Senate Judiciary Chairman Questions Obama's Cuba Policy Amid Syria Reports

Friday, October 16, 2015
Click here to read Chairman Grassley's letter.

From The Hill:

Senator to Obama: Why is Cuba helping Russia in Syria?

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wants to know whether President Obama has confronted the Cuban government over its reported aid for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

In light of Obama's decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba, Grassley said it is "disconcerting" that the Castro government appears to be siding with Russia in the the Syrian civil war.

"Press reports now indicate that hundreds of Cuban military personnel are on the grounds in Syria, with the purpose of supporting Russia and Iran in bolstering the Assad regime," the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman wrote in a letter to Obama Friday.

"It’s disconcerting that in light of your new relationship with Cuba, the Castro regime has chosen to align with Russia and Iran in supporting Assad in Syria."

Grassley's letter comes after Fox News reported that Cuban military personnel are helping advise Syrian soldiers and training with Russians inside of Syria.

The Iowa Republican asked Obama to detail any conversations the administration has had with Cuban officials over the reported military action, as well as any steps it will take in response.

"Just months after your ‘historic step forward’ the regime of Raúl Castro has essentially thumbed its nose at the U.S. by aligning with Russia, Iran and Assad," Grassley added, asking if the president is "disappointed."

Grassley, like most Republicans, has been critical of Obama's decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba. Republicans say the administration should not look past the history of human rights abuses in Cuba, and argue that easing restrictions on the country only rewards bad behavior.

The administration has repeatedly criticized Russia's military buildup in Syria, with Obama dismissing Russian President Vladimir Putin's strategy as "doomed to fail."

Republicans, and a growing number of Democrats, have suggested that the administration should take a tougher stance against Moscow, accusing Putin of targeting U.S.-backed Syrian rebels with airstrikes.

Tweet of the Week: Cuba Removed as State-Sponsor, Supports Another State-Sponsor

Must-Read: Cuba Does Russia's Dirty Work. Again.

By James Bloodworth in The Daily Beast:

Cuba Is Intervening in Syria to Help Russia. It’s Not the First Time Havana’s Assisted Moscow.

Reports that Cuban forces are now fighting in Syria follow a long history of the Castro brothers working closely with their patrons in Moscow.

Not for the first time Cuban forces are doing Russia’s dirty work, this time in Syria. On Wednesday it was reported that a U.S. official had confirmed to Fox News that Cuban paramilitary and Special Forces units were on the ground in Syria. Reportedly transported to the region in Russian planes, the Cubans are rumoured to be experts at operating Russian tanks.

For President Obama, who has staked his legacy on rapprochement with America’s adversaries, the entrance of Cuba into the bloody Syrian civil is one more embarrassment. Russia, Iran and Cuba—three regimes which Obama has sought to bring in from the cold—are now helping to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, ruler of a fourth regime he also tried in vain to court early on in his presidency. Obama has been holding his hand out in a gesture of goodwill to America’s adversaries only for them to blow him a raspberry back in his face—while standing atop a pile of Syrian corpses.

Yet for seasoned Cuba-watchers the entrance of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces into the Syrian civil war is a surprise but hardly a shock. A surprise because Cuba was forced two decades ago to curtail its military adventurism by a deteriorating economy (the Cuban military has been reduced by 80 per cent since 1991).

Largely thanks to the involvement of Cuban troops in the fight against Apartheid South African in Angola in the 70s and 80s (not to mention the more recent medical “missions” to disaster-stricken parts of the world) Cuba has gained something of a reputation for internationalism. At one point the Cuban presence in Angola reached 55,000 soldiers, inflicting a defeat on South African forces which helped precipitate the end of Apartheid. “The [Cuban army’s] decisive defeat of the aggressive apartheid forces [in Angola] destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor,” Mandela told the Cuban leader on a visit to Havana in 1991.

In recent years Angola has lent the Castro regime a romantic penumbra which says that, for all its faults, the Cuban revolution is on balance progressive (watch the film Comandante by the ludicrous Oliver Stone to get a sense of what I mean).

Yet while everyone remembers Cuban heroics in Angola, few remembers Cuban terror in Ethiopia.

Those of us who are old enough probably recall the Live Aid concert organised by Bob Geldof in 1985, put on to raise money to help alleviate Ethiopia’s worst famine in a century. 400,000 people died in the famine of 1984/85, and while many people remember the gut-wrenching television images of fly-speckled children with pronounced rib cages and distended stomachs, few know that the tragedy was largely a consequence of the policies pursued by the Communist dictatorship that ruled Ethiopia at the time—a regime propped up by Cuba and the Soviet Union.

The Russians airlifted 17,000 Cuban troops to Ethiopia over the 14 years the Dergue—the dictatorship which ruled Ethiopia—were in power. During 1977-78 it is estimated that over 30,000 Ethiopians perished as a result of the Red Terror unleashed by the Communist government. During the terror, Sweden’s Save the Children Fund denounced the execution of 1,000 children—children whom the communist regime had preposterously labelled “liaison agents of the counter revolutionaries”.

As with Stalin’s war on the kulaks in the thirties, Ethiopia’s Marxist government embarked on its own utopian ventures in the countryside, forcing between 12 and 15 million Ethiopians into collectivized farms. According to Alexander De Waal, one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, “more than half this mortality [400,000] can be attributed to human rights abuses that caused the famine to come earlier, strike harder, and extend further than would otherwise have been the case.” The Ethiopian army, reinforced by Cuban troops, prevented the distribution of food to areas of the country whose inhabitants were rumoured to be sympathetic to opposition groups.

Following Russia’s lead, Cuba’s alliance with African nationalism extended to support for the bloody regimes of Nguema Macias in Equatorial Guinea and Idi Amin in Uganda. Cuba also gave political cover to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—an odd position for a member of the non-aligned group of nations to take, until you consider that the Soviet Union might have limited the massive aid it sent to the island had Cuba stepped out of line.

A genuine affinity certainly exists between many of the world’s dictatorships based on a common hatred of the liberal democracies. Quickly sensing the way the wind was blowing in Tehran, the former Cuban President Fidel Castro was one of the first heads of state to recognize the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, informing then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini (disingenuously for someone who had previously interned religious believers in labor camps) that there was “no contradiction between revolution and religion.” Similarly cordial relations have also long existed between Cuba and Syria, where Cuba has intervened militarily in the past. From 1973 to 1975 a Cuban tank brigade was stationed facing the Golan Heights after the Israeli victory in the Yom Kippur War. In 1985, then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad wrote to Fidel Castro honouring the friendship between both countries as beneficial “for the two peoples in their joint struggle against world imperialism and its allies..

Ultimately, though, Cuba’s reported entrance into the conflict in Syria should be seen as the island paying new dues to its benefactor in the Kremlin. While the Obama-Castro relationship has filled the headlines in recent months, the overtures the Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been making towards Cuba have gone largely unnoticed. Last year Putin wrote off a massive $32 billion of Cuba’s debts to Russia – a 90 per cent reduction in what was previously owed. Putin also pledged to assist oil exploration projects off Cuba’s northern coast and re-opened Russia’s Cold War spy base in Lourdes, south of Havana.

