Cuba and Russia, a tale of two USAID programs; Obama Moves on Terror List (Not on Cuba)


As we published this week’s blast, news alerts were issued that the “People’s Mujehedeen,” or MEK, is being removed from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, based in part, the NY Times is reporting, on the MEK’s cooperation in moving 3,000 of its members out of its long time location in Iraq.  Now that Cuba has recently been recognized for its diplomatic role in peace talks soon to take place between Colombia’s government and the FARC, we would like to believe that Cuba will be rewarded for its cooperation and removed from the State Sponsors of Terror list (see more below).


We’ve written before about the serious problems posed to U.S. interests by the “regime change” programs financed by USAID and undertaken in Cuba.  We return to this subject this week and want to explain why.

Days ago, the New York Times published this story, Russia Demands U.S. End Support of Democracy Groups.  $50 million in aid will be cut off.  This follows actions by Russia’s government to require organizations which receive such aid to register as foreign agents.  The article makes clear that Russia is now clamping down hard on dissent, but that a number of other U.S. allies have also objected to these programs run by “outside groups telling them how to run their affairs.”

Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, is quoted saying about Russia’s decision to end the USAID role, “It is their sovereign decision to make,” and the Times went on to reflect her view that if Russia didn’t want the money, it could be better spent elsewhere.

Later, the State Department released the transcript of her official briefing in which she explained:

“…we have committed to the Russian Government that there’ll be no new contracting, no new programming, as of October 1st. But we have also asked for some time to wind down the mission, to conclude the programs that we have underway.”

The U.S. government through USAID operates a considerably more aggressive program in Cuba, aimed explicitly at overturning the island’s government.  Cuba outlawed participation in these programs in the late 1990s, as the U.S. government well knows.  Yet, as previously accounted in Foreign Policy, the State Department and USAID have wasted about $200 million conducting these efforts over the past ten years and have little to show for them.

Because they operate covertly, and Cubans who are touched by these programs often know nothing of their provenance, they put the intended beneficiaries at great legal risk – but not only Cubans.  Alan Gross, a USAID contractor, is serving a fifteen-year sentence in a Cuban prison, after entering the island falsely using a tourist visa on five occasions, bringing with him high technology communications equipment, as AP reported, including a specialized mobile chip often used by the Pentagon and CIA when they need to make satellite signals impossible to track.

Mr. Gross has suffered greatly since his arrest on December 9, 2009.  But the administration seems, to put it charitably, somewhat disengaged toward his plight.  As Fulton Armstrong, a retired analyst formerly with the National Security Council and Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explained in the Miami Herald:

“When a covert action run by the CIA goes bad, and a clandestine officer gets arrested, the U.S. government works up a strategy for negotiating his release.  When a covert operative working for USAID gets arrested, Washington turns up the rhetoric….and refuses to talk.”

Alan’s wife, Judy Gross, recently returned from Cuba deeply concerned about his physical condition.  Long-time advocates of cutting off travel to Cuba colorfully call Mr. Gross a hostage, and urge the Obama administration to turn the screws of sanctions tighter to force his release.   The Obama administration’s public posture is to demand that Cuba’s government unilaterally release him, but has never explained why it would do so after he was convicted of violating their laws.

In the case of Russia, the Obama administration was presented with a problem – Russia’s demand to cut off the democracy promotion programs it operates in that country – and it responded by conducting a negotiation to end them, because they recognized Russia’s sovereignty and are willing to find another way to help Russian NGOs.

For Mr. Gross’s predicament, this is the model, and it starts by respecting Cuba’s sovereignty.

Just this week, Cuba’s government again offered to sit down and talk with the United States about resolving his case.  There is no rational reason that should deter our government from doing so.   The two governments should sit down, right away, and hash this out.  Otherwise, the Obama administration must be asked: if it’s prepared to negotiate with Russia on USAID programs, why is it unwilling to do so to free Mr. Gross?


