In the news summary that follows, you will find reports about a new investigation into the USAID Cuban Twitter scandal, the growing impact of the increasingly tight enforcement of U.S. sanctions against Cuba and other nations on banks and global commerce, and the resumption of peace talks in Havana between Colombia and the FARC.
But first, we wanted to acknowledge what is unfolding in and near “a large wheat field dotted with purple flowers and Queen Anne’s lace,” in the lyrical prose of Sabrina Tavernise, a reporter for the New York Times. This is where wreckage from Malaysia Flight 17 and the remains of some of its 298 crewmember and passengers came to rest in Eastern Ukraine after it was shot down a little more than a day ago.
The victims included 80 children, three of whom were infants, a number of AIDS researchers and activists, the spokesman for the World Health Organization, and a graduate student from Indiana University, who was a chemist and a member of the IU rowing team.
The circumstances surrounding the shoot-down of this airliner are reminiscent of an earlier tragedy during the Cold War, when a Korean Airlines Flight was shot down in 1983 by Soviet fighter pilots. That resulted in the loss of 269 people, including a Member of the U.S. Congress.
Today, our memories were also stirred by a catastrophe that took place on October 6, 1976; not half a world away, but here in the Americas. Then, like now, the victims, 48 passengers and 25 crew members, were civilians; many were also young, including all 24 members of the Cuban Fencing Team, five Guyanese medical students, the wife of a diplomat and others.
Their Cubana de Aviacion Flight 455 had just taken off from Barbados when at least one bomb exploded and knocked the plane out of the sky. This was, as Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archives has often said, the first mid-air bombing of a civilian airliner in the Western Hemisphere. All aboard – 57 Cubans, 11 Guyanese, and five North Koreans – were lost.
As we prepared this publication, the UN Security Council issued a statement calling for a “full, thorough and independent investigation” of the Malaysian airliner tragedy. Leaders from around the world called for an investigation and for accountability.
In the 38 years since the bombing of Flight 455, there has been no accountability for the loss of life; the families of the victims are not even mentioned in the news coverage of Malaysian Flight 17, as broadcast and print journalists recall similar incidents in the past.
Yet, Luis Posada Carriles, one of the two masterminds behind the bombing of the Air Cubana flight, continues to live and walk free in Miami, despite outstanding extradition requests from Cuba and Venezuela, which have yet to receive the response they merit from the U.S. government.
In some quarters, it will doubtless be controversial for us to remember that justice has still not been served in the case of Flight 455.
But our interest is in reforming Cuba policy to help the United States get past the double-standards that were deemed acceptable during the Cold War, but which are injurious to the national interest today, and adopt a single standard of justice in cases like this, now and into the future. The dignity of the victims in these cases demands nothing less.
USAID’s Inspector General, charged with auditing the agency’s activities, is conducting an investigation into its ZunZuneo “Cuban Twitter” program, reports the Associated Press.
ZunZuneo, created by USAID and funded under Helms-Burton, was a ‘Twitter-like’ text message service which, unbeknownst to its Cuban users, gathered their personal information and ranked their political leanings, on the way toward sending messages with political content to the users. The goal of ZunZuneo, launched after the detention of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, was to enable political dissidents to organize “smart mobs” and incite public opposition to the government. The Obama Administration has described the project as “discreet” rather than covert. ZunZuneo acquired information on more than 68,000 Cubans before the program ran out of money and was discontinued without notice to its subscriber base in Cuba.
The Inspector General confirmed to the AP that it is investigating whether the ZunZuneo program was subject to appropriate oversight and will publish the investigation’s findings.
Foreign banks are pulling back from doing business with commercial customers that have ties with countries subject to U.S. sanctions. As Bloomberg reported, the imposition of new sanctions against Russia, immediately following a record fine imposed on BNP Paribas, is causing banks to be “hyper-vigilant to the breadth of U.S. sanctions in making sure that no U.S. citizens are in any way connected to these transactions,” said Michael O’Kane, a London-based lawyer at Peters & Peters LLP. “Recent events have shown there’s a lot to lose.”
As Reuters reports, “[M]ajor lenders in Europe and Asia are reacting to the steady flow of punishments from the United States by doing ever more to comply with U.S. laws and by cutting business ties in countries Washington dislikes rather than risk its wrath and, in the worst scenario, risk exclusion from the dollar system.”
Bundesbank, the central bank of Germany, is one of the foreign institutions worried about fines that the U.S. could impose, particularly as the U.S. is currently investigating two other banks in Germany, Commerzbank and Deutsche Bank, for trading with Iran, Reuters reports.
Granma, the Cuban state newspaper, reports that Ulrich Grillo, the president of the Federation of German Industry, accused Washington of having “suffocated” German and French banks with unjustified fines.
These developments should provide additional fodder for complaints by countries against the extra-territorial reach of U.S. sanctions which emerge annually during the debate in the UN General Assembly on Cuba’s resolution against the embargo.
