Judicial Watch Investigates Starwood's Hotel Deal With Cuban Military

Friday, August 12, 2016
Judicial Watch Investigates Treasury’s Approval for U.S. Hotel Company to Do Business in Cuba

Judicial Watch is investigating why the U.S. Treasury Department rushed to give a major American hotel company special permission to operate in Cuba for the first time in nearly three decades, possibly with behind-the-scenes collaboration from the State Department. Under the U.S. economic embargo such deals would be prohibited by law, even after President Obama’s efforts to restore relations with the island’s communist regime. Congressional action is required to lift the embargo against Cuba, though the executive branch has latitude in enforcing the law and Obama has reestablished diplomatic ties with Cuba as well as direct air service and mail between the two countries.

A few days before Obama’s historic March trip to Cuba, U.S. hospitality firm Starwood, which operates Sheraton, Westin and other prominent hotel brands, received authorization from the U.S. Treasury Department to run several hotels on the island in apparent violation of U.S. laws. All of the hotels are properties that were confiscated by Cuba’s communist regime without compensating private owners and are currently owned by the Cuban military, which means all profits generated by any commercial venture will finance the regime’s repressive apparatus. Furthermore, the Cuban government will assign hotel workers their jobs and employees will have no labor rights. U.S. law prohibits American companies from operating under these conditions in other countries.

In an announcement celebrating the unusually swift Treasury authorization to do business in Cuba, Starwood Chief Executive Officer Thomas B. Mangas said “with Cuba’s rich history, natural beauty and strong culture, there is no question the entire U.S. hospitality industry has watched Cuba with great interest, and we are thrilled to lead the charge and bring our sophisticated, high-end brands into the market at this inflection point.” Somehow, Starwood beat out several other American companies that have been trying to obtain U.S. government approval to do business in Cuba, according to a mainstream newspaper. Among them is Marriott International whose CEO actually accompanied Obama on his trip to Cuba earlier this year.

To secure the authorization Starwood hired a bigtime Washington D.C. lobbying firm, DLA Piper, to advocate on its behalf. Records show that Starwood has paid DLA Piper $560,000 in lobbying fees since Obama announced he would normalize relations with Cuba in 2014. Judicial Watch has learned that DLA Piper attorney and partner Evan Migdail handled the negotiations between Starwood and the Obama administration. In Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the State Department and U.S. Treasury, Judicial Watch is among other things seeking all records of communication between any official, employee or representative of the respective agencies and Migdail, who is a registered lobbyist representing Starwood. The FOIAs also seek risk assessments, analysis or documents produced or reviewed during the approval process and records of communications—including any foreign policy guidance—between the two agencies related to the authorization.

Cuba’s government is a renowned human rights violator that represses and incarcerates individuals and groups that criticize it. “Officials employ a range of tactics to punish dissent and instill fear in the public, including beatings, public acts of shaming, termination of employment, and threats of long-term imprisonment,” according to a report published by the international group Human Rights Watch. “Short-term arbitrary arrests have increased dramatically in recent years and routinely prevent human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others from gathering or moving about freely.” A few years before the Obama administration removed Cuba from the government’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism, Judicial Watch reported, based on records gathered from Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, that Hezbollah established an operational base on the communist island.

The Cuban Military's Business Coup in Old Havana

Thursday, August 11, 2016
As we recently wrote, Obama's policy has "empowered" the Cuban military to expedite its absolute acquisition of the most lucrative sectors of the island's economy. (Click here to revisit.)

Of course, there was no bigger prize than Habaguanex, S.A., led by the Historian of Havana, Dr. Eusebio Leal, who was responsible for the restoration of Old Havana -- the main destination for frivolous tourists visiting Castro's dictatorship.

The coup is now complete.

(Wonder if The Brookings Institution, which was such a fan of Dr. Leal and hosted him on many occasions, has any comment?)

