WikiLeaks: Coast Guard officer is key U.S. man in Havana


Kansas City: MIAMI — The most effective official in the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana may well be a U.S. Coast Guard officer who’s technically a counter-drug specialist but is sometimes approached by the Cuban government for some back-channel diplomacy.

Cuban officials have contacted the Coast Guard officer on sensitive issues such as migration negotiations and Washington offers of aid in the wake of hurricanes, according to U.S. diplomatic dispatches that WikiLeaks obtained and shared with McClatchy.

Contact between the drug interdiction specialist and Cuba’s Interior Ministry is “generally viewed as one of the more fruitful and positive between the U.S. and Cuban governments,” one of the dispatches noted.

That doesn’t surprise retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Randy Beardsworth, who first proposed basing a drug interdiction specialist in Havana and negotiated the terms with Cuba in 1998, when he was the chief law enforcement officer for the Coast Guard’s Miami-based 7th District.

“Both sides have discreetly and quietly used this relationship to communicate. … It’s in our national interest to understand their bureaucracy. In chaos, who do we talk to?” Beardsworth said.

Five decades of U.S.-Cuba tensions have led both countries to impose tight controls on each other’s diplomats. The countries don’t have diplomatic relations and maintain only “interests sections” in each other’s capitals, formally as attachments to other countries’ embassies.

In the United States, Cuban officials aren’t allowed to travel more than 25 miles from their bases in Washington or at the United Nations in New York without prior approval. U.S. officials in Havana are banned from leaving the city, and can meet only with Cuban Foreign Ministry officials.

But the Coast Guard drug interdiction specialist often travels outside Havana on drug and migration-related trips accompanying officials from the Foreign Ministry, known as MINREX, and the Interior Ministry (MININT), which is in charge of counter-narcotics, migration and domestic and foreign intelligence operations.

“They certainly had unique access, insights into people that we could not even see,” said James Cason, a career diplomat who was the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba from 2002 to 2005. Now retired, he recently was elected mayor of Coral Gables, Fla.

 

During a 2009 visit to a Cuban port for the repatriation of several would-be refugees whom the Coast Guard had intercepted at sea, a Foreign Ministry official gave the drug interdiction specialist “subtle insights” into Cuba’s approach to bilateral migration talks, which the Obama administration was about to restart after a break of several years, according to one dispatch.

The Foreign Ministry official, Armando Bencomo, told the drug interdiction specialist that the talks should focus on why Cubans want to leave the island and “would help both sides to develop a response to a potential mass migration scenario,” according to the cable.

The dispatch noted that Bencomo’s comments were a sign that Havana would use the meeting to “hammer” at the U.S. wet-foot, dry-foot policy, which allows Cubans who reach U.S. land to stay. Cuba has long criticized the policy, but the cables didn’t indicate whether Havana indeed attacked the policy at the immigration talks.

During a second 2009 trip to witness the repatriation of Cubans intercepted by the Coast Guard, an unidentified Foreign Ministry official told the drug interdiction specialist that in his “personal opinion” Havana might reverse its rejections of U.S. aid after three hurricanes had devastated the island in 2008, another cable noted.

“Yet again, MINREX has utilized the DIS and the repatriation process as a forum” to float an idea past a U.S. official, the cable noted. That way, Cuba can pass a message “and still maintain its public image and propaganda campaign that lambaste the USG for its approach towards Cuba.” USG is short for United States government.

When Interior Ministry officials upbraided the drug interdiction specialist over an incident in 2009, it was taken as a sign that “MINREX, via MININT, is attempting to elicit a response from the USG … to maximize its interaction with USINT and the USG writ large,” another cable noted.

 

What’s more, Cuban officials meeting with the drug interdiction specialist referred to one of the hot-button issues between the countries: a mass exodus of Cubans like the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and the so-called “Balsero Crisis” of 1994.

According to one cable after the 2008 hurricanes, a colonel in the Interior Ministry’s Border Guard Troops asked the drug interdiction specialist whether the U.S. government was “planning an operation,” understood as asking whether Washington was concerned about a possible mass exodus by desperate hurricane victims.

The comment raised eyebrows because the colonel “inadvertently suggested himself that there was a fear on the part of the (Border Guard) that at least an increase in Cuban migration numbers was possible,” the cable added.

