Cuba’s leading blogger pays tribute on ‘Black Spring’ anniversary

Celebrated Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez has paid tribute to the civil society activists of the Black Spring and called for a change in dissident tactics.

“I want to honor and remember those independent journalists, activists and peaceful opponents. They opened a road that we now continue to tread,” Sánchez said, referring to a wave of arrests of Cuban democracy advocates (above) a decade ago.

“They presented an opposition to which we feel we are heirs despite all the censorship and repression.”

Ten years ago today, the Communist authorities launched a violent crackdown, imprisoning 75 activists for up to 25 years.

Cuba’s most eminent blogger said it was time for a shift from cyber-activism to the more open exercise of freedom of expression.

“[I]t is time to move beyond the realm of the personal and individual expression of the blog – the catharsis that is the 140 characters on Twitter – into a more civic exercise that would be expressed through an independent press in Cuba,” she said:

On Sunday, Sánchez, 37, said that during the Black Spring, the political climate in Cuba was not only highly sensitive but also complex. The dissident movement had little means to share information with the world.

The 2003 summary trials and prison sentences of jailed opponents marked a new chapter in the human rights demands by the international community and the internal dissidence. The incident encouraged mothers and wives of political prisoners to organize a common front known as the Ladies in White. The group demanded the release of the prisoners.

Sánchez said that the campaigns and demands of the civil society have now an additional tool in technology, cellphones and services such as Twitter, among others.

“Those were times when social networks or Internet did not exist [in Cuba], there were no memory flashes, and it was impossible to have a computer,” she said.

 “Many independent journalists and peaceful activists who began their work precariously have now resorted to blogs, for example, as a format to circulate information about programs and initiatives to collect signatures.”

She cited the Citizens’ Demand for the Cuban authorities to ratify the United Nations political and civil rights agreements signed in 2008.

“It has been my fate to live in Cuba and that is why I have a commitment to the reality in which I live,” Sánchez said.

“Yet it is not a defense circumscribed to one geographic location, because it is a condition of citizen responsibility. It is important to have initiatives for transforming the law and demand concrete public spaces within the country.”

Capitol Hill Cubans report:

Cuban democracy leader Antonio Rodiles has just released the latest episode of his civil society project “Estado de Sats” (filmed within Cuba), where he discusses the importance U.S. sanctions policy with two of Cuba’s most renowned opposition activists and former political prisoners, Guillermo Fariñas and Jose Daniel Ferrer. The question posed was: What consequences would the unconditional lifting of the U.S. embargo have at this time?

If at this time, the [economic] need of the Cuban government is satisfied through financial credits and the lifting of the embargo, repression would increase, it would allow for a continuation of the Castro’s society, totalitarianism would strengthen its hold and philosophically, it would just be immoral… If you did an opinion poll among Cuban opposition activists, the majority would be in favor of not lifting the embargo,” said Fariñas.

In a cost-benefit analysis, travel to Cuba by Americans would be of greatest benefit to the Castro regime, while the Cuban people would be the least to benefit. With all of the controls and the totalitarian system of the government, it would be perfectly able to control such travel,” said Rodiles.

To lift the embargo at this time would be very prejudicial to us. The government prioritizes all of the institutions that guarantee its hold on power. The regime’s political police and its jailers receive a much higher salary and privileges than a doctor or engineer, or than any other worker that benefits society. We’ve all seen municipalities with no fuel for an ambulance, yet with 10, 15, 20, 50 cars full of fuel ready to go repress peaceful human rights activists,” said Ferrer.

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Pakistan reaches democracy milestone despite military’s ‘New Coup Playbook’

Still far from toothless

“Pakistan is on the verge of making political history,” notes The Economist: its first transfer of power from one elected government to another.

Its halting experiments with democracy in the past were always interrupted by the real power of the land: the men in khaki,” it observes. “The bayonet has always trumped the ballot.”

While “stability and genuine democracy are still a ways off….for the first time, an elected administration will hand off power to another one after serving out its term,” notes C. Christine Fair:

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government….holds a number of dubious distinctions — its massive corruption, its refusal to expand Pakistan’s miniscule tax base by imposing industrial and agricultural taxes on parliamentarians and their patronage networks, its inability to address the colossal power and gas shortages that have plagued the country, its weakness in addressing Pakistan’s pervasive security problems, and its inability to stem intolerance against religious and ethnic minorities. But despite the litany of shortcomings, the PPP’s achievements are remarkable.

