Illegal Cuba Travelers Beware

Saturday, June 18, 2011
Here's another reason -- other than violating U.S. sanctions law -- why American travelers should think twice before boarding a Cancun-Havana (or other similar third-country) Cubana airlines flight.

Don't miss the video clip below.

From USA Today:

How Safe is that Foreign Airline?

Cuba isn't assessed by the FAA because the United States does not have full diplomatic relations with the nation and doesn't allow direct flights. Many Americans, such as Ronald Howard, a teacher in Atlanta, fly to Mexico or Canada to connect to flights to Cuba.

Howard, who flew to Havana last year from Cancun, Mexico, says he had an unsettling experience on a flight operated by Cubana airlines, the island nation's flagship carrier, which flies to Paris and other major cities.

Howard recalls a white mist spewing into the passenger cabin of the Russian-built Yak-42 aircraft during his flight. The mist, which could restrict visibility during an emergency evacuation, probably was from a faulty cooling and heating system, says John King, a former airline mechanic and safety advocate.

"The plane was smoking white mist all the way. The interior was ice cold, and the emergency exits were rusted," Howard recalls. The jet landed safely in Havana.

USA TODAY e-mailed four contacts listed on Cubana's website but did not get a response.

Cubana's last fatal accident was in 1999, and it has the worst accident rate of any airline from 1986 through 2010, says, a website that compiles accident statistics.

The Reality of the Totalitarian World

Friday, June 17, 2011
A chronicle of Cuban independent journalist and former political prisoner Pablo Pacheco's (who was recently released and banished to Spain) trip to London, where he participated in Amnesty International's 50th Anniversary event:

On Monday, Sue invited me to meet with a group of Amnesty International students, with professors of Henley College and a group of French students. These young students, who are in the process of completing their high school careers and in a few years will be the future of their country, do not know the reality of the totalitarian world; the world of suffering unleashed upon some people through hate, intolerance, thirst for power, disrespect for human rights and the lack of freedoms imposed by those who reside in power.

The questions about Cuba quickly began. The most frequent ones were about education and health care.

I explained that in my country, since children are 6-years old they must shout daily slogans such as, "Pioneers for Communism, we will strive to be like Che" in the mornings. I told them that we Cubans want our children to be whatever they strive to be and not like Che because -- despite the fact that the Cuban dictatorship has sold his image as an example for the world to follow -- this man is not an example worth emulating for kids, for he assassinated many Cubans simply because they were against the communist regime which has ruled Cuba for 52 years. In the same vein, I explained to them how Cuban students are separated from their parents when they become 12-years old and are sent to rural schools to study and work, in addition to receiving communist indoctrination, which marks them for their entire lives and impedes them from personal initiatives and from thinking freely. That is not the kind of free education we want, I affirmed.

Then I detailed how upon students completing their high school careers, in order to enter the university, they must be members of the Young Communist Union. As if that were not enough, those who succeed because of their talent and hard work in school find themselves working for a miserable monthly salary of less than 20 euros.

As far as the "free health care" and the "medical potential" which the regime boasts about, I explained to them how in Cuba tourists are provided with hospitals with technology that is much more advanced than what is found in hospitals for nationals. In fact, in hospitals, I explained, there is apartheid practiced against nationals, for we do not receive the same medical quality or attention that is provided to foreigners who pay with convertible currency. I concluded this point by explaining that the regime pays for the public health service with all of the money it steals from its workers, including doctors.

Lastly, I shared with them what I experienced during the 7 years and 4 months I spent in captivity just for writing what my conscience dictates and for denouncing the cruel reality my people face, which the dictatorship tries to hide through its propaganda and distortions of the truth. In Cuba, the life of an average person is very different from the lifestyle of the leaders of the revolution, who live like aristocrats.

The majority of the students showed concern for the changes my young son has experienced in exile. They asked how he felt in Spain and how he has adapted to this new world. I told them that Jimmy is happy because he recuperated what had been stolen from him - the company of his father, a good morning kiss, the hug before going to sleep, and most importantly, the desire to be a normal kid.

One student said, "From now on, I am going to value what I have much more, such as living in a democratic country and knowing that, despite mistakes of our types of government, there is a sharp contrast between what we live and what your people live. We have options, we are free to express ourselves, and of choosing our own paths. Thank you, Pablo, for making me appreciate what I have."

