Obama Could Lift Sanctions Against Cuba After Next Week’s Election, Says Congressman 8

By Michael E. Miller, Miami New Times

President Obama and Raul Castro

President Obama and Raul Castro

The Cuban expression “mañana, mañana.” is often interpreted by Anglos as an excuse for laziness. In fact, the saying speaks volumes about its island of origin. In a country that has been led by one Castro or another for more than half a century, what hope can there be that tomorrow will be any different from today?

Earlier this month, that question brought several dozen experts, academics, and journalists to Columbia Journalism School in Manhattan. Optimism was evident in the conference’s title — Covering Cuba in an Era of Change — as well as in the presentations, which included strong hints that the embargo’s days are numbered.

Gregory Craig, former White House counsel under Barack Obama, said the president already has the legal power to lift most of the sanctions that have crippled Cuba since the fall of the Soviet Union. Although Congress probably would refuse to officially overturn the embargo, Obama could — and should — instantly normalize diplomatic relations and allow Americans to travel to the island, Craig said.

Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern outlined a six-month window in which Obama is most likely to make a move, beginning after next week’s midterm elections and concluding with the Summit of the Americas in late April.

If Obama and Raúl Castro both attend as predicted, it will be the first official meeting between two countries’ leaders since Raúl and Fidel swept down from the Sierra Maestra.

“We are reassured [by the White House] that people are working on it,” McGovern said of a U.S.-Cuba policy change. “The stars seem to be aligned.”

Many roadblocks remain, however. McGovern warned that any rapprochement would require dealing with both Alan Gross — the USAID contractor imprisoned in Cuba since 2011 for distributing satellite phones without a permit — and the three surviving members of the “Cuban Five,” the Castro agents who spied on Miami’s exile community.

Easing the embargo would also cost Obama politically. “I think part of the reluctance is that [the administration] will get some pushback from people who are in pretty serious positions,” McGovern said, including Miami’s hard-line Cubans.

Perhaps the most concrete evidence that things are already changing on the island was the presence of three Cuban journalists at the conference. Miriam Celaya, Elaine Díaz, and Orlando Luís Pardo Lazo have all been allowed to leave under recently relaxed travel restrictions. Celaya is scheduled to return to Havana this week, while Díaz and Pardo are on yearlong academic fellowships.

But Celaya and Pardo hardly painted a promising picture of their homeland. Celaya said she had been blocked from entering the library because of her journalism. Other reporters had been beaten and imprisoned, Pardo said. Both described having to share articles via paquetes, or troves of documents on flash drives. And Pardo said Cuba’s infamous state security apparatus remained intact despite the growth of internet on the island.

“Our own [Edward] Snowden would not survive, would not escape,” he warned. “Our own Snowden would be shot on the spot.”

Ultimately, despite the talk of Obama ending the embargo and ushering in change in Cuba, Pardo feared that the solution was still, as it has been for 50 years, “biological.”

In other words: when the Castros kick the bucket.

U.S. Congressional Delegation Leaves Cuba Empty-Handed 1

(Reuters) – A U.S. congressional delegation left Cuba on Wednesday after meetings with President Raul Castro and other top officials, but no sign the countries had resolved their latest dispute: the fate of imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross. Delegation members and their staff said they were encouraged by the relaxed tone of their meetings and indications the Cuban side wanted the dialogue to continue.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont canceled a news conference scheduled for Wednesday morning before taking a stroll with his wife in downtown Havana then leaving for Haiti. “We met with President Raul Castro and discussed the continuing obstacles and the need to improve relations between our two countries,” he said in a brief statement. Leahy said upon arrival in Cuba on Monday that he had spoken with President Barack Obama about the trip and would report back to his administration. He said the delegation hoped the imprisoned U.S. contractor would fly home with them, but added it was a long shot. Leahy and U.S. Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat who represents Gross’ district in Maryland, visited the American contractor on Tuesday at a Havana military hospital where he is being held, a U.S. diplomat told Reuters. They had no comment on the visit.

Other members of the delegation included Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democratic Senators Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Democratic Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.
Leahy led a similar delegation to Cuba a year ago.

Gross, 63, was arrested in Havana in December 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for installing Internet networks under a secretive U.S. program the Cuban government considers subversive. The United States insists Gross was merely helping the local population get connected as part of a democracy-building project. The case halted a brief detente in long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations that marked the first months of Obama’s presidency.

Cuba has linked Gross’ fate to that of five Cuban agents imprisoned in the late 1990s for infiltrating Miami exile organizations and U.S. military bases. The agents, known as the Cuban Five, were sentenced to long terms, ranging from 15 years to life. They are considered heroes in Cuba, where more than a dozen exile-orchestrated attacks on international tourism facilities occurred in the 1990s.

The U.S. delegation was the first since Obama was re-elected and came just days before Castro was expected to be named for a second term on Sunday. Castro replaced his ailing brother, Fidel, as president in 2008. Despite political tensions that have led to the suspension of immigration and other talks, the two leaders have presided over an improvement in people-to-people contact, increased flows of cash remittances from Cuban Americans and continued U.S. food sales for cash.

Between 450,000 and 500,000 Cuban Americans and Americans visited Cuba last year, according to tourism industry sources, and food sales increased by $100 million to $457 million, making the United States one of Cuba’s top 10 trading partners and its second-largest provider of tourists after Canada.

