Other Reactions to Fidel Castro’s Commentary on President Obama’s Visit 

Fidel’s commentary on President Obama’s recent visit to Cuba, which was discussed in an earlier post, has received a lot of coverage in the international press, but most articles merely summarize what Fidel said with little analysis. Here are substantive reactions to Fidel’s commentary.

Sebastian Arcos’ Reaction

The Wall Street Journal offered an analysis by Sebastian A. Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, who said Fidel is “essentially an old man ranting in the background, [his essay is} rambling, it’s incoherent. It’s definitely not on topic.” This is consistent to my reaction as stated in the prior post.[1]

Yoani Sanchez’s Reactions

My prior post also expressed disagreement with Fidel’s assertion that Cuba could produce all the food it needed. According to the Wall Street Journal, this assertion also was challenged by Yoani Sanchez, a dissident Cuban blogger, She points out that cash-strapped Cuba spends nearly $2 billion a year importing 80% of the food that its 11 million residents consume. Yoani also reported that Mr. Obama’s speech has been distributed extensively on the island, with high-resolution videos of the address on computer memory drives.

Christopher Sabatini’s Reactions

Another point of disagreement with Fidel, as noted in the prior post, was regarding his contention that the Cuban Revolution had swept away racial discrimination.

Also disagreeing with this Fidel contention is Christopher Sabatini, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and director of Global Americans, a research institute focused on the foreign policy of human rights and social inclusion. He says that Cuba’s purported racial utopia is a myth. Sabatini contends that according to a 2011 study “’black and mixed populations, on average, are concentrated in the worst housing conditions’ and tend to work in lower-paying, manual-labor jobs.” Moreover, racial “structural disparities have increased” with “blacks and mestizos occupy[ing] only 5 percent of the lucrative higher-end jobs (managers and technicians) in the tourism industry but are heavily represented in low-level jobs.” Yet another index of racial disparities was foreign remittances to Cubans “overwhelmingly go[ing] . . . to its non-black population.”[2]

Another myth about Cuba, says Sabatini, is the alleged greatness of the Cuban health system. Although there have been health-care advances in Cuba with Cuban life-expectancy the second-highest in Latin America at 79.1 years and although Cuba justifiably is proud of its medical education and sending its physicians to other countries, “advanced health care is flagging” in Cuba with “the health system used by average Cubans in crisis” and hospitals “generally poorly maintained and short of staff and medicines.”

I am not a physician and do not have personal knowledge on this issue, but on my first visit to Cuba in 2002 I visited a polyclinic in the city of Matanzas and observed poor, unsanitary conditions, and on every mission trip to Cuba members of my church always take large supplies of over-the-counter medicines that the church then dispenses as a de facto pharmacy. In addition, an Ecuadorian ophthalmologist and a retired emergency room physician have told me that they have had to solve medical problems created by poor care from visiting Cuban medical personnel, but I do not know if these are isolated or widespread instances.

 White House Reactions

On March 28 White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made extensive comments about Fidel’s commentary and the President’s visit to Cuba. The Secretary said, “the fact that [Fidel Castro] . . . felt compelled to respond so forcefully to the President’s visit . . . is an indication of the significant impact of President Obama’s visit to Cuba.  We obviously were quite pleased with the reception that President Obama received from the Cuban people.  [We are] . . . also pleased with the kind of conversations that President Obama was able to have with other Cuban government officials.  There was an opportunity for us to discuss what additional steps can be taken to normalize relations between our two countries.”[3]

Earnest continued, “The President made clear time and time again, both in private meetings with President [Raúl] Castro, but also in public when he delivered a speech to the Cuban people, that the U.S. commitment to human rights is rock-solid, and that’s not going to change.  And we’re going to continue to be leading advocates — and President Obama is going to continue to be a leading advocate — for universal human rights, not just in the Western Hemisphere but around the world.”

“And the kind of engagement that President Obama was able to pursue in the context of his visit is the kind of engagement that would not have been possible had he not made the trip.  The President was able to go to Cuba and urge President [Raúl] Castro in person about the importance of human rights.  The President was able to stand before a news conference, the assembled global media, and make a forceful case for the Cuban government to better protect universal human rights.  That also created a venue where a couple of your colleagues were able to ask President [Raúl] Castro about this issue directly.

