Yoani Featured in The New York Times

Saturday, October 17, 2009
Don't miss "Yoani Sanchez: Virtually Outspoken in Cuba" in tomorrow's New York Times.

Support Belarusian Political Prisoners

Belarus is the last remaining dictatorship in Europe.

Opposition activists in Belarus and sympathizers throughout the world have been observing a Day of Solidarity on the 16th day of each month since September 16, 2005, the anniversary of the 1999 disappearance of opposition politician Viktar Hanchar and his friend, businessman Anatol Krasowski.

Yesterday, at 6 p.m., about 40 people formed a line along Independence Avenue, displaying images of Messrs. Hanchar and Krasowski, and others abducted and murdered by government-run death squads, as well as images of political prisoners.

The demonstration lasted only two minutes. A police officer warned the crowd through a megaphone that the demonstration was unauthorized, and then riot police bundled almost all demonstrators into two police buses and took them to a police station.

Police searched the bags of people walking to Kastrychnitskaya Square and tried to prevent journalists from taking photographs and video footage of what was going on in the square.

Courtesy of Белорусские новости.

Fidel Moves to Protect Rubble

As part of his crumbled legacy.

According to the AP:

A decree enacted this week allows authorities to undo unauthorized home improvements, sometimes resorting to tearing down exterior walls and new balconies, or demolishing extra rooms and other additions.

The new law simply clarifies regulations and punishments already widely enforced in Cuba and expressly directs that offenders not be evicted altogether. Still, the changes are sure to cause ripples in a country where decades of underdevelopment have forced Cubans to alter cramped homes to fit three and sometimes four generations under a single roof.

Cuba's government controls nearly all building materials and housing-related matters.

Quote (and Hero) of the Week

"This country is a huge prison with an ideological boundary. And the citizens here are judged by political colors... But one day this will end. Because this nation has nothing to do with an ideology, or with a party. This nation existed before you and it will exist after you. And then you are going to have to account for all the violations you've inflicted upon the Cuban people."

- Yoani Sanchez, in a secretly recorded confrontation with a Castro regime official about her prohibition to travel to New York to receive a journalism award from Columbia University, Generation Y, October 16th, 2009.

Jeff Flake Prepares for Castro's Cuba

Friday, October 16, 2009
Throughout the year, Cuban dictator Raul Castro has announced widespread shortages, including that of toilet paper, for the Cuban people.

Instead of offering alternatives for tackling these shortages, such as undertaking tangible economic reforms, or liberalizing the regime's totalitarian monopoly, Castro has essentially warned the Cuban people against complaining and demanded that they undertake even greater austerity measures.

Apparently, U.S. Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona has taken Castro's advice to heart.

According to Politico, over the summer, Flake spent a week in a deserted island in the Pacific honing his survival skills.

On this trip he took only sunscreen, a satellite phone and a desalinator pump to provide clean drinking water.

For food, Flake would fish or head into the ocean with a pulse spear, mask, fins and snorkel.

Ironically, any of the above, including fishing, would land a Cuban in jail.

Therefore, Flake should head back to the Pacific for further practice, or exercise one of those privileges the Castro regime extends to foreign tourists.

2nd Second Generation Cuban-Americans?

Last week, during a Cuba policy speech in Washington, D.C., New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson stressed the "changing views" amongst the new generation of Cuban-Americans as a point of reference for unconditionally easing sanctions towards the Castro dictatorship.

This political argument has been echoed -- ad nausea -- by a host of anti-sanctions advocates and political pundits alike, but was best encapsulated in a New York Times feature article entitled, "For Cuban-Americans, an Era of Change."

The date of the article is April 13, 1988. No, it's not a typo, that's 1988.

It states,

"Second-generation Cuban-Americans are more likely to resemble their non-Hispanic white counterparts. And this is particularly true of those who go to college and there deal with a pluralism that is hard to find inside the self-sufficient enclaves that have spread into Miami's suburbs, far beyond the Little Havana neighborhood that was the exiles' original settlement."

And concludes,

"There are signs that many Cuban-Americans in Miami, of both generations, want to disassociate themselves from the extremism expressed in the name of anti-Castroism."