Must-read by J.J. Almeida, son of former Raul Castro confidant, deceased Cuban General Juan Almeida, in Translating Cuba:

The Military’s Coup d’Etat Against Eusebio Leal’s Empire 

The principal sources of income of the business, Habaguanex, and the Office of the Historian of Havana, are now officially part of the Group of Business Administration [GAE] of the Revolutionary Armed Forces; and the rest are removed or scrapped.

After a long process that ended in this expected adjudication, the intervention was announced this Saturday, July 30, early in the morning, in the elegant salon Del Monte, located on the first floor of the famous hotel, Ambos Mundos, in Havana.

The military interventionist, neither more nor less, was Division General Leonardo Ramón Andollo Valdés, who, among his distinctions (and he has more than the number of cheap wines), is the Second Head of State Major General of the FAR [Revolutionary Armed Forces], and the Second Head of the Permanent Commission for the Implementation and Development of Perfecting the Economic and Social Model of Cuban society.

“Can you imagine! According to what General Andollo said, the GAE has the control of accomplishing a more efficient function,” commented an ironic assistant in the mentioned meeting, who, upon kindly requesting he not be identified, added, “The soldiers do more harm to the country’s economy than Reggaeton does to Cuban music.”

At the pernicious conference, which, for almost obvious reasons, Dr. Eusebio Leal didn’t attend, GAE officials and officers of State Security and Military Counter Intelligence ordered that cell phones be removed from all the participants.

On the dispossessed side were the heads of the business section of the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana and its adjunct director, Perla Rosales Aguirreurreta, plus the present directors of the Tourist Company Habaguanex S.A. and all its managers of hotels, bars, cafeterias, shops, restaurants and hostels.

“This seems to be a coup d’état. An abuse of Leal’s efforts. Not to mention the hours of work that many of us have put in on the recovery of this part of the city that remained forgotten. Speaking in economic terms, Habaguanex has grown much more than Gaviota, TRD and all those military businesses together. No one can deny the efficiency of our work and our marketing strategy. Yesterday, this was a marginal, stinking zone on the edge of collapse; the reality is that today, there is no tourist, whether a head of State, diplomat or celebrity in any field who comes to this capital and doesn’t visit Old Havana,” argued one of the principal restorers of the so-called Historic Quarter, with feeling.

“Bit by bit we’re being dismantled – and I repeat: the park of the Maestrana, the museums and the shop of the Muñecos de Leyendas [mythical creatures], continue, for the moment, in the hands of the Office of the Historian, until, it’s also whispered, we pass under the direction of the Minister of Culture.”

Image below: Dr. Leal giving U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry a tour of the Cuban military's newest tourism holdings.

Global Business Consultancy: Cuba Offers Reputational Risk and No Transparency

From Qba-Intel:

Doing Business in Cuba Offers Reputational Risk and Lack of Transparency

Control Risks, a global risk consultancy service, issued a 4-page thought piece a few days ago asking the question is Cuba ready for business?

Some key points from the consultancy's political and business risk analysis: 

  • All eyes will also be on Cuba in 2018 as to who succeeds Raúl Castro as president. In fact, the final name may not matter hugely – more important will be to what extent the new president will be controlled by Raúl and his close allies in the military... The Cuban Communist Party and the military will remain firmly in control of the country’s political apparatus.
  • Operating in the country requires a company to accept an inherent element of reputational risk, particularly as most productive sectors of the economy are controlled by state companies managed by the Cuban military.
  • Companies also must accept far less transparency in government decision-making than they would normally expect; decisions on joint-ventures or investment proposals from foreign companies are ultimately politically driven, and priorities may change without great warning.
Source: Control Risks. "Cuba: Ready for Business?" 05AUG2016.

Tweet of the Week: Cubans Face Horrors of Darien Jungle Seeking Freedom

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos cheered on Obama's new Cuba policy.

Now, rather than deal with the consequences responsibly -- in a humanitarian fashion -- he's forcing Cuban refugees to choose between being sent back to Castro's police state or the horrors of the Darien jungle.

Tragically, Cubans are choosing the latter.

Translation: Cuban fleeing Turbo [Colombia] assures he saw six dead bodies trying to cross the jungle of Darien, including a woman and child. 

Quote of the Week: Cuban Regime More 'Legitimate' Thanks to Obama

The regime is more legitimate after the change in relations with the US. Economic changes won’t bring political changes; now human rights and the promotion of democracy are not the priority of the discussion.
-- Antonio Rodiles, Cuban democracy leader, interview in The Guardian, 8/10/16

Obama's Cuba Policy Does Not 'Live Up to Ideals We Stand For'

Tuesday, August 9, 2016
This week, the Obama Administration declassified over 1,000 pages of documents relating to Argentina's "Dirty War".

During President Obama's trip to Buenos Aires in March, he promised to release documents regarding the U.S.'s relationship with Argentina's military dictatorship. He argued:

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.”

We agree with this statement. But it's hard not to be angered by Obama's hypocrisy.

Does Obama believe his embrace of Cuba's military dictatorship -- the worst violator of human rights in the Western Hemisphere -- "lives up to the ideals that we stand for"?

Does Obama believe licensing hotel deals with the Cuban military -- responsible for the worst violations of human rights in the Western Hemisphere -- "lives up to the ideals that we stand for"?

There are over a dozen Cuban dissidents dying in hunger strikes, desperately calling attention to the abuses of the Castro regime. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration and its lobbying groups are actively promoting business with their oppressors.

Over a dozen Ladies in White were brutally beaten and arrested this week for trying to drape a Cuban flag over the coffin of a deceased female democracy activist. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration and its lobbying groups are actively promoting business with their oppressors.

There have been there have been 7,418 political arrests in Cuba during the first seven months of 2016 alone, which represents the highest rate of political arrests in decades. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration and its lobbying groups are actively promoting business with their oppressors.

No, Mr. President. Your Cuba policy does not "live up to the ideals we stand for."

We Shall Not Forget: Yaquelin Heredia Morales of The Ladies in White

Obama's policy towards Cuba is heavy on distractions, while short on reality.

These distractions have been extremely useful for the Castro regime to add to his roster of political prisoners.

As such, it's important to continue highlighting the cases of these new political prisoners.

One of these is Yaquelin Heredia Morales, a member of The Ladies in White.

Yaquelin was arrested on April 15, 2016, for carrying out a peaceful pro-democracy protest in the Havana's Fraternidad Park.

Since her arrest, she has been kept -- without charges or trial -- in a prison for patients with HIV/AIDS. Yaquelin does not have HIV/AIDS.

She will not be forgotten. 

Cuban Dissident Leader on Hunger Strike: 'Ready to Die' to Protest Abuses #juntoacoco

From Fox News:

Cuban dissident on hunger strike 'ready to die' to call attention to government abuse

On his third week of a hunger strike, Guillermo Fariñas, one of Cuba’s most prominent human rights activists, is refusing medical intervention as his health declines and says he is ready to die to call attention to the Cuban government’s abuse of dissidents.

In a telephone interview from his home in Cuba on Tuesday with Fox News Latino, Fariñas said he wants the Cuban government to stop engaging in physical assault of political dissidents.

Those who have visited Fariñas, as well as a doctor who was monitoring his condition, have told Fox News Latino and other news organizations that he suffered two fractured ribs and other injuries in July when he asked Cuban state police about the status of a detained dissident, Carlos Amel Oliva.

Fariñas, who has gone on more than 20 hunger strikes in protest of human rights violations in Cuba, immediately wrote a letter to Cuban President Raul Castro asking for an end to “abuse, terror, and violence by the repressive authorities of your government.” He decided to launch a hunger strike, and more than a dozen other human rights activists in Cuba have joined him.

Fariñas, 54, has been hospitalized twice in the last 10 days, according to the Cuban American National Foundation, an influential Miami-based lobby group that pushes for democratic reform in Cuba.

As his health has deteriorated and a weaker Fariñas spends more and more of his days sleeping, the recipient of several international human rights prizes has been visited by a representative of the U.S. Embassy in Havana and an envoy who stopped by on behalf of Pope Francis.

