28.6.08

The best definition of Venezuelan politics...

... comes from an article in the The Times about Zimbabwe:

Mugabe is not unpopular in Zimbabwe today because his Government has been autocratic and brutal. He is not unpopular because the minority (but substantial) Matabele tribe have been persecuted, killed and dispossessed by a governing party whose power base is among the Mashona majority. He is not unpopular because he and his wife are greedy and flaunt their wealth, or because corruption in his Government is widespread. He is unpopular because his administration is broken and there is nothing for ordinary people to eat.

Many Zimbabweans hunger not for liberal democracy, but for food. By corollary, much of Morgan Tsvangirai's power base is either an urban minority or among the minority tribes who have received a raw deal from the distribution of resources by Zanu (PF). They too, many of them, hunger not for liberal democracy but a turning of the tables. Unless we are careful, today's TV pictures may tomorrow be thrown into reverse, and we may watch those who were once in flight, now in pursuit; and those who were once in pursuit, now in flight; the iron bars having changed hands.
Change a few names and, voilá, the perfect definition of Venezuelan politics.

22.6.08

Seguid el ejemplo que Bolivia dio

Por razones ajenas a mi voluntad, no he podido asistir, como observador electoral, al referendo autonómico de Tarija que se celebra hoy. Estuve en el de Santa Cruz, seguí con mucho interés los de Beni y Pando, y tenía todas las intenciones y disposición de presenciar el de Tarija. Lo que está sucediendo en Bolivia es algo increíblemente esperanzador, por cuanto la oposición boliviana, formada por una coalición de gente excelsa, ha entendido que la única forma efectiva de impedir el avance del totalitarismo es el ejercicio responsable de la democracia.

El gobierno de Evo Morales ha tratado por todos los medios, legales e ilegales, con asistencia y recursos nacionales y foráneos, de parar el impulso autonomista promovido por iniciativa popular en los departamentos de la media luna boliviana. Afortunadamente su intento ha tenido el mismo éxito que su proyecto de refundación del estado. No obstante, no puede minimizarse la importancia de lo que está sucediendo en Bolivia.

En lo político, los prefectos están dándole una clase magistral a todos los movimientos de oposición democrática de América Latina. En ninguno de nuestros países, salvo en Colombia quizás, ha demostrado la oposición tal madurez y eficiencia a la hora de impedir que la maquinaria castro-chavista imponga su realidad monocromática. Aspiraciones presidenciales han sigo engavetadas por los líderes del movimiento autonomista. Las organizaciones de la sociedad civil han actuado en consecuencia con el movimiento que, sin duda, traerá mayor prosperidad a las regiones, con lo cual esta oposición no es del tipo venezolano por ejemplo, donde ningún líder, aparte de Chávez, tiene el "musculo" necesario como para llenar las calles.

Los prefectos de Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, Tarija, Cochabamba y Chuquisaca gozan de unos niveles de popularidad muy superiores a los de Evo. Al contrario del presidente, comandan tropa, democrática, no pagada con petro y narco-dólares.

El movimiento autonomista cuenta con varios factores que lo benefician. Una directora de la Corte Departamental Electoral de Santa Cruz me comentaba sobre el proceso manual de votación "es que nuestro sistema es tan rudimentario!". A lo cual respondí "denle gracias a Dios que aquí se vota así y no con maquinitas de Smartmatic que nadie audita, como en Venezuela, donde nunca se sabe si los resultados son reflejo real de la intención popular".

Aparte de eso los intentos constituyentes de Evo han sido un total y absoluto fiasco. Así, el ex dirigente cocalero no cuenta con la mayoría necesaria ni en el congreso, ni en el senado, ni siquiera en la asamblea nacional constituyente. Ni en El Chapare, donde recluta las fuerzas de choque y los Ponchos Rojos que moviliza por el país, cuenta con mayoría abrumadora.

La unidad, de propósito, de la oposición boliviana en su conjunto es ejemplar, por cuanto demuestra que si se puede, que si existen lideres que pueden dejar de lado agendas personales por el bienestar común, lo cual se traduce en masivo apoyo popular, en musculo democrático, en resultados rotundos a favor de la autonomía.

