Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Political Prisoner Game (Part 1)

Last month, during President Obama's historic visit to Cuba, a US reporter asked Cuban leader Raul Castro about political prisoners on the island. The subject of prisoners in Cuba is a perennial theme in the US media, and the question again provided journalists a convenient excuse to report unfavorably about the Cuban government. Raul Castro's denial of holding political prisoners was met with predictable urgency by several media outlets to prove him wrong and frame the Cuban government as an outlier in the region. But, ironically, the rush to defend Cuban political prisoners revealed poor judgement and irresponsibility by many reporters. Several outlets used a list of political prisoners with controversial and/or violent backgrounds, and other lists were unreliable and missing information. The response by the media showed traditional disregard of facts when reporting about the island, and denied the contentious issue of political prisoners the tactfulness it deserves.


Last month, during a rare press conference with Cuban leader Raul Castro, CNN's Jim Acosta (a Cuban-American) asked Castro a purposely naive question: "I wanted to know why your country has Cuban political prisoners and why you don't release them." Looking annoyed, Castro demanded that he be given a list of names and that he would release them all by the end of the day. But, his sarcasm became evident when he later asked out loud: "What political prisoners?" Back in January, the Cuban government released 53 prisoners as part of a deal with the US to restore normal relations. Way back in 2010, Raul Castro participated in the release of 52 high-profile Cuban political prisoners of the Black Spring. Perhaps Castro thought he had already solved this problem.

Immediately, Univision's Jorge Ramos was among the first to respond to Raul Castro with a list of 47 names of political prisoners provided by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). Many other news outlets soon followed using this list. TIME magazine provided a different list provided by the Directorio Democratico Cubano (Cuban Democratic Directorate). Directorio's list had 51 names, sharing some names with CANF but mostly using different names. In Cuba, the independent website 14ymedio published a list of 77 names provided by dissident Elizardo Sanchez of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. And, an editorial by The Miami Herald presented readers with the CANF list and another list of 75 names by a Madrid-based organization called Observatorio Cubano de Derechos Humanos (Cuban Observatory for Human Rights). The four lists mentioned above have been the most prominently cited, and each one is very different.

Let's review some basic problems with the lists before analyzing the more complicated ones. REMINDER: This is not a thorough review of all names on the list, just the ones I could identify as problematic based on my limited time.


One of the reasons I'm providing this review is because I've seen this political game of lists before. Back in 2010, the not-so-independent Cuba Archive failed to check their list of Cuban prisoners who died from hunger strikes. Similar errors occurred here.

The Politifact website was the first to identify some errors when they reviewed and compared the Cuban political prisoners lists that flooded the media last month. Unknown to them, they used different versions of the CANF and Directorio lists. After creating a spreadsheet with all the names of prisoners, they discovered that some prisoners had already been released. The note at the bottom of the spreadsheet reads: "Victims of Communism [website] also listed several people who have since been released. They were not included in this spreadsheet." The VOC website updated their list after the errors were found. But, Politifact still has errors on their aggregate list of 97 names. Four prisoners on their list were released earlier in March and landed in Miami just a few days before President Obama arrived in Cuba. Also, there are names that repeat: Lazaro Avila Sierra (#5) and Lazario Avila Sierra (#70); Verdecia Amado Diaz (#7) and Amado Verdecia Diaz (#13).

The editorial by The Miami Herald also failed to double-check one of their lists. One link they used sent readers to the Observatorio list of political prisoners from 2015. That old list of 75 names includes the four released prisoners mentioned above. A new updated list by Observatorio now has only 66 names.

And, a closer look at the CANF lists shows a possible date error. The list shows Edilberto Alzuaga Alcala (#12) imprisoned in 2011, and given a one year sentence. A previous record of the CANF list showed that Alzuaga was added to the list in 2015, so the 2011 date is most likely an error. According to Cuban dissident Martha Beatriz Roque, Alzuaga was indeed imprisoned in 2015, but she writes he was imprisoned in February and serving a one year sentence. Given this information, it is possible that Alzuaga may already be free.


Other examples of contradictory or missing information, like that of Edilberto Alzuaga Alcala, include listed prisoners Liusban John Utra and Eglis Heredia Rodriguez.

A long-time member of the Cuban dissident group UNPACU (Union Patriotica de Cuba), John Utra's activism inside Cuba has been reported since 2012. According to the CANF list, John Utra (name #1) was imprisoned in 2013 with a 7 year sentence. Strangely, CANF, unlike other lists, did not provide the charges placed against all their prisoners. But, according to the Observatorio list, John Utra (# 47) was charged with "robo con fuerza" (burglary with forced entry). Eglis Heredia (#65), also a member of UNPACU, had the same charge.

