Our questions for Obama’s national security team plus the week’s Cuba news

This week, President Obama named CIA Director Leon Panetta to succeed Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense and General David Petraeus to run the Central Intelligence Agency assuming Panetta’s confirmation.

Politico called the selections “a series of safe, no-drama choices to ride out the remainder of his first term.”

As safe as these selections might be, we wonder if the nominees are prepared to respond plainly and truthfully to a couple of questions about Cuba.

We would encourage the Senate Armed Services and Select Intelligence Committees, in charge of the nomination hearings, to ask the following:  “Do you, Director Panetta, or you, Gen. Petraeus, believe that Cuba is a threat to U.S. national security?  If not, would you recommend changes in existing policy toward the Island?”

For years, a growing number of national security experts – including Senator Richard Lugar, former counter-terrorism “czar” Richard Clarke, and General John Adams along with a long list of other generals – have concluded that Cuba poses no such threat.  Lugar’s authoritative report issued by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, quoted here by the National Security Network, said the following:

With the end of the Cold War… the Government of Cuba (GOC) does not represent the security threat to the U.S. that it once did… While Cuba’s alliance with Venezuela has intentions of influencing regional affairs, the GOC has not been positioned to ably export its Revolution since the collapse of the Soviet Union forced an end to Cuba’s financial support for Latin American guerrilla movements… In hindsight, the U.S. embargo has not served a national security agenda since Cuba ceased to be an effective threat to the security of the United States.

Yet, the myth of the Cuban threat forms the basis of laws and programs that have frozen U.S. policy into a confrontational posture toward Cuba for decades.  Cuba’s continued presence on the list of state sponsors of terrorism is but one of several examples.  If the prospective Secretary of Defense and CIA Director were to tell the truth and lay this myth to rest, policy makers could then rebuild the policy from the ground up in ways that would serve genuine U.S. interests and enable true engagement with Cuba’s people to begin.

But the policy won’t change if there is, in fact, something the nominees know that the rest of the national security establishment does not know.  Nor will change be possible if the nominees refuse to respond to these questions with the truth.

We can handle the truth.

This week in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Anti-Castro militant Orlando Bosch dies in Miami

Orlando Bosch has died in Miami, Florida at the age of 84, BBC reports.

Bosch, who had been hospitalized since December, is best known as an alleged conspirator in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that resulted in the deaths of 73 people, including the Cuban national fencing team.  He was acquitted in Venezuela by both military and civilian courts of crimes relating to the bombing.

However, U.S. intelligence documents, including a 700-page FBI report and documentation from the CIA and the State Department detail Bosch’s extensive involvement in international terrorist activities.

Bosch was an unabashed supporter of violent actions against the Castro regime, stating in a deposition to the INS as he sought political asylum, “it was a fight against Castro, it was a violent time. It was a violation of law from everybody, including the CIA. The CIA was training us to make a commando attack. They stopped. We keep going.” In 1989, the Department of Justice took over Bosch’s political asylum case and determined that Bosch should be deported from the U.S., as Acting Associate Attorney General Joe D. Whitley stated in his report:

For 30 years Bosch has been resolute and unwavering in his advocacy of terrorist violence. He has threatened and undertaken violent terrorist acts against numerous targets, including nations friendly towards the United States and their highest officials. He has repeatedly expressed and demonstrated a willingness to cause indiscriminate injury and death. His actions have been those of a terrorist, unfettered by laws or human decency, threatening and inflicting violence without regard to the identity of his victims.

In their report, the Department of Justice determined that Bosch be “excluded and deported from the United States.” Despite this, Bosch was released from prison under the George H.W. Bush administration in 1990, and allowed to spend his final years as a free man, living in Miami, Florida.

The Los Angeles Times published Bosch’s obituary here.

U.S. government opposes appeal of jailed Cuban anti-terrorist agent

The U.S. government is opposing a habeas corpus motion by Gerardo Hernández, one of five Cuban intelligence agents convicted of espionage, conspiracy, and other charges in June 2001, Cuban News Agency reports.

Hernández’s legal team submitted an appeal in October of last year outlining the obstacles to an effective defense in his 2001 trial. He was the only person out of the group of five who was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, based on communications regarding the actions of an exile group that manned a 1996 fly-over to the island in which two planes were shot down by Cuba’s armed forces and four crew members were killed. Hernández was sentenced to two life terms plus 15 years.

