Maggie Alarcón

Archive for 2012|Yearly archive page

Adiós para un Gentil Hombre

In Asamblea Nacional/National Assembly, CAFE, Cuba, Poesía, US on December 27, 2012 at 11:21 am

“Pobre de la nación que sacrifique sus poetas”


“Ya va para más de 40 años que te metiste debajo de la piel y ahí has seguido, convertido en un segmento muy importante de la biografía, alimentando ideales que nunca desfallecieron.” Así le digo a un amigo, muy especial, que se conoce tanto de la historia que por momentos da miedo.

No se trata de cuanto sabes, ni de tus habilidades oratorias, es más profundo, es honestidad, respeto a ti mismo, es inteligencia y conocimiento, es educación y amabilidad. Es dejar en otros las semillas para ser mejores. Es hacer de la vida poesía.

La lealtad al ideal que manifiestas con la consecuencia del pensamiento, del sentimiento de amor. Es el tiempo dedicado a un mundo mejor, ese que sabes posible ese que nos regalas con cada estrofa de tu verso de vida.

Es tu dedicación a que los humanos se entiendan mejor, a que las exigencias políticas nunca se impongan sobre las necesidades de tu pueblo, pueblo que se extiende más allá de frontera geográfica, política o ideológica.

Tantas veces apartado, tantas veces taciturno, tantas veces en aparente “ausencia” y tantas veces siempre presente para lo que vale, dejando la huella de quien marca la diferencia.

Tus textos, pocos firmados por ti, son siempre accesibles, aclaratorios. Nunca tu genialidad fue barrera, impedimento. Te entiende el académico y el leñador. Eres pueblo, no casta. Escucharte siempre un privilegio. Compartir contigo y otros nunca bien ponderados una sobremesa, una dicha que nos acompañará siempre.

No importa de qué lado del surco estemos, si nos miramos de frente.

´Desnudos vinimos al mundo y desnudos nos vamos de él,´ tu credo siempre, paradoja entonces que nos vistas con sabiduría, con gracia; nos arropes con la coraza que protege y guía, donde quiera que estemos,  donde quiera que estés.

No es una despedida. Sólo un abrazo más desde esta distancia.

A walk in the Park

In Asamblea Nacional/National Assembly, Blockade, CAFE, Cuban 5, Cuban Embargo, US on December 17, 2012 at 2:50 pm



Margarita Alarcón Perea


I loved growing up in New York City. Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island each borough has its own appeal. You didn’t even have to leave the island to enjoy life at the fullest and for very little money.

My mother used to take me to Little Italy for fresh canolli and then expect me not to be fat. She would romp around with me over on the Lower East Side hunting for good material to go and sew in Queens over at a fiends home.

Central Park was the place to ride a bike in the spring and summer on Sundays and Shakespeare in the Park was the way to end the days, learning about Tragedy and Comedy and Love through the minds and the voices of some of the greats, was the main course after throwing a Frisbee all afternoon and stuffing our faces with the best hot dogs in town.

School was easy. It was a drive down the FDR in the morning and a stay by the water. It was a time where gum and Marlboros were the forbidden fruits at UNIS (our Alma Mater back then). Where running in the halls was a mayor “no, no” and water fights in the stairwell could get you expelled. Metal detectors weren’t  part of the scenario back then. Ironically, Punk Rock and the rise of Heavy Metal were.

I still miss those days and had always been dreaming of someday having a child and being able to have him or her relive my life back then.

I have the child, he is in grade school. He lives with me here in Havana. I tell him about UNIS, and Central Park, and Shakespeare and the hot dogs on 5th Avenue. He wants to visit my home town, I think he somehow knows how close the City is to me. What he doesn’t know is that my dream of having him there is slowly slipping away.

Cuba is a place full of problems and troubles. It is a small island with hardly any natural resources to speak of. It has been enduring a fifty year old economic blockade which has made life very difficult for everyone on the island. Especially children. Schools don’t have the best food for lunch and snacks, teachers often have to create impromptu teaching materials, uniforms don’t come easy. Even a pencil can be a thing to worry about. The school buildings are in much decay for the most part. At times, playing in the yard can be more of an obstacle race against holes and torn down fences than anything else.

It is also a country where children and Jose Martí are taken very seriously. Marti once said that children were born to be happy, and in Cuba this is a maximum that at times can be almost infuriating. You can’t scold your child on the street without expecting to someone to come up to you and softly intervene, at times simply hoping that your anger will subside with the tone of the persons voice. Kids are often seen running amok anywhere in town and far from being reprimanded, someone will always be at hand to say, “forgive them, they are young!”

Yet,  it is still a country where many parents fear for how well they are feeding their children, how good an education they may be getting, how far in the world they will actually go.

For all of the troubles we go through, there is one thing we have as a guarantee: Cuban mothers will never ever have to go through what those families in Newtown Connecticut are going to have to deal with.

I’m not sure how much Cuba could teach the US on this and other issues, but something tells me there are more cards on the table than meets the eye.

Gross Accepted Project in Cuba Without Knowing Risks, Lawyer Says

In ACLU, Alan Gross, Blockade, Cuba/US, Cuban 5, US on December 17, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Risky business…

By Maria Peña WASHINGTON –

The U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross, a prisoner in Cuban since 2009, was no James Bond, just someone who undertook a project without knowing what the risks were, but convinced that if any problems should arise, the United States and the company that contracted him would come to his aid, his lawyer, Scott Gilbert, told Efe. Now 63, Gross was detained in Havana three years ago in possession of satellite communications equipment he was planning to distribute among Cuba’s Jewish community under a contract with a firm hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Gross and his wife Judy filed a $60 million lawsuit last month against USAID and contractor DAI for allegedly failing to inform Alan of the risks associated with the mission or provide him with protection.

―The State Department has said publicly in the press that they knew that Alan was being sent to Cuba with devices that were illegal in Cuba … how can the U.S. government send a civilian to Cuba knowing that?‖ Gilbert said during an extensive interview at the offices of his Washington law firm.

Havana says Gross was illegally aiding dissidents and inciting subversion on the Communist-ruled island. Last August, Cuba’s highest court upheld the 15-year jail sentence imposed on the American five months earlier. U.S. officials and the Gross family demand his unconditional release, insisting that Gross did nothing wrong and is a humanitarian worker dedicated to Jewish causes.

