HRW: Halt Repression Now

Saturday, March 24, 2012
From Human Rights Watch:

Cuba: Halt Repression in Advance of Pope’s Visit

Archdiocese Should Condemn Abuse of Protesters Expelled from Church

The Cuban government should immediately halt repression aimed at silencing dissent before and during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba, Human Rights Watch said.

Dissidents in Havana, Holguín, Guantanamo, Matanzas, Palma Soriano, Pinar del Río, Sancti Spíritus, and Santiago de Cuba described to Human Rights Watch the repressive tactics currently being used by the Cuban government. They said that when they sought to exercise their basic rights to speak up about human rights concerns and hold rallies over the past few weeks, the authorities responded with beatings, detentions, harassment, and other repressive measures. Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to be in Cuba from March 26 to March 28, 2012, to visit Havana and Santiago de Cuba.

"The arrests, beatings, and threats against dissidents in the lead up to the pope’s visit suggest the Cuban government will do everything in its power to quash any dissent while the world’s attention is on the island,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “These repressive acts underscore just how little space there is in Cuba for any view that doesn’t align with the Castro government.”

State security officers arrested and beat 13 dissidents who were expelled from a Catholic church in Havana, where they had sought refuge while promoting demands to respect human rights in Cuba. Church officials asked government authorities to remove the dissidents, who told Human Rights Watch police threatened them with long prison sentences.

More than 80 women from the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), a human rights group consisting of wives, mothers, and daughters of political prisoners, were detained when they attempted to march on the anniversary of the Black Spring. During that crackdown, in March 2003, the government sentenced more than 75 independent journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, and other dissidents to jail for an average of 19 years under draconian laws for exercising their fundamental rights.

One of the damas described being held with 21 other women for more than four hours in a cell that was so tightly packed that all of the women had to remain standing. They had been detained for participating in a peaceful march, and were beaten by uniformed police officers and civilians in plainclothes before being taken to the police station, she said.

Dissidents in Cuba told Human Rights Watch that government repression, surveillance, and threats have increased in the run up to the pope’s visit. Several of those interviewed told Human Rights Watch they had been denied permission to travel outside of the cities where they lived, as well as warned explicitly that they would be punished severely if they tried to carry out any “counterrevolutionary” activities during the pope’s visit.

Among the episodes described to Human Rights Watch:

- Caridad Caballero Batista, 39, a Dama de Blanco from Holguín, told Human Rights Watch she had been detained on March 16 with her son, Erik Esteban Sández Caballero, 19, and her husband, Esteban Sández Suarez, when they attempted to travel to Havana to participate in marches commemorating the Black Spring. She said she was held in solitary confinement in a small, unsanitary cell without windows for three days. Her husband was imprisoned in a cell with common criminals, she said. He refused to stand up and salute guards as they walked by, as a result of which he was thrown to the ground and beaten.

- Leticia Ramos, 42, a Dama de Blanco from Matanzas, told Human Rights Watch she had been arbitrarily detained three times in the last two weeks and warned that if she attempted to travel to Havana for the pope’s visit, she would be arrested. After a severe beating at the hands of police on March 18, she was taken to a hospital, where a doctor told her that she had a broken rib, which is causing her a great deal of pain, she told Human Rights Watch.

- Rogelio Tavío Ramírez, 22, from Guantanamo, told Human Rights Watch that his father, Rogelio Tavío López, 48, had been detained since March 2. Both are members of the dissident group the Movement of Resistance and Democracy (Movimiento de Resistencia y Democracia). Tavío Ramirez said his father was charged with public disorder and “actions against the norm in the development of a minor” (acciones contra el normal desarrollo del menor) – a crime in Cuba’s Criminal Code that punishes parents and guardians for failing in “their responsibilities related to the respect and love of the homeland” – charges his son said were motivated by his political activities. Rogelio Tavío López has been on hunger strike since he was detained, his son said, to protest what he views as his unjust prosecution and the fabricated charges against him.

- Obel Luís Ramos Acosta, 28, who founded a dissident group in Santiago, Cuba, told Human Rights Watch he was recently detained for handing out copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and an independent – and therefore illegal – publication called the “Voice of the East” (La Voz de Oriente). He said he was held incommunicado and without charge for three days at a police station, where he was beaten and ordered amid threats to abandon his activities.

On March 13, the 13 dissidents occupied the Basílica Menor de La Caridad – a Roman Catholic church in Havana. They told Human Rights Watch they had gone to the church hoping it would provide a refuge from which to issue a call for fundamental rights. Their call, which included demands of respect for freedom of speech, assembly, and access to information, would have led to their arrest and punishment if made in public, they said.

In a news release issued on March 14, a representative of the Archdiocese of Havana said that, “No one has the right to convert churches into political trenches,” and called the dissidents’ action “illegitimate and irresponsible.” The archdiocese issued another news release on March 15 saying Cardinal Jaime Ortega had “appealed to the corresponding authorities to invite the occupants to abandon the church.”

According to the archdiocese’s news release, the dissidents left the church voluntarily when government authorities arrived. The archdiocese also said the Cuban government had assured church officials that the dissidents would be transferred to a police station and then to their homes, and that they would not be punished.

However, four dissidents in the group told Human Rights Watch that dozens of police officers beat the activists inside the church, forcibly ejected them, and transported them to a police station. There, they were forcibly strip-searched in front of police officers, which they found humiliating and degrading.

The dissidents said they were then shown a case file that featured their names and outlined charges against them, which authorities told them could be used to prosecute them under the Law for the Protection of Cuban National Independence and the Economy. That law punishes any action deemed to support, facilitate, or advance the objective of the US embargo on Cuba. Police warned the dissidents they could be prosecuted after the pope leaves.

The dissidents were returned to their homes on the morning of March 16. They told Human Rights Watch that they have suffered persistent harassment by authorities ever since. Several of their family members have been beaten or threatened, they said. And on March 20, when the 13 dissidents were meeting in a home they use for gatherings, a police chief arrived and told them they would be arrested again if they did not immediately return to their individual homes. They said church officials have made no effort to contact them since they were expelled from the church and detained.

“When dissidents went to the church to seek sanctuary and express their views, church officials turned them over to the very government authorities from whom they were seeking refuge,” Vivanco said. “The least church authorities can do now is to condemn the entirely predictable abusive response by the police, and call on the government to end its harassment of these and other peaceful dissidents.”

Must-Read: Pope, Priests and Exiles

Friday, March 23, 2012
Excerpt from Dr. Tania Mastrapa's "Cuba is Waiting for a Breakthrough" in the Polish daily Nasz Dziennik:

When Raúl Castro took over his brother's leadership he had long before made his cronies in the military very wealthy - mostly through foreign investment in Cuba. Uncharismatic and the more bloodthirsty of the Castro brothers, Raúl commands the loyalty of the military elite. There is nothing to indicate that any of them would sacrifice their privileges in the name of a freer Cuba. Yet, fully aware of it, Raúl Castro has received help in the promotion of his alleged reforms from individuals in the Catholic Church hierarchy, certain members of the Cuban association of a centuries-old Roman Catholic lay religious order and some morally malleable Cuban exiles.

Poland too had the misfortune of some questionable exiles. On 5 September 1955 Hugo Hanke, Prime Minister of Poland's Government in Exile sought a papal audience in Rome only to surface five days later in Warsaw where his return from exile was announced. Hanke claimed he returned because democracy was around the corner in Communist Poland. The Soviet-controlled Polish regime at the time encouraged the return of exiles in order to undermine the Government in Exile and political opponents abroad. Promises were made of employment, a decent life and forgiveness for past "crimes" in order to lure exiles home. Redefection to the homeland was conditioned upon an end to all active and open political opposition to the regime. The Polish regime had ceased mass killings and arrests but made no fundamental improvements. Of course, it turned out Hugo Hanke had been a paid agent of the Ministry of Public Security (UB) since the early 1950s.

Over half a century later in Miami, Florida some Cuban exiles utilize any forum necessary, including local parishes, to promote the regime's alleged reforms as a sign of positive change and insist on forgetting the past. They encourage travel to and investment in the totalitarian system - all under the guise of their devout Catholicism. All exile communities suffer from self-titled leaders elected by no one. These "leaders" always claim to speak for the majority when they mostly speak for themselves. The actions of this variety of exile are most egregious when seemingly supported by individuals within the local Catholic Church hierarchy. For example, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski openly advocates the end of the United States embargo and travel ban and supports engaging the Communist regime. He has traveled to Cuba to meet with Cardinal Ortega - the man in Havana who is increasingly chummy with Raúl Castro. Alas, Cubans on the island suffer from a lack of Wyszynskis and Popieluszkos, honorable men of the cloth. Genuine pro-democracy exiles who reject the orders to "move with the times," hence this seeming demand to forgive, forget and engage with the Communists are mocked as immature and intransigent. To be clear, one should recall that Professor Andrzej Paczowski, Chairman of the Institute of National Remembrance, noted in his book The Spring Will Be Ours that Polish exiles were more infiltrated by Communist intelligence services when international relations seemed to be headed for a softening.