The U.S. government’s 123-page response to Hernández’s appeal urged the court to deny Hernández a hearing, arguing that his legal representation was sufficient to uphold the outcome of the trial.

Chief of U.S. Interests Section in Havana replaced

Jonathan Farrar, who has served as Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana since July 2008, will be named by President Obama to serve as Ambassador to Nicaragua, the Miami Herald reports.

Farrar will be replaced in Havana by John Caulfield, a career diplomat who has been stationed in Venezuela since 2008, reports UPI. Caulfield was appointed as Deputy Chief of Mission but is serving as the Chargé d’Affaires in the Caracas embassy, which has not had an ambassador since Venezuela’s government rejected the U.S. appointment of Larry Palmer to the post last year.

While Mr. Farrar’s duties were to implement in this decade a Cold War era policy toward Cuba, he was known for performing his role in Havana with considerably more tact and with greater regard for Cuba’s sovereignty than was seen in the actions of previous Chiefs of Mission.

Caulfield previously served in England, Portugal and the Philippines, and in Latin American posts in Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Brazil, the Miami Herald reports.

The appointments come as routine reassignments for both diplomats.

Charter service to begin flights from newly-approved U.S. airports

C&T Charters, a U.S-based company providing travel services to Cuba, has announced plans for new flights from San Juan, Atlanta, and Chicago, Cuba Standard reports. Gary González, Vice President of the charter company which already offers services from Miami and a weekly flight from New York, stated that the flights from San Juan are scheduled to begin in June.  He added that the first San Juan flight is already sold out, and that the company would possibly initiate a flight from San Juan to Santiago de Cuba flight if demand is sufficient. There was no announcement as to when flights from Atlanta and Chicago would begin.

A staff report in the East Texas Review extols the virtues of direct flights from Texas to Cuba as a bonus for agriculture trade.  When the direct flights begin they will increase opportunities for Texans promoting agricultural ventures in Cuba since these travelers will no longer have to make stops in New York or Miami, spending extra time and money on what would otherwise be a quick flight to the island.

These new flights are possible due to relaxed restrictions for travel to Cuba, announced by the White House in January.  As a result of the presidential directive, nine U.S. airports have been approved to provide travel to Cuba. Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago, San Juan, and Atlanta are home to four of the newly-approved airports.

Cuban doctors who defect face immigration delays upon arrival in U.S.

Cuban doctors who defect from international medical missions through a controversial U.S. program are experiencing delays in their immigration processes due to questions about their ties to Cuba’s Communist party, the Miami Herald reports.

The Cuban Medical Professional Parole program was initiated in 2006 under President Bush, and allows Cuban doctors participating in medical brigades outside of Cuba to defect and immigrate to the U.S. simply by making contact with the local U.S. embassy. It is estimated that somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 Cuban doctors have come to the U.S. under the program.

The newly-arrived doctors, however, are facing delays in receiving green cards upon arrival to the U.S. These delays result from questions about the doctors’ ties to Cuban Communist organizations, through the official party, youth groups, or other local affiliations. About 10% of the doctors arriving in the U.S. under this program have been questioned about their affiliations. According to U.S. regulations, exemptions are made considering whether the applicants joined organizations when they were young, or joined in order to obtain “essentials of living.”

New York choir performs in Havana’s John Lennon Park

The New York City Labor Chorus traveled to Cuba last week and performed in Havana’s John Lennon Park, Havana Times reports. The group was joined by performances from students and young graduates from the city’s Canto Mariana de Gonitch Academy. The Chorus’ performance was attended by Ricardo Alarcón, President of Cuba’s National Assembly; Abel Prieto, former Minister of Culture; and renowned musician Silvio Rodriguez, among others, Juventud Rebelde reports. The group also traveled to the western province of Pinar del Río and performed at a cultural center there, Cuban News Agency reports.

IN CUBA

Cuba’s government begins audits of 750 state businesses

Cuba’s Controller General’s Office began audits, announced at the beginning of this month, of more than 750 state-run enterprises, the Miami Herald reports.  According to Alina Vicente Gaínza, Deputy Controller of the Republic, the audits will take place between April 25th and May 31st, and will be performed by a team of about 3,000 auditors.

