The most important story that was published this week about U.S.-Cuba relations related to the sad, as of yet unresolved, case of Alan Gross.
Mr. Gross is the USAID subcontractor convicted last March of undertaking activities funded by the Helms-Burton Act, which explicitly calls for regime change in Cuba.
Cuban officials, at the time of Mr. Gross’s arrest, said that he was an intelligence agent. The U.S. government asserted that his actions amounted to nothing more than efforts to better connect Cuba’s Jewish community to the Internet and should not be considered illegal under Cuban law. To this date, U.S. officials have not deviated from their benign description of his work.
This week, the Associated Press published a story about his case and his activities prior to his arrest that explains why Cuba’s government thinks he was doing more than making innocuous Internet connections. It also means that even though Alan Gross was not engaged in espionage, the U.S. government has a lot more explaining to do about what he, and most other “democracy promotion” contractors and grantees are actually up to in Cuba.
According to the AP, Mr. Gross filed reports that demonstrate he knew that what he was doing was against Cuban law. On five occasions, he secreted into Cuba the kind of equipment for which nearly every country in the world would require special permission. This included advanced satellite communications hubs, and a sophisticated electronic chip that could prevent the detection of signals for a 250-mile radius. Each time he entered Cuba he falsely claimed he was visiting the island as a tourist, actions that are considered felonies under U.S. law if undertaken by an alien seeking entry into the United States.
Cuba’s Jewish community neither requested nor needed this equipment. But, he persuaded other Americans visiting Cuba to bring the illegal equipment into the country without informing them that they were violating Cuban law, placing them in harm’s way. He also provided the electronics to unsuspecting Cuban recipients without informing them of their provenance, exposing them to prosecution by the Cuban state.
According to some interpretations, what Alan Gross did not only violated Cuban law, but may have also violated U.S. law, because he put to use in Cuba sophisticated electronic equipment that required a license for export that he may never have obtained.
All of this said, Mr. Gross appears to be a pawn and a victim of the Cold War politics that have divided Cuba and the United States for more than fifty years. His mother is suffering from lung cancer; one of his daughters is suffering from breast cancer; his wife is soldiering on alone, struggling with the financial and emotional burdens of her separation from her husband and her family’s illnesses. Mr. Gross has been incarcerated for more than two years, is suffering enormously from his confinement, and his case evokes genuine humanitarian concerns.
Against the backdrop of the factual record, the U.S. government simply demands his unconditional release – without acknowledging publicly that these programs, even if not espionage, are out of control and, possibly in some cases, inconsistent with U.S. policy and perhaps U.S. law. Even worse, rather than admitting “you got us,” the State Department has doubled-down on its explanations and its denials, making it a lot more difficult to achieve resolution on Mr. Gross’s case.
Hardline legislators, like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, admonish the U.S. government against negotiating with Cuba at all to secure his release, calling such efforts “appeasement.” Mr. Gross is being left on the battlefield without recourse.
The U.S. government needs to come clean and acknowledge that Mr. Gross’s activities violated Cuban law and negotiate for his release on that basis. It needs to end a program that has wasted $200 million over the last decade funding regime change activities that pose a greater risk not to Cuba’s government but to the Cuban citizens it implicates without their knowledge. Most of all, the U.S. government should stop imposing restrictions on the liberties of Americans to visit Cuba, honestly and openly, through the front door, so that Cubans and U.S. citizens could educate each other about their ideas, interests, and ideals. Cuba, too, needs to do its part to end this impasse. The status quo is not sustainable.
Recent reforms have eased regulations on home construction, remodeling, and repairs in Cuba. Previously, the purchase and sale of construction materials was restricted, and necessary materials were difficult to find even for high prices on the black market. The New York Times reports that following reforms, including the legalization of private contractors, Cuban citizens are now arranging much-needed construction and repair work on their homes.
This Monday, on the first day that a new government program offering subsidies for those who seek to buy construction materials became operational, officials approved 1,339 out of 4,901 requests for the subsidies, the state newspaper, Juventud Rebelde, reports.
This is significant because Cuba has a shortage of housing for its citizens amounting to over 600,000 residences. according to official statistics. To combat this deficit, Havana is offering subsidies and lowering the price of materials as part of an initiative to build 23,000 houses this year, DPA reports.