Gross made five trips in 2009 – he was arrested during the last one on Dec. 3 – and according to the lawsuit, in his reports on the third and fourth trips he had started sounding the alarm about what a high-risk mission this was. ―I can tell you categorically that Alan Gross did not expect to be apprehended or detained in Cuba or spend one night in custody,‖ Gilbert said. ―For Alan, it’s been a Kafka-like experience every step of the way.‖ ―When Alan raised concerns about the trips they essentially said to him either you finish this project or we’ll find somebody else to do it,‖ the Gross family attorney said. ―Alan believed they (USAID) were looking out for him and that they would never let him get into a situation where direct harm would come to him,‖ Gilbert added. ―I believe that Alan is a very idealistic individual, idealistic to the point of being even potentially somewhat naive,‖ the lawyer said, insisting that ―USAID and DAI never should have approved this project in the first place.‖ ―

They violated their duties to Alan (and) their own rules,‖ Gilbert said of the defendants in the suit. In parallel to the lawsuit, another Gross attorney, Jared Genser, is collaborating with public relations efforts and a campaign to pressure the U.S. and Cuba to sit down and negotiate a solution. The Gross family is asking President Barack Obama to designate a special envoy with full authority to negotiate with Cuba. EFE

A Deal for Alan Gross?

In Alan Gross, CAFE, Cuban 5, Politics on December 14, 2012 at 11:32 am

A prisoner of Cold War politics ponders his fate.


By R.M. Schneiderman

Originally published in The Daily Beast

After Barack Obama emerged victorious from his bruising reelection campaign, perhaps no one—save the president himself—was more relieved than Alan Gross, a 63-year-old development worker serving a 15-year prison sentence in Havana on charges of trying to undermine the Cuban state. Gross, a former Obama campaign volunteer, filled out his absentee ballot from inside the prison hospital where he often passes his time watching Cuban baseball on television. His hope: with the election now over, the U.S. can negotiate with the Cuban government to get him out of prison.

Ever since Gross was arrested three years ago at a Havana hotel, analysts say talks between the two countries have been mired in Cold War politics. From the beginning, the U.S. government has said that Gross was merely trying to improve Internet access for Cuban Jews. In reality, Gross was setting up wireless networks outside the government’s control as part of a provocative program by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Its aim: to promote democracy and weaken the iron grip of the communist state. Taking part in these programs is illegal on the island, yet the Cuban court made bombastic claims, and Gross’s imprisonment has been denounced as “arbitrary” in a U.N. ruling to be released later this month.

Havana disputes the U.N. ruling and is still upset about USAID’s democracy programs, but Cuban officials have reportedly said they know that Gross was not a spy and are willing to work out a deal to let him go. For more than a year now, Havana has been hinting at a tacit trade: Alan Gross for the Cuban Five, a group of intelligence agents imprisoned in the States for conspiracy to commit espionage, mostly on anti-Castro groups in Florida. With the election now behind him, Obama has some leeway, but a deal remains politically tricky. It could become more difficult if Sen. John Kerry joins the cabinet, thereby elevating Sen. Robert Menendez, a Cuba hardliner, to head the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Menendez would have considerable clout in blocking the administration’s efforts to change policy towards Cuba,” said Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba analyst at the National Security Archive, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit.

In the meantime, the Gross family remains frustrated. Last month, they filed a $60 million lawsuit against USAID and Development Alternatives, the firm that hired Gross. The complaint says he received inadequate warning about the dangers of his mission, and lacked proper counterintelligence training to prepare him for dealing with the Cuban police state. USAID would not comment on the lawsuit, and Development Alternatives said it was “disappointed” by it. In the three years since he’s been in jail, the once jovial and portly Gross has lost more than 100 pounds and has become consumed by his captivity. His elderly mother and daughter have developed cancer, and in a letter to Newsweek, Gross said both sides in this Cold War conflict appear to be blowing smoke. “Either way,” he wrote, “smoking is hazardous to my health.”

R.M. Schneiderman is a writer and reporter for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. He has previously worked for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, ESPN the Magazine, and The Tokyo Shimbun.

The Age of Aquarius

In ACLU, Alan Gross, Asamblea Nacional/National Assembly, Blockade, CAFE, Cuba, Cuba/US, Cuban 5, Politics, US on December 12, 2012 at 3:00 pm


Margarita Alarcón Perea

Growing up in the US during one of the most radical times in the history of that great nation was a privilege that I nurture every day.

Being too young to actually partake in any of the political activities and given my circumstance as a diplomat I had to consign myself to listening and watching. It’s only been in the last 15 years or so that I have been able to feed from the many conversations I witnessed as a child not knowing that I was a spectator to a part of history that would accompany me forever.

Hearing about the Viet Nam war and President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is not the same as actually being able to form an educated opinion on the topic, but it did somehow instill in me a feeling of “adulthood” as I was growing into adolescence.

I call us, “the children of” the Age of Aquarius generation. We weren’t blessed to be players in that radical era, but its vivacious character inevitably imbedded, much like mother’s milk, a sense of belonging that it has become an essential characteristic of my generation´s response and reaction to life.

I believe that it is due to this that my generation is one that now feels the need to stand up for a better world on all levels. We are the inheritors of those who started a struggle that continues today.

Last month, a person from North Carolina began an online campaign to present President Obama with a petition to normalize relations with Cuba. The White House has put it on its web site. It asks the US government to open dialogue with Cuba for the release of Alan Gross.

Your signature is needed before December 30th.

The Petition reads:

We Petition the Obama Administration to: Open an honest dialogue with the Cuban government to secure the release of American operative Alan Gross. Include potential prisoner exchanges, admissions of wrongdoing, drop of the embargo as incentives to bring this man home. His employer owes it to him.

It relates to the children of the Age of Aquarius because we are all victims of the wrong doing between Cuba and the United States over the past half century.

It is not only in our best interest, it is our responsibility to take action and show our love through our struggle, for a better more just world.

American jailed in Cuba wants US to sign ‘non-belligerency pact’ to speed release

In Alan Gross, CAFE, Cuba, Cuba/US, Cuban 5, US on December 3, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Peter Kornbluh , right, stands with Alan Gross, in a picture taken on Kornbluh’s iPhone by a guard during his visit to the Havana prison where Gross is being held.

By Michael Isikoff
NBC News


HAVANA, Cuba — Three years after he was arrested in Havana, jailed American contractor Alan Gross is asking the U.S. government to sign a “non-belligerency pact” with Cuba as a first step toward negotiating his release, according to a Cuba policy analyst who just visited him.

Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba specialist at the National Security Archives, a nonprofit research center in Washington, met with Gross for four hours on Wednesday at the military hospital in Havana where the contractor is being held. He said Gross appeared “extremely thin” — he has lost over 100 pounds since his arrest —and dispirited.

