Finally, spring has sprung. See photos from around my house and neighborhood. That’s a magnolia tree that I planted 3 years ago in my front yard. The cherry blossoms came in later than usual this year and their duration was short. When in full bloom, they’re barely pink, only a slight tinge. Other flowering trees have pinker blossoms
Lots of Cuba news, as would be expected. Ciro Alexis Casanova Pérez has been declared a Cuban prisoner of conscience (POC) by Amnesty International. His case was first brought to our attention in Amnesty by Antunez, an Afro-Cuban dissident mentioned previously in these pages and also in my Cuba book, a towering figure for Cuban dissidents and a former Amnesty POC himself (17 years). In January, he was received in the office of Rep. John Lewis, a former MLKing associate, breaking through the barrier of the Congressional Black Caucus that had distanced itself from him out of loyalty to the Castro brothers. Antunez was also a catalyst for my Cuba book, having been a major figure in the argument with my former friend which led to the writing of that book. I feel vindicated in supporting him and glad he is finally have some influence outside Cuba, though within Cuba, he is still persona non grata with the regime and little known.
We have been seeing that some prisoners of conscience or dissidents have been put back in jail. Some other dissidents have been harassed.
-- Marshelha Goncalves Margerin, Amnesty International advocacy director, on repression in Cuba since Obama's December 17th deal with Raul Castro, VOA, 4/7/15
U.S. and Cuban officials have yet to agree on the terms for reopening embassies. But the Castro regime has nevertheless reaped some substantial gains. Raúl Castro will be welcomed to the Americas summit for the first time; Mr. Obama will shake his hand. In the coming days, Mr. Obama is likely to offer another big concession by removing Cuba from the State Department’s list of sponsors of terrorism, an act that would disregard Cuba’s continued support for Colombia’s terrorist groups, its illegal arms trading with North Korea and the sanctuary it provides American criminal JoAnne Chesimard.
As for other Latin American leaders, they are unlikely to pressure Mr. Castro on his human rights record, as White House officials predicted they would once the stigma of the U.S. diplomatic boycott was lifted. Instead, many may join in an ambush of Mr. Obama being orchestrated by Mr. Castro’s closest ally. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro claims he will arrive in Panama with 10 million signatures of people protesting U.S. sanctions against his government; his ludicrous but loud propaganda campaign has won support even from supposed U.S. allies such as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
Here’s a Post article appearing after the summit: http://tablet.washingtonpost.com/top/castro-and-cuba-show-new-side-at-summit-and-old-tactics-too/2015/04/12/b04efdee-de22-11e4-b6d7-b9bc8acf16f7_story.html
In a poll conducted in Cuba (without the authorization of the Cuban government), President Obama enjoyed an 80% approval rating compared to half that for the Castro brothers, whose disapproval ratings were somewhat higher than their approval ratings (even that rate of approval for the Castro brothers seems high to me, based on my own anecdotal experience). It should also be added that Mr. Obama has never come close to 80% approval in the United States. The particulars of how the survey was conducted were not revealed for security reasons, perhaps making the results somewhat suspect, but at least, a survey was conducted in a nation where that is prohibited. See full results: http://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/cuba-poll-2015/
Apparently pro-Castro crowds attacked Cuban dissidents in Panama, as they do in Cuba, calling them “mercenaries” and “imperialists” http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2015/04/09/cubans-for-and-against-castro exchange-punches-insults-at-summit-americas/
EFE-4/4/2015--Havana – Many of Cuba's dissident groups have come together to take a "message of unity" to the Summit of the Americas in Panama with two specific proposals - a new electoral law and a law of association and political parties.
"It's obvious that an energetic civil society is only possible where the independence of citizens is acknowledged and their rights and freedoms are respected," the dissidents told the press in Havana Friday in a joint statement.Their purpose was to make the summit being held April 10-11 a chance to win recognition for "the legitimacy of an independent Cuban civil society on the island and in exile as a valid representative of the Cuban people," opposition leader Manuel Cuesta Morua of the Arco Progresista group of Cuba said Friday. Other dissident organizations involved are the Patriotic Union of Cuba, or UNPACU, led by Jose Daniel Ferrer, and the Anti-totalitarian Front of Guillermo Fariñas (both mentioned in my Cuba book).
However, even before the convening of the Summit of the Americas, matters got off to a rocky start. Rosa María Payá, daughter of activist Oswaldo Payá, was briefly arrested at the Panama airport and warned not to create a disturbance or she would be deported to Cuba. She has persisted in accusing the Castro government of deliberately murdering her father. (I met him years ago, met her more recently, and agree that most evidence indicates that the regime did deliberately kill her father—see my Cuba book.) Already her arrest has given her cause a higher profile internationally than would have otherwise occurred. Another group of Cuban activists demonstrating in Panama were reportedly beaten up by pro-Castro mobs, similar to those who routinely attack them in Cuba. Among those attacked and arrested were some I know personally: Antúnez, his wife, Yris Pérez, and blind lawyer Juan Carlos González Leyva.
Predictions were that President Obama would have a hard time at the summit because so many Latin American leaders had lined up behind Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro in his crackdown against opposition figures, something Obama had criticized. So, the gathering promised to be a contentious affair. Observers were waiting to see how Obama would handle it. Maybe his outreach to Cuba and everything sacrificed in that effort would fall short of expectations. In my experience, the vociferous leadership of Latin America’s anti-US bloc does not actually represent the preponderance of public opinion there, where leaders have become increasingly authoritarian, even dictatorial, controlling media and dissidence. Those leaders are moving in the direction of Cuba, taking lessons from the Castro brothers about how to perpetuate themselves in power and, like Cuba, blaming their own failings, corruption, and mismanagement—and any internal opposition—on the United States. This does not bode well for the beleaguered and struggling citizens of those countries nor for US-Latin American relations. Nor will those countries have sufficient economic growth or democratic freedoms to satisfy their own people, causing those leaders to continue to conveniently blame the US as they tighten their grip even further.
President Obama is taking a gamble, trying to soothe and disarm his critics by saying that strong countries with genuine popular support have nothing to fear from peaceful opponents, but, of course, dictatorial countries really don’t have so much popular support and their leaders do fear losing control. Obama even met with Cuban and Venezuelan dissidents in Panama, which certainly gave them a morale boost. However, curbs on association and expression are likely to continue in both their countries, just as they have in China and Vietnam for decades, even though the US may no longer be specifically blamed. Remember back to when Nixon-to-China took place and look now at China’s current president, Xi Jinping, acting more repressive even than his recent predecessors. In Asia, American diplomats regularly bring up human rights as policy issues and on behalf of named imprisoned individuals, but, by invoking national sovereignty, leaders of dictatorial Asian countries mostly pay no attention. Just saying that the US is “turning the page” in its relationship with Latin America, as Obama said at the summit, and photo ops of Obama and Castro shaking hands are not sufficient for meaningful change, but do have symbolic value. Such gestures have caused confusion among leaders who reflexively blame the US for their own failings and now aren’t quite sure now how to respond. I’ve long contended that being the world’s top super power subjects our nation to a lot of blame. In my experience, most citizens of other countries, though they admire the US and exaggerate the desirability of our way of life, are often too ready to blame our nation for everything that they are suffering daily. A super power is a handy universal target and is ascribed supernatural powers.
Regarding the pending removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, there has also been a deafening silence surrounding the recent capture by Colombian authorities of a Chinese-flagged ship, the Da Dan Xia, seemingly headed for Cuba with a weapons cache disguised as "grain products." This new discovery is a stark reminder of another recent weapons cache headed from Cuba to North Korea, also mislabeled “grain products.” It came at a delicate time, when President Obama and Raul Castro would be meeting at the Summit of the Americas, with Obama facing hostile authoritarian leaders, so, mostly, it has been ignored. Rapprochement with Cuba carries a high price tag and is an issue that the administration entered into voluntarily, when so much else was already on its plate. They could have had a prisoner exchange to get Alan Gross released without reestablishing diplomatic relations, but that’s hindsight, so forward movement is the only option now
Despite evidence to the contrary, President Obama indicated that he would lift Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism even before the Summit of the Americas to counteract the hostility building up against him over sanctions against some Venezuelan officials. I doubted that this announcement would prevent inevitable histrionics on the Venezuelan issue, which have already won Cuba considerable concessions. Obama seemed to have been put on the defensive regarding Cuba, even though Cuba needs the US more than vice versa. I would advocate for having any such concessions to be exchanged for something benefiting ordinary Cubans, especially since Cuba was again involved recently in a questionable arms shipment disguised as grain. Does Obama think that by taking Cuba off the terrorism list, it will reform? That’s a gamble. While the lifting was not accomplished before the summit, Obama tried to defuse hostility by talking about friendship and mutual respect among the nations of the Americas without getting much into specifics. (Obama and certainly his wife will be glad when his term is over.)