That’s the kind of thing that’s never happened before.  And there’s no denying that creates some additional pressure on the Cuban government.  And again, the fact that the former President [Fidel Castro] felt compelled to respond I think is an indication that the trip had its intended effect.“

Ernest also said the U.S. was “ constantly in a position to be urging the government of Cuba to do a better job of protecting the universal human rights of their people, but we’re also making a specific push to look out for those that we know are being targeted because of their political views.  So that is to say our call for greater respect for human rights on the island of Cuba is both a generalized call about respecting the basic human rights of the Cuban people, but it’s also a specific call about making sure that individuals who have been victimized or targeted or rounded up or tortured because of their political views are freed.”

“Those efforts are going to continue.  And importantly, the United States and our government is not the only one encouraging Cuba to take these important steps.”

“One of the benefits of this policy change that the President has announced is that, for a long time, our policy toward Cuba served as an impediment to our relations with other countries throughout the hemisphere.  And for a long time, we saw countries in the Western Hemisphere who were more focused on the U.S. policy toward Cuba than they were on the policy of the Cuban government toward its own people.  Now that impediment has been removed, and now we are seeing greater scrutiny applied toward the Cuban government and, frankly, tougher questions being raised about the way that the Cuban government treats its own people.  That’s a helpful thing.  And that added pressure will only be a good thing for the Cuban people in the long run.”

“The President did have an opportunity in the course of his conversations to make clear that the kind of work that’s currently being done in law enforcement channels to try to coordinate the return of some of these fugitives is a priority of his.  And he made that clear at the highest levels of the Cuban government.  And we’re going to continue to push for those kinds of issues to be resolved because they’re a genuine irritant in our relationship.”

In “every meeting that the President had with a Latin American leader in the first few years of his presidency, . . . that at some point, the discussion was actually consumed by the nonsensical U.S. policy toward Cuba.  And that was getting in the way of the ability of the United States to engage in the kinds of conversations that actually are helpful to our national security interests.  And in some cases, that actually has opened up and created space for the President to have a conversation with other world leaders about the human rights situation in Cuba, which, after all, is actually the whole point of this exercise and was the point of that policy.  And that’s why the President viewed it as a failed policy that had negative consequences for our relationship with other countries in Latin America — that too often they were talking about the embargo and not about the serious human rights situation inside of Cuba.”

Cuban Foreign Minister’s Reactions

On March 29 Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said that ending the embargo (blockade) had to be the unilateral act of the U.S. It would not be the result of any negotiation with Cuba or any concessions by Cuba. He also said the U.S. still has the strategic objective of dominating Cuba economically and politically, but that Cuba would never give up the principles of the Revolution or its independence. This point was made, Rodriguez said, in the timely reflection of Fidel Castro with his extraordinary historical authority when he said Cuba does not need gifts from the U.S.[4]

Conclusion

In short, Fidel Castro overstates the case for the Cuban Revolution. Yes, it has made improvements in many aspects of Cuban life. But the Revolution did not create an utopia. Cuba is neither heaven nor hell. There is still room for improvement. The same is true of the U.S., as President Obama acknowledged in his speech to the Cuban people.

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[1] Vyas, Fidel Castro Lashes Out at Obama After Cuba Visit, W.S.J. (Mar. 28, 2016)

[2] Sabatini, 5 myths about Cuba, Wash. Post (Mar. 25, 2016),

[3] White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh earnest, 3/28/2016 Also on March 28, a U.S. Department of State spokesman said Fidel Castro “can speak for himself and his views of the troubled U.S.-Cuban history. . . . [The U.S.] believes “engagement’s the best way forward. . . . Nobody expected that the normalization process with Cuba was going to be linear or easy or quick. We all recognize there are still differences – human rights being one of them.”.

[4] Prensa Latina, End the blockade must be US unilateral act, Granma (Mar. 29, 2016).

Kerry’s Meeting with Cuban Dissidents Gets Rave Reviews

A prior post discussed preliminary information about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s August 14 meeting with Cuban dissidents and others at the official Havana residence of the U.S. charge d’affaires. The other attendees included representatives of the Engage Cuba coalition for normalization; its members (the Center for Democracy in the Americas, #CubaNow, Procter & Gamble, the American Society of Travel Agents, Cuba Study Group, and the Washington Office on Latin America); notable members of Congress, including Senators Klobuchar, Flake, and Leahy; leaders of the American business community; and Cuban independent entrepreneurs.

