"Self-Employment" for Castro's Elite

Saturday, January 22, 2011
Please read the following excerpts very carefully.

They are from a recently-released State Department cable on Cuba's corruption.

Then, ask yourself -- who benefits from Castro's "self-employment charade"?

It's simply a two-bit military dictatorship.

Power and Position

11. (C) The GOC stopped giving licenses to new paladars (home-based restaurants) several years ago, raising questions as to what the remaining operations had done to stay open. An American specialist on the topic posited that all upscale paladars were in some way "connected." For example, a USINT officer outside the XXXXXX paladar XXXXXX spotted the supposedly "self-employed" owner drive up in a car with Ministry of the Interior (MININT) plates. A one-table paladar in the Santa Fe neighborhood (known as the "fish paladar") reportedly enjoys an elite clientele - Raul Castro. In these days of heightened state control, merely bribing inspectors is not enough to stay open.

12. (U) The benefits of holding a position of power within the GOC can be lucrative. A Swiss businessman told P/E officer that Cuban managers take kickbacks for awarding large contracts to foreign companies and then deposit those kickbacks in banks abroad. "Just like everywhere in the world, a million dollar contract gets you 100,000 in the bank," he commented. These state managers are not so much members of the revolutionary elite, but rather pragmatists who have carved out a space for themselves within an otherwise rigid system. The former head of the Tourism Ministry might serve as an example - he was dismissed in 2004 due to "serious mistakes relating to control" and replaced with a military general.

13. (C) Separate from this elite crowd of entrepreneurs stand Castro's cadres of regime faithfuls, some of whom are widely rumored to be corrupt (such as Castro clan insider General Julio Casas Regueiro). Last year, Battle of Ideas Head Otto Rivero (a Castro protege) almost lost his job due to a corruption scandal. Battle of Ideas personnel were rumored to be dipping into the pie at all levels, from accounting shenanigans to making off with food and television sets destined for the "Free the Five" campaign.

Members Asked About Dealings With Castro

Fox News asks various U.S. Members of Congress about their dealings with former Castro regime business official, Pedro Alvarez, who defected from Cuba last month:

John Kavulich, a senior policy analyst at the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, told FoxNews.com that he has known Alvarez since 1997 and believes Alvarez is in the United States though he said he has not had any contact with him.

"Nor do I expect to," he said.

But Kavulich said Alvarez could embarrass several officials, including U.S. lawmakers, if he reveals the lengths that some of them went to win more business on the Caribbean island.

"He could, if he felt like it, and he believed it, he could make some politicians look like buffoons -- the U.S. lawmakers who went down there and was salivating all over them," Kavulich said.

But U.S. lawmakers who have met Alvarez during visits to Cuba said that any allegations of corruption involving Alvarez's dealings had no bearing on their talks.

"That's ridiculous," said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., who told FoxNews.com that no sensitive or specific information was exchanged during meetings between Alvarez and U.S. lawmakers on the three occasions she traveled to Cuba with congressional delegations.

Members of the delegation simply made clear that they had a good product in the United States to offer, she said.

Emerson added that she was "shocked" to learn about his disappearance.

"He was always gracious and warm to us and to the group that was there," she said, adding that he worked with U.S. agricultural groups even more. "And so he had a lot of conversations and meetings with people from around the United States who were trying to sell to Cuba."

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz, who met Alvarez when he led a bipartisan congressional delegation to Cuba in 2006, said neither he nor any of his fellow lawmakers have concerns about what Alvarez knows about their talks.

"I don't know what information he would have that would be sensitive for U.S. officials," he told FoxNews.com. "The trips I've taken, everyone was up-front -- they wanted more exports to Cuba."

At its peak in 2008, the U.S. exported more than $700 million in U.S. exports of crops, meat and farm products to Cuba, a 60 percent increase from the previous year, which made the U.S. Cuba's largest food provider at the time, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.

But exports dropped by 24 percent in 2009 to $528 million, according to a report by the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. They continued to fall last year to $344.3 million through November, compared with $486.7 million for the same period in 2009 -- a 30 percent drop.

Kavulich cited political, economic and commercial reasons for the decline of U.S. exports to Cuba, including the Castro regime's pullback in its attempts to influence the U.S. political process, its lack of a foreign exchange and its trade agreements with other countries such Brazil, Argentina, and the financial assistance it receives from Venezuela and China.

Aides to other members of the 2006 delegation did not respond to requests for comment, including Reps. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., Jane Harman, D-Calif., Mike Conaway, R-Texas, and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.

A spokesman for Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., another member of the 2006 delegation, declined to comment.

"All that we know is what we've seen in the news, so we won't be having any comment at this time," McGovern spokesman Michael Mershon said in an e-mail to FoxNews.com.

An aide to Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee who introduced a bill last year that would have lifted the U.S. ban on travel to the island and ease payment restrictions on agricultural products to Cuba, did not respond to interview requests either. His bill never made it out of committee.

An aide to Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, who has said he knows Alvarez, didn't respond to a request for comment.

At a House Agriculture Committee meeting last March, Boswell told the presidents of the American Farm Bureau and National Farmers Union that he spent time with Alvarez in Cuba.

"I spent a lot of time with him," he said. "I spent quite a bit of time with Mr. Castro. Sometimes we would be entertained. I can tell you about that a little bit."

Yoani Questions the Cardinal's Motives

It's no secret that we're not fans of Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega and his outright complicity with the Castro regime.

But apparently this sentiment is growing on the island also.

Yesterday, Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez sent the following tweet:

"From my agnosticism, I'm starting to ask myself what has the Cardinal lent himself to?"

Her concern arises from the Cardinal's insistence -- together with the Castro regime -- that Cuban political prisoner Pedro Arguelles Moran accept banishment to Spain as a condition for his release.

Arguelles was one of the 52 political prisoners announced for release in July 2010, but who remains in prison -- along with 11 others named for release -- due to his refusal to accept banishment.

