Diplomacy and Double Standards; Rene Gonzalez’s Humanitarian Request

If you needed another reminder about the double standards of U.S. diplomacy relating to all issues Cuba, this week provided another powerful example.

After weeks of conflict with Egypt, and tormenting days of impasse for the families of 16 Americans held in that country as part of a crackdown on pro-democracy groups, the United States government has been able to secure their release.  Americans held captive have been able to leave Egypt.

As this crisis wore on, Members of Congress threatened to cut off Egypt’s access to $1.5 billion in aid.  But the deadlock was broken by intensive diplomacy with Egypt.

According to The Cable, Obama administration officials – including U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Brooke Anderson of the National Security Council, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, and Harold Koh of the State Department –worked “furiously” to resolve the crisis.  Secretary of State Clinton met twice with Egypt’s Foreign Minister.  Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham “pitched in.”  $5 million in bail money was paid as part of the arrangement that enabled all 16 to fly out of Egypt yesterday.

Half a world away, in the comfortable confines of a Congressional hearing room, Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee explored various dimensions of the U.S. relationship with Cuba and Latin America.

Secretary of State Clinton, to her credit, said economic reforms in Cuba could lead to greater opportunity and political spaces for everyday Cubans, mentioned the releases of political prisoners in Cuba that took place in 2010-2011 and, leaning against the prevailing winds in the Committee, called Iran’s outreach to the region a failure and said no evidence could be found to verify alleged ties between Hezbollah and Latin American drug traffickers.

But in contrast to the U.S. government’s resolve in addressing the crisis affecting the U.S. prisoners in Egypt, the Secretary gave considerable ground when the Committee’s questions turned to the continuing confinement of Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor serving a 15-year sentence for activities funded by the regime change programs of the Helms-Burton law.

REPRESENTATIVE ALBIO SIRES (D-NJ): I know you mentioned Alan Gross before, but I just want to know that there is [sic] no negotiations going on for a swap between the Cuban spies that are imprisoned for Alan Gross. I know that we had two senators who were in Cuba a couple of days ago. And I was just wondering if — you know, if you know anything about kind of negotiations for a swap.

SEC. CLINTON: At no point, however, has the United States government been willing to give any unilateral concessions to the Castro regime or to ease sanctions as a means to secure Mr. Gross’s release. We think this should be done as a matter of humanitarian concern, as evidence that, you know, the Castro regime is, you know, willing to demonstrate that it is, you know, moving in a different direction. But it hasn’t happened yet. So we have not had any success in our diplomacy. We’d like to see Mr. Gross home. But we have made no deals. We’ve offered no concessions, and we don’t intend to do so.

The Secretary’s posture – rejecting a compromise with Cuba to secure Mr. Gross’s release – not only fails to move his case forward, but it doesn’t even satisfy the hardliners who believe, against five decades of experience, that squeezing Cuba harder will somehow spring Mr. Gross from his confinement.

They advocate ending flights to Cuba, ending family support in the form of remittances to Cuba, even expelling the small group of Cuban diplomats who function in the U.S. under the auspices of the Swiss embassy or the United Nations.   At the end of the day, they would rather preserve the fiction that sanctions will break the back of the Cuban economy than engage in the kind of diplomacy that conveys legitimacy to the Cuban government –even if that puts Mr. Gross at risk of serving his entire sentence.

Surely, we can do better, as the diplomacy we employed in Egypt makes quite clear.


Secretary Clinton discusses Cuba in House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified on Wednesday at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, where she answered a number of questions about the Obama administration’s policy towards Cuba and the rest of Latin America. Rep. David Rivera (FL-25) pressed Clinton to give tangible evidence that the administration’s Cuba policy has helped spur democratic reform on the island. As the Havana Note points out, the Obama Administration in the past has only called attention to recent changes in Cuba to say that they are insufficient. This time, however, Clinton’s response was different:

Well in the last three years there have been considerable changes in Cuba’s economic policy which we see as a very positive development, we think having the Cuban people given more economic rights, to be able to open businesses, to have more opportunity to pursue their own economic futures, goes hand in hand with the promotion of democracy. I wouldn’t claim that our movements were a direct cause, but they were coincident with [the reforms].

When Rivera asked the Secretary if her reference to economic reforms meant that she couldn’t cite any political improvements, she argued that “very often…economic freedom precedes political freedom.” She also noted the release of political prisoners as a positive step, and insisted that despite the fact that the prisoners were required to leave the country following their release, their freedom is nevertheless a step in the right direction.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18), chairwoman of the Committee, asked Clinton if the administration would pledge to boycott the Summit of the Americas if Cuba is invited. Clinton answered:

We do not believe there is any intention to invite Cuba. We’ve made our view on that well known. They don’t fit the definition of democratic countries and the development of democracy in the hemisphere, so at this point we see no basis and no intention to invite them to the summit.

