CubaBrief: SFRC recognizes Cuban opposition movements. The case for nonviolent struggle and sanctions. Corruption exposed at the UN Human Rights Council

Ladies in White and the San Isidro Movement recognized by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Ladies in White and the San Isidro Movement recognized by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Dictatorships and bad actors on the international stage are working to strip civil society and democracies of the tools to nonviolently defeat them. They fear and despise the legacy of Gene Sharp (1928 – 2018) founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, and a theoretician of nonviolent action who in 1990 at the National Conference on Nonviolent Sanctions and Defense in Boston, made the case for nonviolent struggle:

“I say nonviolent struggle is armed struggle. And we have to take back that term from those advocates of violence who seek to justify with pretty words that kind of combat. Only with this type of struggle one fights with psychological weapons, social weapons, economic weapons and political weapons. And that this is ultimately more powerful against oppression, injustice and tyranny than violence.”

According to Professor Sharp in his 2013 book HOW NONVIOLENT STRUGGLE WORKS (available online) , third parties on the international scene, including countries, can play a supplementary and complementary role but are never leading the struggle.

“Third-party actions may include protests, public declarations, demonstrations, diplomatic actions, economic sanctions, and the like. They ought to be seen as supplementary and complementary, but never as the main actions of the struggle. The proportion of successes among past cases of international nonviolent action, especially by third parties, is extremely small. The actions have been generally symbolic, and more substantial types, as economic sanctions, have not been applied on the systematic and sustained basis required for effectiveness. International action is not a substitute for internal action by the grievance group itself.”

Nonviolent movements can obtain a measure of protection with international solidarity, provided through reporting on their plight, and a range of tools that include economic and political sanctions by both civil society and other nation states. Human rights abusers, and outlaw regimes that murder their own people view these instruments with concern, and have managed through coordination with each other to reshape international institutions to undermine human rights. Worse yet, companies wishing to make short term profits with these regimes are also hostile to sanctions against them.

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There is also a moral dimension to not cooperating with bad actors, especially those engaged in crimes against humanity, or genocide against their own or other populations. Engaging in commerce with outlaw regimes carrying out criminal activities either at the level of a state or a company can lead to complicity in their crimes. Ford, GM, and IBM, along with others had much to answer for after their collaboration with Nazi Germany prior to and during WW2 became known. Yahoo! has a lot to answer for in providing information to the Peoples Republic of China to hunt, jail, torture, and kill Chinese dissidents for internet related offenses, and to a lesser extent so do Google and Microsoft with violating freedom of expression in China.

Díaz-Canel, right, Sen. Jeff Flake, center, and Eric Schmidt, former exec chair Google 2018 (B Perlmutter Twitter)

Díaz-Canel, right, Sen. Jeff Flake, center, and Eric Schmidt, former exec chair Google 2018 (B Perlmutter Twitter)

Google over the past few years has engaged with the Cuban dictatorship in an effort to expand their presence on the island, but “a source” claimed in a September 1, 2017 article in The Miami Herald that Google had included a “freedom of information clause” to store content on Google servers in Cuba. Considering Google’s negative track record in the People’s Republic of China the obvious question is “what could go wrong?” and the answer when dealing with totalitarian regimes is “a lot” including the theft of technology, intellectual property, and the endangering of dissidents lives. Amnesty International called out the company in 2018 for trying to set up a censored search engine in China called “Project Dragonfly.”

Mariela Machado Fantacchiotti, telecommunications engineer and program manager of operations at Engineering for Change writing in the Inter-American Dialogue’s publication Latin America Advisor on April 16, 2019 put it succinctly: “This deal with Google is a huge success for the company in entering a new market, but I am cautious to see how it might benefit the Cuban people and under which conditions, surveillance-wise.”

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Eric Schmidt, of Google in Cuba doing business with the Castro dictatorship

The United Nations Human Rights Council is supposed to be “responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe, and for addressing and taking action on human rights violations around the globe,” but in practice the Council on too many occasions has turned into a body to protect rights violators. On March 18, 2021 a CubaBrief explored the problematic origins of the UN Human Rights Council in 2006, but a new outrage by this human rights body requires additional comment.

On March 23, 2021 the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution with 30 votes in favor, 15 votes against and 2 abstentions that calls on countries to not “use or encourage the use of any type of measure, including but not limited to economic or political measures, to coerce another State in order to obtain from it the subordination of the exercise of its sovereign rights.”

Andres Oppenheimer, writing in The Miami Herald reported that “hours after the Council’s resolution, Cuba’s foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez applauded the vote, and Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza tweeted that for ‘basic ethical reasons, the countries that voted against (the resolution) should lose their seats at the Council.'”

