Is Freedom in Retreat?

Saturday, December 26, 2009
An excerpt from "In 2009, Global Freedom Had Few Blooms" by Steve Chapman of The Chicago Tribune's Editorial Board:

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the blossoming of democracy around the world, stimulated in part by the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. Far from producing much new growth, however, 2009 brought to mind an old folk song: Where have all the flowers gone?

Not to China, which had an anniversary of its own -- the 20th since Chinese students occupied Tiananmen Square in an inspiring call for democracy and liberty, only to be crushed by the army. Looking back, Beijing shows no remorse. In fact, Human Rights Watch said in May that it "continues to victimize survivors, victims' families and others who challenge the official version of events."

On June 4, Tiananmen Square was occupied again -- by battalions of police. Liu Xiaobo, the chief author of a manifesto calling for democracy and human rights, was sentenced to 11 years for "incitement to subvert state power."

A human rights lawyer was shot to death, along with a student journalist, in broad daylight on a Moscow street. After his government passed a law making it a crime to equate Josef Stalin with Adolf Hitler, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev urged the creation of museums documenting his crimes. A grandson of the dictator filed a libel suit against a newspaper that called Stalin a "bloodthirsty cannibal," but he lost.

Among the last Stalinists in power is Kim Jong Il of North Korea, whose new constitution mysteriously dropped all reference to "communism" but gave him the new title of "supreme leader." The human rights organization Impunity Watch said his regime holds 154,000 political prisoners, while a North Korean official told the United Nations Human Rights Council the actual number is zero.

Another old-school communist is Cuba's Raul Castro, who took over the government from brother Fidel three years ago but has maintained his repressive policies.

A new law allows the incarceration of dissidents for "dangerousness" before they have committed any crime. When one of them, Alexander Santos Hernandez, was ordered to serve four years in prison, the sentence was dated two days before his trial began.

Raul's Spring Chickens

Does Cuban dictator Raul Castro simply fear or dislike young people?

Probably a bit of both, as young Cubans form a counter-culture movement that is united by its desire for CAMBIO ("CHANGE"). Yet, instead of embracing the calls for CAMBIO, Raul has chosen to squander them through repression.

Raul's fear and dislike of young people is also reflected in his personnel decisions.

In March of this year, he purged the two youngest members of the Council of Ministers, Felipe Perez Roque, 44, who was Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Carlos Lage, 58, who was the Economics "Czar."

They have not been publicly seen or heard from since.

And just this week, Raul promoted former Minister of the Interior Ramiro Valdes and Comptroller Gladys Bejerano to become Vice Presidents of the Council of State.

Apparently for Raul, these (see below) are the "new" faces of Cuba's future.

China's Free Pass on Human Rights

Friday, December 25, 2009
Words on Trial in Beijing

By Jonathan Mirsky
The New York Times

In the late spring of 1989, a few weeks before the killings of June 4, a slight, almost nerdish figure appeared in Tiananmen Square and began exhorting the students to concentrate on democracy rather than the deposition of China's top leaders and an end to corruption.

I recall that young man scurrying from group to group of demonstrators sitting on the flagstones. As he awkwardly gesticulated, they hung on every word with the intense attention that Chinese students give teachers of great authority.

He was Liu Xiaobo, then 33, a university teacher of literature who had hurried back from Columbia University, where he was a visiting scholar, to join the Tiananmen demonstrations.

Mr. Liu now faces 15 years in prison. Or rather 15 more years: He was imprisoned for two years after June 4, another three during the 1990s, and he has been in detention since his arrest last June.

The present charge is "agitation activities, such as spreading of rumors and defaming of the government, aimed at subversion of the state and overthrowing the socialism system."

According to the PEN American Center, the trial could begin as early as Monday.

What is Mr. Liu's crime? He was a principal figure behind Charter 08, a document published last December and initially signed by 303 brave Chinese inside China and abroad.

It declared: "We should make freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and academic freedom universal, thereby guaranteeing that citizens can be informed and can exercise their right of political supervision.

These freedoms should be upheld by a Press Law that abolishes political restrictions on the press.

