Cuba’s Government Targets Social Media Influencers

YouTubers Have Faced Police Harassment and Death Threats

Credit: Human Rights Watch

Cuba’s government has a well-documented history of harassing dissidents, journalists, and opposition party members. Now it has a new target: social media influencers.

On October 14, police arrived at the homes of four Cuban YouTubers about to participate in an online forum discussing Cuban politics. Two—Jancel Moreno and Maykel Castillo—were detained, Iliana Hernández and others had their internet cut. One, 21-year-old Ruhama Fernández, had to hide to participate in the discussion by phone.

Ruhama Fernández

The incident was just the latest example of the type of harassment influencers have faced.

Take the case of Fernández, who started her YouTube channel just ten months ago.

In Fernández’s videos, which are often critical of the government, she discusses current events and interviews people about their daily lives or their views on politics.

Soon after she started making videos, her friends began receiving citations from the police, she told Human Rights Watch. Officers would appear outside their homes and their parents’ workplaces. “They wanted to know who I was, where I lived, if I had a boyfriend.”

People began stopping her brother on the street—sometimes police, but often people dressed as civilians. “They tell him I should stop doing what I’m doing, or I might disappear.”

In April, she received her first police citation. At the station an officer told her she should stop posting videos, or else they could prosecute her for “counter-revolutionary” activities.

In July, authorities forced her internet provider to cut the connection at her home. Fernández received internet access through an informal network run by one of her neighbors—a common practice in Cuba where internet access is extremely limited. The neighbor said that police threatened to shut down the entire connection if she continued supplying Fernández.

In August, authorities denied Fernández a passport to travel to the United States to visit her parents. An Interior Ministry official told her she could not leave the country for “reasons of public interest,” a justification measure frequently invoked to bar dissidents from traveling.

In September, after being questioned a second time by police, she posted a video detailing her experience. Days later, she received a call from an unknown number threatening to “finish” her off if she left her house.

Like others, Fernández says she is undeterred. “Now that I’ve told the truth, there’s no turning back.”

Trump registered his trademark in Cuba in 2008 to build hotels, casinos and golf courses

Despite earlier promises in Miami that he would not do business in Cuba until the island was “free,” Donald Trump applied in 2008 to register his Trump trademark in the Caribbean nation for a variety of commercial activities, including investing in real estate, hotels, casinos and golf courses.

A search of the Cuban Industrial Property Office database shows that Donald J. Trump hired a Cuban lawyer, Leticia Laura Bermúdez Benítez, to submit the application in October 2008. The address listed was that of the Trump Organization: 725 Fifth Avenue, New York, 10022.

As is common in Cuba, where red tape is rampant, the trademark was not approved until much later, until March 2010. It expired in 2018, well into Trump’s presidency.

According to a description of his application, appearing both in the official Cuban registry website and in a 2009 bulletin, the trademark was related to “investment in real estate,” “beauty contests,” “golf courses,” “casino game services,” “montage of television programs,” and “hotel services,” among many other activities listed.

While President Trump might have broken his word about not seeking business in Cuba, given during a 1999 speech at the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, he did not violate the U.S. embargo against Cuba in filing the application or hiring the Cuban lawyer. The Cuban Assets Control Regulations, the Treasury Department’s rules to implement the trade embargo, include exceptions to allow the filing for trademarks and the payment of local agents to do so.

The Herald could not immediately contact Bermúdez Benítez. The White House referred questions to the Trump Organization. The latter also did not respond to a request for comment.

Hundreds of American companies, including Netflix, Disney, Apple, Microsoft, and Starbucks, rushed to register their trademarks in Cuba after the two countries re-established diplomatic relations in 2015. At the time, several law firms encouraged their clients to do so because “Cuba is a ‘first to file jurisdiction,’ which means a Cuban trademark registration will be awarded to the first applicant, even if that applicant has not previously used the mark,” according to a client notice issued by the law firm Hunton & Williams.

President Trump has imposed several new sanctions on the Cuban government and strengthened the embargo, citing human rights violations and the regime’s support to Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. His strong rhetoric against the government in Havana has given him the crucial support of many Cuban American voters in Florida.

But his flirtations with business on the island spanned decades.

In 1998, a Trump company, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, paid a consulting firm around $68,000 for a business trip to Cuba on its behalf, in a likely violation of the embargo at the time, according to a Newsweek report.

