Kerry’s Meeting with Cuban Dissidents Gets Rave Reviews

A prior post discussed preliminary information about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s August 14 meeting with Cuban dissidents and others at the official Havana residence of the U.S. charge d’affaires. The other attendees included representatives of the Engage Cuba coalition for normalization; its members (the Center for Democracy in the Americas, #CubaNow, Procter & Gamble, the American Society of Travel Agents, Cuba Study Group, and the Washington Office on Latin America); notable members of Congress, including Senators Klobuchar, Flake, and Leahy; leaders of the American business community; and Cuban independent entrepreneurs.

Further information about that meeting has been added by Ernesto Londoño, the member of the New York Times Editorial Board who was the main force behind last year’s series of editorials urging normalization of U.S. ties with Cuba, and by Engage Cuba.[1]

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Londoño reports that Cuban dissidents are very pleased with such normalization and with the August 14 ceremonial opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. He referred first to the article in The Atlantic by Yoani Sanchez that was mentioned in the prior post.

This was confirmed in an email to him from Sanchez. With respect to the meeting with Kerry, she said “People hugged and greeted each other like they were at the baptism of a creature that had a rough, problematic gestation, and has finally come to life. It’s been many years since I’ve witnessed a moment like that, surrounded by so many happy people.” Moreover, Kerry ”left a “profound impression” on them, with his listening carefully to their concerns and brainstorming about ways to expand Internet access on the island.

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Another dissident at the meeting was José Daniel Ferrer, a former political prisoner who is head of the Patriotic Union for Cuba, the largest and most active opposition group on the island. He said he was heartened by the meeting with Mr. Kerry, whom he described as realistic and supportive. “His speech [at the meeting] was good and clear. Many of us are grateful for his remarks, including that the situation in Cuba would improve if we had a genuine democracy.”

In recent months, Cuban authorities have continued to harass, temporarily detain, and slander dissident leaders, Mr. Ferrer said. “Repression has increased, but not because the new policy is weak and paves the way for that, no,” he said. “Repression has increased because every day there’s more activism and courage and the regime fears it will lose control.”

Ferrer’s group has put videos on You Tube showing its leaders delivering aid packages to destitute Cubans and holding meetings. Others in the group are helping Cubans getting online at new Wi-Fi hot spots. Ferrer said, “There are many people who want to connect but have no idea how. We suggest sites based on their interests and we tell them about the unlimited possibilities the Internet brings.”

Engage Cuba said that they met Cuban entrepreneurs engaged in event planning, supplying promotional packaging, designing fashions and creating mobile apps. These interactions reinforced Engage Cuba’s efforts to identify opportunities to support these entrepreneurs by connecting them with counterparts in the U.S. and the coalition’s commitment to help unleash the potential of the Cuban economy by working with Congress to end the travel ban and lift the trade embargo. While we continue to work with Congress.

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[1] Londoño, Cuban Dissidents Buoyed in a New Era, N.Y. Times (Aug, 24, 2015), ; Email, Engage Cuba to supporters, Living History: Cubans And Americans Embark On A Better Future (Aug. 24, 2015).

 

Additional Details About U.S.-Cuba Secret Discussions Leading up to the December 17, 2014, Public Announcement of Rapprochement

A prior post covered the surprising December 17, 2014, announcement of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement while another post discussed the initial public information about the preceding secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations about normalization; yet another post integrated that information into previous public information about U.S.-Cuba relations in President Obama’s second presidential term, 2013-2014.

Now Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande. both leading scholars on the relationship between the two countries, have added the following additional details about such previous secret discussions:[1]

