Friday, June 10, 2016

Castro Communism's six decade assault on freedom in Cuba versus Cuba's human rights defenders

Prepared remarks for the June 9, 2016 Victims of Communism Panel Discussion I: Witness accounts from the frontlines of Cuba in Washington DC.

Witness Accounts From The Frontlines of Cuba (Photo: CubaDecide)
Thank you to the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation for the invitation to participate in this panel discussion today.

Between 2006 and 2016 there has been a steady decline in human rights and democracy worldwide. The retreat appears ongoing, in part, because of the decisions made by policy makers in the United States and Western Europe to divorce human rights from commercial interests in the mistaken belief that free markets can exist without the rule of law.  This approach manifested itself first in China, then in Vietnam and has now come to Cuba while ignoring history.

Fidel Castro in Ethiopia reviewing the troops with Mengistu Haile Mariam (1978)
Castro regime's international impact
The Castro regime internationally has had a negative impact on human rights over the past 57 years. Consider for a moment the following:
The dictatorship in Cuba has been in power for 57 years. Despite being an island just 90 miles south of the United States it has projected itself internationally to undermine democratic and international human rights standards over that time working through international institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council.
In the 1960s the Castro regime organized meetings in Havana, Cuba gathering guerrillas and terrorists from around the world with a common aim to destabilize governments by means of armed struggle and terrorism was viewed as a legitimate tactic. They were called gatherings of the Tricontinental.

In Ethiopia the Castro regime backed Mengistu Haile Mariam in the 1970s and 1980s with advice, troops and high level visits by both Fidel and Raul Castro.  War crimes such as a provoked famine and the targeting of ideologically suspect children for mass killings were carried out. According to the U.N. one million died in the famine alone.

In the 1970s in addition to supporting guerrillas and terrorists the Castro regime also began an unusual relationship with the military dictatorship in Argentina helping to block efforts to condemn it at the United Nations Human Rights Commission for thousands of leftists disappeared by the regime.

Reynaldo Benito Antonio Bignone Ramayón, brutal military dictator of Argentina between 1982 and 1983 (in the picture above with Fidel Castro). On April 20, 2010, the Argentine despot was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the kidnapping, torture, and murder of 56 people in a concentration camp.

In 1979 the Castro regime found success with the ouster of the Somoza regime and the entrance of Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas into Nicaragua. In the early 1980s Cubans had made inroads into Grenada in the Caribbean.
The Castro regime had been one of the few voices applauding the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in China congratulating them for "defeating the counterrevolutionary acts."

On March 28, 2008 the Castro regime’s delegation together with the Organization of Islamic Congress (OIC) successfully passed resolutions undermining international freedom of expression standards at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

On February 2, 2009 during the Universal Periodic Review of China the Cuban Ambassador, Juan Antonio Fernandez Palacios encouraged the Chinese regime to repress human rights defenders in China with more firmness.

On May 28, 2009 amidst a human rights crisis in Sri Lanka the Cuban government's diplomats took the lead and successfully blocked efforts to address the wholesale slaughter there.

On August 23, 2011 the Cuban government along with China, Russia and Ecuador voted against investigating gross and systematic human rights violations in Syria. 
On March 17, 2014 the UN Human Rights Council “was divided” in its discussion of the atrocities in North Korea between those who want the case to be elevated to the International Criminal Court and those who reject outright the existence of a commission of inquiry and conclusions. The Castro regime vigorously defended the North Korean regime and denounced the inquiry.

On March 21, 2014 at the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Castro dictatorship again applauded the human rights record of the People's Republic of China, and voted to block the effort of human rights defenders to hold a moment of silence for Cao Shunli. She was an activist who had tried to participate in China’s Universal Periodic Review, but was detained at the airport trying to get on a flight to attend the current session  and accused of "picking quarrels and provoking troubles." Within three months in detention and being denied medical care Cao Shunli died on March 14, 2014.
The fruits of Obama's normalization policy in Cuba
Under the Obama presidency's outreach to the Castro regime began in 2009 and the dictatorship responded taking Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen, hostage later that same year. How did the Obama administration respond? With silence and continued loosening of economic sanctions. This gave a green light to the dictatorship to hang on to the American for five more years demanding the return of convicted spies in return.

This also coincided with the high profile killings of Cuban human rights defenders beginning with prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo in 2010, Laura Pollán, the founding leader of the Ladies in White, in 2011 and the murder of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, the founding leader of the Christian Liberation Movement and the movement's youth leader, Harold Cepero Escalante in 2012.

