The Spy Who Loved Castro

Saturday, July 3, 2010
By John Avlon in The Daily Beast:

El Diario's Vicky Pelaez, arrested as part of the Russia spy ring, glorified dictators Castro and Chavez in her columns and decried "American imperialism." John Avlon says her case is a wakeup call for fellow travelers.

In her writing, El Diario La Prensa columnist Vicky Pelaez managed to personify the stereotype of the reflexive leftist radical, attacking "American imperialism" and capitalism while lionizing dictators like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. In one column she compared Castro to Christ. Seriously.

"We had the moments of Christ, Mohammed, Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Newton, Pascal, Bolivar, Marti, Che Guevara, etc," she wrote. "Fidel Castro Ruz belongs to that glorious group of rebels!"

Pelaez, who along with her husband was among the 11 people arrested this week as part of the Russian spy ring, would be something of a late '60s museum piece, if her beliefs didn't now give urgent new meaning to the term "conviction journalism."

I spoke to her one-time editor and current columnist at El Diario, Gerson Borrero, who described her as "a pain in the ass" and "not my favorite colleague over the past 20 years" but said her arrest came as "a complete surprise."

"If you had told me that she'd been spying for Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, or China, I might have believed it, but Russia? I never heard her talk about Russia or the Soviet Union. Ever."

Read more here.

A Den of Terror

Friday, July 2, 2010
Last month, the Cuban Catholic Church began a series of negotiations with the Castro regime.

As a result of these negotiations, the Church heralded the transfer of 12 political prisoners to penitentiaries closer to their home provinces. Allow us to stress "transfer," not "release."

One of those transferred was Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, who is serving a 20-year sentence for his pro-democracy advocacy. Herrera was transferred from the Provincial Prison of Holguin to the Combinado de Guantanamo Prison -- The Real Guantanamo Prison.

So how does he feel about these transfers?

"I want to denounce to the international community that these transfers are nothing more than another farce by the regime. It is trying to win itself time. There's no good will gesture here, there's only physical and psychological torture," Herrera said.

An how does he feel about his new prison facility?

"It's a den of terror."

The following picture was drawn by a Cuban political prisoner -- and smuggled out -- for the world to witness what they suffer:

Don't Pack Your Bags Just Yet

By Achy Obejas in The Root:

Don't Book Your Travel to Cuba Just Yet

Farmers in Minnesota might have reason to celebrate recent legislation regarding the travel ban to the Caribbean island. But for those of us looking forward to partying in Havana -- not so much.

The Committee on Agriculture in the U.S. House passed legislation on Wednesday that suggests a possible lifting of the travel ban to Cuba, but Americans shouldn't make plans just yet.

For starters, while H.R. 4645, aka the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, is a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by 62 members of Congress and passed by the committee with a 25-20 vote, it still has to go through two more committee hurdles: Foreign Affairs and Financial Services. The real fight -- and thus the real bill, once it's been adjusted -- won't be revealed until later this summer, when, and if, it makes it through the other committees and is then taken up by the full House. Attempts were made in committee, in fact, to drop the travel section -- and no one should be surprised if it doesn't survive in future versions.

Read the entire article here.

LeMieux Statement on Ag Committee Markup

Thursday, July 1, 2010
Sen. LeMieux Statement on Attempt to Weaken U.S. Policy Toward Cuba

WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator George LeMieux (R-FL) today made the following statement regarding the U.S. House Agriculture Committee narrowly approving a bill that would lift the Cuba travel ban (HR 4645). The committee approved the legislation late yesterday.

Senator LeMieux said:

"This represents a blatant disregard of human rights violations the Castro regime commits against the Cuban people. This attempt to appease the Cuban dictatorship is wholly inconsistent with the United States' role as a beacon of freedom in this hemisphere, and around the world. This effort puts narrow corporate interests ahead of the need to protect the Cuban people from the Castro regime's brutal oppression.

