In Havana on Dec. 20, a group of artists and activists were preparing to perform a piece titled “Psychosis.” The plot revolves around a person enclosed in a very small space, showing signs of madness, who wants to leave. The play was inspired by events in 2010 at a psychiatric hospital in Havana, where 26 patients died of hunger and cold. The story is obviously a metaphor about the regime of Fidel and Raúl Castro, who have ruled the island for nearly six decades, intolerant of dissent and free speech. In the performance, there were to be allusions to Raúl Castro and terms such as “dictatorship.”
Predictably, before the performance, the authorities swooped in and made arrests. The director was detained temporarily, as well as the chief actor. Also arrested was activist Lia Villares. When released Dec. 22, she said she had scratched a message on the prison cell walls: “Art Yes, Censorship No. I am free.” She was fined for defacing the walls. The authorities warned her sharply against any activity on behalf of Cuba Decide. The movement advocates a plebiscite for free elections and free speech in Cuba and is led by Rosa María Payá Acevedo, whose father, Oswaldo Payá, championed the Varela Project seeking these goals in earlier years. Clearly, the Castro regime does not like the idea that Cubans could “decide” anything about their own destiny.
Oswaldo Payá, who was killed in a suspicious 2012 car wreck, founded the Christian Liberation Movement in Cuba. The movement’s current national coordinator, Eduardo Cardet, a doctor, was arrested in November 2016 for criticizing Fidel Castro a few days after his death. Recently, he was moved to a notorious prison in Havana and then beaten brutally.
A well-known Cuban dissident will be in West New York on Friday to speak out against continued human rights abuses on the island despite the recent thaw in U.S. relations, and to be honored by one of the town’s own outspoken critics of the island’s authoritarian regime.
The dissident, Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello, is a 72-year-old economist and longtime critic of Fidel Castro and his brother Raul. She has spent years in and out of prison in Cuba on charges including counterrevolutionary activities.
North Hudson, and West New York in particular, have one of the largest Cuban-American communities in the country outside of the Miami area.
Roque Cabello will have a sympathetic audience in Mayor Felix Roque, a Cuban native and outspoken critic of the Castro family regime. The mayor has previously met with other Cuban dissidents, and even talked about returning to Cuba to run for office some day.
“For me, it’s an honor,” Roque said of Roque Cabello’s visit. “And it shows there’s still people out there fighting for freedom of speech and democracy.”
Roque will be joined by members of the West New York Town Council at 11:30 a.m. Friday, in his office at town hall, where they will hear Roque Cabello speak and present her with ceremonial “Key to the Town.”
While Roque is not a common name in Cuba, the mayor said he and the dissident are not related.
“It’s just a weird coincidence,” he said.
Roque Cabello is a member of what is known as Cuba’s “Group of Four,” which published “The Homeland Belongs to Us All,” a 1997 paper that called for political and economic reforms, advocated a boycott of the country’s one-party elections, and urged international investors to keep their money out of Cuba.
The visit to West New York was arranged by an anti-Castro activist in New Jersey, Sergio Gatria, director of the Cuban Information Center in Lyndhurst. Gatria said he had been in contact with Roque Cabello in advance of her visit and that she was interested in meeting Roque and visiting West New York.
“I called Roque because he is well known in Cuba,” among dissidents, Gatria said.
Gatria said Roque Cabello’s visit to New Jersey is a brief stop on a visit to the United States from Cuba, and that she will fly back to Miami on Saturday before returning to the island.
Roque has met with members of the Ladies in White, a group made up of the wives of imprisoned Cuban dissidents who dress in white for Sunday Mass and silent marches through Cuban streets. He has also helped bring Cubans across the Mexican border into the United States.
Like U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Rep. Albio Sires (D-8th District), former mayors of Union City and West New York, respectively, Roque is among Cuban-American Democrats who opposed President Obama’s reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Roque said he fears that cozier relations with the U.S. government will only embolden the Cuban regime in its suppression of dissent.
After trip to the U.S., Cuban pro-democracy student gets expelled
A 20-year-old history student dared to publicly criticize the Cuban government. He also defied them when he met with U.S. officials to try to influence President Donald Trump’s policy.
During a meeting with representatives of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in Washington, Félix Llerena wore a suit and tie. The ten members of the U.S. federal government commission make policy recommendations to Congress, the Secretary of State and Trump.
Llerena documented his trip on social media. He drank coffee under the U.S. flag and visited the Radio y Televisión Martí studio in Miami. The U.S. federal government has been financing the TV station’s programs in Spanish since 1990.
