Cuban Dissident Released in Obama Deal, Then Arrested Again, Now in Grave Condition

Wednesday, December 30, 2015
From PJ Media:

Cuban Activist Freed in Obama Deal, Then Arrested Again, Now in Grave Condition

The Obama administration is calling on the Cuban government to free a political prisoner -- one of the dozens released from prison a year ago as a rapprochement gesture, only to be re-arrested a few months later.

Vladimir Morera Bacallao, 53, is reportedly near death due to the hunger strike he started behind bars in October.

Morera Bacallao, a labor activist, was arrested in April in the run-up to the regime's sham municipal elections for posting a sign outside his home stating: "I vote for my freedom and not in an election where I cannot choose my president."

A month ago, he was sentenced to four and a half years behind bars.

Around the same time, another one of the political prisoners whose release was hailed by the Obama administration as a grand gesture of the Castro regime toward human rights was sentenced to another prison term. Jorge Ramirez Calderon received two and a half years behind bars for "joining a peaceful protest asking for improved sanitary conditions and water in his community," the State Department acknowledged at the time.

"Respect for human rights is a cornerstone of our foreign policy, and we call on the Cuban government to respect its citizens’ rights to free expression and peaceful protest," the State Department said Nov. 24.

Morera Bacallao was transferred from his prison cell to an intensive care unit last week. At today's State Department briefing, spokesman Mark Toner told reporters the activist is in "very serious condition."

"The United States is deeply concerned about the deteriorating physical condition of Vladimir Morera Bacallao, who has been on a hunger strike since October to protest his imprisonment for peacefully expressing political dissent," Toner said. "Mr. Morera Bacallao was one of 53 prisoners of concern released shortly after the December 2014 announcement of the president's new policy direction on Cuba, but detained again in April of 2015 for hanging a sign outside his home in protest of municipal elections."

"...The United States urgently calls on the Cuban government to release Mr. Morera Bacallao."

Amnesty International noted on Dec. 10 that 1,477 arbitrary politically motivated arrests by Cuban officials in November -- "the highest monthly total in many years."

“For weeks on end, the Cuban authorities have used a spike in arrests and harassment to prevent human rights activists and dissidents from protesting peacefully," said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) noted that during President Obama's time in office "activists Orlando Zapata Tamayo and Wilman Villar Mendoza died under uncannily similar circumstances" as hunger-striking Morera Bacallao. "Activists Laura Pollan and Oswaldo Paya also perished at the hands of Castros' thugs during this administration."

"Morera Bacallao has risked everything for the basic right to have a voice in his government. His unjustifiable imprisonment and mistreatment are further indictments of the brutal malevolence of the Castro regime, and the utter failure of Obama's appeasement of Cuba's dictators," Diaz-Balart wrote on his Facebook page. "I urge human rights organizations and the Obama administration to bring attention to the urgent case of Vladimir Morera Bacallao, and to demand that he receive immediate medical attention. We must not remain silent while another courageous activist hovers on the brink of death."

Quote of the Day: Who Sees Growth in the Cuban Economy?

Here two things have improved: transportation and the houses being built for the military and the police. Nothing else. People still have no money.
-- Aylem, a hairdresser, pursuant to the Castro regime's announcement that the Cuban economy grew by 4% this year, Diario de Cuba, 12/29/15

The Irony of Rahm's Cuba 'Vacation'

By Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations:

Rahm Emanuel in Cuba

Here’s the news out of Chicago:

"Mayor Rahm Emanuel is cutting short his family vacation in Cuba and will return to Chicago on Tuesday to deal with the latest crisis involving the city’s Police Department."

While the press is paying attention to the shootings, I’d like to ask another question: what is he doing taking a “family vacation” in a viciously repressive communist country?

Think of it: the liberal Democrat ignores suppression of freedom of the press and speech and religion. The elected mayor frolics in a place where there has not been one free election since Fidel Castro took over in 1959, nor will there be while he and his brother Raul live.

The island’s prisons are full of political prisoners, but Emanuel ignores this. There are plenty of human rights activists and former political prisoners who would be happy to talk with him about Cuba’s future, but that won’t happen: he’s on a “family vacation,” you see.

Can you imagine a “family vacation” on South Africa’s beautiful beaches while Nelson Mandela sat in prison on Robben Island? A fun time in Russia while Sharansky was in the Gulag? No. So why is Cuba different?

Emanuel’s visit to Cuba is an expression of indifference to human freedom. Cuba is surrounded by democracies whose people do not live in a police state and do not go to jail for asking to vote or trying to publish a newspaper–and their beaches are equally beautiful. Chicago’s mayor chose to hand some badly needed cash to the Castro regime, and there is simply no excuse for it. But there is a considerable irony here: just as Amnesty International is pounding Emanuel over protection of human rights in Chicago, he’s off sunning himself on an island that is famous precisely for the violation of human rights.

After Meeting With Cuban-American Members of Congress, Family of Prominent Dissident Subjected to Threats

Tuesday, December 29, 2015
When Cuban dissidents and civil society leaders meet with Members of the U.S. Congress who advocate for human rights, freedom and democracy -- they and their families face death threats and harassment.

When unscrupulous businessmen travel to Cuba in their private jets and stay at the military's 5-star hotels, in order to shill for Castro's business agenda -- they are welcome with open arms.

Sadly, those businessmen who keep their heads down, mouths shut and wallets open, in order to "earn" a visa from the Castro regime, enable such behavior.

From Civil Rights Defenders:

Family of Prominent Cuban Human Rights Defender Subjected to Threats and Harassment

Cuban human rights defender, Ailer Gonzalez Mena, of Estado de SATS, has been threatened by the Cuban authorities over the weekend. The security police visited her father and told him they had evidence she was meeting with the "Cuban-American Mafia Members of Congress." They also asked him if he and his wife "were currently able to receive bad news," as the father had recently undergone heart surgery.

"The supposedly bad news would be that something is going to happen to me," said Ailer Gonzalez Mena in an interview with Civil Rights Defenders.

The security police also demanded to know whether Gonzalez Mena’s daughter, who is currently residing with the parents, held the same political beliefs as she did.

"It is a common strategy of the Cuban authorities to mobilize the family against human rights defenders such as us," Ailer Gonzalez Mena explained.

The threat is a result of Ailer Gonzalez and Antonio G. Rodiles, also a member of Estado de Sats, who in recent weeks conducted meetings with several members of the U.S. Congress who support their campaign #TodosMarchamos for transparency, democracy and the release of political prisoners in Cuba,

Repression has escalated in recent weeks as the #TodosMarchamos (#WeAllMarch) campaign is gaining momentum on the Caribbean island and among Cubans living in exile. Organised by Estado de Sats, Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) and several other organizations of the Foro por los Derechos y Libertades (Forum for Rights and Freedoms) its core message is to call on Cubans to join the marches and demand amnesty for all political prisoners.

"The enthusiasm and strength of the campaign is incredible. And now the support of the expatriate community in Miami is getting stronger and stronger," added Ailer Gonzalez Mena.

The police have repressed the Sunday marches like clockwork every week since mid April 2015, but the participants have not been deterred and return defiantly again and again. As a consequence of these marches the number of arbitrary detentions of democracy activists skyrocketed throughout 2015.

According to the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, (CCDHRN), there were less than 200 arbitrary detentions in January, but this had increased almost eight fold to 1,500 in November.

Tweet of the Week: Time for Conditions, Not Concerns

Obama-Castro Deal Making Things Worse in Cuba

From The Telegraph:

How more Cubans are fleeing for the US than ever

Yenis Rojas should be a symbol of Cuba’s future. A doctor, she has worked all her life for the state, and is full of drive, energy and ambition.

And yet, despite the announcement a year ago that America and Cuba were re-establishing ties after half a century of hostilities, she sees no promise in her homeland and has fled.

“I had to get out,” she said, speaking from the Costa Rica, close to the border with Nicaragua, where she is camped out. "I couldn't stand it any more."

On Sunday, Pope Francis called for Central American states to find an urgent solution to help them.

"I ask the countries of the region to generously resume efforts to find a quick solution to this humanitarian drama," he said, speaking from St Peter’s.

It is a problem that has been brewing for many weeks. Last week the Nicaraguan government proposed that Washington organise an airlift to take the migrants directly from Costa Rica to the United States. The Costa Rican government has tried to convince both Belize and Guatemala to allow the Cubans passage to reach Mexico.

Almost 6,000 Cubans are currently in Costa Rica, said Mrs Rojas – waiting like her, her husband and their friend to make it to the US. Her 14-year-old son has stayed behind with a sister; she hopes eventually to bring him to the US.

Since leaving Cuba on November 9, she has journeyed by boat, bus, foot and plane to get closer to her goal of reaching the United States. Next was an eight-hour walk to the border crossing, before carrying on north.
Cubans have since 1966 been able, unlike any other Latinos, to show up at an established US port of entry, declare their nationality, and enter the country. But with the new agreement, they fear that policy may end.

