Chairman Royce and Ranking Member Engel: Release Names of 53 Cuban Political Prisoners

Friday, January 9, 2015
Royce, Engel Call on Kerry to Publicly Name 53 Cuban Political Prisoners

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Committee’s Ranking Member, have sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry requesting he publicly release the names and current status of the 53 Cuban political prisoners Havana committed to releasing during talks to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba.

After sending the letter, Chairman Royce said: “The Castro regime's continuing crackdown on political dissidents makes basic transparency about these 53 individuals critical.  Who are they?  When will they be released? For those released, are they being surveilled and intimidated by the regime? To truly advance the human rights agenda; these are basic questions that should be publicly answered. Why the secrecy?

After sending the letter, Ranking Member Engel said: “Normalizing relations with Cuba cannot be a one-way street.  We need to see real changes from the Castro regime, and human rights need to be at the center of those reforms.  More transparency about the release of these prisoners would provide assurances that Havana is living up to its end of the bargain.

The text of the letter follows:

January 8, 2015

The Honorable John F. Kerry
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Mr. Secretary:

We are writing to request that you publicly release the names and current status of the 53 Cuban political prisoners Havana committed to releasing during talks to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba. We believe this would allow the American and Cuban people to gauge the Castro regime’s commitment to universal human rights standards.

As you know, Cuba has long used politically motivated arrest, imprisonment, and intimidation to restrict political activity and free speech. Despite Cuba’s announced commitment to release these individuals, their status remains shrouded in secrecy. Adding to our concerns, it appears that politically motivated arrests have continued, with as many as 50 arrests made since President Obama’s December 17th announcement of his intention to normalize relations with Cuba. As recently as December 30th, Cuba detained several free speech activists before a planned rally in Havana.

Given this ongoing crackdown, it is our concern the Castro regime will either continue to detain individuals it agreed to release or will re-arrest those it has released. Publicly releasing these names would allow Congress, as well as the American and Cuban people, an important means of evaluating Cuba’s commitment to human rights. We think you will agree that the United States-Cuba relationship cannot near its considerable potential until the fundamental human rights of the Cuban people are respected by their government.

Sincerely,

EDWARD R. ROYCE
Chairman

ELIOT L. ENGEL
Ranking Member

Free the (Forgotten) Cuban Five

From Cuba Archive:

Free the (Forgotten) Cuban Five

Last December 17th, President Obama announced the release of the three remaining convicted five Cuban spies and the intention to normalize relations with the Castro military dictatorship with no human rights conditions on the agenda. Cuba had purportedly committed to free 53 political prisoners. The White House has refused to make the list of prisoners public concerned that “publicizing it would make it more difficult to ensure that Cuba follows through…,” although some have reportedly already been released. The secret list should include all persons jailed for exit attempts in which no undue violence was exerted, considered “illegal” by the Cuban regime. In particular, we hope for the release of five men wasting away in dreadful dungeons since 2003 for a hastily planned and foiled hijacking attempt to flee Cuba for the United States. Although they took over a passenger ferry for several hours, they employed no violence and no one was hurt. Cuba considers their deed a "very grave act of terrorism" and has rejected requests for clemency.

Harold Alcalá Aramburo, age 35, Yoanny Thomas González, age 36, Maikel Delgado Aramburo, age 40, and Ramón Henry Grillo, age 40,  are serving the 13th year of life sentences. Just in their twenties when the incident took place, they are held at Combinado del Este prison of Havana in diminutive and hermetically-sealed cells allowing almost no movement. Walking and stretching their legs is only permitted during 2-hour family visits every 45 days; their allotted 25-minute weekly phone calls are regularly reduced to just 10 minutes. Harold in particular is in very ill health, suffering from pancreatitis, chronic dermatitis, a kidney ailment, and a heart condition; he is only able to eat fruit. Wilmer Ledea Pérez, was only 19 when sentenced to 30 years; recently moved to a work camp, he is now allowed 5-day home passes every 25 days.

​The three masterminds of the escape plan, Enrique Copello Castillo, age 23, Bárbaro Leodan Sevilla García, age 22, and Jorge Luis Martínez Isaac, age 40, were executed by firing squad April 11th 2003. Their death sentences were delivered just five days after the incident. Two days later —without warning or farewells with loved ones— they were taken from their cells in the early morning hours and executed. Their families received a 6AM call to go to the cemetery; when they arrived, they had already been buried. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights detailed the extreme lack of due process and denounced the “arbitrary deprivation of life.”  Many governments and world leaders strongly condemned the atrocity.

Seeing no prospects for a decent life in their country, many Cubans are desperate to leave. But, article 215 of the Penal Code forbids citizens from leaving without government permission. Even helping those planning to escape implies years of prison and stealing property in the process is punishable with death (since most property is in state hands, vessels must be stolen). Cuba Archive has documented the following toll in exit attempts from Communist Cuba: 14 executions, 9 forced disappearances, 62 extrajudicial killings, 6 killed by mines, and 977 drowned, killed, or missing in escapes by sea or air. Thousands more deaths are estimated that are not properly documented.

The international community must hold Cuba accountable for its persistent and egregious human rights’ violations and demand the abrogation of all laws and practices that institutionalize repression and require international monitoring of the prisons. Over the course of decades, prisoners have been released to satisfy certain timely international demands, but soon more are incarcerated. On this 57th year of the Castro dictatorship, countless thousands languish in prison for “crimes” unique to totalitarian regimes: photographing a raid on peaceful dissidents, distributing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or seeking to escape the country. Many economic activities are considered “crimes” —including killing one’s own cow to feed the family— and hundreds serve prison for just the presumed propensity to commit acts against the socialist order (“pre-criminal “dangerousness”). A few “prisoners of conscience” and “political prisoners” get minimal international public attention, but the vast majority is entirely forgotten by the outside world although their incarceration is a direct result of political oppression. Cuba’s huge prison population endures abhorrent conditions and a multitude of abuses regardless of cause of captivity. Devastating medical conditions and alarming rates of self-mutilation, suicide, deaths from lack of medical care, and extrajudicial killings are the order of the day. See accounts on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ page here.

Sun-Sentinel Editorial: Pull Plug on Cuban Criminal Pipeline

From Sun Sentinel's Editorial Board:

Seal legal pipeline that lures Cuban criminals

We know the vast majority of Cubans who've immigrated here to escape a dictatorship are honest people who make enormous daily contributions to our community, economy and culture.

But a sliver of new arrivals are not here to flee political persecution. Rather, they are here to make money in the drug trade, or to rip off Medicare, retailers, auto insurance companies, banks and credit card companies.

However, until this week's groundbreaking analysis by the Sun Sentinel, never has anyone documented the jaw-dropping amount of crime being committed by this segment of immigrants, some of whom treat our nation's unique Cuban immigration policy as an invitation to steal.

Now that we know, we call upon South Florida's congressional delegation to plug the criminal pipeline that has cost American businesses and taxpayers more than $2 billion over the past two decades.

For let there be no doubt. Some of the Cuban natives now washing ashore are not political refugees. They are crooks. And they're costing us all a lot of money.

Among the startling details revealed in the Sun Sentinel's investigation: 41 percent of the people arrested for health care fraud nationwide since 2000 were born in Cuba. Think about that. Forty-one percent of health care fraud comes from a demographic that constitutes less than 1 percent of our population. The next largest group is people born in the U.S., at 29 percent of arrests, followed by Nigerians and Russians, at 3 percent each. The rest involves a hodgepodge of 70-some countries.

It's not just health care fraud, either. It's auto insurance fraud, where new recruits stage car accidents, visit friendly clinics and submit no-fault claims that keep South Florida auto insurance premiums among the highest in the nation.

It's also the theft of cargo from retailers, warehouses and tractor trailers; money from banks; and marijuana grow houses.

Again, let's be clear. The vast majority of Cubans who immigrate here are law-abiding folks who contribute positively to our community.

But many of those arriving today are coming for economic and family reasons, not because they were about to be thrown in jail for their politics. That helps explains why, since President Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, there's been a surge in rafters. They undoubtedly fear our nation will change the wet-foot/dry-foot policy that allows most any Cuban who reaches American soil to stay, no matter what.

Can you blame them? Can you imagine trying to make ends meet in a country where the average salary is about $20 per month? To survive, it's widely accepted that people will pilfer small goods from their government jobs to trade on the black market. But our liberal immigration law is not crafted to handle those who come here and steal.

Indeed, because criminal sentences are so lenient for first-time offenders, our reporters found that for some, the lure of millions is worth the risk of a couple years in jail.

Last month, as our reporters were uncovering the schemes and analyzing the data, an enormous opportunity presented itself when President Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.

While many, many details remain to be addressed, the president's move opens a window for fixing — if not repealing — the Cuban Adjustment Act and its unintended consequences.

Without question, Cubans who face political or religious persecution, like those from other countries, deserve safe harbor here, as has long been our nation's policy. But when it comes to immigrants seeking better economic opportunities, is it fair to continue to treat Cubans differently than those from other countries?

At a minimum, as negotiations with Cuba begin, the State Department should insist that known criminals on the island be returned to the United States for prosecution, that any stolen money be returned and that Cuban criminals imprisoned here be accepted back after they've served their time.

And as members of Congress schedule hearings on the president's approach, let them also demand testimony on the criminal pipeline enabled by today's policy.

U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart are reasonable, respected leaders on foreign policy. They know the law needs to be changed. Reportedly, Sen. Marco Rubio understands the need, too, though he has not yet made himself available to discuss it.

It's tricky business to try to normalize relations with a dictatorship you don't trust. Change will take years, not months.

But given what we now know, let our diplomats place the criminal aspects at center stage as the dialogue begins.

With a window now open, we call on Congress to pull the plug on the Cuban criminal pipeline.

Plundering America: The Cuban Criminal Pipeline

Thursday, January 8, 2015
The Sun-Sentinel has published its year-long investigation into how Cuban criminal networks, facilitated by the Castro regime, abuse the humanitarian loopholes in U.S. law.

It's a must-read.

Click here to read the entire three-part series entitled, "Plundering America: The Cuban Criminal Pipeline."

WaPo Editorial: Why Obama's Secrecy on Cuban Political Prisoners?

From The Washington Post's Editorial Board:

Three weeks after Cuba accord, why haven’t more political prisoners been freed?

In announcing the normalization of relations with Cuba last month, President Obama violated two pledges he had made: to link such a liberalization to “significant steps toward democracy,” including the freeing of all political prisoners; and to consult with Cuban civil society, including pro-democracy activists, on the change. In what looked at the time like a partial recompense, the White House announced that the Castro regime had agreed to free 53 detainees — or about half the number of political prisoners identified by Cuban human rights activists.

Now it’s becoming clear that Mr. Obama chose not to make even that half-step a condition for the broad relaxation of travel and economic restrictions he is granting to Havana along with the normalization of relations. As of Wednesday, three weeks after the U.S.-Cuba accord, Cuban human rights activists had reported only five released prisoners. On Thursday, Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez tweeted that the number had risen to 26. Meanwhile, however, the State Department was emphasizing that steps toward normalization — including the highest-level visit by a U.S. official to Cuba in a half-century — will go forward this month whether the promised prisoner release is completed or not.

The administration’s priority, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said this week, is the “direct dialogue” Mr. Obama believes will lead to better conditions in Cuba. “We’re not waiting to make progress on the other components,” she said.

Whether the regime fully delivers on its prisoner pledge may never be known. That’s because the Obama administration refuses to release the list of detainees it says it gave to Cuba or to provide its own accounting of how many have been freed. The Castro government has been equally opaque. While that’s a familiar response from a totalitarian regime, the administration’s stonewalling is harder to understand. Ms. Psaki offered the explanation that “we’re not looking to put a bigger target on Cuban political dissidents.” Yet the activists the State Department refuses to identify are already in prison; naming them could not make them targets, but it might ensure that they are freed as promised.

As we have said, we would favor a conditions-based engagement strategy to achieve Mr. Obama’s aim to “empower Cuban citizens to give them greater ability to promote positive change going forward,” as Ms. Psaki put it. But it doesn’t seem that Mr. Obama used America’s available leverage toward that end, and the results so far are the opposite. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a dissident group, reported that repression by the regime increased in December. It said at least 489 people were arrested for political reasons, including at least 70 who attempted to peacefully gather in a Havana park to talk about their hopes for the future. It recorded three new political prisoners, including the artist Danilo Maldonado, who was arrested in late December when he tried to stage a performance with two pigs he named “Raúl” and “Fidel.”

Were any of those latest detainees among those whose freedom was promised? Their families can’t know because the White House refuses to say. If they are on the list and the regime reneges on its commitment, the Obama administration won’t have to acknowledge it was cheated — and the normalization will go forward. Could that be the real reason for the secrecy?

Quote of the Day: Prisoner Releases as a Smokescreen

Prisoner releases will be no more than a smokescreen if they are not accompanied by expanded space for the free and peaceful expression of all opinions and other freedoms in Cuba.
-- Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International, 1/8/14

Important Points on Obama's Bad Cuba Deal

In a story on whether U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was kept in the dark about The White House's negotiations with the Castro regime, U.S. Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) make some very important points.

From Fox News:

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Cuban-American lawmaker who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and has been fiercely critical of the policy shift – arguing that the U.S. failed to extract significant concessions from the Castro regime on its abysmal human rights record – told Fox News the furtive means employed in the Cuba talks helped to produce what he sees as an unsatisfactory outcome.

“It wasn’t State Department officials, it wasn’t [Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs] Roberta Jacobson or John Kerry, it was NSC officials,” Rubio said. “You sent unqualified people to negotiate with hardened, brutal spies and representatives of tyrants... It was negotiated at a secretive level involving agencies under the complete control of the White House, as a political move… And that mismatch is apparent in this sort of deal that was made.”

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., also Cuban-American and until recently the chair of the Foreign Relations committee – and also a vocal critic of the policy shift – bristled at being kept in the dark about the NSC’s “clandestine” talks with Cuban officials. “Whenever I pursued [the subject], either in individual conversation or in questions before the full committee, no one alluded that there were any conversations going on with the Castro regime,” Menendez told Fox News this week.

“One would begin to wonder to what degree the State Department was engaged in all this. Certainly, as someone who is going to continue to have a leadership role on the committee on Senate Foreign Relations, it's going to create a doubt in my mind when State Department witnesses come before the committee. Are they either telling us the entire truth, or are they just shunned out of the process by the White House? Either way, it's going to create some real concerns (over) the veracity of what we're hearing in testimony, as we move forward.”

Did The White House Really Say That (About Cuba's Political Prisoners)?

Asked about The White House's insistence on keeping secret the identities of 53 Cuban political prisoners, who General Castro promised President Obama he'd release, Press Secretary Josh Earnest answered:

"[W]e’re not in a position to talk about specific numbers, and the reason for that is simply that we’ve been careful about talking about the number of prisoners and who they are because we don’t want to put an even bigger target on their back as political dissidents."

Put "an even bigger target on their back"?

They're in prison, for God's sake.

Moreover, they have courageously -- and publicly -- challenged Cuba's totalitarian dictatorship.

It's by keeping their numbers and identities secret that the Castro regime is empowered to do with them as it pleases.

History's most renowned political prisoners -- from Nelson Mandela, to Vaclav Havel, to Natan Sharansky -- have all agreed that the way to empower and protect imprisoned activist is by shining a light on them.

For decades the Castro regime has used the revolving-door of its political prisons to extract concessions from foreign leaders. Obviously, bad habits die hard -- both for the Castro regime and the foreign leaders that embolden its coercion.

However, from the 3,600 political prisoners that Castro released to President Carter in 1978 to the release of the Black Spring's 75 in 2010, their identities have never been kept secret.

(As an aside, after the release of the Black Spring's 75 in 2010, a favorite talking point of anti-sanctions lobbyists, including a Harvard academic, was that there weren't any more political prisoners in Cuba. A lie that has clearly been unmasked.)

Since President Obama's December 17th announcement, five political prisoners have (yesterday) been released -- Diango Vargas Martin, Bianko Vargas Martin, Enrique Figuerola Miranda, Ernesto Riveri Gascon and Lazaro Romero Hurtado -- all activists from the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU), whose sentences were almost complete.

That's good news.

However, nearly 100 short-term political arrests have also taken place since December 17th, while two appear headed for longer sentences -- Cuban artist Danilo Maldonado ("El Sexto") and Sonia de la Caridad Gonzalez Mejias.

(Not to mention the 13,000 political arrests that took place during the Obama-Castro secret negotiations.)

Also, yesterday, Daniel Moreno de la Pena, was sentenced to eight months of hard labor.

Thus, as Castro clearly prepares for his next coercion, the questions remains: Will the releases catch up to the arrests?

(Note that all five political prisoners released pursuant to Obama's deal, thus far, were arrested after the release of the Black Spring's 75 in 2010. Further proof of the revolving-door of Castro's prisons.)

Time will tell.

One thing is for sure -- the U.S.'s secrecy only benefits Castro.

Must-Read: Obama’s Cuba Policy Lifts Dictatorship, Not Citizens

Wednesday, January 7, 2015
By Ellen Bork in World Affairs Journal:

Obama’s Cuba Policy Lifts Dictatorship, Not Citizens

The trade of Cuban spies for American aid worker Alan Gross and a Cuban intelligence agent working for the US was a trade worth making, but the rest of the deal announced on December 17th showed that President Obama is more interested in changing US policy than changing Cuba.

