CubaBrief: Castro regime diplomat expelled from Colombia. Christian Liberation Movement recalls when thousands of Cuban citizens demanded change in Cuba.

Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, in his 1999 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting observed that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Memory provides context to unfolding events today, and helps to render informed judgements.

For example, “Colombia’s foreign ministry had on [May 6, 2021] accused Omar Rafael García Lazo, the first secretary of Cuba’s embassy in Bogota, of breaching the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, without adding further details,” reported Reuters. The Associated Press reported that “Colombia’s government [had] expelled the No. 2 Cuban diplomat in the country for ‘activities incompatible’ with his position.” The Castro regime responded “by accusing Colombia of trying to divert attention from a wave of protests,” reported the wire service. However, if one looks at the Castro regime’s history in Colombia then the reason for expulsion becomes understandable.

Colombia's ELN was founded in Cuba in 1964 by Colombian students and advised by Castro agents for decades in terror tactics

Colombia’s ELN was founded in Cuba in 1964 by Colombian students and advised by Castro agents for decades in terror tactics

The National Liberation Army (ELN), a Colombian terrorist group, was founded in Cuba in 1964 by “Colombian students on scholarship.” This relationship continued into the 1970s and 1980s with deserters reporting that Cubans were “working as advisers and instructors for the ELN” and directing its “sabotage of oil installations”, and kidnappings. In Nov 2017 ex-Cuban diplomat, Jose Antonio “Tony” Lopez was linked to terrorists responsible for the June 17, 2017 bombing in Bogota, Colombia that killed three and injured nine. Mother of one of the accused denied her son’s involvement in the attack but confirmed a link with Lopez. The former Cuban diplomat also had links to the FARC and the ELN.
Cuban diplomats also have a track record of plotting terror attacks and assisting terrorists in the United States, and Europe. Two Cuban diplomats were expelled in 1962 for plotting a series of bombings in New York City targeting Macy’s, Gimbel’s, Bloomingdale’s and Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal. Cuban intelligence operatives achieved “successes” in bombing attacks in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. France expelled three high‐ranking Cuban diplomats on July 10, 1975 in connection with their working relationship with Carlos the Jackal, who was an important link in international terrorist networks, and had been trained in Cuba.

Having this history in mind when judging today’s news is of critical importance to offer an informed opinion on Havana’s involvement in South America. A historic perspective is also needed to understand Cuba’s dissident movement today, and the dangers activists now face.

Oswaldo Payá, Antonio Diaz, and Regis Iglesias turn in petitions to Cuban National Assembly on May 10, 2002

Oswaldo Payá, Antonio Diaz, and Regis Iglesias turn in petitions to Cuban National Assembly on May 10, 2002

Nineteen years ago on May 10, 2002, carrying 11,020 signed petitions in support of the Varela Project, the Christian Liberation Movement’s Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, Antonio Diaz Sanchez, and Regis Iglesias Ramirez walked to the Cuban National Assembly with bulky cardboard boxes labeled Project Varela. The Christian Liberation Movement was founded by Catholic lay people in Havana in September 1988, and is part of a non-violent dissident movement that traces its origins and influences to the Cuban Committee for Human Rights that was founded in 1976.

The Varela Project, named after the Cuban Catholic Priest Felix Varela, sought to reform the Cuban legal system to bring it in line with international human rights standards. They had followed the letter of the law in organizing the campaign.

Former President James Carter visited Cuba in May 2002 and on May 15th gave a speech at the University of Havana, where he advocated for the lifting of economic sanctions on Cuba and “called for the Varela Project petition to be published in the official newspaper so that people could learn about it.”

Yet the dictatorship’s response to the nonviolent citizen’s initiative, and to President Carter’s request was to first coerce Cubans into signing another petition declaring the Constitution unchangeable and quickly passed it through the rubber stamp legislature without debating the Varela Project, which according to the Cuban law drafted by the dictatorship meant that it should have been debated by the National Assembly.

Less than a year later beginning on March 18, 2003 the Black Cuban Spring would begin with a massive crackdown on Cuba’s civil society with many of the organizers of Project Varela, imprisoned and summarily sentenced up to 28 years in prison. The 75 activists who had been imprisoned with long prison sentences became known as the “group of the 75.” During the Black Cuban Spring Antonio Diaz Sanchez was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and Regis Iglesias Ramirez was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Havana announced, at the time, that the Cuban dissident movement had been destroyed. They spoke prematurely. First, the remaining activists who were still free continued gathering signatures and would turn in another 14,384 petition signatures on October 5, 2003, and they continued to gather more. Furthermore, the wives, sisters and daughters of the activists who had been detained and imprisoned organized themselves into the “Ladies in White.” A movement that sought the freedom of their loved ones and organized regular marches through the streets of Cuba, despite regime organized violence visited upon them. This new movement was led by Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, a former school teacher.

