Video: Dr. Biscet's Testimony to Congress

Saturday, February 18, 2012
Click below for a video presentation of Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet's testimony this week to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives:

Do Not Ignore Human Rights

Friday, February 17, 2012
A letter to the editor of The Washington Post challenges the newspaper's recent Cuba travel feature (free advertisement).

Do not ignore human rights during trip to Cuba

Regarding the Feb. 5 Travel article “Meet me in Havana”:

Your correspondent opened her report on her trip to Cuba by stating that “Ludwig and I had the kind of relationship where I could ask him anything without fear of reproach” — Ludwig being her tour guide and also a government employee. In that spirit, did she feel free to ask him about Alan Gross, a Maryland resident in poor health and serving a 15-year sentence for bringing in communications equipment to link Havana’s small and isolated Jewish community with the rest of the world?

The Post has called Gross “Havana’s American hostage” [Editorial, Aug. 13]. Will the tourists patronizing one of the four authorized American firms listed in a sidebar to her article raise this human rights issue with their tour guides? Isn’t that a legitimate price to be paid by these tour operators now allowed to “lead ‘people-to-people’ trips to the island nation”?

Daniel Mann, Bethesda

U.S. Policy Should Await Real Change

By Ambassador G. Philip Hughes in U.S. News & World Report:

Cuba Is Reforming, But Not Nearly Enough

Here is the headline Cuban authorities impressed on a delegation of former U.S. ambassadors during a week-long visit in early February: Change is coming to the Castro brothers' Cuba. With the younger Raúl now in charge, Cuba has embarked on major economic reforms.

They had a point—up to a point.

Yes, reforms have happened. That's clear. Small businesses—privately operated restaurants; small repair shops; hairdressers and similar personal care enterprises—are springing up and allowed to hire a few employees. Farmers may sell their "excess" production—after fulfilling their state-assigned quotas—in private markets for competitive prices. Cubans can even buy and sell private property—homes and autos—for the first time since 1959. Reportedly, there are nascent lending facilities, brokerages, advertising, and other essential accessories of markets springing up, though they're so embryonic as to be scarcely noticeable.

Cuban officials say that the reforms are permanent—there's no going back. Perhaps, but that wasn't true with comparable, though more modest, reforms of the 1990s, when Cuba was coping with the loss of Soviet subsidies after the U.S.S.R. collapsed. The crisis ended; so, largely, did the reforms.

The latest reforms are intended not to change Cuba's economic system but to "stabilize" it—and to make the Castro brothers' political system "sustainable on a long-term basis." As a European statesman once said of Gorbachev's perestroika in the U.S.S.R., that is "like trying to make roasted snowballs"—but it's what Raúl Castro intends. So these reforms come with strict, predefined limits.

There is no privatization or devolution of large enterprises or government monopolies; no privatization of the professional occupations; no privatization of the financial "sector"—such as it is. Foreign investment is limited to minority shares in joint ventures with state-owned enterprises. And the government aims to extract an uneconomically high "take" from any joint ventures seeking to exploit Cuba's promising offshore oil deposits. As Cuba's Foreign Minister emphasized: the reforms are limited—and they'll stay that way.

Trouble is, limited reform can never generate enough prosperity to reverse the appallingly dilapidated, squalid conditions of Cuba's society. Havana is a wreck. Its once stately buildings are shabby and decrepit beyond imagination. Judging from our brief glimpse, the countryside isn't any better. There's remarkably little to show for 53 years of the "revolution"—practically no buildings constructed after 1959; few cars and little traffic; crumbling infrastructure; healthy-looking, nourished people shabbily dressed with apparently lots of time on their hands—and very little money in their pockets.

In some ways, the revolution's main achievement is to have transformed Cuba from a client of the United States into a dependency, first, of the Soviet Union and then, when the U.S.S.R. collapsed, of Venezuela. So after Venezuela's cancer-stricken Hugo Chavez can no longer support it, who will be next to prop up the Castro brothers' fantasy island? Iran, perhaps? Or North Korea?

Cuban officials seem to reckon that Raúl's reforms will, or should, earn them further relaxation (or even removal) of the U.S. economic embargo—the obsessive, omnipresent complaint featured in every conversation. But why? Lifting the embargo and its travel ban would produce an avalanche of curious, bargain-hunting American tourists—and provide Raúl's government with an ocean of cash. Two of Cuba's three top revenue sources now are tourist dollars and remittances from Cuban-Americans. Opening the tourist floodgate would only help keep afloat a dictatorial regime that has foisted deprivation and repression on the Cuban people. Why do that?

Meanwhile, Cuba has repaid President Obama's liberalizing initiatives—the most sweeping since former President Jimmy Carter's—with a 15-year prison sentence for USAID contractor Alan Gross. His crime was helping Cuba's tiny Jewish community connect to the outside world via the Internet. And the case seems little more than hostage-taking. They want us to free five Cuban spies convicted in the 2006 shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue airplanes. This is no way to win friends or influence anybody.

Cuba is a sort of political Rorschach test. Some Americans look at it hopefully, as a revolutionary, nationalist society providing healthcare for the Cuban people while struggling against an oppressive U.S. economic embargo. And they buy into Cuban officials' contentions that the United States "owes" it to Cuba to lift its embargo.

