Over 610 Political Arrests in March

Friday, April 3, 2015
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights (CCHR) has documented 610 political arrests by the Castro regime during the month of March 2015.

This is the highest monthly tally of political arrests in the last seven months.

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

Meanwhile, silence from the Obama Administration.

Amnesty International Names New Cuban Prisoner of Conscience

From Amnesty International:

URGENT ACTION: Political Dissident Must be Released

Ciro Alexis Casanova Pérez has been detained in Cuba since June 2014. He was sentenced inDecember 2014 to one year’s imprisonment for “public disorder”. Amnesty International considers him a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.

On 5 June 2014, Ciro Alexis Casanova Pérez, a political dissident and activist who is a member of various independent organizations in Cuba, organized and participated in a demonstration in the streets of Placetas, Santa Clara Province, in central Cuba. He displayed a banner which stated “Student Revolutionary Directorate” (Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil, DRE) and shouted slogans against the government such as “Down with the revolution!” (Abajo la Revolución); “Down with Fidel, down with Raúl Castro!” (Abajo Fidel, abajo Raúl).

Ciro Alexis Casanova Pérez was arrested and subsequently released on the same day, however on 12 June 2014, the District Attorney of Villa Clara placed him under house arrest on accusations of “public disorder.” On 15 June, in order to visit his father on Father’s Day, Ciro Alexis Casanova Pérez called the local police station to request temporary permission to leave his house. Although the officer in charge gave him verbal authorization, Ciro Alexis Casanova Pérez was arrested by a police patrol while on his way to his father’s house.

In September 2014, the Attorney General’s office charged him with “public disorder”, (desorden público) “public disorder of a continuous nature”, (desordenes publicos de carácter continuado) and “disrespect” (desacato), and demanded he be given four years’ imprisonment. Ciro Alexis Peréz Casanova was tried in November 2014 at the Popular Municipal Court of Placetas which convicted and sentenced him on 30 December to one year’s imprisonment. The Court rejected the accusations of “disrespect“ and of “public disorder of a continuous nature“, and only found Ciro Alexis Casanova Pérez guilty of “public disorder“. He has been serving his sentence at El Pendiente prison until he was moved to Manaca prison in February 2015. Both are situated in Villa Clara province. Amnesty International considers this sentence to be politically motivated, relating to his peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression, and that it is intended to send a message of intimidation to other government critics.

What This Week's U.S.-Cuba Human Rights "Talks" Looked Like

The political cartoon of the week:

Commerce Should Play No Role in Cuba's Terrorism Designation

Thursday, April 2, 2015
During a business conference in New York yesterday, U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade, Stefan Selig, stated that Cuba will soon be removed from the state-sponsors of terrorism list.

"That will happen in the near term," Selig said.

Moreover, Selig added, "it should be eliminated from the list because the world has changed since its inclusion and it's inconsistent with President Obama's policy."

On December 17th, President Obama assigned the Secretary of State to review Cuba's designation as a state-sponsor of terrorism based on "law and fact."

Indeed, as we have previously outlined here -- an analysis based on "law and fact" would conclude that Cuba should remain on the terrorism list for its harboring of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) and one of the FBI's Top Ten Most Wanted Terrorists; the outstanding indictments against Cuban military officials for the murder of Americans; and Cuba's role in arming, training and advising Venezuelan paramilitary groups.

Moreover, Cuba has been caught twice in the last 18 months illegally trafficking weapons, which gives no credibility to any assurances -- as required by law -- that Castro may purport to make regarding his regime's current and future support for rogue actors.

But the question at hand is -- why is the Commerce Department privy to the review of Cuba's terrorism designation?

According to the law, the review is to be conducted by the State Department, with input by the intelligence community, for a determination to be made by the President.

The Commerce Department is to play no role in such a determination.

Even less so, the Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade, whose legal purview is to U.S. promote trade and investment.

Undersecretary Selig's comments raise concerns of whether the determination is being influenced by the business community, which sees Cuba's terrorism label as an unpalatable stigma to doing business with Castro's monopolies.