“He’s angry, he’s frustrated, he’s dejected — and he wants his own government to step up” and negotiate, said Kornbluh. “His message is that the United States and Cuba have to sit down and have a dialogue without preconditions. … He told me that the first meeting should result in a non-belligerency pact being signed between the United States and Cuba.”

Gross’ comments appear to represent a new tack in an aggressive public relations campaign to win his freedom. His supporters have planned a candlelight vigil outside the Cuban interests section in Washington D.C., on Sunday and the U.S. Senate is poised to take up a resolution Monday demanding his release, Gross’ wife, Judy, has also become increasingly critical of the U.S. government for not doing more to demand that her 63-year-old husband be allowed to return home.

Jose Luis Magana / AP

Judy Gross at her home in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 29.

“He feels like a soldier in the field left to die,” she said at a press conference in Washington last week.

Gross, who worked for an Agency for International Development contractor, was arrested by the Cubans on Dec. 3, 2009, and accused of smuggling sophisticated satellite and other telecommunications equipment into  the country to give to the island’s tiny Jewish community. Gross has said he was only trying to increase Internet access  in Cuba. But he was convicted by a Cuban court in March of last year for crimes “against the independence and territorial integrity of the state” and sentenced to 15 years.

Last month, Gross and his wife filed a $60 million lawsuit against the U.S. government and the contractor he was working for, Development Alternatives, charging he was used as a “pawn” in a U.S. government program to change the Castro regime and never advised about the dangers he faced bringing high tech satellite transmission equipment into Cuba. (The State Department, of which AID is a part and which has repeatedly called for Gross’ release, declined comment. Development Alternatives has released a statement saying it has “no higher priority” than bringing Gross home.)

Kornbluh, who has advocated closer U.S.-Cuba dialogue, was in Havana last week to attend a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. He was granted permission to visit Gross by Cuban officials. (The Cubans so far have denied all news media requests to meet with him.) He said Gross was most upset about being unable to return home to see members of his family who are ill, especially his 90-year-old mother in Texas who has cancer.

Keystone / Getty Images

Ever since U.S.-backed Cuban President Fulgencio Batista was forced from power by rebels led by Fidel Castro in 1958, the relationship between the two nations has been fraught with difficulties.

“He really wants to see his mother, who is quite old and infirm,” said Kornbluh. When Kornbluh had his photo taken with Gross, the contractor held up a photo that read: “Hi Mom.” When he asked Gross what he wanted to get out of the lawsuit, the contractor replied: “I want to see my wife and I want to see my mother.”

To accomplish that, Gross is seeking to nudge the Obama administration, according to Kornbluh. Gross knows that his freedom “is going to depend on his government negotiating in good faith with the Cubans,” said Kornbluh. “His message to Barack Obama is: I’m fired up and ready to go. Where are you at this moment?”

Michael Isikoff is NBC News’ national investigative correspondent; NBC News producer Mary Murray also contributed to this report.

Cuba pushes swap: its spies jailed in US for American contractor held in Havana

In Alan Gross, Asamblea Nacional/National Assembly, Blockade, CAFE, Cuba/US, Cuban 5, Israel, Politics, US on December 3, 2012 at 12:06 pm
/Photo Credit: Roberto León, NBC News

A billboard in Cuba shows the Cuban Five — Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, and René González.

By Michael Isikoff
NBC News

From NBC

HAVANA, Cuba — It seems straight out of a Cold War spy movie. A group of Cuban undercover agents sneak into the U.S. and set up a secret pro-Castro network in south Florida — receiving instructions in code through late night radio transmissions from handlers in Havana. But the FBI gets wind, tails the agents, intercepts their messages and busts them, sending the agents off to federal prison, their ringleader for life.

Today, the story of those spies — called La Red Avispa, or the Wasp Network — rolled up by the feds 14 years ago is barely known in the United States. But its members, now  known as the Cuban Five, are national heroes in Cuba — the subjects of mass demonstrations, their pictures on billboards and  posters – and their petitions for freedom are championed around the world by Nobel Prize winners, celebrities like Danny Glover, even former President Jimmy Carter.

And they may now prove key to the tense impasse between Havana and Washington over the fate of jailed American contractor Alan Gross, arrested three years ago Monday for distributing sophisticated satellite equipment to Cuba’s tiny Jewish community and later sentenced to 15 years in prison for “acts against the independence and/or territorial integrity of the state.” (Gross says he was only bringing Internet access to Cuba.)

While the U.S. is demanding that Cuba release Gross, who visitors say is angry and frail, having lost 110 pounds in prison, Cuban officials say they are willing to do so only if President Barack Obama will  release the Cuban agents.

“I understand what Mr. Gross is going through,” Gerardo Hernandez, 47, the Cuban Five ringleader, said in an exclusive interview with NBC News in October at his current home –a federal prison outside Victorville, Calif. “I understand his sufferings and that of his family. … If an agreement can be reached, to stop the sufferings of six families, then I welcome it.”

The idea of a swap — the release of Gross for Hernandez and his confederates among the Cuban Five — faces legal and political hurdles.

An Obama administration official told NBC News that the “imprisonment of Alan Gross, an international development worker, is not comparable in any way to that of the five Cuban agents,” noting that the Cubans were afforded their “due process rights” and convicted of serious crimes.

Cuban Five ringleader Gerardo Hernandez

Members of Congress have denounced Cuba for holding Gross “hostage” to the release of the Cuban Five. “The Castro regime has no regard for human rights or international law,” said Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and frequent critic of the Castro regime. “The Cuba Five should serve their sentences for spying.”

And Hernandez, who sports a trim goatee and displays a hearty laugh despite 14 years in prison,  might not make the ideal candidate for a pardon or commutation from Obama — a precondition for a swap to take place. Asked if he regretted any of his actions, he smiled and said,  “I regret that I got caught.” In a follow up phone interview, Hernandez readily acknowledged that “we violated some U.S. laws” — mainly failing to register as foreign agents with the U.S. Justice Department. “We came here with fake passports. Fake identities.”  But, he added, “We act out of necessity.”

As Hernandez and Cuban officials tell it, the Cuban Five was not sent to spy on the U.S. government. In fact, the members weren’t accused of stealing any U.S. secrets (although they were convicted of conducting surveillance of U.S. military bases.) Instead, the mission of the Wasp Network, they say, was to infiltrate  anti-Castro exile groups in South Florida who Havana suspected of plotting terrorist attacks inside Cuba. Among those attacks: the notorious bombing of Cubana Flight 455 over the Caribbean in 1976, killing 73 passengers (including teenage members of a Cuban  national fencing team)  as  well as a string of hotel bombings in Havana in  1997 that killed an Italian businessman and were believed to have been aimed at disrupting Cuba’s nascent tourist industry.

