American Jailed in Cuba to Get Checkup by U.S. Doctor 2

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN

Havana, Cuba (CNN) — A U.S. State Department contractor jailed in Cuba will be allowed to receive a medical exam from a U.S. doctor, a Cuban government official told CNN Wednesday.

The family of Alan Gross, 64, for months had asked that they be permitted to send a doctor to examine the Maryland native who is serving a 15-year sentence for bringing to Cuba banned communications equipment as part of a U.S. government-funded program to promote democracy on the island.

Gross’ family said that he has lost more than 100 pounds since his incarceration in 2009 and that a mass on his shoulder may be cancerous.

The Cuban government countered that Gross receives medical care from Cuban doctors at the prison hospital where he is being held and that he is in good condition for a man his age.

Jared Gensler, an attorney for Gross, declined to comment on the Cuban government’s allowing Gross to receive a visit from a U.S. physician or when the visit would take place.

The change in course comes as Cuba has intensified its campaign to secure the release of Cuban intelligence agents serving lengthy prison sentences in the United States.

Cuban officials argue that the men infiltrated hardline Cuban-exile groups to prevent terrorist attacks on the island.

But U.S. prosecutors called the men spies, and they were convicted in 2001.

Four of the agents remain in U.S. federal prison. The fifth man, Rene Gonzalez, returned to Cuba last month after serving 14 years in prison and on supervised release.

Gonzalez, who was born in Chicago, renounced his U.S. citizenship last month as part of a deal that allowed him to return to the island and not serve a final year of supervised release in the U.S.

Cuba will continue to push for the four other agents’ release, Gonzalez said in a news conference in Havana Wednesday.

“We have hope that if the American people know about the case, the facts, they will put pressure on the White House for a solution,” Gonzalez said.

Last year, Cuban officials said they wanted to negotiate the jailed agents’ case along with Gross’.

“The ball’s in their court,” said Johana Tablada, subdirector of the department that oversees U.S. affairs at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry. “We are waiting on the U.S. government’s response.”

But U.S. officials have rejected calls for a prisoner swap, instead arguing that Gross did not spy during his visits to Cuba and should be released immediately.

“Hopefully, a solution can be found that is mutually beneficial,” said Kenia Serrano, president of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples, a Cuban organization working to secure the agents’ freedom. “All the families involved have suffered greatly.”

Editor’s Note: Several Cuban spies, including Josefina Vidal Ferreiro and Johana Tablada de la Torre serve in the North America Division in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX). Their assignments, respectively, are Division Director and Division Deputy Director. Both woman have been involved in the handling of Alan Gross since 2009. (See Cuba Confidential post, Banished Spies Led Cuba-US Talks on Alan Gross, May 9, 2012,

Josefina Vidal remains Havana’s lead official regarding U.S.-Cuban relations and is highly visible on this issue. Comparatively little is publicly known about Vidal. In May 2003, the US expelled 14 Cuban diplomats for espionage. Seven diplomats were based at the Cuban Mission to the United Nations and seven at the Interests Section. Among the seven Washington-based spies declared Persona Non Grata was First Secretary Jose Anselmo Lopez Perera. His wife, First Secretary Josefina de la C. Vidal, also known to the US as a Cuban Intelligence Officer, voluntarily accompanied her expelled spouse back to Cuba. Her affiliation among Havana’s five intelligence services remains unclear.

In contrast, reporting on Johanna Tablada is so extensive it is attached here as a separate file: Activities of Cuban Spy Johanna Tablada.

DGI officer Jesus Raul Perez Mendez was director of the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP) before his July 1983 defection. According to the New York Times, ICAP “arranges and supervises visits by Americans to Cuba and maintains contacts with native-born Cubans in other countries.” The Times also cited a State Department spokesman who claimed ICAP was suspected of having an intelligence collection mission in support of the DGI.

The Directorate General of Intelligence (DGI) was the foreign intelligence wing of the Ministry of the Interior. Following a 1989 reorganization, this service became known as the Directorate of Intelligence (DI).

More recently, a former DI officer reportedly that ICAP is not a DI entity per se, but that it was overwhelmingly influenced by the intelligence service. The highly-reliable émigré claimed ICAP was penetrated by a small cadre of bona fide DI officers, aided by a large staff of agents (i.e., collaborators). As a result, roughly 90% of ICAP was thought to be DI-affiliated.


