Families of Shootdown Victims: No Spies for Gross Exchange

Saturday, April 12, 2014
Shoot Down Victims’ Families Opposed to Cuba’s Proposed Exchange of US-Convicted Cuban Spies for Alan Gross

We the families of the three American citizens and one American resident shot down over international waters by the Cuban government on February 24, 1996, strongly oppose any exchange of Gerardo Hernandez for Alan Gross, Cuba's hostage.

Hernandez is currently serving two life sentences in US prison. One of these is for conspiracy to commit murder in the Feb. 24, 1996, shoot down murders of Carlos Costa, Armando Alejandre, Jr., Mario de la Peña and Pablo Morales. Hernandez’s sentences were affirmed by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the US Supreme Court declined to review them. He has received all benefits available from the US justice system.

Gerardo Hernandez's activities went beyond potential damage to our country; his actions resulted in the deaths of four human beings, and his life sentence for conspiracy to commit murder brings at least partial justice for the shoot down.

Mr. Gross, on the other hand, was convicted and sentenced to fifteen years for providing satellite phones and computer equipment to Cuba’s Jewish community. There is quite a difference between conspiring to commit murder and helping Cubans communicate with each other and with the outside world. If Cuba is really serious about wanting to improve relations with the US, it should act unilaterally and release Mr. Gross immediately.

We would only support trading Gerardo Hernandez for the following three men, all indicted for the February 24, 1996, shoot down by the US, and identified as direct perpetrators of the crime by international organizations such as the United Nations: Cuban Air Force General Ruben Martinez Puente, who gave the actual order to shoot down the two aircraft; Cuban Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Perez Perez, pilot of the MiG that shot the missiles that pulverized the aircraft, and the copilot, his brother Cuban Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Alberto Perez Perez.

The US should actively pursue the release of Mr. Gross from the untenable and unfair position of being a hostage of the Cuban government, but not at the expense of justice for our loved ones. We hope that the US’s Department of State leadership continues former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s policy regarding Gerardo Hernandez; she was well aware of all the factors involved in this case and understood that Mr. Gross and Hernandez are most definitely not exchangeable if justice is to be served for murdered US citizens.

The Families of Carlos Costa, Armando Alejandre, Jr., Mario de la Peña and Pablo Morales

Amnesty "Prisoner of Conscience" Brutally Beaten

Cuban political prisoner Ivan Fernandez Depestre has been brutally beaten and placed in a small, inhumane punishment cell (known as a "tapeada") in the Guamajal Prison of Santa Clara.

Fernandez Depestre, held without charges or trial since July 30th of last year, has been designated by Amnesty International as a "prisoner of conscience."

He had simply protested against the brutal beating of two fellow inmates by the prison authorities.

More "reform" you can't believe in.

French Group to Foreign Minister: Don't Ignore Rights Concerns in Cuba

French Foreign Minister Must Not Ignore Freedom of Information During Cuba Visit
 
Reporters Without Borders has sent a letter about freedom of information in Cuba to French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who is about to make the first official visit to the Caribbean island by a member of the French government since 1983.

Cuba’s violations of freedom of information must not be ignored during this visit. Improvement in relations between the European Union and Cuba must not be at the expense of Cuba’s journalists and bloggers.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
37 Quai d’Orsay
75351 Paris

Paris, 10 April 2014

Dear Foreign Minister,

Reporters Without Borders, an international organization that defends freedom of information, would like to draw your attention to the plight of professional and non-professional journalists in Cuba.

All independent media, both traditional and online, are censored in Cuba, which is ranked 170th out of 180 countries in our 2014 press freedom index. Even defending the right to information is obstructed by President Raúl Castro’s government, which refuses to recognize NGOs, automatically treating them as accomplices to US hegemony.

Three Cuban journalists and bloggers are currently detained for disseminating information regarded as “counterrevolutionary” or defamatory of the Castro regime. Although the mass roundups of the 2003 Black Spring are over, arbitrary arrest has never ceased to be part of the daily life of journalists in Cuba.

More than a decade after the arrests of 75 journalists, librarians and human rights defenders, there has been no real improvement in the situation of these categories of people, as evidenced by the detention of Angel Santiesteban-Prats, a blogger held for the past 13 months, and José Antonio Torres, a former journalist with the official newspaper Granma, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in July 2012. Since the start of 2014, more than 15 journalists have been arrested for short periods, supposedly for identity checks.

Reporters Without Borders was recently outraged to learn of several arbitrary arrests and acts of intimidation by Cuban officials affecting two journalists and their families.

Roberto de Jesús Guerra, a journalist who runs Hablemos Press, an online information and free speech advocacy centre, reported on social networks on 3 April that immigration officials at Havana’s José Martí International Airport had just held him for six hours and confiscated several of his books and work documents. He was returning from a trip abroad in which he had reported violations of freedom of information in Cuba to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and had participated in a seminar in Mexico on independent journalism.

His sister, Sandra Guerra, his 12-year-old daughter and his seven-year-old nephew were detained by the police for several hours two days later. He told Reporters Without Borders that he had no news of them throughout their arbitrary detention. These particularly shocking arrests are symptomatic of the oppressive climate of intimidation in which journalists in Cuba have to work.

A court in the central province of Sancti Spíritus sentenced Yoení de Jesús Guerra García, an independent blogger with the Yayabo Press agency, to seven years in prison on 13 March 2014. Held in Nieves Morejón prison since October 2013, she has been the repeated victim of violence by prison staff, which is unfortunately common in Cuban detention centres. The length of the period between her arrest and sentence, a year and a half, unquestionably violated the fundamental right of defence.

Your forthcoming meeting with your Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, cannot avoid the major challenges posed by the defence of freedom of information. The abusive treatment of journalists and netizens has been at the heart of the European Union’s concerns since 2003 and must legitimately be raised during your talks.

France plays a leading role internationally, especially in the United Nations, as regards the issue of the safety of journalists. The renewal of bilateral ties between France and Cuba should not be at the expense of respect for the right to information.

I thank you in advance for the attention you give to this request.

Sincerely,

Christophe Deloire
Reporters Without Borders secretary-general

26 Other Countries Where U.S. Funds Internet Freedom Efforts

Friday, April 11, 2014
One would think that the AP and U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) -- prior to their sensationalism and fake outrage over the "Cuban Twitter" program -- would have read the very public State Department reports explaining U.S. efforts to promote Internet freedom in closed societies.

Case and point, the State Department's 2013 Advancing Freedom and Democracy Report, which specifically states:

"In closed societies, U.S.-supported broadcast programming provides citizens with alternative sources of news. We support open, public, and safe Internet access and training programs that increase citizen access to information*, including through U.S.-funded resource centers**. The Department’s internet freedom programs promote digital free expression, assembly, and association, helping those in closed societies connect personally and globally."

It then cites the countries where the U.S supports and funds such Internet freedom programs, namely:

*Armenia; Azerbaijan; Brunei Darussalam; Cambodia, China; Cuba; Ecuador; Egypt; Eritrea; Georgia; Guinea Bissau; Iran; Kuwait; Kyrgyz Republic; Madagascar; Malaysia; Nigeria; Russia, Rwanda; Singapore; Syria, Timor Leste; Tunisia; Turkmenistan; Ukraine; Vietnam

**Afghanistan; Albania; Algeria; Angola; Armenia; Azerbaijan; Bahrain; Bangladesh; Belarus; Bolivia; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Burkina Faso; Burma; Cambodia; Cameroon; China; Congo; Cuba; DRC; Cote d’Ivoire; Ecuador; Egypt; Eritrea; Ethiopia; Guatemala; Georgia; Guinea; Haiti; Honduras; Jordan; Kazakhstan; Kenya; Kosovo; Kuwait; Kyrgyz Republic; Liberia; Laos; Macedonia; Madagascar; Malawi; Moldova; Morocco; Mozambique; Nepal; Nicaragua; Niger; Nigeria; Oman; Pakistan; Paraguay; Philippines; Russia; Rwanda; Saudi Arabia; Senegal; Sierra Leone; Sri Lanka; Sudan; Swaziland; Syria; Tajikistan; Tanzania; Thailand; Togo; Tunisia; Turkey; Turkmenistan; Uganda; Ukraine; United Arab Emirates; Uzbekistan; Venezuela; Vietnam; Yemen; Zambia; Zimbabwe.