It is simply baffling that one can truly believe a man like Raúl Castro has suddenly experienced a moral awakening and will be personally influenced by the Catholic Pope's visit. And because of the ambivalent attitude of some of the Cuban episcopate toward the Castro regime, over the years portions of the Cuban population have been drawn to Protestant churches and evangelical movements. Not to speak of the practice of and respect for faiths based on African and Christian syncretism. Part of this shift can be attributed by what is perceived as the collaboration of some of the more visible clergy with the Communists. The collaboration of priests was hardly unheard of in Communist Europe as opened state security files revealed.

The Vatican remains firm in its position that the United States embargo is a cause of suffering for the Cuban people although the United States is one of Cuba's largest trading partners in the world mostly through agricultural sales. The United States has also maintained humanitarian food and medicine exemptions to the embargo since 1962. What is more, the rest of the world is free to engage in full economic and diplomatic relations with Cuba. It is mystifying that the Vatican would echo Communist Cuba's propaganda. Pope Benedict XVI instead ought to address the internal embargo imposed by the Castro regime on its people. Foreigners in Cuba enjoy more rights than locals in their own country.

Pope Benedict XVI expressed his availability to meet with Fidel Castro, but will he extend his graciousness to dissidents of all political stripes and rally the Church behind their cause as Pope John Paul II did for Polish dissidents? Will he even be able to bring as much hope and strength as his predecessor did to Cuba? The Catholic clergy of Cuba must bear witness to the crimes of the regime instead of collaborating with the Communists by quashing the voice of the genuine opposition and promoting dubious reforms. Even Benedict's papal predecessor disappointed many when he praised the attainment of the Cuban revolution's goals and gave a pass to cold-blooded murderer Che Guevara. This time around, the leader of the Catholic Church ought not legitimize the Communist regime and ignore the pleas of domestic and exiled Cubans who pray for freedom. While Pope Benedict XVI is unlikely to change Raúl Castro he can seize the opportunity to reach out to Cubans who are hungry for profound religious and spiritual leadership. His presence in the country will hopefully offer a much-needed glimmer of what is good and holy.

WSJ Editorial Board: Conscience Against Castro

From The Wall Street Journal's Editorial Board:

Conscience Against Castro

Cuba tries to silence a dissident ahead of Pope Benedict's visit.

The Castro brothers have given a homework assignment to Benedict XVI. On Thursday morning, days before the Pope is due to visit Cuba, Havana's political police delivered a summons to the home of Oscar Elías Biscet, one of the country's most eloquent dissidents.

A devout Christian, Dr. Biscet has spent most of his days since 1999 in one dungeon or another. He's been out of prison since last March, but Thursday's police visit comes one day after he published an op-ed on these pages, "A Cuban's Prayer for Pope Benedict." Our information at press time was that he had not answered the summons.

Dr. Biscet's activism was driven initially by opposition to Cuba's widespread use of abortifacients. One such drug, rivanol, often resulted in live births—followed by the gruesome hospital murder of the newborns.

In short order he lost his job and his home, saw his wife harassed, suffered beatings from Castro's men, and entered Cuba's penal system. There he documented the treatment of political prisoners.

From his op-ed this week: "I personally witnessed prisoners left for 12-24 hours with their hands and feet handcuffed behind their backs, stripped naked in groups without any regard for human modesty, tortured physically and psychologically with tasers, beaten to death for requesting basic medical attention, and kept for months in cells without ventilation, natural light, drinkable water or restroom facilities. If prisoners attempt to push for better treatment, they risk death."

Having noted that the Catholic Church helped secure his release from prison last year, Dr. Biscet asked Pope Benedict to focus his trip on the Cuban people's right to free elections. Now Castro's goons have forced the Vatican's trip planners to turn at least partial attention to keeping Dr. Biscet out of police hands.

President Obama can keep the pressure on, too. Dr. Biscet was awarded America's Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. He was in prison then, and it would be a particular outrage if he were now to return to it with the whole world watching.

Cuban Businessman to Withhold Donations

In solidarity with the Cuban people.

In McClatchy Newspapers:

NASCAR's Sabates threatens to withhold charity if pope goes to Cuba

The outspoken part-owner of a NASCAR team that includes driver Juan Pablo Montoya wants Pope Benedict XVI to rethink his visit next week to the communist island of Cuba.

Felix Sabates, who fled Cuba 53 years ago and has become one of the United States' most successful sports entrepreneurs, is so concerned that the Castro regime is using the pope to legitimize its oppressive rule that, Sabates says, he's rethinking his philanthropy work for the Roman Catholic Church.

"If the leader is doing that, I'm not so sure that I need to support the church like I used to support it. And I'm serious about that. I am more than pissed off," said Sabates, 69. "As long as there is a Castro in power, whether it's Fidel or Raul, it's going to be the same thing."

Pope Benedict is traveling to Cuba for a three-day visit to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, the patron of Cuba.

Sabates, a minority owner of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing in North Carolina and former investor of the NBA Charlotte Hornets and Bobcats, once received a special blessing in writing from the late Pope John Paul II.

Sabates has donated generously to Catholic causes. He won't say how much he's given, but a dining hall at Belmont Abbey College outside Charlotte, N.C., is named after him. He's donated to the Catholic high school where his children and grandchildren have attended. He continues to give annually to St. Vincent de Paul Church in Charlotte.

Sabates' concerns about the pope's visit align with those of many activists and Cuban exiles who think the pontiff's trip will promote communism and do little or nothing to improve human rights. Some 750 activists sent a letter to Pope Benedict this month warning that his visit "would be like sending a message to the oppressors that they can continue to do whatever they want, that the church will allow it."

State Rejects Cuban Diplomats Travel

Kudos to the State Department.

From AP:

US rejects Cuban diplomats’ travel to appear on Marxist-Leninist panel in New York

The State Department says it has rejected applications from two senior Cuban diplomats to travel to New York to take part in a panel discussion sponsored by a Marxist group, but not for political reasons.

Rather, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says they were denied because American diplomats in Havana are routinely refused permission to travel outside the Cuban capital.

The two diplomats from Cuba’s interest section in Washington had asked to go to New York from March 16-18 to appear on a panel about Cuba sponsored by the magazine Marxism-Leninism Today. The magazine had accused the government of trying to deny American citizens the freedom to hear Cuba’s point of view.

Brave Man Takes on Brutal Regime

By James K. Glassman in Forbes:

A Brave Man Takes on Cuba's Brutal Regime. Will the Pope Help?

“Police are in my house; bring summons for Oscar,” Tweeted Elsa Morejon at 11:50 Thursday morning from Havana. “Oscar” is her husband, Oscar Elias Biscet, the courageous physician who has spent 12 of his 50 years on earth in Fidel Castro’s prisons for expressing the opinion that Cubans should be free to speak their minds, to associate with whom they please, and to vote in fair elections.

On Wednesday, he voiced those opinions again in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “My country continues to be run by a brutal regime that oppresses the people, systematically violating our basic freedoms,” he wrote. “Cuba is a police state…. They beat and harass anyone seeking peaceful political change.”

Thus, a knock on the door, and the summons to appear at the police station Friday at 9 a.m.

Biscet responded as any brave person responds in the Internet age. He is not cowed. Within minutes, Biscet and his wife ensure that a photo of the police who came to his door and a copy of the hand-written summons are circulating around the world.

Soon after, I learn from one of Biscet’s supporters that Oscar has no intention of showing up at the police station. Biscet says, I am told, that “if he lived in a democracy, he would have to attend, but since he lives in a dictatorship and has not committed any crimes, he will not present himself.”

Over the years, Biscet has been charged with committing such Orwellian offenses as “dangerousness,” which is defined as a “special proclivity of a person to commit crimes demonstrated by his conduct in manifest contradiction of socialist norms.”

In 2003, he was sent to prison, along with 74 other freedom advocates in Fidel’s Black Spring round-up.

In his Wall Street Journal piece, Biscet says he personally witnessed prisoners beaten to death for requesting medical attention, and three prisoners tried to assassinate him on two separate occasions. In 2007, while still in prison, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush. Almost exactly a year ago, he was released.

Some of his comrades in these “living hells,” as Biscet calls Cuban prisons, were exiled to Spain with no chance to return under the Castro regime. Biscet chose to remain in Cuba and to continue speaking out.

