CubaBrief: Update on human rights cases related to religious freedom and former Chief of US Interests Section in Havana’s response to call for Biden to encourage human rights in Cuba

Religious freedom in Cuba remains unrealized, and its exercise subject to the arbitrary whims of the Cuban Communist Party. The Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), an arm of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, oversees religious affairs in Cuba, and exists to monitor, hinder and restrict religious activities.Christian Solidarity Worldwide in January 2020 and again in June 2020 reported that the Cuban government “continues to routinely and systematically violate freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).”

Olainis Tejada Beltrán, Yeliney Lescaille Prebal and their kids Liusdan Martínez Lescaille, Daniel Moises

Olainis Tejada Beltrán, Yeliney Lescaille Prebal and their kids Liusdan Martínez Lescaille, Daniel Moises

College student Seth Rock, responding to the August 24 column “Biden’s Cuba Policy Ignores Reality” by Mary Anastasia O’ Grady, wrote a letter titled “Joe Biden Should Encourage Human Rights in Cuba” published on September 7th that addressed religious repression in the island and a case addressed in a January 16, 2020 CubaBrief titled “The Continuing Assault on Freedom of Religion or Belief in Cuba” that looked at the 12-year-old Jewish boy:

(CSW) reported on December 23, 2019 reported that Liusdan Martínez Lescaille, a twelve year-old Jewish boy was forbidden by Cuban educational authorities from entering his school while wearing a kippah ( also known as a yarmulke) since December 11, 2019 with the result that he has been prevented from continuing his education. His younger brother, Daniel Moises, has also been subjected to the ban and government authorities threatened to open legal proceedings against his parents (Olainis Tejada Beltrán and Yeliney Lescaille Prebal), jailing them and taking their children away, for “threatening the children’s normal development.”

A January 7, 2020 report from Marti Noticias indicated that parents had decided not to have their children wear the kippah at school to avoid continued harassment and persecution by school authorities, and threats of prison by state security.

Reverend Ramon Rigal, his wife Rev. Ayda Expósito and their two children.

Reverend Ramon Rigal, his wife Rev. Ayda Expósito and their two children.

The January 16, 2020 CubaBrief also reported on the plight of two Christian pastors jailed for homeschooling their children, and the beating and jailing of an independent journalist who covered their trial in April 2019. Pastor  Ayda Expósito was released nearly a year later on April 3, 2020, and her husband Pastor Ramón Rigal was released three months later on July 1, 2020.  Independent journalist Roberto Quiñones Haces was released on September 4, 2020 in an emaciated state, compared to when he entered prison on September 11, 2019.

Taking all the above into account. It was surprising that Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, who had been Chief of US Interests Section Havana would charge in a tweet that Seth Rock’s letter was “false news,” and follow that with two claims that are not factual. First, under President Obama the majority of jailed human rights activists were not freed following the December 2014 opening.

The Obama administration tried taking credit for the release of 53 political prisoners in early January 2015 but once the names were released it was revealed that 17 of the 53 had been released prior to the agreement and had nothing to do with it. This means that a total of 38 political prisoners were freed at the time. On March 22, 2016 while President Obama was on a state visit in Cuba, and meeting with Raul Castro, the Cuban dictator made the claim that there were no political prisoners, and the Cuban Democratic Directorate produced a list of 51 political prisoners then behind bars in Cuba.

Secondly, religious repression continues in Cuba, including against those not involved in politics. This can be viewed at the systemic level with the Cuban Communist Party having a veto over religious life in Cuba through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA). This can also be viewed in individual cases for those not involved in politics who are persecuted because they seek to spread the Gospel in Cuba.

Worse yet, it was on President Obama’s watch that Europe de-linked human rights considerations from trading with the Castro regime in December 2016, and it was also during this period of time that violence against activists escalated, including the May 25, 2015 machete attack against Cuban dissident Sirley Avila Leon.

