The U.S. Should Keep the Cuba Embargo in Place

Saturday, January 30, 2016
By Daisy Penaloza in Utah's Deseret News:

The U.S. should keep the Cuba embargo in place

A year has elapsed since normalization talks were divulged between the United States and Cuba, and the prophetic words of Cuba’s dissidents reverberate within the current, grim reality of a nation in shackles. Pro-democracy activists “are totally against the easing of the embargo… the government will have more access to technology and money that can be used against us,” declared Ángel Moya, a former political prisoner, one year ago.

Sonia Garro, a member of the Ladies in White, having served almost three years in prison at the time of her release, expressed: “A country that violates the human rights of its people shouldn’t have sanctions lifted. Here there is no freedom of speech, there is no freedom of anything. This will give them more leeway to continue operating with the same impunity that they have always operated with.”

On Sept. 25, 2015, Cuba’s foremost dissidents sent a letter to the U.S. Congress: “The lifting of the embargo, as proposed by the [Obama] administration will permit the old ruling elite to transfer their power to their political heirs and families, giving little recourse to the Cuban people in confronting this despotic power.”

Clamors for the embargo’s lifting persist despite the fulfillment of dissident and exile warnings that diplomatic recognition of the Castro regime would strengthen the oppressors and crush popular dissent. The removal of what little trade sanctions remain is legally and morally unjustified.

President Obama’s negotiations with the dictatorship were conducted sans the legitimizing presence of Cuba’s pro-democracy groups and civil society. The darkly covert negotiations were also in direct violation of U.S. law as outlined in the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 (Helms-Burton Act). The embargo should not be lifted until the requisite conditions in the Helms-Burton Act are honored by the Castro regime.

Situating the embargo in its proper context, Cuban activist Rosa María Payá wisely observes: “The cruelest embargo, and the one that depends only on Cubans to maintain or eliminate it, is the one maintained by the Havana regime against the rights of our citizens.”

While contravening U.S. laws and basic diplomatic rules of engagement, Obama, for the past year, has been rewarding the intransigent dictatorship with undeserved unilateral concessions. In turn, Castro apparatchiks have indicated their steadfast refusal to concede not one “iota” or “millimeter” in favor of measures leading to true reconciliation.

The oft-repeated rhetoric that the embargo has “exacerbated the hardships” of the Cuban people is untrue. The Castros' totalitarian system of governance, which has created economic, sociopolitical and spiritual impoverishment, is the veritable culprit, not the embargo. Fifty-five years of global trade with Cuba refutes allegations of enforced isolation. Given Castro’s propensity to default on loans, the embargo has actually saved U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars by denying the corrupt regime easy credit.

Sadly and devastatingly, opportunistic global capitalists, looking for profits, perpetuate the exploitation of the Cuban people. Foreign companies are provided Cuban workers by the state. The Castro regime deducts 80 percent of the average employee’s wages, and pays the remaining 20 percent in worthless Cuban pesos. Doing business in Cuba entails striking a nefarious bargain with Castro’s monopolies, GAESA, ETECSA and ALIMPORT, which control the Cuban economy. The Castro elites hoard the foreign revenue, acquire debts and incur national insolvency. These tactics financially ruin the nation, but in no way does it affect the rulers’ accumulation of personal wealth.

The fruits of Obama’s U.S.-Cuba policy has been an “annus horribilis” of over 8,600 short-term arbitrary detentions, weekly beatings of peaceful protesters, extrajudicial killings, long-term incarceration of political opponents, and a migratory crisis involving a number of Latin-American nations. The Cuban government has demonstrated a clear unwillingness to embrace free markets or incorporate judicial safeguards for business investments. The political opposition, fully cognizant that commerce without civil liberties is meaningless, seeks a restoration of their political rights and civil liberties.

The voices of Cuba’s dissidents and exiles, ignored and marginalized, must be respected and acknowledged. The Stalinist purveyors of misery and death must face justice for their homicidal and economic crimes. Only then will Cubans move forward with renewed hope and optimism forging a path to the progress and prosperity so cruelly swept away in the Castroite madness that engulfed Cuba in 1959.

Cuba and North Korea Sign 'Scientific-Technical Development' Protocol

Friday, January 29, 2016
Well, this sounds comforting.

As we all know, Cuba and North Korea have been "bartering" weapons -- including ballistic missile technology -- for a long time.

Maybe this new "scientific-technical development" protocol involves the stolen U.S. Hellfire missile that Castro refuses to return, despite Obama's endless diplomatic overtures and economic concessions.

Meanwhile, Japan has placed its military on high alert today over the possibility of a North Korean ballistic missile launch.

From Cuba's state media:

DPRK, Cuba Signed Trade Protocols

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Cuba signed today two protocols of international collaboration in trade and scientific-technical development.

The signing, that took place at the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment in this capital, was in charge of Cuban minister of that portfolio, Rodrigo Malmierca, and the DPRK ambassador here, Pak Chang Yul.

The trade protocol establishes the transaction of goods through the barter mode of exchange, first for supplies for the Cuban Railway Union and to promote the island's sugar industry.

Barter is a universal mode of exchange where goods or services are directly exchanged for other goods or services without using a medium of exchange, such as money.

These agreements also support sectors such as health, higher education, culture, sports and agriculture, among others.

Quote of the Day: Who's in Charge of the Dollars in Cuba

Wherever there are dollars in Cuba, you'll find there is a gentleman with many stars on his uniform in charge.
-- Angela Nocioni, Argentinian investigative journalist, report on Cuba's "new rich" and military monopolies, Perfil, 1/24/16

The 'New Cuban Missile Crisis' Mystery Deepens

By Shoshana Bryen and Dr. Stephen Bryen in PJ Media:

The 'New Cuban Missile Crisis' Mystery Deepens

A U.S. Hellfire anti-tank missile -- a weapon launched from Predator drones in anti-terrorism operations, among other uses -- found its way into the hands of Cuba’s government in 2014.

