Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Vidal: Cuba's Gritty Lady

The Island's Prime Defender
Posted: Thursday, Christmas, December 25th, 2014
       Whew! Josefina Vidal, Cuba's main defender against the American colossus to its north, caught a break this Christmas season. For the past two years, Josefina -- whose omnipotent title is Minister of North American Affairs -- had worried that the now 65-year-old Alan Gross of Maryland would die in the Cuban military hospital where he had served five years of a 15-year sentence. With hunger strikes and failing health, Mr. Gross had vowed to commit suicide as opposed to serving another year. This was a major dilemma for Josefina. She had meticulously laid out the charges against Mr. Gross to back up the sentence. But she believed that Cuba's prime enemies in the U. S. wanted him to remain in Cuba and die there, so it could be used in the never-ending Miami-orchestrated disparagement of the island. Josefina repeatedly had reminded the U. S. government of two facts: {1} Cuba would never back off what she termed its "righteous" arrest and sentencing of Mr. Gross; and {2} she was anxious to send him home to his Maryland family before he died in Cuba...so please negotiate with me on his release. As always, there was immense pressure on the U. S. not to negotiate. But secretly for over a year it was negotiated and...Whew!...Mr. Gross was released as part of the U.S.-Cuban agreement to try to normalize relations.
            Therefore, last week Alan Gross had an early Christmas present when he sat foot back on U. S. soil. Then on Christmas day he got another present -- a $3.2 million dollar check from the U. S. government. While he was in Cuba, his wife Judy and their lawyer Scott Gilbert had blamed the United States for repeatedly sending the well-paid Mr. Gross on missions to Cuba that the U. S. knew were dangerous and in violation of Cuban laws. He was a part of what seems to be endless tax-funded efforts by USAID to have secretive operations on the island designed to undermine the Cuban government. Mr. Gross worked for a USAID contractor, Development Alternatives Inc., just as, for example, two torture experts were paid millions by the CIA to devise torture techniques recently condemned by the U. S. Senate and others. So, Monday of this week the case against the USAID contractor who employed Mr. Gross was settled. By Christmas day Thursday Mr. Gross had his $3.2 million check. As with most U. S. government enterprises against Cuba, the U. S. taxpayers and the U. S. image suffer the most. And much of that is because Cuba's prime defender, Josefina Vidal, is one tough cookie -- neither easy to intimidate nor to out-smart.
      This AP/Ramon Espinosa photo of Josefina Vidal was taken Monday, Dec. 22-2014 in Havana. As you can see, she was joyous. She should be. In recent days her tireless and extraordinary efforts to bring some sanity to U.S.-Cuban relations have come to fruition, at least until and if the small but powerful contingent of Cuban-Americans, who benefit so profoundly from continuous animosity between the two neighbors, succeeds in thwarting her lifelong desires. That might happen because, as Ms. Vidal and President Obama seem to comprehend, the U. S. democracy has proven to not be strong enough to prevent or even to temper the designs of a mere handful of Cuban exiles, through two generations since the 1950s. But, for now, Ms. Vidal can present to the world that effusive smile shown above, a smile she richly deserves.
       As I have pointed out many times in the past two years, most sincere and unbiased American journalists attuned to the U.S.-Cuban malaise and entanglements believe that Ms. Vidal is the best source of candid, pertinent, and accurate information. Yes, her omnipotent title in Cuba is Minister of North American Affairs. She is more omnipotent on the island than that title implies. In the above AP/Ramon Espinosa photo, that is Ms. Vidal warmly greeting Gerardo Hernandez upon his return from a California federal prison. As one of the Cuban Five he had been sentenced in a Miami courtroom to two life terms but now, after the swap that got two Americans released from Cuban prisons, all of the Cuban Five are back in Cuba. Although Gerardo's wife was not allowed to visit him in his faraway California prison the past fifteen years, she is about to give birth to his baby girl. The New York Times Tuesday blared an explanatory headline: "How A Cuban Spy And His Wife Come To Be Expectant Parents: By Proacting 'Sperm Diplomacy,' A Senate Staffer Became A Central Facilitator Of The Cuban Shift." In the above photo Ms. Vidal, the overall prime facilitator, has just told Mr. Hernandez, "Gerardo, you will be here when your baby girl is born!"