Canadian and European tourists have long made their way to Cuba, despite the fact that the Cuban regime has grown more repressive and living conditions for a majority of Cubans have declined to unprecedented low levels. The money they spend there is handed over to the Castro regime's desperate totalitarian machine. Americans cannot allow themselves to be caught in the same trap of funding brutality.

Should this legislation reach the Senate, I will exercise every option at my disposal to prevent its passage. I am confident that many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will join with me in that fight."

Chairman Peterson's Dictatorship

Today's New York Times headline on the House Agriculture Committee's markup reads, "House Panel Votes to Ease Cuba Travel."

Yet, Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) repeated yesterday -- ad naseum -- that the Agriculture Committee didn't have jurisdiction over the travel portion of this bill (H.R. 4645).

Furthermore, he whimsically denied consideration of an amendment by Congressmen Joe Baca (D-CA) and Tom Rooney (R-FL) that would have removed the travel provision from the bill.

Why? Because he knew it would have overwhelmingly succeeded.

While surely some Members of the committee support the travel provision, not one Member spoke-up in favor of it. Meanwhile, numerous Members -- from both parties -- expressed their opposition to the travel provision.

In the end, the Chairman agreed to attaching language to the committee report from Members that oppose the travel provision -- ironically, a majority -- but were denied an up-or-down vote on it.

So let's be clear, the House Agriculture Committee did not vote "to ease Cuba travel." According to the Chairman himself, they had no jurisdiction over it.

It voted to "facilitate food sales."

Now, naivete aside, everyone in that committee room witnessed the mockery of the process and is on to this legislative scam.

But that's why, perhaps fittingly, the House Agriculture Committee is Chairman Peterson's dictatorship.

Menendez Statement on Ag Markup

Menendez Statement on House Agriculture Committee Consideration of Cuba Travel Bill

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) released the following statement today on the House Agriculture Committee's markup of legislation to lift the Cuba travel ban (H.R. 4645):

"The legislation being considered today in the House Agriculture Committee would enrich a regime that denies its own people basic human rights. So let me make this clear: I oppose and will filibuster any attempt to pass the bill in the Senate. The big corporate interests behind this bill couldn't care less about whether the Cuban people are free or not -- they only care about padding their profits by opening up a new market. The very fact that a travel bill is going through an agriculture committee makes one wonder why agriculture interests even care about travel to Cuba, unless it is to generate money for the Castro regime to buy agricultural goods.

The rest of the world travels to and invest in Cuba, none of which has brought democratic change. In fact, the Castro regime continues its abuse of pro-democratic forces and allows dissidents to die from futile hunger strikes in the face of one of the world's harshest dictatorships. Those who lament our dependence on foreign oil because it enriches regimes in places like Iran should not have a double standard when it comes to enriching the Castro regime, simply because Cuba offers white sand beaches 90 miles from our coast. Repression is repression and dictatorships are dictatorships, no matter where they are located or whether you want to use their resorts."

Statement by IRL on Ag Committee Markup

Statement by the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida:

"While the final outcome in the Agriculture Committee poses a financial gain for the Cuban regime, it was gratifying to hear so many of our Congressional colleagues highlight the plight of Cuban prisoners of conscience and the suffering that the Cuban people endure at the hands of the Castro tyranny. The focus must now be on ensuring that the Foreign Affairs Committee does the right thing by U.S. interests and by the Cuban people and asserts its jurisdiction over this issue.

Changes to U.S-Cuba policy such as the elimination of all travel regulations have no place in an agriculture bill. That is up to the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Foreign Affairs Committee has a responsibility to debate and carefully review any proposed changes to U.S.-Cuba policy. I am insisting that the Chairman of the Committee not abdicate such responsibility.

Security concerns, human rights and democracy promotion are matters of state and fall under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Affairs Committee and require due consideration by those Members with the knowledge and expertise on these important foreign policy issues. I have pressed the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee to prevent others from determining foreign policy related to the Cuban regime."‬‪‬‪

Is Greed Good?

Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Apparently, for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau and its allies -- greed is not only good, but unapologetic.

