Monday, November 30, 2009

Exposing one of the myths about the dictatorship in Cuba: Healthcare

The Late General, his son, and the imprisoned doctor
A tale of medicine and privilege in today's Cuba

Juan Juan Almeida the ailing son of one of Cuba's "revolutionary heroes" the late Juan Almeida Bosque was taken into custody on Friday and detained by security officials for three days after protesting that authorities wouldn't let him leave the country for treatment. According to sources he suffers from a dangerous degenerative disease (rheumatoid spondylitis). Now according to National the prognosis for this illness is good if treated. This raises two fundamental questions which this blog entry will attempt to answer: 1) Why can't he leave the country to obtain medical care and 2) If Cuba's health care is so wonderful why would the son of a revolutionary leader be seeking treatment outside of the country?

Question #1: Why is Juan Juan Almeida not able to leave the country to obtain life-saving medical treatment?

: In any normal country in which Article 13 section (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is respected which states that: "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country" Mr. Almeida, assuming he had the means could enter and exit his country freely. Cuba, however, is a totalitarian state that controls every aspect of an individuals existence much like North Korea and travel in and out of the country is strictly controlled. Cubans must ask the government for permission to cross outside the defined boundaries of Cuba by obtaining a “Travel Permit” and is known as “the white card” due to its color.

Dr. Darsi Ferrer

Question #2: Why would the son of the late revolutionary leader Juan Almeida be seeking healthcare outside of Cuba when official and international media along with travelers and filmmakers such as Michael Moore portray Cuba as a free health care paradise?

Answer: This question cannot be answered as quickly because there are a number of factors involved in the Juan Juan Almeida affair, but for the sake of brevity in this blog entry the focus will be on two of them. MTV's Kurt Loder offers a devastating expose of Micheal Moore's film Sicko where Mr. Loder quotes Cuban doctor Hilda Molina: "Cubans should be treated the same as foreigners. Cubans have less rights in their own country than foreigners who visit here." ABC's John Stossel offered a crushing rebuttal of Mr. Moores assertions:

The video Mr. Stossel refers to below with images of the two aspects of Cuba's healthcare system:

Cuba has a two tiered health care system one tier for the nomenklatura (which includes the sons and daughters of revolutionary leaders like Juan Juan Almeida) and foreign tourists with hard currency which is relatively good and offers care with modern equipment and fully stocked pharmacies, and then there is a second tier which is for everyone else which offers broken down equipment, run down buildings and rooms, and scarce supplies not to mention an appalling lack of hygiene and the denial of certain services and lengthy wait times. The statistics and numbers that the international community has access to with relation to the Cuban healthcare system have been manipulated by the dictatorship. Katherine Hirschfeld, an
anthropologist, in Health, Politics, and Revolution in Cuba Since 1898 describes how her idealistic preconceptions were dashed by 'discrepancies between rhetoric and reality,' she observed a repressive, bureaucratized and secretive system, long on 'militarization' and short on patients' rights. This is a scholarly analyis that looks at the Cuban healthcare throughout Cuban history and offers a fair analysis. It is not a political tract. In conclusion, there is a health care system which is rather decent for regime elites and tourists and another one for everyday Cubans that is a disaster. A lot of the footage of the state of real health care in Cuba was provided by Dr. Darsi Ferrer who appears in some of the footage above, and here as well:

Dr. Ferrer is a clear example of why the truth of the Cuban healthcare system remains hidden. He spoke out and documented the reality of the situation and has suffered threats, beatings and has been imprisoned since July 21, 2009 without a trial. Others who have spoken out like Dr. Hilda Molina and Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, a prisoner of conscience, serving a 25-year prison sentence have paid dearly for their dissent.

Nevertheless, that does not explain the plight of Juan Juan Almeida, the son of a high ranking "hero of the revolution" and a former member of the Ministry of the Interior. Reinaldo Escobar writing from Havana, Cuba offers an answer to this mystery:

Juan Juan Almeida was long favored because he enjoyed, in Cuba, a privilege that in any other place is merely a right: traveling the world. For a long time this problem of the travel permit was, for him, a procedure he paid no attention to, something like having to weigh your luggage at the airport. Any superficial analysis that might be made of his exceptional situation ended up concluding that this, and other benefits he then enjoyed, was due to his being the son of Juan Almeida Bosque, a select member of the highest revolutionary aristocracy, recently deceased.

