Obama Must Defend the Summit's "Democracy Clause"

Friday, September 12, 2014
By Jose Cardenas in Foreign Policy:

Obama's Cuba Problem

The last time President Obama met with his Latin American and Caribbean counterparts was not a particularly memorable affair.  The 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, was overshadowed by an embarrassing Secret Service scandal that saw members of his advance team soaking in a little bit too much of the historical city's Caribbean nightlife.

Meanwhile, in the absence of any substantive agenda, President Obama spent most of the summit being hectored by his counterparts with the incongruous assertion that undemocratic outlier Cuba must be part of the next meeting of all the popularly elected governments in the Americas.

It was clear the president wasn't pleased with the badgering, complaining that, "Sometimes I feel as if in some of these discussions... we're caught in a time warp, going back to the 1950s and gunboat diplomacy."

Fast forward two years: Preparations for the 2015 Summit are well underway and once again Cuba's participation has become the flashpoint.  Governments in Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua have already said they will boycott any summit where Cuba is excluded.  Panama, the host, has announced its intention to formally invite Cuba, with its president saying that the presence of the last military dictatorship in the region was "important."

The State Department has already voiced its opposition, citing the 2001 Summit's agreed-upon "democracy clause," which conditions Summit participation to countries that respect democracy and rule of law. According to a spokesperson, "So we should not undermine commitments previously made, but should instead encourage -- and this is certainly our effort -- the democratic changes necessary for Cuba to meet the basic qualifications."

Secretary of State John Kerry privately repeated that message in no uncertain terms to Panamanian Vice President Isabel de Saint Malo when the two met at the beginning of September.

Nevertheless, the drumbeat has started that President Obama must accept the Castro regime's presence at the Summit or else, as one former advisor to President Clinton has said, be "responsible for the collapse of inter-American summitry, 20 years after its initiation by President Clinton."

There is no doubt that U.S.-Cuba policy critics see the president's dilemma as a golden opportunity to mainstream Cuba back into regional polite society despite its uncompromising, repressive rule, thus making it more difficult to justify the U.S. policy of isolating the Castro regime politically and economically.  The administration will therefore be coming under enormous pressure to accept the "inevitable" and attend the Summit with Cuba.

These critics understand the power that symbolism plays in international affairs.  The presence of a U.S. President at any event -- international or otherwise -- is never routine, or ever lacking of import and consequence.  Thus, in their construction, President Obama's attendance at a Summit with Cuba will signal a U.S. surrender of fifty years of its embargo-centric policy.  On the other hand, the symbolic importance of standing up for the region's hard-won democratic gains over the past quarter-century by making a point about the incongruity of Cuba's presence in this age of regional democracy will be a dagger in their heart.

It's worth noting that several of the governments insisting on Cuba's presence are those guilty of their own back-sliding on respect for democratic institutions over the last several years, including Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.  Why wouldn't they want the Castro regime present in regional fora, so as to lower the bar for everyone on adhering to democratic principles?

But this isn't just to argue that President Obama should just stiff his counterparts and appoint a lesser State Department official to attend in his stead if other Latin American governments insist on Cuba's presence. The president should seize the opportunity to be proactive and make a statement that what distinguishes the Americas is that it is a community of democracies and that commitments to democratic governance are enduring and meaningful to ensure it will always be that way.  He should challenge others to argue why the Castros' military dictatorship is deserving of any special consideration or compromise for their flaunting of democratic norms over the past five decades. 

If, in the end, the president opts not to attend the Summit due to the Castro regime's presence, meaning that the U.S. "isolates" itself from the Summit process, then so be it.  Principle is more important that popularity. The sun will rise the next day and the struggle for democracy in Cuba will continue.  And if Latin American governments choose to condition their relationships with Washington on U.S. relations with Cuba, that is their choice to make -- and to live with.

Tweet(s) of the Day: U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power Meets Wife of Jailed Venezuelan Leader

Colombia Does Venezuela's (Cuba's) Dirty Work

Also note that earlier this year Colombia's government denied asylum to six Cubans who sought refuge at Bogota airport and recently to three young Cuban defectors, including a former Castro regime official.

By Mac Margolis in Bloomberg:

Colombia Does Venezuela's Dirty Work

Diplomacy is a coded business, where every tonic syllable counts. So here's one for Latin American semioticians: How to parse Colombia's decision to hand over two young Venezuelan fugitive dissidents to the Bolivarian thought police?

One theory: To seal a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia's president, is again pandering to the autocrat next door.

It's no secret that Venezuela has long been in the corner of the Colombian insurgents, who have been waging terror and mayhem against Colombia’s government for the last half-century, often with a wink and a nod from their Venezuelan patrons. That toxic bond had estranged Colombia and Venezuela for most of the previous decade, with the hawkish Alvaro Uribe pitted against the chief Andean tub-thumper, Hugo Chavez.

Since Santos was first elected in 2010, he has gone out of his way to end the Andean Cold War, infuriating Uribe, many Colombians, and the entire Venezuelan opposition besides. Exhibit A: his 2011 extradition of suspected Venezuelan drug-trafficker, Walid Makled, then in a Colombian jail. Not to the U.S., where Makled was wanted for a farrago of felonies, from running cocaine to abetting the FARC, but to Venezuela, where his trial has yet to be concluded.

Many pragmatists shrugged off that kind of deference as the price of keeping Caracas from upending negotiations between Colombia and the FARC in Havana, where Santos hoped to end the Western Hemisphere's longest insurgency.

Two years on, peace is still elusive, but Santos has kept courting the Chavistas. Which circles us back to the Venezuelan fugitives. Gabriel Valles, aged 27, and Lorent Saleh, 26, are members of an organization protesting the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, but they aren't exactly hardened criminals, much less game changers in the peace parley. As Diego Arria, a Venezuelan opposition leader, told me, "These are kids, not the rebel vanguard."

Both had slipped over the border to evade the Venezuelan courts, where they face charges of troublemaking during antigovernment street protests, including "inciting public disorder," spreading "false information," and a Bolivarian gem called "public uncertainty," which is Chavista-speak for anything their men in red want it to be.

Since they were first hauled into Venezuelan court, they'd been under orders to report every few weeks to the police and were barred from traveling abroad. So effectively, their offense was skipping probation.

Not that anyone in Caracas’s Palacio Miraflores much cared. Attorney Alfredo Romero, of the Venezuelan rights group Foro Penal, noted in his Twitter account that Venezuela hadn't even issued an extradition request when Colombia handed the two over to Venezuelan intelligence last week. More tellingly, perhaps, Saleh and Valles were reported to be close to former president Uribe, Santos's archenemy, and had criticized the Santos administration in speeches, adding a note of potential political payback to the surrender.

