Will Hillary Condemn Trump's Cuban Hotel Venture?

Friday, July 29, 2016
Four years ago, President Obama (and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) was amid his "reset" with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Together with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Obama lobbied to end "Cold War legislation" that sanctioned Russia, pushed for permanent normal trade relations and was even caught on a hot mic whispering "sweet-nothings" in Putin's ear.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney condemned Obama's "reset" and appeasement of Putin as a folly. Moreover, he labeled Russia as the U.S.'s main geopolitical foe.

Romney was right. Yet he was mocked by Obama and the Democrats as a "Cold Warrior."

Fast forward four years and the script has flipped.

It seems Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has an affinity for Putin, while his chief campaign adviser has even served as a Washington lobbyist for some of Putin's stooges and thugs.

Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is now (rightfully) condemning Trump's stance and -- perhaps unwittingly -- admitting Obama's policy was wrong-headed.

Today, Bloomberg News has a story about how Trump Organization executives have been traveling to Cuba -- perhaps illegally -- in search of hotel and golf course investment opportunities with Castro's military.

That would put Trump on par with Obama in seeking dangerous and reprehensible business deals directly with Cuba's repressive security organs.

Thus, the first question is whether Trump will disavow the story and take a principled stand for freedom and democracy in Cuba.

Or, whether Hillary and the Democrats will condemn Trump for this venture with Cuba's regime and chalk it up to his apparent affinity for dictators.

For let's be clear -- Putin and Castro belong to the same gene pool: They are both brutal tyrants, who U.S. intelligence agencies identify as top counter-intelligence threats, who work jointly against U.S. interests, who subvert democracy in their respective regions and who violate fundamental freedoms and human rights.

And just like Obama's Russia "reset" has proven to be folly, so will his Cuba "reset." Ironically, both have cornered us into adopting real Cold War policies that Obama propagated to be moving away from.

Hillary and Trump now have a chance to be on the right side of history.

The final question remains -- will either choose to, or will both be wrong?

How Remittances Are Funneled in Cuba

Excerpt by Havana-based independent journalist, Osmar Laffita Rojas, in Diario de Cuba:

Military and family remittances, a well-kept secret

Western Union has offices in many of Cuba's retails stores in the 15 provinces and the special municipality of the Isla de la Juventud, which are administrated by the Grupo Administración Empresarial S.A. (GAESA) of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR). Thus, the military controls the largest amounts of money coming into Cuba in the form of remittances.

FINCIMEX, the financial institution of the CIMEX Corporation, managed by GAESA, issues magnetic cards to Cuban users for free, like Caribbean Transfers, Ocean Card, Trascard and American International Service, S.A. The holders of these cards, after signing the contract, can receive money from Europe, the United States, Angola and other parts of the world, and draw cash from banks and ATMs throughout Cuba.
In addition, the Postal Service has established offices in Cuba's major cities, dedicated to the collection of money sent mainly from Europe. Many people turn to this service, which actively competes with Western Union.

With the exception of mulas (who smuggle money into the country without declaring it, to deliver it to recipients for the payment of a fee) the Cuban government has control over most of the money sent home by Cubans abroad to their relatives in Cuba.

But the Government never discloses information on these remittances, or the revenues generated by Cuban Americans' trips to the island, even though that money is registered in the books.

Cuban Dissident Leader Hospitalized Pursuant to Hunger Strike #juntoacoco

From 14ymedio:

Cuban dissident hospitalized after eight days on hunger strike

Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas, leader of the Anti-totalitarian Front (Fantu), was taken Thursday to Arnaldo Milian Castro Hospital in the city of Santa Clara after growing extremely weak from a hunger strike that has stretched for eight days.

Cuban activist Jorge Luis Artiles said that shortly after noon, Fariñas lost consciousness and went into a state of shock, fainting and not responding. Fariñas was treated in an observation room at the hospital, where he got an electrocardiogram and had his vital signs checked.

In just over a week, Fariñas has lost about 26 pounds and his blood pressure has dropped significantly. Outside the hospital, where he is now with his mother Alicia Hernández Cabezas, a group of Fantu activists is monitoring the situation.

Fariñas, who is recipient of the European Parliament 2010 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, is protesting the repression, raids and confiscations endured by Cuba’s “non-violent” dissident groups and he is calling for a commitment by the Cuban government to stop those acts.

On Wednesday, the coordinator of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), José Daniel Ferrer, said in Miami that about 280 activists throughout the island had mobilized to support Fariñas and 20 other human rights activists currently on hunger strike in Cuba, incluing Carlos Amel Oliva, youth leader of the UNPACU, who has been on a hunger strike for two weeks. He also reported that during the day about 80 activists were detained but “continued fasting in the police stations.”

