CUBA BRIEF: The Post: U.S. to slash embassy staff, warns travelers. The Times: Cuban Doctors Revolt: ‘You Get Tired of Being a Slave’

When Raul Castro attempted to smuggle war planes to North Korea during the Obama Administration, the State Department response was that it was really not that significant. Ibid. for other anti-American actions carried out by the regime including Russian spy ships back in Havana. There are still Obama holdovers in the foreign policy machinery of the United States, but the sonic attacks on American diplomats in Cuba could not be swept under the rug after CBS Radio reported the story and the Department of State was forced to acknowledge it.

The Administration is right to bring back 60% of the Embassy staff and warn American travelers to Cuba of the potential danger they face in Cuban hotels.

The President should look into letting go hundreds of Cuban nationals who work inside the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba after only essential American personnel remain there. Those Cubans helping at the Embassy are preselected by the Cuban government. The United States pays their salaries to the regime.  The President will have no difficulty understanding that among them there is a great number who work hand in hand with Raul Castro’s intelligence agencies. There will be pushback on this issue by the usual suspects.

While The Washington Post reports on the diplomatic drawdown the essential American staff left behind remains at risk. Granma, Cuba’s official newspaper writes about “unfounded theories surround the alleged incidents.” But they are not “alleged” diplomats and the “mild” brain trauma, and the concussions they suffer are real.

For many who have given up hope of reading anything outside the fictional narrative on Cuba we have been accustomed to find in The New York Times, today’s “Cuban Doctors Revolt: ‘You Get Tired of Being a Slave’” is evidence that there is still hope.

The Times reports how Cuban doctors “in a rare act of collective defiance” are challenging the regime’s abuse, albeit in a foreign court. We should not be surprised to see rare acts of collective defiance by thousands of Cubans in the future. Learning about hotels with running water and electricity while they lack everything, including food, hundreds of Cubans have demonstrated in various provinces. Also we were pleased to read in The New York Times online a commentary by Frank Calzon about the doctors’ plight. Perhaps The Times’ doctors’ story may open a door to reporting on other issues such as the reappearance on the island after more than a hundred years of dengue, cholera and other epidemics.

Finally independent Cuban journalists, risking punishment by the authorities, report that Cuban workers have been advised by the Ministry of Tourism that they cannot discuss hurricane damage at tourist facilities or they will be fired. Diario de Cuba, September 29, 2017 “Gaviota bars its workers from discussing the situation at the Cayo Santa María.” Havana-based 14ymedio also written by independent journalists and very much at risk of government reprisals reports that Cienfuegos, one of Cuba’s important cities on the southern coast, “was left without food after Hurricane Irma.”


The Washington Post, September 29, 2017

U.S. to slash embassy staff in Cuba, warn travelers of hotel attacks

 By Carol Morello September 29 at 10:55 AM

The United States is yanking more than half its diplomatic personnel from the embassy in Havana and warning Americans not to visit Cuba, saying it’s for their own safety after a string of mysterious injuries harmed at least 21 Americans stationed there.

Senior State Department officials said embassy employees had been “targeted” for “specific attacks” that are ongoing, a significant change from previous characterizations of what happened as simply “incidents.”

Some of the diplomats were injured in a hotel in the Cuban capital near the embassy. The officials said they know of no other guests or employees of the hotel who were affected, but concern others might be hurt led them to issue a warning advising against travel to Cuba.

“It appears U.S. Embassy personnel are most at risk,” said one official, speaking anonymously under State Department ground rules for briefing reporters. “But I can’t rule out the American public traveling in Cuba might (also) be at risk.”

The withdrawal order applies to all nonessential staff, and their families will be ordered to leave. Only “emergency personnel” will stay.

The diplomatic drawdown means no visas will be processed at the embassy because there won’t be enough people to do the work.

The State Department has acknowledged at least 21 Americans connected to the embassy have been hurt in the attacks, the most recent of which occurred in August.

