Monday, May 3, 2010

Cuba and Sudan Again, Hugo Chavez on Twitter

Recently, I mentioned the murder of a fifth Honduran journalist this year so far. Make that six now, as per a report in the local Spanish-language press. It was also reported that Hugo Chavez is now using Twitter. He first twittered to let people know about his upcoming visit to Brazil.

OAS Secretary General Insulza, perhaps reacting to criticisms of his human rights record and his very partisan support of Cuba, is now calling on Cuba to release ill political prisoners. He points out that the death of an imprisoned hunger striker in Feb. damaged Cuba’s image abroad. Good for him and let’s see if it has any affect on Cuban authorities.

As for Sudan, whose so-called presidential election was mentioned last time, it’s a country that barely bobs above the surface of the news these days. Too much else is going on and most people seem to have forgotten all about Darfur. The next goal for Bashir is to make sure the south does not secede when allowed to vote on that next year, something, no doubt, that 99% of southern residents want and will vote in favor of, provided their votes are fairly counted, which now looks doubtful. The US rep overseeing that whole process, reportedly is not very capable or tuned in--or so I've heard.

A friend has mailed me a short article from the Wall St. Journal (April 27, 2010), saying that Dania Virgen Garcia, a blogger who has supported the Damas, but who did not have anyone in prison herself, has been arrested. She was a member of a group calling itself "Ladies in Support." A blogger, she reportedly was given a sentence of one year, eight months.

Cuba human rights supporters in Madrid are planning to march in front of the Cuban Embassy on May 22, calling it a World March for Cuban Liberation and asking other countries to follow suit.

I’ve mentioned before that I am volunteer Caribbean Regional Action Network Coordinator for Amnesty International USA, a region that includes Cuba, a country I have visited several times and have many connections with. So I ask my blog readers’ indulgence in my posting information about Cuban human rights from time to time and of the following Amnesty items on Cuba. Please consider writing a letter to Cuban authorities regarding the Women in White, if you feel so inclined (see next two items).

29 April 2010

UA 98/10 - Fear for safety

CUBA Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White)

Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), a group of women relatives and friends of prisoners detained during a major crackdown on government critics in March 2003, plan to protest on 2 May through the streets of the Cuban capital, Havana to call for the release of their relatives. Amnesty International believes they are at risk of harassment and intimidation.

Damas de Blanco have carried out a weekly march every Sunday since they formed in 2003. The group march through the streets of Havana, starting at the Santa Rita Church, where they attend mass. Although the group reported harassment and intimidation in the past, they have stated that during the last few weeks, harassment by government supporters, the police and state security officials has increased. During their weekly marches, government supporters have amassed to shout insults and police and state security officials have broken up some marches by force.

At the beginning of April, state security officials visited around 30 members of Damas de Blanco at their homes in Havana to inform them of new regulations applying to their Sunday marches. They are now required to apply for authorization from the police at least 72 hours before each march. The marches must be limited to only five blocks within Havana and there are restrictions on the number of supporters allowed to march in solidarity with them. This was the first time Damas de Blanco were made aware of such regulations and the officials failed to notify them in writing of the regulations. Damas de Blanco have rejected the legitimacy of these restrictions and refuse to comply with them as they see them as unreasonable and an attempt by the authorities to prevent them from expressing their views and continuing with their peaceful activities.

Following the imposition of these new regulations, it has become increasingly difficult for the Damas de Blanco to march on Sundays. On Sunday 25 April, only six members of Damas de Blanco were allowed through a police check point to reach the Santa Rita Church. When they started to march after the mass they were confronted by two police officers and a state security official who reminded them of the new regulations and their lack of a permit to march. The Damas de Blanco ignored this warning and continued with their march. They were soon surrounded by dozens of government supporters who started to intimidate them by shouting insults and making noise with cooking pots and banging hoes. The Damas de Blanco were penned in and not able to move for almost eight hours until police officials intervened and took them home.

In 2003, over several days, the Cuban authorities arrested 75 men and women for their peaceful expression of critical opinions of the government. They were subjected to summary trials and were sentenced to long prison terms of up to 28 years. Amnesty International declared the 75 convicted dissidents to be prisoners of conscience, 53 of them remain in prison.

