What a week. In her book Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton calls for an end to the embargo on Cuba. In reaction to the Taliban prisoner exchange to free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the President’s political opposition is outraged; some are calling for his head. Besieged by hate mail and other protests, the “Welcome back Bowe” celebration planned by the soldier’s hometown has been called off.
Will the bitter, partisan reaction to Bergdahl’s release or the principle he asserted in negotiating with the Taliban for his freedom carry greater weight in the President’s mind as he considers whether to negotiate for the release of Alan Gross?
If negotiations with Cuba are off the table, we might paraphrase Billy Malone’s question to Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, and ask the President, “What are you prepared to do?”
We have neither the space nor the inclination to summarize what one commentator called “the manufactured brouhaha” over Sgt. Bergdahl’s release. You’d have to live in a sealed container to miss the mud being thrown against the President, the freed prisoner, his father, even his father’s beard. While their reaction to the negotiations could be consequential later, nothing the critics say or do– since the swap already happened and Sgt. Bergdahl is coming home – matters now.
By contrast, we think the principle used to defend how the Administration engineered his release is worth repeating and amplifying.
General Ray Odierno, Army Chief of Staff says, “We will never leave a fallen comrade behind.” Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls it “the sacred promise that America has to its people.”
State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf echoed the military leadership when she said, “I think what we were focused on here is getting this American soldier home. Again, I think there might’ve been some confusion yesterday that the – how he ended up in Taliban captivity is wholly unrelated to whether or not we should’ve brought him home.”
Finally, from the Commander-in-Chief, “Regardless of circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American prisoner back,” he said. “Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that.”
Why wouldn’t that principle apply to Alan Gross? Or, as Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus put it, “What is the justification for freeing these Taliban officials in exchange for Bergdahl and summarily rejecting the notion of a much more benign release in order to secure Gross’s release?”
The question of whether Alan Gross and Bowe Bergdahl are equivalent is a trap. Alan Gross is not a soldier, even though the technology he brandished was like a weapon. While his covert trips to the island were part of longstanding U.S. government efforts to overthrow Cuba’s government, he was not really a spy. He certainly isn’t a hostage. He is serving a 15-year sentence in a Cuban jail because he broke Cuban law.
“He traveled to Havana in 2009,” as Tracey Eaton wrote, “with satellite communication gear, wireless transmitters, routers, cables and switches – enough to set up Internet connections and Wi-Fi hotspots that the socialist government would not be able to detect or control.”
Stephen Kimber explains further, “He never informed Cuba of his mission, and invariably flew into the country on a tourist visa. To smuggle his equipment into the country without arousing suspicion, Gross sometimes used unsuspecting members of religious groups as ‘mules.’”
The programs that funded his activities were authorized by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, the statute that codified U.S. regime change policies. As Gross’s USAID overseers well knew, “Cuban authorities in 1999 passed Law 88, which prohibited ‘acts aimed at supporting, facilitating or collaborating with the goals of the Helms-Burton law.’”
Against this backdrop, the U.S. government has consistently maintained that Alan Gross is “wrongfully imprisoned,” as Secretary of State Kerry told Congress. It has said that the Cuban government should unilaterally release him without conditions, and that we won’t swap him for three Cuban spies held by the U.S. because that implies “false equivalency.”
As Bloomberg reported, Scott Gilbert, Mr. Gross’s attorney, dismisses this strategy.
“The U.S. government has effectively done nothing – nothing,” he says, in the years since Gross was arrested, “to attempt to obtain his freedom other than standing up and demanding his unconditional release, which is like looking up at the sky and demanding rain.”
This suits the hardline supporters of sanctions against Cuba just fine. “We should not be trying to barter with them. We must demand the unconditional release of Gross, not engage in a quid-pro-quo with tyrants,” says Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Six months ago, Alan Gross wrote President Obama to say, “I fear that my government – the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare – has abandoned me.” Then he said in a statement released before his 65th birthday, “it will be my last birthday here.” Now that the State Department has told reporters that the deal to secure Sgt. Bergdahl’s freedom means that “nothing has changed” when it comes to swapping Alan Gross for the remaining members of the Cuban Five, one can only wonder what he is thinking now.
So, Mr. President, what are you prepared to do?
