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Cuba Chronicle of Events
Issue No. 51 • April 1-15, 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, RIA Novosti, Radio Liberty, Baptist World Alliance, Russian News Service, ITAR-TASS, Novoye Russkoye Slovo, BBC News, Reuters.


IAPA Condemns Cuba’s Clampdown on Internet Access

The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) has denounced Cuba’s growing restrictions on Internet access and called for the unconditional release of 25 independent journalists languishing in Cuban jails.

Concluding its biannual meeting in Caracas, Venezuela, the regional media group urged Cuba to loosen state control over the Internet and not to block access to blogs written in Cuba.  IAPA’s final statement recognized Cuba’s efforts at encouraging critical debate in the official press, welcomed the release from prison of independent journalists Alejandro González Raga and José Gabriel Ramón Castillo, and also called on Raul Castro to release all imprisoned journalists and respect their right to perform their professional duty.

The association that represents journalists in the Western Hemisphere called on Cuba to allow Cuban journalists having foreign visas to emigrate without hindrance and to adopt a respectful attitude toward foreign correspondents working on the island.

Cuban Dissidents Urge Government to Publish U.N. Rights Pacts

A group of Cuban dissidents has demanded that the Raul Castro government comply with the spirit of the two human rights documents Cuba signed in February at the United Nations and that it publish the full texts of the documents in the official press.

The opposition coalition called Liberal Unity of the Republic of Cuba said in a statement the publication of the full texts of the agreements “is vital to raising public awareness.” The group also denounced Cuba for reservations made at the signing of the U.N. covenants.
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on February 28 at the U.N. headquarters in New York, just four days after Raul Castro was chosen to take over Cuba’s presidency from his brother Fidel.

Opposition Group Reaffirms Support for Democracy in Cuba

The Republican Alternative Movement (MAR), an opposition organization, has reiterated its commitment to seek a free Cuba as it marked the sixth anniversary of its founding. The celebration was attended by 30 activists, including former political prisoners and members of other opposition groups, according to independent journalist Carlos Serpa Maceira.

Speaking at the event, Ricardo Rodríguez Borrero said the group would continue its peaceful struggle until Cuba becomes a truly free country. The group also called for the release of political prisoners, freedom of association and respect for human rights, according to the source.

Cuban Dissident Group Calls Raul Castro’s Reforms Late

In a statement circulated in Havana, the Democratic Solidarity Party described Raul Castro’s recent reforms as positive but belated. They would not change anything beyond the purely economic. But the group considers the measures as the first steps paving the way to dismantling the communist regime. In recent two weeks, the government has allowed Cubans to have access to previously prohibited services such as staying at tourist hotels, and buying cell phones and computers for hard currency.

Cuban Blogger Awarded Ortega and Gasset Prize

Independent Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez has been awarded one of Spain’s top journalism award, the Ortega and Gasset prize for digital journalism, a member of the award committee announced in Madrid. According to El Pais, Sanchez won it for her “shrewdness” in overcoming hurdles to freedom of expression in Cuba, her “vivacious” style, and her drive to join the global space of citizen journalism. The 32-year-old Cuban blogger is a graduate in philology. Her Generacion Y blog (www.DesdeCuba.com/GeneracionY/) offers a critical view of Cuban reality.

Sánchez said at the end of March that anonymous censors had tried to block access to her blog and prevent fellow Cubans from reading her postings. Her problems with the government has been reported on by the Guardian (Britain), The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times (U.S.), the Spanish newspaper ABC, and BBC World Service. The New-York-based Committee to Protect Journalists described the case as an attempt to block access to cyberspace and praised Sánchez’ efforts.

Political Prisoner Voices Opinion on Reforms

In a message from prison, Cuban prisoner of conscience Pablo Pacheco Ávila spoke out about reforms introduced by Raul Castro.  The dissident, who is being held in Moron prison, Ciego de Ávila province, called on the government to go further than just allowing ordinary citizens to have cell phones and to stay in luxury hotels, and recognize the Cubans’ right to define their own future.

Support for Non-Cooperation Campaign

The “I do not cooperate with the dictatorship” initiative has won active support of peaceful pro-democracy activists, former political prisoners and independent trade unions in different parts of Cuba. Several opposition groups on the Isle of Youth and in Camagüey held a night vigil on April 9 to support the disobedience campaign, reported independent journalist Carlos Serpa Maceira.

Vigil participants included the Julio Tang Texier Civic Cultural Project, the Isle of Youth Human Rights Foundation, the Independent National Workers’ Confederation of Cuba and a number of formers political prisoners. The call for “non-cooperation with the dictatorship” has been made by Cuban political prisoners inside the island and taken up by 40 exile dissident groups.

