Sunday, January 18, 2015

Cuba; DR & Guyana; Anna, Wanda, & Claire; Free-Range Parenting; Honduras Bound


Now, all 53 promised Cuban political prisoners have been released, some of whom I mentioned before, namely our own Amnesty prisoners of conscience. I also see that Lady in White Sonia Garro and her co-defendants are included, http://abcn.ws/1y5gril.

        Fox News reports that 2 of the 53 political prisoners released in Cuba were re-arrested:

According to independent media sources in Cuba, Ronaldo Reyes Rabanal and Luís Enrique Labrador – along with other activists – were arrested while attending a meeting of the opposition group, Movement for a New Republic. Lazara María Borrego Guzmán, a member of the Ladies in White opposition movement, was also allegedly arrested during the meeting and Cuban officials allegedly broke her arm.

      The following seems like a fairly balanced and correct summary of the human rights challenges in Cuba now: http://news.yahoo.com/dissidents-struggle-regroup-us-cuba-move-closer-031137060.html

 

The Huffington Post asked for comments on the Obama/Castro accords, but rejected mine, saying it had too many submissions. I noted that all those posted were from Cuban Americans. Here is my submission anyway:

 U.S.-Cuba Agreement, Historic Breakthrough or Backward Step? 

As a lifelong Democrat, former Fidel Castro admirer, and human rights activist involved with Cuba going back to 1951, I’ve greeted the Obama/Raúl Castro agreement with cautious optimism; at least, it has shaken up the status quo. Cubans should no longer be punished for being agents of “the Empire” and internet access may increase. Whether political as well as economic openings will result looks unlikely during the Castro brothers’ lifetime, so, in the short term, probably the best that can be hoped for is a system like that of China or Vietnam: economic opportunities without civil and political rights. Even that would be welcomed by most Cubans, bringing hope to a country with one of the world’s highest suicide rates and the lowest birthrate in Latin America. Pressing to allow outside investors to hire and pay their workers directly would provide a big step forward, replacing a system of selecting workers by the Cuban government, which now gives them only a small fraction of what their services actually command. That also applies to doctors sent to treat Ebola patients or to Venezuela and Brazil to earn money for the regime.  Although I’m of European descent and age 76, I’m now a Spanish interpreter who recently spent over 3 years as a Peace Corps health volunteer in Honduras, working closely with Cuban doctors. I still return annually for humanitarian projects there, including this upcoming February.

            I joined Amnesty International (AI) back in 1981, where in 1984, our local group welcomed 26 long-term Cuban political prisoners whose names we’d given to presidential candidate Jesse Jackson before he traveled to Cuba.  All were released with him, most having been kept years beyond their original 20-year sentences.  For the last 11 years, I’ve served as volunteer Caribbean coordinator for AI USA. Thankfully, the Obama/Castro accords have just resulted in freeing five Amnesty POCs (prisoners of conscience, the only POCs in the Americas): brothers Bianco, Django and Alexeis Vargas Martín, conditionally released, and Iván Fernández Depestre and Emilio Planas, imprisoned for “dangerousness.” Bianco and Django are twins arrested when they were only 16. Afro-Cuban Lady in White Sonia Garro, husband Ramón Muñoz, and neighbor Eugenio Hernández , have now been released to house arrest after almost three years, including reportedly suffering beatings by prison officials. These releases, which we in Amnesty have been working on long and hard, are most welcome, though we still advocate for the removal of all restrictions on those released and for a fair and a speedy trial for Garro and her associates, allowing them to call witnesses and present evidence.

            My Cuba connections are many and personal, including a Cuban foster son, Alex, an unaccompanied minor from the 1980 Mariel boatlift, who was gay and died of AIDS in 1995. Later, I sheltered a rafter released from Guantánamo, José Manuel. Via Mexico, I brought to this country a young mechanic, Armando, with a congenital kidney disease not being in treated in Cuba. I made numerous visits to Cuba in the 1990s, once by sailboat, and met with Catholic clergy and dissidents all over the island, only to be ejected by state security in 1997, so haven’t returned since.  Still, I dare to envision a Peace Corps presence in Cuba’s future, just as now in China. Despite a successful worldwide PR campaign, Cuba is no bastion of social and economic rights; many health service deficiencies exist on the island (except in showplace facilities for paying tourists and the political elite) and in agricultural production (most food is imported, with the US being the biggest supplier despite the embargo); both are areas where Peace Corps works successfully elsewhere. Afro-Cubans are especially disadvantaged because they have fewer relatives abroad sending remittances and are less often chosen for tourism, now the most desirable jobs in Cuba. Formerly imprisoned dissidents estimate that 85% of the island’s prison population has African heritage.

            My special interest, because of my work in Honduras, is blind services. I was recently privileged to meet Juan Carlos González Leiva, a blind Cuban lawyer and activist from Ciego de Avila, allowed his first visit outside his country. González Leiva was imprisoned for more than two years, held subsequently under house arrest, and detained several times since. He has repeatedly suffered officially sanctioned “acts of repudiation.” He told me he has organized an (illegal) organization of blind Cubans and gives food and money to some 20 or 30 people who visit his home daily. He mentioned a malnourished little girl whom his family has taken in. “We also help people write letters to the authorities,” he said. He often visits prisons and distributes food there. The government would like to shut down his operation and, at many of his meetings, there are more state security agents than genuine members.

            So the US-Cuba accords have many nuances and unexplored byways—the change is not all black or white, but, like almost everything, represents various shades of gray. Anyway, it’s a done deal, so let’s build on the strengths of the new accords while trying to remedy their remaining deficits.

