The Cuba Central Newsblast and a note to our readers

August 30, 2013

As ever, we are sending along a blast that is chock-a-block with news about Cuba, including a hint that more bilateral negotiations could be in store on the long-unresolved issue of restarting direct mail service in both directions.

It is good that both governments maintain their interest in talking especially now as clouds of war appear to be gathering half a world away.  War has oft been characterized as a failure of diplomacy or imagination.  The cold state of war between the U.S. and Cuba has always struck us as a combination of both.

We remember the anxiety and apprehension a decade ago as we visited Cuba on the eve of the war against Iraq.  We suspect those feelings are shared globally today as well.

For those readers who have the bandwidth to think about Cuba today, we are pleased to deliver the blast.  For those whose attention is turned elsewhere, we will surely understand.

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Vigil in Madrid: Some thoughts about Oscar and Miriam

August 23, 2013

“I expect the end to come soon.”

Miriam Leiva wrote these words about her husband, Oscar Espinoza Chepe, whose long struggle against liver disease seems near its end in Hospital Fuenfría near Madrid in Spain.  As we read her message, we were reminded why we respect this couple so much.

They just like to tell the truth as they see it.

Their candor made some people in Havana and Miami very uncomfortable.  Three years ago, Oscar referred to hardliners in both cities as “The Taliban.”  This may explain why Oscar and Miriam are rarely mentioned by the embargo’s biggest supporters in Washington, because their views never fit so neatly into the hardliner’s black-and-white definition of what constitutes “dissent.”

Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an economist and independent journalist, fell from grace in Cuba more than once. In the 1960s, after serving as an economist for Fidel Castro, he was sent to work in the fields after he expressed negative views about the economic situation in his country.

In the 1980s, Oscar, back in favor and working as an economic counselor, served for three years in Eastern Europe with Miriam, then a member of Cuba’s foreign service, just as perestroika was beginning to take hold.  But, upon their return to Cuba for a vacation, they were told they could not go back to Europe.  Instead, Oscar was assigned to work at the National Central Bank of Cuba.

In 1992, they were called to a meeting where Oscar was called out as “counter-revolutionary.” For the next twenty years, he and Miriam were devoted activists, though, as Oscar said, “We expressed our views in a pacific way.”

Oscar was arrested with 74 others in Cuba’s March 2003 crackdown.  Sentenced to twenty years, Oscar left prison after twenty months, released on a temporary medical parole; at any time, authorities could have ruled he was no longer sick and returned him to custody.

Nevertheless, upon leaving custody, Oscar resumed speaking his mind.  While he praised President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms as sensible and rational if incomplete, he was sharply critical of officials inside the system who were obstacles to change, and criticized those who saw private property as incompatible with social justice.

He chastised the government for failing to reciprocate President Obama’s “gestures,” the reforms on family and people-to-people travel.  He expressed his bewilderment at the imprisonment at Alan Gross and thought he should be set free.

This record of speaking out could have endeared Oscar to sanctions supporters in Miami except for his unshirted contempt for those he called “Hardliners for Castro.” He believed their support of sanctions kept Cubans hostage to their dreams of returning to power in a Cuba that last existed during Batista’s reign in the 1950s.  He resented their attacks on Cuba’s Catholic Church, which was instrumental in freeing the remaining prisoners arrested in 2003, along with many others.

In his statement opposing travel restrictions offered by Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, Oscar said: “If the policies proposed for Cuba by the hardliners had been maintained for Eastern Europe and China, we would possibly still have a Berlin Wall and the heirs of the Gang of Four would still govern China.”

Oscar and Miriam, in their work together, were motivated by a spirit of reconciliation that included everyone; even those who took no personal risks, but sat in air conditioned offices far from Cuba and questioned their credibility as political activists.  Instead, they chose to believe that all Cubans could work together, that families could reunite, and that “all animosity prevailing in our country since March 10, 1952 can be overcome.”

Earlier this year, a medical crisis led them to depart Cuba for Spain, so Oscar could receive what Miriam then called “urgent” medical attention for his chronic liver failure.