The provision in the current Criminal Law that refers to 'the crime of incitement to subvert state power' must be abolished. We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes."

To anyone living in a free society the words seem merely Jeffersonian:

"For China the path that leads out of our current predicament is to divest ourselves of the authoritarian notion of reliance on an 'enlightened overlord' or an 'honest official' and to turn instead toward a system of liberties, democracy and the rule of law, and toward fostering the consciousness of modern citizens who see rights as fundamental and participation as a duty."

For Beijing the charter was like an explosive charge capable of blowing up the leadership compound within the walls of the Forbidden City. Ever since Mao began persecuting writers in the early 1950s, words have been regarded as especially dangerous in China.

Beijing does not engage in arguments. It simply bullies to discourage others. Zhang Zhixin, a young Chinese woman, was executed in 1975 for "opposing the Great Helmsman Chairman Mao, opposing Mao Zedong thought, opposing the revolutionary proletarian line and piling offense upon offense." To ensure that Ms. Zhang could not cry out at her execution, her vocal cords were cut.

Mr. Liu's indictment came on International Human Rights Day. But there's nothing unique here. Recently, for example, a Chinese official explained why the government bans Wikipedia: "The strength of a small number of evil-doers will make Wikipedia into a platform spreading bad information and threatening state security and social stability."

On a nationwide scale, there is the constant official inspection of the Chinese Internet for taboo words like Tiananmen, Taiwan, Dalai Lama — and democracy. Use of such words can bring a knock on the door and arrest.

Sadly, China now gets a free American pass on the abridgment of its fundamental human rights. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has suggested that human rights must now take a back seat behind other more important considerations, and President Obama canceled a visit to the White House by the Dalai Lama after Beijing warned that it would imperil the president's trip to China.

Liu Xiaobo remains clear-eyed. Before his latest arrest he observed, "In the game of ban and response to ban, the people's space for expression increases millimeter by millimeter. The more the people advance, the more the authorities retreat.

"The time is not far when the frontier of censorship will be breached and the people will openly demand freedom of expression."

Jonathan Mirsky is a journalist specializing in Chinese affairs.

EDITOR'S NOTE: It's imperative to cast a spotlight on China's courageous pro-democracy movement. Unfortunately, economic interests cast a large shadow upon them. It's for this reason that the current human rights conditions in U.S. policy towards Cuba are so important -- for once the shadow is cast, it becomes yet another barrier for activists to overcome.

A Christmas Dedication

Christmas is a time of giving. It's a time of selflessness.

As such, let's not forget all of the courageous pro-democracy leaders and human rights advocates separated from their loved ones, in distant political prisons, due to their selfless pursuit for freedom and justice.

Advocates such as Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who is on the 22nd day of a hunger strike in the Kilo 8 prison in Camaguey, due to the beatings and inhumane treatment he has been subjected to by the Cuban authorities.

Zapata, an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, is serving a 36-year prison sentence. On December 20th, in solidarity with Zapata, 16 other inmates of the Kilo 8 prison joined in the hunger strike.

Our thoughts and prayers are with them.

Fittingly, the following Christmas postcard was designed in 1997 by a group of Cuban political prisoners in Kilo 8. Some remain in prison to this very day.

May their hopes and dreams (of freedom and justice) become a reality in 2010.

Eva Mendes (Passionately) Talks Cuba

Thursday, December 24, 2009
The December-January 2010 edition of the magazine Simplemente Mujer ("Simply Woman") features an interview with Cuban-American actress and model, Eva Mendes.

Here's an excerpt:

"It's clear that at her 35 years, she [Mendes] feels very proud of her origins and close to her people. So much so, that upon asking her if she would travel to Cuba someday, she did not hesitate to say that she does not pass judgment on those that want to go, 'but I am not ready to do so until the political situation [on the island] changes.'"

Mendes is yet another example -- perhaps the most beautiful example -- of how the younger generations of Cuban-Americans do, in fact, care about Cuba and Cuba policy just as passionately as our parents and grandparents.

Must be a glitch in the "polls."

