Monthly Archives: May 2015

Nearly 200 Cuban Dissidents Arrested, Nobody Cares #ThanksObama

Via Capitol Hill Cubans:

Nearly 200 Cuban dissidents were arrested throughout the island yesterday.
In Havana, four dozen members of The Ladies in White were arrested as they attended Sunday Mass. Also arrested were male supporters, including democracy leaders Antonio Rodiles, Angel Moya and independent journalist Juan Gonzalez Febles.
In Santiago, over 80 activists of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU) were beaten and arrested, including some who had been released under the Obama-Castro December 17th deal, namely Diango and Bianko Vargas Martin, and Ernesto Tamayo Guerra.
Dozens of others were arrested in the interior provinces, including Raul Borges, father of political prisoner Ernesto Borges, and youth activists from the Cuban Reflection Movement.
And renowned artist Tania Bruguera, who had her passport confiscated in December and is unable to leave the island, was arrested as she approached the Museum of Fine Arts to attend an exhibit for the Havana Art Biennial.
But sadly, no one seems to care.
Obama is too focused on what other concessions he can give to Raul Castro in exchange for an Embassy.
D.C. lobbyists are too busy lobbying for Castro’s “military-tourist” complex (as The Financial Times’ John Paul Rathbone succinctly called the Cuban military’s monopolistic control over the island’s tourism industry).
And the media continues obsessing over the “old world charm” of Cuba’s totalitarian dictatorship.
Meanwhile, in Castro-controlled Venezuela, internationally renowned political prisoner and former Mayor, Daniel Ceballos, has been transferred from a military prison to one of the most violent civilian prisons in the world.
And Leopoldo Lopez, the famed opposition leader, began a hunger strike to demand the release of his colleagues, whose lives are in danger.
This, despite the fact that there’s no embargo and that the U.S. is Venezuela’s main trading partner.
Yet, the silence from the international community is deafening — debunking all of Obama’s theories about how his new Cuba policy would purportedly bring support for rights and democracy.
As for legislative elections in Venezuela this Fall — wishful thinking. “Elections, for what?” says Maduro. After all, Obama just embraced Cuba’s military dictatorship.
And where are the Congressional junkets to Caracas?
Impunity clearly reigns supreme in the region.

After 5 months and all the concessions by Obama, still no breakthrough in embassy talks

There has been no breakthrough on embassy re-openings at the conclusion of the latest round of talks between Cuba and the United States, according to a statement out Friday from the Cuban Foreign Ministry. The statement added that more “exchanges” are planned between the U.S. and Cuba.
This comes after five months of U.S. negotiations with Cuba, that took place with the hopes of hammering out an agreement that will normalize relations and restore diplomatic ties between the two nations that were formally severed in 1982 when the U.S. put Cuba on the list of State Sponsors of terror.
A senior State Department official told reporters Tuesday that the Obama administration is “optimistic” about the talks, adding “We’ve clearly gotten closer and worked our way to fewer items on the checklist.”
Earlier this week, the deputy director of USA affairs at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Gustavo Machín, told reporters that this round of talks to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba could be “the last” since the two nations are close to reaching a consensus on key issues.
Before reopening an embassy in Washington, Cuban President Raúl Castro said that a condition to this move would be the U.S. removing Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of terror.
Last month, President Barack Obama issued a message to Congress, to notify them of his recommendation to remove Cuba off the list and that move is expected to move forward at the end of the month.
In a statement on the President’s decision, Secretary of State John Kerry said that “Circumstances have changed since 1982,” referencing the time when Havana was supporting armed insurgencies in Latin America, during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.   CNN

Will Obama’s Cuba Moves Stick?

