Sunday, January 27, 2008

With a Whisper, Cuba’s Housing Market Booms

January 28, 2008
With a Whisper, Cuba’s Housing Market Booms

HAVANA — Virtually every square foot of this capital city is owned by the socialist state, which would seem sure to put a damper on the buying and selling of property.

But the people of Havana, it turns out, are as obsessed with real estate as, say, condo-crazy New Yorkers, and have similar dreams of more elbow room, not to mention the desire for hot water, their own toilets and roofs that do not let the rain seep indoors.

And although there is no Century 21 here, there is a bustling underground market in homes and apartments, which has given rise to agents (illegal ones), speculators (they are illegal, too) and scams (which range from praising a dive as a dream house to backing out of a deal at the closing and pocketing the cash).

The whole enterprise is quintessentially Cuban, socialist on its face but really a black market involving equal parts drama and dinero, sometimes as much as $50,000 or more.

These days, insiders say, prices are on the rise as people try to get their hands on historic homes in anticipation of a time when private property may return to Cuba. Exiles in Miami are also getting into the act, Cubans say, sending money to relatives on the island to help them upgrade their homes.

Officially, buying or selling property is forbidden. But the island has a dire housing shortage, despite government-sponsored new construction. And that has led many Cubans to subdivide their often decaying dwellings or to upgrade their surroundings through a decades-old bartering scheme known in Cuban slang as permuta.

Some of those housing transactions are simple swaps. Those the government permits, tracking each one to keep an up-to-date record of the location of every last Cuban. Many moves, however, are illegal and involve trading up or down, with one party compensating, with money, another party giving up better property.

A 1983 film, “Se Permuta,” portrays how complex the system can get: A mother scheming to get her daughter away from a boyfriend she dislikes organizes a multipronged property swap. Of course, the deal, which would have involved about a dozen people and taken mother and daughter from a tiny apartment into a spacious colonial-era house, ends up in a mess, as does the mother’s meddling in her daughter’s love life.

“It’s very Cuban,” Juan Carlos Tabío, who wrote and directed the film, said of his country’s real estate bartering process. “There aren’t enough houses, and families can’t buy them. So they trade.”

Mr. Tabío has no personal experience with changing homes, having lived in the same spacious third-floor apartment in the well-heeled Vedado neighborhood since 1957. Many Cubans live in the same dwellings their families owned before the revolution; others have been assigned units by the state.

But almost every Cuban is either plotting to upgrade residences or knows someone in the midst of the labyrinthine process.

Here is how it works. Imagine a married Cuban couple with two children and a baby on the way who find their two-bedroom apartment in the historic Old Havana neighborhood too cramped. What are they to do?

Well, with the help of an agent known as a runner they might start by locating a bachelor from the countryside looking to come to the capital. They could arrange for the newcomer to move into a tiny apartment in Chinatown and move its residents — who also have a house in Miramar where their elderly grandmother lives — to a first-floor unit they sought in Central Havana. The Central Havana flat is available because the residents have divorced; so the former wife would go to the bachelor’s country house, near where her parents live, while her former husband would go to Old Havana. The Old Havana family that started the whole process would then head to their dream house in spacious and quiet Miramar.

Sound complicated? It is. And the government adds even more hurdles by trying to regulate the swaps with a variety of forms and fees as well as inspections of the properties involved to ensure that they are of roughly equal value.

All trades have to be endorsed by the government, but Cubans say slipping money to bureaucrats increases the chances that deals of unequal properties — as in those that involve money and carry the taint of capitalist yearning — will be approved.

“Under the table, there are all sorts of things going on,” Mr. Tabío said.

The Cuban authorities occasionally make busts, but find the trades difficult to control.

“It’s something people shouldn’t do, but they do and we know it goes on,” said José Luis Toledo Santander, a professor of law and a member of the National Assembly. “It’s like saying you have to stop at the red light and you can’t go until it’s green. You ought to do it, but not everybody does.”

The trading occurs in plain sight. Under the watchful eye of a police officer, hundreds of people gather every Saturday under the ficus trees on El Prado, one of Havana’s grand avenues. Some carry cardboard signs describing their units: the neighborhoods, number of bedrooms and whether there are patios, garages, hot water, private bathrooms and gas supplies. Less desirable dwellings use tanks of gas for cooking and require residents to share toilets with others down the hall.

Ricardo Aguiar, 65, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in the humble Marianao neighborhood with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, is looking for a more spacious place in Vedado, a popular area closer to the center of Havana. “It’s going to be difficult,” he said, scouring the signs on El Prado recently and checking in with the agents who sit on the stone benches trying to make deals.

“I’ve just started looking, but there are people who look for years and then something goes wrong and they never move,” he said.

Nearby, a woman was working the crowd in search of a first-floor apartment near her current third-floor unit in Central Havana so she would not have to climb so many stairs.

“You have your system and we have ours,” she said, identifying herself only by her first name, Alejandra. “I prefer our system. We don’t have mortgages and so we’re not facing foreclosure like so many of you are.”

Alejandra knows about the foreclosure crisis in the United States because her son lives in Florida and is struggling to make his house payments. “I worry about him,” she said. “If he loses his job, he’ll lose his home.”

Property is sometimes seized in Cuba as well, but by the government, not the bank. Property is taken from those who hop on boats to Florida, although most switch their houses to relatives’ names well before leaving. Those fleeing the island also frequently downgrade their accommodations before going into exile, trading big places for small ones and using the money exchanged on the side to pay for their voyages — the Cuban equivalent of a home equity loan.

Although it is not clear how many thousands of swaps take place annually, some of them involve the same people again and again, as in the case of a woman in her 60s who said she had moved 42 times over the last two decades. “I love to move,” she said. “I can’t live in the same place for a year.”

But her movement is about more than seeking new surroundings. She fixes up each place, then turns it over for a profit, she said in a low voice, declining to be identified out of fear that the authorities might catch up with her.

Moving through the crowd with her is a learning experience. She knows the regulars and can spot the deals. When money is discussed, she and the person she is negotiating with fall into whispers.

“There are so many liars here,” she said, surveying the crowd. “They say they have the best place in Havana, and you get there and you don’t even want to go in. I just stop at the door and say, ‘No, thanks.’ ”

She said she used money sent from relatives who fled to Miami years ago to keep her business going.

“It’s a good time to invest,” she said. “If you have family outside, $20,000 is nothing, and you can get a good place here. If change comes, and we all expect it, then you’re set.”

That is the philosophy of another mogul in the making, who also declined to be identified by name.

Standing in the living room of a two-bedroom apartment in Central Havana that he is renovating, the man estimated its current worth at $20,000, a mint in a country where monthly government salaries can be one one-thousandth of that. If private property ever comes to Cuba, he estimates the price will most likely multiply by five.

Through a complicated transaction, the man recently managed to obtain a historic home in Old Havana that he is also renovating. He said he researched the ownership history of the dwelling because he did not want to find one day that it had been expropriated from an American, possibly leading to a court battle in a post-Castro Cuba. As for his apartment, he rents rooms to tourists, which the government allows.

He is also buying up old chandeliers and other historic furnishings to decorate his units. With most people so desperate for money, he said, he pays next to nothing.

“This is the moment to buy,” he said, referring to Fidel Castro’s illness, talk of change by his brother Raúl and many Cubans’ view that their system, a half century old, will not remain as it is forever.

Friday, January 18, 2008




Posted: Friday, January 18, 2008 8:04 AM
Filed Under: Havana, Cuba
By Mary Murray, NBC News Producer

Five years ago, Ian Padrón made a documentary about Cuban baseball and ran afoul of government censors.

He took government money from the Cuban Film Institute and told a story about Cuban baseball, "Out of this League" ("Fuera de Liga").

In his daring piece of work, Padrón touched on a number of taboo subjects. He looked at the tough conditions players face on the island and included interviews with athletic icons who defected to the United States to play Major League Baseball.

No surprise, government censors considered it too controversial for the Cuban public. So it ended up on a shelf – barred from playing in state-run theaters or on television.

Which can often backfire in communist Cuba – anything censored often becomes an overnight success. Cubans love nothing better than passing around forbidden material.

In fact, "Out of this League" became one of the hottest pieces of contraband circulating on Cuba’s underground market. Lots of people here in Cuba saw the 68-minute film.

Still, Padrón was frustrated.

"My work deserved a wider audience. I always argued that the Cuban public is more than capable of debating our reality," said Padrón.

Finally, someone in authority seemed to agree with him.

Out of the blue, "Out of this League" aired on Saturday night primetime TV – making television history here.

