CUBA BRIEF: US expels 2 Cuban diplomats. Castro is calling the shots in Caracas. Is Maduro Turning Venezuela Into a Dictatorship? ICCAS-gate at UM: It’s the Cover-up that Gets You

CubaBrief: The Washington Post published this afternoon an Associated Press story about two Cuban diplomats who were expelled in May “after Americans in Cuba ‘reported incidents which have caused a variety of physical symptoms.’” During previous Administrations American diplomats were targeted by Cuban secret police: their windshields were broken after they had met with Cuban dissidents and the American diplomatic pouch was repeatedly compromised. It is not uncommon for regimes hostile to the United States to test American resolve after a new president is elected. 

 In “The Guns of Venezuela,” Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady says that “Castro is calling the shots in Caracas. Sanctions have to be aimed at him;” also in the Journal William McGurn pleads with Pope Francis to “speak for Venezuela;” adding that “The first Latin American pontiff is harder on Trump than on Caracas’s despot.” Otto J. Reich, former U.S. Ambassador to Caracas provides an answer to the question asked by the Inter-American Dialogue:“Is Maduro Turning Venezuela Into a Dictatorship?”

Early this week PanamPost published an exposé of how the University of Miami President Dr. Julio Frenk is allegedly involved in a presidential scandal and cover-up  of his decision to censor the Institute of Cuban and Cuban American Studies for debunking some of Havana’s disinformation. “It’s the cover-up that gets you” wrote Dr. José Azel. The lack of transparency in Dr. Frenk’s approach to the Cuban issue, his disregard for the Cuban American community, donors to the UM Cuba program and Casa Bacardi, and to the need to protect academic freedom at a time when it is under attack on other campuses, should be of serious concern to University trustees, UM alumni, Members of Congress and scholars everywhere.


The Washington Post, August 9, 2017

US expels 2 Cuban diplomats after incidents in Cuba

By Matthew Lee and Michael Weissenstein | AP August 9 at 4:51 PM

WASHINGTON — The State Department has expelled two diplomats from the Cuban Embassy in Washington following a series of unexplained incidents in Cuba that left U.S. officials there with physical symptoms that one official said includes potentially permanent hearing loss.

Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the two Cubans were asked to leave the U.S. on May 23 after Americans in Cuba “reported incidents which have caused a variety of physical symptoms,” causing them to leave the island.

Nauert said the first of the incidents was reported in late 2016 and that they had continued. She would not say what the symptoms were except that they were not life-threatening. Nauert also declined to provide details about the incidents. The FBI and Diplomatic Security Service are investigating.

However, other U.S. officials said that the symptoms included hearing loss.

One person familiar with the U.S. investigation said investigators were looking into whether elements of the Cuban government placed sonic devices that produce non-audible sound inside or outside the residences of roughly five U.S. Embassy staffers with the intent of deafening them. That individual and the U.S. officials weren’t authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Cuba employs a massive state security apparatus that keeps hundreds and possibly thousands of people under constant surveillance. U.S. diplomats are among the most closely monitored people on the island. It’s virtually impossible for anyone to take action against an American diplomat without an element of the Cuban state being aware.

However, the person familiar with the U.S. probe said investigators were looking into whether the individuals were harmed outside the regular chain of command of the Cuban government.

The officials said the staffers all arrived in Havana in the summer of 2016. Like all foreign diplomats in Cuba, they lived in housing owned and maintained by the Cuban government.

In the fall, officials said the affected diplomats and their spouses began to experience symptoms of hearing loss so severe and puzzling that an investigation was launched, and it was determined that they were at risk. They were allowed to leave Cuba, the officials said. No children were affected, but at least some of the adults who were are believed to have suffered permanent hearing loss, according to the officials. They said the Cuban government had denied any involvement.

Although she would not provide details, Nauert said that investigators did not yet have a definitive explanation for the incidents but stressed they take them “very seriously” and are working to determine their “cause and impact.” She said the department had reminded Cuba of its international obligation to protect foreign diplomats.

Harassment of U.S. diplomats in Cuba is not uncommon and dates to the restoration of limited ties with the communist government in the 1970s. But the use of sonic devices to intentionally harm diplomats would mark a new phase in harassment.


The Wall Street Journal, August 6, 2017

The Guns of Venezuela

Castro is calling the shots in Caracas. Sanctions have to be aimed at him.

By Mary Anastasia O’Grady

Aug. 6, 2017 4:56 p.m. ET

In a video posted on the internet Sunday morning, former Venezuelan National Guard captain Juan Caguaripano, along with some 20 others, announced an uprising against the government of Nicolás Maduro to restore constitutional order. The rebels reportedly appropriated some 120 rifles, ammunition and grenades from the armory at Fort Paramacay in Valencia, the capital of Carabobo state. There were unconfirmed claims of similar raids at several other military installations including in Táchira.

