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

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…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Alan Gross sentenced to 15 years; critics demand release while others urge changes in USAID’s Cuba programs

Last weekend, following a two-day trial, Cuba’s government announced a guilty verdict accompanied by a 15-year sentence for U.S. contractor Alan Gross, Reuters reports. Gross was convicted for “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state.”  He brought highly regulated satellite and Internet equipment into Cuba, after entering on a series of tourist visas, while under a contract from Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI).  The company was hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) with Cuba program funds.

The verdict and sentence were met with widespread condemnation in the U.S.  The U.S. State Department released a statement deploring the sentence and urging that Gross be sent home immediately. The Miami Herald published an editorial condemning the sentence and labeling it “blackmail.”  Meanwhile, an article in The Economist reiterates the speculation that Cuba’s government may release Gross as a humanitarian gesture.

The verdict also inspired debate in the U.S. and Cuba about the controversial “democracy promotion” programs that the U.S. funds in Cuba through USAID.  Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute, in an op-ed piece titled “U.S.-Cuba policy needs dose of common sense,” states:

It is unclear how anyone involved weighed the risks — to Gross himself working on a tourist visa or to his Cuban beneficiaries who, perhaps unwittingly, were linking to a U.S. government program explicitly designed to overturn their government. USAID’s idea seems to be that everyone takes their own risks, and if something goes wrong, then blame Havana for blocking free Internet.

Lilia Lopez, in The Havana Note, argues that USAID’s strategy of regime change has been a “failure” and advocates for “re-structur[ing] USAID’s Cuba democracy promotion efforts to ensure they are effective without compromising the interests of both the Cuban and American people.”

USAID efforts have also received increased criticism within Cuba this week. Another installment of a series titled “Cuba’s Reasons” on state television documented the recruitment by the U.S. Interests Section of a leader at a cultural center. Cuba’s Minister of Culture Abel Prieto made parallel statements denouncing Washington’s “sinister plot” to create instability on the island under the guise of cultural exchange programs,AFP reports.

An article in the Miami Herald this week claims that illegal satellite phones, similar to equipment allegedly brought to Cuba by Alan Gross, are being smuggled in on a regular basis by exiles. The Herald reports that one Miami resident sells these phones for about $3,500 up front and $50 per month. Two industry experts separately estimate the number of satellite phones on the island to be either “dozens” or “between 60 and 70.”

Jury hears tapes of Posada Carriles admitting to orchestrating 1997 hotel bombings

This week, journalist Ann Louise Bardach, a key witness for U.S. prosecutors in the trial of Luis Posada Carriles, took the stand, the Miami Heraldreports. Bardach conducted a series of interviews with Posada in 1998 on the island of Aruba, the results of which she later published in a series of New York Times articles. In these interviews, parts of which were recorded on tape with the permission of Posada, the anti-Castro militant admits to orchestrating a 1997 string of hotel bombings in Cuba, one resulting in the death of Italian businessman Fabio di Celmo, the New York Times reports.

In selections from the taped interviews played for the jury, Posada expresses no remorse for his actions, defending his use of violence against the “tyrannic” regime.  Also presented as evidence were several notes that Posada gave to Bardach at the end of the interviews, one of which again justifies the use of “violence and any means necessary” against Cuba’s government. Bardach testified that she believed Posada viewed his actions as “heroic,” AP reports.

Separately, the New York Times reported a victory for the prosecution, when Judge Kathleen Cardone ruled that a secret fax, linking Posada to the bombings, could now be shown to jurors, because the Bardach testimony, her interview and a recording of Posada made the fax admissible.

José Pertierra, covering the Posada trial, provides more detail into Bardach’s testimony in CubaDebate (in Spanish). Bardach has so far only been questioned by the prosecution.

ACLU takes Florida’s ban on university travel to Cuba to the Supreme Court

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a Florida law that prohibits public universities from using funds for research and travel to Cuba, the Daily Business Review reports. The state law in question bans public universities from spending money on travel and research in countries that are listed by the U.S. State Department as state sponsors of terrorism, a list that includes Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria.