It’s not often government censors change their minds.

It also marks the first time state-owned television ran images of defectors, considered turncoats by the Cuban government.

El Duque: ‘I am an Industrial"
Baseball fans are delighted by the change of heart, especially loyalists who follow the career of Havana pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, who fled the island in 1997 for fame and fortune in the United States.

"This documentary is about baseball, our lives, our passion. It never should have been banned," said Karel Breto, a 27-year-old maintenance man. "El Duque belongs to us!"

That sentiment echoes what Hernandez said in the film.

"I am not a traitor. I am an Industrial," said Hernandez, referring to "Los Industriales," Havana’s champion team."I've had the opportunity to play for the two best teams in the world: Cuba’s Industriales and the Yankees." (Since the documentary was filmed, Hernandez signed on with the New York Mets and now plays for them).

At the time of his defection, Hernandez had posted a 129-47 career record for the national team but was under suspension. Sports officials had accused Hernandez of being in contact with U.S. agents who had helped other ballplayers leave the island to chase major league dreams.

Some of them appear in the documentary too: first baseman Kendry Morales, now a Los Angeles Angel; Rene Arocha, who pitched with the St. Louis Cardinals; and Euclides Rojas, who played for the Florida Marlins before becoming a bullpen coach for the Boston Red Sox.

Official censors never managed to discourage baseball fans here from continuing to follow the American careers of the men they consider true Cuban athletes.

No politics in baseball
In fact, for many Cuban fans, politics has no place in baseball. The game surpasses government.

"Forget politics. Baseball is my passion and I spend my time rooting for El Duque and our other players in the major leagues," said Ulises Alvarez, a Havana construction worker who commended Cuban TV for broadcasting "Out of this League."

Some Cubans see the broadcast as proof that times are changing in Cuba, a trend of greater tolerance and deliberate debate that began when Fidel Castro fell ill and his brother Raul became acting president some 18 months ago.

"TV has begun to tackle some harsh realities: housing shortages, problems in some hospitals, and in food production. Topics no one dared to touch before," said Ismael Sene, a retired diplomat and Cuba’s baseball historian. "I see this as part of the general policies of the last few months. It’s the only way I can explain why they aired the documentary."

But others think that may not be the case.

"Nothing has changed here," said a Western diplomat who asked not to be identified by name. "You still get chastised for telling unpopular truths."

No matter what, in a nation where the government maintains strict media control, "Out of this League" was not broadcast by accident. And while it’s too soon to tell if this is an isolated event or heralds a new artistic opening, fans here agreed with El Duque when he described the showing to the Miami press as "a breath of fresh air."

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The coddled "terrorists" of South Florida
The coddled "terrorists" of South Florida
Anti-Castro Cuban exiles who have been linked to bombings and assassinations are living free in Miami. Does the U.S. government have a double standard when it comes to terror?

By Tristram Korten and Kirk Nielsen

Jan. 14, 2008 | On a hot subtropical Sunday, deep in the humid brush bordering the Everglades west of Miami, Osiel Gonzalez squints down the worn barrel of an AK-47 rifle and squeezes the trigger. With a crack and kick the bullet whizzes over a field of neatly trimmed grass and hits a human silhouette on a paper target 40 yards away.

Gonzalez wipes the sweat off his brow and smiles. Perspiration stains the neck and armpits of his camouflage jacket. All around him are men in fatigues, some flat-bellied on the grass shooting rounds, others cleaning their weapons or picking through ammunition boxes. The air is thick with cigar smoke. At age 71, Gonzalez is still one of the best marksmen at this training camp for Alpha 66, the paramilitary Cuban exile group formed in 1961 "with the intention of making commando type attacks on Cuba," as the organization's Web site baldly puts it. Gonzalez hopes to put his skills to use when the second revolution comes, the one that will tear his homeland free from the grip of communist dictator Fidel Castro. At that point Gonzalez hopes to have a Cuban soldier in his sights, not a paper silhouette.

Plans to attack Cuba are constantly being hatched in South Florida. Over the years militant exiles have been linked to everything from downing airliners to hit-and-run commando raids on the Cuban coast to hotel bombings in Havana. They've killed Cuban diplomats and made numerous attempts on Castro's life.

But, other than an occasional federal gun charge, nothing much seems to happen to most of these would-be revolutionaries. They are allowed to train nearly unimpeded despite making explicit plans to violate the 70-year-old U.S. Neutrality Act and overthrow a sovereign country's government. Though separate anti-terror laws passed in 1994 and 1996 would seem to apply directly to their activities, no one has ever been charged for anti-Cuban terrorism under those laws. And 9/11 seems to have changed nothing. In the past few years in South Florida, a newly created local terrorism task force has investigated Jose Padilla and the hapless Seas of David cult, and juries have delivered mixed reviews, but no terrorism charges have been brought against anti-Castro militants. The federal government has even failed to extradite to other countries militants who are credibly accused of acts of murder. Among the most notorious is Luis Posada Carriles, wanted for bombing a Cuban jet in 1976 and Havana hotels in 1997. It is, perhaps, a testament to the power of South Florida's crucial Cuban-American voting bloc -- and the political allegiances of the current president.

In Greater Miami, home to the majority of the nation's 1.5 million Cuban-Americans, the presence of what could credibly be described as a terrorist training camp has become an accepted norm during the half-century of the anti-Castro Cuban diaspora. Alpha 66 and numerous other paramilitary groups -- Comandos F4, Brigade 2506, Accion Cubana -- are so common they've taken on the benign patina of Rotary Clubs with weapons.

But Alpha 66 members are eager to remind you that even if they are graying and prosperous they are not toothless old tigers. Their Web site boasts that "in recent years" they've sabotaged Cuba's tourist economy by attacking hotels in the beach resort of Caya Coco. At the group's headquarters in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, the walls are hung with the portraits of dozens of men who have died on Alpha 66 missions.

To reach Alpha 66's South Florida camp you have to drive to the farmlands west of Miami's sprawl, then wait for a guide. You follow the guide down a winding, pitted dirt road for a few miles until you get to a gate and a yellow watchtower hung with an old-fashioned school bell. Behind a wall of trees and shrubs is a compound that looks like a hunting lodge. A low-slung wood-plank bunker with a deck and awning provides refuge from the sun.

Before hitting the range, the men -- there are no women here today -- had done maneuvers, marching in double file around the field, while a short, barrel-chested former Cuban army officer named Ivan Ayala barked directions: "Columna izquierda!" Many of the aging, uniformed men laboring to make it around the field are veterans of the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and alumni of Castro's jails. Some, like Osiel Gonzalez, even fought alongside Castro against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, before Castro's turn toward communism. Most, if you believe them, have a "commando" mission or two with Alpha under their belts -- landing on a remote beach and burning sugar cane fields, or strafing a shoreline with machine-gun fire. In other words, they've walked the walk of counterrevolutionary violence, even if it's now reduced to a shuffle.

They deny they have anything in common with the militants hiding in the caves of Afghanistan and Pakistan. "No, we are not terrorists," says Gonzalez, the second-in-command and a co-founder of the group who, when he is not donning fatigues and shouldering a rifle, is a financial consultant. "We don't want to kill civilians."

"Our goal is to free our country for our children and grandchildren," drawls Al Bacallao, who has already retreated to the porch's shade behind Gonzalez and the shooting range. The 61-year-old Bacallao was raised in Georgia after arriving from Cuba at age 8, and is the rare Cuban exile with a Southern twang. "The United States fought for its liberty, why can't we?"

But Alpha members may have a fluid definition of what a civilian is. Raking the coast with .50-caliber machine-gun fire certainly does not exclude civilian casualties, nor does attacking tourist spots. By his own admission, Bacallao, who joined Alpha 66 23 years ago, has gone on several missions to Cuba. In 1993 U.S. authorities arrested him and a boatload of other men setting out for the island.

"Our plan was to land and make a hit and run -- those are the best actions, you know," recounts Bacallao, as rifle shots punctuate the air. "And we had everything on board; a .50 caliber gun, hand grenades, AK-47s, plastic explosives. We had enough to blow up Florida, Georgia and Alabama!" He lands hard on the "bam" in Alabama. Then he laughs. "But we broke down. The motor started failing and the currents were strong. Eventually we were picked up."

"Let me tell you, we were treated like animals," he says. "And all we were trying to do was liberate our country."

But if he was treated like an animal, he is not in a cage. Federal prosecutors charged him and his companions with illegal weapons possession but a judge dismissed the case against most of the men, and a jury found the rest not guilty. Like other anti-Castro exiles before him, despite violent acts he is free to continue reporting to the training camp, and free to continue preparing for counter-revolution.

