Breaking the status quo

Classy move, Senator

August 31st, 2012 | Posted by William Vidal in US Politics - (0 Comments)

I think I just drank Clint Eastwood’s water, thank you…

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Before I begin, this is such an important night for my country. I want to begin – with your permission, just a few seconds – to talk about another country. A country located just a few hundred miles away from this city, the country of my parents birth.

There is no freedom or liberty in Cuba, and tonight, I ask for your prayers that soon freedom and liberty will be theirs as well.

Kudos to Marco. It was a classy start to the most rousing speech given at the 2012 Republican National Convention.

But it’s going to take a lot more than prayer to accelerate the forces of change in Cuba. The United States can do its part by enacting policies that increase the free flow of resources, contacts and information between Americans and the Cuban people.  

Totalitarianism feeds on isolation. We hope that Marco – who has so far defended our failed 50-year unilateral embargo toward the island – realizes this sooner rather than later.

Out of air and off the air

August 28th, 2012 | Posted by Alex in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Excellent article about the slow and ongoing death of Miami Cuban radio, in the Miami New Times. Add this to all the other signs that 2012 is the year the hardliners lost Miami.

I listened to Radio Mambí recently, after Oscar Haza was moved from WQBA. Haza, nobody’s idea of a Castro-apologizer, was in the studio with Ninoska Perez and Perez-Roura. The discussion veered -as always- towards a possible uprising in Cuba, with Haza sensibly concerned about civil war and the potential for spilling blood. Nonsense, Perez-Roura said, there are many crimes that need to be washed with blood (I’m paraphrasing). Haza simply didn’t have a comeback. The contrast between the journalist and the aging agitator was palpable. It was like they were speaking two different languages. So they went to the phones, and the usual, if dwindling, Greek chorus of callers started droning on.

Did you get the pirates, honey?

Marco Rubio says that so-called “people-to-people” trips sponsored by companies such as InsightCuba “border on indoctrination of Americans by Castro government officials” and are a poor way of “promoting democracy and freedom”. I happen to agree with that statement. Unrestricted travel for all Americans is a much better way to promote democracy and freedom in Cuba. As Paul Ryan so eloquently put it, the ”more we have a free exchange of people and ideas and customs, the more the people of Cuba will be exposed to the values of freedom and liberty.”

Everyday Americans are our best ambassadors abroad. President Reagan understood this. That’s why he never banned or restricted American citizens’ right to travel to the Soviet Union, even when the Soviets were at their worst.

Better to grant Americans the liberty to roam freely throughout the island, meeting everyday Cubans face to face and sharing experiences with them, than have these tourists buy travel packages that, say, drag them to El Museo de la Revolución to gawk at creepy-Pirates of the Caribbean-like dolls of Che and Camilo that don’t even sing sea shanties.

Of course, lifting the travel ban for all Americans would take an act of Congress, which isn’t going to happen so long as they can be so easily bought on this issue.  Until something changes on that front, the Obama Administration should stick to its guns, authorize OFAC to drop the pointless paperwork, and streamline the licensing process for traveling to Cuba.  Allowing government bureaucrats to micromanage what free Americans of good will do when they travel abroad, even when its to totalitarian countries, runs counter to everything we stand for in the U.S. of A.

Of leaving and letters

August 24th, 2012 | Posted by Alex in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Via Penúltimos Días, the “Letter from a young man that left” response to Rafael Hernandez (director of Cuban magazine “Temas”) open letter to “A young man who is leaving”, which has been making the rounds of the Cuban blogosphere.

Reading the two letters (in Spanish) the first thing that came to my mind is that I could have written this letter twenty years ago. A progressive decision, taken after years of growing frustration. The same feelings, shared by most in my generation, of having become second or third class citizens in our own country, of our voices not being heard and being passed over by the same generation that had been in power before we were born. 20 years have passed since I left, and while there have been some changes, they aren’t nearly enough to keep most Alexes and Ivans from leaving as the only option available.

What’s even more frustrating is the feeling that, as well-intentioned as I want to believe he is and maybe I’m being naive, Rafael Hernandez doesn’t seem to realize he wrote the wrong letter and to the wrong person. As somebody said in the comments of one of the blogs: “I don’t need to read (Hernandez’s) letter because it’s the same letter they read to me every day for thirty years.” Instead, Hernandez should have written a letter to the immobilists, those who continue the policies inside the island that have pushed hundreds of thousands of Ivans to leave, those who work extremely hard every day to obstruct reforms they know are not just necessary but inevitable. That letter would have had a real impact, because if it’s bad for the young people of Cuba to lose their country, it’s much worse for Cuba to lose its young people.

