• The objective of this Blog is to facilitate access to research resources and analyses from all relevant and useful sources, mainly on the economy of Cuba. It includes analyses and observations of the author, Arch Ritter, as well as hyper-links, abstracts, summaries, and commentaries relating to other research works from academic, governmental, media, non-governmental organizations and international institutions.
    Commentary, critique and discussion on any of the postings is most welcome.
    This Blog on The Cuban Economy is dedicated to Cuba's Generation "A". Although inspired by Yoani Sánchez' original blog "Generation Y" this is not dedicated to those with names starting with the letter "A". Instead, it draws from Douglas Coupland's novel Generation A which begins with a quotation from Kurt Vonnegut at a University Commencement:
    "... I hereby declare you Generation A, as much as the beginning of a series of astounding triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve were so long ago."

REP. GOSAR INTRODUCES BILL TO REPEAL ‘WET FOOT, DRY FOOT’ CUBAN AMNESTY

By Zachary Leshin | October 28, 2015

 (CNSNews.com) — U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) has introduced legislation to repeal “outdated policies” he says “provide amnesty to Cuban aliens” – including the Clinton-era “wet foot, dry foot” policy.

The Ending Special National Origin-Based Immigration Programs for Cubans Act of 2015 would repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which originally allowed any Cubans who had been living in the U.S. for two years to become legal permanent residents.

In 1976, the Act was amended to reduce the residency requirement to one year.

On Aug. 19, 1994, President Clinton announced his “wet foot, dry foot” policy: Any Cubans who landed on U.S. soil (“dry foot”) could remain in the U.S. even if they did not enter the country through the standard legal immigration channels.  However, migrants who were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard at sea (“wet foot”) would be returned to Cuba.  More than 2,600 Cubans were returned to the island between October 2014 and June 2015, the Associated Press reported.

“I introduced a bill to terminate three outdated policies that provide amnesty to Cuban aliens and are costing taxpayers billions of dollars,” Gosar said last week in a press release.  “The most disturbing part of this flawed immigration policy is that Cuba does not allow Cuban citizens convicted of crimes in the U.S. to be repatriated to Cuba.”

 “The Obama Administration continues to rule by executive fiat without any regard for our nation’s immigration laws or our country’s system of checks and balances that was established by the Constitution,” he continued.  “If President Obama has normalized relations with Cuba, why would we treat illegal immigrants from that nation any different than those from other countries?” Gosar asked.   “Cuban nationals should be treated under the same immigration rules as any other person seeking to immigrate to the United States and should not receive preferential treatment.”

Gosar’s bill has been endorsed by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). In a statement, FAIR president Dan Stein called the law “an outdated relic of the Cold War. Continuing this policy serves no national interest and is perpetuated purely for domestic political purposes.”

“A recent investigative report by the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel provides conclusive evidence that the Cuban Adjustment Act is being widely abused, at great expense to American taxpayers. It is time to end this special immigration policy and treat Cuban nationals the same way we treat citizens of every other country,” Stein continued.

But U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is opposed to the repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act. During an August press conference in Havana, where he attended a ceremony marking the reopening of the U.S. embassy, Kerry said: “We support full implementation of the existing migration accords with Cuba, and we currently have no plans whatsoever to alter the current migration policy, including the Cuban Adjustment Act, and we have no plans to change the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy at the same time.”

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En Route

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Preparing for Departure, Playas del Este, Havana, August 1994

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CUBA’S LIMITED ABSORPTIVE CAPACITY WILL SLOW NORMALIZATION

Fulton Armstrong*

 Fulton Armstrong is a Research Fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This is the third of four policy briefs that he will write as part of the Center’s Cuba Initiative, carried out with support from the Christopher Reynolds Foundation.  

 October 19, 2015

 As the U.S. embargo—the main obstacle to expanding U.S.-Cuban economic ties—is relaxed by presidential regulatory action and eventually lifted by Congress, limits on Cuba’s own willingness and ability to conduct trade, absorb investment, utilize information technology, and even accommodate tourists risk putting a brake on the normalization of economic relations. Five decades of embargo and failed socialist models have rendered key sectors in Cuba ill-equipped to take advantage of the surge in U.S. business interest in the island. In some areas, the political will to open up and reform is crucial. These problems do not translate into a rejection of normalization but rather into a slower timeline than many on and off the island would hope for.

After 50-plus years of estrangement, bilateral contacts since last December have given rise to high levels of optimism—among U.S. investors, importers, and exporters—about relatively rapid economic engagement. Press reports and information from Cuban and non-Cuban experts suggest that most Cubans, skeptical that their government will make reforms facilitating trade and investment quickly enough, are slightly more pessimistic. But hardly a week goes by that U.S. trade experts, think tanks, and media don’t reflect strong private-sector interest in Cuba. Visiting Havana in October, U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker emphasized, “What we’re trying to do is be as open as we can until the blockade [sic] is lifted.”

Cuba has not been shy about its desires either. Secretary Pritzker said Cuban officials “have been very forward leaning and wanting more American direct investment.” Last year, the Cuban government announced its “Portfolio of Foreign Investment Opportunities”—some 246 projects in energy, tourism, agriculture, and industry—for which it seeks US$8.7 billion in investment. Moreover, Havana says it wants growth rates to rise to 4–5 percent per year (from an estimated 1.5 percent in 2014), fueled by at least US$2 billion in annual foreign investment. …….

Conclusion: VISION AND PATIENCE

The limits on Cuba’s ability to absorb a rapid expansion in tourism, trade, and investment are significant, but continuing U.S. controls are also imposing obstacles. The Obama Administration has chosen not to use its executive authority under the Cuban Asset Control Regulations, written into the “Libertad [Helms-Burton] Act,” to expand trade with state-owned enterprises beyond those currently licensed—in agriculture, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, and for environmental protection. Apart from these exceptions, trade is only permitted with small entrepreneurs, who have minimal capacity to import and export. These limits, which can be reduced through executive action, pose a major hindrance to the broader normalization process.

Cuba’s challenges in taking advantage of new opportunities are not insurmountable—with political will and time. Havana’s approach to change usually has been gradual and halting,

 but change a la cubana has also been significant. Since the start of the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba’s economy and economic culture have changed more than the government’s socialist slogans would suggest—and further change is certain. The economic contract between the people and the government has changed drastically as hundreds of thousands of workers have been laid off, social services have been cut, and the Cuban people have been admonished by President Castro to embrace reforms “without haste, but without pause.”

The pace of reform and corresponding expansion of Cuba’s absorptive capacity may be maddening slow for many Cubans and Americans alike. But insofar as the U.S.-Cuba normalization process is irreversible, so too is the conviction in Cuba on the need to “update” the systems through reform in order to take advantage of the opportunities it brings.

The challenges implicit in change are not new, and not unique to Cuba’s relations with the United States. Potential U.S. partners eager to engage are about to learn what their European and Canadian counterparts have long known: even with clear incentives on the table, Cuba proceeds at a pace that maximizes its own stability and advantage—which most often means slowly. Those concerns naturally will be especially intense as they inform dealing with the United States, which still rationalizes expansion of commercial ties in terms of the desirability of promoting democracy in Cuba. But Cuban national pride and the Communist Party’s fear of losing control could very well be assuaged as the island experiences the benefits of the engagement. Foreigners, especially the United States, who push too hard, too fast, and too haughtily could fail and even delay this aspect of normalization, just as Cubans who move too passively, too slowly, and too skeptically could stymie the process as well.

Continue Reading: Fulton Armstrong US-Cuba Policy Brief 3, October 2015 (003)

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HOW GREAT IT IS TO BE ABLE TO “THROW THE RASCALS OUT”!

By Arch Ritter

The people of Canada just changed governments, voting out the Conservatives under Steven Harper and voting in The Liberal Party of Justin Trudeau.  It was a hard-fought campaign, with the Liberals coming from a distant third place and gradually moving to first place by means of great campaigning, good policies, steadily improving leadership and a widespread dissatisfaction with the government of Steven Harper.  The win by the Liberal party represents generational change, the installation of a new team to form the government, new energy and intellectual entrepreneurship, and a new and improved rapport with the Canadian people.

How great it is to be able to “Throw the Rascals Out”!

The results of the election are illustrated graphically below.

“Old Regimes” in time become mired in their sense of entitlement, self-importance, paralytic conservatism, sclerosis, irrelevance, entrepreneurial lethargy, and intellectual exhaustion.

The regime of the Castro dynasty in Cuba continues to block any opening to an authentic pluralistic and participatory democracy. This is most likely largely because it fears that it would be voted out of office and lose its monopoly of political power and the perquisites of power. How nice it must have been for President Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul to know that they would never have to fight a free and fair election and that they would never wake up the next morning out of office and out of power – despite their long series of policy screw-ups.[i]

But whether Raul’s regime likes it or not, an opposition, though tightly or almost totally repressed at this time, will strengthen. Movement towards genuine participatory democracy will only intensify.  Generational change will come.

If Raul Castro were truly interested in the long term health of Cuba – and his own historical “legacy” – he himself would make moves towards such political pluralism. Unfortunately, this is improbable though perhaps not impossible

[i] Recall Fidel, 1970: ” We have cost the people too much in our process of learning. … The learning process of revolutionaries in the field of economic construction is more difficult than we had imagined.” Speech of July 26, 1970, Granma Weekly Review, August 2, 1970

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SIX LESSONS IN INNOVATION FROM CUBAN ENTREPRENEURS

Ricardo Herrero, Huffington Post, 10/05/2015 5:59 pm EDT

 Original Essay Here: Cuban Innovators

 “Necessity is the mother of all invention” goes the old proverb, and few countries in the world have tested its saliency quite like Cuba. A suffocating half-century mix of communist socio-economic policies and blanket U.S. sanctions have forged a people for whom the need to “resolver” – improvising solutions by repurposing the scarce resources around you – has become more than just a way of life. It is arguably the only way most of them are able to create value in their society.

To many in Cuba, the “resolver” mindset represents the defiant and indomitable spirit of the Cuban people. To others who once took pride in what their country had accomplished before or immediately after the Revolution (depending on their politics), it is a persistent and embarrassing reminder of the failures of their system.

Yet, it turns out that during this time of change for the Caribbean island, this same ethos is increasingly becoming something to celebrate, and more importantly, to study. As Cuba seeks to reintegrate itself into the global economy, its harsh conditions have inadvertently given fruit to one of the greatest assets a workforce can possess in the 21st century: a deep-rooted culture of constraint-based innovation and collective ingenuity – one that often remains at odds with the government’s rigid central planning offices.

