Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Castro dictatorship today answered the question #JailedforWhat?

"Censorship reflects society's lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime." ~Potter Stewart, United States v. Ginzburg, 1965

Cuban diplomats lead act of repudiation in failed attempt to silence speakers.
Cuban diplomats led an "act of repudiation" today at the United Nations to prevent a discussion on the plight of political prisoners in Cuba at a side event organized by the United States, and I was an eyewitness to this exercise in totalitarianism.

Ambassador Kelley E. Currie, the U.S. Representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council presented the campaign for the release of Cuban political prisoners and was met by a disruption engineered by Castro regime diplomats. However, she did not stop or waiver but continued her presentation.

Cuban U.N. Ambassador Anayansi Rodríguez Camejo protested to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres ahead of the #JailedforWhat event, and described it as a “political comedy.” The Cuban Ambassador to the U.N. also claimed that “Cuba is proud of its human rights record, which denies any manipulation against it.”

If the event were so unimportant then why did the Ambassador and other diplomats spend over an hour shouting themselves hoarse, banging on tables, attempting to disrupt the event?

Sirley Avila Leon at the United Nations today.
The Castro regime may be proud of its dismal record but most Cubans are saddened and/or ashamed by it, as they also are by the spectacle carried out today at the United Nations by diplomats, claiming to represent the Cuban people, but in reality only represent a 59 year old dictatorship that has killed thousands of Cubans, imprisoned tens of thousands of Cubans for their political beliefs and led millions more into exile.

Ambassador Michael Kozak, who moderated the event responded to the screaming and banging on tables along with other frequent interruptions to shut down the gathering: “I want to thank the Cuban delegation for giving us such a graphic show of how alternative opinions are accepted in Cuba.”

Sirley Avila Leon following May 24, 2018 machete attack
Sirley Avila Leon, a former delegate of a local municipal assembly of peoples power in Cuba until she tried to keep a school open for children in her constituency turned the regime against her and ended in a May 2015 state security engineered machete attack, attended the event today at the United Nations. She made a number of observations over twitter following what transpired that I am translating to English.
Sirley Avila Leon: "The discriminatory intolerance of the Castro regime and its clique became evident in the UN today, the democratic and free governments of the hemisphere must not allow their discriminatory impositions in an international space based on mutual respect.

Sirley Avila Leon: "The Castros killed millions of people around the world: African continent, American, in Vietnam, etc, all the governments that support them become an accomplice of these crimes against humanity!!!"

Sirley Avila Leon: "People indoctrinated to discrimination by the Castro regime live from "battle of ideas" to rapid response brigades against human rights defenders in Cuba Nicaragua Venezuela etc. They should be excluded from international events were human rights are discussed." 
The Castro regime today answered the question #JailedforWhat? Based on what transpired today at the United Nations in Cuba you can be jailed for defending human rights.A new hashtag should be added to the campaign #ShoutedDownforWhat? The answer based on what occurred today is discussing human rights.

Carlos Quesada, of Race and Equality, discussed the number of political prisoners and said that “Cuba should respect the right to freedom of opinion and expression and release the 139 political prisoners.”  He also addressed the charges most frequently used against dissidents: "predilection to social dangerousness", and "disrespect."

Alejandro Raga, a Cuban prisoner of conscience of the group of the 75,  arrested in 2003, discussed the inhuman conditions in Castro's prisons in Cuba. He also highlighted the the case of Mario Chanes de Armas, a prisoner of conscience who spent over 30 years in Cuban prisons. Raga also raised the plight of women political prisoners and specifically the Ladies in White.

The Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro gave a talk where he stated that "the regime in Cuba is responsible for exporting practices, techniques and models of repression and torture in the region." The entire speech is available in Spanish below.

The best way to deal with this attempt at silencing discussions on human rights is to share these conversations as widely possible. The good news is that they failed, and the event was a success.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Cuba’s worsening human rights situation: Machete attacks, more restrictive laws, and zero human rights monitoring

“The ultimate obscenity is not caring, not doing something about what you feel, not feeling! Just drawing back and drawing in, becoming narcissistic.”― Rod Serling 

Sirley Avila Leon after testifying at the UN Human Rights Council
Cuban human rights defender Sirley Avila Leon, a victim of repression, on September 24, 2018 addressed the UN Human Rights Council on what agents of the Cuban government had done to her.

