For the Record: What Cuba's Independent Journalists Told The New York Times

Saturday, December 6, 2014
In The Huffington Post:

Cuba's 14ymedio Journalists Spend Two Hours With The New York Times' Ernesto Londoño

Ernesto Londoño, who authored six editorials on Cuba published recently by The New York Times engaged in a friendly conversation on Saturday with a part of the 14ymedio team, in the hotel where he is staying in Havana.

Our intention was to interview him, but he told us the norms of his media prohibit his giving interviews without previous consultation. He also declined our proposal to take photos. Instead, he was eager to listen to our opinions in an atmosphere of mutual respect. There were two hours of conversation dedicated to refining, enriching and debating the controversial ideas that the newspaper has addresses in his editorials.

The following is a brief synthesis of what was said there, arranged by topics and ascribed to the author of each opinion.

Journalism

Yoani Sánchez: Cubans are going to need a great deal of information to avoid falling into the hands of another authoritarianism. In 14ymedio we are including a plurality of voices, for example on the the issue of the embargo. We leave it to the reader to form his own opinion from a variety of information.

Reinaldo Escobar: The official Cuban press, which is all the press, aren't public media, they are private property of the Communist Party. Now, has there been a change? Yes, there has been a change. Since a few years ago the newspaper Granma has had a weekly section with letters by readers where you find criticism of bureaucrats, things that don't work or prices at the markets. But note, the emphasis is on the self-employed markets.

So far I have not read a profound criticism of the prices at the convertible peso markets that the Government has, which are abusive. Nor can you talk about the legitimacy of our rulers or the impracticality of the system. Here are two big taboos, and in the third place, the topic of political repression. If they report on a repudiation rally, they show it as something spontaneous on the part of the people, without noting how the political police were behind it, organizing it all.

Miriam Celaya: There are changes indeed. The problem is that there are real types of changes and nominal changes, and these changes are generally nominal. Now everyone in Cuba can legally stay in a hotel, which before was forbidden. They never explained why it was forbidden before. But Cubans cannot really afford the luxury of a hotel stay, with wages being what they are; nor can they buy a car, a house, or travel. The problem with the reforms is that they are unrealistic for the vast majority of Cubans. They are a government investment in order to buy time.

There are two of those reforms that are particularly harmful and discriminatory for Cubans. One is the foreign investment law, which is explicitly for foreign investors and it does not allow Cubans to invest; and the other is a new Labor Code which does not acknowledge autonomy, the right to strike, and which spells out explicitly that Cuban workers cannot freely enter into contracts with potential companies investing in Cuba, which constitutes a restraint and a brake.

Víctor Ariel González: Yes, things are changing, but we ask ourselves if really those changes offer a brighter horizon and why people keep leaving, even more are going than before.

More apathetic youth?

Miriam Celaya: It is a backlash against ideological saturation, a submissiveness which conditioned almost every act of your life to obedience, to political subordination, whether picking a university career, a job or an appliance, anything. Everything was a slogan, everything a roadblock. This has subsided somewhat, but previously, it was impossible to take a step without hearing "Motherland or death, we will triumph" and go, go... The investigations they undertook to see if you belonged to the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution... the youth of today have not experienced that bombardment of "the enemy that harasses us." I did not bring up my kids in that, on the contrary, I tried to detoxify them. So this generation, the children of the parents of disenchantment, grew up devoid of that and are at a more pragmatic level, even at a marketing one, whose greatest dream is to leave the country.

Economy

Eliécer Ávila: The law governing the leasing (in usufruct) of lands for farmers to work them was the basis of a plan for increasing food production and lowering prices -- so that the average salary for a day's work might be more than just three plantains.

I come from the banana plantations of El Yarey de Vázquez, in Puerto Padre, Las Tunas. The nation's food supply is the most critical element in our collective anger. In January of last year, a pound of onions cost 8 Cuban pesos (CUPs). Later, between March and April, the price rose to 15. In May it increased to 25 CUPs and now, the onion has disappeared from low-income neighborhoods. It can only be found in certain districts such as Miramar, at five convertible pesos (CUCs) for 10 onions -- more expensive than in Paris -- while the monthly Cuban salary still averages under 20 CUCs per month).

I know very few farmers who even own a bicycle. However, any young person who joins up with the Ministry of State Security is in no time riding around on a Suzuki motorcycle.

Embargo

Yoani Sánchez: When talking about the end of the embargo, we are talking about steps for the White House to take, and I don't care for the idea that what happens in my country depends on what happens in the White House. It hurts my Cuban pride, to say that the plans for my future, for my children's future, and for the publication of 14ymedio depend on what Obama does. I am concentrating on what is going to happen in the Plaza of the Revolution and what civil society here is going to do. So for me I don't want to bet on the end of the embargo as the solution. I want to see when we will have freedom of expression, freedom of association and when the straitjacket over economic freedom will be removed in this country.

Miriam Celaya: The reasons for the establishment of the embargo are still in effect, which were the nationalizing of American companies in Cuba without proper compensation. That this policy, in the limelight for such a long time, has subsequently become a tug of war is another thing. But those of us with gray hair can remember, that in the 70's and 80's, we were under the Soviet protectorate. Because we talk a lot about sovereignty, but Cuba has never been sovereign. Back then, Soviet subsidies were huge and we hardly talked about the embargo. It was rarely mentioned, maybe on an anniversary. Fidel Castro used to publicly mock the embargo in all forums.