Whatever the motive, the handover steps on the honorable Latin American tradition -- burned into the American Convention on Human Rights -- of sheltering dissenters who have fled persecution or fear for their lives.

Adding to the "ignoble act," Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations, told me, was the delivery of Saleh and Valles to Venezuela's "dangerous" intelligence police, SEBIN, "known by Colombian authorities for their close ties to Colombian narco-terrorists."

Colombia isn’t the only country rolling over for the Chavistas. In 2012, fearing for his life, Bolivian Senator Roger Pinto Molina, an opponent of Bolivarian socialist President Evo Morales, fled to the Brazilian embassy in La Paz. President Dilma Rousseff granted him refugee status but denied safe conduct to Brazil when Morales hollered. After 455 days in limbo, Pinto snuck into Brazil, where the authorities pressured him to keep quiet and give up his asylum claim, his attorney Fernando Tiburcio Pena told me.

Then last month, former Venezuelan ambassador Milos Alcalay, a critic of Maduro, was detained in Nicaragua, where he was to attend a meeting on liberty and democracy, and then packed off to Panama, before being sent back home. Detail: Nicaragua and Panama are Venezuela's closest allies in Central America.

Puzzlingly, Santos, an able leader with a statesman's vision, had shone precisely because he'd risen above the crab barrel of Latin diplomacy. Winning peace is a worthy pursuit, and may warrant sacrifices. But surely not the kind that involve throwing foreign dissidents under the bus.

Caught on Film: Cuban Coast Guard Repressing Rafters

The following video shows images of a small vessel (with a wooden cross on the tip), full of Cubans seeking to flee the island, being intercepted by the Castro regime's Coast Guard.

You can see how they are threatened with heavy weapons, (literally) roped like cattle and forcefully removed from the vessel.

The video is in Spanish.

Click below (or here) to watch:.

You Can't "Save" the Summit Without Its "Democracy Clause"

Thursday, September 11, 2014
The Brookings Institution's Richard Feinberg wrote a long post in Americas Quarterly (AQ) about how the Summit of the Americas process can be "saved".

Feinberg weaves a long, convoluted discussion, but never answers the question -- mostly because he fails to pose the correct question (or any question, for that matter).

The correct question is: Can the Summit of the Americas process be saved, while violating its "democracy clause" through Cuba's participation?

For Feinberg, the "democracy clause" is apparently nonexistent and irrelevant. But that's not surprising, for in all of Brookings' Cuba reports, human rights and democracy are irrelevant as well.

Feinberg and Brookings only care about how to embrace Castro's regime and doing business on the island.

Consequently, his only (repetitive) argument is that if the U.S. eases sanctions before the upcoming 2015 Summit in Panama, then President Obama would be welcomed as some sort of "hero."

Sound familiar?

This was the same argument given prior to the 2009 Summit in Trinidad and Tobago. On the very same week of that Summit, Obama eased a set of sanctions towards Cuba and was received in Trinidad -- not as a "hero" -- but as a push-over.

We all remember Hugo Chavez's theatrics, handing him "Open Veins of Latin America" (which even its author, Eduardo Galeano, now repents writing), and the downhill slope of events later that year -- at the OAS General Assembly, Honduras, Venezuela, Cuba's hostage-taking, et. al.

Moreover, the point is not for President Obama to be welcomed as a "hero" (because he acquiesced to the whims of a dictatorship and its cohorts) -- or to be the most popular kid in class -- but to be seen as a leader that stands for the hard-fought progress of democracy in the Americas.

So let's help Feinberg answer the correct question:

As we all know, the Summit of the Americas is a gathering of the 34 democratically-elected leaders -- out of 35 nations -- in the Western Hemisphere.

It was during the April 2001 Summit, held in Quebec, Canada, that the 34 leaders of these democracies historically declared:

The maintenance and strengthening of the rule of law and strict respect for the democratic system are, at the same time, a goal and a shared commitment and are an essential condition of our presence at this and future Summits. Consequently, any unconstitutional alteration or interruption of the democratic order in a state of the Hemisphere constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to the participation of that state's government in the Summit of the Americas process.”

And on a very fateful date, on September 11, 2001, just a few months after the Quebec declaration, this hemispheric commitment would be enshrined in international law, under Article 2 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which holds:

The effective exercise of representative democracy is the basis for the rule of law and of the constitutional regimes of the member states of the Organization of American States. Representative democracy is strengthened and deepened by permanent, ethical, and responsible participation of the citizenry within a legal framework conforming to the respective constitutional order.”

Hence: Can the Summit of the Americas process be "saved," while violating its "democracy clause" through Cuba's participation?

No -- a collapse of the "democracy clause" would be a collapse of the Summit process.

Cuba and its wanna-be authoritarian cohorts know this very well, which is precisely why they are so forceful about Castro's participation.

To "save" the Summit process, its "democracy clause" must be preserved.

Thus, the United States must stand unequivocally in defense of the "democracy clause" against the encroachment of Cuba and its cohorts.

It's no surprise that other Latin American nations are willing to violate their democratic commitments to the Summit process -- either due to their own authoritarian ambitions or fear of Cuba/Venezuela's thuggery.

But this should not even be an option for the United States -- its participation must be conditioned on respect for the Summit's "democracy clause."

Cuba Claims It Has a "Right" to Do Business With the United States

As part of its yearly propaganda charade, the Castro regime claims that U.S. sanctions have cost it $3.9 billion over the past year.

This includes $205.8 million from "lost" sales of cigars and rum.

Note the irony:

The Castro regime denies the Cuban people their fundamental right to own businesses in their country; to invest in their country; and to import and export from their country.

This "right" is reserved only for Castro's monopolies.

Yet, it believes its monopolies somehow have a "right" to do business with the United States.

Think again.

From Reuters:

U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba have cost the island nation $3.9 billion in foreign trade over the past year, helping to raise the overall estimate of economic damage to $116.8 billion over the past 55 years, Cuba said on Tuesday.

The figures were published in a report that Cuba prepares for the United Nations each year in requesting a resolution urging an end to the comprehensive U.S. economic embargo and other sanctions against Cuba's Communist government.

Interview With a Young (Former) Cuban State Security Official

Colombia's NTN24 news network has a fascinating interview (in Spanish) with Rafael Alejandro Hernandez, a young former Cuban state security official, who is currently seeking political asylum (along with two colleagues) in Cuba.

