Florida Primary Pander-Fest Preview; Hunger striker dies in Cuba; Drilling rig arrives off Cuban coast

Cuba-bashing by both U.S. political parties is a four-season sport in American politics.  But it always reaches a fevered pitch around election time.

Over the last twenty years, big changes in U.S. policy that turned tighter the screws of the embargo took place in presidential campaign years.

Other than politics, it’s hard to explain why the Cuba Democracy Act passed in 1992, the Helms-Burton Act became law in 1996, or the Bush travel restrictions which clamped down on Cuban American travel to the island were imposed in 2004.

As policy makers toughen the policy in Washington, candidates are out on the trail with red-meat rhetoric to try and outdo their opponents and prove their anti-Castro bona fides.

In 2007, during the last campaign, candidates at a Univision debate were asked about the Castro regime having survived nine U.S. Presidents.  “What would you do differently,” the moderator said, “that has not been done so far, to bring democracy to Cuba?”

Senator Fred Thompson replied with tough talk, “I’m going to make sure that he didn’t survive ten U.S. presidents.”

Also running that year, Governor Mitt Romney endorsed the embargo, promised Cuban Americans he’d stand “side by side with the members of this community in fighting the menace of the Cuban Monsters,” and quoted Fidel Castro, using the phrase “Patria o muerte, venceremos [Fatherland or death, we will prevail],” in the mistaken belief that the slogan would rouse hardliners in the exile community to his side.

Four years later, it’s happening again.

Gov. Romney was out last fall with a white paper calling Cuba a rogue nation leading a virulently anti-American movement across Latin America and castigating the Obama administration for relaxing sanctions on Cuba without “demanding reforms.”

These days, according to press reports, while maintaining his tough stand from 2008, Romney mentions “almost nothing” about Cuba’s off-shore drilling and U.S. Cuba relations; he’s campaigned in Florida mainly against President Obama and promoting his economic plans.

But his surrogates have Romney’s back: with Capitol Hill Cubans attacking his opponents and with endorsements by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (who defend Romney against attacks for his anti-Dream Act immigration stance before Latino audiences).

Perhaps sensing a void, Speaker Gingrich is on the offensive. He has at least one commentator cheer-leading his pandering appeals to Miami Cubans.  Gingrich casts himself as the harshest critic of the Castro regime, vows to reestablish the Bush-era travel restrictions on Cuban Americans, has hired a top campaign adviser to Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and offers a less restrictive immigration policy.

He is also running this Spanish-language radio spot which ridicules Romney’s Castro sloganeering from 2007 and talks up his work in Congress with Romney supporters Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart on Helms-Burton in 1996.

With the Florida presidential primary taking place on January 31, two nationally-televised debates set for Tampa (NBC) on Monday and Jacksonville (CNN) on Thursday, and four candidates including the anti-embargo Rep. Ron Paul and the pro-Monroe Doctrine Sen. Rick Santorum vying for votes, it’s hard to believe the anti-Cuba pander-monium won’t really get out of hand.

This actually matters.  While many Americans correctly view campaign pandering with cynicism, candidates tend to mean – and do as officeholders – what they actually say during campaigns.  That’s especially true of presidents who can wheel freely on foreign policy (more so than on domestic affairs).

As one scholar wrote recently:

I suspect that many Americans would be quite skeptical of the idea that elected officials, presidents included, try to keep the promises they made on the campaign trail.

Political scientists, however, have been studying this question for some time, and what they’ve found…is that presidents invariably attempt to carry out their promises…presidents’ agendas are clearly telegraphed in their campaigns.

The rhetoric also matters because the issues matter.

Whether it’s the sad news that we report on the death of Wilmar Villar, a 31-year-old dissident, who has just died in prison after a nearly two-month hunger strike; the predicament of Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor starting his third year in jail for carrying on activities under a regime change program some of the candidates are promising to intensify; the imminence of Cuba drilling in the Gulf of Mexico; or anyone one of a number of issues made more complicated by the existence of the embargo, it matters what the candidates say about these issues because any one of them could be elected president and have the opportunity to turn their rhetoric into U.S. foreign policy come 2013.

All of us had better be paying attention and listening.


Jailed Cuban dissident on hunger strike dies in custody

Wilmar Villar Mendoza, a Cuban dissident arrested in November, who has been  on a hunger strike to protest his prison sentence, has died after forsaking food for 56 days, Reuters reports. Villar, who was 31 years old, was sentenced to four years in prison on charges that included disobedience, resistance and crimes against the state after taking part in a demonstration, the BBC reports.

