Video: Dissidents Brutally Beaten

Saturday, January 19, 2013
The Castro regime's secret police brutally assaulted a group of dissidents who tried to gather in the cemetery to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the death -- pursuant to a hunger strike -- of former political prisoner Wilman Villar Mendoza.

The victims were members of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU), a pro-democracy group in the eastern provinces led by former political prisoner Jose Daniel Ferrer.

The secret police attacked them with clubs and switch blades.

Below is a video of some of the victims and their injuries.

More "reform" you can't believe in.

Must-Read: Cuba in a Time of Cholera

By Frank Calzon in America's Quarterly:

Cuba and Cholera: Good Hygiene and Good Government Can Save Lives

Almost five months ago, the Cuban government announced the end of a cholera outbreak in eastern Cuba. At the time, Cuba’s Public Health Ministry blamed the three deaths and 417 cases on overflowing toilets, heavy rains and contaminated wells. According to the government, thanks to its prompt reaction and the quality of the country’s public health system, the crisis ended quickly.

Just recently, on January 15, the Cuban government announced that there were “only” 51 new cases—this time in Havana.

International and independent media on the island had already reported the outbreak, with independent media doing so months ago. On January 13, the BBC reported a “cholera fear in Cuba as officials keep silent.” Likely prompted by the international attention, the next day the government published an Information Notice to the Population saying it had detected “an increase in serious diarrhea…with symptoms that lead to the suspicion of cholera.”

Lest anyone become concerned, however, the government stated in the notice that it had everything under control and an “anti-cholera plan…was immediately activated” in which the government has “all the means and resources needed.” The Information Notice offered no additional details other than to say that “due to the measures already taken, the outbreak is on its way to extinction.”

International news reports, however, belied the Cuban government’s claims. The January 13 BBC story reported that one known death had occurred “in one of the poorer and more overcrowded districts of Cuba’s capital” and that “there are increasing signs” of more cases. “Suspected cases are being sent to the Tropical Medicine Institute…All our wards are dealing with this issue—they are almost full,” an Institute employee told the BBC.

As a result of their own independent assessments, both the British Embassy and the American mission in Havana issued travel advisories earlier this week, and other embassies told the Associated Press that they were considering doing the same. The diplomats told AP they “have been concerned that the government is not sharing information with them in a timely manner”

An AP report that appeared in The Miami Herald on January 15 explained that “Cholera is a waterborne disease caused by a bacteria found in tainted water or food. It can kill within hours” and said that “it was unclear why a new outbreak was being seen in Havana. Rains, which can help spread the disease, are common in January, but the weather has been unusually dry this year.”

Blame Game

To blame the weather (as well as the United States) for all of Cuba’s misfortunes is a common practice of the Cuban authorities. Years ago, Havana claimed the United States was responsible for starting epidemics, and even a tobacco plague, years ago, but when Washington demanded proof they had nothing to show. What the repeated outbreaks and the Cuban government’s efforts to conceal them show is that the much-heralded Cuban public health system is a great sham. The regime makes a great show of sending its medical personnel abroad to countries like Venezuela and Bolivia, while closing a number of clinics and hospitals at home and sending doctors who disagree to prison.

Moreover, the persistence of cholera is also laying bear the sorry state of Cuban infrastructure, much of which has not been updated since before the revolution. Unfortunately, the international media has failed to make the connection between the disastrous conditions of Havana’s—and other cities—water and sewage systems and the cholera outbreak, as they would if they were reporting in Haiti or another country. But the truth is that thousands of Havaneros do not have access to running water, a service long since cut off to the homes of many ordinary citizens. Instead, they must patiently wait in line for the government trucks that are supposed to regularly distribute water (but rarely do) for drinking, washing and cleaning.

Today, the government insists that the tourists are fine because they all can have bottle water. But what does that mean for the country’s own citizens?

With a population more than twice what it had in 1959, Havana still depends on the same outdated water systems: its aqueduct, pumps and pipes have served the city since before the Castros came to power. Nationally, more than half of the water supply is lost due to leaks and improper maintenance, according to Cuba’s Institute of Hydraulic Resources. The government’s response? It recommends that Cubans dig their own wells for potable water.

There is also the problem of Cuba’s outdated and short-changed sewer system. The lack of maintenance of the country’s creaky system for safely disposing of human waste is made worse by pipes that dump untreated sewage directly into streams and on to shores close to populated areas. Shoreline pollution is exacerbated by official corruption and the pilfering of pipes, which results in the pollution spreading farther on land.

Months ago, dissident journalists reported several deaths attributed to cholera in neighborhoods south of Havana. The epidemic began hundreds of miles away in the city of Manzanillo, but there have been cases in other provinces.

Cuban authorities tried to blame the self-employed for the cholera and responded by prohibiting the sale of lemonade and other fruit drinks. There have been reports of closing of schools. Visitors are not allowed to visit cholera patients at various hospitals. And there are shortages of soap and cleaning products, which often can only be purchased at hard currency stores. But the majority of the population has no dollars.

Tragically, in the absence of real information and honesty on the part of the government, the only way Cubans learn about the situation and how to protect themselves is from independent media and civil society. Last summer, during the outbreak in the eastern provinces, Raúl Castro complained that dissidents and the foreign media had exaggerated the crisis. But without the independent journalists, Cubans working in the government hospitals who talk to them and foreign correspondents, the government would have been successful in covering up the epidemic.

Last Sunday, Cubans attending a number of churches were told to pay special attention to water and hygiene. But this is easier said than done: typically, three generations are forced to share a single small house or apartment. In this case, as in others, Cubans learn about developments on the island by listening to foreign broadcasts from South Florida, Dominican Republic and Colombia.

The Castro brothers, like other totalitarian rulers, rewrite history on a regular basis. But while the regime boasts about Cuba being a medical superpower Cubans continue to die of a nineteenth-century disease. The last recorded cholera epidemic in Havana took place in 1883.

Quote of the Week

If people come to this country seeking refuge and then begin traveling back to Cuba 10 to 12 times a year, it becomes difficult for us to return to Washington and justify the special status that Cubans have in comparison with the rest of the population.  That endangers the Cuban Adjustment Act.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), on the 1966 Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act,  Cafe Fuerte, 1/19/13

Preserve Democracy Programs

Friday, January 18, 2013
By Madeleine K. Albright, John Podesta, Vin Weber and Daniel F. Runde in Politico:

Preserve programs that promote democracy abroad

In recent years, we have seen citizens and activists calling for change, for increased freedoms, for democratic institutions to supplant autocratic political systems around the world. But even as new constitutions are written and some governments work to increase transparency, U.S. financial and political support for promoting democracy and accountable institutions is increasingly beleaguered at home.

Every aspect of federal spending is under tight scrutiny in Congress. And in the wake of the Iraq war, some politicians and policymakers on both sides of the aisle have assumed falsely that the small amount of money we devote to democracy promotion abroad is synonymous with armed interventions and “regime change” imposed by Washington.

But our country’s modest investments in supporting democracy reflect our moral and strategic imperatives. This isn’t the time to roll back these successful programs. Instead, we should take this opportunity to further integrate the themes of democracy and good governance into our international development dialogue.

That is why we have come together, as a bipartisan group, to make the case that any budget resolution must preserve our longstanding commitment to nurturing democracy around the globe. These initiatives and efforts are good for international development, critically important for our national security, and have historically enjoyed strong bipartisan support.

Economic and political freedoms are mutually reinforcing, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and other researchers have noted. This means democratic advances can have a powerful effect in making overall development efforts more effective. A wealth of academic research further substantiates the central importance of political freedom and sound governance in promoting long-term economic prosperity in the developing world.

Beyond the obvious economic benefits of a freer and more democratic world, working with fellow democracies has always been a cornerstone of our approach to strategic alliances. Democracy helps to create a virtuous circle of improved security, stronger economic growth, and more durable international alliances.

These and other reasons are why democracy promotion activities have always enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Ronald Reagan and a Democratic-led Congress established the National Endowment for Democracy and its core institutes, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the Solidarity Center, and Center for International Private Enterprise. Reagan argued that America was obligated to “take actions to assist the campaign for democracy” and that these actions were necessary and vital to combat the spread of communism abroad. Every president since Reagan, Republican or Democrat, has shared that view.

Certainly, the work of promoting democracy and accountable governance is often long, difficult and more prosaic than the stirring media images of protestors taking to the streets might suggest. But efforts to improve the oversight capacity of parliaments, encourage greater budget transparency, help political parties and civil society groups organize, and promote vibrant and open media are among the things our investments in democracy support.

For evidence of the results that modest, long-term, concerted democracy and governance investments can achieve, one need only look at Burma. In recent years, the government has embarked on a path of reform, releasing Nobel laureate and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and hundreds of political prisoners from jail, and establishing a National Human Rights Commission. In 2011, Suu Kyi ran for and was elected to parliament.

There is still considerable work to be done in Burma. Corruption and the relationship between the central government and ethnic minorities remain serious problems, and hundreds of political prisoners are still in jail. This is not the time to reduce democracy funding, which has aided the people of Burma, among so many other countries, in achieving new freedom.

As we know from our own history, democratic progress is untidy and uneven, but vastly superior to any alternative because it reflects the hopes and aspirations of the people. Democratic transitions are in process, but vulnerable, in the Middle East, large parts of Africa, and Southeast Asia.

That is why today, a bipartisan group will contact the White House and Congress to voice support for funding the programs and organizations that foster democracy and accountable governance as part of America’s international development agenda.

Washington will grapple with the budget for weeks and months to come, but we must not ignore our responsibilities to those pressing for greater freedom for themselves and for their countrymen. In this era of contention and strife, we must neither reduce our modest but indispensable investments in democracy abroad, nor walk away from our enduring commitment to government of the people, by the people, and for the people across the globe.

Madeleine Albright is chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group and the former U.S. Secretary of State. John Podesta is chair of the Center for American Progress and a former White House chief of staff. Vin Weber is co-chair and partner at Mercury/Clark & Weinstock and former U.S. congressman (R-Minn.). Daniel F. Runde is the William A. Schreyer chair and director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Ugly Spaniards and Canadians

Here's a tragic example -- from this week -- of how Spain and Canada's business interests with the Castro dictatorship dominate those nation's policies towards Cuba.

Of course, this is what many advocates of unconditionally lifting sanctions and normalizing relations with the Castro dictatorship would like for the U.S. to do as well.

Once freedom becomes secondary to profit, there's no turning back. 

Fundamental human rights and democracy become simple "inconveniences."

From Spain's El Confidencial Digital:

According to information obtained by El Confidencial Digital, [Spain's Ministry of Foreign Affairs] headed by Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo has, after months of talks between Madrid and Havana, made it a priority of maintaining the better harmony they have achieved with Cuba. For that reason, the order has been given to assume a more serene posture towards the island.

It has been confirmed that spokespersons for the Executive, directors of the ruling [Partido Popular], and the Spanish delegation in Brussels and Strasbourg have been told to halt their demands for an end to the Cuban dictatorship, as maintained in the past, since that would once again create tension with the Castro regime.

For that reason, petitions for democracy in Cuba, that were to be presented as resolutions in the European Parliament, have been canceled, along with events with representatives of the Cuban dissidence.

And an interview with Yves Engler, author of the new book "The Ugly Canadian" about Prime Minister Stephen Harper's foreign policy:

HOST: It's kind of ironic, actually, 'cause I've never heard reports—I may be wrong, but I've never heard of reports of Canada funding opposition groups in Cuba, where there's such significant commercial interest of Canada, they don't want to piss off the Cuban government. But in Venezuela, which they accuse Venezuela of being a sort of dictatorship the way Cuba is, they're unabashedly supporting the opposition.

ENGLER: There's a longstanding—you know, it's sort of the policy of the Canadian government towards Cuba. There is—there have been some reports, much less so than in the case of Venezuela, of some Canadian funding to, you know, pro-democracy movements in Cuba, but, no, much less than the case of Venezuela.

HOST: Now, has Harper changed anything about Canada's policy towards Cuba? You would think if there was—if he was going to be, quote, ideologically consistent in some way, that they would be all over supporting the Cuban opposition. As I said—you say there's been some; I take your point, but not much. In fact, Harper seems to not have changed the traditional, relatively friendly attitude towards Cuba.

ENGLER: Yes. That's one that's—you know, from an ideological perspective, you would definitely assume a more critical position of the Cuban government, and they haven't. They've actually been quite—he seems very careful to basically continue status quo policy, which is: say very little about what's going on in Cuba, while at the same time, obviously, Canadian companies are pretty significant players in Cuba.

And the Conservative government really hasn't gone out of its way to, you know, criticize human rights violations or a lack of democracy or anything like that in Cuba, which is surprising. I think it's partly reflective of the business interests in Cuba. It's also partly reflective of the fact that, you know, 1 million—I think it's almost 1 million Canadians that travel to Cuba every year.

Castro Freezes Church Funds

From Christian Solidarity Worldwide:

Cuban government refuses to release church funds

Church leaders in the Cuban city of Santa Clara have condemned the Cuban government’s refusal to allow Trinidad First Baptist Church access to its bank account. The accounts for the historic local church, with funds amounting to approximately US$27,000, were frozen by government officials in 2010.

Church targeted because of refusal to bar members of the Cuban dissident movement

In an open letter published in October 2010, the longstanding pastor of the church, Reverend Homero Carbonell, expressed hope that his retirement would convince the government to restore the church’s access to its accounts, which were opened with the International Finance Bank in 1988. He and other church leaders believe the church was targeted in part because of his refusal to acquiesce to demands from state security that he bar members of the Cuban dissident movement, including Sakharov Prize winner Guillermo Fariñas, from attending the church.

According to another local Baptist pastor, Reverend Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso, who authors the blog Cubano Confesante and is also a professor at the Luis Manuel González Peña Seminary, housed on the Trinidad Church’s property, the retirement of Reverend Carbonell did not have the hoped-for effect. The funds, the majority of which were donated by churches abroad for essential repairs to the 105 year-old church, remain inaccessible more than two years later.

"...the government continues to punish the church"

Reverend Lleonart Barroso told Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) that the current pastor of the Trinidad Baptist Church, Reverend Juan Carlos Mentado, “in the short time in which he has been there, has been an obliging leader, complying with every legal requirement, yet the government continues to punish the church.”

The situation is made even more difficult by the fact that official decisions pertaining to religious organisations, such as the decision to freeze a church’s bank accounts, are made by the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, with no recourse for appeal. Reverend Lleonart Barroso added that repeated applications to Caridad Diego, the head of ORA, for legal recognition of the church seminary have also gone unanswered.

On the Repression Front

Thursday, January 17, 2013
The Castro regime continuous to prove it has absolutely no intention of respecting the fundamental human rights of the Cuban people.

Last week, activists of the Republican Party of Cuba (no relation to the U.S.) tried to stage a public demonstration in Havana to remind the world about four of their colleagues (two of them women), who were violently arrested on October 30th and remain imprisoned.

They are:

Josiel Guía Piloto
Yeander Farres Delgado
Nayllibis Corrales Jiménez
Madeleine Lazara Carabello

Moreover, Yordanis Alvares Puig, an activist of the Independent and Democratic Cuba opposition group, was taken into custody to begin serving a one-year prison sentence.

His "crime"?

Hanging a banner in his home that read: "In Cuba, there is no justice."

This was prosecuted as an "offense" to the Castro brothers.  Literally, that's the "law" that was applied.

Alvares Puig has been on hunger strike since he was jailed on January 6th.

More "reform" you can't believe in.

Courtesy of Uncommon Sense.

What About Calixto?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013
The BBC, AP, CNN and Reuters -- all with bureaus in Cuba -- have finally reported on the outbreak of cholera in Havana, which was being covered-up by the Castro regime.

NBC settled for a tweet.

The BBC had the journalistic courage to actually investigate the widely-known claims, whereas the rest waited for the Castro regime to put out a press release recognizing -- and minimizing -- the outbreak.

The Castro regime's press release was put out the day after the BBC's story -- for they were finally outed by the mainstream media.

Yet, none of the stories mentions Calixto Martinez Arias.

Martinez Arias is one of their colleagues.

He's a Cuban independent journalist, who has been jailed by the communist regime since September 16th, 2012, for first reporting about a cholera outbreak on the eastern part of the island.

Martinez Arias also discovered five tons of humanitarian aid sent to Cuba by World Health Organization (WHO), which was left to spoil at Havana's airport.

Honor his courage and integrity.

The Migration Circus

Sometimes a political cartoon is worth a thousand words.

A grinning Raul to a laughing Fidel: "Oh my brother, you're still so wicked."

Pro-Democracy Leader Targeted in Murder Plot

The Castro regime's secret police tried to pressure an 18-year old member of the opposition group, Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU), to murder its leader, Jose Daniel Ferrer.

Ferrer and UNPACU, whose ranks have swelled in the last years, have become the biggest target of the Castro dictatorship in the eastern provinces.

Just this month, senior regime officials were sent from Havana to the city of Santiago de Cuba to devise a strategy to dismantle UNPACU.

Thirty-two (32) of UNPACU's members are currently in prison for political offenses -- two of them are women.

Moreover, three UNPACU activists, Jesus Diaz Morales, Josue Senna and Ariel Meneses Cruz, were recently chased down by hooded individuals and beaten with blunt objects.

The 18-year old, Yohandry Pupo Sarmiento, attempted suicide due to the pressure put on him by Castro's secret police.

Pupo would later confess the episode to Ferrer.

He was asked to poison Ferrer's food -- also putting Ferrer's wife and children at risk.

See Pupo's full testimony (in Spanish) here.

"He was visited in the hospital by the agent who was his handler, a captain who called himself Leo, and he said to him: 'Why did you do this? Instead of trying to kill yourself you should try to kill Jose Daniel. Don't you want to leave the country? We can help get you out. This anger you have against yourself, turn it towards Jose Daniel and we will help you get out of here,'" Ferrer explained to Diario de Cuba.

More "reform" you can't believe in.

Quote of the Day

The capital of Venezuela has moved to Havana.
-- Leopoldo López, leader of the Venezuelan opposition party, Popular Will, The New York Times, 1/15/13.

Trouble in the Castro Clan

Tuesday, January 15, 2013
According to Cafe Fuerte, Cuban dictator Raul Castro's daughter, Deborah Castro Espin, is seeking a divorce from her husband, Col. Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Calleja.

Apparently, Col. Rodriguez Lopez-Calleja has a weakness for infidelity and domestic violence, which has caught up to him.

This has important repercussions, as his marriage positioned him to be named Chairman of GAESA S.A., the Cuban military's business empire -- worth billions -- and as a member of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.

As Chairman of GAESA, Col. Rodriguez Lopez-Calleja, effectively controls over half of the Cuban economy.

From hotels, to restaurants, to nightclubs, to airlines, to gas stations, to retails outlets, to foreign exchange stores (for remittance transactions), to electronics, to shipping, to rum, to real estate, to arms, to banking -- GAESA has a stake in it.

They fancy themselves the owners of Cuba.

And Rodriguez Lopez-Calleja had been entrusted with its fortune since 2008, when the former Chairman, General Julio Casas Regueiro, was named Minister of Defense.

At the time, Rodriguez Lopez-Calleja also received a promotion from Major to Colonel.

So what will happen now?

Perhaps he'll escape in a yacht to Tampa like former Alimport CEO, Pedro Alvarez, and be paroled under the Cuban Adjustment Act.

Hey, every other repressor is.

But Rodriguez Lopez-Calleja's saving grace may be that his son, Raul Guillermo, is Raul's favorite -- and his main bodyguard.

Their other daughter, Vilma, was recently given a visa to party in New York.

Rodriguez Lopez-Calleja is pictured on the right.

Top Democrat on Western Hemisphere Subcommittee

U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) has been selected as the Ranking Member (top Democrat) of the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.

Congressman Sires, born in Cuba, was the first Hispanic Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly and Mayor of West New York, prior to being elected to Congress.

Kudos to the State Department

We've previously documented some pretty outrageous comments by journalists at the State Department, who can't seem to set their policy biases aside for the sake of journalistic integrity.

