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Cuba Chronicle of Events
Issue No. 50 • March 16-30, 2008


Cuba Chronicle of Events is produced by the Prima News Agency (Russia) in cooperation with the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (U.S.A). This edition is based on reports from PRIMA-News, Bitacora Cubana, CubaNet, Puente Informativo Cuba Miami, Martí Noticias, Directorio Democrático Cubano, Vesti.Ru,  RIA Novosti, Ekho Moskvy, Associated Press, Helpix, ITAR-TASS, BBC News, Reuters, Radio Liberty –Radio Free Europe.

OPPOSITION

25/03/2008
Ladies in White Finish Week of Marches in the Face of Force and Attacks

On the last day of a week of marches, held from March 14 to 19, security forces led by a high-ranking state security officer blocked a group of 32 Ladies in White, forced them to take another route, and told the women that future peaceful marches through the Plaza de la Revolución in downtown Havana were forbidden.

In another incident, a plain-clothes mob spat on them while they walked through the streets of Havana during the group’s “Week of Action”. Still, there was no police interference when the Ladies in White marched several times down Havana’s central streets during the week of protest. Normally, the Ladies in White march along Fifth Avenue, or Embassy Row, in the Verdado section.

19/03/2008
Cuban First Vice President Greeted with CAMBIO Stickers

When First Vice President José Ramón Machado Ventura arrived on March 15 in Aguada de Pasajeros, in the province of Cienfuegos, he was greeted with a large number of CAMBIO (Change) stickers posted in parks, streets, walls of the city hospital and other public places.

These stickers are a sign of peaceful protest by Cubans against the Castro regime, said Juan Alberto de la Nuez Ramírez, a provincial representative of the Cuban Human Rights Foundation and the Council of Human Rights Investigators in Cuba.

POLITICAL REPRESSION

25/03/2008
Former Political Prisoner Detained, Fined

José Patricio Armas García was detained on March 18 at 11 a.m. and taken to the police station in Güines where he was held till late evening. Armas García has been under police surveillance since March 14. He was accused of attempting to strangle a state security officer. In the end, he was fined 30 Cuban pesos and cautioned in writing. José Patricio Armas García is a former political prisoner. He lives in Pastorita neighborhood, in Güines, the province of Havana.

21/03/2008
FLAMUR Director, Ex-Political Prisoner Detained

Belinda Salas Tapanes, president of the Latin American Federation of Rural Women (FLAMUR), and former political prisoner Lázaro Alonso Román were detained by police on the morning of March 20 in Palma Soriano municipality, Santiago de Cuba province.

The opposition activists were traveling back home on an intercity coach bound for Santiago de Cuba from Havana. Upon their arrival at Palma Soriano at nine thirty in the morning, they were detained by officers of the national revolutionary police and state security and brought to a police station. Julio Alcaceres, a local resident and member of the Republican Party of Cuba who was waiting for them at the coach terminal, was also arrested.

Salas Tapanes and her husband Alonso Román took the journey to the Cuban capital as part of FLAMUR’s campaign for a single currency, “With the Same Coin,” to do research on companies that sell food products for convertible pesos. Their arrest was witnessed and subsequently reported by former political prisoner Vladimir Antonio Roselló. So far, there is no further information on their arrests.

POLITICAL PRISONERS

19/03/2008
U.S. State Department Presses Cuban Regime to Release Political Prisoners in Cuba

The U.S. State Department has called on the Cuban government to release all prisoners of conscience on the island. State Department spokesman Tom Casey issued a statement to mark the fifth anniversary of Cuba’s Black Spring, a crackdown in which 75 dissidents were arrested and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 13 to 28 years for their peaceful acts, having to endure brutal prison conditions.

The statement says the United States “joins Vaclav Havel, the former President of the Czech Republic, and other voices in calling for the immediate, unconditional release of the victims of the Black Spring and all prisoners of conscience in Cuba. . . . The Cuban people deserve real change and the opportunity to join a dialogue about their country’s future free from fear.”

18/03/2008
Ladies in White Issue Statement to Mark Black Spring Anniversary

The Ladies in White, a group of wives, mothers, and sisters of imprisoned Cuban political prisoners, issued a statement on March 14 to mark the fifth anniversary of the 2003 Black Spring crackdown on dissent.

