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

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. 

IN CUBA

Pres. Raúl Castro announces plans to change migration policy at meeting of National Assembly

Cuba’s National Assembly met for the first time since April’s VI Communist Party Congress. In his opening statement to the Assembly, President Raúl Castro indicated that changes to the island’s migration laws are being evaluated by the government, AP reports. Current laws restrict Cubans from leaving the island without a difficult-to-obtain exit visa. President Castro stated that while migration restrictions were necessary after the revolution due to threats from the exile community, those who leave the country today largely do so for economic reasons, adding:

We take this step as a contribution to increase the nation’s ties to the community of emigrants, whose makeup has changed radically since the early decades of the revolution…The country is (now) on a path of modifying decisions that played a role in their time and endured unnecessarily.

The Ministry of Transportation reported to the Assembly that 47,652 self-employment licenses have been granted for work transporting people and cargo, Prensa Latina reports. Additionally, there are currently two agencies working specifically in the leasing of vehicles to taxi drivers, with plans for ten more similar agencies throughout the country.

Government lowers price of agricultural equipment and supplies to stimulate production, is forced to increase food imports

In an effort to boost the output of private farmers who have recently received parcels of idle land from the government as a part of agricultural reform, Cuban authorities have decreased the price of agricultural equipment and production supplies by up to 60%, AP reports. Two official resolutions, effective August 1st, have lowered prices for more than 150 categories of equipment and tools necessary for agricultural production. Sara del Pilar Vidal, Minister of Interior Commerce, announced on the national television program Mesa Redonda that this decision was made both in response to complaints of high prices from new farmers, and to the fact that people were not buying the farm inventory available for sale.

Cuba’s government continues to struggle in its effort to increase national food production. In order to meet demand, the island will be forced to increase food imports this year, AFP reports. Minister of Agriculture Gustavo Rodríguez announced that these additional imports are due to low production of eleven food items in the first semester of the year, stating, “11 items did not fulfill their projections, six or seven of them are of high consequence to the economy and import substitution… for that reason, there was a negative repercussion on the country’s trade balance.” Products not meeting production goals include milk, beans, pork and beef, according to the official release in Granma.

Cuba planned for 1.2 billion dollars in food imports for 2011, and an April revision increased that number to 1.5 billion. This week’s release did not include a new projection.

Cuba allows unlimited ownership for some foreign investors

A Canadian company has reported that the Cuban government agreed to let it sell condos in perpetuity, in a change to previously announced 99-year leasehold agreements, Cuba Standard reports. In a press release, Standing Feather International Inc. stated, “We are proud to announce that the title to the luxury property that home buyers will acquire will not be the standard 99-year leasehold. Instead, residential properties will be sold with the right to own that property in perpetuity.”

Standing Feather, Inc. is partnering with Cuban state company Palmares SA in the development of a luxury golf resort in the eastern province of Holguín. According to the announcement, the resort will be designated as a “special zone of economic development” by Cuba’s government. Cuba Standard reports that other investor groups from Britain and Spain who are planning similar golf course real estate projects hope that this policy will also be extended to their projects.

The Canadian company also announced that the government would be creating a new visa category called residente inmobiliario, or property holding resident, which would allow long-term stays on the island and the ability to import cars. They will additionally be permitted to import food for consumption within the resort.

Still awaiting specifics, Cubans prepare to buy and sell homes

Though specific laws have not been ratified, Cubans are highly anticipating announced reforms that will allow them to buy and sell their homes for the first time since the 1959 revolution. An article from the New York Times looks into how proposed reforms will affect Cuban society, and how Cubans are already preparing for the change. The Miami Herald reports that Cubans have begun listing their homes for sale on the website Revolico, which is described as the Cuban version of Craigslist. The article adds that the Cuban exile community is also included in those seeking to purchase land on the island. Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute states:

Now with the door open for Cuban-Americans to visit, to support their families, to invest and to perhaps indirectly buy real estate, it becomes not just an exile community but also an immigrant community with a foot in both places.

A blog post from Peters on The Cuban Triangle goes into further detail about the reforms, outlining the changes that have been announced so far by the government.

Another story from NPR includes an interview with Mario Coyula, architect and Havana’s director of urbanism and architecture in the 1970s and ’80s, who predicts that gentrification will likely occur as a result of this process.

Cuba lifts ban on sale of domestic appliances with high energy consumption

Cuba’s government has lifted a ban, in place since 2003, that prohibits the sale of electric appliances with high energy consumption, EFE reports. The ban, which included items such as air conditioning systems, heaters, ovens, showers and electric stoves, was imposed to reduce energy consumption as a part of Cuba’s “Energy Revolution.”

According to the Ministry of Interior Commerce, the ban is being lifted due to high demand coming from the general population and specifically from the growing private sector. Their statement says: “Taking into account the need to adopt measures aimed at completing the products that are available to the population and to self-employed workers, it is necessary to resume the retail sale of the mentioned appliances.” The list of products legalized for sale includes many items that are in high demand for those establishing self-operated restaurants, such as ovens, fryers, coffee makers, grills, and popcorn makers. According to the resolution, these products will be reintegrated into the market in a “gradual manner.”

Executives and officials at Cuban state airline, cargo and pharmaceutical companies sentenced on corruption charges

Executives and several high-level employees of Cuban state airline Cubana de Aviación, air cargo company Caribe Cargo, SA and pharmaceutical company Heber Biotec, SA were handed convictions this week on charges of corruption, the Associated Press reports (a correction to the article here). Ten officials will be serving from three to thirteen years in prison, with the stiffest sentence going to former director of cargo for Cubana de Aviación José Heriberto Prieto Ferrer, Café Fuerte reports. According to state news outlet Escambray, the convicted officials “accepted money and other benefits in exchange for contracts with foreign companies to the detriment of their own firms.” This is the latest in a series of investigations at state enterprises as President Raúl Castro has declared anti-corruption efforts to be a nationwide priority.