Fascinating.

The problem with this argument is that the generation referred to in the New York Times article then proceeded to elect (and continuously re-elect) six Cuban-American Members of Congress, the first one in 1989 (the year after the article was published) and the most recent in 2006 -- a total of two Democrats and four Republicans -- with diverging views on practically every issue except one: Cuba policy.

Meanwhile, the generation Richardson is referring to -- perhaps from his vast experience with New Mexico's whopping Cuban-American population (sarcasm emphasized) -- would now be a third-generation of Cuban-Americans (or a 2nd second generation). Either way, we've heard it before.

The good news is that the Castros won't make it through a fourth generation, so it's is likely we'll be spared this argument in the future (yet again).

Please Support Dr. Darsi Ferrer

Thursday, October 15, 2009
Doctor and journalist starts hunger strike after 80 days in preventive detention as clampdown continues

Medical doctor and dissident journalist Darsi Ferrer, who began a hunger strike two days ago, today entered his 80th day in "preventive detention".

His wife, Yusnaimy Jorge, has written an open letter condemning the circumstances of his imprisonment, at Valle Grande jail in Havana.

"The prosecutor's office has now held him in prison for three months, ignoring the fact that criminal procedure provides for preventive detention only when the offence is particularly serious, that it there is a high incidence of it in the country, or that there is a risk that the defendant will try to escape justice. None of these conditions apply to Darsi's case", Yusnaimy Jorge wrote in a letter, posted on the website Cubanet.

Ferrer was accused of illegally obtaining building materials to renovate his house, something he has always denied. Under the law governing this kind of offence, his trial should have been held at the latest 60 days after his arrest.

He began a hunger strike two days ago in protest at his prison conditions. He was refused medical treatment on 9 September despite suffering from severe dental pain. The prison governor justified his refusal by claiming that he had not been able to obtain the necessary permission from counter-espionage services!

"The reasons for Darsi Ferrer's detention are no longer in doubt, after 80 days in custody in contradiction with the laws of the country. While Cuba wants to show the world the face of progressive openness and dialogue, the internal reality is at odds with any improvements in public freedoms," Reporters Without Borders said.

"The situation for Cuban journalists and bloggers is not getting better - far from it. Some 25 of them are still in prison, some having been sentenced to up to 27 years. Among them is Reporters Without Borders' correspondent, Ricardo González Alfonso, who has been held since March 2003 and is serving a 20-year term", the worldwide press freedom organization said.

There has been an upsurge in threats against independent journalists in the past few months. One of them, Yoel Espinosa Medrano, received death threats from militants belonging to the sole political party on 12 October.

Police on 2 October surrounded a house to block access to a seminar being held there by the independent communicators' network. They also briefly detained several dissident journalists, confiscating a camera, memory cards and notebooks from. In response to their protests, one police officer told them, "The laws do not apply to dissidents".

To this incomplete list of violations of public freedoms, should be added the refusal of an exit visa to famous blogger Yoani Sánchez who should have traveled to the United States to receive a prize. The young woman has just had her fourth refusal. Sánchez has been nominated for the 2009 Reporters Without Borders prize in the Cyber-freedom category.

Cuba is ranked 169th out of 173 countries in Reporters Without Borders' world press freedom index for 2008.

Courtesy of Reporters Without Borders.

Traveling Back to the Havana Hilton

"Oh bow, stubborn knees," yearned Shakespeare's King Claudius in Act 3 of Hamlet.

This week, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez seized the Hilton resort on the island of Margarita, a property recently visited by Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.

It is not the first time a Hilton Hotel has been seized by Chavez. In 2005, the Hilton in Caracas was taken and renamed the Hotel ALBA (Spanish acronym for Chavez's "Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas"). It has become the hotel of choice for visiting tyrants from around the world.

Sound familiar?

In 1959, the Continental Suite of another Hilton, the then-Havana Hilton, was used by Fidel Castro as the headquarters of the Cuban Revolution. It was in this property that Castro first delivered press conferences and received visiting international personalities. As a matter of fact, the first diplomatic representation of the Soviet Union on the island occupied two floors of the Havana Hilton.

