Maggie Alarcón

Posts Tagged ‘US’

Cuba and the United States: a new era?

In Blockade, Cuba/US on February 12, 2015 at 1:33 pm

By Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada

On December 17, by freeing the five Cubans imprisoned for more than 16 years in the United States, President Barack Obama put an end to an excessively prolonged injustice and, at the same time, gave a change of direction to history.

By recognizing the failure of the anti-Cuban policy, restoring diplomatic relations, abolishing all restrictions within his reach, proposing the complete lifting of the blockade and the beginning of a new era in relations with Cuba –all in one speech– he broke all predictions and surprised everyone, including the brainiest analysts.
The hostile policy established by President Dwight Eisenhower(1953-1961), before the current President was born, was the rule applied–only with secondary sharing s– by Republican and Democratic administrations alike. It was eventually codified in the Helms-Burton Act, signed by Bill Clinton in 1996.

In the early years they practiced it quite successfully. In 1959, at the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the US was at the zenith of its power and exercised unchallenged hegemony over much of the world and especially the Western Hemisphere. This allowed it to secure the exclusion of Cuba from the Organization of American States (OAS) and granting the almost total isolation of the island. Cuba could count only with the help of the Soviet Union and its partners in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA), formed by the Warsaw Pact countries.

The collapse of “real socialism” created in many the illusion that this would bring the end of the Cuban revolution.

They anticipated the advent of a long period of “uni-polar” dominance. Drunk with victory, they failed to assess correctly the depth of what was happening: the end of the Cold War opened up new spaces for social struggle, and presented capitalism with increasingly difficult challenges.
The fall of the Berlin Wall prevented them from seeing that, at the same time, in February 1989, Venezuela was shaken by a social uprising called “el Caracazo“, a sign  indicating the start of new era in Latin America.

Cuba managed to survive the demise of its former allies and its resistance was instrumental in the profound transformation of the continent. Years ago it became obvious that the policy designed to isolate Cuba was a failure. Such a policy ended up isolating the United States as its current Secretary of State, John Kerry, has recognized.

A new relationship with Cuba was indispensable for Washington. It needed to rebuild its ties with a continent that is no longer in its backyard. Achieving this is crucial now because, despite its power, the US cannot exercise the comfortable leadership it had had in times gone by.

There is still much to achieve with this new relationship. First of all, it is necessary to completely eliminate the economic, commercial and financial blockade as demanded with renewed vigor by important sectors of US business.

But normalizing relations would especially imply learning to live with the differences, and abandoning old dreams of domination. It would mean respecting the sovereign equality of states, a fundamental principle of the United Nations Charter, which, as history shows, is not liked by the powerful.

Regarding the release of the five Cuban prisoners, all US presidents without exception, have widely used the powers exclusively granted to them by Article II, Section 2, Paragraph 1 of the Constitution. This has been so for more than two centuries without anything or anyone being able to limit them.

This constitutional paragraph empowers the President to suspend the enforcement of sentences and grant pardons in cases of alleged crimes against the United States.

In the case of the Five there were more than enough reasons for executive clemency. In 2005, the panel of judges in the Court of Appeals quashed the process against them –defining it as “a perfect storm of prejudice and hostility”– and ordered a new trial.

In 2009, the full meeting of the same Court found that this case had nothing to do with espionage or the national security of the United States. Both verdicts were adopted with unanimity.

Regarding the other main charge of “conspiracy to commit murder”, made only against Gerardo Hernandez, his accusers acknowledged that it was impossible to prove this slander. They even tried to withdraw the accusation in May 2001 in an unprecedented action, taken by none other than the prosecutors under President George W. Bush (2001-2009).

For five years, Hernández had been expecting some response from the Miami court. He had made repeated requests for the court to release him, or review his case, or order the government to present the “evidence” used to convict him, or agree to hear him, or ask the government to reveal the magnitude and scope of the official financing of the massive media campaign that had created the “perfect storm”.

The Court never responded. Nothing was said by the mainstream media about the unusual legal paralysis. It was obvious that this was a political case and could only be resolved by a political decision. No one but the president could do it.

Obama showed wisdom and determination when, instead of just using his power to release any person, he courageously faced the underlying problem. The saga of the five was the result of an aggressive strategy and the wisest thing was to end both at the same time.

Nobody can ignore the significance of what was announced on 17 December. It would be wrong, however, to ignore the fact that there is still a road to travel that can be long and tortuous.  It will be necessary to move forward with strength and wisdom.


 A CubaNews translation. Edited by Walter Lippmann.

Cuba: So Close You Could Almost Swim There

In Cuba/US, History, Sports on January 29, 2015 at 1:44 pm

Diana Nyad

The Cuban Revolution happened when I was a nine-year-old living in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Literally overnight, thousands of exiles flooded into my town. We were suddenly eating Cuban food, dancing salsa in my new friends’ living rooms. The mystique ran deep. Already a little swimmer, I was standing on the beach at that time and I asked my mother, who had danced salsa many times with my father at the fabled Hotel Nacional in Havana:

“Mom. Where is it? I know it’s out there, but I can’t see it.”

And my mother took my arm and pointed it across the sea.

“There. Out there. It’s right over that horizon. It’s so close, you could almost swim there.”

The story I first knew of Cuba was from the exile side. Good people forced out of their homes, given 24 hours to gather of few possessions and cash out at the bank. Their houses, their clothing, their cars, their boats, many of their friends and family never to be seen again.

Then there was the Fidel side. It reads a noble story. Fidel and his comrades in justice Che and Camilo, ride stealth one night on horseback from the mountains into Havana, to save the people from the dictator regime of Batista, where the rich were vastly rich and the poor were desperately poor, with no middle ground. The famous, defiant face of Che has been plastered to millions of young persons’ bedroom walls through the years. Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos — soldiers of and for the people.

I have learned the hard way not to take either side, not to speak of the politics of Cuba. Socialism, in its bare bones definition, every individual entitled to the same material necessities, can be interpreted as a just way to manage a nation. On an anecdotal level, I can say that in the dozens of times I have visited Cuba, since my first try to swim from country to country back in 1978, I have never once seen a homeless person. I have found a population of educated, polite, intelligent, fit, musical, athletic, compassionate, philosophical, seemingly happy people. So there was a time that I defended Fidel’s original vision, that I joined many who touted his success in taking the majority from third world to second world.

The one thing I could never explain, understand, or defend about the Fidel regime was that Cubans weren’t allowed to leave the island. If you love your country, love the life you live there, why is there such fear that a trip anywhere abroad would convince you never to return home?

Clearly, in recent years after the Soviet Union’s collapse and withdrawal, Cuba has devolved toward a deeper and nearly tragic state of poverty. Goods have always been hard to come by, but it’s been a long time since asthma medicine, cooking oil, and a decent loaf of bread have been on the market shelves.

A couple I have stayed with in Old Havana, both highly educated, with a daughter who has asthma, stand outside the hospital ER in the middle of the night, begging any worker leaving to go back inside and find them an inhaler. Every two weeks they stand in a line to receive one chicken, six eggs, and a few staples. They invite visitors to their “Casa Privada” for dinner, stretching those staples into creative meals so that travelers can tell the tale of eating in a private home, and then they pare back their own family meals to the bare minimum.

