Cubans Reject Castro's Concert

Saturday, April 10, 2010
According to the Associated Press:

Cuba concert to counter critics draws sparse crowd

HAVANA — A surprisingly small crowd sweated and sang along to performances by Cuban rock, folk and salsa stars Saturday, at what the communist government billed as a politically important "concert for the homeland."

Organizers had said the show would be headlined by Cuba's most famous folk singer, Silvio Rodriguez. But instead the pro-Castro government activist made fans wait for an hour in unrelenting afternoon sun before he took the stage, read a letter defending the single-party communist system — and then left without performing.

"If this government is so bad, where has such a good people come from?" he asked.

Immediately after the 63-year-old Rodriguez's appearance were performances by top artists from the "Nueva Trova" movement, a genre that mixes folk music and pro-Castro politics. But many in the already sparse crowd drifted away, missing later performances by other musicians and poetry recited by Cuban film stars.

Solidarność With Poland

Our thoughts and prayers are with the Polish people and government amidst their national tragedy.

A Treasure of Emotions (and Quotes)

The following article in New Jersey's The Record is a treasure of emotions (and quotes):

Cuba releases political prisoner and his wife, one of the 'Ladies in White'

A former Cuban political prisoner and his human rights activist wife arrived in New Jersey Friday, a day after Cuban officials let them leave the island under pressure from Spain.

Nelson Aguiar Ramirez, 64, is an electrician who was among 75 opponents of Fidel Castro's regime rounded up in 2003 by government security forces. His wife, Dolia Leal, also 64, is a founder of the Ladies in White, a group of mainly wives and mothers of the political prisoners. They have drawn international attention with their peaceful marches, in which they dress all in white and hold white flowers, in Havana to press for the release of their relatives.

"My husband and I are free now, we're on free soil," said Leal, who was dressed in white slacks and a white blouse, to a group of Cuban exiles gathered in Club Cubano, a social club in Elizabeth. "But we are continuing our fight for freedom in Cuba" [...]

"Fidel Castro is an s.o.b.," she said as her husband, dressed in a dark blue suit and tie, cautioned, "Now, now Gloria."

Added Leal, "But it was once Raul Castro took over that the Ladies in White started to get beat up and harassed. For as horrible and repressive as Fidel was, he never ordered anyone to lay a hand on us."

"Whenever they attacked us, we simply chanted 'Libertad' (Liberty)," she said. Raul Castro, Fidel's younger brother, took over once the long-time leader became too ill to govern.

Expectations that Raul might relax restrictions on speech and movement on the island and be more open to diplomatic relations with the United States are unrealistic, Leal said.

"He's a Hitler; he's completely iron-fisted," she said, as she prepared to eat the first steak she'd had in 50 years [...]

Aguiar said his time in prison was brutal. He spent about a year in solitary confinement, two months of that time in total darkness, he said. His sons lost jobs because of the family's fight for human rights, and their friends were warned by government officials to stay away from them if they wanted to keep their jobs, Aguiar said.

"Finally, because our wives were out there, marching, keeping the call for our release loud and continuous, I got a light bulb, and I could at least read the Bible, which was smuggled to me by a visitor," he said. "It is the mothers and wives like my wife who everyone truly should admire. They kept the pressure on."

Leal's eyes filled with tears as one of the Cuban-Americans at the social club presented the couple with a large Cuban flag. "How silly of me," she said. "I didn't easily shed tears in Cuba. But I am here, in liberty, and I cry for my homeland. This Lady in White will continue to dress all in white, will continue to hold the white flower, and march through the streets of this country to end the repression."

"Zapata Lives" in Barcelona

Friday, April 9, 2010
Last month, Orlando Zapata Tamayo was projected on the Cuban Mission to the United Nations in New York City.

Last night, Zapata was projected on the Cuban Consulate in Barcelona, Spain.

Zapata Lives!

Recipe for Geopolitical Disaster

A good analysis in the Wall Street Journal by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega on the Iran-Venezuela Axis.

Add 40,000 Cuban "advisors" and it's a recipe for geopolitical disaster.

Time to Confront the Tehran-Caracas Axis

U.S. sanctions can't work as long as trade between Iran and Venezuela remains robust.

As Washington policy makers scramble to craft effective sanctions against Iran, they seem to have completely ignored Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's blossoming relationship with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. This strategic alliance provides the Iranian regime with a clandestine source of uranium, helps it evade restrictions on trade and financing, and gives Middle Eastern terrorists access to weapons from Mr. Chávez's growing arsenal. So even if the West is able to implement a sanctions plan with bite, Tehran's partnership with Caracas might cancel it out.