“Cuba doesn’t have drones to neutralize the terrorists abroad,” said Hernandez. “They need to send people to gather information and protect the Cuban people from these terrorist actions. … I think it’s the same feeling that Americans have that defend their country and love their country when they go to infiltrate al-Qaida and send information here to avoid the terrorist acts. And the U.S. has to understand that Cuba has been involved in the war against terrorism for 50 years.”

Alan Gross in an undated family photo, left, and in 2012, after losing 110 pounds while imprisoned in Cuba.

While admitting his role in spying on anti-Castro exiles — “I would do it again,” he said — Hernandez adamantly denies the most serious charge against him: conspiracy to commit murder. His conviction on that count, which has earned him a life sentence, was based on his alleged complicity in the February 1996 shoot-down by a Cuban fighter jet of two Cessna planes flown by members of the Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue, killing four men.

The anti-Castro group had provoked Cuba by dropping anti-government leaflets over Havana. At the trial of the Cuban Five, prosecutors introduced messages between Hernandez and his controllers in Havana suggesting he had prior knowledge of the shoot-down. But Hernandez insists that prosecutors misinterpreted the messages and he knew nothing that wasn’t already public.

“No, sir, absolutely not,” Hernandez replied when asked if he knew in advance about the incident. “All I knew was what everybody knew: that Brothers to the Rescue through the years has violated many times Cuban air space, that there have been 16 diplomatic notes from Cuba complaining over that situation.”


/Photo Credit: Roberto León, NBC News

Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly

Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba’s National Assembly (the Parliament) and a longtime Castro confidante, said this week in Havana that “the Cuban government publicly, front page in our papers, months before that incident had warned that we are not going to allow any more intrusions into our air space. … The order, the decision (to shoot down the planes) came from the highest level. Fidel Castro himself had said that publicly, that he was responsible for that decision.”

U.S. Appeals Court Judge Phyllis Kravitch of Atlanta concluded in 2008 that prosecutors never proved their case tying Hernandez to a plot to shoot down the planes, but she was outvoted two to one and his conviction on the murder conspiracy charge was upheld. Now Hernandez and his lawyers are appealing on another ground: that hundreds of thousands of dollars in secret  U.S. government payments to anti-Castro journalists in Miami — newly discovered through Freedom of Information Act requests — inflamed the Miami community against the Cuban Five and made it impossible for them for them to get a fair trial. The payments were mostly made for appearances on Radio Marti, a TV and radio operation funded by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent agency that oversees international broadcasting sponsored by the U.S. government.

In court papers, lawyers for the Cuban Five have cited articles by some of the journalists, including one that denounced the “genocidal character” of Castro’s regime and another that speculated that the real purpose of the Wasp Network was to introduce “chemical or bacteriological weapons” into south Florida. “”his information was spread throughout the Miami area and helped inflame the community against these guys,” said Martin Garbus, Hernandez’ lawyer. “It was total madness. … When the case was brought, the anti-Castro feeling in the Miami area was at a fevered pitch.”

Keystone / Getty Images

Ever since U.S.-backed Cuban President Fulgencio Batista was forced from power by rebels led by Fidel Castro in 1958, the relationship between the two nations has been fraught with difficulties.

U.S. prosecutors dismiss as “implausible” and “unfounded” the idea that the Radio Marti payments were part of a U.S. government effort to influence the jury in the Cuban Five case.

“The jury (in the case) was carefully selected, following a searching voir dire (jury selection process) that the appellate court deemed a high model for a high-profile case, and that the trial comported with the highest standards for fairness and professionalism,” wrote Caroline Heck Miller, an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami, in a court filing in July asking a judge to reject Hernandez’ motion for a hearing into the payments to the journalists. She also noted, as federal prosecutors have repeatedly done when the issue has come up, that “no Cuban-Americans – the audience (Hernandez) hypothesizes as the target of the government campaign he imagines — served on the jury.”

Unless Hernandez can somehow persuade a court to reopen his case  – or barring a prisoner swap with Gross — he would seem to have few options.

Rene Gonzalez, another member of the Cuban Five who was not convicted of the conspiracy-to-commit-murder charge, was released from federal prison on probation late last year, but has not yet been allowed to return home to Cuba to live.


/Photo Credit: Roberto León,  NBC News

Adriana Perez, wife of imprisoned Cuban agent, Gerardo Hernandez

The Cubans are doing their best to ratchet up the pressure. Just as Judy Gross has launched a public relations campaign in the United States to free her husband, appearing at a National Press Club press conference on Friday, this week the Cubans made Hernandez wife, Adriana, available for an interview with NBC News. A chemist in the food industry in Havana, she wept as she described the pain of separation from her husband — and how it has left her unable to bear children. “Every detail, every single moment reminds me of him,” she said. “I believe there are many people in the U.S. and the American people as a whole, who could convey to President Obama that there is a woman here suffering.”

Hernandez, too, says missing his wife is the hardest part of his life in prison. And he has few illusions about his prospects of being freed. “The only thing I know for sure with me is that I have two life sentences and live with that every day,” he said. “And to keep your sanity and your mind, you have to be realistic. But I would be dishonest to say that I don’t have hope.”

Michael Isikoff is NBC News’ national investigative correspondent; NBC News Producer Mary Murray also contributed to this report.

The Latin American Gorilla

In Blockade, CAFE, Cuba, Cuba/US, Economics, Politics on November 21, 2012 at 5:46 am


By Arturo Lopez-Levy

Originally in Foreign Policy in Focus


It has become commonplace to say that Latin America was absent from the 2012 election campaign in the United States. It is understandable, because the region was mentioned only once in the candidates’ foreign policy debate (by Governor Romney, when he referred to the potential of free-trade agreements in the hemisphere), and it got almost no attention in campaign speeches.

However, as with much conventional wisdom, the devil is in the definitions. If Latin America’s impact on U.S. politics is viewed in terms of relations between governments, the statement is correct; if, on the other hand, the concept includes the public, then the region was present like never before in the elections.

It is time to think about Latin American policy within a broader framework than old-fashioned nationalism. The political borders of transnational societies in the United States and the rest of the hemisphere have little to do with their legal boundaries. Latin America and the United States do not start or end with the Rio Grande or the Caribbean Sea. With their many, non-exclusive identities, Latin American and Caribbean Diaspora populations are increasingly important in the United States and in their home countries. The rigid divide between “Latin America” and the United States needs to be revised.

A New Calculus

It is symptomatic that oft-proposed solutions to the most emblematic problems of inter-hemispheric relations (free trade, energy, immigration, organized crime, and Cuba) have been dependent on the balance of power in American domestic politics. Insofar as the vote of important U.S. Latino groups changed those political calculations, Latin America’s role in the U.S. elections was extremely important. The emerging dynamic could have a major impact on U.S. policy toward the region.

