Oswaldo Payá – On parting as friends

July 27, 2012

Oswaldo Payá, a humble but determined figure in Cuba’s opposition, who believed in non-violent activism as a means for achieving political change on the island, died in a car accident on Sunday.  Also killed was Harold Cepero Escalante, a fellow dissident.  A Swedish citizen and a Spaniard, reportedly at the wheel of the car, were injured in the crash.   We report other details below.

Payá, a Catholic layman, and founder of Cuba’s so-called Christian Liberation Movement, was best known as the main organizer behind the Varela Project, a petition drive that collected thousands of signatures, which called upon his country’s National Assembly to propose new laws to open Cuba’s system.

News of Payá’s death was received by Cuban allies and friends internationally with sadness and mourning for his activism and his abiding belief that change could occur organically on the island.

His loss also occasioned dark suggestions – expressed by grieving family members and in the opinion pages of the Washington Post –that his vehicle was intentionally rammed.  But Elizardo Sanchez, founder of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission told the Associated Press,“We rule out any conspiracy theory.” Diplomats connected to the Europeans traveling with Mr. Payá, told Reuters “they believe it was a genuine accident and it appeared the car was speeding.”

Despite these statements, members of the U.S. Senate introduced a resolution calling upon the island’s government to “allow an impartial, third-party investigation in the circumstances surrounding (his) death.”

That Mr. Payá’s passing would be a source of contention, even politicization, is hardly a surprise.  His unique approach attracted support and courted controversy during his life.

By technique and demeanor, Payá didn’t fit any stereotype of a regime opponent.  As the New York Times reported, Mr. Payá “created a new model with his humility, his public rejection of both American aid and the American trade embargo, and his effort to draw Cubans into the movement.

“By trying to reform the Castro government,” the Times said, “Mr. Payá placed himself in the middle of two extremes. Reviled by the government, he was not much loved by hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami, either; they appreciated the attention he garnered but said he was naïve.”

They called him naïve because he wouldn’t hew to their line that regime change supported by the U.S. was the only way forward.

In a meeting with visitors from the U.S., Payá once said “we don’t have arms, we don’t believe in coup d’état, we don’t believe in outside intervention.  We Cubans must bring about the change.”

While he was no fan of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, he challenged visitors to think not about U.S. policy, but instead to focus on the economic, political, and social problems that affected everyday Cubans. A man with a lowered voice and an outstretched hand, he would say about disagreements in our perspectives, “if we cannot be partners, we can at least be friends.”

What decency.

Our hearts go out to his family and friends, colleagues and allies, who are suffering because of his loss.

This week in Cuba news…

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A Mid-Summer Week’s Newsblast- Wednesday, July 18

July 18, 2012

Because the Cuba Central Team is taking a little mid-summer break, we will not be sending out your usual, full-length newsblast this Friday. We’ll be back as usual next Friday; but for now, we offer you this mid-summer week’s top Cuba news – in brief.

Cuba Hits Wall in 2-Year Push to Expand the Private Sector, Victoria Burnett, New York Times

“Nearly two years into the Cuban government’s economic overhaul aimed at slashing public payrolls and bolstering private enterprise, the reforms have slowed so much that many Cuban entrepreneurs and intellectuals are questioning the aging leadership’s ability — or will — to reshape one of the world’s last Communist systems and shift nearly half of the island’s output to private hands.”

Public Health Ministry confirms 158 cases of cholera, no further spread

Cuba’s Public Health Ministry published an official notice in state newspaper Granma confirming a total of 158 cases of cholera since the outbreak began three weeks ago. On Saturday, the Health Ministry announced that the number of new cases of cholera is declining and the disease had not spread to other provinces, reports Reuters.

Palestinian president urged Cuba to free Alan Gross, Juan O. Tamayo, Miami Herald

“In a phone call to President Raúl Castro, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged Cuba to free jailed U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross in hopes of persuading Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to release a $147 million grant to the Palestinian government, according to a news report. Ros-Lehtinen did later remove her hold on the funds, but an aide said the decision had nothing to do with any contact between Abbas and the Cuban regime.”

Around the Region

Chilean judge charges 2 retired military officers for torture death of ex-president’s father, Luis Andres Henao, Associated Press

“Two retired Chilean colonels were charged Tuesday with torturing to death the father of former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, General Alberto Bachelet. General Bachelet, loyal to then-President Salvador Allende, was arrested during the Pinochet coup and died in 1974 at age 51 in the custody of the Air Force War Academy. Ex-colonels Ramon Caceres Jorquera and Edgar Benjamin Cevallos Jones, both of whom allegedly presided over Bachelet’s interrogation, are accused of killing him. Cevallos, 82, is being held in a hospital due to Alzheimer’s disease.”

There will undoubtedly be more to report next week.  We’ll send a full-length blast on Friday, July 27th.

Hate in the Time of Cholera

July 13, 2012

Cuba, we’re told, is experiencing a nasty outbreak of cholera.  Under normal circumstances, the reaction here in the U.S. would be obvious and clear: empathy for those who are affected and offers of help to alleviate their suffering.  But since we are talking about Cuba, life is more complicated than that.