Howard Simon, executive director of Florida’s ACLU, stated, “This law allows Florida to be the only state in the country with its own foreign policy which runs over, above and contrary to the foreign policy of the United States.”  The official petition alleges that the law “meddles with foreign commerce by imposing restrictions on commerce with certain foreign nations that exceed the restrictions already imposed by federal law.” In the case, the ACLU is representing faculty from Florida International University and other professors.

In January 2011, President Obama issued a directive that lifts “tough restrictions” imposed by President Bush on academic and other forms of travel to the island.

Relatedly, the Atlanta Journal Constitution published this letter, by Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, about the threat to expanded travel posed by opponents of engagement with Cuba.

Former Senator adds voice to those calling for energy cooperation in the Gulf

Former Senator Bob Graham of Florida spoke to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public works urging U.S.-Cuba cooperation in oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

In his presentation, Graham stated that the proximity of Cuba’s planned oil drilling ventures necessitates relations between concerned parties. He additionally believes that Mexico could play an important role in mediating relations, and advocates for a pact between the three nations to establish safety standards and a disaster response system in the Gulf.

Graham will visit Mexico at the beginning of April to make his case for cooperation, and has stated that he hopes to visit Cuba as well. Members of the Senate committee who heard Graham’s presentation have indicated that they want to carry out some of his recommendations.

Graham served as co-chair of The National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.  Its report recommended trilateral cooperation among Cuba, Mexico, and the U.S. to protect the Gulf environment

The Center for Democracy in the Americas, which published this report on Cuba’s plans to drill in the Gulf and the implications for U.S. policy, had an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on this subject this week.

WikiLeaks: How the U.S. viewed Costa Rica’s plan to normalize relations with Cuba

A newly-released batch of WikiLeaks cables reveals U.S. intelligence and stances as Costa Rica moved toward reopening relations with Cuba, Americas Quarterly reports. A 2006 cable communicated a positive outlook after a meeting between U.S. officials and Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno, in which representatives urged Stagno to pressure Cuba to institute democratic reforms. The cable, written by U.S. Ambassador Mark Langdale, notes that while Stagno raised some questions about the embargo, the U.S. perceived Costa Rica as one of the most “forward-leaning” countries in the region and saw them as a leader in promoting U.S. efforts toward reform in Cuba.

The tone seems to have shifted by the summer of 2008, however, as Costa Rica’s President Oscar Arias moved toward reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. In a cable titled Costa Rica Cozying Up to Cuba? U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Peter Brennan commented on buzz surrounding the subject. He stated that reestablishing relations might be just the move Arias was looking for in order to “get him back on the global stage” and “burnish his credentials with the international (and Costa Rican) intellectual left.” Arias reestablished relations in March of 2009.

The Miami Herald has a helpful summary of related cables from San José.

US stops funds destined to fight AIDS in Cuba

Approximately $4.2 million in funds destined for Cuba from the UN Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria were frozen this January by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), Cuban News Agency reports. Orlando Hernández, Cuba’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Trade and Investment, made statements this week denouncing the seizure. He alleges that the seizure of the funds is an illegal act which seriously hinders international medical cooperation. Hernández added that this move by Washington disrupts the continuity of social projects aimed at helping vulnerable groups within the Cuban population and attacks the universal nature of UN aid and programs. The UN expressed hopes that the issue can be resolved through the granting of a license from OFAC. The Fund has already applied for a license to allow for future aid donations.

IN CUBA

Cubans air grievances leading up to Party Congress, register for tax database

As Cuba nears the Communist Party conference scheduled for mid-April, millions of Cuban citizens have used thousands of meetings convened across the country to express concerns about low salaries, high prices and the cutting of state subsidies, Reuters reports.

Cuba’s government has reported that of a population of 11.2 million people, 7 million have participated in such meetings, communicating a combination of hope and apprehension in anticipation of planned economic reforms. One party representative from the province of Camagüey stated: “The discussions generated an enormous amount of information about how the people look at and understand the main problems facing the country … and this puts enormous pressure on the government to respond adequately.”

