CubaBrief: State Department releases Cuba Country Report. Pro-regime engagement lobby complains harsh sentences hurting their efforts. Cuba’s Human Trafficking on Trial

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor released their 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices on April 12, 2022.

The preface of the report highlights “abuses of peaceful protestors demanding democracy and fundamental freedoms in countries such as Burma, Belarus, Cuba, Hong Kong, and Sudan. They highlight worrying cases of transnational repression – where governments reach across borders to harass, intimidate, or murder dissidents and their loved ones – as exemplified in the dangerous forced diversion by Belarus of an international commercial flight for the sole purpose of arresting a critical independent journalist.”

The above mentioned act of transnational repression involved independent journalist Roman Protasevich, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega who were on board a commercial plane diverted on its flight by a MiG 29, belonging to the Lukashenko regime in Belarus on May 23, 2021. This “forced diversion” appears to have inspired Cuba’s secret police that on August 23, 2021 State Security visited the mother of exiled human rights defender and Cubalex executive director Laritza Diversent and among other threats warned they would “intercept Laritza Diversent in the United States or another country” to “take her to Cuba” and put her on trial.

Laritza Diversent was threatened via her mom that she would be intercepted and taken to Cuba.

The country report on Cuba offers a overview, and provides some information on extrajudicial killings, and called out government agents for their role in the killing of a 36 year old black man on July 12, 2021 and cited “oncologist Carlos Leonardo Vazquez Gonzalez, also known as “agent Fernando,” admitted on state television to working as an informant for State Security for 25 years.”

“Oncologist” Carlos Leonardo Vazquez Gonzalez, revealed himself to be “agent Fernando.”

After the revelation “multiple sources came forward and credibly accused him of intentionally denying medical care to dissidents. Friends and relatives of deceased activist Laura Pollan and independent journalists accused Vazquez and other doctors of playing a role in her 2011 death and falsifying the medical certificate of death.”

Opposition leader Laura Pollan died under suspicious circumstances in 2011.

In the Cuba report one finds a single paragraph that summarizes the events of 2021 related to dissidents on the island.

“On January 28, security forces violently arrested more than 20 artists and journalist peacefully protesting in front of the Ministry of Culture for the release of detained artists. On July 11, spontaneous peaceful protests broke out across the island. In the largest and most widespread demonstrations in decades, tens of thousands of citizens across the country poured into the streets to demand an end to repression as well as to criticize the government’s failure to meet their basic needs and its poor response to COVID-19. Social media posts helped spread news of the protests among citizens. Security forces responded with tear gas, beatings, and arrests. First Secretary of the Communist Party and President Miguel Diaz-Canel went on national television to call on “all revolutionaries and communists to confront these protests,” a reference to Article Four of the 2019 constitution, which gives citizens the right to “combat through any means, including armed combat” any who “intend to topple the political, social, and economic order established by this constitution.” Many of those arrested reported cruel and degrading treatment in prison. In October authorities denied permission for a protest planned for November 15 and threatened organizers. The government conducted summary trials for some protesters; sought long prison sentences, some up to 30 years, in hundreds of cases; and held other protesters in extended pretrial detention. Some activists chose to go into exile, and the government forced others to do so.”

During the 11J protests videos of Cuban government forces firing on protesters in a coordinated manner, and another video with a protester showing where a bullet passed through his arm.

Carmen Sesin of NBC News on April 12, 2022 published “Drip drip’ of harsh sentences for Cuba protesters deters engagement from U.S.,” that documents the woes of the pro-engagement with the dictatorship lobby that is having a hard time pushing to lift restrictions on the Cuban military dictatorship in Havana. However the article correctly begins looking at the plight of a young Cuban in Cuba.

Brandon David Becerra Curbelo turned 18 in November in a Cuban prison, and is now serving a 13 year prison sentence for peacefully protesting on July 11, 2021. This raises a natural question that goes unasked in the article. Should a regime that outlaws nonviolent dissent, including freedom of expression together with a history of sponsoring and engaging in international terrorism and drug trafficking be legitimized?

The NBC article  looks at two options: engaging with the dictatorship in a policy of unilateral concessions, hoping to gain some influence, or as the article quotes a pro-regime engagement critic of the current policy of “messaging to the Cuban government … via tweet”. Calling out the dictatorship in a naming and shaming exercise is far preferable to legitimizing and subsidizing it, as the pro-regime engagement lobby advocates.

However there is a third option that goes unreported in this article. Engaging with Cubans, and highlighting and ostracizing the dictatorship.

It worked before, the last time it was seriously tried, during the Reagan-Bush years. It was the only time that the International Committee of the Red Cross was able to enter Cuban prisons, and Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were able to officially visit the island.

It was a policy of engagement with the Cuban people through public diplomacy with the creation of Radio Marti that gave voice to dissidents and everyday Cubans to speak about the realities on the ground in Cuba. This engagement with Cubans was seen when victims of repression were taken to speak at the UN Human Rights Commission, and a former prisoner of conscience, Armando Valladares, designated U.S. Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission and made human rights in Cuba a policy priority.

