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Volume 17, Number 4
April 11, 2011
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Also in this section:
US State Department report on human rights in Panama
Editor's notes about the US State Department human rights report
Supreme Court scandal deepens: new witnesses, defenses that look like admissions
Last jailed Cuban journalist released, Cuba launches campaign against US propaganda
PRD votes for local and women's and youth group leaders
Cross-dressing consul resigns
Former bagwoman for corrupt high court magistrates sings in public
Ruckus raised over diplomat in drag
WikiLeaks highlights, worsens US-RP relations
Final farewell for Billy Ford
Guillermo Ford dies
Revelations in Spanish, Tico media embarrass Martinelli

Many things that used to be in a Panama News Briefs feature of the website have now migrated to our constantly updated Facebook page

Cuba no longer has journalists behind bars, but its war of words with the United States rages on
Turning a page, but Cuba still defends against US attacks
by Eric Jackson

We are greatly relieved that the last independent Cuban journalist still in prison has been released. A years-long nightmare of suffering and humiliation for a large group of journalists and their families has finally come to an end. However, independent journalists in Cuba continue to face harassment and intimidation for their work. We call on the Cuban government now to dismantle the obsolete legal framework that punishes independent reporting with jail, and to grant freedom of expression to all Cubans.
Carlos Lauría, Committee to Protect Journalists
program coordinator for the Americas

Against Cuba and other countries considered enemies of the United States another variant of cyberwarfare is practiced: the fomentation of a blogosphere which, although it pretends to be "independent," is totally subordinate to the orders and interests of Washington.
Deisy Francis Mexidor, journalist for the
Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma

Let's cut Posada some slack for his arrest upon entering the US. Seventy seven years old at the time, he had been out of the country for a while and didn't realize that to beat an illegal immigration rap one has to march on May Day, bashing the US amidst a sea of foreign flags, while waving a Che Guevara banner.
Humberto Fontova, Cuban-American journalist
for the right-wing BrookesNews.Com

It's outrageous. They say that they're the bearers of human rights. On the contrary, they are humanity's biggest terrorists, which they are demonstrating.
Ileana Alfonso, the daughter of a fencer
killed in Posada Carriles's 1976 terrorist
bombing of Cubana Airlines Flight 455

The problem is that in Cuba the different opinion has always been seen by the authorities as an act of war or an act of aggression against them.
Cuban dissident lawyer Wilfredo Vallín
on Radio Marti show Razones Ciudadanas

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) directs a plan on the island to fabricate artificial civil society "leaders" who support Washington's plans to overthrow the Cuban government.
Las Razones de Cuba television program

Panama is the setting for an April propaganda duel about Cuba, its future leadership, and its status as an independent nation.

From April 25 to 29, the US State Department is sponsoring the first {think}CUBA gathering at the Hotel Miramar. On the {think}Cuba website, the organizers say that their purpose is to "convene select leaders in activism for human rights and democratic freedoms outside of Cuba to become educated ambassadors of movements working toward democratizing and empowering Cubans" and form an "international task force" that will "collectively support efforts of Cuba's leading activists." Organizer Stephanie Rudat, of Absot Marketing, is a Californian with a State Department grant. "Toppling dictators is something I really like," she declares on another website.

Meanwhile, the government of Cuba has something to say about gringos who would choose "Cuba's leading activists." They are fighting the Miami exile movement, State Department and the likes of Stephanie Rudat with a new series of television programs, YouTube videos and website, Las Razones de Cuba. Their argument is that such new US propaganda offensives as {think}Cuba and the championing of certain dissidents in Cuba is just another phase in a long-running but so far fruitless effort to reverse the 1959 Cuban Revolution and restore the old oligarchy that fled to Miami to its former positions of economic power and political influence. To Las Razones de Cuba, the new media offensives are just a new attempt to accomplish what Luis Posada Carriles's bombs did not. Las Razones de Cuba, with sponsorship from the Cuban Embassy and Panama's Sindicato de Periodistas, is making a video presentation to Panamanian journalists, journalism students and activists at 6:30 p.m. on April 13 at the Gil Blas Tejeira Auditorium at the University of Panama's Faculty of Social Communication.