It's important to note that of those 52 political prisoners, only one has been released in Cuba.

Allow us to emphasize that point -- only one has been released in Cuba.

Meanwhile, Arguelles has sent the following message to the Cardinal:

"Tell the Cardinal that unless he's calling to tell me that I'm free to go home, not to do so."

Castro's "Response" to Political Advocacy

Friday, January 21, 2011
The pictures below capture the "response" that a group of peaceful Cuban dissidents got from the Castro regime for simply signing a document ("Futuro Para Cuba"), which peacefully asks for political freedoms and reforms.

Please note that these extraordinarily courageous Cubans were not inspired -- let alone assisted in way -- by American academic or religious travelers.

More "reform" you can't believe in.

Legislation to Sanction Spain's Repsol

We've long argued that Cuba's offshore oil exploration is more of a decade-long myth than reality.

As such, advocates of unconditionally normalizing relations with the Castro regime have used this myth as a tool to "seduce" oil companies into lobby against sanctions.

However, it can also have the opposite effect:

Buchanan Bill Blocks Cuba from Drilling Off Florida Coast

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan (FL-13) introduced legislation today to block Cuba's plan to build a deepwater oil rig just 50 miles off the Florida coast. Cuba wants to drill for oil even deeper than BP's ill-fated rig that spilled more than 4.9 million barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

Buchanan's bill would authorize the U.S. Interior Secretary to deny leases to companies that do business with any nation currently facing U.S. trade sanctions, such as Cuba.

"Cuba's plan to drill for oil in its sovereign waters off the Florida Keys poses a serious threat to our tourism industry and our environment," said Buchanan, noting that experts have said Cuba does not have the means to deal with an oil spill.

The Cuban government has contracted with a Spanish company, Repsol, to begin drilling the new well. Cuba is located 90 miles from the Keys, but its jurisdiction in the Atlantic Ocean extends even further to just 50 miles from our shore. Repsol operates existing rigs in the Western Gulf of Mexico near Texas and Louisiana.

Repsol's oil platform for Cuba is now being built in China and would be transported by sea to begin operating off the Florida coast later this year, according to recent press reports.

"As we have learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, an oil spill can devastate a regional economy and impose serious long-term environmental damage to precious natural resources," said Buchanan. "My bill would help eliminate the threat of a similar spill off the Florida Keys by authorizing the Interior Secretary to deny permits for the project."

Facing pressure from the United States several years ago, Repsol scrapped plans to build a gas development plant in Iran. It's Buchanan's expectation that Repsol would take similar action and abandon its contract with Cuba if his legislation is passed.

The proposed oil well would drill 5,600 feet, which would be even deeper than BP's 5,000 foot well at Deepwater Horizon. "Quickly capping the well would be extremely difficult, if not impossible," Buchanan said. "It would take just three days for oil to reach Florida's beaches if a spill occurred at the site. "

In October, Buchanan wrote President Obama to work with the Spanish government to block Cuba's plan to drill for oil off Florida shores.

Is Wet Foot/Dry Foot Totally Broken?

This week, the Obama Administration intercepted two well-known Cuban baseball players at sea and handed them over to the Castro regime's authorities.

Granted, they were smuggled out by speed-boat and there's an important law enforcement component that needs to be respected (for their own safety).

But were they given an adequate opportunity to present their case for asylum? Particularly in light of the repercussions that baseball defectors face (see column below) upon repatriation.

Overall, this leads to even bigger questions for debate.

Has Obama's new policy of travel back-and-forth completely desensitized the political risks Cubans face upon defection?

Is this new policy hurting genuine asylum-seeking Cubans as a result?

Or is wet foot/dry foot (and the overarching Cuban Adjustment Act) just totally broken?

By Stuart Anderson in Forbes:

Cuba: Where the Infield is Shaped Like a Prison

To understand repression in a society such as Cuba it is best look not only at its poorest members but those considered relatively well off. And the plight of one group deserves attention. That group is Cuban baseball players.

When Aroldis Chapman pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in September 2010 he electrified crowds with fastballs reaching 105 miles per hour. If Fidel Castro had his way Chapman would have never set foot on American soil. Only because he defected, at much personal risk, was he able to achieve his dream of playing in the Major Leagues. "I wanted to test myself in the highest levels of baseball," he said, explaining his reason for defecting.

While Cuba and the Dominican Republic are of similar size and baseball pedigree, an analysis from the National Foundation for American Policy found there were only four Cuban baseball players on the 40-man rosters of Major League baseball teams in 2006, compared to 81 players from the Dominican Republic. And all four Cuban players were forced to escape the island to play in America.

Some may argue baseball players are treated better than most Cubans. And that may be true in certain material aspects. But in another more vital respect – economic liberty – Cuban baseball players are among the most oppressed group of people on earth.

One dictionary defines slavery as a relationship "in which one person has absolute power over the life, fortune and liberty of another." The relationship between Cuban baseball players and Fidel Castro (and the rest of the Cuban leadership) meets that definition.

Over the years, many journalists have been invited to interview Fidel Castro. To my knowledge none has ever asked him: "Why does Cuba, alone among virtually all countries on earth, prevent its athletes from leaving to pursue their chosen professions at the highest level? What right does Fidel Castro or anyone else have to, in practice, imprison individuals on this island-nation rather than let them pursue their dreams of playing against the best in the world?"

Some modern-day fellow travelers in the West defend this violation of human rights. The Wall Street Journal (November 9, 2010) profiled a retired U.S. professor, Peter Bjarkman, who reports on Cuban baseball and has been criticized for his coziness with Cuban officials. Bjarkman supports the status quo. He likes that Cubans are denied the chance to play in the Major Leagues unless they risk their life, freedom or family by escaping. "It's a beautiful baseball experience," says Bjarkman. "And I don't want to see it fall apart from U.S. teams strip-mining it for talent."