The expulsion of Cuba from the UN Human Rights Council for the reasons listed in this petition, and there are more, would be a good start to returning to this approach. This would not only be good for Cubans, but also human rights globally. It would also not be the first time. Libya was expelled on March 1, 2011 due to repression against Libyans by the Qaddafi regime and Russia on April 6, 2022 following the invasion of Ukraine. This practice would also discourage other rights violators from running for a seat on the Council to avoid being subjected to a serious examination of their human rights records, and their own suspension.

Havana has been at the vanguard of working to undermine international human rights standards inside the UN Human Rights Council. For the sake of brevity two examples are highlighted.

On March 28, 2008 the Cuban delegation, together with the Organization of the Islamic Congress, successfully passed resolutions that turned the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression into an investigator into abuses of freedom of expression.

Less than a year later, on February 2, 2009 during the first Universal Periodic Review of China, Cuban Ambassador, Juan Antonio Fernández Palacios, recommended that China repress human rights defenders with more firmness making a mockery out of the human rights instrument.

There have been consequences to a policy of engaging and legitimizing the Cuban dictatorship or engaging in benign neglect. Freedom House in their Freedom in the World 2022 report charted 16 years of democratic decline globally, and with it the expansion of authoritarian rule. Havana together with their Russian and Chinese allies have played a role in this.

Changing that dynamic, and turning this decline around in Latin America would require an approach that empowers Cubans while isolating the dictatorship that oppresses them and destabilizes democracies in the region. A Cuban opposition movement in Cuba has petitioned the international community to do just that.

The Christian Liberation Movement highlighted eleven measures that democracies should take to engage with the Cuban people while ostracizing the Castro dictatorship. One of them is to apply a global arms embargo against the Castro regime, stop selling them the weapons that they use to beat, torture, and kill Cubans.

Camila Grigera Naón in her article “US Remittances to Cuba Continue, Bypassing Restrictions” published in Latino Rebels on April 11, 2022 exposes the internal blockade of the Castro regime on Cubans. Prior to 1993 possession of U.S. dollars in Cuba were illegal, and so were remittances. You could be jailed and heavily fined by the communist dictatorship in Cuba.

“Cuba’s Central Bank has never released a remittance report since the military government unblocked remittance flows in 1993, but independent researchers have subsequently estimated that approximately 50 percent of the transactions reach Cubans on the island through informal channels.”

Since then the regime through its military conglomerate Grupo de Administración de Empresas, also known by its acronym GAESA seeks to price gouge Cubans in shops that they run.

“These products cost a minimum of 240 percent more than the price at which they are purchased abroad,” explained Emilio Morales, a Cuban economist and president of the Havana Consulting Group in Miami. “This means that what costs one dollar to you, they sell for ($2.40), but in the CUC currency—a currency that, if you are Cuban and you travel to any part of the world, that currency is of no use to you because you can’t change it in any bank.”

Prior to Castroism Cuban farmers produced enough that food imports were not needed. Cubans could feed themselves.

What happened?

Havana does not allow Cuban farmers to sell their goods directly to other Cubans. They must sell it to the state company, called Acopio. This is what led Cuban independent journalist Yoani Sanchez to write a column titled “We Cubans Do Not Need Recipes, But Freedom To Produce Food” and she raises an important question.”Why can this cabbage that I plant in an old can on a balcony a few meters from the Ministry of Agriculture give me more hope than the ephemeral plans of the state company Acopio?”

She answers the question in the next paragraph of her article and it is a critique of communist central planning, and she runs risk of being punished for writing it.

“Because this cabbage is freely watered. It doesn’t answer to anyone, it doesn’t have to pander to the statistics spouted by any leader strutting his stuff on a podium. It is just a cabbage and we are just people who harvest a cabbage that knows that the land can give much and more, but it does not move with ideologies, nationalization or straitjackets designed by centralism. It’s a cabbage, it doesn’t understand parties, and hungry mouths need more cabbages like this.”

The Acopio is a state enterprise that fails to pick up crops in Cuba before they rot. According to experts, 50% is lost before it reaches consumers.

This is the main reason for the absence of food in Cuba, and overall scarcity. According to the Cuban Studies Institute between 1952-1958 Cuba achieved “agricultural self-sufficiency to supply the people’s market demand for food.” Despite the efforts to violently overthrow the Batista regime in the 1950s, “the Cuban food supply grew steadily to provide a highly productive system that, in daily calories consumption, ranked Cuba third in Latin America.”

This ended when the Castro regime took power, seized and collectivized properties, and prohibited farmers selling their crops to non-state entities, in the early years of the revolution. Farmers no longer decided how much to produce, or what price to sell. The Communist Cuban government established production quotas and farmers were (and are) obligated to sell to the state collection agency, called Acopio. Most recent law on agriculture in Cuba ( Decreto Ley 358 de 2018) continues to prohibit private sales of agricultural products to non-state entities.