 

         I wrote letters recently for asylum seekers trying to avoid deportation to the DR and Guyana, both countries within my Caribbean jurisdiction for Amnesty International USA.

 
      Without knowing the details of the death-row inmate’s crimes, I was troubled to see this: 21ST EXECUTION UNDER FLORIDA GOVERNOR, Johnny Shane Kormondy was executed by lethal injection in Florida on the evening of 15 January for a murder committed in 1993. This was the 21st execution under Rick Scott’s governorship, equaling the record for any Florida governor since 1976 [including Jeb Bush].

        My friend Anna, whom I first met when we were teenagers in Colombia, and who visited me in Honduras (as per my Honduras book), is still in the hospital, after being run over by a pickup truck on Nov. 29 at her assisted living facility in a New England state while she was out walking in the evening using a walker. I speak with her periodically by phone where she has been undergoing painful treatments. Although it was a very serious accident and she’s even a bit older than I am, she seems to be progressing, though slowly, and has just started rehab. If I weren’t living so far away and weren’t scheduled to go to Honduras shortly, I would certainly visit her.

        Another visit I would like to make, time and money permitting, is the 100th birthday on Sunday of Egyptian-born Wanda, mother of my friend Carol, living in rural Vermont right next door to her daughter. I sent them a basket of goodies to share at their birthday party, not the same as being there, but recognition nonetheless. Wanda still lives alone on her own, though Carol visits her every day; both are remarkable women.

      Apropos of nothing in particular, I’ve been amused to see an on-line mention of a black lab, looking just like our late beloved Claire, getting on a Seattle bus by herself to take a ride to the dog park, where she duly gets off to run around.

      If dogs can sometimes be free-ranging (though that’s illegal in most cities), with children the practice is even more controversial. A couple living in Suburban Maryland is under fire for letting their two children, ages 10 and 6, walk home alone together, about a mile, coming back from a park, where they were playing apparently unsupervised. I am torn, frankly, about such practices as I walked everywhere, including to school about a mile away, and played freely outside for hours at a time without any adult supervision at least from the age of 8, maybe earlier. At age 9, I even babysat 2 little children living next door, earning 25 cents per hour and feeling very grown-up, able to call my own mother for help in an emergency. However, these days, the outside world is considered more dangerous and, now, I wouldn’t feel comfortable allowing my great-grandson, age 7, to play alone outside beyond his own front yard or my front sidewalk. Probably the risks were not any less when we were young, but perhaps we are now more aware of them. Something is lost when children don’t have the chance to gradually achieve independence, yet certainly when we were young, kids suffered injuries and abductions, perhaps even more so than now, though in the absence of social media, we were unaware of the extent.  

       I’ll be leaving in early Feb. on my 11th return trip to Honduras since Peace Corps, so if you have anything to send or to say to me beforehand, remember that once there, I won’t have regular e-mail access.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Arctic Vortex Returns, Child Labor, Radio Show, Cuba & More Cuba, POCs Released, Venezuela, US News, Remembering the Beatles


Brrr, we’ve had another “arctic vortex,” this one was really cold, below 20 F. And when I have to leave for work in the dark at 5:30 am, believe me, it’s frigid. At that early hour, in the dark with little traffic, I often walk in the street to the metro station to avoid ice, as last January, I slipped on the ice and hurt my shoulder, still not 100% OK. Most darn hospitals like to start early and, of course, I’m always traveling by public transportation and walking outside for a few blocks on either end.

        At Safeway, I was put in mind again that we all have a role to play in society. My bagger was a young man with Down Syndrome who efficiently and cheerfully put my purchases in my recyclable bags—a small role, but one he performed with evident satisfaction.

        It’s not a big surprise that child labor is still common in Honduras: http://finance.yahoo.com/photos/child-labor-in-honduras-1420576031-slideshow/

        My last Wed. interview about Cuba and my Cuba book has been posted on the Donna Seebo Show, www.delphiinternational.com. She also interviewed me for my Honduras book. The live program was 196-2, which aired on January 7. After that, it is supposed to be available in the archives. Google ‘Donna Seebo’ and the ‘Donna Seebo Show,’ page link will pop up, tap on that and you’ll be taken directly to the show page itself. The yellow band on the right is for archived programs. My book is a small slice of recent history, of my own history with Cuba, which predicted change, but not such an abrupt and sweeping change as has just occurred.

        The NYTimes seems pleased with the US-Cuba accords and its role in promoting them, generally avoiding any editorial comment that might appear critical of the Castro government, making at best only oblique references. But the Washington Post has had no such editorial hesitation, going back to July 2012, when democracy advocate Oswaldo Payá’s car was run off the road and he and a Cuban passenger subsequently died (though apparently later at a hospital, not immediately, making it more suspect), while two foreign visitors survived, though one was imprisoned for a time. At that time and since, the Post has called for an independent investigation into his death, as has his daughter. Now the Post has been pointing out the delay and secrecy surrounding the promised prisoner releases.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/three-weeks-after-cuba-accord-why-havent-more-political-prisoners-been-freed/2015/01/08/c2fe94f4-975f-11e4-8005-1924ede3e54a_story.html

        Whenever I hear about something on the news about Cuba, I wonder whether Cubans on the island are even aware of it, given their news blackout? Have they heard that Alan Gross was released? Some did know about his capture as an evil agent of “the empire.” Do they know now about the attack on the satirical magazine in France, if so, what’s the spin there? The pending release of some 53 political prisoners is probably not public information, because that would raise questions about whether Cuba has political prisoners, even though everyone knows they exist as a warning to the rest of the populace.