But, after a week observing the Cuban reality on the ground, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the fault for Cuba's appalling backwardness, squalor, and repression rests with those—the Castro brothers and their coterie—who've been running the show for more than a half-century.

Any significant change in U.S. policy should await real change in Cuba—the one that's coming, actuarially, at the top.

Cuba Remains Major Money Laundering Risk

In order to protect the international financial system from money laundering and terrorist financing, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has published its yearly list of countries with strategic deficiencies regarding anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT).

According to the FATF:

Cuba has not committed to the AML/CFT international standards, nor has it constructively directly engaged with the FATF. At the same time, Cuba attended a GAFISUD plenary as a guest and prepared an informal document on its AML/CFT regime. 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 encourages Cuba to establish a constructive and direct dialogue with the FATF and is ready to work with the Cuban authorities to this end.

Yet, there are some in the U.S. Congress (e.g. U.S. Senator Jerry Moran, R-KS) that still want to unconditionally establish direct transactions with Castro's banks.

Must Read: On Today's Cuba Hearing

Thursday, February 16, 2012
So many noteworthy quotes in this article on today's Congressional hearing on human rights in Cuba.

From McClatchy:

Cuban dissident calls on pope to intervene in Cuba

With a visit from Pope Benedict XVI just weeks away, one of Cuba's best-known political dissidents on Thursday called on the pontiff to use his power and visibility as a world leader to shine a light on human rights abuses and political oppression under the Castro regime.

If he has an opportunity to meet with the pope, he will ask him to be an advocate for the oppressed, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet told a congressional subcommittee Thursday. He spoke to a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee through a translator, in testimony delivered over the telephone from Cuba.

"I would say to him, that I would love for him to lobby for our freedom of speech and for a multi-party system, so that everyone can participate and be represented," Biscet said. "We hope that his coming will bring great change to our country."

President George W. Bush awarded Biscet the Medal of Freedom in 2007 while he was still serving a 25-year sentence for his opposition to Fidel Castro's regime. Biscet accused the Cuban government in the mid-1990s of allowing and covering up botched abortions, and he was imprisoned from 1999 to late 2002. He had been free for 37 days when he was arrested again.

Biscet, 50, was freed last March as part of a decision by the government of President Raul Castro to release more than 125 political prisoners — a move that came after pressure by the Roman Catholic Church. Some congressional leaders, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., have nominated him for a Nobel prize.

His testimony Thursday came at considerable personal risk and could lead to his re-arrest, he acknowledged. "Everything is possible," Biscet said. "We're under constant supervision."

The committee did not announce Biscet's name before the hearing, out of concern that Cuban authorities would detain him before he was able to testify from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. During the hearing, Biscet's photo was projected on two separate video screens. His image was on several posters propped up along the wall in the hearing room.

Reps. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., and Albio Sires, D-N.J., said they would write to the pope asking him to meet with Biscet. Rep. David Rivera, R-Fla., said the message to the church couldn't be more clear.

"Now it is up to the Catholic Church to respond to Dr. Biscet," Rivera said. "It is up to the pope himself to respond to Dr. Biscet. I would hope they would be responsive to Dr. Biscet's hope and aspirations and his request of the pope and the Catholic Church."

Biscet on Thursday told the committee that the police in Cuba beat him, disfigured his face and broke his foot in an effort to "stop through torture, stop me from defending human rights."

He also described the conditions he experienced in prison in Cuba. Some prisoners were undressed collectively, disregarding "any respect for human dignity," he said. They were handcuffed at their ankles and hands for more than 12 and as many as 24 hours. Some were hung by their hands, with their feet barely touching the ground.
Cuban journalist Normando Hernandez Gonzalez, also a recently freed political prisoner and now living in Miami, told the committee that women are treated with particular brutality by police. Some women have reported that their captors undressed them, screamed obscenities at them, touched their genitals and threatened them with rape, he said.

"I still have fresh in my mind the screams of prisoners who were being freshly tortured," he said. "I don't know if I'll be able to ever forget that."

Sires called Biscet's testimony untainted by the politics of the Miami exile community. That should give the Castro regime pause, Sires said, because Biscet is one of their own.

"He's not a product of Miami Beach, he's not a product of Miami, he's not a product of Cubans in exile," he said. "This is a man that was educated in Cuba, and he sees that this is a dictator, that this a country that oppresses human rights. That this is a country that allows no one the freedom to express themselves. And he's personally seen what they do to people who are seeking freedom of expression."

Biscet on Thursday vowed to continue what he described as a non-violent movement to change Cuba. Biscet said Cubans expect little to improve while the Castro brothers remain alive, but he said that they can't wait for their deaths to agitate for change in Cuba.

"So we will create change on our own," he said. "We are hoping that we will have the capacity to create non-violent coercion and pressure in order to actually install that political change ourselves."

Dr. Biscet Testified in Congressional Hearing

Opening remarks by Human Rights Subcommittee Chairman Chris Smith (R-NJ) during today’s Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Cuba’s human rights abuses:

Dr. Biscet, Prisoner of Conscience Testifies at U.S. Congressional Hearing from Havana

Good afternoon, and welcome to this joint hearing of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights and the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere to focus on just one aspect – though a deeply troubling one – of the overall abysmal human rights record of the dictatorship in Cuba.