“While the country’s top authorities are now publicly acknowledging the roots of the crisis faced by the people of Cuba that were pinpointed by the 75 imprisoned dissidents who wished our homeland progress and prosperity, these very people remain imprisoned as hostages of the government. The government continues to humiliate them as bargaining chips in negotiations with high-ranking foreign officials,” the statement read.

“We call upon governments, parliaments, religious institutions, political parties, non-government organizations, prominent figures, and peoples of the world to thoroughly study whether the situation in Cuba with particular respect to repression has changed since March 2004. Pledges are made, and international U.N. human rights pacts are signed, but with reservations regarding the application of the documents. Invitations are sent out to top foreign officials to visit Cuba. Regretfully, none of the visiting dignitaries has ever visited Cuban jails or met with Cuban prisoners,” the document continued.

“What we need is acts, not words. Any changes should begin with the immediate and unconditional release of prisoners of conscience,” the Ladies in White concluded.

19/03/2008
Prisoner of Conscience Released

Prisoner of conscience Pedro Luis González Acosta, who had been in jail since September 18 2005, was released on March 15 after completing his sentence of two-and-a-half years. He didn’t commit any criminal offence. His “crime” was promoting human rights, for which he was tried on charges of “pre-criminal social dangerousness.”

González Acosta, 42, is a member of the Máximo Gómez National Civil Movement. Up until his release, the rights activist, who was very ill, was held at Combinado de la Construcción Augusto César Sandino prison in Pinar del Río.

20/03/2008
Book by Cuban Political Prisoner Presented in Havana

The unofficial presentation of a book written by Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, one of the 75 dissidents imprisoned in the Black Spring of 2003, took place on March 19 in Havana. The book, titled Buried Alive (Enterrados Vivos), is a dairy of the author’s prison experience. This is the first in a trilogy he intends to write about the political imprisonment of 75 peaceful pro-democracy activists and independent journalists arrested in March 2003.

The book launching was attended by 30 Ladies in White, according to independent journalist Carlos Serpa Maceira. Jorge Olivera Castillo, one of nineteen dissidents released on medical parole, gave an opening speech. Also in attendance were the head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and a Czech Embassy official.

27/03/2008
Political Prisoner’s Mother Describes Abusive Treatment of Her Son

Reina Luisa Tamayo Danger, a member of the Ladies in White and the mother of prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo, reports of abuse her son has had to endure in jail. Orlando is being held in a damp cell and is forced to spend 24 hours a day with the overhead light bulb constantly on, not knowing whether it is night or day, she said.

Tamayo’s physical and psychological health causes concern. Since August 2007, he has been denied access to sunlight and forbidden to take outdoor walks. He staged two hunger strikes this year, one from January 24 to 28, the other from February 23 to 25, to demand a transfer to a better cell, without TB infected inmates and common criminals. Tamayo is serving a 14-year sentence at the provincial prison in Holguín. He was arrested and convicted during The Black Spring in 2003. His family lives in Banes municipality, the province of Holguín.

26/03/2008
Political Prisoners Protests against Prison Conditions

In a letter addressed to Cuban society, political prisoner named Lázaro Alejandro García Fará reports a rise in the number of human rights violations at Boniato prison, Santiago de Cuba. García Fará cited his transfer from a prison in Havana to eastern Cuba, to keep him far away from his family residing in Pinar del Río. He also protests against abusive treatment by prison officers, threats and humiliation, and deplorable jail conditions and lack of medical treatment

GOVERNMENT

20/03/2008
Cubans Getting Free Passage

Cuba is considering the easing of restrictions on its nationals who want to travel abroad. Cubans currently must both obtain a letter of invitation issued by a foreigner and get a government permit to travel overseas. They must pay a fee of several hundred dollars to obtain an exit permit, which, given the average wage of $15, is an enormously large sum of money for ordinary Cubans. Cubans living abroad also need government approval to return.

Cuban authorities generally blame the U.S. for travel restrictions since it limits Cuban Americans to one visit every three years to the island. Today, more than 1.3 million Cubans live abroad, most having fled the island illegally since 1959 and settling in Florida. A record 193,000 expatriate Cubans visited the island in 2007.