A knot took over my throat and at the moment, more than ever before, I understood the importance of awaking the conscience of others in regards to Cuba. “Thank you all for sharing this unforgettable moment with me”, I responded.

Release Democracy Funding for Cuba

Thursday, June 16, 2011
From The Miami Herald's Editorial Board:

Release democracy funding for Cuba

OUR OPINION: "Hold" by Sen. Kerry undermines worthwhile programs

At a time when Cuba's masters are fighting desperately to avoid an economic and political collapse, Washington is caught up in an increasingly silly and pointless dispute over funds to promote civil society and democracy on the island. This nonsense could not come at a worse time.

Sen. John Kerry has put the brakes on funding previously approved by federal lawmakers without supplying clear reasons for his actions or his intent. This is both a significant departure from the usual script involving U.S. policy toward Cuba and a surprising — and disappointing — role for the senator from Massachusetts.

Cuba policy is a perennial target of controversy inside the beltway, with Democrats and Republicans offering competing visions of the best way to fulfill the U.S. interest in promoting freedom on the island. This time, however, it's a leading Democrat against a Democratic administration. The situation is made even more bizarre because Mr. Kerry has rarely, if ever, evinced overriding interest in Cuba policy and can usually be counted on to act as a reliable ally of the Obama administration on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has put a "hold" on Cuba funds disbursed by USAID, the foreign-aid arm of the State Department, to block $20 million "to support human rights and civil society initiatives in Cuba." These programs cover a wide range of activities. They include the provision of "food stuffs and over-the-counter medicines" to political prisoners and their families, and training for grassroots organizers and "democratic engagement at the community level."

In the past, some federal funds for Cuba have been ill-used or misspent, and the Herald has long called for vigilance in these important democracy-building programs. They should not be exempt from accountability.

But in this case, funds to assist Cubans who dare to dissent are undergoing an unusual and unwarranted level of scrutiny. Neither Sen. Kerry nor members of his staff have produced a "smoking gun" or evidence of wrongdoing. They have demanded answers to intrusive questions, reportedly including the identity of individuals at the ground level in a totalitarian state — information that the administration guards jealously and sensibly because improper dissemination would jeopardize their safety.

That's the hang-up, but it shouldn't be. The principle behind these programs — employed throughout the world — is important and the programs themselves are worthwhile. Their aim is to promote civic engagement and rudimentary forms of participatory democracy. It's easy to see why they frighten the dictatorship, which wants to keep Cubans on a tight leash. The existence of a robust civil society in Cuba would represent a threat to the regime.

If Sen. Kerry has doubts, they should be aired in an open committee hearing. Questions should be asked in public and answers supplied by the administration.

But holding up the expenditure at this stage undermines the entire process. A "hold" by an individual senator — a privilege that, as now, is frequently abused, whether it be for spending money or denying office to a worthy appointee — is a particularly unfair way to go about it.

Sen. Kerry owes it to fellow lawmakers to give a reason for his actions or lift the hold. Blocking approved funding this way is unacceptable. Supporters of programs to aid Cuba's dissidents are frustrated. Meanwhile, in Havana, Cuba's leaders are no doubt laughing.

Another Political Prisoner Near Death

Cuban political prisoner Jorge Cervantes has been transferred to a hospital pursuant to a 16-day hunger strike.

Cervantes, 41, a member of the pro-democracy Christian Liberation Movement, began the hunger strike in protest of his unjust imprisonment.

He's accused of the "crime" of placing anti-government signs in public (Castro's) property (meaning anywhere on the island of Cuba).

His mother, Alba Garcia Verdecia, who was able to see him in the hospital, says he looks "nearly dead."

Let's pray that the world's attention doesn't come too late, as in the case of Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

The striking image below is an older picture of Cervantes pursuant to an attack by the Castro regime's thugs, which thrust asphalt upon him.

Kerry Was For Lifting the "Hold" Before He Was Against It

Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Some things never change.

Over the weeked, U.S. Senator Johnn Kerry (D-MA) was for lifitng his "hold" on Cuba democracy programs before he was against it.

Sound familiar?

From The Miami Herald:

USAID requests proposals for Cuba programs

The U.S. Agency for International Development is pushing ahead with Cuba programs worth $21 million, although another $20 million remains blocked after oddly mixed signals by aides to Democratic Sen. John Kerry.

Staffers on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, chaired by Kerry, lifted his "hold" on the money Friday but put it back on ice Monday, said several U.S. government officials.

