Larisa Diversent, 30, returns to the fray. Having received her law degree four years ago, this young black lawyer always seems to have a loaded agenda. Since 2007 she has been one of the busiest and best independent journalists in Cuba.
She writes for several sites about legal topics and has a blog for legal advice. In early January, Diversent created an office where she provides legal assistance to any person, without concern for ideology or religious creed.
It is called Cubalex. Its headquarters is in Laritza’s half-built house south of Havana, located in a poor village known as El Calvario. Surrounded by clumps of bananas and lemons, cats and a cloud of mosquitoes, the lawyer welcomes guests in the kitchen, the only place of shelter already repaired.
“Not only do I advise on the legal steps to follow, but elaborate opinions. It is hard work that takes me 12 hours a day,” says Diversent sitting with her laptop on a high chair in front of a coffee thermos and a mountain of documents.
Right now she is working on the case of two citizens who served a five-year sentence for a comment that they were trying to hijack a boat in Cienfuegos province, 180 miles from Havana, and escape to the United States.
“The interpretation the Cuban legal system gives current law is unfortunate. They often use it as an instrument to punish people to set an example for others. The worst thing that is happening in Cuba is that so many citizens, and the authorities themselves, in many cases don’t know the laws that emanate from the Constitution. With Cubalex and my newspaper articles, I hope to let people know their rights. And to demand them,” comments Laritza.
Most of the requests she receives are from people with a proverbial legal illiteracy. Humble people who sometimes live in difficult places and are like blind bats when faced with the bizarre legal machinery of the island.
Supportive lawyers like Laritza try to lend them a hand. Despite her youth, she has become an expert in constitutional rights. And is convinced that the Cuban government blatantly and systematically violates its own laws. She talks to dissidents, bloggers, groups from Cuba’s incipient civil society, and also engages in protracted legal arguments for individual defendants.
This Havana lawyer is never happier than when she is able to stop an unjust eviction of a desperate family who asked for her legal aid, or when the courts are forced to reconsider sentences passed. She celebrates her small victories against the monolithic power of the judicial system by drinking coffee without milk in the kitchen of her half-built house in El Calvario.
Among texts eagerly awaited by her avid readers in blogs and websites, caring for her 11-year-old son, cooking, washing, ironing, taking care of her husband and now a legal aid office, she has just discovered a new formula: multiply the 24 hours by six. The best part of Cubalex is that the advice does not cost a penny. Go then, to Laritza Diversent’s house.
March 30 2011
One morning in 1958, in intricate landscapes of the Sierra Maestra, after a heavy bombardment by dictator Fulgencio Batista’s air force on defenseless villages, the guerrilla leader Fidel Castro wrote a note to his secretary and friend Celia Sánchez. He vowed to her that after the air raid and verification that the bombs used were made in the USA, from that moment on, he would begin his real war against the United States of America.
And so it happened. The support in arms, logistics and military training which the United States provided Batista, was the starting point for his personal crusade against the gringos. As a lover of history, the young lawyer from Biran had antecedents. Since the island was a colony of Spain, the imperial cravings of the colossus of the north were clear.
After 1898, the U.S. military occupation and the outrageous Platt Amendment–which was like a sword of Damocles over our fledgling sovereignty–were the breeding ground that increased the hatred and frustration of many, given the foreign policy of their neighbors on the other shore.
Castro’s political enemies had seen signals of his war against the Yankees in the letter he sent to President Roosevelt in 1940, while studying at the Colegio Dolores, Santiago de Cuba:
“My good friend Roosevelt, I do not know much English, but I know enough to write. I like listening to the radio and I’m very happy because I heard that you will be President for another term.
“I am 12 years old (which was not true, because he was born on August 13, 1926 and the date of the letter is dated November 6, 1940, so he was already 14). I’m a boy, but I think a lot and I can’t believe I’m writing to the President of the United States.
“If you would like, give me (or send) a real American greenback of ten dollars because I’ve never seen a real American greenback of ten dollars and I would like to have one.
“If you want iron to build your boats, I’ll show you the biggest mines of iron of the country (or world). They are in Mayarí, Oriente, Cuba.”