Paradoxically, the Obama thaw with Cuba coincided with the expansion of military control of the Cuban economy. Liberalization of the Cuban agricultural sector occurred during times of crisis, for example the “free farmers’ markets in the 1980s, and the free agricultural markets after 1994” during the Special Period, and were repealed when the emergency passed.

Low domestic production in Cuba is due to the Cuban government and its failed communist agrarian policies that punish Cuban farmers. Message to Havana: Let Cuban farmers farm and take their harvest to market.

We made two requests in a public Tweet on April 6, 2022 to Paul Johnson, of the United States Agriculture Coalition to Cuba, while he was in Cuba meeting with higher ups in the Cuban dictatorship. We asked him to call on Cuban govt to allow Cuban farmers to sell their produce directly to Cubans in local markets, and to have the dictatorship end its price gouging of Cubans. Gave the example that the Cuban government buys chicken for $1/kg from USA and sells it to Cubans for $7/kg.

We never heard back, but this leads to another question. What are the consequences of full engagement, and so-called “normal” relations with Havana?

Thanks to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia we may soon find out. They upheld the right of trafficked doctors to sue the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and expose its sordid arrangement with the Castro regime to circumvent laws and international standards to profit off human trafficking.

Mary O’Grady in The Wall Street Journal on April 11, 2022 had an excellent column “Cuba’s Human Trafficking on Trial” detailing the latest actions on this ongoing legal fight that also exposes the profound corruption of PAHO, a subsidiary of the United Nations’ World Health Organization in its dealings with communist Cuba.

U.S. Department of State, April 12, 2022

2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Preface

For nearly five decades, the United States has issued the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which strive to provide a factual and objective record on the status of human rights worldwide – in 2021, covering 198 countries and territories.  The information contained in these reports could not be more vital or urgent given ongoing human rights abuses and violations in many countries, continued democratic backsliding on several continents, and creeping authoritarianism that threatens both human rights and democracy – most notably, at present, with Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine.

The Biden Administration has put human rights at the center of U.S. domestic and foreign policy.  We have also recognized our nation has not always succeeded in protecting the dignity and rights of all Americans, despite the proclamations of freedom, equality, and justice in our founding documents.  It is through the continued U.S. commitment to advance human rights, both domestically and internationally, that we best honor the generations of Americans who are Black, Brown, or other people of color, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, LGBTQI+ persons, immigrants, women and girls, and other historically marginalized groups whose advocacy for their rights and for others has pushed America toward a “more perfect union.”

President Biden has called the defense of democracy and human rights the defining challenge of our time.  By convening the first Summit for Democracy in December 2021 – bringing together representatives from 100 governments as well as civil society and the private sector – he sparked global attention and vigor toward democratic renewal and respect for human rights.  Participating governments made significant commitments to revitalize democracy at home and abroad at the first Summit on which we expect meaningful progress during the current Year of Action and before the time of a second Summit.

The reports paint a clear picture of where human rights and democracy are under threat.  They highlight where governments have unjustly jailed, tortured, or even killed political opponents, activists, human rights defenders, or journalists, including in Russia, the People’s Republic of China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Nicaragua, and Syria.  They document abuses of peaceful protestors demanding democracy and fundamental freedoms in countries such as Burma, Belarus, Cuba, Hong Kong, and Sudan.  They highlight worrying cases of transnational repression – where governments reach across borders to harass, intimidate, or murder dissidents and their loved ones – as exemplified in the dangerous forced diversion by Belarus of an international commercial flight for the sole purpose of arresting a critical independent journalist.

But they also contain signs of progress and glimmers of hope, as the indomitable will to live freely can never be extinguished.  In Iraq, people cast their votes to shape the future of their country in more credible and transparent parliamentary elections than in 2018.  In Botswana, a court advanced the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons by upholding the decriminalization of same-sex relations.  In Turkmenistan, all imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses conscientious objectors to military service were pardoned, a win for freedom of religion or belief.  The stability, security, and health of any country depends on the ability of its people to freely exercise their human rights – to feel safe and included in their communities while expressing their views or gender, loving who they love, organizing with their coworkers, peacefully assembling, living by their conscience, and using their voices and reporting from independent media to hold governments accountable.  There is much progress to be made, here in the United States and globally.  But I know that by working together in the Year of Action and using resources like the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, we can come closer to building a world where respect for human rights is truly universal.

https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/

Cuba 2021 Human Rights Report

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Cuba is an authoritarian state. The 2019 constitution codifies that Cuba remains a one-party system in which the Communist Party is the only legal political party. On April 19, President Miguel Diaz-Canel replaced former president Raul Castro as first secretary of the Communist Party, the highest political entity of the state by law. Elections were neither free nor fair nor competitive.

