Agriculture Ranking Member on Cuba

Saturday, May 2, 2009
From an interview with the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Agriculture, Congressman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma:
Q.  How about Cuba?

Lucas: I don't know that I'm really going to have an opportunity to vote there. I think the administration is headed in the direction of opening up trade with them by internal action. My Oklahoma wheat farmers would be very happy and we'll let things run their course.

Q.  So you don't see Cuba coming to a vote on opening up ag trade?

Lucas: I don't know. I have my suspicions -- I don't know the administration will want to engage in a really intense hot debate which that would lead to on the floor.

Q.  Some in opposition to the Colombia trade deal are saying they want more open ag trade with Cuba while others see that as a disconnect. Is that a fair statement?

Lucas: I think that's a fair statement.  I think there could be an argument there.  I'm not going to be hypocritical about it.  Cuba to me is a communist dictatorship still.  They don't have freedom of the press, freedom of religion and free speech.  When Fidel is gone, I would hope, like Eastern Europe, society would open up.  I am not opposed to selling ag products to Cuba.  I would like them to pay cash.  If you note my record, when the Bush people went to great lengths to make it more difficult to do business with Cuba, I was opposed to that.  But I'm not prepared to open up the credit bank to support the last true remaining communist dictatorship.

Capitol Hill Cubans in 简体

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Violations of Religious Freedoms

Friday, May 1, 2009
During this week's hearing in a House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee, Congressman Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts dismissed claims of religious persecution in Cuba and taunted his visits to churches and synagogues in Havana.  Apparently, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom disagrees. 

The VOA reports:

US Report on Religious Freedom: 'Watch' Cuba, Venezuela

01 May 2009

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is recommending that the State Department closely "watch" Cuba and Venezuela for violations of religious freedoms.

The government-sponsored commission released a report Friday accusing the two countries of either engaging in or tolerating such abuses.

The commission says Cuba continues to tightly control religious beliefs and practices. The panel says the communist government has expanded efforts to silence critics of its religious freedom policies. It also accuses Havana of cracking down on religious leaders who operate outside the Protestant denominations recognized by the government.

Cuba's "Businessmen"

Raul Castro told a Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Havana this week that any forthcoming shows of goodwill must -- again -- start from the U.S. side.
Castro said, "Cuba is not the one that stops its country's [U.S.] businessmen from doing business with ours."
Which leads to the question:  If the Cuban people are constitutionally prohibited (by the Castro regime's 1976 Constitution) from engaging in trade and private investment, then who are Cuba's businessmen?
According to the Wall Street Journal, "Generals also occupy top management slots in the country's economic ministries. Gen. Ulises Rosales del Toro, who was named Cuba's sugar czar in 1997, shut down two-thirds of Cuba's 156 antique sugar mills in 2002 and is still trying to revive production, which reached a 100-year historic low of 1.3 million tons this year. Other generals run the civil aviation, fishing, telecommunications and transportation ministries. A colonel is in charge of Habanos SA, a joint venture with the Spanish firm Altadis, which markets the country's famous cigars abroad. Another colonel runs the tourism ministry." 

Media Diplomacy Hits Highest Level

Despite the arrest of political activists in Cuba this week (see post below), or those still serving 25-30 years for their pro-democracy and human rights advocacy, Good Morning America reports:

Unprecedented Gesture by Former Cuban President Signals Thaw in U.S.-Cuban Relations

HAVANA, Cuba, May 1, 2009.  Photos of Fidel Castro meeting with a United States congressional delegation last month show the former Cuban president wearing lapel flag pins from both Cuba and the United States.

More Political Arrests in Cuba

On Wednesday afternoon, Cuban authorities entered the home of pro-democracy activists in Baracoa (eastern Cuba) and arrested two leaders of this movement, Nestor and Rolando Rodriguez Lobaina.

Their homes were violently searched and regime officials confiscated a laptop computer, a number of books and a shortwave radio.

Thus far, the Castro brothers have only responded to U.S. policy overtures through repression.

Just Introduced in the U.S. Senate

Cuba To Remain on Terror List

Thursday, April 30, 2009
Syria, Iran, Sudan, and Cuba will remain on the U.S.'s list of states that sponsor terrorism following a report presented by the State Department Thursday.

Menendez: Don't Start Down a Slippery Slope

Remarks by Senator Menendez in the U.S. Senate on the Recent Comments of the Castro Brothers
Two weeks ago, the democratically-elected leaders of the Western Hemisphere met for the Summit of the Americas. The Castro regime in Cuba was not invited, because it has violated the democratic charter of the Organization of American States for the last 5 decades.
At the same time as that meeting in Trinidad and Tobago, Raul Castro gave a speech in Venezuela. He said he would be willing to negotiate with the United States, and put everything on the table. Many considered this "news."
Well let me tell you, those comments aren't news to anyone who has followed the rhetoric of the regime over the decades. The Castros have made promise after promise—and none of their promises have resulted in substantial change on the island—
none of their promises have resulted in the release of the labor leaders, journalists or clergymen jailed for no crime other than speaking their minds, the end of the network of government spies on every block, or the granting of basic human rights that we in the United States take for granted. None of their promises have resulted in economic freedom for the millions of Cubans who try to get by on less than a dollar a day. 
And so it was hardly news that not long after Raul Castro spoke, his older brother Fidel made comments clarifying that nothing would change, and blaming all conditions in Cuba on the United States.

