With Boston in our thoughts

This was a violent, disheartening week in the United States.  A town called West, Texas was knocked down by an explosion at a fertilizer plant that claimed at least a dozen lives and injured hundreds of others.  Survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary School and other massacres watched with broken hearts as the U.S. Senate voted to do nothing about gun safety.

But these events were surpassed by the suffering inflicted on Boston and its marathon.  It began with terrorism at the finish line, where bystanders were killed and grievously wounded, as were runners trying to complete the race.  As we went to press, there was more: a campus police officer murdered at MIT, gun battles, a metropolitan-wide lockdown, and rampant fear.

This incident stung us for obvious reasons, but also because, as Governor Deval Patrick reminded us, “Massachusetts invented America.”  Even at a time when the United States is so disunited, Massachusetts with its special place in America’s history and civic ideals was also able to connect us and bring us closer together.

Starting when we learned something was horribly wrong on Boylston Street, there were stories of women and men rising to their better selves; Samaritans coming to the aid of strangers; Cuba and other nations expressing their condolences; reporters and others insisting that lies be brought to heel with the truth, because facts, like the size of the casualty count, matter, and because no victim (and no nation) should be wrongfully accused of committing or supporting terrorism.

In his eternal inaugural address, President John Kennedy, a son of Massachusetts, brought the Cold War to the center of his foreign policy, when he said “Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas.”  But, he also said, just a few sentences later, “let us begin anew – remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.  Let us never negotiate out of fear.  But let us never fear to negotiate.”

Fifty years ago, as Peter Kornbluh explains (behind the pay wall in The Nation), the Kennedy administration made a diplomatic approach to Cuba’s government that resulted in Cubans imprisoned in the U.S. and Americans, including CIA agents, behind bars in Cuba returning to their homes.  He offers this example of James Donovan’s ‘metadiplomacy’ to show how normal relations between the U.S. and Cuba are possible, when we do not fear to negotiate.

Civility is not weakness.  There are prisoners still left to be freed, a terrorism policy that must be applied based not on politics but the facts, lessons to be learned from the displays this week of humility and humanity, public officials who must rise to their better selves.  Boston reminds us: this work can truly be our own.


René González to spend two weeks in Cuba on family visit

A U.S. federal judge has ruled that René González may visit Cuba for two weeks to attend his father’s memorial service, reports Havana Times. González, one of the Cuban Five, is currently serving the second of his three-year parole following a 13-year term in prison. González must abide by conditions the judge set: submitting a detailed itinerary prior to departure; forbidding him from being in contact with Cuban intelligence officials, and requiring regular contact with his probation officer in the U.S. throughout his stay on the island.

Before departing for Cuba, Mr. González must also obtain a passport from the U.S. State Department. In 2012, after being granted permission for a two-week visit to see his terminally ill brother in Cuba, it took 10 days for the State Department to issue González a passport.

Kerry reiterates that the U.S. will not make a prisoner exchange for Alan Gross

This week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated the longstanding position that the U.S. will not exchange the Cuban Five for imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan Gross. Instead, Secretary Kerry is pushing for Cuba to release Gross as a “humanitarian gesture,” reports the Miami Herald. Secretary Kerry, in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that the U.S. is currently “trying to find whether there is a humanitarian capacity or not” in Cuba for Gross to be released.

State Department releases annual report on human rights practices

The U.S. State Department released its “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012,” an annual publication which profiles countries’ human rights records, as well as global developments in human rights.  The report’s executive summary on Cuba points out the continued dominance of the Communist Party within Cuba’s government and highlights violations of human rights, including the unlawful use of force, harsh prison conditions, arbitrary arrests, selective prosecution, denial of fair trial, severely restricted Internet access, circumscribed academic freedoms, limited freedom of movement, and maintained significant restrictions on the ability of religious groups to meet and worship.

Although this report reiterates what was included in previous years, it also mentions the case of dissident Oswaldo Payá, who was killed in a car crash, and his family’s request for an international investigation in his death.

Twenty people accused of falsifying Cuban passports in Florida

Twenty people in Florida face charges in U.S. District Court in Miami for forging Cuban passports, reports Café Fuerte. The prosecution of these individuals is part of the largest push against the falsification of Cuban documents within the past decade, dubbed Operation Havana Gateway. The falsified documents are used to aid undocumented immigrants gain permanent residency in the United States through the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cuban nationals to reside permanently in the U.S. after a year. The coordinated effort involved various government agencies including Customs and Border Control, Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Diplomatic Security Service of the State Department.

