Sunday, March 7, 2021

Tourism to Cuba is a bad idea: Update on the case of Benjamin Tomlin

Cuba is the North Korea of the Americas, a secretive, totalitarian communist dictatorship with a terrible human rights record. Why would anyone go on vacation in Cuba or North Korea? There are cautionary tales on what happens to tourists traveling to these countries.

Otto Wambier: December 12, 1994 - June 19, 2017

College student Otto Wambier was sentenced to 15 years in prison and hard labor in March 2016 for allegedly trying to steal a political propaganda poster in North Korea. One year and three months later he was released to the United States in a coma acquired in prison allegedly from botulism and died a day after his return. e.

Joachim Løvschall was a Danish youth studying Spanish in Havana. On March 28, 1997 Joachim Løvschall ate his last dinner with white wine in a little restaurant called Aladin, located on 21st street in Havana. He went to the Revolutionary Plaza and bought a ticket to the Cuban National Theater. Following the performance he went to the theater's bar, Cafe Cantate, and met up with two Swedish friends. They each drank a couple of beers, but soon left because Joachim did not like the music. At 23:30, they said good bye to each other on the sidewalk in front of Cafe Cantate. 

Joachim Løvschall: December 7, 1970 - March 29, 1997

Joachim was gunned down by a Castro regime soldier in Havana, Cuba on March 29, 1997. The identity of the soldier has never been revealed to Joachim''s family. No one has been brought to justice. He was killed after leaving friends from a night out, on his walk back home

Despite these cautionary stories, tourists continue to go to North Korea and Cuba on holiday, and tragedies continue to happen. William Southworth, a recent university graduate, has written the following  report on the plight of Canadian national, Benjamin Tomlin and conditions in Cuba's prisons. This blog first reported on his plight on September 18, 2020. Below is an update.

Injustice and Inhumane Conditions in a Cuban Prison

Something is rotten in the state of Cuba.

Benjamin Tomlin: falsely imprisoned

By William Southworth

There are 300 prisoners at La Condesa, most of them foreigners. Nearly all have been sentenced on blatantly false charges if the men we interviewed are any good indication. Many have been detained chiefly for their value as political prisoners and not for their roles in any potential crimes. They were arrested abruptly and without explanation. Not understanding their predicament, these unfortunate persons were left to rot under terrible conditions without a sentence for months or years. One French prisoner had to wait 3 years and 5 months before he had his prison sentence explained to him.

If the incarcerated are lucky, they may eventually get the formality of a trial. The charges are normally exaggerated and oftentimes pure fiction. The witnesses are being led and if representation is provided, it is normally provided in bad faith by the Cuban state. While it may seem strange for a country whose economy depends on tourism to arbitrarily imprison visiting foreigners, the Cuban regime has a habit of taking political prisoners in order to seize their assets or use them as bargaining chips in foreign negotiations [1]. Regrettably, Cuba has gotten away with these practices by keeping its human rights abuses well out of the international spotlight.

If the Cuban regime does one thing very well, it is to control the flow of information [2]. The regime keeps a tight grasp on its hyperactive mass media to effectively project an image of power and purity both to its citizens and the outside world. Cuban independent journalists are a critically endangered species and are frequently , so an honest headline out of Cuba is a rarity [3]. Surely, Cuba has earned its lowest rank for journalistic freedom in Latin America [4]. As impressive as Cuba’s ability to control the spread of information in Cuba within their borders is, this achievement pales in comparison to their ability to control the spread of information outside its borders.

Consider the example of Benjamin Tomlin. 

Benjamin Tomlin is a well-respected Canadian businessman and a former employee of the Canada Development Investment Corporation (CDEV), he was arrested in 2018 during a visit to Cuba. He was charged with allegedly having sex with a 15-year-old girl during a previous visit, but the exact nature of his charges was kept from him for a very long time. Tomlin was arrested without proper explanation and held for months before a trial. While it is impossible to know the real motives behind his arrest, it stands to reason from previous cases that Cuba may have seized Benjamin over his potential value as a well-connected prisoner. The Cuban state has arrested several other prominent Canadian nationals in order to secure their large on-island assets, namely the wealthy Sarkis Yacoubin and the well-connected Cy Tokmakijan, [5]. When he was being arrested, Tomlin asked the attending officers a poignant question:

“I am a criminal?”

