Thursday, December 12, 2013

Ex-hijacker moved to Fort Lauderdale

William Potts. Photo: Broward Sheriff's Office
William Potts, the former hijacker who turned himself in to American authorities in November, was moved this week from a federal prison in Miami to the eight-story Broward County Jail in Fort Lauderdale.
His lawyer, Robert N. Berube, along with the prosecutor, filed an unopposed motion on Dec. 10 to delay the trial for 45 days.
Court records show the trial had been set for Dec. 30. The Dec. 10 motion contradicts that, noting the date as Dec. 16.
Whatever the case, the motion states:
In all likelihood this case will be resolved without the necessity of a jury trial, however obtaining the potential discovery material in this case is complicated.
As a result of Defendant William Potts’ lengthly incarceration in Cuba, the United States State Department may be in possession of numerous documents that undersigned counsel may be entitled to review.
Obtaining the documents from the United States State Department is a time consuming process, however the process has begun. It is unlikely that a second continuance would be requested.
Officials moved Potts to Fort Lauderdale because the U.S. District Court where he would be tried is located there.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Hijacker-Hannah Mystery

Daryl Hannah in "Blade Runner"
Robert "Casey" Richter "wanted to live in a socialist paradise," so he climbed aboard a Boeing 737 in Tampa on July 7, 1983, and said he'd blow up the plane if the pilot didn't fly to Cuba.
Richter, then a 26-year-old unemployed computer programer, carried a phony bomb - an Old Spice bottle equipped with a fake fuse - and a note that read, "Viva la Revolución."
"His timing was not good," said his brother, Kelly Richter. "The day before the hijacking, Fidel Castro had said, 'The next guy who hijacks a plane will get 50 years.'"
Donald Hannah
Cuban authorities arrested Casey Richter and slapped him with a 20-year sentence. But he was freed after just four years, then returned to the U.S., where he served less than five years' jail time.
Kelly Richter, 60, said he doesn't know for sure how his brother managed to get out of the Cuban prison before his sentence was completed. He said his father, John Richter, traveled to Cuba five or six times seeking his son's release. On one trip, he met Donald Christian Hannah, an American businessman.
Hannah, the father of actress Daryl Hannah, was acquainted with then-President Fidel Castro. John Richter asked Hannah to appeal to Castro for his son's release. As the story goes, Castro was a fan of Daryl Hannah and said he'd consider letting Richter go free if the actress showed up at an international film festival the following year.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Visas for Christmas: Cuba resumes consular services

Cuban Interests Section
From the Cuban Interests Section:
On December 6, 2013, M & T Bank informed the Cuban Interests Section about its decision to extend the deadline for permanently closing the accounts of the Cuban missions in the United States until March 1st, 2014, specifying that it will continue receiving deposits from consular services until February 17, 2014.

The Cuban Interests Section would like to inform that consular services will be immediately resumed on a temporary basis up to February 17, 2014.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Exclusive: Ex-hijacker worries about fate

William Potts
Former hijacker William Potts spent 13 years in a Cuban prison for hijacking a plane to the island in 1984. He said he was stunned to learn he might have to spend two more decades in prison for the crime.
“I almost fainted,” Potts told Along the Malecón in his first media interview since turning himself in to U.S. authorities on Nov. 6. “It really rocked me.”

Friday, November 29, 2013

"Fistful of dollars" falls short

The U.S. government launched its first democracy programs targeting Cuba in 1996.
An omnivore named Bill Clinton was president, the Dallas Cowboys were Super Bowl champs and Fidel Castro was in power.
Seventeen years later, Clinton is a vegetarian and the Cowboys missed the playoffs yet again, but someone named Castro is still in charge of that insolent island called Cuba.
Some democracy activists complain that the United States isn’t doing enough to bring about change in Cuba, but others fault the U.S. strategy.
“The money that the United States has spent trying to overthrow the Cuban government has been money down the rat hole. The proof of it is that the Cuban government is still in place and all that money's been expended to no good end,” said William LeoGrande, a political science professor at American University in Washington, D.C.
William LeoGrande
“I don't think anybody who thinks we need a change in U.S. policy towards Cuba is against democracy in Cuba. I think the criticism of the current policy in Cuba is that it's been trying to bring about democracy in Cuba for 50 years and hasn't worked.” LeoGrande contends that U.S. democracy programs in Cuba are inefficient, secretive and poorly designed.
Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, and interviews with current and former aid recipients in Havana and Miami show that the U.S. government:
  • Outsources most democracy-building activities to private contractors, hindering oversight and public accountability.
  • Declares its democracy programs to be transparent while refusing to release key details of contractors’ activities in Cuba.
  • Spends millions of dollars on program administration, travel, office rent and other expenses outside Cuba while many democracy activists – the ones most likely to wind up in prison - struggle to pay for bare necessities.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, cited a January 2013 GAO report as evidence that the Cuba programs are sound.
“U.S. Government programs, which enjoy broad bipartisan backing, support Cubans striving for basic human rights and fundamental freedoms,” USAID spokesman Kamyl Bazbaz said. “We are proud that the most recent GAO report recognized that the programs are well-managed, transparent, and achieving their objectives.”
USAID headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The GAO report examined how democracy funds were administered. It showed, for instance, that USAID’s had improved internal financial oversight measures aimed at detecting questionable costs. And those measures, USAID said, led to the identification of $6.8 million in questioned costs.
The GAO report did not examine whether the Cuba programs had any impact on the island.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Alan Gross, a soldier left behind