The U.S. and Cuba began a fourth round of talks today aimed at restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries and reopening embassies in each other’s capitals. Some sticking points remain: the U.S. wants its diplomats to be able to travel freely in and out of Havana while the Cuban government is suspicious of their intentions, accusing the U.S. of recruiting spies. But these concerns seem surmountable.
President Obama has already gone farther toward normalizing relations with Cuba than any president since Dwight Eisenhower broke off diplomatic ties with the Castros’ regime in 1961. But the question now is just how much farther he can go in the time he has left, and how many of the changes he makes will be permanent.
Obama has taken Cuba off the state sponsors of terrorism list—a major political impediment to restoring ties. He has also effectively ended the ban on travel to the island. Yes, tourism is still banned, but 12 types of travel are permitted, including a few that could serve as a fairly easy pretext for some sightseeing—and you can even pay with your MasterCard. There are still no direct flights to Cuba, though they will likely be coming in a few months, but there are an increasing number of charter services and soon a ferry from Florida. It’s also now much easier to send money to Cuban citizens and invest in Cuban companies.
That’s a lot—and Congress hasn’t approved any of it. If the negotiations with Havana succeed in getting the embassies reopened, it will probably be about all the president can do through executive action alone. The embargo has been U.S. law since 1996 and Obama can’t restore trade or fully lift travel restrictions without help from Congress. The brand new embassy might not even have an ambassador, as that would require a Senate confirmation. (This wouldn’t actually be that unusual: At one point last year there were over 30 countries without U.S. ambassadors thanks to congressional gridlock.)
And when Obama’s gone? Depends who his successor is. Cuban-American presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are both opposed to lifting travel restrictions. Floridian Jeb Bush is also opposed to Obama’s Cuba moves and was calling for even tougher sanctions before them. So if normalization is accomplished solely through executive action, it’s conceivable that it could also be undone by it.
This has happened before. In 1977, Jimmy Carter’s administration lifted most of the travel ban, but it was put back in place in 1982 by Ronald Reagan along with tougher trade sanctions. Some have argued that Obama’s changes will be harder to undo, since U.S. companies are chomping at the bit to do business in Cuba and a growing number of Americans, including most younger Cuban-Americans, favor lifting the embargo.
If Congress agrees to lift the embargo, it will likely stand no matter who is president. But if Obama’s presidency ends with just reversible moves, that’s another story. Hillary Clinton would certainly leave these policies in place, and a less committed Republican might also, given how public opinion is moving on this issue. But Bush, Cruz and Rubio are staunch Cuba hawks and if one of them is elected, the “thaw” in relations might get quite frosty again.    Slate

Effort to Remove Cuba Language From Commerce Appropriations Defeated

Via Capitol Hill Cubans:

During today’s full committee markup of the Commerce Justice Appropriations bill (“CJS”), U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) presented an amendment to remove language banning transactions with Cuba’s military (“Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces”) and security services (“Ministry of the Interior”), and business entities under their control.
(Click here to learn more about the provision.)
Farr was resoundingly defeated in a bipartisan fashion.
The Commerce Justice Appropriations bill, including the Cuban military and security services ban, passed the full committee shortly thereafter.
Last week, the House Appropriations Committee also marked up its Transportation Appropriations bill, which contains language prohibiting any new travel that exploits confiscated airports or maritime ports.
As such, there are now two must-pass bills that have been marked-up through the House, which contain language limiting President Obama’s unilateral concessions to the Castro regime.

Senators question wisdom of Obama’s Cuba policy

President Obama’s top negotiator with Cuba was grilled during a tense Senate hearing Wednesday, as senators doubted whether the normalization of relations with the island would change its communist government.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson was repeatedly asked how the re-establishment of diplomatic relations would end Cuba’s dismal human rights record, its lack of free elections and other injustices against the Cuban people.
Jacobson argued that having Americans operating more broadly in Cuba — diplomatically, economically and as regular visitors — would help the Cuban people reach a point where they could determine their own futures. She acknowledged that despite months of negotiations, the Cuban government has not promised any specific changes.
“We’re not sure what the Cuban government will do in the face of these things,” Jacobson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I think they’re still absorbing our changes and making their own policy decisions.”
Wednesday’s hearing came on the eve of the fourth round of diplomatic talks between Jacobson and her Cuban counterparts at the U.S. State Department. Jacobson said she was hopeful that could result in a final agreement to reopen embassies in Havana and Washington after 54 years of isolation.
She faced questions about exactly what the U.S., and the Cuban people, were getting from the deal.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Cuban-American and 2016 presidential candidate, asked how the U.S. could prevent the Cuban government from profiting from the expected increase in travel by Americans, since it owns all major hotels on the island.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the committee chairman, asked how the ability of American telecommunications to build up Cuba’s Internet infrastructure would help Cubans, when most of people there are denied access to the Internet. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., asked whether fugitives wanted in the U.S. would be returned to face justice.
And Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a Cuban-American, asked what the country got in return for removing Cuba from its State Sponsors of Terrorism List.
“President Obama may have outstretched his hand, but the Castros still have their firsts real tight,” Menendez said. “I have deep concerns that the more these talks progress, the more the administration continues to entertain unilateral concessions without in return getting agreement on fundamental issues that are in our national interest and those of the Cuban people.”
Jacobson got some support from other committee members answering those concerns.
On the question of where Americans would stay in Cuba, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the U.S. government should never be in the business of dictating where its citizens stay when traveling abroad. She highlighted emerging companies like San Francisco-based Airbnb that are increasing opportunities for Cuban people to rent out rooms to travelers on their own.
“Are we going to start telling people what hotels to stay in in China? In Russia? In Vietnam?” Boxer said. “We don’t do that. We’re not an authoritarian country.”
On the questions of American fugitives and expanded human rights, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said the U.S. is currently unable to prompt change precisely because it has no diplomatic relations with the government. USA Today