       Of all the diplomats or public relations people who work for Cuba or the U. S., insightful journalists believe Ms. Vidal is the best source regarding delicate issues between the two countries because she has more freedom to express her own views. That reasoning is based on the fact that no one in either country in the past fifteen years is as knowledgeable on intricate U.S.-Cuban matters as she is. People who work for President Obama or President Castro must get clearances from their top boss before making announcements or even answering questions. Also, when both Presidents spoke subsequent to the original announcement about normalizing relations, they were largely equivocating and saying what they wanted their constituents to hear. But not Miss Vidal. She tends to cut to the chase, bypassing politically motivated detours. It is known that President Raul Castro early last week exuded shock as he recoiled after a journalist prefaced his question with a comment she had made. President Castro exclaimed, "Josefina said that!" He recovered quickly, then added, "Well, consider that to be Cuba's position."
       For those reasons, astute international journalists beginning Monday of this week were most anxious to hear from Josefina Vidal after President Obama and President Castro at noon on December 17th simultaneously announced their intentions to seriously begin the process of normalizing relations between their countries. One of her comments Monday resulted in major international headlines...via the AP, Reuters, BBC, etc..."Cuban Says It Will Consider the Whole Package of U. S. Proposals." Ms. Vidal's exact quote was: "We welcome President Obama's decision to introduce the most significant changes in relations with Cuba in 54 years. That includes the whole package." She also has the intelligence, confidence, and grit not to shy from acute media questioning. Here's how she handled some tough questions this week:
         Question: "It has been repeatedly said that Cuba is not really anxious for the U. S. embargo to end because Cuba can use it as an excuse for its failures. Is that true?"
      Answer: "It has also been said that the people in the U. S. who have benefited from the embargo are greedy, revengeful liars. Look back. When have you seen a negative response by Cuba to the American government removing any type of restriction. What we say is, get rid of the excuse and put us to the test. The only line in the sand we have drawn is our sovereignty. We will never surrender that, at least willingly. We are an island, much weaker than the strongest nation in the world that is just to our north. But we have made that point about sovereignty. I believe President Obama acknowledges that. That's why we have a chance."
         Question: "A chance at what? Are you anticipating a total normalization of relations?
        Answer: "Not by this time tomorrow." {laughs} "But seriously, that is what we, both sides, should strive for. Cuba deserves it. America deserves it. Eventually it has to happen. In the days ahead, thanks to President Obama, I believe we will, gradually, see steps in that direction. President Obama and I...we...know the resistance we face. I know the majority of Cubans want it. He knows the majority of Americans want it. We both know that the entire world, including Pope Francis, wants it. What all that means is, the way I interpret it, a few strong people...in the United States, not Cuba...are obstacles that should not be allowed to, decade after decade, harm the majority of people in these two countries and many people elsewhere in the world."
          Question: "The swap of prisoners, a done deal now, surprised many people. But the pro-embargo forces in the U. S. are strongly suggesting that all this momentum be ended unless Cuba returns a woman convicted years ago of murdering a New Jersey policeman. After she escaped from prison, she found asylum in Cuba. She is high up on America's Most Wanted list. There is a $2 million bounty for her. To appease the U. S. and move these relations, will Cuba after all these years return her to New Jersey?
            Answer: "In 1904, shortly after the Spanish-American War that gave the U. S. dominance of Cuba, the U. S. dictated an extradition treaty to Cuba, just as in 1903 it had dictated the U. S. possession of Guantanamo Bay. After 1959, as a sovereign nation, we have not put much stock in that extradition treaty designed only to serve the interest of the U. S. But we have, especially in recent years, quietly cooperated with the U. S. by, for example, capturing drug criminals wanted by the U. S. and turning them immediately over to the U. S. In regards to the asylum Cuba has given the woman wanted in New Jersey, I...we...believe she is a political refugee. There is a well known law professor in the U. S. who has studied her case and decided she, as a Black Panther, was targeted because of that and stopped on the New Jersey highway. She claims she was shot while her hands were up and there is no forensic evidence that she fired any shots. With those doubts, we expect the U. S. to appreciate Cuba's right to grant asylum in certain cases. On the other hand, there are still today in Miami multiple terrorists who have escaped or otherwise been freed from Latin American prisons after being convicted of or having admitted to terrible airplane, car, and hotel bombings that killed innocent Cubans, innocent diplomats, innocent Americans on U. S. soil, and innocent tourists in Cuba. I...we...will in no way negotiate a swap of the New Jersey woman for the most famous terrorist in Miami. But in regard to anyone the U. S. thinks we have given unfair asylum to, we will listen to legitimate facts to support their case."