During talks with Cuba earlier this year, the United States reiterated its call for the release of Alan Gross, insisting yet again that the American development worker was jailed solely for trying to help Cubans communicate with the outside world.
At the same time, the U.S. Agency for International Development was busy fielding questions from contractors interested in the latest Cuba-related opportunity: up to $6 million for companies interested in shuttling Cuban democracy activists to third countries for hands-on human rights and democracy training.
One contractor asked:
“Would USAID require that Cuba participants in the program be notified of the source of funds for the program?”
USAID didn’t have a yes or no answer to that question. The agency replied:
“Implementing partners would be expected to take the in-country environment into account to minimize risks, keeping in mind that this is a transparent program…”
Four years after Cuban authorities arrested Alan Gross, pro-democracy work in Cuba remains perilous and the U.S. goal is much the same: To help Cuba's democracy activists push the socialist government from power.
Cuban officials are just as resolute and vow to undermine USAID's democracy programs in any way they can.
Josefina Vidal
“The programs…have an interventionist, hostile and destabilizing nature,” said Josefina Vidal, a senior official at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry in Havana. “They are founded on the principles of the Helms-Burton Act, which aims to achieve ‘regime change’ in Cuba, completely dismantle the economic, political and social system, and impose a government, against the will of Cubans, which serves the interests of the United States.”
“These programs are semi-clandestine and semi-undercover by their nature and by the way in which they are implemented, behind the back of Cuban authorities and surrounded by secrecy about their true intentions.”
As Cuban officials see it, Alan Gross is living proof of the U.S. government’s persistent regime-change campaign.
Gross was a soldier, albeit of a different sort. Instead of the usual M9 pistol, he carried a Samsonite briefcase, plenty of cash and 15 credit cards. In place of a combat uniform and boots, he wore beige Land’s End pants and brown Rockport shoes.
He spoke no Spanish, but was an experienced international development worker and had worked in such hotspots as Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Alan Gross
His weapon was technology. He traveled to Havana in 2009 with satellite communication gear, wireless transmitters, routers, cables and switches – enough to set up Internet connections and Wi-Fi hotspots that the socialist government would not be able to detect or control.
He worked for Development Alternatives Inc., a Maryland contractor that USAID had hired to carry out a democracy-promotion program.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Critics question regime-change strategy in Cuba

Antonio Zamora once thought only violence would bring about change in Cuba. He took part in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and was captured and taken prisoner.
After his release, he returned to the United States, eventually becoming a leader of the Cuban American National Foundation, a Miami exile organization once accused of planning and financing attacks within Cuba.
As the years passed, Zamora had a change of heart. He decided that violence was wrong and telling Cubans how to run their country wasn’t the answer.
“You cannot do that. That’s never going to succeed.”
Antonio Zamora
Zamora supports efforts to bring democracy to Cuba, but isn’t convinced that all the money the U.S. government has spent on regime-change programs and Radio and TV Martí over the past 30 years has been effective.
“I mean, it’s almost a billion dollars,” said Zamora, a lawyer. “It’s ridiculous. It’s not a lot of money in the United States, but that’s not the point. The point is, what have we done?”
Some others agree, saying it’s not the money – or the idea of promoting freedom - that bothers them the most. It’s the strategy.
Sarah Stephens
“We have an idea about how Cuba should be, what kind of government it should have, how it should run its country and our policy is all about trying to impose that idea on Cuba,” said Sarah Stephens, director of the non-profit Center for Democracy in the Americas in Washington, D.C. “It will never work.”
Josefina Vidal, a senior official at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry in Havana, said U.S. regime-change programs have had minimal impact in Cuba and “have no future” on the island.
“Relations between the two countries in many other areas will continue,” she said. “But while these programs are maintained, the conditions persist for incidents and frictions to arise, rarifying the bilateral climate and hindering the possibilities of developing a respectful relationship between the two countries.
“If the U.S. is really interested in establishing a respectful relationship with Cuba, it must end these programs.”
USAID operates Cuban democracy programs under Section 109 of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act.
The act imposes international sanctions against the Cuban government and seeks a transitional government that would lead to “a democratically elected government in Cuba.”