"Something smells bad," Investor's Business Daily wrote in an editorial that quoted unidentified Capitol Hill sources as pointing a finger at a "rogue" committee staffer "with pro-Cuba sympathies."

USAID's public notices Monday requesting proposals on how to spend $21 million were merely a procedural step for future multi-year programs, said the U.S. officials, who asked for anonymity.

Projects listed

The three notices listed $9 million for civil society entities such as cooperatives and church groups; $6 million to expand Cubans' access to information; and $6 million to increase free expression among Cubans aged 12 to 14.

The $21 million has not been approved by Congress. The $20 million being blocked by Kerry is part of $40 million for Cuba democracy programs already approved by the full Congress in 2008.

Cuba has made it illegal to cooperate with the programs and sentenced USAID subcontractor Alan Gross to 15 years in prison for delivering communications equipment paid for by the U.S. government to Jewish groups on the island.

Kerry put a "hold" on the money in April, arguing the programs were wasteful and provocative.

But he seemed ready to give in last week. His committee staffers notified the State Department — which includes USAID — on Friday that the hold was being lifted, but then on Monday it returned, several U.S. officials told El Nuevo Herald.

Committee spokesman Frederick Jones, asked twice on Monday about reports that the Kerry hold had been lifted, replied only that "the status remains the same."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has a second hold on the Cuba money because of questions about the programs, but those are widely expect to be resolved this week.

The Tuesday editorial in Investor's Business Daily, a national business journal, said Kerry is "inexplicably" holding up the $20 million.

The Kerry committee note to the State Department putting the hold on the money asked for the names of all contractors and subcontractors involved in the Cuba programs.

The State Department reply did not provide the names, amid complaints they might be leaked to Havana.

Kerry goals

The editorial added that the Cuban programs hold goes against the interests of Kerry, widely reported to be interested in serving as the next secretary of state.
Kerry's nomination would have to be confirmed by the Foreign Affairs Committee.

But if he leaves the Senate, he is likely to be succeeded as chairman by New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, a Cuban-American Democrat who strongly favors the Cuba democracy programs.

Kerry's hold also runs counter to an Obama administration "liberation technology" campaign to help dissidents in repressive countries use secretive Internet and mobile phone technologies to sidestep government controls.

The campaign involves an "Internet in a suitcase" and "stealth wireless networks" to allow dissidents in countries such as Iran, Syria and Libya to communicate with each other and abroad, according to a New York Times report published Sunday.

New America Foundation's Conflict (or Bias)

This week, the Director of the New America Foundation's (NAF, D.C.-based think-tank) U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative, Anya Landau French, posted another one of her compulsory critiques about USAID's Cuba democracy programs.

As usual, Landau questions the mission of these programs, her distaste for "regime change" in Cuba (perhaps she prefers "regime preservation" -- we prefer "regime choice" or how about just plain "freedom") and even throws in this insulting observation:

"I'm not convinced USAID can find many Cuban youth interested enough in advocating political rights as per USAID's revamped plans, when what the youth are really looking for is anything but political. (It's the economy, stupid.)"

Sadly, this is the same observation that led Cuban dictator Raul Castro (80-years old) to select successors even older than him -- for he doesn't believe Cuba's youth are "properly prepared" to assume positions of political power.

Instead, Landau takes the elitist stance (à la Raul) of suggesting young Cubans simply want some economic nuggets -- like being able to lease a paladar or fruit stand -- without challenging Castro's totalitarian power structure.

Moreover, Landau assails the Cuba programs for leading to the arrest of American development worker Alan Gross (who was helping Cuba's Jewish community establish Internet networks) and for doing so without the "permission" of the Castro regime.

So imagine our surprise, when we read (in the very same week) the following excerpt in the New York Times about U.S. efforts to set up "shadow" Internet and mobile systems for dissidents in repressive regimes:

Developers caution that independent networks come with downsides: repressive governments could use surveillance to pinpoint and arrest activists who use the technology or simply catch them bringing hardware across the border. But others believe that the risks are outweighed by the potential impact. "We're going to build a separate infrastructure where the technology is nearly impossible to shut down, to control, to surveil," said Sascha Meinrath, who is leading the "Internet in a suitcase" project as director of the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group.

"The implication is that this disempowers central authorities from infringing on people's fundamental human right to communicate," Mr. Meinrath added.


Isn't this contrary to what NAF's U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative advocates?

Or does NAF believe dissidents in every repressive regime -- except Cuba -- deserve such support (à la U.S. Senator John Kerry's hypocrisy)?

