Thursday, December 20, 2007

Rangel and Lee Highlight GAO Report on (OFAC's Distorted Priorities

Joint Press Release from U.S. Representatives
Charles Rangel & Barbara Lee
For Immediate Release: December 18, 2007

Contacts: Emile Milne (Rangel) 202.225.3335,
Cleve Mesidor (Lee) 202.225.2661,

GAO Finds Cuba Embargo Strains Homeland Security’s Ability to Protect US Borders

(Washington, DC) - Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel and Congresswoman Barbara Lee (Oakland, CA) today released a GAO report which finds that Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is spending inordinate time and resources looking for contraband from Cuba--mostly cigars and rum - at the expense of keeping terrorists and other criminals from entering the US.

“I am dismayed to learn that the Bush Administration’s Cuba policies have led Homeland Security and Treasury to direct scarce resources at such trivial violations, particularly when we know that our nation’s borders remains vulnerable to real threats such as drugs and weapons,” said Chairman Rangel.

“This GAO report is yet another example that the embargo is not working and highlights just how backwards and out of touch the Bush administration’s national security priorities really are,” said Congresswoman Lee. “Diverting vital resources away from investigating cases of illegal arms and terrorist financing calls into question the relevance of the Cuba embargo.

The GAO report, initiated at the request of Chairman Rangel and Congresswoman Lee, found that while the U.S. has over 20 trade sanctions programs in place—including sanctions against Iran, North Korea, and Syria—more than 60 percent of cases investigated by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control target contraband entering from Cuba, not more dangerous violations of sanctions regimes aimed at blocking money laundering or technology transfers.

Since 2004, the Bush Administration has ratcheted up restrictions on U.S. citizen’s ability travel to Cuba, greatly affecting citizens who wish to visit relatives or send remittances or gifts to family members. GAO investigators in Miami found that U.S. citizens returning from Cuba are seven times more likely to be searched at the border than persons entering from any other country, including those with ties to drugs and terrorism. This comes on top of recent GAO reports of weaknesses in CBP’s inspection capacity that increases the potential for terrorists and inadmissible travelers entering the country at major ports of entry.

The GAO report recommends that Homeland Security re-evaluate whether its practice of intensive inspections of passengers arriving from Cuba appropriately balances its enforcement of the embargo with its responsibilities for keeping terrorists, criminals, and inadmissible aliens from entering the country. Given Treasury’s responsibilities for administering sanctions against countries engaged in terrorism, GAO recommends that Treasury assess its allocation of resources for investigating and penalizing violations of the Cuba embargo.

Both Members endorse GAO’s recommendations and call on the Bush administration to revoke its short-sighted policies on Cuba and direct the Departments of Homeland Security and Treasury to promptly address the weaknesses, vulnerabilities and misplaced priorities observed by GAO.

"For years, this country's trade embargo with Cuba has been motivated by pure politics and the obsession to pander to a key constituency in Florida," said Congressman Rangel. "This report provides further proof that that this misguided policy does more harm than good, not only to American people, but also to our own war against terrorism. "

The full report is available at

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

History Lesson: Brothers Plane Shootdown, Hillary Clinton's Sister in Law

TIME Magazine
October 28, 1996 Volume 148, No. 20



Not too long ago, all a Republican presidential candidate had to do was point out that his opponent was soft on Fidel Castro to maintain the G.O.P.'s lock on Florida's powerful Cuban-American community. But Bob Dole has nothing on Bill Clinton. The President has been courting that community, and to them he is now a hard-liner after their own hearts. A Miami poll has found that 41% of Florida's Cuban Americans plan to vote for Clinton, almost double what he won in 1992, finally giving him a chance to take the state he lost by a squeaker in 1992. It is one of the biggest triumphs of his campaign.

But the Clinton turnaround has come with costs. The tale of how he brought it off involves excessive influence over foreign policy by a special-interest group, gloves-off bureaucratic infighting and a willingness to bash U.S. allies for electoral gain. It also involves peril. Wooing Dade County's 678,000 Cuban Americans has resulted in the most volatile period of confrontation with Havana since the 1962 missile crisis. The Pentagon fears it is only a matter of time before another event like February's shoot-down of two U.S. civilian planes by Cuban MiGs sparks a military confrontation between the two countries.

Four years ago, senior State Department diplomats hoped Clinton would breathe fresh air into U.S.-Cuban relations. Miami's fiercely anti-Castro Cuban-American community had long blocked any thaw, though the Pentagon had concluded that Havana posed no threat to the region, and Washington had made peace with almost all its cold war enemies. But half a dozen Cuban-American Democrats who raised huge sums for Clinton in 1992 convinced the new President he could win Florida in '96 if he became even more anti-Castro than Ronald Reagan or George Bush had been.

