What to do With a Dictator's Army

Saturday, July 23, 2011
An interesting analysis by U.S. Naval War College Professor Nikolas Gvosdev in World Politics Review:

Most experts believe that one of the most catastrophic mistakes made during the U.S. occupation of Iraq was the decision to disband the Iraqi armed forces in May 2003. The question is not merely of interest to historians and those writing "after-action" reports on the Iraq invasion. After all, other Iraq-style regimes -- most notably in Syria, Libya and North Korea -- are likely to fall in the near future. In all three states, the armed forces are part and parcel of the longstanding political order, and there will be those arguing for their complete dissolution in order to sweep away the last remnants of the "ancien régime."

Starting from scratch with a new army "free from politically compromised personnel," as Florence Gaub puts it in a recent study of post-conflict militaries in Iraq and Lebanon, may be a noble task in theory, but difficult to achieve in practice. A new Libyan democracy, for instance, will need the skills and institutional memory that current supporters of Moammar Gadhafi will bring. Conversely, if the Libyan rebels were to exclude them from any new arrangements, this would not only slow down the process of reconstruction but even possibly sow the seeds for counterrevolution [...]

Rarely do policymakers have easy choices in post-conflict situations. In Iraq, the fear was that compromising with elements of the old order would fundamentally preclude a new and better one from emerging. That led to an ill-thought-out decree that unnecessarily complicated the occupation without leading to any major changes. Hopefully, this lesson will not be forgotten when similar challenges again confront us in other post-conflict scenarios.

We Are All Norwegian

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Norway amidst their national tragedy.

Gud velsigne Norge!

Quote(s) of the Week

"They are beating women on the streets. Dialogue and rapprochement cannot be an option with these oppressors."

-- Jorge Luis Garcia Perez "Antunez," Cuban pro-democracy leader, on the violent attacks by the Castro regime on The Ladies in White, Twitter, July 21, 2011

And:

"I am very pleased that Republicans and Democrats voted together to roll back President Obama's policies allowing increased travel to Cuba. "

-- U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Thursday night's 36-6 vote (including 13 Democrats) to repeal Obama's Cuba travel regulations, July 22, 2011

Ladies in White Denounce Violent Attacks

Friday, July 22, 2011
FROM: The Ladies in White, a movement that since 2003 has demanded the release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience who are deprived of their freedom by the Cuban government.

REGARDING: An accusation of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment by the Cuban government against the peaceful opposition movement, The Ladies in White.

Last Sunday morning, July 17, 2011, sixteen Ladies in White and Ladies of Support went to the sanctuary of El Cobre, located in the town of the same name in Santiago de Cuba Province, with the objective of participating in a mass.

When the mass concluded and after the women prayed and asked for the release of political prisoners, they got ready to begin a peaceful march through the sidewalks in this town. Upon starting the journey, forces from the so-called Rapid Response Brigade, previously posted in the surrounding areas of the sanctuary and under the direction of agents of Section 21 of State Security, began to throw stones and shout offensive slurs against the dignity of these Cuban women.

Not fully satisfied with this criminal behavior, the officials of Section 21, Department of State Security (S-21-DSE) gave a previously planned order directly to several women to attack the Ladies in White and Ladies in Support.

1. Belkis Cantillo suffered a serious wound to her right arm when she was attacked by a woman who was a member of the mob with a perforated instrument (scissors). It was necessary to suture her wound.

2. Aymee Garces Leyva suffered serious wounds as a result of the beating, which caused a fistula on one of her vertebra.

3. Tania Montoya lost consciousness as a result of the beating. Her clothes were half-torn off of her as well.

On May 1, 2010, the Cuban government agreed with the Catholic Church as its witness (that is, his Imminence Cardinal Jaime Ortega) that the Ladies in White would not be reprimanded by the Rapid Response Brigades, an agreement which was broken on December 9, 2010, when repressive acts began again on the evening of December 10th, the international remembrance of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The socio-economic situation in Cuba continues to deteriorate, and as a consequence, criticism against the government is growing, and as a result, actions by the peaceful, non-violent opposition are growing inside of Cuba as well. Parallel to this increase in opposition, the government is accelerating, perfecting, modernizing, equipping, and increasing its repressive efforts. As a result, we do not rule out increased and escalated repressive efforts by the Cuban government, and for this reason, we call attention to the following:

That during the act of repression against the Ladies in White and the Ladies of Support at the Sanctuary of El Cobre in Santiago de Cuba Province:

a. The repressive mobs used stones, sticks, and perforated cutting instruments against the women.
b. Men, who were members of the mob, kicked and beat the women.