The U.S. should be commended for these noble efforts.

"Cuban Twitter" is Consistent With International Law

In a letter to the editor of The Washington Post, American University Professor and renowned Castro regime apologist, William LeoGrande, argues that the "Cuban Twitter" program "violates U.S. treaty obligations under the charters of both the United Nations and the Organization of American States."

He then only cites the Organization of American States ("OAS") Charter's "non-interference" clause to try to support his weak case.

From Castro to Assad, "non-interference" and "sovereignty" are favorite excuses of dictators throughout the world to violate their people's fundamental rights with impunity.

Of course, LeoGrande fails to mention that Cuba technically remains a member of the OAS, but has not been reincorporated since its suspension was unwisely lifted in 2009. Cuba's regime has purposefully and explicitly refused to recognize any of the practices, purposes, and principles of the OAS. Moreover, it remains in blatant violation of its "representative democracy" clause.

As for the United Nations ("UN"), the "Cuban Twitter" program is fully consistent with Article 19 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Needless to say:

"Everyone" includes the Cuban people.

"Any media" includes social media.

"Regardless of frontiers" includes U.S.-Cuba.

Menendez Opening Statement in USAID Hearing

Thursday, April 10, 2014
Excerpt from today's opening statement by U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, during today's FY'15 budget hearing with USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah:

Chairman Menendez: You come at a time when USAID is making headlines for, in my mind, doing nothing more than the job you were appointed to do.

Let me say for the record: When it comes to the issue of Cuba or your work in any closed society, I do not believe that USAID’s actions – as clearly articulated in your mission statement – to promote “resilient, democratic societies that are able to realize their potential” are, in any way, a “cockamamie idea.”

I believe it is exactly what the people of Cuba, Iran, Burma, Belarus, North Korea and other authoritarian nations need to help them communicate with each other, to help them achieve USAID’s stated mission of a “free, peaceful, and self-reliant society with an effective legitimate government.”

So, I commend you for helping people have a less-controlled platform to talk to each other, for helping them to find a way to connect, and to share their views.

Global internet freedom programs, U.S. International broadcasting, and support for human rights activists are all fundamental components of our country's longstanding efforts to promote democracy overseas.

For more than 50 years, the U.S. has had an unwavering commitment to promote freedom of information in the world.

Our work in Cuba is no different than our efforts to promote freedom of expression and uncensored access to information in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Iran, China or North Korea.

It should be noted that in the FY14 Senate Foreign Operations bill there is 76 million dollars set aside to promote global internet freedom and democracy in closed societies like Cuba, where the regime allows no independent press and limits access to the internet. It also states that “with respect to the provision of assistance for democracy, human rights, and governance activities” that these programs “shall not be subject to the prior approval by the government of any foreign country.”

It is common sense that we shouldn’t ask the Government of Iran or Egypt or China for permission to support advocates of free speech, human rights, or political pluralism or to provide uncensored access to the internet or social media.

At the end of the day, just giving people the opportunity to communicate with the outside world and with each other is, in my mind, a fundamental responsibility of any democracy program.

Rubio Exchange With USAID Administrator

Below is the text and video of today's exchange in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee between U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah on the "Cuban Twitter":

Senator Marco Rubio: Rightfully so, that you focused on information sharing, and so forth, because Cuba, according to Freedom House, is the second most repressive government in the world, only after Iran — and my understanding is it was a very close second — after Iran in terms of denying access to information sharing, denying access to the Internet. People in Cuba can’t go on the Internet. I mean, if you’re close to the government you may be able to sneak in Internet access here or there. But the average person on the street cannot go on the Internet in Cuba. It’s not just a capacity issue, it is prohibited.

In fact, I’m going to send out a tweet right now. If I sent this tweet in Cuba, I would be put in jail. And I’m going to send it right now as an example of what people in Cuba cannot do. People in Cuba cannot do what I’m about to do. And so as a result of that, USAID — as has been revealed in the last few days, but was available for people to see if they were interested in it — USAID had a program, called ZunZuneo, which was designed to provide the people of Cuba access to information, and to break the information blockade and to allow people to share information. And I want to walk through this. First of all, there’s been an insinuation made by some that this program was illegal. When, in fact, this program, in my opinion and I think in yours as well, was completely within the stated mandate, within the stated purpose of your programs in Cuba: To break the information blockade, to promote information-sharing. That’s accurate, right? That was right within that goal?

Honorary Rajiv Shah: We have publicly notified that these programs are designed to enable open communications.

Rubio: And the other argument I’ve heard is, ‘Well, this was a covert program.’ But, in fact, this program was reviewed by the General Accounting Office, right?

Shah: Correct.

Rubio: And they made no suggestions for changes? They had no criticism of the way the money was being administered?

Shah: They actually complimented USAID on improved management oversight of the program.

Rubio: This wasn’t an intelligence program? We weren’t spying on the Cuban government using this program?

Shah: No.

Rubio: We weren’t selling weapons on this program, or somehow arming elements on the ground in Cuba through this program?

Shah: No.

Rubio: So this program basically was allowing Cubans to be able to communicate with other Cubans because their government doesn’t let them do that. By the way, in an advanced society in the 21st century, people should at least be able to do that, right? But in Cuba they’re not, and so, what this program chose to do was to fulfill the mandate of this program, as informed by Congress, to break the information blockade and to promote information sharing. So I read this article, and it said that, at its peak, there were 40,000 users on the program. That’s actually not true, right? At its peak it had 68,000 users.

So here’s my question, when was the last time that we stopped a program because it was too successful? Because this program, in my mind, is successful. Not only am I glad that we did this program, what I’m upset about is that we stopped. And I don’t think we should just stop at Twitter-like programs, I think we should do everything possible, maybe USAID is not the perfect agency for this, what I’m about to talk about, but I believe we should do everything we can to provide the people of Cuba and other repressed societies full access to the Internet, so they can go on any website they want. If they want to visit Granma, which is the communist rag in Cuba, they can read it all they want online. And if they want to read the CNN website or the New York Times or Huffington Post or Drudge, whatever they want to read, they should be able to do that as well.

I think, for everyone who is outraged by this program, when was the last time that undermining a tyranny is counter to the stated purposes of the United States of America? When is the last time that we’ve been outraged by a government program that undermines a tyranny and provides access to a people of a country to the free flow of information and the ability to talk to each other?

I read these quotes in the paper, people setting themselves on fire around here, ‘Oh this program,’ I heard one quote, ‘cockamamie.’ Since when? We had radio broadcasts to Europe during the Cold War. We have radio broadcasts to Cuba right now. Those actually have content in them. All we wanted people to do was to talk to each other. And I want to know, when was the last time that it was against a stated purpose and goals of the United States of America to undermine a tyranny? By the way, a tyranny that, we heard testimony here just three days ago, that is involved in the single greatest violation of U.N. sanctions against North Korea since they were imposed, a tyranny that votes against us in every international forum, a tyranny that is consistently on the side of every mad man and tyrant on the planet. If there was a vote on Syria, they’re with Assad. When there was a vote on Libya, they were with Qaddafi. If there was a vote on Russia, they’re with Putin. If there is a vote on human rights violations in China, they’re with China, time and again. When was the last time that Cuba, in an international forum, ever lined up on the side of decency and human rights. This is an anti-American government that doesn’t just undermine its own people, it tries to undermine our foreign policy aims and the foreign policy aims of the free world.

And so, my question would be, and I know this is a long-winded question: when do we start this program again? What do we need to do to start, not just this program, but expand it, so that people in Cuba can do what I just did? And that is speak freely to the world, and to each other, about the reality of Cuban life, and about anything else they want, including the latest record from Beyoncé or Jay-Z or what someone wore to the Oscars – whatever they want to write about. When do we start this again?