Five Cuban baseball players participated in the MLB All Star game on Tuesday, which is the highest number in 40 years, the Wall Street Journal reports. Outfielder Yasiel Puig, of the Los Angeles Dodgers, first baseman José Abreu and shortstop Alexei Ramírez, both of the Chicago White Sox, pitcher Arnoldis Chapman, of the Cincinnati Reds, and outfielder Yoenis Cespedes of the Oakland A’s, were all selected to play in the game.
The Associated Press reports that Cespedes, who repeated as winner of the Home Run Derby on Monday, said, “The Cuban league is below the major leagues levels, but the Cuban players have shown that we are capable to shine here.” Puig said, “This is the sort of stuff all Cuban players dream since they were kids, being here at an All-Star game, playing at a World Series. … We are five this year, and I hope we can add some more next year.”
In recent years, the number of Cuban players coming to the MLB has increased steadily. Since 2010, 22 Cubans have started playing in the MLB, which is twice the number that arrived between 2005 and 2009. Cuban players are the third-largest group of foreign-born MLB players, behind players from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
William Potts, a former Black Panther who hijacked a flight from New York to Miami and forced it to land in Cuba in 1984, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Thursday, reports the Associated Press. He served a thirteen-year sentence in Cuba and lived on the island for sixteen years after his release, but decided to return to the U.S. in November 2013 in the hopes of being with his daughters, who live in the U.S., reports the Miami Herald.
Potts will be eligible for parole after serving seven years in the U.S., in recognition of the thirteen years he already served in Cuba. Even though most federal prisoners are not able to qualify for parole, Potts does because he committed his crime so many years ago. Potts pleaded guilty to kidnapping rather than the original charge of air piracy, for which he would have had to serve a minimum of 20 years in jail.
The Miami Herald reports that Potts was remorseful in court, saying, “If you just give me a chance, judge, I’ll do you proud. … I’m begging you, please, let me go back to my children.”
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Following his departure from Cuba, President Vladimir Putin denied published reports that Russia had reached an agreement with Cuba’s government to reopen a Soviet-era base on the island that it used to monitor signals intelligence from the United States.
Active until 2001, the base was a Russian spy station that gathered signals intelligence from the U.S. during the Cold War. Putin ordered the station closed in 2001 to cut costs and to satisfy U.S. requests, and it has remained closed since, reports RT.
According to a transcript released of his press conference on Thursday, Putin was definitive about the decision in response to a reporter:
REMARK: Thank you. Too bad about Lourdes, though.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: No, it is not too bad. We are capable of resolving our defence issues without this component. We shut down this centre on agreement with our Cuban friends, and we have no plans to resume its activities.
Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that Russia had been in talks with Cuba about reopening the station in Lourdes for some years, but that these talks accelerated at the beginning of 2014. According to Reuters, this alleged acceleration may have been a reaction to the crisis in Ukraine and subsequent U.S. and EU sanctions on Russia.
When the suggestion that Russia would open the Lourdes facilities was initially reported, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) issued a statement saying, “If true, reports of a re-opening of the Lourdes spying facility in Cuba are yet another indication of Vladimir Putin’s desire to deepen ties with a state sponsor of terrorism like Cuba and poses a national security threat to the Homeland.”
On the same day, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department offered a more guarded reaction:
QUESTION: Do you have any thoughts on Russian plans to reopen its electronic surveillance base in Cuba?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, given, Scott, there hasn’t been any formal announcement for – from the Russian or the Cuban Governments, I have very little to say. I’d of course – and would, naturally, have nothing to add on alleged Russian intelligence facilities. So if there’s more public statements made, perhaps we’ll have more to say.
As we reported last week, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin traveled to Cuba on July 11. There, he met with Raúl and Fidel Castro and signed ten agreements and memoranda of mutual understanding (MOUs) with Cuba, reports the Associated Press. The agreements covered areas including cultural exchange, cooperation in the industrial and health sectors, and space demilitarization. The two countries announced plans to develop a joint rescue worker and firefighter training center in Cuba, and to collaborate in the hydroelectric field, reports Granma.
The countries also signed an oil-drilling accord which will allow Russian companies to drill in the oil fields at Boca de Jaruco, Cubadebate reports. This follows an agreement signed in May, which allows Russian oil companies Rosneft and Zarubezhneft to drill in Cuban waters.
Another agreement provided for collaboration in the construction of four generators at Mariel Port, which would provide energy for the industrial zone of Mariel as part of an “ambitious program of diversification and modernization of the energy system” planned for completion in 2030, reports AFP. Russian company Inter Rao and the Cuban Electric Union signed the contract, reports RT. The project requires $10 billion in foreign funding, of which Putin promised a Russian investment of $1.6 billion.
For more on the recent strengthening of ties between Russia and Cuba, see last week’s Cuba Central.
Leaders of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) as well as other Latin American officials met with China’s President Xi Jinping and Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff on Thursday, July 17, following the BRICS Summit that took place over the previous three days, reports Cuban state news agency Cubadebate. CELAC was represented by its Quartet of Chancellors, the heads of state of Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, and Antigua and Barbuda. Raúl Castro traveled to Brazil to represent Cuba. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Chilean President Michele Bachelet also attended.
At the meeting, Jinping offered $20 billion to fund infrastructure projects in Latin America, as well as a $10 billion line of credit to CELAC nations, reports AFP. Jinping also agreed to set up a $5 billion fund for investments in Latin America.
The BRICS Summit, which concluded on Wednesday, further strengthened relations between China and Latin America, as it produced a major initiative: the creation of its own development bank to serve as a counter to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, reports Reuters. The BRICS group is composed of five countries with emerging international economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
In response to the creation of the bank, President Castro stated, “We welcome this commitment to a new international order that is just and equitable.” His full statements are available in Spanish here.
Cuba’s increasing ties with the BRICS countries, especially now that they are forming their own development bank, could serve as a way to lessen the impact of the U.S. economic sanctions imposed on Cuba, reports Cuban state news source Radio Reloj. Jinping will travel to Cuba next week.
Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), resumed in Havana on Tuesday, July 15, reports AFP. A source in the Colombian government’s delegation told AFP that these talks do not constitute a new round of negotiations, but rather “one or two meetings to wrap up unresolved things before starting on the issue of the victims [of violence],” the next subject the talks will seek to address.
Last week, seventeen victims’ organizations asked the government to include victims at the talks in Havana, reports Colombian newspaper El Espectador. At the end of the last round of talks, the delegations decided on the “guiding principles” for their discussion of the victims and victim compensation. The two sides will work out further details during the current talks.
Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization, visited Cuba this week along with Carissa F. Etienne, Director of the Pan-American Health Organization, reports EFE. It was reported that the delegation would visit Cuba’s Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center, its Centers for Immunotesting and Molecular Immunology, and that Dr. Chan would also give a speech at the Ministry of Public Health.
Dr. Chan stated, “Whenever I come here I always learn something new from your scientists, from your health care workers,” reports state news agency AIN. Dr. Chan also met with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro during her visit, during which they discussed the state of healthcare in Cuba and the world, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, and the World Health Organization’s Assembly held in May of this year, reports AIN.
On Sunday, July 13, Cuban authorities arrested about 100 members of the Ladies in White who had gathered for their weekly march and to mark the 20th anniversary of the sinking of a tugboat which drowned 37 people who had been attempting to flee the island, reports the BBC. The women were freed after several hours.
U.S. Department of State spokesperson Jen Psaki released a statement condemning the detentions, and “urg[ing] the government of Cuba to end these practices and respect the universal human rights of the Cuban people.”
Cuban and international tourists may now stay in state-run casas de visita across the island, reports AFP. Casas de visita are state-owned hotels or houses that to-date have been restricted to use by government officials on business trips or on vacation. According to the new regulations, published in the Gaceta Oficial on Wednesday, these establishments will “offer lodging services to people who stay for work, rest and recreation.” Preference will be given to state entities when making reservations.
According to AFP, casas de visita cost less than traditional hotels. The legislation details that prices will be decided by provincial governments, and payment at most establishments will be in Cuban pesos, though some will be authorized by the Ministry of Interior Commerce to charge in Cuban convertible pesos or to accept both currencies.
Life on the ground in Cuba, Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation
This piece includes the reflections of Cuba traveler Anna Theofilopoulou on the Nation’s first-ever people-to-people trip. Of the U.S. embargo, she asks: “Isn’t it time for the US to engage in some self-examination regarding this particular policy and change it?”
Putin in Havana, America at the Movies, Sarah Stephens, Huffington Post
Sarah Stephens, CDA’s Executive Director, writes about the lessons for U.S. policy offered by the visit of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to the island last week.
Clash intensifies over travel to Cuba, William Gibson, Sun Sentinel
Gibson writes about the debate over unrestricted travel to Cuba, noting that even as polls show the travel ban has fallen out of favor, several Members of Congress are trying to tighten restrictions.
President Obama could use a win, Richard Feinberg, The Hill
“[R]ethinking our Cuba policy is simply acknowledging that our Cold War-era strategy is woefully outdated,” Feinberg writes. He argues that loosening the U.S. embargo on Cuba would help private entrepreneurs in Cuba and would be a diplomatic accomplishment for President Obama.
Guantánamo Bay a thorn in Cuba’s side, Sarah Rainsford, BBC News
Rainsford reports on the effect the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay has on Cuban residents, who are cut off, not only from the outside world, but also from the rest of the island.
Why Cubans Are Defecting From the Republican Party, John A. Tures, Huffington Post
In addressing why Cuban-Americans are turning away from the Republican Party, to which they have long given their support, Tures suggests the shift has to do largely with the “anti-immigration tone of the GOP.”
All-Star Game: Tony Oliva relishes role of mentor to young Cuban stars, Mike Berardino, TwinCities.com
Berardino writes about the mentorship by Tony Oliva, the legendary Cuban baseball player, who played for the Minnesota Twins organization from 1962-1976, of Cuban baseball players currently active in the U.S. major leagues.
Artists Try To Fuse Cultural Differences Between Miami And Cuba, David Greene, NPR
Greene talks with several Cuban artists about their art and the spread of ideas between Cuba and the rest of the world. He speaks with the Cuban hip-hop duo Obsesión, who performed last year at CDA’s 7th Anniversary Event. See the video of their performance here and here.