Articles, Opinions, and Papers

August 2018
Cubans living in the United States and other countries will be able to send suggestions and comments on proposed changes to the island’s Constitution, which will ultimately be presented to voters in a referendum, the government said Friday. “[The] Cuban Government invites all Cuban citizens abroad to participate in the debate on the draft Constitution,” Cuban diplomat Ernesto Soberón announced on Twitter.
July 2018
Every time Javier Garcia-Bengochea hears about another cruise line calling at the Port of Santiago in southeastern Cuba, his frustration grows.
Amid polarizing sentiments in Miami over changing diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, a congressional candidate and state lawmaker elected to represent Little Havana is visiting, well, Havana.
Juan Antonio Blanco — the academic, activist, and executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba — recently announced an initiative to unmask and deport Cuban human-rights abusers now living in the United States. He declared that the drive was not “a witch hunt” against people just because of their political beliefs or affiliations with political organizations on the island.
June 2018
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress on Thursday that he intends to suspend a section of the Helms-Burton Act that allows former owners of commercial property expropriated by Cuba to sue companies and the Cuban government for using or "trafficking" in those confiscated holdings.
A Cuban exile group is forwarding complaints to federal authorities about alleged human-rights violators in Cuba who now live in the United States, with the goal of deporting people who participated in acts of violence and harassment on the island.
“Little bro, hook me up with a refill. It's only 20 little pesos.”
President Donald Trump stood before a crowd of Cuban Americans at the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana a year ago Saturday and with great fanfare and to the accompaniment of an exile violinist playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" announced his new vision for Cuba policy.
President Donald Trump appointed Miami’s former mayor and self-described Cuba “hardliner” Tomás Regalado to run Radio and TV Martí, a sign that tougher U.S. policies could be in store for the island regime and its Latin American allies.
Mail can once again be sent directly between the United States and Cuba.
May 2018
The renewal of U.S. tourist visas issued to Cubans since bilateral relations were established in 2015 has turned into a headache for many relatives in Miami.
Luis Posada Carriles, the Cuban exile militant who left no bomb or bullet unturned in a fruitless four-decade-long series of attempts to kill Fidel Castro, died early Wednesday morning after a long battle with throat cancer.
Cuban officials are still identifying the 111 people who died in last Friday’s crash of a Cubana Airlines 737 on takeoff from Havana. Two surviving passengers remain in critical condition. Some Cubans here hope the tragedy will bring changes to how Cuba – and the U.S. – approach air travel on the island.
Despite the frost on U.S.-Cuba relations, the biggest Cuban cultural extravaganza ever held in the United States will get under way next week at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
MIAMI — Former Miami Judge Mary Barzee Flores is switching her congressional campaign to run against Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, giving the longtime incumbent the first serious Democratic challenger he has had in a decade.
MIAMI — Sen. Marco Rubio is backing former Miami mayor and Cuban exile leader Tomas Regalado to lead the troubled federal office that oversees Radio and TV Martí in its attempts to counter Cuba’s state-run media on the island.
March 2018
AURORA, Colo. — A Cuban immigrant’s long quest for freedom appears over.
February 2018
It started with strange symptoms reported by U.S. diplomats in Havana. And now the alleged attacks may continue to affect Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits.
January 2018
The children of Cubans living abroad will be able to apply for and obtain Cuban citizenship starting this week, without the need to live on the island for any length of time.
Five months ago Andy Gómez, founder and former senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, returned as interim director of the research center. His last day was Friday, with the future of the embattled institute still up in the air and a permanent director yet to be selected.
December 2017
Some arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border only a few hours after the sudden change in immigration policy on Jan. 12. Others have been in the United States since much earlier. The majority face possible deportation.
He wears two or three gold chains around his neck and Nike sneakers cover his feet. He holds up a bundle of cash so that it shows on the photo with his big new car. He is Cadenaman — Chainman — one of the characters on the Instagram page Cubalseros, created by a Miami Cuban American to poke fun at recent arrivals from his native homeland.
WASHINGTON--The United States has deported twice as many Cubans in 2017 than in 2016, but that still represents less than 10 percent of all the Cubans who entered the United States after Cuban nationals lost their special immigration status.
For Jennifer Herrera, a 20-year-old student and daughter of Cuban immigrants, Halloween was supposed to be special. It would have been the first with her fiancé, Andro, after they reunited in the United States.
November 2017
Way to go, Miami Republicans. You’re really socking it to engagement in your dreams.
October 2017
New travel regulations that Cuba announced over the weekend appear designed to make sure a steady flow of Cuban-American visitors continues.
WASHINGTON — U.S. military planners estimated they would need 261,000 troops and between 10 to 15 days to invade Cuba, oust its dictator, Fidel Castro, and take control of the country, an Aug. 8, 1962, memo for the John F. Kennedy administration shows.
Cuba's foreign minister on Saturday announced changes to the island's immigration policies, seeking to strengthen ties with the 800,000 Cubans living outside the country amid strained relations with Washington following accusations that U.S. diplomats suffered mysterious sonic attacks in Havana.
The parents of Alina López Miyares left Cuba in 1969 to escape Fidel Castro's revolution. But that did not keep her from falling in love and marrying a former Cuban diplomat years later, and then traveling frequently to the island to be with him.
September 2017
For President Trump’s historic speech on Cuba policy on the sunny afternoon of June 16, his aides chose a special venue: Miami’s Manuel Artime Theater, a small (839 seats) performing arts center located in East Little Havana and named for the heroic Cuban physician who led the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion against Fidel Castro in 1961. The White House selected the intimate, politically charged setting to emphasize the White House’s tough stand against Fidel’s brother, Raul, who has ruled the island nation since 2008 with the same brutality his late brother exhibited across the preceding five decades.
Aware that the Cuban government sometimes rebuffs hurricane relief from large U.S.-based charities, Cuban Americans and exile organizations are scrambling to come up with ways to help friends and family after Hurricane Irma tore through the island’s north coast.
August 2017
Cardenas, Cuba (CNN)Elián González greets me with a smile and firm handshake.
Elián, a documentary about the painful custody battle over whether a Cuban boy should be returned to his father on the island after his mother drowned at sea or remain with his Miami relatives, makes its TV debut on CNN Thursday.
In a videotaped private meeting with Communist Party members, Cuban Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel — often portrayed as a moderate politician with a quiet disposition — took on an all too familiar hardline tone that offered a rare glimpse into his ideology.
In a videotaped private meeting with Communist Party members, Cuban Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel — often portrayed as a moderate politician with a quiet disposition — took on an all too familiar hardline tone that offered a rare glimpse into his ideology.
Havana, Cuba (CNN) When little Elian Gonzalez returned to Cuba in 2000 following a poisonous custody battle and a federal raid on his Miami relatives' home, it was to resume a life far from the glare of the media spotlight. At least that's what Cuban officials and his father said at the time.
Miami’s Cuban music scene has a new, younger face that cares little — if any — about politics.
July 2017
For a lot of first-generation Cuban-Americans, Cuba is almost a myth. Grandparents talk about it at family gatherings, always insisting the music, the beaches and even the sugar was better there.
MIAMI--President Donald Trump's effort to reverse a historic opening between the U.S. and Cuba is raising tensions in South Florida's exile enclave, where wealthy patrons and institutions have sought to unify Cubans on both sides through unprecedented art exhibits.
For decades, George Borjas, 66, has toiled in what was generally the quiet field of immigration labor econonics. His wonkish work was filled with dense mathematics that made him a leader in his field and led to a professorship at Harvard, while being completely unknown to the general public.
Visiting Cuba is always an emotional journey for poet Richard Blanco.
The Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies is at the center of a controversy between its outgoing director, Jaime Suchlicki, and the University of Miami, which has been its home for almost 20 years.
Long before the Departments of State, Treasury, and Commerce finish writing the new regulations that President Trump ordered to restrict trade and travel to Cuba, the president will face another decision on relations with Havana that could be far more consequential for U.S. businesses. By July 16, he will have to decide whether to continue suspending certain provisions of Title III of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 (also known as Helms-Burton, after its sponsors).
June 2017
William LeoGrande, an American University professor who specializes in U.S.-Cuba relations, says it appears there might be a “poison pill” in President Donald Trump’s new Cuba policy that potentially could cut off remittances to more than 1 million Cubans.
Last week, President Donald Trump announced his outrage at Cuba’s poor human rights record. On his recent Mideast trip the president did not even mention the issue in totalitarian Saudi Arabia. But of Cuba, he declared: “We will not be silent in the face of Communist oppression any longer.” A cynic might observe that more Cuban-Americans than Saudi-Americans voted for him last November.
The director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, the U.S. federal body that oversees Radio and TV Martí as well as the Martí Noticias website, resigned last week amid complaints by some dissidents and exiles about OCB’s editorial line.
Dr. Alberto Hernandez, a former president of the Cuban American National Foundation, died June 16 in Miami. His family said one of the top leaders of the Cuban exile community had three passions: family, medicine and a free Cuba.
On June 16, speaking from the heart of the Cuban exile community in Little Havana, President Donald Trump declared that he would be “cancelling” plans to ease relations with Cuba, a historic policy initiated by his predecessor Barack Obama in 2014 to end decades of Cold War-era hostilities between the two countries. It did not matter that Trump himself once explored (possibly illegal) commercial opportunities on the island, or that early in his presidential campaign he said normalization was “fine.” In an effort to appeal to the dwindling number of hardline supporters of the U.S. embargo in Miami who had thrown their support behind him in last year’s election, Trump forged ahead, denouncing Obama’s policies on Cuba as “terrible and misguided.” In doing so, he defied the wishes of roughly 63 percent of Cuban Americans who oppose the embargo, to say nothing of Cubans on the island.
In an overhaul of one of his predecessor’s signature legacies, President Donald Trump will redraw U.S. policy toward Cuba on Friday, tightening travel restrictions for Americans that had been loosened under President Barack Obama and banning U.S. business transactions with Cuba’s vast military conglomerate.
MIAMI — When President Trump travels to this Cuban-American enclave on Friday to announce curbs on recent U.S. ties with Cuba, he'll be flanked by supporters of his moves and confronted by protesters opposed to his rollback of one of President Barack Obama's signature achievements.
President Trump is right in that the Obama administration's opening to Cuba has failed to produce any human rights or democratic changes on the island, but I'm afraid that Trump's plan to partially reverse the current U.S. policy will make things worse.
In the most serious political fight possible — the presidential one — Sen. Marco Rubio referred to then candidate Donald Trump as “a con man.” Nothing more true has ever come from the senator’s lips.
It may be hard to fathom outside of Miami, but the faraway island of Cuba and Cuban-American politics could have played a role in Thursday’s historic hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
For more than two years, Americans have been freer to travel and do business in Cuba than at any time in the previous five decades. Now, however, the Trump administration is considering restoring the restrictions on travel and trade that president Barack Obama relaxed in 2014. Insiders say the decision might be presented as a defense of human rights in Cuba, but will in reality be an attempt by Trump buy some support for his other Washington battles.
To unveil President Donald Trump’s new U.S.-Cuba policy, his young administration had eyed a day brimming with symbolism: May 20, Cuban Independence Day.
May 2017
Republican Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart leveraged his vote on the recent Obamacare repeal legislation in an effort to gain concessions from President Trump on Cuban policy, according to The Daily Caller’s sources.
President Donald Trump is mulling a reversal of Cuba policies enacted by former president Barack Obama that soften the U.S.’ stance towards the country, including the rescinding of the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ immigration policy.
USAID programs in Cuba, which have been highly controversial in recent years, aren't funded under the Trump administration's proposed State Department budget for Fiscal Year 2018.
A delegation of American LGBTQ advocates met Saturday in Havana with “leaders of Cuban civil society” who are demanding that the government there recognize marriage for same-sex couples and create legal protections for transgender Cubans.
April 2017
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the dean of the Florida legislative delegation and the first Cuban American elected to Congress, is retiring at the end of her term next year, saying it’s time to move on after 38 years in elected office.
Shortly after his election, Donald Trump tweeted that he would insist on a Cuba policy that was good for “the Cuban people, the Cuban American people, and the United States as a whole.” While that may seem like a tall order, in fact Cubans, Cuban Americans, and the U.S. public at-large generally agree on what U.S. policy ought to be.
CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS--More than 30 Cuban activists, writers, academics and entrepreneurs, mostly of African descent, gathered at Harvard University for an unprecedented meeting to celebrate the achievements of the Afro-Cuban movement on the island and set the course for future work.
February 2017
A group of exile organizations and volunteers are trying to help hundreds of Cubans who are stranded in Mexico following the end of the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy on Jan. 12.
They say necessity is the mother of invention and nowhere is that more true than in Cuba, where tech startups are popping up across the island nation despite very low internet connectivity. That intrepidness is on display with the visit of some young high-tech entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley. Jessica Aguirre reports.
President Donald Trump on Thursday announced his intent to nominate Alexander Acosta, a former Justice Department official and current dean of Florida International University College of Law, for labor secretary, just a day after his first pick, fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder, backed out.
MIAMI (AP) — Cuban-American lawmakers from Florida helped shape U.S. relations with the island for years until they found themselves on the outside during a historic thaw in relations.
December 2016
Did Donald Trump win in Florida because of Barack Obama’s decision to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba?
An alliance of powerful anti-embargo Cuban-American businessmen frayed earlier this year after its prominent chairman, former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, returned from Cuba with a simple request: work more closely with Raúl Castro’s communist government.
Alarmed by signs that its fragile relationship with the United States might fall apart under President-elect Donald Trump, the Cuban government is quietly reaching out to its contacts in the United States to determine how best to protect the communist regime’s tenuous diplomatic position.
November 2016
Cuba's most prominent dissident group has called off its traditional protest for the first time in 13 years following the death of the country's revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
President-elect Donald Trump has said “concessions” the Obama administration made to Cuba can easily be reversed and that he will unravel them unless U.S. demands are met, but some of the commercial initiatives may be a bit harder to undo than merely signing an executive order.
October 2016
WASHINGTON--President Barack Obama’s new 12-page directive on trade and travel to Cuba, widely heralded for its elimination of limits on Americans’ purchases of cigars and rum, contains a largely unnoticed provision that has alarmed Cuban-Americans in South Florida.
If the old real estate adage holds true — it's all about location, location, location — then about 100 miles off the tip of Florida, it's boom time. The real estate market in Havana, Cuba, is roaring.
American Airlines has been flying to five Cuban cities for just over a month but so far its regularly scheduled flights to the island are often less than half full.
WASHINGTON--The release this week of thousands of once-secret FBI documents provides new detail on the close eye federal law enforcement officials kept on Cuba and the Miami exile community during Fidel Castro’s rise to power through the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Matthew’s winds had scarcely subsided in eastern Cuba Wednesday when Msgr. Wilfredo Pino Estévez, bishop of the Diocese of Guantánamo-Baracoa, set off at 5 a.m. to see what the hurricane had wrought on Cuba’s northern coast.
MIAMI — In a sign of the “uncomfortable” spot Donald Trump has put them in, the Miami Republican leaders who support a hard line on Cuba don’t want to talk about a news story detailing how one of the GOP presidential nominee’s companies helped violate the U.S. embargo of the communist island.
In a play to win over Hispanic and independent voters, Miami Democrat Scott Fuhrman is using his first TV ads as a congressional candidate to cast Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as out of touch on one of her signature issues: Cuba policy.
September 2016
A surprising name came up in conversation earlier this year in Miami. Just before President Obama visited Cuba in March, I headed down to Florida to see how Cuban Americans felt about the normalizing relations between the two countries. For some, it was impossible for them to move on from the traumatic experience of fleeing their home country, forced to relocate to the U.S. after a new communist government seized their parents’ businesses and threatened their families. But for others, they are ready to look ahead to a new era.

A New Cuba

September 26, 2016

One afternoon last spring, President Obama sat on a stage at La Cervecería, a high-ceilinged beer hall on Havana Harbor, where he had been invited to preside over a gathering billed as “an entrepreneurship and opportunity event.” Just a few hundred feet down the harbor wall was the spot where, in 1960, a French cargo ship full of munitions exploded, in a lethal blast for which Fidel Castro blamed the C.I.A. But no one at La Cervecería was in the mood to dwell on history. Obama’s visit was the culmination of fifteen months of diplomatic engagement, which began when the U.S. and Cuba restored relations, on December 17, 2014, bringing an end to the United States’ longest-lasting hostile standoff with another nation: fifty-six years of bad blood and broken ties. An audience had gathered—a handpicked group of Cuban and American entrepreneurs, government officials, and journalists. Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb, one of the first American companies to receive a license to do business on the island, rose to speak with barely restrained wonder about the possibilities of Cuban commerce: Airbnb was in more than a hundred countries, and Cuba was its fastest-growing market.
MIAMI — Francis Suarez comes from a long line of civic and political leaders who have formed the Republican bedrock in south Florida’s Cuban community for a half-century. Yet the 38-year-old Miami city commissioner hasn’t decided whether he will vote for his party’s presidential nominee.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida commended his party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, for the hardline stance on Cuba he took this weekend while in Miami.
In the 18 months since President Barack Obama announced a new U.S.-Cuba policy, his views have won bigger support among his most skeptic audience: Miami-Dade County Cuban Americans.
August 2016
Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry’s director general for the United States, said that an upcoming conference in Miami on internet use on the island seeks to promote internal subversion.
Last Christmas, Michael and Gisel Davila, a Cuban-American couple who live in Queens, N.Y., were talking to her mother, Maria C. Castillo, while visiting her in Miami. It was a casual conversation, full of small talk about the holidays and work and the weather, until Ms. Davila, 30, mentioned that she and her husband were thinking about booking a trip over a long weekend to Cuba.
WASHINGTON--On a steamy summer day one year ago, standing on a dusty Havana back-road, Carlos Gutierrez was somehow able to find the childhood home he’d last seen more than a half century earlier, before he and his family fled Fidel Castro’s communist revolution.
July 2016
More than half of the Cubans who use the island’s Nauta internet service provided by the national telecommunications monopoly ETECSA, have to travel up to three miles to get to a wifi spot.
Despite the U.S. trade embargo on the island of Cuba, many Cuban-American families are supporting the economic recovery and growth of their relatives through remittances.
MIAMI — It’s a hot Saturday morning and the crowd is churning at Nooo! Que Barato!, the sprawling discount store where many Cuban Americans buy cheap goods for their relatives back home. But lately, shoppers at the store, whose name roughly translates to Wow! That’s Cheap!, are exhibiting more discerning tastes.
April 2016
When Ramón Saúl Sánchez arrived at Miami International Airport on a flight from Cuba almost 50 years ago, he was just 12 years old, traveling with his younger brother.
Cuban-born travelers can now book a cruise on Carnival Corp.’s Cuba sailings, the cruise giant announced Monday.
Members of the community spoke passionately Monday night at Miami Beach City Hall in reaction to the suggestion that Miami Beach could host a Cuban consulate.
Imagine a cruise line that won’t take African-Americans on sailings to Africa. Or won’t take bookings from American Jews to Israel. One class of U.S. citizen banned while others get access. No company in contemporary America would ever survive such blunt discriminatory business practices.
March 2016
HAVANA — For decades, Cuba and the United States have framed their relationship as a conflict of opposites: Communism vs. capitalism; Cuban loyalists vs. Cuban exiles; the state vs. the individual.
MIAMI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, Fla. (WSVN) -- A South Florida mayor who just returned from a trip to Cuba is generating controversy after he announced he would welcome a local Cuban consulate.
MIAMI—On his historic visit to Havana on Sunday, President Barack Obama will be accompanied by a group of prominent Cuban-American businessmen who have one thing in common. For years, they all opposed the very kind of trip the president is taking.
Symbolic, an effort to burnish his legacy and prevent his Cuba policies from being reversed once he leaves office, a chance to nudge Cuba toward more openness, or simply ill-conceived and a reward for the Castro regime.
When Democrat Annette Taddeo first ran for Congress in 2008, she supported keeping the U.S. trade embargo. Now, eight years later, she's running for Congress again, in favor of lifting the embargo and asking voters to sign a petition backing President Barack Obama's visit later this month to Cuba.
February 2016
MIAMI — There used to be a time in this city when being too supportive of the Castro brothers could get you killed.
Interest in Cuba-bound ferries has been high enough at PortMiami that officials are looking for ways to create temporary terminals to accommodate operators wanting to launch overnight runs to Havana every day.
January 2016
A political action committee formed to support candidates for Congress who favor strengthening U.S. ties with Cuba raised about $350,000 in its first seven months existence, the group said.
MIAMI, Florida -- In December, a group of 10 Cuban-American business leaders, including some Republicans, traveled to Cuba, to see for themselves if anything had changed since the December 2014 historic announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would restore diplomatic ties.
Until democracy comes to Cuba, a Cuban consulate should not come to Miami, county leaders proclaimed on Wednesday.
As Havana and Washington expand their diplomatic embrace, some Miami leaders have a stern message to both parties: Leave us out of it.
Is a 22-year-old Cuban-American woman, who is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate and a PhD candidate at Harvard University, the next Albert Einstein?
It won't be long until passengers will be able to take a ferry to Cuba from Miami, an idea that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago in a city that's home to Cuban exiles who fled from the Castro regime. The Obama administration approved licenses last year to companies that want to run ferries to Cuba. Several are interested.
A day after talk of a possible ferry service to Cuba from PortMiami roiled local politics, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez held a press conference and played down the idea of his administration pursuing a commercial link with the island nation.
The largely undeveloped plot of land at PortMiami where David Beckham once wanted a soccer stadium is poised to test just how much the politics of Cuba have changed in Miami. County officials want to transform the waterfront property into a bustling terminal for ferries running between Miami and Cuba.
December 2015
Up a winding flight of stairs at a beachside Havana home, Camila Lopez Rivas lies on the tile floor, smiling mischievously into a video camera circling overhead.
It's been a year since the U.S. and Cuba began normalizing relations. Tourism, business and cultural exchanges are booming. And there is another curious benefactor of those warmer ties — Ernest Hemingway, or at least, his legacy.
These past few days, from the reaction of some who read what I and other Cuban Americans said in a full-page ad in the Miami Herald about our visit to the island, I’ve learned even more about the sort of lifelong pain that is almost impossible to remove from many souls. I also have been reminded that kindness and forgiveness can heal and help.
Earlier this month, nearly a year to the day President Barack Obama shocked Cuban Americans with the news that the U.S. would reestablish relations with the Castro regime, a group of Cuban-American business people, almost all from Miami, quietly traveled to the island to see for themselves what, if anything, had changed.
Cuban Americans around the United States, at first wary of President Barack Obama’s recognition of the Castro government, now strongly support it. And for the first time, an absolute majority support lifting the U.S. embargo against the island, according to a new opinion poll released Thursday.
November 2015
HAVANA- I was born in the United States, but my family never let me forget that we're Cuban. My mother cooked Cuban dishes like picadillo and ropa vieja. My grandparents spoke almost only Spanish. But we never visited Cuba, had no contact with relatives there, no heirlooms besides a handful of black-and-white photographs.
October 2015
The December 17 announcement took the world by surprise. There was everything: a sudden spy swap, a comprehensive set of measures to ease the embargo, and an unexpected promise to restore diplomatic relations, thereby ending 50 years of hostilities.
In 1980, Juan Cordero slipped into his 9-year-old daughter’s room to kiss her goodbye as he left for America. She pretended to sleep. She and her mother had been the ones to urge him to go. They would be reunited soon, she said. She didn’t want to make it any harder for him so she breathed even asleep breaths and kept her eyes closed. She never saw him again.
Growing up, Alejandro Mayorkas would hear his father rattle off the places to visit if he ever returned to Cuba, which the family fled in 1960.
A group of powerful businessmen and Cuban professionals worked quietly for a decade promoting a change of policy towards Cuba as it was finally announced by the White House on December 17.
September 2015
There will certainly be many stories in the next days and few weeks from those who joined Archbishop Thomas Wenski on the pilgrimage to receive the Holy Father in Cuba. It was an emotional trip for many reasons.
Just a few years ago I — and so many others — would have expected mass protests at the thought of the Cuban and American flags being raised at each other’s embassies. Then, weeks ago, just that came to pass, and not a mouse was seen banging a cooking pan with a wooden spoon in our own Little Havana.
HAVANA — Gloria Arazoza, her step crimped just a touch by age, walked into what was once Cuba’s most formidable and ornate yacht club on Saturday afternoon and headed straight for the beach. Suddenly, a lifetime ago felt like yesterday.
HOLGUIN, Cuba — In this quiet city in eastern Cuba, families know how ideology can divide. After Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, Olga Maria Saladrigas' family decided they disagreed with the country's new socialist system and fled to Miami.
After 24 years, I returned to Havana. The State Department invited me to the flag-raising ceremony at the American Embassy and the reception at the ambassador’s residence. At 5:40 p.m. on Aug. 12, I received the visa and left the next day at 2 p.m.
August 2015
It goes without saying that both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have high odds of carrying Florida should one of them win the Republican nomination for president. As the primary season plays out, both will also have a major advantage in winning the southern swing state when registered Florida GOP voters decide who their party's nominee should be.
July 2015
Ron Magill, a prominent Cuban-American who works as spokesman for the Miami zoo, was pleasantly surprised when he returned from a quiet trip to Havana earlier this year.
Nearly three-fourths of Americans think the United States should have diplomatic ties with Cuba, but they're not sure how far to go in lifting sanctions, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll released Monday as full diplomatic relations between the two countries were formally restored.
Cuban Americans everywhere, but especially the diaspora in South Florida, have been awakening to the reality that Cuba's isolation was and is not a sustainable strategy. The case has been made for decades that Cuba’s failure is a self-inflicted wound by its dictatorial leadership.
June 2015
Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of the end of the Elián González drama — the international custody battle that gave the cable news networks bizarre fodder for seven long months in 1999 and 2000.
Miami developer and arts patron Jorge Pérez, chairman of The Related Group, recently returned from the Havana Biennial art festival. It was his second trip to the island.
The salsa music was so loud they probably could have heard it across the river in Manhattan. Such was the atmosphere at the 15th annual Cuban festival at Exchange Place yesterday afternoon on the Jersey City waterfront.
During an art walk in Miami's Little Havana this weekend, Luis Palomo ran into his friend and fellow Cuban-American Jackie Llaguna’s gift shop and gallery on Calle Ocho calling, “O-BA-MA!”
May 2015
MIAMI (AP) — President Barack Obama has visited a shrine in Miami to honor Cuban Americans. The White House says Obama stopped at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity on Thursday. He's honoring the sacrifices Cuban Americans have made in pursuing liberty and recognizing their contributions to the U.S.
February 2015
Feb 11 (Reuters) - Standing in his Miami-area shop surrounded by spare tires, dashboard gauges, and bright-colored boxes in Russian script, Fabian Zakharov taps his foot waiting for the static to pass on a phone call from Cuba.
January 2015
The historic Dec. 17 announcement that Washington and Havana agreed to restore diplomatic relations took members of the exile community and Cuba’s opposition movement by surprise.

The agenda in Cuba

January 26, 2015

Anyone who believed that a mutual decision by the United States and Cuba to normalize diplomatic relations would produce immediate changes is bound to be disappointed by the results of the first round of face-to-face talks between top diplomats for the two countries. Welcome to the world of diplomacy.
December 2014
The most damaging legacy of the Helms-Burton Act is not that it codified the bulk of U.S. sanctions into law, but that it codified the way we are supposed to think about solving the Cuban puzzle. It zapped our creativity and told us we must consider only one zero-sum, all-or-nothing course of action to foster change in Cuba — a course that never had a serious chance of succeeding.
President Obama’s new policy on Cuba opens the door to establish ties with the country for the first time in a half century. But this change comes as the Cuban American population itself is changing—in its demographics, views of U.S.-Cuba policy, and its politics.
(CNN) -- Growing up in the United States, my summers were filled with trips to Little Havana in Miami, where my family and I would watch anti-communist plays featuring popular Latino actors. Those trips would include hours-long pig roasts, where family members would animatedly discuss the big policy issues of the day, like the impact of the fall of the Soviet Union on Cuba's government.
October 2014
There was a time, not too long ago, when any mainstream politician running for statewide or national office in Florida had to rattle off fiery rhetoric against the Cuban government and declare unquestioning faith that the embargo on the island would one day force the Castros from power.

How Business Can Change Cuba

October 17, 2014

Yamina Vicente has lived in communist Cuba her whole life. But it didn’t take her long to learn one of capitalism’s handier skills: creating market demand. Baby showers were practically unheard of in Cuba until last year, when Vicente started an event planning company called Decorazón. She learned about the gift-giving parties from American women visiting Cuba, then persuaded some of her clients in Havana to throw their own.
The wrath of Cuban exiles was so fierce in the 1990s that Hugo Cancio needed police protection. Death threats and firebombs were hurled at anyone who dared placate, rather than denounce, Fidel Castro’s government. And that is what Miami hardliners believed the concert promoter was doing as he brought Cuban musicians over to perform in Florida.
For as long as I’ve been alive, U.S.-Cuba policy has been largely dictated by South Florida politics. Legislation passed in the 1990s to tighten U.S. sanctions was championed and ardently defended by a majority of Cuban-Americans who believed at the time that doing so would topple the Castro regime. After decades of disillusionment and exhaustion, our community has widely lost faith in isolationism. A majority of Cuban-Americans have embraced greater engagement with the Cuban people as the most effective way to promote change, with more than half a million among us traveling to the island each year.
Miami Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia and Republican opponent Carlos Curbelo disagree on whether more Americans should be allowed to travel to Cuba and send more money to relatives on the island. But that significant policy difference didn’t get much attention until this week, when a pro-Cuba-travel television advertisement began airing in Miami.
The group Cuba Now says this ad will air on Spanish-language TV in Miami. It carries a pro-travel message and warns against politicians who want to reverse a more relaxed posture toward Cuba. "The Cuban-American community has changed significantly in recent years, and this ad makes it clear that we’re looking forward, not backward, and expect our elected officials to do the same by protecting the right to travel," said Ric Herrero, director of Cuba Now.
September 2014
MIAMI — A third annual conference on Cuban reconciliation is taking place in Miami. The conference Friday at Miami Dade College will feature academics and U.S. diplomats.
June 2014
His voice was hoarse, and at times barely above a whisper, but Bill Clinton's message to Florida Democrats was clear: We need to do a better job of turning out the vote in mid-term elections.
Republicans have been fighting to regain lost ground with Latino voters after Mitt Romney's unsuccessful presidential campaign. A new report shows the problem may be even bigger than they imagined.
Every May 1 from 1961 to 2007, Fidel Castro gave a version of the same speech to much the same crowd, lauding Cuba’s independence from Yankee imperialism, its historic mission, and his citizens’ forbearance in the face of often-unbearable deprivation. In the crowd of hundreds of thousands of Cubans, the most visible band of people — those just behind the seated generals and the foreign dignitaries, pressed against retaining rails not far from Fidel’s podium — was a crush of university students in red shirts. Every year, students gathered on the quad the evening before May Day to listen to music, pass around bottles of rum, make signs and dance.
Cubans in the U.S. have long identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party, even as Hispanics overall have tilted Democrat. But the party affiliation of Cubans has undergone a shift over the past decade, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of survey data.
MIAMI (Reuters) - Cuban exile Joe Arriola at one time would never have dreamed of returning to his homeland while it was under communist rule. But after 53 years in the United States, the former manager of the city of Miami swallowed his pride and decided he had waited long enough.Arriola, 67, said a weeklong trip to the island last year had opened his eyes to what he now believes is a failed U.S. policy of trying to isolate Cuba...
CUBA STANDARD — Hinting that yet another Cuban American business dynasty may be softening its approach to Cuba, Bacardi Ltd. leader Facundo Bacardi told Cigar Aficionado magazine in an interview that his family has differences over U.S. embargo policies.
In the past month, former diplomats and administration officials, business leaders, public intellectuals, and even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have raised questions about the effectiveness of the United States's half-century-old embargo on Cuba. They've dared to propose different ways to promote human rights and change in the totalitarian state. They've called for carefully tinkering with -- but not eliminating -- the U.S. embargo on Cuba to provide more direct, private support for independent civil society, a growing non-state sector, and more connectivity.
Perhaps it is because of years of mutual disregard that Latin America is rarely a US foreign policy priority. There always seem to be more urgent problems elsewhere. Now, however, there is the headache of Venezuela and how to deal with it.
May 2014
It’s not hard to see why most Americans quickly tire of national politics. Personal attacks and distortions have become the norm, and that’s especially true in the debate over U.S.-Cuba policy. At first glance there aren’t any good choices. In Havana, you have the same old rhetoric and tactics of repression from a five-decade-old dictatorship.
April 2014
(Reuters) - A new advocacy group calling for the United States to change its policy towardCuba launched an advertising campaign on Monday with posters on the Washington D.C. metro system showing President Barack Obama and urging him to "stop waiting."
MIAMI — Since declaring 2014 a "year of action"when he will use his executive authority to get things done, President Obama has been pressed by a variety of groups to use his pen to bypass Congress. Starting Monday, he can add another topic to the wish list: Cuba.
March 2014
(Reuters) - Cuban Americans met in Miami on Saturday to discuss how to normalize relations with Cuba and end the five decade-long United States embargo against the communist-run island, the first such gathering in a decade in a city better known for hostility toward the communist-run island.
HAVANA — The business ideas have ranged from a bikini franchise to a peanut farm, restaurants, and design firms for software and home interiors. But even more novel than the pitches — in a country where entrepreneurship used to be illegal — is the financial muscle behind them: Cuban-Americans whose families lost their previous ventures to Cuba’s Communist government.
February 2014
Venezuela is the new Cuba, or so says conventional wisdom — and Miami, once again, is city of refuge and solidarity soundtrack for the victims of a regime.
Drawing parallels to Cuba, the homeland their families fled and that has been a focus of their political careers, Cuban-American members of Congress are calling on the United States to impose sanctions on Venezuela for its recent violent crackdown on protestors.
WASHINGTON — A growing number of aging Cuban exiles are returning to their birthplace, no longer willing to wait for the end of the Castro regime or to outlast the U.S. embargo before seeing their homeland.
Miami, FL - The Cuba Study Group today released the following statement in response to a recent Washington Post interview with Alfonso Fanjul, published on February 2, 2014.
MIAMI - When Miami's new art museum opened in December, namesake Jorge Perez spoke easily about a once-taboo topic among Cuban-American powerbrokers: his desire to increase artistic exchanges with those on the communist island.
HAVANA — The boy named Juan José Valdés is riding in the family’s red Dodge Coronet, which has whitewall tires and tail fins. It is early on a morning in August 1961 in Havana. He will turn 8 next month. His parents are taking their only child to the airport to say goodbye.
Alfonso Fanjul fled Cuba as a young man, leaving behind his family’s mansions and vast sugar-cane fields as they were being wrested away by the communist Castro regime.
Problems with censorship, extremely costly service and the lowest cellphone and Internet penetration rates in the Western Hemisphere cripple communication in Cuba. Do we think there is an app for that?
January 2014
MIAMI (AP) — Technology experts are gathering to brainstorm ways to improve access to the Internet and information in Cuba, considered the one of the least connected countries in the Western hemisphere. The "Hackathon for Cuba" begins Friday in Miami.
November 2013
Cuban singers Gloria Estefan and Willy Chirino are backing a campaign to deliver “the Internet without the Internet” to the island — USB drives, DVDs, CDs and other memory formats loaded with uncensored information.
October 2013
Children of Cuban immigrants buck tradition with views on the U.S. embargo and isolationism.
MIAMI - Cuban Catholic activist Dagoberto Valdes says reconciliation and political change on the island are not mutually exclusive.
Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits are closer than ever but true reconciliation requires justice for past abuses. And while economic engagement is a good way to ease Havana’s fears of change, the benefits should not go only to the island’s ruling elites.
September 2013
Retired Coral Gables physician Marty Arostegui fled his native Cuba in 1960 when he was 14. Busy with career, family and fishing — setting 420 International Game Fish Association world records on various types of tackle) — he never returned to the Communist-ruled island until 2010. Of course, it was his passion for fishing that drew him back.
August 2013
Even before the first pitch, the 50th anniversary “reunion” game of Cuba’s famed Industriales baseball team has been dominated by community infighting, finger-pointing, and mutual suspicion — all over an event which organizers say was supposed to promote unity among the island’s people.
A former Cuban prisons official, who fled Miami after he was accused of abusing inmates and lying on his U.S. visa and residency documents, has apparently again left his latest U.S. home in a hurry, amid fresh news reports on his case.
Every August, a distinguished group of Cuban-American scholars – from Harvard sociologists to moonlighting International Monetary Fund officials – forsake Florida’s beaches and gather in a downtown Miami hotel instead.
July 2013
MIAMI — It was the baseball game many Cubans thought might never happen: Players on both sides of the Florida Straits, separated through the years by defections and exile, reunited on the same field before a joyful crowd in Miami. Visas were issued. Contracts signed. Dates set to play ball Aug. 10 and 11. Then it all fell apart.
June 2013
These days it is really hard to know whether to feel optimistic or pessimistic about Cuba. And that’s a good thing.
April 2013
MIAMI -- The Office of Cuba Broadcasting headquarters was temporarily evacuated after a trashcan fire that caused damage to the central newsroom. The accidental fire was started Sunday by a cigarette left in a container in a designated smoking area outside the building in Miami.
MIAMI - A convicted Cuban spy still serving probation in the U.S. is asking a federal judge to allow him to return to Cuba temporarily for his father's memorial service.
The Cuban exile community used to be referenced by my father, Jorge Mas Canosa, with a simple phrase, “We unite all that Castro has divided.” The truth of this statement must have resonated loud and clear a few evenings ago in the ears of a young Cuban lady, fresh from the pervading, ratcheting, command of “fatherland or death” of the Cuba run by the Castro brothers.
For 50 years, Felice Gorordo's grandmother and great uncle did not speak. She fled Cuba after the 1959 communist revolution and never looked back. Her brother fought with the revolutionaries and remained on the island.

Winds of change

April 5, 2013

As Yoani Sánchez departs South Florida to continue her tour through Europe and Latin America before heading back to Cuba, the dissident blogger has managed to bring together exiles of all generations and political philosophies to focus on the one truth they can all agree on: The 54-year-old dictatorship must end.
The questions for Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez came in fast via Twitter during Wednesday’s town hall-style meeting at downtown Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
Cuban dissident journalist and blogger Yoani Sánchez received an ebullient welcome in her first public appearances Monday in Miami, as she called exiles and citizens of the Communist-ruled island a single people and urged them to overcome divisions imposed by a dictatorial regime to secure a future for their homeland.
March 2013
I've found a Cuba outside of Cuba, I told a friend a few days ago. He laughed at my play on words, thinking I was trying to create literature. But no. In Brazil, a septuagenarian excitedly gave me a medal of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre. "I have not been back since I left in 1964," she confirmed as she handed me this little gem that had belonged to her mother.
February 2013
Agomez@miami.edu

For years I have followed Yoani Sánchez's blog and comments on Twitter. Her writings portray a very accurate picture of the daily life of Cubans on the island.
A conflict over Cuban music and freedom of speech that erupted when the Homestead-Miami Speedway canceled a Cuban music festival two years ago was settled in court earlier this week.
An ultra-expensive hotel in Miami's South Beach is ditching a Che Guevara-inspired artwork after getting an earful from Cuban-American anti-Communists.
January 2013
Two South Florida lawmakers are pushing for a law that would stop American doctors who studied in Cuba from receiving medical licenses in Florida. Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., and Sen. Rene Garcia, both Hialeah Republicans, filed bills last week, seeking to clamp down on U.S. medical students who go to Cuba for training.
High-level defector Pedro Alvarez Borrego has become a house flipper extraordinaire. Some question the source of his stake money.
He's writer. He's co-chair of his town's planning board. He's even got an engineering degree.