The Real 'Talks' That Need to Take Place in Cuba

Thursday, July 28, 2016
Great column by renowned author and journalist, Andres Oppenheimer, in The Miami Herald:

Castro mediates Colombian peace deal — but won’t talk to Cuban dissidents

What irony! Cuban President Gen. Raúl Castro has been applauded by world leaders for his mediation in Colombia’s peace talks, but he steadfastly continues refusing to hold peace talks with his own country’s internal opposition.

The irony of Castro’s mediation in Colombia’s peace talks with the FARC guerrillas was brought to my attention this week by Guillermo Fariñas, the well-known Cuban dissident who started a hunger strike in his hometown of Santa Clara, Cuba, on July 20. He wants to call world attention to the plight of Cuba’s peaceful dissidents, and wants the Castro regime to start a dialogue with them.

More than 12 other dissidents have joined Fariñas’ indefinite hunger strike, and the National Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) dissident group has announced that an additional 200 of its members would hold a 12-hour fast in a symbolic gesture of support for the hunger strikers.

It sounds absurd, but even now — a year after Cuba and the United States resumed diplomatic relations and U.S. cruise liners with American tourists are descending on the island — Cuba’s military regime refuses to talk with any of Cuba’s peaceful opponents under the ridiculous claim that all of them are U.S. “mercenaries.”

Since 1959, Cuba’s unelected regime, which Raúl Castro has inherited from his older brother Fidel, has not allowed government critics to vote in free elections, form political parties, speak on the island’s television broadcasts, write in independent newspapers or exercise their United Nations-sanctioned universal right to freedom of assembly.

And while President Barack Obama visited Cuba in March and has dismantled much of the U.S. trade sanctions on the island, allowing American Airlines, Sheraton, Netflix and dozens of other U.S. companies to resume operations in Cuba, the Cuban government continues to use the fairy tale of “U.S. aggression” as an excuse to deny basic freedoms to its people.

“It is hypocritical for the Cuban government to act as the mediator in Colombia’s talks with that country’s violent guerrillas, and at the same time be incapable of being tolerant with its own country’s peaceful opposition,” Fariñas told me in a telephone interview.

Fariñas, who has held hunger strikes before, said he is starting this one to demand that Cuba stop the beatings and political detentions of opponents. He wants Castro to appoint one of his vice presidents to sit down with 12 representatives of Cuba’s peaceful opposition.

Police beatings and detentions of peaceful dissidents and detentions have risen significantly, Fariñas told me. As I reported recently, the non-government Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation says there were 6,075 political detentions during the first six months this year, which — if the current rate continues during the next six months — would be a significant increase over last year’s 8,616 detentions.

Fariñas was arrested and beaten by police on July 19, when he went to a police unit to ask about a fellow dissident.

“Two members of the anti-riot police started punching me repeatedly,” he told me. “After that, I was questioned for five hours.”

What should the United States and other democracies do? At the very least, he responded, “they should freeze any kind of negotiations with the Cuban government until there is a commitment by the government to stop the beatings.”

My opinion: It’s time for the Obama administration, Europe and Latin American democracies to ask Cuba’s military dictatorship to comply with the international treaties it has signed, including the 1993 United Nations Declaration of Vienna, and the 1996 Ibero-American Summit’s Declaration of Viña del Mar.

The latter one commits all signatory countries, including Cuba, to support “freedom of expression, association and assembly” and “free elections.” If treaties like these are forgotten, and countries that routinely violate them are not even reminded about them by their fellow signatories, how can governments ask us to take them seriously?

Pretty soon, when Colombia’s peace talks are finalized and formalized, Pope Francis, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, President Obama and most other democratic leaders will hail the peace accords, and Gen. Castro will be at center stage as the big peacemaker. It will be high time to demand that he allow peace talks in Cuba, too.

Day 9 of Cuban Dissident Leader's Hunger Strike #juntoacoco

Yesterday, over 80 Cuban dissidents were arrested, 21 have now joined Fariñas' hunger strike and 260 are fasting in solidarity.

Meanwhile, Fariñas' health is quickly deteriorating.
We have to show those in power that we are not afraid.
-- Guillermo Fariñas, Cuban dissident leader and Sakharov Prize recipient, on a hunger strike protesting the ongoing abuses of the Castro regime, Diario de Cuba, 7/27/16

One Woman’s Struggle for Freedom in Castro’s Cuba

From The Daily Signal:

One Woman’s Struggle for Freedom in Castro’s Cuba

A slim Cuban woman speaks from a wheelchair at the front of the room.

The woman speaks softly for 10 minutes in Spanish, pausing at intervals to wait for her translator’s words. Her left arm ends at the wrist, and she cradles it in her right hand.

“My name is Sirley Ávila León. I am Cuban and reside in Cuba,” she says. “I was elected as a delegate to the Municipal Assembly of People’s Power in Cuba by my neighbors in June 2005, for the rural area of Limones.”

There is nothing about the woman’s appearance to indicate “dangerous political dissident.” But her wounds attest that Cuba’s communist regime sees things differently.

The scene was the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, where Sirley Ávila León last month received the organization’s Human Rights Prize.

For more than a decade, Ávila has been a splinter in the foot of the Cuban government, a low-profile but aggressive advocate for the rights of her family and her community.

Last year, Ávila nearly was murdered in a brutal machete attack—the work, she says, of state security thugs.

Now in Miami on a medical visa, Ávila, 57, is recuperating just as aggressively from the machete attack.

She spoke to The Daily Signal through translator John Suarez, international secretary of the Cuban Democratic Directorate, who runs a blog called Notes from the Cuban Exile Quarter. The interview took place in two parts between her medical appointments—and as she prepared to testify before Congress July 13 concerning Cuba’s cruelties and planned how to return to Cuba as quickly as possible.

“Unfortunately, my doctors have given me a diagnosis which tells me I won’t be able to walk long distances,” Ávila said, “so I’m desperately trying to obtain an electrical wheelchair and more treatment to allow me to return to Cuba.”

As a child, Ávila was a model youth of the Castro regime. She was born in a small, self-sufficient agricultural community in the Las Tunas province, which had benefited from the agrarian reforms of the late 1950s. At the time, Ávila says, she assumed all Cubans enjoyed a life as fortunate as her own.

“It seemed like a paradise,” she said. “I went to a school in the countryside with very little technological amenities, but that was the life that folks in the countryside lived.”

Ávila’s education in communism began early. When she was 7, she joined the José Martí Pioneer Organization, the communist replacement for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts the regime founded in 1961.

Blue neckerchiefs distinguished the Pioneers, who pledged together, Ávila remembers, “to say we will be like Che Guevara, homeland or death, and support everything that the leader says.”

Then, at the age of 13, her political career began. She was appointed to her local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, part of Fidel Castro’s “collective system of revolutionary vigilance” to detect and purge anti-communist activity.

“I lived a life indoctrinated by the regime,” she said.

But Ávila began to notice the first troubling signs of corruption after the death of her father in 1989:

"When my father died, the police arrived saying that he had sold the land, and had sold all the goods on the land. Then I begin to fight to prove that that’s not the case, and I was able to get evidence through a crime lab that shows that the documents that were produced by the police were false."

Ávila made repeated appeals and protests for nearly a decade. Prosecutors never reopened the case.

“At that point I began to have some questions, but I thought it was just due to local leadership, not something systemic,” Ávila said.

Shortly thereafter, in October 2004, she moved to Limones, a remote agricultural district of about 600 citizens—and the site of her future showdowns with her municipal government.

She got to know her neighbors quickly, so much so that they elected her to represent them in the municipal assembly only eight months later, in June 2005. She recalls:

"The initial election is normal: People are able to nominate someone, as long as the regime doesn’t have any objections. In my case, because they thought I was a regime supporter, they broke their own rules to let me run, even though I had moved there just a short time before."

Ávila began her term with a policy agenda. Her district’s children walked over 5 miles over difficult roads to attend school; she wanted a local school built. She also wanted to improve the region’s broken and corrupt agricultural ministries, which were embezzling funds meant for local farmers.

“The farmers couldn’t sell their produce to anyone except an entity run by the ministry of agriculture,” Ávila said. “But then the ministry wasn’t picking up their crops sometimes, so they would rot.”

Hardly had she begun her work on the council, however, before she realized how little political influence the supposedly democratic body wielded.

“In theory, the provincial municipal assembly would be the ones who would be setting economic policy in the area,” she said. “The reality is that the instructions would come from on high, from higher levels of the province, and they would rubber-stamp it.”

“I wanted to debate these issues, and they didn’t want to discuss them.”

Meeting wall after bureaucratic wall, Ávila protested agricultural corruption all the way to the Council of State in Havana.

It was not until her protests went unheard at the national level that she finally realized the harsh truth: The Castro regime was broken all the way to the top. Ávila was so frustrated that she took a decisive step. She gave an interview to Radio Martí, an American radio station that broadcasts to Cuba from Miami.

The regime moved more quickly then, publicly labeling her a “mercenary” or terrorist—a co-conspirator with Cuban-Americans in the United States.

When Ávila came up for re-election in 2012, and the people still supported her, the government simply gerrymandered her district out of existence. Officials tried to pressure her son into declaring her insane and having her committed.

“They began to poison my animals on my farm, to have thefts at my home,” she said. “Any time that I left my home, they would do something different to try to inculcate fear into me.”

“And their objective was that I wouldn’t communicate with other Cubans in my area or with the international press.”

By 2015, state security officials realized Ávila would not be intimidated out of public opposition activities. That’s when the attack occurred.

Ávila first met Osmany Carriòn in early 2015, introduced by a fellow opposition activist. Ávila hired Carriòn and his wife to help her work her farm.

Two months later, on May 24, with his wife looking on, Carriòn suddenly attacked her with a machete. But for the presence of a child and the grace of God, Ávila said, she believes he would have killed her. As it was, she was gravely injured—her hand severed, her collarbone broken, her legs and shoulder repeatedly slashed:

"The neighbors immediately called emergency services, but the ambulance and the police didn’t appear for a while… The first to appear immediately were officials of state security, and they wanted to take me to emergency services in their car. The neighbors, however, did not allow state security to take me."

When Carriòn stood trial, neither she nor her neighbors was permitted to testify. The doctors who initially treated her claimed in the trial that her wounds had not endangered her life.

Sirley Ávila León’s story is a chilling reminder that totalitarian oppression is far from over in Cuba.

“Sirley is a testament to the brutal repression Cubans live under,” Ana Quintana, a Latin America policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Signal.

“Cubans continue to be governed by a totalitarian communist dictatorship, one that continues to deny Cubans the most basic of civil liberties,” Quintana said. “Proponents of President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with the Cuban government fail to recognize how appeasing the Castro regime directly supports human rights violations.”

But Ávila’s story also may highlight the communist regime’s sensibility of its own waning power.

“[Ávila’s] was not a voting district in the middle of the capital city; instead, it was a small, remote municipality far from everything,” Haroldo Dilla Alfonso wrote in the opposition-minded Havana Times in 2012, three years before the machete attack.

“Only six years ago, Sirley would have been dragged to the nearest police station.”

Despite all she has been through, Ávila agrees: The system may never have been more ripe for change. And she wants to be there to see it through:

"I think it’s useful to tell the Cuban people that they need to regain and relearn their history, first off. And second, to tell them not to leave their country—that it makes no sense for them to risk their lives in the open sea. If they’re going to risk their lives, better to risk them fighting for their lives in Cuba."

The Real (Concerning) Reason Behind Obama's Cuba Policy

Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Well-intentioned supporters of Obama's Cuba policy, who believed it was aimed at bringing freedom and democracy to the Cuban people, are getting a rude awakening.

Noting the economic collapse of Cuba's neo-colony in Venezuela, renowned scholar Prof. Walter Russell Mead writes in The American Interest:

"[Venezuela's economic collapse], not White House diplomatic brilliance, is why the Castro brothers opened the door a crack to the U.S. In other words, the Castros need more Yankee tourists to drink Rum and Coca Cola. There was never any intention to accelerate political or economic change. The whole point of opening up was to avoid change [...]

That the Obama White House thinks that a deal with Castro under the circumstances is a diplomatic victory and a trophy to go in the trophy case is not a mark of wisdom—though one can hope that the people who arranged it are smart enough to know that, and are only making a big deal out of it because of all the ageing hippies and Sandernistas out there who will hail this as a glorious victory for working people everywhere."

In other words, it's all about regime survival.

Of course, these supporters had always been fooling themselves, as Obama himself stated during his December 17th, 2014 remarks -- "it does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse."

(Ironically, one of Obama's concerns at the time was a migration crisis, though it has been his new policy that has sparked the worst Cuban migration crisis in decades.)

Now Prof. Russell Mead and others argue for "realpolitik" -- a return to the policies of the 20th century whereby the U.S. fêted Latin American dictators for the sake of a "soft-landing" -- short-term stability over long-term democracy.

This is the corner that Obama has backed us into.

Sadly, it comes at a great cost.

A recent study published by the CATO Institute that looks back at 25-years of reforms in ex-Communist countries concluded:

"True enough, 'big-bang' reforms were often chaotic and led to an increase in corruption. But, after 25 years, it is obvious that countries, which adopted extensive reforms early on, performed much better than countries that adopted a more gradual approach. The former grew richer and more democratic, while, at the same time, experiencing less impoverishment and a smaller increase in income inequality.

The latter performed worse in all relevant measures of economic, social and democratic performance. That is because post-communist governments were captured by special interests that were interested in rent-seeking, not economic and political reforms. These findings are crucial, because of the continued misperception that rapid transition from communism to capitalism has caused untold human suffering in ex-communist countries. They might also be of benefit to future reformers in countries from Cuba and Venezuela to Zimbabwe and North Korea."