Despite this focus on construction, 2011 marked the seventh year of decline in the number of homes built, Café Fuerte reports. According to data from the National Office of Statistics (ONE), Cuba closed the year with 32,540 new homes. The statistics also reveal that the zone with the most newly constructed housing was Havana, with 4,361 – nearly double the 2,460 homes built there in 2010. 27.5% of homes were built privately, while the rest were projects of the state or of cooperatives. As a part of its goals, the government wants 70% of home construction to be undertaken by the private sector by 2015.
Cuba’s National Statistics Office (ONE) has reported an 8.7% increase in non-sugar agricultural production in 2011, Reuters reports. Since 2008, Cuba’s government has focused on agricultural reform in an attempt to increase domestic production and reduce reliance on food imports, which currently account for the majority food consumed on the island. These reforms began with land redistribution, and in recent months have included incentives such as subsidies for purchasing agricultural equipment, an increase in the amount of land that is handed out to small farmers, an increase in sales permitted through farmers markets, and the legalization of sales from independent farmers to the tourism industry.
This latest increase comes after production decreased 2.5% in 2010. The report details that produce output increased 11.5%, while livestock and related products increased 6%. The ONE previously reported that food prices increased 20% in 2011, as higher prices for staple products on the international market have apparently offset the increase in domestic production. A local agricultural expert stated:
There is no doubt increased investments in key imports such as rice and beans are now showing results…But it is too early to say reforms in general are working as the figures could simply reflect there have been no hurricanes in three years.
Notable increases were noted in the production of rice (43.7%), beans (66.1%), and, to a lesser degree, corn (9.1%), while exports of other crops such as sugar, coffee and tobacco remain low.
Police informed Guillermo Fariñas, a leading Cuban dissident, that they will punish an ex-officer who had threatened to kill him, the Miami Herald reports. Fariñas called the decision a “blow against impunity,” adding that “peaceful opposition activists can now file lawsuits for injuries, for threats, for attempted murders, against those who pummel them constantly.”
The police told Fariñas that he will be allowed to attend next week’s sentencing of Major Miguel Morejó Padrón, formerly of the Interior Ministry, who will receive a restraining order and, if he threatens Fariñas again, will face jail time. This is the first known example of a Cuban security agent being publicly disciplined, and where a victim will be allowed to be present during the trial.
Yagruma, a website that was launched a little over two months ago, is a new website aimed at providing a fundraising tool for independent art projects on the island. Based in Barcelona, the website is run by three Cubans who have left the island and seeks new ways of supporting creative projects.
Ubaldo Huerta, in an interview with Café Fuerte, compares Yagruma to the U.S. website Kickstarter, whose slogan is “A new way to fund and follow creativity.” Based on information available on the site, artists can submit proposals on the website, and once the proposal is accepted, each project has one month to 50 days to meet a fundraising goal. If that goal is met, the funds raised are wired to Cuba for the artist to use. If the project doesn’t meet its fundraising goal, no money changes hands. The site doesn’t claim intellectual property rights to funded projects, and charges a 5% fee for projects that reach their goal.
In his interview, Huerta states:
I’ll reiterate that Yagruma doesn’t rely on any government, or any political organization. We are open to explaining our ideas to anyone who is interested. The nature of “crowd funding” privileges individual acts: a project from a creator or artist, and an answer – also individual – from the donors.
The cell phone network in Cuba collapsed on Valentine’s Day during the morning and part of the afternoon due to the high volume of phone calls and text messages, Reuters reports. Calls by Cubacel subscribers were met with a pre-recorded message asking the caller to try again “in a few minutes due to network congestion.”
On January 16th, the Ministry of Information and Communication ordered cuts to Cubacel’s rates for the benefit of its subscribers, which a network spokeswoman said could also have contributed to the Valentine’s Day service outage. The previous rate of 16 CUC (Cuban convertible peso, about 16 cents) per text message was reduced to 9 CUC (about 9 cents) and incoming cellular calls from the same carrier were made free, according to EFE.
According to government statistics, Cuba has 1.2 million cell phone subscribers, of which 300,000 were activated last year.