But the route it took, twice crossing the Atlantic, was less mysterious than the U.S. government’s public response to the discovery that front-line American military equipment made it to Havana -- or beyond.

The Wall Street Journal reported that a missile shipped by Lockheed Martin to Spain for a NATO exercise was supposed to be put on a flight from Madrid to Frankfurt and then back to the United States. Wrote the Journal:

"[The cargo] was clearly marked as containing material subject to rigorous export controls, and that shipping information would have made clear to anyone handling it that it wasn’t regular cargo."

U.S. regulations require that such cargo be loaded by DOD personnel onto U.S. carriers. Yet there were apparently commercial shipping companies involved:

"...[One] operated by Air France, which took the missile to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris … and headed to Havana."

Further:

"At some point, officials [U.S. military personnel] loading the first flight [in Frankfurt] realized the missile it expected to be loading onto the aircraft wasn’t among the cargo, the government official said."

Working backwards, they discovered the shipment had been handled by commercial carriers and then placed on a non-U.S. plane.

This public version of events raises several red flags:

- Defense contractor Lockheed Martin shipped a missile to Spain for a NATO exercise. But arms and equipment would normally come from U.S. military stores, already on NATO bases. The Hellfire is in common usage in NATO.

- It is unclear from the article who controlled the missile at the end of the exercise. The wording of the Journal story is odd:

The missile was packaged in Rota, Spain, a U.S. official said, where it was put into the truck belonging to another freight-shipping firm, known by officials who track such cargo as a ‘freight forwarder.’ That trucking company released the missile to yet another shipping firm.”

- Properly marked military cargo found its way into the hands of commercial freight shippers, when, as mentioned, U.S. regulations require that such cargo be carried and loaded by DOD personnel.

- The U.S. has not clarified how many commercial shipping firms were involved -- there were two or three, depending on how you read the story. Either way, we have now been told that multiple commercial firms failed to recognize they were carrying clearly labeled military equipment.

- Mistakes happen -- but several people, at several firms, making the mistake of their lives ... on the same package?

Conspiratorial explanations suddenly appear more rational than the official story. Did someone bribe someone to gain control of this cargo? Maybe Lockheed Martin was set up to make the delivery to Cuba look like a mistake instead of a decision? Did the U.S. government sell the missile to Cuba during the prelude to the reestablishment of U.S.-Cuban relations?

That last one should have been easy to dispose of. Yet it isn’t now, because of the response of State Department Spokesman John Kirby. He was specifically asked whether the U.S. actually sold the missile to Cuba. Kirby answered:

"I am restricted under federal law and regulations from commenting on the specific defense trade, licensing cases, and compliance matters. What I can say is under the Arms Export and Control Act, the State Department licenses both permanent and temporary exports by U.S. companies of regulated defense articles."

Not only is that not a denial, that’s Kirby saying the Arms Export Control Act gives the State Department the right to grant licenses of military equipment.

So Kirby chose that moment to affirm that the State Department has the right to sell “defense articles” to, say, Cuba. Further pressed by reporters, Kirby declined to say that the U.S. did not or would not authorize a transfer to Cuba.

At that time, Cuba was still on the State Department list of terror sponsoring countries.

Thus far, Lockheed Martin declines to comment, and Cuba declines to return the missile.

On the one hand, U.S. officials don’t think the Cubans can do much damage with the missile. On the other hand, an unnamed American official though it might pass from Cuba to another country. He mentioned Russia, China, or North Korea as possibilities; he did not mention Iran.

Russia and China have their own versions of the Hellfire. Russia has the Vikhr and China has the JH10, both of which are comparable to the U.S. missile although significantly cheaper. It is unlikely that either state would need to steal or buy a Hellfire on the black market.

According to a former U.S. government official, Russia does not export the Vikhr to Iran -- although it does sell them the ATAKA, a less competent anti-tank missile.

The relationship between Cuba and Iran is well-documented. Is it time to consider the possibility that Havana sent a gift to Tehran? Or that the U.S. used Cuba as a third party to send a gift to Tehran during the sensitive period leading up to the 2013 “Interim Agreement” on nuclear technology, which led to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)?

Consider what else was negotiated with Iran during the period.

Three American hikers were captured by Iran and imprisoned as spies in 2009; the first was released in 2010 and the others in September 2011. In 2012, the United States released Iranian prisoners Shahrzad Mir Gholikhan, Nosratollah Tajik, and Amir Hossein Seirafi, all of whom worked for the Islamic Republic's military establishment. Gholikhan had been convicted on three counts of weapons trafficking. Tajik tried to buy night-vision goggles. Seirafi attempted to purchase specialized vacuum pumps that could be used in the Iranian nuclear program.

The deal was already lopsided in Iran's favor. But then we gave them more, with the later release of Mojtaba Atarodi, a top Iranian scientist arrested in 2011 for attempting to acquire nuclear-related technology. Atarodi’s release came shortly after the then-secret U.S.-Iran talks that began in March 2013. The Interim Agreement was signed in November 2013.

The Hellfire missiles, for which Cuba has no use, arrived in Havana in the first part of 2014.

The U.S. was negotiating better relations with both Iran and Cuba during 2014. Cuba couldn’t use Hellfire missiles, but Iran could -- the Hellfire would be an upgrade over the Russian missiles they had. Recall that Iran could supply such a weapon to allies such as Hezbollah, to weaponize their drones for attacking Israel.

The implications are dire, State’s public explanation is not credible, Kirby's response is close to an admission of guilt, and the Obama administration has yet another massive scandal on its hands.

Shoshana Bryen, a defense and foreign policy analyst, is Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center. Dr. Stephen Bryen is a former U.S. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Trade Security Policy.