Today’s hearing will examine the ongoing violations of the human rights of Cuban political prisoners – from the arrest, prosecution, and persecution of political opponents of the Castro regime to the deplorable conditions of their imprisonment – to the terms under which they are released.

The announcement of the release of some prisoners in late December, in conjunction with the release over the past two years of more than three dozen political prisoners, has been described as a public relations move designed to portray a loosening of Cuba's political repression of opponents. Those of us who have had the privilege of knowing and working with Cuba’s human rights champions for decades, and have heard first-hand of the brutality of the Castro government, are not so easily persuaded or deceived.

Cuba has been a totalitarian state with the Cuban Communist Party as the sole legal political party for more than half a century. Upon his seizure of power in Cuba in 1959, Fidel Castro promised a return to constitutional rule and democratic elections with social reforms. However, Castro’s control over the military and government structures allowed his regime to crush dissent, marginalize resistance leaders and imprison or execute thousands of opponents. Between 1959 and 1962 alone, it is estimated that the Castro regime executed 3,200 people. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled an increasingly radical government. Those who remained in Cuba faced a repressive regime that denied basic human rights.

More than fifty years after Castro’s assumption of power in Cuba, the U.S. Department of State human rights report on Cuba describes a government that still denies its citizens the right to change their government; threatens, harasses and beats its opponents through state security forces and government-organized mobs; sentences opponents to harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrarily detains human rights advocates and members of independent organizations, and selectively prosecutes perceived opponents and then denies them a fair trial.

Cuba’s political prisoners are held, together with the rest of the prison population, in substandard and unhealthy conditions, where they face physical and sexual abuse. Most prisoners suffer from malnutrition and reside in overcrowded cells without appropriate medical attention. In fact, political prisoners face selective denial of medical care. Cuban prisons fail to segregate those held in pre-trial detention from long-term violent inmates, and minors are often mixed in with adults. Such are the conditions opponents of the Castro regime have faced over the years – some of them for decades.

Armando Valladares, who unfortunately couldn’t join us here today but will appear at a future hearing, was a Cuban Postal Bank employee who was arrested for refusing to display a sign on his desk that promoted communism. Mr. Valladares was imprisoned in 1960 at age 23, and spent 22 years in prison. Like many freed political prisoners, Mr. Valladares moved to the United States.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan appointed him to serve as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, a position in which he served for two years. I was with Ambassador Valladares in Geneva when he succeeded in bringing Cuba before the commission for human rights violations and authorizing a UN fact-finding trip to Cuba to investigate prison conditions.

I have read Mr. Valladares’ memoir – Against All Hope – a book that chronicles his experiences and that of others in Cuba’s gulags. Mr. Valladares systematically describes the torture, cruelty, and degrading treatment by Cuban prison guards. Yet, like so many other heroic Cuban dissidents, he persisted and overcame.

Our surprise witness today is the brilliant, humanitarian Dr. Óscar Elías Biscet. A medical doctor and courageous human rights advocate, Dr. Biscet was one of more than two dozen dissidents who were arrested and detained by Cuban police in August 1999 for organizing meetings in Havana and Matanzas. He was released after five days but was rearrested three more times. The second time he was arrested, later in 1999, he spent three years in prison. His third arrest in December 2002 resulted in a beating, but not imprisonment. Upon his fourth arrest in March 2003, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Along with more than 50 other dissidents, Dr. Biscet was released in March 2011 with the help of the Catholic Church. He has courageously remained in Cuba, where he continues to advocate for human rights. For his extraordinary bravery and commitment to freedom for the Cuban people, many of us have twice recommended Dr. Biscet for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Other political prisoners have not had the ability to choose where they live following their release. Normando Hernández González, an independent writer and journalist, was arrested in March 2003 along with 74 other dissidents in Camaguey and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. As a result of his serious abuse in prison, Mr. Hernández eventually was diagnosed with several diseases of the digestive system and later tuberculosis. Due to his deteriorating medical condition, Mr. Hernández was released from prison in July 2010 and taken to the Havana Airport, where he was briefly reunited with his wife and daughter before being forced to board an overnight flight to Spain. He later emigrated to Miami, where he currently resides.

I extend the gratitude of the subcommittee to our distinguished witnesses for joining us today. My good friend and colleague Dan Burton, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia, will testify about U.S. policy toward Cuba. In particular, we are deeply appreciative that Dr. Biscet is taking the serious risk that he will suffer retaliation for speaking with us publicly. The Castro regime should know that there will be a price to pay if that should happen. It is our sincere hope that it does not, and that this hearing and the spotlight that it will shine on Cuban political prisoners will contribute to authentic freedom and respect for the human rights of all the people of Cuba.

Only on "From Washington al Mundo"

Early this morning, the Ecuadorian Supreme Court upheld President Francisco Correa's $40 million suit and three-year prison sentence against the owners of El Universo newspaper for publishing an opinion piece that "dared" criticize him.

The New York Times Editorial Board has called this "an assault on democracy."

Just this past Monday, "From Washington al Mundo" on Sirius-XM's Cristina Radio brought you an exclusive interview with one of the owners of El Universo, Nicolas Perez.