“For one, the serving parliament has passed more legislation than any other in Pakistan’s history,” she writes in Foreign Affairs.

“The government has also gone a long way toward institutionalizing democracy, including making considerable efforts to take responsibility for foreign and defense policy-making, which are typically the bailiwick of the powerful army.”

Military tried to push civilian government to wall

“This is a qualitatively different moment for Pakistan,” said Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “This is the first time you are actually seeing a real electoral, institutional process being taken very, very seriously.”

Whether it is taken seriously outside Pakistan is another matter. Even though the country returned to civilian rule after the ouster of Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s military-led government in 2008, Pakistani military and intelligence has retained oversight over key foreign-policy and security matters.

“The military has everything they wanted in terms of the internal security policy and also foreign policy,” said Pir Zubair Shah, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They did everything to push the civilian government to the wall.”

But other observers believe Pakistan’s democracy will remain fragile until overarching security and strategic issues are resolved.

“There’s a lot of despair regarding the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan, continuing high levels of corruption and political kowtowing to extremist elements, which makes the significance of this moment easy to overlook,” says Huma Yusuf, a policy analyst. “But it’s a true milestone that signals an emerging consensus that democracy is the right governing system for Pakistan.”

A former Pakistani ambassador to the United States believes the country must repair its relations with its powerful neighbor before it can consolidate its democracy.

Pakistan must move “beyond a narrative that has been built up over the last sixty years of India as an existing threat.” said Husain Haqqani, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The longer democracy institutionalizes, the more bold politicians can be in trying to wrest power away from the army,” says Fair, a South Asia expert at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. ‘We’re all vested in this election going off freely, fairly and maximizing voter turnout, so whatever government emerges is going to be maximally legitimate. And that’s exactly the thing that the army fears.”

The outgoing government’s failures, such as poor governance and rampant corruption, should not overshadow its achievements, says a prominent civil society activist.

The PPP leaves behind “political and electoral reforms making the prime minister and the parliament stronger, giving autonomy to provinces and by giving [a right to] say to opposition parties in the formation of the Election Commission,” said Ahmed Bilal, of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.

“Even more significant is parliament’s record of enacting a raft of legislation empowering women,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director at Human Rights Watch, citing measures against domestic violence and sexual harassment.

The government’s approach to women’s empowerment was another plus, says Fouzia Saeed (right), director of Mehergarh, an Islamabad-based human rights and democracy center.  The passing of several pro-women laws “was nothing short of revolutionary,” she told the National Endowment for Democracy (see below).

But the legislation “came as no surprise to the activists who fought for years to build coalitions, develop networks, and cultivate public support,” said Saeed, a fellow with the NED’s Reagan-Fascell program

Some experts suggest that Zardari’s mixed record reflects the sheer pragmatism needed to stay in office.

“Despite the fact that he has been maligned in corruption, nepotism and numerous other things, he … successfully withstood pressure from the judiciary and played his cards well and survived,” said political analyst Jaffer Ahmed, director of the Pakistan Studies department at Karachi University:

In 2010, Zardari relinquished much of his power to the prime minister, rolling back on decades of meddling by military rulers in an effort to institutionalize parliamentary democracy. His government sought to devolve powers to the provinces and introduced reforms that will for the first time allow parties to contest elections in the tribal belt, a den of Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants under only semi-government control….

But achievements aside, there has been extraordinarily bad governance. Terrorist attacks and insecurity have increased. ….Apart from a watershed military operation that pushed Taliban insurgents out of the Swat valley in 2009, the government has been unable or unwilling to crack down on the plethora of Islamist militant networks blamed for violence in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

“Militants appear more defiant and bold in the absence of a clear strategy,” said political analyst Hasan Askari.

Acute security concerns amounted to a “state of siege” which government efforts to address the economy and public services.

“You don’t expect a government to perform better when political survival has been its chief concern,” analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi told the BBC:

He says the government’s failure to resuscitate the economy is in large part due to its failure to curb militancy which can also be partially blamed on the military and the political opposition.

“Some elements in the armed forces are still reluctant to deal a final blow to the militants” and probably because of this “the major opposition parties have avoided developing a common narrative against them,” he says.

The absence of military intervention “does not mean, of course, that Pakistan’s democracy is in the free and clear,” notes Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University:

There are numerous and daunting tasks ahead for the next government. It must consolidate democratic institutionalization, strengthen civilian control over the military, forge consensus among whatever restive coalition partners eventually form the government, resist political infighting and military interference, and bravely seek economic reforms against the wishes of their constituents and their own economic interests. This may prove too herculean an agenda, especially with the military seeking new ways to assert its own power.

Democracy ‘still on a leash’

“The last five years saw a three-way tussle over the levers of power between the executive, the judiciary and the military. With democracy so novel, institutions were trying to carve out the limits of their power,” notes The Economist:

It now looks as if the politicians have won…..Polls give the conservative [Muslim League-N leader Nawaz] Sharif a big lead. A survey out in January by the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based organization, gave Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N 32%, the PPP just 14% and the party of cricketer turned politician Imran Khan 18%. Undecideds made up 17%, so there is much to play for.

“Judicial activism against the PPP government has tended to peak when the army seems to have a viable (non PML-N) alternative to the PPP,” Georgetown’s Fair observes, citing the precipitate rise of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Islamist preacher Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri, who had links to two former military rulers – Mohammad Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf – and managed to carry out “a soft coup on behalf of the army”

Qadri coerced from the government an agreement to dissolve the parliament before March 16 even though the parliament’s term was set to expire on March 18.

“This episode — and the bizarre accord it produced — taint the legitimacy of the upcoming electoral transition by demonstrating that the army still holds the democracy’s leash,” Fair argues.

“With a weakened army and a shaky elected government, there will be even less political will to undertake the serious work of reforming the state,” she fears.

RTWT

 

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Despite sanctions, Iran’s regime ‘keeps unrest at bay’?

“Harsh economic sanctions have taken a serious toll on Iran’s economy, but U.S. and European officials acknowledge that the measures have not yet produced the kind of public unrest that could force Iranian leaders to change their nuclear policies,” the Washington Post’s  Joby Warrick and Anne Gearan report:

Nine months after Iran was hit with the toughest restrictions in its history, the nation’s economy appears to have settled into a slow, downward glide, hemorrhaging jobs and hard currency but appearing to be in no immediate danger of collapse, Western diplomats and analysts say.

At the same time, the hardships have not triggered significant domestic protests or produced a single concession by Iran on its nuclear program. Although weakened, Iran has resisted Western pressure through a combination of clever tactics, political repression and old-fashioned stubbornness, analysts say.

Not only are sanctions “biting hard,” Iran’s “strategic position is crumbling because of the turmoil in its ally Syria and the rise of militant Sunni Islamism throughout the Arab Middle East,” Vali Nasr writes in the New York Times.

“Together, these forces seem to have forced Iran to reconsider its own bargaining position,” he contends, taking a view contrary to the regime’s apologists.

But other observers believe the Islamic Republic may ride out the pressure and, in the latest case of authoritarian adaptation (above), keep popular unrest at bay.

After the most recent tightening of sanctions last month, Tehran turned those restrictions partly to its advantage, congressional officials and Iran experts said. Under the rules, countries that import Iranian oil are allowed to continue the practice as long as they paid in local goods exported to Iran, rather than in the hard currency that Tehran desperately needs. The idea is to help key allies, some of whom are dependent on Iranian oil, to continue receiving shipments of crude while boosting their own economies by forcing Iran to buy their products.

Instead, Iran has used the imported goods — such as cars and air conditioners — to counteract high inflation at home, said a congressional staffer who tracks sanctions on Iran and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence on Tehran’s economic policies. The imports help Iran conserve cash, which it uses to pay salaries and subsidize consumer prices to keep popular unrest at bay, the staffer said.

“The Iranians look at sanctions in terms of popular unrest,” said Ray Takeyh, a Council on Foreign Relations analyst and former Obama adviser on Iran. “If there are not people on the streets, sanctions aren’t biting.”

Tehran is convinced that the anti-nuclear sanctions are only a pretext for fomenting regime change, says Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and the author of the forthcoming book The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.

“Insecurity drives Iran’s nuclear ambition, and it leaves Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, convinced that if he were to give up Iran’s nuclear program entirely, as Libya did in the last decade, he would only invite the fate of Muammar el-Qaddafi,” he writes.

“That logic — if Iran is going to face sanctions anyway, better to face them with the bomb than without — has produced a saying in Tehran these days: ‘Better to be North Korea than Iraq.’”

Meanwhile, Iran’s beleaguered civil society activists and dissident bloggers suffered another blow last week.

The “real tragedy” of the ending of Google Reader, the company’s tool for RSS feeds, “is likely to be felt in countries like Iran, where Google Reader is used to evade government censorship,” according to Zachary M. Seward:

Iranian bloggers were vocal opponents of the changes Google made to Reader in 2011, when the ability to share individual stories with other users was removed. The shared items of certain heavily followed Iranians served as de facto newspapers free from the government’s censorship regime, gaining popularity after the 2009 elections led to uprisings in Iran. The next presidential election is this June.

“Such bad luck!” wrote Vahid HT, an Iranian, on Google+. “What does the internet without Google Reader look like?…What harm will come to the online world?” Another person wrote in response, “Really what Google is thinking is that all revolutionary ideas do not fit with their absurd ideas.” RTWT

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As Yemen dialog begins, are Saleh loyalists sabotaging transition?

 

More than 500 representatives of Yemen’s political parties and civil society today started a UN-backed dialogue for reconciliation with the aim of drafting a fresh constitution and preparing for free and fair elections in February 2014.

But the talks are being boycotted by southern separatists and by the country’s best-known civil society activist.  

“We are here by the thousands to reject the dialogue as it is an issue of northerners and those southerners who are involved in it do not represent the people,” activist Khaled Junaidi, told the AFP news agency.

Nobel Peace laureate Tawakul Karman (above) is also boycotting the talks in protest at the presence of officials loyal to ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh during his 33-year rule.

“I will not participate in the dialogue, due to the obvious imbalance in the representation of the youths, women and civil society groups and the participation of people who have the blood of the revolution youth on their hands,” she told AFP.

“This was not the dialogue we had called for. We will work outside the dialogue to press the transitional government and president to achieve our demands including the reunification of the army, the release of detainees, and a probe into the crackdown” on anti-Saleh protesters in 2011.

While some civil society groups will join the dialogue to address challenges to a genuinely inclusive transition, others share Karman’s concern that Saleh loyalists may sabotage the process, said Mohamed Mikhlafi, the Minister of Legal Affairs.

“Saleh’s supporters are organized in militant groups that considerably influence the flow of events in Yemen, and they insist that he should stay in the country even after the uprising,” he said.

The former president will also attend the sessions and his presence typifies the obstacles to reforming state institutions, especially the security apparatus, a precondition for addressing the southern insurgency.  

“The presence of Saleh stops prospects of transformation and restructuring of the military and police bodies themselves,” Mikhlafi said. “The trouble caused by Saleh’s loyalists within all state institutions leaves us no time to map out a clear roadmap for other severely-deteriorating matters, and the southern crisis in one of those.”

While the country’s politicians have been dragging their feet over the transition, Yemeni civil society has grown increasingly vibrant, says Gabool Al-Mutawakel, co-founder of the Youth Leadership Development Foundation, and a former a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

But “after countless conversations in Sanaa over the past week” about the dialogue, analyst Danya Greenfield identifies “some worrisome dynamics that should be noted in order to increase its chances for success,” writing in Foreign Policy:

  • There is a perception that the National Dialogue is being driven by an international agenda, particularly in the way it was constructed (not including tribal representatives and religious authorities), the allocation of representation (decision made by U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar) and some of the topics proposed for discussion (good governance, the environment, and child marriage). Among Yemenis sensitive to interference by outside powers, this is a particularly salient issue. ……Finding the appropriate balance will require a nuanced approach on the part of the United Nations, World Bank, Europeans, United States, and other supportive parties.
  • Many Yemenis express concern that the National Dialogue is merely an exercise among political and social elites, established families, and power brokers that is largely being followed by people in Sanaa, but not the rest of the country. In a nationwide survey conducted by an international firm in January, 52 percent of respondents across the country had not heard of the National Dialogue. When asked what President Hadi’s priority should be, 40 percent answered corruption, 38 percent answered the economy, and only 7 percent answered the National Dialogue. …….
  • The allocation of seats is heavily tilted toward political parties and existing elites who will likely dominate the dialogue. Although a percentage of seats were allocated for independent figures, the parties ended up playing a large role in the selection of those delegates as well. While creating strong political parties is generally an objective for a healthy, well-functioning democratic system, in this case, with many entrenched interests seeking to perpetuate the status quo, it risks leading to the marginalization of women, youth, and non-affiliated independent delegates. Ensuring that these voices are not drowned out by stronger and better organized political party representatives will be essential for the success of the dialogue …….
  • Some expect that the key decisions will be made outside the margins of the dialogue among Yemen’s primary power brokers and that all this dialogue activity is just for show. The question is whether the dialogue will actually be a meaningful forum to resolve the most divisive issues, or just a sideshow to pacify the international community and revolutionary activists clamoring for change. This will depend largely on the previous two factors and to what degree Hadi provides leadership to open space for genuine discussion and debate that leads to decision-making processes inside the dialogue structure.

“Yemen is no stranger to national dialogues, and many Yemenis will boast that there is a tradition and culture of dialogue and consensus-building not present in other Arab countries facing similar challenges,” writes Greenfield, the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council:

That may be true, but the list of issues to address would be a heavy load for any country — let alone one that is divided by deep political and economic cleavages, wracked with poverty and unemployment, and struggling to maintain security with separatist violence and extremism in various forms. Despite the obvious obstacles ahead, there is great opportunity in this moment. And hopefully next March 18 will be the anniversary of an important milestone in Yemen’s democratic process.

RTWT

For further background, check out the invaluable Yemen Digest, an initiative of the Center for International Private Enterprise, one of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group

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Who will stand up for Oswaldo Payá?

Credit: NDI

…. asks the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl.

He considers why the Spanish government and other Western democracies have ignored Angel Carromero’s revelation that the car in which he was driving leading Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá (left) was rammed from behind last July by a vehicle with official license plates.

Payá was killed alongside fellow activist Harold Cepero. Carromero was imprisoned on charges of vehicular homicide, but released to Spain in December.

“If legendary dissident Andrei Sakharov himself had died in a suspicious car accident in the Soviet Union, and a credible Western witness had then offered testimony like Carromero’s, it’s hard to imagine that Ronald Reagan and former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez would have remained silent,” writes Diehl:

Is it credible that a vehicle bearing dissidents and two Western politicians would not be followed on a road trip? Right. So where are the occupants of the two cars, one with official plates, described by Carromero?

The Cuban version says Carromero’s car struck a tree. But the photo authorities released shows a sedan clearly smashed from behind. ….. Then there are the texts: Payá’s family say they have SMS messages that Carromero and [Swedish politician Jens Aron] Modig sent to friends in Europe soon after the crash, saying they had been hit from behind and run off the road. And there is Modig himself: The young Swede, who was also detained for a time in Cuba, told Swedish radio last week that he did send the reported texts, and that while he did not remember the accident, “I don’t have any doubts about what is now revealed.”

“Finally there is this,” writes Diehl, a veteran foreign correspondent:

The crash marked the second time Payá had been in an accident in two months. In Havana, a car he was driving was also struck by a suspicious vehicle, injuring him slightly. His family says he regularly received telephone calls with death threats.

Payá’s daughter, Rosa Maria Payá, last week presented a petition signed by 46 activists and political leaders from around the world to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, calling for an international and independent inquiry into Payá’s death.

“Mounting and credible allegations that the Cuban government may have been complicit in the murder of its most prominent critic, a leading figure in the human rights world, cannot go ignored by the international community,” said the appeal, organized by the UN Watch human rights NGO.

In 2002, Payá initiated the Varela Project, a mass petition calling on Cuba’s Communist authorities to guarantee constitutional rights.

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.

RTWT

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