Grandma rips off Medicare and skips town — likely to Cuba

The Miami Herald

Dora Robaina’s résumé boasted plenty of experience working in Miami’s lucrative Medicare rackets.

She’d served two years in prison a decade ago for fraud and was facing new charges for her suspected role as a patient recruiter in another ring prosecutors say bilked millions from the government program. And before that case could even begin, she was set to spend three years behind bars for tipping off the scam’s ringleader so he could evade FBI agents who had come to arrest him at a Hialeah dental office where she worked.

But Robaina, 49, was also about to become a grandmother. So last spring, a federal judge granted her request to delay surrender so she could attend her grandson’s expected birth. She was supposed to turn herself in last June.

Instead, grandma fled — probably to Cuba. It’s long been a popular escape route for Medicare fraud fugitives. Over the past decade, dozens of defendants have sought haven on the communist island when confronted with criminal charges in Miami.

“She had an appointment with me but she never showed up,” said her defense attorney, David T. Alvarez, who obtained her bail and surrender delay with the support of the U.S. attorney’s office. “But it’s not my belief that she fled. It doesn’t make any sense because she was a minor player in the main case.”

Continue reading Grandma rips off Medicare and skips town — likely to Cuba

The Obama Administration is not telling the truth about trade with Cuba

The Miami Herald

The Obama Administration has said that trade with Cuba could reach up to $6 billion under its new policies, but U.S. companies in fact exported barely $380 million worth of goods to the island since the beginning of the thaw in bilateral relations two years ago.
Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said early last year that her department had issued 490 licenses to companies trying to do business with Cuba valued at $4.3 billion. More recently, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that since late 2014 “more than $6 billion in trade has been initiated between Cuba and the United States since then, which obviously has an important economic benefit here in the United States.”

Experts said the administration is exaggerating, and that those numbers must be put in better context.

“While there may be licenses which total that value … in no way do the value of those licenses equate to actual economic activity” with Cuba, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which has monitored bilateral trade since its founding in 1994.

Kavulich said the George W. Bush administration, trying to ease the bureaucracy, allowed companies to seek licenses for commerce with Cuba with declared amounts that are “aspirational” rather than real.

A U.S. company wanting to export goods to Cuba can then base its license application on its negotiations with the Cuban government, rather than the real value of a purchase. The new procedure voided the need to seek a new license if the final amount of the deal changed, Kavulich added.

Kavulich, who keeps detailed tallies of U.S. exports to Cuba, estimated that from December of 2014 to October of 2016 the total of U.S. agricultural and medical exports to the island barely reached $370.6 million. In fact, he added, all U.S. exports to Cuba since 2001 do not reach the $6 billion figure used by Earnest.

U.S. Census data showed the exports to Cuba over the past two full years totaled $380 million.

One Commerce Department official confirmed that the numbers used by Pritzker and Earnest reflect the paper value of the licenses issued and other operations allowed under the new Obama policies, and do not necessarily reflect real exports.

“Sometimes the companies obtain the licenses when they are still working on the details. The final agreement may be for a different amount, or the deal can die along the way,” the official added.

Cuba, whose economy grew by a meager 0.9 percent in all of 2016 and actually shrank during the last part of the year — going into recession for the first time since 1993 — also simply does not have the money to pay for the level of imports claimed by the Obama administration.

U.S. exports to Cuba — principally food items such as chicken, soya and corn — indeed fell since Obama began easing sanctions on Cuba.

“When the Obama Administration pulls out these numbers without explaining the background, the perception is a). that there is a huge amount of activity between the U.S. and Cuba; b). that Cuba is spending of all this money with U.S. companies and c)…When the numbers do not equate with reality, the perception is that Cuba has refused to engage… and it puts them in the position of they saying no to all this stuff, when they are not,” said Kavulich.

“They are doing it because they want to exaggerate and demonstrate how much progress and success there is,” he added. “But lying to make a marketing point is not a good strategy, especially for a government.”

