Freedom for One?

After more than 15 years behind bars, a Cuban named Fernando González was released from prison on Thursday and immediately turned over to immigration officials.  A member of the “Cuban Five,” Mr. González returned home today to his family.

While we celebrate his freedom, it makes no sense to us that Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, and  Gerardo Hernandez remain jailed in America, and Alan Gross remains jailed in Cuba, and all still face years of confinement before the reunions with their families can take place.

The Obama Administration has refused appeals to swap the Cuban Five members in exchange for the release of Mr. Gross, dissuaded apparently by phony discussions about equivalence.  Critics say the Cubans were here as spies, but they obfuscate the motives the U.S. government had in sending Mr. Gross to Cuba, and mislead their fellow Americans about his mission when he entered that country and engaged in serious violations of Cuban law.  It seems to serve the purposes of those hardliners to have him sit in prison for his full fifteen year term, so long as he is not considered a spy.

President Obama has a chance to end the suffering of all four prisoners by setting aside the argument over equivalence and do what needs to be done to bring an American, who has been left on a Cold War battlefield, home to be reunited with his family.  If that means ending the wait for the families of the three remaining members of Five for their homecoming, that’s a small price to pay.  It will make the Cubans happy, virtually no one in the United States outside a few precincts in Florida and New Jersey will care, and the President can have the satisfaction of restoring four lives and uniting four families.

Rather than freedom for one, why not mercy and compassion for four?


Cuba Workers Union holds annual meeting, new labor numbers released  

Cuba’s Workers Central Union (CTC), the country’s largest labor union, held its annual meeting last week, which was attended by 1,200 delegates from 17 different national union branches, reports ACN. Topics on the agenda included a discussion of economic reforms, achieving greater efficiency in the state sector, the implementation of new payment systems, the improvement of labor conditions, and annual production schedules.

At the meeting, the CTC released a report indicating that since 2009 the state sector has shrunk by 596,500 jobs, or more than 10%, reports Reuters. Cuba’s government plans to eliminate nearly one million jobs, or 20% of the state labor force, by 2016. The private sector has doubled since 2009, and now represents over 450,000 small business owners and workers.

The report indicates that the involvement of private sector workers in the union has led to non-state sector reforms that include giving tax exemptions for businesses with up to five employees, permission for artists to contract private labor, and approval of the sale of products and services by the self-employed to the state. More than 122,000 private sector workers remain unaffiliated with the CTC.

President Raúl Castro also spoke at the meeting and called, as he has in the past, for increased productivity in the state sector, reports Miami Herald. He stated:

“It would be irresponsible and counterproductive to order a generalized salary increase in the state sector, because it would only cause an inflationary spiral unless it is fully backed by a matching increase in the goods and services on offer. …Let’s keep in mind the essential principle that in order to distribute wealth, it must first be created.”

Castro said that health workers will receive a raise, acknowledging the importance of the work that Cuban doctors do overseas, reports El Tiempo. The work of Cuban doctors abroad is a significant generator of hard currency for Cuba.

President Castro also announced that he will submit a draft of a new foreign investment law to the National Assembly’s special session in March, despite reports earlier this month that a decision about the foreign investment law’s adoption would be postponed until April.

Cellphone Internet access to start next week; government fixes rates

Select mobile intranet services will become available next week in Cuba, and the Ministry of Communications has already set prices for the service, reports Café Fuerte. Earlier in the year, Cuba’s Telecommunication Enterprise (ETECSA) announced that by April, Cubans would have access to some intranet services on their mobile devices. Cuba’s state-controlled national intranet allows users to access email and national websites, but most Cubans have very limited access to the Internet.

The resolution published in the Gaceta Oficial states that the charge for these services, now capped at one convertible peso (CUC) per megabyte of data used, will be reviewed in one year. José Remón, a Miami-based telecommunications consultant says, “Although what has been fixed is the maximum price, the tariff is extremely high.”

Cigar sales rose 8% in 2013

Cuban cigar sales increased 8% in 2013, reports the Associated Press. According to a Habanos SA marketing executive, cigar sales generated $447 million in 2013, a $31 million increase from 2012. The cigar industry is growing worldwide as sale increases have been reported in the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. Meanwhile, Cuban cigar manufacturers are responding to increasing global smoking limitations by creating smaller cigars, reports AFP. Luis Sanchez-Harguindey, co-president of Habanos SA said, “[w]ith restrictions around the world on where one can smoke, the logical answer is to provide the enjoyment of intense flavor in less time.”

Cuba is celebrating its 16th Havana festival this week, reports NBC.