The World Needs America

Tuesday, June 14, 2011
An excerpt from U.S. Senator Marco Rubio's (R-FL) maiden speech today on the floor of the U.S. Senate:

America is still the only watchman on the wall of world freedom. And there is still no one to take our place.

What will the world look like if America declines?

Well, today people all over the world are forced to accept the familiar lie that the price of security is our liberty.

If America declines, who will serve as living proof that liberty, security and prosperity can all exist together?

Today, radical Islam abuses and oppresses women. It has no tolerance for other faiths, and it seeks to impose its will on the whole world.

If America declines, who will stand up to them and defeat them?

Today, children are used as soldiers and trafficked as slaves.

Dissidents are routinely imprisoned without trial. They're subjected to torture and forced into confessions and labor.

If America declines, what nation on the earth will take these causes as their own?

What will the world look like if America declines?

Who's going to create the innovations of the 21st century?

Who will stretch the limits of human potential and explore the new frontiers?

And if America declines, who will do all these things and ask for nothing in return?

Motivated solely by the desire to make the world a better place?

The answer is no one will. There is still no nation or institution on this planet that is willing or able to do what America has done.

Waiting For Broadband in Havana

From TelecomTV One:

Cuba's broadband revolution delayed until 'manana'.  In other words, indefinitely .

Cuba is now connected to the rest of the world via a new subsea cable to Venezuela. Its been ready for use since before the events in Tunisia, Egypt, the Yeman, Bahrain and Libya, but it hasn't been lit. Martyn Warwick wonders why:

The last time I was in Cuba, back in the "special economic period" that seems (like the permanent 'state of emergency' that pertained in Egypt under Mubarak), to have lasted for a generation, I interviewed a provincial police commander about telecoms on the island and he demonstrated the reality behind the Party propaganda. It took him, a senior state official, 25 minutes to get dial tone on his 'priority' line. And when he did get it, the call didn't complete, even though Fidel and Che were looking down from big pictures on the walls exhorting revolutionary zeal.

I had never been anyplace, except for sub-Saharan Africa, where the comms infrastructure was in such a parlous state. And so it has stayed since. Apart from a few cosmetic differences and some satellite-based broadband being made available to favored state apparatchiks, Cuba has continued to be a deprived telecoms backwater.

Then, back in February, it was announced that Cuba would be connected to the wide world by a new subsea fiber optic cable running to fraternal revolutionary ally, Venezuela. Hailed by the regimes in both countries (CHC: and by Cuba "experts") as another kick in the goolies for that imperialist aggressor, the United States, Cuba's president Raul Castro says cable will be lit "soon" (or 'manana' as they say in Havana, with all the urgency an immediacy the word implies).

According to the Cuban media, the cable will increase available bandwidth by 3000 per cent.

Sounds great, doesn't it - except that Cuba has an Internet penetration rate of under 3 per cent and the regime is already discounting hopes, raised by the president himself in the autumn of 2010, that ordinary citizens would benefit from greatly improved web access. Instead, priority is to be given to political institutions, public authorities and universities. A few months ago Cuba's rigorously-controlled state media was banging on daily about the benefits the new cable will bring the huddled masses. Then all went quiet as the Arab Spring took hold in North Africa and the Yemen and regimes were toppled, thanks, in great part, to mobile phones, SMS, IM and social networking sites.

The new cable cost US$70 million (paid for by oil-rich Venezuela) and can shift 640Gbits of data per second - and that's enough for 10 million simultaneous full-duplex phone calls. However, the ordinary Cuban won't see any improvement to the current depressing status quo - for political reasons, naturally, but also because the rest of Cuba's creaking and antiquated comms infrastructure hasn't been modernized to be able to cope with the potential traffic increase.

The Party says it hopes to update and replace infrastructure "by 2015" - maybe.

Is Obama's Policy Financing Repression?

The New York Times ran a story on Sunday about President Obama's policy of unlimited travel to Cuba by ("exiled") Cuban-Americans.

The title speaks for itself:

"An Airlift, Family by Family, Bolsters Cuba's Economy"

It features the story of two Cuban-Americans constantly traveling to the island -- 8 times in the past 18 months and 14 times, respectively.

(This highlights the fact that 300,000 Cuban-Americans didn't travel to Cuba last year, as reported -- it's essentially the same 100,000 as before, but traveling multiple times a year -- defying its humanitarian purpose).