Mr. Chávez is a self-declared enemy of the United States who has aided terrorist groups and radical regimes for more than a decade. Though his support of Iran should come as no surprise, it is not clear that the U.S. is prepared to respond to the Caracas-Tehran axis.

In September 2005, Mr. Chávez signaled his sympathies when Venezuela was the only member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board to vote against sanctioning Iran for its illegal uranium enrichment program. Four years later, during Mr. Chávez's eighth visit to Iran, he called that country a "strategic ally." On Sept. 11, 2009, in an interview in the French newspaper Le Figaro, he thanked Iran for helping Venezuela develop its own nuclear program. Indeed, the two governments formalized their collaboration "in the field of nuclear technology" in an accord signed in Caracas in November 2008. And, in the midst of a crushing fiscal crisis, last December Mr. Chávez ordered his treasury to channel another $50 million toward a secret nuclear program, according to a document provided to me by a source in Venezuela.

Although Mr. Chávez has denounced reports of uranium mining as "lies" and part of an "imperialist plan," the Canadian uranium exploration company U308 Corp has recorded a substantial source of uranium in the Roraima Basin, which straddles the border between Guyana and the Venezuelan province of Bolívar. Iranian or other Middle Eastern individuals operate a tractor factory, cement plant and gold mine in this region. Two of these facilities have private ports on the Orinoco River, affording unimpeded access to the Atlantic. One of these operations-the VenIran tractor factory-was the intended recipient of 22 containers intercepted by Turkish customs authorities at the port of Mersin in December 2008. They were carrying an "explosives lab" and nitrate and sulfite chemicals that are used to manufacture explosives.

These industrial operations are only the tip of the iceberg. Joint ventures and other projects totaling at least $30 billion between Iranian and Venezuelan front companies can be used to conceal multimillion dollar transactions. In addition, Iran has created several major financial institutions in Venezuela that work through local banks to gain access to the global banking system.

Because Venezuela can barely meet its domestic demand for refined petroleum products, some have doubted that Mr. Chávez can make good on his September 2009 pledge to supply Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime with 20,000 barrels of gasoline a day to soften the blow of expected sanctions. If the U.S. intelligence community is paying attention, however, it will know what Mr. Chávez told his Iranian counterpart in Caracas last November: Venezuela is already purchasing fuel on the international market for planned shipment to Iran, according to a secret account of the meeting provided to me by Venezuelan sources.

The Iranian relationship has also helped boost Venezuelan support of Middle Eastern radicals. Last November, Israeli navy commandos seized the German cargo vessel Francop, which was carrying 36 shipping containers holding 500 tons of Katyusha rockets, mortars, grenades and a half-million rounds of small-arms ammunition en route to Syria, but ultimately bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. The lethal shipment had left the Venezuelan port of Guanta around the time that Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro was visiting Damascus to deliver a message from Mr. Chávez to Bashar al-Assad.

Because the U.S. is determined to ignore what it dismisses as petty provocations, Washington has refused to take any effective action against Mr. Chávez's support for Colombian terrorists and his complicity in drug trafficking. Perhaps his ties with Iran will be a game-changer.

Any serious sanctions program must plug the gaps opened up by the substantial business and banking relationships between Iran and Venezuela. Tehran's support for Mr. Chávez's nuclear ambitions must be brought under the strict scrutiny of the IAEA. Venezuelan officials, the state oil company, and other financial institutions should be investigated and sanctioned for abetting illegal financial transactions. Mr. Chávez's support for terrorist groups in the Americas and beyond should be challenged as a threat to peace and an act of aggression under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter.

Referendum for Freedom

According to Reuters:

Cuban dissidents propose vote on freeing prisoners

HAVANA - Cuban dissidents proposed on Thursday that the public vote on whether the island's political prisoners should be freed, while Cuba said its enemies are using human rights to "demonize" it.

The dissidents acknowledge their idea is unlikely to be accepted, but said they suggested it to end an impasse between the government and dissident hunger striker Guillermo Farinas, who is seeking the release of 26 ailing political prisoners.

"Why not leave the solution of this matter in the hands of the people?" Francisco Chaviano said in a press conference held by dissident group Agenda for the Cuban Transition.

EDITOR'S NOTE to Reuters: In the first paragraph, you refer to the Castro regime as "Cuba." Please note, it is the Castro regime -- and only the Castro regime -- that is making hysteric claims and preventing "Cuba" from exercising its free will. The repressed voice of "Cuba" has yet to be heard.

