Saturday, April 30, 2016

Why travel to Cuba is no carnival ride

Normally, travel broadens the mind but what about visiting a totalitarian state?

American tourists pass by the Ministry of the Interior in Cuba
Traveling to Cuba under the Castro regime should be a subject for serious reflection and not to be taken lightly for a number of reasons that are not immediately evident. First and foremost the tourism industry in Cuba is run by the military and intelligence services.

These reflections would also be useful for visits to other totalitarian regimes because they use many of the same tactics. Visitors are often kept in areas geared to tourists providing them a Potemkin village experience. However that does not mean that information on health and security will be accurate and it can still place tourists at risk. 

In the case of both Cuba and North Korea, businessmen who have engaged the regime in business ventures are rotting in prison. There is no independent judiciary and all is subject to the objectives of the dictatorship. One can become a pawn of the regime to advance the dictatorship's agenda as was the case with Alan Gross who spent five years in a Cuban prison and as is now the case of University of Virginia student Otto Frederick Warmbier sentenced to 15 years hard labor in March of 2016 in North Korea for supposedly removing a political banner from a hotel. 


Seeing the Real Cuba or the Potemkin Village?
Two important questions that arise are how useful are trips to places like Cuba in ascertaining the reality on the ground? What has happened in the past when tourists visiting a totalitarian regime take the lead in public diplomacy?
 
Visitors to totalitarian states become targets of both the state security service and the propaganda ministries. These regimes will pull out all the stops to show themselves in the best light possible and make sure that high profile visitors have a great time but within a reality fabricated by them. It has paid back with big dividends in the past with a partial list including: Lincoln Joseph Steffens, Charles Lindbergh, Jane Fonda, Linda Ronstadt, and Dennis Rodman that wittingly or unwittingly became agents of influence after visiting totalitarians.
Singer Linda Ronstadt visited Cuba and got the Potemkin Village tour
 Linda Ronstadt presents a textbook example of this phenomenon in a August 18, 2014 AZCentral interview where she gives talking points on the Cuban Adjustment Act and reveals that she had traveled to Cuba to further legitimize her claims:
"We allow Cubans to come in and say that they're refugees. Well, in Cuba — I've been there, you know — people are fed, people are housed, people are clothed. There isn't violence in the streets. 
Ronstadt had spoken more extensively about her impressions of Cuba in a 2003 interview in City Pulse:
It’s an amazing country. I’ve been all over Latin America. And it’s the only Latin American country I’ve been in that didn’t have armed troops on the street, there weren’t homeless people everywhere, and kids had school uniforms and had schoolbooks paid for and had their health paid for. There’s things going on in Cuba that we don’t know about, and that’s mainly because of the Miami Cubans, they just absolutely won’t – they are absolutely closed-minded. They hate Fidel Castro, they won’t even hear about some of the good things he’s done, and they don’t want anyone else to know about it, either. It’s a total propaganda device and they’ve blanketed this country with propaganda about Cuba, huge amounts of which are untrue.
The reality that Cubans know on and off the island is far different, but also there are respected international human rights bodies and organizations that would dispute everything in the above statement. Sadly, the Cuban government successfully manipulated this talented and legendary singer who had The Eagles as a backup band into an agent of influence for their regime. 

This is has been going on for a long time and the techniques of hospitality are so refined that one need not be an ideological fellow traveler to be converted.  These totalitarian tactics are ideologically neutral and the language used by those taken in by it remarkably similar.

How tourism can unwittingly turn one into an agent of influence
Charles Lindbergh in Nazi Germany with Hermann Göring
Charles Lindbergh, visited Germany five times between 1936 and 1939. Lindbergh was taken on tours of airfields and factories, lavishly entertained by Air Marshal Hermann Göring, and awarded one of the Third Reich’s highest civilian honors. Lindbergh wrote to the banker Harry Davison, “With all the things we criticize, he [Hitler] is undoubtedly a great man, and I believe has done much for the German people.  Following the 1936 Olympics in Berlin that further legitimized the Nazis, Lindbergh's wife offered the following perspective on Hitler to her mother in a August 5, 1936 letter:      
"Hitler, I am beginning to feel, is a very great man, like an inspired religious leader -- and as such rather fanatical -- but not scheming, not selfish, not greedy for power, but a mystic, a visionary who really wants the best for his country and, on the whole, has a rather broad view."
When Germans failed to achieve the Thousand Year Reich Hitler had wanted the German dictator issued the Nero Decree on March 19, 1945 ordering the infrastructure of the country to be destroyed effectively sentencing the German people to death by destroying water supplies and shelter. Not only did Nazi Germany order the extermination of the Jewish people at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942 but three years later Hitler wanted to do away with the German people when they did not achieve his goals. 