Peacefully, we remember that the United Nations, on more than just a few occasions, has condemned violence against women, and Cuba, a member nation of this organization, has a government that promotes violence against them. Specifically, Cuba finances, organizes and directs this violence.

Given from Havana, Cuba
The Ladies in White

Berta Soler
Laura Pollán

Translated by the Coalition of Cuban-American Women.

Is Luxury a New Category of Travel?

Then the Obama Administration wonders why Congress -- in a bipartisan manner -- overwhelmingly rejects its supposedly "humanitarian" Cuba policy.

From The New York Times:

Going to Cuba in Luxury

Five-star hotels and luxury motor coaches may not be the first things that come to mind when you think of Cuba. But now they can be part of the experience. Abercrombie & Kent, the luxury travel company, is offering trips to Cuba from the United States made possible by President Obama's loosening of travel restrictions earlier this year.

Obama Travel Regs Repealed in 2nd Major Bill

Thursday, July 21, 2011
The House Foreign Affairs Committee has just overwhelmingly voted 36-6 -- in a bipartisan manner -- to repeal the Obama Cuba travel regulations in the FY 2012 Foreign Relations Authorization Act.

Last month, similar language was added to the must-pass FY 2012 Financial Services Appropriations bill.

Thus, in an almost unprecedented move, there are now two major multi-faceted pieces of legislation that contain language to repeal the Obama Cuba travel regulations.

In My Humble Opinion, Pt. 34

From The Miami Herald:

Move to tighten Cuba travel could pass in Congress

An effort by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart to overturn Obama administration rules easing restrictions on travel to Cuba may win congressional approval despite a threatened presidential veto, according to supporters and even some critics.

The Florida Republican's proposal was initially given little chance of becoming law, especially after President Barack Obama last week vowed to veto it if it reached the White House for his signature.

But as the bill's possible paths through Capitol Hill became clearer, even some of its critics now say they believe the measure stands a reasonable chance of making it past Congress and even the White House.

"Although we appreciate the president's veto threat, there is no question that this misguided legislation, due to the way it's been placed in an appropriations bill, has a good chance," said former Democratic congressional candidate Joe Garcia.

"I am certainly NOT surprised that this looks like it's going to pass," added Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S. Cuba Democracy political action committee, which supports strong U.S. sanctions on Cuba [...]

Diaz-Balart's wording on Cuba was approved by a voice vote — indicating there was no strong opposition — in the House Appropriations Committee as an amendment to a bill funding the Treasury Department and other agencies for the coming fiscal year.

The bill is all but certain to be approved unchanged by the Republican-controlled House. The Democratic-controlled Senate usually does not draft its own version of the Treasury budget bill, leaving it to a House-Senate conference committee, with members appointed by congressional leaders, to craft a compromise.

House and Senate Democrats in the conference committee will try to strip the Diaz-Balart language out of the bill, said the Capitol Hill staffer, "but in a conference committee the leadership gives the orders, and on this one I don't know if the Democratic leadership is willing to die for travel to Cuba." [...]

"When the same people are going to Cuba two and three times and even more times a year, that starts to take the edge off the humanitarian intent" of easing the travel restrictions, the lobbyist said.

House Committee Votes to Defund OAS

From Foreign Policy:

House panel votes to defund the OAS

The House Foreign Affairs Committee began its Wednesday markup of the State Department authorization bill by voting to end funding for the Organization of American States (OAS), with Republicans lambasting the organization as an enemy of freedom and democracy.

The one-hour debate over the GOP proposal to cut the entire $48.5 million annual U.S contribution to the OAS is only the beginning of what looks to be a long and contentious debate over the fiscal 2012 State Department and foreign operations authorization bill written by chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). Democrats accused the Republicans of isolationism and retreat for their proposal, while the Republicans accused the OAS of being an ally of anti-U.S. regimes in Cuba and Venezuela. The OAS Charter was signed in 1948 at a conference led by U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall.

