Saturday, March 9, 2013

Last Days in Havana, Cuba: March 9, 2013

Plaza de la Revolución and the image of Che Guevara (left) on the Ministry of Interior

The lighted images of Che Guevara and the other Cuban revolutionary hero that looks like Osama Bin Laden but is not loom eerily at night over Plaza de la Revolución and José Martí Memorial.  Beneath the lighted image of Che Guevara is the illegible slogan "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Until the Everlasting Victory, Always).

Back in Havana, on Friday, March 8 at 10:30 a.m., there is a 21-gun salute in honor of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

We began the day with almost tourist-tourist like activities.  We went to a Rum Factory where we toured the rum cellar and tasted a couple of rums.  As US Citizens, we are prohibited from buying almost anything in Cuba especially cigars and rum.



 The most expensive cigars at $31.80 each

The bartender at the rum factory made us Cuban coffees with flaming rum.  When he poured the flaming rum into each cup, it was dark except for the flaming rum.  It was good, but a little difficult to make at home.

 The building through the arches and in the distance is the U.S. Interest Section
A statue of José Martí holding Elian Gonzalez and pointing accusingly at the U.S. Interest Section

In the afternoon, we returned to non-tourist activities.  We visited the U.S. Interest Section.  We do not have an embassy in Cuba;  the U.S. Interest Section primarily issues visas to Cubans who are trying to travel to the US.

Prior to January 14, 2013, Cubans had to obtain permission travel, in the form of a "tarjeta blanca" (white card),  from the Cuban government.  The white card is no longer required, but of course, Cubans who wish to travel to the US need a visa issued by the American Interest Section.

A political affairs officer at the US Interest Section gave us an hour of her time.  During that hour she provided the following information:

1.  They issue 20,000 visas a year to Cubans in addition to considering refugee status for some applicants.  There are currently about 2 million Cubans living in the US.

2.  The US is the number one supplier of food to Cuba: soybeans, corn, chicken (legs only), wheat, Virginia apples, medicine.

3.  In order for a Cuban hospital to receive hospital equipment/medicine, it must demonstrate that it will not use said equipment/medicine as a weapon.

4.  The Cuban government is bankrupt, and therefore, unable to buy medicines and food.

5.  There is no freedom of the press.  Reporters who don't follow the government line go to jail.

6.  Just 3% of the population is connected to the internet.  Those connected to the internet must have government permission.  A fiber optic cable comes from Venezuela.

Then, we were allowed to ask questions:

1.  What does the embargo prohibit?

The political officer said:  The Embargo is actually 3 sets of laws and exempts food and humanitarian aid.  For more information, she surprisingly directed us to Wikipedia for the answer.
Wikipedia, paraphrased, says (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_embargo_against_Cuba): The United States embargo against Cuba is a commercial, economic, and financial embargo partially imposed on Cuba in October 1960 (almost two years after the Batista regime was deposed by the Cuban Revolution). It was enacted after Cuba nationalized the properties of United States citizens and corporations and it was strengthened to a near-total embargo on February 7, 1962.
Titled the Cuban Democracy Act, the embargo was codified into law in 1992 with the stated purpose of maintaining sanctions on Cuba so long as the Cuban government continues to refuse to move toward "democratization and greater respect for human rights."[2] In 1996, Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act, which further restricted United States citizens from doing business in or with Cuba, and mandated restrictions on giving public or private assistance to any successor government in Havana unless and until certain claims against the Cuban government are met. In 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton expanded the trade embargo even further by also disallowing foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to trade with Cuba. In 2000, Clinton authorized the sale of certain "humanitarian" US products to Cuba.
The USA does not block Cuba's trade with third-party countries: other countries are not under the jurisdiction of US domestic laws, such as the Cuban Democracy Act. Cuba can, and does, conduct international trade with many third-party countries.
At present, the embargo, which limits American businesses from conducting business with Cuban interests, is still in effect and is the most enduring trade embargo in modern history. Despite the existence of the embargo, the United States is the fifth largest exporter to Cuba (6.6% of Cuba's imports are from the US).[15] However, Cuba must pay cash for all imports, as credit is not allowed.
So based on information from Wikipedia, it seems that the blame for the embargo can be placed squarely on the shoulders of Cuban, mostly Republican, Americans.  They created the embargo because their properties were nationalized when they or their relatives fled Cuba ahead of the revolution.  In many cases, Castro gave these abandoned properties to the servants that were left behind.  In a rather discriminatory practice US Citizens not of Cuban descent are prohibited from traveling freely to Cuba, but US citizens of Cuban descent do not need permission to travel to Cuba.

2.  Who is the plane bomber allowed to live in the US that Cubans keep asking us about?  According to Cubans we spoke with, those on board included the entire Cuban National Fencing Team and this guy brags that he got away with the bombing.

The political officer said:  Luis Posada Carriles escaped from Venezuela through Mexico to the US and was allowed to stay in the US because he proved he would be subject to torture in his home country of Venezuela.
Wikipedia says (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubana_de_Aviaci%C3%B3n_Flight_455):  Cubana de Aviación Flight 455 was a Cuban flight from Barbados to Jamaica that was brought down by a terrorist attack on October 6, 1976. All 78 people on board the Douglas DC-8 aircraft were killed in what was then the deadliest terrorist airline attack in the Western Hemisphere. Two time bombs were used, variously described as dynamite or C-4.
Evidence implicated several CIA-linked anti-Castro Cuban exiles and members of the Venezuelan secret police DISIP. Political complications quickly arose when Cuba accused the US government of being an accomplice to the attack. CIA documents released in 2005 indicate that the agency "had concrete advance intelligence, as early as June 1976, on plans by Cuban exile terrorist groups to bomb a Cubana airliner." Former CIA operative Posada Carriles denies involvement but provides many details of the incident in his book "Caminos del Guerrero" (Way of the Warrior).[1][2]
Four men were arrested in connection with the bombing and a trial was held in Venezuela: Freddy Lugo and Hernán Ricardo Lozano were sentenced to 20-year prison terms; Orlando Bosch was acquitted because of technical defects in the prosecution evidence, and lived in Miami, Florida until he died on the 27th of April, 2011; and Luis Posada Carriles was held for eight years while awaiting a final sentence, but eventually fled. He later entered the United States, where he was held on charges of entering the country illegally but released on April 19, 2007.
3.  Who are the Cuban 5?  We have seen posters in restaurants and along streets for the Cuban 5.  It is always a subject that Cubans bring up when talking with us.

The political officer said:  two of the Cuban 5 are US citizens of Cuban descent.  Twelve were arrested on espionage charges for trying to obtain US secrets: five testified, two escaped, and five are currently in prison.
Wikipedia says (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuban_Five) The Cuban Five, also known as the Miami Five[1] (Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, and René González) are five Cuban intelligence officers convicted in Miami of conspiracy to commit espionage, conspiracy to commit murder, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and other illegal activities in the United States. The Five were in the United States to observe and infiltrate the U.S. Southern Command and the Cuban-American groups Alpha 66, the F4 Commandos, the Cuban American National Foundation, and Brothers to the Rescue.[2][3] The were part of "La Red Avispa", or the Wasp Network,
At their trial, evidence was presented that the Five infiltrated the Miami-based Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue, obtained employment at the Key West Naval Air Station in order to send the Cuban government reports about the base, and had attempted to penetrate the Miami facility of U.S. Southern Command.[3] On February 24, 1996, two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft were shot down by Cuban military jets in international airspace while flying away from Cuban airspace, killing the four U.S. citizens aboard.[3] One of the Five, Gerardo Hernández, was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder for supplying information to the Cuban government which according to the prosecution led to the shootdown. The Court of Appeals has, however, reversed the conviction on the conspiracy to commit murder, since there is no evidence that Hernández knew the shootdown would occur in international airspace.[3]
For their part, Cuba acknowledged, after denying the fact for nearly three years, that the five men were intelligence agents, but says they were spying on Miami's Cuban exile community, not the U.S. government.[4] Cuba contends that the men were sent to South Florida in the wake of several terrorist bombings in Havana masterminded by anti-communist militant Luis Posada Carriles, a former Central Intelligence Agency operative.[4][5]
The Five appealed their convictions and the alleged lack of fairness in their trial has received substantial international criticism.[6] A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta overturned their convictions in 2005, citing the "prejudices" of Miami’s anti-Castro Cubans, but the full court later reversed the five's bid for a new trial and reinstated the original convictions.[4] In June 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case.[7] In Cuba, the Five are viewed as national heroes and portrayed as having sacrificed their liberty in the defense of their country.[8]
René González was released in October 2011[9] following the completion of 13 years of his sentence with a further 3 years of probation in the US. He was allowed to return to Cuba for his father's funeral on 22 April 2013, and a federal judge allowed him to stay there provided that he renounce his United States citizenship.
Leaving the politics behind, we returned to the Hotel Melia Cohiba to chat with our English teacher friends and get ready for our last dinner in Havana.  Our last evening turned out to be quite a surprise, even touristy.  We were waiting in front of the hotel watching beautiful vintage cars drive up.  This happens every evening because vintage American cars are often taxis.  This time, these classics were for us.  Our guides arranged for us to caravan to an elegant restaurant in these lovely vehicles.







They all had yellow plates indicating that they were not government owned vehicles.  Riding in these cars was such a treat.  We all stopped in Plaza de la Revolución to try out sitting in the other cars and take photos.  Then, we were off.  Our caravan wound through a lovely Havana park and then to the Restaurant 3ra y 8.  As we alighted from our classic coaches, the waitstaff met us with cold drinks.  The entire evening was lovely and a wonderful way to end the week in Cuba.

Linda and Francoise, GV leaders extraordinare

And, that was the end.  Saturday morning, we went to the Havana Airport to catch a charter back to Miami which also seems like a foreign country.

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