Stories before the Storm – News about Cuba as Irene approaches the US

August 26, 2011

Here on the East Coast of the United States, Hurricane Irene is approaching and our country is engaged in the serious business of trying to protect lives and property from destruction and danger.

As we put the finishing touches on our Cuba Central News Blast this week, we couldn’t help writing, as we have in the past, about how the subject of hurricanes illustrates so much about the U.S.-Cuba relationship – what’s good and what ought to be fixed.

The storms which cut across Cuba and then land on the U.S. coast are a reminder that we’re bound together by more than geography and weather.  We share a common interest in finding better ways to predict the paths of these storms and protect the people placed at risk by them.

There is a conceit among some in our country that we have nothing to learn from the Cuban people and that there’s just no sense in talking to them.  But we know that when it comes to hurricanes and civil defense – as with much else – that just isn’t right.

A reasonably modest earthquake near Washington DC last week resulted in traffic jams and raised the same unanswered questions about safely evacuating the Capital that were raised after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Roughly 1600 Americans died during Katrina in 2005, and we’ve seen scores killed in storms that hit areas in the U.S.  less populated than New Orleans just this year.  But as hurricane expert Ivor van Heerden wrote in our 2009 report – 9 Ways for US to talk with Cuba and for Cuba to talk to US – Cuba’s civil defense record is much better than ours.

Between 2005 and 2008, a period that included deadly damage here from Katrina and Ike, an average of just 3 Cubans lost their lives in storms.

Fortunately, U.S. and Cuba do talk and exchange some information about hurricanes.  The U.S. has especially good data and tools for predicting the tracks and intensities of storms. Cuba cooperates with the U.S. government by allowing over-flights by “hurricane hunter” aircraft.

NGOs, like the Center for International Policy (CIP), lead delegations to Cuba that bring local governments and civil defense officials into contact with their Cuban counterparts, and its sensible that they get the permission needed from both countries to make these exchanges work.

But more needs to be done.

With greater cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba, our government could have better information about storms forming in the Caribbean, benefitting scientists and prediction modelers alike.  But the U.S. embargo prevents Cuba from having access to the kind of oceanographic and weather data buoys – and upgrades for their weather stations – that would help our country do a better job protecting our own people from these weather events with better information from Cuba.

CIP recently released a report, U.S.-Cuban Cooperation in Defending Against Hurricanes, which details civil defense strategies used by Cuba – how they handle evacuations, equip hospitals, and engage children in evacuation drills – from which we in the U.S could really learn how to better address the dangers of severe weather events.  Direct talks between the governments and more exchanges held in the open with government blessing would facilitate those lessons.

In this era of climate change, storms like Irene are likely to be more frequent and more ferocious; so greater cooperation and engagement with Cuba on this issue makes a great deal of sense. And, as we pointed out in the “9 Ways,” and CIP says in its report this month, conversations on hurricane preparedness can boost confidence and trust between both governments which they surely need to address the other issues which so often divide us.

Ideally, even if Irene cuts the power on the East Coast, a light bulb could still shine over Washington.

And now, this week in Cuba news…

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Cuba on the ‘Terror List,” a Prison Visit for Alan Gross, a Final Word for Debra Evenson

August 19, 2011

It is both untrue and a travesty to paint Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism as the United States government did in its annual report on the subject this week.

For twenty-nine years, Cuba has appeared on the list, which comes with considerable economic and diplomatic costs.  It disqualifies Cuba from economic assistance, punishes Cuba for engaging in legal trade and financial transactions, and deprives Cuba of access to modern technology by way of exports, to name but a few.

Most of all, the list stigmatizes Cuba – not everywhere, but certainly in the United States and elsewhere in the world where our country’s word is respected and the terrorist label stings and stays.

Terror exists in the world; both the U.S. and Cuba have experienced it, and the purpose of the list is to get perpetrators to stop and to enlist other nations in a global effort to get them to do so.

This activity took on special meaning for the U.S. after September 11, 2001, but it also should have come with a greater responsibility to use the list seriously and not use it to play domestic politics on a higher and more fraught stage.

Other nations listed in the State Department’s Country Report on Terrorism, including Iran and Syria, are said to provide “financial, material, and logistical support” for terror groups.  Iran is cited for arming the Taliban in Afghanistan and supporting militants in Iraq who kill American forces; Syria for supplying terrorist groups in Lebanon and Palestinian militants aligned against Israel.

So why is Cuba on the list?