You can listen to this important two-part interview -- the last public testimony given prior to the Supreme Court's decision -- here and here.

Who Benefits From "People-to-People" Travel?

In announcing his new "people-to-people" travel policy in January 2011 (despite an American hostage being held by the Castro regime), President Obama stated that the purpose of this policy was "to help promote [the Cuban people's] independence from Cuban authorities."

A well-intended goal. But the exact opposite has been happening.

Nearly every "people-to-people" trip approved by the State and Treasury Departments have included visits with Castro regime officials, government ministries and even its repressive organs (e.g. the "Committee's for Defense of the Revolution" and the official censors at the "Union of Writers and Artists").

Every single trip has been pre-approved by the Castro regime and includes official government "tour guides."

Don't believe us, here's what NPR reported last week:

"The U.S. company that arranged their tour, Insight Cuba, claims to be the largest provider of U.S.-government licensed travel to the island, and that means no days on the beach or nights at Havana's Tropicana Cabaret. Instead, the group goes to hospitals, schools and historic sites, all with a tour guide appointed by the Cuban government in order to keep a pro-Castro spin on things."

And here's The Washington Post's "free advertisement" (chronicle) for Cuba travel last week:

"Ludwig Diaz Monte­negro was a Cuban guide and government employee; I was an American tourist in the communist country."

(Note to The Washington Post: Tourism to Cuba remains illegal).

Adding insult to injury, these "people-to-people" licenses are also being used as a backdoor for business groups to scout "future" deals.

Here's the AP just a few days ago:

"Dozens of chambers of commerce across the country are also participating in trips beginning this spring. Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce members will tour Cuba in October on an excursion being organized by an outside agency."

Meanwhile, a truly independent cultural group on the island, Estado de Sats, which sought to host a couple of "people-to-people" travelers (American poet Hank Lazer and musician Andrew Raffo Dewar) over the weekend, were prevented from doing so by Castro's secret police.

Thus, Estado de Sats released a statement, warning about the current policy:

"To accept the conditions imposed by the system is to help perpetuate totalitarianism in Cuba. Official channels are well articulated to not break a preconceived script."

So who benefits from Obama's "people-to-people" policy?

Clearly, American tourists, businessmen and the Castro regime.

Who doesn't benefit?

The Cuban people.

Senate Hearing on Iran in Latin America


U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations

Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, And Global Narcotics Affairs

Presiding: Senator Menendez
Date: Thursday, February 16, 2012
Time: 10:00 AM
Location: Senate Dirksen 419

Panel One

Dr. Cynthia J. Arnson
Director, Latin American Program
Woodrow Wilson Center
Washington, DC

Mr. Douglas Farah
Senior Fellow
International Assessment and Strategy Center
Washington, DC

The Honorable Roger Noriega
Former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Former Ambassador to the Organization of American States
Washington, DC

Mr. Ilan Berman
Vice President
American Foreign Policy Council
Washington, DC

Questions for General Castro

Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Excerpt from Andres Oppenheimer's column in The Miami Herald:

Gen. Castro should be asked:

Why is Cuba not complying with former President Fidel Castro Ruz’s commitment at the 1996 Sixth Ibero-American Summit in Viña del Mar, Chile, to respect “political pluralism,” “human rights,” and “political freedoms?” At that Summit, Castro signed the Vina del Mar Declaration, which specifically calls for “the freedoms of expression, association and assembly.”

Needless to say, Cuba still has hundreds of political prisoners — two of whom have recently died from hunger strikes — and allows no opposition parties.

Why is Cuba still violating Article 13 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country”? To this day, Cubans need a government permit to be able to leave the island.

Prominent Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, who has denied a permit to visit Brazil earlier this month, wrote in her Twitter account Feb. 3 that “It’s the 19th time that they violate my right to enter and leave my country... I am a prisoner.”

If Gen. Castro responds, as he surely would, that the U.S. “empire” and its allies are attacking his island because it has become a model society, Obama’s answer should be very simple: “If the Cuban people were so happy, and love you so much, why don’t you allow free elections?”

Not Fooled by the AP's "Spy Novel"

More reaction to the AP's recent "spy novel" on imprisoned American development worker Alan Gross.

From The Jewish Daily Forward:

American Jewish organizations that campaign on Gross’s behalf say that the revelations will not harm the fight to free the 62-year-old, who was jailed for 15 years in 2009 and is in poor health. “At this point, if you’re passionate about Alan’s release, these new facts, or supposed facts, just muddle the water more,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

“The bottom line is, he remains a man who is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit,” Halber said [...]

“Our position has not changed, nor is there reason for it to change,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which has campaigned on Gross’s behalf. “I have credibility in our government and the [Gross] family, and don’t have credibility just because an AP story appears. Let’s move on.”

Foxman insinuated that the AP report was based on misinformation put out by the Cuban government, a “totalitarian, antidemocratic, dictatorship” that “fosters and has fostered internationally anti-Semitism, which is an enemy of Israel and the Jewish people.”

“Why should I take [the Cuban government’s] word,” Foxman said, “as opposed to our government, the secretary of state, members of Congress and [Gross’s] family?”

Halber said Gross was being painted as a “James Bond” figure so that he can be used as “a pawn” to secure the release of the Cuban Five, Cuban agents arrested in the U.S. in 2001 on spying charges.

