Saturday, March 23, 2013

The state of Cuba in 2013: Cosmetic reforms are a distraction

Below is the English translation of an article published in Estonian for the publication Maailma Vaade.

The state of Cuba in 2013 
Cosmetic reforms are a distraction 

In the midst of the first serious Cholera outbreak to hit Cuba since the late 19th century and a massive crackdown on human rights the international media has focused on cosmetic reforms by the Castro regime.

 On August 8, 2012 BBC News reported that the Castro government's ban on anti-Castro musicians had been quietly lifted. Others soon followed reporting on the news. The stories specifically mentioned Celia Cruz as one of the artists whose music would return to Cuban radio. On August 21, 2012 an e-mail by Rolando Álvarez, the national director of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television Instituto Cubano de Radio y Televisión (ICRT) was made public and confirmed that the music of the late Celia Cruz would continue to be banned.

 On October 16, 2012 the regime in Cuba announced a new migration law that took effect on January 14, 2013. The white card that Cubans had to obtain to be able to exit their homeland was retired but new restrictions were placed on being able to obtain a passport and the cost nearly doubled. Some dissidents have been told that they will be able to travel while others have been refused the new passport.

The Castro brothers are masters of distraction and these so-called reforms are the latest manifestation of this practice. This leads to the question what is actually taking place on the island in 2013? What is the state of Cuba now and where is it headed?

The Dictatorship 

Between 1959 and 2006 Fidel Castro had all power concentrated in his hands and due to a serious illness turned it over provisionally to his brother, General Raul Castro, who had previously been Minister of Defense. On February 24, 2008 the 597 members of the rubber stamp assembly unanimously elected a 31 member Council of State that in turn elected Raul Castro “president” at the Palace of Conventions in Havana, Cuba.

In 2009, Raul Castro conducted a purge of leadership positions in the regime. Fidel Castro emerged on the public scene to criticize the Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and Cuban Vice-President Carlos Lage and both promptly resigned and apologized for their indiscretions. This was followed later in 2009 by a wider purge of top regime officials.

The aftermath of this leadership shake up is a dictatorship where four of the seven “Vice-Presidents” are also military generals in control of all aspects of the economy. The regime in Cuba since 1959 has engaged in numerous tactical changes in the service of one overriding objective: continuing and maintaining the underlying totalitarian nature of the dictatorship in the island and the continued rule of the Castro brothers. The Cuban Ministry of the Interior (G2) founded in 1959, was trained and advised by the East German STASI intelligence service and adopted many of its tactics and remains an effective pillar of the dictatorship.

The Cuban economy remains militarized. This is a trend that stretches back to the special period in the early 1990s. The Empresarial Administration Group [Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A.] (GAESA) that in 2008 controlled 25 percent of Cuba’s economy and foreign exchange earnings is run by Colonel Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Calleja, which is controlled by Castro's Ministry of the Armed Forces (MINFAR), headed by General Leopoldo Cintas Frias. Another large chunk of the Cuban economy is the company Gaviota that deals with tourism is controlled by the MINFAR and Castro’s Ministry of the Interior (MININT) that runs a hotel chain, an airline, taxi company, marinas, shops, restaurants and museums and is under the control of another general. The tourist group Cubanacán was founded at the beginning of the 1980s and is also under military control.

 The political and economic reality of the Castro regime in 2013 is that it is a totalitarian military dictatorship that maintains political and economic control of Cuba. The regime elites are wealthy and want to maintain their status and look to China, Russia and Vietnam as models. At the same time the deterioration of the infrastructure, endemic corruption, cronyism, and rising expectations of change with the expected death of Fidel Castro threaten its survival.

The Human Rights Situation in Cuba 

Human Rights Watch in their 2013 World Report succinctly summed up the human rights situation on the island: “Cuba remains the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent.”

Over the past three years new and troubling trends have appeared on the human rights front in Cuba that have been downplayed internationally while focus has shifted to cosmetic reforms. Beatings and mutilations of activists and their sympathizers have coincided with a massive rise in arbitrary detentions that reached 6,602 in 2012. There has been a rise in the suspicious deaths of human rights defenders in and out of custody of state security. Over the past two years figures with great international prestige have died under strange circumstances. There are new prisoners of conscience which remains part of a status quo that some had prognosticated would change under Raul Castro.

The February 23, 2010 death of human rights defender Orlando Zapata Tamayo attracted international attention after his previous seven years in prison as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience and a prolonged hunger strike failed to generate sufficient outrage to save his life. Denied water, in an effort to break his hunger strike, his kidneys failed and he died. He had been tortured throughout his incarceration.

Civic activist, Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia, was approached by two national police officers in Leoncio Vidal Park on May 5, 2011 who asked him for his ID and then to leave the park. After protesting verbally against the expulsion, he was cuffed with his hands behind his back then beaten with batons. He died on May 8, 2011 of pancreatitis. This was followed by a regime effort to deny the circumstances surrounding Juan Wilfredo’s death and the dictatorship's complicity by intimidating the family of the victim.

Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, one of the founders of the Ladies in White in March of 2003 and its chief spokeswoman was widely admired inside of Cuba and internationally. She fell suddenly ill and died on October 14,2011 within a week in a manner that a Cuban medical doctor described as "painful, tragic and unnecessary." Just days after the Ladies in White declared themselves a human rights organization dedicated to the freedom of all political prisoners, not just their relatives.

On January 19, 2012 Cuban prisoner of conscience and opposition activist Wilmar Villar Mendoza died after his kidneys and other organs failed. He died the result of a prolonged hunger strike provoked by outrage over his unjust imprisonment and four year prison sentence issued in a closed-door sham trial on November 24, 2011. Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience and Human Rights Watch documented that Wilmar was a member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU).

On July 22, 2012 Oswaldo José Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero of the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) died in a suspicious car accident while traveling through Bayamo, Cuba. The circumstances surrounding the deaths need to be properly investigated. Another vehicle had targeted Oswaldo and his wife, Ofelia Acevedo, 20 days earlier while he was in Havana. Oswaldo Payá was the author of the Varela Project, a citizen initiative that in 2002 had forced the dictatorship to change the Cuban Constitution. In the months prior to his death he had denounced the ongoing campaign by the regime to engage in a fraudulent change, the military’s control of the economy, the collaboration between elements of the Church hierarchy and certain Cuban exile businessmen with the regime and he was naming names. On the day of his death he was visiting the province that had been hard hit by a Cholera outbreak that the dictatorship was trying to downplay.

Beatings and mutilations 

Berenice Héctor González, a 15-year old young woman, suffered a knife attack on November 4, 2012 for supporting the women's human rights movement, The Ladies in White. News of the attack only emerged a month later because State Security had threatened the mother that her daughter would suffer the consequences if she made the assault public.

Marina Montes Piñón, a 60 year old woman and longtime opposition activist, was beaten with a blunt object by regime agents on December 15, 2012 in Cuba. The end result was three deep wounds in the skull and a hematoma in the right eye. She needed nearly thirty stitches to patch up the wounds.

New prisoners of conscience 

Cuban labor union activist Ulises González Moreno was sentenced on November 28, 2012 to two years in prison for his labor organizing activities under the charge of "dangerousness" in a trial whose outcome had already been decided beforehand. A day prior to the trial state security agents offered him his freedom in exchange for becoming an informant spying on his fellow labor organizers. He turned down their offer. The sentence was ratified on December 20, 2012 Calixto Ramon Martinez, a co-founder Hablemos Press, was arrested near José Martí International Airport in Havana on September 16, 2012 where he was reporting on two tons of medicine and medical equipment that had been damaged, according to Committee to Protect Journalists sources and news reports. Amnesty International has recognized him as a prisoner of conscience.

The State of Civil Society and the outlawed Democratic Opposition 

The nonviolent civic movement on the island has increased in numbers and activism despite the increase in arbitrary detentions, acts of violence and deaths perpetrated by agents of the government. Regional movements such as the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) and Central Opposition Coalition (CCO) and national movements such as the Ladies in White and the Orlando Zapata Tamayo National Front for Civic Resistance and Civil Disobedience are respectively coordinating and impacting Cuba with regional and national street protests.

Currently the democratic opposition has three different initiatives underway gathering signatures throughout Cuba.

The People’s Path [ ] , a project presented on July 13, 2011 by the martyred Oswaldo Payá calls for: “1. Changes in the laws that guarantee freedom of speech, press, association and religion, the right of Cubans to settle in any part of our country where they prefer to live, the right of Cubans to freely leave and enter Cuba freely, the right of all Cubans to have business and private enterprise in our country, all workers' rights, the right of Cubans to elect and be elected to public office by a new electoral law, the end to all discrimination against Cubans in their own country and the release of all those jailed for political reasons. 2. Achieving spaces that open participation with these changes in law and practice in respect of the rights of citizens, to convene a national dialogue and free elections for all offices and for a Constituent Assembly. 3. All Cubans without exclusions, without hatred, or vengeance, to make this transition in the way of truth and with transparency, reconciliation, liberty, solidarity, fraternity and peace, building a more humane and more just society in our sovereign and independent Homeland.”

The Citizen Demand for Another Cuba [ ] was made public on June 15, 2012 it calls on the Cuban government to: “immediately implement the necessary legal safeguards and policies devised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that it ratify the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights of the United Nations, signed by the Cuban Government on February 28, 2008 in New York City.”

On January 9, 2013, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, of the Lawton Foundation, unveiled Project Emilia [ ] which in addition to affirming the demands of the previous two petitions also provides a mechanism for achieving change that goes beyond petitions and dialogues recognizing that “Cuba's communist regime has not conceded even one atom of freedom and has rigidly and arbitrarily resisted any changes that would ensure a decent life for our people. Consequently, we have no alternative but to launch the non-violent political challenge to realize the freedom of our people.” These three initiatives complement each other and demonstrate the common strategic nonviolent framework in which Cuba’s democratic opposition is working while having tactical differences about working within and outside the regime’s institutions.


Opposition to and frustration with the current system in Cuba is rising. A manifestation of this is the worsening human rights situation; the deaths of opposition leaders; the increased violence; and the explosion in the numbers of arbitrary detentions. This is a battle of wills between a dictatorship that wants to hang on to its privileges and justify the past 54 years of totalitarian rule and a democratic opposition that represents a population that is tired and frustrated with the systematic rights violations and the lack of options in Cuba. International solidarity with human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists will be a critical factor in determining whether the regime will achieve and maintain its succession or whether the democratic opposition will achieve a transition to democracy.

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