Moreover, it also raises questions of whether the entire review is simply theatrics, for President Obama might have already negotiated the conclusion with General Raul Castro as part of his December 17th deal.

After all, Castro's dictatorship has made it very clear that Cuba's removal from the terrorism list remains a key demand for establishing diplomatic relations.

And, thus far, Obama has done nothing but oblige to the Castro regime's demands.

Tweet of the Day: Cuba is a Military Dictatorship

Wednesday, April 1, 2015
By Cuban artist, Aldo "Maldito" Menendez, who was denied entry to his homeland today for his critical views of the Castro regime:

#Cuba is today a military dictatorship; all that is remaining of #revolution and #socialism is the stage design and puppets.  

Antunez and Other Cuban Democracy Leaders Remain Missing

Cuban democracy leaders Jorge Luis Garcia Perez "Antunez", Egberto Angel Escobedo Morales and Ivan Fernandez Depestre, have been missing since this afternoon.

They were intercepted by Castro's secret police upon leaving the Panamanian Embassy in Havana and presumably arrested.

Antunez and Fernandez Depestre are former Amnesty International prisoners of conscience.

Their whereabouts are currently unknown.

Bendixen's April Fools Day Cuba Poll

As part of an upcoming "Doing Business With Castro's Monopolies" conference being held in New York today, Bendixen & Associates has just released another one of its Cuba polls.

Bendixen has used some fuzzy math before, but this one has the fuzziest math of them all.

Here's the takeaway being pushed, "51% Percent of Cuban-Americans Support Normalizing Relations With Cuba."

Yet, according to the poll, only 41% of Cuban-Americans living in Florida support normalization. If this poll was of voters and proportionally weighed to Miami-Dade County (where Cuban-Americans overwhelmingly reside), the number would be even lower.  But let's take Bendixen's number for what it is.

According to the latest census, nearly 75% of Cuban-Americans live in Florida.

Thus, what type of fuzzy math and methodology was used to get from 41% to 51% support overall for normalization, when non-Florida Cuban-Americans only make up about 25% of the community nationwide?

In order for the math to add up, that would mean nearly 84% of non-Florida Cuban Americans support normalization -- which would clearly be a joke (and 15-points off what even Bendixen purports).

Lo and behold for a journalist to actually probe the math and methodology of a poll that doesn't favor its narrative.

But let's say that's too complicated.

How about just comparing questions?

CNBC was particularly interested in the following Bendixen question:

"Currently U.S. companies like Coca-Cola, Nike and Apple sell their products in communist countries like China and Vietnam. Do you think U.S. companies should be able to sell their products in Cuba?"

Response: 62% said yes, 31% percent said no.

Now compare that to a question in this week's national poll of 1,000 likely voters by On Message:

"As you may know, the Cuban government prohibits ordinary Cubans from engaging in foreign trade and investment. Every dollar of foreign commerce transacted with Cuba is done with the government. Knowing this, do you favor or oppose the United States lifting sanctions towards Cuba?"

Response: 60% oppose lifting sanctions, only 27% favor. Among Cuban-Americans, this number goes up to 69% oppose, only 25% favor.

Unlike China and Vietnam (which remain brutal dictatorships despite overwhelming U.S. commerce), all foreign trade in Cuba must be conducted though Castro's monopolies. Most of these are owned by the military and security services, which makes Cuba more akin to North Korea in its totalitarian infrastructure.

And that's not to mention how Americans feel about Cuba's trafficking of weapons to North Korea, hosting Russian spy ships, terrorist groups, cop-killers, etc.  See those results here.

But that may be too much for the conscience of those who want to make a quick dollar in Cuba. Or not.

As Cuba Distracted U.S. With Rights "Talks", Dissidents (Literally) Being Repressed

Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Today, Castro regime officials traveled to Washington, D.C. to lecture the Obama Administration on the "real meaning" of human rights and democracy.

Meanwhile -- back in reality -- Cuban dissidents were (literally) being brutally repressed (at the same time) by the Castro regime.

