July 4th Reminder: How Obama's Cuba Policy Breaks the Most American of Traditions

Saturday, July 4, 2015
Like every July 4th, we're re-posting the following reminder of why taking an uncompromising stand for political freedom and democracy is the most American of traditions.

This year, it's a particularly poignant reminder.

By Mauricio Claver-Carone in The Washington Times:

Why Cuban-Americans are "Hard-Liners"

May 21, 2008

The nation's mainstream media and political pundits rarely miss an opportunity to attach the label of "hard-liner" to Cuban-American critics of the dictatorship.

That begs a question: Are Cuban-Americans fairly labeled as "hard-liners"?

Indisputably, the Cuban-American community has maintained its uncompromising support for complete political freedom and democracy in Cuba. Cuban-Americans have consistently and ardently opposed any political or commercial engagement with Cuba's regime until it meets conditions set out in the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act passed by Congress in 1996. Those essentially are: Immediate release of all political prisoners; recognition and respect for fundamental human rights set out by international accords; and legalization of opposition political parties, an independent news media and independent labor unions.

HBO's popular new TV series, "John Adams," about our nation's Founding Father and second president, offers some significant historical perspectives on what "hard-liners" can achieve.

The enlightened and inspiring debates of the Second Continental Congress of 1775 included the likes of such "hard-liners" and "radicals" — as some historians now refer to them — as John Adams of Massachusetts and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. Adams and Jefferson, who became our third president, adamantly rejected all negotiations with the British monarch until the God-given freedoms of the American people were fully recognized.

Those early debates also provide some perspective about the "moderates" of the time, such as John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and John Rutledge of South Carolina. They advocated dialogue and reconciliation as embodied in the "Olive Branch Petition" — also known as the "Humble Petition" — to King George III. The petition sought only limited economic and political concessions, rather than absolute emancipation. The British monarch's rejection of the petition allowed the "hard-line" views of Mr. Adams to prevail and led directly to the democratic underpinnings of this great society.

During the course of the American independence movement, a "hard-line" approach also developed and became the basis for the 19th Century abolitionist movement that sought the immediate and absolute emancipation of all slaves. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who founded the abolitionist periodical "The Liberator" in 1839, was white and drew upon his deeply religious convictions. Frederick Douglass, who founded "North Star" in 1847 was a former slave, who drew upon personal tragedy and a lifetime of resolute resistance. While the two only differed in their backgrounds and the source of their inspiration, both were vitriolic in their opposition to slavery and uncompromising in their support for emancipation.

Douglass summarized his political philosophy as follows: "If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will."

Garrison concluded: "With reasonable men, I will reason; with humane men I will plead; but to tyrants I will give no quarter, nor waste arguments where they will certainly be lost."

It is inarguable that after Fidel Castro took control of Cuba, his tyranny trampled the fundamental human rights of the people of Cuba. Today the Cuban people do not have the benefit of free press that Garrison and Douglass placed at the service of the abolitionist cause. Neither do the Cuban people have the ability to somewhat gather as America's Founding Fathers did to debate the form of government and rally popular support for independence. Yet Cubans share the same goal and desire for freedom and political rights.

Americans of all origins should find it fair and easy to conclude that not only are Cuban Americans uncompromising "hard-liners" on the issues of freedom and full emancipation of Cuba but also that there is no reason to back away from that hard line.

It is, after all, a most American tradition.

McConnell: Senate Unlikely to Confirm Ambassador to Cuba

Thursday, July 2, 2015
From AP:

Majority leader McConnell doubts Senate will confirm US ambassador to Cuba, in rebuff to Obama

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday that his chamber is unlikely to approve an American ambassador to Cuba, dishing out a quick rebuff to President Barack Obama and his drive to normalize relations with the U.S. neighbor and longtime Cold War foe.

The Kentucky Republican also suggested that the GOP — which controls Congress — would fight Obama administration efforts to fully lift trade and travel restrictions that have limited American commerce and tourism with the communist-led island nation. McConnell said the country was led by "a thuggish regime."

The comments by McConnell came a day after Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced that the two nations will open embassies in Havana and Washington July 20 and resume diplomatic relations severed in 1961, the year Obama was born.

McConnell's remarks underscored that despite a push to ease the curbs by U.S. business and agriculture interests and some GOP lawmakers, Republican leaders remain sympathetic to the party's more conservative, anti-Castro voices. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and several contenders for the GOP's 2016 presidential nomination criticized Obama's moves shortly after they were announced Wednesday.

"You would think that the normalization of relations with Cuba would be accompanied by some modification of their behavior," McConnell said Thursday at Commerce Lexington, the chamber of commerce for Lexington, Kentucky. Instead, he called the country "a police state" and "a haven for criminals" wanted in the U.S.

"I don't see any evidence at all that they are going to change their behavior. So I doubt if we'll confirm an ambassador, they probably don't need one," McConnell said.

He added, "Some of their restrictions on Cuba would require legislation to lift, and we're going to resist that."

MSNBC: Cuba Embassy Deal Must be Closely Scrutinized

Below from MSNBC's Daily Rundown (or click here to watch):

Five Questions Obama Must Answer About U.S. Embassy in Cuba

By Ana Quintana in The Daily Signal:

5 Questions Obama Must Answer About the Potential US Embassy in Cuba

On Wednesday, President Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba have reached an agreement on reestablishing diplomatic relations.