However, Clinton stopped short of indicating what the U.S. would do if Cuba were in fact to be invited.  As we noted last week, it is the Colombian government, the host of the upcoming summit, that is solely responsible for choosing whether to invite Cuba, and under what terms.

The chairwoman also asked what the Administration was doing to counter the alleged threat posed by Iran in the Western Hemisphere. Clinton said that she considers Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent effort to reach out to countries in Latin America as largely a failure, and that while she is concerned about allegations that Latin American drug traffickers have links to Hezbollah and Iran she has yet to find any information verifying the allegations.

Hoary Chestnuts: Bolton Warns About Biological Weapons

Speaking at a meeting of the Assembly of the Cuban Resistance in Miami, John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, warned of the “dangerous alliance” between Cuba, the U.S., and Venezuela, NBC reports. One of his main concerns was the potential of Cuba developing a biological weapon.

This is not new.  On May 6, 2002, at a speech before the Heritage Foundation, Bolton, then-U.S. Under Secretary of State for arms control, said:  “The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort. Cuba has provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states.”

Bolton made the claim on the eve of former President Jimmy Carter’s trip to Cuba in 2002.  Before leaving for Cuba, President Carter said U.S. officials told him there was no evidence linking Cuba to the export of biological weaponry.  According to the Council on Foreign Relations, then-Secretary of State Collin Powell undermined Bolton’s statement saying he did not believe that Cuba had bioweapons (merely the ability to conduct research on them).
U.S. Environmental Fund awards prestigious grant to Cuban scientist

Dr. Fabian Pina Amargos, a Cuban scientist, will receive a $150,000 three-year grant to study the goliath grouper, an endangered large fish that is present in the Caribbean waters shared by the U.S. and Cuba.  The grant, from the Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation, will be hosted by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), according to a statement the organization released.

This is the first Pew Fellowship awarded to a scientist conducting research in Cuba, EDF said.

Pina Amargos will be performing his research for the Centro de Investigaciones de Ecosistemas Costeros (Center for Coastal Ecosystems Research) in Cayo Coco, Cuba.

EDF’s Cuba program director Dan Whittle called the fellowship “a sterling example of how scientific exchange can benefit Cuba and the United States.” EDF chief oceans scientist Dr. Doug Rader, who nominated Pina Amargos for the fellowship, has long advocated for increased scientific collaboration between the two countries:

Countries that share ocean waters should share information about what swims in them…This is a prestigious award that shows the U.S. and Cuba can build bridges to support scientific collaboration.

EDF has worked in Cuba on issues relating to marine conservation for 11 years.

National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba to play in Tampa

As part of its first U.S. tour since the Cuban Revolution, the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba will play concerts in the Tampa Bay area this November, reports the Tampa Bay Times.

One of the performances will be a chamber music program to be held at the Cuban Club, which the newspaper says lies at “the heart of the rich Cuban heritage in Ybor City.” E.J. Salcines, a retired prosecuting attorney and judge and Latino elder statesman in Tampa, explained why he saw the upcoming performance as significant:

The Cuban Club has been the site of a long cultural connection with the musicians and composers and theatrical performers who frequently came from Cuba to perform at the Cuban clubs in Ybor City. I look at this as an important event from a cultural point of view.

The performance will be presented by the Florida Orchestra, as part of a multi-year cultural exchange with Cuba that began last September with a wind quintet performance in Havana. The National Symphony Orchestra’s U.S. tour, which tentatively includes 17 cities in 10 states, will begin in Kansas City in October.

Freed Cuban agent, on probation in the U.S., asks to visit sick brother in Cuba

René Gonzalez, a member of the Cuban Five who was released from prison in October and is currently being kept in the U.S. on probation, wants to return home briefly to visit his sick brother, reports the Associated Press.

González is one of the counter-intelligence agents sentenced in 1998 to lengthy jail terms for spying in the United States. He is asking a Miami federal judge to allow him a two-week trip to Cuba to visit his brother. González’s attorney says in court papers that the prisoner’s 53 year-old brother is in the final stages of lung cancer, and argues that González has observed the rules of his probation since his release from prison five months ago. A letter from González to his ailing brother is available here.