Look at today’s most exciting socio-economic currents – the shared economy, the circular economy, the maker movement, financial inclusion, co-creation – and you will find myriad examples of people and companies mastering the art of doing more with less. These frugal innovators are creating low-cost, high-quality goods and services by re-imagining processes and repurposing resources to meet the needs of an emerging global middle class with growing financial constraints and depleting natural resources. In the most comprehensive business study of this practice, Jugaad Innovation, authors Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu and Dr. Simone Ahuja distill constraints-based, or “frugal” innovation into six guiding principles, for which the Cuban experience offers a wealth of case studies:

They seek opportunity in adversity. Frugal innovators identify opportunities within the harsh constraints of their markets to create value. Cuban ingenuity as we know it today was born in the 1960’s, as replacement parts for American products became increasingly scant due to the U.S. trade embargo. Eventually groups like ANIR (Associación Nacional de Innovadores y Racionalizadores) began to form and convene professional scientists and engineers with blue-collar mechanics and technicians to develop alternative solutions to problems created by scarcity. Many of the practices honed by ANIR became public policy during the so-called “Special Period,” when the government distributed manuals that taught Cubans how to “reduce, reuse and recycle” everyday items in order to survive the crushing shortages caused by the loss of Soviet subsidies. After five decades of overcoming extreme hardship, it is safe to describe Cuba as a country of 11 million people with a hacker mindset. Today, they count not just on their creativity to get ahead, but on a growing chain of external suppliers, mostly in Miami, who provide them with the parts, tools, and PDF manuals they need to deliver simple but effective products and services.

They do more with less. Frugal innovators compensate for a lack of resources by finding ways to leverage social networks and their intimate knowledge of their communities to create and deliver value. To get around Cuba’s debilitating lack of Internet connectivity, local entrepreneurs developed El Paquete Semanal, a complex, peer-to-peer distribution system of hard-drives that contain everything from offline versions of Wikipedia to pirate copies of Microsoft Office and the latest season of Shark Tank. This trade is currently the Island’s most lucrative private business, even though it remains illegal. Recently, crafty entrepreneurs barred from advertising on state-run television began to produce homemade video commercials for businesses such as cellphone repair shops and beauty salons to feature them in El Paquete‘s weekly programming.

They think and act flexibly. To innovate in a constraint-based environment, frugal entrepreneurs must quickly respond to changes in their environment with entirely new value propositions. Architects and engineers are prohibited from private sector practice in Cuba, but that has not stopped many of them from leading a quiet urban renewal in Havana, re-imagining, repurposing and renovating old run-down properties into attractive new spaces. They do so by operating under permitted licenses for construction, interior decoration, home sales and masonry, pushing the legal envelope to build many of the capitol city’s most exciting cultural and culinary destinations.

They keep it simple. The “resolver” mindset requires that entrepreneurs focus on developing “good enough” offerings that are accessible and easy to use. While Raul Castro expanded private sector enterprise in 2011, the state’s superior education system has failed to offer ongoing MBA programs or courses in business administration. Nor does it allow private schools that could offer a business curriculum to open in the island. Enter the Cuban Catholic Church, which, recognizing a need to provide practical business training to Cuba’s new entrepreneurs, began offering part-time workshops through its country-wide network of churches and cultural centers. These workshops have taught thousands of entrepreneurs the fundamentals of how to start and manage a business and are fostering a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem in Cuba.

They include the margin. Frugal innovators search for ways to include marginal segments of society, not just out a sense of empathy, but because it makes business sense for them. Cuban entrepreneurs are rising up to the challenge of addressing the unmet needs of their most disadvantaged countrymen and women. Thanks to remittances, the informal economy, and a burgeoning private sector, approximately a third of Cubans have the means to purchase imported food and personal hygiene products. Everyone else, especially rural Cubans, continues to depend on government rations of goods for basic subsistence, over 70% of which is also imported due to poor agricultural policy. While many independent businesses make headlines for serving the needs of Cuba’s tourists and emerging middle class, the vast majority of private businesses cater to the less affluent. Agro-ecologist Fernando Funes Monzote serves both sectors. Through his Finca Marta, a lucrative 20-acre solar-powered urban farm in Caimito, Funes Monzote not only provides Havana’s top paladares with organic produce, he also seeks “to give Cuban farmers a way to make a living at a time when so many have given up on it and moved to urban areas.” Funes Monzote is working on developing a weekly produce basket to distribute to individual families, providing an effective and healthy alternative to the government’s basket.

They follow their hearts. Frugal innovators take risks, trust their intuition, are passionate about what they do, and believe they pursue a high cause in the process. X Alfonso is a singer, song-writer and multi-instrumentalist who dreamed of building a “factory of ideas” in Havana that would showcase films, theatrical productions, contemporary art, runway shows, plus include a dance studio, literary hall, café, nightclub and concert stage. He also envisioned his “great gallery of all arts” as a place where local artists with “few resources and plenty of heart” would find the financial and material support needed to turn their creations into life. His Fábrica de Arte Cubano (or “F.A.C.”) opened in early 2014 and has quickly established itself as the most compulsively creative arts-space south of Brooklyn. F.A.C. has disrupted the local arts and nightlife industries, and established Alfonso as a talented visionary with an innate empathy for the needs of local artists in Cuba. “We wanted to demonstrate to people that yes we could have a change in mindset, that we could achieve things through hard work,” says Alfonso, “building spaces that fill young people with the illusion of that they can grow and do important things.”

