Cuban Ladies in White Win Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize

At a May 17 New York City gala dinner, the Cato Institute awarded its $250,000 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty to Cuba’s Ladies in White.[1] This award, the political reaction to the award, Cato’s other positions on Cuba and Cato’s background raise interesting issues as discussed below.

The Award

The Institute’s announcement of this prize said the following:

  • “The Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) have a simple message: The political prisoners of Cuba are our sons, our brothers, and our husbands. They must not be forgotten.”
  • “Every Sunday, the Ladies in White gather, or attempt to gather, for Mass at Saint Rita de Casia Church in Havana, followed by a procession down Fifth Avenue. They wear white to symbolize the peaceful nature of their protest, and each wears a photograph of a loved one who is in prison. For this the authorities have constantly harassed them and organized mob violence against them.”
  • “The movement began on March 18, 2003, when journalist Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez was arrested in his home in Havana and sentenced to 20 years in prison for criticizing the regime of Fidel Castro. His case drew worldwide attention, with Amnesty International calling him a prisoner of conscience and demanding his release. Around 75 others were arrested at the same time, in an incident that has been called the Black Spring. All have since left prison, though not unconditionally, with the majority having had to leave Cuba. Since that time, sporadic arrests of journalists, lawyers, and other intellectuals have continued in Cuba, belying the myth that with normalized relations, Cuba’s human rights record would improve. If anything, it has deteriorated.”
  • “Two weeks after Maseda was arrested, his wife Laura Pollán Toledo brought together a group of wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the imprisoned to pray for their loved ones. They have continued to gather each Sunday, and the movement has since spread to other churches throughout Cuba. Although they are not a political party and do not have an overtly political program, they seek freedom of expression for all and the release of prisoners of conscience in Cuba. In recognition of their courage, the Ladies in White were the 2005 recipients of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, awarded by the European Parliament. The Cuban government prohibited them from attending the award ceremony in Strasbourg, France.”
  • “In 2015 Berta Soler, one of the leaders of the group, told the U.S. Senate, “Our aspirations are legitimate…. Our demands are quite concrete: freedom for political prisoners, recognition of civil society, the elimination of all criminal dispositions that penalize freedom of expression and association and the right of the Cuban people to choose their future through free, multiparty elections. We believe these demands are just and valid. Even more importantly, for us they represent the most concrete exercise of politics, a step in the direction of democratic coexistence. Cuba will change when the laws that enable and protect the criminal behavior of the forces of repression and corrupt elements that sustain the regime change.”
  • “As the first step, the Ladies in White demand the release of all political prisoners. The outlook for many of the prisoners is grim; prison conditions are deplorable, visits are rare, and even their mail is intercepted by the authorities. And the Ladies themselves have faced increasing police harassment and arrest in recent years, as the Cuban government tries to hide-but not correct-its habit of quashing dissent. Laura Pollán died in 2011 under gravely suspicious circumstances. But the movement she founded continues: The Ladies in White will meet, pray, and bear witness every Sunday until Cuba’s political prisoners are freed.”

The keynote speaker at the gala dinner was Brazilian Judge, Sergio Moro, who become a household name in his country thanks to Operation Car Wash, the massive scandal in which he has sent some of Brazil’s most powerful politicians and business elite to jail for corruption.

U.S. Political Reaction to the Award[2]

Just before Cato’s dinner, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley met with representatives of Cuba’s Ladies in White at the U.N. and with a photo tweeted, “Congratulations to the Ladies in White for your Milton Friedman award for advancing liberty. The US stands behind you in your fight against the Cuban government for the rights of its people.” Here is that photo of Ambassador Haley with members of the group.

The prior day four U.S. Senators– Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), Bill Nelson (Dem., FL), Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Ted Cruz (Rep., TX)– introduced a resolution congratulating the Ladies in White on receiving the prestigious award, expressing solidarity with the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people and calling on the Cuban regime to allow members of Las Damas de Blanco to travel freely both domestically and internationally. The press release continued, “the dissident group, which routinely faces brutal beatings and imprisonment from the Cuban regime, peacefully gathers and marches in white clothes every Sunday in Havana carrying a picture of their loved ones in one hand and a white gladiolus in the other.”