Roosevelt neither answered him nor sent the money. Castro opponents believe that this was the real beginning of his anti-imperialist crusade. I think not. Before the triumph of his revolution, Castro’s relationship with the United States was not incendiary.
When the July 26 Movement needed money to buy weapons, Fidel took a trip to New York and Florida in search of the greenbacks of Cuban immigrants. It was from the start of the bombing in the eastern mountains, that he saw for the first time what his future campaign would be.
It is also likely that after his extensive U.S. tour in April 1959, where he visited universities and monuments, chatted with the press, organizations and personalities, and met with then Vice-President Nixon, but not with President Eisenhower, who refuse to meet him, giving an excuse for not receiving him that he had a date to play golf, that Castro decided to open fire from his island of reeds in the Caribbean.
Castro would explain his motives one day in his memoirs. The truth is that since 1959, Fidel has held an aggressive verbal duel with 11 leaders of the White House. And he even put them on the brink of nuclear war in October 1962. He has done everything possible to arouse the ire of the Americans.
The United States has had its share of blame, with its dirty war and its surplus of stupidity. I think it was a senator, Jeff Bridges, who once said that to Castro’s stupidity, the United States responded with a greater stupidity.
But in January 2009, Barack Hussein Obama came to the presidency. Castro was not ready for Obama. With his mind trained to the presidents of the Cold War, he could not decipher this mestizo with the strange name.
Looking for clues, he quickly read two books by Obama, Dreams From my Father and The Audacity of Hope. But he found nothing. In them, Obama never mentions the Cuban revolution and Castro and Che Guevara. In The Audacity of Hope, he mentions only Cuban Americans and their success.
Cryptic Obama, Castro would think. Perhaps because the young Barack lived much of his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, the coming to power of the bearded one didn’t make his stomach jump. Castro has tried to seduce him. But Obama did not answer, not even the insults of old commander.
The point, in my opinion, is that Castro does not understand Obama. He can’t even understand how it was possible that this skinny black guy reached the White House.The reason is simple. The one and only comandante is still stuck in the Cold War period. United States and the world have changed. And Castro suspects that this is impossible.
March 26 2011
But Antonia described so vividly the places of the Galician capital to her daughter Rosario that she feels she has known the city inside out since childhood, though she has seen it only in pictures.
“My mother has given me a passion for Galicia and its customs. She inherited it from her usual habit of sitting at night in the backyard of the house to sing old Galician songs and dance muñeiras,” says Rosario, 69.
She lives in the bustling neighborhood of Santos Suarez in the Havana municipality of Diez de Octubre, in a mansion of the 1930s, in need of repair.
Rosario runs a Spanish dance school in Curros Enríquez, an old society that bears the name of the poet and journalist Manuel Gallego Curros Enriquez (1851 Celanova-La Habana 1908). Now, in addition to pool tables and a coffee, the place has a hard-currency restaurant where you can eat pork and drink good Spanish wine.
At the door of the school, Rosario takes attendance of the girls who attend dance classes. She charges 40 pesos (about two dollars) for registration and 20 pesos a month. Twice a week, the little ones go to tap their feet on the stage on the top floor of Curros Enríquez.
When it gets dark, after preparing a frugal meal for herself and her husband, memories and nostalgia begin to visit her.
“My mother came to Cuba in 1937. She came with at 16 in her uncle’s care. His parents died during the civil war. He was a fierce republican. Not used to attending meetings of his countrymen. Desperately poor, he quickly adapted to that Havana of the flamboyant 40’s, full of neon lights and prosperity.”
Antonia Ortega did not have a store on the corner, like most Galicians on the island. Neither did she go on Sundays to the society of Rosalía de Castro to eat empanadas, while from an RCA Victor could listen to the football games of Deportivo and Celta Vigo.
“She was very stubborn and did not speak of her misfortunes. She preferred to convey to me the good memories she treasured of Santiago de Compostela. She was very ahead of her time. She married a black man, my father, thirteen years her senior. They lived together until he died in 1996. They felt a deep respect for their traditions. She with her songs and prayers, he and his orishas and the dead. I was very happy in my childhood. My father used to tell me about his ancestors in Nigeria, and my mother exuded nostalgia when talking about Galicia,” says Rosario.