Further information about that meeting has been added by Ernesto Londoño, the member of the New York Times Editorial Board who was the main force behind last year’s series of editorials urging normalization of U.S. ties with Cuba, and by Engage Cuba.[1]

YoaniSanchez

Londoño reports that Cuban dissidents are very pleased with such normalization and with the August 14 ceremonial opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. He referred first to the article in The Atlantic by Yoani Sanchez that was mentioned in the prior post.

This was confirmed in an email to him from Sanchez. With respect to the meeting with Kerry, she said “People hugged and greeted each other like they were at the baptism of a creature that had a rough, problematic gestation, and has finally come to life. It’s been many years since I’ve witnessed a moment like that, surrounded by so many happy people.” Moreover, Kerry ”left a “profound impression” on them, with his listening carefully to their concerns and brainstorming about ways to expand Internet access on the island.

Unknown

Another dissident at the meeting was José Daniel Ferrer, a former political prisoner who is head of the Patriotic Union for Cuba, the largest and most active opposition group on the island. He said he was heartened by the meeting with Mr. Kerry, whom he described as realistic and supportive. “His speech [at the meeting] was good and clear. Many of us are grateful for his remarks, including that the situation in Cuba would improve if we had a genuine democracy.”

In recent months, Cuban authorities have continued to harass, temporarily detain, and slander dissident leaders, Mr. Ferrer said. “Repression has increased, but not because the new policy is weak and paves the way for that, no,” he said. “Repression has increased because every day there’s more activism and courage and the regime fears it will lose control.”

Ferrer’s group has put videos on You Tube showing its leaders delivering aid packages to destitute Cubans and holding meetings. Others in the group are helping Cubans getting online at new Wi-Fi hot spots. Ferrer said, “There are many people who want to connect but have no idea how. We suggest sites based on their interests and we tell them about the unlimited possibilities the Internet brings.”

Engage Cuba said that they met Cuban entrepreneurs engaged in event planning, supplying promotional packaging, designing fashions and creating mobile apps. These interactions reinforced Engage Cuba’s efforts to identify opportunities to support these entrepreneurs by connecting them with counterparts in the U.S. and the coalition’s commitment to help unleash the potential of the Cuban economy by working with Congress to end the travel ban and lift the trade embargo. While we continue to work with Congress.

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[1] Londoño, Cuban Dissidents Buoyed in a New Era, N.Y. Times (Aug, 24, 2015), ; Email, Engage Cuba to supporters, Living History: Cubans And Americans Embark On A Better Future (Aug. 24, 2015).

 

U.S. Secretary of State Meets with Cuban Dissidents

As mentioned in prior posts, on August 14, 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry delivered the main remarks at the ceremonial opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana and thereafter held closed-door meetings with the Cuban Foreign Minister and other diplomats. That afternoon he attended a meeting with Cuban dissidents at the official Havana residence of the head of that Embassy, charge d’ affaires, Jeffrey DeLaurentis. [1] Who was there? What happened?

The gathering was attended by diplomats, Cuban-Americans, advocates of warming relations with Cuba and Cuban dissidents, including Jose Daniel Ferrer, Miriam Leiva and Yoani Sanchez, the author of the blog Generation Y[2]

According to the Associated Press, Kerry told the group that Cuban leaders should not expect to see progress on the embargo without improvements in civil liberties in Cuba, which does not allow independent media, political parties other than the ruling communist party or direct election of anything but low-level municipal posts. “There is no way Congress will lift the embargo if we are not making progress on issues of conscience,” he said.

On August 19, Yoani Sanchez wrote an article in The Atlantic entitled “The Meaning of a U.S. Embassy in Havana.” She said, “The fact of living in Cuba on August 14 makes the more than 11 million of us participants in a historic event that transcends the raising of an insignia to the top of a flagpole. We are all here, in the epicenter of what is happening. . . . it is the end of one stage. . . . Now comes the most difficult part. However, it will be that kind of uphill climb in which we cannot blame our failures on our neighbor to the north. It is the beginning of the stage of absorbing who we are, and recognizing why we have only made it this far.”