  • In response to the January 2010 devastating Haiti earthquake, the U.S. and Cuba engaged in unprecedented cooperative disaster relief in that country.
  • Thereafter in 2010-2012 two top State Department officials—Cheryl Mills, the Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Julissa Reynoso, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs—had secret discussions with Cuban officials that initially focused on Cuba’s releasing U.S. citizen Alan Gross from a Cuban prison and the U.S.’ allowing the wives of two of the Cuban Five to visit their husbands in U.S. prisons.
  • By September 2011, the Cubans had explicitly proposed swapping the Cuban Five for Alan Gross, but the U.S. was not prepared to do so. Instead, as a show of good faith, the U.S. arranged for the wives of two of the Cuban Five to secretly visit their husbands in U.S. prisons while Cuba permitted Judy Gross regular visits with her husband in a military hospital in Havana.
  • In May 2012, Clinton received a memo from her team that stated: “We have to continue negotiating with the Cubans on the release of Alan Gross but cannot allow his situation to block an advance of bilateral relations…The Cubans are not going to budge. We either deal with the Cuban Five or cordon those two issues off.”
  • This May 2012 memo arrived soon after Clinton and President Obama had returned from that April’s Sixth Summit of the Americas where they had been chastised by heads of states furious over the U.S. stance on Cuba. Afterwards Clinton “recommended to President Obama that he take another look at our embargo. It wasn’t achieving its goals and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America.”
  • After his reelection in November 2012, President Obama approached Massachusetts Senator John Kerry about replacing Clinton as secretary of state and raising a new approach to Cuba. Kerry was receptive. As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he had been a vocal critic of the USAID democracy promotion programs that financed Gross’ secret missions to Cuba and also had long opposed the US economic embargo of the island.
  • During the U.S.-Cuba secret discussions in Canada in 2013=2014 that were discussed in a prior post, The U.S. was not willing to talk about the USAID programs or the status of Guantán­amo Bay. Cuba, on the other hand, was not willing to discuss human rights or U.S. fugitives living in their country.
  • In September 2013 Senator Dick Durbin (Dem., IL) suggested to National Security Advisor Susan Rice that the U.S. should see about getting Pope Francis involved in helping the two countries resolve their differences.
  • In February 2014, Senator Patrick Leahy had his staff collaborate with former White House counsel, Greg Craig, to draft a 10-page memo of options “to secure Mr. Gross’ release, and in so doing break the logjam and change the course of U.S. policy towards Cuba, which would be widely acclaimed as a major legacy achievement [for President Obama].” The document, dated February 7, laid out a course of action that would prove to be a close match with the final accord.
  • Apparently also in or about February 2014, Leahy sent a confidential message to Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, asking him to encourage the Pope to help resolve the prisoner issue. Drawing on the close ties between Obama’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., the White House also “got word to the Vatican that the president was eager to discuss” Cuba at the upcoming upcoming March private audience with the Pope.
  • In early March 2014, a small group of Cuba policy advocates, including representatives of a newly formed coalition for changing U.S. policies regarding Cuba, met with Cardinal Seán O’Malley in the rectory of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. The advocates of change explained the recent trends, the conversations with President and others in the administration and Congress and indicated this was a historic moment, and a message from the Pope to President Obama would be significant in moving the process forward. A letter from Senator Leahy was given to Cardinal O’Malley urging him to focus the Pope’s attention on the “humanitarian issue” of the prisoner exchange.
  • During this same time period, Leahy personally delivered a similar message to Cardinal McCarrick and arranged for yet another to be sent to Cardinal Ortega in Havana. There now were three cardinals urging the Pope to put Cuba on the agenda with Obama.
  • At the private audience later that month (March 27), Obama told the Pope that the U.S. had something going with Cuba and that it would be useful if the Pope could play a role.” (Other details about the audience were provided in a prior post.) A few days later, Francis summoned Cardinal Ortega to enlist his help.
  • On May 1, 2014, Leahy, along with Senators Carl Levin (Dem., MI) and Dick Durbin (Dem., IL) and Representatives Chris Van Hollen (Dem., MD) and Jim McGovern (Dem., MA) met in the Oval Office with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The legislators urged Obama to press for Gross’ release and replace the policy of hostility with one of engagement. “You said you were going to do this,” McGovern reminded the president. “Let’s just do it!” Obama had a non-committal response,”We’re working on it” and gave no hint of the back-channel diplomacy then well underway.
  • On May 19, 2014, the previously mentioned coalition released an open letter to Obama signed by 46 luminaries of the U.S. policy and business world, urging the president to engage with Cuba. The signatories included former diplomats and retired military officers—among them former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering; Cuban-American business leaders like Andres Fanjul, co-owner of a Florida-based multinational sugar company; and John Negroponte, George W. Bush’s director of national intelligence. The same day, not coincidentally, the conservative US Chamber of Commerce announced that its president, Tom Donohue, would lead a delegation to Cuba to “develop a better understanding of the country’s current economic environment and the state of its private sector.”
  • During the summer of 2014 the Pope wrote forceful, confidential letters to Obama and Raúl Castro, imploring the two leaders“to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations.”
  • To safeguard his communications, the Pope sent both letters via papal courier to Havana—with instructions to Cardinal Ortega to personally deliver the message into the two presidents’ hands. After delivering the Pope’s letter to Raúl Castro, Ortega then sent his top aide to Washington to advance his clandestine diplomatic mission to deliver the other letter to Obama. But arranging a secret face-to-face meeting with President Obama was easier said than done. Alerted to the problem, Cardinal McCarrick conferred with White House officials, who enlisted his help as a secret back-channel go-between. In early August, McCarrick traveled to Cuba carrying a note from Obama that asked Ortega to entrust McCarrick with delivering the Pope’s letter to the White House. But Ortega’s papal instructions were to deliver the message himself. McCarrick, therefore, left Cuba empty-handed.
  • Back in Washington, McCarrick worked with McDonough at the White House to arrange a secret meeting for Ortega with the President. On the morning of August 18, Ortega gave a talk at Georgetown University—providing a cover story for his presence in Washington—and then quietly went to the White House. (To make sure the meeting did not leak, U.S. officials kept Ortega’s name off the White House visitor logs.) Meeting with the President on the patio adjacent to the Rose Garden, Ortega finally completed his mission of delivering the Pope’s sensitive communication, in which he offered to “help in any way.”
  • In October 2014, at the Pope’s invitation, the two sides met at the Vatican and hammered out their final agreement on the prisoner exchange and restoring diplomatic relations. The U.S. representatives, Rhodes and Zuniga, also noted Obama’s intention to ease regulations on travel and trade, and to allow US telecom companies to help Cuban state enterprises expand internet access. They acknowledged these initiatives were aimed at fostering greater openness in Cuba. Cuban officials said that while they had no intentionof changing their political system to suit the United States, they had reviewed the Americans’ list of prisoners jailed for political activities and would release 53 of them as a goodwill gesture. The Pope agreed to act as guarantor of the final accord.
  • On October 12, the New York Times published an editorial calling for ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba and for a new relationship between the two countries; it turned out to be the first of a series of editorials on various aspects of the relationship.[2] These editorials were the work of Ernesto Londoño, a new member of the Editorial Board and a native of Colombia. He talked to administration officials, Senator Leahy’s office, and the new coalition, but recently said, “There was really no collusion or formal cooperation in what they were doing and what we were doing. The Times simply saw an opportunity to push the policy it advocated forward. We figured it was worthwhile to give it a shot.”
  • On November 6, 2014, Obama’s National Security Council met to sign off on the details. Later that month, the negotiating teams convened one last time in Canada to arrange the logistics of the prisoner exchange.