Putin is reportedly indignant at the U.S. for what the Russian President considers to be U.S. meddling in his country’s “backyard” in Ukraine. Putin’s generosity towards Cuba is thus an attempt to wrestle back the initiative by discomfiting the United States 90 miles off the coast of Florida. But Russia’s new-found enthusiasm for Cuba has another happy side effect: just like in old times a Russian leader can ask its Cuban padawan to get its hands dirty.

Amnesty: Cuba Fails to Release Artist Unfairly Imprisoned

From Amnesty International:

Cuba: Authorities miserably fail on their promise to release graffiti artist unfairly held

The Cuban authorities’ failure to keep to their commitment to release a graffiti artist unfairly imprisoned nearly a year ago is a painful illustration of their disregard for freedom of expression, said Amnesty International.

“Committing to release Danilo Maldonado Machado on 15 October only to keep him behind bars for no reason other than speaking his mind and criticizing the government is not only cruel but sends a strong message that freedom of expression is not on the Cuban government’s radar,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.

“Danilo is a prisoner of conscience, deprived of his liberty as punishment for peacefully expressing his opinions. He must be released immediately and unconditionally and not be made to spend another second behind bars.”

Yesterday, prison authorities told Danilo’s mother that he had served his time but that they did not know when he would be set free. Danilo, however, has never been brought before a judge or sentenced.

“Danilo’s story has all the elements of a science fiction novel: fist he was put behind bars under the most ludicrous excuse and then kept there arbitrarily without even being charged. The fact that Cuban authorities continue to play with Danilo and his family is just shocking,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

Danilo Maldonado Machado, known as ‘El Sexto’, was arrested by agents of the political police (Seguridad del Estado) in Havana while travelling in a taxi on 25 December 2014. Officers opened the taxi’s boot and found the two pigs with “Raúl” and “Fidel” painted on their backs. He was accused of “disrespecting the leaders of the Revolution” but never brought to court. Danilo intended to release the pigs at an art show on Christmas Day.

Abandoned by the Pope, Will Cuba’s Political Prisoners Abandon All Hope?

By Nat Hentoff of The Cato Institute:

Abandoned by the Pope, Will Cuba’s Political Prisoners Abandon All Hope?

In my last column, I reported on the suffering of Cuba’s dissidents and political prisoners, which has only increased since President Obama normalized relations.

The reconciliation between Cuba and the United States was facilitated by Pope Francis and Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Archbishop of Cuba. On Oct. 1, 2014, I wrote a column titled “Pope Francis’ Admirable War on Poverty.”

It is with regret that I must now write that by abandoning Cuba’s political prisoners, Pope Francis bears some responsibility for their increased suffering.

The PanAm Post, an online magazine covering the Americas, reported that prior to the Pope’s visit to Cuba, a list of political prisoners was sent to the Vatican by Nelis Rojas de Morales — secretary of the International Coordinator of Former Cuban Political Prisoners. Cuban human rights groups were therefore stunned when Cardinal Ortega, the architect of the Pope’s visit, denied the very existence of political prisoners in Cuba during two interviews with Spanish language media.

In an interview held in Rome, and published on March 30 in the Spanish language Catholic magazine Nueva Vida (New Life), Cardinal Ortega denied that there were any political prisoners in Cuba. Two months later, on June 5, Cardinal Ortega told Spain’s Cadena Ser radio that “there are no political prisoners on the island; just common criminals.”

“The dissidents, those that are called dissidents, are more present in the foreign press, in south Florida, and in blogs,” he said

Elizardo Sanchez, leader of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), contested Cardinal Ortega’s claim that there were no political prisoners left in Cuba. According to the PanAm Post, the CCDHRN identified at least two dozen prisoners serving long sentences for peaceful political activities, 13 of whom were members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), Cuba’s largest dissident organization.

The Catholic Register reported that Jose Daniel Ferrer — general coordinator of Cuba’s Patriotic Union (UNPACU) — “wrote an open letter to Pope Francis Sept. 3 asking him to ‘intercede and take up the defense of the rights of the oppressed in Cuba.’”

Damas de Blanco (“Ladies in White”) leader Berta Soler told Reuters that she would like to “discuss with the Pope the need to stop police violence against those who exercise their freedom to demonstrate in public.”

Earlier this summer, she reiterated to the PanAm Post that “the Catholic Church … should protect and shelter every suffering, defenseless person.”

Although the Cuban government released over 3,000 prison inmates prior to the Pope’s arrival, none of them were political prisoners. Reuters reported that in August, the month before the Pope’s visit, Cuban police detained 768 dissidents for peaceful political activity, the highest monthly total in 2015. The arbitrary detentions continued during the Pope’s visit. Berta Soler was prevented from attending the Pope’s appearances, while three members of UNPACU were dragged off, detained and have since disappeared after they tried to approach the Pope.

The closest that Pope Francis ever came to acknowledging the existence of political prisoners in Cuba was an oblique reference — during his welcoming ceremony in Havana — that he “would like my greeting to embrace especially all those who, for various reasons, I will not be able to meet.” The Pope’s greeting resonated with the impact of a tree falling in an empty forest with no one left to hear it.

Defenders of both Pope Francis and Cardinal Ortega have likened their non-confrontational approach to the Castro regime with the spirit of reconciliation exemplified by the ministry of Jesus Christ. Yet the stubborn denial that there are no political prisoners suffering in Cuba’s jails — and equating the defense of human rights with a partisan political agenda — seems a far cry from the ministry of Jesus.

The Bible gives an account of Jesus appearing in “the Temple courts” and advocating on behalf of a woman accused of adultery brought before him by “the teachers of the law and the Pharisees” (New International Version, John 8: 1-11). Jesus stood between the woman and the stone throwers and challenged the unjust law that required her to be stoned to death.

Even atheists like me can acknowledge that the historical Jesus became the world’s most famous political prisoner through his detention, his public humiliation and his suffering. As Christians, Pope Francis and Cardinal Ortega might well remember — in their future dealings with the Castro regime — that Jesus welcomed the righteous into heaven with the greeting: “I was in prison and you came to visit me … whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:31-46).

Within the Past Year: Assad, Putin and Castro Ties

Thursday, October 15, 2015
For nearly a year, the Obama Administration -- aided by many in the media -- have sought to distract from Cuba's repressive realities by painting it as a land of salsa, cigar and mojitos.

Thus, when news broke of a Cuban military presence in Syria, in support of Bashar al-Assad and Putin -- they've been scratching their heads.

Why would Castro do that?

It's similar to how they sought to ignore or whitewash Castro's smuggling of 240 tons of weapons to North Korea in 2013 -- the largest violation of U.N. international sanctions to date -- or Castro's smuggling of Chinese weapons through Colombia in February of this year, which nobody seems to know who they were destined for (hint: FARC narco-terrorists).

For those -- wittingly or unwittingly -- asleep at the wheel, here's a look back at Castro's ties with Assad and Putin within the past year (of Obama's extended hand) alone:

-  Major event in Damascus hosted by the Syria-Cuba Friendship Association at the Regional Leadership of al-Baath Arab Socialist Party on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries (September 2015).

- Russian intelligence ship, Yantar, targeted a U.S. nuclear missile submarine base and underwater transit routes off the eastern seaboard, as it headed for safe-harbor in Cuba. Throughout the year, the Castro regime has continued to host and harbor Russian spy ships tasked with monitoring sensitive U.S. defense networks (September 2015).

