South Africa-Cuba relations; US embargo & Cuban Five, with Deputy Minister

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International Relations

04 June 2013
Chairperson: Mr T Magama (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Cuban Ambassador, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), and the Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation met with the Portfolio Committee to discuss South Africa-Cuba relations; the US embargo and the Cuban Five.

The Department’s presentation looked at: ▪ Historical context ▪ Bilateral relations ▪ Multilateral relations ▪ US Embargo and the Cuban Five. The Committee was reminded how Cuba contributed to the struggles of the peoples of the region (SADC), against domination and apartheid. Thereafter, the Cuba contribution towards addressing some of the South African government’s domestic priorities, such as health, education, sport and rural development were noted. The dialogue included the embargo imposed by the United States on Cuba in 1960. Fifty years later, relations between the two countries remain at a standstill. The US has not had full diplomatic relations with Cuba since 1961. Also discussed was SA's solidarity with Cuba regarding the incarceration of five Cubans in an American jail since 1998.

The Cuban Ambassador focused on the trial and conviction of the Cuban Five, who were arrested by FBI agents in Miami 1998. They were accused of conspiracy against the US government. On the contrary, their mission in the United States was monitoring the activities of Cuban exile groups responsible for terrorist activities against Cuba, based in Florida.

Members' questions included why Cuba had not taken any legal action against the United States to get the embargo lifted; how could South Africa facilitate talks between the two countries; what were the human rights issues which the United States had against Cuba; were any international courts involved in forcing America to release the Cuban Five? Members suggested that the American embassy should be invited to meet with the Committee so that its side of the argument could be heard. However the Chairperson said that the embassy had been invited but said the Consul General had said the embassy was not allowed to appear before Parliamentary Committees and give briefings. However, it was willing to meet with the Committee and discuss all such matters off the record. Members were not pleased with that suggestion. Instead the Chairperson proposed that the Committee hold a symposium or seminar, where the US embassy would be invited for a discussion on the US-Cuban stalemate. The Cuban ambassador indicated that the Cuban President had requested a meeting with the US President on several occasions, but the US President had declined.

Meeting report

Chairperson’s opening remarks
The Chairperson welcomed the Members and the Ambassador (Acting) from the Embassy of the Republic of Cuba, as well as the members from the Department. He said the Committee had been trying for a while to engage with Cuba through its embassy in order to have a conversation on South Africa – Cuba relations, and to look at where the relationship was going. He added that the African National Congress national conference at Mangaung had taken resolutions on South Africa’s relations with Cuba (see Appendix), and so the briefings needed to inform all Committee Members on what the plans were going forward and also to conduct oversight work. During the Department’s Budget Vote, the discussion on Cuba brought with it a great deal of excitement for a variety of reasons.

He raised three points, first he congratulated Members on a robust Budget Vote, second he drew attention to the conflict in Syria and how the international system of governance had failed the people of Syria. The latest development that there was a possible influx of arms into Syria was a serious concern. Parliamentarians therefore needed to take a different approach from the global governance system, as it lacked accountability, and internal democracy. It was a system based on unequal partnerships. Members therefore needed to engage various organisations and seek some sort of reform, because waiting on governments was no longer an option. Lastly, there was the debate in Swaziland about what the Committee had decided on so far about its fact-finding mission in Swaziland. Added to that, Swaziland claimed to have minutes from one of the Committee meetings where a decision was made on the task team. However, according to the Chairperson, that was strange because the minutes Swaziland was referring to had not yet been adopted by the Committee.

SA-Cuba Relations: by Department of International Relations and Cooperative Governance
Ms Yolisa Maya, Deputy Director- General: Americas and the Caribbean, Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) said that Cuba was one of South Africa’s greatest partners in international relations. The bilateral, political and multilateral relations between South Africa and Cuba were excellent, underpinned by historical ties forged in the common struggle against apartheid, colonization and repression. South Africa-Cuba relations were established long ago between the then liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC) and the government and Communist Party of Cuba. The pre-1994 support given for the liberation of SA included the education of South African students, international, military, political and material support. After 1994, Cuba was one of the first to offer material and human resource support.