These additional details about the over two years of previously secret negotiations should be merged with the earlier post about President Obama’s Second Term Record Regarding Cuba, 2013-2014. Together they demonstrate the diplomatic skill of that Administration in achieving this historic breakthrough that will benefit both countries.

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[1] Kornblu & LeoGrande, Inside the Crazy Back-Channel Negotiations That Revolutionized Our Relationship with Cuba, Mother Jones (July 2015)  This information will be incorporated in a new edition of their book: Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana that will be published this October by the University of North Carolina Press.

[2] Previous posts covered the other Times editorials that commended Cuba’s foreign medical missions (Oct. 19), recommended normalization (Oct. 26) and prisoner exchanges (Nov. 3) and criticized USAID programs on the island (Nov. 10), the U.S. Cuban medical parole program (Nov. 17) and the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” (Dec. 15).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New York Times Recommends U.S.-Cuba Prisoner Exchange

U.S. citizen Alan Gross is being held in a Cuban prison after having been tried and convicted by a Cuban court for violating Cuban law while three Cuban citizens are being held in U.S. federal prisons after having been tried and convicted by U.S. federal courts for violating U.S. law. There has been much public and governmental desire in both countries to have their respective citizens released from prisons and returned to their home countries.[1]

On November 3, 2014, a New York Times editorial recommended that the two countries negotiate a prisoner exchange. The editorial first set forth the following lengthy summary of the two sets of prisoners:

  • “Under the direction of Development Alternatives Inc.,which had a contract with the United States Agency for International Development, Mr. Gross traveled to Havana five times in 2009, posing as a tourist, to smuggle communications equipment as part of an effort to provide more Cubans with Internet access. The Cuban government, which has long protested Washington’s covert pro-democracy initiatives on the island, tried and convicted Mr. Gross in 2011, sentencing him to 15 years in prison for acts against the integrity of the state.”
  • “While in prison, Gross has lost more than 100 pounds. He is losing vision in his right eye. His hips are failing. This June, Mr. Gross’s elderly mother died. After he turned 65 in May, Mr. Gross told his loved ones that this year would be his last in captivity, warning that he intends to kill himself if he is not released soon. His relatives and supporters regard that as a serious threat from a desperate, broken man.”
  • Five Cuban men (the so-called “Cuban five”) had “infiltrated Cuban exile groups in Florida” that had “dropped leaflets over the island urging Cubans to rise up against their government.” Four of them “were convicted of non-violent crimes,” and two of these four “have been released and returned home” while the other two of these four who “remain imprisoned are due for release relatively soon.”
  • The remaining U.S. prisoner and the one “who matters the most to the Cuban government, Gerardo Hernández, is serving two life sentences.” He was the leader of the Five and “was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder” in connection with the Cuban military’s shooting down of a civilian plane operated by one of the Cuban exile groups over the unmarked border between Cuban and international waters.
  • “A three-judge panel on the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit overturned the convictions [of all five Cubans] in August 2005, ruling that a ‘perfect storm’ of factors deprived the five defendants of a fair trial. The judges found that widespread hostility toward the Cuban government in Miami and pretrial publicity that vilified the [Cuban]spies made it impossible to impanel an impartial jury.”
  • “The full [11th Circuit] court later reversed the panel’s finding, reinstating the verdict. But the judges raised other concerns about the case that led to a reduction of three of the sentences.” One of the Circuit’s judges, “Phyllis Kravitch, wrote a dissenting opinion arguing that Mr. Hernández’s murder-conspiracy conviction was unfounded. Prosecutors, she argued, failed to establish that Mr. Hernández, who provided Havana with information about the flights, had entered into an agreement to shoot down the planes in international, as opposed to Cuban, airspace. Downing the planes over Cuban airspace, which the exiles had penetrated before, would not constitute murder under American law.”