Reason vs. Barbarism

By Jorge Olivera Castillo, Cuba-based independent journalist and former political prisoner, for Sindical Press:

Reason vs. Barbarism

The Cuban government has shown its true face to the world. However, what could be plainly seen was not an expression of goodness or sound judgment - what explanation could there be for a crowd attacking with impunity three or four dozen women dressed in white?

I wonder what category of barbarism could be assigned to such crowds consisting of people blinded by hate and other dispositions springing from the darker side of the soul.

These days, the dictatorship has put its machinery of terror into full operation. By exercising acts of meanness and abuse it is striving to put an end to the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) movement. The expressions of the government's anger range from smear campaigns and gross misrepresentations of the truth to indiscriminate use of brute force.

Verbal harassment in form of unutterable obscenities and shameful allusions is no longer enough: crowds of people assembled with the aim to intimidate and offend have recently started to punch, push and kick.

Thus they act without a slightest trace of humanity, resembling wild beasts in the full of their wild instincts. They scream, pounce and jump, enjoying the opportunity to abuse their victims. There's no room for sensitivity during these "acts of repudiation," which could be also seen as a rehearsal for lynching.

On Wednesday March 17, such cruelty materialized at the exit of the Church of Santa Barbara in the Havana municipality of Arroyo Naranjo.

A peaceful march of about 40 women members of the Ladies in White citizen organization was severely attacked by Interior Ministry troops and vigilante groups.

All the women were beaten and dragged into a bus. Several were in need of medical attention, including Laura Pollan and Reina Luisa Tamayo, mother of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, prisoner of conscience who recently died in a prolonged hunger strike. She participated in the march in protest against the inhuman treatment that her son had regularly suffered from the hands of his jailers.

In a series of 7 marches taking place between March 15 and 21 in commemoration of the 7 years of imprisonment of members of the famous Group of 75, the Ladies in White have endured such degree of victimization by perpetrators protected by a high level of impunity as well as by creatures fully prepared to use all their wickedness, that we are compelled to think about a bloody outcome.

On Thursday 18, on their way back to the Church of Our Lady of Mercy in the municipality of Old Havana, the Ladies in White were once and again harassed by a mob composed of about 300 people.

This time, the crowd shouting pro-government slogans only jeered at them and jostled them.

Nevertheless, the demands of freedom of the approximately 50 women marching in two parallel rows down the middle of the street could be heard in spite of the thunderous clamour of the mob.

The Ladies in White insist that they will not cease their efforts; that they will continue to demand the unconditional release of their relatives.

Fighting for their cause, they are not afraid to die or go to jail. Against such determination - a proof of their moral height - their executioners and their assistants are as small as Lilliputians.

Their honesty shines between the shadows of the regime that has lost both the sense of decency and the map of virtue.

They are not daunted by infinite abuse. They go straight ahead in silence, holding high their gladioli. I could see them on that Thursday, March 18, amid the crowd of crooks.

Despite death threats, obscenities and all the shamelessness displayed by the large crowd that surrounded them there was no trace of fear in their faces.

Once again I realized that their courage is genuine, it's not blotted or scratched. Their convictions are like steps on the staircase leading to the door of success.

About the Author: Cuban poet and journalist Jorge Olivera was sentenced to 18 years in prison for writing about the real Cuba. He was arrested together with other 28 independent journalists during the Cuban Black Spring of 2003, when there was a crackdown on the Cuban opposition. He was sentenced in 24 hours without the possibility to talk to his defender. In December 2004, he was released on medical parole - he almost lost his sight and his health conditions were rapidly worsening. Now, Jorge Olivera Castillo is a head of unofficial PEN Club Cuba.

The Most Personal of Rights

By Jose de la Isla for Hispanic Link News Service:

Rising up against torture

On a tip from a press officer, I was paired with El Heraldo's international page editor Fanny Riva Palacio to interview poet Maria Elena Cruz Varela, a recently freed Cuban political prisoner. That was in 1994, when I was in Mexico City to report on that nation's presidential election.

It was Mexico's first presidential election after an extremely controversial one in 1988. Both U.S. parties — Republican and Democrat — had sent observers to serve as part of an international delegation.

I was impressed how the arriving observer was greeted like a rock star. He shook hands with people waiting to vote. "Como 'taz? Como 'taz?" he greeted, sounding more South Texan than South American. Voters told me they welcomed the attention, that it assured a fair process.

At the Hotel Maria Isabel, Riva Palacio and I set up our recorders in a sitting area between the lobby and the hotel administrative offices and the press officer introduced us to Maria Elena Cruz Varela.

She had been released from Cuba that week and, sponsored by the Jimmy Carter Center, was sent to Mexico to observe the elections. She had been a leader of an artists' opposition group called Criterio Alternativo. In 1991, it had published a manifesto calling for reforms, national debates and free elections. Cruz Varela was given a two-year prison sentence and kept under house arrest.