Among the health symptoms are hearing loss, dizziness, tintinitis, balance problems, visual difficulties, headaches, fatigue, cognitive issues and sleeping difficulties.

Nearly 10 months after the first complaints surfaced, neither U.S. or Cuban investigators are any closer to identifying what or who is causing the injuries. Investigators are looking into the possibility they were subjected to some sort of “sonic attack,” among other theories.

Cuba has denied having anything to do with the injuries, and there has been speculation that agents acting on behalf of a third country may be responsible.

The decision to draw down the diplomatic presence in Cuba comes three days after Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez flew to Washington to meet with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Cuba said afterward it had investigated but so far found no origin or cause for the health disorders. It said measures had been taken to protect the diplomats remaining.

But apparently Tillerson found those efforts wanting. 

The New York Times, September 29, 2017

Cuban Doctors Revolt: ‘You Get Tired of Being a Slave’

RIO DE JANEIRO — In a rare act of collective defiance, scores of Cuban doctors working overseas to make money for their families and their country are suing to break ranks with the Cuban government, demanding to be released from what one judge called a “form of slave labor.”

Thousands of Cuban doctors work abroad under contracts with the Cuban authorities. Countries like Brazil pay the island’s Communist government millions of dollars every month to provide the medical services, effectively making the doctors Cuba’s most valuable export.

But the doctors get a small cut of that money, and a growing number of them in Brazil have begun to rebel. In the last year, at least 150 Cuban doctors have filed lawsuits in Brazilian courts to challenge the arrangement, demanding to be treated as independent contractors who earn full salaries, not agents of the Cuban state.

“When you leave Cuba for the first time, you discover many things that you had been blind to,” said Yaili Jiménez Gutierrez, one of the doctors who filed suit. “There comes a time when you get tired of being a slave.”

Cuban artists and athletes have defected during overseas trips for decades, most of them winding up in the United States. But the lawsuits in Brazil represent an unusual rebellion that takes aim at one of Cuba’s signature efforts. Sending doctors overseas is not only a way for Cuba to earn much-needed income, but it also helps promote the nation’s image as a medical powerhouse that routinely comes to the world’s aid.

The legal challenges are all the more important because the doctors have lost a common backup plan: going to the United States. The American government, which has long tried to undermine Cuba’s leaders, established a program in 2006 to welcome Cuban doctors, with the aim of exacerbating the island’s brain drain.

But in one of his final attempts to normalize relations with Cuba, President Barack Obama in January ended the program, which had allowed Cuban doctors stationed in other countries to get permanent residency visas for the United States.

“The end of the program was a huge blow to us,” said Maireilys Álvarez Rodríguez, another of the doctors who sued in Brazil. “That was our way out.”

The end of the visa program means that the future of these doctors now rests in the hands of the Brazilian courts. They have mostly ruled against the doctors, but some judges have sided with them, allowing the doctors to work on their own and get paid directly.

The doctors’ defiance puts them at risk of serious repercussions by the Cuban government, including being barred from the island and their families for years.

The seeds of the rebellion were planted a year ago in a conversation between a Cuban doctor and a clergyman in a remote village in northeastern Brazil.

Anis Deli Grana de Carvalho, a doctor from Cuba, was coming to the end of her three-year medical assignment. But having married a Brazilian man, she wanted to stay and keep working.

The pastor was outraged to learn that, under the terms of their employment, Cuban doctors earn only about a quarter of the amount the Brazilian government pays Cuba for their services.

He quickly put her in touch with a lawyer in Brasília, the Brazilian capital. In late September of last year, she sued in federal court to work as an independent contractor.

Within weeks, scores of other Cuban doctors followed Dr. Grana’s lead and filed suits in Brazilian courts. The Brazilian government, which struck the deal with Cuba in 2013 to provide doctors in underserved parts of the country, is appealing the cases that doctors have won and thinks it will prevail.

“There is no injustice,” said Brazil’s health minister, Ricardo Barros. “When they signed up they agreed to the terms.”