One day J.J. fell into disgrace and they let him know that now his name was on another list, that of the excluded. Because of this, he is now not allowed to arrange a medical consultation at a hospital in Europe where, as he himself explains, he might have a chance to find a treatment for an illness that has found no solution in his own country. He wrote a book, conducted interviews, wrote letters, and last Friday, November 27, for the second time went out into the street with a poster on which, it is said, he asked for the resignation of the president of the Republic.

There you have the answer Juan Juan Almeida has fallen out of favor with the regime i.e. the Castro brothers and no longer has access to that world of top flight care and freedom of travel that belongs to the regime elite. He is now another Cuban citizen at the mercy of the nomenklatura that runs the island as its personal fiefdom as he once did but no longer can.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Europe Faces a Choice: Unequivocal Solidarity or Appeasement

Europe Faces a Choice: Unequivocal Solidarity with the Victims or Appeasement with Dictators

On Monday, November 23 the European Union Commissioner Karel De Gucht just back from Cuba told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that Europe needed to place less emphasis on human rights in Cuba. Twelve days earlier former Czech President Vaclav Havel made the counter argument: "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." Below is an excerpt from his speech.

Speech of Vaclav Havel [An excerpt]

European Parliament, Brussels, November 11, 2009

Mr President,

Members of Parliament,

Thank you for your invitation and the opportunity to speak to you as we mark the twentieth anniversary of the dramatic breaking down of the closed borders, the cutting of the barbed wire, the demolishing of walls between the European nations, and, in the case of Germany, of the wall dividing two parts of the same nation. It was the end of the bipolar division not only of Europe, but, to a large measure, of the world as a whole. It was such a historically important moment that various people had the impression that henceforth calm would reign and the world would simply flourish.

That didn’t happen. History did not come to end, of course. And that makes it even more important to treat the present anniversary not only as an invitation to reflect on the present but above all as a challenge to consider the future. I will contribute to that reflection five remarks on the theme of European unification.


No one was completely prepared for such a rapid collapse of the Iron Curtain. Nor could they have been. It would have been unnatural. And so there ensued a phase of perplexity, a search for various alternatives, and uncertainty. Then NATO took the bold step of accepting new members, which had the effect of anchoring them and helped them concentrate on preparing to join the European Union. Subsequently the EU did indeed start to open its doors to the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. From time to time those countries cause it headaches of various kinds. But that is perfectly understandable. A democratic political culture cannot be created or renewed overnight. It takes a lot of time and in the meantime there are plenty of unanticipated problems to be solved. Communism ruled just once in modern times (and, hopefully, for the last time), so the phenomenon of post-Communism was also a novelty. We had to confront the consequences of the rule of fear that lasted for so many years, as well as all the dangers related to a redistribution of property without precedent in history. So there were and are lots of obstacles and we are only now acquiring experience of such a state of affairs.

I believe, nonetheless, that the West went about things in the right way. Any other approach would have given rise to even more anxieties for it and it would also have been more costly. Not only could it have seriously triggered a new struggle over spheres of influence, or the actual domination of one group by another, but the states that remained outside the western gates would most likely have turned into a stamping ground for various nationalists and populists, along with their armed militias, and also possibly a place of dangerous local conflicts, which would be all the more dangerous in that, for well-known reasons, no real peace conference took place after World War II to decide on a binding, precise and lasting post-war settlement in Europe. I think that many of those who until recently wielded a flag with a hammer and sickle would be capable, without much ado, of reaching for a national flag instead. We were able to see where that path could lead in the former Yugoslavia. But demons, as is well known, always awaken other demons. So no one can tell whether that contagion would not soon infect the western half of Europe. And we live in a period of history, when, as a result of globalization, any local conflict could easily develop into a world war.

So the approach adopted was the most natural in historical terms, and the most advantageous in practical terms. Moreover, it was an approach that could also be interpreted as an expression of thoughtful shared responsibility for the way things had evolved in the recent past, which were partly due, in their origins, to short-sighted concessions on the part of the democratic world. To sum up then: however bothersome we might have been to the European Union up to the present, it is worth putting up with it, because any alternative to the course of events to date would most likely have been much worse and more dangerous. In the circumstances, all one can ask of Europe is patience and understanding.

However, the question is what can we offer Europe? It has long been my opinion that after what we underwent at the time of the totalitarian system, we ought – or we are duty-bound even – to explain to others in a convincing manner what we went through, and make specific suggestions based on its various implications. It is not an easy task and I am not sure we’ve made a good job of it to date. The point is that totalitarian or authoritarian forms of government tend to have very inconspicuous beginnings and employ very ingenious means of controlling society. Only now, in hindsight, do many of us realize how deviously they were entangled in the totalitarian web. That all obliges us to be particularly circumspect. It should be the way we can help guarantee that what we endured will never be repeated.

