Looking for Life's "Change" in Havana

Saturday, August 13, 2011
Life Magazine has published a pictorial of pre-1959 Havana.

It contains the following stereotypical introduction:

With its intoxicating blend of glittering nightclubs, decadent cabarets, and backstreet brothels -- many of them mob-owned and tolerated (for the right fee) by ruthless dictator Fulgencio Batista -- Havana was viewed as an exotic getaway for Americans for decades after World War I. But the party ended on New Year's Day in 1959, when Fidel Castro and his guerrilla army overthrew Batista's U.S.-backed regime. Communist rule was ushered in, and Havana was changed forever.

The truth is Havana was changed forever -- its buildings and infrastructure are crumbling, widespread misery prevails and a brutal 7-year authoritarian dictatorship was replaced by an even more brutal 52-year totalitarian dictatorship.

But Life ignores these facts.

Instead, based solely on Life's description, it's hard to pinpoint any change.

So let's provide them with a 2011 version:

With its intoxicating blend of glittering nightclubs, decadent cabarets, and backstreet brothels -- all of them regime-owned (thus milking every last dollar) by ruthless dictators Fidel and Raul Castro -- Havana is an exotic getaway for European sex tourists and Canadian snowbirds. The party continues and tourists turn a blind-eye, while the Castro brothers brutally repress anyone that opposes their 52-year rule.

Havana’s American Hostage

Friday, August 12, 2011
From The Washington Post's Editorial Board:

Havana's American Hostage

THE ALLEGATIONS against Alan P. Gross, the U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor now serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba, are absurd on their face. Mr. Gross's so-called crime — furnishing a handful of poor Cuban Jews with equipment to connect to the Internet — is a garden-variety customs infraction; it hardly merits the trumped-up charge of undermining the regime in Havana.

But hopes for Mr. Gross's release after almost two years in prison dwindled this month when Cuba's highest court rejected his final appeal. Barring intervention by Raul Castro, Mr. Gross, a 62-year-old Potomac resident who is in poor health, will languish in prison indefinitely. And any chance for a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations — a thaw that Cuba itself sought — will be shelved for the time being.

The extreme and unwarranted punishment meted out to Mr. Gross underscores how little really has changed in Havana since power passed from Fidel Castro to his brother. An initial flurry of reforms — or more accurately, talk about reforms — produced few substantive new freedoms for ordinary Cubans, though many have lost their state jobs. And the government — untested in free and open elections and still intent on sealing off the country from influences beyond Cuban shores — remains fragile and jittery, manifestly afraid of allowing its subjects to interact with the outside world.

The problem for the Castro regime is that without a surge in foreign investment — specifically, American investment — Cuba's moribund economy will continue to wallow in a trough of its own making. And yet the government knows that an economic opening, no less than a political opening, could sow the seeds of its own demise by admitting new people, ideas and influences of the sort that tend to erode authoritarian systems and rules.

It is unclear exactly why Havana has chosen to make an example of Mr. Gross, whose efforts to distribute computers and satellite phones to a tiny minority community were ham-handed but hardly threatening, on their own, to the regime. Perhaps Raul Castro wanted a hostage to exchange for Cuban agents serving time for espionage in the United States. Or maybe Mr. Gross's arrest and sentence are a display of pique at USAID's ongoing democracy-promotion program in Cuba, whose more or less explicit purpose is to hasten a transition to a freely elected and legitimate government.

Either way, the effect is to freeze whatever modest improvements in relations might have been contemplated in Washington or Havana, including further relaxation in travel, money transfers and communications. And since Cuba needs the United States far more than the United States needs Cuba, Havana, by reverting to its old hard-line instincts, has only shot itself in the foot.

Ultimately, the blame for the sorry episode lies with the Cuban government, whose hermetic fear of freedom is morally indefensible. Yet the Obama administration can also be faulted for allowing Cuba policy to drift and for failing to monitor USAID programs whose execution, as Mr. Gross's case illustrated, has been artless. At this point, the administration must make clear that no progress in relations will be made until Mr. Gross — a development worker, not a spy — is released unconditionally.