For the sake of his legacy, Obama is making the long road to Cuban freedom much longer and more painful.

Brazil Investigates Corrupt Financing of Cuba's Port

As recently reported, Cuba's Port of Mariel is a dud.

The biggest shipment from the Port has been an illegal cargo of 240 tons of weapons to North Korea.

But what else can you expect from an arrangement between Cuba's military and the most corrupt company in the world, Brazil's Odebrecht.

And yet, this is the same Port that Obama Administration officials shamefully tour and propagate.

From Global Trade Review:

BNDES loan to Cuba’s Mariel port under investigation

The Brazilian department of justice has ordered BNDES, the country’s development bank, to disclose its loan contracts relating to the US$682mn financing of the Mariel port development in Cuba.

A release on the department’s website references “strong signs of irregularities” to justify the forced disclosure, which BNDES opposed once before, to no avail. The order is likely related to Brazil’s investigation into former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s links to construction giant Odebrecht, whose subsidiary Companhia de Obras e Infra-estrutura received the BNDES financing for the Mariel port development.

In 2015, Brazilian weekly Época published a report on Lula’s activities around the deal, implying that the former president had acted as lobbyist for Odebrecht, which was allegedly concerned about its ability to secure BNDES financing due to its existing levels of indebtedness.

The report included investigation documents showing that BNDES had offered “exceptional” conditions to Cuba for the loan, including the 25-year term instead of its regular 12-year tenors. More recently, in February this year, the magazine published a confidential government document in which investigators concluded that the former president had abused his influence to benefit Odebrecht.

The financing was disbursed in five installments between 2009 and 2013, each with a tenor of 300 months, according to data from BNDES Transparente, an online platform set up by the bank in 2015 to improve transparency.

Recently, concerns emerged in the Brazilian press that the port development had not delivered the anticipated increase in business for Brazilian companies. According to Antonio Zaccaria, then spokesman for Odebrecht, speaking at the port’s inauguration two and a half years ago, US$802mn in business for Brazilian companies was driven by the construction of the port, generating 153,000 jobs in Brazil, but the increase in Cuban business does not seem to have lasted past the construction phase.

Odebrecht’s chief executive Marcelo Odebrecht was arrested in June 2015 in connection with the massive corruption scandal focused on state-run oil company Petrobras.

Obama's Cuba Policy Represents Worst of 20th Century

We've long argued (here and here) how Obama's Cuba policy harkens back to the darkest days of U.S. policy toward Latin America in the 20th century.

It's becoming clearer by the day.

By Latin America scholar and author, Mark Falcoff, in Power Line:

From Cuba to Venezuela

Not long ago when the Obama administration decided to end our diplomatic and political embargo of Cuba many friends and associates asked me, as a long time Cuba-watcher, what I thought about it. At the time I remarked that there were two possibilities. One was that, given the collapse of oil prices and the chaos in Venezuela, Cuba’s sponsor and ally, this was Obama’s way of throwing a lifeline to the Castro regime, with which it has more ideological affinities than it dared to publicly admit. The other–and this was one frequently offered by pragmatic liberal supporters of the policy–was that in ending Cuba’s isolation from the United States we would be setting into motion forces which would bring about economic, and eventually political liberalization. A happy ending all round–a painless soft landing.

What was certain, I thought at the time, was that both could not be right.

Now comes Walter Mead of The American Interest (with whom, by the way, I visited Cuba in 2001), to suggest a third possibility. He sees both Cuba and Venezuela headed for societal collapse. Both are too close to the United States to view their problems with indifference. Indeed, he even goes so far as to suggest that it might be in our interest to shore up–if not the Castro brothers–at least a Red nomenklatura that can keep the lid on things and prevent a massive departure of a starving population for the United States. He leaves open what measures we might take to help sustain President Maduro or at least the Chavistas in Venezuela (or at any rate, to prevent total chaos in that country, as if we somehow possessed the means to do so).

This is an old dilemma for American policymakers in the Caribbean. Faced with the prospect of chaos and societial collapse, we almost always opted for “stability” over more open political options. This is how we got the Somozas in Nicaragua, the Trujillos in the Dominican Republic, and–why not say it?–Batista in Cuba. It’s ironic that things have come full circle. Maybe we don’t like the Castro brothers or Maduro, but the alternative is a political and social void into which we’d rather not chance.