General McCaffrey's Change of Heart

Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Four Star Gen. Barry McCaffrey (Ret) Cancels Trip to Cuba Because of 'Shallow, Vitriolic' Comments and Actions by Cuban Foreign Minister

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Four-Star General Barry McCaffrey (Ret), former White House Drug Czar and SouthCom (Latin America) Commander, is canceling a scheduled January 3-6 trip to Cuba to discuss U.S.-Cuban future cooperation because of recent "shallow, vitriolic" comments and actions by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. In a prior trip to the island, McCaffrey met with top Cuban government, political, military, and academic leaders – including a seven hour meeting with Fidel Castro in Feb 2002. 

McCaffrey's letter to Dr. Wayne Smith of the Center for International Policy, which was sponsoring McCaffrey's trip, follows:
22 December 2009

Dr. Wayne Smith
Center for International Policy
1717 Massachusetts Ave NW
Washington, DC. 20036
Just got in last night to read the Reuters reports that Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez denounced President Obama at the Copenhagen Conference as an "imperial and arrogant liar" in the most vile and personal terms imaginable.
The Foreign Minister could not have borrowed talking points from Cuba's worst enemies to more effectively harm the country's future economic and political interests.
This type of shallow and vitriolic 1960's public diplomacy also makes Cuban leadership appear to be non-serious, polemical amateurs. President Obama is the most thoughtful and non-ideological US Chief Executive that the Cubans have seen in 50 years.  This Foreign Minister Rodriguez speech probably slammed the window shut on US Congressional and Administration leaders being willing to support bringing Cuba back into the community of nations.
This situation makes me very sad for the Cuban people. I see little reason to visit Cuba and deal with leadership of this appalling lack of good judgment.
Please withdraw my name for the proposed visit to Cuba in January.
Barry McCaffrey
General USA (Ret)

What in Newsweek's World?

Newsweek has released its top ten list of "World Predictions for 2010."

#10 on the list is "Castro Dies, U.S. Relations Improve"

This prediction begins by stating that:

"Fidel Castro has been ailing for years, and 2010 looks to be his last year on earth."

From Newsweek's mouth to God's ears.

It then proceeds to predict that:

"Cuba won't change overnight, but Fidel's demise will mean that all the doctrinal rigidities tied to his name (lack of press freedom, immigration restrictions, a cult of personality, persecution of gays) will get a second look."

Apparently, they didn't get Raul's memo, or Human Rights Watch's recent report, "New Castro, Same Cuba," which reminded us that,

"In July 2006, Fidel Castro handed control of the Cuban government over to his brother Raúl Castro. As the new head of state, Raúl Castro inherited a system of abusive laws and institutions, as well as responsibility for hundreds of political prisoners arrested during his brother's rule. Rather than dismantle this repressive machinery, Raúl Castro has kept it firmly in place and fully active. Scores of political prisoners arrested under Fidel Castro continue to languish in Cuba's prisons. And Raúl Castro's government has used draconian laws and sham trials to incarcerate scores more who have dared to exercise their fundamental freedoms."

Finally, Newsweek predicts that, "Raul, recognizing the economic potential of improving ties with the U.S., will curtail the government's anti-American rhetoric."

They also seemed to have missed Raul Castro's speech last week at the Cuban National Assembly, where he stated that "the enemy [U.S.] is as active as ever."

However, we were encouraged by the important prefix in this last prediction, "...recognizing the economic potential of improving ties with the U.S...."

That's exactly the leverage that U.S. sanctions provides at this crucial time and the reason why the U.S. shouldn't unilaterally and/or unconditionally lift them.

Time will tell.

Digging Their Own Hole

Despite the severe economic crisis affecting Cuba, its inability to provide people with basic goods (including toilet paper) or pay foreign creditors, the Castro regime has announced that it will continue to build massive bunker-style tunnels to "protect the population during time of war."

These tunnels have been undergoing construction since 1959 and are in a process of eternal expansion and incompletion.

Division General Samuel Rodiles told the Cuban National Assembly last week that these tunnels will remain a "priority" and that the construction efforts "were right on track."