The answer was equally pointed.

“No, you’re just unlucky.”

When he did finally get his trial, it was marred by irregularities and gaps in evidence. Luckier than most, Tomlin was represented in good faith by a Cuban Canadian lawyer, Ricardo Alcolado Perez[6]. Even so, none of the witnesses were able to identify Tomlin before the court, not even the girl whom Tomlin had allegedly had intercourse with. According to Tomlin’s later testimony, he had never seen the girl that was brought before the court. Tomlin was also made to sign various agreements in a Spanish without proper translation. Despite the clear lack of evidence, Tomlin was sentenced to ten years at La Condesa.

The conditions there are terrible. The prison is overcrowded, the beds tightly packed. Tomlin estimates the prison is built for 150 but houses at least twice that number. Disease runs rampant, electricity is intermittent, toilets are hard to access and supplies are scarce. Seriously sick prisoners must wait months for treatment. Mr. Tomlin said he had to wait a month before he received treatment for an excruciatingly painful kidney infection. He has also never received medication for chronic pain owning to a spinal injury. His time at La Condesa has debilitated Benjamin. If this is not proof enough of bad conditions, surely the recent death of one Venezuelan prisoner there, a man named Oscar Nuñez, puts it beyond all doubt. According to Tomlin, Nuñez had been asking to see a doctor for some time before he died without treatment. The prison authorities were allegedly aware of Nuñez’s critical condition before his death.

Tomlin supported his horror story of neglect and inhumane conditions with the testimonies of three other prisoners. These prisoners, one Canadian, one Frenchman and one Venezuelan, echoed Benjamin’s account with their own stories of arbitrary arrests and months spent waiting for an explanation and then, at last, sham trials. They were all in prison for long sentences ranging from 8-10 years and were ready to tell their stories despite the potential consequences. Although they had all once been wary of running their mouths about prison conditions, they had lost all hope of a sudden release and all fear of the extended sentences the guards still threaten them with.

The other Canadian prisoner spoke about the crumbling infrastructure with as much detail as the short interview allowed. The Frenchman, Jacques, alleged the prisoners suffered psychological abuse at the hands of the guardsmen. The Venezuelan, Fabio, talked about moldy food and speculated about the nature of the Cuban police state.

Talking about the muddy circumstances surrounding his sudden detention, he hazarded a few words.

“Esto es Cuba.” (This is Cuba.)

Who knows what other injustices these prisoners might have revealed if they only had a few more minutes to speak? When we interviewed the prisoners, the lines were on a 5-minute time limit and always monitored. The prisoners spoke rapidly in quiet, urgent tones to keep a modicum of confidentiality. Our conversations would often be cut out off at random intervals, or when sensitive topics came up. I received calls from restricted numbers soon after these conversations, although I declined to answer them.

But according to Caroline Simpson, Tomlin’s sister, the true state of these Cuban prisons is a secret. Her inquiries about the prison never got straight answers from Cuban officials, who painted a rosy picture of La Condesa. In this fantasy, all the prisoners were well-cared for and had easy access to the supplies in the prison store. If they had any issues, they could easily contact their native embassies for governmental assistance. But as the testimony of the prisoners reveals, the reality at La Condesa and other Cuban prisons is far worse than the official picture [7].

That these prisoners should be willing to testify at all is an act of bravery. The guards had promised punishment should they speak about the poor conditions at La Condesa, threatening the prisoners with extended sentences. But Tomlin said that he and his fellow prisoners had grown tired of keeping their silence and living in fear.

Now that a new president has assumed office, the Cuban question is all the more pressing. Will the United States pursue a policy of détente or renew a blockade with the island? Is a middle course possible and if so, what will it mean for the prisoners in La Condesa? 