Insofar as Cuba is concerned, my own impression of the country when I visited it more than a dozen years ago was that it more nearly resembled Trujillo’s Dominican Republic than the Soviet Union or a tropical version of Bulgaria. Like the DR, one brother ran the government, another ran the military and police, another liaised with foreign investors, and the army was the only real political party in the country. When Trujillo fell to an assassin’s bullet in 1961, the experiment in democracy with Juan Bosch ended in a civil war.

Following U.S. military intervention, there was a frantic search for someone to bridge the old regime with the new. Which is how we discovered the virtues of Joaquin Balaguer, Trujillo’s house intellectual and mouthpiece, who by the way ruled the country for much of the next thirty years. What Walter is suggesting is a return to realpolitik in the region, leaving both readers of The Nation magazine and advocates of human rights in Cuba by the wayside. Why not? It’s happened before.

Obama's Policy Permits Expansion of Cuba's Military

Tuesday, July 26, 2016
By Mauricio Claver-Carone in Newsmax:

Obama's Policy Permits Expansion of Cuba's Military

Cuba is the most militaristic dictatorship in the history of Latin America.

President Obama announced his new policy of engagement insisting its goal is to empower Cuba's few “self-employed” residents, promoting their success and freedom from oppressive state authorities. Myriad of celebrity visits and distractions since that December 2014 declaration, the actual result has been to strengthen the Cuban military's control of Cuba’s economy and political power. The military has consolidated its control of the island's domestic-security forces and foreign-intelligence services, and been on a deal-making binge that gives it near total control of Cuba's economy.

It’s a political retreat into history.

From Argentina's Juan Manuel de Rosas in the 19th Century to Chile's Augusto Pinochet in the 20th Century, Latin America has seen no shortage of military dictators wielding control over the political and security apparatus of their respective countries. Cuba's Gen. Raul Castro is no different. Popularly mislabeled a “reformer," Raul was Cuba's Minister of Defense (known as Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, MINFAR) from 1959 until his brother Fidel's illness made him dictator-in-chief in 2006.

Raul's initial totalitarian power grab was to seize control of Cuba's domestic-security forces and foreign-intelligence services, which had been housed in the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) and led by Fidel's Communist Party apparatchiks. The Stalinist-style trial and purging of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa in the late 1980s was the start. Ochoa and Jose Abrantes, the Minister of the Interior, were accused of narcotics-trafficking. Raul’s dual targets were strategically chosen to eliminate one of Cuba's most popular and politically threatening military generals, and to take control of the powerful MININT. Ochoa was executed in 1989, while Abrantes died in 1991 of a 'heart attack’ while in prison at the age of 50.

Cuba's Ministry of the Interior was suddenly headed by a MINFAR general -- first Abelardo Colome Ibarra, a Raul confidant, and now by Carlos Fernandez Gondin, Raul's point-man in control of Venezuela's security services.

But the most powerful and symbolic figure in the Ministry of the Interior is another MINFAR official – Col. Alejandro Castro, Raul's only son. Alejandro's stock is rising faster. He became the point man for secret negotiations in Ottawa, Rome and Toronto with the Obama Administration officials that led to the 2014 U.S. policy change. His U.S. counterpart in the negotiations was Obama's inexperienced foreign policy advisor and fictional-story teller, Ben Rhodes.

Today, Cuba's military is directing and ultimately responsible for the day-to-day repression of the Cuban people.

Historically, Latin America's military dictators have financed their regimes through key alliances and mutual-interest pacts with a private economic-class of landowners and industrialists. What sets the Castros' apart is its direct and near absolute ownership of the island's economy. The military-owned share of Cuba’s gross domestic product is estimated to be greater than 80 percent.
 
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Castro regime was forced to open its economy to foreign tourists and investment. Raul’s MINFAR reset its priorities to own and control tourism -- the most lucrative sectors of the Cuban economy. Today, the Cuban military owns and operates one of the largest conglomerates in Latin America, known as the Grupo de Administración Empresarial, S.A., or GAESA. Its portfolio includes companies that dominate ports, trade zones, tourist attractions, restaurants, hotels, real estate, retail stores, currency exchanges, gas stations, airlines and other transportation services. Its head, Gen. Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas, is Raul's son-in-law. Note the trend.

Far from empowering Cuba’s small sector of 'self-employed’ residents, the Castro regime is taking full advantage of Obama's new policy to accelerate the military's holdings of every entity poised to benefit from current U.S.-Cuba relations. GAESA’s companies are experiencing double-digit growth and expansion. For example, its Gaviota Tourism Group, S.A., a subsidiary led by Gen. Luis Perez Rospide, averaged 12 percent growth in 2015 and expects to double its hotel business this year. Aiding in the “transition” to military control of the economy, the Obama Administration is contradicting its purported policy goal, and licensing U.S. hotel operators Starwood and Marriott to venture directly with the Cuban military.