Moreover, she says, Cuban government officials no longer legitimately may assert that the U.S. is an enemy after the officials are seen by all Cubans “shaking hands with their opponent and explaining the change as a new era.” Now the Cuban government must “understand that we are living in new times—moments of reaching out to the people, and helping them to see that there is a country after the dictatorship and that they can be the voice of millions who suffer every day economic hardship, lack of freedom, police harassment, and lack of expectations. The authoritarianism expressed in warlordism, not wanting to speak with those who are different, or snubbing the other for not thinking like they do, are just other ways of reproducing the Castro regime.”

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[1] Assoc. Press, A Festive Flag-Raising, Then Tough Talk on US-Cuba Relations, N.Y. Times (Aug. 15, 2015); Gordon, Kerry Strikes Delicate Balance in Havana Trip for Embassy Flag-Raising, N.Y. Times (Aug. 14, 2015); Klapper & Weissenstein, Kerry calls for democracy as US flag is raised in Cuba, Wash. Post (Aug. 14, 2015).

[2] The dissidents were not invited to the embassy ceremony to avoid tensions with Cuban officials who typically boycott events attended by the country’s small political opposition. This was criticized in editorials in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

 

 

Cuba’s Unhappiness with U.S. Meeting with Cuban Dissidents

On Friday, January 23rd (the day after the conclusion of the two-day diplomatic meeting), U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson hosted a breakfast meeting with seven Cuban dissidents at the Havana official residence of the Chief of the U.S. Interests Section. She said it was an “opportunity to discuss their perspectives, hear their differences, sometimes, or their support for the new policy. It’s very important to hear their perspective and see how we can help in the future.”[1]

One of the breakfast guests was Antonio Rodiles, founder of the activist group Estado de SATS, who said, “The breakfast was cordial, but we said we still have doubts about the next steps.” He and others thought that Cuban concessions on human rights and free expression should have been a pre-condition of any new U.S. policy and that the Cuban diaspora, primarily in the United States, should have been consulted. Some said the Obama administration, was effectively cherry-picking its preferred dissidents, focusing attention on those who supported Obama’s outreach.

Another guest, Jose Daniel Ferrer, the head of the Cuban Patriotic Union, widely considered the largest and most active opposition group, with up to 5,000 open and underground members, observed, that the Cuban “people are still assimilating” the historic changes in the relations of the two countries and that some Cubans resent the eighteen-months of secret talks before announcing last month that they would restore diplomatic ties.

Elizardo Sanchez, the head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights, commented, “We don’t expect miracles.” But he had a list of 24 prisoners who have been detained for between 12 to 24 years for politically associated crimes, and ongoing U.S. pressure on human rights issues was “essential, for as long as this system of political and economic repression continues.”

Miriam Leiva, the founder of the Ladies in White and a former Cuban diplomat and an independent journalist, said, “Jacobson showed the interest of the U.S. government in providing support for the Cuban opposition, respect for human rights in Cuba and the desire to advance the Cuban people. ”

Others at the breakfast included; Hector Maceda, president of the Cuban Liberal Democratic Party; activist and hunger striker Guillermo“Coco” Fariñas; and dissident economist Marta Beatriz Roque.

At least one activist, Berta Soler of the Ladies in White group of political prisoner families, declined Jacobson’s breakfast invitation. Two who attended said they told Jacobson that they disapproved of the new U.S. policy.

After this meeting Jacobson met with influential Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez.

Later that same day Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s top diplomat for the United States, said that U.S. support for dissidents is an “action that isn’t acceptable for Cuba, and they know it.” Moreover, she indicated that whether or not Cuba would accept the U.S. request to allow U.S. diplomats to go where they want was associated with “better behavior” by the U.S.

Vidal also noted, “This is exactly one of the differences we have with the U.S. government because for us, this is not just genuine, legitimate Cuban civil society.” This small group of people “do not represent Cuban society, don’t represent the interests of the Cuban people.”

