Monthly Archives: August 2016

‘People are complaining openly in Cuba and this has never happened before’

rodilesposter

The Guardian

Leading dissident Antonio Rodiles has been arrested more than 50 times this year, but he says he has moments of optimism about political change in Cuba

Two days before he was due to meet the president of the US, Antonio Rodiles was arrested by the Cuban police.

But this was nothing new – as a democracy activist in Cuba you get to know the police pretty well. Rodiles estimates that he has been arrested more than 50 times since the beginning of the year.

I met Rodiles in his house in Havana, shortly after the US president’s historic visit. He was eventually released and met with Obama, who spent two hours with prominent Cuban dissidents and anti-Castro civil society leaders. “It was a good meeting, but it doesn’t mean we will have a good result,” Rodiles says. And yet, despite plenty of negative experiences, the activist admits that these days, he has moments of optimism.

Rodiles, a native Cuban, has been openly critical of the Castro government since his return from the US in 2010. A qualified physicist, he spent 12 years away from Cuba until he turned to political activism, concerned and frustrated by the lack of civic liberties in his country.

His activism is mainly about reclaiming public space and intellectual freedom. Last year he launched #TodosMarchamos (we all march), an initiative to exercise the right to freedom of expression and take back the streets from the government – there’s a saying in Cuba “esta calle es de Fidel” (this street belongs to Fidel).

On a smaller scale, every Thursday Rodiles hosts meetings at his house – an organisation called Estado de SATS – an open space to present art exhibitions, independent films and debates. They are “a kind of therapy session for activists,” he says.

“There’s no space like this in Cuba. It’s so important to have these kinds of events. People can come here and speak openly without limits. They can say they hate Fidel or even, well, we haven’t had anyone say they like the Castros, but they could do that here,” he jokes.

And these meetings are poignant. Ex-political prisoners are given a microphone to share their thoughts on the future of Cuba and openly discuss their experiences of their restricted life. It seems to be a lifeline for those who think differently to the Cuban communist ideology; and it is perhaps now more important than ever to continue these discussions. The invitation to meet with Obama was a recognition of their work.

Continue reading ‘People are complaining openly in Cuba and this has never happened before’

Cuba is in trouble

A Cuban woman migrant uses her cell phone while other Cubans sleep outside of the border control building in Penas Blancas, Costa Rica, on the border with Nicaragua, on Nov. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix, File)
A Cuban woman migrant uses her cell phone while other Cubans sleep outside of the border control building in Penas Blancas, Costa Rica, on the border with Nicaragua, on Nov. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix, File)

iPolitics, by Jonathan Manthorpe

Economic reforms have stalled — and Cubans are running out of patience

Under the Castro brothers’ brand of feudal Marxism, Cuba has always needed a sugar daddy.

It hasn’t helped the island’s economic well-being, of course, that since Fidel and Raul Castro captured the island in 1959 the United States has imposed comprehensive travel and trade sanctions. The Soviet Union stepped in early on to support the Caribbean orphan and for 30 years was responsible for 80 per cent of the island’s imports and exports.

That subsidy came to an abrupt end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Cuba then entered what is euphemistically called the “Special Period in Time of Peace” — when the country’s production dropped by 34 per cent, there was total dislocation of the transportation system and power outages were common. Mass starvation was avoided, but the average Cuban lost nine kilograms in weight during this period.

In 1999, that strutting rooster Hugo Chavez came to the rescue. From then until his death in March, 2013, the Venezuelan president supplied Cuba with tens of billions of dollars in loans and a steady stream of heavily subsidized oil at around 200,000 barrels a day. That has all but dried up as Venezuela’s economy and society continues its tailspin under Nicolas Maduro.

Fortunately for the Castro brothers, a new sugar daddy appeared on the horizon almost immediately — in the unlikely shape of Uncle Sam.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement in 2014 of renewed ties to Cuba opened the door to American tourism and investment. This prospect seemed close when Obama visited Cuba in March, the first U.S. president to do so for nearly a century. However, the Castro brothers are nothing if not pigheaded — especially Fidel, who only waited until Air Force One had lifted off before launching another of his classic diatribes against Obama and all things Washington.