However the Obama opening to Cuba was supposed to be about improved relations and increased trade between the two nations.  During President Barack Obama’s détente with Cuba, the Cuban military’s role in the tourist economy expanded and further centralized economic control.

Over a quarter century, Eusebio Leal, who recently passed away, restored portions of Havana turning it into “a tourist draw that brings in more than $170 million a year.” In August 2016, less than six months after Obama’s state visit, “the Cuban military took over the business operations of Leal’s City Historian’s Office, absorbing them into a business empire that has grown dramatically since the declaration of detente between the U.S. and Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014.”

Meanwhile trade between the United States and Cuba collapsed following the opening in 2015 to $185.7 million from a peak of $711.5 million in 2008, the last year of the Bush Administration. ( Despite tightened sanctions blocking trade with military entities, trade between the United States and Cuba has increased in the Trump Administration. In 2019 a new record was achieved in the sale of chicken from the United States to Cuba.)

American diplomats in Havana began suffering brain trauma and officials were aware of it in November 2016, but nothing was done by the Obama Administration, and the problem continued under the first months of the Trump Administration. This was something new that is still not understood, but it had not happened before the 2014 opening.

Dr. Jaime Suchlicki of the Cuban Studies Institute offered an analysis of the Trump roll back of Obama era Cuba policies:

The Trump Era

Speaking in Miami in 2017 after his inauguration, President Donald Trump announced changes to President Obama’s policy of rapprochement with Cuba. Aware that the Obama policy of engagement with the Castro dictatorship produced very limited changes in Cuba’s internal developments or on its foreign policy, President Trump issued regulations that prohibit transactions with businesses controlled by the Cuban government or its military. The new policy also requires that Americans will now have to travel to Cuba as part of an organized tour group. It allows 12 categories of travel including for religious, cultural or educational purposes.

The new policy reiterates the importance of extraditing fugitives, isolating the Castro regime, weakening its relationship with Venezuela and preventing the use of the island for drug trafficking. The new policy retains in place some of the Obama policies such as the establishment of diplomatic relations, or the termination of the “wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy. It also retains the status of the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo.

The administration argued that restricting transactions with Cuba’s regime-controlled businesses, including hotels that Americans would frequent – will force money to go directly to the Cubans and not the regime. The aim is to squeeze the Castro government into providing internal changes including more freedom.

 The Obama Castro detente was a failure on all fronts, and the current Administration’s reset a return to a policy based in realism and U.S. national interests. It should not be rolled back.

The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2020

Joe Biden Should Encourage Human Rights in Cuba

Mr. Biden should know that concessions to the Cuban regime without conditions maintain the status quo and do little to help the Cuban people.

Regarding Mary Anastasia O’Grady’s “Biden’s Cuba Policy Ignores Reality” (Americas, Aug. 24): President Obama had great hopes that his opening to Cuba, and particularly the increase in tourism, would foster Cuban liberation. Unfortunately, Washington’s concessions had a negligible impact on the repressive nature of the Cuban government. Little has been written about the lack of religious freedom in today’s Cuba. In December 2019, a 12-year-old Jewish boy was prohibited from entering his school while wearing a kippah. His parents were later summoned to appear at a prosecutor’s office where they were told that their children would be taken away if this activity continued. This disturbing example highlights the regime’s stance on religious freedom.

Former Vice President Biden says that, if elected, he would return to President Obama’s Cuba policy. Mr. Biden should know that concessions to the Cuban regime without conditions maintain the status quo and do little to help the Cuban people. On an issue as important as religious liberty, we should make change a stipulation for renewed talks.

Seth Rock

Houston

https://www.wsj.com/articles/joe-biden-should-encourage-human-rights-in-cuba-11599250890

OnCuba, September 7, 2020

United States increases chicken exports to Cuba

Data from that country’s Department of Agriculture show the sale of chicken has increased by 132%.

