Friday, July 16, 2010

"We are Refugees"

There's plenty of news to unpack about the released Cuban prisoners in Spain so let's get to it. First, there's one important matter to settle: were the released Cuban political prisoners given the option to stay in Cuba or were they coerced to emigrate to Spain?

The last few days of reports indicate that the Cuban political prisoners were likely coerced into becoming political refugees in Spain. Initial reports had indicated that the option to leave Cuba was "a proposal" (words of Cardinal Jaime Ortega) and that political prisoners "could go to Spain if they wish" (words of Miguel Angel Moratinos). What seems to be left out is the fact that political prisoners were given two cruel options: leave Cuba immediately or stay in prison and suffer until who knows when.

[The Cuba Triangle also has a good analysis on this matter, with a different conclusion.]

A recent report from Fernando Ravsberg (BBC Mundo) inside Cuba asks the important question: What happens to the dissidents who want to stay? The answer for the moment is we don't know yet. More than five prisoners have rejected the proposal to leave Cuba. In the meantime, Ravsberg gives us a picture into how some of the released political prisoners were contacted. According to the wife of one liberated prisoner, Cardinal Ortega personally called all political prisoners "and demand[ed] an answer at the very moment."

Ravsberg's interview with another wife of a political prisoner fills in the rest. "On the 2nd of July I told [Cardinal Ortega] that my husband would not accept leaving Cuba. I was given no reply, he just looked at me and said nothing."

Now in Spain, the released political prisoners are making important revelations about Cuban prison conditions, and how they desire to return to Cuba and continue their struggle to free all political prisoners. These are not the comments of men who were given a choice to leave "if they wish."

One former prisoner spoke of "subhuman facilities. You didn't have light, nor drinking water. You didn't know who was in the neighboring cell. You were isolated from everything." The effects of such isolation are apparent in one of the released prisoners, Antonio Villareal, who seems to refuse to leave his room at the Spanish hostel. "They have psychologically destroyed him," his friends say. Today, the former political prisoners spoke about how their "cells were rat- and roach-infested and that disease was rampant." Some prisoners were clearly physically deteriorated from disease, such as Jose Luis Garcia Paneque. Another prisoner released inside Cuba last month, Ariel Sigler, was seen in worse conditions due to polyneuropathy, [edit] possibly caused by horrible prison conditions.

But, in the end, these former political prisoners want to eventually return to Cuba and help free all political prisoners who continue suffering inside Cuban jails. They also desire economic, social and political changes inside Cuba. But, they are not militants. They are not calling for all Cubans to march in the streets and protest or rebel.

"These liberations [of political prisoners] do not mean an improvement of human rights in Cuba. It's a first step to restart the dialogue between Cuba and the European Union."

(Don't expect to hear that "dialogue" word in Miami. This evening I didn't hear it reported in the evening news reports by Univision23 or Telemnudo51.)

(Also, these cases, in my opinion, are not forced exile. Manuel Zelaya [June 2009] being forced out by soldiers in his pajamas and flown to Costa Rica [in violation of the Honduran constitution, Article 102] is forced exile.)

[Photo of Julio Cesar Galvez by Reuters]

Monday, July 12, 2010

Olga Guillot (1922 - 2010)

It is a sad day for all Cubans. This afternoon it was reported that Olga Guillot, considered one of the most famous Cuban singers alongside Celia Cruz, died of a heart attack today at the age of 87.

Listening to the reports in the local Spanish media it's obvious that many in the Cuban exile community are deeply saddened by this loss. But, along with her musical talents, many are remembering Guillot for her politics. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen says: "There will never be another Olga Guillot. Her patriotism, love for her homeland, talented voice and caring heart will be missed." And, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart remembers that "above all, Olga Guillot was a Cuban patriot." Several callers to Radio Mambi today made the same references to Guillot's patriotism.

Guillot was intransigent when it came to Cuba, and many in Miami loved her for that. According to El Nuevo Herald, a friend said Guillot's house in Cuba was repossessed in 1960, and soon thereafter she decided to leave and she never went back.

I've always read more about Guillot's politics than her music here in Miami. (This is the result of the coordinated anti-Castro propaganda that thrives in the local Spanish media.) When the "Peace without Borders" concert was about to take place in Cuba last year (dubbed the "Concert of Discord" by the local Spanish media), Olga Guillot was given an increased amount of airtime on TV and radio because she opposed the concert. (After the concert, a poll of Cuban-Americans showed a majority with favorable views of the concert.)

When the concert was over, she was asked in an interview about it. Guillot said that she was not impressed by the presentations and described the whole thing as "bien pobre" (very poor or poorly done). Guillot expressed the reasons for her political intransigence: she would never return as long as "the [Castro] regime" was in power. And, when asked what she thought of Cucu Diamantes, a young Cuban-American artist who traveled to Cuba to perform at the "Peace Without Borders" concert, she replied that Diamantes "has no character, and if she does then she is 'una infiltrada' (an infiltrator or spy)... here there are many people, many people who have been against the Cuba exile community because we are against that concert."