Cuban officials also use the Coast Guard’s man in Havana to voice complaints about U.S. policies and practices.

One cable noted that a top Interior Ministry counter-drug official had complained that U.S. cooperation on drug interdictions was “often one-sided” and that Cuba wanted to work more closely with U.S. officials in sharing information about trafficking in the region.

Another reported in 2009 that the drug interdiction specialist had received a tongue-lashing from five top Interior Ministry officers at a meeting to discuss an alleged U.S. Coast Guard violation of Cuban waters during the emergency assistance of a U.S.-registered sailboat.

The Cuban officers “questioned whether the DIS has the necessary influence with his bosses at USCG District Seven (headquartered in Miami Beach) to mitigate these kinds of incidents,” the cable added.

Beardsworth said Cuban agents at times also “fooled with” the Havana homes of Coast Guard officers who’d “poked their nose into areas the Cubans considered were not appropriate.” He gave no details, but U.S. diplomats in Cuba have complained of obvious burglaries in which food or worse was left on tables so that the occupants would know that someone had been inside.

But Beardsworth said the advantages far outweighed any problems with stationing a U.S. Coast Guard officer in Havana, which he proposed as a “confidence-building measure” between the countries after a year of graduate studies at Harvard in 1995.

The first drug interdiction specialist was sent to Cuba around 1998, he recalled, and five or six Coast Guard officers — all men — now have completed assignments of two or three years in Havana. All remain on active duty and aren’t permitted to comment on their Cuba experiences.

Cason recalled that while the drug interdiction specialist got to attend the repatriations of interdicted Cuban rafters about once a week and to travel around Cuba on drug-related trips with Interior Ministry officials, other U.S. diplomats could meet no one in the government other than the head of the Foreign Ministry’s North America department, Dagoberto Rodriguez.

Cason said he thought the Cuban government favored the drug interdiction specialist’s relations with its Interior Ministry because it wanted to establish “a military-to-military” relationship, thinking that professional solders could understand each other better and lessen the risks of a crisis.

No doubt the Cuban government was “also trying to penetrate our side” — recruit the Coast Guard officers as spies — Cason added, though the Coast Guard was aware of that and “picked their best people, really sharp.”

The Cubans “always said they just wanted someone to talk to,” Cason said. “But I always asked why not the USINT? That’s why we were there, to talk to them.”

www.cubaluxuryrent.com

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Cuba reports more Americans visit forbidden island


HAVANA (Reuters) – The number of Americans visiting their country’s long-time foe Cuba is steadily increasing under the Obama administration, according to Cuban government figures, with the highest number in years likely in 2011.

Some 63,000 U.S. citizens visited Cuba in 2010, up from 52,500 the previous year and 41,900 in 2008, according to a report by the National Statistics Office (http://www.one.cu/aec2010/datos/15.3.xls).

U.S. citizens are forbidden from traveling to Cuba without their government’s permission under a wide-ranging trade embargo against the island imposed nearly five decades ago.

In the years following Cuba’s 1959 revolution the highest known number of U.S. visitors peaked at 70,000 under U.S. President Bill Clinton, then dropped to an average of 30,000 in the last term of U.S. President George W. Bush.

The 2010 numbers do not include 350,000 Cuban Americans estimated by travel providers and U.S. diplomats to have come to the island last year. Because Cuba considers them nationals, they are not listed in tourism statistics except within the broader category of “other.”

In 2009, Obama gave Cuban Americans a green light to visit their homeland at will and in January loosened restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba for professional, religious and humanitarian reasons.

The combined figures of U.S. travelers and Cuban Americans made the United States Cuba’s second-largest tourism provider after Canada.

Before the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power, Cuba used to be an American playground, with hundreds of thousands of Americans visiting to gamble and have a good time.

But since the early 1960s, few have made the trip due to a general travel ban imposed by a U.S. trade embargo against the island.

LOOSENING OF RESTRICTIONS

The current rise in U.S. visitors is a result of the Obama administration loosening travel restrictions to Cuba to encourage more “people to people” contact in hopes of aiding political change on the communist-ruled island 90 miles from Florida.

As well as allowing Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba freely, Obama also authorized the issuing of licenses to more Cuba travel providers and allowed more airports to give charter service between the two countries.

