Tag Archives: US-Cuba Relations

U.S. – CUBAN RELATIONS ARE ABOUT TO GET WORSE

Ted Piccione, Brookings Institute, April 16, 2018.

Original Article: About to Get Worse

Ted Piccone  Senior Fellow – Foreign PolicyLatin America InitiativeProject on International Order and Strategy

The orchestrated presidential succession underway this week in Cuba, from Raúl Castro to his likely replacement Miguel Díaz-Canel, is prompting a new round of speculation about how the Trump administration should react to the long-awaited departure of the Castro brothers from power. Judging from the heated rhetoric between the U.S. and Cuban delegations at last week’s Summit of the Americas, relations are likely to go from bad to worse.

Shortly before the U.S. presidential election, candidate Donald Trump promised to “cancel” President Obama’s normalization policy. His administration made good on that promise last year with a number of measures rolling back key features of the incipient rapprochement. This included dire travel warnings, a dramatic 60 percent drawdown of U.S. embassy personnel in Havana, and the eviction of 17 staff from Cuba’s embassy in Washington last September in response to unexplained health incidents affecting U.S. diplomats.

These steps loudly signaled the return of Florida’s pro-embargo faction, led by Senator Marco Rubio, at the helm of U.S.-Cuba policy. Now, with the appointment of the more hardline John Bolton and Mike Pompeo to top national security positions, we should expect the White House to double down on its first year’s embrace of punitive regime change.

THE HANDCUFFS OF THE EMBARGO AND DOMESTIC POLITICS

Ever since the nearly six decades of hostilities between Havana and Washington began, the United States has been locked in a narrow band of policy options. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, the engine driving U.S. strategy remained a deep distrust of Cuba’s closed socialist system, fueled by the hundreds of thousands of nostalgic Cuban exiles concentrated in the swing state of Florida. Domestic politics prevails.

The rationale for tightening or loosening the comprehensive embargo established in the Kennedy administration has shifted, depending on the circumstances. The pivotal moment, however, was Congress’ decision to codify the embargo after the Cuban military shot down a plane piloted by Cuban exiles in 1996. This law—with its unilateral demands for the end of communist rule, the removal of the Castros from power, the establishment of free and fair elections, and full respect for human rights—severely handicapped any attempt by U.S. policymakers to adapt to changing circumstances, let alone construct an alternate route toward reconciliation and change.

 

Until the Obama administration. For a short period of two years, it forged a narrow path between a rock and a hard place, encompassing diplomatic recognition, bilateral cooperation in areas of mutual interest, continued U.S. support for the Cuban people’s claim for more political and economic freedom, and a call for Congress to lift the embargo. Obama took these steps after the Raúl Castro government adopted concrete actions toward reform such as reducing the size of the bloated public sector, opening new avenues for private sector entrepreneurs, and expanding personal liberties for Cubans to buy and sell property, access the internet, and travel on and off the island more freely. These mutually reinforcing dynamics contributed to a flourishing of Cuba’s non-state sector, which grew from a registered 150,000 self-employed workers in 2008 to 580,000 in 2017. Record numbers of Americans began seeing for themselves the realities of Cuban socialism, including thousands of Cuban Americans each year.

Whether or not one agrees with the Obama approach of constructive engagement, it took critics only a few months to declare it a bust for failing to force Cuba to adopt fundamental human rights and market economic reforms. This was, and remains, patently unrealistic. Some progress was made quickly: release of political prisoners; expanded cooperation on matters such as maritime security, drug trafficking, and counterterrorism; new commercial opportunities for American farmers and travel businesses; a significant drop in illegal immigration; and direct support to the Cuban private sector and religious communities.

Beyond these short-term gains, Obama’s strategic gambit was about laying the groundwork for long-term change, especially as a new generation of post-Castro leadership takes the helm this month. It was aimed at removing the Cuban government’s ability to paint the United States as its mortal enemy, a narrative it has used effectively for decades to consolidate its standing at home and around the world. It was also designed to build bridges for dialogue and reconciliation among Cubans on and off the island, which is at the heart of the problem, and triggered a flood of new exchanges and record levels of remittances to struggling Cuban families. Not surprisingly, large majorities in both countries applauded this new approach.

BOLTON, POMPEO, AND RUBIO

For the vocal constituency of Cuban exiles and their families, who bear bitter feelings toward the Castro regime, Obama’s March 2016 handshake with Raúl was sacrilege. They found, among the many Republicans who support their cause, a late convert in Donald Trump who, in the final stretch of his presidential campaign, hardened his position on Cuba, promising a crowd in Miami that he would reverse Obama’s executive orders “unless the Castro regime meets our demands.” The following June, surrounded by veterans of the failed Bay of Pigs operation in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana, President Trump delivered a theatrical rebuke of Obama’s opening toward Cuba and set in motion new rules to restrict individual travel and prohibit any dealings with Cuba’s leadership or military, police, and security officials and their business entities.

For Senator Rubio, the architect of Trump’s hardline approach toward Cuba, this tightening of the screws was not enough. The new rules, for example, allowed any previously negotiated business deals to remain intact, permitted air and cruise ship travel to continue, and kept Cuba off the state sponsors of terrorism list. (Obama’s authorization of unlimited travel and remittances for Cuban Americans, popular in Miami, notably went untouched.) When mysterious ailments affecting over 20 U.S. personnel were reported in the late summer of 2017, Rubio and his allies jumped on the opportunity to demand additional steps to punish the Cuban government for failing to prevent or explain the source of the incidents. Trump ordered diplomats in both countries to go home and issued severe travel warnings. The result: a dramatic reduction in the number of Americans visiting the island, and vice versa. This directly undermines the administration’s purported goal of supporting Cuba’s burgeoning private sector, which U.S. visitors help sustain.

Now, enter John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, stage right. Both have strongly criticized the Castro government and vociferously opposed Obama’s overtures to Havana. Bolton, who was roundly criticized in the 2000s for his unfounded allegation that Cuba was developing biological weapons, wroteas recently as January that “Russian meddling in Latin America could inspire Trump to reassert the Monroe Doctrine (another casualty of the Obama years) and stand up for Cuba’s beleaguered people (as he is now for Iran’s).” Given Russia’s expanding security and economic relationship with Havana, and the general hardening of U.S. policy toward Moscow, this is no longer an abstract notion. Bolton also doubted whether the Cuban regime can survive much longer, a perennial claim used to justify more punitive sanctions, despite Cuba’s ability to withstand five decades of the U.S. embargo, threats, attacks, and assassination attempts.

Pompeo, who initially endorsed Marco Rubio for president, was highly critical of Obama’s visit to the island in 2016 and defended retaining the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Although his Senate confirmation testimony on April 12 promised to improve relations with Cuba and rebuild diplomatic staff, Pompeo made no specific commitments on how or when this would occur.

We should expect a continued mind meld among these three key actors in the U.S.-Cuban drama. Senator Rubio, with colleagues from the Florida delegation, has already called on the White House to “denounce Castro’s successor as illegitimate in the absence of free, fair, and multiparty elections, and call upon the international community to support the right of the Cuban people to decide their future.” Rubio then traveled to the Summit of the Americas in Lima with Vice President Pence, who declared Cuba “a despotic regime” and blamed it for exporting its “failed ideology” to Venezuela and beyond. In response, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez harshly attacked both Pence and Rubio for decades of “U.S. imperialism,” denounced U.S. political corruption, and blamed the Miami “mafia” for hiding terrorists. Not surprisingly, the region remains divided on how to respond.

From a national security perspective, it is hard to understand why Cuba occupies so much high-level attention, given the much more serious security challenges Washington faces. Cuba can barely keep its armed forces trained and equipped, and is falling short on many economic and social fronts as well, prompting thousands of Cubans to vote with their feet every year and risk the perilous journey to the United States or elsewhere. The deterioration in relations also adds pressure on Cuba to turn to Moscow and Beijing for more help, a prospect that directly runs counter to U.S. interests.

In the end, what matters most to this administration is the power many of those same Cubans wield by supporting politicians who want the total collapse of the Cuban regime. The Bolton-Pompeo-Rubio triangle, hand in hand with Trump and Pence, will gladly meet their needs, and then some.

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RAÚL CASTRO’S UNFINISHED LEGACY IN CUBA

BY WILLIAM M. LEOGRANDE | APRIL 9, 2018

CASTRO’S ATTEMPTS AT REFORM REMAIN UNFULFILLED. WHAT CAN CUBANS EXPECT FROM HIS SUCCESSOR?

 Original Article: Raúl’s Unfinished Legacy

 Raúl Castro and Miguel Díaz-Canel,

This month, Cuba’s Raúl Castro will leave office at the end of his second term as president, having set in motion changes to the island’s economy, politics and social relations more sweeping than any since the revolution in 1959. As he steps down after a decade at the helm, those changes are still a work in progress. The far-reaching economic reforms he launched in 2011 are at best half-finished and the pace of change has slowed. His efforts to strengthen Cuba’s political institutions are about to face the stress test of a generational leadership transition. And the Cuban public is clamoring for a better life and a greater voice. Will Miguel Díaz-Canel, Raúl’s likely successor, be able to carry these changes through to completion?

Throughout Fidel Castro’s 57 years as Cuba’s líder máximo, Raúl was second in command, in the shadow of his charismatic sibling. But behind the scenes, he proved to be an effective manager, turning the rag-tag Rebel Army into the most effective and respected institution in the country. Cuba’s armed forces scored impressive victories in Africa, and then took on domestic economic responsibilities with an efficiency that surpassed most civilian enterprises.

Raúl recognized the inherent shortcomings of the hyper-centralized socialism Cuba adopted from the Soviet Union. As armed forces minister, he mandated the use of market-oriented business practices in the military enterprises under his command and sent officers abroad to business school. When the collapse of the Soviet Union threw Cuba into deep recession, Raúl pushed for the pragmatic use of market mechanisms to jump-start the economy. He overcame Fidel’s reluctance by framing economic recovery as a matter of national security, declaring, “Beans are more important than cannons.”

