Rafin, S.A. = Raul & Fidel, Inc.

Saturday, February 5, 2011
Tragically, this is not a joke.

Last week, we posted that Telecom Italia re-sold its 27% stake in the Castro regime's telecom monopoly, ETECSA, to the Cuban military for $706 million.

The transaction was completed by Rafin, S.A., which we noted was a financial arm of the Cuban military.

We also noted that in May 2010, Rafin, S.A., had created a joint venture with the secretive, South Pacific Holdings, Ltd., which is believed to be controlled by Russian finance players.

Little else had been known about Rafin, S.A. -- until now.

It turns out Rafin, S.A. stands for "Raul and Fidel Investments" ("Raul y Fidel Inversiones").

According to Juan Juan Almeida (in Diario de Cuba), son of recently deceased Cuban Vice-President (and 3rd highest ranking official of the Castro regime), General Juan Almeida Bosque, the abbreviation was concocted by the Castro brothers during a cocktail party with other military officials at an exclusive residence in Havana.

The remaining 73% of ETECSA is also owned by front-companies of the Castro brothers.

They are:

Telefónica Antillana S.A with 51%, Universal Trade & Management Corporation S,A (Utisa) with 11%, Banco Financiero Internacional with 6.15%, Negocios en Telecomunicaciones with 3.8% and Banco Internacional de Comercio with 0.9%

Lessons to be learned:

For lawmakers -- the more money that is sent to Cuba's totalitarian economy is the more money the Castro brothers will have to repress and censor the Cuban people.

For foreign companies -- business deals with the Castro brothers are not profitable in the long-term.

For "Cuba experts" and the Obama Administration (that argue travel and remittances will somehow help the Cuban people become "independent" of the regime, despite its closed economy) -- that policy has a zero-sum (if not outright negative effect), as it frees up resources for the Castro brothers to deploy on even more repression and censorship.

Cuba's kleptocracy at its finest.

Obama's Gross Problem (and Blunder)

Taking a page from the Obama Administration's playbook -- or perhaps mocking its announcement of unilateral concessions exactly three weeks earlier -- the Castro regime also chose a late Friday afternoon to announce its charges (and a potential 20-year prison sentence) against U.S. development worker, Alan Gross.

It took the Castro regime more than 14 months to file charges against Alan Gross (for helping Cuba's Jewish community to freely connect to the Internet).

So what are these charges that took 14 months of "intrigue"?

Gross was charged with violating Castro's arbitrary "Law Against Independence and Territorial Integrity." In other words, for disrespecting the absolute authority of the Castro brothers.

Ironically, this is the same "crime" for which the Castro regime imprisons Cuban dissidents -- except it only takes them overnight to invent charges in those cases.

So now what happens?

There will surely be a show trial and Gross will be found "guilty."

The question then becomes -- will the regime make Gross serve the 20-year sentence or release him on "humanitarian" grounds (and thereafter seek international praise for releasing a man that should have never been arrested in the first place)?

Time will tell. However, one thing is for sure -- it will be a very well-orchestrated show trial.

The audience? U.S. travelers.

The message? Bring me your money and shut up (or you too can become a hostage).

And unfortunately, the Obama Administration just made that a whole lot easier three weeks ago.

White House Statement on Alan Gross

Friday, February 4, 2011
When will the Obama Administration realize that the Castro brothers are not rational actors?

From The White House:

Alan Gross has been unjustly detained and deprived of his liberty and freedom for the last 14 months. Instead of releasing Mr. Gross so he can come home to his wife and family, today's decision by Cuban authorities compounds the injustice suffered by a man helping to increase the free flow of information, to, from, and among the Cuban people.

We remain deeply concerned for Mr. Gross' well being and that of his family and reiterate our call for his immediate release.

Time for a Congressional Investigation

Yesterday, the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a list of the Top 10 most-wanted health care fugitives, who have defrauded U.S. taxpayers of over $124 million.

Sadly, seven out of the ten are of Cuban origin. Six of them are currently hiding in Cuba.

Meanwhile, a recent report by the University of Miami entitled, "The Cuban Government and Multi-Million Medicare Fraud in South Florida," traces back its potential high-level links to Havana:

In a discussion with a high-level former intelligence official with the Cuban Government... who asked to remain unnamed, [he] states that there are indeed strong indications that the Cuban Government is directing some of these Medicare frauds as part of a desperate attempt to obtain hard currency. The source notes that the Cuban Government is also assisting (while not directing) other instances of Medicare fraud – providing perpetrators with information with which to commit fraud.

The former Cuban official goes on to say that, in the instances where the Cuban Government is not directing or facilitating the fraud, it does provide Cuba as a place for fugitives to flee. This gives the Castro regime a convenient and care-free way to raise hard currency. The source specified that any fugitive in Cuba needs to pay astronomically large sums of money to the Cuban Government in order to enter and remain in the country.

Clearly, it's time for Congress to look into this concerning matter.

In My Humble Opinion, Pt. 24

Thursday, February 3, 2011
From the St. Petersburg Times:

With Cuba poised to drill for oil off its coast as early as this spring, Florida lawmakers are renewing efforts to block it, citing fears about damage to the state's beaches in the event of a major oil spill.