Cuban doctor in U.S. is denied request for permanent residence

Osmil Atila Reyes is a Cuban doctor who is currently residing in Miami under a U.S. program that offers residency to Cuban doctors who defect while they are completing international missions. The Cuban Medical Professional Parole program was initiated in 2006 under President Bush, and allows Cuban doctors participating in medical brigades outside of Cuba to defect and immigrate to the U.S. simply by making contact with the local U.S. embassy. It is estimated that somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 Cuban doctors have come to the U.S. under the program.

However, Reyes’ request for permanent residence has been denied due to the fact that the doctor was at one point associated with the Union of Communist Youth, the Miami Herald reports. Reyes states:

What is happening to me is humiliating…I did not enter the United States illegally. I entered encouraged by the United States and the reality is that 95 to 98 percent of Cuban doctors unfortunately have belonged to the UJC because at some point it was demanded of them

A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services representative stated last week that Reyes’ case would be reviewed.

Important Survey on Cuba Travel

Our friends at the Latin America Working Group (LAWG) are doing an important job conducting a survey about people-to-people travel. We encourage all of our readers who are interested in traveling to Cuba, are planning on traveling to Cuba on a people-to-people trip, or have recently returned from a trip, to fill out their survey here.


Reorganization of ministries is adopted

Cuba’s Council of Ministers has approved the reorganization of several ministries, converting the Ministry of Basic Industry (MINBAS) into the Ministry of Energy and Mines, and creating the Ministry of Industry, state website CubaDebate reports. President Raúl Castro presided over the meeting of the Council of Ministers. “With these decisions, we seek to respond to problems that have been identified in each of these state organisms, and at the same time advance the separation of state and business functions,” said the announcement which appeared in Granma describing the changes. While the Ministry of Energy and Mines will oversee oil, electric power and mining activities, the Ministry of Industries will be in charge of the steel and iron industries, as well as chemistry and light industry.

Vatican releases official itinerary for Pope’s visit to Mexico, Cuba

The Vatican has officially released the Pope’s itinerary for his visits to Mexico and Cuba. As was previously reported, Pope Benedict XVI will land in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba on March 26th and be officially received by President Raúl Castro, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba, and the Archbishop of Santiago, Dionisio Guillermo García Ibáñez.

He will hold a mass at sunset in the Antonio Maceo Revolution Square, and then go to El Cobre, the home of the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint. After spending the night in a residence of priests, he will visit the shrine the following day and then head to the airport to board a flight to Havana. In Havana, the Pope will be welcomed by Havana’s Archbishop Cardinal Jaime Ortega and other “religious and civil authorities.” He is scheduled to meet officially with President Raúl Castro that afternoon, and then hold a meeting in the Nunciature with all the Catholic Bishops of Cuba. Finally, on the morning of the 28th, the Pope will preside at mass in Revolution Plaza, departing from there to the airport for an official farewell ceremony.

The Miami Herald reports that a South Florida furniture store will be providing the mattress for the Pope’s night in the priest’s residence in El Cobre, at the request of Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski. At least three planes will arrive in Cuba from the U.S., bringing pilgrims traveling to be present for the Pope’s visit, EFE reports.

Fidel and Raúl Castro’s older sister dies in Havana

Fidel and Raul Castro’s oldest sister Ángela has died in Havana, the AP reports. Ángela Castro, who had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for many years, died early Tuesday morning at a clinic where she had been staying. She was reportedly unconscious and surrounded by her children when she died. The news came from her sister, Juanita Castro, who spoke with the Associated Press from her home in Miami. At the age of 88, Ángela was the oldest of seven Castro siblings and the first of them to die, the BBC reports. Her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered at the farm in eastern Cuba where she was born, which is now a museum.

Sales of salt on the free market commence

Cubans are now able to purchase salt on the free market without being restricted by quotas from the libreta, or ration book, Café Fuerte reports. Resolution 28/12 of the Ministry of Interior Commerce approved the sale of salt beginning on March 1st, and establishes the price at 5 Cuban pesos (about 20 cents) for iodized table salt and 4 Cuban pesos (about 15 cents) for coarse salt. The resolution, however, does not eliminate or modify the previously existing quota of salt sold to the population at a subsidized price by the state.

Cuban cigar festival highlights dynamics of international cigar market

The fourteenth annual International Habano Festival, a celebration of the famous Cuban cigar that attracts aficionados from around the world, began this week in Havana, EFE reports (video). The festival is put on by Habanos Cigars S.A. in coordination with the Ministry of Agriculture. Habanos is a joint venture of Cuba’s Cubatabaco and the Altadis Corporation, which belongs to the British Tobacco Group PLC. The program of the festival includes samplings, seminars, and trips to plantations and factories. Photos of attendees participating in a cigar-rolling seminar are available here.

