Alan Gross, a Maryland-based USAID subcontractor detained in Cuba in December 2009, is finally about to get his day - or days - in court on March 4th. His family, and U.S. consular officials will be allowed to attend the trial.
As CBS Havana Bureau Chief Portia Siegelbaum reports, there may be a surprise witness in the room too. Finally, a member of the Jewish community has stepped forward to say he did encounter Alan Gross, several times. But William Miller, former Vice President of the the Templo Beth Shalom in Vedado, says Gross's activities "had absolutely nothing to do with the Jewish community," as State Department officials have repeatedly insisted. Though Miller wouldn't elaborate on exactly what role he'll play in Gross's trial, he revealed he'll be "a part of it." And, then he added this, clear as mud:
"The solution to the problem is coming . . . better for the government to explain everything."
It's hard to imagine Miller would utter one word the government didn't want revealed in such a sensitive case. For those of us who saw this whole saga as an unfortunate dragging of one man and his family into a tortured diplomatic relationship, Miller's comments about a "solution" offer hope that Gross could soon return to his family.
The events in Tahrir Plaza have led some Cuba watchers to wonder if a similar civil society rebellion calling for democracy might erupt against the government of Raul Castro.
Since democracy has many meanings, it is preferable to speak in terms of human rights, defined as an interdependent and indivisible set of universal legal norms rather than a menu from which to pick and choose. Civil and political rights are as important as economic, social and cultural rights.
Nobody knows whether Egypt will improve its record in this regard. The only thing that has happened so far is a transfer of government from the former dictator to a praetorian guard. Mubarak was the devil we knew, but the main opposition party to his government, the Muslim Brotherhood, is not the benign savior. Its goal of establishing a caliphate would extend oppression against those who profess other religions, non-fundamentalist women, and homosexuals, just to mention three examples.
In Cuba, all independent and nonpartisan civil society organizations, such as the Catholic Church and other religious communities have emphatically declared their preference for gradual and peaceful changes. In addition, most of the political opposition, both on the island and in exile, has been explicit in its principled opposition to any violent path.
As our readers no doubt noticed, the Rubio - Menendez amendment intended to curb U.S. travel to Cuba (via restricting the flights that may go there) went nowhere. And as one Cuban blogger and recent immigrant to the United States, Ernesto Morales Licea, writes at the Huffington Post via Yoani Sanchez: " . . . fortunately, when there is great nonsense there will always be great common sense to contain it. . . . "
I'm not so confident as Morales that good sense always contains the nonsense, but I am heartened to hear what Morales has to say in defense of our great democracy:
"When governments or state officials forget their limits and begin to decide what kind of religion its people should practice, or what television they should watch (in Cuba today they broadcast a nightly program called "The Best of Telesur," where they select, with tweezers, what Cubans should see even within this "friendly" channel), when the government begins to regulate, for example, where its citizens can or cannot travel, the foundations of democracy, by definition, are cracking."
Morales isn't interested in whether Rubio and Menendez's oft-repeated justifications for curtailing the rights of Americans and Cuban Americans to travel freely to Cuba - to avoid enriching the Cuban government - actually hold water (they don't, he says). He argues that what makes our democracy pure is that we protect the civil liberties of our citizenry above whatever interests might possibly (or even definitely) be served in exchange.
Signaling a potential showdown to come later this spring in the newly constituted House Appropriations Committee, appropriators Jeff Flake and Betty McCollum have each filed amendments to the Continuing Resolution to continue funding the federal government in the current fiscal year, in order to defund Radio and TV Marti broadcasting to Cuba. With hundreds of amendments under consideration as the House prepares to recess, it's unclear whether there will be a floor vote tonight (I'm still watching the floor debate but it's showing no signs yet of wrapping up). But I wouldn't be surprised if the bipartisan pair team up on Cuba broadcasting during FY 2012 appropriations committee deliberations later this spring, where they'll have more time, and a smaller fishbowl of colleagues to put on the fiscal spot.
