Terror List Examined in Washington as Alan Gross Begins 3rd year in Cuban prison

As Alan Gross begins his third year in prison, Cuba’s terrorist list designation was examined in Washington.  These are not separate problems.

This week, the Latin America Working Group (LAWG) and the Center for International Policy (CIP) convened an important conference on Cuba’s presence on the U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.

The conference was a reminder that Cuba’s listing is a sham and that hardliners in the Congress use its designation as an obstacle to any progress on U.S.-Cuba relations.

Professor Wayne Smith, co-host of the conference and director of CIP’s Cuba project, who served as chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, has been a critic of Cuba’s listing for decades, arguing that it undermines U.S. credibility on the world stage.  He said at the conference, “It is quite clear that Cuba should not be on the list.  There is no evidence to place it there, which anyone can see even in the State Department’s own report on the subject.”

As Mavis Anderson, Senior Associate of the LAWG said, “It is a misuse of this list as a foreign policy tool and places obstacles in the way of the development of a sane and post-Cold War policy toward Cuba.”

In fact, Cuba’s designation is a perfect predicate for the hardliners in Congress to block otherwise rational policy changes or initiatives – because, after all, U.S. law says we’d be helping a state sponsor of terror.  Here are three examples.

Congressman David Rivera uses the terror list to justify trying to stop Repsol and Cuba from drilling together for oil.  He said his legislation to block drilling was necessary to “ensure that Florida taxpayers are not made to pay for an environmental disaster caused by a terrorist regime.”

When Senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio sought to stop President Obama from increasing the number of airports allowed to serve the Cuban market, their proposal sought to prevent the expansion of direct flights to state sponsors of terrorism.

Finally, there is the case of Alan Gross. When Ileana Ros-Lehtinen questioned Secretary Clinton recently at a hearing, the Congresswoman stated that “the United States should not be negotiating with a state sponsor of terrorism.”

In essence, the Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee suggested that Mr. Gross remain in a Cuban prison rather than allowing the U.S. government to discuss with Cuba how he could be released.

Alan Gross was put in harm’s way by a USAID regime change program that is a sad legacy of the Cold War.   He should not be abandoned, left sitting in a prison cell because of cynicism and Cold War politics, and the U.S. government needs to refocus its efforts to get him out for humanitarian reasons.

Direct discussions and engagement have produced progress in other, much harder cases.  If the U.S. can get hikers out of prison in Iran, if the U.S. can get a contractor who killed civilians out of a prison in Pakistan, and if we can swap spies arrested in the U.S. for others jailed in Russia, the U.S. ought to be able to figure out a formula for getting Alan Gross back home.

Cuba’s presence on the State Sponsors list should not be an obstacle to getting that done.

This week in Cuba news…

IN CUBA

Cuba to offer bank loans in December, contract services from private sector next year

Cuba’s Central Bank will begin offering loans as part of a new credit system, the Washington Post reports. According to a decree published in the Official Gazette, credits will be available to small-business owners and independent farmers, as well as for citizens to pay for materials and labor associated with home construction or renovation or to “acquire goods for their personal property or satisfy other needs.” The new loan system is set to begin on December 20th, and will be implemented “progressively, as the country’s economic and financial conditions permit.”

In addition to loans, the new laws allow Cubans to use payment methods other than cash, including bank transfers, checks, credit and debit cards, money orders, local letters of credit, and traveler’s checks, reports AFP.

Cubans hoping to venture into the newly-expanded small business sector have argued that Cuba’s economic reform process requires access to credit for citizens. Those who do not have access to hard currency from relatives abroad or other sources have expressed that they lack the necessary resources to front the initial investment of starting a business. Loans for construction may also provide capital to business-related construction for aspiring entrepreneurs, and also have the potential to help alleviate the island’s chronic housing shortage and invigorate the recently legalized real estate market.

Finally, beyond the credit changes, the new laws provide guidelines for state businesses to contract some goods and services from the private sector, Reuters reports. Services such as food and cleaning, construction, and some transportation services, traditionally done by government workers, will have the possibility of being contracted out to the self-employed.

To read more about Cuba’s efforts to update its economic model, visit the website of the Center for Democracy in the Americas here.

Cuba’s government reports 2.7% growth for 2011

An article in Granma says that Cuba’s GDP grew at a rate of 2.7% this year, Reuters reports. This number falls a bit below the 2.9% increase predicted by the government, but represents an increase over the 2010 figure of 2.1%. In the report given to the Council of Ministers, the shortfall was blamed on investment-related construction problems. The budget deficit reduction also fell short of expected figures this year, which was blamed on lower than expected revenue from sales taxes.