Damas de Blanco organize peaceful marches where they distribute flowers and call for the release of their relatives and friends. In 2005, Damas de Blanco was awarded The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament.

In March 2010 Damas de Blanco organized a daily march for a week to mark the seventh anniversary of the arrest of their relatives. On 17 of March 2010, their march was forcibly broken up by Cuban police, who briefly detained several women. Some of the women claimed that they were beaten by the police. They included Reyna Tamayo, mother of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a prisoner of conscience who died on 22 February 2010, having spent several weeks on hunger strike whilst in prison.

RECOMMENDED ACTION: Please send appeals to arrive as quickly as possible:
- calling on the authorities to cease immediately the harassment and intimidation of the Damas de Blanco and any other citizens who seek to peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression, assembly and association.
- Calling on the authorities to permit the Damas de Blanco to march peacefully on Sundays without unreasonable restrictions.


Head of State and Government
Raul Castro Ruz Presidente
La Habana, CUBA
Fax: 011 53 7 8333085 (via Foreign Ministry)
1 212 779 1697 (via Cuban Mission to UN)
Email: (c/o Cuban Mission to UN)
Salutation: Su Excelencia/Your Excellency

Interior Minister
General Abelardo Coloma Ibarra
Ministro del Interior y Prisiones
Ministerio del Interior, Plaza de la Revolucion, La Habana, CUBA
Fax: 011 53 7 8333085 (via Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
1 2127791697 (via Cuban Mission to UN)
Salutation: Su Excelencia/Your Excellency


Cuba has no embassy in the US at present. To contact its interest in the US, write to:

Embassy of Switzerland
Cuban Interests Section
2639 16th Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20009
Fax: 202 797 8521

Check with the AIUSA Urgent Action office if sending appeals after 10 June 2010.
Amnesty International--Cuba urged to respect press freedom as repression of journalists intensifies
30 April 2010
Amnesty International Press Release: Amnesty Internation al today called on the Cuban authorities to end harassment of independent journalists following a month in which several reporters were arbitrarily detained and intimidated for criticizing the government.

“Journalists who try to work independently of the state-owned media outlets in Cuba are being targeted with repressive tactics and spurious criminal charges - and this clampdown on freedom of expression appears to be intensifying,” said Susan Lee, Amnesty International's Americas Director, ahead of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May.

Journalist Calixto Ramón Martínez Arias remains in detention after being arrested on 23 April by security officials who broke into the house where he was covering a memorial service for a prisoner of conscience. Orlando Zapata Tamayo had died two months earlier after several weeks on hunger strike in protest against the plight of prisoners of conscience in Cuba.

Another journalist described the campaign of intimidation waged against him as “psychological torture”. Yosvani Anzardo Hernández, the director of an online independent newspaper, was detained on 24 April and questioned for over six hours over anti-government graffiti found in the city of Holguin.

Meanwhile, news agency director Carlos Serpa Maceira was subjected to intimidation and harassment by the Cuban authorities when he tried to cover the weekly march by the activist group Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) on three consecutive weekends in April. Members of the Damas de Blanco have been repeatedly harassed and intimidated by government supporters, and their weekly demonstrations were forcibly broken by police on at least two occasions.

"Criminal charges, or other forms of harassment and intimidation, must not be brought against independent journalists, human rights advocates or political dissidents as a result of their legitimate exercise of freedom of expression," said Susan Lee.

There are currently 55 prisoners of conscience detained in Cuba, most of them serving long sentences for criticizing the Cuban government and advocating basic human rights. Among them are several independent journalists. Several articles of the Cuban Constitution and Penal Code are so vague that the authorities have been able to use them in a way that infringes freedom of expression. The Cuban State also maintains a total control of broadcast media and the press, while access to the internet is heavily restricted.

"As a result of these restrictions on freedom of expression, Cubans are unable to share independent information without facing direct repression from the authorities," said Susan Lee. "Restrictions on access to the internet should be lifted and censorship of websites containing information and views contrary to government policies must be eliminated."