The Cuba-controlled military regime put tanks in the streets and unleashed a hunt for the fleeing soldiers. It claims it put down the rebellion and it instructed all television to broadcast only news of calm. But Venezuelans were stirred by the rebels’ message. There were reports of civilians gathering in the streets to sing the national anthem in support of the uprising.

Note to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: Venezuelans want to throw off the yoke of Cuban repression. They need your help.

Unfortunately Mr. Tillerson so far seems to be taking the bad advice of his State Department “experts.”

The same bureaucrats, it should be noted, ran Barack Obama’s Latin America policy. Those years gave us a rapprochement with Havana that culminated with the 44th president doing “the wave” with Raúl Castro at a baseball game in 2016. Team Obama also pushed for Colombia’s surrender to the drug-trafficking terrorist group FARC in a so-called peace deal last year. And it supported “dialogue” last year to restore free, fair and transparent elections in Venezuela. The result, in every case, was disaster.

Any U.S.-led international strategy to liberate Venezuela must begin with the explicit recognition that Cuba is calling the shots in Caracas, and that Havana’s control of the oil nation is part of its wider regional strategy.

Slapping Mr. Maduro’s wrist with sanctions, as the Trump administration did last week, won’t change Castro’s behavior. He cares only about his cut-rate Venezuelan oil and his take of profits from drug trafficking. To affect things in Venezuela, the U.S. has to press Cuba.

Burning Cuban flags, when they can be had, is now practically a national pastime in Venezuela because Venezuelans understand the link between their suffering and Havana. The Castro infiltration began over a decade ago when Fidel sent thousands of Cuban agents, designated as teachers and medical personnel, to spread propaganda and establish communist cells in the barrios.

As I noted in this column last week, since 2005 Cuba has controlled Venezuela’s citizen-identification and passport offices, keeping files on every “enemy” of the state—a k a political opponents. The Venezuelan military and National Guard answer to Cuban generals. The Venezuelan armed forces are part of a giant drug-trafficking operation working with the FARC, which is the hemisphere’s largest cartel and also has longstanding ties to Cuba.

These are the tactical realities of the Cuba-Venezuela-Colombia nexus. The broader strategic threat to U.S. interests, including Cuba’s cozy relationship with Middle East terrorists, cannot be ignored.

Elisabeth Burgos is the Venezuelan ex-wife of the French Marxist Regis Debray. She was born in Valencia, joined the Castro cause as a young woman, and worked for its ideals on the South American continent.

Ms. Burgos eventually broke free of the intellectual bonds of communism and has lived in Paris for many years. In a recent telephone interview—posted on the Venezuelan website Prodavinci—she warned of the risks of the “Cuban project” for the region. “Wherever the Cubans have been, everything ends in tragedy,” she told Venezuelan journalist Hugo Prieto. “Surely we have no idea what forces we face,” Mr. Prieto observed—reflecting as a Venezuelan on the words of Ms. Burgos—because, as she said, there is “a lot of naiveté, a lot of ignorance, about the apparatus that has fallen on [Venezuelans]: Castroism.”

Cuban control of citizens is as important as control of the military. In Cuba this is the job of the Interior Ministry. For that level of control in Venezuela, Ms. Burgos said, Mr. Maduro must rely on an “elite of exceptional experts” Castro grooms at home.

Cuba, Ms. Burgos said, is not “simply a dictatorship.” For the regime it is a “historical political project” aiming for “the establishment of a Cuban-type regime throughout Latin America.” She noted that along with Venezuela the Cubans have taken Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, and are now going after  Colombia. “The FARC, turned into a political party and with all the money of [the narcotics business], in an election can buy all the votes that it wants.”

Mr. Tillerson is forewarned. Castro won’t stop until someone stops him. To get results, any U.S.-led sanctions have to hit the resources that Havana relies on to maintain the repression.

Write to O’

Appeared in the August 7, 2017, print edition. 


Latin America Advisor,  Inter American Dialogue, August 3, 2017


Is Maduro Turning Venezuela Into a Dictatorship?

Otto Reich, president of Otto Reich Associates LLC and former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs:

“The current Venezuela crisis shows the limits of diplomacy. Years of unsuccessful attempts at a negotiated solution by E.U.,  U.S. and Latin American diplomats simply resulted in buying time for Chávez, Maduro and their Cuban handlers to intensify their hold on power. Dialogue works only with sincere, responsive and responsible governments, not undemocratic ones that are run by de facto organized crime cabals whose principal purpose is to enrich themselves and stay in power so that they do not pay a price for their crimes. Two such governments in our hemisphere are Venezuela’s and Cuba’s, and therein lies the real cause of the Venezuelan crisis. Undemocratic governments engage in insincere dialogue while pressing their ulterior agendas. One would have thought the Western world had learned the high human cost of such diplomatic wishful thinking after the 1938 Chamberlain-Hitler ‘peace accord’ in Munich led to World War II.