Move over Gordon Gekko.

From Roll Call:

Opponents of Cuba Embargo Poised for a Win

Advocates who want more U.S. travel and trade with Cuba are predicting victory today. The House Agriculture Committee is expected to pass legislation that would expand crop exports and lift a ban on travel to Cuba.

It's the first step before the measure can be approved by the full House.

Agriculture entities such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association and National Corn Growers Association along with retired military officers in the National Security Network and pro-trade groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been pressing for such a measure for years.

And House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson says he has worked over the past month to secure the votes needed for passage."This bill has been needed for a long time, and I expect the committee to report out the bill," the Minnesota Democrat said Tuesday.

Peterson's bill is just the latest attempt by House Members to end the nearly 50-year prohibition on almost all American travel to Cuba. The embargo was put in place in the 1960s to pressure Fidel Castro's government and spur democracy in the island country. Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) has introduced a similar bill without the agriculture provisions.

The chamber's John Murphy called the legislation's path "the journey of a thousand miles."

The chamber has long opposed the trade embargo with Cuba because it says it is a self-defeating policy.

"The reality is that Cuba is miserable, poor and unfree because of a half-century of Marxist mismanagement," Murphy said. "We believe the embargo allows Castro to blame Washington for all of the Cuban people's problems. We want to take away that pretext."

Agriculture groups such as the National Corn Growers Association are supporting the bill because it would likely increase the amount of exports to Cuba. While corn is already exported there, the group expects the agriculture provisions in the bill to increase the amount of ethanol and other exports, such as poultry, to the country.

"We've long had a policy trying to increase our trade with Cuba," the NCGA's DaNita Murray said. She added that some agriculture-producing states have been working on this issue for a decade.

Not everybody is hoping Peterson's prediction of passage is accurate. The U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, which supports the embargo, has been lobbying hard against the measure.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the group, said the decision to move legislation in the Agriculture panel instead of the Foreign Affairs Committee is subverting the normal legislative process.

"The whole travel portion will not have committee consideration," Claver-Carone said. "This leads us to a pretty dangerous state. It's the first step to completely diminishing the power and the role of the Foreign Affairs Committee, allowing other committees to conduct foreign policy."

Claver-Carone sent an e-mail blast last week after nearly 500 pro-democracy leaders from within Cuba sent a letter to Peterson opposing the legislation.

"The cause of liberty, and firm opposition to the oppressive totalitarian dictatorship in Havana, is so sacred that it is above all economic and mercantilist interests," wrote the Cubans, including several former political prisoners.

The U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC already this election cycle has contributed more than $455,000 to Members who support their efforts, including contributing $5,000 to Florida Democratic Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Kendrick Meek. Peterson is not among the recipients of the PAC's campaign dollars.Proponents of the bill say U.S.-Cuba PAC's tactics aren't going to work.

"This is not about campaign contributions," said David Jones of Capitol Counsel. "It's about whether or not our farmers and ranchers are going to be able to open a new agriculture market in Cuba."

Jones is lobbying on the provision for Vigilant Worldwide Communications, which works with Utah-based agriculture entities.

Despite the measure's expected success today, its path forward in the House and Senate is unclear. There are several hard-liners opposed to weakening the embargo, including Wasserman Schultz and Meek as well as Reps. Albio Sires (D-N.J.), Florida Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).

It's All About Business

Just for kicks-and-giggles, let's play this game again.

How many times are the words, freedom, human rights, democracy and political prisoners mentioned in this article?

Democracy was mentioned twice -- however, once was in the name of the political committee that actually opposes this legislation.

Not so funny, huh?

From The Hill:

Chamber raises stakes in Cuba travel ban

Business associations are raising the lobbying stakes on legislation that would remove the American travel ban and boost U.S. farm sales to Cuba.

In an unusual move, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a letter to House Agriculture Committee members warned it could score House floor votes on the bill that the panel is marking up Wednesday. Such letters typically aren't sent until a day before a floor vote.