Teatro Martí reopens after restoration

On Monday, President Raúl Castro participated in a ceremony for the reopening of the historic Teatro Martí in Havana, reports EFE and the Cuban News Agency.  Titled “Return to Martí”, the ceremony included selections of Cuban lyric theater as well as a ballet performance. Havana historian Eusebio Leal also spoke at the opening, reports AFP. The theater was first opened in 1884, but has been closed for restorations since 1977. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982. The restorations allowed the theater’s original design and features to be conserved. Castro was joined by Cuba’s First Vice President, Miguel Díaz-Canel, the President of Parliament, Esteban Lazo, and other Ministers. Photos of the space are available here – we recommend you take a look.

National Museum of Fine Arts burglarized

Dozens of works of art by famous Cuban painters were stolen from Havana’s National Museum of Fine Arts (MNBA), reports Miami Herald. The works were stored in the warehouse of the former Technical Investigations Department (DTI) building in the historic district of Havana. The disappearances were noticed last week when Ramon Cernuda, a Miami art dealer, notified the museum that he spotted at least 11 paintings in Miami that belonged to the museum. Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior has launched an investigation. Cernuda is pressing U.S. authorities to follow suit, stating, “We have recommended to the national museum they fully report the theft to Interpol and request and consider the cooperation of the FBI so these works, which are property of the national museum, be returned to the museum.”


UN committee considers Cuban weapons shipment case

A U.N. Security Council committee has begun an annual review of reports written by its experts, including one report on the Chong Chon Gang, the vessel apprehended in Panama while carrying a weapons shipment from Cuba to North Korea in July 2013, reports the Miami Herald.

On Monday, the committee reviewed the annual report as a whole, and then took up the shipment case specifically. According to the Miami Herald, Sylvie Lucas, Luxembourg’s ambassador to the United Nations, who chairs the committee that oversees sanctions against North Korea stated, “On Chong Chon Gang, we continue our discussions…All members of the [Security] Council are very much aware, in that we have to give a follow-up . . . to this whole incident as such, and so I think we are quite well engaged in this respect and we’ll continue working on it.”

Colombia – FARC talks in Havana resume

Negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) resumed this past Monday in Havana, reports Martí Noticias. According to the report, FARC negotiator Pablo Catatumbo immediately condemned Colombia’s military intelligence and police spying. The FARC says that this spying frustrates the peace process and “the national wish for peace.” Colombia’s government’s chief negotiator later rejected the condemnation, saying that the FARC’s statements “did not contribute” to peace.

This round of negotiations takes place against the backdrop of major scandals this month for Colombia’s military and security agencies, which have led to the dismissals or forced retirement of nine top military officials. Reuters reports that Colombia’s military intelligence is accused of illegal wiretapping, including intercepting phone calls and electronic communications of government representatives involved in the peace talks. The military has also faces charges of extra-judicial killings, and there have been reports of military officers receiving kickbacks on military supply contracts.

While 39% of Colombians believe that dialogue between the government and FARC is the best solution to the conflict, 59% believe talks will not succeed, according to surveys by Polimétrica and Red Más Noticias.

Former President Lula of Brazil meets with President Raúl Castro in Havana

Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, former President of Brazil, met with President Raúl Castro this week in Havana, reports Cuba Standard. They addressed topics including bilateral relations between Brazil and Cuba, energy issues, agricultural production, foreign investment and the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. The pair also toured the Mariel Special Development Zone, which Brazil has heavily financed.  Lula said the project has the chance to modernize and create an industrial revolution in Cuba, stating “From now on, an even more complicated process begins, and that’s convincing investors of the opportunities the [Mariel] Zone offers…President Raúl is taking courageous decisions to modernize his country. Now we only need to abolish the U.S. blockade so Cuba can fully develop.”

During his visit, Lula also held discussions about ethanol-based energy projects, and visited a Brazilian-funded soy cultivation farm in the province of Ciego de Ávila.


State Department releases Annual Country Reports on Human Rights

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry released the Annual Country Reports on Human Rights, reports AFP. The Country Report on Cuba for 2013 states:

“The principal human rights abuses were abridgement of the right of citizens to change the government and the use of government threats, extrajudicial physical violence, intimidation, mobs, harassment, and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly.”

The report’s executive summary is nearly identical to the U.S. Department of State’s 2012 Annual Country Report, while adding that:

“In January the government largely dropped travel restrictions that prevented citizens from leaving the island, but these reforms were not universally applied, and authorities denied passport requests for certain opposition figures or harassed them upon their return to the country.”