New Opposition Coalition Holds Founding Meeting

A new opposition alliance called “Agenda for the Transition” held its founding meeting on April 10 at a private house in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana.

Present at the meeting were Félix Antonio Bonne Carcassés, Margarito Broche Espinosa, Francisco Chaviano González, Guillermo Fariñas Hernández, Jorge Luis García Pérez (Antúnez), René Gómez Manzano, Roberto de Miranda Hernández, Vladimiro Roca, Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, and Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz. The launch of the new platform was also attended by activists María Antonia Hidalgo Mir and Idania Yanes Contreras.
The event started with the singing of the national anthem. After that, the participants in the meeting discussed various aspects of the social and political situation in Cuba, and elected the provisional Secretariat with Vladimiro Roca and Martha Beatriz Roque as its members.
The meeting was adjourned at four thirty to meet the press. The press conference attracted foreign correspondents accredited to Cuba, representatives of independent Cuban press, and diplomats of several foreign countries.

The debate proceeded after the press conference. The meeting ended at 6:15 p.m. After seven hours in conference, the participants adopted more than thirty documents. Various participants were unanimous in their opinion that “the event is historic.”


José Luis García Paneque in Grave Condition

Yamilé Llanes Labrada, a lawyer by training and the wife of prisoner of conscience José Luis García Paneque, described his condition as “extremely desperate.” The imprisoned Cuban surgeon is being held in Las Mangas prison in Bayamo, Granma province, formerly known as Oriente province. Dr. García Paneque is forced to share a barrack with dangerous common criminals who harass and intimidate him every day, putting his safety at risk.

Lady in White Worried about Jailed Husband’s Health

Melba Santana Aríz, an active member of the Ladies in White and the wife of dissident Alfredo Domínguez Batista, expressed concern about her husband’s health. The peaceful pro-democracy activist is in his fifth year behind bars.

Domínguez Batista, who was among 75 dissidents arrested in 2003, is suffering from serious ailments and his health has further deteriorated because of deplorable conditions at a correctional facility in Holguín province, said the wife of the prisoner of conscience.

Accusations from Behind Bars

A political prisoner and prisoner of conscience, Pablo Pacheco Ávila sent a word from Morón prison, Ciego de Ávila province, about deplorable conditions inmates are facing in this jail.

Pacheco Ávila, chairman of the Cooperative of Independent Journalists, was arrested and jailed for 20 years in a massive crackdown in 2003 dubbed the Black Spring. In a letter from prison, he said that sick inmates didn’t receive prescribed medical treatment, and that there were no sedatives, anti-diarrhea medication, antibiotics and medicines for diabetes and high blood pressure. Contaminated water and rotten food are a fertile breeding ground for parasites, and frequently cause diarrhea and skin irritation, he added.

The sewage system in his barrack, he said, is broken, and excreta are spread on the surface of the ground. But prison’s deputy chief Carlos Terrero says they have no money for repair work.


Scientists Forbidden to Speak About Ecological Damage

Since mid March, several scientists living in Villa Clara province have been forbidden to raise the issue of ecological damage not to “harm Raul Castro’s reputation.”

A regional representative of the Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment mentioned in his official report some Cuban academicians who, speaking on radio and TV, opposed the practice of burning marabou plant. The academicians were warned that the ban has been ordered by Cuba’s top authorities, including the President of the Council of State, and that speaking out against it in mass media means undermining the image of the leader.

“I think this is an act of abuse of power on the part of the ministry in Villa Clara, because Raul Castro has only urged to eliminate the dense pockets of marabou plant. From a scientific point of view, the indiscriminate burning tends to destroy a biological substrate of soil,” said the source, a scientist who wished to remain anonymous.


Cuban Baptists Unite in Prayer and Evangelism

Four Baptist groups in Cuba have decided to engage in a 50-day emphasis on prayer and evangelism.

The Baptist Convention of Western Cuba, the Baptist Convention of Eastern Cuba, the Free Will Baptist Convention of Cuba, and the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba – all member bodies of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) – have a special focus on prayer and evangelization from Easter Day, March 23, to Pentecost Sunday, May 11.

We “will be united in prayer for our country and its evangelization,” the BWA was informed by Elmer Lavastida, a pastor in Cuba. “A program has been set up and sent to each church to involve children, youth and adults in incessant prayer for 50 days.” The four groups have had increasing levels of cooperation in recent times. In February, the four groups, in a dramatic presentation titled, “We Are One,” reenacted the coming of the first Baptists to the island.

