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

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.

IN CUBA

Cuba’s government releases final two prisoners from 2003 crackdown

Cuba’s government released the two remaining prisoners of the 75 dissidents arrested in a March 2003 crackdown; their release was made possible last year in negotiations between the governments of Cuba and Spain and the Cuban Catholic Church, BBC reports. Dissidents Félix Navarro and José Ferrer were released this Wednesday. Both have stated their intent to remain on the island.

This release marks the end of a process that began last July; since then, prisoners have been released gradually, with many sent into exile to Spain as a condition for their release. More recently, dissidents covered by the agreement refused to leave the island, and have been allowed to stay in Cuba. Café Fuerte has a list of all who have been released, along with their destinations.

Reacting to the news, Amnesty International released a statement, proclaimed that it marked a “step in the right direction for human rights in Cuba,” but added:

What we want to see now is for the Cuban authorities not to force activists into exile as a condition for their release and to ensure all human rights activists are able to carry out their legitimate work without fear of threats, harassment, further arrests or unfair trials in their own country.

The U.S. State Department said it welcomed the release of the prisoners, but said that human rights conditions in Cuba remain “poor.”

For its part, the Catholic Church intends to continue its dialogue with the government, as Orlando Márquez, spokesperson for Cardinal Jaime Ortega confirmed in a statement to AFP. The Church’s humanitarian work and public profile have increased in recent years. Cardinal Ortega has also communicated support for the current process of economic reform.

Cuba’s government will produce more bread to meet demands of small businesses

Due to higher demand from newly licensed food vendors, Cuba’s government will begin producing more bread, EFE reports. A state owned bread supplier has reported that its own production has risen from 25 tons of bread per day in 2010 to 33 tons today, and more growth is expected.

The surge in demand is directly linked to economic reforms.  As EFE reports, “In Havana alone it is estimated that more than 9,700 people now operate private cafeterias and restaurants since the government expanded the scope for self-employment and small business.” The government is responding by increasing production, ensuring necessary resources and seeking better technology.

Cuba’s government offers microcredit for new farmers

Cuba’s bank and agricultural sectors are now offering microcredit to new farmers renting idle land from the state, El Universal reports. The land distribution program and the decision to provide microcredit stem from the process of agricultural reform initiated by President Raúl Castro in 2008. Loans are given with 3% interest for the first two years, 5% for the next three years, and 7% after that.

According to Radio Rebelde, more than 300 farmers who received previously unused land have received the microcredits. According to bank sources, microcredits are available throughout the island, but many new farmers are not aware that they are eligible to apply for funds. According to Ruperto Arias Radu, Vice President of the Administrative Council, the microloans are directed to provide farmers with the resources necessary to make their newly acquired land productive.

Telecommunication operations will remain in the hands of the state

After an Italian telecommunications company sold its holdings in Cuba’s telecommunications firm back to the state early this year, there was some speculation that the government would seek new foreign investors. This week, José Luis Rodríguez, former Minister of Finances and Budgeting, stated:

It is important that the state have control over telecommunications, because of all of the implications of that sector – not only for telephonic communication and Internet, but all forms of communication are vital for the country, apart from being very profitable.

The ex-Minister’s comments were made this week during a trip to Mexico City, at a conference at the Cuban Embassy about the economic changes currently taking place on the island.

A report on telecommunications in Cuba by Business Wire notes low levels of telephone and Internet connectivity, as well as an increase in mobile subscriber growth. The report also acknowledges potential changes and liberalizations with the economic reform process.

Stepped down – or into controversy?  Fidel Castro resigned from party post

This week, in a discursive opinion column that covered radioactivity in Japan, the war in Libya, and President Obama’s trip to South America, Cuba’s former president Fidel Castro “mentioned” that he resigned as head of Cuba’s Communist Party when he became ill in 2006.

This was news to close Cuba watchers on the island and elsewhere.  As AP reported, “No Cuban official has ever sought to clarify that the revolutionary icon no longer held the top Communist Party spot, and the party website still lists him as first secretary.”

When reporters seized on this revelation, as NPR notes, former President Castro “took to the pages of the communist newspaper Granma,” writing “he was so engrossed with the situation in Libya and Barack Obama’s role in it, that he didn’t realize the gravity of his comments.”

The Miami Herald reports that Castro’s column Tuesday sparked commentaries that he was trying to bolster his brother’s standing in advance of a crucial Communist Party Congress, the first since 1997, scheduled for next month.

Fidel’s brother and current President Raúl Castro is thought to be the de facto Secretary, with many assuming that he will officially assume the post at the Party Congress.