According to the Granma article, the Council also adopted economic plans and a budget for 2012, which will be presented at the next regular session of the National Assembly.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Brazilian construction material retailer signs contract to open store in Havana

TendTudo, a Brazilian company specializing in home improvement products and construction materials, has signed a contract to begin supplying Cuba with products for a state-run store in Havana,  Reuters reports.

In 2012, Cuban state company Palco plans to open a Havana store that will be supplied by and modeled after the Brazilian retail chain’s “home center” stores in Brazil. TendTudo’s international unit president Carlos Christensen emphasized that the company is investing in a long-term business relationship with the island, stating “There are important challenges but for us it’s a long-term objective…The idea is to start small and go accompanying the changes in the Cuban market.”

Trials for lung cancer vaccine developed by Cuba to take place in the UK

A therapeutic lung cancer vaccine developed in Cuba will begin a new patient trial in the UK, AFP reports. Erik D’Hondt, the scientific director of the drug company in charge of European distribution of the drug, stated that the clinical study would begin “in a matter of days,” but did not specify how many patients were participating in the study. The vaccine, which was developed at the Molecular Immunological Center in Havana, has shown benefits in extending the life span and improving the quality of life of patients.

Biotechnology Conference held in Havana, Cuba signs cooperation agreements with China

The International Biotechnology Conference of Havana commenced this week at the Center for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, Cuban News Agency reports. Some 600 scientists representing about 30 countries are participating in the conference, which focuses on using biotechnology to create sustainable agricultural production methods. The Conference is also being attended by British Nobel Prize Winner Richard J. Robert and Belgian Mark Van Montagu, both pioneers in the field, according to AFP.

Before the conference, Cuba and China signed various agreements to amplify their cooperation in the biotechnology sector over the next five years, reports EFE. The accords seek to strengthen the countries’ links in areas such as biomedicine and bio-agriculture. Additionally, the two countries discussed the potential of exporting goods to third countries. China is Cuba’s second largest trading partner after Venezuela.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Pleas for release and a visit to Alan Gross leading up to the two-year anniversary of his imprisonment

Saturday will mark two years since Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor, was arrested in Cuba and later sentenced to fifteen years in prison for bringing highly regulated satellite equipment into the island while traveling on a tourist visa. Gross was working for Development Alternatives, Inc. on a contract with USAID “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba.   The U.S. programs have been illegal in Cuba for over a decade.

At a demonstration at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, Judy Gross stated that her husband had expressed concern over the legality of his work prior to his final trip to Cuba, but was assured by a co-worker that “if anything happens you’ll be out in two days,” the AP reports.

This week, Gross’ mother released a video appeal to President Castro this week asking for her son’s release. Additionally, Representative Chris Van Hollen and Sen. Benjamin Cardin sent bipartisan letters to Jorge Bolaños, Chief of the Cuban Interests Section, urging the Cuban government to release Mr. Gross for humanitarian reasons. Van Hollen’s letter was cosigned by 72 representatives, while Cardin’s letter was cosigned by 18 senators.

In Cuba, Gross received a visit from Rev. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, Reuters reports. Kinnamon later met with President Raúl Castro; however, no details were made public about their discussion.

Archbishop of Miami considering pilgrimage to Cuba for papal visit

The Miami Archdiocese is considering organizing a pilgrimage of Cuban-Americans to the island for the planned visit of Pope Benedict XVI next year, the Miami Herald reports. Archbishop Thomas Wenski stated that there will be no final decision until the Vatican confirms the dates of the Pope’s visit, organized to coincide with the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint. Wenski explained the reasoning of the Archdiocese in proposing this pilgrimage, saying:

As the Cuban bishops have said, Cubans continue to be one single people wherever they may be. If the Holy Father is going to be welcomed in Cuba, the Cuban people on this side of the Florida Straits will be participating in one way or another.

Wenski noted that he, as auxiliary bishop, planned another pilgrimage for the January 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II. That pilgrimage was cancelled over concerns by Miami community members that the Pope’s visit would be manipulated to give legitimacy to the Castro government. According to Wenski, the adversaries of the 1998 pilgrimage later regretted their opposition because “they realized that John Paul II had a lot of experience with totalitarian regimes … and wasn’t going to let himself be manipulated by anybody. [Pope] Benedict XVI is not going to allow himself to be manipulated by anybody either. He is going to preach a message of hope.”