Cuba’s foreign minister says next U.S. president should end the embargo

Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, told a gathering of reporters that the next U.S. President has the opportunity to end the 50-year-old embargo, reports the Associated Press. Rodríguez told reporters that since the U.S. embargo began in 1962, it has caused $108 billion in damage to Cuba’s economy and has violated Americans’ constitutional rights by forbidding open travel to the island, according to Reuters.

The press conference occurred in Cuba and was staged, as similar events have been annually, to take place before the annual vote at the United Nations to condemn the embargo set for October. Last year, 186 countries approved the resolution condemning the U.S. embargo on the island for the 20th consecutive year.

Iranian group to be freed of U.S. terror label, according to sources

The U.S. State Department is reported to be in the process of removing the Iranian group Mujaheddin-e Khalq from the its terrorist list, the Washington Post reports. According to two senior officials cited in the article, the removal is expected to be conveyed to Congress as soon as today. The senior officials said that the decision sides with advocates who say the organization should be rewarded for renouncing violence and providing intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program.

Cuba remains on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terror, along with Iran, Sudan and Syria. CDA director Sarah Stephens recently penned this op-ed for Politico, arguing that Cuba’s inclusion on the list is wrong, detrimental to U.S. interests, and should be changed.

Cuban Interests Section holds teleconference with Havana on new affidavit filed in case of Cuban Five

The Cuban Interests Section in Washington, DC held a teleconference and panel this week, following the filing of a new affidavit in the case of Gerardo Hernández, a member of the Cuban Five, reports Along the Malecón. The affidavit, which we covered in our September 7th Cuba Central Newsblast, accuses the U.S. government of funding journalists to provide biased coverage of the cases of the five Cuban agents. At the teleconference Martin Garbus, the lawyer representing Hernández, stated that until now, U.S. government payments to journalists over Hernández’s trial had been undiscovered and that the judge and jury on Hernández’s case had been unaware that such payments to the media were taking place.

Department of Treasury to Meet With CubaExport

A letter from the U.S. Treasury Department (OFAC), written to Deborah Cohn, the U.S. Commissioner for Trademarks, indicates that department representatives have granted a meeting to the Cuban firm, CubaExport, to discuss the Havana Club trademark registration.  The letter requests information on the “actions at issue” for consideration for their meeting. According to the letter, the meeting between OFAC and CubaExport will take place on September 28th.

The Havana Club label is a longtime source of conflict between Cuba’s government and Bacardi, who both claim rights to the trademark. Cuba’s government collaborates with French liquor distributor Pernod Ricard to produce the brand of rum available on the island and internationally, while Bacardi produces a version of the rum made in Puerto Rico.


Cuban dissidents end hunger strike, government to release prisoner

Thirty Cuban dissidents ended an eight-day hunger strike on Tuesday, when Cuba’s government announced it would meet their demand to release a prisoner who had completed his sentence, reports Reuters. Vázquez Chaviano completed his sentence on September 9th, but remained behind bars the following day, sparking the hunger strike.  He is currently still being held, but Marta Beatriz Roque communicated to the Miami Herald (in Spanish) that a military official has assured Jorge Vázquez Chaviano’s wife, María del Carmen Hernández Martínez, that he will be freed by October 10th.

Trial of Ángel Carromero, named in accident that killed Payá, to begin on October 5

The trial of Ángel Carromero, the Spanish citizen behind the wheel of the car in the crash that killed dissidents Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero, will begin on October 5th in the provincial court of the city of Bayamó, reports the Associated Press.  This new date was announced after the original trial date of August 31st was pushed back, according to the Café Fuerte blog.

Carromero has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, which carries a sentence of 1-10 years in Cuba. Prosecutors are seeking a 3.5 year sentence for each victim, for a total of 7 years. Cuban officials say that the accident was caused by excessive speeding and Carromero’s failure to see warning signs about road construction, reports EFE.  Phil Peter’s blog, Cuban Triangle, contains additional links about the accident and Carromero’s trial.

Cuba launches 2012 census

On September 15th, Cuba officially began its Census of Population and Housing, which will run through September 24th, reports Prensa Latina. 55,000 enumerators are visiting homes to conduct a questionnaire that will collect data on the population, including age, sex, and the composition of housing units. The island’s last census was conducted in 2002.  By today, Cuban News Agency reported that census employees had already collected data from 46.3% of households.

