A Violent Irony in Havana

Saturday, November 7, 2009
Here is a clip of the Havana street demonstration for non-violence that Yoani Sanchez (Generation Y blog), Claudia Cadelo (Octavo Cerco blog) and Ciro Diaz (of the punk rock band Porno Para Ricardo) were headed to prior to being violently intercepted, detained and beaten by Castro's political police (see previous post).

Who's Afraid of Yoani Sanchez?

Yesterday afternoon, Yoani Sanchez -- Generation Y blogger and one of Time Magazine's 2008 Most Influential People in the World -- along with other bloggers and musicians (including Claudia Codelo from the blog Octavo Cerco and Ciro Diaz from the band Porno Para Ricardo) were detained outside the Hospital Calixto Garcia in Havana.

While detained, they were beaten (Yoani severely) and threatened. The message from the state security thugs that detained them was "hasta aqui han llegado" ("this is as far as you have come"). This could mean even greater obstacles -- as if that were possible -- in the ability of bloggers and musicians to get their message out of the island.

Hours later, they were released in distant neighborhoods.

Yoani has told the AP that, "it was very violent."

Ironically, but not coincidentally, this act of repression took place after the Friday news cycle, and on the same day as the Inter-American Human Rights Commission held its hearings on Cuba.

Prior to being detained, Yoani, Claudia and Ciro were headed to a peaceful street performance that was organized by Luis Eligio from musical group "Omni Zona Franca" and the rap group "Los Aldeanos," and scheduled to take place between Calle 23 and G and 23 and L in Havana.

That is how the Castro regime treats bloggers in Cuba -- physically beating a 110 lb. woman.

So what is the regime so afraid of?

Hint: There was only one Cuban on Time Magazine's list of the most influential people in the world.

And it wasn't the Castro brothers.

A Useful History Lesson

Friday, November 6, 2009
While it remains unsure how Cuba will cope with this reality in the future, it is definitely sure that it will have to do so.
From Reuters:
No remorse from Stasi as Berlin marks fall of Wall

BERLIN - For thousands of former employees of Communist East Germany's loathed Stasi secret police, next week's 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is no cause for celebration.

While the city hosts world leaders for festivities to mark the end of Europe's Cold War, a generation of ex-Stasi cadres will be trying to forget the night euphoric East and West Berliners danced on the Wall and fell into each others arms.

"November 9 is not a celebration at all for us," said Hans Bauer, chairman of the Society for Legal and Humanitarian Support (GRH) which helps former East German state employees, including Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, officers.

"What happened that day has been a burden to people like us," added the quietly spoken lawyer whose ashen complexion lends him an appearance older than his 68 years.

Experts say few of the Stasi's 91,000 ex-employees, or its 170,000 unofficial informers, have come to terms with their role in one of the world's most repressive organisations.

Known as "the shield and the sword of the party," the Stasi locked up opponents of the regime. Officers tortured prisoners by isolating them, depriving them of sleep and using psychological tricks such as threatening to arrest relatives.

No More Garbanzos

As had been previously announced, the Castro regime has begun eliminate products from its ration card.

The first two victims?

Garbanzos and potatoes.

These products will now only be available at state-run bodegas at higher prices.
Unfortunately though, the Castro regime refuses to flexibilize labor and entrepreneurial constraints, so that the Cuban people could actually afford the new higher prices.

However, it does help the Castro regime absorb the remaining 60% of every dollar remitted from abroad -- the first 40% is captured upon entering the island.

So whatever happened to the argument that unlimited remittances from abroad would help the Cuban people become more independent from the regime?

Great theory, faulty premise.

The Dog's EU Tail

During a visit to Cuba this week by the European Union's Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, Karel de Gucht, the Castro regime demanded an end to the EU's current Common Position towards the island, which includes diplomatic sanctions imposed pursuant to the 2003 arrest of 75 pro-democracy leaders.

The response?

Absolutely! Why not?

Commissioner de Gucht graciously assured them that this week's visit would facilitate "new steps" towards the process of "normalizing relations between the EU and your country." And, of course, without any reciprocity on human rights or democratic reforms.

But, why stop there?

Then, Commissioner de Gucht self-assumed the position of EU Economic Commissioner for Trade or Economic Affairs (each of these exist independently) and attended the regime's International Trade Fair, which was "coincidentally" taking place during the same week of his visit.

