Must-Watch: Gusano

Friday, January 31, 2014
Please take some time this weekend to watch the documentary, "Gusano," which was filmed and produced in Cuba by Estado de Sats.

It provides a first-hand look at the Castro regime's use of "acts of repudiation" to harass, threaten and intimidate peaceful democracy activists.

It also shows the regime's manipulation of children to disguise these abhorrent acts.

See the video below or click here:

Politifact Debunks Senator Harkin: On Cuban Health Care

Unsurprisingly, retiring U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) has recently returned from Cuba praising Castro's health care propaganda.

(Senator Harkin was one of Congress' most infamous supporters of the Sandinista dictatorship in the 1980s.)

This week, Harkin stated that Cuba is a "poor country, but they have a lower child mortality rate than ours. Their life expectancy is now greater than ours. It's interesting — their public health system is quite remarkable."

Politifact gave this statement a Half-True rating.

This is too kind, as it gives half-credence to Castro's manipulated statistics.

But to its credit, Politifact did a good analysis raising doubts:

How reliable is [Cuba's health care] data?

We wondered [...] whether the data from Cuba’s authoritarian government could be trusted. As we looked into it, we heard a measure of skepticism.

We did find one area of agreement: Cuba puts a lot of emphasis on its health data. Richard H Streiffer, dean of the College of Community Health Sciences at the University of Alabama, said his conclusion from two visits to Cuba is that Cuban health practitioners are "very compulsive about collecting data and reporting it regularly."

On a recent trip, Streiffer said, he spent time with a family doctor in a neighborhood clinic. "Family doctors are mandated to collect certain data," he said. "He had right on his wall a ‘dashboard’ of data characterizing his practice -- an age/sex distribution; an age/sex distribution of the top 10 chronic diseases in his practice; a map of where his patients lived in the neighborhood. You don't find that in the US."

However, some experts said that this obsession with statistics can be a two-edged sword when it comes to reliability. Some say Cuba is so concerned with its infant mortality and life-expectancy statistics that the government takes heavy-handed actions to protect their international rankings.

"Cuba does have a very low infant mortality rate, but pregnant women are treated with very authoritarian tactics to maintain these favorable statistics," said Tassie Katherine Hirschfeld, the chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma who spent nine months living in Cuba to study the nation's health system. "They are pressured to undergo abortions that they may not want if prenatal screening detects fetal abnormalities. If pregnant women develop complications, they are placed in ‘Casas de Maternidad’ for monitoring, even if they would prefer to be at home. Individual doctors are pressured by their superiors to reach certain statistical targets. If there is a spike in infant mortality in a certain district, doctors may be fired. There is pressure to falsify statistics."

Hirschfeld said she’s "a little skeptical" about the longevity data too, since Cuba has so many risk factors that cause early death in other countries, from unfiltered cigarettes to contaminated water to a meat-heavy diet. In a more benign statistical quirk, Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Pittsburgh, suggests that the flow of refugees could skew longevity statistics, since those births are recorded but the deaths are not.

Transparency would help give the data more credibility, but the Cuban government doesn’t offer much, experts said.

"I would take all Cuban health statistics with a grain of salt," Hirschfeld said. Organizations like the Pan-American Health Organization "rely on national self-reports for data, and Cuba does not allow independent verification of its health claims."

Rodolfo J. Stusser -- a physician and former adviser to the Cuban Ministry of Public Health's Informatics and Tele-Health Division who left for Miami at age 64 -- is another skeptic. While Stusser acknowledges that Cuba has improved some of its health numbers since the revolution, the post-revolution data has been "overestimated," he said. "The showcasing of infant mortality and life expectancy at birth has been done for ideological reasons," he said.

Cuba Summit Was Mostly Political Tourism (Circus)

Excerpt from Andres Oppenheimer's column in The Miami Herald:

As for the larger, much-publicized CELAC summit, one just needs to read its final declaration to realize it was a farce. The final declaration says participating countries “ratify our irrevocable strengthen our democracies and all human rights for all.

It’s no joke: they pledged to strengthen democracy and human rights at a meeting presided over by Gen. Raúl Castro, a military ruler whose family dictatorship has not allowed a free election, political parties or independent media in 55 years.

What’s just as bad, they signed the declaration at the very same time as the Cuban regime was rounding up hundreds of dissident leaders to prevent them from holding peaceful demonstrations during the summit.

To his credit, [Chilean President Sebastian] Piñera met in Havana with Ladies in White opposition leader Berta Soler. And Costa Rica President Laura Chinchilla sent a government delegation to meet with Cuban Human Rights Commission leaders.

The 70-point CELAC declaration was full of empty pledges to “continue advancing” toward Latin America’s economic integration,” but without any concrete steps to do so.

Sadly, there are now almost as many Latin American integration organizations as countries in the region.

Despite these summits, Latin America continues to be one of the least integrated regions in the world: only about 18 percent of Latin America’s total trade is within the region, as opposed to 65 percent of the European Union’s total trade, according to United Nations figures.

Why did Latin American presidents lend themselves to the CELAC charade? Mexico and Brazil want to be well positioned diplomatically and economically for the inevitable transition in Cuba. Other countries, in light of Cuba’s recent measures such as allowing its people to travel abroad, believe that it will be more effective to “accompany” the Cuban regime toward greater changes than antagonizing it.

My opinion: It was pathetic to see Latin American presidents waiting in line to appear in smiling pictures with Raúl and Fidel Castro. Many of these leaders will regret these pictures when the Castro brothers die, and the full extent of their human rights abuses comes to light.

U.S. Fugitive in Cuba "Re-Surges" in BBC Documentary

In the must-see documentary film, "Mad Dog – Gaddafi's Secret World," the BBC sheds lights on the torture, kidnapping and rape of young girls and boys by the Libyan dictator; his depraved sex dungeons and clinics; and political hit squads.

It also features how Gaddafi shot down a Libyan jet in 1992, killing all 157 people on board, to "show" how international sanctions were hurting Libyans by depriving their planes of spare parts.

Check out this article about the documentary.

Interestingly enough, the film also includes the "re-surgence" of a U.S. fugitive harbored in Cuba:

"In a secret interview from Cuba, former CIA agent Frank Terpil said: ‘I would say [it was] Murder Incorporated .  .  . murder for hire. Gaddafi thought that anybody who was a dissident, they [should be] eliminated, he had contracts out on a bunch of people in London.’"

Terpil is a former CIA operative turned soldier of fortune, who is wanted by the U.S. for selling arms and nuclear technology to the Uganda's Idi Amin and Libya's Gaddafi.

Terpil, led some of Gaddafi's hit squads, together with another former CIA operative and U.S. fugitive, Ed Wilson.

Obviously, Terpil remains in Cuba.

State Department: CELAC Betrays Democratic Principles in Cuba

From EFE:

Washington: Celac betrays democratic principles by supporting Cuba

"We urge the members of Celac to clearly show their support for peaceful demonstration and freedom of expression in the Americas," said a spokesman of the US State Department

The United States on Thursday accused the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean of "betraying" democratic principles by supporting the Cuban regime during a regional summit in Havana, said a spokesman for the State Department.

"We are disappointed that the Celac (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), in its final declaration, betrayed the region's outspoken commitment to democratic principles, as it endorsed the single-party system in Cuba," said the spokesman, as quoted by AFP.

Latin America and Caribbean countries showed strong support for Cuba as some 30 Heads of State of the region and international leaders attended the summit, which ended on Wednesday. This did not play well with Washington, which maintains an embargo on the island.

The US government termed the final declaration "particularly inexplicable" for an organization that "supposedly supports democracy and human rights," said the State Department spokesman, who requested anonymity.

"We found especially disheartening and inconsistent the fact that Celac decided to accept without question the repressive actions of the host country to prevent its citizens from peacefully demonstrating their democratic aspirations," he said.

Precisely on Wednesday the United States urged the Latin American leaders attending the Celac Summit to meet with Cuban dissidents during their stay on the island.

