Vigil in Madrid: Some thoughts about Oscar and Miriam

August 23, 2013

“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.

Read the rest of this entry »


Double Talk at State and Doubling Down on USAID’s Regime Change Strategy

November 30, 2012

We report on a flurry of activity concerning the case of Alan Gross, just days before the third anniversary of his arrest in Cuba, an event marked at a press conference in Washington this morning by his wife Judy Gross, understandably disconsolate, with his lawyer, Jared Genser, by her side.

Together, they said the Obama administration had failed to pursue vigorous diplomacy sufficient to secure his release.  He feels “dumped and forgotten” by the U.S. government, Mrs. Gross said, like a soldier left to die.  The lawyer’s message to the U.S. government was also direct:  “You sent him there; you have an obligation to get him out.”

In fact, they laid blame at the feet of both governments for being obstacles to the settlement of his case.  They said the Cuban government, which publicly calls for direct negotiations to address his case and the captivity of the Cuban Five, was either unable or unwilling to talk.

But they also made a special point of noting that the Obama administration had actively sought and won the release of Americans imprisoned abroad, and said the administration should pick an envoy close to President Obama, with full White House support, to go to Cuba and negotiate Alan Gross’s release.

Significantly, they called his captivity an obstacle to improvements in U.S.-Cuba relations, and urged both parties to work for his release.  In saying so, they parted company with the most ardent embargo supporters, who warn the Obama administration not to negotiate for his release.

As Senator Bob Menendez said this week in an interview with the New York Times “I’m not into negotiating for someone who is clearly a hostage of the Cuban regime.” Judy Gross correctly diagnosed the hardliner’s position as a surefire recipe for continuing his captivity for years.  “He is a pawn of these very radical right-wing Cuba haters, for lack of a better word, who don’t want to see any changes happen, even to get Alan home.”

Mrs. Gross pled for her husband’s release on humanitarian grounds, and demanded access by doctors for an independent examination of a mass on his shoulder that the family believes could be cancerous.  For its part, the Cuban government released this week the results of a biopsy conducted October 24th, and an examination by a physician who is also ordained as a Rabbi, who concluded that the growth is not cancerous.

Two weeks ago, attorneys for the Gross family filed a law suit against the U.S. government and his employer, the USAID contractor DAI, seeking $60 million in damages.  In the complaint available here, they concede that his activities were “to promote (a) successful democratic transition” in Cuba and that when he was at risk of detection by Cuban authorities, USAID failed to comply with provisions of the “Counterintelligence Manual” to save him before his arrest.

Mr. Gross knew of the dangers associated with his activities in Cuba, writing in one of the trip reports filed with his employer under the USAID contract, “In no uncertain terms, this is very risky business.”

In light of these facts, it is hard to understand why his legal representatives still argue that all he was doing in Cuba was trying to improve Internet access for the Jewish community.  This benign explanation was long ago overtaken by the facts.

Even so, it is a position that remains front and center in the U.S. State Department’s talking points.  Victoria Nuland, the department’s Spokesperson, responded to a reporter who asked about the Gross case, by saying:

But again, just to remind that this is a guy who’s been incarcerated for no reason for three years and ought to come home.

Alan Gross was given a 15-year prison term simply for the supposed crime of helping the Jewish community of Cuba communicate with the outside world.

Old tropes die hard, especially when the U.S. government decides we can’t handle the truth.  This failure to concede why Mr. Gross was arrested and convicted not only contributes to the lack of movement in his case, but is especially alarming now that we know the Obama administration is doubling down on the program that led to his arrest.

As Tracey Eaton reports in Along the Malecón, the U.S. government “The U.S. government has hired a former CIA agent,” named Daniel Gabriel, “to create and manage a team of at least 10 journalists in Cuba.”  Gabriel’s Linked In profile concludes with this heartfelt endorsement:

“Dan is one of those dream clients you get once in a blue moon: totally risk tolerant, possessed of a voracious appetite for learning, and the drive to turn pontification into action.”

We could not think of a clearer case for why these programs need to end.

Read the rest of this entry »


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?

Read the rest of this entry »