Updating the economy

Within months of assuming office as acting president in 2006, Raúl let loose a blistering attack on economic inefficiency. “We are tired of excuses,” he told the National Assembly that December. “No one, no individual or country, can afford to spend more than what they have,” he said repeatedly.

The drumbeat of criticism foreshadowed his most ambitious and potentially transformative initiative, the updating of Cuba’s economy. The reforms sought to transform the economy by unleashing market forces, demanding that state enterprises make a profit or close, promoting a significant private and cooperative sector, and welcoming foreign direct investment (FDI) to stimulate growth. The goal: a model of socialism that combined the efficiency and productivity of markets with the social benefits of free health care and education, and minimized inequality.

The reform process has been slow going. As of 2016, only 21 percent of the 313 reforms adopted in 2011 had been completed. Subsidies to failing state enterprises still consume some 20 percent of the state budget – almost as much education. After a period of rapid growth during which the number of registered private sector businesses expanded five-fold, new state regulationsrecently reined them in. While Cuban officials aspire to attract $2.5 billion annually in FDI, they are still well short of the goal. Progress has been slowed by officials who fear the reforms represent a slippery slope toward capitalism, not to mention a threat to their own job security.

State-building

On the political front, Raúl’s changes have been less dramatic, but equally important for the system’s sustainability. Fidel chaffed at the restrictions formal institutions imposed on his political instincts and impromptu decision-making. Raúl has moved Cuba away from a system built around the charismatic and unquestioned authority of the líder máximo to one that relies increasingly on the strength of institutions and collective decision-making. “It is vitally necessary to reinforce the country’s institutions,” he told the Communist Party’s Central Committee in 2008. Only strong institutions could “ensure the continuity of the Revolution when its historic leaders are gone.”

A central tenet of this project has been to fill leadership positions with people who have proven track records of achievement, rather than following Fidel’s penchant for elevating young, inexperienced protégés who quickly crashed and burned – people Raúl mocked as “test tube leaders.” Miguel Díaz-Canel, Raúl’s likely successor, has a decades-long record of effective leadership within the Communist Party and government at both the provincial and national levels.

To underscore the idea that no one is indispensable, Raúl proposed term limits of no more than two five-year terms for all senior party and government posts. When aging leaders stay in power too long, the results are “never positive,” he observed, pointing to the gerontocracy than ran the Soviet Union into the ground. He set the example himself, declaring in 2013 that he would step down in 2018 at the end of his second term.

Raúl also established a more collective leadership style, inviting debate and seeking to build consensus on major issues. In fact, he may have been collegial to a fault, allowing skeptics to slow the implementation of the economic reforms.

Lacking Raúl’s authority as one of the historic leaders of the revolution, Díaz-Canel will most likely have to give even greater deference to the views of others in the leadership, making it tougher to come to decisions on contentious issues.

The expanding public sphere

For someone who spent most of his life running Cuba’s national security apparatus, and battling U.S. efforts to create a fifth column of internal opposition, Raúl has presided over a significant expansion of personal liberty and access to information that has spilled over into political expression. In his inaugural speech as president, Raúl pledged to do away with the “excess of prohibitions and regulations” through which the state controlled a wide range of social interactions. He legalized personal cell phones and computers. He allowed people to sell their cars and houses without going through the state. He repealed the prohibition on Cubans staying in tourist hotels, and abolished the tarjeta blanca exit permit required every time a Cuban wanted to travel abroad.

In 1961, Fidel defined cultural policy as, “Within the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing.” During Raúl’s presidency, the boundaries of what is “within the revolution” have expanded, allowing more space for critical cultural expression, often with political overtones. The expansion of internet connectivity has given Cubans access to a world of information, with only a few dozen sites blocked by censors. Cuban blogs, discussion forums and independent news services have flourished, initiating vigorous online debates on a wide range of issues.

Some senior Cuban officials have voiced concerns that expanded Internet access poses political risks, especially since the United States has repeatedly tried to use it as a means of waging information warfare. Just two months ago, the Trump administration formed a Cuba Internet Task Force as part of its policy to undermine the Cuban government. Nevertheless, Cuban leaders understand that connectivity is a prerequisite for building a 21st Century economy, despite the risk.

The state still represses small dissident groups that advocate overturning Cuba’s socialist system. Instead of the long prison terms meted out during Fidel Castro’s days, however, the state’s current strategy is harassment and disruption. When dissidents try to meet or demonstrate, they are arrested, held for a few hours, and then released.

Díaz-Canel’s attitude toward critics is uncertain. In 2013, he publicly defended a group of students whose critical blog was banned by a university administration. In February 2017, however, he gave a speech to a closed Communist Party meeting attacking prominent online critics as counter-revolutionary. At the very least, that speech signals the continuing influence of party leaders intolerant of critical expression.

The Washington roller coaster

For the last two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, it appeared that normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba would be one of Obama’s and Raúl’s most important legacies. After December 17, 2014, when the two presidents made simultaneous television broadcasts announcing they had decided to re-establish diplomatic relations, their governments made rapid diplomatic progress, reopening embassies and signing two dozen bilateral agreements. The number of U.S. visitors to Cuba more than doubled and U.S. businesses lined up to sign commercial deals with Havana.

But President Donald Trump’s announcement in June 2017 that he was canceling Obama’s policy of engagement has cast doubt on the permanence of the new relationship. Last October, the administration used unexplained injuries suffered by U.S. government personnel in Havana as an excuse to reduce staffing at the embassy so dramatically that it can barely function. Then the administration expelled an equal number of Cuban diplomats from Washington.

For Raúl, the decision to normalize relations was driven by economic imperatives. In the past two decades, tourism has become a pillar of Cuba’s domestic economy, and no country sends more tourists to the Caribbean than the United States. Likewise, Cuba needs $2.5 billion a year in FDI to sustain a decent rate of growth, and no country sends more FDI to the Caribbean than the United States.

But Raúl’s decision was not without risk. From the outset, others in the leadership had doubts about the wisdom of it. Suspicious of U.S. intentions, they worried that defending the revolution from Obama’s soft power might be harder than defending it against open hostility. Those worries went public after Obama’s trip to Cuba in March 2016, when Fidel wrote a critical article for Granma, giving political cover for others to articulate an even tougher line against engagement.

The Trump administration’s hostility reinforces Cuban conservatives who argued from the beginning that Washington could not be trusted. That, in turn, makes it harder for the next Cuban president – and the next U.S. president – to get normalization back on track.

Unfinished business

The timely and constitutionally prescribed succession of leaders signals the institutional strength of the Cuban regime. That said, Díaz-Canel inherits a formidable agenda of tough issues: fundamental economic changes that are desperately needed but still incomplete, a rapidly evolving public sphere in which Cubans are better informed and more outspoken but have few ways to hold leaders accountable, and an uncertain relationship with Washington that is likely to get worse before it gets better.

If Díaz-Canel can successfully carry through to completion the transformations Raúl began, Raúl will be remembered as Cuba’s Deng Xiaoping – the revolutionary Chinese founder who achieved détente with the United States and began the transition from a failed centrally planned socialism to an economically viable market socialism. But if relations with Washington remain mired in animosity and the economic reforms fail, Raúl will be remembered as just one more reform communist who could not force the system to change despite his best efforts.

LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University in Washington, DC, and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

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DEATH OF FIDEL CASTRO’S SON ‘FIDELITO’ REVEALS A DIVIDED FAMILY

By Will Grant, Cuba correspondent, BBC News February 2, 2018

Original article: Fidelito

Traditionally in Cuba, the first son is named after his father or his grandfather.  When Fidel Angel Castro Diaz-Balart was born in 1949, he was given the names of both: Fidel after his father, then a little-known but politically ambitious lawyer, and Angel for his grandfather, a penniless Spanish immigrant who had become a wealthy landowner in eastern Cuba.

 Mirta Francisca de la Caridad Díaz-Balart y Gutiérrez (born September 30, 1928) and Fidel Castro Ruz,

Fidel, Mirta and FidelitoFidelito, 1959

Fulgencio Batista, Dictator, 1952-1958.

Batista was from the same area of Cuba as the Diaz-Balart and Castro families – Banes and Biran in what is now Holguin Province. The families were friends. It is said that Batista was at the 1948 wedding of Mirta and Fidel, though I have not seen evidence of that. It is also said that Batista gave the couple a wedding gift of $1000.00 for their honeymoon in the United States. However, I have no proof of this neither.  In any case, with the divorce of Fidel and Mirta and the Revolution, the Castro’s and Diaz-Balarts became bitter enemies. Indeed the US-Cuba conflict has been pretty much all in the family. (Arch Ritter)

As Fidel Angel grew up, people just called him affectionately “Fidelito”. The diminutive nickname stuck, even after his father had become one of the most recognisable faces of the 20th Century, a Cold War icon who divided opinion around the world, and Fidelito himself a respected nuclear physicist.

Despite his fame and notoriety, Fidel Castro remained intensely private about his family until his death in 2016.

It was preparing for the revolution in the early days that he made his first decisive act over his son.  Already divorced from Fidelito’s mother, Mirta Diaz-Balart, Fidel arranged for his young son to visit him in exile in Mexico where he was planning the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship in Havana.  Taking a typically uncompromising position on something that mattered to him, Fidel simply refused to send the boy home to his mother.

Tough act to follow

It wouldn’t be the last time Fidel Castro flexed his iron will over family affairs, ensuring that his son would eventually be educated in the Soviet Union rather than reside with his mother in Spain or the US.

It might be hard to recall today just how significant a figure Fidel Castro was at the height of his power and, as such, what it must have been like to be his son.

With Fidelito’s death on Friday, comparisons have been made to being the child of a superstar actor or musician. But the reality goes much further because in Cuba, Fidel was everything.  He was often the first voice people heard in the morning when they turned on their radios and the last one they heard at night before going to bed.  He was involved in every aspect of Cuban life – political, economic and cultural – and he was revered by some almost as a God, if not a kind of prophet.

It was never expected of Fidelito that he would try to fill those enormous guerrilla boots, but the stresses of the constant comparison must have been difficult to live with.  Even when he had become a successful nuclear physicist, he couldn’t shake off Fidel’s shadow.  His father even once sacked him as head of the island’s nuclear programme for “incompetence”, showing he was prepared to wield the axe against his own family if needed when it came to putting the revolution first.

Divided clan

Then there were the other family connections. Never was a family more ideologically split than the Castro Diaz-Balarts.

After his parents divorced, Fidelito’s mother, Mirta, moved to Spain. Her brother, Rafael Diaz-Balart, whom Fidel Castro detested, had been a politician in Batista’s government.  Today, his sons Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart have both been US lawmakers for Florida, representing staunchly anti-Castro positions on Cuba. They have not spoken publicly about the loss of their cousin.  They are Fidelito’s cousins but neither man has offered their condolences so far, at least not in public.

The Castro clan is, at times, as complex as the family whose lives it somehow echoed in Washington: the Kennedys.

Taboo subject

Similarly beset with the pressures and responsibilities of office from a young age, and the years marked with the occasional family tragedy, the two eldest sons, Fidelito and John Jr Kennedy, might have found they had much in common if they’d ever had the chance to drink a rum and smoke a cigar together.

After his long training in the USSR, Fidelito grew into a highly skilled man, fluent in English, Russian, French and Spanish. He was considered one of the best scientists in his field. His tragic end – taking his own life after efforts were made to treat him for clinical depression – comes just over a year after the death of his iconic father.

Suicide is still a taboo subject in Cuba. Once even considered “anti-revolutionary”, it is much more common than generally reported on the island.

Perhaps in the final analysis, Fidelito Castro will be remembered as someone who had tried his best to make his own name, despite the evident weight of the one he was given.

Fidelito Angel Castro Diaz-Balart (left)

 

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U.S. POLICY IS HURTING CUBA’S ENTREPRENEURS

BY NIURIS HIGUERAS, YAMINA VICENTE, JULIA DE LA ROSA QUESADA AND MARLA RECIO

Miami Herald, DECEMBER 11, 2017

Original Article: HURTING CUBA’S ENTREPRENEURS

NIURIS HIGUERAS IS THE OWNER OF ATELIER RESTAURANT; YAMINA VICENTE IS THE OWNER OF DECORAZON, A DECORATING COMPANY; JULIA DE LA ROSA QUESADA IS CO-OWNER OF LA ROSA DE ORTEGA B&B; AND MARLA RECIO IS THE OWNER OF HAVANA REVERIE, AN EVENT PLANNING COMPANY.

It is a tough moment in Cuba for hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs and millions of families with relatives in the United States. President Trump’s new Cuba policy, announced in June and recently written into law, and the partial draw-down of the U.S. Embassy, are hurting the private sector and taking a terrible toll on Cuban families.

As business owners and the heads of our households, we’re saddened by the turn of events that are causing so many of our friends, family and colleagues to suffer. We’re tired of hearing about “support for the Cuban people,” while those very policies take money out of our pockets and food off our tables, and separate us from our families.

The new restrictions on travel are crushing the private sector. Limits on individual travel and calls for stricter enforcement have confused and scared U.S. visitors, many of whom are choosing to go elsewhere or canceling their Cuba travel plans. As a way of kicking us while we’re down, an unjust State Department travel warning and the partial closure of the U.S. Embassy in Havana have further affected U.S. travel and hurt our businesses.

The closure of consular services is dividing families, making reunification and family visits nearly impossible. Hundreds of thousands of Cuban families are suffering, not knowing when they will be reunited with loved ones. It also makes it impossible for entrepreneurs to take part in workshops and training programs, cultural groups to tour the U.S. and Cuban students to get visas to study in the States. The accompanying travel warning, which is completely unjustified, is scaring off American visitors.

Together, the travel warning and new restrictions have had a clear impact: Restaurants are empty, occupancy rates are down, events are canceled and freelance guides and taxi drivers and others roam the streets looking for work. Many of us now must decide which of our workers to lay off.

Unfortunately, despite the rhetoric in U.S. policy about support for the Cuban people and support for the private sector, our reality is not taken into account and our wants and hopes fall on deaf ears. Last year, we went to Washington, D.C., to have lawmakers hear our voices and discuss how a more open policy of trade and travel helps Cuba’s private businesses. The country’s top 100 private businesses sent a letter to President Trump making that case, believing as a business person he would understand.

A group of us, Cuban women entrepreneurs, reached out to Ivanka Trump, assistant to the president, hopeful she would understand the importance of empowering women who are business leaders on the island. Our letters and meeting requests to the administration went unanswered, time and time again.

Sen. Marco Rubio claims to be the leading architect of the administration’s policy toward our country. Facing criticism of how the new travel policy would affect Cuban entrepreneurs, Rubio tweeted: “If Cuban people are hurt it will be because the Castro govt doesn’t allow them to own their own business, not because of the new policy.”

We would like Rubio to know that we do in fact own our own businesses, and we are hurt by the new policy.

We have repeatedly requested meetings with Rubio and his staff to share our knowledge and firsthand experiences as entrepreneurs and community leaders in Cuba. Unfortunately, like administration officials, he has ignored our requests to meet.

Policymakers refusal to meet with us and, more important, take our aspirations and livelihoods into account, is symbolic of decades of U.S. policies that aim to punish the Cuban people because of disapproval of the Cuban government. Not only is this way of thinking and acting ineffective and counterproductive, it is cruel and causes real suffering for the people they’re supposedly trying to help.

We call on Rubio to stop trying to divide and separate our two countries. Stop pushing forward measures that harm families, entrepreneurs and average Cubans. We also call on the State Department to immediately lift the unwarranted and politicized travel warning, fully reopen embassies and make clear that the confusing and convoluted new regulations permit individual travel.

Rhetoric, finger pointing, and restrictions are not the type of “support” the Cuban people want and need. What we want are fully functioning embassies and the freedom of travel for Americans and Cubans alike. We can take care of the rest.

NIURIS HIGUERAS

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YOUR MIND IS IN PRISON: CUBA’S WEB OF CONTROL OVER FREE EXPRESSION AND ITS CHILLING EXPRESSION ON EVERYDAY LIFE

Original Document: Amnesty International

Amnesty International, November 27, 2017

TABLE OF CONTENTS

1. INTRODUCTION

2. THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG  

[From Amnesty International’s archives: Cuba’s 50-year campaign against freedom of expression and peaceful assembly]

2.1 THE RIGHTS TO FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND ASSOCIATION

2.2 “EVERYTHING IS ILLEGAL”

2.3 HUMAN RIGHTS STANDARDS AND THE APPLICATION OF THE CRIMINAL LAW

3. SILENCE–A CONDITION OF EMPLOYMENT

3.1 HARASSMENT AND WRONGFUL DISMISSALS IN THE STATE SECTOR

3.2 A VICIOUS CYCLE: HARASSMENT IN THE SELF-EMPLOYED SECTOR

3.3 IMPRISONED AND DISCRIMINATED FOR TRYING TO LEAVE THEIR OWN COUNTRY

3.4 LIMITS ON INDEPENDENT TRADE UNION

3.5 THE APPARENT LACK OF EFFECTIVE RECOURSE FOR DISCRIMINATORY DISMISSAL

3.6 DISCRIMINATION IN ACCESS TO AND AT WORK

3.7 FEAR OF RETURNING TO THEIR OWN COUNTRY

4. BELOW THE SURFACE OF THE ICEBERG

4.1 SELF-CENSORSHIP

4.2 THE CHILLING EFFECT

5. RECOMMENDATIONS

TO THE CUBAN GOVERNMENT

TO THE US CONGRESS

INTRODUCTION

The past few years have been a bitter-sweet period for those hoping for the Cuban authorities to relax their iron grip on people’s right to freedom of expression and assembly.

High-profile visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross and Pope Francis in 2015, as well as by the UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children and the UN Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity in 2017, appeared to herald greater political openness and to offer some hope that Cuba might begin to open itself up to increased international scrutiny by independent human rights monitors. A tourism boom, the expansion of Wi-Fi-internet hotspots, even a first ttime performance by the rock band the Rolling Stones (foreign rock music was deemed subversive in Cuba for decades) were other small signs that Cuba might be releasing its tight control on freedom of expression. The re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the USA starting in December 2014, followed by then President Obama’s state visit to Cuba in 2016 also seemed to promise the beginning of an end to the economic embargo which for decades has perpetuated the Cold War rhetoric of “us” and “them” and undermined ordinary Cubans’ enjoyment of economic and social rights.

This optimism makes the jarring reality all the more marked. Hours before President Obama landed in Cuba, dozens of activists and independent journalists were detained. In a joint press conference with the US President, President Raúl Castro continued to flatly deny that there were any “political prisoners” in Cuba.

In contrast, in the past three years, Amnesty International has named 11 prisoners of conscience in Cuba, and there are likely many more. Further, a national human rights organization, not recognized by the Cuban authorities, reported an average of 762 politically motivated and arbitrary detentions a month between 2014 and 2016.

Human rights lawyers from the organization Cubalex were harassed and intimidated, despite having been granted precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to protect their lives, personal integrity and activities as human right defenders. In May 2017, at least 12 of its members were granted asylum in the USA after the Cuban authorities threatened to bring criminal charges against them related to a tax investigation. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Cuba 10th on its 2015 list of the world’s most censored countries and classified its laws on free speech and press freedom as the most restrictive in the Americas. Amnesty International media remains heavily censored and limited. While an increasing range of autonomous digital media projects has emerged, alternative online news sources operate within a legal limbo that exposes journalists and media workers to the risk of harassment and arbitrary detention. Moreover, their web pages are often blocked by the authorities in Cuba. In early 2017, the expulsion of a journalism student reportedly pushed out of university for being a member of the group Somos, considered a dissident organization by the authorities, received widespread international and independent national media coverage. According to press reports, one of Cuba’s most famous singers, Silvio Rodríguez, called the expulsion an “injustice” and “clumsy and obtuse.”