- A group of senior Syrian regime officials, led by the Secretary General of Assad's Baathist Party, Hilal al-Hilal, traveled to Havana to visit with the Castro regime. Al-Hilal stressed how the current U.S.-Cuba negotiations have taught Assad's regime "to continue resisting in our war, in the same manner as the Cubans have triumphed in their war against imperialism" (May 2015).

- As Russia restores military-industrial cooperation with Cuba, it may soon reopen the Lourdes signal intelligence center near Havana, announced a senior member of the State Duma Security Committee (May 2015).

- Cuban dictator Raul Castro visited his "dear friend Putin" in Moscow (May 2015).

- "We intend to continue cooperation in supplying the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces with modern weapons and military hardware," Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said at a meeting in Moscow with Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Cuba Ricardo Cabrisas (April 2015).

- A Russian spy ship, The Viktor Leonov, returned to the Port of Havana during a visit by European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini. Her visit to Cuba also "coincided" with a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. "I am absolutely convinced that nothing threatens our close, partner and strategic relations with Cuba. We see no signs that someday everything will be different," Lavrov stated (April 2015).

- A Russian spy ship docked in central Havana on the eve of a visit to Cuba by the first U.S. delegation for "normalization" talks. The Viktor Leonov, an armed intelligence-gathering vessel that monitors US communications, arrived at a passenger cruise terminal in full public view for what a Russian embassy official called a “friendly” three-day stay (January 2015).

- Assad's terrorist allies, Hezbollah, celebrated Obama's new policy towards Cuba. “The achievements of Cuba, which was firm on its principles, is a lesson for all people of the world who are suffering from American hegemony,” Hezbollah official Ammar Moussawi said after a meeting with the Cuban ambassador to Lebanon (December 2014).

- Cuba led an effort (along with Algeria, China, Russia and Venezuela) to protect Syria's Bashar al-Assad from a U.N. human rights inquiry for crimes against humanity (September 2014).

Top Cuban General, Key Forces in Syria to Aid Assad, Russia

Wednesday, October 14, 2015
From Fox News:

Top Cuban general, key forces in Syria to aid Assad, Russia, sources say

Cuban military operatives reportedly have been spotted in Syria, where sources believe they are advising President Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers and may be preparing to man Russian-made tanks to aid Damascus in fighting rebel forces backed by the U.S.

Gen. Leopoldo Cintra Frias, head of  Cuba's Armed Forces, recently visited Syria to lead a group of Cuban military personnel joining forces with Russia in their support of Assad, according to information received by the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.

On Wednesday, a U.S. official confirmed to Fox News that Cuban paramilitary and special forces units are on the ground in Syria, citing evidence from intelligence reports. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Cuban troops may have been training in Russia and may have arrived in Syria on Russian planes.

An Arab military officer at the Damascus airport reportedly witnessed two Russian planes arrive there with Cuban military personnel on board. When the officer questioned the Cubans, they told him they were there to assist Assad because they are experts at operating Russian tanks, according to Jaime Suchlicki, the institute's executive director.

"It doesn't surprise me," Suchlicki told FoxNews.com, noting Russia's long history of supplying military equipment to Cuba as well as Cuba's assistance in Soviet-led operations in Africa the 1970's.

"They have a very close relationship," Suchlicki said. "The Russians have been training the Cubans for years and supplying them with all sorts of military equipment."

Syria's bloody civil war is in its fourth year and has so far cost an estimated 250,000 people their lives and sparked a humanitarian crisis as displaced refugees flee the embattled nation. The U.S. has called for the ouster of dictator Assad, and is supporting a rebel group known as the Free Syrian Army. But ISIS and Al Qaeda offshoot Al Nusra are also present in Syria, battling Assad, the FSA and each other. Russia, Iran and now apparently Cuba are helping Assad in his bid to maintain power.

Cuba's military is ranked the world's 110th most powerful by the site globalfirepower.com. While small, the Cuban military is "very well-trained," according to Suchlicki, who said their presence in Syria is a "departure from what the U.S. expected."

President Obama earlier this year removed Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, seeking to normalize relations between the two countries. The U.S. cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 after Fidel Castro's revolution. The U.S. spent decades trying to either actively overthrow the Cuban government or isolate the island, including toughening the economic embargo first imposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The U.S. Embassy in Havana reopened in July 2015.

"Yes, there are those who want to turn back the clock and double down on a policy of isolation," Obama said at the time, "but it's long past time for us to realize that this approach doesn't work. It hasn't worked for 50 years."

"This is a historic step forward in our efforts to normalize relations with the Cuban government and people, and begin a new chapter with our neighbors in the Americas," Obama said in July from the White House Rose Garden.

The U.S. official described Cuban's involved in Syria as similar to the "Cuba-Angola arrangement" -- a reference to Cuban troops operating on behalf of the Soviets in several central African countries in the 1970's. Cuba also sent troops to Syria in 1973 to support them in the Yom Kippur War against Israel and deployed officers to observe Israeli military tactics.

The official could not confirm whether Cuba's top general is in Syria, or if Cuban forces are manning Russian tanks provided to Assad by Russia.

"If this information about the presence of Cuban troops in Syria now is confirmed, it would indicate that General Raul Castro is more interested in supporting his allies, Russia and Syria, than in continuing to normalize relations with the U.S.," the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies said in a statement Tuesday.

"Raul Castro has expressed publicly his support for the Syrian regime and his solidarity with Russian and Iranian objectives in the Middle East," the group said. "This new Cuban internationalism reaffirms one more time that the Castro’s brothers are more interested in their role in the world in opposition to the U.S. than in modernizing Cuba and helping the Cuban people rise above their current misery."

IBD: Cuban Freedom And Trade Decline Since Obama's Opening To Cuba

By Monica Showalter of Inverstor's Business Daily:

Go Figure: Cuban Freedom And Trade Decline Since Obama's Opening To Cuba

Everything about President Obama's December announcement to restore relations with Cuba has been premised on the idea that more exposure means more liberalization on the island.

In his Dec. 17 speech to the nation, the president said: "We are taking steps to increase travel, commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba. This is fundamentally about freedom and openness and also expresses my belief in the power of people-to-people engagement. ... I believe this contact will ultimately do more to empower the Cuban people."

The result has been the opposite, with more repression of dissidents, and the Castro regime cranking up the goon squads overtime to beat and jail dissidents. Some 6,000 arrests have been announced since the opening, hardly a sign of a more open Cuba leading to a freer Cuba.

It's the exact same thing with trade. For a while, the U.S. was Cuba's top supplier of food and medical goods, even with the trade embargo on and conditions for contact far more restricted. The Castro regime was free to purchase food and medicine, but it couldn't do it on U.S.-guaranteed credit. Cash on the barrel-head was all Castro was entitled to, given his vast record of defaulting on debts, and it didn't stop him from buying.

But in the past 10 months, trade has dropped sharply, and Castro seems to be buying goods elsewhere. McClatchy News reports that August export trade with Cuba was $2.2 billion, down from $14.3 billion in August 2014, a very significant drop.

So what gives?

According to experts McClatchy cited, the Castro regime is cutting down on trade as a means of making U.S. agricultural exporters complain to Congress about the embargo. To Castro, that is the real prize here because it will make Uncle Sam's trade credits available to Cuba. It's the old "make the economy scream" idea at work — arbitrary, state-directed and illogical.

