A Cuba civil liberties round up

The New York-based Human Rights Foundation has issued a report on its inquiry into the death of Cuban dissident Osvaldo Paya in a car accident three years ago, stating that the “evidence, which was deliberately ignored, strongly suggests that the events of July 22, 2012 were not an accident, but instead the result of a car crash directly caused by agents of the state.” The complete report can be downloaded from the Foundation’s web site: http://humanrightsfoundation.org/news/cuba-hrf-report-on-oswaldo-payas-death-evidence-suggests-government-may-have-killed-him-00446

The Associated Press reports on how visiting US congressional delegations are ignoring Cuban dissidents during their recent visits to Havana, in order to meet Cuban officials:

Legislative staffers say Cuban officials have made clear that if Congress members meet with dissidents, they will not get access to high-ranking officials such as First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the man expected to be the next president of Cuba who has met with U.S. politicians like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.


For a look at the Cuban legal system, here’s an interesting article published two months ago by the Daily Business Review, about Havana lawyer Osvaldo Miranda Diaz’s presentation to a delegation from the Florida Bar Association. An excerpt:

Miranda Diaz explained the criminal justice system in Cuba to the shocked Americans. When a Cuban is arrested, he can be jailed without the right to see a lawyer or make a phone call for 72 hours. After a week, the prosecutor decides whether to grant the person bail or not.

At that point, he or she has just five days to hire a lawyer and does not get access to his or her criminal file until the case is through. This is despite the fact the island country claims an “innocent until proven guilty” philosophy.

“They can keep you in jail for one week and do what they want—interrogate you, do anything,” he said. “It’s like the Soviet system.” http://www.dailybusinessreview.com/id=1202727711630/Havana-Lawyer-Assesses-Cuban-Legal-System#ixzz3gjvCb4wh

There’s a sidebar to this article. Julie Kay, a reporter who accompanied the delegation, wrote the article on the Cuban lawyer’s presentation, and “basically regurgitated everything the lawyer had said. I did no independent research, put no “spin” on the story.” She filed the story from her hotel and a short time later her group’s guide confronted her with the article, and told the lawyers in the group that she should be kicked off the tour. She was allowed to remain, but decided not to file any more stories until she returned home. http://www.dailybusinessreview.com/id=1202728015496/She-Learned-Firsthand-Just-How-Lacking-in-Basic-Freedoms-Cuba-is

Someday Cuba will have an official inquiry into human rights abuses, but until that time the Cuba Archive Truth and Memory Project has been doing what it can with limited resources to document as much as possible. Its reports can be viewed on its website: http://cubaarchive.org/home/

Slow, slow justice

Rodrigo Rojas, a young Chilean photographer who grew up in Washington, D.C., made a trip to Chile in 1986 that would cost him his life.

Rodrigo Rojas, a young Chilean photographer who grew up in Washington, D.C., made a trip to Chile in 1986 that would cost him his life.

It happened 29 years ago this month, and was one of the most egregious human rights cases during the Pinochet dictatorship. A passing military patrol set two teenagers on fire during anti-government protests in Santiago, killing one and badly injuring the other. Unfortunately for the regime, the dead teenager, Rodrigo Rojas, was a budding photographer and U.S. resident who had grown up in Washington, D.C. and attended Woodrow Wilson High School. The killing received a great deal of publicity in the U.S. news media, including programs on ABC’s Nightline and CBS’s 60 Minutes.

This week a Chilean judge ordered the arrest of seven former army officers, part of a continuing investigation into the case. A former conscript has identified one of the officials who he said had set the two teenagers on fire, and described how officials tried to cover up their actions. The New York Times reports that the conscript and other young soldiers were drilled on what to tell investigators in the case.

“We had to memorize statements that had already been drafted,” he said. “They had even made a mock-up of the place so that we could learn our version better.”

