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

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…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Alan Gross trial ends after two days, still no verdict or sentence

The trial of Alan Gross, the American contractor arrested in Cuba while distributing satellite Internet equipment on the island, lasted two days and ended last weekend, the Associated Press reports.

According to CubaDebate, a Cuban state media site, Gross told the court he had been “used and deceived” by Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI), the company which employed him with funds from the USAID’s “democracy promotion” program for Cuba.   CubaDebate said Gross blamed DAI for putting him into danger that resulted in his current situation, destroying his life and his family’s finances. [Foreign press was not allowed in the courtroom to report on the trial.]

The trial included an open declaration from Gross, who later responded to questions from the State prosecutor and his defense attorney. According to the Miami Herald, at least 14 witnesses took the stand, including nine expert witnesses, two members of Cuba’s Jewish community, and  two Cuban intelligence agents who until recently were posing as political dissidents.

After stating the U.S. State Department’s hope that Gross be immediately and unconditionally released, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley deferred to DAI when asked in a press conference this week about the work Gross was undertaking in Cuba at the time of his arrest:

He is a private contractor. He was working for DAI. And, regarding precisely what he was doing, I’ll defer to DAI to describe it. … We, of course, have oversight over contractors around the world. But, as to precisely what he was doing, and its relationship to an existing contract, I’ll defer to DAI to describe it.

Until this week, the State Department consistently said that what Gross was doing was not illegal, and that he was providing satellite equipment to improve access to the Internet for Cuba’s Jewish community.

No indication has been given as to when the verdict and sentence will be rendered and made public.  Mr. Gross faces up to 20 years in prison.

*Correction: Last week we reported that “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.”  To clarify, funding remains level for Cuba programs in the 2012 request as in 2011 (a $20 million budget), but the State Department’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2012 requests an increased allocation of $4 million within that budget for expenses at the Cuban Interests Section in Havana and the Office of Cuban Affairs in Washington. For details, a copy of the Congressional Budget Justification for fiscal year 2012 is available here. We have historically opposed the disbursement of regime change funds for programs operating in Cuba.  Even level funding for this program against the backdrop of the Alan Gross trial is hard to fathom.

New airports approved for Cuba travel

As a result of President Obama’s January directive relaxing travel restrictions, several airports announced this week that they have been approved to serve as ports for flights to and from Cuba, the Washington Post and the Sun Sentinel report. Flights are expected to begin as early as this summer.

The newly approved airports are:

  • Tampa International Airport (TPA)
  • Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport (BWI)
  • Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport  (MSY)
  • Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT)
  • Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD)
  • Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport (DFW)
  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
  • San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, Puerto Rico (SJU)
  • Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL)

These nine airports join Miami International Airport (MIA), Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York on the limited list of authorized ports for flights to Cuba from the U.S.

Floridians seeking to start ferry service to Cuba

As new airports received approval this week to offer transportation to Cuba, ferry owners in Florida are pressing the Obama administration to allow ferry services to Cuba as well, the Orlando Sentinel reports. Ferries would provide a less expensive mode of transport to the island at about $150 for a reclining chair and $300 for a cabin. This compares to the cost of a charter aircraft ticket from Miami which currently ranges from $400-$550.

Additionally, ferry travel could allow passengers to travel with more and larger cargo, a significant perk especially for Cuban-Americans who often arrive to Cuba laden with gifts for family members.

Bruce Nierenberg, a former cruise line executive, has applied to the U.S. Treasury Department for permission to establish a ferry line to Cuba from Port Everglades, Tampa and the Port of Miami. Several port officials have expressed their enthusiasm, as has Tampa area Congresswoman Kathy Castor, who stated, “We must continue to focus on creating jobs and diversifying Florida’s economy … which is why I support the new business that is interested in launching a ferry service to Cuba and Mexico from the Port of Tampa.”

Witness links Posada to explosives for the first time in trial

The trial of Luis Posada Carriles has entered its third month.  For the first time, the jury heard first-hand testimony from a witness present at the 1997 bombing at the Copacabana hotel that killed Italian tourist Fabio di Celmo, the AP reports. The witness was di Celmo’s friend, Enrico Gollo, who described the blast that killed his friend and injured twelve other people, including his wife.

Next on the stand was Miami TV Anchor María Elvira Salazar who interviewed Posada in 1998 following an interview with New York Times reporter Ann Louise Bardach in which Posada allegedly admitted to orchestrating the hotel bombings, a statement he later denied, citing difficulties understanding English.

In his interview with Salazar, Posada, speaking in Spanish, stated “I, for any action against the regime of Havana inside Cuban territory, take responsibility.” Responding to the defense attorney’s questions, Salazar said that she believed Posada was “rhetorically” taking responsibility, or “boasting or showing off” the Miami Herald reports.