It ought to give anyone thinking about doing business with Cuba pause — because that's the way trade is done in communist Cuba.

Cuban Troops in Syria?

From The University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies:

Cuban Troops in Syria?

The Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies has received information that General Leopoldo Cintra Frias, head of the Cuban Armed Forces, visited Syria recently leading a group of Cuban military personnel sent by Cuba in support of Syria’s dictator Assad and Russian involvement in that country.

The Cuban military contingent will be primarily deployed in Syria manning Russian tanks provided to Assad by the Russians. It will also operate as a military force against Isis and other opponents of the Assad regime.

This is not the first time that Cuban military personnel have been involved in international military missions in support of Russian objectives. In the 1970’s Cuba sent several hundred thousand troops to Angola and other African countries while the Soviet’s provided weapons to support African leaders attempting to gain power in their countries.

In 1973, Cuba sent troops to Syria to support them in the Yom Kippur War against Israel. Cuba also sent military officers to observe Israeli military tactics and to advise Assad.

If this information about the presence of Cuban troops in Syria now is confirmed, it would indicate that General Raul Castro is more interested in supporting his allies, Russia and Syria, than in continuing to normalize relations with the U.S. Raul Castro has expressed publicly his support for the Syrian regime and his solidarity with Russian and Iranian objectives in the Middle East. This new Cuban internationalism reaffirms one more time that the Castro’s brothers are more interested in their role in the world in opposition to the U.S. than in modernizing Cuba and helping the Cuban people rise above their current misery.

'Ladies in White' Leader: Castro Fears Our Peaceful Dissent, Growing Ranks

From The PanAm Post:

Leader Berta Soler: Castro Fears Our Peaceful Dissent, Growing Ranks

Ladies in White Will Not Relent until All Political Prisoners Are Freed

“Welcome to Cuba, I hope you can tell the world what the human-rights situation is here.” This is how Berta Soler, leader of the pro-democracy group Ladies in White, greets us at the entrance of La Merced church in Havana.

Some 20 women stand next to her, ready to begin their weekly march to demand the Cuban regime release all political prisoners.

While the Castros boast of Cuba’s supposed world-class health-care system — even though these claims have been debunked several times — Soler contends the island functions as a giant prison for anyone who dares to speak his mind.

The human-rights activist spoke with the PanAm Post under the scorching Havana sun three days after Pope Francis visited the island. Several fellow Ladies in White and tourists linger around us, as well as others who look like they may be Cuban intelligence agents disguised as civilians.

Are those undercover police officers?

Of course. Some dress up as civilians, but we know who they are. In Cuba, one lives, feels, smells, looks, and speaks with fear.

What would you have told Pope Francis if you had met him during his visit?

I would have thanked him for visiting Cuba and blessing a country that is in dire need of it. I would have told him to advocate for the release of political prisoners on the island and pray for the freedom of Cubans. I would have asked him to condemn the Cuban regime for its police brutality, and demand religious freedom.

What are your thoughts on the young man who read a letter to the pope asking for respect for those who think differently?

That’s correct. He said many things, but to achieve them we need freedom. Otherwise, it’s impossible. The most important thing for the Cuban people is freedom. We know that the Holy Father won’t be Cuba’s liberator. He already knows what Cuba is like, because he knows Latin America.

We were hoping that he would say something to stop human-rights abuses. Over the last 22 consecutive weekends, the Cuban government has arrested us before or after each mass. Cardinal Jaime Ortega and the papal nuncio are aware of it, because we told them. Besides, everything is on social media. The internet shows what is going on.

Many exiled Cubans believe that the Ladies in White have failed to achieve change. What would you tell them?

Perseverance will someday pay off. For those who don’t understand it: the Cuban regime has the power and the strength, but the moral strength and the truth is on our side. In order to achieve something, you need to overcome many obstacles and undergo many negative things. Persistence and perseverance are worth it.

What does your organization have in store for the future?

We created Ladies in White on March 30, 2003, and we remain active. First, we demanded the release of the 75 Black Spring political prisoners, our beloved brothers. Then, we expanded our scope to demand freedom for all political prisoners and respect for human rights.

As long as the Cuban government continues to hold political prisoners, we are going to continue with our struggle. When Cuba eventually reaches democracy, we will focus on the children, and any other social aid that is needed.

Why has the government targeted your group if it is peaceful?

The regime is scared that people are still joining our group. Many of our members are ordinary people who joined us because they sympathize with those of us who have jailed relatives. They want a free, sovereign, and democratic Cuba.

The government knows that if we take to the streets, and they do nothing, many more women will join our cause.

Chronicle of a Cuban Independent Journalist's Arrest

By Cuban independent journalist, Roberto Jesus Quinones, in Translating Cuba:

Chronicle of a Free Man’s Arrest 

They do not show me the arrest warrant. My mother begs me to go; I hug her and leave with them for the police station.

Five thirty-five in the morning on Monday, October 5, 2015. I get up, go to the bathroom, brush, put the coffee pot on the electric burner. The day seems like any other until some harsh knocks on the door tell me that I may be wrong.

I open. A group from the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) is in the doorway of my home. Between uniformed and plainclothes officers there are 19 people, not counting those remaining in the surrounding area where there are also special troop members, as I will later learn.

A young military officer who introduces himself as Captain Gamboa informs me that they have come to carry out a search. I ask for the warrant, and he shows it to me at a distance. I try to read it but he quickly withdraws it. Nevertheless, I manage to see that the objective is to find objects related to my “subversive activity.” That’s what they call my work as an independent journalist.

In my room they find my personal calendar and some books, a broken cell phone and one that works, a Canon camera that I have not used for lack of a USB cable and a laptop that my brother who lives in the United States sent to me. In my work room they find a desktop personal computer, property of the Catholic Church of Guantanamo, which my wife, my nephew and I call “the tractor” due to its years of use.

They also confiscate some twenty CDs, four flash drives – among them one of my mother’s, which contains several episodes of “Case Closed” and dozens of chapters of a Mexican soap opera – a music record by Compay Segundo and another of jazz, an issue of the magazine Cuban Culture Encounter and another of Coexistence, a magazine managed in Pinar del Rio by Dagoberto Valdes. Added to the list of ‘subversive objects’ are 700 dollars that I have been saving to repair my house.

At eleven thirty in the morning, they finish. Then I discover that the search warrant is not signed by any prosecutor, but it is already too late; I made the mistake of letting them enter.

The arch-bishop of the dioceses arrives, Monsignor Wilfredo Pino Estevez, and witnesses the moment when I ask Captain Eyder to show me the arrest warrant. He answers that if I want an arrest warrant, he can make it right then. I protest. My mother, a 77 year-old woman, gets nervous. The officer says that if anything happens it will be my responsibility. She begs me to leave, I hug her, and I leave with them for the police station. The street is full of onlookers.

At MININT’s Provincial Operations Unit they bring me prisoner garb and assign me number 777. I tell Captain Gamboa that I am not a number but a human being and that if they call me by that number, I will not respond. “Then we’ll get you,” he says.

In 1999 I spent 49 days in one of these cells. I see that nothing has changed except that now a young nurse takes my blood pressure and asks several questions about my health. Then they take me to the cell that has no water and is equipped with cement beds and a hole for defecating in view of the four inmates who welcome me.

