MH Editorial Board: Raul's Lipstick Changes

Thursday, February 28, 2013
From The Miami Herald's Editorial Board:

Cuba’s Raúl Castro’s proclaimed changes are no more than lipstick on a zombie

In Juan of the Dead, an enterprising but admittedly lazy Cuban and his small band of friends face a Havana full of zombies (the regime claims they are dissidents but Juan knows better) by starting a zombie-disposal service. At one point in the comedic, award-winning Spanish film made in Cuba, Juan answers the phone and a plea to get rid of “the old man” with a subtle line: “ Compañero, you’ll have to handle that family matter yourself.”

After 54 years of the Castro brothers’ communist dictatorship, a new generation of Cubans want to take charge of their destiny, to rid themselves of the zombies who blindly follow the Castros.

On Sunday, Raúl Castro seemed to toss them a lifeline — the 81-year-old successor to his ailing brother Fidel says he’s leaving Cuba’s presidency in five years and that the communist island’s constitution will soon include term limits for future leaders.

Castro tapped Miguel Diaz-Canel, a 52-year-old engineer, now seen as his potential successor, for first vice president. He also shook up the rubber-stamp National Assembly by promoting 69-year-old Esteban Lazo Hernandez, Cuba’s highest ranking black official, to replace Ricardo Alarcon, 75, who served for two decades as assembly president.

No doubt, Raúl Castro expects the international community to see these changes as the Great Awakening for Cuba’s leadership gerontocracy, a “historic transcendence” for a new generation to take the mantle and for Afro Cubans to finally bust the iron ceiling that has kept black Cubans from key positions.

If only that were so. This is nothing more than lipstick on a zombie.

The dictatorship may get a new face but no one elevated by Fidel or Raúl Castro can be considered a Cuban leader in the image of, say, the former Soviet Union’s reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Indeed, Diaz-Canel is not the first “young” leader to be seen as a potential heir to lead the one-party state. Remember former Foreign Ministers Roberto Robaina and Felipe Perez Roque? Or former Vice President Carlos Lage? All have disappeared from public view, ousted by the Castro brothers when they became too big for their political britches.

As for U.S. policy toward Cuba, there’s nothing in Sunday’s proclamations from Havana that would warrant a thawing of relations. The Obama administration already has made it easier for Cuban Americans to visit their loved ones in Cuba and send remittances. As the State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell noted on Monday, the United States remains “hopeful for the day that the Cuban people get democracy, when they can have the opportunity to freely pick their own leaders. We’re clearly not there yet.”

Certainly the Helms-Burton law that maintains the U.S. embargo requires more than a promise of some elusive change five years from now when the dictatorship will be 59 years old.

Diaz-Canel, a former higher education minister and ex-head of the Communist Party in Villa Clara and Holguin provinces, has been traveling with Raúl Castro on key missions abroad and leading delegations on other trips. He is reported to have been in charge of many of Raúl Castro’s economic changes, such as allowing the sale of homes and lifting travel restrictions for some Cubans. All these are seen as efforts to bolster Cuba’s ever-depressed top-down economy, which Raúl Castro maintains are ways to “perfect socialism, not destroy it.”

Like we said, lipstick on a zombie.

U.S. Congressman Defends Cuban Spies

Cuban state media has revealed that during his recent visit to Havana, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) defended five Cuban spies tried by U.S. federal courts in 2001 and convicted on conspiracy to commit espionage, conspiracy to commit murder, acting as an agent of a foreign government and other illegal activities in the United States.

According to Granma (exact quote):

"The legislator admitted that in prisons in his country 'there are five Cubans jailed for transmitting information about the (violent) activities of Cuban-Americans,' and that in talks with Raul Castro he ratified that 'those five Cubans don't deserve to be in jail.'"

It's not the first time McGovern is associated with such unsavory figures.

He was widely and infamously referenced in messages found in the hard-drive of Raul Reyes, the narco-terrorist FARC's second-in-command, who was killed by the Colombian military in 2008.

Thus, Cuban dictators and spies are right up his alley.

According to the U.S. Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, the activities of these Cuban spies included: 

• The infiltration of the US Southern Command headquarters in Miami—according to Cuba, “one of the new prioritized objectives that we have in the Miami area.”

• The activities of Cuban exile groups in Miami and tactics to disrupt those groups by, among other things, “creat(ing) animosity” between specified groups and attempting to discredit certain individual leaders.

• The activities at the Boca Rica Naval Air Station as well as reports on an apparent military topic identified by Cuba that “continues to be of great importance to our comrades at DAAFAR (Cuban Air Force Command).”

• The manipulation of the media, political institutions, and public opinion, including using anonymous or misidentified telephone calls and letters to media and political figures.

Read the details here.

Must-See: Foreign Tourists Arrested in Cuba

Last week, we posted a video of Cuban pro-democracy activists Rosario Morales la Rosa and Melkis Faure Echevarria courageously leading a protest in Havana's Central Park, calling for an end to for the Castro regime's repression.

They were arrested pursuant to the protest.

A new video has surfaced showing the commotion caused by Castro's police -- simply due to a peaceful protest by two women in a park -- and foreign tourists being arrested for unwittingly taking pictures.

Ironically, only the images captured by a Cuban pro-democracy activist with a hidden camera saw the light of day.

Click below to watch.  Note the young woman arrested with two children.

Courtesy of Hablemos Press:

Five Months Later: Journalist Still Imprisoned

Wednesday, February 27, 2013
By Laura Paz in The Institute of War and Peace Reporting:

Five months after his arrest, Cuban journalist Calixto Ramón Martínez Arias remains in jail on charges of insulting the country’s top leaders, with no trial date in sight.

At the end of January, the international human rights watchdog Amnesty International declared Martínez Arias a prisoner of conscience, arguing that the real reason for his detention was because he had reported on controversial subjects.

A reporter for the independent news agency Hablemos Press Information Centre, Martínez Arias was detained on September 16 while investigating a story about a damaged shipment of medicines that had been sent to Havana’s international airport by the World Health Organisation.

The Cuban prosecution service has accused him of an offence known as “disrespect”, alleging that he insulted Raúl and Fidel Castro, the country’s present and past presidents.

The authorities regularly detain journalists for short periods of up to two weeks.

Martínez Arias is one of two Cuban journalists who have been detained for much longer. The other is José Antonio Torres, a former correspondent for the official newspaper Granma who was detained in 2011 and given a 14-year sentence in June 2012. He was convicted of espionage, although his real offence seems to have been writing highly critical pieces about a construction project in the eastern Santiago de Cuba region.

Martínez Arias, 41, was born in the Campechuela municipality of the eastern province of Granma. After leaving school, he initially worked as a carpenter, but after joining the Cuban Pro-Human Rights Party, he decided to become a journalist in 2009.

Interviewed a month before his arrest in September, he said he chose this career “because I knew there was a possibility of creating a free press for the good of the people; and secondly because I always knew it was necessary to inform the world about the reality of Cuba”.

Martínez Arias wrote for Hablemos Press, which reports on human rights violations in Cuba, and was one of the first journalists to cover last year’s outbreak of cholera in eastern Cuba.

While detained at the Combinado del Este prison, he went on hunger strike on November 10 and demanded to be allowed to wear normal clothes as he regarded himself as a political prisoner, not a criminal.

In a phone call in which he told Hablemos Press director Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez of his decision, Martínez Arias urged international human rights organisations to visit the prison, which he said was not fit for human habitation.

There are 36 prisoners living in a space 13 or 14 metres by six metres. The day I arrived, I had to sleep on the floor due to the number of inmates,” he said.

He was punished for his hunger strike by being placed in a solitary confinement cell known as the “corridor of death”, but only abandoned his protest 33 days later because relatives begged him to.

While Martínez Arias was on hunger strike, the Inter-American Press Association, a regional media freedom group, called for his release and condemned the charge of “disrespect” brought against him. The Cuban Association for Press Freedom urged the authorities to heed his demands since he was prepared to put his life at risk to make them.