This week’s visit by the U.S. lawmakers represented the latest failed effort to obtain Gross’ release. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, when he was a senator from Massachusetts, met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez in New York in 2010 to discuss the Gross case, according to Foreign Affairs magazine. Former President Jimmy Carter also met with Raul Castro on the matter during a visit to Havana in 2011. The Obama administration has said relations will not improve while Gross remains in custody. Under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, U.S. sanctions cannot be lifted until Cuba’s one-party Communist political system is changed, a demand rejected by the Cuban government.

(Reporting By Marc Frank; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

Havana Continues Pressing For Swap: One Hostage For 5 Spies Reply

Cuba’s Raul Castro Meets with U.S. Congressional Delegation

By Marc Frank | Reuters

HAVANA (Reuters) – A seven-member U.S. congressional delegation met on Tuesday with Cuban President Raul Castro, official media reported, to improve relations that have been strained since U.S. government contractor Alan Gross was imprisoned there in 2009. Members of the group, which arrived on Monday, also met with Gross, said a delegation member who asked not to be identified.

A statement issued by the Cuban government on Tuesday said Castro and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez met first with Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont to discuss “issues of interest for both countries,” then held talks with other lawmakers. Leahy met with Castro, Rodriguez and Gross last year. The senator, who spoke with reporters on Monday, said Gross’s fate and reforms under way in Cuba would top the group’s agenda.

The Cuban statement, released Tuesday with video of the meeting, said the U.S. delegation also held meetings with parliament president Ricardo Alarcon and Rodriguez. Leahy was expected to issue a statement on Wednesday. Other members of the delegation included Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democratic Senators Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Democratic Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat who represents Gross’ district in Maryland.

Gross, 63, was arrested in Havana in December 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for installing Internet networks under a secretive U.S. program the Cuban government considers subversive. The case halted a brief detente in long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations. Cuba has linked Gross’ fate to that of five agents imprisoned in the late 1990s for infiltrating Miami exile organizations and U.S. military bases. The agents, known as the Cuban Five, were sentenced to long terms, ranging from 15 years to life, and are considered heroes in Cuba.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, when he was a senator from Massachusetts, met with Rodriguez in New York in 2010 to discuss the Gross case, according to Foreign Affairs magazine. Former President Jimmy Carter also met with Raul Castro in Havana in 2011. The Obama administration has said relations will not improve while Gross remains in custody. Under the 1996 ‘Helms-Burton’ law, U.S. sanctions cannot be lifted until Cuba’s one-party Communist political system is changed, a demand rejected by the Cuban government.

(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Stacey Joyce)

Alan Gross, Jailed Jewish Contractor, Gets New Hope as Lawmakers Arrive in Cuba 1

7 Members of Congress Land in Havana for Talks With Castro

(Reuters) A seven-member delegation of U.S. lawmakers arrived in Cuba on Monday in the latest effort to move forward political relations that have been at a standstill since U.S. government contractor Alan Gross was imprisoned there in 2009. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who saw Gross and met with Cuban President Raul Castro and other high-ranking officials a year ago, is leading the group of five senators and two members of the House of Representatives on a three-day visit to communist Cuba.

Despite the stalemate, more people traveled between the two countries in 2012, cash remittances sent to the island also increased, as did food-for-cash sales under a 2000 amendment to the U.S. trade embargo. Between 450,000 and 500,000 Cuban Americans and Americans visited Cuba, according to tourism industry sources, and food sales increased by $100 million to $457 million, making the United States one of Cuba’s top 10 trading partners and second provider of tourists after Canada.

“Every one of us has an interest in Cuba,” Leahy, of Vermont, said upon arrival. “We all want to see relations improve and both sides take steps in that direction,” he said. Leahy said the delegation would like to take Gross with them when it leaves for Haiti on Wednesday, but doubted that was possible. “There are obvious problems between our two countries, but we are not here to negotiate. We are here to listen and then go back home and talk about what we see,” he said.

The lawmakers, all Democrats except for Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, include congressman Chris Van Hollen who represents Gross’s district in Maryland, Senators Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. Members of the group said they planned to meet with Gross, parliament president Ricardo Alarcon, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and perhaps Raul Castro.

They will also visit famed U.S. writer Ernest Hemingway’s estate on the outskirts of Havana and meet with members of the diplomatic corps.

KERRY HAD DISCUSSED GROSS CASE

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, when he was a senator from Massachusetts, reportedly met with Rodriguez, the Cuban foreign minister, in New York in 2010 to discuss the Gross case, according to Foreign Affairs magazine. Former President James Carter also met with Raul Castro in Havana in 2011. Delegation members said they were also interested in reforms in Cuba.
President Castro has lifted most travel restrictions and freed Cubans to buy and sell homes and cars over the past year, even as he accelerates efforts to reform the Soviet-style economy in a more market-friendly direction.

The Obama administration has said relations will not improve while Gross remains in custody. In addition, under the 1996 ‘Helms-Burton’ law, sanctions cannot be lifted until Cuba’s one-party communist political system is changed, a demand rejected by the Cuban government. Gross, 63, was arrested in Havana in December 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for installing Internet networks under a secretive U.S. program the Cuban government considers subversive. The case put the brakes on a brief warming in long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations during the first 11 months of President Barack Obama’s first term in office. Cuba has linked Gross’ fate to that of five agents imprisoned in the late 1990s for infiltrating Miami exile organizations and U.S. military bases. The agents, known as the Cuban Five, were sentenced to long terms ranging from 15 years to life and are considered heroes in Cuba.