What justified negotiating with the Taliban, the editors at Bloomberg said, was not only getting Sgt. Bergdhal back, but preparing the stage for reconciliation in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdraws its troops.
The larger purpose in negotiating for the release of Alan Gross is removing the biggest impediment to improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Although the President has not spent much political capital to obtain this end in the past five-plus years, he might choose to do so now, since Secretary Clinton has used the publication of her forthcoming memoir to disclose her privately-held view that the embargo no longer serves U.S. interests. Obama can make the task of lifting or easing the embargo in the next administration easier by working to free Alan Gross during his.
Here, recent diplomatic history is a useful guide. During the Carter Administration, a deal was structured with Fidel Castro in which Puerto Rican terrorists who shot up the Congress and Blair House were released and sent to Cuba, after which American spies held in Cuba for more than a decade were sent back to the States. Both sides got what they wanted without admitting it was a swap. Such an artifice could help the President obtain freedom for Alan Gross.
In a telling comment about the furor that accompanied Bowe Bergdahl’s freedom, the President said, “We also remain deeply committed to securing the release of American citizens who are unjustly detained abroad and deserve to be reunited with their families, just like the Bergdahls soon will be.”
There is, after all, a principle at stake. We don’t leave Americans behind.
In her new memoir, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she urged President Obama to lift or ease the embargo against Cuba because it was no longer useful, reports the Associated Press. Clinton says she believed that opposition by some of the members of Congress to normalizing relations with Cuba was harmful to both the United States and the Cuban people. Clinton writes,
“Since 1960, the United States had maintained an embargo against the island in hopes of squeezing Castro from power, but it only succeeded in giving him a foil to blame for Cuba’s economic woes…It wasn’t achieving its goals and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America.”
Instead of isolating the Cuban people, Clinton writes that she and President Obama decided to engage and expose them “to the values, information and material comforts of the outside world.”
Writing about imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, Clinton expressed disappointment at his arrest and imprisonment in Cuba. She speculates that Cuba’s government could be using the case
“As an opportunity to put the brakes on any possible rapprochement with the United States and the domestic reforms that would require. If so, it is a double tragedy, consigning millions of Cubans to a kind of continued imprisonment as well.”
Phil Peters, on his blog The Cuban Triangle, reflected on the significance of Clinton’s choice to include this position in her memoir:
“It is not surprising that a former U.S. official finds our policy ineffective or counterproductive and calls for it to change. That happens all the time. What’s more interesting is Secretary Clinton as a Presidential candidate calculating that the political sweet spot is to be critical of the Cuban government’s human rights practices while also questioning the value of the embargo itself.”
Clinton’s memoir, entitled Hard Choices, will be released on June 10.
U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was released from captivity on Saturday May 31, after being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan for nearly five years, reports the Guardian. Bergdahl, the only U.S. POW in Afghanistan, was freed after the White House agreed to transfer five Taliban prisoners from the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba to the custody of the government of Qatar.
“He wasn’t forgotten by his country,” President Obama stated, reports CNN. “The United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.”
Fernando González, one of the “Cuban Five” who completed his sentence in the U.S. and returned to Cuba, said that the Bergdahl exchange should serve as a precedent for the U.S. to free the remaining members of the Cuban Five for Alan Gross, reports the Associated Press.
A reporter referred to a possible prisoner swap between the U.S. and Cuba at the State Department’s Daily Briefing this week, asking if the case of Sgt. Bergdahl had implications for the case of Alan Gross. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said that this case was different, because Sgt. Bergdahl was a member of the military. The following exchange ensued:
QUESTION: So working for another agency of the government makes a difference? You’re not prepared to trade people for someone who was not serving in uniform?
MS. PSAKI: Again, Matt, we take every circumstance and every case of an American citizen being detained overseas incredibly seriously, and we do everything we can to assure their return.
QUESTION: And then my last one then is: So that means that the Administration is still opposed to any deal with the Cubans for Alan Gross that involves the three remaining Cuban Five?
MS. PSAKI: Nothing has changed in that case, no.
Reacting to the statements, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen reiterated her stance against negotiating for Alan Gross’s freedom and disregarded the State Department assurances, stating: “I seriously believe the administration is considering a swap…The administration has shown itself not to be faithful to the law and is not to be trusted,” reports The Miami Herald.