Picture of the Week

A religious ceremony yesterday in Havana's Lawton neighborhood.

From Cuban postographer Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo's Boring Home Utopics:

Three Members and a Dictator's Daughter

Thursday, August 11, 2011
Three leading Members of the U.S. House of Representatives' Progressive Caucus -- the farthest left-wing of the Democrat Party -- are currently in Havana on a regime-approved "tour" hosted by the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA).

These Members are no strangers to the Castro regime, as they travel to the island often. They are U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) and U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA).

Today, they met with Cuban dictator Raul Castro's daughter, Mariela Castro, who gave President Obama (a surely unwanted) public endorsement for a second term.

Meanwhile, a repressive wave is sweeping across the island -- female pro-democracy leaders are being violently beaten and arrested, state security is attacking the homes of peaceful activists and wounded victims are being denied medical treatment.

Is CDA arranging meetings with -- or interceding on behalf of -- some of these pro-democracy leaders (e.g. Ivonne Mayeza, Ernesto Carrera Moreno, etc.)?

Probably not -- for it would be CDA's last "approved" visit.

But it would be the right thing to do.

We won't hold our breath.

Caught on Tape: Female Activist Brutalized

Two weeks ago, Cuban pro-democracy activist Ivonne Mayesa Galano courageously stood on the steps of the Capitol building ("Capitolio") in Havana with a sign that read:

"Cambios en Cuba Sin Dictadura" ("Change in Cuba Without Dictatorship")

She was violently arrested and interrogated.

Since then, she has led various other peaceful acts of civil disobedience.

As a result, plain-clothed state security officials confronted her at her home and consequently dragged her away.

But they were caught on tape:

Here's a close-up picture of Ivonne marching with the Ladies in White:

Missed Opportunity? For Corruption, That Is...

Remember this?

From Bloomberg:

Chavez Beats AT&T to Cuban Telecom `Gold Mine' as Dispute on Pricing Bites

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez heralded the subsea link as a way to break the half-century-old U.S. "blockade" of Cuba.

A pricing dispute between the U.S. and Cuba may have cost American companies including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc a foothold in the communist island's recently opened telecommunications market.

Paris-based Alcatel-Lucent SA on Jan. 22 began laying a $70 million, 1,600-kilometer (1,000-mile) underwater fiber-optic cable between Venezuela and the city of Siboney on Cuba's southeastern coast. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez heralded the subsea link as a way to break the half-century-old U.S. "blockade" of Cuba [...]

"This is a huge missed opportunity," said Chris Sabatini, senior policy director at the New York-based Council of the Americas, a business group.

Now, fast-forward eight-months:

From Reuters:

Cuba arrests telephone executives in corruption sweep

Cuba arrested senior executives at state-run telephone company ETECSA in an anti-corruption sweep at one of the communist-run country's top businesses, according to sources with knowledge of the scandal.

Several executives at Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba SA were arrested in July while the company's president Maimir Mesa and most of its vice presidents have been suspended at least temporarily and sent home, the sources said.

ETECSA, which is owned by Cuban state and military companies, is one of the 10 largest enterprises in the country, with annual revenues well over $500 million [...]

The $70 million cable project, designed to circumvent U.S. efforts to deprive the island of a ground-based connection to the Internet, was supposed to be activated in July, but has reportedly run into technical difficulties.

And, of course, the biggest telecom corruption scheme of all:

Where did Fidel and Raul Castro -- through their personal investment fund Rafin S.A. -- find $706 million (while the island is cash-strapped for hard-currency and foreign-owned bank accounts remain frozen) to buy-back the 27% stake in ETECSA it had sold to Telecom Italia a decade earlier?

The answer can be inherently found within the question.

Desecrating Part of Our National Cemetery

Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Havana-based blogger Yoani Sanchez on American Diana Nyad's highly-publicized attempt to swim across the Florida Straits:

[Nyad's] laudable intention was to highlight the closeness between the Island and its neighbor to the north, to help reconcile both shores. But the Straits of Florida is also part of our national cemetery, the graveyard where lie thousands of our compatriots. The omission by the athlete of such an important characteristic did not appeal to me. Nor the fact that with her nautical feat she would highlight the twentieth anniversary of a most exclusive club, the Hemingway Marina, where a Cuban, even today, cannot board a vessel and may not enter — on his own — such a beautiful landing. I would have preferred that the Gulf currents would be swum by someone who knew the pain sheltered in these waters and who would dedicate their gesture to the "unknown rafter" who died in the mouth of so many possible sharks.