Wall Street Journal: Venezuelan Officials Suspected of Turning Country into Global Cocaine Hub

U.S. prosecutors are investigating several high-ranking Venezuelan officials, including the president of the country’s congress, on suspicion that they have turned the country into a global hub for cocaine trafficking and money laundering, according to more than a dozen people familiar with the probes.
An elite unit of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington and federal prosecutors in New York and Miami are building cases using evidence provided by former cocaine traffickers, informants who were once close to top Venezuelan officials and defectors from the Venezuelan military, these people say.
A leading target, according to a Justice Department official and other American authorities, is National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, considered the country’s second most-powerful man.
“There is extensive evidence to justify that he is one of the heads, if not the head, of the cartel,” said the Justice Department official, speaking of a group of military officers and top officials suspected of being involved in the drug trade. “He certainly is a main target.”
Representatives of Mr. Cabello and other officials didn’t return phone calls and emails requesting comment. In the past, Venezuelan authorities have rejected allegations of high-ranking involvement in the drug trade as an attempt by the U.S. to destabilize the leftist government in Caracas.
In an appearance on state television Wednesday, Mr. Cabello said he solicited a court-ordered travel ban on 22 executives and journalists from three Venezuelan news outlets that he has sued for publishing stories about the drug allegations earlier this year. “They accuse me of being a drug trafficker without a single piece of evidence and now I’m the bad guy,” Mr. Cabello said. “I feel offended, and none of them even said they’re sorry.”
The Obama administration isn’t directing or coordinating the investigations, which are being run by federal prosecutors who have wide leeway to target criminal suspects. But if the probes result in publicly disclosed indictments of Mr. Cabello and others, the resulting furor in Venezuela would likely plunge relations between the two countries into their most serious crisis since the late populist Hugo Chávez took office 16 years ago.
“It would be seismic,” said a U.S. official, of the expected Venezuelan reaction. “They will blame a vast right-wing conspiracy.”

U.S. authorities say they are far along in their investigations. But they say any indictments that may result might be sealed, making them secret until authorities can make arrests—something that would be difficult if not impossible unless the suspects travel abroad.
The investigations are a response to an explosion in drug trafficking in the oil-rich country, U.S. officials say. Under pressure in Colombia, where authorities aggressively battled the drug trade with $10 billion in U.S. aid since 2000, many Colombian traffickers moved operations to neighboring Venezuela, where U.S. law-enforcement officials say they found a government and military eager to permit and ultimately control cocaine smuggling through the country.
“Most of the high-end traffickers moved to Venezuela in that time,” said Joaquín Pérez, a Miami attorney who represents key Colombian traffickers who have acknowledged operating out of Venezuela.
Venezuela doesn’t produce coca, the leaf used to make cocaine, nor does it manufacture the drug. But the U.S. estimates that about 131 tons of cocaine, about half of the total cocaine produced in Colombia, moved through Venezuela in 2013, the last year for which data were available.
Prosecutors aren’t targeting President Nicolás Maduro, who has been in power since Mr. Chávez’s death two years ago. U.S. law-enforcement officials say they view several other Venezuelan officials and military officers as the de facto leaders of drug-trafficking organizations that use Venezuela as a launchpad for cocaine shipments to the U.S. as well as Europe.
‘A Criminal Organization’
“It is a criminal organization,” said the Justice Department official, referring to certain members of the upper echelons of the Venezuelan government and military.
Mildred Camero, who had been Mr. Chávez’s drug czar until being forced out abruptly in 2005, said Venezuela has “a government of narcotraffickers and money launderers.” She recently collaborated on a book, “Chavismo, Narcotrafficking and Militarism,” in which she alleged that drug-related corruption had penetrated the state, naming more than a dozen officials, including nine generals, who allegedly worked with smugglers.