And he is asking for help. He wants Pope Benedict XVI, who arrives in Havana Monday for a two-day visit, to pressure the Castros to hold free elections and allow Cubans their God-given rights. As Pope John Paul II did in Eastern Europe, Pope Benedict could be in the vanguard of winning freedom for the Cuban people.

So far, the prospects are not good. Cuba’s Cardinal, Jaime Ortega, with police help, recently evicted 13 dissidents who had camped out in a church “in an attempt to push the Pope to talk to the Castros about human rights,” according to a scathing Washington Post editorial that charged Cardinal Ortega with becoming “a de facto partner of Raul Castro.”

The good news is that Oscar Biscet – and many, many others like him on the island – are not giving up. Despite the Cuban regime’s efforts, they are acquiring the non-violent tools of communication to make their work more effective.

There are now about two million cell phones in Cuba for a population of 11 million people, a penetration rate that’s the lowest in the hemisphere – below even Haiti . Mobile phones are expensive to buy and to use (national calling rates are 45 cents a minute; equivalent to $1.85 in the U.S.), but Cubans are resourceful and adept at lower-cost texting. They are also geniuses at tying illegal satellite dishes together to connect with the outside world.

Internet access is abysmal, but, again, Cuban dissidents are managing to get their Tweets to the outside world. A few days ago, for example, Yoanni Sanchez, Cuba’s most famous blogger, Tweeted that Cuban authorities had cut off Biscet’s mobile phone.

On Wednesday, the Heritage Foundation and Google sponsored a conference on “How the Internet Can Thaw an Island Frozen in Time.” Among others, featured Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla); Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas and my former State Department colleague; and Carlos Garcia Perez, who heads the Office of Cuba Broadcasting at the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Garcia Perez is pushing his organization beyond radio and television and into the Internet age, with text messages and other high-tech means to tell the Cubans what is happening in their own country and the world.

Can an island so close to the United States still, in the 21st Century, shut itself off from the kind of modern communications that will, inevitably, bring freedom? I doubt it seriously, and so did the members of the panel I moderated at the conference.

Cuba is at a tipping point. The Castros are deathly afraid. That’s why they want to lock up Alan Gross, a 62-year old American, for 15 years for merely distributing communications equipment to Cuban Jews.

The Internet, mobile phones, satellite dishes, Facebook, Google, and Twitter cannot by themselves bring freedom to Cuba. But they are a means that did not exist a decade ago. Thanks to the courage of Óscar Biscet and many more like him, technology can push this oppressive regime over the edge.

James K. Glassman is executive director of the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, Texas. He is a former Undersecretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy and chair of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

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Amnesty: New Cuban Prisoners of Conscience

This week Amnesty International has designated four new Cuban prisoners of conscience.

Read the full report here.

Antonio Michel Lima Cruz and Marcos Maiquel Lima Cruz

Up to three years in prison for singing a protest song in the street Brothers Antonio Michel Lima Cruz and Marcos Máiquel Lima Cruz have been imprisoned since Christmas Day 2010. Both are members of the Cuban Council of Human Rights Rapporteurs (Consejo de Relatores de Derechos Humanos de Cuba) -- an island-wide umbrella group of organizations, and the Republican Youth Impact Movement (Movimiento Impacto Juvenil Republicano). They are both independent journalists, and were co-founders of the online newspaper Candonga, which was closed by the Cuban authorities in 2009.

The brothers were arrested in the early hours of 25 December 2010 as they were holding a Christmas celebration with a group of family and friends at their home in the city of Holguín, eastern Cuba. They were playing songs by a Cuban hip-hop group which criticize the lack of freedom of expression in the country, and were dancing whilst holding the Cuban flag on the street in front of their house. Shortly after midnight officials from the Department of State Security and police officers arrived, accompanied by about 40 government supporters. The police entered by force and arrested the brothers, while an act of repudiation was carried out against the others in the house.

Later the same day, police returned and arrested their father and mother as well as several other friends who were at the family house at the time. They were detained for several days before being released without charge. Following a summary trial, Antonio Michel and Marcos Máiquel were sentenced to two and three years imprisonment respectively in May 2011 for “insulting symbols of the homeland” (ultraje a los símbolos de la pátria) and “public disorder” (desórdenes públicos). They are currently both being held at the La Ladrillera prison in Holguín Province. Antonio Michel is suffering from prostrate problems and is reportedly not receiving sufficient medical treatment. He is also eligible for conditional release having served over half of his sentence, but the authorities have refused to respond to petitions from his family and lawyer. Their mother, Adisnidia Cruz Segredo, who is a member of the Ladies in White has repeatedly faced harassment from the authorities when attempting to travel to church on Sundays. She was detained for several hours by police on the morning of Sunday 26 February 2012, preventing her from attending mass with the other Ladies in White from Holguín Province.

Amnesty International believes Antonio Michel and Marcos Máiquel’s sentences to be politically motivated, relating to their peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, and disproportionate to the alleged offences. The organization has adopted them as prisoners of conscience and is calling for their immediate and unconditional release.

Yasmin Conyedo Riveron and Yusmani Rafael Alvarez Esmori

24 year-old Yasmín Conyedo Riverón and her 23 year-old husband, Yusmani Rafael Álvarez Esmori have been detained since 8 January 2012 on charges of using “violence or intimidation” against a state official (“atentado”), which carries a prison sentence of up to five years. Yasmín is the representative of the Ladies in White in the province of Villa Clara and also an independent journalist. Yusmani is a member of the Las Villas Democratic Youth League.

They were arrested on the morning of Sunday 8 January 2012 at their home in the city of Santa Clara, in the province of Villa Clara, central Cuba. Government supporters carried out an act of repudiation in front of their house, apparently to prevent Yasmín from attending mass with other Ladies in White. Yasmín and Yusnami were both arrested and held at local police stations, along with seven other Ladies in White until 4pm the same day. A neighbour who is a local official from the Cuban Communist Party (Partido Comunista de Cuba - PCC) accosted Yasmín as she was about to enter her home following her release. She insulted Yasmín and slapped her in the face. Yasmín’s aunt, who had emerged from Yasmín’s house, retaliated by slapping the PCC official in the face. Two police officers then proceeded to arrest Yasmín and Yusmani who had also just returned following his release from detention. Yasmín’s aunt has twice informed local authorities that it had been her who had slapped the PCC official, but they have refused to respond. The PCC official has herself asked the local public prosecutor to drop the charges against Yasmín and Yusnami.

Yasmín and Yusnami were also detained for several hours on 25 December 2011 as they tried to attend Christmas mass. Yasmín has a six year-old daughter. Amnesty International believes their detention and possible sentencing is in response to their peaceful dissident activities and is intended to send a message of intimidation to other government critics. The organization has therefore adopted them as prisoners of conscience and is calling for their immediate and unconditional release.

Must-Read: Cardinal's Actions Cloud Trip

Thursday, March 22, 2012
By Andres Oppenheimer in The Miami Herald:

Cardinal’s action clouds pope’s visit to Cuba

Pope Benedict XVI’s three-day visit to Cuba starting Monday will begin under a cloud: human-rights groups are appalled by Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s decision to call the police to evict peaceful dissidents who had sought refuge in a church to draw international attention to their demands for civil rights.

According to an official Cuban Roman Catholic Church communique published in the Cuban regime’s daily Granma, Ortega asked the police to evict 13 dissidents on March 14 after they had occupied the Our Lady of Charity church in Havana.

Following their forced eviction by anti-riot police clad in black uniforms, the dissidents, including an 82-year-old man, said they were beaten and taken to a police station, where they were interrogated for five hours before being conditionally released. They had wanted to submit a petition to the pope, and to voice their demands for democracy and human rights, they said.

How usual is it for a cardinal to ask police to evict peaceful protesters from a church, I asked some of the biggest international human rights groups and best-known international law experts.

Recalling my days as a foreign correspondent during the rightist dictatorships of South and Central America, and judging from what I read from what happened in Poland and other communist dictatorships in Europe, I couldn’t recall any incident like this one. I’m not alone on this.

“I have never seen anything like this,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas department of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group, referring to the dissidents’ eviction. “This is the result of a church hierarchy that is obviously subordinated to the Cuban government.”

Vivanco recalled that in 1977 and 1978, during Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s regime, hundreds of relatives of missing people regularly sought refuge in churches to draw international attention to their demands. Many spent long periods of time there, without ever being forced out.

“It wouldn’t have crossed any Chilean bishop’s mind to call the police,” Vivanco said. “Chilean Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez used to say that the church was there to give a voice to those who didn’t have a voice. The church never allowed the state security services to get even close to churches.”

Javier Zuniga, a Latin American expert at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London, told me that Cardinal Ortega’s request to the Cuban police was “very unusual.”

“The Roman Catholic Church has played a very important role in the defence of people who suffered under dictatorships in Chile, in El Salvador, and in several other countries,” Zuniga said.