"We urge the members of Celac to clearly show their support for peaceful demonstration and freedom of expression in the Americas," the US spokesman reiterated.

"We strongly condemned the Cuban government's harassment and arrest of activists back then (at the start of the summit), and we do it now. As we have always done, we urge the Government of Cuba to allow Cuban citizens to express their views freely, and gather peacefully in the exercise of that right," the spokesman added, according to Efe.

Adrienne Arsht's Political Hatchet Job

In September 2013, prominent businesswoman Adrienne Arsht donated $5 million to The Atlantic Council for the creation of a Latin America Center.

Surely, with so much money, the first few months of The Atlantic Council's new Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center would focus on democracy, free markets, technology, security and human rights.

Apparently not.

Instead, it is focusing on domestic politics.

As such, it has commissioned an expensive push-poll on U.S. policy towards Cuba, which targets Florida, New Jersey and Hispanics.

The poll will be presented at an event featuring U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont (D) and U.S. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona (R) -- both known for their strange obsession with unconditionally normalizing relations with the Castro dictatorship.

(What do they know about Florida, New Jersey and Hispanics?)

Also to discuss the poll at the event will be CNN analysts Paul Begala and Alex Castellanos, who are probably getting paid to appear at this event, for neither knows much about Florida, New Jersey or Hispanic politics. Let alone Cuba.

Of course, that's not what this event is all about.  The invitation makes it clear that this is simply a high-priced public relations stunt aimed at lobbying the Obama Administration to lift further sanctions toward Cuba.

Otherwise, why not do an event that includes opposing views, such as those of courageous Cuban democracy leaders, like The Ladies in White, who have stressed the importance of not lifting sanctions toward Cuba?

Why not discuss and debate the merits of U.S. policy?

Why not include political leaders from Florida and New Jersey, or Hispanic leaders?

Why opt for a biased, one-sided, political hatchet job?

After spending so many years in Miami, where Ms. Arsht cultivated close ties with victims of Castro's regime and has been held in high regard, it's hard to believe she would agree to this shameless stunt.

If so, it's very disappointing.

If not, The Atlantic Council is doing a great disservice to her good name and reputation.

Obama Administration (Sadly) Bamboozled by Assad

Thursday, January 30, 2014
Meanwhile, thousands of innocent Syrians continue to be slaughtered by the Assad regime.

When will the Obama Administration learn that these rogue regimes cannot be trusted?

From The Hill:

The effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons has “seriously languished and stalled” because of the Assad regime's obstructionism, the Obama administration said Thursday.

Only about four percent of the chemical weapons that were supposed to be out of the country by the end of last year have been removed, said the head of the U.S. delegation to the executive council meeting of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The Assad regime is to blame, Ambassador Robert Mikulak said, and should be denounced by the council.

“Today we are one month past the 31 December completion date set by the council,” Mikulak said in a statement. “Almost none of the Priority One chemicals have been removed, and the Syrian government will not commit to a specific schedule for removal. This situation will soon be compounded by Syria's failure to meet the February 5th completion date set by this Council for the removal of all Priority Two chemicals.”

The delay risks becoming a major embarrassment for the White House, which endorsed Secretary of State John Kerry's plan to get Assad to turn over his chemical weapons to avoid U.S. air strikes last year. Republicans long argued that Assad never had intention of complying.

Sr. Obama Advisor: Cuba Policy Remains Focused on Freedom

Excerpt from Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes' presentation of "2014 Foreign Policy Priorities for the Obama Administration":

On Cuba, as a general matter on regional issues, we understand that the nations of the hemisphere make their own determinations about the associations that they will join, about conferences that they will attend, so we respect that general process. I will say with respect to Cuba specifically, we have pursued changes in our own policies – in the first term, relaxed restrictions on family travel, remittances to the island. Certain types of travel to the island have – we’ve seen relaxed in terms of licensing. And we’ve also pursued migration talks and pragmatic cooperation when we can with the Cuban Government. So we’ve been open to exploring changes in our relationship and changes in a policy that, frankly, has not succeeded in bringing greater freedoms to the Cuban people.

At the same time, we also made very clear, though, that our concerns about human rights and freedoms for the Cuban people are still constant, and that ultimately, the policy we support are policies that bring greater freedoms to the people of Cuba, be it economic freedoms or political freedoms. And so the one concern, I think, that you’ve heard us express over the last several days is that around this conference, there have been some steps taken to harass or to silence political dissent, and we’d like to see countries, again, speak up for basic human rights that are in the Inter-American Charter. And that includes, again, freedom of expression and freedom for people to protest peacefully prominent among those.

So the American – if you look at the Americas, there’s been a great movement towards greater respect for human rights. We’d like to see that across the board, including in Cuba. And so we’ll continue to look at this balance as to how do we advance necessary changes that could improve the situation, but at the same time continue to express our concerns on these human rights issues [...]

On Cuba, look, President Obama has shown himself willing to look at changes in our policies, as I said. Our bottom line remains that we believe that there should be respect for human rights in Cuba, political and economic reforms that advance those opportunities for the Cuban people. The embargo, frankly, is not simply an act of the President, too; it’s an act of Congress. And there’s great congressional interest in making sure that we’re standing up for our democratic values in terms of our relationship with Cuba.

So those are constants in our policy. But we’re open to exploring pragmatic steps that can be taken, if they serve our interests, if they serve the interests of the hemisphere, if they serve the interests of the Cuban people.

Again, I would repeat the point I made earlier about Alan Gross, though, that so long as he is being held in a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Cuba, that is an impediment to improved relations. So we would very much like to see him released on a humanitarian basis, to, again, provide a different context for some of these issues.

But, I mean, I’d just close on this notion that I said at the – earlier, which is that we’re not seeking to continue debates from the ’60s and ’70s in the hemisphere. We’re seeking to pursue greater integration, and we’ve seen a lot of progress made. We’ve seen relations improve between the United States and countries that, in the past, we’ve had tensions (inaudible). But those have been reciprocal. We’ve seen countries pursue democratic reforms, we’ve seen countries reach out to the United States, and so that’s the type of step-by-step process that we believe can serve the interests of the hemisphere more broadly.

The Exception

Kudos to Chilean President Sebastian Pinera for being the only Latin American leader with any sort of moral compass.

From AFP:

Visiting Chile president meets Cuba dissident

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera met a leading dissident in Havana on Wednesday, in a move unlikely to please Cuba’s communist government.

Cuba, the only one-party communist country in the Americas, had just finished hosting Pinera at a summit of the CELAC bloc of 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations.

“I was able to speak with President Pinera, as well as other members of his delegation, for about 25 minutes,” Ladies in White opposition movement leader Berta Soler told AFP.

“It was a very cordial meeting,” Soler said, adding that Pinera “asked about ... detentions we are subjected to, and about how we are repressed nationwide ... how many political prisoners there are.”

She said the president was “great.”

Her group, comprised mainly of relatives of political prisoners, won the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize in 2005. They march in Havana every Sunday against the jailing of political dissidents.

There was no immediate reaction from the Cuban government, which says dissidents are paid by the United States.

Havana also argues it has a right to maintain a system that does not allow its citizens to exercise basic rights as recognised by the United Nations, to which it belongs.

On Tuesday, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said he pressed Cuba’s government on arbitrary detentions of dissidents, on the sidelines the summit.

Cuban dissidents had planned to hold a gathering on the fringes of the CELAC meeting in the Cuban capital.

But the parallel event’s host, Manuel Cuesta Morua, was detained — as were scores more in the run-up to the gathering.

Quote of the Day: On Dilma's Cuba Project

Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Finally, President Dilma inaugurated the first big project of her government. Unfortunately, it was in Cuba.
-- Aecio Neves, Brazilian presidential candidate, on Dilma Rousseff's $1 billion financing of Castro's new Port of Mariel facility, ANSA, 1/29/14

Tweet of the Day: Fear in Cuba

By New York Times correspondent Damien Cave, who is currently in Cuba:

Venezuela is Cuba's Colony

Venezuela's government will allow the country to implode rather than upset its rulers in Havana.