Did the Lindbergh's travel provide them with an advantage over Winston Churchill, for example who did not visit Nazi Germany, on the real nature of the German government? Remember that the Lindbergh's were not Nazis but had been manipulated during their five visits to Germany but had as did many others the "advantage" of saying that they had special knowledge because of those visits. Churchill's counsel in the 1930s to take a hard line against Nazi Germany went unheeded and the consequences were catastrophic. In 1945 in a speech to the Belgian Senate and Chamber, Winston Churchill described how one day Franklin Roosevelt asked him what should we call this war? To which the British Prime Minister responded the Unnecessary War because it easily could have been prevented.

Totalitarians whether Nazi or Communist have a track record of effectively using tourism, athletic events, and academic exchanges to present their regimes in a way that historically legitimized them and covered up their hostile objectives often with disastrous results not only for their own countries but the international community as a whole. An excellent accounting of these practices and their impacts on national and international politics is found in Paul Hollander's book Political Pilgrims that should be required reading for anyone traveling to Cuba, China, North Korea, Venezuela, or Vietnam.
 
Center of image mugshots of Dr. Carlos & Elsa Alvarez: Castro spies at FIU

Targeting and recruitment by the Cuban intelligence service

The friendly sounding "Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP)" claims to encourage visitors to see the real Cuba for themselves and works to educate visitors about the "real Cuba" while debunking criticisms of the 56 year old dictatorship. The reality is far more sinister.  According to counter intelligence expert Chris Simmons the "ICAP’s intelligence collaboration with the Directorate of Intelligence (DI) dates back over three decades. It is not a DI entity per se, but is believed to be roughly 90% DI-affiliated due to a large pool of collaborators who serve the small team of ICAP-embedded DI officers." A past president of the ICAP was indicted for drug smuggling into the United States in 1982.  In 2014 the FBI published a report detailing how Cuba’s communist-led intelligence services are aggressively recruiting leftist American academics and university professors as spies and influence agents. This is not new and has been going on for decades with some major successes by the Castro regime that compromised national security and cost lives.

At Florida International University psychology professor Carlos Alvarez who was the associate professor for educational leadership and policy studies, and his wife Elsa Alvarez, counselor for the psychological services department were arrested by the FBI on January 6, 2006. Professor Alvarez conducted trips to Cuba with young professionals in the late 1990s in what was billed a conflict resolution project.  Alvarez was sentenced to five years in prison and his wife to three years in prison on February 28, 2007 for conspiring to act as unregistered Cuban agents.

 Tourism funds Cuban military 

A large chunk of the Cuban economy is run by the company Gaviota that deals with tourism and is controlled by the MINFAR (the military)  and Castro’s Ministry of the Interior (MININT) that runs a hotel chain, an airline, taxi company, marinas, shops, restaurants and museums and is under the control of another general. The tourist group Cubanacán was founded at the beginning of the 1980s and is also under military control. This means that tourist dollars go directly to strengthening the Castro regime's repressive apparatus.

The first American ship to cruise from the United States to Cuba in over half a century is partnering with Havanatur that is heavily penetrated by Cuban spies from the Ministry of Intelligence (MININT).Christopher P. Baker in his travel guide Havana explains the nature of the staff that tourists will be encountering.
"The Cuban government looks with suspicion  on U.S. travelers entering on religious or humanitarian licenses, and U.S. "people to people" programs are handled exclusively by Celimar, a division of Havanatur that is said to report to MININT and is heavily laden with ex-MININT staffers."
Secondly, since Cuba is a totalitarian communist dictatorship that is the tenth most censored country on Earth according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, information of interest to traveler is often unavailable or misrepresented.