Law-enforcement officials in the U.S. said that they have accelerated their investigations in the past two years, a period that has seen Venezuela’s economy worsen dramatically. Rampant crime has spiked, making Venezuela the continent’s most violent country and spurring people to emigrate.
The deepening crisis has made it easier for U.S. authorities to recruit informants, say those working to enlist people close to top Venezuelan officials. Colombian and Venezuelan drug traffickers have also arrived in the U.S., eager to provide information on Venezuelan officials in exchange for sentencing leniency and residency, U.S. officials say.
“Since the turmoil in Venezuela, we’ve had greater success in building these cases,” said a federal prosecutor from New York’s Eastern District who works on Venezuelan cases.
In January, U.S. investigators made a major catch when naval captain Leamsy Salazar defected and was brought to Washington. Mr. Salazar, who has said he headed Mr. Cabello’s security detail, told U.S. authorities that he witnessed Mr. Cabello supervise the launch of a large shipment of cocaine from Venezuela’s Paraguaná peninsula, people familiar with the case say.
Mr. Cabello has publicly railed against his former bodyguard, saying he didn’t head his security detail and calling him “an infiltrator” who has no proof of his involvement in drug trafficking. “Our conscience is totally clear,” he said in a radio interview.
Rafael Isea is another defector who has been talking to investigators, people familiar with the matter say. A former Venezuelan finance minister and governor of Aragua state, Mr. Isea fled Venezuela in 2013. People familiar with the case say Mr. Isea has told investigators that Walid Makled, a drug kingpin now in prison, paid off former Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami to get drug shipments through Venezuela.
Almost a year after leaving the country, Mr. Isea was accused of committing “financial irregularities” during his days as governor by Venezuela’s attorney general, and by Mr. El Aissami, who succeeded him as governor of Aragua.
“Today, Rafael Isea, that bandit and traitor, is a refugee in Washington where he has entered a program for protected witnesses in exchange for worthless information against Venezuela,” Mr. El Aissami said recently on Venezuelan television.
Mr. Isea has rejected the accusations as false, politically motivated and meant to discredit him.

In addition to Mr. El Aissami, other powerful officials under investigation include Hugo Carvajal, a former director of military intelligence; Nestor Reverol, the head of the National Guard; Jose David Cabello, Mr. Cabello’s brother, who is the industry minister and heads the country’s tax collection agency; and Gen. Luis Motta Dominguez, a National Guard general in charge of central Venezuela, say a half-dozen officials and people familiar with the investigations.
Calls and emails seeking comment from several government ministries as well as the president’s office went unanswered. Some officials have taken to social media to ridicule the U.S. investigations. A Twitter account in the name of Gen. Motta Dominguez earlier this year said: “We all know that whoever wants his green card and live in the US to visit Disney can just pick his leader and accuse him of being a narco. DEA tours will attend to them.”
Recruiting Defectors
To build cases, U.S. law-enforcement officials work with Venezuelan exiles and others to locate and recruit disaffected Venezuelans.
“We get people out of Venezuela, and we meet with them in Panama, Curaçao, Bogotá,” said a former intelligence operative who works with U.S. officials to recruit and debrief Venezuelans who have evidence of links between Venezuelan officials and the drug trade.
Former Venezuelan military officers and others living outside the country provide help by contacting their former comrades and urging them to defect, the recruiter said. If the defector can provide useful information, the recruiter said, he is flown to the U.S. and a new life.
“What does the U.S. want?” said the recruiter, who has been working Venezuelan cases since 2008. “The U.S. wants proof, evidence of relations between politicians, military officers and functionaries with drug traffickers and terrorist groups.”
Recently, at Washington’s posh Capital Grille restaurant, a few blocks from Congress, a Venezuelan operative working with a U.S. law enforcement agency took a call from a middleman for a high-level official in Caracas seeking to trade information for favorable treatment from the U.S.
“Tell him I’ll meet him in Panama next week,” said the operative, interrupting a lunch of oysters and steak.
The biggest target is 52-year-old Mr. Cabello, a former army lieutenant who forged a close link in the military academy with Mr. Chávez when the two played on the same baseball team. When Mr. Chávez launched an unsuccessful 1992 coup, Mr. Cabello led a four-tank column that attacked the presidential palace in downtown Caracas.
Mr. Cabello has been minister of public works and housing, which also gave him control of the airports and ports, as well as minister of the interior and vice president. He was also president for a few hours in April 2002 when Mr. Chávez was briefly ousted in a failed coup.
Many analysts and politicians in Venezuela say they believe Mr. Cabello’s power rivals that of Mr. Maduro and is rooted in his influence among Venezuela’s generals.
Julio Rodriguez, a retired colonel who knows Mr. Cabello from their days at Venezuela’s military academy, says that of 96 lieutenant colonels commanding battalions in Venezuela today, Mr. Cabello has close ties to 46.

