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Posted October 17, 2008 by publisher in Cuba Human Rights

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CARLOS M. GUTIERREZ | U.S. Secretary of Commerce | Sacramento Bee Opinion

Every Sunday a group of women known as the Damas de Blanco gather to attend Mass in Havana, Cuba. Dressed in white, these ladies don the color of peace to protest the unjust imprisonment of their relatives by the Cuban government. After Mass these ladies silently walk through the streets displaying buttons with pictures of their family members who are being held as political prisoners.

This week (Thursday), first lady Laura Bush and I will meet with the Ladies in White via videoconference. As they have on previous occasions, these courageous women will undoubtedly speak out against the injustices perpetrated by the Cuban government toward their families and loved ones, and urge international support for their plight.

Many political prisoners have been sentenced to decades of jail time for daring to speak out against the Cuban regime. They are routinely mistreated and are subjected to torture; in many cases their families are denied visitation rights for years on end. The plight of these women’s relatives is just one example of the crimes committed by the Cuban government. Recent responses to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike might also be likened to an injustice committed by the regime against the people of Cuba.

Cuba was hard hit by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike this September. The Cuban government estimates that the storms caused $5 billion worth of damage. Hundreds of thousands of homes have been damaged or destroyed and more than half a million Cubans have been displaced. Yet Cuba refuses to receive American aid, putting politics above the welfare of its people.

Twice, once after each hurricane, the United States offered to dispatch an assessment team of experts to Cuba to identify needs and direct our assistance. However, Cuba could not bring itself to accept aid from its neighbor a mere 90 miles from its shores, while allowing assessment teams from other countries to come to the island, and ultimately accepting aid from Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, Russia and China among others.

We later offered the government of Cuba a $5 million package of relief supplies and other assistance. This gesture was unprecedented and significant, in that it was an explicit offer to provide U.S. government assistance directly to Cuban authorities for their immediate distribution to sectors hardest hit by the storms. Once again, Cuba declined our aid, insisting instead that the U.S. embargo be lifted and that we sell them goods on credit. This is about giving, not selling.

Our objective is simple: to help the Cuban people during their hour of need. We responded by offering a fourth aid package on Sept. 19, which the Cuban government has simply ignored. This offer included building supplies and shelter kits that could bring relief to more than 135,000 Cubans in addition to the package of supplies that we had previously offered.

It has now been nearly seven weeks since the first hurricane ravaged Cuba and news reports still show a bleak situation. Yet, the Cuban government refuses to accept our aid or acknowledge our offer. The Cuban government is putting political considerations ahead of the suffering of its people. This is not about the embargo, and this is not about politics. This is about humanitarian aid.

Each week the Damas de Blanco stand in opposition to the Cuban regime’s human rights abuses. We must stand with them.

Like the hundreds of political prisoners being held by the Cuban regime, the Cuban people remain prisoners of hunger and thirst in their own country. Fidel Castro said that the dignity of the Cuban people is not worth the price of aid from the United States. Yet, in the aftermath of the hurricanes, many Cubans do not have access to enough water, food or shelter. The message in Fidel’s statement is clear: it is his dignity that is not worth the price.

The crisis in Cuba is far from over. We know the Cuban people are still hurting and in need. The American people are generous and we will continue to explore other ways to provide aid to the citizens of Cuba. It is our hope that Havana will reconsider and accept our package of direct assistance for the sake of the Cuban people. It is also our hope that the Cuban government will release all political prisoners and recognize the human rights of its people. Until these prisoners of conscience are released, every Sunday the Ladies in White will continue silently to voice their protests. And the people of the United States will stand by their side.

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  1. Follow up post #1 added on October 17, 2008 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    James Gerstenzang | LA Times

    First Lady Laura Bush has used her final year in the White House to try to influence two of the most doggedly difficult human rights and foreign policy issues to face the Bush administration and its recent predecessors.

    She has made a personal crusade of trying to free political opposition leader and human rights campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in Myanmar, and—on a broader front—she has tried to bring democracy in general to the country also known as Burma.

    And today, she brought a very public spotlight to the Ladies in White, the group of spouses and other relatives of jailed dissidents seeking to bring respect for human rights to Cuba—as they worked to do in the 2007 protest march pictured above.

    Just as her work on behalf of Burmese dissidents has had an “in-your-face” quality, so, too, has her direct challenge to the Castro regime in Cuba.

    With Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, who was born in Havana, she spoke with members of the group by digital video conference.

    First Lady Laura Bush and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez speak by video conference with members of the Ladies in White group in Cuba

    In a written statement issued after the long-distance meeting, she said:

    These women show a courage and determination that is deeply moving, and their stories are an important reminder that dictatorship cannot crush the spirit of freedom.

    The United States will continue to shine a light on the abuses of the Castro regime, which has imprisoned the husbands, sons and brothers of the Ladies in White, as well as other Cubans who attempt to exercise their fundamental human rights.  The United States supports the efforts of the Ladies in White and other independent civil society activists to free all political prisoners and restore human rights in Cuba.

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  2. Follow up post #2 added on October 18, 2008 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    From http://miamiherald.typepad.com/cuban_colada/

    The group Ladies in White asked Laura Bush for a 90-day lifting of the ban on direct aid to Cubans, according to one of its leaders.Pollan2 Laura Pollán told El Nuevo Herald that the request was made Thursday during a video communication with Mrs. Bush and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez.

    “They stated that they were going to analyze it. Hopefully, the penury and suffering would be less that way,” Pollán told the newspaper. “We explained to Mrs. Bush that there is widespread desperation.”

    Pollán also said that the Cuban authorities have prevented her from receiving remittances from her supporters in Europe, contending that she is a “counter-revolutionary mercenary.” “When I went to collect it, they told me I couldn’t withdraw the money, that I was on a list of people who don’t meet the requirements. They want to asphyxiate us,” she said.

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