What does it require?

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. 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.

Recently the European Parliament awarded the Sakharov Prize to Memorial, the Russian association that monitors how human rights are respected in Russia. I think that was an important act. I recall how important it once was in my country when the French President invited us – the opposition – to a working breakfast during his state visit – against the wishes of the state leadership. These are only seemingly superficial matters. That is how things operate in totalitarian regimes: a single breakfast or a single suppressed student demonstration can – in certain circumstances – set history moving.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Forgiving and Documenting

On Thursday November 19, 2009 Yoani Sanchez received answers to the seven questions she had posed to Barack Obama, and apparently on the following day in the late Friday afternoon in Havana, Raul Castro's mob gave its response to the 7 questions she had sent him. A week after Yoani Sanchez was abducted and beaten by Cuban government agents; her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, returned to the site of last weeks nonviolent march having challenged one of the assailants to a "verbal duel" was shoved and knocked around by pro-government thugs. On the afternoon of November 20, 2009, two days after Human Rights Watch released its report blasting Raul Castro's government, the regime organized an act of repudiation against Reinaldo. In the photo above he is standing stoically surrounded by members of a rapid response brigade. Reinaldo has already posted a blog entry about yesterday's attack observing that:
Agent Rodney, or whatever the name is of the person I challenged to a verbal duel, lost by not showing up, but that is past history. The Nation lost by being discredited in the eyes of the world and, what is worse, the people lost, my poor people, whom they want to burden with the full weight of fanaticism that they themselves feed on.
He survived the ordeal thanks in large part to the presence of friends who also took the beating and insults in solidarity with him of which he names a few who took more than their share of blows to protect him: the blogger Eugenio Leal, the opposition figure Silvio Benítez, Pastor Manuel Morejon and the Lady in White [Damas de Blanco] Mercedes Fresneda Castillo.

According to Human Rights Watch the Cuban government "employs so-called repudiation meetings (mitines de repudio), or acts of repudiation, to humiliate and intimidate dissidents publicly, sometimes violently."
The sad part is that some of the participants in these fascist attacks are probably taking part in this violent propaganda exercise in the Cuban dictatorship's version of Orwell's 2 minutes hate to avoid being on the receiving end of such an action themselves.

Yoani Sanchez in her latest blog entry says that Friday's act of repudiation reminded her of the ghost of 1980 and the appearance of fascist mobs on the streets of Cuba against Cubans who simply wanted to leave the country and were brutally attacked on their way to the port of Mariel. Nevertheless, Friday's events have more to do with the specter of 1989 that still haunts the regime. Non-violent change were the few lose their privileges, impunity and normality returns. It was out of fear for this possibility that in 1991 the Ministry of the Interior first organized the rapid response brigades to organize acts of repudiation with the aim of crushing any popular demonstrations with violence. Yoani twitted that "this is the para-militarization of Cuban society: arrests and beatings carried out by countrymen dressed as civilians that refuse to identify themselves. In another tweet she added that the government "wants to make people believe that it was the people enraged as if they had not nourished the hate and division among us." This is precisely what the Cuban government set out to do in 1980 during the Mariel boat lift and again i
n a systematic fashion in 1991: divide and conquer using terror and hatred.

Reinaldo's essay is titled: "To begin to forgive" and the last lines of the entry describe his return home:

When I got back to my house, I found it full of friends, among them Father José Conrado who gave me a hug, and counsel I will never forget: “Forgive them.”
Based on Reinaldo's actions thus far he is following Mahatma Gandhi's dictum: "To forgive is not to forget. The merit lies in loving in spite of the vivid knowledge that the one that must be loved is not a friend." Video of the entire affair is already beginning to be uploaded to youtube. The victims and witnesses to the events are describing what they saw. Below is the first video just prior to the beginning of the attack. As new ones are added they'll be added to this blog entry.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Not prudent to exchange intelligence on drug trafficking with Cuban dictatorship

"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts"
- Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan

"To forgive is not to forget. The merit lies in loving in spite of
the vivid knowledge that the one that must be loved is not a friend.
There is no merit in loving an enemy when you forget him for a friend."
- Mahatma Gandhi

Chutzpah Alert May 31, 2010: Fidel Castro says U.S. must deal with Drug Problem / Latin American Herald Tribune

Manuel Noriega and Fidel Castro

Seeing General Barry McCaffrey at the Congressional hearing on Cuba last week was a blast from the past. On August 28, 2001 I attended a presentation by General McCaffrey at Georgetown University and heard his concerns about a possible relationship between Castro and Colombia's drug-trafficking guerrillas. Despite this admission, prompted by a number of questions I raised with him at the same time he argued for sharing drug intelligence with the Cuban government.