In June 2017, President Trump’s administration took an almost complete U-turn on US political rhetoric towards Cuba reducing the likelihood that the US Congress will pass legislation to lift the economic embargo on Cuba. Despite the easing of some restrictions by the former Obama administration, which has allowed for increased travel and remittances between the two countries, and annual votes by a majority of UN member states to lift it, the embargo remains in place. Amnesty International has consistently recommended that the US embargo be lifted, based on its negative impact on the economic and social rights of the Cuban population. Meanwhile, a recent poll by the University of Chicago found that many Cubans “feel stuck in the current economic climate.”

Few expect the economy will improve anytime soon and 46% described it as poor or very poor. Cuba’s fragile economy has inevitably been impacted by the ongoing economic and human rights crisis in Venezuela – a provider of significant economic aid to Cuba in recent years. Exceptionally low salaries – the average monthly salary is approximately USD27 a month – are insufficient to cover basic needs. Ordinary Cubans continue to struggle, despite the government’s food ration system, taking additional jobs in the informal sector and receiving remittances from family members living overseas.16 In July 2017, the Secretary General of the Central Union of Cuban Workers (Central de Trabajadores de Cuba, CTC), the country’s only officially recognized trade union, stated in an interview that average salaries are unable to meet workers’ basic needs and create “apathy in work, lack of interest and significant labour migration”, an issue that he said is being evaluated by decision-making bodies.

While many Cubans interviewed for this briefing told Amnesty International that they felt Cuba has made important human rights advances in the provision of free health care and access to education and valued the fact that there is little organized crime in the country, many also described the day-to-day struggle of having to make difficult choices between feeding and clothing their families. People interviewed by Amnesty International said that food rations – which have been progressively reduced – are insufficient to last the month. And while education is free, many Cubans find it difficult to buy the things their children need to attend school, such as uniforms, backpacks and other basic supplies. For example, an administrator in a state food factory told Amnesty International she earned USD20 a month at a time when shoes for her child could easily cost USD30. Many people interviewed said they had to break the law to make ends meet. The same administrator also described how one of her job responsibilities was to ensure that workers did not steal bread or other essentials they need to survive.

Former President Fidel Castro’s death in November 2016, and President Raúl Castro’s announcement that he would step down in 2018 continue to fill opinion columns with speculation about Cuba’s future. But while in political quarters and international news rooms Cuba remains a hot topic, tens of thousands of Cubans continue to leave the country. Their individual reasons may vary, but common threads are disillusion with Cuba’s changing international diplomacy, a lack of confidence that salaries will improve18 and scepticism at the idea that a post-Castro administration will do anything to untangle the tight web of control on freedom of expression. Amnesty International’s interviews with Cuban migrants highlight this widespread and profound lack of belief in the prospect of structural change. This briefing examines limitations on freedom of expression that persist in Cuba despite the context of purported political openness, a tourism boom and a changing economic context. It is based on research carried out between December 2016 and September 2017, although Amnesty International´s lack of access to Cuba has posed a significant limitation on providing an analysis of human rights issues in the country. The interviews the organization conducted with Cubans for this briefing have made it possible to identify the impact on a wide range of people of 50 years of serious restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

The failure of the authorities to respect and ensure these rights has had an impact far beyond the ranks of those directly targeted for their activism or views and seeped into the everyday experiences and hopes of people from all walks of life.

This briefing focuses on those wider influences and on the human rights advances that those affected would want to see. As Cuba prepares for elections in 2018, the diverse Cuban voices at the centre of this research highlight the need for authorities to promote reforms that ensure the respect and protection of human rights, including a review of criminal laws and practices which are inconsistent with international human rights law and standards and that unduly limit freedom of expression. They also underscore the need for the authorities to adhere to international labour standards which Cuba has undertaken to uphold by ratifying International Labour Conventions. The briefing ends with a set of recommendations calling on the authorities to end unjust restrictions not only on those unfairly deprived of their physical freedom, but also on those who feel their minds are imprisoned and their lives stunted because they are deprived of their right to freedom of expression.

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TRUMP’S NEW CUBA SANCTIONS MISS THEIR MARK

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BY WILLIAM M. LEOGRANDE | NOVEMBER 9, 2017

Original Article: SANCTIONS MISS THEIR MARK

REGULATIONS ON TRAVEL AND TRADE WILL LIKELY HAVE LITTLE IMPACT ON CUBA’S GOVERNMENT, HURTING ORDINARY CUBANS INSTEAD.

After two years of restored diplomatic ties, new U.S. regulations on Cuba are bringing back a thicket of travel, financial and trade restrictions – and a tougher stance toward the island. The goal of these restrictions, according to U.S. President Donald Trump, is to starve the Cuban government of money from travel, remittances and commercial ties. But the real victims of the new sanctions will be U.S. residents whose right to travel is curtailed, Cuban families who depend on remittances to survive, the struggling Cuban private sector, and U.S. businesses that will face an even greater disadvantage competing with Asian and European firms.

The regulations issued by the Treasury and Commerce Departments on Nov. 8 re-impose significant limits on educational travel to Cuba that former President Barack Obama relaxed. They also redefine “prohibited officials of the Government of Cuba” expansively, potentially cutting off remittances to hundreds of thousands of Cuban families. Finally, they prohibit anyone subject to U.S. jurisdiction from engaging in any “direct financial transactions” with entities controlled by the Cuban military or security forces that “disproportionately benefits” those entities.

All this marks the implementation of new sanctions Trump announced on June 16, 2017, at a Cuban American rally in Miami. The sanctions were mandated by the National Security Presidential Memorandum the president signed onstage, and included several major changes to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR), which spell out the operational details of the U.S. embargo.

Educational travel

In January 2011, Obama relaxed restrictions that former President George W. Bush had imposed on educational exchanges with Cuba – restrictions so onerous they eliminated most U.S. study abroad programs. Trump’s new regulations re-impose the Bush era restrictions, albeit with some exceptions for students accompanied by a representative of their U.S. academic institution. When combined with the State Department’s Sept. 29 travel warning advising people not to visit Cuba at all because of the injuries suffered by two dozen personnel at the U.S. embassy, the new restrictions on educational travel could drastically reduce U.S. study abroad in Cuba, which had been on the upswing since 2014.

U.S. visitors traveling under the “people-to-people” educational license (for educational travel not leading to an academic degree) can no longer travel on their own. They must now travel with organized groups under the auspices of a U.S.-based, licensed travel provider. Obama had lifted the group travel requirement in March 2016, providing an immediate boon to Cuba’s emerging private sector because individual travelers are much more likely to stay at private B&Bs (casas particulares), eat in private restaurants (paladares), take private taxis, and hire private guides. Most organized groups are too large for private rentals and thus have to be booked into government-owned hotels. Consequently, although Trump’s policy purports to boost Cuba’s private sector, the prohibition on individualized people-to-people travel hits the private sector hardest.

Although Cuban private businesses may suffer, the new travel regulations are not likely to put a huge dent in the number of U.S. visitors. The volume of travelers from the United States jumped dramatically in 2015, up 77 percent over 2014, after Obama and Cuba’s President Raúl Castro announced their intention to normalize relations in December 2014. This surge occurred before Obama ended the prohibition on individualized “people-to-people” travel. U.S. visitors are far more likely to be deterred by the State Department’s travel warning. Even then, a significant decline in U.S. visitors will not do serious damage to the Cuban tourist industry, which hosted four million foreign visitors in 2016 and is on track to host 4.7 million this year, of which only seven percent were non-Cuban American U.S. visitors.

Remittances

The new regulations redefine “prohibited officials of the Government of Cuba” to include all employees of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and Ministry of the Interior, thousands of ordinary Cubans who volunteer as leaders of their local Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, as well as senior government and party officials. The previous regulatory definition of prohibited officials, put into place by Obama in October 2016, was limited to members of the Council of Ministers and flag officers of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. The new definition encompasses hundreds of thousands of people, since the armed forces manage a significant number of commercial enterprises such as the Gaviota hotel chain and TRD Caribe retail stores, especially in the fast-growing tourism sector.

Cubans who are “prohibited” are not allowed to receive payments from U.S. nationals. That includes remittances and gift packages (Cuban Assets Control Regulations,  §515.570), so the new regulations could potentially deprive hundreds of thousands of Cuban families of support from their relatives abroad. However, the actual impact is harder to predict. There is no way to enforce this prohibition since the U.S. government does not have a list of all the people covered in the expanded definition. Moreover, Cuban Americans can carry funds and gift packages to family when they travel or can wire funds through third countries, just as they did in 1994 when former U.S. President Bill Clinton tried, unsuccessfully, to cut off remittances to punish Cuba for the balsero (rafters) migration crisis.

Apart from whether the new prohibition proves effective, it would seem to run counter to the purported aim of Trump’s policy to empower the Cuban people by directing U.S. funds to them, rather than to the Cuban government. Remittances are by far best way to do that because the dollars go directly to family on the island.

Transactions with military-linked enterprises

The most complex regulatory change is the prohibition on engaging in any “direct financial transactions” with businesses controlled by the Cuban military or security forces if they “disproportionately benefit” those forces. This is a potentially significant prohibition because the Cuban armed forces ministry administers commercial holding companies involved in everything from banking and port management to hotels and retail sales. The presence of military enterprises is greatest in the tourist sector, where both U.S. visitors and U.S. companies are most likely to encounter them.

The U.S. Department of State was tasked with creating a list of prohibited enterprises, which it released along with the new regulations. The list includes 180 entities, 58 percent of which are in the tourist sector, including 84 hotels – by far the largest category of businesses included. Some of the entities listed are holding companies for hundreds of retail outlets, but U.S. travelers and companies can still do business with subsidiaries of prohibited entities so long as the subsidiaries themselves are not specifically listed. Quite reasonably, the State Department took the view that it could not expect travelers to know which retail outlets might be subsidiaries of prohibited entities unless they were specifically named.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Representative Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who were the intellectual authors of the ban on transactions with military-linked enterprises, complained that the State Department’s list was not inclusive enough because “bureaucrats” were “refusing” to carry out Trump’s policy. Rubio wanted to see the entire Cuban tourist sector put off-limits because the Minister of Tourism, Manuel Marrero Cruz, is a former military officer. According to Rubio, that means the entire sector is controlled by the armed forces.