This daughter of Galicia did not take advantage of the new law of historical memory that allows travel to Spain for hundreds of Cubans. “I’m too old to leave my homeland. I have no children and do not wish to burden anyone. My only dream is to visit the land of my ancestors. Santiago de Compostela and its ancient streets and the village of Calabar where my paternal grandparents were born.”
In the living room of her house a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus goes hand in hand with a group of Afro-Cuban deities located behind the door, to “trap all badness.”
It’s eleven at night. The neighborhood of Santos Suárez is calm. At half-light and the water wasting away by the faulty mains. In the distance, I hear the bagpipes of a Galician muñeira and behind, an African drum. It is not uncommon. It’s Cuba. A mixed island.
Photo: Habano, Panoramio. Curros Enríquez at the corner of Rabí and Santos Suarez, Havana.
Translated by: Araby
March 21 2011
When Castro says that Cuba is the most democratic country in the world, I am uncertain if he is being serious or it is black humor. I can understand that a lifelong guerrilla, fiercely opposed to the capitalist model, does not appreciate at all the system of representative democracy in the Western world.
But from there to setting up a series of institutions, silent and obedient to the government, where the three branches of State are controlled by one person and to tell us that this is the only true democracy, confirms to me that all autocrats have that pathological mania to appear as democrats.
A dictator should state clearly that he is going to rule until his death, because he considers himself a superior being. Or because he does what the hell he wants.
I’m sick of the lies. Perhaps true democracy does not exist. In countries where universally accepted laws operate and human rights are respected, failures occur in bulk, but people shout what they want against their government and no one will look at you with a mean face.
Also, there are independent courts and parliament is like a madhouse, where everyone disagrees with the package of measures released by the president. That’s what I mean by a democracy.
In Cuba, when the Castros talk nobody can go against them. Publicly, no one has ever been seen raising their hand to tell the comandante that he is pondering a load of nonsense.
On the island, everyone is wrong. The infallible are the Castros. If things in Cuba are crooked it’s not by their misrule. No, the ‘guilty’ are the negligent workers and certain talentless ministers.
General Raul Castro wants there to be disagreement. But when they end their speeches and the president of the dull and monotonous Cuban parliament asks the members whether they agree with the words of the leader, everyone, absolutely everyone, raises their hand.
I will believe in the Socialist democracy, as advocated by the regime in Havana, when you see a negative vote.
March 21 2011
On the night of March 17th, 2003, my mind was somewhere else. I did not have a single cent in my pocket and I had to buy vitamin enriched milk formula (which at the time cost 4 dollars) for my daughter Melany, who was only a mere one and a half months old. The excessive appetite of the baby had compelled the pediatrician to suggest the vitamin enriched milk along with the mother’s breast.
At the time, I was an independent journalist for the Cuba Press agency which was run by the poet and journalist Raul Rivero. I wrote for the website of the Interamerican Press Association and for Encuentro on the Net, a site created by Cuban exiles in Spain.
But the pay for writing articles would arrive every two or three months. And on March 17th, the day before the government would unleash an oppressive wave against 75 dissidents and independent journalists, I was trying to make ends meet. I spoke to my wife about the possibility of selling a watch of mine and some of my clothes in order to have enough money to buy the food for my girl.
That night, I stayed over at my daughter’s house, so that I could help her mother, who was exhausted by the customs of little Melany who would frequently wake up in the middle of the night and stay awake until dawn.
At midnight on Tuesday 18th March, I returned to my home in the neighborhood of the La Vibora, where I lived with my mother, my sister and a niece. With a weariness of the ages and eye bags to the ground.
On the balcony I saw my mother, Tania Quintero, also an independent journalist, making incomprehensible signals. When I arrived, she told me that several journalists and dissidents had been arrested.
The sleepiness I had was suddenly taken from me. The bad news did not stop there. Mass detentions were taking place throughout the island. The next day we found out that almost a hundred people had been arrested and their homes meticulously searched.