Cuban Dissident Says Security Forces are Studying Vladimir Putin’s Rule 2

By Juan O. Tamayo,

Cuban security officers are studying post-communist changes in Russia — and being nicer to dissidents — in preparation for a possible transition away from the island’s totalitarian system, leading opposition activist Guillermo Fariñas said Tuesday.

Some of the officers fear a sudden collapse of the communist system and “don’t want to suffer the same fate as the followers of (Moamar) Kaddafi” in Libya, Fariñas said during a lengthy visit Tuesday to El Nuevo Herald and The Miami Herald.

They favor a slow transition that would allow them to seize ownership of state enterprises, he added, like the massive grab for public assets that the Sandinistas staged in Nicaragua as they left power in 1990 and became known as the “Piñata.”

Fariñas said he has friendly contacts with a half-dozen lieutenant colonels or colonels because they studied together in military high schools. He also served one year in Angola with a commando unit and spent three years at a military academy in the Soviet Union.

Some of the military officers told him they have been attending weekly lectures on the transitions in Russia and Belarus that they refer to as “Putinismo,” he said, in an apparent reference to Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian yet capitalist rule.

They also told him that some of ruler Raúl Castro’s advisers have suggested that 15 to 25 dissidents should be allowed into the national parliament, Fariñas added. Castro replied that he agreed, but that brother Fidel would never allow it.

Some of the Interior Ministry officers in charge of monitoring and repressing dissidents also are “taking care not to get blood on the hands,” the activist said, to avoid punishments later in case Cuba shifts significantly toward democracy at some point.

State Security officials used to boast in the 1990s that the island’s communist system would never change. But now they tell him that they are only following orders, said Fariñas, who has staged more than 20 hunger strikes during his 21years as a dissident.

One State Security agent now politely asks Fariñas’ mother to put together the dissident’s daily medicines before taking him for questioning from his home in the central city of Santa Clara, the dissident said.

And one of the harshest State Security officers in the city, a 28-year-old who turned out to be the son of a bus driver at Farinas’ military school, now tells the dissident when other government opponents confront him, the activist said.

Fariñas said the officer tells him that he is sometimes forced to get tough when dissidents spit at him, swear at him and his mother or jeer him as “nalgón” – big butt.

Those and other Fariñas comments could not be independently confirmed, but other dissidents in Cuba, including human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, have previously said that he does have access to old friends in the security forces.

Fariñas said that he in fact ran into Miguel Diaz Canel — a fellow Santa Clara native and classmate in the military high school — six weeks before his promotion to First Vice President of the Council of State, No. 2 behind Raúl Castro.

Fariñas said he was walking by the home of Diaz Canel’s parents on Jan. 4 when he spotted the old friend parking his car, one of the Chinese-made Geely vehicles used by high government officials.

Diaz Canel shook his hand warmly and asked about his health as they spoke for about 15 minutes, the dissident said, largely about the 135-day hunger strike in 2010 that put him in the hospital several times.

The vice president noted in the chat that Fariñas refused to speak to several government envoys during the strike, the dissident said, and asked if Farinas would talk to him in case of another hunger strike.

Fariñas said he told Diaz Canel that they could indeed speak, and the government official replied that “he would keep that in mind.” But he added that he would have to report the conversation to his superiors in Havana.

Fariñas also said he would oppose an unconditional lifting of the U.S. embargo and added that while he respects the Catholic Church and its bishops, he has been “disappointed” with Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

If the Cuban government ever agrees to talks with the opposition, he added, Ortega should not be part of the negotiations.

Fariñas said he expects to go to Puerto Rico and later to Belgium, to pick up the $60,000 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Conscience awarded to him by the European Parliament in 2010, before he returns to Havana around mid-July.

Washington Post OPED: Obama Administration Should Urge a Probe of Oswaldo Payá Death 1

NELSON MANDELA was locked up on Robben Island. Andrei Sakharov was exiled to Gorky. Vaclav Havel was thrown into a Prague jail cell. Aung San Suu Kyi was repeatedly placed under house arrest. All of these courageous, dissident voices were muffled at some time by authoritarian regimes, but in the end, they found their way back to freedom. Oswaldo Payá of Cuba never got that chance.