Jeffrey DeLaurentis will be the new Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, reports Café Fuerte. The U.S. Department of State announced DeLaurentis’s appointment on Wednesday, June 4. He will replace John Caulfield, the current Chief of Mission, who will leave his position in July, reports AFP. DeLaurentis will be leaving his position as Alternate Representative of the United States for Special Political Affairs in the United Nations for his new post in Havana.
DeLaurentis started his career in the U.S. Foreign Service in 1991. He has been stationed in Havana on two occasions as Political/Economic Section Chief at the U.S. Interests Section. He has also served as Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and Director of Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council.
A State Department program will bring a total of 75 to 100 Cuban high school students to the U.S. within the next two years, reports the Miami Herald. Non-profits and institutions of higher education interested in leading the program, called the “Summer Leadership Program for Cuban Youth,” will be able to apply for the $1.2 million grant, reports Along the Malecón. The State Department said that it may give the grant money to multiple applicants or to none, if proposals are unsatisfactory.
According to the application form, the project aims to “provide opportunities for Cuban youth to participate in typical American youth development activities including clubs, organizations, and camps in order to develop leadership skills, an understanding of democratic principles and the role of civic action in engaging communities.” Students would also stay with host families for a portion of the three to four weeks they are in the U.S.
The program does not require English proficiency, and would be conducted in Spanish. The first session will take place next summer with 25 to 35 students expected to participate. The Department of State expects to enroll another 50 to 65 students in the program during its second year in the summer of 2016.
Another program that brought fifteen Cuban students to study at Miami-Dade College in Florida for five months through scholarships from the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (FHRC) was criticized earlier this year as being politically motivated. This summer, the College of Communications at California State University will run a program for Cuban college students on digital journalism.
On Wednesday, Martin Garbus, the trial lawyer and member of the Cuban Five’s legal team, told reporters that he expects a ruling in coming days by the original trial judge, U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lenard, on whether the two life terms plus 15-years of imprisonment sentence against Gerardo Hernández will be revoked due to a media campaign by the U.S. to influence the jury, report The National Press Club and EFE.
The Cuban Five are intelligence agents, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, Antonio Guerrero and René González, who were arrested in 1998 and convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and other charges. They had been sent to the U.S. to monitor potential terrorist threats to Cuba. René González was released in 2011 and Fernando González was released in February 2014.
Garbus and his team presented thousands of documents to the judge as evidence that the jury was tainted by writings surrounding the deliberations. According to the legal team, the jury was “strongly influenced by articles that were ordered to be written by the U.S. government. Three Miami Herald journalists were fired in 2006 after receiving public funds to cover the case, and simultaneous propaganda campaigns were carried out by the Cuban opposition group, Brothers to the Rescue as well as by Radio and TV Martí in Miami. If Hernández’s sentence is revoked on these grounds, it would also invalidate the rulings of the other two imprisoned agents. Although Judge Lenard could also order a new trial, this is considered unlikely due to the inability to retain all original witnesses.
In the event that Judge Lenard rules against them, Garbus plans to appeal to the same court that has already made changes to the original trial findings.
A series of events to support the Five, hosted by the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban 5, began June 4 in Washington, DC. They are part of a larger movement initiated by the Committee to raise awareness and increase pressure for the release of the three members who remain imprisoned. The Committee called for “simultaneous actions in other parts of the world, including, ‘sit-ins, rallies, speeches, exhibitions, worldwide message actions through Twitter, media articles, and social networking,’” reports Prensa Latina.
Jose Ramon Cabañas, Chief of Mission at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, spoke to reporters on Wednesday and said the U.S. government should listen to the many Americans calling for a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba and reiterated Cuba’s openness to negotiations, reports EFE.
Émigrés from Cuba accounted for the sixth largest number of U.S. citizenships obtained in 2013. A quarter of a million Cubans have now obtained U.S. citizenship in the 21st century.
In comparison to other Latin American countries in 2013, Cuba is third to Mexico, which had 99,385 nationals gain U.S. citizenship, and the Dominican Republic, at 39,590.
Many of these migrants are admitted to the U.S. on the basis of the wet foot/dry foot policy, in effect since 1995, which states that Cubans who reach U.S. soil cannot be sent back to Cuba; instead, they can remain in the U.S. and start quickly on the path to permanent residence and then citizenship.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Cuba extended its agreement to share production of gas and oil in the Puerto Escondido/Yumuri oil field with Sherritt International Corp., its largest private foreign investor, reports Cuba Standard. The contract will now expire in March 2028. Sherritt is based in Toronto, and has invested in Cuba for over two decades.
Sherritt’s relationship with Cuba began with cooperation in the nickel industry and then grew to include partnerships in the oil, gas, electric energy, agriculture, tourism, and transportation sectors. Sherritt’s partnership with Cuba has provided the Canadian company with around 20,000 barrels of oil daily in 2013, as well as three commercial oil fields, reports EFE. David Pathe, president of Sherritt International, said the contract was an “important landmark” for future oil cooperation with Cuba.
Between January and April 2014, 1,282,734 international tourists visited Cuba, according to the May 2014 tourism report released by Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information. This represents an increase of over 60,000 tourists compared to last year’s figures. Canadians constituted the majority of tourists, numbering over 600,000. The second highest were from Germany, which sent some 55,000 tourists to Cuba. Canada and Germany were followed by France, Italy, and England. Approximately $1.804 billion in tourism revenue was generated in Cuba in 2013, reports EFE.
During the 44th annual General Assembly meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), the majority of country delegations agreed that Cuba should participate in next year’s 7th Summit of the Americas in Panama, reports Xinhua. The Summit of the Americas brings together the Heads of State and government representatives of all 35 members of the OAS. The OAS provides support to the Summit and acts as an observer, along with other international institutions.
Panama’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Francisco Alvarez De Soto, initially proposed that Cuba be invited to attend the Summit at a meeting of the OAS’s Summit Implementation Review Group (GRIC). When the United States rejected the proposal, several country delegations, such as Argentina and Bolivia threatened to boycott the Summit in 2015. Brazil’s envoy, Jose Felicio, said that Cuba’s inclusion is “a necessary condition” for “the continuity of constructive dialogue” toward greater integration. The Pan American Post writes that the most notable aspect of this year’s General Assembly was:
“the overwhelming support among Latin American nations for Cuba’s unconditional attendance at the next Summit of the Americas in Panama in 2015. EFE reports that the United States was alone in opposing an invitation to Cuba. The representative from Canada, which joined the U.S. in blocking a similar measure at the 2012 Summit in Colombia, apparently offered no position on the matter this time around, diplomatic sources told the news agency.”
Cuba was first suspended from the OAS in 1962. In 2009, member countries voted to revoke Cuba’s suspension, but Cuba declined to return to the organization. To this date, Cuba has not expressed its intention or desire to join the OAS.
During the 2012 6th Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, the Summit concluded for the first time in its history without a formal declaration. As we reported then, disagreements – over Cuba’s exclusion, the dispute between Argentina and Britain over the Falklands, and the failed drug war – scuttled any chance for unanimity.
Salvador Valdés Mesa, Cuba’s Vice President, reaffirmed Cuba’s cooperation with El Salvador as Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the newly-inaugurated President of El Salvador, assumed office last weekend, reports EFE. Valdés Mesa stated that Cuba aims to “deepen bilateral political ties and also be able to expand the field for other areas of interest.”
Cuba’s government has opened an experimental wholesale market for agricultural supplies on Isla de la Juventud, reports Reuters. This is the latest in a series of agricultural reforms during Raúl Castro’s presidency, which have allowed farmers to grow their own crops, sell more directly to buyers, and lease land that has lain fallow for decades.
Even with these reforms, however, the market for agricultural supplies has remained centralized, contributing to Cuba’s continued need to import nearly two-thirds of its food, according to the Reuters report. This wholesale market would somewhat decentralize the market for agricultural supplies for the 60,000 people living on Isla de la Juventud. Stores will be selling “80 lines of merchandise that include pesticides, fertilizers, animal medicine, forage, farming tools, tires and others,” reports Progreso Weekly.
Farmers interviewed by Reuters were cautiously optimistic about the wholesale market, saying that it sounded good but that it might function differently in reality. They were disappointed that one of the most essential — and scarce — resources, diesel fuel, was not included in the market.
The market will operate for one year, at which point the government will evaluate its effectiveness and make changes before potentially implementing similar programs in other provinces.
A project, “Constitution Assembly Now,” is attempting to bring together opposition and other members of civil society to write a new constitution for Cuba, reports the Miami Herald. The article says that 2,400 people showed up last weekend to participate in debates in Cuba about what the format of the new constitution ought to be. Manuel Cuesta Morúa said that he does not want this project to include only dissidents:
“‘The idea is to open the process to all citizens. It’s about reaching a wider legitimacy with the participation of citizens not linked to the opposition. This is not a discussion among opposition groups, and this first activity proved it.’”
The discussions are meant to coincide with private discussions Cuba’s government is holding about possibly changing the country’s Constitution. Constitution Assembly Now is the first attempt to reform or rewrite Cuba’s Constitution since the efforts of the late opposition leader Oswaldo Payá in 2002.
Payá’s movement, called the Varela Project, gathered the minimum 10,000 signatures required to petition for changes to the Constitution but it was rejected by the National Assembly.
After Bowe Bergdahl, what about Alan Gross?, Ruth Marcus, Washington Post
Marcus argues that, especially after the trade of five Taliban members for U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. should swap the remaining three members of the Cuban Five for Alan Gross. She compares the two cases and concludes that “releasing [the Cuban Five] would be a political risk — sparking protests from Cuban American legislators such as Sen. Robert Menendez — not a national security one.”
#CubaNow prints the full text of U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue’s speech from June 1 at the University of Havana, in which he discussed steps that both the U.S. and Cuba could take to improve relations between the two countries.
Congressional Visit to U.S. Citizen Imprisoned in Cuba, Kent Cooper, Roll Call
Cooper reports on the congressional delegation to Cuba that the Center for Democracy in the Americas led in May. During the trip, Rep. Sam Farr (CA-20), Rep. Barbara Lee (CA-13), Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-5), and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-5) met with Alan Gross and advocated for negotiations to free him.
Cracking the US Economic Blockade of Cuba, Tim Anderson, Centre for Research on Globalization
Anderson attributes “cracks” in the U.S. embargo against Cuba to Latin American unity and to the shifting attitudes of U.S. officials.
Women drummers break barriers in Cuba percussion, Andrea Rodriguez, Associated Press
Rodriguez writes about how female bata drummers in Cuba are combating the “macho attitudes and religious tradition” that have long dominated the art. (With photos)
Universities and Students Face Challenges With Cuba Study Abroad, Olivia Vanni, U.S. News & World Report
Although the Obama Administration’s reforms should allow U.S. students to travel to Cuba for educational purposes, Vanni writes about how obstacles still arise when students do try to study abroad in Cuba.
Can’t the U.S. and Cuba Just Get Along in the Name of Science?, Marina Koren, National Journal
Koren argues for changes to the Treasury Department’s Cuban Assets Control Regulations to recognize scientific conferences between the U.S. and Cuba. The regulations have stymied scientific progress, she says, such as in efforts to find treatments for dengue and chikungunya, a virus spread by mosquitos.
Padgett is right, they can’t have it both ways, Ric Herrero, #CubaNow
#CubaNow writes in support of Tim Padgett’s recent article that points out the hypocrisy in the U.S. making heroes of Cuban entrepreneurs while simultaneously refusing to support their endeavors. #CubaNow argues that supporting Cuban entrepreneurs is not “‘a concession’ to the Castro regime” but rather an essential step toward pressuring Cuba’s government to improve human rights.
Rum, Rhythm and Revolution: Joakim Eskildsen in Eastern Cuba, Kira Pollack, TIME
Photographer Joakim Eskildsen presents a series of photographs taken in Santiago de Cuba, an area “known to many as the cradle of Cuban traditional music, the home of rum and the birthplace of the Revolution.” He aimed to compare these images with ones he took last year in the metropolitan Havana.
Skateboarders Take to the Streets of Cuba, Huffington Post
Cuba Skate, an NGO that promotes intercultural exchange through shared love of skating, shares this video of skaters in Cuba. One mission of the organization is to facilitate Cubans studying in America and Americans studying in Cuba.