          Question: "The Miami terrorist you reference, we all know, is Luis Posada Carriles. Are you aware of the headlines he made the first weekend after President Obama's announcement?"
          Answer: "Of course, I know. I have been known to read the Miami Herald and watch CNN." {laughs} "Posada last weekend led an anti-Obama protest in Miami and told journalists that, by all means, Cuba can not be allowed to become a tourist attraction. This is from a well-known terrorist who has admitted and never denied bombing a Cuban hotel in which a young Italian tourist was killed, which he claimed was justified to hurt tourism in Cuba. And last weekend, while assailing President Obama, he again advocated any means to curb tourism to Cuba. If you want my reaction, I believe Posada and people like him have evolved into more America's problem than our problem."
             Question: "Into the second week since the announcements by the two Presidents, other than the swap of prisoners, have things really started to change?"
             Answer: "Not much. It's too early for that. But people on this island are excited. They should be. I await upcoming opportunities to see how President Obama implements the changes he has proposed. Any positive will result in positive reactions in Cuba. I assure you of that. I have come to believe he is a good and fair man. I am also aware of the opposition he faces in a Republican Congress. I have lived in America and I love and respect Americans. I believe...a more effective media, or let me say...a more balanced press in the U. S....would benefit the American democracy and fair-intentioned Presidents, such as Mr. Carter and Mr. Obama.
             Question: "Your criticism of the U. S. media is obvious. You mentioned democracy in that context. Are you critical of democracy? Are you saying that there are...aspects of democracy that you do not want in Cuba?"
              Answer: {She laughs} "You are probing for a headline, aren't you? I criticized our press, the Granma newspaper, the other day. It now prints very critical letters-to-the-editor, you know. But Americans, for the most part, don't know anything positive about Cuba. That doesn't speak well for a free press in the U. S. There are many positive things about this island. World media...Caribbean, Latin American, London, Paris, Rome...criticize us but they provide balance by mentioning positives too. That doesn't happen in the U. S. and I think that reflects on the U. S., providing an image that hurts democracy. But, no! I will never criticize the basics of democracy. At the same time, compared to the U. S., crime and drug rates on this island are minuscule, especially compared to the U. S. Do I want more U. S. tourists in Cuba? Yes. Do I want an influx of crime and drugs? No. Do I want a Starbucks on every corner and Walmarts all over the island? Maybe, if they benefit the majority of Cubans and not just the elite. I read in USA Today recently that the U. S., except for a couple of very tiny nations that cater only to the very rich, has the greatest disparity between the rich and the poor...and that disparity continues to grow the most alarmingly in the U. S. I do not want that on this island, but don't make a headline out of that...it's just an opinion. The Scandinavian nations...Norway, Sweden, Finland...stress equality in their superb democracies. They should be role models for America, which long ago was everybody's role model. But Norway, Sweden, Finland...and Cuba...don't want thousands of millionaires and billionaires driving their rich cars around ghettos...or over bridges beneath which destitute, homeless people may be living." {She laughs softly and admonishes the journalists with a wave of her palms} "Remember, no headlines about me bashing democracy or America. But if you can't resist, at least remind your readers that President Castro and the editors at Granma allow me to criticize them."
              Question: "Josefina, could I ask you about...Fidel."
               Answer: "Yes."
           Question: "Some are saying he has not been seen in public since January. What is his health condition now? And Americans are being told that he had no input in these plans to normalize relations. Is that so?"
              Answer: "The leader of the Revolution is 88 years old. In 2006 he almost died from a very serious intestinal illness. He has had excellent care and he is a battler of historic proportions. That being said, physically he is as well as can be expected. Mentally, the Presidents or Prime Ministers of countries who have regularly visited him in his home confirm his intelligence is still off the charts. Regarding Fidel's input in these recent dealings with the U. S., that input has his stamp, both real and implied. He is still Fidel Castro." 
This photo shows Fidel Castro at his last public appearance in January, 2014.
Josefina Vidal confirmed this week that, "He is still Fidel Castro."