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[1] This post is based upon the following: Klapper & Weissenstine, U.S., Cuba End Historic talks with More Questions than Answers, Assoc. Press (Jan. 23, 2015); DeYoung & Miroff, U.S. diplomats meet with Cuban dissidents in Havana in gesture of reassurance, Wash. Post (Jan. 23, 2015); Reuters, Senior U.S. Diplomat Ruffles Cuba by Meeting Dissidents, N.Y. Times (Jan. 23, 2015); Maye, Cuban dissidents divided attend attend the meeting with Roberta Jacobson, El Pais (Jan. 23, 2015); Ayuso, The dialogue between the US and Cuba exposes the division of dissent, El Pais (Jan. 24, 2015).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rejection of Criticism of Cuba’s Cancellation of Open-Microphone Event in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución and Arrests of Its Organizers

Tania Bruguera
  Tania Bruguera

On December 30th Cuban authorities cancelled an open-microphone event at Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución and detained or arrested its organizers. The principal detainee was Tania Bruguera, a Cuban citizen who lives on the island and in Miami, Florida and who is a performance artist. She intended to provide an open-microphone for any attendee to give a one-minute statement on his or her opinions and recommendations for Cuba’s future.

This cancellation and related arrests have provoked strong condemnation from the U.S. Department of State and major U.S. newspapers. Initially I was persuaded by such condemnations and worried that they would foster U.S. political resistance to recent U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. After further investigation, however, I have come to reject such harsh condemnations. In order to understand this conclusion, this post will examine what happened in Havana, the reactions from the State Department and western newspapers and then the reasons why I reject such condemnations.

Cuban Events Relating to the Open-Mike Performance[1]

Plaza_de_la_Revolution

Plaza3

On December 30th Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera was planning to stage an open-microphone event, “Yo tambien exijo,” [I also demand],” in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, the huge public square usually reserved for large government-sponsored events.[2] (The photo on the top shows an empty Plaza while the other one has a large crowd in attendance.) She planned to give any attendee a one-minute platform to discuss his or her opinions about, and recommendations for, Cuba’s future. She told the U.S. National Public Radio that she wanted “people in the street [to] come and share . . . [their] doubts, [their] happiness – whatever [they] think right now about what is happening in Cuba, and what is the idea of Cuba that [they] want?”

Bruguera was proceeding with these plans even though her application for a permit had been denied and even though the Government’s National Fine Arts Council had told her that it would not be providing her with institutional support for the event as proposed because it “would negatively impact public opinion, in a key time of negotiation between the Cuban government and the government of the United States.”

On December 30th the Council issued a public statement documenting its decision not to support the event. It said, “Under current circumstances, it is unacceptable performing this purported performance in the symbolic space of the Plaza of the Revolution, especially considering the extensive media coverage and manipulation that has been in the media broadcasters counterrevolution.”

The Council, however, also stated that Bruguera had rejected its suggestions on conducting the event subject to the following conditions: (a) move the event to the National Museum of Fine Arts, a prestigious cultural institution in the field of visual arts; (b) the Museum would be freely open to diverse people of dissimilar social sectors; (c) the government would “reserve the right” to bar people whose “sole interest is to be provocative;” and (d) the performance would be limited to 90 minutes.

Just hours before the planned event, Cuban police detained, on public disorder charges, Bruguerea and at least three leading dissidents: Antonio Rodiles, the head of Citizens Demand for Another Cuba; Eliezer Avila, the leader of the opposition group Somos Mas; and Reinaldo Escobar, a senior editor of a dissident website 14medio.com. Escobar’s spouse, Blogger Yoani Sanchez, was also detained at her home by police. There were reports that up to 50 members of the political opposition were detained.

Ms. Bruguera was released the next afternoon along with most of the political dissidents. She then announced she would hold a news conference and public gathering on the Malecón, Havana’s coastal highway, at the memorial to the Maine, the American battleship that sank in Havana Harbor in 1898. Cuban agents, however, stopped her en route to the gathering and took her away for interrogation. She was told she could not leave Cuba “for two or three months” while the case was being processed. Again she was released.

However, on January 1, 2015, she was arrested again along with several dissidents when they went to a jail to demand the release of 15 additional dissidents who had been arrested on the day of the planned event. The next day (January 2) she was released.

Reactions to the Cancelation and Arrests

On December 30th, the U.S. Department of State issued a Press Statement saying the U.S. was “deeply concerned about the latest reports of detentions and arrests by Cuban authorities of peaceful civil society members and activists . . . [and] strongly condemn[ed] the Cuban government’s continued harassment and repeated use of arbitrary detention, at times with violence, to silence critics, disrupt peaceful assembly and freedom expression, and intimidate citizens.”

The Statement added, “Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are internationally recognized human rights, and the Cuban government’s lack of respect for these rights, as demonstrated by today’s detentions, is inconsistent with Hemispheric norms and commitments. We urge the Government of Cuba to end its practice of repressing these and other internationally protected freedoms and to respect the universal human rights of Cuban citizens.”