“Now we all want to leave Cuba more than ever,” she said.

Mrs Rojas, 36, is one of an estimated 45,000 Cubans to have left the island this year – the biggest annual exodus since the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which hauled 125,000 people across the Florida Straits. Many now are using a new route – flying in to Ecuador, which has lifted visa restrictions, and then travelling overland through Central America and Mexico.

But did not the agreement bring the prospect of better days? Embassies have opened, business has surged, credit cards are now being accepted, and – last week – direct flights and postal services resumed. Internet access has widened and arrivals of American visitors increased 50 per cent, year on year. Has this not helped them financially?

“For us Cubans our lives have not changed,” Mrs Rojas said. “Actually, it’s getting worse.”

Catholic Bishop: Some Cuban Political Prisoners Serving Life Sentences

From Breitbart:

Catholic Bishop Accuses Cuba of Holding Political Prisoners

The bishop in charge of the pastoral care of prison inmates in Cuba declared Wednesday that Cuba is holding a number of political prisoners on the island, some of whom are serving long sentences, a claim that Havana has repeatedly denied.

“Let’s be clear,” said Jorge Serpa, the bishop of the western diocese of Pinar del Rio. “We do have cases of political prisoners, persons serving long sentences for whom I have requested a review on behalf of the Church, and I will not tire of doing so.”

The bishop’s statements formed part of an interview published Wednesday in the magazine Palabra Nueva, a publication of the Archdiocese of Havana.

The Cuban government vehemently denies the existence of political prisoners on the island and instead punishes dissidents or members of the opposition under non-political charges, such as disturbances of public order or danger to the state.

In the interview, Serpa, who is head of the Commission of Pastoral Work with Prisoners of the Catholic Church in Cuba, said that there are “persons serving 47 or 40 years in prison.” He added, “In my group there are seven ‘color orange’ prisoners, who are those serving life sentences, and some of them are political.”

Who Cares About Vladimir Morera Bacallao?

Monday, December 28, 2015
On the morning of February 23rd, 2010, we posted a note entitled, "Who Cares About Orlando Zapata Tamayo?"

It was a desperate plea for the world to focus on the plight of a young Cuban political prisoner, who had spent over 80-days on a hunger strike protesting the torture and abuses of the Castro regime, and whose health had quickly deteriorated.

The Obama Administration and the international media remained silent.

That afternoon, Orlando Zapata Tamayo tragically died.

We'll never forget the eerie premonition of that post.

On January 19th, 2012, we similarly posted a note entitled, "Who Cares About Wilman Villar Mendoza?"

Villar Mendoza, 31-years old at the time, had been arrested for staging a peaceful demonstration on November 14, 2011, and sentenced to four years in prison.

Similarly, the Obama Administration and the international media remained silent.

He died the next day, pursuant to a 50-day hunger strike.

Here is a tragic fact: From Orlando Zapata Tamayo and Wilman Villar Mendoza, to Oswaldo Paya and Laura Pollan, more Cuban political prisoners and dissident leaders have been killed (or died in mysterious circumstances) under Obama's watch than under any U.S. administration in decades.

We'd also stress that this has been under the orders of General Raul Castro, who Obama this month professed to be "more of a pragmatist" -- perhaps in the mold of Bashar al-Assad.

It's a striking reminder about Raul Castro's brutality and the impunity he has felt in dealing with the Obama Administration.

Today, not based on premonition, but on the hope that a valuable lesson has been learned, we pray that the world's attention turns to Vladimir Morera Bacallao.

Morera Bacallo, an independent labor activist, was one of the 53 political prisoners released as part of the Obama-Castro deal on December 17th, 2014.

He was re-arrested in April 2015, pursuant to the Castro regime's sham municipal "elections."

His "crime"? Placing a sign outside his home that read, "I vote for my freedom and not in an election where I cannot choose my president."

Last month, the Castro regime informed Morera Bacallao that he had been handed a new four-year prison sentence.

In other words, Raul Castro reneged on his deal with Obama.

Morera Bacallao has been on hunger strike since October 9th, 2015.

Last week, in the exact same pattern that led to Orlando Zapata Tamayo's death, he was transferred from his prison cell to an intensive care unit in the Santa Clara Hospital.

He is near death.

Morera Bacallao is a man of extraordinary character and conviction.

Despite Tourists, Canadian Firms Noticeably Absent From Cuba

Sunday, December 27, 2015
There's a very interesting article in Canada's Globe and Mail entitled, "In tourist-deluged Cuba, Canadian firms are noticeably absent."

It makes the point how despite Canadian tourists forming nearly 50% of visitors to Cuba, they have very little commercial presence in the island's tourism sector.

One academic poses the question, “Why aren’t there more Canadian infrastructure companies, more interests, given that there are more than one million Canadian tourists?

First, this further proves how the talking point about U.S. companies "missing opportunities" in Cuba is a farce.

(Click here for more statistics that contradict this favorite talking point by Castro's lobbyists in D.C.)

But the biggest problem is highlighted throughout the article -- the lucrative tourism industry in Cuba is controlled by Castro's military.

And they aren't letting go, as monopolists never voluntarily do.

The article makes it clear -- "All major tourist facilities, retail chains, gas stations, telecommunications, rental cars and import companies remain in the control of the government, usually through the military."

As for existing minority ventures with the Cuban military, it's clear who calls the shots:

"Guy Chartier, who is CEO of Wilton Properties, the Cuba branch of Montreal’s Dundee 360 Real Estate Corp., said there has been a significant overall shift in tone from government in the past year. His company was invited by the military, which controls tourism ventures, to more than double the size of its resort project at Jibacoa, midway between Havana and Varadero – the new plan covers more than 3,200 acres – and urged to accelerate construction of their 350-room hotel in Havana."

And they have one goal -- to remain in power:

"[Y]ou have to have relationships of trust with people in the regime, said [Canadian lawyer] Gregory Binioswky, who has lived in Havana for more than 20 years. 'Forget your Harvard Business School ideas: You can come to Cuba with the biggest idea and pool of capital but if they don’t see it as in their interest…I tell all my clients, Cuba is not an investor-friendly government. There is a daunting bureaucracy. There are non-economic policies that have an impact on the economy.'"

Thus, it defies common sense and logic to believe that feeding billions to Cuba's tourism industry, which represents the Cuban military and intelligence service's main source of income, will somehow weaken the Castro regime.

To the contrary -- the Castro regime has overwhelmingly gamed it to its favor, while the Obama Administration plays right into their hands.

Newsmax TV Interview: On Obama's Cuba Policy

Interview with CHC Editor, Mauricio Claver-Carone, on the anniversary of Obama's new Cuba policy.

Click below (or here) to watch:

Red Cross: Cuban Migration Crisis May 'Spin Out of Control'

From AFP:

Cuban migrant crisis in C.America may 'spin out of control': Red Cross
A building crisis in Central America of US-bound Cubans being blocked at borders could "spin out of control" on the frontier between Costa Rica and Panama, the Red Cross warned Thursday.

"If Costa Rica doesn't give visas to the Cubans stranded in (the border town of) Paso Canoas, we should be prepared," Victor Hall, of the Panamanian Red Cross, told AFP in a telephone interview.

He said the number of Cubans stuck in the isolated town, prevented from traveling on to Costa Rica, had swollen to 602 by Thursday.

All of them aim to get to the United States, which has a decades-old policy of accepting them if they set foot on its soil.

But another 5,000 to 7,000 Cuban refugees are already blocked on the next border, between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Nicaragua has been refusing them entry since mid-November, forcing Costa Rica to make increasingly desperate pleas to other Central American nations to take the Cubans in to allow them to continue their journey to the US.

Faced with refusals by the other countries, Costa Rica last week announced it would issue no other visas to arriving Cubans and threatened to deport them back to their homeland.

Hall told AFP that the Red Cross "understands that another 2,000 Cubans are crossing the country (Panama) to get to Paso Canoas."

He said 12 Cubans have been taken to hospital with critical health problems, some of them with diabetes, kidney failure or high blood pressure. Others were treated for injuries from blows they said they received in the first stage of their journey, through Ecuador and Colombia, to Panama.

The Red Cross said temporary shelters set up for the migrants in Paso Canoas were collapsing under the sheer numbers of people. He said there was a need for blankets and pillows.

Among the migrants are pregnant women, and one Cuban woman told the newspaper La Estrella de Panama that she had to confide her son to a Costa Rican couple for months to avoid him going hungry.

On Christmas, Cubans Prefer to Risk Lives at Sea

Clearly, they didn't get the Obama-Castro memo.