What’s good for the goose…

August 22nd, 2012 | Posted by Alex in US Politics - (1 Comments)

So, if David Rivera ever gets convicted and goes to jail, could his family visits be restricted to once every three years, and only immediate family? I can’t imagine he would be opposed.

Cuba subversion money trail

August 22nd, 2012 | Posted by Alex in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

I’ll never forget, shortly after arriving in Miami, reading a Herald article hailing the success of TeleMarti. It made me laugh, because inside Cuba we only saw static. The Cuban government had easily blocked the signal, despite the millions of dollars of taxpayer’s money that had been poured (and continue to be poured) down the drain.

If you want to know how taxpayer money and other funds are used by organizations that purport to promote freedom in Cuba, you have to read Along the Malecon‘s in-depth reports. I guarantee you’ll walk away horrified. Here’s one that details how one of those organizations, Directorio Democratico Cubano, has received $1,8 million in funds in 2010 (and more than $13 million since 2006) but only used a small fraction of that money in direct actions inside Cuba. The rest went to salaries, office expenses, travel and other, including, I kid you not, a secretary’s salary that happens to be about the same amount as the money spent on “support for civic activities.” This secretary happens to be the wife of the Directorio’s national secretary. Draw your own conclusions.


Support for my Cuba travel policies? About “this” much.

Yesterday, Fox News Latino treated us to Mario Diaz-Balart’s latest oeuvre on foreign policy. And as usual, what he does say is far less interesting than what he doesn’t say.

Mario criticizes President Obama for appeasing the Castro dictatorship, claiming that instead of supporting “the growing, courageous pro-democracy movement” against the “increasingly relentless oppression of the Cuban people, President Obama weakened U.S. sanctions and has increased the flow of dollars to the dictatorship.”

Ok, I’d like to say to draw an obvious parallel that either continues to escape Mario, o el se esta haciendo el bobito. The “increased relentless oppression” at the hands of the Cuban government is precisely due to the “growing” activity within the island’s “courageous pro-democracy movement.”

In other words, if people weren’t increasingly speaking out against the regime, then the regime wouldn’t be increasing their efforts to shut them up. Get it?

That “growth” in pro-democratic activity has directly coincided with the President’s policy of unrestricted travel and remittances for Cuban-American families. Is it a causal connection? Could be, though it’s hard to prove. However, there’s no denying there’s a strong correlation between having access to the outside world and being able to efficiently rise and organize against your oppressors. As Tomas Bilbao of the Cuba Study Group tried to explain to Mario not too long ago:

Democratic transitions from authoritarian rule in Eastern Europe, apartheid South Africa, and even the Arab Spring we are now witnessing, have proven that contact with the outside world has played a crucial role in promoting those changes. In none of these successful cases, did the U.S. restrict contact between U.S. civil society and those nations.

Further, it shows just how little confidence Mario has that public support will materialize for his failed policy objectives that he won’t even mention them on this op-ed. The truth is Mario wants to bring back the Cuban family travel and remittance restrictions of the Bush years.  He tried it in December of last year, by introducing an amendment to an appropriations bill that would rescind the easing of travel and remittance restrictions made by President Obama in 2009, only to discover one again that his travel and remittance restrictions are hugely unpopular with just about everyone, including Miami’s Cuban community and opposition leaders in the island.   As leading Cuban democracy advocate Yoani Sanchez wrote back in December in an op-ed titled “Congressional Amendment Threatens Cuban Families”:

Right now, thousands of teenagers, the self-employed, seniors, students and babies depend on the uninterrupted growth in the flow between the families in exile and those on the island. In many Cuban homes, the personal ability of thousands of individuals to overcome depends on maintaining this bridge, and their future as citizens rests in the arms of solidarity extended from outside.

Bottom line: Mario Diaz-Balart and his cronies know there is little public support for their intransigent policies, and that’s why they don’t go into specifics when they propose them anymore, neither in this op-ed or the language they introduced in the 2012 GOP Platform. Orwellian rhetoric aside, Mario has no interest in advancing policies that help Cuban families or empower the Cuban people to take their destinies into their own hands. He’s only interested in policies that increase the likelihood of Cuba blowing up like a pressure cooker. That way the Cuban people won’t roll on the floor laughing their butts off the day his brother Lincoln parachutes into the island and claims his “rightful” place as the next President of Cuba.