They gathered several times to agree on their stories, Mr. Guzmán said. At one point, he said, they had a meeting with the vice commander in chief of the army at the time, Santiago Sinclair, now 87, who said that nothing would ever happen to them and that they should think about their families. “I am still afraid and think that maybe they will act on their threats,” Mr. Guzmán told the judge. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/world/americas/officers-ordered-arrested-in-1986-burning-death-of-us-student-in-chile.html?ref=world&_r=0

A silver lining to the case: Carmen Gloria Quintana, who survived the burning attack, was moved from a hospital in Santiago to a special burn facility in Montreal and spent years in rehabilitation. She still bears the scars of what happened, but since that time has managed to get a university degree, get married, pursue a career and currently serves as science attache to the Chilean Embassy in Ottawa.

Opening day–and some Cuba links

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana is now the U.S. Embassy, and the Cuban Interests Section in Washington is now the Cuban Embassy. Fingers crossed, and for any non-Spanish speakers wanting to follow developments in Cuba, here are some interesting links:

Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party, publishes an online edition in English http://en.granma.cu/ , as well as in French, German, Portuguese and Italian. Buzzfeed recently did a story on the paper, describing its newsroom as the slowest in the world, noting the paper’s lack of Wi-Fi but also the fact that Granma will be the first news outlet to report Fidel Castro’s death when it happens: http://www.buzzfeed.com/karlazabludovsky/inside-the-worlds-slowest-newsroom#.ru34xRMY1

14ymedio, the digital newspaper set up by Cuban independent journalists, also has an English edition, though not all its articles get translated from Spanish: http://www.14ymedio.com/englishedition

Since 2011 Larry Press, a professor of information systems at California State University, has been writing an excellent blog on how the Internet is developing in Cuba http://laredcubana.blogspot.co.uk/ . One of his more entertaining posts is an open letter to the anonymous Cuban official charged with monitoring his blog http://laredcubana.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/letter-to-my-state-security-officer-if.html

Finally, there is a wealth of detail on everyday life in Cuba to be gleaned from the country’s bloggers, and Translating Cuba http://translatingcuba.com/ has over 60 blogs by independent commentators. Yoani Sanchez is perhaps the best known of these, but there are many other good bloggers such as Regina Coyula, who posted earlier this year on the return of bus conductors on Havana’s transport system: http://translatingcuba.com/privatized-regina-coyula/

A special prison for special prisoners

Alvaro Corbalan, former official in the Pinochet regime's secret police, is serving a life sentence in a prison specially built for human rights violators.

Alvaro Corbalan, former official in the Pinochet regime’s secret police, is serving a life sentence in a prison specially built for human rights violators.

It was 20 years ago that Chile opened the Punta Peuco prison north of Santiago, a special facility to hold prisoners convicted of human rights violations. Why not send them to the regular prisons? Well, at the time the former dictator General Augusto Pinochet was still army commander, still rattling his sabre and issuing not-so-veiled threats that he would launch a coup against the new civilian government if authorities acted too hastily against human rights violators. He claimed that his former officials would be in danger from other inmates, as well as from socialist prison guards. After protracted negotiations, the government built the Punta Peuco prison to hold those convicted of human rights abuses. Its first prisoners were the former head of Pinochet’s security apparatus and one of his top agents, both wanted in the United States for their role in the 1976 car bomb assassination of a Chilean exile leader and his American co-worker in Washington.

Since then, the Punta Peuco prison has added more inmates, as Chile’s judicial system slowly works its way through the backlog of human rights cases. One of the more notorious prisoners is Alvaro Corbalan, currently serving a life sentence for several killings, including the 1982 murder of a trade union activist and that of a carpenter whose body was later found in a staged suicide tableau with a forged letter confessing to killing the trade unionist. But it seems that Corbalan has been rather busy while in prison, and Chile’s Television Nacional program, Informe Especial http://www.24horas.cl/programas/informeespecial/informe-especial-los-archivos-secretos-de-alvaro-corbalan-1725221 , reports that a recent search of his cell turned up “over 50 file folders of classified information from the dictatorship, over 30 identity documents and state-of-the-art electronic equipment.” The identity documents included some with false names Corbalan used while working for the secret police.There was also a cell phone, a new notebook computer and two modems giving Corbalan broadband access within the prison. According to officials, the confiscated file folders contained detailed personal information on two former justice ministers as well as the prison’s entire management staff, plus files containing information on 18 cases involving the Pinochet regime’s security forces which may be of interest to several human rights investigations currently underway. But how was all this stuff smuggled into the prison?