"Let's not continue to fund an organization that's bent on destroying democracy in Latin America," said Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL), the head of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere and the sponsor of the amendment. "You will support an organization that is destroying the dreams of the people of Latin America."

Other GOP members piled on, accusing the OAS of supporting Fidel Castro, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.

"The OAS is an enemy of the U.S. and an enemy to the interests of freedom and security," said Rep. David Rivera (R-FL). He compared U.S. support of the OAS to a scene from the movie Animal House, where a fraternity pledge is being paddled on his rear end and humiliatingly asks for more punishment.

"How much longer will we say to the OAS 'Please sir, may I have another," Rivera said

The defunding amendment passed 22-20 along party lines.

Internet Access Should Be a Human Right

From Public Service Europe:

Internet access should be 'a human right'

Access to the internet should be enshrined in law as "a human right" because of its capability to bring about democracy and freedom of expression, according to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Calling for all governments to include technological rights in their constitutions, OSCE representative on freedom of the media Dunja Mijatovic said: "In order to pay tribute to the unique contribution the internet has given to participatory democracy, to freedom of expression and to freedom of the media - it is only fitting to enshrine the right to access on exactly that level where such rights belong, as a human right with constitutional rank. Without this basic requirement, without the means to connect, without an affordable connection, the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the media become meaningless in the online world."

She also urged states that adopt censorship to relent, adding: "The free flow of information is the oxygen of cyberspace. Without it, the internet becomes a useless tool. Why do certain governments try to block, restrict and filter this flow? To protect us from terrorism, extremism, child pornography, human trafficking and other forms of threats, and make our societies more secure? Or is it only to shield us from criticism, satire, provocative and shocking comments, differing views and tasteless or controversial content? For that they do not have permission. We as citizens that voted for them never asked them or obliged them to shape our minds and opinions. There is no security without free media and free expression, and no free expression and free media without security. These two terms should go hand in hand, and not fight each other like we see in so many parts of the world."

Her comments come in the wake of the Arab spring, where mass uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have been labelled as the "Twitter" or "Facebook revolutions". But despite the empowerment of people through technology and the mobilisation of networks of pressure groups and individuals by way of social media, a number of autocratic states like China and Cuba still refuse the right for everyone to have unencrypted online access.

No More Cuba Boondoggles

From The Washington Times:

Congresswoman says curbs on travel to Cuba ignored

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, said limits on travel to Cuba are being violated and she wants the Obama administration to crack down.

The chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee is pressing the Obama administration to enforce U.S. laws limiting tourist trips to Cuba, after discovering that a Louisiana travel agency is promoting trips to the communist-ruled island.

"Not only is the Obama administration easing sanctions on the Cuban regime, but it would appear they are also ignoring the regulations in place," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, said this week.

Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American, said that both public and private organizations are misrepresenting recent changes to Cuban sanctions by the White House.

She called on the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, the agency in charge of economic sanctions, to "strictly enforce U.S. regulations on travel to Cuba and duly impose the corresponding penalties."

A Reply to Yoani

Wednesday, July 20, 2011
By Ernesto Hernandez Busto of Penultimos Dias:

The emergence of the Cuban blogosphere, of which without a doubt Yoani Sanchez is its most visible member, has brought about an era of ideological confusion that is now beginning to become clear. The initial enthusiasm erased the mark of ideology and allowed a consensus based on elemental demands thrown in the face of a cynical regime. It was within that framework where, for example, the right to travel demanded by an independent blogger is supported by an entire Cuban community that is tired of having to ask permission to leave or enter. Or, where a punk music artist, arrested for predilection to dangerousness, receives effective solidarity that gets him out of prison and places him on the forefront of international attention. In that process, ideology moved into the background: the demand to have rights was worth more than the specifics of the demand.