"It sends a signal how seriously we are taking the bill," said Patrick Kilbride, the Chamber's director of the Americas office. "This just has been considered by the Chamber as fundamental to its advocacy message of free enterprise."

The Chamber has been a longtime advocate of opening up trade with Cuba, believing it will boost U.S. business and spread democracy to the communist regime. It argues the trade embargo has been a failure despite its best intentions.

"Instead of undermining the regime, it has helped the regime. We think opening up trade with Cuba will help spread democracy there," Kilbride said.

In the letter from Bruce Josten, the Chamber's chief lobbyist, the group says it will consider scoring votes on the measure if it reaches the floor.

Since 2007, the Chamber has only sent two other letters to lawmakers on Cuba-related legislation. Neither included language indicating the Chamber planned to score votes. Chamber officials said there simply have not been votes in the full House or Senate on bills dealing with Cuba for several years that rose to the level of a priority vote for the trade association.

The U.S. trade embargo has been on Cuba for 50 years, and lawmakers opposed to the policy have had little success in opening it up.

Political action committees affiliated with Cuban-Americans have been active in supporting the embargo, and have given campaign donations to members on both sides of the aisle. The U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee gave more than $73,000 to candidates and other political committees in the first quarter of 2010, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Prominent congressional supporters of the embargo include Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), a Cuban-American who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The bill being marked up Wednesday has 62 sponsors, including Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. The legislation would lift a travel ban to Cuba and loosen financial restrictions on transactions between Cuban and American banks, which should help boost U.S. farm exports to Cuba.

Peterson said he was confident the bill would move out of his committee, but the legislation will face a tougher vote on the floor.

In supporting the bill, Josten cited a March 2010 study by Texas A&M University that says easing restrictions on U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba and lifting the travel ban could be an economic boon. According to the study, loosening export and travel restrictions to Cuba could spark $365 million in sales of U.S. goods and create 6,000 new jobs in the United States, leading to a $1.1 billion economic impact.

Other business groups are also gearing up their lobbying operations to support the bill.

On Tuesday, the National Foreign Trade Council and USA*Engage, two pro-trade business associations, sent a letter to House Agriculture Committee members urging them to support the bill,and they plan to score votes on the bill if it reaches the House floor.

The National Farmers Union sent a letter to committee members on Monday urging lawmakers to support the bill and warning votes on the floor would be scored on the House floor.

An Ag Committee Bailout For Castro

Tuesday, June 29, 2010
By House Agriculture Committee Member, U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida in The Daily Caller:

Opening Cuba to travel a bailout for Castro

As the House Agriculture Committee prepares to vote Wednesday on a bill that would lift the travel ban on Cuba bolster the Castro regime with American tourism dollars, I remember the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote about the horrors of living in a Soviet gulag.

Solzhenitsyn noted, "We are slaves there from birth, but we are striving for freedom. You, however, were born free. If so, then why do you help our slave owners?"

According to a 2008 State Department report, Castro's regime was holding at least 205 political prisoners at the end of that year, and as many as 5,000 citizens served sentences without ever being charged with a specific crime. Just a few months ago, political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after an 86-day hunger strike. And today, American citizen Alan Gross is being held prisoner without charges for his efforts to help the Cuban people use the Internet.

Unfortunately, the bill before the Agriculture Committee, on which I serve, would lift the travel ban on Cuba without any human rights concessions. The bill would open up relations with a regime that routinely imprisons journalists and citizens who disagree with their government. This would send mixed messages about our commitment to the brave pro-democracy movement in Cuba.

Lifting the travel ban would inject millions of dollars into the Cuban government at a time when the Castro regime is on the ropes. Cuba's foreign trade declined by a third in the last year, the country is several billion dollars in debt to sovereign lenders, and its economic crisis is putting Castro's rule in jeopardy.

Why would we lift the travel ban and let American tourism dollars prop up the Castro regime? At this juncture, lifting the ban would amount to yet another bailout – only this time, we'd be bailing out a brutal dictatorship on the brink of collapsing.