The stocky and bull-necked Mr. Cabello, who often sports the standard Chavista uniform of red shirt and tri-color windbreaker in the red, yellow and blue of the Venezuelan flag, is host of a television program, “Hitting With the Sledge Hammer,” on state television, in which he uses telephone intercepts of opponents to attack and embarrass them. Mr. Rodriguez said he believes Mr. Cabello will never make any kind of a deal with the U.S. “Diosdado is a kamikaze,” he said. “He will never surrender.”
U.S. investigators have painstakingly built cases against Venezuelan officials by using information gathered from criminal cases brought in the U.S. In Miami, people familiar with the matter say a key building block in the investigations involved a drug-smuggling ring run by Roberto Mendez Hurtado. A Colombian, Mr. Mendez Hurtado moved cocaine into Apure state in western Venezuela and, according to those familiar with his case, had met with high-ranking Venezuelan officials. The cocaine was then taken by boat or flown directly to islands in the Caribbean before reaching American shores.
Mr. Mendez Hurtado pleaded guilty in Miami federal court and received a 19-year prison term in 2014. People close to that investigation say that Mr. Mendez Hurtado and his fellow traffickers wouldn’t have been able to operate without paying off a string of top military officers and government officials.
“The involvement of top officials in the National Guard and in the government of Venezuela in drug trafficking is very clear,” said a former Venezuelan National Guard officer who served in intelligence and in anti-narcotics and left the country last year frightened by the overwhelming corruption he saw daily.
“Everyone feels pressured,” he said. “Sooner or later everyone surrenders to drug trafficking.”
In another case, in Brooklyn, prosecutors have learned about the intricacies of the drug trade in Venezuela after breaking up a cocaine-smuggling ring led by Luis Frank Tello, who pleaded guilty, court documents show. The cocaine was brought in across the border from Colombia and, with the help of National Guard officers, shipped north, sometimes from the airport in Venezuela’s second-largest city, Maracaibo.
The U.S. investigations of Venezuelan officials have been going on for years, though investigators have sometimes been thwarted by politics.
In 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department put three top aides to then-President Chávez on a blacklist and froze any assets they might have in the U.S. Among the three was Mr. Carvajal, known as “El Pollo,” or the Chicken, then the head of military intelligence. The U.S. acted after extensive evidence surfaced earlier that year in the computers of a dead Colombian guerrilla commander of burgeoning cocaine-for-arms exchanges between the rebels and top Venezuelan generals and officials, according to the U.S. and Colombian governments.
In 2010, Manhattan prosecutors unsealed the indictment of Mr. Makled, the Venezuelan drug dealer accused of shipping tons of cocaine to the U.S. through the country’s main seaport of Puerto Cabello, which he allegedly controlled. Mr. Makled, who had been captured in Colombia, boasted of having 40 Venezuelan generals on his payroll.
“All my business associates are generals,” Mr. Makled said then to an associate in correspondence seen by The Wall Street Journal. “I’m telling you we dispatched 300,000 kilos of coke. I couldn’t have done it without the top of the government.”
DEA agents interviewed Mr. Makled in a Colombian prison as they prepared to extradite him to New York. But instead, Colombia extradited him in 2011 to Venezuela, where he was convicted of drug trafficking. This February, he was sentenced to 14 years and six months in jail.
Last July, American counter-drug officials nearly nabbed Mr. Carvajal, who had been indicted in Miami and New York on drug charges and detained in Aruba at the American government’s behest. But Dutch authorities released him to Venezuela, arguing that he had diplomatic immunity.
Upon Mr. Carvajal’s release, President Maduro praised the former intelligence chief as a dedicated anti-drug fighter who had set a worlds’ record capturing drug capos.
The U.S. is also gathering information from bankers and financiers who handle the money for top Venezuelan officials. Since last year, people familiar with the matter say the U.S. government has revoked the visas of at least 56 Venezuelans, including bankers and financiers whose identities haven’t been made public. Some have sought to cooperate with investigators in order to regain access to the U.S.
“They are flipping all these money brokers,” said a lawyer who is representing two Venezuelan financiers who have had their visas revoked. “The information is coming in very rapidly.” The Wall Street Journal