General McCaffrey and others who advocate sharing drug intelligence with Cuba seem unaware of several federal indictments and two investigative TV reports, one broadcast in July 2001, linking Cuban officials, including Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl, to drug cartels:

-In 1989, a federal grand jury indicted Robert Vesco for arranging safe passage for drug planes over Cuban airspace after obtaining approval from Cuban authorities.

-According to the 1989 indictment, Reinaldo Ruiz was allowed to land planes in Cuba to refuel after dropping drug cargo off the Cuban coast. Drug-smuggling motorboats would come from Florida to pick up the cargo, and Cuban Coast Guard radar monitored U.S. Coast Guard cutters to help the smugglers evade them. The indictments demonstrated the foolishness of sharing intelligence on drug operations with Havana.

-According to the U.S. indictment of Panama's Manuel Noriega, he traveled to Cuba in 1984 after Castro offered to mediate a disagreement between the drug cartel and Noriega.

-In a 1991 Frontline documentary, Cuba and Cocaine, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Commander Jeff Karonis, stated, "We would observe in the middle of the day an air drop going on inside Cuban waters. The scenario would be for a small twin-engine airplane with maybe 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of cocaine to fly over Cuba, drop the drugs to a predesignated rendezvous point to several boats. Then it would exit back down off Cuba, and many times a Cuban military vessel would be in the immediate vicinity, right on scene with them.''

-In 1996, Jorge Cabrera was charged with importing 6,000 pounds of cocaine. At the time of his arrest, The Herald reported that Cabrera was carrying a photo of himself with Fidel Castro. Cabrera made a $20,000 donation to the 1996 Democratic presidential campaign after being approached in Havana in 1995 by anti-embargo activist Vivian Mannerud.


-In July 2001, Madrid's TV Channel 5 broadcast Cuba and Drug Trafficking. Spanish journalists filmed (with hidden cameras) their dealings with drug dealers in Cuba. "As to security, forget it. I pay here for the security; I answer only to one, the government,'' the drug dealer said.

Noriega, still in prison for his role in drug trafficking, once received six commendations from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration while turning in competing drug cartels. So it's not surprising that Castro allows U.S. Navy ships to enter Cuban waters in pursuit of or to return Cuban refugees, but the ships aren't allowed in Cuban waters in pursuit of narco-traffickers.

Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the following days Ana Belen Montes, a high ranking official in the Defense Intelligence Agency, the go to person for the Pentagon and various other agencies on Cuba was arrested and revealed to be a Cuban government agent. She was the author of the last threat assesment of the Cuban government in May of 1998 that reported there was no threat. At the time the Secretary of Defense added his own concerns in a separate letter contradicting the Castro agent's report. She is currently serving a 25 year prison sentence after cooperating with the authorities.

Manuel Noriega, The Castro Brothers and the Ochoa Trial

At the top of the page is a photo of Fidel Castro and Manuel Noriega. The indictment and of Noriega on February 4, 1988 for being a drug facilitator of the Medellin Cartel would have a profound impact in Cuba, and plunge it into a serious crisis. One year and four months later the Castro brothers began a purge of military and intelligence officers on June 17, 1989. One week later the Cuban government revealed that Fidel Castro's closest aides were involved in smuggling drugs to the United States. Why are the two connected? Because Fidel Castro had been mentioned in the Noriega indictment. National Security Council member Jacqueline Tillman followed Cuba for the Council from 1984 to 1988 said:

''The evidence of Cuban involvement in narcotics trafficking was becoming so abundant that the regime moved to protect Fidel Castro by dissociating him from those activities.''

Less than a month later on July 13, 1989 all the officials that could directly tie Fidel Castro to the Medellin Cartel and Manuel Noriega were executed by firing squad. Eleven top officials of the Ministry of the Interior were found guilty of drug trafficking and four were executed. The closest and most powerful of these aides was Colonel Tony de la Guardia. His twin Patricio de la Guardia was not executed but imprisoned. Also among the imprisoned Jose Abrantes, another longtime aide, died of a heart attack behind bars in January of 1991. In addition to protecting the Castro brothers from possible prosecution this also served to consolidate the military's dominance over the Cuban intelligence service and with it the head of the military Raul Castro. In addition a popular general with victories under his belt in Angola and Ethiopia popular with the troops and flirting with ideas of perestroika, Arnaldo T. Ochoa Sanchez was also executed.