They call for lunch. I do not go. I manage to sleep some. At about five in the afternoon a guard opens the door, looks at me and says: “You, come.” I leave. They photograph me and take my fingerprints. Captain Eyder receives me in the interrogation room. He accuses me of publishing news containing truths but also lies, that I am not a journalist. Later Captain Gamboa and Colonel Javier will tell me the same thing. I answer that between 1986 and 1990 I published film criticism and cultural articles in the Venceremos newspaper, an official publication of the Communist Party in Guantanamo, and no one said then that I was not a journalist, that Cuban cultural history demonstrates that hundreds of writers practiced journalism.

They threaten me with another jail and show me Complaint 50 from 2015 in which I am accused of Dissemination of False News against International Peace because, according to them, my articles seek to disrupt relations between Cuba and the United States. I did not know I was so important.

At one point in the interrogation they assure me that they are not going to return some of my items of property, that it depends on my behavior and that thanks to the generosity of the Revolution, they are going to set me free.

At about eleven at night they give me a Warning that I do not sign because they do not give me a copy. For the same reason I did not sign the Registration Record or the other documents.

I return home. My mother is sleeping under the effect of a sedative but awakens. I feel great pain when she hugs me and cries. Some moments later she asks me: “Did you eat?” and goes to the kitchen.

My children and siblings who live in the United States, where my wife is travelling, call me. They tell me that they learned what happened on the news. They ask me not to continue. I want to tell them that the only thing that sustains me is this freedom, but I remain silent. Such confessions can sound pompous.

Then everything is silent. The day ends as if my routine had been completed.

Time to Revisit CAA for Cubans Who Aren’t Refugees

By Fabiola Santiago in The Miami Herald:

Time to revisit special treatment for Cubans who aren’t refugees

This is the hardest column I’ve ever had to write.

As a Cuban refugee who found safe haven in this country 46 years ago, it pains me to advocate closing the door on others. But enough is enough. Evidence has been mounting for far too many years that wholesale fraud is being committed by Cubans taking advantage of the extraordinary privileges that U.S. immigration law bestows only upon them.

Cases of Medicare and Medicaid embezzlement by recent waves of Cuban immigrants — now living as U.S. fugitives in Cuba and enjoying their stolen wealth — have been well documented in federal court and by the Miami Herald. And now a year-long investigation by the Sun Sentinel, based on hundreds of documents and reporting trips to Cuba, highlights widespread abuse and theft at a cost to U.S. taxpayers in excess of $2 billion.

The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 has become a revolving door for these thieves to obtain easy access to Florida, become U.S. residents and return to Cuba to live on fraudulently obtained money.  

Among the abuses: People 65 and older who arrive, file for residency, stay long enough to get social security and welfare, then return to Cuba to live on the money, sent by relatives here who get a cut of the action; and people who claim disability from the trauma of crossing the sea or borders to get extra aid, then work off the books.

“Word has gotten out that this is how you collect from the United States and live well in Cuba,” immigration attorney Grisel Ybarra told me. Or in third countries.

The unique opportunity to jump to the front of the worldwide immigration line under the CAA is also extended to non-Cubans living elsewhere who have never set a foot in Cuba and whose only relation to the island is a parent of Cuban origin.

It’s immoral that people fleeing bombs, ethnic cleansing, gang warfare, rape and murder have to stand in line behind people who no longer claim or falsely claim political persecution, and are only here for economic and lifestyle reasons.

Cubans with legitimate claims to refuge should continue to find an open door, but it’s time to take a hard look at the fraud and demand congressional action to update the CAA.

I believe in the humanitarian role of a country open to refugees and in the economic benefit generated by the energy of hard-working immigrants. But an out-of-date law meant to protect the politically persecuted is being made a mockery of by people cashing in on the generosity of Americans.

Elderly Cuban Americans who’ve worked hard in factories all their lives often get less than $500 a month in social security benefits, while newcomers are given $773 with no oversight.

“It’s not that fraud is only found in this generation,” Ybarra said, “but committing fraud used to carry a stigma. Now, they think it’s a right. They don’t see anything wrong with it because they come from a country where stealing from the government is a way of life. But we, the people, are the government here. If you take away from a system you didn’t invest in, you’re stealing from all of us.”

Shameful.

Obama’s Open Hand Meets Cuba’s Clenched Fist

Tuesday, October 13, 2015
By Jose Cardenas in Foreign Policy:

Obama’s Open Hand Meets Cuba’s Clenched Fist

Last week, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker became the second Cabinet member to visit Cuba, following on Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip in August to raise the flag at the newly rechristened U.S. Embassy in Havana.

The visit came on the heels of President Obama’s second meeting with Cuban dictator Raul Castro — most recently on the margins of the recent United Nations General Assembly meeting — since he announced his decision to normalize relations last December. Before that reunion, the White House had announced a further lessening of U.S. trade and travel restrictions on the eve of Pope Francis’s trip to Cuba.

Then, to cap things off, the administration leaked to the Associated Press that it is considering abstaining from the annual U.N. vote condemning U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba.

Say this about the Obama administration: they are certainly all-in in their desire to convince the Castro regime they want to turn the page on the antagonistic relationship that dates back to 1959.

There is only one problem, however. The Castro regime has shown an utter lack of reciprocity.

Indeed, no sooner had Castro met with Obama than he took to the floor of the U.N. General Assembly to unleash a typical jeremiad against the United States, chockfull of hoary Cold War rhetoric denouncing the embargo, demanding reparations (to the tune of $1 trillion) for the embargo, ordering the return of the U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo Bay, and calling for Puerto Rican independence (which Puerto Ricans do not even want.)

Fresh off that time-warp performance, Cuba then introduced, for the 23rd straight year, a U.N. resolution demanding the unilateral lifting of U.S. sanctions.

Don’t think the discordance isn’t being noticed.

In a scathing editorial the Washington Post noted, “Mr. Castro has in fact appeared to pocket Mr. Obama’s concessions — and raise his demands.” Another in the Wall Street Journal asserted, “The U.S. President has given [Castro] diplomatic recognition, easier travel by Americans to the island, and returned some spies. But Mr. Castro now says he won’t make any concessions until the U.S. lifts the trade embargo and returns Guantanamo Bay to Cuba.”

Moreover, in a recent news story, the Post reported that, in response to U.S. concessions, the Castro regime “seems to have done little beyond reopening its Washington embassy.” And that, despite all the hype, “No new U.S. companies have been allowed to establish a presence in Cuba or to hire Cuban workers.”

In an eye-opening detail, the Post also quoted an unnamed administration official who said that those in Congress who are promoting legislation to lift sanctions “are desperate for gestures” from the Cuban government, “and they aren’t getting those gestures…. There’s been no real give at all.”

Meanwhile, the esteemed rights expert Nat Hentoff, who is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, wrote, “The Cuban government’s response at each stage in the process of reconciliation has been a steady escalation in the arbitrary harassment, abuse, arrest and detention of Cuba’s pro-democracy dissidents.”

It is not as though the Castro regime’s intransigence should shock anyone. After all, with the Obama administration making all the moves, why wouldn’t Castro pocket them and demand more?

