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.”


As 36 dissidents freed, a US-Cubazuela reset?

cuba foranothercubalogoindexOne of Cuba‘s most prominent dissident groups said on Friday that 36 opposition activists, including a popular hip-hop artist, have been freed in the last two days as part of a deal to improve relations between Cuba and the United States, Reuters reports:

The dissident Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) said 29 of its members were among those released, and that most had been warned by the communist government they would be sent back to prison if they continued their opposition activities.

“Our freed prisoners are committed to continue fighting for the democratic Cuba which we all want,” UNPACU’s leader Jose Daniel Ferrer said in a statement.

Could the US-Cuban rapprochement be replicated with Venezuela?

Cuba’s dependence on Venezuela is threatened since Venezuela is going through its own economic crisis amidst steeply declining oil prices, growing debt, and stagflation, notes the Carter Center’s Jennifer Lynn McCoy. The Cubans are keenly aware of the pressures on Venezuela but in seeking to improve relations with the US, Cuba was looking not to replace Venezuelan aid but rather to ease the tight financial restrictions preventing foreign banks and firms from doing business with Cuba, she writes for The Conversation:

Rather than bailing out the Cuban government, as critics charge, the policy changes announced by Obama on December 17 – to increase remittances, provide technology for better cell and internet access (if the Cuban government allows), and increase travel opportunities for Americans to visit Cuba – are likely to help Cuban citizens.

As for replacing Venezuelan aid, even if Venezuela is tempted to reduce the amount of discounted oil it provides to many Caribbean and Central American countries, Cuba is its strongest ally and is not likely to lose its status as recipient of Venezuelan largesse in exchange for Cuban doctors, sports trainers, and intelligence advisers.

Normalization of US-Cuban relations at least removes the foil that Venezuelan leaders have used to accuse the United States of imperialist designs. It also gets rid of a major irritant in US relations with the rest of Latin America who have viewed US policy towards Cuba as a Cold War relic.

Venezuelan officials will continue to attempt a rally-around-the-flag effect in response to the sanctions in order to take votes away from the opposition as the country heads into legislative elections in 2015.

In fact, however, international scrutiny and engagement can be more effective than sanctions in improving human rights conditions. Cuba’s agreement to receive visits from the International Red Cross and United Nations Human Rights rapporteurs is a welcome byproduct of negotiations with the US.

Similarly, if Venezuela were to agree to international observers monitoring the prison conditions and trials of opposition politicians and student leaders, this could provide a basis for the Obama administration to delay implementation of the sanctions.


Cuba policy shift kills ‘myth of resource denial’?

cuba foranothercubalogoindexThree Cuban political prisoners were freed Wednesday and a leading human rights advocate said he believed their liberation was part of a U.S.-Cuban deal to release 53 dissidents.

The head of Cuba‘s Human Rights and Reconciliation Commission, Elizardo Sanchez, told The Associated Press that 19-year-old twins Diango Vargas Martin and Bianko Vargas Martin were released without any of the judicial procedures that normally precede the liberation of those held in politically related cases. He said Wednesday night that Enrique Figuerola Miranda had just been freed under similar circumstances.

The U.S. policy shift on Cuba delivered an important blow to the myth of resource denial as a viable policy, says Tomas Bilbao, Executive Director of the Cuba Study Group. The logic of the resource-denial policy works something like this, he writes for The Huffington Post:

The Cuban regime needs hard currency to stay afloat and to finance its repressive machine. Therefore, if we deny Cuba the hard currency it would acquire through normal diplomatic and trade relations with the U.S., it will lose control and collapse, leading to democracy and respect for human rights.

In addition to its failure to affect change in Cuba, the resource-denial policy has actually made change harder. While hardliners argue that the embargo would bring the government to its knees, what we’ve observed for decades is a country where citizens earn an average of $20 per month while its leaders vacation in Italy …… To the extent that the embargo makes it more difficult for ordinary Cubans to access U.S. information and technologies, raises the cost for entrepreneurs to start or run businesses, makes civil-society exchanges more difficult, and stands in the way of family reunification, it has only helped the Cuban government make Cubans more dependent on the state to satisfy basic needs.

“The change in strategy shifts our focus away from targeting the collapse of the government and toward the empowerment of civil society,” he contends. “By increasing the free flow of people, resources and information to the Cuban people, President Obama acknowledges what many Cuban dissidents, like former political prisoner and independent economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe argued: while the regime may recoup hard currency from increased engagement, the benefits to the Cuban people outweigh the benefits to the government.”

Cuba policy shift – devil is in the details

cuba foranothercubalogoindexAn air of secrecy surrounds the fate of 53 political prisoners whom Cuba agreed to free in its historic deal with the United States last month, as Washington and Havana’s refusal to publicly identify the dissidents is fueling suspicion over Cuba’s intentions. Carol Morello and Karen DeYoung write for The Washington Post:

Almost three weeks after the agreement, neither dissidents on the island nor leaders in the Cuban exile community know how many have been let out or whether any of the prisoners they are aware of are among those scheduled to be freed.

Both the White House and the State Department refuse to publicly name the prisoners included on a list U.S. negotiators provided their Cuban counterparts amid negotiations to normalize relations, although officials said a prisoner release was not a precondition for renewing diplomatic ties. …

The lack of transparency is contributing to a growing sense of concern that Havana will not follow through on its promises. Francisco Hernandez, president of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, cited the Cuban government’s track record of slipping in unwanted common criminals with legitimate political prisoners headed for refuge in other countries.

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCHRN) reported on Monday that the Cuban government detained 8,899 dissidents and activists in 2014, the Jurist notes. These detentions mark a significant increase from previous years—2,000 more than in 2013 and four times the number in 2010.

CUBA DEPEISTREHavana has taken no steps toward elections or political freedoms for the country’s 11 million people, rights advocate Ellen Bork writes for World Affairs:

Even the White House claim that 53 political prisoners will be released is murky; Cuban human rights activists believe the number of actual political prisoners could be more than 100. Some have expressed bitter disappointment that the US would make such changes without getting concessions from the Castro regime, or consulting with Cuba’s democracy and human rights activists.

The White House has expressed concern about arrests and detentions that have taken place in the days after the president’s announcement, but apparently, in the president’s view, now it’s up to American tourists and businesses focusing on the new market to make the biggest impact on improving human rights.

The devil is in the details of those bureaucratic, turgid, legalese-laden provisions of the policy shift for three related reasons, says Chris Sabatini, Senior Director of Policy, AS/COA and Editor-in-Chief, Americas Quarterly [and a former Latin America program director at the National Endowment for Democracy]:

First, many of the proposed reforms will depend on the U.S. private sector taking up the initiative. Risk-averse businesses will only do this if the regulations are sufficiently broad and clear. An earlier effort in 2009 by the Obama administration to try to pry open the telecommunications sector in Cuba by granting — what turned out in the regulations — to be very narrow and impractical exceptions to the embargo rendered the effort stillborn. ….

Second, in his announcement of the reforms, the President emphasized that these adjustments were intended to do what the embargo has not: improve the conditions for human rights and independent civic action. Their capacity to do that rests on tailoring the regulations to the President’s goals. ….

Third, since Obama’s changes were only executive actions, they can be rolled back by a future president. So, should now Florida Senator Marco Rubio who has led the charge against these changes be elected president in 2016 he could return U.S. policy to its punitive embargo policies simply with a signature. That is, unless the U.S. private sector has already become vested in these reforms. …….

Critics of the opening include prominent U.S. lawmakers of both parties who say Obama got little in return from Havana in exchange for easing parts of the decades-long economic embargo, including allowing U.S. telecommunications investments, VOA reports:

An editorial in the Washington Post newspaper pointed to Bruguera’s detention as evidence the president should have demanded protections for pro-democracy activists in return for his overture. But it is in Cuba where dissidents, such as Elizardo Sanchez, feel most discouraged.

“We do not see any sign that the government is willing to make the reforms the country needs….so everything will continue more or less the same as it has been in previous years,” he said. 

“Not everyone is going to be released at once,” said Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuban Study Group, which supports peaceful change in Cuba:

He noted that the Group of 75 dissidents who were imprisoned during the Black Spring crackdown in 2003 weren’t all released simultaneously either. As part of that deal, Cuba wanted them and their families to accept exile in Spain, but about a dozen refused to leave the island and were allowed to stay. 


2014: year of the dictator?

DemocracyChart.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlarge (1)

Freedom House

Recent trends and events of the past year indicate that the engine of democracy has run out of steam, argues Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and author of The Twilight of International Human Rights Law.

Probably the most striking examples are the advance of authoritarianism in two relatively wealthy and modern-seeming democracies, Turkey and Hungary, he writes for Slate:

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has jailed political opponents and harassed the media. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban says he wants to create an illiberal state modeled on Russia and Turkey.

Russia, which lumbered toward democracy in the 1990s, has become an increasingly authoritarian place. ..China’s authoritarian system is increasingly admired throughout the developing world. The government has managed to maintain order (the country is enviably safe) despite wrenching economic and social change. Since the size of China’s economy surpassed that of the United States earlier this year, it will become increasingly hard to maintain that democracy is necessary to economic development. ..President Raúl Castro has made clear that he plans to maintain Cuba’s authoritarian system while working on economic reform, along the lines of the China model. The cheering from Venezuela and other parts of Latin America expresses the relief felt by leftist authoritarians who see that if the United States can tolerate an undemocratic Cuba, it will have no grounds for criticizing authoritarianism in their countries.

“For quite some time, U.S. foreign policy has been based on the assumption that we should promote democracy,” Posner notes:

The seemingly relentless rise of democracy made this approach seem reasonable, and perhaps it sometimes was. But much of the flowering of democracy took place in Western countries, or countries that inherited Western institutions and norms from Western colonizers. So advances in democracy that we attributed to our own benevolent influence probably reflected deeper-seated historical and cultural factors over which we have no control. It may well be that democracy has reached its limits.