Yet, the Hilton didn't change Castro, Castro changed the Hilton. On June 11th, 1960, the regime changed its name (and ownership) as it is today, Hotel Habana Libre.

One would think this would serve as a lesson to U.S.-based tourism companies.

Ironically though, U.S. tour operators, hotel chains (not necessarily Hilton) and online agents continue advocating for a return to doing business with Castro's Cuba. Orbitz has even begun a campaign exchanging coupons for future travel to Cuba on signing a petition to change current U.S. policy.

Perhaps Orbitz will now petition on Hilton's behalf.

Baptist Church Leaders Arrested

According to the Associated Baptist Press:

Cuban Baptist leaders in custody; charges unclear 
 
Two Cuban Baptist leaders arrested Oct. 3 in the city of Santiago de Cuba remain in jail, reportedly without formal charge and with few details of why they are being held.

Rubén Ortiz-Columbié, coordinator for special projects of the Eastern Cuba Baptist Convention, and Francisco "Pancho" Garcia, director of the convention's teen department, were reportedly carrying out church work when nabbed by authorities.

Columbia University's Statement on Yoani

Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez denied permission to travel to New York

Yoani Sánchez, a Cuban journalist who blogs about life in a communist country, has been denied permission to travel to New York City to receive a Maria Moors Cabot Prize special citation, administered by The Journalism School and scheduled to be presented tomorrow.

In barely two years, Sánchez's weekly blog, Generación Y, which gets more than one million hits a month, has put the rest of the world in touch with Cuba ― at least digitally. It is a mix of personal observation and tough analysis, which conveys better than anybody else what daily life, with all its frustrations and hopes, is like for Cubans living their lives on the island today.

"I am disappointed that the Cuban government refuses to let Yoani Sánchez travel to New York to receive a Maria Moors Cabot citation. Ms. Sánchez's vivid commentaries on Cuba give us a lively sense of what is happening there. The Cuban government ought to value Ms. Sánchez's work as a sign that young Cubans are ready to take Cuba into a better future ― one that will have the free press the Cuban people deserve," said Dean Nicholas Lemann.

Sánchez, a 34-year-old philologist, pursues her craft with ingenuity, scarce resources and an enormous amount of guts, buying a few minutes here and there on one of the few Internet-connected computers available to Cubans in Havana, quickly downloading and e-mailing her written and video comments to devoted supporters who post to the blog in 15 languages.

Also honored with the Ortega y Gasset Prize in digital journalism, Sánchez was subsequently denied permission to visit Madrid to accept the award in May. In 2008, TIME Magazine named Sánchez one of the world's 100 most influential people.

Urgency of Global Online Freedom Act

According to the AP, the Treasury Department has licensed TeleCuba Communications, Inc., to lay the first optical communications fiber from the U.S. to Cuba. That could drastically cut the cost of calling the island and make the Internet more quickly accessible to Cuban people.

There are two very big "howevers," though:

1. It still remains uncertain whether the Castro regime will allow it.

2. While the cable could make calling very cheap, it would be up to the Castro regime to set rates, and it could keep its severe restrictions on Internet access, which are considered amongst the world's most onerous.

Earlier in the year, after announcing a similar fiber optic cable linking Cuba with Venezuela comes online in 2010, the Castro regime stressed that it would continue restricting Internet access.

"We believe that the most responsible policy is to privilege collective access" to the Internet, said Boris Moreno, Castro's Deputy Minister of Computer Science and Communication.

It's always fascinating when a Communist regime uses the word "privilege."

For a U.S. company to contribute to Castro's censorship would be the cruelest of ironies, particularly on the day that Cuba's most famous blogger, Generation Y's Yoani Sanchez, was prohibited by that regime from traveling to New York to receive a prestigious international journalism award from Columbia University.

Therefore, it is more important than ever for the U.S. Congress to quickly pass the Global Online Freedom Act, H.R. 2271, which would make it illegal for U.S. companies to profit from involvement in online censorship.

From China to Castro's Cuba, such practices by U.S. companies should be criminalized.

