Friday, December 30, 2011

Versailles restaurant: Mecca for Cuban Americans in Miami

I am wrapping up a trip to Miami, where I have been meeting with Cuban-American leaders, activists, writers, bloggers and others.
Many people ask to meet at Versailles restaurant along Calle Ocho. It's probably the most popular gathering spot for Cuban-Americans in South Florida.
On Dec. 28, I went to Versailles for breakfast with Joe Garcia, Democratic Party activist and former director of the Cuban American National Foundation.
I was back at Versailles for lunch the same day with lawyer and Bay of Pigs veteran Tony Zamora, but it was so packed that we wound up going to La Carreta restaurant a block away.
Then I returned to Versailles again that night for what was billed as a candlelight vigil.
There weren't any candles, but there were speeches aimed at demanding the release of three prisoners in Cuba - Ivonne Malleza, Isabel Haydee and Ignacio Martinez.
Those attending included U.S. Rep. David Rivera, former political prisoners and brothers Ariel, Guido and Miguel Sigler, and essayist Pedro Pablo Arencibia. They all appear in the photo above. Not shown is Angel de Fana, director of Los Plantados hasta la Libertad y Democracia en Cuba, who presided at the event.
When I told Alex Cruz, a spokesman for Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, that I always seem to be returning to Versailles, he wrote:
That is great that. U have experienced Mecca.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Anti-Castro activists remain defiant despite hostility

Cuban dissidents Sara Marta Fonseca, her husband, Julio Leon Fonseca, and their sons stand in front of their home near Havana's Jose Marti International Airport, Terminal No. 2.
They say government supporters defaced the front of their home with paint and asphalt primer. But they vowed to continue their fight for democracy in Cuba.

State Department's Cuba spending hits $200 million

The State Department has spent $200,826,000 on Cuba programs since 1997, according to Just the Facts, a civilian's guide to U.S. defense and security assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean.
Some critics have questioned the efficiency of the Cuba programs, most of which are managed by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
I've been trying to obtain copies of audits of these programs. My effort that isn't related to Just the Facts, but I cite that website's statistics to give you an idea how much money is spent on these programs.
Federal records show that USAID paid a Washington, D.C., firm at least $1.47 million to audit the agency's Cuba programs.
In March 2011, I requested a copy of the audit results through the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. USAID replied earlier this month, sending me a heavily redacted 10-page report.
See more about my FOIA request and download the report here.

Dog performs tricks in Old Havana

Roberto Gonzalez trained a dachshund named Pillo Chocolate to talk on the phone, bark at then-President Bush and shoot a gun. See YouTube video that someone else shot here.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Aerial view of Havana

These photos show the view from the plane leaving Havana and heading to Cancun, Mexico. A one-minute HD video of the scene is here.

Ladies in White

I returned to Florida this week after a reporting trip to Cuba, where I interviewed a wide range of people, from dissidents and bloggers to government supporters.
Members of Ladies in White marched along Quinta Avenida in Havana on Sunday wearing t-shirts that paid tribute to their late leader, Laura Pollan, who died on Oct. 14.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Window shopping in Havana

A mannequin on display in a boutique at Plaza Vieja in Old Havana. The tag on the blouse shows a price of $47.80 convertible pesos, or around $56 U.S. That is about twice what most Cubans earn in a month, not including government subsidies of food, housing and utilities.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

More interviews: A blogger, a journalist, a dissident, a gay activist and an ex-official

I have just uploaded five more interviews with a diverse cast of characters, including:

Interview with Orlando Luis Pardo

I just posted an interview with Orlando Luis Pardo, creator of the blog Boring Home Utopics and the ezine Lunes de Post-Revolución. He is a writer and photographer.
See interview on the Cuba Money Project's Vimeo channel - part 1, part 2 and part 3.