In the meantime, the CR, as it's called, provided the two appropriators the opportunity to raise doubts about continuing what they consider poor uses of taxpayer funds at a time when government spending and spending cuts are particularly sensitive topics in Congress. Rep. McCollum's office took aim at the Martis and pointedly took issue with Republican proposals to cut funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps fund public broadcasting around the country, at the same time that taxpayer funds continue to support broadcasting to Cuba.
For his part, Flake took the opportunity to reach out to freshman Republicans, most of whom have yet to establish a record on U.S. Cuba policy, but nearly all of whom were elected on promises of cutting government spending in Washington. Flake thus frames his argument not on the merits of continuing or loosening U.S. sanctions on Cuba, but on whether it's a good use of taxpayer funds to spend $30 million to continue U.S. broadcasting to Cuba (which are often blocked by the Cuban government).
The text of Representative Flake's Dear Colleague follows below:
You have to wonder if anyone on newly minted Senator Marco Rubio's staff discussed with him the pros and cons of having his very first filed amendment in the Senate be Cuba-focused? Perhaps they thought no one would notice, since the word Cuba doesn't appear in the amendment to the Senate's FAA reauthorization bill under consideration this week, but the Tampa Tribune's The Buzz wasn't fooled, and sees in it an attempt to block the Obama administration's new regulations allowing any U.S. airport with sufficient resources to handle such flights to offer flights to Cuba.
Until the new regulations were issued, Miami more than dominated the market with several flights in and out of Cuba daily (Los Angeles and New York offer weekly flights). But Tampa also has a significant Cuban American population, and both the airport and Tampa Congresswoman Kathy Castor fought to expand rights to more airports around the country.
So, what would the Rubio amendment do? (Read here for yourself - h/t to the ever vigilant folks at Cuba Central.) It would prohibit any U.S. airports from adding any more flights than there were in the previous fiscal year to countries identified by the State Department as state sponsors of terrorism. (Cuba, Sudan, Syria and Iran are now the only countries on that list, after the Bush administration removed North Korea, Libya and Iraq.) Sounds a little complicated right? Why wouldn't Rubio just offer an amendment to ban all flights to such countries, particularly given how strongly he seems to feel about the issue:
“Instead of doing business with regimes that undermine America’s security and routinely violate the basic norms of human dignity, we should be bolstering our democratic allies through deeper economic ties."
Boy, he seems to mean business (no pun intended), no? So, why the half-measure? Because leaving the flights as they were last year means Rubio's amendment won't technically ground the hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans who were already traveling home regularly. As much as Rubio might wish these Cuban Americans would just stay stateside and act like exiles, putting the genie back in the bottle now would endanger his standing with this sizable block of voters.
The Cuban government has announced a new phase of the Alan Gross saga. According to the official note in Cuban newspaper Granma, prosecutors will seek a 20 year sentence against Gross under the Cuban sovereignty defense law. This law was passed by the Cuban National Assembly in 1999 as a nationalist antidote against the American interventionist regime change programs promoted under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act.
The fact that Mr. Gross will finally have his day in Court is positive. It brings his situation closer to international standards regarding the human right to legal counsel and a fair and impartial trial. The Cuban government will have the chance to present Gross’ alleged violations of Cuban laws and expose the ways in which the USAID Cuba program differs from the legal and good practices of international development assistance. These factors might create conditions for a political solution of his case negotiated by Havana and Washington.
A USAID sub-contractor, an American interested in social development, Alan Gross spent more than a year behind bars in Havana without formal charges. His family has paid a major emotional and financial toll for his absence. His daughter, Shira, has been diagnosed with breast cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy without having her father by her side. His wife Judith, his family, and his congregation all bemoan his absence.
Gross’s imprisonment is the direct result of the design flaws in USAID’s Cuba programs that the Obama Administration inherited from its predecessor. The agency is conducting programs on the island that place Cubans at risk of severe prison sentences without informing them of the risk they take.