By casting 71 percent of their votes for President Obama, few electoral blocs can claim more credit for Barack Obama’s reelection than Latinos. This is the highest percentage of ballots Latinos have cast for a Democratic candidate since 1996, when Bill Clinton got 72 percent. Had Romney managed to match George W. Bush’s 40-percent showing among Hispanics, he probably would be the president-elect today. Even more painful for the Republicans, Latinos are now 10 percent of the electorate and rising.

But the Republicans’ problem with the Latino electorate is not just demographic; it is first and foremost ideological. Several Republican leaders made offensive statements on the immigration issue. For the rest of his life, Romney will regret his strident support of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, his promise to veto the Dream Act, and his “self-deportation” proposal for undocumented immigrants. Although Latino voters have numerous concerns—often very similar to those of the average voter—their sensitivity to the immigration issue is unique. They have common connections and histories with the immigrant population and the native countries of their social group. The discriminatory statements of conservative politicians against minorities, especially Hispanics, created a moral pressure within Latino communities to vote.

MSNBC’s Steve Schmidt, who directed Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, summed up the 2012 message for the Republican Party: if it does not change its attitude toward the country’s new demographic reality, “it may be left wandering in the dark for a generation.”

The Democrats cannot take the Latino vote for granted. Before this past summer, when the president signed the executive order authorizing temporary residence for more than 1 million young immigrants, Obama’s approval rating among Latinos had fallen significantly to below 50 percent. Accordingly, immigration reform is now at the top of the national agenda.

If the Romney campaign’s movement toward the center after the first presidential debate works as a prelude to a more general Republican repositioning, then the possibility of immigration reform getting passed in Congress is greater. The popularity of a reelected president tends to increase in the first year of the second term, providing Obama with more political capital. Additionally, the next discussion of immigration reform will occur in the context of modest Democratic gains in both houses of Congress, and a Republican Party that has been criticized for obstructionism, bias, and a resistance to compromise.

Few political acts would have a greater effect on U.S.-Latin American relations than the naturalization of millions of Hispanics over the next decade. President Obama announced that immigration reform would be a legislative priority in his second term during the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena. It is not only a domestic but a foreign policy promise. The countries that have the largest number of undocumented immigrants in the United States are the same ones that have free-trade agreements: Mexico, Central America, and Colombia. These are also the countries with the greatest need for a coordinated effort against organized crime and drug and arms trafficking.

Establishing a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants would make border control more manageable, and it would also lead to greater demand for the legal immigration of families and circular movement between the United States and immigrants’ countries of origin. Comprehensive U.S. immigration reform would have a very significant positive impact on tourism, remittances, investment, and the voting preferences of expatriates from those countries.

Room to Maneuver on Cuba?

Another example of how changes in U.S. Latino groups can change the context of policymaking occurred in Cuban-American Miami. For years, Cuban-Americans have voted Republican for president and sent to Congress pro-embargo legislators like Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, who oppose Cuban-American travel to the island, and Senator Marco Rubio, who has filibustered presidential nominations in retaliation for alleged “abuse” of people-to-people travel.

But Obama won a record share of the Cuban-American vote (47percent to Romney’s 48 percent), showing the power of a new bloc of Cubans consisting both of recent immigrants and Americans of more distant Cuban descent. This bloc rejected the McCarthyist propaganda of the pro-embargo right-wing forces, enabling the president to campaign on more liberal U.S. policies toward the island.

For the first time, the election resulted in victories for candidates favorable to greater contact between the Cuban-American community and the island. In one closely contested House race, Democrat Joe García defeated Republican Rep. David Rivera, one of the most fervent supporters of the embargo. The evolution of García, a former director of the Cuban American National Foundation who now supports Cuban-American cultural exchanges, is evidence of the moderation now prevailing among a major component of the Cuban-American elite.

The same tendency was seen in the election to the Florida state legislature of José Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat who supports exchanges between the Cuban-American community and the island. Garcia will enter the House just as Rep. Ros-Lehtinen leaves the chairmanship of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, in line with the Republican caucus’s term limits.

Outside of Florida, the elections had ambiguous results. In Texas, voters elected Republican Ted Cruz, a Cuban American who will join fellow embargo supporters Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) in the Senate. On the Cuba issue, however, Cruz’s victory is offset by that of Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, who has been the most consistent anti-embargo voice in the U.S. House in the past decade.

All told, Obama owes nothing to the pro-embargo lobbyists who accused his administration of “unilateral appeasement” towards Havana and paid for spurious campaign ads connecting the president with Raul Castro’s daughter and Hugo Chavez. Now it’s payback time. Anti-embargo groups should work to ensure that the virtuous cycle represented by increased travel and the creation of communities who are interested in new ties with Cuba can continue for four more years.

The messages that have been sent out from a more plural Miami, combined with greater flexibility in Obama’s second term, offer the president more maneuvering room for a rational treatment of the Cuba issue. Taking Cuba off the State Department list of terrorist countries would be a symbolic first step in the right direction.

Cuba, as the rest of Latin America, was not absent from the election; the voters put it into play.

Arturo Lopez-Levy is a PhD Candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver.

You can follow him on Twitter @turylevy.


A Glimmer of Hope Obama, Cuba and United States

In Alan Gross, Blockade, CAFE, Cuba, Cuba/US, Cuban 5, Miami/Cuba, Politics, US on November 14, 2012 at 11:27 am
 By Benjamin Willis
Originally published in CAFEPROCUBA

Although most progressives would agree that last Tuesday’s elections did little to resolve the overwhelming list of challenges that faces our nation there is a glimmer of hope that the United States is inevitably moving towards a policy of engagement and normalization with Cuba.  Barack Obama and the Democratic party showed that they were able to listen to voices within the Cuban American community crying out for a new stance towards the island of their families and heritage over the din of distorted hysteria projected by the historical Cuban exile community of southern Florida. As a result, Obama took a record amount of the Cuban American votes in Miami-Dade County and Democrat Joe Garcia easily beat the hapless Republican incumbent David Rivera for Florida’s 26th congressional district.

These victories for candidates who have demonstrated a clear intention to work towards a more “normal” policy with Cuba reflect the desire for both political parties to acknowledge the raw statistics of public opinion polls in both Florida and across the United States concerning current policy towards Cuba. For decades voters flocked to Republican politicians who were willing to cozy up to criminals such as Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles in order to project a hard-line approach. Now, it seems as though the Cuban Americans of Miami are abandoning their blind support for the policy of economic strangulation that is the United States embargo towards Cuba.