The Cuban government was not happy with the sanctions either. Josefina Vidal, Director General for U.S. Affairs in the Foreign Ministry, said the new measures “confirm the serious regress of bilateral relations as a result of the decisions adopted by the government of the President Donald Trump,” and called some of them “subversive.”

In truth, the impact of these sanctions on commercial relations with Cuba is likely to be limited. The Cuban government, adept at coping with U.S. hostility for the past half century, may feel the pinch, but it can look elsewhere for trade partners and tourists. Also, in order to avoid disrupting ongoing business relationships, the new regulations exempt existing contracts from the prohibition on doing business with military-linked enterprises. So, for example, Marriott-Starwood Hotels’ contract to manage hotels owned by holding companies administered by the armed forces ministry is not affected by the new regulations. Moreover, even future contracts will be allowed with military-linked businesses involving ports, airports, and telecommunications, which are the three sectors in which most U.S. businesses (cruise ship lines, airlines, and cell phone companies) now operate.

On balance, the regulatory burden falls most heavily on U.S. academic institutions, whose study abroad programs in Cuba will be curtailed; on U.S. travelers who can no longer travel by themselves on a people-to-people educational license; on Cuban-Americans whose families on the island who will no longer be eligible to receive remittances and gift packages; and on U.S. businesses that may want to sell goods to Cuba in sectors where their counterparts are commercial enterprises managed by the armed forces ministry.

The Cubans who will suffer most are small business owners, suppliers, and employees who cater to individual U.S. travelers; employees of state firms managed by the armed forces ministry and their families, who may lose remittances and gifts; and Cubans who might have found employment with U.S. companies whose potential business deals are now blocked.

The Cuban state will suffer only marginally from Trump’s new sanctions – certainly not enough to force it into the sorts of concessions Washington demands.

 

 

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BACKLASH IN CUBA: OBAMA’S HISTORIC VISIT WAS A SMASH HIT IN HAVANA. FIDEL CASTRO WASN’T GOING TO TAKE THAT LYING DOWN.

By Ann Louise Bardach

Politico Magazine, June 10 2016

Original Article: BACKLASH IN CUBA

HAVANA—These days Fidel Castro doesn’t often leave his comfortable home in Siboney, a leafy suburb west of this city. But on April 19, the 89-year-old Cuban leader emerged, aides at his side, wearing a royal blue Adidas sports jacket over a blue plaid shirt, and was driven two miles to the immense Palacio de Convenciones. Inside he was greeted by a thousand members of the Communist Party, the ruling body that has been Cuba’s sole political party for half a century. They were wrapping up their four-day conference, generally held twice a decade.

Fidel is ailing and officially retired, having incrementally handed the reins of power to his brother Raul over the past decade. But he remains a history buff, a news junkie, and a man keenly concerned with his legacy. And he was not pleased with what he had been hearing.

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzPresident Barack Obama had spent three high-profile days in Havana at the invitation of Raul. And the visit, to Fidel’s dismay, had been an immense public success, generating as much excitement and buzz on the island as the arrival of The Rolling Stones for a free concert a few days later. While state media treated Obama with cautious distance, there was no mistaking the thrill of ordinary Cubans as the president toured local sights, watched a baseball game, and drove through Havana with his family and entourage. They dubbed the president Santo Obama. “He’s more popular than the Pope!” one exultant habanera told me.

If the first state visit by a sitting president in 90 years struck Fidel as an unseemly and undeserved victory lap, there was troubling news as well from the Southern Hemisphere as well. Two of the island’s staunchest allies were fighting for their political lives. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was nearing impeachment; Argentina’s former president, Cristina Kirchner, was about to be indicted. Indeed, the entire left-wing coalition of Latin America, methodically cultivated by Fidel for decades, was unraveling. The death of Cuba’s Midas-like patron, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, had birthed a feeble successor who is unlikely to survive the next year; Ecuador’s leftist president was bowing out, while Castro champion Evo Morales of Bolivia had lost a referendum for another presidential term. Peru and Uruguay had lost their center-left leaders. If not a political tidal wave, a domino effect of sorts was shifting the Southern Hemisphere from left to right.

Fidel Castro, Cuba’s Maximum Leader, understood that something had to be done.

Cuba’s Party Congress sets the economic and political agenda of the island, and many, on and off the island, had anticipated that this year’s conclave would further crack the door open to more reform. As the U.S. and Cuba have navigated their rapprochement, their progress has continuously been buffeted by the alternating agendas of the two brothers: Fidel, the intransigent revolutionary, and Raul, the cautious reformer. Obama hoped that a state visit before the Congress would give a boost to Raul’s reform-minded approach, however modest.

Cubans, too, had their eye on the meeting, and many of them expected that the Party would at least start to retire its octo- and nonagenarian ruling elite, the historicos who came up with Fidel and Raul and have been governing the island since. Raul himself had fueled those hopes by urging an age limit of 70 for senior Party officials.

It did not happen that way. Instead the Party’s elders, with the blessing of Fidel, spent the first three days of the Congress issuing a series of retrograde edicts and re-establishing their hegemony. Rejecting the retirements of the old guard, they went on to quash reforms intended to rescue the country’s moribund economy.

For a finale, Fidel addressed the Congress for the first time since 1997. The date of his appearance, April 19, was not coincidental. It fell on the 55th anniversary of the doomed U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, when Fidel’s army vanquished the CIA’s ill-conceived coup, captured thousands of U.S.-backed rebels, and utterly humiliated the world’s greatest superpower.

The days when Fidel routinely gave furious six-hour orations in olive-drab military garb are long gone. Now with hair white as the sands of Varadero Beach, he did not attempt to stand on his feet. Instead, he was helped to a chair at the center of the dais. “This may be one of the last times I speak in this room,” Fidel somberly told the throng.

Although Fidel spoke with a gravelly rasp, those looking to hear conciliatory words were quickly disabused of that hope. “The ideas of Cuban Communists will remain as proof on this planet,” he insisted, and their achievements “will endure.” And to that end, the firebrand Fidel exhorted those present —charged with setting Cuba’s agenda through 2030—“to fight without truce.”

“Soon, I’ll be 90 years old. Soon I’ll be like all the others,” Castro intoned as if giving his own eulogy. “The time will come for all of us.”

Then the old lion, albeit with a patchy beard and a thinning mane, roared again, one last time: “We must tell our brothers in Latin America—and the world,” he declaimed, “that the Cuban people will be victorious!”

In the closed, hermetic world of Cuban politics, Fidel’s speech marked a pivot in what has arguably been the country’s most remarkable three months since the Missile Crisis of 1962. The ceaseless whiplash includes a ballyhooed U.S. presidential visit, a Party Congress slamming the door on reform, a Fidel valedictory finale, and a series of fresh dramas in the long-running saga of the Brothers Castro.

On June 3, Raul turned 85, to be followed by Fidel’s 90th birthday on August 13, a pair of personal milestones that have the brothers keen to cement their legacies. “The Castros are robust and long-lived,” boasted Raul on his big day; he also chatted with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who called offering birthday wishes.

As the brinkmanship between the two Castros plays out, it’s likely to shape the course of U.S.-Cuban relations for the next generation. In that respect, it was possible to see the Congress as an episode in the long-running drama between two brothers to whom appearances matter deeply. Raul, the internationalist, got to produce the Obama Show. Fidel, the nationalist, won the right to orchestrate the Party Congress and to deliver his response to President Obama’s proposal of accelerated reform and cooperation with the U.S.

And Fidel’s message was unmistakable: Over my dead body.

This was hardly the step forward the White House had hoped for when it orchestrated its historic, if hastily planned, state visit in March. For Obama, Cuba was his “Nixon in China” moment, a legacy move to close the last chapter of the Cold War in our hemisphere.

It could not have contrasted more clearly with the previous U.S. presidential visit. In 1928, the Republican Calvin Coolidge sailed into Havana Harbor on a battleship. Obama, on the other hand, delivered his first words to the Cuban people before he even debarked from Air Force One. They came, cool, breezy and direct, in the form of a tweet. “¿Que bolá Cuba?” he tweeted, using the island slang for “what’s happening?” “Just touched down here, looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people.”

Cuban officialdom adopted a noticeably stiffer tone. Despite Obama being the single most important head of state to visit since 1959, Raul Castro—who has personally greeted more than one pope and innumerable national leaders upon their arrival—did not appear at the airport to welcome him. Instead, when the First Family touched down amid an insistent gray rain, they were met by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who greeted the president on the tarmac with a cordial handshake.

The government-run media gave a similarly cool treatment. On the eve of Obama’s visit, Granma, the organ of the Communist Party, devoted its six thin pages to the arrival two days earlier of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, Cuba’s principal patron since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Havana, Maduro was robustly feted, even bestowed a new honorific title, with Raul declaiming that “we will never abandon our Bolivarian revolutionary friends.”

Obama’s trip had been something of a rush job, as state visits go, and behind the scenes, the U.S. had been on the back foot from early in the process. The date of the trip hadn’t been finalized until January. One consideration in the timing was to ensure the visit came prior to the Party Congress, with the White House hoping to be a moderating influence when it convened. But the driving force, according to sources at both State and the Vice President’s office, was that the president and first lady very much wanted a family trip, and the March 20-23 dates coincided with spring break at Sidwell Friends School for daughters Malia, who’s been studying Spanish, and Sasha.

The trip planning also augmented tensions between the White House and the State Department that dated back to the historic Cuban deal announced in December 2014. The landmark agreement had effectively ended the Cold War between the countries and began the process of normalization: Cuba agreed to release numerous political prisoners and return imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross along with a significant U.S. intelligence asset, Rolando Sarraff, in exchange for the U.S. returning the remaining three of the “Cuban Five” convicted spies. Although negotiations like this would normally be led by the State Department, Obama had deputized his trusted aide and speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, to make a deal with Cuba happen. The 18 months of secret negotiations largely bypassed the State Department; only one State veteran, Cuba policy specialist Ricardo Zuniga, who partnered with Rhodes, was fully trusted by Obama’s innermost circle, to maintain the secrecy demanded by the administration. Likewise, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, known as MINREX, was exiled from negotiations. The key player on the Cuban side was none other than Colonel Alejandro Castro Espín, Raul’s 50-year-old son, a steely hard-liner widely believed to be his father’s heir apparent.

