No One Walks Off The Island Reply

Two years ago, Yasiel Puig fled Cuba in the hands of black-market smugglers. This is the story of how the cost of the defection journey – in money and human lives – shadows him still.

by Scott Eden, ESPN The Magazine

Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig watches from the dugout during a game against the San Francisco Giants. Photograph: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig watches from the dugout during a game against the San Francisco Giants. Photograph: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

Chapter 1

The Escape

Just before dawn one day in late April 2012, four young Cubans stood on an otherwise deserted beach, peering hard into the Caribbean darkness. They were trying to escape their native country, and they were waiting for the boat that would take them away. Thirty minutes passed, then 60. Still no boat. Three men and one woman, the group had arrived at the designated spot close to the appointed hour: 3.a.m. By design, the rendezvous point was located on one of the most isolated coastal stretches in a country famous for nothing if not isolation — so remote it could be reached only by foot.

They had spent the previous 30 hours hiking there, without sleep, and had reached varying levels of emotional distress; the stakes were high. Covert interests in Miami and Cancun had made the arrangements from afar. Their goal was to extract from Cuba a baseball player of extraordinary talent and propitious youth. Just 21 years old at the time, Yasiel Puig already was well-known to both Cuba’s millions of fervid baseball fans as well as officials high in the hierarchy of the Cuban state-security apparatus.

With Puig was Yunior Despaigne, then 24. A former national-level Cuban boxer and a friend of Puig’s from their teens, Despaigne had spent the previous year recruiting Puig to defect, under the direction of a Cuban-born resident of Miami named Raul Pacheco. If caught and found out as an aider and abettor, Despaigne would inevitably face serious prison time. He and Puig had together made four failed attempts to escape the island over the previous year. The authorities were almost certainly wise to their machinations. They needed this trip to work.

According to Despaigne, in the escape party were Puig’s girlfriend and a man who, Despaigne says, served as a padrino, or spirit guide, a kind of lower cleric in the Afro-Catholic religion of Santeria. Sometime before this latest escape attempt, Puig and his girlfriend had sought out the padrino; a vatic ritual had revealed that their voyage would end in good fortune, Despaigne says. The couple decided to take the padrino along so as to improve their chances for safe passage.

Feature continues here:  No One Walks Off The Island

Cuba, US Are Warily, Slowly Improving Relations Reply

“Things are changing but they should have changed years ago,” says Darien Garcia Arco, 26, with his girlfriend, Lisandra. (Hannah Berkeley Cohen for The Globe)

“Things are changing but they should have changed years ago,” says Darien Garcia Arco, 26, with his girlfriend, Lisandra. (Hannah Berkeley Cohen for The Globe)

Bryan Bender, Boston Globe, bender@globe.com

HAVANA — The imposing, seven-story structure with darkened windows sits just across from the Malecon, or sea wall, central Havana’s communal hangout. It is unadorned, flying no flags, offering few signs that germinating inside are seeds of a better relationship between official enemies.

The United States cut off relations and imposed a trade embargo with communist Cuba more than half a century ago. But at the so-called US Interests Section in Havana, 50 US diplomats and 300 locally hired Cubans are quietly working on a range of common challenges.

The two governments are cooperating to combat human trafficking, improve airline security, and conduct search and rescue operations. They are working on joint efforts to improve public health and guard against environmental degradation. And “working-level” discussions are under way to do more, officials say.

The Drug Enforcement Agency could soon be sending agents to work with Cuban counterparts to track South American cartels, and the United States has proposed reestablishing direct mail delivery between the countries.

The behind-the-scenes work continues despite the recent controversy over a covert US effort to provide Cubans access to a Twitter-like social network.

Another thorny disagreement is over the fate of Alan Gross, a US State Department contractor who has been jailed in Cuba for four years, accused of being a spy. Cuban officials insist they want something in return; namely, three Cubans convicted in the United States on charges that they were intelligence agents.

“There is a big over-arching political cleft. But we are doing a number of things that have been politically blessed by both sides,” said a senior US diplomat who works at the diplomatic post.

The diplomat — who requested anonymity to speak, in compliance with State Department rules — expressed frustration that interaction between the two governments at higher levels is still officially prohibited.

The Obama administration, under pressure from politically powerful Cuban-Americans in South Florida and their supporters in Congress, insists that relations can be restored only when Cubans win “fundamental human rights and the ability to freely determine their own political future.”

Cuba’s leaders, meanwhile, decry continuing US efforts to destabilize their one-party system.