The Ministry of Interior controls police, internal security forces, and the prison system. The ministry’s National Revolutionary Police are the primary law enforcement organization. Specialized units of the ministry’s state security branch are responsible for monitoring, infiltrating, and suppressing independent political activity. The national leadership, including members of the military, maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed numerous abuses, and the number of political prisoners increased dramatically, with many held in pretrial detention under extremely harsh and degrading conditions.

On January 28, security forces violently arrested more than 20 artists and journalist peacefully protesting in front of the Ministry of Culture for the release of detained artists. On July 11, spontaneous peaceful protests broke out across the island. In the largest and most widespread demonstrations in decades, tens of thousands of citizens across the country poured into the streets to demand an end to repression as well as to criticize the government’s failure to meet their basic needs and its poor response to COVID-19. Social media posts helped spread news of the protests among citizens. Security forces responded with tear gas, beatings, and arrests. First Secretary of the Communist Party and President Miguel Diaz-Canel went on national television to call on “all revolutionaries and communists to confront these protests,” a reference to Article Four of the 2019 constitution, which gives citizens the right to “combat through any means, including armed combat” any who “intend to topple the political, social, and economic order established by this constitution.” Many of those arrested reported cruel and degrading treatment in prison. In October authorities denied permission for a protest planned for November 15 and threatened organizers. The government conducted summary trials for some protesters; sought long prison sentences, some up to 30 years, in hundreds of cases; and held other protesters in extended pretrial detention. Some activists chose to go into exile, and the government forced others to do so.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings, by the government; forced disappearance by the government; torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of political dissidents, detainees, and prisoners by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; political prisoners; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; reprisals against family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; serious restrictions on freedom of expression and media including violence or threats of violence against journalists, censorship, and criminal libel laws used against persons who criticized government leadership; serious restrictions on internet freedom; severe restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly and denial of freedom of association, including refusal to recognize independent associations; severe restrictions on religious freedom; restrictions on internal and external freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections, including serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious government corruption; a lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; trafficking in persons, including forced labor; and outlawing of independent trade unions.

Government officials, at the direction of their superiors, committed most human rights abuses. As a matter of policy, officials failed to investigate or prosecute those who committed these abuses. Impunity for the perpetrators remained widespread, as was impunity for official corruption.

[ Full report here ]

NBC News, April 12, 2022

‘Drip drip’ of harsh sentences for Cuba protesters deters engagement from U.S.

The long prison terms dump “a whole bucket of cold water over any push for improving relations,” said Ric Herrero of the Cuba Study Group.

​Brandon David Becerra Curbelo turned 18 in prison. He was arrested after the July 11 protests in Cuba and is serving a 13-year sentence. Yanaisy Curbelo

By Carmen Sesin

MIAMI — Brandon David Becerra Curbelo turned 18 in November in a Cuban prison.

The Havana resident was recently sentenced to 13 years for public disorder, sedition and other charges after he took part in unprecedented, historic protests that rocked the island in July.

“He doesn’t even know why he is in prison,” his mother, Yanaisy Curbelo, said by phone from Cuba. “He tells me: ‘Mamá, I don’t understand. I yelled ‘Patria y Vida’ and ‘Cuba is hungry,’ but I didn’t do anything else.’”

In the U.S., the trials have left many people with little appetite to push to open better relations with Cuba, long-standing advocates of engagement say.

“The Cuban government’s response to the July 11 protests and now these three months’ drip drip of exorbitant sentences against those protestors dumps a whole bucket of cold water over any push for improving relations in the United States,” said Ric Herrero, the executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a non-partisan organization that supports civil society in Cuba and engagement between the two countries.

Herrero said members of Congress have privately expressed to him that they are hesitant about traveling to the island or about calling for re-engagement because the “stream of sentences being handed down would undercut their efforts.”

​ Protesters shout slogans against the government in Havana on July 11. Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters

Hundreds of Cubans who participated in July’s protests have been sentenced to up to 30 years in mass trials. Although the protests mostly were peaceful, some people threw stones at police, looted and vandalized. The more serious charges include sedition, violent attacks, theft and vandalism.

The international community and rights groups have criticized the trials, saying they lack transparency and that the sentences are disproportionate to the crimes to deter any protests against the government.

Johana Tablada, the deputy director for U.S. affairs at the Cuban Foreign Affairs Ministry, said the U.S. government has “directed an incredible media display” to mischaracterize the protests and the sentences.

“There was only one day of protests where thousands participated, and now they are saying people are in jail for expressing how they feel. That is a lie,” Tablada said. She said no more than 300 people have been tried and sentenced and that they are tied to four violent acts: assault on a police station, assault on a pediatric hospital, assault on a pharmacy and assault on a commercial center where police vehicles were vandalized.

She said “it’s a lie” to say that peaceful protesters are in jail and that Cuba jails children.

“There is a specific interest by the United States government to use this as the new obstacle to justify its inhumane policy hardened by Biden’s administration,” Tablada said.