Most Cuban baseball players make the equivalent of $125 a month, compared to the Major League minimum annual salary of $405,000. But the issue is not just about money. How would you like to be among the best in the world at your profession yet denied the opportunity to compete against others of elite talent because, through no fault of your own, you were born in a country ruled by a dictatorship?

Cuba remains one of the few nations today to forbid the free emigration of its citizens. That means Cubans wishing to play baseball in the Major Leagues have been forced to defect, escaping from Cuba at much personal risk. A good example is Kendry Morales, who in 2009 led the American League West Division Champion Angels in home runs and runs batted in.

The Cuban government banned Morales from playing inside Cuba after it suspected him of a desire to defect. "Determined to get on the field again, Morales says he tried to escape 12 times, usually failing because of rough seas. Thrice he was caught, spending a mandatory 72 hours in jail each time... On June 8, 2004, 12 days short of turning 21, Morales finally made it out on a rowboat that took him and other passengers to a larger boat, which carried them to Florida," reported USA Today.

What greater example do we have of the bankruptcy of the Cuban socialist system than its need to use the full force of the state against young men who simply want to play baseball for a living?

Challenging Obama's Cuba Policy Rationale

The following is a comment posted in Penultimos Dias, which provides powerful counter-arguments to the rationale of two supporters of the Obama Administration's recent Cuba policy changes, Phil Peters of Cuba Triangle and Anya Landau of Havana Note.

Needless to say, it also challenges the Obama Administration's rationale.

Here's the entire comment (our translation):

The arguments made by Peters resort the same cliches as always. That is to say:

1. "The increase in contact between Americans and Cubans will expand the flow of information and ideas"

In other words, Cuba is a dictatorship because the Cuban people are ignorant.

In its most crude version, the Cuban people are ignorant about what democracy is and only U.S. visitors can teach them about the subject.

In its more refined version, the problem is that the Cuban people are ignorant as to what "Yankees" are really like and thus fear the foreign enemy. Of course, this overlooks the 400,000 visitors from the US (legal and illegal), family ties across the Florida Straits, radio transmissions, etc... In my humble view, there is more ignorance about the U.S. in Spain than in Cuba.

Does Mr. Peters truly believe that it's the lack of democratic understanding or "Yankee" understanding that is blocking a Cuban transition?

2. "It will increase the income of Cubans in the country's expanding private sector."

Without a doubt. But isn't that the same objective being pursued by Raul?

In its "light" version, the development of the private sector is supposed to lead to democracy, in a manner similar to Vietnam, China or Singapore.

In its most "ideal" version, Raul's final objective is democracy. Therefore, helping Raul will help that process.

I won't bother asking for any empirical evidence on such leaps of faith.

3. "It will expand American institutions' contacts with Cuban counterparts – churches, universities, professional associations, and more."

Overall, these institutions are either organs of the State or are strongly controlled and regulated by the State. Surely Ms. Landau can visit Cuba. We doubt Reporters Without Borders can.

4. "It is only common sense that American influence in Cuba will expand if we open doors rather than build barriers to citizen contact."

And vice-versa. As was mentioned by someone who opposes these measures, prior experiences show the ability of the Cuban dictatorship - and they are experts at this - to lure supporters, distribute propaganda and infiltrate spies.

5. "As a matter of policy, it is a big shift from the Bush approach, which limited citizen contact and emphasized government initiatives, government funding, and government programs that are often riddled with problems (see Sixto, Felipe and Gross, Alan)."

First of all, the U.S. easing its travel policy doesn't mean that Cuba will do so. They will keep controlling who comes in and who goes out, thus the argument that this is simply contact amongst people is an exaggeration.

More accurately, it's contact amongst people approved by the dictatorship with other people approved by the dictatorship.

Secondly, what's not to say that students won't act like students and get into trouble. And not just drunkenness, but "subversive" activities, which can lead to 3 or 4 Gross's behind bars.

In sum, I won't continue for lack of space. I simply conclude that, as of today, I haven't heard any logical or reasonable argument, nor any empirical substance to allow me to draw the same idealist conclusions as Peters or self-interested ones as Ms. Landau.

Young Political Prisoner Being Abused

Thursday, January 20, 2011
Please note that Nestor Rodriguez Lobaina was arrested on December 9th, 2010, while the media was solely focused on the Castro regime's (now failed) promise to release political prisoners.

From Fox News Latino:

Political Prisoner in Cuba Being Abused, Rights Group Says

A Miami-based group that advocates for democracy in Cuba issued an alert regarding the health and safety of Néstor Rodríguez Lobaina, a Cuban prisoner whom Amnesty International in the past has described as "a prisoner of conscience."

Marcibel Loo, executive director of Directorio Democrático Cubano, held a press conference in Miami on Tuesday to say that Rodríguez Lobaina has suffered beatings since being returned to prison in December.

"The Castro regime has only gotten worse in recent times, they beat men and women," said Loo. "We're sending a letter to all foreign ministries to denounce what is going on inside Cuba, and to demand the release of all political prisoners."

"Néstor Rodríguez Lobaina has been unjustly jailed since Dec. 9 and we fear for his life and physical health," said the group in a statement.

Cuba denies that it has political prisoners. Regime officials say people others describe as political prisoners are criminals because they have committed the crime of having engaged in "counter-revolutionary activities" and treason. International human rights groups, which are banned by Cuba from visiting its jails, estimate that at least 200 people are in Cuba's jails for having opposed the political system there.

The DDC alleges that Cuba security forces attacked Rodríguez Lobaina last year as he walked with his 10-year-old daughter, Diana; sprayed his face and testicles with pepper spray, and took him away, leaving Diana by herself, 15 blocks from her home.

The DDC letter also alleges that last year Lobaina's wife, Daneysi, who was then eight months pregnant, was subjected to rough physical handling by government security officers and on three occasions forced to undergo "vaginal exams."