The Colombian government has denied them political asylum, seemingly due to fear of repercussions (blackmail) by Havana.

If they are returned to Cuba, their lives will be in great danger.

In the interview, Hernandez discusses:

- The infiltration of Venezuela's student protests by Cuban agents.

- The motioning of all emails and communications of Cuban medical personnel trafficked abroad.

- Athletes in sports exchanges who are trained as state security agents.

- A mission whereby he was being prepared to infiltrate Miami-Dade Community College.

See the full interview below:

Cuba and North Korea Share More Than Arms Trafficking

Wednesday, September 10, 2014
We all know about the coordinated efforts by the Cuban and North Korean regimes in illegal arms trafficking.

Yet, it's fascinating how the Cuban and North Korean regimes also use the same hostage-taking tactics, extortion and pressure points.

Just last week, the Castro regime paraded Cuban spy, Fernando Gonzalez, to the AP in Havana to stress its ransom demand for the hostage-taking of development worker, Alan Gross.

Gonzalez reiterated that Gross' release would be "difficult" without the release of three Cuban spies duly convicted in the United States.

Note the other parallels in the story below.

From NPR:

3 Americans Detained In North Korea Urge U.S. To Secure Their Release

Three Americans who have been detained in North Korea appealed today to the U.S. to send a senior representative to secure their release.

In interviews with CNN and The Associated Press, Kenneth Bae, Jeffrey Fowle and Matthew Miller detailed the conditions of their imprisonment and urged a quick resolution of their situations.

Bae, a Christian missionary, has been detained the longest. He was arrested in late 2012 and tried and convicted to 15 years of hard labor for the attempted overthrow of North Korea's communist regime. The 46-year-old has diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney stones. He told CNN that he worked eight hours a day, six days a week at a labor camp, and that he had been suffering from "failing health."

"I've been going back and forth between hospital and to the labor camp for the last year and a half," he said.

Fowle, 56, was detained in June. At the time, North Korean media said he "acted in violation of the DPRK law, contrary to the purpose of tourism during his stay." CNN says he is accused of leaving a Bible in a hotel where he was staying.

"Within a month I could be sharing a jail cell with Ken Bae," Fowle told the AP.

Miller was picked up in April, arrested for what the North called "rash behavior." He is accused of tearing up his tourist visa and seeking asylum in the North.

He told CNN he wanted to tell the U.S. "my situation is very urgent, that very soon I am going to trial, and I would directly be sent to prison." He declined to comment on the claim that he was seeking asylum.

Fowle and Miller both said they expected their trials to start in the next month. They both said they do not know what specific charges they face. But both, along with Bae, have signed statements admitting their guilt.

Here's more from the AP on the conditions under which the interviews were conducted:

"The three were allowed to speak briefly with The Associated Press at a meeting center in Pyongyang. North Korean officials were present during the interviews, conducted separately and in different rooms, but did not censor the questions that were asked. The three said they did not know they were going to be interviewed until immediately beforehand."

Of its interview, CNN said:

"All three men said they have signed statements admitting their guilt. North Korean officials monitored and recorded all three interviews, and CNN was unable to assess independently the conditions under which the men were being held."

The U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea and is trying to isolate it over its nuclear program. But The New York Times reports, "The choreography of the interviews seemed to make increasingly clear that North Korea wanted to use the three Americans as bargaining leverage to pressure Washington to engage the country in dialogue."

Past intercessions, by high-level emissaries such as former President Clinton have resulted in the freeing of Americans.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki urged North Korea to free Bae, Fowle and Miller out of humanitarian concern. She also asked that Bae be granted immunity.

"We continue to work actively to secure these three U.S. citizens' release," she said in a statement.

The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang acts as the United States' protecting power in North Korea, and its diplomats have met the Americans regularly, the statement said.

Tweet(s) of the Day: Threats by Cuban Regime Officials

Cuban democracy leader, Sayli Navarro, revealed threats made today by a Castro regime official against an opposition activist (Amaya Fleites):

#Cuba "If you keep distributing pamphlets and your activities, your file is prepared and we'll hand it to the prosecutors..." said the official
#Cuba "We know that soon you will be visiting the United States and we can block it as we give the exit permits," he added  

On Cuba's "Black Market"

Interesting article on Cuba's "black market" in technology.

From Germany's DPA news agency:

Internet ‘offline packages’ for sale are a hit on Cuba’s black market

Game of Thrones fever is beginning to die down in Cuba. The fourth season of the wildly popular medieval-setting US television series wrapped up in June.

The man who enters the back room of a private home in Havana, where it is dark and an old ventilator is thumping on the wall to ease the summer heat, is looking for something else.

“Give me the next episode of ‘Lord of the Skies,’” he says as he hands over a pen drive.

He is referring to a current “narco-novela” or “narco soap-box series” being broadcast by the Spanish-language Telemundo network in the United States.

Cuba has some of the world’s worst Internet access, which is the fault of both relentless government control and general economic backwardness. Cuba’s state-run television offers content that is low in quality. Many would say plain boring.

Yet foreign movies and television series are avidly watched on the island.

Most Cubans get to see them thanks to weekly sales of what is known as the “package.” The “package” is a weekly selection of current television series, movies and web publications that is viewed across the island, passing from hand to hand and computer to computer.

Most of the best loved television series, movies and shows are made in the United States, but viewers are also partial to the content of womens’ magazines such as the Spanish Hola!, or the Mexican

Vanidades, as well as specialized magazines such as Autobild, a German cars mag, and Sport, a sports magazine from Barcelona.

The magazines are saved and read in PDF format.

The files are first downloaded using a broadband connection, or else taped directly from cable television.

Downloading would be so ordinary as to rate no excitement in any country except Cuba, where private homes are not allowed to have Internet accounts and the most common online connection continues to be an analogue modem. Cable television is not allowed either.

The “package” starts off as a one-terabyte disk, explains Isbel Diaz, a 38-year-old computer expert who is familiar with the clandestine Internet world in Cuba. Distribution operates as a chain.

Some people are in charge of obtaining the master “package” and they sell it by dividing it up into smaller deliveries right down to the level of the small-time distributor who sells the content in small units, sometimes even personally delivering those orders to the homes of buyers.

“The hard-drive disk is taken to the distributor, and the distributor then does his or her business,” said Diaz. It is as it were an “offline Internet” service — a way of having Internet access without actually going online.

Many Cubans wait anxiously each week for the arrival of the “package” to watch their favourite series as well as to acquire bootleg computer software. An 8GB memory device can be bought for less than a dollar in Cuba.