According to the Associated Press, Posada also told Salazar that he had misinformed the New York Times in order to protect his funding sources. The jury, who watched a video of the interview, saw a back-lit silhouette of Posada stating that he had “no remorse whatsoever” and that the only option left for Cubans was to “fight the violent regime with violence.”

A Guatemalan official also took the stand to testify about a Guatemalan passport belonging to Posada. Judge Kathleen Cardone had previously disallowed the passport as evidence, but reversed this decision after the Guatemalan official confirmed the document’s authenticity. The official testified that the passport was authentic, but that it could have been obtained by using a fake national ID card. Three of the eleven charges against Posada relate to lying to U.S. officials about aliases he used and the possession and use of a Guatemalan passport, the Miami Herald reports.

Next on the stand was Tony Álvarez, a Cuban American who ran a business in Guatemala where he met Posada and two of his employees allegedly held meetings with Posada to discuss the string of 1997 hotel bombings in which Posada denies involvement. Álvarez testified that he heard his employees discussing how Posada could send explosives to Cuba, the Miami Herald reports. Álvarez is an important witness for the prosecution because his testimony signifies the first time that the jury will hear a direct association between Posada and the smuggling of explosives.

The prosecution experienced a setback when Judge Kathleen Cardone ruled that a fax they had planned to present as evidence could not be admitted in court, José Pertierra reports. The fax, signed by Posada under one of his aliases, directs two of Álvarez’s employees to give him detailed information about one of the hotels that was bombed in order to confirm details and ensure U.S. press coverage. The fax also informs them of payments they would receive, wired from New Jersey. Cardone denied the admittance of the fax, siding with an argument from the defense that the document could not be directly connected to Posada.

Documentary aired on Cuban television exposes U.S. “cyber war” against Cuba

A documentary has aired on Cuban television outlining efforts by the U.S. to provide clandestine satellite and other Internet equipment to Cuban dissidents, CubaDebate reports. The episode, titled “Truths and Principles,” from the TV series Cuba’s Reasons, detailed the work of undercover intelligence agent Dalexi González Madruga, recruited by the CIA for a clandestine project. Madruga demonstrates how satellites were smuggled into Cuba disguised as surfboards.

While the types of activity exposed in the documentary are similar to those for which Alan Gross was tried in a Cuban court last weekend, Gross himself was not mentioned.

A more detailed account of Madruga’s actions is available from Juventud Rebelde. The episode itself is available, with English subtitles, in two parts here and here.

Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama honor dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez

At this year’s International Women of Courage awards, held on International Women’s Day (March 8th) and hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with special guest First Lady Michelle Obama, Clinton recognized Yoani Sánchez for her work through her blog, Generation Y, according to a State Department press release.

Hunger striker’s family receives exit visas to the U.S.

Thirteen family members of former political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo have been granted exit visas to travel to the U.S. by the Cuban government, AFP reports.  Zapata Tamayo died last year after a nearly three-month hunger strike.  According to Zapata Tamayo’s mother, Reina Tamayo, she received the visas last Sunday, and she is waiting for her son’s remains to be exhumed so that she can cremate and take them with her to the U.S.  Cuba’s government negotiated the exhumation of Zapata Tamayo’s remains and the relocation of his family through the Catholic Church last year.

Workshop this month will focus on trends in U.S.-Cuba agricultural trade

A workshop co-sponsored by the Texas-Cuba Trade Alliance, the Greater Houston Partnership, AgriLife Extension and the International Transportation Management Association will be held March 31st in Houston, Texas to discuss trends in U.S.-Cuba agricultural trade, among other issues, Texas AgriLife Extension reports.

Parr Rosson, Professor and Extension Economist in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M University, believes that discussion of Cuba will be important at the workshop because “many may not know that it’s now legal to export food, agricultural goods, lumber and medical products to Cuba. This workshop will present a broad view on how to do business with Cuba, new U.S. travel policy and what sectors are experiencing export growth.”

IN CUBA

More prisoner releases announced, including Oscar Biscet

Ten prisoners, including Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet Gonzalez, a prominent political dissident, and nine others jailed for violent crimes, will be released by Cuba’s government, reported AFP and other news agencies.

The office of Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, made the announcement of Biscet’s upcoming release by e-mail. In another e-mail, he announced the release of another nine prisoners, the Miami Herald reported.

Biscet, the only one of the ten who was arrested in the Spring 2003 crackdown on dissidents, will remain in Cuba. The other nine were originally convicted on weapons, terror, hijacking and other state security crimes and have accepted exile in Spain, according to AFP. Biscet, a doctor who has been serving a 25-year sentence for alleged activities against state security, is the president of the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights.

