Thursday, October 27, 2011

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A Must-Read Obituary

From The Economist:

Laura Pollán

Laura Pollán Toledo, teacher and human-rights campaigner, died on October 14th, aged 63

THE house at 963 Calle Neptuno, in the centre of Havana, was small, but Laura Pollán kept it beautifully. The grey floor-tiles with their snowflake motif were always swept clean, even though her fluffy mongrel terrier shed his long hair everywhere, and though the door was kept open to get some air in from the bike-filled, rowdy, dusty street. In the front living room she had cane chairs with heart-shaped backs, and triangles of lace decorated the shelves. Outside, the tiny back yard was a jungle of pot plants and climbers, with neatly folded washing hung against the ochre walls. And the tower of the Iglesia del Carmen watched over it all.

But her house was also a cell for liberty. The living-room walls were hung with lists of the names of political prisoners, their photos, and a huge chart that showed them bursting from their chains when her group notched up a success. Prisoners’ wives and daughters crowded there for her monthly Literary Teas. She once got 72 women in, under the slowly turning ceiling fan, and put up 25 overnight. They came from all over Cuba: Pinar del Rio, Santa Clara, Las Tunas, Manzanillo (in the east, where she was born), even from the Sierra Maestra, where Fidel Castro had holed up in the mountains to start his revolution. They gathered at her house because she was central, and had a telephone. After 2003 the phone kept ringing, and she would answer it in a whisper, knowing it was tapped; each call would end with “Cuidado”, “Be careful”. A security camera and floodlights appeared outside her front door, supplementing the plain-clothes men who loitered there. Her bookshelf now held a tiny statue of Santa Rita, the saint of the impossible.

What had started all this was the arrest of her husband, Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, for “acting against the territorial integrity of the state”. Seventy-four others were arrested with him in that Black Spring of 2003, and given average prison sentences of 20 years. Ms Pollán knew he had done nothing. The picture of him she wore emblazoned on her T-shirt showed a mild, smiling man, an engineer, who kept his glasses on a cord round his neck. He liked to underline phrases in the newspapers and clip pieces out, organising them under “Politics” or “Environment”. She supposed he was just trying to point out contradictions in the government line. They didn’t discuss it, any more than she took part when his friends from the banned Liberal Democratic Party came round to talk. She would disappear to the kitchen then, making coffee, and leave the men alone.

But they were taken away. Husbands, fathers, brothers, disappeared. Ms Pollán came home from teaching evening class to find 12 state security agents invading her house, carrying away the clippings and two old typewriters. One agent stood by even as she and Héctor tried to say goodbye to each other. Two weeks later she started to bring together the women she kept meeting at the Villa Marista barracks and at various government offices, seeking news of their men. They became the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White.

Ms Pollán came brand-new to campaigning. She was a mother (of Laurita), a housewife and a teacher: someone who loved literature and had taught peasants to read in the early years of the revolution. She had never done anything wilder. Short, blonde and stout, she was not cut out to be hauled into a bus by the police. All she wanted was to see Héctor back, and all the others. Her group would meet each Sunday at the church of Santa Rita in Miramar, Havana’s grandest district, say the rosary, hear mass, and then walk ten blocks in silence along Quinta Avenida on the green verges under the palm trees. The women wore white, symbolising pure intentions, and cart could fill the prisons again. As long as Cuba was not free, she would go on sitting at her computer with her little dog stretched out on the tiles beside her, alert for the telephone, with her front door open and Santa Rita at the ready, and the ceiling fan turning slowly in the smothering air.

Clinton: Castro Should Go

From AFP:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday the United States remained firm that the Castro regime should end in Cuba, despite overtures seeking reform on the communist island.

Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban American and fierce critic of the Castro brothers, told Clinton during a congressional hearing that the administration had a double-standard after using force to remove Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi.

"Our position has been the same for more than 50 years. We think Fidel Castro should go," Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

"Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to be going anywhere."

The United States first partially imposed an embargo on Cuba in 1960, just after Fidel Castro's revolution. It remains in force, with most trade and travel banned to the Caribbean island.

After taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama eased restrictions on travel and remittances by immediate family members. He has said the United States is ready to change its tough policy if the communist state is ready to reform.

Castro, 85, formally ceded power in 2006 to his younger brother Raul due to health reasons but he has continued in a role as elder statesman.

Despite the absence of diplomatic ties, Clinton said that the United States maintained contacts with Cuban officials on a range of issues such as drug trafficking but also engaged ordinary people on the island.

"It is our view that we should help those who are trying to work toward positive change," Clinton said.

She renewed calls for Cuba to free US contractor Alan Gross, who was arrested in 2009 and sentenced in March to 15 years in prison.

