Cuba insists change ‘not negotiable’

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson had breakfast with dissidents on Friday after a day of talks with the regime focused on restoring diplomatic relations

Asked whether Cuba might at least examine how to expand freedoms to help the Obama administration with Congress, the communist regime’s lead negotiator Josefina Vidal said, “Absolutely no.”

“Change in Cuba isn’t negotiable,” she insisted.

The role to be played by civil-society activists and the political opposition in this new scenario will depend on their ability to adapt to a new context and evolve, by looking for new ways of self-management and by basing the survival or success of their projects in terms of the support achieved by citizens, within or outside Cuba, notes Eliécer Ávila, a founder of SOMOS+ and a member of the Cuban Civil Society Open Forum.

A more open political game can largely benefit civil society, if it does not waste time crying over what is already a reality and rather decide to “turn on their batteries” to take benefit from the possible advantages that can arise from these new winds of change, she writes for The Huffington Post.

Other civil society activists want the U.S. to be more aggressive in holding the regime to account for its human rights violations.

Administration officials must demand free elections and accountability for murdered activists, democracy advocate Rosa Maria Paya writes for The PanAm Post.  Payá is the daughter of the late democracy leader Oswaldo Payá, who, along with Harold Cepero, was killed in an automobile accident on July 22, 2012 in Bayamo, Cuba. She addressed a Washington conference on human rights last Friday alongside other Cuba democracy advocates, including Frank Calzon of the Center for  Free Cuba (above).

U.S. tech companies see a potential windfall in the Obama administration’s decision to ease trade restrictions with Cuba, Julian Hattem reports for The Hill:

In 2013, just 26 percent of the country used the Internet, according to the International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations — but most of them could merely access a walled-off network of largely Cuban websites and services. The portion of Cubans who have actual unfettered access to the true, global Internet is estimated to be closer to 5 percent.

“Cuba remains one of the most heavily restricted environments for Internet use in the world, and it has been that way for quite some time,” said Laura Reed, a research analyst at Freedom House, a pro-democracy organization.


Cuba: civil society’s ‘new wiggle space’ – four conditions for US reset

cuba posibleThe United States and Cuba began historic talks Thursday, aimed at ending more than five decades of official estrangement, The Washington Post reports:

Despite somewhat stony exteriors as the official sessions began, the delegation heads, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson and Josefina Vidal, head of the Americas department of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, were said to have made initial progress in breaking the ice ……Jacobson plans to hold a breakfast for Cuban civil society representatives, human rights activists and political dissidents Friday before her departure.

Jacobson said re-establishing diplomatic ties and opening embassies in Havana and Washington were “not overly cumbersome,” but that the two sides had profound differences on other issues, such as Cuba’s human rights record, Reuters adds.

The Presidents of the United States and Cuba have laid the groundwork that will allow “Cuba’s situation to improve,” said Yoani Sanchez, a prominent dissident blogger and director of the Internet portal “We now have to use this new wiggle space.”CUBA DEPEISTRE

Raul Castro has warned that he does not consider this new era of detente an opening for significantly altering Cuba’s communist system, one-party rule or economy, which is largely controlled by the state, the LA Times reports.

“Raul Castro will try to gain the most while giving up the least,” Jose Daniel Ferrer, a leading dissident who opposes the regime but welcomes rapprochement, said in an interview.

Cuban officials are hanging tight to their managed economy and will do their best to control any transition, analysts suggest.

“As Roberta Jacobson begins historic talks with Cuban officials, the first of their kind in over 30 years, it is essential to keep progress on democratic reform and respect for human rights at the top of the agenda,” said Robert Herman, vice president for regional programs at Freedom House. Ms. Jacobson and her delegation should “raise concerns over recent crackdowns on universal human rights, including freedom of expression, and engage in meaningful conversation with members of Cuban civil society and dissidents, who will be instrumental in balancing discourse while diplomatic relations are being restored.”

Totalitarian regime

cuba foranothercubalogoindexCuba is home to the longest-standing totalitarian regime in the Western Hemisphere, said the University of Delaware’s Maria P. Aristigueta, who recently presented a talk on “The Role of Civil Society in Leading Change in Cuba.”