Reinaldo Escobar: They promised me that we were going to have a bright future in spite of the blockade and that was due to, among other things, the fact that the nation had recovered its riches, confiscating them from the Americans. So what was going to bring that future is what delayed it.

Miriam Celaya: The issue remains a wildcard for the Cuban government, which, if it has such tantrums about it, it's because it desperately needs for it to be lifted, especially with regards to the issue of foreign investments. I am anti-embargo in principle, but I can see that ending it unilaterally and unconditionally carries with it greater risks than the benefits it will supposedly provide.

Victor Ariel Gonzalez: The official justification says that as we are a blockaded country so we have the Gag Law. Because we are under siege and "in the besieged square, dissidence is treason." There are those who believe that if the embargo is lifted that justification would end. But this system has been very effective in finishing off the mechanisms for publicly analyzing the embargo, it has killed off independent institutions. So how will people be able to channel discontent and non-conformity with the continued repression the day after the lifting of the embargo?

Reinaldo Escobar: They will have another argument for keeping repression when the embargo is lifted. Write it down, because "this will be tested" as they say around here: "Now that the Americans have the chance to enter Cuba with greater freedom, now that they can buy businesses and the embargo is over, now we really have to take care of the Revolution." That will be the argument.

Repression

Yoani Sánchez: In this country people are very afraid. Including not knowing they're afraid, because they have lived with it for so long that they don't know this is called "fear." Fear of betrayal, of being informed on, of not being able to leave the country, of being denied a promotion to a better job, not being able to board a plane, that a child won't be allowed to go to the university, because "the university is for Revolutionaries." The fears are so many and so vast that Cubans today have fear in their DNA.

Eliécer Ávila: We also need to understand how Cubans make their living. Ninety percent of Cubans do not work where their calling or vocation would take them, but rather where they can survive and make do. In this country, to be a Ph.D. in the social sciences is truly to be the idiot of the family. This is the same guy who can't throw a quinceañera party for his daughter, who can't take his family out to dinner at a restaurant. The successful person in this society is the manager of a State-owned cafeteria. This is because he controls the supplies of chicken, oil, rice, etc. and sells the surplus on the black market -- which is really how he makes his living. The fundamental tactic to create social immobility in this country is [for the State] to make as many people as possible feel guilty about something.

Self-employment

Eliécer Ávila: People think that because there is now self-employment in this country, that there is a way to be more independent of the State -- which is true up to a point. But the question is, how does a self-employed business person survive? I had to leave my ice cream business. After having received my degree in information technology, I was sent to the interior as a sort of punishment for having an incident with Ricardo Alarcón, who at that time was the President of the National Assembly.

It was a turning point for me as I tried to become one of the first self-employed people in my town. I had a 1967 German ice cream maker. The process requires 11 products -- including coagulant, which someone had to steal from the ice cream factory. Or rather, I should say, "recover," because in this country we do not call that kind of thing "stealing." The milk had to be taken from the daycare center, or from the hospital, so that it could be sold to me. The point is, there simply is no other way.

All of these private businesses that are springing up and flourishing are sustained by illegality.

Yoani Sánchez: ...Or in the capital that comes clandestinely from abroad, especially from the exile. There are restaurants in Havana that could be in New York or Berlin, but those have received foreign money or are engaging in "money laundering" from corruption and the highest leadership itself.

Eliécer Ávila: Many of these businesses are created so that government officials can place their children, grandchildren and friends in them, people who are no longer interested in the creation of the "New Man" nor in achieving a communist society. Rather, they want to launder their money and insert themselves in society like any other person.

I do not know a single communist worker in Cuba who has been able to launch a business. Those committed Revolutionaries, who gave their all, are today the people who don't have onions in their kitchens.

Yoani Sánchez: Self-employment has been presented as one of the major indicators of the "reforms" or the Raul regime changes. But on the issue of self-employment many things are not considered: they have no access to a wholesale market, they can't import raw material nor directly export their products. Thus, the annoyance all Cubans have with the customs restrictions that went into effect in September. The Government justifies is saying that "every country has this kind of legislation," but in those countries there are laws for commercial imports.

Miriam Celaya: They made a special regulation for foreign investors, so they can import, but not for Cubans.

Yoani Sanchez: Another issue that greatly affects the economy is the lack of Internet connection. We're not just talking about freedom of expression and information or being able to read 14ymedio within Cuba, but that our economy is set back more and more by people not having access to the Internet.

Luzbely Escobar: It's not only that: Self-employment is authorized only for selling or producing, but the professionals cannot join that sector with their abilities. You cannot be a self-employed lawyer, architect or journalist.

Miriam Celaya: A large administrative body was created to control the self-employed and it is full of corrupt individuals, who are always hovering over these workers to exploit them and relieve them of their gains. Some tell me that there are fixed fees for inspector bribes. Here, even corruption is institutionalized and rated.

Eliécer Ávila: In this country, for everyone who wants to lift his head towards progress, there are ten who want to behead him. There is much talk of "eliminating the middleman." However, the great middleman is the State itself, which, for example, buys a pound of black beans from the farmer for 1.80 CUPs, then turns around and sells that pound for 12 CUPs at a minimum.