Dr. Álvarez said that the stipend offered by the Cuban government to work for a few years in Brazil seemed appealing to her and her husband, Arnulfo Castanet Batista, also a doctor, when they signed up in 2013.

It meant leaving behind their two children in the care of relatives, but each of them would earn 2,900 Brazilian reais a month — then worth about $1,400, and now worth $908 — an amount that seemed enormous compared with the roughly $30 a month Cuban doctors earned at home.

“It was a pretty acceptable offer compared to what we made in Cuba,” Dr. Álvarez said.

So they said goodbye to their children and boarded flights to Brazil, joining the first wave of Cuban doctors greeted at airports with welcome signs and Che Guevara T-shirts.

At the time, Brazil’s leftist government, led by President Dilma Rousseff, saw expanding access to health care as crucial to its goal of building a more equitable society. Flush with cash from a commodities boom, Brazil imported thousands of doctors from Cuba and a few other countries to provide primary care in remote, impoverished areas under a program called Mais Médicos, or More Doctors.

The World Health Organization, a United Nations agency, helped broker the deal. Under it, Brazil pays Cuba roughly $3,620 a month for each doctor, or nearly four times what Cuban doctors earn through the arrangement. Approximately 18,000 Cuban doctors have done stints in Brazil; roughly 8,600 remain in the country.

The United Nations has called the program a success story, noting that it has lowered Brazil’s infant mortality rate and extended care to indigenous communities.

“The More Doctors Project is replicable and would potentially be beneficial in any country that decides to adopt it,” the United Nations Development Program said in a report last year.

Doing so, some Cuban doctors contend, would perpetuate an injustice. Soon after arriving in Santa Rita, a poor village in the northeastern state of Maranhão, Dr. Álvarez and her husband began to feel uneasy about the terms of the contract they signed, particularly after befriending doctors from other countries.

“We began to see that the conditions for the other doctors were totally different,” she said. “They could be with their family, bring their kids. The salaries were much higher.”

Hundreds of miles away, in Minas Gerais State, Dr. Jiménez, 34, found the work rewarding, but also began to harbor feelings of resentment.

“You are trained in Cuba and our education is free, health care is free, but at what price?” she said. “You wind up paying for it your whole life.”

Months before their three-year tour was up last fall, some Cuban doctors who had married Brazilians were offered the chance to extend their stay. Others, including Dr. Álvarez and her husband, were told to prepare to head home.

Cuban doctors unhappy with their situations formed a group on WhatsApp. André de Santana Corrêa, a Brazilian lawyer, said his cellphone began buzzing constantly as Cuban doctors across the country started to text him seeking help.

After analyzing their contracts, Mr. de Santana concluded that the agreements were at odds with the equality protections in Brazil’s Constitution.

Late last year, judges issued temporary injunctions in some cases, granting Cuban doctors the right to remain as independent contractors, earning full wages. One federal judge in the capital denounced the Cuban contracts as a “form of slave labor” that could not be tolerated.

But the federal judge who handled Dr. Grana’s case ruled against her, finding that allowing Cuban doctors to walk away from their contracts posed “undue risks in the political and diplomatic spheres.”

Soon after the first injunctions were issued, Cuban supervisors in Brazil summoned doctors who had filed suits and fired them on the spot, several doctors said. Each was given the chance to get on a plane to Cuba within 24 hours — or face exile for eight years.

Cuban officials did not respond to requests for comment, but a post on the Medical Brigade Facebook page includes an oblique reference to the controversy.

“Many of us seem to have forgotten, when we embarked on this mission, the contract we signed,” the post says. “That’s why you get weaknesses and errors that start eroding the worthy values our parents raised us with.”

When it became clear that a majority of the doctors were losing in court, the WhatsApp group became a place for doctors to strategize and commiserate.

“We keep one another strong,” said Dr. Jiménez, who says she has been unemployed since being fired in June and is now barred from re-entering Cuba for eight years.

Dr. Álvarez and her husband were among the lucky ones to keep their jobs and get what amounted to a huge pay raise. They also managed to bring their children to Brazil.