Subsequent Incidents Involving the Ladies in White[3]

On Sunday, May 20, the Ladies in White who were on the street were arrested and soon thereafter released except for Marieta Martinez. And the next Tuesday, May 22, their leader, Berta Soler, was arrested outside the group’s Havana headquarters.  Another member, Cecilia Guerra, was also arrested outside the headquarters and immediately released. In addition, two others, Maria Carolina Labrada and Deysi Artiless,  were arrested at their homes.

Cato Institute’s Other Positions on Cuba[4]

Cato Institute’s Handbook for Policymakers, 8th Edition (2017), surprisingly for this reader, recommended repeal of two key statutes authorizing the embargo– the Helms-Burton Law of 1996 and the Torricelli Act of 1992–and ending “all remaining sanctions that prevent U.S. companies from trading and investing in Cuba.” This, it said, would leave the Cold War in the past, and eliminate unintended consequences of a flawed policy. In short, it said, “U.S. policy toward Cuba should focus on national security interests, not on transforming Cuban society or micromanaging the affairs of a transitional government.”

These positions were reiterated in a June 2017 article by a Cato senior fellow, just after President Trump in his Miami speech announced cutbacks in policies for U.S. travel to the island. The article asserted, “The presidential campaign is over. President Trump should do what is best for both the American and Cuban people, and end economic restrictions on the island. Freedom eventually will come to Cuba. Flooding the island with foreign people and money would make that day arrive sooner.”

Cato Institute Background[5]

The Cato Institute describes itself as “a public policy research organization — a think tank — dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace. Its scholars and analysts conduct independent, nonpartisan research on a wide range of policy issues. It accepts no government funding. Instead, it receives approximately 80 percent of its funding through tax-deductible contributions from individuals, foundations, corporations, and the sale of books and publications.”

Founded in 1974 in Wichita, Kansas as the Charles Koch Foundation by Charles Koch, who is one of the wealthiest persons in the world and who with his brother David runs Koch Industries that supports many so-called conservative causes. In 1976 the Foundation moved to Washington, D.C. and adopted its current name in recognition of Cato’s Letters, a series of essays published in 18th- century England that presented a vision of society free from excessive government power. Cato says “those essays inspired the architects of the American Revolution. And the simple, timeless principles of that revolution — individual liberty, limited government, and free markets — turn out to be even more powerful in today’s world of global markets and unprecedented access to information than Jefferson or Madison could have imagined. Social and economic freedom is not just the best policy for a free people, it is the indispensable framework for the future.”

The current 19 members of Cato’s Board are the following:

John A. Allison, Former President & CEO, Cato Institute; Retired Chairman & CEO, BB&T (the 10th-largest U.S. financial services holding company);

Carl Barney, Chairman, Center for Excellence in Higher Education, a Scientologist and very wealthy operator of for-profit colleges;

Baron Bond, Executive Vice President, The Foundation Group LLC, a real estate management, investment, and development company whose biography appears on the website for the Atlas Society named after Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged;”

Rebecca Dunn, Trustee, DUNN Foundation, which says it “believes that liberty and opportunity should be enjoyed by the people of this Nation, envisions a world where the use of force by coercive public or private institutions no longer threatens our freedoms and celebrates entrepreneurial innovations that further these purposes;”

Robert Gelfond, wealthy CEO and Founder, Macro Quantitative Strategies (MQS);

Peter N. Goettler, President & CEO, Cato Institute, former officer of Barclays Capital and on board of Atlas Network and advocate of libertarian organizations in several foreign countries;

David C. Humphreys, President & CEO, TAMKO Building Products, Inc. and a “massive” Republican donor;

James M. Kilts, wealthy Partner, Centerview Capital Holdings, an investment banking firm, and former CEO, The Gillette Company;

James M. Lapeyre, Jr., President, Laitram, LLC, a diversified global manufacturer and officer of The Atlas Society;

Ken Levy, Levy Family Fund and businessman;

Robert A. Levy, Chairman, Cato Institute, founder of a major provider of investment information and software and successful attorney in Supreme Court ban on Washington, D.C. gun ban;

Preston Marshall, President/CEO, Rusk Capital Management and friend of the Koch brothers;

Nancy M. Pfotenhauer, President and CEO, MediaSpeak Strategies, staffer on 2008 McCain/Palin campaign and former director of the Washington, D.C. office of Koch Industries;

Lewis E. Randall, Former Director, E*Trade Financial, a financial services company;

Howard S. Rich, real estate investor and Chairman, U.S.Term Limits and other libertarian-oriented political initiatives;

Donald G. Smith, President, Donald Smith & Co., Inc., an investment advisory firm;

Nestor R. Weigand, Jr., Chairman and CEO, JP Weigand & Sons, Inc., a full-service real estate firm;

Jeffrey S. Yass, Managing Director, Susquehanna International Group, LLP, a global trading and technology firm;

Fred Young, Former Owner, Young Radiator Company, and major supporter of conservative groups and candidates.

