Cuban Democracy Leader on Hunger Strike Rushed to Hospital, in Critical Condition #juntoacoco

Friday, August 19, 2016
UPDATE: Last night, Fariñas was rushed to the hospital in Santa Clara, where he remains in critical condition. Today is the 30th day of his hunger strike.

From Fox News:

Deteriorating health of Cuban dissident on hunger strike worries international observers

Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas is on the fourth week of a hunger strike, and his health continues to deteriorate, his mother told Fox News Latino in a telephone interview from Cuba.

Fariñas started his hunger strike in July, he told FNL last week, after he was beaten by Cuban police for inquiring about another dissident. Fariñas said that his condition for ending the hunger strike is that Cuban government stop beating dissidents who peacefully demonstrate for human rights.

The U.S. government, the Vatican, political leaders from around the world and Cuba policy groups have been monitoring Fariñas' condition, well aware that a turn for the worse as far as his health could have far-reaching ramifications for the still-fragile restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

The 54-year-old has lost about 30 lbs. and has low blood pressure, a slow pulse and reduced heart rate, according to his mother, Alicia Hernandez Cabeza, who is a nurse. Others who have visited the dissident have also described a decline in his condition.

“He needs help to get out of bed, he is extremely weak,” Hernandez Cabeza said Tuesday. “The injuries from the beating the police here put him through are slowly healing, but he is dehydrated and has muscle fatigue and is barely awake.”

Fariñas, who has won numerous international human rights awards and has met with President Barack Obama at least twice to discuss the lack of personal freedoms in Cuba, has been hospitalized twice since he began the hunger strike.

“For a mother, there is no comparison to seeing a son or daughter suffer, to see them in this condition,” Hernandez Cabeza said. “I am by his side until midnight or 1 a.m. every night. I come home and then the next day, early in the morning, I am back at his side.”

“I pray to the saints for my son,” she said. “There is no talking him out of going on a hunger strike or fighting for liberty and human rights. When he started the hunger strike, it upset him greatly when people told him to stop for his health. I see that he gets very agitated, and I don’t want his health worsening because of the stress.”

Fariñas – a dissident who has gone on about two dozen hunger strikes, barely surviving some of them – has served a total of about 11 years as a political prisoner in Cuban jails.

In recent weeks, representatives from the U.S. Embassy in Havana, the Vatican, as well as others, have visited Fariñas.

Fariñas has been a vocal opponent of the Obama administration’s move to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, saying that President Raúl Castro has not ended the repression on the island. Fariñas says the harassment of dissidents continues unabated.

He called Obama’s decision to restore relations with Cuba a betrayal of a promise the president made to him and other dissidents that held that there would be no change in U.S.-Cuba policy without their input and consent.

“He seems very serious about taking this to the end,” Sebastian A. Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, told FNL. “The human implication of someone of the value of Fariñas dying is very dramatic. He represents so much of the new Cuba that many there want to build, which is not the one [President] Raúl Castro is building."

"Politically speaking, if he dies as a result of this hunger strike, it’s going to essentially put the entire process of the normalization of diplomatic relations into question," Arcos said. "It’s going to put into question the entire idea that the way for democratic nations to deal with Cuba is diplomacy and that it will force a change in the nature of the Cuban regime.”

One Year Later: Assessing President Obama’s Failed Cuba Strategy

By former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in The National Review:

One Year Later: Assessing President Obama’s Failed Cuba Strategy

One year ago this month, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Havana to celebrate the reopening of the U.S. embassy, 54 years after President Dwight Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist regime.

During the last year, we have seen President Barack Obama, his administration, and its extended echo chamber work exhaustively to portray the president’s misguided Cuba policy as a success. But the realities on the ground paint a different picture. We saw President Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro enjoy a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national baseball team with FARC terrorists in the stadium, host a jubilant joint press conference, and mingle with Nancy Pelosi, Patrick Leahy, and Charlie Rangel over a lavish state dinner at the Palace of the Revolution.

But today, despite the president’s promises to “engage and empower the Cuban people,” little has changed for those suffering under the Havana tyranny.

Dozens of protesters were arrested in Cuba just hours before President Obama’s arrival in Havana back in March. The Ladies in White, such as Berta Soler and Yaquelin Heredia Morales are still being harassed, beaten, and jailed. Sakharov Prize awardee Guillermo “Coco” Fariñas has been on a hunger strike for nearly three weeks to shine a spotlight on Castro’s human-rights abuses on the island. The regime controls the media and the Internet remains highly censored with little access to divergent views. Last month, the Obama State Department even admitted the dictatorship has failed to live up to the promises it made to broaden Internet access. At a meeting of the Cuban Communist party in April, Raul Castro denied Cuba was moving toward capitalism and continued to deride free markets and private-property rights. Elections remain far from free and democratic.

In fact, prominent leaders of Cuba’s peaceful opposition believe President Obama’s concessions to the Castro regime have been counterproductive to the fight for freedom. Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, also known as Antunez, and who spent 17 years in Castro’s gulags, has affirmed that “a vital segment of the Cuban Resistance” view the Obama administration’s policy of appeasement “as a betrayal of the aspiration to freedom of the Cuban people.”

Cuban pro-democracy advocate Antonio Rodiles, who has been arrested more than 50 times, believes repression by the dictatorship and its Communist apparatchiks is actually increasing. He recently said, “the regime is more legitimate after the change in relations with the U.S.,” adding, “Economic changes won’t bring political changes; now human rights and the promotion of democracy are not the priority of the discussion.”

As we assess the results of President Obama’s foreign-policy legacy, it is clear that Cuba, like Iran in recent nuclear negotiations, has received far more concessions from the United States than what we achieved in return. That shouldn’t come as a surprise — at every turn, the Obama administration has put politics over sound policy, pursuing photo-ops instead of pragmatic and tangible objectives.