But a recent visit to this island just 90 miles from Florida, and interviews with Cuban and American officials, revealed a slow but unmistakable thaw on both sides of the Florida Straits. They are realistic about the snail’s pace of change, while describing pent-up demand for better economic opportunities.

Nowhere is that more evident than at the US Interests Section, housed in the former US Embassy that was completed just before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when Fidel Castro, along with his brother Raul, took power.

Read more here:  Cuba, US Are Warily, Slowly Improving Relations

Cuba, You Owe Us $7 Billion 7

Raul Castro

Raul Castro

Behind the trade embargo lies a huge and nearly forgotten obstacle: the still-active property claims by American companies. Inside the effort to settle a 50-year-old debt

By Leon Neyfakh, Boston Globe

If symbols could gather rust, the American trade embargo against Cuba would be covered with it. Enacted in 1960, shortly after Fidel Castro came to power, and expanded in 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the embargo has frozen the United States and its tiny neighbor off the Florida coast in a standoff that seems as dated as the classic American cars on Havana streets.

Leaders from around the world have been calling on the United States to dismantle the embargo for more than 20 years, and recent polls show that a majority of Americans are in favor of lifting it. With the repressive Castro regime seemingly nearing its end, a “normalization” of relations between the countries seems increasingly within reach. That would appear to spell an end sometime soon for the embargo, which in the popular imagination stands as a sort of political weapon that was designed to cripple Castro and stem the tide of communism.

What’s often forgotten, though, is that the embargo was actually triggered by something concrete: an enormous pile of American assets that Castro seized in the process of nationalizing the Cuban economy. Some of these assets were the vacation homes and bank accounts of wealthy individuals. But the lion’s share of the confiscated property—originally valued at $1.8 billion, which at 6 percent simple interest translates to nearly $7 billion today—was sugar factories, mines, oil refineries, and other business operations belonging to American corporations, among them the Coca-Cola Co., Exxon, and the First National Bank of Boston. A 2009 article in the Inter-American Law Review described Castro’s nationalization of US assets as the “largest uncompensated taking of American property by a foreign government in history.”

Today, the nearly 6,000 property claims filed in the wake of the Cuban revolution almost never come up as a significant sticking point in discussions of a prospective Cuban-American thaw. But they remain active—and more to the point, the federal law that lays out the conditions of a possible reconciliation with Cuba, the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, says they have to be resolved. According to that statute, said Michael Kelly, a professor of international law at Creighton University in Nebraska, settling the certified property claims “is one of the first dominos that has to fall in a whole series of dominos for the embargo to be lifted.”

While the other dominos are clearly much more daunting—the overall point of the Helms-Burton Act is that Cuba has to have a democratic, America-friendly government in place before there can be any talk of lifting the embargo—experts say the property claims will be an intensely difficult problem to settle when it comes time to do so. For one thing, Cuba is unlikely to ever have enough cash on hand to fully compensate the claimants, especially while the embargo is still in place; to make matters even more complicated, many of the individual claimants have died, and some of the companies no longer exist.

With Cuba inching toward reform on a number of fronts over the past several years, giving hope to those who believe our two countries might reconcile in the near future, a number of Cuba experts have begun to study the question of how to resolve the property claims in a way that is both realistic and fair. The proposals that have come out of their efforts provide a unique window onto the potential future of the American relationship with Cuba—and point to the level of imagination that can be required in the present to turn the page on what happened in the past.

***

Feature continues here:  Property Claims

Cuban Twitter — The Untold Story 2

Twitter-censor-350x350By Humberto Fontova, FrontPage magazine

It’s not often that a U.S. government agency gets caught red-handed abiding by its charter and performing its publicly-avowed and legislatively-approved duties. But last week the AP “broke” a long and breathless story from Havana that nailed the USAID (United States Agency for International Development) for just that.

In their own words, “a secret plan aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government,” was courageously exposed by the AP’s intrepid Havana bureau.

Such is the magnitude of the scandal that a red-faced and snarling Senator Patrick Leahy is now chairing hearings on Capitol Hill where he grills USAID director Rajiv Shah on his agency’s “cockamamie!” plan.

The diabolical cloak and dagger scheme hatched in 2008 during George Bush’s term (which may account for Democratic Senator Leahy’s dudgeon) amounted to setting up a “Cuban Twitter” named ZunZuneo (Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet) in order for Cuban youths to text each other without snooping by Castro’s KGB-mentored secret police.

Caught your breath back? Yes, amazingly such a scheme somehow escaped the imaginations of Ian Fleming, John Le Carré and Tom Clancy.

