Sunday, April 19, 2015

Why Cuba Won't Extradite Assata Shakur

As negotiations continue between the governments of the United States and Cuba over the normalization of relations, the U.S. State Department has claimed Cuba is willing to discuss the extradition of political refugee Assata Shakur. While it may seem that Cuba would gladly make such a seemingly minor concession in return for the promise of normalized relations, this would greatly underestimate the Cuban government's commitment to upholding its principles. Shakur need not worry that Cuba will cave for expediency's sake and send her back to the country she escaped from after being harassed and persecuted for years.

According to The Guardian, a State Department spokesman said Cuba had agreed to discuss fugitives, including Shakur, whose original name was Joanne Chesimard. She was granted political asylum by Cuba in 1984 after escaping from prison in New Jersey five years earlier.

Shakur was convicted in 1977 of first-degree murder in the death of New Jersey Trooper Werner Foerster. Her conviction came despite the facts presented at trial that her fingerprints were not on any weapon at the scene; her hands had no gun powder residue; and she was shot twice while her arms were raised, which paralyzed her right arm and would have made it impossible to fire a gun.

The murder charge followed years of allegations against Shakur of murder, kidnapping and bank robbery. Between 1973 and 1977 Shakur was brought to criminal trial seven times: three resulted in acquittals, three were dismissed without trial, and one was declared a mistrial. Authorities were desperately throwing any charges they could at Shakur without evidence to back them up, smearing her as a domestic terrorist in an attempt to discredit her political beliefs.

As they had with other groups like Communists, Puerto Rican nationalists, Native American activists and members of the anti-war movement, the FBI targeted Shakur and other members of the Black Panthers for their political affiliations as part of the illegal COINTELPRO surveillance campaign.

In 1979, a seven member delegation from the United Nations Commission on Human Rights visited Shakur in prison and reported that of the victims of COINTELPRO "who as political activists have been selectively targeted for provocation, false arrests, entrapment, fabrication of evidence, and spurious criminal prosecutions ... one of the worst cases is that of Assata Shakur, who spent over twenty months in solitary confinement in two separate men's prisons subject to conditions totally unbefitting any prisoner."

The UN delegation determined that "she has never on any occasion been punished for any infraction of prison rules which might in any way justify such cruel and unusual punishment."

In an open letter to the Pope in 1998, Shakur wrote: "I was captured in New Jersey in 1979 after being shot with both arms held in the air, and then shot again from the back. I was left on the ground to die, and when I did not, I was taken to a local hospital where I was threatened, beaten and tortured. In 1977 I was convicted in a trial that can only be described as a legal lynching."

The State Department represented last week that Cuba was "open to talks" about revoking her refugee status and sending her back to the U.S.

"We see the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of an embassy in Havana as the means by which we'll be able, more effectively, to press the Cuban government on law enforcement issues such as fugitives. And Cuba has agreed to enter into a law-enforcement dialogue with the United States to resolve these cases," said Jeff Rathke, a State Department spokesman.

The State Department may believe that if they can get Cuban officials to sit down at the table with them, they will simply be able to bully them into handing over Shakur, who was added to the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists List two years ago.

Even though President Obama has announced his intention to remove Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism (which they had been added to in 1982 at the same time Iraq was removed), the economic war against Cuba remains firmly in place. The economic sanctions, condemned nearly unanimously as illegal in the United Nations for 23 straight years, are written into laws of Congress such as the Helms-Burton Act and the Cuban Democracy Act.

American officials may assume they can use the embargo, which has cost Cuba more than $1 trillion, as leverage against Cuba to force them to extradite Shakur. Such thinking would be a foolish mistake.

While the Cuban government rightfully wishes for an immediate end to the embargo, there are principles they will not forsake to make it happen. For Cuba, the issue of refugees is a matter of sovereignty. After being a colony of Spain for hundreds of years, then a neo-colony of the United States for more than 60 years more, the value Cuba places on their sovereignty cannot be overstated. Revolutionary leaders such as Fidel and Raúl Castro were, and are, fervent nationalists.