“On May 24, 2015 living in Cuba I suffered an attack orchestrated by agents of the state, I was attacked with a machete to kill me cutting off my left hand and right shoulder while I covered my head with them, then cut my knees leaving me disabled for life, This was not the first attack I suffered, I was previously attacked several times, physically and verbally by the political police in Cuba: they burned my bed, I suffered arbitrary arrests, death threats, economic damages.  Only for demanding better living conditions for the peasants and their children in a rural area of ​​Las Tunas. My case is not isolated. In Cuba, the state continues to violate the human rights of Cubans, murders, imprisons and banishes those who demand rights and repress their families. To save my life, in 2016 I escaped from Cuba, since then my son, Yoerlis Peña Avila, has been threatened with death and repressed on several occasions. At this moment I fear for his life.”

Sirley had been elected to a local peoples’ power assembly at the municipal level. She thought she could help those who needed help, but the reality of the existing system demonstrated otherwise. 

Sirley Avila Leon following the May 24, 2015 machete attack
Expectations are high that a constitutional “reform” in Cuba and a new president “could help democratize the country,” but instead changes are going in the wrong direction.

The existing constitution in Cuba was not decided in a free and democratic vote nor the “reforms” that are being drafted now. It is taking an existing anti-democratic document and making it even more restrictive. For example, in the old constitution there existed a clause that a citizen initiative required 10,000 signatures for it to be officially recognized, now under the draft of the proposed constitution it raises that requirement to 50,000 signatures. They never thought 10,000 Cubans would sign a document calling for human rights reforms, because of the consequences to the signatory and their families, but with the Varela Project over 30,000 signatures were gathered. In the existing constitution there is a freedom of religion and conscience clause, but in the new draft it is just freedom of religion. Although, in practice, religion in Cuba remains subject to Communist Party control and discrimination.

Raul Castro handed over the office of the presidency to his handpicked successor Miguel Díaz-Canel on April 19, 2018. This was done to give the impression that a transition is underway in Cuba. This is not the case. General Raul Castro remains head of the Cuban Communist Party and in control of the government. General Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas, Raul's son-in-law, runs the economy. Raul Castro's son, Colonel Alexandro Castro, who negotiated the normalization of relations with the Obama Administration is an intelligence officer with close ties to the secret police. Diaz-Canel, like Osvaldo Dorticos who was president of Cuba from 1959 to 1976, answers to General Raul Castro. The succession does not empower Miguel Díaz-Canel but maintains the Castro dynasty in power.

Blanca Reyes, of the Ladies in White with other activists and members of the IACHR
One of the new laws, Decree 349, signed by President Díaz-Canel in April of 2018 further restricts spaces for artists to exercise their vocation. According to Amnesty International:

“Under the decree, all artists, including collectives, musicians and performers, are prohibited from operating in public or private spaces without prior approval by the Ministry of Culture. Individuals or businesses that hire artists without the authorization can be sanctioned, and artists that work without prior approval can have their materials confiscated or be substantially fined. Under the new decree, the authorities also have the power to immediately suspend a performance and to propose the cancelation of the authorization granted to carry out the artistic activity.”

Despite the government of Cuba being a long time and active member of the UN Human Rights Council it has missed opportunity after opportunity to address key human rights issues constructively and worked with other bad actors to weaken international human rights standards and silence human rights defenders. Thankfully, they do not always succeed.

Over the past two weeks at the UN HumanRights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Switzerland and the Inter-American Commissionon Human Rights (IACHR) in Boulder, Colorado the human rights situation in Cuba was addressed by Cuban human rights defenders. The testimony and information provided point to human rights worsening in the island nation. 

Sirley Avila Leon addresses the UN Human Rights Council on September 24, 2018
For decades, international human rights monitors have been and continue to be barred from Cuba by the government to evade scrutiny and isolate Cubans. During the adoption of the Universal Periodic Review outcome of Cuba, June 21-25, 2018, Amnesty International raised the issue that Cuba was the only country in the Americas that was closed to them. Later on Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta, Permanent Representative of Cuba to the United Nations Office at Geneva replied to Amnesty International’s comment on the refusal to accept monitors in the island, that Cuba did not require such instruments.

In addition to not allowing credible international human rights monitors into the island, the Cuban government has not permitted the existence of an independent national human rights institution in Cuba.

Furthermore, Cuba’s courts remain subordinated to Raul Castro, head of the Cuban Communist Party. This is has had repercussions on the human rights situation in Cuba.

The World Evangelical Alliance informed the UN Human Rights Council that in 2015, two thousand places of worship of a single church union had been threatened with demolition and several places of worship had been destroyed.  Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported that Cuba used a range of measures against religious leaders and human rights defenders.  Arbitrary detention remained a common tactic.  

There are prisoners of conscience in Cuba today. Dr. Eduardo Cardet of the Christian Liberation Movement, jailed since November 30, 2016, under terrible conditions, for his human rights and democracy advocacy for Cubans is one of them.

Tomás Núñez Magdariaga who has been on hunger strike for over 50 days protesting his unjust imprisonment is another. Prisoners of conscience, such as Orlando Zapata Tamayo in 2010 and Wilman Villar Mendoza in 2012, died on hunger strikes.

Extrajudicial killings by the State continue in Cuba, and they are not limited to opposition activists. The case of Mr. Alejandro Pupo Echemendia is a recent and high profile example. Police detained Mr. Pupo Echemendia and took him to a police station in Las Villas Cuba, allegedly for participating in illicit horse races. Eyewitness Abel Santiago Tamayo said Alejandro suffered a panic attack on August 9, 2018, and asked for help. A guard handcuffed Alejandro from behind and began to kick him in the back until he died. Alejandro Pupo Echemendia was 46 years old, a caregiver for the mentally ill in a psychiatric hospital. Government agents placed witnesses and Alejandro's family under duress to retract their statements.

Blanca Reyes, of the Ladies in White, addresses the IACHR
One week later, in Boulder Colorado, during the 169th Period of Sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Cuban independent journalists and human rights defenders presented “Reports on the Criminalization of Social Activists and Journalists in Cuba.”

The representative of the Ladies in White in the United States, Blanca Reyes, denounced the cruelty of the Cuban government and asked for help to free five women from her organization who are presently jailed.

"In Cuba there is a special sign of cruelty of the totalitarian Communist Government against the entire female mass and, in particular, against the Ladies in White," she affirmed. "Women who belong to that organization are imprisoned, they directly suffer the threat of being taken to a cell, they are imposed heavy fines for their public activities and their families, including their children, are also victims of the unpunished conduct of the political police.”

Blanca identified five Ladies in White presently in prison and they are: Martha Sánchez González, Nieves Matamoros, Aimara Nieto Muñoz, Yolanda Santana Ayala and Xiomara de las Mercedes Cruz Miranda.

Unlike at the UNHRC, the Cuban government does not recognize the competence of the IACHR, despite having been invited to return to the Organization of American States in 2009.

Cuban human rights defender impeded from attending UN-CERD Cuba review
Human rights defenders barred from traveling to human rights forums
The Cuban government has denied human rights defenders the right to travel to attend both the UN Human Rights Council and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights over the past couple of months.

MiriamCardet Concepción, the sister of prisoner of conscience Eduardo Cardet, was not permitted by the Cuban government to travel to attend the IACHR hearing in Boulder, Colorado. She was able, with some difficulty, to send her video testimony that was broadcast during the hearing on Monday, October 1, 2018.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (UN-CERD) met in Geneva on August 15, 2018 to examine racism in Cuba. The Cuban government not only claimed that racism was not a problem in Cuba but also told the UN-CERD that human rights defenders in Cuba face no limitations to exercise their activities. Cuban diplomats assured that there had been no reprisals or harassment of activists.

Cuban human rights defenders Juan Antonio Madrazo and Norberto Mesa, both Cubans of African descent, who were to attend the same session were detained arbitrarilyand banned by Cuban government officials from traveling to Geneva to address the question of racism in Cuba.

Two other Cuban human rights defenders were also barred by the Cuban government from traveling to Geneva to speak at the pre-session to Cuba’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in April of 2018.

There is one element of the Constitutional reform that has garnered positive international attention and that is an opening to gay marriage. It does not endanger the power monopoly that the regime seeks to preserve. This constitutional initiative by the Cuban government is a textbook example of pinkwashing. It is "the practice of presenting something, particularly a state, as gay-friendly in order to soften or downplay aspects of its reputation considered negative."

The Cuban government’s leadership, who remain in power today, carried out anti-Gay draconian policies in the past, and they are the same ones now advocating for the change on gay marriage in the constitution.

The Cuban government placed Gays and Lesbians in forced labor camps beginning in 1964 in what they called Military Units to Aid Production or UMAPs (Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción). These forced labor camps were for those suspected of or found guilty of "improper conduct."  Persons with "effeminate mannerisms": what the Cuban government called "extravagant behavior" were taken to these camps. Twenty years later with the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in Cuba the regime rounded up all who were HIV positive. Cuba is the only nation in the world that mandated universal HIV testing and enforced isolation of all virus carriers in detention facilities from 1986 to 1994.

This is not a Gay-friendly regime, despite the PR offensive.

Cuban human rights defenders continue to be barred from travel, subjected to harassment, arbitrary detentions and targeted for physical attacks ordered by the secret police. There are changes taking place in Cuba, but they are either cosmetic or make the state more repressive with the goal of perpetuating the dynastic rule of the Castro family.

If Cuba is to once again be free then one must understand the difficult existing reality and the challenges confronting the democratic resistance in the island.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Cuba's Call to Freedom Remembered 150 Years Later By Honoring Laura Pollán Who Risked All for Liberty

Cuba's Yara Proclamation 150 years later and honoring Laura Pollán seven years after her death.

Laura Inés Pollán Toledo:  February 13, 1948 – October 14, 2011
150 years ago on October 10, 1868 a Cuban planter and lawyer, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes del Castillo, sounding a bell gathered his slaves together and told them that they were free and if they chose they could join him and his compatriots in the struggle for a new nation. The nearest town to the plantation was called Yara and this cry for freedom became known as the "Grito de Yara" the (Cry of Yara). This initial act led to ten years of war with Spain and although ending in a frustrating and temporary peace under continued Spanish rule it did much to forge the Cuban character.

Six years and three months ago not far from Yara in the same province of Bayamo, two Cuban patriots Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero Escalante, died under suspicious circumstances in what appears to have been an extra-judicial killing disguised as a car accident

In four days, the seven year observance of another appalling anniversary: the untimely death of opposition leader Laura Inés Pollán Toledo through what a Cuban medical doctor described as purposeful medical neglect. On October 14, 2011, Laura Pollan, one of the founders of the Ladies in White died, after years of suffering physical and psychological assaults against her person. She would become a victim of the Cuban healthcare system suffering and dying over the course of a matter of days while under the supervision of doctors who were revolutionaries first and doctors second.

Carlos Manuel de Céspedes never got to see Cuban independence nor even the end of the Ten Years war he died in 1874. Unfortunately, as with Jose Marti and Antonio Maceo and de Céspedes we are seeing another generation of heroes continuing the drive for Cuban freedom but dying before achieving their goal. It is for this reason that we must remember and honor these men and women who have given their last full measure to free a country subjugated to more than six decades of dictatorship. Seven years of authoritarian tyranny with Fulgencio Batista followed by 59 years of totalitarian tyranny with the Castro brothers. The body count of innocent Cubans has been steadily rising these past six decades with brutal patterns of repression.

Let us remember Laura Pollan the school teacher who became an international human rights icon and sadly a martyr of the Cuban freedom movement. On October 14 there will be activities inside and outside of Cuba to remember and honor this remarkable and courageous woman.  No doubt throughout the world wide web there will be different efforts and actions underway to honor this Cuban mother and wife who was taken from us far to soon.

Thankfully some of her words and writings survive and we can learn from her wisdom and continue the struggle for a free Cuba.
"They can either kill us, put us in jail or release them. We will never stop marching no matter what happens." (2010) 
"We are going to continue. We are fighting for freedom and human rights.” (September 24, 2011) 
"As long as this government is around there will be prisoners because while they've let some go, they've put others in jail. It is a never-ending story." (2011) 
“If we must give our own lives in pursuit of the freedom of our Cuba that it be what God wants.” (September 24, 2011) 
"We are not going to stop. If you have imprisoned our sisters thinking that we would give up, they are mistaken. We are very united (...) all the women's movements are very close." (October 2, 2011) 
They tried to silence 75 voices, but now there are more than 75 voices shouting to the world the injustices the government has committed. (2004) 
“We ask on this Christmas Day for freedom for our political prisoners and for the Cuban people to have a better future.” (2005) 
“It's an extremely sad day for us, because Christmas is a family holiday. Since our husbands are not with us, our families cannot be complete.” (2005) 
"We fight for the freedom of our husbands, the union of our families. We love our men." (2005) 
“We would never have thought this would go on for so long.” (2006) 
"Human rights basically have been dead in our country for three years. Physically, I am tired. But I am still fighting, as long as I am alive and my husband is jailed, I am going to keep fighting. (2006)