Outside of Florida, gains in the senate by Democrats in races that were all but gift-wrapped for the Republicans just three months ago bode well for what will eventually be a long slog through both houses in order to finally dismantle the Helms-Burton Act, the codification of the odious embargo that was universally denounced in the UN this past Tuesday, November 13th.

Obama and his legacy

For the short term, an Obama re-election may be exactly what proponents of engagement with Cuba need. Even though it will take a persistent campaign designed to eventually repeal Helms-Burton there are several things that Obama can do to improve our relations with the island through either executive order or through good old-fashioned diplomacy.

If Obama could have run on his record of pursuing a different policy with Cuba he might have been able to convince even more Americans to vote for him.  In contrast to the empty promises he gave his supporters concerning tackling global-warming, pursuing peace, and rebuilding America’s manufacturing base with “green” jobs, his success at re-drawing the “line in the sand” between the U.S. and Cuba has been a positive step towards redefining America’s policy towards the communist nation.

Obama’s decision to scrap George W. Bush’s policies of allowing Cuban Americans to travel to the island only once every three years was an easy, yet necessary step.  He changed regulations in favor for open travel to the island by Cuban Americans in 2009. Remittances were also allowed to be sent and have helped family members on the island to set up private businesses in Cuba’s nascent mixed economy that has resulted from the economic reforms that the Cuban government has implemented in the past few years.  All of these decisions have been applauded throughout the Cuban American community.  Unfortunately, Cuban Americans have had to defend these inalienable rights, not privileges, because elected politicians from their own community like David Rivera, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Marco Rubio have attacked such actions as “appeasement”.  Their visceral hate for the Castros has been put in front of the rights of their own constituents to be able to reconnect with family members and their own heritage and culture.

Obama not only helped to open travel for Cuban Americans but also re-implemented the “people-to-people” policy in 2011 that allows for special licenses to be granted to any American citizens in order to visit Cuba for academic, cultural, religious, and some commercial endeavors.  Such licenses allow for American citizens to see first-hand the realities of Cuba that often don’t mesh with the spurious claims of Marco Rubio and his cohorts.

When the issuance or renewal of said licenses were halted in August there was a warranted amount of skepticism that this program would not be continued until after the election. Surprisingly, the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Accounts Control (OFAC) began issuing licenses in October. In previous years such a gesture would be seized upon by the Cuban exile community of Miami and magnified into scandalous proportions. This was not the case and Obama obviously reaped the benefits of not kowtowing to such extremists in this election.

Cynics will point out that Obama has disappointed in almost every way possible and that he is not interested in implementing real change in U.S. foreign policy. As far as Cuba is concerned, he may have no choice. This year’s Summit of the America’s the POTUS found out exactly how frustrated the rest of the hemisphere is with this nation, especially in regards to our refusal to recognize Cuba’s rightful participation in the summit. Several nations have vowed to boycott any further summits until the issue of Cuba is addressed. The rest of Latin America looks upon the U.S. with resentment because of decades of imposed colonial imperialism and our continued hostility towards Cuba is just another reminder to all Latin Americans of our continued arrogance and hubris.

Obama and the American political class need to see the writing on the wall. No positive result can come from continually denying Cuba its proper place at the international table.  Engagement with Cuba is simply better business than Uncle Sam’s archaic embargo and Obama is just pragmatic enough to understand this. There are some key issues that need to be addressed and proponents of normalization hope the president acts swiftly.

First, Cuba’s placement on the State Sponsors of Terrorism is unnecessary and Obama could change that.  The designation of Cuba as a country with a profile that fits this description was always dubious. Cuba exported revolution, not terrorism, and it has been almost thirty years since Cuban trained revolutionary forces were inflicting heavy damages on U.S.-backed mercenary forces in Africa, Nicaragua, and other areas of conflict during the Cold War. At no point did these forces use tactics that could be construed as terrorism.

Hardliners point to Cuba’s asylum to members of the FARC and ETA as examples of aiding and abetting terrorists, even though these organizations designation as terrorists obfuscates the truth about either movement. The Basque separatists are actually there at the urging of the Spanish government and the officials of the FARC and Columbian government have agreed to meet for the first formal talks in ten years in La Habana later this week after preliminary talks in Norway in October.

What kind of State Sponsor of Terror nation holds peace negotiations?

Cuba’s continued appearance on this list trivializes the very real threats of terrorism that our nation faces and negates the opportunity for the U.S. and Cuba to cooperate on important matters of regional security that correspond to both nations.

Secondly, Obama could dramatically open up diplomatic ties between the two countries.  Two major cases have been obstacles that have stood in the way of progress between the two nations.

One is Alan Gross. The other is the Cuban five.

While there are calls for a direct exchange between the two parties for these prisoners the best course of action would be to solve either case according to its own merits.  In both cases an increased amount of diplomacy will be needed and Obama could order a high level official to meet with representatives of the Cuban government in order to facilitate some end to the impasse that these cases have caused. Until now, Senators, congressmen, and civil servants with years of negotiating, like Bill Richardson, have been sent to La Habana. It’s time for the Secretary of State, whomever that may be, to make a historical trip and see if they can earn their paycheck.

This past week it was announced that Obama would be visiting Myanmar. The list of human rights abuses by the leaders of that nation makes Cuba look like Sweden. There is no excuse for not reaching out to a country like Cuba if we are planning on forgiving Myanmar for its sins long enough to visit them.

Thirdly, a broader interpretation of “people-to-people” licenses will be the best way for Americans to see for themselves that we have nothing to fear from the Cubans and everything to gain from a reciprocal relation with the island. The travel ban, or more precisely, the violation of the fundamental constitutional right of Americans to travel, is something that the president can ease if not completely do away with.  Cuba has recently made bold reforms in immigration laws that were designed to avoid “brain drain” during the Cold War. Gone are the requisite for an exit visa and other laws that made leaving Cuba almost impossible. Now, the only restriction for travel is that of the United States towards its own citizens.

These steps could help in the battle to eventually bring about real change. The exceedingly low-hanging fruit that Cuba represents would be easy to pick for Obama and would do wonders for a president seeking to try and secure his legacy. Presidential first terms are all about getting re-elected. Second terms are about leaving something behind that people will remember you by.

Miami’s Changing of the Guard

Exit polling in Miami-Dade County illustrates how the tide is turning in Cuban American political affiliation. Obama nearly split the votes with Romney among Cuban Americans across the county by taking between 48% and 53% (depending on which poll you want to believe) of the votes.  This is a monumental gain since 2000 when Bush carried over 75% of the Cuban American vote in Miami-Dade.