Promises by Raul Castro of economic reforms to enhance a revived, business-friendly relationship with the U.S. have turned out to be less than meets the eye. Old Commies find it hard to let go of the simple doctrines of their youth, even when they’ve brought them nothing but failure for half a century.

The result is that with the Venezuelans gone — and the Yankee saviours having not yet arrived — the Cuban economy is experiencing a sharp decline.

The number of tourists visiting Cuba increased by 17 per cent last year over 2014, generating gross revenues of $US2.8 billion. But it’s a drop in the bucket. Tourists visit only limited areas of the island and the bulk of the country gets little benefit. That may change when direct U.S. commercial flights resume later this month. But for the moment there’s a big hole in the Castro brothers’ wallet.

It doesn’t help that their natural instinct at these moments of economic stress is to impose price controls and rationing. These act as a major discouragement to Cuba’s already semi-dysfunctional agricultural sector.

Fuel and energy consumption is being cut by 25 per cent. Public lighting is being reduced and government offices are closing early to save power. Price controls are being imposed to placate public discontent over inflation. Imports are being cut by 17 per cent, a severe measure for an import-dependent economy.

Raul Castro, who now runs the show (unless Fidel feels a rant coming on), is portraying these moves as pre-emptive action to prevent a return of the “Special Period.” They also amount to another blow to market reforms — without which the country will continue to flounder.

Many Cubans who can are voting with their feet. There’s been a remarkable increase in the number of Cubans making the arduous and sometimes perilous journey to claim political asylum in the U.S.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 46,635 Cubans have entered the U.S. so far this year, up from 43,159 in 2015. And the 2015 total was up 78 per cent on the 24,278 Cubans who made it to the U.S. in 2014, when the Castro regime made it easier for Cubans to travel abroad. In 2011, only 7,759 Cubans made it to the U.S.

The economic recession at home and uncertainty about when things may improve are driving this exodus, but there’s also the strong magnetic pull from the U.S. In 1966, as Washington ratcheted up its sanctions against the Castro regime, it also enacted the Cuban Adjustment Act, aimed at aiding refugees from the island. The act is sometimes called the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy; it allows Cubans who arrive in the U.S. through a regular port of entry, and who pass criminal and immigration checks, to apply for permanent residence after only a year in the country.

But with relations between the U.S. and Cuba returning to normal, there’s a growing mood in Washington to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act. Which explains the rush among Cubans who want to get to the U.S. (and can do so) to make the trip before the fast-track to citizenship is closed off.

The Havana government has railed against the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, saying it turns Cubans into “victims of human traffickers and delinquent bands operating in the region. These citizens are victims of the politicization of the migration theme on the part of the United States government, which stimulates illegal and unsafe migration.”

The most popular route for Cubans is to fly to Ecuador, where entry is usually easy, and then travel north through Central America and Mexico. Most of these Cubans — 64 per cent of the total — enter the U.S. through Laredo, though many also go through El Paso.

But Ecuador has started demanding visas of Cubans and other routes through the Caribbean rim have become more difficult. Early this month, Colombia deported 1,350 of about 1,800 Cubans stranded in the town of Turbo near the border with Panama. This followed Panama’s closing of its border with Colombia in May. In April, Costa Rica closed its border with Panama, and last November, Nicaragua closed its border with Costa Rica to Cuban migrants.

The time-honoured alternative is the 145-kilometre sea crossing from Cuba to Florida. Last year the number of Cuban migrants who registered with the U.S. border authorities in Miami more than doubled to almost 10,000 from just under 5,000 in 2014.

But since October of last year, the U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted 5,786 Cubans at sea — taking them home to a not very warm welcome from the Castro brothers’ regime.

Cuban dissident on hunger strike ‘ready to die’ to call attention to government abuse

farinas

FoxNewsLatino

On his third week of a hunger strike, Guillermo Fariñas, one of Cuba’s most prominent human rights activists, is refusing medical intervention as his health declines and says he is ready to die to call attention to the Cuban government’s abuse of dissidents.