But there’s something deeper to it than that. Several months ago, I predicted that in his zeal to normalize relations, Obama would have more problems with the Castro regime than he would with critics in Congress, because it is the regime’s very nature. The president has fundamentally misread Cuba’s geriatric rulers; they will never compromise on their obsession with absolute power for a mess of baubles and beads from the United States. In an October essay for the Real Clear World, the Cuban American writer Carlos Alberto Montaner sums it up this way, “[Obama] is incapable of understanding why Raul bites that hand instead of gripping it. He doesn’t know that old Stalinists kill and die with their fangs always sharp and ready. It’s all part of the revolutionary nature.”

Still, there will be supporters of the president’s policy who believe it is working by not only “proving” that the obstacle to better relations is Cuba and not the United States, but that the Cuban regime actually “fears” closer U.S. engagement and therefore it is incumbent to press on. But that is an academic point of little practical value. It may make for spirited conversation at some diplomatic soirée, but it does nothing to help the Cuban people reclaim their dignity and future. The result of five decades of global indulgence of the Castro regime is that no one, least of all a U.S. president bearing gifts, is going to force this regime to do anything it does not want to do.

To be sure, U.S. isolation didn’t work to change the regime’s behavior — it was undermined by an active lobby against it — but neither will kindness. However, at least in the former situation, no U.S. flag flew over that captive nation, legitimizing the Cuban people’s oppressors.

Despite Obama's Concessions, Exports to Cuba Keep Plummeting

As we've predicted throughout the year -- the tail in now wagging the dog as regards Obama's Cuba policy.

For years, anti-sanctions lobbyists have argued how an improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations, an easing of sanctions and an increase in travel to the island, would benefit U.S. farmers.

Well, since December 17th, the Obama Administration has embraced the Castro regime -- offering it every concession it can deliver.

As part of these concessions, the Obama Administration eased payment terms for agricultural sales (though financing remains prohibited by law) and American travel to Cuba has significantly increased (though tourist activities remain prohibited by law).

Now here are the numbers:

Compared to August 2014, U.S. sales of agricultural products to Cuba plummeted by 85% in August 2015.

Compared to December 2014, when the Obama-Castro deal was announced, U.S. sales of agricultural products to Cuba plummeted by 92% in August 2015.

Click here to learn why.

Facts are stubborn.

From McClatchy News:

Despite White House opening, exports to Cuba continue to drop

New monthly data shows value of food, agricultural shipments at just $2.3 million

U.S. agricultural and food exports to Cuba continued dropping in recent months, despite this being the year the United States is working to substantially open trade with the island nation.

In August, exports of food and agricultural products authorized under a 2000 trade law dropped to $2.3 million, according to new data from the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

That’s off substantially from the start of the year – despite the much ballyhooed thawing of trade and diplomatic relations with Cuba. Announced in December by President Barack Obama, the opening aims to undo a decades-old policy the White House considers outdated and ineffective. It already has led to renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba, and American farmers are particularly excited about the potential for a thriving market with 11 million people just 90 miles from U.S. shores.

So far this year, however, food and agriculture exports to Cuba are going down, not up.

In December 2014, the month Obama announced the first initiatives, exports to Cuba were $25.2 million, according to the trade council’s data. They dropped to $3.3 million this past July and then $2.3 million in August.

A year ago, in August 2014, exports were $14.4 million.

How To Salvage Obama’s Failed Cuba Initiative

By Paul Bonicelli in The Federalist:

How To Salvage Obama’s Failed Cuba Initiative

Obama’s Cuba initiative has gotten less attention than the Iran deal, but it’s almost as bad. Cuba is not the security threat that Iran is, but it is still a security threat because the Castro brothers hate the United States and continue to enjoy warm relations and scheming with Russia, Venezuela, drug traffickers, and various other U.S. enemies, not to mention continuing to harbor terrorists and cop-killing fugitives from U.S. justice.

Like the Iran deal, which saw the mullahs get everything they wanted and the United States get nothing, kowtowing to Cuba encourages our enemies and discourages our friends, such as the pro-democracy Cubans on the island and in the United States. How else could it play out when Raul Castro refused to budge on the dictatorship’s policies and the administration, as with the Iran deal, showed that any deal was better than no deal?

Some call it legacy-shopping, but that is only part of the story. This policy is in line with what we have seen for seven years from Obama: the United States is big and bad and has caused all problems in the world; if we withdraw, genuflecting before our enemies, then sweetness and light will break out.

Let’s Review Recent Cuba Events

A bit of history: In 2014, Pope Francis offered his good offices so the Obama administration and the Cuban regime could discuss how to normalize relations. That’s bad enough given that U.S.-Cuba relations are deeply divisive and the split is bipartisan. But to discuss this in secret demonstrates that the president intended all along to do another end-run around Congress, and to do everything with executive power no matter how chaotic the result would be. The goal was never a bipartisan and whole-government approach to a thorny and divisive issue that has been festering for over 50 years. Rather, it was to try to force Congress to do what Obama wants, which is to end the embargo codified into law under President Clinton and a Republican Congress. No one is surprised by this, but all should be bothered by it.

This January, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced progress between the two governments and the intention to reopen embassies in the respective capitals. The administration also began easing restrictions on trade, travel, and investment—as much as it could do short of lifting the embargo—and took Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism even though they continue to harbor terrorists from Spain, Colombia, and the United States.

In July of this year, the embassies reopened to much fanfare. Kerry and Castro crowed and beamed, and Kerry had the indecency to prevent Cuban political dissidents from attending at the ceremonies. Their presence would mar the narrative that we had somehow done a noble thing by re-establishing normal relations and opening embassies. But it is ignoble to relinquish leverage against dictators who imprison thousands for thought crimes and hold millions in economic slavery under a failed communist system.

Cuba Continues to Squeeze Its People

During all these months that Obama has been caving to Castro, Castro has repeated his mantra that nothing on the island will change: Marxism-Leninism will continue to guide politics, economics, and civil society. Absent from all the negotiations has been any U.S. demand that the Castro regime implement democratic reforms, free political prisoners, and stop beating up democratic activists like the Ladies in White (these women dress in white and walk to church together in solidarity with male loved ones imprisoned for political activism).

On the contrary, persecution of dissidents has increased during the negotiations and even after the United States granted Cuban demands. Castro has even upped his demands (like the Iranians have) by demanding that the United States compensate Cuba for property and monetary losses U.S. actions have led to over the years. He doesn’t say anything about Cuba returning property stolen from U.S. citizens under the regime, nor did Obama demand it.

So the current state of affairs is one in which the United States gives up leverage without receiving anything in return. The only things left as leverage over Cuba are the embargo and several statutes that cover exports to Cuba. As long as the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1996 (Helms–Burton Act) is in force, the Obama administration cannot normalize economic relations to any significant degree, as the Castro regime is demanding.

It is no surprise that almost all the Republican candidates for president criticize the Cuba initiative while the Democratic candidates support it, including calling for ending the embargo. (Hillary Clinton flip-flopped on this one, no surprise.)

What Congress Can Do about Cuba

So, what is to be done if you abhor the Castros’ brutal regime and want to see Congress defend the liberty of the Cuban people and the security of the United States? Well, a few things.

First, Congress should hold a series of hearings to expose the myths and falsehoods used to bolster the president’s new policy. Hearings could focus, for example, on the true state of Cuba’s involvement with U.S. enemies, its complicity in drug trafficking, and its continued harboring of fugitives from U.S. justice.