Havana has taken no steps toward elections or political freedoms for the country’s 11 million people. Even the White House claim that 53 political prisoners will be released is murky; Cuban human rights activists believe the number of actual political prisoners could be more than 100. Some have expressed bitter disappointment that the US would make such changes without getting concessions from the Castro regime, or consulting with Cuba’s democracy and human rights activists.

The White House has expressed concern about arrests and detentions that have taken place in the days after the president’s announcement, but apparently, in the president’s view, now it’s up to American tourists and businesses focusing on the new market to make the biggest impact on improving human rights.

It hasn’t worked in China, which the president cited as justification for his initiative. The US established diplomatic recognition with the People’s Republic of China in 1979 and formally abandoned trade leverage in relations 15 years ago, granting permanent normal trade relations. Then, too, the US decided that business and investment would work just as well or better than diplomatic or economic pressure. The Internet was supposed to run circles around the Communist Party and its repressive apparatus.

Yet the party remains entrenched, and now the human rights situation is getting worse. The Chinese leader, party General Secretary Xi Jinping, has intensified repression with hundreds of arrests. Limited moves toward political reform in the 1980s took place before, not after, China’s economic takeoff, and haven’t been advanced since.

Obama rejects a policy toward Cuba that is “rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.” He is referring to the Cold War, but that cuts both ways. President Nixon made the opening to China to find a counterweight to the Soviet Union. When that strategic rationale ended, the US failed to adjust its policy to fit the changed circumstances. At the moment when the US could have pushed harder for political change, in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and with a debate going on inside the regime between liberals and hard-liners, Washington continued with business as usual.

Obama’s own Burma policy should have given him pause on the issue of Cuba. America applied diplomatic and economic pressure there for decades. When glimmers of change appeared and the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and her party allowed to contest a small number of parliamentary seats, the Obama administration began to relieve America’s political and economic pressure on Burma. Taken with the prospect of a rare foreign policy success, Washington quickened the pace, establishing diplomatic ties, exchanging presidential visits, and lifting sanctions. Human rights advocates warned Washington had given up too much, too soon.

Just last month, Suu Kyi was asked by the BBC how reforms were going in Burma. “Not too well,” she replied. Among other things, the military-dominated Parliament is refusing to make the constitutional changes necessary for a free and fair national election in which Suu Kyi could compete this year. Of Burma’s supporters in the international community, she said, “They think that they’ll get a happy ending simply by insisting that it is a happy ending and that’s not how things happen.”

With the Castro brothers in their 80s, and a post–Hugo Chávez Venezuela weakened by the decline of oil prices, Obama seized precisely the wrong moment to pursue a nebulous “engagement” policy, based on an approach that has yet to show results for democracy anywhere else.

New Jersey Senate Resolution: "Profound Disagreement" With Obama's Cuba Deal

By a vote of 24-3, the New Jersey Senate passed the following resolution against President Obama's Cuba deal.

SENATE RESOLUTION No. 108
STATE OF NEW JERSEY
216th LEGISLATURE

A SENATE RESOLUTION expressing profound disagreement with the decision of the President of the United States to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba.

WHEREAS, On December 17, 2014, the President of the United States announced that this country would restore full diplomatic relations with the nation of Cuba after more than 50 years of unconcealed hostility; and

WHEREAS, Cuba has been under the crushing yoke of a brutal communist dictatorship since 1959, led first by Fidel Castro and more recently by his brother Raul; and

WHEREAS, The actions of the Castro brothers have resulted in the impoverishment of the Cuban people, and the complete and blatant disregard of human rights and democratic principles by the government of that Caribbean nation; and

WHEREAS, Cuba under the Castros has been an active and ominous threat to the vital interests of this nation and all peace-loving countries, as members of Cuba’s military and diplomatic corps have worked assiduously through the years to promote violent, anti-democratic revolutions in different parts of the world; and

WHEREAS, The diplomatic initiative announced by the President involved the release of U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross by Cuba after five years of detention due to the absurd and unfounded allegation of being a spy, and the release by the United States of three convicted Cuban spies linked to terroristic activities in this country; and

WHEREAS, Numerous respected public federal and State officials, both Democratic and Republican, have denounced this move by President Obama and believe strongly that it will do nothing to free the Cuban people from the poverty and injustice they have suffered for more than half a century and that it will only serve to support a tottering and bankrupt dictatorship; and

WHEREAS, Residents of New Jersey are very familiar with the viciousness of the Castro regime because the State has become the home of thousands of Cuban-born men and women who fled from a regime intent on stealing their property and putting them at the service of a brutal military government, and who know first-hand how the Castro brothers have destroyed the culture and economic vitality of their homeland; and

WHEREAS, It is fitting and proper for this House to express profound disagreement with the decision of the President of the United States to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba; now, therefore,

BE IT RESOLVED by the Senate of the State of New Jersey:

1. This House expresses profound disagreement with the decision of the President of the United States to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba.

2. Copies of this resolution, as filed with the Secretary of the Senate, shall be transmitted by the Secretary of the Senate to the President of the United States, the Majority Leader of the United States Senate, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and to every member of Congress elected thereto from this State.

Cuban Youth Leader: "U.S. Has Given Castro Regime New Fuel"

From Fox News Latino:

Cuban dissident: 'United States has given Castro regime a new source of fuel'

At 45, Rolando Rodriguez Lobaina doesn’t know what it’s like to live in freedom.

But he has spent nearly half his life fighting for it in his native Cuba, which became Communist long before he was born.

Shortly after he received his college degree in engineering in Havana in the early 1990’s, Rodriguez Lobaina started actively promoting human rights, and he has paid a heavy price for it– on and off, he has spent years in Cuba’s notorious jails for challenging the regimes of the Castro brothers, and for calling for democracy.

He is one of the many who remain skeptical about real change coming to Cuba in the near future, on the heels of the new relations with the United States.

“The Castro regime is all about strengthening itself, and the United States has given it a new source of fuel,” said Rodriguez Lobaina to Fox News Latino. “Anything that looks like a social change by Raul Castro will simply be theater, just for appearances before the international community.”

As Rodriguez Robaina tracks news of the piecemeal release of 53 political prisoners that was part of an agreement between Cuba and the United States to normalize relations, he thinks back to his numerous times in jail cells for statements and actions the Cuban government denounced as counter-revolutionary.

“The life of a political prisoner in Cuba is very difficult,” he told FNL in a telephone interview from where he is staying in Syracuse, New York during a month-long visit to the United States. “The government officials throw political opponents in with common, dangerous criminals and use the criminals to intimidate and snitch on dissidents and human rights activists. You feel that your life is in danger – deliberately – in these jails.”

Rodriguez Lobaina, who is from the province of Guantanamo, helped found several pro-democracy groups, including the Cuban Youth Movement for Democracy. He advocates for human rights through marches and social media.

In the mid-1990s, when he started taking part in pro-democracy events and helping to organize meetings of activists, he was arrested and jailed charged with such things as “public disorder” and counter-revolutionary activities.

He recalled how prisoners nearly starved.

“There wasn’t much to eat in general in Cuba, so imagine in prison, there was even less,” he said. “For breakfast, we’d get water with sugar in it. At night, at about midnight, we’d get two potatoes. And that was it.”

Many political prisoners around him fainted, some suffered fractures because they were too weak to handle a fall, he said.

To conserve energy, Rodriguez Lobaina simply remained in bed, where he read and slept.

“On such little food, it was extremely draining, so exhausting, to simply take a few steps,” he said.

Over the years, he continued getting arrested – or threatened with arrest – following pro-democracy meetings with other activists.

In 2010, he and his brother, Nestor, were among five dissidents who were arrested after they met to discuss the jailing of fellow activists and then stood on the balcony of their father’s home and held up a sign in support of their detained peers.

Rodriguez Lobaina recalled the so-called "act of repudiation" organized by the Cuban government, a common practice in which a mob of people from a neighborhood or village are encouraged by regime officials to harass an opponent of the government.

“They vandalized the home,” Rodriguez Lobaina said. “The mob threw rocks, bottles, they broke windows, they came inside and broke furniture. There was a pregnant woman in the house and little children, and the mob did all this anyway.”

The five endured freezing temperatures for several days in the jails, and were denied water for about four days, he said. They were held in separate jails.

The jailing drew the attention of several international human rights groups, which condemned the men’s arrest and detention.

After a month, they were released without being charged.

When he was jailed, he often was denied visits from relatives, and sometimes was held far away from anyone he knows.