The editorial then noted that early “in Mr. Gross’s detention, Cuban officials suggested they might be willing to free him if Washington put an end to initiatives designed to overthrow the Cuban government. After those talks sputtered, the Cuban position hardened and it has become clear to American officials that the only realistic deal to get Mr. Gross back would involve releasing [the remaining] three Cuban spies convicted of federal crimes in Miami in 2001.”

Thus, according to the editorial, the key issue now is whether the U.S. Government will agree to such a prisoner exchange, and the editorial argues that the U.S. should do so for the following reasons:

  1. Gross’ “arrest was the result of a reckless strategy in which U.S.A.I.D. has deployed private contractors to perform stealthy missions in a police state vehemently opposed to Washington’s pro-democracy crusade.”
  2. “If Alan Gross died in Cuban custody, the prospect of establishing a healthier relationship with Cuba would be set back for years.
  3. A “prisoner exchange could pave the way toward re-establishing formal diplomatic ties, positioning the United States to encourage positive change in Cuba through expanded trade, travel opportunities and greater contact between Americans and Cubans. Failing to act would maintain a 50-year cycle of mistrust and acts of sabotage by both sides.
  4. “In order to swap prisoners, President Obama would need to commute the [three Cuban] men’s sentences. Doing so would be justified considering the lengthy time they have served, the troubling questions about the fairness of their trial, and the potential diplomatic payoff in clearing the way toward a new bilateral relationship.”

“Officials at the White House are understandably anxious about the political fallout of a deal with Havana, given the criticism they faced in May [of 2014] after five Taliban prisoners were exchanged for [one] American soldier kidnapped in Afghanistan. The American government, sensibly, is averse to negotiating with terrorists or governments that hold United States citizens for ransom or political leverage. But in exceptional circumstances, it makes sense to do so. The Alan Gross case meets that [criterion].”

This editorial is the latest in what the Times itself states is an editorial series on “Cuba: A New Start.” The first editorial was titled “Obama Should End the Embargo on Cuba.” The next in the series actually was “Editorial Observer: Still Pondering U.S.-Cuba Relations, Fidel Castro Responds,” by Ernesto Londoño of the newspaper’s Editorial Board; it noted Fidel Castro’s favorable reaction to the first Times editorial. The second editorial, “Cuba’s Impressive Role on Ebola” (Oct. 19, 2014). The third editorial, “The Shifting Politics of Cuba Policy.” The fourth, also published on November 3rd with Ernesto Londoño’s byline, “Editorial, Alan Gross and the Cuban Five: A Timeline.[2]

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[1] This blog previously has discussed the Alan Gross case and the Cuban Five case and urged a prisoner exchange: The U.S. Should Pursue Reconciliation with Cuba (May 21, 2011); Commutation and Release of Convicted Spies (Sept. 24, 2011); Roots of Hope for U.S.-Cuba Relations (Sept. 27, 2011); U.S. and Cuba Discuss Exchange of Prisoners (Oct. 14, 2011); Letter to President Obama Regarding Cuba (Aug. 17, 2012).

[2] This blog previously has commented on three of these editorials: New York Times Urges Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations (Oct. 13, 2014); New York Times Commends Cuba for Fighting Ebola in West Africa and Again Urges U.S.-Cuba Normalization (Oct. 19, 2014); New York Times Again Urges Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations (Oct. 26, 2014). Another post cited Londoño’s article about the U. N. General Assembly ‘s recent vote on the U.S. embargo: U.N. General Assembly Again Condemns U.S. Embargo of Cuba (Oct. 30, 2014). Londoño joined the Times’ Editorial Board in September 2014 after a distinguished career at the Washington Post and the Dallas Morning News. Mr. Londoño , who was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, moved to the U.S. in 1999 to study journalism and Latin American studies at the University of Miami.