No trial date has been set, and the journalist’s lawyer Joaquín Hernando has not been granted access to the prosecution’s case files.

The international group Reporters Without Borders describes Cuba as “the only country in the Americas not to allow any independent press to operate outside the straight-jacket of the state.” The Committee to Protect Journalists, meanwhile, ranks Cuba ninth on its list of countries with the most censorship in 2012. It is the only country in the Americas on the list.

Cuban Dissidents Seek Greater Unity

In EFE:

Cuban Dissidents Hope to Build Mass Organization

Former political prisoners and prominent dissident Guillermo Fariñas announced on Wednesday the creation of a new group that seeks to become a “dynamic mass organization” and achieve greater unity within the opposition in Cuba.

The new organization will take the name of the existing Union Patriotica de Cuba (Patriotic Union of Cuba), or Unpacu, headed to date by Jose Daniel Ferrer and which will now merge with Fariñas’ Fantu group.

Fariñas, 2010 recipient of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, said that the new Unpacu aspires to be a model in the face of the tradition of would-be strongmen “that has characterized Cuban politics” and it will be open to all members of the peaceful opposition who are ready to embrace teamwork.

The new Unpacu will have a “coordinating council” comprised of Fariñas, Ferrer and other former political prisoners along with Elizardo Sanchez, the spokesman for the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, among others.

Among its objectives, the members of Unpacu intend for it to become “a solid and dynamic organization of the masses” that uses a range of methods to advocate civil disobedience on the Communist-ruled island.

“We want to get into every Cuban home with our proposal,” Ferrer said.

Regarding the recent election of Miguel Diaz-Canel, 52, as Cuban first vice president and his embodiment of a generational shift within the government of octogenarian Raul Castro, Ferrer said that it is merely designed present a false image of change in Cuba.

He also said that, for the present, Diaz-Canel cannot be described as a “Cuban Gorbachev.”

Today on "From Washington al Mundo"

Tune in today to "From Washington al Mundo" for a conversation with former U.S. Congressman J.C. Watts (R-OK) on INSIGHT America, a new nonprofit group designed to boost diversity within the GOP.

Then, U.S. Ambassador Dennis Hays, former Director of the State Department's Office of Cuban Affairs, on the Castro regime's recent leadership reshuffle.

And Dr. Vanessa Neumann, of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, on the return to Venezuela of President Hugo Chavez and possible election scenarios.

You can listen to "From Washington al Mundo" seven-days a week on Sirius-XM's Cristina Radio (Channel 146) from 4-5 p.m. (EST) and again at midnight (EST).

Canada Gave Dissidents Silent Treatment

Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Canada's Foreign Minister John Baird talked a big-game before heading to Cuba last week.

Prior to leaving, Baird's spokesman said "he [would] use this opportunity to press the need for economic liberalization and respect for human rights."

One columnist in Canada appropriately asked, "human rights organizations in Cuba and abroad have reported an increase in the number of arbitrary detentions for political reasons over the past year (up to more than a thousand a month). Shouldn't our government condemn that publicly, and depart from a long bipartisan policy of silence on Cuba?"

Well, John Baird went to Cuba, and did exactly that.

He met with Castro regime officials to discuss tourism, natural resources and mining investments -- then quietly got on the plane and left. 

Baird didn't have the decency to meet with a single pro-democracy activist, not The Ladies in White, not independent journalists, not bloggers.  Nada.

It's not that he didn't have time to meet with anyone.  After all, the Venezuelan government cancelled his visit there, which was scheduled after the Havana stop.

He didn't do it because he didn't want to risk Canada's business deals with the Castro regime.

(Let's be clear: Canada does not have a single business partnership in Cuba with any entity that is not owned and operated by the Castro regime.  Cubans are prohibited from engaging in foreign commerce -- it's an exclusive monopoly of the dictatorship.)

John Baird gave Cuban dissidents the same treatment Canadian tourists and businessmen have been giving the Cuban people for two decades -- a shameful snub.

Sadly, this is what many advocates of normalizing relations with Cuba would like to see the U.S. do as well.

So what "influence" has doing business and sucking up to the Castro regime "bought" the Canadians?

None.

To the contrary, it has allowed the Castro regime to blackmail Canada into a collusive silence.

Must-Watch: Demand for Another Cuba

A must-watch video from the United Veto Expo held in Havana by the Citizen's Demand for Another Cuba campaign the day before the Castro regime's "[s]election" process.

The Citizen Demand for Another Cuba calls for the government immediately implement the legal and political guarantees endorsed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed by the Cuban authorities on 28 February 2008 in New York.

Click below:

Over 170 Political Arrests Last Weekend

According to Cuban independent journalists, over 170 pro-democracy activists were violently arrested by the Castro regime over the weekend.

The arrests were pursuant to various events commemorating the 3rd anniversary of the death -- by hunger strike -- of Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo and the 17th anniversary of the murder -- by Castro's Air Force -- of four young Brothers to the Rescue pilots.

Among those arrested were 56 members of the Ladies in White.

This repression was overlooked by foreign news bureaus in Havana, which instead focused on the closed proceedings of Castro's "National Assembly" and the formal granting of titles to the regime's most loyal subjects.

The Case for Cuba Sanctions

By University of Miami Professor Jaime Suchlicki:

What If...the U.S. Ended the Cuba Travel Ban and the Embargo?

Lifting the ban for U.S. tourists to travel to Cuba would be a major concession totally out of proportion to recent changes in the island. If the U.S. were to lift the travel ban without major reforms in Cuba, there would be significant implications:

- Money from American tourists would flow into businesses owned by the Castro government thus strengthening state enterprises. The tourist industry is controlled by the military and General Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother.

- American tourists will have limited contact with Cubans. Most Cuban resorts are built in isolated areas, are off limits to the average Cuban, and are controlled by Cuba’s efficient security apparatus. Most Americans don’t speak Spanish, have but limited contact with ordinary Cubans, and are not interested in visiting the island to subvert its regime. Law 88 enacted in 1999 prohibits Cubans from receiving publications from tourists. Penalties include jail terms.

- While providing the Castro government with much needed dollars, the economic impact of tourism on the Cuban population would be limited. Dollars will trickle down to the Cuban poor in only small quantities, while state and foreign enterprises will benefit most.

- Tourist dollars would be spent on products, i.e., rum, tobacco, etc., produced by state enterprises, and tourists would stay in hotels owned partially or wholly by the Cuban government. The principal airline shuffling tourists around the island, Gaviota, is owned and operated by the Cuban military.

- The assumption that the Cuban leadership would allow U.S. tourists or businesses to subvert the revolution and influence internal developments is at best naïve. As we have seen in other circumstances, U.S. travelers to Cuba could be subject to harassment and imprisonment.

- Over the past decades hundred of thousands of Canadian, European and Latin American tourists have visited the island. Cuba is not more democratic today. If anything, Cuba is more totalitarian, with the state and its control apparatus having been strengthened as a result of the influx of tourist dollars.

- As occurred in the mid-1990s, an infusion of American tourist dollars will provide the regime with a further disincentive to adopt deeper economic reforms. Cuba’s limited economic reforms were enacted in the early 1990s, when the island’s economic contraction was at its worst. Once the economy began to stabilize by 1996 as a result of foreign tourism and investments, and exile remittances, the earlier reforms were halted or rescinded by Castro.

- Lifting the travel ban without major concessions from Cuba would send the wrong message “to the enemies of the United States”: that a foreign leader can seize U.S. properties without compensation; allow the use of his territory for the introduction of nuclear missiles aimed at the United States; espouse terrorism and anti-U.S. causes throughout the world; and eventually the United States will “forget and forgive,” and reward him with tourism, investments and economic aid.

- Since the Ford/Carter era, U.S. policy toward Latin America has emphasized democracy, human rights and constitutional government. Under President Reagan the U.S. intervened in Grenada, under President Bush, Sr. the U.S. intervened in Panama and under President Clinton the U.S. landed marines in Haiti, all to restore democracy to those countries. The U.S. has prevented military coups in the region and supported the will of the people in free elections. U.S. policy has not been uniformly applied throughout the world, yet it is U.S. policy in the region. Cuba is part of Latin America. While no one is advocating military intervention, normalization of relations with a military dictatorship in Cuba will send the wrong message to the rest of the continent.

- Once American tourists begin to visit Cuba, Castro would probably restrict travel by Cuban-Americans. For the Castro regime, Cuban-Americans represent a far more subversive group because of their ability to speak to friends and relatives on the island, and to influence their views on the Castro regime and on the United States. Indeed, the return of Cuban exiles in 1979-80 precipitated the mass exodus of Cubans from Mariel in 1980.

- A large influx of American tourists into Cuba would have a dislocating effect on the economies of smaller Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and even Florida, highly dependent on tourism for their well-being. Careful planning must take place, lest we create significant hardships and social problems in these countries.

If the embargo is lifted, limited trade with, and investments in Cuba would develop. Yet there are significant implications.

Trade

- All trade with Cuba is done with state owned businesses. Since Cuba has very little credit and is a major debtor nation, the U.S. and its businesses would have to provide credits to Cuban enterprises. There is a long history of Cuba defaulting on loans.

- Cuba is not likely to buy a substantial amount of products in the U.S. In the past few years, Cuba purchased several hundred million dollars of food in the U.S. That amount is now down to $170 million per year. Cuba can buy in any other country and it is not likely to abandon its relationship with China, Russia, Venezuela, and Iran to become a major trading partner of the U.S.

- Cuba has very little to sell in the U.S. Nickel, one of Cuba's major exports, is controlled by the Canadians and exported primarily to Canada. Cuba has decimated its sugar industry and there is no appetite in the U.S. for more sugar. Cigars and rum are important Cuban exports. Yet, cigar production is mostly committed to the European market. Cuban rum could become an important export, competing with Puerto Rican and other Caribbean rums.

Investments

- In Cuba, foreign investors cannot partner with private Cuban citizens. They can only invest in the island through minority joint ventures with the government and its state enterprises.

- The dominant enterprise in the Cuban economy is the Grupo GAESA, controlled by the Cuban military. Most investments are done through or with GAESA. Therefore, American companies willing to invest in Cuba will have to partner mostly with the Cuban military.

- Cuba ranks 176 out of 177 countries in the world in terms of economic freedom. Outshined only by North Korea. It ranks as one of the most unattractive investments next to Iran, Zimbabwe, Libya, Mali, etc.

- Foreign investors cannot hire, fire, or pay workers directly. They must go through the Cuban government employment agency which selects the workers. Investors pay the government in dollars or euros and the government pays the workers a meager 10% in Cuban pesos.

- Corruption is pervasive, undermining equity and respect for the rule of law.

- Cuba does not have an independent/transparent legal system. All judges are appointed by the State and all lawyers are licensed by the State. In the last few years, European investors have had over $1 billion arbitrarily frozen by the government and several investments have been confiscated. Cuba's Law 77 allows the State to expropriate foreign-invested assets for reason of "public utility" or "social interest." In the last year, the CEOs of three companies with extensive dealings with the Cuban government were arrested without charges.

Conclusions

- If the travel ban is lifted unilaterally now or the embargo is ended by the U.S., what will the U.S. government have to negotiate with a future regime in Cuba and to encourage changes in the island? These policies could be an important bargaining chip with a future regime willing to provide concessions in the area of political and economic freedoms.

- The travel ban and the embargo should be lifted as a result of negotiations between the U.S. and a Cuban government willing to provide meaningful and irreversible political and economic concessions or when there is a democratic government in place in the island.

Something to Think About

Monday, February 25, 2013
For those who still believe that -- despite decades of their lies and deceit -- the Castro brothers can be trusted or reasonably negotiated with.
A good indicator of how committed a government is to upholding peace with its neighbors is its commitment to protecting the human rights of its own citizens.  Nations that disregard the freedoms of their own people are not likely to care much about maintaining peace with their historic enemies. 
-- David Keyes, from "Palestine's Democracy Deficit," The New York Times, 2/12/13

Kudos to the State Department

Some of these journalists should really learn some basic etiquette.

From today's State Department Daily Press Briefing with Deputy Spokesperson Patrick Ventrell:

QUESTION: Do you have a reaction to Raul Castro saying he will not seek reelection in five years’ time?

MR. VENTRELL: So, Brad, we are indeed aware of the reports that President Castro, Raul Castro, announced his intention to step down in 2018 after another five-year term. We also saw the announcement that Mr. Miguel Diaz-Canel was named First Vice President.

We remain hopeful for the day that the Cuban people get democracy, when they can have the opportunity to freely pick their own leaders in an open democratic process and enjoy the freedoms of speech and association without fear of reprisal. We’re clearly not there yet.

QUESTION: Hold on, hold on. I’m glad you’re aware. I guess that confirms that not everybody in the U.S. Government slept through the entire weekend. But do you have an actual reaction? Do you have a position on whether this is a good step, whether this is helpful in that process toward a freer, fairer, Cuba as you stated?

MR. VENTRELL: I think --

QUESTION: Or just that you know that things happened in the world over the last 48 hours?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, no. I mean, I think, Brad, what we’re saying is that we’ve noted that it’s happened, but clearly, a change in leadership that, absent the fundamental democratic reforms necessary to give people their free will and their ability to pick their own leaders, won’t be a fundamental change for Cuba.

QUESTION: So this is not enough; they still need to do more if they want to, one, improve the state of their country and, two, repair relations with the United States?

MR. VENTRELL: Absolutely.

Cuba Does Not Merit Terrorism Delisting

By Jose Cardenas in Foreign Policy:

Floating policy trial balloons is longstanding Washington custom. Not so common is when that balloon gets blasted out of the sky by the "senior official" leaker's own administration. That's what happened last week when the Boston Globe reported that, "High-level U.S. diplomats have concluded that Cuba should no longer be designated a state sponsor of terrorism."

Yet the ink was barely dry on that report before both the White House and State Department utterly repudiated any notion that Cuba would soon be de-listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.

As I have written in this space before, de-listing Cuba has been a long-sought goal of a die-hard cadre of critics of the United States' Cuba policy. Why? Well, it seems that the Castro regime, which was born in terrorist violence, aided and abetted it across four continents over three decades, and whose training camps produced such international luminaries as Carlos the Jackal, is upset that it continues to be listed as a state-sponsor of terrorism. And, what's more, Washington policymakers ought to be vexed by that, because it is an "obstacle" to normalized relations.

It turns out that the Globe report was simple mischief-making by some apparently inconsequential U.S. official, clearly meant to provide succor to the de-listing campaign. As was noted deeper in the story, "U.S. officials emphasized that there has not been a formal assessment concluding that Cuba should be removed from the terrorism list and said serious obstacles remain to a better relationship, especially the imprisonment of [development worker Alan] Gross."

Still, since the subject has been raised, it's worthwhile to examine just what it has taken for other countries to be removed from the state sponsors list. In 2007, Libya was de-listed after Muammar al-Qaddafi terminated his WMD program and renounced terrorism by severing ties with radical groups, closing training camps, and extraditing terrorism suspects. He also accepted responsibility for the Pan Am 103 bombing and paid compensation to the victims.

In 2008, in a controversial decision, the Bush administration de-listed North Korea for progress that was being made on ending the country's nuclear program.

Clearly, removal from the list usually follows some pro-active, game-changing actions by a country.  What pro-active measures has Cuba ever adopted? The answer is none. Just being too broke to support terrorism anymore hardly merits any action on the U.S. part.

Moreover, according to the law, before de-listing, an administration must not only certify to Congress that a country has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period, but that it has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.

In Cuba's case, even if relevant U.S. agencies can conclude that the Castro regime has not provided material support for a terrorist act in the last six months -- that is, apart from its terrorizing of its own people, which continues apace -- where is the regime's public renouncement of its past support for international terrorism and assurance that it will not support any acts in the future?

Is even that too much to demand? Of course, it is. The Castro regime will not issue any such statement because it doesn't believe it has done anything wrong since 1959. They maintain that they are the victims of U.S. policy and are deserving of all the concessions, without any quid pro quo. The regime can no more renounce terrorism than renounce their totalitarian state -- and that is why they belong on the terrorism list until they give the U.S. government a real reason to be taken off.

Today on "From Washington al Mundo"

Tune in today to "From Washington al Mundo" for a discussion on U.S.-Japan relations with the Asia Society's Jamie Metzl, former Director for Multilateral and Humanitarian Affairs at the National Security Council and Deputy Staff Director for then Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden.

Then, former Wall Street Journal publisher and Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Karen Elliot House on her new book, "On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion and Fault Lines."

From Lesotho, The Atlantic's Neal Emery on the historic transformation of Rwanda's health care system.

And PETA's Ashley Byrne on the international trafficking of exotic animals.

You can listen to "From Washington al Mundo" seven-days a week on Sirius-XM's Cristina Radio (Channel 146) from 4-5 p.m. (EST) and again at midnight (EST).

What CNN's Candy Crowley Didn't Ask Leahy

During an interview with CNN's "State of the Union," U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who just returned from a visit with Cuban dictator Raul Castro, said it will require "give and take on both sides" and "quiet negotiation" to secure the release of American development worker, Alan Gross.

CNN's Candy Crowley nodded along as Senator Leahy criticized U.S. policy, but here's what she failed to ask:

1. Upon Alan Gross's imprisonment in December 2009, the Obama Administration engaged the Castro regime in "quiet negotiations" and unilaterally eased sanctions in January 2011.  How much more "giving" is required before there's a "take-away"?

2. Since Raul Castro has been dictator-in-chief, repression in Cuba has dramatically risen, with political arrests reaching historic highs.  Did you express your concern to Castro about the rise in violence and repression by his regime?

3. Today, 56 peaceful female pro-democracy advocates, known as "The Ladies in White," and over 50 others, were arrested for peacefully demonstrating in Havana.  Did you meet with the Ladies in White while in Havana?  Did you meet with any pro-democracy leaders or activists?  Why not?

4. In February 2012, you took a similar trip to Havana, where you met with Cuban dictator Raul Castro and similarly wined and dined with senior regime officials -- to no avail.  How was this trip any different?

5. Pursuant to the murder of four Americans by the Castro regime seventeen-years ago today, you voted against any repercussions towards the Cuban dictatorship   Today, you feel the same way about the unjustified taking of an American hostage.  At what point should the Castro brothers be held accountable for their criminal acts?  How come you didn't feel the same way about the democratically-elected government in Colombia, to whom you consistently blocked aid for human rights violations?

In My Humble Opinion, Pt. 41

Sunday, February 24, 2013
Can someone tell me who "elected" Raul Castro to a first or second term as "President," as some foreign news bureaus in Havana reported?

Moreover -- here's a novel idea -- how about letting the Cuban people choose their "new generation" of leaders?

In The Miami Herald:

Cuban President Raúl Castro said Sunday he will retire in five years and anointed 52-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel as his new No. 2, signaling the start of a long and desperately awaited transition to a younger leadership in the communist ruled-island [...]

But Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy political action committee, was less impressed. “It’s fascinating how everyone is closely watching and speculating on the closed circus show of a totalitarian dictatorship, where all of the positions are powerless smoke-screens, subject to the whim of two men named Castro.”

Shocking News: Raul Castro to Remain Cuba's Dictator

While Cuba "experts" stare at blank television sets awaiting the end of Castro's National Assembly meeting -- as it's closed to the media -- let us give you a quick preview.

Raul Castro will remain Cuba's dictator. 

Moreover, Cuba will remain a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by the Castro brothers.

The first item leaked out for "experts" to entertain themselves with -- Esteban Lazo, an old-time Communist, will replace Ricardo Alarcon, an old-time Communist, as the new powerless head of Castro's National Assembly.

Also, Miguel Diaz-Canel, an errand boy for Raul Castro, will serve on the Council of State, flanked by a bunch of Generals.

Diaz-Canel is the latest version of Roberto Robaina, Carlos Lage, Felipe Perez-Roque and Carlos Valenciaga -- the expendable younger smoke-screen for the island's octogenarian leaders.

And tomorrow morning everything will remain the same.

Meanwhile, on the streets of Havana, over 56 Ladies in White were violently arrested for peacefully commemorating the three-year anniversary of the death of pro-democracy activist Orlando Zapata Tamayo and the seventeenth anniversary of the murder of four young Brothers to the Rescue pilots.

An Act of Terrorism

Saturday, February 23, 2013
Seventeen-years later -- justice awaits.

From the final judgment by Senior U.S. District Judge Lawrence King in the civil lawsuit against the Castro regime and the Cuban Air Force (FAR):

The government of Cuba, on February 24th 1996, in outrageous contempt for international law and basic human rights, murdered four human beings in international airspace over the Florida Straits. The victims were Brothers to the Rescue pilots, flying two civilian unarmed planes on a routine humanitarian mission, searching for rafters in the waters between Cuba and the Florida Keys.

As the civilian planes flew over international waters, a Russian built MiG 29 of the Cuban Air Force, without warning, reason, or provocation blasted the defenseless planes out of the sky with sophisticated air-to-air missiles in two separate attacks. The pilots and their aircraft disintegrated in the mid-air explosions following the impact of the missiles. The destruction was so complete that the four bodies were never recovered.


As regards the criminal case:

In August 2003, a federal grand jury returned the indictment against General Ruben Martinez Puente, who at the time headed the Cuban Air Force, and fighter pilots Lorenzo Alberto Perez-Perez and Francisco Perez-Perez. The defendants were charged with four counts of murder, one count of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and two counts of destruction of aircraft.

And Cuban dictators Fidel and Raul Castro admitting they gave the order:

AI on Cuba’s Repressive Legal Framework

From Amnesty International's periodic review, which was released last week:

Promotion and protection of human rights

With respect to advancing the promotion and protection of human rights, Amnesty International notes that Cuba’s repressive legal framework - limiting the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and movement - remains unchanged.

Cuba has also yet to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which Cuba signed in February 2008. At the time of the Human Rights Council’s adoption of the outcome of Cuba’s first review, Cuba noted that it needed sufficient time to assess the provisions of the Covenants and its own political and judicial system to ensure their compatibility.

In practice, Amnesty International has noted that respect for fundamental human rights has not progressed in Cuba since its first review. In fact, during this period, repression of the peaceful exercise of civil and political rights has increased. Independent journalists, human rights activists and political opponents have often been harassed by state security services, and some have been detained and sentenced. Moreover, there has been a steady increase in the number of arbitrary detentions since 2009.

Cooperation with UN special procedures and treaty bodies

Regarding the recommendation supported by Cuba to strengthen its cooperation with UN Special Procedures and treaty bodies, Amnesty International acknowledges Cuba’s efforts to submit periodic reports to the treaty bodies.

However, Cuba has shown no commitment to working with UN Special Procedures; a visit of the Special Rapporteur on torture was agreed in 2009, but has not yet gone ahead. So far, Cuba has failed to issue an invitation to the Special Rapporteur on freedom of association and assembly, who requested to visit in 2003 and again in 2011, or to the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion, who requested to visit in 2006.

Application of the standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners

Amnesty International receives regular reports that could indicate a breach of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, including ill-treatment of common and political prisoners. The organization has concerns based on interviews with former prisoners of conscience who were released between 2009 and 2011; however, it is unable to verify the validity of current reports first hand. For this reason, Amnesty International believes that it is paramount that Cuba allows the Special Rapporteur on torture to visit the country and have unrestricted access to the prison population.

Pro-Castro Group Takes Aim at Menendez

Friday, February 22, 2013
This morning, journalist Tracey Eaton wrote a post in his blog, Along the Malecon, about Dr. Salomon Melgen and the Federal Aviation Administration.

It was clearly an indirect hit-piece on U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ).

There was no mention of Cuba or Cuba policy, which is the focus of Eaton's blog.

Eaton is a generally thoughtful person.  He's done some great interviews with Cuban pro-democracy activists on and off the island. However, his main focus (or target) are democracy programs, which he feels are secretive and he's strongly opposed to.

We disagree, but fair enough. Yet, today's post seemed out of his usual context.

Then, a few hours later, the weekly "news blast" from The Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) came out.

Curiously, in a week full of interesting Cuba news -- Senator Leahy's delegation in Havana (and an Iranian one), blogger Yoani Sanchez's trip to Brazil, human rights activist Rosa Maria Paya's speech in Geneva, the state-sponsors of terrorism debate -- it was focused on Dr. Melgen and the FAA (FAA).

And then, the kicker:  "In 'Doctor now flying under the radar,' Tracey Eaton, an investigative reporter with whom our organization is working, has posted a detailed piece about Dr. Melgen..."

The Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) is a Washington, D.C.-based group, with "unique" access to Castro regime officials, which hosts trips to Cuba for Members of Congress and their staff. They also serve as a public relations tool for the Cuban dictatorship, whether in leading effort to release the so-called "Cuban Five," to unconditionally normalization relations, to sweeping human rights abuses under the rug.

By the way, we don't use the "pro-Castro" label loosely -- here's CDA's Assistant Director lauding Fidel Castro "as an inspiration for developing countries," praising Che Guevara as "Latin America's greatest 20th century hero," validating Castro's "elections," explaining how to "revitalize" socialism in Cuba and inviting everyone to join the "Bolivarian Revolution."

They are now obviously targeting Senator Menendez, who is a strong opponent of Castro's dictatorship.

Now back to Tracey.

Why not disclose to your readers that you are working with this pro-Castro group on Menendez hit pieces?

You don't have to.  After all, it's a free country and -- as a private citizen -- you can write, disclose or not disclose, whatever you'd like.

But then spare us the sanctimony.

UPDATE: Tracey Easton has posted a clarification here.

Paya's Widow Receives Death Threat

Ofelia Paya, the widow of Cuban pro-democracy leader Oswaldo Paya, who died in mysterious car crash last year, is having her life threatened by the Castro regime's secret police.

According to her daughter, Rosa Maria, who was in Geneva earlier this week denouncing the human rights violations of the Castro regime:

Tweet of the Week

By famed Brazilian author Paulo Coelho:

Prominent Dissidents Differ From Yoani on Sanctions

Thursday, February 21, 2013
In an interview today from Havana, two prominent Cuban pro-democracy leaders -- and former political prisoners -- differed from renowned blogger Yoani Sanchez, who they respect and consider a friend, in her critique of U.S. sanctions toward Cuba.

Hector Palacios, who has previously supported easing some purposeful travel and remittance sanctions, urged caution:
I think the first reform that any Cuban who leaves the island should ask the world is to demand that the Cuban government recognizes the opposition.  If the Cuban opposition is not recognized, there can't be a dialogue, so there's no use in talking about lifting the embargo. [Yoani] would need to have spent some time in political prison to understand that it would be of no use for the U.S. to lift its embargo toward the Cuban government, unless beforehand, the regime lifts its embargo toward the Cuban people.  
And Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, who has consistently opposed unilaterally lifting any sanctions toward the Cuban regime stated:
The lifting of the embargo would only benefit the dictatorship -- it would strengthen it.  During the Soviet years, the Cuban government received between $5-6 billion per year, while Cubans still lived in misery.  It is not due to stubbornness [that I've reached this conclusion], but because my life experience has demonstrated to me that is the case.

Council of the Americas Inconvenienced by the Rule of Law

Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama stated in an interview with New Republic:

"I continue to believe that whenever we can codify something through legislation, it is on firmer ground. It's not going to be reversed by a future president. It is something that will be long lasting and sturdier and more stable."

President Obama is right.

It is for this reason that -- in 1996 and 2000 -- the U.S. Congress codified clear conditions on human rights, democratic reform and the dismantling of the Castro regime's repressive apparatus before any trade and travel sanctions can be lifted.

The Council of the Americas' "Cuba Working Group" disagrees.

In a "white-paper" this week, the Council of the Americas urges the President to disregard codification and unilaterally change U.S. law.

According to its author,"[O]ur hands are tied by an antiquated law that’s being too strictly interpreted."

Wonder if he feels the same way about the U.S. Constitution?

Since 1996, State, Treasury and Congressional lawyers have all agreed on the codification of U.S. sanctions and the explicit limits placed on the Executive Branch's authority to suspend or terminate it without Congressional approval.

Why? Because the codification language is very clear.

Moreover, if any doubts remain, there is a pesky bit of American jurisprudence called legislative intent to confirm it.

(For non-lawyers, legislative intent is the design, plan or purpose that the legislature had in drafting, and enacting a particular statute.)

It states:

"It is the intent of the committee of conference that all economic sanctions in force on March 1, 1996, shall remain in effect until they are either suspended or terminated pursuant to the authorities provided in section 204 of this Act (requiring a Presidential determination that a democratic transition is under way in Cuba)."

And what are these sanctions?

"The committee of conference modified the definition of 'economic embargo of Cuba' to include all statutes or regulations relating to trade, travel, and transactions involving Cuban assets imposed under section 620(a) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, section 5(b) of the Trading with the Enemy Act, the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, section 902(c) of the Food Security Act of 1985, or any other provision of law. It is the intent of the committee that this definition be interpreted broadly, in part, in order to ensure that the suspension or termination of any economic sanctions on Cuba be pursuant only to the authority granted in section 204 of this Act."

And if you still have some doubt, ask the original conferees of the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, who are still in Congress today -- namely, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), U.S. Rep Peter King (R-NY) and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).

Not so, says the Council of the Americas.

Thus, their crackpot team of unnamed lawyers have assembled a whole new interpretation (17-years later) that incredulously gives the President the authority to create new travel categories and commercial exceptions -- thereby terminating existing prohibitions.

As a reminder to these legal phenoms, the last travel and commercial exception created (post-codification) was in 2000, when agriculture and medicine sales (and travel related to these sales) were authorized.

This was done through an Act of Congress -- the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (TSREEA). 

Why?

Because codification required it.

President Bill Clinton would have liked to do it himself at the time, but he did not have the legal authority to do so.

Bottom line: If the Council of the Americas or anyone else wants to change U.S. law, then persuade Congress to do so.

It's that simple.

We live in an open and democratic system that grants us that right.

But apparently that's too burdensome for them, as it requires too much discourse, debate and hard-work.

So instead -- why not just ask the President to twist and bend the law? 

That's something more worthy of a Chavez, Correa or Morales.

Whatever happened to the Council of the Americas "commitment" to the rule of law in the Western Hemisphere?

Is that also open to a new interpretation?

It seems that in the Council of the Americas' zealousness to change U.S. policy toward Cuba -- recall its founder David Rockefeller has wined and dined Cuban dictator Fidel Castro -- it has sadly lost its way.

WH: No Cuba Policy Changes Under Consideration

From today's White House Press Briefing with Jay Carney:

Q. Jay, the Boston Globe had a story today that the State Department is considering taking -- reviewing whether or not Cuba should be on the terror list.  What’s the White House’s discussions on that?

MR. CARNEY:  We have no changes in our approach or policy to Cuba to announce or under consideration that I’m aware of.

Q . Are you saying, then, that there’s not consideration of --

MR. CARNEY:  Again, not that I’m aware of.

Q . -- of taking Cuba off of the terrorism list?

MR. CARNEY:  That’s right.  I’m not aware of any.

Q . Has the White House or NSC?

MR. CARNEY:  Correct.

Q.  Okay.  And have you had any conversations with Senator Leahy, who’s been down in Cuba, and his delegation had met with the detained American, Alan Gross?

MR. CARNEY:  I don’t know that -- I certainly haven’t and I don’t know if anybody in the administration has.  The President, as you know, has followed Mr. Gross’s case with concern and urges his release.  The Cuban government should release Alan Gross and return him to his family where he belongs.

Mr. Gross is in his fourth year of unjustified imprisonment in Cuba.  He was arrested on December 3, 2009, and later given a 15-year prison sentence by Cuban authorities for simply facilitating communications between Cuba’s Jewish community and the rest of the world.

Mr. Gross is a 63-year-old husband, father, and dedicated professional with a long history of providing assistance and support to underserved communities in more than 50 countries.  Again, we call on the Cuban government to release Mr. Gross.

State: No Current Plans to Remove Cuba From Terrorism List‏

From today's State Department Daily Press Briefing with Spokesperson Victoria Nuland:

QUESTION: There are reports today that Secretary Kerry is in discussions on possibly removing Cuba from the state sponsor terror list. Can you comment on that?

MS. NULAND: I saw that report. Let me say firmly here it is incorrect. This Department has no current plans to remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list.

QUESTION: And why not?

MS. NULAND: We review this every year, and at the current moment we – when the last review was done in 2012, we didn’t see cause to remove them. We’ll obviously look at it again this year, but as I said, we don’t have any plans at the moment.

QUESTION: Sorry, really quick, can you just give a little bit more of an explanation of what exactly are the – what makes a country – I mean, what are the specifications for a country being on the state sponsor of terror?

MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve talked about this before here. There’s a limit to what I can get into because it takes me into intelligence. But we do – we are required to look at these lists every year and to judge countries individually against the standards in the legislation. And we did that in 2012. We’ll obviously have to do it again in 2013.

Another "Quid Pro Nihilo" For Castro?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013
If a report in The Boston Globe is true, the Obama Administration is preparing another "quid pro nihilo" ("something for nothing")  to reward the Castro regime's criminal behavior.

The Obama Administration's response to the hostage taking of American development worker, Alan Gross, in December 2009 has been high-level negotiations -- first a trip by then Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson -- and then a unilateral easing of travel sanctions in January 2011.

More than three years later, Alan Gross remains in a Cuban prison.

Yet, according to The Boston Globe, the Obama Administration is now considering removing Cuba's designation as a "state-sponsor of terrorism."

That would be another major unilateral concession for the Castro regime, which in addition to holding an American hostage, has also dramatically increased its repression against Cuban democracy activists.

Of course, much of the information in The Boston Globe's story comes from Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA),  whose name was infamously found all over FARC terrorist computers by the Colombian government -- so he's not the best judge of what entails terrorism.

And note that the State Department's unnamed "source" covers his/her rear by stating:

"US officials emphasized that there has not been a formal assessment concluding that Cuba should be removed from the terrorism list and said serious obstacles remain to a better relationship, especially the imprisonment of Gross."

Such a unilateral concession would be scandalous.

Ironically, the comparison being given for taking Cuba off the "state-sponsor of terrorism" list is the Bush Administration's mistake of delisting North Korea in 2008.

Because apparently that has worked wonders in tempering the North Korean regime's criminal behavior.

Yoani is Not Infallible

Yoani Sanchez is a talented and courageous democracy activist and journalist.

Her compelling critiques of the Castro dictatorship have even awakened the most virulent anti-American left to consider Cuba's tragic reality.

That is great news for the cause of freedom.

Yoani deserves our respect and admiration.

However, her words are her testimony -- a powerful one at that.  

They are neither scripture nor heresy.

As Professor Andy Gomez of The University of Miami said in today's Miami Herald, "She’s not a politician; she’s not an academic; she’s not a public figure by design and people abroad have made her into a public figure. She’s one of the many — many dissidents on the island. I hope she doesn't burn out."

Of course, opponents of U.S. policy towards Cuba -- both the well-intentioned and the Castro apologists -- are (once again) trying to use her opposition to sanctions to further their agenda.

They did the same thing in 2010 when Congress was considering legislation to ease travel and agricultural financing sanctions toward Cuba (the "Peterson-Berman bill").

At the time, they procured a letter from Yoani and 73 other dissidents opposing sanctions.

This letter was countered by another one signed by nearly 500 dissidents on the island supporting sanctions.

That didn't turn Yoani and the 500 dissidents that publicly disagreed with her into foes. To the contrary, when Yoani has been in trouble, they have sought to help her -- and vice-versa.

That's democracy in a bubble. It's a respectful disagreement among colleagues.

Today, in Brazil, Yoani extended a flawed rationale for lifting sanctions -- that it gets rid of an "excuse" for Castro -- to releasing five Cuban agents serving time in U.S. federal prison for conspiracy to commit murder and espionage.  She was also cornered into advocating for the closing of the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo.

Policy-making is not about getting rid of "excuses" for tyrants, for they will simply come up with another one.  Moreover, such decisions have serious implications and deserve more than a frivolous rationale.

Yoani's comment regarding the five Cuban spies was particularly ill-timed, as February 24th is the 17th anniversary of the shoot-down of two civilian planes by Castro's MIGs, which pulverized four young pilots. Some of the convicted spies were implicated in these murders.

As a mother herself, Yoani should know better. The mothers of those four young pilots lost their sons forever.

Perhaps Yoani will reconsider. Give her some time. She's not infallible.

UPDATE:  In a message to The Miami Herald, Yoani has just written, "At no time in Brazil did I ask for the liberation of the five members of (Castro's) Ministry of the Interior. I was using irony to make the point that if they were freed, then Cuba would save the millions it wastes on [the "Free the Five"] campaign that's been ongoing for fifteen years. If my irony didn't work, if my nervousness or my terms didn't make the message clear, please forgive me. My position remains that they are not innocent. Hugs from Sao Paulo, Yoani Sanchez."

Kudos.

A Third Paya Confidant Killed in a Car Crash

Antonio Rodriguez, a leader of Cuba's opposition Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) and confidant of its deceased leader Oswaldo Paya, was killed in a mysterious car crash yesterday.

Traveling with him were two Jesuit priests, who survived the crash and are currently in stable condition.

Last year, Oswaldo Paya, founder of the MCL, and activist Harold Cepero, were also killed in a mysterious car crash.

As Paya's daughter denounced yesterday in Geneva:

"My dear father, Oswaldo Payá, and my young friend Harold Cepero gave their lives fighting peacefully against "Fraudulent Change" and for the freedom of all Cubans.  My family, the MCL and many people do not believe that their deaths were accidental.  My father received many death threats during his life, which increased in the last months of his life.  We received a mobile text message from Madrid that told us that his car was hit by another car.  And much of the information suggests that their deaths were provoked intentionally.  We are asking for your support of our request for an international investigation into their deaths."

As the old saying goes, "Two is a coincidence. Three is a trend."

Rest in Peace.

Today on "From Washington al Mundo"

Tune in today to "From Washington al Mundo" for a conversation on drones with John McLaughlin, former Acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Then, a look at the upcoming Italian elections with the Christian Science Monitor's Nathan Gardels.

Dr. Hubertus Hoffman, author of "The Keeper of the Holy Flame: The Legacy of Pentagon Strategist and Mentor Dr. Fritz Kraemer," on his latest book.

And Birgitta Jonsdottir, Member of the Icelandic Parliament, on the Nordic country's proposal to ban Internet pornography.

You can listen to "From Washington al Mundo" seven-days a week on Sirius-XM's Cristina Radio (Channel 146) from 4-5 p.m. (EST) and again at midnight (EST).

Leahy Leaves Cuba "Empty-Handed"

Reuters' headline speaks for itself:

"U.S. congressional delegation leaves Cuba empty-handed"

Not really though.

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and his snowbird colleagues escaped the cold, got to have some fancy meals in the regime's finest restaurants and gave General Raul Castro another great photo-op (below).

Sure sounds a lot like Senator Leahy's February 2012 pilgrimage to Havana.

Here's the full story:

A U.S. congressional delegation left Cuba on Wednesday after meetings with President Raul Castro and other top officials, but no sign the countries had resolved their latest dispute: the fate of imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross.

Delegation members and their staff said they were encouraged by the relaxed tone of their meetings and indications the Cuban side wanted the dialogue to continue.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont canceled a news conference scheduled for Wednesday morning before taking a stroll with his wife in downtown Havana then leaving for Haiti.

"We met with President Raul Castro and discussed the continuing obstacles and the need to improve relations between our two countries," he said in a brief statement.

What the Leahy Delegation Chooses to Ignore

Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Today, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) met -- once again -- with Cuban dictator Raul Castro.  

First by himself.  Then, with the rest of the Congressional delegation joining him.

The meeting was encapsulated in a press release by the Castro regime, which aimed to show how these American visitors went to Cuba to pay him homage and to unconditionally improve relations with his dictatorship.

Ironically, also today, Cuban pro-democracy leader Antonio Rodiles and the Estado de Sats civil society project released an analysis of the human rights situation in Cuba during the last five years.

(Of course, the Leahy delegation has no made time to meet with Rodiles, The Ladies in White or any other courageous pro-democracy activist on the island.)

Thus, the following paragraph in Estado de Sats's analysis couldn't be more timely and appropriate:

"It is incomprehensible how democratic governments can embrace a totalitarian regime principally responsible for the disaster that our nation is living. The Cuban people have the right to live -- to live and to feel proud about their homeland. Why not listen to them? Why allow the repression and national ruin caused by this regime to be covered by a cloak of absurd and outdated rhetoric?"

Fancy Lunch for Leahy Delegation

According to AP:

[U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy] and other members of the delegation were seen entering an upscale restaurant in Old Havana along with [Cuban] Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez on Tuesday.

How much do you want to bet that one of the delegation members will come back and discuss how they dined at a "private" restaurant to showcase Raul's "reforms"?

What they won't tell you is that the restaurant is likely owned by a regime official, particularly in Old Havana, where every enterprise must be personally "approved" by Castro bagman, Eusebio Leal.

Must-Read: Speech by Oswaldo Paya's Daughter

Remarks today by Rosa Maria Paya at the 5th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy:

My country is in a deteriorated and unstable situation. My people have suffered the lack of human rights for many decades already. My family has been directly affected and attacked; I think is time to stop. It is time to change and an every day there is a growing group of Cubans working to make change a reality.

At the same time, the Cuban government has developed a series of legal reforms and public messages designed to preserve its power and authority.  These reforms do not guarantee citizen's rights.  Thus, this is "Fraudulent Change."

I want to be clear about something: the lack of human rights is the principle reason for the suffering, poverty and social problems of our people. Cubans, like all human beings, need to be free to be prosperous. Europe is the proof that a country doesn't have to choose between being economically successful or being a state of rights. And Cuba is neither of the two things.

In 2007, my father and the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL, in Spanish) delivered a legal initiative called the Heredia Project to the National Assembly (the Cuban Parliament).  This project, as well as the Varela Project (which is supported by more than 25,000 citizens), calls for fundamental rights that are grounded in a few articles of the Cuban Constitution, but are violated in law and practice.

Now, The Christian Liberation Movement which is our movement, as well as other organizations in the opposition, are collecting signatures in support of the Heredia Project's call for legal changes.  Coincidentally, some of the reforms which the government promotes are precisely in some of the areas in which the Heredia Project has called for reform. In each case, the new laws, far from giving power to the people, have been designed so that the government retains the last word.  These laws, not only confirm the government's control, they also maintain the discrimination against the Cuban citizens.

For instance, the reform of the immigration laws eliminated the exit permit (permiso de salida), but added a list of requirements to receive the actualized passport.  The government continues deciding who may enter or leave the island.  So it is a procedural change and not an actual recognition of the right to travel that all people have because of their human condition. And this is just one representative example. This time, I could get out, but other Cubans couldn’t and still can’t.

The Heredia Project has hundreds of activists in different provinces of the country and from different organizations of the opposition.  It forms part of the Path of the People, which is a proposal that is welcomed and supported by the majority of the Cuban democratic movement.  The Path of the People demands fundamental rights which the Cuban people lack and suggests steps to obtain them.  It also expresses the fact that the opposition in Cuba is united in its objectives.

As the vision of the Path of the People states: “it is only up to us Cubans to define and decide what changes our society needs and to accomplish our national project.” As my father said: Nobody, not a state, nor a market, could take precedence over the freedom of a person and the decisions of a people.

We don´t want and we don’t need to depend on anybody.  Not on Venezuela, not on the United States.  What we need is to be free.

Free to dream, free to decide, free to love, free to make, free to build with our imaginations and our efforts the society that we, the Cuban people, choose.

The Path of the People also says: Yet, for our citizens to truly design, decide and build their future, their rights must be guaranteed by law and a trustful and respectful environment must be attained. Only by doing so, will we engage in a genuine national dialogue and launch an inclusive process of legal reform to preserve the advances that the people have achieved and to exercise the people’s sovereign right to change that which the people decide to change.

So, our demand is for the right of all Cubans to exercise their fundamental rights and to have free elections.  We need political support for these and the other demands which are contained in the Path of the People and this is the support that we expect from all of you.

Otherwise, the Cuban Government will continue to increase its repression against political activists. The leaders of the Heredia Project in the whole country are always under the watch and oppression of State Security. Other opposition groups and independent journalists are also suffering the government's hostility. The Cuban Democratic Movement is entirely peaceful and it is being confronted by force and in many cases with violence.

As my father said: The heroic Cuban civic fighters, the citizens who signed the Varela Project, are not carrying arms. We do not have a single weapon. We are holding out both arms, offering our hands to all Cubans, as brothers, and to all the peoples of the world. The first victory we can claim is that we do not have hate in our hearts. We therefore say to those who persecute and try to dominate us: you are my brother, I do not hate you, but you are no longer going to dominate me through fear, I do not want to impose my truth, and I do not want you to impose yours, let us seek the truth together.

My dear father, Oswaldo Payá, and my young friend Harold Cepero gave their lives fighting peacefully against "Fraudulent Change" and for the freedom of all Cubans.  My family, the MCL and many people do not believe that their deaths were accidental.  My father received many death threats during his life, which increased in the last months of his life.  We received a mobile text message from Madrid that told us that his car was hit by another car.  And much of the information suggests that their deaths were provoked intentionally.  We are asking for your support of our request for an international investigation into their deaths.

I have fear, but my fear will not dominate me and I trust and know that more Cubans feel the same way. We have a path, so we have a hope.

U.S. and Iranian Delegations in Havana Today

A high-level Iranian delegation has arrived in Havana today to meet with Cuban dictator Raul Castro.

Considering the make-up of the Iranian delegation, it looks like some money-laundering is in the works. 

Meanwhile, a U.S. Congressional delegation led by U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) is also in Havana today to meet with Cuban dictator Raul Castro. 

Guess who the joke is on?

From Iran's state media:

Iranian Vice-President for International Affairs Ali Saeedlou left Tehran for Havana on Tuesday in a bid to discuss expansion of bilateral ties with Cuban officials.

Saeedlou, heading a high-ranking delegation, is slated to meet Cuban President Raul Castro and other senior officials to discuss the issues of mutual interest and follow up on the economic projects and deals signed by the two countries' presidents. 

Several Iranian deputy ministers and bank managers are accompanying Saeedlou during his visit to Cuba.

From NK to Cuba: How to Embolden Tyrants

Last week, it was revealed that senior U.S. administration officials traveled to North Korea in 2012 to hold secret talks with the new regime of Kim Jung Un.

Apparently, they thought young Kim was a "reformer" and wanted to engage him in negotiations.

The result?

Long-range missile launches and North Korea's third nuclear test.  Not to mention unchanged brutality and repression.

Now, we have a U.S. Congressional delegation in Cuba -- led by U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) -- looking to do the same with Raul Castro.

Of course, a Congressional delegation is different from an Administration delegation, for it's not necessarily empowered with negotiation authority (per se).

But the result is the same.

It emboldens the criminal behavior of these tyrants.

Want to "pressure" the Castro regime to release American hostage Alan Gross?

Then just cut off the non-essential travel spigot.

Yes, some "people-to-people" travelers would have to miss their salsa lessons and mojito binges -- but it would be worth it.

Senator Leahy's Winter Pilgrimage to Havana

Monday, February 18, 2013
After a visit to Havana in February of last year, which accomplished absolutely nothing (other than a great photo-op for General Raul Castro), U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) is back in Cuba today. 

This time, he's accompanied by the leading Republican advocate for unconditionally embracing the brutal Castro dictatorship, U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

Also joining Leahy are snowbird Senators Sherrod Brown from Ohio, Debbie Stabenow from Michigan and Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island, as well as the FARC's favorite Congressman Jim McGovern from Massachusetts and Chris Van Hollen from Maryland.

Once again, they'll do the same thing Leahy, Flake and McGovern have done on multiple other visits:

They'll meet with Cuba's repressors -- through which they legitimize and further embolden their beatings, kidnappings, torture, hostage-takings and murders -- then take another picture.

All while accomplishing absolutely nothing for the Cuban people.

But at least its warmer than in Vermont, Ohio, Michigan, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island or Washington, D.C.

Yoani Ready for "Information War"

From The Miami Herald's Editorial Board:

Free to embrace ‘shower of democracy’

OUR OPINION: Cuba’s most famous blogger, Yoani Sánchez, arrived in Brazil ready for ‘information war’

After 20 unsuccessful tries in five years, Yoani Sánchez, Cuba’s most famous blogger, is free.

She is among the first opposition journalists to be approved for travel under Raúl Castro’s new rules that eliminated the exit permit, which until last month had been required of all Cuban citizens by Fidel Castro’s revolution for five decades. Of course, Cuban authorities aren’t giving the green light to all Cubans. The dictatorship can still nix travel plans for certain Cubans, such as doctors, claiming it’s a matter of “national security.”

Indeed, several other Cuban dissidents and opposition leaders have not been allowed to travel outside Cuba. But Ms. Sánchez’s international acclaim — she has won various prestigious awards for her blog posts about life in Cuba, including named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2008 — made it tough for Cuban officials to turn down her request to travel. It would have once again exposed the blunt fine print in Cuba’s so-called liberalized travel rules.

So now Ms. Sánchez has a three-month permit to travel. For the first time, she will be able to post her blog without having to send it surreptitiously to friends abroad for posting to bypass the Cuban government’s censors. On arrival in Brazil, she was embraced by supporters and predictably blasted by pro-Castro leftist protesters.

No matter. Ms. Sánchez, who lived for a short time in Switzerland in 2002 where she learned computer science before returning to Cuba to find she couldn’t leave again, sent out a tweet Monday after arriving in the northeastern city of Recife and later Salvador, Brazil:

“At the arrival many friends were welcoming me and other people yelling insults. I wish it would be the same in Cuba. Long live freedom!” she told her 409,000-plus followers on Twitter. (The irony is not lost that her followers are abroad because Cuba blocks her posts so that Cubans cannot see them.)

She called the protests, which some Brazilian newspaper reports say are being coordinated with the Cuban regime, “a shower of democracy and pluralism,” once again focusing on what makes a nation free: the power of the individual to protest.

“The Recife airport was a place for embraces,” she wrote on Twitter. “There were flowers, gifts and even a group of people insulting me which, I confess, I really enjoyed, because it allowed me to say that I dream that ‘one day people in my country will be able to express themselves against something publicly like this, without reprisals.’

“Later I also looked at an Internet so fast I could barely understand it, without censored pages and without officials looking over my shoulder at the pages I visit.”

There will be many stops ahead for the 37-year-old activist-writer who has made her Generation Y blog an international phenomenon. From the Czech Republic and Spain to Mexico and Peru, with New York and Florida on the itinerary, too, Ms. Sánchez is well-prepared for the protesters trying to defame her by suggesting she is “financed by the CIA.”

Asked about copies of U.S. dollar bills thrown at her by protesters and their cries of alleged CIA links — all coordinated by Cuban diplomats, according to a story published by Brazil’s influential magazine, Veja — Ms. Sánchez took it in with her usual calm.

“That doesn’t surprise me, it’s part of an information war,” she said.

Cuba’s most famous blogger knows of what she speaks.

Today on "From Washington al Mundo"

Tune in today to "From Washington al Mundo" for a conversation with Steve Finch, The Diplomat's Asia correspondent, on the widespread crackdown on dissent in Vietnam.

Then, Victor Gaetan, The National Catholic Register's international correspondent, on the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.

Kate Brannen, Politico's Defense reporter, on President Obama's announced plan to withdraw 34,000 troops from Afghanistan this year.

And Ivan Osorio, The Competitive Enterprise Institute's editorial director, on the prospects for a United States-European Union free trade agreement.

You can listen to "From Washington al Mundo" seven-days a week on Sirius-XM's Cristina Radio (Channel 146) from 4-5 p.m. (EST) and again at midnight (EST).

Quote of the Month

Unfortunately, in Cuba you are punished for thinking differently. Opinions against the government have terrible consequences, arbitrary arrests, surveillance... There is a difference between the reforms we dream of and the reforms that are being carried out. We dream of freedom of association, freedom of expression, but it does not look like we will get this too soon.
-- Yoani Sanchez, renowned Cuban blogger during her visit to Brazil, Reuters, 2/18/13

A Sober and a Drunken Letter to the Editor

Sunday, February 17, 2013
A sober Letter to the Editor of The Boston Globe:

I do not doubt that the Feb. 9 editorial on Cuba and Fidel Castro is well intended (“Cuba’s reforms pave way for new US policy, too”). But it only covers one side of the picture. The editorial seems to forget Castro is a criminal who has imposed an iron rule in Cuba for more than 50 years. Many thousands of innocent people have been imprisoned or killed, and the economy of this beautiful island has been destroyed.

Further, Castro has constantly attempted to export his communist revolution to other countries, such as Venezuela. Castro’s first attempts were thwarted, but recently, under Hugo Chavez, Venezuela is short of becoming a Cuban colony. Through Chavez, Castro also has his hands in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, and is developing dangerous ties with Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

This should worry the United States, but apparently there are still people who support the opening of relations with Castro. I say yes to Cuba, but no to Castro.

Eduardo J. Santaella
Boston

And a drunken one (from a "people-to-people" traveler oblivious to Cuba's repressive reality, aka, the "mojito" view):

As I sat in an old hangout of Castro and Hemingway, the El Floridita bar, smoking one of their finest cigars and sipping a Mojito, I had to wonder: How different are we all really? And why can’t we get beyond our 1950s mentality toward a former enemy and start to do what is right to make positive changes for Cuba and America?

Stephen M. Berniche
Winchester, N.H.

Quote of the Week

Ironically, Fidel Castro knows more about our president than the Venezuelans do.
-- Federica Romer, 19, a Venezuelan university student who has been among those protesting outside the Cuban embassy in Caracas, AP, 2/17/13.

Cuban Prisoner Dies in Hunger Strike

Cuban democracy activists are denouncing the death of Roberto Antonio Rivalta Junco, who had been on a 38-day hunger strike protesting his imprisonment.

Rivalta Junco had been held without judicial proceedings.

Until yesterday, he had been secluded in a small punishment cell, where he was denied medical treatment.

Such cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners is the reason why the Castro regime doesn't allow the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Organization Against Torture to inspect Cuba's prisons.

To add insult to injury, three democracy activists have just been arrested for trying to attend Rivalta Junco's funeral service.  They are Damaris Moya , Yanoisi Contrera and Maday Garcia.