Foreigners Enjoy Record Internet Speed in Cuba, While Dissidents Have Phones Blocked

Saturday, September 19, 2015
Foreign journalists in Cuba (see below) are marveling at how Internet speeds have instantly (and dramatically) improved as Pope Francis landed in Havana.

The irony here is that -- simultaneously -- the phones of Cuban democracy activists have been intercepted and blocked throughout the island.

This proves two important points:

1. How the Castro regime can easily manipulate the Internet in Cuba; and
2. How limited Internet access has never had anything to do with U.S. sanctions.

Of course, this last point has been proven -- time and again -- yet remains a favorite talking point of the Castro regime and its disingenuous lobbyists in the United States.

Must Read: What Happens the Day After Pope Francis Leaves Cuba?

By Cuban independent journalist, Miriam Celaya, in The Atlantic:

What Happens the Day After Pope Francis Leaves Cuba?

The paradise many Cubans dream of is not in the infinity of the heavens, but a mere 90 miles across the sea.

The pope is arriving in Cuba, and with him runaway speculation in the media about the impact his visit will have on Cuban society and politics—and particularly the push for greater democracy in the country.

And in the media’s defense, Pope Francis’s presence here is noteworthy. It is the third papal visit in just 17 years to a country whose population is not known for its Catholic devotion—a country where democracy was banished more than 63 years ago by two successive coups d’état: Fulgencio Batista’s in 1952 and Fidel Castro’s in 1959. Fidel’s regime was characterized in its first three decades by anti-religious policies, including the harassment of Catholic clergy, the expropriation of Church property, and the banning of religious education. Many priests were expelled from Cuba, and the Catholic lay community and Church officials who stayed behind were forced to practice their faith from cloisters in homes, churches, and vestries, always under the hostile supervision of ideologues and oppressors serving the communist power.

After Pope John Paul II traveled to Cuba in 1998, relations between the Cuban Catholic Church and the state improved significantly. The government reinstated celebrations that had been banned on the island, including Christmas and the procession of Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity. It permitted the (limited) circulation of Church publications such as Palabra Nueva and Espacio Laical.

But for many Cubans—who tend to be more superstitious than religious—the expectations that grew out of John Paul II’s visit stemmed not from the pope’s ministry or the people’s religious vocation, but rather from the important role that the pontiff had played in Poland’s transition to democracy, a peaceful process to which millions of Cubans aspired. Hopeful Cubans overwhelmed city squares to greet the clergyman. They took as a good omen the famous phrase with which the bishop of Rome bid us farewell from the steps of his plane: “May Cuba, with all its magnificent possibilities, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.”

To date, only part of that blessing has been fulfilled: The world has opened itself up to a Cuba whose government refuses to open itself up to those it governs.

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba in 2012 strengthened relations between the Church and the Castro government, while expanding and consolidating the Church’s presence in Cuban society. But it did not create openings for democracy or civil liberties, despite the flood of blessings, which—like his predecessor—Benedict poured equally over the wolves and the flock.

Prior to Benedict’s arrival, the Cuban government had freed political prisoners locked away as part of the 2003 judicial farce known as the Black Spring. But other Black Spring prisoners still languished behind bars, and the Castro regime chose Jaime Ortega, Havana’s cardinal, as the mediator in the release rather than involving leaders of Cuban civil society. Notably excluded from the talks were the Ladies in White, female relatives of jailed Black Spring dissidents who long campaigned for the liberation of their loved ones by attending Mass and then embarking on a ritual procession through the streets—protests that are routinely repressed through beatings and arrests, but that have aroused solidarity around the world for their defense of human rights.

Now another pope passes through Cuba, after serving as an intermediary in negotiations between the governments of Cuba and the United States that have produced a momentous development: the restoration of relations between the two countries, interrupted more than 50 years ago in the midst of the Cold War. Pope Francis speaks our language. He is from our continent.

And yet, many Cubans recognize that Francis’s visit will not make a difference in their daily lives and problems. The capital of hope awakened by John Paul II has drained away after almost two decades of no real improvements in the country’s socioeconomic and political situation, and in the spiral of poverty that stifles much of the population. Cubans today confront ever more entrenched poverty, an increasingly apathetic population, and a nation being emptied—particularly of its young people—by a growing and seemingly unstoppable emigration. Many people have discovered that the paradise they dream about is not in the infinity of the heavens, but a mere 90 miles across the sea from this hell of hardship that Cuba has become.

These considerations aren’t enough to stop the fanfare. Crowds will flock to greet Pope Francis, whether out of faith, curiosity, or official summons. For several days, autocrats will smile, the pope will bless us, religious choirs will sing, and even the staunchest atheists may express pious devotion, however artificial. After all, we are a people who have been trained against our will for over five decades in false compliance.

The day after the pontiff leaves, when the prayers have been silenced, the stands have been removed, and the facades of old buildings—painted in a hurry to temporarily cover the dirt, the ruins, and the indolence—begin to fade again under the merciless sun, thousands of Cubans will return to the rhythms imposed by survival. The government will have released more than 3,000 imprisoned criminals as a gesture of goodwill to the bishop of Rome—many will likely go on to commit the same crimes for which they were jailed. May God protect us! Political prisoners will remain captive. To the regime, they are the most dangerous.

Cubans are all too aware that papal blessings have never found fertile ground in this land, so they prefer not to place in the pope’s hands what they must pursue with their own, unless God himself should come to save them.

Of course, it would be unfair to blame the pope for our national disaster. Nor would it be right to leave the solution to our many problems to his well-intentioned prayers. But his visit to Cuba nevertheless raises the question: Who will challenge a power that has been blessed?

Pope Francis Officially Shuns Cuban Dissidents

From AP:

Pope Francis plans to duck dissidents in Cuba

Pope Francis plans to meet with Cuba's president and its priests, its young and its sick, its churchgoers and its seminarians as he travels around the island starting Saturday. But not its dissidents.

The absence on Francis' agenda of any meeting with the political opposition has sparked bitter critiques from dissidents who say they feel let down by an institution they believe should help push for greater freedom in Cuba.

"He should exert more pressure," said Antonio Rodiles, head of Estado de SATS. "In many cases political systems have come under international pressure that has resulted in change, and that's what needs to be happen with Cuba."

Papal observers say it's likely Francis will speak strongly to Cubans about the need for greater freedom in their country and may speak to President Raul Castro in private about the same topic. But in shying from meetings with dissidents, the pope is hewing largely to the Cuban Catholic Church's strategy of advocating for change within bounds laid out by the communist state rather than pushing the system to change as John Paul II did in Eastern Europe. There is no one Cuban officials consider more out of bounds than the country's dissidents, whom they call mercenaries paid by the U.S. government and Cuban-American interest groups in Miami.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said this week that Francis had not accepted any invitations to meet with dissidents, and well-known opposition members told The Associated Press they have received no invitation to see him.

Lombardi noted that a possible occasion for bringing up Cuban's human rights situation could be during Francis' private meeting with Raul Castro, or while the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, meets with his Cuban counterpart.

"Often, these types of problems are dealt with in conversations, not so much with public proclamations but in personal, direct or private discussions," Lombardi said. "The tradition of the Holy See's authority is to deal with them with a discretion that can often be more efficient than other, possibly more visible but less opportune ways."

The pope "will be well aware that his not meeting dissidents will be construed in some quarters as kowtowing to the regime but he won't care about that," said Austen Ivereigh, author of "The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope."


Marco Rubio in CNN: Will Pope Francis Visit Inspire Freedom in Cuba?

By U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) in CNN:

Will Pope Francis visit inspire freedom in Cuba?

As Pope Francis visits the United States for the very first time, it is our privilege as Catholics and Americans to welcome His Holiness to our country. Here, he will find people who are uniquely free.

We Americans are free to give our opinions and make our voices heard. We work in a free enterprise economy that, for over 200 years, has lifted countless individuals above the circumstances of their birth to achieve their God-given potential. We have been an exceptional country because, here, people are free to practice their faiths and worship God.

And we have enshrined in our founding documents and promoted the fundamental truth, all around the world, that the rights of all men, women and children -- not simply Americans -- come from God.‎

Religious freedom is often referred to as America's first freedom. Our country was founded by religious exiles and built on the belief that God has given all people certain inalienable rights. Government's role in society is to protect these rights and ensure that we are safe from religious persecution and discrimination.