Another truth Oscar never left unspoken was his love for Miriam, especially when he recalled the vigils she organized with other spouses and family members of the 75 detainees.  He once said of her: “She is modest. She is brave, especially as demonstrated by her actions while I was in prison.”  Whether he was in Guantanamo or Santiago de Cuba, “she was there.”

Now, on another vigil, Miriam is there for Oscar again.  By posting updates on Facebook and a blog, Reconciliación Cubana, she has made it possible for us to accompany her on this sad, respectful, journey that she hopes will end soon.

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Senator Menendez- Travel and Glass Houses

February 1, 2013

In public, Senator Bob Menendez is never a shy skeptic about certain kinds of travel.

He bitterly opposed reforms in 2009, to allow Cuban Americans unfettered travel rights to Cuba, and later teamed up with Senator Marco Rubio to oppose opening up people-to-people travel for most other Americans.  Early in the Obama presidency, Menendez, an environmentalist who believes in climate change, held up the nominations of John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco, world class scientists, to block a Senate bill with language to liberalize travel to Cuba (something his Hurricane Sandy-battered constituents probably never heard about).

When the Center for Democracy in the Americas was organizing a Cuba trip for Senate chiefs of staff, he and Senator Bill Nelson warned all of their colleagues not to allow their staffs to go (nobody listened).  At John Kerry’s confirmation hearing, he scolded Senator Jeff Flake, who joked about using “spring break” to disrupt the Cuban government’s hold on the island.

Like other hardliners, Senator Menendez even suggested that travel to Cuba was about little more than sexual tourism, as he did in this speech against Cuban American family travel four years ago.

Had Senator Menendez heeded his publicly expressed doubts about travel in private, he might not be in the hot water he finds himself today.  His story has moved swiftly from a lurid set of accusations – which the Senator denies, which some independent journalists and ethics watchdogs  doubt, and at least one late night comic has mocked – to issues involving a friend and donor, Dr. Salomon Melgen, that have ensnared him in investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Senate Ethics Committee.

These developments are serious, as Paul Kane of the Washington Post wrote, because his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee “makes him the top diplomat on Capitol Hill, someone tasked with greeting heads of state visiting Washington, and affords him the kind of public profile that prompts regular appearances on the Sunday morning political talk shows.”

Questions about his relationship with Dr. Melgen –described as “a high-profile Palm Beach ophthalmologist with major tax problems” –captured media attention this week when the FBI conducted a surprise raid on the doctor’s offices.

According to NBC News, the raid ostensibly “concerned a separate criminal probe conducted by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which typically investigates Medicare fraud. However, agents were also looking for evidence in the other case concerning the alleged under-aged prostitutes” and two airplane rides Menendez and Melgen took to the Dominican Republic.

The trips were never paid for by Senator Menendez or accounted for as gifts, as required under the rules of the Senate, an oversight which his staff attributed to “sloppy paperwork.” But, it’s more than that.  “It’s technically a federal crime to not report gifts on a federal financial-disclosure form,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility, to the Miami Herald.

Mr. Menendez has dug deep into his pockets and sent a check to Dr. Melgen’s company for $58,500 to clean up the error.  This could not have been easy for Mr. Menendez, who was ranked 79th among his Senate colleagues in wealth by the Center for Responsive Politics after reporting net assets of under $500,000 in 2010, according to the Washington Post.  By taking this route, rather than invoking what is called a “friendship exemption” and amending his filings with the Senate Ethics Committee, to clean up the error, he has avoided any requirements to make a public disclosure of details about the trips.  Surely, commercial flights would have been cheaper.

The payment will not make the attention go away. On Thursday, The New York Times reported on how Senator Menendez used his office and position to fight for a contract to help a company in which Dr. Melgen was an investor.  That company “had a long-dormant contract with the Dominican Republic to provide port security and x-ray cargo. Mr. Menendez, who is chairman of the Senate subcommittee that holds sway over the Dominican Republic, subsequently urged officials in the State and Commerce Departments to intervene so the contract would be enforced, at an estimated value of $500 million.”