In sum, a brief effort was made (lasting from 2008-12 and involving 68,000 of Castro’s hapless subjects) to allow Cubans (who pre-Castro enjoyed more phones and TVs per-capita than most Europeans) to communicate with each other in the same manner as do teenagers today in such places as Sudan, Papua New Guinea and Laos.

Understandably this scheme to facilitate a tiny window of freedom for a tiny fraction of their subjects greatly alarmed Cuba’s Stalinist rulers. After all, it wasn’t easy converting a free and prosperous nation with a higher per-capita income than half of Europe, a flood of immigrants from same and the first Mercedes dealership in the Americas into a totalitarian pesthole that repels Haitians and features a glorious rebirth of communications by bongo-drum and transport by oxcart.

Well, the news was barely broken by Castro’s U.S. media allies when, as mentioned, Castro’s U.S. legislative allies picked up the signal from Havana and erupted in outrage—not against the KGB-mentored censorship by a terror-sponsor mind you. But against the U.S. attempt to foil it.  No. This is not your father’s cold war.

Senator Patrick Leahy, true to his historic role as U.S. legislative messenger for Castro’s every whim and wish, promptly denounced the program as “dumb, dumb, dumb.” “What in heaven’s name are you thinking?”‘ Leahy complained to Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC about the USAID scheme. “This makes no sense at all.”

What really “makes no sense at all” is Senator Leahy’s hypocritical carping  during the hearings and to Andrea  Mitchell–who, by the way– is famous for gushing that  “Fidel Castro is old-fashioned, courtly—even paternal, a thoroughly fascinating figure!”

Feature continues here: Cuban Twitter

Cuba “Expert” Phil Peter’s Again Cited for Ethics Lapse 2

Phil Peters

Phil Peters

CONFLICT OF INTEREST: ‘Pro-market’ Lexington Institute arguing in favor of subsidies for donors

By Lachlan Markay, Washington Free Beacon

An ostensibly market-oriented nonprofit group defending a controversial federal program to finance the purchase of U.S. exports is financially supported by top defense contractors that benefit from the program.

The Lexington Institute’s website portrays the group as a free market think tank. It “actively opposes the unnecessary intrusion of the federal government into … commerce … and strives to find nongovernmental, market-based solutions to public-policy challenges,” the group’s website says.

The group is also a strong proponent of the Export-Import bank, a federal program to boost American exporters, and previously worked to ease the U.S. embargo against Cuba on behalf of a Canadian company with interests in the country.

The group’s critics say the interests of Lexington’s donors explain why a think tank that claims to be laissez faire in its attitudes would go to bat for companies operating in a repressive communist state and a federal program derided as “corporate welfare” by top U.S. politicians, including then-Senator Barack Obama.

Lexington has recently taken to hammering the Ex-Im bank’s critics.

Chief operating officer Loren Thompson went after conservative activist group Heritage Action for America on Thursday, saying its Ex-Im criticism “ignores facts that don’t fit its biases, … substitutes abstract ideas for common sense … [and] betrays the principles that made its existence possible.”

Thompson has also attacked Club for Growth for criticizing the bank.

“Naive proponents of pure capitalism … think Ex-Im Bank is a form of corporate welfare even though it doesn’t actually subsidize anyone,” Thompson wrote in a Forbes column that singled out Club for Growth.

“People with a more practical grasp of how economics operates in the real world will have to weigh in to assure U.S. exporters are not hobbled by ideology,” he wrote.

Thompson’s attacks on Heritage Action and the Club for Growth make more sense, Lexington’s critics say, in light of financial support for the group by major defense contractors that benefit from Ex-Im financing.

According to Thompson, Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin are Lexington donors. Lockheed is also a client of Thompson’s consulting firm, Source Associates.

Feature continues here:   CONFLICT OF INTEREST

Editor’s Note: Just so readers don’t think this ethical lapse by Phil Peters and the Lexington Institute is something new, check out these “money-for-stories” features from 2008: Analyst’s switch stirs tanker talk and “Sherritt, Cuba, and the Cubanologist.”

Cat-And-Mouse Secrecy Game Plays Out Daily in Cuba 5

FILE--Frank Calzon, a Cuban-American who smuggles items like bibles and televisions into Cuba, displays merchandise in his Washington Freedom House office in this June 12, 1996 file photo.  CHUCK KENNEDY / KRT

FILE–Frank Calzon, a Cuban-American who smuggles items like bibles and televisions into Cuba, displays merchandise in his Washington Freedom House office in this June 12, 1996 file photo. CHUCK KENNEDY / KRT

By Juan O. Tamayo, JTamayo@elNuevoHerald.com

Cuban dissident Berta Soler says she and other members of the Ladies in White were handing out toys to children at Trillo Park in Havana when a State Security officer detained them and seized the 60 to 70 toys.