“It’s sad to leave your family and friends and your homeland,” she said. “But here we’re in a country where you’re free, where no one asks you where you’re going, or tells you what you have to do. In Cuba, your life is dictated by the government.”

Mr. Barros, the Brazilian health minister, said the Cuban doctors should not feel as if they were being poorly compensated, because their salaries were similar to what Brazilian doctors earned during their residencies.

“None of them, to this day, has come to me to complain about their work conditions,” he said.

Mr. de Santana, the lawyer, says he hopes Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court will take up the case. But because Brazil’s top court is so backlogged, a definitive ruling may take years.


Frank Calzon

 Washington, D.C. 45 minutes ago

The New York Times headline is right on the mark. Yes, Cuban doctors are tired of being slaves. Millions of Cubans are also very tired of being slaves, of being misgoverned by a cruel dynasty who cares little about their suffering.

Cuban doctors know that after more than a hundred years, despite the government’s rhetoric, there are serious outbreaks of dengue, cholera, and other illnesses in the island. The regime has done very little maintenance of water and sewage facilities since it came to power. The Cuban government tries to hide information on epidemics because it would impact on Cuba’s tourist industry.

Years ago a Cuban doctor went to prison after revealing to foreign journalists that there were dengue cases. For a long time Havana claimed that there were no Cubans suffering from AIDS. When the evidence was such that they could no longer deny it, they rounded up the sick and put them into quasi concentration camps. Rampant prostitution, which includes underage girls and boys, contributes to the problem.

Hopefully, as in the case of Cuban doctors now, Cuba “experts” will revisit other issues. Facts could be misleading: Cuba has a very low official infant mortality rate; it also has a very high abortion rate. The government’s policy is to encourage women with problem pregnancies to abort. Thus the healthier babies are born, and those aborted do not count in the infant mortality statistics.

Diario de Cuba, September 29, 2017

Gaviota bars its workers from discussing the situation at the Cayo Santa María


With regards to the passage of Hurricane Irma along Cuba’s coasts, Raúl Castro promised that its impact on tourist destinations on the island would be resolved by the high season, which begins in November.

The official website Cubadebate reported, in an article on September 24, that the country is prepared to tackle the season and, according to the Minister of Tourism, Manuel Marrero, “all hotel facilities will be operational,” including those at the Cayo Santa María.

From this tourist location, located in the north-central area of the Island, there is hardly any official information. Sources working at the facilities there, who asked to remain anonymous, told DIARIO DE CUBA that, except for the Meliá Las Dunas (popularly dubbed the Dunas 3-4), the remaining 11 hotels suffered severe damage.

Shortly after the passage of Hurricane Irma, Gaviota, attached to the military consortium GAESA, summoned its workers to join the reconstruction work. Those who showed up, pressured by the fear of losing their permanent positions, were transferred by catamaran for two and a half hours, from Caibarién to the cay. The gardeners at each facility are those pulling the most weight in the collection of debris, while the rest of the staff is used to build walls, replace cables, pipes, etc., sources said.

Civil Defense personnel in the province reported a total of 4,000 homes suffering total roof loss in the municipality of Caibarién. However, “the human and material capital of the country” is focused, for the time being, on restoring tourist destinations. It is entirely possible, albeit paradoxical, for a Gaviota Seagull worker to end up repairing the roof of a bungalow, after having lost his own home.

“We are prohibited from using cell phones inside or around the hotel. We have to leave them at the entrance. We were told, in a meeting with all the directors and staff, that ‘misfortunes are not to be talked about,’ that the world does not need to know the real situation of the cay. Because, in the long run, that could affect not only the country, but also everyone’s wallet,” said a worker in the lobby/bar.

“Human Resources sent me an SMS with the catamaran schedule, but everyone knows who they need to call upon. I’m just a simple waiter. I don’t have a permanent position. I’m just starting out. I don’t have much to lose. Those who go, do not do so voluntarily, or out of solidarity. There are very valuable locations at the hotel: Reception, the lobby bars, the poolside bars and beach bars, some fixed positions, bartenders, who get huge tips, and they must secure their jobs,” explained another source.

