Time to Take Action on Alan Gross, Pt. 2

Saturday, August 6, 2011
By Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations:

Obama and Castro

Fidel and Raul Castro have decided not to free the American hostage they now hold. Or, as the newspapers put it in legal language "Cuban court rejects appeal by U.S. contractor."

Alan Gross was a USAID contractor sent to Cuba to help the tiny Jewish community there connect to the internet and thereby to Jewish communities around the world. For this "crime" he has been in prison since December 2009. Now Cuba's "Supreme Court" has rejected his appeal of a fifteen year sentence. The term "court" must always be put in quotes regarding Cuba, for as in all communist states the "courts" are not independent of party control. It was Fidel and Raul Castro who decided to jail Gross, who determined his sentence, who keep him in prison, and who have just rejected his appeal.

Cuba's "laws" permit clemency, so Gross could be released by the Castros any day they please. In that sense the ball is now squarely in their court, all of Gross's "legal" appeals having run out. But in another sense the ball is now in President Obama's court. How will he respond to this action by the Castros? His spokesman said "We call on the government of Cuba to release Alan Gross immediately and unconditionally, to allow him to return to his family and bring to an end the long ordeal that began well over a year ago." That's fine. But in fact the Obama Administration has given the Castro regime numerous benefits, for example allowing more Americans to travel to Cuba and thereby help its economy. Some of those benefits were awarded in 2009 soon after coming into office, but others were put into place this year, even as Alan Gross sat in a Cuban prison.

Now what? Running for office in 2008, Mr. Obama told audiences in Miami that his policy toward Cuba would be based on "libertad," and said "The road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuba's political prisoners…."

It is time to make good on that promise, for like the Cubans who sit for decades in the Castros' jails Mr. Gross is a political prisoner. The hope that measures relaxing the American embargo would lead the Castro brothers to release Mr. Gross seems near an end. There is one further step to take through diplomatic channels now: the Castro brothers should quietly be told that unless their "clemency" is exercised the relaxation of travel restrictions will be reversed and greater pressure brought on the government of Cuba. And after giving them a short time to respond, Mr. Obama should act if they do not. It would be intolerable for the Castros to benefit from Obama policies while Alan Gross sits, month after month, in their prisons.

Center-Left Critique of Obama's Foreign Policy

By the editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic, Martin Peretz:

Cambridge Journal: Obama's Callous, Ineffective Foreign Policy Blunders Onward

Almost no one in America cares about foreign affairs, especially not for Barack Obama's foreign affairs. For he has made of almost his entire conduct of peace and war an amateurish mess, crude, provincial, impetuous, peaceably high-minded but stupid—and full of peril to the world, to its democracies, to the United States itself. If only he had the consistency of George McGovern, we would know that Obama is not really interested in other countries and movements friendly to us and our political ideas; actually, he has some sympathies for enemy states, as the 1972 Democratic candidate for president did for both the Soviet Union and North Vietnam. This is not Obama. He believes—or at least believed—that he can change the world by earnest talk with foreign leaders who share not a single philosophical tenet of egalitarian individualism or representative constitutionalism. Of course, it was not only flabby, earnest talk that he brought to the table. It was also a certain haughty sycophancy before alien potentates and despots whom he thought persuadable through blandishments and obsequy about just how central they were to world peace. Or to whatever.

Read the entire article here.

Time to Take Action on Alan Gross

The Castro regime's "Supreme Court" has just upheld the conviction and 15-year prison sentence of jailed American development worker Alan Gross.

The time has come for the Obama Administration to put some teeth into its rhetorical demands for the release of Alan Gross.

In the year-and-a-half that Mr. Gross has been held hostage by the Castro regime, the Obama Administration has continued to make unilateral and conciliatory concessions, including easing sanctions.

It's time to make it clear to the Castro regime that the taking of American hostages is unequivocally unacceptable.

Otherwise, it risks sending a very dangerous message, which further endangers Mr. Gross and other American lives: hostage-taking pays.