The Statement concluded that the U.S. has “always said we would continue to speak out about human rights, and as part of the process of normalization of diplomatic relations, the United States will continue to press the Cuban government to uphold its international obligations and to respect the rights of Cubans to peacefully assemble and express their ideas and opinions, just like their fellow members of civil society throughout the Americas are allowed to do.”

Also on December 30th Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson tweeted “Freedom of expression remains core of US policy on #Cuba; we support activists exercising those rights and condemn today’s detentions.”

These views were shared by the New York Times’ December 30th editorial, “Cuba Turns Off Critics’ Open Mike.” It said, “By stifling critical voices, the Cuban government is showing its unwillingness to tolerate basic freedoms most citizens in the hemisphere enjoy.”

The Times’ editorial continued, “This move, unfortunately, will amplify the criticisms of those who opposed Mr. Obama’s historic shift on Cuba policy. Heavy-handed tactics by the Castro government will give them ammunition next year, when Republicans will control both chambers of Congress, to stymie the Obama administration’s steps to ease the embargo through executive authority and dim the prospects of legislative change to pare back the web of sanctions Washington imposes on Cuba. That result would be a shame and, in the long run, self-defeating for Havana.”

The editorial on the same subject by the Washington Post, which earlier opposed the December 17th reconciliation, was in the same vein. It stated, “[T]he Castro regime has been left free to continue stifling dissent, while reaping the economic and political benefits of Mr. Obama’s ‘engagement.’ Raúl Castro declared in a speech shortly after the agreement was announced that the Communist political system would remain unchanged. Two weeks later, not one of the 53 political prisoners the White House said would be freed — about half of the total identified by human rights activists — has been reported released.”

The Washington Post editorial concluded, “Cubans who seek basic freedoms continue to be arrested, harassed and silenced, while the regime celebrates what it portrays as ‘victory’ over the United States. If support for the Cuban people and American values is supposed to be the point of this process, then it is off to a very poor start.”

People opposed to the resumption of relations with Cuba were quick to hold up the arrests as a sign that the Castro government had no intention of pursuing political change and would reap only economic benefits from Mr. Obama’s moves. For example, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and a Cuban-American, tweeted, “Castro govt. arrests of activists in #Havana exposes the folly of new Obama #CubaPolicy.”

Rejection of the Condemnation

As a long-time member of the American Civil Liberties Union and as a pro bono attorney in one of its important free speech cases, I am a strong believer in the importance of free speech. Therefore, I initially concurred in the State Department and New York Times’ condemnation of Cuba’s cancellation of this event and related arrests, and I worried that this controversy might cause the U.S. to abandon the recently announced U.S.-Cuba reconciliation.

On the other hand, I was and continue to be troubled by the State Department and most of the articles about this event not mentioning the Cuban Fine Arts Council’s willingness to support the event in another location and with certain limits. This action by the Arts Council suggests at a minimum that the State Department and western media are over-reacting to these events and unfairly rushing to judgment.

These U.S. critics also forget that governmental authorities in the U.S. sometimes determine that it is not appropriate to stage a protest at a particular time and place. It just happened in my home state of Minnesota at the Mall of America (MOA) on a big shopping day (December 20th). Although MOA officials had told the organizers that it was against its policies for them to hold a “Black Lives Matter” protest at the Mall on that day,[3] they did so anyway as this video shows. After 2,000 to 3,000 protesters flooded a Mall rotunda and held “die-ins” in front of several nearby businesses, riot-gear-clad police officers arrested 25 for trespass, peacefully dispersed the crowd and tried to block people from re-entering the rotunda. Afterwards the local city attorney announced plans “to file additional charges against ‘ringleaders’ of the protest and to seek restitution for the costs of 250 police at the event and lost sales during the two to three hours when more than 75 stores in the mall were closed.” On January 5th some of the protesters spoke against such prosecution at a city council meeting. This story obviously is not yet over.

