Breaking News: Alan Gross Trial Begins in Havana

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…

IN CUBA

Layoffs delayed, leaders discuss reforms and prepare for Party Congress

President Raúl Castro has announced that the government’s plan to lay off 500,000 state workers by the end of March will take longer than expected, BBC reports. The layoffs, planned to shrink costs for the state, a key part of Cuba’s economic reform process, has been impeded by a lack of communication and the slow pace of thousands of committees in deciding which “unproductive” workers would be fired, Reuters reports.

In a meeting with the Cabinet of Ministers to discuss the reforms and the upcoming Communist Party Congress, Castro stated, “Carrying out our model is not the task of just one day, not even of one year, and because of its complexity it will require at least five years to complete its implementation,” AFP reports.

According to the AFP, the greatest concern among Cubans is a phasing-out of the “libreta” (ration book), coupled with the low salaries (an average of about $20 USD/month) earned by most. Other concerns include questions about the level of taxes to be paid by new small business owners, and the elimination of the double currency system currently used in Cuba. Currently, a “national” peso is used by Cuban citizens and a “convertible” peso is used by tourists and for luxury items not affordable for most Cubans.

Another AFP article details the difficulties arising from the attempt to implement a comprehensive tax system for Cubans.

In related news, Reuters reports that Fidel Castro will step down from his post as First Secretary of the Communist Party, a post that he has held since 1965.  Fidel Castro resigned the presidency of Cuba in February 2008 and was succeeded by his brother Raúl.  If Fidel were to resign from his position as First Secretary it would mean he has relinquished his final official leadership role in Cuba’s government.

The Communist Party Congress is meeting in Cuba, from April 16 to 19, for the first time since 1997.  It is expected to ratify the economic reforms, which holds the prospect of accelerating the process.

Vietnamese party envoy travels to Cuba to share reform experience

Hoang Binh Quan, special envoy of the Party General Secretary, member of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee (CPVCC) and Head of the CPVCC Commission for External Relations, traveled on a diplomatic mission to Cuba this week, Voice of Vietnam reports. In his meeting with Esteban Lazo, the First Vice President of the Cuban Council of State, Quan shared in detail the resulting documents from Vietnam’s 11th Party Congress this year, along with the achievements accomplished through 25 years of renewal, the Party Platform adopted in 1991, the 2001-2010 socio-economic development strategy, and the implementation of the 10th National Party Congress Resolution in 2006, along with plans for the continued development of Vietnam.

Cuba releases another political dissident, five remain from 2003 crackdown

Last weekend, Cuba’s government announced the release of another prominent political prisoner, Diosdado González. Gonález, like other recently-released dissidents, will be allowed to remain on the island, AP reports. González has stated that he intends to continue his activism for “peace, democracy and freedom,” EFE reports. The government also announced the release of eight other prisoners who were jailed for convictions including hijacking and attempting to leave the country illegally. Those prisoners have accepted exile in Spain along with their families.

Identities of Cuban agents who infiltrated dissident group are revealed

A TV documentary from Cuba’s state media this week revealed the identities of two government agents who successfully infiltrated the dissident group “Damas de Blanco” (The Ladies in White), the Latin American Herald Tribune reports. The documentary, and subsequent coverage by Cuba’s state media, reports that dissident groups are supported by the U.S. government and directly funded by right-wing anti-Castro groups in Miami.  The TV program with English subtitles can be viewed in two parts here.

The Ladies in White responded by stating that such programs are simply an attempt to discredit the dissident movement and their organization, which they defended as functioning in a transparent matter with nothing to hide. Well-known dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez also responded in a blog post indicating her lack of surprise about the infiltration of dissident groups and detailing her interaction with one of the revealed agents.

