December 26, 2001

Cuba News

The Miami Herald

The Miami Herald

Cubans envoys' access to public not matched in Havana

By Tim Johnson. . Published Tuesday, December 25, 2001

WASHINGTON -- When Cuba's former top diplomat in Washington, Fernando Remírez, went to address the World Affairs Forum of Stamford, Conn., earlier this year, he delivered a simple, straightforward message.

"He talked in general terms about how much better the situation would be in Cuba if the [U.S. trade] embargo were lifted,'' recalled Eileen Heaphy, executive director of the group.

The message, repeated endlessly by Cuban diplomats around the United States, is part of a growing effort by the government of Fidel Castro to influence U.S. public opinion. To judge from the impression of some listeners, the message may be having an impact.

"He was one of our most successful speakers,'' said Arthur Hull, executive director of the Cincinnati World Affairs Council, where Remírez also spoke. "People were really moved. . . . He opened up people's minds.''

"The Cubans over the past three years have made enormous strides in figuring out how to make meaningful contact around the United States,'' said Sally Grooms Cowal, president of the Cuba Policy Foundation, which seeks the lifting of the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

The flurry of Cuban diplomatic activity in the U.S. heartland is one of the latest twists in the strained relations between two nations that generally treat one another's diplomats as hostile and widely suspect them of nefarious activities like spying.

The two nations have no diplomatic relations, yet maintain large diplomatic missions -- known as interests sections -- in each other's capitals.

The seven-story U.S. Interests Section on the Havana waterfront is a city landmark and, with its 51 accredited U.S. diplomats and 280 Cuban employees, is larger than any current embassy in Havana.


Cuba's mission in Washington, which has up to 26 diplomats, is small yet successful at maneuvering within the circumscribed limits that the two nations place on diplomats.

In Cuba's case, U.S. officials further tightened those limits in mid-October, responding to the Sept. 21 arrest of a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst as a Cuban spy. Cuban diplomats are now confined to a 273-square-mile area around Washington unless they notify the State Department 72 hours in advance. The area roughly equals the region around Havana where U.S. diplomats can go without prior notice.

When Cuban diplomats notify the U.S. government within the requisite 72 hours of their travel plans, they generally are never turned down, authorities said.

Despite the apparent symmetry, critics say the treatment of Cuban and U.S. diplomats is unequal. Cuban diplomats, capitalizing on the open U.S. society and revived interest in things Cuban, travel all over the country to speak about U.S.-Cuban relations, appealing directly to the people. Cuban-American activists demand a new arrangement that guarantees U.S. diplomats a reciprocal level of access in Cuba.

"We in the United States cannot allow unfettered access to Castro officials without requiring equal access to U.S. officials in Cuba,'' said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami. "Reciprocity is a two-way street.''

"The Cubans go everywhere,'' complained Dennis K. Hays of the Cuban American National Foundation. "They wander around Congress all the time.''

A staffer for another lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said the Castro government has never allowed U.S. diplomats to roam through the National Assembly or speak at the University of Havana.

"There's a qualitative difference between a Cuban diplomat going to Boston University and giving an anti-embargo speech and a U.S. diplomat sneaking over to the home of a dissident, then coming out to find his tires slashed,'' the staffer said.

But even as activists push for a crackdown on Cuban diplomatic activities, the senior U.S. diplomat in Havana said a crackdown would only rebound against U.S. interests.


"I think it's working pretty well right now,'' Vicki Huddleston said by telephone from Havana. "We have much, much, much better access than we did three or four years ago. When I came down here 2 1/2 years ago, we could seldom see provincial party and government officials. And now it's pretty much normal.''

Contacts with academic, human rights and cultural figures are modest, however, and the government often discourages public figures from attending functions at her residence.

"They are often told not to go,'' Huddleston said. "It's stupid and petty.''

A partial review of official travel records shows the extent of Cuban diplomatic travel, more than 70 trips since early 2000. Speaking engagements were listed for Loyola Law School, the University of South Florida, Brown University, Morehouse School of Medicine, Louisiana Tech, the University of Illinois, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of California at Santa Barbara and St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn.

Cuban diplomats also spoke to the National Council of Churches, the Kansas and Missouri Farm Bureaus, the National Lawyers Guild convention, the California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the International Agricultural Trade Summit in Houston. They traveled for meetings with Mayor Michael C. Dow of Mobile, Ala., Mayor Larry Delgado of Santa Fe, N.M., and Gov. George H. Ryan of Illinois.

Sightseeing or private meetings took Cuban diplomats repeatedly to New York City, Chicago, Minneapolis and Dallas.

A spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section, Luis Fernández, said Cuban diplomats are flooded with invitations to speak.

"We spend our lives traveling,'' Fernández said. "There are a variety of invitations from universities, academics and solidarity groups with Cuba.''

The new chief of Cuba's mission, Dagoberto Rodríguez, has traveled less, partly because U.S. attention has been captive of the war against terrorism. But Cuban diplomats still voice interest in going anywhere.

"I have the general impression from the Cuban Interests Section here that they are ready, willing and able to go out and speak,'' said Jerry W. Leech, president of the World Affairs Councils of America.

Earlier this year, when U.S. diplomats asked to address groups in Cuba equivalent to U.S. groups receiving Cuban diplomats, they were told no.

"The Cubans said, 'No patriotic Cuban wants to speak to you,' '' one U.S. official in Washington recalled.

Because of the vast differences in the two societies, diplomats say it is difficult to balance treatment. In official contacts, U.S. diplomats in Havana may have an edge.

"I have access on an occasional basis to [Ricardo] Alarcón, who you could say is the No. 3 in the government,'' said Huddleston, the U.S. envoy in Havana, "and occasional access to José Arbesú, the head of the Americas department of the Communist Party.''

In the U.S. executive branch, Cuban diplomats are limited to seeing a deputy assistant secretary of State, and no one in the Pentagon or other departments, although they can freely visit Congress.

Complicating the issue is the constant threat of espionage.

"The FBI tells us that over half the people in their mission are intelligence officers. . . . They are very active,'' said the legislative staffer.

A former U.S. diplomat in Havana, Jay Taylor, said spying is one area where parity may exist: "It is clearly something both sides do.''

Man suspected in attempted smuggling of 30 Cubans is held at Krome

By Charles Rabin. . Published Wednesday, December 26, 2001.

A man suspected of trying to smuggle 30 Cubans to the United States last week was taken to the Krome Detention Center on Saturday, the same day the entire boatload of refugees was repatriated to the island nation.

Authorities would not release the man's name or confirm what, if any, charges were filed against the alleged smuggler.

They did say that after spending a day being questioned aboard the Coast Guard cutter Venturous, the Cuban group of 30 was transferred to the 110-foot Sapelo, which took them for the more than 90-mile ride to Guantanamo Bay.

All were said to be in good condition.

"One suspected smuggler was transferred to the Immigration and Naturalization Service Saturday,'' Coast Guard spokeswoman Anastasia Burns said.

"We can confirm at least that,'' said Rodney Germain, INS spokesman in Miami.

"We had one arrest for smuggling. He's at Krome,'' said Joe Mellia, assistant chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol.

Mellia said authorities would not provide any other information on the alleged smuggler until criminal charges are officially filed with the court. That had not happened by Tuesday, he said.

Four days after authorities became aware of the group's attempt to make it to U.S. shores, details of the event remain sketchy.

What is known is that Friday morning, a fisherman spotted a 31-foot speedboat about 17 miles east of Cape Florida after someone on the craft had sent up a flare. Within two hours, the Coast Guard was on the scene and had determined the boat ran out of gas.

The rough seas that day forced the Coast Guard to tow the speedboat to calmer waters. At one point after the group was transferred to the Venturous, it got within six miles of shore, floating north in the Florida Straits.

U.S. policy since 1995 has been to repatriate Cubans who do not make it to shore, after they are interviewed. Apparently, no one's claims of political persecution were enough to persuade immigration officials to let them gain entry.

The arrest of the alleged smuggler could be a coup for U.S. authorities, which usually have a tough time prosecuting because many migrants are reluctant to cooperate with officials.

Copyright 2001 Miami Herald


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