Thursday’s news means that at least 80 political prisoners will have been released in recent months, with most of them going to live in Spain, CNN said. Upon Biscet’s release, there will be just three dissidents still in prison of the original group of 52 who were scheduled for release through negotiations early last year.

UN reiterates request to visit Cuban prisons

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juán Méndez, repeated this week a request to visit prisons in Cuba, AFP reports. Méndez stated that invitations had been issued to Cuba but a date had not been set for the visit to take place, adding, “I am waiting for an answer from Cuba… I’m interested in the state of their prisons, where conditions may end up constituting cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, and I don’t dismiss the possibility that a prisoner could plausibly denounce that they have been tortured.”

More than 113,00 Cubans receive licenses to form private businesses

At the close of January 2011, four months after reforms in the self-employment sector were announced, 113,618 Cubans had received licenses to operate private businesses, bringing the total number of self-employed workers on the island to 157,371, EFE reports.

Of these newly-licensed workers, 68% of them had no previous formal employment. According to Idalmys Álvarez, Employment Director of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, some 20% of these licenses were granted to people interested in food sales, with the other most popular categories being the contracting of workers, and passenger and cargo transportation. The contracting of workers is allowed in 83 of the 124 categories for non-state business outlined in the reforms, according to Juventud Rebelde. “As a result of the new measures in effect since the end of last year there are 157,371 self-employed workers in the country, a number that will soon double,” Juventud Rebelde reports.

Late this week, state newspaper Granma ran a piece reminding the newly self-employed that they must observe zoning and esthetics laws in order to sell food and other goods on the street.  The zoning laws to which the article refers range from the legal use of space and materials to the proper and allowable form of advertising signs.

Production of refined oil fell 3.5% in 2010

Cuba’s production of refined oil products fell 3.5% last year, Reuters reports. This decrease comes as plans to grow the refining industry have moved slowly. Plans include Cuba’s first off-shore drilling project, planned for this year, an upgrade of Santiago’s refinery, and potentially a new refinery in Matanzas. Plans are also in the works, with Chinese partners, to increase the capacity of a Cienfuegos refinery.  And there has been talk of a potential new refinery to be built in western Matanzas with Russian collaboration.

As reports of Cuba’s decreased oil production surfaced, state oil company Cuba Petroleo (Cupet) urged citizens to conserve energy, Xiinhua News reports. According to an article from TV Camaguey, farmers in Camaguey province pride themselves on having saved the government $848,000 last year by using oxen to pull plows rather than machines that require high levels of gas.

In other oil-production news, Brazilian oil company Petrobras announced this week that it will pull out of its 2008 lease of an off-shore oil exploration block in Cuba’s waters, Reuters reports. Marco Aurelio Garcia, Brazil’s Foreign Policy Advisor to President Dilma Rousseff, stated Petrobras’ reasoning: “(T)he truth is you have to work with tangible elements and there wasn’t any security of that in this block.” Cuba has about 5 billion barrels of undiscovered oil offshore according to estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey.

For more about Cuba’s plans to drill offshore, visit our website here.

Through economic reforms, private farmers increase rice production

Privately operating rice farmers have more than doubled production in Cuba’s largest rice-producing province, Reuters reports. Vice President of Economic Affairs Raúl López stated, “About three years ago, [the province of] Granma had an output of 17,000 tons of rice; last year we reached 27,000 tons, and in 2011 we expect to produce 62,000 tons.”

As a part of agriculture reform, Raúl Castro put idle land into the hands of private farmers and cooperatives, increased the price that the government (which buys 90% of the harvest) pays for rice and some other crops, and decentralized decision-making in the agricultural sector.

Nationwide rice production last year fell more than 12% from 281,100 tons in 2009 (a 50% increase from 2008) to 247,000 tons in 2010. López stated that this year, farmers have received necessary equipment and resources, but still face limitations in drying and hulling crops.

Che’s motorcycle companion dies in Havana

Alberto Granado, whose travels with Ernesto “Che” Guevara were immortalized in Che’s Diarios de Motocicleta and its more recent film adaptation, Motorcycle Diaries, passed away March 5th in Havana, the Washington Post reports. Granado, a biochemist, and Guevara, one semester short of finishing medical school, travelled across South America in 1952 on a voyage that would inspire Guevara’s political awakening. The two witnessed the poverty and exploitation of the working class, visiting an American-owned copper mine in Chile and later volunteering at a Peruvian leper colony. After the trip ended in Caracas, Granado remained in Venezuela, where he married and had children. He moved with his family to Havana in 1961.