For centuries, faith has helped us overcome problems and helped us work to achieve a more perfect union. It has inspired the many leaders who played a key role in abolishing slavery, protecting civil rights and, hopefully one day, becoming a nation where all life -- from conception to natural death -- is protected.

Faith has also greatly shaped America's role in the world. We are a country that embodies the Bible verse from Luke chapter 12, verse 48 -- "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded."

Our brave men and women have made many sacrifices in just wars to defeat the forces of evil. We have exported our greatest values: freedom and opportunity, which have lifted millions out of poverty. At home, these values allow Americans to use their God-given potential and make their dreams reality. For this reason, we are truly blessed, and I am excited for Pope Francis to see this firsthand.

This month, the Pope also visits a country that is close in distance from the United States, but far from free.

In Cuba, His Holiness won't find a government that protects its people and their God-given rights. Instead, he will find a regime that oppresses people and hinders progress, both socially and politically. He will meet with a regime that is solely responsible for the Cuban people's plight over the past 56 years.

He will find a place where every Sunday in the past six months -- as they've been doing for many years -- Cuban agents are assigned to a Catholic Church where their instructions are to beat, jail and intimidate the Ladies In White that attend Mass and who afterwards peacefully take to the streets calling for the release of their husbands, sons and fathers who are political prisoners.

My hope is that the Pope's visit to Cuba will remind all the Cuban citizens that they possess dignity and fundamental rights that come from God and that the Castro regime has no claim on changing what is 100% God-given.

I pray the Pope can use his moral authority to inspire true religious freedom, and bring us closer to the day when freedom can finally take root on the island country; because only then will the people of Cuba prosper and have the opportunity to live out God's plan.

It has been seven years since the last papal visit to the United States, and our world is rapidly changing. Now more than ever, our faith is important. But even when we are deeply divided over important issues facing our country and the world, "In God We Trust" for the guidance and wisdom to do what's both right and necessary for our Republic.

After all, it is our belief in a greater God that gives us hope each day for a brighter future. Please join me in welcoming Pope Francis to the United States, and helping him to spread peace and prosperity to people around the world.

Cuban Regime Undertakes "Social Cleansing" Before Pope Arrives

From Reuters:

Dissidents accuse Cuba of 'social cleansing' for pope visit

A dissident human rights group on Friday accused the Cuban government of "social cleansing" ahead of a three-night visit by Pope Francis, saying police had rounded up thousands of beggars and homeless people in three cities where the pope will travel.

Cuban officials do not comment on police activity.

The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation expressed its "deep indignation and concern" for the police operation it said was under way in Havana, Holguin and Santiago, where the pope will visit from Saturday to Tuesday.

"According to our estimates, this has resulted in the internment of thousands of beggars, panhandlers, ragamuffins, the mentally ill and other vulnerable wanderers, most of them homeless," the commission said in a statement, contending the operation was conducted with approval from Cuba's highest authorities.

"This 'social cleansing' intends to remove them from the view of pilgrims, foreign journalists and other visitors" coming to see the pope, the statement said.

The whereabouts of those picked up were unknown, the commission said.

The group publicly asked Pope Francis to intervene and seek the release of those picked up.

The commission monitors the arrest or detention of political opponents and common criminals. Its latest annual report said Cuba held 60 political prisoners plus 11 more who were on parole and unable the leave the island.

The commission also publishes a monthly report of activists who are temporarily detained for political activity, saying 768 were held in August, the largest single monthly total this year.

Cuban Dissidents Expecting No Miracles From Pope

From AFP:

Cuban dissidents not expecting miracles from pope visit

Cuban dissidents hope Pope Francis will use his upcoming visit to pressure the government on human rights, but they aren't holding out hope for any miracles from the communist regime.

The pope will give eight speeches or homilies during his four-day visit to the island and there will likely be at least a veiled reference to the state's crackdowns on dissidents and restrictions on civil liberties.

But members of Cuba's fractured and officially illegal opposition said they see little chance that the trip will bring significant change.

"Pope Francis wants his visit to have a major impact, but he won't be able to work any miracles, because change depends on the Cuban government's political will. And it has none," said Elizardo Sanchez, president of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights.

The pope will also meet Cuban President Raul Castro during his visit, though no meetings with dissidents are on the agenda.

Jose Daniel Ferrer, another leading dissident, said he was not expecting any sea changes, but is "hopeful that the pope will demand more democracy and respect for human rights from the government, even if he does it in private."

There is papal precedent on these delicate issues as Francis heads to Cuba Saturday, the third pope to visit the island in 17 years.

John Paul II called for greater respect for human rights during the first papal visit to Cuba in 1998, a historic trip that symbolized a nascent rapprochement between the Church and the one-time atheist state.

In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI criticized Marxism and spoke of the need for "new models."

- Church silence -

But Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White, one of the island's most visible dissident groups, said she feared the issue of human rights would be eclipsed by talk of the pope's role in negotiating the recent thaw between Cuba and the United States -- the other country on the pope's itinerary for his eight-day tour.

"People talk a lot about the rapprochement (with the United States), but nobody says anything about repression, justice, freedom," said Soler.

She voiced frustration that "neither the Catholic Church hierarchy nor the local Church have spoken out on repression."

In an act of goodwill before the visit, Cuban authorities released more than 3,500 prisoners last week, amplifying a gesture also undertaken for the previous papal trips.

But dissidents complained the measure did not free any of the 60 political prisoners they say are currently in custody.

Cuban authorities dispute that figure, saying the 53 inmates freed in January as part of Havana's negotiations with Washington were the last political prisoners on the island.

Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote that she feared the visit would unleash "a repeat of the repression seen during Benedict XVI's visit," when 150 dissidents said they were preemptively arrested to prevent them from pulling any political stunts.

Amnesty International, which has been barred from Cuba since 1988, said Thursday that advances have been made there, including a 2013 reform loosening travel restrictions and the release of political prisoners.

"However, the country still needs to make progress when it comes to allowing people to peacefully express their views without fear of being harassed, detained or attacked," said Erika Guevara-Rosas, the rights group's director for the Americas.

On Obama's "Updated" Cuba Regulations

Friday, September 18, 2015
This morning, the Obama Administration announced "updates" to its January 2015 Treasury and Commerce regulations easing sanctions towards the Cuban dictatorship.

These "updates" reflect the Obama Administration's frustration at the strong, bipartisan opposition it has faced in Congress to any lifting of sanctions towards Cuba, which remain codified in law. It also reflects the Obama Administration's disappointment that -- despite the sensationalism -- its January 2015 regulations have not netted any commercial transactions.

Thus, the Obama Administration seeks to (further) irresponsibly entice the business community to violate clear statutory prohibitions, in order to continue its hollow policy agenda of rapprochement with the Cuban dictatorship.

Just as the January 2015 regulations, namely its credit and debit card provisions, sought to compel American companies and individuals (at their own risk) to violate the statutory prohibition against the indirect financing of Cuba (Section 103 of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act -- herein "Libertad Act"), today's regulations would expose American companies and individuals to violations of the statutory prohibition on investment in Cuba's domestic telecommunications services (Section 102(g) of the Libertad Act) and the importation safeguards against Cuban products (Section 110 of the Libertad Act). They also contravene U.S. policy goals and protections against trafficking in stolen American properties in Cuba.

These regulations will surely result in close Congressional scrutiny, as any liability for such violations would extend past the Obama Administration's term in office.

Finally, through further unilateral concessions, which the Cuban dictatorship reiterated this week will not be reciprocated, the Obama Administration seeks to distract from the real troubling metrics of its new policy: a dramatic increase in repression on the island, with nearly 4,000 political arrests; the rate of Cubans risking their lives to flee the island has doubled; courageous Cuban dissidents are being sidelined by the State Department, Congressional delegations, foreign governments and Pope Francis; Russian intelligence ships have increased their activities in the eastern U.S. seaboard thanks to their access to Cuba's ports; and the repressive and undemocratic activities of Cuba's puppet regime in Venezuela have intensified.

What Obama Means By Generational Change in Cuba: From Raul to Alejandro Castro

This week, President Obama asked the Business Roundtable in Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress to lift sanctions on Cuba.

Here was his rationale:

"I am convinced that by re-engaging Cuba, re-engaging the Cuban people, that we are creating the environment in which a generational change and transition will take place in that country."

Ironically, today CNN has confirmed who was the lead Cuban negotiator during the secret talks in Ottawa, Toronto and Rome that resulted in the Obama-Castro deal of December 17th.