Cuban authorities haven’t reported the total number of arrests. Groups that keep track of detentions and trials, like Justice 11J, say they have confirmed 1,440 detentions, cautioning that the number could be higher because some people are afraid to come forward. They say 616 sentences have been issued, about 22 of them to people who were 16 or 17 when they were sentenced. Cuba’s Supreme Court said about 100 people who were convicted last month had “tried violently to subvert the constitutional order.”

President Donald Trump quickly ended President Barack Obama’s historic opening with Cuba when he took office. Trump restricted travel and remittances and reduced the staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana to skeletal proportions after mysterious health incidents were reported.

Joe Biden said during the 2020 campaign that Trump’s actions were “failed policies” and vowed to reverse them, saying they “inflicted harm on Cubans and their families” and have “done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.”

Herrero said the Biden administration had been getting ready to act on changing some of Trump’s policies when the protests erupted in July.

Riot police walk the streets after a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Havana on July 12. Yamil Lage / AFP – Getty Images file

Now the general sentiment is that the hefty sentences make it difficult to make a case and win enough support for an opening.

Cuba’s government accused the U.S. of funding and fomenting the protests, saying Miami-based opposition groups instigated July’s unrest through a social media campaign, with President Miguel Díaz-Canel comparing the trials in Cuba to the trials in the U.S. of those accused of storming the Capitol.

Advocates in the U.S. say more engagement would put the U.S. in a better position to hold the Cuban government accountable for human rights violations and to address them directly with the government.

Herrero said, “All the U.S. government messaging to the Cuban government over these abuses is done via tweet.”

‘He’s just a kid’

For Kendry Miranda Cárdenas’ mother, life has turned upside down since her son was arrested days after the protests. 

He turned 18 in prison in October and was recently sentenced to 19 years on charges of sedition and other counts. His family is devastated.

Kendry Miranda Cárdenas turned 18 in prison. He was arrested after the protest on July 11 and is serving a 19-year-sentence.Kenya Miranda Cárdenas

“I feel awful. All these problems gave me a brain aneurysm. Now I can’t work, so I don’t have money to take food to my son on visitation day,” his mother, Kenya Miranda Cárdenas, said by phone from Havana. “My son is desperate. He’s just a kid, and they piled on all those years. When I visit him, I try to give him hope, but it’s all a lie. It’s a lot of years, not two days.”

Former Rep. Joe García of Florida, a Democrat, condemned the protesters’ prison terms. He said U.S. policy toward Cuba is “a hard policy because it is laced with anger, resentment, victims, brutal persecution and tenacity.”

García, who has traveled to Cuba to create more engagement between the two countries, said the lengthy prison sentences become “fodder for clever politicians on both sides of the straits” — referring to the U.S. and Cuba — to have entrenched positions and ultimately to “do nothing.”

U.S. farmers who visited Cuba recently on a trade tour said at a news conference that they would like to sell more products to the island but that the decades-old embargo complicates their efforts.

Restrictions still in place

Trump banned U.S. companies from sending remittances via Cuban military-controlled companies, which included Western Union’s main partner. Cuban Americans still send remittances, but they use agencies that might charge more. The U.S. also suspended flights to all airports except Havana’s, making travel to faraway provinces difficult.

Miami resident Eloina Ramos, 77, hasn’t visited her 98-year-old mother in Ciego de Ávila since 2018. With flights restricted to Havana, she would have to travel seven hours by car from the main airport to get to her family — or go through a third country.

“They need to remove those restrictions, because they affect those who travel to other provinces,” Ramos said.

Despite the impact of the restrictions, there haven’t been significant opposition or protests from Cuban Americans to change them.

Pressure to re-staff the U.S. Embassy is mounting as the number of Cuban migrants arriving at the U.S. has risen sharply — the number crossing the border at the end of March was up by 460 percent over the same time last year, according to internal Customs and Border Protection data obtained by NBC News. That outpaced the number of people arriving from Central America.

Fully re-staffing the embassy and restarting the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program would help some Cubans arrive through less risky means. The U.S. recently announced that it would increase the staff at the embassy in Havana and begin a limited amount of some immigrant visa services, but most Cubans still have to travel to Guyana for visa processing. With ticket prices hovering around $3,000, the trips are inaccessible for many.

In the meantime, the trials in Cuba continue to generate attention as families hold out hope the sentences will be reduced.

Curbelo’s son Brandon believes he’s not going to serve 13 years, she said, “because he didn’t do anything else” except march in the street.

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/drip-drip-harsh-sentences-cuba-protesters-deters-engagement-us-rcna23001

Latino Rebels, April 11, 2022

US Remittances to Cuba Continue, Bypassing Restrictions

By: Camila Grigera Naón

Last December, Daniel Muñiz-Rivera received a message from his friend asking him for financial help. Christmas wasn’t far away and Pedro Quiala Carmenate, who lives in Cuba, wanted to buy his family a nice piece of pork for the holiday celebration.