Some reports say Cuba is not being forthcoming with information about the scope of the outbreak.  A columnist published in the Havana Times wrote, “It seems they avoided telling us about cholera to spare us the worry.”

The Miami Herald is reporting, however, that confirmed cases now stand at 110 and counting; that general cases presenting symptoms of cholera are rising; and these reports are being carried on provincial television in Cuba as detailed by Ana Maria Batista, identified as a Granma epidemiologist. Details are coming out,as this report filed today by CNN demonstrates. So where is Washington in all of this?

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana is providing some information and urging travelers to follow public health guideless and monitor sources of information.

But for others, as Albor Ruiz writes this week in the New York Daily News, the cholera outbreak has become “a propaganda exercise for those who, even after 53 years of a failed economic embargo, prefer a policy of hostility and isolation over one of dialogue and engagement.”

In this case, he is referring to the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18), whose position accords her some notice in U.S. foreign policy and who also has tens of thousands of Cubans in her Congressional district with family members at risk on the island.

And yet, her office has issued  no calls for compassion, not when there’s a political point to be scored.  Instead, she was quick to issue a statement condemning the Cuban government – not just for its secrecy, which she asserts without explanation has cost lives, but for “the regime’s utter failure in areas such as sanitation and infrastructure.”  Attack, attack, attack.

Opponents of the Castro government have long enjoyed using the suffering of Cubans for sport, but cruelty at that level isn’t a tactic that everyone is used to.  Albor Ruiz quotes Romy Aranguiz, a doctor born in Havana, who says of the outbreak “there are a lot of people focused on it for anti-Castro propaganda instead of thinking of what they could do to help their brothers and sisters on the island….If they really care about Cuba they should be thinking about sending antibiotics to the island and stop talking so much nonsense,” she said.

But that is not how the hardliners view their role.  “These are the people,” as Yoani Sanchez wrote recently, “who see the Cuban situation as a pressure cooker that needs just a little more heat to explode…Sadly, however, the guinea pigs required to test the efficacy of such an experiment would be Cubans on the island.”

Such are the costs of hate in the time of cholera.  Can’t we do better?

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Tale of Two Itineraries: Raúl Castro in Asia; Mitt Romney heading to Europe and Israel

July 6, 2012

Call it a tale of two itineraries.

This week, Cuba’s president Raúl Castro embarked on a tour of Asia that has brought him to China and soon to Vietnam.  The Miami Herald suspects something is afoot (a mystery stopover) because a trip that normally takes one day consumed two travel days for the eighty-one year old leader.  But the photography showing him exchanging toasts with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing certainly looked normal as new economic, technology, agriculture, and diplomatic agreements were signed between the countries whose ties date back to 1960.  As U.S. foreign policy remains committed to undermining Cuba’s revolution, China’s remains steadfast in its support of it.  They, like Vietnam, are Cuba’s allies.

Also this week, Politico is reporting that former Governor Romney is planning a foreign policy tour at the end of July. He’d speak at a kick-off for the London 2012 Olympic Games and give a speech on U.S. foreign policy.  From there, he’d touch down for visits in Israel, Germany, and Poland.  Given the timing, the tour is being compared to then-Senator Obama’s overseas trip during the summer of 2008.  Politico is calling it Romney’s “major foreign policy offensive,” although it’s hard to imagine just how offensive he will be in the company of long-standing American allies.  As Laura Rozen observed, “his reported itinerary only seems 25 years out of date.”

It is even out of step with his foreign policy white paper issued last year.  In it, he portrayed the world as filled with a spectrum of dangers that include China and Russia, countries he said that engage in behavior that undermines international security.  He identified threats that included failed or failing states, one of which he identified as Mexico, and has promised “to draw a stark contrast between free enterprise and the ills of the authoritarian socialist model offered by Cuba and Venezuela.”

By the Governor’s own world view, he is visiting four countries none of which relate to the problems that alarm him.   This, in some ways, alarms us.  We understand the symbolism that adjoins statecraft in U.S. political campaigns.  But Governor Romney has a muscular foreign policy program that is reminiscent of the adventurism and militarism of the Cold War.  He is well fixated by Cuba, which raises questions of what his policy toward China’s role in Latin American is going to be.

By avoiding not only war zones, not just Latin America, but virtually every venue that he believes poses threats to U.S. foreign policy interests, such questions are unlikely to be joined by his jaunt abroad in July.  The voters, who should learn something from his travels, are the losers in all of this.  It just hard to know what foreign policy the U.S. might actually be getting after the election from this itinerary drawn just months before Election Day.  The notion of “stay tuned” is hardly comforting.

Editor’s note: Last week, our opening essay addressed the shameful silence among Florida’s elected officials concerning the act of domestic terror that burnt a business belonging to Airline Brokers, which has served as a charter for legal travel by Americans, predominantly Cuban Americans, for thirty years. Our interest in this subject last week stemmed from the visit of Archbishop Wenski to bless their temporary facility. We neglected to mention that this subject of silence by the elected officials about the arson had been eloquently addressed by Howard Simon and John DeLeon in a letter to the editor published by the Miami Herald earlier this year.  We regret the omission and recommend, as we did at the time of its publication, that our readers see it.

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