Vigil in Madrid: Some thoughts about Oscar and Miriam

“I expect the end to come soon.”

Miriam Leiva wrote these words about her husband, Oscar Espinoza Chepe, whose long struggle against liver disease seems near its end in Hospital Fuenfría near Madrid in Spain.  As we read her message, we were reminded why we respect this couple so much.

They just like to tell the truth as they see it.

Their candor made some people in Havana and Miami very uncomfortable.  Three years ago, Oscar referred to hardliners in both cities as “The Taliban.”  This may explain why Oscar and Miriam are rarely mentioned by the embargo’s biggest supporters in Washington, because their views never fit so neatly into the hardliner’s black-and-white definition of what constitutes “dissent.”

Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an economist and independent journalist, fell from grace in Cuba more than once. In the 1960s, after serving as an economist for Fidel Castro, he was sent to work in the fields after he expressed negative views about the economic situation in his country.

In the 1980s, Oscar, back in favor and working as an economic counselor, served for three years in Eastern Europe with Miriam, then a member of Cuba’s foreign service, just as perestroika was beginning to take hold.  But, upon their return to Cuba for a vacation, they were told they could not go back to Europe.  Instead, Oscar was assigned to work at the National Central Bank of Cuba.

In 1992, they were called to a meeting where Oscar was called out as “counter-revolutionary.” For the next twenty years, he and Miriam were devoted activists, though, as Oscar said, “We expressed our views in a pacific way.”

Oscar was arrested with 74 others in Cuba’s March 2003 crackdown.  Sentenced to twenty years, Oscar left prison after twenty months, released on a temporary medical parole; at any time, authorities could have ruled he was no longer sick and returned him to custody.

Nevertheless, upon leaving custody, Oscar resumed speaking his mind.  While he praised President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms as sensible and rational if incomplete, he was sharply critical of officials inside the system who were obstacles to change, and criticized those who saw private property as incompatible with social justice.

He chastised the government for failing to reciprocate President Obama’s “gestures,” the reforms on family and people-to-people travel.  He expressed his bewilderment at the imprisonment at Alan Gross and thought he should be set free.

This record of speaking out could have endeared Oscar to sanctions supporters in Miami except for his unshirted contempt for those he called “Hardliners for Castro.” He believed their support of sanctions kept Cubans hostage to their dreams of returning to power in a Cuba that last existed during Batista’s reign in the 1950s.  He resented their attacks on Cuba’s Catholic Church, which was instrumental in freeing the remaining prisoners arrested in 2003, along with many others.

In his statement opposing travel restrictions offered by Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, Oscar said: “If the policies proposed for Cuba by the hardliners had been maintained for Eastern Europe and China, we would possibly still have a Berlin Wall and the heirs of the Gang of Four would still govern China.”

Oscar and Miriam, in their work together, were motivated by a spirit of reconciliation that included everyone; even those who took no personal risks, but sat in air conditioned offices far from Cuba and questioned their credibility as political activists.  Instead, they chose to believe that all Cubans could work together, that families could reunite, and that “all animosity prevailing in our country since March 10, 1952 can be overcome.”

Earlier this year, a medical crisis led them to depart Cuba for Spain, so Oscar could receive what Miriam then called “urgent” medical attention for his chronic liver failure.

Another truth Oscar never left unspoken was his love for Miriam, especially when he recalled the vigils she organized with other spouses and family members of the 75 detainees.  He once said of her: “She is modest. She is brave, especially as demonstrated by her actions while I was in prison.”  Whether he was in Guantanamo or Santiago de Cuba, “she was there.”

Now, on another vigil, Miriam is there for Oscar again.  By posting updates on Facebook and a blog, Reconciliación Cubana, she has made it possible for us to accompany her on this sad, respectful, journey that she hopes will end soon.


Midwestern states want open trade with Cuba

The Midwestern Council of State Governments unanimously passed a resolution to eliminate all restrictions on financial, travel, and trade with Cuba at their 68th Annual Meeting, reports Cuba Contemporanea. The resolution cites the desire of the member states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin) to engage in agricultural sales and related travel to the island, stating “the Midwest stands to benefit from the market opportunities that greater trade with Cuba would provide; according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, total agricultural exports to Cuba from the U.S. since 2001 had reached $4 billion as of December 2012, and if current trade restrictions are removed, each Midwestern state could average between $60 million and $150 million annually in trade.”

U.S. issues travel advisory due to reported cases of cholera in Cuba

On Tuesday, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana issued an advisory for U.S. citizens and visitors to the island to abstain from ingesting untreated water, street food and foods that may be overcooked or undercooked, the Associated Press reports. Over July and August, the Pan-American Health Organization reported that five individuals with confirmed cases of cholera were “associated with a history of travel to Cuba.” Cholera outbreaks are rare on the island, with the most recent one taking place this past January in Havana with 51 nonfatal cases.