And now Richard Blanco can add yet another title - 2013 presidential inauguration poet.
jccigar@aol.com

As the Cuban revolution recently observed its 54th anniversary there is unfortunately quite a mound of failed policies, hollow rhetoric and ineffective strategies to take note of and hopefully learn from by those promoting democracy and human rights on the island.
December 2012
Abelardo and Lucy Gomez, like many of their generation who fled Cuba, have voted for every Republican U.S. presidential candidate for the past 40 years.
Healthcare executive Mike Fernandez developed a bond with former Cuban political prisoner Jorge Alvart, helping save his business and maybe his life.
MIAMI - The door for travel to Cuba cracked open during President Barack Obama's first term. Cuban-Americans can now visit family on the island as often as they like.
MIAMI (AP) - The door for travel to Cuba cracked open during President Barack Obama's first term.

Cuban-Americans can now visit family on the island as often as they like.
November 2012
The Archdiocese of Miami sent more than 8,000 pounds of food to a storm battered region of Cuba on Monday.
Hundreds of Cubans with dubious pasts, including State Security officers and snitches, have moved to Miami, much to the disgust of those they tormented.
A claim that nearly half of Cuban-American voters favored President Barack Obama continued under dispute Monday, with one side claiming it had new evidence that it was true and the other insisting it was false.
The day after the US elections, the central square in Florida was crowded at lunchtime: workers tucking into cheap pizzas on park benches, sheltering from the sun or chatting, leaning on their bicycles.
The Reconciliation Project seeks to provide Cubans everywhere with information regarding processes of reconciliation from around the world and to create a safe space of respectful dialogue that helps advance the goal of the reunification of the Cuban nation. Please click on the link above to see videos and transcripts from our premier event “Conference on Reconciliation and Change”, held at Miami-Dade College on September 14, 2012.
MIAMI (Reuters) - A campaign finance scandal may have cost a South Florida Republican his congressional seat and handed victory to his challenger, who will be Miami's first Cuban-American Democratic representative.
October 2012
Miami-Dade College unveiled a large-scale sculpture to mark the 50th anniversary of Operation Peter Pan, which resulted in 14,048 unaccompanied kids leaving Cuba in what is considered the largest child exodus in the West during the 20th century.
September 2012

Reconciliation Reconsidered

September 28, 2012

“Reconciliation” is a word that many Cuban are leery of—and with good reason. It can come from people who do not understand what victims have suffered. When conflicts drag on for a long time, our ideas often follow deep grooves that have been set in the landscape. It becomes hard for us to think otherwise.
Would-be donors say business is bad, there's fatigue over the Cuba issue, and little chance Congress can change course on Cuba policies.
August 2012
An anti-Castro flotilla came within 13 miles of the coast of Cuba to highlight the lack of freedom in the island nation.
May 2012
Cuban government-sponsored meeting of émigrés in Washington heard requests for them to be more involved in Cuba.
April 2012
fsantiago@MiamiHerald.com

To his faithful followers, he was " el padre Román," a dedicated spiritual counselor like no other.

To the last moments of his life, he listened and offered words of healing and hope.
Associated Press

MIAMI - Agustín Román, the first Cuban to be appointed bishop in the United States, has died in Miami. He was 83.

The Archdiocese of Miami announced Román went into cardiac arrest and died Wednesday evening.
One of the reasons I went to Cuba during the pope’s visit was to see and hear from men and women of all ages what they thought of the current economic, political, and social conditions. As an academic that deals with this subject each day, it is very hard to continue to build future scenarios and make predictions without seeing it firsthand.
HAVANA — The setting was historic. The looming 18th-century Seminary of San Carlos in Old Havana. The attendance remarkable. A hall packed with professors, dissidents, clergy, bloggers, leftists, diplomats. The subject matter once unthinkable.
Things have changed in Miami. In 1998, when Pope John Paul II made his historic visit to Cuba, thousands of protesting exiles took to the streets in Miami, forcing the Roman Catholic Archdiocese to cancel plans to send a cruise ship with 800 pilgrims to Havana.
March 2012
Like his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba at a crucial time in the nation’s history. Pope John Paul II visited in 1998, a time when Communist Europe had crumbled and expectations of change were high; Pope Benedict XVI landed during a time of unprecedented internal change.
MIAMI — The impact of the pope's trip to Cuba will be felt in the long-term, but the pilgrimage to the island from Miami has already brought healing to many Cuban-Americans who participated, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski said Thursday.
Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba drew nearly 300 Americans to the island they or their parents long ago fled. What they found was a country that was different from the one they had imagined, yet somehow still close to the place they had dreamed of.
OFFSHORE OF HAVANA -- As the bright orange sun set Tuesday, a Cuban exile flotilla of three fishing boats called the Democracia, Muscle Princess and Nilito’s Toy II stopped in choppy, deep blue international waters — 12 ½ nautical miles from Havana — to set off fireworks. They symbolized “lights to liberty.”
HAVANA - Cecilia Dalmau's mother made only one request of her before she flew to Cuba for Pope Benedict XVI's visit: "I would love to see pictures from my childhood home.
HAVANA - In a sermon at the Cathedral in Havana, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski called for Cuba to move away from the "spent ideology" of Marxism without embracing the materialism of the West.
MIAMI – When Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, the Archdiocese of Miami expected so much interest from U.S. parishioners wanting to witness the historic event that they booked a cruise ship to transport and house all the expected pilgrims.
On Monday morning I will board a plane in Miami and travel a short distance to Cuba along with Catholic Church leaders and members of the South Florida community. The main purpose of this trip is to join Pope Benedict XVI in a “Spiritual Pilgrimage” to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Our Lady of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba.
MIAMI (AP) - Natalia Martinez speaks with a clinical distance when discussing her family's decision to leave Cuba two decades ago. But the graduate student's cool demeanor falls away when she speaks of returning to her homeland for the first time this week during Pope Benedict XVI's historic visit.
MIAMI, March 21 (Reuters) - In 1998, Cuban American businessman Carlos Saladrigas was so opposed to Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba that he organized a coalition of Miami civic leaders against it.
As the days draw down before Mariana O’Naghten makes a pilgrimage to see Pope Benedict XVI in Cuba, she heads to the chapel of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in South Miami for a daily hour of prayer.
Pope Benedict, we learned the other day, has commissioned a personal cologne. That seems more than a little effete, but he’ll need it in Cuba to mask the stench of political, civic and social repression.
The news a few weeks ago that the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington plans to invite a number of “respectful” Cubans living in the United States to a meeting in late April — together with the upcoming visit to Cuba by Pope Benedict XVI — has ignited the customary round of byzantine discussions and name-calling within our Cuban exile community.
February 2012
The Archdiocese of Miami flights that will carry some 300 pilgrims to Cuba for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit next month are a study in logistics.
The Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington will host a meeting with “respectful” Cubans living in the United States, the latest sign of a Raúl Castro effort to warm relations with some of the estimated 2 million Cubans living abroad.
For the businessman who has changed his politics, the Miami priest who tends to an exile flock, the retired college math professor who has searched her conscience for guidance and the lawyer who has long advocated reconciliation, the pilgrimage to Cuba next month represents more than an opportunity to see Pope Benedict XVI celebrate Mass.
As I was lining up in the corrals before our run in the ING Miami Half Marathon for a fundraiser for Roots of Hope, a U.S. college network of students and their supporters who are helping find ways to connect with young Cubans on the communist-controlled island, I felt kind of helpless.
January 2012
The Archdiocese of Miami, preparing for the first visit of a pope to Cuba in 14 years, will sponsor two excursions to bring Catholics to the island for the “springtime of faith” March trip — one with a Havana-only stay, another that will begin in Santiago and end in Havana.
From these shores, the heartland of the Cuban exile, the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI will travel to Cuba on March 26th has been received with mixed emotions. “A springtime of faith,” is the code phrase Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski and the controversial Cardinal Jaime Ortega in Havana have used to move Catholics on both shores to embrace the papal visit.
Beyond strengthening the Catholic faith in Cuba, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski said Monday he hopes Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Cuba in late March will offer a message of reconciliation to Cubans.
The world seems about to spin out of its axis — without waiting for the Mayan calendar — and there is almost no indication, whether you look to Washington or Brussels, of anything sensible and daring being done to stop it, other than hitting the replay button. It is as if an epidemic had struck, a virus compelling us to “dance with the one that brung ya.” The one saving grace is that, at the rate American banks are losing their “leaders” to European politics, Wall Street may soon be depleted.
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski returned from his trip to Cuba on New Year’s Eve with a few details of Pope Benedict XVI’s future papal visit to the country. Benedict will visit El Cobre, Santiago and Havana, where he’ll celebrate a mass during the last week of March, Wenski said in a press conference after arriving at Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport on Saturday.
December 2011
(Reuters) - Roman Catholic Church leaders called for reconciliation among Cubans and urged further economic reform at an outdoor mass in Cuba on Friday marking the end of a national pilgrimage of a statue of the island's patron saint.
MIAMI (AP) — Deborah Labrada was giddy as she stood in line at Miami-Dade International Airport, waiting to fly to the town of Guantanamo, Cuba. It is the place she visits roughly once a year to see her grandfather, aunts and uncles and cousins. She still considers it a second home, even though she has lived nearly all her 17 years in South Florida.
Fireworks shot from a flotilla organized by Miami exiles exploded in red and white balls off the coast of Havana to call attention to Cuba's human rights record.
HAVANA - Fireworks shot from a flotilla organized by Miami exiles exploded in red and white balls off the coast of Havana to call attention to Cuba's human rights record.
Trying to avert a deadly incident like Cuba’s shoot-down of two Brothers to The Rescue airplanes, the U.S. State Department has urged the Raúl Castro government and exiles in South Florida to act with “restraint” when a flotilla of exile boats stages a fireworks show 12.5 miles off the coast of Havana.
November 2011
MIAMI — For two consecutive years, Stephanie Várcia, 11, a sixth grader here, has done something that was unimaginable five years ago. She has spent four weeks in Havana, playing hide-and-seek with her cousins and going to the beach with her aunts and uncles. When summer vacation ended, her mother flew out to bring her back to Miami.
October 2011
Florida International University has just released the results of a poll on Cuban American attitudes on Cuba and US policies (this is their tenth poll over the last twenty years). This latest FIU poll raises a lot of the big questions on the table right now and gets some contradictory answers.
Between February and July 2011, the Cuban Research Institute (CRI) at Florida International University (FIU) coordinated an academic committee to analyze the relationship between the Cuban diaspora and its country of origin. This research resulted in a report titled, The Cuban Diaspora in the Twenty-First Century.
Cubans living abroad could significantly boost the island’s private economic sector if government officials in both Havana and Washington adopt better policies toward the migrants, according to a report by a team of top Cuban experts made public Friday.
September 2011
MIAMI -- When Latin pop star Juanes announced plans for a 2009 concert in Havana, the powerful Cuban exile community in the U.S. met his proposal with jeers and anger. But a small group of young Cuban-Americans helped make it happen, publicly supporting Juanes and spreading the word for the "peace" concert" that became the communist island's largest non-government led event in decades.
MIAMI (AP) - When Latin pop star Juanes announced plans for a 2009 concert in Havana, the powerful Cuban exile community in the U.S. met his proposal with jeers and anger..

A taste of Cuba is a click away

September 15, 2011

As the adage goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

That’s often the case for thousands of Cubans who have settled outside of Miami. As summer draws to an end, Miami-bred students get a taste of that experience, heading off to colleges far away from doughy Cuban bread, pastelitos and black beans.
Never before had 30,000 Cubans gathered outside the island.

Yet on the night of Sept. 8, 1961, they came by the thousands to then Bobby Maduro Stadium in Miami to commemorate the annual day of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (the Virgin of Charity).
TAMPA - The inaugural charter flights from Tampa International Airport to Havana next week are sold out, airport officials said today, but reservations are available for flights later in the month.
August 2011
MIAMI — Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanes has criticized harassment of a leading Cuban dissident group, saying insults and obscenities hurled by pro-government crowds at the so-called Ladies in White during their protest marches are “vile” and “cowardly.”
MIAMI (Reuters) - A Florida judge ordered Cuba to pay $2.8 billion (1.7 billion pounds) to a former CIA agent who helped hunt down revolutionary leader Che Guevara, an award lawyers called the biggest ever in a civil suit against the communist government.
Borrowing a page from those pesky marketing cell phone text messages that cannot be blocked, a Cuban blogger in Spain is sending uncensored news to about 1,000 Cuban cell phones daily — and exploring far more sharp-edged applications.
U.S. Rep. David Rivera said Tuesday he wants to sanction Cuban Americans who return to the island less than five years after they left, alleging that they are abusing a loophole in the Cuban Adjustment Act and helping the country’s communist system.
Tampa teenager Melissa González wanted to visit her ailing grandfather in Cuba. But her travel agency told her that the Cuban government had turned down her request for an entry permit, without explaination.
MIAMI (Reuters) - One of Communist-ruled Cuba's best-known singers, Pablo Milanes, said in quoted comments he would like to see more freedom to protest on the island as he prepared for a controversial concert this month in Miami.
About 20 groups of Cuban exiles and former political prisoners who oppose the upcoming Miami performance of Cuban singer Pablo Milanés asked Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez and county commissioners Tuesday to cancel the show. Milanés is scheduled to sing for the first time in South Florida on Aug. 27 at the AmericanAirlines Arena downtown.
HAVANA — José is an eager almost-entrepreneur with big plans for Cuban real estate. Right now he works illegally on trades, linking up families who want to swap homes and pay a little extra for an upgrade.
July 2011
With 11 bishops, 70 priests and 1,200 faithful in attendance, Miami’s Cuban community held a funeral Mass Monday for Pedro Meurice Estiú, archbishop emeritus of Santiago de Cuba, who was remembered for his prophetic voice against a social ideology that attempted to silence the voice of the Catholic Church in Cuba.
I expected to see this giant of a man when I met Pedro Meurice Estiú at his office in Santiago, Cuba, nine years ago. But the “Lion of the East,” as he was called for his tough talk in response to the dictatorship’s machinations, was more like a gentle giant on a mission to set his people free from their fears. He had made headlines during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba in 1998 when, during a huge outdoor mass at Antonio Maceo Plaza with Raúl Castro sitting front and center, the archbishop of Santiago, then 65, roared:
MIAMI -- South Florida U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart is hoping to revive strict Bush-era limits on family travel to Cuba, and he may succeed.
TAMPA -- Armando Ramirez has made a successful career for the last 25 years selling charter flights from Miami to Cuba.
What is it about secret lists of names that immediately instill uneasiness?

That’s the feeling I get when I think of the U.S. government’s undisclosed list of almost 1,000 Cubans eligible for immediate deportation to Cuba — and with our secretive approach in general to the deportation of criminal immigrants.
Cuba’s leading dissident, Oscar Elias Biscet, said he “was shaking with happiness” as he learned Thursday that rock star and social activist Bono had sung his praises during a jam-packed U2 concert in Miami.
June 2011
One day in March 2010 Abraham Gonzalez, a Cuban who arrived in the United States in 1981, went to see an immigration officer about getting a work permit.

Instead of getting the document, Gonzalez was detained, faced deportation proceedings and, within months, was sent back to Cuba.
The signal came at halftime.

The Cuban soccer player gestured to his uncle in the stands during last week's Gold Cup match in Charlotte.

"Today's the day," the signal told his Uncle Julio.
March 2011
Most of the illegal satellite phones in Cuba have been slipped in by exiles, not the U.S. government, as the island nation’s regime asserts.
January 2011
Luis Posada Carriles has been accused of killing 73 people by bombing a Cuban airliner, plotting to kill Fidel Castro by blowing up a jam-packed auditorium in Panama and masterminding a string of blasts in Havana that killed one tourist.
MIAMI -- They hold court in the back of the Versailles restaurant in Miami's Little Havana, a group of old Cuban men whose raspy, impassioned voices fill the room. Presidents and political candidates have passed through, hoping to lure the Cuban-American vote. Journalists come with cameras and microphones, looking for an aging exile to comment on the latest news about the island's communist government. Legendary singers and artists stop in for Cuban coffee.
November 2010

My friend, the Cuban Peter Pan

November 19, 2010

In August 1961 a 12-year-old Cuban boy landed alone in Miami with $3 in cash. Carlos Saladrigas’s parents had sent their only child to the US. They feared that Fidel Castro’s new regime would indoctrinate him, or even send him away – to an “educational camp” or the Soviet Union.
Outrage over a plaque awarded to an aging exile militant at a University of Miami academic center has triggered protests from professors and accusations that the school's Cuba institute favors hard-line politics.
October 2010
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Fidel Castro's daughter says she's surrounded by people who hate her father and were "really damaged by him."
September 2010
Raul Castro announced that 10 percent of Cuba’s state employees, half a million people, will be dismissed from their public sector jobs and free to pursue work in the private sector. The near-fiscally bankrupt state no longer can afford to pay inefficient workers. But the Cuban leadership remains a reluctant reformer. We Americans have a vested interest in facilitating a deeper market transition 90 miles off shore.
Like many Cubans on and off the island, Mr. Gomez has been scrutinizing the Cuban labor federation’s announcement last week that 500,000 public sector workers would soon be laid off and expected to find jobs in small private enterprises, possibly reshaping Cuba’s state-dominated economy. That declaration, though, was not yet enough for Mr. Gomez; not enough to offset the memory of previous economic openings that Fidel and Raúl Castro later slammed shut.
June 2010

Political Prisoners Demand Peterson Apology

June 15, 2010

Capitol Hill Cubans- Mauricio Claver-Carone

Over 250 former Cuban political prisoners, who've served a cumulative total of 3,551 years in prison and strongly oppose the unconditional lifting of U.S. sanctions towards the Castro regime, have sent a letter to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson demanding an apology for insulting democracy advocates and trivializing the human sacrifices that have been made on behalf of Cuba's freedom. In a press release last week, Chairman Peterson -- who has introduced legislation (H.R. 4645) seeking to unconditionally lift sanctions towards the Castro regime -- insultingly stated, "…people who oppose this bill are not speaking on behalf of the Cuban people, regardless of what they say." These courageous political prisoners, all of which strongly oppose H.R. 4645, remind Chairman Peterson that they are "living testimony of the unspeakable tortures, cruelty and deprivations of the military dictatorship of the Castro brothers," and have asked that he refrain from impugning "their suffering, deeply held beliefs and tragic experiences." The signatories, which include 27 women, have served political prison sentences ranging as high as 29 years. As regards H.R. 4645 in particular, the political prisoners stated, "should this legislation pass, Mr. Peterson, we trust that you will be prepared to assume the responsibility for the increased bloodshed it will cause the people of Cuba.".
Summit, New Jersey, June 10, 2010. Yesterday, the Rapporteur on Torture of the United Nations’ Council on Human Rights announced his profound disappointment for not being allowed into Cuba for a fact-finding mission. The Austrian human rights lawyer Manfred Nowak reported that Cuba would not accommodate his visit before the end of his term next October 30th (the second of two three-year mandates). Cuba is a signatory of the Convention Against Torture and member of the United Nations’ Council on Human Rights. Since 2005 Mr. Nowak sought to visit the island; in February 2009 the Cuban government extended him a formal invitation to visit before the end of that year. Since then, Cuban authorities have delayed fixing the date of his visit. The Rapporteur’s statement reads: "I regret that, in spite of its clear invitation, the government of Cuba has not allowed me to objectively assess the situation of torture and ill-treatment in the country by collecting first-hand evidence from all available sources." Cuba refuted Nowak’s assertions in a press comuniqué issued yesterday by its Permanent Mission in Geneva. It stated that his statement does not correspond with Cuban officials’ “continued efforts to facilitate the visit.” Though declaring that Cuba “does not need an objective evaluation of the country’s situation,” it clarified that the invitation was in place and that it would continue to seek “a mutually agreeable date” for the visit. Among affirmations of Cuba’s alleged achievements in penal and judicial rights, it included not producing “a single case of extrajudicial execution or forced disappearance.” For years, high officials of the Cuban regime have made similar public statements. Cuba Archive challenges the Cuban government to allow the Rapporteur’s visit before October and to also disprove each one of the hundreds of extrajudicial executions or forced disappearances documented by its Truth and Memory project. Details of each case are available in an electronic database at www.CubaArchive.org. This website also contains summaries in English and Spanish of a sample of these cases, many of which have been reported to international organizations and are substantiated by the testimony of witnesses and family members of the victims. Aside from over 3,800 executions by the current Cuban regime documented to date, Cuba Archive has recorded over 1,300 extrajudicial executions, including several massacres of civilians –such as the Tugboat massacre of 1994, the Canimar River massacre of 1980, the shootdown of two civilian airplanes in 1996, and the killings of hundreds of political prisoners. Civilians attempting to escape the country and several political dissidents and opponents are among the forced disappearances. Documents containing details of all recorded cases are available for inspection by human rights experts. Contact: Cuba Archive P.O. Box 529 Summit, NJ 07902 U.S.A. Tel. 973.701-0520 www.CubaArchive.org.

Mariel database inspires memories, reunions

June 8, 2010

Daniel Shoer Roth, El Nuevo Herald

The four children had to sleep with their shoes on. They had to be ready to give up their family, their friends and their home. Their departure would take place in the wee hours of the morning, but no one had a watch. It was Sept. 11, 1980. Sarahi Lim Baró waited with her mother and her three siblings in El Mosquito camp amid a horrible chaos. They were waiting for a stranger who would take them to freedom. The 7-year-old girl thought it was a fantasy excursion. The captain's nickname was Pancho, and his boat named Nell MS had docked at the Port of Mariel to pick up his pregnant wife and the rest of his family. To do that he was forced to also carry this family of strangers. It was a requisite of the Castro regime. Some of the passengers prayed before departing. Pancho gave his cabin to the mother, Esmelia Baró, because she was dizzy and didn't feel well. They arrived in Key West the following day and said their goodbyes to never see each other again. Lim Baró, a successful 36-year-old attorney at a New York multilateral organization, has always wanted to find Pancho or a member of his family on the boat to thank them for their humanitarian deed. She finally found a way to track them down. Two weeks ago, she registered in an interactive database hosted by The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald that lists the names of the 125,000 refugees who came on the Mariel boatlift and of the 1,600 boats that brought them between April and September 1980. (For access to the database, go to www.miamiherald.com/mariel). ``It affected me to see my name because it took me back to the day I left Cuba,'' said Lim Baró, who is of Korean and Afro-Cuban descent. She recently came to Miami for her mother's 72nd birthday. She entered the website a few days later and saw a moving testimony of a woman who had shared their odyssey on the same boat. She is the captain's niece. ``I will contact her to have a cup of coffee and relive those turbulent times that ended being something marvelous for my family and me,'' she said. Testimonies from immigrants and refugees generally have a bittersweet taste because the pain of leaving mixes with the hopes and dreams of arriving. To reunite with those who shared those moments is quite moving since they are bonded by a unique experience. The Mariel-refugee database, which has received 260,000 visitors since May 20, is the third of these projects hosted by The Miami Herald. Prior lists include the names of the 14,000 Pedro Pan children who arrived between 1960 and 1962, and the names of those who came on the Freedom Flights that started in 1965. The architect of these projects is Luisa Yanez, a Miami Herald reporter who came to Miami as a 6-year-old girl with her parents and a brother on the Freedom Flights. ``To many Mariel refugees, the database is a confirmation that their exodus is as important as those of thousands of Cubans that preceded it,'' said Yanez. ``We have seen refugees who have broken down in tears or lighted up with happiness. We have heard them say that this is their own Ellis Island.'' That's exactly what came to Lim Baró's mind when she saw her name on the list. ``I see it as a book; there is no other place where you can find information about us,'' she said. ``There are many who don't know the names of the boats and don't remember the date.'' She is an example of the success those refugees were able to accomplish. ``Here you can choose the life you want to have,'' she said. ``In Cuba you can't, but I didn't know that when we came.'' Aboard the Nell MS, that 7-year-old girl thought she was living a fantasy of an ocean voyage, and two years after arriving in Miami she asked her mother when they were going back. ``Thirty years have gone by, said Lim Baró, ``and my dream came true thanks to my mother's efforts and the sacrifice and tenacity required to leave everything behind not knowing what tomorrow may bring.'' .
May 2010

Cuba Nostalgia offers a slice of old Cuban culture

May 19, 2010

Rodolfo Roman, Miami Herald

When Jackie Sarracino first opened her Little Havana clothing shop aimed at the Cuban exile community -- including shirts boasting ``Made in America with Cuban parts' -- she felt she needed a way to promote her wares. Lucky for her, she heard about the annual Cuba Nostalgia, then in its infancy. Now, the yearly festival that celebrates the Cuba of yesteryear has grown -- as has Sarracino's business. ``When they did the first show, there was no space,' said Sarracino, who has run Maxoly Cuban apparel, located in Little Havana, since 1999. Sarracino, like many other local vendors, looks forward to showcasing their latest products at Cuba Nostalgia, which is in its 12th year and takes place at the Miami-Dade Dade County Fair-Expo Center, from Friday to Sunday. For Sarracino, Cuba Nostalgia is her signature event where she presents her new clothing designs. ``I know that what people buy at the show will be what's going to be sold the rest of the year,' said Sarracino, who has about 40 new designs. At the event, festival-goers will be able to take a trip to memory lane by visiting recreated historical landmarks of the Caribbean island like the Havana Cathedral and El Malecon. The fair also highlights the country's cuisine, memorabilia and live traditional music like the guaracha and mambo. Numerous vendors will sell products like cigars, music, guayaberas and cafécito cups. The traditional Cuban drink Mojito, made of mint leaves, lime juice, sugar and rum, will be served. Leslie Pantin, president of Cuba Nostalgia, said the three-day show introduces Cuban culture to those who aren't familiar with it. The show focuses on the pre-Castro era, when Havana was a tropical destination known for its fashionable nightlife. ``We extend a warm welcome to all those who wish to celebrate Miami's Cuban heritage. Cuba Nostalgia is a journey back in time for those who remember the island's glamorous times, and for those who never experienced them,' Pantin said. Appropriately, Cuba Nostalgia is celebrated around the time of Cuba's Independence Day, May 20. This year features a tribute to legendary musician Beny Moré. Cuban art from well-known artists like Wilfredo Lam and Domingo Ramo will be on sale. Little Havana art gallery Latin Art Core president Israel Moleiro will have about 30 paintings for sale. ``These are art pieces that you will only see in the fair,' he said. Moleiro said people from all over the country come to see the arts. As for Sarracino, she is excited to launch her new merchandise, including polo shirts with the vintage Havana baseball logo and a Cuban flag on the sleeve. Also new this year are T-shirts featuring Santeria deities like Babalú Aye and Changó. She credits Cuba Nostalgia for her success. ``It turned out to be a business of its own,' she said.
April 2010

Choir of voices seeks freedom

April 19, 2010

Gloria Estefan, Miami Herald

This is an excerpt of Gloria Estefan's introduction of President Barack Obama at a fundraiser at the Estefans' home Thursday: When our parents brought us to the United States as children they never imagined that the country that had opened its arms to them at a time of crisis would eventually become their country and in turn, our country. They came here to raise us in freedom and democracy so that we could thrive and learn. And that we did. We learned how to listen to and respect different ways of thinking, different nationalities and different political ideologies. We learned as we watched our parents give up their homeland, their families, their history -- and in the case of my father, who served proudly in the United States military, his life -- so that we could live the American Dream. My father, a refugee from a country that is still in the stranglehold of the same oppressive government from which he rescued his family; my father, who when leaving for war said to my mother not knowing if he would ever see us again, that in a man's life there has to be ``something' that is worth fighting and dying for and for him that cause was freedom! My father, who would have been very proud to know that his little girl, years later, would be hosting in her very own home, the president of the United States, a president who just 21 days before publicly stated: ``Today, I join my voice with brave individuals across Cuba and a growing chorus around the world in calling for an end to the repression, for the immediate, unconditional release of all political prisoners in Cuba and for respect for the basic rights of the Cuban people.' . The president who is the very first African American in history to attain this most honorable office! Each person believes that they are living in the ``best of times' and in the ``worst of times.' We look around at the difficulties and challenges that our world is experiencing and we wonder (I know I do) if history has taught us ``anything.' We question if there is indeed ``something' still worth fighting and dying for. Then I look at the country where I was born, a place where hope and freedom are a part of their history -- not their everyday lives -- and I see Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a Cuban dissident and now martyr who gave his life in a hunger strike for the promise of a free Cuba. And Guillermo Fariñas who is poised to give his life at any moment merely asking that his government free 26 other sick and dying prisoners of conscience. I see the bravery of the Damas de Blanco; women who walk peacefully, silently, heroically, yet still get beaten and arrested for simply petitioning for the freedom of their unjustly imprisoned loved ones. I look at this magnificent country that has molded me and is now my homeland and I hear a choir of voices expressing their wishes, their desires, their demands -- and even their disdain for our government -- freely and without consequence, and I smile and quietly thank God that despite whatever problems we may be facing, we truly are a free people. The beauty of this amazing nation is that anything is possible! Even hosting a very political evening to get the ``ear' of my president when I am politically non-affiliated. But the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put it succinctly when he said, ``We may have all come on different ships but we're in the same boat now!' And regardless of where we may have come from, what color we may be, what political party we may or may not belong to, I think there are definitely two things that we can all agree on; the first is that we all love this country and the second was beautifully put into words by Dr. Lawrence J. Peter, an American educator and writer, when he said: ``Democracy is a process by which the people are free to choose the man who will get the blame.'' And it is my distinct honor to introduce him. Ladies and gentlemen, from one hyphenated American, I present to you, another hyphenated American, the president of the United States, Barack Obama! .

President Obama heads to Emilio and Gloria Estefan's fundraiser

April 15, 2010

Patricia Mazzei, Miami Herald

After a visit to Florida's Space Coast to talk about the future of NASA, President Barack Obama heads to Miami Thursday evening for two Democratic fundraisers -- including a cocktail reception at the home of Gloria and Emilio Estefan that has irked some in the Cuban-American community. The president's visit is expected to raise some $2.5 million for the Democratic National Committee. Obama's trip comes shortly after he won passage of healthcare reform in Congress and as the White House prepares to engage Republicans in a battle over financial reform Democrats say is critical to preventing another financial meltdown. Despite Republican backlash over the healthcare overhaul, Democrats believe it will help them at the polls in November -- and they took comfort Tuesday when Democratic state Sen. Ted Deutch won the first U.S House race in 2010, replacing retiring Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler in a district that includes parts of Broward and West Palm Beach. The fundraiser hosted by the Estefans -- their first political reception, with $30,400-a-couple tickets -- has let down some Republicans who backed the couple during a march they orchestrated in Little Havana last month for Cuba's Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, said radio and TV host Ninoska Pérez Castellón of the Cuban Liberty Council. ``They have always said they're nonpartisan, they're neither Republicans or Democrats, and that's exactly what they said the march would be,' she said. ``When this came out, a lot of people kind of felt, `Why had they not disclosed this before?' ' The March 25 demonstration came hours after Obama admonished the Cuban government for cracking down on dissidents, including the Ladies in White, who were attacked by security forces in Havana during a peaceful protest for their imprisoned husbands. On Thursday, about 100 people are expected for drinks and hors d'oeuvres at the Latin music stars' Miami Beach home, said Freddy Balsera, a Democratic consultant who advised Obama's campaign on Hispanic issues and is close to the couple. Emilio Estefan told Pérez Castellón that he will have 15 minutes alone with Obama to talk about Cuba. Last year, Obama eased U.S. restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances and launched bilateral talks on immigration and direct mail service. The measures drew criticism from some Cuban Americans in the GOP who feared the moves would bolster Raúl Castro's government in Havana. Still, argued Democratic strategist Jeff Garcia, ``what most Cubans understand is that it's far better to have a seat at the table.' ``He's coming down here meeting with a very diverse group of folks,' added Joe Garcia -- no relation to Jeff -- a former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation who resigned his post in the Obama administration Tuesday to run as a Democrat for the congressional seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. Democrats are eager for the opportunity to pick up a rare open seat now held by the GOP. Diaz-Balart, who defeated Joe Garcia in 2008, is running for the neighboring seat now held by his retiring brother, Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart. Obama last visited Miami in October to attend a fundraiser at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. On this visit, he will raise money for the Democratic Party at the Estefans' home and later at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami, where donors contributed as much as $1,250 for tickets. The president's South Florida swing will come after he visits Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, where he is expected to revive part of a space exploration program. His administration initially planned to cancel all of the moon-rocket Constellation program but faced fierce protests from Florida's congressional delegation. ``The president will outline a renewed strategy tomorrow in Florida that will provide more jobs for the area, greater investment in innovation, more astronaut time in space, more rockets launching sooner, and a more ambitious and sustainable space program for America's future,' White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a news briefing Tuesday. Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington.
March 2010

A welcome word among Cuban exiles: `Unity'

March 30, 2010

Daniel Shoer Roth, Miami Herald

He had neither bathed nor eaten since Saturday, March 20. That day, angry and frustrated, Sergio Rodríguez Lorenzo dressed in white, climbed into the bed of his '98 Silverado pickup truck, and asked his son to drop him off in front of the 2506 Brigade Memorial on Calle Ocho in Little Havana. He opened his cot, slept under the stars and, quietly, began a hunger strike in solidarity with Guillermo Fariñas, a former dissident colleague in Cuba, and with the Damas de Blanco, the mothers, wives and daughters of Cuba's political prisoners. A group of exiles, who saw Rodríguez Lorenzo dozing, set up a makeshift tent the next day. They brought flags of Cuba and posters with the image of political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died last month in Cuba after a hunger strike. Inside the tent hung a painting of a solitary flower that wept tears onto a dark night. ``The strike has been successful,' Rodríguez Lorenzo told me Thursday, on the same day that thousands marched in Little Havana for freedom and human rights in Cuba. The 46-year-old handyman was imprisoned during the Black Spring of 2003, but was not part of the case of the 75 dissidents. ``Thousands of people have passed through here, the press has interviewed me and the tourists get off the bus to take photos of me.' Initiatives like his strike and others of greater magnitude, such as the march for freedom organized by Gloria Estefan, have flourished in South Florida in recent weeks, buoyed by an unusual twist -- international support for Cubans seeking democracy. It is not unusual for the exile community to protest human rights violations and the lack of civic freedom on the island. But this time, sectors and groups that are usually fighting among themselves to defend their views on how to achieve democracy have come together under one voice. It is a voice of love of country -- and of never giving up. ``Unity among us is very difficult. But there are points on which we agree: such as [the plight] of prisoners and the brave attitude of the Damas de Blanco, because you have to be courageous to take the pressure of the mob around them,' wrote Marta Beatriz Roque, a prestigious figure in Cuba's opposition movement, by e-mail. ``You have to show the world that the Cuban nation . lacks freedom.' Roque welcomed the exile initiatives. ``We support them and especially if they come from people like the Estefans, who have Cubans' affection,' she said. ``It needs to be successful and, also, it can launch other efforts to help those of us here who are trying to do our part -- and those who are losing their life.' The impressive Calle Ocho demonstration sparked similar efforts in New York, Los Angeles and European cities. During the Miami march, I walked alongside the group Exilio Unido Ya (Exiles Now United), formed four months ago on Facebook. The group, which supported Lorenzo Rodríguez during his recently culminated strike, has more than 600 members. You don't have to share an ideology or belong to a political organization to be part of it. One of the founders is Vicente Díaz, 35, who was exiled in 2000. His goal was to mobilize young people -- and not so young -- in a single movement. ``Exiles are going through a transitional stage of disorganization,' said Díaz, who was wearing a bracelet from the maternity ward at Baptist. Díaz left his newborn son briefly at the hospital to be a part of the march, a historic milestone. ``All organizations pull for their own interests and that sometimes weakens the fight against the real enemy,' he added, stressing that for him there is no difference between the new generation and those from the ``historic' exile who arrived in the 1960s and '70s. Both are political, not economic, exiles, emphasized Díaz, who said he would not set foot in Cuba until the Castro regime ``is completely swept away.' I left him to approach Nancy Rodríguez, 70, who was screaming euphorically, ``We are united,' while crying inconsolably. ``We needed this,' she said. ``It's been a long time since I have seen such shared feeling.' That's precisely what I felt the most.

Thousands rally in L.A., N.Y. to support Cuba's 'Ladies in White'

March 29, 2010

Deborah Belgum, Stewart Stogel and Laura Isensee, Miami Herald

Thousands of protesters formed a river of white as they marched around a lake in a Los Angeles park Sunday, joining other marchers around the world to expose the plight of political dissidents in Cuba and support the wives, mothers, and other women who defend them. Before the procession at Echo Park northwest of downtown Los Angeles, a crowd estimated at 3,000 to 5,000 heard speeches by actor Andy García, comedian George Lopez, celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, and others. ``You have to look at human rights in Cuba,' García told the throng. ``It has been ignored for 50 years. The Castro brothers have been in control of the information, but with technology, blogs, and Tweets they have lost control and people are now in the streets,' said García, who was born in Cuba and grew up in Miami-Dade. The Los Angeles demonstration was one of several marches during the weekend, from New York City to Madrid. They followed in the footsteps of the tens of thousands who walked Thursday down Calle Ocho in Miami, led by Cuban-American musical icon Gloria Estefan. `VERY HUMAN CAUSE' All sought to show solidarity with the Ladies in White -- Las Damas de Blanco -- who have protested in silence in Cuba since the 2003 jailing of 75 Cuban dissidents, and who were violently confronted by government security forces earlier this month. March organizers said their goal was simple: to show that human-rights abuses in Cuba are a worldwide issue. ``This is not about politics. It is a very human cause,' said Sean McKean, whose mother is from Cuba. McKean helped organize a silent march in New York on Sunday with a national network of Cuban-American youth, called Raíces de Esperanza (Roots of Hope). Under gray skies and intermittent chilly rain, the New York event started small. But it quickly drew hundreds who marched down Fifth Avenue to the statue of Cuban hero José Martí at the southern end of Central Park. Yale University professor and author Carlos Eire said he joined the New York protest because the world has ignored the Ladies in White, whom he compared to South Africa's Nelson Mandela. ``Their men, their fathers, their brothers who are in prison are suffering the same kind of discrimination,' Eire said. Earlier Sunday, more than 50 people -- including poet María Elena Cruz -- gathered in front of the Cuban Embassy in Madrid in support of the Ladies in White, according to Spanish media reports. And in Cuba, blogger Yoani Sánchez said via the micro-blogging website Twitter that 25 Damas de Blanco demonstrated Sunday in Havana's Miramar district. ``There have not been any interruptions,' Sánchez wrote on Twitter. ONE INCIDENT In Los Angeles, however, there was one ruckus when a man stood on a hill overlooking the crowd and waved a Cuban flag with an image of Che Guevara, the Argentine who helped lead the Cuban Revolution. The crowd booed and organizers urged them to stay calm. ``We have the freedom to do that in this country,' Hilton said, drawing cheers. But later a band of men clad in white wrestled the flag away and stomped it into the ground. The demonstrations in Los Angeles and New York drew families, exiles who had not seen their homeland for decades, political prisoners like Huber Matos, and youths who were born in the United States. Gladiolas, white roses, flags, and banners dotted the crowd in Los Angeles. One sign read: ``A black American asked for a change and became U.S. president. A black Cuban asked for a change and Castro put him in jail.' For many, the marches for the Ladies in White renewed their hope for change. ``We hope this will be the spark to help the Cuban people who have suffered for 51 years,' said Alberto Montero, 71, who came to the United States in 1963 and joined the Los Angeles march.