Don't trust the water

The Cholera out break that was announced in July of 2012 and spread across the island with official reports emerging from Camaguey, Granma, Guantanamo, Havana, and Santiago de Cuba was not reported immediately in the official press.  The Cuban government's lack of candor in reporting on outbreaks of contagious diseases such as cholera and dengue goes back decades and should give travelers to Cuba cause for concern. International media in Cuba are cautious about reporting bad news from the island. Journalists in Cuba have ample reason to fear being expelled having seen colleagues such as Chicago Tribune's Gary Marx, the BBC's Stephen Gibbs and Cesar Gonzalez-Calero of Mexico's El Universal all expelled in 2007 from there for offering reporting that although bending over backwards not to offend still ran afoul of the regime.

News of the Cholera outbreak in Manzanillo, in the east of Cuba, broke in El Nuevo Herald on June 29, 2012 thanks to the reporting of the illegal independent press in the island. The state controlled media did not confirm the outbreak until days later on July 3, 2012. The BBC reported on July 7, 2012 that a patient had been diagnosed with Cholera in Havana. Meanwhile the dictatorship stated that it had it all under control

If you get sick don't count on the healthcare being free in Cuba. New York high school teacher Alfredo Gómez contracted cholera during a family visit to Havana during the summer of 2013 and was billed $4,700 from the government hospital. A total of 12 tourists have been identified who have contracted cholera in Cuba.


Jailed for 7 months for breaking silence on Cholera outbreak
Public Health Whistle blowers silenced

Calixto Martinez, the independent journalist who reported the cholera outbreak on July 13, 2012, was imprisoned in September of 2012 in horrible conditions and released in April of 2013 for informing the public about the healthcare threat and the poor government response. Amnesty International had declared him a prisoner of conscience in January of 2013.
 
This type of repression against whistle blowers reporting on health threats in Cuba that could endanger tourists has been going on for a while. For example, in 1997 when a Dengue epidemic broke out in Cuba the dictatorship tried to cover it up. When a courageous doctor spoke out he was locked up on June 25, 1997 and later sentenced to 8 years in prison. Amnesty International recognized Dr. Desi Mendoza Rivero as a prisoner of conscience. He was released from prison under condition he go into exile in December of 1998. The Castro regime eventually had to recognize that there had been a dengue epidemic.


Albert Romero killed in Cuba in 2015
Cuba is not crime free

Cuba is a travel destination that has an under reported record of tourists murdered or gone missing. Tampa Bay Times is reporting that Alberto Romero (age 39), a Tampa based marital and family law attorney, was killed in Cuba while visiting extended family on January 8, 2015. He was killed along with close family friend Hector Mario Cruz Naranjo. The two men were tied up, beaten, stabbed and in the case of the Cuban American attorney one hand was severed according to the source. Martí Noticias obtained a copy of the death certificate. There have been other cases. 


Cubans and the children of Cubans discriminated against
The Castro regime does not recognize the U.S. citizenship of  Cuban-borns and their children born in the United States charging them hundreds of dollars more than their U.S. born counterparts to enter Cuba. Worse yet the United States government accepts the differential treatment of their citizens because of their national origin providing a warning on their US Embassy in Cuba website.
The Government of Cuba does not recognize the U.S. nationality of U.S. citizens who are Cuban-born or are the children of Cuban parents.  These individuals will be treated solely as Cuban citizens and may be subject to a range of restrictions and obligations, including military service.  
This is why on Sunday, the Democracy Movement will sail on May 1, 2016 to protest that Cubans should have the right “to freely enter and leave the national territory without there being a discriminatory visa process,”

The question 

There is also an ethical question providing hard currency to a system that is actively repressing its own populace and no matter how little it may be, it is helping a totalitarian state. If you are going to travel to Cuba and put hard currency into dying communist institutions that prolongs the life of the dictatorship then you have to ask yourself what would serve as a counterbalance to that? What does purposeful travel to Cuba look like? One could argue that it looks like this: members of the Miami-based non-governmental organization, the Cuban Democratic Directorate, traveled to Cuba in 2002 and took humanitarian assistance to Cuban dissidents and signed the Varela Project in the living room of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas.

