Cuban Repression Rears its Head

The Castro government unleashed a new wave of political repression in Cuba over the weekend. More than 200 dissidents were reportedly rounded up by Cuban authorities and detained for a short period. Cuban activists characterized the detentions as part of a larger strategy by the Castro government to discourage and sabotage anti-government meetings and protests before they can occur.

Roberta Jacobson -Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and leader of the U.S. delegation to Cuba- tweeted after the arrests that she was “concerned about violent silencing of peaceful voices for change in Cuba.”

Among those arrested were several dozen members of the Ladies in White, a group of the wives and relatives of jailed Cuban dissidents who were set upon by Cuban authorities during their traditional march through the Miramar District of Havana. They were reportedly joined by around 90 members of the banned Patriotic Union for Cuba and other activists.     

Elizardo Sanchez -leader of the illegal Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation- described the arrests as “an almost unexpected repressive surge” and argued that the events “demonstrate[d] eloquently that the Cuban government does not have the slightest inclination to bring about changes on the island.”

According to a recent report by Sanchez’s commission, the Castro regime only arrested 178 activists in January of 2015 -the lowest monthly figure in the last four years. Many optimists had hoped that this softening of Cuban political repression stemmed -at least in part- from the diplomatic normalization efforts initiated by Havana and Washington in December of last year. This new spat of arbitrary arrests and detentions calls into question the viability of that view and reinforce the claims of hardliners like U.S. Senator Marco Rubio -who publicly accused President Obama of ignoring the arrests in an effort to form a lasting diplomatic agreement with the Castro regime.

“As the next round of U.S.-Cuba normalization talks begins later this week, U.S. officials are so desperate to open a U.S. embassy in Havana, that they’re forging ahead despite a new wave of repression that has jailed over 200 Cuban democracy activists in the past two weeks,” Rubio recently said in a statement.

Rubio stands in opposition to a delegation of American lawmakers who visited Cuba last week.

One of them, Congressman Jim McGovern, told reporters during the trip that “the best way to promote human rights [in Cuba] is to accelerate this new process to establish formal embassies in Havana and Washington.” 

This weekend’s events occurred ahead of a new round of talks between representatives of the American and Cuban governments scheduled to take place in Washington this Friday. The talks -which are set to deal with the planned reopening of embassies in Havana and Washington- could also be marred by seemingly intractable disagreements between the U.S. and Cuban governments over the status of American-owned Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -were the human rights of terror-suspects held at the detention center there are repodedly violated on a regular basis.

The process of diplomatic re-engagement between the governments of the United States and Cuba remains an uphill battle.




Overhyped New HIV Strain in Cuba?

In an exclusive phone interview with New Gracchi today, Dr. Hector Bolivar -an infectious disease specialist at U. Miami Miller School of Medicine- retreated from some of the statements that had previously been attributed to him in a Miami Herald article published on February 13.

The article in question described the results of a long-term international study conducted by researchers at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. The study -which was undertaken with the help of the Institute for Tropical Medicine Pedro Kouri in Havana- claimed to have uncovered a virulent and fast acting new strain of HIV in Cuba.

The researchers involved with the project examined and compared blood samples from 95 Cuban patients suffering at various stages of the HIV/AIDS viruses. While most of the patients recruited for the project had been only recently diagnosed with one or the other of the viruses, 22 of them had been knowingly living with HIV -and subsequently AIDS- for several years without treatment prior to the start of the study.

The extent to which the project’s researchers and related Cuban health-providers were aware of the untreated and deteriorating statuses of those 22 HIV/AIDS sufferers in the years leading up to the study is unclear.

In the Miami Herald article that featured Dr. Bolivar last week, the doctor -who was not directly involved with the project- was said to have speculated that the 22 patients in question were intentionally left untreated for the sake of the study. The piece also insinuated that Bolivar believed that the overall project was carried out unethically and in contrast to most medical norms.

While Bolivar reiterated some of his criticisms of the study over the phone today -including its small sample size-, he also clarified that there is, in fact, no reason to believe that the researchers involved in the study conducted themselves unethically or endangered any of the patients involved based on the information currently available. He explained that the researchers behind the study have announced that they intend to release more details of their methodology soon and that that may assuage some of the ethical concerns that have been raised.

Bolivar went on to explain that the uneasiness expressed by some over the circumstances of the study may stem from changing public perceptions related to fairly recent developments in HIV/AIDS research and treatment. Specifically, World Health Organization (WHO) advisory changes and improved treatment methods -particularly cheaper HIV/AIDS medication with less severe side-effects than was previously the case- have helped to increase worldwide access to HIV/AIDS treatment in recent years. On the other hand, when the Belgian study began in 2007, access to treatment for HIV/AIDS patients in poorer countries like Cuba was much more tenuous than it is today. Given that unfortunate context, it’s understandable that some knowingly HIV-positive Cubans went about their lives normally without seeking treatment for several years before the start of the 2007 study.

In contrast to how his views had been portrayed in the Miami Herald article, Dr. Bolivar was dismissive over the phone today of the potential threat posed by the new HIV strain to populations in southern Florida. He pointed out that the study failed to establish the aggressiveness of the strain’s transmission and again claimed that the Cuban sample size was simply too small to be taken very seriously.

“It’s not sensible,” Bolivar explained, “to extrapolate that it [the new strain] could threaten Florida.”


Venezuelan Revolution on the Horizon?

On February 5, the German Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela issued an ominous warning to Germans living in or visiting that country. The widely circulated declaration was written by Dr. Jörg Polster -the Chargé d’Affaires at the German Embassy- and urged German nationals in Venezuela to begin stockpiling food, drinking water, medicine and other vital provisions in preparation for a possible political crisis in Venezuela in the near future.