When it comes to South Florida and terror, the official line from current and former federal law enforcement officials is that the law is enforced without fear or favor. The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, R. Alexander Acosta, declined comment for this story, but several of his predecessors insisted to Salon that the law is applied objectively and without regard to local or national politics.

"I don't think there has ever been or is presently a refusal to consider more aggressive charges if the evidence truly sustains them," asserts Kendall Coffey, who was the Southern District's U.S. attorney from 1993 to 1996 and is now a prominent defense lawyer. Coffey adds that he never experienced pressure from his bosses in Washington regarding Cuban militants. "Not at all," he says.

"The politics of a case simply do not come into play," states Guy Lewis, U.S. attorney in South Florida from 2000 to 2002.

Judy Orihuela, spokeswoman for the FBI's Miami office, insists the agency will investigate any group that intends to violate U.S. law and poses a violent threat. At the Department of Justice in Washington, Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the national security division, rejects the notion that federal law enforcement shows leniency toward exile militants. Boyd maintains the DOJ would never attempt to influence a local case for political reasons and is blind to community or political pressure. "We pursue charges based on the evidence, not on other considerations," he says.

"That's sheer bullshit," counters Wayne Smith, who was chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba under Presidents Carter and Reagan from 1979 to 1982, making him the de facto U.S. ambassador to Havana. Smith, who now runs the Cuba Program at the D.C.-based Center for International Policy, invokes the names of two of the most notorious Cuban exiles to argue that the U.S. does, in fact, play favorites. "We are certainly not applying these laws objectively in the case of Luis Posada Carriles, Orlando Bosch and a whole lot of others who have been involved in terrorist activities. We say that countries must take action against terrorists, but we're clearly not. And I think it's because we're sympathetic to their actions."

At the beginning of Castro's reign, the U.S. was more than sympathetic to the militant exiles. In the 1960s, the U.S. government actively encouraged and supported anti-Castro violence, including the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. "Throughout most of the 1960s, rolling back the Cuban revolution through violent exile surrogates remained a top U.S. priority," says Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive and a specialist on U.S. policy toward Cuba. With exile involvement, the U.S. government made numerous attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro between 1961 and 1975, though the number cited in the title of the British documentary "638 Ways to Kill Castro" may be an exaggeration. Many anti-Castro Cubans went to work for U.S. intelligence and compiled long résumés of covert activity. In the 1980s, some assisted with the Reagan administration's covert effort to arm the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

Cuban-American entanglement with the CIA eventually bled into U.S. politics; two of the five "plumbers" who broke into the Democratic Party's national headquarters at the Watergate in 1972 were Cuban-American. Tolerance for anti-Castro militancy, meanwhile, also had domestic consequences. Throughout the '60s and '70s and into the '80s, exiles carried out dozens of bombings and assassinations in Miami and other American cities, targeting people they deemed too accommodating to the Castro government.

Over time, as Kornbluh notes, the exiles seemed to change their approach somewhat as they aged and as they prospered economically -- and as the CIA backed away. By the 1980s, says Kornbluh, support for militancy "shifted from official funding to private backing from wealthy Cuban-Americans." Much of the anti-Castro activism among Cuban-Americans was directed by a Miami businessman named Jorge Mas Canosa, head of the Cuban American National Foundation. Cuban intelligence, and even anti-Castro militants, have linked CANF to violent plots targeting Cuba.

Still, however, the militants continued to train within the borders of the U.S., and to amass weaponry. Retired Army Col. Larry Wilkerson remembers attending briefings during Caribbean war game exercises from 1992 to 1997 where he learned of the exiles' capabilities. "We would always be fed this intelligence and I was astounded at how many suspected caches of arms they had access to not just in Florida, but in California, New Jersey and other places; light machine guns, grenades, C4, dynamite, all manner of side arms and long arms," recalls Wilkerson, who was former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff from 2002 to 2005. "It was a veritable terrorist haven. This is Hezbollah in Florida, if you're looking at it through Havana's eyes."

In general, it would be hard to deny that the U.S. government has at least created the appearance that it is willing to tolerate a great deal of legally questionable behavior. But to be fair, even if federal prosecutors want to be objective, they are part of a political culture where such decorous sentiments aren't always honored. Juries, judges -- even the prosecutor's families -- are liable to feel the tug of local anti-Castro feeling. "I welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Castro," Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami recently told a British documentary crew. Ros-Lehtinen, who has also publicly expressed support for famed militant Orlando Bosch, is married to Dexter Lehtinen, former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

Even outside South Florida, juries can balk at convicting anti-Castro exiles. In 1997, the U.S. Attorney in Puerto Rico charged seven Cuban exiles with attempted murder of a foreign official after authorities searched a boat in Puerto Rico and found sniper rifles and night vision goggles, and interviewed a defendant who revealed a plan to whack Castro in Venezuela. The defendants tried to get a change of venue to South Florida and failed, but still succeeded in finding a sympathetic panel. A Puerto Rican jury acquitted the men of the attempted murder charges.

In perhaps the highest-profile criminal case involving Cuban exiles, federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., were unable to keep suspects in the assassination of former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier behind bars. Five Cuban-Americans were alleged to have played roles in the murder of Letelier and his American aide by car-bomb in D.C. in 1976. Three years later, Alvin Ross Diaz and Guillermo Novo Sampoll were convicted of murder and conspiracy to murder a foreign official and sentenced to life. Novo Sampoll's brother Ignacio was convicted on lesser charges.

Ross Diaz and Guillermo Novo Sampoll ended up serving less than five years, however, after winning a new trial and then acquittals. Ignacio Novo Sampoll, whose initial sentence was only three years, also had his conviction overturned on appeal. The last two defendants, Virgilio Paz Romero and Jose Dionisio Suarez Esquivel, eluded capture for 15 years, and then cut deals allowing them to serve less than a dozen years apiece. After his release, Guillermo Novo Sampoll would be arrested in Panama for plotting to murder Fidel Castro.

Today, federal law enforcement's de facto approach toward militant exiles seems to be to infiltrate and monitor them and attempt to disrupt their "missions" as they're launched. The Cuban government would maintain that the U.S. does not show sufficient interest in this limited task.

In 1997, Cuban intelligence agents discovered an exile plot to blow up airplanes carrying tourists to and from Cuba, according to a report released by the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, Havana's diplomatic post in the U.S. Castro himself wrote a letter to then-President Clinton asking for help investigating the plot, given the potential impact on both countries.

On June 15, 1998, a delegation of FBI agents went to Havana. The Cubans say they gave the agents documents, surveillance videos and samples from a defused bomb found in one of the hotels. The Cubans alleged the evidence led back to individuals in Miami. But when the FBI left, the Cubans claim they never heard anything more about the matter. Instead, three months after returning stateside, FBI agents arrested a network of 10 Cuban intelligence agents -- the source of much of the shared bombing information. Five of them pleaded guilty and received minimal sentences. Five others are serving terms ranging from 15 years to life. Havana has waged a prolonged propaganda campaign to free them.

One former law enforcement official dismisses the Cuban government's version of events. "They gave the FBI manila folders with a bunch of newspaper articles in them," the official scoffs, pointing out that the spy network had been under investigation for more than a year before the arrests.

When the feds do disrupt a mission and federal prosecutors do follow up criminally, they often charge the exiles with illegal weapons possession, a crime that carries a five-year prison sentence, rather than more serious offenses. Prosecutors have proven willing to accept lenient plea bargains and ask for lenient sentences. They have done so despite the fact that in 1994 and 1996, Congress passed laws that would give them far greater latitude to crack down on violent anti-Castro militants.

The 1994 Violent Crime and Control and Law Enforcement Act, an anti-terrorism measure passed after the first attack on New York's World Trade Center, made it illegal to knowingly provide material assistance for terrorist activity. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 was also intended to deter terrorism. The section titled "Conspiracy to Harm People and Property Overseas" states that anyone within the jurisdiction of the U.S. who conspires to commit "an act that would constitute the offense of murder, kidnapping, or maiming" abroad faces punishment up to life in prison.

During the Clinton administration, no anti-Castro militants were prosecuted under those laws. And then came the Bush administration, and 9/11.