Hugo Chavez was complicit in major drug trafficking scheme, ex bodyguard claims

A new book by a Spanish journalist casts even more light on the alleged connections between pro-Chávez Venezuelan officials and major drug traffickers in the South American nation.
In “Boomerang Chávez,” Emili J. Blasco, the Washington DC correspondent for Spanish news outlet ABC, writes about the alleged sponsorship of drug trafficking by government officials, which Blasco asserts started under the presidency of late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez.
Blasco’s sources most of his information from interviews with Leamsy Salazar, the former head of security for National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and a former member of Chavez’s security detail, who deserted from the military earlier this year and made statements to U.S. media about Cabello’s alleged drug trafficking ties.
In an instance in the book, Salazar describes a scene in 2007 at a farm near Venezuela’s border with Colombia where Chávez negotiated with FARC guerrilla leaders to trade drug shipments from them in exchange for weapons and military supplies.
Salazar said that after Chávez’s death, Cabello became the organizer of the Venezuelan government’s drug trafficking and criminal activities. During one alleged mission, Salazar said he was present when Cabello inspected four go-fast boats that were loaded with several tons of cocaine and days later was present when a number of suitcases loaded with stacks of $100 dollar bills was delivered to Venezuela’s tax agency, where Cabello had an office.
Cabello is the second most powerful figure in Venezuela’s ruling party, after President Nicolás Maduro.
In Washington, William Brownfield, the State Department’s top anti-narcotics official, said in January that there is significant evidence that some members of the Venezuelan government have been corrupted by trafficking organizations and said the report naming bodyguard Leamsy Salazar “is not inconsistent with that narrative. That is as far as I am inclined to go.”
He said he was neither confirming nor denying the report.
Cabello responded on Twitter, thanking people for their support at a time of “infamy and intrigue.”
“Every attack against me strengthens my spirit and resolve,” he said.
The U.S. has long accused top Venezuelan political and military leaders of complicity in the drug trade. In July of last year, former intelligence chief Hugo Carvajal was arrested in Aruba on a U.S. warrant. Venezuela was ultimately able to use diplomatic wrangling to have him set free. Fox News Latino