It is assumed that on November 15 at least five hotels will open, operating at half capacity. This affects, in turn, the personnel that they employ.

“What I’m still worried about is the transportation of the staff. They are demanding that almost all the workers be there, but there’s no way to transport us,” said the lobby/bar worker.

“The causeway has some very damaged areas. The catamaran is not enough, and they’ve begun to use buses for the staff. The most dangerous section is the Puente de Los Barcos (bridge), which was separated from the rest of the road. A brigade placed a pair of aluminum sheets to connect it again, to cover the gap. And the workers are crossing on that!”

14ymedio, September 28, 2017

Cienfuegos Left Without Food After Hurricane Irma

By Caridad Cruz

14ymedio, Caridad Cruz, Cienfuegos/Miami, 28 September 2017 — A strong smell of urine permeates the Russian-style apartment while Margot cooks a couple of pork steaks. “They are boar [the male pig], that’s why the smell,” she explains. Getting food in Cienfuegos, a city that was only affected by the edges of Hurricane Irma, has become an odyssey, according to its residents.

“There’s a man who sells pork from a pushcart and we buy it. What are we going to do if every time we want to buy something in the market, the lines are gigantic?” says Margot as she tries to remove the bad smell from the meat with some basil and a little ‘complete seasoning’ that she scrapes out of a nearly empty jar.

“They deceived me, I spent my monthly pension on ten pounds of stinking meat that there is no choice but to eat it,” she laments.

The authorities of Cienfuegos have imposed a severe rationing after Hurricane Irma. Eggs, vegetables and meat are regulated and you can only buy a certain amount per person “to avoid speculation.”

“The unrationed eggs have all been taken to Villa Clara because there they don’t even have a pot to piss in,” says the clerk at a point of sale in Calzada de Dolores, one of the main arteries of the city.

The alternative to chicken eggs are duck and quail eggs, which are sold in the Ministry of Internal Commerce stores, but it’s enough to check the stores to confirm that in many of them there are no eggs of any kind.

“There are no eggs in the whole city. It’s because of the hurricane,” another shop assistant explains.

In order to buy fruits or vegetables, the situation is similar. In the markets where the prices are controlled by the state, people line up from early in the morning, while in the uncontrolled markets and from the pushcarts, prices are skyrocketing.

“The state is to blame for this situation,” says Margot. “Television announces that all the countries are sending aid, but they use it only for Havana, which is where people throw themselves into the streets [to protest],” she explains.

Although the official media did not make reference to the protest of 13 September in Havana sparked by the absence of electricity and water, the videos of the demonstration have gone viral through the ‘weekly packet’.

“As long as people remain silent, things are going to stay the same, but nobody wants to be cannon fodder,” he laments.

Although the damages in the province were minimal, compared to the north of Villa Clara, Ciego de Avila and Camagüey, the city was without electricity for more than 96 hours due to failures in the local thermo-electrical plant.

In the midst of this situation, Cuban Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 86, along with the Communist Party’s staff in the territory, toured some of the province’s agricultural sites where, according to the local press, he got “the commitment” of the farmers to “produce more food.”

In the Hard Currency Collection Stores (TRD) – as the state chain of outlets is officially called – the availability of meat, poultry and cans of fish has been reduced in recent weeks. “Before the cyclone, there was almost nothing,” said Magalis, a customer at the La Casa Mimbre store. “What they have left is at exorbitant prices, which no worker can buy.”

Cuba reduced imports by more than 1.5 billion dollars in the first half of the year, which in the opinion of economists has had a direct effect on the worsening of shortages in state stores.

“They recently opened a market here near (La Casa Mimbre), but between the lines, the little assortment and the high prices it’s not worth going,” she says.

“There is an Italian cheese that I suppose is the worst of what’s available in the world’s markets, but here a single kilogram costs 20.05 CUC (roughly $20 US), more than an entire month’s salary,” she protests.

Center for a Free Cuba