Former government minister, Chilean businessman tried on corruption charges

Cuba’s government tried former Minister of Food Industry Alejandro Roca Iglesias and Chilean businessman Max Marambio Rodríguez this week on charges of bribery, embezzlement and fraud, EFE reports. Cuba’s government and Marambio were equal partners in the food supply firm Rio Zaza Cuba’s government seeks a 15 year sentence for Roca, dismissed from his position as minister in 2009. Government prosecutors sought a 20-year sentence for Marambio, who resides in Santiago, Chile and was tried in absentia.  Marambio was once a good friend of Fidel Castro, and completed revolutionary training in Cuba before returning to Chile and serving as a bodyguard for President Salvador Allende.

Gay clubs gain unofficial acceptance in Havana

Some venues and weekly events have recently been established as destinations for Havana’s gay community, EFE reports. These new spaces are replacing the clandestine, word-of-mouth parties that the community was previously limited to. Six months ago, the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX) and the Ministry of Culture designated an old Cabaret venue, “Las Vegas,” for a weekly drag show. Various other spaces have also been designated as friendly and accepting to the gay community.

These small steps forward could show some progress resulting from efforts taken by CENESEX under the leadership of Mariela Castro, President Raúl Castro’s daughter, to combat homophobia and advocate for gay rights.  The director of another hub for the gay community, Café Cantante Mi Habana, stated that this development has forced a “change in the mentality of the entire staff.” One patron stated: “In these new places, you don’t have to hide or be afraid that the police will come,” adding that “the waiters and security have behaved very well despite the fact that all around them something is happening that is not at all common in Cuba – there are men dancing with men.”

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba’s government condemns intervention in Libya

Following the announcement of military intervention against Qaddafi’s forces in Libya, Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement condemning the decision to intervene, published in state newspaper Granma and available in English here. The statement claims that the attacks are a violation of international law, and supports “the inalienable right of the Libyan people to exercise their self-determination without any foreign interference” in addition to condemning civilian deaths.

The member countries of ALBA also came together to condemn the intervention this week, AP reports. At the Third Conference of ALBA Ministers in La Paz, Bolivia, Cuba’s Ambassador in Bolivia stated “The Committee of Social Ministers of ALBA expressed its complete rejection and condemnation of the imperialist military intervention against the Libyan people; it comes with the intention of appropriating natural resources.” Bolivian President Evo Morales also condemned the intervention in his opening statement for the conference.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Obama mentions advances in Cuba but requests “meaningful actions”

During his trip to Latin America this week, and upon return to the United States, President Barack Obama made several statements regarding Cuba’s government and the future of U.S.-Cuba policy. In his speech in Santiago, Chile Obama lay out the steps that his administration has made to ease travel and remittance restrictions. He then demanded more action from Cuba, stating:

Going forward, we’ll continue to seek ways to increase the independence of the Cuban people, who I believe are entitled to the same freedom and liberty as everyone else in this hemisphere.  I will make this effort to try to break out of this history that’s now lasted for longer than I’ve been alive.

But Cuban authorities must take some meaningful actions to respect the basic rights of their own people — not because the United States insists upon it, but because the people of Cuba deserve it, no less than the people of the United States or Chile or Brazil or any other country deserve it.

During his visit to the region, Obama echoed many of the same sentiments in an interview with the Miami Herald, saying the U.S. expects Cuba’s government to take “meaningful actions. … The Cuban government made some gestures about releasing political prisoners and starting some market-based economies with small business opportunities. (But) we haven’t seen as much follow-through as we would like.”

Rep. John Yarmuth returns from Cuba, calls for normalized relations

This week, the Center for Democracy in the Americas led a delegation to Cuba comprised of three Members of Congress – Steve Cohen (TN), Donna Edwards (MD) and John Yarmuth (KY) – along with Michael Ettlinger and Adam Hersh from the Center for American Progress.  In Cuba, the delegation had the opportunity to meet with Cuban ministers, officials at the U.S. Interests Section, Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega, artists, farmers, and newly self-employed Cubans. Over the four-day trip, delegation members witnessed firsthand the process of economic reform that is taking place leading up to this April’s Communist Party Congress.

Upon return to the U.S., Rep. Yarmuth gave an interview to the Louisville Courier-Journal in which he called for a normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba.  In the interview, the Congressman states: “Nobody is winning from our policy there. We aren’t winning and they aren’t winning. There’s no question it’s time to normalize relations.”  He added that “a gradual lifting of economic sanctions would help improve the economic situation of the Cuban people.”