Cuba's crackdown on independent journalism softens

Cuba has closed a long-bleeding public relations wound by sending the last of its imprisoned journalists, Albert Santiago Du Bouchet of the tiny independent Havana Press news agency, out of prison and into exile in Spain. All of the 29 journalists arrested and handed harsh sentences in the 2003 "Black Spring" roundup of dissidents are out of prison, with all but three of them exiled in Europe. Those who stayed in Cuba refused exile and were eventually freed on parole. A new generation of anti-government Cuban journalists, bloggers and commentators, the best known of them Yoani Sánchez, continue their activities at the margins of Cuban law and are regularly denounced by the government and its supporters as disloyal propagandists in the pay of hostile foreign powers. To be a non-government, non-Communist Party journalist in Cuba is still not easy: although the criminal laws (which have not been repealed) are fading as a problem, the lack of an economic framework to support such labor, plus denial of access and recognition by the government, still make independent journalism difficult there.

The winds of change have been in the air in, around and about Cuba for several years and the aging Castro brothers as well as those who have for decades tried without success to oust their government are all aware of it. With Fidel having stepped aside from running the government and playing the roles of columnist and elder statesman, Raúl has embarked on a number of policy changes in politics and the economy. Characterize them as desperate efforts to shore up a discredited regime on the eve of a succession crisis or corrections of excesses and errors so as to improve the lives of the Cuban people in the long run according to your ideological proclivities. In any case it has been decided that it's counter-productive to jail people for saying and writing things against the government --- but on the other hand the Castros and their supporters are not about to cede in the face of hostile propaganda coming mainly from the north.

The United States and particularly the right-wing Cuban exile leadership, and now the European Union as well, are promoting the democratization of Cuba. However, among these forces there are different ideas of what that means. The Cuban American National Foundation and exiles to the right of it would replace the present government in Havana with an authoritarian or dictatorial right-wing regime, and restore the property and privileges of the oligarchic families that lost power and influence to the Cuban Revolution. Others have different objectives, ranging from specific economic and policy designs to general increases in personal freedoms or political democracy. All of these forces are positioning themselves for the moment when the Castro brothers fade into history --- but so are the Castro brothers.

Meanwhile, almost all of the European countries whose governments criticize Cuba do business with Cuba and vote in the United Nations to condemn the US economic embargo against the island. Even the most reactionary Latin American governments --- with the exception of the pariah government of Honduras --- decline to follow the US lead and maintain diplomatic ties with Cuba. Panama may have a rightist government, but Cuba is an important customer for the Colon Free Zone, and Ricardo Martinelli does not appear ready to throw that business away.

On the ground in Cuba, there is no political organization in a position to challenge the single legal party, the Communist Party of Cuba, for leadership of the country. However, there are economic and political conditions that would allow an opposition party --- or several of them --- to thrive. Forces in the United States, which are not necessarily working in unison, are trying to promote the alternative that will end communist rule. To this end relatively small dissident groups like the Damas de Blanco, and individuals like dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, are promoted in foreign media as potential leaders of a new Cuba. The Cuban government, for its part, uses this treatment as evidence that these critics are the tools of a hostile foreign power.

The long years of US-directed terrorism against Cuba --- sometimes officially if covertly backed by the government in Washington, more often run independently by Miami-based exile organizations --- lend the Castro government a certain air of credibility on the issue. Apart from the things that Luis Posada Carriles was accused of lying about, the Miami exiles have earned a certain reputation. They set off bombs across the United States, with US citizens among the victims. Their movement was at the heart of the Nixon administration's attacks on the Democratic Party, with its operatives being those infamously arrested breaking into the Democratic National Committee's offices in the Watergate Hotel. They boasted about these things in their own and the US corporate mainstream media.

To be a pro-United States journalist in Cuba, however, has become more difficult because of two US court decisions that the Cuban government, while not actually a party, has lost. On April 8 anti-Castro terrorist Luis Posada Carriles was acquitted by an El Paso federal immigration court jury of perjury charges for lying about his ultra-violent past in an immigration application. Meanwhile, five Cuban or Cuban-American men --- René González, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando González --- were arrested in 1998 and continue to serve long federal prison sentences for their spying on the Miami-based right-wing Cuban exile movement of which Posada and his armed faction form a part.