After Raul Castro asked for a list of political prisoners, both UNPACU members appeared on some lists, but not all. They did not appear on the list provided by the Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation led by long-time dissident Elizardo Sanchez. And when UNPACU founder Jose Daniel Ferrer was asked to provide a list of political prisoners, he also did not include John Utra or Eglis Heredia despite the fact that both are members of UNPACU. The reason for their exclusion was explained last year by long-time Cuban dissident Martha Beatriz Roque: "[Eglis Heredia's] sentence [for burglary with forced entry] is not related to his role in the opposition, as is stated on a list. Mr. Heredia is not a political prisoner, but he did join UNPACU upon being [temporarily] released from jail." The same discretion was most likely applied to Liusban John Utra.

And this highlights another problem about the lists of Cuban political prisoners: Cubans taking up political causes while serving sentences for non-political criminal acts. Unknown to many, some prisoners in Cuba are allowed conditional release from prison under a form of supervision based on the severity of their crime. A report from Radio Marti mentioned that Liusban John Utra was arrested in 2012 for his political activism while under conditional release for a "common crime." This was the same infraction that Eglis Heredia committed in 2014.


In part two I will go over the more complicated subject of Cuban prisoners incarcerated for more violent acts. In these cases, it not clear where to draw the distinction between acts we can tolerate as politically benign or politically dangerous. In some cases, the so-called political prisoner was planning long-term armed violence. In others, violence was a means to a short-term selfish goal. In any case, these are examples that require more careful observation, and should not be glanced at from a list.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

President Obama's Speech in Cuba

President Barack Obama's televised speech to Cubans on the island was a success given the reactions reported by the local press in Miami. The Miami Herald's Fabiola Santiago praised it as "masterful" and "a model display of leadership and humanity." Most notably, one of Miami's more hard-line radio station "La Poderosa" (WWFE 670 AM) re-broadcast the president's speech Tuesday evening. The announcement of the re-broadcast was made by the station's president himself, Jorge Rodriguez, speaking favorably of the speech. Other hard-line Cuban exiles may have given mixed reviews, but the more common reaction in Miami seemed positive.

El Nuevo Herald included an online poll of its readers asking "Do you believe Obama's message to the Cuban people will help create change on the island?" From a total of 777 readers, 71% said Yes, and 29% said No. A recent CBS/New York Times poll of Americans also showed major support for this administration's effort to restore diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba.

More Miami reactions to Obama's speech here and here.

Excerpt: "I’ve made it clear that the United States has neither the capacity nor the intention to impose change on Cuba. What changes come will depend upon the Cuban people. We will not impose our political or economic system on you. We recognize that every country, every people must chart its own course and shape its own model."

[Full transcript of speech]

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Armando Perez Roura Leaves Radio Mambi [Updated]

Tuesday June 30, 2015 was Armando Perez Roura's last day at Radio Mambi (WAQI 710 AM). And I was very surprised to hear the news. That afternoon he broadcast his last radio announcement, seeming very humble and even apologizing to those he may have offended. (That was a shock to me.) For those who don't know yet, Perez Roura is considered the most celebrated voice of Miami's hard-line Cuban exile community.

According to recent rumors, Univision Radio decided to let his contract expire. Owners of Radio Mambi since 2002, Univision Radio had already been planning to retire Perez Roura over a year ago according to Nelson Horta. In 2013, Univision Radio dedicated a studio at Radio Mambi to Armando Perez Roura and celebrated his longtime radio career.

In 2012, both Radio Mambi and WQBA (1140 AM), traditionally the Spanish-language hard-line radio stations in Miami, went through significant restructuring. At Radio Mambi, Armando Perez Roura's most important daily talk program "La Mesa Redonda" was moved to Saturdays, and his daily news program was reduced to a half-hour.

This day was certainly coming, and Perez Roura without a doubt fought a long time to keep his place at Radio Mambi. Changing political landscapes and demographics were important factors here, concepts irrelevant to militants like Perez Roura.

Rumors indicate Perez Roura will move on to rival radio station "La Poderosa" (WWFE 670 AM), but, at 87 years old, he is already beyond the limits of intransigence.

[Update - Univision has provided audio of Armando Perez Roura's last radio announcement at Radio Mambi. And, on the morning of July 1, 2015 Perez Roura made his first appearance at "La Poderosa" (WWFE 670 AM, video here).]

(@0:57) "If I hurt someone, I ask for forgiveness because I am not perfect. But I am a whole-hearted Cuban and I'll never abandon the cause that brought me here."