Donald Trump crackdown looms for Cuba as repression continues after Obama outreach

The Washington Times
President Obama’s historic move to normalize relations with Cuba hasn’t slowed repression by the Castro regime, and the incoming Trump administration is likely to take a tougher stand on restricting tourism, recovering stolen U.S. assets and demanding human rights reforms by Havana, analysts say.
In the two years since Mr. Obama announced a thaw in the United States’ half-century policy of isolating the island nation, the administration has paved the way for increased engagement, approving such measures as daily commercial flights, direct mail service, cruise ship ports of call and the reopenings of long-shuttered embassies in Washington and Havana.
But Mr. Obama’s policy has not been fully embraced on Capitol Hill and is vulnerable to reversal under the Trump administration, though the president’s aides say his detente is already bearing fruit in Cuba and beyond.
“We’re seeing real progress that is making life better for Cubans right now,” said White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. “Sustaining this policy will allow for further opening, further travel, further U.S. business opportunities.”
But critics say the U.S. money now flowing to Cuba is being pocketed directly by the military and the Cuban intelligence services, not benefiting Cuban entrepreneurs. They also say the government of President Raul Castro has become more repressive since the formal resumption of diplomatic ties with Washington.
“This year, they’ve had over 10,000 politically motivated arrests,” said Ana Quintana, an analyst on Latin America at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “During President Obama’s visit [in March], there were 498 people arrested in those three days.”
Judging by the standards Mr. Obama laid out in December 2014, she said, “the policy has been a failure.”
“It was originally intended to help the Cuban people by providing greater freedoms,” Ms. Quintana said. “It’s been diluted, because they found that they’re not going to get the concessions from the Cuban government that they expected. The vast majority of people who have benefited from this have been the Cuban military and the Cuban government.”
President-elect Donald Trump is likely to take a less rosy view than Mr. Obama of the U.S. engagement with Cuba, say those familiar with his team’s thinking. During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump criticized Mr. Obama and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for “turning a blind eye” to Cuba’s human rights violations and denounced Mr. Obama’s initial deal with Havana as a “very weak agreement.” Several anti-Castro Cuban-American conservatives are part of Mr. Trump’s transition team.

Continue reading Donald Trump crackdown looms for Cuba as repression continues after Obama outreach

Why Are Celebrities So Deluded When It Comes To Cuba?

Daily Beast 

On social media, celebrities laud the quaint poverty of Cuba while ignoring that real life for most Cubans is a daily grind of hustling for money and food.

