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Cuba: The Other Embargo / Ivan Garcia

February 6, 2015 Leave a comment

Melia-Marina-Varadero-Cuba1-_mn-620x330Last summer, 48-year-old Lisván, owner of a small photographic studio in a neighbourhood in the east of Havana, personally suffered the consequences of the absurd prohibitions that the Castro regime imposes on its citizens.

With the profits made from his business and after saving a part of the money sent to his family from abroad, he stayed for five nights with his wife and daughter in the hotel Meliá Marina Varadero, for 822 pesos convertibles.

“On the beach I struck up a friendship with a group of Canadians. One morning they wanted to invite me to come fishing on a yacht they had rented. But, in spite of being a guest at the hotel, the marina hotel management did not allow it. No Cuban citizen, resident in the island, is allowed to get on a boat with a motor, without government permission” said Lisván.

Ten years ago, the prohibitions were even stranger. Cubans could not stay in luxury hotels, rent cars or have a cellphone line.

If you sit down in a hotel lobby, you become a suspicious person in the eyes of State Security. With Raúl Castro’s coming to power, following his brother Fidel’s executive with its fingers in everything, various discriminatory regulations were repealed.

The Cubans were third class citizens in their own country. Óscar, a barman in a five star hotel in Havana, fought as a private soldier in the civil war in Angola.

“The ones who supported Fidel, who hardly could eat anything in our country because of the scarcity, we were not allowed to go into a foreign friend’s apartment. And the Cubans who went off to Florida, called ’worms’ by the government, had the right to enjoy the tourist centres. It was an Olympic-sized contradiction”, recalls Óscar.

In the winter of 2015 these prohibitions no longer exist. But various regulations which breach the inalienable rights of the island’s citizens remain in force.

They talk a lot about the the US economic and financial embargo on the Raúl Castro regime, with arguments for and against, but not much is said in the international forums about the olive green state’s embargo on its people.

The internal embargo has become more flexible, but we Cubans still don’t have the right to open an internet account at home, travel or fish in a motor boat or access certain health services reserved exclusively for foreigners.

Civil rights hardly exist. They forbid the formation of  political parties. Demonstrations in the street. Workers’ strikes. independent trade unions, free popular elections to elect a president. Independent newspapers or arranging to watch cable TV.

It’s an imprisonable crime to personally offend the President. And, since 2002, following a campaign by Fidel Castro, no civil groups may introduce a proposal to change the Constitution.

The system is perpetual. The Cuban leaders are an untouchable caste. The people owe duties to them, not the other way round. Only the state can put out news, books and movies.

Although independent journalists do exist, as well as dissident parties and an emerging civil society, the government maintains legislation which allows the sanctioning of political disagreement with years in jail.

Cuba is the only country in the Western hemisphere where political opposition is illegal. Making fun of or caricaturing executives of the autocracy is not permitted. A magazine like Charlie Hebdo is impossible in the island.

Discriminatory rules which prohibit Cubans going where they want in their own country are still in force. Like decree 217 of 1997. the Ministry of the Interior dismantles small local wifi networks where youngsters play on the internet, send movies, or chat.

And some of these perverse regulations have gained a new lease of life. The customs service has implemented a group of measures to to stop Cuban travellers bringing things in.

These rules affect the quality of life and the pockets of Cuban families. Ask Migdalia, an engineer, about this. In the last two months she has spent 75 CUC to receive parcels exceeding the one and a half kilos authorized by the customs.

There weren’t any “counter-revolutionary” leaflets or luxury  items in the suitcases. Just clothes and presents for her daughter’s birthday. It is the Castro  government’s embargo that is the more damaging to the Cuban in the street. The other one, the US one, gets the media attention but is less effective.

Iván García

Photo: Cubans can’t rent or get into yachts or other types of boats in Meliá Marina Varadero, or other hotels or places on the coast. Taken by Cuba Contemporánea.