        In light of recent developments and the Obama/Raul accords, I don’t anticipate any reckoning for the Castro brothers during their lifetime. However, that’s pretty much par for the course for dictators—it’s rare that anything happens to them and their reputation while they are still alive. Saddam Hussein was an exception, so was Gaddafi in Libya, but they were defeated in war. Hitler was defeated in war and committed suicide. But absent a war defeat and capture, they are rarely sanctioned for their misdeeds—look at Stalin, Mao, Pinochet, Duvalier— they all died first, then has come the reevaluation of their legacy. The same is likely to happen with the Castro brothers—or maybe not even then, as the mystique of Fidel Castro has been so powerful. Look at how so many people still revere Che Guevara, who could be considered a mass murderer, either that or a very efficient and hands-on executioner.  

        The following is an article about Cuba today, mirroring my own journey across the island in 1997 and which has a ring authenticity—I’m glad if Cuba is changing, because it can only change for the better—I don’t see it getting worse. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/07/world/on-the-open-road-signs-of-a-changing-cuba.html?_r=1

On the Open Road, Signs of a Changing Cuba, By WILLIAM NEUMAN, NY Times, JAN. 6, 2015

        Certainly, the accords between President Obama and Raul Castro have shaken things up, for better or worse, probably some of both. But critics are now saying “I told you so” after peaceful demonstrators were arrested just days after the historic joint announcement. While not totally unexpected—the event was a test of the new atmosphere--that put a damper on the euphoria about the whole enterprise, at least outside Cuba, as inside, probably few even heard about the planned event or the arrests. What had been planned was an “open mike” in Revolution Square, where people could give their reactions to the accords. Of course, the regime prevents unauthorized peaceful demonstrations for fear they may spread and so as not to give the broader Cuban population any ideas, but, those arrests, coming so soon after the agreement was reached, were a big blow to its supporters in the US and around the world. Just inviting Cubans to publicly express their opinions on the accords with the US would not be a threat to the one-party communist system that Raul has vowed to protect, except to the extent that any free speech is a threat.

        Raul and his entourage now seem to have shifted to blaming nefarious “Miami Cubans” for trying to overthrow “the Revolution” in order to recover their confiscated property, rather than the US government (aka “the empire”), since diplomatic relations are set to resume. In the meantime, President Obama was out playing golf in Hawaii while vacationing there with his family and Pope Francis was saying Mass and meeting visitors at the Vatican. Some observers are proposing that the embargo not be further relaxed until human rights improve in Cuba, which seems like a good idea. OK, Senator Leahy, time to use your cozy ties with the Castros to advise them that it’s very bad PR to arrest dissidents and they should stop!

        Raul Castro’s decision a few years ago to allow individuals to sell homemade items has been a definite step forward, but is not an efficient production system, especially since each home business is under constant surveillance to make sure it’s not making too much money or failing report it, using nonproductive manpower to do the intensive monitoring. Home businesses were meant to offer laid-off public sector workers a means of survival but were no actual substitute for larger, more organized industries and enterprises. However, as long as the Communist Party, the Cuban military, and the Castro regime control hiring and firing and payments to workers, outside investors will remain wary. Imprisoning Canadian businessmen and trying to take over their businesses do not provide promising precedents for US-based entrepreneurs, though perhaps some Cuban exiles think they are wily and savvy enough to pull it off.

        While I have been advocating that American investors in Cuba be able to hire and pay their workers directly, a Cuban American friend has pointed out that while that may provide workers with a job and a bit more income, it could also lead to exploitation by investors. She argues, with some merit, that factory workers in China and Vietnam are exploited, paid miserable wages, made to work long hours, and live in tiny warrens within factories, hardly an example to be imitated.

        I can readily understand why many dissidents feel suddenly abandoned, when they had thought that the US had their back against their powerful enemy, namely, the Cuban government that has been systematically hurting, harassing, and punishing them, and stopping them from gathering or speaking for so many years. Now their apparent supporter has joined hands with their enemy with promises to enrich and strengthen that enemy through trade and increased tourism, while the dissidents are left out in the cold, naked and afraid without support.

              I was misinformed about Twitter—now, I’m told, the actual limit is 140 characters, including spaces. I think I may have said 144 characters before. In any case, the Obama/ Castro accords have now resulted in the release of 5 Amnesty Int’l POCs (prisoners of conscience, only POCs in the Americas): brothers Bianco, Django and Alexeis Vargas Martín, conditionally released, and Iván Fernández Depestre and Emilio Planas, arrested for “dangerousness.” Lady in White Sonia Garro, husband Ramón A. Muñoz & neighbor Eugenio Hernández were released after reportedly suffering beatings from prison officials, now under house arrest awaiting trial.

        There was reportedly a rumor going around Havana that Fidel had died, but then the rumor was discredited. Such rumors have circulated before so when he actually does die, no one may believe it. A Cuban friend says, “This rumor of Fidel’s death seems to have originated with an unknown person in the Palacio de Convenciones. That poor guy must have been picked up afterwards by Seguridad del Estado and now be purging his "counterrevolutionary sins" in Villa Marista! One of the blessings of the US is that if anyone begins a nasty rumor about Obama, for example, the rumor that he hadn't been born in the US, nothing happens to him! Obama was just simply was forced to produce his birth certificate! If such a rumor about Fidel had originated in Cuba, would he have produced his birth certificate or ordered the rumor monger's death certificate to be made out?”

Meanwhile, another rumor is that wet-foot/dry-foot which allows most Cubans who touch US soil to stay will be eliminated, so Cubans are taking to the seas in droves in flimsy boats, most being intercepted and returned to Cuba by the US Coast Guard.               