During vacation in Cuba last week, Victoria’s Secret Angel Sara Sampaio posed for a photo in jean cut-offs and a light blue denim shirt next to one of the island’s old-fashioned, candy-colored cars, then shared it with her 4.5 million followers on Instagram. “When in Cuba match ur clothes with the cars,” the 25-year-old Portuguese model wrote in the photo’s caption.
The old car as photo-op has become a tourism cliché in Havana, particularly among the style-obsessed celebrities and fashion set—Madonna, Beyoncé and Jay Z, the Kardashians, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Paris Hilton, and so on—who have visited the island in recent years, unable to resist the retro charm of Cuba’s 1950s Cadillacs.
And who can blame them for being seduced by the quaint authenticity of Cuba’s old cars and buildings, preserved over time and untouched by the hideousness of capitalism?
The island has seen a tourism boom since the U.S. and Cuba announced in 2014 that they would restore diplomatic ties, in part because warmer relations between the two countries have made it easier for Americans to get there, and in part because Westerners who have never been want to see it before Starbucks and McDonalds pop up all over the island.
So when the Kardashians flew down with their reality TV show’s camera crew last May, two months after President Obama visited Cuba (and became the first American president to do so since Calvin Coolidge), even they found this top poverty tourism destination to be rather charming.
Taking in the sights from the back of a 1957 Chevrolet convertible, Khloe Kardashian marveled at how friendly and close to nature Cubans are (“the goats are, like, people’s dogs!”) and told her chauffer she enjoyed the “real life” on display during their sightseeing tour.
It was a spectacular moment of irony, of course, given that “real life” for most Cubans is a daily grind of hustling for money and food, including a number of young women who prostitute themselves to geriatric tourists. In an interview with The New York Times after Fidel Castro’s death, one older Cuban man who lives on a $12 monthly pension said that much of the island’s’ food supply is being funneled into the tourism sector—and that he’d recently been forced to sell two antique lamps in order to pay for his next few meals. Affluent Westerners may be upset by the idea of fast food chains invading Cuba, but Cubans themselves might not mind it so much (fast food is better than no food, after all).
While many Cubans are hopeful that their country will change under President Raúl Castro now that his elder brother has died, Amnesty International’s 2015/2016 report on Cuba paints a grim picture of life for its citizens: “Government critics continued to experience harassment, ‘acts of repudiation’ (demonstrations led by government supporters with participation of state security officials), and politically motivated criminal prosecutions. Reports continued of government critics, including journalists and human rights activists, being routinely subjected to arbitrary arrests and short-term detention for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and movement.”
But who needs freedom of expression and economic freedom when life in Cuba is so adorably simple? Tilda Swinton said as much, exposing her own ignorance, when she attended Chanel’s Resort 2017 fashion show there in May (the Kardashians had originally planned their trip around the show as well, since Kendall Jenner was supposed to walk).
“Look, capitalism is visiting and the Cubans are doffing their caps,” she told New York magazine, “but my sense is that this is a very healthy country and any notion that they need saving by a moribund capitalist country from across the sea is just absurd.”
It’s hardly an uncommon sentiment among certain segments of the left, generous with their praise of Cuba’s free health care and education systems, along with its high literacy rates. Never mind that the number of poorly compensated Cuban medical professionals who defected to the U.S. reached a record high in 2015, or that Cuba’s literate people aren’t free to read what they want.
The irony of showing a luxury fashion collection in a country isolated from modern consumerism was apparently lost on Karl Lagerfeld, who showed his Chanel Resort 2017 collection in Havana last May. He noted that while there was no “fashion” as Westerners know it in Cuba, there was plenty of singular style to be fetishized. “Here, you can really wear jewelry,” he told New York. “Here you can smile whenever you want. It is adorable.”
Toothless smiles are considerably less “adorable” in Paris or New York. But in Old Havana, they’re as charming as the decrepit neo-classical buildings and colorful cars.
Despite fetishizing Cuba’s poverty, Lagerfeld redeemed himself when he admitted: “But of course, what do I know about Cuba? It is very childish, my idea.”
To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with Lagerfeld bringing couture to Cuba, along with a troop of fashion A-listers and stars from Gisele Bündchen to Vin Diesel. Nor is there anything wrong with Western tourists Instagramming photos of themselves next to pastel pink Chevrolets.
Bringing different cultures to Cuba is of course a good thing, and tourism is good for the economy—though Cuba’s economy can’t survive on tourism alone and has suffered since its regional benefactor, Venezuela, has been in economic freefall.
“For the first time in decades, Cubans are dealing with power outages and transportation shortages,” NPR reported in September. Tourism is up, but “they just don’t have the infrastructure to really get at all that money.”
There’s nothing wrong with the exchange of ideas through high fashion shows, but Cuba needs goods—not couture—to be exchanged in order to build up its infrastructure.
The only problem with the Kardashians et al seeing the island and its old cars as Instagram bait is that it casts Cuba in a patina of sentimental filters, obscuring the realities of life there.
Cuba is indeed a beautiful place, but the fancy tourists don’t need a vacation on the island as much as they need a lesson–and they’re not going to get it on the tourist route advertised in brochures.

We Need a Cuba Policy That Truly Serves the Cuban People

Foreign Policy

As the 2016 presidential campaign began heating up — and Florida appeared more and more winnable — the Donald Trump campaign began increasing its criticisms of President Barack Obama’s 2014 decision to reverse the United States’ longstanding policy towards Cuba. In Miami in September, then-candidate Trump said, “All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order, which means the next president can reverse them, and that I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands. Not my demands. Our demands.”

In October, Trump’s running mate Mike Pence said, “When Donald Trump and I take to the White House, we will reverse Barack Obama’s executive orders on Cuba.”

The drumbeat has continued post-election. In late November, President-elect Trump tweeted, “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.”

A Trump spokesman followed with, “This has been an important issue, and it will continue to be one. Our priorities are the release of political prisoners, return of fugitives from American law, and also political and religious freedoms for all Cubans living in oppression.”

Clearly, changes are coming to U.S.-Cuba policy under Trump. But what to replace Obama’s policy with? Certainly no one argues for a return to the status quo ante. Instead, the President-elect’s new team should seize the opportunity to bring energy and creativity to truly empowering the Cuban people to reclaim their right to decide their own destiny.

If Obama’s ill-fated policy reaffirmed one thing (aside from the Castro regime’s congenital intransigence), it is the Cuban people’s enormous desire for change. But that can’t be supported at the same time as embracing the regime, which Obama failed to grasp. The two are fundamentally incompatible.

That being said, the new administration could begin its review of Cuba policy by focusing on three immediate imperatives:

1. Re-establish common cause with Cuban dissidents and human rights activists. Perhaps the worst aspect of Obama’s policy was shunting these brave Cubans to the back of the policy bus. Obama may believe the U.S. lacks moral authority to advocate on behalf of human rights, but the fact is a strong and unconditional stance by the U.S. serves as an inspiration to those struggling for basic rights around the world, as well as sending an important signal about American purpose.