“In those cases, the church defended them, and gave refuge to relatives of political prisoners and missing people who couldn’t express themselves in any other way. That was respected.”

Claudio Grossman, dean of American University’s school of law and former head of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, told me that “the use of religious sites for asylum is an ancient practice, and may be considered customary law. From that perspective, this incident is shocking. It goes against the traditional role played by the church.”

Cuba’s human-rights advocacy groups are equally appalled. Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz heads Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission, the island’s best-known human rights group. He told The Associated Press soon after the raid that “I can’t get over my astonishment” about Ortega’s decision.

What has been the Cuban church’s response? A statement by the archbishop’s office March 14 said that “the church listens and welcomes everybody,” but “nobody has the right to turn temples into political barricades. Nobody has the right to spoil the celebratory spirit of Cuban church-goers, and of many other citizens, who await with joy and hope the visit of his Holy Father Benedict XVI.”

My opinion: The Cuban church hierarchy has made a big mistake. It’s one thing not to openly antagonize the regime in order to gradually open up spaces for the church in a closed society, and something very different to call in anti-riot police to evict peaceful dissidents.

Cardinal Ortega could have stayed aside, and told the police, “It’s your call.”

Barring a surprise during Pope Benedict’s visit — and unlike what happened in Chile, El Salvador, and Poland — the Cuban church hierarchy will go down in history as siding with the oppressors, rather than with the oppressed.

A Fitting Follow-Up

As discussed at yesterday's Google-Heritage Foundation conference, here's why the focus needs to be on creating alternative connectivity for the Cuban people.

Otherwise, there are very dangerous dual-uses -- particularly in the hands of brutal dictatorships.

From Reuters:

Special Report: Chinese firm helps Iran spy on citizens

A Chinese telecommunications equipment company has sold Iran's largest telecom firm a powerful surveillance system capable of monitoring landline, mobile and internet communications, interviews and contract documents show.

The system was part of a 98.6 million euro ($130.6 million) contract for networking equipment supplied by Shenzhen, China-based ZTE Corp to the Telecommunication Co of Iran (TCI), according to the documents. Government-controlled TCI has a near monopoly on Iran's landline telephone services and much of Iran's internet traffic is required to flow through its network.

The ZTE-TCI deal, signed in December 2010, illustrates how despite tightening global sanctions, Iran still manages to obtain sophisticated technology, including systems that can be used to crack down on dissidents.

Human rights groups say they have documented numerous cases in which the Iranian government tracked down and arrested critics by monitoring their telephone calls or internet activities. Iran this month set up a Supreme Council of Cyberspace, headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who said it would protect "against internet evils," according to Iranian state television.

Mahmoud Tadjallimehr, a former telecommunications project manager in Iran who has worked for major European and Chinese equipment makers, said the ZTE system supplied to TCI was "country-wide" and was "far more capable of monitoring citizens than I have ever seen in other equipment" sold by other companies to Iran. He said its capabilities included being able "to locate users, intercept their voice, text messaging ... emails, chat conversations or web access."

The ZTE-TCI documents also disclose a backdoor way Iran apparently obtains U.S. technology despite a longtime American ban on non-humanitarian sales to Iran - by purchasing them through a Chinese company.

ZTE's 907-page "Packing List," dated July 24, 2011, includes hardware and software products from some of America's best-known tech companies, including Microsoft Corp, Hewlett-Packard Co, Oracle Corp, Cisco Systems Inc, Dell Inc, Juniper Networks Inc and Symantec Corp.

How to Support Free Access to Information

From The Heritage Foundation:

Leveraging Technology to Support Free Access to Information in Cuba

By Ray Walser, Ph.D. and Marc Wachtenheim

The Cuban people, living within the constricted space permitted by the 53-year-old Cuban Revolution, have not benefited from the remarkable leap forward in communication technology over the past few decades. Havana’s repressive regime wishes to shift censorship’s traditional fault lines to the electronic sphere, severely restricting its population’s ability to chart its own destiny and violating its most basic human rights. The regime’s strategy is to channel, filter, censor, and under-invest in modern technologies to preserve political dominance on the island.

Congress and the Obama Administration should explore and implement innovative and pro-active counter-strategies to promote online freedom that empower the Cuban people while circumventing the regime of informational dominance exercised by the Castro government.

Technology Increases Freedom

Latin America represents 8 percent of the globe’s total Internet usage, with 25 million daily users in Mexico alone. Nearly 82 percent of Internet users in Latin America regularly use online social networking platforms, and 78 percent have Facebook accounts. Across the region, activists such as Colombia’s Oscar Morales, who rallied 12 million to oppose narco-terrorism, are employing new technologies to inform and conduct peaceful civic activism, strengthening the connecting fabric that supports democratic institutions and open governments.

This technological revolution has passed over Cuba. Havana continues to place its own interest in prolonging its permanence in power above the Cuban people’s interests and the basic right to freedom of expression. Havana fears that if Cuba’s people obtain unfettered access to information, its days will soon be numbered.

This is why the much-discussed underwater fiber optics cable linking Venezuela to Cuba has had no impact on increasing connectivity for Cuba’s population. Similarly, when a U.S-based company recently approached the Havana regime with an interest in expanding connectivity in Cuba, it was quickly turned away.

The hemisphere’s sole totalitarian dictatorship presents a unique case of Orwellian control on all forms of information, embodied in Fidel’s now-famous statement that “within the revolution everything; outside the revolution nothing.” With the exception of a privileged few, those with Internet access in Cuba browse only a censored “intranet,” which is heavily monitored—employing Chinese technology—by the government.

Efforts to circumvent state censorship are punished through Law 88 (the “Muzzle Law”) and the “Law on Dangerousness,” which criminalizes individuals who demonstrate “pre-criminal social dangerousness” (as defined by the state) even before committing an actual crime.

Cuba is among the world’s worst Internet censors as described by international organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Inter-American Press Association, Reporters Without Borders, and Freedom House. This situation has motivated brave Cubans such as Guillermo Fariñas Hernandez to undertake hunger strikes and nearly sacrifice their lives in demand of Internet access. Cuba is also in the vanguard, along with Russia and China, working to use the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and United Nations to establish rules of governance for the Internet that facilitate censorship.

Islands of Freedom

Within Cuba’s repressive sea of government-directed disinformation, the work of activists such as Fariñas offers glimmers of hope and points the way forward. Since 2007, blogger Yoani Sanchez has been narrating the reality of daily life in Cuba through her award-winning “Generacion Y” blog. Increasingly, Cuban dissidents are employing cell phones and text messages to exchange information among themselves and with their counterparts abroad. In a now-famous feat, earlier this month cell phones with video capability enabled the smuggling out of images exposing to the world the inhumane conditions within Cuba’s notorious prisons.

What Should the U.S. Do?

The Obama Administration should:

- Increase support to Cuba’s opposition movement that seeks to break the Cuban government monopoly on information through the provision of easy-to-use technology—including smart phones and USB drives—expand text-messaging efforts, and explore the creation of a “cyberactivist defense fund” to provide financial support to activists.

- Partner with technology firms and NGOs with expertise operating in Cuba to explore new ways to leverage technology to support citizen journalists, drawing on recent lessons learned from the “Arab Spring” in the Middle East.

- Explore new “super wi-fi” options to remotely broadcast free-access wireless Internet signals to densely populated centers in Cuba. New technological developments have enabled such long-range wireless signal broadcasting.

- Expand the Internet access provided by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to a greater number of Cuban users and encourage U.S. allies to do the same.

- Support programs that generate greater international awareness of Internet censorship in Cuba as a means of generating additional support from private citizens and governments throughout the world.

- Oppose efforts to grant the U.N. a strong governance role over the Internet through the ITU or another U.N. body where nations seeking to censor the medium can exert more influence than they currently can.

Power to the People

President Obama’s demands for greater liberty for the Cuban people should be accompanied by a more robust plan of action. The Administration believes it is opening doors to democratic change with travelers and remittances to Cuba. It is hesitant to apply more direct pressure or speak out forcefully in order to breech the wall of prohibitions, censorship, and restricted access to the Internet that the aging Castro brothers believe necessary to win “the battle of ideas.” In the long run, working to support the Cuban people’s fight for unfettered access to the modern technologies of freedom will advance the cause of liberty and human dignity and the capacity of the people, not unelected leaders, to freely determine Cuba’s future.

Ray Walser, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation, and Marc Wachtenheim is an independent scholar.

Remarks at Google-Heritage Foundation Event

Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Remarks by Mauricio Claver-Carone at today's event, "Cuba Needs a (Technological) Revolution," hosted by Google and The Heritage Foundation:

Thank you so much for the invitation. It's great to be here with all of you.