In this context, one should view any demands that Cuba would perceive as an infringement on their sovereignty. The Guardian article states that Cuban officials did not return a call for comment, but Josephina Vidal, Cuba's head of North American affairs, "recently ruled out any return of political refugees."

Indeed, just five days after the December 17 announcement that the two countries intended to normalize relations, Vidal was asked specifically if returning fugitives would be on the table in negotiations.

Vidal told the Associated Press that "every nation has a sovereign and legitimate rights to grant political asylum to people it considers to have been persecuted... That's a legitimate right." She also said that this had been explained to the U.S. government in the past.

While its possible that this stance could have changed in the last four months, it would be a dramatic break from the words and deeds of the Cuban government since the beginning of the revolution in 1959.

Raúl Castro told the National Assembly of People's Power in 2013 that while Cuba wants better relations with the U.S. they would not succumb to U.S. demands to change their economy.

"If we really want to move our bilateral relations forward, we'll have to learn to respect our differences. If not, we're ready to take another 55 years in the same situation," he said.

The comments by Vidal and Castro could be interpreted as empty bluster, or as a way to save face while privately planning to sacrifice the principles they publicly profess. But a look at the actions of Cuban politicians and officials since the revolution show they have simply never operated this way.

Most notably, in 1974 Fidel Castro decided to send thousands of Cuban troops to Angola to protect the nascent revolutionary MPLA government from falling to the racist South African army. The South Africans had invaded Angola with a force of about 8,000 soldiers seeking to overthrow the MPLA and install a puppet government friendly to the apartheid regime.

Despite being in the midst of talks with the Ford administration about normalization of relations, Castro decided to carry out the fight against apartheid and for the liberation of Africans who had suffered centuries of colonial domination. Not getting involved in Angola may well have meant an end of the embargo and the omnipresent hostilities against Cuba. Regardless, Castro decided not to turn his back on Angola and leave the MPLA to suffer what would have been an inevitable defeat.

For 15 years, Cuba maintained a military presence in Angola to see their mission through to the end, despite the ire and hostility of successive American administrations. When Jimmy Carter assumed the Presidency he was open to relations with Cuba, but set a precondition of the removal of Cuban troops from Angola.

Historian Piero Gleijeses, author of two comprehensive books on the Cuban intervention in Southern Africa, wrote in an open letter to President Obama last year: "Castro refused to bow to Carter's demands, which meant that he sacrificed the possibility of normalization with the United States (and the lifting of the embargo) in order to protect Angola from the apartheid regime."

One could argue that economic conditions are considerably worse in Cuba today than they were 30 years ago, or that the right to grant asylum is not as important to Cuba as fighting apartheid was, so Cuba may not be as willing to directly defy Washington. Both arguments may be true, but in the 1970s and 80s Cuba had been badly victimized by a combination of economic warfare, subversion and terrorism. These severely damaging hostilities may have ended with an agreement with the U.S., but Cuba refused to sacrifice its principles.

Then as now, Cuba would not be intimidated by threats, interference, subversion or sabotage by any country - especially the United States. People like Chris Christie, who The Intercept described as "visibly apoplectic" when talking about Shakur, will have to learn to live with the fact that you cannot always bully someone into surrendering their rights to get what you want.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Government and Media Fantasies About Cuban Politics

The historic meeting between President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba at the Summit of the Americas in Panama over the weekend could be interpreted as a steppingstone toward the end of U.S. subversion and economic warfare relentlessly carried out since the success of the Cuban revolution 55 years ago. But it is questionable whether President Obama intends to transform relations, treating the government of Cuba as a sovereign equal and recognizing their right to choose different political and economic models, or merely to continue the same decades-old policy with a more palatable sales pitch - the way he has done with drones and extrajudicial surveillance. U.S. media, however, appear to have fully embraced the propaganda line that Washington is acting in the best interests of the Cuban people to liberate them from political repression. The New York Times weighed in the day before the Summit by claiming that most Cubans identify not with the sociopolitical goals advanced by their country's government, but rather with those supported by Washington.