A private handicrafts market on the Malecon near the Melia Cohiba Hotel. One stand sells in moneda nacional, Cuban pesos.
Enabling Purposeful Travel
I am back from a week in Cuba that focused on how to strengthen implementation on their side of the improvement in travel regulations announced by President Obama. My focus was on practical implications, in particular the opportunity provided by the advance beyond the Clinton Administration of general licenses for academic and religious purposes.
The Cubans with whom I met reacted quite favorably to the new policy and are preparing to receive a new wave of purposeful visitors. The University of Havana reportedly has already received inquiries from several hundred US universities wishing to collaborate. The challenge will be how to maintain its primary role, educating Cubans, as well as how to overcome the skepticism of some colleagues.
There was disappointment that the only US rationale given for the new regulations was system change in Cuba. Moreover my interlocutors noted the absence of any recognition that people-to-people travel inherently seeks to learn from and about the country visited and to create mutual understanding and trust. They recognize but regret US domestic political reasons for the one-dimensional justification.
Unfortunately such language provides ammunition for those in Cuba who resist change as strongly as the extremist minority in the Cuban American community who criticized the President's action. In Cuba the debate is ongoing about how much the Obama Administration represents a real departure or only a tactical adjustment. If they are moving along a socio-economic path resembling Vietnam's adoption of doi moi (“renovation”), are we prepared to treat them with the respect that we give to Vietnam, i.e. critical friendship rather than hostile intervention?
Cuban doubts can be seen in the ambivalent speech of the Minister of Higher Education on January 27th. He warned (text in Spanish) of two-faced US intentions to foster a brain drain yet expressed frustration about the embargo denying normal access for Cubans to our knowledge and research.
Earlier this week, we noted that Cuban prosecutors plan to finally try an American citizen (and USAID subcontractor) held in Cuba during what appears to have been an exhaustive 14 month investigation for crimes against "the independence or territorial integrity of the State." They plan to seek a 20 year prison sentence.
Right on the heels of that announcement, someone slipped Cuba's most celebrated independent blogger Yoani Sanchez - "Viva el Cubaleaks!" writes Sanchez - a copy of a Cuban Ministry of the Interior briefing describing how the United States's war against Cuba has moved into cyberspace. In this video, the MINIT briefer describes how, since at least 2008 (and, notably, even today under the Obama administration) the United States has actively sought to place satellite communications networks in Cuba free from Cuban government control and recruit Cubans to maintain them. And, right on the heels of that leaked video being posted by Yoani on her blog, Yoani now reports that the Cuban government has ceased blocking access to her blog from the island.
That's a lot of drama and intrigue for one week, but chances are this is only the beginning. As Phil Peters notes in his excellent analysis of the MINIT video, this video looks less like a leak and more like the Cuban government's opening statement in the upcoming trial of Alan Gross. (All the more ironic that the video was leaked to Yoani Sanchez, one of the subjects treated in the video and a blogger the Cuban government considers to be "manufactured" by the U.S. and allies in Europe.) For those who want to skip the video, and even the transcription at Cafe Fuerte, or the translation available at Translating Cuba, and just get a synopsis of the main messages in the video, then I recommend you hop over to The Cuban Triangle here and here. Here's a taste of that analysis:
If you read the transcript, what Cuban government messages can you derive? I think they are these:
- To Latin American governments and publics, and beyond: “Obama is no different than Bush; same economic sanctions against Cuba, same attempts to bring down our Revolution.”
- To friendly governments: “You might want to check what USAID is up to in your country.”
- To international public opinion: “We have young people who are smart, tech-savvy, and as committed as any historico to defending Cuba.”
To USAID and its contractors and President Obama: “We’ve got your number."
