Thursday, February 15, 2007

Plan prepared for Cuban exodus

Posted on Fri, Feb. 16, 2007

Plan prepared for Cuban exodus
The Bush administration will build a new facility to detain migrants in Guantánamo amid stepped-up preparations for dealing with a post-Castro Cuba.

WASHINGTON - Concerned about a possible mass exodus of Cubans, the Department of Defense plans to spend $18 million to prepare part of the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay to shelter interdicted migrants, U.S. officials told The Miami Herald.

The new installation is needed because terrorism suspects occupy space on the base used in past emergencies to hold large numbers of migrants, Bush administration officials directly involved said. They note that the facilities are designed to house people from any Caribbean nation who attempt to enter illegally -- not just Cubans.

But they say privately that Fidel Castro's illness and temporary hand-over of power to his brother Raúl last summer injected a renewed sense of urgency into plans to handle a mass exodus. The administration quietly requested the funds about a month ago and Congress has approved it, The Miami Herald was told.

The officials, who were authorized to speak on the subject but requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of Cuban issues, say there is no sign a Cuban migration crisis is brewing, but they acknowledge predicting one is difficult. The 1980 Mariel boatlift, which saw 125,000 Cubans arrive in Florida, began when a group of Cubans tried to storm the Peruvian embassy in Havana.


The $18 million initiative is part of a broader U.S. government effort to prepare for the death of Castro. The administration will not say how many migrants it believes might flee Cuba or even if any will do so, but one expert warned that up to 500,000 may try to leave the island after Castro's death.

Top Bush Cabinet officials have met at least twice since December to review Cuba contingency plans. On March 7 and 8, the Department of Homeland Security will lead an exercise in South Florida involving the Coast Guard and dozens of federal, state and local agencies, focused on stopping U.S. boaters from picking up rafters.

The U.S. Navy base, on the eastern tip of Cuba, apparently would be used as a shelter of last resort if the volume of Cubans interdicted at sea overwhelms the U.S. policy known as ``wet foot/dry foot.''

Under that policy, Cubans who make it to U.S. territory are allowed to remain. Those intercepted at sea are interviewed aboard Coast Guard vessels and most are repatriated to Cuba. A few who have been found to credibly risk persecution if returned to Cuba have been taken to Guantánamo for more interviews while U.S. officials arrange for their resettlement in third nations.

U.S. officials refused to say whether the wet foot/dry foot policy will be changed in case of an exodus, since such an announcement might prompt many Cubans to leave.

For years, migrants captured during surges ended up in tent camps at Guantánamo on a bluff called Radio Range, on the larger Windward side of the base.


At the height of the last migration crisis in 1994, more than 32,000 Cubans and 21,000 Haitians overwhelmed the base in tent cities. Most of the Cubans were later sent to the United States. Most of the Haitians were sent home.

The Pentagon has since built its sprawling terrorism detention and interrogation center at the site of the old tent camps, limiting shelter space. The plan would put them on the smaller Leeward side, which has an airstrip but no docks for large ships.

''The capacity to process migrants at Guantánamo is an integral part of our overall plans to ensure that any attempted mass migration in the Caribbean is not successful,'' said one official, who also declined to be identified. The official said the new facility is ``part of prudent contingency planning.''

''The U.S. has established avenues for safe, orderly, legal migration from the various countries in the Caribbean,'' the official added. ``Any effort to send people to the United States via unsafe and illegal means will not succeed.''

The Pentagon already has solicited construction bids for the new facility. The $18 million would pay for things like land leveling, sewage and electrical infrastructure, bathrooms, dining facilities and administrative offices to process asylum applications. The installations will be initially designed to handle about 10,000 migrants, officials say, though more can be quickly accommodated if needed.


Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, says focus groups and other interviews show many young Cubans are eager to leave.

''If the economic conditions do not get better, there is the strong possibility that as many as 500,000 Cubans will want to leave the island in all directions,'' he says. ``The other possibility will also be a large group of Cubans rushing the U.S. base in Guantánamo or foreign embassies in Havana.''

Latin American countries may be reluctant to take in numerous migrants, he added.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard is finalizing plans for an exercise next month that will involve scores of vessels.

Rear Adm. David Kunkel, head of the Coast Guard's South East District, is in charge of coordinating interdiction efforts among many agencies, including the U.S. Navy and Miami-Dade Police.