A popular series in Cuba is the US “Cold Case” programme along with shows by the Cuban comedian Alexis Valdes, who is based in Miami.

Diaz said that those programmes are basically the Spanish-language television fare that people in Florida watch. Many users also buy foreign news programmes or Discovery Channel documentary films.

It is the rule to offer commercial programming with no political messages. Pornography is also taboo. Because of this, Diaz and others believe that Cuban authorities tolerate the making of the weekly “package,” even though it is not a legally sanctioned activity.

Otherwise, he said, “It is very suspicious that such a large amount of information contained in those ‘packages’ can be updated on a weekly basis... How many people are there in Cuba with that kind of connection, so rapid, to download those volumes of information?”

In Cuba, only state institutions or foreign firms are entitled to use broadband connections or satellite antennae.

That is why downloading the Internet content, “has to be from state centres, with or without the authorization of the bosses,” said Pablo, another Internet bootlegger who will not give his full name because the activity is illegal on the island.

Pablo, trained as a physician, sells “packages” from the back room of his home in Havana.

He explained why the “packages” are so popular: “It’s because Cuban television lacks this kind of material,” he said.

The black-market Internet content packages are becoming so widespread that small local entrepreneurs, who are authorised to do “self-employed” work within Cuba’s communist system, are now starting to advertise their businesses on the “packages.”

They pay a special fee to the distributors to promote their businesses with videos and photos.

Local musicians are also taping their reggae music shows for distribution as part of “the package”. There are also people willing to offer other kinds of programmes and video for dissemination in Cuba.

“‘The package’ that exists currently and is being sold does not satisfy my consumption needs nor that of many of my peers,” says Yaima Pardo, 34.

She is a television director and filmmaker and believes that many people her age want something else. Pardo is in the planning stages of producing a “Weekly Independent Package” that would go by its

Spanish acronym, PaSA (a play on the word pass or pass along).

Pardo and her colleagues want to distribute PaSA for free in Havana and other cities.

“I see it as the kind of Internet we could create ourselves” if we had regular access to the web, she said.

The Internet television and video package Pardo would distribute would also include political topics and taboo material, because there is “nothing wrong” with that, she said.

“We would like it to operate as a kind of ‘citizen’s journalism report,’” she added, “that people produce their own content with social objectives, to be included on the disk.”

Pardo also said she would have no objection to including “14ymedio” (“14andahalf”), a digital newspaper produced by the Cuban dissident Yoani Sanchez and launched in May. Sanchez and her fellow dissident journalists are periodically producing issues of “14ymedio” in PDF format that they distribute clandestinely on the island.

For now, the success of the Internet “package” is directly tied to the commercial aspect.

It is hard to measure just how widespread the practice is, because there are no official figures, but in cities such as Havana it is common to hear people talking about how they are anxiously awaiting the arrival of their “package,” be it on Monday or Tuesday, depending on the service provider.

In conversations, people seem to be well aware of the latest television fads outside Cuba.

At Pablo’s Internet shop a female buyer refers to the show she is most interested in at this time: she just loves MasterChef, a cooking show that has become very popular in the United States, as well as in Spain and Latin America.

Independent Journalist Arrested, Pressured to Leave Cuba

Tuesday, September 9, 2014
By the Paris-based press watchdog, Reporters Without Borders:

Independent Journalist Arrested, Pressured to Leave Cuba

A former political prisoner, Bernardo Arévalo is being threatened with another jail term if he does not leave.

Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, an independent journalist based in Cienfuegos, 250 km southeast of Havana, said the police of pressured him to leave Cuba when they arrested him on 6 September because of his reporting for the opposition newspaper El Cubano Libre, de Hoy.

Arévalo told Reporters Without Borders that the Cienfuegos police threatened him with a four-year jail sentence if he did not leave the island.

“I don’t want to leave Cuba, I don’t want to,” Arévalo said. “My decision is irrevocable. I would rather go to prison than leave the country. I want to die in Cuba.”

Arévalo spent six years as a political prisoner, from 1997 to 2003, after being convicted of insulting Fidel Castro and then Vice-President Carlos Lage. Between then and last weekend, he had only been detained once – for eight hours in February 2010.

“We condemn the pressure being placed on Arévalo,” said Camille Soulier, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Americas desk. “Cuba is reestablishing relations with the European Union and EU member countries but its treatment of independent journalists has not changed. Exile or prison, that’s freedom of information in Cuba today.”

In its latest monthly report, the Havana-based Hablemos Press independent information centre said there were a total of 609 politically-motivated arrests in Cuba in August, bring the total to 6,805 since the start of the year.

One of the latest victims, independent journalist Miguel Guerra Pérez, was released on 1 September after being held for a week. Several Hablemos Press reporters have been the targets of threats. They include José Leonel Silva Guerrero, who was briefly detained and threatened with reprisals against his family if he did not stop working as the Hablemos Press correspondent in Holguín.

After the Hablemos Press monthly report was slammed by a recent “Mesa Redonda” programme on state television, the centre’s director, Roberto de Jesús Guerra García, demanded the right to respond to the criticism on 1 September without holding out any hope of his request being granted.

Four journalists are currently detained in Cuba. One of them, Juliet Michelena Díaz, is still waiting for a court decision. Cuba is ranked 170th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index – the lowest position of any country in the Americas.

Why Cuba Targets American Universities

By William Tucker of In Homeland Security:

Why Cuba Targets American Universities

My job was to bug their rooms with both cameras and listening devices. Most people have no idea they are being watched while they are in Cuba. But their personal activities are filmed under orders from Fidel Castro himself. And Castro’s undercover agents don’t wait around hoping the famous visitors might randomly engage in these things. They tempt them, bait them with offers.” – Cuban intelligence defector Delfin Fernandez.

As Mr. Fernandez correctly points out, Cuba’s General Directorate of Intelligence (DGI) has no qualms about using unseemly measures to gain cooperation from people who may be of service to the Cuban government. Though Fernandez is specifically speaking about celebrities in this instance, the tactics employed are not exclusive to a certain subset of American culture, rather the DGI, like most intelligence services, use a variety of methods to acquire information from people who may have access, or even among those who will have access, to sensitive information.

While using recruits to gather information is a common method used by nearly every intelligence agency, there are other reasons Havana seeks out celebrities and academics alike – to influence U.S. public opinion or policy towards the island nation. In other words, these recruits are known as agents of influence. For decades, the Cuban government has racked up a string of impressive successes in penetrating the U.S. government and society. Turncoats such as Ana Montes and Walter Kendall Myers are perhaps two of the better known moles operating on instruction from Cuba, but Carlos Alvarez, a professor at Florida International University, was working with the DGI to keep tabs on Cuban dissidents and defectors living in Florida. Though no classified material was accessed in the Alvarez case, it underscores the utility of having such an unassuming person to conduct intelligence activities.