Senior Clinton aides call the cabal the "core group." It includes Maria Victoria Arias, a Miami lawyer married to Hugh Rodham, the First Lady's brother; and wealthy businessman Paul Cejas, who occasionally stays overnight at the White House. Arias telephones Hillary frequently and often sends Clinton clippings from Florida newspapers. In regular meetings at the Colonnade Hotel in Coral Gables or at Little Havana's Versailles Restaurant, the core group plans strategy and prepares appeals, which are sent by way of private notes to Clinton's top political aides. "When an issue comes up, we try to get a consensus and present a united front," says core-group member Simon Ferro, a Miami Democratic activist.

Clinton came to the Oval Office with his own Castro obsession. In 1980 he lost re-election as Governor partly because Cuban refugees rioted at an Arkansas Army post. As President he ordered the CIA to estimate the chances of an upheaval in Cuba during his first term: the agency said better than fifty-fifty. Clinton aides later pressed the cia to fund Cuban dissidents secretly. Burned by a dirty-tricks campaign against Castro in the '60s, the agency sidetracked the idea.

Clinton's foreign policy toward Cuba soon became snarled in bureaucratic battles between Administration hard-liners and moderates. In 1994 Castro allowed 33,000 Cubans to flee to South Florida, and the Administration began discouraging more escapees by detaining the rafters indefinitely at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The core group urged Clinton to punish Havana by halting airline flights to Cuba, but State Department moderates lobbied to maintain informal exchanges, including charter flights. Morton Halperin, the National Security Council's point man on Cuba, circulated a draft presidential speech offering carrots to Castro if he adopted reforms. Hard-liners, led by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, Michael Skol, allied themselves with the core group and launched a guerrilla war against the conciliatory moves. Clinton shelved the carrots and embarked on the hard line.

By January 1995 the U.S. Atlantic Command chief, General John Sheehan, who had pressed to ease tensions with Havana, began badgering the White House to clear out the 20,000 Cubans at Guantanamo. Riots were possible, he warned, and by his staff's estimate, a permanent refugee camp would cost some $2 billion. Three months later, partly with that figure as ammunition, Administration moderates staged a policy coup. Under Secretary of State Peter Tarnoff began secretly talking to Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's legislature. The Guantanamo refugees would be sent to Florida. To stanch any new exodus, U.S. Coast Guard boats would intercept future rafters at sea and return them to Cuba on condition that the regime not punish them.

So that no one would catch on, Tarnoff had his wife book his airline ticket to Toronto, where he met with Alarcon in a hotel room to sign the deal. Tarnoff and Halperin were afraid the Cuban Americans might try to scuttle the talks. Indeed, a decision memo had to be sent to Clinton three times before he finally agreed to keep the negotiations secret from the core group. When the agreement was announced, however, angry Cuban Americans poured into the streets of Miami, and the core group retaliated by having Clinton oust Halperin as Cuba point man. The core group then hovered over every inch of policy. A Clinton speech in October 1995 announcing minor cultural exchanges took three months of vetting.

Meanwhile, hard-liners in Havana and Miami were edging both countries toward a crisis. Planes from Brothers to the Rescue, based in Miami, began buzzing Havana, dropping propaganda leaflets. Castro fired off angry notes to Washington warning "deadly force" would be used unless the flights stopped. In January, U.S. intelligence agencies spotted Cuban MiGs test-firing air-to-air missiles and practicing maneuvers to attack slow-moving aircraft similar to the Brothers' planes. The State Department, however, did not believe Castro would attack.

Then on Feb. 24, two Brothers' Cessnas were shot down near Cuban airspace. The core group pressed Clinton to respond militarily. Two days later, the President gathered his top national security advisers in the White House Cabinet Room and grilled the Joint Chiefs Chairman, General John Shalikashvili, on whether the U.S. should punish Cuba with a cruise-missile attack or air strikes. The general argued against any military action, and Clinton eventually abandoned the idea. But five days after that, the White House sent a secret note warning Havana that the U.S. would react militarily if more planes were shot down. The following week a belligerent U.S. Congress passed the conservative Helms-Burton bill, imposing even more draconian sanctions than the 34-year-old U.S. embargo. Foreign-policy aides opposed the bill, which punishes foreign companies that trade with Cuba. But the President could taste victory in Florida and signed the bill on March 12.