Industriales Game in South Florida finds a venue

As we previously reported, retired players from the Havana baseball team Industriales have come to the U.S. to play a series of games with former teammates who have since moved to the U.S. At the last minute, the game that had been scheduled for Miami was cancelled, due to pressure from hardliners in the exile community. The Ft. Lauderdale Stadium has stepped in to save the game, reports Associated Press. Many players are looking forward to seeing old teammates, reports the BBC. Antonio “Tony” González, 75, the oldest player on the roster, stated: “It’s a historic meeting, it’s amazing…I’m like a child, I can hardly sleep waiting for the day we play.” In this video, Alejandro Canton of Somos Cuba, the promoter of the games, debates with Diego Suarez of the Cuban Liberty Council.

Also in baseball news, star player Jose Daniel Abreu of the Cuban National Team, has left Cuba with aspirations to play for Major League Baseball in the U.S.. However, he is not considered a free agent, and therefore cannot be signed, until he establishes residency outside the U.S., reports Reuters. He is currently trying to establish residency in Haiti. There is speculation that he could get a contract valued at $60 million.

Meanwhile, a Cuban softball team has arrived in Boston to play a series against the EMASS Senior Softball League, reports Needham Times. In the past three years, ten EMASS teams have gone to play in Cuba; this marks the second consecutive year the U.S. has issued visas for the Cubans to come to the U.S. to play. The games are sponsored by Education Travel Alliance, the Grand Circle Foundation, and the Road Scholar Foundation.

Miami bests Canada with most Cuba-bound flights

Miami, often best known as the ground zero for support of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, was the leading source of flights into Cuba from June 17 to July 17, according to a report in the Havana Times. This is one finding of a study due for completion by the end of the year by The Havana Consulting Group.

During the thirty-day period, nearly 330 flights flew out of Miami with destinations all over Cuba, making it the city with the highest amount of Cuba-bound flights. In addition, within the same time period, U.S.-based travel agencies made $23,764,500 in ticket sales alone, which could mean profits of nearly 6 million a day for Cuba’s government, the report states, a fact that demonstrates the potential impact of economic engagement with the island and one that has been “very well received by Havana.”

In recent years, Toronto and Montreal have accounted for the largest share of flights going into Cuba. Canada, unlike the U.S., maintains trade and diplomatic relations with the island’s government.

Solidarity Medal for Saul Landau

Cuban Friendship Institute (ICAP) has awarded a medal for solidarity to Saul Landau for “his constant expressions of sympathy toward our country,” reports Granma. The filmmaker, writer, scholar, and activist, to whom we sent well wishes a couple of weeks ago, was too ill to attend the ceremony, but sent a message in which he said he is “profoundly honored and moved” by the award. Over the years, Mr. Landau has been active in the Free the Cuban Five campaign, which prompted this heartfelt letter from Gerardo Hernandéz, the imprisoned Cuban agent with the longest sentence: two life terms plus 15 years.


Brazil contracts 4,000 Cuban doctors to work in underserved areas

Brazil’s government will build on its “Mais Medicos” (“More Doctors”) program by contracting for the services of 4,000 Cuban doctors through the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), Cuba Standard reports. The contract, announced this week in a press release, comes after protests against an initial plan to bring in 6,000 Cuban doctors, leading to the suspension of the initial negotiations. The doctors will fill slots not chosen by other Brazilian and international doctors, in rural and underserved regions of Brazil. Antonio Patriota, Brazil’s Minister of Foreign Relations, said today that the motivations for the contract were humanitarian, not ideological, reports EFE.

According to Alexandre Padilha, Brazil’s Minister of Health, the Cuban doctors will go through a three-week accreditation process, and an emphasis was placed on recruiting doctors with previous international experience and Portuguese language skills, reports O Globo. The first group of 400 Cuban doctors are due to arrive in Brazil his weekend. Cuba has also recently expanded its medical program in South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Portugal and Algeria, reports Cuba Standard.


Number of self-employed Cubans has jumped since late 2012

According to a new report released by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, there has been a 9 percent increase in the number of self-employed Cubans since November 2012, reports Juventud Rebelde. Currently, 436,342 Cubans are working in this sector, with the majority of them working in the provinces of Havana, Matanzas, Villa Clara, Camaguey, Holguin and Santiago de Cuba. The report also states that the most popular industries for cuentapropismo are the making and selling of food, followed by cargo and passenger transport, room renting, and the sale of agricultural and household products.

More than 2,000 retired teachers return to the classroom

In an attempt to improve the quality of education in Cuba, over 2,000 retired educators will return to work, reports Diario de Cuba. A shortage of youth entering the teaching profession had led to a program called “emerging teachers” in which advanced students acted as professors. However, the program experienced difficulties, including those stemming from the professors being only a few years older than the students in some cases. The returning teachers will mostly replace these student teachers in Havana secondary schools.

Cuba passes new decree regarding confiscated propertiesdecree

Cuba has published a decree addressing the treatment of personal assets seized in cases of “illegal enrichment and drug-related events, corruption, or other unlawful conduct,” reports Cuba Standard. The decree was published in the Official Gazette and will be effective on October 1st, and applies to properties seized from Cubans or from foreigners. According to the law, either the Central Bank of Cuba, or the ministries of the Interior, Energy and Mines, Communications, Health, Agriculture and Domestic Trade are charged with managing seized properties, and goods that are not returned to their owners become state property. The law only mentions personal, moveable assets, and does not specify how corporate assets or real estate would be treated.

