Judging from Peter Kornbluh’s account in the The Nation of Jimmy Carter’s press conference in Cuba, the former President was typically plainspoken and able to touch virtually every base during his three-day visit to Cuba.
Carter called on President Raúl Castro to pardon Alan Gross who, he said, was “innocent of any serious threat to the Cuban people.” He also called for release of the Cuban Five, dropping Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and mentioned that U.S. and Cuban intelligence were currently cooperating in counter-terrorism efforts against Al Qaeda.
Carter met with Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Alan Gross, and a group of Cuban dissidents including blogger Yoani Sanchez and human rights advocate Elizardo Sanchez.
Carter called the trade embargo a “serious mistake,” an impediment to Cuban economic reforms, damaging to the well-being of ordinary Cubans, and urged its repeal along with an ending of the travel ban against Americans visiting Cuba.
He spent six hours with President Castro, visited former President Fidel Castro, and noted that there were “confidential matters” he would discuss with President Obama when he returned to the U.S.
We mention all of this – because of what is obvious and what it leaves unsaid and, as of yet unknown.
Human rights were as much on his agenda as reforms to U.S. policy. Carter had extraordinary freedom and access during his trip, which underscores what Cubans often tell the U.S. (even if we don’t listen); namely, treat them with respect and see what can happen. This lesson goes unheeded in the context of a policy that rarely misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity, but on the subject of Cuba, Carter “got it” as president and still “gets it” now.
Consequently, it made sense for the Cubans to invite President Carter to visit the island, but the timing is hard to figure. The Cuban government is preparing for an historic meeting of Cuba’s Communist Party Congress, which is expected to ratify the most significant changes to the country’s economic model since the 1959 Revolution. They could have sent the same message about respect to the U.S. audience that would undoubtedly track the Carter trip in later April or early May, at moments comfortably past the meeting of the Congress.
This week, we cover the Carter visit, continuing trial of Luis Posada Carriles, and news about economic reforms, human rights, and the continued clubbing of a renowned rum’s trademark.
Here now is the news…
Former President Jimmy Carter completed a three-day visit to Havana this week. His trip to the island followed on an invitation extended to him by Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, and came just weeks before Cuba convenes an historic meeting of its Communist Party Congress.
The Miami Herald reports that Carter was accompanied by his wife Rosalynn; Robert Pastor, his former National Security Council advisor for Latin America; Jennifer McCoy, the director of the Carter Center’s Americas program; and John Hardman, the Carter Center President. Jimmy Carter made history in 2002 as the first (and to date, the only) U.S. President to visit the island since Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government came to power in 1959.
Carter’s schedule: On Monday, President Carter was received at José Martí Airport by Cuban government officials including Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez. He was then brought to Havana where he met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega. In the meeting, Carter praised the positive role of Cuba’s Catholic Church in negotiations with Cuba’s government, which led to the release of remaining 52 political prisoners detained in a 2003 crackdown, reports the Miami Herald. However, when asked about his involvement in the case of jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross, Carter made it clear that it was not his intent to bring Gross back to the United States with him (and, in fact, he did not do so).
On Tuesday, President Carter met with President Raúl Castro. Their conversation lasted six hours, and the two discussed international politics, the current situation in Cuba, and the status of U.S-Cuba relations. According to Reuters, Castro “reiterated Cuba’s disposition to dialogue with the North American government over any topic, but on equal terms, without conditions and with absolute respect for our independence and sovereignty.”
On Wednesday, his last day in Cuba, Carter met with Cuban dissidents including members of the Ladies in White, Yoani Sanchez, Oswaldo Paya, and Elizardo Sanchez. The meeting took place at the Hotel Santa Isabel in Old Havana. AP reports that Yoani Sánchez, after the meeting, stated, “we can’t comment on the content. … My words were dedicated to the need for freedom of expression and free Internet access for Cubans.”