Cuba’s government has so far not made any comment about Villar’s death. Human Rights Watche has released a statement, in which José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at the organization, states “Villar Mendoza’s case shows how the Cuban government punishes dissent…Arbitrary arrests, sham trials, inhumane imprisonment, and harassment of dissidents’ families – these are tactics used to silence critics.”

Spain, in a statement released by its Foreign Ministry, condemned his death and called for the liberation of all political prisoners in Cuba, AFP reports. In February 2010, dissident leader Orlando Zapato Tamayo, considered by Amnesty International as a “prisoner of conscience,” died after an 85-day hunger strike.

Get Ready, Get Set, Drill: Scarabeo 9 arrives off the coast of Cuba

The oil drilling platform Scarabeo 9 has arrived off the coast of Cuba, where it is visible from the Malecón, Havana’s sea wall, the AP reports. Photos are available from the state-run website CubaDebate.  Repsol, the Spanish oil company, stated that it will begin exploring for oil in the Gulf of Mexico using the rig “within days.”

Scarabeo 9’s previous stop was in Trinidad and Tobago, where Repsol invited a team from the U.S. Coast Guard and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to inspect the rig. The inspectors, as Reuters reported, found it to “generally comply with existing international and U.S. standards.”

Experts estimate that Cuba may have between 5 and 20 billion barrels of oil and10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in its off-shore Exclusive Economic Zone. A large find would have a huge impact on Cuba’s economy, its relationship with Venezuela, on which it depends for two-thirds of its oil requirement, and U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.

Marc Frank for the Financial Times reports on the significance, and the current status and implications for U.S.-Cuba relations. To read CDA’s publication about U.S. policy and Cuba oil drilling, click here.

Deteriorating building in central Havana collapses, killing four

A residential building in central Havana collapsed due to structural deterioration, killing four and injuring five others, EFE reports. The building had been declared uninhabitable several years ago, but several families had refused to vacate and continued to live in the structure, though according to neighbors authorities had tried several times to clear them out.

Cuba suffers from a chronic housing shortage and, according to official figures, more than half of the buildings on the island are in a state of disrepair. Some recent economic reforms permitting the retail sale of construction materials and offering loans for construction purposes are aimed at addressing this problem. Blogger Yoani Sánchez, in a post following the collapse, states:

What urgent solution will be applied so that these tragedies won’t continue to be a part of our daily landscape? We will not accept a response in the style of, “We are studying the issue in order to apply solutions in a gradual way.” Nor do we now fault the inhabitants themselves, who stayed in an uninhabitable place. Where could they go? Instead, we demand that the State construct, repair, protect us.

State communications company ETECSA lowers prices of text messages, cell phone calls

Cuba’s Ministry of Informatics and Communications has announced a substantial reduction in cell phone costs, Prensa Latina reports. Resolutions 11 and 12 from the Ministry, which have yet to be published in the Official Gazette, will reduce the prices paid by Cubans for phone calls and text messages.

Text messages will drop from 16 cents to 9 cents, and phone calls will drop from 60 to 45 cents per minute. In addition, people receiving phone calls will no longer be charged by the phone company. All prices are in Convertible Pesos (CUCs).


Cuban court documents released in sentencing of Alan Gross

The blog Café Fuerte has obtained and released the Cuban court document used in the sentencing Alan Gross in his trial last March.  An American, Mr. Gross was arrested in December 2009 for bringing highly regulated satellite equipment to the island while under a contract with USAID’s “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba. The document outlines the case against Gross, including a summary of the statements of those who testified.

According to the sentence, Cuba’s government was aware of Gross’ activities starting in 2004, when he delivered a package from Marc Wachtenheim, a director of the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF), a USAID-funded organization. On that occasion, Gross handed the package to José Manuel Collera Vento, an undercover agent of the Cuban government, who was at the time working with Wachtenheim. According to Collera Vento, who testified in the case, Wachtenheim contacted Gross again in 2007 about acquiring high-tech communication devices to be brought to the island, including BGAN satellite connections. Gross agreed and received $5,500 from PADF to obtain the equipment. That same year, Gross reportedly proposed an experimental program to Wachtenheim, to supply pro-democracy groups in Cuba with high-tech communications equipment. The project was not accepted.