Again, just a layman’s anecdotal evidence, but it used to be that to discuss a rapprochement with an average Cuban citizen was to encounter tears standing in his eyes, the loyalty to Fidel was so fierce. The giant painted faces of Fidel and Che and Camilo around the city, slogans such as “Viva El Socialismo!” in vivid red below, spoke volumes to the national esprit of having been freed from colonial oppression.

But we are almost six decades past Batista now. The days of the Bay of Pigs are also long-ago history. There is nothing to fear from each other. No reason to further punish each other.

My swim from Cuba to Florida, aside from the personal challenge to make endurance history across a wild, epic ocean, was always meant to also make a statement of hopeful reconnection between our two beautiful nations. Too many, on both sides, have wanted for too long to know each other, to enjoy the colorful Cuban culture, to help the Cubans restore economic stability.

Our Team was invited to Havana this past Labor Day, on the anniversary of our successful crossing from Havana to Key West, September 2, 2013. It was the first time in thirty years that the American and Cuban flags were flown together in an official government building in Havana. The first time the American National Anthem had been played at an official event in thirty years. We wept with pride. And so did the Cubans. We all wept because this Swim was a universal message of will, to Never Ever Give Up. But we wept in part because our two countries understood the magic of the endeavor and the Cubans helped us through every step. We wept because we all want a better life for these good people, our friends and neighbors.

I can tell you our Team was very emotional a few weeks ago, when both President Obama and Raul Castro announced the new era of rapprochement between us.

A personal note: This series for Huff Post carries with it a tag line: 90 miles.

To be perfectly accurate, it is 103 miles, the closest distance between Cuba and Florida. A long time ago, the nautical measurement of 90 was assigned, a measurement used by only large ships at sea. We measure distances across the sea between countries in statute miles. For instance, it is 28 miles around Manhattan Island. That’s statute miles. Trust me, it’s 103 miles to Cuba. I should know.

One more personal note, to my mother, no longer with us. Mom, it’s so close, Cuba, that somebody has actually swum there.

This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called “90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations.” The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.

If you’d like to contribute your own blog on this topic, send a 500-850-word post to (subject line: “90 Miles”).

Ending the Cuba Travel Crisis

In Politics on December 4, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Time Travel - twisted clock

By Tom Hayden

There is an opportunity for President Barack Obama to begin rolling back our Cuba sanctions policy by finding a bank willing to do business with Cuba so that hundreds of thousands of Cubans can spend the holidays with their families. The main reason the Cuban Interests Section in Washington DC cannot process visas and passports is because no bank is willing to handle the financial transactions. The reason the banks are afraid is the US sanctions policy and Cuba’s listing on the global terrorism list. So the irrational US policy has come full circle: Obama’s policy of expanding and normalizing purposeful travel to Cuba is prevented by Obama’s embargo policies. It’s an opportunity to begin lifting the embargo, but chances are the administration is too timid, for now, to fully undo its own senseless policy.

Notice, however, the tantalizing convergence between Cuban and American rhetoric on the main issue:

John Kerry, Secretary of State has said, “Each year, hundreds of thousands of Americans visit Havana, and hundreds of millions of dollars in trade and remittances flow from the United States to Cuba. We are committed to this human interchange, and in the United States we believe that our people are actually our best ambassadors. They are ambassadors of our ideals, of our values, of our beliefs.”

Ricardo Alarcon, former foreign minister and retired president of the National Assembly said, in relation, “In terms of changing Cuban society, the most effective ambassadors are the Cubans coming back, somebody living on the corner bringing gadgets from Miami. When they are in their dining rooms they probably are not pretending to mislead. They will say work is harder in the US. They can bring some different element here, maybe in fashion or music. So you will get a mutual influence. I don’t really see a problem with that. They have been coming back for years. So? It’s a two-way influence. For Cubans, they get a broader view of Miami, and it challenges the mentality of those Cuban-Americans who think everyone from Cuba is a terrorist. What free travel permits is a better understanding of Cuba’s realities and some benefits for the visitors, like cheaper medicines for example. For decades we have had millions of tourists from Western Europe and Canada, and they haven’t changed the country, they just come to enjoy life and relax.”

President Obama said November 8, “We have to update our policies. Keep in mind that when Castro came to power, I was just born.”

Ricardo Alarcon continued, “Now we have Esteban Laso as head of our National Assembly. He was a boy, a sugar cane cutter, in the Batista period. A little boy then; now he’s in his sixties. The misperception is that the Cuban system has been the same from the very first day; that the people who attacked Moncada are still around. Yes, a few are, but they are octogenarians. When Raul said he was getting out in five years, nobody here said, well, that’s the end.”

Alarcon said emphatically, “The main goal of immigrants is to come and go. The discussion is over.”

This irreversible process already has destroyed the argument of right-wing Cuban politicians, including Marco Rubio and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, that no one should travel to Cuba, nor spend money in Cuba, because they are subsidizing a dictatorship. Even many of Cuba’s US-supported dissidents have concluded that the blockade no longer makes sense.

If the “Cuban exiles” community is itself a dying band of octogenarians, what beyond inertia is propping up the US policy? Alarcon predicts that, “The day you don’t have a Castro, they will get into trouble because of their Helms-Burton law,” which prohibits US diplomatic recognition without the disappearance of the Castro regime and installation of a market economy. “In a few years the Cuban government will be led by other persons with other last names. But I don’t think the [passing of the Castros] will create an immediate process towards normalization. The reasons and forces behind the current policy are stronger than that.”

But, Alarcon observes, “If the anti-Castro people can go back and forth, it’s the end of the political exile movement.”

Article originally appeared on (

Medal of Friendship for Saul Landau

In Cuba/US, Cuban 5, US on August 12, 2013 at 1:18 pm



Saul Landau together with Fidel Castro, Havana.


Remarks by Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada at the Award Ceremony of the Orden de la Amistad de la República de Cuba [Medal of Friendship].
Havana, August 7, 2013

Saul Landau deserves this recognition and much more. He has given our people a sincere, unlimited, authentic friendship all his life. In his early youth he embraced revolutionary ideas and never abandoned them. He always upheld these ideas far from dogmatism, bureaucratic or sectarian distortions. He has been a loyal friend since the long gone times of Ramparts Magazine and Studies on the Left to Progreso Weekly, and his intense participation in the struggle for the liberation of our five compañeros unjustly punished for fighting against terrorism.

In 2008, Saul received the important Bernardo O’Higgins decoration granted by Chile for his defense of human rights. He also holds the gratitude of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas and Central America, of the Palestinians and the Arabs, of the enslaved in sweat shops, and of the immigrants, the poor, the discriminated and persecuted among the peoples of North America.

His intellectual creation is vast and varied. He has written fourteen books, including one of poems, and his novel Stark in the Bronx will soon see the light. He has published thousands of articles and essays. Of his making are forty documentaries on different conflicts and social, historical and political problems that include his report on Fidel in the 1960’s and his most recent one, dedicated to the Five, about anti-Cuban terrorism. His voice has been heard in countless conferences, acts and interviews; always fighting for truth and justice; the speaker for the oppressed, the neglected and the humble.

An admirable work, enlightened by the style of a true artist, a sharp researcher of lucid thinking; independent, but deeply committed to the betterment of human beings. Thanks to him, the world could listen to Gerardo Hernandez Nordelo exclaiming for justice from his solitary confinement in the desert prison where Saul has visited him so many times. Each visit has been transformed into brilliant journalistic works that push forward the battle to liberate the man to whom he is now bound by a close friendship.