Sarasota Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan introduced legislation to allow the U.S. Interior Department to deny oil and gas leases to companies involved in Cuba's oil drilling operations. Sen. Bill Nelson plans to reintroduce legislation to pull the visas for executives of such companies. Nelson also is hoping to "outline our position'' in a yet-to-be-scheduled meeting with officials from the Spanish energy giant, Repsol, which is working with Cuba [...]

The renewed push for legislation that seeks to dampen global interest in Cuba's offshore industry comes as a semisubmersible rig is being readied in Singapore for use in Cuba. Repsol, which drilled an exploratory well in 2004 off the coast near Havana, has contracted to drill the first of several exploratory wells. Other countries have also expressed interest in drilling in Cuba.

The Interior Department and the White House declined to comment on Buchanan's legislation.

A spokesman for Repsol said the company had no comment, but noted that its plans for 2011 include one well in Cuba, as well as one offshore and two onshore rigs in the United States.

Buchanan said his legislation would force Repsol "to make a choice — Cuba or the U.S." He noted that Repsol "scrapped'' plans to build a gas development plant in Iran amid U.S. pressure [...]

A leading embargo supporter suggests Havana is touting its oil reserves in hopes of rallying support for easing the embargo. The embargo already affects the oil program: The country had to secure a rig that didn't violate the law, which prevents vessels with more than 10 percent U.S. parts from operating in Cuba.

"This is part of a decade-long propaganda campaign by the regime in order to secure the oil industry's support for joining the lobby against the embargo," said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of a leading pro-embargo lobby, the U.S. Cuba Democracy political action committee. He notes that Cuba lacks capacity for refining crude oil.

"We've been through this before," Claver-Carone said of reports Cuba is ready to drill. "It's the little boy who cried wolf."

EDITOR'S NOTE: For more background on this topic, click here to read the New York Times op-ed, "How the Cuban Embargo Protects the Environment."

A Video Worth Watching

If you have some time (for it's a bit long), please watch the following video that was recently smuggled out (thus exemplifying internal discord) of Cuba.

It's a conference given to the Cuban military on how to fight against the "threats" that the Internet and technology poses to the Castro regime.

You can click forward, but it's worth watching throughout.

Bottom line: They are quite concerned about the Cuban people being able to freely express themselves.

Unfortunately, it's only in Spanish (for now).

If you don't understand Spanish, at least take a look at the pictures (below) of the "students" (military thugs) in this censorship class (h/t Penultimos Dias).

Courtesy of Generation Y.

La ciber policia en Cuba from Coral Negro on Vimeo.

Bracketing Political Prisoners

Another month has passed since the heralded announcement of July 2010 -- that 52 specifically-named Cuban political prisoners would be released by the Castro regime.

And still, there has only been one release in Cuba.

Of those 52 political prisoners, 40 have been forcibly banished to Spain and 11 remain in prison for refusing banishment as a pre-condition.

Just this week, one of those 11, Diosdado Gonzalez, along with his wife, Alejandrina Garcia, a founding member of the Ladies in White, began a hunger strike demanding his release.

But before the foreign media could even report (or so we hope) on the hunger strike of Diosdado Gonzalez and his wife, the Castro regime (and its accomplices) moved quickly to announce the banishment of four previously unknown prisoners.

A coincidence? Far from.

The regime -- cleverly -- wanted to bracket any news stories about another month passing without the release of any of the 11, or the hunger strike by Diosdado Gonzalez and his wife.

Thus, the AP reported (and bracketed):

Cuba's government has agreed to free four opposition prisoners and send them into exile in Spain, a Roman Catholic Church official said Wednesday, but none of them are among a group of 11 prominent peaceful dissidents jailed since a 2003 crackdown on dissent.

And well-within the story, it mentions:

Alejandrina Garcia, the wife of one of those 11 prisoners, began a hunger strike on Friday to demand her husband's release.

Garcia's husband, Diosdado Gonzalez, and another dissident prisoner, Pedro Arguelles, joined the hunger strike on Tuesday. Gonzalez is being held at a maximum security prison in Matanzas, while Arguelles is in jail in the central province of Ciego de Avila.

It's imperative that we remind the international community (and the short-term memory of the Catholic Church) the names of the 11 political prisoners still awaiting for release within their homeland (which is their fundamental human right):

Pedro Argüelles Morán, Oscar Elías Biscet, Eduardo Diaz Fleitas, Jose Daniel Ferrer, Diosdado González, Iván Hernández Carrillo, Librado Linares, Hector Maseda, Felix Navarro Rodriguez, Angel Moya Acosta and Guido Sigler Amaya.

Castro's HIV Prisons

Are there any limits to the cruelty of the Castro regime?

Yesterday, we posted an editorial on the tragic murder of 26 patients in a Cuban psychiatric hospital -- due to starvation and medical negligence.

Today, Diario de Cuba exposes Castro's five prison facilities for Cubans suffering from HIV-AIDS.

They are sent to these prisons under the draconian "Law Against Social Dangerousness" -- ironically, the same law under which Castro arrests political prisoners. (A good reminder for those normalization advocates that always talk about "respecting Cuban law.")

At these facilities, they suffer from lack of medical care, hygiene, nutrition and all sorts of brutal abuse.

Needless to say, these prisons are not part of Castro's health care "propaganda tours" for foreign visitors.