He said President Obama acted with "autosuficiencia" y "superficialidad"—he called him conceited and superficial.
I am surprised that Secretary Clinton would jump so fast to consider that good news.
While Raul Castro spoke at a meeting in Venezuela, there was another gathering going on in Cuba. It was a gathering of state security agents and secret police, outside the home of Jorge Luis García Pérez, known as "Antúnez."

With tremendous courage, Antúnez began a hunger strike to protest the oppressive Castro regime. In response, agents descended on the house last March 17th. According to Amnesty International, they have orders to use force against and arrest anyone to prevent them from entering the house—including anyone who could provide medical treatment. 
Antúnez and three other Cubans have vowed to continue their protest until the torture of political prisoner Mario Alberto Perez Aguilera, held at the Santa Clara Provincial Prison, ceases immediately.
They will continue their protest until he is taken out of a tiny solitary confinement cell, until he is no longer beaten and forced to starve, until the regime allows Antunez' sister Caridad Garcia Perez to rebuild her home destroyed by the hurricanes last year, which they have not allowed as further punishment to these activists.
From his house in Placetas, Cuba, Antúnez wrote me a letter on April 13.
Here's an excerpt, in Spanish: "Compatriotas a nombre de nuestro pueblo cubano persistan en sus nobles y sinceros esfuerzos, sepan que para los cubanos la libertad, la dignidad y el respeto a los derechos humanos tienen mucho más permanencia e importancia que las ventajas económicas que puedan traer los viajes de turismo y las llegadas de insumos que financiarían más que al pueblo a la cruel tiranía que nos oprime."
He said: "Those who continue their noble and sincere efforts on behalf of the Cuban people, please know, that for Cubans, liberty, dignity and respect for human rights are much more permanent and important than the economic advantages that might come with visiting tourists and the arrival of products—which will benefit the cruel tyranny that oppresses us more than the Cuban people."
That's the kind of courage that can break a dictatorship. That's the kind of courage we should support. And that's the kind of person whose advice we should heed—the human rights activist, the Cuban who sacrifices day and night in a peaceful struggle for freedom—these are the voices we should listen to when we're making our policy toward the Castro regime.
Some like to cling to a romantic notion of the Castros, but we cannot lose sight of these brutal facts. There is no indication that political prisoners are being released, free speech is being allowed or Cubans are being granted basic liberties that we take for granted.
For the Organization of American States to readmit a regime that engages in this type of systematic suppression of human rights, it would have to rip up its Inter-American Democratic Charter as a farce. It would have to ignore Article 78 of the declaration of the summit in Trinidad and Tobago, reaffirming, quote, "the legitimacy of electoral processes and full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms." And it would be sending a clear signal to other countries moving in the wrong direction, away from democracy, that it is perfectly okay to do so.
In respect to the very complicated choices we have on Cuba policy, President Obama has proven himself a man of action. I support his allowing Cuban-Americans more opportunities to travel to Cuba, because I think families should have the chance to be reunited.
On the other hand, and although I support finding ways to improve the financial situation of the Cuban people—and let's remember, through individuals and aid groups, the United States is the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to the people of Cuba in the world—I think allowing unlimited remittances was not the right move, when the Castro regime still takes for itself up to 30% of all the money sent.
The Administration also announced changes regarding telecommunications policy.  Let me be clear: in spite of the fact that the regime has rejected such gestures in the past, I hope that it will now allow U.S. telecommunications companies to increase the flow of information to and from the island.   That said, we need to be sure to prevent a repeat of what happened in China, where U.S. telecommunications firms helped the Chinese government monitor internet users and control content.  U.S. companies cannot and should not censor internet searches and block websites at the request of the regime.
But mainly what we've learned from these good-faith actions on the part of the United States is that they have not resulted in any change of behavior from the regime in Cuba.
We have traded concessions and gotten only rhetoric in return. We have extended our hand, while the Cuban regime maintains its iron-handed clenched fist.
We cannot allow ourselves to start down a slippery slope of relaxing restrictions, that only winds up allowing the Castro regime to strengthen the iron fist by which it rules.
The press is reporting that the State Department is looking to hold talks on migration and counternarcotics with the Castro regime.
These are serious issues. But without seeing any progress whatsoever on the part of the regime, it's hard to see why we should be looking for more opportunities to make additional concessions.

It's hard to see why we should believe whatever promises the regime might make. And it's hard to see why we should cooperate on migration or counternarcotics with a Cuban navy whose main mission is patrolling for and sinking ships carrying its own fleeing citizens.
If we open up discussions now, we are essentially giving the regime a pass on progress and taking the focus OFF of where President Obama rightly put it – freedom on the island, freedom for political prisoners, freedom from seizures of a huge percentage of remittances sent to the Cuban people.
So, this is exactly the wrong time to start these conversations and starting them would be in direct contradiction to the White House's own statements, as recently as April 17th, that put the burden where it should be - on the Castro regime.
After 50 years of brutality, we need actions, not words, on the part of the Castro Regime. Mere words won't erase the lack of dignity that Antúnez is protesting with a hunger strike. Words won't stop people like Oscar Elías Biscet from being thrown into prison for refusing to give women a drug that caused abortions—
words won't finally allow Oswaldo Payá to see the free elections he's worked for and marched for and gone to jail for.
Last week I heard some of my colleagues speak about human rights abuses in China. I think they were absolutely right to highlight those abuses. But I think we should be no less concerned with prison camps in China than prison camps in Cuba, no less concerned with Tiananmen Square than with the Primavera Negra crackdown, no less appalled at child labor in Beijing than in Havana.
And by now we should be convinced that economic interaction in the face of an authoritarian government will not end Cuba's human rights abuses, just as it has not ended abuses in China.
Another of one my colleagues pointed out the peaceful revolutions that ended communism in Eastern Europe, including in places like Lithuania.  I share my colleague's deep respect for those revolutions. And I think it's worth pointing out that when they took place, there was international support and recognition not primarily for the businesses who wanted to open those countries up for financial gain, but for the democracy activists within those countries who risked their lives to bring change.
There is simply no excuse for the Cuban regime's behavior. Forgiving it and forgetting it is not the answer.
If we want to change the way we conduct our policy, there are many things we can do to weaken the Castro regime, and hasten the day when the Cuban people can be free.
Let us have the U.S. offer more visitor and student visas for eligible Cubans to come to the U.S., to see and live our way of life. Having Americans travel to Cuba could never be as powerful as having Cuban youth see the greatness of our country, and its pluralistic, diverse, representative democracy. That taste of freedom would be infectious.
In return we simply seek a commitment from Cuba to accept their citizens' return, and to guarantee the issuance of exit permits for all qualified migrants.
Cuba is one of the few countries in the world that will not permit its citizens to travel even when they have a legitimate visa to do so. And, when they give them license to leave, they must pay the regime in order to do so. I find it ironic that when people mention the U.S. embargo, they fail to mention the Castros' blockade on their own people—a blockade that keeps Cubans not only from leaving Cuba, but from moving freely within their own country.
If we want to facilitate the sales of food to Cuba, let us insist that they be sold in open markets, available to all Cubans, without it being part of Castro's food rationing plan, a plan meant to further control the Cuban people.
In exchange for cooperation with Cuba on narcotics trafficking, let them hand over the 200 fugitives the FBI knows are in Cuba, including JoAnne Chesimard, the convicted killer of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster.
And in exchange for freeing commerce, let the Castros free the political prisoners they hold and allow them to speak freely, organize freely, elect their own leadership and freely practice their religion on Cuban soil. I hope we're not so blinded by the color of money that we forget how important it is for the Castros to close their dungeons and let the light of freedom shine down on everyone who calls the island home.
President Obama, who saw repression in Indonesia when he was a child, promised us this: He said, quote, "My policy toward Cuba will be guided by one word: Libertad. And the road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuba's political prisoners, the rights of free speech, a free press and freedom of assembly; and it must lead to elections that are free and fair."[1] End quote.
For 50 years, the regime has been a social, economic and moral failure. It has succeeded merely at staying in power. Today, after the regime has offered few new words and fewer new actions, we can choose to change how we feel about the regime, or we can try to change the way it oppresses its people. That's our choice.
We can choose amnesia or we can choose justice. We can choose strong words or we can choose strong actions. We can choose giving in to the commercial interests of a few, or we can choose holding on to the moral interests that unite us all. 

Senator Baucus Supports Cuba's Monopoly

During this week's hearing by House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on the economic impact of sanctions towards the Cuban regime, Kirby Jones of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association highlighted the following impressive statistics:
JONES: After 40 years of no trade and just over -- a bit over seven years, the U.S. now supplies, as -- as has been mentioned several times, more food to Cuba than any other country. In 2008 U.S. companies received $718 million from the sale of agricultural products to Cuba.  In aggregate since this trade began, contracts for more than 11 million metric tons worth over $3.6 billion, including shipping and services, have been signed, comprising 300 different products, including wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, tomatoes sauce, eggs, chicken, cookies, apples, wine, ground turkey, chewing gum, utility poles, live cattle, organic fertilizer and rice.  These have been bought from 157 different companies from 37 states
What Mr. Jones failed to mention is that every dollar of those $3.6 billion from 157 U.S. companies in 37 states has been in trade with only 1 company in Cuba, ALIMPORT, (Empresas Comercializadora de Alimentos), whose Chairman and CEO is Cuban regime official Pedro Alvarez Borrego. 
Now, Senator Max Baucus of Montana -- in the same vein as Congressman Jerry Moran of Kansas on the House side -- wants to introduce legislation to expand agricultural trade with this foreign monopoly, Alimport.
And the Cuban people?  A distraction.

Another Shameful Recognition

The Committee to Protects Journalists ("CPJ") just put out their list of the world's worst online oppressors, "Ten Worst Countries to be a Blogger."  The list places Cuba at #4, following Burma, Iran and Syria.  Cuba is the only country in the Western Hemisphere to make the list. 
Here's what the CPJ had to say about Cuba: 
Only government officials and people with links to the Communist Party have Web access. The general population goes online at hotels or government-controlled Internet cafés by means of expensive voucher cards. A small number of independent bloggers such as Yoani Sánchez detail everyday life and offer criticism of the regime. Their blogs are hosted outside the country and are largely blocked on the island. Two independent bloggers tell CPJ that they are harassed by authorities. Only pro-government bloggers can post their material on domestic sites that can be easily accessed.

Lowlight: The government now jails 21 writers who were on the leading edge of online journalism in the early part of the decade. These writers, all but one of whom was jailed in 2003, phoned or faxed their material to overseas Web sites for posting. 

In My Humble Opinion, Pt. 5

Wednesday, April 29, 2009
From McLatchy Newspapers:
Critics note the proposals [to ease sanctions] are supported by many of the same longtime opponents of U.S. Cuba policy and they suggest the administration is more likely to wait for Cuba to respond to its initial overtures before endorsing further moves.

"The feeling I've been getting in Congress is, 'We've done something and now the regime has to show its good will'," said Mauricio Claver-Carone, a leading pro-embargo lobbyist. "Any media-created momentum in Cuba policy has been cut off by President Obama putting the onus on the regime."

The U.S. Owes No Apologies to the Castro Regime

Issa Statement on Cuba Policy Subcommittee Hearing

WASHINGTON. D.C. – House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Ranking Member Darrell Issa (R-CA) delivered the following remarks today at the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing, National Security Implications of U.S. Policy toward Cuba:
"I believe that the United States owes no apology for standing against the Cuban government and its actions.  There is no benefit to liberalizing our relationship as long as the Castros are in power.
"If the Obama Administration chooses to engage Cuba, it must not turn a blind eye toward its bad behavior.  Holding political prisoners, forbidding free elections, government control of all major economic production, and maintaining a closed society goes against everything we, as a nation, stand for.  It would be immoral to grant them the privilege of closer connections with the United States.
"This is why I question the President's decision to lift travel and telecommunications restrictions on Cuba without precondition.  At some point, I would like to hear from the Obama Administration because the end-game is not clear to me.  The White House provided little information to the American people regarding this policy shift, and this Committee would benefit from a fuller explanation of the Administration's intentions."

What "Gestures" Is Raul Rejecting?

In other words, Raul Castro is refusing to alter any of the following behavior against the Cuban people:
"The government [of Cuba] continued to deny its citizens their basic human rights and committed numerous, serious abuses. The government denied citizens the right to change their government. At year's end there were at least 205 political prisoners and detainees. As many as 5,000 citizens served sentences for 'dangerousness,' without being charged with any specific crime. The following human rights problems were reported: beatings and abuse of detainees and prisoners, including human rights activists, carried out with impunity; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including denial of medical care; harassment, beatings, and threats against political opponents by government-recruited mobs, police, and State Security officials; arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights advocates and members of independent professional organizations; denial of fair trial; and interference with privacy, including pervasive monitoring of private communications. There were also severe limitations on freedom of speech and press; denial of peaceful assembly and association; restrictions on freedom of movement, including selective denial of exit permits to citizens and the forcible removal of persons from Havana to their hometowns; restrictions on freedom of religion; and refusal to recognize domestic human rights groups or permit them to function legally. Discrimination against persons of African descent, domestic violence, underage prostitution, trafficking in persons, and severe restrictions on worker rights, including the right to form independent unions, were also problems."
Courtesy: 2008 State Department Report on Human Rights Practices

Raul Rejects "Gestures"

HAVANA, April 29 (Reuters) - Cuban President Raul Castro repeated on Wednesday an offer to discuss "everything" with the United States to try to improve relations, but said Cuba did not have to make any "gestures" to its long-time enemy.

"We have reiterated that we are willing to talk about everything with the United States, in equality of conditions, but not to negotiate our sovereignty, nor our political and social system, the right to self-determination, nor our internal affairs," he said in a speech to a ministerial meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Thank You, Congressman Flake

Message to U.S. Business Interests

Tuesday, April 28, 2009
From Ambassador James Cason, who served as head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 2002-2005, in yesterday's Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing:
CASON: I've talked to a lot of people in Cuba when I was there and since then who tell me that when the day comes and when there's freedom in Cuba, the fact that the United States on principle did not exploit Cuban labor the way I mentioned it will be seen as a favorable development companies but that the Spanish and others who have taken advantage that you can't strike, that you can't have labor organizations, are going to not have the sympathy of the general public afterwards. And how that plays out we'll have to see.

How to Add Insult to Injury

In yesterday's hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection (Chaired by Congressman Bobby Rush of Illinois), Adrean Schied Rothkopf, the Vice President of Western Hemisphere Affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce made the following insulting -- not to mention degrading -- observation when questioned about what the U.S. could offer Cuba's repressed consumers:  

ROTHKOPF: And just to add to that, the additional tourist arrivals, just for example, from the increased tourist demand for -- for food will -- will boost domestic -- domestic demand for U.S. products as well.

In other words, the Chamber advocates lifting the tourism travel ban, which would foment Cuban apartheid and provide billions in profit to the Cuban military's GAESA (see the post below), so that U.S. tourists can then proceed to create a market for U.S. products.

Beware of Unilateral Concessions

Interesting observation from the CIA's former National Intelligence Officer for Latin America, Brian Latell, in today's Miami Herald:
Regional demands for the end of the U.S. economic embargo, readmission of Cuba to the OAS and an end to the years of hostility have become deafening.  Innumerable calls have also been heard from leading members of Congress, influential Washington think tanks and commentators of many stripes who argue that the time finally has come for the impasse with Cuba to end.  From Castro's perspective at least, unilateral concessions by Washington, such as lifting the travel ban or all of the embargo, now seem within the realm of the possible.  With so much now converging in Cuba's and his favor, Fidel sees no need to make compromises.

The #1 Beneficiary of Tourism in Cuba

Courtesy of STRATFOR Global Intelligence:
Raul Castro headed the transformation of Cuba's military into what has become the driving force of the Cuban economy. Raul founded Grupo de Administracion Empresarial S.A. (Enterprise Management Group), or GAESA, which is the holding company for the Cuban Defense Ministry. Raul appointed several of his close confidants and relatives to positions within GAESA. These included Gen. Julio Casas Regueiro, who is the Chairman of GAESA; and GAESA CEO Maj. Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez Callejas, who is married to Deborah Castro Espin, Raul's oldest daughter.