Second, hearings featuring the testimony of economists, dissidents, and activists would demonstrate that more economic interaction will not promote economic growth and more tourism will not promote social and political change because the regime controls everything and everyone. When only the military and Communist Party can hire labor and receive majority-share investments, and when the average Cuban is legally paid in worthless pesos rather than in the convertible currency tourists use, then no economic growth will occur. Only an economic illiterate would think otherwise. The regime profits from such arrangements, but not the people, and the regime greatly needs an economic lifeline given the state of its economy and benefactors such as Venezuela.

For all the talk of Western tourists coming in greater numbers and influencing Cuba away from communism, we should remember that for decades Canadians, Europeans, and others have been enjoying Cuban beaches and nightlife and not one change in the regime has come about because of it. The regime just pockets the money and keeps on repressing. Think about that next time you hear someone extolling the virtues of trade and travel with Cuba.

Finally, Congress should challenge the president to make good on his and the secretary’s repeated assertions that democratic reforms in Cuba are important to the United States. Congress should require the administration to appoint an envoy responsible to the secretary of State to report on Cubans’ political and economic freedoms and to represent to the Castro regime the expressed demand that it implement reforms. This official should meet with both dissidents and government officials and, if the regime balks, reverse course.

Lest anyone think that critics of the Castro regime and of Obama’s policies have no plan and no goal other than to carp and complain, they have actually had a plan in place for almost 20 years: the Libertad Act, which codified the embargo under Bill Clinton. It contains a pathway to normal relations with full economic interaction. All the Castros have to do is embrace democratic reforms and the rule of law. Now, is that too much to ask? I know it is for the Castros, but for a U.S. president, it should be a given.

Quote of the Day: The High Cost of Business in Cuba

Those who come to Cuba do so to see what slice of business they can grab at the cost of the people.
-- Arcelio R. Molina Leyva, dissident leader and representative of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU) in Havana, 14ymedio, 10/12/15

Does Economic Reform Lead to Political Reform?

Short answer -- No.

And as the case of China proves -- decades later -- it's not even clear whether economic reform brings economic freedom, let alone political reform and freedom.

So why does the Obama Administration -- and its allies -- point to China as a "successful" model for our Cuba policy?

As Dr. Scott Kennedy, Director of the Project on Chinese Business and Political Economy, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, testified in Congress last week:

"The reform package for state-owned enterprises (SOEs), announced in mid-September, is anything but reformist, as it encourages strengthening the Party's role in SOEs, promoting mergers and acquisitions across a range of sectors even if not commercially appropriate, and limiting opening markets where SOEs predominate to competition from domestic private and foreign companies."

While Celebrities Party in Havana, Over 300 Cuban Dissidents Arrested on Sunday

Monday, October 12, 2015
President Obama's irresponsible policy is turning Havana into a celebrity circus, where Katy Perry, Mick Jagger and Rihanna party at Castro's chic tourist traps and are featured in state media outlets -- serving as perfect distractions to Cuba's repressive realities.

Meanwhile, for the 25th Sunday in a row, over 300 Cuban dissidents were arrested yesterday as they peacefully demonstrated pursuant to Mass, as part of the #TodoMarchamos (#WeAllMarch) initiative.

Among those arrested were over 60 members of The Ladies in White, the renowned pro-democracy group composed of the wives, daughters, mothers and other relatives of Cuban political prisoners.

The headquarters of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU) in Santiago and Holguin were violently raided by Castro's special operations forces, known as "black berets", with close to 120 arrests alone.

UNPACU activists arrested included its leader, Jose Daniel Ferrer and Yriade Hernandez Aguilera, who can be seen in the picture below pursuant to the beating he received.

Also arrested was Lianne Gonzalez Vera, who was beaten by Castro's special forces despite obviously being pregnant.

In Matanzas, the regional head of The Ladies in White, Leticia Ramos Herreria, was mercilessly beaten by a group of five police officials, while Yaneisy Herrera, Maria Cristina Labrada and Aliuska Gomez remain missing pursuant to their arrest.

Throughout today's repressive acts, the cellular phone coverage of most democracy activists was targeted and shut off by Castro's telecom monopoly, ETECSA.

It's "what change looks like" in Obama's Cuba.

Rubio: As President, I Would Honor the Law on Cuba Policy

When I'm President, the U.S. will not diplomatically recognize the Cuban government. I would honor the Cuban Democracy Act, which is pre-existing law that governs our relationship with Cuba and says that in order for U.S. policy to change the Cuban government must make changes too.
-- Marco Rubio, U.S. Senator (R-FL) and Republican presidential candidate, interview with Fox Business News, 10/12/15

Pablo Escobar's Top Hitman: The Traffickers Were Raul and Fidel Castro

Remember -- this is who President Obama is embracing with "normalized" relations and who is now being fawned over by visiting U.S. Members of Congress and businessmen alike.

Of course, none of this is new -- Pablo Escobar's sister also confirmed it, as had U.S. prosecutors who sought to indict Raul Castro, but were hampered by the Clinton Administration.

From Business Insider:

Pablo Escobar's top hit man claims literary icon Gabriel Garcia Marquez worked with El Patron

John Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, working as one of Pablo Escobar’s top hit men, killed at least 300 people and was implicated in the deaths of 3,000 more.

Velásquez, aka Popeye, was a key functionary in Escobar’s Medellin cartel. And, as he claimed in an interview earlier this month, his duties extended to meeting with Latin American luminaries and national leaders on behalf of the cartel.

Speaking with Puerto Rico’s Wapa TV, Popeye said that he hand-delivered letters from Escobar to Colombian literary icon Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who then passed the letters on to Fidel and Raul Castro.

“I am going to give you a key bit of information: The link between everyone [Escobar, Cuba and the US] is called Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel Laureate,” Popeye said, according to Colombia Reports.

“Raul Castro received cocaine on behalf of Pablo Escobar and Fidel was aware,” Popeye said in an interview with the Argentine outlet Todo Noticias. He added that Raul Castro was responsible for cocaine’s arrival in Miami.

The former hit man, released in 2014 after 23 years in jail in Colombia for terrorism and narcotrafficking, backed up his claim by describing his meeting with Garcia Marquez.

“I was in Mexico carrying a letter to the Nobel Laureate for Raul and Fidel Castro; a manuscript of Escobar’s,” Popeye said.

“When I got off the plane the Mexican police were waiting for me and took me to where ‘Gabo’ was signing autographs,” he continued, according to Colombia Reports. “He called me aside and said, ‘Popeye, where is the letter?’ and I gave it to him.”

In the message, Popeye told Todo Noticias, “Pablo Escobar was asking Fidel for a Russian submarine to carry the drug from Mexico to Havana, and with this submarine, to Miami.”

“That (Fidel) is not a world leader, he is a dictator and a bandit,” Popeye said, according to Clarín. “I was in Key West, I saw the drug.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Colombian novelist and journalist, is a revered figure in Latin America, known best for magical realism, the literary style used in his well-known 1967 work, “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982, and his death in early 2014 triggered an outpouring of grief from around the world.

He was friendly with Fidel Castro for much of his life. Garcia Marquez’s politics and his links to Castro prompted the FBI to spy on him for 24 years.

Popeye, 52, has become something of a public figure since his release, calling himself “the historical memory of the Medellín Cartel.”

Prior to his release in August last year for “good behaviour,” he speculated that there was an 80% chance former rivals would kill him.

In the interview, he described on camera how he kidnapped and killed Colombian functionaries as ordered by Escobar.

He is also reportedly responsible for the 1989 bombing of Avianca Flight 203 in Colombia, which killed 107 people, and for the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Galán, which plunged the country into a bloody period of narco violence.

Popeye stressed that he was not formally linking the world-famous Garcia Marquez to the Medellin network, only that the novelist “served as a link by delivering letters.”

“I never said that he read the letters and that he was a trafficker,” Popeye said, according to Colombia Reports.

“The traffickers were Raul and Fidel Castro.”

May the Devil Not Numb Pope Francis' (and Obama's) Conscience on Cuban Dissidents

Sunday, October 11, 2015
This past Friday, at the chapel of the Santa Martha residence in Vatican City, Pope Francis stated during his homily:

Calming the conscience, numbing the conscience, this is a great evil. When the devil manages to numb your conscience he has won a real victory.

Amen.

Hearing these words, it's hard not to think of the lives of three Cuban dissidents, who were arrested two weeks ago, as they approached Pope Francis for help in Havana.

(It's also hard not to think of the Obama Administration's new policy, which has effectively relegated Cuba's courageous democracy activists in an effort to embrace the Castro dictatorship. Or the business community, which is eager to profit off Cuba's repressors.)

Pope Francis saw first-hand how these Cuban dissidents -- Zaqueo Baez Guerrero, Ismael Bonet Rene and Maria Josefa Acon Sardinas, a member of The Ladies in White -- were dragged away and arrested.

So did the the international media, which captured the images.

Baez, Bonet and Acon have been on a hunger strike since September 20th and are being held at the infamous secret police facility at Aldabó and 100th Street in Havana.

No one has heard from them since -- or received any information regarding their well-being.

They peacefully approached Pope Francis to ask his support for the freedom for all Cubans.

May the devil not numb our conscience -- including Pope Francis' and President Obama's -- as these innocent Cubans now suffer for their unselfish advocacy.

Quo Vadis Francis?

By Cuban pastor and dissident blogger, Rev. Mario Felix Lleonart, in Translating Cuba:

Quo Vadis Francis? 

Those of us who lived through the repressive crackdown that took place in Cuba in 2012 during the visit of Benedict XVI have never received a response from the Vatican, although it was informed of the facts. Jose Conrado—the priest who is a maverick within the Catholic Church in Cuba, like a modern-day Father Bartolome de las Casas—met with many of us on March 29, 2012, in the home of Ismael de Diego, to share experiences of what happened during the papal visit to Cuba, the police crackdown called “Operation Vow of Silence.” The priest expressed regret and personally delivered letters and videos to the Apostolic Nunciature. But they didn’t even give him the courtesy of a response. As a result of this crackdown some activists were detained for more than two years without even the formality of a trial.

When those repressed in Cuba met months later, on February 11, 2013, the date of Joseph Ratzinger’s resignation, something which hadn’t happened for almost six hundred years, we speculated that among all the reasons why the Pope took this momentous decision, even if the smallest of all, was his silence about what had happened to us.

Before the announcement of the new Pope’s visit this time, many of us thought the story would be different. As an indication of this, on July 16, 2015, Cuba's Civil Society Open Space sent a letter by way of the Apostolic Nunciature to Pope Francis suggesting that he “receive a representation of Cuban civil society, as had happened during your recent apostolic trip to Latin America, in a private audience during the busy schedule of your anticipated next visit to Cuba. This symbolic gesture could mean the inclusion of all Cubans, especially those of us pushed to the margins of society and treated as second-class citizens because of our way of thinking or for proposing peaceful, non-violent alternatives.” This letter was delivered in person that same afternoon by Father Jose Conrado, accompanied by the prominent Catholic layman Dagoberto Valdes, and me, and was received by the Secretary of the Nuncio.

Regrettably, our letter did not receive a positive response and the Pope did not hold private meetings, except with Fidel Castro, the victimizer, to whom he extended a harmful and very undeserved legitimacy. To make matters worse, and contrary to that spirit, what actually happened was that across the length and breadth of the island at least 250 peaceful activists were arrested. The four activists who managed to break through police cordons to try to reach the Pope to respectfully express their feelings and deliver a letter were seen live by the entire world, and to date they remain in a maximum security prison. In addition to this there were hundreds of illegal house arrests and communication blockages similar to those enforced during the 2012 “Vow of Silence” operation when Benedict XVI visited.

Weeks in advance the regime began preparing this crackdown, using international media to defame and circulate false information in order to create confusion. An interview with agent Raul Capote by Russian media was disseminated worldwide. Agents employed by the regime did the same on social networks with apocryphal stories on Twitter trying to instigate religious hatred and bias the Catholic clergy against Cuban civil society, warning of phony “sabotages” against the papal visit.

In his homily, the Pope expressed messages of mercy and peace worthy of being taken seriously by Cuban society and by those who misrule. But the latter did not give any sign of receiving the message, and even exploited his visit, as they had that of Benedict XVI, to carry out, as usual, something quite the opposite. While representatives of the regime sported guayaberas and hypocritical smiles, their henchmen returned to execute behind the scenes, as in 2012, a genuine witch hunt.

Still the Vatican and Pope Francis could help greatly by issuing some statement acknowledging the above facts, which we never got from the pontificate of Benedict XVI. But maybe Francis agrees with the former president of the National Assembly of Cuba, Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada, who when interviewed by Jackie Nespral of NBC said dismissively that “the Pope is a busy man and cannot waste time with people and issues that are not important.”

WaPo: What the ‘Pope Francis Effect’ Hasn’t Delivered in Cuba

From The Washington Post:

What the ‘Pope Francis effect’ hasn’t delivered in Cuba

Pope John Paul II's visit in 1998 put Christmas back on the Cuban calendar. When Pope Benedict XVI arrived in 2012, the Cuban government made Good Friday a national holiday. Both men brought the Catholic Church a bigger role in Cuba's public life.

Pope Francis? Well, maybe all the good holidays were already taken.

Two weeks have passed since Francis left Cuba, and there has been no sign yet that his visit -- and his rapport with Fidel and Raul Castro -- have led to any new concessions for the church.

Prior to Francis's arrival, the government said it would pardon 3,522 prisoners, a gesture also made during the two previous papal visits. But no announcements have followed.

"Nothing," said Havana religion scholar Enrique Lopez Oliva. "You'd think we would have heard something by now."

Francis praised relations between the Castro government and the Vatican during his visit, and his homilies addressed matters of religious liberty only in general terms. Yet Cuba remains the only nation in the Americas where the church cannot operate its own K-12 schools, and it's no secret the island's bishops want more access to the state-controlled airwaves.

In recent years, as the Cuban government's social safety net has frayed, the church has stepped in, opening day-care centers and health clinics and offering free English and computer courses, yet with little official acknowledgement.

One of the sites Francis visited in Havana, the Padre Varela Cultural Center, already operates as a small de facto Catholic university, leading to speculation that the government might finally give it formal recognition as such. But the pope's presence has brought no such political blessing, at least so far.

"We'll have to wait and see," said the Rev. Roberto Betancourt, the pastor of Our Lady of Regla church in Havana, one of Cuba's most important churches. "There are a few whispers in the hallways of possible announcements, but if something is forthcoming, it would have to be soon."