This resolution and the mandate behind it (the Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights), backed by Cuba’s dictatorship, has consequences that empowers dictators and bad actors the world over. The Special Rapporteur from (2015-19), former Algerian ambassador Idriss Jazairy presented a report in 2017 slamming the United States and the European Union “for imposing sanctions on Russia”, which the U.N. human rights council investigator said amounted to “unilateral coercive measures.” This was compounded by the corruption exposed by UN Watch that Ambassador Idriss Jazairy, had received $50,000 from Russia in 2016 “for his mandate, as disclosed in a recent UN report.” The current Rapporteur is Ms. Alena Douhan, an academic from Belarus, and described by human rights defenders as “a Maduro propagandist.”

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While Putin’s criminal regime in Russia plays the victim with the aid of the UN Human Rights Council, and Russian dissidents die under “mysterious” circumstances, the actions taken with China directly endangers dissidents. UN Human Rights Council whistleblower, Emma Reilly “has evidence that the council regularly turns over names of Chinese dissidents to Beijing,” reported Richard Golberg earlier this year in Foreign Policy. Ms. Reilly outlined the timeline of this practice over twitter on March 25, 2021.

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In such a difficult international environment where even the UN Human Rights Council is being compromised by bad actors, it is time for democracies to stand up in solidarity with their democratic counterparts struggling for freedom under oppressive dictatorships. When democracies make the mistake of confusing a people with their dictator, dissidents are killed and hopes for a democratic transition die with them. Oppenheimer is wrong when he says to not pay attention to the resolution that the dictatorships in Venezuela and Cuba are calling a victory, because this is an alternative international system that is being brought into existence out of the old one established in 1948, and hostile to the values and principles found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Ignore this at your peril.

This is why Cuban pro-democracy activists and their friends abroad are grateful to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for their two resolutions demonstrating solidarity with the San Isidro Movement and the Ladies in White, and condemning attacks on artistic freedoms, and freedom of expression in Cuba. This is a defense of fundamental human rights at a time that they are under attack.

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Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White today in Cuba.

The current leader of the Ladies in White, Berta Soler, back in 2013 was interviewed by Mary Anastasia O’Grady in The Wall Street Journal. Ms O’Grady reported “[s]he wants the world to know of Castro’s racism. Blacks, she says, are grossly underrepresented in the universities and overrepresented in prisons. ‘The beggars in Cuba are black, not white. The marginalized are blacks, not whites.’ She adds: ‘They tell me ‘Negra, what are you doing? You have a lot to thank the revolution for!'” Hopefully, friends of a free Cuba will examine more closely the systemic racism in the Castro regime, the role Castro’s communist revolution played in destroying a decades old black civil society that had made important social advances on the island prior to 1959, and the racial economic disparities that have worsened and exist on the island today.

It is imperative to maintain economic sanctions on the Castro dictatorship, especially its most repressive elements in the military and the secret police that control most of the economy, are currently subjugating Cubans on the island to preserve the regime, and torturing Venezuelans in their home country to prop up Maduro. It is critically important not to commit the error that too many have fallen into in the past of mistaking the Castro regime for the millions of Cubans striving to live in freedom.

The Miami Herald, March 24, 2021

Don’t pay attention to the hypocritical U.N resolution that Venezuela, Cuba brag is a victory

By Andres Oppenheimer March 24, 2021

It’s absolutely ridiculous!

The 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council has just passed a resolution that essentially condemns international efforts to press Venezuela, Cuba and other dictatorships to respect human rights.

Yes, you read right. On March 23, the Council, based in Geneva, Switzerland, condemned “the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights.” In U.N. lingo, “coercive measures” refers to sanctions.

[ Full Article ]

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Senate Foreign Relations Committee, March 24, 2021

SFRC Approves Resolutions Condemning Attacks on Artistic Freedoms, Free Speech in Cuba

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was joined by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, in celebrating the Committee’s approval of two of their resolutions condemning violations of fundamental freedoms and human rights in Cuba. At today’s business meeting, the Senators’ resolution to express solidarity with the San Isidro Movement, a collective of independent artists and activists who were targeted by the Cuban regime for protesting in support of their right to freedom of expression, and their resolution honoring Las Damas de Blanco, a women-led nonviolent movement that supports freedom and human rights, were approved with bipartisan support and now move to the Floor of the Senate for full consideration and final approval.

“The passage of these two resolutions demonstrates the United States’ unflinching commitment to stand in solidarity with the courageous Cuban people calling for greater respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights in the face of relentless persecution, wrongful imprisonment, and state-sanctioned violence,”  Menendez said. “As the regime’s morally reprehensible efforts to repress and imprison its people continue unfettered, the United States must choose to honor its legacy as a champion for marginalized people everywhere. I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues across the aisle to shine a light on these terrible injustices and reaffirm the Cuban people’s aspirations for change as the focal point of our policy toward Havana.”