Here's a picture of Castro's Santa Clara HIV Prison, where over 235 "inmates" are held.

No wonder Castro refuses to allow the International Committee on the Red Cross and U.N.'s Special Rapporteur Against Torture to enter Cuba.

Sounds Like a "Hardliner"

Wednesday, February 2, 2011
"I will never get into a dialogue… while Mubarak is in power. Because all… you do is you… give that regime a legitimacy, which I… in my view, they have lost. But more importantly… I don't think he understands what democracy means. I don't think he understands… you know, I don't think he understands that he really needs to… let go."

-- Mohamed El Baradei, 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and prominent opponent of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, CBS Evening News, 2/2/11.

The Real Criminals Are Still at Large

From The Miami Herald's Editorial Board:

Mazorra's crimes

Cuba's public health system is held up to the world as one of the glories of the revolution. It's supposed to be a major achievement of the Castro dictatorship, consistently used to justify the deprivations Cuba's people are forced to endure every day.

Most Cubans, if not all, know that's an exaggeration, to put it mildly. Yes, Cubans get free medical care. But it's neither quality care nor particularly good. Indeed, a form of healthcare apartheid exists in Cuba that offers a higher level of medical treatment for foreigners and anyone else who can pay for it, but doles out aspirin to everyone else (if they're available) regardless of ailment.

That hasn't kept the Cuban propaganda mill from extolling the virtues of the state-run healthcare system. But the latest events surrounding the horrific findings at the Havana Psychiatric Hospital, known as Mazorra, where electroshock "treatment'' for political dissidents has been commonly used, are eye-opening and disgusting.

Pictures of the cadavers of 26 patients whose deaths were officially attributed to cold and malnutrition were widely circulated on the Internet. They looked like victims of a concentration camp, an embarrassment that forced the dictatorship to put some of the medical personnel on trial. Thirteen were convicted, with sentences ranging from 15 to five years in jail.

Cuba's healthcare system, like so much of Fidel and Raúl Castro's revolution, stands exposed as a fraud and a failure. The scapegoats are headed for prison. The real criminals are still at large.

Castro vs. Mubarak's "Reforms"

While we disagree with the overall pessimism in Daniel Greenfield's recent column on Egypt, the following observation is quite noteworthy:

"Consider the pundits who have urged us to embrace Castro's reforms, but would like us to see remove Mubarak. There is little difference between the men in principle. Mubarak is certainly less of a tyrant than Castro. But Cuba is the left's pet cause. And they fantasize that Egypt will see a left wing government take hold once Mubarak is gone."

That's hard to argue against.

If you haven't seen the video interview we posted with a young, Egyptian, anti-Mubarak protester on Capitol Hill Cubans TV, please click here to do so.

If that's what the protesters are selling for Egypt (or Cuba for that matter) -- then we're certainly buying.

Finally, a word of caution for all the zealous U.S. supporters of normalizing relations with the Castro regime:

When the U.S. colludes with dictators for a short-term gain, it always risks losing the people in the long-term.

A very risky arbitrage.

It's always in the long-term interests of the U.S. to stand -- unequivocally -- behind its democratic values and principles.

A Must-Read on Tunisia-Cuba

By Anna Mahjar-Barducci in Hudson-NY:

The Tunisian Revolution As Seen By Cuba

The Tunisian Revolution did not echo only in the Arab world, but also in Latin America. After the fall of the former Tunisian President Ben Ali, the Mexican paper "La Mañana" wrote that this was a "clear message to the other authoritarian leaders in the world: a dictator fell and sooner or later the other dictators will also follow the same fate." The op-ed stresses that regimes such as the one in La Havana are now feeling uncertain, and anxious that similar protests could also explode in their countries. Cuban dissidents, too, see many similarities, especially between the Castro regime, in power for more the fifty years, and the dictatorship in Tunisia, which for 23 years had been pillaging the country.

In Tunisia, as in Cuba, there are more than a million exiled people, and a frustrated youth with high-education, but no employment. In Tunisia, there are pockets of real poverty, particularly in the interior regions, such as Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine, where the revolt started. The unemployment rate is 14.7%, for a population of ten and a half million. Further, salaries for manual labor are unbearably low: having a job does not always avoid having a miserable life.

In Cuba, with a population similar to Tunisia's -- around 11 million -- an administrative chaos reigns. Even though, as the Associated Press reports, unemployment is minuscule -- it has not risen above 3% in eight years -- the official data ignore "thousands of Cubans who are not looking for jobs that pay monthly salaries worth only $20 a month on average."

Tunisia was a police state, as Cuba still is. During Ben Ali's regime, policemen in plain clothes and network of spies were everywhere. Outside a supermarket in Tunis, you could even see a shoeshine pull out a big walkie-talkie, like those in use with the police, and talk to somebody clearly not his wife. After a while, in Tunisia, you are under the impression that Big Brother is always watching you.

In Cuba, it is the same. As reported on the State Department website: "Cuba is a totalitarian police state which relies on repressive methods to maintain control. These methods include intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Cuban citizens and foreign visitors."

Further, in Tunisia, as in any dictatorship, public order was implemented with force -- all too often excessive force - without taking into account torture practices used behind closed doors and in prisons, as many witnesses have recounted during the last few days. Once, you could even seen a beggar without legs being harshly taken away, and the person who accompanied him being repeatedly punched in the head. Such unnecessary violence was a standard practice.