The U.S. must return to a policy that prioritizes providing both moral and material support for Cuba’s dissidents and human rights activists. Funding for Cuba democracy programs was redirected by the Obama administration to other activities on the island. Not only should those programs be returned to their original purpose, but additional support ought to be sought from the new Congress. Human rights in Cuba must also be reprioritized at the United Nations, other international forums, and in U.S. public diplomacy campaigns.

2. Review all executive orders issued by Obama and commercial deals struck under the Obama administration. They all ought to be judged according to a single standard: Do they help the Cuban people or do they buttress the Castro regime? Any activity found to be sustaining the regime’s control rather than directly benefiting the Cuban people should be scrapped. For example, cruise ships that fill military-owned hotels are hard to justify. The guidelines could be: Does the activity promote and strengthen human rights such as freedom of speech and assembly? Does it improve ordinary Cubans access to the internet and information, breaking down the Castro regime’s wall of censorship placed between the Cuban people and the outside world, and between Cubans themselves? Does it help to lessen Cubans’ dependence on the regime? Does it allow for reputable nongovernmental organizations to freely operate on the island?

3. Review Cuban immigration policies. Cubans today are the beneficiaries of generous U.S. immigration privileges. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 allows Cubans reaching U.S. shores to be automatically paroled into the country, and a year and a day later they are eligible for permanent residency. On top of that, the U.S. grants at least 20,000 visas a year to Cubans in a lottery. What has happened is that the Castro regime has turned those policies into another economic lifeline. Many Cubans now emigrating are arriving in the U.S. only to turn around and ferry consumer goods back to the island. Certainly no one can begrudge Cubans trying to help their families on the island, but the situation has become morally inverted. What began as efforts to help Cubans fleeing tyranny has become a situation in which the regime’s victims are now relied upon to provide it economic sustenance.

An overhaul of Obama’s policy toward Cuba is needed, but it does not have to mean a return to the stasis of the past. With newfound political will and creativity, it can mean the implementation of a policy that unapologetically supports the aspirations of the Cuban people for a future devoid of the Castro regime. U.S. policy should be targeted at convincing Cubans that such a future exists, and inspires them to work towards it.

American attorney defending Cuban dissident artist arrested, foundation says

The Miami Herald

An American human rights lawyer representing an imprisoned Cuban artist was arrested in Havana on Friday, according to the Human Rights Foundation.

Kimberley Motley was in the country to advocate for 33-year-old Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado, a dissident artist jailed for posting a video on Facebook mocking Fidel Castro’s death. He was scheduled to attend Art Basel, but has been imprisoned without charges since Nov. 26, relatives said.

The foundation reported that Motley was led away by plainclothes security agents while she was holding a press conference outside Havana’s National Capitol around 4 p.m. Friday. Authorities also arrested dissident punk rock artist Gorki Águila and democracy activist Luis Alberto Mariño, according to the foundation.

Cuba: Ladies in White Leader Berta Soler Arrested Without Cause

Breitbart News

Berta Soler, the leader of the anti-communist Cuban dissident group the Ladies in White, was arrested on Thursday after stepping outside her home, which is also the group’s headquarters.
Witnesses say she was not dressed in white, the color her group wears to protest the government and had not apparently engaged in any objectionable activity upon her detention. She was reportedly leaving to participate in an event to discuss access to the internet on the island.

“They arrested her at the door of her home,” fellow dissident Martha Beatriz Roque told the Miami-based outlet Martí Noticias. “She was not wearing white, it is not known why they arrested her… No one knows anything because nobody could leave [the house] or interfere in it.”

The news site Cubanet, which originally reported the arrest, claimed that Soler’s husband and former political prisoner Ángel Moya was in the home at the time of the arrest but unable to go outside during the incident. Moya was “thrown on the floor and beaten” during an anti-communist protest on Sunday that triggered a mob attack on his and Soler’s home.

That protest was the first in two weeks for the Ladies in White. The group — comprised of the wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, and other female relatives of political prisoners — suspended its regular Sunday protests for two weeks following the death of dictator Fidel Castro. At the time, Soler said that she was personally “very happy” that he had died,” but “we have chosen not to take the streets so that the Cuban regime cannot say that we are provoking [our arrests] or that we are opportunists.” It marked the first time in 13 years that the Ladies in White did not protest.

In that same interview with the Spanish outlet El Español, Soler warned that the repression against Cuban dissidents would increase following Castro’s death, and that “Raúl is as much a dictator and murderer as Fidel.”

They returned to the streets last Sunday, however. Five were arrested and five placed on house arrest for holding up signs with the words “human rights” on them and demanding freedom for political prisoners.

While Soler was not arrested on that occasion, she is regularly beaten, detained, and shipped far from her home during these Sunday protests. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), an NGO that tracked politically-motivated arrests on the island, reported that Soler was arrested three times in November alone — a number suppressed by her decision to keep the Ladies from marching following Castro’s death.

Soler’s arrest highlights a growing crackdown on the island’s most vocal anti-communist dissidents that began the day Raúl Castro announced his brother’s death with the arrest of Danilo Maldonado, a Havana artist known by his nom de plume “El Sexto.” Maldonado was arrested after celebrating Castro’s death in a Facebook Live video and spray-painting the words “he’s gone” on a wall in Havana. Following his arrest, his mother, María Victoria Machado, reported that he suspected police of sedating him in prison after repeatedly shouting “down with Raúl” from his jail cell and had refused to eat.

On her next visit to the prison this week, Machado found that her son had been severely beaten. To prevent him from attempting any protest action during International Human Rights Day (December 10), police had beaten him and kept him in solitary confinement naked, without food, for three days.

On Wednesday, Maldonado’s partner, Alexandra Martínez, arrived in Cuba. In a video from Havana, she said police refused to let her see him because “I am a foreigner” (Martínez lives in Miami) and only knew Maldonado’s fate due to poor timing on the police’s part.

“After three hours waiting… a white truck passed by with Danilo in there and he started screaming that they were taking him to El Combinado del Este,” she said. “We have not heard anything else about him, he hasn’t called.”

El Combinado del Este is a maximum security prison on the outskirts of Havana. While he has been sentenced to prison in the past for his art, this is the first time he has been transferred to such a prison. Maldonado has yet to be formally charged, though his family expects charges of defacing public property.

Escape from Cuba: One woman shares her family’s incredible journey to find refuge in the United States

KCTS9

Marta Richardson says that before Fidel Castro came into power, she was a “spoiled brat” living in Cuba.

“We had everything. We had food, clothes, church — nothing changed. Once that was gone, we missed it,” Marta says.

Marta says that life in Cuba after 1959, when Castro came into power, was ruled by fear.

“I remember being scared,” she says. “Nobody should live like that. Everywhere we went, we had to be afraid.”

Marta, now 70, was my Spanish teacher in high school. I’ll never forget the day she told the story of how she escaped Cuba and came to the United States. Her harrowing journey stuck with me and she was the first person I thought of when I learned of Fidel Castro’s death.

“I can’t be happy about somebody dying,” Marta says. “But I am happy for the Cuban people. Maybe now something can be resolved.”

Cuba, Castro and the U.S.

Fidel Castro’s recent death was, for many, a source of both hope and reflection. The leader of the Cuban Revolution, a group that overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Castro declared Cuba a one-party socialist country, transforming the country’s economy and international relations for generations.

Continue reading Escape from Cuba: One woman shares her family’s incredible journey to find refuge in the United States

Cuba and Venezuela’s Ties of Solidarity Fray

The Wall Street Journal

The oil from Caracas that once paid for doctors from Havana is running low, imperiling an ideological union

Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez proclaimed a decade ago that they presided over a single country, combining Cuba’s educated workforce with Venezuela’s oil wealth to challenge U.S. power across Latin America.

Now Mr. Castro is gone, three years after Mr. Chávez’s death, and the union between their two countries, while still strong on paper, is withering away fast.

Daily shipments of more than 100,000 barrels of subsidized Venezuelan oil, the lifeblood of Cuba’s economy, have dropped by more than half since 2013, according to oil traders and Cuban refinery workers. In November, Cuba had to buy oil on the open market for the first time in 12 years, because of Venezuela’s plummeting output.

Meanwhile, thousands of Cuban doctors who toiled in Venezuelan shantytowns to pay off the oil deliveries are quietly returning home, scaling back an important vestige of the popular social programs Mr. Chávez left to his now embattled successor, Nicolás Maduro. The air bridge between the two Caribbean countries is also dissolving: Cuba’s flagship airline, Cubana de Aviación, stopped regular flights to Caracas earlier this year. Charters from Caracas to Havana have scaled back too as demand slumped.

On the surface, leaders in both countries swear to an ironclad coupling, which detractors mockingly call Cubazuela.

Continue reading Cuba and Venezuela’s Ties of Solidarity Fray