Over a dozen democracy activists took to the streets of Santa Clara in solidarity with their colleague and current political prisoner, Yuriet Pedroso Gonzalez, who has been on a hunger strike for over 30 days protesting his unjust imprisonment.

They were intercepted by the Castro regime's "Special Response Brigades" and violently beaten (men and women alike).

One of the protesters, Marcelino Abreu Bonora, who is also one of the 53 political prisoners released under the Castro-Obama deal, had his nose and jaw broken.

Below is a picture of the beatings and of Abreu's condition afterwards.

Quote of the Day: Cuomo's Cuba (Indiana) Hypocrisy

Now that Andrew Cuomo has banned travel to Indiana, he can cancel his upcoming trip to Cuba, where gay marriage is illegal, political dissidents are imprisoned and tortured, and the Castro regime is on the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Or he can admit that both moves are political stunts meant to bolster his national profile with no grounding in reality or substance.
-- Ed Cox, NYGOP Chair, on Governor Andrew Cuomo's new travel ban to Indiana pursuant to that state's "religious freedom" law , 3/31/15

Cuba Flips the Script on Obama -- Again

As the great Russian chess-master Garry Kasparov tweeted today, "it's easy to make deal if you concede."

That's why the world's most ruthless dictators all want to cut a deal with the Obama Administration -- Burma's junta got a deal, Castro got a deal, the Mullahs are about to get a deal, Assad now wants a deal, as does Maduro, Kim Jong-un, et al.

These Obama deals are all similarly structured -- the United States eases sanctions and pressure, while the dictators offer lots of talk and no action.

This week's "human rights" talks between the United States and Cuba are case and point.

Since Obama's December 17th deal with Castro, repression has continued to rise dramatically in Cuba -- there have been well over 1,200 political arrests; the long-term imprisonment of artist Danilo Maldonado "El Sexto" and rapper Maikel Oksobo "El Dkano"; the re-arrest of over a dozen of the 53 political prisoners released as part of the deal; members of The Ladies in White pelted with tar and forced to abort through blows to the stomach; and the intensified violations in Venezuela, signed, sealed and sponsored by the Castro brothers.

Not to mention every Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that continues to be systematically denied to all Cubans.

Yet, rather than pressing one of the world's most systemic violators of human rights and taking the moral high-ground, the Obama Administration is getting outmaneuvered (again).

Instead, it will be meeting with the Castro regime Washington, D.C. today (at their request) to be lectured on Cuba's human rights "achievements" and how its totalitarian "dictatorship" is indeed a democracy.

In other words, for more talk and distractions.

While back in Cuba -- it's business as usual.

Castro has essentially flipped the script on Obama.

Similarly, last week a U.S. delegation went to Havana to discuss telecommunications (more talk).

The big takeaway?

A State Department official tells Reuters that the Castro regime is "committed" to getting the web to 50% of households and up to 60% mobile phone access (through their tightly-controlled and highly-monitored state monopoly) -- by 2020!

"I believe they are extremely eager to do so," said the ingenuous (or naive) State Department official.

You mean -- like the "glass of milk" Raul promised every Cuban in 2007?

But wait, isn't Raul supposedly not "running for re-election" in 2018?

Tweet of the Day: Every Dictator Wants a Deal With Obama

Majority Oppose Obama’s Cuba Reset When Informed of Rights Abuses

From The Washington Free Beacon:

Majority Oppose Obama’s Cuba Reset When Informed of Rights Abuses

A majority of Americans oppose President Barack Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba when they are informed of reports of continued weapons smuggling and human rights abuses by Raul Castro’s regime, according to a new poll.

In a survey released on Monday by Inter-American Security Watch, a majority of Americans—51 percent to 38 percent—said they initially favored Obama’s efforts to restore ties with Cuba and lift travel and financial restrictions. However, those numbers reversed when the respondents were informed of the latest actions by the Castro regime.