Amnesty International has urged the Cuban authorities to review all legal provisions that unlawfully limit freedom of expression and to release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally.
Cuba's mobile phone boom sees few calls but plenty of chatter
Rory Carroll in Havana ,, Sunday 25 April 2010

Once illegal gadget is now ubiquitous, despite prohibitive costs, and is loosening the regime's grip on information. Roberto Machado tapped his pocket with a smile and with some ceremony fished out the phone: a Sony Ericsson, vintage 2003. For its new owner this was no clunky relic. It was beautiful. Machado, a 31-year-old artist, recently received it from an aunt in Spain and was enchanted. "I love it. I tell you, with this life isn't the same."

The age of the mobile phone has reached Cuba. Since being legalised by the communist government the phones, once a forbidden badge of foreign consumerism, have become a ubiquitous sight across the island. Clipped to belts, worn around necks, endlessly fiddled with, you see them everywhere. There is, however, a Cuban twist: very few use the phone to talk.

Machado looked aghast at the idea. "Speak? As in a conversation? Never. Not once. You would have to be crazy or desperate." Calls are too expensive so the phones are used as pagers. Instead of answering, Cubans note the incoming number and call back from a landline.

Such are the calculations wrought by an impoverished, centrally planned economy where the average monthly wage is $20 (£13). Calls between mobile phones cost 65 cents a minute, and slightly more from a mobile to a landline. Even texting, at 17 cents a message, is considered pricey. A minute-long call to Europe costs $5.85.
It takes enormous sacrifice – or a foreign benefactor – for Cubans to afford the $60 handset sold in government stores and a further $50 to activate the line with Etecsa, the state telephone company. Even so, there is always a queue outside Etecsa's store on Obispo street in Havana. Many are youths in sunglasses and designer jeans – part of a generation as obsessed by brands as their western peers. "We're catching up," said Miguel, a 19-year-old.

All in the queue – faces pressed against the store window – appeared giddy at the prospect of imminent cellular connection. "They've been waiting for this a long time," said a uniformed guard at the shop entrance. Cuba still has the lowest mobile phone use in Latin America but the number is rising fast, with 480,000 handsets for 11.2 million people, according to officials.

On one level this represents success for President Raúl Castro's promise to ease the hardships and petty restrictions which stoke resentment among Cubans at the 51-year-old revolution. Bans on DVDs and computers have also been lifted. From the government's viewpoint, however, there is a catch. These consumer goods fan a different, rival revolution – in information. Cubans yearn for news other than state media propaganda. "I'm sick of being treated like a 10-year-old who lives on another planet," one tourism worker put it.

A gossip grapevine nicknamed Radio Bemba (Radio Lip) is the traditional way to supplement official information. The new gadgets – phone cameras, flashcards, DVDs and the occasional internet link – are now multiplying that informal network. The state monopoly over news is history.

"Even if it is not always immediately visible the arrival of new technology brings changes which bubble under the surface," said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst and Cuba expert at the University of Miami. Cubans are better informed than ever before, said Ruben Polanco, 29, an IT worker with a state bank. "With this," he said, indicating the camera on his Motorola phone, "the truth gets out."

Three recent examples show the technology's impact. Last month a baseball game between Industriales and Sancti Spíritus turned into a riot. Police waded into players and spectators – including a communist party chief – with batons and pepper spray. In the past the incident would have been the stuff of rumour, at most, but this time the brawl was captured on mobile phones, loaded on to flashcards, played on computers and DVD players across the island and uploaded to YouTube. "Everyone was talking about it, saying did you see the guy in the headlock," said Polanco.

Another clandestine video hit was a protest at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in Havana where dozens of students protested over foul food and other grievances.
A third case has fuelled anger over a scandal at the main psychiatric hospital where at least 26 patients died during freezing weather in January. The authorities admitted a blunder, promised an investigation and hoped to move on. Instead, autopsy photographs showing emaciated, apparently bruised corpses were leaked. "It's one thing to hear and another to actually see," said Antonio Gonzalez-Rodiles, 37, a scientist who received the images on a flashcard. "The bodies were skin and bone, like something out of a concentration camp. It's really, really upsetting."