After his meeting with Cuban dissidents and human rights activists, Carter met with Alan Gross at an undisclosed location, reports Reuters. In a post-meeting press conference, Former National Security Advisor Robert Pastor said that in the meeting Gross had claimed that he did not know he was bringing equipment to Cuba from the U.S. government.
Carter then held a brief meeting with Fidel Castro. The elder Castro had only positive things to say about Carter, writing in a Reflection posted on state-run website CubaDebate:
Today, I had the pleasure of meeting with Jimmy Carter, who was President of the United States from 1977 to 1981 and the only one, in my opinion, with enough serenity and courage to take on the subject of the relations of his country with Cuba. Carter did what he could to reduce international tensions and promote the creation of Interests Sections in Cuba and the U.S. His administration was the only one that made a few steps towards easing the criminal blockade that is imposed on our people.
Pictures of the meeting between the former presidents are available here.
In a candid press conference held before his departure, Former President Carter called for the United States to end its travel ban and embargo on Cuba, release the Cuban Five, and remove Cuba from the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. He also expressed the need for greater freedoms on the island and called on Cuba’s government to release Alan Gross, stating that he did not pose a threat to the Cuban government or people.
Senator Bob Menéndez (NJ) and Rep. David Rivera (FL) both responded to Carter’s statements, criticizing him for a lack of focus on the need for civil rights and basic freedoms in Cuba, with Rivera going as far as to state that “all that is left for President Carter to do is register as a foreign agent for the Cuban government in the U.S. so he can continue to do their bidding once he leaves the captive island for a life of freedom in America.”
In a press conference following the ex-President’s departure, President Raúl Castro stated of Carter: “He acted with absolute honesty. … I think this was a good visit. He met with whomever he wished, declared – as you saw – whatever he wished,” reported the Miami Herald.
In addition to Peter Kornbluh’s insightful analysis of Carter’s comments for The Nation, another useful piece was penned by Nick Miroff for the Global Post who writes of Carter’s potential as an intermediary for Cuba to Obama and other U.S. officials.
Last week, the jury at the trial of Luis Posada Carriles heard testimony from former U.S. diplomat Otto Reich, who served in various positions in the Reagan administration and both Bush administrations.
Reich attacked the impartiality of journalist Ann Louise Bardach, alleging that she is biased toward Cuban-Americans, especially those opposing the government of Fidel Castro, the Associated Press reports.
Bardach’s testimony regarding her taped interviews with Posada in 1998, in which he admits to orchestrating the bombing of Havana hotels in 1997, was a key for the prosecution. Bardach rejected Reich’s criticism in an email response, part of which was published by the Miami Herald, stating: “Otto Reich’s mud-slinging at reporters and media is well known. His list of prominent media victims is long and storied – going back to the mid-1980s.”
Bardach’s writing on the Posada case was also defended by the New York Times Vice President for Corporate Communications, Eileen Murphy, who stated: “Otto Reich has not demonstrated any factual errors in the [Bardach] stories, nor has anyone else in the 13 years since their publication. Instead, he has launched broadside attacks that are not worthy of a response.”
Posada’s defense team continued presenting their case this week as they called Roberto Hernández del Llano to the stand, the AP reports. Hernández del Llano, a former Cuban intelligence officer, accused a previous witness, Roberto Hernández Caballero, of torture. Hernández del Llano testified that after he quit his post in Cuba’s counter-intelligence agency in 1992, he declined an offer to rejoin in 2002. He stated that he was thrown in jail three years later by Hernández Caballero and alleges that he was personally tortured by Hernández Caballero while in custody. Hernández Caballero, an investigator for Cuba’s Interior Ministry, testified for the prosecution about his investigations of the hotel bombings.
Hernández del Llano left Cuba in 2007, and has since become a public and frequently seen figure in Florida Spanish-language television, as well as a strong critic of Cuba’s government. In his testimony, he additionally alleged that Cuba’s government is on a mission to assassinate Posada Carriles, EFE reports.