The document continues that in 2008, Gross began a contract with the Maryland-based Development Alternatives Inc, also funded by USAID’s Cuba program. It states that he traveled to the island a total of seven times, creating three BGAN satellite networks for the Jewish communities in the cities of Havana, Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba, telling these communities that his work was a donation to increase communication within the Jewish community.

According to Collera Vento, who is also former president of Havana’s Masonic organization, Gross had plans to initiate a similar program for the island’s Masonic Lodges when he was arrested in 2009.

Neither Cuba’s nor the U.S. government has commented on the release of the sentence or confirmed the document’s authenticity. The Associated Press reports that Gross’ attorney, Peter Kahn, stated in response to the document’s release:

This document is further confirmation of what we have said all along — the Cuban authorities cannot point to any action by Alan P. Gross intended to subvert their government…The trial evidence cited in the document confirms that Alan’s actions were intended to improve the Internet and Intranet connectivity of Cuba’s small, peaceful, non-dissident, Jewish community.

The Cuba Interests Section in Washington, DC indicated last week, in an unpublished response to an earlier Washington Post editorial, that Cuba would consider releasing Alan Gross in a humanitarian exchange for the five Cuban agents imprisoned in the U.S. since 1998. In statements this week, State Department spokesman William Ostick stated that “An exchange for any of the members of the Cuban Five is not possible,” adding that “Their cases aren’t comparable and the Cuban Five were convicted in federal court and are serving their sentences…Alan Gross is not a spy,” AFP reports.

Senator Dick Durbin travels to Cuba

Illinois Senator and Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin traveled to Cuba this week. Sen. Durbin, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, Ricardo Alarcón, President of the National Assembly, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Archbishop of Havana as well as members of the international diplomatic community, the staff of the U.S. Interests Section and Cuban reformers, according to a statement from his office. According to the release,

The trip has focused on changes in Cuba — including Cuba’s substantial offshore drilling proposal — as well as discussions on improved relations between the US and the island nation..Durbin also pressed the Cuban government to release Alan Gross, a USAID contract worker who has been jailed since 2009.

Durbin is the second-highest ranking member of the Senate, and his trip marks a rare occasion of diplomatic contact between high-ranking U.S. and Cuban officials.

Baltimore-Havana flights to begin March 21st to coincide with Papal visit

Flights between Baltimore’s BWI airport and Cuba are set to begin on March 21st, a date chosen in advance of Pope Benedict’s arrival to the island planned for the 26th, the AP reports. The weekly flights are scheduled to depart the airport at 3 PM, and are organized through the charter company Island Travel & Tours.

Since President Obama eased requirements for airports to host direct flights to Cuba in January of last year, Baltimore is one of about a dozen airports that have been approved to charter flights to the island.


Spanish journalist to be freed from Cuban prison following negotiations

A Spanish businessman-journalist arrested after filming a hidden-camera report about underage prostitution in Cuba will be freed from a Cuban prison, reports EFE.  Sebastián Martínez Ferraté, who was arrested in July 2010 and sentenced to seven years in prison for corruption of minors and procurement, will soon be able to return to Spain thanks to negotiations between Madrid and the Castro government.

Trinidad Jiménez, who served in Spain’s prior government as Foreign Minister, began talks with her Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodríguez, because of  Ferraté’s fragile health, hoping to secure his freedom for humanitarian reasons. Her successor, José Manuel García-Margallo, resumed negotiations after taking office and called Ferraté’s wife, María Ángeles Sola, last week to tell her he would soon be released. Sola says she has no idea when her husband will be allowed to return to Spain, but hopes and believes it will be as soon as possible.

Brazilian FM, in Cuba, announces upcoming visit by President Dilma Rousseff

Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff will be making her first visit to Cuba on January 31, Xinhua reports. Brazil’s Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota made the announcement on Monday, during a meeting with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez.

According to Patriota, Rousseff’s stay will be “an opportunity to develop and strengthen bilateral political dialogue, based on the confidence we have built at unprecedented levels.” He also expressed Brazil’s willingness to help Cuban development and to have closer cooperation with the island, particularly in regards to the healthcare sector.