The Times reports that Menendez spoke to State Department officials about the contract, and used a hearing he chaired last July to question State and Commerce Department officials about why they weren’t being more aggressive in getting the DR to honor the contract, even though his friend lacked border security experience.

According to the Miami Herald, Menendez’s office said the senator did nothing improper, he was a long-time champion for U.S. business abroad, and that “Senator Menendez has over the last few years advocated for more attention to the spread of narco-trafficking throughout Central America and the Caribbean.”

In light of Dr. Melgen’s political contributions to Menendez and others –more than $426,000 in campaign donations since 1992 – news organizations and investigators are likely to examine whether he crossed the line from business advocacy into the land of the quid pro quo.

Beyond dealing with a federal investigation, Senator Menendez is also facing a Senate Ethics inquiry.  Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the committee, told the Washington Post yesterday, “The Senate Ethics Committee is aware of the article in the Miami Herald and other media outlets, and we are following established procedures.”

The Department of Justice will neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.  As a long-time public servant told the Cuba Central News Blast, if the Senator was just an average Joe with a security clearance, that clearance would be suspended – and his access to classified information stopped –until the matters were satisfactorily resolved, one way or the other.  That’s not happening to Mr. Menendez, yet.

What is happening instead is quite telling.  At the White House, for example, Jay Carney, the press secretary, “declined to answer when asked whether the president still has full faith and confidence in Menendez. ‘I don’t have anything for you on that,’ Carney told reporters.”  Asked about the scandal, Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic Leader, praised his colleague as “an outstanding senator,” and then encouraged reporters to call his office.  “Any questions in this regard, direct to him. I don’t know anything about it.”  Allies like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who celebrated Menendez as “a proven leader and defender of human rights when he became chairman,” have said nothing at all.

Rather than dodging the press in New Jersey, as Mr. Menendez appears to be doing, perhaps he should be taking to heart in private what he said in public at John Kerry’s confirmation hearing:

“Yours is a big chair to fill, and I will do my best today to live up to your example. I have watched you lead the Committee with an equally deep and abiding commitment to getting to the heart of the matter — always probative, always open to debate, but always ready to mitigate disagreements, always looking for the truth — for answers – uncovering the facts, hearing all the evidence, and then publically speaking truth to power based solely on what was best for this nation.”

Unless he lives up to that standard, the Senator could put his power and new position at risk.

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Inauguration Week: An emerging vision of a “new normal”

January 25, 2013

From Havana to Washington, there was a sustained glimpse of what a “new normal” could look like in the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

President Obama’s inauguration was broadcast live in Cuba, on Educational Channel 2, Progreso Semanal reports, which carries the Telesur  network live.

This is pretty remarkable stuff.  The U.S. didn’t need to send a subcontractor with a flash drive to enter Cuba on a tourist visa to distribute “democracy unfiltered,” hand to hand, for secret viewing in the homes and offices of Cubans fortunate enough to have access to a computer.

Instead, Cubans could watch television and see Senator Lamar Alexander quote Alex Haley, “Find the good and praise it,” and herald election practices in the U.S., “There is no mob, no coup, no insurrection.”

Or see Richard Blanco, “A child of Cuban exiles raised in Miami,” as the Miami Herald reported, read his Inaugural poem and make history, as the first Latino, Cuban-American, and openly-gay man to serve in this capacity in U.S. history.

Or listen to Rev. Luis Leon, an Operation Pedro Pan veteran, a Cuban-born American, invoke Martin Luther King (on the U.S. national holiday that honors his memory), asking blessings for the citizens “of a beloved community, loving you and our neighbors as ourselves.”

And, of course, see the President of the United States remind all within earshot:

“That all men are created equal.  That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing. That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.”

Later, perhaps more prosaically but no less importantly, Cubans saw José Contreras, the powerful right-hander who pitched for the Vegueros of his native Pinar del Río, and defected to the U.S. to play baseball in the major leagues a decade ago, return to Cuba and visit his sick mother, thanks to their nation’s new, more permissive immigration law.

