Friday, April 17, 2009

WSJ Editorial: Now Open Cuba's Prisons

The Obama opening does little for Castro's political prisoners

President Obama's decision this week to ease some parts of the embargo against Cuba is being hailed as a first step toward altering a U.S. policy that has prevailed for a half-century without unseating Fidel Castro. We don't object, though it'd be nice if Mr. Obama also began speaking up against the Castro dictatorship. Mr. Obama's changes are partly a humanitarian response to Cuban hardship. They might even expose the regime's phony claim that the Yankee "bloqueo," or embargo, is the cause of Cuba's misery. But let's not expect too much. Embargo or not, Cuba will remain an island prison until its rulers are forced to ease their grip. We have long supported lifting the embargo as a way of accelerating that process. But the demoralized Cuban people also need international solidarity. Economically engaging the regime while ignoring the hundreds of political prisoners and millions trapped in squalor would betray the cause of Cuban liberty. To that end, the most useful thing Mr. Obama can do at this weekend's Summit of the Americas is to call on other leaders to denounce the regime's human rights violations. The Obama plan to lift all limitations on family visits and cash remittances is a welcome development for Cuban-Americans who left loved ones behind. Family separation is a tragic consequence of the Castro regime, and the restrictions on visits, tightened by the Bush Administration to once every three years, have increased that pain. Lifting the remittance cap, also tightened by President Bush, will allow free Cubans to support poor relatives. The Administration says it will also allow U.S. telecom companies to compete on the island, offering fiber optics and other advanced technology. A State Department official tells us the idea is to achieve "a greater level of connectivity and information flow" with Cubans. In theory this has marvelous possibilities. Imagine a Cuban accessing the Web via telephone and realizing that others think the way he does. It would erode the silent fear that the regime depends on to survive -- which may explain why Havana hasn't embraced Mr. Obama's offer. A spokesman at the Cuba Interests Section in Washington said he thinks access to Cuba for U.S. telecom companies should be contingent on re-establishing diplomatic relations. This gets at the heart of Cuba's objection to the embargo. It wants "normalization" with the U.S., which would allow the dictatorship to tap the cash wells at the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and InterAmerican Development Bank. Having earned global deadbeat status for defaulting on loans from the former Soviet Union, Europe and Latin America, Cuba is also seeking credit in the U.S. On Monday Brazil Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said Cuba's absence "from the inter-American system, including the [Organization of American States], is an anomaly and needs to be corrected." This is odd given that the OAS has something called the "democratic charter," which all members supposedly back. But then Brazil sees investment opportunities in a post-embargo Cuba that has access to the U.S. market. Mr. Obama should respond by asking Brazil to unite behind a call for Cuba to free political prisoners and hold elections. The embargo has not worked to free Cuba, but a hemisphere united against the Castro tyranny has never been tried.

Castro Feeds on Cubans’ U.S. Cash Support as Obama Eases Limits

By Jerry Hart

April 17 (Bloomberg) -- The Cuban state pension that Juan Gonzalez-Corzo receives since he retired from a government job in 2003 makes life easier after more than 50 years of work.
So does the cash that comes regularly by wire from his son in West New York, New Jersey.
It’s part of an estimated $1.1 billion sent to Cubans last year by relatives and friends around the world, an amount equal to about 1.8 percent of the communist country’s 2007 gross domestic product. “Most of the remittances end up used for consumption,” said Gonzalez-Corzo’s son Mario, 39, a Cuban-born assistant economics professor at Lehman College in New York City who has studied remittances and provided the estimates. “It helps.” The money also helps the island’s $58 billion economy, as the Cuban government charges fees that take about 20 percent of exchange-wired dollars, Gonzalez-Corzo said. That troubles U.S. politicians who say the transfers support the totalitarian state created by Fidel Castro in 1959 and now run by his brother Raul. President Barack Obama this week eased restrictions that had limited money transfers by Cuban-Americans, most of whom live in southern Florida. “The Castro government will confiscate a high percentage of those dollars, further propping up a regime that suppresses human rights,” said Representative Kendrick B. Meek, a Democrat who represents parts of Florida’s Miami-Dade and Broward counties. About 735,000 people around the world -- more than half from the U.S. -- sent an average of $150 to friends or relatives in Cuba last year, according to a study by Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based research organization. The cash sent in 2007 was equal to 42 percent of the island’s tourism income and 4.7 times more than its sugar exports, Gonzalez-Corzo said.

Economic Prop

“Remittances are a key component to the Cuban economy,” where state wages averaging about $17 a month don’t cover basic living expenses, Inter-American Dialogue said in a statement when it released the study last month. “Cubans typically augment state wages with hard-currency obtained remittances.” That’s why Myriam Faya and Lourdes Rodriguez, sisters who are among the 795,000 Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County, the largest concentration outside Cuba, send money to the island. “I have an aunt who is 87 years old and her pension is very low so we send regularly, without any doubt, $50 a month,” said Faya, who works for an insurance broker. “My sister also sends money to her blind, 60-year-old sister-in-law.”

Wire or Mula

About 60 percent of the money sent to Cuba goes via electronic wire transfer, according to the Inter-American Dialogue study. The rest travels in the pockets of visitors. These mulas, Spanish for mules, bypass the government fees. “If you send by wire, it’s very expensive because the government takes 20 percent,” Faya said. “But if a friend goes there, you can give it to them.” On the other end are charges by transfer agents. Calls to wire services in Miami found fees of as much as $124 to deliver 100 pesos to a recipient in Cuba, or 24 percent. The nationwide average is 15 percent per $100, Gonzalez- Corzo said. Including what Cuba charges, the transaction cost for $100 becomes 35 percent. That’s more than the 5.8 percent cost for money wired to Mexico and the 9.5 percent for the Dominican Republic, data from the World Bank show. “Cuba is the most expensive remittance market in the world when it comes to the transaction cost,” Gonzalez-Corzo said.

Bush’s Restrictions

Under rules imposed by the administration of President George W. Bush in June 2004, money sent to Cuba could go only to immediate family members and the amount was capped at $300 each quarter. Travelers could carry only $300 into the country. Obama granted unlimited transfers and travel cash for Cuban-American families to anyone in Cuba, which is expected to reduce costs as competition grows, Gonzalez-Corzo said. The president’s action raised optimism among investors that other parts of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba could be lifted. The Herzfeld Caribbean Basin Fund, a closed-end mutual fund of companies that could benefit from increased business with Cuba, rose 41 percent, the most ever, the day money transfers were eased. Companies that wire money to Cuba must be licensed by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, under economic sanctions imposed in 1963 after Fidel Castro established his Communist dictatorship. Castro, 82, turned over power to Raul Castro, 77, last year because of illness. More than 100 companies are authorized by OFAC, with three- quarters of them in Florida. The largest is Western Union Co., the world’s biggest money-transfer business.

10-Year Business

The company has been active in Cuba since 1999 and has 153 agents there, Stewart Stockdale, executive vice president and president for the Americas, said in an interview. He declined to break out the company’s revenue for transactions with Cuba. “We think lifting the restrictions is going to expand the business to Cuba significantly,” he said. Western Union charges $15 to wire amounts up to $100 to Cuba, Stockdale said. The fees are “something we’re reviewing,” he said. Gonzalez-Corzo favors anything that makes it easier for him to send money to his 70-year-old father in Santa Clara, in central Cuba. “I have personally gone through all the tribulations of sending money,” he said. “So I know how it works.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jerry Hart in Miami at

Monday, April 6, 2009

Youth discuss life in Cuba

Apr. 03, 2009


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.


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.''


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.''