The New York Times Editorials

Eliécer Ávila: It would be a great favor to Cuba if, with the same influence that these editorials are intended to have on the global debate about one topic [the embargo], they also tried to shed light on other topics that are taboo here, but that go right to the heart of what we need as a nation.

Miriam Celaya: I have an idea. Rather than making gestures about the release of Alan Gross, rather than making gestures about making the embargo more flexible, I think that the strongest and clearest gesture that the Cuban government could make would be to liberate public opinion, liberate the circulation of ideas. Citizens should manifest themselves; this is something that is not happening here.

Reinaldo Escobar: Without freedom there is no citizen participation.

Miriam Celaya: What is going on with these editorials? They are still giving prominence to a distorted, biased view, composed of half-truths and lies about what the Cuban reality is. They are still giving prominence to what a government says, and Cuba is not a government. Cuba's government today is a small group of old men, and when I say "old" it's because of their way of thinking, of individuals who have remained anchored in discourse rooted in a cold war and belligerence. The Cuban people are not represented in that government.

Yoani Sánchez: I read editorials when they came out but last night went back to read them more calmly. The first editorial is perhaps the most fortunate, because it achieves a balance between one side and the other, but there are some that I think are really pitiful. Such as the one about the "brain drain" because these medical professionals are living a drama in this country that is not recognized in these texts.

First, I am against the concept of the theft of, or brain drain, because it accepts that your brain belongs to someone, to the nation, to the educational structure, or to whoever taught you. I think everyone should decide what to do with his or her own brain.

That editorial gives no space to the economic tragedy experienced by these professionals in Cuba. I know surgeons who may be among the best in their specialty in Latin America and they can't cross their legs because people would be able to see the holes in their shoes, or they have to operate without breakfast because they can't afford breakfast.

Miriam Celaya: There is something in that editorial that cuts and offends me, and it's that slight of condescension, for instance, in this quote: "Havana could pay its workers more generously abroad if the medical brigades continue to represent an important source of income"... But, gentlemen! To do so is to accept the slavery of those doctors. It is to legitimize the implied right of a government to use its medical personnel as slaves for hire. How can that be?

Yoani Sánchez: With regards to these medical missions, I must say that the human character, no one can question it, when it comes to saving lives. But there has to be a political side and that is that these people are used as a kind of medical diplomacy, to gain followers, and because of this many countries vote at the United Nations on behalf of the Government of Cuba, which has practically hijacked many countries because they have Cuban doctors in their territories. It becomes an element of political patronage.

Another aspect is the economic, which is pushing doctors to leave because they can see the appeal of having a better salary, they can import appliances, pots for their home, a computer. Also, every month their bank account gets a deposit of convertible pesos, which they only get to keep if they return to Cuba and don't defect from the mission. From a labor and ethical point of view, it is very questionable.

Another issue is the negative impact it has on the Cuban healthcare system.

Luzbely Escobar: You go to a clinic and it is closed, or of the three doctors on duty, only one is there because the other two are in Venezuela, and then there is total chaos.

Miriam Celaya: In these editorials, I have read "Cuba" instead of "the Cuban government," and I have read that the members of "the dissidence" were considered "charlatans." These definitions, in addition to being disrespectful, put everyone in the same bag. Here, as everywhere else, society is complex, and, while it's true that there are charlatans among the opposition - and among the government too -- there are a lot of honest people who are working very faithfully for a better Cuba, with the greatest sacrifice and risk.

When you demonize it, then it seems that you are speaking the government's language, as if you had written this in a room of the Party Central Committee and not in a newsroom of a country in the free world. Such epithets, coming from prestigious media, end up creating opinion. That's a big responsibility.

Dissidence

Yoani Sánchez: In this country the nation has been confused with the government, the homeland with a party, and the country with a man. Then, this man, this party and this government have taken the right to decide on behalf of everyone, whether it's about growing a tomato or a cachucha pepper, or what ideological line the whole nation is going to follow.

As a consequence, those of us who have ideas different from those of that party, that government, and that man in power, are declared to be "stateless" or "anti-Cuban" and charged with wanting to align ourselves with a foreign power. It is, as if now that the Democratic party is governing the United States, all Republicans were declared to be anti-American. This is, like all the countries in the world, plural. If you walk down the street you are going to meet every kind of person: anarchist, liberal, social democrat, Christian democrat and even annexationist. Why can't this plural discourse be expressed in a legal way? And why do people like us have to be excluded from speaking and offering opinions.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison, MLK, MJ Porter and Norma Whiting.

Political Arrests Have Quadrupled in Cuba

Friday, December 5, 2014
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights (CCHR) has documented 398 political arrests by the Castro regime during the month of November 2014.

This bring the total number of political arrests during the first eleven months of this year to 8,410.

In eleven months, these 8,410 political arrests have quadrupled the year-long tally of 2,074 political arrests in 2010.

The Castro regime clearly feels it's enjoying a high-level of impunity.

Such impunity is partly due to the silence of foreign media and diplomats, who like to purposefully ignore this key statistic, as it's inconvenient to their "reform" narrative.