He said the increased publicity could work in Gross’s favor and that vigils outside the Cuban Interests Section in Washington would continue.

Today on "From Washington al Mundo"

Tune in today to "From Washington Al Mundo" for an important analysis of last Sunday's primary election in Venezuela with the most renowned columnist on Latin American affairs -- the one-and-only Mary Anastasia O'Grady of the Wall Street Journal.

We'll also be joined by Laura Rojas, a former Venezuelan Cabinet official, and Leopoldo Martinez, a former Venezuelan Congressman, representing the opposition's Mesa de Unidad Democratica (Coalition for Democratic Unity).

"From Washington al Mundo" is broadcast live on Sirus-XM's Cristina Radio (Channel 146) from 4-5 p.m. (EST), with rebroadcasts on Friday and Sunday from 4-5 p.m. (EST).

Cuba Human Rights Hearing This Week

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights

Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere

Further Human Rights Violations in Castro's Cuba: the Continued Abuse of Political Prisoners

You are respectfully requested to attend the following open hearing of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights and Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere to be held in Room 2172 of the Rayburn House Office Building.

DATE: Thursday, February 16, 2012
TIME: 2:00 PM
LOCATION: Room 2172 of the Rayburn House Office Building


Panel I

The Honorable Dan Burton
Member of Congress

Panel II

Mr. Normando Hernández González
Independent journalist
Former Political Prisoner – Group of 75

To be announced
Human Rights Advocate
Former Cuban political prisoner

A Visual Cuba Tutorial

H/T Giancarlo Sopo in Facebook

Quote of the Day

"I would challenge anyone to come to Hialeah and talk about freedom. When people talk with you about what it means to be free, you're not talking from a textbook. You're talking about a life experience."

-- U.S. Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL), during a Senate campaign stop in the overwhelmingly Cuban-American city of Hialeah, Florida, The Miami Herald, 2/13/12

How Brazil Deals with Dictators

By Amb. Jaime Daremblum in The Weekly Standard:

How Brazil Deals with Dictators

President Rousseff has gotten tougher on Iran. But will she actively promote human rights in Cuba?

As Lula da Silva’s handpicked successor, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was widely expected to embrace his policies both at home and abroad. Domestically, she has mostly fulfilled those expectations. In foreign affairs, the story is a bit more complicated.

Lula made no secret of his desire to enhance “South-South” dialogue, promote greater cooperation among developing countries, and transform Brazil into a diplomatic powerhouse. In principle, those are worthy objectives. In practice, however, Lula often sided with dictators, against democracy activists and Western governments.

In 2010, for example, he inserted himself into the Iranian nuclear controversy: Along with Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Lula negotiated a meaningless uranium-swap deal that undercut U.S. sanctions efforts at the United Nations. “In our view,” Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim said at the time, “the agreement eliminates any ground for sanctions against Iran.” Whatever his intentions, Lula was effectively siding with Tehran against Washington. The entire world saw a photo of him triumphantly raising arms with Erdogan and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Not only did Lula provide the Iranian regime with diplomatic cover for its nuclear program, he also displayed a callous indifference to its human rights violations. After the regime flagrantly stole a presidential election in June 2009, Lula claimed there was “no evidence” of fraud, adding, “I don’t know anyone, other than the opposition, who has disagreed with the elections in Iran.” He compared the election dispute to “a matter between Flamengo fans and Vasco fans,” referring to two popular Brazilian soccer teams.

Roughly a year later, in March 2010, Lula made headlines for truly shameful comments about political prisoners in Communist Cuba. One jailed Cuban dissident, Orlando Zapata, had recently died from a hunger strike; another, Guillermo Fariñas, was in the midst of his own hunger strike; and Lula was giving an interview to the Associated Press. “I don’t think a hunger strike can be used as a pretext for human rights to free people. Imagine if all the criminals in São Paulo entered into hunger strikes to demand freedom,” he said, implying that Zapata and Fariñas were no different from common criminals. “We have to respect the decisions of the Cuban legal system and the government to arrest people depending on the laws of Cuba, like I want them to respect Brazil.” Hadn’t Lula once been a jailed hunger striker himself, during the days when Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship? Yes, but he told the AP that he “would never do it again,” because “it’s insane to mistreat your own body.”

These remarks sparked a firestorm of criticism, and they served as a painful reminder that Lula and Fidel Castro are old friends. While the former labor boss affirmed his democratic credentials during eight years as Brazilian president, he was much too friendly with dictators in general, and his foreign policy was tinged with an anti-American streak. Besides defending Castro and Ahmadinejad, Lula also defended Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, even describing him as “Venezuela’s best president in the last 100 years.”

Like Lula, President Rousseff, who took office on New Year’s Day 2011, was once jailed by the Brazilian military regime. Thus far, her approach to human rights in Cuba has been better—but only slightly better—than that of her predecessor. Shortly before traveling to the island late last month, Rousseff offered a tourist visa to a prominent Cuban dissident named Yoani Sánchez, a blogger who had been invited to attend a documentary in Brazil. This is not the type of gesture that Lula ever would have made, let alone on the eve of a visit to Cuba. The Castro government refused to let Sánchez travel, but Rousseff had delivered a message about her willingness to defy Havana and strike a small blow (however symbolic) for Cuban freedom.