Ultimately, the real test of the Obama administration’s rapprochement with the Castro regime is not whether President Obama’s legacy is burnished with dubious diplomatic achievements, but whether improved relations between Havana and Washington advance the cause of human rights and freedom for the Cuban people. The ongoing detention of pro-democracy advocates and continued human-rights abuses suggest the administration’s policy has failed this test.

There are reasons to be optimistic. The Democracy movement on the island gulag is filled with tremendous young, freedom-loving leaders. The Communist dictatorship that has ruled Cuba is an unfortunate relic — led by dying tyrants, clinging to their last years in power, whose reign will come to an end eventually. The future of Cuba is clear. Freedom will ultimately prevail, and the U.S. can be an active participant in the region to accelerate democracy, but our current approach is flawed.

It will be incumbent on the next administration to work with Congress — not subvert it through the abuse of executive authority — to promote policies that will advance the cause of basic human rights for all in Cuba, including the release of political prisoners, fair and free elections, respect for the rule of law, the resolution of U.S. confiscated-property claims, and the embrace of a free-market economy.

Until these conditions exist, we should not reward the Castro dictatorship by ending the embargo. In fact, considerations should be given to strengthening it, an effort currently being led by Republicans and even some Democrats in the House of Representatives to empower the Cuban people.

Our aspiration should not merely be for improved relations with a violent, corrupt, murderous regime in Havana, but for a truly free and democratic Cuba, which we can help achieve through restored American leadership and a coherent, consistent foreign policy.

Caught on Tape: Cuban Woman Struck in Face for Protesting in Havana

Click below (or here) to watch a video of a male Castro regime operative striking a woman in the face for protesting against electricity blackouts in Havana:

A video posted by Yusnaby Pérez (@yusnaby) on

Wasn't Obama's Cuba Policy Supposed to "Empower" Private Entrepreneurs?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016
To the contrary, it has "empowered" the Cuban military to take absolute control of the island's tourism industry.

It has led to the eviction of "self-employed" Cubans from key tourism areas, the imposition of price controls and the confiscation of goods.

As a result, there has been a net decrease in the number of "self-employed" Cubans.

Read the story below about the Cuban military's business coup in Old Havana very carefully.

(We also forewarned this last month -- see here.)

This means that every tourist that travels to the island overwhelmingly and directly benefits the Castro regime's repressive apparatus.

Over 90% of tourists in Cuba frequent Old Havana. The other 10% don't leave the Cuban military's all-inclusive beach resorts.

From The Miami Herald:

Cuba historian confirms military taking over operations

In the early 1990s, with Havana in ruins and Cuba mired in a devastating economic crisis, the island's government granted historian Eusebio Leal Spengler and his office broad and rare powers to return Old Havana to its former glory.

Under his guidance, and largely reinvesting its own funds, the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana (OHCH) rescued at least one third of the buildings in the historic heart of the Cuban capital and won lavish international praise.

But Leal's autonomy appears to have come to an end, with all OHCH operations now under the control of the Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A. (GAESA), a holding company controlled by the Cuban armed forces.

“You see that building? Ten years ago it was full of putrid water, rats and garbage. The balconies could fall on people walking under them any time. Today they are apartments, thanks to Eusebio's work,” said Mirna, 68, a retiree who added that she's worried about the future of the OHCH.

Leal confirmed the change in an email response to questions from a reporter but chose his words carefully. The OHCH, he wrote, “was not transferred to the armed forces but to (GAESA), a development enterprise that has the prestige and capacity to invest, while the Historian's Office retains the power to advise on preservation and new construction projects.”

Cuba's government-controlled news media has not reported on the change. Some independent journalists have described the shift as a direct takeover by the armed forces.

Leal, however, said that OHCH employees are not worried because “the preservation work is being extended to (other) cities important to Cuba's heritage.” But he went on to take a sharp jab at unidentified critics of his efforts to protect the national patrimony.

“We have been hurt, it's true, because at a moment that requires the utmost respect for life, mediocre people who never achieved anything and are spiritually poor are taking advantage to injure and damage the many others who have worked so many years to preserve the patrimony of a nation, either in Cuba or any other part of the world,” he wrote.

Leal took over the OHCH in 1967 after the death of Emilio Roig de Leuchshering, who had led the agency since its founding in the 1930s. It began to grow, in size, revenue and autonomy as it renovated and sold or rented buildings in Old Havana.

Its almost total autonomy — rarely seen in Cuba's communist system — was assured in the 1990s with a government decree that empowered Leal to create an enterprise that could earn revenues and reinvest them in Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The decree ordered the OHCH to report directly to the national Council of State rather than to the municipal government. The office also has its own special legal code and judicial standing, as well as permission to import and export goods directly instead of going through the cumbersome national system for foreign trade.

One of its most important benefits is the power to require payments from companies that are based in Old Havana but are not under direct OHCH control. They pay the office 1 percent of revenue if they work in Cuban pesos and 5 percent if they work in convertible pesos known as CUCs.

Among the entities are the Habaguanex hotel chain, the San Cristobal travel agency, the Opus Havana cultural magazine, the Habana Radio station, the Bologna publishing house and several businesses with web pages that advertise and sell OHCH products.

OHCH also controlled the Aurea and Fénix real estate companies, more than 50 cafeterias and two dozen restaurants, museums, concert halls and shops, an import company, a trade school and three construction companies.

In the past two decades, it created 13,000 jobs directly and thousands more indirectly, according to studies carried out by the organization. Sixty percent of the $500 million in revenues it brought went to “social” projects such as a home for the aged. The OHCH also received more than $30 million in foreign assistance.

About 55 percent of the tourists who go to the island visit Havana, and 90 percent of them walk around the historic city center. Per capita tourist income in Old Havana is estimated at 2,185 convertible pesos, compared to 245 in the rest of the capital, studies show.

“The biggest slice of the cake is in Old Havana. Everyone knows that, and that's why they are taking away of all of Leal's enterprises,” said one employee of a senior citizen's home financed by the OHCH.

Leal's email said OHCH will retain the power to impose a 5 percent charge on any public or private activity in Old Havana, and will still run “heritage” shops such as those in museums. Other state institutions also will continue to contribute to the historian's office.

Leal's office grew even bigger in 2003, when it took control of the redevelopment of the old part of the seaside Malecón boulevard, and then in 2005 when it began running the Chinatown section of the capital.

Some of the small private businesses in Old Havana said they felt protected by the OHCH and expressed concerns about its transfer to GAESA.

“The government always promotes its own restaurants, hotels and businesses ahead of the private sector,” said Reinaldo, who runs a clothing shop in Old Havana.

Hairdresser Camilo Condis said the small private businesses in Old Havana have thrived under the OHCH umbrella.

“Without the Historian's office, the work we do would not have been possible,” said Condis, who works with Gilberto Valladares, the beauty shop owner who met with President Barack Obama during his visit to Cuba.

But since GAESA's takeover on Aug. 1, the institution that preserved at least one third of Havana's historic center has been limited to “managing museums, promoting cultural activities and the care of our patrimony,” said a source at the Vitrina de Valonia museum in Old Havana.

It's not clear how the military will manage the restoration projects in Old Havana, but many expressed fear that they will not know how to maintain Leal's legacy, and will seek more immediate profits without taking residents into account.

Wasn't Obama's Cuba Policy Supposed to Accelerate Castro's Reforms?

To the contrary, it has stifled any "reforms" in Cuba.

As we argued in November 2014 -- one month before Obama's new policy announcement -- lifting sanctions would stifle any real reforms in Cuba, for the regime would solely focus on strengthening its state monopolies and the repression required to suppress change.

That's exactly what's happening today.

From Reuters:

Cuba sticks to modest reform plan despite poor results

Cuba on Tuesday published policy guidelines for the next five years that signal no new domestic initiatives although it upgraded foreign investment to "fundamental in certain sectors."

The 275-point social and economic plan, coming at a time of weak economic growth and drastically reduced supplies of Venezuelan oil, is extremely similar to one Cuba adopted in 2011, which called for decentralization of its state-run economy, support for some small business, recognition of market forces and the need for more foreign investment.

The reforms in the 2011 plan have, however, yet to be fully implemented because of stiff bureaucratic resistance, President Raul Castro said at a Communist Party Congress in April.

Despite improved relations with the United States and other western countries, there is no sign Cuba is ready to do more than tweak its Soviet-style economy.

Centralized planning and a state monopoly on the means of production lead off the new guidelines, as they did previous ones. Five years ago the reform plan authorized small business, but forbade “concentration of property”; the new one adds to that “wealth.”

The previous document called for a significant reduction in the state’s participation in the sale, distribution and pricing of food in favor of private initiative and market forces, while the new one omits this. In practice the state has once more taken control of distribution and is setting prices.

Wasn't Obama's Cuba Policy Supposed to Advance Regional Interests?

To the contrary, it has given Castro's allies a green-light to fulfill their authoritarian ambitions without consequence.

(We forewarned about this in Congressional testimony on March 2014 -- see here.)

After all, the Obama Administration is now too busy coddling Latin American dictators, rather than preventing new ones.

(Also note how Castro's advice to Ortega was to not provoke "serious measures" from the United States. A lesson for those who ingenuously argue Castro wants the embargo as an "excuse" for his failures.)

By Obama's former Ambassador to Nicaragua, Robert Callahan, in The Miami Herald:

The death of democracy in Ortega’s Nicaragua

How much more can he get away with? What must Daniel Ortega do before the United States and other democracies finally act, or even speak, against his demolition of Nicaragua’s democracy?

Over the past few months his lackeys on the Supreme Court have declared the principal opposition party illegal and banned it from contesting the November elections. Then Ortega had them expel that party’s representatives, who had been elected almost five years earlier, from the National Assembly.

He described the Organization of American States, European Union, and Carter Center as “shameless” and stated unequivocally that they will not be invited to observe the balloting. And he named his wife as his vice-presidential running mate for the elections, another indication that he wants to establish a family dynasty, just as his erstwhile enemies the Somozas had done.

He has thrown three American officials out of the country on the flimsiest of pretexts. In what appears to be an attempt to intimidate his neighbors, especially Costa Rica, which has no armed forces, he has arranged to buy Russian tanks. When three Venezuelan parliamentarians tried to enter Nicaragua to express solidarity with the political opposition, they didn’t get beyond the airport.

Having bought or muzzled most of the independent media, and co-opted much of the pliant business class, he faces little public criticism. To be sure, a couple of publications, managed by members of the courageous Chamorro family, as well as a handful of radio stations still speak out for democracy, but they must feel isolated and beleaguered. So too must those valiant but rare Nicaraguan advocates for human rights and political pluralism.

If these democrats are expecting support from the American government, they likely will be disappointed. Although the United States publicly condemned the Sandinista evisceration of the political opposition, our embassy in Managua at about the same time was hosting a conference on economic development.

The State Department did offer a feeble response to the expulsion of the American officials. According to the transcript of the daily briefing, the spokesman read a statement filled with the usual diplomatic pabulum — the action was “unwarranted” and that “we conveyed our strong displeasure” to the Nicaraguan ambassador in Washington. This is hardly the stuff to scare Ortega straight.

Ortega has mastered the modern caudillo’s art of creating an authoritarian state while maintaining the trappings of democracy. All the while, he has largely escaped censure and sanction.

In 2009, when I was serving as ambassador in Nicaragua, I invited to breakfast a prominent Sandinista, then politically inactive and dedicated to overseeing his considerable financial interests. He told me that shortly after the success of their revolution he and several others, including Daniel Ortega, met with Fidel Castro in Havana. Castro gave them two pieces of advice.

First, don’t provoke the Americans into taking serious measures against you. They are too big, too strong. You can disagree with them, insult them, befriend their enemies, but know your limits. Second, under no circumstances, no matter how intense the pressure, allow free and fair elections.

My breakfast guest laughed and said that they had disregarded Castro’s counsel and the result was the Contra War and the internationally observed elections of 1990, which the Sandinistas lost decisively. Daniel Ortega, he assured me, would never make the same mistakes again.

He hasn’t. Despite twice blatantly stealing municipal elections, illegally altering the Constitution to allow him unlimited presidential terms, and regularly excoriating the United States as an imperialistic power, he has usually incurred nothing more serious than a brief scolding. If he suspects the United States might act, he makes a conciliatory gesture or two, lies low, and lets America’s displeasure, such as it is, abate.

And he certainly will not allow a free and fair presidential election in November. Even though the political opposition is fragmented and weak, even though he controls the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, even though the polls show him the favorite, Ortega adamantly refuses to invite reputable national and international experts to observe the elections. He thought he had all the same advantages in 1990, and he lost. He’ll never risk defeat again.

The question, then, is what will the United States do? Will we utter a few words of disapproval and, after a decorous interval, get on with the business of bilateral diplomacy? After all, Nicaragua is a small, poor place of little geopolitical consequence. We have many other demands on our time and efforts. Why bother?

Or do we say that if Ortega does not restore the legal status of the main opposition parties, return the expelled deputies to their seats in the National Assembly, and invite electoral observers, we will not recognize the results of the election or deal with the government — inevitably, the Sandinistas — it produces?

If we don’t act now, the situation in Nicaragua will only get worse. Much worse.

While Obama Official Misleads, Cuba's Regime Confiscating 1,400 Churches

Tuesday, August 16, 2016
Last month, Shaun Casey, the State Department's Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs, returned from Cuba praising the "vibrancy, dynamism, and diversity" of religious affairs in Cuba.

His trip was mostly spent with Cuba's "Office of Religious Affairs" -- in other words, Castro's "religion police."

Not once did Casey mention the tenfold increase in religious freedom violations since Obama's new policy.

Moreover, while Casey is busy misleading the American people, the Castro regime (below) is currently confiscating 1,400 churches.

Congress should hold Casey responsible for his intentional effort to mislead and distract.

From the London-based, Christian Solidarity Worldwide:

Cuba: Church Demolitions Gather Pace and Seizure of 1,400 Assemblies of God Churches Underway

The first half of 2016 has seen church demolitions in Cuba gather pace as the government crackdown on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) on the island continues. The authorities have also begun to confiscate 1,400 Assemblies of God (AOG) churches that were earmarked for seizure in 2015.

The latest report on FoRB in Cuba by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) details 1606 separate violations between January and July 2016. Cases include the demolition and confiscation of church buildings, the destruction of church property, arbitrary detention and other forms of harassment, in particular seizure of religious leaders’ personal belongings.

The government has continued to follow through with the confiscation of 1,400 AOG churches; 100 of those churches are under threat of demolition. AOG leaders and leaders from other denominations expressed concern to CSW that the government’s repression of religious groups has worsened significantly over the past year.

There has been an unprecedented spate of church demolitions. Four large churches linked to the unregistered Apostolic Movement were destroyed by the government in central and eastern Cuba. In each of these cases, the pastors and their families were dragged out of their homes in the very early hours of the morning. They were also detained and held in separate police stations for the duration of the demolition. In some of these cases, large numbers of members of the churches were detained, apparently to stop them from protesting.

The report also details the arbitrary detention and harassment of many church leaders. CSW has reported nine cases in 2016, including those detained whilst their churches were being demolished. A particularly serious case involved the arrest of Rev. Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso on 20 March 2016, hours before the US President Barack Obama arrived in Cuba on an official visit. The government has also continued to detain dozens of women affiliated with the Ladies in White movement across Cuba every Sunday on their way to Mass. They are often violently dragged away by security agents as they leave their homes or upon arriving at church services.

Despite these challenges, CSW has received a growing number of accounts of religious groups standing up to government pressure. Church leaders have continued to worship on the sites of their demolished churches and Ladies in White have persisted in their efforts to attend Mass on Sunday mornings, despite government repression and violence.

Richmond Times-Dispatch: It's Time Obama Shows Backbone With Cuba's Regime

By Robin Beres in The Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Freedom remains in short supply in Cuba

It is time that the Obama administration shows a little backbone.

In January 1961, the American embassy in Cuba was abruptly closed as the U.S. State Department recalled all of its personnel and President Eisenhower formally severed relations with the island nation.

Within a few weeks of that decision, the only Americans remaining on the island were U.S. troops stationed on the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. For 55 years, relations between the two nations remained more combative than cordial.

But in December of 2014, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced simultaneously that the two nations were going to pursue a new course in their relations.

Obama assured the American people that the outreach would be in line with U.S. interests and would help make “the lives of ordinary Cubans a little bit easier, more free, more prosperous.”

On July 20, 2015, American and Cuban diplomats stood side-by-side in Washington as Cuban soldiers raised their national flag over the Cuban embassy. Shortly after the ceremony, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez at the State Department.

Rodriquez presented a list of his government’s long-standing requests that included compensating Cuba for “human and economic damages” imposed by the American economic embargo on the island nation, ending that embargo, and returning to Cuba the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

The ceremony at the Cuban embassy drew reaction from both pro- and anti-Cuban activists and politicians. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who was born in Cuba, claimed the newly opened embassy in Washington would serve as a “spy hub” for the Cuban government. “Today is a sad day for national security and human rights around the world,” she noted.

Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, tweeted that engaging politically with the socialist nation “will only serve to further legitimize (the) repressive regime.” Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush, both Florida Republicans, also vehemently opposed the new relationship status.

Supporters of the new engagement included Sen. Patrick Leahy, Democrat from Vermont, and James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, just one of many groups that for years has demanded Congress end the economic embargo. Most activists continue to insist the long-standing policy only worsens human-rights abuses in Cuba.