Columbian authorities halted a Chinese ship en route to Cuba earlier this month after discovering illegal explosives and other arms in its cargo, which was supposed to only contain grain. That followed an attempt by a North Korean ship in 2013 to smuggle 240 tons of Cuban weapons concealed under bags of sugar. After being told about the illicit arms shipments, 63 percent of American voters said they opposed removing U.S. sanctions on Cuba.

Cuba also continues to harbor dozens of U.S. fugitives accused of committing murder and acts of terrorism. When informed of Cuba’s practice of offering asylum to Americans wanted for murder and terrorism, 63 percent said they were against removing sanctions, and 68 percent supported keeping the Castro regime on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Overall, 64 percent of Americans said sanctions should remain in place until the Cuban government frees all political prisoners and stages multi-party elections. The Castro regime subjected dissidents to nearly 9,000 short-term detentions last year, a sharp increase compared with recent years.

OnMessage Inc. conducted the poll among 700 likely voters with an oversample of 300 likely Cuban American voters. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.7 percent.

New Poll: Cuba's Hostility and Human Rights Fuel Strong Disapproval of Obama's Policy

Monday, March 30, 2015
From Inter-American Security Watch:

New Poll: Castro’s Hostility and Human Rights Record Fuel Strong Disapproval Of Obama’s Concessions To Regime

The more Americans know about the Castro regime’s record on human rights violations and hostility toward the United States, the more likely they are to strongly disapprove of President Obama’s Cuba gambit, according to a national opinion poll released today by Inter-American Security Watch.

Respondents to the poll initially supported President Obama’s December 17th decision to normalize diplomatic relations and ease travel and financial restrictions with the island by a margin of 51%-38%. However, when the question was posed along with fresh examples of Cuba’s dealings with Russia, North Korea, cop-killers and terrorists, the results were dramatically reversed, with normalization opposed by about 30- to 40-point margins.

When asked if sanctions should be maintained pending progress by Cuba on human rights and elections, respondents agreed 64%-16%; and, when asked if Cuba’s designation as a supporter of terrorism should be maintained because it harbors terrorists, respondents agreed 68-16%.

“President Obama’s decision to cave to Castro was terrible diplomacy and, now we know, foolish politics,” said former U.S. Ambassador Roger F. Noriega of Inter-American Security Watch. “When Americans hear basic facts about Castro’s hostility and human rights violations, they know that the President’s unilateral concessions only emboldened a dangerous, despotic regime.”

Inter-American Security Watch is a web-based resource on developments in Latin America and the Caribbean that have a negative impact on hemispheric stability and U.S. security.

The survey of 700 likely voters, with an over-sample of 300 Cuban-American voters, was taken March 16-23, by the pollster OnMessage Inc.

Please see the polling memo below (or click here):

Cuba Issues National - 3-26 - Memo - FINAL

Nearly 20 Ladies in White Arrested on Palm Sunday

Sunday, March 29, 2015
Around 20 members of Cuba's Ladies in White were arrested on Palm Sunday as they disbursed pamphlets with the pictures of political prisoners from a bus.

They were arrested in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana and taken to detention center in Tarara.

Among those arrested was the leader of The Ladies in White, Berta Soler.

The Ladies in White is a pro-democracy group composed of the wives, mothers, daughters, sisters and other relatives of Cuban political prisoners.

Quote of the Day: Arresting Those Who Poke Fun of Castro

If in Cuba they were to arrest everyone who pokes fun of Fidel and Raul Castro, half of the country would be in prison.
-- Tania Bruguera, Cuban artist, on her colleague Danilo Maldonado "El Sexto," who remains in prison since December 26th for a performance that poked fun of the Castros, 14ymedio, 3/29/15

Tweet of the Day: What is Real Change?

By Cuban democracy leader, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet:

#Cuba Real change would be to establish a constitution that respects the rule of law and allows free, multiparty elections.  

Released Political Prisoners Oppose Obama's New Cuba Policy

Here's what happens when a biased reporter is greeted by reality in Cuba.

Yahoo News' Patrick Symmes can't seem to understand how the 53 political prisoners released under the December 17th deal aren't supportive of Obama's new engagement policy.

