should not be underestimated, and should open political space here in the U.S. to the notion of taking our reforms further.

In this country, the Obama administration – under the directive it issued in January 2011 – has approved nine new U.S. airports to serve Cuba’s market.  Airports in Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, Chicago’s O’Hare, Thurgood Marshall in Baltimore, Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans, and international airports in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Dallas, and San Juan will be able to host departures to Cuba for Cuban Americans, and the education and research, and religious delegations now approved for travel.

Think about that.  Nine new metropolitan areas – their airports, their business communities, and their citizens – are now invested in the right of Americans to travel to Cuba.  In nine states, there will be renewed attention to the fact that some but not all Americans have the right to travel to the island.  Excluding Florida and Puerto Rico, it means a dozen U.S. Senators will have constituents asking why they can’t board the planes leaving from their own airports, encouraging them and making their personal, constitutional, and economic arguments for opening up Cuba to greater travel.  This offers a new opportunity for real change.

Last week, we began with a report on Alan Gross’s trial in Havana.  After two days of testimony, the trial concluded last weekend without a verdict.  We continue to watch and wait – to express our hopes for a humanitarian result for his family, and our hopes that the lessons of his detention about the counterproductive nature of U.S. regime-change programs will not be lost on the administration or the Congress.

While this week there is reason for optimism, experience reminds us that hope springs eternal.

This week in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

Breaking News: Alan Gross Trial Begins in Havana

March 4, 2011

Today, Alan Gross went on trial in Havana, another chapter in his personal ordeal that began with his arrest on December 3, 2009.  It took Cuba’s government more than a year to charge him, and in the months that intervened, Mr. Gross’s mother and daughter were both diagnosed with cancer.  His arrest, detention, and trial may be a compelling political issue dividing Cuba and the United States.  For the Gross family, however, his plight is a humanitarian crisis.

Leading up to the trial, Jewish leaders appealed to President Castro to release Gross and send him home to his family on humanitarian grounds. The Rev. Jesse Jackson similarly made a statement, additionally offering to travel to Cuba to aid in negotiations.

The foreign press is not allowed inside the courtroom where Gross’s trial is taking place, and our deadline approached before news reached the U.S. about the first day of the trial.  So we begin the news this week with some thoughts about Mr. Gross’s plight.

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Clinton said before Congress that the United States is “losing” the information war, and she blamed the U.S. media, the distortion of popular culture, and declining budgets for U.S.-sponsored information broadcasts, as factors leading to the U.S. being unable to get out its message.

This is what every administration – Republican and Democrat – says when it feels like it is losing its ability to control events.  The problem we see, however, is different.  The problem is not perceptions but reality, the truth.

From the time he was arrested more than a year ago, the administration has explained Gross’s activities in Cuba by saying he was providing Internet access to Jewish groups which they said is not (or perhaps they meant shouldn’t be) a crime.

This may be the U.S. government’s message, but the facts appear to be quite different.

Mr. Gross, who entered Cuba on numerous occasions saying he was a “tourist,” distributed satellite equipment under a U.S. program, as Reuters explained, that is “outlawed and considered subversive” by Cuba’s government.  These activities have been illegal in Cuba since the late 1990s, but U.S. policy makers in the Executive Branch and Congress have continued to fund them nonetheless.   On the eve of Mr. Gross’s trial, President Obama asked for an increase in the budget for these so-called “democracy promotion” (or “regime change”) programs.

Covert efforts to provide Cubans with Internet access may appear to be well-motivated, but they are, in fact, expensive, ineffective, counter-productive, provocative, and superfluous.

Mr. Gross – apparently supported by an infrastructure operated by other U.S.-funded contractors in Central America and elsewhere – was setting up high-tech, high-cost satellite equipment, including BGAN terminals which are laptop-sized devices  used as a direct link to the Internet through satellite connections, Progreso Semanal reports.  We are advised, however, that these connections supported a minimal number of Internet users, used by Cuban citizens who were not primarily drawn from the island’s Jewish community, selected on the basis of other criteria.  Not only did the connections benefit a small number of people, but using satellite access for this purpose costs a tremendous amount of money for data charges.

Mr. Gross, apparently, did not disclose to the Cuban beneficiaries of his activities the source of his funding, which put them at legal risk in Cuba.  Our government’s constant (and we believe cynical) invocation of the island’s Jewish community, as benefitting from his work, painted them with the brush of U.S. support – a mistake that harms their credibility and independence if it were true; an even worse offense, if it is “messaging” rather than fact, which appears to be the case.

Why pursue a program that didn’t really work but carried so much risk?  The motivation of some who support this program, perhaps, was not to provide access but to provoke Cuba’s government, which doesn’t take it lightly when a foreign power trying to overthrow its system pays contractors to bring in this kind of equipment.

In fact, Mr. Gross’s arrest has been a big problem for U.S.-Cuba relations.  If he is hit with a twenty-year sentence, and receives no consideration from Cuba’s government for his humanitarian concerns, the long-expected, long-overdue thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations will likely return to a deep freeze.  Nothing would make the regime-change crowd in the U.S. happier.

All of this is discouraging, because it is fundamentally needless.  We believe in expanding access to information, and there are legal ways to bring laptops and new ideas into Cuba – ways that aren’t costly, that are effective, that are not provocative, and that directly benefit average Cubans.  This can be done now, through the front door, and could be expanded by legalizing more travel and contact between U.S. citizens and Cubans.

Were this to happen, there would be no “message misfires,” meaning, the U.S. government could say, forthrightly, openly, and honestly, that it supported helping Cubans gain greater access to information, and the reality and the messaging would be in perfect alignment.  More importantly, there would be no further need for covert programs that put real people and real families – in Cuba and the U.S. – at such risk.

Mr. Gross’s trial is not expected to last more than a few days. If he is convicted, his sentencing and an appeals process would take longer still.  Our thoughts are with him and his family.

Read more about this week in Cuba news…

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