Cubans continue to take advantage of reforms that are already in place, and are integrating themselves into tax and social security databases, a requisite for managing a small business, Europa Press reports. According to the article, more than 145,000 Cubans have registered for the Social Security database. Each self-employed worker is required to contribute 25% of their monthly earnings to Social Security. If a worker defaults or pays late, he or she will be required to pay the designated amount plus a fine, and risks suspension of their license for repeated infractions.

Another result of economic reforms, specifically the government’s allowance of individuals to rent rooms and sections of their homes, is the resurgence of nidos de amor, or “love nests,” Notimex reports. These rooms, payable in national currency (as opposed to the Convertible Peso which is used by tourists), offer an opportunity for a private escape for couples available for rent by the night or by the hour – an option that is particularly attractive considering the overcrowding that arises from Cuba’s chronic shortage of housing.

Cuba’s government re-pegs Convertible Peso (CUC) to U.S. Dollar

Cuba’s government announced in state newspaper Granma that the government would return to its policy of pegging the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) to the U.S. Dollar, AP reports. This is the first time the currency has been revalued in six years.  The CUC was previously worth $1.08. The government will maintain its 10% exchange tax on the U.S. dollar, BBC reports.

Cuba currently functions under a double currency system. The CUC is used mostly in the tourism industry and for luxury goods, while most Cubans earn their salaries in the national peso (CUP). The national peso will maintain its exchange rate of 24 CUP to one CUC. In its announcement, Cuba’s government noted that with this revaluation it would now be more expensive to purchase foreign products.

Cuba releases another prominent dissident; two remain from group of 52

The Catholic Church announced this week that Cuba’s government the release another prominent dissident, AP reports. Librado Linares, was arrested in a crack-down on dissidents in March 2003, and is one of the last prisoners remaining to be released from the group of fifty-two covered by an agreement between the governments of Spain and Cuba and the Catholic Church.

Linares was released yesterday and has stated that he will remain in Cuba, AFP reports. Along with Linares, the Church announced that another nine prisoners, not listed as prisoners of conscience, would be released and would travel to Spain.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

EU will continue meeting with Cuba’s government, dissidents before making recommendations

Dialogue continued this week concerning a possible change in the EU’s Common Position, adopted in 1996, which limits diplomatic relations with Cuba.

EFE reports that Christian Leffler, Director General of the European Commission for America, traveled to Madrid this week to meet with former prisoners who have recently been released to Spain. The dissidents wrote a letter to Catherine Ashton, Head of Foreign Affairs and Security, after Ashton met with representatives of Cuba’s government last October.  Dissidents delivered a letter to Leffler in which they urge the EU not to soften its current position.

Ashton has stated that she will continue her meetings with representatives of Cuba’s government and other interested parties before releasing her recommendation, expected in the next few months, EFE reports.

Ghana and Cuba sign $74 million pact to fight Malaria

John Dramani Mahama, Vice President of Ghana, traveled to Havana this week and met with Cuba’s first Vice President of the Council of State and Ministers José Ramon Ventura, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation reports. Out of their meeting came an agreement for a $74 million Memorandum of Understanding which aims to decrease the incidence of malaria in Ghana by 80% in two years.

The agreement, signed by Ghana’s Minister of Health Joseph Yileh Chireh and the Cuban Biological and Pharmaceutical Laboratories, focuses on nationwide aerial spraying and the building of a larvicides factory that could serve as a supply hub for Western Africa.

In addition, Cuba’s government has offered to train 250 Ghanan specialists in order to increase the country’s response capacity. Minister Yileh-Chireh stated that if the program is successful, Ghana will reach the target set by the UN Millennium Development Goals of reducing infant mortality by two-thirds.

Around the Region:

Obama’s Visit to Latin America

President Obama begins his visit to Latin America this weekend, a trip that will include meetings in Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador.   The White House is casting the trip as a “mission to build job-creating opportunities for the United States and to address regional security concerns,” the APreports.

Obama will meet with recently-elected Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes.

Writing in the International Herald Tribune, Dr. Julia Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Matias Spektor, who directs the Center for International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro, discuss Brazil’s transformation, its record of poverty alleviation, the differences between U.S. and Brazilian foreign policy goals, and our competing interests, and how Obama’s visit can bridge them.
The President will sign several agreements in Chile including one that will allow for the exchange of nuclear-related information, Dow Jones reported.   The President is also expected to deliver an address spelling out his views on the region.