In addition, there is a report that raises the much more serious question of whether the event was an idea of Cubans acting by themselves. According to the Wall Street Journal, an opponent of reconciliation with Cuba, at the scheduled time for the event, “Cuban cellphones received mysterious messages from a Florida area code offering cheap beer to all those gathering on the plaza.” This was confirmed in an interview by U.S. National Public Radio with Marc Frank, a U.S. journalist who was one of about a dozen people at the Plaza at the time of the planned event. He said, “text messages were sent from somewhere in Miami to a lot of cell phones here, including mine, basically saying that there’s going to be an event at the Plaza de la Revolución, and there’d be free beer.” Frank added that “Tania is an artist, lives some in Cuba and mainly in Miami, . . . [but] she’s not really well-known in Cuba at all.”[4]

These messages about free beer in the Plaza from a Miami telephone number raise the question of whether the event was actually being planned by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) or another U.S. government agency or by Cuban-Americans opposed to the reconciliation of the two countries.

As discussed in prior posts, USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) had funded via a private contractor at least three covert (or as the agency prefers to say “discreet”) programs in Cuba to promote civil society and dissent or regime change, all without the prior knowledge or consent of the Cuban government. One was for U.S. citizen Alan Gross to take communications equipment to Cuba, for which he was arrested, convicted and imprisoned in Cuba for violating its laws.[5] Another such USAID program via a private contractor unsuccessfully tried to create a Cuban social media program Yet another used Central Americans to promote purported HIV informational efforts on the island. The final one that has been discovered so far by journalists again via a private contractor attempted to infiltrate the Cuban rap-artist community.

These USAID programs were sharply criticized in a November New York Times editorial, as discussed in an earlier post. The editorial said, ““Far from accomplishing . . . the goal [of instigating democratic reforms on the island], the initiatives have been largely counterproductive. The funds have been a magnet for charlatans, swindlers and good intentions gone awry. The stealthy programs have increased hostility between the two nations, provided Cuba with a trove of propaganda fodder and stymied opportunities to cooperate in areas of mutual interest.”

Instead, the Times’ November editorial argued, “The United States should strive to promote greater freedoms on the island of 11 million people and loosen the grip of one of the most repressive governments in the world. Instead of stealth efforts to overthrow the government, American policy makers should find ways to empower ordinary Cubans by expanding study-abroad programs, professional exchanges and investment in the new small businesses cropping up around the island. They should continue to promote Internet connectivity, but realize that accomplishing that goal on a large scale will require coordination with the Cuban government.” Moreover, “Washington should recognize that the most it can hope to accomplish is to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society. That is more likely to come about through stronger diplomatic relations than subterfuge.”

Perhaps the Times forgot this editorial when it more recently lambasted the Cuban actions over the “open-microphone” event.

In any event, the U.S. government apparently has not learned the lesson outlined by the Times in October because the USAID website, which says it was last updated on December 16 (the day before the announcement of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation), still contains general information about its Cuba programs to “[p]romote human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

In addition, on December 22, 2014 (five days after that announcement), the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor issued a Public Notice of its “Request for Statements of Interest: Program Fostering Civil, Political and Labor Rights in Cuba.” The Bureau’s prospective funding of $11 million would be used for typically funded proposals, the Bureau said, like “[o]rganizational assistance to Cuban civil society to improve management, strategic planning, sustainability, and collaboration of local civil society groups; [o]ff-island trainings, short-term fellowships, or engagement; [d]istribution of software that would be easily accessible in an open society; . . . [and] ]a]ssistance mechanisms designed to provide independent Cuban civil society with tools, opportunities, and trainings that civil society counterparts in open societies can access.”

Both the USAID and State Department statements read as if they are promoting programs in Cuba without the knowledge, cooperation or agreement of the Cuban government. This is contrary to President Obama’s statement in his nationally televised speech on December 17th, in which he said the U.S. would “raise those differences [with the Cuban government] directly . . .[such as] democracy and human rights in Cuba. But I believe we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement [with the Cuban government].” He added, “no Cubans should face harassment or arrest or beatings simply because they’re exercising a universal right to have their voices heard, and we will continue to support civil society there.”

Similar thoughts were expressed the same day in the White House’s FACT SHEET: Charting a New Course on Cuba.” It said, “We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state.” It also stated, “The Administration will continue to implement U.S. programs aimed at promoting positive change in Cuba, and we will encourage reforms in our high level engagement with Cuban officials.”

Although President Obama apparently was talking about encouraging the Cuban government to expand the Cuban people’s rights to express different opinions on what their government should do, a prior post shows some ambiguity in these statements that could allow the continuation of the USAID and State Department’s covert or “discreet” efforts to promote regime change.