My mother and I were expecting our detention at any time. We went about with a toothbrush and a spoon. I talked with my wife and I told her grimly that at any moment they might come for us.
Our hearts were in our mouths. Those were days full of fear. I did not understand the reasons for the government to jail a group of people who opposed them using peaceful means or who wrote without restriction.
Journalist colleagues like Raúl Rivero, Ricardo González, Jorge Olivera and Pablo Pacheco, by state decree, slept in the windowless cells of the political police. We listened to shortwave radio and the denunciation from the rest of the world was dramatic. Castro, in his calculated strategy, believed that the war in Iraq would divert attention from the issue. Not so.
As the days passed, a powerful burst of attacks was unleashed on the opposition in the official media. And the circus began. Unfair trials and a series of moles that had infiltrated the dissidents and independent journalists came to light. With horror I remember that there were seven requests by the procecution for the death sentence.
As “strong evidence” the prosecution presented typewriters, radios, books, blank sheets of paper … Not one single firearm or explosive material was produced. “Castro has gone mad”, I thought. One thing was certain: the blow to the opposition had been prepared meticulously.
The Varela Project, by Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, had Fidel Castro up by the balls. Any Democrat that passed through Havana asked the Comandante only that he comply with the laws of his own Constitution, which authorized the implementation of law reforms when 10,000 signatures were collected.
And that was what Payá’s movement had done, collecting more than 10 thousand signatures. Even the ex-president of the U.S., Jimmy Carter, in a speech in the auditorium of the University of Havana and before Castro himself, said that he was required to meet the constitutional requirements.
This ended up aggravating Castro, who since 1998 had a network of 12 spies dismantled in the U.S. with 5 imprisoned. No legal maneuvering had made the remission of the penalty possible so he decided to play hard.
He made reforms to the Constitution to perpetuate his political system. And launched the sinister Law 88, known as “gag rule”, which could send you to prison for more than 20 years, just for saying, writing or disagreeing, under the accusation of serving a foreign power.
The conditions were created to unleash a crackdown on the opposition. The Iraq war was a smokescreen that Castro decided to use to evaporate the news.
No opponent or journalist was sure of their situation in the following months. My mother, my sister and my niece went into exile. I preferred to see my daughter grow up. Watching her take her first steps and say her first words in the country where she was born and where her parents and grandparents were born. Nobody was going to stop me. Even at the risk of going to prison.
Eight years after that fateful spring, Fidel Castro, somewhat recovered, continues to write a litany of thoughts about events on the planet. Now aware of the uprisings in several Arab countries.
His brother Raúl has not made big changes and continued the same policy of repression against opponents. Those still discrediting and rejecting. Of the 75 prosecuted in 2003, two remain in prison.
In the air of the Republic, the intimidating Law 88 remains afloat. The prisons can be re-filled at any time. With nationals or foreigners, such as the American Alan Gross, who was condemned to 15 years in prison.
At this stage, the Castros are determined to remain in power until death comes to them.
Photo: tuty240, Panaramico. Calzada de 10 de Octubre and Santa Catalina, in the Havana neighbourhood of La Vibora.
Translated by: Araby
March 19 2011
Dictators are a unique family no matter how you label them. They can be populist, authoritarian, fascist, totalitarian or Marxist. And almost always the sum of all these classifications.
Most autocrats enter through the back door in societies that are not working, crippled by corruption and serious economic crisis. They can promise work, bread, butter and living space, as well as auto austerity for all German families. This was the case of Adolf Hitler, the greatest and finest example of a paranoid tyrant.
The Jackal of Uganda, Idi Amin used to eat human flesh. Stalin felt a compulsion to kill human beings by the millions. In Haiti, Duvalier Jr. collected Ferrari cars, while his private army slaughtered opponents with machetes. Now the disgraceful Haitian dictator wants to return to politics. Such things happen.
In Argentina, for the military dictatorship it was a hobby to throw people alive from helicopters. Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Franco in Spain or Ceausescu in Romania, as if they were vampires, were fond of human blood.
