Breaking News: René González of the Cuban Five Renounces Citizenship, to remain in Cuba

Just before we hit send, there was an important development in the case involving René González, a member of the Cuban Five.

González, who was permitted by U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lenard to travel to Cuba for two weeks under strict conditions pursuant to his probation, will renounce his citizenship and remain in Cuba. González becomes, as the Havana Times reported, the first of the five Cubans to return and reside in Cuba following their convictions.

González, who served a 13-year sentence, was allowed to return to Cuba on April 22 to attend a service for his father who died at age 82.

But, González, a U.S. citizen, is permitted under the laws of the United States to renounce his citizenship to a consular official while visiting a foreign nation.  The court has the power to modify his probation accordingly, and enable González to serve the remainder of his term in Cuba without reporting to the court.

Attorneys for González filed a motion to modify his probation, to remove a requirement imposed by the court that he return to the U.S. by May 6th, clearing the way for him to renounce his citizenship and stay in Cuba.

The U.S. Department of Justice told the court that it would not oppose González’s request, and the “Government indicated that ‘the FBI has concluded that the national security interests of the United States are furthered if the defendant…does not return to the United States.”

That led Judge Lenard to issue an order today modifying his probation and allowing him to renounce his U.S. citizenship and not return.

According to the Associated Press, González is thrilled but wants a chance to review the judge’s decision.  “First I have to read the order,” he said. “If the order is real, it will be a great relief to me.”

González was convicted for acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, conspiracy to act as a foreign agent and to defraud the United States.

González, along with Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, and Fernando González, were arrested in 1998, for their roles in efforts to track Miami groups who, according to Cuba’s government, were responsible for terror attacks against the island.

The case of the Cuban Five has been a significant obstacle in U.S.-Cuba relations.  As Peter Kornbluh wrote in The Nation last month:

“The Cubans are holding US subcontractor Alan Gross, now in his fourth year of incarceration for illicitly attempting to set up a satellite communications network in Cuba as part of the US Agency for International Development’s Cuba Democracy and Contingency Planning Program. And the United States is holding the ‘Cuban Five,’ who include four Cuban spies, now in their fifteenth year in prison for conducting espionage operations, mostly against exile groups with violent pasts…Raúl Castro has called for mutual ‘humanitarian gestures’ to resolve these obstacles to improved bilateral relations.”

This case is controversial in the U.S. and complicated for domestic political reasons in both countries.  The decision by Judge Lenard, available here, may not bring relief to the families of Alan Gross or other members of the Five who remain in prison in the U.S., but it is a welcomed development in any case.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Cuba to remain on State Sponsors of Terrorism List

The State Department has missed its April 30th deadline to file its Country Report on Terrorism, and it is now expected to be released in late May.  Cuba watchers hoped the report would reveal a decision to drop Cuba from the state sponsors of terror list. According to The Hill, a State Department spokesperson indicated that release of the report is not used as a vehicle to announce decisions to add or drop countries, and that Cuba when the list is published will retain its designation.

But, as the Miami Herald reported, that does not rule out the possibility that at any time in the future, the U.S. government can decide that Cuba should be removed from the state sponsors list.

On a related matter, Joanne Chesimard, a fugitive living in Cuba, was added this week to the FBI’s list of Most Wanted Terrorists.  Chesimard, a former member of the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army, who goes by the name Assata Shakur, escaped from prison in 1979, and received asylum in Cuba in 1984.  She was convicted of murder in the 1970s for her role in a shootout which left a New Jersey state trooper dead.

Although the Associated Press reported that Cuba does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S., according to the website of the U.S. Department of State, such a treaty is in place.  While the countries cooperate on fugitive cases from time to time, they rarely observe the treaty.

Although the issue of fugitives plays no statutory role in determining whether a country is a state sponsor of terror, the U.S. government said in last year’s report, “The Cuban government continued to permit fugitives wanted in the United States to reside in Cuba and also provided support such as housing, food ration books, and medical care for these individuals.”

59 in Congress sign letter urging Obama to end travel restrictions to Cuba

Representative Sam Farr (CA-20) sent a letter signed by 59 Members of Congress to President Obama urging the administration to expand the right of Americans to travel to Cuba.  Their proposal would build on Obama’s decision in 2011, which restored people-to-people travel, and allow all categories of permissible travel to Cuba be carried out under a general license. In a press release Farr points out that “there are no better ambassadors for democratic ideals than the American people” and that “a pragmatic policy of citizen diplomacy can be a powerful catalyst for democratic development in Cuba.”

The full text of the letter is available here.

Seasonal flights to resume between Tampa and Holguín, Cuba

The Tampa International Airport (TIA) announced that after a three-month hiatus, seasonal flights to Holguín, Cuba, will resume in June, reports the Tampa Bay Times. Until February of this year, TIA had offered five flights to Cuba each week, but discontinued two because of low demand and stiff competition.

IN CUBA

Over 2,000 of Cuba’s state-owned businesses now in private sector

Since 2009, over 2,000 formerly state-owned businesses in Cuba have been leased to private management, reports EFE. The initiative to shift the management of state-operated businesses began as an experiment with barbershops and hair salons in 2009. Since then, the changes have grown to include 47 economic activities, employing over 5,000 people. The shift gives employees of the formerly state-operated businesses the ability to manage the business and set prices, while collectively handling the costs of rent and utilities. Employees have some complaints, such as tax burdens and a lack of wholesale markets where businesses can buy supplies. However, both the government and workers have acknowledged that this new arrangement has improved service, reduced absenteeism, and increased employee salaries.

Cuba celebrates International Worker’s Day

As President Raúl Castro presided over Cuba’s May Day parade in Havana, First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel led the celebration in Santiago de Cuba, reports ACN.  This year’s theme was “For a more prosperous and sustainable form of socialism” and the late President Chávez of Venezuela was honored, reports Havana Times (article and slideshow).

Victoria Burnett of the New York Times reports on May Day in a changing Cuba, where private sector workers joined state sector workers in the celebrations in Havana.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Nicolás Maduro pays official visit to Cuba

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro visited Havana last Saturday on his first official trip to Cuba since taking office, reports EFE. While in Cuba, Maduro met with President Raúl Castro and took part in the 13th Meeting of the Cuba-Venezuela Intergovernmental Commission. The commission signed 51 bilateral agreements, and pledged to spend $2 billion on bilateral social development programs this year, reports Reuters. The agreements regarding energy management and social programs follow Maduro’s campaign promise to continue the relationship Hugo Chávez forged with Cuba.

Cuba undergoes Human Rights Review at UN

This week, the UN Human Rights Council performed its Universal Periodic Review of Cuba, a process that takes place every four years for each member country. During the review, several governments recommended that Cuba extend an open invitation for visits by UN human rights experts. In response, Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Relations, extended a permanent welcome to such experts, on the condition that the purpose of the visits be “non-discriminatory” and impartial, reports EFE.

Rodríguez further stated that “Cuba will never accept a process of regime change,” from UN member countries, specifically referencing suggestions made by the U.S.

Rodríguez presented evidence of Cuba’s advances in human rights, citing the country’s universally accessible education and healthcare systems. His complete statement for the Universal Periodic Review is available here.

According to the Miami Herald, UN Watch, a Geneva-based NGO affiliated with the American Jewish Committee, said Cuba had committed fraud “on a massive scale” to influence the Council’s review of its human rights record.

FAO Director General visits Cuba

On Friday, José Graziano da Silva, Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations arrived in Havana to meet with Cuban government officials, reports Cubadebate. While in Cuba, Graziano will discuss food security programs with officials such as Minister of Foreign Relations Rodríguez; Vice President Marino Murillo; Gustavo Rodríguez Rollero, the Minister of Agriculture; and Félix González Viego, President of the National Association of Small Farmers.

Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment ends contract with Canadian firm Tokmakjian

Cuba’s government has officially ended the operations of Canadian firm Tokmakjian Group, reports Café Fuerte. The conglomerate had operated on the island for the past 25 years, until a 2011 corruption scandal resulted in the closing of the company’s offices in Havana and the arrest of the company’s head, Cy Tokmakjian. Until now, the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment had not taken any major action against the company. Tokmakjian Group’s operations were the second largest of any foreign enterprise on the island, selling mining and construction equipment as well as cars and car parts.

President Raúl Castro has led a nationwide campaign against corruption, which has seen the arrest of several high-level foreign business representatives, as well as Cuban nationals. In a 2011 speech, Castro stated that corruption in Cuba “is equivalent to counter-revolution,” encouraging the government to be relentless in its campaign as corruption “could lead to self-destruction.”

China fulfills Cuba cargo ship order

Shanghai Shipyard Co. Ltd. has delivered the sixth of ten cargo ships that Cuba had ordered from China, reports Cuba Standard. The additional 35,000-ton grain cargo ships are expected to increase Cuba’s maritime trading capacity with nations far from the Caribbean. In addition, the ships will lower the cost of grain shipments to Cuba, which often come at a premium cost due to the sanctions prohibiting ships coming from Cuba to dock at U.S. ports.

350 Cuban doctors sent to Ghana

As a part of the recently-renewed Ghana-Cuba Medical Service and Educational Agreement, 350 Cuban doctors arrived in Ghana on Wednesday, reports the Daily Graphic. The agreement aims to improve Ghana’s doctor-to-patient ratio, which now stands at one doctor to every 10,000 patients. Ghana matched Cuba’s contribution by sending 250 young Ghanaians to Cuba for medical training. The Ghanaian-Cuban partnership began twenty years ago and is renewed every two years.

Around the Region

U.S. citizen accused of conspiracy against Venezuela’s government

U.S. citizen Timothy Hallett Tracy, arrested in Venezuela last Wednesday, was accused of sowing unrest in the country, reports La Jornada. According to The Guardian, Tracy was in Venezuela as a documentary filmmaker and spent time interviewing people on both sides of the country’s political spectrum. Gloria Stifano, Tracy’s lawyer, clarified that he is the subject of an investigation and so far “nobody has said that he is criminally responsible,” reports El Universal. She also stated that his human rights would be respected, and he will not be imprisoned.

National Electoral Council discloses timeline and procedures for secondary audit

Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) has released a statement outlining a timetable and detailing procedures for a secondary audit of Venezuela’s recent presidential election. The audit was agreed to in response to a formal request by former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles. However, the CNE clarified that some of Capriles’s demands are “impracticable.”

Venezuela’s opposition claims to have lost last month’s election due to massive fraud, prompting the CNE to state, “Anyone who puts forward charges on such a scale must provide a minimum of necessary elements in order to ascertain whether these charges are indeed suppositions of fact.” According to the CNE, the investigation demanded by the opposition into alleged complaints of irregularities in the voting process is not possible given the incomplete documentation it provided which does not clearly indicate “which polling booths; which records; who is involved” and provides no “precision whatsoever regarding possible damage to the vote.”

Bolivia expels USAID

In a May Day declaration, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales announced the expulsion of USAID, reports BBC. Morales said the move is to protest a remark by Secretary of State John Kerry in which he described Latin America as the “backyard” of the United States. USAID’s operations in Bolivia focused on counter-narcotics and military initiatives. Bolivia, along with six of the eight ALBA countries, signed a resolution last June calling for all member states to expel the agency.  For further analysis of the USAID program, see our feature in Recommended Reading.

El Salvador Update: April, 2013, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Linda Garrett, CDA’s Senior Policy Analyst on El Salvador, discusses developments that have taken place in El Salvador during the month of April, including President Funes’ visit to Washington, D.C. and his announcement of formalized support for the country’s historic gang truce and peace process.  The update covers developments in the presidential race and in the U.S. trials against former Salvadoran military officials. It also includes a detailed chronology of El Salvador’s (gang truce) peace process, and a map of municipalities that have joined the “Violence-Free Municipalities” program.

If you would like to receive the Monthly El Salvador Update via email, contact: ElSalvadorUpdate@democracyinamericas.org.  

Recommended Reading

Special Feature: Along the Malecón: In Cuba: USAID Flies Into the Cuckoo’s Nest

Investigative journalist Tracey Eaton examines how schizophrenic U.S. policy toward Cuba can be.  Eaton provides examples drawn from USAID’s program there noting that while typical development programs seek to alleviate poverty, USAID’s work in Cuba is framed by legislation whose real goal is “to increase poverty, not reduce it.”

Amid Fealty to Socialism, a Nod to Capitalism, Victoria Burnett, New York Times

Havana’s May Day Parade now acts as a curious metaphor for Cuba’s changing economy, writes Victoria Burnett. Private and government-owned businesses work together and learn from each other, as the inefficiencies of the purely state-run economy are being replaced with a new entrepreneurial spirit within the private sector. The growing number of private sector workers in the parade expressed that participating is a way to show solidarity with all workers on the island, public or private.

Havana’s Classic Taxis Get a Taste of Competition, EFE

For the first time in decades, taxis in Cuba – especially in Havana – are facing increased competition. As the city continues to experience serious transportation problems, a boom in licenses for private taxi drivers has made the competition for customers fierce. Private taxi licenses make up 11% of the 400,000 private licenses registered in Cuba.

Shakur’s addition to Most Wanted Terrorist List reeks of Cuba Lobby desperation, William Vidal, On Two Shores

William Vidal of On Two Shores analyzes the news of the past few months about Cuba’s place on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism; beginning with reports in February that Cuba would be removed from the list and culminating in this week’s announcement that Cuba will remain on the list.

Political calculus keeps Cuba on U.S. list of terror sponsors, Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

Carol J. Williams examines the political considerations in keeping Cuba on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, even as national security analysts call the designation “counterproductive,” and note that there is no evidence indicating that Cuba is a national security threat to the U.S.

The Impact of Telesur and Cuba’s Media Crisis, Fernando Ravsberg, Havana Times

Fernando Ravsberg of the Havana Times analyzes the effects of Telesur’s broadcast in Cuba, contrasting the news coverage with Cuba’s national television.

Recommended Viewing

A glimpse inside Cuba’s high security prisons, Sarah Rainsford, BBC

Leading up to Cuba’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN, the government opened several prisons for foreign journalists. Here, the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford gets a rare tour of one of Cuba’s high security prisons.

A FINAL WORD:

THE ROAD FROM NEW YORK TO PHILADELPHIA GETS SHORTER

For some time, the Equality Forum, an organization dedicated to advancing LGBT rights, planned a 2013 summit with Cuba as its featured nation and Mariela Castro, Director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) as its honored guest.

The summit, being held in Philadelphia, May 2-5, coincided with meetings related to United Nations population policy in New York.  Ms. Castro was granted a diplomatic visa that got her to New York to visit the UN, and she applied for permission from the State Department to go beyond the 25-mile barrier that prevents high-ranking Cubans from moving about the country as freely as diplomats and citizens from other nations are permitted to do in the U.S., so she could attend the summit.

Her request apparently posed too big a dilemma for the decision makers at State.  After all, this is the same Mariela Castro who was recognized in the Department’s 2012 Human Rights Report for being “outspoken in promoting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons,” and who was granted a visa to attend the 2012 Latin American Studies Association conference in San Francisco.

But the 97 miles between New York and Philadelphia was simply too much for the Department to handle.  As the New York Times reported last week, State denied her request “without explanation.”  Understandably so; how could you explain why it’s alright for Mariela Castro to visit Manhattan and discuss population policy but not okay to attend an equality conference down the New Jersey Turnpike to talk about AIDS?

Their position was not sustainable.  It took less than four days for the State Department to change its mind, reverse the decision, and give Ms. Castro permission go all the way to the City of Brotherly Love to speak and receive her award.  CNN reported on the development here.

This made some hardliners very unhappy.  Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) issued a statement denouncing the decision, “For a person like Mariela Castro to attend a conference on civil rights for lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people, and to receive an award, is shameful, pathetic and a ruse. The words ‘equality’ and ‘human rights’ don’t exist in the vocabulary of the Castro tyranny.”  Inexplicably, the Babalú website protested the decision by publishing an old picture of Madonna kissing Britney Spears.   They were really upset.

Why? These opponents of engagement with Cuba have never been fans of Mariela Castro, but we suspect that something larger here is at play.

After all, the State Department didn’t give in to the impulse to stick with a decision that made the U.S. bad just to make the hardliners happy.  Instead, it changed its mind.

Think about that.  We know that State is keeping Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terror list for 2013, but the law enables the U.S. government to remove its designation by notifying Congress and reporting the reasons for doing so. It can change its mind.  Maybe State won’t.  But, at least it’s the other side that is going to be up at night thinking they might.

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