Antonio Diaz Sanchez and Regis Iglesias Ramirez were released from prison into forced exile in 2010. Today marking this anniversary of the Varela Project, Regis Iglesias’s following statement was published by the Christian Liberation Movement.

“So far the only response to the more than 35,000 citizens who have supported this initiative has been persecution, kidnapping, prison, exile and murder. But until political pluralism and freedom of information are recognized and guaranteed, until economic freedoms are recognized for Cubans, an amnesty is not decreed, a new electoral law is not approved where citizens can be proposed by the people. and elections are not held in the midst of an environment of respect for popular sovereignty, diversity of opinions and we can freely choose the government that represents Cubans, we will not renounce to maintain our civic demand, remembering that the Cuban regime is a gangster regime that does not respect the rights of citizens or the sovereignty of Cubans.”

President Carter made a second trip to Cuba in March 2011, and did not publicly mention Project Varela during that visit, but instead focused efforts on trading Alan Gross for the remaining members of the WASP network jailed in the United States on charges of espionage, and murder conspiracy that killed three Americans and a US resident in 1996, and calling for the lifting of economic sanctions on the Castro regime. President Carter also downplayed the threat of FARC, ETA, and ELN terrorists harbored in Cuba.

Less than two months after the visit, Cuban dissident and former political prisoner, Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia (age 46) was arrested and beaten to death by Cuban regime police while protesting the dictatorship and died early on Sunday May 8, 2011. Months later on October 15, 2011 Laura Inés Pollán Toledo died under suspicious circumstances at the Calixto Garcia hospital.

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas was killed on July 22, 2012 together with Harold Cepero, a youth leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, in a car “accident” that all the hallmarks of a state security operation copied after the East German Stasi, who trained intelligence operatives in the Castro regime.

The positions advocated by President Carter during his visit to Cuba in 2011 were taken up by President Barack Obama with his December 17, 2014 announcement of normalized relations with Havana. It also coincided with the release of the remaining WASP network spies and continued loosening of economic sanctions, to the degree possible by the White House. On May 29, 2015 the Obama Administration removed Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. However, the underlying reasons Cuba had first been placed on the list had not changed, but was driven by the White House’s desire to normalize relations with the Castro regime, and what was perceived as an easy “win.” It was a political decision, meeting a demand from Havana, to restore diplomatic relations. However, Havana did not reciprocate by ending its outlaw practices.

The State Department on January 11, 2021 re-designated Cuba a terror sponsor citing “Cuba has refused Colombia’s requests to extradite 10 ELN leaders living in Havana after the group claimed responsibility for the January 2019 bombing of a Bogota police academy” killing 22 and injuring more than 87.” It also mentioned “the Cuban government’s support for FARC dissidents and the ELN continues beyond Cuba’s borders as well, and the regime’s support of Maduro has created a permissive environment for international terrorists to live and thrive within Venezuela.”

Revisiting and remembering these historic moments is part of the struggle against forgetting, and the conversation that it may arouse will only serve, when backed up with facts, to strengthen memory with truth. Memory, and retentiveness are defenses against the Castro regime’s totalitarian rewriting of history.

The Washington Post, May 7, 2021

Colombia expels Cuban; Havana says move ‘groundless’

By Andrea RodrÍguez | AP

May 7, 2021 at 4:37 p.m. EDT

HAVANA — Colombia’s government has expelled the No. 2 Cuban diplomat in the country for “activities incompatible” with his position, and Cuba lashed back Friday by accusing Colombia of trying to divert attention from a wave of protests.

Cuban officials issued an official letter demanding more explanation and calling the removal of Omar Rafael García Lazo “an unfriendly act.”

A public statement by Colombia’s Foreign Ministry on Friday did not detail reasons for the removal or identify the diplomat, though the ministry assured it put a “priority on the diplomatic relationship and cooperation” with Cuba.

The Colombian Foreign Ministry’s letter, which was received on Thursday and was seen by The Associated Press in Cuba, said Colombia was cancelling García Lazo’s diplomatic accreditation and visa and giving him 48 hours to leave.