Former president Fidel Castro met with a group of visiting international and Cuban intellectuals for a 9-hour discussion titled the “Encounter of Intellectuals for Peace and the Preservation of the Environment,” Reuters reports. The meeting occurred as a part of Cuba’s 21st Annual International Book Fair, which is occurring in Havana this week. The group reportedly discussed themes including arms proliferation, the scarcity of natural resources, and transnational control of the media.
Newly-obtained documents about the activities of Alan Gross prior to his arrest provide information that challenges key elements of his story, according to the Associated Press Though Mr. Gross, and his attorneys, insisted that he was not aware of the covert nature of his actions, documents indicate that he was aware that the work was dangerous.
His trip reports indicate that one community leader “made it abundantly clear that we are all ‘playing with fire,’” and Mr. Gross himself stated “This is very risky business in no uncertain terms, and “Detection of satellite signals will be catastrophic.”
The documents also show that Mr. Gross used unsuspecting American travelers to the island to transport sensitive, illegal equipment into Cuba without informing them of the risks involved.
For the Associated Press article reporting on the information in these recently-obtained documents, and background information on the Gross case, click here. An NPR interview with Desmond Butler, author of the AP article, is available here.
President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 takes a step towards reducing funding for “democracy promotion” programs, and increases U.S. development aid. The budget would cut Cuba “democracy promotion” funds by $5 million, and would also cut democracy funding to Venezuela by $2 million. Development assistance to the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, on the other hand, would be increased by $1 million, $2 million, and $3.1 million, respectively. The Organization of American States (OAS) would also receive a $1.5 million increase in funding.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, formally expressed her dismay at this proposal, stating that:
The President’s policy towards Latin America has largely sought to make concessions to the region’s dictators, and this budget puts that in ink for all to see. I am disappointed that this administration continues to downplay the threats posed to democracy and human rights by the Western Hemisphere’s despots.
The Center for Democracy in the Americas, and several other NGOs and experts on Latin American affairs, have advocated for the reorientation or elimination of USAID’s democracy promotion programs, due to their non-transparent and covert nature, the lack of evidence that they produce any positive outcomes, and the friction they create with governments where such programs are in place.
Hearings on the Hill address Iranian influence in Latin American, human rights in Cuba
New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez chaired a Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing with Florida Senator Marco Rubio on Thursday to address what the Senators framed as Iran’s increased ties to left-leaning Latin American governments. While Menendez, Rubio and three of the four experts they asked to testify argued that Iran’s activities in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Ecuador constitute a threat to U.S. national security, hard evidence of these alleged activities has thus far not surfaced and was not presented at the hearing. As Nicaragua Dispatch reports, Michael Shifter, President of the Inter-American Dialogue, testified at a similar hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs last month, and stated:
The fact is that there is a lot of speculation on this subject…Although it is hard to say with any confidence, there seem to be a push among some hard-line sectors in Washington to protect well-established bureaucratic interests and to justify more money to fight what they claim are increasing threats in the U.S.’s ‘backyard’.
A second hearing, in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, was titled “Further Human Rights Violations in Castro’s Cuba: the Continued Abuse of Political Prisoners,” and featured the testimony of Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet, a well-known dissident, Reuters reports. Biscet, who phoned in to the hearing from Cuba, was released from prison in March of 2011 along with more than 50 other political prisoners in an agreement negotiated between the Catholic Church and President Raúl Castro.
A Fort Lauderdale company says it is still waiting for government approval to run a ferry service between Port Everglades and Cuba, the Associated Press reports. Havana Ferry Partners, which applied for the license almost two years ago, is one of at least four companies interested in running ferries to Cuba. The passengers of these ferries will likely be Cuban Americans who are now permitted to travel to the island as often as they want, following a regulatory change by President Obama in 2009.
According to the Sun Sentinel, about 400,000 Cuban Americans visited Cuba last year on charter flights from authorized U.S. airports. The service proposed by Havana Ferry Partners and others would facilitate travel and provide a lower cost option for family travel.
Due to the red tape in receiving a general license, Havana Ferry is now pushing for one-time permission, under a specific license, to take travelers to Cuba next month for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba, according to USA Today
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Héctor Dada Hirezi, El Salvador’s Minister of Economy, and Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez presented the National Assembly with the text of trade agreements signed with Mexico and with Cuba in 2011, ContraPunto reports.