Courageous human rights activists from Europe and Latin America have risked all to assist Cuban human rights defenders. Is this something that you'd be willing to do? Would you be ready to assume the consequences?

Some things to think about and read up on.






Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Shame on The Miami Herald for its shortsighted editorial that will harm South Florida

Keep the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 and the Refugee Education Assistance Act of 1980

Cuban migrants in Costa Rica in 2016

The Miami Herald editorial board on April 16, 2016 called for ending both the Refugee Education Assistance Act of 1980 and the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. Taking this course of action would be shortsighted and have a devastating impact on South Florida.  The Refugee Education Assistance Act of 1980 is a law that does the following it is: "An act to provide general assistance to local educational agencies for the education of Cuban and Haitian refugee children, to provide special impact aid to such agencies for the education of Cuban and Haitian refugee children and Indochinese refugee children, and to provide assistance to State educational agencies for the education of Cuban and Haitian refugee adults."

The current law does not guarantee federal assistance but states: "Certain Cuban and Haitian nationals who are neither refugees nor asylees may be eligible  for ORR - funded refugee assistance programs under Part 401 of Title 45 of the Code of Federal  Regulations (45 CFR 401)." This law is not targeted to asylum seekers or refugees as The Miami Herald editorial claims and eliminating it would be a disaster not only for Cubans and Haitians but also for South Florida.

Ending Refugee Education Assistance will shift costs to local taxpayers

The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act came into existence as the result of a migration crisis provoked by the Castro regime when it perceived the Johnson Administration as weak. It provided a mechanism to legalize tens of thousands of Cubans who had fled the Castro regime and were not free to return to their homeland.

Despite the claim made by The Miami Herald and President Obama there is no post-Cold War era with Cuba. The Carter administration in the 1970s and the Clinton administration in the 1990s sought to normalize relations with the Castro regime as Obama is doing now and the end result then as now were mass migration crisis with Mariel 1980 and the rafter crisis in 1994-1995 along with hostile actions by the Cuban dictatorship demonstrating that the Cold War was still underway. 

What has driven migration over the past half century has been the Cuban nightmare created by the Castro brothers combined with a perception of weakness of occupants in The White House. The crisis generated today in Panama, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Mexico is regime created with the aim of achieving a long term objective: the end of the Cuban Adjustment Act and the knowledge that the Obama administration will not retaliate.  Every administration that engaged the Castro regime through unilateral concessions (LBJ, Carter, Clinton, and Obama) has seen migration waves used against it to shape policy. Administrations that took a harder line did not face these problems on their watch (Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II).

History has demonstrated that it is not the Cuban Adjustment Act that generates mass migrations from Cuba, but rather administrations, perceived as weak by Castro, especially those that tried to normalize relations in 1977, 1993, and now 2013 that coincide with these crisis.

Contrary to the claims of The Miami Herald the Castro regime does not recognize the right of Cubans to enter and exit their own country. Tens of thousands of Cubans are not allowed to return to Cuba. The Cubans who are allowed to return must obtain a visa and pay exorbitant fees at a minimum more than three times ($250) what a non-Cuban would pay ($75) and up to eight times more ($605). No other country in this hemisphere has these restrictions. If the Cuban Adjustment Act is ended then these Cubans will exist in a legal limbo as Cubans in the United States did before 1966 or illegal and subject to deportation to a country that violates international law shooting fleeing Cuban refugees in the back.

Ending the Cuban Adjustment Act and stopping the Refugee Education Assistance Act as The Miami Herald is advocating  will cause harm not only to newly arrived Cubans and Haitians, but will also negatively effect local schools, and the local economy when the federal funds are cut. Immigration policy and the cost should fall within the realm of national policy and not be passed on to Miami-Dade County and Florida taxpayers straining local and state resources.    

The corruption condemned by The Miami Herald, the Sun Sentinel and the ongoing immigration crisis are not due to either the Cuban Adjustment Act or the Refugee Education Assistance Act but the failures of the Obama administration and its departments. Current law provides leeway to restrict those breaking the law or engaging in fraud that is all too often failing to take place. 