Cuba’s letter in response said the ouster was “a groundless decision” that would affect the functioning of its embassy.

The conservative government of Colombian President Iván Duque has had a tense but complicated relationship with socialist Cuba, which has long been a refuge for leaders of leftist Colombian guerrilla movements.

Cuba hosted peace talks that led to a 2016 disarmament pact with the largest of those groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — a deal that Duque’s party strongly criticized but which his government has not wholly renounced.

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry sent a tweet accusing Colombia’s government of using the expulsion to try to divert attention from its own crackdown on a wave of anti-government protests this month in which at least 26 people have died.

Duque has several times demanded that Cuba give up leaders of the still-rebellious National Liberation Army. Cuba has overseen several unsuccessful attempts at peace between Colombia and that rebel faction, The last round of talks was frozen in 2018.

The Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2021

Cuba’s Support for Terror

Obama’s engagement failed to change Havana’s behavior.

The Editorial Board

After a five-year hiatus, the State Department on Monday returned Cuba to its list of state sponsors of terrorism. What took so long?

State’s practice of listing countries that “have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism” has been in place since 1979. President Reagan added the tropical communist regime in 1982. Cuba remained so designated until President Obama removed it from the list in 2015 in its campaign to normalize relations. But Havana doesn’t want to be normal, and it has deepened and broadened its commitment to terrorism.

The collapse of Venezuela’s democracy over two decades has been run out of Havana by Cuba’s military-intelligence apparatus. The once-sovereign South American nation is now essentially a Cuban satellite used as a base for transnational crime and terrorism. A 2019 report by the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism found that “Cuba and Venezuela continued to provide permissive environments for terrorists.”

The report noted that “individuals linked” to dissident members of the Colombian drug-trafficking group FARC, “who remain committed to terrorism notwithstanding the peace accord,” as well as the smaller rebel National Liberation Army (ELN) and “Hizballah sympathizers” were in Venezuela. Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro, who survives in power thanks to Cuba, “has openly welcomed former FARC leaders who announced a return to terrorist activities,” the report said.

Cuba also welcomes and protects terrorists at home. “Members of the ELN who were in Havana to conduct peace talks with the Colombian government since 2017 also remained in Cuba,” the report found. “Cuba, citing peace negotiation protocols, refused Colombia’s request to extradite 10 ELN leaders after that group claimed responsibility for the January 2019 bombing of a Bogotá police academy, which killed 22 and injured 87 others.”

State noted Monday in its announcement that Cuba also harbors terrorists wanted by the U.S. for decades. These include “ Joanne Chesimard, on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List for executing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1973; Ishmael LaBeet, convicted of killing eight people in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1972; Charles Lee Hill, charged with killing New Mexico state policeman Robert Rosenbloom in 1971; and others.”

Outside the Western Hemisphere, Havana’s allies include Syria, Iran and North Korea. In May 2020 State certified Cuba, under the Arms Export Control Act, as “not cooperating fully” with U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Cuba will attempt to coax Joe Biden to resume Mr. Obama’s courtship, but the regime never honored its promises at home or abroad. Cuba belongs on the terror list.

From the Archives

The New York Times, May 14, 2002

Cuban Dissidents Put Hope in a Petition and Jimmy Carter

By David Gonzalez

May 14, 2002

Oswaldo Paya is a Cuban radical. But he is not among the hoarse-throated, flag-waving masses that cheer President Fidel Castro. He is radical because he has asked openly for democracy.

More than 11,000 Cubans overcame fear and timidity to put their names and addresses on a petition Mr. Paya circulated demanding a referendum to gain greater freedom. The drive, known as Project Varela, is the most direct peaceful challenge to Cuba’s one-party Communist rule in its 43 years.

Partly by luck and partly by design, the petitions were delivered to the National Assembly on Friday, two days before the arrival of former President Jimmy Carter, whom many Cuban human rights advocates revere. They believe that his mere presence, as well as a televised speech he will give to the nation on Tuesday night, can give their project a profile that will make it impossible for Mr. Castro to ignore.

”This is not something personal, but a solid and undeniable act where thousands of Cubans are demanding radical change,” Mr. Paya said in an interview. ”Not violently, but radical in that it goes to the root of the problem. Cuba is a country without rights. Now we want our rights.”

Of all the international leaders who have taken an interest in Cuba’s small but increasingly open dissident movement, Mr. Carter is perhaps the most respected for his advocacy of human rights. Many Latin American leaders, once friendly toward Cuba, have recently begun to urge Mr. Castro to make progress on the issue.