She highlighted that Cuba, Angola, South Africa and the USA had participated in the international peace negotiations that followed after the ceasefire agreement in Angola. As for bilateral relations, Cuba was a key partner to focus on in enhancing foreign policy objectives in pursuit of South Africa’s identified domestic priorities.

South Africa’s successful bilateral relations with Cuba were evident in the fields of science and technology, health, trade and industry, arts and culture, education, minerals and energy, transport, human settlements, defence and home affairs. South Africa was a beneficiary of Cuba’s ongoing assistance in the form of scholarships for our youth. There were currently close to 1 400 South African students studying medicine in Cuban universities, and a total of 323 South African graduates from the Cuba programme now work as medical doctors in various South African hospitals.

The South Africa Cuba Joint Bilateral Commission (JBC) was established in February 2001 as a co-ordinating forum for the periodic review of bilateral co-operation projects in identified areas of economic, scientific, technical and commercial cooperation and the extension of cooperation into new areas. South Africa had placed priority in its Skills Development Programmes and benefited in more than one way from the relationship with Cuba in this. South Africa had also repeatedly joined the majority of countries in expressing opposition to all aspects of the embargo by the United States of America. In addition, South Africa has consistently voted against the UN Resolutions on the Situation of Human Rights in Cuba. Fifty years after the United States enacted an embargo on all trade and commercial transactions with Cuba, relations between the two countries remain at a standstill. The US had not had full diplomatic relations with Cuba since 1961.

Through the commitment and dedication of the Cuba – South Africa Friendship Organisation FOCUS, South Africans had been sensitised on issues pertaining to Cuba. FOCUS has been the driving force in mobilising support for the various solidarity campaigns for Cuba in South Africa, including the release of the Cuban Five imprisoned in the USA. The Cuban Five are Gerardo Hernandez – 2 life terms plus 15 years; Ramon Labañino – 1 life term plus 10 years; Antonio Guerrero – 1 life term plus 10 years; Fernando Gonzalez – 19 years and Rene Gonzalez – 15 Years. They were charged with conspiracy.

Presentation: Embassy of Cuba on the Cuban Five
Hon Eliq Savon Oliva, Charge d’Affaires, Embassy of Cuba, gave a detailed presentation and outline of the five Cuban men who were arrested in Miami by Federal Bureau Intelligence (FBI) agents. The ‘Cuban Five’ as they are commonly referred to, are five Cuban men: Gerardo Hernandez, Ramón Labañino, Fernando Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero and René Gonzalez who were arrested in 1998, accused of conspiracy against the US. On the contrary, their mission in the United States was monitoring the activities of the groups and organizations responsible for terrorist activities against Cuba, basically anti-Cuban groups in Florida. Three of them, Gerardo, Ramón and Antonio were also accused of conspiracy to commit espionage. In spite of the vigorous objections raised by the Five’s defence, the case was tried in Miami, Florida, a community with more than half a million exiled Cubans with a long history of hostility toward the Cuban government, an environment that a US federal court of appeals would later describe as a "perfect storm" of prejudices, which, in this case, prevented the holding of a fair trial.

He continued that the trial, which lasted over six months, becoming the longest trial that the United States had known until then. More than 119 volumes of testimony and over 20,000 pages of documents were compiled, including the testimonies of three retired Army generals and a retired admiral, who agreed that, no evidence existed of espionage. The jury nonetheless found the Five guilty of all charges, under intense pressure brought to bear on them by the local media.

Initial sentences were:
Gerardo Hernández Nordelo: 2 life terms plus 15 years
Ramón Labañino Salazar: 1 life term plus 18 years
Antonio Guerrero Rodríguez: 1 life term plus 10 years (plus 5 years of supervised release in US)
Fernando González Llort: 19 years
René González Sehwerert: 15 years (plus 3 years of supervised release in US territory)

Despite several defence motions, Judge Joan Lenard refuses to move the trial venue out of Miami. Within days of their unjust conviction, the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five was formed in the United States. On 25 May 2005 the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions issued its first opinion ever on a United States trial, in the matter of the Cuban Five, calling on the US government to remedy numerous irregularities. According to Ambassador Oliva, the President of Cuba, Raul Castro had on several occasions tried to meet and talk with the US President, Barack Obama, but the US President was unwilling to cooperate.

Ms L Jacobs (ANC) said the President of the United States, Barack Obama had made a plea for the disbandment of Guantanamo Bay. She wondered how far that process was. With regard to trade and investment between Cuba and South Africa, she asked why there were no direct flights between Cuba and South Africa. Progress in this regard seemed to be very slow. As for the Cuban doctors in South Africa, she asked whether there was any agreement about in which areas these doctors would work upon arrival in South Africa. There was a higher need for doctors in rural areas rather than in urban areas. She then proposed that the Committee embark on a study tour to Cuba.

Ms P Ngubeni-Maluleka (ANC) thanked the Department and the Ambassador for the presentations. She asked whether the Hon Oliva could make copies of his presentation document available to Members. She asked when the international peace negotiations had taken place between Cuba, Angola, South Africa and the United States. What was the outcome of the negotiations? Were there any accords signed? Why was the embargo not lifted in Cuba afterwards?

Ms C Dudley (ACDP) extended an appreciation for both presentations. On the embargo and the Cuban Five situation, she asked whether the United States would be invited to give their side of the story. She said there was obviously a breakdown of trust between the two countries and was Cuba responding in order to rebuild its relationship with the United States. How could South Africa facilitate talks between the two countries?

Mr E Eloff (DA) asked if there was any direct or indirect aid from the United States. Also were there any resistance movements inside or outside Cuba. What were the human rights issues which the United States had against Cuba? Were any international courts involved in forcing America to release the Cuban Five? He asked that the Chairperson invite the United States embassy to respond to some of the questions which Members had on the matter of Cuba.

Ms W Newhoudt-Drunchen (ANC) asked if America had prevented other countries from exporting to Cuba, or was the United States the only country not exporting to Cuba?

Father Michael Lapsley said he had always been a long time admirer of Cuba’s solidarity with South Africa, and the role which Cuba played in facilitating South Africa’s freedom from apartheid. He had been one of the first victims of De Klerk’s government and the Cuban Ambassador at the time extended free medical attention to him. He had visited Gerardo Hernández in United States prisons over five times. Hernández was serving a double-life sentence for a crime he did not commit. The deep irony was that the Cuban Five were in prison because they had prevented terrorism. The State department of the United States was refusing to provide information on the journalists who had received bribes from the United States government to provide false information on the Cuban Five during trial. He suggested that the United States President, Barack Obama, use his Nobel Peace Prize to rectify the unfair judgement of the Cuban Five. He welcomed the Members' suggestions that the United States embassy be called in to give a full account of the Cuban Five case.

The Chairperson announced that the Committee had been trying for over a year to have the Cuban matter on the agenda. The American embassy had been invited, but they declined to appear before the Committee to discuss Cuba. The Consul General of the United States said the embassy was not allowed to appear before Parliamentary Committees and give briefings. However the Consul General indicated that they could meet with the Committee off-record and have a discussion on the matter. However there was declassified information available from the United States about a variety of issues on Cuba, one of which was pertaining to the bribing of journalists. So the Committee should not hold its breath waiting for the American embassy to appear before the Committee.

The Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Mr Marius Fransman, noted that the Western Cape government had taken a decision not to take in any medical personnel from and not to send any medical students to Cuba; and this was a political decision. They questioned the quality of health care professionals from Cuba and the quality of Cuban medical education. Also, Cuba had used skills as an export strategy, in both engineering and in the health profession. The issue about trade and investment was that the Cuban and South African economic systems were different from each other; and this made trade very difficult in some cases. The reality was that over the last three years, Cuba had gone through a reconfiguring model on how best to engage global institutions and trading partners. At every international engagement, South Africa had raised the matter of Cuban-US relations and the embargo. The matter was a very complicated one and needed to be engaged delicately.

The Chairperson thanked the Deputy Minister for his contribution.

Mr Eloff asked the Chairperson to request the Committee researchers to provide Members with full information on Cuba. He reiterated that the Committee needed to meet with the United States embassy even if it was an unofficial meeting.

The Chairperson responded and said personally he had no problem engaging the United States embassy informally; however it was up to Members to decide if they wanted to engage the US embassy on the matter. The broader issues of debate however had extra-territorial impacts. He made an example of the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States.

Ambassador Oliva responded to the questions and said that President Obama had received an open letter from Hernández and it was publicised in many places. The President had the power to release the Cuban Five but was not willing to. On the question on Guantanamo Bay, he responded that Guantanamo was illegally owned by the United States and was therefore illegitimate because the US was not allowed to have such prisoners in the United States. However, President Obama had promised to close down the prison but had not been compliant to date. He explained to the Committee that Cuba had obtained information about a plan to kill the US president, and informed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). However, the FBI did not even relay any word of thank you. Instead, upon receiving that information; they arrested the Cuban Five and did not arrest the terrorists. He noted that the international peace negotiations were held in 1988. On the embargo, he said the international community had continually asked the United States to lift the embargo, but they were not yet willing. He agreed with the Members that it would be good to have the United States embassy meet with the Committee to discuss the matter of Cuba. He explained that the hostility of the United States against Cuba was historical in nature since the Cuban revolution, and mostly because of Cuba’s relations with the Soviet Union. As for exports between the US and Cuba, he said the US paid Cuba in advance for the exports.

The Chairperson thanked the Ambassador for the responses.

Ms Maya responded on the question of the absence of direct flights between South Africa and Cuba and said the Joint Bilateral Commission was a platform where such issues that needed sorting out, were streamlined between the countries. Flights agreements however were dependant on the individual carriers.

The Chairperson said the embargo was a domestic public issue for the United States, which was similar to the Palestinian issue in South Africa. He commented on the difficulty in resolving the troubling Cuba-US relations. The matter did not seem to be of national importance to the United States. Regardless of the changes in global structure and governance, the relationship between Cuba and the United States remained unchanged, and this was a serious concern. He asked why the Cuban government had not legally challenged the United States government on the embargo.

Hon Oliva responded and said since the implementation of the embargo, Cuba had lost huge amounts of money. The President of Cuba had on several occasions offered to meet with the United States government on any issue which was a concern; however the United States was unwilling to do so.

The Chairperson said as a way forward, the Committee could propose a visit to Cuba, or the Committee could collect research papers on the Cuba-US matter or the Committee could propose an off-record meeting with the American embassy. He asked if the Committee was in favour of an off-record meeting.

Ms Jacobs said the Committee should not engage the US embassy off-record; any discussions should be on-record.

The Chairperson proposed that the Committee organise a seminar or symposium to address the matter on Cuba publicly.

Mr Eloff said if the seminar failed then the Committee needed to engage them off-record.

The Chairperson replied that if the seminar / symposium failed it would mean the American embassy had no interest in engaging the Committee or the public on the matter.

Ms Dudley said the Committee did on some occasions have unofficial meetings with various stakeholders. The Committee needed to engage the American embassy in a non-threatening manner.

The Chairperson said engaging the embassy off-record would be of little use with what the Committee was trying to achieve. Discussions which took place off-record could not be discussed publicly.

Ms Dudley replied that the Committee needed to devise a strategy of engaging the embassy without pushing them away, but rather attempt to understand them better.

The Chairperson commented that the Committee should avoid setting a precedent where other stakeholders could also easily opt for off-record discussions on serious matters.

Ms Ngubeni- Maluleka agreed with the Chairperson that the American embassy should not be engaged privately.

Ms Newhoudt-Gruchen agreed with the Chairperson that if the embassy was not willing to meet with the Committee on-record, they should not be engaged at all.

The Chairperson said if Members were invited to embassy dinners or any informal gathering, Members were free to discuss such matters with the embassy. However, the Committee would only be engaging the embassy at a formal level, preferably at a symposium, similar to the one the Committee had had with Israel and Palestine. It would be very difficult for the Committee to divulge information received off the record. He thanked all members and their input.

The meeting was adjourned.

Resolutions of the ANC's 53rd National Conference, Mangaung, December 16-20 2012

Cuban solidarity and the release of the Cuban Five Campaign:
a. The ANC continues to support the campaign for the Release of the Cuban Five that is profiled and re-iterated in its commitment to the cause of the Cuban people.
b. The ANC calls on the international community to remove the economic embargo against Cuba as per UN resolutions.
c. The ANC calls on the South African Parliament to pass a resolution calling for the release of the Cuban Five (5).
d. The ANC is to increase the trade between South Africa and Cuba to reinforce our foreign policy position on our solidarity with Cuba.


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