Guest post by Peter Kornbluh*
Feb. 9: In El Paso, Texas, the perjury trial of infamous violent Cuban exile, Luis Posada Carriles, took a historic turn today. For the first time in the long dramatic history dominated by hostility and aggression, U.S. government prosecutors formally presented evidence of terrorism committed against Cuba in a court of law against one of its own former CIA assets. Even more extraordinary, the evidence came in the form of a Cuban Ministry of Interior investigator explaining photographs and police reports to the jury relating to an explosion in the bar of the Hotel Copacabana which killed a young Italian businessman Fabio Di Celmo on September 4, 1997. “Cuba Cooperating in US case against ex-CIA agent,” reads tomorrow’s news headlines.
The godfather of anti-Castro Cuban violence over the last four decades, Posada is being prosecuted for immigration fraud relating to how he illegally entered the United States in March 2005. But the Obama Justice Department added three counts of perjury relating to a far more important crime: Posada’s role in a series of seven bombings that rocked Havana hotels and other tourist sites between April and September 1997. “The defendant is alleged to have lied about his involvement in planning the bombings in Havana,” state court filings by the Justice Department’s Counterterrorism Division. “The United States intends to prove that the bombings in Cuba actually occurred.”
This week marks the first time that concrete evidence is being presented to the jury on how those bombings took place and the damage they wrought. The jury has been shown photographs taken by Cuban authorities of the bloodstained floor of the hotel. Portions of a Cuban investigative study, known as the “Volcan report,” which discusses the cause of, and circumstances surrounding Fabio Di Celmo’s death, are due to be introduced as evidence during the testimony of Major Roberto Hernandez Caballero—he is Cuba’s lead detective on the hotel bombing investigation—who took the stand today.
The importance of this moment in U.S.-Cuban relations cannot be overstated. Posada was originally trained in demolitions by the U.S. military and put on the CIA payroll in 1965 to train and supervise other exile groups in sabotage, explosives and violent operations. Declassified CIA and FBI intelligence reports, posted on the website of the National Security Archive, identify him as a mastermind of a mid-air bombing of a Cuban jetliner that took the lives of all 73 men, women and children on board in October 1976. Most recently, Posada was arrested in Panama with a carload of C-4 and dynamite in what he admitted to U.S. officials was a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro at the Ibero-American summit in November 2000. By prosecuting him on charges related to his acts of terrorism, even if they are only perjury charges, the United States is effectively repudiating a dark past that its own Cold War officials and covert operatives set in motion.
If you didn't know anything about the case of Alan Gross, an American citizen detained in Cuba more than 14 months ago, or about the complicated state of US-Cuban relations, news that Cuban prosecutors will seek a 20 year sentence for his alleged crimes of "Actions Against the Independence and Territorial Integrity of the State," might sound very ominous indeed.
Cuban American Senator Marco Rubio didn't waste time condemning the 'possible' twenty year sentence and called on the Obama administration to halt its "concessions" to Cuba - its new regulations easing travel and remittance restrictions on Americans in an effort to reach out to the Cuban people - in light of the news on Gross.
But what if Rubio has it backward? What if the Cuban prosecutor's announcement - hopefully the beginning of the end of Mr. Gross's legal limbo nightmare in Cuba - was spurred on by the Obama administration's new regulations?
"When U.S. President Barack Obama announced his decision this month to ease restrictions on Americans traveling and sending money to Cuba, he did it late on a Friday afternoon before a long holiday weekend -- a old trick from the White House playbook, used by presidents hoping to make controversial policy changes with as little uproar as possible from the U.S. Congress and the media. But Obama shouldn't have been so quiet about the move -- it is the best Cuba policy decision the United States has made in years."
That is an excerpt from my article “Strait Talk” published by Foreign Policy about President Obama’s recent decision to ease restrictions on Americans traveling and sending money to Cuba. The article examines the White House decision, and its positive consequences for American relations with Cuban civil society. To read the whole piece, click here.
The new policy has significant limitations. It doesn’t end the counterproductive fifty years embargo and continues some of the process of licensing for religious leaders, scholars, cultural personalities and professors. Why not simply allow every American educator, college student, scholar, artist, and religious leader to travel to Cuba in the same way most Cuban Americans go?