Luis Posada Carriles

Posada is a prison escapee, who was facing trial in Venezuela for 73 counts of aggravated murder in 1985 when the late Cuban American National Foundation leader Jorge Mas Canosa paid a hefty bribe to prison officials, who let him escape. Tried in absentia, Posada was found guilty of masterminding a 1976 plot to put a bomb aboard a Cubana airliner, which detonated over Barbadian territorial waters and killed all 73 people aboard. It was a civilian passenger jet, but Posada might have argued that some of the people aboard were an armed force and thus a legitimate military target: among the people he killed was the Cuban national fencing team. The court in Caracas, ruling years before the leftist Hugo Chávez came to power, handed down a 30-year prison sentence. The Chávez government has repeatedly asked its counterparts in Panama, then in Washington, for Posada's extradition but has been turned down each time.

Extradition requests to Panama? Yes, but before that Posada, a veteran of the US Army and the CIA, went underground in El Salvador and was part of the Ronald Reagan / Oliver North Contra supply operation. That work was interrupted by a US scandal and a 1990 assassination attempt in Guatemala, possibly by Cuban agents, in which Posada was shot several times and erroneously left for dead. After he recovered and Central America had calmed down, he spent the rest of the 1990s directing his attention to Cuba again, this time organizing a string of attacks on Cuban hotels, one of which killed an Italian tourist in 1997.

In November of 2000, Posada came to Panama with three Cuban-American accomplices, 200 pounds of C-4 plastic explosive and other bomb-making components. The intention was to set off a bomb at the University of Panama when Fidel Castro, in town for a Latin American summit, spoke there. Had that amount of explosive been used in a bomb when and where Castro spoke, both the former Cuban leader and most of the people in the audience would have been instantly killed, the University of Panama central campus would have been heavily damaged and flying chunks of debris would have killed and injured people at the nearby Arnulfo Arias Hospital Complex.

However, Cuba's spies had been watching. When Fidel Castro arrived in Panama for the summit he denounced the presence of Posada and his crew, who along with a Panamanian taxi driver were arrested shortly thereafter. Posada and his accomplices have long argued that they were set up, that they were lured to Panama to help the head of Castro's security team defect. The explosives that were recovered? The Posada gang said they were planted.

In the course of the Posada gang's trial in Panama, a piece of detonator cord went missing from the evidence and a judge was prevailed upon to throw out the most serious charges on the dubious proposition that the lack of all components for a working bomb was fatal to the case. However, the men were convicted of endangering public safety and given prison sentences of up to eight years. On her way out of office Mireya Moscoso pardoned them, with the other members of the gang (all US citizens) flying back to Florida and a heroes' reception and Posada disappearing underground.

Posada then illegally entered the United States by boat from Mexico in 2005, and until recently was fighting a string of immigration charges in the US federal courts. Both the United States and before that Panama rejected Venezuelan extradition requests, on the ground that were he sent to Venezuela to finish serving his sentence for the Cubana airliner bombing, he might be sent to Cuba where he would face a possible death penalty for the Italian tourist's death.

(There is another extradition possibility, not being actively considered: Cubana Flight 455 blew up over Barbadian territorial waters and a murder trial in Barbados would be a legal possibility. In Barbados, they hang people for especially egregious murders -- until 2009 the death penalty was mandatory for all first-degree murders. The problem is that Barbados is a small country with a population of about 300,000 and a land mass of 166 square miles, and although it has a well established rule of law it lacks the resources to adequately defend itself against the concerted efforts of a well-financed foreign terrorist movement.)

In any case, the deference that both Democratic and Republican administrations have shown to even the most vicious of the Miami-based terrorists meant that Posada was neither charged with acts of violence nor, in accordance with the "War on Terror" norms of dealing with people associated with groups that attack civilian airliners for political purposes, ordered held indefinitely without trial by US military forces as an "enemy combatant." He was just charged with lying about his violent past, and now he's beaten the rap.

However, that court victory for the Cuban exile movement is only a public relations win among themselves and within the extremes of right-wing opinion in the United States and Latin America. For the Cuban government, it's another proof that it's the target of a concerted, state-sponsored, terrorist campaign.