In a private sector advisory released September 2, the FBI stated that Cuba remains interested in recruiting agents at U.S. colleges and universities. This advisory follows the FBI warnings of the past few years that openly stated the desire of foreign intelligence services (FIS) to gain access to sensitive material, whether government classified or company proprietary, through recruitment at institutions of higher learning. In fact, former Cuban intelligence officer Jose Cohen stated in a 2002 paper that Cuba considers recruiting at U.S. universities a “top priority,” and actively seeks those candidates who are likely to “occupy positions of importance in the private sector and in the government.” Cohen defected to the U.S. in 1994, but his analysis has proven accurate. It’s interesting to note that both Myers and Montes were first approached by Cuba’s DGI while at college. According to open sources, Montes may have been approached while attending Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies through a facilitator vetting good recruits for Cuban intelligence collection. Without a formal diplomatic presence in the U.S., Cuba relies on other avenues to move intelligence officers into the U.S. One such avenue is the Cuban Mission to the UN which is the third largest mission in New York and it is estimated that nearly half of the employees at the mission are actually DGI. Other avenues include cultural centers and an extensive ‘illegals’ program.

Cuba is a small nation with limited resources and it cannot always rely on cash to entice new recruits. Instead, Cuba plays on ideological sympathies, blackmail, or even promises of favorable investments in the Cuban economy once the U.S. embargo is lifted. Recruiting agents while they are young and unaware of the consequences of their actions is a tried and tested methodology that has paid dividends for Havana.

Colleges and universities rely on openness and sharing of information to facilitate learning, but this also represents a vulnerability that is easily exploited by those with impure intentions. Though Americans often consider Cuba to be a bygone threat of the Cold War era, the island nation still resides a mere 90 miles off of Florida and Cuban cooperation with Russia or China certainly help to raise the level of concern. Furthermore, many leaders of the U.S. intelligence community have repeatedly stated that the presence of foreign spies in the U.S. is outpacing that of the Cold War. Indeed, espionage costs the U.S. economy a substantial amount of money – nearly a trillion dollars annually according to some estimates. Cuba may only represent a single threat among the many challenges facing U.S. national security, however each threat takes its toll and an educated public that is sensitive to the threat is often the best defense.

Why Are There So Many Police Agents on Cuba's Beaches?

A Dutch broadcasting network ("VPRO") recently ran a series on travel experiences -- called "World Upside Down" -- whereby listeners submitted photos and anecdotes of interesting trips.

They received the following submission from Liesbeth Eugelink about her trip to Cuba.

Most of the millions of foreign tourists who visit Cuba don't get to witness any of this, as they stay in the military's secluded beach resorts -- mainly located in keys where access is tightly restricted.

But equally as troubling is how overwhelmingly, even those who visit the beaches that Cubans can frequent (e.g. Playa del Este), remain indifferent to the Castro regime's blatant repression.

That's why Castro's regime continues to welcome them with open arms (and pockets).

Ms. Eugelink's submission to VPRO:

Cigars, rum, cocktails, salsa music, vintage cars, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Ernest Hemingway and Buena Vista Social Club - that's the image that exists about a Cuban holiday in the Netherlands. It hides the real life in this dictatorship. So we discovered when we sat in our beach chairs in Playa del Este.

Every ten meters is a wooden watchtower housing policemen in blue-gray dress with binoculars to spy on the people on the beach. Just before our seats a young soldier regularly shuffles by with a belt strapped around his skinny waist to hold up his pants. He is slumped, staring into the distance, tapping mindlessly with his gray truncheon on his thigh. Young men in swimwear walk back and forth, from acquaintances to policemen and back; slowly we are surrounded by an invisible network of messages.

As the day progresses, the pressure rises. The sea water from the Gulf of Mexico offers barely any refreshment. When at the end of the afternoon we leave the beach, there is a crowd. A young woman is crying while watching her husband in bathing trunks, being arrested. Unceremoniously, one of the policemen pushes him backwards into the bus and slams the door with a bang. Bystanders watch silent, as if the scene by now has become familiar.

(Translation courtesy of Cubarights.com)

Cuban Law Student Remains Imprisoned, On Hunger Strike

On May 13, 2013, Yojaine Arce Sarmiento, a young Cuban law student, was arrested for delivering a speech on human rights in his hometown of Caimanera.

Arce Sarmiento, a democracy activist with the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU), is being held in a punishment cell in the Provincial Prison of Guantanamo, where he is currently on the 25th day of a hunger strike.

He is being denied any medical attention.

Needless to say, no charges -- or trial -- have been filed against him.

More "reform" you can't believe in.

Tweet of the Day: Cuba as a Counter-Intelligence Threat

Monday, September 8, 2014
By U.S. Naval War College Professor and former National Security Agency (NSA) counter-intelligence officer, Dr. John Schindler:

Yoani: A Dissident and a Patriot

By Maria Hinojosa in Global Post:

Cuba's Yoani Sanchez: A dissident and a patriot

For a woman who risks assault, incarceration or death because of what she says and writes, Yoani Sanchez comes off as entirely serene and at peace with herself. And this soft-spoken 39-year-old, a wife and mother of just over five feet tall, is one of the most famous people taking on one of the most famous revolutions of our time: the Cuban Revolution.

Yoani has taken on the Cuban government not by protesting on the streets of Havana, which surely would land her in jail, but by writing about her daily life — a sort of quiet protest — and publishing what was once completely unthinkable: a Cuban blog.

This kind of work was considered unthinkable because while the Cuban revolution was supposed to stand for education, for the "new" man and the "new" woman, a revolution that was once an inspiration for intellectuals, there is barely any access to the internet and all of the possible education that comes with it. As a result, Yoani's online presence has gotten her into trouble with the government before.

Yoani is a writer. But like most Cubans she is also a fixer — a fixer of a broken can opener, of a shoe with a hole or a refrigerator, fan, or engine that has broken and for which no spare parts are accessible. Yoani learned how to build things as a kid and, as a teenager, she once built her own computer in her back yard.

And with that Yoani decided to speak her truth.

Thousands follow her on Twitter even though, for her, Twitter is a one-way street. She posts by sending text messages to friends off the island. But she can never read what people write back and can never respond.

Her blog, Generacion Y, is read by thousands and in the last few months she launched a digital newspaper of sorts. The Cuban government immediately hacked the site and posted a statement saying that Yoani is a traitor to the Caribbean island and its people.