Senator Menendez Statement on Alan Gross

Friday, August 5, 2011
Menendez on Castro Regime's Decision to Uphold 15-year Sentence of Alan Gross

NEW JERSEY - United States Senator Robert Menendez, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, released the following statement on the Castro regime's decision to affirm the 15-year sentence of USAID contractor Alan Gross. Gross was arrested for assisting the island's Jewish community to access the internet.

Senator Menendez said, "The Cuban regime's affirmation of USAID contractor Alan Gross's 15-year sentence for acts against the 'integrity and independence' of Cuba is a vivid reminder of the intolerance and brutality of the authoritarian regime that has ruled the island for more than fifty years. Gross' sentence eviscerates the notion held by some that the Castro brothers are embracing democratic reforms, but rather is a reminder that the regime seeks to control every aspect of life in Cuba and is willing to harshly punish anyone who challenges that control.

Alan Gross went to Cuba on a mission to help the Cuban people connect to the world, and he and his family have paid a terrible price for his humanitarian efforts. Alan Gross should be released immediately and without condition and the Obama administration should make it clear to the Castro regime that the unlawful imprisonment of U.S. Citizens will not be tolerated.

Today's decision is a reminder of importance of the U.S. commitment to promoting a democratic transition to democracy in Cuba. The Cuban people, like those struggling for democratic reforms in the Middle East, yearn for the opportunity to control their destinies and provide a vibrant future for their children. The United States will continue in its mission to support the Cuban people and to promote democracy until the Castro brothers relinquish power and restore the rights and liberties deserved by the Cuban people and by all people."

Anti-Defamation League Calls for Alan Gross's Release

ADL Reiterates Call On Cuba To Release American Subcontractor

New York, NY - The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) today expressed disappointment that Cuba's Supreme Court upheld a 15-year sentence for Alan Gross, and reiterated its call on the Cuban government to release him on humanitarian grounds.

Mr. Gross, an American subcontractor on a U.S. Agency for International Development program and an active member of the Jewish community in Maryland, was arrested in late 2009 and found guilty of "subversion." Mr. Gross has denied all charges against him. His family reports that his health has severely deteriorated during his incarceration.

"We call on the Cuban Government to release Mr. Gross immediately on humanitarian grounds and as a gesture of good will to the American people," said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director. "We further urge international leaders who maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba to encourage President Raul Castro to release him."

The White House's One-Liner on Alan Gross

Statement from National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor on Alan Gross

We call on the government of Cuba to release Alan Gross immediately and unconditionally, to allow him to return to his family and bring to an end the long ordeal that began well over a year ago.

Ranking Member Eliot Engel on Alan Gross

Engel Condemns Cuban Regime for Rejecting Alan Gross Appeal

Cuban Supreme Court Denial of Appeal is "Unjustified and Inhumane"

Washington, DC
- Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-NY-17), Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, today condemned the Cuban regime for rejecting Alan Gross's appeal of his 15-year prison sentence.

"It was wrong of the Cuban regime to arrest Alan Gross, it was wrong to imprison him, and it was wrong to reject his appeal. Alan Gross was in Cuba to help bring the internet to the small Jewish community – not a crime, except in a dictatorship like Cuba. Rejecting his appeal was simply unjustified and inhumane, and I call upon the Cuban regime to release Alan Gross without delay."

Senator Rubio Statement on Alan Gross

Senator Rubio Comments on Castro Regime Upholding Unjust Prison Sentence of U.S. Citizen Alan Gross

Washington, D.C. - U.S. Senator Marco Rubio issued the following statement today regarding the Castro regime's announcement to uphold its unjust 15-year prison sentence of U.S. citizen Alan Gross:

"This is a deplorable human rights violation. It has been well documented that Mr. Gross is simply a humanitarian who was seeking to help the Jewish community in Cuba access the Internet. The Castro regime's cowardly fear of what would happen if Cuban citizens have access to uncensored information does not justify this man's incarceration at all, much less for 15 years. Mr. Gross' unjust sentence is the latest example of everything that is wrong with the Castro regime. For every Alan Gross, there are many more Cubans being incarcerated, harassed and repressed for simply yearning to be free.