Travel providers report they are swamped, despite delays in implementing the measures, and forecast more than 100,000 Americans not of Cuban descent will come to the forbidden island this year.

“In 2010, Marazul sent over 3,500 people to Cuba for academic, professional, religious and humanitarian reasons, as well as performing arts and sports groups,” said Bob Guild, vice president of Miami-based Marazul Charters.

“This year, we have already sent close to this number and, if the new people to people educational licenses begin to be issued soon by the Treasury Department, we project more than 10,000 people in 2011 traveling through Marazul under the new revised legal categories, not including people visiting their families,” he said.

Cuba has said it had 2.53 million tourists in 2010 with Canada the largest provider at nearly 945,000, followed by Britain at 174,000 and Italy at 112,000.

According to official figures, overall tourism was up 11.3 percent through May, compared with the same period last year.

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Cuba’s politburo threatened by senility


Miami Herald: It is not difficult to understand that the discourse of the Cuban revolution has been manipulating dreams for 50 years in a delirious frenzy of unfulfilled promises.

Fidel Castro, the elderly Marxist dictator, appeared briefly at the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party, looking very fragile, not speaking, raising the arm of his brother Raúl, now confirmed as First Party Secretary, and surrounded by the 15 members of the Politburo, half of whom are generals between the ages of 72 and 83.

Fidel himself, 84, appeared weak and walked with difficulty, but it was clear that, despite his precarious health, he is dying stunningly slowly, which, some analysts say, hinders Raúl Castro’s work.

Half a century into the failure of the revolution, the Sixth Congress concluded with an incoherent report that contained contradictory signals about five-year plans to establish bank credit, decentralize the state’s economy, set up commercial contracts to solve conflicts and give Cubans the right to own their homes and buy and sell cars. But at the end, the hard line of the decrepit Marxist socialist imposed itself.

Arteriosclerosis clung to power. The visceral intolerance of an “irreversible” socialism, along with the crushing presence of the military high command and the absence of a generational relay, formed the framework of the Sixth Congress of the PCC that ended with the delegates singing the Internationale, whose lyrics mention “the poor of the world and the slaves without bread.”

These concepts are applicable to socialist Cuba, which in the past 50 years has become one of the world’s poorest nations, without civil liberties. Perhaps this was the Congress’ most lucid moment.

Pervaded by a high dose of senility, the Politburo admitted only three new members and confirmed José Ramón Machado Ventura, 80, the hardest of the dogmatic leaders, as Second Secretary, with the support of the hardline generals, including Ramiro Valdés, another veteran of the Sierra Maestra.

Machado Ventura refuses to abandon the Marxist-Leninist model and, like Fidel Castro, only admits economic concessions of a superficial and cosmetic nature.

There’s no room for doubt. The Old Revolutionary Guard remained in charge of the Cuban government — something like socialist control of Jurassic Park.

In his report to the Sixth Congress, Raúl Castro referred to his Marxist-Leninist commitment, describing the guidelines as the way “to actualize the economic and social model for the purpose of guaranteeing the irreversibility of socialism.”

Reaffirming the dogma’s hard line, Raúl Castro invoked the memory of Lenin, saying: “There are some very well-defined concepts that, in essence, are just as valid as when Lenin formulated them almost 100 years ago. These must be taken up again.”

How can anyone generate prosperity and emerge from the misery in which the Cuban nation is mired by insisting on the continuity and irreversibility of socialism? That’s simply impossible.

About the generational relay, Raúl Castro stated that the revolution does not have “a reserve of trained substitutes.” That pessimism reminds us of the case of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, which led to the process called “the rectification of errors.”

After the execution of Ochoa, Fidel Castro expressed his concern about the evident failure of the schools that trained the new socialist leaders. Everything is the same. Fifty years of revolution, and the state still doesn’t have “a reserve of trained substitutes.”

Two years ago, Carlos Lage, Fernando Remírez de Estenoz and Felipe Pérez Roque, three young promises of the revolution, were eliminated from the line of succession by being removed from their positions.

However, Raúl Castro has found safety in his sons-in-law, Lázaro Expósito Canto, party secretary in Santiago de Cuba, and Luis Alberto Rodríguez López Calleja, head of the Armed Forces’ business group.

