Happy New Year!

Saturday, January 1, 2011
"For last year's words belong to last year's language and next year's words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning."

-- T. S. Eliot, English poet and Nobel laureate (1888-1965)

May 2011 bring Cuba and its people a new voice.

But most importantly, a new beginning.

Dr. Biscet's Wife Writes to Raul Castro

Friday, December 31, 2010
As 2010 closes, Elsa Morejon, wife of Cuban political prisoner, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, has written an open letter to Raul Castro, upon his regime's failure to uphold an agreement to release 52 political prisoners that were specifically-named on July 7th of this year.

Here's the core message:

First, the prison conditions to which you have subjected my husband in the Combinado del Este Prison do not correspond to him by law.

Second, of the 52 political prisoners that should have been released by November 7th, 11 remain in prison, including my husband.

So my questions to you are as follow:

1. Why weren't you able to uphold the agreement with the Church and international community, which began with such seriousness?

2. On various occasions during those four months, international cables contained statements by Cuban government officials, Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada and Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, both of whom declared that they would all be released and that those that did not want to emigrate could stay in Cuba, their homeland. Yet five months have passed and your announcement has not been fulfilled, as only one political prisoner, of those that decided to stay in their country, has been released on parole.

3. Why the silence amidst so much speculation, which only tears at our emotions, as family members of these prisoners, who saw in this agreement a positive and humanitarian step?

The Hug That Failed

A hard-hitting Investor's Business Daily editorial:

Diplomacy: If there's any doubt that U.S. kissing up to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has been a disaster, note the mutual expulsion of envoys Wednesday. Some diplomacy. This is the product of appeasement, not strength.

It was quite a bright dawn two years ago when President Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, went out of their way to make nice with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez at a summit in Trinidad. They shook hands, touched him like an old friend, accepted his insulting anti-American book as a gift, and declared they were "there to listen" as the diatribes flowed.

Instead of improving relations, we can now see where that leads — to a fast deterioration in ties.

Because Chavez acts like a clown, it's easy for the Obama administration not to take him seriously. The administration also fears being singled out in the hemisphere for Chavez's rage, as the Bush administration was.

So President Obama and some of his political appointees at State seem to think the way to handle him is to appease him — even as evidence mounts that he's a predator.

Chavez refused career diplomat Larry Palmer as U.S. ambassador to Caracas because he made "aggressive" and "unacceptable" attacks on his rule. In fact, Palmer merely explained to the Foreign Relations Committee at his Senate confirmation hearing last June that morale is low in Venezuela's military and the government is sheltering drug-dealing guerrillas from Colombia. All true.

It was enough for Chavez to throw a tantrum and reject the president's choice of envoy, as well as place himself in a position to bully the U.S. into nominating an ambassador of his choosing.

Fact is, these things happened because U.S. hasn't dealt Chavez a hard enough hand.

The U.S. — rightly — kicked Chavez's own envoy out in retaliation for this thuggery. But even that packed less punch than it should have because Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela, a former board member of La Raza, merely revoked Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez's visa instead of the much tougher act of declaring him persona non grata.

They also dragged Palmer's nomination out for six months, which gave Chavez the time he needed to step up his attacks.

Worse still, Chavez could see a divided State Department, where the spokesman defended Palmer, and Valenzuela actually blamed Senator Richard Lugar's staff for asking Palmer tough questions.

It's all part of a message, sent again and again, that Chavez's tantrums don't matter, his acts don't matter and all that matters is not confronting him. It will only get worse from here.

A Striking Similarity

Thursday, December 30, 2010
From a VOA News interview with Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi:

Q. The U.S. and E.U. have supported the reformers in your country by imposing sanctions. This has become a controversial topic.

"I want to clarify the situation because some people are using sanctions as an excuse for the economic mess that's going on in this country. Most economic organizations and some economists say that the main problem is economic policy that the present regime has imposed, and unless the economic policies change, Burma is not going to take off and become another 'Asian tiger'."

Q. How can Burma's economic problems be solved?

"The economic policies of the nation are very much part of the whole political set up. Unless that can change, unless people in government are prepared to change, they're not going to change."