As part of his normalization bid with the Castro regime, the president has granted the dictatorship another in a series of dangerous concessions. But after Obama’s statement today, there are many questions that have yet to be answered.

Throughout the past 18 months of clandestine negotiations and 6 months of semi-public talks, the Cuban negotiators have consistently raised many obstacles to the president’s much wanted embassy.

Cuban officials made it clear that the regime will not change its political or economic system, despite the Obama administration’s many overtures. The regime also demanded an end to the embargo and removal of Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism before restoration of diplomatic relations.

Later in January at a summit of Latin American countries, Cuban leader Raul Castro reiterated these points, conditioning further openings with the U.S. on the lifting of the U.S. embargo, the return of Guantánamo Bay naval base, and compensation for “human and economic damage” incurred as a result of the U.S. embargo.

So far, Obama has given Havana three convicted spies accused of killing Americans, drastically eased sanctions, lobbied Congress to lift the embargo and removed Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list.

In light of that, the Obama administration must answer these questions:

1. Did the U.S. receive compensation for the $8 billion in U.S. assets unlawfully seized by the Cuban government?

According to the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (LIBERTAD), which was passed in 1996, reestablishing diplomatic relations cannot happen until: first, the Cuban government compensates American citizens for illegally confiscating their property  valued at $8 billion, the largest seizure of U.S. assets in history, and second, “when the president determines that there exists a democratically elected government in Cuba.”

It is safe to assume that Havana has not met either requirement. Cuban leader Raul Castro has gone so far as saying that before an embassy can be opened, the U.S. must provide reparations for the damages of the embargo.

2. Has the U.S. agreed to the Cuban government’s demands of restricted diplomatic travel?

It is no secret that Cuba is a police state and that extends to Americans as well. U.S. diplomats in the Interest Section are kept from privately meeting with human rights activists and even persecuted members of the religious community.

If so, this defeats the purpose of an embassy,  as routine diplomatic activities are impossible.

3. Will the Cuban government continue to search diplomatic pouches?

Cuban officials have consistently demanded that they be able to inspect diplomatic pouches. Like the Cuba policy website Capitol Hill Cubans has stated, this is a clear violation of diplomatic protocol, against the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and completely unprecedented in the Western Hemisphere.

4. Did the U.S. make any concessions on Guantanamo Bay?

Both Fidel and Raul Castro have long rallied to shut down the U.S.’s naval base presence in Guantanamo Bay. It is another area where the regime and Obama see eye to eye: The president too has long supported closing it down. Were any backroom deals made?

5. Will the U.S. continue its support for Cuba’s democratic opposition and human rights activists?

The Cuban government strongly opposes Washington’s support for dissidents and has raised it as an obstacle to the president’s much-wanted embassy in Havana. Cuban officials urged the U.S. not only to stop funding of independent groups, but also to mandate the Cuban government’s role in selecting Communist Party approved organizations to receive U.S. funding.

It has always been the U.S.’s position to support a democratic transition on the island. It seems to no longer be the case.

Obama has made a complete reversal: We are now engaging and financing the Cuban regime and isolating the Cuban people. The president cannot allow his self-serving legacy policy to be at the cost of democracy in Cuba.

Obama Ignoring Human Rights in Cuba

By Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations:

Ignoring Human Rights in Cuba

President Obama proudly announced the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba today–after a week of additional arrests on that island.

Here’s the most recent story: “Police arrested Emilio García Moreira and Alexander Veliz García, along with 10 members of the Ladies in White and 12 other activists on the their way to speak with Cienfuegos bishop Domingo Oropesa Lorente.”

Since the announcement of a new Cuba policy last Fall, administration spokesmen and the president himself have defended it as a means of producing more democracy and respect for human rights in Cuba. But in the ensuing months, hundreds of peaceful protesters have been made political prisoners. There is zero improvement in the human rights situation in Cuba -- zero.

That Castro felt free to jail still more people this week shows his understanding -- sadly, a correct one -- that Mr. Obama is not interested in human rights in Cuba and will move forward no matter what happens there. This new policy is a legacy item and nothing, it seems, will stop it.

And what of these new relations and the establishment of an embassy in Cuba? That raises some interesting issues. Will Cubans have access to our embassy, or will they be arrested for trying to reach it? Will our diplomats be able to travel on the island, and have access to the Cuban people? Today The New York Times carried this gem regarding a question posed to Secretary of State Kerry:

Asked if the American diplomats in Cuba would have free access to talk to Cuban citizens, he said, “We’ll talk about all those details later.”

Details. What better revelation could there be that the Cuban people are details in this move, which is not about them -- and which will help not them but their oppressors.

U.S. Officials Never Debriefed Alan Gross: Incompetence, Negligence or Malpractice?

By James Kirckick in The Daily Beast:

U.S. Never Asked Alan Gross About His Imprisonment in Cuba

Alan Gross was locked up by the Castro regime for half a decade. When he got out, no one in the U.S. government bothered to debrief him about his time in captivity.

