A few weeks ago, a member of the House of Representatives wrote to President Obama to urge him to delete Cuba from the list of countries supporting international terrorism. In her appeal, Congresswoman Kathy Castor (D-FL) included text from a discredited report prepared by Ana Belén Montes, a confessed spy for Havana who was arrested in September 2001 and who is now serving a 25-year sentence in a federal penitentiary.
Several days ago, the Justice Department announced the indictment of another former American official charged with spying for Cuba, Marta Velázquez. Velázquez allegedly took Montes to Havana for spy training, but when Montes was reported to be cooperating with the authorities after confessing, Velázquez resigned from her job at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and fled the country. In 2004, a grand jury in Washington DC issued an indictment against Velázquez (also known by her aliases “Marta Rita Kviele” and “Barbara”), but it remained under court seal until a few days ago.
That few American policy makers are aware of the great harm done to the United States by Montes, Velázquez and other spies working for the Castro brothers can be explained by the fact that when both stories broke, more significant stories were being covered by the American press: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and last month’s terrorist attack in Boston.
Be that as it may, congresspeople are not supposed to send disinformation from the Cuban government to the U.S. president.
Some ignore the stories of Ms. Montes and Ms. Velázquez because they raise questions about an innocent, non-threatening narrative about Cuba. In order for that narrative to be credible, the Velázquez and Montes stories—as well as Cuba's current role in the Venezuelan electoral crisis and Havana's strong ties to Iran, Syria and North Korea—need to be discussed as little as possible.
Raúl Castro’s government faces a number of critical issues, including the deteriorating health of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the potential loss of his oil and Cubans' impatience with the government’s timid economic reforms. Who would have thought that a slight, humble woman of 37 years figured among them?
Yet the actions of the Cuban government and their sympathizers in Brazil have proved that despite looming economic and political problems, they clearly consider Yoani Sánchez one of their biggest challenges. The question is, why?
Despite the fact that Cuba has one of the lowest rates of access to the Internet in the world, Sánchez has a following of more than half a million outside Cuba. She is emblematic of a generation disaffected with the revolution and its legacy. She is not the only one. She is one of a whole group of bloggers, many of them women, who have taken to the Internet to complain about the daily indignities of living in Cuba today.
In spite of receiving awards for her journalism from Europe and the United States, the Cuban regime had consistently denied Sánchez the right to leave the island. But then this year, the Castro government instituted a new travel policy that grants to Cubans—with some exceptions—the right to travel out of the country (a right enjoyed by people in most countries). So far so good, right?
A few days ago, Yoani Sánchez arrived at her stop, Brazil. There her greeting party consisted of Cuban government-organized demonstrators that have—at almost every appearance—threatened her and tried to prevent her from speaking. It must have felt like home, since the use of government thugs to intimidate and physically threaten dissidents is a common occurrence in Cuba.
No sooner had Cuban President Raúl Castro returned to Havana from Chile, where he was sworn in as the new president of the Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—CELAC), than Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders—RSF) repeated his own words back to him. The French-based NGO released a letter Monday urging the Cuban leader to release journalists currently held in Cuban prisons and called on Castro to reject, in Cuba, the “aggression, threats and use of force” he mentioned during his CELAC acceptance speech.
During the CELAC summit, Castro had said he had “total respect for international law and the United Nations Charter.” In response, RSF requested “that these undertakings quickly be given concrete expression in your own country.”
RSF applauded Cuba’s migration law reforms, which took effect on January 14. “It means that Cubans who want to travel abroad no longer need an exit permit and are guaranteed the right to return,” the group said, though they demanded that the new reforms be applied to all citizens without distinction, including dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, who recently obtained a passport. RSF said that Sánchez “must be allowed to return at the end of the regional trip she plans to begin soon.”
“The door should also be open for all the journalists and dissidents who want to come back after being forced into exile, and for all those in Cuba who would now like to travel,” RSF said.
Another Cuban, Wilmar Villar, died in a hunger strike on the island last week protesting the abuses of the Castro regime. His wife was not permitted to see his body. Yoani Sanchez, the Cuban blogger who has received several international awards and who is not permitted to travel abroad, reported his death on the Internet.
For weeks Cuban exiles had been calling on governments and human rights organizations for help. We do not know if Cardinal Ortega Alamino, who has access to General Raúl Castro, interceded privately with him on behalf of Wilmar who is the father of two children; or if the Cuban Cardinal, who participated in the arrangement where Cuba released political prisoners and forced many of them and their families, including children, into banishment in Spain, alerted the Holy See about the impending death.
The Cuban regime can no longer murder in secrecy; it fears the Internet and the Cubans who are willing to die demanding respect for human rights. But the regime continues to enjoy international impunity for its unspeakable deeds. The opening to Havana sponsored by the Obama Administration has emboldened the Castro brothers who are engaged in a widespread human rights crackdown. Right now Senator Richard Durbin is in Havana, presumably discussing ways of further lessening of U.S. sanctions with Cuban authorities.
