This post will self-destruct in ten seconds. Good luck, readers.

In the 1960s, many of us in the U.S. never missed an episode of Mission Impossible, the weekly Cold War-era television drama, in which a top secret group of operatives were entrusted with undercover missions that put their lives at risk.  Their instructions were always accompanied by a message reminding them of the government’s plausible deniability:

As always, should you or any of your IM force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.

In recent legal filings, the United States government and Development Alternatives Inc. – the customer and client operating the “democracy promotion” activities that led to Alan Gross being locked up in Cuba – appealed in a federal court to dismiss the $60 million lawsuit filed against them by Mr. Gross and his wife Judy.

The merits of the lawsuit do not matter, the government says; it is immune and can’t be held accountable for the injuries to Mr. Gross and his family, because they arise from his imprisonment in Cuba and there’s a “foreign country exception” under the Federal Torts Claim Act.

They may be right about the law, but what a Catch-22!  The program was designed to send people like Mr. Gross to a foreign country, Cuba, and engage in activities that put them at risk.  It also begs the question whether the legislators who wrote, funded, and obstinately insisted that its operations continue, as well as those in the State Department and USAID, ignored the risks since there was no legal recourse available to someone who got caught in Cuba doing what they sent him to do.

In connection with the court filings, new documents are now available – including a confidential memo from a 2008 USAID meeting as well as a written report by Alan Gross – that provide new details and greater clarity about the regime change program operated by USAID.

The documents – analyzed here by Tracey Eaton – also undermine the State Department’s cover story, repeated as recently as December 3, 2012, that “He was there in Cuba as an aid worker working with the Jewish diaspora community there, helping them to better communicate through the internet to the outside world.”

Instead, the documents make clear that the project was an “operational activity,” run at the end of the Bush administration, which had already put together five to seven transition plans for Cuba.  The administration was seeking “immediate results” from the program designed to spark reactions by change agents in Cuba who were being given access to highly sensitive, high technology equipment.

Secrecy was at the heart of the project, starting with communications coming from Washington.  In the USAID memo, under a section marked “response to public inquiry,” there is a bold-faced note: “Nothing anywhere.  We must not post anything on our website or issue a press release on the awarded contract.” The memo says that “Official and contract communications demands (sic) careful wordmanship and crafty use of terms.  No reference whatsoever to the new media component.”

Stealth was particularly important for the operations in Cuba.  In September 2009, Mr. Gross reported that his activities were already supporting direct communications between “target communities” and the U.S.  At the same time, he was monitoring Cuban users of the equipment to see what websites they were accessing.  High technology equipment was brought in to make the activities more secure, but these also made the operation more dangerous.  He writes, “Discovery of BGAN usage for Internet access would be catastrophic.”

USAID admitted that “building this network is risky because of the security threats.”  It called for “creativity” in implementing the project “in the face of opposition from the Cuban state – one anchored in the past and resistant to change – while protecting the security of participants and change agents.”

His work was called a “pilot project.”  Mr. Gross was planning four more roundtrips to Cuba – and budgeted for more roundtrips to bring in more equipment –to expand the program in 2010.  But, then his plans changed.  His security was not protected.  He was arrested, convicted, and sentenced under Cuban law for activities the U.S. government and his employer knew in advance were risky, subject to detection, and illegal.  With the actions taken to dismiss the case, it appears that the Obama administration and DAI are washing their hands of him and leaving his fate entirely in the hands of Cuba’s government.

This is just fine with Senator Robert Menendez, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who fought to maximize spending under the “regime change” programs and who has already told the New York Times, “I’m not into negotiating for someone who is clearly a hostage of the Cuban regime.”

Small wonder that Judy Gross told R.M. Schneiderman of Foreign Affairs late last year, “I feel betrayed by the United States.”   Her government has disavowed responsibility for her husband’s actions and plight.


Rep. Albio Sires becomes Ranking Member on Western Hemisphere Subcommittee

Representative Albio Sires (D-NJ) will succeed Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) as the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. Congressman Sires was born in Cuba served as the Mayor of a town called West New York, NJ before being elected to Congress, reports The Hill. Rep. Sires is a strong advocate for maintaining the embargo on Cuba.  The chairman of the Subcommittee is Matt Salmon (R-AZ), recently reelected to Congress, who supported the freedom to travel to Cuba as a Member of the House in the 1990s.

