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Analysts Debate Proper Role Of U.S. Democracy Programs In Cuba

By Juan O. Tamayo, El Nuevo Herald

MIAMI — The U.S. government has a right to finance pro-democracy programs in Cuba but must ensure they are not so aggressive that they wind up hurting dissidents and strengthening the hand of Havana hardliners, analysts and political figures said this week.

“U.S. policy has long been to bring about or hasten a democratic transition in Cuba,” said Carl Meacham, former senior staffer on Latin America for the Republican side of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This is consistent with that policy.”

Meacham was reacting to a Monday report by The Associated Press that a U.S. Agency for International Development program sent young people from Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Peru to recruit young Cubans to anti-government activism … under the guise of civic programs from 2009 to 2011.

USAID said the program, which was run by Washington-based Creative Associates International working under a grant from the agency, was designed to “empower (Cuban) citizens to tackle a community or social problem, win a ‘small victory,’ and ultimately realize that they could be the masters of their own destiny.”

But the AP report poured fresh fuel on the long-running debate over the U.S. government’s Cuba programs. USAID says they are designed to promote democracy on the island but the Cuban government views them as attempts to topple its communist system.

Phil Peters, president of the Cuba Research Center in suburban Washington, D.C., and a proponent of easing U.S. sanctions on Havana, said USAID efforts such as the Creative Associates program can increase Cuban government suspicions.

“This kind of activity can hurt people who are trying to do good work in Cuba, put them under suspicion that they are working on a political program — to say nothing of the possible damage to USAID itself around the world,” Peters said.

But Mauricio Claver-Carone, an anti-Castro activist in Washington, D.C., defended such programs. “The United States should never apologize for helping the victims of brutal dictatorships throughout the world. To the contrary, it’s emblematic of our nation’s finest moments,” he wrote.

“All countries do this,” Meacham said of the Creative Associates International program.

Cuban dissident Jose Daniel Ferrer said the U.S. government is right to help opposition and civil society activists because the Cuban government controls every aspect of their lives, denies them the right to speak freely, and even fires them from their jobs.

Opposing the government “would be impossible without the help of friendly democratic nations and Cubans abroad” who pay for items such as printers, cellphones, and taxis to meetings, said Ferrer, head of the Cuban Patriotic Union.

Said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL): “The fact that USAID is using measures to promote democracy in Cuba is no secret. We must continue to pressure the Castro regime and support the Cuban people, who are oppressed on a daily basis.”

In a statement Monday, USAID said that the U.S. Congress “funds democracy programming in Cuba to empower Cubans to access more information and strengthen civil society … The work is not secret; it is not covert, nor is it undercover.”

The AP reported that the young travelers to Cuba worked undercover and often posed as tourists.

In its statement, USAID said The Associated Press included a paragraph in its report that correctly described the program but “then goes on to make sensational claims against aid workers for supporting civil society programs … This is wrong.”

But some analysts cautioned that Cuba democracy programs run the risk of becoming too aggressive, counterproductive, and might even further complicate the already fractious debate on how to improve U.S.-Cuba relations.

The latest report could strengthen hardliners in Havana who oppose economic reforms, and others in the United States who support sanctions on Cuba, said Meacham, now Americas program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Teo Babun, executive director of EchoCuba, a Miami nonprofit that has received U.S. government dollars in the past to assist churches in Cuba, said the USAID program, as described, was too “aggressive” for his taste.

“It is clear that USAID supports democracy-building programs,” he said. “But it is wrong to engage with or to try to introduce programs that are so aggressive against the (Cuban) government. We cannot be supportive of that.”

Babun added, however, that he hadn’t ever encountered a USAID Cuba program that was as aggressive as that described in the AP report. “Not in one instance did we see this type of program,” he said.

In April, the AP sparked another aid controversy with a report on a previously unknown USAID program — a Twitter-like social media platform for Cubans known as ZunZuneo.