Every dollar spent by American tourists in Cuba would contribute to the regime's bottom line, providing resources for Castro's army, his secret police and his political prisons. The State Department lists Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism and reports that the regime not only has close ties with Iran and North Korea, it also provides safe haven for terrorists from around the world. Opening Cuba to travel would jeopardize national security by allowing American tourism dollars to finance state-sponsored terror and help provide refuge to terrorists.

The bill's supporters argue that allowing American tourists into Cuba would weaken the regime. They fail to note that European, Canadian and Latin American visitors have been visiting the island regularly since the 1990s, and that has done nothing to undermine Castro or improve the lives of Cuban people.

To the contrary, Castro has used his control over the tourism industry to create a national system of apartheid and segregation. Cuban citizens cannot enter the hotels, resorts, beaches, restaurants and stores where foreign tourists visit. Tourists have very limited interactions with the Cuban people. The State Department warns that any interaction with a Cuban could be monitored by the secret police and can subject that Cuban to harassment, detention or other repressive actions. The Castro-run tourism industry also openly promotes child prostitution, a horrible abuse heaped on Cuba's children.

No wonder that the influx of European and Canadian tourists has not brought greater freedom to Cuba – the tourism industry has become a tool for the Castro regime to expand its control over the Cuban people. Liberalizing our travel policies with Cuba would fare no better than efforts by Europe or Canada.

We have a choice. We can keep the pressure on the Castro regime and help bring about a post-Castro government that could start anew with us by leaving communism behind. Or we can remove travel restrictions and not only give the Communist party the means to persist, but legitimize their treatment of the Cuban people over the past 60 years.

For nearly a half century the United States stood alone to stare down the Evil Empire and its spread of communism. We did this not just because communism posed serious threats to our security, as in the case of the Soviet Union, or minimal threats, as in the case of modern day Cuba, but because it is in fact evil. Communism flies squarely in the face of the very liberty and natural rights on which we base our entire existence.

How can anyone honestly say now is the time to ignore all that has happened in Cuba? Let us send a message to the next generation of Cuban leaders after the Castros: they can continue a defeated evil regime, or be welcomed as a free nation with the United States as partner.

Congressman Tom Rooney represents Florida's 16th district. He is the only member of the Florida delegation serving on either the House or Senate Agriculture Committees.

"Sunshine Policy" Toward Cuba?

Monday, June 28, 2010
From The Washington Times:

'Sunshine policy' toward Cuba?

Similar wishful thinking failed to bring together the two Koreas

By Mauricio Claver-Carone

North and South Korea are facing their gravest crisis since the end of the Korean War as South Korea threatens to retaliate against North Korea for sinking one of its warships. Forty-six sailors died in the torpedo attack by a North Korean submarine.

Yet only a decade ago, South Korean politicians and pundits were saying that five decades of political containment and economic isolation had "failed" and should be replaced with a new policy of engagement and reconciliation toward the totalitarian regime of North Korea's Kim Jong-il. The rest of the world had moved on past the Cold War, they argued, while the Koreas were still trapped in a state of conflict and mistrust.

If that sounds familiar, it's because opponents of U.S. sanctions policy use the same argument regarding Cuba.

In 1997, Kim Dae-Jung was elected president of South Korea by a new generation of South Koreans who didn't share their grandparents' horrific war experiences and viewed North Korea as a harmless Cold War relic. A year later, Mr. Kim began articulating his sunshine policy of greater political and economic contact between the Koreas to create an atmosphere conducive to change and reform in North Korea. The policy was greeted with great international fanfare. Mr. Kim and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il held a high-level summit in Pyongyang, initiating high-profile business ventures, and a series of family reunification visits commenced. Kim Dae-Jung was awarded the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize.

Critics, however, were voicing concerns that unconditionally fostering better relations with the North Korean regime while ignoring the repressive, belligerent nature of its dictatorship would prop up Kim Jong-il at a time of economic vulnerability and uncertainty. The Soviet Union, which had been North Korea's main supplier of military and economic aid, had collapsed just years earlier.