Tristemente ni en Venezuela, ni en Cuba, ni en Ecuador, ni en Brasil, ni en Nicaragua existe la madurez política entre dirigentes de oposición.

No es poco lo que está en juego en Bolivia, la expansión comunista y narcoterrorista, dirigida desde La Habana y Caracas, ha encontrado un obstáculo insalvable en ese país. Cuánta razón tienen los prefectos en tratar con desprecio a la OEA y su secretario general. Su lucha es admirable, su determinación inamovible.

Bien haría el conjunto de demócratas latinoamericanos en seguir el ejemplo que Bolivia dio.

15.6.08

US should lift embargo against Cuba

In the course of this year I have visited Cuba in two occasions. I have always felt certain attraction to the island, perhaps this was compounded by the fact that my grandmother was Cuban, from Caibarien. To be frank the initial feeling, upon spending the first few days, was one of utter disgust: at the civilized world’s conscious decision to ignore the plight for freedom of 11 million Cubans, who not only have had to endure a brutal dictatorship for half a century, but on top of it, the world’s ignominy. At times I wondered why, and couldn’t please my discomfort. What have Cubans done to deserve such ostracism? It’s as if they don’t exist, as if their voices don’t count, as if they belong for some cruel and deranged reason to a sub human category, whose rights can be disregarded and violated with total impunity. Human rights advocates the world over can't help themselves from attacking, and rightly so, the US for violating due process and rights of Guantanamo Bay's detainees. However not one word of criticism about what goes on in Castro's many jails is uttered. The estimated 100,000 Cuban prisoners, political and otherwise, can only dream about, for instance, the quality of the drinking water given to those held Guantanamo. Representatives of the Red Cross, for one, can not set foot in Cuban prisons.

The embargo has provided Castro with the perfect excuse to maintain his repressive dictatorship and gain much international sympathy, at times when anti-Americanism is gaining traction globally. The fact that 135 countries voted in favor of electing Cuba to the UN’s Human Rights Council in 2006 just goes to show how successfully Castro’s 'foreign policy' of tapping into the very deep pool of anti-US resentment has been.

The all-purpose blame-America formula has shielded the communist tyrant from criticism. Add constant propaganda with an effective information blackout --that works both ways-- and the end result is, internally, a population that is largely ignorant about their inalienable rights; externally, an international community unaware of what is taking place and reluctant to listen to perfectly legitimate criticism vis-a-vis the world's favorite dictator. It's a tragedy of monumental proportions, a humanitarian crisis, yet everyone acts as if nothing is happening in Cuba.

The US-imposed embargo should be lifted for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that its presumed intended purpose, that of isolating Castro and diminishing his capacity to maneuver internationally, has been an utter and complete fiasco. Contrary to what the gringos initially thought, the measure boosted Castro tremendously and provided him with the perfect guise with which to present himself as the underdog: the valiant David that keeps laughing in the face of Goliath. It's an incredibly cruel showcase of a policy that instead of damaging its target ended up being used as the culprit of all problems in Cuba, as propaganda organs and useful idiots have maintained since it became law. The collateral damage in this instance amounts to 11 million victims, a humanitarian cost far too high for keeping it in place. The US political establishment's stubbornness and unwillingness to accept its failure is no longer a valid excuse, even less so considering the increasing trade between the two countries.

Impressions of Cubans in Cuba are totally different to those of the expatriate community, mainly centered in Miami. Many people I spoke to in Cuba, not just regular folks but opposition and civil society leaders, see fitting that it is lifted immediately. In fact, Oswaldo Paya, Marta Beatriz Roque and Vladimiro Roca, for instance, have declared that the embargo should be lifted. Put this thought to the expat community though, or the Republican establishment, and one becomes a pro-Castro, Che-loving, communist in a matter of milliseconds. In this respect I think that it's rather easy to have such opinion, while not having to put up with its alleged consequences every minute of the day.

Remove the embargo-rug under Castro's feet, and Cubans will start thinking “hang on a minute, how come we’ve suffered this tremendous ordeal owing to the embargo, and it turns that it has been lifted and yet we continue living in hell?” The current restlessness is likely to expand like wild fire.

The US has an historic opportunity now: call upon Raul to negotiate an end to the embargo, whereby sanctions will be lifted provided a set of conditions --such as freeing all 300+ political prisoners, make recently signed civil and political rights treaties into law*, allow for free and transparent elections to take place, lift travel bans, etc.-- are met. The Cuban regime, still ruled by Fidelistas, is likely to refuse.

The US should lift the embargo nonetheless, making a lot of noise about it, for it stands to regain lost leverage, respect and credibility, putting its many critics to shame.

But more importantly doing so will unleash forces within Cuba that could well end up bringing the changes initially intended by the measure, which, most certainly, will force Raul's hand to open up much quicker.

*The contents of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights remain unknown to the Cuban population. The Castro brothers duped the international community about a democratization or liberalisation of sorts by announcing a series of half baked measures destined for foreign consumption. In reality nothing has changed internally: this year alone 22 dissidents have been arrested, 13 are in prison, condemned on trumped charges.

1.6.08

An encounter with Yoani Sanchez in Havana


Havana, 26 May 2008 | Much has been said about Cuban blogger extraordinaire, Yoani Sanchez. Her blog, Generacion Y, has caused quite a revolution, among opposition to and supporters of Castro's dictatorship alike. She recently was granted the important literary Ortega y Gasset prize. Furthermore, Yoani has also been named as one of the world's 100 Most Influential People, by TIME magazine. Little surprise then that I was going to make the most of my visit to Cuba and make the necessary arrangements to meet with her, to determine, on my own, whether what's been written is true or not. So we met in a cafeteria near her building, whose elevator marks in its floor dial two fives, two tens and the eleventh button took us up to the thirteenth, maybe so as to keep bad luck away. Her husband, writer Reinaldo Escobar, shared a few thoughts as well.

Yoani is just another example of a regular citizen, as she calls herself, having a tremendous impact in society, even here, in this beacon of repression and authoritarianism. She said that not once has she written the words democracy, human rights and freedom, though her blog is precisely about that. I had many question in mind, however the first one was:


- People are saying that you're a Cuban agent. What do you have to say about that?


- Yoani Sanchez (YS): Well, I have been accused of many things, but mainly I am perceived as been either an agent of Castro or a pawn of 'The Empire.' With regards to both I have the same approach, that is, I pay no heed to unsubstantiated gossip. I welcome people who come forth and debate ideas. However one must understand the reasons that prompt, both sides, to come up with such opinions. Those opposing this regime may feel threatened in a way, uncomfortable that I am doing something from here than most haven't dared. Clearly, this insecurity, or lack of imagination and resourcefulness if you will, has to be understood in its proper individual and collective dimension. Regarding accusations coming from the other camp, I guess they just proved my point by forbidding my trip to Spain to get the prize. It would have been awkward to travel there and face questions such as "Ms Sanchez, how do you reconcile your argument about lack of liberties in Cuba and the permission granted to you to travel to Spain?" Not only the regime proved me right, when I have argued that civil and political rights are systematically violated here, they've oxygenated me and my cause, and for that I am grateful. Reinaldo adds that some have argued that Yoani has been subject to manipulation. In his opinion, the moment anyone decides to abandon the privacy of its own life, by entering the public sphere, is subject to manipulation by the very exchange of ideas and debate.


- Do you honestly think the Castro brothers are as clumsy as that?


- YS: I applied for travel permission and mi visa wasn't granted based on a technicality, we think. Every Cuban living continuously outside the island for more than eleven months loses the Cuban nationality. Or so the law says. Upon return from living in Switzerland I decided to stay and communicated to the authorities that I had lost my travel documents. That placed me in a legal limbo: although born, raised and having lived all but two years of my life here I, technically, lost my Cuban nationality, which is the only one I have. Therefore it was not a surprise that the regime did not allow me to travel. Reinaldo and I took all the necessary steps to do so, we even alerted the authorities of the scandal that forbidding my trip would cause. The Ortega y Gasset prize and TIME magazine contributed to prove what we were arguing. However the regime would have none of it, the decision was taken at the highest level and not by some obscure bureaucrat.


- Why do you think that this decision was taken at the top?


YS: I reckon they fear that hanging out with other journalists, bloggers and media savvy people would have potentiated my communication abilities and, certainly, would have enhanced my network of contacts and the attention people are paying to my cause.


- So what's your cause?


- YS: I am all up for debate, for the creation of a space where Cubans and interested parties can debate about issues affecting us in a mature, respectful manner.


- But doing so could open a can of worms. You know in Venezuela someone created a website called noticierodigital.com and that platform became just that, a place where people of all walks of life ranted about bread and butter issues and politics. Its founder ended up selling, its new editor ended up quitting, mind you considering the difficulties you face to get online, how will you manage to keep the fanatics at bay and moderate comments?


- YS: funny you'd say that. The site has brought interesting things, among which a group of extraordinary collaborators that, from around the world, keep the peace in the comment section. I assigned them with three tasks: no copy paste is allowed, read not reprinting stuff from other places in order to benefit from the millions of visitors; no stealing of net-identities is allowed and moderators can not post comment for that would create a conflict of interests. Often I post something and the comment section derives onto discussions totally unrelated to my original article, though I like that, I enjoy debate as much as any true democrat.


- I read recently that you couldn't access the site and that it had been hacked.


- YS: the Cuban regime has many good hackers that's for sure. As per accessing the site from here I don't mind. We have developed a way to have my posts published regardless of hackers attempt and every few days I get sent a digest of comments and screenshots of the site so that I can keep track of it all. With the help of the citizen network that we have developed I will beat whatever they throw my way. Blogging is a totally new phenomena here and the regime does not know how to compartmentalize me, but I guess when they do I will be at risk as all other democrats.


- It strikes me that the reasons that prompt you to start your e-crusade are are very similar to those that prompted me. Do you feel represented by any of the political actors in Cuba?


- YS: no, I don't. The decision to start with this simply stemmed from my utter frustration at not having anyone raising the issues that bother me and a great deal of other Cubans. Mine is a citizen initiative. As I mentioned earlier I have never written the words democracy, human rights and freedom in my blog, however the lack thereof and the nonexistence of interlocutors commenting effectively what I consider relevant brought me to this (Reinaldo jokes saying how humble his beloved wife is).


- Talking of which, how many hits does your blog get?


- YS: In the course of this month it's gotten more than 9 million visitors.


- That's pretty good. However do you not think that the curve will eventually flatten out and people will lose interest, as is normally the case with blogs?


- YS: Indeed, undoubtedly articles in major newspapers, the Ortega y Gasset prize and TIME have contributed to the success of the blog. However none have done more to make it a
cause celebre as the decision of the regime of impeding my trip. Frankly I would have thought they were more clever.

- So what are you planning to do with
16,000 price money?

- YS: we are looking at possible ways to bring it.

- I understand the regime imposes a 20% 'fee' on all dollar denominated transactions.

- YS: yes, that's the case. Given that what I was awarded is in Euros is different though, but not easy.

- Lastly, how could other bloggers collaborate with you/your cause?

- YS: by linking to us; by making thoughtful and coherent comments; by spreading the news. Unfortunately Cubans in general are computer illiterates and is difficult for them to grasp the sheer power of internet. That is why most people don't understand what I am doing or how I do it. I wish more Cubans would start blogging but for that to occur IT-related handicaps need be overcome, and that's not easy considering restrictions imposed in that respect. In any case we are trying to educate others so blogging would become in Cuba a permanent feature, a means of democratizing citizen expression, as in the free world.

I left thinking that I had met two remarkable people. Regardless of the asphyxiating life conditions in Cuba, Yoani and Reinaldo are but two of many individuals here that demonstrate with every day deeds that no amount of repression can dissolve human beings intrinsic determination to live in freedom. For Yoani and Reinaldo are free, even in Cuba.

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