This new law was released as Cuba is in the midst of several anti-corruption trials involving foreign executives, a part of the government’s anti-corruption campaign.

Around the Regionatr

Case of retired Col. Inocente Montano resumes in Boston

The U.S. sentencing trial for Inocente Montano, the retired Salvadoran colonel who has plead guilty to six counts of immigration fraud and perjury regarding his entrance to the country, continued this Thursday and is set to end early next week, reports the BBC. If sentenced to jail time in the U.S., Montano could subsequently be extradited to Spain where he awaits charges in the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter. Five of the priests were Spanish citizens.

If deported back to El Salvador, it is unlikely he would face extradition; El Salvador has already refused to honor Spain’s international arrest warrant for officers implicated for their roles in the massacre, who remain in-country. The U.S. judge has indicated that the sentence levied on Col. Montano will reflect the seriousness of the human rights violations he committed.

Ex-colonel Montano, who served as vice-minister of public security, is accused of commanding one of El Salvador’s most notorious military units, the Belloso Battalion, which committed atrocities against Salvadoran civilians, including the El Calabozo massacre, in which 200 to 300 Salvadoran campesinos were killed by the Belloso Battalion, functioning under Montano’s command, together with another death squad. In a report prepared for the trial, expert witness Prof. Terry Karl states,

“The Jesuit massacre was not an aberration…Throughout Col Montano’s 30-year military career, he ordered, abetted and assisted, and/or commanded troops that participated in a strategy of disappearance and arbitrary detention, rural massacres of civilian non-combatants, the forced disappearance of children, and the toleration of military-led death squads operating inside units under his command.”

More on the trial is available (in Spanish) from CDA Advisory Board member Héctor Silva Ávalos, here.

Honduran Congress ratifies creation of military police force

The Congress of Honduras has ratified a law that would create a Military Police of the Public Order (PMOP), made up of 5,000 recruits, reports El Faro/AFP. The force is expected to be trained and operational by October, Proceso notes. For their safety, the law provides that judges and prosecutors a way to handle drug-trafficking cases electronically from abroad, reports Reuters.

The law’s passage elicited “sadness and concern” from human rights organizations in Honduras, recalling previous military police acting as death squads during the 1980s, reports El Faro/AFP. Bertha Oliva, the General Coordinator of the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), stated that:

“Rule of law cannot be imposed through the militarization of society. The members of the military who have gone onto the streets have left behind more bodies, death, and grieving, because they are not trained to guarantee security.”

The Honduras Culture and Politics Blog gives a very useful history of the country’s police forces, illustrating the human rights implications of such a law, and the various interests involved. It also highlights the problems that Honduras’ government will have in paying for these positions, especially with the recent revelation that an unknown number -multiple thousands- of phantom police officers have been found to be on payroll.

Recommended Reading

Sustainable technologies safeguard the soil in Cuba, Ivet González, IPS

Ivet González reports on a pilot project headed by the Soil Institute, a state entity, and its impact on the 1,200 Cuban farmers it has benefitted. The project, started in 2010 and supported by the United Nations Development Programme, focuses on improving and conserving “soil, water, and forestland in order to adapt to climate change.” It accomplishes this by teaching techniques such as no-till farming and encouraging the use of materials such as mulch to conserve water during droughts.

Book Review: What I Learned about Cuba by Going to Cuba, Johannes Werner, Cuba Standard

Johannes Werner reviews Antonio Zamora’s publication titled What I learned about Cuba by Going to Cuba, which explains the author’s conversion “from a Bay of Pigs fighter to a frequent Havana traveler.” According to Werner, Zamora makes his case for seeking “a change in attitudes and rhetoric among his Cuban American peers and a broader U.S. audience.” As a business writer, Werner finds Zamora’s description of the Cuban legal system and his interactions with Cuban lawyers to be the most interesting feature of the text.

Fake Cubans hoping for fast-track to citizenship now under scrutiny, Kim Segal and Sara Ganim, CNN

This feature from CNN looks into the phenomenon of would-be immigrants to the United States using falsified Cuban identification documents in order to be fast-tracked on their pathways to U.S. citizenship under the Cuban Adjustment Act. According to the report, some have paid $10,000 for forged Cuban documents. An initiative titled “Operation Havana Gateway” was formed in 2012 between the U.S. State Department, Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Customs and Border Protection, specifically to deal with immigration fraud based on false claims of Cuban citizenship.

Taking a Family Vacation in Cuba, Tracey Young, Bloomberg

After visiting Cuba legally on an authorized people-to-people trip, Tracey Young wrote this account of her trip to Cuba with family and friends, traversing Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad. She summed up her thoughts on the trip by saying “No cell phones, no credit cards, no children – my formula for an ideal family vacation.”

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