In an editorial titled "Cuban Expectations in a New Era" (4/7/2015), the New York Times advances the proposition that engagement between the two governments will lead to Cuba's integration (at least partially) into the global capitalist economy. This in turn will create increased financial prosperity as Cuba grows its private sector and turns away from the failed model the government has imposed since the start of the revolution. 

The New York Times portrays the Cuban government as intransigent, stubbornly holding its citizens back from the inevitable progress that would result from aligning itself with Washington. The Times claims that the Cuban government maintains a "historically tight grip on Cuban society." 

They insinuate there is a Cuban version of the U.S.'s political police, the FBI, who for decades spied on nonviolent activists representing African Americans, Puerto Rican nationalists, the anti-war movement, animal rights and environmental groups to prevent social change through political action. Many of the activists illegally targeted by the FBI's COINTELPRO program still remain incarcerated as political prisoners. But the Times doesn't mention any such Cuban equivalent, likely because none exists.

The responsibility for Cuba's financial woes is placed squarely on the country's government. The Times claims "the Obama administration's gamble on engaging with Cuba has made it increasingly hard for [Cuba's] leaders to blame their economic problems and isolation on the United States."

They fail to mention that the embargo against Cuba cost the country $3.9 billion in foreign trade last year, bringing the inflation-adjusted total to $1.1 trillion. The embargo is still directly harming the Cuban economy and public health sector. The administrative measures implemented by Obama will provide, at most, minor relief. Extraterritorial provisions of the Helms-Burton Act that prevent Cuba from trading with third countries remain firmly in place. But the Times seems to believe the Cuban government is doing nothing more than making excuses when they complain about the devastating affects of the embargo on their economy and their population. 

In her study "Unexpected Cuba," economist Emily Morris rejects the argument that Cuba's leaders have damaged their country's economic performance and put its social progress at risk by failing to adopt capitalist reforms like privatization and liberalization.

"The problem with this account is that reality has conspicuously failed to comply with its predictions," Morris writes. "Although Cuba faced exceptionally severe conditions - it suffered the worst exogenous shock of any of the Soviet-bloc members and, thanks to the long-standing US trade embargo, has confronted a uniquely hostile international environment - its economy has performed in line with the other ex-Comecon countries, ranking thirteenth out of the 27 for which the World Bank has full data."

The New York Times argues that the Cuban dissidents attending sideline events at the Panama Summit deserve to have regional leaders "amplify their voices." They claim that such dissidents "have struggled for years to be heard in their own country, where those critical of the Communist system have faced repression." 

There is no evidence presented that the dissidents have struggled in Cuba because they have been repressed, rather than having struggled because most of the population simply does not agree with their ideas or sympathize with them. 

In a presumptuous attempt to delegitimize the Cuban government, the Times claims it is actually the dissident contra-revolution that represents the majority of the Cuban people: "The government will have to reckon with the fact that many of the dissidents' aspirations are shared by most Cubans."

Again, there is no evidence that this is actually the case anywhere other than in Washington's fantasies. The dissidents' aspirations are not even stated. One assumes this refers to the objective of repealing socialism and instituting capitalism, also the official policy of the U.S. government. Mere changes to Cuba's economy within the socialist structure is not a dissident position. Such changes and improvements are proposed and debated at all levels of Cuban politics, and have been openly embraced by Raúl Castro since he assumed the Presidency. 

That the majority of the Cuban people share the dissidents' political views is a bold claim. People familiar with Cuba have reached the opposite conclusion. Victor Rodriguez, a professor in the Ethnic Studies department of California State University Long Beach, recently returned from a visit to Cuba and had a different outlook.