HRW on Cuba: Human Rights Abuses Increase, Castro Defies Obama Deal

Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Here's the summary from Human Rights Watch's ("HRW") new 2016 World Report:

"The Cuban government continues to repress dissent and discourage public criticism. It now relies less on long-term prison sentences to punish its critics, but short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others have increased dramatically in recent years. Other repressive tactics employed by the government include beatings, public acts of shaming, and the termination of employment."

Those -- with any human decency -- pursuing business ties with Castro's regime should note:

"Despite updating its Labor Code in 2014, Cuba continues to violate conventions of the International Labor Organization that it has ratified, specifically regarding freedom of association, collective bargaining, protection of wages and wage payment, and prohibitions on forced labor."

As for Castro's "deal" with Obama:

"At time of writing, Cuba had yet to allow visits to the island by the International Committee of the Red Cross or by UN human rights monitors, as stipulated in the December 2014 agreement with the US."


Latin Dictators Still Torture, But Cuban Dissidents Fighting Back

By Guillermo Martinez in Sun-Sentinel:

Latin dictators still torture, but Cuban dissidents fighting back

Years ago Latin American dictators had thugs who became experts at torturing all who opposed the regime.

It happened in Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela and elsewhere. Some would use pliers to yank fingernails out. Others would put out the stubs of their smokes in the feet of the prisoners. This would hurt and was a reminder for days afterward.

There were many other forms of physical torture, but even writing about them hurts.

When Fidel Castro took over Cuba, he called on citizen juries to determine the guilt or innocence of men accused of torturing his followers during the Batista regime. They found thousands guilty and executed them within hours of the trial.

Still others — the lucky ones — were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. Some were condemned to live behind bars for 20 or 30 years.

Roberto Martín Pérez was one of them. He served 28 years on charges he was involved in a plot with Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo to oust the Castro regime.

There were many others. So many that in 1978, the Cuban regime would magnanimously release 3,800 political prisoners.

I knew many of them. One — Andrés Vargas Gómez — was my wife's uncle. Raoul Alfonso was my cousin. Alfredo Izaguirre was the son of my father's business partner and a close friend until they accused him of a plot to kill Fidel Castro.

On the Isle of Pines, Izaguirre was told to work in the fields. He refused, and the guards used a bayonet on his thigh to try to force him to do what he was being told to do.

The Cuban regime depended on these physical tortures to remain in power. Years later, the prison sentences are shorter. The state security agents have found they can beat dissidents and then throw them in a cell for two or three days and that works just as well.

What I had never heard in Cuba was the use of physiological repression.

Venezuela took the lead on that.

Last week Lilian Tintori, wife of Leopoldo López, the best-known Venezuelan political prisoner, was forced to disrobe in front of security guards to make sure she was not bringing in anything prohibited. She and another woman were forced to disrobe in front of Tintori's son and submitted to a body search by the guards.

Tintori said the guards took their time and inspected her body closely. This made the torture even more degrading.

Last Saturday I met with a group of Cuban dissidents.

One said that when he was in jail and his wife came to visit him, she was forced into a room where a naked man entered to make sure she had nothing for her husband.

Amnesty International and other international human rights organizations have condemned all forms of torture. The physiological ones leave no scars on the body, but leave scars on those suffering them for the rest of their lives.

The recent National Assembly elections in Venezuela gives one hope that soon Venezuela might be among the hemisphere's free nations.

A united opposition gained the majority of the seats in the National Assembly. President Nicolás Maduro refused to accept the results until international pressure forced him to do so.

Still, he named new judges loyal to him to minimize the effects of what the new National Assembly might do.

Still, Venezuela is closer today to become a democracy — after 16 years of Hugo Chávez and Maduro as presidents — than Cuba. I am happy for all my Venezuelan friends and hope that day comes sooner than later.

Cuba is another story. Raul Castro says the regime will not change despite all the efforts of President Barack Obama, who continues giving Cuba freebies to see if this will help in the negotiations.

Obama, and all who believe Raul Castro can be lured to change by offering him things to make life easier for the people, is wrong. Material things will not lure Castro to change. Nothing that might move the Cuban people to rise up against him is acceptable.

Still there is growing dissent inside Cuba.

One of the dissidents told me Saturday night. "Cubans are losing their fear of the regime."

May he be right.

Quote of the Day: Castro Wants U.S. Investments to Extend Hold on Power

The Cuban government has shown no interest in loosening its control over the internet. Cuba wants to use U.S. investment to ease economic pressures and thereby extend its hold on power.
-- Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President of Freedom House, U.S. News and World Report, 1/27/16

Obama's Cuba Love Affair Will Be Short-Lived

By Andres Oppenheimer in The Miami Herald:

U.S.-Cuba love affair won’t be forever

Cuba has increased political detentions and reduced permits to entrepreneurs in recent months

There is a lot of excitement about President Barack Obama’s lifting of key U.S. sanctions on Cuba, but allow me a word of caution: the current U.S. love affair with the island is likely to wane after the U.S. November elections, no matter who becomes the next U.S. president.

The reason is simple: it takes two to tango (or cha-cha-cha, in this case) and Cuba is doing very little to reciprocate for Obama’s major loosening of U.S. sanctions on the island. In addition, the next U.S. president will see the opening to Cuba as an Obama legacy issue, which he or she will probably not spend much political capital to keep expanding at any cost.

When he first announced his opening to Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014, Obama said — rightly — that the previous U.S. policy of sanctions against the island had failed, and that opening U.S. trade would empower Cuban entrepreneurs and begin to create an independent civil society in Cuba.

But now, more than a year later, even State Department officials who negotiated the re-establishment of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties are frustrated.

Earlier this month, Cuba’s government-run weekly Trabajadores reported that the number of self-employed workers in Cuba has dropped to 496,400, from 504, 600 six months ago, according to a Jan. 12 report on the Cubaencentro website.