After spending more than five years in a Cuban jail, former USAID contractor Alan Gross is probably in possession of a lot of information that the United States government would like to know. How did Cuban officials become aware of his work bringing internet access to the island’s tiny Jewish community? What were the conditions like inside the Valla Marista prison, where he was held? What were the mannerisms and interests of his interrogators? What was the content of the conversations he had with his fellow prisoners?

Yet according to an authoritative source, no U.S. government official has debriefed Gross since he was released from a Cuban jail last December as part of a broader deal normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba. That political thaw reached a symbolic milestone Wednesday when both governments announced they would open embassies in each others’ capitals, 54 years after the severing of diplomatic relations.

Asked whether Gross had been debriefed by the United States government, both Jill Zuckman, Gross’s spokesman, and Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman, declined to comment.

After a citizen has been held against their will by an adversarial government, terrorist organization, or rogue group, it is standard procedure for their own country’s government to sit them down and try to extract as much useful information as possible. This process is known as a “debrief” in intelligence and diplomatic parlance. An American aid worker rescued from Somali pirates by Navy Seals in 2012, the former Army sergeant held by the Taliban for five years, even non-American hostages released by ISIS—all have been debriefed by U.S. government officials following their periods in captivity.

In the one media interview he’s given since his release, Gross—charged by the Cuban government with subversion and sentenced to 15 years in prison—told Moment magazine that, during his years in detention, he received once-a-month visits from an official with the U.S. Interests Section in Havana (what the American legation was called when diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States were partly reconstituted in 1977). Gross also met with several congressional delegations visiting the communist island. But all those meetings took place under the eyes and ears of watchful Cuban officials, not exactly the discreet environment in which a proper debriefing occurs.

The most charitable explanation for the U.S. government’s failure to debrief Gross could be sheer incompetence: the bureaucratic left hand assuming that the bureaucratic right hand is doing the job. That is the conclusion some may arrive at after reading a long Buzzfeed investigation into Gross’ work in Cuba, which portrays him as an innocent abroad left to deal with the consequences of a naïve and dangerous democratization policy dictated by ideologues sitting comfortably in Washington and Miami. Adding to this impression of government ineptitude will be the monetary settlements Gross reached with both his employer and USAID after suing them for negligence. A cable sent by a consular official from the Interests Section who had visited Gross three weeks after his arrest, unearthed by Wikileaks, reveals that the State Department wasn’t even aware of Gross’s work on behalf of USAID.

Incompetence can never be ruled out as an explanation for U.S. government actions, of course. But an equally likely rationale for Washington’s decision not to debrief Gross—to glean whatever information it can about the Castro regime, its intelligence apparatus, and its penal system— is that the Obama administration isn’t at all eager to do so.

After all, the failure to debrief Gross fits into a pattern. So determined is the Obama administration to normalize relations with the Castro regime that it resists treating Havana as an adversary. This is not to say that Washington has stopped gathering intelligence on Cuba altogether; the United States collects intelligence across the world, including on close allies like Germany and France. But the choice not to debrief a man who spent five years holed up in a Cuban prison, and who had frequent interactions with Cuban officials, suggests that the State Department does not consider the information he has to be worth hearing.

It’s not only standard-issue intelligence that Gross might have provided his country. Surely his testimony about Cuban prison conditions, for instance, could have featured prominently in the State Department’s latest human rights report, released last month. No matter. This administration sees the normalization of relations with Havana as righting a grave, historical wrong perpetrated by the United States against the Cuban revolution and, by contrast, the gathering of intelligence that could be used to assist dissidents on the island and undermine their oppressors as superfluous. “When we insert ourselves in ways that go beyond persuasion, it’s counterproductive, it backfires,” Obama admitted in April, sitting across from a smiling Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama.

And despite what some have whispered, debriefing Gross would not in any way lend credence that he was a CIA agent working under cover. A debrief (the occurrence of which would not even be publicized), could be performed by officials from the State Department, not Langley.

Unsurprisingly, the administration’s lackadaisical approach to intelligence collection is going unreciprocated. As recently as last September, the FBI issued an advisory to American institutions of higher learning warning them about the Cuban government’s ongoing attempts to recruit spies on university campuses, where sympathy for the regime and its failed revolution remains potent.

This insatiable desire to normalize relations with Havana—regardless of whether or not the regime changes its behavior—is a major reason why dissidents in Cuba are complaining that the administration has caved to Castro’s demands without extracting anything in return. It is why Obama removed Cuba from the State Department’s list of terrorism sponsors despite the fact that the island is, as I wrote in this space not long ago, “a Star Wars cantina of violent Cold War-era radicals” and a collaborator with the Colombian FARC. And it’s why Obama celebrated the official opening of the American embassy in Havana Wednesday morning—lauding a “new chapter” in relations—while the Cuban regime continues to harass and arrest dissidents by the hundreds and shows no signs of loosening its monopoly on power.

Gross, perhaps ironically, has emerged as a vocal supporter of the administration’s opening to Cuba. Why doesn’t anyone in the administration bother to find out what else he has to say?

WaPo Editorial: Despite Obama's Engagement, Cuba Continues Repression

From The Washington Post's Editorial Board:

Despite Mr. Obama’s ‘engagement,’ Cuba continues its repression

IN ANNOUNCING the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana, President Obama said “nobody expects Cuba to be transformed overnight” by his policy of “engagement.” That’s just as well because in the first six months of Mr. Obama’s normalization of relations with the Communist regime, most indicators of human rights on the island have moved in the wrong direction.