In a telephone interview from his home in Cuba on Tuesday with Fox News Latino, Fariñas said he wants the Cuban government to stop engaging in physical assault of political dissidents.

Those who have visited Fariñas, as well as a doctor who was monitoring his condition, have told Fox News Latino and other news organizations that he suffered two fractured ribs and other injuries in July when he asked Cuban state police about the status of a detained dissident, Carlos Amel Oliva.

Fariñas, who has gone on more than 20 hunger strikes in protest of human rights violations in Cuba, immediately wrote a letter to Cuban President Raul Castro asking for an end to “abuse, terror, and violence by the repressive authorities of your government.” He decided to launch a hunger strike, and more than a dozen other human rights activists in Cuba have joined him.

Fariñas, 54, has been hospitalized twice in the last 10 days, according to the Cuban American National Foundation, an influential Miami-based lobby group that pushes for democratic reform in Cuba.

As his health has deteriorated and a weaker Fariñas spends more and more of his days sleeping, the recipient of several international human rights prizes has been visited by a representative of the U.S. Embassy in Havana and an envoy who stopped by on behalf of Pope Francis.

The Vatican envoy told Fariñas a few days ago that Pope Francis does not agree with holding a hunger strike, but respects his decision to do so.

Fariñas said he is too tired of the systemic abuses by the Castro regime and that he will sacrifice his life to get the Cuban government to take action, or the world to take human rights abuses in Cuba more seriously.

“I’m not asking them to stop detaining people, though they should stop making up bogus reasons and trumping up charges and refusing to admit that they detain people just for political reasons,” Fariñas said of what he is asking of the Cuban government. “I want them to stop beating up people who are merely protesting peacefully for freedom, for democratic reform. They also should never beat someone up when they are handcuffed or put in some other restraints.”

Fariñas, who met with President Barack Obama when he visited Havana in March, said the United States’ move to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba only has emboldened the Castro regime “by giving it validation.”

“The intentions by the president were good, I believe, but it has served to make them feel legitimized and more reckless about oppression,” Fariñas said. “If they had any good will, the Cuban government would have taken steps toward democratic reform and liberties for everyone, the Cuban citizenry and critics of the government. But instead, the regime is acting with impugnity.”

Fariñas wants the Obama administration to freeze diplomatic relations so long as the government continues to crack down on dissension.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said to Fox News Latino on condition of anonymity that it is keeping track of Fariñas’ health, and has contacted Cuban authorities about its concerns regarding the activist. A U.S. Embassy staffer went to check on Fariñas at his home on Monday.

“We remain concerned about the physical wellbeing of Guillermo Fariñas, Carlos Amel, and other activists engaged in a hunger strike in Cuba,” the State Department official said in a statement. “We are monitoring their situation closely.”

“We stand in solidarity with those who advocate for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly,” the official said. “We have raised our concerns directly with the Cuban government, both in Washington and Havana.”

Fariñas has dropped nearly 30 pounds since he began his hunger strike in July, said fellow dissident Jorge Luis Artiles Montiel, who has been acting as spokesman for Fariñas and others holding hunger strikes.

Fariñas’ mother, who is a nurse, is monitoring his vital signs, Artiles Montiel told Fox News Latino.

“His blood pressure is low, his pulse is slow, his heart rate is low,” he said. “He doesn’t want food or anything. At the hospital they had an IV pumping fluid into him, but he didn’t want it.”

“He wants no more medical intervention, even if his condition deteriorates and he loses consciousness. He told us not to call for help if that happens. But of course we will, how can we not? His health is in peril.”

The Cuban government has force-fed hunger strikers in the past. The United Nations considers force-feeding hunger strikes a human rights violation.

In 2010, Fariñas held one of his most watched hunger strikes as the Cuban government was in talks with the Spanish government about releasing political prisoners. The government released 116 political prisoners, many of whom were offered exile in Spain. Fariñas was one of them, but refused, saying – like some other dissidents – that he would not grant Cuba’s wish to rid itself of critics by banishing them to other countries.

Besides the U.S. State Department, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican of Cuban descent, several international human rights organizations, and U.S.-based groups that advocate for democratic reform in Cuba all have expressed concern about Fariñas.

Fariñas has been honored around the world for his human rights activism. Among the honors is the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2010.

The Cuban Regime’s Ongoing Violations of the Right to Life

Oral testimony by Maria Werlau, Cuba Archive´s Executive Director
for the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House
of Representatives, Washington, D.C., July 13, 2016

Today I will focus on the Cuban government’s continuing violations to the right to
life. To illustrate the extreme contempt for human life the Castro regime has
displayed from its inception, we need just recall three of its flagrant atrocities
that occurred on the month of July of different years.

In 1994, on a day like today, July 13th, a group of sixty-eight, including many
children, boarded a tugboat to escape to the U.S. Three boats were waiting for them
— alerted by infiltrators. With high-pressure water jets, they began ripping
children from their parents’ arms and sweeping terrified passengers off to sea.
Finally, they rammed and sunk the fleeing tugboat, drowning all those who had taken
refuge in the cargo hold. With survivors clinging to pieces of wreckage, the
pursuing boats circled around them, seeking to drown them with wave turbulence.
Thirty-seven perished, including eleven children.

Fourteen years earlier, on July 6th 1980, Cuban Navy boats and an Air Force plane
had attacked an excursion boat that toured the Canímar River of Matanzas loaded with
passengers and tried fleeing to the U.S. The exact number of victims is unknown, but
numbers in the dozens and included children.

Among hundreds of July victims of the Castros, two stand out. On July 22nd 2012,
Oswaldo Payá, arguably Cuba’s leading opposition figure, and Harold Cepero, a young
activist from his organization, were killed in a car accident believed to have been
caused by state agents.

These are just samples of the large-scale and growing tragedy the Cuba Archive
project, which I head, is documenting and for which the Cuban regime has not been
held accountable. To date, we’ve recorded over 6,100 deaths and disappearances
caused by the Castro regime not from combat situation. Each has a detailed record.
The victims include infants, pregnant women, the elderly, human rights’ defenders,
protestant pastors, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political prisoners, young men objecting to
military service, and anyone who gets in the way of the Castros. Also on the list
are 21 U.S. citizens executed, assassinated, or disappeared and 6 killed in
terrorist attacks sponsored or supported by Cuba. We know, sadly, that this count is
woefully lacking; what’s more, for it to be comprehensive, it would have to include
many more Cubans who’ve perished and extended to many countries where Cuba has
created, supported, and promoted war, subversion, and terrorism, as today in nearby
Venezuela
and Colombia. The human toll of the Castro dynasty is easily, in my view, several
hundred thousand and counting.

Things are not much better since Raúl Castro, until ten years ago the No. 2 man,
assumed supreme command in Cuba, replacing his brother Fidel. Since then and until
last December 31st, Cuba Archive has documented 264 cases of death and
disappearance, a count we know is very incomplete.

A particularly troubling aspect of the ongoing crimes of the Cuban regime relates to
the grave abuses committed by Cuban authorities against persons attempting to escape
the country. The attacks appear to have declined, in part because Cuba has perfected
a highly lucrative business from exporting people that welcomes most departures.
Yet, killings, beatings, torture, and other abuses perpetrated on those fleeing have
not stopped. To take just one example, on December 16th 2014, the day before
President Obama made his surprise announcement of normalized relations with Cuba, 32
year-old Liosbel Díaz disappeared after Cuban Boarder Guards sunk, reportedly in
international waters, the boat in which he was escaping with 31 other passengers,
including women and children.

What’s perhaps more egregious is the aberration of a tropical “Berlin Wall” at
Guantánamo, altogether overlooked by the free world. 26 years after the fall of the
infamous Berlin Wall, a deadlier replica now lasting twice longer stands in
Communist Cuba: barbed wire, minefields, watchtowers, ferocious dogs, sharpshooters…
all to prevent escapes to the U.S. base in Guantánamo. It has a sordid extension —
a sea wall in the bay added in the mid-1990s to prevent swimmers from reaching the
U.S. base.