GAESA holds a wide array of companies ranging from the very profitable Gaviota tourism company to Sasa, S.A., which controls the island's gas station network. Gaviota, which Gen. Luis Perez Rospide heads, controls and operates more than 30 hotels and resorts. It is by far the most profitable company GAESA holds, and leads the nation in foreign exchange earnings. Since the mid-1990s, Cuba has allowed foreign investment in the tourism industry to help boost revenue. France-based Club Med can be found on the Caribbean beaches, along with other foreign companies.

The ever-expanding Cuban tourism industry has allowed GAESA to expand to other holdings. It controls the Military Counterintelligence Department VI and its support companies, Empresa de Servicios La Marina, which is run by a counterintelligence major; and Antex S.A., which provides engineering and technical support to all the GAESA companies. Antex has served as a channel for introducing Cuban intelligence operatives into foreign countries, given that it has offices in more than 10 countries.
CORRECTION:  Raul Castro has since promoted his son-in law Maj. Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez Callejas to Chairman of GAESA, and General Julio Casa Regueiro to Minister of Defense.

Flipside of Cuban Travel, Pt. 2

Monday, April 27, 2009
From Cuban blogger (and one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World) Yoani Sanchez in the Huffington Post:

Note: Edgar Lopez is the leader of a youth pro-democracy group in Cuba. The U.S. government has issued him a political refugee visa to join his wife and family in Florida, but the Cuban government refuses to allow him to leave.
This morning, some of us who are friends of Edgar Lopez went with him to deliver his appeal to his denial of permission to leave the country. A few steps from the office of Legal Counsel is the site of the national Immigration and Emigration office. I already know the place, having been there just a year ago with a similar claim, which ended with the confirmation that I could not, "travel for the moment." Uniformed officers and quiet people hoping to have their cases revisited set the stage at this branch of the Ministry of the Interior (MININT).
The signatures collected among Cubans here and outside were handed over to the duty officer, who confirmed that they now had sixty days to reply to his request. On Friday, two Section 21 officers had "suggested" to Edgar that he should desist from presenting himself at the place where we went today. The insinuation was that if he was quiet, they would allow him to travel by August. After this young man's hunger strike, the immigration authorities couldn't--according to the anxious officers--"act under pressure," because it would seem that they had been forced to let him get on the plane.
As if it were the most common thing that we citizens would bring pressure to bear and in response the politicians would amend their actions. As if it is precisely for this that they occupy their positions, to yield--again and again--before the demands of society. Hasn't it been said already--by enough voices--that the requirement for permission to leave and enter Cuba has to be repealed? What more has to happen to stop them from hijacking this right from us?

State Department Transcript (On Meeting With CUBINT)