Unfortunately, when she got to the island, the Brazilian president focused on economic cooperation and shied away from discussing Communist human rights abuses. She also took a dig at the United States, saying that the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay represents a “human rights” issue.

What about Venezuela? In December, Rousseff left early from the inaugural summit of the Chávez-inspired Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in Caracas. As the Guardian noted, some people interpreted the timing of her departure “as a snub to her host.”

But her biggest break with Lula’s foreign policy has come on Iran. Initially, it seemed that Rousseff’s approach to the Islamic Republic would be roughly the same: In August, a senior Brazilian official declared Iran to be one of her country’s “most important partners.” Since then, however, relations between the two countries have deteriorated, as Rousseff has distanced her government from the Ahmadinejad regime and embraced a tougher line on Iranian human rights. Last month, after Brazil declined to host a visit by Ahmadinejad during his Latin America tour, an Iranian presidential adviser slammed Rousseff for poisoning bilateral ties. As the New York Times reported it, Ali Akbar Javanfekr told a top Brazilian newspaper that Rousseff had “destroyed years of good relations,” arguing that she had “been striking against everything that Lula accomplished.”

Any country that is part of the BASIC bloc (Brazil, South Africa, India, China), the BRIC bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China), and the IBSA bloc (India, Brazil, South Africa) will play an important role in shaping regional and global politics during the 21st century. If Brazil takes a robust stand in favor of human rights in Cuba, other Latin Americans will follow. By the same token, if Brazil continues largely to ignore the issue, other Latin American countries will follow suit. Rousseff is still much too timid about denouncing Castroite repression. Yet her policy toward Iran has been both pragmatic and principled, unlike Lula’s. That is bad news for Tehran but good news for Washington and Latin America.

Jaime Daremblum is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.

Castro Justifies Modern Genocide

Here's how the Castro regime has justified his friend Bashar al-Assad's modern genocide to the United Nations:

"Cuba rejects all kinds of foreign interference in Syria's affairs whether the direct interference or through supporting the armed terrorist groups or any attempt to undermine Syria's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity."

-- Pedro Nunez Mosquera, Castro's Ambassador to the United Nations, Syrian Arab News Agency, 2/14/12

Dreaming of the Internet

By Yoani Sanchez in The Huffington Post:

Internet for Cubans: A Permanently Impossible Dream?

It's 10:00 a.m. at the Plaza Hotel a few yards from Havana's Capitol building. A smell of moisturizer wafts from the bodies of tourists rushing through their coffee so they can go out and explore the city. On one side of the lobby several people line up at the entrance to a small office where there are six computers connected to Internet. Inside the room, anchored to the wall, a security camera focuses directly on keyboards and the faces of people who use the service. No one speaks. Everyone seems very focused. Any web page can take several minutes to open and some give up after an hour without being able to read their email.

But most surprising is that most of those sitting there are not foreigners, but Cubans seeking the oxygen of information and communication. They seem willing to sacrifice even one-third the average monthly salary for 60 minutes of surfing on the great World Wide Web.

While outside our borders there is increasing debate between permissibility versus control on the web, 11 million Cuban citizens wonder if 2012 will be the year that we will finally become Internet users. We feel as if we're abandoned and motionless by the side of the expressway, with ever faster and unattainable kilobytes speeding by us. Again and again the announced deadline for providing us with mass access to cyberspace has failed, leaving us isolated from and behind the rest of the world.

July 2011 was the last official date for the fiber optic cable laid between Cuba and Venezuela began to function, and to multiply by 3,000 times the Island's scant connectivity. But for now, the status of implementation is one of the country's best kept secrets, second only to reports of the health of former President Fidel Castro.

Some say corruption, technical incompetence and mismanagement have left the modern cable -- laid at a cost of $70 million -- not functioning. Others murmur that is already operational but only available to "very reliable" agencies and institutions, such as the Ministry of Interior. The most credible version, however, appears to be that the Cuban government has stopped its implementation for fear of the flow of information it would bring to the nation. A fear, it seems, that the house of cards of government power -- held up at the expense of secrecy and censored news -- would come tumbling down.

Official journalists have been warned not to touch the subject of the cable, and prices for access from the hotels continue to vary between 6 and 12 dollars an hour, or more. Having a home connection is a privilege given only to the most politically reliable, or the result of the audacity of those who pirate a state account.

Instead of opening up to social networking and other interactive tools, the authorities have offered in vitro versions of Facebook or Wikipedia style sites to schools and workplaces. They spend thousands of dollars from the national budget to create highly controlled programs and interfaces -- for local use only -- that will keep local readers far from the hubbub of the democratic Internet.

Each day they postpone our entry into the virtual village, the country's academic and professional capital plummets a little more. In addition, they thereby delay our development as citizens, and keep us oblivious to the debates and trends that are occurring in the world today.

Right now the controversy between intellectual property and free exchange of files across the network gains strength far from our ears. While news headlines all over the planet announce the arrest of several directors of the Megaupload site, it's embarrassing to know that the vast majority of Cubans do not even know the existence of this portal.