The members of the International Selection Committee for the 2018 Prize were Leszek Balcerowicz, Former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Poland; Janice Rogers Brown, Former Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; Vicente Fox. Former President, Mexico; Sloane Frost, Chairwoman, Board of Directors, Students for Liberty; Peter N. Goettler, President and CEO, Cato Institute; Herman Mashaba. Executive Mayor, Johannesburg, South Africa; Harvey Silverglate, Co-founder, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education; Donald G. Smith, President, Donald Smith & Company Inc.; and Linda Whetstone, Chair, Atlas Network.

 Conclusion

The preceding account of the history of the Ladies in White tells an impressive story of alleged Cuban suppression of dissent, free speech and assembly and freedom of religion. The Cuban government, however, disagrees and is believed to assert that these women are not religious activists and dissenters, but trouble-makers for hire by the CIA or U.S. Agency for International Development or private groups in the U.S.

Which account is true? We need to hear more from the Cubans and U.S. journalists or private investigators who have investigated the activities of the Ladies in White.

The creation of the Cato Institute (f/k/a Charles Koch Foundation) by Charles Koch and the changing of its name perhaps to conceal or minimize its Koch origins raise questions about its objectivity and fairness.

Cato’s 19-member Board has 17 white, very successful and wealthy men and two white women who apparently are married to very successful and wealthy white men. This too raises questions about the board’s objectivity and fairness.

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[1] Cato Institute, The Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty: Las Damas de Blanco, Winner of the 2018 Milton Friedman Prize; Whitefield, Cuba’s Ladies in White win $250,000 prize for advancing liberty, Miami Herald (May 17, 2018).

[2] U.S. Miss. to UN, Tweet: Congratulations to the Ladies in White (May 17, 2018); Press Release, Rubio, Menendez, Nelson, Cruz Introduce Resolution Honoring ladies in White for Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty (May 16, 2018).

[3] The regime stops Berta Soler and deploys operations in the homes of other Ladies in White, Diario de Cuba (May 22, 2018).

[4] Cato Institute, CATO Handbook for Policymakers—Relations with Cuba,  8th Edition (2017); Bandow, Trump Panders on Cuba, Preferring Cold War over Progress, Cato Inst. (June 23, 2017).

[5]  Cato Institute, About Cato; Cato Institute, Wikipedia.

U.S. Senate Hearing on Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

On January 9, a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing entitled “Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight.” The Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues was chaired by Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), a noted critic of normalization of U.S.-Cuba relation, who said the purpose of the hearing was “to establish the facts surrounding the attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba, and conduct oversight over the State Department’s handling of the attacks.”[1]

The witnesses were three officials of the U.S. State Department: Mr. Francisco Palmieri, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; Mr. Todd Brown, Diplomatic Security, Assistant Director, International Programs; and Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, Medical Director, Bureau of Medical Services.

The hearing started with lengthy opening statements by Rubio and the Ranking Member, Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ), both very critical of the Department’s response to these incidents or “attacks.” [2] The hearing itself focused on the following four topics:: (1) the nature of the injuries; (2) the cause of the injuries; (3) the perpetrator of the “attacks;” and (4) the State Department’s appointment of an accountability review board.

  1. The Nature of the injuries

 While the symptoms may vary, all 24  of the medically-confirmed cases  have described some combination of the following symptoms: sharp ear pain, dull headaches, tinnitus (ringing in one ea), vertigo, visual focusing issues, disorientation, nausea, extreme fatigue. Some have been diagnosed with mild brain injuries similar to what might happen from a concussion.

  1. The cause of the injuries[3]

In early July, the Bureau of Medical Services at the State Department convened a panel of academic experts to review case histories and the test results up to that point. And they arrived at [the following] consensus: ‘the patterns of injuries were most likely related to trauma from a non-natural source.”

Mr. Brown said investigators are considering possible causes other than a sonic attack, including a viral attack. He also said the possibility that someone deliberately infected people with a virus has not been ruled out. Dr. Rosenfarb testified that evidence suggest that( this is “not an episode of mass hysteria.”