The indictment and capture of Manuel Noriega and his subsequent trial exposed an international narcotrafficking network with high ranking Cuban officials. The Castro regime responded by eliminating possible witnesses that would implicate the brothers in a show trial followed by speedy public execution by firing squad. Cuba is a totalitarian state with one man, one party rule and on that basis along with grand jury testimony implicating the dictator what are the odds that Fidel and Raul Castro are not deeply involved?

The persons advocating sharing intelligence with the Cuban government no doubt mean well as did those who advocated sharing intelligence with Manuel Noriega. We all would like to see more cooperation against drug trafficking. But given the historical record, it would be appropriate to respectfully remind them that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Human Rights Watch: "New Castro, Same Cuba"

Cuba's repressive machinery remains intact under Raul Castro.

"Despite significant obstacles to research, Human Rights Watch documented more than 40 cases in which Cuba has imprisoned individuals for “dangerousness” under Raúl Castro because they tried to exercise their fundamental rights. We believe there are many more. The “dangerous” activities in these cases have included handing out copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, staging peaceful marches, writing news articles critical of the government, and attempting to organize independent unions." - Human Rights Watch (2009)

A decade after Human Rights Watch released their
CUBA'S REPRESSIVE MACHINERY: Human Rights Forty Years After the Revolution which offered a well documented overview of how Cuba's legal system serves as part of the apparatus of repression and how it operated and operates today in Cuba the human rights organization released a report documenting Raul Castro's tenure as "President" titled New Castro, Same Cuba: Political Prisoners in the Post-Fidel Era and the complete report is available in pdf format online. The report offers a breakdown of repression against dissidents, but also offers insights into the regime's totalitarian nature :
The Raúl Castro government has applied the “dangerousness” law not only to dissenters and critics of the government, but to a broad range of people who choose not to cooperate with the state. We found that failing to attend pro-government rallies, not belonging to official party organizations, and being unemployed are all considered signs of “antisocial” behavior, and may lead to “official warnings” and even incarceration in Raúl Castro’s Cuba. In a January 2009 campaign called “Operation Victory,” dozens of individuals in eastern Cuba—most of them youth—were charged with “dangerousness” for being unemployed. So was a man from Sancti Spíritus who could not work because of health problems, and was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in August 2008 for being unemployed.
One must participate in the propaganda exercise and in some cases carry out acts of repression against fellow citizens in the Cuban dictatorship's version of Orwell's 2 minutes hate which is the act of repudiation that in Cuba can go on a lot longer than two minutes or risk being on the receiving end. You can see and hear a sampling of how they operate in the video below beginning at 00:50

A word about Human Rights Watch
When a totalitarian regime is criticized it must attack the critic and question their motives. It is standard operating procedure. It has been repeatedly used against Amnesty International, UN Human Rights experts such as Christine Chanet, and against Human Rights Watch. Following the release of the report the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington released a statement in which it described Human Rights Watch's "evaluation of human rights in Cuba is illegitimate and illegal." First who and what is Human Rights Watch? There vision and mission statement is clear as is the fact that they have a track record of being verbally attacked by numerous governments across the ideological divide. First Human Rights Watch does not recieve directly or indirectly any government funding and rely on private donations. Secondly, the organization arose out of Helsinki Watch which monitored Soviet and Eastern European compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords after their founding in 1978 and Americas Watch founded in 1981 which monitored authoritarian and military dictatorships in the Hemisphere and was criticized at the time for bias against El Salvador, Guatemala, by the Reagan Administration and was accused by The Wall Street Journal of "a gentler standard to U.S. adversaries in Central America than to U.S. friends." Now this version of events is provided by the self described"progressives" at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. The organization Human Rights Watch was to formally come into existence in 1998 as a fusion of these two organizations and similar counterparts in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Now that we have a better perspective on Human Rights Watch and in the spirit of the phrase a picture is worth a thousand words. Around the same time that Helsinki Watch and Americas Watch were doing their job on behalf of human rights Fidel Castro was hosting leaders of the Argentine military junta in Havana.

Fidel Castro, the Argentine Military Junta and the Dirty War

On the picture on the right is Fidel Castro with Argentine foreign minister Nicanor Costa Mendez of the Argentine military junta that according to a number of sources extrajudicially executed and disappeared as many as 30,000 Argentines between 1976 and 1983 in the Dirty War meeting in Havana at the Non-Aligned Movement gathering.