El Morro Castle screensaver

A view of El Morro Castle at sunrise. Click to enlarge 2,500-pixel-wide photo that can be used as a screensaver or background image on your desktop.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Latest batch of interviews now online

I've uploaded more videos to the Cuba Money Project's Vimeo channel. Among those featured: Héctor Maseda, above, a Cuban journalist who was jailed in the March 2003 crackdown known as the Black Spring. See part 1 and part 2 of interview.
Maseda's wife was the late Laura Pollán, leader of Damas de Blanco or Ladies in White. She died in October 2011. You can see her with her dog in the background during the interview with her husband.
Links to four additional interviews are below. I have more to upload, but hit my weekly quota with Vimeo and so those will have to wait.
Interview with Dimas Castellanos, a Cuban blogger. His blog is called El Blog de Dimas.
Interview with Luis Sexto, a Cuban journalist. See part 1 and part 2.
Interview with Manuel David Orrio, also known as Agent Miguel. See part 1 and part 2.
Interview with Ernesto González, who took part in the July 26, 1953, attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cartoonist pokes fun at Uncle Sam

I just posted an interview with José Luis López, a longtime Cuban cartoonist. He surprised me when he showed up for the interview with four sketches that he created for the Cuba Money Project. The cartoons give his view of U.S. democracy programs in Cuba. I uploaded the drawings on the Cuba Money Project website. A video of his interview is here.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Interview with Enrique Ubieta

I just uploaded a video of Enrique Ubieta, a Cuban writer and pro-government journalist based in Havana.
His blog is called La Isla Desconocida.

Monday, December 5, 2011

U.S.-Cuba relations: A Chinese finger trap

Chinese finger trap means a lot of things to a lot of people - just check the Urban Dictionary. But when Ellen Bernstein talks about the Chinese toy, she compares it U.S.-Cuba relations.
Chinese finger traps. Photo: Wikipedia
The U.S. government has its finger in one end of the trap. The Cuban government's finger is stuck in the other end. The two sides fight and pull against each other, the trap tightens and relations never improve.
Bernstein is a leader of Pastors for Peace, which has been calling for normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations.
See a video of Bernstein on the Cuba Money Project's Vimeo channel or see a quick summary of her interview here.

Cuban counterculture: An Omni minute

Here's a one-minute sample of Omni Zona Franca, an arts collective based in Alamar, Cuba. The singer is David Escalona. He's a painter, musician and poet. A higher-resolution version of this video is here.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Reinaldo Escobar knew Yoani Sanchez was no ordinary woman

Cuban journalist Reinaldo Escobar recalled his first encounter with Yoani Sanchez: "She met me. I didn't meet her."
But, he said, he quickly realized she was special - "someone for whom it was worth risking everything."
See interview with Escobar on the Cuba Money Project's Video channel, or read summary of interview.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Cuban blogger praises freedom of expression

I just posted an interview with Agustín Valentín Lópeza former Cuban merchant marine who says blogging makes him "feel like a king." See 11-minute video on the Cuba Money Project's Vimeo channel and a summary of interview here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Senator calls for tougher sanctions against Cuba

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio said Tuesday he'll oppose the nominations of Roberta S. Jacobson to be Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Mari Carmen Aponte to be Ambassador to the Republic of El Salvador and Adam E. Namm to be Ambassador to the Republic of Ecuador. Rubio said:
Rather than stand up to tyrants and promote democracy, this Administration’s policy towards Latin America has been defined by appeasement, weakness and the alienation of our allies.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Cuban journalist: Radio Martí falls short

A Cuban journalist who was part of the Group of 75 imprisoned during the 2003 crackdown has quit his job at Radio Martí after nearly six years.

In a letter of resignation addressed to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio and others, Manuel Vázquez Portal said Radio Martí doesn't do enough to defend democracy activists in Cuba. He wrote:
...the current administration has turned the institution into an instrument of entertainment, frivolity and forgetting the purpose for which it was created... 
The station gives too much attention to "popular music programs, obsolete soap operas, futile and divorced from the reality of Cuba today," Vázquez wrote on Nov. 21.
See YouTube video of his resignation announcement below.

Monday, November 21, 2011

GDP higher than $1.5 trillion? No aid for you

U.S. Rep. Larry Bucshon. Photo: Bucshon's Flickr page
House Resolution 3488 would ban foreign assistance to countries with a gross domestic product of $1.5 trillion or more.
Cuba is safe. Its GDP was $114.1 billion in 2010, according to the CIA's World Factbook.
The bill's sponsor is Larry Bucshon, a heart surgeon-turned congressman in Indiana.