In March of this year, President Obama and his family flew to Cuba for a historic three-day visit. Just hours before Air Force One touched down at the Havana airport, more than 50 dissidents who were marching to protest human rights abuses were rounded up and arrested — right under the noses of dozens of international journalists.

The president and his family were greeted at Jose Marti Airport by the Cuban foreign minister and other government officials. Noticeably absent among the welcoming committee was President Raul Castro. Whether the elderly dictator’s absence was planned in advance due to weather conditions or was a deliberate snub remains unclear.

So one year later, what’s changed and what hasn’t? What has happened with tourism, trade, and Cuba’s disturbing history of human- rights violations?

On July 20, a senior official at the State Department held a briefing on the status of re-established diplomatic relations. According to that individual, both nations “have engaged on a range of economic, security, cultural and social issues... We remain convinced that our shift from a policy of isolation to engagement is the best course for supporting the aspirations of the Cuban people and the emergence of a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Cuba.”

Yes, there have been noticeable signs that trade, tourism, and diplomacy have greatly increased between the two nations. Cruise ships regularly visit the island and numerous U.S. government officials have also visited. Unfortunately, all of this increased activity seems to have benefited only the Castro regime. There has been little benefit to the average Cuban citizen.

In fact, as President Obama must know full well, the lives of ordinary Cubans have not become “a little bit easier, more free, more prosperous.” If anything, things have gotten worse.

The State Department briefing was held just one day after The Miami Herald published a less-flattering news story: “Cuba’s human rights abuses worse despite U.S. ties.” The story by Andre Oppenheimer notes that in the past year and a half, the Obama administration’s outreach to Cuba has been generous and Castro’s regime has eagerly accepted the proffered hand.

But, says Oppenheimer, while much has been offered, little has been given in return. He shares a recently released report from the Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Reconciliation.

The report says that the number of political arrests and detentions has greatly increased from a monthly average of 718 in 2015 to nearly 1,100 a month since January of this year. The Cuban government continues to imprison, torture and even execute individuals for whatever it may consider to be an act of civil disobedience.

Protests and assemblies by groups such as the Ladies in White (a group of relatives and wives of political prisoners) more often than not result in beatings, intimidation or trips to jail. There are no protections for free speech in Cuba.

Cuba needs this budding relationship far more than the U.S. needs Cuba. It is time that the Obama administration shows a little backbone and replaces its overly benevolent, naïve approach to the Castro regime with a demand for greater human rights and a true democratic government. Until that happens, Congress is right to keep the embargo in place.

Boston Herald: Fidel Burns Obama (Again)

By Tom Shattuck in The Boston Herald:

Fidel burns another Dem president

Fidel Castro has been making fools of young, Democratic presidents for 55 years and now he can add Barack Obama to the notches in his belt.

The old socialist turned 90 yesterday, and in a birthday letter to his people he dedicated a generous amount of space to lambasting the American president.

The letter is proof that Obama has been played. Again.

You knew it would happen.

In his desperation to find a legacy achievement in any wretched corner of the globe, he thought he had one wrapped up in Cuba. In March, Air Force One landed in Havana. President Obama did all the right things to charm Fidel, including deriding the United States for having “too much money in American politics” and adding an obligatory nod to our moral failings: “We do have challenges with racial bias — in our communities, in our criminal justice system, in our society — the legacy of slavery and segregation.”

Obama and Fidel’s younger brother, Raul, took in a baseball game. The gushing American media called it “historic.”

But now Fidel Castro is not playing ball.

In yesterday’s letter, he scolded the U.S. president for not apologizing to Japan for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, writing, “He lacked the words to ask for forgiveness for the killings of hundreds of thousands of people.”

But Fidel, I thought we were friends...

Castro wasn’t done. While taunting America about the many assassination plots against him, he wrote, “I almost laughed at the Machiavellian plans of U.S. presidents.”

Glad we’ve put the old dictator in a good mood. Soon he’ll be bursting with happiness as the normalization of relations with Cuba will mean a windfall for the Castro regime and nada for the people of Cuba.

Sugar and cigars will sell very well in America, but with the average Cuban worker earning just $20 per month, don’t expect any long lines at the Apple Store in Havana.

But Obama’s “achievements” aren’t about any tangible successes attained — that takes humility and hard work.

Obama is the ribbon-cutting president — whether it’s Obamacare, the Iran deal or Cuba, he gets the glory and we get to deal with disastrous 

Happy birthday, Fidel. You’ve won a golden ticket to finish out your golden years in style.

Whether it’s access to American money through lifted embargoes or pallets full of cash, good things happen for bad people under this 

WSJ: Obama Betrayed Cuba’s Dissidents

Sunday, August 14, 2016
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady in The Wall Street Journal:

Obama Betrayed Cuba’s Dissidents

Civil liberties have deteriorated since the U.S. said that it would normalize ties.

Fidel Castro turned 90 years old on Saturday, adding plausibility to the popular Cuban theory that even hell doesn’t want him. Meanwhile Cuba’s military dictatorship, now headed by his 83-year-old brother Raúl, is cracking down with renewed brutality on anyone who dares not conform to its totalitarian rule.

If President Obama’s December 2014 softening of U.S. policy toward Cuba was supposed to elicit some quid pro quo on human rights from Havana, it has so far failed. Independent groups that monitor civil liberties on the island say conditions have deteriorated in the 20 months since the Obama decision to normalize relations and ease Cuba trade and travel restrictions for Americans. Many dissident groups opposed any U.S. thaw without human-rights conditions attached and say they feel abandoned by the U.S., which they had long relied on for moral support.

Guillermo Fariñas, a 54-year-old psychologist and winner of the European Parliament’s Andrei Sakharov Prize, is one such disappointed Cuban.

In a July 20 letter to Gen. Castro, Mr. Fariñas announced “a hunger and thirst strike” until Castro “designate[s]” a vice president to meet with the opposition and declares an end to the state policy of torturing and arresting dissidents and confiscating their property. Mr. Fariñas has been taken to the local hospital in the city of Santa Clara twice for rehydration, but is now at home. He is gravely ill.

Flirting with death is a sign of desperation and it is difficult not to see a connection between that and Mr. Obama’s decision to drop the longstanding U.S. commitment to the democracy movement on the island so that he can be on better terms with the despots. Mr. Fariñas also has personal reasons for feeling betrayed.

In November 2013 he and Berta Soler, the leader of the dissident group Ladies in White, met with Mr. Obama at the Miami home of Jorge Mas Santos, the president of the Cuban-American National Foundation, who was hosting a Democratic Party fundraising event. After the meeting Mr. Fariñas and Ms. Soler told local press that they had asked the president to ensure that any change in U.S.-Cuba policy consider the views of the nonviolent opposition.

An elated Mr. Fariñas raved about the “words of support from the president of the United States, the most powerful democracy in the world,” according to a report in El Nuevo Herald. The White House did not respond specifically to my request for comment about what Mr. Obama told the dissidents that night.

When Mr. Fariñas was honored in Washington in June by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, he spoke about the great letdown he and his peers felt when Mr. Obama cut his own deal. He said since the announcement the opposition has “lived with the terrible news that the Cuban people, and especially the ones who have fought to establish a democracy in Cuba, were not going to be taken into account” in the continuing negotiations. “Many of us were discouraged.” Still, he said, they decided to fight on.

That fight took on new dimensions for Mr. Fariñas when 28-year-old Carlos Amel Oliva launched a hunger strike on July 13 and more than 20 members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, many of them young, joined him.

Mr. Amel, who was arrested in July, also sought an end to the state’s policy of beating and arresting dissidents. In his letter to Raúl Castro, Mr. Fariñas wrote that when he went to the police to inquire about charges against the hunger-striking Mr. Amel and another dissident, he was handcuffed and tortured.

Thus Mr. Fariñas’s strike began both as an act of solidarity with other dissidents and as a protest against the continuing repression. Mr. Amel and the other strikers ended their fasts last week. Mr. Fariñas has not.

He seems to be holding on to the hope that his sacrifice might generate compassion and support from the international community for the grave injustices that Cubans bear at the hands of the Castros. And that Gen. Castro, whether for humanitarian or pragmatic reasons, will agree to give to the opposition a hearing. Perhaps Mr. Fariñas has faith that Pope Francis, who has hosted Raúl at the Vatican, will intervene on the side of life.

The Holy Father might also try to lend some help to the peaceful, flower-bearing Ladies in White. On their way to Mass on Sundays they are beaten, kicked and pelted with stones by Castro surrogates.

They’re often arrested. Recently 10 were dragged off to jail because they draped a Cuban flag over the casket of a friend at her funeral. Four members of the group have been in prison, without a trial, since April 15 for participating in a peaceful protest. One of them, Yaquelin Heredia Morales, is being held in a facility exclusively for HIV/AIDS prisoners though she does not carry the virus.

This is what President Obama calls normalization?

Ted Cruz: U.S. Must Stand With Opponents of Cuba's Tyranny

By U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) in The Miami Herald:

U.S. must stand with the opponents of Castros’ ongoing tyranny

I had the honor recently to meet with Cuban dissident Oscar Biscet, who was visiting the United States to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom that President George W. Bush had awarded him in 2007. Then serving a 25-year prison sentence for promoting human rights in Cuba, Dr. Biscet originally had to accept the award in absentia. But following his 2011 release, he was here in person.

I asked Dr. Biscet if his ability to leave the island was emblematic of political liberalization after normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States just over a year ago. Smiling, this man who has endured savage torture by Raúl and Fidel Castro’s police state said No. There was no liberalization. The Castros were just trying to appear reasonable so they could get the most money possible out of tourists coming to the island.

Didn’t Americans understand, he asked in genuine amazement, that their dollars were going to enrich the Communist regime? The answer is, once again, No. American tourists and industries are tripping over themselves to visit Cuba and project themselves onto a 1950s movie set, all while imagining their commerce trickles down to the Cuban people.

In 2013, I heard similar words from Guillermo Fariñas, a former soldier for Castro who had come to see Communism for the oppression that it is. Fariñas traveled to Brussels to receive the Andrei Sakharov Prize for his brave opposition to the Castros. But his leaving Cuba was not a sign of progress. Rather, he called it a ploy by the Castros to get American money while retaining political power. He said they were employing Putinismo — trying to imitate Putin.

Press reports this July confirmed the unchanged and grim state of affairs in Cuba. Fariñas began his 24th hunger strike to protest the vicious beating from Castros’ goons merely because he inquired after a colleague arbitrarily detained. Fariñas is asking the regime “to commit to ending the escalation in violence against peaceful opposition and to stop the beatings, death threats, prosecutions for false crimes and that they stop confiscating their personal property.”

But rather than accede to this simple request, the Castros have let him starve for two weeks. Some island paradise.

The fact is that a bad situation is getting worse, not better. The Obama administration encourages a dangerous delusion about conditions in Cuba, which perpetuates the status quo. Fariñas’ plight is a physical manifestation of the ugly reality that the Castros are enemies of everything the United States represents.

We must face this reality. By ignoring it we not only are turning our backs on a brave man, the Obama administration’s increased coordination with the Cuban regime also places the United States at risk. For example:

Immigration: Visa-less immigration from Cuba has increased 80 percent in the year since the Obama administration announced normalized relations, the majority of immigration through Laredo, Texas. Government benefits for these immigrants will cost the taxpayers $2.45 billion over the next decade. There are also disturbing reports that migrants from Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries use black-market visas to Cuba to gain access to the United States.

