Farinas ends hunger strike

Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas ended his hunger strike yesterday after 134 days. Farinas decided to end his strike after the Cuban government said it would release political prisoners rounded up in the “Black Spring” crackdown of 2003. Get well soon. [link]

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Insulza stepping out

A week after his reelection to a second (and final) five-year term as Secretary General of the OAS, Chilean José Miguel Insulza is coming out swinging. First he demanded Venezuela release the head of an opposition television channel jailed for insulting the president, then he requested Cuba release its infirm political prisoners, then he urged the FARC to release all its hostages, not just the handful released this week.

For a guy who by some lights tended to tread softly on matters near and dear to the hearts of Chávez and his allies, this is kind of an about face. What happened?

Basically, politics.

Presidents gunning for a second term generally need to avoid pissing off voters. The OAS has 35 voting members, 15 of which are in Chávez’ Petrocaribe oil give-away program and two others of which are in his ALBA tree fort. So angering Chávez or his allies could easily have meant thumbs down for Insulza’s second term, or at the very least a loud enough tantrum to make the other OAS countries put their support behind a less controversial candidate.

(If there’s one thing Chávez and his allies are good at, it’s tantrums.)

Now that he’s slipped quietly into his second term, however, Insulza has five years ahead of him and no chance for another reelection, so he can take aim at whatever he likes, free from the bonds of electoral politics. Maybe he’ll try to build himself a legacy, the kind that evaded him during his first term. It would be wonderful to see OAS bodies turn both barrels on the human rights violations of some of the larger, more influential member states, like Mexico and Brazil (or, ahem, the United States).

Fortunately for human rights victims in the Americas, Insulza now has nothing to lose.

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Unclear on the concept

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa is actually going to do it: He’s ordered his foreign ministry to prepare a report on human rights abuses in the United States, in retaliation for similar reports released regularly by the U.S. State Department.

Correa had threatened to do this when the State Department report on Ecuador was first released. Now I guess Chávez egged him on sufficiently during their recent bilateral meeting that he’s pulling the trigger.

When these reports are thorough and more or less even-handed (like the lengthy one produced by China this year) they can be pretty damn interesting. After all, from its treatment of minor drug offenders, illegal immigrants, and “illegal enemy combatants,” to its invasion of other countries and use of trigger-happy private military contractors unaccountable to domestic courts, the U.S. has a lot to answer for.

So what’s the report going to look like?

I’ve ordered the foreign ministry… to prepare a report on the human rights situation in the United States and denounce the existence of political prisoners, five Cubans who received only a pantomime, a monstrosity of a trial.

The Cuban Five? Really? You have to go and beat that old, worn out drum? The poor, innocent Cubans who were also international spies? Aside from being tenuous, it’s not even Ecuador’s fight, and it completely misses the point of human rights reports, which is that they criticize countries for the way they treat their own citizens. Like, you know, when they jail journalists for insulting government officials.

Color me disappointed.

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Cuba’s Ladies in White got busted up by a government-sponsored mob when they tried to march yesterday for the release of political prisoners. Amnesty International called on the government to protect the Ladies in White. [link]

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Only in Cuba could a two-vehicle accident leave seven dead and 40 injured. The accident took place yesterday when two trucks carrying passengers collided. Because of the scarcity of all forms of transportation in Cuba, people pack into old cargo trucks to get from place to place. [link]

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Orlando Zapata Tamayo, RIP

Death is a pretty decent indication that a hunger-striker is not making things up. Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo was arrested in a political crackdown in 2003 and was named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. He had been charged with “‘desacato’, ‘desordenes publicos‘, ‘public disorder’, and ‘desobediencia‘.” He went on a hunger strike in December to protest regular beatings and terrible prison conditions. He died yesterday of starvation.

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The Doctor will sue you now

Eight Cuban doctors are suing Venezuela and Cuba for what they call conditions of “slavery.” The doctors – who were brought to Venezuela to work in the Barrio Adentro public health projects of the Venezuelan government – say they were forced to work 24-hour shifts and see up to 80 patients per day.

“They kept us under constant supervision, they didn’t let us go out, not even to a restaurant or to have friendships. They even deprived me of food,” said Frank Vargas, a 33-year-old General Practitioner and Havana native.

Vargas said he arrived to Venezuela in April of 2008. After working for three months in communities in the Zulia state, he fled to Colombia in July of that year because he couldn’t stand the extreme work conditions. He arrived to Miami in August of 2009.

(Apparently no one informed the good doctor that you’re supposed to flee away from Colombia.)

The article in the Miami Herald doesn’t specify, but I assume the Cubans are bringing civil suit under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which is often used to sue entities who commit human rights violations outside the U.S. In this case, the entity would be the Venezuelan government and its oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA), which holds substantial assets in the U.S., including the Citgo chain of gas stations and refineries.