But unlike the other leaders, Mr. Carter is the first to visit Cuba when dissidents finally have a plan of action that challenges the status quo using the legal system that has sustained it. Supporters of Project Varela see a referendum under the terms of Cuba’s Constitution as a way to move toward democracy without humiliating the government.

”I do not want Mr. Carter to be a propagandist for the project,” Mr. Paya said. ”All we are saying to him is: ‘Here we are at this special moment. Make your own decision.’ ”

The project had been a year in the making, circulated among friends and neighbors, door to door and by word of mouth. It was named in honor of the Rev. Félix Varela, a Cuban-born priest who opposed slavery and spent three decades in the New York City as an advocate for the poor until he died in 1853 in Florida.

The petition’s demands include freedom of association and expression, the right to own businesses, amnesty for political prisoners and an overhaul of the electoral law.

Supporters said that while the government at first scoffed at them, it eventually turned to more direct dissuasion with threats and home searches. Some were detained and taken miles from their homes, then forced to walk or hitchhike back.

”The government first said we would never get enough signatures,” said Elizardo Sánchez, a former professor of Marxist philosophy who now is probably Cuba’s leading human rights advocate. ”Out of a feeling of totalitarian arrogance, it was convinced no one would dare sign it. When they saw it was being signed, then they turned to repressive measures.”

The government has said little about the project, except to dismiss it as the work of of marginal people paid by the United States.

”I said before and I reiterate today, the document was not made in this nation,” Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque said on Sunday. ”It is an imported product. It is financed, encouraged and directed by foreign interests.”

But the project’s supporters insisted that they had not accepted a cent of United States financing. Many were opposed to the Bush administration’s decision last year to provide more money to Cuban pro-democracy groups, fearing that it would allow the government to dismiss their demands.

Some dissidents have not endorsed Project Varela, as a result of personal rivalries or philosophical differences.

There is a potentially fatal flaw. The petitions could be rejected on technical grounds since the signatures were not notarized. Mr. Paya said his group could not find a single notary willing to verify the signatures. But he added that the legal requirement was not in the Constitution, but in a 1996 law that he intended to challenge.

Mr. Paya called the project a democratic awakening that went against the political fatalism that has been instilled in two generations.

”The only reference for many people in and out of Cuba, and the opposition, has been Fidel Castro,” he said. ”They believe Cuba can only change if Fidel wants it. That is the antithesis of liberty. We believe liberty does not come through Fidel Castro.”

Still, he and his allies know they are hardly assured of success, or even a hearing. The government has long insisted that the dissidents represent few people. While many ordinary Cubans privately whisper their weariness of a system that has failed to meet their basic needs while catering to tourists and foreign investors, few are aware of the human rights activities.

Even with Mr. Carter’s visit, Mr. Paya has had threats. On Saturday, as he was being interviewed, he stopped to answer the telephone.

”Hello,” he said, to someone who asked for him. ”This is he.”

After a few seconds, he put down the phone. ”He said, ‘I know,’ ” Mr. Paya said. ”And then he hung up.”

The Washington Post, May 15, 2002

Carter Urges Democracy for Cuba

By Kevin Sullivan

May 15, 2002

Former president Jimmy Carter, in an unprecedented address carried live tonight on state radio and television, urged Cuba to “join the community of democracies” and endorsed the “fundamental right” of Cuban dissidents to seek changes in the country’s laws through direct elections.

Outlining his vision of improved relations between the United States and Cuba, Carter also called for the United States to “take the first step” by lifting the four-decade-old economic embargo against President Fidel Castro’s Communist nation — a position he has stated in the past.

“Our two nations have been trapped in a destructive state of belligerence for 42 years,” Carter said in his 20-minute address, which he delivered in Spanish. “And it is time for us to change our relationship and the way we think and talk about each other.”

As Castro and his top aides watched from the front row of an auditorium at the University of Havana, Carter praised the Varela Project, a petition drive that gathered signatures of more than 11,000 people demanding new freedoms in Cuba. Most Cubans were unaware of the project’s existence, as the government had forbidden it mentioned in the state media.

In central Havana tonight, Marta Rodriguez, 38, stood in the doorway of her home and said she thought that Carter’s speech could be a turning point in relations between the two countries.

“We have never had a good relationship with the United States,” she said. “But maybe now things are going to change.”