He also can't seem to understand how these courageous Cuban dissidents sound just like the so-called "hard-liners" in Miami.

The result is a story full of good substance (to his credit for he could have simply ignored it), but with Symmes constantly insinuating (lecturing) they should instead be supportive of Obama.

Note to Symmes: These released Cuban dissidents are skeptical about Obama's policy for good reason -- because Castro has been using political prisoners as tools of negotiations (to extract concessions) for decades. After the Castro regime gets what it wants, it simply arrests more. And, to wit, there have already been over 1,000 political arrests since December 17th.

From Yahoo News:

Liberated Cuban prisoners to Obama: No more deals like the one that freed us!

It’s just a few lines of blue ink, two words in a neat cursive. “Abajo Fidel” reads the tattoo on Roberto Hernandez Barrios’ left shoulder. But in one of Fidel Castro’s prisons — where Barrios just came from — those are fighting words. They mean, “Down with Fidel.”

Barrios’ right shoulder could bear a tattoo that reads, “Up with Obama,” for it was President Obama’s initiative to open diplomatic relations with Cuba that led to freedom for Barrios and scores of other political prisoners.

When Obama announced that deal in December 2014, most of the focus was on the headline prisoner exchange that started an era of new relations with Cuba. American Alan Gross, jailed for distributing satellite phones paid for by the U.S. government, was set free, and three Cuban spies in the U.S. were returned to Cuba, in what the administration insisted was not a swap. But a lesser-known group of prisoners was involved, 53 individuals who were supposed to be let out of Cuban jails later as a confidence-building measure.

Barrios, 48, was one of them. Some doubted whether Raúl Castro would comply, but on Jan. 8, Barrios was summoned out of his cell at Combinado del Este, Havana’s main prison. That morning, “I was surprised, I didn’t know anything,” Barrios recalls, and a colonel handed him a piece of paper saying he was free. Across Cuba’s archipelago of prisons, similar scenes played out dozens of times as “Obama’s prisoners” were released and sent home over several days in January. Here were men and women who had committed what the Cuban police state considers crimes: calling for elections, handing out fliers, writing anti-government slogans on walls or “failing to conform to the government” as demanded by Cuba’s revolutionary police state.

Barrios’ crime may be the most spectacular of all — he was sentenced to five years in jail simply for distributing copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a U.N. charter that guarantees free speech, free association and political rights. Jail was “a horrible experience,” he said, “locked up with murderers, drug dealers and thieves. … It was a beautiful thing Obama did, for me, for Cuba.” But dig deeper into Barrios’ story, which I did during an hourlong interview at his modest Havana apartment, and you see why he never got an “Up with Obama” tattoo on the other shoulder.

Don’t compromise, he urges the American president. “I’m proud of Obama,” Barrios explains. “He’s part of the change here.” But any opening to the Castros will benefit “them, not the Cuban people.” He doesn’t feel free, even though he’s home again with his wife of 15 years, Niurka Fuentes, who he calls his “Lady of Iron” for standing by him during two years of jail. Although they are together again, he says, “We are still prisoners” of an authoritarian regime.

Asked what Obama should demand from the Castros, Barrios immediately replies, “The liberation of all political prisoners, and free elections,” two perfectly fair demands that would nonetheless torpedo negotiations with the Castros immediately.

“Oh,” Barrios adds, grinning in his dreamland, “and a boat full of cellphones.”

The 53 prisoners are the visible edge of Obama’s diplomacy in Cuba, but a cautionary one. Interviews with a handful of the ex-prisoners in Havana show that they are all grateful to Obama, personally, but they are consistently against his policies, the same ones that freed them. They argue that the U.S. should give no ground to Raúl Castro and that no opening to Cuba is worth compromising the value of human rights, elections or economic embargoes — not even to free prisoners like themselves. They want more isolation and confrontation with their enemy, not less. Call it a principled stand for human rights, or a contradiction of their own experience, but it is hard not to hear a familiar and tragic bitterness in their cries, the Cuban unwillingness to compromise.

