Bipartisan Congressional Support for Cuba Sanctions at Historic High

Friday, June 5, 2015
For those speculating on whether the U.S. Congress will unconditionally lift any sanctions towards Cuba, here are some sobering facts:

The last major Cuba vote that took place on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives was an amendment to the 2007 Farm Bill, which sought to ease a host of travel and financial sanctions. It was defeated 245-182.

Thus, yesterday's 273-153 vote to strengthen restrictions on certain exports and today's 247-176 vote to curtail any new flights and vessels show a historic level of bipartisan Congressional support for U.S. sanctions policy towards Cuba.

That's a pretty resounding challenge sent by the U.S. House of Representatives to the Obama Administration.

Biscet: Obama's Policy Evinces Lack of Knowledge of Cuba's Regime

By Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet in The Washington Examiner:

Only Cubans can make Cuba free

In recent months, the United States has taken steps to recognize the regime of Raul Castro as the legitimate government of Cuba. These steps evince a lack of knowledge of the totalitarian nature of the regime.

Many Americans do not know the extent of the human rights violations committed by the Castro dictatorship. The Castros' victims do not number in the millions like those of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. But their despotic essence is the same.

I can attest that those who work for human rights and democracy in Cuba still receive cruel and inhumane treatment, including torture. Despite the fact that the U.S. removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, the regime continues to terrorize its people, and to harbor terrorists from other countries, including the U.S.

I know that government agents spy on me and my family, as well as many other human rights supporters on the island. Here we live with few freedoms. There is no free press, no privacy, no freedom of association. We live within a system that stifles human dignity.

Let me briefly tell you my story. I am 53 years old. As a young man, I was studious and hard-working. I never had problems with the law. I was working as a physician in Havana when I investigated and exposed Cuban abortion techniques in which babies were being killed after being delivered alive. For the crime of "disrespect," I was sent to prison.

Later, in 1999, after hanging a Cuban flag upside down in protest, I was given a three-year sentence for the crime of "disrespecting patriotic symbols." Fidel Castro publicly gave the order to lock me up, telling a television audience that I was insane and needed treatment. The treatment was jail and torture, including many weeks in punishment cells and solitary confinement.

Upon my release, I began publicly advocating for human rights and democracy, which led to more time in prison. In 2002, I was sentenced to 25 years in prison during Cuba's notorious "Black Spring," in which 90 journalists and human rights advocates were imprisoned.

I was released in 2011, along with more than 50 other political dissidents in an agreement negotiated with the Catholic Church in Cuba. Most of the other prisoners were forcibly exiled from the country, but I refused to leave. I live here in Havana with my dear wife, Elsa, who, along with my children, has borne the brunt of my poor treatment and absence.

I am grateful to the God of the Bible for giving me strength and wisdom during my most difficult moments, including when I was tortured in prison and became very sick. I am also grateful to all the Cubans and people around the world who stand in solidarity with me and with all Cubans who seek freedom.

As a promoter of freedom for Cuba, I believe America's policy of rapprochement with Castro's communist dictatorship will only give the regime credibility and prolong its existence. The result, I believe, will be increased suffering for my compatriots.

It is impossible to empower the individual within a totalitarian dictatorship. History reveals as much in the examples of communist China and Vietnam. We see that in those countries, economic liberalization has not led to more political rights or freedoms for citizens.

Long before the U.S. began thinking about a new approach toward Cuba, I launched the Emilia Project. Emilia is the name of the first Cuban woman banished from the country for political reasons. The project involves using nonviolent resistance to secure basic human rights, democracy and freedom for the people of Cuba.

I know that Americans want the best for Cuba, and there is a role for America to play in helping Cubans secure their freedom. But some of the recent policy changes will only make it more difficult for Cubans to bring about the future they deserve. Ultimately, of course, it is the Cuban people who must claim our liberty and establish our democracy. Only then will Cuba be free.

Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet is a physician and human rights advocate living in Havana. He is president of the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights. While in prison in 2007, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Burma Embodies Dangers of Obama's Cuba Policy

By Mike Gonzalez in Forbes:

Burma Is A Bad Omen For Hopes Of Change In Cuba

Cubans beware: President Obama thinks that his Burma policy is a success and of a piece with his approach to Havana.

Burma and Cuba are half the world apart and couldn’t be more different. The first is Asian, mostly Buddhist but with a beleaguered Muslim minority, and has a population of 50 million. Cuba is in the Caribbean, mainly Catholic but with syncretic, African-influenced rites practiced by some parts of the population, and has only 11 million people.

In one way, however, the two nations are tied at the hip: both are corrupt dictatorships run by generals to whom the Obama has thrown a life line by normalizing relations and halting many sanctions.

And with both, the Obama Administration is asking for nothing in return.

It’s all part a curious foreign policy approach that the President described with some detail at a White House meeting Monday with a group of 75 members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. According to the President, Burma, Cuba and Iran are foreign policy successes.

The President explained to his audience that transitions from military rule to democracy by some Southeast Asia nations had offered an example to Burma (which he invariably calls Myanmar, the name the generals gave it in the 1990s) as it prepares for elections in November.

“That, I think, created more space within Myanmar, and President Thein Sein, to feel that this is possible,” said Obama of the general-turned-President.

“I think the people of Myanmar deserve the credit for this new opening,” he said, apparently believing that they are in charge of their own fate. But only up to a point; he himself deserves some recognition: “But my visit there didn’t hurt, in trying to reinforce the possibilities of freedom for 40 million people,” he added. The President visited Burma in 2012 and again last November.

It was all part of the successful diplomatic legacy Mr. Obama said he will leave behind after his two terms in office.

“People don’t remember: when I came into office, the United States in world opinion ranked below China and just barely above Russia. But today, once again, the United States is the most respected country on earth,” the President boasted.