Carter (1979), Obama (2011) and Cuba Policy

The latest theory by (and hope of) anti-sanctions advocates is that the identity (and political cohesion) of the Cuban "exile" community is being dismembered by the sheer number of Cuban-Americans traveling to the island.

Thus, they've ingeniously concluded that opposition to President Obama's Cuba policy doesn't stem from the financial bailout it's providing the brutal (and bankrupt) Castro regime -- but from political resistance to such "change."

(These theorists have no actual experience in Cuban-American politics and instead seem to be deriving their political wisdom from a recent speech by dictator Raul Castro.)

So let's look at the facts.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter authorized unlimited travel to Cuba.

Similar to President Obama, Carter favored a conciliatory approach to dealing with the Castro regime and sought greater "people-to-people" contacts.

The following year (1979), over 125,000 Cuban-Americans traveled to the island. At that time, there were approximately 450,000 Cubans in the U.S.

That's more than a one-in-four ratio.

Today (2011), there are nearly 2 million Cuban-Americans, including offspring. And according to the Castro regime, there were 350,000 trips by Cuban-Americans to the island.

Even without getting into how many of these (the majority) are repeat travelers (visits vs. visitors) -- that's less than a one-in-four ratio.

Thus, based on this theory -- the "exile" community is actually more "hardline" today than in 1979.

Another similarity is that 1979 and 2011 were both pre-election years.

So surely -- based on this theory -- Cuban-Americans must have strongly supported President Carter vs. the hardline approach being advocated by then-Governor Ronald Reagan.

Not even close.

Then came the Mariel boatlift, which led similar theorists of the time, including The Miami Herald's former editor Tom Fiedler, to predict in 1985:

"There has been a generational change among Cuban voters."

So how many Cuban-Americans in favor of lifting sanctions have been elected by the community since then (or ever)?


And just last year -- what percentage of the Cuban-American vote did President Obama's candidate garner in Florida's 25th Congressional District?

Less than 18%.

Any more theories?

Long on Talk, Short on Actions

Tuesday, August 9, 2011
From The Jerusalem Post's Editorial Board:

Gross injustice

The American response to Gross's arrest and conviction in Cuba has been long on talk, but short on actions.

Last Friday, Cuba's top court rejected the appeal of an American Jew sentenced to 15 years in prison for distributing satellite communications equipment and laptops to Cuba's Jewish community – an act Cuban prosecutors charged was part "of a subversive project to try to topple the revolution."

It is illegal under Cuban law to bring such equipment into the country without a permit. Alan P. Gross, 62, of Potomac, Maryland, has been held since his arrest at Havana's airport in December 2009.

Gross was sent to Cuba as a contractor by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to help set up a communications center for the tiny Jewish community in Havana. According to official Cuban figures, only 3 percent of Cubans regularly use the Internet.

By all accounts, Gross is a committed veteran development worker, and has done humanitarian work for USAID in Kenya, Gambia, and the Palestinian territories (where he helped dairy farmers).

USAID has said that Gross was chosen because of his "strong expertise in sustainable development approaches, experience working in difficult environments and understanding of technological approaches to strengthening civil society."

The USAID initiative was part of a broader American democracy promotion project, outlined by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which calls for support of Cuban NGOs under the rubric of "democracy-building." The 2011 budget for the US State Department allocates $20 million to "promote self-determined democracy in Cuba."

Obviously, Cuba's Communist authoritarians – whose control depends on keeping their subjects in the information dark ages – could not be expected to welcome such an enterprise.

"There is a new institution in the United States," parliamentary leader Ricardo Alarcón said, "which is made up of agents, torturers and spies that are contracted as part of the privatization of war." Referring to Gross, Alarcón added, "This is a man who was contracted to do work for American intelligence services."