By OnCuba Staff

Cuba registered a considerable increase in the import of chicken from the United States last July, according to Cuban economist Pedro Monreal on his Twitter account, taking data published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The 136% increase in value, and 132% in tons of the product compared to the previous month, are values that refer to the figures from the beginning of this year, when an average of 15,000 tons of the product entered the island.

Currently, the United States is the largest supplier of chicken to Cuba, while Brazil remains in second place as a supplier, a country that also increased its export values for the month of July.

“We will have to wait for the Brazilian data for August to be published in a few days,” Monreal highlighted in his tweet.

The specialist from UNESCO’s Social and Humanistic Sciences Program adds that the price per kilogram of U.S. chicken also increased by one cent in July compared to the previous month (USD 0.82 vs. USD 0.81 in June), although it remains below the maximum level reached in February, when USD 0.96 per kilogram was registered, before the expansion of COVID-19.

Data from the last 20 years indicate that 2019 was the year with the highest figures for the export of this product from the United States to Cuba.

Between 2000 and 2019, a total of 2.3 million tons of U.S. chicken were exported to the island, for a total value of USD 1.944 million. In the last decade, about 70% of the total has been exported since 2000.

Until May, exports from the United States to Cuba had reached 81.6 million dollars (USD), with chicken being the most demanded product, registering 77% of the total amount, Monreal highlighted in a previous publication on Twitter.

Chicken is among the products most demanded by Cubans in recent times, the official media recently highlighted.

https://oncubanews.com/en/cuba-usa/united-states-increases-chicken-exports-to-cuba/

In case you missed it.

Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, June 2019

A publication of the Cuban Studies Institute

Cuba: What To Expect

By: Jaime Suchlicki*

The Domestic Scene

The limited economic changes introduced by Gen. Raúl Castro in Cuba encouraged some observers to proclaim the end of communism and the dismantling of the totalitarian system in the island.

Notwithstanding Raúl Castro’s own statements that he was not elected to restore capitalism, these observers insisted on their belief that economic reforms will be deepened and Cuba will march merrily into capitalism or at least a Chinese-style capitalism.

If the objectives of the Castro government were truly to move toward a market economy, it would not limit economic enterprises to some 200 individual activities, i.e. barbershops, shoe shinning, pizza parlors; to lease vacant lands to individual farmers to produce mostly subsistence agriculture; or to liberalize the real estate and auto markets. In addition, the onerous taxes, regulations, and license fees imposed on these activities are not conducive toward the development of prosperous and free enterprises.

It is very difficult for Gen. Raúl Castro to reject his brother’s legacy of political and economic centralization. Raúl’s legitimacy is based on being Fidel’s heir. Any major move to reject Fidel’s “teachings” would create uncertainty among Cuba’s ruling elites – party and military. It could also increase instability as some would advocate rapid change, while others cling to more orthodox policies. Cubans could see this as an opportunity for mobilization, demanding faster reforms.

For Raúl, the uncertainties of uncorking the “genie’s reform bottle” in Cuba are greater than keeping the lid on and moving cautiously. For the past five decades, political considerations have always dictated the economic decisions of the communist leadership in the island.

At 86 years of age, General Castro wants to muddle through these difficult times introducing limited changes and maintaining tight political control and continuous repression. His aim is to calm down a growing unhappy population and to prevent a social explosion, not to transform Cuba into a capitalist society. By his actions and statements, Raúl Castro is signaling that Cuba will remain a failed totalitarian experiment for the foreseeable future.

His relinquishing the Presidency to a minor communist Party bureaucrat in early 2018, while remaining as Secretary General of the Party and de facto leader of the military, is a clear indication of a limited succession and not a transition process. The new President, Miguel Diaz-Canel, has no military or popular support and will be beholding to the wishes of Raul and his close military allies in the Party’s Politburo. The recent creation of a military “troika” to rule over the three regions of Cuba is a further example of a militarized succession in the island.

