Cuban Twitter — The Untold Story 2

Twitter-censor-350x350By Humberto Fontova, FrontPage magazine

It’s not often that a U.S. government agency gets caught red-handed abiding by its charter and performing its publicly-avowed and legislatively-approved duties. But last week the AP “broke” a long and breathless story from Havana that nailed the USAID (United States Agency for International Development) for just that.

In their own words, “a secret plan aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government,” was courageously exposed by the AP’s intrepid Havana bureau.

Such is the magnitude of the scandal that a red-faced and snarling Senator Patrick Leahy is now chairing hearings on Capitol Hill where he grills USAID director Rajiv Shah on his agency’s “cockamamie!” plan.

The diabolical cloak and dagger scheme hatched in 2008 during George Bush’s term (which may account for Democratic Senator Leahy’s dudgeon) amounted to setting up a “Cuban Twitter” named ZunZuneo (Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet) in order for Cuban youths to text each other without snooping by Castro’s KGB-mentored secret police.

Caught your breath back? Yes, amazingly such a scheme somehow escaped the imaginations of Ian Fleming, John Le Carré and Tom Clancy.

In sum, a brief effort was made (lasting from 2008-12 and involving 68,000 of Castro’s hapless subjects) to allow Cubans (who pre-Castro enjoyed more phones and TVs per-capita than most Europeans) to communicate with each other in the same manner as do teenagers today in such places as Sudan, Papua New Guinea and Laos.

Understandably this scheme to facilitate a tiny window of freedom for a tiny fraction of their subjects greatly alarmed Cuba’s Stalinist rulers. After all, it wasn’t easy converting a free and prosperous nation with a higher per-capita income than half of Europe, a flood of immigrants from same and the first Mercedes dealership in the Americas into a totalitarian pesthole that repels Haitians and features a glorious rebirth of communications by bongo-drum and transport by oxcart.

Well, the news was barely broken by Castro’s U.S. media allies when, as mentioned, Castro’s U.S. legislative allies picked up the signal from Havana and erupted in outrage—not against the KGB-mentored censorship by a terror-sponsor mind you. But against the U.S. attempt to foil it.  No. This is not your father’s cold war.

Senator Patrick Leahy, true to his historic role as U.S. legislative messenger for Castro’s every whim and wish, promptly denounced the program as “dumb, dumb, dumb.” “What in heaven’s name are you thinking?”‘ Leahy complained to Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC about the USAID scheme. “This makes no sense at all.”

What really “makes no sense at all” is Senator Leahy’s hypocritical carping  during the hearings and to Andrea  Mitchell–who, by the way– is famous for gushing that  “Fidel Castro is old-fashioned, courtly—even paternal, a thoroughly fascinating figure!”

Feature continues here: Cuban Twitter

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Kerry: U.S. Working to Free Alan Gross 1

Washington is seeking to free two U.S. citizens held in Cuba and Iran, but has rejected a swap deal with Havana, says Kerry

By Elad Benari, IsraeliNationalNews.com

Washington is seeking to free two U.S. citizens held in Cuba and Iran, but has rejected a deal with Havana to swap a jailed American for five Cuban spies, top diplomat John Kerry said Wednesday. Kerry told U.S. lawmakers that officials were working hard to win the release of contractor Alan Gross held for more than three years in Havana, AFP reported.

Senator Patrick Leahy visited the island recently, met with Gross “and talked to the government,” Kerry told the House foreign affairs committee. “They were and have been attempts to trade Alan Gross for the five spies that are in prison here in the United States, and we’ve refused to do that because there’s no equivalency,” the secretary of state said. “Alan Gross is wrongly imprisoned, and we’re not going to trade as if it’s a spy for a spy, which they’re trying to allege,” he stressed, according to AFP.

Gross, 63, was arrested on December 3, 2009 for illegally distributing laptops and communications gear to members of Cuba’s small Jewish community. At the time, he was working for a firm contracted to the U.S. State Department. In March 2011 he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “acts against the independence or territorial integrity” of Cuba, and relatives fear his health is failing. Last November, 500 rabbis from around the world appealed to Havana on his behalf.

Kerry said he hoped that the United States could appeal to Cuba’s leaders to treat Gross’s case as a “humanitarian” issue. He also said he had been working through back channels to try to find out more about retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared some six years ago while on a trip to Iran. “On Levinson, I have actually engaged in some back-channel diplomacy in an effort to try to see if we can get something done there,” Kerry said. “That has been raised at very high levels, and it is not a forgotten issue by any means. We’re on it,” he added.

Obama Urged to Take Lead on Easing Cuba Policy 1

By Guy Taylor, The Washington Times

The Obama administration should — and has the legal authority to — use its executive power to begin lifting the decades-old embargo on trade with Cuba, according to two papers this week issued by an influential Latin America think tank and a leading Cuban exile group. The New York-based Council on the Americas and the Washington-based Cuba Study Group both call on the White House to ease the 60-year-old embargo in order to promote free market activity on the communist island. The State Department so far has declined to comment on the documents, but one official described the Council on the Americas as “influential” and told The Washington Times that the State Department does “appreciate their views.”

Circulation of the white papers came the same week that a delegation of U.S. lawmakers, headed by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, met with Cuban President Raul Castro in an unsuccessful attempt to secure the release of Maryland contractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned in Cuba since 2009. Mr. Gross is accused of illegally bringing communications equipment to Cuba as part of a democracy-building program supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development. His detention remains a source of friction between Washington and Havana.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland categorically denied a Boston Globe report Thursday which suggested that newly confirmed Secretary of State John F. Kerry may be seriously considering removing Havana from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism as a first step to improved relations. Citing interviews with “a series of top administration officials and members of Congress,” the newspaper reported that “there is a growing consensus in policy and intelligence circles that Cuba’s support for terrorist groups has been terminated and the country should be removed from the list — much like the George W. Bush administration did with North Korea in 2008.” Ms. Nuland said The Globe piece was “incorrect,” telling reporters at Thursday’s briefing that “this department has no current plans to remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list.” She added, however, that officials review the list annually and will do so during 2013.

Questions about Cuba’s status coincide with growing speculation in Washington that Mr. Kerry — a former Democratic senator from Massachusetts — may be eager to push the White House toward an easing of relations with the communist island. Mr. Kerry did not single out Cuba during his wide-ranging foreign policy address Wednesday at the University of Virginia, but he did publish an article in 2009 in The St. Petersburg Times calling for a lifting of all restrictions to travel to the island.

The white papers circulated this week argue that Mr. Obama should do just that despite a law preventing the restoration of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations without congressional approval.
The 1996 Helms-Burton Act also blocks the lifting of the embargo on trade unless significant democratic reforms are implemented and a functional democratic government is established on the island. The Cuba Study Group called on Congress to repeal the 1996 law, saying it would allow the White House to “adopt more efficient, targeted policies necessary for pressuring the Cuban leadership to respect human rights and implement political reforms, while simultaneously empowering all other sectors of society to purse their economic well-being and become the authors of their own futures.”

The Council on the Americas paper argues that Mr. Obama could work around restrictions associated with Cuba’s current status as a state sponsor of terrorism. The White House, according to the paper, should “grant exceptions” for “sales and imports” of goods for businesses in Cuba that can prove they are not working for the Castro regime, as well as allowing for the “sale of telecommunications hardware” such as cellphone towers and satellite dishes in Cuba.

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.