“We are calling for freedom for all political prisoners.” (2006)

Sunday, October 7, 2018

A Bitter Taste of Freedom: Paying Homage and Demanding Justice for Anna Politkovskaya

"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting" - Milan Kundera

"People sometimes pay with their lives for saying aloud what they think."
 - Anna Politkovskaya  August 30, 1958 - October 7, 2006

Anna Politkovskaya was a journalist who spoke truth to power in Russia. She was a critic of Vladimir Putin. She was shot dead in her apartment on Putin's birthday in 2006. Six individuals have been brought to justice, but the mastermind remains free 12 years after her assassination. Below is a 2011 documentary about this courageous woman who paid the ultimate price for seeking the truth and reporting it.

She is missed. #JusticeForAnna #EndImpunity

Friday, October 5, 2018

Havel at 82: Celebrating Václav Havel's living legacy of hope

"The only lost cause is one we give up on before we enter the struggle." - Václav Havel

Václav Havel born on October 5, 1936
Václav Havel was that rarest of statesmen, a great and good man. In his first New Year's Message in 1990 as President he addressed the country with a candor and truthfulness both rare and needed stating: "I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you." 

Today, we observe the 82nd anniversary of his birth. The Czech play write, who became a dissident, defended artists, a prisoner of conscience, president of Czechoslovakia, resigned in protest over the Velvet Divorce, then president of the Czech republic and finally citizen and play write once again. All the while he demonstrated his solidarity with victims of repression in his own country and around the world.

This was done not out of a sense of optimism, but out of hope.  Consider for a moment how Havel responded to the invasion of his homeland.

In 1968, after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring, an effort by Czechoslovak communist reformers to build socialism with a human face, Havel wrote the following to the Czechoslovak President Alexander Dubcek who had been one of the reformers later purged: "Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance." 

Václav Havel's signature card for Charter 77
Havel believed that moral actions, no matter how small or futile they may appear at the time can have profound consequences for both freedom and a just society. It is because the world is not a puzzle to be solved but incredibly much more complex that decisions of right and wrong made by each person have such great importance.

President Havel, in a November 11, 2009 address to the European Parliament in Brussels issued a challenge to the European Union and warned of the consequences of failure:
"Above all, clear and unequivocal solidarity with all those confronted by totalitarian or authoritarian regimes wherever they are in the world. And economic or other particular interests should not hinder such solidarity. Even a minor, discreet and well-intentioned compromise can have fatal consequences– even if only in the long term, or indirectly. One must not retreat in the face of evil, because it is in the nature of evil to take advantage of every concession. Besides, Europe has already had its own unfortunate experience of appeasement policies. 
On the other hand he understood that living up to the challenge of unequivocal solidarity with those resisting totalitarian regimes would have unexpected positive consequences, not only in those countries living under dictatorship, but also lifting up the moral values of those true to themselves by practicing the values preached.

"Our support can help open-minded people or outspoken witnesses to the situation in North Korea, Burma, Iran, Tibet, Belarus, Cuba or anywhere else, much more than we think. But it will help us too. It will help us build a better world and also to be more true to ourselves; in other words, to put into practice the values that we proclaim in general terms."
Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and President Václav Havel in Prague (2002)
At the same time, he did not link hope with success but rather the certainty that what one is doing is both good and coherent. In 1990 in the book, Disturbing the Peace, Havel explained how he viewed hope.
“Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpromising the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
The fruits of his legacy can be seen in the work of Forum 2000, an annual gathering of politicians, philosophers, artists, scientists, and the public to reflect on important issues challenging civilization. The topic on the twentieth gathering of Forum 2000 was "The Courage to take Responsibility." In two days the 22nd gathering will focus on "Democracy: In need of a critical update?"  Václav Havel was born 82 years ago today and passed away seven years ago, but his legacy of good works live on. Take part in his legacy attending Forum 2000, in person if you are in Prague, or via social media and live stream video if you are elsewhere.