These are only political arrests that have been thoroughly documented. Many more are suspected.

More "reform" you can't believe in.

Internet Freedom: Cuba Ranks Last in Americas, Fourth to Last in World

Freedom House has just released "Freedom on the Net 2014" – its annual comprehensive study of internet freedom around the globe.

According to the report, as regards Internet freedom, Cuba ranks last in the Americas and fourth to last in the world.

Only China, Syria and Iran ranked worse. North Korea was not ranked.

Read the entire Cuba section of the report here.

Here's the Introduction:

Cuba has long ranked as one of the world’s most repressive environments for information and communication technologies (ICTs). High prices, exceptionally slow connectivity, and extensive government regulation have resulted in a pronounced lack of access to applications and services other than email. Most users can access only a government-controlled intranet rather than the global internet, with hourly connection costs amounting to 20 percent of the minimum monthly wage. Although mobile phone penetration has been on the rise, and access to the high-speed internet provided by the new ALBA-1 fiber-optic cable was finally extended to citizens in late 2013 via the opening of new “cyber points” or “navigation halls,” ICT access remains limited. Nevertheless, a vibrant community of bloggers has managed to document conditions on the island and transmit information beyond Cuba’s borders.

In recent years, Cuba has exhibited a slight opening to the outside world, although this has not yet correlated to a change in the country’s human rights practices. Some 3,000 opposition and civil society members were subject to detention surrounding the Caribbean and Latin American States (CELAC) summit, hosted in Havana in January 2014. The cell phones of known pro-democracy activists were blocked ahead of the meetings, text messages could neither be sent nor received, and those who attempted to call activists were met with busy signals.

A number of dissidents were also detained or placed under house arrest as part of “Operation Cleanup,” an attempt to keep citizens from voicing human rights concerns to CELAC representatives. Although the government appeared to loosen its restrictions on online media by unblocking a number of blogs in 2011, in 2013 a handful of dissident and critical pro-government sites were blocked once again. Phone numbers associated with the “speak-to-tweet” platform, widely used by activists to publicize human rights violations, were shut down in 2012 and remained disabled as of June 2014. Surveillance has continued on the island, where it has been extended to Cuba’s new “navigation halls.” It is likewise still commonplace in offices, where government-installed software monitors email accounts.

Landmine Report: Cuba Remains Among World's Few (Rogue) Producers

This week, the Landmine Monitor 2014 report was released.

It provides a global overview of developments in mine ban policy, contamination, clearance, casualties, victim assistance, and support for mine action.

According to the report:

"Down from a total of more than 50 producing states before the Mine Ban Treaty’s existence, currently only 11 states are identified as potential producers of antipersonnel mines: China, Cuba, India, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam."

Moreover, Cuba was also one of the nations were in 2013 casualties were reported as a result of landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW), which includes cluster submunitions.

New York Times Writer Gets Earful From Cuban Dissidents

Thursday, December 4, 2014
By Guillermo I. Martinez in Sun-Sentinel:

Times writer gets Earful from Cuba dissidents

Cuban dissidents don't see lifting embargo as way to help

Once again Ernesto Londoño, the newest member of The New York Times Editorial Board, writes about Cuba. That makes it four editorials and now three columns in less than two months.

This time he writes how U.S. sanctions make it more difficult and expensive for ordinary Americans to travel to Cuba. Of course, the Cuban government bears no blame for the outlandish costs of these trips.

But this is not another column criticizing Londoño. This one is to encourage him, for the Colombian-born editorial writer has done something few of those that clamor for the U.S. to lift the embargo has done — he has gone out and met for two hours with people inside the island who are against the Castro government.

The information on the meeting comes from Yoani Sánchez, the award-winning Cuban blogger who now publishes an online newspaper called 14ymedio. It was her staff that peppered The New York Times editorialist with a different perspective on Cuba — one that Londoño has not written about in his pro-Castro editorials.

It was a one-way conversation as Londoño said his paper did not allow him to grant interviews without permission. But he did listen. And for two hours the staff of 14ymedio gave him an earful about life in Cuba, the lack of democracy or a free press; how changes in Cuba were more in name only and not meaningful; how young Cubans are continuing to flee the island in ever greater numbers because they don't see a future in their own country.

One of those asking questions was Eliécer Avila, the student who, in 2008, asked Ricardo Alarcon, the President of Cuba's National Assembly of People's Power, several difficult questions:

Why do Cubans have to work several days to earn enough money to buy a toothbrush? Why can't Cubans travel freely? Why is access to the Internet restricted and censored?

Those are questions the American editorialist should try to answer when he publishes an account of his encounter with these dissenting Cubans. I am sure he will, and he will explain that all this can also be blamed on the embargo. Sorry, I shouldn't presume what Londoño is going to write — even if what he had written before has been slanted to an anti-American, pro-Cuban point of view.

The group tried explaining to Londoño why the embargo would not solve the problems of the ordinary Cubans, who according to Sánchez "have fear ingrained in their genes."

"People in this country are very scared," Sanchez said. They fear those who tell the government what they say in private; they are afraid of not being allowed to leave the country; of being rejected for a better job; of being told that their children cannot go to the university because "the university is for revolutionaries," Sánchez added.