Corbalan has left the prison on a number of occasions, sometimes for medical checkups at the Hospital Militar and sometimes on day passes—several years ago he was spotted at a yacht club on the Chilean coast, accompanied by family and friends. Will prison officials now keep him on a tighter leash? Stay tuned.

Anniversary of a massacre

Pope Francis, who recently visited Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, is scheduled to visit Cuba and the United States in September. Needless to say, it will be an interesting trip and much has been made of his role in helping the two countries improve relations. But here’s a look at an earlier Vatican gesture in Cuba, in wake of an incident in the Florida Straits which took place 21 years ago, with a transcript of an ABC broadcast on the case, and thanks to the Cuba Archive project (http://cubaarchive.org/home/index.php ) for making it available.

ABC / Nightline on the July 13, 1994 Tugboat Massacre

January 20, 1998 (From Havana)


TED KOPPEL Three and a half years ago, in the summer of 1994, something terrible happened out there, seven or eight miles out at sea, off the northern coast of Cuba. It was an incident that went all but unnoticed in the US media. The Cuban-American community protested but they protest a lot and as I say, we in the mainstream media all but ignored it. The Vatican, however, did not.

A letter of condolence speaking in the name of the Pope was sent by the Vatican’s secretary of state to Jaime Ortega, the Archbishop of Havana, who passed it on to the survivors of the incident and to their families. And that created a ripple which caused a ground swell, the full impact of which is still building.

Liz Balmaseda is a columnist for “The Miami Herald” who specializes in Cuban affairs.

LIZ BALMASEDA What the letter from the Pope did was it really gave strength to the church in Cuba so the church, so that the archbishop could turn around and denounce this act.

TED KOPPEL (VO) What happened occurred at night at sea in the middle of July in 1994. The time is important because it wasn’t all that long ago, not, in other words, in the bad old days of mass arrests and widespread executions. Seventy two Cubans, men, women and children, slipped out of this harbor aboard a tug boat. They were bound for Florida. Their boat was followed out to sea by three Cuban fire boats. What happened next we learned from some of the survivors, two of whom ultimately made it to Miami, while the other two risked arrest by talking to us here in Havana.

SERGlO PERODIN (Miami) (through translators) This boat came directly for us, cut us off and attacked us without a word, without saying anything to us or telling us to stop.

MARIA VICTORIA GARCIA (through translators) They told us stay here and show them the children so that they don’t shoot at us. One boat comes up behind us and they started ramming the boat.

JANETTE HERNANDEZ (Miami) (through translators) As we were showing them the children, they started spraying strong bursts of water at really high pressure, right at us.

SERGlO PERODIN (through translators) With the pressure hoses, they blew apart our boat’s windows, its doors, they wrecked our radio and we knew then that their intention was to sink our boat.

MARIA VICTORIA GARCIA (through translators) Our tugboat started taking on water. We shouted to the crewmen on the boat, “Look at the children! You’re going to kill them!” And he said, “Let them die. Let them die.”

JANETTE HERNANDEZ (through translators) I remember the banging and the noises from inside as the boat was sinking. In the water, everything is louder. That is what I heard. And I still hear it at night in nightmares.

MARIA VICTORIA GARCIA (through translators) I don’t know how to swim but I said I can’t sink with this boat. I was holding onto a pipe and I had my son right in front of me and I held him and then I went down. I sank. When I made it to the surface again I found a body floating that I know was Rosa.