Mr. Payá, who pioneered the Varela Project, a petition drive in 2002 seeking the guarantee of political freedom in Cuba, was killed in a car wreck July 22, along with a youth activist, Harold Cepero. The driver of the vehicle, Ángel Carromero, a Spaniard, was convicted and imprisoned on charges of vehicular homicide; in December, he was released to Spain. He told us in an interview published on the opposite page last week that the car carrying Mr. Payá was rammed from behind by a vehicle with government license plates. His recollections suggest that Mr. Payá died not from reckless driving but from a purposeful attempt to silence him — forever.

On Wednesday, his daughter, Rosa Maria Payá, appeared before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. Speaking for the group U. N. Watch, Ms. Payá presented an appeal signed by 46 activists and political leaders from around the world, urging the United Nations to launch an international and independent investigation into Mr. Payá’s death. The signatories declared, “Mounting and credible allegations that the Cuban government may have been complicit in the murder of its most prominent critic, a leading figure in the human rights world, cannot go ignored by the international community.”

The Varela Project was summarily and arbitrarily crushed by Fidel Castro. Ms. Payá told the council that Cuban authorities imprisoned the majority of its leaders. She said that Yosvani Melcho Rodriguez, 30, has spent three years in prison as punishment for his mother being a member of the movement with Mr. Payá.

Ms. Payá was interrupted in Geneva by the Cuban representative, who accused her of being a “mercenary who has dared to come to this room.” His attempt to silence her drew support from China, Russia, Pakistan, Nicaragua and Belarus. The U.S. representative spoke up for her right to address the group. She was then allowed to finish.

After Mr. Payá’s death, the White House paid tribute to him, saying, “We continue to be inspired by Payá’s vision and dedication to a better future for Cuba, and believe that his example and moral leadership will endure.” When pro-democracy activists were arrested and beaten at his funeral, the White House again spoke up. But in the past week, since Mr. Carromero’s interview was published, the administration has not uttered a word. What if it had been Sakharov, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mandela or Havel who was run off the road? Would it have said nothing? At this critical juncture, with new information at hand, the United States ought not to be complicit in silence about who killed Oswaldo Payá.

Today in History: Spy Detained in Little Havana 1

March 13, 2003: “Former” Cuban Intelligence Officer Lazaro Amaya La Puente was detained on immigration-related charges while working in Little Havana. The courts subsequently ruled that Amaya had overstayed his visa, failed to register as a representative of a foreign nation, and provided misleading testimony. He had originally arrived in the US in 2000. Prior to leaving Cuba, Amaya was a guard at the US Interests Section where he gathered intelligence on US personnel and the activities of Cuban dissidents and other government opponents. In December 2005, the US Court of Appeals ordered his deportation.

Editor’s Note: “Failure to register as a representative of a foreign nation” has become an espionage-associated charge experiencing widespread use since the 1990s. Originally created to list foreign lobbyists, it is punishable by 10 years in jail and a $10,000 fine. The charge requires only that the government prove the individual works under the direction of a foreign nation without Washington’s permission.

Today in History: The Death of a Cuban Intelligence Legend 2

March 11, 1998: Manuel Pineiro Losada died in a car accident. An early member of Cuban Intelligence and long-time chief of the America Department (DA), he resigned as DA head in February 1992. He was replaced by Jose Antonio Arbesu Fraga, one of the DA’s Vice Directors.

Pineiro remains the personification of Cuban intelligence. No other individual had such a defining role in defining, organizing, and providing strategic vision to Castro’s espionage institutions. Born in 1933 to an influential and affluent family, Pineiro the youngest of the siblings. Of average build, he stood 5’ 8’’ and weighed 190 pounds. Brown-eyed and sporting red hair, thick red eyebrows, freckles and a red beard, he received the nickname “Barbaroja” (Redbeard).

In Havana, Pineiro attended the Hermanos Maristas Elementary School and then the Matanzas Institute. He attended college in the United States, enrolling in Columbia University in 1953. There he studied Business Administration. In New York, he met a doctor’s daughter named Lorna Nell Burdsall. She was a professional ballerina and member of the Communist Party. The two fell in love and married on June 10, 1955. Pineiro and his wife left the US and settled in Cuba.

Pineiro joined the July 26 Movement at the end of 1956. He initially served in the underground, supporting efforts in Matanzas and then Havana. In July 1957, he was transferred to the Oriente and served under Efigenio Amejeiras. He subsequently served in the “Frank Pais” column of Raul Castro’s Second Eastern Front beginning in March 1958. There, in the Sierra Cristal, Raul Castro promoted him to Captain and made him chief of the Territorial Personnel and Inspection Directorate, the Intelligence Service, and the Rebel Police for the Second Front. In January 1959, Pineiro was promoted to Commander (Major equivalent) and assigned as Chief of the First Military District (Oriente Province). By the year’s end, he was Raul Castro’s representative to the headquarters of Rebel Army Intelligence.