Ah, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. In the sad universe of Cuban American legislators, she is the most hip (a very low standard, but still) and the only one you’ll think actually reads her Twitter feed instead of leaving it to an office intern. So it’s especially laughable to read her vacillations about how to link Diana Nyad’s attempt to swim to Cuba and the supposed media ignorance of human rights violations in Cuba. Because you know, when you swim, you help Castro.

From my old blogging partner, Rick at South Florida Daily Blog, here are preserved for prosperity Ileana’s attempts to link gimnasia con magnesia (old Cuban saying that means confusing two things that aren’t remotely similar or linked.)

There I was this morning, happily reading an LA Times piece reporting that the newly released 2012 Republican Platform makes “no specific call to tighten the president’s loosening of restrictions, which made it easier for Cuban Americans to visit relatives on the island and send them money, and has been popular with some Latino voters.”  The piece also mentioned that GOP forgot to include their Cuba position in the platform at first and revised it later.  I’m thinking, “coño, que bueno, they are finally adopting a policy that is not only humane, but has done more to nurture the forces of change inside the island than anything we’ve tried before. There is hope for the party after all.”

Then I get to the last line of the Platform’s Cuba language:

We support the work of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba and affirm the principles of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, recognizing the rights of Cubans fleeing Communism.

And it all came rushing back.  The Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba was created on October 10, 2003 by then President George W. Bush and purported to “make the case for offering more direct U.S. support to Cubans on the island who advocate real change and for breaking down the information blockade erected by the regime across the island.”  The Commission’s 2004 and 2006 reports adequately identified the systemic problems faced by the Cuban people, then recommended all sorts of ideologically-driven, cockamamie solutions to address them.  Most notably, it recommended tighter travel and remittance restrictions against Cuban families.  From the Center for Democracy in the Americas’ blog:

This last idea was taken up with vigor by President Bush:

  • His administration limited family travel to Cuba to once every three years
  • It redefined the definition of family to prevent visits to non-nuclear family members like cousins or uncles
  • It offered no exemptions for travel in the event of an illness or family member death, and
  • Placed limits on the family support payments called remittances that Cuban Americans could provide their kin on the island.

A second edition of the Commission’s report came out in 2006 and said this:

“Limitations on travel, parcel deliveries and remittances have sharply curtailed the regime’s manipulation of and profiteering from U.S. humanitarian policies. These measures have been successful and should continue to be implemented.”

Since taking office, President Obama has provided new rules that allow Cuban Americans to visit their families and provide them financial support on an unlimited basis.  He has also opened up new channels of travel by reviving elements of President Clinton’s people-to-people travel policy.

The platform, by endorsing the commission’s work, would restore harsh limits on those kinds of visits to the island, even if it does not say so directly.  It also worth noting that Governor Romney’s ten-point campaign plan for Cuba explicitly calls for “Reinstating Travel & Remittance Restrictions.”

Two observations I’d like to make.  First,  the LA Times needs to do better job of researching these things.  I know it doesn’t help that the Department of State and the White House’s W. Archives have taken both the 2004 and 2006 reports off line, nor that the Commission’s website has also been taken taken down (Obama found smarter ways to burn through our money).  But still, if I can find a copy of the 2006 report floating around the interwebs, so can the LA Times.

Second, if I were a hardliner, I’d be pissed at the national GOP.  As if Romney jilting Rubio for pro-Cuba-trader Ryan wasn’t a slap in the face, now they forget to include the hardliner’s hallowed Cuba policy in the party platform, only to copy and paste it from the 2008 version after getting an earful from the South Florida delegation (as if saying “ya, no jodan mas!”).  Say what you will about Obama, but at least he proactively courted moderate Cuban-Americans on this issue.  The national GOP isn’t trying to court Cuban-Americans at all (the travel and remittance restrictions remain hugely unpopular), and like the rest of us, seem to want to go about their business as if the hardliners don’t exist anymore.  