It was Col. Alejandro Castro Espin -- dictator Raul Castro's son.

Col. Castro Espin's official role is currently as Deputy Minister of the Interior, where he oversees the island's intelligence and repressive apparatus.

It's that apparatus that has led to a record-level of political arrests in Cuba since the December 17th deal.

Thus, this is the path that Obama's policy has set us on -- a generational transition within the Castro family from Raul to Alejandro.

Let's call it the Assad model.

Meanwhile, Alejandro's brother-in-law, General Luis Alberto Lopez-Callejas, controls the trade and tourism monopolies that are overwhelmingly the biggest beneficiaries of Obama's policy.

It's hard to imagine a greater disservice to the Cuban people.

In the image below, future dictator Alejandro is seen standing behind his father as President Obama shakes hands with the current Cuban dictator.

Alejandro is the one with the big smile on his face -- for he has a lot to be happy about.

Drop the Hype: Cuba is a Vapor Opportunity For U.S. Airlines

By leading aviation consultant, Michael Boyd, in Forbes:

Cuba: A Vapor Opportunity For US Airlines

Cuba Is A Long Way From Being A Viable Destination… Even Mississippi Has A Lot More To Offer

There’s nothing like a one-sided grand opening.

Here’s the visual: The customers are all excited, crowding at the doors for the grand opening of a new department store, one that’s been promised by the media – not by the store itself – to be an incredible experience. Emotions are running high – “everybody” has said this was going to be the deal of the century.

The joke’s on them, however. On the other side of the doors, the place is empty. Matter of fact, the supposed vendor could care less, and had little to do with all the hoopla that brought these people trying to stampede through the doors. Not only that, but the shelves are empty. He has very little to sell, and actually isn’t interested in selling anything, anyway.

That’s a near-perfect description of the embarrassing burlesque that’s surrounding the opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba. A lot of excitement based on fantasy.

An Embassy Does Not A Market Make. With diplomatic relations restored, the travel media is in a frenzy, talking about the great “pent-up demand” for US tourism to Cuba, and reporting on all sorts of adventurous trips to see the place. Seems they think that a stint at a gated beach resort with limited supply of soap is just what the vacationers from Scarsdale have been hankerin’ for.

But not to worry, there’s also the business sector that supposedly is crowding airline departure gates, ready to invest in the Cuban economy – if only that US embargo can be eliminated. Of course, that’s not what the Cuban government wants – they are decidedly against opening toward a truly free economy.

But you’re really out of the consensus unless you buy the vision – this is supposedly the first step to eventually having boatloads of North Dakota grain heading for the hungry folks in Santiago and Holquin and Santa Maria. Not to mention ships chocked full of US goodies, too – even though most of our consumer goods and clothing aren’t made in this county. Minor point.

Yessir, a nation with an economic system that delivers an average monthly income of under $200 is supposedly going to be the next big thing in consumer demand. And, according to some, the next tsunami of tourist traffic for US airlines.

Rain On The Parade: The Economic Isolation of Cuba Is A Cuban Policy. Never mind the fact that Cuba has open access to grain from Canada, New Zealand, and the rest of the world. Same with consumer goods. They haven’t bought much because of internal policies and political programs within Cuba itself. There isn’t much business being done there, and that’s by unilateral choice of their government. Further, according to the Cuban government itself, that’s not going to change, either.

The fact that the US embargo is just that – a US embargo, not a global embargo – has been lost in the din of excitement due to a US flag raised over an embassy building that’s probably been wired by the Cubans with more electronics than a big-box appliance store at Christmas time.

Hard To Succeed In A Market With Just One-Way Traffic. Let’s cut to the chase: Cuba will be a strong charter market for airlines carrying adventure tourists… not much different from a safari to look at oh-so-cute lions eating hapless zebras in Zimbabwe. It’s niche tourism, nothing more.

As a major leisure destination, there aren’t hotels or infrastructure in Cuba that can compete in quantity or quality with other venues. There are more hotel rooms on just the Las Vegas Strip than in all of Cuba – and what’s there is far from five star properties, too. Whatever Cuba has in beaches and resorts, there are none that are standouts from the rest of the Caribbean.

They Don’t Want Business Investment – Even If There Were Consumers There. As for the rah-rah about the business opportunities in Cuba, when it comes to this travel sector, airlines can be assured of carrying mostly sailboat fuel.

In fact, the Cuban government has made it clear that they aren’t going to do anything to change their economic policies, US embassy or not. In fact, now that diplomatic exchanges have been made, Fidel Castro has come out demanding the US pay damages to Cuba. Again, the welcome and excitement are all on the US side.

Unless There Are Major Changes On The Cuban Side, It’s An Air Service Cadaver. Oh, yeah, this sure is the place for airline expansion, right? Sounds good on paper, but when the facts are outlined, trying to toss an A-320 into José Martí International on a daily, scheduled basis, intended to capture all that vapor traffic would be pretty embarrassing to the carrier’s bottom line. Remember, there is little or no outbound traffic from Cuba – regardless of what the Cuban government might say, the population is not allowed to freely leave the country. There aren’t going to be a lot of round-trip tickets sold in Havana.

So, here’s the reality. The tourist sector will be adventure travelers, not mass volume. There is no business base in Cuba, and that means business travel is going to be zip. And finally, Cubans don’t have the money or the permission to book a seat out of the country.

Drop The Hype. In Context, There Are Much Better Places To Expand. Here’s a news flash for the US airline industry. Havana isn’t high on list for fully-scheduled daily flights – from anywhere in the US. Business is business.

The Medianoches May Not Be As Good, But There’s More Revenue In Mississippi. For US airlines looking for new scheduled revenue opportunities, there are far more productive places in the US than Havana, or Santiago, or Cienfuegos, or Santa Maria. All the airline press releases about “how we’re excited about the Cuba opportunity” are pro-forma, and in the hard light of raw economics, Havana makes less sense for a 737 than Presque Isle. If political pressures or corporate hubris push carriers to operate daily scheduled flights, they’ll be loss leaders.

Regardless of public comments, US airlines are going to put their resources where they have the highest return. And Havana is a long way from the top of the list. As just one example, Golden Triangle Airport in Mississippi has more air service potential in the foreseeable future than does Havana.  Lots more. We’re talking global revenue, not news-capturing excitement of a ribbon-cutting in Cuba. This sounds weird, but, again, business is business.

That is not hyperbole. Let’s repeat it: there are much stronger airline revenue opportunities at GTR than there are at HAV – or all of Cuba, for that matter. Columbus, Mississippi has what Cuba does not have – a burgeoning manufacturing industry, a trained workforce, and an incredible foundation of global businesses based in Japan, Israel, France, and the Netherlands, all of which generate enormous levels of international traffic.

Havana? It’s got the Malecón and Hemingway’s house. All may be quaint and mysterious, but from an economic perspective that can deliver system air passenger traffic, it’s got bupkis compared to other places to which airlines can toss airplanes. Cuba has no heavy industry to speak of. No ready mass tourism that’s much beyond the curious fringes. No ready and trained workforce that has discretionary money to spend on travel. And nobody in the rank-and-file populace who has the pesos or the permission to travel out of town, anyway.

Let’s get real. If an airline planner suggested service to a place in the US with those characteristics, his career would get drop-kicked out the front door of the building.

To the travel industry: stand down. Cuba has enormous airline potential. But it’s at least five years and one government change away.

Speaker Boehner: From Russia to Cuba, U.S. Should Not Accommodate Aggressors

Thursday, September 17, 2015
Excerpt from Speaker of the House, John Boehner's (R-OH), remarks to the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Freedom Award Dinner:

The best thing that I can do – that we can all do, frankly – is give the stage to the true freedom fighters.  That way, people can hear their stories, and be inspired to action.

That’s why, as Speaker, my first meeting with a head of state was with the president of Georgia.  Not long after that, I met with a group of opposition leaders from Belarus.  In 2012, I visited Colombia to present its leaders with a copy of the new U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.  In 2013, we renamed a space in the Capitol ‘Freedom Foyer’ and now have a bust of Havel there.   Last year, we invited the President of Ukraine to address a joint meeting of Congress.  Last January, one of my guests at the State of the Union was Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, a leader of the Cuban resistance movement.