Such blatantly trumped-up charges represent another move in the Castro regime's decades-old game of brinkmanship with the United States, very likely an attempt to use Gross as a bargaining chip to gain the release of five Cuban spies convicted in 2005 of espionage in the US. The spies, known as the "Cuban Five," are national heroes in Cuba.

The American response to Gross's arrest and conviction, meanwhile, has been long on talk, but short on actions.

On the one hand, the administration has publicly condemned the Cuban move and has sent delegations to meet with the prisoner.

"We have made it very clear to the Cuban government that the continued detention of Alan Gross is a major impediment to advancing the dialogue between our two countries," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in December.

In a visit to the island nation in late March, former president Jimmy Carter met with Gross, but was unable to secure his release.

"The Cuban officials made it very clear to me before I left my home that the freedom of Alan Gross would not be granted," Carter said.

In addition, members of a visiting US delegation – including Donna Brazile, David Dreyer and former Congresswoman Jane Harman – met with Gross in June.

At the same time, in January, as Gross sat in jail, the Obama administration – pressured by business and agriculture lobbies – announced plans to loosen Cuban travel restrictions that have been in place since 1959 and allow more airports to offer charter service. Annual US farm sales to Cuba grew steadily through 2008, peaking at more than $700 million.

Having already served 21 months in prison, Gross has suffered enough. He has lost 100 pounds. His older daughter has been diagnosed with breast cancer. His continued incarceration is unjust, and the US government is not entirely helpless in ending it.

It should be abundantly clear by now that easing the American embargo will not persuade the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raúl, to release their political pawn.

Now that Gross has exhausted his legal options, the Obama administration should make clear that the relaxation of travel restrictions will be reversed and any further concessions imperiled if he is not immediately and unconditionally freed.

The Hour Has Come for Cubans

Excerpt from the must-read "Nation Project" by Cuban pro-democracy leader, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet:

[O]ur people feel inspired by the internal examples of the peaceful opposition, and by the external examples of non-violent paradigms, provided by the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East. The Cuban people, under the direction of the democratic opposition movement, have consolidated behind non-violent civic struggle as the strategic and tactical method to obtain its liberty and create a State with democratic rights in our country.

According to Nathan Sharansky, dictatorial regimes such as that of the Castro brothers are fearful societies, and "they are characterized by an inexorable process of stagnation, regression, and subsidence that the only way to defeat them is with external help." For that reason I have, over the years, vehemently condemned those civilized and developed countries that continue to prop up the communist dictatorship.

According to Sharansky, the socialist system in Cuba is in its final stages. Fearful societies that are in the terminal stage are identified by the increase in state terror and the growing number of duplicitous individuals. If we add to this the lost ideology of the system, the regime is even weaker because of the fact it is a post-communist state whose ideology has failed in an emphatic way. This is the ideal moment to put an end to the Castro dictatorship through massive, non-violent political defiance and not offer it any support whatsoever, which might provide it with political legitimacy and with financial and economic resources both internally and externally.

Many ideas come to our minds, but they serve little purpose if we do not put them into practice on our own free will. The dictatorship, in order to avoid allowing liberating ideas to develop in our daily lives, blocks our will through fear and depersonalization, in the same way it eliminates our self-esteem in order to convert us into instruments of their design.

In order to get out of this apathetic and weak state, it is necessary to open the internal sources of our own free will. This is only possible through healthy and pure activism, as the Pope described to the young people when he said: "be protagonists of your own personal and social history." That is why I tell the Cuban people to resist those who are tired, who have failed, whose love of country is weak, who are devoid of hope and self-love, who are traitors, and to be protagonists of their own history in order to be a free people.

The hour has come for Cubans to topple the communist dictatorship that for more than fifty years has destroyed our economy, our educational and religious structure, our morality, and our ethic of civilized coexistence. Let us not allow ourselves to be deceived by the false proposal of change within the same government that has enslaved us for more than half a century regardless of the institution, group, or person who presents it. It is very difficult for the Communist Party to initiate profound changes when in the last five years it has purged from its ranks its most moderate thinkers. The communist orthodoxy persists at all levels of leadership, and they use democratic centrism, or better said the subordination of all its members with no respect for minorities.