2012 is shaping up to be a watershed year in Miami’s Cuban exile community, though its hard to tell if you’re not paying attention.  Connect a few dots and it’s safe to conclude that this is the year Cuban-Americans all but officially left the hardliners behind.  First, let’s get a couple things out of the way.  All Cuban-American congressmen and woman maintain a hardline position toward Cuba and most are all but guaranteed to be reelected (even though their reelections have little to do with their positions on Cuba). Also, they’re still doing a decent job at keeping the embargo intact.  This is all well and good, but several times this year they’ve had the opportunity to flex their civic muscles and show the world our community is UNITED behind their intransigent stance (!)…and every time they came up limp.  I’d say these guys are losing ground faster than the Arctic Shelf.  This has been a slow growth trend - el exilio esta cambiando, pero no lo apures - yet the change has never been more palpable than it is today. Let’s look beyond what the politicians will have us believe, and take a look at scenes from the real world over the past 6 months:

  • MARCH: Pope Benedict’s visit to Cuba. The Cuban exile community’s reaction to the Pope’s visit was tepid, certainly in comparison to its outcry against Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998. That year, more than 10,000 people, including many prominent business and civic leaders, held a protest rally in Little Havana, forcing the Church to cancel its plan to send a cruise ship to Cuba carrying pilgrims from Miami.  This year, no such protest materialized. Instead, approximately 800 Cuban-American exiles, including many of the same business and civic leaders, made the pilgrimage themselves and even participated in a mass at Havana Cathedral held by Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski.  While many exiles had mixed feelings about the Pope’s visit, most were supportive.  There were some ramblings against the trip on AM radio, assorted local TV stations, and a poorly written email chain forwarded to me by my father-in-law, but these efforts had zero impact.  I can barely even remember them.  For those who like to keep score – Religious interests: 1. Cuban families: 1. Hardliners: 0.

Joe Skipper/REUTERS

  • APRIL: Ozzie Guillen’s death wish. When new Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen famously blurted “I love Fidel Castro!” to Time magazine, everyone in America (including me) braced themselves for an epic shitshow in Little Havana.  Surely, we would not be satiated until Ozzie’s head hung from a spike at the county limits like an episode of Game of Thrones.  Pack the kids, we’re going to Versailles. Esto es Elian and the 2000 election all over again!  Instead what did we get?  A quaint 30 person protest outside of Marlins Stadium, a laughable 5-game suspension for Ozzie, and a home crowd happy to put the episode behind them by the time he returned to the dugout.  To be sure, todos nos cagamos en la madre de Ozzie esa semana, but we did so on facebook, or over a beer with our buddies.  Save for a couple of politicians (election year!) calling for “decisive steps“, the community did not respond with “great vengeance and furious anger”, as our grandparents surely would have back in the day.  In fact (and this surprised everyone) some of the usual suspects, from sprightly radio-jock-slash-freedom-fighter Armando Perez-Roura, to Babaluser Henry Gomez went as far as to make excuses for Ozzie and quickly forgive him for the sake of – get this - baseball.  I’m sure Radio Mambi’s contract with the Marlins influenced Perez-Roura’s appeasement, as much as Mr. Gomez’s support for the Marlins stadium deal had something to do with his own.  Business interests: 1. Hardliners: 0.

Getty Images

  • MAY: Odebrecht, Rick Scott and anti-Cuba trade law. Not even a month after Ozzie, an unprecedented papelazo left several prominent Cuban American legislators (and more than a few opportunists) wiping away a mixture of egg and tears of rage from their faces, while the rest of us shook our heads and laughed.  The occassion was the signing by Gov. Rick Scott of a “controversial law” (meaning unconstitutional and anathema to all economiclegal, and common sense) banning local Florida governments from doing business with companies that also operate in Cuba. The main target was Odebrecht, the Brazilian infrastructure giant tasked with drilling a tunnel to the Port of Miami. The stage was set in front of the Freedom Tower, all the Cuban American luminaires were there mugging for the cameras, press releases had been sent and AM hosts were declaring for the nth time that “ahora sí se cae aquello“.  It was all pro-forma theater until Governor Scott, ensconced in the private plane flying him back to Tallahassee, issued a signing statement stating the law he had just signed would not be enforced because it conflicted with federal law. Pandemonium ensued.  Politicians cried foul, AM hosts railed against Scott as if he was the second coming of JFK, and David Rivera rushed to the nearest available microphone to declare his intent to sue the state of Florida. (Even Babalu’s main honcho issued a starkly hysterical open letter). Meanwhile, back in the real world, Miami-Dade’s county attorney advised the county government not to follow the newly passed law, and Oderbrecht –represented by no other than Cuban American dynamo, and Jeb Bush-appointed former Florida Supreme Court Justice, Raoul Canterowon an injunction against the law in federal court.  Business interests: 2. US Constitution: 1. Hardliners: 0.
  • JUNE: Nothing happened.  We were all too busy sipping mojitos and jammin‘ to Pitbull out in the Keys to concern ourselves with the troubles of the modern world.  Dale!
  • JULY: Cargo Service between Havana and Miami resumes after 50 years.  And not a peep from the community.  Apparently everyone was still in the Keys (or no one cares).  Ileana Ros-Lehtinen reacts by sending a letter to OFAC asking that the cargo company be investigated to see whether it is in compliance with U.S. law.  That’s it.  A letter.  After dropping off its first shipment of humanitarian goods in Havana harbor, the Ana Cecilia returned to Miami and is now making weekly trips to deliver more supplies.  Business interests: 3. Cuban families: 2. Hardliners: 0.
  • AUGUST: Paul Ryan for VP. The congressman voted repeatedly against the embargo and travel and remittance restrictions from 2001 to 2005. He even argued that the ”more we have a free exchange of people and ideas and customs, the more the people of Cuba will be exposed to the values of freedom and liberty.” Yet everyone from Mauricio Claver-Carone and Ileana, to future President of Cuba Lincoln Diaz-Balart, were quickly tripping over themselves to reassure us that Ryan is “good on Cuba” and a “strong ally” of the hardliners. They cite as proof Ryan’s 2007 vote against Charlie Rangel’s bill to ease trade restrictions with Cuba (coincidentally the same year Republicans became the minority party in Congress), yet conveniently leave out that as recently as 2008, Ryan still held on to common sense, asking the Milwalkee Journal Sentinel, “if we’re going to have free trade with China, why not Cuba?”  As for the rest of Cuban-American Republicans, their love-fest with Ryan has been nothing short of Beatlesque, and few seem to care whether Ryan, a lifelong free-trader, has truly changed his mind on this issue.  Business interests: 4. Political interests: 1. Hardliners: 0.