From The Miami Herald:

Dozens of Cuban migrants land across Florida Keys

The first group, still wet, was found around 4 a.m. at a Walgreen’s parking lot on an unspecified Key

Others came ashore at Lower Matecumbe Key, Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West and Grassy 

Groups of migrants from Cuba landed in various parts of the Florida Keys on Christmas Day, according to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.

The landings began just past 4 a.m. when 15 migrants, still wet from the voyage from Cuba, were found in a Walgreen’s parking lot on an unspecified Key. They were reported in “good condition,” according to sheriff’s department spokeswoman Becky Herrin.

Three hours later, in Lower Matecumbe Key, over a dozen more migrants made it ashore, most of them in good condition as well. Just a few minutes later, south at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West, an “unknown number of migrants” came ashore.

Finally, just past noon, one migrant — possibly having strayed from one of the other landings — was found at Grassy Key.

Agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection were called in to take custody of the migrants. Cuban migrants who make it to U.S. soil are generally allowed to stay in the country.

Boston Globe: Obama’s Cuba Policy Makes Life Worse for Cubans

Thursday, December 24, 2015
By Jeff Jacoby in The Boston Globe:

Obama’s Cuba policy makes life worse for Cubans

WHEN PRESIDENT OBAMA declared 12 months ago that he intended to normalize relations with Cuba, he claimed that rapprochement with the Castro regime would uphold America’s “commitment to liberty and democracy.” Liberalizing US policy, the president predicted, would succeed “in making the lives of ordinary Cubans a little bit easier, more free, more prosperous.”

He affirmed that message seven months later, as he announced the reopening of the US embassy in Havana. Life on the island might not be “transformed overnight,” Obama conceded, but he had no doubt that more engagement was the best way to advance democracy and human rights for Cuba’s people. “This,” said the president, “is what change looks like.”

Reality-check time.

The Obama administration’s year-long outreach to Cuba has certainly been frenetic. The American flag was raised over the US embassy in August, and in Washington the Cuban embassy was reopened. President Obama held a face-to-face meeting with Raul Castro during the Summit of the Americas in Panama. The State Department removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Restrictions were eased on travel to Cuba by Americans, resulting in a 54 percent increase in trips this year. Three Cabinet members — the secretaries of state, agriculture, and commerce — were dispatched on separate missions to Cuba. And plans have been announced to resume direct mail service and commercial air travel between the two countries.

The Castro brothers snapped up all these treats. They will gladly pocket more of them. But there has been no hint of the expanded freedom and democratic reforms that Obama’s engagement was supposed to unlock.

Cuba remains the only dictatorship in the Americas, as repressive and hostile to human rights as ever. More repressive, in fact: Over the past 12 months, the government’s harassment of dissidents and democracy activists has ballooned. In November, according to Amnesty International, there were nearly 1,500 political arrests or arbitrary detentions of peaceful human-rights protesters. That was the highest monthly tally in years, more than double the average of 700 political detentions per month recorded in 2014.

On Dec. 10 — International Human Rights Day — Cuban security police arrested between 150 and 200 dissidents, in many cases beating the prisoners they seized. As is usually the case, those attacked by the regime’s goons included members of the respected Ladies in White, an organization of wives, mothers, and sisters of jailed dissidents. The women, dressed in white, attend Mass each week, then walk silently through the streets to protest the government’s lawlessness and brutality. Even the United Nations, which frequently turns a blind eye to the depredations of its member-states, condemned the Cuban government’s “extraordinary disdain” for civil norms, and deplored the “many hundreds” of warrantless arrests in recent weeks.

But from the Obama administration there has been no such condemnation. One might have thought that the White House would make it a priority to give moral support and heightened recognition to the Cubans who most embody the “commitment to liberty and democracy” that the president has invoked. But concern for Cuba’s courageous democrats has plainly not been a priority. Particularly disgraceful was Secretary of State John Kerry’s refusal to invite any dissidents or human-rights advocates to the flag-raising ceremony at the US embassy in August. To exclude them, as The Washington Post observed, was a dishonorable gesture of appeasement to the hemisphere’s nastiest regime — “a sorry tip of the tat to what the Castros so vividly stand for: diktat, statism, control, and rule by fear.”

For all the president’s talk about using engagement and trade to promote the cause of liberty and civil rights in Cuba, his policy of détente has been wholly one-sided. In an interview with Yahoo! News this month, he was asked what concessions Havana has made over the past year. He couldn’t think of any.

“Look,” he said with an exasperated sigh, “our original theory on this was not that we were going to see immediate changes or loosening of control of the Castro regime, but rather that, over time, you’d lay the predicates for substantial transformation.”

Cubans aren’t holding their breath. Tens of thousands of them, realizing that normalization will do nothing to loosen the Castros’ grip, have fled the country. More than 45,000 Cubans arrived at US border checkpoints in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30; thousands more are trying to reach the United States by traveling through Central America or taking to the sea. It is the largest wave of Cuban migrants in decades. The American president may believe in “predicates for substantial transformation” and other such amulets and charms. Cuba’s people know better.

We should know better too.

As a candidate for president, Obama promised a Cuba policy that would “be guided by one word: Libertad.” If the regime in Havana wanted the benefits of normalization, he vowed, it would first have to accept democratic reforms. But Obama’s foreign policy toward Cuba, like his policies toward Iran and Russia and Syria, turned out to be far more about accommodating despots, far less about upholding Western norms. His years in office have coincided with a worldwide retreat of democratic freedoms; why would Cuba be an exception?

It is clear now that the only change Obama craved in Cuba was a change in America’s go-it-alone stance. Normalization was desirable for its own sake, not as a means to leverage freedom for Cuba’s people.

Last week, 126 former Cuban dissidents wrote a letter pleading with Obama to reconsider his approach. Showering the Castro regime with so many benefits, they warned, will “prolong the life of the dictatorship,” even as it “marginaliz[es] the democratic opposition.” Alas, that doesn’t trouble the president nearly as much as it troubles them. He’s on his way out, and no longer has to pretend to care about the fate of beleaguered democrats.

Video: Over 40 Ladies in White Arrested for Christmas Event

Over 40 members of The Ladies in White, the internationally-recognized group composed of the wives, mothers, daughters and other relatives of Cuban political prisoners, were arrested yesterday.

Their crime? Hosting a Christmas event at their headquarters, where they distributed gifts to children.

In the video below, you can see first-hand the arrest of Yamile Garro, along with her 3-year old son, as well as other members of The Ladies in White.

The plain clothes men in the motorcycles and in the Russian cars, guiding the female police officers around, are members of Castro's domestic secret police, known as the Directorate of State Security (DSE).

Click below (or here) to watch:

Quote of the Week: Not Buying the 'Change' Line

People here don't buy the 'change' line one bit. Everything is exactly the same.
-- Father Jose Conrado, renowned Catholic priest in Cuba, on the first anniversary of the Obama-Castro deal, Diario de Cuba, 12/17/15

Cuban Political Prisoner in Critical Condition, Near Death

Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Cuban political prisoner, Vladimir Morera Bacallao, has been transferred to an intensive care unit in Santa Clara, where he remains in critical condition on the 75th day of a hunger strike protesting his unjust imprisonment.

He was one of the 53 political prisoners released as part of the Obama-Castro deal on December 17th, 2014.

Morera Bacallao was re-arrested in April, pursuant to the Castro regime's sham municipal "elections."

He was imprisoned for placing a sign outside his home that read, '"I vote for my freedom and not in an election where I cannot choose my president."

Last month, the Castro regime informed Morera Bacallao that he had been handed a new four-year prison sentence.

He has been on hunger strike since October 9th.

It's "what change looks like" in Cuba.

Must-Read: North Korea's "Private Sector" Stymies Cuba's

Clearly, the Obama Administration and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are missing the real opportunity among the world's remaining totalitarian dictatorships.

Can't wait to see the plan for "empowering" the people of North Korea through greater business ties with the Kim regime.

After all, according to this article, it is estimated that 30-50% of North Korean GDP is now produced by the private sector; property prices have increased ten-fold; agricultural cooperatives are producing record-breaking harvests; and there's 4% GDP growth.

Plus, in North Korea, U.S. business doesn't have to deal with the burdensome $12 billion in stolen American property claims and legal judgments.

Kim's "developmental dictatorship" is really putting Raul Castro to shame.

The amazing thing is Kim appears to be having exponentially greater success than Raul, despite sharing the same perverted model (praised by the Obama Administration and the Chamber alike), whereby the "private sector" has no legal status, property rights or recourse.

If Kim can do it, so can Raul.

All that is needed now is an aggressive U.S. policy encouraging business with Kim's monopolies, so it'll "trickle-down" to North Korea's booming private sector.

Maybe some exile businessmen will even take a trip to Pyongyang, talk with people in the park and dine at a North Korean "paladar" (see image below of hostesses standing outside of a private restaurant).

Sadly, despite the sarcasm, this story and Obama's absurd policy are all too real.

From The Guardian:

Kim Jong-un's recipe for success: private enterprise and public executions

Reforms have brought record harvests and economic growth, but the leader won’t risk giving North Koreans more personal freedom, writes Andrei Lankov

Kim Jong-un, the third hereditary ruler of North Korea, gets a really bad press. He is widely seen as a capricious, overweight youngster, fond of executing his generals and threatening the world with war; ruler of an impoverished country ever on the brink of famine but equipped with nuclear weapons.

There is some truth in this description but it does not represent the whole story. He may have a penchant for executions, but Kim is also the first ruler of the dynasty to implement market-oriented reforms.

The oft-repeated cliche of North Korea as a “starving Stalinist country” is outdated – it is neither starving nor Stalinist. Experts agree that over the past decade the country has not only recovered from the disastrous famine of the late 1990s, but has also experienced significant economic growth. Pessimists put the annual growth rate at about 1.5%, while the optimists believe it may be close to 4%.

This growth was brought about, above all, by the emergence of the private economy. While on paper private entrepreneurial activities remain illegal, the law is seldom, if ever, enforced. As a result some North Koreans – the more entrepreneurial, lucky, well-connected and ruthless of them – have recreated the market economy from scratch. Nowadays, there are private mines, truck companies and oil refineries in North Korea.

Admittedly, the owner has to register the enterprise as state property, but this fiction misleads nobody. It is estimated that 30-50% of North Korean GDP is now produced by the private sector.

The presence of the new rich business people (many of whom are women) is much felt in Pyongyang and other major North Korean cities. They account for the majority of patrons in the upmarket restaurants popping up across the city. Although meals cost $15 to $25, roughly equivalent to the average family’s weekly or fortnightly income, these places are always crowded.

Property prices are going through the roof. A good apartment in Pyongyang costs about $100,000, and the best homes go for $200,000. Over the past 10 years, house prices in North Korea have increased tenfold. Technically, houses cannot be owned privately so people buy and sell “residence rights” only, but few see this as anything but a convenient legal fiction.

Property prices are going through the roof. A good apartment in Pyongyang costs about $100,000
There is a spillover effect: while rich people buy houses and European cars, more and more ordinary North Koreans can afford meat at weekends and pure rice gruel every day.

All these changes began in the late 1990s but the late Kim Jong-il, the father of the current ruler, did not quite know what to make of the growing private economy. Sometimes he initiated crackdowns (always partial and never successful), while other times he grudgingly tolerated the changes. Kim Jong-un is different: he quietly encourages the market economy.

The greatest success of the young dictator has been the reform of agriculture, similar to what the Chinese did in the late 1970s. Fields, while technically state-owned, are given for cultivation to individual households and farmers work for a share of the harvest (30%-70%).

The results of the reforms were predictable: the past few years have seen record-level harvests, and North Korea is now close to self-sufficiency in food production. This year a major drought prompted concern but it now seems that farmers, working not for the party’s glory but for their own gain, managed to fix the problem, and this year’s harvest is going to be high – perhaps even a record breaker.

If plans for industrial reforms (decentralisation and partial privatisation of what is left of state industries) are taken into account, the general picture seems clear. Kim Jong-un wants to apply to his country a model of authoritarian capitalism, a so-called “developmental dictatorship”. This model worked very well in Taiwan and South Korea and now is producing impressive results in China and Vietnam.

This is good news, and observers should not be surprised that recent polls among refugees from North Korea – a group not known for their sympathies towards the regime – indicate that Kim Jong-un is popular with his people.

Tribune-Review Editorial: A Year Later, Same-Old Cuba

By the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Editorial Board:

A year later: Same-old Cuba

In the year since President Obama recognized the regime of Cuba's Raul Castro, life on the Caribbean island has been as grim as ever. Today Cuba is closer to what China would hail as a “resilient authoritarian regime” rather than a land of civil opportunities, writes Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

Nevertheless, Mr. Obama has called on Congress to lift the U.S. trade embargo and, in a recent interview, said he would like to visit Mr. Castro's communist utopia.

But just days before Obama gushed about Cuba's brighter future, Castro commemorated Human Rights Day (Dec. 10) by arresting up to 200 dissidents, Mr. Gonzalez reports. In fact, the detention of Cuba's dissidents — more than 7,000 — is on pace to break previous records, according to Heritage.

Meanwhile, Castro, 84, insists that any normalization will require the United States to “remove all policies of the past.” And Cuba's end of this bargain?

It's no wonder Cuba's freedom fighters denounce Obama. A letter signed by 100 former political prisoners calls the administration's Cuba reset “a regrettable mistake” that is “worsening the human rights situation there, marginalizing the democratic opposition and compromising U.S. national security.”

And with Castro's son-in-law, Gen. Luis Alberto Rodriguez, expected to continue the family tradition, don't expect any policy reversals without regime change in Cuba.

Proof That Obama Was Wrong About Cuba

By Mike Gonzalez in The Daily Signal:

Proof That Obama Was Wrong About Cuba

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

These stirring words came in President Barack Obama’s first inaugural address. It’s taken seven years to make clear they were utterly meaningless.

The right side of history is whatever side the president is on, and America’s enemies don’t need to stop punching dissidents with clenched fists to get a hug.

Exhibit A to prove this is, again, the little state of Cuba, 90 miles from U.S. shores.

Antonio Rodiles, who is the leader of the Cuban democratic movement, was re-arrested for “disorderly conduct” on Sunday for speaking his mind in the open.

Rodiles was just here last week in Washington, D.C., and had high-profile meetings with members of Congress and at the State Department.

Meanwhile, the country’s dictator, Raúl Castro, donned this military uniform for an unannounced TV appearance last Friday to denounce the United States and make more demands.

Yes, demands.

Rodiles, and other pro-democracy activists, have said all along that Obama’s decision to grant the Castro regime recognition a year ago would prove to be a costly mistake for Cubans.

By extracting no conditions in exchange for relations, Obama has allowed Castro to act with impunity with his opponents.

He hasn’t been wrong, as Rodiles himself can physically attest, as he was beaten up during an arrest back in July. According to dissidents, political detentions are at a documented total of 7,686 through the first 11 months this year, set to break the worst year on record: 2014, with 8,899 arrests.

It’s a message Rodiles took to Congress last week in meetings with Reps. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va.; Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.; Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.; and Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla. (who all are of Cuban origin), as well as in the State Department, where he met, among others, with Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson.

These meetings took place on Dec. 17, which was of symbolic importance, as it was the one-year anniversary of Obama’s announcement that the United States would stop shunning the Castros and would instead extend the hand of friendship.

The meetings earned Rodiles more wrath from Castro’s regime. Back in Havana on Sunday, he attempted to march with a dissident group of about 60 after Mass, when he and the others were rounded up and sent to prison.

“We were met with the same repression and the same violence,” he told me on the phone from Havana after spending more than five hours in prison. The difference this time is that he was fined and charged with “desorden público.” When they have done this in years past, it has meant that the regime is about to take away his passport.

“It had everything to do with the meetings I had in Washington,” he told me. “They were very upset.” The dissidents suffered other depredations.

One of them, Lourdes Esquivel, a woman in her 50s, was kept for hours in a jail with a naked man, Rodiles told me. The thugs who arrested them also took their money away. When the leader of the group, Berta Soler, returned to prison on Monday to get her money back, authorities re-arrested her. She was still behind bars Monday at noon.

“Things are going to get even worse,” he told me at the end of our talk.

And on Friday, Castro took to the airwaves again, this time wearing the uniform of general, to make demands: “During this year we have not advanced to resolve the issues that are essential if Cuba is to have normal relations with the United States.”

Among the demands are ending U.S. broadcasts to Cuba (the only break in the Communist news monopoly in Cuba) ending the trade embargo, and the handover of the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay to the Castros.

In an interview with Yahoo News, Obama last week eerily left open the possibility that this might happen. “There’s no doubt they’d love to have Guantánamo back,” Obama said. “And I suspect that will be a long, diplomatic discussion that will outlast my administration.”

Then again, he also seriously misjudged Castro, saying, “I do see in him a big streak of pragmatism. In that sense, I don’t think he is an ideologue.”

Tell that to Rodiles, Soler, and Esquivel.

Cuba Facilitates Cyber-Attacks in Latin America

Tuesday, December 22, 2015
According to an extensive report by Citizen Lab, over the last seven years, state-sponsored cyber-attacks have targeted members of the political opposition and independent media in various ALBA countries, namely Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, and Brazil.

According to the summary:

"The report describes an extensive malware, phishing, and disinformation campaign active in several Latin American countries, including Ecuador, Argentina, Venezuela, and Brazil. The nature and geographic spread of the targets seems to point to a sponsor, or sponsors, with regional, political interests. The attackers, whom we have named Packrat, have shown a keen and systematic interest in the political opposition and the independent press in so-called ALBA countries (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), and their recently allied regimes."

The tie that binds this all together is the software and monitoring technology sold to these ALBA nations through Cuba's state-entities, Albet, Xetid and Datys.

Albet, Xetid and Datys are software companies owned and operated by Cuba's military and intelligence services. They are linked to the University of Information Sciences (known as "UCI"), an entity created by Castro in 2002 to form the regime's "cyber-warriors." The UCI is located at a "former" Soviet espionage and communications interception base.

In November 2014, we posted segments from a story in El Nuevo Herald, entitled "Oppression S.A., the new model of espionage and repression exported by Cuba."

It describes how Cuba's regime is providing services to its regional allies, in order to spy, control and repress its citizens.

This has become a multi-billion dollar business for Castro's regime, which has provided espionage, security and training services to its allies throughout the region -- but also monitoring technologies through state-entities, Albet, Xetid and Datys.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration -- and Castro's D.C. lobbyists -- absurdly argue that allowing U.S. companies to do business with these spy entities will "empower" the Cuban people.

How Castro Stole the Art Hitler Couldn't

From The Art Newspaper:

Holocaust survivor’s art last seen in Cuba

US foundation claims Castro regime seized paintings that Hitler failed to steal

A US foundation is stepping up efforts to recover from Cuba a collection of paintings by Picasso, Degas, Goya, Van Gogh and Hans Memling, among others. The missing works, which are potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars, are assumed to have been taken from the Havana home of Olga Lengyel (1908-2001), an art collector and Auschwitz survivor, after rebels led by Fidel Castro seized power on the Caribbean island in 1959. None of the paintings has been seen for more than 50 years; their fate is unknown.

The case is one of the largest US property claims against Cuba and could complicate the improving cultural relations between the two countries. The US and Cuba recently began official discussions about property worth around $7bn that has been seized from US companies and citizens since 1959.

“These claims are still totally outstanding,” says Mari-Claudia Jiménez, a lawyer with Herrick, Feinstein, the firm representing Lengyel’s foundation, the Memorial Library in New York. “Normally, certified claims are for immovable property, like a sugar plantation or a house, not for paintings. If one of these pictures is discovered in the United States prior to those claims being settled, we can certainly bring a claim for the recovery of such a work.”

The paintings once hung in the Havana home of Olga Lengyel, the only member of her immediate family to survive Auschwitz. According to witnesses cited in a dossier of documents filed with the US government, the canvases, along with antique furniture and other valuable objects, remained in the apartment when Lengyel left the island after Castro took power.

An extensive pre-Castro inventory of the apartment was compiled by Lengyel and the firm that insured her property. The inventory, seen by The Art Newspaper, includes Dancing Figure and Bending Dancer by Degas, Portrait of the Marchesa by Van Dyck, Three Noblemen by Goya, Angel in Paysage by Memling and Fruits in a Bowl by Picasso.

Cuban Protest Artist El Sexto: 'You Have to Keep at It'

By Amnesty International's Louise Tillotson in Newsweek:

Cuban Protest Artist El Sexto: 'You Have to Keep at It'

Danilo Maldonado Machado, known as “El Sexto,” is living proof that, in Cuba, political protest still carries a hefty price tag.

In December last year, just days after President Barack Obama announced the U.S. would reestablish relations with Cuba, the 22-year-old artist was locked up for painting the names Raúl and Fidel—the first names of the Castro brothers who have been in power since 1959—on the backs of two live pigs.

He had planned to release the pigs in a public park as part of a performance on Christmas Day. He was not just poking fun to score political points—his envisioned performance melded a Cuban Christmas tradition of letting pigs go and having the public catch them with ideas from George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

But it never went ahead—he was arrested on his way there. “They imprisoned me before it happened…and they imprisoned ‘Fidel’ and ‘Raúl’ [the pigs],” El Sexto says, grinning.

El Sexto was released without warning from the Valle Grande prison outside Havana on October 20, 10 months after his arrest. Although at the time of his arrest he was accused of "contempt" for the leaders of the Revolution, he was never formally charged or put on trial.

The Cuban authorities first hinted on October 15 that they might release him, when they told his mother that he had "served his time." He was released five days later. The authorities have not publicly stated why they decided to release him at that time, but it came after an outcry from Amnesty International supporters,  activists and artists from around the world. After his release, he traveled to the U.S., where he has remained ever since.

El Sexto’s slight frame and enthusiastic use of sugar in a hot drink are the only hints that he spent more than three weeks on hunger strike in a Cuban prison earlier this year. And his eccentric energy is matched only by his ability to dive suddenly into a conceptual world created in his mind.

After his arrest last year, El Sexto was accused of “desacato” (contempt), a provision in Cuba’s antiquated criminal law that carries a sentence of up to three years. Like other criminal offences used to silence dissidents in Cuba—including “enemy propaganda” and “resistance”—it sounds like it has been pulled out of an old sci-fi novel, and smacks of a type of repression that most Latin American countries left behind long ago.

El Sexto started to draw when he was 5 years old. He knew he wanted to be an artist, but didn’t know how to go about it. He later found an artistic voice, inspired by fellow dissent artists such as Ai Weiwei and the New York graffiti scene. “I can’t separate art and activism,” he says.

“I couldn’t do art based on dreams, drawing flowers and pretty things while just next to my house they are beating up women,” he said. This is a nod to The Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco), female family members of political prisoners who are regularly beaten and detained for peacefully protesting in Havana and elsewhere in Cuba.

For El Sexto, a graffiti artist is “a publicist of the underground, of the people, of reality.”

“In Cuba, the government runs advertising. We get information about Fidel and Raúl and ‘La Revolución’ from the television…the radio, the newspapers, from all directions, on the street. That’s the only type of publicity allowed. So, I started using the kind of graffiti I do to mock the mass advertising they produce. It’s a confrontation,” he says.

His case highlights a systematic trend. The Cuban authorities routinely harass and detain people for expressing themselves freely or protesting peacefully.

In November 2015, there were almost 1,500 arbitrary arrests in Cuba, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN). This is the highest number in a single month for many years, and double the monthly average in 2014.

On International Human Rights Day, December 10, the political police detained activists, including many in their homes, to prevent their peaceful protest. They also stopped journalists from leaving their offices to report the story.

While there are fewer prisoners of conscience on the island now than between the 1970s and 1990s, political opponents who mock the authorities continue to get jailed and harassed at an appalling rate.

In his first months behind bars, El Sexto shared space with more than 140 prisoners. He saw it as an opportunity to learn more about the human condition. “People pass you information, their story, without even knowing it. I like learning from people…and so that’s what I did,” he said.

When he went on hunger strike, he was isolated in a cell with no sunlight. To get through it, he began telling himself the hunger strikes were part of another performance, with people in the outside world taking part by sending their messages of solidarity and campaigning for his freedom.

After his release, and days without human contact, he was so weak he found it difficult to stand for long and had problems with his joints. He found the streets, and the people waiting for him in his house, strange, even overwhelming.

“The way I see art is sort of how I see the real world. It’s something that doesn’t exist, but that if I imagine really hard, people can influence with their energy and can make it real.… That’s how it was in the cell. I said, ‘I am going to get out of this prison,’ and people began to work on that idea.… People across the world put their empathy in that small space, in that cell, and after that I got out.”

El Sexto’s case generated global attention from fellow artists and human rights organizations. And since his release, he has continued his activism.

When he recently won a $25,000 prize for his art, he publicly donated it to help Cuban migrants stuck in Central America as they attempt to reach the U.S. But he also used the occasion to call on his fellow Cubans not to leave the island, but to work instead towards solutions to the problems they face at home.

He has also been going to protests every Sunday with The Ladies in White, as part of their “Todos Marchamos” (We All March) campaign. Despite the risk of future arrest and imprisonment, he feels it is crucial to show solidarity. “You are as important to everyone else as they are to you,” he said. “I wouldn’t be a fulfilled person; I would be a terrible person if women were being beaten and I wasn’t there [to protest].”

During El Sexto’s imprisonment, his mother and grandmother actively campaigned for his release, and he knows his family has suffered because of his art and activism.

But he feels compelled to work toward a better society for his 2-year-old daughter, Renata María. His face lights up when he talks about her:  “I don’t want her to grow up in an environment where she has to speak softly.… It is difficult, but I hope she will understand that her dad goes out and creates art, for her and for everyone, and for me.”

This commitment has fueled El Sexto’s desire to again try to stage his performance with the two painted pigs for Christmas 2016, when he is back in Cuba. The announcement sounds crazy, almost naïve, and is sure to get him arrested again. But this is a man who spent almost a year in prison for his art, without formal charges and without seeing a judge.

“Art has to be done with bravery,” he says. “Artists have a responsibility to people, because people give artists energy. And it is important to be responsible with that energy.”

The Week in Letters: 126 Cuban Political Prisoners v. 10 Businessmen

Monday, December 21, 2015
Last week, 126 Cuban political prisoners, who spent a combined total of 1,945 years in prison and labor camps for fighting for democracy in their homeland, wrote a letter to President Obama.

It begins:

"Based on our history and experience as political prisoners under Castro’s totalitarian regime, the new Cuba policy established by your Administration has been a regrettable mistake. This will prolong the life of the dictatorship, is worsening the human rights situation there, marginalizing the democratic opposition and compromising U.S. national security."

These are men and women of extraordinary courage and principle, who follow in the historical tradition of Havel, Mandela, Solzhenitsyn, Sharansky and Suu Kyi.

Not so -- say ten mostly unknown Cuban-American businessmen, who have never lifted a finger (perhaps with one brief exception) for any of these political prisoners.

They contend that the former Cuban political prisoners, along with the courageous dissidents being beaten and arrested on a daily basis, are wrong.

After all, these businessmen know better because they flew to Havana in a private jet, stayed at a luxury hotel owned by the Cuban military, strolled through a park and met with intelligence apparatchiks who run Castro's monopolies.

And now, they have paid for a full-page advertisement in The Miami Herald arguing that they stand on the side of "the Cuban people" (or as they say, "nuestra gente").

These same businessmen fancy the argument that we should forgive and forget the Castro dictatorship -- not after it stops committing crimes against the Cuban people, but during the commission of such crimes.

Therefore, why not bet on the Castro regime's "good-will" and shower it with billions in trade, financing and investment -- and hope it will do a "totalitarian trickle-down" to the Cuban people.

Perhaps that's why -- despite their rhetoric of supporting "the Cuban people" -- some of these businessmen were partying at the Castro regime's Embassy in Washington. D.C. this week.

(See how many of the ten Cuban-American businessmen you can pick out from the picture below.)

After all, what better way to support "the Cuban people" than by partying with their oppressors.

WSJ: Cuba One Year After Obama’s Olive Branch

By Mary Anastasia O'Grady in The Wall Street Journal:

Cuba One Year After Obama’s Olive Branch

Thousands of political arrests, migrants flee, and Russia wants in. Sound familiar?

This month marks the first anniversary of President Obama’s unilateral rapprochement with Cuba. Upon making the Dec. 17 announcement, the Obama administration immediately moved to ease restrictions on American travel to the island and, by extension, boost revenues for the owners of its tourist industry: the Cuban military.

In May the U.S. removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, even though the dictator Gen. Raúl Castro harbors known terrorists, including the U.S. fugitive Joanne Chesimard, once a member of the now defunct Black Liberation Army and a convicted cop-killer.

In August the U.S. reopened an embassy in Havana. Last week it announced a bilateral agreement to restore direct flights between the U.S. and Cuba.

Cuba’s dissidents have been hard hit. Days after the new U.S. policy was announced, Danilo Maldonado, the Cuban performance artist known as El Sexto, was arrested for mocking the Castros. He spent 10 months in jail, and Amnesty International named him a prisoner of conscience.

The Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation documented 7,686 political arrests in 2015 through Nov. 30. On that day Mr. Maldonado summarized the effects of the Obama détente: “There have been no positive changes. The U.S. has given away too much at the normalization talks, and that has let Cuba continue its repression.”

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, echoes those sentiments. “I was particularly shocked,” he said last week, “that a number of people, including members of the Ladies in White,” a dissident group, “were arrested on Human Rights Day, on 10 December. This shows an extraordinary disdain for the importance of human rights on the part of the Cuban authorities.”

In 2014 Cuba passed a new foreign-investment law to boost capital inflows. Yet the government retained the power to confiscate assets for “public” or “social” ends, and it has gained a reputation for arbitrarily jailing foreign businessmen. Writing in the fall 2015 issue of World Affairs, José Azel, a senior scholar at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, noted that despite the investment law’s “vaulting language, more than a year later only a handful of investments have been approved.”

Perhaps capitalists are not all that important when Russia is itching to get back into Cuba in a big way. In 2014 Russian President Vladimir Putin forgave $32 billion in Cuban debt to the Soviet Union. Then he converted the remaining $3.5 billion due Moscow into a line of credit for energy and industrial projects on the island.

In return, among other things, the Kremlin gets to use Cuba to establish a station supporting Russia’s global navigation satellite system (Glonass), a rival to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS). In a Nov. 17 website post for the Cuban Transition Project at the University of Miami, research associate Hans de Salas-del Valle observed that “the installation of a signals facility in Cuba is part of a broader strategy to integrate Cuba into Russia’s space program.” He added that “Moscow has publicly expressed interest in establishing a satellite launch site in Cuba.”

Click here to read in its entirety.

Tweet of the Day: Castro's Cuba Si, Puerto Rico No

Castro's Travel Funnel: Critical Cuban-Americans Need Not Apply

By Fabiola Santiago in The Miami Herald:

Here’s an answer to most asked question: ‘Have you been to Cuba?’

A selective “funnel” system in place rewards a few

It’s the year’s most asked question: “Have you been to Cuba?”

Implicit in the query is a dash of well-meaning all-American naïveté — the belief that, if Americans are now free to travel to Cuba, it should be even easier for me as a Cuban-American to pack my bags and join the giddy rush to visit the island where I was born.

Far from assured, it’s less likely that under President Barack Obama’s rapprochement policy and expanded travel and trade rules I’ll ever set foot in Cuba. The Cuban government has no desire, need or motivation to open up to Cuban-Americans like me when they’re hosting more American tourists and journalists than they can accommodate — as well as scores of returning Cuban immigrants and Cuban-Americans with less political baggage and more money to spend and invest on the island.

It’s one of those perhaps unintended, but real results of the new U.S policy. Some Cuban-Americans need not apply.

From Cuba’s side, the opening is not through an all-embracing circle, but through a sliver. Or, as Miami lawyer Rafael Peñalver puts it, “un embudo, a funnel,” a system set up for trade, travel and investment “through which only a select few from abroad are allowed to partner with a select few from the Castro cúpula to exploit Cuba’s natural resources and labor force. The main objective of the ‘embudo’ is to keep the Castros in power."

It’s the same limited system the Cuban government has operated during the past 30 years to keep the economy afloat by catering to travelers and investors from Canada, Spain and Brazil. Those who participate must toe the line. Cuba is not a state that respects individual rights or that ensures its citizens — or its visitors — due process.

A journalist who points out those shortcomings, and who gives voice to the repressed opposition, is not welcome. In Cuba’s eyes, I’m the devil incarnate: An informed Cuban-American with intimate knowledge of contemporary history and of the institutions and characters that shape the island. A tour guide or media handler would find it difficult to feed me the propaganda they routinely peddle to others.

Worse yet, I’m not someone they can easily dismiss as a right-winger.

In the early 2000s, when I covered Cuban art and culture, a Communist cousin sent me a message that I would be welcomed in Cuba.

“Why not?” he told a relative. “She’s a well respected intellectual of the left.”

I didn’t even attempt to apply for a visa — and had a good laugh at the way the extreme right of exile and the extreme left that rules Cuba often coincide in their assessments of the political spectrum.

I appreciated more the clever pragmatism with which another cousin encouraged me to visit in the aftermath of the 1990s Special Period’s shortages: “Here, one member of the [exile] community is worth 20 from the [Communist] party.”

Truth is, I ran out of enough desire, although never out of curiosity.

In the age of Obama, a visa is not any more likely to materialize than at any other time. Change Cuban-Americans like me can count on is not in the cards. And I hope that answers the year’s question.

Must-Watch: What Happens to Cuban 'Entrepreneurs' Who Aren't Subservient

Sunday, December 20, 2015
Last week, Cuban "self-employed" entrepreneur, Rebeca Calderon Diaz, was selling her products (e.g. baby diapers) on a corner of Vibora park in Havana.

A police vehicle approached Calderon and told her told leave, as she was selling "unauthorized" products.

She proceeded to show the authorities her "self-employed" license and explain how her products are covered by the same. But the police officers relented.

Calderon Diaz, a member of the dissident Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU), complied and packed her belongings.

Upon doing so, she began chanting "down with the Castros" and "long live human rights."

Click below (or here) to watch what happens next -- under a system where only subservient "entrepreneurs" need apply:

Quote of the Day: It's Modern-Day Slavery

It’s modern-day slavery.
-- Dr. Mara Martinez, 25-year old Cuban doctor who defected from Venezuela (via Colombia), on the commercial terms and living conditions under which Cuban medical personnel are sent on foreign missions, The New York Times, 12/19/15

Cuban Political Prisoners Measure Impact of Obama’s Policy

By Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations:

Cuban Political Prisoners Measure the Impact of Obama’s Cuba Policy

This past week marked the anniversary of President Obama’s new Cuba policy.

That policy is failing to produce any human rights improvements in Cuba. So this week, 126 Cuban former political prisoners–who together have served 1,945 years in Castro’s prisons, wrote a letter to Mr. Obama about his policy. It was delivered to the White House by Ernesto Diaz Rodriguez, a former political prisoner and poet who spent more than 22 years in Cuba’s prisons.

These former political prisoners call the Obama policy a “regrettable mistake” that “will prolong the life of the dictatorship, is worsening the human rights situation there, marginalizing the democratic opposition and compromising U.S. national security.”

It’s a powerful message that the people who have suffered most from Castro’s vicious dictatorship find no benefit in the new U.S. policy and indeed feel abandoned by it.

The full text follows.

Mr. President:

Based on our history and experience as political prisoners under Castro’s totalitarian regime, the new Cuba policy established by your Administration has been a regrettable mistake. This will prolong the life of the dictatorship, is worsening the human rights situation there, marginalizing the democratic opposition and compromising U.S. national security.

The normalization of relations is creating false expectations and granting benefits to the tyrannical regime in Cuba; it is also allowing the Paris Club to forgive billions in debt providing the regime hard currency which it funnels into its most repressive institutions: the military and intelligence services giving new life to what we’re dying institutions. Human rights violations in Cuba have a terrible history, but the current policy has taken a bad situation and made it worse. Violent beatings against activists peacefully assembling have escalated and worsened over 2015.

Politically motivated arbitrary detentions in Cuba as of the end of November 2015 are a documented total of 7,686 and are on track to break the previous record set in 2014 with 8,899 arrests. Over the course of this year the number of detentions have escalated: 178 in January; 492 in February; 610 in March; 338 in April; 641 in May; 563 in June; 674 in July; 768 in August; 882 in September; 1,093 in October; and 1,447 in November. Political prisoners continue to be a reality in Cuba.

Despite the claim that there would be continued support for improved human rights and democratic reforms in Cuba the past year has demonstrated otherwise. Inviting the Castro regime to the VII Summit of the Americas in Panama in April of 2015, violated the democratic ideals of the summit. The dictatorship’s anti-democratic and violent nature was made evident during the Summit with Cuban nationals and U.S. citizens beaten up by state security and requiring hospitalization and summit events interrupted by acts of repudiation organized by the Castro regime. The U.S. government responses were low level pro-forma protests while President Obama met with Raul Castro as an equal.

The Administration’s new Cuba policy over the past year has compromised U.S. national security. First, commuting Gerardo Hernandez’s two life sentences; he was convicted for among other things conspiracy to murder three U.S. citizens and one resident of the U.S., and returning him to Cuba where he received a hero’s welcome in what was an immense propaganda victory for the Castro regime, sending a dangerous signal to those who would harm Americans.

Secondly, removing Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list on May 29, 2015 despite: 1) the Castro regime being caught smuggling heavy weapons and ammunition through Colombia on February 28, 2015. 2) Being linked to international drug trafficking along with its client state Venezuela as reported on January 27, 2015. 3) Being in violation of UN international sanctions to North Korea on July 15, 2013 when caught smuggling tons of weapons and ammunition including ballistic missile technology. Ignoring this will get more Americans killed and undermine U.S. interests.

Finally, having the US Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas meet with the Castro regime’s Interior Minister Major General Carlos Fernandez Gondin in what was officially described as a visit of collaboration and engagement sends worrisome signals that should concern those who care about national security. Gondin has a history of engaging in the mistreatment of opposition activists and has an agenda to undermine U.S. interests, legitimizing him with an official visit sends a terrible message.

We the undersigned are political prisoners who collectively have served 1,945 years in prison for resisting the Castro dictatorship and fighting for democracy in our homeland of Cuba. We are writing this letter out of a deep conviction that this new U.S. Cuba policy will not only harm Cuban aspirations for a free and democratic Cuba while worsening human rights there but also endanger American lives.

The letter is followed by the 126 names, and after each comes a number: the number of year’s they served in Castro’s gulag.

WaPo Editorial: A Warning to America From a Cuban Dissident

Saturday, December 19, 2015
From The Washington Post's Editorial Board:

A warning to America from a Cuban dissident

WHEN PRESIDENT Obama began the opening to Cuba a year ago, one of the arguments the White House advanced was that a full-fledged embassy in Havana would give U.S. diplomats more freedom to roam the island than was the case with the constricted “interests section” that existed earlier. The administration emphasized that expanded “people-to-people” contacts, including with Cuban dissidents and human rights activists, would be an important outcome of the thaw.

Antonio G. Rodiles, one of many Cubans who have suffered harassment, arrest and beatings for speaking out, heard those promises, but, in an interview at The Post this week, he expressed deep disappointment that it has not happened. Rather than more contact, he said, he has seen U.S. diplomats less than before and suggested the reason: The United States has made Raúl Castro and the Cuban regime its chief interlocutor. Concern about human rights, long a mainstay of U.S. policy toward Cuba, has been “sidelined,” he lamented. Cuba’s fractious opposition feels left out in the cold.

In the same week that Mr. Rodiles described this situation, Mr. Obama suggested in an interview with Yahoo News that he would go to Cuba before he leaves office only if he could “talk to everybody.” He added, “I’ve made very clear in my conversations directly with President Castro that we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba.” That’s a nice gesture, but it does not change the reality for most Cubans who live under Castro’s dictatorship.

Mr. Obama has counseled that change in Cuba will take time, and “normalization will be a long journey.” Certainly, both Raúl and Fidel Castro, who have ruled the island for a half-century, are in their twilight years. But Mr. Rodiles made the sobering argument that the Castro brothers are girding themselves against embarking upon Mr. Obama’s journey. They are preparing to perpetuate the regime by passing the baton of power to Raúl Castro’s son and son-in-law; they show no sign that their henchmen will stop using violence and coercion to repress free speech; and they keep a tight grip on the economy and society as a whole.

As it has before, Mr. Rodiles pointed out, the regime is also trying to play games with emigration, allowing a surge in order to put pressure on the United States. Mr. Rodiles said that the White House fails to understand the complexity of a power structure determined to exploit the gains from Mr. Obama’s opening for its own survival rather than acquiesce to changes that would loosen its grip.

Barriers are falling — the latest being a bilateral agreement announced Thursday for scheduled air service between the United States and Cuba — but these incremental steps should not be mistaken for the arrival of freedom in Cuba. The Castros will not give an inch if they can avoid it. The real challenge for Mr. Obama is to cause change, and not just enrich and empower those who would stymie it.

Menendez: Path to Cuban Liberty Farther Away Today Than 365 Days Ago

Menendez on 1st Anniversary of Cuba Engagement Announcement

The Cuban path to liberty is undoubtedly farther away today than 365 days ago.”

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) issued the following statement on yesterday’s one-year anniversary of  the Obama Administration’s Cuba engagement policy announcement:

One year ago the President announced sweeping changes to America’s strategic approach to the Castro Regime. In broad strokes, we learned of the forthcoming reestablishment of diplomatic relations – an exchange of symbols with the American flag flying over a United States Embassy in Havana and the Cuban flag flying over a Cuban Embassy in Washington; we learned about a general outline of the process by which Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism would be lifted; and, we learned about the forthcoming transformative effects of a unilateral easing of sanctions to increase travel, commerce, currency, and the flow of information to and from that beautiful island.

For those of us who understand this regime, we cautioned for nuance, and against those broad strokes. At least require the Castros to make certain concessions, which would be as good for U.S. national interests as for U.S.-Cuban relations: Push for changes that put Cubans in control of their own political processes, economic incubators, civil society and governance. Push for changes that honor America’s legacy as a champion for human rights. Push for changes that would ultimately bring Cuba into the community of nations, contributing to – rather than detracting from – a more prosperous hemisphere.

But, most importantly, remember that it is a lack of resources – not a change of heart – that has slowed the Castros’ adventurism and instability-inducing support for those who would pose threats to our national interests.  Think strategically.

Instead, we traded strategy for tactics. Opening channels of communication means nothing unless we are going to communicate our values, champion the material changes that the Cuban people seek, and speak in the language that the Castros understand – the communist revolution has failed miserably, it’s time to step down. The Castros know it, but it’s the antiquated hallmark of the revolution and the iron-fisted rule that came from it that keeps them in power. And, until that’s truly challenged, we can expect to witness the weakening of our leverage.

Indeed, the regime is already breathing new life into its repressive state systems: Since the President’s announcement one year ago, Cubans have been beaten, arrested, and repressed at higher rates than ever before; U.S. fugitives and members of foreign terrorist organizations still enjoy safe harbor on the island; not a penny of the $6 billion in outstanding claims by American citizens and businesses for properties confiscated by the Castros has been repaid; unrelenting censorship and oppression of Cuban journalists continues unscathed; and the Cuban path to liberty is undoubtedly farther away today than 365 days ago.

As predicted, this one-sided deal was a win for the Cuban regime and a loss for the Cuban people. We have witnessed how the regulatory changes announced last year not only circumvented the intent and spirit of U.S. law, they financially emboldened the Cuban government. To date, the Obama administration has spared no generosity in commuting the jail sentences of Cuban spies, easing travel and trade bans, removing Cuba from the states sponsors of terrorism list, indefensibly upgrading its ranking in the trafficking-in-persons report despite its continued slave labor and human trafficking practices, and even acquiescing to shun dissidents from attending the U.S. Embassy's flag-raising ceremony in Havana.

All of this against a backdrop of continued deceit, repression, and violence and not a single iota of reciprocity by Raul Castro towards the restoration of democracy in Cuba.

I stand with thousands of Cuba’s civil society leaders, dissidents, journalists, and everyday men and women who long for the day when the freedom we enjoy in our great country extends to theirs. As long as I have a voice, they will have an ally to speak truth to power against this dictatorship, and against any effort to legitimize it or reward it. We must realize the nature of the Castro regime won't be altered by capitulating on our demands for basic human and civil rights. The trajectory of our policy is unacceptable and I continue to urge President Obama to correct its course. If the United States is to give away its leverage, it should be in exchange for one thing, and one thing only, a true transition in Cuba.

Obama's Cuba and Iran Deals Provide Regime Continuity

By Aaaron David Miller in The Wall Street Journal:

In Cuba and Iran, Change Is Slower Than Obama Would Like

Heading into 2016, it looks like there’s going to be far more continuity in how Iran and Cuba deal with the U.S., and vice versa, than some might have hoped after President Barack Obama’s outreach to their authoritarian regimes.

The changes with Iran and Cuba are at best transactions, not transformation. Relations between the U.S., Iran, and Cuba had reached rock bottom after years of inertia, suspicion, mistrust, and conflicting interests. What’s been set into motion in each case is an incremental and gradual process that tests the possibility of big time changes over time. When Mr. Obama told Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen that she needed to give the process time to work, he was making a virtue out of a necessity. President Obama will be long gone from the White House by the time there is empirical evidence that the payoff on Cuba–concrete and sustainable benefits for the Cuban people or changes in how the island is governed–has come to fruition. A Republican presidential win in 2016 would further constrain and delay prospects for dramatic change.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone in the Obama administration believed that the opening to Iran and Cuba would directly affect and influence the behavior of hard-line elites who have benefited from the closed system they created; or that people-to-people interaction–the “bottom-up approach”–might pay early or meaningful dividends. “It was just pure fantasy to think … that the United States could directly shape the nature of the Cuban political system,” Julia E. Sweig, a Cuba specialist at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, recently told the New York Times. It’s an open question whether, as the administration hopes, it is possible to open up more space for Cubans by promoting greater commercial activity. There is a danger that the administration’s goal of using the new opening to raise public expectations in Cuba could backfire as change comes too slowly and there is little means to pressure a repressive system to accelerate it.

Whatever hope there was that somehow the nuclear accord with Iran would create an opening for U.S. relations with Iran has been exposed for the fallacy it has always been. Mr. Obama got what he wanted out of the deal: a slower, smaller, more easily monitored Iran nuclear program for a limited time. But the Iranians got more: In exchange for a nuclear weapon they don’t possess–one that U.S. intelligence suggests they haven’t yet made a decision to develop–they are getting out from under many international sanctions, with billions to help their leaders co-opt public dissent, fuel their regional ambitions, and still maintain a large enough nuclear infrastructure should they want to weaponize in 10 to 15 years. When it comes to change, the nuclear agreement has accelerated hard-liners’ determination to avoid any process that allows the deal to facilitate improved U.S.-Iranian ties. Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian has been sitting in Evin prison for more than 500 days; Iran’s human rights record remains among the worst in the world.

The track record for highly ideological states changing quickly or easily is poor. China, Vietnam, and the former Soviet Union are examples of states where tight control can be maintained even while economic openness and greater contact with the outside world can be promoted and outreach calibrated to co-opt public dissatisfaction and still satisfy the leaders and elites who benefit from highly centralized control. Cuba and Iran are not the same, and each process the Obama administration has set into motion will play out differently. But chances are that we’re not in for a virtuous or quick cycle that’s going to transform relations with the U.S. or the political system in either country. More likely is that politics in the U.S., Tehran, and Havana are going to create a painstakingly tortuous cycle of fits and starts that will continue to expose Mr. Obama to charges that in each case he gave a lot more than he got.

One Year After Rapprochement, Cuba is No Freer

Friday, December 18, 2015
By Charles Lane in The Washington Post:

One year after rapprochement, Cuba is no freer

Much has changed in Cuba since President Obama and the island’s dictator, Raúl Castro, announced their rapprochement a year ago.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed into Cuban government coffers, due to more U.S. tourism and remittances. Havana has negotiated a generous U.S.-tolerated debt restructuring with Western creditors. You can’t walk down the street in Havana, it seems, without bumping into a would-be U.S. investor. And, of course, the stars and stripes wave over a reopened U.S. Embassy in Havana.

When it comes to the elementary freedoms that the Castro regime has denied its people since 1959, though, results are scant.

“This year has been a bad year for us,” democratic activist Antonio G. Rodiles told Post editors Tuesday. Rodiles cited a “huge increase in arbitrary arrests,” as well as his own savage beating by regime thugs in July.

“Raúl Castro has been legitimized and recognized by the majority of the governments of the planet, and played a leading part in a Summit of the Americas, amid flashing cameras and meetings with Barack Obama,” writes independent blogger Yoani Sánchez. “Inside the country, he has not wanted to give even the slightest recognition to his critics, against whom he has continued arrests, mob actions and painful character assassination.”

As for freer telecommunications, there are a few new open-air WiFi hotspots, exorbitantly priced and officially monitored, Sánchez notes. Meanwhile, Washington trumpets a deal to restore snail-mail service between the United States and Cuba — on a date to be announced.

This is what happens when a magical-thinking president runs up against a communist octogenarian who inherited Cuba from his brother Fidel — and aspires to pass it on to his son, the current intelligence chief, and son-in-law, the tourism industry boss.

“Our central premise,” Obama explained to Yahoo News this week, “has always been for a small country 90 miles off the shores of Miami, that if they are suddenly exposed to the world and America and opened up to our information and our culture and our visitors and our businesses, invariably they are going to change.”

If Obama can figure that out, so can Castro; the dictator has every incentive to limit U.S.-Cuban interactions to those he can contain and control, which is what he has done so far. (By the way, Havana is 229 miles from Miami.) When Yahoo News asked Obama to list “concessions” Castro had made, the president couldn’t name one.

Obama wants Congress to lift the rest of the embargo, in part to eliminate one of Castro’s last propaganda excuses. Anticipating that, Castro has declared that, even if the embargo ends, “normalization” as he defines it would hinge on more U.S. concessions, including a handover of the naval base at Guatanamo Bay.

U.S. engagement probably won’t “work” in Cuba any more than isolation did; and Cuba is not analogous to China, to which it’s often compared.

There was no real alternative to trade and engagement with a geopolitical giant such as China, human rights notwithstanding. Tiny, impoverished Cuba offers no strategic compensation for legitimizing its dictatorship through business as usual — not even the agreement to protect whitetip sharks and other marine life Washington and Havana so excitedly unveiled.

We could have let the regime stew in its repressive juices, or presented it a “road map” linking changes in U.S. policy to irreversible democratic reforms in Cuba. Let Havana explain why denying free elections for 57 years — 57! — matters more than trade.

Belatedly, Obama is injecting a note of conditionality, telling Yahoo News that he won’t visit the island in 2016 unless he’s free to meet dissidents.

That would be a welcome contrast to Pope Francis’s itinerary, which included a sit-down with the ancient Fidel Castro, but not with dissidents — some of whom were arrested in front of the pontiff.

We’ll see how hard a bargain Obama drives. Would he demand a meeting with Rodiles, who’s among the activists Raúl Castro dislikes most — yet who says U.S. diplomats have snubbed him since the embassy reopened?

Would Obama insist on a live TV speech, as former president Jimmy Carter did in 2002? Or would he settle for a closed-door sit-down with two activists, like the one he held at the Summit of the Americas — and that he cited to Yahoo News as a “precedent.”

Meanwhile, 45,000 Cubans fled the island for the United States this year, partly due to rumors of more restrictive U.S. immigration policies, partly because of what Sánchez calls the “conditioned reflex to escape a hopeless existence.”

“Our original theory on this was not that we were going to see immediate changes or loosening of the control of the Castro regime, but rather that, over time, you’d lay the predicates for substantial transformation,” Obama told Yahoo News.

He has all the time in the world to try his theory — before leaving office a year from now. Cubans are tired of waiting.