“Political prisoners in Cuba have far less rights than criminals,” he said. “Cuba’s political police make sure your family is taunted, watched, you’re held up as an example to others in your village or in the dissident community about what happens when you speak out against oppression or for human rights.”

“It’s hard, when you’re sitting in a cell, to accept that you’re behind bars, that you’re caged, simply because of your ideas and values.”

Rodriguez Lobaina, who arrived in the United States in December and is to return to Cuba, where his wife and two young children live, at the end of January, said that repression persists in Cuba under President Raul Castro. Raul Castro assumed power after his brother Fidel fell ill.

“Repression takes different forms in Cuba, it goes through various incarnations, but it remains repression nonetheless,” he said. “Prison terms used to be longer for political opponents, now they are shorter but there are more of them.”

Obama Sanctions North Korea's Arms Dealers, Rewards Cuba's

Last week, President Obama sanctioned North Korea's regime for launching a cyber-attack against a Hollywood studio.

The sanctions target three North Korean entities -- Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID) and Korea Tangun Trading Corporation -- which are responsible for the Kim regime's illicit arms trade.

However, just two weeks before, it rewarded North Korea's largest-ever caught arms supplier -- Cuba's Castro regime.

For those who may not remember -- or like to obviate the facts -- in July 2013, the Castro regime was caught red-handed smuggling 240 tons of heavy weaponry to North Korea's regime through the Panama Canal. Many similar undetected shipments are suspected.

This arms shipment, which was found to be in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, is the largest cache to (or from) North Korea ever intercepted.

Moreover, it was the first time in modern history that a nation in the Western Hemisphere was found in violation of international sanctions.

Yet, the Castro regime got away scot-free.  

We now know that while such illicit trafficking was taking place, the Obama Administration was making secret entreaties to the Castro regime.  No wonder it (irresponsibly) turned a blind-eye.

Surely, hacking a Hollywood studio is sanctions-worthy.  But so is trafficking 240 tons of illegal weapons through the Panama Canal, including fueled MiG fighter jets -- also in violation every shipping safety norm -- which could have caused a massive disruption to global commerce.

At the time, it was described as an affront to "global security" by Vice-President Joe Biden.

Despite this, the Obama Administration is now rewarding the same Cuban military entities (a conglomerate known as GAESA), which were responsible for smuggling arms to North Korea.

These Cuban military entities are the owners of Cuba's hospitality industry, and as Hotels Magazine recently documented -- are the largest Latin American tourism conglomerate.

They are the overwhelming beneficiaries of every American "people-to-people" traveler that goes to Cuba.

These American travelers all stay at GAESA's five-star hotels, dine at their restaurants and party at their nightclubs.

Yet, rather than getting sanctioned (like their North Korean partners) -- they will be sent more customers by President Obama.

Yes, Cuba Is a State Sponsor of Terror

Tuesday, January 6, 2015
By Yleem Poblete & Jason I. Poblete in National Review:

Yes, Cuba Is a State Sponsor of Terror

The most senior U.S. delegation in decades will soon be in Havana to engage a declared enemy of the United States in discussions about “normalizing” relations. Covering much more subject matter than routine migration issues, these meetings stem in large measure from the December 17 return of spies to Cuba who are responsible for American deaths.

Obama sent three Cuban spies back to the island, trading them for the release of American Alan Gross. Mr. Gross had been held hostage for five years for the “crime” of teaching Jewish Cubans how to connect to the Internet. As part of this lopsided deal, the Obama administration also declared American policy a failure and offered a large basket of potential economic and diplomatic benefits.

This was a significant ideological and political victory for the Communist regime. And there are more rewards in the offing. Administration officials are reportedly considering removing Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism — a request Raul Castro made in May 2014 and one that the Cuban regime has made many times in recent years. Under Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act, a country’s designation as supporting acts of international terrorism may be rescinded in only two ways. Cuba is not ready to come off that list. Quite the opposite.

In the first instance, the President must certify to the Congress that there has been a fundamental change in the leadership and policies of the government in question, as was the case with Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein. There is no legitimate way that administration officials can make such a claim with respect to Cuba. Moreover, the criteria for determining such a systemic transformation is clearly defined in the LIBERTAD Act, known as the Helms-Burton law. For starters, as stated in the law, Fidel and Raul Castro cannot be part of the governing structure.

That leaves only the second option for removal from the list. To remove Cuba’s terrorism designation, the president would need to submit a report to Congress, 45 days prior to the proposed removal, certifying that 1) the regime has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six months and 2) the government has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future. Most would agree that Cuba fails on both counts.

Cuba has supported and provided safe haven to members of the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Both are U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). The Obama administration would therefore need to remove ETA and FARC from the FTO list, before removing Cuba from the state-sponsors-of-terrorism list. Both actions are untenable at this time. Unless Spain’s foreign-policy establishment is about to make a radical shift in thinking, ETA remains a terrorist organization and there are ETA sympathizers in Cuba who are wanted for terrible crimes against the Spanish people. As for FARC, despite the faux peace process in Havana the past few months, it continues to carry out violent acts in Colombia, has no plans to lay down arms anytime soon, and has links to al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The “April 2014 State Department Country Reports on Terrorism,” however, implied that the only role the Castro regime had with FARC was facilitating travel for the “peace talks” between these terrorists and the Colombian government. It further stated that the ETA presence in Cuba is diminished. It would appear that a kinder-and-gentler Cuba narrative is being written to accommodate a preconceived policy outcome.

Administration officials have reportedly spent the last two years creating a foundation for Obama’s Cuba announcement on December 17 — all the while denying any such activity when asked by Congress about related news reports. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it closely parallels the script used in the negotiations leading to the release of five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl.

The State Department terrorism report also makes references beyond ETA and FARC — most significantly that Cuba harbors several fugitives of U.S. justice. Terrorists, murderers, and other violent criminals are being protected, well fed, and supported by the Communist regime. Among these is a woman convicted of first-degree murder, Joanne Chesimard. Also known as Assata Shakur, she is on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list for executing a New Jersey State Police trooper. With the help of the Black Liberation Army, she broke out of prison and found refuge in Cuba. According to the FBI, Chesimard “continues to profess her radical anti-U.S. government ideology.” New Jersey governor Chris Christie said recently that he wants her back in New Jersey. He’ll be waiting a long time.

Basing the decision to remove Cuba from the state-sponsors-of-terrorism list solely on these above-referenced examples (there is probably a great deal more in classified form), the president would need to prove that for the six months prior to the proposed rescission, the Cuban dictatorship did not provide any assistance to terrorists and had unconditionally returned U.S. fugitives. But Communist-party officials have already stated publicly that Cuba considers Chesimard a political asylee and, as such, not to be released into U.S. custody.

The president would also have to accept as credible the “assurances” from the Havana regime that it would not provide support in the future for international terrorism — a difficult task given intelligence gaps highlighted in the State Department’s terrorism report. The pertinent section states: “There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups,” but it provides no further data or analysis on these activities. It also fails to address the relationship and cooperation between Cuba and other state sponsors of terrorism such as Iran, or other entities listed on the FTO List.

And then there is the question of intelligence tainted and manipulated by Americans spying for the Cuban regime. One of the most notorious of these traitors, Ana Belen Montes, used her position at the Defense Intelligence Agency to provide Cuban handlers copious amounts of highly sensitive data, including military contingency plans, details of intelligence-gathering efforts, and profiles of a broad spectrum of U.S. officials.

Congress must therefore require a comprehensive appraisal of the range of Cuba’s activities against the U.S. and its interests and priorities before the White House can make any decision on whether Cuba will remain on the terrorism list. The review must cover no less than a 20-year period and include a fresh appraisal of all available raw data used in the Clinton-era Pentagon assessment spearheaded by Montes. The review should include detailed intelligence and analysis of unconventional threats and programs that have dual-use application, such as Cuba’s biotech capabilities.

The congressional national-security and judiciary committees must be given full access to all files pertaining to the WASP spy network, including data related to the 1996 Brothers to the Rescue shoot-down, as well as damage assessments for all Americans and non-Americans convicted of spying for the Cuban regime.

However, if President Obama chooses to proceed irrespective of the aforementioned conditions and determines that Cuba should be removed from the state-sponsors-of-terrorism list, Congress would have only 45 days from the submission date to evaluate the rescission proposal and act accordingly.

Members of the House and Senate must therefore be proactive in countering the executive action outlined on December 17 and in preventing further damage. Failure to do so would make Congress complicit in the administration’s acquiescence to Cuba’s Communist regime; it would undermine American interests and reinforce a message of weakness to other enemies of freedom and security.

As With North Korea, Removing Cuba From Terrorism List Would be Mistaken

By Michael Rubin in Commentary Magazine:

Why Was North Korea Removed from the Terrorism List?

I’ve been offline for about two weeks because of work-related travel, and so I wasn’t able to chime in on the debate with regard to North Korea and its alleged hacking of Sony. But, while according to news reports, there are still questions about the degree of Pyongyang’s culpability, the incident—and revelations about the extent to which North Korea has developed it cyber-terrorism capabilities—should be cause for reflection about just why North Korea was removed from the state sponsor of terrorism list in the first place. It’s an episode I cover in my book about the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes, and it doesn’t reflect well on the George W. Bush administration in general, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in particular. But, against the backdrop of the rush to normalize relations with Cuba, lift sanctions, and remove that communist dictatorship from the state sponsor of terrorism list, it’s useful to reflect on how putting diplomatic ambition and legacy above reality really can hurt American national security.

At any rate, the story of North Korea’s removal from the terrorism list dates back to 2006. American forces were mired in Iraq, Bush’s popularity was plummeting, and so Rice decided to seize upon North Korea to try to secure a positive legacy for Bush. In November 2006, Rice and Christopher Hill, her point man for the Korean peninsula, offered to remove North Korea from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list and the Trading with the Enemy Act, scrapping the Clinton team’s demand that North Korea provide a written guarantee that it had ceased terrorism, would acquiesce to international agreements for combating terrorism, and would address its past terrorism.

It’s useful to remember just why North Korea was on the list in the first place. First of all, there were multiple bombings in the 1980s—of a South Korean passenger plane and of a mausoleum in Burma in which multiple South Korean officials were holding a ceremony. But shouldn’t there be an expiration date on past terrorism? For the sake of argument, let’s say Rice should let bygones be bygones, and that states should fall off the terror sponsorship list after remaining clean for a period of time. Alas, North Korea never passed this test either. For purely political reasons, Rice’s State Department attested that Pyongyang had not sponsored terrorism since 1987. Information available to the U.S. government and chronicled by the Congressional Research Service, however, suggested the opposite. Sources in France, Japan, South Korea, and Israel alleged robust North Korean involvement with both Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Ali Reza Nourizadeh, a London-based Iranian reporter close to Iran’s reformist camp, described North Korean assistance in the design of underground Hezbollah facilities, assertions backed by a diverse array of reporting. These tunnels allowed Hezbollah to shield rockets from Israeli surveillance prior to the 2006 war and to evade Israeli strikes during it. Chung-in Moon, a professor at South Korea’s Yonsei University, has reported allegations that Hezbollah missiles included North Korean components.

North Korean efforts to aid the Tamil Tigers were more blatant. While that group was subsequently eliminated from the face of the earth by the Sri Lankan military, the Far Eastern Economic Review reported in 2000 that North Korea had supplied the Tamil Tigers with weaponry, and the State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism made similar claims over the next three years. How sad it was that the State Department’s clean bill of health for North Korea was so readily contradicted by information the State Department had gathered, vetted, and compiled. Meanwhile, three times between October 2006 and March 2007, the Sri Lankan navy intercepted cargo ships flying no flag or identifying marker and found them to be carrying North Korean arms. For Rice and, by extension George W. Bush, however, diplomacy outweighed intelligence reality.

Rice’s drive to remove North Korea from the terrorism list for purely diplomatic reasons also had repercussions on allies. North Korea’s refusal to come clean about its kidnappings of Japanese citizens had long been an irritant and was also a major factor in its initial listing. It is certainly true that Pyongyang had started to come around: In 2004, the regime returned five surviving abductees of the ten it eventually admitted seizing, but the Japanese government believes that Pyongyang’s agents had actually kidnapped eighty Japanese citizens. For North Korea, why take a full step, when a half step—or even an eighth of a step—would suffice? And Pyongyang guessed right. Rice pressured Tokyo to tone down its objections and told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the White House was under no obligation to classify the kidnappings as terrorism. As so often happens in the State Department, appeasing an enemy had trumped honoring allies.

Well, with sleight of hand, Rice had removed obstacles to further normalization with North Korea. It was full speed ahead on efforts to bring a comprehensive settlement to the North Korea problem. In January 2007, Hill met with top North Korean diplomat Kim Kye Gwan. Their discussions and agreements culminated the next month in a two-phase six-party agreement, which the White House celebrated as a “very important first step.” In the first sixty-day phase, North Korea would freeze its nuclear program. A second phase—for which no time frame was set—would have North Korea disable its nuclear facilities and disclose all nuclear activities.

Hill’s triumph was, in reality, a major step down: the agreement allowed North Korea to keep its nuclear weapons. For Kim Jong-il, it was a complete victory, capped off by the repatriation of laundered money frozen in a Macau bank. John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was blunt in his condemnation of the deal, saying, “It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world: ‘If we hold out long enough, wear down the State Department negotiators, eventually you get rewarded.’” True to form, however, the New York Times, praised the agreement without equivocation, famously suggesting that the State Department’s rule of thumb on any initiative should be to ask, “What would Chris Hill do?” If American policymakers took their cues from the New York Times editorial page, however, Ronald Reagan never would have pushed the Soviet Union over the precipice to economic collapse, hundreds of million more people would be living under dictatorships, and Cuba would be more the norm than the exception in the hemisphere.

Rice may have wanted a ‘Hail Mary pass’ to change Bush’s legacy, but the only thing she achieved was to soil it. As recent actions and revelations suggest, North Korea never reformed. It pocketed its concessions, and doubled down on both its terror capabilities and nuclear program. Back to Cuba: Simply pumping money into the Cuban economy and encouraging tourism does not bring change: after all, Raul Castro and the Cuban military largely control the hotels and other tourist infrastructure: the hard currency gained disproportionately will benefit Cuba’s infrastructure of terror and repression.

The lesson to be learned as Obama tried to repeat history with regard to Cuba? White-washing rogue regimes is never an American interest, and magic wands do not change the nature of rogue regimes: only regime change does. Europeans might always subordinate principle and freedom to a quick buck, but America should mean more. The United States should have the wherewithal to outlast a country like Cuba. Cuba needs America far more than America needs Cuba, and politicians in both Washington and Havana should never forget that.

During Obama-Castro Negotiations, Over 13,000 Political Arrests Took Place in Cuba

Since the Obama Administration began secret negotiations with the Castro regime in June 2013, there have been over 13,000 political arrests in Cuba.

This highlights the sense of impunity and emboldenment felt by the Castro regime during these secret negotiations.

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCHR) has just released its data of fully documented and confirmed political arrests. Many more are suspected, but remain unknown.

Throughout 2014, there were 8,899 political arrests in Cuba. That is more than quadruple the amount of arrests in 2010 (2,074) and a nearly a 40% increase from 2013 (6,424).

Moreover, simply compare 2013, from a pre- and post- negotiations perspective.

During the first half of of 2013, prior to the secret negotiations beginning, the were 2,143 political arrests.

During the second half of 2013, post the commencement of the secret negotiations, there were 4,281 political arrests.

In other words, the rate of political arrests immediately doubled when the secret negotiations began.

And, as we posted earlier today, there are now even more political prisoners in Cuban than before Obama's December 17th concessions to Castro.

Meanwhile, the 53 Cuban political prisoners that were to be released pursuant to the Obama-Castro deal remain shrouded in a shameful secrecy.

Tragically, this is similar to the fate of democracy advocates in Iran, Syria and even Venezuela, whose efforts have become even more daunting as a result of Obama's mixed messages and "extended hand" to tyrants.

Cuba's courageous democracy advocates are the latest victims.

Rubio to Obama: With Fate of 53 Cuban Political Prisoners Unclear, Cancel January Talks

In a letter to President Obama, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) urged him to cancel U.S.-Cuba normalization talks scheduled for later this month, at least until all 53 prisoners are fully free and accounted for, as well as other Cubans detained in recent weeks.

Below is the letter:

January 6, 2015

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500                            
Dear Mr. President:

I wholly disagree with your recent decision to normalize relations with the Castro regime in Cuba. In particular, I am deeply concerned that beyond the supposed release of 53 Cuban political prisoners, no specific commitments were made by the regime regarding political reforms, the release of all political prisoners, or a halt to the use of arbitrary detentions as an instrument of state power.

As we have now seen in vivid detail, less than two weeks after your announcement, the arrests, arbitrary detentions, and use of violence and intimidation to stifle dissent continue. The late December detentions of more than a dozen artists and dissidents who were simply trying to highlight their concerns about the government through a performance entitled #YoTambienExijo (#IAlsoDemand) again shows the true nature of the regime that you have now decided to legitimize and enrich. Others, like young artist Danilo Maldonado and activist Marcelino Abreu Bonora, were arrested during Christmas and remain imprisoned.