“Part of that,” he added, “is because of the work that we did to re-engage the world. It’s the reason why we’re moving in the direction of normalizing relations with Cuba and the deal what we’re trying to negotiate with Iran, (and), you know, our efforts to help encourage democracy in Myanmar.”

That Burma is included with Cuba in the list of what re-engagement hath wrought confirms, however, what I and others have written: that the Administration’s Cuba policy would lead at best to a Caribbean version of the transitions we have seen in China, Vietnam and Burma—which amounts to little political change at all. As opposed to the East European transitions, where democracy and free markets triumphed, in the Asian models members of former regimes remain in charge, are dedicated mostly to enriching themselves and denying their people freedom.

Corruption reigns in Burma, with Transparency International rating it 156 out of 175 countries in its Corruption Perception Index. The Heritage Foundation gives it an overall rating of 161 in a list of 178 in its Index of Economic Freedom.

As for “the possibilities of freedom,” Burma’s former generals are firmly in charge and are set to retain power after the elections, which many observers believe will not be fair. The Constitution gives the military an automatic 25% of parliament, granting an effective veto on any amendment.

The opposition leader who has won elections but has never been able to lead the country, Aung San Suu Kyi, will not be allowed to run. The Constitution bans people with close relatives who are foreign to run for parliament, and Suu Kyi’s late husband was British.

Suu Kyi says the Constitution is “unfair, unjust and undemocratic,” but she also reserves criticism for President Obama’s approach. Two months ago she told Reuters that President Obama’s praise for the Burmese government “makes them more complacent.”

“The United States and the West in general are too optimistic and a bit of healthy skepticism would help everybody a great deal,” the 1991 Nobel laureate said.

Professor Sean Turnell, a Burma expert at Australia’s Macquarie University, wrote me that Obama “talks of ‘democracy in Burma’ as if such a thing is in prospect under existing arrangements and laws. No democracy will be established in the elections of November (should they go ahead), simply because these elections are already rigged. The overwhelmingly desired candidate is not allowed to run, the army will retain a veto over constitutional change and the dominant say in who becomes President, while great swathes of Burma’s population are being made ineligible to vote.”

As for the President’s trip there last November, Dr. Turnell said, “The great change on the ground since Obama’s visit has been the very substantial backsliding on reforms.”

Burma is ahead of Cuba, as President Obama initiated his rapprochement in 2012, and if its fate is a promise of things to come for the island, then Cubans’ hopes of freedom will be dashed. As former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega put it, “U.S. policy in both countries is a figment of the President’s imagination.”

It is instructive, too, that President Obama compared his approach to Cuba and Burma with his talks with Iran on how to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Mr. Obama has met stiff opposition in Congress on both Cuba and Iran. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Monday that he would block any attempt to confirm a U.S. ambassador to Cuba until Havana made concessions to advance human rights and democracy. Congress can play a similar role on Burma, keeping the Administration honest and true to American values.

Perhaps the Obama legacy will be the propping up of failing, undemocratic and all-around unsavory regimes, with only Congress offering a last line of defense.

House Votes to Curtail Flights and Vessels to Cuba

Thursday, June 4, 2015
This morning, by a vote of 247-176, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a provision that would prohibit the use of confiscated property by any new flights or vessels authorized for travel to Cuba.

The provision in the Transportation Appropriations bill ("THUD Appropriations"), supported by more than 25 Democrats, ensures that no new flights or vessels approved for travel to Cuba under President Obama's new policy can be facilitated through, or benefit from, confiscated property.

In other words, that the Castro regime should not be able to use stolen property for its commercial benefit.

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) sought to remove the provisions from the bill, but failed in her effort.

This is the second floor vote in two days in which President Obama's Cuba policy has been rejected by a bipartisan majority of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Yesterday, the House supported a provision -- by a vote of 273-153 -- in the Commerce, Justice Appropriations bill ("CJS Appropriations") ensuring that no U.S. exports can be facilitated through entities owned or controlled by officers of the Cuban military and security services, or their immediate family.

House Votes Overwhelmingly to Tighten Cuba Sanctions

Wednesday, June 3, 2015
This afternoon, by a vote of 273-153, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a provision that would tighten sanctions against the Castro regime.

The provision in the FY 2016 Commerce, Justice Appropriations ("CJS Appropriations") bill, supported by more than 30 Democrats, would ensure that no exports to Cuba under President Obama's new "Support for the Cuban People" category can go through entities owned or controlled by officers of Cuba's military ("MINFAR") and security services ("MININT"), or their immediate relatives.

U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) sought to remove the provision from the bill, but failed in his effort.

It's really hard to understand how any Member of Congress, let alone President Obama, could support doing business directly with Cuba's repressive military and security apparatus.

Fortunately, this common-sense provision, supported by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of the House, would prohibit such immoral and reprehensible transactions.

Senators Introduce Bill To Deny Resources To Castro's Military And Security Services

Senators Introduce Bill To Deny Resources To Castro's Military And Security Services

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) today introduced the “Cuban Military Transparency Act,” bipartisan legislation that would ensure any increase in resources to Cuba reach the Cuban people by prohibiting financial transactions with the Castro regime’s military and security services.

The bill’s co-sponsors include: Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Cory Gardner (R-CO), David Vitter (R-LA) and Mark Kirk (R-IL).

“It is not in the interest of the United States or the people of Cuba for the U.S. to become a financier of the Castro regime’s brutality,” said Rubio. “The Cuban Military Transparency Act would prevent U.S. dollars from getting into the hands of the Cuban military and would demand accountability from the Obama Administration regarding fugitives of American justice in Cuba, the return of stolen and uncompensated property and the role of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior in Cuba.”