From El Nuevo Herald:

Oil income is no longer sufficient to guarantee the supply of bread and medicines in Venezuela, and the government of Nicolas Maduro has been forced to devalue the bolivar and further limit Venezuelan's access to dollars. But there's one area that the "chavista" leader doesn't dare cut: the massive [oil] subsidy to the Cuban economy.

The economic crisis that has engulfed Venezuela, with its oil income insufficient to cover the needs of the country, has led the government to cut the national budget by 63% in real terms [...]

But the subsidy of over 100,000 daily barrels and other support for Cuba, worth more than $6.5 billion a year, remains intact, raising questions about what are the real priorities of "chavismo."

The Engagement Model in Full Display

This week we've seen the "engagement model" with the Castro regime in full display.

And its ugly.

This is the same model that some -- whether for ideological, business or ingenious reasons -- would like to see the U.S. adopt as well.

After the shameful collusion and collateral damage we've seen this week, it's an even more difficult model to justify.

Prior to the CELAC Summit, the Castro regime "cleaned up" the streets of Havana, whereby hundreds of dissidents were arrested, along with anyone else the Cuban dictatorship considers "undesirable."

(Blogger Yoani Sanchez best explains this "cleansing" here and here.)

Some of these dissidents will be released in the days ahead, while others will be kept imprisoned for the long-term, with the Castro regime hoping no one will notice.

This isn't new.

We saw this pursuant to the visit of Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Cuba in March 2012. Hundreds of dissidents were arrested ahead of the visit, and some remain imprisoned (without trial or charges) to this day. Most notably Sonia Garro, an Afro-Cuban member of The Ladies in White.

And just as The Vatican has done nothing to secure Garro's release upon the Pope's departure, none of this week's visiting dignitaries will do anything for those imprisoned upon their departure.

Well, actually, they didn't do anything for them during their visit either.

All of these Latin American leaders kept a shameful silence vis–à–vis the last dictatorship in the Americas, in order not to "offend" the Castro regime, to protect business opportunities or due to ideological preferences.

(Note that all of the business agreements signed during the sidelines of the Summit were solely with Castro's military-run monopolies.)

And some of these leaders would like to see Cuba's dictatorship "fully integrated" and recognized in the Western Hemisphere, in order to accelerate their own totalitarian tendencies.

After all, if Castro's dictatorship is "fully integrated" and accepted -- what's to keep a return to the Latin American dictatorships of the 20th century, whether of the left or the right?

They'll, once again, become business as usual.

This engagement model has been harmful to courageous dissidents, who will see repression increase; to civil society, who will see Castro's monopolies strengthened; and to all the people of the Americas, who will see representative democracy wane.

That's why we should continue to reject it.

Tweets of the Day: U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power on Cuba

Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Kudos to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power:

IBD Editorial Board: As Leaders Praise Castro, Beatings Intensify

From Investor's Business Daily's Editorial Board:

As Latin America's Leaders Hail Democracy In Havana, Cuba's Beatings Intensify

Hypocrisy: Gushing at Cuba's rulers, Latin America's leaders gathered in Havana this week to proclaim "democracy." And as Fidel Castro lapped it all up, real Cuban democracy advocates were being beaten by his goons.

Coming together as CELAC, the late Hugo Chavez's 32-nation club that prides itself on excluding the U.S. and Canada, Latin American "democratic" leaders met in one of the world's last remaining Stalinist redoubts to "deepen Latin American integration" as well as reaffirm "the preservation of democracy and democratic values, the validity of institutions and respect for rule of law" and "human rights."

Well, yeah. In such a hypocritical setting, it's not surprising that Nicaragua's de facto Marxist dictator, Daniel Ortega, felt comfy declaring an end to term limits and pesky elections in his own nation Tuesday.

Worst was what took place outside the conference. As Argentina's Evita wannabe "Presidenta" Cristina Fernandez made goo-goo eyes and gushed at dictator Castro, who has ruled his country for 55 years with zero democracy, the actual democracy campaigners outside received quite different treatment.

Courageous people such as the Ladies in White (wives of imprisoned dissidents), blogger Yoani Sanchez (who writes about conditions under Cuba's tyranny), Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet (who spent 20 years in Castro's dungeons for advocating Martin Luther King's civil disobedience), and democracy campaigners Marta Beatriz Roque and Guillermo Farinas endured beatings from thugs, warnings not to take their case to the delegates and baying government mobs that hurled excrement at them like zoo apes. And as the fulsome toasts to Castro flowed, many were imprisoned.

On one hand, it's expected that the likes of Ortega would be emboldened to declare dictatorship in a fraudulent setting like CELAC. But there's no excuse for real democracies — Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Colombia and others — to go along with such hypocrisy.

Not one went to meet the dissidents of Cuba or blasted the dictatorship to lighten the hearts of Cuba's oppressed people. Not one.

All this shows is that none of these shameless leaders are quite ready for prime time as global leaders.

They just float along like so much flotsam, following whoever is the leader now — getting along to go along — even if that leader happens to be the worst dictator the Western Hemisphere has ever known.

CSW: Cuban Pastor Threatened and Arrested

From Christian Solidarity Worldwide:

Cuba: Pastor Lleonart Barroso under house arrest following detention 

Reverend Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso, a Baptist pastor, was arrested and detained by political police and state security agents in central Cuba on 25 January. He was returned to his home later that night and put under house arrest.

Political police surrounded the home of Reverend Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso, pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Taguayabon, in the early hours of 25 January. His wife, Yoaxis Marcheco Suarez, was forcibly stopped by security services when she attempted to leave the house with their two young daughters to warn Reverend Lleonart Barroso, who was not home at the time. He was arrested in front of his family in the street as he returned home.

Reverend Lleonart Barroso was held incommunicado for most of the day. He was returned home late in the evening and put under house arrest. During his detention, prints were taken of his fingers and toes, a scent sample was taken and the pastor was forced to give DNA samples from his nails and teeth. State security agents also attempted to intimidate him into signing an Official Warning or ‘Advertencia Oficial’, which is frequently used in the Cuban court system as evidence in future arrests. Reverend Lleonart Barroso refused to do so.

Since his return home, two armed political police officers are standing guard outside the family house which is adjacent to the church. According to the pastor’s sister, Mirka Pena, the arrest of Reverend Lleonart Barroso is part of a larger crackdown on political dissidents across the country, including well known activists such as Dr Oscar Elias Biscet and Sakharov prize winner Guillermo Fariñas, in anticipation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit, due to take place this week in Cuba.

Reverend Lleonart Barroso and his wife received a visit from the political police a few days before his arrest, who warned them to ‘be calm’ during the CELAC summit, which will bring together heads of state from across Latin America and the Caribbean. Government officials informed Reverend Lleonart Barroso that if he leaves his house he will be put in prison.

The arrest of Reverend Lleonart Barroso follows the temporary detention of another pastor, Yordani Santí, who was summoned to the police station on 16 January and interrogated for several hours. State security agents threatened and warned Pastor Santí to stop associating with Reverend Lleonart Barroso or face serious consequences.

Ban Ki-moon's Cynical Remarks in Cuba

Yesterday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon delivered remarks at an event orchestrated by the Castro regime for his "Unite to End Violence Against Women" campaign.

It's cynical enough that the Secretary General did this event in conjunction with the Castro regime, which routinely harasses, beats and imprisons peaceful female activists.

Instead, he should have done this event with Cuba's courageous female democracy and civil society leaders.

But to add extra cynicism, Ban Ki-Moon stated:

"Since [violence against women] is rooted in discrimination, impunity and complacency, we need to change attitudes and behavior – and we need to change laws and make sure they are enforced just like you are doing in Cuba."

The U.N. Secretary General is either ignorant (unlikely) or cynical (likely).