While the agreement with Mexico is a free trade agreement, the treaty with Cuba is a Partial Scope Agreement, which creates tariff preferences for products going in both directions, including: honey, poultry, tropical fruits, flour, chocolate, bakery, beer, rum, snuff, cement, pharmaceuticals, plastics, paper, cardboard, and shoes. The treaty also includes cooperation in the areas of science and technological innovation and creation of a “strategic alliance” between entities in each country.
The texts of the agreements are to be discussed and approved by El Salvador’s legislature and implemented in the coming months. Ricardo Alarcón, the President of Cuba’s National Assembly, is scheduled to travel to El Salvador next week to promote the Partial Scope Agreement as well as other exchanges between the two nations.
Around the Region
Henrique Capriles, governor of the state of Miranda, won Venezuela’s opposition primary, and will face President Hugo Chávez in the October presidential election, the AP reports. Capriles enjoyed a decisive victory, with about 63% of the vote and beat his closest opponent, Zulia state Governor Pablo Pérez, by more than 30 percentage points. The primary vote surpassed turnout expectations, with a total of about 2.9 million ballots cast out of a population of 18 million registered voters.
Following the primary, there were charges that Venezuela’s government intended to punish voters who cast their ballots in the opposition’s primary. The New York Times reported on the opposition’s decision to burn voting records from the primary after Venezuela’s highest court ordered opposition leaders to turn over to the government records that included the voters’ names. Ramón José Medina, a Democratic Unity official, stated that some of the records were being preserved and hidden from government officials in case questions about the outcome of the election arise.
For an analysis of the primary and its significance, and a look forward to the upcoming October presidential election, click here for a blog post by Dr. Dan Hellinger, author of CDA’s monthly Caracas Connect Update. Armando Briquet, Capriles’ campaign manager will be participating in a teleconference organized by the Council of the Americas/Americas Society, next Tuesday. You can register for the call here.
A raging fire at an overcrowded Honduran prison killed more than 350 people, the AP reports. The prison was built to hold a maximum of 500 people, but at the time of the fire held 856 people, more than half of whom were awaiting trial or being held as gang members.
Firefighters who arrived on the scene reported that they were unable to locate prison guards with keys to the jail cells, and that many men died from burns or suffocation while locked in their cells. Authorities have stated that a mattress fire started by a prisoner was the cause of the blaze, but relatives have expressed their doubts.
Honduras has one of the world’s highest crime rates, and the administration of President Lobo has responded with increasingly tough mano dura, or iron fist policies, leading to chronic overpopulation in the prisons. @bloggingsbyboz offered a tragic and poignant observation: “More people will be murdered in next 3 weeks in Honduras than died in prison fire. One isn’t more tragic than the other, simply more visible.”
The Political and Environmental Implications of Cuban Oil Ambition, Collin Laverty, UCSD Journal of International Policy Studies
This interview between Collin Laverty, Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas and Jake Colvin, vice president for global trade issues at the National Foreign Trade Council, looks at Cuba’s offshore drilling and its implications for the Gulf of Mexico and for diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Tampa looks to Cuba for trade opportunities, Phil Keating, Fox News Latino
The city of Tampa has broken with exile-politics-as-usual by seeking increased trade with Cuba. The Tampa airport was approved last year to host direct flights to the island, and business representatives, including the Chamber of Commerce, are acting to open trade relations with Cuba.
Falling for Cuba, James Vlahos, National Geographic Traveler
National Geographic writer James Vlahos colorfully describes his experience learning about salsa music and dancing in Cuba.
Cuba’s oil explorations could shift relations with Venezuela and China, Pierre Bertrand, International Business Times
“Which OPEC member could benefit hugely from Cuba’s nascent offshore oil industry? Venezuela. The reason is that after years of subsidizing the island nation of former president Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul, a Cuba that starts making money from oil might slowly wean itself off Venezuelan aid.”
From Overcrowding to Corruption, Examining Prison Life in Honduras, PBS News Hour via YouTube
“A fast-moving blaze engulfed a Honduras prison Tuesday night, killing more than 272 people. Margaret Warner discusses the details of the fire and a prison system notorious for overcrowding and violence.”