The neighborhood of Pogolotti celebrates 100 years

Pogolotti, Cuba’s first working class neighborhood, celebrated its centennial this week, Juventud Rebelde reports. Celebrations focused on the recognition of the neighborhood’s Afro-Cuban population, in conjunction with the UN’s declaration of 2011 as the International Year of the Afro-Descendant. 80% of Pogolotti’s residents belong to the working class. The neighborhood was once considered marginal, but in recent years residents have taken greater ownership and advocated for better living conditions, according to Noemí Reyes, the director of the community organization Workshop for Transforming the Neighborhood.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba and El Salvador commence trade talks

A Salvadoran delegation, lead by the Director of Foreign Commerce Carlos Moreno and Sub Director Alma Sonia Nuila traveled to Havana this week to discuss a bilateral trade agreement with Cuba, AFP reports. Trade negotiations do not, according to an official press release, seek to establish a free trade area between the two countries. According to a government source, the negotiations focus on the exchange of technology between Cuba and El Salvador, Prensa Latina reports. The first results are expected to be announced after another two rounds of trade talks.

Cuba supports Brazilian over Spanish candidate for the UN’s FAO director

After a visit to Cuba by former Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos in an effort to promote his bid as director general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Cuba’s government chose instead to support the Brazilian candidate, José Graziano da Silva, ABC reports. Elections will take place from June 26th to July 3rd at an assembly in Rome, Radio Nacional de Venezuela reports.

During his tenure as Spain’s Foreign Minister, Moratinos actively worked to improve relations between Cuba and the EU, advocating for a change in the EU’s Common Position which limits diplomatic relations with Cuba, and additionally aiding in the process of negotiations between Cuba, Spain and the Catholic Church for the release of political prisoners.

Da Silva is Moratinos’ closest rival in the bid for the FAO Director General position.

Around the Region:

Honduras: human rights and a drug bust

The Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras (COFADEH) published an urgent message late this week expressing its concern about the situation faced by Trinidad Sánchez Argueta, a human rights defender and Executive Director of the Network for Alternative Community Trade.  Their concern comes “in light of the pattern of systemic attacks against human rights defenders and social activists, particularly with respect to serious incidents registered in the last few months of home invasions, criminal attacks, and illegal entry into offices of human rights organizations.”

Meanwhile, Honduras is creating an investigative unit and task force to tackle hate crimes against LGBT people, women, youth, and journalists, Bay Windows reports. The government ministers of human rights and public security will be directly involved in the undertaking, which will utilize 150 researchers. Officials estimate that Honduras has seen 200 anti-LGBT killings in the past five years. In January, the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa urged the Honduran government to “vigorously investigate” five murders of LGBT people that took place since Dec. 18, 2010.

And in other Honduras news, the BBC and the New York Times reported this week on the discovery of the first major cocaine processing plant in Honduras. Honduran officials say it’s the latest sign of Mexican cartel presence in Central America. “The lab was found Wednesday on a remote coffee farm in the mountains 100 miles north of Tegucigalpa after a six-month investigation with the assistance of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency,” said Oscar Álvarez, the security minister. Reports say the lab had the capacity to produce approximately one ton of cocaine per month. It appears to have been operational for the last two or three years. No arrests have been made.

Venezuela and China Deepen Trade Ties

Economic relations between Venezuela and China have spiked since President Hugo Chávez took power in 1999, PressTV reports. In April 2010, Venezuela obtained $20 billion from China to finance several energy, agriculture and technology projects, and Venezuela is repaying the 10-year loan with 200,000 barrels of oil per day. The cooperation involves several areas.  Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA, and China’s National Petroleum Corp have signed a $16.3 billion deal to increase oil exports up to 1 million barrels a day by 2012. Moreover, China may approve an $8.7 billion refining venture between PetroChina Co. and PDVSA this year, according to Bloomberg.

Energy is not the only area covered by the new agreements. Just last week the Venezuelan Ministry for Agriculture and Land Chinese State Farm Business Trade Group signed an agreement to form a joint venture food company, Venezuelanalysis reports.

Congress ratifies information access law in El Salvador

El Salvador’s Congress recently ratified the Public Information Access Law that will take effect 30 days after its official publication. However, citizens will have to wait one year before soliciting public information from state agencies, according to EFE. The law was approved after changes proposed by President Mauricio Funes were included, among them exceptions to access information that affects national security or national interests.

Recommended Reading:

Chef with a dream bets on Castro’s hunger for reform, The Independent

“Enrique Nuñez tells the story of the traveler given sustenance by a poor farmer who lives on the milk of a single cow. He shows his gratitude by killing the animal. When he returns a year later the farmer is rich. “It forced him to put his pastures to new uses,” says Mr. Nuñez. In Cuba, it is time to kill the cow, too.”

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