The Cartas desde Cuba (Letters from Cuba) blog written by Uruguayan journalist Fernando Ravsberg on occasion of the Dec. 17, 2015, first anniversary of Obama’s announcement, reported that “internally, the paralysis is big.”

He added, “During 2015, not one single new cooperative was legalized, there were no permits for new categories of autonomous work, retail markets where nowhere to be seen, and the much-publicized exchange rate unification continues to be shelved.”

Politically, Cuba’s military dictatorship continues to prohibit independent political parties, freedom of assembly or independent media.

Over the past year, the number of arbitrary detentions of peaceful oppositionists has increased significantly, to a record 1,447 in November, according to the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Yoani Sanchez, a courageous Cuban journalist who publishes her 14ymedio.com daily online and from abroad because the Cuban regime will not even allow her to publish it on the Internet in Cuba, wrote on Jan. 6 that “television, radio and newspapers remain under the strict monopoly of the Communist Party.”

Sanchez added, “Because of censorship, only those who agree with the government and applaud actions by government officials have access to the microphone. They never interview anyone who dares to differ.”

Despite the lack of movement on Cuba’s side, Obama announced on Jan. 27 a third round of unilateral measures to further loosen the U.S. trade embargo on the island. The latest measures will allow more U.S. visitors to travel to Cuba, and expands authorized U.S. exports to the island.

Obama’s re-establishment of ties with Cuba has turned the island into an object of curiosity. Tourism to Cuba — not only from the United States, but everywhere — has exploded. According to Cuba’s official figures, tourism to the island rose to 3.5 million in 2015, a 17.4 percent increase from the previous year.

Cuban art, Cuban cuisine and Cuban music have become fashionable, and the object of thousands of news articles. Comparatively, few journalists visiting the island look into human rights abuses, or into the more than 3,130 executions attributed to the Castro regime since 1959 by the CubaArchive.org research group.

My opinion: As I stated in other columns, the previous U.S. policy of isolating Cuba didn’t work and Obama’s new approach deserves to be given a chance. Until now, however, it has not worked.

It has only helped Obama cement his legacy as the U.S. president who opened relations with Cuba. That explains why Obama forged ahead with it this week, and may continue to do so by traveling to the island in coming months.

But I don’t see the next U.S. president — even if it’s Hillary Clinton — investing much political capital on expanding an Obama legacy-building project, barring concrete moves by Cuba to open its society. The ball is in Cuba’s court, and its window of opportunity is narrowing.

Why Obama Keeps Getting Rolled by Cuba's Regime

This week's article in The Miami Herald about a recent U.S. telecom delegation that visited Cuba is case-and-point why the Obama Administration keeps getting rolled by the Castro regime.

Note the level of desperation by the Obama Administration's lead telecom "negotiator."

The Castro regime is fully aware of this desperation. Thus, it just sits back and waits for more concessions.

It's for this reason that -- since Obama's new policy -- Castro has increased repression, induced emigration, cut U.S. food purchases, re-imprisoned released political prisoners, stifled "cuentapropistas" and -- despite re-established diplomatic relations -- has dug-in on a stolen U.S. Hellfire missile, harbored FBI Most Wanted Terrorists, etc.

Just like they knew yesterday that Obama would cave in his purported support for "cuentapropistas," in order to now (illegally) focus support on Castro's state monopolies.

Why would the Castro regime "cede one inch" (using Raul's own words), when he knows Obama will cave again-and-again, just to be able to cut some any nominal deal for his "legacy"?

And with Obama's "negotiators" channeling such desperation.

It's pathetic.

From The Miami Herald:

Cuba still wary of U.S. telecom and Internet offers

After a second round of meetings in Havana, Daniel Sepúlveda, the U.S. point man on telecom policy toward Cuba, says the United States feels an urgency to make progress and sign deals while President Barack Obama is still in office but Cuba appears to want to take its time.

In all its recent dealings with the United States, Cuba has emphasized its priority is an end to the embargo, and in a Foreign Ministry statement at the end of the telecom talks, Cuba mentioned “the limitations of the new regulations adopted for this sector by the U.S. government.”

The feedback the U.S. delegation got from the Cubans was they would take the cable and other joint venture overtures under consideration, but that the Internet/telecom industry wasn’t currently one of their main economic priorities, said Sepúlveda. The message from the Cuban side, he said, was that while they are open to seeing the U.S. ideas, they “want to move very carefully” and “Cuba is going to move forward in its own way.”

Sepúlveda said his response was: “Fine and good but we have a window of opportunity here.” Obama, who announced the historic opening with Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014, is in the final year of his term and some Republican presidential hopefuls said they plan to reverse his overtures toward Cuba.

He said that even though his job is advocacy and creating a policy environment conducive to a communications opening, rather than helping with business deals, “We need to have some solid wins to give [U.S. business] confidence.”

Menendez: New Cuba Regs Contravene U.S. Law, Will of Congress

Menendez on Announcement to Enhance Commerce with Cuban Regime

US Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) today issued the following statement regarding the latest announcement by the Obama administration to lift restrictions that allow the financing of American exports to Cuba.

Today’s action by the Administration is a contravention of the law – the will of Congress, and the people who elected us, and a betrayal to those brave Cubans who have raised their voices in support of freedom, only to be silenced by a regime we are now helping.  Put simply, exporting to Cuba means exporting to the regime and its state-owned enterprises solely controlled by the Castro family; it will do nothing to empower the Cuban people.  

Furthermore, U.S. law says that any Administration has the discretion to tighten sanctions, but none have the power to relax them, as press are widely reporting this Administration is doing for a third time since it announced a new U.S. approach to the Cuban regime last year. 

It is a lack of opportunity – not a change of heart – that had slowed the Castro’s regional adventurism and instability-inducing support for those who would pose threats to our national interest.  It is a lack of resources that was causing the regime to loosen its grip.  And, it will be these and any future U.S. supported lifelines the regime will use to reverse that course, solidify the dictatorship, and undermine the very values we have tried to support.  When taken in total, the sanctions relief we have seen over the last year sends more than just a message to the people we once supported.  It provides their oppressors the resources they need to tighten their grip.