If the open-microphone event, in fact, was orchestrated by USAID or some other U.S. government agency, it is Orwellian. Such programs purport to promote democracy and human rights with undemocratic and non-human rights means. Such programs are publicly mentioned—in very general terms—on U.S. government websites yet are conducted covertly or “discreetly” on the island. Such programs are hostile to a country with which the U.S. purportedly is attempting to build a normal and respectful diplomatic relationship. These programs also logically motivate Cuban authorities to be vigilant in reacting to events like the “open-microphone” one.

In other words it is horribly stupid and unwise to have such behind-the-back programs when the two countries are embarking on a long and complicated path for full reconciliation. As the New York Times said in November, the U.S. “should recognize that the most it can hope to accomplish is to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society. That is more likely to come about through stronger diplomatic relations than subterfuge.”

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[1] This account of the planned event and the arrests by the Cuban government is based on articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street JournalGuardian, Los Angeles Times,  National Public Radio, the Cuban Fine Arts Council and again the New York Times.

[2] The Plaza is the 31st largest public square in the world; it measures 72,000 square meters (774,936 square feet) and has been the site for crowds of 1 million for major speeches by Fidel Castro and for a mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II. The idea that the open-microphone event might create such a large crowd should have been seen as ridiculous by everyone, including the Cuban authorities, and a small gathering like the 12 or so that showed up on the 30th would have demonstrated the over-reaction of the those authorities in shutting it down and the State Department and western media in attacking the shut-down.

[3] Before the protest the local city (Bloomington) sent a letter to the protest organizers warning that the city would enforce the mall’s private-property rights under the authority of a Minnesota Supreme Court decision that held the MOA was a private entity with the right to exclude demonstrators.

[4] The Director of Security Operations at Telecommunications Company of Cuba reported that since December 21st Cuba had been receiving electronic messages calling for participation in an event with Tania Bruguera. These messages came from a platform “Wake Cuba,and these messages were similar to previous ones paid for by USAID.  Another Cuban source states that some Cuban email addresses were hacked and used to send emails to Cubans about this event.

[5] Gross on December 17th was released from Cuban prison and returned to the U.S.

Cuban Blogger Obtains Cuban Passport and Plans Trip to Latin America, North America and Europe

YoaniSanchez

From her home in Havana, Cuba, Yoani Sanchez has been courageously blogging her critical comments on many aspects of life in her country as noted in a prior post.

In January 2013, under Cuban’s new law granting Cubans increased ability to obtain passports, she received her Cuban passport. She was overjoyed by this development after she had been denied a passport 20 times over the last five years.

Upon receiving the great news that she would obtain a passport, she bravely said in her blog:

  • She intends to “continue ‘pushing the limits’ of reform, to experience first hand how far the willingness to change really goes. To transcend national frontiers I will make no concessions. If the Yoani Sánchez that I am cannot travel, I am not going to metamorphose myself into someone else to do it. Nor, once abroad, will I disguise my opinions so they will let me ‘leave again’ or to please certain ears, nor will I take refuge in silence about that for which they can refuse to let me return. I will say what I think of my country and of the absence of freedoms we Cubans suffer. No passport will function as a gag for me, no trip as bait.”
  • “These particulars clarified, I am preparing the itinerary for my stay outside of Cuba. I hope to be able to participate in numerous events that will help me grow professionally and civically, to answer questions, to clarify details of the smear campaigns that have been launched against me… and in my absence. I will visit those places that once invited me, when the will of a few wouldn’t let me come; I will navigate the Internet like one obsessed, and once again climb mountains I haven’t seen for nearly ten years. But what I am most passionate about is that I am going to meet many of you, my readers. I have the first symptoms of this anxiety; the butterflies in my stomach provoked by the proximity of the unknown, and the waking up in the middle of the night asking myself, what will you look like, sound like? And me? Will I be as you imagine me?”

On February 17th she plans a worldwide tour visiting Latin American (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico), North America (U.S. and Canada) and Europe (Italy, Czech Republic, Poland, Switzerland and Germany).

I pray that there will not be any last minute move by the Cuban government to block her leaving the island. I look forward to her comments on Cuba during her visits to these countries.

Yoani, congratulations and God Speed on your journey!