United States says very little about Cuba’s new travel law

Victoria Nuland, a spokesperson for the State Department, commented on Cuba’s new travel regulations during Monday’s daily press briefing. Nuland stated that United States will not change its current policy regarding Cuban immigrants to the U.S. She also stated that it is too early for the United States to make any definitive statements regarding any changes in Cuban immigration patterns or on the new policy itself.

Last fall, Cuba announced significant reforms to its migratory policy, allowing Cubans to travel without obtaining an exit visa or showing an invitation letter from a foreign country.  The reform became effective on Monday, and has become the occasion for debate on the restrictions now imposed on travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba as well as on the Cuban Adjustment Act, which gives Cuban migrants “front of the line” status in comparison to other immigrants seeking entry into the U.S.  The debate is covered here by Mimi Whitefield of the Miami Herald.

Embargo lobbyists join the campaign against Senator Hagel

As the Senate Armed Services Committee prepares for its confirmation hearing for former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel, nominated by President Obama to serve as U.S. Defense Secretary, two prominent pro-embargo lobbyists have signed up with a new outside group that plans to air television advertisements and apply pressure on Senators to oppose Hagel.

According to a report in Politico, under the headline, “Another group to hit Chuck Hagel from the right,” the board of directors operating Americans for a Strong Defense will include Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of Cuba Democracy Advocates; and former Mitt Romney campaign hand Danny Diaz of FP1 Strategies.  The group has filed as a 501(c)(4) and therefore won’t have to disclose its donors.

Mr. Claver-Carone sits atop several related organizations that man the ramparts against any change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, and is a strident opponent of political figures in the U.S. who support loosening the embargo.  Mr. Diaz is a political consultant whose latest work involved electing Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), a Cuban American, who has already come out against Hagel.

Of course, the group is not making the case against Hagel on Cuba policy.  Instead, Politico reports:  they will paint him as “outside the mainstream” on key defense issues.

Students to explore Cuba with GW’s first program

George Washington University announced in The GW Hatchet that it will begin offering this summer a study abroad opportunity in Cuba. Professor María de la Fuente, who is of Cuban descent, said she “dreamed of creating the trip ever since the State Department lifted the travel ban for students,” and that the demand from students has been constant. Her colleague Ariadna Pichs, who grew up in Cuba, wants students to “meet Cubans to learn about life under the U.S. embargo.”


Cuba’s Health Ministry confirms cholera outbreak in Havana

Cuba’s Health Ministry confirmed a cholera outbreak in Havana in an official note released Tuesday, reports Reuters. The statement said that there have been a reported 51 cases confirmed since the outbreak began on January 6th, and that measures taken to prevent the spread of the disease since then mean that it is now in its “extinction phase,” according to the BBC.

According to the Health Ministry, the source of this outbreak was a food vendor who had contracted the disease during a previous outbreak, in the Cerro municipality, later spreading it to the capital. Since the cholera outbreak last summer, the first since the 1960s, officials in Havana have been preparing to fight the disease. Three Havana hospitals have been designated for cholera cases and doctors have been visiting homes door-to-door to check residents for symptoms of the disease.

Telesur to begin broadcasting live open signal TV in Cuba

Telesur, a Latin American television station, will begin broadcasting in real time in Cuba on January 20th, reports Cuban News Agency. The television station has continued to expand since it was founded in 2005, and now has an audience of 376 million people using an open signal and another 40 million who subscribe to the channel.     


Following Cuba travel reform, Ecuador to require letters of invitation for Cubans

Ecuador’s government has announced that starting on January 21, all Cuban citizens wishing to visit the country will be required to obtain a letter of invitation notarized by the Ecuadorian Consulate, reports AFP. Ecuador became one of the few countries in the region that allowed Cubans to visit without a visa after dropping requirements in 2008. Ecuador’s Cuban population increased significantly in recent years, as many Cubans overstayed the 90-day limit and remained in Ecuador, many saving money to travel to the U.S. The Havana Times reports that 2,658 Cubans were intercepted while passing through Panamá last year, most of them en route from Ecuador to the U.S.