In 2001, George Bush was inaugurated as president on the strength of Florida's 25 electoral votes. One reason he got close enough in the state's popular vote for the U.S. Supreme Court to hand him the victory was because Florida's Cuban voters supported him by a lopsided ratio of 4 to 1. His brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, had already established ties to the state's Cuban community, which had supported him by a similar margin in the gubernatorial election two years earlier. Jeb had also served as a campaign manager for Cuban-American Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in 1988, and during that campaign had called his father, George, then the vice president and a candidate for president, to enlist his help in blocking the deportation of militant Orlando Bosch.

All three Bushes have relied on Cuban-American money and support to carry Florida. In 2004, President George W. Bush placed new restrictions on U.S. citizens and Cuban residents in the U.S. who want to visit relatives on the island, and increased enforcement of the embargo against Cuba. To date, his administration has not invoked the 1994 and 1996 anti-terror laws against any anti-Castro militants.

The support of unsavory characters simply because they were fighting our fight was more understandable when we were engaged in a global war on communism. But given the Bush administration's "war on terror," some experts think our government's approach to Cuban militants within our own borders harms our credibility. "There's always some discretion allowed prosecutors, but generally the goal is to apply the laws equitably," explains Peter Margulies, a law professor at Roger Williams University School of Law, who has written about anti-terrorist laws and formerly taught at St. Thomas University in Miami. "If you don't, you undermine the legitimacy not only of U.S. law, but our standing in the world. Governments in Latin America now profoundly distrust us because we don't apply the same rules when dealing with Cuba that we do to the Middle East."

Under Bush, the FBI continues to monitor Cuban groups, but Miami spokeswoman Judy Orihuela says the agency considers the militants to be of "diminished capacity." The administration has its own ideas about who is and isn't a terrorist.

In August 2007, less than 30 miles from the Alpha 66 training camp, a federal jury in downtown Miami convicted a Brooklyn-born Muslim convert named Jose Padilla of conspiracy to kidnap, maim or kill people abroad. His sentencing hearing began last Wednesday; he faces up to life in prison. Although the military originally alleged he planned to detonate a dirty bomb in the U.S., the criminal case finally brought against him charged he plotted overseas attacks and plotted to provide support to terrorists as part of a U.S.-based terrorist cell. Prosecutors used the 1996 terrorism law in this case.

In December 2007, a federal jury failed to convict any of seven adherents of the Seas of David group of terror-related charges. The members of the tiny religious sect, who were also charged under the 1996 law, had allegedly conspired to purchase weapons from an informant they believed to be a representative of al-Qaida, and were supposedly plotting to bomb the Sears Tower in Chicago and a federal building in Florida. When the FBI raided the group's headquarters, the most serious weapons agents found were three machetes and some handgun bullets. They never found any plans for a terrorist plot. The jury acquitted one man on all charges and could not agree on verdicts for the other six defendants. The judge declared a mistrial; the U.S. Attorney's office plans to retry the men in 2008.

The 1994 and 1996 anti-terror laws have been invoked more than 40 times since 9/11, but never against anti-Castro militants. If authorities in South Florida wanted to apply the same scrutiny to Cuban-Americans that they applied to Padilla, who is Puerto Rican, and the Seas of David group, which was largely Haitian-American, they could surely find some suspects who have both a training camp and more weaponry than machetes. Among the South Florida residents who might bear some scrutiny:

Santiago Alvarez and Osvaldo Mitat -- Cuban authorities allege that Alvarez, a founder of Alpha 66 who is now a Miami developer, was on board a motorboat that strafed the shoreline of a Cuban fishing village in 1971 killing two men and wounding four others, including two young girls.

Alvarez is known to have provided financial and other material support to Luis Posada Carriles and other militants. In April of 2001 Cuban authorities reported capturing three Miami area residents after they clambered ashore with AK-47 assault rifles, an M-3 carbine fitted with a silencer and three semi-automatic Makarov pistols. While in custody, one of the men phoned Alvarez, while Cuban agents recorded the call. "The other day, when you told me about the Tropicana, do you want me to do something there?" Ihosvani Suris de la Torre asked, referring to a popular nightclub. Alvarez responded: "If you want to do that there, so much the better. Makes no difference to me." Cuba asked the FBI to do a voice analysis to prove it was Alvarez. The FBI has never acknowledged opening an investigation. The Cuban government released a transcript of the call to foreign journalists and broadcast audio of it on national television.

Through his lawyer, former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida Kendall Coffey, Alvarez told Salon he was not involved in the operation and was only trying to help Suris; he knew the call was being recorded, and that Suris faced the firing squad, so he wanted to say something that would make Suris appear to be providing valuable assistance to his captors.

But Alvarez sounded supportive in a 2001 interview with the Miami New Times. "My first connection with them is that we all believe that in order to fight Castro we have to fight in Cuba," he said in a previously unpublished portion of the interview, adding, "We're not terrorists."

In 2005 federal agents searched an apartment Alvarez kept north of Miami in Broward County and found a store of military hardware including an M-11 A1 machine gun, two Colt AR-15 assault rifles, a silencer, and a Heckler & Koch grenade launcher. Agents arrested Alvarez and his assistant, Osvaldo Mitat.

According to Peter Margulies, prosecutors could have considered charging Alvarez with providing material support for terrorist activity, which carries a sentence of 15 years to life. Instead, they charged Alvarez and Mitat with seven counts of illegal weapons possession.

Both pleaded guilty to one of the counts. The judge sentenced Mitat to about three years and Alvarez to just under four years. "While I have always been passionately interested in a free and democratic Cuba, I recognize that any conduct of mine must occur within the bounds of the law," Alvarez stated at his sentencing. After the plea, Alvarez supporters, who were able to remain anonymous, brokered a deal with prosecutors through a lawyer. In exchange for even more weapons, including 200 pounds of dynamite, 14 pounds of C-4 explosives and 30 assault weapons, the judge further reduced Alvarez's sentence to 30 months.

"Alvarez and Mitat are the paradigm of Miami justice," Miguel Alvarez, chief advisor to Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba's National Assembly of the People's Power, says wryly. "They confiscate a cache of arms from them, they try them, and when they turn over another cache of arms, they reduce their sentences. It's amazing."

Wonders Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive: "What was all that hardware for? Why did they let him plea bargain without getting the story on what he planned to do with all those weapons?"

"You can bet your bottom dollar," says Jose Pertierra, the Washington, D.C., attorney hired by the Venezuelan government to press for the extradition of militant Luis Posada, "if their names were Mohammed they wouldn't be as lenient and they'd certainly be looking for the rest of the arms."

Gaspar Jimenez -- Jimenez was indicted in the 1976 car bombing of Cuban-American radio commentator and critic of exile violence Emilio Milian in Miami. The U.S. attorney dropped the charges. In 1977 Mexican authorities arrested Jimenez and two others for attempting to kidnap the Cuban consul and killing the consul's bodyguard. Jimenez escaped and was rearrested in Miami in 1978. He was deported to Mexico and served less than three years. In 2000, he was jailed in Panama for attempting to assassinate Castro, as were Guillermo Novo, Pedro Remon and Luis Posada Carriles. All four were pardoned by the Panamanian president in 2004.

Pedro Remon -- One of the four exiles arrested in Panama for the Castro assassination plot, Remon was also arrested in 1985 in the United States for a bombing at the Cuban mission to the United Nations in New York. He was indicted for the murder of Cuban diplomat Felix Garcia-Rodriguez in New York and the attempted murder of the Cuban ambassador. He was sentenced to 10 years on reduced charges.

And then there's Luis Posada Carriles. With Orlando Bosch, he is a suspect in the 1976 bombing of a Cubana Airlines flight that killed 73 people. Posada is perhaps the most wanted of all of Miami's militants. "Certainly what Posada is accused of fits [the] standard [of the terrorism acts]," says Margulies.

"The Santiago and Posada cases create some real questions about whether we are applying the law in this matter in an objective manner. The premise of the anti-terrorism laws, including providing material support, is that people who are in this country shouldn't plan violence in another country, because 1) it is inherently wrong, particularly if it involves civilians, and 2) it can entangle the U.S. in complications, including war."

But the idea of indicting Posada as a terrorist would prompt laughter in many Cuban exile circles, if not a few bomb threats.

It's a warm night in Westchester, a largely Cuban suburb southwest of Miami. Shade trees sway outside the folksy Miami Havana restaurant; inside waiters pour sangria in the rear dining room, which is packed with heavily perfumed women draped in gold jewelry and men in starched guayaberas. Alpha 66 is hosting this fundraiser to repair storm damage at its training camp, but it is also a pep rally for "the struggle," la lucha.

