Alan Gross, the American contractor arrested in Cuba in 2009 for delivering communication equipment to religious groups on the island, was sentenced to 15 years in prison Saturday. The AP begins its reporting on the Gross sentence with US government reactions. PJ Crowley – the now former State Dept. spokesperson -- said the US “deplored” the ruling while US National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor called the sentence “another injustice” against the 61-year-old Maryland native.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Gross’s work in Cuba has been portrayed quite differently by the US and its Cuban counterparts. According to the New York Times, the latter has insisted Gross was a spy working on a “subversive project of the U.S. government that aimed to destroy the revolution through the use of communications systems out of the control of authorities.” The former, meanwhile, has depicted Gross as a humanitarian, unjustly arrested for transporting to the island satellite telephone equipment, which could be used to bypass Cuban Internet restrictions.
The United States has admitted that Gross lacked a proper visa and that he was working on a secretive USAID program intended to expand internet access, the Times notes.
While the Wall Street Journal reports that Saturday’s sentencing “decreases chances the U.S. will push more conciliatory measures with Cuba in the near future,” the Times says that Mr. Gross could still be pardoned on “humanitarian grounds.” Now that the judicial process has concluded, the door to a “political solution” may open, says Philip Peters at Lexington Institute.
Gross’s US lawyer, Peter Kahn, says his client is also exploring the possibility of a judicial appeal.
USAID still spends some $20 million on programs in Cuba, according to the Times. And while American officials say they have plans to rework “democracy promotion” programs on the island so as to “emphasize educational exchanges and small-business growth rather than efforts that could be perceived as directly weakening the government,” Cuba analysts say the Obama administration has done little as of yet to make such changes, despite knowing their contractors are at serious risk under Cuban law.
Also in Cuba this weekend, the Miami Herald reports on the release of prominent dissident Oscar Biscet. Biscet was returned to his home in the Lawton neighborhood of Havana on Friday.
· Across the way in Haiti, there’s new word that former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide may be on his way back home in the coming days. Both an unnamed official in South Africa – the country Aristide has called home since 2004 – and an official in Aristide’s Lavalas party tell the AP that the former president’s return to Haiti is imminent. For its part, the US, which has long opposed Mr. Aristide’s return, called the issue a “matter for the government of Haiti” at a State Dept. briefing Friday. “The U.S. remains focused on helping ensure a peaceful and democratic transition of power in Haiti, and that the second round of elections, scheduled for March 20, accurately reflect the will of the Haitian people,” State spokesman Mark Toner tells the press. In the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady still seems optimistic about Sunday’s scheduled vote. Meanwhile, the BBC looks at recent endorsements of presidential contender Michel Martelly by at least five candidates who competed in Haiti’s fraud-ridden first round vote last November.
· In Mexico, the New York Times reports on efforts by some Mexican mayors to clean up local security forces. The specific focus of the report is Jalapa, a collection of small towns in the state of Tabasco, where a former air force major was brought in to train new security officials – many of them former soldiers. Jalapa’s mayor has apparently also hired outside help in the form of an Israeli private security contractor, Ilan Hendelman.
· In Ciudad Juarez, the AP says the Sinaloa cartel issued its first threat against the city’s new top cop, former Tijuana security chief, Julian Leyzaola. On Friday, an individual tortured by members of the cartel was found with a note from Sinaloa reading “This is your first gift.”
· The AP also reports on Mexican cartels further entry into Central America. IPS meanwhile highlights a UN summit, which will bring Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to Guatemala later this week to discuss regional security issues. Among other things, the meeting will include signing a two-year extension of UN support for Guatemala’s anti-impunity commission, CICIG. Presidents Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, Mauricio Funes of El Salvador, Porfirio Lobo of Honduras, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Ricardo Martinelli of Panama are all expected to attend the meetings.
· The Miami Herald has more on the Obama trip to Latin America, expected to begin Friday and end next Wednesday – should the federal government avoid a shut down this week. The paper quotes former Chilean official Sergio Bitar who commented on US-Latin America at the Inter-American Dialogue last week. “South America, especially, feels much more autonomous economically and politically now,” says Bitar. An old era of US paternalism, he adds, is “over” and “ended.” Peter Hakim, on the opinion pages of the Herald this week, seems to agree with that thinking and recommends that Obama use his visit to Brazil to endorse that country’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, as he did for India last year. NACLA, meanwhile, has an interesting look at what close US-Brazil relations have meant for US economic interests in Brazil.
· On regional integration, Mercopress confirms last week’s talk that former Colombian foreign minister María Emma Mejía and Venezuelan Minister of Electricity, Ali Rodriguez would split time as UNASUR secretary general. According to reports, Mejía will chair the organization for the next twelve months (starting in April) while Rodriguez will take over as the regional body’s secretary general for year two. TeleSur has more reports from this weekend’s UNASUR meetings in Quito, including on-going talk about the Bank of the South and Rafael Correa’s description of UNASUR as the embodiment of the region’s “second independence.” The Quito meetings were held to celebrate the organization becoming “legally effective.” According to the AP, a set of ALBA economic meetings were also held on the sidelines of the UNASUR gathering.
· TIME writes on Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez’s case at the IACHR.
· And new poll numbers in Peru show Ollanta Humala picking up support while three presidential front-runners – Alejandro Toledo, Keiko Fujimori, and Luis Castaneda – all fell slightly. According to the Universidad Católica de Perú survey, Toledo still leads the pack with 26.6%, followed by Fujimori at 19.3%, Castaneda at 17.3%, and Humala at 15.5%. Elections are set to be held on April 10.