GAESA is seizing the opportunity to make two new major acquisitions that required no legal process or public transparency. They are:

Habaguanex, S.A. -  One of the few tourism companies that remained outside the control of the Cuban military, Habaguanex was founded in 1994 under the control of the Office of the Historian of Havana, and run by a close confidant of Fidel Castro, Eusebio Leal. Its properties include nearly all of Old Havana's tourist zone, the Hotel Ambos Mundos, of Hemingway fame, and the Hollywood celebrity favorite Hotel Saratoga. Now under military control, Habaguanex has also taken over the former markets for "self-employed" licensees around the Port of Havana. That now makes it the sole beneficiary of Obama's new U.S. cruise ship travelers.

Banco Financiero Internacional - This state-owned bank is one of Cuba's most important financial entities. It is solely empowered by the Castro regime to conduct commercial banking operations in convertible currencies. Virtually every foreign company and person engaged in business on the island must open an account in this bank. It was previously under the control of the Central Bank of Cuba and the Ministry of Finance.

While there has been no growth in the number of "self-employed" Cubans, military-owned monopolies are growing at record pace, along with its lopsided impact on the daily lives of the Cuban majority. Sadly, military monopolies do not crumble from "too much business." It is the sense of personal freedom and independence that crumbles, and no amount of Kardashian, Chanel, Shaq and other celebrity distractions are going to hide that crippling loss.

Mauricio Claver-Carone is a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and editor of CapitolHillCubans.com in Washington, D.C. He is an attorney who formerly served with the U.S. Department of the Treasury and has served on the full-time faculty of The Catholic University of America's School of Law and adjunct faculty of The George Washington University's National Law Center.

Tweet of the Day: 17 Cuban Dissidents Join Hunger Strike #juntoacoco

Translation: At least 17 members of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU) on huger strike. Guillermo Fariñas on the sixth day of his hunger and thirst strike.

Menendez Asks Obama to Protect Cuban Dissidents on Hunger Strike

Menendez Demands Obama Admin Act to Protect Peaceful Cuban Dissidents Abused by Oppressive Castro Regime

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today expressed his solidarity for Guillermo “Coco” Fariñas, an independent Cuban journalist and human rights activist, launched a hunger strike after he was severely beaten and tortured for hours by communist agents of the Castro Regime for inquiring about the status of another dissident in custody. About a dozen Cuban dissidents have joined the hunger strike in support of Fariñas, whose health is quickly deteriorating.

Sen. Menendez released the following statement:

"On the one-year anniversary of the Administration's resumption of diplomatic ties with the Cuban regime, Guillermo 'Coco' Fariñas has begun his hunger strike in protest of the worsening human rights situation there—a situation so bad that Farinas has declared his willingness to die just to bring attention to the abuse and exploitation.

This is the untold story of the Administration’s misguided efforts in Cuba. Instead of defending human rights, the Administration is setting sail on cruise ships, authorizing commercial flights, and advancing trade and business interests that do one thing: strengthen the hand of the Castros, the same hand that abuses and exploits the Cuban people.

The Administration should take immediate and decisive steps, using the few remaining levers it has not already given away to gain Fariñas' release, the release of other peaceful dissidents, and to end the brutality with which the Castros rule the island. For a start, use the channels of diplomacy the Administration claims to have opened with the Castros, seek international condemnation of the Castros and their machinery of tyranny by the OAS and the United Nations, withhold the Treasury licenses under which American business interests are beginning to engage the Castro-controlled command economy, and restore a foreign policy of principles with respect to Cuba. Gross human rights abuses should not be condoned, and should not be overlooked.

Fariñas won the European Parliament’s Andrei Sakharov Prize in 2010 for human rights advocacy and the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom from the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in 2015. He posted a video online detailing the injuries he suffered this week at the hands of Castro’s police and insists he will not eat or drink water until Raúl Castro publicly declares an end to torture, beatings, death threats, and false charges against dissidents who speak out for human rights.

Cuban-Americans to Hillary: Press Castro to Stop Beating Female Dissidents

Sunday, July 24, 2016
From WLRN:

Advocates Press Hillary Clinton For Support of Cuban Dissidents At Rally

There were plenty of people handing out flyers at Saturday’s rally for Hillary Clinton at Florida International University (FIU).

But, only one group sponsored a plane to fly overhead that read: “Hillary stop Castro beating Cuban women now.”

Frank Calzon is the executive director at the Center for a Free Cuba.

“The election is months away, and I think the time for her to speak out is now,” he said.