"This political prisoner is in grave medical condition due to his severe and degrading imprisonment conditions," the letter said. "But the case of Rodríguez Lobaina is not unique."

Rodríguez Lobaina, who founded the Cuban Youth Movement, has been jailed by Cuban authorities on various occasions, according to human rights groups.

Said to be in his 40's, Rodríguez Lobaina is one of Cuba's most high profile dissidents. Last year he was invited by organizers of the Geneva Summit to be a speaker at their Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy.

Cuba denied Rodríguez Lobaina permission to attend, prompting more than 30 human rights organizations from different nations, including Vietnam, Iran, Namibia and Morocco, to send a protest letter to the United Nations asking it to intervene on Lobaina's behalf.

"The Castro regime continues to repress activists like Néstor because there's a growing movement of Cubans working peacefully for freedom and democracy," said Aramis Pérez, spokesperson of DDC.

"At times the abuse is more prominent, and at times it seems to ebb, depending on their need for good publicity."

Wrong Time to Please Castro

By Guillermo Martinez in the Sun-Sentinel:

U.S. wrong to try to please Cuba with policy changes

Writing about Cuba entails many perils.

We have limited access to firsthand sources and often depend on what U.S. State Department officials tell us publicly or "on background." We also have the official Cuban government response and those of some dissidents inside the island.

Finally we can talk to pundits, each with his or her own bias. They will interpret history for us according to their personal political beliefs. No one owns the truth.

Having said that, let me add that I do not like the latest Obama administration policy changes. They make it easier for some Americans to travel to the island and may make it easier for Americans to send up to $2,000 a year — no more than $500 a quarter — to help foster private economic activity on the island. It also allows direct charter travel from any airport in the United States.

The policy is designed, according to one of those anonymous sources, "to support the independence of the Cuban people, making them less dependent on the Cuban state and the Cuban authorities." That indeed is a lofty goal.

It will permit more academic exchanges between American universities and their counterparts on the island. No senior communist official may be the recipient of those remittances.

The administration's announcement came on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend and was embargoed until 5 p.m. Republicans were holding a congressional retreat in Maryland. The release was designed to get minimum coverage.

Cuba's reaction was prompt and expected. It said that President Barack Obama's decision was positive but did not go far enough. They want the embargo lifted period. Only Congress can do that, and it won't.

Once again, the Obama administration, like those of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, seeks to please the Cuban government. They don't understand Cuba always sees this as a sign of weakness.

Carter's reward for befriending Cuba was the Mariel boatlift. Clinton got hit twice. In 1994, Fidel Castro allowed 34,000 Cubans to leave the island in rafts. And in 1996, Castro ordered Cuban MiG jet fighters to shoot down two small planes in international waters, killing four people. Castro got the information from a Cuban spy who had infiltrated the exile organization.

What can we expect now? It is difficult to predict. Softening U.S. policy toward Cuba has seldom helped the Cuban people. It always has a way of backfiring on U.S. administrations perceived to be weak.

Third Most Repressed Economy in the World

A glimpse of the news headlines lately would have you believe that Castro's economic "reforms" were turning Cuba into the next Switzerland.

Well, it's time for a reality check.

According to the Wall Street Journal's newly-released 2011 Index of Economic Freedom, Cuba ranks as the third most repressed economy (177th out of 179) in the world.

Only Zimbabwe and North Korea fare worse.

At this rate, Cuba might just surpass Burma, Iran and Libya by next year.

More "reforms" you can't believe in.

U.S. Sadly Helping Castro With "China Model"

From a newly released State Department cable on a meeting with former Brazilian President Lula da Silva's foreign policy advisor, Marco Aurelio Garcia (who holds the same position for current Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff):

(C) Turning to Cuba, Garcia noted that his deputy advisor, Marcel Biato, had just returned from five months as Brazil's charge d'affaires in Havana, and his views were incorporated in Garcia's perspective. Garcia said the GOB believes it is highly unlikely Fidel Castro will ever return to exercise real power. The waning of Fidel over the past year had caused the Cuban population to begin contemplating a different future, but everyone has difficulty imagining what that future will look like, Garcia said. Cuba, in the past forty years, had a system built on a single charismatic figure, and that is not sustainable. Raul Castro is not his brother and seems more inclined to take a committee approach to leadership that is pragmatic, at least on economic issues. Garcia was doubtful Cuba can replicate the "China model" with economic opening but continued centralized political control. "China is a civilization, Cuba is not... they do not have the patience, resources or organization" to emulate China's approach," he opined. Moreover, Cuba today lacks an "economic vocation," and has not been able to place its tourism industry, its medical capacity or its bare handful of other productive sectors into a strategy for productivity or increased self reliance. Brazil wants to help, and is offering to provide both assistance and markets for Cuba, but the Cubans have to define a direction for themselves, Garcia said.

Naturally, it's concerning that Brazil's government is still trying to help Castro incorporate the "China model" of economic opening/political control -- despite knowing it is unfeasible in Cuba.

We can almost expect that from Brazil's government, which stood complicitly with Castro during the tragic death of Cuban political prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

But why is the Obama Administration helping Castro do the same with its recent policy announcement?

The Cuban people deserve nothing less than the same political freedoms as every other country in the Western Hemisphere (perhaps with the exception of Venezuela, of course).

Concern Over Travel Loopholes

From an excellent analysis by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Roger Noriega:

Some might regard the Obama administration's plans to allow U.S. universities and churches to expand study tours as rather unremarkable. And that's the other problem. At a time when this great country should adopt bold and innovative initiatives to help the Cuban people liberate and govern themselves, the administration reinstated travel loopholes that were abused until they were discredited and discarded years ago.