In Cuba, Human Rights Watch reports, conditions in prisons are inhuman, and political prisoners suffer additional degrading treatment and torture. The dissident website Cubanet writes that "day and night, the screams of tormented women [in prison] in panic and desperation who cry for God's mercy fall upon the deaf ears of prison authorities. They are confined to narrow cells with no sunlight called 'drawers' that have cement beds, a hole on the ground for their bodily needs, and are infested with a multitude of rodents, roaches, and other insects".

Tunisia, like Cuba, was also a country with no freedom of press. One of the main dailies, in French, La Presse, contained only a list of presidential activities and praise and applauses for the regime's personalities. Even the foreign press was kept under control. There was also the problem of corruption -- that does not exempt the Socialist Cuba. In Tunisia, not only there was a rampant corruption from the members of the government-for-life, but even the President's family was one of the main actors in robbing the country. The President's wife, Leila Trabelsi, fled Tunisia after having taken 1.5 tons of gold from the Central Bank; and her family had been borrowing money from the bank at an interest of 0.25 per thousand (not per cent, which would already be negligible, but per thousand).

The only difference from Cuba is that Tunisia was considered by many Western governments as a "moderate" country, seen as a buttress against Islamism. Although Ben Ali himself used religion to give credibility to his regime, under his dictatorship Islamism grew as it represented the only real and strong opposition. Cuba instead lives under an embargo.

In the meantime, while the Tunisians are still fighting for their freedoms, hoping that the future will not be uncertain, in Cuba the opponents to the regime write that the "Jasmine Revolution" has renewed their hopes.

This new hope is why the Cuban government pretends that almost nothing has happened in Tunisia: it fears similar protests. The media outlet, Diario de Cuba, writes that every year Ben Ali would send messages to La Havana to congratulate it for the anniversary of its triumphant Revolución. Even this year, in the midst of the protests, on January 6, Ben Ali expressed his desire to serve the interests of these two friendly countries. However, "there was not even one line in the Cuban press on the fall of the 'friend' Ben Ali. And until now, we could not enjoy one of those farsighted 'reflections' by Fidel Castro illustrating the subject. What a pity!"

An Offensive Headline

Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Analyze the following AP headline:

"Pizza bakers, mule drivers, shoe shiners: New entrepreneurs lead Cuba's year of economic change"

If this headline were about a U.S. minority group, e.g. African-Americans, or ethnic group, e.g. Mexicans, it'd be considered offensive -- if not xenophobic.

Yet, for Castro's slaves, it's somehow heralded when a Cuban is given "permission" to be a pizza baker, mule driver or shoe shiner -- and only on a "lease" from the regime, for they are still prohibited from actually owning any business, property or other means of production.

They (the few thousand Cubans that are granted one of Castro's self-employment licenses) are simply permitted to pay the regime an overwhelming tax in order to offer one of 178 (previously designated and limited) menial services.

This is particularly offensive (and degrading), for when Cubans are given freedom (in this case, exile), they have proven to climb -- through their hard-work and innovation -- to the highest echelons of international business.

There's only one standard under which economic progress should be measured in Cuba -- entrepreneurial freedom, equal opportunity and property rights for all.

USINT Chief: "Profound Changes Required"

From the Voice of America (VOA):

Washington, D.C. - The top U.S. diplomat in Cuba told VOA Tuesday the Castro government has "taken some steps" to improve relations with the United States, but there is a "long way to go" before the U.S. trade embargo can be lifted.

Jonathan Farrar, the Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba, made the comments at VOA's Washington headquarters, where the top U.S. diplomats from 14 South American and Caribbean nations discussed key regional developments, including the situation in Haiti.

In his comments on Cuba, Farrar called the continued detention of 62 year-old U.S. aid worker Alan Gross, "an obstacle for increased dialogue between both countries." Asked about the possibility of lifting the U.S. embargo, Farrar said, "as President Obama has stated, that would require profound changes in the conditions that are present in Cuba today."

The Invisible Hostage Crises

By former NSC official, Elliott Abrams, at the Council on Foreign Relations:

It is now a year and a half since Iran jailed three American hikers on trumped-up spying charges. The three, Shane Bauer, his fiancée Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal were detained on July 31, 2009; Shourd was released on September 14 of last year. Recalling the hostage crisis that helped bring down Jimmy Carter in 1980 and that ended on the twentieth of January thirty years ago, it is striking that the Administration appears only mildly disturbed that they continue to sit in jail—as does Congress.

Nor are Bauer and Fattal the only American hostages. The USAID contractor Alan Gross has been imprisoned in Cuba for 13 months now. He was there to help the tiny Cuba Jewish community connect with Jewish communities around the world, and for this "crime" he is accused of espionage. If that verdict of Administration indifference seems too harsh, it is striking that the Administration just two weeks ago announced a loosening of travel restrictions to Cuba whose goals include to "enhance contact with the Cuban people and support civil society through purposeful travel, including religious, cultural, and educational travel" and especially to "Allow religious organizations to sponsor religious travel to Cuba." To encourage contact with religious communities in Cuba while the last guy who tried remains in jail does not suggest that Mr. Gross's release is at the top of the Administration's agenda.

