Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Can Obama soften the Castros' iron fist?

Can Obama soften the Castros' iron fist?
Posted: December 24, 2008
1:00 am Eastern

In the Miami-Dade Cuban community in Florida, 65 percent now support the
United States restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, according to a
Florida International University poll (Miami Herald, Dec. 2). And there
is increasing pressure on President-elect Barack Obama from such
business interests as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm
Bureau Federation to work toward "the complete removal of all trade and
travel restrictions on Cuba." The Castro brothers' political prisoners
were not polled.

The clear, cold facts on the Cuban ground, says Jose Miguel Vivanco,
director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division, are that "despite
the handoff of power from Fidel to Raul Castro, the Cuban government
still refuses to tolerate even the most basic assertion of human rights."

Among the many examples of the crackdowns on peaceful dissenters, many
Cubans planning to reach Havana to participate in marches and other
events celebrating on Dec. 10, the 60th anniversary of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights (a text banned in state libraries), were
arrested on the way. Their families do not yet know where they're being

Obama advisers would do well to consult Belinda Salas, president of the
Latin American Federation of Rural Women, who, on Dec. 9 in Havana, was
assaulted – along with her husband, Lazaro Alonso, a former political
prisoner – by official thugs who, tearing the shirt from her body,
fractured her hand. Salas has not heard from her husband, who was taken
by authorities. Cuban officials refuse to disclose his location.

The Castro dictatorship, she told the Christian Science Monitor (Dec.
10) "want(s) to sell the image that they respect human rights, so they
beat us to avoid our peaceful protests planned" for the next day.

Still caged by the Castro brothers under long sentences are more than
220 "traitors," as the regime calls them. The accurate way to describe
them, many who have been in need of medical attention for years, is,
Amnesty International insists, "prisoners of conscience."

I and others, such as Ray Bradbury ("Fahrenheit 451"), have been
concentrating on the imprisoned independent librarians – whose crime is
opening their homes and libraries to such books banned in the state
library system as a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. and, of course,
George Orwell's "Animal Farm."

But the range of this Communist dictatorship's enemies is much broader.
The PEN writers' organization is trying to get imprisoned writers
released, while the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without
Borders and the international Coordinating Committee of Press Freedom
organizations are involved with endangered journalists.

Nor is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce concerned with the work of networks
of historians and labor union associations trying to protect those
courageous imperiled Cubans with the audacity to hope for democracy they
can believe in.

And I expect that at least some in the multitude of American bloggers
are worried about the safety of Cuba's best-known independent blogger,
Yoani Sanchez, who has been warned by police that she had "transgressed
all the limits of tolerance with your closeness and contact with
elements of the counter revolution."

Were I Cuban, I suppose I'd be targeted as a counterrevolutionary for
having asked Che Guevara – the only time I met him at the Cuban Mission
to the United Nations – whether he could possibly envision eventual free
elections in Cuba. Although he professed not to understand English, Che
– still lionized on T-shirts in this country – didn't wait for the
translator and burst into laughter. It was then I learned that laughter
can be chilling.

Speaking of free elections and other subversive visions of democracy in
Cuba, Roger Cohen in "The End of the Revolution" (New York Times
Magazine, Dec. 7), told of Hector Palacios, imprisoned three times
because, he says, "my crime was simple: thinking that the government has
to change from totalitarianism." One of his more outrageous crimes was
organizing in the past for the Varela Project – a petition asking for a
referendum that would bring democratic change. Many courageous Cubans
signed it, to no avail.

Last May, in Miami, Palacios met Obama, whom he buoyantly describes as
"the new element. He's willing to talk to anyone. As with our aging
government, the hard-line generation of Cuban-Americans is dying out.
Significant change is possible within two years."

But, in Cuba, indicating that a hard-line on freedom is not slackening,
Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, who is among those who could
succeed Raul Castro, declared on Human Rights Day in December that after
half a century reign, Cuba's human rights record, with some
"imperfections" is such that Cuba and its leaders "can celebrate this
day with heads held high."

Once in the Oval Office, Obama would be consistent with his human-rights
protestations to require at least that the "prisoners of conscience" be
released before we restore relations with Cuba. And Obama should
consider urging the American Library Association to at last be faithful
to its own principles by strongly recommending to Raul Castro that he
also include the immediate release of the independent librarians.

Until now, the ALA has refused to do that, even though it has honored
Bradbury for "Fahrenheit 451" that foretold a grim time when governments
would burn books, declaring reading an act of disloyalty to the state.

Many of the books Castro seized from independent librarians were burned
by orders of his courts.

Mr. President-elect, please help these prisoners of conscience where so
many, including the ALA, have failed to do so.

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