Thursday, December 17, 2015

Castro clings to power and President Obama has his hand out

"We are going to have diplomatic relations with the United States without having ceded one iota." - Gerardo Hernandez, Cuban spy sentenced to life in prison for murder conspiracy freed by Obama as part of his deal with Raul Castro. (Capitol Hill Cubans)

Castro and President Obama (April 2015) Sirley Ávila machete attacked (May 2015)

Breaking Kennedy's policy
President Barack Obama in his first inaugural address on January 20, 2009 declared “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” The Obama administration’s Cuba policy was not reset on December 17, 2014 but was a continuation of what came before when it began to loosen sanctions on the Castro regime on April 13, 2009. The Washington Post in 2009 described it as “breaking from policies first imposed by the Kennedy administration and stepping into an emotional debate over the best way to bring democratic change to one of the last remaining communist regimes.” 

Snubbing dissidents
At the same time that the President extended a hand to the Castro dictatorship he withdrew it from Cuban democrats. President Obama refused to meet in June of 2009 with the winners of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Democracy Award who happened to be five Cuban dissidents that year. This was the first time in five years that the president of the United States had not met with the award laureates.

The regime strikes back
The response by the Cuban government to the overtures of the Obama administration in December of 2009 was to take an American citizen, Alan Gross, hostage. The administration responded with initial silence and it took American diplomats 25 days to visit the arbitrarily detained American.
On January 14, 2011 with this American citizen still arbitrarily detained in Cuba the Obama administration loosened travel restrictions on travel to the island to an extent not seen in a decade. The concessions and the cold shoulder to Cuban dissidents sent a clear message to the dictatorship that would be devastating for the prospects of a nonviolent and democratic transition in Cuba.

Murdered activists
These signals would coincide with the start of three devastating years for the Cuban democratic opposition. Rising levels of violence against  nonviolent activists and the suspicious deaths of human rights defenders: Orlando Zapata Tamayo (February 23, 2010), Daisy Talavera de las Mercedes Lopez (January 31, 2011) , Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia (May 8, 2011), Laura Inés Pollán Toledo (October 14, 2011), Wilman Villar Mendoza (January 19, 2012), Sergio Diaz Larrastegui (April 19, 2012), Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas (July 22, 2012) and  Harold Cepero Escalante (July 22, 2012). Both Laura Pollán and Oswaldo Payá each had the international recognition and ability to head an authentic democratic transition in Cuba. Oswaldo Payá had forced the dictatorship to change the constitution in 2002 because of Project Varela, a citizen initiative demanding legal reforms within the existing system, and Laura  Pollán through constant street demonstrations achieved the freedom of scores of Cuban prisoners of conscience. It is important to remember that the deaths of these high profile human rights defenders happened on President Obama's watch.

Skyrocketing arbitrary detentions
In 2008 according to the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) there were 640 arbitrary detentions in Cuba during the first six months. Cuban human rights defender Juan Carlos González Leiva documented 1,500 arrests for all of 2008.  The Obama administration entered office on January 20, 2009. In 2010 the number of politically motivated arbitrary detentions in Cuba increased to 2,074 arbitrary detentions and tripled in 2013 with 6,602 arbitrary detentions. In 2014 the total number of arbitrary detentions was 8,899 a new record and trends in 2015 point to that number being met or exceeded by the Castro regime's repressive apparatus.

Gerardo Hernandez was found guilty of conspiracy to murder these four men
Letting a killer go
The December 17, 2014 announcement by the President broke new ground in only one area releasing Gerardo Hernandez, a Cuban spy and terrorist, convicted of murder conspiracy of three U.S. citizens and a resident. Not only did President Obama commute the sentence but tried to rewrite history calling an act of international terrorism, the Brothers to the Rescue shoot down, a tragedy. Further attempts to provide a positive image to this dismal arrangement led to the Obama administration taking credit for the release of 53 political prisoners in early January but once the names were released it was revealed that 17 of the 53 had been released prior to the agreement and had nothing to do with it. This means that a total of 38 political prisoners were freed at the time. The policy of legitimizing the dictatorship, while marginalizing the democratic opposition, that began in 2009 was continued and intensified in 2015.

Patterns of regime violence worsen
This was not the only practice intensified. The United States and Cuba held secret negotiations for 18 months. Coinciding with the start of these negotiations were a series of machete attacks against opposition activists. On June 8, 2013 in Holguin, Cuba Werlando Leiva Batista of the Christian Liberation Movement was attacked with a machete on a public street. Later that same month on June 21, 2013 in Camaguey, Orlando Lazaro Gomez Hernandez, a member of the Pro Human Rights Party of Cuba stepped out of his home with a sign supporting hunger striker Luis Enrique Santos Caballero. Seeing this protest the president of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR),  ran out of his home with a machete and attacked Orlando Lazaro with it, cutting part of his right hand and also striking him on the back. Others came out as the activist fell to the ground and began to kick him.

Sirley Ávila León victim of state security ordered machete attack
Cuban human rights defender, Sirley Ávila León, age 56, was gravely wounded in a machete attack in Cuba on May 24, 2015 by Osmany Carrión who had been sent by state security agents. She lost her left hand while raising it to block a machete blow to the head. She suffered deep cuts to her neck and knees, lost her left hand and the machete cut through the bone of her right humerus leaving her arm dangling. This was an escalation of previous machete attacks against opposition activists.

Looking the other way on terrorism and trafficking
Furthermore removing Cuba from the list of terror sponsors on May 29, 2015 while ignoring the Castro regime smuggling heavy weapons to North Korea (which is again in the news with a company in Singapore found guilty of transferring funds) and weapon shipments through Colombia and its links to international drug trafficking to satisfy the dictatorship’s demand in order normalize relations sends a dangerous signal. Politicizing the State Department’s human trafficking report to ignore sex trafficking in Cuba and the dictatorship sending Cuban workers overseas for profit compromised its integrity placing victims at risk. These unilateral concessions ignore realities on the ground and undermine the credibility of the United States.

Rosa Maria Payá being warned to keep quiet by State Department spokesman
Crudely snubbing dissidents and empowering dictatorship
On July 20, 2015 Cuban human rights defender Rosa Maria Payá attended a press conference at the State Department, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Castro's foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez. She had proper accreditation as a member of the press. Rear Admiral John Kirby,  the State Department spokesman, took Rosa Maria aside and warned her that she would be physically removed if Rosa asked any questions during the press conference.

 Apparently this was not a fluke but also a harbinger of the new status quo for Cuban democrats dealing with the new embassy. Independent journalist Iván García reported in August of 2015 that the Embassy of the United States in Cuba was no longer credentialing independent journalists but telling them to go to the International Press Center of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, located at 23rd and O, in Havana's Vedado. This is a ministry of the Castro regime that systematically denies independent Cuban journalists accreditation and in practice since July of 2015 has barred them from events at the American embassy.

On August 14, 2015 Secretary of State John Kerry presided over the flag raising ceremony at U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba and at the same time that he said that they would not give Cuba a pass on human rights did not invite any Cuban human rights defenders to the official event.  The State Department argued that it was a government to government affair and that there was not enough space to accommodate the dissidents but would meet with them at an informal gathering separately. However, the State Department did accommodate a plane load of "entrepreneurs and Cuban American activists" to fly down with Secretary Kerry and his official delegation with a planeload of them. The "activists" support the Obama administration's Cuba policy and are advocates of lifting sanctions on the dictatorship. Furthermore, Secretary Kerry did have enough room for Cuban spies who had been expelled from the United States by Administrations due to their espionage activities against the country.

Hypocrisy exposed

Exposing the State Department's claim that there wasn't room, CNN anchor Jake Tapper in a tweet observed that there was plenty of space to have invited Cuban dissidents. It wasn't space considerations but accommodating the Castro dictatorship that led to the non-invite of human rights defenders.

Activist Hugo Damián Prieto Blanco jailed since October 25, 2015
Old and new political prisoners
The Castro regime still has political prisoners. Long term political prisoners include: Armando Sosa Fortuny, Ernesto Borges Pérez, Pedro de la Caridad Álvarez Pedroso, Daniel Candelario Santovenia Fernández, Elías Pérez Bocourt, Raúl Manuel Cornell de la Rosa, José David Herman Aguilera, Miguel Díaz Bouza, Humberto Eladio Real Suarez, Claro Fernando Alonso Hernández, Santiago Padrón Quintero, Ihosvani Suris de la Torre. Some of them have spent over 20 years in prison. However the number of political prisoners are growing as they jail more dissidents such as Hugo Damián PrietoLaudelino Rodriguez Mendoza,   Geovanys Izaguirre and Andres Fidel Alfonso Rodriguez.  On the one year anniversary of President Obama's December 17th Cuba policy announcement at least three new political prisoners are currently on hunger strike. Vladimir Morera Bacallao has been on hunger strike since October 9, 2015 and his life is in danger. He was assaulted and jailed for anti-government messages on the front of his home. Alexander Palacio Reyes and Felipe Martínez Companioni both of the Pedro Luis Boitel Pro-Democracy Movement have been on hunger strike since December 1, 2015 protesting their unjust incarceration in Cuba.

Yuriniesky Martínez with his dad, son, and on (right) how he was found
 Castro regime's violently repressive observance of Human Rights Day
International Human Rights Day on December 10 alone saw 300 politically motivated arrests. The number of politically motivated arbitrary detentions for 2015 broke a new record crossing 9,000 in the first two weeks of December. Little surprise that Cubans want to leave and in the course of 2015 alone at least 70,000 Cubans have fled the island which is in dramatic contrast to the 7,000 who migrated from Cuba in 2009 the year Obama entered the White House.  It is important to recall that on the eve of the Obama Administration's Cuba policy announcement that a boatload of 32 refugees was sunk killing one Cuban and detaining the rest and on April 9, 2015 a Cuban state security agent shot a fleeing rafter in the back killing him and leaving face down for others to find.

When an adversary is willing to unclench his fist it is not always to shake hands: sometimes its to slap down hard those who are marginalized and unable to defend themselves in an act of repudiation, to cover up the mouths of free men and women before they shout out freedom and long live human rights as they are taken away or to grip a machete before attacking a nonviolent activist. Trying to call this a positive change is a fraud.

Fake Change in Cuba
Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas speaking on behalf of the Christian Liberation Movement in Havana on March 30, 2012 bravely denounced the fraudulent change that was then taking shape and that is being carried out today with the Obama administration's Cuba policy:
Our Movement denounces the regime's attempt to impose a fraudulent change, i.e. change without rights and the inclusion of many interests in this change that sidesteps democracy and the sovereignty of the people of Cuba. The attempt to link the Diaspora in this fraudulent change is to make victims participate in their own oppression. The Diaspora does not have to "assume attitudes and policies in entering the social activity of the island." The Diaspora is a Diaspora because they are Cuban exiles to which the regime denied rights as it denies them to all Cubans. It is not in that part of oppression, without rights, and transparency that the Diaspora has to be inserted, that would be part of a fraudulent change. 
What real change would look like
Oswaldo Payá in the same statement outlined that authentic change was contingent upon a principled path of action not economic determinism:
The gradual approach only makes sense if there are transparent prospects of freedom and rights. We Cubans have a right to our rights. Why not rights? It is time. That is the peaceful change that we promote and claim. Changes that signifies freedom, reconciliation, political pluralism and free elections. Then the Diaspora will cease being a Diaspora, because all Cubans will have rights in their own free and sovereign country. That is why we fight.
President Obama Cuba visit the apex of fake change
The crowning moment of the fraudulent change underway would be a visit by the President of the United States to Cuba. This is something that President Obama has indicated that he would like to do in 2016 if he sees enough "progress" in Cuba. However the focus in the media, academia and in government has been on the Castro regime making economic reforms, resuming commercial flights and human rights has been relegated to the back burner. The end result of this approach contributed to the untimely death of Oswaldo Payá on July 22, 2012 and continues to be seen today in Cuba with escalating violent repression against Cuban democrats and human rights defenders. Things have gotten worse across the board in Cuba and shows no signs of improving.
Independent journalist Lázaro Yuri Valle taken away December 10, 2015

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