I have no doubts about the contribution of Yoani Sanchez to citizen journalism on the island; neither do I doubt her valiant ethical stand, nor her struggle to recover certain basic rights. But her last post has looked to me – as well as many other readers – to be a "declaration of principles" from the left: her outright opposition to those who believe in the necessity of the embargo has brought to the surface the tensions that profoundly divide the Cuban community in exile. Within this panorama, Yoani Sanchez has chosen a position. It is nothing new that the celebrated blogger has for a while now supported a policy of "no restrictions" to exchanges in tourism, culture, and money between Cuba and the U.S. What is new this time might be the slant of her argument.

Perhaps she has wanted to respond in a resounding way to the criticisms that her previous post provoked, where her personal chronicle style exposed her worst side by addressing a complex issue that deserved to be taken on with more than just an anecdote and a moral. But her latest declaration, in my opinion, continues to be incomplete in some very essential matters.

In the first place, Yoani uses captious reasoning: whoever supports the embargo does so based on the theory of "putting fire to their feet." That is such an obvious manipulation that it comes across as outrageous from such an influential voice. Many of us in exile defend the usefulness of the embargo and the restrictions on travel and remittances not because we consider them, as the official line suggests, a punishment for the Cuban people, but because it is a legitimate policy of a country that has seen its interests threatened, and it has a right to defend them. To other people – including congressmen and other duly democratically elected officials – it looks bad that every two weeks fully loaded "mules" go do business with the misery of a foreign nation. Or that travel agencies who are now screaming to high heaven because of the prospective restrictions charge more than $400 for a 45-minute trip on an airplane. Or that all of those who are defending the sacrosanct right of Cuban families only consider those rights from the perspective of a reunification trip every six months, and not from the daily struggle to survive that the government forces upon its hostages.

If I talk about the "left," it is because Yoani Sanchez's juggling of arguments seems to me to be a kind of substitution for state intervention by employing in that role exile-trips-exchanges to provide a political sense. Supposedly, from the outside there would come a propitious environment that would bring about more liberty — just as before bread and work came every day from the paternalistic State. It is difficult not to read into this reasoning the reemergence of a certain mental laziness of the young progressive: wait until someone else provides, complain about the supposed evidence pointing to lack of civic responsibility, the virtuous premise of the "bridge," and the supposed "oxygen" associated with it. On the other extreme of this "Left" I place the defense of a free market, but based on the elemental premise that the parties that interchange must themselves be interchangeable. And that, unfortunately, is not the case for Cubans.

The government of the U.S. has no reason to help Cubans if those Cubans have already decided that instead of helping themselves they will "scheme" or "just get by" or "see what happens." Yoani Sanchez' post avoids confronting arguments that go against her argument: the "bridge" is in reality a profitable business for the "lobbies" of travel agencies who depend on the authorization from the Cuban government, and the "oxygen" from tourism is no more abundant than the paltry bubbles in the cocktails sipped by tourists who every day are less interested in social change.

Yoani Sanchez assures us that social rebellion has been subjugated by the efficiency of the machinery of repression and by the alternative of emigration. For the flow of remittances to be cut and trips by Cuban Americans to the island limited seems to her to be a contribution to the martyrdom of a lobotomized people, and would not affect a certain "ruling class." I believe that in this aspect Yoani is wrong. Perhaps she does not know this, but the ruling class feeds itself with, among other things, the money from tourism agencies: a business that is quite far from being an example of free markets. The uninterrupted flow of remittances has come to reinforce the mentality adopted by paternalism: the best thing to do is wait for someone else to resolve the problem. The reality is that neither more information nor increasing tourism has changed the way in which power is wielded in Cuban society. And that is a problem which should worry us. Because in Cuba and in the exile community, with fire or no fire, we have to stop thinking about how to alleviate the situation in order to start thinking of how to solve the situation.

Translation by Babalu Blog

Political Cartoons of the Week

Tuesday, July 19, 2011
By Gustavo Rodriguez, El Nuevo Herald:


Not-so-Private Farming in Cuba

In 2008, the Castro regime announced that it would hand over idle farmland to private farmers and cooperatives for production.

Needless to say, this announcement was heralded as a major "reform" by Cuba "experts" and foreign news bureaus.

The headlines read -- "Cuba to Allow Private Farming."

Of course, in reality, the Castro regime never relinquished ownership over the land.