U.S. continues to defend Alan Gross, more information revealed about the trial

In statements this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the actions of Alan Gross in Spanish language media, the Miami Herald reports. In an interview with Telemundo, she alleged that his actions were “not in any way criminal, in our point of view.” Later, in an interview with Univision, Clinton stated: “He should not have been brought before a court and charged with crimes that he did not commit.” The U.S. has continued to condemn Gross’ 15-year sentence.

More information about the trial has come out of Cuba this week. An article in Progreso Weekly provides some details about Gross’ defense, stating their strategy was to present Gross as a victim of his employer, Development Alternatives, Inc.  The defense also made an argument to reduce his charges to less serious infractions that they argued were equally applicable to his work in Cuba. Arboleya predicts that these arguments are strong enough to take the case to Cuba’s Supreme Court.

Journalist finishes testimony, prosecution rests its case in Posada trial

Journalist Anne Louise Bardach, who finished her testimony this week, was the prosecution’s last witness in the case of Luis Posada Carriles, AP reports.

During Bardach’s testimony, the jury continued to hear tapes from her 1998 interview of Posada. At one point in the interview, Posada stated that it had taken him about one month to assemble the bombs used in the string of attacks on Havana hotels, the Miami Herald reports. In his cross-examination, defense attorney Arturo Hernández attempted to portray Bardach as a supporter of Cuba’s government, and implied that she had deliberately erased a segment of her recording, the New York Times reports. Bardach, however, stood by her article, insisting that Posada had wanted the publicity, was aware that he was being recorded, and deliberately made statements assuming responsibility for orchestrating the attacks.

The defense’s first witness was a forensic audio expert who testified that there were some over-recordings in the tapes of Bardach’s interview that were presented into evidence, the Miami Herald reports.  The defense then called to the stand former U.S. diplomat Otto Reich, who has served in various positions under the Reagan, Bush, and W. Bush administrations, AP reports. The defense is expected to use Reich’s testimony to show Bardach’s alleged bias.

Cuba’s search for oil, U.S. legislator’s move to block Cuba from drilling

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, attended a briefing by the Coast Guard this week on the subject of Cuban oil exploration.  Ros-Lehtinen is planning to re-introduce legislation, The Coral Reef Protection Act, which would place sanctions on foreign companies doing business with Cuba’s oil sector, Havana Times reports.

Two weeks ago, we reported that Brazilian oil giant Petrobras had backed out of its 2008 lease of an off-shore exploration block off of Cuba’s coast. This week, energy expert Jorge Piñon published a piece in the Cuba Standard, arguing that:

The recent departure by Petrobras from Cuba should not be taken as a final verdict on Cuba’s oil and gas potential, or as a signal on possible strained political relations between the governments of Cuba and Brazil.

It was simply an economic and strategic decision by Petrobras, following their long term-vision of focusing resources on developing its recently found 10 billion barrels of deepwater offshore oil and natural gas at the Santos and Campos basins, along the Atlantic coast. As Petrobras CFO Almhir Guilherme Barbassa recently stated in a Forbes interview: “…Petrobras has more to gain from organically growing its position in Brazil than going abroad to expand production.”

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

One of the Cuban Five files for an appeal, lawyer Leonard Weinglass passes away

Gerardo Hernández, one of five Cuban counter-intelligence agents convicted of spying on behalf of Cuba’s government in the U.S., has filed an appeal asking that his life sentence be thrown out, the AP reports. Hernández is the only of the five to be convicted of murder conspiracy charges related to the Cuban shoot-down of two planes run by the exile group Brothers to the Rescue in 1996, resulting in the death of four men.

In his affidavit, Hernández states that he was never made aware that he was being singled out to be charged with murder conspiracy, and that had he been aware of this, he would have exercised his right to testify in his own defense. Hernández insists that he was not aware of a Cuban plan to shoot down the planes, and that his operation was only part of a plan to call attention to violations of Cuban sovereignty, adding, “The idea that Cuba would elaborate a plan to confront those planes on international waters was to me, and still is, absurd and irrational.”

In related news, Leonard Weinglass, an activist lawyer who represented the so-called Cuban Five and several other high profile cases such as those of the Chicago Seven and Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, passed away in New York this week, AFP reports. He was 78 years old.  A statement from Hernández regarding his legacy is available here.

Around the Region:

Obama ends Latin America trip a few hours early to focus on Libya

President Obama ended his first tour to Latin America earlier than originally scheduled, conducting a National Security Council meeting from El Salvador before leaving the country, CNN reported.   Military action in Libya hung over the president’s visit to the region.