And in June, I led a bipartisan delegation to Lithuania, a nation celebrating the 25th anniversary of its modern independence.  There, we toured the Barricades and saw an original copy of their young Constitution.  They took us out to see their new LNG terminal, fittingly named ‘Independence.’  And we met with the man they call their George Washington, who, as it turns out, is an excellent piano player.

A generation ago, in his speech to the British Parliament, President Reagan called for a ‘crusade for freedom.’  Well this is it.  It is happening.  And this is why IRI is so important.

Because freedom is a powerful idea, but even a great idea is not enough.  We know you can’t just issue a declaration, and claim there’s freedom.  You can’t just have an election, and call it a democracy.  It all takes time and tremendous vigilance.

It goes back to that old saying: showing up is 90 percent of life.  You know why it’s an old saying?  Because it’s true.  When you show up, you show people that you care.  IRI does this better than anyone, and I thank you for that.

Yet I’m sure when President Reagan said those words, he envisioned that it would be the United States leading this crusade.  But sadly, promoting democracy isn’t a cornerstone of our government’s current foreign policy.  If anything, it is an afterthought.

We see this, for example, in Iraq.  When the White House had the chance to use its leverage to protect our progress and prevent the rise of ISIL, it did not act.  Instead, the Iranian regime now exerts great influence over Iraq’s institutions.  Except Iran has no interest in keeping Iraq whole and stable.

We see this in Cuba.  When our Secretary of State traveled to Havana to open our embassy, he had a great opportunity to highlight human rights problems.  But not a single dissident – not one – was invited to the ceremony.  Something about ‘limited space.’  And yet, on the eve of that ceremony, dozens of dissidents were arrested.

We see this in the irregular warfare against the legitimate government in Kiev.  Instead of providing lethal aid to Ukraine, as members of both parties have urged, the president stated that Congress wanted to escalate the conflict.   His response to our urging?  He went out of his way to praise Putin for helping secure the Iran deal.  I’ll say again what I said four years ago: cooperation can only be transactional to a point. We can never sacrifice – or even downplay – our values.

But that’s exactly what we have done.  Just look at the Iran deal.  Not only does this deal make the world less safe – it makes the world less free.  Long before we’ll ever know whether we prevented a nuclear Iran, we will be legitimizing a regime that jails journalists, tortures Americans it has unjustly imprisoned, and plots the annihilation of Israel, the only stable democracy in the region.

My guiding principle has always been that you stand with your friends and confront your enemies.  But in the foreign policy of this administration, we see a drift away from our allies – and our values – towards accommodation with the world’s aggressors.

Quote of the Debate: May Air Force One Land in a Free Cuba

I hope that my Air Force One, if I become president, will one day land in a free Cuba, where its people can choose its leaders and its own destiny.
-- U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican presidential candidate, CNN GOP Debate, 9/16/15

Cuba's Spy "Numbers Station" As Busy As Ever

From Motherboard:

Cuba's Mysterious 'Numbers Station' Is Still on the Air

On August 18 at 22:00 UTC, I heard a government intelligence agency transferring encrypted messages to spies over the radio.

Or at least, that's the most common explanation for what I heard.

I dialed to the correct frequency—17480 kHz—using an internet-connected radio tuner maintained by a university in the Netherlands. Suddenly, over waves of static, an eerily-robotic woman's voice began speaking a series of five-digit number sequences in Spanish.

About three minutes later, the numbers repeated in the same order, but this time each sequence was followed by a digital bell-like tone and a harsh blast of noise, like a 56K modem trying to connect to AOL in the 90s. This continued for about 20 minutes, each sequence punctuated by the bizarre noise blasts.

Then, static.

This is HM01, sometimes called “Voce De La Chica,” a shortwave numbers station believed to be operated by the Cuban intelligence directorate, Dirección de Inteligencia (DI).

To the casual listener, numbers stations are mysterious broadcasts of voices speaking streams of numbers which, in at least some cases, are encrypted messages being sent to government spies.

They have long seemed like Cold War relics, born in a time when spying meant boots-on-the-ground and internet surveillance was impractical or irrelevant. And yet, HM01 continues to operate in what the NSA has called a “golden age” of internet-enabled signals intelligence, and despite historic progress in US-Cuba relations earlier this summer.

While evidence suggests HM01 is operated by the Cuban government, it’s virtually impossible to tell who it’s sending to, which is one of the main tactical advantages of numbers stations: You can easily see the intended recipient of an email, but you can’t prove someone listened to a radio broadcast unless you catch them in the act.

Shortwave radio listeners (or SWLs, as they are known) have followed stations like HM01 for decades. According to members of Priyom.org, an online community of radio enthusiasts that monitors numbers stations, HM01 is a close relative of “Atención,” a government station that has operated for decades and whose transmissions wereused as key evidence in a case that convicted five Cuban spies in the late 90s.

HM01 is “basically the successor” of Atención, a shortwave listener who goes by “alchemist” explained to me on Priyom's IRC channel. “But as you know, you can't decrypt it nor decipher the contents.” (The stations use one-time pads, a theoretically uncrackable scheme whereby agents in the field decrypt messages using pre-shared keys that are destroyed after use.)

The hand-off occurred in November of 2012, when HM01 started occupying the frequencies and time slots normally used by Atención. Its signal frequently mixes with the government-run station Radio Havana Cuba, leading to the conclusion that Radio Havana Cuba and HM01 originate from the same building.

There's something unusual about HM01, though: It's a “Hybrid Mode” station, which in this case means it broadcasts both a voice reading numbers (the header IDs of each message) and a digital transmission mode used by a now-defunct “sister” station, SK01. The weird, dialup modem-esque sounds I heard were actually files being sent using a digital transmission mode called Redundant Digital File Transfer (RDFT), which only HM01 is known to use.

When run through special software, these noises can be decoded (but not decrypted) back into files full of jumbled ciphertext. Oddly, the program used by HM01 was created by a Brazilian radio enthusiast and is available online for free. It runs on Windows XP, whose log-in and log-out jingles have been heard during several of the station's documented “mishaps.”

Capitulation Amounts to Legitimization

By Daisy B. Peñaloza in The Bakersfield Californian:

Capitulation to tyrants is legitimization of oppression

To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

— Elie Wiesel

Two days after Secretary of State John Kerry’s ceremonial flag-raising in Havana, Cuba, the predictable blows, insults and detentions rained down on peaceful dissidents. The grievous totalitarian and capitalist partnership was procured at a great price. To achieve the embassy opening and solidify his legacy, at whatever cost, President Obama had to make more embarrassing concessions to the Castro dictatorship. The unjustifiable removal of Cuba from the list of States Sponsors of Terrorism, and an unmerited upgrade on the list of nations facilitating human-trafficking, paved the way for diplomatic recognition of Cuba.

The presence of a U.S. embassy in Cuba, however, violates the 1996 Libertad Act (Helms-Burton), which stipulates that diplomatic recognition is contingent upon the existence of a “democratically-elected government” and monetary restitution for stolen U.S. properties. Castro’s Cuba has satisfied neither requirement. Under the U.S. Constitution, the President is expected to enforce existing laws passed by the U.S. Congress; not breach them.

At the U.S. embassy, Cuba’s valiant, persecuted dissidents were conspicuously absent from the assembled pro-Castro throng of U.S. bankers, lawyers and entrepreneurs. The Obama administration, not wanting to offend the Castro regime, had barred the dissidents from attending the event. Official statements from the Obama administration purport to advance the cause of democracy and civil liberties in Cuba, but their actions are inconsistent with their stated objectives. Many of Cuba’s dissidents, who daily bear the brunt of Castro’s despotism, and are reeling from Obama’s betrayal, have adamantly stated that U.S. engagement with Cuba, that does not address civil liberties and respect for human rights in the public discourse, is a major setback for democracy efforts.

“The United States is talking with the Government and those surrounding it. But civil society is left outside. It is a privilege reserved for the Cuban caste. For the rest, it is a situation of exclusion,” said Rosa María Payá, democracy activist and daughter of the martyred Oswaldo Payá. “The European Union, the U.S.A., Pope Francis - they have turned their backs on us,” similarly laments Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White.

Since rapprochement began, the repression has intensified in Cuba. Every week, hundreds of Cuban dissidents and independent journalists are subjected to beatings, public acts of repudiation, arrests and imprisonment. Cuba was ripe for a democratic transition; however, Obama’s botched diplomacy only succeeded in prolonging the totalitarian nightmare.