Fidel Castro allegedly selected Pineiro to serve on the Revolutionary Tribunals, formed to try 43 Batista’s pilots and airmen with genocide. Over the years, he developed a reputation as being fiercely loyal to Fidel Castro. A close advisor and confidant of Castro, Pineiro was respected as audacious and intelligent. He attended formal intelligence training in the Soviet Union and served as a member of Havana’s Exterior Relations Commission.

In 1961, he helped found the Ministry of the Interior (MININT), which he served with until 1975. For almost ten years, he led the MININT’s Technical Vice Ministry as Director of the DGI before subsequently heading the National Liberation Directorate (DLN). A 400-man element, previously assigned to the DGI, this entity oversaw support to foreign revolutionary movements. Over time, the DLN evolved into the Cuban Communist Party’s America Department, which Pineiro led for over 15 years.

In addition to his intelligence duties, Pineiro was a member of the 148-member Central Committee of Cuba’s Communist Party since its establishment on October 3, 1965.

Washington Post Opinions: Ángel Carromero on the Crash That Killed Cuba’s Oswaldo Payá 2

Ángel Carromero, a leader of Spain’s ruling party, was visiting Cuba last July when a car he was driving crashed, killing Cuban dissidents Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero. Mr. Carromero was convicted of vehicular homicide; in December, he was released to Spain to serve out his term. This week he agreed to be interviewed by The Washington Post about the crash. Mr. Carromero, 27, holds a law degree and has taken a business course at Fordham University in New York.

What happened that day?

Oswaldo Payá asked me to take him to visit some friends, since he didn’t have the means to travel around the island. There were four of us in the car: Oswaldo and Harold Cepero in the back, [Jens] Aron Modig [of Sweden] in front, and me driving. They were following us from the beginning. In fact, as we left Havana, a tweet from someone close to the Cuban government announced our departure: “Payá is on the road to Varadero.” Oswaldo told me that, unfortunately, this was normal.

But I really became uneasy when we stopped to get gas, because the car following us stopped, waited in full view until we were finished and then continued following. When we passed provincial borders, the shadowing vehicle would change. Eventually it was an old, red Lada. And then another, newer car appeared and began to harass us, getting very close. Oswaldo and Harold told me it must be from “la Comunista” because it had a blue license plate, which they said is what the government uses. Every so often I looked at it through the rearview mirror and could see both occupants of the car staring at us aggressively. I was afraid, but Oswaldo told me not to stop if they did not signal or force us to do so. I drove carefully, giving them no reason to stop us. The last time I looked in the mirror, I realized that the car had gotten too close — and suddenly I felt a thunderous impact from behind.

I lost control of the car, and also consciousness — or that is what I believe, because from that point my memories are unclear, perhaps from the medications they gave me. When I recovered consciousness, I was being put into a modern van. I don’t know how it had gotten there, but neither Oswaldo nor Harold nor Aron was inside. I thought it was strange that it was only me, and I figured that the rest of them didn’t need to go to the hospital. I began to yell at the people driving the van. Who were they? Where were they taking me? What were they doing with us? Then, woozy, I again lost consciousness.

What happened after that?

The next time I awakened, I was on a stretcher, being carried into a hospital room. The first person who talked to me was a uniformed officer of the Ministry of the Interior. I told her a car had hit our vehicle from behind, causing me to lose control.

She took notes and, at the end, gave me my statement to sign. The hospital, which was civilian, had suddenly been militarized. I was surrounded by uniformed soldiers. A nurse told me they would put in an IV line to take blood and sedate me. I remember that they kept taking blood from me and changing the line all the time, which really worried me. I still have the marks from this. I passed the next few weeks half-sedated and without knowing exactly what they were putting in me.

Story continues:

Blogger Yoani Sánchez Says Comment on ‘Cuban Five’ Was Ironic, Misunderstood Reply

By Juan Carlos Chávez,

Opposition blogger Yoani Sánchez stirred controversy in Brazil on Wednesday when she made a ironic comment about the Cuban government’s misuses of money, time and resources in an international campaign for the release of five Cuban spies. She had said that if that they were freed, the Cuban government would save millions of dollars. Hours later, Sánchez clarified her position through several messages sent through social media.