More than 100 professors and students from the University of Havana’s Department of Accounting and Finances will participate in the audits, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry announced. The audit will cover business operations in the first quarter of 2011, and exclude companies that were cleared earlier this year or during the second half of 2010, Xinhua reports.

The team will review management, efficiency, and operational problems, and potentially determine if some enterprises should be merged or liquidated by the state. These audits are a part of the economic reform process to eliminate inefficiencies in the state sector.

Cuba eyes employment opportunities and obstacles for laid-off workers

Last year, President Raúl Castro announced that 500,000 state workers would eventually be laid off in an effort to shrink the state sector and Cuba’s budget.  Cuba’s government has also legalized private enterprise in 178 approved categories, hoping that the private sector will absorb many of the laid-off employees.

However, people with credentials in higher education have had difficulty integrating themselves into the categories approved for self-employment, IPS reports. Focusing on professionals in the construction and contracting sector, architect Mario Coyula states:

The paradox is that there are many architects, retired or not, who would be willing to complete the new construction and installation projects [needed by people starting self-run businesses], and to charge reasonably for them. These projects are so small that no state business would be interested in undertaking them.

Construction contracting, however, is not one of the categories included in the reforms. University of Havana economist Pavel Vidal states that the authorized activities are “low-intensive in terms of skill and knowledge and do not allow us to take advantage of the investment in education that the country has made for decades.”

Another obstacle facing potential entrepreneurs is a lack of access to capital, the Miami Herald reports. A lack of available capital on the island gives a considerable advantage to those with access to remittances from abroad. New regulations on remittances from the U.S. are, in fact, partly intended to foster the growth of private enterprise on the island, Cuba Standard reports. However, this reality creates the potential for increased inequality for historically underprivileged sectors in Cuban society that are less likely to have friends and relatives abroad.

Could a different kind of prisoner release indicate change in government policy?

Last week, Cuba’s government released Efraín Rivas who had already spent fifteen years in prison on a 20-year sentence for terrorism and “activities against state security,” AFP reports.  The charges against Rivas related to an armed attack carried out by Rivas who, along with two other Cuban exiles, arrived near a hotel on Cuba’s Varadero beach in a speedboat from Florida, distributed anti-Castro propaganda and fired several shots in the direction of the hotel before speeding off and being subsequently apprehended by Cuban authorities, BBC reports.

Rivas’ release represents the first time that Cuba’s government has freed a violent offender. Though his actions were political, Rivas is not considered a “prisoner of conscience” due to the violent nature of his crime; however, he is still classified as a “political prisoner” by the non-governmental Human Rights Commission, which noted that Rivas’ release “established a precedent, a hope.”

This week, however, well-known dissident Darsi Ferrer was arrested along with four others as they protested peacefully in downtown Havana, demanding freedom of movement inside the country and that Cubans be allowed to travel abroad and return to the island, EFE reports.  Ferrer and the others arrested with him were released Friday afternoon, one day after their arrest, according to a tweet and blog post from Cuba.

Cigar industry executive reportedly imprisoned since August on corruption charges

Manuel García, Vice-President of Cuba’s state-owned cigar enterprise Habano, was arrested in August 2010, and faces corruption charges along with 10 other employees, according to an article from The Economist this week.

García served for more than a decade as the public face of Habano, a joint venture between Cuba’s government and Spanish enterprise Ataldis, which is owned by British company Imperial Tobacco, the Miami Herald reports.

Charges are reportedly related to large-scale black market online sales of Cuban cigars.  García and his staff are suspected of providing low-cost cigars to online vendors in exchange for bribes, selling up to 45 million cigars at a fraction of their price.  García’s case is one of several recent cases addressing high-level corruption within state-run industries.

Profits of Cuba’s largest nickel exporter increase in first quarter

Canadian-owned Sherritt International, Cuba’s largest foreign investor and the island’s main nickel exporter, has reported an overall 116% increase in profit on a 29.5% increase in revenues in the first quarter of 2011, Cuba Standard reports.   Reuters adds that the jump in profit can be attributed to high prices on the international market for oil, nickel, and coal, three of Sherritt’s principal enterprises. However, sales of the company’s power plants in Cuba saw a 14% drop, blamed on equipment failures at one facility and “intermittent gas supply shortages” at another.