Should the Cubans manage to prove their case, they might have a shot at getting some of the $450 million they’re requesting. In 2008, a judge ordered the Curacao Drydock Company to pay former Cuban workers $80 million after the workers claimed they had been sent to do slave labor for the company in payment of a debt owed it by the Cuban government.

(h/t The Devil’s Excrement.)

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Boligarchs’ fall

The New York Times’ always-excellent Simon Romero has written a great piece on the recent crack-downs and shake-ups in Venezuela’s Bolivarian power structure. Magnates who mysteriously became billionaires under Chávez are being arrested by the secret police and having their property confiscated.

Mr. Fernández rose from obscurity to put together a web of 270 companies in industries as diverse as tuna-fishing and banking, amassing a fortune of about $1.6 billion by 2005, according to study by the Caracas affiliate of the KPMG accounting firm. He thrived in rural Venezuela, where Mr. Chávez’s dominance goes largely unchallenged, acquiring an interest in a pro-government newspaper in Barinas, a state that is a Chávez family bastion.

Still, Mr. Fernández remained an enigma as his wealth increased. Today, he resides in a military intelligence holding cell.

At the same time, Chávez is welcoming more and more Cuban “advisers” into the country, presumably to beef up the government’s domestic spy capabilities.

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Who’s the best paid of them all?

Of the top 12 highest paid presidents in the region, who do you think is number one? OK, fine, Barack Obama, who makes about US$400k annually. What about number two? Colombian news magazine Portafolio says it’s Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom, who makes about US$220k annually presiding over a country of 12 million people.

At the bottom of the list is Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who supposedly makes $22,200 a year, which is not enough. And around about the middle is Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who makes about US$90k, which is surely not true. Canada’s Stephen Harper didn’t even make the list, which has to be a mistake (or maybe because he’s only a prime minister?). And finally, Cuba’s Raul Castro supposedly makes only $30 a month, which is not a big deal when you already own an entire country.

(link: “Los 12 presidentes que mas ganan en América”)

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Here to fix the leak

Source: BBC

Cuba would not top anyone’s list of go-to countries in matters of successful and efficient industrialization. So why is Venezuela enlisting the help of Cuba’s technology minister, Ramiro Valdés, as an energy consultant? Supposedly, this representative of the impoverished, oppressive nation is going to help Venezuela with its roving power outages.

But think about it: What is Cuba really good at? From the BBC:

Communications expert Antonio Pasqualli pointed out the role that Valdés has played in controlling communication and the Internet.

“Two years ago, this man stated before Congress that ‘the Internet is an invention of the West for the extermination of humanity,’” the expert said, recalling the restrictions to Internet access that reign in Cuba.

According to a source in Semana, he’s also one of the founders of Cuba’s G2 domestic spy agency.  Curious that Chávez would hire a guy like this just a few days after calling Twitter “an instrument of terrorism.”

UPDATE: More on Valdés: “To sum up, a military officer, with a talent for repression and censorship, is to advise the Venezuelan government on electricity. Let there be light.”

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    • The Nation has a long, wonky, wonderful article on Mexican maize cultivation, the effects of NAFTA, and the dangers of genetically-modified seeds. Author Peter Canby backs up his excellent writing with piles and piles of meticulous research. Not to be missed. [link, via SM] (Image from Joel Penner.)

    • Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas ended his hunger strike yesterday after 134 days. Farinas decided to end his strike after the Cuban government said it would release political prisoners rounded up in the "Black Spring" crackdown of 2003. Get well soon. [link]

    • The Uruguayan selection, which has made it to the quarter finals of the World Cup, just received a shipment of half a ton of fine cuts of beef for the mother of all asados in preparation for a contest against Ghana on Friday: "450 kilos of lomo, 200 of entrecot, 75 of vacío, 75 of colita de cuadril, 150 of ojo de bife and 50 kg of picaña." [link]

    • Hitmen have assassinated the PRI candidate for governor of Tamaulipas State, Rodolfo Torre Cantú. Torre was gunned down along with six others at about 10:30 this morning on a highway on the way to a campaign event. Drug mafias are assumed to be responsible. [link]

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    • Two Brazilian ranchers were sentenced to 30 years in prison apiece for ordering the killing of an environmentalist nun: "Prosecutors said the pair offered to pay a gunman $25,000 to kill the 73-year-old [Dorothy] Stang because she had prevented them from stealing a piece of land that the government had granted to a group of poor farmers." [link]

    • This video of a kidnapping and car chase in Mexico is notable mainly for the bad-assitude of the TV journalists who were on this like white on rice. Well done, gentlemen.

    • The Economist takes a peak at the Mockus phenomenon in Colombia: "His moustacheless beard gives him the air of a Baltic pastor... He is financing his campaign with a bank overdraft. His supporters rely on Facebook and make their own posters; street vendors sell unofficial campaign T-shirts." [link]

    • Some cruise lines will cease traveling to Antarctica after this cruise season, as a ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil goes into effect next year. The ban came after a 2007 incident when a Gap Adventures ship got punctured by ice and sank, causing a mess. [link]