Tropical Storm Emily passing through Eastern Cuba, no major damage reported

With tropical storm warnings in the eastern provinces of Guantánamo and Holguín, tropical storm Emily is passing through the Antilles, with no reports of major damage so far in Cuba. Radio Rebelde reports that evacuation systems for residents of the area are ready in place and local farmers are prepared to move some 16,000 heads of livestock if torrential rains present a threat.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Russians look to Cuban offshore reserves

Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin has signed contracts securing exploration rights in four zones off Cuba’s coast, BBC reports.  Mr. Sechin stated to local Russian media, “Every time I travel through the region, I come to Cuba to advance our joint economic-commercial projects, and I take every opportunity to communicate with my colleagues.”  Offshore drilling projects in these four zones will be developed by Russian oil enterprise Zarubezhneft and Cuban state oil company Cubapetroleo. Also included in the new agreement is a $150m loan from Russia designated for the purchase of construction and agricultural equipment.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Last hold is lifted on USAID funds to Cuba

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont has lifted his hold on $20 million designated for USAID-run “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba, AP reports. Sen. Leahy indicated that he unblocked funds after the State department provided answers about the oversight of the programs. In a release, Sen. Leahy stated:

The United States has a strong interest in helping the Cuban people improve their lives and protect their rights. We also have a responsibility to know how U.S. taxpayer dollars are used and whether programs are effective. For too long this program has been carried out in ways that have been neither transparent nor accountable, and with no way to measure results. That needs to change, and getting answers about the way these funds are spent is a constructive first step.

Alan Gross was conducting activities under the USAID programs when he was arrested in Cuba in December 2009.  Cuba’s government views the programs as a subversive tool to undermine the government.

Nine U.S. airports receive landing permissions from Cuba

Nine U.S. airports which had previously received permission from the U.S. government to host flights to and from Cuba have now received authorization for the flights from Cuba’s government, Cuba Standard reports. These airports are: Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans and San Juan, Puerto Rico. In addition, several service providers have announced that they have received approval to operate out of the airports in Tampa, Los Angeles and Atlanta.

Airport representatives and travel service providers are organizing new flights partly due to an expected influx of travelers to the island given President Obama’s opening of people-to-people travel in January of this year. Such travel requires a full itinerary of “meaningful interaction” in order for approval. Last week, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued a statement on its website stressing the meaningful nature of people-to-people Cuba trips.

This week, luxury travel provider Abercrombie & Kent, which had previously publicized 13 planned trips to Cuba, announced that in response to the OFAC statement all of these trips are currently on hold, USA Today reports. A spokeswoman for the company stated, “all reservations will remain ‘on hold’ until such a time as we gain clarity on the regulations for travel to Cuba.”

Secret documents relating to the Bay of Pigs invasion are released by the CIA

The CIA has released four volumes of its Official History of the Bay of Pigs Operation following a lawsuit filed by the National Security Archive under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), according to a press release from the Archive. The documents, many of which are classified as top secret, contain information about the CIA’s negotiations with Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama to support the invasion. Peter Kornbluh, director of the Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project, stated, “The CIA has finally seen the wisdom of letting the public scrutinize this major debacle in the covert history of U.S. foreign policy.” The CIA is still refusing to release the 5th volume of the history, a rebuttal to the CIA’s Inspector General’s report holding CIA officials accountable for mistakes and miscalculations in the failed invasion.

Around the Region:

Iran to aid home construction in Venezuela

Iran has signed an agreement to help Venezuela in the construction of about 10,000 homes, Business Weekly reports. It is estimated that the apartments will house about 45,000 people. In face of a national housing shortage, the construction and provision of homes to Venezuela’s poor has been one of Chávez’s promises leading up to next year’s elections. Housing Minister Ricardo Molina, who announced the agreement this Wednesday, stated that the homes will be constructed in the states of Yaracuy, Lara and Carabobo.

Spanish court requests INTERPOL warrants for military officials implicated in Jesuit massacre

On July 26th Spanish Judge Eloy Velasco Nuñez requested INTERPOL’s “red alert” international arrest warrants for nine retired military officers – including two ex-ministers of defense – for the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Five of the six murdered priests were Spanish, and the court has been investigating the case since 2009. The original indictment listed the names of 20 former members of the military.

Attorneys for the indicted officers asked the National Police to refrain from complying with the arrest warrants, however, Police Chief Carlos Ascencio insisted the Salvadoran government will act according to the law.  At least two of the officers on the list live in the U.S., according to one report. According to the online journal El Faro, the State Department and the Justice Department are working closely on the case and will cooperate with extradition requests.

Recommended Reading:

To Cuba and Beyond

The Tampa Bay (FL) Tribune editorialized in favor of travel to Cuba, praised the opening of its local airport to the Cuban market, and made the important point that increasing travel to Cuba will “undoubtedly build support for further relaxing the embargo.”

Editorial: Time to engage Cuba

In Sarasota, Florida, the Herald-Tribune also raised its editorial voice, noted the changes taking place in Cuba on residential property and other matters, and called on the U.S. government to change the policy “not to coddle the Castros…because Cuba is changing.”

Recommended Viewing:

Proyecto Mariel

This official publicity spot focuses on the expansion of the port of Mariel, a project which is currently taking place with financial and personell support from Brazil.

Cuban Assembly approves economic reform, BBC

“Cuba’s National Assembly has given its backing to President Raul Castro’s plans to reform the country’s stagnating economy. The reforms, ranging from the setting up of small businesses to reducing bureaucracy, had already been agreed by the ruling Communist party.”

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