The Cuban Five

René González, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando González are Cuban or Cuban-American men who are serving long sentences in US federal prisons for conspiring to commit espionage against the United States. By all accounts they were Cuban spies, but it can be quite the public relations trap to say that their efforts were directed against the United States --- to do so is to say that the United States bombs civilian airliners, tourist hotels, US airports, cars driving on the streets of Washington DC, a university of Panama auditorium and so on. The five men had infiltrated the Miami exile movement to learn about its activities --- from the perfectly legal to the extremely violent --- and the charges against them implicitly identified the United States government with some acts that are widely condemned by world opinion, even if they are rarely discussed in the US mainstream media. (But see this.)

Freedom for the Cuban Five may come by way of a prisoner exchange, although at this point the Cuban government isn't admitting it. Last year a US Agency for International Development subcontractor, Alan Gross, was arrested in Cuba for distributing laptop computers and cell phones to certain people. Cuban prosecutors alleged that it was to anti-government activists, Gross pleaded that it was to Havana's Jewish community. It turned out that the contract on which Gross was working was with a Bethesda, Maryland company, Development Alternatives, to "promote democracy in Cuba." The Cuban courts, as expected, saw it as a matter of an agent of a hostile foreign government delivering equipment to subversives engaged in anti-government activities, in gross violation of Cuba's national sovereignty. Gross was handed a 15-year prison sentence.

The Obama administration calls Gross's imprisonment "a major impediment" to any further dialogue between Washington and Havana. Ricardo Alarcón, the president of Cuba's National Assembly, dismisses comparisons of the Cuban Five and Gross cases and downplays suggestions of a prisoner swap. However, on a late March and early April visit to Cuba, former US President Jimmy Carter discussed both cases in conciliatory terms. He may have been doing some behind the scenes negotiations about these matters.

From Obama's perspective, a trade would make sense. His administration went through the motions of prosecuting Posada and downgraded the status of Radio and TV Marti, the implicit messages being that, although there are limits to what he will do, he deplores the right-wing Cuban exile movement. (And of course, that crowd has all along manifested its disdain for Obama, so there are few votes lost there.) The continued incarceration of the Cuban Five is an embarrassing throwback to Cold War tensions and from the Castro regime's point of view at least as much an impediment to improved bilateral relations as the Gross case represents in Washington.

Meanwhile, the war of words goes on

The Cuban government and its front people, then the US government and its front people, will do battle on the field of public relations in Panama in April. If experience is any guide, there will be some yeyes who will see the {think}Cuba event as a way to build connections with the US government and international corporate types to advance their careers, and some sincere people in or outside the media who will show up at the Miramar to make their statement; and there will be some doctrinaire leftists who will see it as a duty to attend the Las Razones de Cuba event, along with some activists and professionals who actually think that Cuba needs to democratize but also see a need to speak up against the proposition that the United States gets to pick Latin America's leaders.

One thing there will surely not be at either event: many Panamanian journalists who openly supported the proposition that Cuba should have freed its imprisoned journalists. Across all Panamanian media, one only needs the fingers on one hand to count all of the journalists who called on the Cuban government --- on the air, in print or in cyberspace --- to free the journalists that it held. If you do that, you will have several fingers to spare.

Surely there will be people associated with the {think}Cuba event hoping for the Las Razones de Cuba event to break up in confused leftist faction fighting, and people at the Las Razones de Cuba presentation hoping that the {think}Cuba conference fails due to egos and rival imperial designs. But just maybe, other Panamanians will consider this Cuban dispute and its more universal implications about what it means for a country to be independent, and for a person to be free.

Also in this section:
US State Department report on human rights in Panama
Editor's notes about the US State Department human rights report
Supreme Court scandal deepens: new witnesses, defenses that look like admissions
Last jailed Cuban journalist released, Cuba launches campaign against US propaganda
PRD votes for local and women's and youth group leaders
Cross-dressing consul resigns
Former bagwoman for corrupt high court magistrates sings in public
Ruckus raised over diplomat in drag
WikiLeaks highlights, worsens US-RP relations
Final farewell for Billy Ford
Guillermo Ford dies
Revelations in Spanish, Tico media embarrass Martinelli

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© 2011 by Eric Jackson
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