Director of Havana’s Transportation Department removed from post

Joel Beltran Archer, the Director of Havana’s Transportation Department, was removed from his post last Saturday during a meeting of top government officials, reports Havana Times and Café Fuerte. The Provincial Assembly of People’s Power took this action in light of the continuing disrepair of the city’s transportation system. The system is currently operating at less than 50% of its total capacity; out of a total of 900 buses available for use in the capital, only 500 are currently in use.

An engineer working with the Ministry of Transportation told Café Fuerte that “The situation is really serious and there’s concern at the highest level. People on the street are fed up with the inefficiency and the government’s broken promises.” The name of Beltrán’s replacement has not yet been released.


Spanish airlines reducing frequency of flights to Cuba

Beginning October 28th, Spanish Airlines Iberia and Air Europa will shift to a winter schedule that reduces the frequency of flights from Madrid to Havana due to a decrease in demand, reports Cuba Standard.  Air Europa currently operates 7 flights to Cuba per week and Iberia operates 6 per week.  On their recently-released winter schedule, Iberia and Air Europa will each operate 5 flights per week.

Spain is Cuba’s third largest source of tourists after Canada and Great Britain. Spain’s economy is currently suffering from 21.5% unemployment.  The reduction in flights from Madrid to Havana comes as the number of Spanish tourists arriving to the island from January to July fell 25.2% from the same period last year. Despite this decrease, tourism to Cuba grew 5.4% between from January and July with more visitors from Canada, Argentina, France, Germany, and Russia, among other countries.

South Africa and Cuba bolster relations

Marius Fransman, South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation Deputy Minister, traveled to Havana for a series of bilateral consultations with Cuban government officials, reports All Africa. Fransman met with Orlando Hernández Guillen, Vice Minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment; Oscar Martínez Cordoves, Deputy Chief of Cuba’s International Relations Ministry; and Rogelio Sierra Díaz, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs. The ongoing efforts of both parties to increase bilateral trade and commercial relations, including the ratification of the Cuban Economic Assistance Package Agreement, signed earlier this year by Cuba and South Africa, were discussed. Also noted was the July renewal of the South Africa-Cuba Health Cooperation Agreement. It was decided that South Africa will send 1,000 students to study medical science at Cuban universities.

Recommended Reading:

The Havana Genius Bar, Ellen Blue Becque, Bloomberg Businessweek

“On my second day in Havana I pass a small electronics store in the once-upscale Vedado neighborhood and stop in. Fishing the useless slab from my bag, I ask, “Is there anyone who might know how to fix this?” The woman at the counter heads to the back and returns with a thin slip of paper bearing an address in the Miramar neighborhood.”

Can co-operatives revive Cuba’s sagging economy?, John Restakis, The Guardian

“Can co-operatives save socialism in Cuba? Or will they suffer the fate of co-ops in other countries where they were used to serve the needs of the state rather than those of the citizenry? This was the question in my mind. In every case where governments have sought to bend co-operatives to state interests, three results have followed: a hollowing out of co-op principles and the reduction of co-ops to mere extensions of the government; the ultimate failure of these enterprises and a dependence on the state; and the defamation of the co-op model which came to be seen, quite correctly, as a means of state control. In the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, co-operatives have yet to salvage their reputation. Will this happen in Cuba?”  

NED publishes Cuba money list, Along the Malecón

“The National Endowment for Democracy has again published a list showing how it distributes money for Cuba-related work. This is an important step toward greater transparency in taxpayer-financed democracy programs. Many other organizations refuse to release even the most basic information about their Cuba programs.”

Recommended Viewing:

Beachside Cuba, slideshow, Reuters

“Cuba’s beaches are an attraction for tourists the world over, whether they are foreigners paying thousands of dollars to reach them, or Cubans paying as little as five dollars for a three-day vacation in a seaside cabin.”

This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine features a 19-page article titled Where is Cuba Going? Happy weekend reading!

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