Rubio: New Regs Prove Obama's Intent to 'Empower' Castro, Not Cuban People

Rubio Condemns Latest Obama Concessions To Castro Regime

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) issued the following statement regarding today's announcement by the U.S. Department of Treasury and U.S. Department of Commerce modifying additional regulations regarding Cuba:

The Obama Administration's one-sided concessions to Cuba further empower the regime and enable it with an economic windfall. These regulations are more proof that the Obama Administration's intent has never been to empower the Cuban people but rather to empower the Cuban government's monopolies and state-run enterprises.

Our U.S. policy toward Cuba should be driven by our national security interests, securing greater political freedoms and defending the human rights of the Cuban people, none of which are advanced through Obama's latest concessions.”

The Very Ugly "Vietnam Model"

Bottom line: There should be no room for this "Vietnam model" in the Americas, which is bound by one of the world's two regional Democratic Charters (the European Union's is the other) and where 34-out-of-35 nations are democracies.

It would be geopolitical malpractice.

Yet, this is the model the Obama Administration and those who seek to profit from Castro's brutal dictatorship hold as a "success."

From Foreign Policy:

The Ugly Thugs Running Vietnam Aren’t Experimenting With Democracy

It may look like a capitalist frontier, but it’s a police state at heart.

Vietnam is a moiré pattern: Squint at the country one way and you get an aspirational society zooming into the future. Squint another way, and you get an old-fashioned jailer of anyone who refuses to toe the party line. The sunshine lobby focuses on Vietnam’s lovely beaches, food, and allure as a tourist destination. Human rights reporters focus on patterns of abuse.

Yes, the country is opening to the West and rapidly developing. And yet — for all its sunny charms –Vietnam is a culture in ruins. The censors have silenced or exiled the country’s best artists. Vietnam’s best novelist and poets no longer write, except for those who circulate their work in underground samizdats. Journalism is a corrupt enterprise controlled by the government. Ditto for publishing. History is too dangerous to study. Freedom of religion, thought, speech — the ministers of propaganda curtail them all.

From Jan. 20 to 28, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) is holding its 12th quinquennial pig roast known as the National Congress. Some 1,500 party members will gather in Hanoi to adopt a five-year economic plan and approve a recommended slate of candidates for the CPV’s Central Committee, its elite 16-member Politburo, and the party’s general secretary (the chap who sits at the head of the table). Corrupt from top to bottom, bloated by patronage and devoted to crony socialism and rent-seeking, the CPV maintains a hammerlock on Vietnam’s government, military, media, and 93 million people. “Marxism needs a dictator,” Russian refugee and author Vladimir Nabokov said, “and a dictator needs a secret police, and that is the end of the world.” [...]

A cultural ground zero in a police state that beats democracy advocates with iron bars, Vietnam gets away with being a bad actor because many people want to do business with its enterprising citizens, or enjoy the country’s pleasures. Vietnam will welcome tourists and haggle over global finance and transnational capitalism, no problem. But if you want to come to the party, forget it. Party members only.

Paris Rolls Out Red Carpet for Leaders of Iran and Cuba

Now that the Obama Administration has stamped the "full faith and credit" of the United States on the regimes of Iran and Cuba -- both are off on a European shopping spree.

Within a week, both dictators will be received with open arms by French President Francois Hollande.

Yet, the Obama Administration had told us that its new policy would encourage our allies to be more critical of these brutal regimes and their anti-democratic practices.

Wrong again.

"It's all business" -- as regime apologists like to say.

From BBC:

Rouhani due in Paris as Iran drums up business with French

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani will arrive in France on Wednesday for the second leg of his state visit to Europe, after three days in Italy.

Mr Rouhani is expected to secure valuable trade deals following the lifting of international sanctions over Iran's nuclear programme.

Among them is a likely agreement with French aircraft manufacturer Airbus for more than 100 new aircraft.

From Reuters:

Cuba's Raul Castro to visit France on Feb. 1

Cuban President Raul Castro next month will make the first visit to France by a Cuban head of state since his brother in 1995 as he tries to carve out a larger role for the Communist-run nation since improving ties with the United States.

French President Francois Hollande in May became the first Western president to visit Cuba in more than 50 years and has been positioning his country to capitalize on the thaw in relations.

France was Cuba's main creditor and last month as part of a deal between Cuba and the 15 rich creditor nations of the Paris Club it agreed to annul $4 billion in debt.

Statement on Latest Round of Obama's Cuba Regulatory Changes

Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Today, the Obama Administration has released its third round of regulatory changes since December 17th, 2014, which now allows exports purportedly destined "for the Cuban people" to be monopolized by the Castro regime's state enterprises.

This latest round of regulatory changes expressly contradicts the stated purpose of Obama's policy, which was purportedly to "empower the Cuban people" and "promote economic independence." Instead, today's regulations succumb to the Castro regime's insistence that all foreign trade transactions must be funneled through its monopolies. Rather than ratcheting up pressure on the Castro regime to open Cuba's "cuentapropista" ("self-employment") sector, the Obama Administration is now blatantly "empowering" the Castro regime's economic grip. There are five decades of evidence to prove that Castro's monopolies have never brought greater wealth or freedom to the Cuban people. To the contrary, it has strengthened and enriched Castro's cronies and repressive apparatus.

These regulations not only contradict Obama's own words, but they are against U.S. law. The only exports legally exempted for sale to Cuba are telecommunication services, via the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, and agriculture, medicine and medical devices, via the 2000 Trade Sanctions Reform Act. Any exports to Cuba outside of these two statutory exemptions are illegal. Today's regulations are also viscerally against the stated policy and intent of U.S. policy towards Cuba, as codified in law. As such, any transactions pursuant to these new regulations would be subject to legal challenge. Moreover, the U.S. Congress should continue to hold accountable Commerce, State and Treasury officials, who are clearly prioritizing the political whims of The White House over the law of the United States.