[A short biography will be posted soon. Below are some related facts.]
  • Armando Perez Roura was born in the town of Ceiba Mocha in Matanzas, Cuba on January 11, 1928.
  • Perez Roura left Cuba for Miami in 1969.
  • Radio Mambi went on the air on October 23, 1985. Perez Roura was co-owner with Amancio V. Suarez, and Jorge Rodriguez (current owner of WWFE 670 AM). Suarez was reported to have made a $5 million investment on the station.
  • In 1995, Heftel Broadcasting Corp. acquired Radio Mambi (among other Miami radio stations). And then in 2002, Univision took over HBC stations including Radio Mambi.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Carlos M. Gutierrez Has a New Hypothesis (Part 1)

Carlos M. Gutierrez, former Commerce Secretary under George W. Bush, recently wrote a surprising op-ed admitting a reversal of his previous position on U.S.-Cuba policy. Basically, Gutierrez's reversal comes from a significant change in his assumption about the Cuban government: from hopeless enemy to potential ally. The reversal has been most disappointing to Cuban exile hard-liners who once admired Gutierrez as a model of Cuba exile intransigence in the highest positions of power. But, the reality is that Gutierrez is one example of the constantly changing face of the hard-line which has historically adapted to conditions set by the U.S. government.

This past Tuesday, the New York Times (or "Granma North" as the boys at Babalu Blog like to call it) published an op-ed by Carlos M. Gutierrez, former Commerce Secretary for George W. Bush, where he explained his "cautiously optimistic" support for Pres. Obama's new Cuba policy. In a nutshell, Gutierrez wrote he is "hopeful the Cuban government will allow its citizens to take full advantage of [American] assistance" to "support a new generation of Cuban-born entrepreneurs and Cuban-run small businesses." There are two assumptions operating here. One is the idea of the transformative power of "free markets" which Gutierrez writes he has seen operate in other parts of the world to help "raise living standards." And the other assumption concerns his newfound hope with the Cuban government now slowly improving economic ties with the Obama administration. That significant "glimmer of hope" he writes about is the result of a recent change in mindset.

Under the previous administration, Gutierrez strongly defended the decades-old hard-line position of the US embargo, along with restrictions on travel and remittances (which he described as a hardship worth sacrificing over). Gutierrez would reiterate that history has only shown the Cuban government does not want improved ties with the US, and instead was a sworn "anti-American" enemy like other tyrannies around the world. As Commerce Secretary, Gutierrez proudly took on the task as co-Chair of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC), a government-led program designed for regime change on the island. During this period, Gutierrez was convinced that this policy of sanctions would pressure Cubans to make necessary changes on the island.

When President Obama finally reversed course on this policy last December, Gutierrez remained adamant that this new policy was a mistake. He foresaw that the Cuban government would eventually block efforts to improve economic ties because "everything we have seen from the Cubans over the last 50 years is that they will not allow business to succeed." But, as months of negotiations passed between the two countries, Gutierrez seems to have had a change of heart. In video interviews conducted late last month, Gutierrez admitted that his low expectations had been surpassed, and that he never anticipated negotiations "to get this far." And, now that we've come this far "we should continue" with this new Cuba policy "and see where it takes us because [the U.S. has] nothing to lose" [NTN24 video interview]. Most importantly, Gutierrez questioned a hypothesis he long held: "My hypothesis has always been that Cuba never wanted the embargo to be lifted... and so [now] we have to prove if that hypothesis is incorrect, that [perhaps] Cuba DOES want closer ties with the U.S. Because until now it has appeared they didn't want [closer ties], and it suited them to have the U.S. as an enemy" [@6:24 in video interview].

Its fascinating to see how a few events helped Carlos M. Gutierrez to change his perception of the Cuban government and U.S.-Cuba policy. From pessimistic hard-liner under the Bush administration to optimistic advocate during the Obama administration. Many will be wondering how this change in mindset occurred with a man who not long ago defended sanctions against Cuba for many years. And in Miami, many hard-line Cuban exiles who once admired his previous position will be left baffled. And, some will be accusing him of betrayal.

[Also check out a similar articles on Gutierrez's policy turnaround from the Cuba Central blog and the Miami New Times.]

[Photo courtesy of Albright Stonebridge Group. Carlos M. Gutierrez is currently co-Chairman at Albright Stonebridge Group, a global advisory firm in Washington D.C. He joined ASG in April 2013, and became co-Chair in February 2014.]

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Cuban Exiles and Protesters Clash in Panama (Pt.2)


Around 11am on Wednesday, FRENADESO (National Front for the Defense of Economic and Social Rights in Panama), a social activist group and independent media site, tweeted pictures of the M.A.R. Por Cuba press conference. The pictures showed Felix Rodriguez and Antunez standing together for the cameras. The tweet read "Cuban worms with Che's assassin." Through FRENADESO an urgent message went out that afternoon for an emergency demonstration at Porras Park. It seems the word got out that M.A.R. Por Cuba, Rodriguez and Antunez were planning to visit the park, and FRENADESO was hoping to derail those plans. By 1pm, FRENADESO and several members of Panamanian labor groups (SUNTRACS and SITRAFCOREBGASCELIS) gathered at Porras park [video]. Also in attendance was Cuban Ambassador to Panama Antonio Miguel Pardo Sanchez, and the Venezuelan Ambassador Jorge Luis Duran Centeno. The leader of SUNTRACS protested against the presence of Cuban dissidents at the Summit forums, and considered the presence of Cuban militant Felix Rodriguez as a provocation [video]. The demonstration ended and soon the news went out (around 2pm) that Felix Rodriguez never showed up at Porras Park.

Days later in Miami, Felix Rodriguez was interview by Radio Mambi over what happened that afternoon in Panama. He mentioned that he, Antunez and M.A.R. Por Cuba decided to visit Porras Park and leave flowers at the bust of Jose Marti. He also said that they were aware there had been an earlier demonstration at the park, so they arrived about an hour later and planned to hold a quick demonstration "to avoid having confrontations with the Cubans" who were there earlier. When they (Felix Rodriguez, Antunez, members of M.A.R. por Cuba, Orlando Gutierrez Boronat and other Cuban dissidents) arrived they left the flowers at the bust of Jose Marti, and started their demonstration [video]. Facing the Cuban Embassy just across the street from the park, they unfolded a flag that read "National Front of Civic Resistance" (a group led by Antunez in Cuba) and began chanting "libertad" (freedom) in front of a small but growing crowd of those (Cubans and Panamanians) who remained from the earlier demonstration. The counter-protest intensified with every second and Orlando Gutierrez placed himself in-between the two groups because no police were nearby. Then, Antunez led the group in singing the Cuban national anthem, but midway they found themselves outnumbered and heading back to their vans. As they retreated from the threatening crowd, Antunez continued shouting back and walking back slowly, with Gutierrez doing his best to act as a bodyguard. Then, from the hostile crowd, one person (Alexis Frutos Weeden) is seen pushing Orlando Gutierrez, and Gutierrez immediately pushing back. In a split second the fight broke out.

Video of violent clashes by Estrella de Panama
Video by NTN24
Video by AmericaTeVe

[Photo: Orlando Gutierrez Boronat (left), President of the Cuban Democratic Directorate, fights with Alexis Frutos Weeden (right), former Cuban Embassy spokesman in Panama. Photo source: La Prensa]

Friday, April 10, 2015

Cuban Exiles and Protesters Clash in Panama (Pt. 1)

Last Wednesday a group of Cuban exiles from Miami and accompanying Cuban dissidents visiting Panama were attacked at Porras Park in the capital city. The group of exiles and dissidents staged a demonstration at the park in front of the Cuban embassy which was immediately met by Cuban and Panamanian supporters of the Cuban government. The counter-demonstrators had been alerted through online media that one of the exiles at Porras Park was Felix Ismael Rodriguez Mendigutia, a former Cuban militant deemed a violent "mercenary" against the Cuban government. Hostility was further fueled by charges that the dissident demonstrators were also "traitors" against the Cuban government.

Spanish-language media, as expected, attempted to suggest that the attack on the Cuban exiles and dissidents was planned by the Cuban government or its clandestine intelligence agency, but failed to produce any supporting evidence. Instead, the violence that occurred was most likely spontaneous, and partially triggered by an online media campaign against Cuban exiles and dissidents coinciding with the arrival of young Cuban activists visiting Panama for the Summit of the Americas.


Civil society groups from all over the Americas began arriving this week to Panama's capital city for the Summit of the Americas. It is the first Summit to include Cuba as a participant since its inception in 1994. Parallel forums on Civil Society took place on Wednesday and Thursday before the official start of the Summit on Friday. Inside these forums, civil society groups from Cuba would for the first time meet face to face with Cuban dissidents invited to attend. But, things didn't go smoothly.