We gathered these facts from the attractive, soft-spoken woman in a white shift dress, Reeboks and bright, rainbow colored socks.

Cruz Varela told us about having been tortured. Her words seemed at first like a poet's hyperbole. "What do you mean you are not here?"

"My heart is in Cuba," she said. "I died in Havana."

When two armed men in uniform marched through the lobby, a look of horror came over her face. I felt I was in a movie flashback until I realized those were just armored car personnel with rifles coming to get the receipts from the office.

After the interview, Fanny and I worked up the courage to ask each other what we had witnessed. We agreed we saw the woman, with the look of horror in her face, and her spirit leaping out of her body.

Nearly a decade later, in the spring of 2003, the Cuban government arrested and tried 75 human rights defenders, journalists and librarians. They were given sentences up to 28 years in prison. Ladies in White formed two weeks after the arrests. Each Sunday after Mass at St. Rita's in Havana, they form a ritual procession to a nearby park. They dress in white, like the Argentine mothers of the "disappeared" during the Dirty War there. The Ladies in White each wear a button with the photo of the jailed relative and a number to signify the sentence.

March 26, singer Gloria Estefan led a march in Miami of tens of thousands to support the Ladies in White in Havana. From Bogota, singer Shakira sent a message of support, saying the protests could "rise all the way to the heart of the tyrants." In Los Angeles, actor Andy Garcia led a march calling attention to the Cuban prisoners. In New York, Cuban Americans held a silent march in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The mobilization signifies the next generation is going to respond. They use as their slogan, "This is not a Cuban issue; it's a human issue."

It is the recognition that everyone has the right to remain integrated — body and soul. Violating a person for political reasons is to take away the most intimate, the most personal of rights.

A Manual for Repression

Thursday, April 8, 2010
From Havana-based blogger Claudia Cadelo of Octavo Cerco, on a recent manual distributed to Cuban workplaces authorizing (and exhorting) lynch mobs to attack dissidents:

Sticks, Iron Bars and Cables

I read a document that calls for a "Plan against order and counterrevolutionary disturbances," a call for the creation of rapid response brigades in workplaces. Fortunately for us, the civilians, the document has been leaked and I have been able to learn that, officially, I can be attacked by a "worker" with an iron bar.

I try to keep my sanity, this horrible call to civil lynching reminds me, despite the low level of the approaches if we compare it, of that poster I came across in The Polynesian restaurant entitled, "Philosophy of Struggle of Our People."

I wonder how it is possible that these gentlemen who today rule my country are capable of authorizing people to beat, abuse and even kill – more than authorizing, even exhorting them to kill. I cannot get the horrible combination of letters out of my head: i-r-o-n-b-a-r-s in order to s-m-a-s-h-m-e. All to remain in power, to achieve what is denied them by the nature of man: eternity, divinity, absolute power.

Has the president gone mad? Who wrote this call to civil war in the name of the Cuban government? Is it the Communist Party that urges its members to physically attack other human beings? And who – good God call me naïve – has the courage, the shamelessness and the bestiality to be a part, or even to subscribe to this "post-modern" body of volunteers?

Cuba Is Not Cancun

The following excerpt from this week's Cincinnati Enquirer report, "US-Cuba Miles Away, Lifestyles Worlds Apart," speaks volumes:

Cubans have to try to make their own sense of what is real and what is propaganda. But talking to foreigners to get a different perspective can lead to trouble. Being seen talking with a foreigner can lead to an arrest for "bothering" the tourist, though police won't ask the visitor if she is being hassled.

In one case, police took away two men for questioning after they spent two minutes discussing baseball with a foreign woman. Those two minutes of conversation led to one of the men being handcuffed and carted off in the back of a police car.

"It's not your fault," a Cuban bystander said to the American. "That's Cuba. They arrest you for anything."

Senator Menendez Speaks With Farinas

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator Robert Menendez spoke yesterday via telephone with Cuban pro-democracy leader and hunger striker Guillermo Fariñas. Menendez expressed his continued commitment to the struggle of Cuba's pro-democracy movement and prisoners of conscience. After the call to a hospital in Santa Clara, he released the following statement:

"We have to continue to shine a light on the brutal treatment by the Castro regime of political prisoners in Cuba. As long as I am a U.S. Senator, I will continue to use my voice and my vote to stand with individuals like Guillermo Fariñas, who have undertaken tremendous personal risk and sacrifice to simply expose the ongoing human rights abuses in Cuba. Guillermo was resolute in his position that the rights of Cuba's political prisoners must be honored."