The five men were convicted in 2000 of spying on anti-Castro groups in Miami. As part of a spy ring called the Wasp Network, they were linked to the Cuban government’s 1996 shoot-down over the Florida Straits of two planes carrying members of the exile group Brothers to the Rescue. Four South Florida men were killed. Cuba has waged a relentless campaign for the release of the men known as the “Cuban Five.’’ “The amount of money that my country’s government is spending on this worldwide campaign, on [ad] space of international media by the Interior Ministry, the number of hours spent in schools talking about those five people, in order to bring that campaign to an end, they should free them,’’ said Sánchez, 37. “I’m worried about my country’s coffers and would prefer their release to see if they save more [money] because there are more issues on the table.”

Hours after the story was published in El Nuevo Herald, she sent posted this comment on the paper’s home page: “At no moment in Brazil did I ask for the five members of the Cuban Interior Ministry to be free. I was using irony to express my views that if they’re free right now, the government would save millions of dollars that it is now paying in this campaign that has lasted for 15 years. “If the irony didn’t work, if the words that I used weren’t the right ones, I apologize. My position is the same: They’re not innocent.” Sanchez also Tweeted several messages that underscored this view.

Sánchez is the creator of the blog Generación Y, a columnist for foreign newspapers, and a prolific user of social media to shed light on life in Cuba. She made her remarks Wednesday during a visit to the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies in Brasilia. Her initial comments spread quickly on the Internet and in South Florida after they appeared on the Viewpoint blog of journalist Joan Antonio Guerrero Vall, a collaborator of Martí Noticias. In her meeting with Brazilian lawmakers, Sánchez also had criticized the U.S. trade embargo, saying it was “interventionist” and has not worked. “As a pressure method, it is a failure. The third reason, and not in order of importance, it should end as soon as possible is that it is used by the Cuban government as the fundamental reason to explain its economic failure and political and social repression,” she said.

Sánchez had been denied permission to travel abroad for a decade by the Cuban government, but under a new travel and migration policy Cuba enacted last month, Cubans no longer need an exit visit to leave the island. The blogger quickly took advantage of the new policy and accepted invitations to speak in Latin America, Europe, and the U.S.

She is scheduled to speak at Miami’s Freedom Tower, a former processing center for Cuba refugees, on April 1 and receive the Miami Dade College Presidential Medal for championing human rights. Asked if the college had a response to the future honoree’s remarks in Brazil, Juan Mendieta, MDC’s director of communications, said, “We’re focused on our event. We’re not going to get into this debate.’’

Miami Herald reporters Mimi Whitefield and Luisa Yanez contributed to this report.

Yoani Sánchez Calls for the Release of 5 Cuban Spies and End to Embargo 1

By Juan Carlos Chavez,

Arguing that Cuba’s government wastes money, time and resources in an international campaign for the release of five Cuban spies, opposition blogger Yoani Sánchez said Wednesday in Brazil that she would support their release. The five men were convicted in a highly-publicized trial in Miami in 2000 for being part of the Wasp Network, the largest the biggest Cuban spy ring known to have been dismantled in the U.S.

“The amount of money that my country’s government is spending on this worldwide campaign, on [ad] space of international media by the Interior Ministry, the number of hours spent in schools talking about those five people, in order to bring that campaign to an end, they should free them,’’ said Sánchez, 37. “I’m worried about my country’s coffers and would prefer their release to see if they save more [money] because there are more issues on the table.”

Sánchez is the creator of the blog Generación Y, an award-winning journalism and human rights blog published in various countries. She is in Brazil as part of an 80-day trip outside of the island and was received on Wednesday at the Chamber of Deputies in Brasilia where a documentary titled, Cuba-Honduras Connection was screened. The film was supposed to be shown on Monday in the northeastern city of Feira de Santana but was canceled due to violent demonstrations and protests by Cuba government supporters.

In his meeting with Brazilian lawmakers, Sánchez also criticized the U.S. trade embargo. She referred to it as “interventionist” and said that it has not worked. “As a pressure method, it is a failure. The third reason, and not in order of importance, it should end as soon as possible is that it is used by the Cuban government as the fundamental reason to explain its economic failure and political and social repression,” Sánchez said. Sánchez’s remarks began to spread quickly on the Internet. The remarks were first reported in the Viewpoint blog of journalist Joan Antonio Guerrero Vall, a collaborator Martí Noticias.

