Special LASA Edition: Colombia Peace Talks and the 2012 Terror List

We’re delighted that many of our readers attending the Latin American Studies Association meeting in Washington can enjoy the Cuba Central News Blast as they participate in the conference.  If only about a dozen scholars from Cuba who were supposed to come, but were denied visas by the U.S. State Department, could be among them.

Just days after progress was reported in the Colombia peace process, the U.S. State Department Report rolled out its annual report called Country Reports on Terrorism 2012.

These are not unconnected events.

For months, Colombia’s government has held peace talks, hosted in Cuba, with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to end a half-century of civil war.  Last weekend, the parties announced a breakthrough agreement on agrarian reform.

As Adam Isacson wrote, this is a “very big deal.”

“This is the fourth time in 30 years that the Colombian government and the FARC (founded in 1964) have sat down to negotiate. And this is the first time that the two sides have ever reached agreement on a substantive topic. Yesterday’s announcement greatly increases the probability that this negotiation attempt will actually be the one that reaches a final accord.”

Tough issues remain unresolved.  As Marco Leon Clarca, a lead negotiator for the FARC, told the Associated Press, “these are not simple themes,” referring to political reintegration, drug trafficking, victim compensation and implementation of the accord, “and for that reason they are on the agenda.”

Months of negotiation lie ahead.  But, after the breakthrough, Colombia and the FARC released this joint statement which expressed their gratitude to Cuba and Norway:

“We especially want to thank Cuba and Norway, the guarantor countries of this process, for their permanent support and for the atmosphere of trust that they foster. The presence of their representatives at the Table of conversations is a fundamental factor for their development.”

With this in mind, let’s turn to the Country Reports on Terrorism 2012.  Year after year, the FARC’s presence in Cuba was a stigmatizing strike against the Castro government.

In the 2006 and 2007 reports, the State Department said:  “The Government of Cuba provided safe haven to members of ETA, FARC, and the ELN…”

In the 2008 report, the State Department said:  “Members of ETA, the FARC, and the ELN remained in Cuba during 2008, some having arrived in Cuba in connection with peace negotiations with the governments of Spain and Colombia. Cuban authorities continued to publicly defend the FARC,” although the report did recognize former president Fidel Castro for calling on the FARC to release hostages.

In the first full year of reporting by the Obama administration, the State Department said in its 2010 Report:

“…the Government of Cuba maintained a public stance against terrorism and terrorist financing in 2010, but there was no evidence that it had severed ties with elements from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)…Available information suggested that the Cuban government maintained limited contact with FARC members, but there was no evidence of direct financial or ongoing material support.”

In the 2011 Report, the State Department said: “Press reporting indicated that the Cuban government provided medical care and political assistance to the FARC.  There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training for either ETA or the FARC.”

In the 2012 Report, the State Department said: “In past years, some members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were allowed safe haven in Cuba and safe passage through Cuba. In November, the Government of Cuba began hosting peace talks between the FARC and Government of Colombia. There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”

In past years?  It sounds like the State Department is walking the cat back.

The peace talks are far from finished.  So, as the two sides get closer, and the plaudits for Cuba’s role as a peace broker grow, this will bring renewed attention to the terror list and add to the growing pressure on the U.S. to drop Cuba from it.

In fact, the case for doing this extends well beyond Colombia and, as the Council of Foreign Relations, anti-terrorism expert Richard Clarke, Congressman Jim McGovern, and, most recently, the courageous Congresswoman from Florida, Kathy Castor, among others, have said, the argument for dropping Cuba from the list is irrefutable.

The president has the authority to change the list at any time.  Although he’s disappointed us before, the State Department’s own case for keeping Cuba listed is shriveling before our eyes.  We could be surprised by hope.


Cuba to expand public Internet access

Cuba will expand public Internet access, via 118 outlets around the island, reports Reuters.  Beginning early next week, people can sign up for accounts with Etecsa, Cuba’s state telecommunications firm, to use the Internet facilities and request an email account. Previously, Internet access for Cubans has been very limited, mostly available in hotels that serve tourists, and often at the cost of 5 CUC to 8 CUC per hour (1 CUC is approximately equivalent to 1 USD). These new sites will charge 4.50 CUC per hour. Navigation of Cuba’s national intranet will cost .60 CUC per hour, while access to the intranet plus international email will cost 1.50 CUC/hour. An article and info graphic from Juventud Rebelde provide more details.

Juventud Rebelde notes that the cyber cafés are available thanks to the fiber-optic cable linking Cuba to Venezuela, which was completed in 2011, reports the AP.  The article says expanding Internet options for Cubans is “consistent with Cuba’s stated strategy of continuing to facilitate more and more access to new technologies, depending on the availability of resources and with a focus that favors social use.”

Yoani Sánchez returns to Cuba following tour of South America, Europe, and U.S.

Finishing her three-month tour of South America, Europe, and the U.S., blogger Yoani Sánchez returned to her home in Cuba, reports the AP. She was received at the airport by her husband and son, and by about a dozen other relatives and friends.  She told reporters “It has been a marvelous trip. A trip that is going to change my life in many ways…and I have returned with lots of projects.”

The Cuban government announced changes in its migratory policy last year that dropped restrictions on the rights of most of the country’s citizens to travel.  Ms. Sánchez left Cuba on February 17th, shortly after the new rules went into effect. She traveled to more than a dozen countries in Europe and the Americas, and spoke about the dissident community on the island and her experiences as a blogger and activist.

Abroad, Sánchez made connections with journalists, human rights activists and lawmakers, and gained more than 100,000 new Twitter followers. However, she is less well-known in Cuba: in an informal poll with a tiny sample by the AP; of 20 Cubans surveyed, only seven had heard her name and three were aware of her global tour. Sánchez has said that a goal of her trip was to get ready to set up an independent online newspaper in Cuba.

Cuba to begin tests for digital TV

Cuba’s Communications Ministry announced that starting next month, Cuba will begin testing digital television in Havana, reports EFE. According to the announcement, testing of signal transmission and reception will be carried out in homes within an established “demonstration zone.” Cuba’s progressive introduction of digital television will be carried out using equipment donated by China, as part of the agreements signed between the two nations to foster technological cooperation.


Russian oil company to suspend drilling operations in Cuba until next year

Zarubezhneft, the Russian state-owned oil company announced it will suspend until next year its shallow-water drilling operations off the north-central coast of Cuba, which have thus far been unsuccessful, reports Reuters.  According to a Zarubezhneft spokesperson, the company is suspending its explorations for the well, the only oil exploration project currently underway in Cuba, due to “geological complications.”

The Songa Mercur, the Norwegian-owned rig Zarubezhneft has been using for its Cuba oil exploration, has also encountered mechanical problems during the five-month exploration.  The company stated that Zarubezhneft and Cubapetroleo, Cuba’s state oil company, “have jointly decided to make changes in the initial drilling program by dividing it into two stages,” the second stage of which will begin in 2014.  It had previously been announced that the Songa Mercur was set to leave Cuba by June 1 to complete a project in Southeast Asia.

Considering Cuba’s recent history of unsuccessful drilling attempts, Cuba oil expert Jorge Piñón states, “It is very difficult today with other opportunities out there for a major oil company to justify going to Cuba and spending what will certainly be over $100 million in areas where it is yet to be proven they have recoverable reserves…It is going to be extremely challenging (for Cuba).”

Trial of Canadian businessman concludes

The closed corruption trial of Canadian businessman Sarkis Yacoubian concluded after two days this week in Havana, where he now awaits a final verdict, reports the Toronto Star.  In the trial, Yacoubian, owner of the import firm Tri-Star Caribbean, confessed that he began bribing Cuban officials while working for the Tokmajian Group, which recently had its operating license in Cuba revoked, and continued the practice after founding Tri-Star Caribbean, reports Reuters.

Part of President Raúl Castro’s ongoing campaign against corruption, Yacoubian’s trial is expected to be the first of several trials involving at least three more Canadian and British businessmen arrested last year on similar charges.  The trials break with the government’s past practice of deporting foreign businessmen suspected of corruption, rather than initiating trial proceedings.


Alan Gross’ suit against U.S. government dismissed

Just two weeks after the family of Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor imprisoned in Cuba, settled its suit with his employer, Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI), a U.S. District Court has dismissed Gross’ case against the U.S. government, reports the New York Times.   U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg explained that the U.S. government “retains immunity for injuries suffered in foreign countries.”

Scott Gilbert, one of Gross’ attorneys, affirmed that his legal team plans to file an appeal.  In November of 2012, the Gross family filed a $60 million lawsuit against DAI and the U.S. government, accusing them of negligence, gross negligence, and the willful disregard of the Gross family’s rights.  Investigative journalist Tracey Eaton provides the U.S. District Court ruling on his blog, Along the Malecón.