State Department Spokesperson Robert Wood:
QUESTION:  (OFF-MIKE) Cuba and the meeting today with the Cuban representative?  And could you give a little detail on how often this happens, who initiates it, and what the purpose is?
WOOD:  Well, you know, over the years, we have had periodic contact with representatives of the Cuban interests section.  And this afternoon, Assistant Secretary Tom Shannon is going to meet with the head of the Cuba interests section for a meeting at a mutually convenient location.
I think the last time they met was April 13 here at the State Department building.
QUESTION:  This year?
WOOD:  Yes.  I believe...
QUESTION:  At that level?
WOOD:  This was, I think, Assistant Secretary Shannon and the head of the Cuban interests section.  And so these meetings happen periodically, and, as I said, there's going to be one today.
QUESTION:  Should it -- should it be seen as an effort by the administration to expand communication with the Cubans in -- as a follow-up to the actions the president's taken...
WOOD:  As I said, this is one of, you know, a number of meetings that have taken place, you know, over the years with representatives of the Cuban interests section.  So I'm -- I'm not trying to make more or less of it.  I'm just, you know, giving you the facts as they are.
QUESTION:  So it's not an expansion of communication?  It's part of a plan to...
WOOD:  Well, I think the president has spoken and has, as you know, made it easier for, you know, Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba and has also taken action on remittances.  So those are steps that the president has -- has taken to further engage the Cuban people.  And we'll have to see what else comes in the future.
But the important thing is, is that we have some very serious concerns about the lack of democracy in Cuba.  And we want to see steps taken to improve the situation there.
But I don't have anything more than what I've just outlined in terms of...
QUESTION:  And one more follow-up to that?
WOOD:  Sure.
QUESTION:  Is it still the administration's position that you would not take additional steps beyond those the president recently announced until the Cubans reciprocate in some form?
WOOD:  Well, we want to see the Cuban government reciprocate. We'd like to see a release of political prisoners.  There are a host of steps that the Cuban government would take and we'd like to see. I'm not going to put conditionality on -- on things.
But, clearly, you know, there are some steps that the Cuban government needs to do with regard to its own people, allowing the Cuban people to have some of the freedoms that are enjoyed in other countries in the hemisphere.  So -- yes?
QUESTION:  So in this particular meeting today, are you going with a list of -- a list of things that you think they need to do before you can go further than the president went?
WOOD:  No, they're -- they're going to have a meeting, again -- as I said, representatives from the State Department have had discussions with representatives of the Cuban interests section before to follow up on issues.  I'm sure that, in the course of the conversation that Assistant Secretary Shannon has with the head of the Cuban interests section, they'll touch on some of the issues of concern that we have.
But I'm not going to -- there's no list prepared that we're going into the meeting with.  We have concerns about Cuban policies.  We'll be raising them.  You know, I'm sure that there will be a discussion of the president's steps that he announced recently.
But beyond that, I don't have much of an agenda.
QUESTION:  But are you looking for a more definitive explanation or response from the Cuban -- from the Cuban government over the president's, you know, overtures?  Is that what you're looking for?
WOOD:  No, I think what we're looking for -- again, our overall policy objective is to improve the political situation in Cuba for the Cuban people.  And the steps the president took recently are in line with that policy, to try to promote more democracy d in Cuba.
And that's going to be the nexus of our -- our policy going forward.  We're certainly willing to engage, but there need to be reciprocal steps.
And these are not -- OK, go ahead.
QUESTION:  You were just getting to the good part, so keep going.
WOOD:  How do you know it was the good part?  No, you go ahead and finish.
QUESTION:  On the reciprocal steps...
WOOD:  Yes.  What was the question?
QUESTION:  On the reciprocal steps, what -- what are you hoping -- are you laying out sort of a timetable of some steps?
WOOD:  We're not laying out a timetable or anything like that at this point.  What we'd like to see are some steps to give the Cuban people some of the freedoms that are enjoyed by other peoples in the hemisphere, as I just mentioned in response to Bob's question.
QUESTION:  Is it in a restaurant, under a cherry blossom tree?  I mean, where is it?
WOOD:  A mutually convenient location.
QUESTION:  Robert, I'm trying to get a better sense of the frequency of these meetings.  You said that the last one was April 13th.  I don't think it would be fair to assume that these happen every two or three weeks.  Can you give us a sense of if this is -- how frequently, you know, these happen, especially before the recent overtures from the administration?
WOOD:  Well, I mean, they've happened over time.  They're -- they're more -- they're basically driven by issues and our interests. I don't have a -- you know, I can't give you a schedule of when these meetings took place.  I gave you the most recent.
But they happen when we have issues that we need to raise with the Cuban government and if, you know, the interests section has some issues that they need to raise with us.
But there's no pattern here.  It's when we feel it's appropriate or they request a meeting, and they happen.
QUESTION:  Well, was the April 13th meeting the first one during the -- the Obama administration?
WOOD:  I -- I don't know.  I can't rule it out.  I'm not sure.  I mean, we have lots of...
WOOD:  Oh, it was?  OK.  It was the first.
QUESTION:  What was the answer?
WOOD:  Yes, that was the first meeting during the Obama administration with representatives of the Cuban...
QUESTION:  And that was requested by which side?
WOOD:  I -- I don't know.  I mean, I don't have...
QUESTION:  And then do you have any sort of sense of the frequency under the previous administration?
WOOD:  I -- I don't have that.

Not Far Behind Barbara Lee

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, who today chaired a hearing in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection entitled, "Examining the Status of U.S. Trade With Cuba and Its Impact on Economic Growth," has a low cumulative legislative scorecard of 36% with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
What is it about the Cuban regime that suddenly transforms such universal trade protectionists and labor rights advocates into free traders?

Barbara Lee Opposes Trade Universally (Except With Cuba)

In today's Politico, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee of California, who recently traveled to the island to visit solely with Cuban regime officials -- ignoring the plight of Cuba's political prisoners and pro-democracy advocates -- quotes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in defense of her push to unilaterally normalize relations with the Cuban regime.
Lee said:
"As noted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, our unilateral embargo sequesters 'the United States from its allies while denying U.S. companies access to markets in which third-country firms can do business easily.'" 

For the record, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's voting scorecard for Congresswoman Lee is a 25%, one of the lowest in the U.S. Congress, as she opposes trade and business opportunities with virtually every democratic country in the world.

Castro's Cuba is in a league of its own for Congresswoman Lee.  

The Under-Reported Flipside of Cuban Travel

From today's Durango Herald News:
When Kathleen returned to the U.S., she soon discovered she was pregnant. After Risabel was born, Kathleen was able to take her daughter to Cuba. The infant Risabel met her father and extended Cuban kin.
Although Arturo was able to get an immigrant visa from the U.S., Cuba would not allow him to leave. He grew desperate. In 2003, he joined several others trying to escape; they hid in homes and waded through mangrove swamps to reach a pickup point on the coast. A high-speed cigar boat from Miami was scheduled to pick them up.
Cuban marines caught them, fired shots to round them up and threw them in jail. Arturo was detained a week, questioned about his loyalty to Cuba, released, then arrested again. He was convicted on a trumped-up charge that he knew of a planned robbery but kept that information secret.
His sentence: 1½ years in a labor camp and no chance of leaving the island for at least five years.