One of the five spies is serving two life sentences on charges of conspiracy to murder and help Cuban warplanes shoot down two civilian planes in 1996, killing the four crew members from Miami who were aboard. Three others are still in prison and the fifth finished his 13-year prison sentence last year and is now completing three years of probation. Trial evidence showed that ring members, some using fake identities, tried to infiltrate U.S. military installations and Cuban exile groups in an effort to feed military and political information back to Havana.

Sánchez arrived Monday in Brazil and was met with protests by supporters of the Cuban regime at airports in Recife and Salvador, but the most serious incident occurred in Feira de Santana, where a larger group interrupted the scheduled Monday night documentary with shouts of “Long live the revolution” and “Cuba yes, Yankees no.” Brazilian Senator Eduardo Suplicy, the ruling Workers Party (PT), who participated in the act, tried in vain to mediate between the protesters and the blogger, who could only speak a few minutes in an impromptu debate. Deputy Mendonça Filho, of the Democrats opposition party, also asked the Federal Police to take charge of Sánchez’s safety while in Brazil, the first stop in the blogger’s visit to a dozen countries.

Sánchez, who is scheduled to visit Miami on April 1, had been denied permission to leave Cuba 20 times in six years. Her trip was approved by Cuban authorities under new immigration reforms that took effect in January.

Cuban Comrade Now a House-Flipping Capitalist Savant 1

High-level defector Pedro Alvarez Borrego has become a house flipper extraordinaire. Some question the source of his stake money.

By Juan O. Tamayo,

TAMPA — Pedro Alvarez Borrego, a top Cuban government official who oversaw the nation’s $1.5 billion-a-year food-importing enterprise, is living the American Dream in Tampa a mere two years after he defected. Alvarez has bought and sold at least eight homes worth a total value of nearly $600,000 and opened a management company, official records show. He has also reportedly become a consultant on how U.S. businesses can enter the Cuba markets. Yet mystery lingers over exactly how the 70-year-old could buy so much real estate so soon after his arrival from Cuba, where he was under criminal investigation in a kickback-for-imports scandal at Alimport, the state monopoly for food imports.

Before his hasty defection, his job at Alimport made him the powerful main negotiator of contracts with chomping-at-the-bit U.S. exporters that hit a record of $711 million in 2008 and turned the United States into Cuba’s fifth-largest trade partner. Today, Alvarez, one of the top Cuban defectors in recent memory, is trying to keep out of the public eye and enjoy the good life — a neighbor said he drives a red H3 Humvee — even as some anti-Castro activists in Tampa complain that he may be living off corrupt money. The man who answered an El Nuevo Herald call to the telephone number Alvarez has given in official U.S. documents said he was a different Pedro Alvarez. “I am just a simple carpenter. Do you have any jobs for me?” he said before he laughed and hung up.

An economist, Alvarez was named to head Alimport in 1998 and was perfectly positioned in 2000 when the U.S. Congress authorized the cash-only sale of agricultural products to Cuba under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act. Cuba was suddenly awash in U.S. visitors looking for sales contracts — including several dozen Congress members, six governors and a who’s who of the leading agriculture companies known as Big Ag. “He single-handedly said yes and no to billions in sales,” said John Park Wright IV, a Naples, Fla., businessman who signed several cattle deals with Alimport. Cuba’s global food imports hit $1.6 billion in 2011, according to official Havana figures. And in 2003, Alvarez masterminded the controversial scheme under which Alimport pressured U.S. politicians and exporters to sign written pledges that they would lobby the Congress to ease economic sanctions on the island. The pledge might have technically made them agents of the Cuban government, though no one was prosecuted.

Read more here:

CFR’s Julia Sweig, Admitted Friend to 6 Cuban Spies, Highlights Cuba’s “Reforms” 3

Talking to Cuba

Interviewee: Julia E. Sweig, Director for Latin American Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Editor,

The Cuban government’s easing of travel restrictions this month marks another sign of its commitment to reforms and changing sentiments in Havana, says Julia Sweig, CFR’s director for Latin American Studies. Washington should seize on such moves, she says, to initiate a new dialogue and begin solving the many problems impeding normalization of ties between the countries–such as the case of detained U.S. citizen Alan Gross–and U.S. influence in the region. “There are geostrategic reasons within the region, leaving apart the bilateral relationship, why it makes a great deal of sense for a strategy of rapprochement with Cuba,” Sweig says.