Staying in Power Forever

A trend that transcends Administrations:

Last week, the New York Times reported,

The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, told the visiting prime minister of China that his government was ready to return to six-nation talks on its nuclear weapons program if it sees progress in bilateral talks with the United States.

Sound familiar?

In December 2008, the AP reported,

Cuban leader Fidel Castro has said the communist government of the island can open talks with US president-elect Barack Obama, but the "carrot and stick approach" will not work."

Meanwhile, in May 2006, CNN reported,

Iran's ambassador to the United Nations said Tehran wants to work directly with the United States on an "easily attainable" resolution, if Washington drops "the intimidation tactics."

So what's the trend?

That -- at the end --these tyrants will always seek U.S. recognition to consolidate their dictatorships. It is for this reason why leverage is so important.

Secondly, that they seek this legitimacy through unconditional talks.

And finally, that they seek these talks for one reason alone:

To stay in power forever.

Amnesty Condemns Yoani's Prohibition

Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Blogger denied freedom to travel outside Cuba

Amnesty International has called on the government of Cuba to lift the travel restrictions on Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, preventing her from traveling to New York to receive an international journalism award.

"The immigration office has just confirmed that they maintain the prohibition on letting me leave the country", wrote Yoani Sánchez on her Twitter page on Monday.

This is the fourth time that Yoani Sánchez has been refused permission by the authorities to travel outside Cuba in the past two years.

Yoani Sánchez was awarded a special citation for journalistic excellence by the board of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, the oldest international award in journalism, for her writing on the Generation Y website which receives 1 million hits a month.

In Generation Y, Yoani Sánchez writes about daily life in Cuba. She was due to accept the award on Wednesday at Columbia University, in New York City.

"The Cuban authorities often routinely deny exit visas and bar from leaving their country those who, like Yoani Sánchez, express critical views of the government," said Kerrie Howard, director of Amnesty International's Americas Program.

"Restricting freedom of movement by denying an exit visa to Yoani Sánchez constitutes an unnecessary punitive measure for the peaceful exercise of her right to freedom of expression and association."

In May, the Cuban authorities denied Sanchez permission to fly to Madrid to accept an award for digital journalism.

Sanchez is known as an outspoken advocate for freedom of expression and unrestricted access to internet. Her blog, Generation Y has been intermittently blocked by the authorities and cannot currently be read within Cuba.

Gold Stars for Dictators?

A new U.S. strategy of easing sanctions and diplomatic engagement has reached the Sudan.

Let's not forget that Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir faces international war crimes charges for orchestrating a campaign of murder, torture and forced expulsions in Darfur.

The U.S. special envoy to Sudan, J. Scott Gration, recently summarized this new strategy to The Washington Post as follows:

"Kids, countries -- they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement."

The problem is that, unfortunately, in the case of Sudan -- like with Iran, North Korea, Burma and Cuba -- we are not dealing with "kids" or even with rational leaders.

We are dealing with ruthless tyrants that rule through violent force, repression, intimidation, execution and imprisonment.

They don't deserve a gold star.

Plus, if these tyrants get a gold star, what do our democratic allies get? You know, those that respect human rights and the free, democratic will of their peoples.

Detention?

How Much is Castro's Blackmail Worth?

Monday, October 12, 2009
Approximately 1 million American tourists worth $10-15 billion for GAESA, S.A., the Cuban military corporation that owns and operates the island's tourism industry, and headed by Raul Castro's son-in-law, Col. Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas.

According to today's Miami Herald:

Cuban officials have told recent U.S. visitors that while President Barack Obama's policy changes so far have been too timid to require a Havana reply, ending the U.S. travel ban would be significant enough to require some sort of Havana concession.

And what sort of concession might this elicit from the Castro dictatorship?

Who knows, but at that point it would be too late. It could be the release of a handful (out of hundred or even thousands) of political prisoners -- and which of course can be re-arrested in even greater quantities soon thereafter -- or one of those real profound Raul-style reforms, such as legalizing the purchase of toaster ovens or microwaves (for the 1% of the population that can afford them).