We're not sure what the trade fair has to do with humanitarian aid, particularly in a totalitarian, monopolistic state, but he took it upon himself to further declare,

"It's in our interest to work together [with the Cuban government] and strengthen our cooperation on various issues, and in a global manner intensify our existing, significant and fruitful commerce and economic relations."

And so wags the tail.

The Unintentional Hazard of Engagement

Thursday, November 5, 2009
The clip below shows Iranian pro-democracy activists shouting in Farsi, "Obama, Obama, are you with the regime, or with us?"

Undoubtedly, President Obama sympathizes and admires these young Iranians, who are courageously confronting a brutal dictatorship in search of freedom and democracy.

In a statement released yesterday by the White House marking the 30th anniversary of the taking of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the President clearly stated:

"The world continues to bear witness to their powerful calls for justice, and their courageous pursuit of universal rights. It is time for the Iranian government to decide whether it wants to focus on the past, or whether it will make the choices that will open the door to greater opportunity, prosperity, and justice for its people."

Nonetheless, it highlights the dangerous, and potentially devastating, unintentional message that unconditionally engaging with these dictatorships can send to pro-democracy movements everywhere.

At times, a tough stance today is the best investment for a better tomorrow.

The Cuban "Screwdriver"

Wednesday, November 4, 2009
According to a CNN report:

Richard Waltzer has a pitch for Cuba: Miller beer and Häagen-Dazs ice cream.

If he has his way, those products soon will be available at supermarkets and beach resorts on the communist island.

"This is one of the things people are going to pay premium for," Waltzer said, "especially the tourists that have the dollars. It's going to be a phenomenal product."

So how does this concoction work?

It's simple.

First, foreign businessmen transact sales with the Castro regime, reaping a big profit. Then, the regime places these products -- for a hefty premium -- in the island's hard-currency supermarkets (in order to absorb tourist dollars and remittances) and beach resorts (ditto).

Add over a million U.S. tourists to the mix, as pursued by U.S. Congressmen Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts and Jeff Flake of Arizona, and what do you get?

A wealthy Castro regime sharing billions in profits with their foreign business partners.

And the Cuban people?

Absolutely screwed.

Support Iran's Democracy Movement

Iran's Courageous Dissidents Need Our Support

by Judith Miller

Thirty years have passed since 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days in a crisis that helped unseat an American president, upended American political calculations in the Middle East, and launched an enduring diplomatic freeze between the two former allies.

But you wouldn't know that to listen to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, the only top Islamic guide since the death of the Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic engineer's key architect. At a ceremony in Tehran to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover, Khamenei lashed out at the United States with rhetoric hearkening back to the glory days of the Islamic Revolution. America was still the "Great Satan," untrustworthy and eager to see Iran's demise, he charged.

In the harshest attack to date on America's new "engagement" strategy," Khamenei dismissed President Obama's overtures as just another ploy. "The new U.S. president has said nice things," Khamenei said. But "whenever they [US officials] smile at the officials of the Islamic revolution, when we carefully look at the situation we notice that they are hiding a dagger behind their back," Khamenei warned. "They have not changed their intentions [toward Iran]."

He also suggested that Iran would reject the American and Russian-backed United Nations proposal aimed at resolving a protracted dispute over Iran's nuclear program. "Negotiations in which the U.S. predetermines the result are like the relationship between a wolf and a lamb," Khamenei said. "We do not want this."

Khamenei's Iran seems frozen in time. Iran's rulers are still blaming the United States for their country's many woes. But today, most Iranians no longer believe them.

In some ways, the scene today mirrored that of 30 years ago, when the revolution's most extreme elements used the embassy seizure and hostage crisis to solidify their control of the state's institutions and unseat the more moderate Bazargan government. Then as now, riot police and security officials have flooded public squares and Islamic banners have been held high in the streets of Tehran.

But today, the banners that count are those of young Iranians proclaiming not "Death to America," but "Death to the Dictator," a reference to the Ayatollah himself and his repressive regime, which is still trying to solidify power by attacking external enemies, real and imagined.

Today, the Islamic regime is more fragile than ever before. There is massive discontent, within and against the regime over the fraudulent election that has kept President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the regime itself in power. Many of those former students who stormed the American embassy are now self-proclaimed champions of the "Green Movement" which is demanding reform and true democracy. Former presidents of the Islamic Republic, like Mohammed Khatami and Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, and demanding change that even they can believe in. So is another former militant stalwart, former speaker of the house Mehdi Karoubi, who has emerged as the regime's most outspoken critic. The Iranian government is now loathed by most of its people.