“U.S. policy should be guided by one, single principle – supporting the Cuban people’s aspirations for a democratic future,” Menendez said. “With the Cuban government and armed forces controlling more than 80 percent of the country’s economy, current efforts to expand commerce and travel to Cuba only enrich the Castros’ military monopolies. The Cuban military uses these funds to violate human rights and jail its opponents. This common sense legislation aims to ensure the American public is not a blind accomplice to the Castro regime’s repression.”

“The United States must stand squarely on the side of the Cuban people and take every possible action to weaken the brutal rule of the Castro regime,” said Cotton. “This bill is one such step. It denies the Castro security services hard currency and aims to hold the regime accountable for its past crimes and misdeeds.”

“The Obama administration has already sent terrible signals to Fidel and Raul Castro by relaxing economic sanctions on Cuba and removing their regime from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List,” Cruz said. “It is now beholden on Congress to intervene and ensure that this misguided policy does not result in our facilitating the Castros’ more than fifty years of aggressive hostility towards the United States and our allies. I commend Sen. Rubio for his work on the Cuban Military Transparency Act, and I am proud to co-sponsor this legislation that will prevent America from enabling Cuba’s odious security apparatus. Congress should send a clear directive to the President: We will stand with the Cuban people and promote freedom and prosperity, but we will not assist the Communist regime that has oppressed them for so long.”

“For over 50 years, the Castro dictatorship has brutally repressed the Cuban people,” said Gardner. “Despite President Obama’s historic change in policy this year, the Cuban authorities continue to jail dissidents and abuse the human rights of their citizens. This legislation would ensure that any economic benefit gained by Cuba from our policy shift does not finance the regime’s police state, but directly benefits the Cuban people.”

“The Castro’s regime of internal and external terror should never be funded with American money,” Kirk said. “The U.S. policy toward Cuba should always seek to hold the Castro regime fully accountable while supporting the Cuban people's internationally recognized human rights and aspirations for freedom.”

The “Cuban Military Transparency Act” would:

  • Identify and prohibit financial transactions with the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, the Ministry of the Interior, their sub-divisions and leadership;
  • Amend the Department of State’s Rewards for Justice Program to include the arrest or conviction of the individuals responsible for the February 24th 1996 deadly attack on United States aircraft;
  • Direct the Attorney General to coordinate with Interpol regarding the capture of U.S. fugitives in Cuba;
  • Direct the President to provide reports on the role of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior in Cuba and the return of property that has been confiscated by the Government of Cuba; and
  • Provide exemptions for current “cash-in-advance” sale of agricultural commodities, medicine and medical devices and remittances to family members and transactions related to democracy promotion programs.

Over 641 Political Arrests in May

From EFE:

Dissident group: 641 political arrests during May in Cuba

The dissident Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, or CCDHRN, reported Wednesday that in May there were at least 641 politically-motivated arrests on the communist island, almost double the number registered the previous month and the highest monthly total in the past 10 months.

"The current and palpable uptrend in indiscriminate and often violent political repression against women and men who are only intending to exercise basic civil and political rights in a completely peaceful way continues to be alarming," said the report on political repression put out each month by the CCDHRN.

The organization also said that, in May, 88 "peaceful opposition figures" were victims of physical attacks, vandalism, harassment and "acts of repudiation" attributable to the secret political police or State Security.

Renowned Real Estate Developer: No Real Change In Cuba While Castro's in Power

Tuesday, June 2, 2015
From CNBC:

Sorry, Cuba not ready for real estate investors: Ross

After a recent trip to Cuba, billionaire real estate developer Stephen Ross said Tuesday the country isn't really open for business as long as the Castro government is in power.

"You hear a lot about Cuba. You hear a lot about what opportunities there might be in Cuba. I didn't find there were lot of great opportunities. It was like going back in time," the chairman and founder of global real estate firm The Related Companies said Tuesday on CNBC's "Squawk Box."

President Barack Obama moved to normalize ties with Cuba at the end of last year, making it easier for American tourists to visit the country. On Friday, the United States dropped Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Ross said he does not expect to see any real change in Cuba so long as the country's leaders remain in power. Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul, have maintained control of the country for more than half a century.

"You need a government that really wants change, that really wants business, and really wants to see growth, and you don't really have any of that feeling at all," Ross said.

Obama Turns a Blind-Eye to Cuba’s Transgressions

By Frank Calzon in The Miami Herald:

Obama administration turns a blind eye to Cuba’s transgressions

As Gen. Raúl Castro celebrates his removal from the U.S. State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, President Obama’s finding that Havana “no longer supports international terrorism” is not one to be taken seriously in Washington.

On Feb. 28, just weeks before the U.S. president embraced the Cuban dictator in Panama, the Colombian Navy seized a Chinese freighter, the Da Dan Xia en route to Havana. The vessel’s cargo? “Around 100 tons of powder, 2.6 million detonators, 99 projectiles and around 3,000 cannon shells,” according to Colombia’s daily, El Espectador. The weapons and war materiel were hidden in the hole of the ship under 28,451 tons of cereal. Norinco, a Chinese government enterprise, was readily identified as the manufacturer.

Colombia’s defense minister told the newspaper the military “has confiscated from FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a communist insurgency), and destroyed, Norinco-manufactured rifles and pistols throughout the country.”

China characterized the Da Dan Xia’s cargo as “an absolutely normal operation of commercial and military cooperation.” It offered no explanation as to why a “normal” transaction would be buried under cereal. For Havana, hiding its trade in weaponry and war materiel appears to be its modus operandi. Two years ago, Cuba attempted to export war planes and missiles parts to North Korea under tons of Cuban sugar. That trade was in direct violation of sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

Given President Obama’s commitment to normalizing relations with Cuba, and Colombia’s ongoing negotiations in Havana with the FARC to end the insurgency, the Da Dan Xia was released along with its cargo.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is not a firebrand looking for a showdown with President Obama, like, say, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Santos wasn’t going to risk spoiling the summit for either the United States or Cuba. Much of Latin America faces the same dilemmas that Colombia faces.