Both men had thought out a bulletproof system to circumvent the restrictions on remittances to Cuba due to U.S. sanctions. Muñiz-Rivera, who lives in Brooklyn’s Buswhick neighborhood, would send the money to a friend of Carmenate’s in Miami using a banking application, Zelle, and Carmenate’s friend would then make a cash deposit on his Moneda Libremente Convertible (MLC) card, an electronic banking card used by Cubans for everyday transactions like buying soap or a can of beans. In doing so, Carmenate would receive the full amount converted into the official Cuban convertible peso (CUC) and, more important, the transaction would be informal and thus remain under the government’s radar.

“In Cuba, you can’t live off your salary,” said Carmenate, 30. “You have to survive on the black market or depend on exiled Cubans.”

Their complicated dynamic is far from rare. Every month, Cubans in the U.S. send more than 240,000 unique money transfers into Cuba using formal channels, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. Cuba’s stagnant economy and frequent financial crises have resulted in more than two-thirds of all Cubans on the island relying on assistance from family members abroad to buy basic goods like food, clothing, and medication, as well as pay monthly rent and electricity bills, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Cuba’s Central Bank has never released a remittance report since the military government unblocked remittance flows in 1993, but independent researchers have subsequently estimated that approximately 50 percent of the transactions reach Cubans on the island through informal channels.

On the day that Carmenate received the money from Muñiz-Rivera, he was able to buy pork for his Christmas dinner, but Muñiz-Rivera wasn’t happy with the images that came along with Carmenate’s heart-felt thank you message. He mostly saw grease and bones, as meat of any kind was hard to find.

“When I saw the (quality of) meat that he received and was ecstatic to receive it, it broke my heart,” said Muñiz-Rivera, 25.

Carmenate had bought it on the black market. In Cuba, you can only use your MLC card in shops controlled by the military-run umbrella enterprise Grupo de Administración de Empresas, commonly known as GAESA. Products in these markets are sold at much higher prices compared to normal shops, making it hard for regular Cubans to afford the staples they sell

“These products cost a minimum of 240 percent more than the price at which they are purchased abroad,” explained Emilio Morales, a Cuban economist and president of the Havana Consulting Group in Miami. “This means that what costs one dollar to you, they sell for ($2.40), but in the CUC currency—a currency that, if you are Cuban and you travel to any part of the world, that currency is of no use to you because you can’t change it in any bank.”

In October 2020, the Treasury Department under the Trump administration added GAESA to its Cuba Restricted List. The list includes entities under the control of the Cuban military whose financial transactions disproportionately benefit those who run the enterprise, rather than the Cuban people. Until then, Western Union had partnered with Fincimex, a sub-entity of GAESA, to process any remittances sent by Cubans in the diaspora to loved ones on the island. After the measures came into effect, Western Union closed its 407 offices across Cuba.

“GAESA has had six months to find a civil corporation and transfer them Fincimex’s infrastructure to channel remittances and avoid this crisis,” said Morales. “It still hasn’t done this.”

Instead, GAESA transferred Fincimex’s infrastructure to RED S.A., a non-military finance company, to receive remittances from the United States. But the government still hasn’t reached out to an American company like Western Union to facilitate formal remittances. As a result, informal channels have become even more popular.

Many Cubans living in New York City, like Muñiz-Rivera, send dollar remittances to family and friends so that they can afford or avoid GAESA’s inflated costs and Cuba’s long-devalued currency.

Ana Alpizar moved to the U.S. from Cuba almost five years ago, leaving her entire family behind in search of economic opportunity. Today, she sends her mom monthly remittances in the form of money, clothing, and food from her home in Bushwick. When Alpizar knows a friend of hers is visiting Cuba, she gives them the remittance to physically deliver to her family.

“Today, a can of condensed milk costs six dollars in Cuba,” said Alpizar, 31. “If I don’t send my mom steady remittances, she doesn’t make it to the end of the month.”

Since she moved, Alpizar only visited her hometown in La Habana three times on trips that lasted less than three days. She acts as a “mula,” or a mule, someone who travels to Cuba with cash dollars to ensure that the remittances reach their family in dollars and aren’t converted by the government into Cuban pesos, which are continuously at the mercy of inflation.

“For me, going to Cuba is super painful,” Alpizar recalled. “There was a time when I was homesick after moving to the U.S., where I decided to go back to Cuba for a couple of months, but I ended up buying my return ticket only a week after being there.”

Efren Pulgarón, 55, received political refuge in the United States in 1999 after demonstrating persecution by the Cuban government for working as an independent journalist in the capital city, La Habana (as Havana is known in Spanish). Today, he lives in the Bronx, though his brother and nephew still live on the island.

Pulgarón refuses to send formal remittances, believing that the full amount won’t reach his family if it goes through military-controlled Fincimex. Instead, he puts cash in an envelope and, along with some clothes and other necessities, gives it to his cousin who sporadically travels to Cuba from Miami.