Also in Chile, First Lady Michelle Obama will deliver a speech that emphasizes the role that education played in her development, and will stress that “education is key to a strong economy and nothing is more important than preparing young people for a changing world and a changing work force,” according to a White House aide quoted in Politico.

Kevin Casas-Zamora, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes that President Obama’s visit to El Salvador clearly signals President Mauricio Funes “will be his interlocutor of choice in Central America. A progressive yet pragmatic leader with good relations across the region, Funes has become the embodiment of a successful political transition in a country scared by a tragic political history.”

The Obama visit is likely to focus on poverty and other problems in El Salvador that have given rise to crime and immigration, the Miami Heraldwrites.

In El Salvador, the Catholic Church awaits “a word of commitment” from Obama during his visit in pursuing the approval of immigration reform,Agenzia Fides reports. Archbishop Escobar Alas of San Salvador said that the visit is a good opportunity to ensure that a “complete immigration reform may take place during his presidency.”

Linda Garrett, CDA’s El Salvador consultant, noted in her recent update, that when President George W. Bush visited San Salvador on a 2002 Latin America tour, he stopped over for five hours and arrived on the anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero.  Obama will overnight in the country and visit the slain cleric’s tomb, a gesture celebrated by Congressman Jim McGovern in this statement, saying that the visit “pays homage to a man who was truly dedicated to truth, justice and peace, and who walked with the poor of his country.”

As a prelude to the trip, Latinobarómetro, which studies public opinion in Latin America, issued a study “The Obama Era?” summarizing its last ten years of polling on the image of the United States in Latin America.

Accelerated by the Iraq war, the U.S. image has been declining in the region.  But Latinobarómetro found several measures of improvement since President Obama’s election.  Approval ratings for the U.S. treating the region with respect and the U.S. as a positive influence in the region increased broadly.

Human Rights Watch: Prominent Honduran rights defender threatened

Human Rights Watch called on Honduran authorities this week to conduct a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into the serious threats received recently by prominent human rights defender Leo Valladares Lanza.  Valladares is Honduras’ former human rights ombudsman and the former President of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. He has been the target of intimidating phone calls, and noticed people monitoring his home and following him after he questioned the increasing power of the Honduran military since the 2009 coup.

Venezuela halts nuclear program after Japan disaster

Venezuela is suspending development of a nuclear power program following the catastrophe at a nuclear complex in Japan, President Hugo Chávez stated this week. The country was planning for a reactor to be built with Russian cooperation to produce 4,000 megawatts of energy. But Chávez said events in Japan following last Friday’s earthquake and tsunami showed the risks associated with nuclear power were too great.

Groups call for U.S. to continue aid to Latin America

In light of President Obama’s proposed 2012 budget cuts in foreign assistance programs a group of faith-based organizations, humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organizations urged Congress to keep U.S. aid programs to Latin America. In a letter sent to the U.S. Congress, the organizations argue that this aid has a significant impact on protection after natural disasters and deadly diseases and can also reduce threats stemming from drug trafficking and drug-related violence.

Aristide returns to Haiti

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, former president of Haiti, has returned to Haiti, to work on his educational foundation in the earthquake-ravaged country, the New York Times reports.

Aristide departed from South Africa, his adoptive home since his 2004 ouster, against the strong wishes of the United States, and landed in Port-au-Prince mid-morning on Friday.  According to Reuters, U.S. President Barack Obama phoned his South African counterpart, Jacob Zuma,  especially concerned about the timing of Aristide’s return, just before a decisive presidential runoff in Haiti that will determine the nation’s leadership.

Reporting on Aristides return, Josh String contributes the following in his Hemispheric Brief:  “Among those who appear to be accompanying the former president back to his native Haiti, as a private citizen, are his lawyer, Ira Kurzban, actor and activist Danny Glover, and Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman. The latter has the first photos of the Aristide family making their way home.”

Recommended Reading:

Q&A: Cuba’s Economic Changes, BBC News

An overview of some of the fundamental economic changes taking place in Cuba, and the motivations behind the changes.

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