For the sake of American security, however, the U.S. Congress should be asking more questions about Obama’s U.S.-Cuba rapprochement and whether there are any real benefits for Cubans or the United States absent any true economic or political reforms in Cuba.

The Panama Summit was an unprecedented “love fest” for Raúl Castro and President Obama. Castro flew hundreds of Cuban security agents to Panama to disrupt conferences on civil society that the Panamanian government had organized to coincide with the summit. Among those agents was Alexis Frutos Weeden, an intelligence officer stationed in Caracas who has been advising and training Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s police force on how to repress Venezuela’s democratic opposition.

Panamanian TV broadcast Col. Frutos beating up Americans trying to place a wreath at the base of a statue of Jose Martí, Cuba’s national hero. Washington officials believe the beating of Americans by Cuban intelligence agents is a “judicial” matter for the Panamanian courts.

After acquiescing to demands to delist Cuba from the list of terrorist states, the administration has little clout to steer Cuba under Raúl toward reform.

Raúl won’t get more reasonable about establishing a rule of law in Cuba, holding free elections, introducing and sustaining economic reforms. Nor is he likely to allow the United States to try the Cuban military pilots indicted for murder in the 1996 shootdown of two civilian American aircraft over the Straits of Florida that killed three Americans and one Florida resident. Raúl, who headed Cuba’s military at the time, gave the order to down the planes and gave the pilots medals for their “courage.”

Many believe Obama has granted Raúl impunity now and forever for that crime or others, but having put away the U.S. “stick” he’s certainly come close to being Raúl’s enabler.

State, Foreign Ops Appropriations Prohibits Funding for Cuban Embassy

The House Appropriations Committee has just released its FY 2016 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill.

This bill funds the operations of the State Department.

As the bill's summary highlights, it contains the following prohibitions:

CubaThe bill includes a prohibition on funds for an embassy or other diplomatic facility in Cuba, beyond what was in existence prior to the President’s December announcement proposing changes to the U.S.-Cuba policy. It also restricts funds to facilitate the opening of a Cuban embassy in the U.S., increases democracy assistance and international broadcasting to Cuba, and provides direction to the Secretary of State on denying the issuance of visas to members of the Cuban military and the Communist party.

This is the third must-pass Appropriations bill with Cuba limitations.

The Commerce, Justice Appropriations bill contains a provision ensuring that none of the exports authorized under the Obama Administration's new "Support for the Cuban People" category (under Commerce Department regulations) can be funneled through entities owned or controlled by the Castro regime's military or security services.

And the Transportation Appropriations bill contains language prohibiting the use of confiscated property for new travel -- by airplane or vessels -- to Cuba.

Rubio: I’ll Oppose Cuba Ambassador Absent Results In Four Key Areas

Monday, June 1, 2015
Rubio: I’ll Oppose Cuba Ambassador Absent Results In Four Key Areas

Washington, D.C. – As the Obama Administration formally removed the Castro regime from the United States’ State Sponsors of Terrorism List, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, urged Secretary of State John Kerry to prioritize action in four key areas as negotiations continue regarding the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba and the possible re-opening of the U.S. embassy in Havana.

Absent concrete results on political reforms and human rights, the repatriation of U.S. terrorists and fugitives being harbored in Cuba, resolving uncompensated property claims, and removal of restrictions on U.S. diplomats in Cuba, Rubio pledged to oppose the confirmation of any nominee to be U.S. Ambassador to Cuba.

Below is the letter to Kerry:

June 1, 2015

The Honorable John Kerry
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20220

Dear Secretary Kerry,

As the Obama Administration officially removes the Castro regime from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List and you continue high-level negotiations with Cuba in regards to the possible re-opening of the United States Embassy in Havana, there are several issues that I urge you to resolve prior to any agreement being reached. Despite more than five months of discussions with the Cuban government, I am very concerned about the lack of political reforms, and progress on human rights; the continued harboring of known terrorists and other fugitives from U.S. justice; the outstanding American property claims and judgments against the Cuban government; and the limitations that continue to be placed on American diplomats working in Havana. By conditioning any normalization of relations with Cuba on these topics and other areas, the U.S. can leverage the prospect of improved bilateral relations to obtain tangible benefits for both the American and Cuban peoples.

I intend to oppose the confirmation of any potential U.S. Ambassador until the following issues are satisfactorily addressed.

The first relates to political reforms and human rights. President Obama himself stated that “Proudly, the United States has supported democracy and human rights in Cuba through these five decades.” It is extremely important that this support continues as political arrests and repression against peaceful dissidents has spiked since the negotiations. Establishing diplomatic relations with the Castro regime without verified improvements in the situation faced by the Cuban people would not be consistent with our values as a nation and the intent of the U.S. Congress, as codified in law. It is also important that pro-democracy activities not be sacrificed in the name of “diplomacy” just so that we can change the name of a building from “Interest Section” to “Embassy”.

Secondly, I urge you to make central to the current talks the repatriation of known terrorists and other fugitives from U.S. justice. The FBI believes there are more than 70 fugitives from justice that are being provided safe-harbor by the Castro regime. These include Joanne Chesimard, a cop-killer on the FBI's Top Ten Most Wanted Terrorists list, Frank Terpil, a renegade CIA agent who became an assassin-for-hire and arms smuggler for Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and William Morales, a convicted FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional) bomb maker who conducted a terror bombing campaign in New York. Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson testified that “Our future discussions… will expand the avenues available to seek the return of American fugitives from justice”. The victims of these violent individuals, who are being openly harbored by Cuba's dictatorship, deserve justice now, prior to the establishment of diplomatic relations.