Aviation: The administration’s easing of the travel embargo raises concerns that Cuba’s airports may not have adequate security procedures in place to ensure that Americans are safe from potential terrorist attacks. While six U.S. airlines have been granted licenses to fly directly to nine Cuban airports, only seven meet the minimum security standards.

Counter-narcotics cooperation: In July, the Obama administration signed a counter-narcotics arrangement with Cuba, which creates information-sharing between our two countries against illegal drug trafficking. These blanket assurances to cooperate are hardly assuring, especially considering Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s statement that Cuba is an intelligence threat to America, on par with Iran. There is also concern that the Castros will use information gleaned from their cooperation to service Venezuela’s anti-American policies.

Military-to-military cooperation: The administration precipitously invited Cuba to participate in the Caribbean Nations Security Conference in January, despite Cuba’s long history as a State Sponsor of Terrorism and participation in illicit arms trafficking with enemy nations such as North Korea. This “cooperation” with an overtly hostile country makes the U.S. military vulnerable to Cuban espionage. To credit Cuba’s return of our Hellfire missile in February as progress betrays a precarious naïveté. Since the Obama administration has ceded its diplomatic and economic leverage against the Castros, the United States may not be so lucky the next time American military hardware suspiciously appears in Havana.

It would be nice to imagine that introducing capitalism to Cuba would create political liberalization, but failed attempts from China to Iran suggest this will not be the case. And absent this liberalization, increased cooperation with Cuba poses an intolerable security threat to the United States.

When Congress returns in September, I hope my colleagues will join me in insisting on proper oversight of the dangers posed by the Obama administration’s misguided rapprochement with the Castros. Congress can present a united front in opposing any nominees to be ambassador to Cuba and any funding for embassy construction in Havana until Cuba addresses basic human-rights issues.

It is the very least we can do to assure Oscar Biscet, Guillermo Fariñas and others that some in America still stand with them, and not with the Castro regime that continues to oppress them.

Rogues Gallery I: North Korean Officials Visit Cuba (Yet Again)

This week, senior North Korean officials were (yet again) on a working visit to Cuba.

With the exception of China, there's no other nation in the world that North Korean officials visit with such frequency.

Just a few months ago, General Kim Yong-chol, head of North Korea's intelligence, cyber-warfare and clandestine operations agency, was also on a working visit to Cuba.

These rogue regimes are clearly enjoying the treasure trove of intelligence data Obama's new Cuba policy has untapped.

From Cuban state media:

Cuban Vice-President receives North Korean leader

Cuban Vice-President Salvador Valdes Mesa received this Friday morning his North Korean counterpart Choe Ryong Hae, who is in Cuba on a working visit.

The two leaders spoke about the fraternal friendship and cooperation bonds between their governments, parties and peoples, in the year that the Cuban Communist Party and the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) held their respective seventh congresses.

Choe Ryong Hae gave the Cuban official a present sent by Kim Yong Un to Fidel Castro for his 90th birthday.

On the Korean side were present Ambassador to Cuba Pak Chang and other officials. Cuban deputy Foreign Minister was also present.

Rogues Gallery II: Cuban Envoy Delivers Message to Iran's Ayatollahs

From Iran's state media:

Iran, Cuba firm to strengthen ties: Rouhani

President Hassan Rouhani said on Saturday that Iran and Cuba are determined to expand cooperation.

“After the nuclear deal, the ground to expand cultural cooperation and strengthen economic ties between the two countries has been provided and the opportunity should be used,” Rouhani said during a meeting with Ricardo Cabrisas, the Cuban president’s representative.

During the meeting Cabrisas presented a written message from Cuban President Raúl Castro to Rouhani in which it called for expansion of ties.

Rouhani thanked Castro for the message and said Iran attaches great importance to expansion of relations with Cuba as a “friendly” Latin American country.

Elsewhere, Rouhani said that the policy of imposing sanctions is “wrong” and “useless”.

Cuba has been under the U.S. sanctions since 1961, when the communists took power in the country. However, with the restoration of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the U.S. it seems that Washington is loosening sanctions on the island country.

Commenting on terrorism, Rouhani said the scourge of terrorism is threatening the entire world and called for cooperation and consultation between Tehran and Havana to counter terrorism.

‘Nuclear deal was a victory for Iran’

For his part, Cabrisas said Cuba is seeking expand ties with Iran.

The Cuban official also described the nuclear agreement between Iran and the 5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) as a “victory” for Iran and other independent countries in the world.

Iran and the six major powers reached a nuclear deal in July 2015. The agreement went into effect in January 2016.

Pointing to reopening ties between the U.S. and Cuba, Cabrisas said that the U.S. government admits its wrong policies towards Havana, however, it is not ending its hostility toward Cuba.

Cuba and the U.S. restored diplomatic relations on 20 July 2015, which had been severed in 1961 during the Cold War.

Rogues Gallery III: Maduro Celebrates Fidel's Birthday, Receives Orders

Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro arrived in Havana last night to celebrate the 90th birthday of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

He also took the opportunity to receive the latest marching orders.

However, Maduro didn't arrive empty-handed to Havana.

He presented his Cuban chieftains with a gift: Reaffirming a 14-year prison sentence for Venezuelan democracy leader, Leopoldo Lopez.

In 2014, the Carnegie Endowment's Moises Naim wrote: "The enormous influence that Cuba has gained in Venezuela is one of the most underreported geopolitical developments of recent times."

But equally underreported is how Obama's policy has rewarded Cuba's subversion of Venezuela's democracy and how -- among never-ending concessions -- continues turning a blind-eye to its rogue behavior.

Cuban Democracy Leader Warns Israel: Castro's Still the Enemy

From The Times of Israel:

Castro still Israel’s enemy, prominent Cuban dissident warns on rare visit

Undeterred by torture and prison, Oscar Biscet draws attention to the totalitarian nature of the regime in Havana. I may get killed when I return but I must continue my fight, he says

Oscar Biscet, a well-known human rights activist from Havana, spent over a decade in Cuban prisons for a host of alleged crimes: dishonoring national symbols, public disorder, inciting delinquent behavior, and, ultimately, crimes against state security.

“They put me in a very tiny cell full of tuberculosis patients,” he recalled last week. In another case of the perverse treatment he received for publicly opposing the regime, the prison guards threw him into a small cell with mental patients who had not been given their medication.

“They are more subtle than Hitler and Stalin, but they have the same mechanisms,” he said of the leaders of his home country.

While he witnessed fellow inmates being electrocuted and enduring physical abuse, Biscet was only subjected to what he calls “white torture,” which includes prolonged solitary confinement, extended periods of total silence followed by booming music, and other psychological abuse. “They constantly reminded me that they could do with me whatever they wanted at any given time.”

On Monday, Biscet, who was released from prison five years ago but until now had not been allowed to leave the country, wrapped up his first-ever trip to Israel. In Jerusalem he met with former and current government officials, including the Mossad’s former station chief in Tehran, the Foreign Ministry diplomat in charge of Central America, and MK Avi Dichter, a former Shin Bet chief and current chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

A jovial father of two and grandfather of three, Biscet, who is currently in Florida, intends to return to Cuba on Sunday — despite a tangible danger. He could be incarcerated again, or worse. “Of course I am afraid. They could kill me. I know I am taking a risk. But I have to continue fighting for freedom,” he said in Spanish, speaking through a translator.

The main purpose of his trip — for which he left his home country for the first time in his life — was to warn the world, and particularly Israel, of the regime in Havana. Despite the recent rapprochement with the United States, Cuba is still a cruel, totalitarian regime that systematically violates civil rights and brutally suppresses political opposition, he said. And while he was released from prison, no one should think that the Communist island nation has become, or is about to become, a democracy, he posited.

“The fact that I’m here is not because there are any changes or liberties in Cuba,” he told The Times of Israel in a Jerusalem cafe, referring to the fact that he was allowed to leave the country despite his criticism of the regime. “We’re here because the Cuban government is interested in presenting a new image, but not because there are any real changes in the Cuban government.”

In December 2014, the United States reestablished diplomatic relations with Havana, declaring an end to decades of enmity. “Isolation has not worked,” US President Barack Obama said at the time, announcing a “new approach.” In March, Obama became the first American leader to visit the island since 1928.

“This new American policy of a diplomatic engagement with Cuba is a mistake,” said Jose Azel, a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, who accompanied Biscet to Israel. “Because it’s a policy that embraces an oppressor and ignores the oppressed. It’s a policy that chooses to side with the bad guys and not with those who fight for democracy.”

Contrary to what many people believe, Cuba has not changed for the better since Fidel Castro handed the scepter to his brother Raul a decade ago, he argued. “There is absolutely no movement toward democracy or any political change,” Azel asserted.

The US government’s argument that a diplomatic opening and some sort of economic engagement will lead to democratization at some point in the future is fallacious, Azel said. China and Vietnam opened their markets to the West decades ago, and today are certainly wealthier because of it, he said. “That speaks well of capitalism — but they have not advanced one step toward political freedom. To suggest that economic changes lead to political freedom is demonstrably false.”

It is true that economic sanctions imposed by the US over decades have failed to change the dictatorial nature of the regime, Azel allowed. But there are 190 nations in the world that always had diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba, and that also did not lead to democratization, he argued. “So if you cite to me one example of a policy failure, I will reply that there 190 example of policy failures. Both policies have failed.”

Biscet, a physician by profession, began his career as a dissident in the mid-1980s by staging a pro-life demonstration to protest what he calls the Cuban government’s system of “abusive abortions.” Since then he has become a celebrated activist. In 1997, George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling him a “a champion in the fight against tyranny and oppression.” A decade and a half later, in 2011, the rock band U2, during a concert in Miami, lauded Biscet for his courageous fight. “Hold him your thoughts, hold him in your prayers,” singer Bono told the audience.

This week, he made the trip to the Jewish state to warn Israelis not to let their guard down. “Castro is Israel’s number one enemy,” he said. The regime has one of the world’s best intelligence services and sells information to countries and organizations that seek the Jewish state’s destruction, and has also hosted Hamas and Hezbollah training camps, he noted.

“I am worried about Israel [and its relation to Cuba] because it’s the only example of democracy and liberty and freedom of religion in the Middle East. And Cuba is a dictatorship that violates all those basic rights,” Biscet said. “As Israelis travel to Cuba and enjoy the beautiful landscapes and beautiful beaches, they perhaps don’t realize that this dictatorship is also undermining the State of Israel wherever it can.”

Havana unilaterally cut ties with Jerusalem some 40 years ago and has been a fierce critic of Israeli policies ever since. For decades, Israel and the US were the only countries supporting an economic embargo of the nation. Given Jerusalem’s close ties with Washington, Israel was widely expected to follow Obama’s course of detente with Cuba. “We have no conflict with Cuba; the disconnect between our countries is unnatural,” a diplomatic official in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel last year.

Biscet and Azel, the University of Miami scholar, are not telling Israel not to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba (something Jerusalem would be interested in, though Havana seems currently disinclined), since all other countries in the world already have such ties. However, they want Israelis to be fully aware of Havana’s hostile stance and its destructive influence the world.

“If you want to sleep with the enemy, go right ahead. But understand that you’re sleeping with the enemy. Cuba is still absolutely Israel’s enemy,” Azel said.

“It’s a regime that has always been anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian,” he said. “It’s a regime that has a very close alliance with Iran and a regime that represent dangers for the national security of the United States and also for Israel.”

Besides his anti-Castro advocacy, Biscet, a devout Christian and staunch supporter of the Jewish people’s right to settle in their ancient homeland, also made some time for sightseeing. He was particularly looking forward to sticking a note into the Western Wall. What was he going to wish for? Biscet replied with a chuckle, as if the answer was obvious. He then said, “For freedom for Cuba and for my family.”