“As the Cuban regime continues to censure and repress opposition leaders such as Las Damas de Blanco and the members of the San Isidro Movement, I’m proud to see my bipartisan resolutions honoring these two courageous groups who actively advocate for freedom in Cuba pass in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations,” Rubio said. “The U.S. must remain firm in its commitment of prioritizing human rights and democratic values in the island, where the Cuban people have endured decades of tyranny.”

Find a copy of the resolution expressing solidarity with the San Isidro Movement HERE.

Find a copy of the resolution honoring Las Damas de Blanco HERE.

Foreign Policy, February 24, 2021

Shadow Government

Can Biden Fix the U.N. Human Rights Council?

The administration insists it can succeed where two U.S. presidents already tried and failed.

By Richard Goldberg

February 24, 2021, 11:24 AM

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Against the backdrop of crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council in a video message this week—a first for an American diplomat since Washington withdrew from the council under the previous administration. But it will take more than a speech by Blinken to reform this deeply flawed body, which boasts perennial human rights abusers such as China and Russia among its members and devotes much of its time to castigating Israel. President Joe Biden’s team needs a plan. And failing that, the administration should push ahead at double speed to institute a new body backed by the world’s free and democratic states, not its worst human rights abusers.

In announcing the U.S. return to the council earlier this month, Blinken said he recognizes “that the Human Rights Council is a flawed body, in need of reform to its agenda, membership, and focus,” yet he believes “the best way to improve the Council is to engage.” After his eight years in the Obama administration, Blinken should know that’s easier said than done.

In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the United States would join the council and attempt to reform it from within. “We will engage in the work of improving the UN human rights system,” she said. Weeks later, China and Russia were elected to the council alongside the United States. Both won reelection in 2013.

Even the Trump administration, which exhibited deep skepticism and disdain for international organizations, tried engagement to reform the council. U.S. diplomats pressed for an end to the elections by secret ballot that allow countries to vote for human rights abusers without admitting it. They also sought elimination of what seems to be the council’s single standing agenda item: targeting Israel. Their campaign failed, and the United States withdrew from the council in mid-2018.

Last year, China, Cuba, Gabon, Pakistan, Russia, and Uzbekistan were elected to three-year terms on the council. Since its founding in 2006, the Human Rights Council has not passed a single resolution condemning any of these countries. Meanwhile, Israel has been the target of 90 separate condemnations.

Most egregious, of course, is China’s election to the council amid what Blinken calls a genocide in Xinjiang. In true Orwellian fashion, China was previously appointed to a panel within the council that evaluates experts on religious discrimination—presumably including those who might have looked at China’s horrific human rights abuses against its Muslim citizens.

So, what is the Biden administration’s plan to achieve reform where its predecessors tried and failed? In her confirmation hearing last month, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield pledged to confront China inside the U.N. system and combat the double standards applying to Israel. Now is the time to make good on that pledge.

Shaping the Human Rights Council is a primary objective of China’s larger strategy to exploit the U.N. system. While running candidates to take control of standards-making bodies and U.N. agencies that can be used to support Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative—such as the International Telecommunication Union, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the Industrial Development Organization—China’s growing influence over the council serves to whitewash its human rights record while putting the United States and its allies on the defensive.

As a first step to pushing back against China, the Biden administration should meet with a Human Rights Council whistleblower, Emma Reilly, who has evidence that the council regularly turns over names of Chinese dissidents to Beijing. The administration should make clear to the council that Washington will not tolerate any retaliation against Reilly by the U.N. or China and expects full transparency regarding her allegations. The State Department should also launch an independent investigation into the circumstances she describes.

At the same time, the Biden administration should build a multilateral coalition to implement the working definition of anti-Semitism developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance at the Human Rights Council and other U.N. agencies. Crucially, the definition includes using a double standard that only applies to Jews or the Jewish state. The Biden State Department affirmed its support for this definition, a precedent first set by the Obama administration in 2016.

As long as the council officially maintains a standing agenda item on Israel while single-mindedly pursuing other activities to delegitimize the Jewish state, it is in clear violation of the State Department’s standard. If the administration returns to the council without challenging this prejudice, it will be speaking from both sides of its diplomatic mouth when it comes to fighting hatred of Jews.

Even with these initiatives, the council’s key structural challenge remains: the secret ballot election process that allows human rights abusers to sit in judgement of human rights abuses. This systemic problem has only two solutions: changes mandated by the U.N. General Assembly or the establishment of a new group outside the U.N. system composed only of free and democratic states. If Biden makes good on his pledge to host a “global summit for democracy” during his first year in office, reform or displacement of the Human Rights Council should be high on the agenda.

In the meantime, however, the U.S. Congress should stand ready to exercise its oversight prerogative. American taxpayers’ money should not be spent legitimizing a genocide or mainstreaming anti-Semitism. The Biden administration says it can reform the broken Human Rights Council when two presidents tried and failed for years. History suggests otherwise.

Richard Goldberg is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He served on Capitol Hill, on the U.S. National Security Council, and as the governor of Illinois’s chief of staff. Twitter: @rich_goldberg

Courthouse News Service, September 2, 2020

Lawsuit Claims Yahoo Provided China With Information on Political Dissidents


September 2, 2020

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — A survivor of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is suing Yahoo! for helping China capture political dissidents, claiming in a federal lawsuit that he was arrested, tortured and imprisoned after the web provider gave the contents of his email account to party officials.

Ning Xianhua, a Chinese activist who now resides in New York, claims Yahoo! agreed to help the People’s Republic of China apprehend and torture Chinese citizens who spread pro-democracy messages over the internet as a condition of being allowed to enter the Chinese market. 

“PRC officials often identify political dissidents through surveillance or hacking measures. The Yahoo! Defendants’ ongoing secret cooperation and agreement with the Chinese communist regime greatly facilitated the regime’s identification, detention, and repression of Chinese pro-democracy freedom advocates,” his lawsuit says, adding that Yahoo! concealed its activities from investors and the U.S. government.

Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang and CEO Terry Semel are named as defendants.

Ning’s lawsuit says Yahoo! turned over his private information, including his phone number, IP address, and the contents of his emails, after Chinese authorities requested it. 

Prior to his arrest, Ning had taken careful steps to avoid detection by the Communist party by encrypting his emails. 

“He thought that through Yahoo!’s services, he could fight for democracy while protecting his identity from PRC officials. Mr. Ning did not know that defendants had agreed to provide and did provide the communist Chinese regime with his confidential communications and other Protected Information,” his lawsuit states. 

“Enabled by the Yahoo! defendants’ illegal, unethical, and unscrupulous business practices, the Chinese communist regime used Mr. Ning’s Protected Information—including his pro-democracy communications stored on his private Yahoo! email account—to arrest and torture him.”

According to the complaint, Ning was arrested by twelve armed PRC officers at a restaurant in Chengdu. He was then driven 50 hours to his hometown of Shenyang where he was held in solitary confinement at a state security building, deprived of sleep, beaten by party officers and eventually shackled to the infamous spiked “Tiger Chair” for prolonged interrogation sessions in which he was repeatedly threatened with death.

Ning said his interrogators’ questions centered on his email exchanges with overseas activists and the pro-democracy writings Ning disseminated through his account, specifically one essay titled The Envisions on Establishing Unions in Northeast China.

He was eventually convicted of subversion and spent two years and four months in a Shenyang prison. He also did unpaid manual labor for ten hours a day making Christmas decorations at Dabei Prison in Shenyang, where he was punished with longer hours and beatings if he failed to meet his assigned quota.

“Importantly, Yahoo! Inc., defendant Semel, and defendant Yang knew that the PRC would subject Mr. Ning to these abuses if they turned over his private emails and other Protected Information to the communist regime. But they did it anyway to secure access to the lucrative Chinese market,” his lawsuit states. 

“Operating from Yahoo!’s California headquarters, the Yahoo! defendants made a conscious decision to help the PRC arbitrarily arrest, unfairly imprison, and brutally torture Mr. Ning—and others—to preserve their business interests in China.”

After his release, Ning was arrested, detained and tortured again. Chinese authorities also destroyed his ancestral home in Shenyang as well as his parents’ house in retaliation for his anti-Communist advocacy, his complaint says. Released on bail, Ning fled to Thailand where the U.S. embassy helped him gain asylum. 

Ning is seeking damages for the permanent loss of bodily function and disfigurement he sustained during his torture and imprisonment as well as reimbursement for his medical expenses and the the loss of his home. 

“Mr. Ning hopes that, through this lawsuit, the Yahoo! defendants are finally made to answer for the torture and injuries befalling Mr. Ning as a result of their misconduct. He also hopes that the Yahoo! defendants reveal the identity of other political dissidents that they helped imprison pursuant to their agreement with the PRC communist regime,” his lawsuit states. “So long as the victims of Yahoo! defendants’ misconduct remain unknown, they are not likely to receive the help they need.”

He is represented by Paul Hoffman and John Washington with Schonbrun Seplow and Mark Lanier with The Lanier Law Firm.

His counsel was unavailable for comment late Wednesday, but in a statement, Hoffman said, “Mr. Ning’s human rights were cruelly violated by Yahoo’s secret actions with Chinese authorities. U.S. law forbids this kind of complicity in these egregious human rights violations. We are proud to represent Mr. Ning in seeking the justice he deserves under U.S. and international law.”

This is not the first time Yahoo! has found itself in legal trouble for outing Chinese dissidents. In 2007, Congress investigated its role in the arrest of journalist Shi Tao. Though it initially claimed no involvement, Yahoo! was found to have disclosed details of his email account to the Chinese government. Yahoo! set up a Human Rights Fund Trust fund in 2007 to atone for handing dissidents over to China, but former political prisoners later sued the company for depleting its assets. An appellate court upheld the lawsuit in a ruling earlier this year.

From the Archives

The Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2013

Havana in Black and White

Dissident Berta Soler takes a big risk by telling the truth about racism and repression in Cuba.

By Mary Anastasia O’Grady

May 5, 2013 6:45 pm ET

After an 11-hour police interrogation in 2011, Berta Soler, one of the founding members of the Cuban dissident group known as the Ladies in White, was given an ultimatum.

During an interview at the Journal’s offices last week, Ms. Soler told me that the ministry of interior official who escorted her home said “Laura [Pollán, another founding member of the group] and I had to leave the country—because without us there would be no Ladies in White.” Ms. Soler said she responded by telling the official that “the ones who have to leave are the Castros.”

Martin Schulz and Berta SolerAFP/Getty Images

Martin Schulz and Berta SolerAFP/Getty Images

Cubans have been put against a wall and shot for less, but Ms. Soler’s courage could not have been news to the regime. For seven years, beginning in 2003, the Ladies, dressed in white from head to toe, had attended Sunday Mass together at St. Rita’s Church in Havana and then silently filed through the streets to demand that their political-prisoner relatives be freed.

The group was regularly set upon by Castro agents and clawed, punched and kicked. But they never retreated, even when the regime upped the ante by dragging them onto buses, driving them far from home and dropping them off to find their own way back.

By 2010, cellphone photos of the brutality embarrassed the dictatorship enough internationally that it began deporting the prisoners with their immediate families to Spain. It was classic Castro: For more than a half-century, strong dissident leaders who couldn’t be broken have been killed or exiled.

Laura Pollán’s husband, Héctor Maseda, and Ms. Soler’s husband, Ángel Moya, were among a small number of prisoners of conscience who refused to leave. Eventually Castro paroled them, but the Ladies did not disband. Instead they began to work for the release of all political prisoners and for human rights.

The group was growing in numbers and expanding across the island on that day in 2011 when Ms. Soler was told to get out of Cuba. Seventeen days later, on Oct. 14, 2011, Pollán died mysteriously in a Havana hospital, surrounded by state security agents.

Ms. Soler’s friend had reportedly been in good health only weeks earlier when, as she describes it, Castro enforcers attacked Pollán, bit and scratched her arm, and ran a handkerchief over the open wounds. Whether that was a way to introduce something into her bloodstream we may never know. But a week later Pollán came down with chills and vomiting and on Oct. 7 when she was admitted to the hospital, she suffered from shortness of breath.

Ms. Soler claims that Pollán might have been given oxygen but instead was “intubated and doped” and “seven days later we lost Laura.” As I reported at the time, there was no autopsy and Pollán’s body was quickly cremated.

Raúl Castro may have thought that the Ladies would soon fade away. He thought wrong. Ms. Soler says that the death of her friend and the equally suspicious death of dissident leader Oswaldo Payá in July 2012—supposedly in a car accident in which witnesses did not report a crash—has energized the movement.

Now Ms. Soler is taking advantage of the dictatorship’s new travel policy—that for the first time in a half-century allows Cubans to take trips abroad—to ask the international community for “moral and spiritual support” for the Cuban people in their struggle against the dictatorship.

She wants the world to know of Castro’s racism. Blacks, she says, are grossly underrepresented in the universities and overrepresented in prisons. “The beggars in Cuba are black, not white. The marginalized are blacks, not whites.” She adds: “They tell me ‘Negra, what are you doing? You have a lot to thank the revolution for!'”

Repression is on the rise, and in the absence of international condemnation the regime feels free to administer publicly the beatings the Ladies in White endure in order to show who’s boss. The regime used to send women only to attack the Ladies but now they send men as well. They punch the Ladies with the clear intent to hurt them. They sometimes break bones.