WSJ: Cuba’s Democrats Need U.S. Support

Monday, January 25, 2016
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady in The Wall Street Journal:

Cuba’s Democrats Need U.S. Support

Obama has helped the dictatorship but ignored the dissidents.

Cuban dissident leader Antonio Rodiles has been harassed, beaten, imprisoned and may have been injected with a foreign substance—more on that in a minute—by Castro goons. Yet he is calm and unwavering: “They are not going to stop us,” Mr. Rodiles recently told me over lunch here with his wife, Ailer González.
Soviet-style Cuban intelligence is trained to crush the spirit of the nonconformist. Yet the cerebral Mr. Rodiles was cool and analytical as he described the challenges faced by the opposition since President Obama, with support from Pope Francis, announced a U.S. rapprochement with Castro’s military dictatorship in December 2014.

One of the “worst aspects of the new agenda,” Mr. Rodiles told me matter-of-factly, “is that it sends a signal that the regime is the legitimate political actor” for the country’s future. Foreigners “read that it is better to have a good relationship with the regime—and not with the opposition—because those are the people that are going to have the power—political and economic.”

The Cuban opposition is treated as superfluous in this new reality. U.S. politicians visiting the island used to meet with dissidents. Now, Mr. Rodiles says, “contact is almost zero.” When the U.S. reopened its embassy in Havana last year it refused to invite important dissidents like Mr. Rodiles or even Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White, to the ceremony.

Mr. Rodiles said the mission of pro-democratic Cubans is critical and urgent: “We need to change the message,” making it clear that the regime is “not the future of Cuba.” And this, he says, is the defining moment.

If the Castros hope to transfer power to the next generation—be it to Raúl’s son Alejandro or a Cuban Tom Hagen—as Russia’s KGB forced Boris Yeltsin to yield to KGB veteran Vladimir Putin, they need to do it soon.

Yet at the same time, Mr. Rodiles says, “if they give the country to their families in the condition it is in right now, it will be like handing them a time bomb” about to go off. That’s why, he tells me, this is a unique opportunity for freedom to emerge: The odds of successfully passing the baton in the current economic meltdown are low.

Or at least they would be if Mr. Obama were not offering the regime legitimacy and U.S. greenbacks while refusing to officially recognize the opposition.

Mr. Rodiles has a master’s degree in physics from Mexico’s Autonomous National University and a master’s degree in mathematics from Florida State University. The 43-year-old returned to Cuba in 2010 and is a founder of Estado de SATS, a project to “create a space for open debate and pluralism of thought.”

The police state views this as dangerous and has come down hard on the couple. Amnesty International was among those that called for his release when he was jailed in 2012 for 19 days. In July a state-security agent punched him in the face while his hands were cuffed behind his back.

On Jan. 10 he and Ms. González, along with other government critics, were again attacked by a rent-a-mob on the streets of Havana. This time they were left with what looks like identical needle marks on their skin.

Those wounds are worrisome. More than once the former leader of the Ladies in White, Laura Pollán, was left with open wounds after being clawed and scratched by plainclothes government enforcers. After one such incident in 2011 she mysteriously fell ill and died in the hospital. The government immediately cremated her body and the dissident community has long suspected that she was intentionally infected with a fatal virus by the regime.

Under normal circumstances, the Castro family would have reason to fear the future. Totalitarian regimes collapse, Mr. Rodiles reminds me, “when the people inside the system, not just the elite, but the people who are in the middle, the ones who sustain the system, start to go and look for another possibility.” They do this because they recognize the future is elsewhere so they “move or at least they no longer cooperate.”

Today young Cubans are looking for that alternative. The regime’s promise to Mr. Obama of economic opportunity and growth through small-business startups is a farce because the Castro family operates like a mafia, “and always has,” says Mr. Rodiles. To do well in the current environment the young have to join the system, or else they flee.

Those who join are not ideological but only seek power. “If we can show that we are the ones with the power to transform the country, then these people for sure are going to prefer to be with us.”

Failure is unthinkable for Mr. Rodiles. “We cannot allow the transfer of power because if they transfer the power, we can have these people for the next 20 or 30 years.”

Re-Post: Obama's Cuba Policy Embraces the Past, Rubio's Looks to the Future

In light of today's story in The Washington Post on Marco Rubio's Cuba policy -- full of Obama Administration talking points -- below is a re-post (from April 16, 2015), on the real dichotomy in policy approaches:

Obama's Cuba Policy Embraces the Past, Rubio's Looks to the Future

Last Saturday, President Obama claimed that the United States was "moving forward" in its relationship with Cuba by embracing 83-year old dictator, General Raul Castro.

Nothing could be more backwards.

Two days later, a 43-year old Cuban-American, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), announced his candidacy for President of the United States.

Rubio embodies the antithesis of Obama's Cuba policy.

The young Florida Senator made it abundantly clear that, if elected President, he would rescind Obama's unilateral concessions to Castro's regime -- precisely because he cares about Cuba's future.

Note the contrast:

Obama seeks to normalize relations with the status quo -- an 83-year old military dictator, whose family dynasty has ruled Cuba with an iron-fist for over five decades.

Rubio believes normalized relations is a process more worthy of Cuba's young democracy leaders -- the agents of change, who are courageously struggling for the freedom of all Cubans.

Obama has taken us back to the policies of the 1960s and 1970s, whereby the United States is once again open for business with military dictatorships in the Americas.

Rubio believes the New American Century is one where representative democracy should be an unwavering condition of inter-American relations.

Obama wants to funnel American business and tourism through monopolies controlled by the Castro family and its military elite.