Third, there are billions of dollars of outstanding American property claims against the Cuban government. In the past, as in the case of Libya, the United States has not normalized relations with countries subject to outstanding American claims until they have been resolved or a process for their resolution has been established. There are thousands of verified American claimants who have been waiting for decades to be compensated for the Castro regime's illegal expropriation of their property and assets. There are also billions of dollars in outstanding judgments from U.S. federal courts against the Cuban government for acts of terrorism. Prior to the establishing of diplomatic relations, the Cuban government should be forced to compensate all of the verified claimants.

Finally, there are currently many limitations placed on U.S. diplomats stationed in the U.S. Interest Section in Havana. U.S. diplomats are typically not allowed outside Havana except for special requests. If we expect our diplomats to be the emissaries of democracy, they must have the freedom to travel the island and meet with pro-democracy groups. The ability to move freely around the island is paramount to observing the human rights abuses that the Castro regime continues to perpetrate against its own people. Also, the ability to securely supply and upgrade any U.S. facility at our sole discretion should not be impeded. Our diplomatic personnel deserve to feel that they are safe and secure in our embassy, and that our diplomatically sensitive shipments are free from Cuban intelligence services interception. We must also demand complete control over which Cuban nationals are hired to work at any U.S. facility.

I hope to see a free and democratic Cuba, but that means we must confront the authoritarian Castro regime that suppresses its own people, not acquiesce to their demands. It is important for the United States to continue being a beacon of freedom for the Cuban people. I intend to work with my colleagues to block the Administration’s efforts to pursue diplomatic relations with Cuba and name an Ambassador to Havana until substantive progress is made on these important issues.

Sincerely,

Marco Rubio

Obama's Cuba Smokescreen

By Amb. James C. Cason in The Washington Examiner:

Obama's Cuba thaw: a foreign policy or a smokescreen?

President Obama's efforts to normalize relations with the Castro dictatorship in Cuba — most recently seen in his administration's decision to remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism — have obscured questions over what should be done to help Cubans be free to choose their own destiny. Cubans aspire to live in a democracy and within an economic system that would permit them — and not just those associated with the military or the Castro family — to improve their lives by engaging in economic activities independent from the government.

On December 17, Obama announced that his administration had carried out 18 months of secret negotiations to normalize relations with Havana. As a result, Cuban President Raul Castro released an American hostage named Alan Gross, a development worker who had been sentenced to prison by a kangaroo court for giving laptops and a satellite telephone to a small Cuban Jewish group. For that "crime," Gross had spent five years in Cuba's notoriously squalid prisons.

In exchange, Obama freed three Cuban spies, one of whom was serving a life-sentence for his participation in the murder of three innocent Americans and a Florida resident in international airspace.

Obama also announced that the Cuban dictator would release 53 Cuban political prisoners. But some of them have been re-incarcerated, and by early January Amnesty International reported that it had been receiving "worrying reports" about an increase in harassment and short-term detentions of dissidents. Amnesty warned that "[p]risoner releases will be no more than a smokescreen if they are not accompanied by expanded space for the free and peaceful expression of all opinion and freedoms in Cuba."

Mind you, the increasing repression occurred while the conversations between Washington and Havana were taking place.

It is difficult to understand how anyone could conclude that the same regime that increased its repression and abuse during is negotiations with the U.S. will become more tolerant and respectful of human rights once its military and security forces are strengthened by the influx of hundreds of millions of dollars from the new American policies.

Now the smokescreen is on. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reports from Havana that 1,618 Cuban dissidents were arrested during the first four months of 2015.

On February 9, The Guardian reported on the arrest of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and the confiscation of her passport for attempting "to stage a performance about free speech in Havana." There are other artists in prison due to their political views.

On May 25, more than 200 Cuban dissidents were arrested, including members of The Ladies in White, a group of mothers, wives and daughters of political prisoners who attend Sunday mass. That day internationally-recognized Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez tweeted: "Sundays are not anymore family peaceful days…but journeys of beatings, menacing and dungeons."

Cuban philosopher Alexis Jardines, currently teaching at Florida International University, told me, "President Obama is clinging to the illusion that economic changes brought about by normalizing relations will work in favor of political changes. But he does not ask about the nature of those changes. And that's why he committed the elemental mistake of negotiating without conditions."

In the new "normalizing environment," Professor Jardines says, "people define themselves either as supporters of unconditional negotiations with the Cuban regime or as advocates of focusing on the interests of the Cuban people."

After almost two years of talks, one must conclude that rather than concentrate on bilateral relations, the U.S. should have urged Castro to talk to his own citizens, to listen to them and to allow them a voice in government.

At some point, Cubans will recover their freedom and rebuild their nation. When they do, I hope they will be able to forget this current misguided chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations.

Ambassador James C. Cason served 38 years in the U.S. Foreign Service. He was Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana for three years. He is currently Mayor of Coral Gables, Florida and serves pro bono as president of the Center for a Free Cuba. 

How Florida Bar Lawyers Became Accessories of Cuba's Regime

This story doesn't tell us anything we don't know, or the Florida Bar lawyers on the trip should have known, about Cuba's repression.

However, what's most concerning is how these Florida lawyers became accomplices of the regime in order not to insult their "hosts." 

Rather than exporting "freedom" for the Cuban people, these trips are fostering silence and "self-censorship" among American travelers.

By Julie Kay in The Daily Business Review:

She Learned Firsthand Just How Lacking in Basic Freedoms Cuba is

On the day that Cuba was officially removed from the U.S. list of state-sponsored terrorism, I was banned from writing any stories while in Cuba.

So much for change.