Joe Garcia’s election speaks volumes as to how the demographics of Cuban Americans, especially in Miami, are changing. This turning of the tide can be attributed to many factors but, most importantly, it appears as though Cuban Americans who have arrived since the Mariel boatlift are becoming increasingly involved in the political process. While most of the Cubans who arrived shortly after the revolution consider themselves political refugees, the newer generations often had to leave because of economic reasons.  These newcomers lived in Cuba during both good times and bad and are unwilling to accept the hardliners positions which are often articulated out of fear, ignorance, and loathing. The recalcitrant old-timers have had years to intimidate anybody who even suggested that Cuba should be spoken about in a respectful, positive manner. Their message is that of hysteria, hatred, and that killing innocents is perfectly acceptable. Hopefully, their time of controlling the narrative has come to an end.

The largest impediment for normalizing relations with Cuba has always been Miami Cubans.  It was ludicrous for any presidential to criticize our backward policy towards the island because it was thought that such a mistake would cost him the all important electoral votes of the “swing state” of Florida. If the Cuban American community can prove that it is indeed a diverse group of ideas and opinions and that the majority does not support the embargo and our retrograde position towards Cuba then politicians will be able to express what they truly feel about such a policy without the fear of a backlash that could sink their campaign.

It should be said that Garcia was president of the Cuban American National Foundation, an organization that has lobbied for the embargo and for strict measures against the Castro government. He is not anti-embargo, per se, but he has taken a positive stance on travel and remittances to the island and has challenged the status quo on bringing about change in Cuba. His maturation on several issues reflects the Cuban American community’s evolving stance on the same issues.

Regardless of his positions on the minute details of our policy with the island his election is part of a monumental sea change that is happening in Miami that is bigger than him or his electoral victory. Hopefully, he will provide a counterbalance to the Cuban American congressional cabal that lost a congressman but gained a senator in Ted Cruz from Texas.

Gaining ground

Last Tuesday’s elections proved to be a massive failure for the Republicans. Mitt Romney may never have had more then a puncher’s chance at gaining the white house but his party seemed poised to take a majority in the Senate. However, the American public decided that candidates who understand rape to be “God’s way” of ensuring that the human race procreate should not be given the task of making important decisions that affect the entire nation. Victories by Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin were unexpected but welcome to those who wish this country to make serious changes towards adopting reasonable policies for working class people. Hopefully, they will have a more intelligent stance on foreign policy as well.

For proponents of engagement with Cuba it is understood that in order to repeal the Helms-Burton Act there will have to be a concerted effort to win votes in the House and prevent a filibuster in the Senate by either Marco Rubio, Bob Menendez, and possibly by newcomer Ted Cruz. The fact that the Democrats gained seats instead of losing their majority is crucial in the long term.

Another gain in the Senate was that of Jeff Flake (R-AZ). Flake has been a vocal opponent of the embargo and has spoken out against our policy from Cuba. In order to repeal the embargo it will be necessary for Republicans to be on board. Flake’s election is a victory for change in U.S.-Cuba policy.

Finally, another event has happened that will be beneficial for those wanting change with Cuba. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the representative of Florida’s 18th congressional district in Miami, has reached her term limit for serving as the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Congress may not have term limits but at least committee appointments do and her position of chair on that committee always ensured that any discussion about Cuba would be tabled.  Ros-Lehtinen, known in Cuba as la loba feroz (the big, bad wolf), has proved to be one of the most reactionary politicians within the Cuban American congressional cabal regarding Cuba and her relinquishing of that post may allow for more discussion and dialogue for engagement and normalization.


The whole world is against us………literally.

Yesterday marked the 21st annual vote by the United Nations to condemn the U.S. embargo against Cuba. What started out as an attempt to rebuke the U.S. for its policy of economic strangulation of the island has turned into an yearly denouncement by the entire planet.

The final vote was an almost universal drubbing of the United States’ embarrassing policy: 188-3 with the Marshall Islands and Micronesia abstaining.

Of course, the U.S. was supported, as always, by Israel. The perennial random Pacific island nation that chose to hitch its wagons to unwavering imperialism this year was Palau. Makes you wonder if the FBI has some emails of Palau’s president.

It is ironic that even though Israel does not denounce the embargo it still allows its citizens to travel to Cuba freely. For a nation so paranoid about terrorism this seems to be a curious stance. Do they know something that Washington doesn’t?

The usual suspects within the supine American and worldwide media morass decide to just go with the AP story. ABC, CBS, FOXNEWS, the CBC, SkyNews and countless other news regurgitation webbies ran the same story which quoted Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, as saying that the embargo was “inhumane, failed and anachronistic.”  He continued by saying that perpetuating the policy was “not in the national interest of the United States. Quite the contrary, it harms the interests of its citizens and companies- especially in times of economic crisis and high unemployment.”

The main reason why so many “news” organizations ran this story was because it had the obligatory quote from a U.S. senior official defending this albatross around the neck of U.S. foreign policy as “one of the tools in our overall efforts to encourage respect for the human rights and basic freedoms to which the United Nations is committed.”

This after that same body unanimously decried the implementation of this “tool”. How can the US remain so tone deaf?

Here is what some of our partners, allies, and adversaries have said about this “tool” in the UN’s official press release of General Assembly 11311:

            “MOURAD BENMEHIDI (Algeria), speaking on behalf of the Group of 77 developing countries and China, said that the embargo against Cuba contravened the fundamental norms of international law, international humanitarian law, the United Nations Charter and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States.  Furthermore, its continued imposition violated the principles of the sovereign equality of States and of non-intervention and non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs.”

Joseph Goddard of Barbados represented the Caribbean community (CARICOM) and stressed Cuba’s camaraderie with member States and articulated the importance of “mutually beneficial programmes of cooperation and trade in several key areas including physical education and sports, accounting, natural sciences, humanities, economy, special education, health and medicine.”

“OCTAVIO ERRÁZURIZ (Chile) said on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) that the commercial, economic and financial embargo imposed on Cuba was contrary to the letter, spirit, principles and purposes of the United Nations Charter and international law.  The Community was concerned about the extraterritorial effects of the embargo that affected the sovereignty of other States, the legitimate interests of entities or persons under their jurisdiction and the freedom of trade and navigation.”