Chicago O’Hare now offering direct flights to Cuba

O’Hare International airport began offering direct flights to Havana on Friday, reports the Chicago Sun-Times. C&T Charters, Inc. now offers a weekly flight to and from Havana, that will depart or land in Chicago every Friday. O’Hare is one of a dozen airports that have recently been authorized to host charter flights, and these new flights mark the first time in history that there have been non-stop flights between Chicago and Cuba.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, commenting on the new flights, praised the administration for loosening travel restrictions earlier this year:

With growing demand by Americans to visit Cuba, we’re pleased that President Obama took the bold step of making this country more accessible to Chicagoans who want to fly directly to Cuba from O’Hare to visit family, pursue research and education, or for business reasons.

Charging “appeasement,” Sen. Rubio to oppose 3 State Department appointments

Senator Marco Rubio (FL) has released a statement expressing his intention to oppose the appointments of Roberta Jacobson as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Mari Carmen Aponte as Ambassador to El Salvador, and Adam E. Namm as Ambassador to Ecuador.

Rubio argues that “Rather than stand up to tyrants and promote democracy, this Administration’s policy towards Latin America has been defined by appeasement, weakness and the alienation of our allies.”  The Senator said he will block nominations until the Administration takes “meaningful action” to change its policies, listing as specific demands:

First, the U.S. should immediately adopt significant bilateral and regional measures to encourage a return to constitutional order in Nicaragua.  Second, the U.S. should take immediate action to impose additional sanctions against the Cuban regime in response to the taking of American hostage Alan Gross.  And third, the U.S. should commit to dedicating U.S. democracy funding in Cuba solely to activities that strictly adhere to Sec. 109 of the Libertad Act.

Earlier this year, Rubio rejected the appointment of Jonathan Farrar, former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, as Ambassador to Nicaragua, criticizing him for not doing enough to support dissidents in Cuba.  Mr. Farrar had previously served as the principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor under President Bush.

Romney gets Cuban-American endorsements, Gingrich plans to end Castro government by 2014

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has picked up what the Miami Herald calls “the ultimate Cuban-American endorsement trifecta in South Florida,” gaining the support of Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart and former Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart. The Washington Post reports that Ros-Lehtinen clarified her endorsement, saying that she endorses Romney’s economic plan but disagrees with his immigration stance.  Senator Marco Rubio has yet to endorse any candidate in the Republican field.

Meanwhile, in an interview with Yahoo News, former Speaker Newt Gingrich said he is working on a plan to topple the Cuban government by 2014. His plan would consist of “maximizing dissent” in Cuba, mostly covertly, and targeting younger Cubans. He entertained the idea of getting free radios into Cuban households, through which the U.S. government would be able to “dramatically expand communications” and give Cubans “a continuous alternative model of information.” When asked whether he supported the Coast Guard’s “wet foot-dry foot” policy, Gingrich said that it is a “terrible thing” that the U.S. repatriates anyone trying to get to Florida from Cuba.

However, in the same interview Gingrich unambiguously said he would not reverse Obama’s easing of travel restrictions, as Romney’s newly announced supporters have proposed. As Phil Peters points out in The Cuban Triangle, this is a surprise since Gingrich otherwise maintains a strict hard-line stance on U.S. policy towards the island.

For more on the Gingrich proposal, see our Final Word at the end.

Around the Region

Venezuela arrests Colombian Drug Lord Valenciano, signs bilateral agreements with Colombia

Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco who, under the alias Valenciano, was one of Colombia’s most powerful drug lords, has been arrested in Venezuela, reports BBC. The arrest occurred in the city of Maracay on the Caribbean coast, on the eve of the first meeting between Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez and Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos since Mr. Chávez was diagnosed with cancer in June. Colombian police, who had been monitoring Bonilla’s movement for two years, worked closely with Venezuelan authorities to secure his arrest. According to Insight Crime, Bonilla was detained without a fight.

According to MercoPress, Tarek El Aissami, Venezuela’s Interior Minister, said that Bonilla will be extradited to the U.S. to be prosecuted “as soon as U.S. authorities announce their willingness” to pick him up. He stated that Chávez and Santos had made a joint decision to turn Bonilla over to the U.S., and added that Venezuela will not claim the 5 million dollar reward.