Interview with Antonio Rodiles

Just posted on the Cuba Money Project Vimeo channel: An interview with Antonio Rodiles, director of the Havana-based Estado de SATS project. Among his goals: To promote dialogue among all Cubans, including democracy activists and intellectuals who support the Cuban government's official line. See summary of interview.

Secret agents, plots, money - the usual stuff

New on the Cuba Money Project:
  • An interview with Raúl Capote, also known as Agent Daniel. He says he was involved in a plot to create a secret foundation that would produce young leaders who would take charge after the collapse of Cuba’s socialist government. 
  • A story on the issue of how much democracy aid reaches Cuba. In the case of Miami's Plantados hasta la Libertad y la Democracia en Cuba, quite a bit, nearly $800,000 from 2008 to 2010. 
  • An interview with Manuel Lagarde, a controversial pro-government blogger and journalist.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Interview with Jesús Arboleya

Just posted on the Cuba Money Project's Vimeo channel: An interview with Jesús Arboleya. He is an author, professor and former Cuban diplomat. See part 1 and part 2.

Report: U.S. policy "trapped in the traumas" of Castro revolution

Brookings, a public policy institution in Washington, D.C., plans to release a report this morning that will recommend that the international community engage Cuba to support the socialist government's economic reform efforts.
Cuba has shown resilience since the break up of its chief sponsor, the Soviet Union, and appears to be on a path toward gradual change, not sudden regime collapse, the 109-page report says.
Richard E. Feinberg
But there will be "another cycle of disappointment and recrimination" unless Cuba deepens economic reform on the island, warns the report's author, Richard E. Feinberg.
He suggests that the international development community work with "pro-reform factions" in Cuba rather than the the "orthodox planners" who "remain entrenched in still-powerful ministries and the conservative factions inside the Communist Party." He writes:
Now is the time for the international development community to engage in Cuba, to support the incipient economic reform process.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Interview with Frank Carlos Vázquez

This morning I posted an interview with Frank Carlos Vázquez. To American officials he was a cultural promoter, but to Cuban State Security he was Agent Robin.
He informed on U.S. government efforts to cultivate Cuban artists that he said were most likely to produce work that cast the Cuban revolution in a bad light.
A summary of the interview is here. See part 1 and part 2 of the interview on the Cuba Money Project's Vimeo channel.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Interview with José Manuel Collera

This morning I posted an interview with José Manuel Collera Vento, also known as Agente Gerardo.
A summary of the interview is here. See part 1 and part 2 of the interview the Cuba Money Project's Vimeo channel.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

New campaign: Alan Gross Day

On Nov. 8, Judy Gross announced her wish that Dec. 1 be declared "Alan Gross Day" as part of her campaign to free her husband from a Cuban jail.
Gross was arrested in December 2009 while on a USAID mission in Cuba and later convicted of crimes against the Cuban state and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Judy Gross told the Jewish Federations of North America's General Assembly that she was at the couple's home in Maryland on Dec. 3, 2009, when he failed to come home from the airport. She said at first she thought his flight was delayed, but was startled to find out that his plane had already landed.
She said she began to have a sinking feeling, and after a few phone calls, she found out he hadn't made it onto his flight.
Later that night, Gross said she learned that her husband had been arrested on unknown charges and was being held at a maximum security prison in Cuba.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A teen-ager's wish: Shoes that light up

PUMA Speeder Illuminescent
A teen-ager gave this impromptu performance at sundown along the Malecón: (feel free to improve upon my translation):
Look, look. Multiply, subtract and add.
I’m doing a video for la Yuma, you know.
Look, send me some PUMAs that have the little light.
Kicking back with the girl so she sees how the black guy explains things. Walk.
See more videos at Along the Malecón's Vimeo channel.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Senator worries American travelers are propping up Cuban government

Sen. Marco Rubio on Tuesday expressed worry that Americans traveling to Cuba do nothing more than spend money that helps finance the socialist government. He asked diplomat Roberta Jacobson if the U.S. government was making sure that authorized travelers were somehow promoting democracy while on the island.

