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.

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Not Like Oil and Water – Cuba and the US Can Cooperate on Drilling

September 7, 2012

During the research and writing phase for our report on Cuba’s plans to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, Daniel Whittle, Cuba Program Director for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), provided invaluable information and guidance to us.

He has guest written the following opening essay on his organization’s analysis of foreign policy obstacles to cooperation with Cuba to protect the environment and some promising progress that is now being made because our country and Cuba are sitting at the table together:

The Environmental Defense Fund recently released a report called Bridging the Gulf in which we concluded that “current U.S. foreign policy on Cuba creates a conspicuous blind spot” that is detrimental to the interests of both countries.  A failure to cooperate on oil spill planning, prevention, and response in the Gulf of Mexico could result in devastating environmental and economic impacts on a scale greater than the 2010 BP oil disaster.

Recently, I witnessed a potential bright spot in US-Cuba relations that could lead to real and meaningful cooperation in protecting Cuban and American shores from future oil spills.

As the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA was preparing to drill off of Cuba’s northwest coast in August, U.S. and Cuban negotiators met in Mexico City to discuss how to work together to prevent and respond to future oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.  The meeting was the fourth in a series of landmark talks hosted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and included officials from Mexico, Jamaica, Bahamas, and other countries in the region.  I was among the handful of industry and environmental representatives invited to attend.

I was struck by the candid back-and-forth discussions on the risks involved in deep water oil drilling and by the constructive exchanges between delegates from Cuba and the United States.  I came away convinced that negotiators from both countries are operating in good faith and are committed to making progress on this issue.

That being said, more needs to be done.

Attendees agreed that the BP oil disaster was a wake-up call and that failure to heed the lessons learned from it would be an inexcusable and costly mistake. Chief among those lessons is that oil spills do not observe political boundaries and, as such, joint planning among all countries in the region is critical. The event also taught us that sufficient public and private resources must be available to contain and clean-up oil pollution as soon as possible.  In fact, the scale of response needed for the BP spill was unprecedented—6,500 vessels, 125 planes, 48,000 responders, and equipment resourced globally.

Several presenters in Mexico City emphasized that full and timely access to private sector equipment and response personnel, wherever they are located, is fundamental to responding effectively to future oil spills.

This lesson is particularly relevant to the current U.S.-Cuba talks.

If a major oil spill were to occur in Cuban waters anytime soon, the U.S. Coast Guard—as incident commander—would be able to marshal the resources needed to address oil pollution after it enters our waters.  The agency has neither the authority nor the mandate, however, to support response and clean-up activities in Cuban waters.  Furthermore, the Cuban government would be hamstrung in its ability to solicit direct help from private sector oil spill response companies in the United States.  Currently, only a few American companies are licensed by the U.S. government to work in Cuba (actual names and numbers of license holders are not a matter of public record.).

The Obama Administration could solve this problem by directing the Treasury Department to adopt a new category of general licenses to allow U.S. individuals from qualified oil services and equipment companies to travel to Cuba and provide technical expertise in the event of an oil disaster.  The Administration should also direct the Commerce Department to pre-approve licenses for the temporary export of U.S. equipment, vessels, and technology to Cuba for use during a significant oil spill.

The U.S. and Cuba have laid an unprecedented foundation for cooperation on offshore oil safety and environmental protection.  They should continue their talks in earnest and produce a written agreement on joint planning, preparedness and response as soon as possible.

What Dan describes here, unfortunately, is extraordinary.  In fact, it should be typical.  Engagement between the U.S. and Cuba on a host of issues is the right way forward, and a means to the larger end of bringing confidence to this relationship that will lead to a discussion of the differences that divide us and, ultimately, normalization.  We thank Dan for his leadership and his contribution.

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