Continue reading The Cuban Regime’s Ongoing Violations of the Right to Life

Cuban dissident becomes weak from hunger strike; church may step in

farinas

The Miami Herald

Internationally-known Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas is growing gravely weak from a two-week-old hunger strike to protest human rights abuses while the Catholic Church has emerged as a possible mediator between the opposition leader and the government of Raúl Castro.

Fariñas, who is refusing any food or water, said Tuesday that he feels “very weak” but vowed to continue with a hunger strike that now includes some 20 other activists from across the island.

“I can hardly take a bath by myself and feel very tired,” Fariñas said by telephone from his home in the central city of Santa Clara. A doctor that visited his home Tuesday recommended hospitalization but Fariñas refused.

The dissident, who received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2010, said he was beaten on July 19 by two police officers when he approached them to inquire about the detention of another member of the opposition movement. Fariñas said was held inside a car for an hour and was repeatedly beaten while officers warned him to suspend any plans for community service projects.

“They are beating people up so that one does not get involved with socially-conscious projects anymore,” he said. “While they were hitting me, they told me they I could not distribute toys to children anymore, that I could not organize communal birthday parties, day care centers, excursions to the beach, rebuild any more homes for people…”

Fariñas said he believes the Cuban agents were trying to instill fear, “beat me with impunity” and without consequences.

Instead, the dissident launched a hunger strike, refusing to ingest food or water, until the Castro government publicly declares that it will stop beating opponents and harass small business owners or the self-employed known as cuentapropistas. Fariñas also is demanding a meeting between opposition members and a government official designated by Castro.

Last week, the opposition leader was admitted to the emergency room at a local hospital due to dehydration but he quickly requested to return home. Many fear for his health because of his frequent use of hunger strikes as a means of protest.

Dr. Eneida O. Roldan, chief executive officer at Florida International University’s Health system, said Fariñas could be facing a precarious situation.

“The average time a human being can be without drinking water is about two weeks albeit dependent on the physical and health conditions of the person and the environmental conditions of his or her location,” Roldan said. “Without food is a bit longer: usually four weeks. Again with the caveat of current body fat and physical and health conditions of the person.”

Fariñas is the most high-profile of the dissidents who have begun fasts and hunger strikes across the island to protest the beatings and arbitrary raids frequently launched against activists.

Continue reading Cuban dissident becomes weak from hunger strike; church may step in

Controversy erupts over workers from India building Cuban hotel

indianworkers

The Miami Herald

Cuba’s approval for a French company to import Indian workers to build a Havana hotel has been met with disbelief, anger and complaints about a policy that usually requires foreign companies to hire local workers through state labor agencies

About 200 workers from India hired by the French Bouygues company are renovating the Manzana de Gómez, an iconic building that was Havana’s first shopping mall, the Reuters news agency reported. The Swiss Kempinski chain is negotiating to run the luxury hotel in a deal with GAESA, a holding company controlled by the Cuban military.

“Workers brought from far away work in Cuba and receive good salaries, while hundreds of thousands of Cubans try to make ends meet without proper salaries,” wrote former Cuban diplomat Pedro Campos. “They have no way of improving their lives or those of their families other than to leave Cuba any way they can, risking everything.”

The Diario de Cuba, an independent digital publication, also condemned the hiring in a recent editorial.

“Cuba has always been a magnet drawing immigrants from all over the world. But foreigners could not be paid more than their Cuban colleagues for doing the same work,” the editorial said. “…In any case, as one can see, all the factors that have generated this great national humiliation are the sole responsibility of the Castro regime.”

Some analysts said the case sets a precedent because the Cuban government in the past has blocked the hiring of large groups of foreign workers.

Richard Feinberg, a Cuba expert at the Brookings Institution think tank in California, noted that Havana had vetoed a Beijing request to hire Chinese workers to update a petrochemical complex in Cienfuegos, a project financed by China and Venezuela.

One knowledgeable source said, however, that Bouygues Bâtiment International, the construction arm of the French company, also imported workers to build three hotels in Cayo Santamaria, an island off the north central coast of Cuba. The company’s website says it built 17 beach hotels in Cuba from 1998 to 2012.

Feinberg said the long-running relationships between the French company, the Cuban tourism ministry and Gaviota S.A. — the island’s largest hotel enterprise, controlled by GAESA — may have led to some favoritism for the company, which could have been avoided if Cuba had “a more transparent system for awarding contracts.”

Some Cubans who worked for state construction companies also may have quit to cash in on the rapidly growing number of jobs improving homes or restaurants on the island, Feinberg said, perhaps explaining the need to hire foreigners.

Other experts say, however, that the key problem highlighted by the case of the Indian workers is the Cuban government’s much-criticized policy of barring foreign firms from hiring local workers directly and forcing them to hire through state labor agencies.

Cuba has 13 such labor agencies. “The idea is that each ministry has files of its best employees who can be quickly available when foreign companies need to hire,” said Emilio Morales, director of the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group.

Sources quoted by Reuters said the Indians are paid $1,500 euros per month, roughly $1,661. In comparison, Cuban construction workers hired through one of the labor agencies receive about $25 to $30 per month.

The disparity is the perfect recipe for discouraging Cuban workers, said Morales. “The problem is the labor agencies. No foreign investor is going to risk his investment and hire a worker who will not produce,” he said.

Cuban economist Omar Everleny Pérez agreed.

“If the Indians don’t work on the Manzana de Gómez, it never gets done. Because of the problems with the labor agencies, no one is going to work 16 hours if they are going to be paid what they are paid now,” said Everleny, recently expelled from the University of Havana’s Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy. “That’s why the (French) company, to meet quality and deadlines, was forced to look for foreign options.”

Diario de Cuba reported before Reuters that the Manzana project was clearly behind schedule, and that its Cuban construction workers were paid roughly $20-$22 per month plus a “bonus” that could be as high as about $90 but often went unpaid. The digital publication also reported that the Military Construction Group was using recruits from the obligatory military service to work on the project.

The idea that Cuba offers cheap labor to foreign companies is not exactly true, however, Feinberg wrote in his book, Open for Business: Building the New Cuba Economy.

Employees receive a tiny share of the salaries paid by the foreign companies, and the labor agencies pocket the rest, significantly reducing the competitiveness of Cuban workers compared to neighboring countries like the Dominican Republic, Feinberg wrote.

The system has led some foreign companies to pay additional salaries to Cuban employees, but that’s a gray-area practice that has complicated charges of corruption against foreign investors such as Canadian businessman Cy Tokmakjian.

Salary terms are more favorable for Cubans working in the new Mariel Special Development Zone west of Havana, because the labor agencies keep only 20 percent of the salaries paid by the foreign company for Cuban employees.

Cuban laws and regulations technically restrict the hiring of foreign workers to management and administrative jobs in Cuban joint ventures with foreign companies.

The 2014 Foreign Investment Law limits foreign workers to “upper management and some technical positions. The Indian workers, described as electricians, carpenters and plumbers, would hardly meet those descriptions.

The law includes one section, however, that allows joint ventures or foreign companies to hire Cubans directly in “exceptional” cases. Another section, even more vague, authorizes the use of “special labor regulations” only “as an exception.”

Diplomats from a number of European and Asian countries have said that the restrictions on direct hiring of Cuban employees has been a key factor holding back foreign investments.

The U.S. government also has urged Havana repeatedly to lift all restrictions on direct hires of workers. The first U.S. hotel chain to invest in Cuba, Starwood, has publicly promised to “promote local talent” and create job opportunities.

After the Reuters report, which included photos of the Indian workers, measures to block access to the Indian workers were tightened. They are bused daily from their dormitories east of the capital to the work site.

The Bouygues group did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But a news release by Bouygues Bâtiment International said it “recruits locally 100 percent” in Cuba and has created a school to train construction workers.

“More than 150 employees have been trained there during the last five years,” it added.