Thursday, June 22, 2017

Christian Solidarity Worldwide: Young Cuban religious freedom defender blocked from leaving Cuba

Cuban religious freedom activist Félix Yuniel Llerena has been banned from travel after he returned from his first trip outside of Cuba.


Félix Yuniel Llerena banned from travel

Religious Freedom Defender Blocked From Leaving

19 Jun 2017

By Christian Solidarity Worldwide

A religious freedom defender has been blocked from leaving Cuba to attend a conference on human rights and democracy. Fếlix Llerena López was preparing to board his flight on Saturday 17 June, when state security agents approached him and took him into an office where they informed him that he was barred from leaving the country. 

While Llerena López was not given a reason for the travel ban, he was told that it had been put in place after he returned from a visit to the United States (US) in May, his first trip outside of the country. Llerena López works with the Patmos Institute, an independent civil society organisation which promotes freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) for all and inter-religious dialogue. While he was in the US, he raised concerns about FoRB violations in meetings with US government officials and members of Congress arranged by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). Llerena Lopez was expelled from university shortly after his return.

In addition, last week, a prominent leader in the Apostolic Movement, Pastor Alain Toledano, was visited by state security agents and Communist Party officials at his home in Santiago de Cuba, who showed him an ‘acta de advertencia’, or a pre-arrest warrant, which he is concerned may also be used to block him from traveling abroad.

 In a statement to CSW, Pastor Toledano said, “…the strategy that the police are using here is that they come one by one to the house, they don’t send a citation, nothing written down, and they don’t give you a copy of the ‘actas de advertencia’ against you, even if you ask for one, since they know it can be used against them. They are perfecting their methods so as not to leave any traces of their persecution and acts of evil against the churches and ministries, even as we suffer here in the country.”

While the government requirement for an exit visa was dropped in 2013, there has been an increase in the number of Cuban activists involved with independent civil society organisations and the defence of human rights or democracy being blocked from leaving the country. In one example, that of Karina Gálvez, who works with Convivencia, an independent civil society organisation in Pinar del Rio. The government has brought trumped up charges against her which prevent her from leaving the country. In other cases, like that of Llerena López and also Berta Soler, a leader of the Ladies in White Movement who was prevented from leaving the country last month, officials have simply blocked them from boarding flights out of the country with no official justification given. 

CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said: “We are deeply concerned by what has happened to Felix Llerena López and Pastor Toledano over the past week, and condemn what appears to be a wider strategy of arbitrarily blocking certain human rights and democracy activists, including religious leaders and FoRB defenders, from leaving the country. We call on the European Union, the United States and other members of the international community to raise this with the Cuban authorities and to push for the right of freedom of movement to be respected for all, especially those who are involved in peaceful religious activities and the promotion of universally recognised human rights.”

Related article:

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Cuba policy, the Alan Gross precedent and the death of Otto Frederick Warmbier

 Actions have consequences
Alan Gross before and after 5 years in a Cuban prison

American Alan Gross was arrested on December 3, 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison. Alan Gross, an American citizen, spent 25 days in a Havana jail before being visited by a U.S. diplomat. Gross's supposed "crime" was providing uncensored internet access to local Jewish communities, but in reality it was to test the resolve of the new Administration that had just entered office. The signal sent was that Mr. Gross was not a priority and the drive to normalize relations was. Alan Gross was finally freed on December 17, 2014 emaciated, missing teeth and exchanged in a swap with Cuban spies, one of which was serving a life sentence for murder conspiracy. Unfortunately other outlaw regimes were also paying attention and taking hostages knowing that it would provide leverage to advance foreign policy goals as it had the Castro regime.

College student Otto Wambier was sentenced to 15 years in prison and hard labor in March 2016 for trying to steal a political propaganda poster in North Korea. One year and three months later he was released to the United States in a coma acquired in prison allegedly from botulism and died a day after his return. Fred Warmbier, Otto's father, in a press conference prior to the young man's death lamented that the previous Administration 'could have done more.' Worse yet they told the Warmbier family to keep a "low profile" so as not to "upset the North Koreans." "We've been forced to be quiet and act different because we didn't want to 'offend them."