As Cuban entrepreneurs start to enjoy greater access to the American private sector, they will undoubtedly gain an abundance of insights that will help their businesses scale and succeed. But their own ingenuity and approach can also be leveraged in more formal environments to produce innovative solutions that do more with less. U.S. entrepreneurs looking to build and sustain growth in today’s increasingly complex and volatile business landscape would be well served to seek inspiration in the creativity, resilience and resourcefulness of the “resolver” mindset.

Casa Miglis, HavanaAn Innovative Paladar Seating Arrangement

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(This looks like my kitchen once did.)

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Innovative Balseros!

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One Great Innovation from the Planned Economy” El Camello!

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Toy Cars from Cristal Beer Cans

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Self-explanatory

Ric Herrero is the Executive Director of #CubaNow.

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THIS IS CUBA’S NETFLIX, HULU, AND SPOTIFY – ALL WITHOUT THE INTERNET

How media smugglers get Taylor Swift, Game of Thrones, and the New York Times to Cubans every week. VOX; Original article here: CUBA’S NETFLIX, HULU, AND SPOTIFY By Johnny Harris on September 21, 2015

In Cuba there is barely any internet. Anything but the state-run TV channels is prohibited. Publications are limited to the state-approved newspapers and magazines. This is the law. But in typical Cuban fashion, the law doesn’t stop a vast underground system of entertainment and news media distributors and consumers.

“El Paquete Semanal” (The Weekly Package) is a weekly trove of digital content —everything from American movies to PDFs of Spanish newspapers — that is gathered, organized, and transferred by a human web of runners and dealers to the entire country. It is a prodigious and profitable operation.

I went behind the scenes in Havana to film how El Paquete works. Check out the video above to see how Cubans bypass censorship to access the media we take for granted.

There are two Paquete king-pins in Havana: Dany and Ali. These two compete to develop the best collection of weekly digital content and in the fastest turnaround time possible for their subscribers. It’s a competitive market playing out in the shadows of a tightly controlled communist economy.

Paquete subscribers pay between $1 and $3 per week to receive the collection of media. It’s either delivered to their home or transferred at a pickup station, usually in the back of a cellphone repair shop, a natural cover for this type of operation.

Dany relies on data traffickers to deliver the files, but said he didn’t know how those sources obtained the content in the first place. I gathered that most of it is being digitized via illegal satellites that are hidden in water tanks on rooftops. It’s unclear how they get ahold of the content sourced from the internet (digital news publications, YouTube videos, and pirated movies, for example). Only 5 percent of Cubans can access the uncensored World Wide Web, and when they do, the connection is horrendously slow. It’s not the type of connection that would support downloading hundreds of gigs of content every week. Instead, some speculate that content is physically brought onto the island by incomers from Miami.

I sat down with Dany in his pink-walled apartment in Havana. While I expected a mob-like character to be at the root of this extensive black market of pirated media, I found a 26-year-old guy who looked more like a stoned surf bum than the conductor of a giant black market operation.  Dany’s office shows off a lot more brawn than he does. It’s a simple room with two gigantic computers, their innards visible, tricked-out lights arbitrarily flickering. Hard drives are littered around the room, stacked and labeled. Two large screens are full of Windows file directories, and in the corner of one of the screens is a live feed from Telemundo, a popular Spanish-language station, with the words “Grabando” (recording) in the corner.

“Everybody has their responsibility,” Dany told me. “Everyone gathers a certain type of content, and they bring it to me. I organize it, edit it, and get it ready for distribution. And then we send it through our messengers.”

This is hard work. “A lot of the time is spent finding and embedding subtitles” he laments. Much of the content is pirated from American TV and movies. He and his team have scour the internet for any existing subtitle files.

The government hasn’t tried to stamp out El Paquete, and Dany works to keep it that way. “We don’t put anything in that is anti-revolutionary, subversive, obscene, or pornographic. We want it to stay about entertainment and education,” he says, and I catch a glimpse of the shrewd business behind the baby face and board shorts.  It might as well be Netflix

A look into an edition of El Paquete reveals a vast array of content ranging from movies that are in US theaters right now to iPhone applications. Havana-based artist Junior showed me around. He’s a pensive and gentle 34-year-old who is remarkably talented, judging by the stunning art pieces that hang from the wall. Junior paints and tattoos full time but he used to be a Paquete dealer. He’s now just a consumer. He takes me through the 934GB of data he has recently transferred from his provider.

I’m immediately struck by how polished the Paquete system is. As Junior files through the meticulously organized files, I realize it mirrors the consumption of a typical internet user. He opens the movie folder, and we browse through dozens of movies, many still in US theaters. All of them come in HD and with subtitles and poster art as the thumbnail of the file. The videos are high-quality with accurate subtitles. I have to remind myself that we are not browsing Netflix, but instead looking at an offline computer that is displaying content that has physically traveled to get here. The methods couldn’t be more different, but the result is strangely similar.

He moves on to TV shows. “So do you think they have—” I start, but am interrupted. “They have everything,” Junior says emphatically. Sure enough, the show I was thinking of, Suits, was there, with the latest episodes ready to watch.

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We continue to browse and look into some of the more routine but most interesting parts of El Paquete: There are folders dedicated to antivirus software that can be updated weekly to the latest versions. “But there’s no internet, so there can’t be viruses,” I say. “Most of this stuff has touched the internet in some way. This software protects against anything that has snuck its way on into the content,” Junior says.

Junior clicks over to the “Apps” folder and shows me a smorgasbord of iOS and Android apps. Many are gaming apps with updates that can be loaded in every week. But there is another called “A la mesa,” a Yelp-type app that helps connect clients to restaurants in Cuba using maps, reviews, and in-app menus. Then there’s the PDF folder, which holds newspapers, magazines, and screenshot material from dozens of online publications, everything from tech news to sports. It’s the internet in a box.

In addition to the subscription fees, revenue for El Paquete comes from a classifieds section called “Revolico.” Within El Paquete, you click a file that opens Revolico in your browser. But it’s an offline version that runs from a file structure on your local computer. There, you can click around as if you were browsing Craigslist, looking at thousands of listings of everything from house rentals to big-screen TVs to car tires.

Sellers pay to list their items, and you can get a premium listing if you pay more. Revolico is the cash cow of El Paquete. It also happens to be one of the first semblances of an advertising market for Cubans who have lived in a world of central planning and price control.

The depth and breadth of El Paquete is astounding, so much so that I, an American who lives and works on the uncensored internet, feel a twinge of envy that I don’t have El Paquete delivered to my house every week for $2.

When I asked Dany if he is afraid that the internet will wipe out his operation, without missing a beat, he replied, “Nah. We offer a product that is like one giant webpage where you can see all the content you want for a very low price. The internet might take over some clients, but we offer something different and very effective.”

“Speed is key to beating the competition,” Dany said. When asked how quickly he can get a movie or TV show after it airs in the US he says, “The next day.” Last year, Dany started sending a hard drive on a plane to the far corners of the island.

After spending a week in Cuba, it was refreshing to talk to someone with the appetite to grow an enterprise. Most people I spoke to in Cuba work for the state and have zero incentive to deliver anything above the bare minimum. They get paid the same either way. Even the private restaurants lack the fervor of a competitive business, since the economic environment they work in is still completely controlled even if they themselves are private.

But in Dany’s office, I felt the thrill of cunning innovation and strategy at work. I got the sense that something big is happening. And indeed, I wasn’t just standing in some dingy apartment, but rather in what may be largest media distribution company in the history of Cuba.

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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. HOTEL CHAINS CIRCLE CUBA AS VISITORS SURGE, RESTRICTIONS EASE

By Mike Stone And Mitra Taj, Reuters, New York/Lima, Peru, Sept 30 2015

Original Article Here: U.S. HOTEL CHAINS

Cuba April 2015 012.jpgasdA Favouvorite Havana Bar, at the Hotel El Colina, Havana. Can US Chains compete for this for character? photo by A. Ritter

The race for Cuba’s beach-front is on.

Executives from major U.S. hotel chains have stepped up their interest in the Communist island in recent months, holding informal talks with Cuban officials as Washington loosens restrictions on U.S. firms operating there.  Executives from Marriott International, Hilton Worldwide and Carlson Hospitality Group, which runs the Radisson chain, are among those who have held talks with Cuban officials in recent months, they told Reuters.  

“We’re all very interested.” said Ted Middleton, Hilton’s senior vice president of development in Latin America. “When legally we’re allowed to do so we all want to be at the start-line ready to go.”

The United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations in July after decades of hostility. Washington chipped away further at the half-century-old trade embargo this month, allowing certain companies to establish subsidiaries or joint ventures in Cuba as well as open offices, stores and warehouses in Cuba.  The United States wants to strike a deal that lets U.S. airlines schedule Cuba flights as soon as possible, a State Department official said last week, amid speculation that a U.S. ban on its tourists visiting Cuba could be eased.

U.S. hoteliers are not currently allowed to invest in Cuba, and the Caribbean island officially remains off-limits for U.S. tourists unless they meet special criteria such as being Cuban-Americans or join special cultural or educational tours.  Foreign companies have to partner with a Cuban entity to do business and U.S. hoteliers expect they will have to do likewise if and when U.S. restrictions are lifted.

While they wait for the politicians to iron out their differences, U.S. hotel bosses are conducting fact-finding missions in Havana and holding getting-to-know-you meetings with government officials in Cuba and various European cities.  This week, Middleton, along with executives from Carlson and Wyndham Worldwide Corp., which runs the Ramada chain, are meeting with Cuba’s Deputy Tourism Minister Luis Miguel Diaz at an industry conference in the Peruvian capital, Lima.

In the 1950s Cuba was an exotic playground for U.S. celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardener, as well as ordinary tourists, who travel led there en masse on cheap flights and ships from Miami.  A recent relaxation of some of the restrictions on U.S. travelers has encouraged over 106,000 Americans to visit Cuba so far this year, more than the 91,254 who arrived in all of 2014, according to data compiled by tourism professor José Luís Perelló of the University of Havana.

Overall, tourist arrivals are up nearly 18 percent this year after a record 3 million visitors in 2014, making Cuba the second-most popular holiday destination in the Caribbean behind the much-smaller Dominican Republic.  U.S. hoteliers expect the number of U.S. visitors to balloon if all travel restrictions are axed.  “If and when the travel ban is lifted. We estimate there will be over 1.5 million U.S. travelers on a yearly basis,” said Laurent de Kousemaeker, chief development officer for the Caribbean & Latin American region for Marriott.  De Kousemaeker accompanied other Marriott executives, including chief executive Arne Sorensen, to Havana in July to meet with representatives of management companies and government officials.

Even if sanctions were lifted soon, Cuba traditionally has been slow to approve foreign investment projects, making it unlikely that U.S. hotels would be popping up immediately.  Rivals from Canada and Europe have seized the opportunity, operating and investing in Cuban hotels and resorts, alongside Cuban government partners, for years.  Spanish hotel operator Meliá Hotels International SA, is aiming to have 15,000 rooms in Cuba by 2018. It currently has 13,000 rooms via 27 joint ventures.  London + Regional Properties Ltd, a U.K. hotel and real estate development firm, agreed a deal this summer for an 18-hole golf course, hotel and condominium project with state tourism enterprise, Palmares SA, which has a 51 percent stake in the project.

But even with government plans to add 4,000 new hotel rooms every year for the next 15, the island is not ready for a significant surge in tourism.  The island’s tourism infrastructure went into decline in the decades following the 1959 revolution. Five-star hotel rooms, good restaurants and cheap Internet access are all in short supply.

When and if they get a green light from both governments, executives said U.S. hotel chains will likely offer branding and management partnerships to Cuban government partners such as Palmares and Tourism Group Gaviota, the largest Cuban government tourism entity.

The ultimate goal would be to secure long-term leases on resort developments, which is how Cuban authorities have generally operated with foreign hotels.  But right now, U.S. hoteliers can’t even refer to tourism when they meet Cuban counterparts, let alone talk about actual deals. Instead the buzz word is “hospitality.”  Marriott’s de Kousemaeker likes to use an analogy from baseball, a sport loved both in Cuba and in the United States, to describe the situation.

“We’re learning, and taking batting practice, but we’re sitting on the bench.”

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U.S.-CUBA: MUST “DEMOCRACY PROMOTION” OBSTRUCT NORMALIZATION?

Fulton Armstrong*

CENTER FOR LATIN AMERICAN & LATINO STUDIES 4400 MASSACHUSETTS AVENUE, NW WASHINGTON, DC 20016-8137 (202) 885-6178 FAX: (202) 885-6430 www.american.edu/clals

Complete Article Here: Fulton Armstrong, Policy Brief,  US-Cuba Policy Brief 

Introduction

“Democracy promotion” has been one of the most contentious aspects of U.S. policy toward Cuba—and one of the most counterproductive—but it doesn’t have to be either. With a little effort and flexibility, Presidents Obama and Castro can take the edge off this irritant and even make it mutually beneficial.

Like American “exceptionalism,” the concept of democracy promotion is ingrained in U.S. policy culture—and is unlikely to fade as a stated objective. Although consensus on the criteria for “democracy” has never existed, the desire to promote it reflects a widely held perception that democracy is better for countries’ internal governance, regional stability, and U.S. interests. U.S. policymakers and scholars cite the post-World War II transformation of West Germany and Japan into flourishing democracies as evidence. Many argue that U.S. programs, such as secret assistance to Poland’s Solidarity movement, were critical to the collapse of the authoritarian governments that made up the “Soviet Bloc.” The U.S. Congress created the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its four constituent units in 1983 and gave them generous budgets with which to promote democracy. These organizations and their programs have become as bullet-proof as any in Washington. NED says it is “on the leading edge of democratic struggles everywhere,” and it receives little scrutiny by Congress or the news media.

Democracy promotion—albeit in different forms—has been a main element of U.S. policy toward Cuba for decades.

……………………..

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Conclusion

Ultimately, the key to successful democracy promotion in Cuba will be for the U.S. government to let the successes of people-to-people relations—as a legitimate manifestation of the two countries’ interests—guide the relationship. By all accounts, experience since President Clinton first authorized people-to-people exchanges in 1998 has been that the interaction has been pragmatic, constructive, respectful, open—and mutually beneficial. President Obama’s steps to increase the flow of people and goods across the Florida Strait have created important opportunities. He and President Castro should trust their citizens to develop the historic roadmap that will define the relationship into the future, and American leaders should have particular trust that democracy promotion is encoded in the American people’s DNA and will manifest itself through the normal course of people-to-people exchanges. Both the United States and Cuba stand to benefit.

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WHEN FRANCIS CAME TO CUBA

By Carlos Eire

Carlos Eire is the T. L. Riggs Professor of Catholic Studies at Yale University.

Original article here: When Francis Came to Cuba, 

From “First Things” (“America’s most influential journal of religion and  public life”), October 25, 2015

CUBA-POPE-VISIT-MASSWe should cheer any time a pope mingles with sinners. It’s what Jesus did, and what his vicar on earth is supposed to do, too. Sin and evil need to be confronted, not ignored, and those who are unjust should be urged to repent and mend their ways. Unfortunately, there is little to cheer about when it comes to the mingling Pope Francis did with the Castro brothers in Cuba, and with other heads of state in Latin America who praise and emulate their dictatorship. Pope Francis seems much too comfortable with Latin American dictators and with their symbols of repression.

A few months ago, when he visited Ecuador and Bolivia, Pope Francis mingled with presidents Rafael Correa and Evo Morales, avowed disciples of Fidel and Raul Castro with tyrannical tendencies, but he refrained from speaking about their human rights abuses. He also received a blasphemous hammer-and-sickle crucifix from Evo Morales and accepted this gift with a smile. What if that crucifix had been in the shape of a swastika rather than a hammer and sickle?

That incident was a portent of things to come in Cuba, where Pope Francis has smiled his way through meetings with blood-soaked tyrants and failed to speak out about human rights abuses on the island, or to challenge the cruelty of his hosts. Pope Francis also failed to meet with any of Cuba’s non-violent dissidents, despite their urgent pleas for an encounter. This is not so much the “preferential option for the poor” as the preferential option for oppressors.

Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino explained this approach by saying that the Catholic Church in Cuba had to avoid “partisan politics.” This is the same prince of the Church who has called for the arrest of asylum-seeking dissidents in his churches, and in April of 2012, at Harvard University, ridiculed these persecuted Cubans as “former delinquents” and “people with psychological disturbances” who lacked “any cultural level.” Despite his frequent calls for “reconciliation,” Ortega has referred to Cuban exiles as “gusanos” (worms or maggots), the unchristian epithet that the Castro regime has applied to all its opponents for over half a century.

The papal entourage eventually decided to give in to the dissidents’ pleas for a meeting at the last minute, as an afterthought, but the results were predictably disastrous. When some democracy advocates were suddenly and unexpectedly invited to meet with Pope Francis at the Apostolic Nunciature in Havana all of them were arrested as soon as they left their homes. In addition, many other non-violent dissidents were rounded up or placed under house arrest, to prevent them from attending the pope’s open-air Mass. Meanwhile, the Castro regime sent busloads of its own hand-picked supporters to the papal Mass, to ensure that Pope Francis would have a sufficiently large audience of politically-correct Cubans. Worst of all, the selection process for those who were crammed into those buses was vetted at the parish level by the Cuban Catholic Church, and approved by its bishops.

When four dissidents somehow managed to get close to Pope Francis, despite the efforts of church and state to keep all such Cubans away from him, they were quickly attacked by plain-clothed state security agents and whisked away to prison. Has Pope Francis denounced these injustices, which amount to religious persecution? Has he voiced concern over the compliance of his bishops in this persecution? No. Not a word. His silence is deafening.

The Holy Father’s homily on Sunday, in Havana, focused on the vulnerable members of society, and it could have been delivered anywhere on earth. His sermon was full of beautiful sentiments, but there was very little in it about Cuba, and nothing whatsoever about the oppression, vulnerability, and poverty of the Cuban people. This sermon displayed none of the sharp-edged subtlety favored by his own Jesuit order. It was far too subtle. So subtle, in fact, that only someone with a doctoral degree in theology, rhetoric, or political science might be able to detect any reference to injustice in it.

As Newsweek has observed, seventeen years ago in his homily in Havana, John Paul II mentioned “freedom” seventeen times and “justice” thirteen times. In his homily, Francis did not mention “freedom” or “justice” once. All that Francis said about Cubans was that they are “a people which has its wounds, like every other people.” In other words, Francis told Cubans that they are no worse off than any other people on earth after fifty-six years of economic and political repression, and that they really have nothing to complain about. The closest he came to upbraiding the Castro regime or to calling for an end to the enslavement of the Cuban people was to say: “service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.”

Ironically, dictator Raúl Castro had just greeted Pope Francis at the airport with a long speech that had less to do with his visit than with praising the failed ideology that has made Cuba one of the poorest and most repressive nations on earth. “Preserving socialism is tantamount to securing independence, sovereignty, development and the well being of our nation,” said dictator Raúl.

In his long-winded speech, Raúl Castro strung together a series of lies that have yet to be challenged by the Pope or by anyone at the Vatican. Emboldened by the pope’s overt approval of his regime, made manifest in their meeting in Rome this past spring, the octogenarian dictator boasted: “We have founded an equitable society with social justice and extensive access to culture, attached to traditions and to the most advanced ideas of Cuba, Latin America, the Caribbean and the world.”

As if this were not cheeky enough, the unelected and unchallenged “president” Raúl Castro also claimed that he was committed to building “a prosperous and sustainable socialism focused on human beings and the family, and with the free, democratic, conscious and creative involvement of the entire society.”

Fine things to say, especially for someone who is responsible for driving out into exile twenty percent of his country’s population, breaking apart millions of families, and stifling all dissent and all access to outside sources of information. The Holy Father had nothing to say about these lies then or afterward.

Sadly, however, he did have something nice to say to the oppressors. According to Granma, the top official newspaper of that regime, in a private meeting Francis “thanked comrade Fidel Castro for his contributions to world peace in a world saturated with hate and aggression.” If this is indeed true, Francis has overlooked the history of a consistently violent government, one of the very few to have brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation, and the only one in Latin America to have sent troops to three continents and to have sponsored warfare and terrorism around the globe, and to have consistently called for the extermination of Israel.

What is any Catholic to make of this? Why has Pope Francis chosen to side with the oppressors rather than with the oppressed?

God only knows. Perhaps he wants to win favor with the Castro regime so that the Catholic Church in Cuba can avoid the persecution experienced by Protestant evangelical churches on that island? Perhaps he knows that most popes who have locked horns with secular rulers have ended up losing way too much? Perhaps he is taking a cautious Jesuit approach of the sort taken by his order in seventeenth-century China? Perhaps he knows that the Catholic Church has always thought of change in terms of decades, centuries, and millennia rather than days, weeks, months, or years? Or perhaps he likes what he sees in Cuba and genuinely admires its unelected rulers? His reasoning is immaterial. What matters most is that his smiling silence and his joviality in the company of ruthless oppressors is immensely dismaying.

Pope Francis is not exactly the silent type when it comes to social, political, or economic issues. When he thinks something is wrong, he lets the world know, as he has just done in his encyclical Laudato Si’, in which he champions environmentalism and excoriates materialist consumerism. A few months ago, in Bolivia, he spoke of “the unfettered pursuit of money” as nothing less than “the dung of the devil.”