Brown also said he would not rule out a sound component entirely. He said there had been an “acoustic element” associated with the sensations and feelings experienced by diplomats who fell ill. He said it’s possible the sound masked some other technology that caused the damage.

Dr. Rosenfarb said investigators are confident that something indeed caused medical harm to the Americans.

“Perplexing” was a frequent word in this discussion.

  1. Perpetrator(s)

Senator Rubio in a Fox News interview before the hearing said Havana is one of the most tightly controlled cities in the world. “There is no way you can conduct sophisticated attacks targeting American government officials in Havana without the Cuban government at least knowing about it.” [4] He repeated this opinion or conclusion at the start and at the end of the hearing.

  1. Accountability Review Board

Senator Rubio obtained admissions from the witnesses that a “serious injury” of at least one U.S. diplomat in Cuba happened no later than May 2017 and that the Secretary of State had not appointed an accountability review board within 60 days thereafter, as required by statute, and indeed had not yet done so.[5]

Acting Secretary Palmieri tried to remedy this apparent breach by testifying that Secretary Tillerson on December 11, 2017, had decided to convene such a Board and that the statutory required notice to Congress was “forthcoming.”

The same question came up later the same day at the Department’s Press Gaggle, [6] when the Department spokesperson, Under Secretary I. Steven Goldstein, initially said, “We are going to create, as we’ve said previously, an accountability review board, and I would expect that we would have the announcements of the chair and the members of the board available for release within the next week.” He then was pressed with a reporter’s question about Senator Rubio’s apparent contention that the Department and the Secretary had violated the law by not making an earlier appointment of such a board. Goldstein had the following response:

  • “We don’t agree with [the allegation that the law was violated].The assistant secretary today made clear [at the hearing], and we have said too, that it took us time to get the investigation in place. The investigation is continuing, and we believe that we . . . had the authority to determine when the accountability review board should be set in place. I think let’s not lose focus here. There’s 24 people that had injuries, and those people are receiving treatment, and we’ve had over 20 conversations with the people of Cuba. . . . [The] government investigators have been down four times; they’re going down again within the next few weeks. And so our primary goal at the present time is to find out why this occurred, to prevent it from happening again in Cuba and the embassy of Cuba or in any other place where American citizens are located.”
  • “It took time to set up the . . . board because we were hopeful that we would be able to know what occurred. . . . [T]his investigation has taken longer than we anticipated, . . . but it is now time to go forward. . . . I expect the names [for the Board] to be announced over the next several days.”

Conclusion

Only five of the nine subcommittee members attended the hearing, and the members will be submitting written questions to the witnesses, and there will be classified briefing of the subcommittee. Thus, the complete record will not be available until later. [7]

At the conclusion of the hearing, Rubio said that the following were two established facts: (1) 24 Americans had been harmed while in Cuba and (2) the Cuban government at least knew who was responsible for causing such harm. “The idea that someone could put together some sort of action against them, 24 of them, and the Cuban government not know who did it, it’s just impossible,” Mr. Rubio said. He noted that the Americans in Havana became sick just after Mr. Trump’s election, and speculated that rogue government officials from either Cuba or Russia had sought to create friction between Havana and the new administration in Washington.

Under Secretary Goldstein voiced a similar opinion by saying, “We believe that the Cuban government knows what occurred. So what we’d like to them to do is tell us what occurred.”

After the hearing, Cuba’s diplomat who has been intimately involved in U.S.-Cuba relations , Josefina Vidal, said  the hearing was chaired by two Senators (Rubio and Menendez)  “both with a vast record of work against better relations between Cuba and the United States, and the promoters of all kinds of legislative and political proposals that affect the interests of the Cuban and American peoples, and only benefit an increasingly isolated minority that has historically profited from attacks on Cuba.” She continued:

  • “From [the hearing’s] very title “Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba,” it was evident that the true purpose of this hearing . . . was not to establish the truth, but to impose by force and without any evidence an accusation that they have not been able to prove.”
  • “The State Department does not have any evidence that allows it to affirm that there have been attacks against its diplomats in Havana, or that Cuba may be responsible, or have knowledge of the actions of third parties.”
  • “I categorically reiterate that the Cuban government has no responsibility whatsoever for the health conditions reported by U.S. diplomats. Cuba never has, and never will, perpetrate such acts, nor has it or will it permit third parties to act against the physical integrity of any diplomat, without exception. The Cuban government is aware of its responsibilities and fulfils them exemplarily.”
  • “I affirm that the investigation carried out by Cuban authorities, the results of which the State Department and specialized agencies of the United States have had ample and systematic access to, has shown that there is no evidence at all regarding the occurrence of the alleged incidents and no attack of any kind has occurred.”
  • “Nothing presented by the government of the United States throughout this period, including today, provides evidence that the health problems reported by its diplomats have their origin or cause in Cuba.”
  • “We reject the politicization of this matter and the unjustified measures adopted by the United States government, with a high cost for our population, Cuban émigrés and the U.S. people. We also condemn the political manipulation of these events by anti-Cuban elements, who seek to aggravate the bilateral atmosphere, with the sole purpose of returning to a an era of confrontation, with negative consequences for both countries and the region.”
  • “Cuba is a safe, peaceful and healthy country for Cubans, for foreigners, for accredited diplomats and for the millions of people who visit us every year, including U.S.”[8]

This blogger’s opposition to Senator Rubio’s hostile approach to Cuba has been expressed in a prior post. That approach is against U.S. economic and strategic interests. It provides openings to Russia and the EU, for example, to pursue various developments with Cuba while the U.S. stands on the sidelines. Moreover, that approach contradicts Rubio’s stated desire to support Cuba’s emerging private sector and the Cubans investing and working in that sector.

Senator Rubio also erroneously stated that it is a fact that Cuba has one of the world’s most pervasive surveillance systems in the world and, therefore, has to know if some third-party has perpetrated attacks on U.S. (and Canadian) diplomats. At most that is an allegation or theory, which has been denied by Cuba. Rubio also ignores that whatever security and surveillance system Cuba has undoubtedly is prompted, at least in part, by the long history of U.S. hostility towards the Cuban Revolution, including covert or undercover efforts to promote regime change on the island. Moreover, in its responses to the medical problems of some of its diplomats in Cuba, the U.S. repeatedly has emphasized Cuba’s obligation under the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations to protect other countries diplomats on the island, an obligation that presumably requires Cuba and other nations, including the U.S., to have some idea as to the whereabouts of  those diplomats.

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[1]  Senate Foreign Relations Comm., Subcommittee Hearing: Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight (Jan. 9, 2018); Reuters, U.S. Won’t Send Americans Back to Embassy in Havana Yet: U.S. Officials, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, In Wake of ‘Attacks,’ Tillerson Not Returning Staff to Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Considers Whether Virus Might Explain Attacks in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan, 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Says ‘Viral Attack’ Among theories in Cuba Illnesses, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Harris, U.S. to Open Formal Inquiry on Americans Sickened in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018). In the days before the hearing, disputes erupted over what happened to the diplomats, as discussed in a prior post. (See also posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: CUBA.)

[2] Press Release, TOMORROW: Rubio Chairs Hearing on Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Jan. 8, 2017); Press Release, Menendez Opening Statement at Cuba Hearing (Jan. 9, 2018).

[3] Some Canadian diplomats in Cuba have suffered similar injuries or effects, but on January 10, a Canadian official said Canada has not reached any conclusions on the cause(s) of such ailments. Reuters, No Conclusion on Cause of Health Symptoms at Embassy in Cuba-Canada Official, N.Y. Times (Jan. 10, 2018).

[4] Press Release, Rubio Presses State Department on Response to Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Jan. 9, 2018).

[5] The State Department has a statutory obligation to “convene an Accountability  Review Board” . . .  not later than 60 days after the occurrence of an incident [of] . . . .any case of serious injury.” The Department also has an obligation to “promptly notify the Committee on International Relations of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate of the incident” of the convening of such a board. (22 U.S.C. §4831.) U.S.

[6] U.S. State Dep’t, Press Gaggle (Jan. 9, 2018).

[7] The subcommittee members in attendance were Senators Rubio and Tom Johnson (Rep., WI), Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ),), another Cuban-American critic of normalization; Tom Udall (Dem., NM); and Jeanne Shaheen (Dem., NH). The absentees were Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), a supporter of normalization who was just in Cuba; Cory Gardner (Rep., CO); Johnny Isakson (Rep., GA); and Tim Kaine (Dem., VA). Two of these absentees (Flake and Gardner) and Menendez were attending the simultaneous White House conference on immigration.

[8] Vidal, Cuba is a safe, peaceful and healthy country, Granma (Jan. 10, 2018).