This way, Pulgarón’s brother avoids spending money in GAESA shops and gives business directly to local shop owners.

“My brother uses that money to buy directly from local shops in Cuba,” Pulgarón explained.

Carmenate, who lives with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that affects his respiratory and digestive systems, has never left Cuba. He often relies on remittances from Muñiz-Rivera and other friends in New York to afford the medication he needs.

“Since I was a child, I haven’t had the appropriate medication I need for treatment. I haven’t had adequate food or the proper comfort of a home that a family requires,” he said. 

Carmenate lives with his family who support him financially, given that his medical condition prevents him from working. They sold their house in rural Mayarí, a city in the southeastern Holguín Province, about two hours north of Santiago de Cuba by car. They used the money to move to La Habana, so that Carmenate could have better access to healthcare.

Today, Carmenate lives in a dilapidated one-bedroom apartment in Old Havana with three other family members. His family accesses drinking water by attaching a hose to two water tanks in their house and throwing it over an unstable balcony to connect it to a ruptured water pipe on the street below. 

But those aren’t the only tanks the family owns. Carmenate sleeps next to three tanks that feed him oxygen through a tube connected to his nose, without which he couldn’t breathe properly.

Following the July 11th protests that occurred throughout Cuba and major cities across the world last year, Carmenate joined a massive WhatsApp group created by Patria y Vida, an organization of Cubans on the island and in the diaspora fighting to topple the totalitarian regime that has reigned since 1960. Through the group he met Muñiz-Rivera and many other Cuban Americans who sporadically send him medication.

“Sometimes they send me a care package that contains antibiotics, aerosols, and other medication,” Carmenate said. “Because of that, my health has improved a little.”

Last month, Carmenate noticed that the sewage system near his house wasn’t functioning properly, so he went to the nearest government office to submit a complaint. When they did nothing about it, he made a poster that read “Patria y Vida” (Homeland and Life) and hung it on his balcony. Almost immediately, police showed up at his house, smashed his phone, and arrested him.

He was detained for three days. It wasn’t his first time in jail, and he doubts it’ll be his last.

“Here you can’t do what you want. You have to do what the government wants, because if not, we’ll be jailed,” he said.

But like most Cubans on and off the island, Carmenate hasn’t accepted defeat.

“My family and I don’t have luxuries or many material items, but we feel good,” said Carmenate. “We remain happy because we continuously fight for a free and democratic Cuba.”

***

Camila Grigera Naón is an Argentine-American journalist and currently a student at Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University. Twitter: @c_grigera

https://www.latinorebels.com/2022/04/11/cubaremittances/

The Wall Street Journal, April 11, 2022

Opinion

The Americas

Cuba’s Human Trafficking on Trial

A U.N. subsidiary that allegedly abets Havana will have to defend itself in court.

By Mary Anastasia O’Grady

Cuban doctor Ramona Matos announces a federal lawsuit against PAHO for its alleged role in human trafficking in Doral, Fla., April 5. Photo: Matias J. Ocner/Zuma Press

In a victory for human rights, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia last month upheld the right of victims of a human-trafficking network to sue a subsidiary of the United Nations’ World Health Organization in a U.S. court. The decision is a warning to the U.N. to clean up its act.

The four Cuban doctors who filed the class-action suit against the Pan American Health Organization allege they became forced labor under a 2013-18 contract between Cuba and Brazil. The plaintiffs claim that PAHO acted as financial intermediary for the two parties, using its U.S. bank accounts to convert Brazilian reais to dollars and then move the money to the Cuban regime.

“PAHO collected hundreds of millions of dollars every year from Brazil and it remitted 85% to Cuba, paid 10% or less to the doctors, and kept 5% for itself,” the lawsuit alleges.

[ Complete article here ]

https://www.wsj.com/articles/cuba-human-trafficking-trial-brazil-doctors-forced-labor-paho-un-who-lawsuit-immunity-11649614812


From the Archives


The Washington Post, March 8, 1988

FOR THE RECORD

From remarks by Bob Graham (D-Fla.) in the Senate March 4:

One week from today the United Nations Human Rights Commission will adjourn its annual meeting in Geneva. The United States delegation, led by former Cuban political prisoner Armando Valladares, has offered a resolution for an international investigation of human rights abuses in Cuba.

Mr. Valladares knows what he is talking about. For 22 years he lived in a nightmare he has eloquently described in his book “Against All Hope.” The Cuban government has tried, and failed, to discredit Mr. Valladares — perhaps because the horrors he describes are as unembellished as they are unimaginable.

In chapter three he says simply: “Every night there were firing squads.” And “the recruits who made up the platoons of the firing squads received five pesos and 3 days’ leave for each man executed.”

He tells of being drenched in sewage and gnawed by rats, of beatings and asphyxiations, of torture heaped upon torture. What he, and countless others, witnessed and suffered should not exist in any society — should not exist 90 miles from our own shores.