The Canadian Far Left

By Mark Sholdice in The Propagandist:

Useful Idiots. The Far Left's Support for Foreign Oppression

A popular but apocryphal legend tells us that Lenin cynically coined the term "useful idiots" to denote Western sympathizers of the Soviet regime. A BBC radio documentary of the same name appeared last summer, outlining the history of such individuals, from Walter Duranty's Pulitzer Prize-winning Stalinist propaganda in the 1930s to those who defend the authoritarian government of Iran today.
Useful idiots are also prevalent in Canada's far left milieu, acting in support of such diverse causes as anti-democratic Islamism in the Middle East, Communism in Cuba, Bolivarian socialism in Venezuela, and even the re-establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. An overview of the far left scene shows us how each group specializes in the defence of a particular autocracy. Like their Stalinist predecessors, these modern useful idiots are attracted to the ideological prestige and recruiting potential that come with such efforts [...]

Canadian far left groups take interest in helping authoritarian leaders in South America, such as Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela. Canadian radicals produce a great amount of apology for anti-democratic trends and autocracy in South America, seeing these regimes as allies in their anti-American struggle. The Toronto-based Latin American and Caribbean Solidarity Network (LASN) is an umbrella group for far left organizations in support of the continent's oppressive governments.

A large variety of far-left groups support the Canadian Network on Cuba (CNC), including the Communist Party of Canada, the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist), Socialist Action and the Vancouver-based Movement Against War and Oppression. A number of local groups are designated by the use of the title "Canadian-Cuba Friendship Association" in the style of the Cold War-era National Council for Canadian-Soviet Friendship, which was set-up as a front by the Communist Party. Cuba-focused tour agencies are also represented on the CNC, paradoxically allying a profit motive with support for the anti-capitalist regime.

The CNC is a very loyal mouthpiece of the Castro government, seen in an April 2010 press release on the death of Cuban democracy activist Orlando Zapata Tamayo after a prolonged hunger-strike. The author of the statement, Dalhousie University professor and CNC co-chair Isaac Saney, repeated the line of Cuban state-owned media outlets by stating that Zapata was nothing but "a habitual common criminal" who does not deserve to be recognized as a democratic martyr. Yet Zapata was indeed a dissident acknowledged by Amnesty International. The CNC and its member organizations are also extremely vocal in their support for the release of the "Cuban Five," a group of intelligence officers sent by the Cuban government to infiltrate anti-Castro exile groups and US military installations in Florida, who have been imprisoned since 1998. The Cuban Five have been portrayed by sympathizers as victims of injustice, in spite of their activities as spies.

Like the IS and its particular focus on radical Islam, the Canadian Trotskyists of the International Marxist Tendency seem to specialize in the promotion of Hugo Chavez' rule over Venezuela, via front groups called Hands Off Venezuela – Canada and La Société Bolivarienne du Québec. The Venezuela We Are With You Coalition is IS' pro-Chavez front group, which has participated in public events with the organization's other fronts, such as the Global Boycott Divestments Sanctions Day of Action protest at the Israeli consulate on June 5th. IS supporters also seem to be the organizers of the Bolivia Action Solidarity Network.

One of the most bizarre far left groups in this country is a tiny sect called the Canadian Friends of the Soviet People (CFSP), which advocates for the re-establishment of the USSR. The main activity of the CFSP is the publication of the Northstar Compass, which has been produced since August 1991 by ex-CPC cadres who were upset with the "revisionist" line the party took after the USSR's disintegration. The CFSP also supports North Korea, the last Stalinist regime in the world, along with the authoritarian dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus.
Carrying on an old tradition, the Canadian far left continues to produce useful idiocy in the support of authoritarian regimes around the world. More important, of course, is the ongoing cooperation of mainstream leftist groups in these efforts, such as trade union financial aid for the CPA. These so-called progressives have betrayed the spirit of social democracy in their complicit assistance to the Canadian-based propagandists of foreign dictators.

Honoring Celia Cruz

The U.S. Postal Service announced yesterday that it is honoring Cuban music legend Celia Cruz with a 2011 commemorative stamp.

Celia Cruz will forever be remembered for her artistic genius and for her unwavering commitment to the freedom of the Cuban people.

Due to this commitment, she was never allowed to return to Cuba by the Castro regime, even to attend her mother's funeral.

Yet, as a poignant tribute once noted, fifty years from now Cuban history books will show a very short mention of Fidel Castro as "a corrupt politician who lived in the times of Celia Cruz."