Shortly after the American and Cuban national anthems play over a scratchy sound system but before the chicken and rice is served, an old man with neatly combed white hair enters through the French doors. He is barely visible behind a scrum of men who quickly surround him. Diners crane to see. They begin to whisper. Then clap. Soon there is a standing ovation. Luis Posada Carriles, the hero of the counter-revolution, is making his way to the head table.

"Bambi" Posada, 79, is wearing a light gray suit, white shirt and dark tie. As he sits down, the crowd asks him to speak. Talking publicly is not his strong suit after an assassination attempt in 1990 took out a chunk of his tongue. Nonetheless he mumbles a thanks to the crowd for their support, then sits down. During dinner a 9 mm Beretta pistol is raffled. The winner is a young mother.

The Cuban government has implicated Posada in a series of 1997 Havana hotel bombings, which killed an Italian tourist and injured 11 people. In 1998 Posada, a former CIA and Venezuelan intelligence operative, told the New York Times that he was responsible for the bombings. The Venezuelan government wants Posada for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner, which killed 73 people. Although Havana-bound Cubana Flight 455 originated in Trinidad and Tobago, the plot was allegedly hatched by Posada in Caracas. Two men who worked for Posada admitted to the crime, but Posada has repeatedly denied any involvement in that attack.

Venezuelan authorities arrested Posada and Orlando Bosch in 1976 for planning the bombing. Posada escaped from a Venezuelan prison in 1985, in an operation allegedly funded by Jorge Mas Canosa, and fled to El Salvador. He then began working for a CIA-led gun-running operation. Posada was paid $3,000 per month by Oliver North deputy Maj. Gen. Richard Secord to funnel guns to the Nicaraguan Contras. After the Iran-Contra debacle, he remained in Central America as an advisor to the Guatemalan government.

In 2000 Panamanian authorities arrested Posada and three Miami Cubans for a plot to bomb a Panamanian auditorium where Castro was scheduled to give a speech. Posada was in possession of a gym bag full of C4 explosives. The four men were convicted on related charges in 2004; one was a CANF employee, another was Pedro Remon. Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso, a close U.S. ally, pardoned all four men that same year just before she left office. All of them returned to Miami except Posada.

In 2005 Posada entered the U.S illegally; he was later arrested with a false passport and jailed. He requested political asylum in April and the Venezuelan government requested his extradition in May. A U.S. immigration judge in Texas rejected Venezuela's request when prosecutors did not challenge Posada's assertion he'd be tortured if sent back. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega said publicly in 2005 that the Cuban and Venezuelan charges against Posada "may be a completely manufactured issue." Posada was held by U.S. immigration authorities from May 2005 to April 2007, when he was released on bail. In May 2007, a U.S. district judge tossed out all charges of immigration fraud against him.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a Castro ally, has vowed to do all he can to prosecute Posada. "They have wanted to stonewall the extradition by giving the appearance of criminal prosecution on lesser matters," says Jose Pertierra, Venezuela's Washington attorney. "They use that at diplomatic meetings. They tell government officials from Venezuela, 'We're taking care of the Posada matter. We have a criminal investigation going on.'"

Whatever authorities might be investigating, whether it is Posada's role in the Havana bombings or his fake passport, "doesn't even compare with an extradition involving 73 counts of first-degree murder," Pertierra says. "Can you imagine Osama bin Laden [entering] Pakistan on a camel," he adds, "and Pakistani immigration authorities telling the White House that they don't want to extradite Osama bin Laden for murder because they've got him on an immigration charge?"

Eduardo Soto, Posada's lawyer in the immigration case, asserts that the international convention against torture prohibits his client's extradition to Venezuela. "You could be a convicted mass murderer, you could be Adolf Hitler, it matters not, if there is a possibility that he would be tortured in countries that would [otherwise] be entitled to take him," Soto says. It helped Posada's case that federal prosecutors didn't contest this claim.

There is another option. "Either extradite him to the country that is demanding him, Venezuela, or try him as if the act, the bombing of the Cubana plane, had been committed in U.S. territory," says Cuba's Miguel Alvarez, citing agreements hammered out at the Montreal Convention of 1991 on explosives, one of a series of international conventions meant to spell out the obligations of national governments when terrorism occurs.

Back at the Miami Havana restaurant, Posada has been joined at the front table by an old comrade in arms. Sitting next to Posada is Pedro Remon, who shared a cell with Posada in Panama. Remon stands up to speak. "It's an honor to have gathered here tonight for a just cause," he tells the crowd. "To cooperate with an organization that has been the vanguard over so many years of struggle against communism in Cuba."

Remon's years behind bars give him, like Posada, a kind of elder statesman status among the exiles, and prison has hardly diminished his resolve. Athletic with a thick mustache, he still believes in groups like Alpha 66. "The organization has been strengthened," he tells Salon in an interview at the restaurant. "They have very good new people who are dedicated to the cause of Cuba." And he laments the absence at the fundraising dinner of comrade-in-arms Santiago Alvarez. "I'm very hopeful he'll be with us soon," he says.

Posada is less talkative with strangers. "I'm sorry, I still have a legal matter." After dessert he politely waves goodbye to his supporters and heads for the door escorted by Alpha 66's jefe militar Reinol Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, a towering man with white hair and mustache, returns to the dining room and stands with a group of men in a half-circle, including Al Bacallao, who back at the training camp talked about his 1993 arrest on a weapons-laden boat headed for Cuba. They've loosened their collars, rolled up their sleeves, and are talking hopefully about the hot summer in Havana and how the heat might fuel discontent. "We're waiting for the spark," Rodriguez says. "We're ready to go when the moment comes."

"We have what it takes," Bacallao adds extending his hands as if he were holding a couple of melons. "Cojones."

-- By Tristram Korten and Kirk Nielsen

The Deadly Road Through Mexico

Miami New Times
The Deadly Road Through Mexico
When Cubans leave their homeland, things can get lots worse.
By Francisco Alvarado , Russell Cobb , and Paul Knight
Published: January 10, 2008

Early in the day this past July 19, Luis Lázaro Lara Morejón left his sunny oceanside room at the Solymar hotel in Cancún to buy groceries at a small market nearby. The tall, heavy-set 30-year-old Cuban exile from Miami was accompanied by his pretty, young Mexican girlfriend, María Elena Carrillo Sáenz.

The lovers passed the two huge pools and a beachfront clubhouse and bar, then walked down a stone-paved path to the Solymar's main building before exiting the imposing, Aztec-style front entrance onto Kukulcán Boulevard.

Morejón's two kids, ages six and nine, stayed behind with a nanny. By nightfall, the couple hadn't returned. The alarmed caretaker called police.

Authorities began investigating and soon contacted the children's mother, Alely Acosta, who lived in a one-bedroom apartment at 6525 W. 24th Ave. in Hialeah. Forty-eight hours later, she arrived in Cancún, picked up the kids, and returned to South Florida.

The cops suspected the pair had been kidnapped. Eleven days after Morejón disappeared, following an anonymous tip, about a dozen Mexican police officers walked down a narrow dirt road surrounded by thick brush near the Cancún-Mérida highway. It was about two kilometers from the Solymar's front steps.

Soon they came upon an abandoned stone building near a site where law enforcers once incinerated confiscated drugs.

An officer stopped near the front door. Before him was a handcuffed, shirtless corpse in dirty white Bermuda shorts lying face down. The dead man's left index finger had been mutilated, and the body was covered in welts. When police turned him over, they found his eyes and mouth shut with duct tape. His face had been obliterated by bullets.

An autopsy revealed Morejón had been shot 12 times, six in the head and six in the torso, with a 9mm pistol.

Three days later, at 3:30 p.m., police received a second anonymous tip. Some 600 meters from the Morejón crime scene, in a natural sinkhole 10 meters deep, they found Sáenz's decomposing body. Her murder drew particular attention. After all, she was the child of prominent Yucatán hoteliers.

Also buried in the sinkhole were two young Mexicans, Jesús Aguilar and Edwin Park.

The victims were covered in lime, and, like Morejón, had been blindfolded, gagged with duct tape, and handcuffed. Forensic analysts determined they had been shot six to eight times with 9mm bullets similar to the ones that had killed Morejón.

Police believe Morejón and the Mexican men were human traffickers and that their brutal murders were part of the latest dustup in a turf war between groups of Cuban-Americans. The girlfriend was collateral damage in the bloody conflict that claimed the lives of seven people in August, including Morejón's alleged boss, Manuel Duarte Díaz.

The carnage is just one indication of the booming market in smuggling Cubans through Mexico by land to Texas and Miami or elsewhere. Some 9,296 Cubans crossed the border into the Lone Star State between October 1, 2006, and July 22, 2007, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That's more than double the 4,589 who crossed or were picked up by the Coast Guard in the Florida Straits during the same period.