Tens of thousands join Gloria Estefan in Calle Ocho march for Ladies in White

March 26, 2010

Luisa Yanez, Jose Carrola, Jennifer Lebovich and Fabiola Santiago, Miami Herald

Tens of thousands of Cuban exiles wearing white, and carrying gladioluses and flags marched for blocks along Calle Ocho with singer Gloria Estefan in support of Cuba's Damas de Blanco, Ladies in White, the peaceful dissidents who last week were attacked by government security forces in Havana. In an unprecedented turn of events, the Ladies in White marched at the same time along Havana's famous seawall, stopping in front of the Hotel Nacional to release a dozen doves. ``¡Libertad! ¡Libertad!' the women chanted. They were soon hassled by a mob that chanted: ``Fidel! Fidel!' In Miami, the throng of marchers, which included different generations of exiles and other Latin Americans, also chanted ``¡Libertad!' and displayed placards with photographs of jailed dissidents and the Ladies in White. ``Obama, yes, we have a dream, too,' one sign said. It was a rare show of unity in a community often divided over how to bring democracy to Cuba, and Estefan, whose appeal crosses several generations of Cubans, seems to have emerged as its strong new voice. ``Thank you, Miami,' Estefan said as she took the podium. ``This shows we're one people. We are the people that love and defend freedom.' IN CUBA Then, Estefan got word on her cellphone about the events in Havana. ``At this moment, the Ladies in White are marching and are receiving violence again,' Estefan said. ``Ladies in White, we walk with you.' The singer also delivered from the stage news reports of another violent act against a dissident in Cuba, later confirmed by El Nuevo Herald. A mob of civilians organized by state security tried to break into the home of dissident Luis Miguel Sigler in a Matanzas town -- just as the Miami march got under way. Estefan, however, ended the hourlong march with a message of peace. ``Peace, love and freedom in the world,' she said. ``¡Viva Cuba Libre! ¡Viva los Estado Unidos! May God bless this great nation that has allowed us to do this.' The Cuban-American star had called on South Floridians to join her in protest of the treatment received by the women in Cuba. They were violently confronted during a march in Havana to mark the anniversary of the 2003 jailing of 75 dissidents, many of them independent journalists and poets. One of the dissidents, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died after a hunger strike. THE CROWD Tens of thousands heeded Estefan's call in South Florida . The crowd included television personalities, exile group leaders, and revered stars including singers Olga Guillot, Willy Chirino and Pitbull. Said Miami native Pitbull on the size of the crowd: ``Just shows the pride and love, how people really want change,' he said. ``We're the only voice Cuba has, the only ones who can speak out. ``This is the moment in which history begins to change,' said singer Amaury Gutiérrez, who came to Miami six years ago. Gloria Estefan's famous husband, Emilio Estefan, agreed. ``We truly are in a new era and it's the young generation with blooming technology in an age of camera phones and Twitter,' he said. ``There is no escaping the truth anymore. We have finally reached a turning point for Cuba, Miami, the movement. This is a turning point in history.' People flocked to Little Havana shortly after police closed Southwest Eighth Street from 22nd to 27th avenues on Thursday afternoon.

Gloria Estefan calls for march in support of Cuban protesters

March 24, 2010

Alfonso Chardy, Miami Herald

It's not often that a world-class celebrity like singer Gloria Estefan talks about Cuba and the situation there or calls for a protest march in support of people who oppose the regime in Havana. But that's precisely what the Cuba-born singer and songwriter did Tuesday when, at a news conference in Miami, Estefan expressed emotional and passionate support for the group Las Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, who were violently harassed and forced by government security agents aboard buses in a move that broke up one of their marches last week. Dressed in white, Estefan announced plans for a march along Little Havana's Calle Ocho Thursday, beginning at 6 p.m., to express exile solidarity with the Ladies in White. The Ladies in White march in Havana every year to mark the anniversary of the 2003 arrests by Cuban agents of their husbands and sons during the so-called Black Spring crackdown against independent journalists and other dissidents. ``For me, at this instant, this is not politics,' Estefan told El Nuevo Herald after the news conference at Bongos Cuban Cafe at the AmericanAirlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd. ``It's about life, the lives of human being . but at this moment, seeing what these women are going through, at this moment, historically, it's important, as a Cuban, as a woman, to support these ladies.' On March 17, several Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White -- wives and mothers of jailed dissidents -- were set upon by agents who then dragged and threw them into waiting buses.
February 2010

Encourage change from within

February 25, 2010

Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez, Miami Herald

These are days of profound reflection for the Cuban-American exile community. Two days ago the brave prisoner of conscience, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died in Castro's notorious prisons, a victim of the regime's brutality and its disdain for human life. Wednesday, we commemorated another anniversary of that dark day when four defenseless Brothers to the Rescue pilots were mercilessly killed by Castro's henchmen while flying over international waters on a humanitarian rescue mission. Feb. 24 also has been designated International Day of the Cuban Exile. These events, the remembrance of the pain and suffering endured for more than 50 years, give us the opportunity to renew the promise many of us made when we embarked on the journey to freedom: to help restore democracy for the Cuban people. We have a duty to look introspectively at our own actions and how those actions have, thus far, failed to meet the challenge of supporting real change on the island. Today, after long and arduous efforts, most of us have arrived at a consensus that change will come only from the direct action of the Cuban people firmly, albeit nonviolently, demanding their rights. In addition to increasing purposeful people-to-people and family-to-family interaction, which is essential to the overall effort, we must demand of the U.S. government the immediate and effective restructuring of two of our strongest vehicles for helping Cubans to promote change on the island: Radio and Television Martí (Office of Cuba Broadcasting, OCB) and the U.S. Agency for International Development's Cuba Democracy Program. Rather than focusing on the mission of effectively transmitting news and information to the Cuban people and hiring qualified personnel able to utilize modern technology and messaging, OCB's decision-making has been ruled by nepotism and political cronyism the past several years. As a result, Radio and Television Martí are failing to meet their mandate of providing objective news and information to the Cuban people. OCB has virtually eliminated programs that incorporated the participation of Cuban dissidents and has done away with full television newscasts, opting to transmit novelas. Apparently Spanish-language soap operas hold transformative powers we don't know about. Delays in Washington's distribution of funds to USAID's Cuba Program can be attributed in large part to the agency's need to find ways to prevent the rampant misdirection of funds allowed to perpetuate for over a decade. The lack of clear rules allowed some of USAID's grantees to spend 95 percent of the millions of dollars they received to cover salaries, office overhead and attend international conferences, while Cuba's dissidents were left with crumbs. Many of those USAID grantees had funding automatically renewed without the benefit of competition or an assessment of the impact their programs were having on the ground in Cuba. Nearly all have failed to meet USAID's cost-share requirement, instead relying solely on U.S. So here we are, at a crossroads, in need of some urgent decision-making: Do we focus our individual and collective efforts in providing robust support for those brave voices inside of Cuba fighting for change? Will we take the responsibility of salvaging Radio and TV Martí? Do we demand that our elected leaders fight for the transparency and oversight needed to make the USAID Cuba Program work? Our answer should and must be a collective Yes. Francisco ``Pepe' Hernandez is president of the Cuban American National Foundation.

More fans than foes come for Van Van

February 1, 2010

Christina Veiga and Jordan Levin, El Nuevo Herald

Popular Cuban dance band Los Van Van returned to Miami on Sunday, greeted by enthusiastic fans and angry protesters. The last time Los Van Van performed in Miami in 1999, protesters outnumbered concertgoers, and rocks and bottles flew. This time, 350 to 400 showed up to demonstrate, and almost 4,000 showed up for the show at the James L. Knight Center in downtown Miami. The only things hurled were a few insults. There were no arrests, Miami police said. Protesters, who associate the band with the Castro regime, crammed together on the sidewalks, waving flags, holding signs and screaming into megaphones as cars full of concertgoers streamed past. ``We're hurt, so we cry out,' said Juan Antunez, 66, of Kendall, who said he came to Florida in 1961 and served in the U.S. Army during the Cuban Missile Crisis the next year. ``If these were Jewish people, they would be outraged if someone from the Nazi regime came here to do art,' he said. ``There is no art in a communist regime.' Concertgoers opened their car windows, smiling mockingly and shouting at the demonstrators. Some blasted Los Van Van music from their car stereos. Outside, Ivan Sanchez, 68, held up a white poster board with a message condemning local officials for allowing Los Van Van to perform at the Knight Center, which is a public venue. He made a case against the argument that the performance would facilitate cultural exchange. ``They say it's a cultural exchange, but who's going to Cuba?' asked Sanchez, who lives in Miami. ``It's a one-sided exchange.' Magda Miranda, who came to Miami from Cuba five years ago, strode past the signs declaring her a ``traitor' and ``communist.' As she headed toward the concert hall, she pumped her fists in the air. ``I'm for Van Van,' she said. ``I don't care about Fidel. I don't care about anyone. ``Viva Van Van.' Inside the Knight Center, the close to 4,000 concertgoers were as excited as music-lovers at any other show. Mike Barry, 33, a Cuban émigré who also attended the 1999 show, shrugged at the difference between then and now. ``It's not like last time.' he said. ``I think the community has changed a lot.' His friend Joe Rose, 44, a U.S.-born Cuban American, said he was purely a fan of Van Van's music. ``It's great music,' he said. ``I respect the way [the protesters] think, but they've got to respect the way I think, too. I bet the people out there have Van Van CDs, too. Their music is that good.' Debbie Ohanian, who produced the 1999 Van Van concert, said she was not disturbed by the sight of the 350 to 400 protesters this time, as opposed to 3,000 at the first show. ``In 10 years there'll be 30 protesters,' she said. Just the same, police maintained a vigilant presence outside the Knight Center. It took concertgoers about 15 minutes to make their way through security. The band took the stage at 7:30 p.m. They made no speeches, and launched directly into their first song, their latest hit, Arrazando. Los Van Van was to return to Cuba from Miami after its two-show Florida tour; they played in Key West on Thursday. A more-extensive U.S. tour is planned for this spring.
December 2009

Cubans mark Operation Pedro Pan anniversary

December 28, 2009

AP, Miami Herald

MIAMI -- Thousands of Cubans are remembering their parents' decision to send them out of communist Cuba - alone. Saturday marks the 49th anniversary of Operation Pedro Pan. After Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, some parents on the Caribbean island sent their children ahead with visa waivers. The flights began Dec. 26, 1960. By the time they ended 18 months later, more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children had been flown to Miami. The U.S. government funded the effort and supplied the children's waivers, and the Roman Catholic church promised to care for them. The children lived in orphanages, foster homes and schools until their parents could find a way out of Cuba. Parties, books and documentaries are planned for the 50th anniversary next year.
October 2009

Poll shows shift in Cuba travel opinions

October 22, 2009

Juan Tamayo, Miami Herald

A new poll of Cuban Americans shows a strong majority favor allowing all Americans to travel to the island, a major shift from a 2002 survey that showed only a minority supporting the change, the Bendixen & Associates polling firm reported. Executive Vice President Fernand Amandi said Tuesday he was surprised by the magnitude of the swing -- from 46 percent in favor in 2002 to 59 percent in the Sept. 24-26 survey. Only 29 percent were opposed in the new survey, compared to 47 percent in 2002. ``The significant thing is how quickly they have moved in a short period of time,' Amandi said, adding that the shift took place across all age groups, from older exiles to recent arrivals. A campaign to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba has become a key Washington battle this year for those who favor and oppose easing U.S. sanctions on the island. Permitting such travel would allow U.S. tourists to visit Cuba. Only Cuban Americans are now allowed virtually unrestricted travel to the island. At least three bills lifting all restrictions are before Congress -- two in the House and one in the Senate. While most analysts believe the House may well approve some version of the measure, they say it will have little chance of gaining Senate approval because of opposition from Sen. Bob Menendez, a powerful Democrat. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, a Cuban American and the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, predicted the ban would not be lifted. ``The majority of Cuban Americans want the Cuban people to have free elections, guaranteed human rights and freedom for political prisoners. That is what constituents in South Florida want,' she said. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., a key sponsor of one of the House bills, said the new poll shows Cuban Americans support a more open approach to Havana. The latest Bendixen survey, conducted by phone, had a sample of 400 Cuban Americans across the United States and a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points. The poll was not commissioned by anyone, Amandi said.

Bringing hope to Cuba: youth group finds role in parents' cause.

October 11, 2009

St. Peter Times- Daivid Adams

Last summer when Colombian rock star Juanes announced his plans to hold a peace concert in Cuba, he put a Grammy-winning, multimillion-dollar career on the line. Hit hard by an avalanche of criticism from Cuban exiles, he faced a public relations nightmare — calls for a boycott of his music and anonymous death threats sent to his Twitter account. So, whom did the Miami-based musician turn to? Besides fellow artists and some local politicians, he met with a largely unknown group of young Cuban-Americans called Roots of Hope. Young professionals of Cuban extraction, the group's mission is to foster greater understanding through contact with the communist nation. For the next few weeks the members of Roots of Hope, all still in their 20s, would become Juanes' eloquent mouthpiece in the local media. "They were his life jacket," says Juanes' manager, Fernan Martinez. "When no one was there for him, Roots was there." Two weeks ago, Juanes and a group of Cuban and international singers rocked Havana's Plaza of the Revolution before 1 million fans. The concert earned Juanes comparisons to Bono, Ireland's famous rock crusader. It has also thrust Roots of Hope into the forefront of political debate in South Florida's large Cuban exile community, long the domain of an old guard of unyielding, anti-Castro hard-liners. "These kids have been incredibly effective in what they have done and their message is very powerful," said Carlos Saladrigas, a wealthy Cuban exile businessman and co-chair of the Cuba Study Group. "They gambled on Juanes and they won big." • • • Travel to Cuba has always been a touchy subject for young Cuban-Americans. For years many have stifled their curiosity out of respect for the pain of their elders. In 2002, Felice Gorordo, 26, was studying government affairs at Georgetown University, taking a class in Cuban affairs, when he decided he needed to buck tradition and find out about his roots. His mother, a school administrator, deeply opposed his first trip and wouldn't even see him off to the airport. "I couldn't eat, I was just so worried," said his mother Martha Serra. "I couldn't understand why he would want to go." In Cuba he met a couple of young students who were hopeful about building a new civil society. "I felt if they are putting everything on the line then we have to do something." When he got back to Georgetown he began calling other Cuban-American students. Roots of Hope was born. "We got the idea of a forum to create a dialogue about our role in our parents' cause," he said. The group's first conference at Harvard in 2003 quickly established their political diversity and identified a number of issues they could not agree on, including travel to Cuba. Many exiles oppose travel to Cuba, arguing it legitimizes the government and puts money in communist hands. The conference reached a consensus that travel to the island was a personal choice. By agreeing to disagree the group took a big step away from the traditional intolerance of exile hard-liners. The group has since held five more conferences, including at Georgetown, Princeton and the University of Miami. The group now numbers 2,800 members. Mostly young professionals, with an average age of 21, they are bipartisan and include second-generation Cuban-Americans born in Miami, as well as members recently arrived from Cuba. Gorordo served in the Bush administration after leaving college, and now works for a South Florida energy firm. • • • Miguel Arguelles, 24, came to Miami in 1995. Seven years later he was his high school valedictorian. He became the first student from his school to win a place at Harvard. "One of the biggest lessons Harvard taught me was tolerance and listening to other people's opinions," he said. Yet when he got back to Miami three years ago, he was shocked. "I never felt as afraid to speak up as when I came back," he said. "I am a young professional. I want to succeed here. So, to go against the community could be a very bad move," said Arguelles, who heads the human resources department at Inktel, a large direct marketing firm. Roots of Hope was initially divided about whether to support Juanes' efforts — they worried about being drawn into a political fight — but they saw an opportunity to reach out to Cuban youth and to change minds in Miami, where polling showed that nearly half of those surveyed opposed the concert. In an opinion piece for the Miami Herald, Arguelles wrote: "Music has a magical way of enlivening the soul, and more than any of us can imagine, the Cuban people need to be inspired, entertained and uplifted by the cultural and artistic expression of influential performers like Juanes." The group's boldness has impressed some exile leaders who support a more open U.S. policy toward Cuba. "The young ones over there and here have a lot in common. They have more in common than people in my generation have with our counterparts in Cuba," said Saladrigas, 61. "Without that baggage they are more able to reach out to each other and connect." "They actually have a better understanding of the realities of Cuba at the present time than we old 'historical' guys,' " said Francisco José Hernández, 73, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, once the hard-line voice of Miami Cubans but which has eased its tone. Other older exiles say they share the group's goals of bringing greater freedoms to Cuba, but consider the group's methods misguided. "I think that Raices members reflect the desire of Cuban-American youth to get involved," said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami. "It is quite understandable that young people would see music as a bridge between people," she added, though she derided the idea that the concert would bring about change in Cuba. • • • But the concert may well have changed Miami. A staggering 73 percent of Cuban-Americans tuned in to the Sept. 20 concert. Awed by the massive crowd, they watched Juanes take the stage with an evocative song titled Nothing in Particular, featuring the chorus "Give me an island in the middle of the sea, name it liberty." At the close, Juanes returned to the stage, concluding with the words: "Viva Cuba Libre, Viva Cuba Libre." (Long live a free Cuba.) One hard-bitten Cuban-American broadcaster broke down on air. An opinion poll afterwards found support for the concert leaped from 27 percent to 53 percent. The biggest shift came from older exiles, who went from only 17 percent in favor before the concert to 48 percent afterward. Among the converts was businessman Sergio Pino, president of Century Homebuilders of South Florida. "Juanes opened the door to change; it is time to rethink our strategy," he wrote in the Miami Herald. "With three Cuban-American members of Congress, and one in the Senate, and many well-meaning Cuban-American leaders … of political organizations in exile, it is time for one of them to come forward and unite us behind a new and more effective approach that focuses on the Cuban people first." Juanes knows the credit is not his alone. Working with Roots of Hope had been "inspiring," Juanes wrote the St. Petersburg Times in an e-mail. The group's support was "a clear sign of new trends of thought with regards to Cuban exile." .

Poll: Cuban Americans change tune about Juanes concert in Havana

October 1, 2009

Jordan Levin, Miami Herald

Cuban-American support of Juanes' Cuba concert has almost doubled in the aftermath of the Sept. 20 event, according to a poll released Wednesday at the Americas Conference by Sergio Bendixen and Associates. The study of 400 Cuban Americans found that 53 percent had a favorable opinion of show, organized by the Colombian rock star in Havana, while 29 percent had an unfavorable opinion. The results are an about-face from a previous Bendixen poll, conducted Aug. 24, also of 400 Cuban Americans. That study showed 47 percent opposing the concert, while 27 percent were in favor. The new poll was conducted Sept. 24-26. Both surveys had a margin of error of 5 percentage points, and both were commissioned by the Cuba Study Group, an organization of Cuban-American businessmen that favors direct exchanges with the Cuban people and supported the Juanes event. ``The support is logical,' said the group's co-chairman, Carlos Saladrigas. ``Cubans had fun and heard Juanes scream `Cuba libre' in the middle of La Plaza de La Revolución. He showed courage.' Support for the event, which featured 15 artists from six countries, increased regardless of the respondents' ages or when they came to the the United States, measures that have traditionally divided exiles' opinions on Cuba. More than half of respondents 64 and younger were in favor of the concert, as were 48 percent of respondents older than 65. Among exiles who arrived in the U.S. before 1980, 48 percent supported the event, as did 63 percent of those who came after 1990. Talk-show host Maria Elvira Salazar, who made the concert a regular subject on her popular Mega TV show, Maria Elvira Live, said the poll confirmed a shift she had seen in reactions during the concert, and in e-mails she has received since. Remarks by performers Olga Tañon, Miguel Bosé and Juanes about freedom and unifying Cubans had a powerful effect, Salazar said. ``This was different than we had expected,' Salazar said Wednesday. ``Lots of exiles are crying inside. I think [the concert] got us closer -- the Cubans in Miami and the Cubans on the island.' Among those supporting the show, 51 percent said it was because the concert ``uplifted Cuban people.' People with an unfavorable opinion gave reasons such as ``Concert helped the Cuban government,' ``will change nothing,' or ``Cuba needs liberty, not peace.' Regardless of their stance, the concert aroused enormous interest. Seventy-three percent of respondents watched the event, which was covered live by four Miami TV stations. Interest was highest among older exiles: More than 75 percent of respondents 50 or older watched. ``They were not interested in rock, they were interested in the politics,' Bendixen said. ``Despite their resentments, most of them concluded the concert uplifted the Cuban people.' Miami Herald staff writer Andrea Torres contributed to this report.
September 2009

Cuba needs this show to go on

September 15, 2009

Miguel Arguelles, Miami Herald

When I read that 17-time Latin Grammy award winner Juanes was headlining a concert in Havana, I was thrilled by the prospect of reaching out to the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of Cubans. Music has a magical way of enlivening the soul, and more than any of us can imagine, the Cuban people need to be inspired, entertained and uplifted by the cultural and artistic expression of influential performers like Juanes. Unfortunately, the United Nations International Peace Day concert set for Sept. 20, 2009, is now in danger because vocal and powerful people in the Cuban-exile community continue to promote a policy of cultural and artistic isolation. They have tried to demonize Juanes as a communist and a tool of Castro merely for attempting to perform in Cuba, and many have reported as if these impassioned voices speak for the entire Cuban-exile community. They don't. We must acknowledge that the cultural and artistic isolation of Cuba has not worked. It has now been more than five decades, and our brothers and sisters still lack hope and fundamental freedoms. I have personally experienced the pain and anger now driving the movement to cancel the concert. We all agree the totalitarian regime depends on stifling free exchange between people, muting opposing perspectives and prohibiting passion and ambition from climbing beyond established boundaries. Wouldn't we be complicit in this oppression by canceling the concert? After all, we would be denying the Cuban people something they desperately need while guaranteeing that no message of any kind can be delivered to them. Cubans on the island should enjoy as many fundamental rights as possible -- and as soon as possible. Most of us already enjoy the right to be inspired every day, but the Juanes concert presents one rare opportunity for our brothers and sisters, in particular the younger generation in Cuba, to be inspired on a whole new scale. Cultural and artistic events of this magnitude can be transformational, planting roots of hope and leading to the overall grassroots change many seek for Cuba. At the most basic level, spectators will be entertained and will get much needed relief from daily frustrations. But when they become inspired, hope will follow. They'll be thirsty for more. They'll be receptive to more. They will question more and demand more. I am convinced that allowing the concert will be far more effective in promoting long-term change than would cancelling it. But even more important, it is the right thing to do as an act of human compassion. Fulfilling a fundamental need of Cubans on the island right now is simply more important than denying the regime its inevitable but marginal and short-lived propaganda bump. Even if you think I am naive about the likely impact of the concert, how can we continue, in good conscience, to deny our brothers and sisters their right to be inspired when presented with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? They have been denied long enough. Inspiration can have a powerful impact on people's lives. Many years ago the Cuban-exile community rallied behind my dream of going to college and inspired me to make it a reality despite what seemed like insurmountable obstacles. My education gave me the courage and the tools to question conventional wisdom and the status quo, and my actions today are an outgrowth of their support seven years ago. Our moral and social obligations to those we left behind now compel me to speak out in support of the Juanes concert, and I'm asking you to stand with me. Talk about it with your family and friends. Speak out about it publicly at every opportunity. Tweet about it. Update your status on Facebook. Engage the critics. Urge exiled artists to support the concert. Stay informed. Most of all -- be inspired. Miguel Arguelles, who lives in Miami, was born in Havana and arrived in the United States, at age 10, in 1995. He graduated from Barbara Goleman Senior High School in Miami Lakes in 2002 and was awarded a bachelor of arts degree in English literature from Harvard University in 2006.

Cuban-American leader seeks new path

September 14, 2009

Laura Wides-Munoz, Miami Herald

MIAMI -- Francisco Jose Hernandez points to the boarded windows in his secretary's third floor office. Days before, a drive-by shooter peppered the glass with bullets. The Cuban American National Foundation co-founder and president shrugs off the attack. "I've seen it all before," his piercing black eyes seem to say. And he has. Few living Cuban-Americans personify the exile experience better than the 73-year-old Hernandez, known as "Pepe." His journey from anti-Castro Bay of Pigs insurgent to outspoken supporter of limited re-engagement with the communist island provides lessons on both the human capacity for change - and its limits. Hernandez is hardly alone in arguing Cuban exiles must cease to dwell on the past, but he speaks from a unique platform. While steadily working to topple Fidel Castro's government, he also popped up, Forest Gump-style, in the midst of the war in Angola, the fall of the Soviet Union and even the 2008 U.S. presidential election. Within months of taking office, President Barack Obama eased family travel to Cuba and is reviewing other foundation recommendations. Friends call Hernandez a man of action. Although he denies ever targeting innocent people in his long battle against Castro, he is cagey about whom or what he did target. A former close associate says as late as the 1990s, Hernandez ran a secret "war group" funded by the foundation. It would be a stretch to say Hernandez has done a 180-degree turn in his golden years. He opposes a wholesale lifting of the United States' nearly 50-year embargo, and it's unclear whether he regrets his own actions or those of friends. But he is ready to move on. Of toppling Cuba's government, he says now: "It's not that I wouldn't like to do it. It's that I'm smart enough, and I have enough experience in these things, to know that that is not possible, and that it's counterproductive at this time because the Cuban people don't want that, and we don't have enough resources." His words come at a key time in history, as an ailing Castro has ceded power to his brother Raul, providing the first major change in Cuban leadership in half a century. And they provide some cover for Obama among the older generation of exiles as the president seeks to reopen dialogue with the island for the first time in more than a decade. Still, to those on the left, Hernandez remains a hard-liner not to be trusted. To those on the right, he is a traitor. It is, at times, a lonely place to be. --- To understand Hernandez' journey, one must start at the beginning. He was 16 when Castro and his band of rebels launched their failed 1953 uprising against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Although the son of a career military officer, Hernandez also opposed Batista and became a leader of a Roman Catholic student youth group seeking to restore democracy. In 1958, the rebels achieved a key victory in the central city of Santa Clara - and it was Hernandez' father, Col. Francisco Hernandez Leyva, who surrendered the garrison to Castro's comrade, Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Hernandez's father was given safe passage home in exchange for his retirement, but when he later refused to testify against commanding officers charged with human rights abuses, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Then overnight, before his son could appeal, he was re-sentenced and executed. Hernandez still rarely mentions his father's death, and stumbles as he reads from a 1962 account by the independent International Commission of Jurists in Geneva. "Right there, I started to change my mind about many things," he says. Hernandez began moving between the U.S. and Cuba, arming anti-communist rebels in the mountains with help from the CIA. In January 1961, he and hundreds of other Cuban exiles were sent to Guatemala to train for the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. The operation was a disaster: The U.S. failed to provide sufficient air cover, and a promised popular uprising inside Cuba never developed. Hernandez and more than 1,000 others were captured and spent 18 months in Cuban prison. Upon release, Hernandez and a cadre of other exiles redoubled their efforts to overthrow the Castro government while also serving the U.S., their new country. Hernandez headed to officer training at Fort Benning, Ga., along with Jorge Mas Canosa, who would later serve as the public face of the Cuban American National Foundation, and Luis Posada, who would be accused in the bombing of a Cuban airliner, hotel explosions in Havana and other plots on Castro's life. Hernandez became a Marine captain, working intelligence during the Vietnam War. The men also trained for missions to destabilize the government of Cuba and gather intelligence on the Russian presence there. They practiced in the eastern edges of the Everglades, before that wild swamp - like their dreams of returning home - slowly gave way to a quiet, suburban way of life. --- Like many in his generation, Hernandez worked hard to establish roots in his new home. He helped raise four children with his wife Ana, earned a masters in economics at Duke and a doctorate at the University of Florida, and built multimillion-dollar businesses in construction, animal feed and communications. He also provided cover for CIA missions in the Middle East and in Africa, he says, and describes hiding for six hours in a broom closet in the Nairobi Hilton Hotel during Kenya's failed 1982 coup. In the early 1980s, Hernandez and others established the foundation. From the Reagan through Clinton administrations, it reigned as one of the most powerful, single-issue lobbying groups in Washington, funneling millions of dollars to politicians across the country. The foundation brought Reagan to speak in Little Havana in 1983, helping to link the Cuban-American vote to the Republican Party for decades to come. Hernandez recalls grasping Reagan's elbow at a 1985 gala so Mas Canosa could question him on why U.S.-run radio broadcasts to Cuba had been approved but not launched. The move earned him an elbow jab from a nervous Secret Service agent. A photo of the three from that night shows them all grinning. "Pepe's not a guy who likes giving speeches. Pepe's much more a guy of action," said Joe Garcia, a former foundation president. The foundation persuaded Congress to repeal a law prohibiting federal aid to paramilitary groups in Angola, the African nation where forces trained by the Cubans and Soviets were fighting one of the Cold War's most high-profile Third World battles. Mas Canosa, Hernandez and others flew there and set up a radio station to help the anti-communist side. There, Hernandez found a certificate given to an Angolan fighter by his Cuban trainers emblazoned with a Che Guevara quote: "....a relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective and cold killing machine. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy." It was then, Hernandez says, that he began to question how long Cuban-Americans could "keep fighting with the same arms, with the same killing and revenge." --- The fall of the Soviet Union made Hernandez hope that Cuba would follow the lead of the Eastern Bloc countries and take its first steps toward democracy. World leaders fueled his thinking, treating him and the other foundation leaders as if it were a question of time until they were heading a new Cuban government. Russia invited the CANF leaders to attend the official Christmas Day 1991 dismantling of the Soviet Union. Then the Czech government called on CANF to negotiate the future of Cuba's debt to its national bank. "At that time everybody came to the conclusion that things in Cuba could change if there were just a spark," says Hernandez. But who would light it? According to a former foundation director, Tony Llama, Hernandez was selected in 1993 to head the group's secret war group, which authorized Llama and others to buy several boats, a helicopter and weapons to help destabilize the island and assassinate Castro. Hernandez says the so-called war group was a joke, that the men merely wanted "a contingency plan" in case that match was struck. He maintains the foundation has always been dedicated to nonviolence. Llama was arrested in 1997 along with several members of the group off the coast of Puerto Rico on charges they were on their way to assassinate Castro during a summit in Venezuela. Hernandez' high-powered rifle was found on the boat, and the FBI listed him as a person of interest, even fingerprinting him. But he was never charged, and the rest were acquitted. Hernandez says he bought the rifle to help those attempting to extract Cuban dissidents from the island defend themselves, but he is vague about how it ended up on the boat. In 1997, hotel bombings in Havana killed an Italian tourist. In an interview the following year, Posada, a former CIA operative, claimed responsibility and said foundation directors had funded his activities for years; he then recanted both statements. Today, Posada lives in Miami, awaiting trial on immigration fraud charges. He is still wanted in Venezuela for allegedly masterminding the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73. Asked about Posada, Hernandez' steady gaze falls and the occasional stutter returns. He repeats that Posada denied implicating the foundation. "What world public opinion pictures as a terrorist, he's not that," Hernandez says. "He has had, much as I have had, my mind very set on trying to get rid of a government and a regime in Cuba but not to terrorize the people in Cuba." --- The foundation's members began to splinter and its power to wane after Mas Canosa's death in 1997. A few years later, the Elian Gonzalez case made clear how much had shifted. The Cuban boy was found lashed to an innertube off Fort Lauderdale on Thanksgiving 1999, his mother and others having drowned when their boat sank in an attempt to reach Florida; his father in Cuba asked that he be returned. When the U.S. Cuban community's mobilized to try to keep the child here, many Americans reacted with outrage. Old assumptions about public support no longer applied. Meanwhile, new immigrants from Cuba lacked the earlier generation's thirst for revenge. They wanted to help their families back on the island. To remain relevant, leaders like Hernandez had to change. One example: He joined the Cuba study group of the left-leaning Brookings Institution. "He's had a remarkable transformation from being Mas' right hand to a man of dialogue," said journalist Ann Louise Bardach, who has written critically of the foundation. "I do believe he is sincere, maybe not pure - but who is in the Cuba War?" If the shooting in his secretary's office was a skirmish in that war, Hernandez says he's is ready to let it go. He speaks of what he has learned and refers to the younger generation, including his own U.S.-born children. "Instead of imposing, I have to try to convince, or I have to show examples of where I have made mistakes and how not to make them. This is what our generation must do with Cuba. "If we want to do something for the Cuban people, it has to be something that our children also recognize as something of value, not simply trying to destroy." .

U.S.-Cuba dialogue team envisioned

September 9, 2009

Frances Robles, Miami Herald

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has an old idea that's been tried before, which even its supporters say won't work: Create a team of exiles to dialogue with the Cuban government. Richardson pitched the idea to top Cuban officials while on a recent trip to the island, and he's already approached Cuban-American leaders who have agreed to participate, he told The Miami Herald in an interview. He won't say whom. The Cubans here went for it. The ones on the island -- not so much. ``They weren't crazy about the idea,' Richardson said. ``They didn't reject it. They said, `We always have dialogue,' but you can't have dialogue without those who have the political clout.' Richardson, a former candidate for president, visited Cuba in late August on a trade mission. He returned advocating more legalized travel to the island, and saying that the Cuban government must do its part, too. His trip was met with eye-rolls in some sectors of Miami, where even the people who promote dialogue said the plan would probably flop. ``I saw in the Cubans a lack of flexibility,' Richardson said. ``I told them, `Look, there has to be reciprocity. You can't just want the embargo lifted and Radio Martí issues dealt with and an end to Guanánamo and you guys don't do anything.' Let the Cubans take some steps.' His dialogue suggestion goes back some 30 years, when a Cuban-American banker named Bernardo Benes secretly negotiated the release of 3,600 political prisoners -- and became a pariah for it. There was a time in this community that just advocating such missions got you bombed and shot. ``Maybe Richardson is bored,' Benes said. ``I applaud him.' Benes said Richardson first approached him with that idea in 1997, the morning after Richardson was named the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. That was a year after Richardson, then a U.S. representative, had met with Fidel Castro and negotiated the release of three Cuban political prisoners. In 1994, three Cuban Americans flew to Madrid, Cuba and New York to meet with the Cuban foreign minister. That year, a local delegation attended the first migration conference there, which erupted in controversy in South Florida. Attorney Alfredo Durán, who met with the Cuban foreign minister in 1994, said the challenge with negotiating with Havana is that they refuse to set an agenda. CUBA'S RESISTANCE ``I refuse to act like a seal and applaud,' Durán said. ``They don't want an agenda, and they really don't want to deal with Cuban Americans.' But Durán supports Richardson's idea anyway, as does activist Ramón Saúl Sánchez. ``Our experience has been that the government never talks to real members of the opposition,' Sánchez said. ``They try to have dialogue that is basically a monologue. But if there is will by the government of Cuba to dialogue, then you can rest assured you will find courage among exiles to do the same.' Bay of Pigs veteran and dialogue advocate Marcelino Miyares said the trick is to start talks with ``easy' topics like humanitarian issues. ``The Cuban government has never agreed to talk to the opposition inside or outside Cuba, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying,' said Miyares, spokesman for Consenso Cubano, a moderate exile organization. ` ``The only problem with Richardson is that he's too public,' Miyares said. ``This type of thing historically is done in a third country, almost in secret.' Critics say the idea is a waste of time cooked up by a politician dodging personal problems. POLITICAL PLOY? Richardson was forced to withdraw his nomination as U.S. secretary of commerce this year over a federal investigation into how a political donor landed a lucrative transportation contract. ``You cannot substitute dialogue with political prisoners in Cuba with dialogue with an ad hoc group of Cuban Americans,' said Orlando Gutiérrez, National Secretary of the Democratic Directorate, a human rights group here. ``I think now he's seeking publicity and commercial and entrepreneurial opportunities for New Mexico. He's had bad publicity and needs good publicity with this diplomatic stuff.' Jaime Suchlicki, who heads the University of Miami's Institute of Cuban and Cuban American Studies, said Richardson is underestimating howlittle Raúl Castro cares about the exile community. ``What does Raúl care about Cuban Americans?' Suchlicki said. ``He has Venezuela, the Chinese just gave him $600 million, and Iran and the Russians gave him millions. What does he need Cuban Americans for?' Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called Richardson's proposal ``one of the lamest' ideas she's ever heard.

South Florida sees upswing in family trips to Cuba

September 9, 2009

Alfonso Chardy and Rui Ferrer, Miami Herald

Nildo Herrera drew the stares of fellow passengers and airline ticket agents as he checked into his recent Havana flight at Miami International Airport wearing five hats, one atop another. ``One is for my grandson, another for my son and the rest for other relatives,' the smiling 75-year-old Hialeah resident explained to a bemused Vivian Mannerud, a local Cuba travel industry executive handling his boarding. Herrera was one of the thousands of travelers who swarm MIA's Concourse F pushing carts precariously loaded with mountains of suitcases and duffel bags, all tightly wrapped in blue plastic, as they inch their way to ticket counters to pick up boarding passes for Cuba flights. The scenes are reminiscent of the days when MIA filled up with tens of thousands of exiles on early family-reunification flights in the late 1970s and early '80s. Family travel gradually dwindled as U.S.-Cuba relations cooled. Now, five months after Congress loosened strict Bush-era rules for family visits to Cuba, the numbers of travelers to the island is up dramatically, South Florida travel executives say. Between April and June, about 55,000 people traveled to Cuba, compared to 30,000 in the three previous months, before the restrictions were lifted. The number of travelers is expected to hit 200,000 by year's end, about double the yearly figures during the Bush restrictions. And travel executives expect the numbers to spike even higher now that new rules announced by the Obama administration -- which lift all restrictions on family visits to Cuba -- have taken effect. The new rules mean that those with family in Cuba can visit as often and for as long as they like. Previous rules restricted visits to as few as once every three years. ``No question, there is a noticeable increase in travel to Cuba,' said Armando García, president of Marazul Charters, one of the oldest Cuba charter airline companies. The upswing has prompted one veteran Cuba travel executive to come out of retirement, and persuaded charter companies to add flights -- for a total of about 30 to 35 per week, compared to about 15 to 18 last year. Cities currently authorized to handle Cuba charter flights are New York, Los Angeles and Miami -- with the bulk of flights leaving from MIA. Several other cities, including Key West and New Orleans, are seeking authority for Cuba-bound travel. Mannerud, president of Airline Brokers in Coral Gables, symbolizes the renewed interest in Cuba travel. She is the daughter of Fernando Fuentes Coba, South Florida pioneer of the Cuba travel business, who started island charter flights in 1978. Mannerud partially retired in 2000 to fight breast cancer. With her disease now in remission, she decided to return to the business after the Obama administration announced the lifting of travel restrictions, and reopened her charter business in May. MIA ticket counters that handle Cuba trips are once again full of baggage-laden travelers waiting to board planes bound for Havana and other Cuban cities. For many it's a familiar routine, but for others the trip feels like an adventure because it's their first time in Cuba. ``I can't wait,' said Manuel Bustillo, a Colombia-born air-conditioning repair technician in Miami, traveling for the first time with his Cuban-American wife Maribel Pérez and her 12-year-old daughter Nisvelys. Pérez has traveled to Cuba four times in the past but had not returned for a few years because of restrictions. Bustillo, 47, said the loosening of travel rules inspired him and his wife to book their flight and spend the more than $5,000 a typical Cuba family trip requires. The bulk of the money, he said, went on clothes, medical supplies and food for her family in Quivicán, south of Havana. When the family arrived in Cuba they were picked up at José Martí International Airport by Pérez's family -- all crammed into a green 1952 Pontiac, which belonged to her late father José. Pérez and her mother, Teresita, hugged each other and cried before the Cuba family and their Miami guests drove in the old car to Quivicán, about 25 miles from Havana. ``It was a very emotional trip, and we got to see Cuba up close and personal,' Bustillo said. ``It was quite an experience.' El Nuevo Herald staff writer Wilfredo Cancio Isla of El Nuevo Herald contributed to this report. A Miami Herald staff writer also reported from Havana. The name of the reporter was withheld because the journalist lacked the visa required by the Cuban government to report from the island. The government routinely denies Herald requests for such visas.