Nevertheless, let us presume for a moment the utopia that the communist regime will voluntarily accede and grant profound transformations. What should they be?

- Ratify the international human rights pacts, especially those dealing with civil and political rights.
- Preemptively recognize and respect inalienable rights.
- Repeal Article Five of the Communist Constitution (which recognizes the Communist Party as the leading force of the state).
- Allow the entry, exit, and permanence of all Cubans on the island with a full guarantee of their rights.
- Guarantee the direct participation of every Cuban in exile in all the processes of democratic change in their country.
- The resignation of all current members of the Council of State and of the government, and those linked to crimes against humanity.

By putting into practice these indispensable requirements, they would become the preamble to recognizing, analyzing, and debating the process of change towards a transition of the country to a democracy and towards liberty. Without these requirements there is nothing to talk about.

Translation by Alberto de la Cruz.

The Regime's Lynch Mobs Continue

Monday, August 8, 2011
After attending Sunday mass at the Cathedral of Santiago de Cuba (in the Oriente province), 20 women from the Ladies in White organization -- family members and supporters of political prisoners -- were being awaited by the Castro regime's repressive forces.

Access to the Cathedral was interrupted by officials from the Ministry of the Interior, led by Lieutenant Colonel "Eliot," blasting loud music and government propaganda through loudspeakers.

The Ladies in White were then followed by a regime-led mob brandishing dangerous weapons. They were insulted, beaten and forced into buses that took them to an unknown location.

Almost simultaneously, the homes of pro-democracy leaders (also in the Oriente province), Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia and Maximiliano Sanchez, were attacked -- as activists planned to gather there.

As a result of these violent acts, activists had to be hospitalized with fractures, contusions and wounds that needed suturing.

Among those critically injured: Julio Cesar Salazar Salinas, Osmelis Cruz Dacal, Annis Sarrion Romero, Magalys Fernandez Eulices, Prudencio Villalon Rades, Jose Angel Garrido Morris, Osmelis Cruz Dacal, Juan Carlos Vazquez Osoria, Angel Verdecia Diaz, Andry Verdecia Osorio, Amado Verdecia Vive, Ramon Bolaños Martin, Belkis Cantillo, Fatima Victoria Ferrer (6-years of age) and a neighbor who tried to defend the activists, Rubilandys Torres Perez.

More "reform" you can't believe in.

Gross Sentence Requires Stiff U.S. Response

From The Miami Herald's Editorial Board:

Unjust Verdict, Unjust Regime

OUR OPINION: Rejected appeal of Alan Gross requires stiff U.S. response

The decision by a Cuban court to reject the appeal of American citizen Alan P. Gross sends an unequivocal message that Cuba's hardliners remain unmoved by humanitarian concerns or Washington's efforts to establish a better relationship with the regime. This regime isn't interested in a better relationship.

The 62-year-old U.S. Agency of International Development subcontractor was thrown in jail following his arrest in December of 2009 for the "crime" of bringing equipment into the country to help the impoverished members of its tiny Jewish community connect with the Internet. Only in Cuba would this otherwise benign act be characterized as subversion and the hapless individual caught in a trap labeled a spy.

He was later sentenced to 15 years in prison. Cuba's highest court upheld that sentence on Friday. Ostensibly, it's a judicial decision, but have no doubt — Fidel and Raúl Castro dictated this outcome. The decision was rightly condemned by lawmakers in Washington from both parties and leaders of the Jewish community in this country for its harshness and unfairness.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called it an "unjust and unwarranted imprisonment" and demanded his unconditional release. "This administration must realize that two bit tyrants only understand hardball tactics and they are not at all moved by the diplomatic niceties that Obama has engaged in." On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-New York, labeled the decision "simply unjustified and inhumane."

Sen. Marco Rubio called it "a deplorable human rights violation." He's right. The sentence is vastly out of proportion for what anywhere else would constitute a mere customs violation.