“I am returning to continue the struggle for your true liberation,” Llerena wrote on Facebook during his return flight to Cuba.
Cuban customs’ officials detained him for about four hours when he arrived April 27 at the Aeropuerto Abel Santamaría in Santa Clara. He reported they seized his tablet, flash drives, a pamphlet of the U.S. Constitution, a cap with the Bay of Pigs Invasion Brigade 2506 logo and cards. The alleged harassment didn’t stop there.
Cuban police officers later went to pick him up at his home in the province of Villa Clara’s town of Encrucijada. He told friends that state security agents called him a “terrorist,” accused him of having ties to terrorists living in Miami and threatened him with not being able to go back to the town.
“I am a young Christian, a Cuban, a patriot and a pacifist,” Llerena later said in a statement. “I would never approve of an armed or violent struggle, or of an armed foreign invasion that would hurt my people.”
On Monday, Llerena learned that the Universidad de Ciencias Pedagógicas Enrique José Varona’s administrators decided to expulse him. They attributed their decision to absenteeism.
“They told me that if I wanted to return I had to wait for two years … But of course everyone knows that my expulsion is due to purely political reasons,” Llerena wrote on Facebook.
Llerena traveled to the U.S. as part of a Christian delegation that included Baptist church leaders Mario Felix Lleonart, Yoaxis Marcheco and Raudel Garcia Bringas, and Apostolic Movement Pastor Yiorvis Bravo. They are part of the island’s Christian revival.
The Cuban constitution recognizes freedom of religion. As a result, clergy and academics estimate there are some 40,000 Methodists, 100,000 Baptists and 120,000 members of the Assemblies of God. About 60 percent of Cubans are baptized Catholic, with many also following Afro-Cuban syncretistic traditions such as Santeria.
Llerena also serves as the central region coordinator for the Patmos Institute, a Christian organization that promotes religious liberty on the island. He is also a promoter for CubaDecide, a campaign to request an electoral vote to begin a transition to Democracy on the island.
Mervyn Thomas, the director of the London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide, released a statement asking the Cuban government “to cease its harassment of Felix and to turn its attention to addressing its ongoing violations of freedom of religion or belief as a matter of urgency.”
Frustrated by what they see as “indolence” from the previous administration, some Cuban government opponents are urging President Donald Trump to backtrack current Cuba policy and speak out about increased government repression on the island.
Antonio G. Rodiles and his partner Ailer González — both members of the Forum for Rights and Freedoms — are calling on the new administration to reset U.S.-Cuba relations and “recognize that they are dealing with a dictatorship.”
“The main thing would be for those of us who are legitimate actors on the Cuban scene — inside and outside the island — to be part of the policy design and part of that political process toward the island” unlike what former President Barack Obama did, Rodiles said during a recent meeting with el Nuevo Herald.
The couple also denounced an increase in repression since Obama announced his policy of engagement and the restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba in December 2014. The situation, they said, has become worse since the death of former leader Cuban Fidel Castro in November with a “millimetric monitoring” of opponents’ actions and harassment of their families.
“It is important for the new administration to start taking action on the issue and make some statement, because silence is being very well used by the regime to try to crush the opposition,” Rodiles said.
The Cuban government opponent criticized the “indolence” of the Obama administration toward the human rights situation on the island.
“We have direct experience, including talking to President Obama, and the direct experience was that there was a lot of indolence in what happened with Cuba … There was a moment when we understood that the administration was not an ally [in the struggle for] for democratic changes in Cuba, that they had a vision that Cuba was going to change in the long term and that we would have to accept neo-Castroism,” he said.
Although he was careful not to mention what measures taken by the previous administration should be eliminated — such as sending remittances or authorizing U.S. airline travel to the island, which are popular in Cuba and within a large portion of the Cuban American community — Rodiles said he supports returning to the previous longtime policy of applying economic pressure against the Raúl Castro government, a practice Obama has referred to as a “failed policy.”
“If the regime is taking advantage of some of these measures, I’d cut that economic income,” Rodiles said. “Everything that is giving benefits to the regime and not to the people must be reversed.”
The frustration expressed by the activist couple has become increasingly evident. A video published by the Forum for Rights and Liberties and in which González exclaims, “Obama, you are finally leaving!” unleashed a whirlwind of controversy within social media networks.
According to Rodiles, Obama asked dissidents and activists during a meeting in Havana on March 22, 2016, to have patience with his policy of rapprochement.
“I told him that you can’t be patient when they are kicking citizens and women with impunity,” Rodiles said. The couple was among several activists arrested during a widely reported act of repudiation against dissidents on the same Sunday that Obama arrived in Havana for an historic visit.