Cuban-Americans shift on dialogue with Havana

September 1, 2009

Alexandra Ulmer, Financial Times

Giancarlo Sopo, a Democratic strategist of Cuban origin, says he cannot remember which he learned first – that Fidel Castro was a bad man or that Santa Claus was real. “The first political lesson that Cuban-Americans receive is on Cuba-US policy,” said Mr Sopo, a 26 year-old research analyst at Bendixen and Associates. While his opposition to the Castro regime remains solid, he is one of many in the Cuban-American community who has shifted away from supporting strong sanctions and instead advocates travel and dialogue between Havana and Washington. US president Barack Obama capitalised on this change in sentiment during the campaign to win votes among the younger Cuban-American community and, since his election, has ushered in a more nuanced diplomatic approach to Cuba-US relations. In April, Mr Obama lifted restrictions on Cuban-American travel to the island and removed the limit on remittances. Talks were held in July to discuss immigration policy – the first since such negotiations were frozen under George W. Bush in 2003 – and more are to follow in December. In addition to efforts by the White House, Congress is due to examine the lifting of the ban on US tourists travelling to the island. According to Dan Erikson, a Cuba expert at Inter-American Dialogue, there is a one in three chance that the bill will pass both Houses of Congress and be signed into law within a year. Washington’s approach has so far been met cautiously by Havana. On Saturday, Raul Castro, the Cuban president, told the National Assembly that while he supported dialogue between the two countries, US overtures would not be conducive to political change on the island. In the Cuban-American community, however, Washington’s moves have garnered unprecedented support. A report conducted by Bendixen and Associates in April, before Mr Sopo worked there, found that 64 per cent of Cubans and Cuban-Americans supported the lifting of the travel and remittance restrictions. “There is now a greater constituency in the Cuban-American community that favours change,” said Mr Erikson, from Inter-American Dialogue. “The ideology of opposing engagement with Cuba really came with the founding generation of exiles.” The first wave of migrants fled the island following the Cuban revolution in 1959 – often abandoning homes and livelihoods. But since the 1980s, Miami – and its “Little Havana” neighbourhood – has welcomed a new inflow of Cubans, largely less affluent than their predecessors and often more supportive of lifting sanctions on their homeland. “I’m for the lifting of everything,” said Jessica Rodriguez, 33, the owner of a Cuban restaurant in Maryland who was born in the US to Cuban parents. She principally attributed her position to being second-generation. “We didn’t feel any of the first-hand effects” of the Castro regime, she said. “There is a tear between the two generations as to what should be happening,” Ms Rodriguez added. Some of the founding generation’s political views have also softened. Pepe Hernandez, the president of the Cuban American National Foundation, stormed the Bay of Pigs in 1961. He was imprisoned in Cuba for two years before Kennedy paid his ransom and then ultimately settled in Miami after being freed. “Most of those first years I spent dreaming – or conspiring actually – to return to Cuba by violent means,” he said. “Now it’s a completely different attitude.” While Mr Hernandez still supports the economic embargo, he favours lifting sanctions on travel and remittances. However, for many Cuban-American politicians and institutions, any easing of sanctions translates to a strengthening of the Castro regime. “Virtually all of them have built their political career on a very hard-line view of Cuba,” said Mr Erikson of the six Cuban-American members of Congress. In many established political organisations, such as the Cuban Liberty Council, the mood has not changed. “To lift sanctions ... against Cuba’s dictatorial regime is just to give them oxygen to stay in power,” said Ninoska Pérez Castellón, a founding member of the council. “New people may be arriving,” Ms Pérez said. “But still not enough to make it a majority.” .

Poll: Support for Cuban embargo eroding

September 1, 2009

Luisa Yanez, Miami Herald

The Cuban embargo continues to divide the exile community, though support seems to be eroding, a recent poll reveals. The single question was posed last month to 400 Cuban Americans, mainly in Florida: Are you in favor or against continuing the U.S. embargo on Cuba? • 41 percent said they are against keeping the embargo. • 40 said they were for it. • 19 percent said they didn't know or gave no answer. Pollsters said the response shows the topic remains a highly emotional one in Florida and nationwide. ``Those numbers reveal that the community has been unable to reach a consensus, but it also shows thawing,' said Fernand Amandi, executive vice president for Bendixen & Associates. ``Six or seven years ago, it would have been heresy for such high support for doing away with the embargo.' The Bendixen firm conducted the poll on Aug. 24. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points. The question was commissioned by the polling firm, which has been measuring the opinion of the Cuban exile community for years. Typical for such polls, closer identification of respondents spotlights that support for the embargo depends on age, decade of arrival from the island and place of birth -- the United States or Cuba. The poll showed that: • Of Cubans 65 and older, 54 percent continue to support the embargo, while 27 percent want to end it and 19 percent don't know. • Of Cubans who arrived in 1960 or before, 62 percent want to continue the embargo, while 23 percent do not and 15 percent don't know. • Of those born in Cuba, 47 percent said they want the embargo to continue. Only 23 percent of those born in the United States feel that way, the poll showed. The poll also reveals how many Cubans have never wavered from their conviction that the embargo is the best punishment against the Castro brothers. ``There are some Cubans, mainly those from the historic exile, who will always believe in the effectiveness of the embargo -- and that will not change,' Amandi said. But this poll, like others in recent years, captures eroding support for maintaining the embargo. ``It shows an evolution of thought,' said Amandi. ``After 50 years, some Cubans have come to the painful revelation that the embargo might not have been the most effective tool against the Castro regime,' he said.
August 2009

Cuba, Cuban Americans should talk, Richardson says

August 28, 2009

Reuters- Jeff Franks

HAVANA (Reuters) - New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson offered on Friday to set up talks between the Cuban government and Cuban Americans with the aim of ending five decades of mutual animosity and helping restore U.S.-Cuba relations. At the conclusion of a five-day visit to the communist-led island, he said he had not seen a better atmosphere for improving relations between the two countries, but that things would have to proceed gradually to overcome years of bad blood. Richardson, a Hispanic Democrat who has a history of being a diplomatic trouble-shooter, said he came to Cuba on a trade mission for New Mexico, not at the behest of the White House. But the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said he would report his findings to President Barack Obama next week. Obama has said he wants to "recast" relations with Cuba, and has taken steps such as easing the longstanding U.S. trade embargo against the island and renewing talks on immigration. Richardson, speaking in both English and Spanish, said he has proposed informal Cuban-Cuban American talks as a way of improving relations between two groups who have been bitter enemies since Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution and many Cubans fled to Miami. "If there's going to be a solution to the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States, Cuban Americans must play a role," said Richardson. Cuban Americans have for years played a big role in shaping U.S. policy toward their homeland, particularly by helping elect politicians who voted to maintain the embargo, imposed since 1962 to undermine the Cuban government. Many of them have never lost the dream of returning to Cuba, and have fought against anything they view as helping the communist government. JUANES CONCERT In recent days, some Cuban Americans have criticized Colombian musician Juanes, who lives in Miami, for his plans to play a September concert in Havana's Revolution Square. Richardson disagreed with the criticism, saying the concert would be "healthy" for U.S.-Cuba relations. Despite the Juanes dust-up, Richardson said "there are many Cuban Americans who feel dialogue (with Cuba) is needed" and that he "would be very pleased to broker such a discussion." He said he talked informally with Cuban American "political friends" in Miami before flying to Cuba, and in Havana he met with two of the government's key officials for U.S. policy -- Cuban parliament president Ricardo Alarcon and Deputy Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez. Richardson said he did not meet with President Raul Castro, or his older brother Fidel Castro, with whom in 1996, as a U.S. congressman, he negotiated the release of three Cuban political prisoners. He said he did not meet with the Castros because as a governor he did not have sufficient political stature. Richardson called for other measures to increase "people-to-people" contact, which he said was needed to "build more confidence in each other before we tackle the bold, divisive issues" such as the embargo and Cuban human rights. Obama has said the embargo, which the Cuban government blames for many of its problems, would stay in place until Cuba releases political prisoners and improves human rights. Cuba has said it will discuss everything with the United States but will make no concessions on what it considers sovereign issues. Richardson said the biggest obstacles he sees to improved relations is U.S. inattention and Cuban obstinacy. "The United States needs to pay more attention to the Cuba issue" and Latin America in general, said Richardson. "On the Cuban side, I note a lack of flexibility in their positions. There needs to be reciprocity when one side takes action," he said. Richardson would not comment when asked about Thursday's news that U.S. prosecutors would not press charges after investigating allegations he had given state business to companies in exchange for campaign contributions. The allegations forced him to withdraw his name from consideration in January after Obama nominated him for U.S. Commerce Secretary. (Editing by Jim Loney and Mohammad Zargham).

Cuban-American poll finds mixed emotions on Juanes show

August 26, 2009

Jordan Levin, Miami Herald

A newly released poll of Cuban Americans on Colombian singer Juanes' controversial Peace Without Borders concert in Havana finds that almost half oppose the Sept. 20 event, though the numbers vary dramatically according to age and country of birth. The survey was commissioned by the Cuba Study Group, a Washington, D.C.-based organization of Cuban-American businessmen which supports cultural exchanges, including the Juanes show, as a means of advancing democratic change in Cuba. It polled 400 Cuban Americans around the U.S. -- about 80 percent of those questioned live in Florida -- and was conducted by Bendixen & Associates Monday evening. It has a margin of error of 5 percent. The Sept. 20 concert, which is predicted to draw over 600,000 people to the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, will feature Juanes, one of the most successful artists in Latin music, plus Spanish singer Miguel Bosé, Olga Tañon of Puerto Rico, and Cuban acts Silvio Rodríguez and Los Van Van. The numbers shed some light on the degree of support and opposition to the concert, which has roiled a segment of the exile community. Pollster Sergio Bendixen said emotion colors Cubans' responses. ``In the phone calls, we heard that there is still a lot of pain in the Cuban-American community: `They killed my brother, they took everything I had, they ruined my life.' [Juanes] has to be very sensitive. He's gotten involved in an issue that is very complex.' Nearly half, or 47 percent of those surveyed, oppose the concert, while 27 percent support it and 26 percent said they didn't know or had no opinion about the show. Most of those who opposed to the concert gave political reasons. Forty percent said the concert ignored ``Cuban reality' such as human rights violations and lack of freedom, and 25 percent said it ``helps Castro.' Of those supporting the concert, 60 percent said the show would bring Cubans needed happiness and music. Predictably, those opposed to the concert tended to be older and had arrived earlier in the United States, while supporters tended to be younger and either recent arrivals or born in this country. Over 60 percent of those 50 and older opposed the concert, while 35 percent of those 18 to 34 supported it. Forty-five percent of those who arrived in the U.S. after 2000 were in favor of the concert, while 64 percent of those who came before 1970 opposed it. The poll also gauged respondents' thoughts on cultural exchanges with Cuba: 50 percent of those surveyed said they supported such exchanges, 33 percent were opposed and 17 percent were undecided. The strongest unanimity was on the subject of a small exile group that staged a demonstration in Little Havana and burned Juanes' CDs last week. Overall, 74 percent said the protest by Vigilia Mambisa had a negative effect on the image of Cuban exiles in the United States.
An international concert planned for Havana's Plaza de la Revolución and headed by a major Latino pop star is stoking passions in exile Miami in a controversial clash of art and politics. The blogosphere was buzzing Friday over the Paz Sin Fronteras (Peace Without Borders) concert to be presented by Juanes, the immensely popular Colombian rocker who now calls Miami-Dade home, on Havana's Plaza de la Revolución on Sept. 20. Also scheduled to appear: famed Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez; Los Van Van, the island's most famous dance band; Spanish singer Miguel Bose; and Puerto Rican singer Olga Tañon. Juanes declined interview requests Friday. ``It's time to start knocking down our own mental walls,' he wrote in a Twitter feed about the event in late June, when news of the concert leaked. ``Our Cuban brothers need us and we need them. I'm talking about a peace concert on Sept. 20 . raise your voice, and let's put aside our ideological differences.' The show is the second edition of the Paz Sin Fronteras concert that the multi-Grammy-winning star staged on the Colombian-Venezuelan border last year, which drew some 100,000 spectators at a moment of high tension between the governments of the two South American nations. BEHIND THE UPROAR Plans for the Havana show set off an argument over music and politics in Miami's exile community the likes of which hasn't been heard since the controversial Los Van Van concert at the Miami Arena in 1999. Earlier this week, Juanes received what appeared to be death threats. Last week, members of Vigilia Mambisa, a tiny right-wing exile group, smashed and burned Juanes' CDs on Calle Ocho -- an action that produced its own controversy, as other Cuban opinion-makers criticized the protest for making the exile community look too extreme. Critics have said that for an artist of Juanes' stature to appear in Cuba, especially on the Plaza de la Revolución -- and with artists such as Rodríguez and Los Van Van, both of whom are closely associated with Cuban government -- is unacceptable support of the island's regime. ``I love the fact that he decided to play a concert for peace for the Cuban people,' said popular exile singer Willy Chirino. ``But if he doesn't want any political connotations, why is he inviting Silvio Rodríguez and having [Cuban singer-songwriter] Amaury Pérez as an organizer, who are two of the most pro-Revolutionary artists in Cuba? Invite artists who have no political opinions, or invite Cuban artists who don't represent Castro's Cuba.' Others have supported the singer, saying that he is opening doors to the Cuban people that encourage much-needed change on the island and in U.S.-Cuba policy and exile attitudes. ``It's time to focus on the Cuban people and not focus exclusively on the Cuban regime,' said Carlos Saladrigas, co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group, a group of Cuban-American businesspeople that supports improved relations between people of the two nations. ``We believe [the concert] will be of more benefit to the Cuban people, in terms of an opening, in terms of gathering freely.' SINGER'S REACTION The intensity of the debate seems to have surprised the amiable 37-year-old singer, who lives in Key Biscayne with his wife (who is eight months pregnant) and their two young daughters. Juanes' songs are known for positive messages of love, humanity and family, and he has a foundation which works with land-mine victims in Colombia. Now he has found himself the object of controversy in South Florida. Earlier this week, Juanes reported to Key Biscayne police that he had received threatening responses to his Twitter feed; one appeared to be a death threat. His house has been stalked by paparazzi and television crews (one from local station América Tevé surprised him while he was on a bike ride). And although the concert was first slated to include approximately a dozen artists, several stars whom Juanes has approached -- including Juan Luis Guerra (who participated in the first Paz concert), Ricky Martin, Luis Fonsi and Enrique Iglesias -- have turned him down. Juanes spokesperson John Reilly said the singer is determined to proceed. ``Plans for the second Paz Sin Fronteras concert have not changed,' Reilly said Thursday in a statement. ``While Juanes understands that there will always be some distressed by efforts for change, he has received overwhelming support from across the Miami Cuban community and continues to feel safe in the city that he has made his home.' FOR THE PEOPLE Juanes, who has talked to the Spanish newspaper El País and appeared on Univisión's talk show Aqui y Ahora earlier this month, but has otherwise not talked to the press, insists that he only wants to bring music and a connection to the outside world to Cuba. ``I'm not interested in the Cuban government,' he told El País. ``I'm interested in the people, in the youth . [Cuba] is a country of 11 million people who are isolated for political and historical reasons. It can't continue like this.' Adrián Leiva, an independent journalist who was thrown out of Cuba by the government last year and who now writes for the Cubanet website from Miami, says that people on his island will welcome Juanes and his music. ``The Cuban population and the youth are basically saturated with politics, with the arguments and politics of the government,' Leiva said Friday. ``They will receive this concert like a cultural embassy of international artists who bring a message of peace and concord through music.' .
(Miami) – Grammy-winning artist Juanes has publicly expressed his desire to sing to the people, not to the Cuban government, during a Peace without Borders concert in Havana scheduled for September. Roots of Hope believes that his intentions to inspire the people of Cuba to experience peace and liberty are genuine and the organization shares his message of peace and hope for the Cuban people. “Advocating for peace and promoting a message of liberty are inherently connected since peace cannot exist without liberty,” said Roots of Hope co-founder Felice Gorordo. “Roots of Hope recognizes that the Peace without Borders concert has the potential to be an incredible opportunity to open a window of hope for all young people in Cuba.” The Peace without Borders concert is a unique opportunity for Cubans on the island to congregate and listen to music that inspires and promotes peace. If executed in a socially responsible manner, the concert could awaken feelings of self-empowerment and inspire youth in Cuba to become authors of their own future. Roots of Hope encourages Juanes to invite young, independent Cuban artists to perform at the concert. The organization hopes that Juanes will take advantage of this opportunity to promote freedom of expression and foster hope in the hearts of our brothers and sisters in Cuba.
May 2009
Forty years after Operation Pedro Pan ended, I was at Havana's Jose Martí International Airport after spending almost a month reporting from the communist island in 2002. As I waited for my plane back to Miami, I browsed the dinky airport's gift shop. There, behind the glass, was another example of the Cuban regime's Orwellian doublespeak in a glossy book that attempts to twist a life-saving, humanitarian program for thousands of Cuban children into a 'terrorist' U.S. plot. Published by the Cuban government during the Elián González saga -- when Cuban Americans kept pointing out that the island's own constitution chucks parental rights and puts the regime in charge of children's future -- the book mocks historical fact. On Cuban government-run TV, the Round Table program on May 23, 2002, used the book, Operación Peter Pan: Un caso de guerra psicológica contra Cuba (a case of psychological war against Cuba), to argue that the Pedro Pan children were starved and treated like trash in America. 'I think that this was one of the most sordid chapters in the campaign of lies, calumny and infamy against Cuba,' proclaimed Rogelio Polanco, editor of the Cuban newspaper Juventud Rebelde, on Cuban TV. ``And also one of the most immoral and most inhumane, because it involved, of course, thousands of children. ``It was a real scam because they tried to maintain the lie that the revolution prohibited the immigration of families and children, something that never happened in our country; and it's for that reason, to not forget that horrible history, that this book was edited.' Oh, right, never in the past 50 years has the regime prohibited Cubans to travel outside their country. THE HARDEST CHOICE The hurtful truth is that countless Cubans have died at sea trying to escape Cuba after the regime refused to grant them a visa. Among them: Elián's mother. To the Cuban parents who took a leap of faith in the early 1960s to send their children to America without their mami y papi during Operation Pedro Pan, their choice was guided as much by desperation as their belief in divine intervention. They seized a moment that would give their children the opportunity denied to millions left behind. Today, the Pedro Pans are among the most successful of the Cuban diaspora. Parents of all religious creeds -- Protestant and Jew among them -- put their trust in the secret program started by Catholic Charities that brought 14,048 children to the United States in less than two years before it had to shut down in October 1962. It was parents' most painful sacrifice -- to be separated from their kids to save them from a communist dictatorship in the making. It had to be a heart-wrenching decision for every parent at a time when mock trials and firing squads were the hallmark of revolutionary 'justice.' Fidel Castro was heading into the Soviet Union's sphere, older children were being sent away to el campo to do 'volunteer' work cutting sugar cane -- the first of many psychological machinations by the regime to create Cuba's new ``revolutionary man.' Catholic and other religious or private schools were closed, and priests and nuns were kicked off the island as the new government proclaimed Cuba an atheist state. Revolutionary slogans were part of the government schools' curriculum, demanding unquestioning loyalty of students, who were expected to snitch on their parents. THE TRUE SUFFERING No doubt there was suffering among the Pedro Pans thrown into the geopolitical vortex of a new culture and language. Not everyone grew up to become a U.S. senator like Mel Martinez or a multimillionaire like Miami developer Armando Codina. And there were some children who had a lousy caretaker while living in an orphanage or foster home, waiting for their parents to arrive. But that was the exception -- certainly not the vast majority's experience. What kind of psychological damage would those children have faced had they stayed in Cuba? Who knows. But after 50 years of dictatorship, what we do know is that the regime has repeatedly sought -- and in some cases succeeded -- to break the human spirit. It will take more leaps of faith to mend the pain left behind.

New Miami Herald database details Operation Pedro Pan

May 13, 2009

Luisa Yanez, Miami Herald

That's the number sent ahead to the United States nearly 50 years ago by desperate parents convinced Fidel Castro's violent wave of Communism would ensnare their children. The historic escape famously known as Operation Pedro Pan was concocted by an American school master, James Baker of Ruston Academy in Havana and carried out by an Irish priest in Miami, Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh -- all with the money and blessing of the federal government. No official computerized listing has existed of the 6- to 17-year-olds who took part in the clandestine airlift, the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere. It began in December 1960 and ended in October 1962 -- a casualty of the Cuban Missile Crisis. On Sunday, The Miami Herald will unveil the first-of-its-kind Operation Pedro Pan Database -- a searchable listing of the 14,048 youngsters' names, their ages upon arrival in the United States and their immediate destination. The database will be accessible at www.MiamiHerald/pedropan. In its print edition, The Herald will chronicle the story of the secret operation and share the tales of a handful of Operation Pedro Pan veterans who began their lives in exile alone, as unaccompanied minors who went to live in camps and centers, foster homes and orphanages until they could be reunited with their parents. Fittingly, the mission was given its name by the late Gene Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The Miami Herald. This weekend, those attending Cuba Nostalgia at Tamiami Park Fair-Expo Center in west Miami-Dade can preview the database at The Miami Herald pavilion through Sunday. The names in the database come from what Pedro Pan historians call 'the Airport Log' -- handwritten names of the children kept by Jorge 'George' Guarch, a Cuban exile hired by the Catholic Church to greet the children at Miami International Airport and help with their paperwork. 'I remember my parents saying goodbye to me in Havana and reminding me to ask for George the minute I landed in Miami,' said Eloisa Echazabal, who came through the program at age 13. ``And when I got off the plane, he was there to help us, just like they had told me. That was very comforting to me.' Echazabal didn't realize it at the time, but Guarch wrote down her name and her 8-year-old sister's, Teresita, who accompanied her. They appear on the log and are now included in the database. Among other Pedro Panners in the database: Florida's U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez; singers Willy Chirino and his wife Lissette; Miami City Commissioner Tomas Regalado; developers Armando Codina and Ralph Sanchez; and The Florida Bar president Frank Angones. The most notorious? Famed drug kingpin Sal Magluta, who with his partner Willy Falcon ran Miami's biggest drug empire in the late 1970s and 1980s. Books and documentaries have tried to capture the fear that prompted so many parents to send their unaccompanied children to America -- and the culture shock they experienced when they found themselves living with strangers in this country. Today, Echazabal, a member of Operation Pedro Pan Group in Miami, is among veterans of the mission -- many now in their 60s -- also working feverishly to preserve the history of the Pedro Pan exodus. 'I don't think in our lifetime there will be another large effort to help children escape communism,' she said. This is the second database related to Cuban exile history compiled by The Miami Herald. Last year, the newspaper launched The Freedom Flights Database, which lists the names of the 260,000 Cubans who came to Miami on those daily flights between 1965 and 1973. That database can be found at www.miamiherald.com/ revolution .

Cuban American travel to Cuba on the rise

May 7, 2009

Marc Frank, Reuters

HAVANA (Reuters) - The number of Cuban Americans visiting Cuba is up 20 percent so far this year and will likely keep rising as Washington eases travel restrictions, the Cuban tour operator for U.S. traffic said on Wednesday. Antonio Diaz Medina, vice president of Havanatur, said arrivals picked up after the U.S. Congress in March eased a Bush administration measure that restricted Cuban American visits to once every three years. "The flights from the United States carried about 85,000 last year and so far this year arrivals have been about 40,000," Diaz said in an interview. Diaz said an additional increase in visitors was expected during the summer after President Barack Obama signed an executive order last month lifting all restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting relatives. Diaz spoke as Cuba's annual tourism convention unfolded at the colonial-era Morro Cabanas fortress overlooking Havana Bay, where talk among officials and tour operators centred on whether the gathering would be the last without a large American presence. Legislation lifting all travel restrictions on U.S. citizens travelling to Cuba was introduced in Congress just over a month ago, and with a slight thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations under way, is given a good chance of passing. Cuba has been mostly off-limits to Americans since the U.S. imposed a trade embargo against the communist-led island three years after Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution. Tour operators from more than 50 countries at the convention dubbed the prospect of open travel from the United States "the American Tsunami" and said it was just a matter of time. "You know what, I love Americans. Go Obama. Cuba will still be Cuba, the same place with a few Americans added. It's just like adding another spice to the stew," said Richard, a Canadian tour operator who did not want to give his full name. Cuban officials appeared relaxed about the prospect of the Americans arriving, with one saying "there is no reason to make it a big deal now. They could come in three months or three years." "I do not expect any tsunami. What's certain is that there will be a convention in 2010, with or without the Americans," Diaz said. "If they come, too, that's fine. It will simply mean we are going back to normal where all markets are open," he said, adding inquiries from U.S. tour operators had increased significantly. The Obama administration denied licenses to U.S. tour operators seeking to attend this year's convention, according to John McAuliff of the New York-based Fund for Reconciliation and Development. "We could have brought 100 operators here," he said. "Next year we will, and if all restrictions are lifted there will be hundreds, maybe even a special event." (Editing by Jeff Franks and Doina Chiacu) .
April 2009

Hard Lines on Havana Soften in Miami

April 27, 2009

Nick Miroff, Washington Post

MIAMI -- Edel Hernández arrived at the airport here last week with a giant duffel bag and a ball cap pulled low over his eyes. Two years earlier he had left Cuba, and he hadn't seen his wife since. "It's been hard," he said, his eyes welling as he tugged on the visor. "Really hard." Under the old rules, Hernández, 35, would have had to wait another year to return to Cuba to see her. But when President Obama lifted travel restrictions this month for U.S. residents with family on the island, Hernández bought a ticket right away. Arguments that once might have made sense -- that the cash in his pockets and the gifts in his suitcase would benefit the Castro government -- ring hollow next to the pain of separation. "I'm helping my family," he said, looking down at his barrel-size baggage, swaddled in blue plastic wrap to protect against pilfering. "The clothes I'm bringing are for them. The government isn't going to wear them." In the nearly two weeks since the policy change was announced, demand for flights to the island has exploded, according to Miami-based charter companies licensed to operate them. At the same time, conversations with Cuban immigrants here at the airport and along Southwest Eighth Street in the heart of Miami's Little Havana neighborhood suggest that hard lines are softening, and that the engagement approach advocated by Obama has set into motion a wide-ranging reexamination of U.S. efforts to bring change to the island. Until this month, a 2004 Bush administration policy limited visits by U.S. residents with relatives in Cuba to once every three years, curbing gifts for family members as well as cash transfers. Fulfilling a campaign pledge, Obama lifted those restrictions over the objections of Cuban American leaders in Congress who have long argued that travelers like Hernández prop up Cuba's failing economy and perpetuate the 50-year rule of Fidel and Raúl Castro. U.S. residents without family in Cuba are still generally barred from going to the island, but many Cuban Americans here said they want that to change, too -- out of fairness and a desire to see American tourists flood the island. With Cuban Americans now able to travel as often as they wish, some of the seven charter companies who send roughly 35 flights to Cuba each week said reservation requests have nearly doubled. The need for excess luggage capacity has been so pressing-- restrictions on baggage weight were lifted as well -- that one company, Xael Charters, has had to send a small cargo plane, nicknamed "El Mosquito," to accompany its main flights. The incipient travel boom reflects an accelerating shift in attitudes toward America's Cuba policy. A poll of 400 Cuban Americans conducted April 14-16 by Florida-based research firm Bendixen & Associates found that 64 percent of respondents supported Obama's new travel policy. An even larger number, 67 percent, said all Americans should be able to go to the island. The poll, which had a 5 percent margin of error, also found broad support for the new president -- Obama's favorability rating of 67 percent was the highest of any U.S. president since Ronald Reagan. Support for the 1962 U.S. trade embargo against Cuba has also eroded in the past three years, the poll found, dropping from 53 to 42 percent. 'It's Complicated' The survey results underscore the changing demographics that are mostly likely to determine those views. Younger Cubans, and those who arrived more recently and tend to still have family on the island, are generally more supportive of liberalization, while older exiles continue to back the embargo and oppose increased travel. "How can you say you're fleeing from the regime and ask for political asylum if you're going to turn around a few years later and go vacation in Cuba?" said Juan Carlos Meneses, a 51-year-old building manager who arrived as part of the 1980 Mariel boatlift and hasn't been back since. Meneses was standing in the shade at Maximo Gomez Park, where dozens of older Cuban men gather each day for dominoes, chess, or cards. A handmade sign in Spanish listed rules such as "No Shouting," "No Spitting on the Ground," and "No Swearing," along with the warning that violators face a two-to-four-week suspension from the park. Many older men in the park dismissed Obama as a political naif for his overtures at the recent Summit of the Americas, and for thinking the Castros will yield. Even though the embargo has failed to dislodge the Castros, it is a moral statement and should be maintained as a symbolic repudiation of their rule, said 72-year-old Feliciano Rolo, who left Cuba in 1966.

Cuban-Americans Split on What U.S. Should Do Next

April 23, 2009

Paulo Prada, The Wall Street Journal

MIAMI -- With the gradual passing of the generation of Cubans who fled their country after former President Fidel Castro seized power, a near consensus is emerging here for the U.S. to ease its harsh policies toward the island, just 90 miles away. But now that President Barack Obama has initiated what could become the most radical shift in U.S. relations with Cuba since the 1959 revolution, some Cuban-Americans here are uneasy. At issue is whether a further relaxation of U.S. policy should hinge on obtaining commitments for reforms from the Cuban regime. The notion divides a community that has softened its stance in recent years as new Cuban immigrants and descendents of older exiles temper the hard line that defined the U.S. policy with Cuba for most of the past five decades. "The Cuban-Americans who shaped Cuba policy are totally disconnected from Cuba," said Joe Garcia, a Cuban-American activist and Democrat who last year came close to toppling Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.), one of the many pro-embargo Republicans elected here over the years. "It's time to do something practical." Last week, the Obama administration loosened restrictions on visits and the flow of money by Cuban-Americans to the island and suggested more changes could follow if the Cuban government took steps to introduce democratic reforms. Though President Raúl Castro said in response that the regime was willing to discuss "everything," his older brother, Fidel Castro, said Wednesday the U.S. was wrong to believe that meant the Cuban government would heed American demands. More than half the people of Cuban origin now living in the U.S. have emigrated since the 1980s, according to the Census Bureau. That means that they, unlike the Cuban exiles that fled as the Castro regime embraced communism, lived for extended periods with the harsh reality of that economy and are more likely to have immediate family there. Because of the decrepit state of much of the island, most Cuban-Americans no longer harbor a dream of returning to the houses, haciendas, and pueblos their families fled. "You no longer think about going back to live because what you once had is no longer there," said Miguel Vazquez, who fled the island as a boy and now runs Sentir Cubano, a store that specializes in such vintage Cuban goods as reproductions of Havana phone books from 1959. "You think about helping redevelop the country once the regime is gone." The Cuban-Americans who believe concessions from the Cuban government should be required for a further loosening of U.S. restrictions argue the Cuban regime should restore civil liberties, adopt free-market reforms and free the more than 300 political prisoners that human-rights groups say are held by the government. "They have to do something in return," Miami attorney Manuel Fernandez said this week about the White House policy changes. Yet some Cuban-Americans believe it is a mistake to wait for Havana. They argue the regime has endured the U.S. blockade for decades and could continue to ignore U.S. gestures that fall short of anything but wholesale reversal of Cuba policy, such as the lifting of the economic embargo. Because that change could take years, some private-sector groups in the U.S. are hatching plans of their own to enable progress when it comes. "For too long, our policies depended on what Cuba does or doesn't do," said Carlos Saladrigas, a prominent Miami businessman who co-chairs the Cuba Study Group, an organization that develops projects to promote entrepreneurship in a post-Castro Cuba. "We have to focus on what can help the Cuban people, not what hurts the Cuban government." Another group, Raices de Esperanza, which organizes Cuban-Americans at college campuses, recently launched a drive to send cellphones and prepaid phone cards to young Cubans. "If we can facilitate communication, that's a step forward," said Tony Jimenez, one of the group's founders. Even those eager for alternatives to existing policy worry the current sentiment risks appeasing the Castro regime, without regard for the reasons the U.S. government opposed it so fervently to begin with. Anna Marie Bolet, a 38-year old pharmaceutical saleswoman whose parents fled the island in the early 1960s, said she felt insulted when Rep. Bobby Rush (D., Ill.), after a visit by members of the Congressional Black Caucus to the Castro brothers this month, said President Castro was like "someone who I would favor as a neighbor." "He can stay there," she said, standing along Calle Ocho, Little Havana's main thoroughfare. "They can give us a political prisoner in exchange." Write to Paulo Prada at paulo.prada@wsj.com .

U.S. Overtures Find Support Among Cuban-Americans

April 21, 2009

Damien Cave, New York Times

MIAMI — Anger and pain used to drive Rafael Diaz when he spoke about Cuba. A home builder with muscular arms, he denounced all contact with the island he left 48 years ago, seeking to suffocate the government he hated. But at 53, with Fidel and Raúl Castro still in power, Mr. Diaz has reversed course, praising the new White House plan to end restrictions on visits and remittances for Cuban-Americans — and insisting that travel should be open to all Americans. “From Key West, we should have six ferries going out during the day and six coming back,” he said. It is a stunning change of heart now shared by a wide majority of Cuban-Americans. A poll released Monday by Bendixen & Associates has found that 67 percent of the community now supports the removal of all restrictions for travel to Cuba, an 18-point increase from three years ago, when the same question was asked. Even among older, so-called historic exiles like Mr. Diaz, the survey shows that support for a new approach to Cuba has grown. “This is across the board,” said Fernand Amandi, an executive vice president at Bendixen, which has been polling Cuban-Americans for more than 25 years. He added, “We’re at the end of a 50-year stalemate period, calling for a new dawn on U.S.-Cuba relations.” The nationwide telephone survey of 400 adults — the first gauge of Cuban-American opinion since President Obama announced his new policy last week — was conducted April 14-16, and the margin of sampling error is plus or minus five percentage points. It suggests that Mr. Obama has become a catalyst for openness, accelerating a political shift here that first became visible after the furor in 2000 over whether to send a young Cuban rafter, Elián González, back to his father on the island. Indeed, despite this community’s reputation for loyalty to Republicans, the poll found widespread approval for Mr. Obama: 64 percent supported his new policies on travel and money sent to relatives. An even larger majority, 67 percent, said they had a favorable or somewhat favorable opinion of Mr. Obama, the highest rating among Cuban-Americans for a president in a Bendixen poll since Ronald Reagan in the mid-’80s. “For the first time since the beginning of Kennedy’s presidency,” Mr. Amandi said, “they are aligning with a Democratic president in his engagement policy with Cuba.” The poll did not include a breakdown by voter registration, and may not be a predictor of election results. In 2008, Mr. Obama received 47 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida, according to an exit poll by Edison/Mitofsky. But what seems clear, from the poll and more than 20 interviews with Cuban-Americans in South Florida, is that support for the confrontational approach to Cuba of the last 50 years has given way to something far more fluid. In Cuban-American homes, the new travel and remittance rules have led to dinner-table chatter about when to go or what to send. The phones now ring regularly at charter agencies that offer direct flights from Miami to Havana for around $500 round-trip, and for many here, limiting travel to Cuban-Americans looks like a half-step that should lead to a fuller stride. At the Guayabo Laundry in Hialeah, Pedro Garcia, 67, and Lucia Hernandez, 68, said in separate interviews that Cuba should be open to all travelers, not just to Cuban-Americans. “The people in Cuba need to wake up and see how other people live,” said Ms. Hernandez, who came to Miami in 1996. Even on Calle Ocho, in the heart of Little Havana, it is no longer difficult to find Cubans like Olga Fernandez, 46, who said she had returned only days ago from Havana and planned to go back as often as she could. “They really need the help,” Ms. Fernandez said, in an office providing services to new immigrants. “It’s the only way things are going to change.” For many, contact has come to be seen as a tool of change — an argument running counter to the sanctions of the 1962 trade embargo — even as politics have become less central to “Cubanidad,” or Cuban identity. Newer arrivals have long tended to sidestep the hard-line tradition in Miami; in Cuba itself, politics is often seen as the problem, not the solution, and many prefer to avoid the topic after they leave. But that viewpoint seems to be spreading. Cuban-Americans here are no longer so singularly focused on Fidel and Raúl Castro; filial and cultural ties to Cuba now compete for attention as the Castro brothers and their oldest enemies move closer to death, said Alfredo Duran, 73, a Miami lawyer and former state chairman of the Democratic Party. Mr. Duran said he knew of several exiles at or near retirement who now say they want to receive their Social Security checks in Cuba. A veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion who was one of the first prominent exiles to call for engagement, in the 1990s, Mr. Duran said he had been surprised by how quickly opinions had shifted. “They used to call me left wing,” Mr. Duran said. “Now I’m a right-wing moderate because people are going further to the left than I am.” For older Cubans, in particular, reconsideration has inspired conflicting emotions. The Bendixen poll found that 54 percent of Cubans who arrived in the ’70s or earlier favored letting all American citizens travel to Cuba, but that many did so with caution, dreading a surprise from the Castros. Mr. Diaz said he feared another Mariel boatlift, when Cuba sent 125,000 rafters — many of them convicted criminals — to Florida’s shores in 1980, after years of rapprochement with President Jimmy Carter. And if Cuba does retrench, conservative hard-liners in Congress and Miami will be ready to pounce. On Monday, at Versailles, a restaurant on Calle Ocho, a crowd of graying men gathered around Emilio Izquierdo Jr., 61, as he yelled that President Obama had already erred by “giving Castro everything without demanding anything.” But Mr. Diaz, who left Cuba when he was 5, said that even without certainty of success, a new approach was needed. The 47-year-old embargo that he once supported “hasn’t worked,” he said, a view shared by 43 percent of Cuban-Americans in the Bendixen poll, up from 36 percent three years ago. Just as importantly, Mr. Diaz misses home. He said he began to reconsider his position on travel while listening to the young Cubans he hired at his construction company. They described an island that he still craved but no longer recognized. “They’re telling me all these stories about all these great places in Cuba,” he said. “And I said, ‘Man, I don’t know any of them.’ ” Yolanne Almanzar contributed reporting from Miami.

Cubans divided on more issues than travel

April 20, 2009

Jackie Bueno Sousa, Miami Herald

In the days since President Barack Obama relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba, the media have consistently reported how the issue has split Miami's Cuban community. Please allow me to offer a clarification: Disagreement over travel has not split Miami's Cuban community. No, it's merely highlighted a social fracture that has existed for years, but which was camouflaged to outsiders by the bonds of family loyalty and the shared empathy of fellow immigrants. The split started forming when the Mariel boatlift of 1980 and subsequent immigration waves brought Cubans who, compared to those who arrived in the '60s and '70s, looked different, lacked a hatred for Fidel Castro, were poorer, uttered a strange slang and used an unappreciated vocabulary. The post-1980 Cubans were more likely to come for economic reasons, rather than political dissent. They didn't have traditional Spanish names like Maria or Juan or Carlos. Instead, they had Russian names, often starting with the letter Y. They too easily used words like compañero -- comrade -- which triggered angst among the earlier arrivals. Those were seemingly small differences that started forming fissures large enough to house an ideology and potent enough to break a voting bloc. Once, a few years ago, my friend Frank, a Cuba hard-liner, was outside working in his front lawn when a lost driver pulled up in front of his house and innocently asked for directions. 'Compañero,' the driver called out in Spanish, ``can you help me find this address?' 'Compañero?' Frank responded, unable to believe what he had just heard -- in Hialeah, no less. 'Who the hell are you calling `compañero'?' Frank said as he reached for a rock as if to throw it at the unsuspecting fellow, who just managed to rush back in his car and speed off. Recognizing the differences between the waves of Cuban immigrants, sociologists like Silvia Pedraza even came up with labels to describe the various groups. First there were the true exiles, those who came between 1959 and 1962, whom Pedraza calls 'those who wait' believing that one day they'll return to a free Cuba. They were followed by 'those who escape,' mostly professionals pushed out by the communists in the early '60s; 'those who search' (1965-1973), small merchants and farmers who fled after their businesses were taken over; 'those who hope' (1980s), often poorer and more racially diverse, who came in search of a better future; and 'those who despair' (1990s and more recently), who arrived as the Cuban government encouraged the discontented to leave the island. Eugenio Rothe, a University of Miami psychiatry professor who has researched the mind-set of Cuban immigrants, notes that the sharp differences among Cuban immigrants formed years ago and is not simply a disagreement about the embargo and travel to Cuba. 'There's this idea that the exile community is a monolithic group,' he says. ``That's not true.' The good news: The differences are a byproduct of the community's success and assimilation. Rothe notes that, as Cubans move into the second and third generations, the community is losing its uniqueness and beginning to resemble the rest of the U.S. population, while at the same time holding on to its Hispanic roots. It is more pluralistic, ethnic and rebellious. In other words, the community has become quintessentially American.

Cuban-Americans optimistic, wary of new Cuba rules

April 14, 2009

AP- Laura Wides-Munoz,

MIAMI (AP) — Delsa Bernardo was ready to pop rolls in the oven at Yiya's Gourmet Cuban Bakery when she heard the news: After years of separation, she could finally visit her 80-year-old aunt in Cuba, any time she wanted. Like many Cuban-Americans, Bernardo celebrated President Barack Obama's decision Monday to break from a half-century of U.S. policy toward the communist country and lift restrictions on visiting relatives there and sending money to them. In a further sign of openness, the White House also announced it would allow U.S. firms to seek telecommunications business there. "This is fantastic for me. I can actually go see my father's sister. She's my last living relative there," said Bernardo, 47, who came to the U.S. when she was 5 and has never been back. Although the change is measured — travel is still limited for the rest of Americans and a wide-reaching tradeembargo remains in place — the White House portrayed the move as a path to promoting personal freedom in one of the few remaining communist nations. The changes, first proposed during Obama's presidential campaign, marked another major step away from the foreign policy priorities of the Bush administration. But the moves fell far short of more drastic policy adjustments that some — including Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana — have argued are required to promote U.S. interests in Latin America and change Cuba. For most Americans, Cuba remains the only country in the world their government prohibits them from visiting — a barrier to potential travelers as well as to the Cuban tourist industry that would like to host them. Across Florida and New Jersey, home to the nation's largest Cuban exile communities, news of the changes traveled fast. "So many people have been calling," said Ofelia Gutierrez, a Cuban immigrant and the manager of Costamar Travel in Union City, N.J. "They are really excited about it, asking 'Is it true we can go?'" Gutierrez does worry the Cuban government will skim off any increased money sent home to family members. "But overall, it's going to bring families together," said the senator, who fled Cuba as a teenager in the early 1960s and was separated from his parents for years until they were allowed leave the island. Martinez was particularly pleased about allowing telecommunications firms to do business on the island. That could include contracts to lay fiberoptic cable lines and vastly improve Cuba's Internet and telephone capabilities to open communication with the rest of the world. Miami attorney Joe Garcia, long an advocate of easing travel restrictions, said the ability to send more money to the island would let Cuban-Americans directly support civil society there, rather than being forced to channel their money through a few U.S.-government sanctioned aid groups. Obama is unlikely to allow American tourists to visit the island without limits any time soon. And lifting or substantially easing the economic embargo would require legislative action by Congress, something Cuban-Americans feel mixed about. Many believe it should remain in place as a moral symbol even though many acknowledge it has been ineffective. "We hope that the administration will reserve that for future steps when conditions on the part of the Cuban government have changed and political prisoners have been freed," said Francisco Hernandez, director of the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami. Cuban-American U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., took an even stronger stance. "President Obama has committed a serious mistake by unilaterally increasing Cuban-American travel and remittance dollars for the Cuban dictatorship," he said in a statement. American policy toward Cuba has remained nearly static since 1962, when the Kennedy administration broadened a partial trade embargo imposed by the Eisenhower administration the previous year. The aim was to bring down Fidel Castro's Marxist government at a time when U.S.-backed exiles mounted the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and Soviet missiles in Cuba pushed the world close to nuclear war. Congressional efforts to end the embargo since then have failed, largely because of the political influence of powerful Cuban exiles, mostly in Florida, who were determined to isolate Cuba, strangle its economy and force Castro out. But a new generation of Cuban-Americans and newer immigrants are frustrated with the policy's lack of results and more interested in strengthening ties with those on the island — even as Castro's younger brother Raul shows no sign of making any fundamental changes. The White House announced the Cuba changes in advance of Obama's planned trip this weekend to a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. Cuba is excluded from that gathering, but a number of participants were expected to use the session as an opportunity to press the U.S. to improve relations with Havana. At Yiya's bakery, which features Cuban tourism posters from before the embargo, Bernardo said she hoped the changes would put the international focus back on the Cuban government and its abuses. "It's a way to say, 'Let's see who Castro blames now for the problems there?'" she said. Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Jennifer Loven in Washington, Will Weissert in Havana and Samantha Henry in Newark contributed from Cuba.

Youths discuss life in Cuba

April 6, 2009

Trenton Daniel, Miami Herald

Giselle Palacios, the daughter of a prominent dissident family in Cuba, recounted Friday how the island regime's henchmen deflated her school grades, threw stones at her Havana home and jailed her parents. 'It was a hard experience for me,' said Palacios, 24, the daughter of Héctor Palacios, who was among the 75 human rights activists, librarians and independent journalists who were arrested in a major crackdown in Cuba in 2003. It was first-hand tales like this one -- coupled with Academy Award-nominated actor Andy Garcia's own life story -- that united about 200 Cubans, Cuban Americans and non-Cubans at the GenerAcción conference at the University of Miami's Coral Gables campus. CLOSER TIES In its sixth year, the 2,500-member Raíces de Esperanza, or Roots of Hope, aims to bolster ties between the 5 million Cuban youths estimated to be on the island and their U.S. counterparts. The nonprofit's genesis stems from the founders' belief that many Americans misunderstand Cuban Americans' strong feelings on Cuba issues. The group's membership has swelled over the years. Academic conferences have become commonplace. Duke, Princeton, Georgetown and Harvard have hosted forums. On Friday, more than 100 college students from across the nation filled the UM auditorium to learn more about their peers on the opposite side of the Florida Straits. Topics ranged from the apparent apathy among island youth to the role they must play in securing a democratic, post-Castro Cuba. Lauren Vanessa López, a research associate at UM, knocked the idea that Cuban youth were infected with apathy. Citing a 2007 study from the Washington-based International Republican Institute, López noted that 74 percent of the respondents said they would like to vote for a successor to a regime that has been controlled by Fidel Castro and now his brother Raúl for half a century. 'This signifies that Cuba's youth really does want change,' López said. Visiting the Castro-ruled island has long been a hot-button issue for many exiles, but López urged audience members to make the trip -- within legal means. 'It's really an experience that will be unforgettable for both you and them,' López said about island youngsters. ``Feel[ing] what they feel is very impactful for them.' DIFFERING OPINIONS In her first time to participate, a recent Cornell graduate said she enjoyed encountering a range of thoughts on Cuba, . 'I can appreciate there's more diversity of opinion,' said Katy Sastre, 25, of New Jersey. ``It's nice to get a different opinion.' The highlight Friday was almost certainly Garcia, film star of movies such as The Untouchables and the director of The Lost City. In a light yet earnest talk, the actor spoke about his unapologetic support for a post-Castro Cuba ('The necessity for freedom is something that's not negotiable'), his early days in Hollywood (``change your name, fix your teeth, lose your accent,' he was told) and his directing experience with The Lost City (``that movie is the most important thing I've done in my life.)' Garcia also spoke of the need for audience members, many of them in their 20s, to stay involved in the Cuban cause. 'Both Castro brothers are not going to be around forever,' he said. ``The dismantling of that regime will eventually happen.' .
February 2009

Activistas del exilio denuncian al régimen cubano

February 10, 2009

Juan Carlos Chavez, El Nuevo Herald

Una comitiva del Directorio Democrático Cubano viajó recientemente a Ginebra, Suiza, para denunciar al gobierno de La Habana ante el Consejo de Derechos Humanos de la ONU por sus violaciones a las libertades individuales y sus prácticas intimidatorias contra la disidencia. Los detalles de la presentación fueron dados a conocer el lunes en una conferencia de prensa en Miami donde se subrayó el hecho de que por primera vez fueron tomados en cuenta en la convocatoria para el caso cubano los reportes de dos grupos de oposición, el Consejo de Relatores de Derechos Humanos y el Movimiento Solidario Expresión Libre. "La oportunidad de estar allí no fue con el propósito de buscar un carácter protagónico, sino para ayudar a esclarecer la situación de la realidad de Cuba', dijo Janisset Rivero, miembro del Directorio. La comitiva se presentó el 4 de febrero pasado en la ciudad helvética durante un foro paralelo a la sesión del Examen Periódico Universal del Consejo de Derechos Humanos de la ONU, organizado por los grupos UN Watch e Internacional Demócrata de Centro. La delegación estuvo integrada por los portavoces del Directorio, John Suárez y Aramis Pérez, la activista Bertha Antúnez -hermana del conocido disidente cubano Jorge Luis García Pérez (Antúnez)- y su tío, el ex preso de conciencia del grupo de los 75, Omar Pernet Hernández. "Nuestra presentación suscitó mucho interés. El régimen trató de hacer presión y molestar, pero nosotros somos testimonios vivientes de la tortura en Cuba', aseveró Bertha Antúnez. Asimismo el Directorio anotó que en el foro se logró una comunicación telefónica exclusiva con representantes de las dos organizaciones que, desde Cuba, lograron insertar informes de denuncia sobre los atropellos y las violaciones a los derechos humanos en la isla. El debate oficial en Ginebra concluyó el lunes. Cuba rechazó los pronunciamientos que hicieron varios países sobre la existencia de prisioneros políticos y las restricciones a la libertad de expresión.
January 2009

South Florida police talk about post-Fidel events

January 16, 2009

Liza Gross and Frances Robles, Miami Herald

Police officials from across Miami-Dade, hoping to discuss possible post-Fidel Castro events locally, on Wednesday met with Democracy Now, the Cuban exile group headed by Ramon Saul Sanchez. The meeting was not spurred by specific intelligence but just to keep a dialogue open as reports circulate about Castro's health. Mostly, the talks centered on expected street celebrations and dealing with an influx of refugees, police said. 'Basically we're doing everything we can. We're talking to our federal and local partners, though we have no intelligence that say anything is any different,' said Miami Police spokesman Delrish Moss. The heightened attention on Cuba comes at a time when Cuba watchers from as far as Spain remained on alert, reacting to widely circulating but vague reports that Castro's health had taken a serious turn for the worse. While recognizing that this kind of speculation happens periodically -- most recently in August 2007 -- those who deal with Washington on a regular basis say authorities aren't taking it lightly. 'High sources in Washington are saying that reliable sources have said that he has taken gravely ill,' said University of Miami's Andy Gomez, who serves as an advisor to the U.S. Task Force on Cuba, an arm of the Brookings Institution think tank comprised of academics and former diplomats. ``They are monitoring this very closely, including looking for additional movements of security and troops. So far, none of this has happened.' Castro's continued absence from public view, an unusually long break from published essays, failure to schedule private chats with recent visiting presidents and veiled remarks by Venezuelan ally Hugo Chávez has elevated the unconfirmed reports of the Cuban leader's pending death. El Pais newspaper in Spain reported Wednesday that there were apparent movements at the Cuban Armed Forces Friday after Castro suffered a 'possible' heart attack. Another Spain-based web site, Cubaecuentro.com, reported that his condition was ``irreversible.' Officials from the State Department acknowledged that they were aware of the reports on Castro's health but denied they were monitoring troop activities on the island. The White House issued a statement Tuesday by President George W. Bush to the Cuban people, which also appeared to serve as a message for President-elect Barack Obama, who has said he would ease travel restrictions to the island. 'As much of the world celebrates the dawning of a new year, Cuba marks 50 years of one of the cruelest dictatorships this hemisphere has witnessed,' Bush stated. ``As long as there are people who fight for liberty, the United States will stand with them and speak out for those whose voices have been temporarily silenced. 'All Cubans have the right to be treated with dignity so that they can rise as high as their talents and hard work will take them,' the statement said. ``This is the standard my administration and past administrations -- regardless of political affiliation -- have expected from the Cuban government as the condition for improved relations.' Government sources in Cuba have said that Castro remained in control as recently as October, even making calls and barking orders to high-level officials. Sources on the island this week said Castro's recent absence was because he was exhibiting memory loss and incoherence. It's been a month since Castro wrote a fresh newspaper column, known as Reflections, and almost two since his last published picture. No images were released of his November meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, he was a no-show at the Jan. 1 celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the triumph of the revolution, and did not host recent visits by two Latin American presidents. His last 'Reflection' was published in Cuban newspapers on Dec. 15. And the last published picture, showing him glad-handing Chinese President Hu Jintao, was released Nov. 18. There also were no photos of his meeting with Argentine writer Stella Calloni in early December, although she reported that he looked recovered and alert. Panamanian President Martín Torrijos did not meet with Castro when he traveled to Cuba Jan. 3. And the Cuban leader did not write a column on Torrijos' visit. Instead, the Cuban government website posted a 1976 speech Castro gave in honor of Torrijos' father, Omar. Likewise, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador returned home last week saying he was unable to meet with Castro and didn't know the state of his health. But the most disquieting comments came from Chávez, who during a weekly address Sunday said Castro would never return to public life and added that he would live on beyond physical life. As rumors swept through the Cuban American community in South Florida, one exile leader said they appeared to be more serious than similar reports in the recent past. 'I believe Fidel Castro is finally in his final days of life,' said Ernesto Díaz, secretary general of Alpha 66, one of the oldest anti-Castro militant organizations. ``In a not too distant future, he will cease to exist.' 'Chávez's statements that Castro will no longer make public appearences and the fact Castro himself has not written one of his periodic articles in a while are signs that all may not be well with him,' Díaz added. But another prominent member of Miami's Cuban American community said he was not sure the vague reports were true. Max Lesnik, a local radio commentator who often travels to Cuba and maintains high-level contacts there, said he talked to a high-ranking Cuban official by telephone on Monday and that the official -- a friend -- never raised the issue of Castro's health. 'We talked about many topics and not once did he make any reference to Castro or his health and I did not notice any tone of concern in his voice,' Lesnik said. ``Nothing out of the ordinary.' While acknowledging that Castro's prolonged absence is not business as usual, a veteran Cuba observer urged against jumping to dramatic conclusions. 'I would tend to think there is something here,' said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the UM's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. ``Whether he is ill or getting better in a few days, who knows. But we will have to wait and see. 'He will die someday. Nobody is immortal. He is an 80-some-old man,' Suchlicki added. ``When we see the military in force on the street and hear funeral music, then we'll know something has happened.' Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle, Alfonso Chardy and El Nuevo Herald staff writer Wilfredo Cancio Isla contributed to this report.
December 2008

Freedom Flight list lets exiles share, connect

December 17, 2008

Myriam Marquez, Miami Herald

My Herald colleague Luisa Yanez was rubbing her hands together like she had just solved the world's greatest mystery. She finally would get to see the list. The one that included her. 'You know that story I did about the Freedom Flights,' she told me a couple months ago. ``Well, I found a way to get the list of all 265,000 Cubans who came to Miami from 1965 to 1973.' Eres una bárbara, I told her -- as in you're-too-much, job-well-done bárbara. Amazing. The rest, as they say, is exile history wrapped in the ultimate American experience: freedom. Luisa's dream of an online site that would serve as a mini Ellis Island-style directory for the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who arrived in South Florida since Fidel Castro's revolution 50 years ago is about to come true. The site, posted on MiamiHerald.com, will give Cuban Americans the opportunity to share photos of that time and write their memories about the trip, the loved ones and towns they left behind and their yearning for a free and democratic Cuba. Whether you came on a Freedom Flight or arrived earlier -- like Sen. Mel Martinez, as part of the Pedro Pan exodus that took 14,000 children out of Cuba -- or even last year, we all know someone who took that historic flight from Varadero Beach to Miami. The children who arrived without knowing a lick of English are now lawyers and doctors, authors, business people, teachers and, well, journalists. I still remember my mother's tears as we watched my grandparents gingerly walk down the steps of a Freedom Flight on Sept. 9, 1969. 'Mamaita, papaito,' she cried, waving her arms and hugging my little brother and me so hard that we gasped. Whenever I hear people rag on the Democrats and Cuba policy, I remind them that most of us are here because a Democratic president, clueless or not, opened the door. Democrats may be too mushy to fight commie regimes in swift and determined fashion, but they surely have defended human rights to our advantage -- particularly during the Cold War when the Kennedy and Carter administrations cut deals that freed thousands of Cuban prisoners. In 1965, it was Lyndon B. Johnson and a Democratic Congress that ushered in the flights to end the Camarioca boatlift. Many who arrived by boat via Camarioca also will find their names on the list, though some corrections will be warranted. Clerks misspelled or transposed some of the passengers' names. The Freedom Flights didn't just liberate my grandparents -- they freed me to dream. The few years I had with them here in Miami before they died became my little piece of Cuba. Their history became part of my history; their struggle, my struggle. One day -- (not too soon, my dear college sons) -- when I become a grandmother, I plan to take my grandchild by the hand and show her or him how to click on the laptop and look for their great-great Cuban grandparents' story. It'll be there on that magical list that Luisa's persistence helped create forever in time..

For exiled Cubans, a mix of pain, nostalgia, hope

December 15, 2008

Fabiola Santiago, Miami Herald

For Cuban exiles, people who left it all behind and started their lives anew, el exilio is a foster fatherland, a waiting room and safe haven to collectively yearn for a free Cuba. The wait for the end of Fidel Castro's regime stretched into a half century in which Cuban exiles built a city with the blueprint of their transplanted memories. They couldn't carry Havana, Varadero or Pinar del Río in their sparse luggage, but they could replicate their essence in virtually every corner of a sleepy tourist town ripe for the makeover. El exilio became synonymous with Miami, the undisputed capital of the Cuban exile, the largest Cuban enclave outside of Havana. It's a bittersweet story of sorrow and triumph, a catalog of obstacles and accomplishments in the shadow of a homeland that is only about a 30-minute plane ride from Miami, yet so far from reach. It makes the Cuban exodus an immigrant experience like no other in America. Nearly two million Cubans have fled the island since Castro's revolution triumphed in 1959. More than 850,000 Cubans now live in Greater Miami and Broward County. About 250,000 live in the New Jersey/New York area, the second largest U.S. enclave. Thousands more are scattered throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. The rest settled in Latin America and Europe. For most, el exilio has been a never-ending chain of family separation and reunion, a symphony of pain, nostalgia and esperanza, hope. Every exodus -- Operation Pedro Pan in the early 1960s, the Camarioca boatlift in 1965, the Freedom Flights from 1965 through 1973, the Mariel boatlift of 1980, the thousands of rafters who risked their lives on the Florida Straits in the summer of 1994, the defectors, the artists and intellectuals and the visiting relatives who stayed, the immigration agreements and lottery that provided visas, the cigarette boats overloaded by smugglers so prevalent today -- set in motion the next wave. One relative brought another and another in a sequence of tearful goodbyes on one side of the Florida Straits and tearful reunions on the other. Industrial and entrepreneurial, the early exiles began to set down roots after the defeat of the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. From their efforts to rebuild rose Calle Ocho and southwest Miami, nicknamed la sagüesera, a Cuban flair that later extended throughout South Florida. Their economic success was unprecedented, and today, Cuban Americans are among the wealthiest Hispanics in the United States. 'Most of the Cuban exiles who came to the United States in the 1960s had skills and qualifications, which made it easier for them to adapt economically,' says Lisandro Pérez, a Cuban-American sociologist at Florida International University. ``It was a migration of the country's elite. Those who left were already very successful; they had experience with the capitalist system in prerevolutionary Cuba and had already conducted trade with the United States. Also, the dynamics of Miami played an important role in the Cuban immigrant experience. It was a relatively small town, and there were plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurs.' MARIEL EXODUS Other waves of exiles built upon that success. Although at first the more than 125,000 refugees who arrived during the five-month Mariel boatlift of 1980 sent an already beleaguered Miami into a social and economic crisis, they also adapted and infused the region with an added layer of Cuban culture. So did the 35,000 balseros -- rafters -- who left Cuba during the 1990s, and the scores of intellectuals who fled in more recent years with work contracts via Madrid, Mexico, Paris and Buenos Aires and eventually ended up here. Out of the exiles' sense of loss, a tapestry of all things Cuban was draped over Greater Miami. Cuban culture is thickest in municipalities like Hialeah, where West 46th Place is Cuban Cultural Heritage Boulevard and West 47th Place proclaims 'Añorada Cuba Boulevard,' Cuba of Our Yearning Boulevard. It's shared over a cup of café cubano in places like the restaurant Versailles, where the Castro regime is scorned by the knots of Cubans who mill there well into the dawn hours. The restaurant is a hub of cubanía where you find shoulder-to-shoulder former batistianos -- who once supported dictator Fulgencia Batista -- disenchanted fidelistas and recently arrived dissidents. 'El exilio is a land that exists in Miami. The rest of us live as Cubans in the United States,' says Silvia Pedraza, a Michigan sociologist who left Cuba as a child in 1961. She spends some summers in Miami, nurturing her intellectual interest in exile as well as getting 'my dose of culture,' which remains fresh because every wave brings to Miami new art, new literature, new slang, an updated version of cubanía. Through it all, there has been but one hope -- a free Cuba. Each New Year's Eve, while in Havana the government hailed another year of the Castros in power, in Miami's Cuban-exile homes a toast was made, a pledge renewed: ``El año que viene en Cuba.' Next year in Cuba. The next year often brought new upheaval on the island -- but not its democratization. More often than not, after an economic crisis threatened the end of the Castros' regime, the new year brought another exodus. `OUR DAY IS COMING' After the fall of communism in Europe in 1989, singer Willy Chirino summed up the exiles' euphoric hopes in a song that trumpeted ``nuestro día viene llegando' -- our day is coming. Some exiles packed their bags; some even put their houses up for sale. But the years passed and brought not the end of Castro's rule, but more refugees, another wave of people who left it all behind to start all over again -- in Miami, city of exiles, city of one dream, one longing. Today, another Castro is in power. Still, Miami's Cubans never give up their stubborn hope. Chirino's song never goes out of style, and to this day, Miami sings: ``Ya viene llegando' -- the day is coming..

Poll shows shift in Cuban-American views

December 3, 2008

St. Pete Times- David Adams

In a landmark shift of opinion, a majority of Cuban-Americans now favor ending the 46-year-old economic embargo and restoring diplomatic relations with the communist-ruled island, a new poll has found. The poll, carried out annually since 1991 by Florida International University, is a timely boost for President-elect Obama, who has pledged to undo some of the embargo tightening that went on during the Bush administration. Obama has promised to lift a 2004 executive order signed by Bush imposing restrictions on Cuban-American travel to the island, as well as cash remittances sent to relatives there. Obama also has said he would meet with Cuban leader Raul Castro, though he did not go as far as advocating an immediate end to the embargo. The new poll for the first time shows a clear majority — 55 percent — in favor of lifting the embargo, up from 42 percent a year ago. A surprising 65 percent were in favor of formalizing diplomatic ties. The poll also showed strong support for ending Bush's restrictions on travel and remittances. FIU has been polling Cuban-Americans regularly since 1991. Over the years, the polls have shown a gradual generational change of view in the exile community as younger, more liberal Cuban-Americans come of age and older, more conservative exiles die off. "I'm not a political expert, but the numbers show there's clearly a growing desire for engagement among the younger people and those who arrived more recently," said Hugh Gladwin, director of FIU's Institute for Public Opinion Research. After many years of solid support for the embargo, polling after 1997 began to show that support eroding. A 1994 migration deal had brought the first of a wave of more than 300,000 Cubans, many of whom retain strong family ties to the island and believe the embargo has failed to defeat communism. Miami Cuban hardliners have dismissed the poll, questioning its veracity and the motives of those who paid for it, the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington and the Miami-based Cuba Study Group, an organization of mostly wealthy Cuban exile businessmen, critical of U.S. Cuba policy. "It's a joke," said Remedios Diaz-Oliver, founder of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, an influential Miami-based group that strongly opposes any softening of U.S. Cuba policy. "The biggest poll was done on election night," he said, noting that all three Cuban-American candidates for Congress in South Florida won, two of them by big double-digit margins. All three are strong embargo supporters. "Cuba has not changed, and Cubans here don't want any relations with the government there." The poll's authors say their results differ from those on election night mainly because they sampled Cuban-American legal residents, as well as registered voters. Only 60 percent of the 800 participants were U.S. citizens able to vote. Of those, 24 percent were not registered. "Obviously, a good number of those people who arrived recently will register to vote, so the handwriting is on the wall," said Gladwin. David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com..

Poll: 55% in Miami-Dade say Cuba embargo should end

December 2, 2008

Liza Gross, Miami Herald

In an unprecedented shift in attitude that could affect Cuba policy for the incoming administration of Barack Obama, more than one out of every two Miami-Dade Cuban Americans think the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba should end, according to a new poll released Tuesday. According to the poll, conducted by Florida International University's Institute for Public Opinion Research and funded by the Washington-based Brookings Institution and Cuba Study Group, 55 percent favor discontinuing the trade embargo imposed in 1962 against the island nation. Sixty-five percent of those polled also favor reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. The results -- particularly as it relates to the embargo -- represents a continuing shift in attitudes by Miami-Dade Cuban Americans and reflects a generational rift between those who arrived in the United States in the 1960s and those who came in the 1980s or later. The embargo question has been consistent since FIU began conducting the poll in 1991. Beginning in 1997, results showed a gradual decrease of support for maintaining the embargo. But this year's poll is the first that shows a majority of those surveyed favor lifting it. In 2007, 42 percent of those queried were in favor of ending the trade ban. 'It's a significant jump,' said Hugh Gladwin, Director of the Institute for Public Opinion Research at FIU. 'I'd give two explanations. The first one is that there's been this continuing demographic change. The other factor is the election of Obama. There's a process of change. People see the handwriting on the wall,' he added. The question on reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba is a first in the annual poll, which was conducted shortly after the U.S. presidential election and has a 3.6 percent margin of error. This year's survey measured the responses of 800 Cuban Americans who live in Miami-Dade. Respondents included registered and nonregistered voters. Despite the majority sentiment for a shift in Cuba policy, opposition remained strong among Cuban American voters: a majority, 56 percent, said they supported continuing the embargo. The poll also measured attitudes on U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba, which were tightened to reduce the amount of money and goods sent to relatives on the island and limit family visits to once every three years. 'The focus right now is on the issues on 2003 restrictions on travel and sending money,' Gladwin said. He added that what those polled want ``is the government to engage with Cuba and figure this thing out.'.
November 2008

Last Brothers to Rescue plane sold for hurricane relief

November 18, 2008

Elain de Valle, Miami Herald

The last plane belonging to a famed search-and-rescue group that helped Cuban rafters make it safely across the Florida Straits was sold this month to help the people of Cuba and Haiti recover from a brutal hurricane season. Brothers to the Rescue founder and President Jose Basulto decided to sell his own plane -- the one that escaped a Cuban government MiG attack in 1996 -- to fund humanitarian aid missions to Cuba after hurricanes Gustav and Ike earlier this year. A check for $100,000 -- the final price for the twin-engine, 1970s Cessna Skymaster 337H -- will be presented at a news conference Tuesday to the Sisters of Charity in Miami, which regularly sends food and medicines to be distributed by individual travelers, churches and religious groups inside Cuba. The buyer: Benjamin Leon, founder and chairman of the board of Leon Medical Centers, who flies his own planes. But he didn't buy the plane for travel purposes. 'He has other planes that are better than that one. He certainly doesn't need it,' Basulto said. ``He is doing it out of the goodness of his heart.' 'I didn't buy it to fly it,' said Leon, who already owns a four-seat Cessna 182 and a six-passenger Turbo Plus that, he says, is called ``a Ferrari in the air.' The Brothers plane is a treasure, he said. 'I bought it because of its historic significance,' Leon told The Miami Herald last week. He called Basulto, a friend of his wife's family, as soon as he learned of the planned sale through El Nuevo Herald. ``It has great historical value, since it was the only plane to escape the aggression of the Cuban government. .' On Feb. 24, 1996, Cuban MiGs shot two Brothers to the Rescue planes out of the sky, killing two pilots and two passengers. Said Leon: ``As a Cuban, I feel very proud to be in the position to do this.' Leon said he would not change the plane's color or tail numbers -- N2506 -- in honor of the Bay of Pigs brigade Basulto served on. 'It [the plane] represents an organization that we are all proud of because it saved lives,' said Leon, who added that the head of transportation for his company was spotted by Basulto in that very plane after he became stranded on Cay Sal in the Bahamas. 'I think we all know someone who knows someone who was personally helped by Brothers to the Rescue,' Leon said. 'I don't know what I'm going to do with it,' he said about the plane. ``But I'm going to use it to educate my grandchildren about Cuba.' Basulto said he could not be more pleased. 'I knew God would send me a Cuban pilot with the financial resources and a heart in the right place,' he said. 'I am very happy because I found someone who will fulfill both purposes,' he said. ``One, making it possible for us to use the equity in the plane to once again help the people in Cuba, and the other is that the airplane is preserved like the historic object that it is. ``He has a hangar and the resources to maintain it. What I can't do, he will do, and I am very grateful for that.' The last symbol of an organization whose missions ended in 2003 as a result of the 'wet foot/dry foot policy' that called for the repatriation of rafters caught at sea, the plane sat unused at Opa-locka Airport, except one day a year -- the anniversary of the date the two planes were shot down. The plane was the last of the Brothers' fleet, which once numbered six: One plane crashed in the Everglades. Another went down on Cay Sal. A third was sold to raise funds for the group's humanitarian efforts and the college education of a pilot injured in an accident..
September 2008

Brothers to the Rescue to sell plane to help Cuba

September 23, 2008

Elaine de Valle, Miami Herald

It once flew over the Florida Straits every weekend to pluck Cuban rafters from the treacherous sea. Today, it pierces the sky only once a year -- on the anniversary of the day in 1996 its pilot escaped death at the hands of Cuban MiGs that shot down two other Cessnas over international waters and killed four volunteers with the group. Now, Brothers to the Rescue founder and president Jose Basulto wants to sell its only remaining plane -- the last symbol of its organization -- to raise money for hurricane relief efforts in Cuba. 'It's all we have left, our only asset,' Basulto said Monday, a day before he planned to announce the sale publicly. 'What we are doing is responding to a need for which Brothers to the Rescue was created, which was to serve brothers in need,' Basulto said. Brothers to the Rescue stopped flying over the Straits in 2003 as a result of the wet foot/dry foot policy, which requires U.S. authorities to return Cubans caught at sea, but to allow those who make it to land to stay. The plane, now parked at the Opa-locka airport, was flown only once a year -- Feb. 24 -- to 'marker's point' where floral wreaths are thrown into the sea in memory of four fallen Brothers. NEW MISSION But back-to-back hurricanes Gustav and Ike gave the plane -- appraised Monday at between $95,000 and $100,000 -- a new mission, Basulto said. 'The one in danger now is the biggest raft of all, the island,' he said. The plane is the last remaining aircraft of the Brothers fleet, which once numbered six. One crashed into the Everglades. Another crashed on Cay Sal in the Bahamas. Two were destroyed on Feb. 24, 1996, when Cuban MiGs shot them out of the sky and killed two pilots and two passengers. The other was sold to raise funds for the group's humanitarian efforts and the college education of one pilot injured in an accident. This last plane served as a 'a reminder of a crime that was committed without response, without consequences to the people who committed it,' said Basulto. ``I would have rather seen it go to a museum, but I cannot ignore the fact that there is a value to the aircraft, a monetary value that can be put to the use that donations [to the group] were intended for, which is to help the people in Cuba in a time of need. SYMBOLIC VALUE 'That is the reason we are putting it up for sale,' he said, adding that he hopes someone else sees the symbolic value. 'There might be somebody that agrees with us that the aircraft should be in a museum and would buy it for that purpose,' Basulto said. The proceeds would go to the Sisters of Charity in Miami, who regularly send food and medicines to be distributed in Cuba..

Miami nuns put politics aside to help storm-battered Cuba

September 19, 2008

Myriam Marquez, El Nuevo Herald

Behind the yellow tape blocking the side street in a residential neighborhood in Miami, dozens of volunteers under white tents pack empty Corona boxes with juice, beans, rice and medicines. Sister Rafaela Gonzalez, a sprightly 75, directs the action as the beep, beep, beep of a forklift topped with bottles of water alerts volunteers to move out of the way. 'This has been my job for 30 years,' she says, smiling. Her 'job' in the Catholic order of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul is to serve the poor with good deeds as much as kind words. Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless -- Catholic works of mercy that know no political boundaries, only God's love. As people from Miami to Washington debate loosening travel rules or the U.S. trade embargo toward Cuba after two back-to-back hurricanes, the nuns have nothing to debate. Their No. 1 job is saving lives as much as souls. The politicians and the demagogues can point fingers and raise suspicion about donated goods being skimmed by Cuban government officials, but the nuns have 14 years of experience seeing their containers get in the right hands. Now is no time to debate. It's time to do -- and our community knows it. The Daughters of Charity have found overwhelming support from South Florida residents eager to help more than a million Cubans left homeless by hurricanes Gustav and Ike. They're also helping direct supplies to two local Catholic churches -- Notre Dame and St. James -- that are organizing shipments to Haiti. In just six days, the sisters have sent four 40-foot containers with $100,000 worth of food, water and medicines to the Port of Havana. Two of those containers already are feeding people in hard-hit Pinar del Río province. On Thursday, they prepared another two long containers as dozens of volunteers worked in synchronized fashion to categorize and pack boxes and fill the trucks. Hialeah High School students dropped off a truckload of donated goods by noon. The mail carrier dropped off donations from as far as California. The phone wouldn't stop ringing. THE BEGINNING It all started with Sister Hilda Alonso, the 87-year-old nun who heads the Daughters of Charity in Miami. She ran the Colegio La Inmaculada, a school for girls in Havana before the revolution closed Catholic schools and kicked out priests and nuns. After teaching and running schools in Puerto Rico, and working in Haiti to open St. Vincent de Paul orders -- 'the need was so great' -- she started her mission in Miami. Since 1994, the six nuns have sent containers to Cuba with donated food, medicines and even medical equipment to help pregnant women, children with Down syndrome, patients with leprosy and the elderly in church-run retirement homes. For years, her former Inmaculada students have dropped by the nuns' tidy, spare home with donations, knowing they will get to the right people. As she sat at her metal desk next to her twin-size bed with a white cotton cover in her little bedroom, Sor Hilda, as the sister is called in Spanish, noted that by the end of this week the nuns will have shipped about six containers -- as much as they usually do in the entire year. 'It's been extraordinary, the generosity of those who live here,' she told me, adding that people of all ethnicities were coming by to give. It's not just goods -- it's also money that's needed. It costs $5,000 to ship a 40-foot container to Cuba. I had heard about Sor Hilda's good works for years, and this summer I had visited her with a friend to learn more about this little woman from tobacco country in Pinar del Río who has taken on such a mammoth job. For all her years of hard work, she's still the Energizer Bunny -- but without the drums to call attention to herself. As one Inmaculada volunteer told me Thursday about the nun she knew in Cuba, ``She is humility personified.' NEVER STOPPING Now the sisters are working around the clock to get emergency aid to Cuba. The sisters have a long record of getting U.S.-licensed goods to the island without Cuban government interference. Sor Hilda has gone there herself to ensure goods get to the nuns in La Víbora neighborhood in Havana who then distribute the donations. The nuns in Cuba go to the docks and inspect the containers -- then one will ride with a trusted driver to make sure the food gets to those who need it and doesn't end up in the black market. 'We are sending to the places that have seen the worst devastation,' she said. Next week, the nuns will start collecting sheets and other needs. But today, it's all about food, water and other essentials. Most of all, it's about unconditional love..

Differences set aside to help Cubans

September 18, 2008

Daniel Shoer Roth, El Nuevo Herald

At the time, the Coconut Grove sanctuary was operating as a collections center for donations for the victims of Hurricane Lili, which ravaged Cuba in the fall of 1996. The Catholic Church in Miami was coordinating humanitarian assistance efforts, and that sparked a whirlwind of incendiary confrontations between sectors of the Cuban exile community. Monsignor Agustín Román, a spiritual guide for many Cuban exiles, was verbally accosted, as were Father Francisco Santana, a promoter of the relief program, and Bishop Thomas Wenski, who personally accompanied the first shipment of food. Twelve years have passed, and though the fury of nature has not abated, there are winds of change in the exile community. Though the sides still hold firmly to their convictions -- truth belongs to no one -- there are indications of greater tolerance. At least no churches have been threatened, even though the Catholic Bishop's Conference requested last week that Washington temporarily lift the prohibitions against money transfers and flights to the island, devastated by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. In different ways, all Cuban exiles suffer the loss of their homeland, the land of coffee and sugar where they made their parents and grandparents smile with their first attempts to crawl. Despite the ideological differences, it is moments of misery and desolation such as these that prove most fertile for a spiritual communion to take place on both sides of the Florida Straits. The crusade for solidarity that has been under way in Miami, uniting thousands of Cuban Americans, lends credence to the notion that the exile community is more diverse than what The New York Times tried to pigeon-hole in a recent editorial as ``deep-pocketed anti-Castro hard-liners in Miami.' Besides religious institutions, local media outlets have also organized collections, and the Cuban American National Foundation put in place a program to provide direct assistance to families, with the endorsement of local Cuban-American celebrities. The efforts respond to the magnitude of the catastrophe. About 1.7 million people won't be able to return to their homes, and the Cuban government has admitted that it does not have enough reserves to respond to the disaster and misery drowning the island-nation. Among those who have softened their outlook is Arnoldo Muller, 69, who was a political prisoner for nearly a decade before being exiled to Miami in the early '70s. He considers himself a conservative, but is now in favor of a moratorium on the travel restrictions and money-transfer prohibitions. 'One does not stop opposing the Castro regime because of this, but with time one changes his way of thinking. one arrives at the conclusion that the continuance of force and belligerence goes nowhere,' he said. One of the exile community's most prominent voices, Ninoska Pérez Castellón, contends that opposition to the lifting of restrictions is not a sign of 'intolerance,' but rather a sign of ``responsibility.' 'We have to look out for the 11 million Cubans, most of whom don't have relatives abroad,' said Perez. ``And enough of pigeonholing the exile community as hard-line; the aggressors are the ones that make up the Castro regime; the victims are all the rest of us.' In that spirit, the important thing is that different voices are being heard. Just as the exile community has had the capacity to absorb Cubans at different times and from different walks of life, it has the capacity to understand the wide array of opinions. But right now, differences need to be set aside to reach out to those who are suffering. In Cuba there are millions of them..