"The Obama Administration's insistence on moving forward with policies that put more money in this terrorist-sponsoring regime's coffers is baffling and runs contrary to everything America should stand for. I urge President Obama to halt his misguided unilateral concessions, deny the regime the resources it needs to impose its repressive will, condemn today's decision and insist that Mr. Gross be released immediately."

Havana News Bureau Picks Rakes Over Beaten Women

In the last 24-hour news cycle, the AP's Havana bureau ran a story on the Castro regime's new discount prices on rakes, plows and hoes for Cuban farmers -- being that the rest of Raul's agricultural "reforms" have been dismal failures.

Meanwhile, three courageous women (Mercedes García Álvarez, Tania Maldonado Sánchez, Odalys Zurma González) staged a peaceful pro-democracy protest on the steps of Havana's Capitol building.

They were brutally beaten and arrested. While in custody, they were "stripped , searched and interrogated."

Not newsworthy?

Yesterday also marked the 100th day on a hunger strike by Cuban political prisoner Marcelino Abreu.

Abreu was originally arrested in July 2010 for refusing to show a police officer ID outside a bar in the proximity of the tourist-only Hotel Nacional. He told the police officer that he was Cuban and should be free to walk through the streets of his homeland. The officer disagreed.

Not newsworthy?

Or how about the 266 known political arrests registered for the month of July 2011 -- bringing the year-long total to 1,933.

Apparently, not as newsworthy as farm equipment -- and that's (tragically) music to Castro's ears.

Cuba's Zombie "Legislators"

Thursday, August 4, 2011
By BBC's Havana correspondent Fernando Ravsberg (translated by Havana Times):

The Role of Cuba's Legislators

Foreign journalists were not invited to the last session of the Cuban parliament, which is held every six months. In any case, there was no surprising news. No one had the slightest doubt that these representatives would approve the reform guidelines issued by the Communist Party.

Nor did the deputies show themselves to be overly inquiring with respect to the presentations by the government officials. On television we didn't see anyone questioning the reports made by the various ministries, not even in those cases where there have been recurrent failures.

On the contrary, the delegates listened impassively to explanations about the objective and subjective causes for those failures and about how people are working earnestly to overcome those difficulties. However, while days, months and years pass by and ministers change, many of the problems remain, completely intact.

Castro Stands With Assad and Gaddafi

The Castro regime has strongly criticized today's U.N. Security Council resolution against the Assad regime, which condemns the "extensive violation of human rights and the use of force against civilians by Syrian authorities."

This shouldn't come as a surprise -- as the Castro regime (also) never misses an opportunity to violate human rights and use force against its own civilians.

Meanwhile, Gaddafi sent his special envoy to Havana to solicit Castro's support.

And, of course, Castro happily complied.

Birds of a feather.

Raul Wants to Cash-In on Housing "Market"

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a story based on speculation that the Castro brothers will allow Cubans (some time next year) to sell the homes they reside in.

It was obviously pre-written in anticipation that Castro's National Assembly might take up the issue during this week's biannual meeting.

However, the topic wasn't raised -- at all.

Moreover, no one has actually seen the much-heralded legislation -- it has only been the subject of teasers by Castro's media.

But why stop a good headline.

Ironically, the underlying premise of the NYT story seems to be:

It's "exiting" for Cuban-Americans to travel and send money to Cuba (and even to break U.S. law on commercial transactions) in order to "invest" in property -- so long as the Castro brothers are in power.

Otherwise, as in the past, it would have been portrayed as greedy Cuban exiles preying on poor and helpless Cubans on the island.

It's almost as if they prefer the illusion of a "benevolent dictator" to the "rule of law."

Meanwhile, Cuba "experts" hail media reports of Raul's supposed home sale "reform" as transformational.

Is it really?

In essence, the Castro regime is simply looking for a way to absorb, control and capitalize from a long-time practice in the black market.

But caveat emptor: confiscation remains inviable -- for the Castro regime ultimately owns everything on the island.

Thus, the Castro brothers can profit in the short-term with no long-term risk to what's ultimately "their" property.