Echoes of the criticisms over the new content controls on services like Twitter reach us, but lacking any framework, we can't decipher their real implications. When we do manage to read the critical analysis of the so-called SOPA Law (the Stop Online Piracy Act), or of Spain's controversial Sinde Law (that country's version of an online anti-piracy act), we wonder what the name of the ministerial -- or presidential -- directive is that keeps us far from the great World Wide Web. Worst of all is that we can't even complain about such limitations by filling the forums with texts or images of protest, or decreeing a blackout day on the social networks.

They have reasons to suspect web surfers and many motives to remain vigilant and active before what is happening. Because not only the times of sharing music, movies and software may be coming to an end. The fight against piracy has become the fight against the Web 2.0 itself, putting at risk the most public and dynamic part of this advance. But the doubt that assaults Cubans is whether the Internet -- as it is known today -- is going to die before we ever experience it, if it will become a cage before we could have used it as wings.

Stop Giving China a Free Pass

Monday, February 13, 2012
By Scott Paul in Politico:

Free pass for China's rulers must end

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, expected to be China’s next president, arrives in Washington on Tuesday. The Obama administration and international business community are ready to go out of their way to make sure his visit is free of public controversy. But Xi should not leave the United States without knowing there is deep dissatisfaction with his government’s policies — and our government’s tepid response.

U.S. voters believe China’s economy is stronger than ours. They are worried about the role China could play in determining our future. They hear talk about an America that may be in relative decline. Yet they are told not to worry.

We shouldn’t fear China’s citizens. But we should be worried about the actions of its authoritarian — and, yes, still communist — regime that tightly controls the People’s Republic. And we should be downright terrified by some of our own leaders’ attitudes toward China.

True, Washington periodically lashes Beijing verbally about its human rights practices. But most U.S. policies bolster a regime that is undemocratic, brutal to its critics and bullying to trade partners.

It’s not like China needs the help. It is growing at an astonishing pace. In the past few years alone, China topped the U.S. in manufacturing output, Germany in exports and Japan in economic size. It now wields more than $2 trillion in foreign currency reserves.

The U.S. just recorded the largest-ever trade deficit with China — a whopping $295.5 billion last year. It is only a matter of time until China passes the U.S. to be the world’s largest economy.

Today, we are in a serious race with China over supercomputing, innovation and anti-satellite weapons technology. China is not merely the key U.S. supplier of cheap toys, clothing and electronics: Its government is also one of our foreign financiers. China achieved this status by defying the free market and its international obligations toward more open trade and investment.

China is also learning from our history. Beijing knows why past U.S. competitors collapsed. Our Cold War victory over the Soviet Union required a bipartisan effort on defense and economic issues. We linked trade to free emigration and human rights and shone a bright light on abhorrent practices through a law known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

History didn’t do in the Soviet Union. A sustained and aggressive strategy did. China engaged our business and political elites — and seduced them into believing these policies were no longer necessary.

With China, there has been no George F. Kennan, no President John F. Kennedy, no Jackson-Vanik, no Ronald Reagan. There has been no strategy, no effort to prevail economically.

Critics of China are decidedly uncool — cast as xenophobes, hawks and protectionists, though our positions are entirely in line with prevailing (and correct) U.S. efforts to promote American ideals while expanding our economy.

No one is suggesting that China is an enemy and we should just update our Cold War strategies. No one can accurately define what China’s intentions are in terms of foreign policy or defense. But on the economic front, the lessons of the past are instructive: We need a plan.

We’re dependent on China for much of U.S. production — even militarily critical technologies. One can argue that our public and trade debts help to finance the Chinese military and censorship machine.

U.S. companies, desperate to reach China’s 1 billion-plus consumers, just give in. They help to censor, to oppress and to exploit. They accept terrible terms for trade and investment. They also give up proprietary technology.

Apple and Google may be iconic U.S. brands. But they deserve scorn for their coddling of brutality in China. Exploited Foxconn workers, who assemble things like the iPad, must now sign a pledge that they will not commit suicide. Google allows the Chinese government to censor its search engine. Other U.S. companies have helped to build the architecture of the “Great Firewall” that seeks to block ideas from reaching Chinese citizens.

Multinational manufacturers in China are often apologists for Chinese economic policies because in the short term they benefit from the status quo — even if such policies harm America’s long-term economic strength.

Our children will live with the consequences: a monstrous trade and public debt to China; an expensive strategic competition in the Pacific, in space and around the developing world; and the validation of a dangerous idea that a nation can be successful through a combination of censorship, brutality and mercantilism, as opposed to the U.S. ideal of democracy, human rights and a rules-based, open economy.

The developing world — representing the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants — is looking to see who wins. In America, it sees a fractured political system, a slow-growth economy and enormous public, private and trade debts. In China, it sees the opposite.

President Barack Obama can shake hands with Xi. But we must also hold his government to account for its currency manipulation, mercantilism and gross violations of trade obligations that are robbing us of jobs and wealth.

Looking for Democratization in Cuba

By Isbel Diaz Torres in Havana Times:

Democratizing Cuba?

I followed the speeches and discussions carefully during the recently concluded National Conference of the Cuban Communist Party. “The creation of a more democratic society,” using the words of President Raul Castro, seemed a vital issue. Nevertheless, I found little that pointed to this being realized. In the first place, the current president devoted much of his speech to defend the single-party system established here on the island. The problem was that this defense was based essentially on making a critique of other political systems while providing very little about the virtues of the Cuban system – neither of which contributed much.

When he spoke about representative democracy, the president called it a model that “doesn’t work either.” Should one therefore expect the situation to be better in a country governed by a single party whose membership is only a small percentage of the population?

In my opinion, such models of governance by parties (mono, bi, multi) are clearly mechanisms to usurp power from ordinary individuals. Their empty promises to be the faithful interpreters of the interests of the majority are, simply, impossible to maintain.

If the promises were sincere, politicians wouldn’t be so nervous at election time as they search for some maneuver to fool people into re-electing them. Instead, they would simply accept the popular assessment of their four or five years in office.

However, since this never happens, I understand that the problem is not the individuals who attain power, but in the system of power itself.

Perhaps that’s why I like both the terms “empowerment” and “self-emancipation”; both refer to processes that don’t ignore relations of power and that are constructed from individuals in solidarity with those around them.

But, back to the conference…

If the party was so interested in this so-called “democratization,” why did they agree to continue working without modifying the statutes of the organization? Why did they fail to shake up the current membership of the party’s Central Committee? Wasn’t this an inopportune moment either?

After so many months of working at the grass roots level of party organization, as well as in the upper echelons of power, it wasn’t possible to organize internal elections? Was it a question of lacking the time or lacking the will?

Instead, the conference authorized the Central Committee (115 members) to decide on the changes that this body deem appropriate and made the even smaller Politburo (15 members) responsible for “adopting and implementing the necessary changes to the regulations of the party structure.”

Incidentally, the conference also authorized the Central Committee to make changes in its membership by up to 20 percent during its current mandate.

In other words, they did just the opposite of democratizing the organization! They further centralized its already problematic processes. The Conference met for a few days ago to agree on the wording around a few items, and that was it. The serious work will be done later by those powerful few, but behind closed doors.

The AP's Alan Gross Spy Novel

The AP has published an "investigative report" that tries to depict (and sensationalize) American development worker Alan Gross as some sort of spy -- which, of course, is music to the Castro regime's ears.

(The Egyptian military must be giddy awaiting the AP's "investigative" version of the 19 American development workers being prosecuted in Cairo).

The fact remains that Alan Gross helped distribute laptops, iPhones and memory sticks to Cuban religious groups.

If possessing such items merits imprisonment, then there would be no teenage kids left on the streets of America, Europe or any free country in the world.

Now, plug-in the words "covert, CIA and Pentagon" repeatedly throughout each paragraph -- as the AP does -- and you have a spy novel.

The "gotcha" item revealed in the AP's novel is that Gross also possessed "specialized mobile phone chips."

That's sensational talk for SIM cards.

And yes, they were likely untraceable.

You see -- in brutal totalitarian regimes, people caught freely accessing international news and information are severely punished.

Think typewriters and ink cartridges in East Germany -- download the movie "The Lives of Others" (on your laptop or iPhone) for a refresher.

Traceable SIM cards would only aid brutal regimes in their repression.

Thus, untraceable SIM cards in brutal totalitarian societies are not "covert" -- they are "common sense."

That's the beauty of modern technology -- it decreases the risk of secret police services tracking down today's typewriters and ink cartridges.

It is the moral responsibility of free people to help repressed people exercise their fundamental right to "receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers" -- pursuant to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

If helping repressed people freely communicate among themselves and access uncensored information constitutes "regime change" -- as the Carter Center's Robert Pastor claims in the AP's novel -- then isn't the opposite true as well?

Which should we support?

Moreover, is the Castro regime so weak that it would collapse from people freely Googling, Tweeting and Facebooking?

That definitely seems to be their fear.

Today on "From Washington al Mundo"

The New York Times's Editorial Board has described Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa's campaign against the country's largest newspaper, El Universo, as an "assault on democracy."

Join us today for a conversation with Nicolas Perez, owner of El Universo, to discuss President Correa's attack against free speech.

We'll also be discussing the upcoming March elections in Russia and the undemocratic tendencies of another autocrat, Vladimir Putin, with Karl Altau of the Joint Baltic American National Committee.

Listen to "From Washington al Mundo" live today on Sirus-XM's Cristina Radio (Channel 146) from 4-5 p.m. (EST) and rebroadcast on Tuesday from 3-4 p.m. (EST).

A Great Night at the Grammys

Sunday, February 12, 2012
Our heartfelt congratulations to Nelson Albareda, CEO of Eventus and National Latino Broadcasting (Cristina Radio), who just won an American Grammy for Cachao's "The Last Mambo" as "Best Tropical Album."

During his remarks, Nelson stated that his wish was to listen to the album in a free Cuba.

We share his wish!

Dissident Couple Remains Imprisoned

On January 8th, 2012, Yasmin Conyedo and her husband, Yusmani Alvarez, were arrested by the Castro regime in the central city of Santa Clara.

Yasmin Conyedo is an independent journalist and member of the Ladies in White. Her husband, Yusmani Alvarez is an activist with the Young Democratic League of Las Villas.

They were imprisoned pursuant to a pro-regime mob attack on their home.

Yasmin was transferred to the Prison of Guamajal and Yusmani to the Prison of La Pendiente on January 16, 2012, where they remain.