From Jail to Exile

From a collection of recent Cuban political prisoner testimonies by the Committee to Protect Journalists:

Unexpected departure: From jail to exile

By Omar Rodríguez Saludes

It was about 4 in the afternoon on July 8 when the official assigned to me at Toledo Prison, where I'd been locked up for nearly five years, came running to get me. He was in such a hurry that that he tripped and almost fell to the ground. "Saludes, we're going upstairs," he said, breathless and sweating. He didn't give me any more details, but I soon found out that he was taking me up to the director's office where State Security was waiting for me. "They've come to talk to me," I told myself. And they had.

At the chief's desk sat an agent of the political police. I didn't recognize his face, but he had the same harshness and arrogance as all members of that repressive body. As soon as I entered the office, the agent signaled me silently to pick up the telephone receiver lying unhooked on the desk.

With countless questions racing through my head, mostly related to my family, I picked up the phone.

"Yes..." I said.

"Is this Omar Rodríguez Saludes?" a female voice asked me.

"Yes," I responded, laconic and intrigued.

"One moment please."

Without delay, a man's voice came on the line. He identified himself as Orlando Márquez, official spokesman for the Archbishopric of Havana and secretary to the cardinal. Márquez hastily told me that Monsignor Ortega wanted to speak with me.

After formal greetings, Monsignor Jaime Ortega Alamino, archbishop of Havana, got straight to the point, disclosing the results of negotiations with Cuba's leader, Raul Castro, that he and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos had mediated.

Following his summary, Ortega Alamino said that he had included my name among the first five prisoners that would "shortly travel to Spain with their family members." The cardinal asked if I would accept this proposal.

"Monsignor, I greatly appreciate your concern," I told him. "But you will understand that I can't give you an answer now. First, I have to speak with my family, principally with my wife. They also have the right to make a decision." This was my answer.

The cardinal assured me that he would immediately contact my wife and that he would make arrangements "with the authorities" for a family visit.

Before saying goodbye, I thanked the cardinal for his efforts in support of 75 prisoners of conscience and of the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White. I also extended my thanks to Pope John Paul II, who always advocated for our freedom and was always concerned about the Cuban people. The prelate thanked me for my words and bid me goodbye, giving me God's blessing.

Our conversation had lasted 20 minutes. I was obliged to raise my voice so that the archbishop could hear me. "There's a problem with the line," the security agent in the chief's seat told me sarcastically while jotting down each of my words. To clear up any uncertainties, he asked me pointblank if I wanted to travel to Spain or not. My answer was categorical: "No," I said. "You know all too well that it has never been my intention to abandon Cuba." Following a brief exchange, the agent assured me that I would be granted a family visit as soon as possible.

The next day, at 3 in the afternoon, I received a visit from my wife and my eldest son. We were given barely 30 minutes to decide our fates. I explained to my family the difficulties of being deported, which are made worse by arriving to a new destination in a state of complete neglect and disorientation. I asked them to carefully analyze their decision before communicating it to me. In the end, both opted for leaving.

When the visit was over, without wasting any time, five state security agents met with me in the same room. They assured me that I could bring a "reasonable number" of family members to Spain. "They will be able to come back when they wish, but not you," they told me when I asked if I would be able to return to Cuba whenever I wanted. "You leave for Spain in less than a week," they announced.

At that point, time sped up. There was scarcely enough time to finalize and coordinate everything. The day after my family's visit, two soldiers arrived at my bedside to tell me to gather all of my belongings. "Saludes, get everything because you're leaving. State Security is coming to get you," they told me. They almost surprised me in the act of writing in the secret diary that I'd kept, cautiously, since my first day in prison, and in which I was able to record the impressions that now fill this page. Minutes before their arrival, I had saved my final notes in the usual hiding place.

The other prisoners congratulated me and kept telling me how happy they were to see me get out. Everyone wanted to send me off with a goodbye, the goodbye we had always longed for next to a seemingly permanent question mark.

Why Isn't Alan Gross on EcuRed?

By Rick Robinson in The Daily Caller:

Why isn't there any mention of Alan Gross on EcuRed?

The founding of the website EcuRed — Cuba's newest propaganda tool — reaffirms one long-standing principle of comparative international politics. Communists suck at naming things.

The phenomenon is understandable. Communists were never schooled in the capitalist skill of marketing. The Soviet Union never had a "branding" initiative at the Politburo.