The Sixth Congress of the Communist party of Cuba has convened, and although General Raúl Castro has announced that it should be the last of the historical generation that overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista some 50 years ago, the decisions announced in Havana are just another great disappointment for the 11 million Cubans.
For a half century General Castro has functioned as minister of the armed forces and as such is responsible for the military expeditions that sent Cubans to kill and/or be killed in Africa. He is likewise responsible for the execution of his colleague General Arnaldo Ochoa for the crime of being more popular than Fidel himself. This is in addition to acts of international terrorism such as shooting down two unarmed civilian planes surveying the Florida straits for stranded refugees. Worst of all, he proposes to make Cubans believe that the naming of another octogenarian as vice-president of the Council of State—in this case, José Ramón Machado Ventura—constitutes something new in the sad history of the Cuban revolution.
Raúl Castro now speaks of establishing a limit of two terms of five years each for the present Cuban leadership—this, when he himself is almost 80 years old! Those who see past the charismatically challenged brother of Fidel can easily pick out the figure of Colonel Alejandro Castro, his son and right-hand man. Alejandro also holds a high position in the ministry of interior, the agency of the regime in charge of foreign espionage and domestic repression. Also, General Castro has just appointed Luis Alberto Rodriguez Calleja to the powerful Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba—a man who happens to be married to one of his daughters.
Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn are back in the United States after enjoying the hospitality of Fidel and Raúl Castro in Havana and visiting with Alan Gross, an American serving a 15-year sentence for giving away a satellite telephone and a laptop to Cubans. They also met with Cuban dissidents, notably mothers and wives of political prisoners and Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban blogger who has received substantial international attention in recent months.
Of course there are already some who have expressed their outrage at what they say was President Carter’s emphasis on the need to lift the U.S. trade embargo and his “feeble efforts” to bring home Alan Gross, who Carter reports lost 88 pounds during more than 15 months in Cuban jails.
Nevertheless, the Carters should be given credit where credit is due. While the eyes of the world are focused on the struggles against dictatorship in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and the nuclear disaster in Japan, the Carters’ journey helps remind international opinion not only about U.S.-Cuba policy but about the 52-year-old Cuban dictatorship, Havana’s political captives, and the courage of Cubans who continue to face harassment, beatings and imprisonment for their desire to bring to an end the last dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere.
This Monday (January 10) will mark one year since the tragic night when 20 some Cuban mental patients died at Havana’s national psychiatric hospital due to a cold spell, according to the Cuban authorities. Human rights leaders on the island told Reuters (January 14, 2010) that “the patients were not properly protected from temperatures that dipped into the low 40s during an unusual extended cold snap on the tropical island.”
Granma, Cuba’s official newspaper announced that “the ministry of public health decided to create a commission to investigate what happened, and… the commission has identified several deficiencies related to the failure to adopt timely measures,” adding that “those principally responsible would be submitted to the corresponding tribunals.”
The Granma article was published on January 16, 2010. But nothing else has been heard from Havana.
The story, and the heartbreaking photographs, could not be denied by the authorities due to the courage of human rights activists who took advantage of twenty-first century technologies, sending abroad the dramatic evidence. Granma reported in a small item on January 16 that “during last week there has been an increase in the mortality rate of the patients at the psychiatric hospital of Havana.”
The European Parliament awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Guillermo Fariñas, a psychologist and independent journalist from the City of Santa Clara in central Cuba. Fariñas has been imprisoned 11 different times for his advocacy for a peaceful transition to democracy and the rule of law on the island. He received worldwide attention after the death of Orland Zapata Tamayo, a political prisoner who died during a hunger strike calling for better treatment for Castro's political captives. The Cuban authorities denied Tamayo water during the last 18 days of his life.
On December 10 the Cuban government refused to permit Guillermo Fariñas to travel to Strasbourg, France, to receive the award. An empty chair draped in a Cuban flag was placed on stage to represent his absence. Fariñas recorded an acceptance speech in Cuba, which was played for members of the European Parliament at the ceremony. According to Fariñas, the Cuban government's refusal to let him travel was "the most irrefutable witness to the fact that unfortunately, nothing has changed in the autocratic system ruling my country...In the minds of Cuba's current rulers, we Cuban citizens are just like the slaves from whom I am descended, kidnapped in Africa and brought to the Americas by force. For any other ordinary citizen to be able to travel abroad, I need a Carta de Libertad, that is a Freedom Card, just as the slaves did; Only today it is called a Carta Blanca, a White Card."
On the eve of this 4th of July, I think about our servicemen and women whose lives are at risk defending U.S. interests and the cause of freedom around the world. I also think about Cuba, so close to the United States, where a despotic regime continues to misrule; and about the Ladies in White, a group of women—mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives of Cuban political prisoners, punished for desiring the same freedoms that Americans will celebrate this weekend.
Again, this Sunday the Ladies in White will walk together to mass, all dressed in white, calling attention to the plight of their loved ones and the lack of freedom in Cuba. The women have been harassed, spat upon and insulted by mobs organized by the regime. Their mistreatment, detention and abuse by Cuban police has earned the condemnation of world leaders, including the First Lady of France, former Czech President Vaclav Havel and President Barack Obama.