Saturday, May 18, 2013

Babalú blog nears 10th anniversary

Alberto de la Cruz

Babalú, touted as the world's most popular Cuban-American blog in English, marks its 10th anniversary in June.
I spoke to the blog's managing editor, Alberto de la Cruz, the other day in Miami as part of a series of interviews that I'm doing in South Florida, Washington and Havana.
Watch my interview with de la Cruz here or see transcript below:

Question: How do you see the democracy movement in Cuba?

Answer: Right now I think the democracy movement is probably as strong as it’s ever been.
The opposition on the island has been coming together. Different groups are starting to communicate with each other. They’re starting to create a coalition of democracy activists who are coming together.

And obviously if you really want to gauge how the democracy movement in Cuba has grown, one easy way to do that is to see reaction of the Castro regime. And the almost 7,000 arrests that took place just last year is I think an incredible indication that the Cuban government is worried about what’s going on with the dissidents. They're worried about the opposition and they’re cracking down, and I think that is probably the best evidence there is that the opposition, that the democracy movement in Cuba, is growing exponentially.

Question: Should the U.S. government be doing anything differently to support democracy activists in Cuba?

Answer: Well, I'm a strong supporter of the current sanctions that are in place and I'm a strong opponent to the current Obama policy of people-to-people contacts and the cultural exchanges because in reality there is no cultural exchange.

American tourists who travel from the United States to Cuba are being shown a Potemkin village. They're being taken to restaurants. They're being taken to schools. They're being taken to art schools and to shows that are all run by the Cuban government. They're not really contacting the dissidents. They're not helping the dissident movement. They're not really promoting democracy. They can't. They're not allowed to.

I believe that sanctions are really the only thing that the United States can do from our side and putting pressure on the Castro government to let go of its tyrannical grip on the island. To allow elections without the support of the rest of the world, which has which many of them have business interests in Cuba, it's a difficult task. But it comes down to one of what is right and doing what is necessary. At the end of the day, Cuba will be freed by Cubans, and it's up to the Cubans on the island and the Cubans who are exiled to come together and bring freedom to Cuba.
But the United States, the role I believe the United States would be to help facilitate that, and to help that movement. I don't really believe in – I read an interesting editorial written by Juan Abreu who made a pretty strong argument for an American invasion. Right now that's (interview is interrupted as a plane passes overhead).

I read an interesting article that I ended up translating putting on Babalú by Juan Abreu, a Cuban exiled in Spain, who, he basically said if you're against an American invasion of Cuba, it's akin to being for Cubans being under a dictatorship. And it's sort of a stretch on the logic, but it sort of also makes you look at it from a different perspective.

This is not really about an invasion. This is about the Castro dictatorship. And going back to my original point, I think the American government, the best thing you can do in my opinion, and I'm sure there's other things they can do, but right now, thinking about it right now, the best thing they can do it is continue to support and continue to support, provide even stronger support for the dissidents on the island, for the movements that are going on on the island, for the exiles that are working hard for freedom on the island, and not to give any concessions whatsoever to the Castro regime.

Question: Could the U.S. government run its democracy programs more efficiently?

Answer: Well, I'm not an expert on the democracy programs and government-sponsored USAID or anything of that nature. But I can, I mean, simple logic would dictate that the best people to reach Cubans and to deal with Cubans and to help Cubans are other Cubans.

I mean, a perfect example of that is Alan Gross, who has, you know, for over two years has been held hostage in Cuba. It's pretty difficult to send someone like Alan Gross, a North Amer- you know an American, a Jewish-American. Doesn't speak Spanish. Sending him into Cuba to carry out these types of operations, you're sort of almost setting him up for failure.

And you know, but it goes back to your original point where you have these large inside-the-Beltway NGOs that are just machines, and I really don't see the logic or how they can deem that to be effective. We're not talking about a country that people can freely enter and leave and you don't have an issue, like the issues you have in Cuba. In Cuba, you have to, it's almost, you have to have someone who can go in and get out without getting into trouble and I'm sorry, not to disparage Alan Gross or his work or his abilities, but he's at a severe disadvantage in a country where he doesn't look like anybody there and he doesn't speak the language.