Perhaps there is a secret deal here, and he will be released within days. But if there was no agreement of any kind, the Administration's move seems callous. According to the Washington Post, "The new regulations had been drawn up by Obama administration officials last summer. But, wary of political fallout, they had held off introducing them until after the November elections. Another complicating factor has been the detention of Alan P. Gross, a Potomac contractor who was arrested in Havana in December 2009…." The question is precisely whether Mr. Gross is regarded as an American whose freedom should be our top priority, or a "complicating factor" in the Administration's drive to liberalize travel to Cuba. Even if that were a worthy goal, it is difficult to see why it is a more vital national interest than freeing our citizens.

As to those held in Iran, is it not fair to ask how far we will go to free them? No doubt the Administration has reached out to many interlocutors it believes capable of persuading the ayatollahs: Switzerland (which represents us in Iran), Russia, China, Turkey and who knows how many others. And it was quite sensible initially to believe that quiet diplomacy was more likely to free the two men than loud pressure.

Except it isn't working. Appropriate holidays for "humanitarian" releases have come and gone, and then come and gone again. Those of a historical bent may think back to "Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead," the battle cry Theodore Roosevelt used in 1904 during his campaign that year, and wonder whether something more forceful would work better. That is debatable; what cannot be debated is that Iran has felt itself able to imprison innocent Americans endlessly without worrying about the consequences [...]

Although we are not at war with Iran its rulers have been killing Americans for a very long time—in terrorist attacks and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps they would take us more seriously in the future, in ways that would even help our diplomatic negotiations with Iran, if we now imposed a penalty on the regime. Or would it be OK to see Mr. Fattal and Mr. Bauer sit in prison for their second anniversary, and then their third?

A Canadian With a Conscience

By Canadian columnist Bill Tieleman:

Cuba no fun in the sun

"I cannot go to Cuba to relax on the beach and keep my eyes shut while dozens of political prisoners are behind bars there."

- Former Czech president Vaclav Havel, 2006

Each year over 800,000 Canadians visit Cuba for a sun-filled holiday of beaches, rum and great music.

I have not and will not be one of them.

Unfortunately for Cubans, their country is run by a repressive military dictatorship that rejects democracy and severely punishes those who speak out for change.

Even leaving the country is close to impossible for most citizens.

I cannot therefore in good conscience support Cuba's government by being a Canadian tourist there.

Like Havel – who fought his own country's repressive regime and was jailed for five years – I'm deeply troubled by the Cuban communist government of former President Fidel Castro, and now his brother Raul's, ongoing violations of human rights.

Amnesty International hasn't been allowed to visit Cuba since 1990. That alone should give Canadians pause before heading to the beaches of Veradero.

But Amnesty has still documented repeated and severe abuses of Cubans for attempting to exercise basic human rights. Its 2010 Report on Cuba says:

"Civil and political rights continued to be severely restricted by the authorities. Government critics continued to be imprisoned; many reported that they were beaten during arrest."

Despite the repression there are Cubans fighting for change.

Yoani Sanchez is – somewhat amazingly – a pro-democracy blogger in Cuba. Her life has been extremely difficult and her courage extraordinary.

"In November, Yoani Sánchez and blogger Orlando Luis Pardo were forced into a car by state security agents and beaten and threatened before being released," Amnesty International says. "The attackers told Sánchez 'this is the end of it'."

Individual Canadian tourists can send a strong message to the Cuban dictatorship by vacationing elsewhere. Tourism is Cuba's second largest revenue stream and Canada its number one source of visitors.

It's simply a personal choice – something citizens of Canada and other democracies are privileged to have.

The counter argument is Cuba has many positive accomplishments, despite its repressive government. Infant mortality is among the world's lowest and better than the United States. Its medical services to citizens are vastly superior to most developing countries.

But Cubans pay a heavy and unnecessary price with the loss of liberty and democracy.

It's a personal choice for every Canadian who has the opportunity to travel to decide where they go on vacation.

After all, unlike Cuba, it's a free country.

On Obama's Unilateral Policy Concessions

Monday, January 31, 2011
By Amb. James Cason in the Sun-Sentinel:

Obama's soft, unilateral policy concessions will not bring change to Cuba

Few notions have had more consequential impact on the lives of millions than the idea that rulers derive their power from the consent of the governed through free elections.
Thus, the Republican takeover of the House and gains in the Senate should impact on President Barack Obama's domestic and foreign policy agendas.

It seems reasonable that would be the case about Cuba policy, since Florida U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, is now chairing the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and all six Cuban Americans in the Senate and the House oppose additional concessions that would bring millions into the Castros' bank accounts at a time when the island's economic crisis has forced the regime to take timid steps toward reforms.

Unfortunately, the recent announcement "softening" restrictions on travel by U.S. students, and professors, as well as allowing Americans without family ties to send dollars to Cuba, was done without a full consultation with Congress. It seems as if the President's desire for bipartisanship, transparency, and full consultation does not apply to sending millions to an inveterate enemy of the United States that will use the new-found dollars to end whatever minor economic reforms they had under consideration due to their liquidity crisis.

A perceptive Cuban analyst, Mauricio Claver-Carone, in his Capitol Hill Cubans blog, wrote: "The Castro regime has only faced a liquidity crisis of this current magnitude twice in its history. First, during the 1990s (upon the collapse of the USSR), 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."