Though Chávez insisted that Bonilla was captured before the presidents’ summit “by happy coincidence,” an intelligence source told Insight Crime that the arrest was deliberately timed to draw attention to cooperation between the two countries. Santos has come under heavy criticism from former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe for his efforts to improve relations with Chávez, who had a more antagonistic relationship with the former president and is often accused of harboring FARC rebels, writes the Los Angeles Times. Chávez again rejected these allegations on Monday, according to Colombia Reports, stating:

Know, Colombia, that we are going to do everything in our power to prevent [the actions] in Venezuelan territory [of] those who conspire…against Colombia, whether drug traffickers, guerrillas, paramilitaries, or other armed forces, who violate or attempt to violate Venezuela’s sovereignty.

At their meeting, Santos and Chávez signed thirteen bilateral cooperation agreements meant to bolster trade, and, in the words of President Chávez, “to strengthen our friendship, trust, and policies.”

CELAC conference begins today in Venezuela

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) is convening a summit today in Caracas with the hope of formally establishing itself as a hemispheric organization that excludes the U.S. and Canada, reports the AP. The organization seeks to improve economic and political cooperation by the 33 countries whose heads of state are attending.

As The Miami Herald reports, some see the initiative as a sign of waning U.S. influence in the region.  “Without a doubt, this has not been a wonderful time for U.S.-Latin American relations,” said Sally Shelton-Colby, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, a former ambassador in the Caribbean and a diplomat in residence at The American University. “The U.S. is focused like a laser beam on the Middle East, South Asia and China for reasons of national security.”

Other observers, including Human Rights Watch, have expressed concerns that the new organization will dilute efforts to protect human rights and individual freedoms in the region.

Honduran military assumes police duties

President Porfirio Lobo of Honduras has deployed the military to police the streets after the Honduran Congress voted to allow the military to take on police duties, reports the BBC.

Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate and is following the example of Mexico, which deployed its own military to fight the drug cartels. Opinion polls cited by the BBC suggest that people feel safer with soldiers on the streets due to high levels of corruption within the police force that were brought to light by murders that have implicated police, such as the October murder of two university students. Honduras Culture and Politics presents the new law and provides analysis here.

Transparency International releases annual corruption report

This week, Transparency International published its annual Corruption Perceptions Report, reports the Pan-American Post blog. The report shows improvement in a number of countries with only three countries ranked in the worst category: Venezuela, Haiti, and Paraguay. Canada has the best ranking, followed in order by Barbados, The Bahamas, Chile, and the U.S. In addition, Cuba saw an improvement of 0.5 on the ten-point scale which has brought the island back to its 2008 level.

U.S. House Committee holds hearing on Nicaraguan elections

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, held a committee hearing yesterday titled “Democracy Held Hostage in Nicaragua: Part 1”. The hearing focused on recent elections in Nicaragua, which some critics have deemed illegitimate and current U.S. policy towards Nicaragua and its president, Daniel Ortega. Jennifer McCoy of the Carter Center, which observes elections throughout Latin America and the world, was invited to speak at the hearing. Her testimony is available here.

Recommended Reading

The Slow-Pitch Ambassadors to Cuba, Bruce Weber, The New York Times

“Wearing orange jerseys — well, T-shirts, really — the Cuban players lined up along the first-base line at Mella Field. We were in blue, along third. All of us held our caps over our hearts, and the Cuban National Concert Band played two national anthems, first the United States’, then Cuba’s, followed, for some reason, by “The Pink Panther Theme.”

Recommended Viewing

Eliécer Ávila gives interview with Estado de SATS

Eliécer Ávila, the former IT student who was the subject a viral video in which he questioned President of the National Assembly Ricardo Alarcón on issues including freedom of Cubans to travel, recently gave an interview (in two parts here and here) to the civil society project Estado de SATS. Unfortunately, the interview is only available in Spanish, but Phil Peters gives his comments on the interview at his blog The Cuban Triangle and Yoani Sánchez devotes a blog post to the interview as well.

A Final Word

The news that former Speaker Newt Gingrich is working on a plan to topple the Cuban government by 2014 shouldn’t have been considered unusual.  Such ideas are hearty perennials – or hearty quadrennials – in U.S. political campaigns.

For example, on December 9, 2007, at a Univision Debate, the question was asked:  When talking about Cuba, Cuban dictatorship has survived nine U.S. presidents. What would you do differently, that has not been done so far, to bring democracy to Cuba?

Former Senator Fred Thompson replied:  “I’m going to make sure that he didn’t survive 10 U.S. presidents.”

Actually, the Cuban government outlasted the Thompson campaign.  We’ll see what happens to the Gingrich proposal in 2012.

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