Someone has sent me a report on the recent visit to Havana by Senator Tom Udall (D) of New Mexico, who spent several days with Castro government officials, but scrupulously avoided democracy activists. After he returned, he reportedly issued a press release saying "New Mexicans are anxious to meet and work with Cubans, and the time is right to rebuild business and cultural ties between the United States and Cuba." His reported voting record on Latin American trade is as follows:                          

NO on trade with Peru.
NO on trade with Central America.
NO on trade with the Dominican Republic.
NO on trade with Chile.
NO on trade with Colombia.
NO on trade with Panama.
But: YES on trade with Cuba.

                Some of these guys are trying to turn me into a Republican!

        The following article describes the US Interests Section in Havana, a building I know well, and what changes are in store (provided a Republican Congress allows an embassy to be established):


          Here below is a cloak-and-dagger story about the supposed US spy swapped for the Cuban Three. Alan Gross, the US insisted, was never a spy, so he couldn’t be swapped for the Cuban spies. Instead, they were supposedly swapped for another man, a former Cuban Interior Ministry operative who may or may not have been a double agent, Lt. Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, imprisoned in Cuba for 20 years. His current whereabouts are unknown, but his relatives in Cuba say he is no longer in the prison where he was being held. Meanwhile the Cubans freed Gross as a “humanitarian gesture;” such are the intricacies of statecraft.


                                                                 

Has Raul Castro’s agreement with President Obama perhaps inspired North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un to reach out to South Korea for “high-level” talks?

        And apparently there was a cordial encounter between President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and US VP Joe Biden at the swearing in of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

          Now Venezuela's Maduro, taking a cue from the Castro playbook, has announced that he would release opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, imprisoned since February 2014 -- but only in a prisoner swap with the United States. In return, Maduro wants the release of Oscar Lopez Rivera, a Puerto Rican nationalist convicted and sentenced in 1981 to 55-years in federal prison for seditious conspiracy.
"The only way I would use (presidential) powers would be to put (Leopoldo Lopez) on a plane, so he can go to the United States and stay there, and they would give me Oscar Lopez Rivera - man for man," Maduro reportedly said during a televised broadcast.

        Meanwhile, a Washington Post editorial warns that in its focus on Cuba, the Obama administration is failing to grasp a desperate situation in Venezuela, a nation with 3 times Cuba’s population and a major oil supplier to the US, as well as to Cuba. Washington Post, January 4, 2015, Jackson Diehl: Obama is overlooking deep trouble in Venezuela.

          Oh fickle electorate, Obama is again rising in popularity as he threatens to use his veto pen while facing 2 contentious years with a Republican Congress.

        What can I say about the terrorist attack in Paris that hasn’t already been said?

        As for the report that General David Petraeus, once an illustrious and trusted military commander, may face criminal charges for sharing classified material with his then-mistress, how could he be so careless? I guess “being in love” is a form of temporary insanity whereby hormones and endorphins override reason. No wonder the spy game so often engages in sexual provocation!

        George Zimmerman has again been arrested for assault, one of several such incidents involving a guy who obviously has a short fuse and is impulsive in the extreme, certainly not someone who should be armed and entrusted with neighborhood-watch duties.

        New possibilities for streamlining and reducing the cost of medical care exist with the cellphone, whereby an image of a worrisome skin lesion or a child’s sore inner ear can be e-mailed to a physician for a diagnosis, also allowing a natural experiment in data collection. I joined the Kaiser health plan because, already, it allows e-mail between practitioners and patients, with the ability to attach photos or other documents. That removes the incentive for a physician to schedule an office visit just for the reimbursement and saves time and money for the patient. The downside is that patients get less “hands-on” and “face-time” with physicians and also sometimes have to wait for procedures or prescriptions. Also, we are usually limited by the practitioners actually working at Kaiser.

        The item below came from AFP after a 2-year-old killed his mother with a gun she carried in her purse.

 

Around 30,000 deaths a year in the United States involve firearms. The majority are suicides; many others are murders. But some involve children laying their hands on loaded weapons. In 2011 alone, 140 children and teenagers died as a result of an unintentional shooting, more often than not inside a home, according to a study from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Several thousand more sustained non-fatal injuries.

        What a burden for a child to carry for life, that he killed his own mother! He apparently had seen enough guns being used on TV and elsewhere to know about pointing a gun at someone and pulling the trigger. No doubt, some deaths and injuries are prevented by gun possession or at least by the fear that someone else may be carrying a gun. However, human beings are so prone to accidents and impulses, it does seem that there should be more mandatory safety features built into firearms, as well as mandatory training, along with registration measures to help keep guns out of the hands of known criminals and people with mental illness. That won’t prevent all accidental or impulsive gun deaths, but would reduce them. Never allow guns near kids under 18, would be my motto. If fewer guns were in circulation and reducing a widespread “gun culture” would help too, but isn’t a likely American scenario in the foreseeable future.

        Finally, as a citizen of the disenfranchised District of Columbia, though I’m not a pot smoker myself, I must protest the attempt by a Republican Congressman from elsewhere (don’t even remember who) in trying to override the voters’ decision to allow possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. It’s bad enough that we are prevented (by the recalcitrant Republican Congress) from having our own congress people and senators—even worse that outside representatives can overrule us as residents and voters.

        On a completely non-newsworthy topic, I happened to tune in to a 2-hour public radio Beatles’ retrospective, reminding us all of what rare popular musical geniuses they actually were in creating such fanciful lyrics and inspiring tunes. Think of such timeless gems as Yellow Submarine, In an Octopus’s Garden, and Let It Be, among many others. Their combined talents created a unique synergy sadly lost when the band broke up and its members went solo. Today’s noisy, fleeting pop hits don’t compare.