Guillermo Fariñas has been on a hunger strike in Cuba since February 26th to protest the death of fellow dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo. He said that he will remain on strike until twenty-six other seriously ill prisoners of conscience are set free. He is receiving fluids intravenously since collapsing on March 11.

"Individuals like Guillermo Fariñas and Orlando Zapata Tamayo are evidence of the unbearable brutality of the Castro regime and the tragic state of political prisoners in Cuba. They are also part of a growing number of human rights activists willing to put their life on the line for freedom. The world community must raise their voices so that these rights are honored and Guillermo Fariñas can live. My thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Fariñas and all of Cuba's prisoners of conscience."

How Many More Must Die?

From the Paris-based, non-governmental organization, Reporters Without Borders:

International community can no longer ignore the fate of Cuba's imprisoned journalists and dissidents

"How many more deaths will be needed in Cuban prisons?" was the question posed at a news conference held today at Reporters Without Borders headquarters in Paris for representatives of the French, Spanish and Latin American media.

This question has been more pressing than ever since political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo's death on 23 February. Some independent journalists such as Guillermo Fariñas, who is not currently detained, and Darsi Ferrer, who is in prison, have decided to follow Zapata's example by going on an indefinite hunger strike to press for the release of the prisoners of conscience who are in poorest health.

The 25 journalists currently in prison in Cuba include Reporters Without Borders correspondent Ricardo González Alfonso, who is serving a 25-year jail sentence which he received during "Black Spring" crackdown of March 2003. His state of health has deteriorated markedly in recent months.

After Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard opened the news conference, Cuban writer Zoé Valdés described how the authorities recently stepped up their repression of the Ladies in White, a movement formed by the mothers, wives and sisters of political prisoners.

A march that the Ladies in White held in Havana on 17 March, on the eve of the "Black Spring" anniversary, was dispersed in a particularly brutal manner. Valdés also referred to the deterioration in the Castro regime's image since Zapata's death.

Another participant, writer and academic Jacobo Machover, criticised the readiness of certain governments - in France, Spain and Latin America - to tolerate the arbitrary actions of a regime that has still not ratified the two UN human rights conventions it signed when Raúl Castro was officially installed as his brother's successor in February 2008.

"The dissidents on hunger strike are not doing it for themselves but for everyone," Machover said, adding that, "today we are seeing the rebirth of a small hope for the island's future, one that many had ceased to cherish."

Referring to the letter that Reporters Without Borders wrote to Brazil's President Lula on 17 March and to its contacts with the European Union's Spanish presidency, Julliard concluded: "We are waiting for a response from governments regardless of their tendency. The international community cannot continue to remain silent in the face of the suffering of these dissidents and the lack of freedoms imposed by a regime whose hints of a possible opening stopped short at the threshold of human rights."

The Travel Debate's True Color

While the world is focused on the Castro regime's brutality and the Cuban people's courageous struggle for freedom through acts of civil disobedience and hunger strikes, Bloomberg's Jonathan Levin appears to be solely focused on the business perspectives of American tourism to Cuba.

So much so, that his recent articles read more like advocacy pieces and premonitions, than objective journalism.

However, these articles and the new legislative "repackaging" of the travel debate over the last few months have helped shed further light on the true color behind efforts to unilaterally lift U.S. sanctions:


On the one hand, you have the seduction of the U.S. farm lobby through promises of greater agricultural sales upon a tourism cash windfall for the Castro regime, as embodied in the House bill by Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson.

On the other, you have Levin's articles and the seduction of the U.S. travel industry by Castro regime officials focused on apartheid resorts, beaches and golf courses.

As usual, all of these transactions have one sole Cuban counter-part: the Castro regime.

And the Cuban people? Nada.

Business as usual.

Quote of the Week

Tuesday, April 6, 2010
"We would note that the government of Venezuela was largely closed this week due to energy shortages. To the extent that Venezuela is going to expend resources on behalf of its people, perhaps the focus should be more terrestrial than extraterrestrial."

-- P.J. Crowley, U.S. Department of State spokesman, on the announcement by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez that he is seeking Russia's help to build a space program for the South American nation, Associated Press, April 2nd, 2010

Castro Exports Repression

From today's The Washington Times:

Cuban advisers bolster Venezuelan regime

Cuba's communist government has deployed thousands of technical and military advisers to Venezuela to bolster the regime of leftist President Hugo Chavez,
as that country faces energy shortages and increased repression against opposition political leaders.

A senior Cuban security official and former interior minister, Gen. Ramiro Valdes, arrived in Caracas, Venezuela, in February to take charge of a Cuban government mission that over the past several years has grown to an estimated 40,000 advisers and aid workers, including a large contingent of Cuban military personnel.