''We would be concerned with boaters leaving from South Florida marinas to potentially increase the problem,'' said Jim Watson, chief of staff of the South East District. He said ''deterrent elements'' would be tested.

Miami Republican Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, who have been briefed on preparations, could not be reached for comment.

Miami Herald staff writer Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Cuban official defends Internet controls

Cuban official defends internet controls

By JOHN RICE, Associated Press WriterWed Feb 14, 1:11 AM ET

A senior Cuban official has defended the country's Internet restrictions as a response to U.S. aggression and called for controlling "the wild colt of new technologies."

Communications Minister Ramiro Valdes opened an international conference on communication technologies Monday by complaining that Washington is choking Cuba's access to the Internet even as U.S. military and intelligence services use it to undermine the communist government.

Internet technologies "constitute one of the tools for global extermination," he said, referring to U.S. policies, but they "are also necessary to continue to advance down the path of development."

He defended Cuba's "rational and efficient" use of the Internet, which puts computers in schools and government computer clubs while prohibiting home connections for most citizens and blocking many sites with anti-government material.

"The wild colt of new technologies can and must be controlled," he said.

Valdes, who has fought alongside and then governed under Fidel Castro since 1953, is an influential figure in Cuba's communist hierarchy, although he was not among the small group Castro named to oversee its affairs under acting President Raul Castro after he fell ill in July.

Valdes expressed dire suspicions of U.S. intentions for the World Wide Web, citing post-Sept. 11 security measures and news reports that technology giants Microsoft and Google have cooperated with U.S. intelligence agencies.

"These actions bring the destabilizing power of the empire to threatening new levels," he said.

U.S. law calls for efforts to overthrow Castro's government through a sweeping commercial embargo and other policies. Valdes said those have choked the island's attempts to extend its Internet connections.

Valdes said there were about 1,300 delegates from 58 countries at the conference. The U.S. trade embargo with Cuba discourages many companies from doing business with Cuba — a fact emphasized by the lineup of conference exhibitors, which was weighted heavily toward companies from leftist allies such as China, Vietnam and Venezuela.

Since 1996, Cuba has used a relatively low-capacity satellite link to connect to the outside world because the United States has blocked it from connecting to nearby fiber-optic networks that run to the U.S. or through U.S.-administered Puerto Rico.

To overcome that problem, Cuba signed an agreement with ally Venezuela last month to lay a 965-mile fiber optic cable across the Caribbean Sea connecting the countries. It was not immediately clear when that line might be built.

Reporters Without Borders said in a statement Tuesday that although Internet use in Cuba is hampered by the U.S. blocking access to fiber-optic networks, an October report by the media advocacy group found that access is deliberately restricted, with less than 2 percent of the population online.

"It would anyway have been astonishing if a country that has no independent radio or TV station or newspaper did allow unrestricted access to the Internet," the group said.

Valdes said a way should be found to eradicate "the diffusion of pornography, encouragement of terrorism, racism, fraud, spread of fascist ideologies and any kind of manifestation of cybernetic crime."

Friday, February 09, 2007

Cuba cracks down on illegal satellite dishes

Miami Herald
Posted on Fri, Feb. 09, 2007

Cuba cracks down on illegal satellite dishes


José Antonio provided the supplies and the technical know-how, and got a friend named Celestino to pitch in on weekends so they could sell illegal access to telenovelas and cartoons to fellow Cubans.

A full-page article in Thursday's Cuban daily newspaper Granma explained how the pair rented a shop from a man named Lázaro in a Havana neighborhood called 10th of October, where they soldered and screwed bolts on satellite dishes with enough materials to make at least 30.

Police dubbed it ''The Antenna Case.'' The three men now face up to three years in prison. A fourth man had a net worth of more than $38,000 -- a fortune in Cuba -- mostly in electronics.

'They are sending a shot across the bow: `We're not going to permit this. We will try to control and do something about it,' '' said University of Miami Cuba expert Andy Gómez. ``They are continuing to put a fence around the island and secure what's coming in.''

Just two months after the U.S. government announced it would transmit its anti-Castro channel TV Martí on Direct TV -- which Cubans can watch using the banned satellite dishes --Cuban authorities appear to be going after the illegal signals with a vengeance.

'The rise in the number of the people in the world who `consume' programs transmitted by satellite and cable, fraudulently pirating [the signal] . . . is worrisome,'' Granma said. ``It shows the Bush administration's double standard: On the one hand they severely punish television signal piracy in their own country, on the other, they promote its use in Cuba.''