As the case of Benjamin Tomlin demonstrates, the United States and Canada must remember that they are dealing with a dishonest, totalitarian state. If other nations continue to tolerate boldfaced human rights abuses in Cuba, Tomlin will certainly not be the last foreigner to fall victim to a predatory Cuban police state.

Cited Sources

[1] Whitefield, Mimi. “53 Cuban Political Prisoners Are Free, but Controversy Remains.” Miami Herald, Miami Herald, 14 Jan. 2015, www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article6544485.html.

[2] MacDuff, Carlyle. “Cuba's Official Media and Its Informative Omissions.” Havana Times, 18 July 2020, havanatimes.org/opinion/cubas-official-media-and-its-informative-omissions/.

[3] Oppenheimer, Andres. “A Horrible Time for Journalists - and Not Just in Cuba and Venezuela.” Miami Herald, 27 Oct. 2018, www.miamiherald.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/andres-oppenheimer/article220668215.html.

[4] N.A. “Cuba : Constant Ordeal for Independent Media: Reporters without Borders.” RSF, Reporters Without Borders, 2020, rsf.org/en/cuba.

[5] Quinn, Jennifer. “Canadian Businessman Expelled from Cuban Jail.” Thestar.com, 7 Feb. 2014, www.thestar.com/news/world/2014/02/06/canadian_businessman_expelled_from_cuban_jail.html.

[6]The Canadian Press | News. “Freeland Says She Brought up Case of Imprisoned Canadian with Cuban Foreign Minister.” National Observer, 2 Sept. 2019, www.nationalobserver.com/2019/09/02/news/freeland-says-she-brought-case-imprisoned-canadian-cuban-foreign-minister.

[7] Associated Latin Press. “Prensa Latina - Latin American News Agency.” Www.plenglish.com/, 25 June 2020, www.plenglish.com/index.php?o=rn.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

In Solidarity with the Hong Kong 47: A call for hope and action

“The solidarity of the shaken can say ‘no’ to the measures of mobilization that make the state of war permanent. … The solidarity of the shaken is built up in persecution and uncertainty: that is its front line, quiet, without fanfare or sensation even there where this aspect of the ruling Force seeks to seize it.” - Jan Patočka

Wong ji-yuet is on trial and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison

Over the past 71 years the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has murdered tens of millions of Chinese citizens, backed the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the Kim regime in North Korea. The CCP through its lack of transparency, silencing of Chinese scientists and journalists, has led to a global pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands and crashed the global economy.

These are the fruits of engaging with a mass murdering totalitarian dictatorship, but too many have not learned the lesson, and seek to return to the old unacceptable status quo.

Press accounts report that "39 men and eight women are charged with 'conspiracy to commit subversion' in connection with the unofficial primary to choose opposition candidates for the now-postponed 2020 Legislative Council election, which attracted some 600,000 voters." These 47 activists face great legal jeopardy in China, but in a free country they would be congratulated for being good citizens.

In early January 2021 mass arrests were carried out and grueling bail hearings are now underway that have left four of the defendants hospitalized due to exhaustion.

One of the youngest defendants is 23-year-old Wong Ji-yuet, she is  a first time political hopeful. The pro-democratic primary nominee won 22,911 votes, and came in third in the NTW Constituency in Hong Kong. Let us speak up for her and the other 46 who are unjustly persecuted.

In the Orwellian world that is the Peoples Republic of China in the 21st century, exercising democratic rights under the National Security Law imposed last year on Hong Kong is grounds for a maximum sentence of life in prison

Worse yet, members of the UN Human Rights Council supported this law stifling democracy and freedom of expression.

On July 1, 2020 the Cuban dictatorship introduced a  resolution at the UN Human Rights Council praising China for passing the Hong Kong National Security Law, also known as 66 article law.  53 governments backed this resolution, endorsing the death of a free Hong Kong. Official Chinese media "celebrated" their victory at the human rights body.