Finally, some advocates of engagement with the Castro regime look at the Cuban Adjustment Act as an obstacle for normalizing relations with the dictatorship. They are focused on getting rid of it addressing the emotional component while at the same time ignoring the human cost of ending it not only in the concrete terms already mentioned above but also in human rights terms. 

 

This mentality was perfectly represented in another controversy by Pedro Freyre, whose law firm, Akerman, represents Carnival who was quoted in The New York Times on April 22, 2016 concerning Carnival Cuba cruise controversy.“I had been around my community long enough to know that emotions are very deep here,” he said. “At the beginning, I said, ‘What? Why are people so upset - 300,000 travel every year to Cuba.’ But this one tugged at the heart strings.”  

The fact that Carnival had no issue with discriminating against an entire class of American citizens, because of their national origin, and went along with the Cuban dictatorship's demands is not primarily an emotional issue as Attorney Freyre, who is Cuban American, claimed in The New York Times but a legal and a civil rights issue with a particular resonance with U.S. history. Jim Crow segregation and the discrimination of entire classes of people by corporations bending to discriminatory laws in a variation of the "separate but equal" doctrine.  This is why there is a lawsuit underway against Carnival. 

This mentality is also at work in the efforts to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act and water down the State Department's Human Trafficking report on Cuba and what a Texas African American professor described as a variation of Dred Scott

 



Friday, April 22, 2016

No longer separate but still unequal: Cubans can now travel to Cuba on a cruise ship

The power of nonviolent resistance and the challenges that remain

Carnival Cruise Line ship and Cuban-born protester
 Ramon Saul Sanchez, the Democracy Movement and the Cuban American community have achieved a victory in demanding first that Carnival Cruise Linea U.S. corporation not be complicit in systematic discrimination against Cubans. The Castro regime has had a long standing policy of  not allowing Cuban born travelers to enter or exit Cuba by boat and Carnival was cooperating with this policy. This sparked protests, boycotts, and lawsuits that led the company to end this practice on April 18, 2016. Advocates of engagement, such as Tim Padgett, were doubtful that the cruise would take place any time soon.

Plane over American Airlines Arena with "Boycott Bigoted Carnival Cruise Line" banner
 In the midst of all this on April 15, 2016 Ramon Saul Sanchez received notice that the United States wanted him to leave the country and that his 2002 application for residency had been denied. Ramon Saul suspects the hand of the Castro dictatorship in his current immigration plight.

Today the Castro regime announced that Cuban-born people would be allowed to travel on the May 1, 2016 cruise and was loosening the overall policy. This is a good thing and an example of the power of active nonviolence to effect positive change.

It is important to remember that the Obama Treasury Department on July 7, 2015 signed off on the Carnival Cruise Line - Castro regime deal that discriminated against an entire class of Americans based on their national origin.

It is also important to remember that although Cuban-born people are now allowed on the boat they are still being discriminated against when compared to their non-Cuban counterparts. The Sun Sentinel Editorial board on April 20, 2016 outlined these discriminatory practices by the Castro regime with some key facts.
  • Americans visiting Cuba must present a valid passport and a special tourist card that costs $75.
  • Cuban-born Americans who immigrated after January 1971 must purchase a Cuban passport — even though they have renounced their Cuban citizenship and are now U.S. citizens. These passports are valid for six years and cost $375. To keep these passports active, holders must pay $230 every two years.
  • Cuban-born Americans who left Cuba before January 1971 may use their U.S. passport, but must apply for an HE-11 visa, which costs $250, lasts only 90 days and can take months to obtain. 
Cuban-born Americans can now get on the boat but they are not treated as equals by the Castro regime because of where they were born.  It matters not if they have a United States passport and the irony is that a regime founded on the claim that it is challenging U.S. imperialism treats those born in Cuba as second class when compared to their American born counterparts.

No longer separate but still unequal.

However this separate and unequal treatment of Cuban-born citizens of the United States by the Castro regime should give rise to a question:  How are Cubans living in the island treated by the dictatorship?

Cubans have been shot and killed by Cuban state security agents as recently as 2015 for trying to leave Cuba. The body count of the Castro dictatorship is still rising. The Florida Straits under the Castro regime has been the equivalent of the Berlin Wall, but with estimates of 100,000 killed by academic scholars.