Professor Emeritus of California State University in Ponoma and Vice-Chair of the Institute for Policy Studies, his works have received awards and distinctions. Among these the Letelier-Moffit for Human Rights, the George Polk for Investigative Reporting, and the Edgar Allan Poe for his Murder at Embassy Row, where he clearly reveals the murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffit. He also received an Emmy for his documentary “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang”; a Golden Apple for “The Sixth Sun: Mayan Uprising in Chiapas”; the Roxy for “We Don’t Play Golf Here”, and received first prizes in many film festivals for his works on Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende and Subcomandante Marcos.

His links with Cuba go back to his student days. He collaborated with C. Wright Mills in 1960 in the preparation of Listen Yankee, a memorable text that made millions of people aware of the truth about the Cuban Revolution. He stood by his teacher until the end of his days in the midst of the hatred and threats that the Empire and the Batista mafia unleashed against Mills and his work. From those years until “Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up” and his frequent trips to Victorville prison to interview Gerardo and rescue him from oblivion, Saul has been a superlative example of solidarity and altruism.

Gore Vidal said of him: “Saul is a man I like to steal ideas from.” Great has been his contribution in the struggle to defeat the media tyranny that spreads ignorance and misinformation everywhere.

But his work was not only from an office, and his risks were not just those of a journalist who reports conflicts. Saul goes far beyond that. He is a real combatant with no other weapons than his talent and his intellectual integrity.

With these weapons he challenged Batista’s terrorists and, half a century later, used them against the butchers of Operation Condor. With these weapons he unmasked the murderers of Orlando Letelier and did not hesitate at the announcement that he would be the next victim.

He’s never lost his joy, his joviality, his youthful spirit. For Saul, the Sixties never ended. The idealism and rebelliousness of that decade live on with him. This, above all, deserves our eternal gratitude. There will be no farewell. We will stay with him and he will live in our hearts hasta la victoria siempre.





Note from the Council of State of the Republic of Cuba issuing the Medal of Friendship to Saul Landau

Note from Saul Landau

Yesterday I was informed that ICAP, by Agreement of the Council of State, has granted me the Medalla de la Amistad [Medal of Friendship]. I have no way to express properly my appreciation for the decision to give me such a prestigious medal.

The Medal of Friendship and ICAP represent the virtues of the Cuban Revolution as in 1959, when I began supporting the solidarity movement as President of the Students Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Then, Cuba represented, as it does now, justice and equality as a force for global progress toward peace and the end of oppression. These values deserved universal support in the beginnings of the Revolution, in the same way they deserve it in 2013.

I feel deeply honored and touched by this recognition.

With friendship


The Cuba Lobby

In Politics, US on April 12, 2013 at 10:53 am


The most powerful lobby in Washington isn’t the NRA. It’s the Castro-hating right wing that has Obama’s bureaucrats terrified and inert.


 Jay-Z and Beyoncé are discovering that fame provides no immunity from the Cuba Lobby’s animus for anyone who has the audacity to act as if Cuba is a normal country rather than the heart of darkness. After the pop icons’ recent trip to the island to celebrate their wedding anniversary, the Cuba Lobby’s congressional contingent — Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart — castigated the couple, demanding that they be investigated for violating the half-century-old U.S. embargo. (As it turned out, the trip had been authorized by the U.S. Treasury Department as a cultural exchange.) Still, celebrity trips to Cuba make headlines, and condemnation by the Cuba Lobby is always quick to follow. But what seems like a Hollywood sideshow is actually symptomatic of a much deeper and more dangerous problem — a problem very much like the one that afflicted U.S. policy toward China in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, as now, an aggressive foreign-policy lobby was able to prevent rational debate about an anachronistic policy by intimidating anyone who dared challenge it.

 “A wasteland.” That’s how W. Averell Harriman described the State Department’s Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs when he took it over for President John F. Kennedy in 1961. “It’s a disaster area filled with human wreckage.… Some of them are so beaten down they can’t be saved. Some of those you would want to save are just finished. They try and write a report and nothing comes out. It’s a terrible thing.” As David Halberstam recounts in The Best and the Brightest, the destruction of the State Department’s expertise on Asia was the result of the China Lobby’s decade-long assault on everyone, from professors to Foreign Service officers, who disputed the charge that communist sympathizers in the United States had “lost China.” The China Lobby and its allies in Congress forced President Harry Truman and President Dwight Eisenhower to purge the State Department of its most senior and knowledgeable “China hands,” while continuing to perpetuate the fiction that the Nationalist government in Taiwan was the “real” China, rather than the communist government on the mainland — a policy stance that persisted long after the rest of the world had come to terms with Mao Zedong’s victory. The result was a department that had little real knowledge about Asia and was terrified of straying from far-right orthodoxy. This state of affairs contributed directly to the debacle of Vietnam.

Today, U.S. relations with Latin America are suffering from an equally irrational policy toward Cuba — a policy designed in the 1960s to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government and which, more than 50 years later, is no closer to success. Like U.S. policy toward China in the 1950s and 1960s, policy toward Cuba is frozen in place by a domestic political lobby, this one with roots in the electorally pivotal state of Florida. The Cuba Lobby combines the carrot of political money with the stick of political denunciation to keep wavering Congress members, government bureaucrats, and even presidents in line behind a policy that, as President Barack Obama himself admits, has failed for half a century and is supported by virtually no other countries. (The last time it came to a vote in the U.N. General Assembly, only Israel and the Pacific island of Palau sided with the United States.) Of course, the news at this point is not that a Cuba Lobby exists, but that it astonishingly lives on — even during the presidency of Obama, who publicly vowed to pursue a new approach to Cuba, but whose policy has been stymied thus far.

Like the China Lobby, the Cuba Lobby isn’t one organization but a loose-knit conglomerate of exiles, sympathetic members of Congress, and nongovernmental organizations, some of which comprise a self-interested industry nourished by the flow of “democracy promotion” money from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). And like its Sino-obsessed predecessor, the Cuba Lobby was launched at the instigation of conservative Republicans in government who needed outside backers to advance their partisan policy aims. In the 1950s, they were Republican members of Congress battling New Dealers in the Truman administration over Asia policy. In the 1980s, they were officials in Ronald Reagan’s administration battling congressional Democrats over Central America policy.

At the Cuba Lobby’s request, Reagan created Radio Martí, modeled on Radio Free Europe, to broadcast propaganda to Cuba. He named Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), to chair the radio’s oversight board. President George H.W. Bush followed with TV Martí. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) authored the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, writing the economic embargo into law so no president could change it without congressional approval.

Founded at the suggestion of Richard V. Allen, Reagan’s first national security advisor, CANF became one of the most powerful ethnic foreign-policy organizations in the United States and was the linchpin of the Cuba Lobby until Mas Canosa’s death in 1997. “No individual had more influence over United States policies toward Cuba over the past two decades than Jorge Mas Canosa,” the New York Times editorialized. In Washington, CANF built its reputation by spreading campaign contributions to bolster friends and punish enemies. In 1988, CANF money helped Joe Lieberman defeat incumbent Sen. Lowell Weicker, whom Lieberman accused of being soft on Castro because he visited Cuba and advocated better relations. Weicker’s defeat sent a chilling message to other members of Congress: challenge the Cuba Lobby at your peril. In 1992, according to Peter Stone’s reporting in National Journal, New Jersey Democrat Sen. Robert Torricelli, seduced by the Cuba Lobby’s political money, reversed his position on Havana and wrote the Cuban Democracy Act, tightening the embargo. Today, the political action arm of the Cuba Lobby is the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which hands out more campaign dollars than CANF’s political action arm did even at its height — more than $3 million in the last five national elections.