When asked what Guillot would do if she ever ran into any of the artists, such as Juanes or Olga Tañon, from the concert in Cuba, she replied: "Nothing. I am not going to see them as persons, or people. To me they are already strangers."

But, despite being mostly intransigent about Cuba, Guillot was also someone who could see beyond Cuban politics. In April 2009 it was reported that Olga Guillot and Omara Portuondo (another famous Cuban artist and supporter of the Cuban government) "embraced after 48 years separated spiritually and territorially."

The power of music can bring people together, if only for a while. Even the most intransigent.

--- Olga Guillot, in her own words ---

"God knows that we all want to [celebrate] in a free Cuba. But, since it will not happen, at least here [in exile] we can give each other greetings, the fraternal embrace of us all [Cubans] so we can feel alive. And we are loyal to our homeland, loyal to our traditions and to our roots because that is the only thing we should not forget.

"When they hear us say 'la Cuba mia' [that Cuba of mine] its because that Cuba of mine was so beautiful and so different to that Cuba of ours that suffers so much. And, one of the things that makes me sad is knowing that Cuba has not been lost, but kidnapped. Our island was kidnapped.

"I carry inside me and in my heart a map, [shaped like an alligator], I love that alligator, a beautiful alligator, I love her, Cuba, always Cuba.

[Photo courtesy of]

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cuba Will Free 52 Political Prisoners [Updated]

The news yesterday came as a big surprise to almost everyone including Guillermo Fariñas, the hunger striker who in February initially demanded the release of 26 political prisoners reportedly ill. Now, according to Radio Marti, Fariñas will stop his hunger strike once "10 to 12 prisoners" are reported free. But, once Cuban dissident Laura Pollan (photo) heard the news of this possible mass liberation (which includes her husband), she called Fariñas and told him: "Trust a little bit... Stop the hunger strike. You are more valuable alive than dead."

Just like those moments of joy when an expert negotiator successfully gains the release of hostages, yesterday may soon be celebrated as a big political victory for Spain's minister of foreign affairs Miguel Angel Moratinos and Cuba's catholic leader Jaime Ortega for their negotiated release of Amnesty International's Cuban "prisoners of conscience." But, just like a hostage situation, more difficult problems lie in the background that prisoner exchanges cannot solve. The militant or hard-liner would say that the problem is simply solved through force or coercion, while others may propose less rigid alternatives. Spain's Miguel Angel Moratinos has chosen dialogue, and has scored big. Here in Miami we should expect a devastating blow to militancy.

So what does Cuba gain from releasing 52 political prisoners who have been unfairly incarcerated since 2003?

Well, we cannot say for certain what details were discussed between Moratinos, Ortega and Raul Castro that led to this possible mass liberation, but there are some hints. The most obvious being the potential end of the European Union's "common position" towards Cuba which Moratinos has vowed to permanently lift. Yesterday, Moratinos made it clear that the "common position" is no longer justified, mainly because before traveling to Cuba Moratinos made a deal with other EU members: "They told me that if the problem of [Cuban political] prisoners was solved the Common Position would be lifted." The EU will be reviewing the "common position" in September after Moratinos delayed the vote from June expecting promising results from the ongoing negotiations. Lifting or revising the "common position" will allow Cuba to extend economic cooperation with EU nations at a time when it desperately needs it.

Thus, focus on the economy is the other possible reason Raul Castro has negotiated this prisoner release. As Cuba expert Jorge I. Dominguez explained last month at a conference that discussed the Cuban economy, finding a solution (albeit short-term) to international condemnation of Cuba's human rights violations was important to achieve a greater goal: "President Raul Castro's desire to focus on problems--such as the economy with its declining growth rate--that are central to his office and remove others that distract from this."

And finally, this is another ideological victory for supporters of increasing dialogue with the Cuban government, especially once all 52 political prisoners are finally freed.[Reports indicate that prisoners are not being forced into exile as a condition for their release, but are free to choose emigration to Spain.] History has shown that the Cuban government has repeatedly sought out favorable partners to negotiate with and address certain problems, such as political prisoners. Mass liberation of Cuban prisoners occurred in the 70s and 90s with different types of negotiating partners, and the potential exists today. But, negotiating the release of prisoners ignores the central problem: historically fraught U.S.-Cuba relations.

The U.S. must eventually accept other political alternatives to using force or coercion against the Cuban government. Negotiation and dialogue are alternatives that may yield good results. So why wait any longer?

[Press Release by the Cuban Catholic Church on the release of political prisoners.]

[Recent list of Amnesty International's Cuban "Prisoners of Conscience," the list includes Ariel Sigler and Darsi Ferrer who were recently freed from prison. Rolando Jimenez Posada is the only prisoner not scheduled to be released.]

[Update: Guillermo Fariñas has ended his hunger strike Thursday, July 8, according to Yoani Sanchez, and other reports from Cuba's dissidents.]

[Photo by Reuters]