Castro Resends Ransom Note for U.S. Hostage

hos·tage (noun) \ˈhäs-tij\: a person who is captured by someone who demands that certain things be done before the captured person is freed

Once again, the Castro regime has sent a "diplomatic" ransom note for the release of its hostage, American development worker Alan Gross.

From Castro's Foreign Ministry:

The Cuban government reiterates its willingness to find, together with the US government, a solution to the case of Mr. Gross that is acceptable for both parties, taking into account Cuba’s humanitarian concerns with regard to three of the Five Cubans who have remained unjustly imprisoned in the United States for more than fifteen years.

Cuba: 45-Year-Old Dissident Spent 23-Years as Political Prisoner

Wednesday, April 9, 2014
From NBC News:

Cuban Jailed For Six Months Released 23 Years Later

In 1991, Lamberto Hernandez was sentenced to six months in a Cuban prison for committing a petty crime. He just walked free last weekend – 23 years later.

After landing in jail on a charge of petty theft, Hernandez said he became more politically aware and active. What he calls his acts of defiance, like engaging in over a dozen hunger strikes and advocating prisoner boycotts, added years to his sentence.

In 2003, he broke a prison television as he shouted anti-government slogans during a televised speech by then-president Fidel Castro. That act, he said, extended his sentence by another decade. One word, he said, describes what was done to him over the last 23 years of his life – "unjust.”

Newly free, 45-year-old Hernandez says his only plan is to "keep fighting" and that "no one can stop me." Instead of breaking him, the time he spent in prison gave him the "courage" to continue, he said. "I feel stronger to keep fighting," said Hernandez.

In 1991, Lamberto Hernandez was sentenced to six months in a Cuban prison for committing a petty crime. He just walked free last weekend – 23 years later.

Unlike other freed political prisoners who have left the island to live in countries like Spain or the U.S., Hernandez plans to “remain [in Cuba] because, God willing, I dream that change will happen tomorrow.”

Ros-Lehtinen Questions USAID Administrator on "Cuban Twitter"

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) asks USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah about the "Cuban Twitter" program during today's FY'15 budget hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Committee:

State Department Official's Timely Speech on Social Media

In light of all the fake outrage regarding U.S. efforts to help the Cuban people freely access social media, this week's remarks by U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Feeley at the Inter-American Press Association's Mid-Year Meeting were timely and important.

Here's an excerpt:

Old style modern communication was a one-way street -- newspapers, radio, television.  Because of new technology, the narrative is now a two-way street.  It is a dialogue not a monologue. It is no longer governments talking to governments. Everyone with a smart phone has a voice in this global marketplace.

The issue is not whether social media is replacing traditional media – it all still starts with quality content, and it is a continuum of platforms on which that content will be available.  Print and broadcast media will endure and hopefully continue to thrive, but what we also know is that ALL content will find a life at some point on digital platforms.  And it will be interactive. Social media is allowing us to build relationships with people around the world, even in the most remote corners. We can and must continue to reach individuals one by one through person-to-person engagement—nothing equals that—but we can reach exponentially more through the new techniques of social media.

Recognizing this new reality, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the work of someone I admire very much, Cuban activist and blogger Yoani Sanchez.  She was a recent awardee of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize.  This is one of the oldest international awards in the field of journalism and it is presented to those who made a significant contribution to Inter-American understanding.

Yoani was awarded the prize in 2009, but was not allowed to travel to attend the ceremony.  It was only last September that she was able to accept it in person, and I had the chance to meet with her just a few days ago when she was in Washington.  The work she does, in spite of great personal danger, serves as an inspiration to many in the region.  Alongside her example there are dozens of other names I could mention whose commitment and courage inspire us.

The United States believes that freedom of the press and freedom of expression are two of the most important topics facing the Americas today.  Whether we say something in a public square, or if we type on our keyboards – be it published in print newspapers, blogs, texts, or tweets – our right to do that and our right to freedom of expression is, in the words of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, an “essential component” of the exercise of democracy.  

The laws of all countries should guarantee an independent, diverse and pluralistic media, free from commercial, government, and political interference.  We would like all citizens – not just citizens of the United States – to have unrestricted access to the most pluralistic range of information sources available.

Tweet of the Week: The Little Ladies in White

By Cuban independent journalist, William Cacer Diaz:

#Cuba At school they call them "little mercenaries" because they don't want to be like #Che.  They want to be Ladies in White like their mother.
(The Ladies in White are a peaceful, pro-democracy group composed of the wives, daughters, mothers, sisters and other relatives of Cuban political prisoners. The L stands for Libertad -- Freedom.)

Reminder: Cuba Ranks as World's 2nd Worst Internet Freedom Violator

Tuesday, April 8, 2014
With all the news and fake outrage by U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) regarding the "Cuban Twitter" program, it's important to remember why efforts to provide the Cuban people with connectivity and technology platforms is so important.

According to the most recent Freedom on the Net report, a yearly compilation of Internet freedom by Freedom House:

Cuba ranked as the world's 2nd worst violator of Internet and digital media freedom.

Only Iran ranked worse. North Korea was not ranked due to lack of any information.

Cuba ranked worse than Syria, Belarus, Burma, Bahrain, Sudan and Egypt -- all countries that Senator Leahy supports funding Internet freedom projects for.

Video: Chairman Menendez's Cuba Speech

Yesterday, we posted the text of the Cuba speech on the Senate floor delivered by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Robert Menendez (D-NJ).

See below (or click here) for the video of the speech:

Alan Gross is Being Held Hostage

From CNN:

Sen. Rubio: Imprisoned American Alan Gross is being held 'hostage' by Cuba

After spending four years imprisoned in Cuba, former American subcontractor Alan Gross has launched a hunger strike, trying to spur the U.S. and Cuba to resolve his case.

Gross, who was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development when he was arrested, was charged by a Cuban court in 2011 of being an American spy. USAID has said he was in the country working on a U.S. government project setting up satellite internet connections.

"He's a hostage. Under no normal law and order is providing internet access a crime, and therefore he's being held as a hostage," says Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida.

"The government of Cuba is trying to use him as a bargaining chip," and as a "pawn," Rubio said in an interview with CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper."

"He should be released immediately, he has done nothing wrong, he has committed no crimes," says Rubio.

Rubio Questions Kerry on Venezuela, Cuba

See below (or click here) for a video excerpt from today's hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

 

MH Editorial Board: "Cuban Twitter" is Commendable Effort

From The Miami Herald's Editorial Board:

The buzz in Cuba

OUR OPINION: ZunZuneo was a well-intentioned effort to break government’s information monopoly

The Obama administration’s recently exposed program to provide a text-messaging service for ordinary citizens in Cuba is a commendable effort to break the Castro government’s information monopoly. We hope they don’t quit trying.

Critics of the program like Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., called it “dumb, dumb, dumb” as soon as the Associated Press published a report last week on the short-lived Twitter-like program that ran out of funding in 2012. What would be really dumb, though, is to sit back silently and do nothing while Cuba’s 11 million people are kept from hearing or reading any information except what bears the government’s stamp of approval.

Keep in mind that among the most successful programs of the Cold War were those like Radio Free Europe and communications support for groups like Solidarity in Poland that gave citizens of Soviet bloc countries vital information they could not get elsewhere.

These programs managed to foil the embargo on truth maintained by the communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe and weakened the authoritarian governments propped up by the Red Army. They paved the way for the dissolution of the Iron Curtain and the rise of civil societies capable of nurturing democracy.

The Cold War may be over, but in Cuba an aging dictatorship spawned at the height of East/West tensions still employs the same tactics of that era to keep its people in the dark and under control. If it was unacceptable in Eastern Europe, it’s unacceptable in Cuba, as well.