In other words, that the Castro regime is digging its own hole.

Bipartisan Support for Cuban Freedom

Tuesday, December 22, 2009
From the Southern Political Report:
Florida Senate candidates agree on one thing: Cuba

The four leading candidates for the open US Senate seat in Florida -- Gov. Charlie Crist, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, US Rep. Kendrick Meek and former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre -- met for the first time in Coral Gables Monday for the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee's annual luncheon. And while they may not agree on much, all four took a tough stance on normalization of relations with Cuba.

"Freedom in not a Democratic or Republican issue, it is a fundamental concept that unites us all in this nation,'' Crist said.
Crist and Rubio are Republicans, and Meek and Ferre are Democrats. 

Rubio is the only Cuban American in the field, but Crist called attention to his family's immigrant (Greek Cypriot) roots, Ferre has close ties to the Cuban American community in Miami, and Meek's mother, former US Rep. Carrie Meek, was recognized at the luncheon for her efforts on behalf of the community.

Senate Candidates Unified on Cuba

From The Miami Herald:
Florida's U.S. Senate candidates unified on Cuba
The four candidates for U.S. Senate affirmed their support for democratic reforms in Cuba and took a tough line on American policy toward the island nation.
The four leading candidates for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat in 2010 were in the same room for the first time Monday at the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee's annual luncheon -- where they staked out their positions on the future of Cuba and its relations with the United States.
"The quest for an open, democratic and free Cuba has to guide all of the United States' actions with respect to Cuba,'' said Democrat Maurice Ferré, the former Miami mayor who was the first to speak at the event at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.
Ferré was joined on the dais by his rival for the Democratic nomination, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, and by the Republican hopefuls, Gov. Charlie Crist and former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio.
The PAC favors maintaining economic sanctions against the Cuban government. Among the more than 400 attendees at the luncheon were leading Cuban-American business executives and politicians, including U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario and Lincoln Díaz-Balart, and local state representatives.
Ferré said the recent crackdown by Cuban authorities on dissidents and civic activities were "deliberate steps'' by the Cuban government to sabotage Washington's efforts to normalize relations.
"It is clear that Cuba uses confrontation with the United States as a means to legitimize its totalitarian government and to justify decades of repression,'' Ferré said.
Rubio -- the only Cuban American among the candidates -- maintained that freedom and human rights were pillars of the United States' policy toward Cuba.
"Do we still believe it when we say that no government has power that its people have not given it?'' Rubio asked during a speech that drew applause. "Or have we arrived at a point in our history when we think that to sell rice and livestock to a tyranny is more important than upholding the founding principles of this country? Are we prepared to say that sending tourists to Havana is more important than many words that the birth of this nation made possible?''
Meek emphasized his collaborative relationship with his Cuban-American colleagues in Congress and said that as a member of the Democrat majority he would have the attention of President Barack Obama on Cuba policy.
He stressed that whenever the United States made a gesture toward normalizing relations with Cuba, the Castro regime "did not move an inch toward democracy, free elections or the release of political prisoners.''
He recalled that U.S. Sen. Bob Menéndez, D-N.J., was a key player in early 2009 in supporting legislation that would maintain the Cuba embargo.
Crist closed the forum by talking about his personal history, shaped by a family of immigrants who had pursued a dream of a better life, which is "the dream of the Cuban people.''
"Freedom in not a Democratic or Republican issue, it is a fundamental concept that unites us all in this nation,'' he said.
During the lunch, the U.S.-Cuba PAC acknowledged former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, the 83-year-old mother of Kendrick Meek, for her support in the cause of democracy in Cuba.
"Our immediate task is to support candidates who do not want the unconditional lifting of sanctions against Cuba, and who put first the issue of human rights and democratic reforms,'' said Mauricio Claver-Carone, who is head of the U.S.-Cuba PAC.
For video clips of the presentation, click here.

Is Castro Afraid of Engagement?

Monday, December 21, 2009
Last week, Abbas Milani wrote a great article in The New Republic entitled, "The Great Satan Myth: Everything you know about U.S. involvement in Iran is wrong," in which he makes the following timely observation:

"Will the United States stand on the side of Iranian democracy now? The worry one hears most often in Washington is that such a stand will backfire; it will bolster the mullahs by annoying the innate nationalism of the Iranian people. But this misunderstands the regime. No matter what the United States does -- even if it maintains a studied silence -- the regime will describe its opponents as U.S. tools. This accusation is a political necessity for the mullahs and deeply embedded in their worldview. Besides, no matter how much the regime denounces the Great Satan, Iranians, on the whole, remain positively disposed to the United States, at least relative to the rest of the Muslim world."

It's timely, for many Cuba watchers have asked themselves why the Castro regime has refused to reciprocate the policy and diplomatic overtures made by the Obama Administration in 2009.

As can be expected, anti-sanctions advocates ingeniously argue that it's because the Castro regime is afraid of engagement and that, therefore, the U.S. should unilaterally normalize relations regardless of the regime's brutal repression and undemocratic behavior.

But similar to Milani's observation on the Iranian regime, here's what Berta Antunez, an Afro-Cuban human rights advocate and the sister of former Cuban political prisoner Jorge Luis Garcia Perez "Antunez," had to say about this argument:

"All my life I have had to deal with the true face of the Castro regime: its thugs, its interrogators and its prison guards. As a result, my brother, my family and I do not fall under the spell of the regime's sophisticated diplomats, its well-placed agents of influence, and its propagandists.

It's ironic to hear some argue that the Castro regime is repressive only to avoid engagement with the United States, as if a 50-year-old dictatorship is full of closet reformists kept in check by their fear of the ``evils'' of U.S. imperialism. No, I come from deep inside Cuba and I know how the regime treats us Cubans and what it really thinks of us, especially if we happen to be black.

The regime represses us because it can. It brooks no dissent and tolerates no opposition. It can't because it knows that the majority of Cubans want their freedoms restored.

Giving a regime that is nearing its end, a unilateral windfall of tourists' dollars, will only reinforce its bloody repression. It is the wrong signal to send to a youthful and growing resistance movement that eventually will prevail over a decrepit totalitarian state. For the sake of the Cuban people, America should continue to stand as a pillar of moral clarity

(Excerpt from "Stand Firm, America," Miami Herald, November 11th, 2009)


Senate Forum in Florida

Fla. Senate candidates to meet at Cuba forum

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) -- Three top candidates in the race to become Florida's next U.S. senator will face off on the issue of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Gov. Charlie Crist, GOP challenger Marco Rubio, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek are among the candidates expected to address the nation's most powerful Cuba lobby, the US-Cuba Democracy PAC, on Monday in Coral Gables.

The event is the first since the Senate campaign began that all will attend simultaneously.

And no wonder. Not only does Florida have a large and politically active Cuban-American community, but a recent report by a nonprofit that tracks political donations showed the PAC and its supporters have given more than $10 million to congressional campaigns over the last seven years.

Easing Sanctions is a Losing Proposition

Sunday, December 20, 2009
From yesterday's editorial in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "More Castro Fuming":

Fidel Castro's displeasure with President Barack Obama and the United States means little except continuing misery for Cubans.

In a letter read by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez to a summit of leftist Latin American nations, Mr. Castro said Mr. Obama's "friendly smile and African-American face" hide sinister intentions for that region. That's an obvious bid to divert attention from the Castro regime's sinister intentions toward Cubans.

Those intentions underlie that regime's brutal repression of its people. And the ailing Fidel's supposed transfer of power to brother Raul is a distinction without a difference for Cubans' basic freedoms and human rights.

The revolutionary rhetoric of the Castros, Mr. Chavez, Bolivia's President Evo Morales and their regional "comrades" hides sinister intentions indeed -- to seize, hold and wield power without regard for civil and economic liberties. Thus, positive change for Cubans must precede any normalization of relations with Cuba.

Fidel's hostile response to the Obama administration's tentative steps toward normalization nevertheless has value. It reminds Washington that so long as the Castros maintain an iron grip on their island nation, easing the U.S. stance toward Havana is a losing proposition.