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hijacker could get 20 years

William Potts
William Potts spent more than 13 years in prison in Cuba after hijacking a plane from Miami to the island in 1984. He returned to Florida earlier this month, turned himself in and hopes for mercy.
Federal sentencing guidelines in the United States call for a minimum mandatory of 20 years for air piracy. If prosecutors give Potts credit for 13 years, he could get a 7-year term. Other factors - his cooperation with authorities, for example - could also influence the outcome of his case.
Potts, 56, is being held at the Federal Detention Center in Miami. His trial is set to begin on Dec. 16. That date could change if his lawyer or prosecutors aren't ready. If the case goes to trial, prosecutors expect the trial would last three days.
Both sides still need to examine dozens of documents in the case. Prosecutors, for instance, are waiting to receive State Department documents detailing meetings that Potts had with officials at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana before leaving Cuba on Nov. 6.
Potts' lawyer is Robert Berube, an assistant federal public defender in Fort Lauderdale. The prosecutor in the case is Maria K. Medetis, an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami.
Wilfredo A. Ferrer
The U.S. attorney is Wilfredo A. Ferrer, a Miami native whose parents were born in Cuba.
Ferrer told the Daily Business Review:
My mom was a legal secretary. My dad was a CPA in Cuba, but he didn't speak any English. My dad would wear signs saying he would cut grass for $5.
U.S. District Court Judge Robin S. Rosenbaum is the trial judge. She is currently the Obama administration's nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
Rosenbaum presided over a Nov. 19 hearing to decide if Potts could be released pending trial. She wrote:
Having considered the evidence presented at the pre-trial detention hearing, the pre-trial services report, and the factors enumerated in 18 U.S.C. ' 3142(g), this Court finds that no condition or combination of conditions will reasonably assure the safety of the community and the appearance of the defendant as required if the defendant is released on bond. Therefore, this
Court orders the detention of the defendant prior to trial and until the conclusion of trial.

Friday, November 22, 2013

CDA videos are part of larger project

Harold Cardenas, top, then clockwise, Yoani Sánchez, José Daniel Ferrer, Jesús Arboleya and Roberto Guerra.
The Center for Democracy in the Americas today posted two videos that I produced for the non-profit organization, based in Washington, D.C.
"Diplomacy Derailed" and "Failure Compounded" focus on U.S. policy toward Cuba. I made the videos while working with the CDA from January to June 2013 during a six-month collaborative project. See articles I shared with the organization here.
The videos are part of a broader independent video project I have been doing to better understand the pro-democracy movement in Cuba and the role of the U.S. government and taxpayer-financed organizations.
Once I finish the project, it will include many voices, ranging from dissident leader José Daniel Ferrer, independent journalist Roberto Guerra and democracy activist Yoani Sanchez to former diplomat Jesús Arboleya and blogger Harold Cardenas.
I expect that the video will run 90 minutes or so or I might split it two - I haven't decided on that. I spent many weeks editing the project over the summer, but am not quite done.
For several months now, I've put the project, along with blogging and writing, on the back-burner. I have been busy with my day job and other things and haven't had time for Cuba work. But I will get back to it as soon as I can.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Peter Kornbluh discusses Kennedy assassination

Peter Kornbluh
Fidel Castro was having lunch with a French journalist in Varadero when the phone rang. The message: John F. Kennedy had been shot and was dead.
"They're going to say we did it," Castro reportedly said.
And that is what happened, according to Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C.
Kornbluh has dedicated much of his career to digging up once-classified documents and other information to try to get to the bottom of historic events involved the United States and Cuba. He and William LeoGrande are authors of a forthcoming book called, "Talking With Cuba: The Hidden History of Diplomacy between the United States and Cuba."
I interviewed Kornbluh in Washington about a range of issues related to Cuba. See a 4-minute excerpt of the interview in which he discusses Cuba and the Kennedy assassination 50 years after it occurred.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Ex-hijacker appeals to Barack Obama

William Potts in Cuba. Photo: Tracey Eaton
This is a letter from William Potts, who has been trying to return to the United States from Cuba.

