Must-Read: The High Cost of Doing Business in Cuba

Friday, March 25, 2016
Anyone who talks about doing business in Cuba should read this first.

These events didn't transpire fifty years ago, but within the last five years.

From VICE News:

'A Series of Razors Waiting to Cut You': The High Cost of Doing Business in Cuba

Sarkis Yacoubian swore he was just a businessman, but the state security agents holding him in a Havana interrogation room called him a spy.

It was July 2011, and Yacoubian, then 51, had been working in Cuba for nearly two decades. An Armenian-Canadian born in Beirut, he owned a trading company called Tri-Star Caribbean, which imported emergency vehicles, mining equipment, and auto parts for Cuba's state-run industries.

About eight months before his arrest, Yacoubian says, a regime official visited Tri-Star's Havana offices a handful of times — "Let's call him 'the Colonel,'" says Yacoubian, who claims not to recall the man's name. The Colonel said that Cuba wanted to buy a fleet of BMWs, and asked Yacoubian to arrange it. The government's wish list: sixteen 5-series sedans for the rental market and diplomatic use, and an armored X5 SUV for Cuban president Raul Castro's personal motorcade. Yacoubian, knowing the contract could lead to many more, agreed to deliver the cars to Tecnotex, a state-owned conglomerate under the purview of the military run by Castro's son-in-law, Colonel Luis Alberto Rodriguez.

The problems, however, started almost immediately. The government had previously been working with Eric Soulavy, a BMW dealer based in Venezuela who had run into financing problems. Yacoubian says a BMW rep got in touch with him and said that he needed to buy out Soulavy's contract with BMW, which still had one year remaining. (A spokeswoman for the auto company said it does not comment "on the behavior of third parties as a matter of principle.")

Yacoubian says he was at that point contractually obligated to deliver the vehicles to the Cubans, so with his "back to the wall," he began negotiating with Soulavy. Yacoubian says they agreed to $800,000, with an initial transfer of $100,000. Soulavy, who is now a real-estate developer in Key Biscayne, Florida, says he doesn't recall the exact amount he received from Yacoubian, but remembers charging him "something for the tools and parts we had invested in that business."

Yacoubian says the buyers at Tecnotex were also asking him to take a $1,000 loss on each car, but "you don't tell Raul Castro no." Still, Yacoubian wasn't doing the deal out of fear — he estimated the foothold the deal was gaining him could one day be worth up to $250 million.

Instead, he was accused of plotting to kill Castro.

* * *

When President Barack Obama announced a diplomatic thaw between the US and Cuba in December 2014, American companies began salivating at the thought of entering a virtually untapped market of more than 11 million people. And as the relationship slowly continues to warm — Obama made a high-profile visit to the island this week — business looks like it's about to boom. Starwood Hotels and Resorts, the Stamford, Connecticut–based company behind the Westin, Sheraton, and W chains, recently signed a deal to refurbish and manage two state-owned Havana properties. MasterCard is now being accepted at a small number of locations in Cuba.

One analyst described the present time as a "rare opportunity" for US businesses to get into Cuba. Another called Cuba the "greatest investment opportunity of the 21st century."

But there's also danger. Any entrepreneur entering Cuba "will want to be overly cautious right now," says Paolo Spadoni, a professor of political science at Georgia Regent University and author of the book Cuba's Socialist Economy Today: Navigating Challenges and Change. "Even inviting your [business] partner to a restaurant, this kind of activity will be way more scrutinized than it was before."

Fidel Castro didn't allow outside investment in the country for more than 30 years after he took power in 1959, and when he did, it was only to stave off an impending humanitarian disaster. In 1991, Cuba stopped receiving billions of dollars in yearly subsidies from the disintegrating Soviet Union, shrinking the island's economy by as much as 50 percent. Thus began what Castro dubbed the "Special Period in a Time of Peace," an economic crisis so severe, Cuban citizens were cooking and eating grapefruit rinds and mop tassels.

Castro finally relented to investment from Canada, Europe, Latin America, Asia — anywhere but the United States, whose citizens were and in large part still are prohibited by law from doing business in Cuba.

Yacoubian got to Havana in 1993, and eventually came to accept the cost of doing business there. When he wanted to start selling equipment to the Cuban nickel mining industry, he says he was granted access only after "donating" a $400,000 articulated mining truck to the regime. To facilitate another business deal, Yacoubian says he was forced to sell $1.5 million worth of tires to the Cuban Army — at cost.

For the BMW sale, Yacoubian also agreed to spend $35,000 on a set of diagnostic tools called the Integrated Safety Information System (known by its now-unfortunate acronym, ISIS). Every two weeks or so, performance data from each vehicle would be recorded and sent to BMW headquarters in Germany, which remotely tracked diagnostic information about each of its cars worldwide.

Yacoubian would need to download several very large files to get everything set up, in addition to installing ongoing updates. Cuba still doesn't have a high-speed Internet backbone, and in an email at the time, Gernot Volkmer, BMW's representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, told Yacoubian the lack of a reliable connection would have to be solved before a deal could go through. He suggested Yacoubian send a Cuban technician to Panama every two weeks to transfer the data, but Yacoubian knew that would look extremely suspicious to Cuban authorities.

Knowing he had to make things work with what he had available in Havana, Yacoubian says he and his IT guy did late-night test runs to see if they could wring the full 760 kbps out of Tri-Star's dial-up connection in the middle of the night, when internet usage was at its lowest.

Two weeks later, on July 13, 2011, plainclothes Cuban state security officers showed up at Yacoubian's second-floor office and, he says, held him at gunpoint. He tried to close his personal email account, which was open on his computer screen, but as soon as he moved his index finger, one of the agents shouted at him to freeze. They then led Yacoubian out of the building, past his employees, and into a waiting van.

Yacoubian says he was brought to Villa Marista, a former Catholic school that has served as the nerve center of Cuba's Ministry of the Interior since 1963. He then spent several months in a series of government safe houses in Havana, where he says he was continually questioned and threatened while being kept in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. He had a rotating cast of interrogators he knew as Major Carlito, Colonel Estrada, and Raisa.

The trio wanted to know why Yacoubian was using so much bandwidth at such odd hours. And, most of all, they wanted to know whether Yacoubian was planning to help Cuba's enemies, namely the United States, pinpoint Castro's exact location through the onboard ISIS system in his yet-to-be-delivered X5. (Yacoubian calls the accusations "absurd.")

When investigators searched his office, they found about 40 laptop computers. Long suspicious of technology's ideological influence, and having heavily restricted online access, the Cuban authorities wanted to know why Yacoubian had so many.

Investigators also discovered business cards that belonged to USAID employees. The year before, a USAID subcontractor named Alan Gross had been arrested on charges of trying to destabilize the Cuban government by covertly helping Havana's small Jewish community access the Internet free of government filters and controls. Yacoubian says he assured the Cubans he'd never met Gross.

The Cubans told Yacoubian that the penalty for spying was life in prison, according to his account. But the longtime businessman knew that punishments meted out for small transgressions — the occasional bribe, payoff, or kickback — were mild in Cuba. Graft was predictably commonplace; government employees who were in charge of assigning multimillion dollar contracts earned official state salaries of $25 a month. Yacoubian believed that copping to a few minor infractions would satisfy his captors.

So the dealmaker tried to make a deal. In a bid for leniency, Yacoubian told investigators about some of the things he'd done wrong while doing business in Cuba: paying Cuban officials up to 3 percent of the value of deals to ensure contracts would be honored and payments made, or trying to pry loose frozen funds in hard-currency accounts the Cuban government blocked during one of the country's liquidity crises.

After he finished implicating himself, he began ratting out others.

* * *

Amado Fakhre, the British-Argentinean founder and CEO of Coral Capital, a Havana-based investment group, was arrested on October 11, 2011.

While Yacoubian claims to have related only instances of corruption to his interrogators, Fakhre, who has before never spoken publicly of the ordeal, says authorities informed him that Yacoubian identified him as a covert Israeli operative who had been trained by the Mossad in the Negev Desert.

A Lebanese Maronite born in Argentina and raised in England, Fakhre says he is "quite an unlikely candidate to be such a person."

Still, having been subjected to the same kind of interrogation as described by Yacoubian, Fakhre says he "can't really blame him" for doing what he did. "A person would say anything to get out of there."

Fakhre, whose company spent $28 million restoring Havana's Hotel Saratoga — it's where Jay-Z and Beyonce stayed during a 2013 trip to Cuba — was forced to sign a document confirming he had been arrested for "revealing state secrets." He would spend the next 20 months under interrogation at a Havana safe house, and later, at a military hospital where he says he saw Alan Gross, but was "too chickenshit" to talk to him. (Gross was released in 2014.)