Ten years later, the critics have been proved correct. The sunshine policy provided the North Korean regime the wherewithal to become an international nuclear menace while intensifying the brutal oppression of its population.

Nonetheless, there are U.S. politicians and pundits arguing today that it's time for the United States to set aside its policy of isolation and containment toward Cuba and the Castro regime and adopt its own sunshine policy of dialogue and engagement.

Similarities abound in the relationships between South and North Korea and between the United States and Cuba. The two Koreas share a geographical and cultural proximity. While the population of South Korea is only twice that of North Korea, its economy is 30 times greater than that of the North, making it the North's most natural source of income.

The United States and Cuba also share geographical and cultural proximity. Thanks to a large Cuban-American community, the United States is Cuba's most natural (and currently most pursued) source of income. The purchasing power of 2 million Cuban-Americans residing in the U.S. is 30 times that of Cuba's 11.5 million people, so Cuba looks to the United States as a natural source of income.

Similarities also abound in the regimes of North Korea and Cuba. In addition to their daunting totalitarian tastes for control and repression, the regimes of Kim Jong-il in North Korea and Raul and Fidel Castro in Cuba also share a pathological hatred for the United States and the unenviable distinction of remaining the world's sole communist command-economies. Both countries are unwilling, irrational and unreliable partners.

North Korea didn't use the billions in aid and trade that flowed out of South Korea's sunshine policy for the benefit of its people. Neither did it undertake any discernible political or economic reforms. North Korea used the money to solidify its repressive control at home and be a regional menace.

The same can be said of every penny Cuba's regime has received from abroad, be it the aid from the Soviet Union in the 1980s, from European and Canadian tourists throughout the 1990s or from Venezuelan oil for the past 10 years. People's lives in Cuba didn't improve one bit, but Castro's internal repression and regional menace increased proportionally.

The Castro brothers' regime has been crippled by its current economic crisis. It is facing a determined pro-democracy movement led by such courageous leaders as Guillermo Farinas, now in the third month of a hunger strike, and the Ladies in White. It is beset by domestic criticism and calls for change from a new generation of bloggers and independent journalists. And it has been internationally discredited by the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo in an 85-day hunger strike protesting the use of torture in Cuba.

The United States has a choice to make: It can just give the Castro regime the "sunshine" and legitimacy that it so desperately wants, or it can remain steadfast in its demand that Cuba first demonstrate respect for human rights and begin enacting democratic reforms.

As South Korea's sunshine policy demonstrates, only after the sun sets on repression can it shine on-and-for the people of Cuba.

Mauricio Claver-Carone is a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and founding editor of in Washington.

Tragic Challenge of the Week

Read the following article from the agricultural publication, USAgNet, on Wednesday's markup of the Peterson bill in the House Agriculture Committee.

Now, count how many times it mentions the words, freedom, democracy, human rights or political prisoners.

House Ag Panel Scheduled to Mark Up Cuba Bill on Wednesday

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson announced Friday his Committee will hold a mark-up of a bill to ease trade and travel restrictions with Cuba on Wednesday at 2 p.m.

The bill in question, known as the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, or H.R. 4645, was introduced in February by Peterson, Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and more than 30 other original cosponsors.

The bill would be a catalyst of opportunity for significant new wheat sales to Cuba by permanently easing travel restrictions and a number of payment challenges, including the so-called "payment of cash in advance" rule.

The rule was interpreted by the Treasury Department in 2005 to mean that payment for goods going to Cuba had to be made before the goods left U.S. ports – a far stricter standard than for most transactions and one that put a significant damper on Cuba sales.

Many ag commodity groups have long supported both economic and humanitarian grounds any effort to ease trade restrictions with Cuba, which cost the industry tens of millions of dollars of lost sales each year.

First Free Election in 52 Years

Our congratulations to the Guinean people on Sunday's historic, democratic election.

Their spirit and perseverance is truly inspirational.