"I spoke with at least 50 Cubans of all ages and walks of life," he said. "Themes were that sovereignty, health care, and education are non-negotiable." Rodriguez said that Cubans did have complaints about their system, with many stressing the need for higher salaries. 

But the three areas he cites as resoundingly popular are the most basic hallmarks of the revolution. If Cuba were to abandon its socialist economic system - either willingly or under pressure from the United States - these would be the first areas to be sacrificed on the neoliberal altar. Dozens of countries in the global South from Africa, Latin America to Asia that now find themselves in the vice grip of suffocating debt can surely attest to this fact. 

It is worth examining who are the voices that the New York Times claim deserve to be amplified. Among the "dissidents" are Guillermo Fariñas and Manuel Cuesta Morúa. Fariñas had fought in Angola against the racist South African apartheid regime and had supported Cuba's revolutionary movement until a sudden change, observes Salim Lamrani, a French professor who specializes in Cuba-USA relations.

"It was only in 2003 that Fariñas made a 180 degree ideological switch and turned his back on the ideas he had defended in years past," Lamrani writes. Contrary to representation in Western media, Fariñas had been sentenced to prison for crimes such as assaulting a woman as well as an old man who had to have his spleen removed because of his injuries. Lamrani notes that Fariñas was admittedly financed by the US Interests Section in Havana. Perhaps not coincidentally, Fariñas became an outspoken critic of the Castro regime. Yet he was still permitted to speak freely with foreign media. His decision to outspokenly express his political views, which happen to coincide with those of the interests that finance him, has rewarded him handsomely. 

"Guillermo Fariñas has chosen, as have those Cuban dissidents sensationalized by the western press, to live off his dissident activities, which offer undeniable financial opportunities and a standard of living much higher than other Cubans living in a context marked by economic difficulties and material scarcity," Lamrani writes. 

Cuesta Morúa is likewise a dissident who considers the Cuban revolution an abject failure, and who downplays any U.S. responsibility for the economic conditions Cuba faces.

According to Lamrani, "Manuel Cuesta Morúa, who resides in Cuba and benefits from all the advantages of the system of social protection of the country, is a dissident linked to U.S. power through the National Endowment for Democracy, a screen office of the CIA that contributes financially to the development of the activities of the opposition to the government of Havana."

Unlike dissidents in the United States, who cannot start a political organization or journalistic enterprise without concerning themselves with how it will impact their ability to pay for health care, a mortgage, food for their family, and education, dissidents in Cuba do not have any of these worries. They enjoy a robust safety net that covers every single citizen, regardless of their view of the Cuban political system. 

Many Cubans in attendance at the Summit in Panama had a different view of the dissidents than that espoused by the New York Times. They referred to the dissidents as mercenaries because of their financial links to a hostile foreign regime and coziness with anti-Castro exiles such as Luis Posada Carriles, the "Cuban bin Laden," who has been implicated in numerous terrorist activities including the downing of a civilian airplane and a string of hotel bombings in Havana.

The Cuban Web site Juventud Rebelde reported that the Cuban delegation, which represents more than 2,000 associations and Non-Governmental Organizations from the island, denounced the presence of people who are paid by interests seeking to destabilize Cuban society and the Cuban government. 

Liaena Hernandez Martinez, of the National Committee of the Federation of Cuban Women, which represents more than 4 million Cubans said that: "For the Cuba dignified and sovereign that has resisted more than five decades of blockade it is inadmissible that people are here of such low moral character." 

The Times predictably aligns itself on the side of the U.S. government regarding their opinion of the true political aspirations of Cuban people. The idea that the U.S. is a disinterested observer nudging the Cuban government in the direction of greater democracy and human rights is nothing but pure propaganda, contradicted by more than half a century of history. The U.S. has always been the aggressor against Cuba, coercing it to become a neo-colony that could be exploited by the U.S. military and corporate interests. This was true from the time the U.S. forced Cuba to implement Platt amendment that granted the Americans control of Guantanamo Bay until the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista was ousted in 1959. 

