Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Fidel Castro, bags of nickels and more

Castro's birthplace in Birán
I've been working on a project about the legacy of Fidel Castro. I've interviewed a range of Cubans, including some who joined Castro on the Granma yacht when it journeyed from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 carrying 82 fighters, 21 of whom were killed in battle after reaching the island.
While in Cuba working on the Castro project, I did some reporting for an unrelated story published this week by the South Florida Sun Sentinel (See "Plundering America: The Cuban Criminal Pipeline").
Pedro Sevcec
On Tuesday night, Pedro Sevcec asked me to talk about the Sun Sentinel project on his show, "A Fondo," which is broadcast on Channel 41 in Miami.
The show was behind schedule and time was short, so Sevcec asked me to keep my answers short. Then I think I kept my answers so short that I barely answered any of his questions. But anyway, Sevcec wanted to know more about my encounter in Cuba with a man named Angel Eduardo Mendoza, accused of stealing $180,000 in nickels from the Federal Reserve in 2004.
Mendoza, 52, is wanted in the U.S. I caught up with him in Santa Fe, near Havana. He impressed me as being someone who was generally honest and hard-working, but one day came upon bags and bags of nickels and could not resist the temptation to steal them.
He was a truck driver and his employer had been hired to haul the nickels. Mendoza said he had just had a dispute with his employer over money. He was upset and decided to swipe the nickels, but had to return to Cuba to escape prosecution and left the money behind.

Once back on the island, Cuban authorities sent him to jail for nearly two years. He now works as a lifeguard in Santa Fe.
Photo: Interpol
On Tuesday's program, Sevcec said that Cuba must be a great spot for fugitives. I told him that I didn't think Cuba was a paradise for wanted criminals, at least not in the case of Mendoza.
Mendoza makes very little money and deals with the same shortages and problems that ordinary Cubans face every day. He said he sometimes looks out across the water, toward the horizon, and wishes he were back in the U.S. He said:
I’m tired of this. I feel alone. I’d like to go back and work like I did before. I’d like to go back, my friend.
Mendoza impressed me as sincere. He didn't seem like a hard-core criminal, but rather someone who made a big mistake and regrets it.
Maybe I'm just a trusting soul.
I also believed Cuban officials who told me that they take crime seriously and don't want Cuba to be a haven for fugitives.
One official told me that if they detect a suspected fugitive from the U.S., they ask American authorities for evidence of the person's crime. They say U.S. authorities usually acknowledge their requests, but don't give any details about the supposed crimes.
Since the fugitives, in many cases, haven't been convicted of any crimes, Cuban authorities say it would not be right to jail them in Cuba or return them to the U.S. without any proof of their crimes. And so unless they commit new crimes on the island, officials respect their right to live there.
If the U.S. and Cuba can manage to develop a more trusting relationship, perhaps they will eventually cooperate and communicate on issues of fugitives, and extradite individuals when warranted.
But the two countries aren't going to untangle more than 50 years of hostility overnight. My guess is that it's going to take years, not months. Many obstacles to normal relations remain.
Sen. Marco Rubio is indignant over the Obama administration's handling of negotiations with Cuba. And he said there are many unanswered questions about Cuba's release of 53 political dissidents.
Sen. Bob Menendez said Tuesday that while the list of 53 prisoners was created in June or July...
... some of the 53 were released well before June, fourteen – to be exact – were released 6 to 8 months before the December 17th announcement, and one was released over a year ago.
Menendez and others say it's also troubling that Cuba continues to arrest dissidents and human rights activists (See Jan. 12 letter from Menendez to Obama).
It seems clear that Cuba is not going tolerate political dissent, particularly while U.S. government-financed organizations continue to finance dissidents on the island. But Sen. John Kerry expects the human rights situation to eventually improve. He said in a Jan. 12 letter to Patrick Leahy:
As the President said, we do not expect that the changes to U.S. policy will effect a transformation of Cuban society overnight. We are convinced, however, the old policy of isolation did not achieve its objectives, and that a new policy will more effectively promote our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century.
Alejandro Armengol
Cuban-American journalist and author Alejandro Armengol urged that the Obama administration continue pushing for a more sensible Cuba policy. He wrote today:
From the distant CIA plans to kill Fidel Castro, over and over again in this country has been repeated a similar scheme, difficult to understand outside the United States: the use of extensive resources and millions in funds with the objective of achieving nothing. What often been interpreted as clumsiness or pure inefficiency has been nothing but the appearance of a project destined to fail. Only a nation that has a budget of millions and millions of dollars, including some destined to waste, can such a task be performed. In the case of Cuba, Washington has done it successfully for decades. The consequence is that an "anti-Castroism" has emerged that is more of an economic commitment than a political ideal, largely fueled by taxpayer funds.
President Obama is trying to break a model repeated ad nauseam by both Republicans and Democrats, regarding the Cuban issue. This refreshing air is necessary. Regarding the Cuban case, they should must end the deception that they are "doing something" to overthrow the government in Havana when in fact they are not. It could be, it is very possible, that this improvement in ties between the two countries will not produce short-term advances in human rights and fundamental freedoms. There's no reason to expect that this be the case.
Armengol suggested that we ought to give the U.S. and Cuba some time to work out their problems. He wrote:
For now, we must never forget that the U.S. always responds to its interests as a nation, as any State. One can be for or against. If at one time Bush left it all in the hands "of the Good God," why try now to continue with stagnation...Trying to talk with demons is dangerous, but apparently the line to Heaven is still busy, despite advances in telephone use.
Note to readers: The first version of this story incorrectly stated that most of the rebels who arrived on Granma were killed in battle. In fact, 21 were killed during the first week after arrival and 21 were taken prisoner, according to Arsenio García Davila, who joined Fidel Castro and 80 other expeditionaries on the Granma.

3 comments:

hvd69 said...

Hi Tracey,
you write: "Granma yacht (...) carrying 82 fighters, most of whom were killed in battle after reaching the island"
Are you sure about that assertion? How did you calculate? Is it not that 21 died in December 1956, another 5 were killed in the course of the two years until Batista fled and the remaining two thirds of Granma expeditionaries lived to see Fidel's victory? Around a dozen Granmistas should still be alive today.
Regards, Heiko

Tracey Eaton said...

Hi Heiko - Thank you for your questions and for this information. I've read conflicting accounts about how many fighters were killed in battle, and then when I spoke to participants in Cuba I heard yet another version. I'll research this question a bit and try to correct and clarify what I wrote in the coming days. Take care, Tracey

Tracey Eaton said...

Pardon my delayed response, Heiko. Yes, you are right - 21 were killed in December 1956. I went through my notes and saw that Arsenio García Davila had told me the 21 were killed during the first week after landing. Another 21, he said, were taken prisoner. Thanks, Heiko, for pointing out the mistake. Best, Tracey