According to the AP:

Guinea holds 1st free election after army rule era

CONAKRY, Guinea — They've voted before — but never freely, and never fairly.

On Sunday, junta-ruled Guinea cast ballots for a new president in the first democratic election this West African nation has ever known. The poll caps an odyssey of repression and dictatorship spanning a half century that climaxed with a year of military rule so terrifying, people carved hiding places in their attics to avoid their own rampaging army.

It also breathes life into the hope — however tenuous — that a new generation of leaders may finally bring substantive change to a corruption-riddled country whose 10 million inhabitants rank among Africa's poorest despite sitting atop billions of dollars of mineral wealth.

"We have voted and we are FREE!" one man with tears in his eyes screamed at a red-bereted presidential guard outside the villa housing Gen. Sekouba Konate — the junta chief who steered Guinea toward elections after his predecessor was shot in the head and nearly killed in December.

"The military is now in their place and we are in ours. We are real citizens! We are free! Do you understand?" the man said, wagging his index finger indignantly in the elite guard's face and proudly waving a voter registration card.

Why Lift the Travel Ban to Cuba Now?

Sunday, June 27, 2010
By The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board's Mary Anastasia O'Grady:

Why Lift the Travel Ban to Cuba Now?

Waves of Canadian, European and Latin American visitors haven't changed a thing.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Honduran Supreme Court's decision to order the arrest of Manuel Zelaya, a power-hungry Hugo Chávez acolyte who tried to remain president
for life.

It's something to celebrate: Thanks to the bravery of the court and the Congress, which voted to remove him from office, democracy was saved.

Yet a nagging question remains: Why were the Obama administration and key congressional Democrats obsessed, for seven months, with trying to force Honduras to take Mr. Zelaya back? Why did the U.S. pull visas, deny aid, and lead an international campaign to isolate the tiny Central American democracy? To paraphrase many Americans who wrote to me during the stand-off: "Whose side are these guys on anyway?"

Such doubts about the motivations of the party in power in Washington will be hard to ignore this week as the Democrats try to put U.S. Cuba policy back on the legislative agenda.

Specifically, Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson will try to pass a bill in the House Agriculture Committee that would lift the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba without any human-rights concession from Castro.

The end of the Cuba travel ban would mean a bonanza in tourism to the island at a time when Fidel and Raúl are in desperate need of new revenue. But the push to lift the ban has anti-Castro supporters too. They argue that it is isolation that preserves the dictatorship and that a barrage of gringo tourists would weaken the dictatorship.

Proponents of the ban point out that a wave of European, Canadian and Latin American visitors since the mid-1990s hasn't changed a thing. They worry that American sun-seekers will only prop up a dictatorship that is most famous for slave labor, jailing dissidents and sowing revolution in the hemisphere.

With so much risk involved, any policy change will depend heavily on being able to trust the motives of U.S. leaders. Recall that it was Nixon who went to China. That's why efforts to change policy that are being led by the current crop of Democrats make so many Americans uneasy.

After all, if Mr. Peterson wants to boost commerce why not push for passage of the Colombia free trade agreement? Why is he so interested in doing business with a dictator?

The dictatorship is hard up for hard currency. The regime now relies heavily on such measures as sending Cuban doctors to Venezuela in exchange for marked-down oil. But according to a recent Associated Press story, "Cuba's foreign trade plunged by more than a third in 2009," perhaps because Caracas, running out of money itself, is no longer a reliable sugar daddy. A sharp drop in nickel prices hasn't helped, and neither did three hurricanes in 2008, which devastated housing.

Cuba owes sovereign lenders billions of dollars, according to the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, and according to a June 23 Reuters report, it is so cash-strapped that it had "froze[n] up to $1 billion in the accounts of 600 foreign suppliers by the start of 2009."

Now there is a serious food shortage. This month the independent media in Cuba reported that a scarcity of rice had the government so worried about civil unrest that it had to send police to accompany deliveries to shops.