Soler said she protested that the women bought the toys legally in Havana with money received legally from supporters abroad. But the agent told her, “Berta, don’t play the fool, because you know those toys come from Miami, the terrorists.”

The March 15 incident reflected the cat-and-mouse game played almost daily by dissidents, supporters abroad who send them assistance and the security agents of a communist government that views most such aid — even toys — as “subversive.”

That’s why, several of the foreign supporters argue, they must use a measure of discretion when sending aid to democracy, human rights or Internet freedom activists in Cuba — enough to ensure it reaches the right people on the island but not so much that it raises suspicions of major illegalities.

“When State Security seizes laptops or even copies of the [U.N.’s] International Declaration of Human Rights, you have to use some discretion,” said Frank Calzon, head of the Center for Cuban Democracy in Washington.

The issue of secrecy in efforts to help Cuba’s civil society hit front pages last week when The Associated Press reported that the U.S. Agency for International Development had created a “covert” Twitter-like platform for Cubans. USAID said the program was not covert, only “discreet” because of the “nonpermissive environment” on the island.

Calzon said he did not mind talking about the precautions he takes in helping Cubans because his center no longer receives U.S. government grants for Cuba programs, and suspects that Havana knows them anyhow.

He stopped keeping important documents in his office after three break-ins in which thieves rifled through files but took no valuables, Calzon said. He keeps four shredders in his office and has it swept occasionally for eavesdropping devices.

Over the years he used foreigners visiting Cuba and other ways to deliver tens of thousands of shortwave radios, books and human rights declarations, Calzon said, “all things that would not be a problem in any normal society.”

But he never revealed the names of the travelers to USAID before they had left the island, Calzon added. And if he sent cash, he would ask one activist to distribute the money to others in need, but he never provided a full list of recipients.

Read more here: Cat-And-Mouse Secrecy Game Plays Out Daily in Cuba

 

 

Hope Fades For Venezuela Crisis Talks 1

 

KT McFarland

By Christopher Snyder, Fox News

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leaders are meeting this week for formal talks to end weeks of protests. Critics of Venezuela’s government believe no deal can be achieved because Maduro is not willing to give in to their demands. Fox News National Security Analyst KT McFarland spoke to Jose Cardenas about the prospects of an agreement. Cardenas is a former State Department senior adviser and currently serves as an associate with Vision Americas. “I’m very pessimistic that this dialogue will lead to anything credible and lasting,” Cardenas said. “These [talks] are mostly for international consumption.” Cardenas sees the current protests as “spontaneous,” not organized by the country’s opposition as the government alleges. “These are students who have no overt political agenda,” Cardenas said.

The protesters are demanding Maduro loosen his control over the economy and media. “The government somehow needs  to address the anger and frustration of the student movement that has basically sparked these protests,” Cardenas said.

Even though Venezuela is the Western Hemisphere’s largest oil producer, the country’s economy faces high inflation and stagnant growth. Cardenas indicated Venezuelans are having a tough time getting basic services and goods. “It is a result of centralization of the economy in the hands of the state,” Cardenas said. “The centralization of power in Venezuela along the lines of the Cuban model has basically wrecked the economy.” He says the energy sector has been “starved” because of government policies. “Those revenues that the government incurred from the oil sector have been simply plowed into unsustainable social programs.”

Watch the full interview above with Jose Cardenas. 

“I’m very pessimistic that this dialogue will lead to anything credible and lasting” — Jose Cardenas

Alan Gross, U.S. Contractor Held in Cuba, Goes on Hunger Strike 1

James L. Berenthal/AP - In this Nov. 27, 2012 file photo provided by James L. Berenthal, jailed American Alan Gross poses for a photo during a visit by Rabbi Elie Abadie and U.S. lawyer James L. Berenthal at Finlay military hospital as he serves a prison sentence in Havana, Cuba.

James L. Berenthal/AP – In this Nov. 27, 2012 file photo provided by James L. Berenthal, jailed American Alan Gross poses for a photo during a visit by Rabbi Elie Abadie and U.S. lawyer James L. Berenthal at Finlay military hospital as he serves a prison sentence in Havana, Cuba.

By Karen DeYoung, Washinton Post

Alan Gross, the U.S. government contractor who has been imprisoned in Cuba for more than four years, began a hunger strike last week to protest his treatment by both the Cuban and U.S. governments, his lawyer said Tuesday.

“I am fasting to object to mistruths, deceptions, and inaction by both governments, not only regarding their shared responsibility for my arbitrary detention, but also because of the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal,” Gross said in a telephoned statement to his legal team.

As he has many times before, Gross called on President Obama to become personally involved in efforts to free him from “inhumane treatment” in a Cuban prison.

Gross was arrested in 2009 for distributing Internet and other communications materials in Cuba under a program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was sentenced to 15 years for crimes against the Cuban state and is said to be in poor health.

His case moved back into the limelight last week following revelations about a separate USAID program to undermine Cuba’s communist government with a Twitter-like network designed to build an audience among Cuban youth and push them toward anti-government dissent. While unclassified, administration officials have described the program as “discreet.”

The “Cuban Twitter” program, discontinued in 2012, caused an uproar among U.S. lawmakers who charged they had never approved spending for it. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who heads the appropriations subcommittee in charge of the USAID budget, called the program “dumb, dumb, dumb.”

Others praised the program, which they called laudable effort to circumvent Cuban restrictions on Internet freedom. Such efforts help “provide uncensored access to information and communications for the Cuban people and others struggling around the globe against repression, censorship and the denial of basic human rights,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Since 1996, Congress has appropriated more than $200 million for “democracy assistance” programs in Cuba. USAID has been given wide discretion in deciding what the money is used for. Most of the programs are subcontracted to firms like Development Alternatives, Inc., which received a $6 million contract, under which Gross was working.

USAID Administration Rajiv Shah is scheduled to testify before Leahy’s subcommittee Tuesday morning.

Feature continues here:  Alan Gross, U.S. Contractor Held in Cuba, Goes on Hunger Strike

A Cold Case With Connections to Cuba? 4

 A Cuban man, Slain in 1995, Was Preparing to Testify About Cuba’s Bioweapons Capabilities to Congress, el Nuevo Herald has Learned

FILE--Cuban exiles Liliam Rosa Morales , shown here, and husband Manuel Ramirez were murdered in an execution-style shooting in Coral Gables shortly after midnight on Feb. 2, 1995. CM GUERRERO / EL NUEVO HERALD STAFF

FILE–Cuban exiles Liliam Rosa Morales , shown here, and husband Manuel Ramirez were murdered in an execution-style shooting in Coral Gables shortly after midnight on Feb. 2, 1995. CM GUERRERO / EL NUEVO HERALD STAFF

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Juan O. Tamayo, JTamayo@elNuevoHerald.com

When Cuban exiles Lilian Rosa Morales and husband Manuel Ramirez were murdered in an execution-style shooting in Coral Gables shortly after midnight on Feb. 2, 1995, most news reports on the case focused on Morales.

After all, Morales, 25, was known as the host of a radio program on astrology and a flashy dresser who favored big hats in vivid colors. The reports noted that her recent New Year’s prediction that Fidel Castro would survive 1995 might have angered a listener.

Ramirez, 57, was mentioned in the reports only as her husband. They said he had died at Jackson Memorial Hospital soon after Morales was pronounced dead at the scene, around the corner from the WCMQ radio station on Ponce de Leon Boulevard.

Few people, in fact, knew at the time that Ramirez was a very important man. He had led the construction of Cuba’s top-security biological laboratories in the 1980s and was preparing to testify about the island’s bioweapons capabilities to the U.S. Congress when the couple was murdered, el Nuevo Herald has learned.

Ramirez also had directed the construction of some of Cuban ruler Fidel Castro’s offices and several military bunkers, and had received a U.S. visa under a semi-secret “national interest” program for top island defectors managed by exiles in Miami.

A former Cuban government official has now told the newspaper that the killer was a petty Havana thief living in Miami who was ordered by Havana officials, perhaps Castro himself, to murder Ramirez for allegedly stealing $2 million from the government.

The killer was nicknamed “Indio” and was rewarded afterward with permission to traffic narcotics from the island to South Florida, said the former government official, who asked to remain anonymous because of fear of retaliation.

No one was ever charged with the murders. The former official’s tale could not be confirmed independently, but some of his key assertions matched details of the case. The Miami-Dade Police Department declined to comment because the case remains active.

Role of Ramirez

Ramirez was clearly the star manager of Cuba’s key construction projects in the 1980s, including the Russian Embassy, the Convention Palace and eavesdropping-proof offices for Castro, which he listed in a nine-page résumé written shortly after he arrived in Miami in 1991.

Read more here: Cuban-Ordered Assasination