That is not the only member of the junta that he commiserated because he was also photographed here on the left with "President"
Reynaldo Benito Antonio Bignone Ramayón who, like Fidel Castro then and Raul Castro today , was"President" in name only, but in reality a brutal military dictator. In 2009, he is on trial for the kidnapping, torture, and murder of 56 people in a concentration camp. Sadly, whereas groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International sought to expose the Dirty War and stop it and to later document the crimes committed and along with the victims demand justice the Cuban government did everything at the time to block efforts to investigate the disappearances from their perch at the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

The Castro Brothers Crimes in Ethiopia

Raul Castro & Fidel Castro with close ally Mengistu Haile Mariam

In the case of Marxist ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam or as Fidel Castro referred to him "Comrade Mengistu" there is a lot of information demonstrating the close working relationship between Mengistu and both Castro brothers. Cuba sent the first wave of what would become 5,000 Cuban troops to fight government rebels in December 1977-January 1978. In September of 1978 Fidel Castro arrived in Ethiopia to address both Ethiopian and Cuban troops and claim both victory and the Ethiopian revolution's popular support:

"Comrade Cubans, I can recall those days of December 1977 and January 1978 when we said farewell to the first Cuban internationalist combatants who were leaving for Ethiopia. [...]Eighteen months later we have returned to a Ethiopia which is victorious be cause of its combative sons' heroism and the support of international solidarity, as Comrade Mengistu stated 2 days ago. Moreover, it is also an already powerful Ethiopia. Tuesday's popular parade confirmed the enormous popular support for this revolutionary change. Yesterday's military parade tells us of the degree of organization and discipline achieved by the combative and courageous fraternal Ethiopian people. The rapid revolutionary offensive of the Ethiopian and Cuban troops practically annihilated the enemy. [...]Ethiopian brothers, together with you we have fought and we have won. Together with you we are ready to fight again and to win again. Together with you we pledge: Fatherland or death, we shall win!

Castro's September 1978 speech places Cuban combatants on the ground in December of 1977. The importance of these dates will become evident later on. The next excerpt is from a conversation with the then East German dictator Erik Honecker discussing the situation in Ethiopia and Fidel Castro's assesment of Mengistu in February of 1977 following a visit and meeting with him:

Mengistu strikes me as a quiet, serious, and sincere leader who is aware of the power of the masses. He is an intellectual personality who showed his wisdom on 3 February. The rightists wanted to do away with the leftists on 3 February. The prelude to this was an exuberant speech by the Ethiopian president in favor of nationalism. Mengistu preempted this coup. He called the meeting of the Revolutionary Council one hour early and had the rightist leaders arrested and shot. A very consequential decision was taken on 3 February in Ethiopia. The political landscape of the country changed, which has enabled them to take steps that were impossible before then. Before it was only possible to support the leftist forces indirectly, now we can do so without any constraints.

Fidel Castro with close ally Mengistu Haile Mariam

The dates are important because it coincides with the beginning of the "Red Terror" in which 2,000 Africans were slaughtered. This was a purge of political opponents. According to press accounts: "Suspects were rounded up, some shot, others garrotted. The bodies were thrown on the streets." There would be a Cuban military presence on the ground until 1988. In December 2006 Ethiopia's former dictator was found guilty of the extrajudicial killing of thousands of political opponents and his involvement in a famine which killed one million people and found guilty of genocide in absentia. A Reuters video report on the 2006 trial is available below:

Naturally the Cuban government would not have been pleased with Reed Brody Human Rights Watch's legal counsel's reaction to the trial and verdict at the time: "This is a man whose regime was marked by some of the worst atrocities of our time. Thousands of political killings [were carried out and] over 100,000 people died as a result of forced relocations."

No doubt the Castro brothers and all those officials in the dictatorship who have committed gross human rights violations feel a little uncomfortable when they see their close allies being tried and condemned for crimes against humanity and genocide as the ultimate condemnation by history. Not to mention that groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International "would very much like to see [Mengistu] physically brought to justice--not justice in absentia." Has anyone given any thought to what responsibility Cuban leadership shares with the events in Ethiopia? Difficult questions that the dictatorship in Cuba would rather not answer truthfully or be held accountable.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Velvet Revolution at Twenty: Time for Reflection & Celebration

"Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred" -Vaclav Havel 1989

“One of the goals of this concert is to remind us of the importance of the music that was played not only here but also in all the countries that were liberating themselves. This music was with us at all the big rallies; it somehow expressed the general will and was one of the factors that created the atmosphere of the time.” - Vaclav Havel 2009

[All the videos embedded here are from Saturday's Concert celebrating the Velvet Revolution titled It's Here held at the Prague Crossroads]

...Just a perfect day, you make me forget myself
I thought I was someone else, someone good
You're going to reap just what you sow
You're going to reap just what you sow ...
Lou Reed, Perfect Day

Celebrations across the world centered in Prague but as far away as Mongolia and in the United States just to name two of the many places: Houston and Kansas City will honor and remember the brave men and women who twenty years ago today began a series of actions that resulted in the triumph of love and truth. It was not inevitable, but a combination of providence, free will, and principled human action. The "Velvet Revolution" achieved profound non-violent change without wholesale slaughter and violence associated historically with revolutions. A cursory look would claim that the "revolution" took 11 days in November for the Communists to relinquish power. In reality it began at least in 1976 after beatings and arrest of the rock band the Plastic People of the Universe led to a number of intellectuals, Vaclav Havel, among them drafting and signing Charter 77 challenging the Czech communists to honor the rights outlined in their own constitution and in the Helsinki accords which the communist government had signed in 1975.

The great Indian reformer, Mohandas Gandhi, was critical of the revolutionary stating "
I have criticized the revolutionary because I have felt for him. He has the same right to hold me to be in error as I believe him to be in error." He offered an additional insight that "Impatience will blur the revolutionary’s vision and lead him astray." This describes many of the revolutionaries of France in 1789 or the Bolsheviks in 1917 but it does not describe the men and women of 1989. On the other hand Gandhi spoke positively of reformers which sound much like dissidents: "A reformer has to sail not with the current, often he has to go against it, even though it may cost him his life." The Velvet Revolution has also been called a Spiritual Revolution and that again fits with Gandhi's description of a profound process reform born of an awakening when he says that: "Every Reform means awakening. Once truly awakened, the nation will not be satisfied with reform only in one department of life." What is described as the Velvet Revolution was a spiritual awakening that led to profound reforms of an entire society.

What was achieved in 1989? It was a rejection of totalitarianism of both the lie and hatred on which it thrived. It was a rebirth of freedom and of normal human relationships. I've had the privilege to have walked the streets and breathed the air of Prague in May of 1990, barely five months after Havel went to the Castle in December of 1989, and to return nearly twenty years later in October of 2009 to see the changes that had taken place. Although Czechs may no longer look in awe at all that they have accomplished after walking around the center of the city visiting shops and a grocery store, and talking with Czechs over a few beers I left impressed by all that had been accomplished, and with an overwhelming sense of happiness at bearing witness to a flowering of freedom and creativity. In his address to the European Parliament on November 11 Havel outlined the daunting challenges faced after the power transition:

A democratic political culture cannot be created or renewed overnight. It takes a lot of time and in the meantime there are plenty of unanticipated problems to be solved. Communism ruled just once in modern times (and, hopefully, for the last time), so the phenomenon of post-Communism was also a novelty. We had to confront the consequences of the rule of fear that lasted for so many years, as well as all the dangers related to a redistribution of property without precedent in history. So there were and are lots of obstacles and we are only now acquiring experience of such a state of affairs.

The preceding observation is not that of a wild eyed revolutionary but a prudent and principled reformer. Over the past few days the concerts, celebrations, and lectures in Prague and the reflections that the main participants in the events of 1989 have made and the conclusions they have reached should generate much dialogue and debate in the future. For example Vaclav Havel raised the call to vigilance
at a conference at Charles University titled “Freedom and its Enemies”:

The era of dictatorships and totalitarian systems has not ended at all. It may have ended in a traditional form as we know it from the 20th century, but new, far more sophisticated ways of controlling society are being born. It requires alertness, carefulness, caution, study and a detached view.

Towards the end of the concert celebrating the Velvet Revolution at the Prague Crossroads titled “It’s Here at Last”, featuring Joan Baez, Suzanne Vega, Lou Reed and soprano Reneé Fleming, Václav Havel dedicated the last song of the concert, Oh Freedom, "to the people of North Korea, Burma, Tibet, Belarus, Iran, Darfur, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Venezuela and other countries whose citizens live under oppression."

Thank you President Havel for remembering the victims of repression at a moment of joyful celebration and for having consistently defended captive peoples around the world putting into action Aung San Suu Kyi’s request to "Please use your freedom to promote ours."