In 2013, Cuba’s Interior Ministry reported that 184,787 people made 257,518 trips abroad — a 35% increase from 2012, reports the Miami Herald.

‘Cuban Five’ member Fernando released from prison

Fernando González of the “Cuban Five” was released from a federal prison in Safford, Arizona on Thursday, reports the Associated Press. On Thursday, Barbara González (no relation), a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, stated Fernando González was immediately transferred to an immigration facility and an order for his deportation had been ordered. The Associated Press reports he arrived in Havana around noon local time.

Cuba state-run Cubadebate reports that President Raúl Castro greeted him upon arrival, along with supporters of the Cuban Five. Magali Llort, González’s mother told the AP, “But we can’t feel satisfied with Fernando arriving and René having come. We have to keep up the fight so that the rest, their brothers, are here.”

González was convicted with four other Cubans, together known as the “Cuban Five,” in 2001 in Miami for espionage. González was released after serving 15 years of his original 19-year sentence, which was reduced on appeal in 2008 on the basis of good conduct.

Rene González, another of the “Five” was released on probation in 2011. He was permitted to travel to Cuba in April of 2013, where he renounced his U.S. citizenship in order to remain on the island. Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, and Ramón Labañino remain in prison in the U.S.

Florida Banking Bill could affect travel to Cuba

A bill which is making its way through Florida’s state legislature may have a negative effect on travel to Cuba, reports the Tampa Tribune. House Bill 673, which was introduced by Florida Rep. Doug Broxson, would require Florida banks to file the same reports with the state that they already must file with federal authorities regarding transactions of anyone suspected of supporting terrorism. Transactions related to countries on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, which includes Cuba, would fall under this legislation. The bill has been approved by its first subcommittee.

Cuba is not mentioned in the bill and according to Broxson, the legislation was not written with Cuba in mind. According to the report, some financial crime experts who claim they are not party to the Cuba debate agree with Broxon’s assertion that the bill would help state enforcement efforts. Meanwhile, other observers believe the bill was introduced in order to hurt Cuba’s chances of finding a new bank in the U.S. According to Patrick Manteiga, the publisher of Tampa’s weekly newspaper La Gaceta,

“Every time I have looked at one of these bills in the past 10 years, there is always someone in the Cuban exile community who asked for someone involved in writing the bill to slip in something that could hurt Cuba under the radar….I would look to Miami’s Cuban-American delegation to be the reason this anti-Cuba language was added in.”

As we reported last week, Cuba recently suspended consular visa services because of difficulty finding a bank to process their visa transactions. All services except those of humanitarian nature remain suspended, including the granting of visas necessary to travel to the island.

French bank facing OFAC investigation pulls out of Havana

The Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP Paribas) closed its Havana branch in the wake of an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) into alleged transactions in violation of U.S. sanctions against Cuba, reports Café Fuerte (translated by Havana Times).

BNP Paribas reportedly announced earlier this month that it designated $1.1 billion of its annual profits to pay anticipated OFAC fines for transactions in violation of U.S. sanctions against Cuba and other countries on the State Department’s state sponsors of terrorism list. The U.S. Department of Justice and the District Attorney’s Office in Manhattan are also involved in the investigation.

The bank, which is reportedly cooperating with the investigation, said in a statement: “We have conducted a retrospective internal review of certain payments in dollars that involve countries, people and entities that may have been the object of economic sanctions by virtue of US laws. …We have identified a significant volume of transactions that could be considered inadmissible.”

In October 2013, Cuba’s Central Bank indicated, without explanation, that Sabadell, a Spanish bank, had petitioned to close its Havana branch. In December, The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) agreed to pay a $33.12 million fine levied by OFAC as part of a larger settlement in connection with financial transactions that violated U.S. sanctions against Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Burma.

The departure of BNP Paribas from the country brings to ten the count of foreign banks operating in Cuba authorized to do business with Cuban state enterprises, joint-venture firms, and Cuba’s Central Bank.

Church leaders’ delegation holds briefing for Congress on U.S.-Cuba relations

On Thursday, a delegation of Christian faith leaders from Cuba briefed the U.S. Congress on the status of religious freedom in Cuba, at a meeting sponsored by Senator Jeff Flake (AZ) and Representative Jim McGovern (MA-2).  The six faith leaders called for meaningful dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba, the removal of Cuba from the U.S. State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list, and the elimination of all restrictions on people-to-people travel.

Panelists included the Presbyterian President of the Cuban Council of Churches, Rev. Jose Ortega Dopico and the Anglican Bishop of Cuba, Bishop Griselda Delgado.  Their delegation was denounced by Capitol Hill Cubans as “religious persecutors.”

Rev. Dopico and Rev. John McCullough, CEO of Church World Service, penned a joint op-ed in The Hill on the subject, writing:

“As church leaders and citizens of our respective countries, we have learned to work well together, and we have learned from each other in the process. We urge our governments to do the same.”

Ohio officials to travel to Cuba to study healthcare system

Don Plusquellic, Mayor of Akron, Ohio, with fourteen government officials and public health professionals and experts, spent a week in Cuba learning about the country’s healthcare system, reports the Akron Beacon Journal. Their itinerary included visits to Cuban biotech enterprises and a meeting with American students at the Latin American School of Medical Studies outside Havana. The trip was organized by Dr. C. William Keck, board member of MEDICC, the non-profit organization Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba, and former director of health for the city of Akron, who said:

“What I wanted to do was put together a trip that would focus on taking people from the community here… to Cuba to get a sense of how a poor country has managed to actually create a health system that actually has the same health status of the United States — and they do it for a lot less money.”

According to the Beacon Journal, Akron’s Mayor, Don Plusquellic is “bothered” by the U.S. embargo against Cuba and the effect it has on public health. He referenced diabetes drugs that Cuba has developed, saying a friend of his who died due to complications involving diabetes might have benefitted from Cuban drugs that aren’t available to Americas. “The U.S. won’t let [medicine from Cuba] in. I know this guy could have been saved,” he stated. Plusquellic added, “If nothing else, Americans ought to have the right to the best medical care.”

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa traveled Cuba for three days in January to study the island’s public health system. Senator Harkin, who serves as Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee spoke positively about the experience on the floor of the Senate. His remarks were followed by a response from Senator Marco Rubio (FL), who blasted Sen. Harkin for his praise of Cuba.

Around the Region

Venezuelan protests continue; U.S. expels diplomats

Protests against the government of President Nicolás Maduro continued into a third week. The protests, that started demonstrations by students for improved safety measures, have been expanded by factions within the political opposition protesting against inflation, shortages, and crime. The protests have led to a death toll of 17, reports the Associated Press. Tensions have risen, as both sides of the country’s political spectrum have blamed the other for the violence. Fourteen people, seven of them Venezuelan intelligence agents, have been arrested by authorities in connection to killings that took place during the protests, reports AFP.

Two opposition leaders, Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado have assumed leadership roles in the protests, reports AFP. López, a former Mayor and presidential candidate who participated in the short-lived April 2002 coup against then-president Hugo Chávez, turned himself in to authorities this week after being accused of instigating violence. López and Machado’s active support and participation in the protests has exposed divisions within Venezuela’s conservative opposition, reports Reuters. As Rebecca Hanson has noted in WOLA’s Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog, the protests have been largely middle-class based and there are areas of the country that have remained quiet.

Since López’s arrest, Henrique Capriles Radonski, the opposition candidate who faced President Maduro in the April 2013 presidential election, has presented a united and somewhat more moderate front for the opposition. Although President Maduro invited Capriles and opposition leaders to a national peace conference, Capriles and much of the opposition rejected the invitation, reports AFP.

Instead, Capriles laid out his position in a news conference, stating: “There are people who have the right to ask for [Maduro] to step down. There are some who have asked that of me, and are those people in jail? And does that make people fascist? Being in the opposition is not criminal in this country,” reports El Universal. He nonetheless ended the conference also calling for dialogue and negotiation. His press conference was also covered in Globovisión and Venevisión, according to WOLA senior fellow David Smilde.

In the meantime, protesters continued erecting roadblocks and barricades in what Al Jazeera called “an attempt to escalate the ongoing political standoff.” While there have been reports of armed grassroots Chavista groups, known as colectivos, being involved in the violence, those riding motorcycles – a common colectivo mode of transport – have become targets. Wires strung across the streets in a wealthy area of Caracas decapitated a 29 year-old motorcyclist, and a retired General has been accused of training the opposition to string up wires, reports Al Jazeera.

After Venezuela expelled three U.S. diplomats, accusing them of involvement in the protests, Secretary Kerry responded by expelling three Venezuelan diplomats from Washington, and released a statement saying “This is not how democracies behave,” that blamed Venezuela’s government for the violence, and encouraged dialogue. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter had previously scheduled a trip to Venezuela for April on healthcare issues, but he now hopes to meet with leaders on both sides to help mediate the political conflict.