The Vatican envoy told Fariñas a few days ago that Pope Francis does not agree with holding a hunger strike, but respects his decision to do so.

Fariñas said he is too tired of the systemic abuses by the Castro regime and that he will sacrifice his life to get the Cuban government to take action, or the world to take human rights abuses in Cuba more seriously.

“I’m not asking them to stop detaining people, though they should stop making up bogus reasons and trumping up charges and refusing to admit that they detain people just for political reasons,” Fariñas said of what he is asking of the Cuban government. “I want them to stop beating up people who are merely protesting peacefully for freedom, for democratic reform. They also should never beat someone up when they are handcuffed or put in some other restraints.”

Fariñas, who met with President Barack Obama when he visited Havana in March, said the United States' move to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba only has emboldened the Castro regime "by giving it validation."

"The intentions by the president were good, I believe, but it has served to make them feel legitimized and more reckless about oppression," Fariñas said. "If they had any good will, the Cuban government would have taken steps toward democratic reform and liberties for everyone, the Cuban citizenry and critics of the government. But instead, the regime is acting with impugnity."

Fariñas wants the Obama administration to freeze diplomatic relations so long as the government continues to crack down on dissension.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said to Fox News Latino on condition of anonymity that it is keeping track of Fariñas' health, and has contacted Cuban authorities about its concerns regarding the activist.

"We remain concerned about the physical well-being of Guillermo Fariñas, Carlos Amel, and other activists engaged in a hunger strike in Cuba," the State Department official said in a statement. "We are monitoring their situation closely."

"We stand in solidarity with those who advocate for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly," the official said. "We have raised our concerns directly with the Cuban government, both in Washington and Havana."

Fariñas has dropped nearly 30 pounds since he began his hunger strike in July, said fellow dissident Jorge Luis Artiles Montiel, who has been acting as spokesman for Fariñas and others holding hunger strikes.

Fariñas’ mother, who is a nurse, is monitoring his vital signs, Artiles Montiel told Fox News Latino.

“His blood pressure is low, his pulse is slow, his heart rate is low,” he said. “He doesn’t want food or anything. At the hospital they had an IV pumping fluid into him, but he didn’t want it.”

“He wants no more medical intervention, even if his condition deteriorates and he loses consciousness. He told us not to call for help if that happens. But of course we will, how can we not? His health is in peril.”

The Cuban government has force-fed hunger strikers in the past. The United Nations considers force-feeding hunger strikes a human rights violation.

In 2010, Fariñas held one of his most watched hunger strikes as the Cuban government was in talks with the Spanish government about releasing political prisoners. The government released 116 political prisoners, many of whom were offered exile in Spain. Fariñas was one of them, but refused, saying – like some other dissidents – that he would not grant Cuba’s wish to rid itself of critics by banishing them to other countries.

Besides the U.S. State Department, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican of Cuban descent, several international human rights organizations, and U.S.-based groups that advocate for democratic reform in Cuba all have expressed concern about Fariñas.

Fariñas has been honored around the world for his human rights activism. Among the honors is the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2010.

Cuban Youth Activist on Hunger Strike Spitting Up Blood, Life Hangs in Balance

It's heartbreaking to watch these courageous dissident leaders willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of all Cubans, while the Obama Administration and lobbying groups in the United States simply promote business with those who repress them.

Over 845 Political Arrests in July, Cuban Repression at Historic Rate

Monday, August 8, 2016
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights (CCHR) has documented 845 political arrests by the Castro regime during the month of July 2016.

Thus far, there have been 7,418 political arrests in Cuba during the first seven months of 2016. This represents -- by far -- the highest rate of political arrests in decades.

It already nearly matches last year's year-long tally of 8,616 political arrests.

Moreover, it's already (in just seven months) nearly quadruple the tally of political arrests throughout all of 2010, as Obama began his presidency.

And these are only political arrests that have been thoroughly documented. Many more are suspected.

Thus, despite the Obama Administration's engagement with the Castro dictatorship and increased travel to the island, repression on the island is exponentially rising.