On Tuesday, Official civil society groups from Cuba arrived in Panama already aware that Cuban dissidents such as Guillermo Fariñas and Berta Soler would be attending the Summit forums. They immediately held a press conference [video] stating that the invited dissidents did not represent the Cuban people and were "mercenaries" of the United States. In their hands they each held copies of a small newspaper distributed by the Union of Cuban Journalists. The tabloid  titled "Mercenaries in Panama" [PDF] included an editorial alleging that Cuban dissidents in Panama "receive direct financing from outside [of Cuba]" and "don't have any real connection with our people." Articles inside reminded readers when, in 2010, the top American diplomat for Cuba Jonathan Farrar wrote of seeing "little evidence" that Cuban dissidents "have much resonance among ordinary Cubans." Another page included eight profiles of Cuban dissidents (Fariñas and Soler among them) detailing their alleged links to Cuban exile groups and other international organizations.

Many of these allegations are true, and some are exaggerated. But, for years the Cuban government has waged a consistent media campaign against dissidents and have mostly won the propaganda war inside Cuba. Cuban dissidents then have little option but to look outside of Cuba for support, and often find it in Miami. While some help from Miami is often worthwhile, they should also consider the implications of getting public help from official enemies of the Cuban government. In those cases, while financial support is extremely helpful, an individual dissident or group could be sacrificing their entire legitimacy back home.

Civil society groups gathered early at the El Panama hotel for the start of the parallel forums of the Summit. Delivery of accreditation badges had begun at 8am, but several Cuban civil society representatives had trouble acquiring their badges due to technical problems. As they waited for a solution, news had broken out on social media that Cuban exile militant Felix Rodriguez was in Panama.

The previous day, Cuban exile members of M.A.R. Por Cuba left Miami International Airport for Panama. Along with them came five Cuban dissidents representing different organizations on the island, and the president of the Cuban Democratic Directorate, Orlando Gutierrez Boronat. Among the dissidents was Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, better known as Antunez. In recent years, Antunez has become admired by hard-line Cuban exiles for his intransigent rhetoric against the Cuban government. Expecting his arrival, Antunez was among the eight dissidents profiled in the tabloid "Mercenaries in Panama." On Wednesday afternoon, M.A.R. Por Cuba held a press conference at their hotel. In the audience was Cuban exile Felix Ismael Rodriguez Mendigutia, a controversial figure better known for his militant past and involvement with the capture and execution of Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Rodriguez and M.A.R. Por Cuba were in Panama to attend a meeting the next day hosted by former Florida representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart. But, unknown to all of them, the presence of Rodriguez in Panama was already news on social media and causing outrage among Cuban activists at the Summit.

A photo of Rodriguez with Antunez taken in Miami was being distributed on social media. A press conference was held that afternoon condemning the presence of Rodriguez and his close association with Antunez who was invited to attend the Civil Society forums. Cuban activists and supporters were demanding Panama deport Rodriguez.

Already frustrated by accreditation problems, and angered by the presence of Rodriguez and "mercenaries" at the Summit, Cuban civil society representatives vented with a large protest outside the El Panama Hotel. They shouted for the removal of the Cuban dissidents attending the Forum. They refused to share space with dissidents like Guillermo Fariñas. On the cover of their tabloid, Fariñas was featured in a photo next to Cuban exile terrorist Luis Posada Carriles. Both had attended a forum at the University of Miami in 2013. Eventually, the protest ended when all Cuban representatives decided to leave the Civil Society Forum. But, the indignation would find a new place to reappear in the street of Panama.

Video of violent clashes by Estrella de Panama
Video by NTN24
Video by AmericaTeVe

[Photo: Orlando Gutierrez Boronat (left), President of the Cuban Democratic Directorate, fights with Alexis Frutos Weeden (right), former Cuban Embassy spokesman in Panama. Photo source: La Prensa]

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Local Polls Support New U.S.-Cuba Policy

Above is a sample of polls conducted by South Florida news websites in response to Wednesday's announcement of a new U.S. policy towards Cuba. The majority of the polls show strong support (above 60 percent) for the new policy.

Despite the local media's false presentation of a divided Miami, and constantly refocusing the debate around the opinion of the minority hard-line, the poll results above reflect the more accurate view of a rational Miami. Unfortunately, for as long as I've been monitoring the local media, the news stations have yet to center their reporting (and analysis) on this accurate widespread belief. 

Polls Results shown above (clockwise): Do you agree with the U.S. and Cuba re-establishing diplomatic relations? (Yes, 54%) Do you believe re-establishing relations between the U.S. and Cuba will benefit Cubans on the island? (Yes, 68%) Do you think vacation travel should be permitted to Cuba? (Yes, 66%) Do you agree with the U.S. trying to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba (Yes, 68%)

[The poll results also support the findings of the more recent Atlantic Council poll on U.S.-Cuba policy, and the FIU Cuba Poll.]