The sociopolitical mistakes the U.S. has made with China, Vietnam and Burma should not be repeated with Cuba. All the foreign money pumped into these totalitarian economies did nothing to alleviate the political persecution of their respective citizens. Saturating Cuba with tourism and business ventures controlled by a corrupt regime will not generate a democratic transition as China effectively illustrates. Foreign revenue only serves to entrench Castro’s totalitarian rule, fund terrorism and perpetuate slave labor on the island and abroad. Cubans desire freedom; not further exploitation.

Callously sweeping aside 56 years of Castro’s tyranny does not satisfy the demands of justice. To date, there has been no justice for the thousands of innocent Cuban men, women and young boys executed by firing squad without cause or trial. To date, there has been no justice for the hundreds of political prisoners tortured or starved to death in Castro’s gulag. Nor has there been justice for the 41 men, women and children massacred on July 13, 1994 when their old tugboat filled with 71 souls was rammed and deliberately sunk by three Cuban vessels. The pleas for help by the drowning mothers and their children were ignored by the pitiless Cuban authorities. Castro’s victims and their families deserve justice. Instead of a handshake, the Castro brothers should have been held accountable for their crimes against humanity.

For more than half a century, Cuban exiles have been staunch and unapologetic defenders of freedom. Historically, we know that capitulation to tyrants amounts to legitimization of their evil, oppressive ideology. Expressing solidarity with Cuba’s pro-democracy dissidents, and supporting U.S. legislation that defeats Obama’s bad Cuba policy is the morally right course of action.

Miami Herald Editorial Board: Not Impressed By Castro's Empty Gesture

Tuesday, September 15, 2015
By The Miami Herald's Editorial Board:

We’re not impressed

Saturday, Pope Francis arrives in Cuba. Last Friday, Cuba announced it’s pardoning 3,522 prisoners. Cause and effect in action — and that’s about all this gesture from the Cuban government likely means.

No need to speculate on whether this is a real sign that after 56 years the Castro regime is finally easing its grip on 11 million Cubans — as is the desired result following the U.S. announcement in December of thawing diplomatic ties with the island. That’s just not how dictatorships work.

It’s well known that Cuba empties and fills its jails according to what’s politically expedient — and makes it look like a benevolent government to the outside world, especially just before the international spotlight shines on the island.

Those set to be pardoned are men and women, young and old or infirm who are first-time offenders who committed nonviolent crimes. But none of the regime’s thousands of political prisoners are among them. We hope the pope has something to say about that. After all, recent figures show arrests and detentions on the island continue unabated.

It’s not the first time Cuba has made a show of releasing prisoners — a favorite bargaining tool of the Castro brothers.

In 1978, Fidel Castro released almost 3,800 political prisoners in a deal with President Jimmy Carter’s administration. Before that, of course, there was a deal brokered for the release of the Cubans captured during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Cuba got $10 million in medical supplies.

And twice before, in advance of papal visits, the Cuban government has released prisoners, all for show before filling the jails again after the pope’s plane went wheels up.

In 1998, Fidel Castro released 300 prisoners ahead of Pope John Paul II’s visit. And in 2011, Raúl Castro released nearly 3,100 ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit.

A month after the U.S. announced it would reestablish diplomatic ties with the island, Cuba, as a show of good will, released 53 dissidents. Many of the prisoners, it turned out, had nearly served their sentences or been released months earlier. In other words, it was an empty gesture.

But those who know the machinations of the Cuban government think the latest prisoner-release announcement was moved up to distract the international press. Thursday, Castro’s partner in repression, Venezuela, handed renowned democracy leader, Leopoldo López, a 13-year prison sentence — an outrage for a political dissident guilty of no real crime, just that of opposing President Nicolás Maduro’s regime.

International headlines Friday should have been about Mr. López’s sentencing, instead they trumpeted how nice Cuba is to be releasing prisoners. Well-played.

What Cuba really wants is economic growth. The regime wants to open its doors to U.S. business, investment and tourism as China and Vietnam have done. What it doesn’t want is its citizens speaking out against the government.

But it’s incumbent upon the United States to make clear that Cuba can’t have the former without eliminating its restrictions on the latter; without freeing its political prisoners, incarcerated on trumped-up charges and tried in kangaroo courts.

U.S. diplomacy hinges on the belief that normalizing diplomatic ties and trade with nations like Cuba will change everything. But that has yet to be seen.

Cuba must to do more than these fake gestures of prisoner releases and offer up real, and permanent, human-rights reform.

Open Letter to Pope Francis for the Release of "El Sexto"

Open Letter to Pope Francis for the Release of “El Sexto”

Freedom for Danilo
Open Letter to the Pope
Havana, September 8, 2015

Your Holiness, Pope Francis:

In advance of your visit to our island, a group of Cuban citizens wish to call your attention to a case that needs an immediate solution. This is the politically motivated imprisonment of Danilo Maldonado Machado, a young artist who decided to express his dissatisfaction with the government through graffiti (urban or street art) and handing out flyers.

Also know as “El Sexto” (The Sixth) – an antithesis of “The Five”: a superhero invented for his creative work in the public space – Danilo has lived under constant police surveillance and harassment since he began the exercise of his art: he has been arbitrarily arrested countless times, they have arbitrarily searched his home, and confiscated his paint cans.

For more than eight months he has been held in custody without a trial or formal charges. On December 25, 2014 he prepared a Christmas performance. It consisted of releasing, in Central Park in Havana, two piglets greased with the names “Fidel” and “Raul painted on their backs. An action based on a Cuban peasant tradition. He named it, “Rebellion on the Farm” [The title used in Spanish for the novel “Animal Farm”].

Agents intercepted him on the way and since then, like someone who tried very hard before the tribunal to pronounce the precise letters that evoke “The Unnamable” with profane intentions, and he remains in a maximum security prison on the outskirts of Havana.

Danilo has been declared a prisoner of conscience. Confined to Valle Grande Prison for Contempt, an offense described in Article 144.2 of the Cuban Penal Code which provides for a sentence of one to three years for anyone “who threatens, slanders, defames, insults or in any way offends or affronts, orally or in writing, the dignity or decorum… the President of the State Council, the President of the National Assembly of People’s Power, members of the State Council or the Council of Ministers or the Deputies to the National Assembly People Power.”

Converting his action into a crime penalized with disproportionate penalties, only demonstrates that in Cuba the law criminalizes and discriminates against those who think differently: our Constitution denies all freedoms that are “contrary to the principles of the Revolution.”

We do not trust the judicial system where the State plays all the roles: prosecutor, defense attorney and judge at the same time. At this time his record is lost and the defense can do nothing until formally until it appears.

The prosecution has rejected three times a request for a change of pre-trial conditions for Danilo so that he can await his trial in freedom; according to the argument of the defense: the crime or “crazy idea… was not carried out.” The prosecutor’s response states that Danilo is a citizen with “the worst social conduct” and “is not socially useful.”

As friends with ideas that diverge from the official discourse, we have been prohibited from visiting him in prison. In solidarity, we have publicized the case in concerts under [police] surveillance, expositions of Danilo’s drawings made during his long confinement, in collections of signatures, and campaigns on social networks. We have marched together with the Ladies in White, demanding an Amnesty Law for political prisoners, while the State insists on denying that they exist, and at the same time every Sunday they deploy excessive violence in unjustified police operations against these women, who walk in peace and who are as well known as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

We come to you with the hope that you can intercede to repair the injustice against this young artist who has only committed the crime of daring to be free.

The right to freedom of expression and artistic creation deserves respect and value because Cuba presents itself to the world as a country that loves Education and Culture. Our government should protect the interests of critical artists – because one is an artist by nature – not persecute them. Our artists need to be considered and respected as key actors of social change, not condemned to prison or censorship.

As Danilo’s friends we demand his unconditional release and that our most essential freedoms be respected. We call for a genuine and transparent tolerance: the end of systematic and unjustified violence against the Ladies in White and every Cuban citizen who wishes to demonstrate in peace using the public space.

Know that many of us will be incarcerated for the sole reason of your visit to Cuba and our telephone services will be illegally cut off to prevent our attending the Mass at the Civic Plaza, as happened during the visit of His Holiness Benedict XVI, when the authorities deployed a massive police operation throughout the country, limiting the freedom of movement of peaceful citizens, and suspending without notice and against every law governing telecommunications services. “Vow of Silence” is what the government called that unprecedented operation, which we remember as the “Holy Blackout.”