Stakes are high. Traffickers charge at least $10,000 per person to ferry Cubans off the island to the Yucatán.

Smugglers provide undocumented Cubans with shelter in Cancún and the neighboring city of Mérida, a place Mexican prosecutor Bello Melchor Rodríguez calls "the financial base of operations for these bands of Cuban-American mafia."

Rodríguez explains that smugglers in speed boats sometimes haul 25 to 30 passengers from Cuba to Mexico via the treacherous 135-mile-long Yucatán Channel. During a typical run, a speed boat transfers the human cargo onto a chartered yacht, which then docks at Cancún, Cozumel, or Isla Mujeres. The smuggled Cubans are given new clothes, usually beach apparel, to blend in with the tourists. "They are all over Quintana Roo and Yucatán," Rodríguez says.

Deadly violence is not the only obstacle these Cubans face. Those intercepted at sea by the Mexican navy face the possibility of immediate deportation. Those who make it to land and seek political asylum are jailed for 90 days or more while awaiting a hearing. Detentions of undocumented Cubans in Mexico skyrocketed from 254 in 2002 to 2,205 in 2006, according to the National Immigration Institute of Mexico. About a third of those were sent back to the island, where they likely face serious prison time for escaping Cuba.

And even if they make it to Texas, Cubans risk appearing before an unsympathetic federal judge who has denied political asylum to every Cuban who has gone through his courtroom, tacking on at least another 90 days of incarceration in exchange for American liberty.

In effect, the Mexico route is an end-around on the U.S. "wet foot/dry foot" policy in which Cubans caught at sea are taxied back to the island, but those who make it to U.S. soil can stay. The phenomenon has given rise to a new term: dusty foot.

"I am not happy with the [U.S.] policy," says Jorge Ferragut, a Cuban who settled in Houston in 1980 and later started Casa Cuba, an organization aimed at helping Cubans who arrive in Texas. "The people that try to leave, they are putting their lives in danger."

Sometime after 3:30 p.m. this past December 6, Alexander Pedraza Martínez made his way to an isolated corner in the dusty courtyard of a Mexican immigration detention center where he is sequestered. The thin 44-year-old Cuban physician with gray and white stubble on his face looked around to make sure none of the guards was watching. Then he pulled out a cell phone from the pocket of his green Bermuda shorts and dialed his sister-in-law's number in west Miami.

Within seconds, the cordless phone in Ivette Chung's kitchen blared. A thin 36-year-old dressed in aqua hospital scrubs, Chung got up from the dining room table, where she had been sipping Cuban coffee with Martínez's elderly aunt, Olga González, and answered the call.

"Hello?" Chung said anxiously. "It's him! It's Alexander!"

Martínez has been stuck in Tapachula, on the Guatemalan border, since June, wondering if he will ever make it to Miami. His predicament offers a glimpse into Mexico's haphazard immigration policy, which allows Cubans who enter by land to stay after paying a fine of 1,000 pesos ($92.07), but deports those intercepted at sea if the Communist government wants them back. The only way to avoid deportation is to claim political asylum and spend 90 days in detention until a Mexican immigration judge hears the case. Yet Martínez has been waiting more than 180 days for his hearing.

Back on the island, Martínez was a respected physician. He was vocal about his desire to leave, so vocal that he feared arrest. Twice in the past two years, he had been detained and interrogated by Cuban police. "I had no other way out, because Cuba always rejected my applications to go on medical missions," he says. "I had to be very careful in everything I did, so I had to find a way out."

More than six months ago, Martínez and 29 other Cubans, including a woman with a 15-month-old daughter, climbed aboard two rickety, tin-hulled boats powered by old car engines at a beach between Havana and Pinar del Río. Fifty-five-year-old Aquiles Cosme tagged along because he had nothing left in Cuba. A tall, heavyset fellow with probing brown eyes and thick gray hair, he had dreamed of reuniting with his only daughter, Yamila, and his wife, Maritza Gómez, who live in Westchester. Cosme had lived through three surgeries on his colon, but had no one to help him in Cuba.

So for four days, the novice seafarers navigated the Gulf of Mexico. "Our intention was to head north," Martínez says during a half-hour telephone conversation with his relatives and a reporter. "We wanted to get to Miami."

But then one of the boats' motors conked out about 50 nautical miles from the Yucatán coastline. "We were not going to leave anyone behind," Martínez adds.

As they drifted in the gulf, the Cubans observed another boat nearby. "We waved at them and got their attention," Martínez says. The unknown vessel was manned by a couple of Mexicans, who tied a rope to the Cubans' disabled boat and began towing them to shore.

Some 37 miles off the Mexican coast, and still in international waters, a Mexican naval ship picked them up. Soon they were delivered to Cancún International Airport, where they were placed in a detention cell, Martínez says. One day later, the doctor was granted permission to contact his sister-in-law in west Miami. "I wanted to let her know I was in Mexico but that I wanted to go to the United States," he says.

They were detained in Cancún for approximately one week and then transferred to the detention facility in Tapachula. Martínez describes the place: "There is a big cement wall with barbed wire that surrounds the complex," he says. "Guards with rifles man watchtowers along the perimeter. There are bars on the doors to our sleeping quarters. There is a closed security camera system in the hallways. This is a jail, no doubt."

He sleeps in a cell with 10 other people under a 500-watt light bulb that is never turned off. "It stays on all night long," he says. "It's psychological torture." His diet consists of white rice, red beans, shredded chicken meat, and bread.

He stays in contact with his Miami relatives via cell phones that other detainees have smuggled into the facility.

"Our [immigration] situation is unknown," Martínez laments. "We have tried everything to get out of this place, but no one will do anything."

Eighteen members of his group, including the 15-month-old baby and her mother, have been returned to Cuba. Six others were released, including four family members of an elderly man who died of natural causes shortly after the group arrived in Cancún. "I guess to shut them up they let them go," Martínez complains. "I know they made it to Miami."

From his group, only six remain. But he says there are about 67 Cubans being held in the facility. The detainees have received assistance from the Mexican chapter of Médicos sin Fronteras, a humanitarian aid group. Representatives of the group have met with seven high-ranking officials at the National Immigration Institute of Mexico, including Secretary Pablo Enríquez Rodríguez.

"Regrettably no one wants to respond," Martínez says.

The situation is even grimmer for Martínez's boat mate, Aquiles Cosme, who has lost more than 20 pounds since arriving in Tapachula. Back in Westchester, in the entertainment room of her four-bedroom residence, Aquiles's daughter Yamila dabs away tears. The pretty, fair-skinned 32-year-old with doll-like brown eyes is concerned her father won't make it out alive. "He has to eat a very basic diet so he doesn't bleed," she says. "He is under a lot of stress and tension."

During Cosme's incarceration in Mexico, Yamila has been frantically sending documentation of her father's illness to immigration officials. In addition, her father has undergone a colonoscopy in Mexico to prove he is sick. "The tests showed that he needs a complete reconstructive surgery of his colon," she says. "Yet two weeks have gone by and the immigration officials won't answer his questions about allowing his release. Are they waiting for him to die? It's just so frustrating."

Yamila believes Mexican authorities should release her father for humanitarian reasons. "They released the family members of the man who died in their custody," she argues. "They should do the same for my father." In recent weeks, Yamila, Martínez's family members, and the relatives of at least a dozen Cubans detained in Mexico have been appearing on Spanish-language radio and television programs to drum up public awareness and put pressure on the Mexican government to release the Cubans. U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla) wrote a letter to the Mexican ambassador in the United States to intervene on their behalf. But so far it doesn't seem to be working. "I need my father alive," says Yamila. "He is not going to make it over there."

In Cuba, Rey Rodríguez was a professional photographer in a provincial town. He considered entering the priesthood, but there was little support for seminarians on the island, so in 2003 he secured a visa to Mexico to further his studies. Then Rodríguez fell in love with a Mexican girl during a religious retreat and got her pregnant. He abandoned the seminary, and the couple decided to marry and start a family in Morelia, a colonial city in central Mexico.

In 2004, Rodríguez applied for Mexican residency. He received an unexpected answer. Authorities told him to leave the country in 72 hours or risk deportation. Instead of departing, Rodríguez purchased false documents that identified him as a Mexican citizen. He destroyed all belongings that mentioned his Cuban nationality.

He also worked to change his accent, mannerisms, and word choice to appear more Mexican. It wasn't easy.