Ms. Soler says that these attackers “never have been neighbors” spontaneously defending the glorious revolution. They are professionals working for the Interior Ministry or civilians who obey the regime in order to keep their jobs or their place in university classrooms. Ms. Soler says that for the past two years many of “the same faces” have consistently shown up to attack the group. The woman who bit Laura Pollan is well known by the Ladies because she is a regular on the goon squad and works for the ministry.

It is chilling to think what might happen to the politically incorrect Ms. Soler when she returns to Cuba, which is what makes her trip to Rome this week so crucial. She has asked to see Pope Francis. If he agrees, the visit might protect her. Without it, and in the absence of other influential international voices coming to her defense, her fate is less certain.

Write to O’

The Washington Post, November 30, 1998

Ford and GM Scrutinized for Alleged Nazi Collaboration

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 1998; Page A01

Three years after Swiss banks became the target of a worldwide furor over their business dealings with Nazi Germany, major American car companies find themselves embroiled in a similar debate.

Like the Swiss banks, the American car companies have vigorously denied that they assisted the Nazi war machine or that they significantly profited from the use of forced labor at their German subsidiaries during World War II. But historians and lawyers researching class-action suits on behalf of former prisoners of war are busy amassing evidence of collaboration by the automakers with the Nazi regime.

The issues at stake for the American automobile corporations go far beyond the relatively modest sums involved in settling any lawsuit. During the war, the car companies established a reputation for themselves as “the arsenal of democracy” by transforming their production lines to make airplanes, tanks and trucks for the armies that defeated Adolf Hitler. They deny that their huge business interests in Nazi Germany led them, wittingly or unwittingly, to also become “the arsenal of fascism.”

The Ford Motor Co. has mobilized dozens of historians, lawyers and researchers to fight a civil case brought by lawyers in Washington and New York who specialize in extracting large cash settlements from banks and insurance companies accused of defrauding Holocaust victims. Also, a book scheduled for publication next year will accuse General Motors Corp. of playing a key role in Hitler’s invasions of Poland and the Soviet Union.

“General Motors was far more important to the Nazi war machine than Switzerland,” said Bradford Snell, who has spent two decades researching a history of the world’s largest automaker. “Switzerland was just a repository of looted funds. GM was an integral part of the German war effort. The Nazis could have invaded Poland and Russia without Switzerland. They could not have done so without GM.”

Both General Motors and Ford insist that they bear little or no responsibility for the operations of their German subsidiaries, which controlled 70 percent of the German car market at the outbreak of war in 1939 and rapidly retooled themselves to become suppliers of war materiel to the German army.

But documents discovered in German and American archives show a much more complicated picture. In certain instances, American managers of both GM and Ford went along with the conversion of their German plants to military production at a time when U.S. government documents show they were still resisting calls by the Roosevelt administration to step up military production in their plants at home.

After three years of national soul-searching, Switzerland’s largest banks agreed last August to make a $1.25 billion settlement to Holocaust survivors, a step they had initially resisted. Far from dying down, however, the controversy over business dealings with the Nazis has given new impetus to long-standing investigations into issues such as looted art, unpaid insurance benefits and the use of forced labor at German factories.

Although some of the allegations against GM and Ford surfaced during 1974 congressional hearings into monopolistic practices in the automobile industry, American corporations have largely succeeded in playing down their connections to Nazi Germany. As with Switzerland, however, their very success in projecting a wholesome, patriotic image of themselves is now being turned against them by their critics.

“When you think of Ford, you think of baseball and apple pie,” said Miriam Kleinman, a researcher with the Washington law firm of Cohen, Millstein and Hausfeld, who spent weeks examining records at the National Archives in an attempt to build a slave labor case against the Dearborn-based company. “You don’t think of Hitler having a portrait of Henry Ford on his office wall in Munich.”

Both Ford and General Motors declined requests for access to their wartime archives. Ford spokesman John Spellich defended the company’s decision to maintain business ties with Nazi Germany on the grounds that the U.S. government continued to have diplomatic relations with Berlin up until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. GM spokesman John F. Mueller said that General Motors lost day-to-day control over its German plants in September 1939 and “did not assist the Nazis in any way during World War II.”

For GIs, an Unpleasant Surprise

When American GIs invaded Europe in June 1944, they did so in jeeps, trucks and tanks manufactured by the Big Three motor companies in one of the largest crash militarization programs ever undertaken. It came as an unpleasant surprise to discover that the enemy was also driving trucks manufactured by Ford and Opel — a 100 percent GM-owned subsidiary — and flying Opel-built warplanes. (Chrysler’s role in the German rearmament effort was much less significant.)

When the U.S. Army liberated the Ford plants in Cologne and Berlin, they found destitute foreign workers confined behind barbed wire and company documents extolling the “genius of the Fuehrer,” according to reports filed by soldiers at the scene. A U.S. Army report by investigator Henry Schneider dated Sept. 5, 1945, accused the German branch of Ford of serving as “an arsenal of Nazism, at least for military vehicles” with the “consent” of the parent company in Dearborn.

Ford spokesman Spellich described the Schneider report as “a mischaracterization” of the activities of the American parent company and noted that Dearborn managers had frequently been kept in the dark by their German subordinates over events in Cologne.

The relationship of Ford and GM to the Nazi regime goes back to the 1920s and 1930s, when the American car companies competed against each other for access to the lucrative German market. Hitler was an admirer of American mass production techniques and an avid reader of the antisemitic tracts penned by Henry Ford. “I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration,” Hitler told a Detroit News reporter two years before becoming the German chancellor in 1933, explaining why he kept a life-size portrait of the American automaker next to his desk.

Although Ford later renounced his antisemitic writings, he remained an admirer of Nazi Germany and sought to keep America out of the coming war. In July 1938, four months after the German annexation of Austria, he accepted the highest medal that Nazi Germany could bestow on a foreigner, the Grand Cross of the German Eagle. The following month, a senior executive for General Motors, James Mooney, received a similar medal for his “distinguished service to the Reich.”

The granting of such awards reflected the vital place that the U.S. automakers had in Germany’s increasingly militarized economy. In 1935, GM agreed to build a new plant near Berlin to produce the aptly named “Blitz” truck, which would later be used by the German army for its blitzkreig attacks on Poland, France and the Soviet Union. German Ford was the second-largest producer of trucks for the German army after GM/Opel, according to U.S. Army reports.

The importance of the American automakers went beyond making trucks for the German army. The Schneider report, now available to researchers at the National Archives, states that American Ford agreed to a complicated barter deal that gave the Reich increased access to large quantities of strategic raw materials, notably rubber. Author Snell says that Nazi armaments chief Albert Speer told him in 1977 that Hitler “would never have considered invading Poland” without synthetic fuel technology provided by General Motors.

As war approached, it became increasingly difficult for U.S. corporations like GM and Ford to operate in Germany without cooperating closely with the Nazi rearmament effort. Under intense pressure from Berlin, both companies took pains to make their subsidiaries appear as “German” as possible. In April 1939, for example, German Ford made a personal present to Hitler of 35,000 Reichsmarks in honor of his 50th birthday, according to a captured Nazi document.

Documents show that the parent companies followed a conscious strategy of continuing to do business with the Nazi regime, rather than divest themselves of their German assets. Less than three weeks after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, GM Chairman Alfred P. Sloan defended this strategy as sound business practice, given the fact that the company’s German operations were “highly profitable.”

The internal politics of Nazi Germany “should not be considered the business of the management of General Motors,” Sloan explained in a letter to a concerned shareholder dated April 6, 1939. “We must conduct ourselves [in Germany] as a German organization. . . . We have no right to shut down the plant.”

U.S. Firms Became Crucial

After the outbreak of war in September 1939, General Motors and Ford became crucial to the German military, according to contemporaneous German documents and postwar investigations by the U.S. Army. James Mooney, the GM director in charge of overseas operations, had discussions with Hitler in Berlin two weeks after the German invasion of Poland.

Typewritten notes by Mooney show that he was involved in the partial conversion of the principal GM automobile plant at Russelsheim to production of engines and other parts for the Junker “Wunderbomber,” a key weapon in the German air force, under a government-brokered contract between Opel and the Junker airplane company. Mooney’s notes show that he returned to Germany the following February for further discussions with Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering and a personal inspection of the Russelsheim plant.

Mooney’s involvement in the conversion of the Russelsheim plant undermines claims by General Motors that the American branch of the company had nothing to do with the Nazi rearmament effort. In congressional testimony in 1974, GM maintained that American personnel resigned from all management positions in Opel following the outbreak of war in 1939 “rather than participate in the production of war materials.”

However, according to documents of the Reich Commissar for the Treatment of Enemy Property, the American parent company continued to have some say in the operations of Opel after September 1939. The documents show that the company issued a general power of attorney to an American manager, Pete Hoglund, in March 1940. Hoglund did not leave Germany until a year later. At that time, the power of attorney was transferred to a prominent Berlin lawyer named Heinrich Richter.

GM spokesman Mueller declined to answer questions from The Washington Post on the power of attorney granted to Hoglund and Richter or to provide access to the personnel files of Hoglund and other wartime managers. He also declined to comment on an assertion by Snell that Opel used French and Belgian prisoners at its Russelsheim plant in the summer of 1940, at a time when the American Hoglund was still looking after GM interests in Germany.

The Nazis had a clear interest in keeping Opel and German Ford under American ownership, despite growing hostility between Washington and Berlin. By the time of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the American stake in German Ford had declined to 52 percent, but Nazi officials argued against a complete takeover. A memorandum to plant managers dated November 25, 1941, acknowledged that such a step would deprive German Ford of “the excellent sales organization” of the parent company and make it more difficult to bring “the remaining European Ford companies under German influence.”

Documents suggest that the principal motivation of both companies during this period was to protect their investments. An FBI report dated July 23, 1941 quoted Mooney as saying that he would refuse to take any action that might “make Hitler mad.” In fall 1940, Mooney told the journalist Henry Paynter that he would not return his Nazi medal because such an action might jeopardize GM’s $100 million investment in Germany. “Hitler has all the cards,” Paynter quoted Mooney as saying.

“Mooney probably thought that the war would be over very quickly, so why should we give our wonderful company away,” said German researcher Anita Kugler, who used Nazi archives to trace the company’s dealings with Nazi Germany.

Even though GM officials were aware of the conversion of its Russelsheim plant to aircraft engine production, they resisted such conversion efforts in the United States, telling shareholders that their automobile assembly lines in Detroit were “not adaptable to the manufacture of other products” such as planes, according to a company document discovered by Snell.

In June 1940, after the fall of France, Henry Ford personally vetoed a U.S. government-approved plan to produce under license Rolls-Royce engines for British fighter planes, according to published accounts by his associates.

Declaration of War Alters Ties

America’s declaration of war on Germany in December 1941 made it illegal for U.S. motor companies to have any contact with their subsidiaries on German-controlled territory.

At GM and Ford plants in Germany, reliance on forced labor increased. The story of Elsa Iwanowa, who brought a class-action suit against Ford last March, is typical. At the age of 16, she was abducted from her home in the southern Russian city of Rostov by German soldiers in October 1942 with hundreds of other young women to work at the Ford plant at Cologne.

“The conditions were terrible. They put us in barracks, on three-tier bunks,” she recalled in a telephone interview from Belgium, where she now lives. “It was very cold; they did not pay us at all and scarcely fed us. The only reason that we survived was that we were young and fit.”

In a court submission, American Ford acknowledges that Iwanowa and others were “forced to endure a sad and terrible experience” at its Cologne plant but maintains that redressing such “tragedies” should be “a government-to-government concern.” Spellich, the Ford spokesman, insists the company did not have management control over its German subsidiary during the period in question.

Ford has backed away from its initial claim that it did not profit in any way from forced labor at its Cologne plant. Spellich said that company historians are still researching this issue but have found documents showing that, after the war, American Ford received dividends from its German subsidiary worth approximately $60,000 for the years 1940-43. He declined a request to interview the historians, saying they were “too busy.”

The extent of contacts between American Ford and its German-controlled subsidiary after 1941 is likely to be contested at any trial. Simon Reich, an economic historian at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on the German car industry, says he has yet to see convincing evidence that American Ford had any control over its Cologne plant after December 1941. He adds, however, that both “Opel and Ford did absolutely everything they could to ingratiate themselves to the Nazi state.”

While there was no direct contact between American Ford and its German subsidiary after December 1941, there appear to have been some indirect contacts. In June 1943, the Nazi custodian of the Cologne plant, Robert Schmidt, traveled to Portugal for talks with Ford managers there. In addition, the Treasury Department investigated Ford after Pearl Harbor for possible illegal contacts with its subsidiary in occupied France, which produced Germany army trucks. The investigation ended without charges being filed.

Even though American Ford now condemns what happened at its Cologne plant during the war, it continued to employ the managers in charge at the time. After the war, Schmidt was briefly arrested by Allied military authorities and barred from working for Ford. But he was reinstated as the company’s technical director in 1950 after he wrote to Henry Ford II claiming that he had always “detested” the Nazis and had never been a member of the party. A letter signed by a leading Cologne Nazi in February 1942 describes Schmidt as a trusted party member. Ford maintains that Schmidt’s name does not show up on Nazi membership lists.

Mel Weiss, an American attorney for Iwanowa, argues that American Ford received “indirect” profits from forced labor at its Cologne plant because of the overall increase in the value of German operations during the war. He notes that Ford was eager to demand compensation from the U.S. government after the war for “losses” due to bomb damage to its German plants and therefore should also be responsible for any benefits derived from forced labor.

Similar arguments apply to General Motors, which was paid $32 million by the U.S. government for damages sustained to its German plants. Washington attorney Michael Hausfeld, who is involved in the Ford lawsuit, confirms GM also is “on our list” as a possible target.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company