We bid you welcome to our island, inhabited for the most part by the humble. Our intention is to wish you a pilgrimage of peace. We also desire with all our hearts that your visit will be gratifying and fruitful for everyone involved, including us, all Cubans, and will bring that peace that we so urgently need along with a genuine hope of rapid prosperity and national healing.

Signed,

Gorki Águila, musician (La Habana)
Lia Villares, artist (La Habana)
Claudio Fuentes, photographer and editor (La Habana)
Berta Soler, Ladies in White (La Habana)
Tania Bruguera, activist (New York)
Ángel Santiesteban, writer (La Habana)
Luis Trápaga, painter (La Habana)
Ciro Javier Díaz Penedo, musician and mathematician (São Paulo)
Laritza Diversent, independent lawyer (La Habana)
Ailer González, artist (La Habana)
Lizabel Monica, writer (Princeton, New Jersey)
Camilo E. Olivera, independent journalist (La Habana)
Yania Suárez, writer (La Habana)
Boris González Arenas, filmmaker (La Habana)
Ernesto Pérez Chang, writer (La Habana)
Rosa María Payá (Miami)
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, writer and photographer (Reykjavíj, Islandia)
Regina Coyula, editor (La Habana)
Elena Victoria Molina, filmmaker (Barcelona)
Aylin Sardiña Fernández, stylist (Gunzburg, Alemania)
Eliécer Ávila Cicilia, computer engineer (La Habana)
Iván Hernández Carrillo, independent labor activist (Matanzas)
Haisa Alicia Rosabal, editor (Villa Clara)
Sayli Navarro, Ladies in White (Matanzas)
Sonia Álvarez Campello, Ladies in White (Matanzas)
Yoaxis Marcheco, theologian (Villa Clara)
Mario Félix Lleonart, Baptist pastor (Villa Clara)
Maria Victoria Machado, mother of Danilo (La Habana)
Maria Caridad González, grandmother of Danilo (La Habana)
Francisco Javier Machado, grandfather of Danilo (La Habana)
Jorge Maldonado Cruz, father of Danilo (La Habana)
Indira Maldonado Machado, sister of Danilo (La Habana)
José Darien Espinosa, brother of Danilo (La Habana)
Frank Correa Lopey, artist (La Habana)
Aurelio Cobarrubia Rivera, artist (La Habana)
Erik Jennische, Civil Rights Defenders (Stockholm)
Oscar Antonio Casanella Saint-Blancard, biochemist (La Habana)
Dagne Ramírez, designer (New York)
Suyai Otaño, artist (Argentina)
Armando Valdés Zamora, writer and university professor (París)
Azucena Plasencia, journalist (La Habana)
Mariana Hernández, Cuban Soul Foundation (Florida)
Pedro Luis Vidal, Cuban Soul Foundation (Miami)
Karinna Álvarez, Cuban Soul Foundation (Miami)
Sisi Portuondo, Cuban Soul Foundation (Miami);
Yoani Sánchez, 14ymedio (La Habana)

Courtesy of Translating Cuba.

Pope Francis, Cuba, and the Wrong Side of History

By Dr. Jose Azel in The PanAm Post:

Pope Francis, Cuba, and the Wrong Side of History

September Visit Brings False Hope to the Island

Eight hundred years ago, the Magna Carta laid the foundations for individual freedoms, the rule of law, and for limits on the absolute power of the ruler.

King John of England ruled by the principle of “force and will,” and believed that since he governed by divine right, there were no limits on his authority. But the King, desperate for financial support, was forced by the barons to sign the document limiting his powers, in exchange for their help.

King John then appealed to Pope Innocent III, who promptly ruled for the King, declaring the Magna Carta to be “not only shameful and demeaning but also illegal and unjust.” The pope deemed the charter to be “null and void of all validity forever.” Thus from the symbolic beginning of the conflict between individual rights and unlimited authority, the Catholic Church sided with authority. It is a position that, with notable exceptions, continues to characterize the conduct of Church-state affairs.

Despite the pope’s “forever” annulment, the spirit of the Magna Carta lived on, and its principles are enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, and in the hearts and minds of all freedom-loving people.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis warmly received General Raúl Castro in the Vatican, and in September he will travel to Cuba, becoming the third pontiff to visit the island following visits in 1998 by John Paul II, and in 2012 by Benedict XVI. What can we expect?

In political terms, Pope Francis is the head of an authoritarian state — an oligarchical theocracy — where only the aristocracy, the Princes of the College of Cardinals, participate in the selection of the ruler. This structure engenders an affinity for authoritarianism, as Pope Innocent III manifested in annulling the Magna Carta. Pope Francis has also left clues as to his political and economic thought regarding Cuba.

In 1998, then Archbishop of Buenos Aires Monsignor Jorge Mario Bergoglio authored a book titled Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro. In my reading of the pope’s complex Spanish prose, he favors socialism over capitalism provided it incorporates theism. He offers Fidel Castro’s claim that “Karl Marx’s doctrine is very close to the Sermon on the Mount,” and views the Cuban polity as in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine.

Following Church tradition, he condemns US economic sanctions, but Pope Francis goes much further. He uses Cuba’s inaccurate and politically charged term “blockade” and echoes the Cuban government’s allegations. He then criticizes free markets, noting that “neoliberal capitalism is a model that subordinates human beings and conditions development to pure market forces … thus humanity attends a cruel spectacle that crystallizes the enrichment of the few at the expense of the impoverishment of the many.”

This language is reminiscent of the “liberation theology” movement that developed in Latin America in the 1960s and became very intertwined with Marxist ideology. Liberation theology, fathered by Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, provided the intellectual foundations that, with Cuban support, served to orchestrate “wars of national liberation” throughout the continent.

John Paul II and Benedict XVI censured liberation theology, but in 2013, Pope Francis met with father Gutiérrez in “a strictly private visit.” Following the visit, in an apparent exoneration of liberation theology, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, published an essay stating that with the election of the first pope from Latin America, liberation theology can no longer “remain in the shadows to which it has been relegated for some years.”

In his book, Pope Francis speaks of a “shared solidarity,” but, as with Pope Innocent III’s rejection of the Magna Carta, that solidarity appears to be with the nondemocratic, illegitimate authority in Cuba, and not with the people. This is tragic, because during the wars for independence, the Church also sided with the Spanish Crown, and not with the Cuban “mambises” fighting for freedom. When Cuba gained its independence from Spain, many Cubans saw the Church as an enemy of the new nation.

In his September visit, Pope Francis will have an opportunity to unequivocally side the Church with the people, especially with the black and mulatto majority on the island. If he does not, history will repeat itself.

When the totalitarian nightmare ends, the Church hierarchy will be indicted by the people as supporters of the oppressive Castro regime. And Cubans, as they did after independence, will once again view the Church as having been on the wrong side of history.

The New York Times (and Obama) Proven Wrong (Again) on Cuba

Monday, September 14, 2015
On December 27th, 2014, The New York Times' Editorial Board argued how Obama's new Cuba policy would purportedly promote regional solidarity with Cuban dissidents:

"For decades, Latin American governments have coddled, or appeased, the Castro regime because confronting it would be interpreted as an endorsement of Washington’s harshly punitive policy toward the island. By changing that policy, Mr. Obama has removed that concern, which should allow leaders from democratic nations to support the principles Cuban activists have put forward."

This argument has also been a centerpiece of the Obama Administration's policy.

As Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson testified on February 3rd, 2015, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

"We are already seeing indications that our updated approach gives us a greater ability to engage other nations in the hemisphere and around the world in promoting respect for fundamental freedoms in Cuba. It has also drawn considerably greater attention to the actions and policies of the Cuban government."

Apparently, she's the only that "saw these indications" -- or hallucinations -- for the fact remains that in the face of record political arrests and repression since Obama's policy change, Cuban dissidents feel more abandoned than ever.

Not only are they being ignored by European and Latin American governments alike (not to mention by Pope Francis) -- but now also by the Obama Administration and visiting Members of the U.S. Congress.

Under Obama's new policy, Cuban dictator Raul Castro is officially the only game in Havana -- and it's his way or the highway.

Thus, imagine our "surprise" to read today's lament by The New York Times' Editorial Board about the lack of regional solidarity with imprisoned Venezuelan democracy leader Leopoldo Lopez.

"So far, there has been little international response to the Maduro government’s growing repression. The Organization of American States, the Union of South American Nations and Latin American presidents all should be denouncing the imprisonment of an innocent man and demanding his release."