The trial experienced the latest in a long list of delays as one of the jurors fell ill mid-week, AP reports. The trial resumed on Thursday as the defense called Fernándo Lardizbal to the stand. According to AP Lardizbal, a former Honduran military official, is testifying on Posada’s work on behalf of the U.S. during the Iran Contra affair of the 1980’s. He has stated that Posada trained counter revolutionaries in Nicaragua and helped staff a base in the El Salvador that was used to supply the Contras.
Bacardi won a significant legal battle in the decades-old dispute over the right to the storied Havana Club label when the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) was right to deny Cuban-owned group Cubaexports’s renewal of the trademark in 2006, Bloomberg reports. The ruling was based on a 1998 law that blocks the renewal of trademarks confiscated by Cuba’s government. Havana Club is sold internationally, except in the U.S., by Pernod SA, a French-owned company in collaboration with Cuban state-owned Cubaexport. Bacardi’s Havana Club, made in Puerto Rico, has been sold exclusively in Florida since 2006. According to Reuters, representatives of Pernod SA communicated that the company was encouraged by the dissenting opinion in the 2-1 decision and planned to seek a rehearing.
Cuba’s Minister of Economy Marino Murillo was replaced in his position by his top deputy and given the task of “supervising the implementation of measures associated with the updating of the Cuban economic model,” according to a statement read on state television, Reuters reports. Murillo has been a leader in the economic reform process; last December, he gave a presentation explaining inefficiencies and policy failures in Cuba’s economy and proposed reforms to the system. In addition to maintaining his posts as vice president in the Council of Ministers and coordinator of the Congress’ Economic Policy Commission, he will continue to “look after” the Economy Ministry, now headed by Adel Yzquierdo, as well as other “productive sectors.”
In a move intended to stimulate the agricultural sector to produce more food, Cuba’s government has authorized local banks to make micro-credits widely available to farmers, AP reports. The decision, made last week at a meeting of the Council of Ministers, is intended to facilitate the purchase of necessary tools and other supplies, especially for new farmers, Prensa Latina reports.
At the meeting, the offering of loans to self-employed workers was also approved, allowing “working capital and investments” for this newly-legalized and quickly-growing sector. At the meeting, another measure was approved allowing the self-employed to sell goods and services to state-run industries once a contract is established, the Miami Herald reports.
EFE reports that while the self-employed have commended this move, their largest demand is for wholesale markets where they can reliably buy necessary products and supplies at reduced prices. One man who recently received a private business license to open up a pizzeria, states:
Now, I do not lack more funds. Here, the problem is in the distribution of products because there is not a stocked wholesale market available to anybody. Sometimes we have to search the entire city of Havana to get anything; right now I can’t find hot sauce.
Looking at possible future changes to Cuba’s economic system, an article from the Business Insider reflects on Cuba’s potential in areas such as tourism, oil and natural gas, fishing and agriculture.
A forest fire damaged more than 1,200 acres of Cuba’s western Pinar del Río region, in the municipality of Minas de Matahambre, UPI reports. The fire began on Sunday and was largely controlled, though not completely extinguished, by Thursday. High temperatures and winds of more than 20 mph kept the fire burning. It is presumed that the fire was caused by negligence. Pinar del Río is the region with the highest forest concentration, with more than 1,500 square miles covered in trees.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
The U.K.’s Foreign Office this week released its Human Rights Report, in which it recognized that Cuba has made some progress in the status of human rights on the island, EFE reports. The report continues to include Cuba on a list of 26 countries whose situation of abuses against human rights “worries” the U.K. The document, presented by British Foreign Minister William Hague, recognizes positive steps in the release of political prisoners, currently at the lowest recorded number on the island since the 1959 Revolution. However, the Foreign Office criticized the “continued repression of dissidents and Human Rights defenders, and an increased number of short-term detentions,” adding criticisms for a lack of separation of powers and strong state control of the judicial system. The report also lauded the role of the Catholic Church in negotiating prisoner releases.
This week, the Ladies in White announced that they would continue their weekly march, despite the fact that none of the group of 75 political prisoners arrested in 2003 remain in jail, EFE reports. Laura Pollán, leader of the group, stated that the group would continue advocating for human rights and for the end of persecution for acts of free expression.
Aníbal Filártiga, Dean of the School of Medicine of the Universidad Nacional de Asunción (UNA) in Paraguay, made statements claiming that Paraguayan medical students who study in Cuba receive a “mediocre education,” Notimex reports. He added that the UNA would no longer accept degrees received at Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) at which Cuba trains doctors from around the world free of charge, EFE reports.
The Dean’s statements were rejected by both Paraguayan and Cuban officials. The Paraguayan Vice Minister of Youth, Diana García, noted that “there exist interests in certain sectors of private medicine, many who today are profiting from health care and many who graduated from the UNA, that are exerting these pressures.”
Rolando Gómez, Cuban Ambassador to Paraguay stated that results of Cuba’s medical education “speak for themselves,” adding that governments of 108 countries send students to study medicine in Cuba, considering that the high level of demand “denotes immense confidence in Cuban medicine,” Prensa Latina reports. He also recounted that this year, 150 Paraguayan students received their degrees in Medicine from ELAM, and that 18 selected medical students will leave for Cuba from Paraguay next weekend.
Also regarding Cuban doctors, an article from AP reports on doctors who defect to the U.S. from their posts at international missions through the U.S.’ Cuban Professional Medical Parole program (CMPP). These doctors have difficulties acquiring documentation to practice medicine in the U.S. because in order to process the certification, they need proof of their medical degrees from their university in Cuba. Cuba’s government is extremely critical of the CMPP, a form of illegal immigration, and refuses to cooperate.
Around the Region:
Honduran police are using tear gas and water cannons to disperse groups of protesters blocking main avenues in the capital to demand the return from exile of ousted former President Manuel Zelaya, reports the Associated Press. The protests, led by teacher associations, are entering their third week. Union leaders announced they will stay in the streets until the government exhibits a desire for dialogue. Teachers are also protesting a six-month delay in salary payments and recent reforms in the public education system.
The teachers’ union also filed a criminal case against the Lobo government for the death of assistant principal Ilse Velásquez Rodríguez, apparently killed by a tear gas bomb thrown at her face. An investigation is underway.
In the Hemispheric Brief, Joshua String says Human Rights Watch has issued a new statement demanding allegations of excessive use of force against protestors be investigated by Honduran officials. HRW cites three specific cases – among them the death of Velázquez Rodríguez on March 18.
President Lobo has threatened to fire teachers if they continue the strike. The National Front of Popular Resistance warned that the government “is trying to destroy popular organization and the gains of the people to impose an economic system that only benefits the oligarchy and multilateral companies,” according to a press statement.
Public health care workers also organized a strike this week, joined by 14,000 employees, according to AP.
In new developments, a Supreme Court judge also dismissed three arrest warrants for former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, UK Press Association reports. However, the corruption charges that produced those warrants are still in place. According to the BBC, the former president’s defense team considers those cases political and demands that they be completely dropped, so Zelaya can return to the country under no legal threats.
Chávez visits Argentina and Bolivia, reinforcing ties
President Hugo Chávez was received in Argentina by President Cristina Fernández this week, with the two heads of state signing a joint declaration and several cooperation and trade agreements, EFE reports.
During the trip, Chávez was awarded the Rodolfo Walsh prize, given by the School of Journalism and Communication of the University of La Plata” for his unquestionable and authentic commitment to strengthen the freedom of peoples,” reports El Universal.
In Bolivia, Chávez express that his goal is to “strengthen” the “Venezuela-Bolivia axis” as the “core” of the Bolivarian alliance in the region. Chávez also called for the creation of a strong area of peace within Latin America, in relation to the crisis in Libya. “Imperialism has entered an extreme phase of madness,” he said, according to AP.
Michael Voss of the BBC released a very informative video detailing Cuba’s current process of economic reform. BBC also released an accompanying article, titled “Cuba inches towards market socialism,” available here.