'If the Cubans jailed everyone for corruption, there'd be no one left.'

"They were making me read articles about spy exchanges between the Russians and the Americans," Fakhre recalls. "They said, 'We know you're working for Cuba's enemies.' They brought me to a psychiatrist who was a specialist in espionage to see what he could find out. They brought me to [survival] training, to see if I could catch and eat serpents. It was laughable."

After three days, Fakhre says he was forced to sign a document confirming that he had been arrested for "revealing state secrets." A few months later, his captors finally "cottoned onto the fact that I was not a spy." That's when they switched gears and started accusing him of corruption.

In June 2013, more than 600 days after he was arrested, Fakhre was tried, in secret, for a list of economic "crimes" that outside of Cuba would have looked like little more than a corporate expense report. According to Cuban court documents, one of the charges stemmed from having treated a director of a state-run enterprise to a night at the Hotel Saratoga, which Coral Capital ran as a joint venture with the Cuban government, for her birthday. Fakhre said Coral had done millions of dollars worth of oil tank cleaning work with them, yet he purposely avoided giving the woman a gift, "even a bottle of Champagne," lest it be misinterpreted by the state security apparatus as graft.

Other charges included giving the father of a business associate an auto part, and giving a Cuban colleague $20 to get his government-issued car fixed. Fakhre was also hit with charges for loaning money to other foreign companies on the island — something he says he was told was legal as long as none of the parties involved were Cuban — and for taking part in "activities damaging to the economy" after his company made a 20 percent profit on the sale of a piece of mining equipment.

"That's not a huge margin, considering the many months I spent making the deal," Fakhre says. "Because I didn't pass on those savings, I committed an economic crime against Cuba."

Under Cuban law, defendants are entitled to the last word in court at the end of the proceedings. Fakhre delivered a 7,000-word statement.

"As you will understand, my personal principles are those of a businessman that is a capitalist," he said.

"However, I have always respected the extraordinary achievements of Cuba in the areas of public health care, education, and everything to do with human dignity. In fact, all my actions and efforts in Cuba for the past 18 years have been always in tune and solidarity with the leadership and aspirations of the Revolution."

Fakhre told the court that Coral Capital spent large amounts of money on "purely social works," including $131,000 to renovate a Havana primary school and more than $400,000 worth of electrical transformers to help fortify Old Havana's rickety municipal electric grid.

When the judges' decision was handed down, Fakhre was sentenced to five years in prison for "continued bribery," and an additional three years and six months for "illegal trafficking in currencies." Coral Capital's property and bank accounts — reportedly worth $17.3 million dollars — were turned over to authorities for "useful economic and social purposes."

Fakhre was then informed that he wouldn't actually have to serve any time, and was free to leave.

Fakhre, stunned by the reprieve, expected to be handcuffed and driven straight to the airport for immediate deportation. But instead he was told he could do whatever he wished. So he spent the next several days in Havana recuperating, then packed his bags and headed home to Europe.

He was never given an explanation for his release.

Two months earlier, Yacoubian had gone through a closed-door trial of his own, charged with bribery, tax evasion and, like Fakhre, "activities damaging to the economy."

Although he spilled his guts to authorities, taking down dozens of Cuban officials and state purchasers in addition to Fakhre and other foreign investors like his one-time-boss-turned-bitter-rival, Vahe "Cy" Tokmakjian — he was eventually sentenced to 15 years for bribery, forfeiting a reported $100 million in assets, and released in February 2015 — Yacoubian did not fare as well as Fakhre.

He was fined $7.5 million, had $19 million in assets seized by the government, and was sent to La Condesa, a prison for foreigners 30 miles south of Havana, to begin serving a nine-year sentence.

* * *

Outside investors can be stripped of their Cuban holdings for a number of different reasons, says Chris Simmons, a former special agent with the United States Defense Intelligence Agency, where he spent his career tracking Cuban spies.

For instance, one might simply run afoul of the wrong person — last summer, a Spanish investor was expelled from the country and had the two Havana lounges he owned taken over by the regime after he found himself in a romantic triangle with Raul Castro's grandson. Or, Simmons says, a person's business could be "just doing too well." Sometimes, a favored insider needs a surging competitor to disappear. In other instances, the perpetually cash-strapped Castro regime sees a cash cow they'd like to have for themselves.

In many respects, these "personal horror stories" all follow the same basic script, Simmons explains. First come espionage charges, which are used as a scare tactic to lay the groundwork for corruption charges.

"And of course you're guilty of corruption," he says. "If [the Cubans] jailed everyone for corruption, there'd be no one left."

State security begins compromising foreign investors the moment they arrive, says Enrique Garcia-Diaz, a former high-level Cuban intelligence officer who now lives in Miami. Every foreign extranjero has a dedicated government "shadow," and detailed files are kept on their movements and activities. The officials dealing with foreigners are also monitored "by the same security apparatus," says Regina Coyula, who worked for the Cuban Interior Ministry's Counterintelligence Directorate for 17 years, and still resides in Havana.

"These cases show the utter helplessness of foreign businessmen on the island of Cuba when they fall out of favor with the regime," says Garcia-Diaz.

Almost anyone can get burned. Even Fidel Castro's close friend Max Marambio, a Chilean with impeccable socialist bona fides, had his company and assets expropriated after a financial dispute with his government partners in 2010.

Yet foreign investment keeps flowing into the country.

"Foreign investors in Cuba are like women who date cheaters," says Tania Mastrapa, a Washington, DC-based consultant who advises Cuban expats on reclaiming assets seized by the Castro regime. "Everyone thinks they're clever, that they're somehow special, that it won't happen to them."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Fakhre says investors would be wise to avoid Cuba altogether. He emphasizes that he's "not on a crusade to bad-talk Cuba," and thinks financing other people's deals from afar could be one way for those absolutely determined to invest in the Cuban market to do so without the risk of suffering his fate. But anyone thinking about going all-in on Cuba like he did would be making "a big mistake."

"Even if they don't confiscate anything, the Cubans are masters at contract frustration," Fakhre says. "They will increase your workers' salaries, jack up your electricity rates, basically fuck you in a different way, and make it very difficult for you to make any money."

Two-and-a-half years after he was arrested, Yacoubian says he was abruptly given 48 hours to gather his belongings and get ready to go home. Two days later, Cuban authorities drove Yacoubian to an immigration jail in Havana, where he spent another two days being processed for expulsion from the country.

Yacoubian's sister bought him a business class ticket back home — on Air Canada, not Cubana, just in case — and several hours later, they touched down at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Yacoubian says he was never told exactly why he was freed. He now lives in a "modest condo" in North York, Ontario.

Fakhre now lives in Marbella, Spain with his Cuban-born wife and two kids. He says his name is now in a commercial risk management database that has made it impossible for him to get a business loan or open a bank account. His confiscated property, he says, is probably gone forever.

"Cuba is very seductive, like a woman," Fakhre says. "She opens her legs easily, but once you put it in there, you find a series of razors waiting to cut you."

In Argentina, Obama Gives Speech That Cubans Deserved

Just three days ago in Havana, President Obama wined, dined and did "the wave" at a baseball game with the perpetrator of endless crimes against the Cuban people; asked us to bury the hatchet and forget the past; and to cut business deals with the Castro family and its military-owned monopolies.

Then, yesterday in Buenos Aires, President Obama condemned Argentina's former military junta; encouraged us never to forget the past and hold its perpetrators accountable; and lamented U.S. policies that supported that country's dictatorship.

It begs the questions:

Would Obama have promoted U.S. hotel deals with Argentina's military monopolies and General Videla's family, in the same way as he's doing today with Cuba's military monopolies and General Castro's family?

Would Obama have posed for a picture in front of the headquarters of the Argentine military dictatorship's SIDE or Triple A, as he did in front of Cuba's G-2 headquarters emblazoned with an image of Che?

Of course not.

We'd previously posted how Obama's Cuba speech paled in comparison to former President Jimmy Carter's, which was delivered at the University of Havana in 2002.

But instead compare Obama's Cuba speech to his own remarks two days later.

In Argentina, Obama demonstrated sympathy for the dictatorship's victims, singled out those who fought for freedom, and highlighted the key role that justice and accountability play in the process of healing and reconciliation.

In other words, he's practicing in Cuba the opposite of what he preached in Argentina.

It's the speech Cubans that deserved (even if delivered from the Memorial Cubano in Miami), but for whatever reason (e.g. ideological hypocrisy) were denied.

Read Obama's entire Argentina speech below: 

"It’s humbling to join President Macri at this poignant and beautiful memorial in honor of the victims of the Argentinian military dictatorship, and the suffering their families have endured.

This park is a tribute to their memory.  But it’s also a tribute to the bravery and tenacity of the parents, the spouses, siblings, and the children who love and remember them, and who refuse to give up until they get the truth and the justice they deserve.

To those families -- your relentlessness, your determination has made a difference. You’ve driven Argentina’s remarkable efforts to hold responsible those who perpetrated these crimes. You are the ones who will ensure that the past is remembered, and the promise of 'Nunca Más' is finally fulfilled. It takes courage for a society to address uncomfortable truths about the darker parts of its past. Confronting crimes committed by our own leaders, by our own people -- that can be divisive and frustrating. But it’s essential to moving forward; to building a peaceful and prosperous future in a country that respects the rights of all of its citizens.

Today, we also commemorate those who fought side-by-side with Argentinians for human rights. The scientists who answered the call from the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo to help identify victims in Argentina and around the world. The journalists, like Bob Cox, who bravely reported on human rights abuses despite threats to them and their families.  

The diplomats, like Tex Harris, who worked in the U.S. Embassy here to document human rights abuses and identify the disappeared. And like Patt Derian, the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights for President Jimmy Carter -- a President who understood that human rights is a fundamental element of foreign policy. That understanding is something that has influenced the way we strive to conduct ourselves in the world ever since.  

There’s been controversy about the policies of the United States early in those dark days, and the United States, when it reflects on what happened here, has to examine its own policies as well, and its own past. Democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don’t live up to the ideals that we stand for; when we’ve been slow to speak out for human rights. And that was the case here.

But because of the principles of Americans who served our government, our diplomats documented and described many instances of human rights violations. In 2002, as part of a two-year effort, the U.S. declassified and released thousands of those records, many of which were used as evidence to hold the perpetrators accountable.

Today, in response to a request from President Macri, and to continue helping the families of the victims find some of the truth and justice they deserve, I can announce that the United States government will declassify even more documents from that period, including, for the first time, military and intelligence records -- because I believe we have a responsibility to confront the past with honesty and transparency.

A memorial like this speaks to the responsibilities that all of us have. We cannot forget the past. But when we find the courage to confront it, when we find the courage to change that past, that’s when we build a better future. That’s what the families of the victims have done. And the United States of America wants to continue to be a partner in your efforts. Because what happened here in Argentina is not unique to Argentina, and it's not confined to the past. Each of us have a responsibility each and every day to make sure that wherever we see injustice, wherever we see rule of law flouted, honest witnesses, that we're speaking out and that we're examining our own hearts and taking responsibility to make this a better place for our children and our grandchildren."

Cuban Democracy Activists Deliver 10,000 New Signatures for Varela Project

Thursday, March 24, 2016
From 14ymedio:

Activists Deliver 10,000 Varela Project Signatures to Cuba’s National Assembly

On Thursday morning, several activists delivered 10,000 signatures on the Varela Project, which are in addition to the 25,404 signatures previously provided to this legislative body. Participating in the delivery were Rosa Maria Rodriguez from the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL), Saily Navarro and Rosa Maria Paya, members of the #CubaDecide campaign, along with former political prisoner of the 2003 Black Spring, Felix Navarro.

The dissidents transported the signatures to the headquarters of the National Assembly on 42nd Street in Havana’s Playa district, in a box on which was written “Proyecto Varela” with the logo of #CubaDecide. In the afternoon Rosa Maria Paya held a press conference in the municipality of Cerro, about the current status of the initiative, which was promoted by her father Oswaldo Paya, leader of the MCL.

The Varela Project seeks to promote political reforms on the Island aimed at “greater individual freedoms,” according the press release from its organizers. The text reaffirms the “constitutional right” of Cubans to push for a change to “democratic pluralism.” To achieve this, “more than 35,000 Cubans, with residence in the country, signed their names,” along with their identity card numbers “as a way of supporting the Varela Project.”

After delivery the of the signatures, Rosa María Payá, president of the Latin American Network of Youth for Democracy, said that “we are advocating for them to respond to thousands of signatories of the Varela Project and to the rest of the Cuban people, with the holding of a binding plebiscite for citizens to decide their future in freedom.”

Courtesy of Translating Cuba.

WSJ Editorial: About Those Cuban Political Prisoners

From The Wall Street Journal's Editorial Board:

About Those Cuban Prisoners

Castro invited a list, dissidents provided one. Did Obama follow up?

Cuban dissidents were grateful for a two-hour audience with President Obama at the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Tuesday. In a police state that seldom allows influential visitors access to opposition activists, Mr. Obama’s insistence on the meeting was a much-needed sign of solidarity with the pro-democracy movement.

But if the Cuban opposition had any expectations that the U.S. President would intervene on their behalf to free political prisoners, they have so far been disappointed. During a joint press conference with President Obama in Havana on Monday, a journalist asked Raúl Castro why he won’t release Cuba’s political prisoners. Mr. Castro countered: “After this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners, and if we have those political prisoners, they will be released before tonight ends.”

The Castros have claimed for decades that there are no political prisoners in Cuba, though there have been tens of thousands. And within the hour, authoritative lists of dissidents doing time in Castro lock-up were all over social media. The next day at the U.S. Embassy, Mr. Obama asked Elizardo Sánchez, the head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, for his organization’s list. The Cuban handed him 89 names. After the meeting Mr. Obama joined Raúl Castro at a baseball game.

The White House isn’t saying what happened to the list. A spokesman referred us to comments from deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, who said in a Tuesday press briefing that he has “shared many such lists with the Cuban government over the course of my two and a half years now of dealing with them.”

But that was before Mr. Castro publicly offered to release the prisoners if he was presented with names. That Mr. Obama apparently did not take him up on it won’t go unnoticed by the dissidents or the regime.

Freedom House: Release Cuban Independent Journalist Immediately

From Freedom House:

Cuba: Release Independent Journalist Immediately

In response to the violent abduction of independent journalist Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca, whose whereabouts are unknown, Freedom House issued the following statement:

“The Cuban government should inform Valle Roca’s family of his whereabouts and release him immediately,” said Carlos Ponce, director for Latin America programs. “Despite President Castro’s claims to defend human rights, the Cuban government continues its blatant repression of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to peacefully protest.”


On March 20, Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca was abducted and detained by the Cuban secret police in an incident captured on video by Voice of America, prior to President Obama’s visit. Valle Roca was previously beaten and arrested for his work as an independent journalist. Valle Roca is one of the grandchildren of the late Blas Roca Calderío, founding member and leader of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).

Cuba is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2016, Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2015, and Not Free in Freedom on the Net 2015.

Newsmax Prime: Mauricio Claver-Carone on Obama's Cuba Trip

CHC Editor Mauricio Claver-Carone discusses President Obama's trip to Cuba on Newsmax Prime.

Click below (or here) to watch:

Pro-Cuban Democracy Activist Blasts Obama for Cuba Visit

From The Washington Free Beacon:

Pro-Cuban Democracy Activist Blasts Obama for Cuba Visit

Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of Cuba Democracy Advocates, blasted President Barack Obama in an interview Monday on MSNBC.

Host Thomas Roberts asked Claver-Carone if he thought Obama’s trip to the communist country could help bring about change.

“Well, the bare minimum for President Obama on his trip would be the standard set by President Carter in 2002, obviously as a former president, when he actually spoke on live television to all Cubans and he recognized the Varela Project at the time, and Oswaldo Payá, the courageous democracy leader who actually gathered over 25,000 signatures asking for fundamental freedoms in Cuba,” Claver-Carone said. “I know that Oswaldo Payá was then murdered a couple of years ago under the regime of General Raul Castro.”

After noting that many protesters who were supposed to meet with President Obama have gone missing over the past couple of days, Claver-Carone later criticized Starwood Hotels for their new deal with the Cuban government to begin running hotels in Cuba.

“One of the things that we’re seeing is this Starwood Hotel deal. This is a deal that’s being done directly with the Cuban military, with Raul Castro’s son-in-law, General Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas,” Claver-Carone said.

“If we would have done that in the 1980s, say, President Reagan would have been cutting deals with Gen. Pinochet’s son-in-law, business deals, President Obama would have been on a college campus protesting that and yet somehow we’re getting this news today like this is OK. We’re entrenching, doing, cutting business deals with regimes that violate every single international labor convention and fundamental human rights standard.”

The Good, Bad, Ugly and 'Pure Evil' of Obama's Cuba Trip

Wednesday, March 23, 2016
By Mike Gonzalez in The Federalist:

What’s Good, Bad, And Ugly About Obama’s Cuba Trip

Dissident leader Antonio Rodiles, himself beaten and detained on Monday along with his wife, told me President Obama’s Cuba visit had occasioned ‘a festival of repression.’

Any truly comprehensive analysis of President Obama’s trip to Cuba must include the good, the bad, and the ugly. Only this time, because we’re dealing with the Castros, a new category should be added to the Eastwood trope: “the pure evil.”

Cuba Visit: The Good

Even strong critics of President Obama’s visit, like me, readily admit it was good for him to say—in a speech televised to the Cuban people, with dictator Raul Castro in attendance—that all people, even the wretched souls who live under communism, have rights.

“Every person should be equal under the law,” Obama said. “Citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear — to organize, and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully, and that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights. I believe that every person should have the freedom to practice their faith peacefully and publicly. And, yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections.”

Addressing himself directly to Castro, Obama added: “I am also confident that you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people — and their capacity to speak, and assemble, and vote for their leaders.” As difficult as it may be for some to believe, these are words most Cubans, 77 percent of whom have known nothing but communism, have never heard.

Not every dissident I spoke with yesterday liked President Obama’s speech, but I think the dissident leader known simply as “Antunez” put it best when he told me on the phone, “Independent of the fact that I think the trip has been a big mistake, it was good that he urged the dictator to respect human rights. It was an important lesson for the dictator.” It is important to note that Antunez, whose name is Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, did not attend the dissidents’ meeting with Obama to protest the visit.

Sadly, that’s all the good there was.

Cuba Visit: The Bad

President Obama’s visit has legitimized Castro’s illegitimate rule, and will help him perpetuate his family’s future grip on power. This is of much more importance than Obama’s words, and something for which the neither the president nor his foreign policy Svengali, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, have an answer.

Even if Obama’s speech galvanizes some brave Cubans to demand their rights, the Castro Pretorian guard will crush them with impunity. We know this because that happened while Obama was in Cuba. Sources on the island said some Cubans gathered spontaneously after the speech to demand the rights enumerated in it, only to be brutally repressed by the Castro security forces. Yet the president not only did not leave in protest, but he failed to voice any objections or even mention it, at least publicly.

Indeed, during the three days of the Obama visit, dissidents were beaten, arrested, dragged through streets, stripped naked, and threatened with the rape of their daughters. Dissident leader Antonio Rodiles, himself beaten and detained on Monday along with his wife, told me the Obama visit had occasioned “a festival of repression.”

Given this, and that Obama kept obsequiously repeating that the United States had “neither the capacity nor the intention to impose change on Cuba,” Castro surely feels he has carte blanche to continue to impose his will through brutality, as he and his brother Fidel have done for 56 years.

While the vast majority of commentators speak of Fidel, 89, and Raul, 84, the Castros to keep in mind are Raul’s son, Col. Alejandro Castro Espin, 50, his daughter, Mariela Castro Espin, 53, and his son-in-law, Gen. Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas, 54.

Alejandro is an unrepentant ideologue who sports a Lenin mustache and goatee and whose 2009 book, “The Empire of Terror,” was an anti-American screed. An intelligence officer, he speaks in the hackneyed jargon of a Marxist-Leninist and is due to inherit political power after Raul is gone.

Mariela is a member of Cuba’s rubber-stamp National Assembly whose position as an LGBT activist will ensure that Western useful idiots continue to lionize the Revolution. As for Rodriguez, he heads GAESA, the holding company that controls almost all of the Cuban economy. As Bloomberg put it recently, “Want to do business with Cuba? Prepare to partner with the general.”

By throwing a line to the Castros just as the Venezuelan sugar daddy ran out of money (socialism always does that), Obama has all but ensured (barring a reversal by the next president) that we will have a brutal anti-American corporatist regime just 90 miles away.

Cuba Visit: The Ugly

This section could take thousands of words. There’s so much from which to pick, from Obama’s incessant caveats in his speech (“Let me tell you what I believe. I can’t force you to agree…”) to his egregious comparison of the American Revolution to the Cuban one. But by far the ugliest was his gratuitous appearance with Raul at a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba’s national team.

Here was the president, along with his entire family (even granny!) enjoying himself next to the man who has aided and abetted anti-Americanism worldwide, who represses his people, who continues to give sanctuary to U.S. fugitives, even cop killers, and who harbors terrorists—all on the day that our ally, Belgium, suffered a devastating terrorist attack and the whole alliance looked in vain for leadership from the leader of the free world.

We learned later through the British news agency Reuters that Rodrigo Londono, the leader of the Colombian terrorist group FARC (designated as a terrorist group by Obama’s own State Department), was also at the game, along with 40 other terrorists.

Cuba Visit: The Pure Evil

This one is easy. When Castro told an American newsman there were no political prisoners in Cuba, he was taking malevolence to a new pitch of darkness. The ever-helpful Rhodes explained what Castro meant at a press conference in Havana Monday evening: “It’s their belief that they are not political prisoners, that they are in prison for various crimes and offenses against Cuban law.”

Thanks, Ben. You must be very proud.

Must-Read Tweets: Kasparov on Obama's Cuba Policy

From Russian democracy leader and former world chess champion, Garry Kasparov:

Victims of Communism in Cuba: 73,000

From CNS News:

Victims of Communism in Cuba: 73,000

As President Barack Obama currently visits Cuba, it merits noting that the Communist regime south of Florida has killed an estimated 73,000 people since the dictator Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, according to the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which was established by an act of Congress in 1993.

The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which runs the Museum of Communism, is a non-profit group created “to educate this generation and future generations about the ideology, history, and legacy of communism,” reads its website. It also is building a memorial “to commemorate the more than 100 million victims of communism” worldwide.

In its Facts, Figures & Statistics section on Cuba, the Museum of Communism (online) states that there have been 73,000 victims of communism in Cuba since 1959.

The U.S. State Department describes Cuba as a “totalitarian communist state; current government assumed power by force on January 1, 1959.” There is only one political party allowed in Cuba, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC).

The State Department further says, “Cuba is an authoritarian state that routinely employs repressive methods against internal dissent and monitors and responds to perceived threats to authority. These methods may include physical and electronic surveillance, as well as detention and interrogation of both Cuban citizens and foreign visitors. Human rights conditions in Cuba remain poor, as the Cuban government limits fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”

In addition to the 73,000 victims of communism in Cuba estimated by the Museum of Communism, Political Science Prof. R.J. Rummel (d. 3/2/2014) of the University of Hawaii, a specialist in genocide,  provided a mid-range estimate of the number of victims as 73,000, for the years 1959 to 1987.

In the low range, he estimated 35,000, and in the high range, 141,000 victims. Rummel provides a range because, as he explains, “even were we to have total access to all communist archives we still would not be able to calculate precisely how many the communists murdered.”

According to the Black Book of Communism, one of the most authoritative books on communist atrocities, and published by Harvard University Press, shortly after taking power Fidel Castro organized an extensive security apparatus.

His younger brother, Raul Castro, the current dictator of Cuba, “reinstated military tribunals, and soon the firing squad became a judicial weapon.”

The first security group was called the State Security Department, and its nickname was the “Red Gestapo,” reports the Black Book of Communism. The Red Gestapo hunted down Castro’s enemies and established forced-labor camps.

The military Unit of Production Assistance (1964-67) used prisoners as a labor force and also set up “concentration camps” because everyone “was considered a ‘potential danger to society,’” reported the Black Book of Communism. One of the camps, El Manbu, “contained more than 3,000 people in the 1980s.”

WSJ Editorial: Obama’s Havana Promenade

From The Wall Street Journal's Editorial Board:

Obama’s Havana Promenade

The President and Raúl Castro trade tales of moral equivalence.

President Obama arrived in Havana on Sunday for an historic visit that is part of his final-year victory lap of accommodation with U.S. adversaries. We wish there were more evidence that his rapprochement with the Castro brothers will do as much for the Cuban people as he hopes it will for his legacy.

Mr. Obama wants the world to see this moment as comparable to Ronald Reagan’s 1988 trip to Moscow, but there is a crucial difference. When Reagan went to Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev had already concluded that the Soviets had lost the Cold War and had begun his perestroika reforms. Raúl and Fidel Castro and their military regime have been able to pocket Mr. Obama’s diplomatic and economic blessings without giving up any control.

As long ago as the mid-1990s we endorsed an end to the trade embargo in order to ease the misery of the Cuban people. But that would not require this week’s spectacle in Havana in which Raúl and Barack are palling around like old comrades. Nor did it require Mr. Obama on Monday to balance his pro forma criticism of Cuba’s human-rights violations with the concession that Mr. Castro also has some good points about America’s ills—such as the lack of universal health insurance.

Mr. Castro, no political fool, chimed in that Cuba has equal pay for equal work for women and men—unlike some other countries. The American President didn’t point out that Cuba’s pay is the equality of mass poverty except for political elites.

Mr. Obama is gambling that engaging Cuba with American business and tourists will gradually erode Cuba’s political control. But gradual may be a long time. “Give me a list” of political prisoners, Mr. Castro said at their dual press conference, “and I will release them immediately.” The Cuban American National Foundation immediately released a list of “47 verified political prisoners.” Will they be freed before Mr. Obama leaves town?

Human-rights groups estimate that last year there were more than 8,600 political arrests in Cuba, followed by more than 2,555 in the first two months of 2016. The government arrested more than 200 dissidents in a broad crackdown over the weekend, and a procession by the peaceful dissidents known as the Ladies in White on Palm Sunday in Havana was disrupted by police only hours before Mr. Obama arrived. The ladies were roughed up and arrested.

As for ending Cuba’s economic isolation, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Canada have been trading with, and investing in, Cuba for more than two decades. The problem is that the state controls the economy to a greater extent than any government outside of North Korea. Private foreign investors can only be minority owners with government entities, which are seeking new capital without new management.

Foreign companies on the island aren’t allowed to contract with workers. All Cubans are hired and paid by the state, which takes their hard currency wages and pays them in pesos. Employees may not organize into unions. It is illegal for a foreign employer to compensate a worker with something extra for a job well-done. Foreign investors can be stripped of their assets and jailed without due process.

But perhaps we’re missing Cuba’s historic turn toward freedom, which Mr. Obama keeps promising is just around the corner. On Monday he announced that Google has “a deal to start setting up more Wi-Fi access and broadband access on the island,” adding that “change is going to happen here, and I think Raúl Castro understands that.” Thanks to Chinese investment Wi-Fi is already available on the island. The issue is whether individual Cubans will be allowed to use it uncensored, which they currently cannot.

Americans of goodwill sincerely hope that Mr. Obama’s embrace of the Cuban dictatorship will lead to greater freedom for average Cubans. So far it’s merely enhanced the prestige and power of the dictators.

Obama's False Promise of a New Day in Cuba

By Mercedes Schlapp in Fox News:

Obama's false promise of a new day in Cuba

President Obama spoke of a “new day” in Cuba Monday, but he chose to ignore the tragic and oppressive past decades of the old Castro regime. A “new day” in Cuba cannot be achieved when the old tyrannical guard still maintains absolute power over its subjugated people.

On his historic trip to the island Obama talked about engagement with the Cuban people, but the Cuban government only allows for strict engagement on their terms and with those who strictly follow and support their communist ideology and its repressive military. The president’s utopian mentality fails to align itself with the realities of a system and government that has suffocated the freedoms of the Cuban people for decades.

Tuesday, in his speech to the Cuban people, Obama stated: “the future of the Cuba has to be in the hands of the Cuban people.”  The reality is that as of today the future of Cuba belongs to the Cuban regime, the military and the Communist Party apparatchiks that are the only ones that benefit financially from any trade or exchange with the United States. As one Cuban said anonymously, “the change is for the government and their children, not for the Cuban people.”

As a Cuban American whose father was imprisoned and tortured in Cuba by the Castro brothers for over 6 years, it is very difficult for me to understand how a United States president who should stand on the side of democracy has decided that appeasement of an intractable dictatorship is the best way to promote “change” in Cuba. The Cuban government has made no reforms within their own structure of government and military. As with his approach to Iran, the president’s willingness to reward corrupt and evil behavior is one reason why an overwhelmingly majority of Americans do not trust him and his party on issues of foreign policy.

Watching Monday’s press conference in Havana, Cuba was disturbing. The dictator Raul Castro brazenly criticized the United States by presenting a holier-than-thou comparison that his corrupt regime provides “free” health care and education for the Cuban people and equal pay for women. Castro should be the last one defending his regime’s record when on the day of Obama’s arrival, his thugs brutalized and imprisoned political dissidents, including the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco), who came out to peacefully protest the regime.

Raul Castro’s intransigence was further put on display when CNN reporter Jim Acosta asked the first question about the political prisoners, and he angrily responded: “Give me a list and I’ll release them. If we have those political prisoners they will be released before tonight ends.”

Moments later, the Cuban American National Foundation released a list of 47 Cuban political prisoners. Raul Castro must have ignored the letter. His actions show how the old communist dictator, echoing the dark days of the Cold War, is still able to intimidate and destroy his own people for the sake of failed ideology.

Obama’s Cuba visit and Raul Castro’s actions are a façade. The world witnessed semi-engagement between the two leaders during the president’s visit. But official meetings, a stroll in Old Havana, a baseball game, Cuban food, cigars, and freshly painted mansions will not in any way cure the ills of a failed communist system whose people are starving and living in misery. Doesn’t Obama know the real secret about the Castro regime? The secret is that the regime is not about to change. And that’s not the only secret. It is also impossible to move forward when the Cuban government continues to monitor the Cuban people to ensure that they stay in line and voice no opposition.

Despite Obama’s attempt to foster a new relationship with Cuba, tens of thousands of Cubans are still fleeing to the United States in record numbers. Despite the thaw in relations between the two countries the Cuban peoples’ desire to escape from Cuba has not diminished.

President Obama is hoping to “close a chapter” of Cold War history. What he fails to recognize is that it cannot end until the remnants of the old Castro regime—who have brutalized, tortured, and stolen the private property of millions of Cubans—are completely removed from power.

If Cuba wants better relations with the United States, we should negotiate the deal on our terms and demand no less than free and open elections and the release of political prisoners for the sake and future of the Cuban people and the freedom of future generations. Instead, Castro is the one making all the demands, including ending the five-decade long economic embargo and returning the Guantanamo Naval Base.

If a Democrat winds up in charge of the White House next year he or she will surely double-down on Obama’s weak deal with Cuba, which means we can expect more appeasement and no significant change from the Cuban government while human rights abuses continue on the island.

If Obama were really serious about ending this chapter of Cold War history, standing on our principles and negotiating a stronger deal would have been the right place to start.

Must-Watch: Cuban Dissidents Interrupt ESPN Broadcast, Chant "Down With Castro!"

This afternoon, Cuban dissidents interrupted an ESPN broadcast chanting "Freedom for Political Prisoners!" and "Down With Castro!"

They were then intercepted and dragged off by secret police officials.

Click below (or here) to watch:

ESPN Host Shares Pamphlet Thrown by Cuban Dissidents

Did Obama's Cuba Speech Pass the Carter Litmus?

President Obama had a good moment today. But not enough to justify his trip.

In a nationally televised speech in Cuba, he told Raul Castro "not [to] fear the different voices of the Cuban people -- and their capacity to speak, and assemble, and vote for their leaders."

Yet, unfortunately, Obama then spoke about rights and freedoms in general terms -- as what he believes -- rather than as universal rights.

"So let me tell you what I believe. I can't force you to agree, but you should know what I think," Obama hesitantly said as he began to read off a list of rights.

The same thing happened yesterday during the official press conference.

Pressed by CNN's Jim Acosta, Raul Castro fell apart trying to answer a question about political prisoners in Cuba. Another good moment.

But then after the press conference, Obama's Deputy National Security Adviser, Ben Rhodes, seemingly tried to give Castro cover, "it’s their belief that they are not political prisoners, that they are in prison for various crimes and offenses against Cuban law."

Not to mention former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Carlos Gutierrez, who clumsily sought to downplay human rights in Cuba (in favor of business interests) by parroting Castro's contortions.

"Somebody mentioned today, there's a lot of factors -- 50, 60 different factors of what human rights are," said Gutierrez.

Yes, that "somebody" was General Raul Castro.

Let's compare Obama's speech to that of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who in 2002 also spoke to the Cuban people in a nationally-televised speech from the University of Havana.

Granted, Obama's persona and the historical timing of his speech are different than Carter's, but that should have given Obama even more leverage -- not less.

Moreover, Carter's speech was also filled with apologies and mea culpas. But at least it reflected clarity in key universal values and highlighted the courageous efforts of Cuba's democracy movement.

Here's an excerpt of Carter's remarks:

"Except for the stagnant relations between the United States and Cuba, the world has been changing greatly, and especially in Latin America and the Caribbean. As late as 1977, when I became president, there were only two democracies in South America, and one in Central America. Today, almost every country in the Americas is a democracy.

I am not using a U.S. definition of 'democracy.' The term is embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Cuba signed in 1948, and it was defined very precisely by all the other countries of the Americas in the Inter-American Democratic Charter last September. It is based on some simple premises: all citizens are born with the right to choose their own leaders, to define their own destiny, to speak freely, to organize political parties, trade unions and nongovernmental groups, and to have fair and open trials.

Only such governments can be members of the OAS, join a Free Trade Area of the Americas, or participate in the Summits of the Americas. Today, any regime that takes power by unconstitutional means will be ostracized, as was shown in the rejection of the Venezuelan coup last month.

Democracy is a framework that permits a people to accommodate changing times and correct past mistakes. Since our independence, the United States has rid itself of slavery, granted women the right to vote, ended almost a century of legal racial discrimination, and just this year reformed its election laws to correct problems we faced in Florida 18 months ago.

Cuba has adopted a socialist government where one political party dominates, and people are not permitted to organize any opposition movements. Your constitution recognizes freedom of speech and association, but other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government.

My nation is hardly perfect in human rights. A very large number of our citizens are incarcerated in prison, and there is little doubt that the death penalty is imposed most harshly on those who are poor, black, or mentally ill. For more than a quarter-century, we have struggled unsuccessfully to guarantee the basic right of universal health care for our people. Still, guaranteed civil liberties offer every citizen an opportunity to change these laws.

That fundamental right is also guaranteed to Cubans. It is gratifying to note that Articles 63 and 88 of your constitution allows citizens to petition the National Assembly to permit a referendum to change laws if 10,000 or more citizens sign it. I am informed that such an effort, called the Varela Project, has gathered sufficient signatures and has presented such a petition to the National Assembly. When Cubans exercise this freedom to change laws peacefully by a direct vote, the world will see that Cubans, and not foreigners, will decide the future of this country."

In comparison, Obama's speech fell short.

CFR: Burying Cuba's Regime

By Elliott Abrams of The Council on Foreign Relations:

Burying Cuba

President Obama’s speech to the Cuban people today included many nice lines about democracy and human rights.

But the ideological content was found in this line, early in the speech: “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.”

If only that were so.

The last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas, in the Obama view, is apparently the American embargo of Castro’s Cuba. But I would beg to differ. The last remnant is instead the communist regime that continues to deny freedom to the Cuban people.

Toward the end of his speech the President says “The history of the United States and Cuba encompass revolution and conflict; struggle and sacrifice; retribution and, now, reconciliation. It is time, now, for us to leave the past behind.” Again, this is a nice phrase, but its content is all wrong. The critical thing about leaving the past behind is not whether the U.S. Interests Section is henceforth called an embassy, or whether cruise ships can soon dock in Cuba. The critical thing would be leaving behind communism: no free elections, no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press, a court system subordinate to the Party, an economy whose wealth is all directed toward and controlled by the Party, and all the other elements that make communism loathsome.

In the months since the Obama opening to Cuba, the regime has gotten stronger. In exchange for the loosening of all regulations about traveling to and spending money in Cuba, the United States and the people of Cuba have gotten nothing. The regime is led not only by Raul Castro, but by his son and son-in-law, who are obviously preparing a communist-style monarchy: the ruling family stays forever. When Americans stay at a hotel in Cuba, they are giving their money to GAESA, a holding company belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces that is run by General Luis Alberto Rodríguez, President Raúl Castro’s son-in-law. American firms investing in Cuba will have the Army and the Castros as their partners.

Cuba is not the only country in the hemisphere that is not free, but it is the one being visited and celebrated by Mr. Obama. If only he would truly try to bury the “last remnant of the Cold War” by bringing freedom to Cuba instead of making life easier for its communist regime, that would be cause for celebration. This visit is not.

Castros Welcome Obama to Cuba With Slap in the Face

Tuesday, March 22, 2016
By Marc Thiessen in The Washington Post:

Castros welcome Obama to Cuba with a slap in the face

President Obama went sightseeing in Old Havana, savoring the adulation of pro-regime crowds welcoming him on streets that had been whitewashed for his visit. But a few hours before his arrival, the true nature of the dictatorship he is embracing reared its ugly head, as hundreds of uniformed security personnel attacked and arrested peaceful protesters leaving Palm Sunday Mass.

A group of dissidents known as the Ladies in White was met outside Havana’s Santa Rita church by an organized crowd of Castro loyalists shouting insults and revolutionary slogans. Then, The Post reports, Castro’s secret police pounced on the women and “half-dragged, half-carried them to waiting buses,” while men marching with the women “were chased, thrown to the curb and handcuffed.” As they were arrested, the crowd chanted “This is Fidel’s street!”

This was a slap in the face to President Obama — a display intended to send a clear message that, despite his normalization of relations, nothing has changed in Cuba.

How little respect do the Castro brothers have for Obama? This month, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes met in Miami with Carlos Amel Oliva, head of the youth wing of a major dissident organization on the island. When Oliva returned to Cuba, he was detained by the regime for “antisocial behavior.” His was just one of 526 political detentions in the first two weeks of March leading up to Obama’s trip.

Obama had promised not to visit Cuba under such conditions. In 2014, Obama said he would visit Cuba only if “I with confidence can say that we’re seeing some progress in the liberty and freedom,” adding: “If we’re going backwards, then there’s not much reason for me to be there. I’m not interested in just validating the status quo.”

Well, Mr. President, Cuba is heading backwards. Repression on the island has increased dramatically since Obama’s new policy of engagement with the Castro regime was announced. According to Amnesty International, political detentions in Cuba are at the highest level in “many years” and “Cuban human rights activists are at increased risk of detention or harassment from the authorities.”

Last December, 126 Cuban former political prisoners wrote Obama a letter to report that “Violent beatings against activists peacefully assembling have escalated and worsened over 2015. Politically motivated arbitrary detentions in Cuba as of the end of November 2015 are [at] a documented total of 7,686 and are on track to break the previous record set in 2014 with 8,899 arrests. Over the course of this year, the number of detentions have escalated: 178 in January; 492 in February; 610 in March; 338 in April; 641 in May; 563 in June; 674 in July; 768 in August; 882 in September; 1,093 in October; and 1,447 in November.”

“We the undersigned are political prisoners who collectively have served 1,945 years in prison for resisting the Castro dictatorship and fighting for democracy in our homeland of Cuba,” they wrote, adding: “Based on our history and experience as political prisoners under Castro’s totalitarian regime,” they wrote, “the new Cuba policy established by your Administration has been a regrettable mistake. This will prolong the life of the dictatorship, is worsening the human rights situation there, marginalizing the democratic opposition and compromising US national security.”

Despite this increased political repression — and despite his own promise not to “validate” this repression by visiting while it persists — the president is in Havana anyway.

Well, maybe Obama is planning to use his visit in Havana to deliver a “tear down this wall” message? Don’t hold your breath. According to Rhodes, the United States is no longer in favor of an end to the Castro regime. Speaking to reporters before Obama’s visit, Rhodes said: “The difference here is that in the past, because of certain U.S. policies, the message that was delivered in that regard either overtly or implicitly suggested that the U.S. was seeking to pursue regime change, that the U.S. was seeking to essentially overturn the government in Cuba or that the U.S. thought that we could dictate the political direction of Cuba.” Obama’s message in Havana, Rhodes said, is “that the United States is not a hostile nation seeking regime change” and the president “will make very clear that that’s up to the Cuban people.”

Good God.

Obama’s message to the Cuban people is that we don’t want regime change in Havana? And why is a senior White House official echoing regime propaganda that the “U.S. thought that we could dictate the political direction of Cuba”? There is only one thing stopping the Cuban people from choosing the political direction of Cuba — and that is the Castro regime.

Cuba is, along with North Korea, the most repressive totalitarian regime left on the face of the earth. Obama’s visit is a betrayal of the dissidents on the island who are risking their lives for democracy and human rights. As Guillermo Fariñas, a dissident journalist and winner of the European Union’s 2010 Sakharov Prize for human rights, put it after normalization was announced: “We live in daily fear that we will be killed by the fascist government. And now, the U.S. — our ally — turns its back on us and prefers to sit with our killers.”