Translated by GH

6 February 2015

Cuban Dissidents: Some in the Trenches, Others Applauding

February 3, 2015 Leave a comment

conferencia-de-prensa-en-casa-de-rodiles-viernes-23.1-_mn-620x330

Iván García, 27 January 2015 — The shifting political landscape of the Middle East is probably more complicated. No doubt it is. But given the spectacular diplomatic about-face on December 17 between Cuba and the United States — two sparring nations huddled in their respective trenches since the Cold War — the White House was not expecting a significant faction of the island’s dissident community to train its guns on the red carpet President Obama had rolled out for Cuba’s military strongmen.

Disagreements are healthy. Nothing is more harmful than fake unanimity. But if you read the proposal from the Forum for Rights and Freedoms — released by an opposition faction led by Antonio Rodiles, Berta Soler, Ángel Moya, Guillermo Fariñas and Félix Navarro — and compare it to the four points of consensus agreed upon by other dissident groups, the differences are minimal.

The independent journalist Juan González Febles, director of the journal Primavera de Cuba (Cuban Spring), believes the disagreements are ideological rather than programmatic. “Individualism and the lack of historical memory is a key factor in certain dissidents’ categorical rejection of other opposition proposals,” he observes.

On Thursday, January 23 these divergent opposition views came out into the open. At a lunch attended by a dozen dissidents and Roberta Jackson, the U.S. official leading the team negotiating the reestablishment of a future embassy with the Cuban regime, the conflicting viewpoints caused a minor earthquake.

The adversary is no longer just the Castro brothers. Obama is now also in the crosshairs. The faction criticizing the steps taken by Washington is balanced out by those with a different opinion.

The schism is obvious. At 1:00 PM on Thursday a faction led by veteran opposition figures Elizardo Sánchez, Héctor Maseda and José Daniel Ferrer abruptly called a press conference.

Antonio Rodiles had previously announced a 2:00 PM press conference with independent Cuban and foreign journalists. José Daniel considers the differences to be ones of degree. “When you read the document they released, there are points of agreement with our document. We all want democracy, political freedom and amnesty for political prisoners,” he says.

Elizardo Sánchez believes that 90% of the local opposition agrees with no less than four basic points. “It’s an exaggeration to say these differences are the cause of arguments. But when you ask why not hold a joint press conference, it misses the point,” he says.

Each faction claims it represents the majority. “Those of us who agree with the changes initiated by Obama make up 70% of the dissident movement,” says Ferrer.

From the other side of the fence Antonio Rodiles paints a different picture. “Almost 80% of the opposition harbors significant doubts and does not support this new process,” he notes. “The United States is betting on neo-Castroism. Avoiding the issue of human rights and ignoring the dissident movement in the negotiating process is a doomed strategy.”

Guillermo Fariñas believes the United States is ignoring long-time dissident leaders such as Oscar Elías Biscet, Antúnez and Vladimiro Roca along with recent activists such as Sonia Garro and a significant segment of the exile community.

The new landscape undeniably confers independence on any group that questions the Obama-Castro negotiations. The Cuban regime has long accused opponents of being “mercenaries in the service of Washington.”

Like logs on the fire is how Josefina Vidal, the likely Cuban ambassador to the United States, characterizes dissidents, whom she says do not represent the Cuban people. “In Cuba there are a variety of mass movement organizations which are Cubans’ true representatives,” she notes.

The new scenario has clearly split the dissident community between those in favor and those opposed. To reach people and become an important player will require a 180-degree turn. Each faction will argue in favor of its approach and will come up with its own roadmap. The challenge is daunting.

The military regime, however, retains an ironclad control over the media. Through fear it has managed to keep a large proportion of the population — fed up with the disastrous economy — out of the fray, passively watching the game from the sidelines.

As a sign of protest against Obama’s policy, Berta Soler and ten or so opposition figures boycotted a farewell cocktail party hosted by Roberta Jacobson at the U.S. Cuban Interest Section in Havana.

But although dissidents such as Elizardo Sánchez and José Daniel Ferrer support the new measures, General Raúl Castro is not counting on them. They are out in no-man’s land.