As this 2002 paper from Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies explores:

[Cuba's] 1984 Housing Law introduced important changes, permitting free market prices for sales and legalizing most other previously illegal transactions. The state retained its right of first refusal primarily as a form of land use control, but largely was unsuccessful. A year of rampant speculation prompted the government to require that most sales be directly to the state, except for property transfers to close relatives. These transactional limitations in turn motivated many Cuban families to exchange rather than sell their houses. Since home loans are personal loans, not mortgages, residents normally carried their debts with them.

Because of limitations on buying and selling in the housing market, real estate agents did not legally exist in Cuba. This private sector function, however, did develop illegally. Rather than legally swap properties without exchanging money, many Cubans either gather at an informal open-air market bearing slips of paper with their offers and demands or hire illegal real-estate agents known as permuteros to arrange land deals. A government-managed market now exists to exchange units. Buying or selling of units is allowed, but only at state-fixed prices, with the government retaining the first option to purchase. Typically, those wishing to exchange units initiate a one for one swap, although a swap of one unit for two lesser-priced units is also permitted. Land or the right to build on roofs may be purchased at free-market prices from private individuals, and permanent surface rights to state-owned land can be bought at lower "legal prices." Because of state price-fixing, a substantial black market for real estate transactions has developed with units being exchanged for two to three times the legal value. This market has grown in recent years with the legalization of the dollar. Cubans receiving part of their salary in dollars or contributions from overseas family members have additional purchasing power for homes, but are limited in their ability to purchase via the legal market. Transactions in which homes are illegally exchanged for cash are known as "permutas."

Recognizing this trend, government confiscation of private property and punishment for illegal housing sales has increased in recent years. Cuban officials justify their actions by contending that residents have become too greedy. Juan Contino leads the movement of Cuba's state-affiliated neighborhood groups, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. He warns, "The day money is the factor behind distribution of the nation's properties is the day we will be divided into social classes. We will not allow that."

Decree 211, issued in 2000, empowers housing authorities with the right to confiscate properties and authorize constructions and remodelings. According to Granma, the Communist Party's official newspaper, in 2000 there were 1,400 house confiscations, 548 expulsions of illegal occupants, and more than $1.5 million in fines for property crimes.

Cuba Remains High Political Risk

The 2011 Aon Political Risk Map, published in conjunction with The Financial Times, has (once again) rated Cuba a high political risk for investments.

Aon considers Cuba a high political risk for investments due to the following factors:

Exchange transfer
Sovereign non-payment
Political interference
Supply chain distribution
Legal and regulatory

H/T Cubapolidata

No Man is Too Powerful

Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak during his trial today for corruption and murder:

The Soundtrack of a Struggle

Don't miss this clip:

State Ownership vs. Private Ownership

There's been quite a bit of sloppy reporting regarding Cuban dictator Raul Castro's economic "reforms."

For example, news reports like this:

In remarks to parliament late Monday, quoted by state media, Castro closed a twice-yearly session with lawmakers by discussing the implementation of a raft of reforms, including allowing small private businesses to operate in the communist country.

Let's be clear:

There are no private businesses in Cuba.

A private business implies private ownership.

In other words, any business not owned by the state

(In the case of Cuba, "state" can be used interchangeably with "the Castro family").

Cuba remains a totalitarian state, where the state owns all businesses.

Raul's "reforms" have allowed a select group of Cubans to lease self-employment licenses from the state.

Thus, the state owns the business, while those licensed are given "permission" to operate it.

So let's recap:

A privately owned business refers to a commercial enterprise that is owned by non-state actors.

Private business comprises the private sector of an economy.

An economic system that contains a large private sector is referred to as capitalism.

This contrasts with socialism, where most industry is owned by the state.

Moreover, this contrasts with (Cuban) totalitarianism, where all industry in owned by the state.

The Do-Nothing National Assembly

Tuesday, August 2, 2011
This week's meeting of Castro's National Assembly accomplished absolutely nothing -- except give Raul another opportunity to turn empty-words into media-friendly headlines.

Of course, it's not like anyone (except for one Miami Herald journalist) actually expected the National Assembly to do something -- for it has no power.

Excerpts from Americas Society:

Cuban Parliament Holds off on Deeper Economic Reforms

While the possibility of immigration reform stole the show at Monday's day-long congressional session, the National Assembly did not publicly address Cuba's many pressing economic challenges.