Jacobson, who is President Obama's nominee to be Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said she would have to review who's going to Cuba and what they're doing on the island.

I've asked the Office of Foreign Assets Control to release its current database of authorized travelers. OFAC says it is processing my request. See details here.

Obama nominee: U.S. wants Cubans to "freely determine their own future"

Screenshot from video posted on Capitol Hill Cubans blog
Roberta Jacobson testified Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She is President Obama's nominee to be Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Here's what she said about Cuba:
In Cuba, we are working to expand the connections between U.S. and Cuban society and open the way for meaningful support of Cubans who are striking their own path, while we keep faith with human rights activists and dissidents who have fought for basic rights for years.
With our efforts, more Cubans have access to information and independent connections to the American citizens who are the best ambassadors of our values.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Interviews with La Joven Cuba bloggers

Harold Cárdenas
Today I posted two interviews with co-founders of La Joven Cuba, a blog based in Matanzas. See the interviews on the Cuba Money Project's Vimeo channel. In the coming weeks, I hope to post more interviews with a wide range of characters, including some people who support the Cuban government, and some who don't.

Roberto González

Will OFAC release Cuba license database?

Another kind of Cuba license
On Oct. 10, I sent the Office of Foreign Assets Control a letter asking for a copy of OFAC's current Licensing Database of Individuals and Companies.
A 2009 version of the database is posted on the Treasury Department's website. It's an Excel file that anyone can download. I requested the latest version of the same information under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
OFAC responded on Oct. 17, saying the agency was working on my request.
Freelance journalists are eligible for fee waivers under FOIA. OFAC denied my request for a waiver. I appealed that decision in a letter I am mailing Nov. 7.
I gave OFAC three reasons why publication of the material would add to the public's understanding of government operations and activities:
  1. Information on license approvals and denials allows the public to understand the basis for OFAC's application of the regulations and guidelines. It also helps potential applicants anticipate whether they are qualified, or what might make them more qualified. 
  2. The information allows the public to evaluate OFAC's implementation of President Obama's Jan. 14, 2011, request that the Treasury Department and other federal agencies make changes to regulations and policies governing "purposeful travel." Knowing who has gotten licenses makes it easier to understand whether OFAC is a bottleneck or a facilitator when it comes to “purposeful travel.” 
  3. The information may provide insight into whether decision-making at OFAC is objective and consistent, or subjective and politicized.
Larry Luxner, editor of CubaNews, plans to publish any stories that result from the OFAC material. He wrote a letter of support.
What do you think? Any reason why the Cuba license database should be secret? Or, if you believe the public has a right to see it, what can we learn from it? How can its disclosure contribute to the public knowledge of OFAC operations?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A British farmer in Cuba

Ex-pats from the United States and England lived on Cuba's Isle of Youth before the Cuban revolution. About a decade ago, I went there looking for the children or grandchildren of any of the settlers. I didn't find any Americans, but there was a blue-eyed British man living on the island and working as a farmer. He spoke Spanish like a Cuban native and English like a Brit. My impression was that he had to work hard to make a living.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Some Cuba grant recipients are world travelers

Earlier today I posted new information on organizations that received USAID and State Department grants this fall. See post entitled, "More details on $18 million in Cuba grants."
I also wrote a post about the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba. See "Cuba Money Trail: Tale of two Miami non-profits."
Several readers over the past few weeks had asked me to write something about a new award given to the FHRC.
As I looked into that, some other grant expenses caught my eye. The Directorio Democratico Cubano, a non-profit in Miami, reported to the IRS more than $13.5 million in expenses from 2005 to 2009.
Directorio expenses reported from 2007 to 2009 included:
  • $913,166 for travel 
  • $2,278,713 for salaries, wages and employee benefits 
  • $330,704 for solidarity committee offices in Europe, and Central and South America
  • $550,055 for program services in foreign countries

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tribal chief: Rival is off the reservation

A Seminole Indian who spoke out against the U.S. ban on trade with Cuba at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., does not represent tribe, Seminole Tribe Chairman James Billie said in an Oct. 26 letter.
Richard Bowers Jr. was described as the tribe's "ambassador of economic affairs" when he criticized U.S. policy toward Cuba at an Interests Section conference (see videos of event here).
Billie said the "ambassador" position does not exist, according to his letter, addressed to U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and posted today by the Capitol Hill Cubans blog. Billie wrote:
...the comments of Mr. Bowers in no way represent the sentiment or opinions of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Mauricio Claver-Carone, editor of Capitol Hill Cubans, wrote that he was surprised to hear Bowers' rhetoric since the Seminole Indians have "been historically sympathetic to the plight of the Cuban people under Castro's dictatorship."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Houston lawyer weighs in on FOIA requests

H/t to media lawyer Joseph Larsen, who wrote a letter to USAID in support of my efforts to obtain documents related to the agency's Cuba programs. Download Larsen's letter and attachments here.
For more about the wrangling over the Cuba-related FOIA requests, see this Cuba Money Project post, "USAID turns tables, demands reporter’s contracts."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

U.N.: Dump trade ban with Cuba

The Cuban delegation. Photo: the U.N.
For the 20th straight year, the United Nations on Tuesday rejected the longtime U.S. trade embargo with Cuba. The vote was resounding:
  • 186 nations voted in favor of a resolution condemning the embargo.
  • Three countries abstained: the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau.
  • Two nations voted against: the United States and Israel.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Cuban ambassador: U.S. embargo is "insanity"

WASHINGTON - America's half-century-long ban on trade with Cuba is "un-American" and should be eliminated, Cuban ambassador Jorge Bolaños Suarez said Friday.
Speaking at a video conference with officials in Havana, Bolaños said the U.S. trade embargo causes economic, moral and spiritual harm. He said the sanctions cost American businesses billions of dollars in lost sales per year. But it's not just an economic issue, he said.
It is a matter of heart. The blockade should be eradicated. It is so un-American to keep a policy in place that has not worked for a half century. The policy is defined in many ways - one way is insanity.
I posted video clips of the conference at Along the Malecon's Vimeo channel.

Rubio corrects Senate biography, remains unapologetic

Photo: Marco Rubio's Senate website
Marco Rubio's official Senate biography has been corrected to read:
Marco was born in Miami in 1971 to Cuban exiles who first arrived in the United States in 1956.
The Washington Post on Oct. 20 accused Rubio of embellishing his family history to enhance his political appeal. His official biography said his parents, Mario and Oriales Rubio, “came to America following Fidel Castro’s takeover."
Rubio responded on Oct. 21, saying:
If The Washington Post wants to criticize me for getting a few dates wrong, I accept that. But to call into question the central and defining event of my parents’ young lives – the fact that a brutal communist dictator took control of their homeland and they were never able to return – is something I will not tolerate.
Alberto de la Cruz of the Babalu blog defended Rubio

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Laura Pollán (1948-2011)

Laura Pollán was a human rights crusader who fought to expand basic liberties in Cuba. Her deep desire for change drove her. But there was something else motivating her: Her love for her husband, Héctor Maseda.

Maseda was a journalist who was jailed in 2003. Pollán founded Las Damas de Blanco to push for the release of not only Maseda but 74 other dissidents, democracy activists and journalists jailed as part of the so-called Black Spring crackdown.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Cuba videos on deck

I have a ton of Cuba videos to post. I wanted to have them all up by now, but I feel behind. I'll get them up as soon as I can. Meantime, here are photos showing clips of some of the videos that await.

Damas de Blanco leader has dengue fever

Laura Pollán
Laura Pollán has been diagnosed with dengue fever, along with respiratory ailments, Cuban blogger Angelica Mora reported Friday. Mora said sources close to the family:
indicated that the two physicians who care for Pollán in intensive care at Calixto Garcia Hospital, in Havana, confirmed Friday to the family that the leader of the Damas de Blanco has dengue, in addition to being affected Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).
According to the World Health Organization:
Dengue fever is a severe, flu-like illness that affects infants, young children and adults, but seldom causes death. In 2007 alone, there were more than 890 000 reported cases of dengue in the Americas.