Peace talks resume as FARC ceasefire “ends”

The FARC has announced that its ceasefire will end on January 20th as originally agreed, while peace negotiations resume in Havana, reports the BBC. The Colombian government has not ceased military operations during the negotiations.  Both the Colombian government and the FARC have hinted at speeding up the talks ahead of the end of the ceasefire. President Santos has said that there must be an agreement between the two parties by November of 2013.

Around the Region

The Montano Affair: A last chance for justice?, Héctor Silva Ávalos, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Héctor Silva Ávalos examines the immigration case against former Salvadoran Colonel Orlando Inocente Montano, implicated in the 1989 slaying of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Montano, who pled guilty to immigration fraud and perjury, may face jail time for his crimes. As the case continues to develop, the amount of jail time he serves may have serious implications for the status of Spain’s extradition request against him, and the cases of other high-ranking Salvadoran military officials accused of war crimes. Montano’s sentencing has been postponed at the request of his defense. But, in what is being called a victory for human rights advocates, the federal judge indicated interest in hearing about Montano’s military history before his sentencing, reports the Associated Press.

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Recommended Reading

It’s Time For The U.S. To End Its Senseless Embargo Of Cuba, Daniel Hanson, Dayne Batten & Harrison Ealey, Forbes

Writing in Forbes Magazine, Daniel Hanson of the American Enterprise Institute, Dayne Batten with the University of North Carolina Department of Public Policy and Harrison Ealey, a financial analyst, argue that the position represented by the U.S. embargo on Cuba is “outdated, hypocritical and counterproductive,” adding, “A perpetual embargo on a developing nation that is moving towards reform makes little sense, especially when America’s allies are openly hostile to the embargo. It keeps a broader discussion about smart reform in Cuba from gaining life, and it makes no economic sense. It is time for the embargo to go.”

Hagel’s Common Sense on Cuba, Juan Carlos Hidalgo, CATO Institute

Juan Carlos Hidalgo makes the case for ending the embargo on Cuba and backs the stance of Chuck Hagel, the Defense Secretary nominee, on U.S. policy toward the island: “Chuck Hagel doesn’t have a Cuba problem.  Just the opposite. He has shown common sense in ending one of Washington’s most anachronistic foreign policies.”

Opening to Havana, Ted Piccone, The Brookings Institution

Ted Piccone, senior fellow and deputy director for Foreign Policy, writes a memorandum to President Obama criticizing U.S. policy towards Cuba and suggesting that the President end the embargo. In the memorandum, Piccone also offers policy recommendations for developing a new policy towards Cuba.

Protecting Cuba’s Abundant Coral Reefs, Dan Whittle, Doug Rader and Violet Dixon, Environmental Defense Fund

The Gardens of the Queen, a near-pristine coral reef reserve off of Southeast Cuba, is the site of a unique collaboration between Cuban environmental and fishery officials and the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund, aimed at establishing Marine Protected Areas and protecting reef ecosystems. This article describes some of the steps being taken to protect the area while promoting sustainable commercial and recreational fisheries and a thriving eco-tourism sector.

Recommended Viewing

Uncertainty looms in Venezuela, Al Jazeera

Dr. Dan Hellinger, noted Venezuela scholar and author of CDA’s Caracas Connect, joins Mark Weisbrot (Center for Economic and Policy Research) and Juan Carlos Hidalgo (Cato Institute) on “Inside Story Americas” to discuss the absence of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez.

Hidalgo argues that with Chávez’s “presidential term expired, the legitimacy of people serving under him, including Nicolas Maduro” is in question. But Hellinger explains “the majority of Venezuelans at this point in time want to move forward and are kind of content that at least for a while Maduro runs the country.” In Weisbrot’s view, the opposition is just “trying to take advantage of the situation to undermine the legitimacy of the government, but they don’t have a constitutional case or a legal basis for it at all.”

A Berklee Professor Dives Into Cuba’s Vast Music Scene, Andrea Shea, NPR
Andrea Shea reports on Berklee College of Music Professor Bill Benfield’s exploration of the diverse music scene in Havana.

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