The Chinese Communist Party in a secretive legislative process circumvented Hong Kong's sovereignty and imposed this new law a day earlier on June 30, 2020, the 23rd anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong. 

This action is a breach of the agreement made with the British.  Professor Johannes Chan, a legal scholar at the University of Hong Kong in a BBC news report explained that "effectively, they are imposing the People's Republic of China's criminal system onto the Hong Kong common law system, leaving them with complete discretion to decide who should fall into which system." 

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, in an interview with the BBC put it more succinctly, "It spells the death knell for Hong Kong."

Today 47 citizens of Hong Kong are being subjected to China's communist legal system for exercising their fundamental human rights, that prior to June 30, 2020, had been recognized by the government in Hong Kong and tolerated by Beijing. 

It is worthwhile to explore Cuba's role in backing this repressive measure.

Communist China and Cuba are joined by ideology

President Xi, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, exchanged congratulatory messages with Raul Castro Ruz, first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba Central Committee, and Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel to celebrate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two communist dictatorships.

In September 1960 the Cuban government diplomatically recognized the Peoples Republic of China. Between 1960 and 1964 the two regimes would collaborate closely together. 

Ernesto "Che" Guevara with a Cuban delegation visited Mainland China and met with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and other high ranking Chinese officials in November 1960 to discuss conditions in Cuba and in Latin America, and the prospects for communist revolution in the Western Hemisphere.

This was at a time that Havana still had normal diplomatic relations with the United States. Diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States were severed on January 3, 1961.

Relations between China and Cuba cooled in 1964 when the Castro regime sided with the Soviet Union in the Sino-Soviet  split, but warmed again in 1989 following the Tiananmen Massacre. The Castro regime was one of the few governments to support the massacre, and the Castro regime had distanced itself from the Soviet Union viewing Perestroika and Glasnost  as existential threats to their rule.

Cuba's relationship with the Soviet Union provided Havana with expertise in biological warfare and biotech that had been denied the Chinese due to the above mentioned split. The Castro regime beginning in the late 1980s began offering that knowledge to their counterparts in Beijing and signed a  formal agreement to produce monoclonal antibodies in 2002.

The two regimes have been working closely together during the COVID-19 pandemic that originated in Wuhan, China in December 2019.  Above is a video presentation given in April 2020 on this relationship.

Little surprise that on July 1, 2020 the Castro regime took the lead in backing the new security law in Hong Kong that effectively ends freedom there.

We must do what we can to speak up for our Chinese brothers and sisters imprisoned for non-violently exercising their rights in the defense of human rights and democracy.

Erazim V. Kohák in his book Jan Patočka: philosophy and selected writings refers to Patočka’s “solidarity of the shaken” as a community freed “from the preoccupation with the pursuits of peace and prosperity that inevitably lead to war and turn it instead to the pursuit of the Good, the care of the soul” that is “living with a clear conscience, living in truth, or in far older terms, seeking first the Kingdom of God.” 

This solidarity of the shaken is not passive resistance but an active nonviolent resistance to injustice. People of goodwill must join together to resist this expanding tide of totalitarianism and authoritarianism, and in doing so preserve freedom. 

In 1990 in his book, Disturbing the Peace, the late Czech President, and dissident, Vaclav Havel reflected on the nature of hope, and it is even more relevant in these challenging times. 

“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."

Let us be hopeful, and not despair, continuing to speak out for brethren in China and elsewhere that repression and injustice are operating.


Sunday, February 28, 2021

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas born 69 years ago: Honoring Cuba's Consistent Human Rights Defender

"And we, without hatred, sow hope. We say socialism or death, no. Liberty and Life." -  Oswaldo Payá

Oswaldo José Payá Sardiñas Feb 29, 1952 - Jul 22, 2012

Oswaldo's daughter, Rosa María Payá, over twitter today posted a photo in Spanish with the above quote by her dad in the original Spanish, with the following statement, here translated.