This has the regime scrambling. Several sources reported to me that the Roman Catholic cardinal from Havana, Jaime Ortega, was on a secretive trip to Washington last week to lobby for an end to the travel ban. One of his meetings was rumored to be with the State Department's assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela. The State Department declined to tell me if this was true or not.

Other sources said that the cardinal reached out to members of Congress, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman and his staffer Peter Quilter. I queried Mr. Berman's office but got no reply. Regular readers of this column know Mr. Quilter's politics. As I reported in April, he traveled with Sen. John Kerry's staffer Fulton Armstrong to Tegucigalpa to warn Hondurans who backed the removal of Mr. Zelaya that they are still in the doghouse.

While Castro relies on the embargo to explain Cuban poverty, he does, it seems, badly need gringo tourism, which he could control. And if Cardinal Ortega has decided to intervene on behalf of the regime's needs, it would not be surprising. He has long been viewed by human-rights advocates -- such as former political prisoner Armando Valladares, a practicing Catholic -- as more a tool of the regime than a champion of the oppressed. A kinder assessment of the cardinal suggests that he's trying to boost the Church's power on the island. In either case, acting as an emissary to Washington right now would make sense.

But for those interested in Cuban freedom it is bizarre. For the first time in history the Castros are cornered. Yet rather then negotiate from a position of strength, Democrats seem to want to give relief to the dictatorship.

Assad Hearts Castro-Chavez

Syrian dictator Bashar Assad arrives in Havana today.

In a statement to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), the Chargé d'Affaires at the Cuban Embassy in Damascus, Pedro Estevez Pineiro, described the visit as "historic," adding that it will help strengthen bilateral relations between the two countries.

He stated that the Castro regime is calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of the Golan and restoring it to Syrian sovereignty, saying that Syria and Cuba are engaged in the same struggle for independence and sovereignty against occupation and hegemony.

Syria and Cuba are two of the four remaining countries on the U.S. State Department's State Sponsors of Terrorism list. The other two are Iran and Sudan.

Meanwhile, Assad just concluded a visit in Caracas with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, where the AP reported:

Chavez meets with Syria's Assad in Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez met with Syrian President Bashar Assad on Saturday and called on Latin America and the Arab world to fight what he called America's imperialist and capitalist interests abroad.

During a meeting at Venezuela's presidential palace, Chavez told Assad it was an honor to host the Syrian leader on his first visit to Latin America. Chavez presented Assad with a gold-plated replica of a sword that once belonged to South American independence hero Simon Bolivar — the inspiration for his "Bolivarian Revolution."

The two leaders signed an agreement to create a $100 million trade and development fund.

"Arab civilization and our civilization, the Latin American one, are being summoned in this new century to play the fundamental role of liberating the world, saving the world from the imperialism and capitalist hegemony that threaten the human species," Chavez said. "Syria and Venezuela are at the vanguard of this struggle."

Assad praised Chavez for standing up to the United States and supporting the Palestinian struggle.

No Room For Stalin in the 21st Century

Omen to the Castro brothers.

From the AP:

Georgian authorities pull down Stalin monument

TBILISI, Georgia — Authorities in Georgia on Sunday tore down another monument to Soviet dictator and native son Josef Stalin.

The monument in the town of Tkibuli in western Georgia was taken down two days after authorities tore down a bigger and more famous monument to Stalin in his hometown of Gori.

Both statues were brought down in the middle of the night in an apparent bid to avoid protests and media attention.

Stalin was born to a modest family of cobblers in 1878. Both monuments in his honor were erected before his death in 1953.

The Georgian government says a younger generation who have embraced Western ideals of freedom favor the dismantling of Stalin's monuments.

"A memorial to Stalin has no place in the Georgia of the 21st Century," President Mikhail Saakashvili said Friday. Saakashvili's government said a memorial to the fallen in the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 will replace Stalin's statue in Gori.

Georgia's Culture Minister Nikolos Rurua said the government will also soon rename Georgian streets still carrying Stalin's name.