Cuba predicts that cacao production will recover by 2015

Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture has predicted that a national program to revitalize Cuba’s cacao industry will match record-setting harvests from the 1960s by 2015, Prensa Latina reports.  Elexis Legra, coffee and cacao director of the Business Group of Mountain Agriculture, has stated that plans to plant more than 4,000 additional hectares of cacao (for a total of 11,000) will make it possible to produce over 3,000 tons of harvest.  Most of Cuba’s cacao production occurs on the eastern side of the island, where about 80% of the crop is harvested by individual farmers.

Cacao and coffee will for the first time be included in the agenda of the Fifth International Forestry Congress, which opened this Wednesday in Havana, Prensa Latina reports.

Around the Region:

Appeals Court discusses Zelaya charges

Honduran judges met this week to discuss whether to maintain or drop corruption charges against former president Manuel Zelaya. The Appeals Court, created by the Supreme Court to rule on the future of Zelaya’s case, will release its final decision by Monday May 2nd, assuming that the decision is not postponed by further legal wrangling. Several countries and the Organization of American States (OAS) have demanded the charges against Zelaya be dropped to facilitate the reintegration of Honduras into the international community.

Meanwhile, the Colombian-Venezuelan commission, recently created to act as a forum for mediation between Porfirio Lobo, Honduras’s current president, and Zelaya, announced a plan for the composition of a first proposal toward reconciliation between the two leaders.

It was also revealed that both countries have been working on the mediation effort since November 2010.  Juan Barahona, the sub-coordinator of the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP), also insisted that the possible return of Honduras to the OAS must meet strict conditions, including economic and political reforms, to avoid “legitimizing coups.”

WikiLeaks:  How Arms from Honduras End Up in Mexico

A cable released by WikiLeaks this week revealed that some of the weapons officially sent from the U.S. to the Honduran Armed Forces and Police are now in the possession of Mexican and Colombia drug-cartels, reports In Sight. The cable cites a Defense Intelligence Agency’s report analyzing the findings.

The Honduran military also confirmed that U.S. weapons had been stolen from its warehouses in 2007. A judicial investigation was launched after the revelations were published. Human rights groups in Honduras had warned in the past about the lack of clarity for the ultimate destination of U.S. weapons.

Recommended Reading:

Cuba Libre? Marc Frank and John Paul Rathbone for The Financial Times

“Rummaging round the Communist party’s central committee headquarters building in Havana, Raúl Castro finds an old lamp. Curious, he gives it a rub. A genie emerges and offers two wishes. ‘Only two?’ asks Cuba’s president. ‘Yes,’ replies the genie. ‘Times are tough. We’ve cut back.’”

U.S.-Cuba: Eating Raúl, The Boston Globe

 This editorial, written in the wake of the Communist Party Congress, examines the implications of Cuba’s economic reforms for U.S. policy.  It concludes:  “The best thing Washington could do for the people of Cuba and for US interests would be to let American diplomats, tourists, goods, and services go to the island. That would only show that the supposed threat of US imperialism is as outmoded as Cuban communism.”

Loans and taxes may prove daunting for Cuba economic reforms, The Miami Herald

 “Americans send $1 billion a year to Cuba, and much more financing is expected during the 380,000 visits that U.S. residents make there annually. But that dependence on relatives abroad could pose problems for the island’s large Afro-Cuban population, which has far fewer family members in the United States.”

UN Women’s head Michelle Bachelet: a new superhero?, The Guardian

Let it not be said that those wags at the United Nations don’t have a sense of humor. Given the task of finding an office for its new women’s rights body, the premises managers found some space in the iconic Daily News building – otherwise known as the home of Superman.”

Recommended Viewing:

McLaughlin Group Opines on Immigration and the Embargo

The shout-a-thons that pass for Washington commentary rarely deserve a shout-out, but last week’s broadcast of the McLaughlin Group, with a guest appearance by Larry Luxner, editor and publisher of Cuba News, deserves a look.  From its relatively intelligent debate on immigration to surprising unanimity on the need to repeal the embargo against Cuba, the pundits break ground and verge on making common sense.

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