Since December, there have been more than 3,000 political detentions in Cuba, including 641 in May and 220 on Sunday alone, according to dissident sources. Most were accompanied by beatings; at least 20 detainees required medical treatment in May. After Cuba was invited for the first time to the Summit of the Americas in Panama, regime thugs attacked the civil society activists who also showed up.

“Some of us had hoped . . . that there would be a stop to — or at least a lessening of — the beatings” of peaceful demonstrators, wrote activist Mario Lleonart recently, “but we now know that what is happening is precisely the opposite.”

Visits by Americans to Cuba are reportedly up by a third, including plenty of political delegations. But in the months after Mr. Obama announced the diplomatic opening in December, there was also a 120 percent increase in Cubans seeking to flee to the United States. Many worry that once relations are normalized, the United States will stop accepting refugees; according to recent polling, more than half of Cubans would like to leave the country.

Mr. Obama eased regulations on U.S. food sales, but imports of American food to the island, controlled by the state, dropped by half in the first three months of 2015, compared with last year. Netflix announced that Cubans could stream its service — but the charge for an hour of access to one of the few government-controlled Internet hotspots equals 10 percent of a typical government worker’s monthly salary, and independent Cuban Web sites are blocked.

We don’t oppose diplomatic contacts or U.S. embassies in countries such as Cuba, in principle. But the results of Mr. Obama’s initiative so far underline the opportunity he missed in not requiring even modest alleviation of the dictatorship’s repression in exchange for what amounts to a political and economic bailout of a failing regime. Mr. Obama could have sought a guarantee, for example, that the Ladies in White, formed by the families of political prisoners, be allowed to carry out their peaceful weekly marches without arrests or beatings; as it is, attacks on the group have increased sharply.

The State Department also could have insisted that U.S. diplomats have unrestricted access to average Cubans and could have rejected the regime’s demands that ongoing democracy programs be canceled. Instead, a senior U.S. official said that, while access would improve, the State Department had accepted “constraints” on personnel in Cuba similar to those in other “restrictive environments,” and that services provided by the existing interest section, such as Internet access, “might not be so necessary.”

Thanks to congressional opposition, no U.S. ambassador to Cuba may be confirmed anytime soon. But Mr. Obama himself, according to his spokesman, is eager to visit Havana. We’d like to hope that the president will restrain himself until the Castro regime shows some sign of delivering the improvements in human rights he says are the goal of his outreach. So far, U.S.-Cuba rapprochement is looking entirely one-sided.

Speaker Boehner: No Normalization Until Cubans Are Free

The Obama Administration Hands the Castro Regime a Lifelong Dream

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) issued the following statement regarding President Obama’s announcement on restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba’s communist regime:

The Obama administration is handing the Castros a lifetime dream of legitimacy without getting a thing for the Cuban people being oppressed by this brutal communist dictatorship.  As I’ve said before, relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until Cubans enjoy freedom – and not one second sooner.”

Chairman Royce: Cuba Deal Consistent With Obama's Record of Being Out-Negotiated

Chairman Royce Comments on U.S.-Cuba Developments

Today, U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued this statement following the news that the United States and Cuba have reached an agreement to formally restore diplomatic relations and reopen embassies in Washington, D.C. and Havana:

Establishing full diplomatic relations with Cuba is consistent with President Obama's record of being out-negotiated by authoritarian and anti-American regimes.  Since December’s announcement, we’ve seen no real progress on human rights for the Cuban people, or the settling of property claims. 

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has given no indication that it would use an Embassy in Havana to press to protect the Cuban worker whose wages are taken by the Castro regime to finance its continued repression of the Cuban people, while lining the pockets of Communist Party officials.  

The secret negotiations that fell so short of achieving long-standing and important U.S. policy objectives should have been ended.  If this is how the White House negotiated with the desperate Cuban leadership, the American people should be deeply concerned with its ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran’s aggressive Ayatollah.”

Castro Hands Obama New Laundry List of Demands

While President Obama was patting himself on the back for giving the Cuban regime every concession it sought for the re-establishment of embassies, Castro was issuing a simultaneous statement with its latest "laundry list" of demands.

Fortunately, these latest demands are outside Obama's legal purview. Otherwise, he would have also acquiesced.

Here's an excerpt from this afternoon's "Statement by the Revolutionary Government of Cuba":

"With the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of embassies, the first phase concludes of what will be a long and complex process towards the normalization of bilateral ties, as part of which a set of issues will have to be resolved arising from past policies, still in force, which affect the Cuban people and nation.

There can be no normal relations between Cuba and the United States as long as the economic, commercial and financial blockade that continues to be rigorously applied, causing damages and scarcities for the Cuban people, is maintained, it is the main obstacle to the development of our economy, constitutes a violation of international law and affects the interests of all countries, including those of the United States.

To achieve normalization it will also be indispensable that the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base is returned, that radio and television transmissions to Cuba that are in violation of international norms and harmful to our sovereignty cease, that programs aimed at promoting subversion and internal destabilization are eliminated, and that the Cuban people are compensated for the human and economic damages caused by the policies of the United States."

Menendez: Obama's One-Sided Cuba Deal Becomes Even More Lopsided

Sen. Menendez on U.S.–Cuba Embassy Announcement

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) issued the following statement in reaction to the latest announcements by the Obama administration regarding the U.S.–Cuba relationship, including the opening of embassies:

Today’s announcement cannot be considered normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States if it fails to speak to key issues such as whether all U.S. diplomats will be restricted from moving freely throughout the island, if the U.S. government will be limited in the number of diplomats assigned to staff an embassy, or if diplomatic mail can be searched and potentially seized by Cuban authorities. Once again the regime is being rewarded while they jail dissidents, silence political opponents, and harbor American fugitives and cop killers. Our demands for freedoms and liberty on the island will continue to be ignored and we are incentivizing a police state to uphold a policy of brutality. It is long past due for the United States to require concessions and changes from Cuba and thus far, we have seen neither. A policy of the United States giving and the Castro brothers freely taking is not in our national interest and not a responsible approach when dealing with repressive rulers that deny freedoms to its people. An already one-sided deal that benefits the Cuban regime is becoming all the more lopsided.

This is the only government in the Western Hemisphere, which the Obama administration has chosen to establish relations with, that is not elected by its citizens. The message is democracy and human rights take a back seat to a legacy initiative.

Lindsey Graham: I Would Close Cuban Embassy

Statement for Lindsey Graham on President's Decision to Open Embassy in Cuba

Today, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) released the following statement on President Obama’s decision to open the embassy in Cuba:

As president, I would not honor this decision with Cuba and I would close the embassy until the Castro brothers actually change their behavior.  By suggesting the dictatorship in Cuba is an acceptable or normal government, we are sending the worst possible message at the most critical time. 

Today’s announcement makes it harder for us to get a good deal with the Iranians and harder for the next president to reset world order.  I fear Assad, Putin, the Chinese, and terrorists who wish to do us harm take this as yet another sign of continued American weakness.

President Obama is truly writing new chapters in American foreign policy.  Unfortunately, these latest chapters are ones of America and the values we stand for — human rights, freedom, and democracy — in retreat and decline.

Tweet of the Day: Raising U.S. Flag Isn't Worth Lowering U.S. Standards

Wednesday, July 1, 2015
By former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Amb. Roger Noriega:

Cruz: I Will Oppose U.S. Ambassador to Cuba

Sen. Cruz: America Should Stand With the Cuban People, Not With Their Dictators in Havana

Pledges to oppose any Ambassador to Cuba or Funds for Embassy Construction

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) issued the following statement regarding President Obama's announcement that his Administration has reached a deal with Cuba to reestablish full diplomatic relations with the communist country:

"President Obama announced today he is continuing his policy of unconditional surrender to Fidel and Raul Castro by rewarding one of the most violently anti-American regimes on the planet with an embassy and an official representative of our government. I, for one, want the Cuban people to know that there are still those who stand with them, and who know the Castros for what they are. I will hold any nominee President Obama sends to the Senate to be ambassador to Cuba, and I will work to disapprove any new funds for embassy construction in Havana, unless and until the President can demonstrate that he has made some progress in alleviating the misery of our friends, the people of Cuba."

Statement on Establishing Diplomatic Relations With Cuba's Regime

Tomorrow, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will announce the establishment of diplomatic relations with the only government in the Western Hemisphere not elected by its citizens.

That -- in itself -- encapsulates why this is a bad policy.

The announcement comes on the same week that the Castro regime violently arrested over 226 peaceful Cuban dissidents.

That makes the timing particularly distasteful.

According to U.S. law ("LIBERTAD Act"), diplomatic recognition should only be considered "when the President determines that a there exists a democratically elected government in Cuba."

It also states that, "the satisfactory resolution of property claims by a Cuban Government recognized by the United States remains an essential condition for the full resumption of economic and diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba."

That makes the announcement in contravention of U.S. law.

Finally, as a condition for the establishment of diplomatic relations, the Castro regime has demanded restrictions on U.S. diplomat's movement; the inspection of diplomatic pouches for the Mission; an end to the execution of democracy programs (i.e. the training of independent journalists); and the continuance of a state security cordon to intimidate Cubans from approaching the Mission.

That would be in contravention of the Vienna Convention -- and unprecedented in the Western Hemisphere.

Congress should closely probe these very concerning issues, withhold funding for the operation of an Embassy and block the confirmation of any Ambassador, until it receives satisfactory responses from the Obama Administration.

Rubio: I Will Oppose U.S. Ambassador to Cuba

Rubio Comments on Obama Re-Establishing Diplomatic Relations With Cuba

Washington, D.C.– U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, commented on the agreement between the United States and Cuba to open embassies in each other's capitals:

Throughout this entire negotiation, as the Castro regime has stepped up its repression of the Cuban people, the Obama Administration has continued to look the other way and offer concession after concession. The administration's reported plan to restore diplomatic relations is one such prized concession to the Castro regime. It remains unclear what, if anything, has been achieved since the President's December 17th announcement in terms of securing the return of U.S. fugitives being harbored in Cuba, settling outstanding legal claims to U.S. citizens for properties confiscated by the regime, and in obtaining the unequivocal right of our diplomats to travel freely throughout Cuba and meet with any dissidents, and most importantly, securing greater political freedoms for the Cuban people. I intend to oppose the confirmation of an Ambassador to Cuba until these issues are addressed. It is time for our unilateral concessions to this odious regime to end.”

Last month, Rubio 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, and pledged to oppose the confirmation of any nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Cuba 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 the removal of restrictions on U.S. diplomats in Cuba.

Jeb: Congress Must Scrutinize Obama's Concessions to Castro

Jeb Bush Statement on President Obama's Decision to Re-Open U.S. Embassy in Cuba 

Miami, FL — Governor Jeb Bush released the following statement in response to President Obama’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.

As Americans prepare to celebrate the anniversary of our freedom from tyranny and commit anew to the democratic principles on which our nation was founded, it is no small irony that President Obama prepares to open an Embassy in Havana, further legitimizing the brutal Castro regime.

I oppose the decision to further embrace the Castro regime by opening an embassy in Havana. The real test of the Obama Administration’s rapprochement with the Castro regime in Cuba is not whether President Obama’s legacy is burnished with dubious diplomatic achievements and photo-ops, but whether improved relations between Havana and Washington advance the cause of human rights and freedom for the Cuban people.  The ongoing detention of dissidents and continued human rights abuses suggest the Administration’s policy is failing this test.    

I hope the U.S. Congress will scrutinize the concessions made to Havana prior to considering any ambassador.”

Obama Administration: Normalizing Relations as Part of Smokescreen

Statement from the Center for a Free Cuba:

Obama Administration: Normalizing Relations as Part of Smokescreen

The Obama Administration will announce tomorrow that it is normalizing relations with the government of General Raul Castro in Cuba. The operations of the American Embassy in Cuba are expected to acquiesce to a number of Cuban restrictions outside the boundaries of normal diplomatic relations. In order to be able to announce this symbolic success, President Obama will acquiesce maintaining hundreds of Cuban nationals that are employees of the Cuban government inside the American Embassy in Havana. The Administration will continue to contract employees from a Cuban government agency. Many of those employees are intelligence officers, and all of them are susceptible to pressure to spy on the diplomatic mission by the Cuban regime. The U.S. government is not permitted to hire workers in Havana as it does elsewhere in the Americas, but it has to pay the salaries of Cubans working for a Cuban government agency for a number of positions in Havana’s American mission.

In addition, it remains to be seen whether Cubans will have the same access to the American mission that they have in other Latin American countries. The American diplomatic mission in Havana is encircled by Cuban security forces that limit access to the mission.

The Administration has yet to respond to Congressional questions about whether General Castro has agreed not to open up America’s diplomatic pouch, as it has done in the past in contravention of the Vienna Convention.

The announcement comes just a few days after the latest roundup of 226 dissidents who were detained last weekend. In order to be able to normalize diplomatic relations, the Administration, in fact, plays an important role in the smokescreen covering up the increase of repression in Cuba. Shortly after the President’s announcement on December 17th of last year, when he indicated that fifty-some political prisoners would be released (many of them have since been rearrested), Amnesty International said the prison 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.”

President Obama’s Cuba legacy now includes actively participating in Raul Castro’s smokescreen covering up increasing repression and abuse of Cubans.

On this Fourth of July, Cubans who disagree with Raul Castro’s government will not be invited to attend the celebration hosted by the U.S. in Havana. Cuba’s Foreign Minister has had a virtual veto on who is invited to those receptions, and the Administration instead organizes a separate event for Cuba’s opposition. This is not the way America’s independence is celebrated in Buenos Aires, San Jose, Costa Rica, Mexico City, and elsewhere, where representatives of those societies are invited and the host governments do not tell the Americans whom to invite.

The Hill: House Bill Bans Trade With Cuban Military

Tuesday, June 30, 2015
From The Hill:

GOP bill bans trade with Cuban military

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee has introduced legislation that would prevent the Cuban military from reaping benefits due to normalized U.S. relations.

The bill authored by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the Intelligence panel chairman, would prohibit Americans from entering financial transactions with the Cuban military or the Cuban Ministry of the Interior, which controls the national police force.

"Despite the Obama administration’s attempts at reconciliation, the Castro regime continues to oppress the Cuban people and to shelter members of the Cuban military responsible for shooting down U.S. civilian aircraft in the Florida Straits. This bill will ensure that the government entities responsible for these acts – the Cuban military and the Interior Ministry – will not reap the rewards of increased trade with the United States," Nunes said in a statement.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) emphasized that the legislation only targets Cuban entities that have committed acts of brutality against civilians.

"I look forward to the day when we can pursue completely free trade and travel between the U.S. and Cuba, but current circumstances require us to move cautiously, as this legislation does," Thornberry said.

The bill is similar to language tucked into the 2016 appropriations bill for the Departments of Justice and Commerce that passed the House earlier this month. Those provisions would prohibit funds for exports to members of the Cuban military and their families.

So far, Nunes's legislation has 32 cosponsors, including Florida Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo, all of whom are of Cuban descent. Only one Democrat, Albio Sires of New Jersey, has endorsed the measure.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Cuban American and 2016 presidential contender, has introduced a similar bill in the Senate.

Cuban Dissidents Report Over 220 Arrests

Courtesy of Hablemos Press (via Translating Cuba):

Cuban Police Arrest More Than 220 Dissidents, According To Activists

The Cuban National Police, the Department of State Security, and other members of the Interior Ministry arrested at least 226 Cuban activists and dissidents this past Sunday, June28th, 2015.

Police operations were carried out in various provinces of the country to keep activists and opposition members from attending Mass.

Among those arrested in Havana were Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White Movement, Antonio G. Rodiles, director of Estado de SATS; José Díaz, of Opponents for a New Republic Movement; photographer Claudio Fuentes; and several of the former political prisoners who were released in January 2015.

In Havana, the arrests of various members of the Ladies in White and others of the opposition took place as these individuals were departing their residences early in the morning, and they remained surrounded by police officers throughout the day.

Besides Soler, Ladies in White executive committee members María Cristina Labrada Barona and Lismeri Quintana Ávila were among these detainees, along with eight other women.

Another 39 arrests of women activists took place in the area around Santa Rita Church, after the women completed their customary march along 5th Avenue in the Miramar district of Playa municipality, and gathered in Gandhi Park (adjacent to the church) to review the week’s activities. In addition, approximately another 41 activists and opponents -- men who accompany the Ladies on their march -- were arrested in the capital.

Dozens of Interior Ministry agents blocked the streets around St. Rita Church to arrest the Ladies and other dissidents, according to the activists.

The Lady in White Aidé Gallardo Salazar was struck and dragged by female officers. “They hit me on the head and face, and they tried to asphyxiate me,” Gallardo averred.

Other arrests of Ladies in White occurred in these provinces: Holguín (4); Bayamo-Granma (2); and Aguada de Pasajero in Cienfuegos (9). In the last province, additionally, “17 men who accompanied the Ladies were arrested,” according to activist and former political prisoner Iván Hernández Carrillo.

The independent reporter Agustín López Canino also was arrested upon exiting his home in the El Globo district, located on the outskirts of Havana.

“I will continue going there to St. Rita for as long as they’ll let me,” said López Canino when interviewed. “What I do is take down the facts and forward them to various media.”

He adds that, “The repression against the opposition movement has increased extraordinarily within the last six months and cannot be allowed to go on without attention focused on it.

The former political prisoners Ramón Alejandro Muñoz, Eugenio Hernández Hernández, Ángel Figueredo Castellón, Mario Alberto Hernández, and Rolando Reyes Rabanal were also arrested in Havana.

The Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), headquartered in Santiago de Cuba, reported the arrests of 103 of its members when they attempted to travel to the village of El Cobre to attend Mass.

The agents used violence to detain the opponents, who were transported to police stations and military bases, according to activist sources.

Ladies in White affirm that, “The regime wants to destroy the opposition, but we are prepared to give our lives for the freedom of the political prisoners,” stated Ibón Lemos y Mayelín Peña.

Soler attests that the repression increased 11 Sundays ago, ever since the Ladies in White initiated a new campaign to demand the release of political prisoners, among them: the writer Ángel Santiesteban Prats, the artist Danilo Maldonado Machado (“El Sexto”); and the dissidents Santiago Roberto Montes de Oca, René Rouco Machín, Osvaldo Rodríguez Acosta, Yosvani Melchor Rodríguez, Rolando Joaquín Guerra Pérez, Eugenio Ariel Arzuaga Peña, Yoelkis Rosabal -- in total, more than 50 individuals.

The reports received at Hablemos Press included figures totaling 226 opponents arrested across the island on Sunday, although the actual number may be greater.

Catholic Priest Expels Cuba's Ladies in White From Mass

Monday, June 29, 2015
From Breitbart:

Cuba: Catholic Church Bans Relatives of Political Prisoners from Mass

A Catholic church in the central Cuban city of Cienfuegos has banned female relatives of political prisoners from attending mass unless they no longer wear white, a color associated with political imprisonment in the nation. The slight to families of the abused follows the bewildering remark from Archbishop of Havana Jaime Ortega that Cuba no longer has prisoners of conscience.

Eight members of the Ladies in White activist group have attended Sunday Catholic Mass wearing white for years, sitting in the pews in silence unless participating in the Mass. No reports have surfaced of the women themselves–mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters of prisoners of conscience–disturbing the Mass. Nonetheless, a priest in Cienfuegos expelled them from his service, ordering them never to wear white again in his church if they wish to attend services.

The priest, identified as “Father Tarciso,” told Diario de Cuba that the women were “disrespectful,” stating, “I had told them that the way things are could not continue to be... I cannot allow our community to be further fractured,” he argued. He accused them of taking photographs inside the church, which the ladies deny. Miladis Espino Díaz, a representative of the Ladies in White, noted that they were expelled from the church and, upon walking out, could hear the priest apologize to those in attendance for not having done it sooner.

“We do not only go to church because we are Ladies in White,” Espino Díaz told the newspaper, “but because we believe in God. We sing, we pray, we participate, we do nothing wrong.”

Following their removal from the church, the women testified to being the victim of a number of offensive acts, including a man “exposing himself and urinating in front of them,” “obscene gestures using fingers,” and “being called prostitutes.”

Offenses to the Ladies in White are common as they attempt to attend Mass; in a particularly gruesome instance last year, one woman was tarred for wearing white to the service.

Two male supporters of the group, Emilio García Moreira and Alexander Veliz García, began a hunger strike Thursday to support the return of the women to Mass.