Cuba and North Korea have close relations. Cuba was caught smuggling tons of weapons including warplanes and missiles on a North Korean ship in 2013 in violation of international sanctions. These type of regimes share information on their bad practices.

Alan Gross got out alive, but Otto Wambier was not so lucky. Otto Warmbier's death in North Korea is the responsibility of Kim Jong-un but bad policy contributed. The legacy of appeasing dictators played a role in ending the life of a 22 year old American college student.

Otto Wambier: December 12, 1994 - June 19, 2017

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The New U.S. Cuba Policy: A good first step

The reality versus the spin

President Trump at the Manuel Artime Theater with Cuban Americans
Friday, June 16, 2017 was a good day  for Cuba's freedom at the Manuel Artime Theater. On February 3, 2017 White House spokesman Sean Spicer announced that the Trump Administration was in the midst "of a full review of all U.S. policies towards Cuba" and that human rights was a priority.  Over four months later with the input of all interested parties in the government having a voice a new policy was announced in stark contrast to what the prior Administration did.

The Trump Administration took a first step to address the previous Cuba policy's shortcomings releasing the "National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba" that begins by defining what will guide this new policy:
My Administration's policy will be guided by the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States, as well as solidarity with the Cuban people.  I will seek to promote a stable, prosperous, and free country for the Cuban people.  To that end, we must channel funds toward the Cuban people and away from a regime that has failed to meet the most basic requirements of a free and just society.
The previous US Cuba policy was drawn up in secret, excluding Congressmen, Senators and even the State Department but included high ranking members of the Castro regime, among them Raul Castro's son, Alejandro Castro, with a small group of Administration officials led by an individual with a degree in creative writing. The end result did not advance U.S. national interests, marginalized Cuban dissidents, and worsened human rights in Cuba.

Cuban Americans where told that the new Cuba policy was unchangeable and Hillary Clinton openly campaigned on lifting sanctions on the Castro regime and her running mate Senator Tim Kaine said, "...we may have a fast or slow process, but we're not going back". This led the Brigade 2506 to endorse Mr. Trump for President on October 25, 2016.  Donald J. Trump got 54% of the Cuban American vote in 2016 that helped him win Florida. Elections have consequences and Cuba policy is being changed.

What is taking place now is a debate over what U.S. Cuba policy should be defined by what would serve the just interests of the United States. The previous policy failed on several counts and needs to be dismantled and replaced.  The memorandum and Friday's statement by President Trump is a good start but much more needs to be done.

Critics of President Trump's Cuba policy announcement such as Fabiola Santiago call this policy announcement "window dressing, a way for Trump to save face with Bay of Pigs veterans and his Cuban-American supporters," trying to downplay its importance but the howls of indignation indicate that it is not cosmetic.

The Miami Herald Editorial praising the new Cuba policy, "Trump right to make Cuba pay for its intransigence," will give some insight into all the angry noise from those who backed the previous policy:
Trump’s new measures are designed to exert more pressure on Havana to reform itself." ... "Trump is right to recalibrate this policy without jettisoning it wholesale. In one of the most important changes, transactions with the Business Administration Group, S.A — GAESA — will be prohibited. GAESA is the company of the Cuban Armed Forces that, according to estimates, controls 60 percent of the Cuban economy."

Read more here:
This recalibration is a shift in direction but how far it will go depends on what is done over the next three years. When the previous Administration announced the new Cuba policy on December 17, 2014 in a post titled "Obama's Legacy: Normalizing relations with an Abnormal Regime" the observation was made that "President Obama in his address gave the impression that the economic embargo had been completely lifted and that is not the case."