"It is a gross violation of his human rights and a humanitarian abuse that he has not been returned to his family and we would like to see that happen as soon as possible," Clinton said.

Gross was arrested as he distributed cellphones and laptops to members of the island's Jewish community under a State Department contract. Cuba charged him with violating the island's "independence or territorial integrity." 
Capitol Hill Cubans

Rubio defends his stand against more Cuba flights

By Steve Huettel, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Friday, October 28, 2011

Sen. Marco Rubio, right, fields a question from corporate attorney Sheila M. McDevitt at a luncheon Thursday at the University Club sponsored by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Seated next to Rubio is Chase Stockton of Panther International.
Sen. Marco Rubio, right, fields a question from corporate attorney Sheila M. McDevitt at a luncheon Thursday at the University Club sponsored by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Seated next to Rubio is Chase Stockton of Panther International.


TAMPA — Sen. Marco Rubio and Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce officials chose not to rekindle a fight over new flights to Cuba.
But during a visit here Thursday, the Miami Republican bristled at a reporter's suggestion that he tried to block flights from Tampa to protect Miami travel businesses.
"The idea that I'm a friend of the fly-to-Cuba-from-Miami crowd is absurd," he said at a news conference. "No one would criticize someone going to Cuba to see their dying mother. What we're opposed to is expansion of these new flights from Miami or anywhere else. They add more money to the (Castro) regime."
In February, Rubio proposed an amendment to a Federal Aviation Authority funding bill that would have prohibited any additional flights between the United States and countries, such as Cuba, designated as "state sponsors of terrorism" by the State Department.
At the time, charter flights to Cuba were restricted to three gateway cities: Miami, New York and Los Angeles.
Chamber CEO Robert Rohrlach fired off a letter to Rubio, saying that Rubio's position benefited his hometown of Miami at the expense of Tampa Bay and other Florida metro areas seeking nonstop flights to the island nation.
"I sincerely hope that you will withdraw (the amendment) in order to more accurately reflect the resolve of the entire state as opposed to the interests of a few."
Rubio's amendment failed in the Senate. Tampa International and airports in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Key West subsequently won federal approval for Cuba flights. Charter companies now fly twice weekly from Tampa International to Havana. Two additional weekly flights — one to Havana and one to Holguin — start in November.
The chamber is catching flak for another Cuba initiative. Rohrlach visited the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., earlier this month and asked staffers to start planning a visit to Tampa by Jorge Bolanos, the chief of mission there.
"It's something we should do to show them (Cuba flights) are a big deal to us," Rohrlach said.
In a letter this week to Rubio, Sen. Bill Nelson and Tampa City Council Vice Chairwoman Mary Mulhern, longtime anti-Castro activist Ralph Fernandez objected to the chamber's efforts to facilitate trade with Cuba that could result in a member of the Cuban Interest Section visiting Tampa.
"That would be a debacle," said Fernandez, a Tampa lawyer who has represented former political prisoners.
In late 2002, a Cuban diplomat who helped organize Mayor Dick Greco's trip to Cuba earlier that year was accused of espionage and expelled from the United States. Oscar Redondo and another man, Gustavo Machin Gomez, both of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, were declared "persona non grata" by the U.S. government and ordered to leave the country.
At the time, Fernandez said he had told Greco two years before that Redondo was engaged in espionage. On Thursday, Rubio said he hadn't seen the letter from Fernandez about the chamber's overture to Cuban officials.
Rubio did address the controversy over whether he wrongly portrayed his family as exiles fleeing Cuba after Fidel Castro's takeover in 1959. The family, it was revealed in news reports this month, actually left as immigrants to the United States three years earlier.
"The story is the same one," he said. "My family came here from Cuba in search of a better life."

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.

Hillary Clinton scorns 'entrenched' Cuba

Both sides are resorting to much stronger and less diplomatic language

Cuba's leaders do not want to normalise ties with the US because then they would lose their excuse for the state of the country, says Hillary Clinton.

Cuba's response to recent US efforts to improve relations had revealed "an intransigent, entrenched regime" in Havana, said the US secretary of state.
The Cuban authorities have long blamed a 48-year US trade embargo for holding back the country's development.
The US says the embargo will remain until Cuba improves human rights.
Relations between Washington and the communist government in Havana have soured in recent months after early expectations of an improvement under the Obama administration.
The BBC's Michael Voss in Havana says initial hopes of improved relations are receding with both sides resorting to much stronger and less diplomatic language.

'Very sad'
Mrs Clinton said the response of Cuban President Raul Castro and his brother, ex-leader Fidel Castro, to US efforts to improve ties proved they had no interest in political reform or ending the sanctions.
There should be an opportunity for a transition to a full democracy in Cuba... but it may not happen any time soon
Hillary Clinton
US Secretary of State
"It is my personal belief that the Castros do not want to see an end to the embargo and do not want to see normalisation with the United States, because they would lose all of their excuses for what hasn't happened in Cuba in the last 50 years," she said in a speech at Kentucky's University of Louisville.
"I find that very sad, because there should be an opportunity for a transition to a full democracy in Cuba and it's going to happen at some point, but it may not happen any time soon."
Earlier this month, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez held a meeting with Cheryl Mills, Mrs Clinton's chief-of-staff, in one of the highest level contacts between the two countries for years.
US officials said the two "did not agree on very much" at the talks, which were held in New York on the sidelines of a UN forum on aid for quake-hit Haiti.

'New crusade'
The recent death of the jailed dissident hunger striker, Orlando Zapata, brought widespread international condemnation and has focused attention on Cuba's human rights record.
The authorities here have responded by going on the offensive.
In a televised speech last weekend, President Raul Castro accused the US, Europe and the Western media of waging an unprecedented publicity war against the island.
"The empire and its allies have launched a new crusade to try to demonise Cuba and to destabilise the country," a front page editorial in the communist party newspaper Granma added.
The authorities have now called for a massive May Day mobilisation to denounce the West and in support of the revolution.

Undersea cable to bring fast internet to Cuba ...LPP Archive...

A ship has begun laying an undersea fibre-optic cable between Venezuela and Cuba, a connection that will dramatically improve Cuba's telephone and internet services.

Havana, Cuba
Cuba is the only nation in the Western Hemisphere that is not linked to the outside world by optical fibre Photo: dzain - Fotolia
Officials from the two countries launched the project during a ceremony at Venezuela's Camuri beach near the port of La Guaira, where the cable was suspended from buoys behind the French-flagged ship that will run the cable along the sea floor to Cuba.
Alcatel-Lucent SA of Paris is carrying out the project for the two countries' state telecommunications companies. Cuban officials have said it is expected to cost about $70 million.
The ship is scheduled to reach Cuba on Feb 8, and the cable will be functional in late June or early July, said Jose Ignacio Quintero, a manager for Alcatel-Lucent.
The cable will span about 1,000 miles across the Caribbean Sea to Siboney in eastern Cuba. A second segment of about 150 miles will extend from Cuba to nearby Jamaica.
Cuba is the only nation in the Western Hemisphere that is not linked to the outside world by optical fibre. Instead, it relies on slow, expensive satellite links because the US government's embargo has prevented most trade between the island and the United States and has made companies in other countries shy away from doing business with Cuba.
The cable is one of many joint projects promoted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close ally of Cuba's communist government. It is dubbed "ALBA-1," after the Bolivarian Alternative bloc that includes Venezuela, Cuba and other left-leaning allies.
Rogelio Polanco, the Cuban ambassador, praised Mr Chavez's government for what he called a historic connection that is "breaking the United States' criminal blockade against our country" in telecommunications.
President Barack Obama's administration loosened some embargo restrictions in 2009, opening possibilities for cooperation with Cuba in telecommunications.
Yet one proposal by Florida company TeleCuba Communications Inc. to lay a fibre-optic cable a much shorter distance - from Key West to Cuba - has been held up because US regulators have balked at the Cuban government's demand that companies connecting calls to the island pay the Cuban phone company 84 cents per minute.

Gaddafi's driver on the endgame: 'He didn't seem to know what to do'...

Huneish Nasr, who served Gaddafi for 30 years, tells how denial and confusion marked the final days of a crumbling regime
• Where is Gaddafi's vast arms stockpile?
  • gaddafi-driver
    Huneish Nasr, Muammar Gaddafi's former personal driver, said 'the boss' had always been good to him. Photograph: Martin Chulov for the Guardian
    Huneish Nasr last saw the boss he served for 30 years standing in the ruins of Sirte looking confused as all hell broke loose around them. "Everything was exploding," said Nasr, Muammar Gaddafi's personal driver, recalling the moments before the deposed dictator was caught last week. "The revolutionaries were coming for us. He wasn't scared, but he didn't seem to know what to do. It was the only time I ever saw him like that." Minutes later, euphoric rebels had ended Gaddafi's last stand, over-running the ruined quarter of his birthplace that had served as his final, ignominious refuge. Nasr said he threw his hands up in surrender as gun-toting rebels approached. He was knocked to the ground with a rifle butt, which blackened his left eye. Gaddafi was being pulled from a drainpipe just before Nasr fell. He caught a final glimpse of his master being swarmed over by rebels. Then blows rained down on them both. Now, a week later, Nasr and Mansour Dhao, the slain dictator's security chief, seem to be the only surviving members of Gaddafi's old guard who can bear testament to the frantic final days. "If any of the other close staff are still alive, I don't know where they are or what happened to them," said Nasr from his makeshift cell in a Misrata military barracks. The battle for Sirte had left him deaf in his right ear and he leaned forward anxiously to listen to questions. "The rest of them may be somewhere with the revolutionaries or they may be dead," he said. As some semblance of order begins to emerge from a tumultuous week for the rebels of Misrata and Gaddafi's vanquished loyalists, a picture is taking shape of a dictator who was either defiant or in profound denial – no one seems sure which – until his gruesome death in Sirte. Nasr said he spent the last five days of the siege with Gaddafi, moving from house to house to evade fighters who were peppering the neighbourhood, known as District 2, with explosives and gunfire. Still wearing the blood-spattered purple checked shirt he wore last Thursday when Gaddafi was killed, Nasr, a man in his mid-60s, said his former boss could not seem to grasp what was unfolding around him. "He was strange," said Nasr. "He was always standing still and looking to the west. I didn't see fear in him. "I was with him for 30 years and I swear by God that I never saw any bad behaviour in him. He was always just the boss. He treated me well," he added, explaining he received a salary of 800 dinar a month (just over £300), as well as a house in Sirte. Like many of the members of the tyrant's inner court, Nasr came from the Gaddafi tribe. Without the tribal name – and decades of service – he would have been unlikely to have won a place at his master's side during the final days. Gaddafi had been abandoned by almost everyone he had empowered, and many of those who remained simply had too much to lose by accepting the inevitable demise of the regime. Nasr saw the last few desperate months through a simpler prism. "I believed them when they said we are fighting bad people," he said. He even stayed loyal when told to retire from service in March. "They told me to finish work on the 17th of March and I came back to Sirte," he said. He said he only saw Gaddafi again in September after he had left Tripoli with four other men – Mansour Dhao, Mohammed Fahima (the driver who replaced him), Izzedin al-Shira (a security chief) and Abdullah Khamis. Nasr was evasive about when he found out his former boss was in Sirte. He said it was around 10 October, but most of what remained of the inner sanctum was forming a protective guard weeks earlier than that. "I was taken away by one of the patrols and then I was brought here," he said, his hollow black eyes set deep in their sockets. "I never had anything against the revolutionaries," he added, drawing a wide, sceptical smile from the young guard in the room. In the early hours of Tuesday, Gaddafi's loyal driver was thrown in the back of a van and driven deep into the desert with a handful of others. He saw his former boss lowered into an unmarked grave and covered with sand. It was a fate he never expected for a man he had seen as infallible. Nasr's own fate is far less certain.                                                 

    Gadhafi hometown pays heavy price in Libyan battle

    SIRTE, Libya (AP) — Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte paid a heavy price for sheltering him in the final battle of Libya's civil war. Much of the Mediterranean city of palm tree-lined boulevards has been destroyed. Whole neighborhoods are uninhabitable, with shells punching huge holes through homes blackened with soot. There's no electricity or water. Debris-filled streets are flooded from broken pipes. "It used to be a beautiful city, one of the most beautiful in Libya," said Zarouk Abdullah, 42, a university professor, standing outside his badly damaged family home. "Today it looks like (postwar) Leningrad, Gaza or Beirut." Sirte once was favored by the old regime with investment and jobs. Now, six weeks of fighting has left many of the 140,000 residents seething over what they believe was wanton destruction by vengeful anti-Gadhafi combatants. Although some blame Gadhafi for bringing the war home by hiding here in his final days, residents feel overwhelmed by the task of reconstruction and expect little help from Libya's interim government. Most of the dead appear to have been removed or hastily buried, but there is still a stubborn stench of decay that remains — even a week after Gadhafi's death, which ended the eight-month battle to oust him. On Thursday, shovel-wielding volunteers wearing surgical or gas masks dug up shallow graves to identify and rebury bodies. Meteeg al-Gazhali stood on a sandy lot behind a clinic in Sirte's seaside District No. 2 and watched as several men pulled up a corpse, wrapped in a blanket. "That's Ali," he said quietly after lifting the blanket, identifying his 30-year-old son. The battle for Sirte began in mid-September, or about a month after revolutionary forces had already taken control of most of Libya, including the capital of Tripoli. Sirte was one of the last holdouts, along with two other loyalist areas. Resistance in Sirte was fierce, and three weeks into the battle, anti-Gadhafi forces had advanced only a few hundred yards (meters) into the city. With fighting intensifying, most civilians fled, and only die-hard loyalists remained behind in the city some 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. There were no indications that Gadhafi was in Sirte beforehand, with reports of him hiding deep in the southern desert, possibly trying to flee the country. In fact, Gadhafi was hiding in Sirte in the final weeks of the war, living in abandoned homes in District No. 2 with an entourage of about two dozen, including his son Muatassim. On Oct. 20, as revolutionary forces encircled the neighborhood, Gadhafi and his followers tried to escape in a convoy that was struck by NATO on a highway on the outskirts. Gadhafi, who suffered some injuries, tried to flee on foot, but he was captured, beaten by a mob and died later that day in mysterious circumstances, prompting international demands that Libya's new leaders investigate his death. Fighters from the coastal city of Misrata, which rose up early against Gadhafi and suffered immensely under weeks of siege by regime forces in the spring, took the lead in the battle for Sirte and Gadhafi's capture. It was they who put Gadhafi's body on display in Misrata like a trophy for four days before burying him Tuesday in an anonymous desert grave. Residents now believe the Misrata fighters intentionally destroyed Sirte, beyond the collateral damage of fighting, to settle old scores. "I am very angry with the rebels. Look at all this damage," said 26-year-old electrician Mustafa Ali, standing in the debris-filled courtyard of a two-story villa in District No. 2 that was rumored by neighbors to have been Gadhafi's last hiding place. "If one shot was fired from a house, they would destroy the entire house," he said. Over the weekend, more than 50 bodies were found strewn across the ocean-view lawn of the Mahari Hotel, which according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, had been in the hands of Misrata rebels during the fighting. Farraj al-Hemali, a Sirte resident who was among those to discover the dead, said 25 of the corpses were found with their hands tied behind their backs. Blood had soaked into the grass, indicating they were killed on the spot. Among the dead were civilians and Gadhafi loyalists, and most had been shot in the head or chest, he said. Human Rights Watch called for an investigation of what it described as an "apparent mass execution." Ibrahim Beitelmal, spokesman for the Misrata military council, denied that fighters from his city were responsible. He said he believes the loyalists were killed by their own comrades, possibly after refusing orders to keep fighting. Beitelmal also alleged that "the damage in Sirte was done by Gadhafi forces to blacken the image of the rebels." Anti-Gadhafi fighters did their utmost to prevent bloodshed by giving civilians ample time to leave, he said, adding that those who stayed in the final days were clearly hardcore loyalists. Zarouk Abdullah, the university professor, scoffed at such claims, alleging that Misrata fighters killed his 34-year-old brother Hisham, whom he described as a civilian. Abdullah said his brother had stayed behind in Sirte to protect the family home, was taken prisoner and killed with others at the Mahari Hotel. He did not explain how he knew this. On Wednesday, Abdullah visited Sirte's Ibn Sina Hospital and viewed pictures of disfigured or bloated corpses that had been discovered in recent days, photographed and numbered before temporary burial. Hisham was No. 90. His lower left jaw had been shot off. Abdullah snapped three pictures to take back to his parents so they could start grieving. Abdullah said he is worried about score-settling. "The (real) war has not started yet. The war will start Nov. 1, after NATO leaves," he said, referring to the end of the military alliance's seven-month mission in Libya. "People will take revenge," Abdullah predicted, but like others here, he said he does not want more bloodshed. Beitelmal, the Misrata spokesman, said officials from his city are working with anti-Gadhafi forces in Sirte to help restore basic services, including water and power. However, al-Hemali said there has been no outside help, dismissing promises from visiting officials from neighboring cities as empty words. Sirte, which sustained far greater damage than Misrata, must fend for itself, said al-Hemali, the owner of a car wash, as he oversaw the cleanup of the grounds of the Mahari Hotel. Libya's new government, which is to be formed in coming weeks, will deal with reconstruction but there is no quick fix, said a spokesman, Jalal el-Gallal. "For sure, all the cities that were destroyed during the war will be rebuilt, but the interim government can't do anything right now, and the new government will provide temporary housing," he said. In District No. 2, truck driver Muftah Mubarak, 42, said the Gadhafi regime provided security and jobs, blaming the unrest on foreign intervention, including NATO. He referred to the anti-Gadhafi fighters as "rats," a term used by the former dictator. With Libya awash with weapons, the country could soon see another civil war, he said. In a gesture of defiance, he stuck his head out of his truck before driving off, yelling the slogan of regime supporters: "Only Allah, Moammar and Libya." ___
    Associated Press writer Ben Hubbard in Cairo contributed reporting.