22/03/2008
Cubans Officially Allowed to Complain about Government

In a novel move in a country where the press is controlled by a one-party state, the ruling Communist Party newspaper Granma published letters to the editor for and against reforms being considered by the Cuban government on March 21. ”The idea is to show the public what people think. It is the people that will write the letters,” said a journalist at the newspaper, who asked not to be named.  Opinions on the state of the economy and proposed reforms ranged from quite favorable to strongly negative. One writer called for the elimination of the dual currency system, a major source of complaint among Cubans, who are paid in Cuban pesos but must buy many consumer goods in Cuba’s hard currency “convertible” pesos. It is still unclear whether “people’s letters” are a one-time publicity stunt or the start of a tradition.

28/03/2008
Cuba to Allow Unrestricted Use of Mobile Phones

The Cuban government is allowing cell phones for ordinary Cubans for the first time in the country’s history. The state telecom monopoly ETECSA announced in the official newspaper Granma that it would offer mobile services to the public in the next few days. Some Cubans own mobile phones, but they acquire them through a third party, often foreigners or work places. Now Cubans will be able to subscribe to pre-paid mobile services under their own names.

27/03/2008
Cuban Parliament to Consider Bill on Same-Sex Unions

For the first time since the 1959 Revolution, a draft lesbian, gay and transsexual rights bill has been formally submitted to Cuban legislators for consideration. If adopted by the National Assembly in June this year, the proposed new law would recognize same-sex unions, along with inheritance rights. It would also give transsexuals the right to free sex-change operations and allow them to switch the gender on their ID cards, with or without surgery.

Mariela Castro, director of the National Sex Education Centre, who has openly lobbied for such legislation, stated that the proposed change to Cuban family law would put members of same-sex unions on a par with heterosexuals. Also under the new law, she said, a person would only need to obtain a referral letter from the Ministry of Public Health to have a sex change.

REFUGEES

15/03/2008
Cuban Musicians Granted Asylum in Brazil

Cuban musicians of the group Los Galanes went missing in Brazil during their tour in December. Speaking on Brazilian television on March 14, they said they didn’t want to return to Cuba because “they’ve got tired of living in jail.”

INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

07/03/2008
Bush: Cuba Replaces One Dictator with Another

U.S. President George W. Bush said that one dictator had replaced another in Cuba and vowed to maintain the U.S. policy of isolation toward Cuba. “So far, all Cuba has done is replace one dictator with another, and Fidel Castro “is still influencing events from behind the scenes,” insisted President Bush, speaking at the White House. “This is the same system, the same faces and the same policies,” Bush stressed.

08/03/2008
Venezuelan Leader Arrives in Cuba for Talks with Raul Castro

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez arrived in Cuba late evening on March 7 for talks with new Cuba’s leader Raul Castro, reported Cuba’s state-run newspaper Granma. Chavez was greeted at the airport by Raul Castro. Granma didn’t mention the talks’ agenda. This is Chavez’ first visit to Havana since Cuba’s parliament named Raul Castro president.

Chavez made a stopover in Cuba on his way home from a summit of the Rio Group in the Dominican Republic, where 22 Latin American leaders agreed to defuse a tense political and military dispute between Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua.  In the declaration signed by presidents of the Rio Group, Colombia has pledged no more cross-border raids on FARC rebels.

16/03/2008 –
Fidel Castro Denies Cuba Link to Colombian Rebels

Former President Fidel Castro said it was “stupid” to think Cubans were involved with Colombian rebels whose camp was bombed in a cross-border raid in Ecuador early this month. Fidel Castro issued a statement to dismiss allegations reportedly being investigated by Mexican authorities and news media that Cubans were linked to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Some recent reports have also suggested that Cuban medical students were involved with the FARC, an idea that Castro called a “lie.”

23/03/2008
Cuba Supports Beijing Olympics

Communist Cuba denounced on Saturday the nations that criticized China for its violent crackdown on anti-government protests in Tibet. The Cuban government also condemned the campaign to sabotage the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “The Cuban government condemns with all vigor the attempts to organize a crusade to cause this noble effort to fail. This campaign is also an aggression against the international Olympic movement,” Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

26/03/2008
McCain: Castro’s Successor Might Be Much Worse

The likely Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, has expressed caution over future developments in Raul Castro’s Cuba. He stated that Raul, in many ways, has a worse record than Fidel. He expressed concern that Cuba will continue to suffer from repression and economic stagnation, McCain said in a foreign policy speech before the World Affairs Council on March 26 in Los Angeles, California.