The rushed trip also gave the Cubans leverage to shape the agenda, or try to: No meetings with human rights activists, they insisted, and they would decide the guest list, including which U.S. reporters made the cut—a loaded issue with Cuba, which has a long history of barring American reporters who report seriously on the island.

Matters were not looking good, and the press around the reconciliation was getting worse, until Secretary of State John Kerry canceled a trip to Havana in protest weeks before the state visit. Kerry’s bluff worked, and from then on, the U.S. got what it wanted. The Cubans reluctantly issued visas for the reporters; the president had meetings with entrepreneurs, dissidents, human rights activists and even held a news conference, all to be recorded by live television coverage.

***

It is nearly impossible to overstate the impact of President Obama’s arrival in Cuba. The shift in outlook was tectonic. In the course of the visit, I heard more than one habanero refer to Obama as “El Negro de Oro”—the Golden Black Man, a flattering pun on “black gold.” It didn’t hurt that to many Cubans, Obama just looks Cuban; his mixed-race background gives him something in common with the half the island’s population that identifies as mulato, black or mestizo today.

The Obama family made the requisite tourist stops, including the city’s grand Cathedral, built in 1777 from blocks of coral; they took a walking tour led by Havana’s remarkable official historian, Eusebio Leal. Despite failing health and being in considerable pain, Leal gamely guided the Obamas through historic Havana in and around the Plaza de Armas.

The buzz of la bola en la calle—Cuban street gossip—was that the visit had prompted previously unimaginable upgrades to parts of the capital. Every building that the Obama entourage passed had been repainted, and every road his limousine traversed had been repaved. Some streets were still being paved and re-striped just hours before his arrival. “Come visit us,” cried out residents of neglected, pot-holed barrios in what became a weeklong running joke, “y llevar el asfalto!” — “and bring the asphalt!”

The culmination of the trip was Obama’s exquisitely crafted speech, delivered in downtown Havana’s Gran Teatro with Raul Castro and the senior Politburo present, along with an array of invitation-only favored Cubans. “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” Obama began, thus ending the half century David-and-Goliath face-off that once almost brought the world to its end. The speech, written by Rhodes, hit every note. Millions of Cubans watched, many saying later they were overwhelmed by emotion, as an American president spoke directly to them, not at them.

“I had tears in my eyes,” said Marta Vitorte, who watched the speech in her Vedado apartment. A former official in the Foreign Ministry, Vitorte for the past decade has run one of Havana’s most popular and upscale casa particulars, or private home rentals. “This is the beginning of the future of Cuba,” she gushed.

But for the island’s 11-million-plus inhabitants, an even more jaw-dropping moment had come earlier in the visit. On Day Two, Obama had cajoled Raul into participating in a live news conference, taking unscreened questions from American reporters.

Considering Cuba’s antagonism towards a free press, Raul’s participation was stunning and, no doubt, a spontaneous decision he quickly regretted. The Cuban leader was plainly displeased by a question on human rights by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, but he was infuriated by CNN’s Jim Acosta who asked, “Why are there Cuban political prisoners in your country?” Raul visibly bristled, having never endured an unfriendly press query. “Give me the list right now of political prisoners to let go of them,” Raul huffed. “Tell me the name or the names … And if there are political prisoners then before night falls, they will be free. There!” (Lists of prisoner names were promptly circulated on social media—none of whom are known to have been released since.)

“Oh my god,” said a former Cuban diplomat. “It made Raul look weak. No one here has ever seen anything like that.” | AP Photo

As the conference streamed live, Cubans watched a flustered Raul lose his cool, then abruptly end the news conference and march over to Obama to raise his arm in a victory salute. A bemused Obama was having none of it, and let his arm dangle. “Oh my god,” said a former Cuban diplomat. “It made Raul look weak. No one here has ever seen anything like that.”

***

Obama’s show-stopping appearances could only have mortified Fidel Castro, a public-relations genius, who was keenly monitoring the visit from his home. “Never abandon propaganda—even for a minute,” he had counseled compatriots in a 1954 letter. “It is the very soul of our struggle.”

Today, for hard-liners of Fidel’s generation, la lucha, the struggle, means just two things: keeping the principles of the Revolution alive in Cuba; and keeping themselves alive and in power.

At the very minimum, Obama had rewritten Fidel’s carefully scripted drama, in which the U.S. plays the rapacious foe. Suddenly, America seemed far less menacing. As the Cuban novelist Wendy Guerra wrote, in the wake of Obama’s visit: “Since you left, we are little more alone, because now we have to find another enemy.”

“The enemy always drove the story,” says Marilu Menendez, a Cuban exile and branding expert who now lives in New York. “It justified all of [Fidel’s] excesses.”

Even before Obama left the island, Fidel let it be known that that he took a dim view of the visit. Just days after Air Force One departed, an article appeared in the state-run Tribuna de la Habana that accused Obama of lording over a racist country and “inciting rebellion” in Cuba by meeting with pro-democracy activists. Its headline, roughly translated, “Black Man, Are You Dumb?” was a firebomb. “Obama came, saw, but unfortunately, with the pretend gesture of lending a hand, tried to conquer,” wrote Elias Argudín, a government loyalist, “choos[ing] to criticize and subtly suggest … incitements to rebellion and disorder, without caring that he was on foreign ground. Without a doubt, Obama overplayed his hand. Minimally, I can say is … ‘black man, are you dumb?’”

Following a wave of blowback, Argudín offered a quasi-apology for “causing offense,” noting that he himself was black. In a typically mysterious Cuban chess maneuver, the story was briefly deleted, then reposted on the paper’s website, while running in the print edition.

The column was only the first public salvo from hard-liners signaling their distress over the American president’s visit. A few days later, Fidel himself published a searing 1,500-word public letter, a full-throated denunciation of the visit and, by implication, Raul, who had hosted it. Entitled “Brother Obama,” it ran on Page 1 of Granma. Obama’s grand speech (which had begun with a famous line from the beatified patriot José Martí) was derided by Fidel as “honey-coated”—merely by listening to it, he warned, Cubans “ran the risk of having a heart attack.” And then Fidel dropped the hammer: “We don’t need El Imperio—The Empire—to give us any presents!”

Though Fidel and Raul’s lives have been anchored in decades of sibling love, collaboration and feuding, Fidel must have known, or quickly learned, that his public harpooning had gone just a bit too far. And so on April 8, a week before the highly anticipated Congress, Fidel made another unusual outing from his home. Wearing a white blousy sports jacket with a black wool scarf tied around his neck, Castro, aided by a cane, spoke briefly at the school named for his late sister-in-law, Vilma Espín.

Espín had been Raul’s wife and compañera in the Revolution from the early 1950s, and had served as Cuba’s de facto first lady. But when she died in 2007, Fidel did not attend her funeral. His own illness served as a reasonable excuse, but as one former Cuban official told me in Havana, none of Fidel’s family—neither his children nor his wife, Dalia—attended either. The snub deeply disappointed the family-centric Raul, who also serves as the Castro clan’s patriarch. Since then, the official said, Raul typically has a weekly family dinner, not with Fidel’s brood, but with his in-laws, the Espíns.

So it was impossible not to interpret Fidel’s tribute as a peace offering to Raul, in advance of the Congress, where it was imperative that the brothers present a unified front. “I’m sure that on a day like today, Vilma would be happy,” Fidel intoned to the schoolchildren in his weakened voice.

Vicki Huddleston, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, said the brothers knew they needed to project unity. “They do not want it to appear that there are divisions,” she said. Veteran Cuba negotiator and U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Roberta Jacobson, suggested that the brothers’ brinkmanship was sometimes simply ritual role-playing—a kind of “good cop-bad cop within the Castro family.”

***

The dynamic between the Brothers Castro is of great import to Cubans, of course, and also determines what issues they allow on the table with American negotiators, and at what pace they are willing to address them.

On many issues the brothers are genuinely in lockstep, such as ending the U.S. embargo. While Cuba relentlessly hammers on about “el bloqueo”—the blockade, the hyperbolic term it uses for the embargo—its current prohibitions have been whittled down to a fraction of what they once were. Through executive actions, the Obama administration has lifted an array of trade and investment restrictions. Completely normalized trade and banking will have to wait for Congress to rescind the embargo officially, but whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins, the Cubans think they will have the requisite votes in Congress to get it done. With GOP Senators Jeff Flake and Rand Paul leading the charge, they expect a vote to come at some point in 2017. But until then, the embargo continues to be useful propaganda about the bully “Empire” to the north.

The embargo can be seen as Cuba’s short game. The longer game is Guantánamo—the territory, not the prison. Even more than the embargo, this 45 square miles of Cuba’s easternmost province has long served as Exhibit A of the crushing foot of El Imperio. As Raul reminded Obama on Day Two of his visit: “It will also be necessary to return the territory illegally occupied by Guantánamo Naval Base.”

While the prisoners held in Gitmo are the issue attracting global attention, for Cuba, they’re simply helpful propaganda in its quest to get its land back. America does have a lease, a 1903 deal stipulating that Guantánamo and its deep-water harbors be used as a “coaling station.” (The rent is $4,085 annually, and the Castros proudly boast that they never cashed a rent check—although they did cash one in 1959.) Cuba now argues that America’s current use of the land is in violation of its lease. “If this was a straight-up landlord-tenant law, the landlord would kick your butt right out,” says Jose Pertierra, a Cuban-born lawyer who shuttles between Havana and Washington.

A former Cuban diplomat told me he expects the Gitmo crusade to get louder and more insistent going forward. “We don’t really care about the prison,” he said, “but [the government] is going to politicize it as a human-rights violation [and] a breach of the lease.” In Havana, I asked Ben Rhodes if the Cubans had put Gitmo on the table as a chip. “There are never discussions in which Guantánamo does not come up,” he answered.