The advisers include intelligence and security officers, political advisers and medical personnel [...]

Mr. Chavez's opponents fear the Cuban advisers are behind the repressive measures taken by the government to secure a victory for Mr. Chavez in congressional elections scheduled for September.

Several prominent opposition leaders have been arrested over the past month. They include Gov. Alvarez Paz of the oil-rich state of Zulia and Guillermo Zuloaga, president of the last surviving independent newschannel, Globovision [...]

"There are indications that agents of the Cuban G-2 [military intelligence] are operating openly at all the main military installations, principally the Ministry of Defense, the strategic operations command, the joint chiefs of staff headquarters, command centers of the army, navy, air force and national guard, as well as the military intelligence directorate" and the internal security service, said retired Brig. Gen. Francisco Uson, who served as defense planning director and briefly held the post of finance minister in Mr. Chavez's government.

Riddle Me This

According to The Hill:

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said this weekend that three pending trade agreements with foreign countries (Colombia, Panama and South Korea) are unlikely to be completed this year.

Kirk said that the agreements were critical for the White House's new focus on job creation, but indicated that more cooperation is needed from labor unions and congressional Democrats before the they can be approved by Congress.

"I don't think that we're going to get them all done this year," Kirk said on Bloomberg's "Political Capital" in an interview that aired Saturday.

So let's get this straight.

Many Members of the U.S. Congress do not want to transact billions in (already existing) business opportunities with Colombia's private sector due to concerns over poor labor conditions.

Fair point.

Yet, those very same Members -- including House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson -- want to provide a billionaire tourism subsidy to the Castro regime in the hopes that it'll buy more U.S. agricultural products.

A classic head-scratcher.

Total Generational Disconnect

According to the AFP:

Cuba's young communist map future without Castros

HAVANA - Young Cuban communists gather here this weekend to map a future without Fidel and Raul Castro amid a deepening economic crisis, generational apathy and disenchantment with the revolution.

The Union of Communist Youth has embraced a slogan of socialist continuity for its conference, which is held every five years.

"There will be no turnover, only continuity," said Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, Cuba's first vice president, in preparatory meetings for the conference, rejecting out of hand changes in the country's socialist system.

Here's the kicker: Jose Ramon Machado Ventura (center below) is 79 years old.

The Purest of Protests

By Univision News co-anchor Maria Elena Salinas in The Denver Post:

Ladies in White March for Cuba

Ladies dressed in white, marching through the streets of Havana, Cuba, in silence: the purest of protests. Yet a group of Cuban women known as "Las Damas de Blanco," or "Ladies in White," have been victims of cruel repression by supporters of the communist government on the island. But now they are not alone.

Last week, tens of thousands of people marched on the streets of Miami's Little Havana to show their support for the Ladies in White and their cause. "Cubans and non-Cubans alike that live in liberty need to take the opportunity at this moment in history to come together and show them that we care," said Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan, who, along with her husband, music producer Emilio Estefan, organized the first of several marches.

Estefan was motivated by the brutal images on television of the women being harassed by pro-government protesters who insulted them as they marched peacefully down the street, as they have done for years, asking for the release of their loved ones. The images show them being pushed and shoved, yelled at, dragged and taken away in buses by security forces.

Las Damas de Blanco spontaneously organized in April 2003, shortly after a series of mock trials in which 75 dissidents, independent journalists and human-rights activists were sentenced to jail terms that range from six to 30 years. They had been rounded up in a series of raids weeks earlier, in what came to be known as The Black Spring of 2003, and were accused of conspiring against the "independence and integrity of Cuba" with the "Northern Empire," as the Cuban government refers to the United States.

Many of those detained were coordinators of the Varela Project, an effort by dissidents to request democratic changes on the island by gathering 10,000 signatures, as required by the Cuban Constitution. They were charged with subversive activities, as were many others who wrote, edited and published an independent magazine.

Since then, the Ladies in White have been holding vigils, taking walks along the streets of several Cuban cities, holding a flower or a picture of their husbands, brothers or sons whom they consider unfairly detained. They remain silent throughout, hoping their peaceful and passive form of protest will help gain their loved ones freedom.

In the past weeks, their efforts have been supported by two brave men who risked their lives in the name of the prisoners of conscience who have fallen ill under detention. After 82 days on a hunger strike, Orlando Zapata, a 42- year-old plumber, died Feb. 23 while in prison. Journalist and human- rights activist Guillermo Farinas, after three weeks on a hunger strike, said he was willing to die if it would call attention to the plight of his jailed compatriots.

The world has taken notice. There has been international condemnation and outcries from the European Union and the U.S. State Department asking the Cuban government to release all political prisoners.

The day before the march in Miami in support of the Ladies in White, President Barack Obama put out a statement of support for the human-rights struggle in Cuba. "Recent events in Cuba, including the tragic death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the repression visited upon Las Damas de Blanco, and the intensified harassment of those who dare to give voice to the desires of their fellow Cubans, are deeply disturbing," said the president. "These events underscore that instead of embracing an opportunity to enter a new era, Cuban authorities continue to respond to the aspirations of the Cuban people with a clenched fist."

Cuban exiles and dissidents on the island have gone to great lengths to try to bring about democratic changes. Every year they ask the same question: When will freedom come to the Cuban people? Wouldn't it be ironic if a group of women dressed in white, with their silence, their dignity and their courage, could accomplish what the most powerful politicians have failed to do?

Seven Years Later

Monday, April 5, 2010
From the International Press Institute (IPI):

Seven Years on, No Sign of Justice for Cuba's Jailed Journalists

On 7th Anniversary of 27-Year Prison Sentence for Omar Rodriguez Saludes, IPI Repeats Call for his Immediate Release

Today marks the seventh anniversary of the sentencing of Cuban journalist Omar Rodriguez Saludes to 27 years in prison, the longest sentence handed down to any of the journalists charged during Cuba's notorious 2003 'Black Spring' crackdown against the media.

More than 29 journalists were arrested in the roundups that began on 18 March 2003, according to IPI's Justice Denied Campaign, which highlights cases of imprisoned journalists and impunity in crimes against journalists worldwide. At least two other journalists have been arrested in the years since the crackdown.

Saludes was one of those arrested on 18 March 2003 and three weeks later, on 5 April, was sentenced to 27 years in prison for "acting against the independence or territorial integrity of the State." It was the longest sentence handed down to any of the journalists charged in the crackdown.

Rodriguez was head of the independent news agency Nueva Prensa Cubana in Havana at the time of his arrest. He was known for his reports about political repression under the regime of Fidel Castro, the island nation's ailing former leader and elder brother of the current president. Friends and family members say Rodriguez is housed in the crowded Toledo Prison in the capital, and today suffers from health problems.

In July last year, IPI spoke to Rodriguez's wife, Ileana Marrero Joa, and to his uncle, Miguel Saludes, about the terrible conditions of his imprisonment and the difficulties of being an independent journalist in Cuba today.

In September 2009, in an unprecedented ruling, a United States federal judge ordered the Cuban Communist Party and the government of Raul Castro to pay a total of US$27.5 million to the mother of the jailed journalist.

Dozens of people were jailed on treason-related charges in the sweeping crackdown launched by the Castro regime in the spring of 2003. Despite condemnations from the United Nations, foreign governments and human rights groups, many remain behind bars.

Seven years after the crackdown on journalists and other accused dissenters, the country continues to trample on free expression and remains a leading jailer of journalists, with more than 20 reporters and news managers behind bars.

As of March 2010, at least four dissidents and human rights activists were on hunger strike in Cuba. Political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after an 85-day hunger strike on Feb 24 2010. In the month since then, three other dissidents have also gone on hunger strikes to demand that President Raul Castro's government release political detainees. One of the dissidents, Coco Fariñas is demanding, among other things, the end of "government violence against our people, against bloggers and independent journalists."

"The Cuban authorities should release Saludes immediately, and allow him to return to his family and friends", said IPI Director David Dadge. "Saludes' imprisonment is excessive and unjust, and we demand that Cuba desist from its campaign of harassment against dissidents and journalists, and enable the Cuban people to freely express themselves."

A Paragon of Modern Slavery

From the New York Post's Editorial Board:

Cuba's ship of state

A slave ship for an enslaved island? How appropriate.

Last Wednesday, a replica of the famed 19th-century slave-transport vessel Amistad concluded a 10-day tour through Cuban waters.

Alas, it was not to bear witness to the political and economic repression that's a daily reality for the Communist nation.

Rather, the highlight of the UN-sponsored "educational" jaunt was the March 25 global "Day of Remembrance" for victims of the Atlantic slave trade — a date that also marked the 10th anniversary of the schooner's launch out of Connecticut's Mystic Seaport.

During its visit to "Fidel's Paradise," Amistad hosted a three-hour simulcast on the history of the slave trade, connecting students in Cuban classrooms with counterparts across the Atlantic and in UN headquarters here.

Well, the UN may consider itself historically aware. Too bad it's also irony-challenged — commemorating centuries of slavery and oppression, while turning a blind eye to its modern-day manifestation just 90 miles from Florida.