Open Letter To The President From American Muslim Hijacker

Apparently High officials in the Obama administration have targeted me and have decided to make me into a modern day Black Nathan Hale by refusing to issue me a one way passport that would allow me to return home to the U.S. after having completed a 15 year prison sentence in Cuba for hijacking. On March 27th 1984 I hijacked a North American airliner from New York to Havana Cuba. There I was taken into custody, tried in a Cuban court of law and sentenced to fifteen years in prison, all in accordance with the strict and specific stipulations of The Hague Convention For The Prevention Of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft to which both the U.S. and Cuba are both signatories. Robert Patrick Richter, a white American, who also hijacked a plane to Cuba, in July 1983, was issued such a passport and a twin engine private plane was procured and the white American hijacker did in fact return to the United States in 1988 where he was sentenced to five additional years by U.S. District Judge William Zloch taking into consideration the time Richter had already spent in Cuban prison.

Two convicted American hijackers. One white, the other Black. Why the double standard?

I have been in contact, since September of 2012, with the Asst. U. S. District Attorney’s office of Mr. Todd Mestepey and have made clear my sincere desire to return to the United States and face the charges against me. A Mr. Brent Brown, a U.S. federal officer I met with at the U.S. Interest Section here in Havana to discuss my imminent return to the U.S. informed me that he was awaiting instructions from Mr. Mestepey’s office to issue me a document, a one way passport, which would allow me to return directly to the United States. At that meeting Mr. Brown, to my surprise, treated me quite decently. He explained to me how, due to the outstanding federal warrants against me, I would formally be taken into federal custody and how the return would play out. Everything Mr. Brown explained was perfectly reasonable and completely acceptable to me. Over a year has passed however and I have yet to be issued this one way passport to travel back home to begin the judicial process, the only process by which this pending case of nearly thirty years can finally be brought to a close.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Cuba and the Internet

Above is an interesting map showing underwater cables surrounding Cuba. See the interactive map here.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Exiled dissidents discuss joining forces

Exiled Cuban dissidents gathered Sunday in Miami to talk about ways to unite opposition to Cuba's socialist government. The event was called "Primer Encuentro Fraternal de Opositores Cubanos." I am writing a story about the meeting for Cuba News.
Participants included Darsi Ferret, Francisco Chaviano, Pedro Pablo Álvarez, a dozen members of Las Damas de Blanco, including Josefa López and Matilde Jerez, and brothers Miguel, Ariel and Guido Sigler.

See more photos on jump page.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Spy case to get new judge

Royce Lamberth
The espionage case against Marta Rita Velázquez will be reassigned to a new judge, according to a court document filed today.
The case had been assigned to Royce Lamberth, who stepped down in July as chief judge of the District Court in Washington, D.C.
Mandatory retirement laws forced Lambert to quit in July after he turned 70. See Washington Post story about his tenure.
The court sent the Velázquez case to its calendar committee, where I presume it will be reassigned to another judge.
See details of the Velázquez indictment here.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Friday, August 23, 2013

New details on USAID's Cuba programs

USAID chief Rajiv Shah. Credit: London Evening Post
The U.S. Agency for International Development released new financial data earlier this summer as part of a campaign to increase transparency.

Rajiv Shah, administrator of USAID, wrote:
I am proud to announce a significant step forward in our efforts to deliver development results more transparently and effectively than ever before. For the first time ever, you can visit the Foreign Assistance Dashboard and check out how our partners have spent our dollars.*
Today’s unprecedented release of new financial data includes over 30 database fields and nearly 53,000 records—all from the first three quarters of fiscal year 2013. Never before has our Agency published spending data so comprehensively and so soon after the close of the quarter.
This release is just the latest in a series of important changes we have made to advance President Obama’s unparalleled commitment to transparency and our own USAID Forward reform agenda.
Below is 2013 spending data related to USAID's programs in Cuba. See the Foreign Assistance Dashboard for more information.

* Shah made the announcement on July 30, so this is old news, but I think it's worth sharing.
There's more to write about all this, but I haven't had time to dig into it.
I haven't been updating Along the Malecón or the Cuba Money Project much at all this summer. I was traveling in Cuba in June and have been editing videos since then. I'll return to blogging as I have time.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Early morning in Old Havana

Havana street scene

Havana, from the air

 Here are a few photos taken from the plane as I left Havana earlier this summer. It's tough to get sharp pictures through several layers of grimy plane window.  A little Windex would have been nice.

Tarará, the beach town where I lived from 2000 to early 2005 while working for the Dallas Morning News.

P.S. Emilio Ichikawa asked what camera I was using... It is a Canon 60D, shown below with a 70-200mm lens.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Omega 7 leader seeks freedom

Eduardo Arocena
The wife of Omega 7 leader Eduardo Arocena has launched new petition asking that he be paroled for humanitarian reasons.
Arocena is the founder of the anti-Castro Omega 7 paramilitary group. He was convicted on Sept. 22, 1984, after a six-week trial. A November 2010 prison document shows that he was found guilty of:
Attempting to kill a foreign official, attempting to use explosives to cause damage to personal property, lying to a grand jury, conspiring to manufacture and possess firearms, possession of unregistered firearms and firearms with obliterated serial numbers, conspiring to manufacture explosive devices and possession of explosive devices.
Now 70, Arocena is serving his prison term at FMC Rochester, a federal facility in southeastern Minnesota. His wife, Miriam, said in the petition:
He suffered a stroke. He is recovering. He has high blood pressure, chronic diabetes and glaucoma. His conduct has been exemplary. In the name of God, grant us this humanitarian petition. God bless this great nation.
Arocena contends that he will be entitled to mandatory parole after completing 30 years in prison on July 22, 2013.
The National Appeals Board denied Arocena's request for parole on May 7, saying that it was up to the Bureau of Prisons to decide if he was eligible for a parole hearing and the bureau hadn't made that decision.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

$4 million-plus in Cuba grants up for grabs

U.S. Interests Section, Havana
The State Department is seeking proposals for $4.35 million in projects aimed at boosting independent journalism, labor rights, Internet activism, racial equality and research on advocacy and social change.
Grant applications for the projects - known as funding opportunity DRLA-DRLAQM-13-047 - are due July 15.
The State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor says prefers applicants who speak fluent Spanish and have prior Cuba experience. It says Americans taking part in the projects should limit their travel to the island whenever possible. The U.S. government began adding such language to requests for proposals after Cuban authorities arrested American development worker Alan Gross in 2009. See below for additional details on the June 11 announcement:

Department of State
Public Notice

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Request for Proposals: Democracy and Human Rights in Cuba.

The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) announces a Request for Proposals for projects that promote democracy and human rights in Cuba.

PLEASE NOTE: DRL strongly urges applicants to access or as soon as possible in order to obtain a username and password to submit your application. For more information, please see DRL’s Proposal Submission Instructions (PSI), updated in November 2012, available at

DRL invites organizations to submit proposals targeting the following issues in Cuba:

Independent Journalism (subject to the availability of funding, approximately $1,500,000):
DRL seeks proposals to improve the professional capacity of independent journalists in Cuba as well as their domestic and international exposure. The program should also mitigate the effects of the psychological concerns and security needs of Cuban independent journalists operating in a hostile environment as a result of government oppression. If appropriate and feasible, the project may facilitate external travel by Cubans and/or include a small grants component.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Targeting disenchanted Cuban youth

Freedom House youth program
The State Department this month released some details - and withheld others - in response to a Freedom of Information Act request concerning a Freedom House youth program in Cuba.
The State Department's Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor financed the program. On June 5, the State Department released Freedom House's Jan. 18, 2008, project proposal in response to an October 2011 FOIA request. (See proposal).
The proposal, marked "confidential," said Cuban youth were not politically apathetic, but needed assurances that neither they nor their families would be harmed if they joined the political opposition.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Daredevil and a truck

Screenshots of Cuban daredevil
Without a bike or even a skateboard, a Cuban wearing tennis shoes hitches a ride behind a truck, gliding along the wet, rain-soaked pavement. He reminds me a barefoot water skier.
Watch him in action in this YouTube video.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Cuban hunger striker rushed to hospital

Screenshots show hunger striker in weakened condition
A Cuban man who stopped eating to protest his eviction from his home was rushed to the hospital on Friday.
"We don't know if he's alive or is dead," dissident leader Jorge Luis Garcia, also known as "Antunez," said on Twitter.
Luis Enrique Santos Caballero started the hunger strike on May 24 after he and his wife, Ramona Maday García Ruiz, were evicted from their home in the town of Placetas in Villa Clara province in central Cuba.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Castro in neon

A Fidel Castro poster on display in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional

Antonio Maceo

Havana statue of Antonio Maceo
José Antonio Maceo y Grajales was the son of an Afro-Cuban mother and a Venezuelan father. He was born on June 14, 1845, in a town outside Santiago de Cuba. He rose to be one of Cuba's great military leaders before he was killed in battle at age 51.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Eyes over Havana

3000x1822 screensaver
I shot this photo at a rally in Havana more than a decade ago. This appears to be a Russian Mi-8 Hip helicopter. Some 12,000 of the helicopters have been produced and more than 2,800 exported, according to

Pigeons as photo props

 Pigeons surround a Cuban girl during a photo session marking her quinceañera at the Plaza de San Francisco in Havana.