Let me start with a very simple and key premise, which should be obvious, but sometimes gets muddied due to misinformation (at best) or malice (at worst).

Internet access in Cuba is severely restricted due to one reason and one reason alone -- because the island is ruled by a totalitarian regime that has taken -- and will continue to take -- extraordinary measures to maintain absolute control.

The Castro regime will no more voluntarily ease its grip on Cuba's population than any other brutal dictator -- regardless of whether the media paints them as "reformers" or not. Case in point, the "reformer" Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Thus, it's illusory to try to rationalize ways to collaborate with the regime in order to improve Internet connectivity for ordinary Cubans and -- even less so -- to improve connectivity for pro-democracy activists. It's simply not going to happen.

As Ernesto Hernandez Busto of the famed blog Penultimos Dias has analogized, it would be like an IRS agent trying to explain to the Mafia why they shouldn't launder money.

To ignore this premise would risk providing the Castro regime with even greater tools of censorship and repression than it already possesses. Let's not forget -- as our hosts at Google can attest to -- that technologies have inherent dual-uses. Moreover, as our other hosts at Heritage (the cradle of trickle-down economics) can attest, trickle-down requires open markets and free societies to succeed. Neither of which exist in Cuba.

Plus, the proof is in the pudding. In 1995, amid critical cash-strapped times for the Castro regime, Telecom Italia bought a 27% stake in ETECSA (Cuba's telecommunication monopoly). Many believed this was a huge breakthrough that was going to lead to the "inevitable" liberalization of the lucrative Cuban telecommunications sector. Wrong.

Just last year, Telecom Italia finally grew weary and announced its intentions to sell its share. It was repurchased by the Castro regime at a premium price of $706 million through a holding company named Rafin, SA, which disturbingly, former regime insiders allege stands for Raul-Fidel Investments. True story.

Needless to say, Castro spares no expense to repress.

Then came the infamous fiber optic cable between Cuba and Venezuela. Since 2008, we heard how this fiber optic cable presented a unique opportunity to press the Castro regime for increased connectivity for ordinary Cubans -- despite Castro officials constantly warning this would not happen. Meanwhile, in the U.S., critics ignorantly blamed U.S. sanctions (despite the explicit telecom exception in the Cuba Democracy Act) for handing over this "opportunity" to Venezuela. The cable was completed and supposed to be active by mid-2011. The net connectivity gain for the Cuban people has been zero.

The trajectory of the cable was surmised by famed blogger Yoani Sanchez, who wrote in August 2011: "At first it was announced it would multiply the data transmission speed by 3,000 times, but now, absurdly, they declare that it won't provide broad Internet access to nationals. After accumulating several corruption scandals, the investigation of two deputy ministers, and official guidance to journalists not to talk about the details, the controversial cable has now become an urban legend."

So let's shift from what could have been in an ideal world to the reality of what we're actually dealing with and how to confront it.

As regards the Castro regime's degree of web repression, there is not just a "Great Firewall" of censorship in Cuba, as is applied in China and other authoritarian regimes. In Cuba, the Internet is under a "Great Deadbolt" with access limited to foreigners, the regime's privileged class and the very few Cubans given access to its prohibitive rates.

Let's not forget that the regime's Decree Law 209 requires accreditation for Internet use and outlaws Internet use "in violation of Cuban society's moral principles." Thus, subjective penalization is only a click away.

Even those Cubans with web access are unable to surf the Internet's waves of free information. Instead, they are limited to an internal system of monitored communications and propaganda called the Intranet -- equipped with its own regime-monitored social media sites.

To give you an idea of just how repressive this policy is, remember that Iran is currently emulating the Castro's Intranet system -- not vice versa.

So unlike the countries of the Arab Spring and China, the challenge is not just in circumventing censors, which is difficult enough. The challenge is in finding ways to provide connectivity, direct and indirect access to information and its distribution.

It's nonsensical to talk about the tools of the Internet and its social media sites -- such as Google and Facebook -- until we have first achieved connectivity. Connectivity first, then content.

So the challenge is to create alternative (stress alternative) platforms, much like Radio and TV Marti have sought with traditional media, but for new media. Let's call it e-Marti -- not a website, but simply a network of wireless connectivity for the Cuban people.

I would be remiss not to mention that Alan Gross, an American development worker, is currently being held hostage by the Castro regime for trying to creative alternative connectivity platforms on a small scale. In his case, for Cuba's Jewish community.

I'd be even more remiss not to mention that what Alan Gross was doing to help the Jewish community with such connectivity -- and what all free people should be doing -- in helping Cubans receive and impart information is protected under international law.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Now for some strength and weaknesses.

Currently, we are seeing great success with what I like to call the vertical transfer of information. Despite primitive cell phones and limited technology, Cuban democracy activists have dramatically increased the amount of information they are able to send out of the island. This is key to their protection.

Through cell phones, activists are documenting and sending real-time information regarding protests and acts of repression. Thus, immediately notifying international human rights observers. They indirectly use vehicles like Twitter and creative sites like Hablalo Sin Miedo to fight against the impunity that has historically plagued their plight.

Just last week, the world got a first glimpse at images taken by a cell phone camera of the notorious Combinado del Este prison. Please note that the Castro regime does not allow the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit the island. As expected, the content was shocking.

Just imagine what these courageous pro-democracy activists could do with smartphones and connectivity.

Information is also filtering into the island through creative programs like Cuba Sin Censura, which blasts unfiltered news through cellphone texts.

However, the main challenge remains the horizontal transfer of information. The ability for activists in Havana to know -- in real-time -- what is happening in Placetas or Palma Soriano (currently hotbeds of pro-democracy activism). Or even more elementary, to know what's happening in the next neighborhood, or simply that they're one of the 3-in-5 Cubans that believe economic reform is NOT possible without changes to the political system (as the latest IRI poll attests to) and thus have a means to mobilize.

Many of the successes I mentioned have been due to people that have been working on the ground for years -- some are here in the audience and should be recognized.

The good news is that Castro is way behind the rest of the world in technology. Thus, we need to empower Cuban activists with that technological advantage. We must keep our eye on the ball though -- the priority must remain technology that creates alternative and accessible connectivity for the Cuban people.

So I urge companies like Google, which have such technology -- to put it to good use; for the cause of Cuban freedom is a cause of human freedom.

Thank you so much.

Help Connect the Cuban People

Empowering the Cuban people with the Internet

By Senator Marco Rubio

Today, I participated in a conference on the Internet's role in empowering the Cuban people to reclaim their country from the Castro tyranny. The event was co-hosted by the Heritage Foundation and Google Ideas.

Over the past year, authoritarian rulers in North Africa and the Middle East have been overthrown by spontaneous popular uprisings. These events have been greatly aided by their people’s access to technology that makes it easier to connect with each other and share ideas more freely. In today's conference I discussed the need to ensure we help the Cuban people connect and communicate with each other, in the hopes that greater connectivity would help them achieve what the Arab people are achieving today in the Middle East and North Africa.

Over the past fifty years, the Castro brothers have kept the Cuban people in a virtual "darkness". The digital world we live in is largely unknown to the Cuban people. Google, YouTube and blogs are strictly prohibited in Cuba to the average citizen. Only the government elite and foreigners have access to the Internet in Cuba, and the few who might illegally access a limited piece of the Internet.

There are flashes of rebellion in Cuba that are allowing the outside world to see the reality of Cuba, not the state-run media farce.

Habla sin miedo, roughly translated to "say it without fear", is one example of what people can do with access to a cell phone. Cuban dissidents can call a telephone number here in the United States and record messages describing government abuses. Their messages are automatically converted into posts that are shared on Twitter and YouTube.

Cuba Sin Censura, or "Cuba without Censorship", is another example of how cell phones are opening access to the people of Cuba. In Cuba, cell phone rates are high and smart phones are uncommon. This organization works to help the few with cell phones access news from the real world and not the Cuban government.

Just a few weeks ago, the Miami Herald posted a smuggled video from Cuban dissidents showing the inside of Combinado del Este, one of Cuba’s most notorious prisons. The clip is just under four minutes long, but it is a shocking look inside the treatment of those, including some Americans, imprisoned in Cuba.

Miami-Dade County's New Low

Apparently, Miami-Dade County's chief attorney has self-appointed himself a judge and is eager to violate the rule of law for Castro's business partners.


In The Miami Herald:

Miami-Dade advised not to follow new Fla. law restricting hiring of businesses linked to Cuba

Miami-Dade should not enforce a new state law that prohibits the hiring of companies with business ties to Cuba because it conflicts with federal law, according to an opinion issued Wednesday by the county’s chief attorney. Robert Cuevas concluded that the terms of Florida House Bill 959 that refer to Cuba cannot be enforced until the federal government authorizes states to enact such procurement limitations, or a federal court finds the law constitutional.