EcuRed was created by — get this name — the Youth Club of Electronics & Computers of Havana. The name of EcuRed's founding organization conjures up visions of serious young people in uniforms, all gazing into the screen of an old cathode-ray tube monitor. Perhaps they meet in an otherwise barren office with a 20-year-old picture of Fidel peeling from the wall. If they want to complete the picture, perhaps they could simply rename themselves the Internet Brown Shirts.

Of course that is a silly suggestion. Our own FCC no doubt has a plan to claim the domain names InternetBrownShirts.gov, .org and .com any day now. Though, given the wimpiness of the Obama administration when it comes to Havana, the White House would probably have the FCC sign the domain names over to the Cubans if they asked nicely.

In essence, EcuRed purports to be, with a few exceptions, the Cuban version of Wikipedia. Each article on Wikipedia notes that material posted without a source may be removed. EcuRed probably has a similar process for addressing any proposed changes in content. But, in the Castro tradition of free speech, instead of the inaccurate posting being removed, the person challenging it can be removed…literally…permanently… forever.

Even by the lax standards of internet reporting, EcuRed is a sham. The bloggers on birther websites would have to scoff at how completely baseless and biased the EcuRed articles are. Ya gotta have some journalistic standards, after all.

But that assumes you are at least trying to tell the truth. EcuRed is simply a propaganda tool, but one that has the potential to reach far more people than Pravda, the official newspaper of the Soviet Union until 1991, or Pravda's little brother, the Cuban Communist Party rag Granma.

Perhaps the most direct evidence that this new website is a propaganda tool of the Castro regime is the fact that there is no EcuRed listing for Alan Gross.

The sad & strange story of Alan Gross

Alan Gross is a 60-year-old American U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor. He has been wasting away in a Cuban jail for over a year, despite never having been formally charged with any crime.

A husband and father of two daughters, Gross worked for a company in Maryland that gave him a portion of their USAID grant to deliver cell phones and computers to Cuba's Jewish community. He had made five trips to Cuba in nine months distributing equipment.

According to an article in the Washington Post, Gross had "also helped the Cubans download music, Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica off flash drives."

As he tried to leave the island in December of 2009, Gross was arrested. Although he has never been charged with any crime, Cuban officials now claim that Gross is an American spy.

International opinion on Alan Gross varies. He's been labeled both a patriot and a puppet. Many feel he is simply an unintended casualty of the ongoing U.S.-Cuba stand-off.

Alan Gross may be called a lot of things (for believing he could move around Cuba unencumbered, naive is a good start), but he is certainly not an American spy. The CIA doesn't train their inductees in language by giving them Rosetta Stone, which is how Gross learned the broken Spanish he speaks in jail.

And, judging from his activities in Cuba, if Gross is a trained American spy, we have a lot bigger problems here than our relations with Cuba. If Gross is on the CIA's payroll, America needs to spend a lot more money on training.

The establishment of EcuRed this month therefore puts an ironic new twist on the detainment of Alan Gross. In a country where internet use is restricted for most citizens, Gross was bringing Cubans equipment that would have actually given them the ability to access and read EcuRed.

Unfortunately for Alan Gross and his family, he has become a pawn. International sources who have met with the Castro regime have indicated that Gross has become a trading chip in Castro's efforts to gain return of five Cuban nationals serving time in American jails for spying. The Castro regime is seeking a 5-for-1 trade.

Fidel Castro can write the EucRed profile for Alan Gross

2010 will be remembered as the year when Fidel Castro embarked on his "I Am Not A Tyrannical Despot World Tour." In the twilight of his life, Castro has started a public relations campaign, trying to transform his image as a totalitarian dictator to that of an international statesman.

Castro has apologized for the systematic persecution of gays under his watch. He told a reporter for The Atlantic that Iranian leaders need to quit being anti-Semitic. But his words, unmatched with action to date, have been meaningless.

The case of Alan Gross gives Fidel Castro the opportunity to match his words with action. Gross is ill and has lost 90 of his pre-incarceration 250 pounds. Back home, his daughter is fighting cancer. International humanitarian agencies have called for his release.

It's time for the Castro regime to respond and send Alan Gross home.

As part of his activities this past year, Fidel Castro published several columns. The Alan Gross situation gives him the perfect opportunity to write and post an article on EcuRed:

Alan Gross — American contractor held prisoner in Cuban jail without charges for distributing cell phones and internet equipment. He was set free on humanitarian grounds by direct order of Fidel Castro in 2011.

Quote(s) of the Week

Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Two great quotes from two very different people:

"When I hear the President of Cuba, Mr. Castro, I don't even know whether it's Fidel or Raul anymore... say that they have to rectify or perish, I ask myself, why didn't they rectify 50 years ago."

-- Alan Garcia, President of Peru, AP, December 27, 2010

"The stink of a dying dinosaur gives me great joy."

-- Gorki Aguila, Cuban punk rocker, on the imminent demise of the Castro brothers, Diario de Cuba, December 24, 2010

PBS's Rosey Goggles

PBS's Ray Suarez spent the better part of this month in Havana, hosted by the Castro regime, reporting on the "marvels" of Cuban health care.

As the Wall Street Journal's Mary O'Grady effectively debunks:

In his memoir covering four years in Cuba as a correspondent for Spanish Television, Vicente Botín tells about a Havana woman who was frustrated by the doctor shortage in the country. She hung a sheet on her balcony with the words "trade me to Venezuela." When the police arrived she told them: "Look, compañeros, I'm as revolutionary as the next guy, but if you want to see a Cuban doctor, you have to go to Venezuela."

That story was not in the three-part report by Ray Suarez on Cuban health care that aired on PBS's "NewsHour" last week. Nor was the one about the Cuban whose notice of his glaucoma operation arrived in 2005, three years after he died and five years after he had requested it. Nor was there any coverage of the town Mr. Botín writes about close to the city of Holguín, that in 2006 had one doctor serving five clinics treating 600 families. In fact, it was hard to recognize the country that Mr. Suarez claimed to be describing.

Make sure to read O'Grady's whole editorial, "A Cuban Fairy Tale From PBS," here.

Furthermore, today's Miami Herald reports:

In one Cuban hospital, patients had to bring their own light bulbs. In another, the staff used "a primitive manual vacuum'' on a woman who had miscarried. In others, Cuban patients pay bribes to obtain better treatment.

But what about the elite Cuban hospitals -- the ones Ray Suarez toured -- where foreigners and government officials are treated?

Not so great either.

Otherwise, why would Cuba's Vice-Minister of Health, Abelardo Ramirez, travel to France for cancer treatment?

Or why would the head of Cuba's most propagandized hospital, CIMEQ, travel to Britain for surgery?

Or why was Fidel Castro treated by a Spanish doctor for his recent health woes?

Time to remove the goggles altogether.

Vene-Cuba's Grim 2011 Outlook

From The Eurasia Group:

In Venezuela, deteriorating economic conditions, rising crime, and pervasive shortages of electricity and basic consumer goods have pushed President Hugo Chavez's popularity numbers lower over the past two years, and political tension and uncertainty is bound to increase in the run up to the crucial 2012 presidential elections. His most recent electoral setback in the November midterm legislative election provides a check on his administration and its policies. But Chavez has not moderated his politics or economic policy in response, and though Venezuela has one of the worst growth outlooks in the region, his administration will likely push forward without major policy changes in 2011. Growth will be slow and inflation will remain high. Authorities will continue to intervene heavily in the economy and could resort to a new round of company takeovers to combat rising inflation and worsening food shortages.

Sluggish economic growth and dwindling state finances will encourage Raul Castro's government to slowly liberalize elements of the Cuban economy in 2011. The economic reform plans are ambitious, but Cuba is not moving toward political change, and the island's inability to trade with the United States will continue to hinder its recovery. Any change in U.S. policy toward Cuba is extremely unlikely, especially as Republicans take control of the House of Representatives and a longtime supporter of the embargo, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), assumes the chairmanship of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Catholic Church Cannot be Trusted in Cuba

Tuesday, December 28, 2010
According to a Wikileak-released cable from the U.S. Embassy in Vatican City:

(C/NF) The Vatican hopes for a transition to democracy in Cuba, but is not at the forefront of that battle because it is more concerned about protecting its small space for operations in Cuba.

In other words, for the Catholic Church in Cuba, freedom, democracy and human rights come second to its institutional presence.

Isn't selfishness one of the primary roots of sin?

It's no wonder the Church sought to quickly intercede (uninvited) with the Castro regime -- and marginalize Cuba's dissidents -- pursuant to the death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the brutal repression of the Ladies and White, and the summer standoff with hunger striker Guillermo Fariñas.

As Cardinal Jaime Ortega conceded in an August interview, all of this dissident activity "was causing instability."

