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.

Venezuela’s opposition calls for protests as ideology trumps interests

vzlaHenrique_Capriles_Radonski_2Venezuela’s most prominent opposition leader, Henrique Capriles (left), has called for antigovernment demonstrations, boosting the likelihood of a new wave of protests as economic conditions worsen and social tensions rise in Latin America’s largest oil exporter:

Mr. Capriles’s call for street protests is a major political development because the 42-year-old former presidential candidate is widely seen as the most conciliatory of Venezuela’s opposition leaders. Last year, he distanced himself from violent protests that sought to oust President Nicolás Maduro, the successor to late populist Hugo Chávez…..Carlos Romero, a Venezuelan author and political analyst, said a resurgence of protests may cause a governability crisis for Mr. Maduro as polls show eight out of 10 Venezuelans see the country heading in the wrong direction.

“Capriles has calculated that the country has entered a new stage with serious economic problems. He’s accepted that protests are a valid route in this moment of uncertainty,” Mr. Romero said.

The recent warming of US-Cuban relations and the fall in international oil prices raise the question of whether Venezuela can put national interests ahead of ideology, analysts suggest.

VZlacoaLong gone are the glory days when Venezuela’s socialist leader Hugo Chávez was still alive, oil prices were high, and revolutionary Caracas, which sits on the largest energy reserves in the world, could afford to send 200,000 barrels per day of subsidised oil to 13 countries, including Cuba, in return for their political support and sometimes repayment with goods in kind — like black beans, the FT reports:

Today, however, with oil prices having halved in six months, Venezuela’s economy in a tailspin and protests rising at home over food shortages, Caracas is having to rethink the Petrocaribe subsidised oil arrangement in order to finance dwindling imports, rebuild foreign reserves and avoid a bond default.

“Venezuela cannot squeeze its oil lemon any more,” said Jorge Piñón, a Latin America energy expert at the University of Texas.

So far, however, Venezuela has not apparently scaled back Petrocaribe; the latest PDVSA figures show 206,000 bpd delivered until last September, the FT adds:

One reason for continued shipments could be that the Petrocaribe subsidy shrinks dramatically at lower oil prices. At $100 a barrel, example, 60 per cent of the price is re-paid at low interest rates, after two years’ grace. At $50 a barrel, however, the subsidy is only 40 per cent……Nonetheless, Guaicaipuro Lameda, a former president of PDVSA under Chávez, believes that Mr Maduro, despite an approval rating of only 22 per cent, will continue the scheme as it buys Caracas support at the UN and other forums. Petrocaribe “is fundamentally political, so the economic costs will be paid,” he said.

Mr Piñón agrees. “It will be a heavy blow to the socialist revolution to say they cannot support their brothers in Haiti or their fellow revolutionaries in Nicaragua, let alone its staunch ally, Cuba,” he says. “It will be like admitting Venezuela is an economic failure.”

Venezuelan society is increasingly violent, and a new document from the country’s bishops points to “offensive language, the systematic disqualification of all contrary opinion [and] the inciting of fanaticism and irrationality,” The Wall Street Journal reports:

“This model is Centralist and Totalitarian,” their statement said. It “establishes the control of the State over the totality of the life of citizens as well as public and private institutions, threatens liberty and the individual right of persons and associations and has taken all countries that have tried this system to ruin and oppression.”

The bishops still hold out hope for dialogue, pointing to the recent normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. But the reality is that if Venezuela and Cuba are ever to recover from the destruction wrought by Chávez and Castro, civil society must be recovered.

Facebook ‘lets Iran trolls silence on-line dissent’

irantavaanaFacebook is inadvertently acting as the “morality police” for authoritarian regimes eager to silence on-line dissent, activists report. 

Tavaana, a civil-society empowerment initiative has trained thousands of Iranians in live e-learning classes about democracy, women’s rights and similar topics, say Mariam Memarsadeghi and Akbar Atri , the group’s co-founders and co-directors. Our Facebook page is one of the most popular in the Persian language, engaging more than one million people a week with civic-education resources and updates on human-rights violations, they write for The Wall Street Journal:  

On Wednesday last week, we were unable to open Tavaana’s Facebook page and then discovered that our account had been logged out. When we tried to sign in, Facebook presented us with a photo of a woman in a bikini, one that we had posted nearly a year ago, and told us that publishing such content violates Facebook’s terms of use. …. The woman is Jackie Chamoun, a Lebanese Olympic skier. When photos of Ms. Chamoun posing on skis for a calendar shoot were released last year, many Lebanese and regional social networks protested her so-called immodesty and lack of morality. Others defended her brazenness. Tavaana joined this socially significant discussion, posting the image and asking our community to weigh in. 

irancyberWe have a hunch about why this happened. The way Facebook’s detection systems work, once a post is reported by enough users—no matter the content, intent or who is reporting it—the post is marked as a terms-of-use violation. As it happens, the Iranian regime, much like the Chinese and Russian governments, is adept at mobilizing trolls to report activity it doesn’t like.  

The same tyrants benefit from other well-intentioned Facebook policies. The prohibition on anonymous users, for instance, has kicked off thousands of activists who use pseudonyms to protect their own safety. Whistleblowers, advocates for political prisoners, rally leaders, labor activists, feminists and bloggers all use the platform to organize without detection..                             

Organizations that exist out in the open, like ours, have trouble getting official page verificationfrom Facebook, something that could help protect us from threats and troll attacks from the Iranian government,” they write. “Even requests from the U.S. government go unanswered: Our donors at the State Department and United States Agency for International Development have told us that they have tried to relay these concerns to Facebook several times. No luck.



Sissi ‘squeezing the life out of Egypt’s civil society’

Egypts-Abdul-Fatah-al-Sisi-672x372A visiting delegation of Egyptian democracy and civil society activists has criticized the US for viewing the region increasingly through a counterterrorism lens and for downgraded a signature democracy promotion program, writesBarbara Slavin, Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council:

But there are still some restrictions on US aid to Egypt and many analysts in Washington assert that Egypt cannot return to stability while repressing major components of its society. They also criticize an impending edict for civil society groups to register with the government, which has led many respected foreign-funded nonprofit organizations such as the Carter Center to close up shop just when observers are most needed to monitor upcoming parliamentary elections.

dunne_kaveh_20132“What is important is what happened after” Morsi was overthrown, the Carnegie Endowment’s Michele Dunne, who met the Egyptians, told Al-Monitor. “If [Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi] had reintroduced a democratic process and there hadn’t been these human rights abuses, I don’t think any of us would be on our high horses about the coup.”

Dunne said of the estimated 20,000 political prisoners in Egyptian jails, almost 2,000 are students and more than 100 prisoners, including dual national Mohamed Soltan, are on hunger strike. The US government has asked that Soltan, whose condition is very poor, be released on bail but the Egyptian government has refused, said Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. “It is very difficult to justify normalizing the relationship” while such a situation continues, she said.

carotherscolormedium8Sissi is squeezing the life out of civil society, says Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Incidences of harassment, intimidation and legal persecution of civic activists are sharply increasing, he writes for the Washington Post:

Last month the government amended the criminal code to mandate life imprisonment for anyone who receives funds from foreign entities for what capricious legal authorities determine is the aim of “harming Egypt’s security and national interests.” The government appears set on a deadline of Nov. 10 for making nongovernmental organizations register under a law from the Hosni Mubarak era that gives the government invasive powers toward such organizations. Civic groups face the agonizing choice between submitting to government control or risking jail terms for failing to comply.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) will not register with the Ministry of Solidarity under the proposed Law 84/2002, according to May Al Sheikh EIPR communications director:

In July, the Ministry of Social Solidarity warned all NGOs to register under a law, which permits the state to shut down any NGO at will.  Assets, funding, and property can be frozen and confiscated, and members of the governing board can be rejected by the state. NGOs are requested to register with the Ministry of Social Solidarity by 10 November. … Several human rights organisations based in Egypt have launched an awareness campaign calling on Egyptians to protect their ability to engage in civic action.

The campaign, called “My right…Your Right” and which involves organisations including (EIPR) ,the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), El Nadeem Center for psychological rehabilitation of victims of violence and torture and Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies announced the campaign in a statement released last Thursday.

egypt ngo trial fhA Cairo court of minor offenses handed down three-year sentences to 23 people for breaking an anti-protest law that allows Egyptian authorities broad powers to ban or disperse most public demonstrations, says Human Rights Watch:

One of those sentenced on October 20, 2014, Yara Sallam, is a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the country’s leading human rights organizations. The court also fined the defendants 10,000 EGP (US$1,400) each.

Police arrested the group on June 21 at a peaceful protest where they were calling for the repeal of the law, which then-interim President Adly Mansour issued by decree on November 24, 2013. The defendants can appeal the verdict.

President Obama correctly identified growing attacks on independent civil societies as a major threat to global democracy, notes Carothers:

Egypt is a crucial test of whether his administration will uphold the commitment he has made to resisting this trend.

But it is also a matter of hard interests. If we genuinely prize Egyptian stability — something in notably short supply for some time — we should take seriously the unfolding crackdown on nongovernmental organizations and fortify our support for Egyptian civil society. This should include strongly urging the government to follow legal common sense by not making thousands of NGOs conform to an outdated law that the government itself has said will be replaced next year.


Egypt stifling civil society, campus dissent

egypt fh infographic

Freedom House

Egyptian security forces are tightening their crackdown on student activism by arresting scores of students at the start of the school term in an effort to crush a renewed wave of protests against the military-backed government that took power last year, David D. Kirkpatrick reports for the New York Times:

At least 91 students have been arrested in Egypt since Friday, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, which has chapters on campuses across the country….. Universities are some of the last pockets of visible opposition to the military-backed government outside of the relatively lawless Sinai Peninsula, where militant Islamist groups are waging a campaign of guerrilla attacks against security forces.

The campus crackdown is part of a wider campaign to stifle civil society, observers suggest.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Cairo over the weekend, where he reportedly urged the government to relax curbs on civil society,  highlighting what he called ”the essential role of a vibrant civil society, a free press, due process under law.” “There’s no question that Egyptian society always has been stronger – and is stronger – when all of its citizens have a say and a stake in its success. And Egypt has long been a country with a strong civil society,” he stressed.  

An Egyptian paper released a report on “dangerous foreign donors,” criticizing many of Egypt’s most prominent human rights organizations, POMED reports:

The Atlantic Council released a report detailing Sisi’s tenure in power, highlighting a “resurgence in unchecked power, with torture and abuse in detention once again rampant.” Despite crackdowns, David Kirkpatrick wrote that Sisi enjoys considerable support from a cult of personality built around a network of allies far more extensive than that of former President Hosni Mubarak.