But, unfortunately, we continue to place our hopes on self-appointed ‘peace-makers’ such as Spain’s José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. He and his predecessors asked the United States to refrain from pressuring Chávez, and later Maduro, to ‘give peace a chance.’ The predictable result is now again evident on the streets of Venezuela: unarmed citizens murdered; scarcities of food, medicine, water and electricity; but an abundance of corruption, drug trafficking and violence, all perpetrated by the government itself. For 18 years, a small group of us warned of the building of a Cuba-style dictatorship in Venezuela. We were called ‘cold warriors,’ ‘paranoid,’ even ‘liars’ by the left. Now we see who was right. It is not too late to save the Venezuelan people from an even worse fate than the present: stop listening to the appeasers.”


The Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2017

Speak for Venezuela, Pope Francis

The first Latin American pontiff is harder on Trump than on Caracas’s despot. 

By  William McGurn

When Pope Francis wants to make the objects of his disfavor feel his sting, he’s never lacked for words—especially when it involves the U.S.  But when it comes to the brutality of Venezuela’s government against its own people, Pope Francis and the Vatican have mostly avoided calling out Nicolás Maduro by name. Until Friday, that is. That’s when a popular uprising in Venezuela finally pushed the Vatican to oppose the regime’s bid to tighten its grip by imposing an illegitimate super-assembly to rewrite the constitution.

Even this late in the day, the Vatican’s expression of “profound concern” is better than nothing. Particularly welcome is Rome’s call for Mr. Maduro to “suspend” the new assembly. Still, it’s hard not to notice that in sharp contrast to Venezuela’s bishops—who recently tweeted a prayer to “free our homeland from the claws of communism and socialism”—even the toughest Vatican statement on Venezuela has all the zing of a World Bank communiqué calling for more resources for a clean-water project in Moldova. 

How different the tone is when the subject is Donald Trump or Uncle Sam. Whether suggesting that Mr. Trump is not Christian, warning on Mr. Trump’s inaugural day that populism can lead to Hitler, or implying that ours is an economy that “kills,” Pope Francis has an argot of displeasure all his own. 

It’s absence here is particularly striking. Because for an example of a populism that leads to totalitarianism or an economy that kills, it’s hard to beat oil- and mineral-rich Venezuela, whose citizens have now been reduced to picking through garbage cans while their leaders ratchet up the repression. Not to mention Cuba’s military-socialist colonialism. 

As for the bishops, good ones are not given to criticizing their pope publicly, and Venezuela’s are no exception. But they may be speaking more frankly in private. In a June 11 article headlined “Stop being soft on our despot, Venezuela’s bishops tell Francis,” the Economist reported on a meeting six bishops forced onto Francis’ schedule when they flew to Rome in June—uninvited. 

Two months earlier, the bishops put it this way: “We have to defend our rights and the rights of others. It’s time to very seriously, and responsibly, ask if civil disobedience, peaceful demonstrations, appeals to the national and international public power, and civic protest, are valid and opportune measures.” 

Defenders of the Francis approach have been assuring everyone the pope’s reluctance to speak forthrightly against the regime, and his preference for talking about “both sides” as if they are morally equal, is part of a larger plan. In particular they claim that those criticizing the pope for his silence were playing into Mr. Maduro’s hands, given how the Venezuelan strongman likes to chide his country’s bishops for impeding the “dialogue” he and Francis have called for. 

The events of the past week have shattered any silly pretense about some master Vatican plan. But the roots of Pope Francis’ misreadings run deeper than Venezuela. In some ways, it is but the latest reflection of a historic misunderstanding that has often led a poor and Catholic Latin America to blame its wealthy and Protestant neighbor to the north for all its woes. 

Just last month, for example, Pope Francis fed this trope by accusing the United States of having a “distorted view of the world.” At nearly the same time, a semiofficial Jesuit-run Vatican journal carried an article decrying an alliance between American Catholics and evangelical Protestants as an “ecumenism of hate.” On top of it all rests the old idea, still popular on the religious left, that socialism represents the Gospel ideal. 

The Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg was probably closer to the mark when he recently put it this way: “Venezuela’s crisis doesn’t fit into Pope Francis’s standard way of explaining contemporary political and economic problems. It’s very hard for the pope to blame Venezuela’s problems on the tyranny of Mammon, financial speculation, free trade agreements, arms-dealers, nefarious ‘neoliberals,’ or any of his usual list of suspects.” 

The ironies here are legion. In the latter half of the 20th century, Latin American liberation theologians posited a “people’s church” pitted against a “formal church” whose hierarchy was aligned to the military dictatorships that prevailed in much of the continent. Before he was elected pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio faced precisely this claim in the accusation that he did not adequately criticize the military regime that ruled his native Argentina during his time as the head of its Jesuit community.

Today Catholic priests and bishops are courageously defying a Venezuelan regime that has hijacked what was once the richest nation in Latin America and driven it to poverty and despotism. At this dark hour, don’t the struggling people of Venezuela deserve some public inspiration from the first Latin American pope? 

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Appeared in the August 8, 2017, print edition.


PanamPost, August 4, 2017

ICCAS-gate at the University of Miami: It’s the Cover-up that Gets You

By: José Azel – Aug 4, 2017, 10:27 am

The Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration and President Clinton’s forcefully claiming “I did not have sexual relations with that woman…” are two of the most infamous examples of the “it’s the cover-up that gets you” dictum.

The suffix “-gate” has become synonymous with presidential scandal and cover-up. I introduce it here to expose the ICCAS-gate cover-up by University of Miami President Dr. Julio Frenk. 

The buck stops with the President, and I seek to show, responsibly and factually, that Dr. Frenk intended to dismantle ICCAS, and is now engaged in a cover-up of those intentions.

My association with the University of Miami dates back to the late 1960s when I was a business student. Over the years, I earned bachelors, masters, and doctorate degrees, becoming a three-time UM alumni. I am also a former adjunct business professor, and a member of the ICCAS team. This is to say, I wish only the best for my beloved Alma Mater and my community.

But, whether Dr. Frenk intended to dismantle ICCAS is, as Alexander Hamilton noted in Federalist No. 23, “one of those truths which, to a correct and unprejudiced mind, carries its own evidence along with it.”

The controversy surfaced with a July 10 Miami Herald article citing Dr. Jaime Suchlicki as having been instructed to affect the cessation of ICCAS operations. In June, Dr. Suchlicki wrote to his staff:

“This is to inform you that as of August 15, 2017, I will be leaving the University of Miami.

I have been instructed by the Office of the Provost to affect the cessation of operations for the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, consequently your position has been eliminated and you will be placed on layoff status as of August 15, 2017.”

I respectfully complied by vacating my office, returning my keys, and retiring in sad silence. Now, compelled by the cover-up, I speak publicly for the first time on ICCAS-gate.

As instructed by Dr. Frenk the entire ICCAS staff was fired in June. Yet, the July Miami Herald article quotes Jacqueline R. Menendez, UM’s Vice President for Communications, caustically refuting Dr. Suchlicki: “the only thing that has happened is that Jaime retires on Aug. 15 there are no plans to close ICCAS.”

I will generously assume that Ms. Menendez was misled by her boss, President Frenk. Her statement that “there are no plans to close ICCAS,” when, in fact, ICCAS had already been effectively closed by the firing of all its personnel is patently false.

I hope Ms. Menendez would not be as callous as to consider the firing of the entire ICCAS staff a non-event as implied by her statement that “the only thing that has happened is that Jaime retires on Aug. 15.” Is the firing of all ICCAS personnel not a “thing”?

I have verified that Dr. Suchlicki’s termination agreement explicitly requires him to “…effect the cessation of operations for the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.” Similarly, Ms. Menendez should have sought the truth from her boss to avoid misleading our community. She has now been made complicit in the cover-up.

Those are the facts as I know them. Now we can ask: If Dr. Frenk’ did not intend to dismantle ICCAS, why did he find it necessary to fire, without the courtesy of an explanation, the entire ICCAS staff? Were they incompetent, or were they an impediment to the implementation of his plans? What were those plans?

Dr. Frenk had been formulating his Cuban studies ideas for many months, and he had commissioned a comprehensive study of options to his friend, Harvard Professor Jorge Dominguez.  Given this careful advanced planning, if there was no intention to dismantle ICCAS, the announcement of Dr. Suchlicki’s departure would have been accompanied with the announcement of the new interim director, or perhaps even the new director.

That was not the case, and the untimely appointment of an interim director appears to be an improvised, disingenuous cover-up to placate the community’s outrage. Dr. Frenk has been untruthful with our community, and now, under pressure, he will meet with community representatives on 18 August. I pray he uses that opportunity to come clean about his designs.  Our community deserves honesty, not an ICCAS-gate cover-up.

José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.