Foreign Relations

President Barack Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba had little impact on General Castro’s alliance with Iran, Russia and Venezuela. The closer relations that these countries have developed with Cuba were not affected. Their aid is not conditioned on changes in Cuba. They share with Castro a virulent anti-Americanism. They all share a belief that the world convergence of forces is moving against the U.S. Despite economic difficulties, Cuba is unwilling to renounce these alliances and accept a role as a small Caribbean country, friendly to the U.S.

Since assuming formal power in Cuba in 2006, following Fidel Castro’s illness, General Raul Castro has continued his close alliance with Venezuela, Iran and China and has expanded military cooperation and purchases from Russia. Venezuela’s vast purchases of Russian military equipment, the close Venezuela-Iran relationship and the Cuban-Venezuela alliance are troublesome. Although it is not known if Venezuela is transferring some of these weapons to Cuba, Caracas remains an open back door for Cuba’s acquisition of sophisticated Russian weapons as well as Cuba’s principal financial backer. The objectives of this alliance are to weaken “U.S. imperialism” and to foster a world with several centers of power.

Cuba has also renewed military cooperation with Russia. Russia economic and diplomatic support are important to Cuba, especially if they force the U.S. to offer unilateral concessions to Cuba, particularly ending its embargo and allowing American tourists to visit the island. In 2015, Cuba and Russia signed agreements providing the Kremlin with naval and aerial facilities on the island for the Russian military. A Russia’s growing presence in the Caribbean, while not directly challenging the U.S. militarily, allows for Russian power projection, forces the U.S. to increase its defenses and monitoring capabilities on its southern flank and increases the perception in Latin America and elsewhere that the United States is being challenged in its own sphere of influence by outside powers. This, in turn, weakens American influence in the region and encourages anti-American leaders to take position inimical to U.S. interests.

Raul does not seem ready to provide meaningful and irreversible concessions for a long-term U.S.-Cuba normalization. Avenues for serious negotiations have never been closed as evidenced by the recent diplomatic normalization under President Obama and migrations and anti-hijacking agreements between the United States and Cuba.

Raul is unwilling to renounce the support and close collaboration of countries like Venezuela, China, Iran, North Korea and Russia in exchange for an uncertain relationship with the United States. At a time that anti-Americanism is strong in the Middle East and elsewhere, Raul’s policies are more likely to remain

closer to regimes that are not particularly friendly to the United States and that demand little from Cuba in return for generous aid.

Yet there is the strong belief in the United States that economic considerations could influence Cuban policy decisions, and that an economically deteriorating situation could force the Castro regime to move Cuba toward a market economy and eventually toward political reforms. This has not happened and is not likely to happen.

Among many in the United States, there is still a belief that the embargo is the cause of Cuba’s economic ills. This notion has been propagated continuously by the Castro regime to force the United States to unilaterally lift U.S. sanctions.

In reality, the cause of Cuba’s economic problems is not the embargo, but a failed economic system. Like the Soviet and Eastern European Marxist economies, Cuba’s system is antiquated, inefficient and corrupt. It does not encourage productivity or individual initiative. If Cuba were to export and produce more, it could buy any products it needs from other countries. For Cuba, the United States is the closest but not the cheapest market. What the Castro regime welcomes is American tourist and credits to help scrape by without making major economic or political changes.

Raul Castro has a long-term commitment to remain in power. Compromise is seen as a short-term, sometimes forced, tactical moves to achieve long-term strategic objectives. Negotiations with these leaders are usually of little value, and agreements of short duration.

America’s long-held belief that, through negotiations and incentives, we can influence Raul’s behavior has been weakened by his unwillingness to provide major concessions to the United States. He prefers to sacrifice the economic well-being of the Cubans, rather than cave in to demands for a different Cuba, politically and economically. Neither economic incentives nor punishment have worked with Cuba in the past. They’ are not likely to work in the future.

Cuba’s smuggling of weapons in a North Korean freighter in 2013, during Cuba-U.S. conversations for normalization of relations, indicate Raul Castro’s continuous commitment to internationalism and his willingness to violate international laws to support an ally. Like in the 1970’s and 1980’s when the Castro brothers played a major role in Africa and the Middle East with Soviet support, this incident shows that, even without the backing of a major power, Cuba remains a player in foreign affairs.

In this hemisphere the Castro regime seems to be taking a back-stage role. Cuba’s involvement in regional groups is limited, with Raul Castro preferring to deal in bilateral relations. Raul prefers to take a behind the scene role, especially in his espousal of anti-Americanism, to not jeopardize his chances of getting further unilateral concessions from the United States. Raul will leave Maduro and others to carry on the more vocal anti-American struggle.

The Trump Era

Speaking in Miami in 2017 after his inauguration, President Donald Trump announced changes to President Obama’s policy of rapprochement with Cuba. Aware that the Obama policy of engagement with the Castro dictatorship produced very limited changes in Cuba’s internal developments or on its foreign policy, President Trump issued regulations that prohibit transactions with businesses controlled by the Cuban government or its military. The new policy also requires that Americans will now have to travel to Cuba as part of an organized tour group. It allows 12 categories of travel including for religious, cultural or educational purposes.

The new policy reiterates the importance of extraditing fugitives, isolating the Castro regime, weakening its relationship with Venezuela and preventing the use of the island for drug trafficking. The new policy retains in place some of the Obama policies such as the establishment of diplomatic relations, or the termination of the “wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy. It also retains the status of the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo.

The administration argued that restricting transactions with Cuba’s regime-controlled businesses, including hotels that Americans would frequent – will force money to go directly to the Cubans and not the regime. The aim is to squeeze the Castro government into providing internal changes including more freedom.

Reacting violently, General Castro’s government insisted that “the U.S. government resorted to coercive method of the past, adopting measures to intensify the blockade which not only causes damage and deprivation to the Cuban people and constitutes an undeniable obstacle to the development of the economy, but also affects the sovereignty and interests of other countries, inciting international rejection.” The statement continues, “The Cuban Government denounces the new measures to tighten the blockade, which are destined to fail as has been shown repeatedly in the past, and which will not achieve its purpose to weaken the revolution or to defeat the Cuban people, whose resistance to the aggressions of any type and origin has been proven over almost six decades.”

The U.S. policy toward Cuba has recently became enmeshed in the crisis in Venezuela. The urgency to support the opposition in Venezuela, the humanitarian crisis in the country and the rise of John Bolton as U.S. National Security Advisor has produced a lumping together of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. In a November 2018 speech, Bolton referred to the three countries as “a troika of tyranny” and emphasized that “the troika will crumble.”

The Cuba policy and the anti-troika strategy carries significant dangers. The measures against Cuba are not likely to force the Cubans into reforms or weaken the alliance with Russia, Venezuela and Iran. Unless U.S. sanctions are broader and sustained over a long period, they are not likely to work. Cuba will wait out the Trump years in the hope of a future, more friendly U.S. administration.

The strategy of change in Venezuela carries major risks. If opposition leader Juan Guaidó is unable to unseat Maduro, conditions in Venezuela will worsen, with greater involvement of Cuba and Russia and an increase in the outmigration of Venezuelans. An estimated three million Venezuelans have already fled their country. If the policy of diplomatic and economic pressure fails in Caracas, the U.S. is left with arming the opposition or considering unilateral or multilateral intervention, costly and complicated options. The most embarrassing alternative would be to accept an anti-America, pro-Russian/Cuba and pro Iran regime in Venezuela.

In the meantime, the Cuba policy remains, if not in the backburner, at least in the middle one. The hope that if Venezuela falls Cuba will be the next domino is at best hope. Cuba survived in the decade of the 1990’s the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of subsidies including oil. Cuba muddle thru in those difficult years and emerged successfully in part due to the rise of Chavez and Venezuelan oil. Today Cuba seems to be in better shape. Tourism; remittances from friends and family in the U.S.; the rental of doctors and military personnel at an estimated payment to Cuba of 8-10 U.S. billion yearly, and aid from Russia, Iran, China and others, places Cuba in a better position than in the 1990s to deal with the shock of a pro-American Venezuela. Even without Venezuela’s support, the Cuban regime is likely to survive. The impact would be broad and the pain extensive. Yet the Cubans have accepted to live with little.