TED KOPPEL (VO) Maria and her son held onto the body of her friend. lt was the only thing keeping them from sinking again.

REYNALDO CARRAZANA (Havana) (through translators) At the moment the boat sank, the survival instinct is the strongest. At that moment, I just thought of saving myself.

MARIA VICTORIA GARCIA (through translators) There was a boat just in front of me and it’s showing its light on me and I said, “pull us up.” And it was the same crewmen. And I said pull us up, pull up the boat because he’s going to drown. And he said, “If you want to be rescued, wait for the Coast Guard boat.” And he turned the boat around.

SERGIO PERODIN (through translators) They started going around us in a circle fast creating a whirlpool that sucked the people down to get rid of everybody because they didn’t want to leave any witnesses to this tragedy.

REYNALDO CARRAZANA (through translators) I didn’t know how to swim. I just floated. It seems that the boat’s freezer was nearby and I hung onto it. And a number of people were there hanging onto it, too.

MARIA VICTORIA GARCIA (through translators)I tried to reach that group. When I get there I hold onto the board because they were holding onto a piece of wood. I tried to hold onto the piece of wood. It was the ice pot that had come off the tugboat. But there were many people hanging onto it and when I held onto it, it seems that my weight made the boat overturn and a lot of people fell on me. And it was then that I let go of my son and I tried to grab him again but I couldn’t. It was so fast, he just went and I couldn’t grab him.

SERGlO PERODIN (through translators) We saw in the distance a boat with a Greek flag that appeared to be what stopped them. lt looked like the boat was watching what they were doing, the murder they were committing. So they stopped and decided to pick us up.

JORGE GARCIA (Havana) (through translators) When I asked my daughter, “What about Juan Mario?” “Papa, he’s lost.” “And Joel?” “Papa, he’s lost.” And Ernesto? “Papa, he’s lost.” And then we knew that other members of the family were all lost, 14 in all.

JANETTE HERNANDEZ (through translators) Fidel is the only one who could have given the order to sink the boat. And soon after the boat sank, the captain of one of the fire boats was decorated as a hero.

TED KOPPEL (VO) Jorge Garcia lost his son. In this picture, you can see a chain around his son’s neck. Against all odds, it was brought back to the father.

JORGE GARCIA (through translators) This chain is a symbol for me. it preserves the sweat of my son. This chain was around his neck. lt was brought to me through the generosity of a survivor. I will keep it forever. My wife gave this chain to my son. lt has the image of the Pope. lt has double significance for me, the memory of my son and the image of the Pope, who very soon will come to Cuba. (Commercial Break)

ANNOUNCER ABC News Nightline continues. Once again reporting from Havana, Cuba, Ted Koppel.

TED KOPPEL The Castro government had dismissed the tugboat sinking as an accident and insisted that no one in the government could have played any role. But then the church cleared its throat.

LIZ BALMASEDA I think the letter that came from the Pope really showed that there was an important international ring to this incident, that somebody at least, somebody as important as the Pope knew what had happened.

TED KOPPEL (VO) The letter from the Vatican’s secretary of state read, in part, “It profoundly saddened the Holy Father to hear of the deplorable death of the families on a boat,” and then, “I ask that you extend to the families the Holy Father’s deepest sympathy and to express his concern and feelings of closeness.”

JANETTE HERNANDEZ (through translators) He sent us his condolences for what had happened and when I received it, I said to myself, well, at least people knew about what happened.

TED KOPPEL (VO) Janette Hernandez and her husband, who also survived the sinking of the tugboat, went to sea again, this time on a raft, and made it to Miami, where they have created a new life. Maria Garcia, who lost 14 members of her family, also lost her job. She says she is under constant surveillance and risked arrest by talking to us.

MARIA VICTORIA GARCIA (through translators) I will be happy if the Pope, among his many concerns, mentions the question about the tugboat. What has happened about the incident with the tugboat? What has been done? I would like the Pope to ask Fidel that question.

QUANA CARRAZANA (through translators) I see him as a messenger of God and since God always wants the best for human beings, he’s going to bring us that happiness we need, at least spiritually, so that little by little this comes to an end.

TED KOPPEL (VO) Quana Carrazana’s husband, daughter and granddaughter were among the dead. She lives with her son in poverty and says she is also harassed by state security.

QUANA CARRAZANA (through translators) The jails are full of political prisoners. As a result of this interview, I may be arrested. But I’m not afraid if they arrest me, because I live for my son. If they kill me, I don’t mind, because I’m already dead. If they actually kill me, I don’t mind.

REYNALDO CARRAZANA (through translators) He’s going to say mass. People are going to feel fine while he’s here and then things will go back to normal. People will go back to their daily grind, live their day to day difficult life, sweat and toil and everything will be the same.

TED KOPPEL (VO) Reynaldo, Quana’s son, had to leave school. He says he’s periodically picked up or threatened. He supports his mother by making furniture by hand. His mother is afraid that Fidel Castro will warmly greet the Pope.

QUANA CARRAZANA (through translators) I don’t want that moment to come. I would turn my face because it’s as if God were embracing the Devil. God cannot embrace the Devil ever. The Pope’s visit will help Fidel because it will look to the world as if Fidel has become more open. But for the Cuban people, nothing will change.

TED KOPPEL (VO) The men who survived were thrown into prison for several months. When they were released, Sergio Perodin made his way into exile in Miami.

SERGlO PERODIN (through translators) I have always been against those who travel to Cuba to attend one of the masses the Pope will say there. It has never occurred to me the idea of returning to Cuba as long as this dictatorship exists.

REYNALDO CARRAZANA (through translators) I’m planning to go. Let’s see if they let me. They can warn me. Here they can warn you. They see you around, they can simply arrest you and that’s it. They don’t tell you don’t go, but they say if you go, there might be consequences.

JORGE GARCIA (through translators) I’m planning to go see the Pope, go to the mass. Probably he will not know that I am there. I will just be one in the crowd. But I will go there because I have a debt of gratitude to the Pope that I want to pay.

TED KOPPEL I’ll be back with a closing thought in a moment.

(Commercial Break)

TED KOPPEL The Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, once mocked the power of the Pope with his famous rhetorical question how many divisions does the Pope command? Fidel Castro has a more subtle understanding of the Popes influence.

By welcoming John Paul to Havana tomorrow, Castro may believe that some of the Pope’s moral authority will rub off. But the newly revitalized Catholic Church of Cuba has already made it clear that the vicar of Christ will be here visiting the people of Cuba, not engaging in political dialogue with its leaders.

A simple letter of condolence from the Pope has already showed that it could make waves in this country. A Papal visit may yet stir up a storm.

That’s our report for tonight. I’m Ted Koppel in Havana. For all of us here at ABC News, good night.

Crime in Chile and the United States

The American Embassy in Santiago posted a security message for U.S. citizens on its web site on July 7, citing recent press reports about increased crime in Santiago.  The message contains the usual suggestions for avoiding crime anywhere in the world, such as walking only in well-lit areas, not leaving personal belongings out of sight and not displaying jewelry or cameras and carrying only limited amounts of cash. There is a section on car jackings and vehicle robbery, suggesting motorists “leave a gap between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you” when stopping at traffic lights.

The Embassy post also notes that telephone scams are common, and that thieves have sometimes gained entry to homes posing as police or utility company representatives and in some cases used a child pretending to be lost.


Chilean Interior Ministry Jorge Burgos was asked about the advisory and he responded that the U.S. Embassy had always posted such messages.  Then he added, “I would recommend to Chilean citizens who go to the United States also take care in certain places, particularly in establishments near university campuses, where there are usually individuals who shoot and have killed people. You have to be careful where you go in the United States as well.”

Point taken.  For the record, other foreign governments also post safety and security advisories for their citizens travelling to other countries and the British Foreign Office has a similar message on its web site for Chile, instructing visitors to “book a taxi in advance, rather than hailing one from the street” and not to put any valuables in the storage compartments of buses and coaches.


And to put things into some perspective–the U.S. Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) has the following to say in its Chile 2014 Crime and Safety report:

The security environment is generally safe, and there is comparatively less serious violent crime experienced in Chile than in other Latin American countries. Pickpocketing, telephonic scams, vehicular theft, and residential burglaries are far more common than violent crimes like express kidnappings, kidnapping for ransom, and random shootings, which rarely occur. https://www.osac.gov/pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=16122

A Fourth of July party in Havana

Ladies in White at the U.S. Interests Section 4th of July reception in Havana

Ladies in White at the U.S. Interests Section 4th of July reception in Havana

Who knew? The U.S. Interests Section in Havana http://havana.usint.gov/ , soon to become the U.S. Embassy, held a reception to celebrate the 4th of July on Friday and invited some 300 people. According to the independent Cuban news site Cubanet, the guest list was made up of “foreign diplomatic personnel accredited in Cuba, government functionaries, cultural figures, clergy of different religious denominations, the Ladies in White, government opponents, independent human rights observers, independent journalists and members of Cuban cooperatives and civil society.”

Foreign diplomatic missions normally hold receptions in their host countries, and sometimes these receptions provide a neutral space for leaders of opposing factions to mingle and sometimes even discuss their issues. But things can also go wrong. The Cubanet article said that two former political prisoners invited to the reception approached Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who agreed to a conversation, but when they raised the subject of other dissidents still in jail, the cleric became angry, told them there were no political prisoners in Cuba and threatened to call security guards.

Trading with Cuba

The United States and Cuba are going to reopen their embassies in Havana and Washington, though Cuban officials have stated that relations won’t be normalized until the U.S. Congress lifts the trade embargo, or what they call el bloqueo, the blockade. There has been a steady stream of congressional and trade delegations visiting Cuba, all looking for opportunities and hoping to be the first in line to sign new commercial and investment deals.

It should be pointed out that the U.S. already exports a considerable amount of stuff to Cuba, and has been doing so for years: food and health care products, which are not covered by the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act, or the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act or the 2000 Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act. There’s a cash-up-front, no credit requirement, but according to the U.S.- Cuba Trade and Economic Council the U.S. has exported $1.1 billion in medical equipment, instruments, supplies and pharmaceutical goods to Cuba so far this year, while agricultural sales totalled $83 million (with frozen chicken topping the list). The Council’s June newsletter, Economic Eye on Cuba, has a full breakdown of American exports to Cuba since 2001 can be downloaded from its web site http://www.cubatrade.org/.

The newsletter observes that there are “meaningful exports of products from the United States to the Republic of Cuba that remain unreported/undocumented” and enter the country via charter flights from the U.S. and third country airlines. This seems like an oblique reference to Cuban-American visitors bringing goods to relatives on the island. The Obama administration has authorized exports to private Cuban enterprises, but for the time being it is the Cuban government that controls all imports. The Council also notes that

The government of Cuba may determine greater leverage exists from not increasing purchasing levels as a means of encouraging those impacted United States-based parties to seek further regulatory and legislative changes. Members of Congress, Governors and other political actors will increase their visits to the Republic of Cuba as media coverage of the visits will be generous. However, if too many visitors return without commitments for purchases of products manufactured in their respective states, the media’s generosity will lessen…as will the political actors and, eventually, companies.

Politico has this piece on U.S.-Cuba trade: http://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2015/07/trade-with-cuba-we-already-do-300-million-worth-000130

And a related piece on doing business with Cuba, pointing out that a future Republican administration could undo everything: http://www.politico.com/story/2015/07/us-cuba-relationship-obstacles-119650.html