Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló on Feb. 3 approved a law (PDF) calling for a non-binding referendum on statehood for the US territory. The referendum, to be held in June, will allow the voters to choose between statehood, independence or "free association." Those in support of statehood believe it could help Puerto Rico restructure its $70 billion in public debt and stave off further federal austerity measures. If approved, statehood would allow Puerto Rico to receive $10 billion in federal funds per year, as well as allowing government agencies and municipalities to file for bankruptcy. Rosselló called the vote "a civil rights issue" and said the US will have to "respond to the demands of 3.5 million citizens seeking an absolute democracy." Puerto Rico's citizenry is currently denied many of the benefits of citizens of US states, including equal access to Social Security and Medicare, despite paying taxes for these services. In addition, Puerto Rico's representative in Congress, Jenniffer González, is only allowed to vote in House committees in which she is a member.
Guy Philippe, a former paramilitary boss and coup leader who was elected to Haiti's Senate in November, was arrested by the DEA on Jan. 5—days before he would have been sworn into office and obtained immunity. Philippe had been wanted by the US since 2005 on charges of conspiracy to import cocaine and money laundering. He was popped by Haitian police and turned over to DEA agents immediately after appearing on a radio show in Port-au-Prince, and promptly flown to the Miami to stand trial. On Jan. 13, he pleaded not guilty to all charges in US Court for the Southern District of Florida, asserting both that the case against him is politically motivated and that he already has immunity as an elected official.
Oscar López Rivera, the longest-held Puerto Rican political prisoner in the US, was among 209 federal inmates granted clemency by President Barack Obama on Jan. 17. His sentence commuted, López Rivera is now set to be released in May from the federal prison at Terre Haute, Ind. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), in announcing the commutation, said: "Thank you, President Obama, thank you on behalf of millions of Puerto Ricans on the island and around the world." Arrested by the FBI in Chicago in 1981, López Rivera was convicted of "seditious conspiracy" as an adherent of the pro-independence Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN). Other charges included armed robbery, although he was never accused of any actual act of violence. If Obama had not intervened, he would have remained in captivity until June 26, 2023, five months after his 80th birthday.
In an e-mail sent out the week of Aug. 15, Farhan Haq, deputy spokesperson for United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon, made the organization's first-ever acknowledgment of any responsibility for a cholera epidemic that has wracked Haiti since October 2010. "[T]he UN has become convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera," Haq wrote. Activists, journalists and epidemiologists have contended for nearly six years that the epidemic originated near Mirebalais, in Center department, at a base staffed by Nepalese soldiers from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Hundreds of thousands of Haitians have been sickened by the disease, which had never been reported in the country before 2010, and at least 10,000 people have died. Cholera victims have brought several lawsuits against the UN; the organization has repeatedly denied any legal liability.
Just hours before Obama arrived in Cuba March 20 for the historic first visit by a US president since the 1959 revolution, a pro-democracy march was broken up in Havana, with over 50 detained. (Havana Times) Among those arrested was the famous activist graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado Machado, nicknamed "El Sexto," who according to the New York Times had increased pressure on the regime to open democratic space in the preceding days by streaming live broadcasts from the newly unveiled wifi spots around Havana. Activists whose hopes had been raised both by reconciliation with the US and the regime's recent moves to allow greater Internet access were disappointed by the repression. "We thought there would be a truce, but it wasn't to be," Elizardo Sánchez, who heads the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, told the NY Times.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Jan. 23 expressed concern over the delay of Haiti's presidential election and urged political actors to reject all forms of violence. The election, which was to be held the next day, was postponed a day earlier due to concerns of violence, and had already faced past delays as well. The Secretary General further asked political actors to "refrain from any action that can further disrupt the democratic process and stability in the country." The country's constitution mandates that the transfer of presidential power take place by Feb. 7, despite the many delays.
Cuban street artist Danilo Maldonado AKA "El Sexto," known for his satirical graffiti, was released Oct. 21 after 10 months in prison for "disrespect toward government officials"—which holds a penalty of three years, although he was never formally charged. "We are very happy to learn that in the end he is being freed," said Amnesty International's Robin Guittard. "He's just an artist who tried to do an art show, to use his legitimate right to freedom of expression. That should never lead people to be sent to prison. That's a very cold reminder of what's the situation of freedom of expression today in Cuba." The artist's mother, Maria Victoria Machado, added: "A government that doesn't let itself be criticized starts to lose credibility." Maldonado received the Human Rights Foundation's Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent this past April. Amnesty in September declared Maldonado Cuba's only "prisoner of conscience," although the group said it was considering other cases.
The US government on May 29 formally removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism as a positive step toward restoring Cuba-US diplomatic relations. US President Barack Obama said in April that he would drop Cuba from the list. In December Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro stated they would take steps to restore diplomatic relations that were severed in 1961 by the US. Removal from this list ends a variety of sanctions from the US including opposing financial backing of the World Bank and International Monetary fund, US economic aid bans, and bans on US arms exports. Although not all sanctions have been removed from Cuba, the removal from the list may make private US companies and banks more likely to do business with Cuba. The two sides have held several rounds of negotiations since December and have stated they are close to a deal with to reopen US embassies. As of now, the only countries left on the list are Iran, Syria and Sudan.