It simply gave private farmers 10-year concessions and cooperatives 25-year concessions to till the land -- sort of like indentured servitude.

But hey -- why ruin a good headline?

This week, the Castro regime announced that it's re-claiming the idle farmland given to 9,000 concessionaires -- obviously breaking its own terms.

Apparently, indentured servitude is insufficient for the Castro brothers -- they much prefer slavery.

More "reform" you can't believe in.

Money Laundering in Castro's Cuba

Yesterday, India's SEBI -- their equivalent of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission -- cautioned markets about money laundering and terror-funding risks in ten countries:

North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Syria and Turkey.

This action follows a global notice released on June 24th by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) -- an inter-government body whose purpose is to combat money laundering and terrorist financing -- identifying these countries as high-risk jurisdictions.

As regards Cuba, the FATF has concluded:

Cuba has not committed to the anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) international standards, nor has it constructively engaged with the FATF. The FATF has identified Cuba as having strategic AML/CFT deficiencies that pose a risk to the international financial system. The FATF urges Cuba to develop an AML/CFT regime in line with international standards, and is ready to work with the Cuban authorities to this end.

The Stoning of the Ladies in White

More details of the brutal repression against the Ladies in White this past Sunday.

From the Coalition of Cuban-American Women:

Ladies in White Beaten, Dragged and Stoned After Mass

In Santiago de Cuba, a city in the eastern province of Cuba, female pro-democracy activists were savagely beaten and verbally attacked in the streets by Cuban State Security agents after they attended mass in the Basilica of "El Cobre," a Catholic shrine dedicated to "Our Lady of Charity," where they prayed for the freedom of all Cuban political prisoners and for the freedom of Cuba.

Tania Montoya Vazquez, one of the 16 Ladies in White who were attacked, describes the violence:

"...it wasn't enough for them to snatch the gladiolus from our hands, they began to beat us, they ripped all our clothes, I have scratches all over my body... so does Aimee and all the other women in the group. We all did a 'sit-in' and they almost killed us... they did not stop slapping us, we are all scratched, they pulled our hair, they dragged us, and they threw rocks at us as we remained united, in silence on the ground, firm in our conviction that what we want is the freedom of our political prisoners and the freedom of Cuba.

...this was all organized and ordered by State Security whom we make responsible for what could have happened to each one of us and the physical condition we are all presently in... they didn't care that they beat up Nersa Fernandez Fonseca, an older woman in her fifties. Several of us had to go to the hospital due to our ailing physical conditions. I was hit on the head with a stone and have a bump, I'm all bruised. When they attacked us, they never took into consideration the fact that we were women walking in silence. Freedom for Cuba! Long live human rights! Freedom for our political prisoners!"

You can listen to the audio (in Spanish) here.

Those "Lucky" Cuban-Americans

Monday, July 18, 2011
The following guidance from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) applies to people that flee persecution from Iran, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Burma, North Korea, et al.

The one exception are people that flee persecution from Cuba -- thanks to the generosity of the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA).

Is President Obama's policy of unlimited Cuban-American travel to Cuba undermining the CAA?

Moreover, are those "lucky" Cuban-Americans traveling back-and-forth to the island undermining the CAA?

According to CIS:

Possible Consequences of Returning to the Country of Claimed Persecution

Section 208.8(b) of Title 8 of the Code of Federal Regulations provides that an asylum applicant who leaves the United States pursuant to advance parole and returns to the country of claimed persecution shall be presumed to have abandoned his or her asylum application, unless the applicant is able to establish compelling reasons for the return. Therefore, if an asylum applicant returns to his or her country of claimed persecution pursuant to advance parole, he or she should be prepared to explain the reason for the return.

Asylum status may be terminated for specific reasons as listed in INA § 208(c)(2). An individual's underlying asylum status may be terminated even if the individual has already become a lawful permanent resident.