"Labeling is the core of Castro's Cuba," said Yoani. "It is the official way of dividing the country. You label some people with glorious epithets and others with dismissive ones. Then the government accuses you of being unpatriotic and they try to take away your own right to nationalism and try to push you into exile."

It would be a normal thing by now for Yoani to have picked up and left the country. She's had lots of chances to do so.

But that she hasn’t is exactly the thing that makes her the new face of resistance. She has no plans on ever leaving Cuba. The government may call her a traitor, but Yoani is proving her own patriotism by not walking away.

For many around the world, the Cuban revolution, and even Fidel Castro, were once held in high esteem. And many still hang on to the official line of the benefits of the revolution — free education, free healthcare, no racism, job security and socialist economic justice.

Yoani calls these the exported myths. On the ground and through her blog, though, many people come to realize what a challenge it is even to eat. And teachers, once the most respected professionals in Cuba, are paid between $20 and $30 a month. Many have left the field for the more lucrative job of a jinetera, a jockey — the slang term for prostitutes who ride something other than a horse.

Yoani remembers growing up with the slogans and verbal promises of the revolution. As an adult, the central question she began to ask herself was where the Cuba she was promised had gone.

"No one would give me a microphone or a newspaper column or a minute on TV to ask that question," she said.

So with her existential revolutionary angst, her love of writing and her love of "technology and cables, screens, the feel and texture of the keyboard, I realized that I could fuse the two passions of my life."

Technology has become her life-saver.

While I work hard to purposefully disconnect from the internet and try, mostly unsuccessfully, to have my teen kids do the same, technology is the thing that Yoani depends on to literally stay alive.

She may be the most famous Cuban who is unknown to the majority of Cubans on the island (because they don't have internet or computers), but the fact that Yoani has thousands of followers around the world means she is almost untouchable. If she is harassed or threatened she can let it be known. It could happen, but surely if the Cuban government jailed her, it would quickly become an international scandal.

Technology is her lifeline and the thing the younger generations of Cubans see as their future, regardless of what the government says. In fact, Young people like her 19-year-old son have gotten to a point where they just don't care what the government says or does anymore. Yoani said that one day scientists will come to study how it is that a generation of young Cubans have developed the mental ability to ignore all official propaganda.

"They have developed selective hearing,” she said, somewhat in awe. “Their focus is on the outside and being a part of the greater world that is connecting through technology."

Their focus is on a place where borders and visas and permits don't preclude conversation.

"They have managed to leave behind a past, the Castro past, that my generation is still dragging along," she added.

Yoani Sanchez has been called a spy for the Americans and she has been called a spy for the Cubans too, and both or one or none of that might be true. It doesn't take away from the fact that Yoani is a new kind of Cuban who isn't afraid to say anything because she has spies of her own, all over the world, that are watching her and waiting to Tweet the second this tiny woman from Havana is taken on by the big revolutionary government.

And while Fidel might not like it, he is no match against the simple wires, screens and keyboards that connect Yoani to the rest of the world, no matter what he says or does.

This is your "new" woman, Fidel. Unstoppable. Just like you once were.

The Washington "Think-Tank" Charade

Next time the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council and the Center for Strategic and International Studies host one of their one-sided panels lobbying for a change in U.S. policy; release one of their push-polls; or issue one of their reports regurgitating the Castro regime's "statistics" -- simply ask yourself:

Where is their funding coming from?

Who are the interests behind these?

Why the lack of transparency?

The New York Times had a great report this weekend on how these institutions have lost their intellectual independence -- and hence, their credibility.

Frankly, these entities should be required to register as lobbyists.

From The New York Times:

More than a dozen prominent Washington research groups have received tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments in recent years while pushing United States government officials to adopt policies that often reflect the donors’ priorities, an investigation by The New York Times has found.

The money is increasingly transforming the once-staid think-tank world into a muscular arm of foreign governments’ lobbying in Washington. And it has set off troubling questions about intellectual freedom: Some scholars say they have been pressured to reach conclusions friendly to the government financing the research.

The think tanks do not disclose the terms of the agreements they have reached with foreign governments. And they have not registered with the United States government as representatives of the donor countries, an omission that appears, in some cases, to be a violation of federal law, according to several legal specialists who examined the agreements at the request of The Times.

As a result, policy makers who rely on think tanks are often unaware of the role of foreign governments in funding the research.

The arrangements involve Washington’s most influential think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Atlantic Council. Each is a major recipient of overseas funds, producing policy papers, hosting forums and organizing private briefings for senior United States government officials that typically align with the foreign governments’ agendas.

Foreign officials describe these relationships as pivotal to winning influence on the cluttered Washington stage, where hundreds of nations jockey for attention from the United States government. The arrangements vary: Some countries work directly with think tanks, drawing contracts that define the scope and direction of research. Others donate money to the think tanks, and then pay teams of lobbyists and public relations consultants to push the think tanks to promote the country’s agenda.

Brazil Pays Cuba Over $1 Billion for Human Trafficking

Since 2013, the Castro regime has collected over $700 million from the Brazilian government for its trafficking of medical doctors.

These government-to-dictatorship contracts, whereby Cuban doctors have absolutely no say about salary, work conditions and have their passports confiscated, have been denounced internationally -- and within Brazil -- as forced labor.

(Read here the testimony of a Cuban doctor who defected.)

They are clearly in violation of the Trafficking in Persons Protocol and the International Labor Organization's ("ILO") Convention on the Protection of Wages.

As Brazil's National Federation of Physicians (FENAM, in Portuguese), has stated, "the contracts of the Cuban doctors have the characteristics of slave labor and only serve to finance the Cuban government."

Yet, undeterred in its efforts to finance Cuba's dictatorship, Brazil's current government has extended its trafficking contract and will be disbursing another $511 million to the Castro regime.

This low-cost, high-margin trafficking has become a top source of income for Cuba's dictatorship.

It has also helped finance the work of Brazilian conglomerate, Odebrecht, in Cuba.

Odebrecht is no stranger to human trafficking -- click here to read about its international forced labor practices.

From The Economist's Intelligence Unit:

Brazil extends contracts for 11,500 Cuban doctors


Since August 2013, Cuba has collected over US$700m from the Brazilian government in exchange for the services of 11,456 Cuban medical professionals working in over 2,700 towns and cities across the country. The Brazilian government recently announced that the programme will continue next year, with total payments amounting to US$511m.


The Cuban doctors participate in Brazil's Mais Médicos (More Doctors) programme, which aims to bring medical services to remote or underserved parts of the country by employing overseas doctors, mainly from Cuba. It was created in response to the mass protests that rocked Brazil in June 2013 over the poor quality of public services, including healthcare. The programme pays each participant a salary of around US$4,500 a month. However, the participation of Cuban doctors is organised through the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). The Brazilian government disburses the payments to the PAHO, which then transfers the monies to the Cuban government after taking a 5% administrative commission. The Cuban government pays the medical professionals working in Brazil a monthly salary of US$1,245, and pockets the rest.

With 440,000 health professionals in a country of 11m people, Cuba has one of the best doctor-to-patient ratios in the world. As the government has sought to cut costs and "update" the economy since 2008 under President Raúl Castro, it has cut the number of doctors operating on the island and offered to sell their services abroad.

Currently, the sale of services abroad is Cuba's largest source of hard currency: in 2014, the government estimates that it will collect US$8.2bn from these deals. Around 50,000 Cuban health professionals work in 66 countries worldwide, although around half of those work in Venezuela, with an additional 11,456 in Brazil. The agreements with other foreign countries are similar to the Brazilian setup, with Cuban doctors paid less than the salary of local medical staff, and the remainder of their pay being transferred to the Cuban government.

Impact on the forecast

The Economist Intelligence Unit is not changing its macroeconomic forecasts in light of the renewal of the programme, but it will come as a relief to the Cuban government and will help to mitigate the scaling-back of the sale of professional services to Venezuela.

Pope Francis' Message to Cubans

Marking today's feast of the patroness of Cuba, Our Lady of Charity (of El Cobre):

His Excellency Dionisio Guillermo Garcia Ibanez
Metropolitan Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba
President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Cuba

Vatican, 8 September 2014

Dear Brother:

A few days ago, the venerated image of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre was placed in the Vatican Gardens. Its presence constitutes a moving reminder of the affection and vitality of the pilgrim Church of those luminous lands of the Carribbean which, for mor than four centuries, has addressed the Mother of God with that beautiful title. From the mountains of El Cobre, and now from the See of Peter, that small and blessed figure of Mary magnifies the souls of those who invoke her with devotion, as She leads us to Jesus, her divine Son.

Today as we fervently celebrate the feast of Mary Most Holy, la Virgen Mambisa¸ I join all Cubans who set their eyes on her Immaculate Heart to pray for favors, to commend to her their loved ones and to imitate her in her humility and devotion to Christ, of whose disciples she was the first and greatest.

Every time I read the Sacred Scriptures in the passages that speak of Our Lady, three words stand out to me. I would like to focus on them in order to invite the pastors and faithful of Cuba to put them into practice.

The first is rejoice. It was the first word the Archangel Gabriel addressed to the Virgin. “Rejoice, full of grace, the Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28). The life of she who has discovered Jesus is filled with such great interior joy that nothing or no one can take it from her. Christ gives to his own the necessary strength to not be sad or overwhelmed by thinking about the problems that cannot be solved. Sustained by this truth, the Christian does not doubt that which is done with love engenders serene joy, the sister of that hope which breaks the wall of fear and opens the doors to a future of promise. “I am Our Lady of Charity,” was what the three Johns read on the tablet that was floating in the Bay of Nipe. How beautiful it would be if all Cubans, especially the young, could say the same: ‘I am a man or woman of charity:” I live to truly love, and thus not be trapped in the toxic spiral of eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. What joy is felt by one who authentically loves, through daily acts, and who is not among those who are full of empty words that are carried away by the wind.

The second word is arise. With Jesus in her womb, St. Luke says Mary arose and went with haste to serve her cousin Elizabeth, who in her old age was with child (cf. Lk 1:39-45). She fulfilled the will of God placing herself at the disposition of whoever needed her. She did not think of herself, she overcame all setbacks and gave of herself to others. The victory is for those who arise again and again without being discouraged. If we imitate Mary, we cannot just do nothing and merely complain, or perhaps pass the buck on to others for something that is our responsibility. Its not about doing great things but about doing them with tenderness and mercy. Mary was always with her people looking out for the little ones. She knew loneliness, poverty and exile, and she learned to create fraternity and to make her home in whatever place good would germinate. We implore her to make us poor in spirit, free of all pride, and to grant us a pure heart that sees God in the faces of the disadvantaged and patience that does not shrink from the difficulties of life.

The third word is persevere. Mary, who had experienced God’s goodness, proclaimed the great things He had done for her (cf Lk 1:46-55). She did not trust in her own strength, but in God, whose love has no end. For this reason she remained with her Son, whom everyone had abandoned; she prayed without failing together with the apostles and the other disciples, lest they lose their soul (cf. Acts 1:14). We too are called to persevere in the love of God and to persevere in loving the others. In this world, in which eternal values are discarded and all is mutable, in which triumphs are used and thrown away, in which people seem to have a fear of lifelong commitments, the Virgin encourages us to be men and women constant in good works, maintaining his words, which are always faithful. And this is because we trust in God and we place in Him the center of our live and of those whom we love.

We are to have joy, and share it with those around us. Lift up your heart and do not succumb in the face of adversities, persevere in the way of good; tirelessly helping those oppressed by sorrows and afflictions: these are the important lessons taught to us by Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, useful both for today and for tomorrow. In her maternal hands I place the pastors, religious communities, and faithful of Cuba, so that She might encourage you in your evangelizing commitments and in your will to make love the foundation of society. Thus you will not be lacking in a joy for life, a soul for service, and perseverance in good works.

To the children of the Church in Cuba I ask, please, pray for me, as I am in need of it.

May Jesus bless you, and the Blessed Virgin care for you forever.



U.N. Investigates Another Suspicious North Korea-Cuba Ship

Sunday, September 7, 2014
In July, we posted about another suspicious North Korean ship, Mu Du Bong, which after being exposed in Cuba -- with its required Automatic Identification System ("AIS transponder") turned off to avoid detection -- suddenly headed to Mexico, completely empty, where its "disoriented" captain accidentally grounded it.

The ship now remains moored at the port of Tuxpan, Mexico.

The Mu Du Bong, is operated by Ocean Maritime Management, Ltd., the same company that operated the Chong Chon Gang, which last year was caught smuggling 240 tons of Cuban weapons to North Korea.

Its route to Cuba and shadowy efforts to avoid detection there -- with its AIS transponder turned off for over ten days -- were remarkably similar to the Chong Chon Gang.

Just last month, we posed the question whether the Kim and Castro regimes could be so brazen to continue their illegal arms trafficking activities after getting caught red-handed last year.

Why not?

After all, the Castro regime was allowed to get away unscathed for this blatant (and record-setting) violation of international law, while Kim's regime merely got a slap on the wrist.

Today, we learn that the U.N. is now investigating the Mu Du Bong as well.

From Kyodo News:

U.N. experts to investigate North Korean ship moored in Mexico

A U.N. panel that upholds sanctions against North Korea's nuclear weapons program is sending personnel to investigate a North Korean cargo ship moored at a Mexican port, U.N. diplomatic sources familiar with the matter told Kyodo News.

The North Korean-flagged Mu Du Bong's recent visit to Cuba and its ties to Ocean Maritime Management Co., a Pyongyang shipping company involved in attempted arms smuggling, are probable factors in the investigation.

According to Equasis, a database created by European maritime authorities, OMM is the Mu Du Bong's safety manager.

OMM orchestrated an attempt to transport military aircraft parts, ammunition and other items with military applications from Cuba to North Korea aboard the cargo ship Chong Chon Gang in 2013.

The shipment was seized by Panamanian authorities in July 2013 after they received a tip on the illicit cargo, which was hidden under 200,000 bags of raw sugar.

On July 30, 2014, the U.N. Security Council Committee in charge of sanctions on North Korea called on U.N. member states to freeze assets and "economic resources" connected to OMM in their territories. The United States also instituted sanctions on OMM, the Mu Du Bong and other ships.

It is unclear if the asset freeze extends to physical property including vessels. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said in a statement at the time that the asset freeze meant OMM's "fleet of shipping vessels will no longer be able to operate internationally."

The Mu Du Bong crossed through the Panama Canal in mid-June of this year and traveled to Cuba later in the month before heading to the port of Tuxpan in the Gulf of Mexico where it is currently moored, according to online vessel tracking websites.

Solidarity and Truth: On Religious Persecution in Cuba

By Jay Nordlinger in National Review:

Solidarity and Truth

Typically, a totalitarian regime has an official religious council, whose members serve a couple of purposes: They pretend to the outside world that the regime allows religious freedom; and they help keep the natives in line. The Castro dictatorship has such a council: It’s called the CCC, or the Cuban Council of Churches. Its spokesmen are stooges of the dictatorship. They denounce genuinely religious or independent-minded Cubans. And they travel abroad, spreading the regime’s lies.

In February, six CCC officials arrived on Capitol Hill, to do their work. Yes, incredibly, they were given a platform at the heart of our liberal democracy. The officials were hosted by Senator Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) and Representative Jim McGovern (D., Mass.).

Christian Solidarity Worldwide has just released a report on Cuba. Those who wish to know the facts about religion in that country can read the report here.

I will quote from the executive summary:

"Despite government claims of increased respect for religious freedom, reported violations of religious freedom in Cuba continued to increase dramatically over the 19 months covered by this report. From the beginning of 2014 to mid-July, CSW recorded 170 separate religious freedom violations, many of which involved dozens of victims. This followed the record of 180 documented cases in 2013, compared with 120 in 2012 and 40 in 2011. Religious groups across the spectrum all reported varying degrees of hostility from the government. Only a few reported any notable improvement.

Government agents continued to employ more brutal and public tactics than witnessed in the first decade of the millennium. CSW continued to receive regular reports of severe and sustained harassment and sporadic reports of violent beatings of Protestant pastors and lay workers in different parts of the country. Week after week, scores of women were physically and violently dragged away from Sunday morning services by state security agents."


When I think of the senator and the congressman and the platform they provided for the Castro officials, I think of something that Cuban dissidents have long told me: “It’s one thing if people in the Free World don’t support us. We may not like it, or understand it, but okay. But why do they have to lend support to the dictatorship that persecutes us?”

Christian Solidarity Worldwide strikes me as true to its name. May their work bear fruit. And even if it doesn’t — that work is still honorable.

A Reminder of Cuba's Continued Tragedy

Kudos to Reuters for closely following this tragic story:

Two Cuban migrants dead, eight missing at sea, survivors say

Two Cuban migrants died and as many as eight more are missing after a three-week odyssey at sea, according to relatives of 15 badly sunburned and dehydrated survivors of a boat rescued by the Mexican Navy this week.

The Cubans, who face possible deportation back to Cuba, are receiving treatment at an immigration facility in the city of Merida, in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

The rustic, homemade boat carrying 25 people left Manzanillo in eastern Cuba on Aug. 7, Jose Caballero, the husband of one of the survivors, told Reuters on Friday in a telephone interview from Austin, Texas.

Caballero, who left Cuba by a similar route last December, said his wife, Mailin Perez, told him by phone from Mexico that the boat's motor broke down after two days and the passengers rigged a makeshift sail.

Believing they were close to the northwest coast of Cuba seven or eight passengers decided to swim for shore holding onto rubber inner tubes. "No one has heard anything of them since," said Caballero.

The boat drifted for more than two weeks, without food and only rain water to drink, before it was spotted by fishermen and intercepted by a navy vessel about 150 miles (240 km) northeast of Puerto Progreso in Yucatan, the Mexican Navy said on Monday.

One 16-year-old boy died shortly after he was rescued of an apparent heart attack, officials said.

Caballero said his wife told him another passenger, a six-months pregnant woman, died during the journey and her body was thrown overboard.

"They tried to save her. They gave her urine with condensed milk," he said, adding that his wife was an assistant at a blood bank and had medical supplies with her.

"Her husband, pricked his skin and fed her with his own blood in a syringe," he added.

A Mexican government official said it was likely the 15 would be deported.

Mexico's National Immigration Institute issued a statement on Friday saying that it was in "permanent contact with Cuban authorities to offer (the migrants) assisted return to their country since they lack a legal permit to stay in Mexico."

Two Cuban American members of Congress in the Miami area wrote to Mexico's government on Thursday urging it not to send the 15 survivors back to Cuba.

"Cubans forcibly repatriated to the island often face harsh punitive measures," said Representative Mario Diaz-Balart. "It is imperative that Cubans who are found fleeing from their island prison are not made to return to the oppression that they risk their lives to escape."

The latest boatload of Cuban migrants came only days after six men who identified themselves as Cubans landed on a Texas coastal island after their boat engine broke down and they drifted for two weeks across the Gulf of Mexico, using a sail made out of a plastic sheet.

Relatives of another boat carrying 11 Cubans, last seen leaving the Cayman Islands on Aug. 28, were also anxiously awaiting word of their fate on Friday.

"I put my faith in God and that I hear news soon," Marlenis Alvarez, 42, whose son and her brother are on the boat, said in a phone interview from her home in Texas.