That’s how things are going in Cuba under “irreversible” socialism. The good news out of the Sixth Congress is that they promised not to stay in power one minute beyond 10 years.

Pedro Roig is senior adviser at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies of the University of Miami.

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Many Americans want to visit Cuba, survey finds


LATimes.com: Most Americans would at least consider visiting Cuba if all travel restrictions were lifted, according to an informal survey by Travel Leaders, a Minneapolis-based network of travel agencies. While not scientific, the survey of nearly 1,000 Americans adds fuel to the debate over travel to the Communist-ruled island.

The results were released Tuesday, just days after the U.S. Treasury Department issued new guidelines to implement loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba that President Obama announced in January. Even with the new rules, most Americans are barred from visiting the island, except for narrowly defined purposes.

The online survey of 953 consumers, which relied heavily on social media such as  Facebook and Twitter and was conducted March 10 through April 10, asked: “If all travel restrictions are lifted, how interested would you be in traveling to Cuba?”

Among respondents, 20.2% said “I’d go immediately”; 33% said “I might consider going”; 21.8% said “I would go as soon as I believed Cuba was ready for Americans”; and 23.2% said “I have no interest in going.” The rest?  About 1.7% said they had already been to Cuba.

Many such travelers may have gone legally. But thousands of Americans each year are estimated to visit Cuba illegally, typically by traveling through a third country. Although few individuals are penalized for breaking the longtime Cuba trade embargo — the basis for the travel restrictions — violators face penalties that could include civil fines of thousands of dollars.

Californians may be more eager to visit Cuba than the average American. Nearly 36% of the 53 survey respondents who identified themselves as Californians (listing your state of residence was optional) said they would go immediately if restrictions were lifted.

Given the small sample and informal methods, it’s hard to gauge how well this survey represents Americans.

“While we don’t have any way of knowing, it would be fair to assume many of the people who completed the survey are travelers,” Travel Leaders spokeswoman Kathy Gerhardt wrote in an email. “However, since it was re-tweeted and likely reposted on various personal Facebook pages, there is probably a mix of travelers and non-travelers.”

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U.S. issues new rules for travel to Cuba


Fox news:  The U.S. Treasury Department on Thursday published new rules governing travel to Cuba which include the relaxation of some of longstanding regulations announced in January by President Barack Obama.

The president said then that after years of restrictions, U.S. students, journalists or members of religious organizations may travel freely to the island without asking U.S. authorities for prior permission.

That was the second occasion on which Obama had pushed for the relaxation of travel rules to Cuba after in April 2009 he announced that Cuban Americans could travel to the island any time they wanted.

According to the full document published Thursday by the Treasury, now U.S. citizens will be able to travel to Cuba without requesting government authorizations when they are going there to visit a “close family member” who is Cuban or works at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

Accredited journalists, professionals who visit the island to participate in events such as conferences or meetings and students and professors who go to participate in educational activities will all be allowed to travel without restrictions.

Another group favored by the new rules are religious organizations recognized by the government, as well as agricultural and telecommunications firms that want to undertake advertising tasks or commercial negotiations on the Communist-ruled island.

The document specifies, however, when some of these groups will still have to request prior travel authorization, for instance when a freelance journalist or a member of a religious organization not recognized by the U.S. wants to visit Cuba.

U.S. approves eight more airports for Cuba flights


HAVANA (Reuters) – The government has given permission to eight more airports to offer direct charter flights to and from Cuba in the latest small opening in the 49-year-long trade embargo against the communist island.

Customs and Border Protection said on Tuesday Cuba flights would now be allowed from airports in Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas/Fort Worth, New Orleans, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Tampa and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Previously, Cuba flights could be flown only from Miami, New York and Los Angeles. It was not yet known when flights would begin from the new cities.

President Barack Obama said in January Cuba charter service would be expanded. At the same time, he announced a loosening of restrictions for some groups on U.S. travel to Cuba.

The embargo, imposed since 1962 with the aim of toppling the communist government put in place after a 1959 revolution, prevents most Americans from going to Cuba. Only charter flights, not regular air service, are allowed to operate on U.S.-Cuba routes.

Obama has said he wants to recast U.S.-Cuba relations. He previously removed limits on Cuban American travel to the island located 90 miles from Florida and on the sending of remittances.