Rubio believes American commerce and tourism should be reserved for the Cuban people, when they are no longer prohibited from engaging in foreign trade and investment in their own country.

Obama seeks to normalize Castro's manipulation of regime franchisees, known as "cuentapropistas," who are condemned to a small list of medieval trades, with no contractual or property rights.

Rubio believes the Cuban people should have the freedom to incorporate real businesses; to become CEOs, managers and employees, under a rule of law that protects the fruits of their hard work.

Obama seeks to expand the Internet in Cuba through Castro's telecommunications monopoly, ETECSA, which specializes in monitoring and censorship.

Rubio wants every Cuban to have direct access to the Internet, though satellites, circumvention technologies and other means, which will protect them from Castro's censorship and repression.

Since Rubio announced his candidacy, pundits and push-pollsters have been in disarray. This week, they have been recycling their old narrative of "generational shifts" in the Cuban-American community, which has never translated to the ballot box. The fact remains every Cuban-American elected official shares Rubio's views on Cuba policy.

Just imagine: A 44-year old Cuban-American, viscerally opposed to Obama's embrace of Castro's octogenarian dictatorship, becoming President of the United States and redirecting our nation's focus towards the young democracy leaders of tomorrow.

It would be poetic justice.

Image of the Week: Castro's Latest Book Burning

This past weekend, over 300 Cuban dissidents were arrested by the Castro regime for peacefully seeking to demonstrate on behalf of freedom and democracy.

In preparing for this latest wave of arrests, Castro's secret police set up a series of provocative acts in front of the headquarters of the courageous pro-democracy group, The Ladies in White, in Havana's Lawton neighborhood.

Among these, it organized a crowd that proceeded to publicly burn copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Funny how none of the Obama Administration's celebrity friends, visiting Member of Congress and businessmen ever venture into Lawton during their "dog-and pony" tours of Havana.

They're too busy taking the same boring, stereotypical pictures of old cars in Castro's designated tourist zones.

Here's the image of the week:

Four Things You Should Know Before Visiting Cuba

Sunday, January 24, 2016
By Davey Talbot in Dissident:

Four Things You Should Know Before Visiting Cuba

So you’ve heard that restrictions on travel to Cuba have been relaxed and you’re thinking about visiting. Perhaps you’re looking for beautiful beaches and a charming, colonial-era ambiance. Or maybe you’re drawn to Cuba’s iconic revolutionary history. Even if you are utterly apolitical, you may be intrigued by those old black-and-white photos of bearded, cigar-chomping guerillas and their stirring slogans. All in all, it seems like a romantic and unusual vacation spot.

Before you book that ticket though, here are four points to reflect on:

1. The island’s reality is rather more sordid

It has taken Fidel Castro a fortune, and no small amount of moral dexterity, to amass 20 homes, a private island, a yacht, and an underwater ecological sanctuary. Yet at the same time he has forced Cubans to make personal sacrifices for the revolution since 1959.

According to journalist Michael Totten, in 1958 Cuba had a higher per-capita income than much of Europe. However, that quickly changed. After shooting his way to power, Fidel Castro enacted drastic socialist reforms that gutted the economy and eventually left it heavily reliant on Soviet subsidies. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and the subsidies dried up. During this mellifluously named “special period in peacetime,” the Cuban economy cratered and GDP dropped by 34%. To survive, Fidel Castro was forced to decriminalize the possession of US dollars and self-employment and open the island to tourism in order to pull in hard cash. His arrangements with Hugo Chávez also helped keep the island afloat. But restructuring and openness a lo Cubano has left no question as to who really controls society.

Nonetheless, a bubble still exists in Havana around the tourist sector, making it a sort of Truman Show for foreigners who don’t see what life is like for most Cubans. Many people who go to Cuba, including American celebrities, just want to have a good time and are oblivious to reality.

2. The state holds a monopoly on everything from the news media to selling lobster

In Cuba, the private sector is miniscule, consisting mainly of restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts. Even today, over seventy percent of Cubans are state employees, down from over ninety percent during the 1980s.

Much of the country’s tourism infrastructure is directly owned by the military. The state institution most relevant to tourism is GAESA, a military holding company belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces and run by General Luis Alberto Rodríguez, President Raúl Castro’s son-in-law. GAESA controls almost all retail chains in Cuba, as well as gas station chains, foreign trade zones, over fifty hotels, fancy restaurants, and the best commercial real estate in Old Havana.

GAESA is already making a bundle from the recent normalization. Chances are, your vacation will be contributing to the bottom line of one of Latin America’s biggest corporations—one that happens to be owned by the Cuban military.

The Cuban regime also controls foreign companies’ dealings within Cuba. Companies from abroad, like the Spanish hotel company Sol Meliá, negotiate with the Cuban government rather than directly with their employees, and must subcontract Cuban workers through a government agency.

Wages, too, are paid through the intermediation of the state, which pockets the valuable foreign currency and then reimburses its own citizens in nearly worthless National Pesos.

The Cuban government estimates that if the thaw leads to unrestricted travel, the payoff will be an extra $2 billion annually. Two billion dollars ought to go a long way for the island’s 11 million, but without real reform—and because of the dual currency—it will result in embarrassingly little for the Cuban people.

3. Cuba’s dual currency creates a two-tier economy that strengthens the regime and disadvantages Cubans

Cuba has two currencies: the National Peso (CUP) and the Convertible Peso (CUC). As a tourist, you’ll mainly be using the CUC—especially since US credit cards are not accepted. Used mostly by tourists and apparatchiks, the unit was introduced in 1994 when Cuba was desperate for hard foreign currency. Its value has been pegged to the USD since 2011. But you’ll buy it at a double-digit premium, and the Castro regime will pocket the difference.

While the CUC will be useful for you to spend at hotels and high-end shops, most Cubans are paid in CUP, the official currency. It is basically Monopoly money, at a rate of just $0.04 to the USD. Most Cubans’ monthly salaries amount to about $20 a month, which means that, as Michael Totten reports, “A middle-class tourist from abroad can easily spend more in one day than most Cubans make in a year.” It also means that the modest tips you leave to waiters or hotel staff in CUC on any given day of your vacation can outstrip a medical doctor’s monthly salary, creating perverse economic incentives and punishing professional achievement.

The regime has announced plans to unify the two currencies in the near future, but the opacity of the policymaking process has led to widespread anxiety that CUC will suddenly be declared worthless. Many have tried to stock up on US Dollars in order to insure against the any decision by the Cuban government.

4. This moral nonchalance is working out well for the Castros, but not for Cuban dissidents

The Castros waited patiently for an American President who was willing to normalize relations without demanding reforms that might jeopardize their communist dictatorship. But those expecting the change in US policy to be met with a similar change on the part of the Castro regime should know that Raúl Castro has specifically reaffirmed his commitment to communism in Cuba.

There was no uproar in response. So for good reason the Cuban regime anticipates a fast-arriving time when American tourists, oblivious to the principles that guided Cuba policy for the last 50 years, embrace the diplomatic thaw and take their dollars to see vintage cars, smoke Cohibas, and walk in Hemingway’s steps.

The realpolitik in Cuba is lost on President Obama. According to Frank Mora, director of the Latin-American studies center at the Florida International University, and a former Deputy Assistant U.S. Secretary of Defense under Obama:

“Obama is making a bet that this will help make the Cubans the agents of their own change. I think Raúl is making a bet that this will ultimately strengthen the hand of the Party. There will be people making more money, and some may transfer that economic power to a desire for political reform. On the other hand, those same people may help put the brakes on by supporting the regime, so as to protect their investments.”

This reality is not, however, lost on the Cuban youth or dissidents such as Antonio Rodiles or Ángel Moya, whom the Obama Administration is ignoring. “The idea is not to open a market bit by bit to create a middle class, but to create a monopoly for people within the military,” Rodiles recently told a congressional panel. Those considering a jaunt to Cuba should think twice before sending their dollars the way of the Revolutionary Armed Forces.

Joshua Dill contributed to this post.

Quote of the Week: A Principled Businessman

Our hotels are owned by us. I will go to Cuba when we can own our hotels and hire our employees. Today we cannot do that. I will not go to Cuba until it's a free country. There are many places to invest outside of Cuba. I prefer to invest in the Dominican Republic, where you can see immediate results, alongside Mexico, Jamaica and Aruba.
-- Pablo Piñero, president of the Spanish hotel and tourism conglomerate Grupo Piñero, Diario de Mallorca, 1/21/16

Forgive the Castro Regime? Never!

By Cuban dissident and independent journalist, Luis Cino Alvarez, in Cubanet (via Translating Cuba):

Forgive the Castro Regime? Never! 

I am a resentful person. I have to admit that, at least in this regard, the officials from State Security are correct, they who have condemned me as such during multiple, more or less menacing, interrogations throughout the past almost-20 years.

I am full of resentment against that calamitous abomination that some people still call “the Revolution.” And how can I not be? I would have to be a masochist, or emulate Mother Teresa of Calcutta, to love the perpetrators of the system that has crushed my life for as long as I can remember.

I would have to be exceedingly hypocritical to say that I am willing to reconcile with and forgive those who have never, in the slightest way—arrogant as they are—asked for forgiveness.

I am not a man given to hatreds and vengeance, but I cannot abide duplicity and hypocrisy. So leave me to my resentment which, in the reasonable doses in which I dole it out, will do no more harm than it already has; on the contrary, it helps me to keep going and not give up.

I cannot forgive those who thought themselves infallible, with a monopoly on the country, keepers of the keys to Paradise, with the right to decree the collective, obligatory happiness of the masses—all at the price of turning us into cogs in a machine, with no freedoms nor hope, yoked to the wagon of a mistaken history.

I cannot help but begrudge those who caused our individual dreams and aspirations—grand or simple, but valid and legitimate as any others—to be indefinitely deferred, annulled in the name of the Revolution, the Homeland and Socialism: all of which, according to what they said, were of a piece, despite the fact that the words did not rhyme, and we knew they could not rhyme.

I cannot be at peace with those who, in keeping with catchphrases that invariably posited death as the alternative, divided our families and pulverized our values, turning us into impoverished, vulgar riffraff, cynical and suspicious, perennially wandering in the desert.

My love for my neighbor (why deny it) is insufficient to be lavished upon those who fucked up my life: those teachers who, applying punishments prescribed by Comrade Makarenko, pretended to be forging The New Man; the sergeants in the compulsory military service; the psychiatrist-prison guards; the jailers at police precincts; the snitches who compiled exhaustive reports on me; all those who were wont to expel me from anyplace because of ideological divergences; the agents of the political police who “tend” to me, that is, who watch me even while I sleep.

Of no use have been the many times that they have tried to convince me that all the bad things that happened were not the Revolution’s fault—no, Man, of course not, they happened because of those extremists of which Lenin spoke—opportunists, as he called them—and all kinds of other shit. As if such as these were not the ideal subjects of a system like this!

Do not tell me anymore that those terrible events were errors—because in those “errors” have our lives been lost, and there is no getting them back.

I do not resign myself to having been one more rat in the Castros’ laboratory. The damages have been irreversible, and I do not believe that at this point they can be compensated.

Therefore, all we have left is the memory of what was and what could not be, because they prevented it, by force.

The poet José Mario—one of those who suffered the severity of Castro's UMAP concentration camps—was right when he said that that those explanations of how “things were not as bad as they really were, it was a matter of errors committed by some extremists,” are worse than forgetting. Do not expect me to slobber. I am one of those who do not forget. I cannot, nor do I want to. For this reason, I am a resentful person. And proud of it.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison.