CubaBrief: Why Cuba can’t afford to let a Black activist die for demanding basic rights. Protest at the Cuban Embassy. Havana Syndrome back in the news

Cuban independent journalist Abraham Jiménez Enoa writing in The Washington Post today explains what is at stake with the San Isidro Movement, and the artist now held against his will at the Calixto Garcia Hospital, “Ultimately, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara embodies everything the regime claims to promote and defend, but in reality doesn’t: He is a poor Black artist who wants to express himself freely and have a dignified life. This is what the dictatorship hates the most: his dignity in struggle. The regime will have to keep dealing with Otero’s art and his protests. All Cubans see and understand his cause. There will be no “better Cuba,” as Díaz-Canel keeps repeating, if the state has to force people to starve themselves in order to enjoy basic rights.”

Protest at the Cuban Embassy on May 6, 2021

Protest at the Cuban Embassy on May 6, 2021

On May 6, 2021 from 4:00pm to 6:00pm human rights defenders from CubaDecide, Somos +, Patmos, Center for a Free Cuba, and others not affiliated with any organization gathered at the Cuban Embassy in Washington DC, and protested for both proof of life and the freedom of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, all political prisoners in Cuba, activists detained on April 30th trying to reach Luis Manuel, and in defense of free expression and in solidarity with the San Isidro Movement. List of identified political prisoners was read out in front of the Embassy with those gathered calling for their freedom. This day was selected because ten years ago Cuban dissident and former political prisoner, Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia (age 46) was arrested and beaten by Cuban regime police on May 5, 2011 while protesting the dictatorship and died from his injuries on May 8, 2011, and those responsible never had to answer for their actions.

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., observed in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail on April 16, 1963 that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This is also true in Cuba, where for 62 years the systematic denial of human rights has become normalized in the international community. The United States normalized relations with Cuba in 2015, and a state visit by the President of the United States and his family was carried out in 2016, and later that same year American diplomats began suffering brain injuries, and now this phenomenon has taken place in other countries, but the largest outbreak was in Cuba. Commendably, the Biden Administration is looking into what has come to be known as the Havana Syndrome.

Perhaps it is time for Americans to picket the Embassy of Cuba in Washington DC and call on Havana to come clean on what they know about these attacks against U.S. personnel in Cuba.

The Washington Post, May 7, 2021

Global Opinions

Opinion: Why Cuba can’t afford to let a Black activist die for demanding basic rights

Dissident artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara speaks during an interview in Havana on April 6. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

Dissident artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara speaks during an interview in Havana on April 6. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

Opinion by Abraham Jiménez Enoa

Columnista, Post Opinión

While the Cuban Communist Party celebrated its eighth congress in Havana last month —during which President Miguel Díaz-Canel replaced Raúl Castro as the party’s first secretary, the most powerful post on the island — the headquarters of the dissident San Isidro Movement, located in the house of the artist and activist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, was raided. Several state security agents dressed as civilians broke into the house and forcibly detained Otero and the poet Afrika Reina. Outside the house, to justify their assault, the agents screamed “¡Qué viva la revolución! ¡Qué viva Fidel!” They also took Otero’s most recent artwork.

Otero was released, but his house remained surrounded by police. That didn’t stop him: he started to demand his art pieces back. He did this for almost a week; every time he set foot outside his house, he was jailed for hours. The last time he was imprisoned, two alleged criminals threatened him in their cell. That’s when he decided to begin a strict hunger strike to demand a return of his artwork, reimbursement for the damages against his house and an end to the round-the-clock police surveillance. On the seventh day of his strike, he said: “If my body dies, I hope it adds to the spark of freedom in Cuba.”

Read this piece in Spanish.

But even if Otero wanted to become a martyr for the cause of overthrowing the Cuban dictatorship, even if he wanted to die for his art and his freedom of expression — he was still a prisoner. The Cuban regime has not only curtailed his art and activism, it now gets to decide what happens to his life.

Otero is the biggest rock inside the regime’s boot. He has now also become a liability. If he dies while demanding basic rights, the United States will impose tougher sanctions. His activism also gives Cuba cover during possible negotiations — they can say to the European Union or Washington that Cuba allows citizens to express themselves freely. They can say there is an active opposition, even if they demonize and persecute them.

Otero’s art and activism is now recognized inside and outside Cuba. The regime can’t ignore his hunger strike, like it did with the political prisoners Yosvany ArosteguiOrlando Zapata and others that didn’t have an international profile. They all died.

The truth is that the regime could not afford to face the consequences of Otero’s death; it will do whatever it can to prevent it. Cuba is going through a deep economic crisis and the only way out might be a better relationship with the Biden administration, in the hope of recreating the calmer times seen during the Barack Obama administration.

That’s why, on May 2, on the eighth day of the hunger strike, the regime broke into Otero’s house again, this time to rush him to a hospital. He was safe but still their prisoner. It wasn’t until the State Department issued a statement that the regime released some information about his condition. Now, the government has silenced Otero, while also claiming to be taking care of him.

Ultimately, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara embodies everything the regime claims to promote and defend, but in reality doesn’t: He is a poor Black artist who wants to express himself freely and have a dignified life. This is what the dictatorship hates the most: his dignity in struggle.

The regime will have to keep dealing with Otero’s art and his protests. All Cubans see and understand his cause. There will be no “better Cuba,” as Díaz-Canel keeps repeating, if the state has to force people to starve themselves in order to enjoy basic rights.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/05/07/cuba-san-isidro-luis-manuel-otero-alcantara-hunger-strike-repression/

CBS News, May 6, 2021

Biden administration conducting intel review of “Havana Syndrome” cases

Olivia Gazis 1 day ago

© Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images CUBA-US-EMABASSY

© Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images CUBA-US-EMABASSY

More than a dozen CIA officers serving in multiple overseas locations have returned to the U.S. to seek care this year after reporting symptoms consistent with “Havana Syndrome,” the mysterious, debilitating illness that is thought to have already afflicted scores of U.S. personnel since 2016, according to current and former U.S. officials and people familiar with the matter. The new suspected incidents occurred in the early months of 2021, and at least one happened as recently as March, according to three sources.

In many of the cases, the officers felt so sick, so suddenly, that they required emergency medical evacuation, two people familiar with the matter said. The recent incidents have taken place on three continents, according to one of the people.

The reported cases are the latest in what lawmakers of both parties have said is an “increasing” pattern of suspected “attacks” on U.S. officials — which have included diplomats, intelligence officers and military personnel — and which have prompted several government investigations at the CIA, State Department and Pentagon.   

A White House spokesperson said the cause of the incidents is an area of “active inquiry,” and that the National Security Council (NSC) has been coordinating a “government-wide effort” since the start of the administration to determine who is responsible and ensure those affected receive medical evaluations and proper care. 

“As part of the inquiry, the NSC is coordinating a full review of intelligence reporting to ascertain whether there may be previously unreported incidents that fit a broader pattern,” the spokesperson said. “We cannot address additional specifics at this time, but this remains a priority and we are bringing the U.S. government’s resources to bear to get to the bottom of this.” 

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers recently expressed frustration with the CIA in particular for what they see as obfuscation of the scope and severity of a problem whose existence has been known for years.  

Last Wednesday, a CIA briefing team was sharply upbraided by members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who reacted angrily to the officials’ lack of definitive answers and the agency’s halting progress in connecting some employees who had reported symptoms with medical care.  

The classified briefing, delivered by members of a CIA task force created late last year to address the incidents, became highly contentious; two sources familiar with its dynamic described it as a “bloodbath,” and said the effectiveness of the task force itself was viewed by congressional overseers and agency victims with increasing skepticism. CNN first reported the heated nature of the briefing. 

Senators demanded that CIA officials who may have delayed officers who reported feeling ill from receiving prompted medical treatment be held accountable, and they raised concerns that agency leadership, principally during the tenures of former Director Gina Haspel and Mike Pompeo, failed to take complaints from its workforce seriously, according to the two sources.  

A spokeswoman for the committee declined to comment on the briefing.

On Friday, the bipartisan leadership of the Senate committee issued a statement characterizing the incidents as “attacks” and vowing to work to uncover their origin.  

“For nearly five years, we have been aware of reports of mysterious attacks on United States Government personnel in Havana, Cuba and around the world. This pattern of attacking our fellow citizens serving our government appears to be increasing,” Intelligence Committee Chairman and Virginia Democrat Mark Warner and Vice Chairman Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said. “The Senate Intelligence Committee intends to get to the bottom of this. We have already held fact finding hearings on these debilitating attacks, many of which result in medically confirmed cases of Traumatic Brain Injury, and will do more.”  

“[W]e welcome CIA Director Burns’ renewed focus on these attacks,” the senators’ statement continued. “Our committee will continue to work with him, and the rest of the Intelligence Community, to better understand the technology behind the weapon responsible for these attacks.” 

A spokesperson for the House Intelligence Committee said that panel had also been examining the origin of the alleged attacks “quietly and persistently behind closed doors” since they were first reported.  

“The committee will continue to hold events and briefings on this subject and we will follow the evidence wherever it may lead and ensure anyone responsible is held to account,” the spokesperson said.  

Individuals afflicted with Havana Syndrome have reported a range of neurological symptoms, including vertigo, dizziness, ear pain and popping, nausea and intense and persistent headaches. Some have been determined to be suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The syndrome gets its name from the first known instances of the illness, which in 2016 and 2017 sickened more than a dozen U.S. embassy and intelligence officials in Cuba.  

An assessment by the National Academies of Sciences — completed at the State Department’s request and released late last year — said the “most plausible” cause of the officials’ symptoms was “directed, pulsed, radiofrequency energy.”  

Although the Russian government is widely thought to be behind the incidents, the U.S. government has made no official attribution, and U.S. intelligence agencies have not reached a conclusion about their origin, according to current and former U.S. officials briefed on the matter. Some U.S. officials have also informally blamed China, where, in 2018, American diplomats fell ill with similar symptoms.  

Current and former American officials familiar with the government’s investigations have also warned, however, that significant unknowns about the incidents — including at least two reported as taking place on U.S. soil — persist.  The officials said it remained unclear whether all of the incidents are connected and whether they are all the result of actual directed energy attacks. 

Two U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence being evaluated by the CIA said a consensus had not yet emerged among analysts who have questioned, among other things, what would motivate a foreign government to employ a technique with traceable effects on as wide a variety and as large a number of targets as have reported symptoms.    

A CIA spokeswoman declined to offer comment, referring to prior public remarks on the matter by Director William Burns. 

The CIA’s task force, which was first established in December of 2020, was created to examine the health incidents and handle the care of agency employees who have fallen ill. Burns, who took the helm at the agency in March, said he had since designated a senior-level officer and direct report to run the task force.  

Burns told Congress that he personally visited Walter Reed and the National Institutes of Health to thank medical professionals for the support they had provided to date, and met for several hours with agency employees who had fallen ill. 

“I said in my confirmation hearing I would make this a very high priority to ensure my colleagues get the care they deserve and we get to the bottom of who was responsible,” Burns said in public testimony before the House Intelligence Committee last month. “I’ve tried very hard to demonstrate that commitment.” 

https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/biden-administration-conducting-intel-review-of-havana-syndrome-cases/ar-BB1gqcFI?li=BBnb7Kz

Center for a Free Cuba, May 6, 2021

Protest at the Embassy of Cuba in Washington DC for Proof of Life, and Freedom of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara , and in solidarity with the San Isidro Movement

May 6, 2021

On May 6, 2021 from 4:00pm to 6:00pm Cuban human rights defenders from CubaDecide, Somos +, Patmos, Center for a Free Cuba, and others not affiliated with any organization will protest for both proof of life and the freedom of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, and all political prisoners in Cuba, in defense of free expression and in solidarity with the San Isidro Movement.

Luis Manuel is part of the San Isidro Movement, a collective of artists founded in 2018 to protest Decree 349, that has been targeted with repression by the Cuban dictatorship for defending free expression and demanding the release of Denis Solis, an artist and musician wrongly jailed by the Castro dictatorship.

Ten years ago Cuban dissident and former political prisoner, Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia (age 46) was arrested and beaten by Cuban regime police on May 5, 2011 while protesting the dictatorship and died from his injuries on May 8, 2011. The beating was so brutal that he required hospitalization. Juan Wilfredo was buried Sunday, on Mother’s Day. At the funeral Cuban pastor Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso spoke about the life of the Cuban activist and the circumstances surrounding his death. Pastor Lleonart Barroso will be present at the protest today.

The life of opposition activist and independent artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara is in imminent danger in Cuba. State Security agents took him from his home on Sunday, May 2 and transferred him to the Calixto García Hospital located in the Cuban capital according to official sources, however, his real condition and location have not been confirmed by his family or close friends. This secretive situation has triggered the suspicion of human rights organizations and their defenders outside the Island, as well as within the country.

“In the past, the Calixto García Hospital and other Cuban hospitals have been the scene of the death of other opponents under the control of the agents of the Ministry of the Interior, as was the case of the leader of the Ladies in White Laura Pollán Toledo in October 2011. The agents of the political police isolate the person, do not allow the entry of their relatives or friends, and the treatment they apply or the one they stop applying to lead them to death is unknown. There are numerous cases of unexplained deaths in hospitals on the Island under the custody of State Security. Another case was that of the blind opponent Sergio Díaz Larrastegui in April 2012,” explained Janisset Rivero, who for years has documented these cases and is a collaborator of the Center for a Free Cuba.

In both cases, that of Pollán and that of Díaz Larrastegui, whose homes were headquarters in Havana of important human rights organizations, their deaths meant the closure of the headquarters and a severe blow to the civic movement.

“Now hostage videos emerge from Cuba, along with regime spokespersons publicizing private medical information of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, in response to demands of proof of life,with a militarized presence around the hospital where he is being kept. There is great reason to be concerned for Luis Manuel’s safety. Friends and fellow activists that have tried to see him remain arbitrarily detained. Names that we know of are: Inti Soto, Thais Mailen Franco, Esteban Rodríguez, Mary Karla Ares, Nancy Vera, Yuisan Cancio Vera, Luis Ángel, Felix Modesto and Leonardo Romero, and others are surrounded by regime agents and unable to leave their homes. This is unacceptable and this is why we will be picketing the Cuban Embassy today at 4:00pm,” said John Suárez, Executive Director of the CFC.