I was in Cuba last week with some 30 lawyers from the International Section of the Florida Bar. The trip was controversial from the start. Florida Bar officials, including president Gregory Coleman, insisted that I state that this was not a Florida Bar-sanctioned trip and was not voted on by the Bar's board of governors, but was the decision of one section of the Bar.

And the president of the Cuban American Bar Association sent a letter of protest to all the members of the International Section, pointing out all the human rights abuses still taking place there.

But I asked to go and was thrilled when Peter Quinter, head of the International Section and a partner at GrayRobinson, agreed.

I knew many of the lawyers going on the trip, including former American Bar Association president Stephen Zack, Squire Pattons Boggs attorney Barbara Alonso and St. Thomas University law professor Marcia Narine.

I had never been to Cuba, and I'm not Cuban American. But I saw the trip was a great opportunity for a Miami journalist, or any journalist for that matter, with so many changes afoot—the terrorist designation change, imminent opening of embassies and law firms clamoring to open offices in Cuba or establish relationships with Cuban law firms.

Through day two, everything was going fine. Our five-star hotel, the Parque Central, was packed with a cross section of tourists from Canada, the United States and Europe—many attending an international art show, businessmen looking for opportunities and of course, our group.

I attended a lecture by a young Cuban attorney that morning. He spoke frankly about the Cuban legal system, relating how when a Cuban is arrested, he can be jailed without the right to see a lawyer or make a phone call for 72 hours. After a week, the prosecutor decides whether to grant the person bail or not.

He called the criminal system "disgusting."

The lawyer also discussed how students become lawyers, how the decision is made by the government based on their test scores, and how 79 percent of law students are female and only 10 percent black.

He also had positive things to say about the legal system, noting that bribery and corruption of judges does not exist in Cuba.

After taking copious notes, asking the lawyer questions and snapping his picture after the lecture, I went to the lobby—the only place the Internet worked—to write my story.

That night, while our group was eating dinner at a lovely, outdoor restaurant, our tour guide approached me with his cellphone. Someone had emailed him a copy of my story, already posted online.

"This headline is going to ruin that young lawyer's life," he yelled at me. The headline related how a Cuban lawyer declared the country's legal system "disgusting."

I later found out the tour guide had failed to tell the lawyer—or any of the speakers—a reporter was in the room. WHAT?

I assume the tour guide had little experience dealing with reporters. "This was supposed to be a positive story," he said. "You need to filter everything here."

I was incredulous. I had basically regurgitated everything the lawyer had said. I did no independent research, put no "spin" on the story.

Luckily, we were able to get my web editor on the phone and he changed the headline to something innocuous: "Cuban lawyer assesses Cuban legal system."

The rest of the dinner was tense. I could see the tour guide was trying to turn the lawyers against me. One—a friend—came up to me and said tersely, "Can you change the headline? I feel so bad for this man."

Things did not improve on the bus ride home. When we pulled back into our hotel, the tour guide took the microphone and announced to the group that he was kicking me off the tour. "Julie's a good person," he said. "But her Cuban American copy editor created this headline. And I have to take a stand."

I was stunned that not one of the lawyers—some of them my friends—said a word. I later learned they were in shock and had meetings throughout the night about the situation.

Quinter tried to calm me, taking me to the rooftop pool for a chat. I went back to my room a little nervous. I felt bad for the lawyer, but I was also concerned about what might happen to me. I felt like calling a friend but was afraid to even talk openly on the phone.

I woke up that morning feeling better, if not growing a bit angry. Kick me off the tour? After I paid all that money? He better at least get me a ride to the airport, I thought. Anyway, I knew that U.S. Sen. Al Franken was in town for a press conference in Havana on the terrorism designation being lifted. I figured I'll just go cover that. I'll find my own stories, I thought.

I parked myself in the lobby to email my editor about what had happened with the tour guide, and Zack approached me. "You're back on the tour," they said. "Try to remember the spirit of this tour," added the tour guide.

I found out that the group of lawyers, instead of hearing the lecture they came to hear about investment schedule for 9 a.m., spent 45 minutes discussing whether I should be kicked off the tour. The tour guide made his best case to remove me, I'm told, and even to write a letter of complaint to the newspaper.

I'm happy to say that none of the lawyers went along with his plan. I'm told they informed him we have something called freedom of the press in our country.

They did, I'm told, agree to write some sort of letter for the young lawyer to have as cover in case the government came calling. I never saw that letter.

Phew, I thought. I emailed my editor with the good news. "We're back," I said.

I sat through another lecture about foreign investment, then returned to the lobby to write up my story. That's when I saw the tour guide approaching again. "What now?" I thought.

"We have another problem," he said. We had a Cuban tour guide accompanying us through the entire tour. After he had made such a fuss, she had notified her government bosses about the situation. They decided I was banned from writing any more stories during my trip since I had failed to obtain a journalist license.

Now I had specifically asked the guide beforehand if I needed a journalist license. "No," was the answer, "you're with a special group."

I made the decision not to post any more stories while in Cuba and just save them up for when I returned to the United States. I had no desire to see the inside of a Cuban prison.

I enjoyed the rest of the trip anyway. In addition to the interesting lectures, I got to meet taxi drivers and shopkeepers and hear their stories. Like the lawyer, they were quite candid, telling me how they pray for an end to the embargo and how they are suffering. "Socialism doesn't work," one taxi driver said. "We're just people, like you," a shopkeeper said.

My last heart-stopping moment came at the airport, when I went to check in and the lady behind the counter said, "You're not on the list." She grabbed my passport and visa and left for 20 minutes. "Please don't leave me," I said to Zack, who was standing next to me. "I'm not going anywhere," he said.

Turns out there was a snafu and I was supposed to be on an earlier flight. They found a seat for me and I was never so happy as when I heard the sound of my passport being stamped.