"In these days my dad would be celebrating his birthday, if hatred, made totalitarian power, had not killed him along with Harold Cepero. Hatred and death failed: they could not eliminate his legacy.
 
#Homeland And Life 
 #Freedom and Life  
Oswaldo Payá, Feb 29. 1952 - Jul 22 2012"
 
Embedded below is Rosa's tweet from today.

Oswaldo José Payá Sardiñas was born 69 years ago on February 29, 1952 and was extrajudicially executed in Cuba by Castro's secret police on July 22, 2012 along with Harold Cepero.


Ten years earlier, Oswaldo Payá along with other members of the Christian Liberation Movement in May 2002 turned in thousands of signatures from the Varela Project, a petition that called for human rights to be respected in Cuba, and that the matter be debated before the National Assembly.

 In December of 2002, thanks to lobbying and pressure from Spain, Oswaldo Payá was able to travel to Strasbourg, France to receive the European Union's Sakharov Prize and address the chamber.


In 2011, seven Norwegian members of parliament nominated Oswaldo Payá for the Nobel Peace Prize.( Václav Havel had also twice nominated Oswaldo Payá ).

Following the untimely deaths of Oswaldo and Harold, the Cuban opposition leader's family was subjected to death threats and heightened surveillance by state security.

Nine years later and his legacy lives on in Cuba, in the diaspora, and with his family. In 2019 his book "The Night Will Not Be Eternal: Dangers and Hopes for Cuba."   
 
In Cuba, today activists from the Christian Liberation Movement remember and honor their founder in a Tweet that reads, translated to English: "Christian Liberation Movement, Palma Soriano: Today we remember Oswaldo Payá on the 69th anniversary of his birth. Example of dignity and courage. We are liberation. Homeland, freedom and life."

Today, let us also remember and pray for the soul of this good man, who sacrificed all for the freedom of the Cuban people.

It is also a moment to share with others how others looking from outside the Cuban experience viewed this human rights defender and Cuban patriot. Below are observations made by Norwegian members of parliament in 2011 when they nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Norwegian members of parliament nominated Oswaldo Payá for Nobel Peace Prize in 2011
Norwegian MPs nominate Oswaldo Payá for Nobel Peace Prize

Source: Christian Liberation Movement

A group of 7 Norwegian Members of Parliament has nominated the Cuban Oswaldo Payá for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. – The Nobel Prize to Cuba’s most important oppositional leader would be an important contribution to peace and democracy for a people who have been denied their fundamental human rights for far too long, the MPs write in their nomination letter.

Through nearly two decades Oswaldo Payá has been the leading figure in a peaceful struggle for basic human rights in Cuba. Oswaldo Payá represents all Cubans who want a peaceful change based on reconciliation and dialogue.

– We believe the Nobel Peace Prize would send a strong signal to the Cuban government that it is time for change, says Dagrun Eriksen, MP, deputy leader of the Christian Democratic Party and one of the signatories.

Oswaldo Payá has built his work on the conviction that all human beings have inviolable rights. He believes that the right to freedom of speech is the basis on which to solve all other problems in society. Only when the people themselves can express their concerns, Cuba will be able to find its own way out of the country’s challenges.

- Oswaldo Payá recognizes that freedom of speech and respect for fundamental human rights is a precondition for a peaceful development, says Jan Tore Sanner, MP, deputy leader of the Conservative Party and one of the other signatories.

Oswaldo Payá has consistently tried to work within the frames of Cuban law, through petitions calling for the respect for basic human rights. When the Varela project succeeded in collecting enough signatures to set of a referendum in 2002, the Cuban regime’s response, however, was to arrest 75 oppositional leaders, in what became known as the Black Spring.

Last spring, Mr Sanner and Mrs Eriksen took the initiative to form a support group for Cuban political prisoners in the Norwegian Parliament, including MPs from all the Norwegian parties. Following the release of more than 40 prisoners into forced exile last summer, 19 of them wrote a letter to the group, proposing that they nominate Oswaldo Payá for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

- The support from the former prisoners of conscience shows how Oswaldo Payá has succeeded in gathering different groups of dissidents in dialogue and peaceful resistance, says Dagrun Eriksen.