The Castro brothers never responded to Mr. Obama's extended hand, which urged them to open their iron fists and implement significant reforms. This rebuff has not received much attention even though the administration announced recently that the level of Havana's "reforms" does not justify a policy change.

Indeed, as Jennifer Ruben asked in a Washington Post column on Jan. 17, "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 the other hand, the Washington tabloid Politico said that "despite the sharp criticism from hard-liners like [Marco] Rubio and [Robert] 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." This is not true, as the recent elections of Cuban Americans opposed to concessions to Havana clearly demonstrate.

Earlier, the President lifted U.S. restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to Cuba, and asked Havana to release political captives and reduce its tax on remittances. The result is the regime suspended the tax but in a way that benefits the regime: dollars are now changed into a Cuban currency with no value outside Cuba, but which the regime insists is worth more than a dollar. The regime benefits by the increase in the flow of dollars. The tax cut is meaningless because the government continues to increase the already high prices paid by Cubans in Cuban stores, all owned by the regime.

The government has also released several dozen political prisoners, but in an unexpected move conditioned their release on immediate exile with their families to Spain — not what President Obama had in mind when he called for their freedom. There also has been an increase in repression and abuse against dissidents; while those who refused to go into exile, and many others who have not been given the choice, remain in prison.

The Castros also hold an U.S. political prisoner: Alan Gross, a contractor with the U.S. Agency for International Development, who gave a laptop computer and a cellular telephone to Cubans. Jailed for more than a year without charges, the regime says he's a spy, but in reality he is a pawn in a dangerous game. Fidel Castro wants five convicted Cuban spies serving U.S. prison sentences "home."

In a letter to Secretary Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder, the Cuban-American congressmen wrote "about reports that there were negotiations with Havana to secure the release of Gerardo Hernandez, a convicted Cuban spy who was found guilty of conspiring to commit the Feb. 24, 1996 murders of three Americans and a U.S. resident." The four, aboard two Brothers to the Rescue small, unarmed aircrafts, were murdered by Cuban warplanes in international airspace. The Cuban officers who pulled the triggers when Gen. Raul Castro was the minister of the armed forces have been given medals, and continue to enjoy impunity. Then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright lambasted the regime for the crime, and the Clinton administration said the United States would insure justice. Fifteen years later, the Justice Department has yet to refer their cases to INTERPOL.

"To allow this rogue regime to equate the activities of Mr. Gross with the reprehensible actions committed by a convicted spy and murderer, Gerardo Hernandez, would set a precedent that could place more American citizens in grave danger by subjecting them to the whims of pariah states, who will stop at nothing to extract concessions from the U.S. Government," Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, and three others wrote.

At the spies' open trial, the federal judges reviewed transcripts of Havana's secret encrypted orders to find locations for the landing of arms and explosives in Florida. Havana's spies in U.S. prisons include Walter Kendall Myers, a former State Department employee, who pled guilty in July and was sentenced to life in prison; Mariano Faget, a Miami immigration officer, sentenced to five years in 2001; Carlos Alvarez, a Florida International University professor, who pled guilty and was sentenced to five years in 2007; and Ana Belen Montes, a high-ranking Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who pled guilty and was sentenced to 25 years in 2002.

Two advocates of unilaterally lifting what remains of U.S. sanctions recently retired from the Senate: Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota. A third, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, was defeated, while an opponent of unilateral action, Sen. Menendez, not only remains but has been joined by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

In the U.S. House District 25 election last November, a Cuban American candidate that favored a "softer" approach to Cuba was soundly defeated by Cuban American David Rivera, a persistent critic of the regime. Cuban Americans are certainly not sending mixed messages to Washington.

Their bipartisan agenda should include:

Placing in international airspace the aircraft modified to serve as a broadcast platform to make sure TV Marti signals are received in Cuba.

Defending U.S. interests vigorously. Havana believes there is no price to pay or quid-pro-quo loss of privilege and will continue to break into diplomatic pouches, jam U.S. broadcasts, hold Americans in prison, deny exit permits to families holding U.S. visas, insult the Obama administration, described as "forgetful," "cynical," and "demented," and insist that only Cuban-government screened nationals can be employed by our diplomatic mission in Havana.

Apply to Cuban diplomats in Washington the same restrictions the regime applies to American diplomats in Cuba.

Reenergize U.S. programs to promote democracy on the island, mirroring similar American programs implemented in Eastern Europe.

None of these policy steps is "earth shaking." All of them recognize the regime's repressive, anti-U.S. nature. Indeed, it's time for Americans to imagine — as Cubans often do — the demise of the dictatorship and the reestablishment of democracy on the island. A democratic Cuba would, indeed, usher in a new era of inter-American relations.

Ambassador James Cason, a retired career diplomat, served as Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, and later as ambassador to Paraguay.

Is Russian Mob Financing Castro Regime?

Over the weekend, Telecom Italia completed the re-sale of its 27% stake in the Castro regime's telecom monopoly, ETECSA, to the Cuban military.

As we'd posted last month, Telecom Italia apparently got tired of censoring the Cuban people. (It's worth noting that its CEO announced the company would now be pursuing business in Brazil and Argentina, where it can "control" its own investments.)