The newspaper story detailing the nearly year-old criminal case of José Antonio and his friends was the second article denouncing TV Martí in a week. And Cubanet, a Miami-based exile news organization that publishes dispatches from independent journalists on the island, reported Thursday that the Cuban National Police and the telephone company were patrolling city streets on the hunt for illegal TV hook-ups.

''The attention they are giving it now gives us confidence that TV Martí is working,'' said Alberto Mascaro, chief of staff for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, the government office that runs TV Martí. ``If they are so worried about it, that only means one thing: It is working.''

Other experts said it's unclear whether the warning was a reply to TV Martí, or simply a demonstration of the power wielded by newly named Communications Minister Ramiro Valdés, a hard-liner.

Satellite dishes are illegal in Cuba, except for the rare entities like hotels which have the required permit. But U.S. officials estimate there are 10,000 to 30,000 dishes on the island assembled using smuggled parts. In 2005, a Cuban-American named Carlos Valdés was arrested at the Havana airport trying to bring in satellite receivers, cables, remote controls and batteries, Granma reported last year.

In a nation where there are only four TV channels that usually offer dull programming, families are eager to spend $10 a month for a chance to watch Univisión and other U.S. stations. In August, Cubans watched exiles dancing on Calle Ocho streets at news of Fidel Castro's sickness. Days later, the government began a crackdown.

The Direct TV signal also carries Azteca América, a channel that broadcasts one hour a day of TV Martí, an anti-Castro propaganda station.

Critics have blasted the Office of Cuba Broadcasting for years, saying it spends millions of dollars broadcasting shows nobody watches, because the Cuban government easily jams its nonsatellite signals. The December move to air the programs on Direct TV was aimed at broadening the audience and skirting Cuban jamming.

''I would compare this to Iran, where our satellite TV is quite popular and eventually has led in the past six month to a series of crackdowns on people with satellites, although it's always been illegal,'' said Larry Hart, spokesman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees TV Martí. ``They seem to crack down when they get word that too many people are getting the news.''

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Fledgling Official Dissent in Cuba

Miami Herald
Posted on Sat, Feb. 03, 2007

In Cuba, dissent by invitation only
In the first sign of internal dissent in Cuba since Fidel Castro ceded power six months ago, intellectuals held a forum to discuss government censorship in the 1970s.

One by one, Cuban artists and intellectuals in Havana did something unprecedented this week: They stood before the government and criticized a particularly harsh era of censorship -- out loud and in the open.

Perhaps even more surprising than the conference held Tuesday to discuss a dark period of Cuban cultural oppression was what happened outside: a protest by those shut out of the invitation-only event. Also out loud and in the open.

''I don't know how important it can be, but what's true is that I have never seen anything like that in Cuba,'' Cuban writer Ena Lucía Portela told The Miami Herald in an e-mail. ``It was rudimentary, passionate, incoherent, but it was the closest thing to freedom of expression I have seen in this country in my entire life.''

In a move that Cuba experts say signals a significant shift in Cuban domestic policy, the government led by interim President Raúl Castro appears to be cracking open the door to debate. After Castro publicly asserted he was open to discussion, and later convened a committee to study flaws of socialism, experts say there has been a clear changing of the guard in Cuba, one that allows at least controlled discussion.

In the first sign of internal dissent since Fidel Castro ceded power six months ago, intellectuals furious over the television appearances of 1970s-era government officials responsible for a crackdown on intelligentsia convened a conference to discuss it. But while the event was an extraordinary display of criticism, opponents of the Castro brothers point out that the conference was not open to the public, suggesting that the steps the government has taken toward discussion are small and wobbly.


The flare-up was triggered when Cuban TV ran a laudatory profile last month of Luis Pavón Tamayo, the former chairman of the National Culture Council. Pavón's five-year reign was dubbed the ''The Gray Quinquennium'' -- The Five Gray Years -- for its record of arrests and censorship.

A flurry of e-mails condemning the TV appearances swept Cuba's cultural community, leading to a rare statement by the artists' guild published in the state-controlled newspaper, Granma, which denounced the TV shows.

''The act established a turning point that we hope will be irreversible,'' writer Reynaldo González, winner of the 2003 National Literary Prize, said in an e-mail to The Miami Herald. ``And it has created an echo that will be difficult to stifle, even if someone tries to do so.''