Yet, these are the nations The New York Times and the Obama Administration thought would hold Castro's regime accountable?

These same nations that maintain a collaborative silence towards Castro's puppet regime in Venezuela?

To the contrary, they are less incentivized than ever to criticize the behavior of Maduro, Correa or any other Cuban stooge -- for they've seen how the Obama Administration has given Castro's regime (and its abuses) a pass.

As we wrote (and predicted) on February 24, 2015 -- "Venezuela Proves Fallacy of Obama's Cuba Policy."

(Click here to read it.)

It was a fallacy then. It's a fallacy now.

Quote of the Day: Lopez's Sentence is an Order From Havana

No one should fool themselves, [Leopoldo Lopez's sentence] is the worst mistake [Nicolas] Maduro and his regime have made. It's an order from Havana that has been fulfilled.
-- Maria Corina Machado, famed Venezuelan opposition legislator, El Impulso, 9/13/15

Cuba Influences Venezuela More Than Most People Know

By Katarina Hall in Dissident:

Venezuela Opposition Leader Unjustly Sentenced to Prison

Chavez's Venezuela took on the Cuban model of crushing dissent and political opposition.

Yesterday, Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López was sentenced to 13 years and nine months in prison. After being detained since February of 2014, he was found guilty of conspiracy, arson, damaging public property, and inciting violence during a political protest last year that ended in the deaths of 43 people.

López founded the party Voluntad Popular in 2009 to defend the rights of all Venezuelans and oppose the dictatorship of Hugo Chávez and Nicólas Maduro. In February 2014 he called for peaceful protests to address the country’s high levels of violence, shortages of basic goods, and to oppose President Maduro. Hundreds of thousands of protestors took over the streets of Venezuela. When state police intervened more than 3,000 were arrested and 43 were killed.

The legal charges blamed him for deaths during the protests. The long-delayed trial followed many irregularities. With Venezuela’s lack of judicial independence, the ruling was announced without any evidence linking him to the crimes. For more than a year, López was not given an opportunity to defend himself. The verdict and trial demonstrates to what extent Venezuela’s government is willing to oppress dissent and anyone who opposes the ruling president. The trial is a violation of human rights, and shows the reality in which the Venezuelan people live—“utterly defenseless in the face of government abuses” as Human Rights Foundation Chairman Garry Kasparov said this week.

The United States and United Nations have called for the Venezuelan government to release Leopoldo. Last year, the U.N. declared that López’s detention was arbitrary, and ordered his immediate release. U.S. officials have made it clear that López’s release is key to normalizing relations between both countries. However, Maduro has ignored these pleas, making it clear where his true interests are—with the Cuban government and other authoritarian regimes.

Cuba influences Venezuela more than most people know. Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela took on the Cuban model of crushing dissent and political opposition, and blaming killings on protestors instead of its own government—such as in Leopoldo López’s case.

In return for Venezuela’s economic lifeline to Cuba, which has provided the communist island with more than 120,000 barrels of oil a day, Cuba provides the Venezuelan government with advice on how to monitor internal opposition and stifle dissent. This intelligence network led by Cubans keeps all dissent throughout the country monitored and is ready to take drastic measures if protests break out.  Moreover, Venezuela has taken Cuba as an example that there are no meaningful repercussions from the U.S. or other countries for continued human rights violations.

WaPo Editorial: A Venezuelan Opposition Leader’s Absurd Sentence

From The Washington Post's Editorial Board:

A Venezuelan opposition leader’s absurd sentence

We've often written about one-sided political trials, which appear to be on the rise as a means of repression in unfree countries that attempt to maintain a veneer of international respectability. In recent months we’ve seen journalists and political activists cynically railroaded to prison in Azerbaijan, Egypt, Russia and elsewhere. But for sheer brazenness, nothing quite matches Venezuela’s prosecution of opposition leader Leopoldo López, who on Thursday was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison.

Mr. López, 44, is, like much of the opposition movement, a reason for hope in Venezuela’s future despite the country’s disastrous political and economic collapse under the regime founded by Hugo Chávez. A moderate leftist educated in the United States, Mr. López favors peaceful democratic change; in calling for anti-government protests last year, he gave several speeches calling on his supporters to act nonviolently. Not surprisingly, his popuarity in polls exceeds that of the current president, Nicolás Maduro, by more than 20 points.

The regime responded to Mr. López’s speeches by arresting him in February 2014, claiming he was responsible for clashes that occurred after a demonstration even though he was not present when they took place. To explain away his clear calls for nonviolence, the government claimed that Mr. López’s tweets contained “subliminal messages” that inspired violent acts. Yes, really.

Then came his trial, which was closed to journalists and independent observers. In 70 hearings extending for more than 600 hours, the government presented 108 witnesses for the prosecution — none of whom, according to a statement by Human Rights Watch, offered evidence backing up the charges. Mr. López was then offered three hours for his defense. The judge rejected 58 of 60 defense witnesses, and the other two refused to testify. She then delivered the maximum sentence requested by the prosecution.

To call this case “a complete travesty of justice,” as did Human Rights Watch, gives it more credit than it deserves. It was nothing more than a crude propaganda show and a device for shutting down an opponent the regime greatly fears.

The Obama administration and several Latin American governments pushed Mr. Maduro both in public and private to end the prosecution of Mr. López and to free him to participate in the legislative election promised for December. They were ignored. Now those governments must consider whether their strategy for Venezuela — which amounts to hoping that the elections will proceed and be reasonably free and fair — is still workable.

Very likely, it won’t be unless there are clear consequences for the imprisonment of Mr. López. Already the government is working to manipulate the vote: A number of other opposition leaders have been banned from participating. To deter more lawlessness, the United States should sanction every person who participated in the prosecution of Mr. López, starting with the judge and prosecutors. If Venezuela is to have a democratic exit from its mounting chaos, clear and concerted action by the United States and other outside powers will be essential in the coming months.

Cuban Regime Arrests Over 50 Dissidents Ahead of Pope's Visit

Here's what "change looks like" in Cuba -- on the 22nd Sunday in a row of widespread dissidents arrests.

From Reuters:

Cuba detains dissidents ahead of Pope Francis visit

Cuban police detained about 50 people when a predominantly Roman Catholic dissident group led a march in Havana on Sunday, less than a week before Pope Francis visits the communist-ruled country.

Such detentions have become common following regular Sunday marches by the Ladies in White, a group that has criticized the Roman Catholic Church and Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega for failing to advocate on its behalf with the Cuban government.

Ladies in White leader Berta Soler told Reuters the women planned to attend masses that Pope Francis will lead in Havana and Holguin while in Cuba from Sept. 19-22. The pope will also visit Santiago de Cuba.

"I would discuss with the pope the need to stop police violence against those who exercise their freedom to demonstrate in public," Soler said.

Cuba's government considers the dissidents to be provocateurs who are financed by anti-communist groups in the United States as part of an effort to destabilize the government in Havana.

In their weekly rally following mass at Havana's Santa Rita Catholic Church, about 40 of the women, accompanied by about a dozen male supporters, marched outside their authorized route and down a side street where they were set upon by some 200 government supporters and police.

Female police pushed, pulled and carried the women onto buses as some sat down in an attempt to resist. The men were handcuffed and shoved into police cars and vans.

Similar incidents have occurred over the last few months, with those detained soon released. Dissidents have said about 100 people are typically detained each Sunday across Cuba.

In August, Cuban police detained 768 dissidents of all stripes for political activity, the highest monthly total so far this year, according to the dissident Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Among those detained on Sunday was Jose Daniel Ferrer, head of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, the country’s largest dissident organization. He was released about an hour later.

"The Church should be concerned about this or any time human rights are involved," Ferrer said after police handcuffed him, took him to a station and later dropped him off at a bus terminal. "It is their duty."

The Church says it advocates for human rights with the government but cannot take up partisan political causes.

Here are some images from today's arrests:



Papal Diplomacy Hasn't Worked Out Too Well for Cubans

By Nicholas G. Hahn III in USA Today:

Havana's U.S. flag no victory for pope

Francis should deny Castro communion at Mass in the same way Castro denies freedom to the Cuban people.

Secretary of State John Kerry's historic flag-raising at the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Friday (August 14th) culminates a diplomatic accomplishment for the Obama administration and Pope Francis. But the ceremony has some irony, not all that unlike President George W. Bush's 2003 "Mission Accomplished" speech.