His scheme worked for a while. Rodríguez married his girlfriend, their child was born, and he found part-time work at a Ford dealership. With his brown skin and straight black hair, Rodríguez passed three years without trouble.

Finally, last spring, Mexican immigration officials caught and detained him. They released him after issuing him a document stating his real name and nationality. (According to the National Immigration Institute of Mexico, authorities have detained 876 Cubans this year and deported 271.) "It was just a plain piece of paper with a stamp, but it was the only identification I had left," Rodríguez says. "The paper said that I had 30 days of parole in Mexico before I would be ordered out of the country."

Rodríguez decided to bolt for the Texas border. He had heard he could pass legally into the United States there. After a day on a bus from Morelia to Matamoros, he arrived at the border crossing. Fearing he would be caught and sent back to Cuba, he trembled as he approached the gate to the international bridge.

At the turnstile, he fumbled for change in his pockets. He had only a 10-peso piece, the wrong coin. He tried to stuff the peso into the slot, but it wouldn't fit. A Mexican guard approached, armed with an automatic rifle.

"Mexico is so corrupt," Rodríguez says. "You're constantly having to pay bribes to get anything done. I thought I would have to pay another bribe to get across."

But the guard offered the correct change. Rodríguez strolled across the bridge and came to a line of people curling out of the U.S. customs office. He began talking to others, telling his story.

The Mexicans were surprised a Cuban would wait in such a long line. They told him he could simply walk up to a window inside the office, declare his nationality, and claim political asylum. Rodríguez did, and hours later he walked into Texas.

Rodríguez recently moved to Houston, where he resides in a one-bedroom apartment with another Cuban, Silvino, whom he met while living near the border. He's optimistic about job prospects but misses his wife and two children, who are still living in Mexico. He has thought about trying to persuade his family to sneak across the border, but says he's going to wait until he has the money to bring them here legally.

Enveloped by darkness, a tractor rumbled down the hills of Cuba's western coast. It pulled a cart loaded with a makeshift boat constructed from aluminum tubing and an old car motor.

Fourteen Cubans crammed onto the boat, destined for a twisting river that leads to the Yucatán Channel. To Harry Reinier, who had been waiting with the others in a safe house for weeks, the vessel felt like a kitchen sink.

Reinier didn't know what to expect at sea. He had never set foot on a boat before this moment. Food and water were scarce. He brought a backpack full of canned food and two jugs of water for each member of the group. He knew only that their goal was the east coast of Mexico — a trip he believed would take four days. Reinier had little money, few resources, and no guarantee the boat would ever reach land.

But the risk would be worth it. Before he left Cuba this spring, Reinier worked in a bakery, kneading dough for 10 hours a day and $12 a week. His mother had fled Cuba years earlier for Peru. When a friend told Reinier about a planned escape to Mexico, he emptied his savings account and paid $500 to reserve a seat on the boat. It was blind faith; he had never met the men in charge of the trip. "Everyone wants to leave Cuba," Reinier says. "When there is money, and there is a chance, that's when they leave."

The boat sputtered east for two days before the motor died. For more than a week, it drifted on the open sea. Food and water ran out. There were only raw fish and rainwater.

Then they finally reached shore. After suffering dehydration, sunburn, and exhaustion; after battling sleep-deprived, crazed boat mates; after spending five months in a Mexican prison; and after enduring marathon bus rides to Mexico City and Matamoros, Reinier crossed the Texas border.

Following his release from prison, Reinier walked to a small park across the street from the customs office in Brownsville, Texas. Large trees shaded concrete benches, and recently arrived immigrants rested in the park or waited for companions. Reinier began asking strangers for advice.

He eventually found his way to a Catholic church in the heart of Brownsville. The church contacted Sister Margaret Merkens, an ex-Catholic schoolteacher from Missouri who runs a small shelter for refugees about 30 miles north of the border. After a few weeks at the shelter, Reinier felt stuck. Five months ago, when he stepped aboard the homemade boat and set out for Mexico, he knew it would be the last time he would see Cuba. His sister is still there, along with his wife and child. He misses the place.

Reinier rarely leaves the shelter grounds, which are surrounded by acres of dirt and sugar cane fields, miles from any businesses that might provide work. He sometimes hitches a ride into town to go to the bank and cash the $500 in government assistance checks he receives monthly.

Most days Reinier either studies English or cooks dinner for other refugees. He has applied for several jobs in surrounding towns but thinks whites and Mexican-Americans are suspicious of a black man with a funny Spanish accent.

He's waiting for an immigration hearing to get his green card. "You could put a paper in front of me that says, 'This black guy will be your slave,' and I would sign it," he says, "because I have no idea what I'm signing."

But Reinier has some hope. He figures he can venture out on his own as soon as he learns enough English. He doesn't know much about the Texas away from the border and wants to leave the state so he can find work. He has heard of a place called Kentucky; he dreams of settling down there.

"I have no idea what it's like there," he says, "but it sounds calm and peaceful, with plenty of jobs for Cubans. I think that it's a place where I could raise a family."

Stories like these have some anti-immigration groups fuming. The Federation for American Immigration Reform supports ending all preferential treatment of Cubans, who were first given a path to residency in the United States in 1966, when the government passed the Cuban Adjustment Act. Ira Mehlman, a representative for the federation, says the policy encourages all kinds of illegal immigrants — including potential terrorists — to seek asylum on American soil.

"It's a vestige of a Cold War-era policy that didn't make sense even during the Cold War. Castro has always been happy to export his political dissidents here to yell and scream," Mehlman says. "Cubans should be treated exactly like everyone else — no better and no worse."

One immigration judge at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas, Howard E. Achtsam, regularly denies asylum to Cubans — apparently on principle. This forces them to spend more time in detention, though they're eventually freed. "If you're unfortunate enough to get Judge Achtsam, that means you're probably going to get denied," says attorney Jodie Goodwin. "I think he has got to be the only immigration judge in the country that routinely denies asylum for Cubans." (The U.S. Justice Department acknowledges that every Cuban who has passed through Port Isabel in the past two years has been denied asylum.)

Even some prominent Cuban-Americans question the legitimacy of asylum claims by "dusty foot" Cubans. Grisel Ybarra, an immigration attorney in Miami who fled Cuba in 1962, thinks the Cuban Adjustment Act shouldn't apply in Texas. She thinks most Cubans are seeking a better-paying job, not political freedom.

"These Cubans come here, tell some bullshit story at the border, and they get their green card," Ybarra says. "I came here seeking freedom, not hot dogs. My generation, we are refugees; they are immigrants. If you came to Miami and asked Cubans who came here before Mariel [in 1980], 99 percent of them would agree with me...."

Compounding the problem, Ybarra adds, are Cuban-Americans who support illegal human trafficking by paying tens of thousands of dollars to get their relatives off the island. "Cubans are the richest Hispanic group in the U.S.," she says. "We live in million-dollar homes in Coral Gables. We have the money to pay for boats to get people out of Cuba."

In the Florida Straits, the Coast Guard has become more aggressive toward suspected smugglers, according to Chief Petty Ofcr. Dana Warr of the U.S. Coast Guard. Officers are instructed to shoot at boats that do not respond to warning shots. Gunfire has a 100 percent success rate, Warr says, so it's no surprise that smugglers have changed direction. "We know it's happening, that there is a lot of maritime smuggling between Cuba and Mexico," he says. "We have a vested interest because, indirectly, that is illegal smuggling into the U.S."

If smuggling continues to affect the number of Cubans crossing the Texas border, Warr says, Coast Guard ships could patrol as far south as the Yucatán Channel. "The Caribbean Sea is two million square miles, and we try to patrol every bit of it," he says. "We realize we can't catch them all."

Quintana Roo Attorney General Bello Melchor Rodríguez acknowledges Mexican law enforcement is having a difficult time battling smugglers. Moreover, Rodríguez says, some rings employ assassins known as Los Zetas, or The Zs, former Mexican National Police officers and ex-special armed forces soldiers turned freelance mercenaries. Los Zetas are responsible for the turf war-related murder of reputed human trafficker Francisco Javier Fernández Ramírez this past July and the July 27 shooting of suspected Cuban smuggler Alberto Maya Mendoza, who spent two weeks in a coma in a Mérida hospital.

Jenaro Villamil, a reporter for Yucatán newspaper Periódico AM, says the rings act with impunity. "We are talking about a multimillion-dollar industry involving Mexican cartels, local businessmen, corrupt immigration authorities, and the Cuban-American mafia," Villamil says. "The battle for control is taking place in Quintana Roo, specifically in Cancún."