There has been a Baptist presence in Cuba since 1879 with the arrival of Cuban converts from Biloxi, Mississippi and Key West, Florida in the United States. Churches were founded in the western part of the island, the first being Gethsemane Baptist Church in Havana, as well as churches in Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Matanzas. Missionaries have continued to work in Cuba ever since.


Cubans Rush to Leave Island Nation

The number of Cubans heading out to sea in a risky attempt to escape from their communist homeland to the United States has risen, said U.S. representatives in Havana. Since October 1, 2007, 2,891 Cubans have tried to cross the Florida Straits; 1,697 made it to the United States and were allowed to stay while the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 1,194 and sent them back. U.S. officials said the figures showed that Cubans had little faith that life would improve in the socialist state under President Raul Castro, who succeeded his ailing brother Fidel Castro in February.

U.S. Gives Cubans Fast Track Visas

The United States has begun issuing fast track visas to Cubans who have relatives living in America. The Cuban Family Reunification Program is partly aimed at discouraging illegal immigrants. The first three sets of travel permits were issued by the U.S. Interest Section in Havana on Thursday. Current visa applications can take between three and seven years. The new scheme is expected to process claims in just six months. This became possible because now the Cuban government has allowed the entrance of more U.S. consular officials. The United States first announced its plans to introduce fast track visas at the end of last year. According to the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, an estimated 40,000 family members could benefit from the program.

The United States and Cuba signed migration accords under which the United States allows annually 20,000 Cubans into the country. The new plan will increase the number of Cuban immigrants, according to Cuba watchers. The Cuban government is accusing Washington of encouraging illegal immigration from the island by offering residence permit to those who make it ashore. At the same time, Washington would not ease travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans having families in Cuba, allowing them to visit their homeland once every three years.

Cuban Volleyball Player Deserts His Team

Cuban volleyball star Guillermo Roberto Cabrera has been detained in Mexico after leaving his team during an international tour. According to the Mexican National Institute for Migration, Cabrera crossed into Mexico after taking part in the volleyball tournament in Guatemala.

The athlete was detained at a migration checkpoint in Huehuetán, 70 km from the border with Guatemala, after he was found without travel documents on a passenger coach headed to Mexico City. Cabrera. 20, confessed to illegally entering the territory of Mexico, planning to cross into the United States to reunite with his sister.

The Cuban athlete has been held at an immigration detention facility in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, since March 31, pending a decision on his case.


Former Soviet Spy Hub Works for Beijing, Teheran

The electronic surveillance base in Lourdes, a suburb of Havana, which covers the entire southern coast of the United States and is capable of tracking all movements of the U.S. troops in this region, is submerged with orders from China’s and Iran’s intelligence services.

The intelligence-gathering facility built by the Soviets under Khrushchev’s rule was closed by Russia in 2002, citing huge costs, and leasing all the equipment to Cuba. Since then, the Lourdes center has been continuously approached by China and Iran with proposals to pay cash for sensitive U.S. data.

The Lourdes center is not the only Soviet-built facility “abandoned” by Russia despite the fact that Cuba owes $22 billion to Moscow. There are other originally Soviet-built idle projects in Cuba that Venezuela is keen to take over. Hugo Chavez is ready to complete and modernize unfinished production facilities, and Havana will be happy to get oil in return. Russia has also been replaced by China as the main supplier of consumer goods to Cuba.

Russian Delegation to Sort Out Debt Problems with Cuba

The 8th Session of the Cuba-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission for Economic, Commercial and Scientific-Technical Cooperation began its work on April 1 in Havana. The Russian delegation is led by Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin and includes over 100 government officials, businessmen and experts. Cuba’s debt to Russia accumulated in the 1993-1996 period is expected to dominate the talks. Cuba’s post-Soviet debt to Russia has been estimated at over $166 million. In September 2006, Russia and Cuba signed the deal in Havana on restructuring the debt.

Ecuadorian President Calls for Accepting Cuba into Rio Group

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has urged the Rio Group to accept Cuba into its fold.
The Rio Group was founded in 1986 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in order to develop a common participatory approach on democracy and social and economic issues in the region, and to strengthen regional integration. At present, 19 Latin American nations are members of the Group.

To expand the Group’s potential and to turn this organization into an alliance of Latin American nations, we should admit Cuba into the Group, the leader of Ecuador told the press in Mexico City. Cuba has been discriminated against since 1962 when the Organization of American States (OAS) succumbed to U.S. pressure and expelled Cuba from its membership, said Correa.

The Ecuadorian President said he was bewildered that the United States and Canada whose “culture is so different from ours” are members of the OAS.