A fool's deal indeed.

Yoani Prohibited From Travel

This morning, the Castro regime informed Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez that she remains prohibited from leaving the island.

As such, Yoani will be unable to travel to New York this week to receive Columbia University's prestigious Maria Moors Cabot Award for international journalism.

The reason for her prohibition: speaking the truth about Castro's Cuba on her internationally-acclaimed Generation Y blog.

In 2008, Yoani was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time Magazine.

Unfortunately, the Nobel Committee didn't take notice (or care).

Port of the Abyss

With imports shrinking and foreign suppliers reluctant to ship products to Cuba due to lack of payment, what's the next logical step for the Castro regime to take?

Brace yourself -- to expand its ports.

According to the AFP, Castro is expanding three of the island's ports, with the help of China and Venezuela, in order to accommodate larger ships that will be able to cross the Panama Canal pursuant to its upcoming expansion.

Let's put this into perspective.

This past August, the Castro regime announced that there would be severe shortages -- including toilet paper -- due to declining imports. Furthermore, foreign economic attaches and commercial representatives in Cuba have spent the last month complaining that their nationals doing business with the Castro regime faced serious payment problems.

Therefore, the only explanation is classic Castronomics:

They must be expecting to import even greater quantities of "hot air" than they already domestically produce.

Welcome to Havana: Fill in the Blank

Sunday, October 11, 2009
The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) has just issued a paper advocating for the unconditional legalization of U.S.-tourism travel to Cuba. It is entitled, "Welcome to Havana: The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act."

This paper repeats various commonly-heard arguments and assertions, which were brilliantly rebutted by an anonymous reader (Fernando) in the comment section of COHA's website.

We've summarized each argument (or assertion) followed by (Fernando's) rebuttal below:

by Fernando
10.09.2009 17:35

I examine below some of the points raised by your article:

1. Polls show Americans support ending the embargo.

Polls can be constructed to get any answer you want. You ask "Americans are forbidden to travel to Cuba. Do you think Americans should have the freedom to travel to Cuba?" Answer: YES. Ask "Cuba is a repressive dictatorship with hundreds of prisoners of conscience. Do you think tourism should be allowed before prisoners are released?" Answer: NO.

What matters is not polls but how people vote and contribute to campaigns, more of which below.

2. This change in opinion reflects a generational shift.

The article assumes the changes in the polls speak of a generational shift as opposed to say a different set of questions, framing, or sample. Yet it provides no evidence for this. Is this just a post hoc reading of the tea leaves?

3. US policy towards Cuba is "draconic".

Interesting when the US is Cuba's major trade partner on foodstuffs, medicine, remittances, etc…

What the article fails to mention is the Cuban dictatorship's "draconic" policy towards its own citizens. Most Cubans are not allowed to travel anywhere. In any case, most could not afford to thanks to a misguided centralized economy that has keeps them in poverty.

In addition, ordinary Cubans lack freedom of enterprise – unless you are a corrupt Cuban general - no freedom of association, no independent trade unions, and no freedom of speech. All of this a stones throw from Florida.

I would therefore suggest changing the title of the bill to "Welcome to Havana: The last surviving plantation economy in the Caribbean."

4. Continued failure of "progressive" amendments in Congress due to Bush.

Perhaps this reflects better than the polls the true will of the American people. Americans want a free and democratic Cuba, and release of political prisoners.

And they have put their money where their mouth is by making thousands of small contributions at the individual citizen level to various political organizations.

By contrast, opponents of the embargo have to rely on the largess of such representative institutions as Orbitz, Cargill, etc…

Clearly Orbitz's lobbying is not disinterested. Cuban authorities will likely hand them the monopoly of travel to the Island. And like all monopolies Orbitz and its partners will restrict supply and raise prices.

So here is another proposed title for the bill: "Welcome to Havana: You just got ripped off."

5. Travel to Cuba will bring economic benefits to the US.

The article does not distinguish between trade creation and trade diversion. How many of the new jobs mentioned, and how much of the new revenue, will be at the expense of other US destinations like Puerto Rico and Florida?