Yesterday, once again, a journalist was intent on wanting the State Department to recognize his/her narrative regarding the Castro dictatorship's so-called "reforms."

Needless to say, this journalist did not ask about 2012 registering the highest number of political arrests by the Cuban regime against peaceful pro-democracy activists in decades.

Or, about the Castro regime risking its citizen's lives by trying to cover-up a cholera outbreak.

Or, about an independent journalist in prison since September 16th for reporting on it.

Or, about the Castro regime's current subversion of another country's democratic process.

All timely news items.

Fortunately, the State Department was not blind to the first fact.

From yesterday's daily press briefing with State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland:

QUESTION: Firstly, you had some comments on Friday about Cuba. Do you have anything new to say considering that today the exit visa seems to have been effectively lifted?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we did put out some comments after the briefing because we had a number of questions. The United States welcomes any reforms that allow Cubans to depart from and return to their country freely, which is obviously a right that’s provided to everyone under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to be able to come and go from your own country or any other country.

We are also committed to safe, legal, and orderly migration from Cuba to the U.S. in accordance with our bilateral agreements of 1994 and 1995. We continue to support purposeful travel that enhances contact between the Cuban and the American people. I don’t have anything new to say with regard to trends since we put out these statements on Friday. Obviously, if we start to see changes in patterns, we’ll let you know.

QUESTION: Can I just – we’ve got some early reaction that seems to say that even opponents of the regime seem to be getting their – this seems to be respectful of them as well. Is that what you guys are seeing as well?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything on metrics over the last two days. You’re talking about how many more Cubans are able to travel now?

QUESTION: And just that they don’t seem to be excluding regime opponents as has happened with previous exit requirements.

MS. NULAND: I frankly think it’s too early to tell. This went into effect on the 14th. And then just to remind that even though the exit visa requirement has been lifted, there are still requirements to enable Cuban citizens to get passports. Most of them who had passports were required to renew them in the context of this. So I think it’s – we just have to see how it proceeds. But I don’t think two days is enough of a test, obviously.

QUESTION: Can I follow up? I mean, why can’t you speak to trends? I mean, clearly over the last – during the course of this Administration, you’ve seen, even as slight as it may be, an upward kind of trajectory in terms of some of reforms that are taking place in the country. And don’t you think you should be encouraging these reforms rather than kind of giving them not significant weight? I mean, clearly more needs to be done, but you do seem to be downplaying the trends.

MS. NULAND: I think I started this conversation by saying that we welcome any reform, including this one, that makes it easier for Cubans to travel. But having – this having come into force on the 14th, I’m not in a position here [2]on the 17th to evaluate whether the Cubans – whether the Cuban Government is really honoring its commitment to allow more people to travel.

QUESTION: I’m not talking specifically only about this event. But if you take it in totality with some of the other economic reforms and other types of political reforms that are taking place on the island, I mean, wouldn’t you say that there is an upward trajectory in terms of reforms?

MS. NULAND: I think we would say that it is still one of the most repressive places in terms of its human rights record, in terms of its restrictions on its citizens, in terms of speech, assembly, political rights, et cetera. But we welcome any liberalization and we hope that this will turn out to be one such.

Remarks @World Trade Center Orlando

Monday, January 14, 2013
Remarks today by Mauricio Claver-Carone at World Trade Center Orlando:

"Doing Business with Cuba, What's Next?"

Thank you so much for your kind invitation. I'm thrilled to be back in Orlando.

As some of you know, I'm a former resident of Orlando.  I'm a proud graduate of Bishop Moore High School and Rollins College.  So I share a great deal with all of you.

Obviously, Cuba and U.S. policy towards Cuba -- including the issue of trade -- are topics of great passion, and seemingly endless comment, reflection and debate -- or at least for those of us that deal with it on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, too many times at these events, speakers tend to hype and cherry-coat business opportunities in Cuba, disregarding some of the unpleasant economic and political realities involved.

For example, in September 2011, our neighbors here in Tampa announced the launch of charter flights to Cuba with great fanfare.

At the time, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) and other Tampa officials heralded the charters as a huge business coup.

She'd even started a "Gateway to Cuba" initiative to market Tampa as the jump-off point for Cuba travel.

"And this is just the beginning," Castor said.

Well, just this week, it was announced that these charter flights would be significantly scaled back.

Similarly, Cuba charter service planned from Baltimore-Washington, Atlanta, New York and San Juan has also has been halted for financial reasons.

Others will point to European and Canadian investors, and argue that they are getting a "head-start" on business opportunities in Cuba.

How have these European and Canadian investors fared?

You tell me.

In the last few years, European investors have had over $1 billion arbitrarily frozen in Cuban banks by the government.

As Reuters reported, "the Communist-run nation failed to make some debt payments on schedule beginning in 2008, then froze up to $1 billion in the accounts of 600 foreign suppliers by the start of 2009."

In the last few months, the CEOs of three companies with extensive business dealings with the Cuban government were arrested and are now sitting in jail -- without charges.

They are Cy Tokmakjian of the Tokmakjian Group and Sarkis Yacoubian of Tri-Star Caribbean, both from Canada, and Britain's Amado Fahkre of Coral Capital.

Let me stress that these were not casual investors. They these were three of Cuba's biggest business partners, having invested hundreds of millions, with direct access to the highest officials.

And in the last few weeks, Iberia, the national airline of Spain, which accounts for over 10% of all foreign commerce with Cuba, announced the elimination of its Havana routes -- for they are no longer profitable.

While my presentation may sound somber for the short-term -- I promise it is optimistic in the long-term.

I note your logo here at the World Trade Center Orlando is "prosperity through trade."

I completely agree.

In full disclosure, I am a free-trader.  I believe and advocate for the principles of free trade.  However, I do so without the distortions that some would like for us to accept under the guise of trade.

I believe in the principles of free trade as were envisioned by its original thinkers.

In The Wealth of Nations, a book considered to be the foundation of free trade, Adam Smith held that trade, when freely initiated, benefits both parties.

Smith did so in criticism of the mercantilist policies of the 17th and 18th centuries, whereby commerce was simply a tool to benefit and strengthen the authoritarian nation-states of the time.

I believe -- as did Smith -- that free trade requires property rights and the rule of law as pre-conditions. If no such rights exist, then there is no real opportunity to trade, for the government could just take from you what they want, when they want, wherever they want -- for their sole benefit.

Do these pre-conditions exist in Cuba today?

According to the 2013 Index of Economic Freedom, an annual guide published by The Wall Street Journal and The Heritage Foundation, which was just released this week:

Cuba ranks 176th out of 177 countries in the world in terms of economic freedom. The only country that ranks worse is North Korea.

It is the least-free economy in the Western Hemisphere and internationally, it ranks worse than some pretty unattractive investment environments, including Iran and Zimbabwe.

According to the report:

"A one-party Communist state, Cuba depends on external assistance (chiefly oil provided by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and remittances from Cuban émigrés) and a captive labor force to survive. Property rights are severely restricted. Fidel Castro's 81-year-old younger brother Raul continues to guide both the government and the Cuban Communist Party. Cuba's socialist command economy is in perennial crisis. The average worker earns less than $25 a month, agriculture is in shambles, mining is depressed, and tourism revenue has proven volatile. But economic policy is resolutely Communist, and the regime rejects any moves toward genuine political or economic freedom."

Regarding the rule of law, it states:

"The constitution explicitly subordinates the courts to the National Assembly of People's Power and the Council of State. Corruption remains pervasive, undermining equity and respect for the rule of law."

Within this framework, let me also address Cuba's political system, as it has important implications for the subject of trade with Cuba.

First of all, Cuba is not China and it is not Vietnam. It is not an authoritarian bureaucracy.  Cuba is one of a handful of totalitarian states remaining in the world - alongside North Korea, as the 2013 Index for Economic Freedom correctly notes.

I hate to sound patronizing, but it's important to understand the dynamics of a totalitarian state in order to understand the Cuban reality.

A totalitarian state strives to control every aspect of public and private life. Totalitarian regimes, such as Cuba's, maintain themselves in power by means of an all-embracing cult of personality; propaganda disseminated through a state-controlled media; a single party that controls the state; absolute control over the economy; restrictions on discussion and criticism; the use of mass surveillance; and state terrorism to foment fear and submission.

None of this has changed.

Some of you are probably wondering:

What about the "economic reforms" that have been so widely reported in the media?

Let me address some of these:

a. Agriculture: The most aggressive "reform" announced has been in agriculture, where the Cuban government enacted a law in 2008 seeking to distribute idle agricultural land to small farmers and cooperatives. These lands are granted in usufruct -- with ten years leases for individuals and 25 years for cooperatives, both renewable.  The government retains ownership.

Yet, according to a report last month in The New York Times, "Because of waste, poor management, policy constraints, transportation limits, theft and other problems, overall efficiency has dropped: many Cubans are actually seeing less food at private markets."

Despite this failure, the government is now similarly experimenting with some non-farm cooperatives. There's no reason to expect the results will be any different as the fundamental remain the same.

b. Self-employment: After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cuban government sought to ease economic pressure by temporarily allowing -- through special licenses -- limited self-employment. These licenses were streamlined starting in 1998, when the Cuban government secured massive oil subsidies from Venezuela.

Faced with similar economic challenges today, Raul Castro has once again eased some restrictions on self-employment, which allow individuals to lease the practice of one of 181 pre-approved services, e.g. taxi drivers, artisans, in-home restaurants. However, all means of production are legally owned by the state.

Overall, there's nothing particularly new here. I'd also note that more than 25 percent of those self-employed have returned their licenses because of the government's burdensome oversight and predatory taxation.

c. Home Sales: The Cuban government has now allowed citizens to buy and sell the homes in which they reside.  Cubans have supposedly owned the property where they reside since 1986, although they couldn't be sold. Cubans dealt with the no-sell edict by "swapping" homes amongst each other and setting up a black market in housing. The government routinely confiscated homes of those who left the island and in 2000 the police began to crack down on the swaps and black market transfers.

Nonetheless, the newly-authorized sales are subject to limitations -- not least of which is a regular Cuban's $25 per month income. Another notable restriction requires the transaction be made in hard currency and that it be deposited in Cuba's Central Bank, pending the government's approval of the sale and an investigation into the source of the funds. At the time of closing, the Central Bank will issue a check to the seller in non-convertible (worthless) Cuban pesos. It is not surprising that the number of formally recorded sales remains minimal.

d. Migration Restrictions: Just today, the government is enacting a new law that eliminates the infamous "exit permit" required for Cubans to travel abroad. However, most of the restrictions and the high costs of the "exit permit" have been transferred to the passport process. Those who apply for travel abroad will still need a stamp of approval from the Ministry of the Interior. Dissidents, athletes and certain professionals will remain ineligible to travel abroad. The devil here is still in the details and its implementation.

What role do foreign investors play in these "reforms"?

None. Foreign investors in Cuba cannot do business with private citizens. They can only do business with the Cuban government through minority joint ventures. Moreover, the Cuban government's constitution clearly states that all foreign commerce is strictly reserved for the state.

Foreign investors cannot hire or pay workers directly. They must go through the Cuban government employment agency, which picks the workers. The investors then pay the Cuban government in hard currency for the workers, and the Cuban government pays the workers in worthless pesos.

For example, some foreign companies pay the Cuban government $10,000 a year per Cuban worker, which is a bargain in itself. But it's even more of a bargain for the Cuban government, which then gives the workers about $20 a month in pesos -- and pockets the difference. This is a violation of international labor norms.

Even the most unconditional advocate of business ties with the Cuban government would admit that Raul Castro has done little to attract foreign investment since taking the reign from his brother Fidel. To the contrary, as I mentioned earlier, he's stifled it.

The one exception has been off-shore oil exploration, which is directly tied to the Cuban government's fear of the demise of Hugo Chavez and his generous subsidies of 100,000 free barrels of oil per day. These subsidies comprise nearly two-thirds of Cuba's energy consumption.

Despite much anticipation throughout 2012, these off-shore oil exploration efforts -- in joint ventures with Spain's Repsol, Malaysia's Petronas and even Venezuela's PDVSA -- have been a bust.

Frankly, this was predictable since Brazil's Petrobras and Canada's Sherritt stated in 2011 such ventures were not commercially-viable. Yet, like with all things Cuba, they begin with a big media flurry until reality strikes.

Speaking of changes, I'd be remiss not to mention that one significant and tangible change that has taken place in Cuba under Raul Castro is a dramatic rise in repression.

In 2012, documented political arrests of peaceful democracy activists reached the highest levels (6,602) in decades. These have been accompanied by the mysterious deaths of some of Cuba's leading pro-democracy figures, including the founder of the Ladies in White, Laura Pollan, and the head of the Christina Liberation Movement and author of the Varela Project, Oswaldo Paya.

Impunity still reigns in Cuba.

If the Cuban people are prohibited from engaging in foreign commerce, then who is the Cuban counter-part for foreign investors?

The armed forces' holding company, called GAESA, is the dominant force in the Cuban economy. Founded by Raul Castro in the 1990s, GAESA controls a wide array of companies, ranging from the very profitable Gaviota S.A., which runs the island's tourist hotels, restaurants, car rentals and nightclubs, to TRD Caribe S.A., which runs all retail operations. In plain words: GAESA controls virtually every economic transaction in Cuba, making it -- by far -- the most powerful company in Cuba's totalitarian-command economy.  It is run by Raul's son-in-law, Colonel Luis Alberto Rodríguez Lopez- Callejas.

(Reports from Cuba indicate that Raul's daughter Deborah is divorcing Lopez-Callejas, who has a weakness for infidelity and domestic violence, so his days of glory may be counted.)

As relates to the U.S., American companies are prohibited from investing in Cuba or conducting commercial, financial or tourism-related transactions. However, there is one exception: The sale of agricultural commodities, medicines and medical devices, which were legalized on a cash-payment basis by the 2000 Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (TSREEA).

The counter-part in Cuba for these U.S. agricultural sales is a state company called Alimport. Therefore, to speak of "trade with Cuba" is in itself a misrepresentation. To "trade with Cuba" is not about trading with the people or non-state actors; for only one company is allowed to transact business with American exporters for these commodities -- that company is called Alimport.

I'm a regular Cuban citizen, I have a self-employment license, and I want to import rice from Louisiana. I'm not allowed to - even if I had the capital to do so. Only the head of the Cuban government's Alimport, is authorized to import products to Cuba - to the entire island. That's it.

Thus, every dollar that the nearly 200 companies from 35 U.S. states have transacted in agricultural sales with Cuba since TSREEA has only had one Cuban counterpart.

I always jest with my colleagues from the various farm bureaus and trade associations that we should be forthright and call it "trade with Alimport," or "trade with the Cuban government" -- or mercantilism, which Adam Smith rightly defined as antithetical to trade.

What is the future of U.S. policy towards Cuba?

The US has a dual track policy towards Cuba. It seeks to - first and foremost -- provide support to the constantly besieged Cuban civil society (by civil society, I'm referring to opposition groups, religious organizations, independent journalists, and other marginalized, independent - and therefore illegal -- trade groups); while -secondly -- denying hard currency and resources to the Cuban dictatorship. In other words, U.S. policy seeks to weaken the Cuban government's absolute monopoly over power and resources, in order to help the Cuban civil society create some sort of "playing field" for itself, despite the grossly disproportionate circumstances it faces.

Within this context, U.S. policy sees sanctions as an important tool that not only denies resources to the regime, but also provides important moral and political support to the Cuban civil society. However, U.S. sanctions towards Cuba are not defined indefinitely, they are subject to conditions, and have been specifically codified into U.S. law as such.  Since 1996 -- with the codification of this policy -- the power to ease or terminate sanctions shifted from the executive to the legislative branch of the U.S. government.

According to law, the U.S. will only lift the remaining sanctions and normalize relations with the Cuba when three essential conditions are met:  1. the unconditional release of all political prisoners, 2. the recognition and respect of the fundamental human, political, and economic rights of the Cuban people, and 3. opposition parties are legalized leading to free and fair elections.

Currently, there is strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress for this law. Thus, these conditions are unlikely to change in the new 113th Congress. I'm not going to blow smoke at you and tell you otherwise.

Moreover, even some long-time Congressional advocates of unilaterally lifting these conditions - by changing the law - in order to further facilitate the terms and financing of agricultural sales have taken a hiatus from these efforts, as the Cuban government has imprisoned an American development worker, Alan Gross, who has been held hostage since December 2009. Mr. Gross had been helping the island's small Jewish community with Internet connectivity when he was arrested.

(Not only is Cuba one of the least-free economies in the world, it is also one of the most hostile to Internet connectivity.)

Speaking of financing, Cuba also remains one of the world's greatest credit risks. With a debt of $30.5 billion dollars, Cuba ranks second on the Paris Club's list of debtor countries.  Indonesia ranks first with a debt of $40.2 billion -- despite a population 23 times the size of Cuba. Cuba's unpaid debt represents nearly 10% of the Paris Club's total outstanding claims.

Today, the total of nearly $75 billion in foreign debts and claims against the Cuban government is nearly impossible to repay for a country with an economic output barely one-fifth the size of Greece's (similar population to Cuba) own troubled economy.

This is even more troubling considering that in 1959, when the current regime took power, Cuba had foreign exchange reserves totaling $387 million -- worth more than $3.6 billion today adjusted for inflation. Cuba's reserves were third in Latin America, behind only those of Venezuela and Brazil, despite having just a fraction of the population.

The good news is that the U.S. currently has zero credit exposure to Cuba, as U.S. law prohibits the extension of credit to the Cuban government.

However, the Cuban government still has not paid compensation for the approximately $8 billion worth of property that was confiscated from U.S. citizens. Let's not forget that this remains the largest uncompensated taking of American property by any foreign government in the history the U.S. Outstanding claims range from companies like Coca-Cola, to Ford, to Texaco, to Chase Manhattan Bank.

As previously stated, I have mostly focused on the U.S. Congress because the executive branch can only authorize the commercial and financial transactions with Cuba that have been previously mandated by Congress. President Obama has the authority to modify regulations related to purposeful travel, e.g. family, religious and academic travel, and remittances - and he has amply done so. Yet, even in this case, tourism-related transactions ("tourism travel") were codified into law in 2000 - and only Congress can authorize them.

What's next?

The current Cuban government, since its taking of power in 1959, has always survived off subsidies. With the exception of a brief period in the 1990's, foreign subsidies have always been Cuba's main source of income.

First, the Soviet Union provided $6 billion dollars in yearly subsidies through 1991. Cuba received more money from the Soviets than all of Europe received from the U.S. Marshall Plan after World War II.

Thereafter, Venezuela has provided $10 billion dollars in yearly subsidies since 1998.

With the pending passing of Hugo Chavez, the Cuban government is looking for its third major subsidy -- though I doubt there will be any takers -- or as the drama in a Havana hospital unfolds; they are figuring out how to somehow keep Hugo Chavez and his cronies on ice.

Moreover, with Fidel Castro at 86-years old and Raul Castro at 81-years old - and their appointed successor Jose Ramon Machado Ventura at 82-years old - it's safe to say time is not on their side.

Cubans are extremely smart people, they know that it is not the U.S. or sanctions that prohibit them from freely expressing themselves; that keeps them from entering and enjoying those beautiful resorts, with their restaurants and bars owned by the military; that keep them enjoying the fruits of their labor; or that keeps them from choosing their own destiny. It is the Cuban government that does so.

Furthermore, Cubans on the island know what democratic ideals are. In many cases, they have given the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of those ideals. Let's not forget, Cuba has the largest prison population - per capita - in the world. Ten percent of the Cuban population has died, either trying to cross the Florida Straits, executed or imprisoned. Add to that another ten percent that has been exiled. Those are Stalin-Mao proportions.

So the questions remain:

Do we make a short-term investment in Cuba's current fledgling government that monopolizes the lives of Cubans, or do we make a long-term investment in its future leaders?

Do you want to deal with a trading partner that is as poor as North Korea, or would you rather deal with a neighbor as rich as South Korea?

Do we want to be in the position that European companies recently found themselves in post-Qaddafi Libya or two decades ago in post-apartheid South Africa -- begging for forgiveness and scrambling for the opportunity to renegotiate deals with the former victims of those dictatorships?

Or, do we want to be in a position of market preference -- eventually gaining what I like to call a "freedom premium" -- similar to that which Coca-Cola enjoyed in the former Soviet bloc pursuant to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Hopefully, the answer will be the latter.

In a bit of corporate history, Pepsi first entered the Soviet Union in 1972, pursuant to a barter agreement in exchange for Stolichnaya vodka. Pepsi was infamously perceived to have been deeply entrenched with the communist government. Meanwhile, Coca Cola didn't make a move until the fall of the Iron Curtain.

However,immediately upon the fall of the Berlin Wall, Coca-Cola's former CEO Roberto Goizueta made sure that every automobile that crossed the border received free cases of Coke and those on foot got six-packs and single cans.

Perhaps Goizueta, a Cuban-American, who experienced first-hand what it was like to be a victim of oppression, instinctively knew that those newly-free would reward them in some fashion -- for they stood in solidarity with them during their darkest hour.

Tom Standage, author of "A History of the World in 6 Glasses," a book that divides world history into the beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola ages - notes that when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, East Germans began buying Coca-Cola by the crate-load:

"Drinking Coca-Cola became a symbol of freedom."

In 1991 Pepsi was outselling Coca-Cola 10-to-1 in the former Soviet Union. By 1994, Coca-Cola gained the lead, and retains it to this day.

Even more broadly, it is not a mere coincidence that the countries of Eastern Europe, who lived through similar ordeals, are the staunchest allies the U.S. has in the world today.

So let's focus on the big prize: a free and democratic Cuba that within a decade could --once again -- become one of the richest countries in the Western Hemisphere. This will not be because of its beaches and natural resources -- that only goes so far -- but because of its people. Note I haven't even mentioned Cuba's emblematic sugar and tobacco industries, which are in shambles.

An economy based on imagination, creativity, risk-taking and hard-work needs a rule of law and political freedoms. Cubans have proven this ability from the moment they set foot in exile, whether in the U.S. or in any other democratic country in the world.

And in the meantime, let's work on re-orienting some of those Canadian and European tourists visiting Cuba and bring them here to Disney World, Universal Studios and to enjoy all that Central Florida offers.

Thank you so much. I look forward to your questions.

Must-Read: On Cuba's New "Migration Law"

By Maria Werlau in The New York Sun:

Huge Costs Confront Cubans Who Seek To Travel Under New ‘Migration Law’ Going Into Effect Today

Updates to Cuba’s “Migration Law” introduced to great fanfare last October, go into effect today. But, they are merely a bankrupt dictatorship’s latest scheme to fund its failed economy and confuse world public opinion with so-called “reforms. Soon after seizing power in January 1959, Fidel Castro decreed that Cuba’s citizens would need an exit permit from the revolutionary government. More than half a century later, Cubans are still not free to leave at will.

Among the law’s changes taking effect today, Cubans will only need a valid passport and a visa from the destination country to be allowed out. Until now, those hoping to travel had to submit a letter of invitation, processed for around $200 and, if approved, obtain an exit permit for $165, with requisite extensions for any overseas stay over one month costing $150 each month.  That these requirements have been eliminated will save Cubans a minimum of US$321 in fees plus repeated bureaucratic hassles.

The cost of a Cuban passport obtained in Cuba, however, has doubled. The fees are even more exorbitant given the average monthly salary in Cuba is around $19 (455 pesos).  Previously, a passport in Cuba, issued for six years, cost the equivalent of $55 with required extensions every two years for $20. Beginning today, it rises to $100, representing 5.3 months of wages or 44% of the entire average annual peso salary. Extensions every two years will cost $20, or over one month of salary.

These fees are prohibitive to the average citizen. In Cuba’s centrally planned socialist economy, access to hard currency is almost exclusive to members of the ruling elite and those working in the small foreign sector. Most citizens cannot and will not be able to obtain a passport or travel overseas without financial assistance from family or friends abroad.

In the United States, a comparable passport fee would be $19,836.84. In relative terms, U.S. citizens would have to pay the government approximately $20,000 to obtain a passport, then pay an additional $4,000 every two years plus renew on year six, again paying $20,000. Currently, U.S. passports for adults are valid for ten years and cost $165 the first time, $110 for renewals.

Cuba’s new law keeps in place the usual impediments to leaving the country. Article 216 of the Penal Code penalizes leaving “without complying with the legal requirements” with one to three years of prison and high fees. The political police — that is, the ministry of the interior — will continue deciding who travels, just issuing at its discretion passports instead of exit permits. Passports will only be issued to those who meet all requirements of the new law and may be denied among others “for reasons of public interest,” “defense and national security,” or to “preserve human capital.” Strict restrictions remain for doctors and healthcare workers, high-performing athletes, professionals, government officials, military officers, and those with official information or considered “vital” to the state.

That some will soon pay less is welcome, but overall, the regime will likely collect much more while preserving the same level of control. Compliant citizens will be able to travel abroad for less money and aggravation if granted a passport. They may even work overseas and stay abroad for up to 24 months ¾ up from 11 ¾ before being designated an émigré, having all property confiscated and restricted from returning (if allowed back, only for a maximum of 90 days). Passport validation every two years may be denied for all the reasons listed above plus any "reason of public interest defined by the authorities." Accustomed to exploiting its citizens, the totalitarian state designed this clever extortion to keep obedient serfs replenishing its coffers.

Some were quick to laud these essentially procedural changes. But congratulating the Castro dynasty for this gimmick reeks of battered wife syndrome ¾ the victim, intent on escaping more blows, remains subservient, focused on placating the abuser rather than standing up to the abuse.

Leaving from and returning to one’s country is a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and respected by all countries save the worst repressors. Anything less than Cuba’s citizens full exercise of this and all other fundamental freedoms should be forcefully denounced as the abomination it is.

Today on "From Washington al Mundo"

Tune in today to "From Washington al Mundo" for a conversation on the prospects of immigration reform with Doris Meissner, former Commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and Senior Fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.

Then, Dr. Carlos Ponce, General Coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy, will discuss his most recent article, "Venezuela's Coup Made in Cuba."

Maria Lipman, editor of the Pro et Contra journal, published by the Carnegie Moscow Center, will join us from Moscow to talk about Vladimir Putin's new ban on Americans adopting Russian children.

And Jordan Paul, Executive Director of the Moroccan American Center for Policy, will give us the North African country's view on the conflict in the Western Sahara.

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).

BBC Reports on Cholera Outbreak

Sunday, January 13, 2013
Kudos to the BBC for being the only foreign news bureau in Cuba courageous enough to report on the cholera outbreak in Havana.

The others are apparently afraid to offend the Castro regime or lose their perks.

Also, please don't forget Cuban independent journalist, Calixto Martinez Arias, who has been in prison since September 16th for daring to first report on the cholera outbreak.

For his independent journalism, he has been charged with "disrespect" to the figures of Fidel and Raul Castro.

From BBC:

Cholera fear in Cuba as officials keep silent

Doctors are now making door-to-door inquiries in Havana and anyone displaying possible cholera symptoms is being tested. Suspected cases are being sent to the Tropical Medicine Institute, the IPK.

"All our wards are dealing with this issue - they are almost full," an IPK employee told the BBC by telephone, before saying she was not authorized to comment further.

Another staff member, contacted later and also not authorized to speak to the media, said the IPK did not have any confirmed cases of cholera at this point.

But Yanisey Pino says her brother was diagnosed with cholera both by his local hospital and the IPK.

The day Uvaldo [Pino] died, health workers visited the family where they live - in several cramped houses around a small yard. Relatives and neighbors were issued antibiotics as a precaution.

The area has been disinfected and water samples were taken for testing. Meanwhile, nearby bars and cafeterias have been closed or instructed not to sell food or drink that is not pre-packed.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, there are similar scenes.

One resident, Yudermis, fell sick just before the New Year, along with four other relatives including her seven-year-old son. The family assumed they had food poisoning but Yudermis says her cousin then tested positive for cholera at their local clinic.

"The health workers then came here asking questions, like if we had diarrhoea," she explains inside their rundown family home as her son, now fully recovered, plays nearby.

"They sent us all to hospital by ambulance and the tests came back positive.

"There were a lot of people at the IPK," Yudermis adds, describing dozens of admissions while she was being treated, and not all from her own district of Cerro [...]

[I]in the tourist heart of Old Havana, cafes and restaurants remain open and the streets are still full of mobile food and drink vendors.

Most say they have heard rumors of a cholera outbreak in Cerro and are taking extra precautions, but none have received any official instructions.

The WHO stresses "public communication" as a key tool in controlling any cholera outbreak.

In Havana, that task has so far been left to local doctors who are very connected to their communities.

But as rumors fill the information void, concern on the streets is growing.

"I'm racking my brains trying to understand why there's nothing on TV about this," says Yanisey Pino, echoing many peoples' comments.

"Why don't they say something? Inform people, like in other countries, so they're not afraid and can protect themselves! But there's no information at all."

At World Trade Center Orlando

Click here for more details.

Hagel's Cuba Problem

By Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post:

Hagel’s Cuba problem

Much of the focus on Chuck Hagel’s record has been on his views on Israel, Iran and sequestration. Equally troubling to those who have taken a forceful stand against Castro’s dictatorship in Cuba, however, has been his dismissive attitude toward the Castros  and his enthusiasm to end the U.S. embargo with no quid pro quo.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has already expressed serious concerns about Hagel’s views on Cuba. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), former chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and  now chairman of the Middle East and North Africa subcommittee, put out a statement objecting to Hagel and citing his views on Iran, Israel and Cuba:

"During his time in Congress, Senator Hagel supported legislation that would have provided a lifeline to the decrepit Castro regime that for the last half a century has exploited the Cuban people and posed a severe security threat to the U.S. ... In a time of regional turmoil and rogue regimes, our Secretary of Defense must remain strong on sanctions against Iran, never abandon our allies, like Israel, and stand up to dictators like the Castro brothers who seek to oppress the voices of democracy and freedom."

At times Hagel has seemed entirely clueless about Fidel Castro’s role in the region. Frank Calzon, who head the Center for a Free Cuba, told me in a telephone interview on Friday afternoon, “I respect him like any other senator. But apparently he is not very well informed. To the extent he has been aware, he has underestimated the Cuba situation.”

In 2002 the Omaha World Herald reported: “Otto Reich, the State Department’s assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere, last week laid out a case against overtures to Cuba and its longtime president, Fidel Castro. ‘Castro has supported terrorist groups in every country in this hemisphere except Mexico,’ Reich told reporters Thursday. ‘So he is a terrorist.’ Sen. Chuck Hagel, a main sponsor of Senate legislation to lift economic sanctions on Cuba, countered Reich on Friday, saying that to term Castro a threat is ‘just goofy.’ ‘This is a toothless old dinosaur,’ the Nebraska Republican added."

Hagel has worked assiduously in favor of lifting the trade embargo, calling the policy “outdated, unrealistic, irrelevant policy.” And he was instrumental in blocking legislation to grant Elian Gonzales citizenship.

The Castro regime, of course, has grown increasingly close to the Iranian regime and has allied itself with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. In seizing and imprisoning an American, Alan Gross, it has advocated a swap with the so-called Cuban five spies (a position strenuously opposed by the U.S. Senate).

Calzon pointed out, “Jimmy Carter like Hagel felt it was for lack of trying that relations were so dismal.” But of course, this ignores outreach efforts under the Ford, Carter, Clinton and Bush administrations. Each solicitation has been met with aggressive action. Although President Carter set up a large interests section in Cuba, Castro responded by unleashing the Mariel boatlift. Cuban troops were also dispatched to Angola in one of the Cold War’s most prominent standoffs. President Obama relaxed travel and remittance restrictions, only to see Alan Gross be tried and imprisoned.

Calzon told me, “I don’t have a crystal ball. But in general I expect [Hagel] would continue to subscribe to the views he has held for years.” He contends that Hagel “will not present different views” to President Obama, who has already been inclined to follow the Carter approach to Cuba. Calzon is quite certain, having studied Cuba for decades, how the Castro regime will respond. “The Cubans will celebrate having Hagel in the Pentagon, ” he told me. ” Not only will they see that as a sign of weakness but as an invitation to push the envelope. Instead of reducing the chance of conflict, the opposite is true.”

Hagel’s views on Cuba put Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), one of the most ardent opponents of lifting the trade embargo, in a tough spot. Last June at a hearing he grilled the administration’s assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, saying, “The Cuban people are no less deserving of America’s support than the millions who were imprisoned and forgotten in Soviet gulags. I am compelled to ask again today — as I have before — why is there such an obvious double standard when it comes to Cuba?” He has repeatedly vowed to block measures to lift the travel and trade bans. (In 2010, he declared: “Repression is repression and dictatorships are dictatorships, no matter where they are located or whether you want to use their resorts.”) Now he will be faced with a nominee who not only has worked strenuously for those positions, but seems to be willfully dismissive of the nature of the Castro regime.

Menendez, who also has been a robust supporter of sanctions on Iran, would have to sublimate his views on Israel, Iran and especially Cuba and cede his role as a Democratic Senate leader for a tough-minded national security policy if he rolls over for the president’s nominee. Aside from boosting a lame-duck president, why would he want to do that? We’ll find out soon.