The Republican presidential favorite said the United States’ policy options on Cuba “are not very good at the moment.” The best option for now, he said, is to keep our embargo up until after they’ve emptied their prisons, human rights organizations are allowed to function freely, and free elections in Cuba are held, said McCain. He also made it clear that America should help Cuba move forward toward democracy.

THE ECONOMY

18/03/2008
Cuba Allows Farmers to Buy Their Own Supplies

The government announced that private farmers will be able to buy supplies with the freely convertible currency they receive from selling agricultural produce to the state at fixed prices.
For the first time agricultural supplies such as tools, machinery, fertilizers will not be assigned by the central government. From now on, small-scale farmers will be allowed to buy these items from state stores, which is a very important step in the direction of easing the state’s monopoly and centralization over agricultural production.
Cuba’s new President Raul Castro has made this move in an attempt to stimulate food production and to save the country hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars that are now spent annually on food imports. The new Cuban leader said agriculture was a priority for the country’s economic development. In 2007, Cuba purchased food imports worth $2 billion. Today, there are more than 250,000 farms and 1,100 cooperatives in Cuba. They farm a third of the country’s agricultural land.

22/03/2008
Cuba Acknowledges Informal Economy

For the first time ever, the Cuban government has publicly acknowledged the major role the informal economy plays in island life. Cuba’s National Office of Statistics has released a report on prices and inflation in what it calls the rather limited private sector.

In its survey, the National Office of Statistics estimated that the cost of goods and services purchased from private sources rose 4 percent from February 2007 to the same month in 2008. According to the study, the goods and services most frequently obtained from private sources are rice, eggs, pork, vegetable oil, lard and the informal exchange of the regular pesos for the convertible pesos.

The Cuban formal economy is predominantly state-owned. In the early 1990s, the government has allowed some private enterprise, but still subsidizes key services and industries. But as Havana is unable to supply everything, a quasi-market system has evolved in Cuba in the form of illicit trade and currency exchange.  Cuban farmers sell at black-market prices any excess agricultural goods after meeting production quotas, as well as food, medicine and other products stolen from state warehouses and factories, and exchange their pesos into dollars.

24/03/2008
Cart Drivers’ Strike

In response to a threat of having their work licenses withdrawn, drivers of animal-drawn carts in Santo Domingo municipality in Santa Clara province have ended a strike begun in March, reported peaceful opposition activist Jesús Miguel Rodríguez. Employees at the Municipal Assembly of People’s Power said they learned about the strike from the “enemy radio station” in Miami, calling a person who had alerted Cuban independent press on the forthcoming protest a counterrevolutionary. Some strikers have surrendered their licenses for “cabbing,” but most of them have resumed work, having no other source of income to keep their families.

SOCIAL ISSUES

24/03/2008
Sickness Payments Canceled

Authorities in Ranchuelo municipality, Villa Clara province, have cancelled payments for short-term disability and sickness to Cuban workers for February. “There will be no sick-leave payments for February as the government is unable to shoulder the cost of workers’ short-term disability,” said Ramón Venegas, head of the regional branch of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.

OTHER NEWS

07/03/2008
Cyber-Revolution in Cuba

“Cuban Cyber-Rebellion” is how The New York Times is describing the growing underground of high technology activism in Cuba despite the country being listed as one of the most closed countries in the world in terms of access to information. The government has long limited the public’s access to the Internet, and there is one Internet cafe opened to Cubans in Havana but government employees keep a watchful eye on what web sites customers visit. Yet the government’s attempts to control access are increasingly ineffective. Young Cubans have started blogs and Internet news sites, using servers in other countries, in which they describe their daily life in Cuba, and their reports are reaching people through the digital underground.

“The country does not need a soldier, a charismatic leader or a great speaker, but a pragmatic housewife who favors freedom of speech and open elections,” Yoani Sánchez, the most popular Internet journalist, said in her blog posting shortly after Fidel Castro announced he was stepping down and passing the reins to his brother Raul. Sánchez has attracted a considerable following with her blog, Generación Y, with thousands of people across the world reading her pieces. Sánchez, like most Cubans, plays a game of cat and mouse with the authorities to update her web site. She dresses up like a foreigner and goes to Havana hotels catering to foreign tourists that provide Internet services.