I would say almost 100%. The reason is that travel to the island will not be reciprocated by travel from the island to the US by Cubans. Most Cubans are not allowed to travel and, in any case, are too poor to do so (as a result of bad economic policy, as argued above).

Yes, some money will flow back to the US to buy stuff to feed and house US tourists in Cuba, but this is money that would otherwise have been spent housing and feeding them in Florida or Puerto Rico. The only difference is that the Cuban regime, and in particular Raul's armed forces, will keep a substantial cut of this dollar round tripping.

What will the Cuban government do with the extra revenue? For all we know this money will flow to Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia in exchange for oil supplies. Because such transactions seldom take place in open exchanges the money will most likely help finance political movements that have repeatedly repudiated the property rights of American companies.

So here is another title for the bill: "Welcome to Havana: Now shoot yourself in the foot."

5. American tourism will bring change to the island.

This is an embarrassing instance of American exceptionalism. European and Canadian tourists, that have been traveling there for decades, are clearly not up to the task.

But one need not even question such exceptionalism. Fact is the Cuban authorities will deny visas to Americans openly critical of the regime, i.e. the very same tourists who's exceptionalism might succeed where Canadians and European failed. Their message to Cuban Americans? Shut up or stay out.

So here is yet another title for the bill: "Welcome to self censorship: If you want to travel to Cuba."

6. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch support the measure.

I don't know about this but I do know they, like President Obama, also support the unconditional release of all political prisoners.

Yet what these NGOs think is perhaps less relevant than what the brave mothers and families of the political prisoners, the Damas de Blanco, think.

So ask them if the favor a policy that says "tourism in exchange for release of your loved ones", versus "tourism in exchange for nothing".

So final title for the bill "Welcome to Havana: And let the dissidents rot in jail."

6. BTW how does your article sit with this quote from the About page in your own website:

"COHA was opposed to the adherence of the U.S. to NAFTA under the thesis that it shouldn't have been initiated until basic Mexican institutions were truly democratic, its trade unions free enough to negotiate as equals, and the government purged of endemic corruption."

I wonder who is being ideological.

"Libertad" Means Freedom

The talented Cuban blogger Claudia Cadelo of Octavo Cerco posted this picture of graffiti that recently appeared in the Nuevo Vedado neighborhood of Havana:

Neda Deserved the Nobel

Last week, the Nobel Commission shamefully missed a historic opportunity to recognize the heroism of Iran's Green Movement.

This would have been particularly timely, as three opposition figures accused of leading that country's pro-democracy protests have just been sentenced to death by the Iranian dictatorship.

Here's an excerpt from, "President Obama has won the Nobel Prize for Peace -- that's not his fault," by David Kilgour in MWC, which stresses the point:

It's an odd Nobel Peace Prize that almost makes you embarrassed for the honoree. In blessing President Obama, the Nobel Committee intended to boost what it called his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." A more suitable time for the prize would have been after those efforts had borne some fruit.

The Nobel Committee's decision is especially puzzling given that a better alternative was readily apparent. This year, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people in Iran braved ferocious official violence to demand their right to vote and to speak freely. Dozens were killed, thousands imprisoned. One of those killed was a young woman named Neda Agha-Soltan; her shooting by thugs working for the Islamist theocracy, captured on video, moved the world.

A posthumous award for Neda, as the avatar of a democratic movement in Iran, would have recognized the sacrifices that movement has made and encouraged its struggle in a dark hour. Democracy in Iran would not only set a people free, it would also dramatically improve the chances for world peace, since the regime that murdered her is pursuing nuclear weapons in defiance of the international community.

Announcing Friday that he would accept the award, Mr. Obama graciously offered to share it with "the young woman who marches silently in the streets on behalf of her right to be heard even in the face of beatings and bullets." But the mere fact that he avoided mentioning either Neda's name or her country, presumably out of consideration for the Iranian regime with which he is attempting to negotiate, showed the tension that sometimes exists between "diplomacy and cooperation between peoples" on the one hand, and advocacy of human rights on the other. The Nobel Committee could have spared Mr. Obama this dilemma if it had given Neda the award.