Cuban Officials Indicted for Narcotics Trafficking

If reports that the U.S. is pursuing "informal meetings" with Cuban officials on issues including counter-narcotics cooperation are correct, the first step should be dealing with the cases of senior Cuban regime officials indicted by federal grand juries in the U.S. for narcotics trafficking.  Amongst these are:
1.  Rene Rodriguez-Cruz, an official of the Cuban intelligence service, former member of the Cuban Communist Party Central Committee and president of the Cuban Institute of Friendship With The Peoples. It was in the last capacity in 1980 that Rodriguez helped organize the boatlift of nearly 125,000 Cubans to the United States as refugees -- including some convicts from Cuban jails.
2.  Fernando Ravelo-Renedo, Cuban ambassador to Columbia until the embassy to Columbia until the embassy in Bogota was closed as relations between the countries worsened in 1980. He is godfather of the daughter of Colombian drug traffickers Juan (Johnny) Crump. Crump is now in the federal witness protection program.
3.  Gonzalo Bassols-Suarez, identified as a former minister-counsel of the Cuban embassy in Bogota and a member of the Cuban Communist Party.
A fourth indicted official passed away in 2003 without facing U.S. justice:
4.  Aldo Santamaria-Cuadrado, also known as Rene Baeza-Rodriguez, who the indictment had identified as a vice admiral in the Cuban navy and a member of the Cuban Communist Party Central Committee.  He "would supervise in Cuba the protection and re-supply of ships transporting marijuana from Colombia to the United States by way of Cuba," according to the indictment.

Other links between the Cuban regime and narcotics trafficking include (courtesy of STRATFOR):
  • In 1989, Robert Vesco (who was given refuge by the Cuban regime until his death in Havana in 2007) was indicted by a grand jury during the trial of drug smuggler Carlos Lehder in Jacksonville, Fla., for arranging safe passage for drug planes through Cuban airspace. According to the indictment, Vesco obtained approval from Cuban authorities for this arrangement. Cuban air force Gen. Rafael del Pino, who defected in 1987, reported that all the planes flying over Cuba that veered off from the approved air corridors for commercial and private aircraft had to be cleared with the office of Raul Castro at the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces.
  • On April 23, 1989, Reinaldo Ruiz (who died of a heart attack on New Year's Eve in 1990) and his son Ruben were convicted of drug trafficking. Reinaldo was the cousin of Capt. Miguel Ruiz Poo of Cuba's Ministry of the Interior. Reinaldo and his son Ruben were allowed by Cuban authorities to land their plane at the Varadero Beach airport for refueling after dropping their drug cargoes off the Cuban coast near the Bahamas. Drug smuggling fast boats would come from Florida to pick up the cargoes. Cuban coast guard radar monitored U.S. coast guard cutters and helped the fast boats evade them.
Finally, it's important to remember who we are dealing with:
"Federal prosecutors in Miami were prepared to indict Raul Castro as the head of a major cocaine smuggling conspiracy in 1993...current and former Justice Department officials tell ABC News," ABC's Brian Ross and Vic Walter reported on August 14, 2006.  
"The officials say Castro, as Cuban Defense Minister, permitted Colombian drug lords to pay for the use of Cuban waters and airstrips as staging grounds for smuggling runs into the United States in the 1980s and early 1990s," the investigative journalists noted in The Blotter, an ABC News Web log.

Did the Cuban Regime "Unclench Its Fist"?

Sunday, April 26, 2009
Despite no tangible response from the Cuban regime to President Obama's recent "good-will" policy changes, The New York Times is reporting that the U.S. is pursuing informal meetings with Cuban authorities.  The question remains -- are the officials cited in this report speaking in anonymity because they're not authorized to speak publicly about these efforts, or because they know it's contradictory to President Obama's own pronounced doctrine?  
U.S. Plans Informal Meetings With Cuba
WASHINGTON — Seizing the momentum from recent meetings with Latin American leaders, the Obama administration is quietly pushing forward with efforts to reopen channels of communication with Cuba, according to White House and State Department officials.
The officials said informal meetings were being planned between the State Department and Cuban diplomats in the United States to determine whether the two governments could open formal talks on a variety of issues, including migration, drug trafficking and other regional security matters.
And the administration is also looking for ways to open channels for more cultural and academic exchanges between Cuba and the United States, the officials said.
The next steps, said a senior administration official, would be meant to "test the waters," to see whether the United States and Cuba could develop a "serious, civil, open relationship."
After saying the United States was "ready to talk about a series of issues," the official added, "This thing with Cuba is going to take a lot of time, and it may not work."
Officials who discussed the plans did so on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the efforts.

Why Not Invite Dr. Biscet to the White House?

The Castros are Dr. King's disciples?
by Nat Hentoff

The Washington Times

"This is the beginning of a new day! In my household [Fidel] is known as the ultimate survivor."

Fidel himself, in a letter in the state-run Granma newspaper, saluted "this legislative group. The aura of Martin Luther King is accompanying them."

To others of us who honor King, there is a barely surviving black Cuban disciple of King (and Mohandas Gandhi) whom the caucus visitors did not meet because he has been in a Castro brothers' cage for many years and was off-limits to them. He is Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, and he is among those designated by Amnesty International as "prisoners of conscience" in Cuban gulags.

Another visiting caucus member, Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, was reported by the April 11 New York Post to have said, "We've been led to believe that the Cuban people are not free, and they are repressed by a vicious dictator, and I saw nothing to match what we've been told." A government tour can lead you to believe anything.

The same article quoted Mr. Cleaver as saying of Cuba's current president, Raul Castro: "He's one of the most amazing human beings I've ever met." The international human rights organizations - which have pleaded repeatedly with the Castro brothers to release the blind physician - also find Dr. Biscet amazing in a vitally different sense.

Before he was arrested during Fidel Castro's 2003 mass crackdown on dissenters (an event infamously known as "Black Spring") and sentenced to 25 years in prison, Dr. Biscet had been put away on occasion for planning to organize small groups in private homes to work nonviolently for democratic rights.