None of these killings, and there were more, impacted the Obama administration's pursuit of engaging the dictatorship in Cuba, even when it meant that alternatives to that regime were being systematically eliminated and overall repression rising exponentially.

The discovery on July 15, 2013 that Cuba had been smuggling tons of undeclared military weapons including ballistic missile technology to North Korea did not impact the secret negotiations between the two countries. Nor did the Castro regime's refusal in 2014 to return a U.S. Hellfire missile that somehow came into its possession until it became public and an embarrassment in 2016.

The Obama administration's decision to normalize relations with Cuba on December 17, 2014 and to release the spies that had been convicted for spying on the United States only made matters worse. One of the spies freed had been convicted of murder conspiracy in the deaths of three Americans and a U.S. resident on February 24, 1996.

Over the course of the past year over 70,000 Cubans fled to the United States and the numbers are increasing. There are two reasons why this is taking place first the dictatorship wants to export those people who are disaffected and know that there are administrations in place that tolerate it and there are no consequences dumping them on the United States. They understood that with the Bush and Reagan administrations this type of exodus would be viewed as negatively impacting the United States and there would have been consequences. Secondly the worsening human rights situation in the country with no prospects for a democratic opening, along with President Obama legitimizing the dictatorship and assisting in the Castro regime's dynastic succession meeting twice with and raising the profile of Colonel Alejandro Castro Espín, Raul Castro's son, first in Panama and later in Cuba. Hope by many for a democratic tomorrow has dimmed.

Act of repudiation in Cuba carried out for the first time in 1980
Prior failed attempts to normalize relations
This has occurred before during two previous attempts to normalize relations, to achieve a détente with the Castro regime during the Carter Administration (1979-80) and the Clinton Administration(1994-95). In mid 1990s there were massacres of Cubans trying to leave the island and the shoot down of the Brothers to the Rescue planes. We saw it again in the 1970s with President Carter, a worsening human rights situation: the acts of repudiation, the rapid response brigades came into existence with the Mariel exodus, attacking people who just wanted to leave. In both cases human rights worsened in Cuba and mass exodus negatively affected U.S. interests. This is now being repeated during the Obama administration.

Six Decades of Democratic Resistance in Cuba
Since the beginning, in 1959, Cubans resisted the imposition of the totalitarian communist dictatorship in Cuba. Between 1959 and 1966 there had been a violent resistance to the Castro regime that carried out armed landings in 1961; guerilla uprisings between 1961 and 1966 in the mountains of the Escambray. Many of the participants in the Anti-Castro armed struggle had first been members of Castro's July 26th Movement, who had fought in good faith to rid Cuba of the Batista regime with the aim of a democratic restoration. These Cubans returned to fight in the hills when it became obvious that the Castro brothers were imposing another and more brutal dictatorship. The first phase of this struggle ended, according to Cuban journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner approximately in "1966, when the last foci of peasant guerrillas on the central mountains were exterminated.”

Executed in Santiago de Cuba by the Castro regime in 1959
1976: Emergence of the non-violent opposition in Cuba
On January 28, 1976 a new type of struggle for freedom was initiated in Cuba when dissidents gathered together to resist the dictatorship. Two figures would represent this new organization, Ricardo Bofill, a university professor and Marta Frayde, who had been the Castro regime’s representative at UNESCO in Paris. They met at Marta’s home in Havana where they founded the Cuban Committee for Human Rights. The movement sought to nonviolently challenge the Castro regime, while expressly renouncing violence as a method of struggle. The Committee would use nonviolent and legal means to defend victims of repression in Cuba basing themselves on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and documenting abuses.

Dr. Ricardo Bofill in Havana, Cuba in the 1980s
In 1982 at the Combinado de Este prison Gustavo Arcos Bergnes and his younger brother, Sebastián Arcos Bergnes, joined the Cuban Committee for Human Rights. The brothers had been imprisoned in 1981 for trying to leave the country illegally. The two brothers had fought alongside Fidel Castro in the 1950s against the Batista dictatorship. Gustavo had participated in the July 26, 1953 and was wounded during the assault, an injury that plagued him for the rest of his long life. Shortly after his release from prison in 1988, Gustavo Arcos succeeded the committee’s founding executive director, Dr. Bofill, who was forced into exile in 1987.

On January 13, 1992 the executive board of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights again issued a statement reaffirming their commitment to nonviolence and calling for dialogue: "Violence is not and cannot be the solution to our problems... We will not tire from insisting that the only possible solution is civilized discussion of our differences. This is an appeal to Cubans for wisdom and common sense... No act of violence is justified... Let us say no to violence and learn to live in peace."

Sebastián Arcos Bergnes in front of his home on May 31, 1995 following his release
 Gustavo Arcos Bergnes, Sebastián Arcos Bergnes and Jesús Yanes Pelletier were arrested at their homes in Havana on the evening of 15 January 1992. Both Gustavo and Yanes Pelletier were released after approximately 24 hours. However, Sebastian Arcos Bergnes was charged with "enemy propaganda" and "inciting rebellion," he was sentenced to four years and eight months in jail. He was transferred to Ariza Prison in  Cienfuegos Province,  more than 130 miles from Havana, where Sebastian was imprisoned alongside dangerous criminals and was systematically denied medical attention. In 1993 the regime offered him a deal: Sebastian would be released immediately if he only agreed to leave the island for good. Sebastian rejected the deal, becoming the first documented case of a political prisoner choosing prison in Cuba over freedom in exile.

After an international campaign that included his designation as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience and a request by France Libertés, the organization founded by former French first lady Danielle Mitterrand, Sebastian Arcos was released in 1995. A few weeks after his release, Arcos was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in the rectum, for which he had previously been denied medical care in prison. After a Cuban doctor was fired from his post for treating Arcos, he traveled to Miami for further care. In 1996, Sebastian Arcos Bergnes testified before the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland. Sebastian Arcos Bergnes died in Miami surrounded by relatives on December 22, 1997.

The Varela Project
Today we not only remember the activists who forty years ago initiated this new and nonviolent struggle for a free Cuba with the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, but how that legacy continues today, in spite of the continuing hostile nature of the Castro dictatorship. Fourteen years ago on May 10, 2002 two days before former President Jimmy Carter arrived in Cuba, the Christian Liberation Movement delivered 11,020 petitions signed by Cuban citizens seeking greater freedoms. The petition drive, named after Felix Varela, a Cuban Catholic priest from the 1800s is the Varela Project that calls for a referendum under the terms of the Cuban Constitution on whether there should be more freedom of expression, an amnesty for political prisoners and a chance for ordinary Cubans to own their own small businesses.

Regis Iglesias, Oswaldo Payá and Tony Díaz after delivering Varela Project 5/10/02
The Varela Project did not end that day but 14,384 additional petition signatures were turned in 2003 and an additional 10,009 in 2016. This citizen initiative remains active as does the legitimacy of its demands for human rights reforms and nonviolent change in Cuba.

Four Initiatives
Currently the democratic opposition has different initiatives underway in Cuba, four that have garnered the most attention are:
The People’s Path [ del-pueblo/ ] , 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.”

On January 9, 2013, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, of the Lawton Foundation, unveiled Project Emilia [ biscet-presents- manifesto.html ] which in addition to affirming the demands of The People’s Path also calls for achieving change while 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.”

On January 20, 2015 the Forum for Rights and Freedom, (FDyL) launched a campaign (Todos Marchamos) We All March [] that each Sunday, hundreds of citizens would march nonviolently through Havana and other cities of the country despite brutal repression demanding a general amnesty for political prisoners and free elections. This coalition has a Road Map with seven specific proposals towards a democratic opening with a civic focus of demanding their rights in public spaces.

On August 10, 2015 the Unity of Democratic Action Board (MUAD) unveiled Another 18 (Otro 18) [ ] The MUAD promotes the project (Otro 18) Another 18, which includes the citizens' proposals for new electoral laws, of associations and political parties; the demand for a democratic electoral system by the Transparent Ballot Box Forum initiative of the United Anti Totalitarian Forum and conducting a plebiscite proposed by the Cuba Decide platform, that permits defining, from the citizenry, the legitimacy of the political process in Cuba.
These four initiatives demonstrate the common strategic nonviolent framework in which Cuba’s democratic opposition is working while having tactical differences about working within or outside the regime apparatus.

The Cuban people have a desire to be free, they're working towards it. Often times at great cost to their physical safety,  and often their lives as we heard the testimony from Sirley Ávila León today.

Thank you for your attention, thank you for listening to us, and I look forward to your questions.

Thank you very much.

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