While Obama's advisers are right to warn that military action against Iran's nuclear facilities would most probably help shore up a failing regime -- bestowing on it the gift of Iranian patriotism -- discreet help from the outside could make some difference in the outcome of Iran's political fortunes. Moreover, there is no contradiction between trying to woo Iran away from its nuclear weapons path first through talks, on one hand, and, on the other, speaking out more vigorously in support of the dissidents who are fighting for reform at great personal peril. Yet Iranian reformers feel utterly abandoned by President Obama. And ironically, they, too, now blame Washington for failing to champion human rights, reform and an end to dictatorship.

Judith Miller is a writer and scholar at the Manhattan Institute.

The Cuban-American Electorate

The two U.S. cities with the largest constituencies of Cuban-Americans -- Miami and Hialeah -- elected new Mayors yesterday, Tomas Regalado and Julio Robaina, respectively.

Our congratulations to both of them.

Regalado and Robaina are strong supporters (as were their opponents) of current U.S. policy towards Cuba, which conditions the lifting of trade and travel sanctions to democratic reforms and the respect for human rights by the Castro regime.

Yet, ironically, Time decided to publish a tangential article today, "Cuban-Americans' Change of View Means U.S. Travel Ban Could End," with the usual dicta regarding a generational shift, citing push polls, etc. The same arguments that have been regurgitated by the media and biased pundits since the "Mariel generation" of the 1980's.

The article brilliantly concludes that, "the Cuban-American delegation in Congress remains unmoved," regarding these "changing views."

Here's a novel concept: Maybe that's because it doesn't reflect the views of their electorate.

So at what point does the lack of any tangible data put this convenient theory -- for opponents of current U.S. policy -- beyond the laugh test?

Lesson for the Congressional Black Caucus

Dr. Darsi Ferrer is a courageous Afro-Cuban physician and pro-democracy leader, who was arrested on July 21st of this year by the Castro regime.

He remains confined without trial.

In order to protest his unjust imprisonment and inhumane prison conditions, Dr. Ferrer began a hunger strike 17 days ago. He is reportedly in a dangerously frail physical condition.

Yesterday, he ended this hunger strike at the request of the leaders of the Black Movement of Brazil, who simultaneously sent a letter to Brazilian President Lula da Silva urging him to "intervene with the government of the Republic of Cuba on behalf of the rights" of Dr. Ferrer.

The letter, signed by Afro-Brazilian political activist and former legislator,Senator Abdias Nascimiento, further appeals for the Castro regime "to cease each and every one of the acts of intimidation against Cuba's anti-racism activists," for Dr. Ferrer has been an outspoken critic of the Castro regime's apartheid policies.

During Brazil's military dictatorships in the 60's and 70's, Nascimento was internationally-recognized as a leader of the Pan African Movement and elected Vice-President and Coordinator of the Third Congress of Black Culture in the Americas.

Contrast this solidarity to the attitude of some Members of the U.S.-based Congressional Black Caucus ("CBC").

Last April, its Chair, Rep. Barbara Lee of California, together with Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, Rep. Laura Richardson of California and several other Members reaped praise upon the Castro dictatorship during a visit to Cuba, while refusing to meet with -- or even appeal on behalf of -- Dr. Darsi Ferrer or other courageous Afro-Cuban pro-democracy leaders and political prisoners.

Ideology should never blind fact.

Looking for Good News on China

Tuesday, November 3, 2009
In the New York Times opinion piece, "Europe Got Freedom, Asia Got Rich," Brahma Chellaney, a Professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, writes about the economic rise of Asia as a result of the West's recalibration of political vs. economic priorities since the end of the Cold War.

Here's an excerpt:

Rapid growth was also witnessed during the Industrial Revolution and in the post-World War II period. But in the post-Cold War period, economic growth by itself has contributed to qualitatively altering global power equations.

Another defining event in 1989 was the Tienanmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing. But for the end of the Cold War, the West would not have let China off the hook for those killings.

The Cold War's end, however, facilitated the West's pragmatic approach to shun trade sanctions and help integrate China with global institutions through the liberalizing influence of foreign investment and trade. Had the United States and its allies pursued the opposite approach, centered on punitive sanctions — as have been applied against Cuba and Burma, for example — the result would have been a less-prosperous, less-open and a potentially destabilizing China. Instead, China now is set to displace Japan as the world's No. 2 economy.

So is this good news?

Judging from Mr. Chellaney's tone, he seems to think so.

We respectfully disagree.

First of all, for the West to have let China "off the hook" -- due to economic interests -- after the Tiananmen Square massacre stands as one of the greatest criminal complicities of the 20th century.

Furthermore, where has the U.S.-fueled growth of China's economic prowess left us?

Essentially, with a repressive dictatorship financing our national debt and soon displacing a democratic ally, Japan, as the world's No. 2 economy.

This is clearly self-defeating.

China also remains an unabashed obstacle in dealing with U.S. geopolitical challenges from North Korea, to a nuclear Pakistan and Iran, to genocide in Sudan.

The post Cold War lesson should have been: Freedom first.

Welcome to the Cuban Coliseum

The XXVII Havana International Trade Fair began yesterday on the outskirts of the Cuban capital.

This is Cuba's main commercial event of the year, where representatives from foreign companies gather in the hopes of impressing the island's dictator with their products.

The main news from this year's fair has been the dramatic drop in purchasing power by the Castro regime -- only $150 million, which is $200 million less than last year.

Yet, despite this, representatives from over 51 countries are participating.

So let's put this into perspective.

In Cuba, only the Castro regime is allowed to engage in commercial activities. The Cuban people are strictly prohibited from engaging in private enterprise.

As such, the fair is only open to "business people" and by invitation.

Therefore, it essentially consists of Castro regime officials -- mostly military personnel, since Raul Castro has accelerated military control of Cuba's economy -- roaming the halls of the convention site, while foreign commercial representatives jump over each other, do tricks and grovel for their business.

The regime officials then choose their favorites.

All subject to the Emperor's final thumbs up or down.

Tear Down Your Wall

Monday, November 2, 2009
On November 9th, Germans will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In commemoration of this historic event, the Voice of America had a fascinating interview with British historian Frederick Taylor, an expert on the Berlin Wall, and author of the book, The Berlin Wall - A World Divided 1961-1989, on what prompted the East German regime to build the wall in the first place.

According to Taylor, between 1949 and 1961, East Germany -- out of a population of 17 million -- saw around two and a half million people flee to West Germany.

Sound familiar?

"In effect, what was obvious to the East German government and indeed, eventually, to their Soviet masters, by the end of the 1950s, as we go into 1960-61, was that their country was bleeding to death - bleeding its best and its brightest to the West. So something had to be done about it. And the question was what."

The East German leaders had options.

"They could have offered reforms, they could have offered a more efficient and productive economy. They could have offered the kinds of political freedoms and freedom of movement that most educated and civilized people require. But of course they didn't - they were attached to the Stalinist model of a command economy, now found in very, very few places in the world, possibly only in North Korea and Cuba, really."

So they built a wall.

Mr. Castro, it's time to tear down your wall.

A Sister's Love (and Solidarity)

The head of Cuba's Rosa Parks Women's Movement, Iris Tamara Pérez Aguilera, began a hunger strike last week in solidarity with her ailing brother, political prisoner Mario Alberto Pérez Aguilera.

Mario Alberto began serving a 10-year term in 2006 and has been subjected to brutal prison conditions. He began a hunger strike on September 5th, 2009 to protest these conditions.

Despite pleas from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a branch of the Organization of American States, the Cuban authorities refuse to provide information concerning his whereabouts or physical condition. He is believed to be gravely ill.

In June of this year, Iris and her husband, Cuban pro-democracy leader Jorge Luis García Pérez "Antúnez" were honored with the prestigious 2009 Democracy Award by the National Endowment for Democracy ("NED").

The Real Demographic Divide

And it's not amongst Cuban-Americans in South Florida.

The international media and political pundits are so consumed trying to find a crack in the generational attitudes of Cuban-Americans, that they have tragically overlooked the real transcendental demographic divide -- one that will truly have a long-term impact on both sides of the Florida Straits:

The difference between the aging dictatorship of the Castro brothers, with its dwindling supporters, and Cuba's young, thriving opposition movement.

For the last 24 days, over a dozen Cuban democracy activists have held a sit-in at the home of opposition leader Vladimiro Roca in order to protest police harassment and the recent confiscation of a photo camera by the Castro regime.

In Cuba, such an assembly of activists -- regardless of its peaceful nature -- is considered an illegal and hostile act. Therefore, the regime has organized a series of public "acts of repudiation" in which mobs have gathered to yell insults, slogans, vandalize the home and threaten the physical integrity of those assembled.

The AFP reported the testimony of some of these mob organizers (please note their ages):

"There has been no aggression [against the opposition activists], our politics are non-violent," said Vila Gongora, 73 years old, who works in the tourism industry.

