Cuba-US: Frosty relations no bar to communication

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HAVANA, Jul 3 (IPS) - Cuba and the United States are poised to resume talks on migration issues any time now, although the five Cuban agents imprisoned in the U.S. remain 'a formidable obstacle' to normalising bilateral relations, according to Cuban parliament president Ricardo Alarcón.

Their continued detention proves there is still 'official U.S. complicity with terrorism against Cuba,' he said.

'There can be no normal relations between two countries if one is harbouring and supporting terrorist activities, on its own territory, against the other,' he added.

In an interview with IPS, Alarcón said U.S. President Barack Obama, whom he regards as 'an honest person,' could solve the case in a number of ways. 'He could reduce their sentences or pardon them,' he said.

'This would greatly benefit the Obama administration and send a very favourable message to Latin America, because the message so far has been a continuation of the policies of his predecessor, (former U.S. president) George W. Bush (2001-2009), who was unpopular in the region,' said Alarcón.

The head of the Cuban parliament is an expert negotiator with the United States, and the most visible government leader in the campaign to free Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino and René González, who were convicted of spying and are serving long sentences in different U.S. prisons.

On Jun. 15 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal on behalf of the Cuban Five, after the Atlanta appeals court upheld the sentences of Hernández, who received two life sentences plus 15 years, and René González, sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The court in Atlanta also asked the federal court in Miami to review the sentences of Labañino, given life plus 18 years, Fernando González, given 19 years, and to Guerrero, sentenced to life plus 10 years. The three are to appear in court for re-sentencing by Judge Joan Lenard – the same judge who handed down their original penalties in 2001 after a seven-month trial.

In the appeal, presented in January this year, counsel for the Cuban Five – as they are widely known - asked the Supreme Court to pay particular attention to the life sentence handed down to Hernández, because it 'illustrates the manifest injustice' of the trial. Hernández had no supervisory responsibility whatsoever in the small network of Cuban intelligence agents that monitored and infiltrated Cuban exile groups in Miami, they said.

Alarcón insisted that the ruling by the apex court does not affect President Obama's constitutional power to withdraw charges against the accused before, during or after a trial. 'In the case of the Cuban Five he has a moral obligation to do so,' he argued, referring to other instances in which presidents have intervened.

For example, he mentioned that the U.S. Justice Department recently dropped charges against Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) who were accused of passing defence secrets to an Israeli embassy diplomat.

In contrast, the Atlanta appeals court unanimously found that the sentences of three of the five Cuban prisoners (Hernández, Labañino and Guerrero) were not lawful, because they had neither sought nor passed on any military secrets, nor had they endangered U.S. national security.

The sentences for this charge were therefore declared null and void, except in the case of Hernández who was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, although the prosecution itself asked to withdraw this accusation in 2001 for lack of evidence.

That request was denied and the five were convicted on all charges. In Alarcon's view, President Obama should withdraw the baseless charge against Hernández, he said.

Although all possible legal channels will be pursued, Alarcón believes it has been 'a political trial, from beginning to end,' motivated by the U.S. government's desire to help anti-Cuban terrorist groups in Miami. It all began in the summer of 1998, when a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) delegation from the U.S. visited Cuba, he said.

Alarcón, also a member of the Politburo of Cuba’s Communist Party, said the visitors were sent by then U.S. president Bill Clinton (1993-2001) to gather information about the activities of these groups, which are also a threat to U.S. citizens, 'purportedly to take preventive action against them.'

But the information they were given was transferred to the FBI office in Miami, penetrated to the core by the terrorist groups, which are interlinked. 'They saw there was a possibility the two governments would come to an agreement, so they decided to strike a blow to keep that from happening,' Alarcón said.

That was when the Cuban agents were arrested in southern Florida in September 1998. Now the groups' leaders in Miami are talking openly about their plans to attack Latin American leaders, Alarcón warned.

'They feel they have support, and it's not just terrorism against Cuba they're planning. I'm not saying this was President Obama's intention, but it is the consequence' of what has gone before, said Alarcón. In his view, if Washington wants better relations with Latin America, it must first mend its bridges with Havana. 'Everyone has been saying that,' he said.

'Besides, Obama won in Florida and in Miami itself (in the November 2008 elections) without the support of the Cuban groups engaged in politics. He owes those people nothing. A principled policy against anti-Cuban terrorism would earn him support and recognition throughout Latin America, and also in the United States,' he said.

The Cuban government and defence counsel for the Five say their mission was to monitor anti-Castro terrorist groups. According to official sources, some 681 'proved and documented' acts of terrorism and aggression on the island have caused the deaths of 3,478 men, women and children and lifelong disability for 2,099 people.

Alarcón confirmed that the six-monthly bilateral talks to review progress on the 1994 and 1995 migration agreements, interrupted by Bush in January 2004, are to be resumed. The forthcoming round will be held in the United States, which as the host country will set the start date.

According to Alarcón, the migration talks could be a framework for the two countries to come closer on further cooperation in areas like combating terrorism, drug trafficking and human trafficking. Cuba proposed these as possible areas for bilateral discussions in 2001, but to no avail.

'Just because two countries have very bad relations doesn't mean that they can't communicate. At the naval base in Guantánamo Bay (in eastern Cuba), the place that most clearly symbolises confrontation, there is regular contact, in the interests of both military establishments,' he said.

In his view, such contacts are 'an opportunity to talk to the other side, to find out what they are thinking.

'Nearly always, ever since the days of (former U.S. president) John Kennedy (1961-1963), there have been secret private contacts between both sides. The one who cut off all communication was Bush