As Cuban-born citizens of the United States now enjoy their May 1, 2016 cruise across the Florida Straits to Cuba, hopefully they will pause for a moment and say a prayer for all those who perished there seeking freedom.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Seventh Communist Party Congress in Cuba: New boss same as the old boss

"Meet the new boss Same as the old boss" - The Who, Won't Get Fooled Again (1971) 

News bosses same as the old bosses: Dictatorship remains the same*
 The Seventh Communist Party Congress in Cuba was as eventful as the previous one.  Big news item from the Associated Press: Fidel Castro who is about to turn 90 says that he may die soon. The AP's journalism is auto-censored in order for the dictatorship to maintain their news bureau on the island and like in North Korea crosses the line of journalistic ethics on occasion to stay there. Nevertheless, reporting that a 90 year old may die soon as news is a bit of a stretch.

However it did not end there.

Raul Castro, age 84, was "re-elected" with 100% of the vote by the communist party as the First Secretary along with fellow regime hardliner Jose Ramon Machado Ventura (age 85) as Second Secretary. The rest of the line up, unsurprisingly, was all too familiar.

The international press also thinks it newsworthy that the Castro regime is attacking President Obama's visit to Cuba as "an attack on the foundation of our history, our culture and our symbols." Predictable and only newsworthy to someone not paying attention. President Obama has bent over backwards to bury the Cold War and the White House has even uninvited Cuban jazz great Paquito D'Rivera, a critic of the Castro dictatorship from playing The White House on International Jazz Day on April 30th so as perhaps not to offend the Cuban dictatorship.

What is newsworthy and what Capitol Hill Cubans has observed in this coverage is the difference in reaction by the press to attacks on the George W. Bush administration compared to the Barack H. Obama administration by the Castro regime.

What I said five years ago, in anticipation of the Sixth Communist Party Congress in Cuba is equally relevant today and explains the Castro regime's so-called "reforms":
If there is one lesson over the past 52 years it is that political considerations have priority over economic considerations in order to preserve the regime. When it is convenient to decentralize in order to survive the regime will do that as it did in the early 1990s and as it appears to be doing today. At the same time when things improve and regime survival depends on the re-centralization of economic control at the expense of economic growth as was the case in the late 1990s and through the 2000s they will do that as well, but the important consideration is that the Cuban people are tired of this regime and want change.
Meanwhile as the international press focuses on this non-story, human rights are worsening in Cuba and repression is spiking with acts of violence worsening. The Obama administration's policies are worsening the human rights situation around the world not just in Cuba. Small comfort to Cuban human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists that they are not alone in their increased suffering. Even smaller comfort that thanks to the new relationship with the United States, Cubans abroad, including US citizens, are being subjected to the Castro regime's discriminatory practices.
*Image taken from Capitol Hill Cubans

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Patricio Aylwin Azócar (1918 - 2016): Chilean Statesman who presided over Democratic transition

"Mr. Aylwin was one of the great Latin American statesmen of our time. His struggle for democracy, social justice and human rights will remain an inspiration for the region and the world." -  Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, United Nations, April 16, 2016 

President Patricio Aylwin Azócar
Today, Patricio Aylwin Azócar, a great democrat, passed away. He presided over the restoration of democracy in Chile following 17 years of dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet in a nonviolent transition. He was president of Chile from 1990 until 1994. The Chile of today is a testament to his democratic legacy.


Patricio Aylwin Azócar was a Christian Democrat who rejected both the Marxism of Allende and the Militarism of Pinochet. He charted a middle path that avoided hatred, violence and embraced all Chileans as fellow citizens. Christian Democrats the world over are mourning his passing and honoring his memory.

I was honored to meet President Aylwin at his home on two occasions and engage him in conversation. First as a student in January of 2003 and the second time as a pro-democracy activist in 2010. It was a great honor to meet him and I mourn his passing and offer my prayers for him, his family and friends.

President Aylwin's diagnosis of what ails democracy remains relevant today and should be reflected upon. 
"[O]rdinary men and women may often feel unmotivated to exert their citizenship, either because they cannot tell the difference between the different alternatives, or because they have lost faith in the political classes, or because they feel that the really important issues are not in their power to decide."