All these spy tricks could have been taken for American propaganda, if it were not for a recent information leak from the island. Last month, students at the University of Computer Science in Havana videotaped a confrontation they had with Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the National Assembly. Students grilled the top official about why there are so many restrictions in their life, why they could not travel abroad, stay at hotels, earn better wages or use search engines like Google and Yahoo, and why a worker has to work two or three days to buy a toothbrush.

Alarcón’s answers were evasive. He said he didn’t have the expertise to address issues regarding the Internet, but, when asked why there are restrictions on Cubans traveling abroad, he said: “I wish all the Cuban could go out and get to know the world outside. I think it would be the end of the ideological battle in this country.” Alarcón, however, suggested that if everyone who wished to were allowed to travel, there would not be enough airspace for the planes.

Another “unauthorized” videotape caught an argument with party leaders, showing how Cubans erupted in jeers and shouts. These videotapes and a growing number of blogs are a sign that Cuban society is fed up with a revolutionary aesthetic and wants change.

17/03/2008
Cuba Should Expand Cellular Network

Raul Castro is easing restrictions on the sale of DVDs and computers in Cuba. The obvious next move, says The Inquirer, would be to open up its cellular network to local residents. It’s currently estimated that out of Cuba’s population of 11 million, only 0.2 per cent have access to the cellular network. Most of those are government officials. Yet the country’s cellular operator, Teléfonos Celulares de Cuba (Cubacel), operates a 900 MHz GSM network which has good national coverage for all the places tourists might want to visit.

24/03/2008
Cuban Composer and Musician Israel “Cachao” Lopez Dies

Cuban-born composer and musician Israel “Cachao” Lopez has died in Florida at the age of 89. He is credited with inventing the mambo style of music. Born in Havana to a family of musicians, by his early teens, Lopez was performing with Havana’s symphony orchestra under guest conductors such as Igor Stravinsky and Herbert von Karajan. He wrote hundreds of songs in Cuba for bands and orchestras. In 1962, after the Castro regime came to power on the island, Lopez emigrated from Cuba. After living in Spain for two years, he moved to the United States, first to New York, and then to Miami, Florida. His career enjoyed a revival when Cuban-American actor Andy Garcia made a documentary “Cachao … Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos” (Like His Rhythm There Is No Other). He released several albums, including the Grammy-winning album “Ahora Si!” in 2004.

25/03/2008
Cuban Authorities Block Access to Most Popular Cuban Blog

The Cuban authorities have blocked access to the “Generacion Y” blog, the country’s most-read blog of Yoani Sánchez. Cubans also can no longer visit two other home-grown blogs on the web site from a server in Germany. When Cubans try to get access to her web site, they are now greeted with an “error downloading” message.

Sánchez has attracted a considerable readership by writing about her daily life in Cuba and describing economic hardships and political constraints. She has criticized Cuba’s new leader Raul Castro. In her recent blog posting titled “Who is the last in line for a toaster?” she satirized the lifting of a ban on the sale of computers, DVD players and other appliances, as toasters will not be freely sold in Cuba until 2010.

Sánchez said she cannot directly access her web site from Cuba to update postings anymore, but has found a way to beat her censors through an indirect route. In February alone, her blog received 1.2 million hits. According to Sanchez, some Cubans have already found a way to get around censors to visit her web page.

26/03/2008
Cuba’s Attempt to Block Blogger Yoani Sánchez Causes World Outrage

Restrictions on Yoani Sánchez’s blog from Havana called Generacioon Y has gained international attention. The Guardian newspaper in Britain writes that Cuba has blocked access to the country’s most popular blog, signaling an apparent government crackdown on a new generation of “cyber critics.” The Wall Street Journal reported on the restrictions.BBC World Service added that Sánchez’ blog attracted over one million visitors per month. Sánchez, 32, told BBC she would not identify herself as part of the opposition, and that the problem stems from the narrow view of the government.In an interview for the Spanish newspaper ABC, she said she speaks for herself when describing the lack of freedom on the island, and the many “disappeared” things Cubans long for, such as lemons, which is strange given so much fertile land on which to produce them.
 
 

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The Cuba Chronicle of Events is produced by the Prima News Agency in Russia in cooperation with the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe. Items are reproduced with permission and attribution from other news agencies. Please direct inquiries and comments to Editor, Cuba Chronicle of Events, Prima-News at prima@prima-news.ru or to idee@idee.org.