Rodiles and González dismissed criticism by those who question their support for President Trump and claim their agenda is dictated by groups within the Cuban exile community. They said their interest is in readdressing Cuba issues not taking a position on U.S. domestic issues.
“Those same people who say that we are being radical and confrontational, are extremely unsupportive. They do not report any violation of human rights. These are hypocritical positions,” González said.
As for other strategies being carried out by other opposition groups on the island in an effort to incite change, the couple acknowledged that there are many different ideologies and approaches, which they said was a healthy element in the struggle for democracy.
“The most important thing,” Rodiles said, “is that the regime has to understand that 60 years is more than enough, and that it’s over.”
After Obama’s detente: More tourists on the island and more repression.
Score another kill for the Cuban military dictatorship: Last month it eliminated Afro-Cuban dissident Hamell Santiago Más Hernández, an inmate of one of its most notoriously brutal prisons.
The remarkable thing was not the death of a critic. That’s routine in a police state that holds all the guns, bayonets, money and food. What’s noteworthy is that the world hardly blinked, which is to say that two years after President Obama’s detente with Raúl Castro, the regime still dispatches adversaries with impunity. It also routinely blocks visitors to the island, even of the leftist stripe—more on this in a moment—in order to keep the population isolated. “Normalization” to the contrary, Cuba is the same totalitarian hellhole that it has been for the past 58 years.
Forty-five-year-old Más Hernández was a member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, a group working for a peaceful transition to democracy. He was healthy when he was arrested in June and sentenced to four years in prison for “disrespect for authority”—a k a failure to bow to the masters of the slave plantation. His real crime was advocating for a free Cuba while black. There are few more lethal combinations.
The black Cuban is supposed to show gratitude to the revolution to sustain the myth that he has been elevated by communism. The grim reality is the opposite, but heaven help those who dare to say so.
In November, Más Hernández was transferred to Combinado del Este prison, a dungeon not fit for animals. There he developed a kidney infection. His wife told the independent media in Cuba that he lost almost 35 pounds. According to his overlords he died on Feb. 24 of a “heart attack.” Funny, that epidemic of heart disease among those who cross Castro.
His death ought to prick the conscience of the free world. But while the island is crawling with foreign news bureaus, the story has not appeared in the English-language press. President Obama may have opened Cuba to more tourists, but the regime takes pains to keep its 11 million captive souls and their misery invisible.
The Castro family is a crime syndicate and many American businesses want a piece of the action. Sheraton Four Points now runs a hotel owned by the military regime. The luggage company Tumi spent the winter promoting Cuba travel on its website. (Note to self: Buy that new suitcase from someone who isn’t blind to tyranny.) The upshot is that more U.S. dollars flow to Cuba’s military coffers than ever before.
Mr. Obama argued that more contact with outsiders would empower Cubans. The regime agrees. It has been open to foreign tourism and investment since the end of Soviet subsidies in the early 1990s, and millions of Europeans, Latin Americans and Asians have flooded the country. But its secret police keep a tight leash on visitors.
British real-estate developer Stephen Purvis, Canadian businessmen Cy Tokmakjian and Sarkis Yacoubian and U.S. Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross all did time in Cuban jails for being too independent of the mob boss.
Last month Castro took the audacious step of refusing visas to three prominent Latin American politicians who could hardly be regarded as enemies of Cuba.
Organization of American States Secretary-General Luis Almagro was invited to Cuba by Rosa María Payá. She is the daughter of the late Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, who was killed in a suspicious car accident in the summer of 2012. Mr. Almagro was slated to receive an award named for Ms. Payá’s father from the Latin America Youth Network for Democracy. But Mr. Almagro, who is a Uruguayan leftist, was denied entry to the island.
The regime also blocked Mariana Aylwin, the daughter of Patricio Aylwin, the first elected Chilean president post-Pinochet. Ms. Aylwin is a Christian Democrat and a former education minister and was to accept a posthumous award for her late father. She remains an important voice in the Chilean Christian Democrat Party, which is a member, with the Communist Party among others, of the governing coalition.
Ms. Payá also invited former Mexican President Felipe Calderón to the event. Mr. Calderón is a member of Mexico’s center-right PAN, but as head of state he was friendly toward Cuba. One memorable moment was when he welcomed Raúl at the Rio Group summit on the Mayan Riviera in 2010 at a time when Orlando Zapata, another black Cuban dissident, lay dying in a military prison. Mr. Calderón was also denied a visa.
Cuba is not reforming. As always, dissidents are sent to prison death traps, and now Castro insults highly placed onetime friends by refusing them access to the island. Tourists are welcome, but only to drink state propaganda and leave behind hard currency. Any suggestion that Cubans have a right to self-determination remains a crime against the state.
A pastor and his wife have been arrested in Cuba for homeschooling their children, according to Mike Donnelly, director of global outreach for the Home School Legal Defense Association, a U.S.-based organization that has offered legal assistance to homeschooling families since 1983.
Donnelly wrote about Cuban pastor Ramón Rigal and his wife Adya, who were arrested on Feb. 21, on the HSDA website on Monday.
“The Obama administration argued that normal relations with Cuba would lead to improved conditions for Cubans,” Donnely wrote. “But things have not gotten better for homeschoolers.”
“We wanted the freedom to give our children the education that we, the parents, have chosen,” Ramón said. “As Article 26.3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, every parent has the right to give his children the education that he chooses.”
“The Municipal Office of Education in Guantánamo wrote to Ramón explaining, among other things, that ‘in our system, homeschooling is not considered an educational institution, as this term is basically used in countries with capitalist foundations,’” according to the Home School Legal Defense Association.
“The letter also stated that the Cuban penal code provides sanctions for a person who ‘leads a minor to abandon his home, be absent from school, refuse educational work that is inherent to the national system of education, or fail to fulfill his duties related to the respect and love for the homeland.’”
Donnelly said this stance violates international human rights law — something characteristic of totalitarian regimes like the one in Cuba.
“A government that denies parents the right to choose how their children are educated, including home education, violates fundamental norms of international human rights law,” Donnelly told Breitbart News.
In the article, Donnelly said Cuba should “meet certain minimum norms” to be part of the global community.
“If Cuba plans to join the community of nations, especially having a relationship with the United States, it should be expected to meet certain minimum norms in the way it treats its citizens,” Donnelly wrote in the article. “The right of people to establish private schools and to homeschool is a minimum expectation.
“A society that forces its children to learn only in public school is totalitarian and Cuba’s long history of totalitarian behavior in many areas including education must change now,” wrote Donnelly, who also sent a letter to the Senior Minister of Education in Cuba on behalf of the family.
He did not receive a response.
Donnelly pointed out in his article that the U.S.’s Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 states that U.S. policy should oppose the human rights violations of the Castro regime, to maintain sanctions “so long as it continues to refuse to move toward democratization and greater respect for human rights” and to “be prepared to reduce the sanctions in carefully calibrated ways in response to positive developments in Cuba.”
Donnelly also cited President Barack Obama’s 2016 memorandum that said normalizing relations with Cuba would help human rights.
“Our vision for U.S.-Cuba normalization reflects my Administration’s support for broad-based economic growth, stability, increased people-to-people ties, and respect for human rights and democratic values in the region,” then-President Obama wrote in the memorandum. “Our policy is designed to support Cubans’ ability to exercise their universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, with the expectation that greater commerce will give a broader segment of the Cuban people the information and resources they need to achieve a prosperous and sustainable future.”
“Ramón wants to be able to stay in Cuba to pastor his congregation. But it is no wonder that Ramón and his family, after being treated like this simply because they homeschool, have expressed a desire to seek refuge in a country that would respect their rights to educate their children,” wrote Donnelly, who called on the Cuban government to respect parents’ rights and the U.S. government to hold it accountable.
“A government that is unwilling to trust its citizens to homeschool is not worthy of trust from its citizens,” Donnelly wrote. “We call on Cuba to respect Pastor Rigale’s right and to end its prosecution of his family.
“We hope that members of Congress and the Trump administration will take an interest in this case and take action to defend the Rigals and others like them,” Donnelly wrote.
Bringing freedom and democracy to totalitarian Cuba will be no easy task. Two indispensable ingredients, though, must be courage on the part of the country’s dissidents and democrats, and international solidarity with them.
Both were on display in Havana over the past week. At the center of events was Rosa María Payá Acevedo, daughter of the late Oswaldo Payá, a recipient of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought who lost his life in a still-unexplained 2012 car crash. Ms. Payá decided to pay tribute to her father by awarding a human rights prize in his name and chose as the first recipient Luis Almagro, the Uruguayan secretary general of the Organization of American States, who has distinguished himself through forthright condemnation of repression in Cuba’s authoritarian ally Venezuela. Ms. Payá invited former Mexican president Felipe Calderón, former Chilean education minister Mariana Aylwin (daughter of a former president) and Martin Palous, a former Czech ambassador to the United States, to attend.
Raúl Castro’s regime blocked them all from entering the country, telling Mr. Almagro that Ms. Payá’s entirely peaceful program was “anti-Cuban activity” and a “provocation.” Officials also detained journalists attempting to cover the planned ceremony, including Henry Constantin Ferreiro, regional vice chairman of the Inter American Press Association’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information. No doubt Ms. Payá’s unauthorized attempt to honor an international diplomat before such distinguished company did present the regime with an awkward choice: to tolerate an elementary exercise of her rights, and the rights of her invitees, or to deny it, and incur international political damage. How revealing of Havana’s true nature, and true priorities, that it chose the latter. Indeed, Cuba’s foreign ministry said the crackdown showed its determination not to “sacrifice its fundamental principles to maintain appearances.”
And how revealing of the limits of U.S. “engagement” with Cuba. While these European and Latin American leaders were supporting Ms. Payá’s assertion of freedom, a bipartisan delegation of six members of Congress, headed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), were on a visit to Cuba, promoting business ties. After a visit with Mr. Castro, Mr. Leahy blandly observed that the dictator “wants reform to continue, he wants the movement forwards to continue” despite President Trump’s uncertain attitude toward the island’s government. Mr. Leahy’s spokesman told us that the delegation’s schedule was too “packed” with appointments such as the Castro meeting to allow for any contact with Ms. Payá, and declined to comment, pro or con, on the regime’s refusal to admit Mr. Almagro and company.
To be sure, Mr. Trump is hardly the ideal spokesman for democracy promotion, in Cuba or anywhere else. All the more reason that members of Congress supply on America’s behalf the solidarity Cuba’s democrats need, and all the more reason to be disappointed that Mr. Leahy and his colleagues did not provide more of it.
Cuban authorities have denied a visa to the head of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, to travel to the communist-ruled island to receive a prize from a dissident organisation, he said Wednesday.
Almagro had been invited to receive a prize named for dissident Oswaldo Paya, who died in 2012 in a car crash under mysterious circumstances.
“My request for a visa for the official OAS passport was denied by the Cuban consulate in Washington,” Almagro said in a letter to Paya’s daughter Rosa Maria, who organised the ceremony to confer the prize.
Almagro said he was informed by Cuban consular authorities that he would be denied a visa even if he travelled on his Uruguayan diplomatic passport.
The Cubans conveyed to a representative of Almagro that they regarded the motive of his visit an “unacceptable provocation,” and expressed “astonishment” at the OAS’s involvement in what they deemed anti-Cuban activities, he said.
Almagro said he asked that the decision be reversed, arguing that his trip to Cuba was no different from events he had participated in other countries of the region.
Two other political figures who wanted to travel to Cuba for the award ceremony — Mexico’s former president Felipe Calderon and former Chilean education minister Mariana Aylwin — said they also had been denied visas.
Cuba was suspended from the OAS in 1962 at the height of the Cold War, and has declined to return despite having been readmitted in 2009.
Since Cuba’s suspension, the only OAS secretary general to visit the island was Jose Miguel Insulza, a Chilean who attended a Latin American summit in Havana in 2014.
Chile said Tuesday it was recalling its ambassador to Cuba for consultation and speaking to the Cuban government to establish why a prominent former minister was blocked from entering Cuba on Monday night.
Mariana Aylwin, a former education minister and daughter of ex-president Patricio Aylwin, was travelling to the island to receive a prize on behalf of her father. The event, planned for Wednesday, was organised by the Latin American Network of Youth for Democracy, which has been critical of the Cuban government.
The organisation has also invited Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States, which suspended Cuba in 1962 for being Communist.
While the Washington-based OAS agreed in 2009 to lift the Cold War ruling, Cuba declined to rejoin the group, which it deems an imperialist instrument of its former Cold War foe the United States.
Aylwin was prevented from checking in to her flight in Chile’s capital, Santiago, apparently at the request of the Cuban authorities, she told journalists on Tuesday.
“Exercising the right (to travel between nations) should not be interfered with, especially given that Chile has recognised the feats of various figures in Cuban history and politics,” Chile’s Foreign Relations Ministry said in a statement.
Mariana Aylwin served in Congress in the 1990s for Chile’s centrist Christian Democratic Party, and later as minister in the 2000s under centre-left president Ricardo Lagos, who is running for president in Chile’s 2017 elections.
She is seen as an ideological leader of the most conservative segment of Chile’s centre-left ruling coalition.
Her father was Chile’s first democratically elected president after the 1973 to 1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and is credited with successfully overseeing the nation’s fragile political transition.