Why? Because the Castro regime keeps getting a pass (more business, tourists and other concessions) for its repressive acts.

With Obama's policy, it pays to repress.

Obama's Cuba Policy in a Graph

In 2014, President Obama began a process of seeking to normalize Castro's regime.

Here's how the Cuban people are responding:

Must-Read: Economic Reforms Will Not Lead to Democracy in Cuba

By Dr. Jose Azel in The PanAm Post:

Economic Reforms Will Not Lead to Democracy in Cuba

Do economic reforms lead to democratization, or does democratization lead to economic progress? This is the fundamental question surrounding the debate over the new U.S.-Cuba policy. President Obama and his supporters believe that economic reforms will empower the population to demand political reforms, whereas critics point out that General Castro has been perfectly clear that Cuba will not undertake any political reforms.

Let’s put aside, for present purposes, the ethical problems of a U.S. foreign policy that embraces despots and establishes a moral equivalence between oppressors and the oppressed. The focus here is on the “what should come first” aspect of reforms. The transition experience of East European countries provides the answer to the question. Fredo Arias King, an expert with encyclopedic knowledge of post-Soviet democratization, classifies the East European end-game experiences into eight groups:

Overthrow– Where communism ended when dissidents were able to overthrow an obstinate communist party and form a new government made up primarily of dissidents (Czechoslovakia-1989, East Germany, Yugoslavia, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia)

Substitution– Where communist parties were more flexible and willing to negotiate a transition (Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Slovenia).

Transformation- Where the principal communist leaders took the initiative toward regime change without the presence of great social pressures (Soviet Union-1985, Hungary-1956, and Czechoslovakia-1968)

Reappearance– Where former high-level government officials, who had been removed from power, used the nascent democratic movement to return to power (Russia, Romania, and Croatia)

Replacement– Where mid-level officials took up the flag of democratic or nationalistic reform to undermine the regime they served (Hungary-1989, Serbia-1989, and Bulgaria)

Reincarnation– Where the state parties felt great social pressure to fake a brake with communism in order to survive (Ukraine, Moldova, Albania, Mongolia, Macedonia, and Latvia)

Continuity– Where the communist leaders unexpectedly turned into the leaders of independent nations, but retained the principal structures of repression and the command economy (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Belarus)

Violence– Where leaders used state violence to provoke civil wars and retain power (Tajikistan, Serbia, Armenia and Azerbaijan)

Regardless of the typology, Arias King’s measurements, fifteen years after the transitions, show that those Eastern European countries that instituted political change prior to, or hand in hand with, economic changes were the most successful in becoming both free and prosperous; e.g., Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, East Germany. Those countries that decided to begin with economic reforms and postponed political changes were mostly unsuccessful in both areas; e.g., Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan)

Historical evidence shows economic reforms do not necessarily lead to democratization, and that democratization most likely leads to economic progress. Democratization is the horse that must lead the cart of economic progress. Putting the cart before the horse means that neither economic nor political reforms will go far.

Yes, Cuba’s history is not that of Eastern Europe and its transition experience will be distinctly Cuban. I leave it up to the reader to divine Cuba’s most likely scenario, but my bet is on processes led by the Cuban Armed Forces evoking continuity disguised as change. This is Cuba’s Gordian knot. Continuity disguised as change does not remove the institutional impediments to individual freedoms and empowerment.

What is not understood by the President and his supporters is that political rights and civil liberties are not superfluous luxuries to be appended at the end of a program of economic reforms. Political rights and civil liberties are what allow an empowered citizenry to correct mistakes, voice discontent and bring about changes in leadership. Democracy requires a relationship between the state and its citizens fundamentally different from the relationship model of an absolutist state.

Economic reforms not anchored on individual political freedoms condemn Cuban society to live a provisional existence without a recognizable end. Living such a provisional existence wounds the human spirit and does not promote the development of democratic sociopolitical values. Peoples that experience only an existence without a future cannot become the citizens that will sustain a democratic state. Freedom is not an extravagance that can wait until the arrival of prosperity.