The roots of Miami resident Luis Lázaro Lara Morejón's bloody execution-style killing in Cancún date back at least five years. He and his then-wife, Alely Acosta, arrived in Miami from Cuba in 2002, when they took up residence in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condominium in west Hialeah, about a three-minute drive from Palmetto General Hospital. Over the next four years, the couple and their two children moved to two different condos within five miles of each other.

Little is known about Morejón's time in Miami-Dade County. Six of his neighbors New Times questioned couldn't remember him or Acosta, whom Morejón apparently split with sometime in 2005 — about a year before he fled to Mexico. New Times was not able to locate Acosta at her last known address, a one-bedroom apartment 10 blocks from the condo at 65th Street and 24th Avenue in west Hialeah. The place was empty during a recent visit, perhaps indicating she and the young children fled after the murder.

Morejón's name appears in the Miami-Dade County Clerk's online database, but no information is available about any charges, indicating he probably has a sealed criminal record. The clerk's website also reveals Morejón's Florida driver's license was suspended March 27, 2006, when he failed to pay a $162 fine for a traffic violation.

The reason is clear. By then, Morejón was in Cancún. He had joined more than 200 Cuban-Americans, many of whom are originally from Miami, in the smuggling business, asserts Quintana Roo prosecutor Melchor Rodríguez.

Shortly after his arrival, Morejón hooked up with Manuel Duarte Díaz, nicknamed "El Maní" ("The Peanut"), the alleged top man of a human trafficking ring operating in Mérida and Cancún, Rodríguez says. Morejón mediated between El Maní and Cuban-Americans in the United States seeking to get their relatives out of Cuba. The exiles would send Morejón the money and he would then pick up their relatives and take them to a safe house in Mérida. There he would provide them with food and new clothes so they wouldn't arouse the attention of law enforcement in the Yucatán province where Mérida is located.

Rodríguez won't say exactly how much Morejón was earning, but contends it was more than $100,000 per year.

According to police officials in Quintana Roo, El Maní and Morejón knew a local named David (authorities declined to provide his full name), who worked for the regional office of the National Immigration Institute of Mexico. The Cubans paid David to help them secure legal immigration status for the undocumented Cubans. The alleged smugglers were also doing business with Francisco Ramírez, the Cuban executed at the hands of Los Zetas. Ramírez owned a fishing charter business with Edwin Park, one of the two Mexicans executed alongside Morejón's girlfriend María Sáenz.

Rodríguez believes a rival Cuban-American ring paid Los Zetas to kill Morejón, his girlfriend, and his business associates. "Where we found the bodies and how they were killed points to Los Zetas," Rodríguez says.

Nearly six months after the murders, Mexican detectives have detained and questioned 20 individuals suspected of human trafficking. But the authorities still don't have any solid leads.

During a press conference this past December 10, Mexico's attorney general, Eduardo Medina Mora, said the killings and the trafficking are likely to continue as long as Cubans keep receiving automatic asylum in the States. "It has been legally proved," Medina Mora told reporters, "that people of Cuban origin but who are citizens of the United States are involved, financing these people-smuggling operations, obviously with the complicity of Mexicans."

Monday, January 07, 2008

Cuban farmers: Let the land be ours

Miami Herald
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Posted on Mon, Jan. 07, 2008
Cuban farmers: Let the land be ours
SANTIAGO de CUBA, Cuba -- Cuban farmers have a suggestion for how the government can put millions of acres of fallow land to work and put more food on everyone's table.

Give state-owned lands to them, and allow a bit of capitalism.

''We are all hoping for some change -- a new system that allows you to have a better life and do some business,'' said Elena, a small farmer from the Santiago de Cuba area. ``Here, you are not even the boss of what's yours.''

Interim president Raúl Castro has made it clear as he grapples with the illness of his brother Fidel that one of the chief troubles the country faces is how to put more food on the dinner table without compromising the 49-year-old revolution's socialist doctrine.

He has declared war on inefficient farming, doubled and tripled some of the prices that the government pays to farmers, and complained that millions of acres are now idle. Offials have said they may even allow in more foreign investments in the food sector.

The result: The government claimed late last month that the agricultural economy had grown by a whopping 24 percent in 2007 -- after three years of steady drops.

But food prices remain high: One pound of tomatoes can cost a day's wage in a country where the average weekly salary is $3.25. Cuba is spending $1.6 billion annually on food imports, including $350 million last year from the United States alone.

While many farmers agree the Raúl Castro government is taking new interest in boosting production, they say that only giving land to private farmers and allowing a little more capitalism in their communist state will overcome the many obstacles in Cuba's largely government-ruled and hugely inefficient agricultural sector.

''They claim they are reviving agriculture,'' said Luis, a toothless farmer from central Cuba who turned to food crops after retiring as a cowhand. ``Reviving what? Look at the conditions I live in. Sometimes I can't sell at all, because if I did, I wouldn't have anything to eat.''

He looked at his property, a squalid collection of shacks with a dilapitated outhouse, where a phone book served as toilet paper.

Cuba's government owns 85 percent of the arable land and controls all supplies like seeds, herbicides, feed and fuel. Private farmers who own the other 15 percent produce 60 percent of the island's food, the government has acknowledged.

Experts estimate there are up to 225,000 private farmers in Cuba, as well as another 350,000 farmers working on cooperatives that own their own land, within a system that has long been dominated by Soviet-style, state-owned collective farms.

The government makes farmers sell a large quota of their products at cheap prices to the government, which then doles them out to Cubans as part of their monthly ration cards. Only after the farmers have met their government quotas can they sell the rest at food markets, where prices are set by supply and demand.

Under Raúl Castro, some farmers have begun to receive plots of neglected state land in the hopes they can turn productivity around, some growers said. It's an effort that began in the 1990s, and has apparently been revived as part of Castro's battle against marabú, the thorny bush that threatens much of the arable land.

''All you see around here is marabú,'' said Nelson, a farmer in central Ciego de Avila. ``The state has all this land, and they're doing nothing with it. They are going to start giving it to the people. We've been struggling with that for years, and it's just now that they are doing something about it.''

Raúl Castro says a lack of land is not the problem.

''It seems to me that there is plenty of land,'' Raúl Castro said in a July speech. ``As I drove in here I could see that everything around is green and pretty, but what drew my attention the most, what I found prettier, was the marabú growing along the road.''

The Cuban government estimates that at least a third of its arable land is covered in marabú, sometimes called ''witch's weed,'' because it's so hard to fight. Some three million acres of farm land is now covered by it, according to the government.

''We face the imperative of making our land produce more, and the land is there to be tilled,'' Raúl Castro said. ``We must offer these producers adequate incentives for the work they carry out in Cuba's suffocating heat.''

But farmers argue there are more problems: Prices the government pays for their crops barely allow them to cover their costs. Profits come only from what they can sell at the far more lucrative farmer's markets.

Supplies controlled by the government like animal feed and fertilizer are scarce and often expensive. If the government wants to increase food production, it needs to provide growers with machinery, fuel, and other necessities, farmers said.

''The problem is that the state pays the farmer very little and sells to the public very high,'' said Pablo, a farmer in central Cuba. ``I would be better off if I could sell directly to the public, because I get more that way. They say they are going to do things to stimulate production, but more or less they don't do anything.''

Orlando Lugo, head of the National Small Growers Association, told Bohemia magazine there were places last year that didn't plant potatoes, because farmers did not have the materials needed to prepare the soil.

With the proper resources, growers in Havana could double or triple output, he added..

''We need more resources,'' Lugo said. ``We lack tractors, and there's barely enough machinery and a shortage of fuel.''

When agriculture first tanked in the mid-90s after the loss of Soviet subsidies, Cuba broke up state farms and put them in the hands of private cooperatives while keeping ownership of the land. University of Florida agricultural economist William A. Messina Jr. said the move was a step in the right direction, but farmers still face too many restrictions.

''I think Cuban agriculture is trudging along,'' Messina said. ``There's a tremendous amount of potential, lots of good lands . . . [But] the whole administrative structure governing food sales and distribution has strained the system.''

Carmelo, a Ciego de Avila farmer who describes himself as a loyal member of the Communist Party, said all that is beginning to change because the government is listening to farmers' ideas.

''Since Raúl took over, there's been a lot of changes and help,'' he said. ``Here is the way I see it: The ... law says the land belongs to who works it. So fine. Let the land be ours and let the price be ours to set. We need a little capitalism -- adapted to socialism.''

The Miami Herald withheld the name of the correspondent who wrote this report and the surnames of the people quoted, because the reporter did not have the journalist visa required by the Cuban government to report from the island.