Throughout its history, the Cuban dictatorship has used the revolving door of its political prisons to extract concessions, and it seems to be doing so once again. Moreover, the regime seems to be emboldened by its negotiations with your Administration and its unearned diplomatic recognition. It is unfathomable that while your Administration was holding secret talks with the Cuban dictatorship, political arrests totaled 8,899 in 2014, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation – quadrupling 2010 levels, and approximately 2,000 more than in 2013.

Even your announcement that Cuba has agreed to release 53 current political prisoners remains shrouded in doubt and secrecy. To date, no information has been provided about the political prisoners to be released – regarding their identities, conditions or whereabouts, even on a confidential basis, to members of Congress. Just yesterday, your own State Department was unable to provide an explanation about the political prisoners in question. How is the United States supposed to hold the Cuban dictatorship responsible for the well-being of these political prisoners if your Administration is unable or unwilling to provide this transparency?

Despite all of this, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, who is reportedly being sent to Havana later this month to discuss normalizing relations, has already stated that there will be no human rights conditionality to America’s normalization of relations.

While I believe that the entirety of your new Cuba policy is overwhelmingly one-sided in the Castro regime’s favor and based on the flawed premise that giving it more legitimacy and money will result in a freer Cuban people, the least your Administration can do now is hold the regime accountable for fully freeing these 53 political prisoners as well as those who have been detained in recent weeks. A failure to do so will further embolden the regime to continue its oppression.

To this end, I urge you to cancel the travel of Administration officials to Cuba to further discuss the normalization of diplomatic relations at least until all 53 political prisoners, plus those arrested since your December 17th announcement, have been released and are no longer subjected to repression that often takes the form of house arrests, aggressive surveillance, denied Internet access, forced exile and other forms of harassment. Almost three weeks after your Cuba announcement, there is absolutely no reason why any of these individuals should be in prison or the targets of repression – or for their identities, conditions and whereabouts to remain such closely held secrets.

Sincerely,

Marco Rubio

More Dissidents Arrested in Cuba Today

Monday, January 5, 2015
Emboldened by the Obama Administration's diplomatic recognition -- and its pledge of inconditionality -- the Castro regime continues to arrest political dissidents.

Today, it arrested Lisandra Robert, Miraida Martin and Yamile Rodriguez -- all members of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU) in Santiago de Cuba -- and Melkis Faure and Emilio Serrano in Havana.

Faure and Serrano were arrested as they inquired about Sonia de la Caridad Gonzalez Mejias, who was arrested on December 28th. Gonzalez Mejia (pictured below, left) is currently on a hunger strike protesting her unjust imprisonment.

Meanwhile, Cuban artist Danilo Maldonado ("El Sexto"), arrested on Christmas Day, was transferred to the Valle Grande prison.

And Marcelino Abreu Bonora, arrested on December 26th, was beaten and placed in a "special" punishment cell for conducting a hunger strike.

Tragically, there are already more political prisoners in Cuba today than on December 17th.

State Department Can't Explain Why Cuba Hasn't Released the 53 Political Prisoners

Today's State Department Daily Press Briefing is another example of the absolute lack of transparency and accountability behind President Obama's deal with Cuban dictator Raul Castro.

Spokesperson Jen Psaki trips all over herself trying to (not) explain why Castro hasn't released the 53 Cuba political prisoners he promised Obama.

Worse yet, they won't even identify who the 53 political prisoners are.

At one point Psaki implies that we should simply trust Obama and Castro, for they know who the 53 political prisoners are.

Thanks, but no thanks.

See the video below (or click here):

Where Are Cuba’s 53 Political Prisoners?

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

Where Are Cuba’s Political Prisoners?

Fifty-three of those jailed by the Castros were supposed to have been freed in the Obama deal.

Who and where are the 53 Cuban political prisoners that President Obama promised would be freed by Havana as part of a deal to liberate three convicted Cuban spies serving lengthy sentences in the U.S.?

I asked the State Department this last week. State referred me to the White House. White House officials declined to provide the list of names citing “concern that publicizing it would make it more difficult to ensure that Cuba follows through, and continues with further steps in the future.”

Bottom line: The U.S. government cannot confirm that they have been released and is not certain they’re going to be released, even though the three Cuban spies have already been returned.

A government official told me that keeping the names of the 53 quiet will give Cuba the opportunity to release them as a sovereign measure, rather than at the behest of the U.S., and that this could allow for additional releases.

In other words, the Castros are sensitive boys who throw despotic tantrums when their absolute power is questioned. Asking them to keep their word is apparently a trigger.

Mr. Obama was destined to have trouble changing Cuba policy. Nixon went to China. But “Obama goes to Havana”? That sounds like stand-up comedy. A man with some humility might have prepared for the challenge. Mr. Obama did not. Now, little by little, what he says he got in the “negotiations” seems to be evaporating while what he gave away appears reckless.

The U.S. president hasn’t gone to Havana, not yet anyway. But he did use the prisoner swap to announce that he plans to unconditionally open diplomatic relations with the military dictatorship, something that the Castros have long demanded. Count that as concession one.

He said he would ease restrictions on American travel to the island and make it legal to use U.S. credit cards and debit cards in Cuba, thereby boosting revenues for the military-owned tourism industry. That’s concession two.

His promise to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror sounded like he had already made up his mind. “At a time when we are focused on threats from al Qaeda to ISIL, a nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction,” Mr. Obama said.

That would complete the concession trifecta. Cuba still supports the FARC, the Colombian terrorist group, it got caught in 2013 trying to smuggle weapons through the Panama Canal to North Korea, and credible intelligence analysts say Cuba has provided Venezuela the technology it needs to falsify identities for Middle East terrorists.

If Mr. Obama is serious about selling U.S.-Cuba detente, a little less obfuscation would be nice. The U.S. has not confirmed the identity of the intelligence asset who it says had been in a Cuban prison for nearly 20 years and was also traded for the Cuban spies. Mr. Obama said the Cuban, before his arrest, had supplied key information to the U.S. that led to the nabbing of those spies, as well as three others.

Press reports and intel experts I talked to say the “asset” is Rolando Sarraff. But a debate is raging in the intelligence community about whether Mr. Sarraff, who has not been heard from since his arrival on U.S. soil, is all he’s cracked up to be by Mr. Obama. Another possibility is that his résumé was embellished to cover up for what was essentially a trade of the convicted spies for Alan Gross, the U.S. Agency for International Development contractor who was arrested by Cuban state security in Havana in 2009.

Mr. Obama claimed in his speech that Mr. Gross’s release was a humanitarian gesture on the part of Cuba. That’s not believable. Almost from the day Mr. Gross was arrested, Havana made it clear that he would not be released until the Cuban spies were returned to the island. He was a hostage.

If the Castro brothers renege on their promise to free the 53 it wouldn’t be a surprise. But nothing in their history suggests they would want to keep the release a secret. On the contrary, going back to the days of Jimmy Carter , Fidel has always released dissidents as a propaganda tool to boost his image as a benevolent leader—even while he sends them into exile or only paroles them.

Most of the prisoners arrested in Cuba’s Black Spring of March 2003, for example, were shipped off to Spain when international pressure forced the regime to let them out. The regime boasted about it; the press and the Catholic Church reported it as a humanitarian gesture.

In the weeks since Mr. Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba, reports from the island say that more than 50 dissidents have been arrested, including the husband of the dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez. Most have been released but some remain in prison.

Don’t expect much outrage from Washington. Mr. Obama wouldn’t want to damage his newly reconciled relationship with the police state.

Learning From Castro's Coercion, Maduro Wants a Prisoner Swap Also

Just two weeks after Cuban dictator Raul Castro coerced President Obama into a prisoner swap and a series of policy concessions, Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro wants one also.

At least a prisoner swap, for now.

Two weeks ago, Obama cut a deal with Castro for the release of American hostage Alan Gross, which included the exchange of three convicted Cuban spies in the United States -- including one serving a life sentence for a conspiracy to kill Americans -- for one Cuban intelligence asset held prisoner by Castro.

Obama also agreed to a host of policy concessions in exchange for the release of 53 Cuban political prisoners, access by the International Committee of the Red Cross and increased Internet access. None of which have been confirmed.

This deal is so lopsided and poorly executed that the world's tyrants and rogues have clearly taken note.

Like clockwork, Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro has just announced that he would release famed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, arbitrarily imprisoned since February 2014 -- but only in a prisoner swap with the United States.

In return, Maduro wants the release of Oscar Lopez Rivera, a Puerto Rican nationalist who was convicted and sentenced in 1981 to 55-years in federal prison for seditious conspiracy.

"The only way I would use (presidential) powers would be to put (Leopoldo Lopez) on a plane, so he can go to the United States and stay there, and they would give me Oscar Lopez Rivera - man for man," Maduro said during a televised broadcast.

Following Castro's playbook, Maduro may next seek to coerce the United States into easing the recently imposed sanctions against Venezuelan human rights violators.

The result: Obama's Cuba deal just further endangered the well-being of American travelers and development workers in Venezuela (and in any other rogue nation throughout the world).

How Obama’s Cuba Deal Hurts Cubans

By James Carafano in The Daily Signal:

How Obama’s Cuba Deal Hurts Cubans

President Obama’s decision to make nice with Cuba’s repressive, anti-American regime creates a great number of losers.

Topping the list, of course, are the people of Cuba. They are starting from a bad place, lacking fundamental freedoms. And Obama negotiated no promises from the Castro brothers to ease up on the repression.

That leaves Cubans saddled with the second-most-repressive economy in the world, according to “The 2014 Index of Economic Freedom,” published by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal.

It offers no relief from the Freedom House assessment of Cubans’ political rights and civil liberties — “Not free.” It leaves them mired in 170th place — out of 180 countries — in Reporters Without Borders’ rankings of press freedoms.

The claim that opening markets will transform Cuba is utterly bogus. The kleptocracy that runs the country will figure out how to exploit every dollar that flows in — just as it has managed to funnel every incoming cent of foreign money through the government sieve. Opening a new cash flow will only allow the regime to further enrich itself and dig in deeper.

Opening markets cannot magically transform totalitarian regimes into democracies — at least, not as long as the rulers maintain a stranglehold over civil society.

Look at China. The ruling elite has embraced many free market policies, yet freedom is waning on the Chinese mainland, and Beijing is now squeezing it out of Hong Kong, too.

Or consider Russia. It, too, embraced Western economic reforms after the Cold War. Yet President Vladimir Putin resurrected strongman rule and has turned his country into a Gulag Lite.

Does anyone seriously believe that tourists buying cigars in Havana will convince the Cuban cabal to change its ways?

Sure, some U.S. companies will turn a profit doing business in a country under the thumb of thugs. But they could just as well make that money elsewhere.

If the Obama administration were really interested in boosting American business, it would cut needlessly costly regulations, reform the tax code and green-light initiatives like the Keystone XL pipeline that can generate American jobs and reduce consumer prices here at home.

Instead, America loses under this decision. It strengthens an odious regime that aids our enemies. Cuba encourages and supports some of the most anti-American countries on Earth, from Venezuela and Iran to North Korea.

Just last year, authorities intercepted a ship bound from Havana and purportedly bearing a “humanitarian gift of sugar from Cuba to the North Korean people.” Hidden under the sugar were other gifts, including fighter jet parts, missile components, rocket-propelled weapons and ammunition.

America also loses because presidents are not supposed to take steps counter to the intent of current U.S. law without at least consulting Congress.

Not only did Obama not work with Congress on this matter, he waited until Congress had adjourned and left town before announcing he was going to “normalize” relations with Cuba.

Coming on the heels of his end-around action on immigration — extending executive amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants — the Cuban gambit destroys any chance of lawmakers working with the Oval Office in trust and confidence for the next two years.

Finally, America loses because Obama’s deal with the dictators betrays the very thing that has made ours a truly exceptional nation.

“Unlike other nations that derive their meaning and purpose from some unifying quality — an ethnic character, a common religion, a shared history, an ancestral land — America is a country dedicated to the universal ideas of equality and liberty,” writes constitutional scholar David Azerrad.

The premise of our existence is that only government of, by and for the people is truly legitimate. When Obama embraces the Cuban regime with a sham freedom agenda, he turns American exceptionalism into American hypocrisy. Freedom-loving Cubans deserve far better than that.

Originally distributed by Tribune News Service.

CNN: Menendez on Obama's Secret (and Bad) Cuba Deal

Sunday, January 4, 2015
From CNN:

Sen. Menendez: "very difficult to get an ambassador confirmed" for Cuba

Today on CNN’s State of the Union, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Menendez, joined Dana Bash to discuss U.S. negotiations with Cuba.

Highlights:

On establishing formal diplomatic relations with Cuba: "We already have an operating interests section, which the administration could easily convert to an embassy. An ambassador, I would think it would be very difficult to get an ambassador confirmed."

​On the Obama Administration's 'secret diplomacy': "And this is a problem not only as it relates to Cuba, but Iran, this secret diplomacy in which witnesses come before the committee and you ask them questions about what's happening, whether it be about Iran or Cuba, and you don't get a straight answer. And now you find out that there was in one case a year-and-a-half, in another case over a year of engagement. That's going to be problematic for the administration as it appears before the committee again and again."

On the Obama Administration's deal with Cuba: "So we subverted, in my view, the standards that are important for us to uphold globally in a way that we could have - if you're going to make a deal with the regime, then get something for it. But at the end of the day, they got absolutely nothing for giving up everything that the Castro regime wants to see and has lobbied for."

Below is a transcript of the Cuba portion (click here to see video):

CNN's DANA BASH: Speaking of engaging, let's turn to Cuba and the fact that the White House, the president announced just a couple of weeks ago the idea that they were going to expand for the first time in over 50 years relations with Cuba. These talks and this deal that was brokered was going on for more than a year.

You were the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. You are of Cuban descent. Were you engaged in these talks?

SENATOR MENENDEZ: Oh, absolutely not. I knew nothing about them. And this is a problem not only as it relates to Cuba, but Iran, this secret diplomacy in which witnesses come before the committee and you ask them questions about what's happening, whether it be about Iran or Cuba, and you don't get a straight answer. And now you find out that there was in one case a year-and-a-half, in another case over a year of engagement.

That's going to be problematic for the administration as it appears before the committee again and again.

BASH: And, I mean, what was your reaction? How furious were you when you found out about this yearlong push, secret push that included not just the president, but the pope, to get these - the detainee Alan Gross released, but also, more importantly, an agreement to open up relations?

MENENDEZ: Well, Dana, it's less about me and whatever lack of information I was given, as someone who is both the chairman of the committee and one of a few Cuban-Americans in the Senate and on the Democratic side.

What it really is, is about the 10 million people in Cuba who got a bad deal, because what we did here is, we exchanged one innocent American for three convicted Cuban spies, including one that was convicted for conspiracy to commit murder against U.S. citizens, who were murdered by the Castro regime, and, secondly, we got nothing in terms of democracy and human rights. We got nothing about political freedoms.

As a matter of fact, on New Year's Eve, Cuban activists and dissidents just simply wanted to hold in Revolution Square an opportunity for one minute for Cubans to come forward and speak about what they thought their country should be in the future. And those activists were arrested before they even got to the demonstration.

So, here you are, you know, a week or two after the president's announcements, in which human rights activists and political dissidents are arrested for simply speaking about what their vision of Cuba should be tomorrow. We don't know about any of the 53 dissidents that supposedly - political prisoners that were supposedly going to be released.

And we don't know about this supposed person that we had as an asset, because I think the reason we haven't heard about who that person really is, there's speculation as to who he is, is that they overplayed his importance.

BASH: Senator, let me just stop you there, because I want our viewers to hear what the president said right here on this program to Candy Crowley about the reason he wants to change things vis-a-vis Cuba.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For 50 years, we have tried to see if we can overthrow the regime through isolation. It hasn't worked. If we engage, we have the opportunity to influence the course of events at a time when there's going to be some generational change in that country. And I think we should seize it. And I intend to do so.

BASH: Senator, doesn't he have a point? Can you sort of take aside your understandable history and personal view of Cuba and look at this country as a place that the U.S. does need to sort of get on with and that this is a 55-year-old policy that just hasn't worked?

MENENDEZ: Well, a couple of points. Number one is, you know, we have had engagement with China over 50 years. We can't talk about democracy and human rights being better in China. Same thing with Vietnam for nearly, what, 20 years now.

So, when we engage countries like that, we maybe have an economic interest, but we cannot hold them up as the standard of how we promote democracy and human rights. And, look, Cuba's been engaged by Europe, Latin America, Canada for decades, and they haven't created one iota of human rights and democracy.

So we subverted, in my view, the standards that are important for us to uphold globally in a way that we could have - if you're going to make a deal with the regime, then get something for it. But at the end of the day, they got absolutely nothing for giving up everything that the Castro regime wants to see and has lobbied for.

BASH: Is the president just naive here, or is he, as you said, being secretive on this, just like he has been on Iran?

MENENDEZ: Well, look, I - both because of history and engagement over 22 years in the Congress, I understand that this - the Castro regime only changes out of economic necessity, not ideological change, so that it reduced its army, it accepted the American dollar, the most hated symbol in the revolution, it even accepted some degree of international investment, all which previously had been rejected by the regime, out of economic necessity.

So if you understand that economic necessity is the way in which the regime ultimately creates some change, then at a moment in which it was facing the great difficulties, because Venezuela, its patron, is about to no longer be its patron, it seems to me that what we did is throw an economic lifeline without getting any political or democracy opportunities.

BASH: One last question, real quick. This is now in your lap, in Congress' lap. Do you see any scenario where the money for a new embassy in Cuba or an ambassador will actually get passed or confirmed?

MENENDEZ: Well, we already have an operating interests section, which the administration could easily convert to an embassy. An ambassador, I would think it would be very difficult to get an ambassador confirmed.

BASH: Senator Robert Menendez, thank you very much. Happy new year.

MENENDEZ: Thank you. Happy new year.

Nylons for Nothing in Cuba

By Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post:

Nylons for nothing in Cuba

There’s an old Cold War joke — pre-pantyhose — that to defeat communism we should empty our B-52 bombers of nuclear weapons and instead drop nylons over the Soviet Union. Flood the Russians with the soft consumer culture of capitalism, seduce them with Western contact and commerce, love-bomb them into freedom.

We did win the Cold War, but differently. We contained, constrained, squeezed and eventually exhausted the Soviets into giving up. The dissidents inside subsequently told us how much they were sustained by our support for them and our implacable pressure on their oppressors.

The logic behind President Obama’s Cuba normalization, assuming there is one, is the nylon strategy. We tried 50 years of containment and that didn’t bring democracy. So let’s try inundating them with American goods, visitors, culture, contact, commerce.

It’s not a crazy argument. But it does have its weaknesses. Normalization has not advanced democracy in China or Vietnam. Indeed, it hasn’t done so in Cuba. Except for the United States, Cuba has had normal relations with the rest of the world for decades. Tourists, trade, investment from Canada, France, Britain, Spain, everywhere. An avalanche of nylons — and not an inch of movement in Cuba toward freedom.

In fact, one could argue that this influx of Western money has helped preserve the dictatorship, as just about all the financial transactions go through the government, which takes for itself before any trickle-down crumbs are allowed to reach the ­regime-indentured masses.

My view is that police-state control of every aspect of Cuban life is so thoroughly perfected that outside influences, whether confrontational or cooperative, only minimally affect the country’s domestic trajectory.

So why not just lift the embargo? After all, the unassailable strategic rationale for isolating Cuba — in the Soviets’ mortal global struggle with us, Cuba enlisted as a highly committed enemy beachhead 90 miles from American shores — evaporated with the collapse of the Soviet empire. A small island with no significant independent military capacities, Cuba became geopolitically irrelevant.

That’s been partially reversed in the past few years as Vladimir Putin has repositioned Russia as America’s leading geopolitical adversary and the Castros signed up for that coalition too. Cuba has reportedly agreed to reopen the Soviet-era Lourdes espionage facility, a massive listening post for intercepting communications. Havana and Moscow have also discussed the use of Cuban airfields for Russia’s nuclear-capable long-range bombers.

This in addition to Cuba’s usual hemispheric mischief, such as training and equipping the security and repression apparatus in Venezuela.

No mortal threat, I grant you. And not enough to justify forever cutting off Cuba. But it does raise the question: With the U.S. embargo already in place and the Castros hungry to have it lifted, why give them trade, investment, hard currency, prestige and worldwide legitimacy — for nothing in return?

Obama brought back nothing on democratization, a staggering betrayal of Cuba’s human rights crusaders. No free speech. No free assembly. No independent political parties. No hint of free elections. Not even the kind of 1975 Helsinki Final Act that we got from the Soviets as part of detente, granting structure and review to human rights promises. These provided us with significant leverage in supporting the dissident movements in Eastern Europe that eventually brought down communist rule.

If Obama insisted on giving away the store, why not at least do it item by item? We relax part of the embargo in return for, say, Internet access. And tie further normalization to serial relaxations of police-state repression.

Oh, what hypocrisy, say the Obama acolytes. Did we not normalize relations with China and get no human rights quid pro quo?

True. But that was never a prospect. The entire purpose was geopolitical and the payoff was monumental: We walked away with the most significant anti-Soviet strategic realignment of the entire Cold War, formally breaking up the communist bloc and gaining China’s neutrality, and occasional support, in our half-century struggle to dismantle the Soviet empire.

From Cuba, Obama didn’t even get a token gesture. Not even a fig leaf such as, say, withdrawal of secret police support in Venezuela. Or extradition of American criminals now fugitive in Cuba, including a notorious cop killer. Did we even ask?

Obama seems to believe that the one-way deal was win-win. A famous victory — the Cuba issue is now behind us. A breakthrough.

Indeed it is. You know how to achieve a breakthrough in tough negotiations? Give everything away. Try it. You’ll have a deal by noon. Every time.

Sununu: Obama Lose Middle-Ground on Cuba Policy

By former U.S. Senator John E. Sununu (R-NH) in The Boston Globe:

Faith in Cuba misplaced

Sitting atop a Havana hotel on New Year’s Eve 1958, Hyman Roth, the fictional gangster featured in “The Godfather Part II” shared his vision for cooperation with the Cuban regime. “Here we are,” Roth beamed, “In partnership with a friendly government. . . . We’re bigger than US Steel.”

That confidence was misplaced.

Within the week, the Cuban government fell, Castro was in Havana, and Roth’s dreams were dashed. Today, his vision for the capital is long gone and the Castros still reign. Yet in America, the idea of renewed partnership with the Cuban government has captured the imagination of President Obama.

Like Roth, Obama’s dream rests firmly on his confidence in the ability of an unreliable Cuban government to deliver. And like Roth — who ignored the revolution building around him — Obama’s aggressive plans give short shrift to the intense emotions that fuel debate about America’s Cuba policy.

Within the US Congress, both sides bring decades of personal history and deep emotions to any discussion of the island country. That was readily apparent in the visceral reactions of Senators Marco Rubio, the Republican from Florida, and Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat, immediately after the White House announcement; and it’s not something that will change quickly. The alliances go back generations, cross party lines, and affect policymakers far beyond the confines of the Cuban-American community.

Equally hard to ignore, the authoritarian regime built by Fidel Castro and inherited by brother Raul remains an oppressive Marxist dictatorship. They’ve made no overtures, taken no steps, nor opened any doors that would seem to warrant Obama’s ambitious and public effort to reinvigorate Cuba’s international standing. To the contrary. Last week, as if on cue, free speech advocates were arrested for simply setting up a microphone to allow participants to take turns expressing their views about the future of Cuba. How’s that for engagement?

Through 55 years of Communist rule, the intensity of anti-Castro sentiment in Congress has only been amplified by efforts to appease leftist insurgents throughout Central America. In the 1980s, liberals pressed to cut assistance to Nicagragua’s Contra rebels and promoted relations with the Communist government of Daniel Ortega. For more than a decade in the 2000s, the same contingent encouraged closer ties with Hugo Chavez even as he eliminated the Venezuelan Senate and assumed dictatorial powers. Obama’s State Department actually offered praise for the 2009 referendum that removed any obstacle to Chavez serving as president for life.

As attitudes hardened, advocates on both sides became more and more absolute in the policies they pursued. Over time, their initiatives looked less and less like policy prescriptions and more like acts of faith. Conservatives demanded complete isolation of the Cuban regime. No anti-Castro program was too small, too controversial, or too ineffective. Most noteworthy, perhaps, TV Marti survived repeated efforts to cut funding despite numerous surveys showing it was notoriously ineffective. (The airborne signal was easily jammed by the Cuban government from the start.)

Meanwhile, liberals in Congress pressed to eliminate diplomatic and economic sanctions altogether, regardless of the regime’s performance on social, economic, or political freedom. As the polarization deepened, the number of members of Congress occupying the middle ground dwindled. I know; I was one of them.

In addition to opposing funding for TV Marti, I voted to allow greater access to food and medicine exported from the US and to end restrictions on personal travel to Cuba. Without any unusual security risks inside the country, I could never justify government restrictions on the movement of law-abiding Americans. At the same time, I felt that lifting diplomatic or economic sanctions should only be done in conjunction with changes the regime made to genuinely improve economic and political conditions inside the country.

By proposing to end the embargo against Cuba without any corresponding move toward democratization or greater respect for human rights, Obama ignores that middle ground. Embracing the faith of the left, he deepens the divide and makes it more difficult to succeed where success is possible. Equally problematic, he ensures maximum resistance where Congress — and conservatives — hold greatest leverage: funding embassy activity and enacting changes to trade laws passed in 1992, 1996, and 2000.

Obama may yet succeed in establishing a closer relationship with Cuba, but the path he has chosen makes a tough task far more difficult. For Cuba, however, the risks are minimal. In exchange for the release of two detained Americans, Cuba has won the release of three criminals — one convicted of murder. Our State Department has opened high-level diplomatic negotiations, and the president of the United States is leading the fight to end the economic embargo. That’s an offer they can’t refuse.