Reportedly, the over 200 Peace Corps volunteers in Panama were explicitly excluded from summit events and from any meeting with President Obama.
Tania Bruguera can't leave Cuba, so the Hammer will stage work in her honor, LA Times—April 8, 2015
The open-mike that Cuban performance artist Tania Brugera had intended to bring to Havana’s Revolution Square was halted by her arrest and the confiscation of her passport in December, after she sought reactions to the announcement of the US/Cuba accords. She has now been released, but is unable to leave Cuba because her passport has not been returned. Nonetheless, a museum in LA decided to stage her open-mike piece there: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-hammer-museum-to-stage-cuban-artist-tania-bruguera-work-20150408-column.html
Numerous academic-type debates on Cuba are understandably occurring now. Here’s another one: http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/event/cuba-hope-or-hype-havana
The Venezuelan leadership has been routinely intimidating and harassing human rights defenders, and making unsubstantiated allegations that independent organizations are seeking to undermine Venezuelan democracy, this according to statement issued April 7 by 28 international and Latin American human rights organizations. These groups, including Amnesty International, have defended their legitimate functions of documenting abuses and representing victims before international human rights tribunals despite Venezuelan government accusations that they represent imperialist and US interests. While I was in Honduras, I attended an international forum organized by the Adenauer Foundation which concluded that while many governments in Latin America have anti-US and leftist leaders, civil society groups in those countries are pushing back. That certainly seems to be the case in Venezuela. And, invariably, the leaders blame the United States for any opposition.
Turning to another thorny international issue, William Burns, former State Department official and now president of the Carnegie Endowment, estimates that it will take a generational change—some 30 years—before Iran moves in a more democratic direction. Probably the same is true of Cuba and perhaps of other authoritarian governments—assuming that they even move in that direction, since counterforces are also at work.
At my local Amnesty International Group, we had a Nigerian speaker and activist, Omololoa Adele-Oso, a former architect who is now co-founder and executive director of Act-4-Accountability (www.act4accountability.com), an organization dedicated to reducing corruption in the Nigerian government and involved in the Bring-Back-Our-Girls campaign. She seemed to feel optimistic about the recently elected president of Nigeria, but said that Boko Haram has infiltrated the entire government and that there were more than new 400 abductions just a month ago. She said 17 parents of the missing girls have died waiting, some from health conditions caused or exacerbated by the stress of not finding their daughters.
My Kenyan visitor has been understandably upset about the massacre at the Kenyan college by Al Shabaab militants, although he believes that God will set matters right. Another Kenyan friend tells me that now Kenyan churches have security checks for parishioners and armed guards posted outside. Especially during Easter services, Christians were on edge.
The problem is that it's impossible everywhere in the world to guard every conceivable target from vengeful attackers considering themselves the only true Muslims. Who would have ever thought the Boston marathon would be a target? Or a Kenyan shopping mall? Or a girls' boarding school in Nigeria? Or this Kenyan college just now? Such violent and gruesome actions only make life worse for the majority of peaceful Muslims and divide people. Life is hard enough for most of the world’s inhabitants without confronting this tragic, harmful, and completely counterproductive activity.
Chelsea Manning –On 4 March, the Army Court of Criminal Appeals ordered the US military to stop using male pronouns when referring to Chelsea Manning in all future legal papers filed. Manning also confirmed beginning prescribed hormone therapy treatment to begin a gender transition.
U.S. population rose by less than 1% in 2014, roughly flat from previous years, the lowest growth rate in more than 70 years. There are a number of smaller cities that actually lost population and whose median age is rising. The population loss and aging seen in much of Europe and Japan have now arrived at our shores. Not only did the country have fewer immigrants during 2014, but the domestic birth rate dropped to a multi-decade low. Yet, some politicians are still talking of deporting “illegals” and creating even more border security. Instead, we should welcome young, healthy, working age people who want to come to the US. Letting those already established here remain is also a win-win. (I told you so in my most recent book.) Modest population growth, especially among younger ages, is optimal, not only to increase the number of workers, but also demand, trade, and innovation.