Climate Change and Cuba

March 22, 2013

There is a scientific consensus that climate change is real.  Not everyone agrees, but the people who don’t believe it are answering to an awfully scornful title: climate change deniers.

Since assuming leadership in 2006, following the illness of his brother, President Raúl Castro initiated a gradual process to update the nation’s economic model and loosen restrictions on the Cuban people.

Restrictions on cell phone ownership, access to tourist hotels, ownership of computers and DVD players, the ability to rent a car, sell real property, travel and return to the island, have ended or begun to fall away.  A process involving Raúl Castro, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, and the government of Spain provided for the release of high profile political prisoners, including the remainder of those confined from a round-up that took place in 2003.  Some 400,000 Cubans have taken the opportunity to open small businesses in newly legalized professionals.  The former Pope Benedict XVI, who was warmly received in Cuba last year, spent part of his visit inspecting the San Carlos and Ambrosio Seminary, “the first building that Cuba’s government has allowed the Catholic Church to build since the 1959 revolution.”

Cuba is not the multi-party democracy the U.S. has been demanding it become at the point of a spear since 1959.

Even so, the idea that any reform was taking place in Cuba has been too foreign for many in the U.S. to accept, so it’s been dismissed in recent years, much like evidence of rising temperatures and catastrophic storms could not persuade some people to worry about the weather.

Reform in Cuba, however, has just gotten a lot harder to deny.  Consider, for example, Yoani Sánchez, Cuba’s dissident blogger, now visiting the U.S. in the midst of an 80-day world tour. What’s she doing here anyway?  Reform deniers were absolutely certain she wouldn’t get a visa when Cubans’ travel rights changed.  Well, as former Congressman Bill Delahunt wrote in The Hill this week, “it is now easier for Yoani to visit our country, than it is for most Americans to visit hers.”

Free to speak her mind on U.S. soil, is Yoani denying that changes are taking place in Cuba? Quite the opposite.  In fact, she told an audience at New York University that “Irreversible change” is transforming Cuba, because independent bloggers and democracy activists are forcing Raul Castro’s government to evolve. “Cuba is changing,” she said, “but not because of Raul’s reforms. Forget that.”

This line of thought clearly engaged the Washington Post, which wrote after she visited the newspaper:  “Cuba has lately seen some economic reforms and liberalizations; one of them allowed Ms. Sánchez to travel freely abroad for the first time. But she told us the real change in Cuba today is not from the top but rather from below.”

Serious analysts like Arturo López-Levy say it’s “nonsense” that conditions are changing in Cuba without the Cuban government changing its policies.

True, but there’s a larger point: For Yoani, the Post, and others, the question is different; it’s moved from “is reform even happening in Cuba?” to “who is responsible for the changes underway?”

That’s a huge and important shift.  The hardliners know it and they don’t like it.  Capitol Hill Cubans angrily labels the reforms “fraudulent change.” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen calls her colleagues in Congress “Castro apologists” because they support lifting restrictions on Cuba.

Theirs is the language of denial.  They may be out in the snow and the rain stomping their feet in anger, but the debate on Cuba – like the weather – has really changed.

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And Justice for Some

September 14, 2012

We open this week with a story about justice, one that will have special resonance for those who remember victims of atrocity and terror in the 1970s and the 1980s, and for others whose accounts have not yet been settled.

On September 11, a retired Salvadoran military officer with the curious name Inocente Orlando Montano admitted to the crime of lying to U.S. immigration officials.  But Inocente’s guilt involves far greater offenses than living illegally in the Boston area for the last decade.

Colonel Montano is connected to numerous killings, but in particular to one of the most infamous human rights crimes of the many committed during El Salvador’s civil war:  the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. A United Nations Truth Commission investigation of the massacre placed Montano “in all the meetings in which the assassination was discussed, planned, and ordered,” news accounts said. He also was a key player in covering up the role of the military’s high command in the crime.

In May 2011, a Spanish judge indicted twenty suspects in the Jesuit murders, Montano among them.  He is now, finally, at risk of extradition to Spain to face legal accountability for his actions, along with 19 other suspects.  The Center for Justice and Accountability, which filed the case in Spain, tracked Montano down in Everett, MA; Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities determined that he had lied repeatedly about his past on legal forms to qualify for a temporary protected immigration status offered to those who cannot safely return to their own countries. This protection status was supposed to be for victims, not victimizers.  That he is a few steps closer to justice and a few steps further away from his anonymous unaccountable life is a miracle worth savoring.