Cuba to Trade Sugar for Russian Wheat

Cuba is ready to supply sugar to Russia without intermediaries in return for Russian wheat, said Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin after a meeting with Cuban Foreign Trade Minister Raul de la Nuez. Cuba imports grain, and sometimes purchasing grain becomes a serious problem, Levitin said. Cuban officials said they “are interested in getting wheat from Russia.” “In return, they would supply sugar to Russia. And they would do it direct, without intermediaries, not as it happens today,” added the Russian minister. Cuba is also willing to share with Russia technologies of associated gas recovery during oil exploration, according to the visiting Russian official.

Exemptions to the trade embargo on Cuba were made for food and medicine and the United States is today the main grain exporter to the communist island. However, all U.S. food sales to Cuba require payment in cash before shipment.

Raul Castro Removes Wage Caps

Cuba is lifting official restrictions on Cubans’ wages. A new decree signed by President Raul Castro on April 10 is aimed to boost economic activity of the population and to improve the country’s economic performance. The reform mainly concerns earnings of state employees that constitute 90% of all the population capable of working in Cuba. Commenting on the latest reform, Cuban television said that low wage incentives for workers affected their productivity.

“One reason for low productivity is there is little wage incentive and this breaks productivity and stops bigger salaries,” said Ariel Terrero, an economic commentator on Cuban state television. The Cuban government believes an economic liberalization would give a kick to the economy.
Terrero added that he doesn’t see this as a violation of Cuban socialism, but rather support for the mantra of “from every one according to their capacity, to every one according to their work.”

The average salary in Cuba is about 350 Cuban pesos ($15) per month.
Raul Castro, upon taking over from his ailing brother Fidel Castro in February as Cuba’s new president, promised to make wages better reflect one’s work.

“It is our strategic objective today to advance in an articulate, sound and well thought out manner until the wages recover their role and everyone's living standard corresponds directly with their legally earned incomes,” he said.

Since becoming Cuba’s president a month and a half ago, Raul Castro has done away with bans that prohibited Cubans from buying DVD players, computers, microwave ovens and other electric appliances, owning cell phones in their own names, and staying in tourist hotels.


Cubans Allowed to Stay in Tourist Hotels

Cuba has lifted another ban, allowing ordinary citizens to stay in foreigners-only hotels. Word of the change came from Cuban hotels that have received a government memo on Sunday. “We’ve received the ban-lifting instruction, and it’s already on,” said the manager of the famed Copacabana Hotel in Havana. The news was confirmed by employees of Riviera and Nacional hotels in the Cuban capital. Until Sunday, ordinary Cubans were barred from checking into hotels previously reserved for foreigners.

Since Raul Castro has taken office a month ago, he has moved to lift what he called “excessive prohibitions that cause more harm than good,” allowing Cubans access to cellular phones, electronic appliances and computers that were previously off-limits.

Cubans Rush to Buy Previously Banned Goods

Cubans are lining up to buy DVD players, electric bikes and other consumer goods that were banned under Fidel Castro.  Western news agencies say the demand is high though the prices are astronomical for most Cubans. The ban on a wide range of consumer goods has been lifted after Raul Castro formally became Cuba’s president and promised to lift “excessive prohibitions” on daily life in Cuba introduced by his brother Fidel.

Cuba to Launch TV Channel with Foreign Content

Cuba’s state-run television broadcaster will start a 24-hour channel with mostly foreign content in a move to provide Cuban audiences with more variety. The Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, ICRT, made the announcement on April 2 at a conference of the Cuban writers and artists’ guild, where intellectuals have criticized the poor television programming in the country.

It’s the latest change by the country’s new leader Raul Castro. In his earlier move, Raul Castro has allowed ordinary Cubans to buy mobile phones, DVD players and computers, and ended the hotel ban, a form of discrimination against Cubans with respect to foreign citizens.

Cuban Government to Lease State Land to Cooperatives

The Cuban government is leasing underused and fallow farmland to private farmers and cooperatives. “All production, credit and service cooperatives have begun receiving plots of land,” said Orlando Lugo Fonte, president of Cuba’s national small-scale farming association.

At present, farming cooperatives already control 35% of Cuba’s arable land. There are 3,500 cooperatives in the country and they account for 60% of Cuba’s total agricultural output.

This move is part of reforms promised by Raul Castro a month ago to end prohibitions that, he said, “cause more harm than good.”

Cubans Allowed to Privatize Homes

Thousands of Cuban citizens have got the right to privatize their state-owned apartment or house. This step is expected to pave the way for broader property reforms on the island.

