On Jan. 9 a federal district judge in New York, J. Paul Oetken, dismissed a lawsuit seeking compensation from the United Nations for a cholera epidemic introduced into Haiti in October 2010 by infected soldiers from the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). "The UN is immune from suit unless it expressly waives its immunity," Judge Oetken wrote in his decision, which was based on the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN and a US appeals court ruling in a 2010 sexual discrimination case. Lawyers from the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), representing thousands of Haitian cholera victims, said they would appeal the decision, which came three days before the fifth anniversary of an earthquake that devastated much of southern Haiti.
The heads of the three branches of the Haitian government reached an accord late on Dec. 29 aimed at heading off a constitutional crisis when the terms of one-third of the country's senators expire on Jan. 12, leaving the Parliament without a quorum. The agreement—signed by President Michel Martelly, Senate president Simon Dieuseul Desras, Chamber of Deputies president Jacques Stevenson Thimoléon and Superior Council of the Judicial Branch president Arnel Alexis Joseph—extends terms to April for current members of the Chamber of Deputies and to September for current senators. The term extension will be inserted into legislation amending the electoral law and will only take effect if Parliament passes it by Jan. 12. In the event that the long-stalled election law is passed, the government can proceed to form a new Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) and schedule legislative, municipal and local elections, which have been delayed since 2011. (AlterPresse, Haiti, Dec. 30)
As of Dec. 11 authorities had closed the Playa Grande beach area in the western region of a national wildlife refuge on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques following the discovery of pieces of inactive munitions there. The US Environmental Protection Agency said the US Navy had removed a projectile, a mortar tail and other objects, although officials insisted that the materials didn't pose any danger to visitors. The munitions are left over from the Navy's use of Vieques for testing weapons from the 1940s until May 2003, when mass civil disobedience by Vieques residents and their supporters forced the Navy to withdraw. A total of 1,640 arrests were made from 1999 to 2003 as activists carried out militant protests, including a yearlong occupation of the bombing range. Federal judges handed down jail sentences to protesters totaling 26 years, along with fines totaling $50,980.
What do we make of this? Artist Tania Bruguera and some dozen others were arrested in Havana's Revolution Square Dec. 30. Bruguera planned to stage Yo También Exijo (I Also Demand), her participatory performance act that includes an open-mic section. She had succeeded in getting away with the open-mic trick in her performance of another act, El Susurro de Tatlin (Tatlin's Whsiper), at the 2009 Havana Biennial arts affair. But she was denied a permit to take the act to Revolution Square. Cuba's National Visual Arts Council issued a statement saying the performance was "unacceptable" given the "manipulation" of the "counter-revolutionary media." Bruguera's website tags the acts "Unannounced Performance," "Behavior Art Materials," and "Crowd Control Techniques." The planned event was poorly attended—possibly due to police pre-emptive measures. Havana Times ("open-minded writing from Cuba") stated: "Starting around noon Ministry of Interior troops, both in plainclothes and uniformed, were stationed at all points of access to the square..." Then the cops arrested the intended participants. Havana Times also reports that among the detained were Reinaldo Escobar, husband of dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, and Eliecer Ávila of opposition group Somos Más (We are More). Most have been released, including Bruguera, although she is apparently barred from leaving Cuba. (14yMedio, ArtForum, Dec. 31) #YoTambienExijo has become a popular hashtag on Facebook and Twitter.
Well, this was inevitable. The case of Assata Shakur affords the US political right the opportunity to take a hit at Obama's opening to Cuba while simultaneously getting subliminal licks in at the Black Lives Matter protests. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was of course the first to grandstand about it, demanding that Cuba turn over the veteran Black Panther he called "Joanne Chesimard" (her former name) before diplomatic ties are restored. He wrote in an open letter to Obama: "If, as you assert, Cuba is serious about embracing democratic principles [sic] then this action would be an essential first step." Cuba, of course, said no dice. Asked if returning fugitives was on the table, Havana's head of North American affairs Josefina Vidal told the AP, "Every nation has sovereign and legitimate rights to grant political asylum to people it considers to have been persecuted… That's a legitimate right."
In a surprise move, Cuban president Raúl Castro and US president Barack Obama announced in separate television appearances on Dec. 17 that their two countries were now working to renew diplomatic relations, which the US broke off nearly 54 years earlier, in January 1961, under former president Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961). The two countries were releasing a total of 58 prisoners in the agreement, officials said, and the US will loosen some restrictions on contacts with Cuba by US residents; however, the US government's 52-year-old embargo against trade with Cuba will remain in effect.
US president Barack Obama's Dec. 17 announcement that the US would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba was "an historic triumph for the society and the government of the island," the left-leaning Mexican daily La Jornada asserted in an editorial the next day. "[T]he hostility converted into Washington's government policy has arrived at its end—although the repeal of the blockade laws is still pending—and this occurred without Havana's having made any concession in its political and economic model." The paper added that the policy change demonstrated "the correctness of the position of the Latin American governments, which advocated for decades for an end to the official US hostility to Cuba." (LJ, Dec. 18)
On Dec. 17, less than a week after the Associated Press reported on a failed effort by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to co-opt Cuban hip-hop artists, agency administrator Rajiv Shah announced that he was leaving his post in February. Shah's announcement came the same day as news that the US was moving towards normalizing relations with Cuba and that the Cuban government had released imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross. Shah didn't give a reason for his resignation but said he had "mixed emotions." In a statement released that day US president Barack Obama said Shah, who has headed the USAID since December 2009, "has been at the center of my administration's efforts to advance our global development agenda." (AP, Dec. 17)