Castro Sticks Thumb in Senators' Eyes, Arrests Over 160 Dissidents

While another delegation of U.S. Senators was being charmed by Castro regime officials, over 160 dissidents were being violently arrested by their hosts.

(Update: Independent journalists from Hablemos Press have documented over 226 arrests this weekend.)

The delegation, led by U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), along with U.S. Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Dean Heller (R-NV), visited Havana and Santiago over the weekend.

In Havana, over 50 members of The Ladies in White, and a dozen accompanying activists, were arrested.

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

They were taken to a military prison in Tarara.

Meanwhile, in Santiago de Cuba, 103 activists of the dissident group, the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU), were arrested.

In another incident, former political prisoner Yojaine Arce Sarmiento's motorbike was rammed by a jeep belonging to a Communist Party official. Arce had been prohibited from riding the motorbike for having painted the word "CAMBIO" ("CHANGE") on it.

In what has become a constant trend since the Obama-Castro deal, the visiting delegation of U.S. Senators did not meet with any Cuban democracy leaders -- for that would upset their hosts.

And a trip to Cuba would be incomplete for Senator Leahy without staying at his favorite establishment, the luxury Hotel Saratoga -- a property that has been twice-confiscated by the Castro regime.

Is this the "positive change" in Cuba that Senator Leahy claims is taking place?

Obama's new policy towards has taken solidarity with Cuba's courageous democrats to a tragic and unprecedented low level.

That's hardly positive. It's shameful.

Focus on Freedom for the Cuban People

By U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, in The Miami Herald:

Let’s liberate Cuban citizens, not enrich Castro brothers

For far too long, the citizens of Cuba have known only suffering under an oppressive Castro regime. As a firm believer in the power of liberty and an open society, I feel strongly that any decision to shift U.S. policy toward Cuba must focus on liberating Cuban citizens, not enriching the Castro brothers.

Cubans have gained absolutely nothing from the Obama administration’s secret negotiations to “normalize” relations with the Castros. Rather, the decision to reestablish diplomatic relations will benefit Fidel and Raúl Castro, who are responsible for the oppression.

Over the past 50 years, the conditions of the Cuban people haven’t improved despite U.S. efforts. Because of Castro’s brutal seizing of power and the shameless stealing of American property, the United States chose to impose sanctions in order to urge the establishment of democracy, allowance of freedom, and justice for people whose property was taken. The Castros have simply refused. The Obama administration’s decision to loosen economic restrictions and reestablish relations only rewards that obstinate behavior and has allowed Castro to drive the agenda.

The regime has asked for the return of the U.S. naval station at Guantánamo Bay, which would equip Havana with a broad array of security options, including leasing the area to a third party state such as Russia or China, which would endanger our own national security. Similarly, allowing them access to U.S. banks could create money-laundering nightmares.

Perhaps most insulting, Havana has demanded so-called “just compensation” for the “economic damage” inflicted by U.S. sanctions. The Cuban regime deprived U.S. and Cuban citizens of billions of dollars in property and still denies those citizens any form of justice, including compensation.

In a Congressional hearing I chaired earlier this month on the future of property rights in Cuba, we heard from witnesses who shared stories of how their property was stolen by the Castro regime, and the plight of churches whose properties had been confiscated and then have had to pay rent for buildings they own. Inexplicably, Castro confidently asks for compensation without even hinting at a solution to the claims issue. In yet another show of weakness, the State Department has failed to prioritize the claims issue in the current talks involving possible embassies, thereby allowing the Cuban regime to effectively evade the matter indefinitely.

These changes being negotiated by the Obama administration only stand to benefit Castro. Each of the demands stands as a threat to the already perilous position of freedom in Cuba. Should we fail to make demands of our own, we will see no substantive, lasting change for the Cuban people.

Despite Engagement, Human Rights Abuses Persist (and Worsen) in Cuba

From the U.S. Department of State's recently-released report on Cuba's human rights practices:

Cuba is an authoritarian state led by Raul Castro, who is president of the council of state and council of ministers, Communist Party (CP) first secretary, and commander in chief of security forces. The constitution recognizes the CP as the only legal party and “the superior leading force of society and of the state.” A CP candidacy commission pre-approved all candidates for the February 2013 uncontested National Assembly elections, which were neither free nor fair. The national leadership, including members of the military, maintained effective control over the security forces.

The principal human rights abuses included those involving the abridgement of the ability of citizens to change the government and the use of government threats, extrajudicial physical assault, intimidation, violent government-organized counter-protests against peaceful dissent, and harassment and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly.

The following additional abuses continued: short-term, arbitrary unlawful detentions and arrests, harsh prison conditions, selective prosecution, denial of fair trial, and travel restrictions. Authorities interfered with privacy, engaging in pervasive monitoring of private communications. The government did not respect freedom of speech and press, restricted internet access, maintained a monopoly on media outlets, circumscribed academic freedom, and maintained some restrictions on the ability of religious groups to meet and worship. The government refused to recognize independent human rights groups or permit them to function legally. In addition the government continued to prevent workers from forming independent unions and otherwise exercising their labor rights.

Most human rights abuses were committed by officials at the direction of the government. Impunity for the perpetrators remained widespread.