Some observers expected the Cuban Parliament to finalize game-changing rules permitting home sales at its Monday meeting for the first time since the 1960s. The body did not do so.
Despite putting the task off, the Cuban government says it will finish crafting rules governing home sales by the end of the year [...]

Cuba is also struggling just to feed itself. In preparation for Monday's legislative meeting, Minister of Agriculture Gustavo Rodríguez announced Friday that the government would have to import even more food this year than planned, because the state failed to produce as much as it anticipated in 11 categories of foodstuffs during the first six months of 2011. It was the second time this year the government was forced to bump up its outlay for foreign food purchases. Costs continue to mount despite a 2009 agricultural reform that distributed usufruct rights to 150,000 families to farm fallow land. BBC correspondent Fernando Ravsberg says the reform has yet to boost production because it does not address the main problem of lack of access to basic resources such as fertilizers, tools, seeds, tractors, and other inputs. Cuba imports somewhere between 60 percent and 80 percent of its food (official and private estimates vary widely).

The National Assembly also chose not to pass new legislation to confront corruption, a problem that Raúl Castro has faulted with for undermining attempts to boost the island's efficiency. The Provincial Tribunal of Havana convicted six executives from state airline Cubana de Aviación and two from the pharmaceutical Herberbiotec for accepting kickbacks and sentenced them to prisons terms ranging from three to 13 years, according to an official statement released Friday. At a more mundane level, pilfering of resources by poorly paid state workers and a lackadaisical attitude on the part of bureaucrats also act as obstacles to improving economic performance, according to government authorities.

Holds on Cuba Democracy Program Lifted

From AP:

A senior Democratic senator and the State Department have resolved their dispute over U.S. aid to a program that promotes democracy in communist Cuba, clearing the way for the Obama administration to spend $20 million in assistance.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who had placed a hold on the money, said Tuesday that the department provided answers about oversight of the program and he had stopped blocking the funds.

Ruling by Headlines (and Caveats)

Cuban dictator Raul Castro is constantly ruling by headlines.

Every time he reveals a "thought" -- despite giving absolutely no details -- articles get written for months (and years) deciphering and speculating.

Yet ironically, Cuba is a totalitarian dictatorship, where if Raul really wanted something done, he could just snap his fingers (as he has done for the last 52 years).

Note how many caveats in the opening paragraph of today's Miami Herald story on Raul's latest "thought" on migration:

Cuban ruler Raúl Castro said he is working to relax Cuba's migration policies, almost certainly referring to Cubans abroad who want to travel back to the island but perhaps also — and much more significantly — to Cubans on the island who want to travel abroad.

And how many times have we seen this AP headline?

Cuban lawmakers meet to consider economic changes

Well, it was recycled again today (also full of caveats):

Cuba's parliament began one of its business-packed twice-yearly sessions on Monday, a gathering that might enact some of the reforms that the government has promised in efforts to revive the stalled economy with a dose of private enterprise.

General guidelines for the reforms were approved by the Communist Party at a summit in April, but there has been relatively little action since. The party is not a lawmaking body, so it is up to parliament to turn the recommendations into reality.

But really, it might just happen, perhaps, but Raul could change his mind again, this time or next.

Still Searching for Humanitarianism

Strangely, anti-sanctions advocates believe this somehow helps the Cuban people.

From Luxury Spa Headlines:

5 Star Cuban Vacations Revealed

Kuoni, the luxury travel group, has announced that despite recessionary times, it is experiencing a surge of interest by holiday makers choosing to travel to Cuba, the Caribbean's largest island. This fascinating, historic destination has seen an increase in bookings by some 25% when compared to 2010.

There is also increasing demand for luxury accommodation with travelers opting for five star properties above other hotel grades. Current figures show almost half of all Cuba bookings were in five-star properties, up 53% on last year.

How's That China Model Working?

Raul's got this down to a science.

From The Financial Times:

The Chinese Communist party is fighting back against public criticism of China's recent deadly high-speed train crash, imposing a media ban that has caused an angry outcry online [...]

"All local media, including newspapers, magazines and websites must rapidly cool down the reports of the incident," said an official statement posted by angry journalists on Weibo, a mainland Chinese microblog similar to Twitter. The postings reproducing the order were quickly deleted.

Editors "are not allowed to publish any reports or commentaries, except positive news or information released by the authorities," the government statement said.

The Remittance Conundrum

Monday, August 1, 2011
The summary below on remittances is from the State Department's very own Background Note on Cuba.

Upon reading this, please ask yourself:

Why would the Obama Administration (or anyone else, for that matter) support unlimited remittances to Cuba?

No one is arguing to eliminate remittances altogether, but there should be a humanitarian cap, in order to help families with basic necessities (while recognizing the Castro regime's disproportional benefit).

Meanwhile, for those that believe remittances will help spark "entrepreneurship" amongst Cubans (despite the island's totalitarian economy) -- think again.

An academic study released over the weekend shows that nearly half of all Cubans that receive remittances from abroad have absolutely no interest in leasing a self-employment license (ownership remains prohibited) from the Castro regime, while another 34% would only "think" about it. That leaves few that actually have or would.

At the end of the day, as is well-documented below, the Castro regime only seeks to absorb hard-currency into its totalitarian economy -- so why is the Obama Administration making it easier?

Just think about it -- this is the State Department's (weak) spin on its own policy.

It's dumbfounding.

From the State Department:

Remittances also play a large role in Cuba's economy. Cuba does not publish accurate economic statistics, but academic sources estimate that remittances total from $800 million to $1.5 billion per year, with most coming from families in the United States. U.S. regulatory changes announced in April 2009 allow unlimited remittances to family members, excluding certain Cuban Government officials and members of the Cuban Communist Party. The total amount of family remittances that an authorized traveler may carry to Cuba is now $3,000. In January 2011, the United States announced further changes that permit anyone under U.S. jurisdiction to send up to $500 per quarter to anyone else in Cuba (with the same exclusions as above). The changes also authorize unlimited remittances to religious organizations in Cuba.

Beginning in November 2004, the government mandated that U.S. dollars be exchanged for "convertible pesos" -- a local currency that can be used in special shops on the island but has no value internationally -- at an 8% exchange rate conversion plus up to 2% in fees. In addition, the Cuban Government levies a 10% tax on every conversion of U.S. dollars (and only U.S. dollars). This results in nearly 20% in fees that disproportionately affect Cubans who receive remittances from relatives in the United States. However, Western Union announced in December 2010 that it received permission from the U.S. and Cuban governments to remit payments in Cuban convertible pesos, thus avoiding the 10% tax on U.S. dollars. The Cuban Government captures dollar remittances by allowing Cuban citizens to shop in state-run "dollar stores," which sell food, household, and clothing items at a high mark-up averaging over 240% of face value.

The picture below is from one of the Castro regime's money exchange (theft) houses (CADECA).

An Elitist Class of Their Own

Sunday, July 31, 2011
A Canadian tourism company (Standard Feather International, SFI) has announced that the Castro regime will allow it to hold a perpetual lease on a beach property in the Holguin province, in order to build a luxurious golf community and country club.

Moreover, it will allow its foreign residents to import their vehicles and provide "exclusive" food products for their consumption (including home delivery).

(Maybe Treasury will even issue one of those luxury "people-to-people" licenses).

Of course, all of this is denied (and strictly off-limits) to the Cuban people -- except for the Castro clan.
On a tangential note -- and to add insult to injury -- a new pictorial book, Habana Libre, explores the life of privilege and luxury of the Castros' offspring -- whom the author nauseatingly refers to as "very elegant and sophisticated and talented people."

They follow in the same "exclusive" tradition of other tyrannical heirs, including Uday and Qusay Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Saif Gaddafi and Kim Jong Un.

As the recently-exiled offspring of another privileged Castro family ally, J.J. Almeida, describes them (H/T Penultimos Dias):

"Grand-daddy's kids who live in a paralyzed society, sniff cocaine in the Red Room of the Capri (Hotel), hook up with stylish prostitutes and remain paralyzed in a revolutionary fair that I wouldn't label as corruption, but simple opportunism."

So much for social justice.

Image courtesy of MyParkingSign.com.