Read more here:
Then, the Obama White House took a step in a drive to set a new policy that over  2015 - 2016 would continue to radically change U.S. Cuba policy. The Obama State Department politicized the human trafficking report to benefit the Castro regime, and took Cuba off the list of state terror sponsors. President Obama signed executive orders repeatedly loosening sanctions, carried out an official state visit that helped to raise the profile of Raul Castro's son Alejandro Castro as a successor, ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to share information with the Castro regime's secret police in October 2016, and finally shut the door on fleeing Cubans in January of 2017. All of this that unfolded could be traced back to secret negotiations begun in mid 2016, a handshake between President Obama and Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela's funeral on December 10, 2013, although formally announced on December 17, 2014.

June 16th, like December 17, 2014, marked a turning point in Cuba policy. In both cases claims were made that exceeded the changes announced at the time. What was announced on December 17, 2014 set the direction on Cuba policy for the rest of the Obama Administration.  However on both occasions a tone was set that was equally important.

President Obama described the premeditated act of state terrorism carried out on Fidel and Raul Castro's orders on February 24, 1996 as a "tragic circumstance" on December 19, 2014 while ignoring the open indictments on members of the Cuban military directly involved in the shoot down by U.S. courts. The human rights situation in Cuba during the Obama administration deteriorated and there was a body count that coincided with the normalization drive that first began in 2009 and continued to the end of that Presidency.

President Trump identified the Castro regime for what it is and denounced it for its past crimes in dramatic contrast with his predecessor:
"To the Cuban government, I say:  Put an end to the abuse of dissidents.  Release the political prisoners.  Stop jailing innocent people.  Open yourselves to political and economic freedoms.  Return the fugitives from American justice -- including the return of the cop-killer Joanne Chesimard. And finally, hand over the Cuban military criminals who shot down and killed four brave members of Brothers to the Rescue who were in unarmed, small, slow civilian planes.  (Applause.) Those victims included Mario de la Pena, Jr., and Carlos Costa."
Last year during the campaign Donald Trump met with Cuban exiles and listened to their concerns. Attending the gathering on Friday where Cuban opposition activists from the island such as Angel Moya, Jorge Luis García Pérez "Antúnez", Antonio Rodiles, Martha Beatriz Roque, and young Cuban millennials such as Rey Anthony Lastre who'd taken to the streets to protest the previous policy in 2014 and 2015 when Hillary Clinton advocated the lifting of the Cuba embargo when she visited Florida International University. 

Among the human rights activists sitting front and center behind President Trump was Rosa María Payá Acevedo whose father Oswaldo Payá and friend Harold Cepero were both murdered on July 22, 2012 for denouncing the fake change the Castro regime was preparing to carry out. Rosa is 28 years old. She was able to talk to President Trump and hand him information on Cuba Decide's campaign for a plebiscite and on the murder of her dad and friend.

Contrast this with how she was treated by the Obama Administration when Rosa María attended a press conference, as an accredited member of the press (she'd been writing a blog for a newspaper) she was threatened by the State Department spokesman that if she asked a question she would be forcibly removed to avoid offending the sensibilities of Castro's Foreign Minister. The exchange was caught on video by other journalists who were present.

Sitting nearby was Sirley Avila Leon, who was the victim of a brutal machete attack in May of 2015 planned by Cuban state security in retaliation for her opposition activities.

Also present was Silvia Iriondo of Mothers Against Repression, who was aboard the one Brothers to the Rescue plane that made it back on February 24, 1996 the day two other planes of that same organization where shot down in a premeditated act of state terrorism ordered by Fidel and Raul Castro.

Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, the most well known opposition group in the island, released a letter supporting the Trump Administration's shift in Cuba policy and thanking President Trump for mentioning them during speech:
In my capacity as leader of the Cuban non-violent human rights defenders, the Damas de Blanco, I am honored to convey to you the warmest thanks from all the members of our organization, including our four Damas recently sentenced to up to 3 years in prison, for your kind mention of our struggle. These days, Mr. President, when most of the World responds with a deafening silence to the harassment, arbitrary detentions, beatings, house searches, and robberies against peaceful opponents, human rights activists and defenseless women, your words of encouragement are most welcomed. 
Important elements of the dissident movement in Cuba, victims of repression are supporting this change in direction and rhetoric. Time will tell if this positive turn of events signals a profound and continuing change in Cuba policy that unfolds over the years to come.