So, why is it that he refrained from calling the Castro regime and other such failed experiments in materialist totalitarian communism “the dung of the devil”? Is communist materialism any less fiendish? Is communist political and economic repression any less reprehensible? Why didn’t he call Raúl and Fidel Castro to repentance? Why did he praise them instead?

We’d like to know why.

But who are “we,” and why are “we” so impertinent, you ask?

Here is who “we” are: we who have been unjustly abused by the Castro regime, who have seen our nation ruined, who have had our relatives tortured and killed, who have seen our families torn apart by imprisonments and exile, who have been denied the right to express ourselves freely, who have been subjected to atheist indoctrination and had our right to worship denied. In brief: we who know from first-hand experience that to live in Cuba is to be a slave.

We could provide a much longer list of injustices endured for the past fifty-six years, but what would be the use? For now, all we Cuban Catholics can do is acknowledge the fact that the first pope, Saint Peter, made many, many mistakes, and that none of his successors have been infallible when it comes to politics. And we can take comfort in praying along with an innumerable throng of Christians who stretch all the way back to first century: Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

CUBA-POPE-VISIT-MASS pope

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POPE FRANCIS FACES DIPLOMATIC TEST ON CUBA TRIP

Marc Frank in Havana, James Politi in Rome and John Paul Rathbone in London

As a parish priest in poor areas of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was so struck by Pope John Paul II’s 1998 trip to Cuba that he wrote a book about it. The work, Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro, was published in Argentina shortly after he became archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Almost 20 years later, the book’s author, who has now become Pope Francis, will make his first visit to Cuba, arriving in Havana on Saturday for a four-day visit before heading to the US.

For the 78-year-old Argentine pontiff, the trip will cap his role helping to broker the thaw in US-Cuban relations, which could lead to an end to the half-century trade embargo. The visit will also test the pope’s diplomatic skills: he will seek to proselytise a universal message of helping the poor, while pushing the socialist government of President Raúl Castro to increase its reforms and give a greater role to the Church.

“In the fast-approaching era of no US embargo, Castro can no longer argue that the revolution needs its restrictive laws,” said Paul Hare, former UK ambassador to Havana, now professor of government at Boston University. “Pope Francis helped to usher in this new era and it is one where the Church will ask increasingly probing questions . . . He wants to launch a new battle of ideas.”

The subtlety of that battle of ideas is foreshadowed by the pope’s early Cuban thoughts. Although, as pontiff, he has criticised capitalism and the unfettered pursuit of money as “the dung of evil”, in his book he called for “corrupt, dictatorial and authoritarian governments” to be replaced by democracy.

Francis, a Jesuit, also harshly criticised socialism and, by extension, Fidel Castro’s atheist revolution for denying individuals their “transcendent dignity”.

“Castro may have become a Marxist, but don’t forget he was educated by Jesuits before that, so you may need a Jesuit to bring him round,” said Jimmy Burns, a former Financial Times correspondent and author of a new biography of Francis, The Pope of Good Promise.

Still, few expect strong criticism during the pope’s sermons, which are expected to be live-streamed on state-controlled media. “These matters can be dealt with without doing so in a big way; discretion can be more effective,” said Father Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman.

Late last week, as a “humanitarian gesture”, the Castro government pardoned 3,522 prisoners, although it does not appear that these included any political detainees. Havana made similar moves before John Paul II’s trip and Pope Benedict’s 2012 visit.

Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, signalled this week that the Obama administration was unhappy with Havana’s progress on human rights. “#Cuba sending exactly the wrong signal in advance of @Pontifex visit by detaining @DamasdBlanco for marching in street,” she tweeted, referring to the dissident group Ladies In White.

Dissidents have asked to meet the pope, but no meetings are currently on his agenda.  Mr Burns believes that the pope will make “some reference” for Cuba to “respect human rights”. If not, it could damage his image, even before he lands in the US.

Although Cuba remains a one-party state, much has changed for the Church since John Paul’s visit. Christmas and Good Friday are again national holidays, and believers are no longer stigmatised. Today, the Church is the island’s only leading institution outside state control.

One price paid for this greater space, though, is criticism for being too accommodating with the government. Raúl Castro is expected to be at Francis’s side during the trip; although a self-professed atheist, the 84-year-old leader was so impressed by Francis during a May visit to the Vatican that he said he was considering returning to the Church.

Francis will lead his first service on Sunday in Havana’s Revolution Square at an altar flanked by images of revolutionary heroes including Che Guevara.  His trip will end in eastern Cuba at the shrine of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint.

In the build-up to the trip, Cuban cardinal Jaime Ortega gave a 45-minute TV interview, and state TV on Thursday night ran a video message to the Cuban people from Francis.

Meanwhile, in the central Camagüey province, Cuba’s most Catholic community, pictures of the pope have been posted on doors, and the Communist party has been helping to organise bus transport to masses.

“Everything . . . is well-organised,” said retired nursing professor Anaida Morales.  “People have a lot of expectations and hope because every time a pope comes there is some positive change . . . Look, they have freed some prisoners,” she added.

Most Cubans have more realistic expectations about what Francis might achieve. He can fix some “little things here and there”, said Nuris Lopez, the 23-year-old owner of a beauty salon in Granma province.

 zApostolic Nunciature of the Holy See (Vatican City) in Havana, Cuba

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 The Cathedral

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