Obama’s trip lasted five days and took him to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador for the first time during his presidency. In Brazil, there was no direct U.S. endorsement of the country’s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, according to the BBC. During his visit, Obama praised Brazil’s transition to democracy, stating that “those who argue that democracy stands in the way of economic progress must contend with the example of Brazil.” He also reinforced the idea of equality between nations within the region, already expressed on previous occasions, affirming: “Let us stand together not as senior and junior partners but as equal partners.”

In Chile, Obama praised the country’s economic and political development, MSNBC reports. “At a time when people around the world are reaching for their freedoms, Chile shows that, yes, it is possible to transition from dictatorship to democracy, and to do so peacefully,” said Obama. He was pressured by reporters about ongoing investigations into Chile’s past, as protesters in Santiago demanded that Obama apologize to the Chilean people for U.S. interventions before and during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. “It’s important for us to learn from our history, to understand our history, but not be trapped by it,” Obama responded.

In El Salvador, his first presidential visit to Central America, Obama promised funds for crime-fighting initiatives and vowed to push the U.S. Congress to pass immigration reform. He did not specifically mention the controversial topic of permanent residency for Salvadorans currently in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status.  Mr. Obama stood with El Salvador’s president Mauricio Funes in a joint news conference, where he commended his Salvadoran counterpart for overcoming “old divisions” and demonstrating that “progress comes through pragmatism and building consensus,” according to the Washington Times.

There have been mixed analyses about the success of President Obama’s Latin America tour. While Americas Quarterly highlighted Obama’s attention to Brazil’s top priorities (energy and trade expansion), the article also reported that on the Chilean leg of the trip, Mr. Obama failed to present concrete proposals to strengthen the bilateral relationship. On the other hand, Democracy Now pointed out the numerous protests Obama faced in all three countries, including in El Salvador where demonstrators demanded the renegotiation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

For CDA’s views on Obama’s visit to El Salvador, see this video interview with Sarah Stephens and this op-ed column by Linda Garrett.

Organizations request information from U.S. about Honduras coup

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Honduran Commission of Truth have submitted requests for documents and records relating to the 2009 Honduras coup under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

At a press conference in Washington, D.C., they called on the U.S. administration to cooperate with this effort as part of the larger campaign for truth and reconciliation within Honduras. Initial FOIA requests have been unanswered, denied or heavily redacted, representatives said.

Thomas Loudon, Executive Secretary of the Commission of Truth in Honduras, which was established by the Platform for Human Rights, said that “information about the role that various U.S. interests, actors, or agencies may have played in these events is essential to complete the picture, to fully understand how and why this rupture happened, to ensure accountability for the coup and ongoing human rights violations stemming from it.”

Recommended Reading:

Leonard Weinglass, The New York Times

In an obituary that might have delighted him, Leonard Weinglass is remembered by the New York Times as a defender of “Renegades and the Notorious.”   The President of Cuba’s National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcón, also remembered the attorney for Gerardo Hernández and Antonio Guerrero in a letter “For Lenny,” Cuban News Agency reports.

A Final Word: Really?

Only in the Herald.  After eleven weeks and 23 witnesses, the U.S. government rested its case against Luis Posada Carriles.  The final witness in the immigration fraud and perjury case against the former CIA agent was Ann Louise Bardach, a journalist who interviewed Posada and preserved tape recordings of the anti-Castro militant.  She wrote a dozen years ago that he “proudly admitted authorship” of the Havana hotel bombings that ended the life of an Italian businessman.  Posada later denied the connection in an interview with U.S. government agents after he entered the United States in 2005.

How did the Miami Herald headline their Posada story?  “The star prosecution witness in Posada case ends long testimony, sticks to story.”  She stuck to her story?   Really?

On Cuba, Obama sticks to his talking points.  In October 2010, on the eve of elections in the U.S., President Obama said this about Cuba:  “ I think that any release of political prisoners, any economic liberalization that takes place in Cuba is positive, positive for Cuban people, but we have not seen the full results of these promises.”

Five months later, President Obama told the Miami Herald, “We have expanded remittances, we expanded travel, we have sent a strong signal to the Cuban people. … The Cuban government has made some gestures about releasing political prisoners and starting some market-based economies with small business opportunities. [But] we haven’t seen as much follow through as we would like.”

Really?  So now that all 52 prisoners covered by Cuba’s agreement with the Catholic Church last July have been released, now that more than 75,000 licenses for small business opportunities have been granted to Cuba’s private citizens, and Cuba’s government is pursuing layoffs from state payrolls amounting to more than 10% of the workforce, what does constitute follow-through?

That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.  Really.

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

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