And if this country took the lead in overcoming the information barriers created by the communist dictatorships of that era, why should it refrain from devising effective programs to do the same against the Castro regime?

Created in 2009, the program called ZunZuneo, a Cuban word mimicking the buzz of a hummingbird, allowed some 40,000 Cubans, mostly young and tech-savvy, to communicate with each other using the government’s own cellphone network.

U.S. sponsorship of the program was kept secret for obvious reasons, but that does not discredit the program itself or its goals — to allow the Cuban people to communicate with each other without government interference.

Sen. Leahy may be right in saying that placing the program under the auspices of the Agency for International Development (USAID) was wrong. That compromises USAID’s mission and supplies ammunition for critics of the agency’s many other admirable efforts to promote democracy and human rights around the globe, including in Cuba.

It also allows the Cuban government to draw inaccurate connections between this “clandestine” effort and the plight of USAID contractor Alan Gross, who remains in jail for delivering banned communications equipment to Cuba’s tiny Jewish community.

A Senate panel is slated to examine the propriety of USAID’s role in this case on Tuesday. Members of the panel should not lose sight of who bears responsibility for restricting the free flow of information in Cuba. The villain in this scenario is an authoritarian and paranoid gerontocracy afraid of its own people and unwilling to let them communicate with each other — in print, by electronic media, or in cyberspace.

The government fears the means of communication used by young people the world over. They will continue to close the doors of information, but they are unlikely to stop new forms of communication trying to fill the vacancy left by ZunZuneo.

MUST-READ: Chairman Menendez Floor Speech on Cuba

Monday, April 7, 2014
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the following remarks on the Senate floor today:

M. President, as the attention of the world has been focused on the pre-1991 Soviet behavior of President Putin in Crimea – I come to the floor to remind the American public and members of this body that there is also a full-fledged human rights crisis ongoing in our own hemisphere, just 90 miles from our shores in Cuba.

As Ukrainians courageously fight to protect the democracy they won when the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago this year, the Cuban people continue to suffer from the oppression of a Soviet-style dictatorship that denies them the most basic rights.

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, millions of people – from Kiev to Budapest – Africa to Asia – were given their first chance in decades to build their own governments. A first chance to organize democratic elections. The chance to begin to determine their own futures.

Since the end of the Cold War, peace, prosperity and progress have largely been the order of the day for hundreds of millions of people, but not for the people of Cuba. Not one of these core principles of democracy can be found on the island.

Fidel and Raul Castro have been the only names on any ballot for over 50 years. Not one free election has been held. Not one Cuban has been allowed to own their own company. Not one legitimate trade union has been allowed to be organized. Not one peaceful protest has occurred without being brutally squashed by the regime.

No, this is the reality of Cuba today, it was the reality when the Berlin Wall fell -- and it’s been Cuba’s reality for almost 60 years since Fidel Castro began taking control of every aspect of Cuban life. This reality in Cuba, the decades-long brutal oppression of simple human and democratic rights, the total disdain for the aspirations of a people by the Castro regime, its military and communist lackey-thugs who penetrate and control people’s lives at all levels should not be overlooked, it should not be romanticized, and it should never be explained away.

But, unlike Ukraine where we have watched in horror as people have been ruthlessly beaten and killed for simply aspiring for democratic and transparent government, the Castro regime does not allow images of its oppression to be broadcast around the globe – let alone at home. But just because we do not see those images streaming across television sets and in the newspapers does not mean the world should not be watching. It does not mean we have turned the other way and it does not mean we have overlooked the brutal and often times lethal oppression of the regime in Cuba.

The number of people the regime has murdered or abducted is in the tens-of-thousands. Hundreds of thousands of children have been separated from their parents. Maybe hundreds of thousands of families have been torn apart. Millions of men, women and young people have been forced into the fields to cut sugar cane and perform other hard labor against their will. The average Cuban worker lives on an income of less than a dollar a day.

The Castro regime has been most adept not at spreading education and prosperity, but at instilling a penetrating fear and terror in the style of a Stalinist police state. This has been going on since 1959, but, unfortunately, it is not a thing of the past.

Let us not overlook the fact that arbitrary and politically motivated arrests in Cuba reportedly topped 1,000 for a third straight month  this February, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a group inside Cuba, founded by Elizardo Sanchez Santa-Cruz whose mission is to bring change and freedom to the island. The Commission reported that “arrests in the past three months have nearly doubled from the monthly averages of the previous two years.”

We must remind ourselves everyday of the continued oppression and human suffering that is happening – not only halfway around the world, but 90 miles from our own shores. The ongoing oppressive behavior of the Cuban regime we saw for the last half of the 20th century still haunts our hemisphere today.

While Putin has annexed Crimea, while one wonders what’s next, while Assad continues to kill his own people in Syria, while the world is watching the Taliban in Afghanistan, and violence continues in the Central African Republic taking countless lives, the oppression of the Castro regime keeps rolling along – unabated.

If there is a single symbol of that oppression, of the longing for freedom in Cuba, it is the Ladies in White – Damas de Blanco – and their leader, Berta Soler. The courage she has displayed to promote democracy and political freedom in Cuba has served as an extraordinary example for all of us and everyone around the world who longs to be free.

Every Sunday, they protest the jailing of their relatives by attending mass and quietly marching through the streets of Havana, praying for nothing more than the freedom of their relatives and respect for the human rights of all Cubans. Often arrested, roughed-up, detained, jailed, held for days -- maybe weeks -- released and jailed again, the Ladies in White are the symbol of freedom and women like Laura Pollan represents the story of thousands.

She was a school teacher living with her husband, Hector, the leader of the outlawed Cuban Liberal Party. They were living a normal life in a small house on Neptune Street in Havana. Early one morning there was a pounding at the front door. The police came in. Searched everything. There was a sham-trial held in Cuba. Hector was imprisoned. Sentenced to 20 years in jail and accused of acting against national security. His only crime was dreaming of a free Cuba, and putting that dream in writing.

Since I last came to the floor to speak about Cuba, I met Rosa Maria Paya, daughter of the long-time dissident and political activist, Oswaldo Paya. He was a Roman Catholic and the head of the Christian Liberation Movement who collected 25,000 signatures in the Varela Project – a peaceful effort to petition the regime for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. For his peaceful efforts he was awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament.

His peaceful efforts, were seen as a danger to the regime, a threat for which he was detained and arrested many times. Many times he suffered at the hands of the regime, and, last year, he died in Cuba – killed as Cuban state security rammed his car off the road. What we know is the car, driven by Spanish politician Angel Carromero, a citizen of Spain and Aron Modig, a party activist in Sweden, was involved in the fatal automobile accident that killed Paya and his Cuban colleague Harold Cepero.

The circumstances surrounding Paya’s death leave any reasonable person to conclude what really happened on that road in eastern Cuba that took the life of Oswaldo was an assassination. His daughter, Rosa Maria, immediately challenged the regime’s version of events stating that the family had received information from the survivors that their car was repeatedly rammed by another vehicle. “So we think it’s not an accident,” she said, “They wanted to do harm and then ended up killing my father.”

Ms. Paya was in Washington not long ago, accepting a posthumous award from the National Endowment for Democracy on behalf of another young Cuban activist who died alongside Oswaldo Paya. At the time, the new Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, had come before the Foreign Relations Committee during the nomination process, and assured me she would reach out to Ms. Paya when confirmed. Since then, she has not only met with Rosa Maria, but also directly challenged Cuba’s foreign minister to permit an independent international investigation into Mr. Paya’s death. I commend Ambassador Power for standing with those still suffering in Cuba and with Oswaldo Paya and his family who died for advocating peaceful democratic change and Christian values.

But Cuba’s reach doesn’t end with the detention or the death of dissidents like Oswaldo Paya. It doesn’t end at the water’s edge. It goes much further.

Cuba is at the head of a new and dire crisis in our hemisphere that we cannot ignore and now we see the same oppression of peaceful activists in Cuba on the streets of Caracas. Venezuela’s political crisis is growing: 40 dead; hundreds injured; the nation’s economy deteriorating; inflation at record levels; a scarcity of basic foods and goods. M. President, it sounds like Cuba to me!