People keep asking me whether the young Cuban lawyer got into any trouble. As he told me, things happen slowly in Cuba. You don't get arrested so much anymore, they just make your life miserable.

"I really like that you have freedom to say what you want," he told me. "We don't."

I pray that he's OK.

Rihanna Hires Castro's Secret Police for Security

Sunday, May 31, 2015
There has been a frenzy about this week's trip to Cuba by pop star, Rihanna.

She was reportedly in Havana filming a music video and photo shoot for Vanity Fair magazine.

Journalists and fans who tried to get a glimpse of Rihanna were confronted by a team of bodyguards -- composed of Cuban nationals.

These Cuban bodyguards used great violence, including pricking the journalists (from NBC and the Spanish agency EFE) with needles (see image caught below).

Clearly, Rihanna, Vanity Fair or the music video's producer hired Cuba's "secret police" to provide protection.

The only entity that provides these "services" in Cuba is called Servicios Especializados de Proteccion (SEPSA), a "private security" firmed owned and operated by Cuba's Ministry of the Interior (MININT).

The MININT is the government ministry tasked with intelligence activities and repression against the Cuban people.

They make money through a host of business subsidiaries, including SEPSA, which provides VIP security services.

Interesting to note that pricking with needles is a favorite tactic used by Castro's secret police against peaceful dissidents.

It was one such prick in 2011, presumably from an infected needle, which resulted in the sudden illness and death of the leader and founder of the female dissident group, The Ladies in White, Laura Pollan.

(Click here to read more about Pollan's mysterious death.)

Regardless of how you feel about U.S. policy, such transactions with Cuba's MININT should be prohibited.

It's like hiring the Stasi, KGB or Securitate for "private security."

It's an abomination.

Note to Treasury: Are Hookers and Booze Part of Educational Travel?

It's one thing for this school to get privately sued for its illegal activities.

However, shouldn't the Treasury Department also take enforcement action?

Surely hookers and underage drinking aren't part of any educational travel license.

From The Gothamist:

Prep School Official Accused Of Taking Students To Cuba & Getting Them A Hooker

An administrator at the private Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn took two students on a trip to Cuba and purchased them booze, cigars and a hooker, according to a recent lawsuit filed in Brooklyn state Supreme Court.

The suit, filed by employee and alumna Lisa Della Pietra, claims that Poly's Head of Development, Steven Andersen, used school funds to take two senior boys and another alumnus to Cuba in March 2013, first calling the jaunt a "wrestling trip" and later claiming it was part of the students' senior project.

And from the sound of things, this was no typical school trip—the suit alleges that Anderson "paid a prostitute to entertain the students as a ‘rite of passage,’ and drank alcohol to excess and smoked Cuban cigars with them.” Della Pietra also claims Andersen, who was her boss, admitted to her that he went on the trip to invest in a "nest egg," and that he and the two boys had "fun" with a hooker who came to his room looking for tampons.

Della Pietra has accused the school of trying to cover up the trip in order to protect the aforementioned musician. She also claims Andersen intimidated and threatened her, and took bribes from other alumni.

For Eighth Straight Sunday, Nearly 100 Cuban Dissidents Arrested

For the eighth straight Sunday, nearly 100 Cuban dissidents were arrested as they tried to attend Sunday Mass and peacefully congregate after.

In Havana alone, 59 members of The Ladies in White were arrested, along with 25 other human rights activists.

That's two months in which -- week after week -- dozens of dissidents have been arrested.

That's two months in which -- week after week -- the Obama Administration has remained silent (to not rock-the-boat in their negotiations).

That's two months in which -- week after week -- the media and the world turn a blind-eye (following Obama's lead or Obama leading from behind).

Below is a picture of Ruben Dario, a 23-year old Cuban dissident who was beaten today for accompanying The Ladies in White.

Must-Watch Video: Brutally Beaten Cuban Dissident

Last week, over 250 Cuban dissidents were arrested without a peep from the Obama Administration.

Since December 17th, even honest members of the Obama Administration, like U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, who used to periodically tweet about rights abuses in Cuba, have chosen (or been told) to be remain silent.

Nothing that will rock the boat in Obama's romancing of the Castro regime.

But take a close look at the following video of Roilan Alvarez, an activist with the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU).

Listen and watch closely to the daily violence being unleashed -- amidst Obama's silence -- against these peaceful dissidents.

Watch below (or click here):

De-Listing Means Little for Companies Seeking Cuba Business

From The Wall Street Journal:

Little Change For Companies Seeking Cuba Business After De-Listing

Companies face essentially the same landscape in Cuba as they did when it was listed by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terrorism, legal experts told Risk & Compliance Journal.

The U.S. on Friday formally removed Cuba from its list of state terrorism sponsors, the latest step toward normalizing relations between the two countries. President Barack Obama recommended the de-listing to Congress last month, triggering a 45-day period for lawmakers to oppose it, but they didn’t make any effort to do so. However, experts said, the decision has little effect on companies seeking to do business in Cuba.

“For the U.S. business community to get what it wants regarding Cuba, it has to be done legislatively,” said Richard Matheny, a partner at Goodwin Procter LLP, who was referring to the embargo, parts of which date back to the early 1960s.

Cuba was placed on the state-terror sponsor list in 1982. Countries on the list, which as of Friday only include Iran, Sudan and Syria, are barred from receiving U.S. economic aid and arms, and other restrictions.

“The act [of de-listing] is largely symbolic domino. It may soften up folks in Congress and embolden them to revisit the embargo,” said Mr. Matheny.

Mr. Obama announced in December he would seek to normalize relations with Cuba; Havana had said its listing as a state terrorism sponsor was a major hindrance toward that goal. The two countries have held four rounds of talks, and U.S. and Cuban officials said last week, according to a Wall Street Journal report, that re-establishing embassies could be completed soon.

In the months since Mr. Obama’s announcement, the U.S. has removed dozens of Cubans from its sanctions blacklist and, last week, the Cuban government found a bank — Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Stonegate Bank, that agreed to open an account for it.

But from a U.S. business perspective, any restrictions that come from being listed as a state sponsor of terrorism overlap with the Trading With the Enemy Act, which is still in effect, noted Samuel Cutler, a policy adviser for Ferrari & Associates PLLC, a firm that represents people and companies before the U.S. Department of Treasury on sanctions matters.

“Anyone who thinks ‘Aha! This changes everything!’ in response to the removal of Cuba’s [state sponsor of terrorism] designation is either kidding themselves or hasn’t read the laws,” said Mr. Cutler.

Sanctions experts had warned Risk & Compliance Journal in February about “irrational exuberance” by companies seeking business in Cuba, and they continue to express caution.

Thad McBride, an international trade lawyer with Bass Berry & Sims PLC, said people and companies are authorized, for a variety of reasons, to go to Cuba to explore doing business, but they cannot sign deals yet.

“You’re a step closer to doing business, but it ultimately doesn’t change the calculus about making it any easier to do business in Cuba now,” said Mr. McBride.

Ten Reasons Cuba's Regime Remains a Sponsor of Terrorism

From Notes From the Cuban Exile Quarter:

Ten reasons that Cuba under the Castro regime should have remained on the list of terror sponsors

 The regime in Cuba has a long history of sponsoring terrorism and training terrorists that the Obama administration has sought to minimize and ignore in its drive to normalize relations with the Castro dictatorship. Despite evidence that the Castro regime is linked to drug trafficking and engaged in the smuggling of weapons to an outlaw regime (North Korea in July 15, 2013) and to terrorist guerrillas (Colombia in February 28, 2015) the Obama administration today removed Cuba from the list of state terror sponsors. Below is a top ten list that also provides some context into the Castro regime's long history of sponsoring and engaging in international terror.

1. Caught smuggling heavy weapons and ammunition to Colombian terrorist guerrillas on February 28, 2015. 

2. Linked to international drug trafficking along with client state Venezuela on January 27, 2015. The Castro regime has been engaged with drug trafficking rings for at least four decades.

3. Caught smuggling weapons and ammunition in violation of UN international sanctions to North Korea on July 15, 2013.

4.Victims of the Castro regime will no longer be able to seek damages from Cuba's frozen assets in the U.S. under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. 

5. Remaining terror sponsor state Iran has taken an American hostage and placed him on trial to extract concessions from the Obama administration copying a tactic successfully carried out by the Castro regime with Alan Gross. Incidentally, Fidel Castro in an address at the University of Tehran on May 10, 2001 made a call for unity: "Iran and Cuba, in cooperation with each other, can bring America to its knees." ... "The U.S. regime is very weak, and we are witnessing this weakness from close up."

6. In 2012 there were reports in the media of Cuban, Iranian and Venezuelan officials meeting in Mexico to discuss cyber attacks on U.S. soil allegedly seeking information about nuclear power plants in the United States

7. Current leadership of the Castro regime ordered an act of international state terrorism on February 24, 1996 that claimed four lives, three of them U.S. citizens blown up in international airspace by Cuban MiGs.

8. The Cuban government sent instructions to its WASP spy network agents to engage in acts of terrorism on U.S. soil during the Clinton Administration. The Cuban "WASP" spies arrested in 1998 used coded material on computer disks to communicate with other members of the network. Their primary objective was "penetrating and obtaining information on the naval station located in that city." In the final excerpt operatives discuss plans to prepare a "book bomb" so that it evades post office security while at the same time phoning death threats to a man they describe as a CIA agent living in South Florida then having him killed via the mail bomb. Under President Obama's watch all five spies were freed and returned to Cuba by December 17, 2014 including Gerardo Hernandez who was serving a life sentence for conspiracy to commit murder in the Brothers to the Rescue shoot down.

9. The Castro regime has a long history of sponsoring terrorism beginning in the 1960s with the Tricontinental meetings where terrorism was viewed as a legitimate tactic. The University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies in 2004 published a chronology of Cuban government involvement in terrorism covering between 1959 and 2003. For example, their report lists how in 1970 the Cuban government published the "Mini Manual for Revolutionaries" in the official Latin American Solidarity Organization (LASO) publication Tricontinental, written by Brazilian urban terrorist Carlos Marighella, which gives precise instructions in terror tactics, kidnappings, etc. translated into numerous languages which were distributed worldwide by the Cuban dictatorship. There is a chapter on terrorism that defends it as a legitimate tactic.

10.On March 1, 1982 the Cuban dictatorship was placed on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. This was less than three months after the US State Department confirmed that the Castro regime was using a narcotics ring to funnel both arms and cash to the Colombian M19 terrorist group then battling to overthrow Colombia’s democratic government. Despite the Castro regime's denials, it has a long and well documented history of sponsoring and taking part in terrorism, including utilizing the tactic in the struggle against dictator Fulgencio Batista. On New Year’s Eve in 1956 members of Castro's 26th of July movement set off bombs in the Tropicana, blowing off the arm of a seventeen-year-old girl. From bombings, killings, and arson in 1957 to a botched hijacking to smuggle weapons to Cuban guerrillas that led to 14 dead and the night of the 100 bombs in 1958.

 As was the case with both Libya and North Korea during the Bush administration the decision to remove Cuba from the list of terror sponsors is not based on a change of regime behavior but political calculations. The change and status did not improve regime behavior in either case. Taking Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism will provide them with more resources to engage in more mischief that will cause more harm and that is cause for sorrow.