A magazine editor convoked a conference led by writer Ambrosio Fornet and attended by Culture Minister Abel Prieto to debate the topic. But tickets were given only to some 450 people.


Reports from Cuba say young writers who were not invited protested outside.

Portela, 34, wasn't invited, and viewed the conference as a white-wash. ''A half-century of lies is not something that can change overnight,'' she said.

Former Cuban political prisoner Manuel Vásquez Portal agreed, saying it was nothing but a political ploy aimed at identifying dissenters.

''Look, Raúl Castro is a soldier. Soldiers don't debate. They order,'' said Vásquez, a former independent journalist. ``If he wants to debate, he'd free prisoners of conscience and invite them to debate.''

Prieto did not return e-mails requesting comment. Fornet sent a copy of his speech, in which he acknowledged that today's young Cubans don't know about the Pavón period -- because nobody ever told them.

''When evoking the Gray Quinquennium, I feel that we're plunging headlong into something that not only deals with the present but also projects us forcefully into the future,'' Fornet said, 'even if only because of what [Spanish philosopher Jorge Ruiz de] Santayana said: `Those who don't know history are condemned to repeat it.' That danger is precisely what we're trying to conjure here.''

Florida International University Professor Uva de Aragón said the fact that the event took place shows Cuba is changing.

'The first time I heard Raúl say `open to discussion,' I knew Fidel was no longer in control,'' she said. ``It should not be that much surprising. They must realize things are coming to an end. I think at this point, intellectuals figure they have nothing to lose.''

Miami Herald translator Renato Pérez contributed to this report.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

NYT Story on the Jews of Cuba

February 4, 2007
Journeys | Religious Tourism
In Cuba, Finding a Tiny Corner of Jewish Life

CLAUDIA BARLIYA, a 6-year-old Cuban-Jewish girl, stood on a cobblestone street in Trinidad, a small centuries-old city on the south coast of Cuba. A donkey carrying an old man passed behind her; a group of 30 Jewish-Americans, including this reporter, stood before her. The girl had asked if she could perform a song for the group, which was on a humanitarian mission with the Westchester Jewish Center of Mamaroneck, N.Y. She now had their full attention. When her song rang out — not in Spanish, but in the Hebrew words of “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” or “Jerusalem of Gold” — the group couldn’t help joining in.

Claudia is one of about 1,500 Jews who live in Cuba; 1,100 reside in Havana, and the remaining 400 are spread among the provinces. There is no rabbi living on the island, and there is only one kosher butcher. This small Jewish presence is in stark contrast to the bustling community that existed before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. In those days, there were 15,000 Jews and five synagogues in Havana alone. Still, Jews in modern-day Cuba manage to keep their culture and traditions alive.

As Maritza Corrales, a Cuban historian who lives in Havana and the author of “The Chosen Island: Jews in Cuba,” remarked, “To be Cuban and Jewish is to be twice survivors.”

Visits by groups like the Westchester Jewish Center, one of many United States Jewish entities that organize occasional humanitarian or religious trips to Cuba, are one of the ways that Jews in Cuba nurture their communities. Although the focus of these trips allows American travelers to bypass United States restrictions on tourism to Cuba, they require a full schedule of religious and humanitarian activities that often include donations of medications, clothing and religious objects needed for prayer.

On a weeklong trip in November, the group traveled around the island by bus, accompanied by two English-speaking guides who were well versed in Jewish-Cuban history and culture. When the visitors from Westchester entered Adath Israel, Cuba’s only Orthodox synagogue — and one of three active synagogues in Havana — the feeling of connection between the Cubans and the Americans was palpable. The words, the songs, were all the same. In the sanctuary, a large wooden bimah, or podium, housed the Torahs behind a red velvet curtain, and a glass wall separated the men from the women.

After the service, a 17-year-old college student serenaded the Americans with his violin, playing traditional pieces like “Hava Nagila.” The musician could have been a college student from anywhere in the United States, with his facial stubble, sneakers and low-slung jeans. The difference is that this young man is not allowed to leave his country, not even to visit his parents, who are government engineers working abroad.

Elsewhere in Havana, there is the Sephardic Hebrew Center of Cuba, and the Conservative Beth Shalom synagogue, largest of the three synagogues, with more than 500 members. Beth Shalom houses a Jewish community center, known as El Patronato, a library and a pharmacy, which distributes medication — most of which comes as donations from Jewish groups visiting from the United States — throughout the island to Jews and non-Jews.