Coincidentally, participating in such acts is part sand parcel of being able to keep a job in the tourism industry -- the only way a Cuban can have access to hard-currency tips.

Elso Oria, a 66 year old retiree confirmed that "yesterday we staged another act of repudiation against the politics of these elements."

Participating is such acts are also key to retirees keeping their pension.

And so on and so forth.

Perhaps coincidentally, these mob acts have taken place as the results of a recent poll inside Cuba, which was clandestinely done by the Center for Democratic Information and the Alliance for a New Nation, were released and showed that 7 out of every 10 Cubans opposed the rule of General Raul Castro.

The poll, reported by Cubanet, was taken amongst 1,000 people in 9 provinces throughout Cuba. If you take into account the "fear factor" in Cuba polling -- those hesitant to express any opposition to the regime due to potential repercussions -- it's likely that this figure is even more dramatic.

Yet, despite this factor, amongst the youngest generation (less than 40 years old) polled, 80 percent said they thought Raul Castro was a liar, militaristic and intolerant.

Furthermore, amongst all generations polled, only 18 percent supported Castro's policies and believed the U.S. embargo or the international financial crisis was the cause (note that in Cuba to express support for U.S. policy results in an prison term) of the country's problems.

There goes the argument that unconditionally removing U.S. sanctions would eliminate an excuse for inaction by the Castro regime. In order for this argument to hold, the Cuban people would have to believe sanctions were the source of their problems in the first place.

So now the question remains:

Where's the media coverage of this important demographic divide?

Is Fidel Dead?

Sunday, November 1, 2009
Graffiti artists in New York City's Soho neighborhood seem to think so.

Hollywood's Tragic Confusion

Great piece by Sharon Waxman in Hollywood's The Wrap

Sean Penn in Cuba: Hollywood's Still in Love With Fidel

What started as a quick and quiet in-and-out Cuba visit for Sean Penn has turned into raging political and journalistic debate over the leftist actor's supposed assignment by Vanity Fair to interview el primo Fidel Castro.

But that's not the real story.

Vanity Fair didn't assign anything, and neither did Huffington Post. Sean Penn was only in Cuba for one day this week. He had no plans to interview Fidel Castro.

He's now back in the States after spending Tuesday in Cuba, then flying to Venezuela on Wednesday, where he met with President Hugo Chavez.

The two discussed the possibility of Penn shooting a film in Venezuela, which was written by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier and takes place in the jungle along the southern Orinoco River.

We asked Penn's publicist, Mara Buxbaum, to clarify the point of Penn's one-nighter in Cuba: "It was a journalistic and creative trip," she allowed. "He had a letter from Vanity Fair and Huffington Post. Whether there's a specific story to be assigned or not is still to be determined."

Me thinks he was really there solely to nab the rights to Carpentier's work, and the letter was a cover. But that's just me.

The real story is that Hollywood celebrities slip off to Cuba all the time. God only knows why they find the place so compelling. Michael Douglas showed up with Penn this week. Penn himself has been there many times.

Why did we learn of this one? Because the fame-seeking missile Diana Jenkins, the latest celebrity shadow and wannabe Hollywood power player, took Sean on her private plane to Havana and let that fact be known in full color on TMZ.

Here's the more interesting story: Jenkins' husband, former Barclays Bank chief Roger, has a serious and growing interest in Hollywood. And Cuba.

The Jenkinses have paid $500,000 (please count the zeros) to develop a screenplay on a decade-old Vanity Fair story by renowned Cuba expert Ann Louise Bardach (who, by the way, has just published her latest Cuba tale of intrigue, "Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington"), according to a knowledgeable individual who declined to be identified. 

The 1996 story, about Robert Vesco, tells the tale of a financier-tycoon who started out as Fidel's best friend and ended in jail. (Good yarn: He was sentenced to prison in Cuba for a fraudulent financial scheme and wanted in the U.S. for making an illegal contribution to Nixon, bribery, and trying to arrange a deal for American airplanes with Libya. He died of lung cancer in Havana in 2007).

Still ... no one pays that kind of money these days.

Contacted on Thursday, Bardach said she was mystified by Hollywood's passion for a sad Communist dictatorship with excellent cigars.

"They're well-intended but misguided, they don't know what they're doing," she said of folks like Penn and Douglas. "They don't understand that it's a repressed, authoritarian country. They just think Fidel's really cool. They drank the Kool-Aid."