But here's the kicker:

A State Department official, who requested anonymity because the policy is politically delicate, said that "additional people-to-people contact and enhanced economic independence from the state" helped to "undermine repression." In an e-mail responding to questions, the official said such benefits outweighed concerns about "the Cuban government profiting indirectly."

"Undermine repression"?

No wonder the official requested anonymity -- for this statement is completely dishonest.

Thus far in 2011, there have been nearly 1,400 known political arrests, which doubles the rate of known arrests from 2010.

(Obviously, this doesn't include the countless unknown incidents of repression).

So if repression has essentially doubled since Obama's new policy -- not to mention the death (murder) of Cuba pro-democracy leaders Orlando Zapata Tamayo and Juan Wilfredo Soto, and an American hostage, Alan Gross -- then it's clear that repression is actually on the rise in Castro's Cuba.

Therefore, Obama's Cuba policy is not undermining repression.

To the contrary -- it's financing it.

Surely that is not President Obama's intention.

Headline of the Week

From Reuters:

"Post-op Chavez runs government from Cuba"

So what else is new?

This has always been the case.

Kerry's "Hold" Benefits Castro

Monday, June 13, 2011
From Investor's Business Daily's Editorial Board:

Who Benefits? Castro

With Democrats resisting spending cuts in the great budget battles, all of a sudden one Democrat, Sen. John Kerry, is interested in cutting a measly U.S. program to promote democracy in Cuba. Something smells bad.

The senior senator from Massachusetts, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has inexplicably put a "hold" on a $20 million USAID program to support democracy, human rights and civil society in Cuba, a crumbling communist dictatorship that hasn't seen freedom in 52 years.

It's not that Kerry has any interest in Cuba. Congressional sources say a top staffer with pro-Cuba sympathies, Fulton Armstrong, is putting the screws to the program even at the expense of his boss' political interests. A lot of them think it would be nice to know why.

Ostensibly, the aim of Kerry's "hold" is to save money. But wait a second — that's because "the programs only provoke Havana, which has made it illegal to receive the U.S. funds," as the Miami Herald reported.

From the U.S. perspective, that makes no sense. Wittingly or not, the beneficiary of this "hold" is the Castro regime, even if the "hold" just delays the program.

Initiated in 2005, the program has always enjoyed bipartisan support. Even the Obama administration favors it and has repeatedly said that full relations with Cuba cannot be restored until the regime moves to permit basic liberties. The hold has created an atmosphere of "fistfights" among Democrats, as one source told IBD.

There's also no smoking gun of waste or fraud. Putting funds on hold will only ensure that Cuba's oppressed citizens don't get Internet and text-messaging access, dissidents go without food support, and students miss training on basic business concepts and how free markets work, among other things the program does.

Armstrong's initiative is so strange it's got Capitol Hill boggling at how it works against even the interests of his own boss. Hill sources say Kerry is interested in being named Obama's next secretary of state. He'd be a shoe-in for that, but his "hold" puts in question whether he could be confirmed by his own fellow Democrats.

His successor on the committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., is a Cuban-American who values this program highly. "What are his chances of getting confirmed after this?" a source close to Congress asks.

As Armstrong takes this rogue action, it's notable that his pro-Cuba sympathies are no secret — he favors lifting the U.S. embargo and establishing diplomatic relations, like many Americans.

A Principled Travel Editor

By travel editor Max Hartshorne in the Daily Hampshire Gazette:

Cuba ships off dissidents to be 'liberated' in Spain, and the rest remain tortured in jail

I posted a note on Facebook about new opportunities to travel to Cuba, at least if you can claim to be a part of an educational tour or study group. A bunch of friends commented on how much they too want to go there.

Tonight I read a column about the terrible treatment there of dissidents by Mary Anastasia O'Grady in the WSJ. While Cuba may indeed be a tempting travel destination, listen to how "The 75" are being treated after Spain's socialist government let Castro send them there to be 'liberated' last year.

The 75 were permitted to leave with their families, bring one change of clothes, but not given a chance to say goodbye to anyone. They have no documents so they can't claim political refugee status... they are liberated in limbo. Spain's government should be ashamed of how they so quickly agreed to Castro's deal to purge their country of people who spoke up, and might make them look bad.