Those of us responsible for monitoring travel to Cuba before the rules were tightened recall an incident where a church-sponsored travel license was misused to sponsor a golf outing to the island. The sponsor of a yacht trip counseled his cohorts to carry a few wheelchairs or pharmaceuticals on their boats to justify their visit to the Havana Yacht Club. One flyer for a university trip lured students with the promise of a pub crawl to sample local rums. The administration's decision to issue blanket licenses to universities and churches make such isolated abuses more likely, not less. Indeed, bona fide humanitarian, educational, or religious travel was legal even before the changes announced last week. So it is simply dishonest to say that Cubans will benefit by making travel to the island more vulnerable to abuse by people who don't give a damn about freedom in Cuba.

Quote(s) of the Month

Wednesday, January 19, 2011
"There is an old saying that the Chinese invoke when they wish to avoid political discourse with the central powers in Beijing: 'The mountains are high and the Emperor is far away.' Well, ladies and gentlemen, this morning there are no mountains to shield us, as China's newest Emperor has just landed in Washington."

-- U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, at a briefing on U.S.-China policy, 1/19/10.

The Chair also rejected attending the State Dinner tonight with Chinese dictator Hu Jintao, saying:

"I don't know if it's appropriate as a refugee of Communism to be sitting, with a lot of pomp and chit chat, with a leader who has instituted economic reforms but has not opened the political arena."

As for the State Dinner itself, she added: "There are so many leaders who are far more deserving than the leader of a repressive regime."

Obama Slaps Cuba's Political Prisoners

By Mike Gonzalez in Fox News:

Easing Cuban Travel Restrictions, Team Obama Slaps Cuba's Political Prisoners In the Face

It was a strange way to kick off the Martin Luther King weekend. But last Friday night, President Obama slapped hundreds of Cuba's political prisoners' right in the face.

That's when the administration announced it will make it easier for Americans who support Castro's government to send money there and visit the island for propaganda purposes. Travel restrictions will be lifted or relaxed, as will remittances and charter flights.

It's a deplorable change -- and totally unnecessary. After all, the Castro brothers' thugs do a good job making their victims miserable without help from the Oval Office.

Cuba's prison guards keep their prey in dank underground cells, the easier to dump urine and excrement on them when the whim strikes them, or for rats to scurry in and bite the prisoners while they sleep—which they have to do standing up. (Their cells are not big enough to lie down in.) If you're uncomfortable reading about these conditions, imagine what it's like for the prisoners who endure them.

These men and women—behind bars for years for such infractions as exercising their freedom of speech, assembly, religion or movement—are the few on that island Gulag who still refuse to give in to the communist regime. Cuba's other millions have learned the art of outwardly going along, lest they, too, get whisked away to one of the prison compounds that dot the island. Who can blame them? How many of us would not just surrender and practice what Orwell called "doublethink"?

The least we on the outside can do is stand up for the people of Cuba and do exactly what the prisoners do—refuse to cooperate with their tormentors. Unfortunately, President Obama has once again chosen to compromise and cooperate with Castro's Cuba corrupt regime.

The timing of the announcement betrays the shame that some in the administration must have felt. Late Friday before a holiday weekend is the time one selects to bury news you'd rather not see get much sunlight.

As Sen. Marco Rubio, (R-Fla)., said in a statement Friday, "It is unthinkable that the administration would enable the enrichment of a Cuban regime that routinely violates the basic human rights and dignity of its people."

Unthinkable not only because this decision throws a cash-starved regime some money, but because of the message it sends Cuba's prisoners—those actually behind (or in Cuba's case, under) bars and the millions others walking the streets, but prisoners nonetheless. The U.S. message at the moment is: You're utterly alone; we outside are accommodating your tyrants, why not you?

As former Soviet prisoner of conscience Nathan Sharansky has amply testified and written, support from outside nourishes those who languish inside communist borders; it helps them understand they're not crazy to continue opposing totalitarianism. Denouncing the regime and doing everything to deny it internationally legitimacy is a beacon of light shot inside the Gulag. The Obama administration just dimmed it.

Let's Make a Bet

According to Washington Jewish Week:

Gross' release imminent? Speculation grows in wake of Obama decision

The Obama administration's decision last week to expand dramatically opportunities for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba is feeding speculation that Potomac resident Alan Gross could be released from a Havana jail -- maybe even within the next few weeks.

Chris Sabatini, senior director of policy at the New York-based Americas Society and a veteran Cuba watcher, said he has little doubt the Jewish prisoner -- 62 and ailing -- will be coming home very soon after more than a year in captivity.

"I would venture a guess that Alan Gross will probably not be in a Cuban jail any longer than the end of this month, and probably will be out sooner than that," Sabatini said this week. "The White House couldn't have made these announcements without a Cuban promise to release him."

So here's our question:

If Alan Gross is not released by the end of the month, will Mr. Sabatini and the America's Society denounce the Administration for making concessions to the Castro regime in return for absolutely nothing?

We hope so.

Don't forget that 11 Cuban political prisoners announced for release since last July are still languishing in Castro's gulag -- two months past the given deadline.

Castro Regime Persecutes Protestants

While the Castro regime cracks down on Protestant denominations for resisting its absolute control, it embraces the Catholic Church for its submission and cooperation.

Then, the Catholic Church wonders why its losing followers.

Hint: Because it cares more about its institutional power than about the well-being of its flock (we say this with great sadness as Roman Catholics ourselves).

From Christian Solidarity Worldwide:

Cuban Communist Party Official Admits Persecution Of Protestant Group

UK-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has released a video in which a Cuban Communist Party official openly confirms a government strategy to target churches affiliated with the fast growing Apostolic Movement, a protestant network.

The short film, recorded clandestinely early in 2010 and smuggled out of the country, shows Caridad Diego Bello, the head of the Religious Affairs Office of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, explaining the government's strategy to crackdown on the Apostolic Movement.

"For years, church leaders of all denominations have complained of difficulties with Diego, particularly in receiving permission to repair old church buildings or build new facilities," said a spokesperson for CSW. "This is the first time, however, that video evidence has been published, showing Diego publicly admitting that the government is working to eradicate the Apostolic Movement."

In the video, Diego states "…we are taking measures and will continue to take measures, the hands of our authorities will not waver, and I don't do this in a manner of warning but rather to inform, so that the illegalities that groups like these are committing can be countered in every province and in every territory… there are some would-be leaders of these type of organizations that have had been relocated from their homes, that have lost their temple. There are people that visit us that will no longer be able to enter the country again, there are people that have been fined for facilitating the violation of immigration status by foreigners in Cuba, we have confiscated literature because it has not entered the country via the appropriate channels, but rather under the table."

Churches affiliated with the Apostolic Movement have documented consistent religious liberty violations over the past few years, including numerous cases of arbitrary detention of church leaders and the destruction of church buildings. CSW has also released a second video showing the site of the demolition of one of the largest churches linked to the Apostolic Movement in Santiago de Cuba [...]

Pastor Omar Gude Perez, one of the main leaders of the movement, is currently serving a six-year and seven-month sentence on what CSW believes to be false charges. Pastor Bernardo de Quesada, another key leader in the group, was a victim of arbitrary detention on numerous occasions over the past year. Pastor Alain Toledano, the leader of the destroyed church in Santiago de Cuba, reported that in March, members of the Communist Party and agents of the National Police surrounded his family home threatening to evict them and to confiscate all their goods.

Bibles and Christian literature are legally only allowed to be imported via the Cuban Council of Churches, a [governmental] umbrella group which represents a relatively small minority of Protestant churches. Leaders of all denominations have complained to CSW that this results in severe shortages of religious materials and that they often have no option but to bring them in through other, unofficial channels.

Quote of the Day

"Sadly, the Cuban authorities are only interested in income and fear that taking measures [against sex trafficking] will keep away tourists."

-- Elizardo Sanchez-Santacruz, head of the dissident Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, on the mysterious murder of a child prostitute by Italian tourists, El Nuevo Herald, 1/19/10.

We commend El Nuevo Herald for further investigating and reporting (in Spanish) on this horrific crime.

To learn more about this tragedy (in English), please see our January 12th post, "Death of a Cuban Child Prostitute."

Kudos to Harry Reid

For calling a spade and spade.

From the Las Vegas Sun:

Only Harry Reid, when asked about whether he still thought the lame-duck tax cut deal was a good one, would begin his serpentine answer thusly:

"I am going to go back to Washington and meet with the president of China. He is a dictator. He can do a lot of things through the form of government they have. Maybe I shouldn't have said dictator. But they have a different type of government then we have and that is an understatement."

First, you might wonder what Hu Jintao has to do with the question I asked. (Reid would later make clear he was comparing China with America, where compromise is essential in "the best system ever devised to rule the affairs of men and women.")

Second, how Reid-like is it to call the Chinese president a dictator as he is arriving in this country for sensitive talks with President Barack Obama? An awkward state dinner?

Obama's Latest Gift To Castro

Tuesday, January 18, 2011
An editorial from Investor's Business Daily:

At a time when socialist mismanagement has put Cuba on the ropes, the Obama administration has decided to unleash a new wave of U.S. visits and remittances to tide the dictatorship over. For Castro, it's pennies from heaven.

Late last Friday, the Obama administration said it would ease restrictions on contacts and cash with Cuba in about three weeks.

Loosely defined student and church groups would be able to travel to the communist country, and any American would be able to remit up to $2,000 per year to Cuba, with few restrictions. Until now, only exiles could make such visits and send limited transfers. Now, anyone can.

The move largely restores relations to the Clinton-era status quo of 1996. But it sends a lousy message to U.S. allies like Colombia — whose free-trade pact is treated contemptuously — and, more to the point, amounts to a big gift to the Castro regime just when it needs one.

If Obama's past is any indication, he probably did it to please supporters on the left, who've been angry with him lately. Some of the biggest beneficiaries of the travel loosening are likely to be radical pro-Castro groups that earn cash on "reality tours." Global Exchange, for instance, led by wealthy Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin, sends leftists to Cuba to sing the regime's praises. Cuba is picky about who gets in, and these groups will have the edge.

With ObamaCare under fire, it might even serve Obama's agenda to have such groups singing the praises of socialized medicine as better than the U.S. alternative.
But the biggest beneficiary of all will be Fidel Castro.

It's he who will end up with the extra money, which is already about $2 billion a year. Anyone sending remittances to Cuba pays a 20% tax off the top, and often a 10% exchange fee. Cubans who buy something with the cash in government-owned stores pay other fees.

In the end, the regime gets all the money, notes prominent Cuban-American Val Prieto, who blogs at Babalu.

"It's like going to the casino," Prieto said. "The odds favor the house."

Unlike visits, the remittances may be more policy than politics. Mauricio Claver-Carone, a top lobbyist at the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC in Washington, believes that based on recent Defense Department and State Department position papers, the White House may be bailing out Castro because it fears Cuba may collapse on its watch.

"The administration doesn't want a confrontation," Claver said. "They know they'll stabilize the Cuban economy with these changes." He notes that the Castro regime doesn't have the hard currency to back all its purchases from Spain right now — the very same crisis Cuba was in when Clinton loosened rules in the 1990s.

Clinton meant to stabilize the regime to prevent another Mariel flotilla. Obama may be thinking the same thing.

The bottom line is that these changes benefit and further entrench the failed Castro regime at a time when it should be thinking about becoming a democracy.

And for the U.S., it creates significant risks:

Writer Humberto Fontova notes that stepped-up cultural exchanges have always been opportunities for the Castro regime to recruit spies, for one.

Prominent here was the case of Defense Intelligence Agency official Ana Montes, arrested in 2001 as a Cuban spy, and last year's case of two State Department traitors.

All were veterans of Cuban "cultural exchanges."

There's also the opportunity for Castro to take hostages. If U.S. church groups come into the country and pass out satellite phones, which is what Alan Gross did 13 months ago, they could be jailed without trial or due process.

Castro is holding Gross hostage because he believes he can swap him for five of his own spies. Visiting church groups will present new opportunities for Castro to go hostage shopping.

Castro uses remittance cash as a coercive tool to keep Cubans and their U.S. relatives docile. Anyone who doesn't behave gets his remittance cash cut off by the regime, thus dampening any calls for reform.

Today, reform in Cuba is needed more than ever. The Cuban regime has announced plans to lay off 15% of its work force, yet it refuses to open its foundering economy even to save its own hide.

With all these problems, it's an ideal time for the U.S. to take the lead on forcing Cuba's totalitarian rulers to face reality. Instead, we've just kicked the can down the road.

The Economics of Obama's New Cuba Policy

Here are the simple economics of the Obama Administration's new policy of easing sanctions towards Cuba:

Last year, the Castro regime announced it would fire 10-20% of the Cuban workforce (due to a severe liquidity crisis) and issue limited self-employment licenses (for the politically obedient) -- thus creating a supply of labor.

On Friday, the Obama Administration responded by allowing more travel -- thus creating a demand for goods and services -- and more cash transfers -- thus providing capital to totalitarian Cuba.

Furthermore, the Obama Administration will now allow any American to send remittances to the island -- thus creating a whole new class of investors. After all, it's a hard act to distinguish a transfer from an investment.

The Castro regime has only faced a liquidity crisis of this current magnitude twice in its history.

First, during the 1990's (upon the collapse of the U.S.S.R.), when the Clinton Administration (in response) chose the path of greater travel and remittances, and thus helped the regime stabilize its economy.

And today, when the Obama Administration has chosen to mimic the same unfortunate path.

That's called a b-a-i-l-o-u-t.

Do Sanctions Help Castro?

Advocates of unconditionally easing sanctions towards Cuba often make the counter-intuitive argument that the Castro regime really doesn't want the U.S. to lift sanctions, for it would deprive it of an "excuse" for its failings.

Obviously, that's not the case.

Here's an excerpt from the Castro regime's official [and welcoming] statement to last Friday's further, unconditional, easing of sanctions by the Obama Administration:

"Although the measures are positive, they remain well below those just demands, have a very limited scope and do not modify the policy against Cuba.

The White House announcement is limited, essentially, to restoring some of the provisions that were in force in the 1990s under the Clinton administration, and were eliminated by George W. Bush beginning in 2003 [...]

If there were a real interest in expanding and facilitating the contacts between our peoples, the United States should lift the blockade and eliminate the prohibition that makes Cuba the only country to which Americans cannot travel."

So much for counter-intuition.

Bad Politico Calculus

Monday, January 17, 2011
In a story about the Obama Administration's unconditional easing of sanctions towards the Castro regime, Politico makes the following unfounded (and insulting) statement:

"Despite the sharp criticism from hard-liners like Rubio and Menendez, the politics of Obama's move are on his side. The Cuban-American electorate has changed in recent years, as the strongly pro-embargo expatriates are becoming a minority."

Are these Politico reporters insinuating that the Members of Congress overwhelmingly elected by the Cuban-American community don't represent the views of their constituents?

Somehow, we doubt they'd make similar insinuations about African-Americans, Jewish-Americans or any other ethnic constituency.

Furthermore, why do the Members of Congress -- both Republicans and Democrats -- that represent the overwhelming majority of Cuban-Americans, plus every other elected official in that community, all oppose unconditionally easing sanctions?

Even the Center for American Progress recently recognized that:

"Although many commentators have suggested that a younger and more liberal generation of Cuban-Americans in South Florida might result in greater opposition to the embargo, the landscape of the current Congress is not cause for optimism."

Why? Due to the 2010 elections.

It was in a supposedly "hotly-contested" Congressional race in South Florida this past November that a candidate very closely (and publicly) associated with the Obama Administration's Cuba policy received only 18% of the Cuban-American vote.

Here's a reminder.

If You Give Something, Get Something

By Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post:

Easing sanctions on totalitarian Cuba

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of House foreign affairs committee, issued a tough statement on Friday regarding the Obama administration's decision to ease Cuba sanctions: "Loosening these regulations will not help foster a pro-democracy environment in Cuba. These changes will not aid in ushering in respect for human rights. And they certainly will not help the Cuban people free themselves from the tyranny that engulfs them. These changes undermine U.S. foreign policy and security objectives and will bring economic benefits to the Cuban regime."

Likewise, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), son of Cuban immigrants, issued a statement:

"I strongly oppose any new changes that weaken U.S. policy towards Cuba. I was opposed to the changes that have already been made by this administration and I oppose these new changes. I believe that what does need to change are the Cuban regime's repressive policies towards the independent press and labor unions, its imprisonment of political prisoners and constant harassment of citizens with dissenting views, and its refusal to allow free multi-party elections. It is unthinkable that the administration would enable the enrichment of a Cuban regime that routinely violates the basic human rights and dignity of its people."

Many critics of the administration's approach to Cuba argue that the central error was not insisting on meaningful democratic reforms in exchange for lifting the sanctions.

Cliff May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told me over the weekend: "I guess I'd say the general rule is: If you give something, get something."

What are we getting, or more precisely, what are the Cuban people getting? At a time when the Castro regime is pinched for cash, we will be allowing foreign tourist dollars to flow into Cuba. Really, what is the sense in that?

On This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

We honor all of the political prisoners held throughout the world as a result of their peaceful acts of civil disobedience.

"An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law."

-- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In particular, we remember the 11 political prisoners that the Castro regime announced for release on July 2010, but remain imprisoned due to their refusal to be banished from their homeland.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

-- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We pray that the international community will stop appeasing the brutal regimes that impunely imprison them.