La Contre-Révolution ne sera pas une révolution contraire, mais le contraire de la Révolution.
- Joseph de Maistre

Friday, November 13, 2009

Heroes and Exemplars of 1989: Adam Michnik and Letters from Prison


1. a person of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
2. a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal: He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child.

Adam Michnik, Poland

A brief biography on one of the founders of the Committee for the Defense of Workers (KOR) and Solidarity activist during the struggle against martial law during the 1980s. He was a Solidarity expert in the Round Table Talks between the government and the dissidents. Mr. Michnik, a former dissident, historian, writer, lecturer, politician and journalist, has been the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza (Election News), the first independent Polish daily newspaper, since its founding in 1989.

His books include Letters from Freedom: Post-Cold War Realities and Perspectives, Church and the Left, and Letters from Prison and Other Essays.

The purpose of this brief profile is to encourage the reader to search further and read Michnik's collection of essays and watch the documentaries and films on the struggle of the Polish people to obtain and maintain their freedom, and in the process learn how to make the world a better place.

Video: Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Adam Michnik discuss the repercussions of 1968 at the University of Warsaw, 9th March 2008

On the Struggle Against Totalitarianism

The fighting man sometimes comes to resemble his adversary. If in the struggle against totalitarianism, one uses totalitarian methods, one imperceptibly alters the shape of one's cause. In the struggle against a monster, one can become a monster oneself. In such a case, even if one scores a victory, the battle is lost because a kingdom of monsters is created for oneself. Were it to happen that the external thing one fights ruins one internally, the struggle would have no meaning. [Michnik quotes Karl Jaspers] in Letters from Prison and Other Essays1987

On the role of the Catholic Church
Whoever wants such a Church, whoever expects these things from Catholic priests, is-- whether he likes it or not-- asking for the political reduction of the Christian religion. For we do not need a Church that is locked up, that is hidden behind the walls of a particular political ideology. We need an open Church, a Church that takes the whole world into the arms of the Cross. Letters from Prison and Other Essays 1987

On Dictatorships
I also realize that while condemning the dictatorships of [Rafael] Trujillo or [Augusto] Pinochet, I should remember the dictatorship of Fidel Castro. Brutal power is equally repugnant whether executed under a red banner or a black one.

We, the Traitors Adam Michnik, Gazeta Wyborcza , Warsaw, Poland, March 28, 2003

Why did Solidarity renounce violence
Why did Solidarity renounce violence? This question returned time and again in my conversations with foreign observers. . . . No one in Poland is able to prove today that violence will help us to dislodge Soviet troops from Poland and to remove the Communists from power. The USSR has such enormous military power that confrontation is simply unthinkable. In other words: we have no guns. Letters from Prison and Other Essays reviewed in Commentary 1987

The Man of Iron
This Oscar nominee and winner of the Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival is a riveting look at life in Gdansk, Poland in the years preceding the historic Solidarity movement. In August 1980, a journalist is sent to a strike at the Gdansk docks to gather damaging information about the organizers. But after witnessing their courage and conviction, he begins to see the possibility for change ... if others are willing to stand with them.
Difference between pacifism and nonviolence

"Pacifism as a mass movement aims to avoid suffering; pacifists often say that no cause is worth suffering or dying for. The ethos of Solidarity is based on an opposite premise—that there are causes worth suffering and dying for." Letter from Gdansk Prison" 1985
From Solidarity to Democracy WSJ November 6, 2009

On the Ideal Society

"Solidarity has never had a vision of an ideal society. It wants to live and let live. Its ideals are closer to the American Revolution than the French." Letter from Gdansk Prison" 1985
From Solidarity to Democracy WSJ November 6, 2009

On Fear

“I personally? I am personally afraid of myself. Afraid of doing something stupid or indecent. A man must always fear something. But in general I am a happy man. I have lived to see these times... We are perhaps the first generation over the whole century which can say our life is drawing to a successful close. For I was first imprisoned when I was 18. It was after 1965. Which of us could say at that time that we would see all that we have today: a free Poland, free Ukraine, and so on? Interview in The Day (June 19, 2001)

Advice to Young Journalists

“Two things. Freedom and truth. This is our policy. We are called upon to defend these two values: freedom and truth.” Interview in The Day (June 19, 2001)

Video: Report on the Solidarity Movement 1970s - 1980s

On Democracy

"Democracy is a daily plebiscite. Every day we decide whether we want to live in democracy or we don't want to. Whether we will defend it or we won't defend it."

From Solidarity to Democracy WSJ November 6, 2009