Read more here:

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The American case for a reboot of U.S. Cuba policy

Current Cuba policy does not serve the just interests of the United States

 Raul Castro with North Korea's Army Chief, General Kim Kyok-sik
 Cuba is a communist totalitarian regime, a political model that over the past century has claimed over 100 million lives of the people they govern. Manufactured famines are a feature of this type of regime. This type of regime once installed is difficult to dislodge. Furthermore the Castro regime is hostile to U.S. interests and has allied with enemies of the United States such as North Korea, and has successfully sought to undermine democracies in the Western Hemisphere, and promote terrorism world wide.

What we are undergoing now is a debate over what U.S. Cuba policy should be and as a conservative I ask: "What would serve the just interests of the United States?" The current policy fails on several counts and needs to be dismantled and replaced.

First, during the previous Administration the effort at outreach and loosening economic sanctions coincided with an emboldened dictatorship in Cuba that invited back the Russians, was caught smuggling heavy weapons (including war planes and missile technology) to North Korea, got its hands on a U.S. Hellfire missile, used in NATO exercises in Europe, on its way back to the United States ended up in Cuba by June of 2014. Despite a request from the Administration, Cuba refused to return it until it became a public embarrassment over a year later in February of 2016. All this took place while the White House was secretly negotiating with the Castro regime.

Mystery: How did a US Hellfire missile (pictured above) end up in Cuba?
Second, the rest of the world that trades with Cuba is owed billions of dollars and the Castro regime has defaulted on tens of billions of dollars more over the years. The argument made U.S. law should be changed to provide this notorious deadbeat regime credit would end up leaving U.S. taxpayers holding the bag to subsidize the dictatorship in Cuba. This is what the citizens Canadians, Mexicans, Italians, Spaniards, Argentineans, Japanese, Russians an other nations have been doing for decades. It is also what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Ag lobby do not want Americans to know. How does it serve U.S. interests to subsidize a hostile military junta in Cuba with taxpayer dollars in order to destabilize democracies and support regimes that want to do harm to the United States?

The Chamber's dirty Cuba secret
Third, the fruits of the policy can be seen today in Venezuela where tens of thousands of agents of the Cuban government assist in the building of a totalitarian dictatorship there, killing nonviolent Venezuelan protesters, while infiltrating all levels of government.  The Castro regime's intelligence services and military have a high level and active presence in the country. Doing business in Cuba, almost always necessitates doing business with the government, at a time when Venezuelans are being killed by Cubans in Caracas, this is a profound injustice.

1975 Fraunces Tavern bombing committed by Cuban backed FALN
Fourth, Cuba despite having a track record of sponsoring and training international terrorists since the 1960s, placed on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism when it was discovered that the regime used drug trafficking to finance a revolutionary guerilla group in Colombia. Despite continued bad actions by the Cuban government, the previous Administration to satisfy demands by Raul Castro, in order to restore normal diplomatic relations removed them from the above mentioned list and freed a Cuban spy serving a life sentence for conspiracy to murder four Americans, including a retired U.S. marine.

Cocaine from Cuban ship hidden under molasses discovered in Panama 2016
 Furthermore to share drug intelligence with a government with a half century track record linked to facilitating drug trafficking into the U.S. does not serve American interests, but places in harms way countless young Americans with the explosive growth of drug smuggling.  In 2016 a shipment of 401kilos of cocaine was discovered camouflaged under molasses.

Fifth, the October 2016 Presidential Policy Directive ordering U.S. intelligence agencies to share information with the Castro regime's spy agency considering all the above is a profound threat to the just interests of the United States, endangering lives and property. It needs to be ended immediately.