"We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

-- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dodging (Congress) and the Embargo

Sunday, January 16, 2011
An editorial from The New York Sun:

The plan of the Obama administration to allow a bit, if only a bit, more American travel to communist Cuba is but the latest example of its strategy of putting through by administrative action what it couldn't get through the Congress. The New York Times caught the administration at one such attempt in respect of whether the government would pay for end-of-life counseling. The Congress had rejected it in the course of passing Obama care. Then the administration tried to sneak it through administratively until it was caught by the Times and reversed itself. It's now trying to do something similar, make it easier for Americans to travel to the communist held island and also to send money there.

The Obama administration, according to the Miami Herald, is dismissing speculation that it "delayed the changes until after the November election because Democrats in Florida feared it would hurt them among Cuban-American voters — many of whom back tough sanctions against the Cuban regime." The Herald was told that the demarche comes from an "interagency process that has concluded only in the last couple of days." The Herald quotes an official as underscoring that the changes do not, as the Herald characterized it, lift the economic embargo and that tourist travel to Cuba remains illegal, "as does," the Herald noted, "sending remittances to senior government or Communist party officials." It quoted the White House as asserting that the changes do not require congressional approval and would be published at the Federal Register.

Well, whether or not they require congressional approval, the fact is that on the eve of the election, the Democrats in Congress were noisily trying to move toward easing the embargo of Cuba, which, in various forms, has been in place since the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. The Democrats were hastening because in recent months it has become clear that the communist regime on the island is in a terrible cash crisis and desperate for an end to the embargo. But the then-chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee, Howard Berman, a Democrat of California, delayed a vote on the matter until after the election. The reason was that it appeared unlikely he could not get the scheme through even a Democratic-controlled committee.

No doubt the Democrats' softness on Cuba was only a tiny part of the reason Americans revoked the party's control of the House of Representatives. But they did vote in the Republicans, leading to the accession to the chairmanship of Foreign Affairs of one of the heroines of the struggle for a Free Cuba, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. It strikes us that a descent respect for the decision of the voters would, at that point, have given the administration pause in its rush to liberalize relations with Cuba. Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen herself was quoted by the Herald as assailing the revision of the rules the administration is proposing. "These changes will not aid in ushering in respect for human rights," the Herald quoted her as saying. "And they certainly will not help the Cuban people free themselves from the tyranny that engulfs them. These changes undermine U.S. foreign policy and security objectives and will bring economic benefits to the Cuban regime."

Clearly there are Democrats who disagree. The Herald quoted one of them, Congresswoman Castor of Tampa. She has been agitating for years for Mr. Obama to lift at least some of the embargo. But they haven't been able to win the argument through the democratic process that gives us our Congress or through the legislative process, which is where the embargo was codified to start with. The Obama administration is sending a terrible signal when it ignores that process in tampering with a long-standing foreign policy like that of Cuba. The irony is that it is doing so under the claim that it wants to help bring about democracy.

Attention All Cuba Travelers

Travelers to Cuba -- particularly government officials, businessmen, journalists and other useful visitors green-lighted by the Obama Administration -- should first be required to visit the Hotel Viru in Tallin, Estonia.

It might save them years of blackmail, extortion and public advocacy on behalf of the Castro dictatorship.

Re-opening this month as a hotel-museum, the Hotel Viru offers a glimpse of how the Castro regime's secret police learned to keep tabs on (and manipulate) its ingenious foreign visitors.

Welcome to Sokos Hotel Viru:

Soviet Hotel Life under the Keen Eye of KGB

A glimpse on life in the Soviet Republic of Estonia during the explosive sixties, the time of the Cold War. The country's Soviet-run government, watching the billions made by global tourism establishments passing by, decided to try and bring some of the currency to their own territory. To do so, the government needed to start building hotels suitable for accommodating foreigners. But the hotels suitable for foreigners also had to suit the KGB.

This would be a fitting introduction to the story that is the birth of Hotel Viru, the first skyscraper in Estonia and the creation of the first hotel museum to be opened in January. Hotel Viru, built by Finnish specialists at a record speed of three years and opened in 1972, has since been a distinctive part of the silhouette of Tallinn and is filled with different stories about the hotel itself, Soviet society, and the development of Estonia.

The first twenty years of the hotel were spent largely under the command of the KGB, followed by the successful launch into a market economy after Estonia regained its independence in 1991. Since the very beginning, the hotel has also had an important part to play in the stories told by the Finns - from builders to owners and lessees to tourists.

The watchful eye of the KGB was a part of the hotel's everyday life and kept the very last floor, the 23rd, of the hotel closed for the public. The largest skyscraper balconies overlooking the city, the sea, and the Old Town have remained closed until now as all the efforts so far have been focused on modernizing and renovating the lower floors of the hotel. But the stories have never stopped accumulating…

We have decided to make the last floor of the hotel accessible to the public as the first hotel museum in Estonia and open up the KGB room/museum, allowing people to take a look at the major sights of the city with the help of a map from the best possible viewpoint found in the city centre. At the museum, we will tell our guests the stories of the hotel and the KGB's part in them, introduce the history of the city centre by showing various objects and images that feature the funny seventies, tough eighties, and the cowboy capitalism of the nineties. Although the hotel lives on and new stories are born every day, we need to draw a line somewhere and have decided to conclude our story-telling at 2003, when the hotel was taken over by the Sokos hotel chain.

The KGB room has been preserved as the comrade officers left it in 1991. We have taken numerous guests from nearer and farther countries to see the room throughout the years and the interest towards it has been immense. We have never managed to stay in the 15-minute time limit of the tour and our guests have always surprised us with uncountable questions, comments, and memories. We have seen people for whom the Soviet era has been only a page in the history book realize, by seeing a robust eavesdropping device and by taking a step back in time, that all of this was reality only a few dozen years ago, and not some ancient relic dating back two thousand years. Back then, tourism was far from an innocent form of entertainment since each foreign guest was greeted with the full force of ideological weaponry.