What a welcome respite.  These developments took place without attracting much attention in Washington – no derisive tweets from hardliners in Congress about Cubans “defecting” to the Obama administration, no “wait and see” platitudes from the State Department podium.  Perhaps, the city was so preoccupied with itself, and the ceremonial transition, that no one was in the mood to taunt “our neighbors.” But, it also could be indicative of progress toward a new normal, here and in Cuba.

Even in Senator John Kerry’s hearing to be Secretary of State – when confirmations so often are cauldrons of controversy where Senators press nominees to take positions in line with their interests against those of the president who selected them – Cuba at first wasn’t even on the table.

No mention of Cuba by Senator Marco Rubio, who proposed grounding all flights to Cuba in 2011, but “focused his questioning of Kerry on North Korea, Syria, the Middle East and China”; no efforts to get Mr. Kerry to renounce negotiations for the release of Alan Gross; only a generic mention of “democracy promotion” programs by acting Chairman Robert Menendez.

But briefly, a reminder of the old ways surfaced later in the Kerry hearing.

Jeff Flake, recently elected to the Senate, after service in the U.S. House as a champion of the freedom to travel to Cuba, angered Senator Menendez by affirming his faith in the constitutional right of Americans to travel to Cuba, joking that he’d force “the Castro brothers” to deal with spring break, and urging Mr. Kerry as Secretary of State to continue liberalizing U.S. travel policies and finding innovative approaches to deal with changes in Cuba; a policy that honors the pursuit of happiness and freedom, as written in the Declaration of 1776 and given voice in the Inauguration of 2013.

That, finally, was too much for the hardliners.  And so a beat-down of Senator Flake commenced with Senator Menendez and the usual suspects.  But, Senator Flake has told that joke before, heard the howling before, and emerged undaunted before.

This is the new normal – with Senator Flake serving as a burr under Bob Menendez’s saddle as they debate Cuba together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; with Richard Blanco, Luis Leon, José Contreras, John Kerry, and President Obama representing the future – as a new approach for engaging with Cuba and Cubans is busy being born.

IN CUBA

Cuba performing quality tests of high speed fiber-optic cable

Cuba’s state telecommunications firm ETECSA has confirmed that the fiber-optic cable connecting Cuba to Venezuela is currently undergoing quality testing for its Internet-trafficking capabilities. An official statement said that the cable has been in use primarily for international phone calls since August 2012, and that the current Internet tests began on January 10.

Completed in February 2011, ALBA-1 reportedly possesses the capability to increase Internet speeds on the island by up to 3,000, but reports of mismanagement involving the project apparently halted progress. The official statement says that “When the testing process ends, the activation of the cable will not mean that access possibilities will automatically multiply.” The government has indicated that initially, the cable will be used to improve current connections, rather than to increase points of access to the Internet. Previously, Cuba’s Internet services functioned solely through satellite links.

Authorities confirm reappearance of cholera in Bayamo, hospitals to shorten visiting hours

Health authorities confirmed on Thursday that cholera has reappeared in the eastern city of Bayamo, reports Café Fuerte. Doctor Ana María Batista González of the Center for Hygiene and Epidemiology said that there have been four confirmed and 44 suspected cases at a local hospital.

At least 51 cases of cholera were confirmed in Havana earlier this month, though a January 15 official statement said that the outbreak was in the eradication phase. In light of recent cholera and dengue outbreaks, the Ministry of Public Health has announced that hospitals will have limited visitation hours beginning January 30th, reports Havana Times.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Ecuador implements new travel law, 26 Cubans repatriated

Ecuadorian officials repatriated 26 Cubans who arrived at the International Airport in Quito without a letter of invitation on Monday, according to Café Fuerte and Havana Times. CDA reported last week that the government of Ecuador was implementing a new law on January 21 requiring Cuban citizens entering Ecuador to hold a letter of invitation notarized by the Ecuadorian Consulate. The 26 Cubans argued that they boarded their flight before the new law took effect that same day. They returned to Cuba 12 hours after they arrived in Ecuador. Before the reversal in policy, Ecuador was one of the few countries in the region that allowed Cubans to visit without a visa after dropping the visa requirement in 2008.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Senator Kerry faces no Cuba questions; Senator Flake emerges as strong voice on free travel