Finally, the United States since its founding has been a symbol of liberty that over time has worked to build a more perfect union in which civil liberties have expanded and deepened for most of its history. The advocacy for human rights, siding with the victims of repression, and advocating for greater freedoms is an element of the soft power of the United States that is weakened by going back to the old ways of embracing dictators for economic interests. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Please U2 consider adding Cuban women democrats to your Ultraviolet montage on Women's movements

Open plea to the Irish rock band to consider adding images of Cuban women human rights defenders to their tribute to women's movements during the song Ultraviolet.

Images of women's movements and movement leaders during U2 concert

Dear Bono, The Edge, Adam and Larry:

Great show tonight in Miami. One Republic was also a great opening band. Furthermore thank you for your shout out of support tonight for Senator Marco Rubio, and his support for AIDS funding for those most in need. I've been a U2 fan since high school, remembered your performance during the Conspiracy of Hope tour in in 1986 and seen all your concerts in Miami beginning with the Pop tour and was there on June 29, 2011 when you gave a shout out of concern for Cuban human rights defender Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet:
"Now I would like you to do something we've never done before. A beautiful man, a doctor who has spent his time in the prisons of Cuba. He is also released. His name is Dr. Biscet. I want you to hold him up. Let everyone in Cuba know that he is special to us and we are watching WE ARE WATCHING. Hold him in your thoughts. Hold him in your prayers."
The past six years have been difficult ones and although Dr. Biscet, perhaps thanks to your shout out, is still alive and doing well others have not been so fortunate.

Laura Inés Pollán Toledo died on October 14, 2011 at 7:50pm from heart failure at the age of 63 under suspicious circumstances in the custody of Cuban State Security. Dr. Biscet called it a case of purposeful medical neglect. Laura was one of the founders of the Ladies in White, a movement nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and winner of the European Union's Sakharov Prize.

Laura Inés Pollán Toledo (1948 - 2011)
The Ladies in White came into existence in the midst of a government crackdown in Cuba that imprisoned 75 Cuban human rights defenders in March of 2003 sentencing them to long and unjust prison sentences. Amnesty International recognized them all as prisoners of conscience. This movement was made up initially of the wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters of these political prisoners. They began organizing regular events, marches and campaigns for the liberation of their loved ones. They faced regular harassment, beatings, and death threats but refused to back down. They continue to march and protest today under the leadership of Berta Soler.

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, and Harold Cepero Escalante were killed in what has all the hallmarks of state security extrajudicial execution camouflaged as a car accident on July 22, 2012. Both were members of the Christian Liberation Movement. Oswaldo was the founding leader and Harold, a youth leader in the movement.

The Christian Liberation Movement (MCL), founded on September 8, 1988, organized a petition drive in Cuba named after a Catholic priest called the Varela Project that called for human rights reforms in the Cuban legal code. Tens of thousands of Cubans signed it, MCL turned into the National Assembly and it led the Castro regime to ignore its own laws refusing to debate this initiative and instead change its constitution to make it "unchangeable." The current MCL leader in Cuba is Eduardo Cardet, who has been jailed since November 30, 2016 and is an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience.

Rosa María Payá Acevedo
Following the deaths of Oswaldo and Harold, Oswaldo's daughter Rosa María Payá Acevedo began the CubaDecide campaign calling for a plebiscite, that she says is a continuation of the Varela Project. She frequently travels to Cuba and remains a legal resident there.

Tonight watching the images of women's movements during your performance of Ultraviolet from the Achtung Baby album I was surprised not to see the Ladies in White or Rosa Maria Payá represented.

Both Rosa Maria Payá, and the Ladies in White would benefit by being highlighted in your Ultraviolent video montage on Women's movements. Please consider adding these Cuban women democrats to your tribute to women's movements because at times of uncertainty it could make a crucial difference.

Thank you.

A lifelong U2 fan