It should be no surprise that the U.S. government and corporations like the New York Times still presumptuously attempt to delegitimize the Cuban revolution and pretend that Cuban politics are best understood and articulated by those either outside Cuba or in their service as paid agents. The notion that a population can create a socioeconomic system representing the will of its people that starkly rejects the Washington Consensus is simply unthinkable. They are forced to pretend that an opposition manufactured and financed from abroad is representative of the population as a whole. It may take another 55 years to understand this is simply not the case. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Crimes the New York Times Believes Should Go Unpunished

The New York Times recently published an editorial lamenting the "shameful impunity of the Islamic State" and encouraging the United Nations Security Council to refer the group's crimes to the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.). The editorial, titled "The Crimes of Terrorists" (4/2/2015), should more accurately be titled "The Crimes of the U.S. and Its Allies Should Go Unpunished."

In the last several months alone, the Times has repeatedly failed to condemn crimes by the U.S. government and its allies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian territories.

When the Times writes that "the Islamic State's campaign of religious and cultural cleansing has shocked the world and terrified the peoples of Iraq and Syria who don't fit into the group's fanatical vision of a neo-Islamist caliphate" and that the Security Council should address the "shameful impunity of the Islamic State, and refer the group to the I.C.C.," they are stating the obvious.

That crimes should be punished is beyond dispute. Condemning the crimes of official enemies of the United States does not take particular moral or political courage. Whether it was the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Taliban after 9/11, or Iraq before the 2003 invasion, a media organization would be hard pressed to find a less controversial editorial position.

What would take courage is opposition to the criminal actions of the U.S. government and governments and groups it aligns itself with. This is something the Times has failed to do for decades. You don't have to go back in time to find multiple examples.

Just two days before the editorial on the Islamic State, the Times published another editorial titled "Saudi Arabia's Ominous Reach Into Yemen" (3/3/2015). The Times does not condone the Saudi-led bombing campaign. They state that: "Rather than bombing, Saudi Arabia should be using its power and influence to begin diplomatic negotiations, which offer the best hope of a durable solution." They note the pitfalls of the Saudi military invention by claiming it "threatens to turn what has been a civil war between competing branches of Islam into a wider regional struggle involving Iran. It could also destroy any hope of stability in Yemen."

But the strongest position the Times can muster is to encourage President Obama to push for a "political solution." They fail to mention that the Saudi military intervention is itself a crime, no different than the crimes of the Islamic State they would oppose two days later with such vigor. Bombing a sovereign nation is indisputably a violation of Article 2 of the United Nations Charter: "All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state."

Violation of the prohibition against the use of force in the UN Charter amounts to the crime of aggression, which was defined in the Nuremberg Trials as "not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole" (italics added).

On the same day the Times published its editorial, Amnesty International reported: "There is growing evidence that the Saudi Arabian-led military coalition is failing to take precautions to prevent civilian deaths amid ongoing airstrikes around Yemen." They reported that "at least six civilians, including four children, were among 14 people who burned to death in further airstrikes."

The Guardian reported that it had obtained images from a humanitarian worker in Yemen that "showed gruesome scenes - charred bodies immolated by the blast, mangled corpses in plastic bags, and wounded children being treated," The humanitarian worker "said he saw scattered limbs littering the area nearby."

Yet the Times does not even mention these Saudi crimes (backed by the U.S. government), much less demand accountability. They do not claim that Saudi Arabia enjoys "shameful impunity" they way they do for the Islamic State.

Neither does the Times condemn Israeli crimes against Palestinians, especially last summer's slaughter in Gaza, euphemistically called "Operation Protective Edge" by the Israeli government. In a New York Times editorial titled "Keeping Palestinian Hopes Alive" (3/24/2015) the editorial board calls for a two-state political solution to the conflict in order to avoid Palestinians seeking justice in the I.C.C.

The call for a two-state solution is disingenuous and hollow. With more than 500,000 Israeli settlers now squatting on stolen land in the West Bank, there is no practical way to implement such a plan. Furthermore, this nominal "solution" has been the U.S.-Israeli policy for more than 20 years since the Oslo Accords and has led nowhere. A call for a two-state solution is nothing more than an appeal to continue the status quo indefinitely while using different language.

The Times states that "a clear Security Council statement in favor of a two-state solution would be an important benchmark. If the United States and other major powers quickly show commitment to that approach, they might be able to keep Palestinians from pressing a complaint against Israel in the International Criminal Court." This, the editorial board claims, "would poison relations even more and alienate many Americans."

Even if a two-state solution were feasible, why would implementation of such a plan preclude justice in a court of law for the nearly 2,200 Palestinians, including more than 500 children, who were killed, most of whom were civilians?

Human rights organizations have found extensive evidence of war crimes and reckless disregard for human life by the Israeli military in Gaza during the 50-day war.

Amnesty International reported on "extensive, wanton and unjustified" targeting of civilian infrastructure including multi-story buildings by Israel in Gaza.

"Both the facts on the ground and statements made by Israeli military spokespeople at the time indicate that the attacks were a collective punishment against the people of Gaza and were designed to destroy their already precarious livelihoods," states Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme. Collective punishment is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.

In a report on Israeli attacks against inhabited homes, Amnesty International found that "whole families were killed or injured by these targeted strikes." The report focuses on eight cases "in which targeted Israeli attacks resulted in the deaths of at least 111 people, of whom at least 104 were civilians, including entire families and 62 children, and destroyed civilian homes."

Amnesty recommended, "given Israel's long-standing failure to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes ... that the international community should ensure that possible crimes under international law, including war crimes, committed during Operation Protective Edge" should be pursued in court in states exercising universal jurisdiction or through the I.C.C.

This is the opposite of the position taken by the Times. When it comes to official enemies, the Times righteously claims that their crimes have "shocked the world" and "terrified" the local population. But when it comes to the U.S. and its allies, the Times believes that equivalent crimes should be swept under the rug.

The New York Times has had a long-standing record of this type of hypocritical logic. As the NYTimes Examiner noted last year in an article titled "The New York Times Excoriates 'Aggression': The Washington Exception" (3/5/2014):
Over the last quarter century the New York Times' Editorial board has made editorial decisions that illustrate a peculiar pattern. Times readers could otherwise overlook the pattern in everyday reading. However, when viewed through a wider historical lens, the pattern lays bare biased reporting that should concern readers. 
In five editorial pieces, spanning a period from December 1989 to March 2014, and encompassing nearly 3,000 words, the Times' Editorial board has weighed in on cross-border military actions. The selectivity of their language shows a political bias in favor of upholding what they believe is best for Washington's interests and therefore, under the guise of 'objectivity,' report expectedly in opposition to Washington's adversaries.  
Indeed, in editorials on Panama ("Why the Invasion Was Justified") (12/21/1989), Yugoslavia ("Air Campaign Against Yugoslavia") (3/25/1999), and Iraq ("The War Begins") (3/20/2003), the Times stood firmly behind American use of military force.

Despite the fact that each of these military attacks were clear cases of aggression, the "supreme international crime," the Times never once broached the idea that the U.S. government should face repercussions for their many severe violations of international law.

Even in their most ambivalent stance, on Iraq, they stated that "even those who sharply disagree with the logic behind this war are likely to end up feeling reassured, almost against their will, by the successful projection of American power."

There is the hypocrisy laid bare. For the Times editorial board, as for much of the American public, blind worship of American power is more important than their professed concern for the rule of law. That concern is reserved only for those who do not enjoy the support of the U.S. government, and who can thereby be excoriated for their crimes relentlessly.

Matt Peppe writes about politics, U.S. foreign policy and Latin America on his blog. You can follow him on twitter.