On a weekly basis, the Castro regime launches violent attacks against Cuba's Ladies in White, a peaceful, internationally-recognized, pro-democracy group composed of the wives, daughter and other relatives of current and former political prisoners.

The world has seen the troubling images of the state-sanctioned violence against them -- time and time again.

Yet, Ban  Ki-moon has (tragically) chosen to side with the aggressor, rather than the victims.

He should practice what he preaches.

The Secretary General should stop discriminating and being complacent with the state-sanctioned violence against Cuban women, who are no less deserving of fundamental rights and freedoms than anyone else.

Quote of the Week: From Amnesty International

It is outrageous that those who disagree with the Cuban government are not allowed to express themselves in a public and collective manner.  The heads of state of the CELAC member countries and the high officials of regional and international organizations, such as UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, should not ignore the fact that as the arrive in Havana to participate in the summit, Cuban activists are being repressed by their government.
-- Javier Zuniga, on behalf of Amnesty International, 1/27/14

Tweet of the Week

From Cuban democracy leader, Antonio Rodiles:

#Cuba We'll be facing tougher times in the Cuban opposition after so much international insensibility #HumanRightsCuba #CELAC

Miami Herald Editorial Board: The Hypocrisy Summit

Monday, January 27, 2014
From The Miami Herald's Editorial Board:

The hypocrisy summit  

OUR OPINION: Hemispheric forum in Havana a fearful time for dissidents

The two faces of the Cuban government will be on full display in Havana Tuesday and Wednesday during the summit of a hemispheric body explicitly designed to spite the United States and Canada, which are excluded from membership.

On the surface, the second summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC for its initials in Spanish, will be a grand celebration of unity against hemispheric domination by the despised United States. (Canada’s exclusion is mostly a case of collateral damage.)

The streets are being spruced up, new flower pots are lining the road into the city from the airport and decaying billboards are being replaced. A fresh coat of paint will serve to conceal the dilapidated condition of Havana’s crumbling buildings.

In the shadows, meanwhile, the police-state goons, who represent the real Cuba, will be busy rounding up the usual suspects — those who clamor for genuine freedom and detest the oppression that prevails in the country of Jose Martí’s birth.

This is the customary script for events in Cuba that draw international media attention, as with papal visits. The government is so keen to create the impression that everyone lives happily under a benevolent Castro dictatorship that it takes extra measures to ensure that neither official visitors nor the press witness signs of dissent.

If only the visiting heads of state could peer through the smokescreen, they would see another reality. The prominent blogger Yoani Sánchez has noted that events that bring visiting dignitaries to Cuba are an especially fearful time for dissidents and anyone branded as an “anti-social element” in the communist paradise:

The clandestine and officially “unpresentable” Havana has been warned that it must be quiet, very quiet. The beggars are being held until the Summit is over, the pimps warned to maintain control over their girls and boys, while members of the political police visit the homes of the opposition. The illegal market is also being held in check.

The government routinely cuts phone service to known dissidents, ensures that beggars and undesirables remain out of sight and sees to it that illegal satellite antennas are taken down. Some dissidents are routinely placed under house arrest. Everyone must be on their best behavior lest the visitors get the wrong impression.

The cruel hypocrisy of the Cuban government is ably abetted by the visiting heads of state, some 30 of whom are expected for the summit.

Some, like Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, are slavish followers of the Castro model. After all, CELAC was the brainchild of the late Hugo Chávez, Mr. Maduro’s predecessor and mentor.

But most of the others know that the repressive Cuban model would never work at home, and would never dare try it. Their participation is a knee-jerk response to calls for leftist solidarity, a relic of the Cold War designed to mollify leftists back home and create the appearance of political solidarity with Cuba.

But the truth is that the Cuban model has less credibility than ever. The leading nations of the hemisphere may offer lip service to Cuba’s anti-American views, but they don’t support it in practice.

Instead, they partner with each other and the United States in regional economic alliances and place their faith in open markets, democracy and free enterprise.

That is the path to a more prosperous future. Someday, Cuba itself will take the same path.

WaPo Editorial Board: EU Mustn't Overlook Human Rights in Cuba

From The Washington Post's Editorial Board:

E.U. policy toward Cuba must not overlook its human rights abuses

As an island nation with a failed socialist economy, Cuba depends for its survival on those beyond its borders. Venezuela has been its principal patron in recent years, but trade with the European Union is also significant. The European Union is Cuba’s second-most important trading partner and biggest external investor; one-third of all tourists to the island each year come from E.U. countries. Outsiders can influence Cuba, at least at the margins, and they should take advantage of that leverage.

On Feb. 10, the foreign ministers of the 28 E.U. member states will meet in Brussels. On their agenda is whether to begin a negotiation toward a new “political and cooperation agreement” with Cuba, which is being pushed by Spain and some others. Before they rush into a new handshake in Havana, this is a good moment for Europe to take a stand for human rights and send a message to Raúl Castro and his brother Fidel that investments and aid are linked to progress toward democracy and an end to repression.

A decade ago, a visionary dissident, Oswaldo Payá, launched the Varela Project in Cuba, an initiative seeking a legal plebiscite on democracy, free speech and release of political prisoners. More than 11,000 people courageously signed his petition at the time — more than 25,000 back it today — and the regime reacted with cruel disdain. In the “Black Spring” wave of arrests and repression in early 2003, some 75 activists were sentenced to long prison terms. Wisely, the E.U. reacted with disgust to the crackdown, and relations with Cuba soured.

The European Parliament in 2002 recognized Mr. Payá’s effort, awarding him the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, given each year “to honor exceptional individuals who combat intolerance, fanaticism and oppression.” The Web site for the prize notes that Mr. Payá was attempting to change Cuba using legal means, from within.

In July 2012, Mr. Payá was killed in a car wreck in eastern Cuba under suspicious circumstances, along with another activist, Harold Cepero. The vehicle in which they were riding was rammed from behind by a car bearing government license plates, according to the driver. There has yet to be an independent and credible investigation of the circumstances of the crash.

Before the E.U. foreign ministers act, they should read the Jan. 17 letter sent from Havana by the Christian Liberation Movement, of which Mr. Payá was a leader. It notes that there has been a wave of arbitrary detentions, beatings and suspicious deaths over the past two years and cautions that, in his recent gradual liberalization measures, Raúl Castro “grants privileges and permissions, but not our right to have rights.”

On Dec. 11, the European Parliament expressed concern about the human rights situation in Cuba and called for “an international and independent committee of inquiry” to investigate the deaths of Mr. Payá and Mr. Cepero. We hope the E.U. foreign ministers are listening to the parliament that honored Mr. Payá with the Sakharov Prize a decade ago.

Why the OAS is Irrelevant Today

Answer: Because its Secretary General, Jose Miguel Insulza, is sadly unwilling or incapable of defending the goals and principles of the Organization American States' ("OAS") founding Charter and Inter-American Democratic Charter.

On his way to Havana for the CELAC Summit, Insulza said he would not meet with any Cuban dissidents because he didn't want to offend the Castro dictatorship.

"I don't want to provoke any problem or situation that can be uncomfortable for anyone, for I don't think it corresponds to me," said Insulza.

Sorry, Mr. Insulza, but defending fundamental rights, freedom and representative democracy, which are the very core of the OAS's goals and principles, does correspond to you.

If you are unwilling or incapable of defending them, perhaps you should step down from your plum job.

Or U.S. taxpayers should stop subsidizing your salary.

Note to Ban Ki-moon: Meet With the Victims

Upon arriving in Havana last night for the CELAC Summit, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated:

"I look forward to hearing views on key issues from peace and security to sustainable development and human rights."

The most thoughtful and effective way to do so is by meeting with Cuban democracy activists and other victims of human rights abuses.

In other words, meeting with those who risk their lives and are imprisoned for defending the principles of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights ("UNDHR").

(Many Cuban dissidents have been arrested simply for carrying a copy of the UNDHR.)

Will the Secretary General do so?

Or like his regional counter-part at the Organization of American States (OAS), will he be concerned not to "offend" the last totalitarian dictatorship of the Americas?

In that case, the Secretary General should revise his statement to clarify that he's only interested in one view: that of the aggressor.

Over 144 Dissidents Arrested Ahead of CELAC Summit

According to Cuban independent journalists, over 144 political arrests have been documented leading up to the CELAC Summit.

Moreover, the cell phone lines of democracy activists have been cut off.

From AFP:

Dozens of dissidents arrested in Cuba as major summit looms

Dozens of dissidents have been detained in a "wave of political repression" ahead of a major international summit in Cuba, activists said Sunday.

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit hosting heads of state from across the region provides opportunities for dissidents in the Americas' only one-party Communist-ruled state to try to raise their profiles, and seek world leaders' ears.

"The government is carrying out a wave of political repression ahead of the summit" in Havana that ends Wednesday, warned dissident Elizardo Sanchez.

One dissident who planned to attend an event on the summit's sidelines, Jose Daniel Ferrer, was arrested Friday after meeting with European diplomats, Sanchez said.

"As of now, he is technically missing. No one knows where he is," said Sanchez, who heads the outlawed Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Dissident Guillermo Farinas said he has been placed under house arrest to keep him from taking part in an opposition forum on the summit sidelines.

"Today is the third day they won't let me go out," Farinas told AFP by telephone from his home in Santa Clara, 280 kilometers (174 miles) east of Havana.

"There is a police operative who stays a block away from my house during the day but is in front of it at night," he said.

Farinas, who was awarded the European parliament's Sakharov prize in 2010, is a veteran of hunger strikes seeking political opening on the communist-ruled island.

The 52-year-old psychologist said he had planned to take part in a "democratic forum about international relations and human rights" that Cuban dissidents have called for Tuesday in Havana.

The meeting is timed to coincide with the opening of the two-day CELAC summit. The organization counts 33 members.

And the higher-profile dissident group Ladies in White, made up of political prisoners' relatives, said that as many as 100 of its members have been arrested to keep them from taking part in the dissident forum.

The Ladies in White, who won the 2005 Sakharov prize, were out on the streets in Havana marching as they do each week.

Police strength had been boosted discreetly but 56 of the group's members marched on Fifth Avenue, calling for political opening after mass.

"More than 100 members of the Ladies in White have been called in by the police since Friday, taken to police stations," said Ladies in White leader Berta Soler.

Menendez Foes Stumble in Smear Campaign

Sunday, January 26, 2014
If you ever had any doubts that Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) is the target of a smear campaign, the latest "anonymous" allegations against him should discard them.

Menendez's foes got a local New York television station to misrepresent his efforts on behalf of William and Roberto Isaias, two Ecuadorian banking and media moguls targeted in a political witch-hunt by President Rafael Correa.

Of course, the local New York station is clueless about the political realities of Ecuador, including Correa's inappropriate use of the judiciary to intimidate and persecute political foes.

Perhaps they should have read Human Rights Watch's 2014 World Report -- just released last week -- which states:

"The Correa government continues to subject members of the media to public recrimination. Prosecutors use overly broad counter-terrorism and sabotage offences against government critics who engage in public protests [...] Corruption, inefficiency, and political influence have plagued Ecuador’s judiciary for years."

Or, The New York Times and The Washington Post's recent editorials against Correa's abuse of power, crackdown against political foes and overall "assault on democracy."

Ironically, on the very same day they criticized Menendez's support of the Isaias brothers, Correa was engaged in yet another witch-hunt against a political foe, whereby his "National Court of Justice" upheld a bogus prison sentence against a prominent opposition legislator and critic.

But that didn't give the local New York station any pause.

Instead, they labeled the Isaias brothers as "fugitives," portrayed Ecuador like Costa Rica and criticized Menendez -- alleging an FBI investigation -- for weighing-in on their behalf in 2012.

Except, the State and Justice Departments have already denied Correa's extradition request of the Isaias brothers on six occasions starting in 2004.


The State and Justice Departments officially denied Correa's extradition requests of the Isaias brothers in 2004, 2009, three times in 2010, and most recently in June 2013.

In each of these denials, the State and Justice Departments noted how Ecuador's allegations against the Isaias brothers do not meet the minimum legally-required standard of "probable cause" to even merit consideration of extradition.

Moreover, that Ecuador has not provided any evidence whatsoever against the Isaias brothers for the accusations that the New York television station takes at face-value.

Finally, Menendez is not the only Member of Congress that has expressed concern about the fate of the Isaias brothers.

There have been nearly a dozen other Members of Congress who have similarly (and rightfully) expressed concern.

So why is Menendez being singled-out and targeted?

Isn't it curious that all of these smears against Menendez began when it first appeared that he would take the helm of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee?

So who is afraid of Bob Menendez?

Perhaps that's a question the media should begin asking.

Tweet of the Day

By Elsa Morejon, wife of Cuban democracy leader, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet:

#Cuba The only country in the Americas that hasn't had free elections nor multi-parties in 56 years, is the host of the #CELACSummit. Unbelievable.

Dissidents Arrested Ahead of CELAC Summit

Among other renowned pro-democracy leaders arrested are Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, Felix Navarro and Yusmila Reyna.

From BBC:

Cuban leading activist Jose Ferrer 'arrested' in Havana

Pro-democracy activists in Cuba say a leading dissident Jose Ferrer has been arrested after meeting European diplomats in the capital, Havana.

The activists said they did not know where Mr Ferrer had been taken.

They have also reported other arrests and intimidation from the Cuban authorities, ahead of a regional gathering of heads of state next week.

Mr Ferrer was planning to attend an unauthorized meeting of dissidents during the summit.

"He was detained late on Friday near my home, where he had been a guest," Elizardo Sanchez, the leader of the illegal but tolerated Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission (CCDHRN), told the AFP news agency.

He said that at least eight other activists had been arrested, most of them temporarily, and that they were being targeted because of the international gathering, which opens on Tuesday.

"We fear that a wave of political repression has started ahead the summit, especially in the west of the country," near the capital, he told Efe news agency.

The BBC's Sarah Rainsford in Havana says it has become normal practice to detain people to warn them off or keep them out of the way of an event.

'Police intimidation'

The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the head of the Organisation of American States Jose Miguel Insulza, as well as the presidents from Brazil, Argentina, Peru and other countries, are gathering in Havana on 28-29 January for the summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac).

But alongside the official gathering, pro-democracy activists were planning to stage their own summit without the authorization of the Cuban government.

The Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez complained they were being watched by the authorities and reported police intimidation ahead of the Celac meetings.

"The political police have intercepted my husband @rescobarcasas [Reinaldo Escobar] outside the house to threaten him about #CumbreCELAC", she said on Twitter, referring to the summit.

Is Al-Qaeda Laundering Funds Through Cuba?

Saturday, January 25, 2014
Yesterday, the Castro regime decreed that it would now begin to freeze bank assets affiliated to Al-Qaeda in Cuba.

That raises important questions:

What took it so long?

Is this a tacit admission that it has been facilitating terrorist financing all along?

Has Al-Qaeda been laundering funds through Cuba's secretive banking system for the last two decades?

What about other terrorist groups?

Hadn't "experts" assured us that Castro had long given up these activities?

Where's the oversight?

Why should we trust Castro's regime now, let alone it's non-transparency?

According to the Castro regime, this new decree supposedly demonstrates its "commitment in the fight against money laundering, financing terrorism and the proliferation of weapons."

So says the regime that was recently caught red-handed lying to the international community about its illegal proliferation of weapons to North Korea.

Old habits die very hard.

Inter-American Democratic Charter, RIP

Friday, January 24, 2014
By Jose Cardenas in Foreign Policy:

RIP, Inter-American Democratic Charter

Next week, leaders from Latin American and the Caribbean will assemble in a jovial atmosphere in undemocratic Cuba to effectively bury the Inter-American Democratic Charter. That historic document, signed by all countries in the Western Hemisphere (excepting, of course, Cuba) on the fateful day of September 11, 2001, set the unprecedented standard that, "The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it."

Today, almost 13 years later, the charter has been rendered meaningless -- and, worse, no one seems to care.

Perhaps the Organization of American States (OAS) -- which proudly features the charter on its website -- would have a comment on the utter incongruity of regional leaders supposedly obligated to promote and defend democracy summiteering in Cuba? Well, to find Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza you would have to ring him up in his hotel in Havana, as he is Gen. Raúl Castro's "Special Guest" for the summit -- the first OAS secretary-general to travel to Cuba since it was expelled from the group in 1962.

Officially, the 32 regional leaders and representatives will be attending a summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), an organization championed by late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and expressly formed to exclude the United States and Canada. Castro is winding down his year as CELAC's "President," a title awarded him despite the fact that CELAC mandates "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms" to participate as a member.

Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez has reported how the Castro regime is preparing for its guests' arrival:

"The clandestine and officially ‘unpresentable' Havana has been warned that it must be quiet, very quiet. The beggars are being held until the Summit is over, the pimps warned to maintain control over their girls and boys, while members of the political police visit the homes of the opposition. The illegal market is also being held in check. ‘Calm down, let's have a little calm,' the police repeat in a threatening tone."

Still, Cuba's brave dissident community has announced plans for a parallel forum on democracy in Havana to run concurrent with the CELAC summit. According to the Miami Herald, however, "[b]arring last-minute surprises," summit participants "will skip the international diplomatic practice of meeting with opposition leaders or independent civil society groups during their trip to Cuba."

But as one dissident told the Herald, "My message for the visiting leaders would be that they shouldn't make themselves accomplices of the Castro brothers' dictatorship.... They should instead side with the Cuban people, so that the government gets the message that it has to change."

Unfortunately, Barack Obama's administration has undercut the U.S. position to speak out about a regional summit in Havana, since a senior State Department official just traveled there earlier this month for what he called "respectful and thoughtful" discussions with the regime.

What the travesty in Cuba demonstrates is that the cult of Hugo Chávez still hangs over the region like a plague. It is not enough anymore for the serious leaders of the region to continue to politely indulge the antics of the loudmouthed, blame-placing populists and their retrograde agendas. Wallowing in historical grievance, vitiating the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and playing to people's worst instincts may be an effective mix for maintaining political power, but it is a terrible way to develop a 21st-century economy. Other regions of the world are moving quickly and with purpose to develop their economies by embedding them in the international trading system. If the adults in Latin America don't step up soon, the region will only continue to lose valuable time to compete.

Tweet of the Day

Venezuela Embraces Cuba's Military Monopolies

From El Universal:

Venezuela embraces the Cuban state trade model

Military participation ensured the government predominance in Cuba

Top centralization. This is the core attribute of the Cuban economy: the hinge relies on the military who grab 70% of the national trade through businesses that operate as small autonomous republics within the stiff state bureaucracy.

The Cuban national armed forces (FAR) have lately striven to grasp finances and inherit power in the stead of civilians, considering that the theoretical heir apparent in the post-Castro era would be Miguel Díaz Canel, a 55-year-old civilian promoted to the rank of Vice-President of the State Council in 2013.

In Venezuela, upon the setup of the Venezuelan Foreign Trade Corporation (Venecom), the Venezuelan State may import and supply goods and inputs needed by public and private companies for production. Such macroeconomic vision was rigorously implemented in Cuba without the stake of the private sector.

Whereas private entrepreneurship is absent in the island, the Cuban State takes hold of imports and exports through several agencies, including the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, and a certain number of high military officers manage over USD 11 billion of the income through 58 national corporations.

"In the Cuban case, the FAR controls important economic sectors through companies which, per each sector, have positioned allied military," highlights Cuban economist José Azel, a scholar with the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami (Iccas).

In the Cuban case, there are not private exporters, except for joint ventures with Canadian and other firms, Azel added.

All of the 58 state-run companies are in charge of exports. Meanwhile, the Cuban government centralizes profits and works on imports through government agencies. Take, for instance, 80% of foodstuffs, up to USD 1.5 billion in 2011.

The stiff state trade apparatus tracks the incoming and outgoing foreign currency. The foreign currency is apportioned through a number of government companies which move the economy and pool most of the manpower (over 80%).

The policy of price and market controls signified a social-style strategy subsequently turned into scarcity of bare essentials.

Quote of the Week: On Major Street Protest in Holguin

It’s no longer the opposition protesting. Now, it’s the people.
-- Dr. Eduardo Cardet, Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) leader, on the more than 500 Cubans who protested against the Castro regime's confiscation of goods at an open-air market, The Miami Herald, 1/22/14

Below (or here) is video footage of the protest in the town of Holguin:

More Selective Silence From Cuba's Foreign Bureaus

Kudos to the The Miami Herald and The New York Times for reporting on the protest of more than 500 Cubans in the city of Holguin, pursuant to the Castro regime's raid and confiscation of goods at an open-air market there.

Yet, it's fascinating that not a single Cuba-based foreign news bureau has covered this story.

In contrast, there's not a press release from the Castro regime -- no matter how silly -- that they won't report on.

Moreover, these foreign news bureaus never miss an opportunity to "analyze" ("criticize") and speculate on U.S. policy from Havana.

However, they tend to be curiously absent every weekend, as The Ladies in White are beaten and arrested for attending Mass, or any time there are courageous acts of defiance and opposition to the Castro dictatorship.

They can (irresponsibly) choose to ignore it, but no one can deny it -- for it was caught on video.

Hit Castro's Pocketbook to Help Free American

A Letter to the Editor of Florida Today:

Hit Cuba in pocketbook to help free American

My congratulations to Public Interest Editor Matt Reed for his recent interview with Rick Townson, author of “Hotel Fidel Castro: An American’s nine years in the Cuban gulag.”

During the interview, it was mentioned that Cuba has been holding Alan P. Gross, a Maryland-based contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, on patently false espionage charges, in the hope he can be swapped for five confessed Cuban spies imprisoned or paroled in the United States.

As should have been clear from the beginning of this ordeal, Gross is only coming home when his Cuban captors realize the cost of continuing to hold him outweighs the benefits. The only way to make Cuba feel the cost is to hit it in the pocketbook, which means rolling back such signature administration initiatives as liberalized travel to Cuba, which puts desperately needed hard currency in the regime’s coffers. If Judy Gross’ lawyers want to take on the administration, that is where they need to focus their efforts.

The sooner the Cuban government sees fewer cash-carrying U.S. visitors to subsidize its control of the Cuban people, the sooner Alan Gross will be reunited with his suffering family.

The Good (and Gullible) Bob Graham

Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Former Florida Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham (D) is a good man.

But good men can be gullible -- and sometimes, very gullible.

As we noted last week, Graham recently visited Cuba with Castro regime admirer Julia Sweig, pursuant to his concerns about Cuba's off-shore drilling projects.

Problem is Cuba's decade-long, off-shore, oil pipe-dream came to an end last year.

Not so, says Graham.  

The Cubans are still pursuing more off-shore drilling.

Never mind that it's commercially and logistically implausible.

So how can Graham be so sure?

Well, because the Cubans told him so.

According to Graham, the Castro regime told him that they were planning future off-shore drilling endeavors with Brazilian and Angolan companies.

That makes perfect (non)sense.

In 2011, Brazil's Petrobras was the first foreign company to publicly abandon Cuba's off-shore oil pipe-dream due to "poor prospects" and it being commercially inviable.

What has changed since then?

Nothing. Other than the "poor prospects" being poorer now, and Petrobras being even more troubled and debt-laden.

Meanwhile, Angola's Sonangol literally can't keep up with drilling for the vast proven resources off its own coasts.

So they are going to sacrifice proven production in its own backyard to pursue Castro's far-away, complex and expensive pipe-dream?

Give me a break.

Note to Graham: In 2006 and 2008, then Vice-President Dick Cheney and other GOP leaders looked foolish after arguing that the Chinese were drilling in Cuban waters 50 miles off Florida's coasts. After all, this had been reported in the media based on statements by the Castro regime.  It was untrue.

Don't fall into the same trap.

A Glitch in the Engagement Narrative

This week, Human Rights Watch released its 2014 World Report.

The following two headlines grabbed our attention, as we'd been told by "experts" that the China and Vietnam models of U.S. engagement and economic "reforms" inevitably lead to political reforms. 

Except the opposite is happening.

Here are the headlines:

Vietnam: Communist Party Tightens Grip

Activists were increasingly targeted by the Vietnamese authorities in 2013, worsening a trend of politically motivated convictions against peaceful critics.

China: New Leaders Fail to Embrace Genuine Reforms

The Chinese Communist Party reinforced its monopoly on power in 2013 through tough new measures and hardline rhetoric, dashing hopes that the country’s new leadership would engage in deep systemic reforms to improve human rights and strengthen the rule of law.

A Sad Day for Democracy in Latin America

By Andres Oppenheimer in The Miami Herald:

Latin leaders to applaud Cuba’s dictatorship

What’s most shameful about Latin American presidents’ scheduled visit to Cuba for a regional summit Tuesday is not that they will visit one of the world’s last family dictatorships, but that they most likely won’t even set foot at a parallel summit that the island’s peaceful opposition plans to hold at the same time.

Barring last-minute surprises, the 32 Latin American and Caribbean heads of state and government representatives scheduled to attend the Tuesday-Thursday summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in Havana will skip the international diplomatic practice of meeting with opposition leaders or independent civil society groups during their trip to Cuba.

So far, not even Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who wants to be seen as part of a new generation of leaders of his once-authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has plans to meet with any member of the peaceful opposition while in Cuba.

By comparison, former President Vicente Fox and his foreign minister, Jorge Castañeda, met with peaceful opposition leaders during a visit to Cuba in 2002, and former Mexican Foreign Minister Rosario Green met with Cuban dissidents during a summit in Havana in 1999. And the Castro brothers meet with leftist opposition leaders whenever they go to summits in countries that are not ruled by sympathetic leaders.

In a Jan. 18 interview with the Spanish daily El Pais, Mexican Foreign Minister José Antonio Meade said that “we want to develop a very close relationship with Cuba, of full support to its economic updating strategy.”

Asked whether Peña Nieto will meet with Cuban dissidents during his visit, Meade said, “President Peña Nieto will participate in Cuba in an agenda related to the CELAC summit. He has accepted an official visit, and that’s the framework in which it will develop.” Translation: He won’t.

Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, who is also scheduled to attend the summit as an observer, did not respond at the time of this writing to a call about whether he will meet with opposition leaders.

Guillermo Fariñas, one of the Cuban opposition leaders planning to attend the counter-summit in Havana, told me in a telephone interview from Cuba earlier this week that Cuba’s secret police has already paid a visit to several dissidents, including blogger Yoanni Sanchez, warning them not to hold the opposition summit.

“Whether or not Cuba’s repressive regime allows a parallel summit of the peaceful opposition, it will pay a political price for it,” Fariñas told me.

“If they allow it, the international media will hear from voices other than the official ones, and we will tell them that there’s no democracy in Cuba,” Fariñas said. “And if they don’t allow it, it will show that despite its propaganda efforts claiming that there are changes going on in Cuba, the reality is that there’s a wave of repression.”

The likelihood that the visiting leaders won’t meet with the opposition makes them “accomplices with the only dictatorship in Latin America,” Fariñas said. “History shows that when countries make goodwill gestures toward this kind of dictatorships, the latter use them to strengthen themselves diplomatically, politically, economically and militarily.”

“My message for the visiting leaders would be that they shouldn’t make themselves accomplices of the Castro brothers’ dictatorship,” Fariñas concluded. “They should instead side with the Cuban people, so that the government gets the message that it has to change.”

My opinion: I agree. It’s already a joke that Latin America’s democratically elected presidents have picked the region’s only military dictator — which is what Gen. Raúl Castro is, by any dictionary’s definition — as head of CELAC, even if the group that has among its top goals “promoting democracy’’ in the region.

But going to a CELAC summit in Cuba without meeting with any opposition representatives amounts to giving a propaganda boost to a totalitarian regime, while spurning the island’s peaceful opposition. Many of us who opposed Latin America’s military dictatorships in the 1970s still remember how these international summits help legitimize totalitarian regimes.

Of course, some of the visiting presidents will claim that they can’t meet with dissidents on an official visit because they have to respect the “self-determination of the Cuban people.” That’s baloney! What “self-determination” are they talking about, when the Cuban people haven’t had a chance to vote freely to determine their own future in 55 years?

If visiting leaders don’t meet any members of the peaceful opposition while in Havana, it will be a sad day for the history of democracy in Latin America.

Quote(s) of the Day

From Miami New Times' interview with Cuban-American hip-hop group, Problem Kids:

Does the band's Cuban heritage come up on the new album?

Yeah, we have a couple new songs about it. One is about Fidel Castro and how he treats the Cuban people. The world doesn't see it, but it's our duty as Cuban Americans to let the world know exactly how Cuba really is.

Like what?

Bro, it's just very poor. And if you're not for the government, there's not much you can do out there. A doctor makes the same as a bus driver. The currency is worthless. I just went on a mission to work at a school. A can of Coke is $2, and a family makes like $20 a month. A can of Coke is a privilege. Here, we take it for granted. But there they have no rights.

What else makes you mad?

If somebody builds a school, the government can go and take it without hesitation. They can take anything from anybody at any time. People go there on vacation while the government is beating women. It's a beautiful country, but people only see the nice beaches, the old cars, and the pretty women on TV. They're stuck on an island.

How was the music?

They have no musical freedom. If it's not what the government deems right, they put you in jail. It's a touchy subject. A bunch of artists have been locked up with no food and are dying in jail for trying to achieve the freedom of speech that we Americans take for granted.

People do escape, though.

Yeah, and it's infuriating that they have to. But at the same time, it feels good that my people came here with literally nothing but the clothes on their back and made something of themselves. That's why our music's not just about material things. It is what it is so that people can appreciate the struggle and connect.

Lessons from an American in Castro's Gulag

Tuesday, January 21, 2014
If you have any doubt that Castro's hostage-taking of American development worker Alan Gross was premeditated, read the following interview carefully.

Florida Today's Matt Reed sat down with onetime smuggler Rick Townson, who has published a book about his nine-year imprisonment in Cuba's gulags:

Lessons from Castro's Gulag

Rick Townson thought he might die in the Cuban prisons where he was held for drug smuggling and kept as a political bargaining chip.

Townson now lives on a sailboat in Indian Harbour Beach and has published a book about his ordeal, “Hotel Fidel Castro: An American’s nine years in the Cuban gulag.”

Townson believes he owes his release to the misfortune of Alan Gross, a U.S. aid contractor arrested for spying and sentenced in 2011 to 15 years.

His story begins in 2002. Then a cab driver in Key West, Townson was persuaded by friends to join a boat trip to Jamaica to smuggle marijuana. The return voyage went badly, and he found himself handcuffed and exhausted at a marina in Havana as Cuban authorities seized 650 pounds of pot.

Q,. How does American justice compare to the system you encountered?

Townson: Here, there’s a sense of fairness in the courts and you can get an attorney to protect your rights.

Down there, you’re locked in a box that can barely fit four grown men. There’s a hole in the floor for a toilet. Our bunks were solid steel, with a thin layer of felt for a mattress. Poor-quality food. I’ve never been so cold as that January in Cuba.

They just wait until you’re ready to spill your guts.

Q. Did you get a trial?

Townson: In Cuba, they don’t even tell you what you’re charged with until one month before you go to court. They were already handing out sentences to the other men there, mostly on trumped-up charges. I prepared a plea for mercy, and they took off five years for my eloquent speech.

Q. So instead of earning a quick $100,000 for you and a girlfriend’s retirement, you end up sentenced to 25 years for trafficking. Why do you call it a “gulag?”

Townson: I was sent to a camp in the middle of a sugarcane field. It was for nothing but foreigners, about 70 or 80 of us. Everyone was there for smuggling or petty crime. No one was stupid enough to commit murder or assault in Cuba.

I realized quickly they had collected five Americans: myself, the captain of my boat and three others. It matched the number of Cuban spies who had been captured and convicted in the United States back in 1998.

European countries that had given Castro aid began criticizing him for arresting his citizens for their political views. Quickly, he started arresting men from those countries. A Belgian newspaper would rake him over the coals. And three weeks later, here come three Belgian guys, looking bewildered.

Castro was using us in a game of trying to trade Mickey Mouse criminals for the “five Cuban heroes,” as they call them. There were never more than five Americans.

Q. What were your days like?

Townson: It was a certain level of psychological torture the whole time. Every morning when they would count us, they would give us these communist speeches about the glory of the revolution. We would have to stand and listen to them from all sorts of government officials.

If you show any emotion or anger, they send you to what we nicknamed the Big House — a four-building, four-story prison that holds 10,000 prisoners. No one wanted to go there. If you bloodied someone’s nose, you’d have to serve an extra five years.

There were rumors that there was going to be a big foreign-prisoner release, but that didn’t happen. I believe it was because President George Bush was re-elected and Fidel Castro didn’t expect that.

About six years in, I had health problems and didn’t think I was going to make it any longer.

Q. Why were you released after nine years?

Townson: Alan Gross. Castro finally got a prisoner that the U.S. government cared about.

I called the U.S. Interests Section in Havana one day to ask about some emails I had expected, and they said, “Can you call back? We have a crisis. A U.S. diplomat has been arrested.”

I listened to the BBC on the shortwave radio, and found out about Gross, who wasn’t really a diplomat.

Fidel Castro will take his last breaths with Alan Gross in prison unless he gets his heroes back.

Q. Any advice for Americans who might travel there?

Townson: It’s risky. I would tell anyone, “Don’t go.”

But in the long term, Americans need to see how an industrious people under that system live in such abject poverty.

No Transparency in M&T Bank's Cuba Accounts

Why such lack of transparency from M&T Bank and the State Department in dealing with this issue?

(In contrast, we wouldn't expect anything other than secrecy from Cuba's dictatorship.)

From The Buffalo News:

There’s some intrigue involving M&T Bank Corp. and its banking relationship with diplomatic missions in the United States, including Cuba’s. And the issue could resurface a month from now.

To review, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 26 said it was suspending consular services in the United States – such as visa and passport applications – because it said M&T was closing its bank accounts. The Cuban officials said M&T would “no longer provide banking services” to foreign missions and had given notice to that effect back on July 12.

The Cuban officials said they were having trouble finding a replacement bank, even with the U.S. State Department’s help. The story attracted national media attention because of the potential impact on travelers between the United States and Cuba, and the history of political tensions between the two countries.

On Dec. 9 – about two weeks after the announcement – Cuban officials said M&T had provided notice on Dec. 6 of a deadline extension. The Cuban officials said the bank specified it “will continue receiving deposits from consular services” until Feb. 17, and would not close the accounts until March 1. A reason for the extension was not given.

The deadline extension raised some interesting questions that The Buffalo News has been trying to answer, without success:

• How did Buffalo-based M&T come to have business with diplomatic missions in the United States in the first place, and how many other countries’ missions was it providing services to? M&T has declined to talk about that line of business in general, or the Cuba matter in particular.

• What prompted M&T to extend its deadline for closing the Cuban accounts, after the announcement by the Cuban officials in late November? The State Department acknowledged it has been trying to help the Cuban officials line up a new bank. But a State Department spokeswoman did not answer a specific question about whether the department played a role in M&T’s decision to grant the extension.

Cuban officials in Washington have not responded to requests to comment on this issue. The last time they posted a message on their website about their efforts to line up a new bank was Dec. 9.

On Castro's Dual Currency Scheme (Scam)

Justin Rohrlich has a thoughtful article in Vice about his experience with Castro's dual currency system.

Here's an excerpt:

Millions of Cubans May Lose Their Life Savings This Year

"Fucking cops in Cuba are always busting everybody’s balls."

A man mutters this to me in perfect English as I walk down the once-elegant Calle 23 in downtown Havana. He is the very last customer waiting in a Kafkaesque line that wraps around the block and doubles back on itself twice. The afternoon is stiflingly hot. Two police officers are hassling a nearby teenager because he took off his T-shirt.

"But that’s why things here are so safe," the man continues, much louder this time. I’m confused until I realize another cop is standing behind me. He wandered over after spotting a Cuban nacional talking to me—an American gusano. "Very safe, very safe. You know, because the police do such a good job!"

The officer gives him a long, hard stare, then wanders away. I take my place at the end of the line next to my new buddy, who says his name is Yaniel.

Along with several hundred other Cubans, Yaniel and I are waiting to get into Coppelia, the iconic ice cream parlor created in 1966 by order of Fidel Castro and named for his then-secretary’s favorite ballet. Located across the street from the Habana Libre hotel, a one-time Hilton from which Fidel directed the revolution for three months in 1959, Coppelia has been called the "ultimate democratic ice cream emporium." But, as I quickly find out, that isn’t exactly true.

When the Cubans around me spot a foreign tourist standing with them in the endless queue, they’re quick to inform me that the line we're in is for people using Cuban Pesos—which is to say, most Cubans. As a woman in curlers and a tube top explains, people holding Convertible Pesos, the country’s other currency, aren’t forced to endure such Socialist indignities. Foreigners, like me, carry Convertible Pesos.

She then points to a tiny building surrounded by a well-kept patio and leafy trees offering respite from the blistering mid-summer sun. There is no line at this Coppelia stand and, sitting in the shade are several happy, relaxed-looking people, enjoying their ice cream.

This, in a nutshell, is what having two currencies has done to the already dysfunctional Cuban economy for the past 20 years. The good news is that the government is finally attempting to fix it. The bad news is that millions of Cubans could lose their life savings in the process [...]

In Cuba, economic decisions aren’t made based on supply and demand, and "the market" as Adam Smith knows it does not exist. Instead, reforms are made with the stroke of a pen, so the government could simply, say, change the exchange rate between the CUC and the CUP from 24-to-1 to 12-to-1. This would instantly halve the life savings of countless Cubans who’ve spent two decades socking away CUCs, to say nothing of the Zimbabwe-like inflation that could strike the economy after such a move.

Or, the government may just take everyone’s savings outright.

"My guess is that when the government does the reform, it will expropriate some part of the population’s wealth accumulated in CUCs," says economist Daron Acemoglu, co-author of Why Nations Fail.

Raúl Castro has declared that the transition will not hurt holders of either CUCs or CUPs. But the concept of protecting individual wealth has no place in Cuba—a fact specifically stated in the Cuban Communist Party's Lineamientos (Guidelines). And as Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the right-leaning Cuba Democracy Advocates points out, the Cuban government could really use the money.

"The Castro regime seems to undertake these currency operations when it's suffering from a hard-currency crisis," he explains. "The anticipated currency swap is simply another episode in a long series of asset confiscations by the Castro regime."

Expropriations and nationalizations of private property have occurred repeatedly since the beginning of the Castro era. People leaving the island in the early days of post-Revolutionary Cuba were forced to give up their property and assets in addition to their rights as citizens. Those who stayed were soon relieved of 42 percent of their wealth in a top-down currency revaluation. In recent years, the CUC has been devalued in pursuit of stabilizing government debt, and hard currency accounts have been periodically frozen and restricted when it has suited the regime.

The economy of Cuba’s main benefactor, Venezuela, is thought by many economists to be in the midst of collapse. Just as the Soviet Union's was 20 years ago.

Read the whole thing here.