As the Congressional Research Service reports, Cuba did support revolutionary movements and governments in Latin America and Africa in the 1980s, but stopped supporting insurgencies in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Since then, as the Council on Foreign Relations said last year, “intelligence experts have been hard pressed to find evidence that Cuba currently provides weapons or military training to terrorist groups.  In 1998, a comprehensive review by the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Cuba does not pose a threat to U.S. national security, which implies that Cuba no longer sponsors terrorism….In the 2008, Country Reports on Terrorism, the State Department reported that Cuba ‘no longer actively supports armed struggle in Latin America and other parts of the world.”

At this stage, the case for Cuba’s inclusion is flimsy to non-existent.

The State Department reports, for example, that Cuba denounces U.S. counterterrorism policies, and has not “severed ties with elements from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and recent media reports indicate some current and former members of the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) continue to reside in Cuba. Available information suggested that the Cuban government maintained limited contact with FARC members, but there was no evidence of direct financial or ongoing material support. In March, the Cuban government allowed Spanish Police to travel to Cuba to confirm the presence of suspected ETA members.”

If this is the core of the problem, what do Spain and Colombia think?  Former President Jimmy Carter put that question directly to those countries’ ambassadors to Cuba when he visited the island in March of 2011.  This is what President Carter said in his trip report:

We raised a question about the terrorist list, and the Ambassadors from Spain and Colombia said they were not concerned about the presence of members of FARC, ETA, and ELN in Cuba. Indeed, they maintained that this enhances their ability to deal more effectively with these groups. In fact, ETA members are there at the request of the Spanish government (our emphasis).

President Carter, as Peter Kornbluh reported in the Nation, also told the press that U.S. and Cuban intelligence were currently “cooperating” in counterterrorism efforts against Al Qaeda.

In other words, as Wayne Smith, former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana writes, “there is absolutely nothing in this year’s report which would in any way suggest that Cuba is a ‘state sponsor of terrorism.’” In fact, there are national interest arguments for removing the designation, and acknowledging their cooperation.  As Smith says, “That the U.S. continues to keep it on the list despite this total lack of evidence simply diminishes our own credibility.”

There is a process for getting Cuba off the list.  One option, as CRS writes, is for the President to submit a report to Congress that says the listed government has changed policies, stopped supporting acts of terrorism, and provides assurances that it will not do so in the future.

We don’t know whether Cuba, given the politicized nature of this process, wants to offer this guarantee, but doing so would certainly test the Obama administration’s commitment to running an honest war against terrorism.  We’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt, and we’d like to see the machinery start to run to remove Cuba from the list.

Here in the U.S., we will soon commemorate the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, a good opportunity for us to demonstrate both by our deeds and our words that we do take the cause against terrorism seriously and responsibly.

Cuba acted with honor on that awful September day.  Its government condemned the attacks quickly; and it offered medical assistance to the victims and to give U.S. planes access to Cuban airspace and airports when they could not land here –offers our government would not accept.

These deeds – and the clear factual record – show Cuba deserves better than the continued painting it receives from our antiterrorism brush.  It’s time to get Cuba off the list.

This week in Cuba news.

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BREAKING NEWS: Cuba’s Supreme Court affirms 15-year sentence for Alan Gross

August 5, 2011

Just after noon Eastern Time, we received from the AFP the news bulletin that we expected and feared.

HAVANA — Cuba’s high court on Friday upheld the 15-year sentence imposed on US contractor Alan Gross, jailed since his arrest in late 2009 on accusations of espionage, according to an official statement.

Mr. Gross was detained in December 2009 after entering Cuba on multiple occasions and conducting so-called “democracy promotion” activities paid for by U.S. taxpayers and funded by USAID that are expressly in violation of Cuban law.  Amazingly, the President and the Congress have continued to fund this flawed and dangerous effort.

In March, he was convicted for “endangering the independence and security” of the Cuban state and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.  Mr. Gross and his attorneys filed an appeal of his sentence knowing that today’s decision was the most likely outcome.  Mr. Peter J. Kahn issued a statement on their behalf which, in part, said: “The family is heartbroken by today’s decision, but remains hopeful that there continues to be room for a diplomatic resolution of this matter.”

During a trip to Cuba in June sponsored by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, members of our delegation raised Gross’s case with Cuba’s Foreign Minister and others, urged that he be released, and asked permission to visit him.  Three of us spent two hours with Mr. Gross and we share the family’s reaction to what the Cuban court said today.

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, said this about today’s decision:  “We plea as we have before for a humanitarian gesture of parole by Cuba’s government in deference to the Gross family’s suffering and because his captivity freezes overdue progress in US Cuba relations.”

On Monday CDA will return to Cuba with a delegation of U.S. policymakers.

Because of our trip, we will not publish the news summary again until August 19th.  Until then, this is our review of Cuba news. 

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