Sure, students learned about the slave trade — including the unknowable numbers who died during the Middle Passage transport from Africa.

But how much did they learn about the countless Cubans who've suffered — and those who died — in the 50 years since Castro's ascension to power?

Many of those died at sea, not on a "freedom schooner" such as the recreated Amistad. Instead, they were on makeshift rafts — or any craft they could cobble together — in desperate attempts for a better life.

Yet from all reports, that story wasn't told — ensuring that the Cuban students participating remain in intellectual, as well as geographical, captivity.

The United Nations, of course, gets to remain in moral captivity — feeling superior for its cursory nod to a historical horror, while remaining silent to an inconveniently ongoing one.

Military Placed on High Alert

On March 23rd, senior Cuban military officers were convened in Havana to devise a strategy to crush a surge in acts of civil disobedience and internal dissent.

Univision Radio's Angelica Mora reports that a meeting of this type had not occurred since 2006, when Raul Castro informed the military command of Fidel's serious illness.

Pursuant to this latest meeting, General Lucio Morales Sabat placed the Western Army (the Cuban military is divided into three armies, the East, Central and West) on high alert.

Further orders were given to close ranks and facilitate more efficient weaponry to military guards at government installations, particularly the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Council of State, in order to quickly confront "subversive acts."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, are Canadian and European tourism dollars at work.

Third Hunger Striker Hospitalized

Sunday, April 4, 2010
Cuban pro-democracy leader Franklin Pelegrino del Toro, who is on the 35th day of a hunger strike, has been hospitalized in the northeast town of Holguin. He is said to be in a very deteriorated state.

Pelegrino del Toro, 38-years old, began his hunger strike in solidarity with that of Guillermo Farinas, who is demanding the release of 26 Cuban political prisoners in need of medical care.

Like Farinas, Pelegrino del Toro has stated that he will take the hunger strike to its final consequences, unless the Castro regime responds to their humanitarian request.

On February 23rd, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a 42-year old political prisoner, died from a hunger strike protesting the beatings and tortures he was subjected to.

Fariñas' Cuban -E-volution

From today's The Guardian (United Kingdom):

A hunger striker exposes Cuba's hidden side

The image of gaunt journalist Guillermo Farinas reveals failure by the Raul Castro regime to deliver greater tolerance

It is not the face Cuba's leaders wanted to project: the eyes are sunken, the cheeks hollow, the expression grim. Guillermo Fariñas is entering his sixth week of hunger strike a gaunt, stricken figure and a symbol of despair under President Raul Castro.

The dissident journalist stopped eating and drinking on 24 February in protest at repression that has derailed hopes of greater tolerance on the communist island.

When Raul formally succeeded his ailing brother, Fidel, last year there was talk of easing political and economic restrictions and a thaw with the US. Raul signaled reform and Barack Obama promised a "new beginning" after half a century of enmity. A year later those hopes are ashes and Fariñas's doleful gaze captures a bleak mood infecting diplomats, analysts and ordinary Cubans.

First came disappointment over economic reforms. Raul's efforts to boost moribund agriculture and industry were timid and no match for a global financial crisis that in effect bankrupted the government, forcing it to slash subsidies and salaries. Food production in Havana province is 40% below target this year, heralding bare shop shelves and markets.

Then on 23 February Orlando Zapato Tayamo, a political prisoner, died after an 85-day hunger strike for better conditions, triggering international condemnation and souring Havana's relations with the European Union.

Fariñas started his hunger strike a day later to demand the release of political prisoners and has vowed to continue until death if necessary. As he turns more skeletal, criticism of Havana grows. When a pro-government mob roughed up the Ladies in White, relatives of the prisoners, angry rallies in Miami and Los Angeles denounced the regime and Obama accused it of responding "to the aspirations of the Cuban people with a clenched fist".

Last year, the White House slightly eased the US's JFK-era embargo on the island, but Congress retreated from bolder changes in the wake of December's detention of a US sub-contractor, Alan Gross, who was caught delivering satellite communications equipment to Cuba's small Jewish community.

The revolution is hardly about to fall. Fidel remains a towering figure, the government is firmly in control and Latin America, China and Russia are queuing up for business deals.

Still, it cannot be encouraging that Silvio Rodríguez, Cuba's best-known folk singer and pro-government artist, last week called for "conceptual revisions" and said the revolution should drop the R to become "evolution."

Tagged in Bern

The Cuban Embassy in Bern, Switzerland awoke this morning to the following message on its wall:

"Freedom and Democracy for Cuba. Zapata Lives!"

Picture courtesy of Penultimos Dias.