This article first appeared in the Sarasota Herald Tribune on February 1, 2011
News last week that French telecom Alcatel-Lucent SA has begun laying a 1,600-kilometer underwater fiber optic cable between Venezuela and Cuba is the latest evidence of how U.S. sanctions toward Cuba undermine U.S. national interests and push the communist island into the open arms of our adversaries and continue Cuban citizen’s dependence on the regime. By focusing solely on isolating the Cuban government and denying it resources, the U.S. has, ironically, only isolated itself from the realities at play inside Cuba and alienated its allies. Unfortunately, legislation proposed last week by Florida Congressman Vern Buchanan only continues this counterproductive pattern and, in this case, puts Florida’s industry and environment at greater risk.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel has featured dueling commentaries on the Obama administration's new Cuba regulations, one by Ambassador James Cason, former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana during the Bush administration, and one by a former Clinton administration advisor and now Brookings Senior Fellow, Ted Piccone. Both are well-crafted arguments for and against the new travel and remittance rules announced by the Obama administration last week, but only one of them offers a realistic picture of how U.S. policy intersects with the reality on the ground in Cuba today.
The other one is consumed with proving points that have nothing, in fact, to do with events and lives in Cuba today. Amb. Cason opens his piece by suggesting that President Obama, in using his executive authority to encourage travel to Cuba by academic, religious and people-to-people groups, has overstepped a clear mandate sent to him by we the people. Well, maybe not me, but in Cason's mind, the election to Congress of Senator Marco Rubio, Rep. David Rivera (now embroiled in an ethics investigation that could claim his term), the return to Congress of Senator Bob Menendez and Reps. Albio Sires and Mario Diaz-Balart (who switched districts to run for his brother's safer seat, and beat out a "softer" Cuban American, Joe Garcia), and the ascension to the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairmanship of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen all demonstrate that the Cuban American electorate in Florida is in fact more hard-line than ever on Cuba - not more open, as Politico magazine (er, tabloid) suggests this week. Cason would have us forget that, as Piccone points out, polling data suggests that 67% of Cuban Americans support freer travel to Cuba (for everyone). And perhaps no one told Cason that Cuban Americans now travel to Cuba by the hundreds of thousands thanks to Mr. Obama's 2009 initiative.
Cason doesn't exactly offer proof that these Cuban American hardliners were elected to Congress because of their views on Cuba. In fact, I would argue - without hard data to point to other than the trend that favored Republicans in up-for-grabs seats around the country in 2010 (Sires and Menendez, Democrats, weren't actually in any jeopardy) - they probably won those seats in spite of their views on Cuba. There's an easy way to test this theory, of course. I propose that Mario Diaz-Balart run his campaign on rescinding Obama's 2009 family travel rules. Then, Joe Garcia, who Cason suggests the voters rejected for being a softie on Cuba, should run one more time for the seat, on a platform of freedom to travel home to Cuba. All other things being equal, Garcia would wipe the floor with him. Why? Because family travel truly impacts Cuban Americans in Florida. But unless Diaz-Balart or someone else threatens to take away that right to travel, then chances are these voters are going to focus on the other issues of the day, as they did in 2010, that impact them - like the economy, the deficit, healthcare and so on. And this is what gives Members like Ros-Lehtinen, Menendez and Diaz-Balart the freedom to obsess over ideological but inconsequential policy matters like insisting that the U.S. government fly a plane over the Florida straits to beam TV Marti to the island.
What's so revealing about Cason's argument is that he equates the will of six Cuban Americans in Congress with the will of the entire Congress, arguing that if all six of them oppose further "concessions" to Havana then the President ought to listen. These six members may have a unique perspective worth considering, but by no means do they have a monopoly on defining U.S. interests or the Cuban reality, and least of all since none of them have visited the island in decades, if ever.
On the other hand, for anyone who has visited the island recently, it's clear that Cubans are facing a make or break moment as their government attempts to overhaul its failing economy.