 

 

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Upcoming Radio Interview, Christmas Photos, Happy New Year, More on US-Cuba Accords

















On Jan. 7, I’ll be participating in an hour-long interview on my Cuba book by Donna Seebo, www.delphiinternational.com, who also interviewed me for my Honduras book. The live program will air on that date at 2 pm EST. After that, it will be available in the archives. Google ‘Donna Seebo’ and the ‘Donna Seebo Show,’ page link will pop up, tap on that and you’ll be taken directly to the show page itself. The green band on the left is for the program in progress, while yellow on the right is for archived programs. My book is a small slice of recent history, of my own history with Cuba, which predicted change, but not such an abrupt and sweeping change as has just occurred.
        I also have a conference call next Sunday with a human rights group in the UK about Cuban prisoner releases.
        The photos are from our Christmas Day gathering at the home of daughter Melanie’s friends Pat and Gerald and their 3 sons, as well as Gerald’s mother, shown with my great-grandson De’Andre. The oldest host-family son, who has autism (shown with my daughter, granddaughter, and great-grandson by the Christmas tree), recited for us all the presidents of the United States from beginning to end, something his mother said he has been able to do since age 5.
        Now, with New Year’s Day pending, ¡Feliz Año Nuevo!
        With another commercial aircraft disappearing in southeast Asia in the vicinity of Malaysia and Indonesia, one has to wonder if the pilots are carrying out suicide missions, taking their passengers down with them?

Cubans fear possible change to U.S. immigration law 

Across an island where migrating north is an obsession, the widespread jubilation over last week’s historic U.S-Cuba detente is soured by fear that warming relations will eventually end the Cuban Adjustment Act, a unique fast track to legal American residency. ASSOCIATED PRESS, December 26, 2014

I’ll spare you the whole article just mentioned. For several months now, I’ve been speculating about the ending of America’s wet-foot/dry-foot policy for Cuban immigrants, a policy that allowed me to bring Armando, my kidney patient, via Mexico, as he did also with his own son years later. However, as this article and as Cuban Americans contend, Congress has to act in order to completely eliminate this special treatment for Cubans. 
        While many Cuban American commentators have been critical of the Obama-Raul Castro accords, Ada Ferrer, Professor of History and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University, is cautiously optimistic, which is closest to my own feeling.

          Somewhat surprisingly, a commentator from the conservative Cato Institute, Doug Bandow, also supports the Cuba accords.
          http://nationalinterest.org/feature/normalizing-ties-cuba-step-closer-the-death-the-castro-11893
       
        Although 53 political prisoners were supposed to be released in the Obama-Castro deal, the Ladies in White say none have been released so far and that there are more than 53. As volunteer Caribbean coordinator for Amnesty International USA, I’ve been trying to make sure that our five Amnesty prisoners of conscience (POCs) are included for release: the three young Vargas brothers who had tried to protect their mother from an acto de repudio, afro-Cuban hunger striker Iván Fernández Depestre, and Emilio Planas Robert. (These are the only Amnesty POCs in the Americas.) I posted something about the promised Cuba prisoner release and our POCs on Facebook and saw that one reader (not Cuban) had translated it into Spanish and put it on her page, for which I am grateful. All are mentioned in my Cuba book. If anyone has or knows anyone with a Twitter account, let’s make their names go viral, so please have them post the following (143 characters & spaces):
Raul Castro: free now 5 Amnesty Int’l Prisoners of Conscience, 3 young Vargas brothers, Ivan Fernandez, & Emilio Planas, only POCs in Americas.
        The week before the accords announcement saw the release to house arrest of Sonia Garro, a vocal afro-Cuban member of the Ladies in White, who had been arrested in March 2012 along with her husband, Ramón Alejandro Muñoz, and her neighbor, Eugenio Hernández. The three have never gone to trial. Whether they are included in the 53 is also uncertain. It has not been possible yet to determine who is on the release list.       
        José Manuel, the rafter librarian refugee who stayed at my house years ago, as mentioned in my new book (photo above at the beach with his aunt in 2010), had this to say: Pues es un tema que NO me interesa, y que en realidad no va a tener ningún beneficio para el cubano común, así que seria una perdida de mi valioso tiempo. Además de que a mis 50 años de edad, ya no me va a quedar vida para esperar a que Cuba vuelva a ser un país normal. [This is a subject that does NOT interest me and that, in reality, won’t have any benefit for the ordinary Cuban, so it would be a waste of my valuable time. Furthermore, I’m 50 years old and won’t live long enough to see Cuba become a normal country.] He said he doesn’t feel Cuban anymore and never plans to return there again.
        However, Armando, the kidney patient in my book (his little family photo with me ended up mysteriously at the end), feels optimistic. Por fin las relaciones entre nuestros paises van a mejorar. No se hasta que punto, pero me alegra saber eso. Por lo menos es el principio de nuevas relaciones y oportunidades. Ojala que todo sea para bien y que disminuyan los muertos en el mar. En cualquier momento aparece el primer McDonald’s en la Habana. Quizas ahora con los cambios al fin usted tenga la oportunidad de viajar a Cuba otra vez un dia. Yo estaria muy contento de que usted pueda viajar a mi pais otra vez de manera libre y tranquila. [Finally, relations between our countries are going to improve. I don’t know how much, but I’m happy about it. At least, it’s the beginning of new relationships and opportunities. Let’s hope it all turns out well and that deaths by sea will diminish. Any moment now, we’ll see the first McDonald’s in Havana. Maybe now with these changes, you will have a chance to finally travel to my country again someday. I would be very happy if you could travel to my country in a free and peaceful manner. [Armando is referring to my ejection from Cuba by State Security in 1997 and, though he hopes I will go back, I’m not quite ready to try that yet, especially after the revelations in my Cuba book.]
                A friend who is a staunch admirer of Fidel Castro, along the lines of the guy who inspired my Cuba book, had this to say: Congratulations to the President of the United States, Barack Obama, and Pope Francis, for their fabulous and inspiring collaboration in bringing at long last to an end the unjust and futile attempts to isolate and sabotage Cuba for having dared to adopt a socialist model of social and economic development, thereby isolating and rendering irrelevant the undue influence lobby of the extremist right-wing Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF) Miami lobby whose die hard right wing extremist ideologues are those who benefitted from the bloody dictatorship of Fulgencio Baptista [sic] until the genuine people’s Revolution cast off the yoke of that decadent racist authoritarian.
                Whew! Batista, who was of mixed race himself, wasn't particularly known for racism, despite his many other failings. And is CANF still a force? Since its founder died, haven't heard much about it. The above commentator, like many pro-Castro Americans, is caught in a time warp.
        Here’s another comment, again similar to what the guy who actually inspired me to write my Cuba book might say, indicating, as we all know, that extreme partisan polarization will probably increase on this issue, just like on many others. He credits Cuba with the “elimination of human misery” (a big surprise to most Cubans) and says that Cuba’s achievements have inspired other nations in the Americas “to choose a populist/socialist development strategy and tactics which assertively is [sic] not aligned with the dictates of the rightwing extremist neocon ideologues.” What about extreme leftwing ideologues?
        Feisty and quirky Independent Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont seems to be governing via press releases, putting forth his very own Cuba policy, relentlessly criticizing the US government, but never the Cuban leadership. He has constantly complained about leaks of information about American government democracy programs—information that he himself may well have leaked. He hasn’t missed a chance to berate USAID for Cuba democracy efforts, expressing outrage at their incompetence in trying to provoke “regime change” in Cuba. (Is regime support his desired objective?) At least twice in the last few months, he has railed against defunct “hip-hop” and “Twitter” programs aimed at Cuban youth. He thinks that by labeling them ineffective and misguided, that makes it so, though Cubans who were actually involved in them feel otherwise. In my Cuba book, I mention that he also held up funds designed to promote Cuban democracy. Yet, despite his scathing criticism of USAID, he was prominently on the delegation that brought Alan Gross back from Cuba, although Gross had gone to Cuba precisely for USAID. Is he a hypocrite or was his constant berating of efforts to support democracy activists in Cuba perhaps just a smokescreen to gain the trust of the Castro regime? That might be giving him too much credit.
        Somehow, I am on Leahy’s e-mail notification list, getting an electronic holiday card from him and his wife, smiling together outside in picturesque snowy Vermont. Since then, I’ve gotten two donation requests from him, asking for support already for his 2016 run—only in your dreams, Senator Leahy! One message says: Wow, what a way to end the year. Just over a week ago, I was flying down to Havana, Cuba in the middle of the night to pick up Alan Gross while President Obama was preparing to announce policies that would transform US-Cuba relations.
        Meanwhile, it has been revealed (if true) that he facilitated the artificial insemination of the wife of one of the imprisoned Cuban Five, who is now pregnant. (And he apparently has been eager to reveal his role.) That seems over the top, getting far too cozy with the Castro regime. In fact, there were reportedly 2 such attempts, as the first did not work. Semen is exempt from the embargo? The husband is Gerardo Hernandez, the convicted spy given two life terms for being most directly associated with advising the Cuba air force of the trajectory of a Brothers-to-the-Rescue plane that was then shot down, killing four men aboard. (Although the trial venue of Miami has been criticized, no Cuban Americans were on the jury.) Would Leahy advocate artificial insemination for either US female prisoners or the wives of male prisoners here? Would he have so eagerly transported sperm from an imprisoned supporter of Duvalier or Pinochet as a humanitarian gesture? What about for G’tmo prisoners? Is reproduction a human right, even for those incarcerated? What about all the folks in Cuban prisons now? Cuba has a very low birthrate, far below replacement, so maybe Leahy needs to help out prisoners there too.
        Before sanctimoniously accusing the US of using hip-hop artists in a plot to destabilize a foreign government through subversive songs, people need to understand the reality of trying to survive as an independent artist in Cuba, according to Cuban independent filmmaker and event producer Diddier Santos. “Who would you rather get money from? The Cuban government who will only give you money if you follow the party line or another government who will give you creative freedom to do what you want to do?” asked Santos, mentioning that he has gotten money from the government of Holland.
        Most people, once they take a stand, cling to it stubbornly and, if challenged, strengthen their opinion all the more in its defense. The NY Times’ Ernesto Londoño agreed to listen politely to Cuban dissidents, but declined to engage in conversation with them or to have his photo taken with them, though he had no such compunctions in his meetings with Castro regime leaders. Londoño’s relentless NYTimes editorials criticizing US Cuba policy have turned off me and some other readers, though perhaps others have been attracted by them. Of course, editorials are supposed to take a stand, which Londoño’s Cuba editorials certainly have done. Maybe the Times’ editorials were setting the stage and paving the way for Obama’s overtures towards Cuba? Meanwhile, the Times has targeted Dick Cheney’s role in authorizing torture, as it should, something condemned around the world, but has remained silent about the much longer lasting, continuing, and more extensive torture carried out by the Castro government, which the leadership there says is nobody’s business but their own as a sovereign nation, just as abuse within a family is often defended and protected. Already, after the announcement of the accords, democracy activists have been arrested. Where is the outcry? The Castro brothers truly are Teflon dictators. Yet, Marx and Engels must be turning over in their graves, seeing what communism has become the world over, including in Cuba.
        The Wall St. Journal, true to its orientation, is less enthusiastic about the Cuba deal. Conservative columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady asks “Who Benefits if the Embargo Is Lifted? The Castros already welcome foreign trade and investment. Fat lot of good it’s done for Cubans.” (12-22-14) and Nestor Carbonell follows up with “Mine Is Mine, Yours Is Negotiable” (12-26-14).
        A the same time, while criticizing and making fun of the North Korean regime appears totally acceptable, including releasing a comedy showing the assassination of its leader, films about the Castro regime are in variably romantic, inspiring, and laudatory. Not that the two countries, while allies, are completely comparable. Cuba is not as barbaric as North Korea, especially since Fidel retired, but it does have a dreadful history of firing squads, long prison sentences, and work camps for undesirables which should not be forgotten and simply swept under the rug. Cuba has long benefited from a double-standard applied to its dictatorial leadership. Just because the Castro brothers mouth platitudes about equality doesn’t make them so.
        People have been asking me if I am either thrilled or appalled, depending on their own position. I am neither, though surprised, yes, as I’d expected something before the end of the year, but nothing quite so sweeping.
        I’ve tried to make a list of pros and cons regarding the Cuba accords. On balance, I do favor them, though remain less enthusiastic than many more wholehearted supporters. I don’t know if Obama and the pope had any further way to press the Cuban government to recognize human rights. They were up against a deadline, not only that Alan Gross was despondent and possibly suicidal, but facing the impending arrival of a totally Republican Congress.
        I make the assumption that democracy is a superior form of government and that most people in Cuba and elsewhere would like to have the maximum freedom to decide on the rules and rulers governing them—also that the majority decides in the case of disagreements. In Cuba, the Castro regime self-righteously proclaims something like: “While we may do business with the United States and gladly accept any financial support, we are going to protect our Revolution and our benevolent socialist system,” actually meaning “our dictatorship.” Some Cubans may be comfortable with that, especially those who benefit by being in the inner circle, but that is not the majority. Why not put it to a vote?
        Here below is my own list of pros and cons regarding the Cuba-US accords.

Pro
1.   The status quo was not acceptable and was going nowhere. More than 50 years of a lack of formal relations have not resulted in much improvement in either human rights or economic development in Cuba. Most Cubans seemed stuck, not been achieving or producing anything useful for a long time. Something was needed to jar loose the situation and promote some forward movement. Efforts have been made by previous American presidents (during Fidel Castro’s time) to regularize relations, but agreement was never reached. Now, at long last, after decades, it finally has been.
2.   There was a need to reset the Cuba-US relationship on a non-violent, non-adversarial basis. US and world opinion increasingly favor the peaceful negotiated resolution of international disputes. Each side must begin building trust with the leadership of the other side. The agreement was a compromise—each side gave up something and gained something. Disagreements and negotiations can now occur more directly. Interests Section personnel will no longer be geographically and otherwise restricted when they become regular embassy employees.
3.   Arresting Cubans for being agents of the “empire” can no longer occur or will diminish.
4.   Cuba is no longer a major threat to the US or the world. This accord acknowledges that.
5.   Significant change in Cuba is unlikely during the lifetime of the Castro brothers, who are still living. Realistically, substantial change will probably not come to Cuba until after the Castro brothers’ deaths and they have been hanging on. So, let’s make things a bit easier for most people now and at least start the economic transition.
6.   The US does business with many other undemocratic regimes.
7.   Cuba is close geographically to the US and there are many families with members in both countries.
8.   A reset of the US-Cuba relationship offers more economic opportunities on both sides.
9.   Cultural and sports exchanges should increase.
10.     Most ordinary Cubans now seem excited and hopeful for the first time in years, many expecting the US to rescue them.
11.     A promise by the Cuban government to allow more internet access (though still restricted) will permit a greater flow of information (one of the main objectives of USAID programs there). (However, it also offers more opportunities for cyber-warfare against US targets.)
12.     Alan Gross and another American prisoner have been freed. Gross had been despondent and threatening suicide. Americans may not be arrested so quickly again. 
13.     Cuba has promised to release 53 political prisoners.
14.     The Obama administration wanted to stem the flow of refugees and prevent a refugee crisis. (Wet-foot/dry-foot is under fire, but may not be able to be eliminated without Congressional approval, so probably will remain at least for the next 2 years.)
15.     World and Latin American public opinion, particularly among leadership sectors, has long favored engagement between the US and Cuba (or, at least, has strongly criticized the previous US position). The US image has suffered because of enmity with Cuba. The agreement has been hailed around the world.
16.     American public opinion, including among Cuban Americans, has also largely favored greater engagement.
17.     Nations unfriendly to the US such as Venezuela, Russia, and North Korea were caught off-guard (and are probably none too happy).
18.     Most Americans don’t really care that much about the Cuba issue or else believe the US has been at fault. Most people here and around the world are unaware of the Cuban government’s systematic human rights abuses. They have bought the Cuban government’s narrative that the US is aggressing against poor little Cuba. (This could also be a “con” argument.)
19.     With so many even hotter trouble spots around the world, why remain focused on Cuba? 
20.     Obama wanted rapprochement with Cuba to be part of his legacy (and it is also part of the legacy of Pope Francis’s legacy as well as of Raul Castro).
21.     Making peace with the US was a big concession by the Cuban leadership, removing its main reason for oppressing dissidents. Anti-US rhetoric and actions may be reduced (but peaceful opponents are still being arrested).
22.     The majority of Cuban and American people have no enmity toward each other.
23.     The US and Cuba will both be able to attend the Summit of the Americas without conflict next April.
24.     Fewer political arrests and “actos de repudio” may occur. The Cuban leadership may become less harsh, feeling more secure in power and wanting to favorably impress American visitors and investors. 
25.     The Cuban leadership may become slightly more amenable to diplomatic persuasion for human rights (provided they don’t feel threatened in their own positions). The naming of ambassadors will allow the two nations to work out differences and agreements more directly.
26.     Perhaps, as in China, Peace Corps volunteers will be able to go to Cuba.
27.     The US does not have clean hands either in terms of civil and human rights.
28.     It’s a done deal anyway, so get over it. Too late now for “would’ve,” could’ve,” “should’ve.” Cuba is no longer an important nation, except among ideologues on both sides. We live in an imperfect world where compromises are necessary. Let it go. 

Con
1.   The embargo in reduced form is still in place and the Cuba issue has created an even deeper and more bitter partisan political divide in the US. Political polarization in the US on Cuba will increase—it’s already happening. Some Republican lawmakers are vowing to block the naming of an ambassador to Cuba.
2.   Obama has acknowledged human rights abuses and the lack of democracy in Cuba, but nothing in the agreement addresses that crucial problem; democracy will not automatically and magically occur. The US will no longer have any obvious leverage for human rights advocacy. Already, since announcement of the agreement, peaceful demonstrators have been beaten and arrested by authorities. However, rather than being accused of being CIA agents, they are apparently now being accused of being agents of right-wing Miami Cubans.
3.   While many Cubans may be content to remain at home if there are more opportunities there, some are making plans to reach US soil before that door closes.
4.   American support for democracy efforts may totally cease. “Regime change” has become a dirty word.
5.   Cuban spies may more easily enter the US.
6.   Viet Nam and China still arrest political opponents despite economic and trade ties with the US; China still executes more people—sometimes even for property crimes--than the rest of the world combined. Cuban democracy activists have said they don’t want “Putinism”—now they are headed in that direction.
7.   Cubans will become more compliant and resigned, will not rebel, will never learn about or experience democracy. If even the mighty USA has capitulated to the regime, who can help them now to achieve free expression and association?
8.   With Venezuela on the ropes, the Cuban regime was about to go down with it—now the US has come to the rescue just when the regime was on its last legs (though we’ve heard that before).
9.   Trade with the US will not be a panacea for Cubans, any more that trade with the rest of the world has been.
10.                 Cuba has declared categorically that fugitives from American justice will not be returned. Whether Cubans held in American prisons will be returned is uncertain; up until now, Cuba has largely refused to accept them.
11.                 The Cuban government has promised to release 53 political prisoners, but, so far, apparently none have been released and independent human rights groups on the island say that is only half the actual number. Furthermore, there have been new arrests of peaceful demonstrators
12.                 Cuba has the only Amnesty International prisoners of conscience in the Americas. People will probably continue to be thwarted and arrested for peaceful association and expression. There will be no freedom allowed for non-communist elections.
13.                 The 3 “Cuban Five” prisoners released to Cuba have blood on their hands, especially Gerardo Hernandez, who allegedly was most directly involved in the deaths of 4 Brothers-to-the-Rescue volunteers. (Although their trial was considered biased by many commentators, no Cuban Americans were on the Five’s jury. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, a vocal critic of USAID programs in Cuba, even reportedly facilitated a successful artificial insemination of Hernandez’s wife in Cuba.)
14.                 Corruption and the power of the military, already extensive, will increase in Cuba.
15.                 The devil is in the details, still to be worked out. In China and Viet Nam, visitors can pay service providers directly—will this happen in Cuba? Will visitors be able to travel freely? Will individuals not affiliated with a government-approved tour be able to travel in Cuba and just hang out with ordinary people? So far, it looks like only prearranged tours, authorized and staffed by the Cuban government, meaning by its loyalists, will be permitted. With luck, freer commerce, as in China and Viet Nam, will be permitted, but that is not allowed yet. Can workers for foreign investors be paid directly, rather than through the government? Will medical personnel sent abroad be able to keep more of the payment for their services? Canadian entrepreneurs have been arrested and their assets have been seized. If economic controls are not relaxed, it may be too hard for outsiders to do business in Cuba. (A Canadian businessman was given 15 years for giving direct bonuses to his employees and his business seized on that pretext.)
16.                 The US has a strict policy of not paying ransom for captives, but paid quite a lot for Gross. It also is paying Gross $3.2 million in compensation. Grabbing Gross turned out to be a crucial investment for the Cuban regime.                                                                                                                                                                                     
17.                 A majority of UN members voted to review human rights abuses in North Korea, but not in Cuba. There will apparently be no review or recognition of the long history of human rights violations in Cuba, no truth and reconciliation commission. Cuban human rights violators will enjoy impunity in a whitewashing of past and recent history.
18.                 Tourism and trade with the whole world besides the US has not resulted in Cuban authorities recognizing human and civil rights. Cuba remains a one-party communist state.
19.                 Other Caribbean tourist destinations may attract fewer visitors. Eventually, Cuba will become, after a surge of initial interest, just one more US tourist destination among many, losing its unique character.
20.                 Dissidents, former political prisoners, and the families of the 4 Brothers-to-the-Rescue volunteers killed by the Cuban air force feel shocked, abandoned, isolated, and betrayed.
21.                 Ordinary Cubans may expect too much of this agreement and become discouraged and disappointed when their expectations do not materialize quickly enough.
22.                 Likewise, they may never get into the habit of thinking for themselves; it takes time for a people to transition from a totalitarian system, but now that process may not even begin.
 
In terms of sheer number of items listed, the pros have it by a modest margin.  

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