Question: What is your reaction to USAID’s plans to cut the budget for Cuba democracy programs from $20 million per year to $15 million per year?

Answer: I was disheartened by it. I think this reaction or that decision comes from the top of the government, from our State Department, from the White House, who I believe have an incorrect idea that the best way to deal with the Castro dictatorship is to not offend them, and obviously the Castro dictatorship is complaining about democracy programs.

And I imagine the State Department and the White House is trying to find a way to, I don't want to use the word appease, but it does come down to appeasement, which is - we're not really trying to undermine you, let's work together, let's work something out - which I think the 53-year-long history of the Castro regime pretty much shows that it does not react well or does not react favorably when weakness is shown.

I've always, in my writings over the years, I've likened them, the Castro regime, to basically a mafia. It's run like an international crime organization. You have your top. You have the family boss. Then you have your lieutenants, you have your capos, and everyone has to kick up to the boss, and even when you see the so-called corruptions sweeps, where officials are arrested, the reason they're arrested is because they were making money without kicking money up to the Castros, because they were doing business outside. So you really, you'd never go to a mafia and say, hey, we're not going to arrest so many of you, we're gonna kind of go easy on you. Why don't you just stop being so criminal? It doesn’t work.

They see weakness, they're just going to take advantage of it. And that's what's happening. And I’m afraid that's going to be the end result of this policy is, the more you cut back, the more the Castro regime's going to take, and I have never seen them give anything in return for nothing. So I don't see how they're going to you know, I don't see why they would believe this is going to, you know, be different.

Everybody likes to talk about the embargo and Einstein's definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over again and waiting for another result, expecting another result. I look at people that advocate engagement and business with the Castro regime and I'm like you know, that's the definition of insanity. Europe's been doing it for 20-some odd years. Canada's been doing it. And the Castro regime's only gotten richer and more repressive.

You know, what makes you think pouring more money, as someone once told me, you know you pour all this money into it, they won't know what to do. I've never heard of a dictatorship being toppled because they were drowning in cash. So it's, it's a policy that I think history shows will not work and not only will it not work, it will only serve to entrench them further and feed the machine of repression there.

Question: How did you get started with the blog, which is one of the most popular Cuba blogs?

Answer: I like to say we're the most popular Cuban-American blog in the world because we're read by Cuban-Americans and if you're a Cuban somewhere else you're no longer a Cuban-American, are you? I like to throw that in. We are probably, I think it's probably pretty safe to say we are the most popular English-language Cuba-centric blog or website on the internet. 2013 happens to be our 10th anniversary. In June, it will be our 10th year, which in Internet years is an eternity, for a website to have lasted this long.

The website was founded in 2003 by Val Prieto, and I came on board in 2007. And in 2010, I became the managing editor. And it is a labor of love. It's, you know, people say, is it a non-profit? I say, no, it's a pro-cost. It costs us money, but we do it. It's a labor of love. We do it because we're all, most of us there are Cuban-Americans. We all grew up in exiled families, and it's how we keep our heritage going. It's a lot of work. It's a lot of hours, obviously. It's not something, none of us make a living off of, and have no interest in making a living off of it. We do it because we love freedom, because we love Cuba.

We love the Cuba of our parents and I think amongst all of us, we love the United States for giving our parents freedom and allowing individuals such as myself who was born here to be born a free person. So it's a basically a Camero, it's a very strange combination. But we realize we're the first and last generation of children of Cuban exiles that will experience this and we're happy that we're able to keep it alive and keep it going on the internet.

Question: What will Cuba be like when Babalú celebrates its 20th anniversary?

Answer: I'm certainly hoping that we'll have our Spanish version being run out of Cuba, in a free Cuba. And I hope it won't be for our 20th anniversary. It'll be for our 11th anniversary. But I don't want to fall into the trap of next year in Cuba. My parents were saying that, I grew up hearing and listening to that every single year. So it's all we can do is keep working, keep praying and keep helping those who are looking for freedom. Eventually everything must fall, so you know, we will continue to be a voice in the United States in English for the freedom fighters in Cuba, for the democracy activists, because as long as there's one of them standing outside, getting beat up, getting arrested, we have to help them. We have to promote their voice. We have to make sure the rest of the world hears them.

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