Patriota met with Raúl Castro on Tuesday to discuss the upcoming meeting, and also visited the port of Mariel, the site of an $800 million joint renovation project that is said to be the most important joint economic undertaking of the two countries. Rousseff’s visit will be part of her first trip abroad in 2012, with stops in Cuba and then Haiti, reports Radio Cadena Agramonte.

Around the Region

El Salvador commemorates 20th anniversary of Peace Accords, massacre at El Mozote

January 16th marked the anniversary of the signing of the 1992 peace accords that ended El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. In a speech (video in Spanish available here) commemorating the occasion, President Mauricio Funes apologized for the 1981 massacre of 936 civilians, a large percentage of whom were children, in an army counter-insurgency operation in the town of El Mozote, the AP reports. Funes formally acknowledged the government’s responsibility for the murders, calling the El Mozote massacre “the biggest massacre of civilians in the contemporary history of Latin America”.  Funes continued by asking for forgiveness from the relatives of the estimated 12,000 people disappeared in the conflict:

I ask forgiveness of the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters of those who still today do not know the whereabouts of their loved ones. I ask forgiveness from the people of El Salvador, who suffered an atrocious and unacceptable violence.

His speech was given at the massacre site in front of thousands of farmers and others who had traveled to commemorate the occasion. He stated that the peace accords had helped to change the army, adding that “Twenty years after the peace accords we have a different armed forces, democratic and obedient to civilian power.”

CDA’s executive director Sarah Stephens, along with our El Salvador consultant Linda Garrett, traveled to El Salvador to be present for the commemoration of the accords, and to meet with officials and members of civil society on the eve of this important anniversary. Here is an exclusive video interview with Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez about the importance of the President’s speech at El Mozote. We look forward to providing a link to our report on the trip and its events, as well as January’s El Salvador Update, in coming weeks.

Venezuela announces plans to withdraw from World Bank arbitration court

Rafael Ramírez, Venezuela’s Oil Minister, announced on Sunday that the country plans to leave the World Bank’s international arbitration body, the AP reports. Ramírez stated, “We do not accept impositions and we are going to rescue our national sovereignty…We are going to send notification of our withdrawal of the ICSID [International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes]”.

Last week, Exxon was awarded $907 million in compensation after seeking ten times that amount in an ICSID court. Venezuela called the final decision a “successful defense,” but still has another pending case from Exxon in the ICSID court. The decision by Venezuela to leave the court would affect more than a dozen foreign companies that currently have unsettled disputes with the Venezuelan government for compensation of assets seized during nationalizations and state takeovers, for a total of 17 pending cases.

Chávez announces he will close Miami consulate

President Hugo Chávez has announced plans to shut down Venezuela’s Miami consulate following the expulsion of a diplomat on charges of espionage, the AP reports. Livia Acosta Noguera, Venezuela’s consul general in Miami, was ordered to leave the U.S. last weekend, after an FBI investigation of allegations that she had discussed a possible cyber-attack on the U.S. government while serving in another diplomatic post in Mexico. Chávez called the action an unfair action by the U.S. State Department, stating that “There’s no proof that she was going around carrying out espionage.”

State Department spokesman Mark Toner, in response to Chávez’s announcement, stated “The decision on how to manage its consulates and how to provide consular services to Venezuelan citizens is entirely that of the Venezuelan government.”

Recommended Viewing

Interview with Salvadoran Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez, Center for Democracy in the Americas

In an exclusive interview, CDA asked Hugo Martínez to talk about the significance of President Funes’ speech at the site of the El Mozote massacre on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords.

Recommended Reading

It’s time to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic

“It’s been curious to me for some time that Cuba, a country that does not sponsor terror groups, is listed by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terror. Cuba’s inclusion (there are three other countries on the list, Iran, Syria and Sudan) undermines the seriousness of the list. Cuba is on the list, of course, because Castro-haters in the U.S. want it to be on the list, but it is not intellectually or analytically honest to include Havana. The State Department realizes this, of course, which is why its description of Cuba’s ‘terrorist’ activities is written the way it is.”

Reforms, slow and steady, Phil Peters, The Cuban Triangle

Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute looks into the pace and progress of Cuba’s economic reforms, providing links to several informative news articles.

U.S. frets at Cuba oil exploration, Marc Frank, the Financial Times

“A huge oil drilling platform will sink deepwater wells off Cuba next week in a move that has caused angst in the US at the prospect of significant oil discoveries that could alter Cuba’s economic future and Havana’s relations with Washington.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: