Cuba wrap-up: US fugitives, prisoner swaps, and a spike in illegal immigration

The US Coast Guard reports that illegal migration from Cuba is up; meanwhile, hope is dim that the release of the first 'Cuban Five' from jail would pave the way for Cuba to free American Alan Gross.

By , Guest blogger

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    Supporters of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross hold a vigil in front of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 23.
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As reasonable Cuba watchers were tearing our hair out over US envoy Bill Richardson's failed mission to Cuba, and growing increasingly despairing over the bitter tit-for-tat that followed, two fugitives from American justice were apprehended in Cuba and turned over to US marshals, who then escorted them back to New Jersey where they appeared in court on murder, kidnapping, and arson charges. The two stand accused of killing a 23 year-old man just over one year ago. New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez's press release thanking Cuban authorities for their cooperation is here (Just kidding). Makes you wonder when Cuba informed US authorities that it had apprehended the two suspects relative to the August release of the 2010 terrorism report (in which the subject of fugitives living in Cuba was not, for the first time in a number of years, included in that report, which I think makes sense – it should be a law enforcement issue.

Meanwhile, Cuban Parliament President Ricardo Alarcon, a tireless advocate for the Cuban Five, advises US authories to pull up a chair and get comfortable if they are waiting for Cuba to release USAID subcontractor Alan Gross unilaterally. Alarcon points out, a trade of Rene Gonzalez, who had nearly finished his term in jail (but is still stuck in the US for three years of supervised release) for Alan Gross, two years in on a 15 year sentence, would not have been equitable. But by that rationale, expecting a trade for the other four of the Five wouldn't be reasonable either.

The US Coast Guard reports that illegal migration from Cuba is on its way – sharply – back up, after declining for several years. That decline was probably due to several factors – a program to fast-track backlogged visa requests by Cubans with family in the US to sponsor relatives wanting to join them, and perhaps declining incomes with which American relatives could pay fast boat smugglers to bring their loved ones over. But with the popular family reunification program still in place, why the uptick in illegal trips? The folks at CATO think it means reforms to the Cuban economy aren't working. Perhaps that's not too far off the mark – the reforms have certainly taken time to implement, and then in a number of cases, they've been revised and restarted. Some small businesses will succeed, but so many face high taxes and arbitrary rules. As Raul Castro made clear in his speech earlier this summer to the Cuban Parliament, resistance by bureaucrats is also a big problem, one with which he's growing impatient.

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But what to do about it? He can't go intervening in every instance that rules implementing changes are so tight as to make some reforms meaningless. Word is more changes are coming that will better encourage private enterprise and better release the productive energies of such a highly educated workforce. But I think if he wants these reforms to work, and bureaucrats to get out of the way, the best way to push them out of the way is go further out on a public limb about what the end result should look like. Maybe it's time for Raul Castro to lay out for the public more specifically what changes he wants to see (beyond ending the "stupidities," and advancing the principles of efficiency and each earns according to their contribution). He should emphasize broad economic opportunity with exceptions to that being just that – exceptions – and maybe in this way, forcing the bureaucrats' hand and moving the reforms more quickly ahead.

--- Anya Landau French blogs for The Havana Note, a project of the "US-Cuba Policy Initiative,” directed by Ms. Landau French, at the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.

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