Ann Romney Photostream,

  • Historic low fundraising numbers Pro-embargo Lobby: Ti Noel said all you need to know on this subject.  In short, the US-Cuba Democracy PAC’s fundraising numbers for this cycle are almost as sad as David Rivera’s (and the PAC’s not even under federal investigation). Business interests: 5. Cuban families: 3. Hardliners: 0.

Marice Cohn Band / Kansas City Star

  • Historic high travel numbers between Miami and Cuba:  Oh, and we’re all flying to Cuba these days. Travel numbers have steadily increased every year since 2009, and it seems like lately you can’t throw a rock in Miami without hitting some middle-age Cuban-American couple who just went back after 50 years to visit their old neighborhood in the island, and probably took their kids along with them.  Also, visits by Cuban artists, academics and clerics are the new norm in Miami, with rarely a protester in sight to spoil their interactions with everyday Cuban-Americans.  Business interests: 6. Cuban Families: 4. Hardliners: 0.

So what does this all mean?  Some think that Cuban-American developers, long the financial spine of the local GOP establishment, battered after the real estate downturns in Miami and Spain, are poised to start actively lobbying against the embargo in an attempt to take their Miami-style high-rises and suburbs to Cuba.  I’m not sure we’re there yet, but find the idea plausible in the intermediate term.

I would argue that the Cuban-American middle class has effectively distanced itself from the hardline and seem to be in a holding pattern – not rising against the embargo, but not caring for it either – doing as they wish within the limits of the law, waiting for old people to die in the island, or for their political counterparts to come around and do what they’re paid to do: lead.

It seems like the only people in Miami who continue to espouse hardline views toward Cuba are within the political class, from U.S. Senator, to congressional aide, all the way down to city councilman, and their spokespeople in the local media.  They hold on to the promise of the embargo the same way the Eastern Bloc held on to the promise of Soviet-style communism, fearing that if just one amongst them gives in, their entire house of cards will come tumbling down.

I’d also argue there’s an opportunity for those willing to take the opposite approach.  Imagine a courageous Republican candidate (or a Democrat, though it would be tougher to win over los viejitos) who calls the embargo for what it is, a perennial loser, and instead proposes a policy coherent with the opinion of the majority of Cuban-Americans, the American population and indeed the world. A policy that recognizes the political realities and reform process in Cuba, stops making the U.S. a convenient enemy for propaganda purposes inside the island, stops wasting money in patronage and ill-advised programs, favors engagement to benefit the incipient civil society in Cuba, aligns with U.S. business interests, and stands up for human rights.  It’s how we deal with every other dictatorship in the world, rarely to worse result than our 53-year approach to Cuba has produced.  I predict that such a candidate would not only differentiate himself from the tired rhetoric of the hardline machine, but will also attract significant support from Cuban-Americans, who have all but abandoned their support for an intransigent Cuba policy and are living their lives as if the hardliners no longer existed.