The United States is close neighbors with four countries, Canada, Mexico, Russia, and Cuba, in no particular order. Canada and Mexico are just a drive away. Russia and Cuba you can see on a good day. Cuba just barely. It has an interesting history.
People have lived there for maybe 5000 years. Things got more interesting with the arrival of European explorers in 1492, and by 1511 the island had been colonized by Spain. And there it remained, with minor interventions by the British and the French, and by 1820 Cuba was Spain’s sole American colony. Things got restive. In 1898 the United States intervened, and by 1902 Cuba was an independent country.
Sort of. A series of gangsters ruled Cuba, finishing up with Fulgencio Batista. In the late 1950s a movement for revolution grew, eventually headed up by Cuban expatriate Fidel Castro, educated in the United States. I recall we used to have a lot of fun with Castro and his band of revolutionaries making trouble for Batista. Things got real in January 1959 when Castro’s forces overthrew Batista’s gang, driving him out (to Portugal) and executing those who remained. We had a big laugh about Castro’s New year’s Eve revolution. The revolutionaries wasted little time establishing a Marxist-Leninist regime and nationalizing the assets of many foreign corporations, including American.
This did not sit well with the United States, and shortly the Eisenhower administration backed a counter-revolutionary group in a plan to retake the island by force. The plan was not put into play until John Kennedy took office, and it was a total fiasco, further souring American-Cuban relations.
At the time there existed an enterprise known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), a Marxist-Leninist embodiment of the former Russian Empire and headed by Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviet Union saw Cuba as a natural ally in the eternal struggle against capitalism and became a prime sponsor of the new regime. The problem was that, with the communist government of Cuba being so antithetical to American interests and to the interests of American corporations, the United States decided to cut all ties, political and economic, with Cuba. Without American trade, the once prosperous island threatened to become a tropical wasteland except for the financial underwriting from the USSR. Even with USSR subsidies, Cuba began a decades-long decline.
There was more. At the time, the United States and the USSR were engaged in an arms face-off, each matching the other’s move in a world game of nuclear chess. Khrushchev played knight to rook 1, threatening checkmate. The Soviet Union began surreptitiously to develop Cuba into a nuclear missile base. President Kennedy played bishop takes rook, and the Soviets pulled back. Things have been tense ever since.
As political and economic conditions on the island pitted, increasingly Cubans succumbed to the urge to flee, especially to capitalist United States. Interestingly, in 1961 the first high jacking of a U.S. airliner to Cuba started a trend, a trend that ended when Castro began to imprison high jackers and send them back to the U.S. The reverse was more common. There grew on the island a raft industry, with people loading up and attempting to float, if not sail, to Florida. Desperate Cubans were known to stow away in the wheel wells of departing airliners.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union came the end of financial subsidies, and Cuba began to challenge Haiti as poverty queen of the Caribbean. In the meantime all the world was doing business in Cuba but the United States, and American businesses were beginning to feel the burn. Even with the eclipse of Fidel and the ascension of his brother Raul, Cuba has continued its intransigence, insisting all the while the United States and its embargo was the cause of Cuba’s misery and not communism.
That was possibly the most condensed history of Cuba you’re ever going to get, and it leads us to the present day.
The kerfuffle with Cuba has been going on for nigh 55 years with no effect. The Castros are still in power, Cuba is still a Marxist-Leninist state, Cubans still live under an oppressive regime, and the Cuban economy is still the armpit of the Caribbean. Meanwhile everybody else in the world is doing business with Cuba, and American companies just 90 miles across the water are watching business opportunities slide by.
Comes President Obama, who was elected under the banner of “change.” Yes, something needed to change. One of the changes was a slacking of travel restrictions to Cuba. Another was the first sitting president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928, about 88 years ago. The President took along with him representatives from a number of American industrial concerns, said enterprises seeking to do business in Cuba. Obama met with current President Raul Castro, and the two discussed possible thawing or relations, additional business dealings, and improvement of Cuba’s deplorable human rights situation. They shook hands.
Not so kumbaya with retired President Fidel:
Fidel Castro blasts Obama’s trip: Cuba doesn’t need ’empire’ for anything
Havana, Cuba (CNN)As Cubans debate the impact of President Barack Obama’s historic trip to the island last week, one prominent figure is lambasting the visit: Fidel Castro.In a full page column titled “Brother Obama,” published in the Cuban communist-party newspaper Granma, the former Cuban president rejected Obama’s visit and words of reconciliation.“We don’t need the empire to give us anything,” Castro wrote, referring to the United States, in his acidly critical and rambling column.
Ah, yes. That’s what I like about aging revolutionaries. They never let go of their ideals—reality be damned. For fifty years, as Cuba sank into economic abyss, the regime reassured the people that the cause of their misery lay at the feet of the empire to the north. American oppression (read, refusing to do business) was the root of their malaise, not the failure of communism and not inept Cuban governance.
“The United States shouldn’t be immune to criticism,” Castro said, clearly frustrated and irritated with press questions. “Human rights issues should not be politicized…our stance on human rights will not change.”
Castro also denied the regime holds political prisoners, despite arresting more than 50 dissidents just hours before President Obama’s arrival on the island.
“What political prisoners? Give me a name? Give me a list?” Castro said, ending the press conference. “It’s not correct to ask me about political prisoners. This is enough.”
