The Castro-Chávez link: What are 30,000 Cuban advisers doing in Venezuela?
The Obama administration has dismissed Venezuela's Hugo Chávez as a pesky loudmouth. But he imperils regional security and freedom.By John Hughes / March 16, 2010Provo, Utah
While two wars in Southwest Asia and a dangerous confrontation with Iran dominate President Obama's foreign- policy worry list, oil-rich Venezuela, much closer to home, is becoming more than a minor irritant.
To date, the Obama administration has dismissed Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez as a pesky, leftist loudmouth, whose verbal eruptions against the United States pose no threat. But a new era of "Cubanization" in Venezuela should warn of a crackdown against Mr. Chávez's domestic opponents and a stepped-up drive for socialist revolution across Latin America.
Chávez has been importing "advisers" from Cuba. There are now some 30,000 of them, many of them intelligence, security, and political affairs officers, as well as medical personnel.
Chávez's recent installation of Cuban Vice President Ramiro Valdes in a key advisory role in Venezuela is seen by Chávez opponents as a sinister move toward greater "Cubanization" and Castro-style communism. Mr. Valdes is also Cuba's communications minister and ranks third in the Cuban hierarchy. His job in Venezuela is supposedly to handle an electricity crisis – though his qualifications are suspect.
In recent years, Chávez has established alliances with nations that could be counted on to tweak Washington. Russia has engaged in military exercises with Venezuela and signed an agreement to supply up to $2 billion worth of weaponry. China is buying more than 330,000 barrels of oil daily from Venezuela and has signed an investment agreement to develop more. China also has just completed a $400 million communications satellite for Venezuela.
Iran has been Venezuela's most ingratiating suitor. The two nations have signed dozens of agreements in recent years to boost infrastructure, energy, and manufacturing in the South American country. Chávez has visited Tehran often, pledging cooperation with Iran in opposing "US imperialism," liberating countries from the "imperialist yoke," and furthering "Bolivarian socialist principles" in Latin America. Chávez has consistently endorsed Iran's nuclear program.
At home, Chávez lauds Fidel Castro as a political blood brother, and communist Cuba as an example for all of Latin America.
His governance has become increasingly authoritarian, detailed in a blistering report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. It highlights how Chávez has undermined judicial independence, intimidated or silenced opposition media, hobbled elected opposition figures, and criminalized dissidents and human rights groups.
Last week, a Spanish judge accused Venezuela of colluding with terrorist groups including the Basque ETA rebels and the Colombian FARC.
Once lauded by his people as a reformer, Chávez is now the target of angry street rallies, especially as he has rather blatantly plotted to stay president for life.
Cuba depends on Venezuela's cheap oil (the US is also a major buyer) and would be disadvantaged if the Chávez regime fell. Havana may be alarmed by the fissures in Chávez's support and probably welcomed the opportunity to position Valdes in Caracas to bolster Chávez.
Cuba's leaders may also have some concerns about their own country's political stability. Cuban dissidents say word has been passed up the military command that the ailing Fidel Castro may not outlast this year. His succession is by no means certain. Fidel's brother Raúl, currently managing the country while his brother is incapacitated, is credited with being a better administrator than Fidel, but lacks Fidel's charisma.
The Obama administration, beset by major problems at home and challenges abroad, may have thought it could delay confronting lesser problems in Latin America. This may prove to have been an unwise calculation.
Mr. Obama: Don't be surprised by that 3 a.m. call.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.
Pro-Castro demonstrators break up dissident demo in CubaPosted : Tue, 16 Mar 2010 18:56:08 GMTBy : dpa
Havana – Supporters of the Cuban communist government led by President Raul Castro on Tuesday broke up a dissident demonstration in Havana, witnesses said. More than 100 men and women shouting slogans in support of former long-time ruler Fidel Castro and the government now led by his brother, Raul. They chanted "Long live Fidel!" and "This street belongs to Fidel!" as they surrounded around 30 members of the so- called Damas de Blanco, the Ladies in White, a group of wives and mothers of imprisoned dissidents.
The group has scheduled various protest actions for this week, to mark the seventh anniversary of the arrest of their loved ones, 75 dissidents who were sentenced to up to 28 years in prison after being considered "mercenaries" in the service of the United States. Of these, 53 remain in prison.
Cuba has been the target of strong international criticism in recent weeks over the situation of political prisoners. One of them, Orlando Zapata, died last month while on a hunger strike. Another dissident, Guillermo Farinas, has been on hunger strike for 21 days and was being force-fed to keep him alive.
Cuban authorities insist that there are no political prisoners on the island and that Zapata and others are common prisoners. Human rights organizations, however, say there are about 200 political prisoners in Cuba."
Cuba dissidents start "Black Spring" protestsMarch 16 2010 at 09:08AMBy Jeff Franks
Havana – Cuba's dissident "Ladies in White" staged a small, mostly silent march through Havana on Monday to begin a week of protest to mark the anniversary of the "Black Spring" crackdown of 2003 when the government imprisoned 75 opponents.
The anniversary on Thursday comes at a delicate time for Cuba's communist government, whose human rights record is already under fire for the Feb. 23 death of dissident hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo and for its handling of another opposition hunger striker who has vowed to die for his cause.
About three dozen women, dressed in the dissident group's traditional white clothes and carrying flowers, walked through Central Havana to a nearby church where they shouted "Zapata lives", but otherwise said nothing.
Zapata's mother, Reyna Tamayo, led the march.
Passersby looked on with surprise, but in contrast to a December march for International Human Rights Day when the ladies were jostled and jeered by government supporters, there were no incidents.
Ladies in White leader Laura Pollan said her group, made up of wives and relatives of those jailed in 2003, would stage marches through the city every day this week.
The protests are aimed at stirring support for those imprisoned in what became known as the "Black Spring" crackdown on government opponents, which began March 18, 2003 and drew broad international condemnation of Cuba.
Of those arrested then, 52, including Pollan's husband Hector Maseda, remain behind bars. In a declaration from prison last week, they called for Cubans to mark the anniversary by fasting and discussing the Bible.
Zapata, a 42-year-old construction worker, has become a rallying figure for Cuba's opposition since he died after an 85-day hunger strike demanding better prison conditions.
Pollan said the Ladies in White opposed hunger strikes, but that "unfortunately, you have to water the fields for them to flower. For us, we have had to water them with blood, and that blood was of Orlando Zapata."
Cuban President Raul Castro, who replaced his ailing brother Fidel Castro two years ago, expressed regret about Zapata's death, but blamed it on the United States for supporting dissent against the Cuban government.
Another hunger striker, Guillermo Farinas, 48, is in the 20th day of his protest fast in the central city of Santa Clara seeking the release of 26 ailing political prisoners. He collapsed on Thursday and remains in hospital receiving fluids intravenously.
The two cases have brought calls for Cuba to release its estimated 200 political prisoners and renewed condemnation from the United States and Europe.
The European Parliament voted last week to denounce the death of Zapata, and it expressed alarm about Farinas.
The resolution by the 27-nation European Union's elected body marked a hardening of its position towards Cuba and damaged hopes by Spain, currently leading the EU and a major investor in Cuba, of the bloc engaging the communist-ruled island more closely to encourage change there.
Havana responded by vowing to resist international pressure for change and accusing the Europeans of "great cynicism".
Cuba has described Zapata and Farinas as common criminals who became dissidents because of material benefits they received from its enemies. It portrays government opponents as mercenaries working for the United States and other foes.
Pollan said Zapata's death had reawakened international interest in the plight of Cuba's political prisoners and had unified island dissidents. A third person, former prisoner Orlando Fundora, has also begun a hunger strike, she said. – Reuters
United Nations Human Rights CouncilHuman rights situations in Cuba that require the Council's attentionBy Online Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Statement delivered at the General Assembly by Freedom House, represented by Maria C. Werlau, regarding the situation of prisoners in Cuba.
On behalf of Freedom House, I thank you, Mr. President, for the opportunity to speak at this Council.
Cuba has more than 200 political prisoners, 55 whom have been designated prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International – nearly half of those 55 are journalists.
As we meet today, former political prisoner Guillermo Fariñas is in critical condition from a hunger strike.Cuba's prisoners of conscience
Cuba's prisoners of conscience have historically resorted to hunger strikes to protest abhorrent prison conditions, beatings, malnourishment, denial of medical care, forced labor, unfair punishments, extrajudicial killings by guards, and other abuses. Moreover, in the last 40 years, twelve individuals have died in Cuban prisons during hunger strikes, including, most recently, Orlando Zapata.
Currently, there are two dozen political prisoners throughout the island who are extremely ill and in danger of dying, including 46 year-old Ariel Sigler.
Countless men and women are also confined for pre-criminal "dangerousness" – an allegation by the government that they will engage in "dangerous" activities such as distributing copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or discussing issues related to human rights.
Prisons are rampant with disease. Inhumane conditions lead to acts of self-mutilation, psychological disorders, and extreme suffering. From 2007 to 2009, there were 99 reported deaths from forced or alleged suicides, medical negligence, and extrajudicial killings; these reports came from just 40 of several hundred prisons.
Mr. President, we recommend, with utmost urgency, that the Council ask:
(1) for Mr. Manfred Nowak, Special Rapporteur for Torture, and the International Red Cross be allowed to visit Cuba's prisons immediately;
(2) that all political prisoners be unconditionally released, including those held for "dangerousness."
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Crash involving two trucks kills 7, injures 40 in CubaPosted : Mon, 15 Mar 2010 21:22:09 GMTBy : dpa
Havana – At least seven people died and 40 were injured in western Cuba when a truck carrying scores of passengers crashed into a parked tanker, local media reported Monday. The accident took place on the Havana-Pinar del Rio highway and nine of the injured were in serious condition, the official news agency AIN reported.
In Cuba, trucks often carry passengers on long-haul journeys.
Almodovar signs petition to free Cuban political prisoners(AFP) – 6 hours ago
MADRID — Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has signed a petition calling for the immediate release of all political prisoners in Cuba, his production company said Tuesday.
The Oscar-winning director put his name to the petition entitled "I accuse the Cuban government" that was launched on a Spanish blog on Friday, the company, El Deseo, said in a statement.
Several personalities, including Spanish-Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, are among some 5,000 people who have already signed it.
The petition calls for "the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Cuban jails and the respect of the exercise, promotion and the defence of human rights throughout the world."
It also condemns the death on February 23 of Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata, who was "unjustly imprisoned and brutally tortured in Castroist prisons and died from a hunger strike while condemning crimes and the lack of rights and democracy in his country."
Another Cuban dissident hunger striker, Guillermo Farinas, was last week reported to be in critical condition after losing consciousness in his third week of fasting.
The communist government in Havana argues that the dissidents are being manipulated by opponents of Cuba including the US government, and has rejected demands for their release.
The Revolution's Troubadour No Longer Believes
To walk to the edge of the stage and speak only within limits, is required practice for certain critical artists still living in Cuba. Occasionally they offer us a phrase seasoned with dissent which will be published in foreign newspapers, though it will find no echo in our national ones. With one foot inside and one foot outside the Island, it must be difficult to go from speaking out to whispering. The long stays abroad have thus become a catalyst of opinions for some representatives of our culture. Evidently, interaction with other realities – with their achievements and their problems – have made the triumphalist slogans sound very distant while the intolerance in their own backyard becomes insufferable.
Pablo Milanes' last interview – published in Spain under the title, "I want change in Cuba as soon as possible" – shows, on the one hand, the restraint with which he avoids burning the bridges of return, and on the other the audacity of someone who is very worried about what is happening in his country. There is, undoubtedly, an enormous risk in calling those who govern us, "reactionaries of their own ideas"; these are the people who have censored so many writers, musicians and actors for saying much less. The author of the song Yolanda walks the knife's edge along which others have been cut to shreds. Protecting him in this undertaking are the strength of his international reputation and the support of people from every place and generation. An unknown neighborhood singer-songwriter would pay dearly, but they need Pablo.
Emigration has marked too strongly the artistic level on our stages. Not only have my colleagues from the university and my contemporaries from the neighborhood left en masse, but Cuban culture has a percentage of its representatives – some would say a majority – outside our borders. To lose, now, this strong voice would be to admit that those who composed the background music that accompanied the construction of utopia have stopped believing in it. So no website of any official institution is going publish an aggressive and threatening diatribe against the frankness of the interviewee. Nor will they inform the Madrid consulate that he is no longer welcome in his own country, nor accuse him of speaking with the words of an "American lover." None of these stigmatizing strategies will be deployed against Pablo, but in the off-hour ministerial chats and the closed circles of power they will not forgive him for having behaved like a free man.
Cuban government supporters harass rights marchersBy Nelson Acosta and Jeff FranksReutersTuesday, March 16, 2010; 3:05 PM
HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuban government supporters harassed and shouted at members of the opposition group "Ladies in White" on Tuesday in Havana as the women marched in protest against the 2003 imprisonment of 75 dissidents.
The women, numbering about two dozen and dressed in white, had to be protected by state security agents after they stopped and yelled "Freedom, Freedom!" in front of the headquarters of the Cuban state journalists union.
The dissidents were marching for the second day in a protest to commemorate the 2003 "Black Spring" crackdown by the government against opponents.
About 150 men and women began walking alongside and shouting them down in what is known in Cuba as an "act of repudiation," usually directed against government opponents.
"Viva Fidel! Viva Raul! The street belongs to the Revolution!" the government supporters shouted, referring to the 1959 Revolution led by Fidel Castro which subsequently installed a communist system in Cuba.
The women, who are wives and mothers of the Black Spring prisoners, were escorted by state security agents, who formed a protective cordon, to the Central Havana home of Ladies in White leader Laura Pollan.
Tuesday's demonstration was the second of seven consecutive marches planned by the women's group to mark the seventh anniversary of the Black Spring crackdown that began March 18, 2003 and drew widespread condemnation of Cuba.
The anniversary comes at a time when Cuba's human rights record is under fire for the February 23 death of dissident hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo and for its handling of an ongoing hunger strike by dissident Guillermo Farinas in the central city of Santa Clara.
Farinas, who launched his strike three weeks ago to back demands for the release of 26 ailing political prisoners, has been in a hospital receiving fluids intravenously since he collapsed on Thursday.
A third hunger strike is underway by former political prisoner Orlando Fundora, who began eight days ago and is now in a hospital, his family said on Tuesday.
The Ladies in White staged their first march on Monday without incident. But Pollan said she had been warned by the government not to march to "sacred places" that included the state journalists' center.
In December, the women were jostled and jeered by government supporters when they marched to mark International Human Rights Day.
Of the 75 people imprisoned in 2003, 52 remain behind bars.
Alejandrina Garcia, wife of prisoner Diosdado Gonzalez Marrero, who is serving a 20-year sentence, said Tuesday's incident was not unexpected.
"What happened today is the same as always — government mobs repudiated us with government slogans, but we continued shouting 'Freedom' and "Zapata lives," she told Reuters.
She said the Ladies in White would march again on Wednesday as planned, with the intention of visiting Fundora to encourage him to end his hunger strike.
A man whom Garcia identified as former political prisoner Hugo Damian Prieto was detained by security agents following a brief fracas with government supporters outside Pollan's home.
Zapata's death has become a rallying point for Cuba's small dissident community and drawn international attention to their cause. The United States and Europe have condemned communist-led Cuba over the hunger strikes and called for the release of its estimated 200 political prisoners.
Cuba's government, which views dissidents as mercenaries working for the United States and other enemies, has described Zapata and Farinas as common criminals. It has vowed to resist international pressure over the dissidents.
(Editing by Jeff Franks, Pascal Fletcher and Eric Walsh)
Cuba Closes More Than 100 State-Run Agricultural Firms
HAVANA – The Cuban government will close more than 100 "inefficient" state-run agricultural enterprises and transfer upwards of 40,000 workers to other jobs, Communist Party daily Granma said Monday.
The announcement was made by Agriculture Minister Ulises Rosales at a meeting of the National Association of Small Farmers in the central province of Villa Clara.
Rosales, a member of the Communist Party Politburo, cited the need to "eliminate no fewer than 100 companies that are unsustainable in the current economic situation," and to "relocate" more than 40,000 farm workers.
Cuba imports as much as 80 percent of the provisions consumed by its 11.2 million inhabitants at an annual cost of several billion dollars.
That situation cannot be maintained considering the government's acute lack of liquidity brought on by the international financial crisis, the drop in foreign trade, the continuing U.S. economic embargo and other factors. EFE
Smart sanctions can support democratic change: U.S.Pascal FletcherHOLLYWOOD, FloridaMon Mar 15, 2010 11:35am EDT
HOLLYWOOD, Florida (Reuters) – Adjusting and even selectively loosening U.S. sanctions against countries like Iran and Cuba can serve foreign policy goals by encouraging democratic change through greater Internet freedom and other means, a U.S. Treasury official said on Monday.
Adam Szubin, director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which enforces U.S. sanctions against designated states, companies and people, told a conference such "smart sanctions" would help the U.S. government further its goals of fostering greater freedom and democracy.
He said Washington last week adjusted its sanctions regimes against Iran, Cuba and Sudan to allow the export by U.S. companies of services and software related to personal communications over the Internet.
This was aimed at increasing the access of citizens in those states to online communications technologies.
"It's exactly what I think OFAC needs to be doing, not simply designating new targets or tightening sanctions, but also loosening sanctions when it can further our foreign policy goals," Szubin said in a keynote address to an international money laundering conference in Hollywood, Florida.
He cited the increased use over the last year of the Internet and social networking sites by opponents of Iran's government to disseminate their anti-government activities.
He said this activity, carried out through online sites and tools like Twitter, Facebook and instant messaging, removed any doubts "that personal communication software and its widespread availability are integral to seeing democratic change come to some of the most oppressive regimes on earth."
"So we are doing our part … to open that world up to the people of Iran, to the people of Cuba and to the people of Sudan," Szubin said.
Iran remained a top priority in U.S. foreign policy and national security, he said, citing its "pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in contravention of repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions" and its "active role as a supporter of terrorism."
"There is no country in the world that is supporting terrorism as close to the level of Iran and its destabilizing role in the region, in funding, arming and fueling insurgencies and the Taliban," Szubin said.
He said OFAC would seek to make its overall sanctions enforcement more effective by clearly focusing and targeting its actions on major violators.
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)
Cuba criticizes US ruling on Internet accessBy PAUL HAVEN (AP)
HAVANA — Cuba says a U.S. ruling that makes it easier for companies to provide Internet communications services on the island is meant to destabilize the country, not loosen Washington's 48-year economic embargo.
"The government of the United States has said clearly that its objective is to use these services as a tool of subversion and destabilization," Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, director of the Cuban Foreign Ministry's North American affairs office, said Monday in a written response to questions from The Associated Press.
Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department announced it would allow the export of Internet communications services and software such as instant messaging, e-mail and Web browsing to Iran, Sudan and Cuba to help people in those countries communicate.
Cuba has the lowest level of Internet penetration in the Western Hemisphere. What services exist are prohibitively expensive for most people on the island, and many Web sites are blocked.
Opponents say Cuba's communist government intentionally keeps the Internet out of reach in an effort to control information.
Cuba counters that the U.S. economic embargo is to blame for blocking construction of a fiber optic cable, leaving the island dependent on slow, expensive satellite links.
Vidal Ferreiro said the new measures announced by the Treasury Department would apply only to individuals, not businesses or institutions, and would do nothing to loosen the grip of the embargo, which Cuban officials refer to as a "blockade."
"It shows once more that the U.S. government is not interested in changing its policies nor in developing normal communication with Cuba," she said. "This is not a measure that loosens the blockade against Cuba."
In December, American government contractor Alan P. Gross was arrested in Havana for allegedly handing out communications equipment to members of the island's tiny Jewish community. Cuba has accused him of spying, though it has yet to press formal charges.
Gross has been jailed with limited consular access at a high-security facility in the capital. His arrest has been a major factor in the worsening relations between Washington and Havana.
Posted on Tuesday, 03.16.10US air charter companies fight Cuba judgmentBy LAURA WIDES-MUNOZAP Hispanic Affairs Writer
MIAMI — Eight charter companies that provide air travel between the U.S. and Cuba want to block an order requiring them to help pay a $27 million award won by a woman who said she was tricked into marrying a Cuban spy.
Ana Margarita Martinez says Cuban "defector" Juan Pablo Roque romanced and married her at the behest of the Cuban government in an effort to infiltrate Miami's Cuban exile community and then fled to the island. She won a judgment against Cuba in 2001. In 2007 a state court ruled the charter companies should pay her fees owed to tour companies on the island. She argued that Cuba indirectly owns the tour companies.
The charter companies' attorney asked a federal judge Tuesday to halt the order of payments to Martinez. There was no immediate ruling.