The statement went on to say, “We shouldn’t take it for granted that we will have access to electricity or internet services. The validity of passports and identity documents should be verified regularly.”

The German Embassy’s cryptic warnings elicited suspicion and alarm from certain corners of the Venezuelan media, with many wondering whether German officials had based their advisory on information about a specific potential event or development that the public was not aware of.

Moritz Jacobshagen, Secretary of Cultural and Political Matters at the embassy, was quick to assuage such concerns on a Venezuelan radio show; he explained, “Many people on Twitter are saying that we are on the brink of evacuating German citizens, this isn’t true… This statement is purely routine.”

Venezuelan concerns over the intentions of foreign governments operating in their country are not unfounded. The anti-government protests currently gripping Venezuela are partially fueled by regular subsides from the U.S. government. In 2014 alone, President Obama publicly allocated at least $5 million dollars for Venezuelan political opposition activities, a figure that Mark Weisbrot argues is only the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the U.S.’s accumulated material support for anti-government forces in Venezuela over the past 16 years -which he says amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Domestic dissatisfaction with the socialist government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is focused on soaring inflation and shortages of basic consumer goods in Venezuela -two problems which opposition groups blame on government mismanagement. The Maduro regime points to economic sabotage by anti-government forces both within and outside of their country as the cause of these issues, citing the seizure of 1.5 million diapers, 360,000 kilos of detergent, 277 thousand units of soap, and 14,000 units of baby formula and many other hoarded goods at a private Venezuelan warehouse last month as evidence of such sabotage.

Despite these issues, working class and poor Venezuelans have experienced significant gains in their living standards since their late president, Hugo Chavez, nationalized Venezuela’s oil industry and began implementing social reforms in the early 2000s. Chavez’s handpicked successor Maduro’s wide margin of victory in the much scrutinized -but throughly legitimate and transparent– 2013 presidential election was largely predicated on these gains.

Still, President Maduro’s troubles show no signs of abating. Besides inflationary and product shortage problems, his country’s economy is currently reeling from a recent precipitous drop in global oil prices -a drop which Andrew Topf of says may stem from politically-motivated collusion between the U.S. and Saudi Arabian governments. Given oil-wealthy Venezuela’s heavy reliance on petrol exports, these shocks could end up exacerbating Venezuelan political unrest and confirming the German Embassy’s fears.


The Gitmo Impasse

The process of diplomatic normalization between the United States and Cuban governments stalled last week over the issue of the American-held military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Speaking at a summit of Latin American and Caribbean States late last month, Cuban President Raúl Castro stated that the U.S. would need to relinquish control of Guantánamo Bay to the Cuba in order for negotiations between Havana and Washington to continue -he also demanded that the U.S.’s half century trade embargo on the island nation be fully lifted, and that the U.S. compensate his country for damages resulting from the American government’s decades-long anti-Castro campaign.

U.S. officials’ response was seemingly definitive: in a congressional hearing on February 4, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson explained that, “we are not interested in discussing that [the status of Guantánamo Bay]. We are not discussing that issue or return of Guantánamo.”

Guantánamo Bay -which Castro contends is illegally occupied by the U.S. government- has been in American hands for well over a century. After the U.S. helped Cubans gain their independence from Spain during the Spanish-American War at the close of the 19th century, the new Cuban government was compelled to agree to a number of conditions -stipulated in the Platt Amendment of 1901- for the withdrawal of American troops from their country to take place. One of these conditions was that the Cuban government cheaply lease Guantánamo Bay -and its surrounding acreage- to the United States. Gitmo subsequently became an important warm-water naval base and training ground for the U.S. military.

Today, the U.S. installation at Guantánamo Bay is infamous for the controversial detention facility that is housed there. Here, the American government holds terror suspects outside the bounds of U.S. or international law. A 2006 report by the Center for Constitutional Rights uncovered repeated instances of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of Gitmo prisoners -who often remain uncharged for years and are subject to trial by military commission rather than conventional civilian courts. More recently, Staff Sgt. Joseph Hickman -a marine who served at the detention complex- alleged that the CIA tortured three Gitmo detainees to death in 2006 and subsequently attempted to cover it up.

Amnesty International contends that the U.S. government’s prison facilities at Guantánamo Bay “have become emblematic of the gross human rights abuses perpetrated by the U.S. government in the name of fighting terrorism.”

Though U.S. President Barack Obama has repeatedly expressed a desire to shutdown the contentious prison facility at Gitmo since assuming office in 2009, he has failed to do so thus far -citing congressional obstruction as a major obstacle. Even so, legal experts are quick to point out that, according to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, the president could close the facility immediately and unilaterally if he desired.

Aside from a failed attempt to force-out the Americans in 1964 by cutting off the base’s water supply, the Castro government has largely turned a blind eye to the U.S.’s presence in Guantánamo Bay. Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro likely feared that any serious attempts to dislodge the Americans from the area would be utilized as a pretext by Washington for hostile military intervention in Cuba. His brother’s fresh attempt to regain the area -and assert Cuba’s sovereignty in doing so- likely indicates a diminishment of that fear. Whatever the case, the U.S. government’s apparent intransigence on the issue does not bode well for the effort. Nor does it help the recent process of diplomatic re-engagement that has excited so many in both countries. If the current thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations is to persist, somebody in Washington or Havana will have to give a little ground in Gitmo.

(FILES) In this March 30, 2010 file phot