Photo via WikiCommons

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North Korean Freighter, Fresh From Stop In Havana, Raises Suspicion As It Runs Aground Off Mexican Coast

By Juan O. Tamayo, El Nuevo Herald

A North Korean freighter has run aground near a port in eastern Mexico, just days after a stop in Havana that sparked comparisons with another Pyongyang vessel seized last summer with a large and illegal shipment of Cuban weapons.

The 6,700-ton Mu Du Bong, built in 1983, ran aground Monday on a reef off the port of Tuxpan in the Gulf of Mexico, according to shipping and salvage industry officials. There was no immediate information on whether the freighter docked or planned to dock in Tuxpan.

The ship had sparked suspicions before its mishap because its Caribbean voyage seemed similar to that of the Chong Chon Gang, seized by Panama last summer as it prepared to cross the Panama Canal on its way home to North Korea. An estimated 240 tons of weapons were hidden under hundreds of thousands of sacks of sugar.

Both freighters sailed in Cuban waters and stopped in Havana, but their exact locations were mysteries for days because there were no reports from their location transponders, as required by safety regulations. The Chong Chon Gang had turned off its transponder to hide its location, a U.N. investigation later found.

The Mu Du Bong crossed the Panama Canal into the Caribbean June 15. Its transponder signaled on June 25 that it was near the port of Mariel, and on June 29-30 that it was in the port of Havana, according to an article in Forbes magazine that first reported its voyage.

For the next nine days the freighter’s transponder fell silent, Forbes reported. It started working again July 10, showing the ship was in Havana and then sailed into the Gulf of Mexico, according to Forbes.

AFP Photo/KNS

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Cuba Lifts Censorship On Critical Websites

By Juan O. Tamayo, El Nuevo Herald

MIAMI — Cuba has suddenly unblocked access to several websites censored for years because of their criticism. But it was not immediately clear if the change was temporary or permanent.

The opening, which might signal a step forward in freedom of information in the Communist-ruled island nation, was first noticed Thursday afternoon, but the government had made no announcement as of Friday.

Among the websites unblocked were Radio/TV Marti, the Miami-based Cubanet, which publishes the work of independent and dissident journalists, and Cubaencuentro, based in Spain and also critical of the government.

Also unblocked were Twitter, Skype, and Revolico, a portal for Cuban classified ads blocked for several years apparently because it competes with the country’s state-run shops, according to island residents and Miami contacts.

AFP Photo/Jewel Samad

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Top Dissidents Detained In Cuba

By Juan O. Tamayo, The Miami Herald

MIAMI — Cuban police detained four top pro-democracy activists and at least 40 other dissidents in a crackdown Wednesday that also saw an independent journalist beaten by a suspected State Security agent in civilian clothes, according to activists.

Most of the opposition activists were freed later in the day, but the crackdown added to the perception that the Raul Castro government has been turning increasingly tough, and at times violent, on dissent.

Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, known as Antunez, and his wife, Yris Perez Aguilera, were detained during an early-morning police raid of their home in the town of Placetas, said the Miami-based Cuban Democratic Directory.

Ladies in White leader Berta Soler, her husband, Angel Moya, and at least 30 other women and 15 men were carted off by police as they headed to a Havana trial involving a member of the women’s group, said independent journalist Roberto de Jesus Guerra.

Guerra said a man he believed to be a State Security agent intercepted him on a Havana street and without saying a word punched him repeatedly in the face until other men in civilian clothes approached and told him: “That’s enough. Leave him.”

Photo via Flickr

U.S. Explores A Wi-Fi Network For Cuba, But Denies It’s Operational

By Juan O. Tamayo, The Miami Herald

A program financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development to develop the technology for a Wi-Fi network in Cuba has not been deployed on the island and is under review, a USAID spokesman said Monday.

USAID approved the grant to the Open Technology Institute (OTI) in Washington in 2012 as part of the agency’s efforts to promote Internet freedom, democracy and civil society in Cuba, said Matt Herrick, a spokesman for the agency.

The network, known as Commotion, “is not operational in Cuba” and no one has traveled to the country for the program, Herrick said. Cuban authorities have imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan P. Gross since 2009 for a somewhat similar program.

OTI’s grant “is now under review. We are looking into it, to see if it’s consistent with the (OTI) proposal and achieves expected outcomes,” said the spokesman, declining to provide further details. The grant is due to expire Sept. 30, 2015.

The USAID grant to OTI was made public in 2012, but came under a new spotlight after The New York Times reported Sunday on a similar Commotion system in Tunisia, financed by the State Department, and mentioned the Cuba program.

USAID drew a lot of fire from critics of its Cuba programs after The Associated Press reported earlier this month that it secretly financed a Twitter-like system for Cubans. The agency said the system was not secret but had to be “discreet” because of Cuba’s “non-permissive environment.”

In contrast to Cuba, which has branded the USAID programs as thinly veiled efforts toward “regime change,” the Tunisia program was launched in December with the approval of authorities in the town of Sayada.

Gross is serving a 15-year prison sentence for delivering satellite phones to Cuban Jews so they could have uncensored access to the Internet. While Wi-Fi signals are easy intercept and pinpoint, satellite phone signals are more difficult to locate.

OTI is required to develop the technology for a Cuba version of Commotion — basically a way to link several Wi-Fi routers into a “mesh” that can bypass government controls — but has not tried to deploy it on the island, according to knowledgeable sources.

The Wi-Fi program “is part of the U.S. government’s long-standing commitment to facilitate open communications among the Cuban people and with the outside world,” Herrick said.

The Times report said the Sayada network was started by Tunisian academics and computer geeks who took part in the 2011 uprising that overthrew President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. It described his government as “deeply invested in digital surveillance.”

The State Department provided $2.8 million to U.S. “hackers, community activists and software geeks to develop the system as a way for dissidents abroad to communicate more freely and securely,” the newspaper reported.

Sayada’s mesh is not connected to the Internet but covers big areas of the town of 14,000 people and gives users access to a server containing 2,500 books, Wikipedia in French and Arabic and an application for secure chatting and file sharing, it added.

“It is clear that the United States sees Sayada as a test of the concept before it is deployed in more contested zones,” The Times said, noting the USAID grants for the OTI and Twitter-like Zunzuneo programs for Cuba.

One odd aspect of the USAID grant is that OTI is a part of the New America Foundation, a Washington nonprofit that has another part, the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative, which strongly favors warming relations with Cuba’s communist government.

“I’m not involved in any USAID grants — and I frankly don’t want to be,” Initiative director Anya Landau French wrote in a blog post in 2012 in which she made it clear she opposed OTI’s decision to apply for and accept the USAID grant.

“I think I’m pretty clearly on record in my belief that USAID’s programs in Cuba have largely failed in their objectives and are in fact often counterproductive to anyone associated with them,” she added.

The New American Foundation describes itself as a nonpartisan organization investing “in new thinkers and new ideas to address the next generation of challenges facing the United States.”

OTI founder Sascha Meinrath did not reply to requests for an interview, but the group’s Web page said it is dedicated to promoting “affordable, universal and ubiquitous communications networks.”

Photo via Flickr; flippinyank

Former CIA Agent, Now In Havana, Discusses Gadhafi’s ‘Secret World’

By Juan O. Tamayo, El Nuevo Herald

MIAMI — U.S. fugitive and renegade CIA agent Frank Terpil is still living in Havana and easily recounting his days helping former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi to murder his political enemies, according to a recently released British documentary.

Co-producer Michael Chrisman said Terpil, 74, was interviewed at his Havana home in December and gave the impression of leading a somewhat bored life, “with little to do (and) spending much time frequenting Havana watering holes nursing a drink.”

He has a much younger Cuban girlfriend, and asks friends and visitors to supply him with the occasional English language book, said Chrisman. The Showtime documentary is titled “Mad Dog: Inside the Secret World of Muammar Gaddafi.”

The interview focused on Terpil’s relations with the Libyan dictator, killed in a 2011 revolt, and not on his links to his Cuban hosts because “he was no doubt taking a gamble upsetting them by doing the interview,” the co-producer added.

Terpil, a CIA operative who resigned from the agency in 1970, is one of more than 70 U.S. fugitives reported to have received safe haven in Cuba. Many are viewed by Havana as victims of U.S. political persecution, such as black-rights militant Joanne Chesimard.

He fled the United States in 1980 to escape a U.S. indictment on charges of conspiracy to murder and delivering more than 20 tons of plastic explosives to Gadhafi and turned up in Lebanon but eventually settled in Cuba.

Cuba’s General Intelligence Directorate recruited Terpil, gave him the code name of Curiel — guinea pig — and used him in 1987 to try to recruit a CIA worker in the former Czechoslovakia, retired agency analyst Brian Latell wrote in his book, “Castro’s Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, the CIA and the Kennedy Assassination.”

The Canadian government announced in 1995 that its embassy in Havana had been told that Cuban authorities had arrested Terpil, but provided no details on the reasons for the detention or what happened to him afterward.

One foreigner living in Havana said that in 2000 a Cuban friend at a ballet performance pointed out a man sitting nearby and identified him as Terpil. The man was accompanied by a younger Cuban woman, the foreigner said.

Terpil fled the United States after U.S. federal prosecutors accused him and business partner Ed Wilson of conspiracy to commit murder and the sale of plastic explosives to Libya. A New York state court earlier had sentenced him to 53 years in prison after trying him in absentia on charges of conspiring to smuggle 10,000 submachine guns.

Chrisman said that during the Havana interview for the documentary, produced by Fresh One Productions for Showtime, Terpil admitted he helped Gadhafi run a campaign to track down and assassinate the Libyan dictator’s enemies abroad.

“I would say Murder Incorporated, yeah, murder for hire. Gadhafi thought that anybody who was a dissident, they were going to be eliminated,” Terpil said. In one case, he added, the dictator wanted the head of one of his foes brought to him in a cooler.

Chrisman said Terpil also recounted hiring two Cuban exiles from Miami, telling them they were to assassinate Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the terrorist known as “Carlos the Jackal.” The Cubans backed out when they realized the real target was a Gadhafi foe, he added.

“Terpil expressed no remorse or misgiving as he told his story matter-of-factly, with an edge of morbid humor, about his time helping to run and supply Gadhafi’s international terror campaign,” said a news release for the documentary.

A native of the New York City borough of Brooklyn, Terpil has claimed that he was forced to resign from the CIA after the agency learned that when he was posted in India he ran a hard-currency scam through Afghanistan, for his personal profit.

He has acknowledged working for dictators such as Uganda’s Idi Amin, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, as well as the governments of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt.

And he has sometimes claimed, and at times provided evidence, that he had CIA approval for some of his allegedly rogue operations. He was a close friend of Ted Shackley, a CIA deputy director of covert operations who died in 2002.

AFP Photo/Abdullah Doma

Cuba Sells Condoms After Expiration Dates To Address Shortage

By Juan O. Tamayo, The Miami Herald

Hoping to resolve a shortage of condoms that has sparked complaints around Cuba, the island’s public health system has approved the sale of more than one million prophylactics with apparently expired dates.

Pharmacy sales personnel must explain to the buyers that the condoms are good and simply have the wrong expiration dates, said a report Saturday in Vanguardia, the newspaper of the Communist Party in the central province of Villa Clara.

A Vanguardia report April 3 on the shortage said that the government agency in charge of certifying medical items in 2012 had noticed erroneous expiration dates on the “Moments” prophylactics imported from China.

The agency ordered the that the condoms be repackaged with the correct dates, the newspaper reported. But the state-run enterprise repackaging the more than a million condoms in stock does not have enough workers to process the 5,000 condoms per day required just in Villa Clara province.

Vanguardia did not publish the “wrong” dates, but its report hinted that they showed the prophylactics had expired or would soon expire. The shelf life of condoms is very long, it said.

“Although the lots are in optimal conditions, under the certificate of the Center for the State Control of Medicines and Medical Equipment the condoms could not be sold without the new expiration date, December of 2014,” Vanguardia reported Saturday.

“Due to the irregularities in the re-packaging, which has provoked prolonged absences of the prophylactics throughout the country, the Public Health Ministry authorized the sale of the ‘Moments’ condoms in their current packages,” on April 4, the newspaper added.

Several Cuban bloggers commented on the shortage long after April 4, with some noting that it could lead to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases as well as unwanted pregnancies and abortions.

The Cuban government, meanwhile, also published a list of companies around the world that are authorized to ship packages to the island, a business hit routinely with complaints of lost packages, high prices and outright fraud.

The list “will allow those who send these types of shipments from abroad to confirm that the agency they plan to use is among those authorized to carry out those operations with Cuba,” said a report in the government-controlled Cubadebate website.

The U.S. companies listed were: Wilson Int; Service Inc; Machi Community Services; Va Cuba; Caribe Express; Vía Cuba; Flor Caribe Inc; Caribbean Family And Travel Services Inc; Aztec Worldwide Airlines Inc; Procurements Systems Inc; Crowley Logistics Inc; Frontline Cargo Logistic; International Port Corp; Ez Shipping Llc; Centrotrading Llc; and V.I.P INTL INC.

The list, compiled by Cuba’s customs agency, also included Cugranca, a Spanish firm as approved to provide delivery and currency exchange services for people in the United States.

JTF Guantanamo photo by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Gino Reyes

Imprisoned U.S. Contractor Ends Hunger Strike In Cuba

By Juan O. Tamayo, The Miami Herald

U.S. government subcontractor Alan P. Gross, jailed in Havana for more than four years, called off a weeklong hunger strike but said there will be “further protests” against his treatment by the Cuban and U.S. governments.

“My protest fast is suspended as of today (Friday), although there will be further protests to come,” Gross was quoted as telling his Washington lawyer, Scott Gilbert, in a statement released by the family’s public relations firm.

“There will be no cause for further intense protest when both governments show more concern for human beings and less malice and derision toward each other,” the statement quoted Gross as saying.
Gross added that he had suspended his hunger strike, launched April 3, on Friday, because his mother asked him to stop, according to the statement. She will be 92 years old on Tuesday, the first day of Passover.

He had told Gilbert last week that he was not eating food but was taking liquids, and that he had lost 10 pounds, on top of the 100 pounds he shed after his arrest in Havana on Dec. 3, 2009.

The 64-year-old development specialist from Potomac, Md., is serving a 15-year sentence for delivering communications equipment, paid for by the U.S. Agency for International Development, to Cuban Jews. The equipment would have allowed direct access to the Internet, bypassing government filters and monitors.

Gilbert reported Tuesday that Gross had told him he started the fast after learning of an Associated Press report that USAID had launched a secret Twitter-like platform after his arrest, despite the risk that it would complicate his situation in Havana.

A Cuban foreign ministry official said the next day that her government was “concerned” about the hunger strike, saying he was imprisoned in a hospital to ensure proper medical care.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

UN Report: Cuba Violated The Arms Embargo On North Korea

By Juan O. Tamayo, El Nuevo Herald

MIAMI — Cuba violated the U.N. arms embargo on North Korea, refused to identify the Cuban entities involved in the violation and clearly intended that at least some of the weapons intercepted in Panama would be sold to the Asian country, said a United Nations report made public Tuesday.

Some of the “obsolete” Cuban weapons were still in their packing crates or had been calibrated just before they were put aboard the North Korean freighter Chong Chon Gang last summer, according to the report, and Cuban insignias on two MiG21s had been painted over.

Cuba also may have violated the arms embargo twice more in 2012 — once when North Korean military officers visited to assess Cuban armed forces equipment, and again when another North Korean freighter made the same suspicious stops in Cuba as the Chong Chon Gang.

The public part of the 127-page report makes no recommendations on sanctions for Cuban or North Korean entities involved in the 2013 shipment. But it includes mention of a secret annex submitted to the U.N. Security Council committee in charge of enforcing the sanctions.

AFP Photo/Jung Yeon-Je