Jan Tore Sanner was one of the nominators behind last year’s winner Liu Xiabo.

- Oswaldo Payá represents the same peaceful struggle for human rights as Liu Xiabo, says Mr Sanner.

Payá has continued to call for unity and dialogue between all Cubans, in and outside the country. His National Dialogue program and All Cubans Forum, have involved thousands of Cubans in discussions on proposals for a peaceful change towards democracy. Payá is now again calling for a referendum on basic human rights.

- Oswaldo Payá would be a worthy winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, say Dagrun Eriksen and Jan Tore Sanner.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Brothers to the Rescue shootdown 25 years later: Continuing the struggle for truth, justice, and memory

#TruthJusticeMemory

Mario de la Peña, age 24; Carlos Costa, Pablo Morales, both 30, and Armando Alejandre Jr., 45 were murdered in international airspace on February 24, 1996 at 3:21pm and 3:27pm by heat-seeking air-to-air missiles launched from a MiG-29 UB piloted by Lorenzo Alberto Peréz Peréz that destroyed the two planes the men were onboard. Mario, Carlos, Pablo and Armando were members of the humanitarian organization Brothers to the Rescue.

This was a premeditated act of state terrorism carried out by Mr. Peréz Peréz on the orders of both Fidel and Raul Castro and through the chain of command issuing the unlawful order that killed these four men.

Cuban spies obtained the information on flight times, and were told not to fly on February 24th, and if they did have to fly to signal the MiGs with a motion while in flight to avoid the fate of the others.

This was a premeditated killing over international airspace. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) concluded that the two planes "were shot down miles away from Cuba’s boundary having never entered or touched it on that day and the planes had been in contact with the Cuban tower throughout the flight."

They failed to destroy a third plane with Sylvia Iriondo, Andrés Iriondo, Jose Basulto, and Arnaldo Iglesias on board. 

There is no statue of limitations on murder and state terrorism.  There is much more in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reports on the Brothers to the Rescue shoot down, and worth reading.

Over the past 25 years friends, and family have continued to demand truth, respect memory and demand justice through protests, petitions, and law suits.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Letters to the Editor: Biden must minimize overtures to Cuba | The Miami Herald

The Miami Herald, February 18, 2021

Letters to the Editor

Biden must minimize overtures to Cuba

The tip of the iceberg.

Source: The Miami Herald

Kudos to Kevin G. Hall and Nora Gámez Torres for their well-researched Feb. 12th article, “Brother of powerful Cuban general moves like aphantom in embargo-evading offshore world.”

It exposed the links between Guillermo Faustino Rodríguez López-Calleja who controls the Luxembourg registered Mid Atlantic company and his brother Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja who runs Cuba’s military-industrial conglomerate, Grupo de Administracion Empresarial S.A., (GAESA), that reportedly controls 60 percent of Cuba’s economy.

Monies generated by Mid-Atlantic and GAESA go to the repressive elements of the Castro regime that finance mistreatment of Cubans, and funds Castro’s military and intelligence personnel propping up Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.

 

The Prague-based CASLA Institute in its 2021 report “Venezuela: Crimes Against Humanity, Systematic Repression and Torture, Responsibility of the Cuban regime” presented testimonies they obtained in 2020 from Venezuelan civilian and military witnesses who were tortured by Cuban officers. A rape was also reported.

 

Greater military control of the Cuban economy occurred during the warming of relations between the United States and Cuba, between January 2009 and January 2017.

 

The Obama Administration's 2014 opening to Havana resulted in Castro’s military exponentially expanding "its economic empire under detente" seizing control of economic sectors previously controlled by civilian elements.

 

Resuming détente with Havana will provide more resources to commit atrocities to spread Cuba’s communist ideology.

 

 

John Suarez


https://www.pressreader.com/usa/miami-herald/20210218/page/10/textview