The government beatings of the group of women like the Damas de Blanco - who outwardly and peacefully oppose the Castro regime - are not  a thing of the past, Calzon said.

The Center says Clinton would make the perfect spokesperson for allowing Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross to enter the island.

Volunteers at the center handed out more than two thousand flyers before the Clinton speech at FIU.

Quote of the Day: Nobel Prize Laureate on Cuba's Dictatorship

For those of us who genuinely believe that democracy is a right of the people, the time has long come to stop covering up what we all know. Cuba is not a 'different' democracy, nor has it chosen its own path, chosen by the people. Cuba is -- plain and simple -- a dictatorship, and that hurts those of us who love freedom.
-- Oscar Arias, former President of Costa Rica and Nobel Prize laureate, in a letter to Cuban democracy leader Guillermo Fariñas, who is currently on a hunger strike demanding an end to torture and abuses by the Castro regime, Facebook, 7/23/16

Oswaldo Payá: A Story of Injustice

By Thor Halvorssen and Roberto Gonzalez in National Review:

Oswaldo Payá: A Story of Injustice

Four years after Payá’s death in a mysterious car accident, his family is still searching for the truth. 

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the death of Cuban pro-democracy dissident Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas. Despite the Castro regime’s perpetual smear campaign against him — the government has labeled him a “worm” and a “mercenary” — Payá is internationally recognized as the most prominent Cuban activist of the last 25 years in the Communist island.

In 1988, Payá founded a political movement to promote democratic transition in Cuba. The most prominent effort was the Varela Project, a draft law that — through the collection of more than 11,000 signatures and in observance of requirements set by the Cuban constitution — proposed a referendum that would allow Cubans to decide on legal reforms that would enable the respect of individual rights.

Castro’s regime didn’t take Payá’s work lightly, and it vilified the Varela Project as a CIA-funded, imperialist attempt to undermine Cuba’s constitution. As a result, almost everyone involved with the project was sent to jail and Cuba’s national assembly swiftly approved a set of constitutional reforms affirming the island’s “irrevocable” commitment to the Communist system. Despite this setback, Payá continued struggling for democratic change.

Exactly four years ago, on July 22, 2012, Oswaldo Payá was traveling by car from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. Cuban pro-democracy activist Harold Cepero, Spanish youth-party leader Ángel Carromero, and Swedish politician Jens Aron Modig were traveling with him. According to the Cuban government, Carromero lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a tree on the side of a highway in the province of Granma. The government claims that Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero died in the crash.

Almost immediately after the events, the Payá family contradicted the government’s version. They stated that a second vehicle was involved. A text message sent by Jens Modig to his friends in Sweden said that a car pushed them off the road. This was confirmed by Carromero, the driver of the car who, once out of Cuba, declared that officers from the Ministry of the Interior had forced him to change his statement of facts. Originally, Carromero had stated to an officer that they were being followed by a vehicle en route to Santiago de Cuba, which later rammed them and pushed them off the road. Carromero had been forced to record a self-incriminating video that was broadcast by state-owned media.

To date, the Cuban authorities have not communicated the autopsy’s results to the Payá family. The only document given to them by the authorities was a handwritten piece of paper, issued by Havana’s medical examiner’s office, stating Oswaldo Payá’s cause of death as “damage to the nervous system.” Also, inexplicably, the authorities washed and packed the outfit worn by Payá on the day he passed away before returning it to his family, “as if they had taken them to the cleaners,” his daughter said.

The facts behind Oswaldo Payá’s death remain uncertain and are actively obscured by the authorities. The best available evidence strongly suggests direct government responsibility for Payá’s death. Meanwhile, the Payá family still demands a proper investigation.

The reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, along with gradual economic reforms being implemented domestically, might bring improvements to the material living conditions of the average Cuban. (The economic reforms are ironic, given that the same set of constitutional reforms approved by Castro as a reaction to Payá establish that “Cuba will never return to capitalism.”) Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize that political reforms are not a topic at the Castro negotiation table. Today, Cubans who demand political reforms are faced with the same obstacles encountered by Oswaldo Payá throughout his life: smear campaigns, harassment, imprisonment, and death threats. Despite the propaganda, little has changed in Castro’s Cuba after 57 years.

While many of us are lucky enough to live and labor in democracies (however imperfect) and learn about independence movements and revolutionary leaders through history books, there are still millions of people who live under the boot and whim of an autocrat like Castro. In those places, remarkable and frequently unsung individuals such as Payá still risk their lives to achieve liberty and democracy. Sadly, their moral stance can bring the vilest of punishments.

Today, four years after his untimely death, we remember and celebrate the life of Oswaldo Payá and many others like him who have made the ultimate sacrifice in their fight for freedom.