Calls for leniency for Mr. Gross for humanitarian reasons are well grounded. He's been confined for 19 months already, and, according to his wife, has undergone severe weight loss in prison. He suffers from a variety of ailments, including diabetes. His daughter has cancer and his mother is also said to be in poor health.

Clearly, humanitarian appeals from both the administration and other leading voices in this country have fallen on deaf ears in Havana. Mr. Obama has no choice but to stiffen his backbone and react to hardball tactics by putting a freeze on efforts to reach out to Cuba's leadership in ways that will get their attention. The Editorial Board has supported increased people-to-people contacts and family visits. We still do. But the administration's rhetorical demands for his release have gone nowhere, and likely won't unless the administration makes an appropriate response.

For openers, the administration should put a hold on cultural exchanges — halting visas for Cuban entertainers who come to this country and reap financial benefits for the regime — and reduce family visits to once a year instead of the open-ended rule that currently prevails. Cuba needs dollars now, and anything that affects this vital lifeline would matter to the regime and its leaders.

There's a time and place for goodwill, unilateral gestures and concessions. But as long as Alan Gross remains a hostage of the Cuban dictatorship, it does not deserve either conciliation from the United States or the level of respect from the international community granted to free countries.

Emboldening Dictators

Sunday, August 7, 2011
Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post criticizes President Obama's handling of the unjust imprisonment of American development worker, Alan Gross:

It seems the relaxation of sanctions has only emboldened the [Cuban] dictatorship. This, of course, is the pattern everywhere under Obama. He's tried to "reset" or engage Russia, China, Syria and Iran. None of it has inured to our benefit. And in each case, the human rights situation is much worse.

Raul's Call to Violence (Breeds Violence)

During April's meeting of the VI Communist Party Congress, Cuban dictator Raul Castro gave the "green light" for violence (and impunity) against pro-democracy activists.

(Unfortunately, the foreign media only seems to note his economic remarks.)

Castro stated:

"It is necessary to make clear that we will never deny our people the right to defend their Revolution. The defense of the independence, of the conquests of Socialism and of our streets and plazas will still be the first duty of every Cuban patriot."

Despite the huge uptick in repression by his official security forces, Raul was giving a "wink and nod" for anyone -- at any level -- to take action against opponents of his dictatorship.

The result? Tragic violence.

Yesterday, human rights activist, Ernesto Carrera Moreno, was the victim of a violently machete attack by a local leader of Castro's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR).

At the time of attack, Carrera Moreno was walking home from a meeting with other dissidents in Caimanera, Guantanamo.

He has been hospitalized with a host of injuries, including a fractured skull.

State security officials have taken over the hospital and confiscated all medical certificates.

More "reform" you can't believe in.

Tweet of the Week

From Havana-based, Cuban pro-democracy blogger, Yoani Sanchez:

"A police officer stopped me on the street today. I thought he was going to arrest me, but instead whispered 'keep writing those truths and don't cut that hair.'"

Kudos to OFAC

Hopefully, this will be the beginning of greater scrutiny -- and not just an isolated case.

From The Miami Herald:

U.S. company suspends Cuba tours

One of the first travel companies to jump into the Cuba trips allowed by a new Obama administration policy has suspended the tours amid questions that trouble both opponents and supporters of increased travel to the island.

The luxury travel firm Abercrombie & Kent advertised its tours for non-Cuban Americans, which included salsa dancing and rum-laced mojitos, under the "people to people" travel policy unveiled Jan. 28.

It quickly sold out 13 tours organized in conjunction with the Foundation for Caribbean Studies, holder of one of the licenses to organize people to people trips issued by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Controls (OFAC).

But an OFAC statement on July 25 pointed at problems with A&K's arrangement with the Foundation, and sparked questions about the California-based group.

As a result of the OFAC statement, the company "suspended all Cuba-related travel bookings until it can ensure it is fully compliant with this new guidance," A&K media relations manager Jean Fawcett wrote in an email to El Nuevo Herald [...]

Without naming names, OFAC’s July statement noted that companies that do not have a license to organize Cuba trips cannot use another firm’s license. Fawcett confirmed A&K does not have an OFAC license.