S. Florida launches effort to aid islanders

September 5, 2008

MIami Herald

Several South Florida organizations mobilized Thursday to ship money and supplies to the victims of Hurricane Gustav in Cuba, Haiti, and other Caribbean points. Deepening local concern about the death and destruction wreaked by storms in both countries underscored once again the profound links that exist in South Florida between expatriates and their homelands -- and the complicated politics that even humanitarian aid can ignite. Jewish Solidarity and Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul urged people to make contributions and said they have plans to ship supplies to Cuba as soon as feasible. Catholic Charities announced plans to provide financial aid to hurricane victims on several Caribbean islands. Coconut Creek-based Food for the Poor sent 60,000 hygiene kits to Haiti and Jamaica by cargo ship on Wednesday, and mobilized workers in Haiti to send out supplies from stocked Port-au-Prince warehouses to hard-hit areas desperate for food and water. The port city of Gonaives 'almost looks like a post-Apocalyptic situation, with dead animals on the ground,' said Food for the Poor executive director Angel Aloma. ``The people there, even their voices sound broken.' The organization, which sends supplies to its Caribbean warehouses ahead of hurricane season, dispatched water and food to Gonaives via helicopter on Wednesday. The hygiene kits are to arrive Friday in Jamaica and Haiti. DIVIDE OVER CUBA Efforts to aid the Cuban victims, however, were engulfed in controversy as Cuban exile community leaders split on how to help. Two Cuban-American Democrats running for Congress, Raul Martinez and Joe Garcia, as well as Democracy Movement head Ramón Saúl Sánchez, urged President Bush to temporarily lift restrictions that limit exiles to visiting Cuba once a year and sending up to $300 every three months to close relatives. Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, endorsed the appeals for lifting restrictions but reaffirmed his support for the U.S. embargo on Cuba. The four Florida Republican Cuban-Americans in Congress -- Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Sen. Mel Martinez -- opposed lifting the restrictions and said in a joint statement that the U.S. government should instead directly help hurricane victims. The Republican Cuban-Americans were joined in the statement by several Democrats, including Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida. AID OFFERED The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, confirmed Thursday that it had offered humanitarian assistance to Cubans affected by Gustav, but said the Cuban government has not responded yet. 'We also offered to send an assessment team to determine the level of humanitarian needs,' said State Department spokeswoman Heide Bronke. Because of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, the U.S. government generally channels humanitarian aid through humanitarian organizations. Two of those, Jewish Solidarity and Daughters of Charity, both in Miami, were preparing to ship aid. Eddie Levy, chairman of Jewish Solidarity, said he had asked the Treasury Department for authorization to send up to $200,000 to Cuba. He said it would be channeled through the Havana organization Patronato Hebreo Cubano or the Cuban Hebrew Trust..
July 2008

Médicos de Miami se preparan para una Cuba postCastro

July 25, 2008

El Nuevo Herald- Alfonso Chardy

Cuando la guerra de los contra era todavía un secreto estatal, un comandante rebelde y cuatro de sus hombres decidieron probar las municiones que habían llegado recientemente a una base guerrillera cerca de la frontera con Nicaragua. El comandante Mike Lima, el seudónimo de un contra rebelde, puso el proyectil equivocado en un mortero y éste explotó, volándole la mano derecha y lesionando gravemente su pierna derecha. Los médicos que salvaron a Lima en 1983 no eran de Nicaragua, eran exiliados cubanos, voluntarios del Miami Medical Team (Equipo Médico de Miami) en una de sus primeras misiones para tratar heridos contra, los rebeldes respaldados por EEUU que estaban luchando contra los sandinistas respaldados por Cuba en Nicaragua. En los 25 años que han transcurrido desde entonces, el Miami Medical Team se ha convertido en un grupo de asistencia médica de "respuesta rápida', capaz de desplegarse rápidamente en zonas de desastre, una especie de versión cubana de Médicos sin Fronteras. Ahora, el grupo está preparando lo que pudiera ser la mayor misión de su historia. Según un plan que todavía se está elaborando, cientos de miembros del equipo se desplegarían en Cuba con toneladas de suministros médicos tan pronto como se establezca un gobierno de transición postCastro en La Habana. "Estaremos listos tan pronto como haya un verdadero cambio de gobierno', dijo el fundador del grupo, el ortopédico Manuel Alzugaray. Alzugaray vino de Cuba justo antes de la crisis de los misiles de 1962. Fundó el Miami Medical Team para ayudar a los nicaragüenses a luchar contra el régimen sandinista, respaldado por los cubanos, después de que un cirujano plástico nicaragüense visitara su clínica en 1982 contando historias sobre el incipiente movimiento armado antisandinista. "Me dijo que el grupo rebelde tenía entre 8,000 y 9,000 hombres y que ya habían choques con las fuerzas sandinistas y también bajas', recuerda Alzugaray, que ahora tiene 65 años. El primer paso fue asegurar equipos médicos que los hospitales de Miami fueran a descartar o reemplazar. Los equipos eran luego embarcados a la frontera Nicaragua-Honduras donde los médicos nicaragüenses simpatizantes de los combatientes anti-sandinistas habían construido un improvisado hospital de campaña. La primera misión del Miami Medical Team salió para América Central en septiembre de 1983. En la misma estaban Alzugaray; otros dos médicos, Alberto Hernández y Armando Cruz; un enfermero, Enrique Bassas, y un anestesista, Marcos Martínez, todos exiliados cubanos. Durante el fin de semana, el equipo de Alzugaray trabajó con combatientes heridos en la cabeza, los brazos, las piernas y el torso. Algunos habían perdido miembros en ataques con granadas o morteros. "Muchos de ellos, heridos o habiendo perdido miembros, sólo mostraban ansiedad por curarse para volver a la guerra', dijo el Dr. Esteban Valdés Castillo, recordando sus experiencias. "No veían una herida como un boleto para la casa sino como una demora momentánea'. Luis Moreno, el verdadero nombre del Comandante Mike Lima, era uno de esos casos. Moreno, de 49 años, dijo que tras un tratamiento inicial en el hospital de campaña, Alzugaray lo llevó a Miami donde le pusieron una prótesis para reemplazar su mano derecha. Pronto, Moreno estaba de regreso en el frente. A menos de cinco meses de esas primeras heridas, volvió a ser herido en combate el 18 de abril de 1984, en la mano y la pierna izquierdas. Alzugaray lo volvió a tratar y Moreno regresó al frente. Un año más tarde fue herido por tercera vez, aunque sólo levemente, y siguió peleando hasta el cese el fuego de 1990. Aunque muchos contra entregaron las armas y regresaron a vivir en Nicaragua, Moreno se reubicó en Estados Unidos. "Yo estaba en la guerra para ganar no para ponerme de acuerdo en un empate', dijo. Ahora trabaja de contador en Jacksonville. En lo que la guerra de los contra terminó, el equipo de Alzugaray amplió sus actividades más allá de América Latina, asistiendo guerrillas anticomunistas en otros países. Primero, el equipo fue a Angola para ayudar al ejército rebelde de UNITA, respaldado por EEUU y Africa del Sur, que estaba luchando contra las fuerzas angolanas y cubanas. Luego fueron a Afganistán para ayudar a los insurgentes afganos, respaldados por la CIA, que estaban luchando contra las fuerzas soviéticas de ocupación. Los exiliados vivieron un momento de nerviosismo en Angola. En 1987, poco después de salir del campamento de UNITA en el sur del país, el piloto les advirtió abruptamente que cazas cubanos habían despegado de una base cubana cercana y se estaban acercando. El lento DC-3 tomó rumbo al territorio controlado por Africa del Sur mientras dos cazas sudafricanos se apresuraban a escoltarlo. Con el colapso soviético de 1991, el equipo se dedicó a ayudar en casos de desastre en América Latina, y a preprarar un plan para trabajar en una Cuba postCastro. "Tras el fin de la guerra fría, empezamos a buscar otras actividades. Ayudar a víctimas de desastres fue una de las cosas que empezamos a hacer. Primero para ayudar a las víctimas mismas pero también para preparar al Miami Medical Team para la futura recostrucción de Cuba', dijo Alzugaray. Una vez que el gobierno de EEUU certifique que hay un legítimo gobierno postCastro de transición, dijo, él encabezará un equipo de unos 300 médicos, enfermeras, técnicos médicos y paramédicos para salir para Cuba en cuestión de horas. El equipo incluiría a veteranos médicos exiliados entrenados en EEUU y a médicos cubanos más jóvenes recientemente llegados. Los médicos más jóvenes ayudarían facilitar los contactos entre los médicos exiliados y el personal local en los hospitales y clínicas de la isla, dijo Alzugaray. El objetivo, insistió, sería ofrecer rápida ayuda, en personal y suministros, a un sistema de salud "devastado' por los hermanos Castro. Alzugaray reconoció que su visión choca con la percepción internacional de que la revolución castrista ha construido uno de los mejores sistemas de atención a la salud del mundo. En realidad, dijo, el sistema sólo funciona bien para unos pocos privilegiados, mientras que los cubanos ordinarios sólo reciben una atención médica de segunda. Julio César Alfonso, un médico general en Cuba entre 1992 y 1999 que ahora trabaja en Miami, estuvo de acuerdo. Alfonso dijo que los hospitales cubanos con los últimos equipos están, en gran medida, reservados para altos funcionarios del gobierno y extranjeros que pagan en dólares o euros. Pero hospitales provinciales como el Hospital Territorial de Cárdenas, donde Alfonso trabajó, frecuentemente trabajan con equipos viejos y los pacientes están en catres agrupados en vastos salones. Alzugaray dijo que Alfonso estaría entre los primeros miembros del equipo en llegar a una Cuba postCastro. Alfonso también es presidente de Solidaridad sin Fronteras, un grupo de antiguo personal médico cubano radicado en Miami. Dijo que la presencia de médicos cubanos recién llegados en la primera misión a Cuba sería crucial. "Los médicos recién llegados tienen una comprensión más actualizada de la verdadera situación del sistema cubano de atención a la salud', dijo Alfonso. "Además, tenemos una red de contactos profesionales con doctores y otro personal médico en la isla'. El trabajo en Cuba sería la culminación de la experiencia del equipo salvando vidas. "A principios de los años 90, las guerras de liberación del comunismo terminaron y la guerra fría terminó', dijo Alzugaray. "Era el entrenamiento que necesitábamos para la reconstrucción de Cuba. Ahora, ese es nuestro objetivo..
May 2008

Fans cheer for Cuba on final day

May 12, 2008

El Nuevo Herald- David Quinones

At 7 years old, Elizabeth Suarez might be a bit young to understand how judo works, but she knew who to cheer for on Sunday: ``Cuba, 'cause they're the best.' Elizabeth lives with her mother, Damaris, in Little Havana. They moved to Miami four years ago from Cuba, but they remain fans of the powerhouse judo team. Elizabeth had just finished having her picture taken with Team Cuba. 'Well, I was kind of shy,' she said. Dozens of Cuba fans like Elizabeth came out for the final day of the Pan American Championships at the James L. Knight Center. During a match between Cuba's Jorge Benavidez and Team USA's Garry St. Leger in the men's 90-kilogram division, those fans filled the auditorium with chants of 'CU-BA! CU-BA!' Benavidez won the fight by ippon, a match-ending slam, to the delight of the crowd. Thirteen countries from Central and North America continued Olympic qualifying during the Zones round. The day's competition was an odd mix of players with nothing to gain and everything to lose. Ronda Rousey, Team USA's top female, was winning against Canadian Catherine Roberge when Roberge was disqualified for an 'unsportsmanlike hand gesture.' The call prompted a shout of 'That is just disgraceful!' from Roberge's sideline coach, Ewan Beaton. Afterward, a calmer Beaton explained that ``[Roberge] was probably going to lose that match anyway, but they should let the players play. Let her lose it.' Roberge was in contention for a possible Olympic spot before the match. Conversely, Rousey later won in a walk-over when Cuba's Yagnelis Castillo chose not to fight. For Castillo, the match was all but meaningless -- she already had clinched a spot in Beijing. 'You see a lot of that in zones,' Rousey said. ``I had also already wrapped up my division, so it didn't really matter, but I wanted to do better this week.' On Thursday, Rousey had lost to Castillo in a tightly contested match that was decided on penalties in Golden Score, the judo version of overtime. The U.S. was among the biggest winners in Zones, qualifying at least 10 judokas for the Summer Games in Beijing. The divisions in which Team USA is qualified include women's 48 kilograms, 57 kilograms and 70 kilograms and men's 60 kilograms, 66 kilograms, 73 kilograms, 81 kilograms, 90 kilograms, 100 kilograms and 100-plus kilograms. Judoka Anthony Turner of Miami rebounded from a disappointing medal round on Thursday to win three Zone matches in a row, earning an Olympic berth for his 100-plus kilogram class. Taraje Williams-Murray (60 kilograms) threw Cuba's Yosmani Piker for the second time in the tournament and earned a spot as well..
April 2008

Cruel reminder of Cuba's Black Spring

April 4, 2008

Miami Herald- Opinion

On March 18, 2003, the Cuban government carried out an incredibly underhanded and cowardly act. It began what is now known as Cuba's Black Spring. The act itself -- arresting 75 nonviolent, democracy-oriented activists -- demonstrates the regime's unwillingness and inability to entertain democratic principles. However, the way the government went about the arrests is the most telling of its cunning and hypocrisy. It chose to conduct the arrests while the world's attention was focused on the U.S. entry into Iraq. Five years later, in complete senility, Fidel Castro, or his ghost writers, continued to justify the arrests in his latest 'reflections' as posted in Granma on March 18. He falsely states that those he calls 'mercenaries' of the U.S. government were given access to attorneys and trials. Not only did the 75 receive summary trials in kangaroo courts, but their detention was carried out in remote locations purposely at great distances from their families. Ask Raúl Rivero or Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who were among the few released, if being held for months at a time in solitary confinement with constant deprivation of food and medicine does not constitute torture. Those who have been released have yet to be exonerated of the trumped-up charges against them, and most have been forced to leave the country as a condition of their freedom. The activists arrested during Cuba's Black Spring constituted key elements among the peaceful movement of opposition that grows on the island. Their backers were not U.S. dollars, their backers were the people of Cuba who signed petitions such as the Varela Project, attended their meetings and valiantly confronted the dictatorship in peaceful demonstrations. Whether Castro is alive or dead, behind the scenes or disengaged, this latest statement solidifies that he will remain unchanged. He is a heartless and shameless dictator, convinced, despite his senility, of his own greatness at the expense of his people's well-being. FRANCISCO 'PEPE' HERNANDEZ, president, Cuban American National Foundation Miami.
March 2008

Cubans living abroad are invited to Havana

March 19, 2008

Miami Herald- Alfonso Chardy

More than 100 Cubans living abroad, including some from Miami, will be in Havana Wednesday for a three-day meeting with Cuban officials, and some participants say Cuba's migration policy may be up for discussion. The gathering comes on the heels of the fifth anniversary of Cuba's 'black spring,' a crackdown on 75 dissidents, independent journalists and librarians. Fifty-five remain in Cuban prisons, and the Cuban government is not expected to address the issue of dissidents during the meeting -- a sore point for exiles and activists on the communist island. MIAMI PARTICIPANTS Although Miami participants have not publicly acknowledged invitations to the Havana conference, at least two controversial South Florida Cuban-American broadcasters, Francisco Aruca and Max Lesnik, said they were traveling to Cuba to cover the event. Aruca and Lesnik said they expect the meeting to deal with a hot topic on both sides of the Florida Straits: Cuban migration. 'The meeting is expected to involve an exchange, opinions from Cubans living abroad, and the views of Cuban officials as what to do toward the future,' said Lesnik. There's speculation among Cuba experts in South Florida that the government could use the meeting to announce new measures related to emigration. One of the measures, Aruca and Lesnik said, might be the elimination of exit permits that Cubans are required to obtain before they can travel abroad legally. Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said that if indeed Cuba announces the elimination of exit permits, it may be a tactical move to attempt to put the United States on the defensive. 'The government may relax some of the requirements for Cubans to travel abroad and then throw it in the lap of the Americans, make it an American problem if they don't let them into the United States,' said Suchlicki. ``It's a way for Cuba to use this as pressure on the United States.' EXIT PERMITS Exit permits are issued to Cubans who have visas from foreign countries to visit or legally stay. Without exit permits, Cubans cannot legally leave their country -- even if they have secured a foreign visa. The exit permit requirement is galling for talented young artists and athletes who want to expand their horizons abroad. Cubans who don't have exit permits or visas often leave by boat and, if not intercepted by the Coast Guard, can stay in the United States under the wet-foot/dry-foot policy and the Cuban Adjustment Act.
February 2008

Fliers' families: Indict Castro for Brothers shoot-down

February 27, 2008

Miami Herald- Pablo Bachelet

WASHINGTON -- In a case that puts the Bush administration in a legal dilemma, Cuban-American groups on Tuesday demanded the Justice Department indict Fidel Castro for the Brothers to the Rescue shoot-downs as he no longer enjoys immunity as head of state of Cuba. Relatives of the three U.S. citizens and one resident killed in the Feb. 24, 1996, downing of two Brothers aircraft by Cuban MiGs met with a top White House official and presented thousands of signatures supporting the petition, as well as resolutions from several South Florida municipalities. Some legal experts doubt the Bush administration will issue an indictment because other countries might seize on the precedent to prosecute U.S. officials. But the relatives and their supporters were undeterred. With several family members fighting back tears, Rafael Crespo, president of the Cuban American Veterans Association, vowed to go after Fidel and Raúl Castro, who have spoken about their roles in the shoot-downs. 'Therefore,' he said, ``we believe their declarations to be sufficient as grounds for their indictment.' LACK OF AWARENESS The push coincides with Sunday's 12th anniversary of the incident, which raised U.S.-Cuba tensions to their highest point since the Cuban missile crisis. Cuban-American groups have been frustrated by what they say is a lack of awareness of what transpired that day, as well as the Clinton and Bush administrations' failure to indict the Castro brothers. To focus attention on the case, Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart has sponsored a resolution condemning the shoot-downs that has garnered 35 co-sponsors so far. Earlier this month, Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wrote Attorney General Michael Mukasey arguing for an indictment. Relatives of the victims already have had some successes. In 2006, they were awarded $97 million in reparations from Cuba after U.S. laws were amended to allow the collection of countries' frozen assets. In 2003, a U.S. grand jury indicted Cuban air force chief Gen. Rubén Martínez Puente and the brothers Lorenzo and Francisco Pérez-Pérez, the two MiG pilots involved in the shoot-downs. GO AFTER CASTRO But the family members say justice will be served only when prosecutors go up the Cuban chain of command to the Castro brothers. They also want the State Department to declare the incident a Cuban state act of terrorism. U.S. citizens Carlos Costa, Mario de la Peña and Armando Alejandre Jr. -- a Marine and Vietnam War veteran -- and permanent resident Pablo Morales were killed in the incident over international waters in the Straits of Florida. Alejandre's sister, Margaret Khuly, says Raúl Castro is now cloaked in immunity, but Fidel is not. ``So now what excuse are they going to give us? 'The political will is not there,' she said. ``Cuba is not that important; the U.S. government is terrified of mass migration. They'll do anything to prevent that.' Prosecutions of heads of state are legally intricate affairs that are still being worked out around the world, experts say. There are international precedents, most notably the arrest in London of Chile's Gen. Augusto Pinochet and the extradition of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori to Lima. And the U.S. government brought Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega before a court in Miami in 1989 -- though Noriega was not technically the head of state. Having the United States issue an indictment of Fidel Castro would dramatically ratchet up attention to the case, but experts warn an indictment could haunt President Bush and other U.S. officials. 'The administration and most governments, whether Republican or Democratic, are not overjoyed about the possibility of former heads of state being hauled in the courts of other countries under the concept of universal jurisdiction,' said Robert Goldman, an expert on international human rights law at American University in Washington. 'If we can make a claim to be able to haul into our courts Castro, then why can't another country attempt to haul [former Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld or Mr. Bush or [Vice President Dick] Cheney?' he added. José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director with Human Rights Watch, said an indictment of Castro would be perceived by other nations as a political prosecution because it would have little practical impact -- Castro is unlikely to submit to a U.S. court -- and the administration lacks international credibility given its position on the illegality of torture and other abuses. Under a different administration and circumstances, Vivanco said, there would be a ``much stronger case since the evidence suggests, in principle, extrajudicial executions that might involve Castro himself.' ADMITS RESPONSIBILITY Fidel Castro has publicly taken responsibility for the shoot-downs in a news media interview, alleging that the Brothers to the Rescue planes had previously violated Cuba airspace and were over Cuban waters when they were brought down. The family members made their case at the White House on Tuesday before Dan Fisk, senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council. Kate Starr, a security council spokeswoman, said the meeting 'was an opportunity to discuss recent events and talk about the administration's policy on Cuba,' and that ``the families laid out their concerns.' Any indictment, she added, was a matter for the Justice Department. Ros-Lehtinen called any comparison of Bush administration excesses with Castro ``ludicrous.' 'I think it's ludicrous to equate a freely democratically elected president of the greatest democracy in the world with a dictator, a thug, like Fidel Castro,' she said. ``He's admitted that he ordered it. Let's hold him to his word. 'It's frustrating, it's maddening, it's sad, perplexing,' she said, ``and we're going to continue to push for this indictment, whether it's a Republican administration or a Democratic one. Justice will prevail and that day will come.'.

Cuban Americans' attitudes shift

February 26, 2008

L.A. Times- Miguel Bustillo

MIAMI -- Amilcar Yera, the owner of a Cuban restaurant that dishes out onion-slathered steaks and thick fried plantains to a discerning exile clientele, yearns for a day when Fidel Castro is dead and democracy sprouts anew on the island that still consumes his imagination. But Yera, who escaped communist Cuba a decade ago after marrying a German tourist, said he could no longer tolerate a U.S. government policy that starved the island of American visitors, trade and investments in hope of sparking a revolt. "I don't think of the people there as pawns for us to play with," Yera, 32, said in Spanish as his eyes welled with tears. "They include my parents. They include my sister. I truly feel for them. I don't want to hurt the Cuban government if it's going to hurt them." Even before Castro resigned as president last week after nearly half a century of dictatorial rule, a slow but sweeping shift in Cuban American attitudes was already evident here -- one with profound ramifications for U.S.-Cuba relations. Many Cuban Americans are growing weary of the U.S. government's attempts to isolate Cuba, a hard-line stance that militant Cuban exiles have largely dictated for the last four decades, and has yet to yield any real changes there. Instead, Cuban Americans increasingly favor a post-Cold War policy that tries to foment democracy by freeing up travel to the island and defrosting diplomatic relations with its leaders. "Why are we pursuing a policy with Cuba that has not worked anywhere in the world?" said Carlos A. Saladrigas, a prominent Miami businessman. He co-founded an organization called the Cuba Study Group that's trying to convince Washington that a "silent majority" of Cuban Americans favor a more moderate path. Florida International University, which has been polling Cuban American attitudes here since 1991, found last year that nearly two-thirds want a dialogue with the Cuban government, compared with 40% when the poll started 16 years ago. More than 55% supported unrestricted travel to Cuba. Though most Cuban Americans still back the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, support is steadily shrinking. The university survey found that 57.5% wanted to continue the embargo, the lowest number since the poll began. The changing views are playing out in congressional contests in South Florida, where two Cuban American Democrats are challenging the Republican Diaz-Balart brothers, scions of a powerful and strongly anti-Castro exile family, who have helped craft U.S. Cuba policy for years. The changes were also apparent in last week's Democratic presidential debate, where Sen. Barack Obama said he would meet Castro's successor as president, his brother Raul, "without preconditions." His pledge, which was quickly criticized by GOP front-runner Sen. John McCain, raised eyebrows in Miami, where it would have been political suicide a decade ago. The reason for the shift is simple, experts say: These are not the Miami Cubans of yesteryear. The political exiles who left Cuba after Castro's revolution triumphed in 1959 -- bringing with them a boundless hatred for the dictator that was stoked by painful memories of confiscated homes and slain relatives -- are dying off. They now make up less than 10% of South Florida's 800,000 residents of Cuban descent. About 125,000 Cuban refugees sailed to Florida in 1980 after an economically strapped Cuban government opened its borders, triggering the Mariel boatlift. An additional 250,000 have come with legal visas since 1994, when another rafters' crisis spurred Washington and Havana to sign an orderly-migration accord. Newer arrivals largely left Cuba for economic rather than political reasons, and still have friends and family there. Most deeply resent a 2004 tightening of sanctions that limits their Cuba visits to once every three years without exception. Yera said he grew up as a peasant in central Cuba -- his family had no electricity, and cooked meals with firewood -- before moving to the city of Santa Clara. At a hotel there he came to know foreign tourists who changed his outlook forever. "From childhood I was raised to think the U.S. was the enemy," he said. "But I began to see there was another world out there, and after that they could not hold me back." Yera divorced the German woman and is now married to an artist named Daymis, a recent Cuban immigrant like him. He recently sold his first business, a gas station, and used the profits to buy his wife a small art gallery, as well as to purchase his restaurant, Ay Mama Ines, which is named for a mythical Afro-Cuban free spirit with an ever-present stogie and coffee. But his parents, Carlys and Rafael, are stuck in Cuba along with his sister, Yuditza, and that haunts him. Proponents of change, who include many U.S.-born children of exiles, argue that allowing recent Cuban arrivals to regularly visit relatives -- just 90 miles across the Florida Straits -- would better promote the virtues of freedom. Harder-line anti-Castro exiles insist that their ideas still make sense. Ninoska Perez, a radio personality and proponent of a hard-line Cuba policy, argues that surveys suggesting a shift in attitudes fail to convey a critical point: Many newer Cuban immigrants don't vote. "I'm tired of seeing these polls saying that the exiles have changed," Perez said. "The real poll is the elections, and so far, we have not seen any big changes there." Perez is a former spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation, a powerful exile group that championed tightened sanctions against Cuba. When it became more moderate, she helped launch a splinter organization, the Cuban Liberty Council. Joe Garcia was also part of the foundation, but the former executive director parted ways for different reasons, among them: He felt that limits on family visits were "a violation of the most basic of family values." "People are forced to decide between breaking the law and visiting their dying mothers," he said. A Democrat, he is now running against Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who supports the travel limits. Havana-born Lincoln Diaz-Balart also is getting his first serious challenge in more than 15 years in Congress, from Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, born in Santiago de Cuba. Leery of making the election a referendum on the Diaz- Balart brothers' desire to overthrow Castro's government, their challengers are instead arguing that the brothers have spent too much time on failed Cuba policy, neglecting every other issue. Yera believes many recent Cuban immigrants are too scarred by their experiences in communist Cuba to participate in U.S. politics. But he predicted the day would come when they spoke up and forced politicians to listen. "At some point, those old men who sit outside Versailles will have to admit they were wrong," he said, mentioning the restaurant in Little Havana that has long served as the epicenter of the earlier exiles. "This is the time to try something different," he added, knocking his knuckles on one of his restaurant's tables.

Cuban exiles trapped in emotional limbo

February 24, 2008

Miami Herald- Luisa Yanez

At the Ferdinand Funeral Home and Crematory in Little Havana, family after family gathers at the exile community's oldest parlor to pay their respects to abuelo or abuela. The refrain is often one of regret: Fidel Castro outlived their loved one. For those Cubans left behind facing their own mortality, the yearning for change on the island continues, and so does the toll of 49 years of waiting for closure. Now, Florida International University professor Eugenio Rothe has identified a name for the unique psychological condition of so many South Florida exiles: ``unresolved mourning.' It's a term first coined by psychologist Sigmund Freud who used it to describe someone who cannot come to grips with the death of a loved one. Rothe, who has spent years studying the exile psyche, makes the case that unresolved mourning is precisely the malaise faced by exiles who live in a city where any news about Castro brings a flurry of hope that he will die -- and they will regain a lost life. Last week's bombshell about Castro's retirement was just the kind of news Rothe suggests reopens wounds so many Cubans fight to bury. Many members of what is now called 'the historic exile' -- those forced to leave in the 1960s as adults -- felt a wave of melancholy, as they were reminded all over again of their loss and heartaches. It's all part of the emotional bungee cord that snaps exiles throughout South Florida at the hint of news about Castro and Cuba. 'For those older exiles, Cuba is like a dead person who somehow remains half alive, like a zombie, because they have never completed their mourning process of disconnecting and forming new bonds,' said Rothe, who will teach at FIU's new College of Medicine and has published several articles and studies on the mental health of Cuban refugees. Many exiles -- 'emotionally injured' when their lives were derailed by Castro's rise to power -- reside within this emotional limbo, said Rothe, co-author of a paper on exile nostalgia which will soon be published in the Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies. 'In Miami, there is a constant reactivation of old wounds as exiles are bombarded with major news events related to the island or Castro so they can never completely let go,' said Rothe, the son of Cuban exiles. It was 12 years ago Sunday, for example, that the Cuban government shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes, killing four local fliers. No one has been brought to justice, though U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart have called for a federal government indictment of Raúl Castro, who as defense minister authorized the shooting. In 2000, there was the bitter and drawn out battle between exiles and Castro to keep Elián González with his Miami relatives. The boy, whose mother drowned at sea attempting to escape Cuba, eventually was returned to his father in Cuba. And most recently, in June 2006, the announcement that an ailing Castro was temporarily handing power to his brother Raúl, who Sunday is expected to be named Cuba's next leader by the National Assembly. All these events, Rothe said, have impacted the historic exiles' recovery from the loss they experienced decades ago. Rothe said that even the typical mourning process -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- is different for Cubans in South Florida than it is for other Cubans because they are so geographically close to their homeland. 'They have a relationship with Cuba that is never allowed to die,' said Rothe, who added that exiles with feelings of unresolved mourning are destined for disappointment. 'At first they enjoy the bittersweet feel of the nostalgia, but then they are reminded that the past will never be again. Depression sets in when they realize what they yearned for can never be again,' Rothe said. ``The old Cuba they knew is gone.' The angst of unresolved mourning over Cuba, Rothe said, can be passed on from generation to generation. Beba Sosa, daughter of beloved Cuban senator Emilio Ochoa -- until last year the last remaining signer of Cuba's historic 1940 constitution -- says during days like these, her father, who lived to be 99, is often on her mind. 'He wanted to go back until the last minute of his life,' she said. ``He would tell me that he knew he was too old to hold a political post, but that he would like to offer advice to others.' Near the end of his life, Sosa said: ``He hated that he would not live to see the changes.' For Raúl Martinez, the former mayor of Hialeah who is running for the congressional seat now held by Lincoln Diaz-Balart, news of Castro's resignation was bittersweet. He immediately thought of his father, Chin, a staunch anti-Castro fighter who died a year ago last week at 82. Martinez watched his father readjust his life. 'My father came to Miami in April of 1960 thinking by that December he'd be back home to roast his Nochebuena pork,' Martinez said. ``He like many older exiles didn't get to go back and see the old country again.' For some Cubans, even death provides no escape from the circle of unresolved mourning. Fernando Caballero, owner of Ferdinand Funeral Home on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, says he hears the same request from Cubans preparing a loved one's burial. 'A family member will usually ask at some point if the body can be taken back to Cuba -- once Fidel falls,' Caballero said. ``With the proper paperwork, the answer from us has always been yes. We'll help take them back.' Miami Herald staffer David Quinones contributed to this report.

Alpha 66 militants reunite, look to Cuban dissidents

February 23, 2008

Miami Herald- Alfonso Chardy

In the summer of 1961, 66 young men created one of the first militant organizations in Miami's Cuban exile community: Alpha 66. Plotting Fidel Castro's demise, they sneaked onto the island with weapons several times in an effort to start a counterrevolution in the 1960s -- some were caught and imprisoned on the communist island for years. By the 1980s, the then-middle-aged exiles were training in the Everglades, still hoping to liberate Cuba on their terms. Now in the twilight of their lives, the surviving founders of the group and their supporters are gathering near Los Angeles this weekend to map strategy for the post-Fidel era. That Raúl Castro may be Cuba's next designated president only makes Alpha 66 more determined to hasten the end of a regime almost half a century old. But this time, these old, proud warriors will look to the island's dissidents to help them effect change in Cuba. This time, they aren't so much talking about bearing arms as they are bearing witness to a new generation and reaching out to dissidents. For an organization that decades ago sparked fear and anger within the Cuban government for frequent raids, the dissident outreach program is a symbolic shift away from violence -- though the group has not given up on that completely. CALIFORNIA MEETING Ernesto Díaz Rodríguez, the 68-year-old Alpha 66 secretary general and one of the founders, said his organization will open the Seventh National Congress in Torrance, Calif., with a call ``to reach out to the dissidents and become one with them.' The group's interest in dissidents within Cuba reflects an ongoing trend in the Cuban-American community. 'The center of gravity of exile politics is now linked intimately with the opposition and with the emergence of a civil society on the island,' said Damián Fernández, vice provost at Florida International University and director of FIU's Cuban Research Institute. ``So Alpha 66 is part of this trend.' Another expert on Cuban affairs, María de los Angeles Torres, said Alpha 66 may be too late in joining the dissident bandwagon. 'I think that they have really missed a 20-year window, where the relationships could have been built and would have been very important,' said Torres, director of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. ``At this stage, there are so many people outside of the particular hard-line, militant organizations of the 1960s that do have relations, not only with dissidents, but with young people, hip-hop [artists], writers, even young bureaucrats.' The gathering will be the first Alpha 66 congress since the 2004 death of longtime leader Andrés Nazario Sargén, and it comes at a crucial time. The closing of the Alpha 66 congress on Sunday will coincide with a vote in Cuba's National Assembly in Havana to choose the next president. Díaz Rodríguez calls the vote ``irrelevant. Until both brothers disappear from the political scene, there can be no change in Cuba.' Díaz Rodríguez said California was picked because the organization's delegates in that state had been the most energetic in spreading the message of the almost 47-year-old group. 'We wanted to hold the congress there as a tribute to their hard work,' he said. SEEKING DIRECTION The purpose of the congress, he added, is to find new direction -- within certain parameters. A statement on the Torrance meeting says that henceforth Alpha 66 will seek to work with anti-Castro dissidents in Cuba -- as long as they reject any position that would prolong Raúl Castro's rule. 'In anticipation that the dark system of hate and evil currently governing Cuba is coming to an end,' the document says, ``we determined to get together on a national scale to find ways to support the effort and sacrifice being made by those in Cuba who were challenging the opprobrious Communist system of the Castro brothers.' Díaz Rodríguez said among the dissidents he trusts are Martha Beatríz Roque and Oscar Elías Biscet, two of the most prominent leaders perceived as unwilling to compromise with the Castro government. Biscet, a doctor who opposes abortion, is now in jail. Roque, an independent economist who leads the Assembly to Promote Civil Society, has been imprisoned several times. Reached by phone in Havana on Friday, Roque said she has nothing to do with Alpha 66. Asked if she would accept the group's offer of support, Roque would say only: ``I have no contact with that group, and I do not know what they wish to offer in terms of support.' Alpha 66 culture secretary Sara Martínez Castro said the organization already has exchanged e-mail messages and telephone calls with dissidents in Cuba offering them help. But she would not identify the dissidents, in an effort to protect them from government reprisals. She said that when dissidents need medicines or office equipment, the group tries to provide supplies. 'We serve as the voice of those who cannot speak inside Cuba,' said Martínez Castro, 57. She joined Alpha 66 when she was 19, after leaving Cuba in 1970. Díaz Rodríguez said Alpha 66 would not cooperate with dissidents perceived as willing to make accommodations with the Cuban government. One dissident he cited was Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, the first Alpha 66 leader, who now lives in Havana. Originally a rebel army commander during the Cuban revolution, Gutierrez Menoyo broke with Castro and fled to the United States in 1961 with Nazario Sargén. But Gutierrez Menoyo went back and was captured in 1965 during a raid assisted by Díaz Rodríguez. Gutierrez Menoyo was imprisoned until 1986. He returned to the United States but often traveled to Cuba to try to bring about a negotiated compromise. In 2003, during one of his visits to Havana, Gutierrez Menoyo made the surprising decision to stay and push for a political opening as a dissident. While Alpha 66 for decades has been associated with violence, Díaz Rodríguez said his group is no longer involved in paramilitary attacks. 'That's in the past,' he said, though he is not ready to completely renounce violence. ``If conditions in Cuba demand it and there's a decision by the dissidents to confront, we are morally obligated to rush to their aid.' In 2006, a Cuban exile who claimed to belong to Alpha 66 was arrested in California with a huge cache of weapons. Díaz Rodríguez said he did not know the man and denied that he belonged to Alpha 66. For now, Díaz Rodríguez said, the organization merely wants to help dissidents with financial and moral support. The shift in tactics is significant for a group that once thrived on stealth and sabotage, led by men of action steeped in guerrilla warfare. Several of the group's founders fought in the mountains against Fulgencio Batista, the dictator whose abrupt departure on New Year's Eve 1958 paved the way for Castro's triumph. Almost 50 years later, Díaz Rodríguez finds himself as a bridge between the old guard and the new generation that will map Cuba's future..

Modest celebrations -- and no migrant outflow

February 20, 2008

Miami Herald- Alfonso Chardy, Adam Beasley and Martin Merzer

Federal and local authorities closely monitored events in Cuba and South Florida, but no major migrant outflows or other reactions were reported Tuesday in response to news that Fidel Castro finally is stepping down as his nation's official leader. In the Miami area, small groups of Cuban Americans staged modest celebrations, but they and many exile leaders said they still yearned for democracy on the island and a fundamental transformation of Cuba's economic system. And they said all of that appeared as distant as ever. 'We have to realize that until he is dead, there is not going to be that much of a change,' U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, said of Castro during a visit to Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. ``Just because he has given up a title, doesn't mean he has given up power.' Many Cuban Americans agreed. 'Just because he resigned doesn't mean things will change,' Raul Martinez said over cafe con leche and buttery toast at Romeu's Cuban Restaurant in Pembroke Pines. ``Maybe when Fidel dies, his communist vision will die with him.' Adm. James Stavridis, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, the Pentagon's headquarters for military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, said his staff was monitoring events in Cuba and its waters, but no unusual activity was detected. 'Fidel Castro's resignation is another sign that change is underway in Cuba,' Stavridis said. ``Ultimately, of course, the Cuban people will chart the course for their country, hopefully finding their way to full democracy with free and fair elections.' Other federal authorities -- from the Coast Guard to Customs and Border Protection -- were following regular procedures. 'It's business as usual, no change in operations,' Coast Guard spokesman Barry Bena said, also reporting no increase in traffic between Cuba and South Florida in the Florida Straits. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez said he contacted his police director and emergency manager and the governor, but ``nothing has occurred. It's very quiet.' 'Are we expecting anything? Do we have any intel? Absolutely not,' Alvarez said, though he added that the county is monitoring events. Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, who leads Florida's fifth largest city, played down the news that he first heard by telephone at 5:15 a.m. -- and he said he was not expecting a major reaction. 'All's quiet,' he said of his city of 236,000 people. ``This is just official confirmation of what we knew 18 or 19 months ago. 'It's a transfer of power from one brother to the other . .,' Robaina said. ``Short of the two Castro brothers leaving the island or dying, you're not going to get a strong reaction from this community.' He said Hialeah has a 'coordinated plan' for the day when Cuban Americans believe real change has finally occurred on the island. 'We have a plan that will protect people's lives and safety first, but will allow them to show their emotions and reactions,' he said. ``Right now we're not expecting any demonstrations or celebrations.' Many other exile leaders and elected officials also framed the announcement as just another step in the Cuban dictator's staged withdrawal from public life -- though not a complete surrender of his power and influence. Miguel Saavedra, head of the anti-Castro group Vigilia Mambisa, said that -- at best -- the development represents nothing more than the transfer of power from one Castro to another. 'This is nothing but a show the Havana government has put on to move the media and confuse the people of Cuba,' Saavedra said. ``The only change would be an overthrow of the system, a complete uprooting of the regime.' Still, the official announcement that Fidel Castro, 81, who is ailing and already has shifted much of his power to his brother Raúl, 76, would not seek reelection as president sparked small, ever-evolving demonstrations along Calle Ocho, which runs through the heart of Little Havana. By early afternoon, about 100 people gathered outside the famed Versailles Restaurant and the tranquility of hours earlier gave way to bursts of colorful street theater. Flags were waved, car horns honked, slogans chanted. Vigilia Mambisa strung a massive Cuban flag between two palm trees. 'I want my Cuba free -- I want to die in my country,' shouted Miguel Beruvides, 75, a demonstrator. Across the street, Santiago Portal, 62, paced back and forth in a white tuxedo, with a red bow tie and carnation, sporting an Uncle Sam-style hat and white dancing shoes. He flashed a peace sign and waved a placard that said 'yo quiero el cambio' -- ``I want change.' Many Cuban Americans throughout the region expressed skepticism that any real change was on the horizon. 'That's old news, everyone expected it,' Rafael Rodriguez, an alarm company technician, said as he sipped Cuban coffee outside El Pub on Calle Ocho, which officially is Southwest Eighth Street in Miami. Political leaders also played down the news. In Tallahassee, House Speaker Marco Rubio, a Republican from Miami who is Cuban American, compared Castro to a 'crazy uncle' and brushed off the development as nothing but ``smoke and mirrors.' 'These are the rantings of a senile man,' Rubio said. ``Fidel Castro has basically become the crazy uncle.' Said Gov. Charlie Crist: ``Regrettably, this dictatorship continues through the succession of power to Raúl Castro, and as Floridians, we must continue to call for free and democratic elections in Cuba, freedom for all political prisoners and respect for all human rights as detailed in the Geneva Conventions.' U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., also called for a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba. 'The time has come for the Cuban people who long have hungered for a better life than they've known under Castro to demand that his repressive regime be dismantled,' Nelson said. And yet, many Cuban Americans extracted what glee they could from the overnight announcement. 'It's the best thing that could have happened on this 19th of February,' said Regina Botello. It's the first step toward real change.' Enrique Hernandez, a cook at El Pub, said he felt some joy and satisfaction, but that he felt most people would express it in a personal, private way. He said younger people would likely take power in Cuba soon -- a reason to have hope. 'Now the succession will occur,' Hernandez said. ``I think you will see young people rise up. And that's good because they might bring fresh ideas.' Among South Florida's younger people, the reaction was as generally muted as it was among older generations. About a dozen Florida International University students monitored developments by watching a cable news station on a television at the Steven and Dorothea Green Library. 'I'm surprised, but I'm worried about what's going to happen next,' said Jessica Torgas, 20, a journalism student and a Cuban American. ``It can go good, it can go bad, there's no way to know. But I hope its real and it's not just him faking it.' As the day progressed, most Spanish-language stations reported the news without embellishment. At a studio in Coral Gables that serves as the home base for several popular Spanish-language stations, including Radio Mambi, it was business as usual. There were no balloons, no high-five's, simply a larger volume of calls and a steady stream of journalists who wanted to interview veteran commentators Armando Pérez Roura and Ninoska Pérez Castellón. 'It's just another day,' Pérez Roura said after his morning show in which he and and co-host Pérez Castellón repeatedly said that the news amounted to no significant change. 'This is not a change,' Pérez Roura said. ``When Cubans are not persecuted for thinking, when there is freedom of speech and real elections by the people of cuba, that will be change.' Meanwhile, back near the Versailles, Orlando Gonzalez, 80, was found selling Cuban flags and hats. 'Nothing is new,' said Gonzalez, who has lived in the United States since 1965. ``There have been too many years of oppression. I wish the Castros were dead tonight -- both of them. Before the Castros, Cuba was No. 1 in all of Latin America.' Asked if he thought he would live to see democracy take hold in Cuba, Gonzalez looked toward the sky. He said: ``I ask God that I do.' Miami Herald staff writers Pablo Bachelet, Erika Beras, Begoñe Cazalis, Lesley Clark, Trenton Daniel, Elaine de Valle, Amy Driscoll, Oscar Corral, Laura Figueroa, Ani Martinez, Jennifer Mooney Piedra, Matthew I. Pinzur, Charles Rabin, Carol Rosenberg, Nancy San Martin, Jay Weaver and Luisa Yanez contributed to this report..

Cautious optimism among S. Florida's Cubans

February 19, 2008

Miami Herald- Luisa Yanez, Adam H. Beasley and Martin Merzer

Many Cuban Americans expressed optimism tempered by caution Tuesday after awakening to news that Fidel Castro is stepping down as Cuba's official leader after nearly a half century. 'In a year or so, I think, we will see some change,' Luis Garcia, 75, said as he stood in front of the Versailles Restaurant, a landmark in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. ``Fidel no longer has the ability to run a country. He's very ill.' Regina Botello, another customer at the restaurant, said: ``It's the best thing that could have happened on this 19th of February. It's the first step toward real change.' Others were more skeptical. 'The only sign of change will come when he dies,' Roberto Perez, who left the island nearly 40 years ago, said of Castro. ``That's the only thing that matters.' Several prominent members of the exile community urged Cuban Americans to dismiss the announcement as largely meaningless. 'This is nothing but a show the Havana governnent has put on to move the media and confuse the people of Cuba,' said Miguel Saavedra, head of the anti-Castro group Vigilia Mambisa. ``The only change would be an overthrow of the system, a complete uprooting of the regime.' Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, who runs Florida's fifth largest city, played down the news that he first heard by telephone at 5:15 a.m. -- and he said he was not expecting a major reaction. 'All's quiet,' he said of his city of 236,000 people. ``This is just official confirmation of what we knew 18 or 19 months ago. 'It's a transfer of power from one brother to the other . .,' Robaina said. ``Short of the two Castro brothers leaving the island or dying, you're not going to get a strong reaction from this community.' He said Hialeah has a 'coordinated plan' for the day when Cuban Americans believe real change has finally occurred on the island. 'We have a plan that will protect people's life and safety firs,t but will allow them to show their emotions and reactions,' he said. ``Right now we're not expecting any demonstrations or celebrations.' A few people waved flags or honked their cars' horns, but little jubilation seemed evident as regular customers trickled into the Versailles and other restaurants and open-air coffee stands along Calle Ocho, Little Havana's main artery. 'I think people have accepted that he's sick, he's going to die,' said Jose Lazcano, who left Cuba in 1965 when he was 4 years old. ``We've gotten used to the idea.' Said Ray Orozco, an attorney who lives in the Brickell area: ``It's not just Fidel. There's an entire infrastructure in place there.' But Garcia and others noted that Castro's brother and heir, Raúl, already has signaled a modest tendency to consider reform -- and cannot remain in power for very many years. 'I think this decision symbolizes possible change in the short term because even Raúl is already 75 years old,' Garcia said. ``You can see it coming. In a year, more or less, we will see a transformation of things in Cuba.' At least one Spanish-language radio station accompanied the news by playing songs of 'libertad' -- liberty. ``Miami is eager for the end to Raúl and Fidel Castro and for there to be change,'the announcer said in Spanish. Calls immediately flowed into the station, 92.3 FM. Most other Spanish-language stations reported the news without embellishment. Though the overall reaction was muted, Maria Lopez, 40, her son Alex and two friends believed that a celebration was in order. When they heard the news early Tuesday, they jumped out of bed and headed to La Carreta restaurant, another landmark on Calle Ocho. 'My mother woke me up with the news, and we just had to get out here and celebrate,' Maria Lopez said. But many other people said they were not surprised -- or overly impressed -- by the overnight development. 'I think this was planned all along,' said Manuel Blanco, who stopped in for his morning cafecito. ``There will be some cosmetic changes to make it appear to the world that things are different, but it's all going to be the same.' Said Aixa Fernandez: ``Fidel resigns -- that's no big news. Everything is going to stay the same. 'But Cubans in Cuba have a right to be free one day,' she said. ``I know only those of us in exile understand that.' And back near the Versailles, Orlando Gonzalez, 80, was found selling Cuban flags and hats. 'Nothing is new,' said Gonzalez, who has lived in the United States since 1965. ``There have been too many years of oppression. I wish the Castros were dead tonight -- both of them. Before the Castros, Cuba was No. 1 in all of Latin America.' Asked if he thought he would live to see democracy take hold in Cuba, Gonzalez looked toward the sky. He said: ``I ask God that I do.' Miami Herald staff writers Erika Beras, Alfonso Chardy, Amy Driscoll and Nancy San Martin contributed to this report.

Preparing for Cuba

February 19, 2008

Miami Herald- Christina Hoag

From small South Florida businesses run by Cuban exiles to multinationals with sprawling global operations, many companies have long had a Cuba plan in a drawer or a file somewhere, ready for the day when the U.S. trade embargo is lifted. Companies are now dusting off those business blueprints as it looks increasingly likely that Fidel Castro's intestinal illness is terminal or may prevent him from returning to power -- paving the way, some speculate, for an economic opening with Cuba, along the lines of China or Vietnam. Although the nation of 11.3 million people represents a virgin market for all types of products and services, several sectors appear riper for immediate investment than others. One industry that the Cuban government is already pushing is oil and gas exploration. Cuba boasts untapped reserves of both oil and natural gas, and both commodities could be big revenue earners for the cash-strapped island. But they also require significant capital investment and technical know-how, which foreign companies have. U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., said Cuban officials were keen to make known their interest in possible energy-sector deals during a December Congressional fact-finding mission to the island. "I think they would welcome American investment in that, " he said. "It clearly makes commercial sense." Housing is another sector that is in dire need of investment, both to rehabilitate existing stocks and build new housing. Experts estimate Cubans need some 50,000 new homes. U.S. tourism operators are also eyeing a brand new market that is physically easy and cheap for Americans to access, especially from South Florida. If the embargo is lifted at some point and the Cuban economy opens up, some businesses may still be difficult to enter. Among them: the media, which the Cuban government may be reluctant to relinquish to foreign investors, and sectors that rely on a consumer-driven economy, such as advertising. Some U.S. products have won exemptions from the embargo over the years, and despite frosty relations between Havana and Washington, such trade has been building. Exports of agricultural products and livestock, for example, have been underway for the past five years, and artists have been free to establish commercial relationships with foreigners since the early 1990s. Delahunt sees the island as an ideal manufacturing base with a skilled workforce and close geographic proximity to the United States. "I think any legitimate proposal, properly vetted, would be considered, " he said. "My sense is that the Cubans are very open to a commercial relationship." .

Crosses honor Castro's foes

February 15, 2008

Miami Herald- Alfonso Chardy

Forty-six years later, José Crúz says he still vividly remembers the dreaded sound of the firing squads that executed thousands of Fidel Castro opponents in the early years of the Cuban revolution. 'I can still hear the firing squad commanders yelling `ready, aim, fire!' and then, just before the volley, the defiant cries of the victims, 'Long live Christ the King!' and 'Long live free Cuba!,' ' said Crúz, 71, a former Cuban political prisoner. He was among a dozen volunteers who on Thursday worked late into the night setting up neat rows of 10,000 white foam crosses -- a symbolic 'war cemetery' in south Miami-Dade evoking the memory of people who have died at sea or been killed by firing squad as a result of actions blamed on the Cuban government. The sixth annual Cuban Memorial 'honoring victims of the Castro regime' will formally open Friday and be on display to the public until Sunday at Tamiami Park, 11201 SW 24th St. THREE-DAY EVENT Organizers plan a news conference and ceremony at noon Friday to dedicate the memorial. Visitors can walk among the crosses, each bearing a name, from noon to 9 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. No one knows for sure how many people have died as a result of the Cuban communist government's direct or indirect actions, but some exile activists include those who were executed, those who have died attempting to leave Cuba by crossing the Florida Straits or those who have been killed in action fighting the Cuban government or who died in prison. The nonprofit group Cuba Archive, www.cubaarchive.org, has documented 9,074 cases of people who have died fighting against the regime or trying to escape the island since the Cuban revolution in 1959. Maria Werlau, the group's executive director, said many more people have died but their deaths have yet to be documented. New names are added to the database all the time, she said. Other experts cite higher estimates but that's because they include more than 11,000 Cuban soldiers killed in foreign deployments ordered by Castro such as in Angola, and higher estimates of Cuban migrants drowned at sea. The number of Castro foes executed by firing squads has been estimated at more than 4,000 by the Cuba Archive program. VERIFIED NAMES Emilio Solernou, one of the Tamiami Park memorial organizers, said the crosses his group has put on display bear the names of verified deaths as a result of executions, or who have died in prison or attempting to cross the Florida Straits. Crúz, a former anti-Castro militant in Havana in the 1960s, was locked up for 18 years as a political prisoner. He was 24. He remembers an intensification of executions at the infamous La Cabaña prison in Havana immediately after the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. 'One evening I heard eight executions and another evening nine,' Crúz recalled as he set up crosses at Tamiami Park. ``It was horrible. I heard the discharge of several rifles and then the single coup de grace shot each time.' .
November 2007

Restraint marks exile response to custody deal

November 30, 2007

Miami Herald- Tere Figueras Negrete and Carol Marbin Miller

Cuban Americans welcomed this week's Solomonic resolution to what has been a protracted and acrimonious custody fight over a 5-year-old girl, a marked departure from the high passions that dominated the Elián González saga seven years ago. A sign that hard lessons were learned from the painful Elián affair: The buzz on Miami's Cuban radio on Thursday centered on Venezuela's upcoming election and fears that the Hugo Chávez regime will turn into a dictatorship in Fidel Castro's image. Few callers mentioned the international custody case involving Cuban birth father Rafael Izquierdo and foster parents Joe and Maria Cubas, who sought to raise the girl. 'It's almost like two different worlds,' said Jose Cancela, a Cuban-American businessmen and expert on Hispanic media and marketing. 'There was a lot of fatigue in the community after Elián,' Cancela said. ``I don't think anyone was ready to ratchet this up. And I think the way it was resolved showed that we are a civil community.' Under the settlement, which must be approved by Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen, Izquierdo will retain sole custody of his daughter but must remain in the United States until at least 2010. The two sides await a hearing next week to finalize the deal in court. The case -- which has cost upwards of $250,000 so far -- often became a courtroom spectacle, but even the most conservative radio commentators have taken an arms-length approach. That's in stark contrast to the case of Elián, whose Miami relatives vowed to keep him from returning to the island with his father -- a standoff that ended when federal agents forcibly removed the child. HAVANA KEPT SILENT There were other significant differences -- not least of which was the way political players on both sides of the Florida Straits reacted to the case. Havana has been noticeably silent in the girl's case -- a marked departure from the Cuban government-led marches in Havana during the Elián dispute. Fidel Castro's public comments pledging to have the boy returned to Cuba served as a flash-point for many exiles. 'Fidel Castro spoke up, and that was a major factor,' said Florida International University sociology professor Lisandro Perez. ``There is this notion of Elián as a trophy, both here and in Cuba. It wasn't about a boy, it was about winning a political battle.' This time around, Cuba's communist party-controlled media has not mentioned the girl -- even though Joe Cubas, a former sports agent, long ago earned the ire of the Castro regime for helping prized Cuban baseball players start major league careers. During Elián, 'the Cuban community was intentionally manipulated, by political forces that emanated both from Havana and Washington,' said Hector Lombana, past president of the Cuban American Bar Association. Ninoska Pérez Castellón, spokeswoman for the Cuban Liberty Council and host of a show on Radio Mambí, championed the cause of Elián's Miami relatives. But she rarely brought up the case of the 5-year-old girl. That neither the ailing Castro nor his brother, Raúl, who's now in charge of the government, spoke up about the case is telling, Pérez Castellón said. 'At this moment, with Castro's illness, maybe this is not the time for [the Cuban government] to wage one of those battles,' she said. Pérez Castellón was heartened because the deal ensures the girl can visit with her brother at the Cubas household every other weekend. 'The sad part would have been if there had been no agreement,' she said. 'People were calm because they knew this kid had her day in court,' she said. ``It's totally different than Elián.' CHILD PROTECTED The state's child welfare agency, the Cubases and Cohen sought to keep the girl's custody dispute private. The judge had imposed a gag order barring participants from discussing the case publicly, although she lifted it in August. Attorney Frank Angones Jr., the first Cuban-born president of The Florida Bar, said many Cuban Americans took comfort that the little girl's fate would be determined by a judge. 'I believe people are more accepting when matters go before an impartial magistrate than not,' said Angones, who was among 14,000 unaccompanied children who fled Cuba in the early 1960s in Operation Pedro Pan. That both the Izquierdo and Cubas camps kept the child out of the media glare was noteworthy. 'Nobody played to the cameras,' Angones said. The Cubases, of Coral Gables, insisted the girl's privacy be protected. They would not allow the girl to be photographed at their home, and save for a handful of media interviews -- including a sit down with Pérez Castellón -- Joe Cubas kept a low-profile. 'Obviously, we were trying not to make this another Elián case,' he said. Magda Montiel Davis -- one of Izquierdo's attorneys and no stranger to the passions of the Cuba debate -- agreed that tensions in South Florida did not rise to the level of prior controversies. Davis drew the ire of Cuban Americans in 1994 when she was filmed embracing Fidel Castro in Cuba, kissing him on the cheek and calling him 'maestro' or teacher. As the little girl's case progressed, the tape of Davis kissing Castro was replayed on Spanish-language television, reopening old wounds. 'It wasn't pretty,' Davis said, adding, ``It wasn't as vitriolic. It certainly was not as intense.' IMAGE CONSCIOUS In an FIU study following the Elián ordeal, an overwhelming majority of South Florida Cubans polled -- 82 percent -- said the case had hurt the community's image. Cancela, who was in Europe when he heard the girl's case was resolved, said exiles have been sensitive to how they are perceived post-Elián. ``Elián was an anomaly. People got caught up on an emotional level.' 'This shows the maturity of the Cuban exile community to be able to move forward, with restraint and respect for the law,' he said. ``That was something that during Elián, the public in general was led to believe we did not have.'.

Mas Canosa's influence not matched since his death

November 23, 2007

Miami Herald- Rui Ferreira and Luisa Yanez

Determined, pragmatic and unwavering, Jorge Mas Canosa left a legacy in Miami that today, 10 years after his death, no other Cuban exile has been able to equal: a vision and ability to awaken the exile community and turn it into the first line of attack against Fidel Castro's regime. A powerful public speaker with a fiery personality and a strong resolve that Fidel Castro's regime should be brought down, Mas Canosa was once considered the heir apparent under a democratic Cuba by the exile community. In the years since his death, no one else has captured such loyalty among Cubans in exile who remain strident Castro haters. Mas Canosa was their voice and ambassador to the White House and around the world. Not bad for a man who arrived in Miami with his family in 1960 and whose first job in the United States was milk man. By the time of his death of cancer at age 58 on Nov. 23, 1997, he was a self-made millionaire who left behind a billion-dollar conglomerate called MasTec. But Mas Canosa's greatest success was the 1981 creation of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), which became a powerful lobby group. More significantly, it established the framework for Cubans to organize and unite, giving them an influence that few ethnic groups have exercised in the United States. In Miami, exiles still remember Mas Canosa for confronting, in a 1996 television debate, the leader of Cuba's National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcón. The feisty Mas Canosa once challenged then-Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo to a duel. He led a boycott against The Miami Herald because he felt the newspaper did not reflect or defend the Cuban exile community he considered embattled. He managed to convince Washington politicians that it was beneficial for them to adopt and express a consistent anti-Castro policy. His lobbying left an impact still felt by today's presidential candidates, who are often asked how they would deal with Castro. He also persuaded President Ronald Reagan, a political ally, to create Radio and TV Martí in 1983; George H.W. Bush, to embrace the 1992 Torricelli law which tightened the loopholes in the long-standing U.S. embargo toward the island nation; and Bill Clinton, the Helms-Burton law in 1996, which considerably limits Cuba's ability to attract foreign investors. 'Jorge's vision was to engrave in the mind of all Cubans the unending wish that one day Cuba would be free -- a hope the exile community had a right to fight for, not out of a sense of flexing its muscle but out of a true belief that a return to the island and an end to Castro's tyranny were possible,' said Diego Suárez, who was Mas Canosa's friend for more than 40 years. Year after year, Mas Canosa remained in the front line in the war against Castro, all the while spreading the exile's point of view to the rest of the world. His foundation became the official representative for exile causes and Mas Canosa was savvy in setting the agenda. Even his adversaries remember him as unwavering in his mission, but open to insightful discourse on the future of Cuba. 'Mas Canosa was willing to listen to all intelligent ideas,' said Raúl Martínez, the former mayor of Hialeah. ``We had ideological differences, but we were always able to overcome them and that is why I believe he was such an important figure for the simple reason that he was able to do what no other exile was able to do -- which was to unite exile Cubans.' That quality, Martínez said, also helped him navigate treacherous political waters, where he learned to cultivate and keep powerful Republic and Democratic friends. Many believe everything deflated after his passing. The company he founded, MasTec, was in a struggle to survive by 2001. After a severe financial downturn, it slashed costs and refocused on its core business: constructing telecommunications and other infrastructure. The exile cause was dealt a setback as the community lost its main spokesman and with him, some of its luster. With his son, Jorge Mas Santos at the helm of CANF, a number of directors had defected by 2001. The foundation had begun curtailing its traditional activities and instead was encouraging change from within the island nation. Francisco 'Pepe' Hernández, current president of the pared-down foundation, said if his 'friend from the heart' were alive today -- a time when Cuba's future is at a crossroad -- it would be an era of 'great frustration,' alluding to Washington's current approach to Cuba, which calls for little intervention. But he adds: ``That would not have prevented him from continuing to fight to change the situation in Cuba.' .

Cuban defector sues over on-air attacks

November 9, 2007

Miami Herald- Wilfredo Cancio Isla

In April 1961, a young pilot named Rafael del Pino fiercely fought at the Bay of Pigs against Cuban exiles who were trying to bring down Fidel Castro's regime. Forty-six years later, the Cuban Air Force general, who defected with his family in 1987, is once again facing his adversaries from Brigade 2506 in Miami federal court. Del Pino filed suit Nov. 2 against the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association (Brigade 2506), Félix Ismael Rodríguez, the group's president, and Esteban Bovo, secretary, and several Spanish-language media outlets in South Florida, charging that statements they made on talk shows violated his constitutional right of free speech. Among those named in the civil action: Univision Communications, owner of radio stations Radio Mambí (710 AM) and WQBA (1140 AM); the television station AmericaTeVe (Channel 41), journalist Oscar Haza, producer Miguel Cossío and radio host Martha Flores. The civil action asserts that the defendants caused del Pino ``severe emotional damage.' In the 14-page complaint, del Pino asks for unspecified compensation ``for the harm he has suffered from a series of violent threats and intimidation.' The case was assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages. In an e-mail, del Pino declined to comment and referred questions to his lawyer, Richard Burton, who did not return calls from El Nuevo Herald. Del Pino, 67, said the incidents began in June, when opinion columns he wrote for El Nuevo Herald provoked criticism by members of Brigade 2506 and by 'right wing' exiles who participated in local media shows. The columns listed ideas on how to solve the differences between Cuba and the United States through dialogue and negotiation. In September, the complaint states, del Pino was subjected to a 'fictitious trial' in a program on Channel 41 called A Mano Limpia, conducted by Haza and with the participation of three members of Brigade 2506. He said Radio Mambí host Flores ``declared openly on her show that del Pino should be executed for publishing his articles/letters.' Flores, who said she did not know the lawsuit's details, said: ``The only thing I can say at the moment is that this is not the kind of comment I would make.' On Haza, the suit alleges that the Dominican journalist and/or his producer 'intentionally and maliciously altered or changed del Pino's comments' during a Sept. 12 program. The Brigade 2506 members, Channel 41's management and Univision all declined to comment. Ever since he deserted in a Cessna 402 airplane along with his wife and three sons, del Pino has lived under U.S. protection with a hidden identity.
October 2007

Bush echoed Miamians' words in Cuba speech

October 26, 2007

Miami Herald- Alfonso Chardy

President Bush's Cuba speech Wednesday had been in the works for months -- possibly since July when Raúl Castro offered an 'olive branch' to the next U.S. president -- but a recent meeting with Miami exiles may have helped hone Bush's tough message to Cuba's communist government. 'He didn't say that he was going to give a speech,' Ninoska Pérez Castellón, who was among the select group of 10 who met with Bush in Miami on Oct. 12, said Thursday. ``But he said he wanted to know more about the families of political prisoners, and he heard us talk about their plight.' The group of 10 exiles, including members of Congress, urged Bush to stand firm on Cuba, publicize the plight of political prisoners and pressure nations to follow the lead of the United States and allies like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in welcoming dissidents at their Havana embassies. 'It was not a surprise to any of us that he stood firm on his convictions because his policies have always been consistent toward Cuba,' said Pérez Castellón, director of the Cuban Liberty Council and a talk show host at Radio Mambí 710-AM. Coming just days after Cuba's one-party elections, more than a year after an ailing Fidel Castro ceded power to his brother Raúl and only days before the United Nations takes its annual vote against the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, the timing of Bush's Cuba speech raised speculation among some Cuba watchers. Some thought that Bush might announce a policy shift, possibly relaxing travel restrictions. But people familiar with internal discussions said a policy change was never discussed. Officials familiar with the discussions, who declined to be identified because they did not want to talk publicly about internal deliberations, said the speech was in the works for months. `FAILED POLICY' During the annual celebration of the start of Cuba's revolution on July 26, Raúl Castro said: ``Whatever new administration emerges [after the 2008 election] will have to decide if it will maintain the absurd, illegal and failed policy toward Cuba, or if it will accept the olive branch that we extended.' Radio Mambí director Armando Pérez Roura, who heads the exile group Cuban Unity, said he told Bush at the Miami meeting that he worried the U.S. government might consider Raúl Castro's 'olive branch' a serious offer. 'I said to him that for me he was the last hope of Cubans in exile and that we were concerned by the rapprochement [the Cuban regime] was pursuing, without instituting any change,' said Pérez Roura. ``Raúl Castro said he was tossing an olive branch, but the same acts of repression have continued against anyone dissenting from official government policy.' To highlight the plight of Cuban dissidents, the audience at the State Department on Wednesday included family members of Cuban political prisoners jailed in a 2003 crackdown. Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, said Bush's choice of the State Department as the speech venue sent a signal to those in the foreign service who may want to soften Cuba policy. 'Certain elements of the bureaucracy may not be following the president's policies on Cuba,' said Suchlicki, who was not among those who met with Bush. ``They are concerned about mass migration. They want stability in Cuba and are not pushing the envelope for change.' Bush settled the issue when he said: 'The operative word in our future dealings with Cuba is not `stability.' The operative word is 'freedom.' ' Others at the Oct. 12 meeting included Remedios Díaz Oliver of the U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC and the Liberty Council: former state Rep. Gastón Cantens, and Florida's Republican Cuban-American lawmakers, Sen. Mel Martínez and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart. Díaz Oliver said that at the meeting Bush also expressed concern about 'the situation in Venezuela,' where President Hugo Chávez has tightened his alliance with Cuba. GOP LOSING STRENGTH Bush's speech came as Democrats are buoyed by reports that suggest South Florida's once solidly Republican Cuban-American voting block is no longer monolithically GOP. The Miami Herald reported in August that less than half of Miami-Dade county's Hispanic voters are registered Republicans, down from 59 percent less than a decade ago. National Democrats last week ran radio ads against Miami's three Cuban-American Republicans, marking the first time the party has spent money in the three districts..

Bush speech welcomed by many Cuban exiles

October 25, 2007

Miami Herald- Casey Woods

In Miami's Cuban exile community, President Bush's speech was well-received by many, though some questioned whether his proposals would have any practical effect, and Fidel Castro's daughter in exile wondered if the presidential race was a factor. Diego Suarez, head of the conservative Cuban Liberty Council, applauded Bush's direct message for Cuban citizens, children and the members of the military to press on for democratic reforms. 'This was the invitation from the president to the people in Cuba to change the situation' by protesting in the street, Suarez said. 'I think the president's speech could be a catalyst to open the door in Cuba . for the people to lose their fear,' he said. ``He practically gave a guarantee of the fantastic future for the freedom [in Cuba] once this dictator has passed away.' Alina Fernández Revuelta, Fidel Castro's daughter and a Spanish-language radio talk show host on La Cubanisima AM-1140, said Bush's speech didn't break new ground. 'I don't think there is much new in what the president offered,' Fernández Revuelta told The Miami Herald. 'There has always been a need for computers in Cuba . and for liberty,' she said. ``But comments like this made in the middle of the political season always give me pause.' Bush's speech comes as Democrats are buoyed by reports that suggest South Florida's once solidly Republican Cuban-American voting block is no longer monolithically GOP. The Herald reported in August that less than half of Miami-Dade county's Hispanic voters are registered Republicans, down from 59 percent less than a decade ago. Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the moderate Cuban American National Foundation, said Bush's proposal to give nongovernmental and faith-based groups U.S. licenses to provide computers to Cubans and to allow Cuban students to access U.S. scholarship programs were positive moves, but would have no immediate effect because they are conditioned on the Cuban government freeing up access. 'I think these proposals are well-intentioned, but I don't think it's practical because the regime is not going to allow Internet access to the Cuban people,' he said. ``I think we should be sending computers anyway, whether they allow Internet access or not because . the priority now is getting the Cuban people the resources they need to raise their voices.' Bush's proposals will only be effective if he loosens regulations on sending remittances from U.S. sources to nongovernmental organizations and entrepreneurs in Cuba, Mas Santos said. 'The message I took away today was that we need to help the Cuban people, but if you can't get aid to them you can't help them,' he said. ``Without concrete action [Bush's speech] does not serve people well.' One Bush critic interpreted the president's call to the Cuban people to stand up for freedom as a call for a coup. 'He was inciting the Cuban people to revolt, in the hopes that the revolt sparked a police repression with the eventual consequence of the intervention of the armed forces,' said Max Lesnik, an anti-embargo radio commentator who travels frequently to Cuba. ``He wants a classic Latin American coup d'etat, something that is an illusion and doesn't make any sense in the Cuban reality.' Bush's speech was a political ploy, Lesnik said. 'This speech has an electoral purpose . which is to try and help Cuban-American lawmakers in South Florida who were badly affected by this government's policies towards Cuba,' Lesnik said. ``Everyone blames [those lawmakers] for the White House's restrictions on family reunification.' Since 2004, the Bush administration has limited travel by Cuban Americans to visit family on the island to once every three years from the annual visits they were previously allowed. Miami Herald writers Luisa Yanez in Miami and Lesley Clark in Washington contributed to this report.
June 2007

Late Cuban activist linked to plot to kill Castro

June 28, 2007

Miami Herald- Gerardo Reyes

Tony de Varona, the late and legendary Cuban activist in Miami, offered to cooperate with the Central Intelligence Agency in an operation intended to kill Fidel Castro with poison pills, according to documents declassified Tuesday by the CIA. 'I can't picture Manuel Antonio de Varona in that plan, because he was an honorable and brave man who sought political or military solutions that were head-on, not tortuous,' said Cuban historian Enrique Ros when he heard of the account. De Varona died in 1992. A summary of the failed operation, where De Varona is identified as 'Dr. Anthony Verona, one of the principal officers in the Cuban Exile Junta,' is part of a voluminous package of much-censored information the agency released in an unusual gesture of openness. Known as 'The Family Jewels,' the collection is composed of replies given by high-ranking U.S. officials to a 1973 request from the agency's director, James Schlesinger, asking that any illegal activities by the agency be reported. A second collection, also declassified Tuesday, contains 147 documents and about 11,000 pages of analysis on the ruling hierarchies in the Soviet Union and China, from 1957 to 1973. The content of the first package, which totals 693 pages, reflects the nervous obsession of the intelligence services to confront communism at all levels, from domestic details to international conspiracies. Journalists like Jack Anderson, student movements at Columbia University, and artists such as Jane Fonda and John Lennon were the constant targets of surveillance, according to these Cold War memoranda. 'This is the first voluntary CIA declassification of controversial material since George Tenet in 1998 reneged on the 1990s promises of greater openness at the agency,' commented Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a private foundation that advocates the opening of official archives. Tenet was director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1997 to 2004. Much of the package is devoted to CIA activities during the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974. However, this first box of 'jewels' contains information about other topics that, in their time, raised all kinds of suspicion. Among them: • The CIA's defense to media reports in June 1973 that the agency may have been involved in a plan to assassinate Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos before the United States could turn over control of the Panama Canal to the Republic of Panama. • The agency's reaction to complaints of its alleged implication in a break-in at the Chilean Embassy in Washington in 1972, during the administration of leftist President Salvador Allende. Two radios and an electric shaver were stolen from the Embassy during the break-in. • The wiretapping of telephone communications between Miami and South America, under the excuse of detecting conversations regarding drug trafficking. As to the attempt against Castro -- one of many previously reported -- the documents casts light on the CIA's permeability when any sector opposed to the Cuban leader proposed eliminating him. In this case, the document says, the operation was planned beginning in August 1960, with the cooperation of Mafia personnel. Robert A. Maheu, a well-known CIA collaborator, offered to speak with Johnny Roselli, a Mafia leader with whom he had had previous contact in Las Vegas, to propose an elimination plan. Maheu introduced himself to Roselli as the envoy of a group of international investors in Cuba who were furious because of the economic losses they had suffered as a result of Castro's takeover. 'They were convinced that Castro's removal was the answer to their problem and were willing to pay a price of $150,000 for its successful accomplishment,' Maheu told Roselli during a meeting on Sept. 14, 1960, at the Hilton Plaza Hotel in New York City. Present at the meeting was James O'Connell, chief of the CIA's Office of Security, who was introduced to Roselli as ``an employee of Maheu.' Roselli declined to participate but put Maheu in touch with two men, 'Sam' and 'Joe,' who described themselves as 'couriers' operating between Miami and Havana. The men looked familiar to Maheu but he couldn't place them. Weeks later, when he saw their pictures in a magazine, he realized that he had been talking with Momo Salvatore Giancana and Santo Trafficante, two of the most powerful Mafia leaders. The two men ruled out the use of firearms and instead proposed killing Castro with poison pills. According to 'Sam' (Giancana), the ideal perpetrator would be Juan Orta, ``a Cuban official who had been receiving kickback payments from the gambling interests [in Havana], who still had access to Castro and was in a financial bind.' 'Joe' (Trafficante) delivered six lethal pills to Orta, but the Cuban ``apparently got cold feet and got out of the assignment. He suggested another candidate, who made several attempts without success.' Trafficante then suggested contacting De Varona, 'one of the principal officers in the Cuban Exile Junta' in Miami. De Varona was director of the Cuban Patriotic Junta and, according to the CIA document, ``had become disaffected with the apparent ineffectual progress of the Junta and was willing to handle the mission through his own resources.' De Varona reportedly requested $10,000 for operational expenses and $1,000 for communication equipment. 'Dr. Verona's potential was never fully exploited, as the project was canceled shortly after the Bay of Pigs episode' in April 1961, the CIA document stated..
May 2007

Founder of conservative Cuban group steps down

May 30, 2007

Miami Herald- Rui Ferreira

One of the founders of the conservative Cuban Liberty Council resigned from the organization at the urging of the board of directors, after it was disclosed he represents a French firm whose affiliate built luxury hotels on the communist island. The resignation of Ignacio E. Sánchez unfolded during the weekend. CLC leaders asked him to quit after The Miami Herald revealed he represents Bouygues Travaux Publics, a French company and the state's leading bidder in a $1 billion tunnel project for the Port of Miami. 'We asked him to resign because the council cannot have someone who represents the interests of a company that does business with the Cuban government,' the CLC's director, Diego Suarez, told El Nuevo Herald on Tuesday. During a telephone conversation, Sánchez confirmed he had resigned but declined to discuss the matter. 'I must not comment on what happens inside the CLC. It would not be proper,' he said. However, Sánchez gave El Nuevo Herald a copy of his letter of resignation. 'The letter speaks for itself,' he said. QUESTIONS In April, Bouygues Travaux Publics, or BTP, won a state bid to build the tunnel that will join downtown Miami with the Port of Miami. Days later, the company's integrity was questioned when a lawyer who specializes in representing Cuban exiles and Cuban Americans, whose properties on the island were expropriated by Fidel Castro's government, questioned whether the French company did business in Cuba. In a letter sent to lawyer Nicolas Gutierrez, Sánchez said BTP never did any business with the island but conceded that an affiliate may have done so. BTP was not the only company that bid for the project. The other two that did are also European companies and, according to several sources, maintain business relations with the island. 'BTP has never conducted any business whatsoever in Cuba,' Sánchez explained in a letter Sunday to CLC directors. ``There is, then, no factual or legal basis for anyone to claim that BTP is undertaking the tunnel project in violation of federal, state or local law.' And Sánchez added: ``As a lawyer, I have a duty of loyalty to my client; as an officer of the court, I have a concurrent obligation to see that the law is applied properly. While an affiliate of BTP . may have performed certain work in Cuba [as have all the bidders on the tunnel project], the law simply does not allow for the imposition of liability on BTP.' To the attorney, according to this line of thinking, one would have to question the distribution of fuel at Miami International Airport, where CITGO holds a monopoly, because the Venezuelan parent company, PDVSA, sells oil to Cuba. However, to Suarez, the question is neither a problem of interpretation or a personal issue. 'At the CLC, we cannot have anyone with those connections. We hold a very strict [line] on that. Besides, [Sánchez] is a good lawyer who has given much service to the Cuban cause. But when we received this information, we decided to investigate it and ended up asking him to resign,' the CLC director said. HERALD COLUMNIST In his resignation letter, Sánchez refers to a comment on the matter published Sunday in The Miami Herald. Without mentioning the name of columnist Ana Menendez, the lawyer accuses her of wishing to discredit the conservative organization. 'Fidelity to legal process and the rule of law is one of the Cuban Liberty Council's aspirations for a democratic Cuba. Yet now, a Miami Herald commentator seeks to goad the CLC into ignoring these very important principles,' the lawyer wrote. In her Sunday column, Menendez made public Sánchez's connection to the CLC while remaining an attorney for BTP. 'Her aim is clear -- goad the CLC into taking a position that ultimately will not be supported by the facts or the law, thereby discrediting the organization,' Sánchez wrote. Tuesday night, The Miami Herald's executive editor, Anders Gyllenhaal, defended Menendez: ``The work of every journalist is to deal with the facts, sometimes to comment on them, but always to let them speak for themselves. In other words, to report what is happening and let people make up their own minds.'.

The exile debate: Add and multiply, never divide

May 25, 2007

Miami Herald- Mercedes Soler

I do not consider myself a reactionary person. Nor do I allow myself to be carried away by what society considers politically correct. I try to analyze beyond frivolities before I take a position. I am not interested in attacking persons or groups. I prefer to adhere to the motto of José López-Neira, a 90-year-old reader who writes to me daily and signs off saying: ``Add and multiply; never divide.' I consider that my 20 years in journalism give me the authority to speak about the responsibility required by the right to free expression. I defend the free press, a fundamental pillar of democracy. Opposing, controversial and dissenting opinions must have a place in any open society. But cannibalism long ago ceased to be tolerated in a civil state. In a recent column, my colleague Ana Menendez offends the Cuban-exile community. She trivializes the suffering, sacrifice and struggle represented by our 48 years in exile; she stains the memory of the 41,700 people who, according to The Cuba Archive, lost their lives because of the Castro government, plus the other thousands of men and women who have served and continue to serve prison sentences for demanding the freedom of expression she so frivolously squanders. She also embraces the communist rhetoric when she addresses us as the Cuban Mafia. She orders us to swallow our pain. All this she does in English. Because if her parents hadn't been exiles, she probably would not have been born in the United States and would better understand her forefathers' history. It is not my place to reply in the name of the exile community, the community of my parents and hers. Instead, I do so in the name of our own generation, the one in which she obligatorily was born or reared, kept away from her ancestral land because those old people -- the ones she today calls tired, dispossessed and reduced to pathetic acts of self-parody -- once were brave enough to leap into the void, abandon their loved ones and start a new life without money or knowledge of a new language. Those same old-timers, in the most tragic of cases, even sent their children to Miami by themselves, in Operation Pedro Pan, just so their children could have -- like she now has -- the opportunity of thinking freely. For those who prefer not to delve deeply into the meaning of the word exile, which not even remotely approaches the word immigrant, we Cubans here are an easy target of ridicule. Not a day goes by that I don't hear another Hispanic fake a Cuban accent and mockingly spout an 'oye, chico, qué volá,' ['Hey, man, what's happening'] to conceal rivalry behind solidarity. Everybody wants to unseat a winner. The fact is that the Cuban community, most of it, has come to the United States to integrate into its educational, labor and political processes. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, we Cuban-Americans represent almost 4 percent of the 45 million Hispanics in this country. Yet, our average annual income is higher than that of Anglos, and more than 50 percent of the wealthy Hispanics in this great nation are Cubans. Our influence is palpable in the media, science, the arts, finance, Congress, the Senate, the country. And all this was forged in fewer than 50 years, under adverse conditions. We could have achieved more in a democratic Cuba. Throughout the years, I have read with admiration, even devotion, the writings of many English-language columnists. Anna Quindlen of Newsweek speaks to my condition as a woman. Ana Veciana-Suarez touches my heart as a mother. Dave Barry puts me in touch with the girl inside me. Leonard Pitts is my conscience in the face of racial injustice. And when Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize winner, deals with the negative aspects of the African-American community, he does not engage in mockery or vituperation. He broaches it with brotherly concern. To criticize the nostalgia of the generation of Agustín Tamargo, Guillermo Cabrera Infante and so many others who live or died clinging to the idea of a democratic and sovereign Cuba is an act of cruelty. It is not a question of agreeing or disagreeing with those who want to boycott something that offends them, but to acknowledge that they have a right to do so here, knowing that in Cuba that act would land them in jail. To criticize those who are not brave enough to face off multinational corporations is simplistic. The exile community has defied Benetton, CNN, the Melia hotel chain and many others. For someone named Menendez and someone named Soler to come to blows over this is fratricidal. A bitter postscript to another May 20 -- Cuban Independence Day -- in exile. This column was published originally in El Nuevo Herald..
April 2007

Fewer support sanctions on Cuba

April 2, 2007

Miami Herald- Pablo Bachelet

WASHINGTON -- A new poll released today shows that growing numbers of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade oppose U.S. restrictions on travel to the island and favor more contacts with Havana. The survey showed 55.2 percent of those polled favor 'unrestricted' travel to Cuba, though a majority of those registered to vote opposed the option, and support for the embargo was at the lowest level since the survey was launched in 1991. The results also show a community divided in opinions on Havana depending on the year of arrival, skeptical that a quick change will happen on the island, and attitudes that seem contradictory: A narrow majority favors a U.S. invasion of Cuba, but a bigger majority supports a restoration of diplomatic ties between Havana and Washington. The latest poll was conducted by Florida International University, with funding from the Cuba Study Group, a moderate Cuban-American group based in Washington, and FIU's own Cuban Research Institute. The Brookings Institution, a Washington nonpartisan think tank, was part of the organizing team. The FIU poll is unique because it is the eighth such poll in 16 years, and organizers have tried to ask questions consistent over time to get a clearer picture of how attitudes are evolving. The latest survey also is the first since the Democratic Party seized control of Congress, which is expected to tackle several initiatives to ease U.S. sanctions on the island before its August summer recess. The poll also comes as the presidential race for 2008 is off to an unusually early start, with candidates beginning to define their position on Havana with an eye on the crucial South Florida constituency. Carlos Saladrigas, co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group, called the timing of the survey ``critical.' The Cuba Study Group has been doing its own separate polls of the community since 2002 but decided to work with FIU this time. 'By polling, we have given a voice to the broader Cuban-American community not necessarily heard through self-appointed spokespersons in the past,' Saladrigas told reporters at a briefing ahead of the poll's release. Several previous polls also have shown that Cuban-American attitudes are changing, especially among the more recent arrivals from Cuba, compared to the older exiles who generally favor stronger sanctions. 'People are seeing and recognizing the need to take a new path,' said Carlos Pascual, the vice president and director of foreign policy studies at The Brookings Institution. By unveiling the numbers in Washington, the group hopes to target U.S. government officials and other opinion leaders. 'This is a national policy issue . with much of the work that needs to be done here in D.C.,' Brian Cullin, a spokesman for The Brookings Institution, said in an e-mail. Brookings is organizing several private and public discussion groups on the poll, with the head of the Organization of American States José Miguel Insulza and the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America Thomas Shannon expected to attend the private sessions. FIU surveyed 1,000 Cuban Americans in the Miami-Dade area for the poll, which has a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points. Two out of every three Cuban Americans polled are U.S. citizens, and of those, 66 percent identified themselves as registered Republicans. The results were criticized by supporters of the sanctions as a 'push poll' where the questions are phrased to influence results. Ana Carbonell, the chief of staff of Miami Republican Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart, said her office has other surveys that show a majority of Cuban Americans only support lifting sanctions if Havana meets some minimal conditions in return, like scheduling free elections and freeing political prisoners. SKEPTICAL 'This is another one of those annual `push polls' done by those who want to unilaterally ease sanctions to benefit the Castro regime, with a business interest,' she said. But the poll's organizers say the FIU questions have been broadly the same since 1991, so the trends are relevant. The embargo is still backed by a 57.5 percent majority, but less than the 66 percent who backed it three years ago. Twenty-nine percent said they favored lifting the embargo without any preconditions, 8 percent would only do so after Fidel Castro died, and 11 percent would hold out until both Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl are gone. Thirty-five percent would wait and until the political and economic system changed in Cuba. One of the poll's key results involves the restrictions on travel to Cuba. In 2004, the Bush administration cut back Cuban-American visits to the island to once every three years instead of once a year. The administration also has stepped up enforcement of the ban on U.S. tourist travel to Cuba. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they would like to return to the travel rules before 2004, and 55.2 percent said they favor 'unrestricted' travel to the island -- a reversal from 2004, when 53.7 percent said they opposed unrestricted travel to Cuba. The phrasing of the question included all U.S. nationals as well as Cuban Americans. But among those registered to vote, 57.7 percent opposed allowing unrestricted travel, though a 52 percent majority favored returning to the way things were before 2004. In keeping with other surveys, the responses vary widely depending on how long those polled have lived in the United States. For instance, only 34.4 percent of those who arrived 1974-1984 favor unrestricted travel, against 67.1 percent of those that arrived 1985-1994. DIFFERENCES Older arrivals are more likely to be U.S. citizens and therefore more likely to vote. Throughout the survey, registered voters tended to favor a tougher stance toward Havana. Overall, 62 percent said they back food sales to the island, up from 54.8 percent in 2004. U.S. food exports to Cuba have been allowed since 2001, and the United States is now the fourth-largest exporter to Cuba. Similarly, slightly more than half -- 51.3 percent -- of those polled say they want to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. Havana and Washington have only 'Interests Sections' that act as quasi embassies. Few Cuban Americans believe the island will see a rapid transition toward a democracy. Only 17 percent said changes will happen in less than a year and 45.9 percent expect changes in the 2-5-year period. Two out of every three Cubans also favor establishing a national dialogue between the Cuban government, dissidents and exiles. In 1991, slightly fewer than half favored such a dialogue. Link to Poll: http://www.fiu.edu/~ipor/cuba8/.

Cuban Americans moderate views on Cuba: poll

April 2, 2007

Reuters- Adriana Garcia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A majority of Cuban Americans still stand by the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, a survey showed on Monday, but their support has fallen to its lowest level since the survey was first taken in 1991. After more than four decades of the embargo, those surveyed also were increasingly in favor of lifting U.S. travel restrictions that prevent them from returning to Cuba whenever they want. The survey of south Florida's 650,000-strong Cuban American community has been conducted eight times since 1991 by Florida International University. This year, the Brookings Institution helped organize the poll of 1,000 people while the Cuba Study Group, a Washington lobby group, co-sponsored it. In a sign that hard-line Cuban American opposition to Cuban leader Fidel Castro is being diluted by more moderate views, 57 percent favored re-establishing diplomatic relations with Havana. In 2004, only 42.7 percent wanted diplomatic relations with Cuba. "No longer do Cuban Americans seem to believe that isolation is working," said Vicki Huddleston, a senior fellow at the Washington think-tank the Brookings Institution and a former head of the U.S. interests section in Havana. It found that 57.5 percent of those questioned wanted the U.S. embargo imposed on Cuba since 1962 to be maintained -- the lowest percentage in favor of the economic sanctions since the survey was first conducted. In 2004, 66.1 percent were in favor of maintaining the embargo. A big majority -- 64.4 percent -- want an easing in tight restrictions imposed on Havana under President George W. Bush, such as limiting travel to the island to once every three years and curtailing the amount of money Cuban Americans can send relatives. That question was not asked in the 2004 survey because the tighter restrictions had not yet been imposed. MAJORITY FOR FREE TRAVEL Fifty-five percent spoke out for completely free travel to Cuba while 62 percent said food sales should not be restricted, compared with 54.8 percent in 2004. Seventy-one percent said U.S. businesses should be allowed to sell medicines, compared to 69.3 percent in 2004. U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba are permitted under the embargo but must be paid for in advance in cash. The survey, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percent, was published as lawmakers in the now Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress pledge new efforts to ease the Bush administration's restrictions. It also comes amid uncertainty over Cuba's future as Castro remains out of sight eight months after intestinal surgery. The numbers of Cuban Americans who want travel restrictions lifted fell to 42.3 percent when the pollsters stripped out those respondents who are not registered to vote in U.S. elections. "Many of them (the people surveyed) aren't citizens and if they are citizens they are not big campaign contributors, so their voice doesn't matter as much as the voice of the hard-liners," said Daniel Erikson, a senior associate at the Washington think-tank Inter-American Dialogue. Cuban America lawmakers who are strongly opposed to dealing with Havana as long as Castro or his brother Raul Castro exert control say they remain confident efforts to weaken the travel restrictions will be defeated. They also dismiss the Florida International University survey -- as they have done for years -- as slanted. "This is another one of those annual 'push polls' done by those who want to unilaterally ease sanctions to benefit the Castro regime, with a business interest," Ana Carbonell, chief of staff for Miami Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, told the Miami Herald newspaper..

Travel to Cuba debate divides exile community

April 1, 2007

Miami Herald- Laura Morales

The U.S. travel ban to Cuba incites passions at both ends of South Florida's political spectrum. But having U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, who hard-line exiles consider an adversary, sitting on a stage in the heart of Little Havana Saturday marked a first. Flake, a libertarian Republican from Arizona who has traveled to Cuba four times and has pushed Congress for years to end the travel ban, took part in a debate over the travel ban Saturday at the Tower Theater. He sought to make a case that banning travel to the communist island is counterproductive and against America's democratic ideals. Florida International University professor and Cuba scholar Lisandro Pérez echoed the argument, asking what had four decades of a trade embargo accomplished. Two prominent Cuban Americans -- radio host and University of Miami professor Paul Crespo and Hialeah City Council President Esteban Bovo -- countered that opening Cuba to American tourists and allowing Cuban Americans to visit family on the island more often than once every three years would only strengthen Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl's control. The mood in the jam-packed Tower Theater was reminiscent of the many decades of demonstrations and discussions about U.S. relations with Cuba: tense, heartfelt and often loud. Tempers flared here and there, and moderator Michael Putney of WPLG-Channel 10 and several panel members had to remind the crowd to keep calm. The debate, hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union, foreshadowed what could be a battle in the Democrat-controlled Congress over proposed legislation to ease restrictions. Crespo said travel isn't the issue. 'It's about the embargo against Castro. We want to keep that money out of Castro's hands,' he said of tourist dollars, adding that most people will travel there for leisure and not academic or humanitarian reasons. Bovo agreed, saying that the conditions that drove so many from Cuba are still present. 'Castro has ignored pleas from the left and right to open that society,' he said. Pérez argued that a policy which keeps families separated is 'morally reprehensible,' and that it just doesn't work. Flake said that while any travel, from anywhere, would inevitably send some funds Castro's way, it would also do good by making it harder for him to isolate his society. 'I think Cuban-American families are perfectly capable of making these decisions for themselves without the intervention of Congress,' he added. During a question-and-answer period Miguel Saavedra, founder of the anti-Castro group Vigilia Mambisa, asked Flake if, during any of his four trips to Cuba, he brought up the issue of human rights. 'Every time,' Flake replied. ``Either verbally or in writing, I've asked them to release prisoners.' During the question-and-answer period two audience members became so angry and disruptive they had to be escorted out by police. Luis Zúñiga, a Radio and TV Martí executive and former political prisoner, reminded Flake and Pérez that, even if the travel ban were lifted, 'the regime has the power to decide who will travel to Cuba' and that many, such as himself, still won't be able to go. 'If they put restrictions, that's their problem,' Flake said, adding that it should be beneath the United States to restrict Americans' freedoms. Pérez agreed. ``Let's not put U.S. policy at the level of the Cuban government.' After the debate, Flake attended a luncheon and campaign fundraiser where the board of directors of the Cuban Committee for Democracy awarded him the Juan Gualberto Gómez Award. Several recent polls have shown that Cuban Americans are split on whether to end Bush's three-year limit for family travel, a limit that has drawn fire from some in the religious community. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently issued a statement urging Congress to end travel restrictions to the island. Orlando bishop Thomas Wenski, chairman of the U.S. Bishops' committee on international relations, commended lawmakers who seek to lift the restrictions. 'No one should be prevented from visiting a dying relative or attending a loved one's funeral simply for having traveled to Cuba once in the previous three years,' Wenski said in that statement, adding that the policy does no honor to the country..
March 2007

On the trail of Che: Miami man revives debate over remains

March 23, 2007

Miami Herald- Luisa Yanez

On an October night outside the Bolivian city of Vallegrande, Gustavo Villoldo says he secretly buried the body of iconic revolutionary leader Ernesto 'Che' Guevara along with two fellow rebels. The year was 1967. That night, he says he snipped a lock of Che's hair and scribbled down the exact geographical coordinates before dropping the bodies into a common grave. Now, Villoldo -- a Miami Cuban exile hired 40 years ago through the CIA to hunt down Che -- has come forward for the first time with his evidence to claim that Che's remains may still be in Bolivian soil and not in a Cuban mausoleum, his official grave site -- as Fidel Castro claims. 'In the hair, I'm sure there is a sample of Che's DNA, and I'm willing to have it tested and compared against the remains in his tomb in Cuba,' he said. To prove it, Villoldo would need the cooperation of Che's relatives to compare DNA and that of the Cuban and Bolivian governments to examine Che's supposed remains. That's unlikely, but Villoldo's claim is sure to add more intrigue to the long-running international debate over one of the Cuban Revolution's most recognizable faces. It's a debate that began in 1995 when the Cuban government, amid much fanfare, announced it had located Che's bones and returned them to Cuba in 1997. For the retired 71-year-old South Miami-Dade farmer, it means closing his personal circle with Che, who he calls a 'cold-blooded killer' for ordering the execution of hundreds of Cubans before firing squads and the man, along with Castro, partly responsible for the suicide of Villoldo's father. 'I don't understand these kids who think Che's someone to be admired. The man was a monster,' he said. He contends that hundreds of thousands who make pilgrimages yearly to Che's tomb in Santa Clara are being hoodwinked by the Cuban government. Villoldo said he's one of only four men who were present when Che's body was buried and is positive that he is the only one who knows the grave site's coordinates -- and can settle the matter once and for all. 'If I was in Che's place, I would want my kids to know where I was buried,' said Villoldo, who has eight children and 17 grandchildren. Unclassified CIA documents and Che biographies confirm Villoldo's involvement in the case. He first spoke of his role in Che's burial and his skepticism of Cuba's claim to the The Miami Herald in 1997, but did not reveal the strands of hair -- turned blondish by exposure to the elements -- that he has kept wrapped in a piece of yellow paper. Neither did Villoldo disclose it in his 1999 self-published book, Che Guevara: The End of a Myth. Besides the hair sample, he keeps a scrapbook of the mission, which holds photographs, the map used to track Che and his guerrillas, mission orders and Che's fingerprints. Villoldo says he's not coming forward for money but wants the truth known about Che's remains. ON THE DEFENSIVE Cuban officials have not commented, but Bolivian government officials and Argentine scientists who took part in the dig have been on the defensive -- again. 'I don't have the slightest doubt that the skeleton we found was that of Che,' Alejandro Inchaurregui, one of two forensic anthropologists who discovered the bones, said this month in Argentina. But he said no DNA testing was done. And that they relied on the memories and diaries of two retired Bolivian generals to help locate the bodies. A jacket, believed to be Che's, with tobacco tucked in a secret pocket was a strong indicator. Villoldo counters that those military men took part in Che's capture, but were not present the night he sneaked Che's body out of La Nuestra Señora de Malta Hospital's improvised morgue in Vallegrande, where the media gathered. He thinks the Cuban-led anthropological team stumbled onto another unmarked grave of executed guerrillas. Another inconsistency: the Cuban dig team said it found Che along with six other men. 'We buried three men that night -- Che and two of his fellow rebels,' Villoldo said. ``Thirty years later, they start digging and find seven men buried? Dead bodies don't reproduce. They don't multiply.' PROPAGANDA STUNT Others, too, have raised questions. Last month, an investigation by Letras Libres, a Spanish-Mexican magazine, published a story headlined Operation Che -- History of a State Lie. It alleges the discovery of Che's remains was a propaganda stunt by Castro to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Che's death and to ``relaunch the country's revolutionary fervor.' Long before he was hired by the Bolivian government to track down Che, Villoldo and Che shared an unpleasant past. The two first met in Cuba only days after Castro took power in 1959. Che, named head of the the Banco Nacional, began dismantling all traces of capitalism. A main target: a General Motors distributorship owned by Villoldo's father, also named Gustavo. Che told Villoldo that his father's company would be seized. The family was ruined. 'Che believed rich people were all bandits,' Villoldo said. Three weeks later, his heartbroken father swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. Villoldo later fled the island, headed for Miami and quickly joined Brigade 2506, taking part in the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. He became an officer in the U.S. Army by direct commission of President John F. Kennedy and later was recruited to work with the agency. SPECIAL MISSION In 1965, Villoldo received a call from his CIA handler, asking if he would be interested in a special mission to hunt down Che in the Congo, where the Argentine Marxist rebel was trying to spark more revolutions. He jumped at the chance. Villoldo first traveled to Africa, but Che slipped away and vanished. In late 1966, it was learned Che had resurfaced in the Bolivian jungles, still trying to spark an insurrection. Villoldo was tapped to head the operation, along with three other Cuban exiles. Leading them through the jungle were Bolivian army rangers trained by U.S. Army Green Berets. On Oct. 8, 1967, during a brief gun battle, Che was wounded in the leg and captured; many of his 50 men were killed. He was interrogated in a schoolhouse in a mountainous hamlet called La Higuera. Villoldo heard the news as he arrived at mission headquarters in Vallegrande. Everyone, including Che, tensely waited for orders from Bolivian President Rene Barrientos about the famous rebel's fate: life or death? 'Che came barking at the wrong tree when he invaded my country,' said Rene Barrientos, a Miami Dade College professor and son of the Bolivian president who ordered Che's execution. 'He didn't realize my father was popular with the peasants, who just ignored Che,' Barrientos said. Félix Ismael Rodriguez, another Cuban exile working under Villoldo, was with Che during his final hours. Rodriguez told The Miami Herald last year that Che figured the end was near for him when he heard firing squad gunshots. 'Are they going to kill me, too?' Che asked. After Che was executed, his body was flown to a local hospital, where Villoldo, the only U.S. advisor on site, and some high-ranking military personnel had to decide what to do next. MIXED FEELINGS Film footage from the day shows photographers, reporters and townspeople freely milling around Che's shirtless bullet-poked body. Among those who came to see the body was President Barrientos, who had mixed feelings about Che's execution, says his son. 'I don't think my father wanted to kill Che for humanitarian reasons, but it was something that was decided by my country's high command and he went along with it,' Barrientos said. Disposing of Che's body, and keeping Cuba from recovering it, became Villoldo's problem. A plan was hatched with Bolivian officials to secretly bury him in an airstrip under construction. Equipped with a pickup truck and a front-end loader, Villoldo was accompanied by three Bolivians. FINAL MOVE Just after 2 a.m. Oct. 11, 1967, the bodies of Che, 39, and two of his fellow rebels, 'Chino' Chang and 'Cuba,' were taken from the morgue, loaded into the back of the pickup truck, covered with a tarp and driven to the airport, according to Villoldo. The three bodies were dropped into a waiting trench. The loader went to work covering their bodies. Villoldo wrote down the coordinates. He already had a lock of Che's hair in his pocket. 'I cut Che's hair to chip away at the symbol of the Cuban Revolution -- which was the long hair and the beard,' Villoldo said. Villoldo knows his story may spark anger from Che lovers and haters alike. But he wants Che's family to know where their loved one is buried. 'I will give them the coordinates, but only to them, not Castro,' he said. ``It's only right, I think.'.

Classmates' letters lead to reunion

March 23, 2007

Miami Herald- Noah Bierman and Erika Beras

Adult-education students learning English practiced their skills last year by writing letters to the White House and other officials on behalf of a classmate -- who is blind, sometimes homeless and was desperate to bring his wife and daughter from Cuba. The letters reached Emilio Gonzalez, the Cuba-born director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. He called Guillermo Alvarez, the 41-year-old student, and the red tape disappeared. On Thursday, Alvarez cried at Miami International Airport as he hugged his wife and daughter for the first time in more than two years. 'This is very emotional,' said his wife, Rebeca Bromberguez, 43. ``I've suffered so much. I've had so many sleepless nights. This is my family. I was so scared my daughter would never see her father again.' Alvarez fled Cuba 27 months ago, making it to Texas while on a trip to Mexico, he said. In Cuba, his wife and daughter Rebeca Alvarez, 20, formed a support system that he hasn't had in Miami. 'One of the hardest things about moving to the United States was learning to walk with a cane,' Alvarez said. ``In Cuba, I had my wife and daughter to lean on. Here it was a matter of life or death. But I learned.' Alvarez was partially blind at birth, then lost his vision completely in 1988, the result of a botched operation, he said. He and his wife earned money at various trades -- making crafts, mulling wine, selling homemade juices, repairing bikes. TEACHER NOTICED Once in Miami, he enrolled in English and GED classes at Miami-Dade College. He impressed teachers with his dedication and intelligence. Last year, he started missing classes and finally showed up looking uncharacteristically disheveled, said Ana Maria Guadayol, his college English teacher. 'I stopped him [in class] to say, `Hey get your act together, what's going on?' ' Guadayol said. Alvarez explained that a home where he had been boarding in Homestead, belonging to relatives, had burned down. He couldn't get federal housing help and was forced into a shelter. Guadayol and Alvarez called several charity and government agencies for help, without success. 'Since he's here alone it was even worse,' she said. Alvarez had been unsuccessful in speeding up his wife's application for refugee status. A secretary at MDC suggested writing to the president. Guadayol figured it was worth a try. It could be a lesson in writing skills and democracy for her class. CLASS PROJECT She and 28 students wrote letters to President Bush and other officials -- with personal appeals about Alvarez -- and Guadayol mailed them off in a package. Six weeks later, Emilio Gonzalez left a message on her voice mail. But she gets so many calls from students, the name didn't register. 'It didn't mean anything to me,' Guadayol said. Gonzalez had been trying to reach Alvarez. 'The humanitarian aspects of this case are very clear,' said Mariela Melero, a spokeswoman for Gonzalez. Melero said her boss was impressed by Alvarez's determination to overcome his disability and the community's impulse to rally around him. Alvarez is studying massage therapy and expects his life to improve now that he has his wife again. 'We had never spent a night apart,' he said. ``If I was in the hospital, she was at my side. We've been married 23 years and we have not seen each other in more than two. We were always one of the few perfect marriages in the world.'.
February 2007

A new forum for exile discourse

February 23, 2007

Miami Herald- Oscar Corral

Ink and coffee framed the countercultural debates in the cafés of San Francisco, New York and Paris, so Neli Santamarina figures her little joint on Southwest Eighth Street, Tinta Y Café, might help pry open exile Miami's Cuba discourse a half-century later. Santamarina plans to begin monthly tertulias cubanas or talk sessions -- an old Spanish tradition -- at her coffeehouse so that people who disagree with U.S. policy toward Cuba can share their feelings with those who would never stray from the status quo. The first one is Sunday. In any other city, an open talk about Cuba policy might not be a big deal. But in Miami, where thousands know of someone who was a political prisoner in Cuba or who died trying to flee the communist government, talk of softening U.S. policy toward Cuba is not always met kindly. It has drawn condemnation from talk radio, street protests and even violent attacks in the decades past. 'My parents didn't sacrifice themselves and come to this country so we would stay quiet and be afraid to speak out,' Santamarina said. ``Everyone says things need to change in Cuba, and that's true. But they also need to change in Miami. There's a culture of intimidation in Miami that doesn't allow people to criticize U.S. policy toward Cuba. I'm not going to let that go on.' With its own timbiriche window serving crispy croquetas and cortaditos with evaporated milk, Tinta reflects the anti-Versailles of exile thought. An art book featuring Ernesto 'Che' Guevara on the cover sits on a book shelf -- placed there by Santasmarina to provoke conversation -- and the Cuban hip-hop sound of Orishas thump from speakers. Couches and threads of conversations critical of U.S. policy toward Cuba greet people as they enter. 'Miami is at a tipping point,' Santamarina said on a recent afternoon as she tackled a plate with a plantain leaf-wrapped tamal, manchego cheese and arugula. ``I feel that we need to give a voice to the silent majority of people in Miami who are frustrated with the failures of U.S. Cuba policy.' Santamarina and her friend, anti-embargo exile activist Sylvia Wilhelm, each invited ten people to Sunday's tertulia and asked them to bring someone who disagrees with them on U.S. Cuba policy. Outside the famous Versailles Restaurant on Southwest Eighth Street, Miami's best-known tertulia on the Cuba issue thrives daily. Near the timbiriche that fronts Calle Ocho, casual groups form in the sparse shade of palms, always coming around to the topic percolating in Miami's collective consciousness for two generations. On Wednesday, former political prisoner Dagoberto Venturita, 72, wandered into a conversation about the U.S. embargo of Cuba. He thinks Santamarina's tertulia plays into the hands of Cuba's ailing leader, Fidel Castro. 'Those people, that's leftism,' Venturita said. ``Why do they come to this country if [the United States] is a democracy. Everyone has a right to talk, but there are a lot of sentiments and feelings in this community against their position.' Cuban American lawyer Raúl Hernández-Morales, chatting in a group of three outside Versailles, snickered at the concept of a tertulia to discuss the U.S. embargo: ``What embargo? The embargo hasn't accomplished anything. The embargo has been an excuse for all of Fidel's tyranny.' Santamarina believes recent changes in the leadership both in Cuba and Washington are cause to reexamine the strained U.S.-Cuba relationship. Fidel Castro's brother Raúl now runs Cuba, and Democrats, including many who want an opening with Cuba, now control Congress. 'You know what, I'm not a commie, so get over it,' Santamarina said of those who disagree with her. ``We have to get beyond those ridiculous insults and talk this out. Lots of us feel that the best way to bring about change in Cuba is to increase contact.' Earlier this month, Santamarina hosted a photo exhibit on the second floor of the building that houses Tinta, the Jóse Martí Building, known for amural of the island on a wall that can be seen from I-95. The exhibit was critical of U.S. policy that prohibits Cubans in the United States from visiting family on the island more than once every three years. An awkward confrontation punctuated the night. Alvaro Fernandez, chairman of the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights, which aims to end restrictions on family travel, unveiled the exhibit. He said the photos captured 'some of the pain experienced by families who can't see each other just because of a policy,' a woman in the small crowd interrupted. 'Excuse me, didn't we all know that we were going to be separated?' she said. ``I don't understand your attitude, I'm sorry.' Fernandez asked her to reserve her comments until he was finished. But the woman interrupted again. 'President Bush didn't divide us,' she said. ``Fidel is the one that divided us. He kept us from going for 25 years.' As the visibly upset woman left the building, she declined to provide her name to a Miami Herald reporter, saying the people giving the presentation were 'cabrones' (bastards) and 'asesinos' (assassins). 'They are just saying half the truth,' she said. ``I came here in 1962 and for 20 years, I couldn't go to Cuba and there was no Bush. It was Fidel's decision to prohibit us.' Santamarina, who also is a real estate investor, was not dismayed. In a way, the confrontation represented the kind of discussion she wants to promote -- but without raised voices, insults or hurt feelings. 'Let's stop talking like that,' she said. ``It's not about attacking someone. We have to stop the fights. To quote a T-shirt my friend was wearing the other day, what we need is dissent without fear.'.

Victims of Castro's Cuba honored

February 17, 2007

Miami Herald- Casey Woods

To an outsider, the individual pieces of the Cuban Memorial might not seem very impressive: foam crosses, bolted to a grass field in Tamiami Park. But for Mirta Costa, it's all she has. 'I have nothing from my son's body, not even a tooth,' Costa said Friday as she taped red roses to the makeshift marker. ``For me, this means I have a place that marks his passing, where I can come to remember him.' Her son Carlos Costa died on Feb. 24, 1996, when his small plane was shot down by the Cuban military as he flew for the exile group Brothers to the Rescue, which looked for rafters at sea. His name is one of the more than 10,000 neatly affixed to the Memorial's rows of white crosses, arranged in alphabetical order so members of the exile community can easily find their fallen. Once a year, the Cuban Memorial honors the victims of communist Cuba's government, including those who died in Cuban prisons, rafters who perished at sea while trying to escape, and those who were killed by firing squads in the revolution's early years. The display will be open to the public at Tamiami Park until 5 p.m. Sunday. 'This is essentially a parking lot in a field, but people come with flowers and sit next to the crosses, because for them they are real,' said Emilio Solernou, a member of the Memorial's organizing committee. ``It's amazing what it means to people.' Next year, on its sixth anniversary, the Memorial's organizers say that families will have a place to pay respects to the victims year-round, when a permanent monument is expected to be erected in Tamiami Park. The new memorial will be in the shape of a star, crowned with five black granite walls engraved on one side with the victims' names. An obelisk, covered in a Cuban flag made out of colored tiles, will rise up in the center. The circle of palms that will surround the monument have already been planted. 'When someone comes to see a Panthers game, or comes to [Florida International University], they will see something that shows them the story of Cuba and what happened to its people,' said Renato Gomez, a Cuba Memorial board member. ``We need to follow in the footsteps of the Jewish community, because they work and work to make sure that no one forgets [the Holocaust].' Miami-Dade County donated the land for the permanent memorial, but it will be built through donations from the exile community, Gomez said..
December 2006

Castro's absence spurs little hope among Miami's exiles

December 3, 2006

Miami Herald- Gladys Amador and Elias Lopez

Fidel Castro's failure to appear at a military parade in Havana did little to erase the uncertainty many Cubans feel about the future of their island nation. Still, from Hialeah to Little Havana, some Cubans held out hope that Castro's death would bring about major change in the island's communist government. Others, young and old alike, had their doubts. 'I think that while Raúl [Castro] is still in power, the change that Cuba needs to undergo will not take place,' said Fran Diaz, 42, who directs a Miami-based band, La Orquesta Habana Soul. He and others at La Carreta Restaurant on Hialeah's West 16th Avenue said they weren't making plans to return to Cuba anytime soon. 'Only if the island would accept U.S. policy asking them to hold open elections, free political prisoners and accept democracy, would I go once again,' said Diaz, who was dressed in typical 1950s Cuba gear: all-white suit, two-toned shoes and a Panama hat. 'I think we would need a miracle for things to really change,' said Roberto Hervis, a 27-year-old Cuban exile who left the island only six years ago. ``I don't want to be negative; it's just the way I see it.' Hervis was an English literature teacher in Cuba, but left when he won el bombo, the term Cubans use to describe the special U.S. visa lottery. 'The system unfortunately works so well that all the pieces are perfectly in place -- even if he's [Fidel Castro] not physically there anymore,' he said. For 60-year-old Jesus Perez, who came to the United States from Cuba some 30 years ago, his only immediate wish is that he be alive to witness Castro's death. 'It's the least that we deserve,' he said as he puffed on a cigar. Domingo Delmonte, 55, said he believes Castro's absence on Saturday spells trouble for the current government. 'Castro is the one who has given the regime a style, and a change will represent a risk and a lot of work,' he said standing outside the Versailles restaurant on Calle Ocho. Angela Velazquez, 80, said she thinks Castro is already dead. 'But if he's not, from the [television images], he looks terminal,' she said. Artist and Cuban exile Reinaldo Martinez, 46, who left Cuba in 1980, professed his opinion with a politically charged montage outside the crowded Versailles restaurant. Perched on a trailer, a life-size Fidel Castro was displayed chained inside a white white wooden coffin, with the Cuban leader wearing his familiar olive military fatigues. At his side: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, with his signature red beret atop his head, playing the role of a weeping widow. Propped up on the other side of Castro's coffin: the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda's Osama Bin Laden. A sign overhead read ``Welcome To Your Home -- The Devil.'.
November 2006

Complaint filed against Cuban lobbying group

November 29, 2006

Miami Herald- Pablo Bachelet

WASHINGTON - A watchdog group has alleged a Cuban-American lobbying organization that favors tougher sanctions against Cuba broke Federal Election Commission regulations by having illegal links to a nonprofit group. But the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee denied the allegations and noted that the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has filed several complaints against it, has received donations from groups opposed to U.S. sanctions on the island. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics filed a complaint in September asserting that several members of the nonprofit Cuba Democracy Advocates Inc. had illegal links to the PAC, which is supposed to operate independently of any other organization. Leopoldo Fernández Pujals founded two nonprofit U.S. organizations in 2000 to oppose the communist government, using some of the proceeds of his $366 million sale of Spanish fast-food chain Telepizza in 1999, according to the FEC complaint. Those two organizations eventually became Cuba Democracy Advocates, and Fernández appointed Mauricio Claver-Carone as director and Miami-Dade car dealer Gus Machado as treasurer. Machado then went on to create the PAC and Claver-Carone became its Washington director. Claver-Carone and Machado, according to the complaint to the FEC, have 'day-to-day operational control' of both the PAC and Cuba Democracy Advocates. THE RULES According to FEC rules, a connected PAC can only raise money from its affiliated organization, but the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC has raised $1.25 million from 3,000 individuals, mostly members of the Cuban-American community. The group has donated to dozens of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and is widely seen as successfully influencing congressional votes on Cuba sanctions. Claver-Carone denied the two organizations had done anything wrong, noting that the PAC is run by a 26-member board and a seven-member executive committee, most of whom have no connection with Cuba Democracy Advocates. 'So long as majority of board members do not cross over, there's absolutely no problem whatsoever,' he told The Miami Herald. ``Of the 26 board members, only one crosses over, and that's me.' Claver-Carone said the latest complaint is the fourth filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics against his organization, constituting what he called a ``political hit job.' `AGAINST US' 'They're getting money from people that advocate against us,' he said, citing a $75,000 donation to the watchdog group by the ARCA Foundation, a family-owned foundation, which says on its website that it pursues more social justice and equity. The ARCA group also has donated to groups like the Latin America Working Group and the Lexington Institute -- all opposed to U.S. policies on Cuba. The FEC decided against prosecuting the group's previous allegations. Claver-Carone says refuting each allegation means paying a law firm between $15,000 and $20,000. Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, denied the group is targeting the Cuba Democracy PAC for political reasons. 'We believe they should follow FEC law,' she said..
October 2006

Top politicians, exiles plan for life after Fidel

October 14, 2006

Miami Herald- Frances Robles

After 47 years of summits, conferences and studies about the possibilities of a post-communist Cuba, never before has the topic held such urgency. With Cuban leader Fidel Castro ailing and the communist-ruled nation perhaps on the brink of political change, some South Florida leaders are convinced that quick change will only come one way: with the death of Fidel Castro. 'Fidel Castro has to die for the future of Cuba to begin,' Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart said at the first Cuba Transition to Democracy Summit gathering in Miami. ``I do think destiny will have something to do with that, hopefully soon.' More than 300 Cuban exiles and political leaders, including Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Mel Martinez gathered Friday at the Biltmore Hotel to hash out the beginnings of a new Cuba. Likening Castro to the despotic Roman emperor Caligula, Diaz-Balart suggested he actively wished death upon the communist dictator. 'Oh yes, for humanitarian reasons,' Diaz-Balart told The Miami Herald. ``I'm a humanitarian.' Representatives from former communist nations in Europe that underwent dramatic political and social upheavals after the fall of the Soviet Union were on hand to offer advice. Speakers from Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Estonia said they could not provide Cubans with the steps to freedom -- but could help them avoid stumbling. European Union nations are at odds over how to deal with Castro. Those which endured communist regimes are more willing to take on the Cuban government and help its dissidents, while others enjoy better diplomatic relations with Havana. Their guidance ranged from making sure a post-Castro government includes members of the current government -- to making sure it doesn't leave room for the Communist Party. The Hungarian ambassador to Washington, András Simonyi, said the seven EU nations present at Friday's conference feel a responsibility to share ``the experience of democratic change.' 'All of our experiences are there for you to take,' Simonyi said. ``The bottom line is, sooner or later, we'll all be walking down the malecón, and we'll have a beer.'.

Cuban exiles, dissidents sign plan

October 12, 2006

Miami Herald- Frances Robles

Cuban exile organizations in South Florida working together with dissidents on the island this week launched a five-point plan designed to bring democracy to Cuba -- without budging on controversial issues like negotiating with the current leadership. The document is an important historic step, because it demonstrates an unusual level of cooperation between dissidents and prominent Cuban exile groups, its signers said. The resolution was signed by the Cuban Patriotic Forum, an umbrella exile group, and the dissident Cuban organization Assembly to Promote Civil Society. The Patriotic Forum includes the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, the Cuban Liberty Council, Cuban Municipalities in Exile and others. 'This document is the beginning of the end of communism,' said Roberto Martín Pérez, spokesman of the Association of Cuban Political Prisoners. ``The forum's mentality is not to be against one man, but the principles these men have held for 48 years.' The exile groups represented traditional hard-line organizations that shun any kind of negotiation with the Cuban government. They worked with prominent dissident Martha Beatriz Roque, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Cuban-American legislators Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Díaz-Balart and Mario Díaz-Balart attended an event presenting the document Tuesday in Little Havana, and heralded it as a sign of a united Cuban exile community. The resolution advocates: • Freedom for all political prisoners and an end to harassment of all kinds to internal opposition. • Installment of a transition government that establishes democracy in Cuba, that respects human rights and offers the following freedoms: economic, press, religion, to associate, to assemble and to protest peacefully. • Establishment of a constituent assembly that provides a new constitution submitted to a popular vote. • Recognition of political parties and multiparty elections. • Reestablishment of the rule of law, making sure that ``every Cuban is protected from whimsical decisions that could lead to social discontent.' 'This is a strong document endorsed by all freedom-loving people,' Ros-Lehtinen said. ``We're going to work hard to make sure all these points come true.'.

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