In Miami, conservative Cuban-Americans have long presumed to be the sole authentic voice of the community, silencing dissent by threats and, occasionally, violence. In the 1970s, anti-Castro terrorist groups like Omega 7 and Alpha 66 set off dozens of bombs in Miami and assassinated two Cuban-Americans who advocated dialogue with Castro. Reports by Human Rights Watch in the 1990s documented the climate of fear in Miami and the role that elements of the Cuba Lobby, including CANF, played in creating it.

Today, moderate Cuban-Americans have managed to carve out greater space for political debate about U.S. relations with Cuba as attitudes in the community have changed — a result of both the passing of the old exile generation of the 1960s and the arrival of new immigrants who want to maintain ties with family they left behind. But a network of right-wing radio stations and right-wing bloggers still routinely vilifies moderates by name, branding anyone who favors dialogue as a spy for Castro. The modus operandi is the same as the China Lobby’s in the 1950s: One anti-Castro crusader makes dubious accusations of espionage, often based on guilt by association, which the others then repeat ad nauseam, citing one other as proof.

Like the China Lobby before it, the Cuba Lobby has also struck fear into the heart of the foreign-policy bureaucracy. The congressional wing of the Cuba Lobby, in concert with its friends in the executive branch, routinely punishes career civil servants who don’t toe the line. One of the Cuba Lobby’s early targets was John J. “Jay” Taylor, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, who was given an unsatisfactory annual evaluation report in 1988 by Republican stalwart Elliott Abrams, then assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, because Taylor reported from Havana that the Cubans were serious about wanting to negotiate peace in southern Africa and Central America. “CANF had close contact with the Cuban desk, which soon turned notably unfriendly toward my reporting from post and it seemed toward me personally,” Taylor recalled in an oral history interview. “Mas and the foundation soon assumed that I was too soft on Castro.”

The risks of crossing the Cuba Lobby were not lost on other foreign-policy professionals. In 1990, Taylor was in Washington to consult about the newly launched TV Martí, which the Cuban government was jamming so completely that Cubans on the island dubbed it, “la TV que no se ve” (“No-see TV”). But TV Martí’s patrons in Washington blindly insisted that the vast majority of the Cuban population was watching the broadcasts. Taylor invited the U.S. Information Agency officials responsible for TV Martí to come to Cuba to see for themselves. “Silence prevailed around the table,” he recalled. “I don’t think anyone there really believed TV Martí signals were being received in Cuba. It was a Kafkaesque moment, a true Orwellian experience, to see a room full of grown, educated men and women so afraid for their jobs or their political positions that they could take part in such a charade.”

In 1993, the Cuba Lobby opposed the appointment of President Bill Clinton’s first choice to be assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Mario Baeza, because he had once visited Cuba. According to Stone, fearful of the Cuba Lobby’s political clout, Clinton dumped Baeza. Two years later, Clinton caved in to the Cuba Lobby’s demand that he fire National Security Council official Morton Halperin, who was the architect of the successful 1995 migration accord with Cuba that created a safe, legal route for Cubans to emigrate to the United States. One chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba told me he stopped sending sensitive cables to the State Department altogether because they so often leaked to Cuba Lobby supporters in Congress. Instead, the diplomat flew to Miami so he could report to the department by telephone.

During George W. Bush’s administration, the Cuba Lobby completely captured the State Department’s Latin America bureau (renamed the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs). Bush’s first assistant secretary was Otto Reich, a Cuban-American veteran of the Reagan administration and favorite of Miami hard-liners. Reich had run Reagan’s “public diplomacy” operation demonizing opponents of the president’s Central America policy as communist sympathizers. Reich hired as his deputy Dan Fisk, former staff assistant to Senator Helms and author of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act. Reich was followed by Roger Noriega, another former Helms staffer, who explained that Bush’s policy was aimed at destabilizing the Cuban regime: “We opted for change even if it meant chaos. The Cubans had had too much stability over decades.… Chaos was necessary in order to change reality.”

In 2002, Bush’s undersecretary for arms control and international security, John Bolton, made the dubious charge that Cuba was developing biological weapons. When the national intelligence officer for Latin America, Fulton Armstrong, (along with other intelligence community analysts) objected to this mischaracterization of the community’s assessment, Bolton and Reich tried repeatedly to have him fired. The Cuba Lobby began a steady drumbeat of charges that Armstrong was a Cuban agent because his and the community’s analysis disputed the Bush team’s insistence that the Castro regime was fragile and wouldn’t survive the passing of its founder. The 2001 arrest for espionage of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s top Cuba analyst, Ana Montes, heightened the Cuba Lobby’s hysteria over traitors in government in the same way that the spy cases of the 1950s — Alger Hiss and the Amerasia magazine affair — gave the China Lobby ammunition. Armstrong was subjected to repeated and intrusive security investigations, all of which cleared him of wrongdoing. (He completed a four-year term as national intelligence officer and received a prestigious CIA medal recognizing his service when he left the agency in 2008.)

When Obama was elected president, promising a “new beginning” in relations with Havana, the Cuba Lobby relied on its congressional wing to stop him. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the senior Cuban-American Democrat in Congress and now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, vehemently opposes any opening to Cuba. In March 2009, he signaled his willingness to defy both his president and his party to get his way. Menendez voted with Republicans to block passage of a $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill (needed to keep the government running) because it relaxed the requirement that Cuba pay in advance for food purchases from U.S. suppliers and eased restrictions on travel to the island. To get Menendez to relent, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had to promise in writing that the administration would consult Menendez on any change in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Senate Republicans also blocked confirmation of Arturo Valenzuela as Obama’s assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs until November 2009. With the bureau managed in the interim by Bush holdovers, no one was pushing from below to carry out Obama’s new Cuba policy. After Valenzuela stepped down in 2012, Senator Rubio (R-Fla.), whose father left Cuba in the 1950s, held up confirmation of Valenzuela’s replacement, Roberta Jacobson, until the administration agreed to tighten restrictions on educational travel to Cuba, undercutting Obama’s stated policy of increasing people-to-people engagement.

When Obama nominated career Foreign Service officer Jonathan Farrar to be ambassador to Nicaragua, the Cuba Lobby denounced him as soft on communism. During his previous posting as chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, Farrar had reported to Washington that Cuba’s traditional dissident movement had very little appeal to ordinary Cubans. Menendez and Rubio teamed up to give Farrar a verbal beating during his confirmation hearing for carrying out Obama’s policy of engaging the Cuban government rather than simply antagonizing it. When they blocked Farrar’s confirmation, Obama withdrew the nomination, sending Farrar as ambassador to Panama instead. Their point made, Menendez and Rubio did not object.

The Cuba Lobby’s power to derail diplomatic careers is common knowledge among foreign-policy professionals. Throughout Obama’s first term, midlevel State Department officials cooperated more closely and deferred more slavishly to congressional opponents of Obama’s Cuba policy than to supporters like John Kerry, the new secretary of state who served at the time as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. When Senator Kerry tried to get the State Department and USAID to reform the Bush administration’s democracy-promotion programs in 2010, he ran into more opposition from the bureaucracy than from Republicans. If Obama intends to finally keep the 2008 campaign promise to take a new direction in relations with Cuba, the job can’t be left to foreign-policy bureaucrats, who are so terrified of the Cuba Lobby that they continue to believe, or pretend to believe, absurdities — that Cubans are watching TV Martí, for instance, or that Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism. Only a determined president and a tough secretary of state can drive a new policy through a bureaucratic wasteland so paralyzed by fear and inertia.

The irrationality of U.S. policy does not stem just from concerns about electoral politics in Florida. The Cuban-American community has evolved to the point that a majority now favors engagement with Cuba, as both opinion polls and Obama’s electoral success in 2008 and 2012 demonstrate. Today, the larger problem is the climate of fear in the government bureaucracy, where even honest reporting about Cuba — let alone advocating a more sensible policy — can endanger one’s career. Democratic presidents, who ought to know better, have tolerated this distortion of the policy process and at times have reinforced it by allowing the Cuba lobby to extort concessions from them. But the cost is high — the gradual and insidious erosion of the government’s ability to make sound policy based on fact rather than fantasy.

Through bullying and character assassination, the China Lobby blocked a sensible U.S. policy toward Beijing for a quarter-century, with tragic results. When Richard Nixon finally defied the China Lobby by going to Beijing in 1972, the earth did not tremble, civilization did not collapse, and U.S. security did not suffer. If anything, U.S. allies around the world applauded the adoption — finally — of a rational policy. At home, the punditocracy was surprised to discover that Nixon’s bold stroke was politically popular. The China Lobby proved to be a paper tiger; the Red Scare fever of the 1950s had subsided, robbing the movement of its political base.

Likewise, the Cuba Lobby has blocked a sensible policy toward Cuba for half a century, with growing damage to U.S. relations with Latin America. When a courageous U.S. president finally decides to defy the Cuba Lobby with a stroke as bold as Nixon’s trip to China, she or he will discover that so to the Cuba Lobby no longer has the political clout it once had. The strategic importance of repairing the United States’ frayed relations with Latin America has come to outweigh the political risk of reconciliation with Havana. Nixon went to China, and history records it as the highlight of his checkered legacy. Will Barack Obama have the courage to go to Havana?



Dos para el baile

In CAFE, Cuba, Cuba/US, Politics, US on January 18, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Margarita Alarcón Perea

El cambio radical y necesario llevado a cabo durante la presidencia de Raúl Castro, finalmente ha llegado. A los cubanos en la isla se les permite salir sin necesidad de obtener el diabólico “permiso de salida”.

Si sacamos cuentas de las ventajas de esta medida, vemos que contrario a lo que piensa la mayoría, de los cubanos que estarán haciendo viajes al exterior, la mayor parte de estos, regresará.

Cuba nunca fue realmente una cárcel como tantos han pretendido hacer creer. Era una isla bajo condiciones extremas intentando subsistir y de hecho aun lo sigue haciendo. Aun así, la idea de tener que solicitarle al gobierno autorización formal para salir del país era algo que pasadas las primeras décadas de la Revolución, comenzaba a resultarle inadmisible a la población y a la larga iba en detrimento de lo que el sistema estaba tratando de lograr: una isla colmada de justicia social. La población simplemente no podía comprender porque se les obligaba a pedirle permiso al gobierno para poder  salir y volver a casa. Y en esto justamente yace el quid de la cosa, no solo podrán salir los cubanos libremente, sino que se les permitirá permanecer fuera (aunque considere que esta restricción debería variar) por un periodo máximo de 24 meses, y podrán volver a casa, a la isla, a Cuba. Ya no vivirán más la angustia de tener que decidirse entre “aquí” y “allá”.

El asunto ahora recae en obtener la visa de entrada para los países hacia donde los cubanos quieran viajar. No solo hacia los EEUU por cierto. Canadá, España, México y otras serán las naciones que verán sus consulados llenos de cubanos solicitando permiso de entrada desde la Habana. Y no solo se hace necesario que los cubanos entiendan el fenómeno que regula el mundo del viajero. Por lo que he leído últimamente, hay blogueros por ahí a los que no les vendría mal un curso intensivo en el tema:

                      “Aun se necesita una visa para entrar en prácticamente cualquier país al que desee viajar un cubano. Hay una lista corta de países a los cuales el gobierno permitirá que viajen sus ciudadanos sin visa: Malaysia, Hungría, Rusia, Liechtenstein, Ucrania, Bielorrusia, Eslovaquia, Barbados, Granada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vicente y las Granadinas, Moldavia, Kazakstán, Kirguistán.

El autor de este escrito o bien tiene problemas con la gramática y no supo ubicar correctamente el sujeto de la oración, o debería aprender sensatamente sobre leyes internacionales de viajes e inmigración antes de meterse a escribir sobre el tema. El gobierno de Cuba, quiera o no, carece del DERECHO LEGAL de plantearle a otro gobierno que le permita la entrada de sus ciudadanos sin necesidad de una visa, salvo que estableciera convenios al respecto. Hasta donde tengo entendido este tipo de convenio existe con muy pocas naciones, de manera reciproca bilateral y se restringen a pasaportes oficiales (de trabajo) y diplomáticos.

Tenemos el otro tema que involucra directamente a los EEUU. En el pasado, un cubano deseando viajar hacia los EEUU estaba sujeto a una serie de restricciones, una de las cuales era, el permiso de salida, la carta de invitación y otra sarta de papeles más. Ahora, del lado cubano, solo se necesita un pasaporte válido y un pasaje  y bueno por supuesto, la visa de entrada hacia los EEUU que emite el Departamento de Estado de ese país

En otra publicación reciente, vemos que entrevistando a cubanos de a pie, la respuesta resume un tanto el presente y futuro de la situación:

                      “Me gustaría viajar y compartir con mi familia,” nos dice María Eugenia Jiménez, quien estaba despidiendo a la hermana que vive en         Miami.  “Ellos (los EEUU) me negaron la visa porque dicen que soy una inmigrante potencial… ahora el problema es con los demás países, no con Cuba.”

El análisis final tiene que ser que la posibilidad de viajar fuera de la isla y regresar, le dará a los cubanos la posibilidad de ver por si mismos  lo que hay más allá de las aguas que los rodean. Verán con sus propios ojos. Y a su regreso, podrán mejor entender lo bueno que hay en su isla y cuáles son los aspectos que necesitan mejorar verdaderamente dentro de la sociedad y el sistema de gobierno tal de producir cambios validos.

Tengan en cuenta que durante más de 50 años, los Estados Unidos han sido “la fruta prohibida” para la mayoría de los cubanos. Han idealizado esa nación a través de la familia que se fue, las películas que han visto, la música que han oído y bueno, la no poca propaganda que les ha llegado a través de las no pocas administraciones presidenciales en los EEUU,  intentando socavar los intentos de soberanía e independencia de la isla desde 1959. Al final de la jornada, esa imagen pintoresca del arcoíris con la cazuela de oro a sus pies, cobrará otro matiz. Incluso, olvídense de los EEUU. Pregúntenle a cualquier cubano y verán que tienen una idea muy distorsionada del concepto de lo que es la vida fuera de su pequeña isla caribeña. Ahora, tendrán la oportunidad de ver por sí mismos, y será un golpe de alarma para muchos.

Si la situación política, diplomática y económica entre Cuba y los EEUU cambiara para mejor, muchos de estos mismo cubanos podrían establecer un puente de entrada y salida entre ambas naciones que significaría cambios positivos tanto para Cuba como para los Estados Unidos.

En cambio, lo que tenemos ahora es un embargo impuesto por los EEUU que sigue inamovible, seguimos con la Ley de Ajuste Cubano y las restricciones de viajes contra los ciudadanos norteamericanos cuando de viajar hacia Cuba se trata. Todo esto tendrá que cambiar tarde o temprano. Mientras Cuba sigue dando pasos hacia adelante,  EEUU insiste en permanecer estático. Hacen falta dos para bailar un tango.

Antes de quitar la Ley de Ajuste Cubano

In CAFE, Cuba, Cuba/US, US on January 17, 2013 at 9:51 am


Publicado en el sitio C.A.F.E


Por décadas, el gobierno cubano ha denunciado la Ley de Ajuste Cubano de 1966, como “la ley asesina”, culpando al estatuto norteamericano por la migración de miles de cubanos a la Florida. Esa interpretación nunca ha tenido efecto en los gestores de política en EEUU, pues ignora los factores del sistema económico y político en la isla que empujan a los cubanos a emigrar. Por extraña coincidencia, ahora han aparecido sectores vinculados al embargo norteamericano que insisten, cada vez con más fuerza, en la necesidad de derogar la ley.

El hecho de que muchos cubanos que emigran discrepen del gobierno cubano, no significa que concuerden con el embargo estadounidense contra Cuba. Cada año, 300,000 cubanoamericanos van a Cuba y votan contra la restricción para viajar y la estrategia de provocar una rebelión por asfixia, enunciada en la ley Helms-Burton. Tras la flexibilización migratoria cubana del pasado octubre, no es difícil pronosticar un aumento del movimiento circular entre Cuba y EEUU.

En la comunidad cubanoamericana se acentúan las tendencias a una preponderancia de las últimas oleadas de emigrantes, con una visión más favorable a incentivar cambios en Cuba a través del intercambio y el diálogo. Usando las ventajas asociadas a la Ley de Ajuste Cubano de 1966 y las nuevas regulaciones migratorias cubanas, miles de cubanoamericanos, interesados en llevar vidas trasnacionales, podrían hacerse residentes legales y ciudadanos norteamericanos, mientras mantienen propiedades, residencia y hasta negocios en Cuba.

Tal dinámica tendrá efectos moderadores en las políticas de Miami y La Habana. Primero, porque el contacto entre las dos orillas del Estrecho de la Florida se multiplicará; segundo, porque comunidades interesadas en tales intercambios crecerán, poniendo presión respectiva en la Casa Blanca y el Palacio de la Revolución; y tercero, porque una ley que originalmente surgió como parte de la guerra fría entre Cuba y EEUU, podría servir ahora de virtual amnistía migratoria para cubanos que salen legalmente de Cuba a EEUU por motivos de trabajo, educación, o encuentro familiar.

La Ley de Ajuste Cubano fue aprobada por la Administración demócrata de Lyndon Johnson para regularizar la presencia en territorio norteamericano de miles de cubanos, cuyo proceso migratorio de entrada no fue como asilados bajo peligro de persecución o tortura. La ley protege a los Estados Unidos de un derecho automático a la residencia. El fiscal general regula la elegibilidad. Es por eso que varios de los arribados durante o después de Mariel, con problemas legales, fueron considerados “entrantes” y tuvieron que esperar a la reforma migratoria en 1986, o siguieron siendo deportables.

Si el gobierno de Barack Obama detuviese la implementación de pies secos/ pies mojados, que es diferente a derogar la Ley de Ajuste Cubano, Estados Unidos recibiría una emigración en camino a la legalización. Entrarían a EEUU, cubanos, mayormente educados, con conocimiento del inglés, que tienen familiares asentados en el país, y por tanto con un aterrizaje menos traumático al de otros emigrantes.

EEUU necesita emigrantes para atenuar las bajas de natalidad de típico país desarrollado. El cubano es un buen prospecto; no alberga sentimientos hostiles ni valores contrapuestos a la democracia norteamericana. Cuba tiene bajas tasas de natalidad, sin peligro de una emigración de gran magnitud. Ningún acto terrorista en suelo norteamericano cometido por cubanos (como el disparo en el puerto de Miami contra un barco polaco) es atribuible a los cubanos emigrados en las más recientes oleadas.

Son los legisladores cubanoamericanos los que al abrir un posible debate político sobre el estatuto de 1966, están creando la enfermedad, de la que se proclaman remedio. Desde 1978, cientos de miles de cubanoamericanos han visitado su país de origen y ningún Congreso (de mayoría republicana o demócrata), ni ningún presidente ha perdido tiempo tratando de derogar la ley de 1966. Fue frente al gobierno cubano hasta 1978 que los emigrados tuvieron que reclamar su derecho a visitar su país de origen.

La libertad de viajes es tan americana como el pastel de manzana. Nada en la Ley de Ajuste Cubano o su debate previo en el Congreso de 1966 prescribe que sus beneficiarios se olviden de sus familiares. Benjamín Franklin, el primero de todos los norteamericanos, hizo incontables esfuerzos por abrazar a su hijo, antiguo gobernador de Nueva Jersey, y refugiado en Inglaterra tras ser derrotado por la revolución alentada por su padre. Al decir de Franklin los lazos familiares eran del tipo “natural”, e iban “más allá de las consideraciones políticas”.

Profesor Adjunto, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.


It’s not always greener

In Cuba, Cuba/US, Politics, US on January 16, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Margarita Alarcón Perea

The most dramatic and necessary of all the changes brought about during the Presidency of Raul Castro, is finally here. Cubans are allowed to exit the country freely, no longer requiring the devilish “exit visa”.

When one factors in the reasons why this is an all around positive move we find that the aspect that tops the list,  contrary to popular belief,  is the reality that of all of those Cubans who will be making trips abroad, most of them, will be coming back home.

Cuba was never really a jail as some have spent years and endless amounts of paper and ink claiming. It was an island that under extremely difficult circumstances was trying to survive, and still is. Still, that said, the concept of having to solicit a formal authorization in order to leave the country was something that after decades, began to weaken much of what the country had been striving to achieve: complete social justice. Cubans on the island simply couldn’t comprehend why they were obliged to go and request the government to allow them to exit the country and then return. Herein lies the gist of the issue, Cubans will not only be allowed to exit, they will also be allowed to remain abroad (this time restraint still needs tweaking) for a maximum of 24 months, and they will be allowed to return home. No longer will  there be the anguish of having to decide between “here” and “there”.

The issue now will be entry visas from the countries where the Cubans will wish to travel to. Not just the United States. Canada, Spain, Mexico and others will be nations where Cubans will swarm the consulates in Havana requesting the right to enter. And not only will it be Cubans who will need to understand the concept and the aspects that regulate world travel, some bloggers out there will also have to take a crash course as I read in one piece.

“A visa is still needed to enter almost any country Cubans wish to visit. There is a short list of countries that the government will allow its citizens to travel to visa free: Malaysia, Hungary, Russia, Liechtenstein, Ukraine, Belarus, Slovakia, Barbados, Grenada, Saint Cristobal and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Moldova, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

The author of this blog post either has a problem with the English language and mixed up the subject of the sentence, or seriously needs to learn a bit more about international travel laws before writing. The Cuban government, whether it wants to or not, has NO LEGAL RIGHT to tell another government that Cuban citizens may travel there “visa free”.  The above mentioned nations may have established a covenant with Cuba (not that I am aware of) which allows Cubans with a valid passport to travel to their nations visa free, but by no means is that ever a decision made by the Cuban Government.

There is another issue which involves the United States specifically. In the past, Cubans wanting to travel to the US were subject to a series of restrictions one of which, of course, was the exit permit, letter of invitation and other paperwork. Now on the Cuban side, all of this has been limited to a valid passport, an airplane ticket and of course a visa issued from the US enabling the individual to travel and enter the country.

Below,  another post, interviewing individuals in Cuba, pretty much sums up the current and future situation:

“I would like to travel and be with my family,” said Maria Eugenia Jimenez, who was seeing off her sister who lives in Miami. “They (the US) turned me down for a visa because I could be a possible immigrant… Now the problem is with the other countries, not with Cuba.”

In the end, the ability to travel abroad and return home will give Cubans the chance to see for themselves what lies across the waters that surround them. They will see for themselves. When they return, they will be able to better understand what is good about the island and what are the aspects within the society and the government that could use valid change. Keep in mind, for 50+ years, the US has been the “forbidden fruit” for most Cubans. They have idolized it through family members living there and friends who left. By and large the years of propaganda stemming from the different programs oriented to disrupt the Cuban revolution have painted the perfect picture of a pristine gold rushing US society where everything is to be had if you have the desire and the will.  Even if you step away from the US as an issue and ask any Cuban on the street they will have a completely distorted concept of what life is like outside of their little enclosed island. Now they will have the chance to see for themselves, and it will be a wakeup call to say the least.

If the political, diplomatic, and economic situation between Cuba and the US were to be resolved, many of these same Cubans could establish a back and forth bridge between both countries, where not only Cuba but the US could benefit.  Meanwhile you have the US embargo still in place, you also have the Cuban Adjustment Act and you have the travel restrictions against normal everyday US citizens,  regarding travel to Cuba. All of this will have to change sooner rather than later. The grass is always greener where you water it; both sides of the fence need a serious sprinkler and Cuba just opened the spout.

A Deal for Alan Gross?

In Alan Gross, CAFE, Cuban 5, Politics on December 14, 2012 at 11:32 am

A prisoner of Cold War politics ponders his fate.


By R.M. Schneiderman

Originally published in The Daily Beast

After Barack Obama emerged victorious from his bruising reelection campaign, perhaps no one—save the president himself—was more relieved than Alan Gross, a 63-year-old development worker serving a 15-year prison sentence in Havana on charges of trying to undermine the Cuban state. Gross, a former Obama campaign volunteer, filled out his absentee ballot from inside the prison hospital where he often passes his time watching Cuban baseball on television. His hope: with the election now over, the U.S. can negotiate with the Cuban government to get him out of prison.

Ever since Gross was arrested three years ago at a Havana hotel, analysts say talks between the two countries have been mired in Cold War politics. From the beginning, the U.S. government has said that Gross was merely trying to improve Internet access for Cuban Jews. In reality, Gross was setting up wireless networks outside the government’s control as part of a provocative program by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Its aim: to promote democracy and weaken the iron grip of the communist state. Taking part in these programs is illegal on the island, yet the Cuban court made bombastic claims, and Gross’s imprisonment has been denounced as “arbitrary” in a U.N. ruling to be released later this month.

Havana disputes the U.N. ruling and is still upset about USAID’s democracy programs, but Cuban officials have reportedly said they know that Gross was not a spy and are willing to work out a deal to let him go. For more than a year now, Havana has been hinting at a tacit trade: Alan Gross for the Cuban Five, a group of intelligence agents imprisoned in the States for conspiracy to commit espionage, mostly on anti-Castro groups in Florida. With the election now behind him, Obama has some leeway, but a deal remains politically tricky. It could become more difficult if Sen. John Kerry joins the cabinet, thereby elevating Sen. Robert Menendez, a Cuba hardliner, to head the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Menendez would have considerable clout in blocking the administration’s efforts to change policy towards Cuba,” said Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba analyst at the National Security Archive, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit.

In the meantime, the Gross family remains frustrated. Last month, they filed a $60 million lawsuit against USAID and Development Alternatives, the firm that hired Gross. The complaint says he received inadequate warning about the dangers of his mission, and lacked proper counterintelligence training to prepare him for dealing with the Cuban police state. USAID would not comment on the lawsuit, and Development Alternatives said it was “disappointed” by it. In the three years since he’s been in jail, the once jovial and portly Gross has lost more than 100 pounds and has become consumed by his captivity. His elderly mother and daughter have developed cancer, and in a letter to Newsweek, Gross said both sides in this Cold War conflict appear to be blowing smoke. “Either way,” he wrote, “smoking is hazardous to my health.”

R.M. Schneiderman is a writer and reporter for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. He has previously worked for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, ESPN the Magazine, and The Tokyo Shimbun.

Cuba pushes swap: its spies jailed in US for American contractor held in Havana

In Alan Gross, Asamblea Nacional/National Assembly, Blockade, CAFE, Cuba/US, Cuban 5, Israel, Politics, US on December 3, 2012 at 12:06 pm
/Photo Credit: Roberto León, NBC News

A billboard in Cuba shows the Cuban Five — Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, and René González.

By Michael Isikoff
NBC News

From NBC

HAVANA, Cuba — It seems straight out of a Cold War spy movie. A group of Cuban undercover agents sneak into the U.S. and set up a secret pro-Castro network in south Florida — receiving instructions in code through late night radio transmissions from handlers in Havana. But the FBI gets wind, tails the agents, intercepts their messages and busts them, sending the agents off to federal prison, their ringleader for life.

Today, the story of those spies — called La Red Avispa, or the Wasp Network — rolled up by the feds 14 years ago is barely known in the United States. But its members, now  known as the Cuban Five, are national heroes in Cuba — the subjects of mass demonstrations, their pictures on billboards and  posters – and their petitions for freedom are championed around the world by Nobel Prize winners, celebrities like Danny Glover, even former President Jimmy Carter.

And they may now prove key to the tense impasse between Havana and Washington over the fate of jailed American contractor Alan Gross, arrested three years ago Monday for distributing sophisticated satellite equipment to Cuba’s tiny Jewish community and later sentenced to 15 years in prison for “acts against the independence and/or territorial integrity of the state.” (Gross says he was only bringing Internet access to Cuba.)

While the U.S. is demanding that Cuba release Gross, who visitors say is angry and frail, having lost 110 pounds in prison, Cuban officials say they are willing to do so only if President Barack Obama will  release the Cuban agents.

“I understand what Mr. Gross is going through,” Gerardo Hernandez, 47, the Cuban Five ringleader, said in an exclusive interview with NBC News in October at his current home –a federal prison outside Victorville, Calif. “I understand his sufferings and that of his family. … If an agreement can be reached, to stop the sufferings of six families, then I welcome it.”

The idea of a swap — the release of Gross for Hernandez and his confederates among the Cuban Five — faces legal and political hurdles.

An Obama administration official told NBC News that the “imprisonment of Alan Gross, an international development worker, is not comparable in any way to that of the five Cuban agents,” noting that the Cubans were afforded their “due process rights” and convicted of serious crimes.

Cuban Five ringleader Gerardo Hernandez

Members of Congress have denounced Cuba for holding Gross “hostage” to the release of the Cuban Five. “The Castro regime has no regard for human rights or international law,” said Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and frequent critic of the Castro regime. “The Cuba Five should serve their sentences for spying.”

And Hernandez, who sports a trim goatee and displays a hearty laugh despite 14 years in prison,  might not make the ideal candidate for a pardon or commutation from Obama — a precondition for a swap to take place. Asked if he regretted any of his actions, he smiled and said,  “I regret that I got caught.” In a follow up phone interview, Hernandez readily acknowledged that “we violated some U.S. laws” — mainly failing to register as foreign agents with the U.S. Justice Department. “We came here with fake passports. Fake identities.”  But, he added, “We act out of necessity.”

As Hernandez and Cuban officials tell it, the Cuban Five was not sent to spy on the U.S. government. In fact, the members weren’t accused of stealing any U.S. secrets (although they were convicted of conducting surveillance of U.S. military bases.) Instead, the mission of the Wasp Network, they say, was to infiltrate  anti-Castro exile groups in South Florida who Havana suspected of plotting terrorist attacks inside Cuba. Among those attacks: the notorious bombing of Cubana Flight 455 over the Caribbean in 1976, killing 73 passengers (including teenage members of a Cuban  national fencing team)  as  well as a string of hotel bombings in Havana in  1997 that killed an Italian businessman and were believed to have been aimed at disrupting Cuba’s nascent tourist industry.

“Cuba doesn’t have drones to neutralize the terrorists abroad,” said Hernandez. “They need to send people to gather information and protect the Cuban people from these terrorist actions. … I think it’s the same feeling that Americans have that defend their country and love their country when they go to infiltrate al-Qaida and send information here to avoid the terrorist acts. And the U.S. has to understand that Cuba has been involved in the war against terrorism for 50 years.”

Alan Gross in an undated family photo, left, and in 2012, after losing 110 pounds while imprisoned in Cuba.

While admitting his role in spying on anti-Castro exiles — “I would do it again,” he said — Hernandez adamantly denies the most serious charge against him: conspiracy to commit murder. His conviction on that count, which has earned him a life sentence, was based on his alleged complicity in the February 1996 shoot-down by a Cuban fighter jet of two Cessna planes flown by members of the Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue, killing four men.

The anti-Castro group had provoked Cuba by dropping anti-government leaflets over Havana. At the trial of the Cuban Five, prosecutors introduced messages between Hernandez and his controllers in Havana suggesting he had prior knowledge of the shoot-down. But Hernandez insists that prosecutors misinterpreted the messages and he knew nothing that wasn’t already public.

“No, sir, absolutely not,” Hernandez replied when asked if he knew in advance about the incident. “All I knew was what everybody knew: that Brothers to the Rescue through the years has violated many times Cuban air space, that there have been 16 diplomatic notes from Cuba complaining over that situation.”


/Photo Credit: Roberto León, NBC News

Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly

Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba’s National Assembly (the Parliament) and a longtime Castro confidante, said this week in Havana that “the Cuban government publicly, front page in our papers, months before that incident had warned that we are not going to allow any more intrusions into our air space. … The order, the decision (to shoot down the planes) came from the highest level. Fidel Castro himself had said that publicly, that he was responsible for that decision.”

U.S. Appeals Court Judge Phyllis Kravitch of Atlanta concluded in 2008 that prosecutors never proved their case tying Hernandez to a plot to shoot down the planes, but she was outvoted two to one and his conviction on the murder conspiracy charge was upheld. Now Hernandez and his lawyers are appealing on another ground: that hundreds of thousands of dollars in secret  U.S. government payments to anti-Castro journalists in Miami — newly discovered through Freedom of Information Act requests — inflamed the Miami community against the Cuban Five and made it impossible for them for them to get a fair trial. The payments were mostly made for appearances on Radio Marti, a TV and radio operation funded by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent agency that oversees international broadcasting sponsored by the U.S. government.

In court papers, lawyers for the Cuban Five have cited articles by some of the journalists, including one that denounced the “genocidal character” of Castro’s regime and another that speculated that the real purpose of the Wasp Network was to introduce “chemical or bacteriological weapons” into south Florida. “”his information was spread throughout the Miami area and helped inflame the community against these guys,” said Martin Garbus, Hernandez’ lawyer. “It was total madness. … When the case was brought, the anti-Castro feeling in the Miami area was at a fevered pitch.”

Keystone / Getty Images

Ever since U.S.-backed Cuban President Fulgencio Batista was forced from power by rebels led by Fidel Castro in 1958, the relationship between the two nations has been fraught with difficulties.

U.S. prosecutors dismiss as “implausible” and “unfounded” the idea that the Radio Marti payments were part of a U.S. government effort to influence the jury in the Cuban Five case.

“The jury (in the case) was carefully selected, following a searching voir dire (jury selection process) that the appellate court deemed a high model for a high-profile case, and that the trial comported with the highest standards for fairness and professionalism,” wrote Caroline Heck Miller, an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami, in a court filing in July asking a judge to reject Hernandez’ motion for a hearing into the payments to the journalists. She also noted, as federal prosecutors have repeatedly done when the issue has come up, that “no Cuban-Americans – the audience (Hernandez) hypothesizes as the target of the government campaign he imagines — served on the jury.”

Unless Hernandez can somehow persuade a court to reopen his case  – or barring a prisoner swap with Gross — he would seem to have few options.

Rene Gonzalez, another member of the Cuban Five who was not convicted of the conspiracy-to-commit-murder charge, was released from federal prison on probation late last year, but has not yet been allowed to return home to Cuba to live.


/Photo Credit: Roberto León,  NBC News

Adriana Perez, wife of imprisoned Cuban agent, Gerardo Hernandez

The Cubans are doing their best to ratchet up the pressure. Just as Judy Gross has launched a public relations campaign in the United States to free her husband, appearing at a National Press Club press conference on Friday, this week the Cubans made Hernandez wife, Adriana, available for an interview with NBC News. A chemist in the food industry in Havana, she wept as she described the pain of separation from her husband — and how it has left her unable to bear children. “Every detail, every single moment reminds me of him,” she said. “I believe there are many people in the U.S. and the American people as a whole, who could convey to President Obama that there is a woman here suffering.”

Hernandez, too, says missing his wife is the hardest part of his life in prison. And he has few illusions about his prospects of being freed. “The only thing I know for sure with me is that I have two life sentences and live with that every day,” he said. “And to keep your sanity and your mind, you have to be realistic. But I would be dishonest to say that I don’t have hope.”

Michael Isikoff is NBC News’ national investigative correspondent; NBC News Producer Mary Murray also contributed to this report.


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