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,, 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.

        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.

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. 

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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