Furthermore, it's no wonder that the Church wants Cuba's most prominent political prisoners to be exiled as a condition for their release.

At the end of the day, dissidents put their "relations" with Castro at risk.

Political Prisoner S.O.S.

Monday, December 27, 2010
In an AP story yesterday about 11 Cuban political prisoners that were announced for release since July, but who refuse to accept forced exile as a condition, a Cuba "specialist" had the shamelessness to suggest (after giving excuses for the regime's delay) that the "eventual" release of these 11 would bring the number of Cuban political prisoners "down to a very low number, or nearly zero."

These "specialists" would like the world to ignore the hundreds of Cuban dissidents arrested this month alone (ninety on December 10th) -- albeit held for short-terms -- or the thousands currently in prison for trumped up "common crimes," as a guise for their political activity (or "anti-social behavior" as the regime calls it).

One of these is Agustin Cervantes, who was arrested in September 2009 for "assault" (protecting his wife and himself from a stranger who attacked them with a knife in their own home), but is widely known to have been a target of Castro's secret police for his opposition activities with the Christian Liberation Movement.

Cervantes was rushed to the hospital this Christmas weekend, as he's been on a hunger strike demanding an end to prison abuses and the release of the 11 political prisoners who refuse forced exile.

Click here to learn more about Cervantes.

All Cuban political prisoners deserve to be unconditionally released in their homeland -- without excuses.

In My Humble Opinion, Pt. 23

From The Daily Caller:

Cuban Wikipedia most elaborate propaganda creation ever

Last week, Cuba launched EcuRed, it's own version of Wikipedia. It was an intriguing move for a country whose population has very minimal Internet access. But the Cuban regime produces a large amount of propaganda targeted at the outside world, and EcuRed fits neatly into that framework.

"They do these extensive media operations," said Mauricio Claver-Carone, the executive director of Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy, and a member of the board of directors of U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, "so that eventually the rest of the world, they hope, is seeing that, and they think it's the truth because it's coming from all kinds of different sources."

If building an entire online encyclopedia seems overly elaborate for propaganda, one need only look at Cuba's newspapers, says Claver-Carone. He points out that all six major newspapers in Cuba are state run, but each claims to represent a different voice in the population, leading to the perception that multiple different viewpoints are represented in the media.

"It's their way of continuously rewriting history, essentially, for a foreign audience," he said, because "domestically, the Cuban government is not going to convince anyone that all is good … they survive basically off foreign political support and foreign economic support." [...]

The targeted audience, obviously, is not the United States, a country that, as The Daily Caller reported last week, gets a pretty bad rap on EcuRed. "There is a huge audience out there that consumes anti-Americanism," said Claver-Carone, calling it "the blame America first model." The regime's propaganda "feed[s] that anti-American audience."

It also, according to Claver-Carone, serves as a "distraction, so that people don't pay attention to the real issues on the island."

Treasury's $1 Billion Castro Bailout

Last week, the Treasury Department authorized Western Union to send remittances to Cuba in the Castro regime's convertible pesos (CuCs), instead of in U.S. dollars.

At first glance, this might seem like a bad deal for the Castro regime, as it would lose the 10% exchange fee it charges to convert U.S. dollars into CuCs.

And it very well might be a bad deal for the regime -- in the long-term -- which then leads to the question:

Why did the Castro regime agree to this new arrangement?

In a nutshell, because the regime is suffering from a severe short-term liquidity crisis and this arrangement amounts to a cash windfall -- potentially worth $1 billion.

To elaborate -- when dollar remittances are sent to Cuba, the Cuban national that receives the dollars might take months to exchange them, if at all. That means the Castro regime is not immediately guaranteed the high exchange fee.

Through this new arrangement, Western Union will exchange these dollars up front, which the regime desperately needs to meet its debt payments. Remember that last year the regime froze over $1 billion in the Cuban bank accounts of foreign companies (mostly Spanish), not to mention the nearly $4 billion debt it has recently incurred with China.

Thus, the Castro regime is willing to potentially risk a long-term loss for a short-term bailout.

The regime also figures that this new arrangement can lead to an overall rise in remittances, as senders and recipients will initially think they are saving the 10% exchange fee. However, the regime can compensate by raising prices at state-owned CuC-denominated stores by 10% -- for CuCs are worthless anywhere else.

As we learned from the recent special report (below) in The New York Times -- Congress enacts sanctions laws and Treasury finds harmful loopholes.