An Interview With Cuban Priest Jose Conrado Rodriguez


The Real Cuba

If Cuban priest José Conrado Rodríguez is proud of anything, it is of being a humble man.
“I try to live like the people live,” he says. And those who know him confirm that’s true. He uses part of his salary to support a program that feeds underprivileged children in his parish.
Conrado recently came to Miami to baptize Pablo, a 16-year-old he helped to leave Cuba so that the boy could receive cancer treatment in the United States. “That’s what fulfills me,” he says with a smile.
In the first part of an exclusive interview with el Nuevo Herald, the priest spoke about the planned September visit to Cuba by Pope Francis, the role of the Catholic Church in Cuba and the fear felt on the island. During this second part of the interview, he speaks about what he describes as a “crisis of spirituality.”
His words are often charged with emotion. “I believe that a man is worth what his heart is worth,” he says. “The phrase is not mine. It is from a friend who is in Heaven. Either you believe that others are important for you, or there’s no meaning in your life.”
The Cubans who go to your Church today, what are they looking for?
I hope they are looking for God, because that’s the only thing we can give them. People look for truth, something that is real, something that brings them to life.
Are there Communist Party members among your parishioners?
Yes, of course. Some of them used to walk out when I said something strong during the homily. Now they don’t leave. (He laughs). The majority are humble people and people who have never had anything to do with the government.
Has Church membership increased recently?
I just added 18 benches to my Church. They are not always full but, yes, in general I believe it is growing although not as much as I wish. In my case, there is a silent war. We have had problems because we are trying to provide food for children who live in two small towns far from the school. They criticize us, and they have tried to persuade people to stop sending their children. We don’t teach them the catechism, we give them lunch. We have some cots where they can take naps, we teach them how to eat. Many rural schools have closed because of the country’s poverty, and the number of children in the country has dropped.
What you are saying reflects a government that is not ready to decentralize and lose control. Do you see any type of political opening in the future?
That’s one of the great challenges faced by the Cuban government. In Cuba, it’s not just the economic problems that need to be fixed. And they must be fixed, because otherwise we will die of hunger. I hope the government understands that we can only save Cuba precisely by opening the doors to other actors, creating a climate of respect for those who are different and seeking help from everyone — not with a totalitarian mindset but a desire for democracy, for the real participation of people in the future.
The Patriotic Union of Cuba is very active in Palma Soriano. Do you believe that these kinds of dissident groups have roots among the people? (The Cuban government dismisses dissident groups as miniscule “grupúsculos”).
Grupúsculo? What is that? A small group of people can sometimes change history because at a certain moment they embody a truth, a justice needed at that time. It is not the number that decides, but the truth of the work they do. Many times, selfish interests turn up in struggles that should be selfless, but that happens everywhere. I do see the groups growing. For the first time, I see there’s a commitment to coordination, to dialogue. Cuba’s grave problem always has been that all of us want to be generals, not soldiers. There are people who never want to be part of “us,” and they end up alone.
Do you see anyone who could become a political leader in Cuba?
Not just one, there are several. There are also many people who have the education, the interest — but are careful — and who are not in those groups today but are in the wings.
Could some of them even be within the current government?
I believe the (future) government of Cuba will be made up of people who were also part of the (current) government. And I hope that will happen because it is not good to sweep everything away. There are good people in the Communist Party. I don’t know how many, but there are some. Cuba needs all of its children and we have to learn tolerance, to accept that others are different, and the greatness of forgiving those who made a mistake. The fatherland belongs to all, not to one or two or to a small group.
What’s the biggest problem for the Cubans in your Church and those who live in the towns you serve?
There is a very big crisis of spirituality. It manifests itself in different ways in towns and cities. Trinidad is a wealthy city, with more than 1,000 families who rent rooms in hard currency and more than 100 private restaurants. This creates jobs. It is a prosperous city where you can see all the houses have been painted — something you don’t see in other places. But I see that people still have a lot of fear and hang on to material things, because people sell their souls to the devil when there is big scarcity. There is the quest to own and not share. On the other hand, there’s a lot of poverty …
Do you believe that a priority for the Cuban government should be the design of a strategy to combat poverty?
Of course. With the help of the Church and all the other Cubans. I don’t believe that the Church is the government’s co-protagonist. The government must learn that each Cuban has the right to struggle and the possibility of doing it by themselves. If you don’t empower people so that the individual can be truly responsible, you are lost because you cannot meet so many demands.
There’s a lot of speculation about who will succeed Cardinal Jaime Ortega. Who would be the best person to become head of the Cuban Church and reflect your ideals?
I have my candidate to succeed Jaime, which I expect will happen soon. But I can’t say who it is because I would get into trouble with other friends.
What qualities are important for the leaders of the Cuban Catholic Church?
To be men of God. That is fundamental. To be men of God, pious. Without that, there’s nothing to be done.
As a priest in Cuba, what is the most difficult thing for you?
That question is very good, but very difficult to answer. I am hit hard by a hard heart. It is a kind of distrust, of skepticism, of intolerance. It’s like a many-headed hydra. To be a priest in Cuba is very difficult because there are many people who believe in nothing and no one.
Sometimes one bears the weight of the suffering of the people and becomes depressed. I am an optimist, and that is one of the characteristics of the Cuban people. We believe in the future. As bad off as we are today, we know there will be a tomorrow. But when one struggles and struggles and does not see any results, or you try to do good and they do you wrong, they betray you, they defame you … the same people for whom you would be willing to die …
And sometimes, there’s also fatigue. Of course, what has hit me the hardest is when I have run into incomprehension, suspicion or indifference within the Church itself. When it is your own brothers, that really hurts. The Miami Herald