Company vice president Javier Terres stated that cigar sales rose 9% to $401 million in 2011, as the purchase of luxury items as increased due to stronger economies, Reuters reports. Terres added that increasing sales in some markets like Russia, China and Brazil has made up for declining sales in countries like Spain, which has nonetheless remained the main purchaser of Habanos. The company currently distributes its products to more than 150 countries.


Fidel Castro meets with Peace Boat members

Former President Fidel Castro met on Thursday with members of the Peace Boat, a pacifist group making its way around the world, the AFP reports. Over 700 members of the group met with the former Cuban president at Havana’s Convention Center to hold a “forum for peace and against nuclear weapons.”

Participants heard testimonies from a survivor of the Hiroshima nuclear attack, a university professor who survived the nuclear accident in Fukushima last year, and a Cuban physician who helped treat victims of the Chernobyl disaster, among others. Castro called for increased worldwide awareness of the consequences of the U.S. attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for further investigation into the consequences of nuclear testing in the Pacific, and argued for nuclear disarmament.

CubaDebate has pictures of the event.

Ukraine, Cuba to implement several projects in medicine

The governments of Cuba and Ukraine expressed their mutual interest this week in pursuing joint projects in the medical sector, according to Ukrainian news company ForUm.

According to Ukraine’s Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, Ukraine has received a draft agreement for the establishment of a joint pharmaceutical enterprise that would produce medications for the treatment of cancer patients.  The Prime Minister stated, “We know about the wonderful results of treatment of cancer patients, achieved by the Cuban doctors. And we are ready to create here such a center with you.”

Mr. Azarov also stated his desire to finance continued Cuban medical care for the 18,000 children affected by the Chernobyl disaster, and gave thanks for the care Cuban doctors have already provided them.

Around the Region

Venezuela says Chávez fine after surgery

Elías Jaua, Venezuela’s Vice President, reported that President Hugo Chávez was “in good physical condition” following his surgery in Cuba on Monday, Reuters reports. A statement from the Office of the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela also said that the President was “recovering satisfactorily” from the procedure. Chávez traveled to the island after discovering a new lesion in his pelvic region that had to be removed. A similar procedure took place in June 2011, however, the specific nature of Chávez’s cancer has not been revealed. On Thursday, President Chávez phoned Venezuelan state television, saying, “I’m very happy, I’m fine, my recovery is accelerating,” Reuters reports. Last year, however, Chávez repeatedly assured the country that he was fully cured.

The announcement of this second surgery has increased uncertainty leading up to October’s presidential elections when he will face opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. Reuters reports that state officials have recently urged the public not to heed stories that President Chávez’s condition is worse than is being officially reported. McClatchy reports on the recent Wikileaks’ release of Stratfor intelligence company’s internal emails, which include additional speculation regarding Chávez’s health. Finally, the AP has a comprehensive report analyzing the importance of the health issue leading up to the election.

International Human Rights Commission to Review Chevron’s Abuses in Ecuador

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has agreed to hear the claims of Ecuadorian indigenous communities who have been waging a legal battle against Chevron for 18 years. Ecuadorian courts recently handed down an $18 billion judgment against Chevron which the company is now attempting to contest in international investor-state arbitration panels using UNCITRAL, the UN’s arbitration mechanism. In a statement released by PR Newswire the Andean Commission of Jurists and five international law experts criticized Chevron’s effort to use what they called “secret investor arbitration” to avoid paying the $18 billion, and the IACHR will determine whether the use of such international trade tribunals in this instance violates human rights.

Recommended Reading

The 2013 foreign aid request, Abigail Poe, Just the Facts

This blog post breaks down, with helpful graphs and analysis, what the Obama administration’s 2013 budget request will mean for aid to Latin America.

Cuba drills for oil, but U.S. unprepared for spill, William Booth, The Washington Post

“As energy companies from Spain, Russia and Malaysia line up to drill for oil in Cuban waters 60 miles from the Florida Keys, U.S. agencies are struggling to cobble together emergency plans to protect fragile reefs, sandy beaches and a multibillion-dollar tourism industry in the event of a spill.”

The Frozen U.S.-Cuba Relationship, Interview with Julia E. Sweig, Council on Foreign Relations

Dr. Sweig gives an overview of where things stand between the United States and Cuba, and what forces have contributed to the continued stagnation in relations.

Los Rostros de Comayagua, Frederick Meza, El Faro

“The Faces of Comayagua” compiles a powerful set of portraits of family members of victims of  the Honduran prison fire holding pictures of the deceased.

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