Hard-line rhetoric was long associated with an older generation of Cubans from Miami and Havana, who — on both sides — defined themselves by their support for or opposition to Fidel Castro’s revolution. A new era in U.S.-Cuba relations may be here, but the polarized politics are not going away. That demographic of anger may be fading in Miami, but in Havana, it seems to be refreshed almost constantly by a repressive system that has “a huge ability to produce prisons but not food,” according to Havana human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez.

While Obama’s opening has raised expectations among ordinary Cubans sky high, the Havana government has barely seemed to acknowledge that half a century of open hostility has ended. Economic reforms have created some movement in Cuba, but that sense of change seems absent in official propaganda. The familiar slogans of yesteryear are still present everywhere; although the spies known here as the “five heroes” are all back in Cuba, the streets are still full of painted slogans demanding their return. Raúl Castro spoke for only three minutes when he announced the restoration of diplomatic ties last December. Fidel Castro took months to acknowledge the changes, warning Cubans to beware of U.S. intentions.

The Obama initiative is working to open and reform Cuba, if only because the Castros have no alternatives to accepting it. Venezuela, the country’s current sugar daddy, is tottering, and the more pragmatic Raúl Castro is steadily pursuing economic reforms only as a backup plan. He is fundamentally opposed to the goals that are at the heart of Obama’s strategy in Cuba, namely using economic leverage to create a middle class and support independent professionals and civil society. From Havana’s perspective, that looks like a plan to destabilize and overthrow the entire system of controls put in place by the Cuban government. Sanchez notes that the three pillars of rule inside Cuba have always been repression, propaganda and strict economic controls, and the first two are still in place.

During eight months of secret negotiations with Havana, U.S. diplomats worked quietly to assemble a list of political prisoners to be freed in the deal. Sanchez was one of several people approached to confirm an identity, for example, or discuss a particular case, but he never knew that U.S. diplomats were working on something big. As a result of this secrecy, it was difficult to vet or even update the list, and it suffered from inaccuracies. Only 37 of the 53 prisoners were still in jail by the time Obama made his announcement on Dec. 17. That meant that Raúl Castro received credit for freeing 16 people who were, in fact, already free. Obama as well. His list of prisoners was a grab bag of recent, high-profile cases, most of them involving relatively short sentences, and to please the Cubans, it excluded eight people associated with violent attacks on the island. But the group of 50 to 60 political prisoners still in Cuban jails includes at least one person who has already served 25 years and who might have appreciated one of those extra 16 spots.

The group freed abruptly on Jan. 8 includes men like Willberto Parada, who by February was living in a tiny shed in a greasy, crowded, dystopian courtyard of Old Havana. “They let me out” of jail, he told me, “but under limits, thanks to the agreement between Obama and Raúl.” His neighbors who work for the block committee are required to report on him. “They listen to everything,” he said, of people living just feet away, behind improvised walls separating the courtyard into cuarteria, or microapartments. “Cubans have no privacy.”

In March 2013, Parada recounted, he had tried to demonstrate against the government on nearby Obispo Street, the heart of Havana’s tourism district. The first time, he was verbally abused and threatened by police and government sympathizers; the second time, he was beaten, arrested and given four years in jail. He was in the Valle Grande prison on Jan. 8, when, “fantastically,” they “took me out of my cell and gave me a piece of paper saying I was free.”

“My respect for President Obama, he’s a great man,” Parada says, “but he shouldn’t trust Raúl after 53 years. Any changes should benefit the public, not [the Castros].” Parada’s caution was hard-won, and sincere: He expects to continue denouncing the government and was already picked up by the police once since coming home.

On the other side of Havana, many miles from any tourist zone, I found similar sentiments from Haydée Gallardo Salazar, also freed on Jan. 8. She joined a political party called the Movement for a New Republic. Officers of State Security arrested the party’s leader, and as allowed by Cuban law, she went to inquire about him at a public office called Section 21. Instead of information, however, she says she was offered a deal: Work for State Security as a spy. She told them no, after which she says she was berated, called a mercenary and then struck hard on her shoulder. She was then placed under “preventive detention” and taken to a women’s prison. Eventually she was sentenced to two years and six months. The official charge was causing public disorder at Section 21, but, she says, “My supposed crime was to be … a member of the opposition.”