In Cuba, Fidel Castro did not pull the trigger as hastily as his rivals from other places, but with his capital blunders, he destroyed the continent’s second economy, like breeding dwarf cows to produce large quantities of milk. Not counting that he brought the island and the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 nor his subsequent war games in Africa.
But the champion of the dictators is the Libyan Muammar el Gadaffi. He is the classic perverse and eccentric character. Everyone knows his hobbies. The same one who planted a tent in Manhattan, accompanied by 200 virgin bodyguards, sent a message by radio to his agents in Europe to blow up a civilian airliner full of passengers in mid-flight.
It’s disgusting to have relations with sinister people. I am ashamed that my country is anxious to defend Gadaffi. I do not understand how Castro condemns terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles, and defends the corrupt, murdering and peripatetic Libyan sitting on a balcony with his trusty green book.
There is no justification for being friends with such characters. Tyrants tend to behave as a clan. They defend each other. When Castro looks in the rearview mirror he sees with distress that the Bedouin could have his days numbered. Perhaps out of sheer survival instinct he defends him. Chavez and other apprentice caudillos should also condemn him.
Western democracies deserve their share of the blame. After the madman of Tripoli decided to save millions in Swiss and European banks and put aside the C-4 and terror, the heads of modern and civilised states raced to flatter him and give him a chance.
A part of the ills afflicting the planet today is attributable to the lukewarm and indecisive Democrats. For a while now Gadaffi should have been sitting on the bench of an international tribunal. Now they are paying the consequences.
Translated by: Araby
March 16 2011
The contractor Alan Gross, 61, remains in jail. Raúl Castro’s government definitively sentenced him to 15 years. The Gross case was shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. And it brought back the Cold War era.
After 15 months in a cell and in legal limbo, the judge handed down the sentence. Something similar happens to other foreign prisoners in Cuba, like the Spanish businessman Sebastián Martínez. In Cuba, it’s “normal” to come before a court one year after the day of your detention. Or more.
Some analysts thought that the criminal penalty of the American Jew, accused of creating parallel computer networks without the regime’s authorization, would be a few years. Many even bet that he could be on a Boeing headed home.
But the Castro brothers have a large collection of tricks up their sleeve. They are unpredictable. And they usually always do just the opposite of what logic dictates. Anyway, the case of the gringo contractor can be read in different ways.
The good news for the Gross family is that there’s no need to panic. Cuban prosecutors can easily condemn you to a torrent of years, but then, from international pressure, rationality and political negotiations behind the scenes, you can return to your country a few months after being condemned.
Alan Gross is a useful piece in this new game of political chess with the United States. He always has been. The anti-Castro fighters who fought in the Bay of Pigs and the CIA’s spies were exchangeable products.
In 1961, after the 72-hour victory at the Bay of Pigs, Fidel Castro exchanged most of the captured enemy combatants for baby food and powdered mashed potatoes.
Something similar happened with certain spies of the U.S. special services. Even the mortal remains of the U-2 pilot shot down during the tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 were a war trophy to be traded for political gain.
The Castros are more interested in imposing fear on local opponents and condemning them for many years than in outside adversaries. Yet, in the case of internal dissidence. they will haggle with Western powers if they see political gains in return.
Gross will be behind bars until a good proposal appears from the White House. The brothers are always open to listening to offers. Let’s make some.
A major political carrot would be to exchange Gross for the five spies from the 11 members of the Wasp network who were captured in 1998, considered “national heroes” by the regime. It has been a public pledge that Fidel Castro has failed to accomplish. Now time passes, and death subtly lurks around the comandante.
Gross was like an angel fallen from heaven. If Obama and Clinton have a real interest in the contractor, they could consent to exchange him for the 5 spies; this is more or less the logic of Castro I. You can also negotiate with new measures of economic flexibility for Cuba. And since the elder Castro often plays hardball, why not exchange him for their star spy, Ana Belén Montes, who infiltrated the CIA and was sentenced to 25 years?
The U.S. government, equally adept at business and political trade-offs, considers its options. The ball is in the White House’s court. It’s up to Obama to move it.
Translated by Regina Anavy
March 16 2011