More recently, in 2013, executives from the Trump Organization visited Cuba to explore investing in a golf course east of Havana, in an area known as Bello Monte, Bloomberg Businessweek reported. And the CEO of a Spanish hotel chain declared that the Trump Organization was looking into establishing hotels on the island when Trump was a presidential candidate in 2016.

His former presidential campaign manager, Paul Manafort, also traveled to Cuba in January 2017, according to a Senate report.

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Ex-Trump campaign manager Manafort went to Cuba to meet ‘Castro’s son,’ Senate report says

In early January 2017, when the Cuban government was looking for insights into the newly elected President Donald Trump, his former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, traveled to the island to meet with “Castro’s son,” according to a U.S. Senate report.

The recently released Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election states that Manafort claimed the meeting was arranged by Brad Zackson, the former exclusive broker for the properties of Trump’s late father, Fred Trump.

Manafort left the Trump campaign in August 2016, mired in scandal over his undisclosed work as a lobbyist for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine. As a result of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, Manafort was sentenced to more than seven years in prison for tax and bank fraud. He is currently serving his sentence under house arrest.

But in early January 2017, Manafort did not know that the FBI was investigating him.

On Jan. 15, just days before Trump’s inauguration, Manafort emailed Kathleen T. McFarland, about to be confirmed as the deputy national security adviser in the new administration, the Mueller report says.

“I have some important information I want to share that I picked up on my travels over the last month,” wrote Manafort, who later told the FBI that the email, never answered by McFarland, had to do with Cuba.

The Senate report adds that Manafort told the FBI that the email was related “to an effort that Manafort undertook with Brad Zackson, who had arranged a meeting between Manafort and ‘Castro’s son’ in Havana.” The report refers to a redacted source, “showing Manafort and Zackson on same flight booking to Havana.”

A sentence in the Mueller report offers the only detail about the trip’s possible dates: “On January 8, 2017, hours after returning to the United States from a trip to Cuba, Manafort flew to Madrid, Spain.”

It is not clear if the meeting with one of the Castros ever took place nor his intentions for visiting a country under a U.S. embargo. Neither Manafort’s attorneys nor Zackson responded to questions sent by the Miami Herald. But the Mueller report notes that after Trump’s victory, Manafort said he preferred not to take a job in the new administration and “monetize his campaign position to generate business given his familiarity and relationship with Trump.”

“Manafort appeared to follow that plan, as he traveled to the Middle East, Cuba, South Korea, Japan and China and was paid to explain what a Trump presidency would entail,” the report adds.

The timing of the Cuba trip seemed about right. Worried about the prospects of the fragile “thaw” sought by President Barack Obama, Cuban officials began to discreetly communicate with their contacts in the United States to understand what Trump might do about Cuba and how to get his ear.

The Intelligence Committee report does not clarify the identity of “Castro’s son,” but it is most likely Col. Alejandro Castro Espin, the son of former President Raul Castro. Castro Espin was in charge of the secret negotiations with the Obama administration to exchange prisoners and reestablish diplomatic relations.

The sons of Fidel Castro, who died in 2016, do not have such political influence, although one, Antonio Castro, is known for his lavish lifestyle and foreign connections.

Government orders curfew in Havana and other strict measures to fight coronavirus spread

HAVANA – Cuban authorities ordered a strict 15-day lockdown of Havana on Tuesday seeking to stamp out the low-level but persistent spread of the novel coronavirus in the capital.

Aggressive anti-virus measures including closing down air travel have virtually eliminated COVID-19 in Cuba with the exception of Havana, where cases have surged from a handful a day to dozens daily over the last month.

Starting Tuesday, Havana is under a 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. Most stores are barred from selling to shoppers from outside the immediate neighborhood in order to discourage people from moving around the city.

Some Havana residents complained that the measures were complicating the already difficult task of buying food in a city stricken by constant shortages and endless lines for a limited supply of basic goods.

“It’s a good cause, getting rid of all of this (coronavirus), but in the end they aren’t going to get rid of the lines,” said Josuel Suárez, a 26-year-old engineer. “The situation is already difficult, and on top of that these restrictive measures, and people have to eat, to resolve their problems.”

Others welcomed the tighter control.

“Many people don’t pay attention to medical advice. This is how we’re going to resolve this situation, which isn’t easy,” said Rosa Rojas, an 80-year-old homemaker. ‘’I go out because I need to, but there are people in the street with no reason, drinking rum and hanging out in parks without a face mask.”

Police stationed on every road leaving Havana are supposed to stop everyone who doesn’t have a special permit to travel, meant to be issued only in extraordinary circumstances. Some provinces that saw no new cases for weeks have begun detecting them in recent days, often linked to travelers from Havana.

The start of in-person classes was also indefinitely delayed in Havana, even as schools open normally in the rest of Cuba.

The island of 11 million people has reported slightly more than 4,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, with fewer than 100 deaths, one of the lowest rates in the region during the pandemic.

The government made face masks obligatory in the early stages of its pandemic response and in the first months of the crisis police aggressively fined and even jailed people for violations.

That stance slackened somewhat as Havana moved out of the first, strictest phase of lockdown in July, public transportation restarted and people returned to work. Cases began to climb, and the capital province returned to phase zero last month.

But the measures failed to brake the rise of coronavirus infections, as authorities bemoaned widespread violations of requirements including wearing face masks, avoiding large gatherings and maintaining social distance.

The government announced last week that for at least 15 days the capital would be placed under the strictest measures to date. They include fines of up to $125 per violation, more than triple the average monthly wage.

“We are going to demand people follow the rules with a lot of rigor so that our country sees the results it deserves,” Dr. Francisco Durán, the country’s head of epidemiology, said Tuesday morning.

U.S. tells Venezuelan opposition that talk of military intervention is ‘magical realism’

In a harsh response to the increasing division in the Venezuelan opposition, U.S. special envoy Elliott Abrams said that one opposition leader’s latest comments on a potential American military intervention to solve the country’s crisis reminded him of Gabriel García Márquez’s “magical realism.”

María Corina Machado, a well-known figure in the Venezuelan opposition, published a letter on Saturday criticizing interim president Juan Guaidó for the many “lost opportunities” to oust Venezuela’s strongman Nicolás Maduro, and opposing Guaidó’s latest call for unity in boycotting the upcoming parliamentary elections.

She argued that Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly, did not do enough to trigger a constitutional article that would make foreign intervention legitimate.

“I always suggested to you that the departure of the Maduro regime required building an option of force,” she wrote. “You have consistently refused to approve Article 187.11, which would be part of the legal framework for international support and an unequivocal message, both to our international allies and to the regime itself.”

But in an interview on Monday on whether the U.S. government had given any indication to Machado that it would provide military assistance, Abrams told Colombian TV station NTN24 that her remarks reminded him of iconic Colombian writer “Gabriel García Marquez and the famous magical realism.”

The U.S. diplomat said Machado wanted “a magical rescue.”

“What it seems to us the opposition needs to do is the very hard work of organizing opposition under a very repressive and brutal regime, and Maria Corina, seems to me, is calling for a kind of magical Plan B that is going to solve all of the problems of Venezuela,” the U.S. diplomat said. “And who is going to do the solving? Foreigners who intervene. I don’t think that’s a sensible response to the problem that Venezuela faces and to the need for the opposition to be united.”

Divisions in the Venezuelan opposition have grown following Guaidó’s inability to unseat Maduro, either through plots involving the military or street protests, despite broad international support and a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign by the U.S.

Whether it’s because they sense weakness — after President Donald Trump also made public comments doubting Guaidó’s leadership— or because they are assessing their political future or because they are frustrated with the lack of progress, some opposition leaders like Machado and former presidential candidates Henrique Capriles have broken their alliance with Guaidó.

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Tropical Storm Laura pounded Cuba

Cuba TS Laura

Tropical Storm Laura pounded Cuba with heavy rains Monday as it barrelled toward the US, where forecasters predicted it would strengthen to a hurricane after leaving 24 people dead and a swath of destruction in the Caribbean.

“Strengthening is expected when the storm moves over the Gulf of Mexico, and Laura is forecast to become a hurricane by late Tuesday,” the US National Hurricane Center said, predicting it would make landfall in the US state of Louisiana later in the week.

Laura was moving fast across Cuba at 20 miles (32 kilometers) per hour on Monday, unleashing heavy rain and coastal flooding.

Cuba damage

Winds gusting up to 65 miles per hour were reported in Havana, and waves of more than three meters (10 feet) battered the Maisi area of Guantanamo province.

The high winds tore tin roofs off homes and downed trees, but local authorities reported no human casualties.

Cuban authorities had evacuated at least 160,000 people in the provinces of Guantanamo, Santiago de Cuba, Granma and Camaguey.