She lost 41 pounds in jail. Getting out of jail hasn’t provided any easy resolutions. “It is one month and three days since my liberation,” she said, in a two-room apartment she shares with her husband, Angel Figueredo Castellón, and framed pictures of cats. Sitting under a Cuban flag, beside a collection of books on freedom and democracy, she says, “I’m still stressed and under a lot of pressure.” The man she called “Oh-ba-MA” had “acted from the heart” in freeing prisoners. But she was “very irritated” with him too. “The only one who will benefit from this opening are the Castros.” Economic improvements will simply fund more government repression. “I don’t agree that they should lift the embargo and make more millionaires.” She made a pyramid in the air with her hands, to represent power in Cuba. “The ones up here are the Castros,” she said. No one else would benefit.

This reaction to Obama’s opening has shattered long-standing friendships in the Cuban opposition. The once-moderate blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo has denounced Obama as every dictator’s best friend, while Yoani Sánchez, author of the influential Generation Y blog, has supported the changes. The island’s most visible opposition group, the Ladies in White, recently expelled a founding member for her support of the Obama plan. Re-enacting the worst aspects of Castro repression, a crowd of enraged civil rights activists in white stormed the offender’s house, chanting and denouncing her, and then literally tarred her.

U.S. policy is predicated on the idea that economic openings, access to information and the rise of a middle class will undermine the Castro system. Gallardo Salazar offered a prayer to “God and Santa Rita” that conditions improve on the island, but said, “We can’t just think about Cubans lacking food and shoes and so on. That’s necessary, but society has to feel secure.”

The Castros were stalling, she suggested, always coming up with another excuse for a fight — little Elián Gonzalez or the repatriation of the five Cuban spies. Now it was indemnity payments for damages dating back decades, or the return of Guantanamo Bay. They blamed the U.S. for everything. “It was the Castros who made Cubans afraid,” she countered. The problem “is internal. Who bans free expression? The Castros. If we had free elections and many political parties, then the Castros wouldn’t be a threat.”

Her wish list for Cuba: “Milk for babies. Food for Cubans. End the repression. The end of the Castros.”

That’s a terse and deceptively simple list. Milk for babies is still rare in today’s Havana, and the only question is how to make more of it: engagement or isolation? Obama simply decided to stop doing the thing that failed year after year, and start doing something else. As the fates of the released prisoners show, that policy is already bearing fruit, however bitter.

How Castro Stole From Regular American Families

From AP:

Who Claims What Property Seized in Cuba? 

Soon after Fidel Castro came to power, his government seized the refineries, hotels and sugar plantations that were the most visible signs of the American hold on the island's economy.

But a look at long-unsettled claims for what was taken shows that many of the Americans who lost out were individuals and families rather than corporations. And much of what was seized, while of limited value in dollars, was sometimes dearly prized.

Nearly 90 percent of the Americans who filed claims for confiscated Cuban property were individuals, according to a Creighton University study commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"They left behind all kinds of stuff — stock, life insurance policies, artwork, cars," says Michael Kelly, a Creighton law professor who participated in the study, released in 2007. "Those '57 Chevys driving around? You know, one out of three of those probably has a claim attached to it....That's going to be a huge problem to unwind."

About 5,900 American claims for confiscated property were certified by the federal Foreign Claims Settlement Commission. Though originally valued at nearly $1.9 billion, adjustments for inflation in the years since mean they are today worth $7 billion or more.

Some of the losses were very large. The American-owned Cuban Electric Company lost power plants worth $268 million, a claim now held by retailer Office Depot Inc. as a result of mergers. International Telephone and Telegraph Corp.'s losses totaled $131 million. Exxon's losses, including a refinery, topped $71 million.

But about eight in 10 of the claims for lost property were valued at $10,000 or less by the FCSC, which over the years has also fielded Americans' petitions for property seized in Iran, Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Such claims are covered by international law, which is generally understood to bar governments from taking the property of foreign citizens or companies without compensation.

About 70 percent of the Cuban claims were for stock. But many involved land or other real estate, with most of that either in Havana or on the former Isle of Pines, off Cuba's southern coast and once home to a large American population. Other claims listed lost pensions, bank accounts and personal property like jewelry and furniture.

When Creighton professors traveled to Cuba nearly a decade ago they went searching for confiscated properties including buildings that once housed a university and a clinic run by a Catholic order of friars.

"There's almost nothing left of it. You can just see half-knocked down walls at that corner," says one professor, Patrick Borchers. "So there's just no going back."

Property Stolen From Americans Can't be Overlooked

From AP:

Americans cling to claims for seized property in Cuba

The smell of Cuban coffee drifts from the kitchen as Carolyn Chester digs through faded photos that fill boxes spread across the dining table.

Friends linked arm-in-arm on a Cuban beach.

Men in suits and women in evening gowns at a Havana nightclub.

And in almost every frame, an American man with a salt-and-pepper mustache and a raven-haired woman -- Chester's parents -- smiling at good fortune that would soon be snatched away.

"I always heard about Cuba ... and all this money that we lost and 'Maybe one day,' but I didn't understand it," Chester says.

Six decades later, that day might finally be nearing for Chester and others like her. To reach it, though, diplomacy will have to settle very old scores.

After Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Cuba confiscated property belonging to thousands of American citizens and companies. Edmund and Enna Chester lost an 80-acre farm, thousands of dollars' worth of stock, and a Buick that might still be plying Havana's streets.

In 1996, Congress passed a law insisting Cuba pay for confiscated property, valued today at $7 billion, before lifting the U.S. embargo.

That went unmentioned in President Barack Obama's December announcement that the countries would resume diplomatic ties. Given Cuba's frail economy, experts say companies whose property was taken might settle for rights to do business there and move on.

But corporations don't cling to memories like families can. That's clear inside Chester's 832-square-foot bungalow, where her mother's gold-framed portrait watches over the yellowing property deed and worthless stock certificates -- reminders that Cuba before Castro is history.

The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, a U.S. agency, has fielded 5,900 claims for confiscated Cuban property. The largest came from corporations, led by U.S.-owned Cuban Electric Company, for power plants valued at $268 million. But most came from individuals and families.

Experts differ on what to make of the American claims, protected by international law.

"You're now dealing in the realm of memory more than anything else," says Robert Muse, an attorney representing companies with claims.

But Mauricio Tamargo, commission chairman until 2010 and now a Washington attorney representing claimants, said confiscations inflicted lasting damage on families.

"Many of them never recovered financially," Tamargo says.

Edmund Chester died in 1975. Enna Chester's death in 2001 left her daughter with old home movies, dense paperwork and debts.

After moving to Omaha in 2006, Carolyn Chester got a job at Creighton University and showed co-workers her Cuba photos.

One day, a colleague mentioned that law school professors were researching claims for confiscated Cuban property. Hadn't Castro taken the Chesters' property, too?

In 2005, U.S. officials had commissioned a study of the claims and strategies for settling them. A group at Creighton won the job. Professors pored over old claims. Two flew to Cuba, searching for the properties.

Some were moldering, others gone.

But Cuba doesn't have the money to pay claims in full, law professor Michael Kelly says. In 2007, Creighton experts cautioned that claims might net just 3 cents on the dollar.

Claimants had long been told losses would be adjusted for inflation. When an investor offered to buy Chester's claim for a fraction of its original $489,000 value, she grew angry and began devoting hours to studying records.

In December, Chester listened as Obama spoke of rewriting policy "rooted in events that took place before most of us were born."

To Chester, the speech signaled the desire of politicians and corporations to look beyond the claims.

But Castro didn't merely take property, she says. He stole her parents' financial security, her father's health -- and her inheritance.

Fifty-six years later, she says, "I'm not going to let him take from me again."