A new decree published on April 11 allows Cubans, renting from their state employers, to keep their apartment or house after leaving their posts, and to gain title and even pass on the property to their children or relatives.

By law, Cubans still cannot sell their homes to anyone but the government.
Cuba has no real estate market, but people can swap homes through a legal process called a “permuta” in which money is paid under the table. Many Cubans hope that future reforms will eventually include the buying and selling of homes.

This measure is the latest in a series of government reforms aimed at democratizing the communist-ruled country. In late March, the government allowed cell phones for ordinary Cubans, a luxury previously reserved for those who worked for foreign firms or held key posts with the government. Some Cubans previously ineligible for cell phone had bypassed the ban by having foreigners sign contracts in their names.

In February 2008, the Cuban government approved “the sale to the public of some electric equipment which was prohibited.” In his first formal decree since he succeeded his brother Fidel as president, Raul Castro allowed Cubans to buy computers, video and DVD players, TV sets, rice cookers, microwave ovens and other electric appliances.


Bush Aide Resigns Over Misuse of Free Cuba Money

Felipe Sixto, a special assistant to U.S. President George W. Bush for intergovernmental affairs, resigned on March 28  because of alleged misuse of grant money from the U.S. Agency for International Development while working for the Center for a Free Cuba.

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Sixto took that step on March 20 after learning that his former employer, the Center for a Free Cuba, was prepared to initiate legal action against him. The matter has been turned over to the Justice Department for investigation.
The head of the Center for a Free Cuba said his institution is dedicated to promoting human rights and a transition to democracy and receives about two million dollars in grant money a year from the USAID. The center welcomed the investigation and has pledged complete cooperation, he added.

Documentary on Cuban Slavery

The unlawful exploitation of a hundred of Cuban laborers sent by the Cuban government to work against their will at the docks in Curacao is what a new documentary is about. The film Curacao, which is the sixth part of a series called Covering Cuba, was shown on April 3 in Miami, Florida.

The film tells the shocking story of two Cubans who, like their fellow laborers, are forced to work 15-hour shifts in Cuaracao’s shipyards. For this work, they receive just $16 per month from the Cuban government. The documentary shows how the Castro regime exploits cheap labor overseas, the film’s director and producer Agustín Blázquez told EFE, commenting some chilling footage secretly shot at the docks in Curacao, an island in the Caribbean Sea, which is currently part of the Netherlands Antilles.

Cuban Government Urged to Pay “Old Dues”

A Florida jury has awarded nearly $253 million in a wrongful death claim against Cuba to be paid to the children of a former friend of Fidel Castro, who was allegedly tortured and killed in prison more than three decades ago. The verdict sends a pointed political message, one juror said. The son and daughter of Rafael del Pino Siero, captured while trying to help a Cuban escape the country in 1959, expressed amazement at the court verdict delivered on April 4. The award turned out to be five times more than what they had sought

The award is the biggest such penalty to date against the communist government of Cuba. The Cuban government was served with court papers but chose not to be represented in the courtroom.

The jury award for del Pino Siero’s relatives was the largest such award handed down in the United States against Cuba since a court awarded $187 million to the relatives of three people killed when their two small airplanes were downed in 1996 by a Cuban MiG fighter. The shot down planes were operated by a group Cuban exiles that has flown hundreds of missions to spot Cuban rafters attempting to flee to the United States.

Relatives of the victims in the 1996 shootdown collected about half of the award from frozen Cuban assets in New York. Del Pino’s children are unlikely to be able to get their hands on the award as Cuban assets frozen in the United States have almost exhausted, and because the death of their father occurred five years before the United States placed Cuba on a list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Fidel Castro Says Americans Would Close Universities and Praises Romania under Ceausescu

Leader of the Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro doggedly pursues his career as a newspaper columnist. In his latest essay, he warned that if the United States managed to re-establish their grip on Cuba, there would be no higher education institutions on the island.

“If the empire managed to secure control of Cuba again, not one of the higher institutions created by the Revolution would remain to guarantee young people this right. It would send most young people to the countryside, to cut sugarcane,” Fidel Castro wrote in his Reflections published by the Cuban Communist Party’s newspaper Granma.

Castro criticized consumption values imposed by Western powers, citing the situation in Romania that has recently joined the European Union, as an example of their destructive impact.

Romania, he maintained, is in a deplorable state. “Let us not forget that Romania was a socialist country with a fairly well developed oil and petrochemical industry, blessed with a fertile soil and a climate favorable to the production of protein and calorie-rich foods, to name but a few sectors. Now those living below the poverty line are in the millions,” lamented the Cuban leader.

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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 [email protected] or to [email protected].