And yet, 1500 miles away in Miami a terrorist named Luis Posada Carriles, who also lied his way into this country, continues to walk free.  Posada is identified in declassified FBI and CIA reports as the mastermind of the October 1976 midair bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed all 73 people aboard.  He has openly admitted orchestrating seven bombings of tourist hotels in Havana in 1997 and 1998, killing a 32-year old Italian businessman and wounding 11 others. In November 2000, he was arrested, then convicted and served prison time in Panama for a plot to blow up Fidel Castro and many other people in an auditorium.  After all of this, he made his way into the U.S., entering illegally, and then lied to authorities under oath about how he got here, and about his past involvement in terrorism.  Although the Justice Department prosecuted him for immigration fraud, he was acquitted at a trial in El Paso, Texas, last year.

When he was incarcerated before his trial, ICE officials formally labeled him “a danger to both the community and national security of the United States.” Yet today, that “danger” is free to strolls the streets of Florida. Although the Obama administration has a number of recourses to hold him accountable for his violent past, including extraditing him to Venezuela or designating him a terrorist under the provisions of the Patriot Act and detaining him indefinitely, there are no signs of judicial activity in his case. It is, after all, an election year in which Florida is a significant swing state.

Justice, as well as the credibility of this administration’s commitment to fighting terrorism, requires that action be taken to hold Posada accountable for his many violent crimes. As the case of Col. Montano demonstrates, where there is a will, there is a way. We will have to wait until after November 7th to find out if justice for some will move toward justice for all.

Note: More information on the case of Luis Posada Carriles can be found in this article by Peter Kornbluh published by the Nation and at the website of the National Security Archive.

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The Trust Gap and the Terror List

August 3, 2012

This is a cautionary tale about the trust gap between Cuba and the United States.

Last March, Cuban dissidents camped out in a church in Havana days before the visit of Pope Benedict XVI and demanded that he met with them to discuss violations of human rights in Cuba.  Once the Pope made it clear that he would not change his schedule, he was denounced by political figures in the United States for indifference to their cause, human rights.

A few months later, the head of Radio and TV Martí, a U.S. government agency, took to the airwaves to deliver personally a stinging attack on Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, whom he called “a lackey” who colluded with the Castro regime.  A copy of the vitriolic editorial was quickly removed from the Marti’s website once the Washington Post publicized it.  Despite Congressional criticism, the U.S. government never apologized or explained the verbal assault against the chief of the Cuban Catholic Church who had helped negotiate the release of political prisoners and arranged for the Pope’s trip.

Was the director of Radio/TV Martí on or off the reservation when he called Cardinal Ortega a lackey?  Why are we paying a government employee to attack the Church when U.S. policy supports the role it is playing Cuba?

Read on.  This week, the Associated Press reports on an editorial and video produced by Cuba’s government about four Mexicans who were detained during the Pope’s visit in March. It says they were “paid, trained and instructed” to stir up unrest during the Pope’s visit by the Cuban Democratic Directorate.  This outfit, according to Tracey Eaton’s blog, Along the Malecón, has been on the payroll of the National Endowment of Democracy (or “NED”), meaning it receives U.S. taxpayer money.

But wait; it gets worse.  Aron Modig, the Swedish politician who was riding with the late Oswaldo Payá when he was killed in a road wreck last week, met with representatives of the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, before coming to Cuba, which are funded by the aforementioned National Endowment for Democracy and USAID.  NED’s president quickly published an opinion column in the Washington Post suggesting the Cuban government was complicit in Payá’s death.

Modig was in Cuba distributing funds to dissidents when the accident took place.  Cuba, according to Anya Landau French, is the only country where Modig’s political party undertakes such activities.  USAID also subsidizes the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, and is responsible for the “regime change” programs that landed its contractor, Alan Gross, in prison.

These things happen in the background, largely invisible until tragedies like the death of Payá or the arrest of an American rise in the headlines.  The U.S. government conducts programs to instigate dissent in Cuba in a semi-covert fashion; conscientious reporters like Tracey Eaton bang their heads against the wall trying to disgorge budgets and other documents using Freedom of Information Act requests (all too often denied); and citizens like us are left guessing when events, often troubling in their appearance, suddenly come to the fore without any context at all.  There is no transparency and no accountability; especially, when neither the Congress, which funds these programs nor the Obama administration, which directs them, has any interest in answering questions like: Is the U.S. really subsidizing protests against the Pope in Cuba using hired agents from Mexico?

In the end, the biggest casualty is trust, leaving it immensely difficult for the U.S. and Cuban governments to engage with each other on issues that matter and should concern us all.  But, of course, that is exactly where the staunchest opponents of engagement want the two governments to be.  They are, in turn, the authors and funders of the covert activities that take place in Cuba without the consent of the governed here in the U.S.

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