After Mr. Castro took power and nationalized private business and property, 90 percent of the Jewish population, many of them business owners, fled the island, and the remaining 10 percent were largely not observant. There were so few Jewish people coming to pray that the Cuban minyan was born, counting each Torah as a qualifying member to make prayer possible (a minyan normally requires 10 Jewish adults).

The Jewish presence continued to fade for years, and it was not until 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, that Cuba changed its constitution, allowing for religious freedom. The Jewish community began to rebuild. Rabbis from Chile, Argentina, Panama and Mexico came to teach the remaining Cuban Jews how to pray and lead services, and Jewish organizations in Canada began sending kosher food for Passover.

The synagogues welcomed the Jews who came to pick up the food, and encouraged them to come back for Shabbat and various holiday celebrations. Within 10 years, a growing number of activities were established, including the Sunday school at the Patronato, where children ages 6 through 14 learn Jewish culture and tradition. It started with 10 children and now has nearly 70. There is also a Jewish women’s group with 150 participants, meeting once every six weeks to help with women’s issues like domestic violence and how to keep a Jewish home. Jewish life is not as organized outside Havana, where the Jewish population is much smaller. For instance, only 27 practicing Jews live in Cienfuegos, a picturesque city on a bay. There is no synagogue to pray in. Instead, the Jewish community of Cienfuegos gathers each Friday night for Shabbat services in the front room of Rebecca Langus’s second-floor apartment.

Ms. Langus, the 43-year-old leader of the community, who lives with her husband and two sons, has adorned the walls of her small home with Jewish art, the bookcases with Jewish prayer books and the shelves with an array of Jewish paraphernalia.

“When you are few, there is a responsibility to keep traditions,” Ms. Langus said. “Educating the children is the only way to keep the community alive.”

The 25-member Jewish community of Santa Clara, the capital city of the central Villa Clara province, has raised enough money to buy a house and convert it into a synagogue, but has yet to find the ideal property. For now, they take great pride in the somber Holocaust memorial, erected in 2003, in the local Jewish cemetery. It includes a stone from the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and in front is a path made of stones from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Next to the memorial stands a menorah with a Star of David and branches for six candles, symbolizing the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.

Although preserving Jewish culture has been an uphill struggle, leaders remain optimistic about the future. Even though Israel is the only country with which Cuba has cut off diplomatic relations, there is no evidence of anti-Semitism in Cuba. “I felt safer wearing my yarmulke in Cuba than I do wearing one in White Plains,” said Jeffrey Segelman, the rabbi of the Westchester Jewish Center. And the island’s Jewish presence remains solid.

“If you asked me 10 years ago when the community was dwindling, I may have said that the Jewish community wouldn’t exist today,” said Adela Dworin, president of the Jewish community in Cuba. “It won’t be the same as 1959, but now at least we have people who are young, middle-aged and old.”

MS. DWORIN had the opportunity to meet Mr. Castro in 1998, and asked him why he had never visited the Jewish community, to which he replied: “Because I was never invited.” Ms. Dworin promptly invited him to the coming Hanukkah celebration at the Patronato. When Mr. Castro asked what Hanukkah was, Ms. Dworin explained that the holiday celebrates the “revolution” — a word Castro likes — of the Jewish people.

To her surprise, Mr. Castro showed up at the party of 200, sat next to her in the front row and addressed the congregation in a lengthy speech.

Joseph Levy, leader of the Sephardic temple, has a more somber outlook on Jewish life in Cuba. He emphasized how difficult it was to keep Jewish traditions alive, because without a rabbi, he said, “the Jewish community here is almost like living in a house without parents.”

For the group from Westchester, one member’s past was a snapshot of the Jewish experience in Cuba. Sandy Marantz , a psychotherapist at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan, was born in Cuba in 1959, and 12 days before the United States closed its borders to Cuban citizens in 1961, Ms. Marantz, then 19 months old, and her parents left for the United States.

After 45 years of wanting to visit her native country — her parents never wished to return — Ms. Marantz finally saw the hospital in which she was born, the apartment in Havana where she lived, the synagogue to which her parents belonged and the grave where her grandfather, whom she never met, is buried.

Going to Cuba, said Ms. Marantz, allowed her to “connect with my past” and “made me feel grateful to be a Jew.”

Information about Jewish missions to Cuba is available from B’nai Brith (877-222-9590;, the Cuba-America Jewish Mission ( and the Jewish Cuba Connection (