The Helms-Burton law is creating diplomatic havoc. Europe, Asia and Latin America are ignoring Washington's demand to halt trade with Cuba and threatening economic retaliation against the U.S. if Clinton carries out the law's most severe penalties. Ironically, Castro has benefited politically from the crisis. A CIA estimate this summer concluded that the new sanctions have actually strengthened his regime, handing it a convenient excuse to crack down on dissidents. "We're left now with a relationship that's more dysfunctional than during the cold war," says Robert Pastor, an NSC expert on Latin America during the Carter Administration. But in Florida, Clinton leads Dole in the latest polls by as much as five percentage points.

With reporting by Cathy Booth/Miami

Copyright © 1996 Time Magazine

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Police Confront Dissidents at Santiago Church

Posted on Thu, Dec. 06, 2007

Cuban police drag tear-gassed dissidents from church


In an incident that a Cuban Catholic official called ''the worst attack against the church in 45 years,'' witnesses said police and state security agents raided a church in the eastern city of Santiago on Tuesday, using tear gas and blows to drag 18 dissidents to jail.
''This is an example of the relationship between the church and the Cuban government?'' said Rev. José Conrado Rodríguez, parish priest at the St. Teresita Church. ``This was a wild terrorist party.''

Human-rights activists say the roundup at the church capped a weeks-old crackdown by state security agents against a rising movement of young dissidents demanding more freedom and independent universities.

The series of detentions of young people began last month when a handful protested recent municipal elections, and expanded days later when dozens were arrested for wearing white rubber wristbands that say CAMBIO -- change.

Tuesday's incident underscored the attention the Cuban government is paying to the growing youth dissidence movement, and signals trouble ahead for young people who wish to participate, dissidents in Cuba said.

The latest arrests occurred when a group of dissidents dressed in black walked from Santiago's cathedral to St. Teresita some 20 blocks away in support of other youths arrested last week in Havana. Once at the church, they planned a prayer service for their jailed friends.

Their protest began with a fast at the home of Yaquelín Hechavarria, whose husband, Gerardo Sánchez, was arrested Nov. 29 during a sit-in in Havana, days after presenting the international media there with a petition reportedly signed by 5,000 students demanding independent universities.

'Everybody wore something black, and some people were wearing stickers on their shirts that said, `I don't cooperate with the dictatorship' and slogans like that,'' Hechavarria said by telephone from Santiago.

''When we got to the church, about 25 patrol cars surrounded us on every side. It was huge. I have never seen anything like it,'' she added. ``Everyone rushed in the church, but they came in after us with tear gas. They were pushing and shoving and hitting people and saying any number of terrible things to the priest.''


While the witnesses said the roundup targeted the dissidents, they questioned why authorities waited until the marchers arrived at the church to arrest them.

''Don't you think that's kind of strange?'' Conrado asked by phone from Santiago.

''I was speechless. Who has ever seen such a thing in a church? There is no justification for this, and I cannot accept it,'' said Conrado, long known as a critic of the Cuban government.

He said Santiago Archbishop Dionisio García later that day held Mass at St. Teresita and branded the incident as ''the worst attack on the church in 45 years.'' Conrado said his bishop was demanding answers from state authorities.

García later told The Associated Press that police damaged the church but did not enter the sanctuary itself, instead staying on the grounds. ''It is lamentable that these events happened; they should not have occurred,'' he was quoted as saying.

Officials at church headquarters in Havana declined to comment. The Cuban Catholic Bishops Conference called it an unprecedented event, the AFP news agency reported.

''I am 64 years old and since I've had use of my senses, I cannot recall a case like this,'' said Elizardo Sánchez, a dissident leader in Havana. ``Security had hours to plan it, so it makes you think it was premeditated. Nobody knows if they had a green light from the central government. In Cuba, there are no coincidences.'''


Witnesses said 18 people were arrested, and one woman was released after eight hours, because she was lactating.

''They said we were CIA and mercenaries,'' said Tatiana López Blanco, the Cuban Youth For Democracy Movement member who was released at 2 a.m. ``I never thought I would see such a thing in a house of God.''

The Catholic church has had a complex relationship with the Cuban government, which initially banned practicing Catholics from joining the Communist Party and nationalized parochial schools. It was not until the 1990s that priests such as Conrado began speaking out publicly.

Sánchez said the spike in detentions appears to be aimed at keeping dissidents from celebrating International Human Rights Day, which is Monday. The government, he said, has noticed the increasing numbers of young people joining opposition groups.


More than 100 young adults have been arrested in the past month alone, Sánchez said.

Another handful of students was expelled from two Santiago universities this fall after the group protested the lack of faculty response to a student's rape, activists said.

''You didn't see that even three years ago,'' Sánchez said. ``This is a very new phenomenon. This year the participation of young people has been much more marked than ever before.''


© 2007 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved., Cuba's defense minister and longtime
number two.