After Raúl

If Raúl Castro were to die or become incapacitated, it will be the Politburo of Cuba’s Communist Party who will decide on a replacement. While Raúl designated Miguel Díaz Canel as Cuba’s new President, his permanency will depend on circumstances at the time. If the disappearance of the last Castro occurs under increased social pressure or violence, it is likely that the Politburo will select a hard liner, probably from the military. Given that most of the members of the Politburo are military, this group will make the ultimate decision. Although Díaz Canel also has military rank, it is not likely that the Generals in the Politburo will turn to him at a time of crisis.

If the succession is peaceful Díaz Canel will continue as President and will have to contend with the power of the older generals, and Raúl’s son Alejandro Castro Espín, a colonel/coordinator of the military and security services and an emerging force. Without support within the military or in the party, Díaz Canel remains a puppet figure with limited power and leverage.

The key question about post-Castro Cuba is not who its new rulers will be or what they would like to accomplish. The key question is whether the institutionalization of the revolution under the control of the military, the party and the security apparatus will survive the end of Raúl Castro’s rule. And equally important, what can any emerging leadership hope to accomplish within the existing socio-political and economic context.

There are also other key and more troubling questions: Will the new rulers be able to exercise any major options at all? Will they fear upsetting the multilevel balance of interests upon which a new government will certainly depend?

The impediments to major change are significant:

  • A terrorized, disorganized and fearful population hoping for change from above. There is a strong belief among the Cuban people about the efficacy of the security services and an overwhelming fear of their repressive capabilities. The political elite see the development of a civil society as a major challenge to its absolute authority and a threat to its long-term control. The limited gains made by a civil society independent of the Castro brothers in the past few years, are the result of a deteriorating economy; disillusionment with the revolution and growing unhappiness with the Castro regime; influence of outside forces; and a limited relaxation of the system’s control. Yet civil society remains weak, not very effective and watched carefully and constantly by the security forces.

  • The military, the most important institution in contemporary Cuba, has significant legitimacy and respect and is a disciplined and loyal force. It controls more than 60 % of the economy. Will they be willing to relinquish this economic control and their prominent role? One of Cuba’s major post-Castro challenge will be how to extricate the military from the economy and put them back in the barracks.

The possibility of regime continuity, therefore, seems stronger for Cuba than it was for other communist states. Although their end came suddenly, it took decades of decay to weaken critically the Eastern European regimes and successive leadership changes, as well as Soviet disengagement and acceptance, before the collapse.

The end of the Castro era may not usher in a period of rapid political or economic transformation or in a collapse of the system. The stability of the Cuban regime is based primarily on the strength of the Armed Forces, the security apparatus, and the Party structure. The organization and strength of the bureaucracy that has grown around these institutions seem to assure short term continuity. Barring the imponderable or unpredictable, rapid change is not likely.

Perhaps the critical challenge for a post-Raúl regime will be to improve the economy and satisfy the needs and expectations of the population, while maintaining continuous political control. Too rapid economic reforms may lead to a loosening of political control, a fact feared by the military, and other allies bent on remaining in power and continuing to profit from their privileged position.

*Jaime Suchlicki is Director and founder of the Cuban Studies Institute, CSI, a non-profit research group in Coral Gables, FL. He is the author of Cuba: From Columbus to Castro & Beyond, now in its 5th edition; Mexico: From Montezuma to the Rise of the PAN, 2nd edition, and Breve Historia de Cuba. He is a highly regarded consultant to the public and private sectors.

(Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, June 2019)

This is a publication of the Cuban Studies Institute.