        Josefina Vidal this week, in reference to the question about Posada's protest last weekend in Miami about dissuading tourists from visiting Cuba, opined that Posada, at this stage of the game, is more a U. S. problem than a Cuban problem. This AFP/Adalerto Roque photo shows a tourist taking a photo in Havana. Three million tourists visited Cuba in the past year. The U. S. is the only nation in the world that does not allow its citizens to freely visit Cuba. If the embargo is lifted, an additional one million Americans are expected to travel to Cuba. Also, as this photo indicates, the embargo has contributed greatly to decades of declining infrastructures on the island. In post-embargo Cuba, many people would be employed in rebuilding the island, which would require an influx of material that currently is banned by the embargo.
        In Havana this week Josefina Vidal referenced a USA Today article that disclosed, to her mind, a weakness in the U. S. democracy that she does not wish Cuba to inherit. It is the vast disparity between the ultra-rich and everyone else. After a Google search, I believe this is the article she mentioned. Wow! 85 rich people in the world have wealth equal to the poorest 3.5 billion people on a planet of 7 billion people. If this USA Today revelation impressed Josefina Vidal, perhaps it should resonate with Americans too.
       New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was one of the many Republicans in the U. S. who lambasted President Obama's plans to normalize relations with Cuba. Governor Christie, perhaps eyeing his bid for the Presidency in 2016, called for a "killer's return" from Cuba. Josefina Vidal this week addressed that issue from Cuba's perspective, saying Cuba has a right to grant asylum if the island feels it is warranted.
      Joanna Deborah Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, is the convicted killer Governor Cristie and many other Republicans insist President Obama should get extradited from Cuba before he advances his newly announced Cuban Agenda. In the 1970s Chesimard was a Black Panther. She was convicted of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1973 but escaped from prison in 1979 and resurfaced in Cuba where she was granted political asylum. In 2013 the FBI put her on its Most Wanted Terrorist list; there is a $2 million bounty on her head. She is back in the news as a pawn separating Cuba and the U. S.
      For decades Joanna Chesimard has lived openly in Cuba, with even a listed phone number. She claims she was unfairly stopped on a New Jersey highway and unfairly prosecuted for a murder she did not commit. She says, as a Black Panther, she was targeted by an infamous FBI program known as COINTELPRO. There are many prominent people in the United States who agree with her, including her long-time attorney -- Dr. Lennox Hinds, a respected Law Professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
      Joanna Chesimard, Assata Shakur, has been controversial all of her adult life. That much is well documented. For decades she has been a major pawn in the U.S.-Cuban tug-of-war. Now she is being thrust back into the limelight as possibly a convenient roadblock to President Obama's plans to normalize relations with Cuba. According to Josefina Vidal, Cuba is not likely to bulge on Assata Shakur's asylum.
         Josefina Vidal believes there is doubt surrounding Chesimard but no doubt about terrorists afforded sanctuary in Miami -- most notably the late Orlando Bosch and the now 86-year-old Luis Posada Carriles.
       Numerous de-classified documents such as this one prove that the U. S. government knew about the masterminds of the Cubana Flight 455 bombing within days after the tragic terrorist event occurred. 
Cuba, the Caribbean, and Latin America still can't ignore the fate of Cubana Flight 455.
73 people, including two dozen male and female teenage Cuban athletes, died.
 This mother and sister had waited for Flight 455's arrival. Cubans on the island cry too.
And Cubans on the island still cry over reminders of Cubana Flight 455.
Ignoring those tears has distorted the U.S.-Cuban narrative since October 6, 1976.
        This montage of photos -- Rubio, Rubio, and Rubio -- was used by USA Today to point out that Senator Marco Rubio from Miami led the assault by Cuban-Americans against President Obama's plans to  normalize relations with Cuba. Josefina Vidal this week referenced the assault, which Rubio, in his early campaigning for the 2016 presidency, spent last week seeking out every network camera he could find. There are six Sunday network news programs and Rubio's red tie highlighted each of them. It was not a record. He had set that record some months back. Josefina Vidal this week critiqued the lack of "balance" in the U. S. media, a shortcoming personified by the ubiquitous Senator Rubio, especially considering that the U. S. media seldom balances out Rubio's self-serving Cuba bashing with opposing views, of which there are many. For example, on December 17th after spending a long afternoon watching Rubio's anti-Obama rants saturate his television screen, Jimmy Carter, a man who knows the U. S. and Cuba, was asked by CNN's Anderson Cooper what he thought of Rubio's rants. President Carter replied, "Absolutely ridiculous!"
Knowledgeable observers do not consider Josefina Vidal "absolutely ridiculous." 
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