“MARIA LUIZA RIBEIRO VIOTTI (Brazil), speaking on behalf of Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), said that the Group had been founded on the principles of interdependence and good neighbourly relations.  Alongside its Latin American neighbours, MERCOSUR showed respect for the sovereignty of States and for international law, and it viewed that the embargo ran contrary to the principles of the Unite Nations Charter and international law.  In particular, she said, it violated the principle of non-interference in the affairs of other States.  The embargo also ran contrary to the principles of justice and human rights, limited and delayed social and economic progress and inhibited the achievement of the Millennium Goals and other development targets.“

These were just a few of the statements issued by a number of subgroups within the UN. Once again, the entire world took a moment to make it perfectly clear to the United States that the embargo is completely unfair and deleterious to the Cuban people while becoming more and more counterproductive for U.S. citizens.  Obama could do himself and his legacy a favor if he would just stop and listen to what the international community is urging him and the United States to do- abandon the embargo and allow Cuba make its own future without further interference.

(An earlier version of this article was published in Counterpunch digital magazine at

Benjamin Willis is a musician who lives in Queens. He is a founding member of CAFE (Cuban Americans for Engagement). Contact him at


Cubans: Republican victory would hurt U.S. relations

In Blockade, Cuban Embargo, Politics on November 6, 2012 at 11:15 am

By Kate Thornton

Originally published in The Brown Daily Herald

HAVANA — In the seaside neighborhood of Vedado in Cuba’s capital city of Havana, a tall, heavily-guarded office building houses the United States Interests Section. Officially part of the Swiss embassy, the U.S. Interests Section takes the place of what would be the American embassy if the country had official diplomatic relations with Cuba. Outside the building stands the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Platform, where Fidel Castro has given speeches, and 138 flagpoles once used to hide an anti-Cuba billboard on the embassy building. There are also two slogans written in red: “venceremos” — we will overcome — and “patria o muerte” — homeland or death.

There is a long history of conflict between the United States and Cuba, beginning publicly with the Cuban Revolution of 1959, during which leaders denounced U.S. imperialist involvement in Cuba’s politics and economy since the 1800s. Since 1962, the U.S. has maintained a full trade embargo on Cuba, which Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez called “the principal cause of the economic problems of our country” in September.

Cubans look at the American election with acknowledgement of its importance and the potential impact it could have on the island-state. Most Cubans interviewed said they are disappointed with President Obama’s last four years in office, but they see him as the lesser of two evils.

Some Cubans said they fear that American policy toward Cuba, not a central issue in the domestic campaign, would be worse under Republican candidate Mitt Romney, whose affiliation with his party reminds them of the aggressive politics of former president George W. Bush. Regulations on remittances and travel to and from the United States are the two most important issues at stake for Cubans in this year’s U.S. election, and the potential lifting of the half-century economic blockade between Cuba and the United States in the backs of people’s minds, according to multiple sources.

The best of the worst

Many Cubans interviewed said they hope for an Obama victory — not because of what he can offer to Cuba, but because they see him as a better option than Romney. Obama’s reelection offers the potential of flexibility in the U.S.-Cuban relationship, whereas Romney and his conservative values represent a return to hard-line Bush-era foreign policy, multiple sources said.

Obama’s caution and lack of aggression toward Cuba has amounted to a “soft nothing,” said Margarita Alarcon, a Cuban journalist who lives in Havana but spent a large part of her childhood in the United States. Compared to the Bush administration, which oversaw a tightening of the American embargo on Cuba, Obama’s last four years have been a relief, she said.

Obama’s next four years could bring about a slight improvement, whereas Romney’s would only deteriorate relations, said Aurelio Alonso, an investigative sociologist at Cuban cultural center Casa de las Americas. “Even if (Obama’s next term) doesn’t change things for Cuba,” Alonso said, “Obama is less bad than Romney, and that’s enough.”

Alonso, unlike most Cubans, said he has been able to watch the presidential debates live. He said he noticed a trend between the two candidates when they talk about their stances on domestic and foreign issues.

“Obama makes promises he won’t be able to accomplish, but (Romney) makes promises that from the beginning he knows he does not want to accomplish.” If he were an American citizen, Alonso said he would rather vote for Obama.

“The United States is the most important country in the world, even if it doesn’t want to be,” said Yusimi Rodriguez, a writer and former journalist for the communist party’s official Havana newspaper, Tribuna de la Habana, adding that it gives an inherent importance to Tuesday’s election.

Rodriguez said she thinks the Cuban national press has helped contribute to the generally negative sentiment among Cubans toward American politics. The state communist party controls television and most print journalism like the communist party’s official daily publication, Granma. Granma frequently features articles on the less flattering side of the American reality, like the handling of Hurricane Katrina or, more recently, the state of California’s private prisons.

“I don’t remember ever having read an article that spoke well of the United States,” Rodriguez said. “Not in the official press.” But she said that the articles she read did not lie, and despite her acknowledgement of their bias, she has a low opinion of the United States. “It’s not a lie that the United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s not a lie that there are people in jail here (in Guantanamo) who have not had justice.”

The last 55 years of American policy toward Cuba, instead of weakening the revolution, have convinced Cubans that Americans are “all a bunch of crazy warlords,” Alarcon said. Cubans see the American electoral process — with the intense media coverage and back-and-forth insults between candidates — “as a circus,” she added. “They have no respect for it whatsoever.”

Hope lost

Obama’s message of hope, change and “Yes, we can” resonated with many Habaneros in the 2008 election, Alarcon said. But there is less support for Obama on the island this year: Many have grown apathetic toward U.S. politics from the lack of change in his last four years in office.

“I think, like most people from my generation, the idea of a candidate like Barack Obama as president in the United States was something unreal,” Alarcon said. She said she saw Obama — a member of her own Vietnam generation — as a real vehicle for change.

While campaigning in Florida, Obama promised to undo restrictions on remittances and travel to Cuba put in place by former President George W. Bush, which restricted remittances to $300 every three months and family visits between Cuba and the United States to once every three years. In his first year in office, Obama eliminated all restrictions on remittances and visits between family members.

“What Cubans here are worried about is exactly what he took care of,” Alarcon said. But on a bigger scale, she said, Cubans want the United States to lift the embargo.

“Nothing has changed here,” said Ania Gonzalez Diaz, a painter who sells photography in Old Havana. She, like many others, thought the embargo could be lifted during Obama’s presidency, but said she now thinks that all American politicians are the same. “For me (the election) is not important at all.”

“I was one of the people who thought that by being the first black president, he would bring about enormous changes,” Rodriguez said. But she said she has been disappointed. “You think that if you’re black, then you have to identify with black people, you have to identify with the oppressed, and with that you are going to make changes, but in the end it’s not like that.”

Alarcon said that while some of her expectations like immigration reform and universal healthcare have also been unfulfilled, she is optimistic about the next four years if Obama is reelected. “I still think he’s a breath of fresh air compared to what we had before,” she said. “I still think he wants to do good.”