The $706 million re-purchase was completed by Rafin, S.A., the financial arm of the Cuban military's conglomerate, GAESA.

GAESA, which is run by General Raul Castro's son-in-law, Col. Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez Callejas, is the holding company of Castro's military, which controls virtually all hard currency operations in Cuba.

As if that wasn't concerning enough -- in May 2010, Rafin, S.A., created a joint venture with South Pacific Holdings, Ltd., which is believed to be controlled by unknown Russian finance players.

Something seems terribly iffy here.

Name That Dictator

It's fascinating how dictators want to selfishly hold power, yet blame everyone else for their failures.

Does this fact-pattern sound familiar?

For decades, a dictator exerts absolute power through a system of fear and repression backed by military control and the brutality of its domestic security forces. Throughout this time, the human, political and economic rights of its people are systemically violated, ensuing in social collapse and despair. Pursuant to rising domestic pressure and international criticism, the dictator announces some makeshift reforms, reshuffles Cabinet members and promotes the head of the country's security apparatus. The people know such reforms are far from the fundamental change needed and desired, but the international community (and the dictator's advocates) conveniently promotes such reforms as progress. Meanwhile, the dictator continues to elude responsibility.

Two guesses -- but it should come as no surprise that the Castro brothers are painstakingly hiding news of Egypt's uprising from the Cuban people.

Telecoms Should Defy Tyrants

Unfortunately, some telecom companies will do anything for a premium.

From The Hill:

Phone, Internet companies urged to defy Egypt's orders

Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) urged Western communications companies to defy orders from Egypt's government to shut down their services.

The comments came during a day of violent protests and a sweeping attempt by the Egyptian government to block Internet services, a move analysts are calling "unprecedented in Internet history."

Wu, an outspoken opponent of online censorship and the co-founder of the Internet freedom caucus, rejected the idea that Western companies should comply with orders from Egypt's government.

"Have some courage. These international companies really ought to know better," he said in an interview with The Hill. "They should do the right thing."

Wu said he could understand why Egyptian companies would comply, but that western firms who follow the orders are "abetting suppression and repression."

International companies including the U.K.-based Vodafone have received orders from the Egyptian government to shut off communications services. Vodafone said it cooperated because the mandate fell within the bounds of Egyptian law.

"That's bunk," Wu said. "For a [non-Egyptian] company, come on. What [these companies] really care about is their long term business interests in Egypt, not Egyptian law."

Wu called on companies to "follow the Google motto and 'don't be evil,'" referring to the search giant's decision to narrow its business operations in China because it did not want to censor Web content.

Wu had strong words for companies that work with governments who infringe on civil liberties. He described a company that sold technology to China to help with citizen surveillance.

"That's not as bad as selling nerve gas to the Nazis to use on Jewish concentration camp victims, but its about a bad as selling handcuffs to the South African [perpetrators of] apartheid," he said. He said he could not disclose the name of the firm.

Wu said he will reintroduce his bill to fund research and development for technology that helps people skirt censorship, making it possible to access the Web in countries that block content.

Wu is also a co-sponsor of a bill by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) that would impose sanctions on governments who censor Web content.

Meet Castro's 26 New Political Prisoners

Sunday, January 30, 2011
On Friday, 27 Cuban pro-democracy activists were violently arrested by the Castro regime for undertaking a peaceful protest.

Amongst them was Guillermo Farinas -- the 2010 recipient of the European Parliament's Sakharov Award for Freedom of Thought.

Due to Farinas' international recognition, there was immediate media coverage regarding his multiple arrests (Farinas was actually arrested three separate times last week), which led to his subsequent releases -- a lesson on the importance of shining an international spotlight on the plight of dissidents and political prisoners.

Unfortunately though, the other 26, less-known, courageous pro-democracy activists remain imprisoned by Castro's secret police and have even started a collective hunger strike demanding their release.

It's time to for the international community and media -- which has been silent on the status of these other 26 activists -- to shine a spotlight on their names as well.

They are:

Idania Yánez Contreras (pictured with her family below), leader of the Central Opposition Coalition (COC); Alcides Rivera Rodríguez, Alexis Oms Pérez, Ramón Alboláes Abreu, Ana Rosa Alfonso Arteaga, Omar Suárez García, Jorge Luis Oliver Díaz, Yunieski García López, Damaris Moya Portieles, Frank Reyes López, José Lino Ascencio López, Yanet Yánez Núñez, Carlos Baluarte Obregón, Rafael Pérez González, Heriberto Pérez del Sol, Alejandro Gabriel Martínez Martínez, Benito Ortega Suárez, Francisco Rangel Manzano, Félix Valenzuela, Carlos Olivera, all members of the COC; and independent journalists Guillermo del Sol Pérez and Liset Zamora Carrandi.

More on Obama's Cuba Bailout

By columnist Miguel Perez of the Creators Syndicate:

Obama's Cuba bailout makes little sense

Until recently, the Obama administration had been surprisingly firm in its posture toward Cuba, always asking for concessions, in terms of freedom for the Cuban people, before lifting sanctions against the Stalinist Castro dictatorship, which has ruled the island for more than five decades.

Perhaps the president had no other choice, given the many Americans who already say he is a closet communist. But now that the midterm elections are history, apparently Obama feels it's safe to crack the closet door open. Politically, it could be a huge mistake. It could cost him the Cuban-American vote and the state of Florida in 2012.

