Wednesday, September 14, 2011

U.S. Legislator Leaves Cuba Without Securing Release of Jailed USAID Contractor

Former governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson is heading back to the U.S. after arriving in Cuba on September 7, in an attempt to lobby for the release of jailed American contractor Alan Gross. After his arrest in Havana in December 2009, Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for distributing laptops and satellite communications equipment to Cubans, as part of a USAID program.

This was Richardson's second trip to Cuba in an effort to lobby for Gross's release. According to the Miami Herald, Richardson reportedly vowed he would not leave Havana until he was allowed a meeting with Gross, but his efforts to negotiate with Cuban authorities quickly stalled.

The White House, meanwhile, emphasized that Richardson was visiting Cuba as a private citizen, but reiterated calls that Cuba free Gross, reports Reuters.

The Washington Post notes that Richardson may have suffered a case of bad timing. His visit coincided with the anniversary of the "Cuban Five" case, a group of Cuban nationals currently serving time in the U.S. on espionage charges, who are treated as celebrities by the Havana government.

Gross was convicted in March 2011. A Cuban court upheld the ruling in August.

In other news:

· Updated results from the Guatemala elections signal there will be few changes in the Congressional seats. According to Central American Politics, President Alvaro Colom's Partido Patriotica kept 54 of its 56 seats, while the more leftist parties had an overall disappointing showing. In other post-election analysis, Bloggings by Boz comments on what the election says about the relationship between Guatemala's youth population and the country's violent history. Guatemalan analyst Carlos Mendozaobserves that the election reportedly saw a turnout of 69 percent, on par with the 1985 elections (the government's return to democracy after the military coup of '82). This also gives Guatemala one of the highest rates of voter turnout in Central America, Mendoza says.

· Venezuela announced elections will be held October 7, 2012, instead of the usual date in December, the Wall Street Journal reports. The question now is whether the opposition will move to change the date of the primary elections, scheduled for February 12. Besides Henrique Capriles, the current governor of Miranda state, other strong potential rivals to the still-popular President Hugo Chavez include former Caracas mayor Leopoldo Lopez, the WSJ notes. Lopez is barred from office on what he says are bogus corruption charges, and is set to find out later this week whether the Inter-American Court of Human Rights will overrule the ban.

· In Mexico, the Veracruz government says it may change its penal code so that the so-called "Twitter terrorists" face lower sentences. Right now, the two social medias users -- teacher Gilberto Martinez Vera and journalist Maria de Jesus Bravo -- could face up to 30 years in prison on charges of terrorism and sabotage. They stand accused of inciting panic in Veracruz by tweeting rumors that gunmen were attacking schools. If the two were charged with disrupting public order, they would face considerably softer sentences -- but first the Veracruz Congress will have to pass the proposed law. The LA Times notes that Veracruz authorities acknowledged the proposal is in response to intense pressure from human rights and free speech activists, who have reportedly rejected the proposal and are continuing to pressure for Martinez and Bravo's release.

· The Christian Science Monitor reports on the White House's decision to extend the deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops along the U.S.-Mexico border. The troops, mostly based in Arizona, will stay on the ground for an extra 90 days, potentially costing the government an extra $30 million.

· The Associated Press reports that Haiti's former president Jean-Betrand Aristide will soon make what will likely be a heavily promoted public appearance in October. The agenda is nothing unusual -- making a speech at the university he founded, University of the Aristide Foundation -- but it will be one of the first ceremonial appearances by Aristide since he returned to Haiti in March after seven years of exile.

· Former Argentinian president Carlos Menem was acquitted of arms trafficking charges, reports the AP. The ex-statesman admitted that he signed three secret decrees in a four-year period which authorized the export of weapons to Venezuela and Panama; some of those arms later ended up in Ecuador and Croatia, which were under an international embargo at the time. The defense argued that Menem had no idea where the weapons went after they were exported to Venezuela and Panama. Menem has been on trial since 2008, part of a dragged-out scandal which first began in 1995, when local newspaper El Clarin published an investigation detailing that Argentinian weapons were found in the Eastern European conflict zone.

· The Latin American Herald Tribune has a brief note on the first ever life sentences for extortion in Chihuahua, Mexico. The harsher sentences come in a package of reforms passed by the Chihuahua state congress, which voted in October 2010 to authorize life sentences for crimes like extortion, homicide and kidnapping. There have officially been over 24,000 reports of extortion since President Felipe Calderon assumed power in 2006.

· Mexico's peace caravan movement, led by poet Javier Sicilia, is set to cross the Guatemala border today. According to IPS, there are about 600 marchers, who are winding up a tour of southern Mexico, seeking to call attention to a wide range of issues, including the use of the military in Mexico's drug war, as well as violence against undocumented migrants.

· Brazil may soon begin withdrawing its peacekeeping force from Haiti, according to an IPS report. The country has the largest contingent of troops on the island, in an effort which some analysts have said is part of Brazil's bid to prove itself deserving of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

· The Miami Herald published a feature on Colombia's little-known Muslim communities along the Caribbean coast, many of them the descendants of Lebanese immigrants. The article spotlights the town of Maicao in Colombia's northernmost Guajira department, home to the country's largest Muslim population.