Miriam Celaya, an independent journalist, pointed out the government had allowed foreigners to invest in Cuba and grants them permits to import what they need. The same benefits are not granted to Cubans, she told Londoño.

Recently more than 30 Cuban dissidents explained why they did not agree with the premise that the solution to Cuba's problems was for the United States to lift the embargo. They all pointed to many of the same reasons this group of six staffers from 14ymedio told Londoño.

Both groups said the changes Cuba is making are more cosmetic than real; they say the embargo has little to do the shortages the everyday Cuban suffers, and the ruling class does not have to endure any shortages. They want access to the Internet. They want freedom of expression; multi-party elections with more than one candidate running for each office; they want an end to the repression they suffer daily.

If Londoño went to Cuba with a preconceived point of view, I doubt these Cubans will be able to convince him. But if he is an honest broker of ideas, I hope he has the decency to publish what these Cuban dissidents told him.

Now all one can do is sit and wait and see what Londoño writes.

Quote of the Day: Justice on Its Knees in Venezuela

Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Justice is on its knees in Venezuela, handing out sentences that come from Miraflores [Palace] or Havana.
-- Maria Corina Machado, Venezuelan opposition legislator, on today's sham indictment against her an alleged plot to kill Nicolas Maduro, El Nacional, 12/3/14

Congressman-Elect Curbelo Remarks to U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC

Remarks by Congressman-elect Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) at yesterday's U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC luncheon.

Watch below (or click here):

Lt. Governor Lopez-Cantera Remarks to U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC

Remarks by Florida's Lt. Governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, at yesterday's U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC luncheon.

Watch below (or click here):

Tweet of the Day: Five Years Ago Today

By U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power:

Chairwoman Mikulski Renews Call for Alan Gross' Release

On Fifth Anniversary of Alan Gross' Arrest, Mikulski Renews Call for His Immediate Release from Cuba

Today, December 3rd, marks fifth anniversary of Alan Gross’ arrest in Havana

U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) today renewed her call for Cuba to immediately and unconditionally release Marylander Alan Gross from his imprisonment. Today, December 3, marks the fifth anniversary of his arrest in Havana.

“I have a message for Mr. Castro down in Cuba, let Alan Gross go! Let him go today, let him go now,” Senator Mikulski said. “For five years, he and his family have suffered. The Cuban government has ignored basic human rights and has shown they are not serious about building a relationship with the United States. Every day I think of and pray for the Gross family. I pray that they are reunited soon. If Cuba wants to improve relations with the United States, they need to release Mr. Gross now.”

Alan Gross was arrested on December 3, 2009. He was held for 14 months without being charged with a crime. After a two-day trial, he was given a 15-year prison sentence by Cuban authorities for facilitating communications between Cuba’s Jewish community and the rest of the world. Mr. Gross was in Cuba working as a sub-contractor for the United States Agency for International Development, helping a small, peaceful, non-dissident community. He was doing the type of work he had done his whole career in international development – helping others in need.

A 65-year-old husband and father, Mr. Gross has lost a significant amount of weight since his arrest and suffers from severe degenerative arthritis that affects his mobility, as well as other health problems. Members of his family have also faced serious illnesses during this time.

Senator Mikulski’s full statement, submitted to the Congressional Record, follows:

“I rise to recognize the fifth anniversary of the unfair arrest and imprisonment of an American citizen in Cuba from Maryland, Mr. Alan Gross. I stand with his wife, Judy, and their two daughters in calling for the immediate release of Mr. Gross by the Cuban government.

In 2009, Mr. Gross went to Cuba as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. On this visit to Cuba, he wanted to assist Cuba’s Jewish community by improving their access to the internet. With a background in social work, he dedicated his career to helping others around the world.

The Cuban government arrested Mr. Gross on December 3, 2009. He was held for 14 months without being charged with a crime. He was eventually charged as a spy and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

At 65 years old, Mr. Gross’ physical and mental health has suffered severely over the past five years. He has lost a significant amount of weight and developed several painful medical conditions. His contact with his family is extremely limited, compounding his anxiety. On his birthday, May 2, 2014, Mr. Gross made several statements that demonstrated the mental strain and anguish that he feels daily. Following the death of his mother in June, he was visited by his wife Judy and said his goodbyes to her. Mr. Gross’s current physical and mental state is at a critical point. The Cuban government must allow him to come home to the United States.

Judy Gross has never given up. She continues to put pressure on the Cuban government, speaking out against the poor treatment of her husband. She is a true inspiration, continuing her fight despite that health and financial challenges that her family has felt.

Every day I think of and pray for the Gross family. I pray that they are reunited soon. If Cuba wants to improve relations with the United States, they need to release Mr. Gross now. I thank my colleagues for standing with me and calling for the release of Alan Gross. I look forward to the day that we welcome him home to Maryland, and most importantly, to his family.”

Governor Jeb Bush Remarks to U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC

Governor Jeb Bush gave keynote remarks at yesterday's U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC luncheon.

Please watch his full remarks below (or click here):

Chairman Menendez Remarks to U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent the following important remarks to yesterday's U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC luncheon.

Watch video below (or click here):

Senator Rubio Remarks to U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), soon-to-be Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, sent the following important remarks to yesterday's U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC luncheon.

Watch video below (or click here):

MH Editorial Board: "Let Alan Gross Go Now!"

From The Miami Herald's Editorial Board:

‘Let him go now!’

Five years after the detention and subsequent imprisonment of U.S. citizen Alan Gross in Cuba, pleas for his release continue to fall on deaf ears in Havana. His prolonged detention confirms the capricious and mean-spirited nature of the Castro regime.

Mr. Gross was on a mission from USAID to deliver computer and Internet equipment to the island’s small Jewish community when he was detained on Dec. 3, 2009. After the usual phony trial more than a year later, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison, an extraordinary and utterly unjustified sentence in view of the alleged violation.

Ever since his trial and sentencing, periodic suggestions have been made that he should be traded for three Cuban spies who were members of the so-called Wasp network that operated in South Florida, as if a USAID contract worker is comparable to a cadre of trained espionage operatives.

The latest of these calls came in one of a series of recent editorials in The New York Times. The Times, of course, is entitled to its opinion, but it’s worth noting that when an editorial writer from the newspaper met recently with prominent dissidents in Havana, they refuted the newspaper’s arguments, particularly the notion that it is up to the United States to take the initiative when, in reality, the Cuban government holds the keys to Mr. Gross’ cell door.

The meeting was later detailed in a report by independent journalist Yoani Sánchez, who was part of the group, in her online newspaper, 14ymedio.

“I have an idea,” said dissident Miriam Celaya. “The clearest and strongest action that the Cuban government could take is to liberate public opinion, to liberate the circulation of ideas. To let Cuban citizens speak out.”

Ms. Sánchez, perhaps the most prominent dissident voice known outside Cuba, labeled some of the New York newspaper’s editorial stands regrettable because they did not take into account the reality of life in Cuba. Ms. Celaya ridiculed an editorial that blamed the U.S. embargo for Cuba’s brain drain, saying it failed to note that Cuban doctors sent abroad on missions by Havana were virtual “slaves” of the government.

Impartial observers who have no stake in the long-standing dispute between Cuba and the United Nations have weighed in on the Gross case with calls for his release. The clearest call came in January 2013, when the U.N. Human Rights Council’s imprisonment watchdog said Cuba should release the imprisoned American.

Among the reasons cited: Cuba’s lack of an independent judiciary, the imprecise nature of Gross’ alleged crime and the failure to grant him bail. All of this, the U.N. watchdog report said, rendered the 15-year sentence “arbitrary.” Predictably, Cuba, which is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (for obvious reasons), rejected the U.N. report, as well as a subsequent appeal by Mr. Gross’ wife based on that report.

We agree that the U.S. government, which sent Mr. Gross to Cuba, has a moral obligation to try everything within reason to bring him home. But putting the burden for his release on the United States and ignoring the Cuban government’s responsibility for his incarceration is wrong.

The absurdity of the proposed exchange is evident even to legislators in his home state of Maryland, who are sympathetic to his plight and have worked with his family to seek his release. “I have a message for Mr. Castro down in Cuba,” U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., wrote last month in an email. “Let Alan Gross go! Let him go today, let him go now.”

White House Statement on Anniversary of Alan Gross' Imprisonment

From The White House:

Statement by the Press Secretary on the Anniversary of Alan Gross' Imprisonment

Five years ago today Alan Gross was arrested for his efforts to help ordinary Cuban citizens have greater access to information through the Internet.  The Administration remains focused on securing Alan’s freedom from a Cuban prison, and returning him safely to his wife and children, where he belongs.  We remain deeply concerned for Alan’s health, and reiterate our call for his release.  The Cuban Government’s release of Alan on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba.

State Department on Alan Gross' Continued Imprisonment

From the U.S. Department of State:

Five-Year Mark of the Continued Incarceration of Alan Gross

Tomorrow, development worker Alan Gross will begin a sixth year of unjustified imprisonment in difficult conditions in Cuba. Cuban authorities arrested Mr. Gross on December 3, 2009, and later sentenced him to 15 years in prison for facilitating uncensored internet contact between a small, religious community on the island and the rest of the world. It is gravely disappointing, especially in light of its professed goal of providing Cubans with internet access, that the Cuban government has not allowed Mr. Gross to return to his family, where he belongs. We reiterate our call on the Cuban government, echoing foreign leaders and even Cuba’s allies, to release Alan Gross immediately.

State Department: No Equivalence Between Gross and Cuban Spies

Tuesday, December 2, 2014
We've always made it clear that there's no equivalence between an international development worker imprisoned for more than four years for doing nothing more than helping Cuban citizens gain access to the Internet, and convicted Cuban intelligence agents. We continue to use every possible diplomatic channel to press for Mr. Gross' release, repeatedly, both publicly and privately. We have also enlisted governments around the world and prominent figures to press for Mr. Gross' release.
-- Pooja Jhunjhunwala, a State Department spokeswoman, The Baltimore Sun, 12/1/14

A Poor "Excuse"

Earlier this year, in "Dictators need no excuses to crack down on dissent", we wrote in The Hill:

"'Don’t give them an excuse to crack down on dissent,' is a favorite sophism spread among foreign-policy elites, lazy bureaucrats and big-chair academics. Dictators love it. Why? Because as soon as it’s uttered, it shifts blame, immunizes them and effectively silences freedom’s advocates, even in the face of egregious violations of human rights and crimes against humanity."

Case and point:

U.S. trade, tourism and investment has turned China into the most lucrative dictatorship in human history. Moreover, U.S. policy towards China has relegated human rights and democracy to the agenda of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and business community.

Yet, as courageous students in Hong Kong ("Occupy Central") faced down Chinese repression in search for democracy:

"Chinese president Xi Jinping reiterated his position that Hong Kong's protest movement was 'illegal,' when speaking at the APEC summit Wednesday, adding a warning against any 'foreign interference,' in the city's affairs."

And acquiescing:

"U.S. President Barack Obama, also speaking at APEC, denied that the U.S. had supported the protests."

Then, Chinese state-media added:

"It is hardly likely that the US will admit to manipulating the ‘Occupy Central’ movement, just as it will not admit to manipulating other anti-China forces. It sees such activities as justified by ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, ‘human rights’ and other values."

And China's foreign propagandists:

"U.S. eyes Occupy Central movement as ability to destabilize China... The United States has been providing extensive backing and funding to the Occupy Central movement and its leaders through the National Endowment for Democracy, through the National Democratic Institute, Soros, Rockefeller and Ford foundations and many other foundations."

In other words, hundreds of billions in U.S. tourism, trade and investment, and China's regime still uses the same "excuse" of "U.S. interference" to repress and stifle democracy.

This is what some would like to see in Cuba.

Anti-sanctions lobbyists argue that lifting U.S. sanctions would eliminate Castro's "excuse."

Yet, Castro would continue using the same "excuse" or simply make a similar one up.

Yesterday, Cuban blogger and journalist Reinaldo Escobar predicted that -- if this were to happen -- Castro would simply justify more repression by arguing:

"Now that Americans are able to enter the island more freely, buy businesses and the embargo is over, now we really need to protect the Revolution."

So hand over billions to Castro's dictatorship -- for what?

In the Mold of Harry Truman

A Letter to the Editor of The Jersey Journal:

With Truman traits, Sen. Menendez should run for president

As a liberal hawk (actually someone who is neither hawk nor dove, but supports military action as a last resort), I strongly recommend U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, to consider running for vice president, if Hillary is the presidential nominee. Or better still, run for president himself. He has been a strong liberal advocate and very strong on national defense.

He is no fool on the Iranians trying to develop a nuclear weapon and has been stronger on this than the Obama administration, who initially opposed the Menendez led stronger sanctions on Iran. On Cuba, he is more correct than Hillary, who recently came out against U.S. sanctions on that island.

Free trade with China or Vietnam has not changed either nations and both nations have political prisoners. Would dropping sanctions on Cuba lead to the same thing -- a little capitalism, good for multinational corporations, but still a communist dictatorship?

Sen. Menendez is the perfect person to run for a liberal “hawk” like myself. He is in the tradition of Harry Truman -- a real liberal, but strong on military policy. Run Bob, run, run. You could be the first Hispanic president or vice president.

Gil Corby
Secaucus

Quote of the Day: Cuba Should be Penalized for Gross' Continued Imprisonment

The commemoration of yet another shameful anniversary of the imprisonment of Alan Gross is once again disappointing and unacceptable. Mr. Gross’s mental and physical health have progressively deteriorated while imprisoned under the brutal regime that has no regard for the respect of human rights. The Obama Administration must work expediently to secure the unconditional release of Mr. Gross and penalize the regime by tightening sanctions, as we continue to press for the release of Mr. Gross, and that of 11 million Cubans who are also subjected to the tyranny of the Castro regime.
-- U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairman emeritus of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, 12/1/14

"People-to-People" Trips Are Insulting

Monday, December 1, 2014
In announcing his new "people-to-people" travel policy in January 2011 -- despite an American hostage being held by the Castro regime -- President Obama stated that the purpose of this policy was "to help promote [the Cuban people's] independence from Cuban authorities."

A well-intended goal. But these trips have done the exact opposite.

Every single trip has been pre-approved by the Castro regime and includes official government "tour guides."

Every "people-to-people" traveler stays at the Cuban military's hotels, drinks the Cuban military's booze, smokes the Cuban military's cigars, dines at the Cuban military's restaurants and parties at the Cuban military's nightclubs.

Nearly every "people-to-people" trip approved by the State and Treasury Departments have included visits with Castro regime officials, government ministries and even its repressive organs (e.g. the "Committee's for Defense of the Revolution" and the official censors at the "Union of Writers and Artists").

This weekend -- adding insult to injury -- the "Semester on the Seas" cruise ship docked in Havana, with 600 American students.

The image below shows these students parading through the streets carrying the Castro regime's official posters on behalf of Cuban spies imprisoned in the U.S. for penetrating military facilities and for "conspiracy to commit murder" against American citizens.

Because -- apparently -- a group of over-privileged kids ignorantly regurgitating Castro's propaganda is somehow supposed to inspire and "promote independence" among young Cubans.

Never mind that these trips are taking place while -- in reality -- young Cubans are dying in search for freedom and courageous democracy activists are being violently attacked in their homes.

Reasonable minds can disagree on the "costs v. benefits" of Cuban-American travel to the island, which the Obama Administration has touted as the centerpiece of its policy.

But these "people-to-people" trips are indefensible.

A Timely Reminder in The New York Times

While Ernesto Londoño, the new young editorial writer for The New York Times, currently receives a "hero's welcome" in Cuba, the news section of the paper has a story about the NYT's relationship with Fidel Castro.

It reminds us about the last NYT journalist that traveled throughout Cuba and wrote numerous contradictions, misrepresentations and omissions in his stories.

That journalist, Herbert Matthews, also took it upon himself to pick "winners and losers" and provided loads of misinformation, such as:

The only power worth considering in Cuba is in the hands of Premier Castro, who is not only not Communist but decidedly anti-Communist, even though he does not consider it desirable in the present circumstances to attack or destroy the Reds — as he is in a position to do any time he wants.” (“Cuba Has a One-Man Rule and It Is Called Non-Red.”).

Matthews' irresponsible reporting had terrible consequences for the Cuban people.

A history the NYT appears keen on repeating.

Image below: Castro visits the NYT newsroom in 1995.

Quote of the Week: On Alan Gross' Efforts in Cuba

Recognizing a potential risk and still being willing to take it in the cause of freedom seems to be a laudable act, particularly when his focus was the Jewish community. Just think back to the good people with no special training – many of them among you, dear readers – who brought contraband Jewish texts in Hebrew and in Russian translation into the Soviet Union when exploring Judaism was a crime.
-- Barbara Sofer, author and Director of Public Relations for Hadassah, on American hostage Alan Gross' efforts to help Cuba's Jewish community with Internet connectivity, Jerusalem Post, 11/27/14

Young Cuban Rafter Repatriated to a Certain Death

Sunday, November 30, 2014
By Helen Aguirre Ferre in The Miami Herald:

Cuban teen in the military returned to a certain death

Like most other 18-year-olds, Dayro Andino Leon was determined to find his own way in the world. For Dayro, that meant leaving his home and country. Living in Cuba’s police state was not what he envisioned for his family, especially his young wife and their 1-month-old daughter.

So he did what so many others do: He joined a group of neighbors who got on a makeshift boat that was barely seaworthy and headed toward the United States. If they were afraid of the turbulent, shark-infested waters, they did not tell their families. They almost made it. But they were intercepted by the Coast Guard, just 25 miles off the U.S. coast.

Cubans intercepted at sea are supposedly interviewed by a member of the Coast Guard to determine if they qualify for special consideration for asylum to enter into the United States. Dayro had a good claim: He was a military deserter. The return of any Cuban deserter guarantees imprisonment under brutal circumstances. Incredibly, Dayro was returned to Cuba with the other refugees and, sure enough, was taken by State Security thugs while the others were allowed to go free.

At no time was he allowed to speak to or see his family. He was transferred to the Red Beret Military Unit in Cienfuegos province. His cell mates said that he was behaving erratically and informed the guards, according to independent journalist Alejandro Tur Valladares on the radio show Cuba Today. Dayro was not known for that type of behavior. Could he have been drugged? What we do know is that the 18-year-old was found dead in his cell, hanging from a bed sheet.

It has been called a suicide, but was it? We may never know. What we need to know is why the Coast Guard repatriated this young man when they had to know that his fate was sealed upon return to the Communist island.

Perhaps the Coast Guard official who interviewed Dayro thought he was evading military service rather than deserting. A mistake can be made if the interviewer does not speak Spanish well. Someone who has worked closely with members of the Coast Guard tells me that this is often the case. If so, the interviews leave much to be desired.

Unfortunately, the mission isn’t to find asylum seekers; the goal for the Coast Guard is to return all Cuban rafters to the island. If Dayro had known that, would he have embarked on that treacherous journey? Would he still be alive? His tragic death is one of many thousands.

The number of Cuban rafters has increased dramatically over the past few years. In 2014, 2,059 Cuban rafters were intercepted in the Florida Straits. On Oct. 9, the Associated Press reported the gruesome finding of four Cubans who had drowned at sea. They were said to have been bitten by sharks, their faces unrecognizable. These four are not unique, South Florida morgues are full of drowned Cuban rafters yet to be identified. Experts believe one in four die in attempts to leave Cuba by water.

One of the worst cases on record occurred in August when 34 migrants were stranded for one month on the high seas before they were found by Mexican fishermen. Just 15 were found alive, and two died later.

Only the most desperate flee Cuba this way. Others have crossed the Mexican border, while more than 22,000 have arrived from a third country this year requesting asylum. They leave for political and economic freedom, the common denominator being freedom.

Too many young men and women risk it all coming to our shores. Dayro Andino Leon had a better chance than most because he was picked up by the Coast Guard. But something went terribly wrong, and he was returned to Cuba where he died under suspicious circumstances.

He was picked up but sadly was not rescued; that is something that ought to make us all bow our heads in shame.

Video: Protest at Funeral of Repatriated Young Cuban Rafter

The video below shows the protest -- accusing the Castro regime of "murder" -- at the funeral of a young Cuban rafter, Dayro Andino Leon, who was unjustly repatriated by the U.S. Coast Guard and said to have committed "suicide" in one of Castro's military prisons.

See video below (or here):