The same resolution to investigate allegations of abuses in Cuba was defeated by one vote in Geneva last year. That vote was a disgrace. Human rights can never be held pawn to politics. Such callous disregard for the people of Cuba was loudly defended as condemnation of the United States for its own imperfections. We say that we all live in glass houses, but in {Fidel} Castro’s house the drapes are always drawn.

This year we have the chance to fling wide those drapes and bring all of Cuba’s dark secrets to light.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1988/03/08/for-the-record/f39da4f1-ddf7-4b45-8b29-19892282ee11/

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, January 5, 1984

Radio Address to the Cuban People on the 25th Anniversary of Their Revolution

January 5, 1984

On behalf of the people of the United States, I would like to extend New Year’s greetings to the people of Cuba.

We know you’re marking an historic anniversary on your island. Twenty-five years ago, during these early January days, you were celebrating what all of us hoped was the dawn of a new era of freedom. Most Cubans welcomed the prospects for democracy and liberty which the leaders of the Cuban revolution had promised.

Such a free and democratic Cuba would have been warmly welcomed by our own people. We’re neighbors in a hemisphere that has been characterized by the quest for human freedom. Government which rests upon consent of the governed is a cardinal principle that enshrines the dignity of every individual. We share many of the same ideals, especially a common longing for a world of peace and justice. We are both proud peoples, proud of what we’ve achieved through our own efforts.

But tragically, the promises made to you have not been kept. Since 1959 you’ve been called upon to make one sacrifice after another. And for what? Doing without has not brought you a more abundant life. It has not brought you peace. And most important, it has not won freedom for your people — freedom to speak your opinions, to travel where and when you wish, to work in independent unions, and to openly proclaim your faith in God and to enjoy all these basic liberties without having to be afraid.

Cuba’s economy is incapable of providing you and your families your most elementary needs, despite massive subsidies from abroad. But your leaders tell you, “Don’t complain, don’t expect improvement, just be ready for more sacrifice.”

In the meantime, over half a million of your fellow citizens have migrated to the United States, where their talents and their hard work have made a major contribution to our society. We welcomed them, and we’re proud of their success. But we have to wonder, what would Cuba’s economy be like today if those people had been allowed to use their great talent, drive, and energy to help you create prosperity on your island?

The most important question remains: Where is Cuba heading? If it were heading toward greater welfare and freedom for your people, that would be wonderful. But we know prisoners of conscience convicted for their political activities have been languishing in Cuban prisons, deprived of all freedom, for nearly a quarter of a century. Never in the proud history of your country have so many been imprisoned for so long for so-called crimes of political dissent as during these last 25 years. Others convicted of political crimes this past year can expect to be in prison well into the 21st century if the present system in Cuba survives that long.

You may not be aware of some of these things I’ve just told you or will tell you in this brief message. You may also be unaware of many other things you have the right to know. That’s because you are systematically denied access to facts and opinions which do not agree with your government’s official view. But why are your leaders so unwilling to let you hear what others think and say? If the power of truth is on their side, why should they need to censor anyone’s views? Think about that.

Yet, while they supervise every word you hear, every picture you see, your authorities have free access to our news services in the United States and around the world. We don’t believe in censorship. So, to correct this injustice, the Congress of the United States has authorized the startup soon of a new radio service on the Voice of America named for your great Cuban patriot, Jose Marti.

The objective of the Radio Marti program will be simple and straightforward: Tell the truth about Cuba to the Cuban people. We want you to know what you haven’t been told, for example, about the situation in Grenada. When Grenada’s Prime Minister Bishop was killed, the Governor General, as well as the majority of the English-speaking Caribbean, asked for our assistance in protecting them. Why didn’t they ask for Cuba’s assistance? Well, the sad truth is, they wanted to be protected from the Cuban Government.

The United States and other Caribbean forces were welcomed by Grenadians as liberators. The rest of the world has seen the evidence of the popular outpouring of support for our action. Cuban lives could have been saved if your government had respected the will of the Grenadian people and not ordered your soldiers to fight to the death. Fortunately, the great majority of your personnel in Grenada did not obey those orders.

One of your government officials said, in September 1982, that 120,000 Cubans have carried out international missions through the revolutionary armed forces alone. They have been sent to countries in four continents. You’re never told how many of them are killed, how many families lose loved ones for a cause they have no right to resist. What mission or vital interest does Cuba have which can possibly justify this loss of life in such faraway lands?

These are not pleasant questions, but they deserve answers. I hope you’ll contemplate them with care. At the beginning of this new year, let us pray that the future will be kinder than the past. And may that better future begin soon for all of you in Cuba.

Feliz Año Nuevo y que Dios los bendiga. [Happy New Year and God bless you.]

Note: The President recorded the address at approximately 5 p.m. at the White House for later broadcast on the Voice of America.

https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/archives/speech/radio-address-cuban-people-25th-anniversary-their-revolution