Cuban Americans have flooded into the country, packing the flights available and making Americans among the top nationalities numerically to visit Cuba.

Under Obama and President Raul Castro, the longtime ideological foes also have initiated talks on migration issues and the possible resumption of direct mail service.

Some Cuban American leaders and groups have opposed Obama’s measures, saying they help the Cuban government that was run by Fidel Castro for 49 years before his younger brother Raul Castro succeeded him in 2008.

Progress in the long-hostile relations came to a halt in December 2009 when Cuba arrested U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross for working in a U.S.-funded program to promote political change on the island.

The approval of the new airports comes as a Cuban court decides Gross’s fate following a two-day trial last week for what prosecutors said was his involvement in “subversive projects” to “defeat the Revolution.”

He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

www.particularcuba.com

Don’t Expect Revolution in Cuba


Cuban dissidents and Cuban-American leaders have started to ask why Cubans haven’t followed the lead of oppressed populations in Egypt and Tunisia in overthrowing long-entrenched regimes. Wake Forest University Associate Professor of Political Science Peter Siavelis said he doesn’t expect to see demonstrations for democracy in the streets of Havana anytime soon.

Political and economic conditions in Cuba are more similar to North Korea than Egypt or even Libya, said Siavelis, an expert on Latin American politics. “The level of repression is much more systemic and substantial than in Egypt.”

The Communist government’s security apparatus is pervasive and quick to shut down any opposition or protests before they have a chance to grow, he said. Fidel and Raul Castro still have the support of the military and secret police. And, because the government controls the media and only the Communist Party elite has Internet access, many Cubans might not even know about the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, he said.

“Cuba is a small, insular place,” Siavelis said. “The government maintains a vice grip over any exchange of information. There is a real sense of isolation among the people, which has limited their ability to build any social capacity for change.”

There are some similarities between Cuba and Egypt, Siavelis said, including a long-standing oppressive regime, high unemployment, an increasingly younger  population, and a lack of opportunities for even the well educated.

Unlike Egypt, Cuba lacks any significant organized opposition, any private enterprise beyond a small number of self-employed people, and a free flow of information, both within the country and in news coming from other countries, he said. Few Cubans — primarily Communist Party leaders and members — even have access to a computer, and there are tight controls on the Internet, Siavelis said.

Cuba is one of the last centrally controlled economies in the world. The government employs about 85 percent of the population. President Raul Castro has made some economic reforms, such as allowing more workers to be self-employed, since he succeeded his brother Fidel in 2008.

Castro announced last year that about 20 percent of government workers — around one million people — would be laid off beginning this month. But on Monday, he announced that the layoffs have been postponed, perhaps with an eye toward avoiding any protests like the ones that sparked the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, Siavelis said.

“Even though Raul has instituted some significant reforms — allowing for some private-sector ownership of businesses for instance — the economy is still in the hands of the government, which lessens any chance of political reform,” Siavelis said.

And there’s still the matter of the 50-year-old U.S. embargo, which Siavelis believes hurts the cause of democracy because it limits the flow of people, goods and information into the country. “The government still waves the flag of national sovereignty and plays up U.S. hostilities. The Castro regime has outlasted presidents going back to Eisenhower, so you have to think at some point that it’s not working.”

Siavelis sees more similarities between Egypt and Venezuela than between Egypt and Cuba: an educated, urban, mobile population; unified opposition; access to outside media sources; and oil money being diverted to support other oppressive regimes, including Cuba.

Siavelis and other Cuba watchers will be watching closely when the Cuban Communist Party Congress convenes in Havana for the first time in 14 year next month. Siavelis expects decisions to be made then about the future of the country’s leadership. Fidel Castro is expected to resign as head of the Communist Party and to be succeeded by Raul Castro. Raul Castro has said that the congress will officially adopt reforms to modernize the Soviet-style economy, but how far those reforms will go remains to be seen.

Siavelis expects Cuba to follow the model of Vietnam and China: slowly embracing limited economic reforms, while maintaining tight political control. “But economic reform does unleash a demand for political reform, and then the question becomes, is the government able to repress that,” he said. “In Vietnam and China, because of the tremendous economic success, the government has been able to do that. But I don’t see Cuba being able to replicate that economic success.”

 

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