He based his opinion on legal precedent — including federal rulings in Florida and Miami-Dade cases — holding that state and local governments cannot interfere with the federal government’s ability to set foreign policy, echoing critics of the law who have called it unconstitutional.

Federal law already prohibits American companies from doing business with Cuba, via the U.S. trade embargo on the island. The new state law, among other things, prevents local governments from hiring foreign firms that work in Cuba, directly or through affiliates, for contracts worth at least $1 million.

It appears pointed at one of Miami-Dade’s largest contractors: Odebrecht USA, the Coral Gables-based subsidiary of the giant Brazilian conglomerate. Another subsidiary of the firm is performing major upgrades to the Port of Mariel in Cuba.

The law, which was sponsored by Miami-Dade legislators and received near-unanimous support in Tallahassee, is awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature or veto. The governor could also let the legislation go into effect July 1 without signing it.

Even if the bill is enacted, Cuevas wrote, the county would not be breaking state law by ignoring it. That’s because the law includes a clause saying the statute “becomes inoperative” if it violates federal law.

The statute already conflicts with federal court rulings at the national and local level, Cuevas wrote, so the county cannot follow it.

“If the County were to violate federal law in this area, it would be exposed to liability under federal civil rights laws,” he wrote.

The bill’s backers, however, say it should be up to a judge — not a county attorney — to decide whether state law violates federal law.

“That’s not their decision, that’s a judge’s decision,” said lawyer Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-embargo U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee in Washington D.C. that has been building opposition to Odebrecht.

“If Miami-Dade County wants to take it to court, that’s their prerogative.” The clause Cuevas cited, Claver-Carone said, is intended to ensure that the new state law does not run afoul of any future changes to federal law. “It’s consistent with federal law,” he said.

Cuevas’ opinion cited three federal cases where the courts have thrown out past efforts to restrict business dealings with companies tied to repressive regimes. Two of the cases relate specifically to Florida and Miami-Dade.

In 2008, the courts struck down a Florida law imposing restrictions on firms providing travel to Cuba. In 2000, a federal judge ruled the county could not require bidders to submit affidavits affirming that they do not do business with the island.

The county attorney’s office has based past opinions on the matter on those cases — including an opinion last June relating to future contracts with Odebrecht in which Cuevas wrote that federal law is binding over foreign trade matters.

Odebrecht, which has been in Miami for more than two decades, has taken part in most of the region’s biggest projects, from the stadium at Florida International University to the North Terminal at Miami International Airport.

For more than a year, Odebrecht has been negotiating with the county’s aviation department to build Airport City, a proposed $700-million complex that would feature two hotels plus office and retail space at MIA. Commissioners would eventually have to approve the project, which is under Federal Aviation Administration review.

In addition to Cuba, the new law also restricts the hiring of companies that do business with Syria. State law previously imposed limitations on hiring firms that work in Iran and Sudan. The four countries comprise the federal government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Cuevas said the federal government expressly authorizes local government procurement limitations relating to Iran and Sudan, but not to other countries.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Commission Chairman Joe Martinez declined to comment Wednesday. Their spokeswomen said the officials had not yet had time to digest Cuevas’ memo.

Before Cuevas released his final opinion, a draft circulating in County Hall prompted dismay from commissioners who favor the Cuba restrictions.

From the dais Tuesday, Commissioner Esteban Bovo called upon the governor to sign the law — and on the county to follow it.

“The last time I checked, Miami-Dade County is in the state of Florida, and I would expect that we would comply with the law,” he said. “This is something that is very, very serious, and I would strongly encourage that the governor sign this legislation into law.”

Chairman Martinez told commissioners that they will have to discuss the county’s interpretation of the law in more depth at a future meeting.

“I always thought that we had to abide by a state law, but apparently they’re preempted by a federal law,” he said.

Though Martinez did not mention the project by name at Tuesday’s meeting, he appeared to lament that the county attorney’s position could allow Miami-Dade to hire Odebrecht to build Airport City. He has previously signaled he does not want to hire the firm.

“There are things coming up in the future that I thought this would have addressed,” Martinez said. “But apparently it does not.”

American Enterprise Institute Cuba Event

Hope for Cuba? The Papal Visit, Summit of the Americas, and Cuba’s Future

Thursday, March 22, 2012 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

AEI, Tenth Floor
1150 Seventeenth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036
(Two blocks from Farragut North Metro)

About This Event

The Cuban people have repeatedly been the victims of false hope. When Cuban dictator Fidel Castro passed the reins of his government to his brother Raúl in 2008, some international observers optimistically predicted economic reforms and a political opening. Instead, the result has been economic half-measures and a political crackdown. After Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to the island, he urged the Cuban Catholic Church to act "boldly” to ensure religious freedom, but its leadership has failed to advance essential rights. What transformations, if any, will emerge from Pope Benedict XVI’s March 26-28 trip to Cuba? As the region's leaders gather for the Summit of the Americas on April 14-15, some plan to argue for Castro's inclusion — but will any speak up for the Cuban people? Please join us for a discussion among a panel of experts, some of whom recently returned from Cuba.


9:45 AM


10:00 AM


Mauricio Claver-Carone, Cuba Democracy Advocates
Amb. G. Philip Hughes, White House Writers Group
Amb. Aldona Wos, The Institute of World Politics


Amb. Roger F. Noriega, AEI

See details here.

Today on "From Washington al Mundo"

Tune in today to "From Washington al Mundo" for an exclusive interview with U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ). Senator Menendez is Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.

Then, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) Roger Noriega will discuss Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming trip to Cuba and the latest development with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

"From Washington al Mundo" is broadcast live on Sirius-XM's Cristina Radio (Channel 146) from 4-5 p.m. (EST) and rebroadcast on Friday from 4-5 p.m. (EST).

Religious Freedom Violations Continue

Tuesday, March 20, 2012
From the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2012 Annual Report:

Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba despite some improvements. Violations by the Cuban government include: detention, sporadic arrests, and harassment of clergy and religious leaders, as well as interference in church affairs. The Cuban government also controls and monitors religious belief and practices through surveillance and legal restrictions.


The Cuban government largely controls religious denominations through government-authorized surveillance and harassment, and at times detentions, of religious leaders and through its implementation of legal restrictions. The government requires churches and other religious groups to undergo an invasive registration procedure with the Ministry of Justice. Only registered religious communities are legally allowed to receive foreign visitors, import religious materials, meet in approved houses of worship, and apply for travel abroad for religious purposes. Local Communist Party officials must approve all religious activities of registered groups. The government also restricts religious practices by: denying the construction or repair of houses of worship; denying access to state media and exit visas; requiring the registration of publications; limiting the entry of foreign religious workers; denying Internet access to religious organizations; denying religious literature, such as Bibles, to persons in prison; denying permission to hold processions or events outside religious buildings; and discriminating on the basis of religion in the area of employment.

A Cuban's Prayer

By Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet in The Wall Street Journal:

A Cuban's Prayer for Pope Benedict

What will the Castro brothers hear during the first papal visit in over a decade?

Next week, Pope Benedict XVI is coming here to Cuba, marking the first papal visit to my country in over a decade. During the planned three-day trip, His Holiness is set to meet with both Castro brothers and their subordinates, and to bring his spiritual message to the Cuban people.

The stakes couldn't be higher. This trip is a unique opportunity for the leader of the Catholic Church to leverage his considerable prestige and influence to support the oppressed and help the Cuban people claim our liberty and establish democracy.

My country continues to be run by a brutal regime that oppresses the people, systematically violating our basic freedoms. That regime is a relic of the Cold War, and there's little hope for change without substantial international pressure.

Cuba is a police state. Government agents spy on and harass anyone advocating for human rights. They beat and imprison anyone seeking peaceful political change. They arbitrarily arrest and detain Cubans for Orwellian infractions like "disrespecting patriotic symbols" and "insulting symbols of the fatherland."

Cuban state security closely monitors citizens' daily life, including all of our incoming mail, telephone calls and emails. The only legal press and the only newspaper are run by the dictatorship. Independent journalists who seek to challenge state propaganda are threatened and jailed.

Cuban jails are living hells in which flagrant violations of human dignity occur daily. I've spent over 12 years incarcerated, most recently for "crimes against state security"—that is, asking the Cuban state to respect the fundamental human rights of every Cuban citizen.

The prison system in Cuba flagrantly violates the minimum requirements for prisoner care established by the United Nations. During my years in prison, I personally witnessed prisoners left for 12-24 hours with their hands and feet handcuffed behind their backs, stripped naked in groups without any regard for human modesty, tortured physically and psychologically with tasers, beaten to death for requesting basic medical attention, and kept for months in cells without ventilation, natural light, drinkable water or restroom facilities.

If prisoners attempt to push for better treatment, they risk death. In one case in 2010, on the second floor of the Combinado del Este prison in Havana, a young prisoner who suffered from two chronic medical conditions—asthma and cardiac problems related to valve pathologies—was beaten and died after complaining that he was not allowed to see a doctor. While I was imprisoned, three prisoners tried to assassinate me on different occasions. Two of them later told me that they had been hired to do so by military officials.

I continue to witness the personal ruin that the regime inflicts on anyone who offers an alternative voice. For me, the harassment started in 1998 when, while giving a conference at a hospital on the right to life, I was violently attacked and expelled by a mob dispatched by the Communist Party. Since then, I've been denied the ability to practice medicine.

My wife and son have had their lives threatened and have been pressured to abandon me. We have been evicted from our house. I had my right foot fractured from a beating by state police.

Yet there are still thousands of brave Cubans standing up to the Castro brothers and demanding their basic rights, even under threat of torture and death. Our ranks are growing. But we need the help of the international community.

The Arab Spring is simply the latest demonstration that organic, people-driven democratic change is possible. In past years we have seen peaceful, democratic movements succeed in the rest of Latin America and in the former Soviet bloc. In most places, their advent has brought freedom, national reconciliation and prosperity. We can achieve the same results in Cuba, and we will do just that—building a Cuba where the people are free and sovereign.

The international community, for its part, has the responsibility to provide the attention and diplomatic resources that the movement can't muster from here.

The Pope's visit is important because the Catholic Church has played a crucial role in expanding and protecting Cuban freedoms in the past. My own most recent release from prison, along with that of other dissidents, was chiefly negotiated by the Catholic Church.

For those of us desiring a free Cuba, our demands are simple: free speech, freedom of association and assembly, free and fair multiparty elections, and a country from which no person will ever again be exiled for political beliefs.

Pope Benedict's visit represents a unique opportunity for the Cuban people to pressure their tyrants to hold elections in which all Cubans can unite with the free and democratic countries of the world. I ask Pope Benedict to focus on this idea so that there can be rapid change in my country, and so we can live in freedom. I pray that he will succeed.

Dr. Biscet, a physician, is president of the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights. While in prison in 2007, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.

Dignitaries Appeal to the Pope

From the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy:

Use Pope's Visit to Cease Repression, says Dignitaries

"You are not victims," Pope John Paul II told Cuba's people during his 1998 pilgrimage. "You are and must be the principal agents of your own personal and national history."

Cuba's government should refrain from harassing dissidents during Pope Benedict XVI's forthcoming visit to the island and should take advantage of the visit to create space for dialogue, says prominent group, comprising of a Nobel Peace Prize winner, three former Latin American Presidents, the Czech Foreign Minister, a prominent member of Jordan's royal family, a former Canadian Prime Minister, and a roster of leading dissidents, parliamentarians and rights activists.

"It is time for repression to cease so that Cubans can exercise their freedoms in pursuit of that vision," says the statement – now an on-line petition signed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu; former Latin American presidents Luis Alberto Monge Alvarez, Costa Rica (1982 – 1986), Alfredo Cristiani, El Salvador (1989 – 1994), Armando Calderón Sol, El Salvador (1994 -1999); Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg; HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal; and former Canadian Prime Minister Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell, alongside such eminent dissidents, democracy advocates and human rights activists as Martin Palous, Director of the Vaclav Havel Library, Prague; French philosopher and writer Andre Glucksmann; Roman Catholic writer and theologian Michael Novak; Dr. Alaksandr Milinkievic, 2006 Sakharov Prize Laureate, Belarus; several leading Chinese dissidents and 14 Members of the Lithuanian Parliament (full list below).

The occasion of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba provides a vital opportunity to highlight the denial of freedom, democracy and basic human rights to the island's people, according to a transatlantic consortium of pro-democracy and civil society groups, including Forum 2000,UN Watch, People in Need, and the World Movement for Democracy, which secured the signatories' endorsement of the following statement:

The world was reminded of the human cost of denial of fundamental freedoms in Cuba by the recent tragic deaths of imprisoned dissident Wilman Villar Mendoza, following a hunger strike, and Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, leader of the internationally-renowned Ladies in White.

Over the past year, we also witnessed the deaths of human rights activists Orlando Zapata Tamayo, following a hunger strike protesting his unjust imprisonment for his ideas, and Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia, who died as a result of a brutal beating by security forces.

The fate of these nonviolent democracy advocates reiterates the moral imperative to demand freedom and justice for Cuba's people.

We urge Cuba's government to use the occasion of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI's forthcoming visit to restrain the government's security forces and quasi-civilian proxies from harassing dissidents. Such a gesture would help create a space for reflection and dialog that will allow Cuba's people to transcend intolerance and animosity through the recovery of civil liberties and the development of a full and vibrant democracy, without any further loss of human life.

"You are not victims," Pope John Paul II told Cuba's people during his visit in 1998. "You are and must be the principal agents of your own personal and national history."

It is time for repression to cease so that Cubans can exercise their freedoms in pursuit of that vision.

· Nazanin Afshin-Jam, President and Co-Founder, Stop Child Executions, Iran /Canada.
· Luis Alberto Monge Alvarez, President of the Republic (1982 – 1986), Costa Rica.
· Vytenis Povilas Andriukaitis, Member of Parliament, Lithuania.
· Virginia Aponte, Theater Director, Venezuela.
· Petras Auštreviaius, Member of Parliament, Lithuania.
· Igor Blaževia, One World, Czech Republic.
· Amina Bouayach, President of Moroccan Organization for Human Rights, Morocco.
· Former Canadian Prime Minister Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell.
· Anna Maria Stame Cervone, President, Christian Democratic Women International, Italy.
· Christian Democratic International Center, Sweden.
· Michael Craig, President, China Rights Network, Canada.
· Alfredo Cristiani, President (1989–1994), El Salvador.
· Cuba Futuro, Netherlands.
· Christina Fu, President, New Hope Foundation, USA/China.
· Faisal Fulad, Secretary-General, Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, Bahrain.
· Fundación Hispano Cubana, Spain.
· Vytautas Gapšys, Member of Parliament, Lithuania.
· Andre Glucksmann, philosopher and writer, France.
· Huang Hebian, Alliance of the Guard of Canadian Values, Canada/China.
· Yang Jianli, Initiatives for China, Founder and President, USA/China.
· Andrew Johnston, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Advocacy Director, United Kingdom.
· Art Kaufmann, World Movement for Democracy, USA.
· Yang Kuanxing, Yibao, Editor, USA/China.
· Dalia Kuodyta, Member of Parliament, Lithuania.
· Bhawani Shanker Kusum, Secretary/Executive Director, Gram Bharati Samiti, India.
· Martin Lessenthin, International Society for Human Rights, Germany.
· Arminas Lydeka, Member of Parliament, Lithuania.
· Eligijus Masiulis, Member of Parliament, Lithuania.
· Donalda Meiželyta, Member of Parliament, Lithuania.
· Dr Alaksandr Milinkievic, Movement for Freedom, 2006 Sakharov Prize Laureate, Belarus.
· Hillel Neuer, Director, UN Watch, Switzerland.
· Michael Novak, Roman Catholic writer and theologian, USA.
· Martin Palous, Director of Vaclav Havel Library, Prague
· Marija Aušrina Pavilioniena, Member of Parliament, Lithuania.
· Léonie de Picciotto, International Council of Jewish Women, Representative to the UN in Geneva, Switzerland.
· Hu Ping, Beijing Spring, Editor, USA/China.
· Nguyên Lê Nhân Quyên, Vietnamese League for Human Rights, Vietnam.
· Zuzana Roithová, Member of European Parliament, Czech Republic.
· Julius Sabatauskas, Member of the Lithuanian Parliament.
· Karel Schwarzenberg, Foreign Minister, Czech Republic.
· Armando Calderón Sol, President, (1994-1999), El Salvador.
· Marek Svoboda, Director of Human Rights, People in Need, Czech Republic.
· Swedish International Liberal Center, Sweden.
· Algirdas Sysas, Member of Parliament, Lithuania.
· HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal, Jordan.
· Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Nobel laureate, South Africa.
· Ona Valiukevia, Member of Parliament, Lithuania.
· Egidijus Vareikis, Member of Parliament, Lithuania.
· Biruta Vasaita, Member of Parliament, Lithuania.
· Carlos E. Ponce, General Coordinator, Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy
· Sister Catherine Waters, OP, Catholic International Education Office, Representative to the UN, USA.
· Rokas Žilinskas, Member of Parliament, Lithuania.

On the House Floor

Quote of the Week

"I beg Your Holiness to intercede for those who are in prison because of their convictions... I implore Your Holiness to take up the defense of those Cubans who are demanding freedom at the risk of persecutions and humiliation."

-- Lech Walesa, former Polish dissident turned President, in a letter to Pope Benedict XVI, McClatchy, 3/20/12

WashPo Editorial Board on Pope's Trip

Monday, March 19, 2012
From The Washington Post's Editorial Board:

Can the Pope bring hope to Cubans?

HOW IS CUBA preparing for the visit next week of Pope Benedict XVI? By rounding up dissidents, of course.

Four score or so were detained over the weekend, including the leaders and most of the members of the Ladies in White, the group that regularly marches in support of political prisoners. Many were released Monday, but they can expect regular harassment in the coming days. The regime’s practice is to carry out short-term arrests rather than formal imprisonments: According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, there were more than 600 such detentions in February alone.

If Pope Benedict or the Cuban Catholic hierarchy under Cardinal Jaime Ortega is troubled by this, they don’t show much sign of it. So far, the pontiff has not responded to appeals by the Ladies in White and other dissident groups seeking a few minutes of his time during the three days he will spend in Cuba. He has, however, scheduled two meetings with Raul Castro and made it known that he will be “available” if Fidel Castro wishes to meet with him. Cardinal Ortega, for his part, asked police to expel 13 dissidents who were camped in a Havana church last week in an attempt to push the pope to talk to the Castros about human rights.

The church’s coldness toward peaceful pro-democracy activists isn’t all that surprising. Since 2009, Cardinal Ortega has become a de facto partner of Raul Castro, meeting with him regularly and encouraging his limited reforms. The church helped broker the release of more than 100 political prisoners and did not object when most were pressured into emigrating to Spain. The cardinal has lobbied in Washington for the relaxation of U.S. sanctions against Cuba; the pope himself gave a speech Friday calling for the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo. Pope Benedict’s visit, the first by a pontiff since John Paul II toured the island in 1998, seems aimed at reinforcing what the church sees as a gradual process of peaceful reform led by the regime.

The problem is that, as Raul Castro has made clear, liberal democracy plays no part in his strategy. Rather, he hopes that Cuba will follow the path of Vietnam or China, opening its economy enough to stabilize a one-party regime. That may work for Cardinal Ortega, but it won’t satisfy Cuba’s opposition. Some 750 activists sent a letter to Pope Benedict warning that his visit “would be like sending a message to the oppressors that they can continue to do whatever they want, that the church will allow it.”

How could Pope Benedict avoid sending that message? He could meet with the Ladies in White. He also could press the Castros to stop persecuting democratic activists and release those who remain in prison. That should include the American Alan Gross, who is serving a 15-year prison term for delivering computers and satellite Internet connections to Cuba’s Jewish community as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The Vatican is right to support change in Cuba but wrong to suppose that it will happen without greater pressure on the regime and cooperation with peaceful opponents.

Heritage Foundation-Google Cuba Event

This Wednesday, March 21st at 10:00 a.m., in Washington, D.C.:

Cuba Needs a (Technological) Revolution: How the Internet Can Thaw an Island Frozen in Time


The Honorable Marco Rubio (R-FL)
Member, United States Senate

Interviewed by

Mary O’Grady, Editorial Board Member, The Wall Street Journal


Mike Gonzalez, Vice President, Communications, The Heritage Foundation
Jared Cohen, Director, Google Ideas


Daniel Fisk, Vice President for Policy and Strategic Planning, International Republican Institute
Roger F. Noriega, Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
Ray Walser, Ph.D., Senior Policy Analyst, Latin America, The Heritage Foundation
Mike Gonzalez, Vice President, Communications, The Heritage Foundation (Moderator)


Mauricio Claver-Carone, Director, U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC
Carlos Garcia Perez, Director, Office of Cuba Broadcasting
Carlos Saladrigas, Co-Chairman, Cuba Study Group
James Glassman, Executive Director, George W. Bush Institute (Moderator)

Click here for details.

Today on "From Washington al Mundo"

Tune in today to "From Washington al Mundo" for a conversation with Martin Etchevers of Grupo Clarin, Argentina's largest media conglomerate, who will discuss the recent attacks on press freedom by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Then, Ambassador Everett E. Briggs, who has served as U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, Panama and Portugal will discuss the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia.

And finally, two young pro-democracy activists, Keith Fernandez and Giancarlo Sopo, will present their dynamic and bipartisan One Cuba Facebook initiative, which urges Pope Benedict XVI to visit with dissidents during his upcoming trip to Cuba.

"From Washington al Mundo" is broadcast live on Sirius-XM's Cristina Radio (Channel 146) from 4-5 p.m. (EST) and rebroadcast Tuesday from 3-4 p.m. (EST).

Pope Risks Alienating Cuban Faithful

By Mary Anastasia O'Grady in The Wall Street Journal:

The Pope's Cuba Gamble

Ignoring those who have suffered for their faith may win some favor for the Church, but it risks alienating the island's faithful.

With only a week to go until Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to make the second papal visit to Cuba in 14 years, joyful anticipation ought to be buoying the island's Christians. But for those brave soldiers of Christ who have stood up against political repression, the prevailing mood is deep frustration.

For 53 years, Cuba's totalitarian regime has made life hell for the population. But Castro also has spared no expense in running a clever international propaganda campaign. Regime survival has depended on East German-style repression covered over by a smiley face for international consumption. It has worked, and Cuban human-rights defenders have suffered their indignities with little moral support from the outside world.

Cuban dissidents had hoped the pope's visit would help them expose the twisted jailors who run the island prison. So what are we to make of the fact that the pontiff will not be meeting with any of the island's Christian human-rights advocates? These communicants have endured unspeakable acts of state terror to be witnesses to the faith. They have earned papal recognition. Disappointment doesn't begin to describe their dashed hopes.

It's not that they haven't asked. They've begged. From Havana, former Cuban political prisoner Angel Moya put the dissident concerns this way: "The Cuban regime will try to manipulate the pontiff's presence in Cuba," he told the website "Pieces of the Island." "We are calling on the support of the international community and of our exiled brothers, so we, the outcast, the persecuted, are able to meet with Pope Benedict XVI and tell him what is really happening here on the island . . ."

Berta Soler—Mr. Moya's wife and the spokeswoman for the Ladies in White, who since 2003 have withstood beatings, arrests and harassment by the regime to attend Mass as a group and protest political imprisonments—has gone even further. She delivered, through the papal nuncio in Havana, a formal request from the Ladies to see the pope, "even for one minute."

Numerous other Christians on the island have made similar requests. From the U.S., Yale Prof. Carlos Eire wrote a powerful plea on behalf of the Ladies for National Review Online on March 5: "Like the Canaanite woman who cried out to Jesus, 'Lord, help me!' or the woman who touched the hem of Jesus's robe in hope of a cure, they are reaching out, full of faith, begging against all odds. In an island where everyone has been turned into a beggar, they beg for the rarest and most precious gift of all: your presence." Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega's office told the Ladies in White that the pope's schedule is too tight.

Some dissidents wonder whose side the cardinal is on. In recent years he was instrumental in helping the regime deport scores of political prisoners who had become a liability for the regime's image. Though he recently offered a Mass for ailing Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez, Ms. Soler's request for a Mass for deceased dissidents has gone unanswered.

The cardinal has said that the purpose of the trip is "a new evangelization" and of course spreading the gospel is the Lord's work. But it is hard to see how converts will be won if the pope snubs the marginalized and schmoozes with the powerful.

On Thursday, 13 Christians holed up inside Our Lady of Charity of Cobre church in Havana to demand that the pope hear their grievances against the regime were forcibly removed by police, reportedly at the request of Cardinal Ortega. Then on Friday the Vatican announced that if Fidel Castro wants to meet, "the pope will be available."

In case all this is not enough to destroy Cuban confidence in the pope as an ally, the government newspaper Granma said this in an editorial last week: "We are sure that His Holiness will affectionately treasure the memory of this Caribbean Island, which values his visit as a manifestation of trust and a renewed expression of the excellent and uninterrupted relations between the Holy See and Cuba."

All Cubans know that the "revolution" persecuted the faithful. They were sent before firing squads or to the dungeons, Catholic schools and churches were shuttered, and the island was declared an atheist paradise.

But now Fidel is reminding Cubans that relations were never broken with Rome and he is claiming that all the while he has gotten on fabulously with the pope. Will Pope Benedict, who is by no means a Castro sympathizer, allow the regime to get away with this?

Unless he has something up his sleeve, the visit may turn out to be a gross miscalculation. Cubans know that they are hostages in their own country. If the pope is perceived as going along with this big lie, it will only heighten the sense of betrayal toward Cardinal Ortega and it will do nothing to strengthen the Church in Cuba.