Unlike in Burma, Iran and other countries with repressive regimes, Cuba remains calm and stable. There are no uprisings, no mass demonstrations, so information technology poses no immediate risk to the government. Over time, however, the technology is likely to present an increasingly fraught challenge. The sea still surrounds it, but Cuba is ever less an island.
Bloggers critical of the government, such as Yoani Sanchez, have attracted wide followings overseas and admirers at home, despite internet restrictions. Secret police have struggled to winkle out satellite TV dishes hidden in water tanks, among other places.

Cuba's government retains formidable control but a battle with information technology is likely to be a battle lost, said Dianna Melrose, the British ambassador in Havana. "They are trying to do a King Canute, they are fighting an impossible tide.

Here is a letter from a Cuban living in the US, reacting to the Cuban government’s suppression of the Women in White (DB, Damas de Blanco):

What else could the government authorities do? They harassed and threatened the DB but continued to tolerate their marching just as long as they did so 5 blocks down Quinta Avenida because they were relatively isolated and the rest of the citizens of Havana were not aware of their activities. In this case the unfavorable foreign propaganda of interfering with their marches was considered worse than allowing them to continue. However, once they began to march down the different sections of Havana they began to be noticed by the habaneros and they broke the government’s monopoly of information. From that day on the internal cost of allowing them to continue outweighed the external cost of taking actions to stop their marches.

How has the totalitarian government gone about it trying to stop these marches? I believe very intelligently and effectively by doing everything possible except using physical violence against the DB. First taking using carrot and stick measures against their husbands, boy friends, fathers, brothers, sons who are in jail in accordance whether their wives and other female family members participate in the marches or not.

For example, in accordance with their family member's behavior, placing the political prisoners in jails closer or further from Havana and offering them worse or better detection conditions or shortening or lengthening their sentences. Offering their wives jail and conjugal visits on Sundays so that they would be unable to march.

Also creating new regulations to be able to prohibit or to limit their family members from marching such as:

1- Forcing them to ask for permits 72 hours before allows the authorities to be able to prohibit them at will from marching at all.
2- When the marches are permitted to limiting them marches to a short section of Quinta Avenida around the Santa Rita church that could be blocked off to isolate them from the residents of Havana and reduce the effectiveness of their dissident propaganda.
3- Not allowing them from taking advantage of sudden incidents of public unrest to go out and fan the flames.

These regulations could be efficiently enforced by imposing sanctions that could be raised for each renewed violation and that could be expected to eventually extinguish such behavior such as fines or house arrest. Imprisonment and physical punishment would not be used to avoid arousing the sympathy of Cubans and foreigners for the DB.

Also before having to apply even these relatively light sanctions pro-government crowds would be used to surround the DB for long periods of time and stop them from marching. The police would of course surround the DB to protect them from abuse by the hostile crowds and would then take them to their homes in buses for the same reason.

The authorities will use such tactics for some time before escalating to sanctions of fines and house arrests. By such methods the DB would be forced to stop the marches without the security forces having to appeal to violence and creating an anti-government backlash!

It is foreseeable that Castro is going to instruct the security forces to use non-violent methods to paralyze non violent opposition tactics. The SOB is planning to out Gandhi and out Martin Luther King the DB.

Please do not get me wrong. My heart is with the Damas de Blanco and they are the best effort and have had the greatest success the opposition has enjoyed in 50 years. But I am a short-run pessimist.

While Fidel Castro is alive, it will be extremely difficult to gain much leverage against his dictatorship within Cuba where that matters. The guy is a political genius, an evil one to be sure but still a genius.

Some adverse noise can be made outside the island of course. But until an effective way is found to infiltrate information into Cuba, all that is just preaching to the choir and will have very limited adverse influence within Cuba. Progress within Cuba will begin to be made once the information enters and/or the Beard is gone.

This does not mean that I am in favor of doing nothing against him now. By all means carry on because it will be a long cumulative effort and if a year of opposition propaganda can shorten the Cuban regime's grip on power by even one day, I think it will be worth it.

But do not kid yourself! We are throwing rocks at Morro Castle for the time being and will probably continue to do so while Fidel Castro is alive. If the story about his Chinese pet turtle turns out to be true, it will be a long grind, so let's not have any false hopes about the DB and learn to be patient! If any changes occur in Cuba soon, it will be not because of the DB but because of the debates that are raging inside of Cuba because of the obvious failure of 52 years of Fidel Castro's rule.

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