Tonight’s speech was the centerpiece of Carter’s five-day visit to Cuba, the first by a current or former U.S. president to this Caribbean island since 1928. Though visiting Cuba in an unofficial capacity, Carter became the most prominent American to directly address the Cuban people on the state-controlled airwaves, and all sides of the emotional debate surrounding Castro’s rule were watching to see how Carter would use that pulpit.

As expected, Carter said he hoped the U.S. Congress would “soon act to permit unrestricted travel between the United States and Cuba, establish open trading relationships and repeal the embargo.”

Carter said the embargo, which is strongly backed by the Bush administration, is not the cause of Cuba’s deep economic problems, as Castro has long claimed. However, Carter said, “the embargo freezes the existing impasse, induces anger and resentment, restricts the freedoms of U.S. citizens, and makes it difficult for us to exchange ideas and respect.

“I did not come here to interfere in Cuba’s internal affairs, but to extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people and to offer a vision of the future for our two countries.”

The university audience greeted Carter, 77, with a standing ovation, but sat silently during his speech and responded with polite applause at its conclusion.

Carter proposed creation of a binational commission to discuss property disputes. Many Cubans in the United States still claim ownership rights to property seized during and after Castro’s 1959 revolution.

Carter said he wanted to see “a massive student exchange” between the two countries and for Cuba to adopt the democratic changes necessary to join a Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Without directly criticizing Cuba’s human rights record, Carter noted that Cuba’s socialist system prohibits organized political opposition, and although its constitution recognizes freedom of speech and association, “other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government.”

The Varela Project seeks a national referendum to guarantee freedom of expression and association, amnesty for political prisoners, free elections and the right to private enterprise. It was also mentioned during a question-and-answer period with students after Carter’s speech.

Many Cubans had not heard of the project — named after Felix Varela, a 19th-century Roman Catholic priest and independence activist — because they get their information almost exclusively from television and radio broadcasts strictly controlled by the government.

In the question-and-answer period, Carter said he and Castro disagreed about the definition of democracy. Carter said his definition was based on the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All citizens are born with the right to choose their own leaders, to define their own destiny, to speak freely, to organize political parties, trade unions and nongovernmental groups, and to have fair and open trials.”

Only a handful of the 20 people interviewed on the streets of Havana tonight said they had watched Carter’s speech. But almost all of those questioned said they had seen Carter attending a baseball game with Castro after the speech. “It moved me a lot when he arrived in Cuba,” said Rebeca Guada, 35. “But I didn’t see him tonight.”

Lazaro Quinones, 40, said he had heard about Project Varela on his radio when he was listening to the BBC. He said he thought the issues of democracy, human rights and the Varela Project raised by Carter were “something we should look into.”

Joaquin Lorenzo, 74, said he was impressed with Carter, although he wasn’t sure what to think about the Varela Project, which he had not heard of before. He said Carter said Cubans had signed the petitions but the questioners in the audience said Cubans from Miami were behind it. He said he wasn’t sure whom to believe.

“The political propaganda here is so intense,” he said.

Castro had no immediate response to Carter’s speech. The two men left the auditorium and went together to a baseball game in Havana, in keeping with the cordial atmosphere of Carter’s trip. Before the speech, Carter sang along as the University of Havana choir Religion.”

During the visit, Carter and Castro have engaged in a gentle exchange of views on the meaning of democracy and human rights.

“In the United States, we believe that it is very important to have absolute freedom of expression and freedom of assembly,” Carter told social work students today on the outskirts of Havana.

On Monday evening, he told another group of students that in the United States “we take pride in our freedom to criticize our own government and to change our government when we don’t like it, by voting in elections that are contested.”

Without mentioning Carter’s remarks directly, Castro responded by saying that Cuba was moving toward a “dream of justice, of true liberty, of true democracy, of true human rights.”

Carter’s speech came a day before a bipartisan group of members of Congress who oppose the embargo plan to call for changes in policy toward Cuba.

“For over 40 years, our policy toward Cuba has yielded no results,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “Castro hasn’t held free and fair elections, he hasn’t improved human rights and he hasn’t stopped preaching his hate for democracy and the U.S. It’s time to try something new.”

President Bush is scheduled to give a speech next week announcing his plans regarding Cuba, after a lengthy review led by Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich, his top policy adviser on Latin America and a Cuban exile who strongly opposes Castro. Officials expect Bush, who will travel to Miami to outline his program, to endorse more funding and other aid to Castro’s enemies inside Cuba.