Price of gas in Cuba increases for the second time in six months

The price of gas at the pump rose about 8% this week, the second increase in the past six months, Cuba Standard reports. The change in price reflects the higher price of oil on the international market. Unlike last September’s increase, the latest price increase was not announced beforehand by state media, according to El Nuevo Herald. Such price hikes have the strongest effect on vehicle owners and private transportation businesses; state businesses receive subsidized gas, reports AFP.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega named to Pontifical Commission for Latin America

Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana was designated this week by Pope Benedict XVI as a member of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, the Miami Herald reports. Cardinal Ortega has played a key role in negotiations between the Catholic Church and the Government of Cuba to free political prisoners and improve prison conditions. This role was lauded in 2010 by Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi who called the Church’s negotiations “clear proof” of their support for the people of Cuba. Ortega’s new post at the Pontifical Commission will be to aid and support churches throughout the region, as well as monitor their progress.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Angolan oil company to explore in Cuba, extract crude in Venezuela

Sonangol, Angola’s national oil company, has announced plans for oil exploration in Cuba and crude extraction in Venezuela, AFP reports. In the announcement, the Sonangol representative stated that seismic readings had begun at the end of last month. The oil company, in competition with Nigeria to be Africa’s top producer of crude, has also announced potential plans for new projects in Brazil.

New cargo air service to connect Cuba and the Caribbean

LIAT Airlines, based in St. Johns, Antigua, has announced a cargo service between 22 eastern Caribbean airports and Cuba in cooperation with Panama’s Copa Airlines, Cuba Standard reports. Same-day service will be offered as a part of this new initiative. LIAT cargo director William Edwards stated:

With so many students from the islands now studying in Cuba and with the many Cuban doctors, nurses and diplomats throughout the Caribbean, we think they should be aware that there is a very efficient way of transporting goods, including personal effects, to and from Cuba.

The route has a stopover in Santo Domingo, and the cargo plane has a 7,500 pound capacity.

Spain’s former Foreign Minister travels to Cuba, meets with Raúl Castro

Miguel Angel Moratinos, Spain’s former Foreign Minister, traveled to Cuba unexpectedly this week and met with President Raúl Castro and his Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodríguez, EFE reports.

As Spain’s Foreign Minister, Moratinos advocated for changing the EU’s Common Position which limits diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Moratinos traveled to Cuba in part to promote his bid for director general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  Moratinos also planned to meet with Cuba’s Ministers of Agriculture and Food Supply.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

U.S. seeks additional $4 million for Cuba programs

The Obama administration is seeking a more than $4 million increase in “pro-democracy” funding for the 2012 fiscal year, according to the Cuba Money Project. Proposed increases in the 2012 budget are shown, in comparison with fiscal year 2011 (which ends this September), here:

Office of Cuban Affairs

2011: 2,526,000

2012 (req.): 3,608,000

Change in $: 1,082,000

Increase: 42.8%

U.S. Interests Section

2011: 8,735,000

2012 (req.): 11,741,000

Change in $: 3,006,000

Increase: 34.4%

These increases were requested of Congress on the eve of Alan Gross’s trial in Cuba.  His activities were financed under “democracy promotion” programs.

Also, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made statements this week regarding the intentions of recently loosened restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, EFE reports. Clinton denied that modifications were to support the Castro regime, defending the loosening of the Helms-Burton restrictions as tools to help the people of Cuba.

Meanwhile, Senator Pryor offered a list of items he would like to see changed in the budget, one of which is funding for TV and Radio Marti, according to the Magnolia Reporter.  Pryor says his proposed cuts will save taxpayers more than $10 billion dollars by eliminating ineffective programs and unnecessary spending. One item on his list of cuts:

The Broadcast Savings Act ends U.S. assistance to controversial broadcasting efforts in Cuba. Over the past 25 years, taxpayers have spent nearly $665 million to fund Radio and TV Marti, a U.S.-funded broadcast opposing the Cuban government. The Cuban government jams the signal preventing viewers from receiving the programming and funds for the program have been abused. Eliminating this funding would save taxpayers $30 million a year.

White House renews Cuba’s status under National Emergencies Act

As it has every year since 1996, the U.S. government renewed its state of emergency with Cuba under the National Emergencies Act this week, EFE reports.

The state of emergency around Cuba’s maritime space was declared in February 1996 after Cuba’s military shot down two airplanes organized by the Miami exile group Hermanos al Rescate (“Brothers to the Rescue”).  At the time, Cuba’s government said the group had been warned about flying in Cuban airspace, and that the aircraft used were not civilian.  In response, the U.S. government accused Cuba of shooting down unarmed civilian planes.

In a statement issued by the White House, President Barack Obama said, “The Cuban government has not demonstrated that it will refrain from the use of excessive force against U.S. vessels or aircraft that may engage in memorial activities or peaceful protest north of Cuba.  In addition, the unauthorized entry of any U.S.-registered vessel into Cuban territorial waters continues to be detrimental to the foreign policy of the United States.”

Rep. Conaway proposes bill to ease restrictions on agricultural sales to Cuba

New legislation proposed by Rep. Conaway (TX-11) aims to ease restrictions on agricultural sales to Cuba, reports the Western Farm Press.  The bill would redefine “payment of cash in advance,” to eliminate an impediment to already legal sales of food to Cuba, put in place by the Bush administration.

Until 2005, farm exports to Cuba were rising regularly, thanks to the quality of U.S. farm products and the relatively modest transportation costs of shipments to the island.    Once these changes in the rules governing payments by Cuba for U.S. food sales were put into place, Cuba diversified its sourcing of food, shifted purchases from cash to credit (which is barred under U.S. law), and accepted the higher costs of obtaining shipments from more distant suppliers.

Rice has been particularly hard hit.  Purchases by Cuba declined sharply after the 2005 restrictions, with no new transactions since 2009.

On Drugs:  U.S. Government Report Recognizes Cuba’s Control Efforts

The United States Department of State released its 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report this week.  The report, mandated by Congress and published annually, describes “the efforts of key countries to attack all aspects of the international drug trade in 2010.”

The State Department – which rarely misses an opportunity to criticize the island’s government – apparently concluded that Cuba’s anti-drug efforts are effective.

Among its findings:

  • Cuba’s domestic drug control policies appear to be effective.
  • Cuba has criminalized drug related offenses as outlined in Article Three of the 1988 United Nations (anti-narcotics) Convention.
  • Domestic production and consumption of illegal drugs remain limited.
  • Cuba’s domestic drug production remains negligible as a result of stiff sentencing for drug offenses.
  • Cuban citizens are also encouraged to report washed up contraband and have been reportedly rewarded with public praise and material improvements to their homes for locating and reporting marijuana that washes ashore.
  • The Government of Cuba does not encourage or facilitate the illicit production or distribution of drugs or the laundering of proceeds from illegal drug transactions.
  • The Cuban and U.S. relationship has produced tangible results in terms of both carrying out successful interdictions and providing the U.S. government with a better understanding of how Cuban territory is being used by drug traffickers.

“Historically,” the State Department says, “the Government of Cuba has presented the U.S. government with a draft bilateral accord for counter-narcotics cooperation which is still under review. Structured appropriately, such an accord could advance the counter-narcotics efforts undertaken by both countries.”

Given this report card, one wonders what’s holding them back.

Posada Carriles trial: Witness ties former CANF director to payments for terror

Oscar De Rojas, former bookkeeper for the late Cuban-American exile leader Arnoldo Monzon, testified that he sent “10 to 12 payments of $800 each to the pseudonym (Ramon Medina) for anti-communist militant Luis Posada Carriles and at least one other associate in Guatemala and El Salvador,” reports the Associated Press.

De Rojas claims he was directed to send the payments by Monzon, who served as a Director of the Cuban American National Foundation, but said he did not know if any of the money he sent to support Posada’s efforts was used in the string of 1997 hotel bombings, one of which killed Italian tourist Fabio di Celmo.

An FBI witness, Special Agent Omar Vega, told the court that 21 wire transfers were to Posada Carriles in El Salvador, from 1996 to 1997, and amounted to $18,900.  The Miami Herald called the testimony “an effort by the prosecution to bolster its claim that Posada, 83, lied to immigration officials about his alleged role in the bombings that stretched from April to September at Cuban tourist sites in 1997.”

Earlier in the week, the trial was suspended in deference to a juror who fell ill, and a personal problem reported by a lawyer on the defense team. When the trial resumed on Wednesday, a Mexican official, Mauricio Castro, took the stand, reports AP.

Castro testified that a Guatemalan passport with Posada’s photo but a different name was stamped in Belize, where Posada claimed to have entered Mexico before traveling north to the U.S. border. The prosecution alleges that Posada used the Guatemalan passport to enter Mexico, and then used the passport of Generoso Brigadas, an employee of the yacht’s owner who earlier testified that he left his passport on the yacht, to enter the U.S. through Florida by boat.

Around the Region:

Calderon in Washington: Public Smiles, Private Tensions, The Hemispheric Brief

Mexico’s President, Felipe Calderon, was in Washington this week and visited Thursday with President Barack Obama.  Joshua Frens-String at The Hemispheric Brief, reports on the visit:

“A White House statement about what was discussed Thursday between Mr. Obama and Mr. Calderon also has the appearance of normalcy. In addition to the trucking dispute, the White House highlights discussions about bi-national “regulatory cooperation,” as well as energy and environment matters.

“A Washington Post piece suggests there was much more behind Thursday’s public cordiality. Speaking with the Post Thursday, Calderon said a series of Wikileaked cables criticizing Mexico’s fight against organized crime had caused “severe damage” to the US-Mexico relationship. Calderon in a discussion with Post reporters and editors:

“It’s difficult if suddenly you are seeing the courage of the army [questioned]. For instance, they have lost probably 300 soldiers … and suddenly somebody in the American embassy, they [say] the Mexican soldiers aren’t brave enough…Or you decide to play the game that they are not coordinated enough, and suddenly start to bring information to one agency and not to the other and try to get them to compete.”

“In what the paper calls Calderon’s “strongest comments to date” about comments made in Wikileaks diplomatic cables, the Mexican president took specific aim at US ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual – the author of many of the cables in-question. When asked by the paper whether he’d “lost confidence” in Pascual, the Post writes that Calderon first paused before remarking: “It’s difficult to build and it’s easy to lose.”

“The Post goes so far as to speculate that the relationship between the Mexican government and the US embassy is so damaged that Pascual could be recalled – what would be the “most prominent U.S. casualty of the WikiLeaks scandal,” according to the paper.

“Ambassador Pascual was apparently present at yesterday’s meeting between Calderon and Obama. No word yet about whether or not the two men were able to talk through their differences, although the New York Times quotes an anonymous US official who said yesterday that the Obama administration had no plans to recall Ambassador Pascual.

“’We told [Calderon] Pascual is our ambassador,” the US official tells the Times, “And that was that.”’

Conditional Freedom granted to Ruben Gonzalez, Noticias 24

Venezuelan trade unionist Ruben Gonzalez was granted “conditional freedom” late this week, just days after receiving a prison sentence of more than seven years for organizing a 2009 work stoppage at an iron-ore plant in Ciudad Guyana.  There are still 125 trade unionists facing similar charges in Venezuela.  Provea, a human rights organization, has a statement on Gonzalez’s release, calling the decision to grant him conditional freedom a major victory. Labor protests continue to loom large in Venezuela, and worries about trade union freedom continue.

Zelaya supporters won’t participate in Honduras elections, AP

Followers of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya decided last weekend not to form an official political party or take part in 2013 elections.

More than 1,500 delegates at the first General Assembly of the People’s National Resistance Front opted to shun elections, saying the conditions necessary for a democratic process do not exist. Instead, they decided to push for a new Constitution, through the referendum process outlined in the constitutional reform ratified last week by the Honduran Congress.

The organization, after two days of discussion, approved a concrete set of resolutions, demanding an electoral reform to increase participation and transparency, the unconditional return of Zelaya and all exiled Hondurans, and the launch of a new Constitutional Assembly on June 28, 2011, the second anniversary of Zelaya’s ouster.

At the General Assembly, groups from all backgrounds, including women, LGBT, unions, environmental and farmers associations and others, denounced the widespread repression and human rights violations still affecting activists and ordinary citizens.

Former first lady Xiomara Castro de Zelaya also attended the General Assembly as a delegate, and in her speech asked the U.S. government not to interfere in the “self-determination” of the Honduran people in deciding “their present, their future and their way of life.”

Clinton reiterates U.S. commitment to Colombia trade deal, Colombia Reports

The U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Congressional panel in Washington that the government intends to approve the Free Trade Agreements with Colombia and Panama “this year”. During a hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Clinton avoided a question about why Colombia is not included as one of the stops on President Obama’s forthcoming Latin American trip. She did, however, state that the U.S. government maintains “close relations” with President Juan Manuel Santos and his government.

Recommended Reading:

Cuban doctors on the front line against cholera in Haiti, the Miami Herald

An in-depth look at the role Cuban doctors have played in responding to Haiti’s cholera epidemic, especially in rural areas.

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