Senator John Kerry (MA) faced no direct questions regarding Cuba in his confirmation hearing for Secretary of State on Thursday, despite the presence of Committee members Senator Menendez (NJ), the acting chairman, and Senator Rubio (FL), both hardliners on the issue.  Newly-elected Senator Jeff Flake (AZ), who had a strong anti-embargo record as a U.S. Representative, made his first statement on Cuba as a Senator, encouraging Kerry to use his presumptive position as Secretary of State to work with President Obama to continue to loosen travel restrictions and allow further engagement between the Cubans and Americans.

Sen. Flake stated, “With regard to Cuba…the best way to foster change and progress toward democracy is to allow travel, free travel of Americans, to let them go as they wish. I don’t think that that’s a weakness or any capitulation at all.” Sen. Flake ruffled the feathers of some of his Cold Warrior colleagues when he went on to joke, “I’ve often felt that if we want a real get-tough policy with the Castro brothers, we should force them to deal with spring break once or twice.”

Senator Marco Rubio, surprisingly, stayed silent on Cuba, and only brought up Latin America to challenge the validity of recent elections in Nicaragua and question whether a coup really took place in Honduras in 2009.  Cuba received no further mention until Senator Robert Menendez, acting as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made his closing remarks lecturing Senator Flake, leaving no room for response.

In response to a question from Sen. Menendez about prospects for cooperation with Latin America during President Obama’s second term, Sen. Kerry noted that although continued cooperation is likely with Brazil and Colombia, little cooperation has occurred with Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Sen. Kerry remarked that “depending on what happens in Venezuela, there could be an opportunity for a transition there.” Elias Jaua, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, stated in response that Venezuela’s government regrets Kerry’s comment, and that Venezuela hopes to engage in relations of “mutual respect” with the U.S.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State meets with new Chief of the Cuban Interests Section

Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs met Wednesday with José Cabañas, the new Chief of the Cuban Interests Section, at the Department of State, reports Café Fuerte. The meeting represented Washington’s first diplomatic gesture towards Cuba in Obama’s second term. No comments were made about the contents of their meeting.

Cuban pitcher José Contreras becomes first athlete to return to Cuba under new immigration law

Major League Baseball pitcher José Ariel Contreras Camejo became the first Cuban athlete to return to Cuba under the new immigration law on Wednesday, report NBC News and Café Fuerte. The new law, adopted on January 14th, allows Cubans who emigrated without authorization to make temporary visits to the island if they have spent 8 years outside of the country. Contreras defected through Mexico in 2002 and returned this week in order to visit his family. Contreras stated that he did not have problems entering the country.

Around the Region

U.S. Once Again Gives Cold Shoulder to Salvadoran Gang Truce, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

CDA El Salvador Analyst Linda Garrett responds to the U.S. State Department’s recent travel warning on El Salvador: “The timing of the January 23rd travel warning is curious. No such warnings were issued during the height of the violence in 2010 and 2011. The past year, 2012 was the least violent since 2003. The ‘Security Message for U.S. Citizens’ acknowledges that the truce ‘contributed to a decline in the homicide rate’ but questions its sustainability and says it has had ‘little impact’ on other crimes.”

If you would like to receive CDA’s Monthly El Salvador Updates, contact: ElSalvadorUpdate@democracyinamericas.org

Recommended Reading

Seven Actions Obama Should Take on Cuba Now, Peter Kornbluh, The Nation

Peter Kornbluh makes the case for seven policies that the second Obama Administration can implement to leave a legacy of sensible policy toward Cuba: remove Cuba from the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list; end the economic and commercial sanctions that accompany the terror list designation; order the arrest of Luis Posada Carriles; expand general licensing for Cuba travel; change the “Cuban Democracy and Contingency Planning” section of the Helms-Burton Act; engage in bilateral dialogue in areas of mutual interest; and commute the sentences of the “Cuban Five.”