Since 2003, Dr. Biscet, often brutalized and denied medical care for digestive and other ailments, has occasionally been thrown into an unlit 3-foot-wide underground "punishment" cell with a toilet in the floor. His highest crime of caged disobedience against the state was to protest vicious treatment of fellow prisoners from his cell. Yet, in a message slipped out, he maintains: "My conscience and spirit are well."

In a cruel irony, the caucus visitors laying flowers at the King memorial appear utterly unaware of this inspiration to many silenced Cubans in Castroland, though Dr. Biscet has been internationally covered by reporters, including myself. Nor were these visiting admirers of Fidel and Raul Castro seemingly aware that a biography of King - seized during the 2003 crackdown raids on independent libraries - was, among other subversive books, ordered burned by Castro judges in one-day trials.

Another Cuban follower of King is Iris Garcia, founder of the Rosa Parks Women's Civil Rights Movement. She and her husband, Afro-Cuban dissenter Jose Luis Garcia Perez, are on a hunger strike trying to bring justice to a family member in a Castro cage.

Mr. Garcia, himself often assaulted for disloyalty, told The Washington Post on April 9: "The authorities in my country have never tolerated that a black person [could dare to] oppose the regime." As I and others have reported, this racism in Cuba is one of the forbidden topics among American idolaters of Fidel Castro.

New Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post, who has made 10 reporting trips to Cuba, wrote April 14 that the Congressional Black Caucus delegation was either naive or disingenuous "not to notice ... [or] acknowledge - that Cuba is hardly the paradise of racial harmony and equality it pretends to be."

If these caucus members - so lauded by Fidel Castro for being accompanied by King's "aura" - had asked him and Raul Castro for permission to look around Cuba on their own, they would have heard considerable evidence from Afro-Cubans about their lower status in Michael Moore's paradise.

However, Mr. Robinson adds, "maybe they were too busy looking into Fidel's eyes."

As for President Obama's changes of policy regarding Cuba, it is indeed long past time to remove travel restrictions to that land by Cubans and Cuban-Americans in this country. Keeping families apart so long has been of value to the Castros' national security rationale for internal repression against "plots" by American enemies - along with the U.S. embargo, which Mr. Obama also should end soon.

But when Dan Restrepo - our National Security Council's senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs - speaks (as reported in the April 14 New York Times) of Mr. Obama's moves "to extend a hand to the Cuban people [so that they can] work on the kind of grass-roots democracy that is necessary to move Cuba to a better future," he omits the continuing stocking of the Castro gulags with pro-democracy "criminals."

In the April 7 Miami Herald, Myriam Marquez reminded the caucus visitors of the 300-plus prisoners of conscience and "the hundreds of dissidents working from their homes under the watch of a totalitarian regime."

Raul Castro, following the black caucus visit and Mr. Obama's policy changes, said he is willing to talk with Mr. Obama on "anything," including human rights and prisons. Well, how about including Dr. Biscet in the conversation once he's released? And Raul, if Fidel agrees, isn't it time finally to let the International Committee of the Red Cross into your prisons?

In 2007, former President George W. Bush gave Dr. Biscet the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Mr. Obama, why not invite Dr. Biscet to the White House?

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

Pursuant to Decades of Canada's Failed "Daiquiri Diplomacy"

The Montreal Gazette reports:
OTTAWA -- Canada is sending a cabinet minister to Cuba next month to push the communist Castro regime to release political prisoners and start democratic reforms, Canwest News Service has learned.
The visit by Peter Kent, minister of state of Foreign Affairs for the Americas, is a concerted effort by the Conservative government to add to the international momentum of U.S. President Barack Obama's easing of restrictions on Cuba, which has been heralded as a historic step in ending Washington's economic embargo and a half-century of Cold War tension between it and the Caribbean island.
Minister Kent proceeds to make an important geopolitical observation:
Kent said Canada needed to see significant steps toward democracy by Castro before it would consider supporting Cuba's re-admittance to the OAS. It has been suspended since 1962 but many OAS countries argued for Cuba's reinstatement at the recent hemispheric summit.
"If it were to accept Cuba in its present state, it would be contrary to the founding principles of the OAS," said Kent. "We fear it would encourage some of the wobbly democracies in the Americas to move more toward the Cuban model."
Kent cited Venezuela and "the ALBA countries," the acronym for the leftist bloc of countries, such as Bolivia and Nicaragua, that support Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. 

"Latin Values"

Jay Nordlinger makes a timely point in his most recent "Impromptus" essay:
"Do you remember our old friend 'Asian values'?  For years, Asian dictators and their apologists would trot out this phrase in explaining the region's lack of democracy.  'You in the West may have your elections, parliaments, free press, freedom of religion, right of association, and so on.  But we are different: We have Asian values.'  Well, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and some others put the lie to that — a lie that had been very useful to Asian anti-democrats."
Sound familiar?
While opposing the final declaration of last weekend's 5th Inter-American Summit (mostly due to Article 78, the democratic clause), the leaders of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Honduras and Nicaragua extolled "Latin values" and argued that normalizing relations with Cuba would be a reparation of sorts for the harm caused by U.S. "exploitation" of the region throughout the 20th century.    
Yet geopolitically, unilaterally normalizing relations with Cuba would de-contain regional undemocratic behavior and only serve to open the door to these leader's authoritarian tendencies; a potential return to the violent dictatorships of the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's.
The Americas, together with Europe, are the most democratic regions in the world.  It is in our best interest that they remain democratic.