Behind Venezuela’s economic crisis, we can see Cuba’s failed policies – expropriation and nationalization of various sectors of the economy, fixed prices in the consumer economy, criminalization of business leaders and their companies, currency manipulation and rationing of basic foodstuff.

Behind Venezuela’s political crisis, we can clearly see familiar Cuban tactics – the demonization of the dissent, intolerance and oppression of any form of opposition, politicizing of the military and judiciary, the silencing of independent television and radio stations, the shutting-down of newspapers, the arrest of political opponents doing nothing more than exercising basic rights to freedom of assembly.

We see Cuba’s destabilizing presence is deeply entwined in Venezuela’s crisis. It started with the discovery of 29 Cuban spies in Margarita Island in Venezuela in 1997. It grew steadily and insidiously through the Chavez years with the Cuban presence and key advisors from Havana in almost every institution of national government in Venezuela – from the military to intelligence agencies to the health sector to industrial policy. And the result? Democracy subverted and innocent people dying from bullets fired by the government and its thugs – just like in Cuba.

And yet, knowing the instability that the Cuban regime continues to spread, amazingly, Europe, nations in Latin America and the Caribbean, and some of my colleagues in this Chamber, are seeking new opportunities to engage the Cuban regime. Some want to ease sanctions at this critical moment and fundamentally redefine our relationship with Cuba. I could not disagree more.

We can never turn our back on what has happened and continues to happen in Cuba! We can never wink-and-nod, and say: It’s been 50 years, that’s long enough, things are changing for the better in Cuba, so we should ease sanctions.

I say – NO! – No, we should not ease sanctions. We should not let up. We should not reward the Castro regime for its human rights violations. For the suffering it continues to cause the people of Cuba.

We should not reward the regime for the long dark years they have brought to the island. We should not ease tourism restrictions simply because the clock is ticking.

Those who wish to pursue engagement with Cuba must not forget Cuba’s history and its present state of torture and oppression – its systematic curtailment of freedom.

Recent events tell a different story: The story of two terrorist states – Cuba and North Korea.

There is unshakeable, undeniable, incontrovertible proof of the Cuban government colluding with North Korea in violation of United Nations sanctions regime. In July of last year, a North Korean ship was docked in Cuba’s new Mariel Port facility.

The North Korean ship, suspicious to even the most untrained observer, left the dock and it wasn’t long afterward that it was seized by the Panamanian government when it attempted to enter the Panama Canal. Panamanian authorities boarded the ship, and what did they find? There, in the cargo bays, under some 200,000 bags of sugar, authorities discovered 240 tons of weapons bound for – where? – that’s right – for North Korea, another terrorist state.

And yet, apparently this evidence – to some of my colleagues – is not of concern.

But that’s not the end of the story, M. President. When authorities inventoried the 240 tons of weapons hidden beneath 200,000 bags of sugar they found on the North Korean ship – they found two MiG aircraft; several SA-2 and SA-3 surface-to-air missile systems; missile and radar components; and a cache of small arms and rocket propelled grenades.

I ask my colleagues, is this the kind of behavior of a tired old benign regime – one that deserves our sympathy? Is this a misunderstanding that does not check enough terrorist boxes? Is this something we should justifiably ignore, falling under the category of Castro-will-be-Castro? Or is this, at its core, the act of a dangerous player – listed as a terrorist state – that we would not tolerate from any other nation?

It seems to me that supplying a rogue nation like North Korea with a secret cache of weapons demands something more than the loosening of travel restrictions and the opening of trade. It demands exactly the opposite.

We should treat Cuba and the Castro regime as we would treat any other state sponsor of terrorism – which it is.

And yet, here I am, M. President, once again forced to come to the floor of the Senate. Once again – to point to these pictures of a North Korean ship in a Cuban port smuggling MiG aircraft and surface to air missiles and ask why should we turn a blind eye to what we clearly would not accept from Iran, Syria, or Sudan? And why, in God’s name, would we want to take this opportunity to reward the regime with cash-flows so they can continue to oppress their people and subvert neighboring countries?

Why should we accept the lame excuses given by the Cuban regime that – somehow – despite the fact that many of the arms were still in their original packaging, despite the fact that others had been recently calibrated, despite the fact that there was a fresh coat of paint over the insignia of the Cuban Air Force on the side of the MiGs to hide their origin, despite the fact that the entire shipment was covered with a-couple-of-hundred-thousand bags of sugar, Cuba claimed that this was a purely innocent business transaction and that the arms were being sent to North Korea for required maintenance and would have been returned to the island.

Does anyone actually believe such a ludicrous claim? But the broader question for my colleagues is: Can we and should we simply ignore it and move on? Even though United Nations weapons inspectors found that the shipment was a clear violation of UN sanctions – that Cuba was the first country in the Western hemisphere to violate international sanctions related to North Korea and that the shipment constituted the largest amount of arms shipped to or from North Korea since the adoption of Security Council Resolutions 1874 in 2009 and Resolution 2094 in 2013. I repeat: “the largest amount of arms shipped to or from North Korea.” If that is not food for thought when it comes to easing restrictions against the terrorist state to our south, I don’t know what it.

That said, in recent years, some would have us believe that reforms led by Raul Castro have placed Cuba on a path to economic progress, but, if we look at the new law on foreign investment that Cuba passed last week, we get a clearer picture of the truth behind Cuba’s economic model.

Let’s be clear about this new economic model. Under Cuba’s new foreign investment law, investment projects will be allowed to be fully funded by foreign capital. Business taxes on profits would be cut by 50 percent. Foreign companies would be exempt from paying taxes for the first 8 years of operations in Cuba and many foreigners living in Cuba would be let off the hook from paying income taxes at all.

But think about it. The question is: Who wins? Not the people of Cuba.

The most glaring omission in this new law is any benefit at all to the Cuban people. Instead of receiving new investment opportunities of benefitting from tax cuts and loop holes, they will continue to live under restrictive laws and regulations – unable to start a business, unable to follow a dream, build a better life.

They are left to live under the most restrictive laws preventing them from ever realizing their dreams for themselves and their families.

In fact, the Cuban regime has permitted people to work for themselves – to be entrepreneurs but only 200 types of jobs the government sanctions. They have a list of authorized jobs that includes sewing buttons, filling cigarette lighters, and street performing. Not exactly lucrative start-ups that can build an economy. These “authorized” jobs bear more resemblance to a feudal economy than anything we would recognize as economic opportunity.

At the same time, the government has moved aggressively to close in-home movie theaters, second hand clothing markets, and fledgling private restaurants that its considers too large or too successful. Why? Because anything that allows Cubans to meet legally, lawfully, and as a group – is a threat to the regime.

And while the Cuban government offers new incentives to foreign investors and continues to clamp down on self-employed workers, the real economic change in Cuba is the growing role of the Cuban armed forces in the country’s economy.

Under the watchful eye of Raul Castro’s son-in-law, a general in the Cuban Armed Forces, the military holding company, GAESA, has amassed control of more than 40 percent of Cuba’s economy. Through companies like GAESA, the government and the armed forces – those most loyal to the Castros – are laying a foundation for its future control of Cuba and the Cuban economy.

On the economic front, I think it's important to make the point that when people argue for trade and travel with Cuba, they are arguing to do so with Castro's monopolies. Let’s be clear, regular Cubans are prohibited from engaging in foreign trade and commerce. So we want to trade with Castro's monopolies? Do we? Do we want to reward the regime?

The U.S. government’s own report of agricultural sales to Cuba states how every single transaction with Cuba, by hundreds of American agricultural companies, have only had one counter-part: Castro's food monopoly, through a company named Alimport that hasn't helped the people one bit. So do we really want to unleash billions to Castro's monopolies?

Also, every single foreign "people-to-people" traveler currently stays at a hotel or resort owned by the Cuban military (GAESA). No exceptions!

So, M. President, how does that promote the "independence of the Cuban people from the regime?" as President Obama's policy statement upon releasing these regulations states?

At the very least, they should be compelled to stay at a "casa particular" – a private home – but staying at the military's facilities contravenes the President's own policy statement. This hardly constitutes an economic opening for the people of Cuba.

However, if there is one positive trend to be found in Cuba today, it is that after decades of fear and self-imposed silence, there is a growing number of Cuban citizens beginning to speak out critically, increasingly in public.

In June 2012, Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, known as Antunez, after testifying before the Foreign Relations Committee via Skype – as you can see in this photograph – was beaten and detained for his testimony on human rights abuses on the island. But that did not stop him and it did not stop the bloggers from the Cuban diaspora from getting the word out.

After decades of being manipulated by the Castros, the people of Cuba no longer identify with the government. And while the government still holds power, its legitimacy is plummeting in the opinions of its people. So after 55 years of dictatorship, it is our responsibility in the international community to encourage this independence and help the people of Cuba reclaim their rights: Rights to freedom of expression, rights to organize unions, rights to freedom of assembly, rights to freedom of the press, rights to freedom of religion, universal human rights, the rights and freedoms that will be the building blocks of the new and democratic Cuba of the future.

But let us not be misled. Though Berta Soler is now allowed by the regime to visit the United States and Europe, when she returns to Cuban soil there is no change in the status of the Damas en Blanco. Every move she and her courageous partners make is monitored by the Castro regime. They are still physically harassed, intimidated, and arrested. Why? For simply wanting what any mother in any country on the face of the earth wants – to learn of the fate of her husband, son or daughter who has been harassed, beaten, and jailed by an aging, illegitimate regime.

According to the Cuba Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, there were more than 15,000 cases of arbitrary, politically-motivated detentions since the start of 2012.

In January of this year, when 30 heads of state from Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the Secretary General of the UN and Secretary General of the OAS were at a summit in Havana, there were more than 1,050 detentions over the course of the month.

In one prominent case, a leading Afro-Cuban political activist, intellectual and known leftist Manuel Cuesta Morua was arrested after attempting to organize a parallel civil society summit during the visit by heads of state. This simple practice, a practice that is not uncommon and, in fact, is ubiquitous throughout Latin America and the world, is not tolerated by the Cuban regime.

Instead, Mr. Cuesta Morua faced five days of intensive interrogations and has been charged with “disseminating false news against international peace,” joining prominent activists Jorge Luis Garcia Perez and Guillermo Fariñas, who was awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament for his dedication to peace.

He is shown here being taken away by the police. These activists have faced repeated, brutal acts at the hands of the Castro regime – no less violent than the regimes of any other terrorist state.

Finally, it is important to note that detentions, violence and harassment are not reserved for political activists alone, but also directed at labor rights activists as well.

In early March, AFL-CIO President Trumka called on the Cuban government to end its harassment of Mr. Cuesta Morua, and all independent union activists, advocating for labor rights to protect Cuban workers, like Morua and Maria Elena Mir and her colleagues.

American workers are not turning a blind eye to what the Cuban regime is doing to limit worker rights, and we should not turn a blind eye either. We cannot remain silent.

We must support those like Morua and Maria who are willing to step forward for Labor rights in the face of a repressive regime that will not stop at anything to silence them. As the people of Cuba look to cast off the shackles of five decades of dictatorial rule, we must stand-with and speak out in support-of all those who seek to reclaim their civil and political rights, and promote political pluralism and democratic values. We cannot turn our back on Cuba’s human right violations record for decades simply because “enough time has passed.”

If that’s the case, M. President, enough time has surely passed in Syria, and Sudan, and Iran, and North Korea.

To me and to the thousands who have suffered at the hands of these regimes, the clock has nothing to do with our policy options. Engagement and sanctions relief has to be earned – it can’t be timed-out! It must come through real change not Xs on a calendar or the ticking of a clock.

And the clock is ticking for Alan Gross. On December 4th, 2009, Alan Gross, a private sub-contractor for the U.S. government, working to bring information to the Cuban people, was arrested in Cuba. Mr. Gross is a 64-year old development professional who worked in dozens of countries around the world with programs to help people get access to basic information.

Since 2009, he has been detained in Villa Marista – a prison in Havana notorious for its treatment of political prisoners by the Cuban National Security Agency. This is not a minimum security prison where foreigners are routinely held. It is a harsh, repressive prison –reserved for Cuban dissidents.

He is still being held at Villa Marista, and so I come to the floor to urge my colleagues – indeed, to urge the Administration – to do all it can to free Mr. Gross, and keep pressure on the Castro regime.

After serving four years of a 15 year sentence, this 64 year old American’s mental health is reported to be deteriorating and his life may well be in danger.

The case of Alan Gross is only one example of why we cannot let up until the dead weight of this oppressive regime is lifted – once and for all -- from the backs of 11 million Cubans living on that island nation, isolated from the world.

M. President, we have supported democracy movements around the world. It is the idea upon which this nation was founded and it is who we are as a people and what we stand for in the eyes of the world.

We can no longer condone through inaction and outright support – even from some of my colleagues in this chamber – the actions of a repressive regime 90 miles from our shores simply because of the passage of time, or because of some romantic idea of what the Castro regime is all about.

To my colleagues let me say, I know I have come to this floor on many occasions demanding action. I have come to this floor demanding that we live up to our rhetoric and our values. I ask that we hold the Castro brothers accountable for the years of suffering – the years of brutality and repression that has deprived the Cuban people of the basic human rights we so proudly proclaim to support around the world.

And I will come to this floor again-and-again-and- again to ask for nothing less. To ask that we never allow the Castro regime to profit from increased trade that will benefit the regime, that will use these dollars for repression, but not put one ounce of food on the plates of Cuban families.

Let me end, M. President with this photograph of a man being arrested in Havana and flashing a sign recognized across Cuba and throughout the world.

Libertad! Libertad! Libertad! That’s all I ask for the people of Cuba. And I will not rest until Cuba is free.

Thank you, M. President, and with that I yield the floor.

Eight Facts About the "Cuban Twitter"

From the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID):

Eight Facts About ZunZuneo

On Thursday, April 3, the Associated Press published an article on a social media program in Cuba funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The article contained significant inaccuracies and false conclusions about ZunZuneo, which was part of a broader effort that began in 2009 to facilitate “twitter like” communication among Cubans so they could connect with each other on topics of their choice. Many of the inaccuracies have been re-reported by other news outlets, perpetuating the original narrative, or worse.

The article suggested that USAID spent years on a “covert” program to gather personal information to be used for political purposes to “foment” “smart mobs” and start a “Cuban spring” to overthrow the Cuban government.  It makes for an interesting read, but it’s not true.

USAID’s work in Cuba is not unlike what we and other donors do around the world to connect people who have been cut off from the outside world by repressive or authoritarian governments. USAID’s democracy and governance work focuses on strengthening civil society, governance, and promoting human rights.

Here are eight claims made by article, followed by the facts:

1) The story says the “program’s legality is unclear” and implies the program was “covert.”

FACT:  USAID works in places where we are not always welcome. To minimize the risk to our staff and partners and ensure our work can proceed safely, we must take certain precautions and maintain a discreet profile. But discreet does not equal covert.

The programs have long been the subject of Congressional notifications, unclassified briefings, public budget requests, and public hearings. All of the Congressional Budget Justifications published from 2008 through 2013, which are public and online, explicitly state that a key goal of USAID’s Cuba program is to break the “information blockade” or promote “information sharing” amongst Cubans and that assistance will include the use or promotion of new “technologies” and/or “new media” to achieve its goals.

In 2012, the Government Accountability Office—the U.S. government’s investigative arm—spent months looking at every aspect of USAID’s Cuba programs. GAO’s team of analysts had unrestricted access to project documents, extended telephone conversations with Mobile Accord (ZunZuneo) and even traveled to Cuba. The GAO identified no concerns in the report about the legality of USAID’s programs, including ZunZuneo, and offered USAID zero recommendations for improvements.

2) The article implies that the purpose of the program was to foment “Smart Mobs,” funnel political content and thereby trigger unrest in Cuba.

FACT:  The “USAID documents” cited in the article appear to be case study research and brainstorming notes between the grantee and the contractor.  The specific reference to “Smart Mobs” had nothing to do with Cuba nor ZunZuneo. The documents do not represent the U.S. government’s position or reflect the spirit or actions taken as part of the program in Cuba.  The project initially sent news, sports scores, weather, and trivia.  After which, the grantee did not direct content because users were generating it on their own.

3) The story states there was a “shell company” in Spain formed to run the program.

FACT:  No one affiliated with the ZunZuneo program established a private company in Spain as part of this program.  The project sought to do so if it was able to attract private investors to support the effort after USAID funding ended.  Private investment was never identified and thus no company was ever formed.

4) The story implies that the USG tried to recruit executives to run ZunZuneo without telling them about USG involvement.

FACT:  A USAID staff member was present during several of the interviews for candidates to lead ZunZuneo.  The staff member’s affiliation with USAID was disclosed and it was conveyed that the funding for the program was from the U.S. Government.

5) The article states that private data was collected with the hope it would be used for political purposes.

FACT: The ZunZuneo project included a website, as is typical for a social network.  Users could voluntarily submit personal information. Few did, and the program did not use this information for anything.

6) The article says that the funding was “publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan,” implying that funds were misappropriated.

FACT: All funds for this project were Congressionally appropriated for democracy programs in Cuba, and that information is publicly available.

7) The story stated, “At its peak, the project drew in more than 40,000 Cubans to share news and exchange opinions.”

FACT: At its peak, the platform had around 68,000 users.

8) The article suggests there was an inappropriate base of operations established in Costa Rica outside of normal U.S. government procedures.

FACT: The Government of Costa Rica was informed of the program on more than one occasion. The USAID employee overseeing the program served under Chief of Mission Authority with the U.S. Embassy, as is standard practice.

We welcome tough journalism – and we embrace it. It makes our programs better. But we also believe it’s important that the good work of USAID not be falsely characterized.

Venezuela Provides Castro Private Luxury Jets

From El Universal:

Venezuela gives Cuba three aircraft to transport Raúl Castro

The aircrafts –two Dassault Falcon 50 and one Falcon 900– are worth some USD 100-110 million

Venezuela has given Havana three upscale executive aircraft that are used by Cuban leaders. Maintenance will be carried out by Venezuela even though the oil producing nation faces a serious currency crisis which has led to massive food shortage.

The aircraft –two Dassault Falcon 50 and one Falcon 900– are worth some USD 100-110 million, and are regularly used for transporting ministers and Cuban President Raúl Castro, sources told The Miami Herald.

Pictured below (left) is Cuba's "Vice-President," the infamous General Ramiro Valdes:

Castro's "Murder, Inc."

Two stories from this weekend that everyone should read.

First, The Miami Herald has discovered new information connecting the Castro regime to the 1995 South Florida murder of a high-level defector, who was preparing to testify regarding Cuba’s bio-weapons capabilities to Congress.

Read the whole story here. Some excerpts:

When Cuban exiles Lilian Rosa Morales and husband Manuel Ramirez were murdered in an execution-style shooting in Coral Gables shortly after midnight on Feb. 2, 1995, most news reports on the case focused on Morales.

After all, Morales, 25, was known as the host of a radio program on astrology and a flashy dresser who favored big hats in vivid colors. The reports noted that her recent New Year’s prediction that Fidel Castro would survive 1995 might have angered a listener.

Ramirez, 57, was mentioned in the reports only as her husband. They said he had died at Jackson Memorial Hospital soon after Morales was pronounced dead at the scene, around the corner from the WCMQ radio station on Ponce de Leon Boulevard.

Few people, in fact, knew at the time that Ramirez was a very important man. He had led the construction of Cuba’s top-security biological laboratories in the 1980s and was preparing to testify about the island’s bioweapons capabilities to the U.S. Congress when the couple was murdered, el Nuevo Herald has learned.

Ramirez also had directed the construction of some of Cuban ruler Fidel Castro’s offices and several military bunkers, and had received a U.S. visa under a semi-secret “national interest” program for top island defectors managed by exiles in Miami.

A former Cuban government official has now told the newspaper that the killer was a petty Havana thief living in Miami who was ordered by Havana officials, perhaps Castro himself, to murder Ramirez for allegedly stealing $2 million from the government [...]

Brian Latell, a retired CIA analyst and author of the book Castro’s Secrets, said there have been a number of known Cuban government attempts to assassinate defectors and others, especially people who angered Castro in some way.

“Fidel operated during all his years in power as Cuba’s supreme spymaster. He called the shots in every important case. And defectors who damaged Cuba always became his cases,” Latell said.

Second, Sunday World has an article regarding a new documentary on the perversion and brutality of former Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.

In the story, we're reminded that the head of Gaddafi's "Murder, Inc." is still being harbored by Castro in Havana.

Here's an excerpt:

In a major exclusive, a documentary team also secured an interview with the renegade CIA operative who ran the murder squad.

Frank Terpil who currently is avoiding the U.S. authorities in Havana, Cuba said that he would be paid about a million dollars a hit, paid into a Geneva bank account.

‘I was in Geneva… [a Gadaffi relative] opened up a letter of credit for a million dollars for [the target's] demise, on the caveat that his head be delivered back in a cooler to Libya so Gaddafi could actually look at the results of the work,’ he told the documentary producers.

WaPo Editorial Board: "Cuban Twitter" Plan Should be Applauded

From The Washington Post's Editorial Board:

A U.S. plan to help Cubans communicate should be applauded

Human Rights Watch’s 2014 annual report paints a somber picture of political life in Cuba. “The Cuban government continues to repress individuals and groups who criticize the government or call for basic human rights,” the report notes. “The government controls all media outlets in Cuba and tightly restricts access to outside information, severely limiting the right to freedom of expression. Only a tiny fraction of Cubans are able to read independent websites and blogs because of the high cost of and limited access to the Internet.”

It is worse than scandalous that Cuba’s 11 million people are still trapped under these conditions some 55 years after Fidel and Raul Castro came to power on a promise of national liberation. Yet a recent story in the U.S. press and comments by certain U.S. politicians about it imply that Americans should be terribly upset about the Obama administration’s efforts to relieve the Cuban nightmare.

We refer to an Associated Press investigation into a short-lived U.S. program to set up an uncensored text-messaging service for the island, using the Castro regime’s own state-owned cellphone network. The service, constructed via a series of shell companies designed to conceal its U.S. connection, enabled 40,000 Cubans, mostly tech-savvy young people, to communicate with one another. Funding ran out in 2012.

The AP story called this “a secret plan” “aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government,” as if there were something scandalous about undermining tyranny — and as if there were some readily available non-secret means of doing so. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), pronounced the program “dumb, dumb, dumb” and said he may bring it up at a hearing scheduled before his subcomittee this week.

Mr. Leahy and other critics may have a point, insofar as they object to the fact that the administration operated the Cuba program under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), an institution ill-suited for such a politically sensitive operation. A case in point is the 2009 capture and imprisonment of USAID contract employee Alan Gross, whom Cuban state security agents snared while he was delivering communications equipment to Cuba’s Jewish community.

It’s one thing to question the administration’s methods in Cuba and quite another to trash its goals. The messaging service, known as Zun Zuneo, strikes us as similar in intent to U.S. government and nongovernmental aid to civil society in the Soviet bloc — including, notably, the AFL-CIO’s communications support for the Solidarity network in Poland. Sen. Leahy mocked the Cuba program, which took place on Hillary Clinton’s watch at the State Department, as a vestige of the “Eisenhower” era. Actually, it’s an updating of the United States’ admirable past efforts to pierce the Iron Curtain, and a rather innovative one at that. USAID pronounced itself “proud” of trying to help Cubans “speak freely among themselves,” and it should be — even if someone else probably should have gotten the assignment.

If anyone’s stuck in the past, it’s the Castros, who insist on a level of political control that has gone out of style everywhere except Havana and Pyongyang. Critics of the ZunZuneo program should spare some outrage for them.

Confirmed: North Korea's Ambassador to Cuba Executed

First, the head of Cuba's Air Force, General Pedro Mendiondo, dies in a mysterious car crash.

Then, North Korea's Army Chief, General Kim Kyok-sik, was mysteriously purged.

And now, it has been confirmed that North Korea's Ambassador to Cuba, Jon Yong-jin, has been executed (below).

As the U.N. Panel of Experts recently revealed, the smuggling of Cuban weapons to North Korea was negotiated and transacted from its Embassy in Havana.

It seems the Kim and Castro regimes are going to great lengths to cover their illegal smuggling scheme.

From Seoul's leading newspaper, The Chosun Ilbo:

N.Korea Shuts Down Jang Song-taek's Department

The North Korean regime has shut down the Workers Party department once headed by purged eminence grise Jang Song-taek and executed or interned 11 high-ranking officials, sources said Sunday.

One of them was burned alive.

A source said the regime is preparing a third purge of officials who supported Jang. The first purge involved his family, relatives and high-ranking party officials, while the second purge underway. The third will target his supporters in provincial chapters of the Workers Party.

The source said Jang's elder sister Kye-sun and her husband and ambassador to Cuba Jon Yong-jin, as well as their son-in-law Kim Yong-ho, who was head of a trading company, were executed. But ambassador to Malaysia Jang Yong-chol, Jang's nephew, escaped with his life.

He was sent to a concentration camp shortly after Jang Song-taek's execution but was ordered to return to Pyongyang without a job after South Korean media reported rumors of his execution.

In My Humble Opinion, Pt. 49

Note below "former" Castro regime official Arturo Lopez-Levy (Lopez-Callejas) never misses n opportunity to defend his family's business.

In this case, he's acting a judge, jury and executioner of imprisoned foreign businessmen in Cuba.  Yet, there has not been a shred of evidence presented against any of them, some have been imprisoned for years without even charges filed and any deliberations have been in secret.

Here are some first-hand accounts from some of Castro's closest foreign business partners: here, here and here.

Excerpt from The Tampa Tribune:

[M]any still see the risk of doing business with Cuba as too great because they say its government has proven it cannot be trusted.

A host of examples are cited by Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, a Washington, D.C., lobbying group promoting democracy in Cuba.

Cuba froze more than a billion dollars in foreign assets in 2009, imprisoned businessmen from Canada and England without due process, and has failed to pay a number of trade debts with other countries, Claver-Carone said.

This, coupled with the difficulty of working with the Cuban government, is why foreign ventures in Cuba have dropped from 400 in 2000 to 190 today, he said.


[Arturo] Lopez-Levy, the former Castro adviser, disagrees with that assessment. The businessmen were jailed for corruption and their crimes would have warranted similar reaction anywhere in the world, he said. Further, he said, Cuba has bilateral agreements in place with its trading partners and could have its international assets frozen if it makes unlawful seizures.

Savage said trust in the Cuban government should not be the issue keeping U.S. business from investing or trading there. Risk is always a part of business, especially internationally, he said.

Russia is an example.

U.S. businesses that invested in Russia are concerned the nation will freeze their assets in retaliation against economic sanctions imposed in response to its invasion of neighboring Crimea, said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, a Washington-based business organization advocating a rules-based world economy.

When some of those investments were made, Russia and the U.S. were on friendlier terms.

But for Claver-Carrone, it’s not just about business but about bringing democracy to an island ruled by what he calls an oppressive government. He said at some point dollars and cents need to take a back seat to decency.

Cubans, he said, receive an average wage of only about $20 a month.

“That’s like slave labor,” he said. “And because U.S. companies would have to hire through the government, they would be employing them at that wage. How is that OK?”

Cuba, he added, is desperate. Its patron the Soviet Union is long gone. It risks losing the $3.5 billion a year in oil supplied by Venezuela in return for the skilled workers it sends to Venezuela. And the economy is growing at a rate of just 2.7 percent a year when it needs a rate of 7 percent.

The new investment laws adopted last week are an effort to save the Castro brothers’ failing socialist government, Claver-Carone said.

“The problem is they are serial monopolists,” he said. “They have a very hard time letting go. They only relax laws when they need to and then when things turn around, they tighten control again.”

Where's the Outrage? Why the Double-Standard? Who's the Leaker?

Sunday, April 6, 2014
It's been fascinating to watch some of the media's outrage toward a successful effort to provide the Cuban people with a social media platform ("Cuban Twitter") to freely communicate with each other.

It's been a top-news story in many outlets -- mostly with the AP's spin.

Yet, why's there not similar outrage regarding the Castro regime's violations of Internet freedom?

Why's there not similar outrage regarding the weekly harassment, arrest and beating of peaceful Cuban women, The Ladies in White, as they try to attend Sunday Mass?

Why's there not similar outrage regarding the rise in political repression under Raul Castro, averaging over 1,000 political arrests per month?

Why's there not similar outrage regarding the recent mysterious deaths of Cuban democracy leaders?

Why's there not similar outrage regarding the Castro regime's subversion of democratic institutions in Venezuela?

Why's there not similar outrage regarding the Castro regime's smuggling of weapons to North Korea, the largest interdiction of weapons to the Kim regime, in violation of international sanctions?

Why's there not similar outrage regarding the Castro regime's "new" foreign investment law, which blatantly violates international labor law?

Why's there not similar outrage to the Castro regime's holding of an American hostage, Alan Gross, since December 2009?

Why's there not similar outrage to the beating, arrest and murder of young Venezuelans by the Castro-influenced Maduro government?

Why's there not similar outrage regarding Internet freedom efforts to help civil society in Syria, Iran, Belarus, Burma, North Korea, etc.?

Needless to say, no one has bothered pointing out that efforts to help Cubans connect independently to social media wouldn't be necessary if they weren't ruled by a totalitarian dictatorship.

With Bloomberg's exception, no one has bothered pointing out that the "Cuban Twitter" program ended because it was so successful, so fast. Thus, demonstrating the hunger of the Cuban people to communicate freely and independently.

Finally, why is no one asking who leaked the details of the "Cuban Twitter" program to the AP?

The details of these programs are discreet because any effort to help civil society in Cuba or any other totalitarian regime can potentially endanger lives. The answer is not sitting with our arms crossed in the face of repression, but working cautiously to break the information blockade of these regimes.

Thus, it should be investigated who leaked the details, why and whether such a leak was illegal.

More AP Sensationalism on "Cuban Twitter"

The AP's sensationalism regarding efforts to provide the Cuban people with a social network platform ("Cuban Twitter") independent of the Castro regime seems to have no end.

Check out this headline:

'Cuban Twitter' heads to hearings in Congress

At first glance, one would think Congressional hearings had been called on the "Cuban Twitter" program.

Except its not true. And the AP knows it.

Note how creatively and misleadingly the opening paragraph is written:

"The head of the U.S. government agency that secretly created a 'Cuban Twitter' communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba is expected to testify next week before a senator who thinks the whole idea was 'dumb, dumb, dumb.' The congressional hearing could resolve key questions around the clandestine program, including whether the Obama administration adequately informed lawmakers about its plans."

Once again, the average reader would think Congressional hearings had been called.  And that's the impression the AP wants to give.

Yet, the fact remains that USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah has long been scheduled to testify this Tuesday before both the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on the State Department and Foreign Operations.

It's part of an annual, administrative, routine budget hearing on a host of issues for Fiscal Year 2015.

The Senate Subcommittee is chaired by U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), whose fake and hypocritical outrage will surely lead him to ask about the program.

But that's a far cry from the novel the AP would like you to read.