As talks between the countries haltingly advance, it is on domestic economic and political issues where the internal Cuban factions part company. In the 1990s, with the collapse of their Soviet patron, Raul began to see Cuba’s future very differently than his older brother. Raul had studied and visited China and Vietnam, and he liked what he saw: economic powerhouses fueled by competitive capitalism but all under the steely control of the Communist Party.

Fidel, on the other hand, mistrusted any version of capitalism, however dressed up as socialist entrepreneurism. He had railed against perestroika and glasnost and repeatedly warned Mikhail Gorbachev it would be the beginning of the end. (And indeed, it was the end of the Soviets’ billion-dollar patronage of Cuba.)

Unlike his brother, Raul has acknowledged cracks in the pillars of Cuba’s 65-year-old political system; insiders consider them serious. “There is no more discipline within the traditional ranks,” a retired government official told me. “No one wants to belong to the CDR [Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the neighborhood snitch organs]. No one feels they have to belong to the Communist Party.” He added: “Five years ago, if you didn’t belong to the CDR or the Party, you weren’t going to get a promotion or could get in trouble. But there is no more fear about it.”

Likewise, such bastions of the Revolution as the Federation of Women, the Workers Union, and the Young Communists League are losing members, I was told. All these organs that have buttressed the Revolution are in decline, losing momentum as membership oozes away. “Everybody’s looking down the road about how to be an entrepreneur or a capitalist,” said a man who has turned his home into a casa particular.

For the past two years, Raul has been beseeching allies and trading partners—Russia and much of Europe—to forgive loans and debts incurred over decades, an estimated $51.5 billion, according to Emilio Morales of the Havana Consulting Group. (That figure that doesn’t even include debts owed to Venezuela and Brazil.)

And there is a relatively new reality on the island: corruption. “It’s a daily event,” he said. “If you have money, there’s nothing you cannot get,” then lowering his voice, “even a visa to leave Cuba.“

While Fidel may choose to turn a blind eye to the domestic woes of his country, he is keenly attuned to the fact that there are larger, inexorable forces at work. The Southern Hemisphere is plainly drifting away from Cuba. In 2006, as he lay gravely ill, Fidel could gaze out at Latin America—populated by Lula in Brazil, Evo in Bolivia, the Kirschners in Argentina and his adoring student and patron, Hugo Chavez—and rest serene that fidelismo and Cuba’s future were secure. If Fidel had died that year, as he has said he very nearly did, he would have been one satisfied soul.

But 10 years later, he has lived to confront a radically different picture. Cuba has lost all its patrons, except for the dramatically reduced oil shipments from Venezuela. Both Russia and China have set limits on their future largesse. Meanwhile, the U.S. rapprochement is making it inescapably clear that Cuba’s economic salvation lies, once again, as it did in the first half of the 20th century, in American investment and tourism—meaning ever-deepening ties to Fidel’s lifelong bête noire, the U.S.

So despite the rhetorical saber-rattling, and the alternating star turns of Raul and Fidel, Cuba is going through the only door that, for now, is open: Making friends with Uncle Sam. With no fanfare or pronouncements, U.S. and Cuban negotiators met recently and laid out an agenda for meetings well into the next year covering property claims, trade, environmental concerns and cooperation on narcotics.

In late May, the Cuban government announced that small and medium-size businesses would be legalized. The Party Congress may have repudiated change, but change is happening nonetheless.

Most crucially, there is the daily bonanza of ever-multiplying dollars from U.S. tourism. “More than 94,000 Americans have visited Cuba from Jan-Apr 2016,” proudly tweeted Josefina Vidal, a Cuban official who heads the U.S. division of the Foreign Ministry in May, “a 93% increase with respect to same period 2015.”

Leonardo Padura, Cuba’s most famous living writer, recently tried to explain his country’s contradictions. “If you say [Cuba] is a communist hell or a socialist paradise, you’re missing all the nuances,” he told EFE, the Spanish news agency. “Cuba is a society that apparently has not changed, but it really has.”

That assessment could apply just as well to Raul. Both a “reformer” and a “historico” by definition and personal loyalty—having fought alongside Fidel since 1952 and, since 1959, having run the Cuban Army, the country’s most powerful political organ—Raul has evolved into a pragmatist of necessity over the past 25 years. At the same time, Fidel has doubled down his resolve to resist reform. And like Cuba, the relationship between the deeply bonded brothers apparently has not changed, but it really has.

At his birthday last week, when Raul was toasted by family and friends after hosting a Caribbean summit, there was much to celebrate—replete with historical ironies. Fidel may have rescued Cuba from the clutches of the U.S., but it is Raul who is rescuing Cuba from Fidel.

Ann Louise Bardach is the author of Cuba Confidential (2002) and Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington (2009), as well as the editor of The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro and Cuba: A Travelers Literary Companion. She interviewed Fidel Castro in 1993 and 1994 and met Raúl Castro in 1994.

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A POLICY LONG PAST ITS EXPIRATION DATE: US ECONOMIC SANCTIONS AGAINST CUBA

William M. LeoGrande

Social Research: An International Quarterly, Volume 82, Number 4, Winter 2015, pp. 939-966 (Article)

Original Article: US Economic Sanctions Against Cuba, William LeoGrande

ABSTRACT

The embargo against Cuba is the oldest and most comprehensive U.S. economic sanctions regime against any country in the world. It comprises a complex patchwork of laws and presidential determinations imposed over half a century. Presidents have tightened or relaxed it to suit their own strategy—some seeking to punish the Cuban regime by economic pressure, other seeking to improve relations by resorting to soft power rather than hard. The impact of U.S. sanctions has also varied, at times inflicting serious harm on the Cuban economy, and at times being merely as an expensive annoyance. But the embargo has never been effective at forcing Cuba’s revolutionary regime out of power or bending it to Washington’s will.

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U.S. WELFARE FLOWS TO CUBA

“They’re taking benefits from the American taxpayer to subsidize their life in another country.”

Original Article Here: U.S. Welfare Flows to Cuba

By Sally Kestin, Megan O’Matz and John Maines with Tracey Eaton in Cuba

Orlando Sun-Sentinel,  October 2, 2015

Read  previous investigations into special treatment for Cuban immigrants

Cuban immigrants are cashing in on U.S. welfare and returning to the island, making a mockery of the decades-old premise that they are refugees fleeing persecution at home.  Some stay for months at a time — and the U.S. government keeps paying.

Cubans’ unique access to food stamps, disability money and other welfare is meant to help them build new lives in America. Yet these days, it’s helping some finance their lives on the communist island.

America’s open-ended generosity has grown into an entitlement that exceeds $680 million a year and is exploited with ease. No agency tracks the scope of the abuse, but a Sun Sentinel investigation found evidence suggesting it is widespread.

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Cuban arrivals in Florida

Unlike most immigrants to the U.S., Cubans are presumed to be refugees and can access special assistance. Since 2003, more than 329,000 Cuban immigrants arrived in Florida and were eligible for this aid, which includes cash, medical care and job training. They now make up nine out of 10 foreigners getting refugee services in Florida.

Fed-up Floridians are reporting their neighbors and relatives for accepting government aid while shuttling back and forth to the island, selling goods in Cuba, and leaving their benefit cards in the U.S. for others to use while they are away.

Some don’t come back at all. The U.S. has continued to deposit welfare checks for as long as two years after the recipients moved back to Cuba for good, federal officials confirmed.

Regulations prohibit welfare recipients from collecting or using U.S. benefits in another country. But on the streets of Hialeah, the first stop for many new arrivals, shopkeepers like Miguel Veloso hear about it all the time.

Veloso, a barber who has been in the U.S. three years, said recent immigrants on welfare talk of spending considerable time in Cuba — six months there, two months here. “You come and go before benefits expire,” he said.

State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. of Hialeah hears it too, from constituents in his heavily Cuban-American district, who tell of flaunting their aid money on visits to the island. The money, he said, “is definitely not to be used … to go have a great old time back in the country that was supposed to be oppressing you.”

The sense of entitlement is so ingrained that Cubans routinely complained to their local congressman about the challenge of accessing U.S. aid — from Cuba.

“A family member would come into our office and say another family member isn’t receiving his benefits,” said Javier Correoso, aide to former Miami Rep. David Rivera. “We’d say, ‘Where is he?’ They’d say, ‘He’s in Cuba and isn’t coming back for six months.’”

The money “is definitely not to be used … to go have a great old time back in the country that was supposed to be oppressing you.”

 “They’re taking benefits from the American taxpayer to subsidize their life in another country.’”

One woman told Miami immigration attorney Grisel Ybarra that her grandmother and two great aunts came to Florida, got approved for benefits, opened bank accounts and returned to Cuba. Month after month, the woman cashed their government checks — about $2,400 each time — sending half to the women in Cuba and keeping the rest.   When a welfare agency questioned the elderly ladies’ whereabouts this summer, the woman turned to Ybarra, a Cuban American. She told Ybarra her grandmother refused to come back, saying: “With the money you sent me, I bought a home and am really happy in Cuba.”

Cubans on the island, Ybarra said, have a name for U.S. aid.  They call it “la ayuda.” The help.

Special status abused

Increasing openness and travel between the two countries have made the welfare entitlement harder to justify and easier to abuse. But few charges have been brought, and Congress and the Obama Administration have failed to address the problem even as the United States moves toward détente with Cuba.

Cubans fuel increase in Florida costs

The U.S. opens its borders and wallets to Cubans like no other immigrant group. The number of Cubans coming to the U.S. is increasing, along with the expense of supporting them. The cost of food stamps, welfare and short-term cash assistance for Cuban immigrants in Florida has increased 23 percent since 2011, compared to five percent for refugees from all other nations.

Adding it up

Florida’s costs are only part of the picture. To calculate the total cost of public assistance for Cuban immigrants, the Sun Sentinel included estimates for federal refugee assistance and welfare for seniors and the disabled. The $682 million total is conservative.*

Cubans’ extraordinary access to U.S. welfare rests on two pillars of special treatment: the ease with which they are admitted to the country, and America’s generosity in granting them public support.