Memo to President Obama: Cuba has extended the olive branch, shouldn’t the U.S.?, Albor Ruiz, New York Daily News

Albor Ruiz addresses the lack of response from the Obama administration to the recent easing of travel restrictions for Cuba’s citizens. The piece quotes CDA Executive Director Sarah Stephens, who says: “After Cuba released scores of political prisoners following talks with the Catholic Church; after the Castro government implemented the most significant changes in its economic model in six decades; after Colombia turned to Cuba to help it broker peace talks with the FARC, U.S. policy remains in an official state of denial that its goals are being met.”

Alan Gross and his descent into hell, Tracey Eaton, Along the Malecon

Tracey Eaton continues his coverage of U.S. funding for “democracy promotion” programs and the Alan Gross case, further detailing the circumstances around Gross’ arrest and the nature of his work in Cuba.  We reported on the first installment last week.

Is the Cuban Adjustment Act in play?, Phil Peters, The Cuban Triangle

Phil Peters asks if the Cuban Adjustment Act will, in fact, be open for discussion during the upcoming U.S. debate on comprehensive immigration reform.  But, Peters questions statements made by Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen that ground their arguments for a change in the Cuban Adjustment Act in the idea that all Cubans who arrive in the United States claim persecution and therefore should not be returning to Cuba to visit their families. Peters points out that most Cubans who remain in the U.S. under the Cuban Adjustment Act do not state a claim to persecution, as refugees or asylees must do.

Is Obama Acting Pragmatically in the Alan Gross Case?, Arturo López-Levy, Foreign Policy in Focus

Arturo López-Levy analyzes how the Obama administration has handled the case of former USAID contractor Alan Gross: “Obama’s legacy in the hemisphere will suffer if he wastes his second term flexibility to improve U.S.-Cuba relations because of unrealistic expectations. Incidentally, the probability of Gross’ release will improve as general relations do.”

Talking to Cuba, Julia E. Sweig interviewed by Robert McMahon, Council on Foreign Relations

Robert McMahon interviews Julia E. Sweig, Director for Latin American Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations. Sweig by answering a series of questions analyzes Cuba’s recent reforms especially the new travel laws. She argues that the United States should initiate a new dialogue with Cuba and work on solving the many issues that prevent normalization of relations between the two countries.

The Rivers Internship Blog, Emma Stodder, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Emma Stodder, CDA’s first Stephen M. Rivers Intern, will be keeping a blog on her experiences working at the Center, and posting her reflections on issues concerning U.S.-Latin America relations.

Stephen Rivers, who had a storied career as an advisor to César Chávez and the United Farm Workers Union, a political advisor to the Kennedy family, and a publicist for celebrities including Jane Fonda and Kevin Costner, devoted much of the last decade of his professional life to working for closer U.S.-Cuba relations by building bridges between the two countries’ cultural communities.

The internship was created by CDA in Rivers’ honor as a part of the organization’s 2012 annual event; contributions for the stipend were received from his long-time friends and colleagues including Maria Shriver, Norman Lear, Ricki Seidman, Greg Craig and Paul and Diane Begala. Emma will serve at CDA’s offices in Washington from January to July, 2013. Follow Emma here!

Recommended Viewing

Close Up: Cuba’s new love for the Union flag, Sarah Rainsford, BBC

Sarah Rainsford reports on the popularity of the U.K. flag in Cuba, and asks Cubans on the streets about their impressions of the trend.

Cuba: The Accidental Eden, Nature, PBS

PBS’ Nature showcases Cuba’s well-preserved biodiversity and how Cuba can act as a future model for ecotourism.


What the FARC is going on in Cuba?

August 31, 2012

What the FARC is going on in Cuba?  And what does it mean for President Obama and the crowd of hardliners in Congress we call the Cold War warriors?

We figured something was up last Sunday, when former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe accused current president Juan Manuel Santos of holding secret peace talks with FARC rebels in Cuba, according to Colombia Reports. “This is incomprehensible,” said Uribe during a speech in the northern Colombian city of Sincelejo, “security deteriorating while the government is negotiating with the FARC terrorist group in Cuba.”

President Santos, who had initially dismissed the allegations as “pure rumors,” confirmed on Monday that the Colombian government has not only been negotiating with the FARC in Havana but that the two parties had agreed to restart formal peace talks, which had collapsed in 2002.

According to foreign sources, here and here, the deal was broken on Cuban soil with help from Venezuelan, Cuban, and Norwegian officials, and the talks are scheduled to commence in Oslo on October 5th. Santos also extended an invitation to the National Liberation Army (ELN) to participate.

Reuters reported that “U.S. President Barack Obama is aware of the process and is in agreement.”

We can’t know now what this breakthrough means for Colombia, although we surely hope it leads to peace.  What we do know is this: Cuba’s contribution to the Colombia deal undercuts a key rationale for U.S. sanctions against the island – with implications both for the anti-Cuba hardliners in Congress and the president himself. The irony is that it was Uribe, a staunch Cold warrior, who helped bring the talks to public attention.

Cuba has long been accused by the U.S. of harboring FARC members. These allegations are one of the State Department’s main justifications for designating Cuba a State Sponsor of Terrorism. The fact that Cuba has been providing neutral ground for a peace agreement between the two parties, however, creates serious problems for the State Department’s rationale for listing Cuba as a state sponsor of terror.

It’s also a blow to the Cold War warriors who use Cuba’s presence on the list to fuel their rhetoric and to oppose any relaxation of U.S. policy. When the Republican Party adopted its foreign policy platform in Tampa, it called Cuba’s government “a mummified relic of the age of totalitarianism (and) a state-sponsor of terrorism.”

The Colombia breakthrough also has implications for President Obama.

When his administration argues in public that having the FARC in Havana is a cause of keeping Cuba on the terror list, even as Mr. Obama approves in private a peace process brokered in Cuba to have the FARC and Colombia sit together to make peace, it damages our nation’s credibility – not just in Latin America but everywhere the U.S. encounters resistance to our policies against terrorism.  It’s a contradiction crying out to be addressed.

And it’s also a terrible position for the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize who was, after all, honored by the Norwegian Nobel Committee “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”

Early in his administration, President Obama should have taken Cuba off the list as he has been advised so often.  He should not have relisted Cuba every year since.

As naïve as it may be to suggest he act in this election year to remove them, he should consider this:  If the Colombian government has the courage to sit across the table to negotiate peace with the insurgency in its civil war, his administration should at least have the nerve to tell the Cold War warriors in Congress that the facts have changed and he’s removing Cuba from the terror list.

We’re reasonably certain that the hardliners are the only ones who will really care, and their offense will be drowned out by the applause of those who will appreciate a show of guts and the recognition of reality.

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Oswaldo Payá – On parting as friends

July 27, 2012

Oswaldo Payá, a humble but determined figure in Cuba’s opposition, who believed in non-violent activism as a means for achieving political change on the island, died in a car accident on Sunday.  Also killed was Harold Cepero Escalante, a fellow dissident.  A Swedish citizen and a Spaniard, reportedly at the wheel of the car, were injured in the crash.   We report other details below.

Payá, a Catholic layman, and founder of Cuba’s so-called Christian Liberation Movement, was best known as the main organizer behind the Varela Project, a petition drive that collected thousands of signatures, which called upon his country’s National Assembly to propose new laws to open Cuba’s system.

News of Payá’s death was received by Cuban allies and friends internationally with sadness and mourning for his activism and his abiding belief that change could occur organically on the island.

His loss also occasioned dark suggestions – expressed by grieving family members and in the opinion pages of the Washington Post –that his vehicle was intentionally rammed.  But Elizardo Sanchez, founder of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission told the Associated Press,“We rule out any conspiracy theory.” Diplomats connected to the Europeans traveling with Mr. Payá, told Reuters “they believe it was a genuine accident and it appeared the car was speeding.”

Despite these statements, members of the U.S. Senate introduced a resolution calling upon the island’s government to “allow an impartial, third-party investigation in the circumstances surrounding (his) death.”

That Mr. Payá’s passing would be a source of contention, even politicization, is hardly a surprise.  His unique approach attracted support and courted controversy during his life.

By technique and demeanor, Payá didn’t fit any stereotype of a regime opponent.  As the New York Times reported, Mr. Payá “created a new model with his humility, his public rejection of both American aid and the American trade embargo, and his effort to draw Cubans into the movement.

“By trying to reform the Castro government,” the Times said, “Mr. Payá placed himself in the middle of two extremes. Reviled by the government, he was not much loved by hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami, either; they appreciated the attention he garnered but said he was naïve.”

They called him naïve because he wouldn’t hew to their line that regime change supported by the U.S. was the only way forward.

In a meeting with visitors from the U.S., Payá once said “we don’t have arms, we don’t believe in coup d’état, we don’t believe in outside intervention.  We Cubans must bring about the change.”

While he was no fan of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, he challenged visitors to think not about U.S. policy, but instead to focus on the economic, political, and social problems that affected everyday Cubans. A man with a lowered voice and an outstretched hand, he would say about disagreements in our perspectives, “if we cannot be partners, we can at least be friends.”

What decency.

Our hearts go out to his family and friends, colleagues and allies, who are suffering because of his loss.

This week in Cuba news…

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Hate in the Time of Cholera

July 13, 2012

Cuba, we’re told, is experiencing a nasty outbreak of cholera.  Under normal circumstances, the reaction here in the U.S. would be obvious and clear: empathy for those who are affected and offers of help to alleviate their suffering.  But since we are talking about Cuba, life is more complicated than that.

Some reports say Cuba is not being forthcoming with information about the scope of the outbreak.  A columnist published in the Havana Times wrote, “It seems they avoided telling us about cholera to spare us the worry.”

The Miami Herald is reporting, however, that confirmed cases now stand at 110 and counting; that general cases presenting symptoms of cholera are rising; and these reports are being carried on provincial television in Cuba as detailed by Ana Maria Batista, identified as a Granma epidemiologist. Details are coming out,as this report filed today by CNN demonstrates. So where is Washington in all of this?

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana is providing some information and urging travelers to follow public health guideless and monitor sources of information.

But for others, as Albor Ruiz writes this week in the New York Daily News, the cholera outbreak has become “a propaganda exercise for those who, even after 53 years of a failed economic embargo, prefer a policy of hostility and isolation over one of dialogue and engagement.”

In this case, he is referring to the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18), whose position accords her some notice in U.S. foreign policy and who also has tens of thousands of Cubans in her Congressional district with family members at risk on the island.

And yet, her office has issued  no calls for compassion, not when there’s a political point to be scored.  Instead, she was quick to issue a statement condemning the Cuban government – not just for its secrecy, which she asserts without explanation has cost lives, but for “the regime’s utter failure in areas such as sanitation and infrastructure.”  Attack, attack, attack.

Opponents of the Castro government have long enjoyed using the suffering of Cubans for sport, but cruelty at that level isn’t a tactic that everyone is used to.  Albor Ruiz quotes Romy Aranguiz, a doctor born in Havana, who says of the outbreak “there are a lot of people focused on it for anti-Castro propaganda instead of thinking of what they could do to help their brothers and sisters on the island….If they really care about Cuba they should be thinking about sending antibiotics to the island and stop talking so much nonsense,” she said.

But that is not how the hardliners view their role.  “These are the people,” as Yoani Sanchez wrote recently, “who see the Cuban situation as a pressure cooker that needs just a little more heat to explode…Sadly, however, the guinea pigs required to test the efficacy of such an experiment would be Cubans on the island.”

Such are the costs of hate in the time of cholera.  Can’t we do better?

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