Yet Obama has decided to continue to dismantle the 48-year U.S. trade embargo against the communist island by executive order, without consulting Congress. His decision to lift some travel restrictions on Cuba-bound American students, academics and religious groups and restrictions on sending money comes without any significant concessions from the Fidel/Raul Castro regime.

The Cuban people are no less deprived of their freedom and human rights now than they have been in 50 years. The Cuban government still is repressing "virtually all forms of political dissent," according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.

Last year alone, the report says, 1,220 arbitrary detentions were documented by Cuban dissidents, and 113 political prisoners were serving long, inhumane and unjustified sentences. One prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died after an 85-day hunger strike, and another dissident, Guillermo Farinas, maintained a hunger strike for 135 days, forcing the regime to agree to release 52 political prisoners who had been held since 2003.

Some pundits would give credit to the Catholic Church for negotiating their release, but it was Zapata, Farinas and the relatives of the political prisoners, known as the "Ladies in White," who exposed the Castro brothers to world condemnation and finally forced them to budge.

Nevertheless, the report notes that only 40 have been released, 39 of them with the condition that they had to leave the island and accept forced exile. The government doesn't want them leading the opposition on the streets of Havana. Only one of those released was allowed to stay in Cuba. The 12 others, who refused to leave the island and undoubtedly would speak out as dissidents if released, remain in prison.

Since taking over for his brother Fidel in 2006, Raul Castro, the report says, has continued to enforce political conformity through criminal prosecutions, harassment, denial of employment, travel restrictions and even beatings.

So why now, President Obama? This makes no sense!

What makes this move even more absurd is that it comes at a time when many world economists, diplomats and even Raul Castro himself have said the Cuban economy may be on the verge of collapsing.

"The life of the Cuban Revolution is in the balance!" Raul said as he announced new austerity measures in December. "We rectify, or we sink!"

According to WikiLeaks, the Italian ambassador in Havana has predicted that "Cuba will be bankrupt in 2011." So why would Obama want to throw the Castro brothers a lifesaver now that their ship of horrors finally is sinking?

That is the question that is boggling many minds. Yet this is what happens to American presidents, who are limited to an eight-year maximum time frame, when they try to deal with the Castro brothers, who rule indefinitely and have the luxury of waiting out any White House occupant. The Castro brothers' dictatorship already has outlasted 10 American presidents. Obama is well on his way to becoming the 11th.

The Castro brothers make no concessions. All "negotiations" have to be on their terms. And their terms always ensure that they will maintain total control of the Cuban people. If their repression machine is somehow going to be weakened by some kind of new economic partnership with the United States, they simply will say "no dice," as they have many times in the past.

Yet every couple of decades, we get an American president who thinks he can get the Castro brothers to repent from their criminal ways and who, pressured by his own term limits, begins to give them concessions without getting anything in return.

And the Castro brothers know just how to exploit this. They put the rest of the world in a position in which we almost feel as if we should be grateful because they release political prisoners who never should have been jailed in the first place.

Is that what's happening to President Obama?

Instead of believing that Obama is a closet communist or a Castro sympathizer, I like to think the president is simply so eager to see change in Cuba that he refuses to wait for concessions.

But of course, that's the wrong (and very naive) way to go about it. The Cuban regime will simply not allow change that could threaten its own survival.

Yet demonstrating amazing naivete, the Jan. 14 White House announcement noted that the new measures "will increase people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities."

Really? Can the Obama administration be that naive? When are we holding hands and singing "Kumbaya"?

If we have learned anything from the past 50 years of "the Castro brothers vs. 11 American presidents," we should know that U.S. concessions never have made the dictators release their shocking grip on the Cuban people.

What makes Obama think he can do better?

We also should remember that U.S. concessions only have served to revive the Castro regime at times, like now, when it was nearing its last breath.

When the regime was strapped for cash in the 1990s, after the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidies, it was the Clinton administration that threw Fidel Castro a lifesaver by doing exactly what Obama is doing now for Raul Castro. Clinton also lifted travel and cash flow restrictions on Cuba, and in return, he got absolutely nada.

Clinton's concessions only created a source of cash for the Castro regime and for a few unscrupulous American travel agents who used all sorts of loopholes to enable regular American tourists to go to Cuba pretending to be affiliated with a church or a university. The whole arrangement was so abused and discredited that it was rescinded by the Bush administration, only to be revived this month by Obama.

It's ludicrous! Instead of propping up the last dinosaurs of the 20th century, Obama should be seeking their extinction. Given his liberal credentials, this is a president who easily could rally international public opinion to force democratic changes in Cuba. Instead of granting Cuba more concessions, Obama should be seeking unilateral condemnation of Cuba's human rights violations and getting the whole world to help shut down the Castro regime. Instead of cutting back on support for dissidents and pro-democracy activities, to cowardly avoid irritating the Castro brothers, the president needs to find the cojones to stand up to them.

At a time when the world's oldest dictatorship is nearly bankrupted and seeking to survive only to keep repressing its people, throwing the Castro brothers a lifeline is not only a terrible and senseless idea but also tantamount to becoming the dictators' accomplice.

Pretending to help the Cuban people, we are about to further enrich and empower their oppressors.