Cubans are allowed into the U.S. even if they arrive without permission and are quickly granted permanent residency under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. They’re assumed to be refugees without having to prove persecution.

They’re immediately eligible for welfare, food stamps, Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income or SSI, cash assistance for impoverished seniors and disabled younger people.

Most other immigrants are barred from collecting aid for their first five years. Those here illegally are not eligible at all.

The Sun Sentinel analyzed state and federal data to determine the annual cost of taxpayer support for Cuban immigrants: at least $680 million. In Florida alone, costs for welfare, food stamps and refugee cash have increased 23 percent since 2011, the last year data was available.

Not all Cubans receive government help. Those arriving on visas are ineligible, and some rely on family support. And many who receive aid do so for just a short time until they settle in, as the U.S. intended. Cubans over time have become one of the most successful immigrant groups in America.

“They come to the U.S. to work and make a living for their family,” said Jose Alvarez, a Cuba native and city commissioner in Kissimmee. “I don’t believe that they come thinking the government will support them.”

But some take advantage of the easy money — and then go back and forth to Cuba.

A public housing tenant in Hialeah, who was receiving food stamps and SSI payments for a disabled son, frequently traveled to Cuba to sell food there, records show. She admitted to a city housing investigator in 2012 that she “makes $700 in two months just in the sales to Cuba.”

Another man receiving food stamps admitted to state officials “that he was living in Cuba much of 2015.”

A recent arrival with a chronic illness got Medicaid coverage and turned to attorney David Batchelder of Miami to help him get SSI as well. But the man was “going back and forth to Cuba” so much that Batchelder eventually dropped the case. “It was just another benefit he was applying for.”

Concerns about Cubans exploiting the aid are especially troubling to exiles who came to this country decades ago and built new lives and careers here.  Dr. Noel Fernandez recalls the assistance his family received from friends and the U.S. government when they immigrated 20 years ago, help that enabled him to find work as a landscaper, learn English and complete his medical studies. Now medical director of Citrus Health Network in Hialeah, Fernandez sees Cuban immigrants collecting benefits and going back, including three elderly patients who recently left the U.S. for good.

“They got Medicaid, they got everything, and they returned to Cuba,” he said. “I see people that said they were refugees [from] Cuba and they return the next year.”

State officials have received complaints about Cubans collecting aid while repeatedly going to Cuba or working as mules ferrying cash and goods, a common way of financing travel to the island.

Another way of paying for the trips: cheating. Like other welfare recipients, some Cubans work under the table or put assets in others’ names to appear poor enough to meet the programs’ income limits, according to records and interviews. Some married couples qualify for more money as single people by concealing marriages performed in Cuba, where the U.S. can’t access records.

Florida’s refugee costs by nationality in 2014

The United States accepts refugees from around the world if they can prove persecution at home. Cubans don’t need such proof – they are the only nationality with open-ended access to the U.S. and government benefits.

 “Stop the fraud please!” one person urged in a complaint to the state. Another pleaded with authorities to check airport departure records for a woman suspected of hiding income. “It would show how many times she has traveled to Cuba.”

Florida officials typically dismissed the complaints for lack of information, because names didn’t match their records or because the allegations didn’t involve violations of eligibility rules. Travel abroad is not expressly prohibited, but benefits are supposed to be used for basic necessities within the U.S.

“Our congressional folks should be looking at this,” said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Esteban Bovo Jr., a Cuban American. “There could be millions and millions of dollars in fraud going on here.”

Money to Cuba

Accessing benefits from Cuba typically requires a U.S. bank account and a willing relative or friend stateside. Food stamps and welfare are issued monthly through a debit-type card, and SSI payments are deposited into a bank account or onto a MasterCard.

A joint account holder with a PIN number can withdraw the money and wire it to Cuba. Another option: entrust the money to a friend traveling to Cuba.

Roberto Pizano of Tampa, a political prisoner in Cuba for 18 years, said he worked two jobs when he arrived in the U.S. in 1979 and never accepted overnment help. He now sees immigrants “abusing the system.”

“I know people who come to the U.S., apply for SSI and never worked in the USA,” he said. They “move back to Cuba and are living off of the hard-earned taxpayer dollars.”

Roberto Pizano of Tampa, a political prisoner in Cuba for 18 years, said Cubans are signing up for U.S. benefits and moving back to Cuba, “living off of the hard-earned taxpayer dollars.“ Photo by Taimy Alvarez

Federal investigators have found the same scenario in other cases.  A 2012 complaint alleged a 75-year-old woman had moved to Camaguey two years earlier and a relative was withdrawing her SSI money from a bank account and sending it to her. Social Security stopped payments, but not before nearly $16,000 had been deposited into her account.

Another recipient went to Cuba on vacation and stayed, leaving his debit card with a relative. Social Security continued his SSI payments for another six months — $4,000 total — before an anonymous caller reported he had gone back to Cuba.

One woman reportedly moved to Cuba in 2010 and died three years later, while still receiving SSI and food stamps, according to a 2014 tip to Florida welfare fraud investigators. A state official couldn’t find her at her Hialeah home, cut off the food stamps and alerted the federal government.

Former congressman Rivera tried to curb abuses with a bill that would have revoked the legal status of Cubans who returned to the island before they became citizens.

“Public assistance is meant to help Cuban refugees settle in the U.S.,” Mauricio Claver-Carone of Cuba Democracy Advocates testified in a 2012 hearing on the bill. “However, many non-refugee Cubans currently use these benefits, which can average more than $1,000 per month, to immediately travel back to the island, where the average income is $20 per month, and comfortably reside there for months at a time on the taxpayer’s dime.”

Rivera recently told the Sun Sentinel that he interviewed welfare workers, Cubans in Miami and passengers waiting for charter flights to Havana. He said he found overwhelming evidence of benefits money going back, especially after the U.S. eased travel restrictions in 2009.

The back and forth undermines the rationale that Cubans are refugees fleeing an oppressive government, Rivera said. And when they return for visits, they boast of the money that’s available in the U.S., he said. “They all say, ‘It’s great. I got free housing. I got free food. I get my medicine.’ ”

Five Cubans interviewed by the Sun Sentinel in Havana said they were aware of the assistance and knew of Cubans who had gone to America and quickly began sending money back. Two said they believed it was U.S. government aid.

“I don’t think it’s correct, but everyone does it for the well-being of their family,” said one woman, Susana, who declined to give her last name.

Outside welfare offices in Hialeah, the Sun Sentinel found Cuban immigrants who had arrived as recently as three days earlier, applying for benefits. They said family and friends told them about the aid before they left Cuba.

“Back in the ’60s, when you came in, they told you the factory that was hiring,” said Nidia Diaz of Miami, a former bail bondswoman who was born in Cuba. “Now, they tell you the closest Department of Children and Families [office] so you can go and apply.”

Crooks collect in Cuba

Miami bail bondswoman Barbara Pozo said many of her Cuban clients talk openly about living in Cuba and collecting monthly disability checks, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.  “They just come here to pick up the money,” Pozo said. “They pretend they’re disabled. They just pretend they’re crazy.”  SSI payments, for those who cannot work due to mental or physical disabilities, go up to $733 a month for an individual. Most other new immigrants are ineligible until they become U.S. citizens.

Cubans collect, others don’t:

Some Cubans try to build a case for SSI by claiming trauma from their life under an oppressive government or the 90-mile crossing to Florida.  Diaz, the former bondswoman, said she has heard Cuban clients talk about qualifying: “‘Tell them that you have emotional problems. How did you get these problems? Well, trying to get here from Cuba.’”

Antonio Comin collected disability while organizing missions to smuggle Cubans to Florida, including one launched from a house in the Keys, federal prosecutors said. Comin claimed he rented the home to celebrate his birthday — after receiving his government check.

Casimiro Martinez was receiving a monthly check for a mental disability — but his mind was sound enough to launder more than $1 million stolen from Medicare. Martinez was arrested at Miami International Airport after returning from a trip to Cuba.

Outside welfare offices in Hialeah, the Sun Sentinel found Cuban immigrants who had arrived as recently as three days earlier, applying for benefits.

Government disability programs are vulnerable to fraud, particularly SSI, with applicants faking or exaggerating symptoms. Some view SSI as “money waiting to be taken,” said John Webb, a federal prosecutor in Tennessee who has handled fraud cases.

While benefits are supposed to be suspended for recipients who leave the United States for more than 30 days, the government relies on people to self-report those absences, and federal audits have found widespread violations.

The government could significantly reduce abuses by matching international travel records to SSI payments, auditors have recommended since 2003. The Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security are still trying to work out a data sharing agreement — 12 years later.

Jose Caragol, a Hialeah city councilman and Havana native, said aid for Cubans “was meant to assist those who were persecuted and want a new life. The bleeding has to stop.”

 

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U.S.-CUBA AGRICULTURAL TRADE: PAST, PRESENT, AND POSSIBLE FUTURE

Full Document Here: US-Cuba Agricultural Trade, Past, Present and Perspective, USDA,2015

By Steven Zahniser, Bryce Cooke, Jerry Cessna, Nathan Childs, David Harvey, Mildred Haley, Michael McConnell, and Carlos Arnade, all from the United States Department of Agriculture

Abstract

Establishment of a more normal economic relationship with Cuba has the potential to foster additional growth in U.S.-Cuba agricultural trade. Prior to the Cuban Revolution of 1959, bilateral agricultural trade featured large volumes of Cuban sugar and smaller volumes of molasses, tobacco, and pineapple from Cuba and rice, lard, dried beans, wheat, and wheat flour from the United States. In 2000, the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba was loosened to allow for U.S. exports of agricultural products and medicine. As a result, the United States soon became Cuba’s leading supplier of agricultural imports. The remaining prohibitions on issuing credit to Cuba, however, give other exporting countries a competitive advantage in the Cuban market, and the United States slipped to being the second leading supplier in 2013 and the third leading supplier in 2014. A more normal economic relationship between the two countries would allow Cuba to resume exporting agricultural products to the United States, while U.S. agricultural exporters would be able to develop commercial ties in Cuba that approximate their business relationships in other parts of the world.

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