U.S. denies visa for Cuban track athletes

The Cuban National Athletics Commission announced that two track athletes have been denied entry visas to compete in a U.S. tournament, reports the Cuban News Agency. Yipsi Moreno, a three-time world champion hammer thrower, and Yargelis Savigne, a triple jump world crown winner, were both denied visas to compete in the Eugene Diamond League competition. Orlando Ortega, a hurdler, had previously been granted a visa and is currently in the U.S. He will continue competing as the only Cuban athlete participating in the games, which held previous rounds in Doha, Shanghai and New York.

Three members of Tampa Bay City Council travel to Cuba

Three members of the Tampa Bay City Council are currently on a four-day visit to Cuba, as Kathy Castor, Tampa’s Representative in Congress continues to call for normalization of relations following her trip to Cuba, reports the Tampa Bay Times. While in Cuba, council members will not meet with officials of Cuba’s government.  Rep. Castor, who wrote President Obama last month urging him to reform U.S. policy toward Cuba, hopes that Tampa will be a hub for Cuba travel. She said upon her return, “Every American should be able to travel…including the people in the Tampa Bay area — and they should fly out of Tampa.”

Around the Region

Honduras’ two largest gangs announce ceasefire; President Lobo declares support

Leaders of MS-13 and Barrio 18, Honduras’ two largest gangs, announced a truce Tuesday in with the hope of achieving a precipitous drop in homicides and violence similar to El Salvador’s during the past year of its gang truce, reports the Associated Press.  Though Honduras’ government has not yet issued an official statement about the truce, President Porfirio Lobo has offered his personal support for the efforts of Bishop Romulo Emiliani of San Pedro Sula, who has worked with the gangs in a mediation process.

As early as three months into the truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18 in El Salvador, Adam Blackwell of the Organization of American States reported that Lobo had expressed interest in initiating a similar process in Honduras, which has the highest murder rate in the world.  Representatives from MS-13 and Barrio 18 announced that the gangs will take the first step by committing to eliminate violence and crime in the streets and to stop recruitment, in a process they hope will be supported by the government through rehabilitation and reinsertion programs.

Already, some have expressed doubts as to whether Honduras’ gang truce will have a significant impact on murder and crime rates in the country. According to a 2010 U.N. crime report, just 30% of murders in Honduras are due to inter-gang violence. Julieta Castellanos, rector of the National University of Honduras, states that the pervasive violence in Honduras is not limited to that committed by the gangs: “The dynamic of violence in the country goes beyond gangs and reflects the existence of multiple actors that are difficult to pinpoint.”  Indeed, the AP has recently reported increasing evidence of death-squad style killings and disappearances of gang members shortly after run-ins with the Honduran national police, even as the U.S. government continues aid to the police force.

Update: El Salvador’s gang truce and peace process will continue under direction of David Munguía Payés as Presidential Adviser, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Linda Garrett, senior policy analyst on El Salvador for the Center for Democracy in the Americas, examines the impact of a pivotal court ruling on the country’s gang truce and peace process.  The Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court decided on May 17th that the appointments of former generals David Munguía Payés and Francisco Salinas were unconstitutional, making them ineligible to continue their posts as Minister of Security and Director of the National Police, respectively.  Munguía Payés has been a key actor in El Salvador’s gang truce, now over a year old.  Assuaging fears that Munguía Payés’ removal from the position of Minister of Security would threaten the future of the peace process, he will now continue to oversee the government’s role in the process as Presidential Advisor.

One Week After Overturning Former Dictator’s Genocide Conviction, Guatemalan Constitutional Court Considers Whether Ríos Montt Should Benefit From 1986 Amnesty, Emi MacLean, Open Society Justice Initiative

Emi MacLean reports on the continuing legal controversy amidst the trial of Guatemala’s ex-dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt. A trial court headed by Judge Yassmín Barrios convicted Ríos Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity on May 10, sentencing him to 80 years in prison. But, ten days later, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned the ruling, turning the clock on the trial back to April 19. Now, MacLean reports, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court is considering the previously-unresolved question of whether Ríos Montt has immunity from prosecution for crimes committed during his 1982-3 rule under a 1986 amnesty law passed by his successor.  However, a law passed during Guatemala’s peace accords repealing all prior amnesty laws may prevail over the Ríos Montt’s defense team’s reliance on the amnesty law.  The Constitutional Court is set to issue a ruling by June 3.

Recommended Reading

Special Feature, Along the Malecón: Activist: “Freeloaders” hurt Cuba democracy effort

Tracey Eaton interviews Ramón Castillo, an exile who spent five years in a Cuban jail after his conviction for colluding with the U.S. government’s plans to “subvert Cuba’s internal order.” While in jail, Castillo developed a plan to use Cuba’s constitution to annul it and call for a constituent assembly.

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