Returning to one's country of claimed persecution may be relevant to a number of termination grounds. For instance, asylum status could be terminated based on a fundamental change in circumstances in the asylee's country of persecution. Termination could also occur due to fraud in the asylum application such that the asylee was not eligible for asylum. Return to the country of feared persecution can, in some circumstances, be considered evidence that the asylee's alleged fear of persecution is not genuine. In addition, termination of asylum status could occur if an "alien has voluntarily availed himself or herself of the protection of the alien's country of nationality... by returning to such country with permanent resident status or the reasonable possibility of obtaining such status with the same rights and obligations pertaining to other permanent residents of that country."

Accordingly, an asylee or a lawful permanent resident who obtained such status based on a grant of asylum status may be questioned about why he or she was able to return to the country of claimed persecution and, in some circumstances, may be subject to proceedings to terminate asylum status.

Ladies in White Beaten and Arrested (Again)

From the International Federation of Liberal Youth:

Condemnation of Cuba's Continuing Crackdown

In what seems to be a season of intensifying repression in Cuba, members of the group "Damas de Blanco" (Ladies in White) were assaulted by police and paramilitary forces after attending church services in El Cobre on July 17th.

Belkis Cantillo Ramirez was shot in the arm, while others were brutally beaten with batons, stones and other objects. In the midst of the violence, Tania Montoya and Rodaisa Corrioso were arrested by the authorities. Aside from these two brave women, thirteen members of this organization, including Belkis Cantillo Ramirez, are receiving medical care at a local hospital.

Las Damas de Blanco are human rights advocates who refuse to be bound by the 'rule of silence' enforced by the Communist Party's thugs. Many members are female relatives of political prisoners - the mothers, daughters, sisters and wives of dissidents whose only crime may have been speaking out against government policy or having an Internet connection. As a form of protest, the Ladies in White frequently attend Mass on Sundays, dressed in white, and subsequently walk silently through the streets. The color white was specifically chosen to symbolize peace.

These true patriots have been recognized for their outstanding work by many institutions within the international community. In 2005, the European Parliament awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to the group.

The International Federation of Liberal Youth (IFLRY) condemns these attacks in the strongest terms. Las Damas de Blanco is a strictly peaceful movement. To respond to such non-violent resistance with such brutal repression colors the Castro regime as tyrannical at best. If these attacks were not sanctioned by the authorities, then an investigation must be immediately initiated and given far-reaching jurisdiction.

Even so, public confidence and trust can only be established now through the development of an independent judiciary, as well as a legislature that is not the purview of a single party but instead consists of representatives chosen by the Cuban people themselves through free and fair multi-party elections.

Now is not the time for another Black Spring. Now is the time for a national re-birth as a successful and prosperous democracy.

IFLRY wishes a speedy and full recovery for all those who were injured in the July 17th attacks in El Cobre. Furthermore, Tania Montoya and Rodaisa Corrioso must be immediately and unconditionally released.

It's All About Business, Pt. 2

Sunday, July 17, 2011
So much for promoting family, academic and religious travel.

Is Obama's Cuba policy (unwittingly or not) catering to the Castro regime's business partners?

You decide.

From Tampa Bay Business Journal:

Businesses interested in opportunities in Cuba but concerned about Congressional opposition now have some reassurance from the top — from President Obama, that is.

The Obama administration sent Congress a Statement of Administration Policy on July 14 with a warning regarding a provision dealing with Cuba in the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act.

Yoani Nails the Premise

The Miami Herald has a great interview with Havana-based blogger Yoani Sanchez.

She makes the following astute observation:

Behind the economic reforms, there is government urgency because it has its coffers empty and has been forced, to its chagrin, to grant economic power to the citizens... [The reforms are] heading in the right direction of an opening, [but they] are slow and superficial.”

Yoani absolutely nails the premise.

The Castro regime is undertaking its current "dog-and-pony" show of "reforms"' because it has been forced to by its dire economic situation -- not because it wants to.

So then -- how could anyone support bailing out the Castro regime (with billions in U.S. trade, credits, investment and travel) and, thus, strengthen its totalitarian grip?

Must Read of the Week

From The Miami Herald:

Medicare crooks find safe haven in Cuba

South Florida is known as the capital of Medicare fraud, but increasingly Cuba is where the scammers go to avoid prosecution.

As Medicare crime spreads across South Florida, accused scammers are escaping in droves to Cuba and other Latin American countries to avoid prosecution — with more than 150 fugitives now wanted for stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. healthcare program, according to the FBI and court records.

The tally of fugitives charged with healthcare fraud here has tripled since 2008, when The Miami Herald first reported on the phenomenon of Cuban immigrants joining the Medicare rackets and fleeing to evade trial in Miami.

But during the past three years, the FBI has captured only 16 fugitives, reflecting the difficulty in catching Spanish-speaking suspects who head south to hide out. Most of the fugitives were born in Cuba, immigrated to South Florida after 1990 and can easily live under the radar in Latin America with hundreds of thousands or millions in taxpayer dollars fleeced from Medicare.

Even if fugitives can be located in Cuba, there's no way to get them back because of the political realities at play.

"They go to Cuba so they can't be caught,'' said Rolando Betancourt, a longtime Miami bail bondsman who has tracked one Medicare fugitive to Havana. "You can find anybody in Cuba; you just can't arrest them.''

Because so many of the Medicare defendants are Cuban, rumors have swirled for years that the Castro government has purposely trained and deployed immigrants to take over Medicare-licensed clinics in South Florida, and then harbored them after they returned home. But federal agents and prosecutors, while privately speculating about an official Cuba connection, say they've never uncovered evidence linking Fidel and Raul Castro's regime to the rampant healthcare fraud on this side of the Florida Straits.

Moreover, the feds have made no official attempts to seek extradition of fugitives in Cuba, mainly because the United States has no formal relations with the government. Agents have captured some Cuban fugitives returning from the island as they travel through Miami International Airport.

Repeated calls and emails seeking comment from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., were not returned.

Earlier this year, a University of Miami report quoted a former Cuban intelligence official who suggested there were "strong indications" his government was either facilitating the Medicare fraud or providing safe harbor for fugitives in exchange for hard U.S. currency. But the report provided no examples.

Soon afterward, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a Medicare watchdog for years, questioned Health and Human Services officials at a congressional hearing about the possible Cuban government link after the department's inspector general posted a "Most Wanted" list of Medicare fugitives, and seven of the top 10 were Cuban.

CURRENCY FOR CUBA

Cuba watchers, legal experts and others who have witnessed South Florida's ascendance as the nation's Medicare fraud capital say the Cuban government's involvement would not be that far fetched — though they have no proof to back it up.

"It wouldn't surprise me if one day that is proven to be a fact," said Miami attorney Sam Rabin. One of his clients, Eduardo Moreno, fled to Cuba after posting a $450,000 bond in 2007 on healthcare fraud charges. He had collected $2 million from Medicare on bogus claims for medical equipment and HIV services.

"I think it would be very hard for someone with millions in currency to stay under the radar in Cuba" without that government's protection, Rabin added.

Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said he has heard from sources in Miami and Cuba allegations that the Castro government extorts Medicare bounty from criminals who are allowed to go back and forth between here and the island nation. But he said he knows of no evidence directly implicating the Castro regime in the fraud.

"The Cuban government knows what's going on," Gomez said. "The government knows who the fugitives are, and the bigger they are, the more the government expects to be paid by them... It's a way to obtain hard currency and a way to discredit the Cuban-American exile community."

James Cason, who served as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 2002-2005, said he was not aware of the fugitive phenomenon during his tenure, but noted that relaxed travel restrictions in recent years have enabled Cubans to fly more easily between Havana and Miami. He said it's highly probable that the Cuban government shakes down Medicare fraud fugitives, but doubts its direct involvement in the healthcare scams.

"There is no way the Cuban government wouldn't know about this," said Cason, who was recently elected mayor of Coral Gables. "Whether the Cuban government is involved or not [in Medicare fraud], the Cuban government wants the hard currency from the fugitives."

Cason called the Medicare offenders "scammers, not revolutionaries," saying the FBI should try to work with the Justice and State departments to engage Cuba in extraditing some of the fugitives.

"The Cuban government will investigate if they think it's in their interest," he said. "But I bet the FBI hasn't asked them."

Officials for the FBI and Justice declined to comment. A spokesman for the State Department also declined to comment on Medicare fraud fugitives, but said that the federal government has sought the extradition of fugitives in Cuba wanted for other serious crimes.