Cuban authorities this month eased a fifty-year-old travel restriction by allowing Cubans to travel with just a passport, and permitting lengthy stays away. How significant is this?

This is a major step for Cuba domestically, for the Cuban economy, for Cuba in the world, and for Cubans living on and off the island. On the domestic front, this has been one of the most significant sources of unhappiness for the Cuban public, to not be able to travel freely. And what the Cuban government did when it announced this was explain that this is an attempt to bring Cuba in line with other countries. Cubans now need a visa still from the countries they want to visit, and they have to buy their plane tickets, but unlike the previous era, they won’t risk losing their property or their residence status. They can travel abroad as economic migrants, come and go, live for a while abroad in the United States, presumably, go back and invest in their businesses, have two residences–really a huge potential economic boon for the country.

In an interview with a year ago, you said the United States now had a willing partner for normalization of ties with Havana but was failing to read the signals. Is this step one of those signals?

This step is largely a domestic, reality-based policy decision. But there are knock-on effects that Washington could conclude suggest that Havana is taking another step in building a more open society and boosting the human rights of its population. If Washington chose to take this as a sign of greater freedom granted by the government to its citizens, it could surely be digested in that way. But I don’t think pleasing Washington is the prime motivation.

How should we read Cuba’s parliamentary elections scheduled for February 3?

As another big demographic and political development: some 67 percent of the candidates for 612 spots are completely new picks, and of these, more than 70 percent were born after 1959. Women comprise 49 percent of the candidates, and Afro descendents 37 percent. Cubans will be asked to check yea or nay from this new list–so it’s not a direct competition between candidates. But if you want to understand where the successors to Fidel and Raul may come from, I’d look closely at the new group that comes in next month.

These elections also tell us something about decentralization: the municipal and provincial deputies are going to have a lot more power to tax and spend than ever before–on everything but health, education, and the military, as I understand it–while the new National Assembly may well start passing a lot more laws than before, to implement a slew of economic, legal, and governance reforms that are under way or coming down the pike. Finally, Ricardo Alarcon, who served as National Assembly president for the last nineteen years, before that as UN ambassador, and who for decades has taken the lead on U.S.-Cuban relations, will not appear on the electoral slate.

Washington continues to point to what it says is the biggest impediment, which is the case of Alan Gross, the U.S. citizen who U.S. officials said was in Cuba to help with Internet access; Cubans say he was subverting the state. He continues to languish in Cuba. How to resolve this issue?

Well, like governments resolve issues, they get in the room and they talk. And they put the issues on the table that are connected indirectly and intrinsically to that particular issue. By the way, the DAI (Developments Alternative International), which was Alan Gross’s employer, just released the contracts (PDF) between DAI and Alan Gross, and there is a lot of information in there about the equipment that Gross brought down there and reasons why he was bringing that equipment. And that will just, unfortunately, reinforce the sense that this wasn’t just benign development or benign Internet assistance.

This was part of a program funded by the U.S. government intended to destabilize the Cuban government, and the documentation really clearly shows that. And the lawsuit, now that the Gross family has filed against the State Department, also says that USAID should have trained Gross in counterintelligence. So, the way to stop this Alan Gross issue from becoming a political Frankenstein is to get in the room and settle a number of issues, including the Gross issue, including the Cuban 5 issue [five Cuban intelligence agents arrested by federal authorities in Miami in 1998 on charges of espionage], including other bilateral issues.

Some see the case of Alan Gross as playing into a narrative that the Cubans are using this case for leverage and are not genuinely interested in justice or in properly handling this case. How do you respond to that perspective?

Well, they are interested in using the case as leverage. President Obama, at the first Summit of the Americas he attended, pledged to open a new chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations and acknowledged that the embargo and U.S. policy had failed. Then he left in place the very policies he had inherited from George W. Bush. Some call them democracy promotions; some call them regime change–explicitly designed to destabilize Cuba. Which is very, very consistent with the bipartisan approach to Cuba over the last fifty years.

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Editor’s Note: For an excellent summary of the role of Cuban Intelligence Officers in forming Julia Sweig’s opinion, see Humberto Fontova’s September 2010 article, Latin-America “Expert”– or Castro Agent?