The arrest of a tobacco farmer and contributing journalist to the Havana Times is just the beginning of a new wave of increasing government repression in Cuba. Trump’s reversed positions and tougher policies against the country are not helping either.
On November 10, Osmel Ramirez Alvarez, a contributing writer to the outspoken online publication Havana Times, was arrested by the Cuban government. According to his family, he was taken prisoner, along with his laptop, hard drive and other materials. He was released a short time later, but then, when attempting to board a flight to attend a conference in Peru, he discovered that he had been banned from leaving the country.
Previously, Alvarez had written a strong piece in the publication in August, entitled “My Reply to a Dangerous Threat.” In it, he wrote of the increasing pressures from the government that “anyone who doesn’t cheer and applaud [the government] is an enemy.”
Alvarez’s career has principally included being a tobacco farmer and a leader in the farming cooperative to which he belongs. He has spoken out about having been a proposed candidate for president of that cooperative. He was a candidate going back to 2013, in part because the National Association of Small Farmers convinced him to run. Then, mysteriously, that same organization, for reasons unknown to Alvarez, pushed back, telling him that he could not “take on any kind of leadership role or responsibility within the community.” He was labeled an “opponent” and lost the election.
Some of what could have been behind these moves, including the election and Alvarez’s eventual arrest, was that he had spoken out about the cooperative’s “accounts, which are very shady, with serious suspicions of corruption.” He was threatened with imprisonment if he didn’t stop speaking out.
His response to the government, which he sent in a letter to the Cuban Communist Party’s First Secretary in Mayari, Estrella Maritza Segura, was “Like many other people in Cuba, and the majority in the rest of the world, I think differently. I have a right to have different ideas to official ideas as a Cuban citizen. I have a right to aspire even for our political system to be better and to work better. Unfortunately, there aren’t any clear or truly effective mechanisms in our laws or political system that allow people to offer new ideas, discuss them in public spaces and reach a majority consensus.” He spoke of “hoping for better times, when any citizen can raise their voice and try to promote their ideas about a better country without this being a crime.” He also further noted that he published his ideas on the Internet because “the Internet is an open space, and nobody can ban anything for political reasons.” And yet, as he points out further, “I am unable to publish my articles on media platforms within the island, because they are controlled by the government and today’s politics dominate these communication spaces, which should be used for a diverse, critical and productive national debate.”
An important positive of Alvarez’s words is his strong sense of love for his country and its people. Another is his inherent belief that the people and the government of Cuba not only can accept the criticisms he may offer but also that he should feel comfortable about expressing those opinions, even in the face of government disagreement with where he stands.
That both statements may have been true once is a hopeful sign for the country. For Alvarez, though, somehow he crossed a line somewhere. It caused him first to be pushed out of an important leadership role in the cooperative where he might have led anti-corruption actions. It also resulted in threats from Cuba’s State Security, who Alvarez said had threatened to imprison him despite admitting he had not committed any crime.
Alvarez is certainly far from an isolated case, but the stories are hard to uncover in today’s Cuba.
On a broader scale than just Alvarez are, of course, the rapidly changing policies of the United States versus Cuba. Obama had worked to open travel and trade restrictions between the two countries and eliminate sanctions by the United States on a broad range of issues. Under Trump, however, those areas have turned very much in the opposite direction.
The new policies, announced by the United States this summer, include, most notably, restrictions on any financial transactions that might benefit the Grupo de Administración Empresarial. This organization, which is the Cuban government’s military business entity, is involved in many different business sectors across the island nation, with tourism being its most important financial draw. The new U.S. Commerce and Treasury department restrictions include 180 entities, encompassing hotels, stores, tourist agencies, beverage manufacturers and marinas. The only exceptions are for deals that had already been put in place prior to the new rules, such as the Four Points by Sheraton Havana, which is the first new U.S. hotel in Havana in 50 years. That hotel is not on the restricted list.
A second set of restrictions involves U.S. travel rules, which had been eased considerably under the Obama administration. Under Trump’s new rules, however, so-called “people-to-people” trips are no longer allowed. These had allowed American travelers visiting for educational purposes to travel on their own, selecting their own travel itineraries. Now, tourism travel is only allowed if people go as part of a licensed tour group. Besides this, U.S. travelers can go to Cuba under the category of “Support for the Cuban People.”
Despite the availability of some acceptable travel options, there are now requirements that U.S. travelers must maintain full schedules and keep detailed information on their intra-Cuban travels. This is somewhat like what Israel demands of travelers to its country. Upon exit at the airport, for example, it is common for travelers there to have to show documents and even letters that acknowledge exactly where they have been during their stay.
Beyond the above, U.S. citizens are now blocked from engaging in direct financial transactions with what the United States refers to as “prohibited officials” in the country. That list of prohibited officials includes many in specific government ministries. These restrictions make any foreign investments or project-sharing opportunities close to impossible to fund.
Under Trump, fewer people than before are able to receive money as remittances from their Cuban- American families in the United States.
The U.S. government has also announced that it will not lift sanctions on Cuba unless there is a release of specific political prisoners (many believed to be agents of the CIA), the availability of free elections (to be influenced by the United States) and legalization of political parties (some of which would act as proxies of the CIA).
The switch by the United States from a saner approach to Cuba to a more insane one has led to a fast freeze of an important stage of warming in Cuban- American relations and a loosening of the grip of the Cuban government on its people.
The Cuban rulers are not stupid – they realize that America is not a democracy and does not promote real democracy. Honduras is a prime example of American support of “democracy” – it replaced a truly democratic leader with those representing the country’s narco oligarchs.
If Cuba opens up too much, it opens itself to American influence, and Cubans do not want to return to the bad old days of an American dictatorship run by organized crime. While Cuban citizens may not have the ability to contest their government (and government corruption and incompetence is a serious problem), they do have the right to the necessities of life: a place to live, food, a job, medical care and the time to enjoy life. They see many other countries where these essential things are lacking. The desire to feed one’s children and not see one’s elders thrown into the streets is stronger than the desire for the liberty to openly oppose one’s government.
Cubans see far too many Americans struggling to meet their basic needs, plagued with crime and bankrupted by simple medical issues. They are also acutely aware that the United States is ruled by a criminal elite and that it is lunacy for an oligarchy like America to lecture other nations about democracy.
As long as the United States poses a threat to Cuba’s independence from American control, dissent poses a threat, and filtering healthy authentic dissent from CIA-sponsored corrosive dissent won’t be easy. However, suppressing dissent too much will only encourage more to seek support from outside the country and introduce greater threats to the government.
Inside Cuba, under this increased pressure, others besides journalist Alvarez are being detained and the government is pulling back from what had been an opening of sorts, even including access to the Internet for many for the first time. Presumably, the military, which already controls many of the financial strings in the country, is behind these moves as well.
Fidel Castro, who led the nation’s communist revolution, ruled as its prime minister from 1959 to 1976. He then became president, a position he held until his retirement in 2008.
His brother, Raúl Castro, took over immediately after. He is now at the end of his term and plans to step down in 2018.
In the face of increased pressure from the United States, growing frustration from Cubans within the country (like Alvarez, who had hoped for an opportunity for a “new Cuba” in an era of warming relations with the United States and a feeling that dissent was more welcomed internally) and counter-pressure from an increasingly protective and repressive military-dominated regime, Cuba has all the makings of a pressure cooker in danger of exploding in the coming year.
As 2018 begins, others will likely find their ability to maneuver freely within the country greatly diminished in the near term. What will happen as a new president takes charge after Raúl Castro is out is completely unclear, but the ongoing threat from the great predator to the north will remain one of the biggest factors in oppression by the Cuban government.