Cuba's jails are full of people who have had the audacity to try and organize peaceful demonstrations, or writing columns against the leadership. They are tortured there, according to what the 75 have told the reporter when she met them in Spain. While Castro claimed he had liberated them, in fact they have no rights in Spain because they haven't been classified as such... because doing that would make Cuba look bad and Spain's foreign minister is a frequent VIP guest in the sunny island.

So yes, I'd join those who are eager to visit lovely Cuba and sip on mojitos and bask in the music and dance. But it's good to not forget that this is an island that's got a bad reputation for torture and doing very bad things to anyone who dares to challenge the status quo.

Miami-Dade Contracts With Castro's Partners

Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva retuned to Cuba last week to talk business with his old friends (and dictators) Fidel and Raul Castro.

The biggest gift of Lula's presidency for the Castro brothers was an $800 million project to expand the Port of Mariel.

The company responsible for this project is Brazilian engineering and construction firm, Odebrecht.

Odebrecht's Cuban partner in this venture is Zona Desarrollo Integral Mariel, S.A. (ZDIM) -- part of the Cuban military's business conglomerate overseen by Col. Luis Alberto Rodriguez Callejas, Raul Castro's son-in-law.

(Odebrecht is also a major business partner of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez).

Just another unscrupulous foreign company seeking to profit from the Cuban people's suffering.

But to add insult to injury -- Odebrecht is also one of Miami-Dade County's biggest contractors.

Odebrecht's Miami-Dade projects have included the $2.85 billion North Terminal Development Program at Miami Airport, the $280 million Performing Arts Center and most recently a $370 million metrorail link.

The Miami-Dade County Commission, which awarded Odebrecht these lucrative contracts, has been under a great deal of scrutiny lately -- and rightfully so.

We usually don't comment on local and state politics -- but how could Miami-Dade County continue to award contracts to Odebrecht (to this day) despite it's partnership with the brutal Castro dictatorship (since at least 2009)?

Cuban-American (and Venezuelan-American) taxpayers in Miami-Dade County should demand accountability for this affront.

Spain Betrays Cuba's Dissidents

Sunday, June 12, 2011
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady in the Wall Street Journal:

Spain Betrays Cuba's Dissidents

President José Zapatero helped Castro get rid of the best leaders of the island's nascent democracy movement.

- Despite 21% unemployment and a looming debt crisis, Spain is still considered one of the world's great travel destinations. That is unless you are a Cuban prisoner of conscience who was deported and dumped here by the military dictatorship in Havana. In that case, life as an alien on the sunny Iberian Peninsula is economically and psychologically grim.

Over the past 11 months, the Cuban regime has abruptly removed 115 political prisoners from their jail cells and banished them to Spain, calling their exile "liberation." Many of them are part of a group known as "the 75," who were arrested in March 2003 for activities like collecting signatures on a democracy petition, leading peaceful marches, or writing for independent newspapers. They were permitted to leave with their immediate families and bring one change of clothes from Cuba, but they were not given the chance to say goodbye to friends and extended family and were issued no papers. A number of them have tried to claim political-refugee status, but the Spanish government has not been eager to grant it. As a result, many of them still have no permanent documents.

Last week I met with 10 of them here. Their stories of years in Cuba's dungeons and of the wider repression across the island are hair-raising. One of them showed me smuggled photos from inside the notorious Combinado del Este prison, a filthy, infested facility not fit for animals. Some prisoners of conscience have spent years there.

After three days of these interviews, I began to slump under the weight of the Cuban reality. But the cloud that darkened my spirit was not brought on by anything these patriots had revealed about the hell-hole known as Cuba. I am well-versed in Castro's human rights record. The truly distressing part of the prisoners' stories is the morally bankrupt role played by the Socialist government of Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in assisting the Cuban dictatorship to disguise the deportation as "liberation." It's what one might expect from the bosses in Burma, North Korea or Iran.

The harsh prison conditions in Cuba are legendary, though the regime has not allowed any human rights observer to have a look in more than two decades. One of the exiles told me about a punishment technique called "the crab," which he said is used on common criminals but one human rights activist in the U.S. told me is also used on political prisoners. One handcuff is put on one wrist and the other handcuff is put on the opposite ankle. Another set of handcuffs is put on the other wrist and ankle. Then the prisoner, wearing only underwear, is tossed onto the floor of a dank cell where he may remain for a day or more. Beatings, solitary confinement and harassment of family members at home are also common practices.

This kind of stuff is supposed to curb dissent but after seven years of grisly prison life, many of "the 75," a number of whom were serving sentences of more than two decades, showed no signs of cracking. Orlando Zapata Tamayo went on a hunger strike and died at the hands of the regime in February 2010. The beatings by Castro thugs of the Ladies in White—the wives, sisters and mothers of the political prisoners—were captured on cellphones and went viral on the Web. Another hunger-striking dissident, Guillermo Farinas, was gravely ill. 

"The 75" had become a huge public-relations problem for the regime. As governments and intellectuals around the world condemned the systematic brutality, it was clear that more than a half-century of Cuban propaganda promoting the socialist paradise image was in danger of going down the drain. To minimize the damage, the regime needed not only to get the prisoners out of the country under the headline of "liberation," but also to ensure that they would land in oblivion. Spain agreed to help, and why not? Then-Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos has a warm relationship with the Castro government and was a frequent VIP guest on the island.

Most of the former prisoners told me that they did not want to leave Cuba, but Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who acted as a go-between for the dictatorship, pressured them and their families. Family members, worried that their loved ones might die in prison, asked them to take the Spanish exit.

Once in Spain, they realized they'd been had. They were clearly political refugees, and under Spanish law they were entitled to claim that designation. But for Spain to admit that they were victims of political persecution would negate the whole point of the exercise, which was to paint Castro as a great humanitarian who had set them free. This is why many of those I spoke with remain in legal limbo.

The transition to democracy in Cuba depends on two things: New leaders at home and international solidarity with their struggle for liberty from abroad. Mr. Zapatero has betrayed the Cuban people on both fronts.

"Shadow" Internet for Dissidents

If the story below was about Cuba, critics of U.S. policy would be making all sorts of absurd accusations -- that these programs are "covert," that they should be pre-approved by the Castro regime, that they violate Cuban "laws" and "sovereignty."

Kudos to the Obama Administration for this global Internet freedom initiative.

From The New York Times:

U.S. Underwrites Internet Detour Around Censors

The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy "shadow" Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.

The effort includes secretive projects to create independent cellphone networks inside foreign countries, as well as one operation out of a spy novel in a fifth-floor shop on L Street in Washington, where a group of young entrepreneurs who look as if they could be in a garage band are fitting deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a prototype "Internet in a suitcase."

Financed with a $2 million State Department grant, the suitcase could be secreted across a border and quickly set up to allow wireless communication over a wide area with a link to the global Internet.

The American effort, revealed in dozens of interviews, planning documents and classified diplomatic cables obtained by The New York Times, ranges in scale, cost and sophistication.

Some projects involve technology that the United States is developing; others pull together tools that have already been created by hackers in a so-called liberation-technology movement sweeping the globe.

The State Department, for example, is financing the creation of stealth wireless networks that would enable activists to communicate outside the reach of governments in countries like Iran, Syria and Libya, according to participants in the projects.

In one of the most ambitious efforts, United States officials say, the State Department and Pentagon have spent at least $50 million to create an independent cellphone network in Afghanistan using towers on protected military bases inside the country. It is intended to offset the Taliban's ability to shut down the official Afghan services, seemingly at will.

The Washington Post Should Apologize

The Washington Post owes the family of late political prisoner and hunger striker, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, an apology.

In its print edition (page A3), the Post ran a photograph (see below) of Zapata's Tamayo's mother, Reina Luisa, arriving in Miami.

Here's the written caption underneath the photo:

"Reina Luisa Tamayo of Cuba carries a flag-draped urn containing the ashes of her son, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, after her arrival at Miami International Airport. Tamayo's son, a Cuban who was considered by some to be a political prisoner, died while on a hunger strike. She and other family members are immigrating to the United States."

"Considered by some to be a political prisoner"?

Every major international human rights organization -- from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch -- recognized Orlando Zapata Tamayo as a prisoner of conscience since his arrest during the infamous Black Spring crackdown of 2003.

The question for the Post is -- who didn't consider Zapata Tamayo to be a political prisoner (in order to merit such an insult)?

The Castro brothers?

The prison officials
that beat and tortured Zapata Tamayo -- which led him to undertake an 85-day hunger strike and to his death?

The Cuban state security thugs that constantly harassed and assaulted his mother?

The soldiers that would physically impede Reina Luisa from visiting her son's grave?

This family has sacrificed way too much -- and suffered more than most could imagine -- for the Washington Post to still be giving the Castro brothers (which have executed, imprisoned and exiled more people than any dictatorship in the history of the Western Hemisphere) the benefit of the doubt.