Castro (the current president) outlined Cuba’s advantage over the United States regarding human rights. His government, he cited, requires equal pay for women doing equal work. Cuba provides health care for all citizens and by law ended racism during a time when black people were being forcibly denied the right to vote in the United States. Apparently the journalistic profession has not been swept up in this wave of communistic benevolence. This from the Town Hall blog:
Practicing journalism against the government is illegal in Cuba and in 2014, Castro expressed concern surrounding American journalism professors training Cubans inside the country about how to conduct reporting.
While all this was going on in the news I picked up some mention of capital punishment in the United States. I thought it odd at the time, and although there is no mention of such references by either Raul or Fidel, a bit of reality is worth noting:
Cuba retains the death penalty for several crimes. Besides the death penalty’s inherent cruelty, Human Rights Watch believes that the fallibility of criminal justice systems everywhere creates the risk that innocent persons will be executed even when full due process of law is respected. The Cuban legal system’s serious procedural failings and lack of judicial independence practically guarantee miscarriages of justice. Cuban law affords convicts sentenced to death minimal opportunities to appeal their sentences. The People’s Supreme Court receives death sentence appeals within five days of sentencing, leaving little opportunity to prepare an appropriate defense for a capital case, and has ten days to render a decision. If the sentence is confirmed, the court forwards the case to the Council of State.145 Cuba’s reliance on the Council of State—an entity presided over by President Castro, selected by the Cuban National Assembly, and considered the “supreme representation of the Cuban State” under Cuban law—as the ultimate arbiter in death penalty cases effectively undercuts any appearance of judicial independence. If the Council of State does not render a decision within ten days, then the Criminal Procedure Code creates a presumption that the body did not approve a commutation.146 This procedure would allow an execution to proceed even if the Council of State never reviewed the case.
In May 1995 President Fidel Castro told the human rights delegation led by France-Libertés and joined by Human Rights Watch that he intended to introduce a bill in the National Assembly for the abolition of the death penalty. At that time, he conditioned his action on developments in the economy and the U.S. economic embargo, apparently unrelated issues. But on September 30, 1997, the Cuban delegation to the United Nations reported to the Secretary General that “given the circumstances which [Cuba] has experienced and continues to experience, the total abolition of the penalty is impracticable.”147 In March 1999, Cuba adopted the death penalty for two new crimes, international drug trafficking and the corruption of minors.148
Cuba has not provided figures on its total prison population, much less the number of death row inmates. In March 1999, Cuba announced that a Havana court had sentenced Raúl Ernesto Cruz Leon to death for terrorism, based on his alleged involvement in bombing Cuban hotels.149 Cuban prosecutors sentenced a second Salvadoran, Otto René Rodríguez Llerena, to death in April 1999.150 In January 1999, a Havana court sentenced Sergio Antonio Duarte Scull and Carlos Rafael Pelaez Prieto to death for the murders of two Italian tourists in September 1998.151 In March 1999, the provincial court in Granma announced the executions of two men, José Luis Osorio Zamora and Francisco Javier Chávez Palacios.152 Cuba re
portedly executed two prisoners, Emilio Betancourt Bonne and Jorge LuisSánchez Guilarte, in May 1998.153 Human Rights Watch interviews with former political prisoners reveal that up until early 1998, Cuba had several death row prisoners held in at least three maximum-security prisons. The ex-prisoners, who usually were confined in cells alongside the death row inmates, also believed that Cuba carried out executions in 1997.
Human Rights Watch received credible information that a Cuban firing squad executed Daniel Reyes, an inmate in the Las Tunas Provincial Prison, on October 29, 1997. Following his death, one of the prison guards who had participated in the execution apparently told the eight other death row prisoners gruesome details about the death and threatened them with similar treatment. Las Tunas prison staff apparently carry out executions on a nearby hill where guards tie prisoners to a large wooden post. Several government vehicles reportedly shine their headlights on the prisoner as the firing squad carries out the execution.154 Cuba reportedly executed another prisoner at the Agüica Prison in Matanzas in January 1997. A political prisoner confined there at the time recalled that the executed prisoner’s first name was Gilbert, that he had been convicted of murder, and that he was blind.155 Cuba executed Francisco Dayson Dhruyet, convicted for the murder of his wife, in December 1996.156 We also received reports of possible executions at the Combinado del Este Prison in Havana in 1996 and 1997. The executions by firing squad reportedly take place on a hill known as Las Canteras, which is visible from some parts of the prison, from about 8:00 until 9:00 in the evening.157 At this writing, Cuban exile Humberto Real Suárez, who was sentenced to death in 1996, remains on death row at the Cerámica Roja Prison in Camagüey. As of February 1998, five other prisoners reportedly remained on the Agüica death row, includingLázaro Pino López. Erik Martínez reportedly was on the Las Tunas Provincial Prison’s death row.
Reportedly there are no prisoners remaining under the death sentence in Cuba:
The last recorded executions were on April 11, 2003, The case concerned three men who were found guilty of having hijacked a Regla ferry. The hijack occurred on April 4 2003; during the incident, the plaintiffs were alleged to have threatened to kill passengers, demanding sufficient fuel to travel to the United States.
It should be noted that, since nobody was killed during the commission of this crime, it would not have been a death penalty issue in the United States. Cuba includes a number of offenses against the state as capital:
National legislation provides for death penalty for murder, threatening to commit murder, aggravated rape, terrorism, hijacking, piracy, drug trafficking and manufacturing, espionage, and treason are examples of offences meriting the criminal death penalty. The typical method is execution by firing squad.