Civil society groups in Cuba are cautiously optimistic about the change in U.S. policy, she said, drawing on her research conducted through a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) grant in 2007. But they want to ensure that four main conditions are met prior to the U.S. re-establishing diplomatic relations with the country, she said:

  • Political prisoners need to be released immediately. Elizardo Sánchez of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation estimates there are still more than 100 people imprisoned.
  • Cuba must ratify the United Nations human rights covenants.
  • All “apparatus of repression” must be dismantled, including assaults on “counterrevolutionaries,” arbitrary arrests, demonization and intimidation of those who think differently, and police surveillance of activists.
  • The Cuban government must accept the existence of civic structures that have the right to express opinions, decide, question, and choose. These voices that have not been represented in the current negotiations between the governments of Cuba and the U.S.

[T]he biggest prize [of the policy shift] should be the advance of democracy and open markets in Latin America, The Economist says:

The Castros are not the only ones who will be discomfited by the loss of the American alibi. Venezuela leads a loose coalition of countries that uses defiance of the United States as an excuse for policies that stunt economic growth and democratic rights. It has long supported Cuba (and other Caribbean countries) with sales of oil at heavily subsidised prices. Even for robustly democratic countries like Brazil, the American bogeyman makes it easier to justify resistance to trade deals and to cosy up to uglier regimes.

Gradualism rather than revolution is what Cuba needs, according to Harvard analyst Noah Feldman:

Of course human rights abuses should be reversed and free expression expanded. That’s why the freeing of political prisoners is a positive step. But when it comes to Cuba’s economic development, slow progress is preferable to radical transformation. The same is true of political evolution; moving too fast might not produce greater freedom, but actually the opposite.

Cuba is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2014, Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2014 and Not Free in Freedom on the Net 2014

Five mistakes in new Cuba policy?

cuba focusAcrimonious neighbors for 50 years, Cuba and the United States this week are expected to take the first concrete steps toward opening diplomatic relations and an entirely new relationship in trade, traffic and tourism, The Los Angeles Times reports (HT: FPI).  

On Wednesday, when the U.S. State Department’s top diplomat for the hemisphere, Roberta Jacobson, arrives here to negotiate terms of the détente announced by the Cold War foes a month ago, she will lay the path to a potential new era in connectivity for the region’s least-wired nation. – The Wall Street Journal adds.  

Her visit to Cuba, aimed at officially reprising the dialogue with the dictatorship, will be problematical because the U.S. has already earlier given away all its negotiating trump cards, saddling Jacobson with five mistakes in the new Cuban policy, according to Carlos A. Montaner, a Non-resident Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.

The first mistake was to assume that he was ending a policy that had not worked. That’s not true, he contends:

The aim to liquidate the communist regime ceased to exist in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson ended, by a stroke of the pen, all subversive operations against Castro and activated a strategy of “contention” somehow similar to the one used against the Soviet Union, based on three basic elements: propaganda, restricted economic relations, and political isolation.

Those were Cold War measures against a country that has never stopped combatting the United States. Ever since, Washington has not seriously tried to eliminate Castroism. In the first half of the 1990s, when the USSR had disappeared and Castroism lacked allies, it would have been very easy to put an end to the Cuban dictatorship, but Bill Clinton was not interested in eradicating the neighboring regime.

Perhaps Obama should have said that he was canceling some Cold War measures against a country that had left that era behind. But how to explain that, in July 2013, the authorities in Panama halted a ship clandestinely loaded in Cuba with 250 tons of war materiel? How to reclassify as “a normal country” a nation described as terrorist, an ally of the worst Islamic tyrannies — Iran and Qaddafi’s Libya — a regime that plots with Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua to articulate a major anti-U.S. campaign not unlike the worst days of the Cold War? Don’t dozens of U.S. criminals, political and common, continue to live in Cuba, protected by the authorities?

Cuba was not a former enemy. It kept its anti-American virulence intact.


US will meet Cuban dissidents, seeks end to diplomat restrictions



Cuban dissident Antunez will attend the SOTU address

Cuban dissident Antunez will attend the SOTU address

A delegation of members of Congress who have been some of the strongest advocates of lifting the American trade embargo with Cuba concluded a three-day visit here on Monday with optimism over trade deals but without an anticipated meeting with President Raúl Castro — apparently because of its decision to meet with several Cuban dissidents, The New York Times reports:

The delegation, which included Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a longtime visitor who has long been involved in Cuban-American relations, emphasized the bright spots of the visit, particularly potential openings for American agricultural products in Cuba.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson is also expected to meet maybe on Friday, with Cuban dissidents or civil society activists.

“This is historic. We were ­frozen in the same foreign policy with Cuba for over 50 years,” Democratic senator Dick Durbin said. “Finally this president came to the realisation that that policy wasn’t serving the best interests of the US, of Cuba, or of the world. Now we are moving toward a new era,” he told AFP:

The first day of the talks will centre on migration — an issue that has vexed both nations for decades, with Cubans hopping on rickety boats to traverse 145km of shark-infested waters to reach Florida. Then on Friday, the two sides will negotiate the reopening of their embassies.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs Roberta Jacobson will head the American delegation while the Cubans will be represented by the foreign ministry’s director for US affairs, Josefina Vidal.

cuba foranothercubalogoindexA senior US State Department official said in Washington the US side wants communist Cuba to lift travel restrictions for American diplomats. The official added, however, that US negotiators were not going with the expectation of closing all of those issues in “this first conversation”.

“We hope there will be an ­accelerated pace of engagement beyond this first conversation,” the official said. “A lot of the pace depends on the Cuban government.” 

The US lawmakers “wanted to hear our opinions, and they also gave their own opinions,” Elizardo Sanchez of the Cuban National Reconciliation and Human Rights Committee told AFP:

About 15 opponents of the Americas’ only communist government met for more than two hours with the American visitors, underlining the fact that dissidents have many different views and priorities.

“Among us, there are those who support (US-Cuban) rapprochement and others who do not,” Sanchez said…..Among the dissidents attending the meeting with US lawmakers were blogger Yoani Sanchez, Ladies in White leader Berta Soler and Jose Daniel Ferrer, who leads the Patriotic Union of Cuba, active in the east.

Human rights and democracy will be at the center of talks when delegations from the United States and Cuba gather in Havana this week as part of continuing negotiations toward full diplomatic relations, a high-ranking U.S. official said Monday.

cubayoanipicAmnesty International objected recently to the dangerousness “law” used by the Cuban government to send dissidents to prison if the government believes that, even without any evidence, the person could commit a crime in the future, writes Frank Calzon, Executive Director of the Center for a Free Cuba:

Amnesty said after the president’s statement that if there were no changes in Castro’s arbitrary decrees, the prisoners’ release would be little more than a smokescreen covering abuse and repression on the island. Shouldn’t absurd laws like this also be on the U.S. agenda?

House Speaker John Boehner will broadcast his opposition to President Obama’s executive action to normalize relations with Cuba to an international audience by bringing a top leader of the Cuban resistance movement to the State of the Union speech, The Washington Examiner reports:

One of Boehner’s confirmed guests for the evening is Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, who is known as “Antunez.” Antunez, the 43-year-old leader of Cuba’s civic resistance movement, served more than 17 years in prison, with the Castro regime releasing him in 2007 ahead of expected European sanctions. He lives in Cuba and will return there in two weeks.

cubaPayá_&_Cepero_II_Aniversario_SMALL_02U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio announced that Cuban activist Rosa Maria Payá would be his guest for the address tomorrow evening:

Payá is the daughter of the late democracy leader Oswaldo Payá, who, along with Harold Cepero, was killed in an automobile accident on July 22, 2012 in Bayamo, Cuba.

The regime targeted Payá because he “crossed a red line in challenging the government’s relations with the church, which had become a pillar of the government’s strategy of survival…. at a time when the regime, emboldened by the cardinal’s silence at the mass arrests during the pope’s visit to Cuba in March, was not about to tolerate criticism,” said the National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman.

Cuba releases 53 dissidents after ‘hemispheric coup’

cuba posibleCuba has released all 53 prisoners it had promised to free, senior U.S. officials said, a major step toward detente with Washington, Reuters reports:

The release of the remaining prisoners sets a positive tone for historic talks next week aimed at normalizing relations after decades of hostility, the officials said. They described the Cuban government’s release over the weekend of the last detainees on the list as a milestone but said they would keep pressing Havana to free more people the United States considers political prisoners.

The officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, did not say how many prisoners were released over the weekend or identify them. But the White House will provide the names of all 53 to Congress and expects lawmakers to make them public, the officials added.

Leading Cuban dissidents said that as of Sunday they had not received word that the prisoner release was complete and only knew of up to 39 people freed since Dec. 17, including a popular hip-hop artist.

“We have heard nothing new today,” said Elizardo Sanchez, president of the dissident Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. “We’ll see in the next few days if they complete the list.”

But the issue of the prisoners’ release highlights the difficulties of dealing with an opaque authoritarian regime, analysts suggest.

“[The Cubans] have said the Americans are the problem, but now the Americans are getting out of the way, and it’s cuba foranothercubalogoindexshining a light on the difficulty that Cuba has in dealing with the U.S. in a transparent manner,” said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies:

On Dec. 30, less than two weeks after Messrs. Obama and Castro announced the agreement, Cuban agents detained and then released the husband of prominent blogger Yoani Sánchez ahead of a planned public gathering of reform advocates. The agents arrested other dissidents as well. Obama administration officials and allies who worked on the deal with Cuba defended the process.

“It’s premature to be accusing the Cubans of reneging or the Obama administration of being naive,” said Tim Rieser, foreign-policy aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, who is involved in the U.S.-Cuba negotiations.

“At least 25 have been released and we expect the others to be released in short order,” he said noting that “it’s the administration’s judgment that it is better to not make this a public spectacle.”

Despite the recent policy shift by the US administration – described as a hemispheric coup for the Castro regime by Mauricio Claver-Carone, Director, Cuba Democracy Advocates – Cuba continues to act in an authoritarian manner, as The New York Times recently reported:

State security personnel detained journalist Reinaldo Escobar, the husband of popular dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, outside their home and prevented her from leaving, according to the digital news site the couple runs, 14yMedio. Eliécer Ávila, a young government critic who leads the political movement ‘Somos +’ — which means, “there are more of us,” was taken into custody alongside Mr. Escobar.

When the Berlin Wall came down, Eastern Europe liberated itself and the Soviet Union collapsed, the role of U.S. international broadcasting was universally recognized, note A. Ross Johnson and S. Enders Wimbush.

In the wake of these world-changing events, Václav Havel, Lech Walesa, Boris Yeltsin and other new leaders insisted that Radio Free Europe (RFE), Radio Liberty (RL) and the Voice of America were central to the peaceful democratic transitions in their countries, they write for The Washington Post:

Post-communist transitions may be protracted and suffer reversals. But we know from our experience on the front lines of U.S. international broadcasting that unforeseen events can enhance the role of surrogate free media and accelerate change. Obama’s decision to reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba, regardless of whether it is followed by liberalization or more repression, is likely to be this kind of game-changer for Martí. This is the moment for which Radio and TV Martí were created. The White House and Congress should make available the resources necessary for Martí to provide Cubans with information that will help them gain their freedom.

A. Ross Johnson, a fellow at the Wilson Center and the Hoover Institution, was director of Radio Free Europe from 1988 to 1991. S. Enders Wimbush was director of Radio Liberty from 1987 to 1993 and a member of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors from 2010 to 2012.    RTWT

Other observers object to the condescension with which U.S.-based analysts depict Cuba’s dissidents and pro-democracy movement:

Brookings Institution analyst Richard Feinberg told the New York Times recently: “The hard-liners here will have to either engage, or perish. . . . Obama had a conversation with Raúl Castro. Then why can’t they?”

His colleague Ted Piccone, another Cuba expert, recently observed that “democratic change” in Cuba “requires indigenous citizen movements who are willing to take the difficult steps to demand it themselves.”