MSNBC: Obama's Cuba Trip Met With Criticism

CHC Editor Mauricio Claver-Carone discusses President Obama's trip to Cuba with MSNBC's Thomas Roberts.

Click below (or here) to watch:

Caught on Film: Arrest of Christian Pastor in Cuba

Just hours before President Obama arrived in Cuba, Castro's secret police arrested Reverend Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso, placed his wife and daughters under house arrest, and surrounded their church with police.

Click here to view statement from Christian Solidarity Worldwide ("CSW").

Click here to view statement by U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Chair.

Below are newly received images of his arrest:

ABC News: 304 Cuban Dissidents Arrested Ahead of Obama Visit

Monday, March 21, 2016
Great reporting from ABC News:

304 Dissidents Arrested Ahead of Obama Visit, Cuba Human Rights Group Says

The head of Cuba’s leading human rights organization tells ABC News that 304 people were arrested for criticizing the Cuban government just days before President Obama’s historic visit to the island.

The Cuban Commission on Human Rights provided a list of names and the locations where the arrests took place -- 104 of them in Havana and others at locations throughout Cuba.

“Since last year, we’re talking about thousands” of arrests, Elizardo Sanchez told ABC. “The worst thing is that the Cuban government has unleashed a huge wave of political oppression, and during Obama’s visit this morning they were arresting people and this will go on for the rest of the day and probably tomorrow.”

The crackdown underscores persistent challenges to freedom of speech and peaceful dissent inside Cuba, despite rapid normalization of diplomatic ties with the United States. The report also contrasts with Cuba President Raul Castro’s insistence at a press conference Monday denying detention of any political opponents.

“We defend human rights,” Castro said. “We oppose political manipulation and double standards in the approach to human rights.”

Obama, who will meet with Sanchez and fellow activists Guillermo Farinas and Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia on Tuesday, challenged Castro’s assessment in real-time.

“I’ve met with people who have been subject to arbitrary detention,” he said, “and that’s something that I generally have to speak on because I hear from them directly and I know what it means for them.”

ABC News visited the make-shift, and technically-outlawed office of the CCHR on a pothole-ridden street in the outskirts of Havana.

The men told ABC’s Jonathan Karl that they intend to urge the president “not to let himself be manipulated” by the Castro regime.

“Every public or private space where he can be, sharing with ordinary citizens or the members of the government, he should mention words or phrases like, ‘total respect of the decency of human rights,’ ‘multi-party system,’ ‘freedom of expression,’ ‘right to information,’ ‘freedom of conscience,’ ‘tolerance of ideas.’” Guillermo Farinas said.

“I believe that if Obama keeps mentioning those words publicly, the Cuban government will not look at him as complicit with the Cuban government but an ally of freedom,” Farinas said.

Sanchez, Farinas and Garcia said they have spent a combined 27 years is Cuban prisons for speaking out against the regime.

"Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” said Garcia, who has spent 8 1/2 years in prison and is still on parole. He told ABC he is not afraid of being arrested again for speaking to American media.

The activists said the human rights situation has actually gotten worse over the past year, with an increase in what they called “low-grade repression” -- short-term and arbitrary arrests of people seen as critical of the government. Most detentions usually last anywhere from a couple of hours to a few days.

In addition, there has been an increase in the number of political prisoners serving long-term sentences of several years.

The dissidents said the symbolism of their Obama meeting is incredibly important and plan to widely distribute photographs throughout Cuba.

“It will encourage people,” Garcia said, “because it will tell many Cubans that you’re not alone. And nothing paralyzes a Cuban more than making them feel that they are alone.”

Images: Three Ways Not to Promote 'Change' in Cuba

1. Take an official picture in front of Castro's secret police headquarters, emblazoned with Che's image.

2. Chat up Raul Castro's dauphin, Col. Alejandro Castro, who oversees the regime's security apparatus and is being groomed as heir to the family dictatorship.

3. Enthusiastically greet Gustavo Machin, a Cuban intelligence official expelled from the U.S. in 2002 as persona non grata, and a key conspirator in the murder of democracy leader Oswaldo Paya.

Here's a List of Cuban Political Prisoners for Raul Castro

Note: This list doesn't include Ladies in White leader, Berta Soler, Antonio Rodiles, Claudio Fuentes, Ailer Gongalez, Rev. Mario Felix Lleonart and other Cuban dissident leaders arrested this weekend.

From The Washington Free Beacon:

Raul Castro Wants a List of Political Prisoners in Cuba. Here It is.

In response to a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta today, Raul Castro said that if he is given a list with the names of Cuban political prisoners, he will free them today:

Just mention the list. What political prisoners. Give me a name or names or when after this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners, and if we have those political prisoners they will be released before tonight ends.

Somehow I don’t think Acosta will be speaking with the Cuban dictator again anytime soon. But President Obama will be. He should take the man at his word and pass along this (partial) list from the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba. Suppose that in an hour or so over dinner Obama were to say, “About those names you mentioned—for starters, Liusban John Utra, Ricardo Pelier Frómeta, Eglis Heredia Rodríguez, Daniel Ernesto Dufó Preval, Yoelkis Rosabal Flores, Amado Verdecia Díaz, Mario Ronaide Figueroa Dieguez, María del Carmen Cala Aguilera, Yosvani Arostegui Armenteros, Santiago Cisneros Castellanos, Enrique Bartolomé Cámbara, Edilberto Arzuaga Alcalá, David Fernández Cardoso, Maikel Mediaceja Ramos, Laudelino Rodríguez Mendoza, Yosvani Isaguirre, Alexeis Serrano Avila, Niorbis Rivera Guerra, Fernando Isael Peña Tamayo, Leonardo Coba, Silverio Portal Contrera, Osvaldo Rodriguez Acosta, Osvaldo Rodriguez Castillo, Mario Alberto Hernández Leyva, Orlando Contrera Aguilar, Osmani Mendoza Ferriol, Augusto Guerra Márquez, Ricardo González Sendiña, Ariel González Sendiña, Leudis Reyes Cuza, Reinier Rodríguez Mendoza, Ernesto Ortega Sarduy, Isaín López Luna, Warley Pérez Cruz, Nora Lisset Hernández Bulís, Jordys Manuel Dosil Fong, Alexander Alan Rodríguez, Emilio Serrano Rodríguez, Carlos Amaury Calderín Roca, Misael Delgado Romeu, Yoanny Thomas González, Elieski Roque Chongo, Alfredo Limonte Rodríguez, Joel Mariano Bencomo Martínez, Vladimir Morera Bacallao, Yaxiel Espino Aceval, José David González Fumero, Mario Morera Jardines, Miguel Borroto Vázquez, and Osvaldo Arcís Hernández will all be joining their families tonight, right?”

This trip to Cuba was supposed to be about “dialogue.” Take the man at his word.

WSJ: Behind the President’s Visit to Havana

Sunday, March 20, 2016
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady in The Wall Street Journal:

Behind the President’s Visit to Havana 

The spectacle is designed to pressure Congress into lifting the Cuban embargo.

President Obama travels to Havana this week in an effort to extract concessions, not from Communist Cuba, but from the U.S. Congress. To that end, get ready for what the late, great entertainment host Ed Sullivan might have called “a really big shew.”

Keep in mind as this extravaganza unfurls over the next couple of days that some foreigners who have been critical of the regime, including your humble columnist, are barred from reporting from the island.

On Dec. 17, 2014, Mr. Obama announced that he would normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba. He also said that the U.S. embargo—which prohibits foreign direct investment in Cuba by Americans, credit for Cuba from U.S. financial institutions, and Cuban sales of goods to the U. S.—should be lifted.

The dictatorship loves the idea. But Congress believes that before there are American investments in Cuba the regime ought to pay for the property it stole after the 1959 revolution, and ensure basic human-rights for Cubans. Since Congress still passes the laws in this country, Mr. Obama’s capitalism for the Castros remains uncertain until U.S. lawmakers capitulate.

The regime-choreographed spectacle, in which Mr. Obama will play the lead role, is designed to make Americans comfortable with underwriting the masters of the plantation—and to make Congress appear unreasonable.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes says the aim of the trip is to make the Obama administration’s Cuba policies “irreversible.” On Cuba’s part there is nothing to reverse. Since Mr. Obama launched his détente, the regime has doubled down on its long-standing practices of denying employment to dissidents as well as beating, torturing and jailing them.

The Obama administration boasts that it negotiated the liberation of 53 political prisoners in 2014. But more than half of those have been rearrested, and four who received multiyear sentences were exiled last week. In 2015 there were more than 8,600 political detentions, and in the first two months of this year there were 2,555, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

On March 13, the secret police in Havana again set upon the Ladies in White, a group of peaceful dissidents. One member, Aliuska Gómez, told the online newspaper Diario de Cuba about her arrest. “After they had taken away all of my belongings,” she said, “they told me to strip naked, and I refused . . . so they threw me down on the floor and took off all of my clothing, right in front of two men” and “they dragged me completely naked into a jail cell.” That alone should have been enough for Mr. Obama to cancel his trip.

The regime will turn out plenty of compliant Cubans who will tell reporters that the embargo is the source of Cuban poverty. Mr. Obama has invited some dissidents to the U.S. Embassy but over the weekend the dictatorship warned them not to attend. Yet even if there is a U.S nod to the opposition, there also will be a wink, as the president poses with the dictator along with members of the Colombian terrorist group FARC—invited by Mr. Obama—at a baseball game and pushes for U.S. policies that will finance the totalitarian apparatus.

The big lie will be that by legalizing commercial and banking relations with Cuba, the U.S. will empower the Cuban people. The opposite is true.

Raúl Castro legalized a narrow number of economic activities for the purpose of putting to work millions of Cubans the bankrupt state can no longer “employ.” But these businesses, such as selling fruit and shining shoes, are not allowed to hire employees, and they are only legal as long as they remain the urban equivalent of subsistence farming.

If there is a great capital infusion from the U.S., it can flow only to state-owned monopolies. U.S. hotel chains, for example, will become minority partners with the Cuban military, which owns the tourism industry.

Visitors to the island are charged in hard currency, but Cubans who work in tourism are hired and paid by the state in all-but-worthless pesos. They can’t form independent unions. The big profits go to the Castro mafia, which uses some of the money to run the repressive intelligence network necessary to contain rebellion and keeps the rest for personal gain. Last week Mr. Obama stepped up to help the Castros move these profits around the international banking system by lifting the U.S. ban on facilitating their dollar transactions.

None of this will liberate Cubans, who are voting on the matter with their feet. Some 51,011 undocumented Cubans arrived in the U.S. in 2015, an 84% increase over the previous year. An additional 20,000 entered the country with visas.

As the first U.S. presidential visit to Cuba in 88 years, the Obama journey will be historic. But if he doesn’t call out the racist, Marxist dictatorship and call for the liberation of the Cuban people it will live in infamy. We can all hope.

Must-Watch: Castro's Secret Police Arrests Cuban Independent Journalist

Click below (or here) to watch Castro's secret police arrest Cuban independent journalist, Lazaro Yuri Valle Roca, as President Obama arrived in Havana:

Ted Cruz: Obama's Cuba Trip Legitimizes Castros, Ignores Oppressed

By U.S. Senator and Republican presidential candidate, Ted Cruz (R-TX), in Politico:

In Cuba, Obama Will Legitimize the Corrupt and Ignore the Oppressed

What’s American about that?

Communist Havana has always been a magnet for the radical chic of the left, drawn like moths to the flame of this western outpost of totalitarian Communism. Back in the 1960s, the visitors included Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael, while Che Guevara himself received Jean-Paul Sartre.

Now this scene will include a president of the United States. On Sunday, President Barack Obama, a retinue of celebrities in tow, is expected to arrive in the Cuban capital to hang out with Raul Castro and his henchmen, all of which will be breathlessly documented by the media mavens along for the ride.
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Meanwhile, political prisoners languishing in dungeons across the island will hear this message: Nobody has your back. You’re alone with your tormentors. The world has forgotten about you.

They will not be on TV, rubbing elbows with the Obamas or left-wing politicians like Nancy Pelosi. There will be no mojitos at the U.S. Embassy for them. Raul Castro denies their very existence.

News reports say there are more than 100 long-term prisoners of conscience in Cuba. Nobody knows for sure, as the Castro regime does not grant international organizations access to its prisons. But we know they are there and that hundreds are held for shorter periods, and beaten in prison regularly.

Until Obama, siding with the oppressed had always been America’s aspiration. We have done so not just out of an abiding sense of justice, but also for hard-nosed reasons of national interest. In Cuba the Castros have been the implacable enemies of the United States for more than half a century. It is in our interests to make common cause with the brave souls who oppose them.

Former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky, for example, now a leading Israeli politician and a moral voice, was in the Gulag when President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the evil empire” in 1983. Afterward he said, “It was the brightest, most glorious day ... our whole block burst out into a kind of loud celebration.”

This is why it is so sad, and so injurious to our future as well as Cuba’s, that Obama has chosen to legitimize the corrupt and oppressive Castro regime with his presence on the island.

The White House keeps saying that this trip will chart a new course for people-to-people relations, but all that Obama’s appeasement of the Castro dictatorship has done so far is create a channel for inside deals between large corporations and the Cuban military, which holds all the keys to the island’s economy. The effect will not be liberalization but rather the institutionalization of the Communist dictatorship as the profits from this détente will line the pockets not only of Fidel and Raul Castro, but also of Raul’s son, Alejandro Castro Espin.

Corporate cronyism, meet communist totalitarianism.

Just two months ago, the president told Yahoo News that he would only travel to Cuba “if, in fact, I with confidence can say that we’re seeing some progress in the liberty and freedom and possibilities of ordinary Cubans. ... If we’re going backwards, then there’s not much reason for me to be there.”

I have news, Mr. President: No progress has taken place. Cuba is going backward.

Over the weekend a makeshift boat was rescued off Marco Island carrying 18 desperate refugees who were willing to risk their lives rather than endure the “progress” in Cuba. Nine had perished on the journey.
The independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation says that 1,141 Cubans were detained for political reasons last month alone, following the 1,447 that were detained in January.

So sycophancy is having the effect is always does: It is telling our enemies that they can behave with impunity.

I have a word for the people of Cuba who will witness the gaudy spectacle in Havana this weekend: America has not forgotten you.

I am the son of a Cuban who was beaten and tortured by Batista’s regime, and my aunt was likewise brutalized by Castro’s thugs. Thankfully, both my father and my Tía Sonia found freedom in the United States.

That freedom can come to Cuba, and I pledge to work to make it so. But it cannot happen by enriching and empowering the dictatorship, while they export terrorism throughout Latin America. And it cannot happen by forgetting the heroism and suffering of the brave souls who have opposed the Castros for so many decades.

Images: Welcome to Castro's Cuba, President Obama

As President Obama arrived in Havana:

Rubio: Obama's Cuba Trip Most Disgraceful by a U.S. President

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, today issued the following statement regarding President Obama’s trip to Cuba:

On Sunday, President Obama will touch down in Cuba for what promises to be one of the most disgraceful trips ever taken by a U.S. president anywhere in the world. This is an Obama presidential trip whose ultimate results will be giving away legitimacy and money to an anti-American regime that actively undermines our national security interests and acts against our values every single day. President Obama’s entourage will sleep in hotels controlled by the Cuban military that were confiscated by the regime and are among the $7 billion in unpaid legal claims owed to American property owners. When President Obama arrives in Havana on Sunday, he will visit Catholic Church sights and church officials, yet he’s inexplicably expected to skip St. Rita Church, where the Ladies In White have shed much blood and received routine beatings at the hands of the Castro regime for simply demanding their loved ones’ freedom.

On Monday, President Obama will showcase the most damaging part of his Cuba policy: the lawless, one-sided weakening of the LIBERTAD Act that seeks to enrich American businesses and the Castro regime’s police state, without any concessions from Cuba that lead to greater freedoms for the Cuban people. The Obama-Castro state dinner promises to be another low point of this visit, one that I fully expect will be attended by some of the Castro regime’s biggest low-lifes who will seek to exploit this opportunity to mock this president, his administration and the American people.

On Tuesday, the irony should not be lost on anyone that President Obama will be giving a speech at yet another property confiscated by the Castro regime. President Obama’s decision to end his trip at a baseball game is a fitting symbol of this trip and of his entire Cuba policy: he thinks this is a game. What’s not a game is the repression, intimidation and exploitation Cuba’s baseball players face and that has led to many of them defecting the first chance they get, and that would probably lead some of them, should they be able to meet and speak freely with President Obama, to ask him directly for asylum and a flight to freedom on Air Force One.

As a whole, President Obama’s trip to Cuba and his policy of one-sided concessions to this regime are as naïve as his world view and as misguided as his foreign policy affecting other parts of the world. America should be standing with our allies and democracy advocates around the world, not embracing, enriching and empowering our enemies, the way President Obama is about to do in Cuba.”