HAVANA, Aug 18 (IPS) — Cuba is getting ready to welcome tourists from the United States, in the event that the ban on travel by U.S. citizens to this Caribbean island nation is lifted, as well as clamouring more loudly for a presidential pardon for the five Cuban agents who have spent the last 12 years in U.S. prisons.
Although the state of bilateral relations appears too fragile to support such a change, rumours have been circulating about contacts taking place that could lead to the freeing of U.S. government contractor Alan Gross, jailed and under investigation in Havana, and a ticket home for “The Cuban Five”, as the agents are known.
Gross, a Jewish American, was arrested in Cuba on Dec. 3, 2009 and accused of espionage for distributing laptops, mobile phones and satellite equipment for internet connections, for subversive purposes according to the authorities.
The five Cubans — Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and René González — are serving lengthy sentences in different U.S. prisons after being arrested in 1998 and sentenced in 2001.
In 2005, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions declared that the deprivation of liberty of the five men was arbitrary and urged the U.S. government to take steps to remedy the situation.
The five were convicted of espionage, although the prosecution failed to prove that any of them had obtained documents considered secret or sensitive by the U.S. security services.
In Cuba they are hailed as heroes in the fight against terrorism, because they had infiltrated and were monitoring anti-Castro Cuban exile groups in Miami, Florida.
In recent weeks, former president Fidel Castro, apparently recovered from the serious illness that led to his stepping down from government four years ago, has raised expectations about the possibility that the Cuban Five may be freed “by the end of the year.” Washington, in turn, is insisting on Gross’s release on humanitarian grounds.
The conflict between Washington and Havana, and the U.S. embargo against Cuba, have lasted for nearly half a century.
In the view of Arturo López Levy, a Cuban émigré to the United States and a professor and researcher at the University of Denver, the release of the Cuban Five will become a more likely possibility to the extent that the two governments “negotiate constructively” on other strategic issues of mutual concern.
“If progress is made on matters of greater bilateral interest, which convinces government agencies in charge of foreign policy that the releases would be a rational move, it would make no sense to block that progress just to keep hold of prisoners whose trial was tarnished by dubious standards of justice and impartiality,” López Levy told IPS by e-mail.
Obama could make it happen
Esteban Morales, a Cuban academic expert on Cuba-U.S. relations, said President Barack Obama has full powers to pardon the Cuban Five.
Morales pointed out that “there was no evidence against them, and as for the charge that they were not registered as agents in the United States, they have already served their time for that.”
In his view, the Cuban Five represent a clear case of political aggression against Cuba. “It is a scandal that they should hold these men in prison, while terrorists and criminals (of Cuban origin) like Luis Posada Carriles or Orlando Bosch can stroll around the streets of Miami,” he said.
Speaking to IPS in Havana, Morales replied laconically “there may be something in it,” when asked about supposed negotiations which the Archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega, may be mediating.
Early this month, Cardinal Ortega visited Washington, where he met with White House National Security Adviser James Jones and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela, feeding rumours that releases might be announced soon.
Earlier this year, talks between Ortega and authorities led to the government’s announcement that it would release 52 imprisoned dissidents.
But Morales cautioned that there have been no substantial changes in relations between Washington and Havana since Obama “confirmed he would maintain the blockade, to which he clings as a vital element of his Cuba policy.”
In his view, Obama has “divided the blockade in two, if that were possible,” and is using it “intelligently, like the two blades of a pair of scissors against Cuba.” According to his analysis, the U.S. president is, on the one hand, taking measures to facilitate closer relations with Cuban civil society, and on the other hand, “tightening his fist against the Cuban government.”
“This division pursues subversive goals, it is being used to create internal pressure, to exploit the economic difficulties of our country, which are indeed urgent. If Obama has not spent more time on this it is because he has other pressing priorities, and he does not regard Cuba as a danger in any way,” the expert remarked.
In early August, Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero confirmed plans to build 16 golf courses, as part of a project that would include the sale of houses to foreigners in those areas. Apparently the government is already prepared to wager on an end to restrictions on travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba.
“There are hopes that the travel restrictions may be lifted, and we should be prepared for anything that may happen. We must get ready for tourism on a mass scale, and that demands higher standards. In any case, this is not an issue that involves the blockade, but a constitutional right of U.S. citizens that has been denied,” Morales said.
In this respect, Morales has no doubt that pressure in the U.S. Congress will keep mounting and will lead to the approval of a bill to lift the travel ban, and to allow more U.S. exports of food to Cuba. In June, the bill received the support of the House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture.
“The debate may incline towards lifting the travel ban, to the extent that it is appreciated that good business can be done with Cuba. In order for that to happen, our economy must improve, otherwise no capital will enter the country,” Morales said.