Senator Marco Rubio (FL) and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) capitalized on the situation in Venezuela.  Senator Rubio repeatedly linked Venezuela to Cuba in Congress and on CNN’s “The Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer alleging that Cuba is assisting the Venezuelan government in “a broader part of an agenda that Cuba has in furthering terrorism around the world.”  Representative Ros-Lehtinen expressed similar sentiments and introduced legislation calling for the U.S. to do more against the “puppet regime” of President Maduro.

Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez (NJ) introduced a resolution, “deploring violence in Venezuela [and], calling for full accountability for human rights violations.”

Speaking at Miami-Dade College this week, Luis Posada Carriles – a Cuban exile terrorist and former CIA asset behind the 1976 Cuban airliner bombing which left 73 dead – said, “I will fight in any scenario, including Venezuela. We are pacifists, but [not so much.]”

Internationally, Pope Francis and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for an end to the ongoing violence in Venezuela, with Pope Francis remarking during his weekly address:

“I sincerely hope the violence and hostility ends as soon as possible, and that the Venezuelan people, beginning with the responsible politicians and institutions, act to foster national reconciliation through mutual forgiveness and sincere dialogue.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at the University of Miami on Thursday, and criticized Venezuela’s government, reports NBC. Significantly, she opened by saying that “It is a country that is not being well-governed, and it’s a democracy, no one would argue that it isn’t.” The United States has never formally recognized the results of the elections which led to Maduro’s presidency.

This week, the U.S. Department of State issued its annual country reports on human rights, which included Venezuela. In Secretary of State John Kerry’s introductory remarks for the report’s release, he stated:

“…the United States of America will continue to speak out, without a hint of arrogance or apology, on behalf of people who stand up for their universal rights. And we will stand up in many cases for those who are deprived of the opportunity to be able to stand up for themselves. We will do so in Venezuela, where the government has confronted peaceful protestors by deploying armed vigilantes, by imprisoning students, and by severely limiting freedoms of expression and assembly. The solution to Venezuela’s problems are not found through violence, and they will not be found through violence, but only through dialogue with all Venezuelans in a climate of mutual respect.”

For more on Venezuela, please see the February 20th edition of Caracas Connect, with analysis by Dr. Dan Hellinger, a Venezuela scholar and president emeritus of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

Recommended Reading

Poll: It’s time to normalize relations with Cuba, Charlie Cook, National Journal

A top political U.S. political analyst, Charlie Cook, published an analysis of the recent Atlantic Council survey which 56% of Americans and 63% of Floridians supporting better relations with Cuba.  In it, he concludes: “it’s time for the tiny band of intransigent Cuban-American politicians who are carrying on this futile crusade to throw in the towel and accept the new reality, or for others to just ignore them and forge a more rational policy.”

Obama Should End America’s Stupidest Foreign Policy: Isolating Cuba, Robert Shrum, The Daily Beast

Robert Shrum, a political consultant and former speechwriter for the late Senator Ted Kennedy, argues that President Obama “can and should” use his executive power to change U.S. policy toward Cuba, and calls the U.S. embargo “an artifact of resentment, a self-defeating relic from another era.”

Cuba’s New Real Estate Market, Philip Peters, Brookings Institution

In a report for the Brookings Institution, veteran Cuba analyst Phil Peters calls the 2011 decree that legalized the purchase and sale of private residential properties a significant economic reform for Cuba.

Scaling the Embargo Wall: Travel Teaches What Isolation Can’t, Jaime Hamre, The Center for Democracy in the Americas

CDA’s Stephen M. Rivers memorial intern reflects on the dramatic effect travel to the island had on her understanding of Cuba. “For most Americans, their knowledge about Cuba remains generally limited to the music, classic cars, and cigars; in essence, dominated by relics,” Jaime Hamre argues.

In Cuba, trend seen away from eccentric names, Associated Press

The Associated Press discusses the decline in popularity of Russian-inspired names in Cuba (Yuris, Alexey, Niureidis, Yusniel), which in past decades served as reminders of the close ties between Cuba and the USSR.

Recommended viewing:

One year after Chávez: Venezuela, Chavismo, and Democracy, David Smilde, Washington Office on Latin America

David Smilde speaks at the Washington Office on Latin America, giving a comprehensive analysis of the current situation in Venezuela, and what the future may hold.

Ending the embargo on Cuba?, Chuck Todd, MSNBC

Chuck Todd offers a recap of the recent developments in U.S. policy toward Cuba, examining the shift in Florida politics. He looks to Former Florida Senator Mel Martinez and Adam Smith of the Tampa Bay Times for commentary.

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