The island's dissidents weren't invited, and the pontiff who helped usher in the new relations might have been expected to side with Cuba's persecuted faithful. But when asked about Cuba's spotty record, Francis demurred. "I would say that in many countries of the world, human rights are not respected," he said during a July in-flight news conference. "Religious liberty is not a reality in the entire world; there are many countries that do not allow it."

The pope's answer is in keeping with his May meeting in Rome with Cuban President Raul Castro. The Vatican reported that the meeting was "very friendly." But not even a prophet could have foreseen what came next.

"If the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church," the 84-year-old communist leader told an amazed gaggle of reporters after meeting in private with the pontiff for nearly an hour. "I'm not joking," Castro assured them.

But some in Castro's Cuba aren't buying it. "It is a mockery for Raul Castro tell the pope that he may return to the bosom of the church and pray again," Berta Soler told Spanish radio. Soler is the leader of the Ladies in White, a Catholic opposition movement made up of relatives of jailed human rights activists who attend Mass and silently take to the streets while wearing white.

Soler's skepticism might have something to do with Castro's security goons, who continue to harass and detain the Ladies and other dissidents. Just days before Kerry's visit, the government rounded up about 50 of Soler's Ladies. The detentions are only "further proof of the Cuban government's intolerance towards people who think differently," Soler told the PanAm Post.

If a recent Univision Noticias survey of Cubans is any indication, Soler is not alone in that assessment: 75% of respondents said that when it comes to politics, they "have to be careful about what to say" in public. The Obama administration and Pope Francis hoped a thawing would open the political system, but more than half of Cubans polled believe politics will remain the same. Still more don't think the Cuban government will allow other political parties to exist after a normalization of relations.

But Castro's crackdown seems to be more about religious freedom than the ballot box. "Many times, we haven't been able to get to church," Soler told the National Review at this year's Oslo Freedom Forum. "The few who actually do make it to church have been detained for over five hours. They have been beaten." This might be why Soler is more than a little frustrated with her spiritual shepherd. "The European Union, the USA, Pope Francis — they have turned their backs on us," she said.

The Argentine pontiff should know a thing or two about the church's struggle for freedom. When a military junta in his own country took power in a 1976 coup during what is called the "Dirty War," Father Bergoglio was head of the country's Jesuits. The future pope saw many of his priests and seminarians jailed and killed. Bergoglio is reported to have helped many flee the country and even met with the military dictatorship to save the lives of two imprisoned priests.

While the Vatican is busy planning his September visit to the Caribbean island, Pope Francis would do well not to forget his own history and consider canceling the trip. The pope should re-examine the optics of putting a dictator over his flock.

And it's not as if a pope hasn't been to Cuba. Benedict XVI was there in 2012 only to continue a policy of détente established by his predecessor, John Paul II. "The first outing by a pope to a previously isolated society is historic, the second is memorable," respected Vaticanista John Allen wrote at The Boston Globe's Crux. "But the third can't help but feel a bit routine."

Pope Francis should at least say something about the lack of freedom in Cuba, and in so doing, minister to Cuba's dwindling faithful. That Univision survey found that only 27% of Cubans are Catholic, and only a fraction attends Mass regularly.

As for Raul Castro, he vows to attend "all" the pope's planned Masses in Cuba. But because papal diplomacy hasn't worked out too well for Cubans, Francis could exercise some spiritual leadership and deny Castro communion at Mass in the same way Castro denies freedom for the people of Cuba.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion.org. 

Quote(s) of the Week: On Popes and Pardons

Sunday, September 13, 2015
The Church's mediating role has weakened in that it has greater dialogue with the regime and less with civil society. I think the Church is losing a great opportunity to have the same kind of dialogue with society, above all when it declares that its mission is not political but rather spiritual.
-- Manuel Cuesta Morúa, Cuba dissident leader, EFE, 9/13/15

Every time a Pope goes to Cuba, the government releases a certain number of prisoners as 'a gift,' but that is not a solution to the problem -- for the problem is that the regime continues to criminalize the exercise of fundamental rights and, thus, there will continue to be political prisoners in Cuban jails.
-- Elizardo Sanchez, Cuban human rights monitor, EFE, 9/11/15

Editorial Cartoon: Embassy Re-Opened Under Bad Management

Left-Wing Regimes Pose a Moral Challenge for Pope Francis

From The Economist:

Left-wing regimes pose a moral challenge for Pope Francis

The sentencing of Venezuela's opposition leader, Leopoldo López, to nearly 14 years in prison, on top of the 18 months he has already spent in mostly-solitary confinement, triggered a range of different reactions. Amnesty International, a global human-rights lobby, said of the verdict: “The charges against [him] were never adequately substantiated and the prison sentence against him is clearly politically motivated. His only ‘crime’ was being leader of an opposition party in Venezuela.”  Human Rights Watch, another international watch-dog, spoke of "egregious violations" of due process. Mr López himself sent a hand-written note from jail saying that he had been fully aware of the consequences when he defied pressure from the regime to leave the country. "My soul, my ideals and my love for you are flying high in the skies above our beautiful Venezuela," he wrote to his wife and two children.

What about the Vatican? Considering that this is an overwhelmingly Catholic country where the Holy See has strong connections (its secretary of state Pietro Parolin was serving there till 2013) and that Mr López himself is Catholic, people might have expected Pope Francis or at least a senior Vatican spokesman to issue an instant condemnation of the verdict. But for better or worse, that is not the current papacy's way; it prefers to make its feelings known more discreetly, and to leave things to local bishops.

The Vatican and its representatives have certainly been watching Venezuela in recent days. Archbishop Roberto Luckert León, one of the country's most outspoken hierarchs, has roundly condemned President Nicolás Maduro for expelling thousands of Colombians from the country. The pope, on a more emollient note and in keeping with his habit of delegating to local prelates, welcomed the fact that bishops from the two countries were conferring on how to mitigate a looming humanitarian crisis.

Francis does have some moral influence over Mr Maduro, as became clear in June when the president abruptly called off a meeting with the pope at the last moment, pleading illness but apparently in fear of a dressing-down over human rights. Archbishop Luckert said the pope would not visit Venezuela unless human rights improve. Early last year, as the country was shaken by violent protests, the church offered its services as a mediator, and defenders of the Vatican's discreet approach say that quiet ecclesiastical diplomacy has helped at several critical moments to fend off the spectre of civil war.

But religious leaders, like political ones, have to make hard choices between keeping relationships and channels of dialogue open, and openly telling hard truths. Exactly that dilemma will face Pope Francis when he heads for Cuba on September 19th, en route to the United States: one of the trickiest itineraries of his papacy.

This week Cuba announced that it would mark the visit by releasing more than 3,500 prisoners. This sounded like a rather dramatic gesture to defang critics and sweeten the atmosphere of the papal sojourn. But there may be less to it than meets the eye; it apparently includes those who were in any case due to be freed next year, and some foreigners, but not those whom the government considers guilty of threatening “state security”, a formula which could allow for political prisoners to remain inside.

Papal diplomacy played a vital role in paving the way for last December’s  diplomatic breakthrough between Cuba and the United States. Jimmy Burns, author of a newly published biography of the pope, sees this as clearly the greatest diplomatic achievement of the papacy. And true to Francis's style, the Vatican has followed the advice of Cuban bishops (who are perforce more cautious than their Venezuelan counterparts) and encouraged a gradual sort of change on the communist-run island.

But for some critics, the Holy See has paid for its cordial relations with Havana by treating the regime with undeserved leniency. Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega said in June that there were no political prisoners in the country: this was rejected as “betrayal” by some recently released inmates who insist that some prisoners of conscience remain inside. The "Ladies in White" movement of Cuban dissidents has asked for a meeting with the pope but recently they have found little sympathy from the Vatican.

In the course of his travels the pontiff, who has shown real eloquence in condemning the excesses of the capitalist north, can still expect some hard questions about his attitude to excesses of another kind. Will he denounce left-wing authoritarianism as much as he has denounced the right-wing variety?

In an Orwellian touch, Mr López was deemed responsible for "subliminally" fomenting violence even though he spoke only of peaceful protest. On the lips of clerics, however, the use of "subliminal" language is generally more acceptable; people half-expect clerics to speak in enigmatic terms as their faith's founder sometimes did. So if there are diplomatic reasons why certain human-rights abuses can't be condemned openly, people hope that the pope will at least condemn them subliminally.