Cuban midfielder to join U.S. World Cup team

Cuban soccer player Osvaldo Alonso, a midfielder who plays for the Seattle Sounders, a Major League Soccer team, awaits approval by the International Football Association (FIFA) to join the U.S. national team, reports Café Fuerte. Alonso, who left Cuba’s national team in 2007, and became a citizen of the United States in 2012, still needs FIFA’s permission to play for the U.S. in time for the 2014 World Cup. Before FIFA allows Alonso to play for the U.S. national team, the Cuban Olympic Committee must first grant him permission, as FIFA regulations require that a player who has represented one nation in the past receive permission from that nation before playing for another team.


Cuba to grant more autonomy to provincial governments and to state-sector businesses

New measures, which would allow for more autonomy in financial decision-making for state-run businesses, were announced in Juventud Rebelde on Wednesday, reports Reuters. The loosening of state controls will be applied on a small scale before more widespread reforms are implemented.

Meanwhile, Fernando Ravsberg reports for the Havana Times about the changes taking place in the province of Artemisa. New public administration approaches are being tested in the province to lower costs and decrease bureaucracy in addition to strengthening local leaders’ authority in crucial decision-making. The provincial government is now responsible for identifying its own needs and budgeting accordingly, and is empowered to add to its state-assigned budget through collecting its own taxes. The province has also moved forward in encouraging small enterprise by granting more than 20,000 commercial licenses.

Alfredo Guevara dies

Influential intellectual and essayist Alfredo Guevara died on Friday at the age of 87, reports Havana Times. Guevara was a founder of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Act and Industry (ICAIC) as well as the founder of the annual Havana Film Festival. He directed the film festival every year since its founding in 1979. A prominent force in the island’s cultural life, he also acted as Deputy Minister of Culture in 1975 and served as Cuba’s ambassador to UNESCO in the 1980s.


Cuba and Russia to cooperate on construction of new Havana airport

After a visit by Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev to Havana, Russia’s government announced plans to aid in the construction of a new international airport in Cuba, reports Europa Press. The airport will be constructed on the San Antonio de los Baños airbase, located about 20 miles from Havana. This new project comes after Denis Mantourov, Russia’s Commercial and Industrial Minister, announced a cooperation plan in November, which includes the creation of a joint Russian-Cuban airlines with service in the Americas by 2020.

OAS human rights commission calls for inquiry into death of Oswaldo Payá

The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS) formally requested that Cuba’s government release details about the car crash that killed Cuban dissidents Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero last year, reports the Miami Herald. IACHR press office director María Isabel Rivero confirmed that a letter had been sent to Cuba’s government, but said that its contents were confidential.

Cuba’s government has not answered to the OAS since its 1962 suspension due to the organization’s decision that “Marxism-Leninism is incompatible with the inter-American system.” The OAS voted in 2009 to lift Cuba’s suspension, creating a mechanism by which Cuba could opt to re-join. Cuba’s government responded that while it was appreciative of the gesture, it would not re-join.

Around the Region

Venezuela: Election Update

Nicolás Maduro was formally sworn in as President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, reports Al Jazeera, after nearly a week of controversy. Venezuelans returned to the polls last Sunday in a special election following the death of President Hugo Chávez in March. Maduro won the election with 50.8% of the vote, over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles’ 49%, who declared shortly thereafter that he would not accept the election results, reports BBC Mundo.

As per regulations determined by Venezuela’s National Election Council (CNE), the country uses electronic voting machines, which produce a paper trail. The CNE supervises an audit of 54% of the machines, comparing the electronic tally to the paper receipts in order to ensure accuracy.

Prior to the election, Capriles refused to sign a document pledging to recognize the election’s results. Immediately after the result was announced, he urged his supporters to take to the streets to protest the results, reports David Smilde’s blog Venezuela Politics and Human Rights. According to official state television, VTV, the protests became violent and by Tuesday, eight Maduro supporters had been killed, with dozens of others injured. Luisa Ortega Díaz, Venezuela’s Attorney General, said that Capriles would be held accountable for the violence.

Both the U.S. and the Organization of American States (OAS) have stated that they will not recognize the election results until a full audit of the voting machines has been completed, reports Bloomberg.  Most countries of the Americas, as well as China and Russia, have recognized the results.  India and the rest of the Non-Aligned countries have also done so.  The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the National Lawyers Guild, which served as international observers of the election, have also ratified the election results. The Carter Center supported the results as well, but considered an audit of 100% of the voting machines to be a reasonable solution to the impasse.

Today, the CNE announced that it would perform an audit of the remaining 46% of voting machines, reports Venezuela’s Embassy to the U.S.

IPS’ Foreign Policy In Focus will host a presentation by Dan Kovalik of the National Lawyers Guild and Alex Main of CEPR, who just returned from Venezuela serving as official international accompaniers. David Smilde of the Washington Office on Latin America’s (WOLA) Venezuela Politics and Human Rights blog will lead a discussion Tuesday at WOLA, assessing the election results and their significance.

Click here to read an analysis of the election results and subsequent controversy, by Dr. Dan Hellinger, CDA’s emeritus president and advisory board member, and Dawn Gable, CDA’s Assistant Director in a special edition of Caracas Connect.

Constitutional Court suspends and threatens to annul Ríos Montt trial proceedings

Kate Doyle of the National Security Archives reports for the Open Society Justice Initiative on the unexpected turn of events in the trial of General Efraín Ríos Montt, former dictator of Guatemala. Though the trial was expected to hear closing arguments on Friday, Judge Carol Patricia Flores abruptly called the trial to a halt, declaring the proceedings “null and invalid.” Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s Attorney General, stated that the ruling was “illegal” and announced that she would use every possible measure to reverse Judge Flores’ decision and allow the trial to continue. Judge Yasmín Barrios, head of the tribunal overseeing the trial, stated that in spite of the ruling, the trial would resume Friday morning. Ríos Montt is the first former head of state to be tried for genocide in his own country.

U.S. Congress Members voice support for peace in Colombia

A bipartisan group of 62 Members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry regarding Colombia. The letter, led by the offices of Reps. Jim McGovern and Jan Schakowsky, asked that the United States support, peace, development, and human rights in Colombia. The letter highlighted the importance of the peace talks taking place between Colombia’s government and the FARC:

“We appreciate the statements made by the State Department in support of the Colombian peace process and ask in the months ahead that you encourage the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) negotiating teams to stay the course.”

The letter made recommendations for supporting justice in cases of human rights abuses, support for sustainable land restitution policies, protection for human rights defenders and at-risk communities, as well as the implementation of a counter-drug policy which allows Colombia to develop its own suitable strategies while encouraging rural development.

The peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC will resume in Havana next week on April 23, reports AFP.

Recommended Reading

Special feature: Along the Malecón: U.S. withholds democracy “trade secrets”

Investigative journalist Tracey Eaton reports on the activities of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe’s “Democracy for Cuba” program via documents obtained through a FOIA request. The documents he pried out of the State Department were heavily redacted, not because they contained national security secrets, but because the Department claims an interest in not disclosing its partner organizations’ “trade secrets and confidential business information.”

My Week with Yoani: The Takeaway, Ted Henken, El Yuma

Ted Henken of Baruch College reflects on his experience with Yoani Sánchez during her tour of the United States. He provides five points summarizing Sánchez’s trip. Citing the need for bilateral engagement, Henken highlights Sánchez’s point that Cubans in both the U.S. and the island need to bridge their relationship and bring about change on their own.

Ron Paul: Why Can’t We All Travel To Cuba?, Ron Paul, Albany Tribune

Ron Paul reflects upon the inconsistencies in U.S. policy revealed by Jay-Z and Beyonce’s trip to Cuba. Pointing out that the travel ban does not reflect the freedom that the United States tries to promote.  Former Congressman Paul states that restricting travel “in the name of human rights is foolish and hypocritical.”

Why American business needs to follow Beyoncé to Cuba, Chris Farrell, Bloomberg Businessweek

Chris Farrell argues that Americans traveling to Cuba – especially public figures such as Beyoncé – is a step in the right direction for U.S.-Cuba relations. More importantly, Farrell states, an end to the embargo and a normalization of relations could prove to be positive for American businesses.

Wild Cuban Days (if You’re Canadian, Maybe), Joyce Walder, The New York Times

Joyce Walder recounts some of her frustrations during a people-to-people trip to Cuba. While satisfying her desire to see Art Deco architecture and experience the country, she found her people-to-people itinerary to be overly-structured, and at odds with her own ideas of cultural exchange and interaction with locals.

How Cubans’ Health Improved When Their Economy Collapsed, Richard Schiffman, The Atlantic

Richard Shiffman of The Atlantic reports on a recent study by researchers from Spain, Cuba, and the U.S. that found that during the Special Period of the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cubans’ health improved due to weight loss. Food shortages, resulting changes in diet, and greater rates of traveling on foot and by bike due to the loss of most of Cuba’s transportation system resulted in decreased incidences of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, and lower mortality rates.

Oil companies leave Cuba to search for oil elsewhere, William E. Gibson, Sun Sentinel

William E. Gibson analyses recent developments in Cuba’s quest to tap into oil fields off its coast. In recent years, many international companies that took an interest in possible offshore oil deposits have all but abandoned their projects due to underwhelming finds and technological challenges. Gibson reports that this shift away from investing in the possibility of Cuban oil has relieved many environmentalists concerned about possible oil spills affecting not only Cuba, but also the Florida coastline.

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