After Jail in Cuba Alan Gross Now Wants to Help The Castro Regime

The Real Cuba

May 3 – A political-action committee backing candidates in favor of a U.S.-Cuba policy shift will launch its campaign effort Monday with the help of a notable guest: Alan Gross, the U.S. citizen who spent five years in Cuban prisons.
The committee, called New Cuba PAC, will back candidates who favor reorienting U.S.-Cuba policy, particularly with more trade and travel between the two countries. President Barack Obama took steps to lift financial and travel regulations in December as part of a normalization push, but it will take congressional action to fully lift an embargo and allow for full travel to the island.
Mr. Gross’s lawyer, Scott Gilbert, will host the PAC’s inaugural event at his Miami home. Mr. Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor, was released from detention in Cuba in December when Mr. Obama announced he would move toward normalizing ties with Havana.
Since returning to the U.S., Mr. Gross has appeared at the State of the Union address, but otherwise has remained largely out of the public spotlight. On Twitter, he’s documented his return to normality, including a recent visit to an Apple Store in New York City.
Mr. Gross also has taken to Twitter to voice support for Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy and to urge further change there.
He’s visited Capitol Hill and met with Obama administration officials to discuss his experience in captivity. In February, he submitted testimony to the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees in support of ending the travel and trade embargo.
“My five years in Cuba did not deter me from wanting to bring about change through development and engagement,” he said in written statements to both committees.
Mr. Gross hopes to return to Cuba one day, Mr. Gilbert said, “though in a very different capacity.” Mr. Gross wants to use his experience to bring about change in Cuba, his attorney said.
“This is a person who did not come back to the United States at all bitter and angry, he came back and really has transcended this experience to try to turn it and to use it for good purposes,” Mr. Gilbert said.
Mr. Gross on Monday will address a crowd of around 50 at the PAC’s kickoff, which will be a private event. Mr. Gross is expected to speak about his five years in captivity as well his thoughts on Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy. He will take questions from attendees.
“I believe and Alan believes that the path to a better relationship and benefits for people in Cuba and the United States is increased travel between our countries and increased trade, including information flow,” Mr. Gilbert said.
The PAC’s leadership includes directors James Williams, a consultant who has advised companies and organizations on Cuba, and Ricardo Herrero, also executive director of the pro-engagement Cuba Now, as well as treasurer Maria Garcia Berry, a Cuban-born Republican donor.
“The purpose is to show that folks are willing to put their money where their mouths are in terms of this important policy, and really show that there’s strength on the side of a new course on Cuba,” said Luis Miranda, a consultant who is advising the PAC and is the Obama administration’s former director for Hispanic media.
The PAC is part of a broader campaign that includes an advocacy group, Engage Cuba.
The New Cuba PAC, the first to launch since Mr. Obama’s December announcement, enters an arena where several other PACs already are engaged in pro- and anti-embargo action. Among them is the pro-embargo US-Cuba Democracy PAC, which raised around $560,000 in 2014, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Mr. Williams, the New Cuba PAC director said his group is confident it can raise more, but wouldn’t disclose fundraising targets or contributions.
In Congress, lawmakers expect a protracted legislative battle to end the travel and trade embargo. Several measures seek to dismantle the Cold War restrictions on relations between the two countries, including one introduced by Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) in January that would end all travel restrictions. It is co-sponsored by most members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but has yet to move out of committee.
In the House, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.) last week introduced an amendment to a larger budget bill that would bar flights and cruises to Cuba.
The U.S. and Cuba have yet to reopen embassies. In a key move toward doing so, Mr. Obama has removed Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Washington and Havana are expected to engage in more face-to-face talks before they raise flags, but no date has been set for those discussions.

The Wall Street Journal