Is Farm Lobby Endangering Foreign Policy?

Sunday, December 26, 2010
This is outrageous.

Excerpts from a New York Times special report:

U.S. Approved Business With Blacklisted Nations

Despite sanctions and trade embargoes, over the past decade the United States government has allowed American companies to do billions of dollars in business with Iran and other countries blacklisted as state sponsors of terrorism, an examination by The New York Times has found.

At the behest of a host of companies — from Kraft Food and Pepsi to some of the nation's largest banks — a little-known office of the Treasury Department has granted nearly 10,000 licenses for deals involving countries that have been cast into economic purgatory, beyond the reach of American business.

Most of the licenses were approved under a decade-old law mandating that agricultural and medical humanitarian aid be exempted from sanctions. But the law, pushed by the farm lobby and other industry groups, was written so broadly that allowable humanitarian aid has included cigarettes, Wrigley's gum, Louisiana hot sauce, weight-loss remedies, body-building supplements and sports rehabilitation equipment sold to the institute that trains Iran's Olympic athletes.

Hundreds of other licenses were approved because they passed a litmus test: They were deemed to serve American foreign policy goals. And many clearly do, among them deals to provide famine relief in North Korea or to improve Internet connections — and nurture democracy — in Iran. But the examination also found cases in which the foreign-policy benefits were considerably less clear.

In one instance, an American company was permitted to bid on a pipeline job that would have helped Iran sell natural gas to Europe, even though the United States opposes such projects. Several other American businesses were permitted to deal with foreign companies believed to be involved in terrorism or weapons proliferation. In one such case, involving equipment bought by a medical waste disposal plant in Hawaii, the government was preparing to deny the license until an influential politician intervened [...]

"It's not a bad thing to grant exceptions if it represents a conscious policy decision to give countries an incentive," said Stuart Eizenstat, who oversaw sanctions policy for the Clinton administration when the humanitarian-aid law was passed. "But when you create loopholes like this that you can drive a Mack truck through, you are giving countries something for nothing, and they just laugh in their teeth. I think there have been abuses."

What's more, in countries like Iran where elements of the government have assumed control over large portions of the economy, it is increasingly difficult to separate exceptions that help the people from those that enrich the state. Indeed, records show that the United States has approved the sale of luxury food items to chain stores owned by blacklisted banks, despite requirements that potential purchasers be scrutinized for just such connections.

Enforcement of America's sanctions rests with Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which can make exceptions with guidance from the State Department. The Treasury office resisted disclosing information about the licenses, but after The Times filed a federal Freedom of Information lawsuit, the government agreed to turn over a list of companies granted exceptions and, in a little more than 100 cases, underlying files explaining the nature and details of the deals. The process took three years, and the government heavily redacted many documents, saying they contained trade secrets and personal information. Still, the files offer a snapshot — albeit a piecemeal one — of a system that at times appears out of sync with its own licensing policies and America's goals abroad [...]

For all the speechifying about humanitarian aid that attended its passage, the 2000 law allowing agricultural and medical exceptions to sanctions was ultimately the product of economic stress and political pressure. American farmers, facing sharp declines in commodity prices and exports, hoped to offset their losses with sales to blacklisted countries.

The law defined allowable agricultural exports as any product on a list maintained by the Agriculture Department, which went beyond traditional humanitarian aid like seed and grain and included products like beer, soda, utility poles and more loosely defined categories of "food commodities" and "food additives."

Even before the law's final passage, companies and their lobbyists inundated the licensing office with claims that their products fit the bill.

Take, for instance, chewing gum, sold in a number of blacklisted countries by Mars Inc., which owns Wrigley's. "We debated that one for a month. Was it food? Did it have nutritional value? We concluded it did," Hal Eren, a former senior sanctions adviser at the licensing office, recalled before pausing and conceding, "We were probably rolled on that issue by outside forces."

While Cuba was the primary focus of the initial legislative push, Iran, with its relative wealth and large population, was also a promising prospect. American exports, virtually nonexistent before the law's passage, have totaled more than $1.7 billion since [...]

Even the sale of benign goods can benefit bad actors, though, which is why the licensing office and State Department are required to check the purchasers of humanitarian aid products for links to terrorism. But that does not always happen.

Here's a list of companies given special permission by Treasury to bypass sanctions.

Honoring Lincoln Diaz-Balart

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As appears in today's El Nuevo Herald: