Wednesday, July 26, 2017


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Judicial Watch is investigating why the U.S. Treasury Department rushed to give a major American hotel company special permission to operate in Cuba for the first time in nearly three decades, possibly with behind-the-scenes collaboration from the State Department.

Under the U.S. economic embargo such deals would be prohibited by law, even after President Obama’s efforts to restore relations with the island’s communist regime. Congressional action is required to lift the embargo against Cuba, though the executive branch has latitude in enforcing the law and Obama has reestablished diplomatic ties with Cuba as well as direct air service and mail between the two countries.

A few days before Obama’s historic March trip to Cuba, U.S. hospitality firm Starwood, which operates Sheraton, Westin and other prominent hotel brands, received authorization from the U.S. Treasury Department to run several hotels on the island in apparent violation of U.S. laws.

All of the hotels are properties that were confiscated by Cuba’s communist regime without compensating private owners and are currently owned by the Cuban military, which means all profits generated by any commercial venture will finance the regime’s repressive apparatus. Furthermore, the Cuban government will assign hotel workers their jobs and employees will have no labor rights. U.S. law prohibits American companies from operating under these conditions in other countries.

In an announcement celebrating the unusually swift Treasury authorization to do business in Cuba, Starwood Chief Executive Officer Thomas B. Mangas said “with Cuba’s rich history, natural beauty and strong culture, there is no question the entire U.S. hospitality industry has watched Cuba with great interest, and we are thrilled to lead the charge and bring our sophisticated, high-end brands into the market at this inflection point.” Somehow, Starwood beat out several other American companies that have been trying to obtain U.S. government approval to do business in Cuba, according to a mainstream newspaper. Among them is Marriott International whose CEO actually accompanied Obama on his trip to Cuba earlier this year.

To secure the authorization Starwood hired a bigtime Washington D.C. lobbying firm, DLA Piper, to advocate on its behalf. Records show that Starwood has paid DLA Piper $560,000 in lobbying fees since Obama announced he would normalize relations with Cuba in 2014.

Judicial Watch has learned that DLA Piper attorney and partner Evan Migdail handled the negotiations between Starwood and the Obama administration. In Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the State Department and U.S. Treasury, Judicial Watch is among other things seeking all records of communication between any official, employee or representative of the respective agencies and Migdail, who is a registered lobbyist representing Starwood.

The FOIAs also seek risk assessments, analysis or documents produced or reviewed during the approval process and records of communications—including any foreign policy guidance—between the two agencies related to the authorization.

Cuba’s government is a renowned human rights violator that represses and incarcerates individuals and groups that criticize it. “Officials employ a range of tactics to punish dissent and instill fear in the public, including beatings, public acts of shaming, termination of employment, and threats of long-term imprisonment,” according to a report published by the international group Human Rights Watch. “Short-term arbitrary arrests have increased dramatically in recent years and routinely prevent human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others from gathering or moving about freely.”

A few years before the Obama administration removed Cuba from the government’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism, Judicial Watch reported, based on records gathered from Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, that Hezbollah established an operational base on the communist island.

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In a quest to normalize relations Obama lifted sanctions against Cuba and celebrated being the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Communist island since 1928, but the Caribbean nation still appears on a crucial government terrorist list along with the world’s most violent Islamic groups. This contradiction indicates that, when it comes to our bloated government, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

Here’s some of the history. Before Obama “normalized” relations and lifted economic sanctions, Cuba for decades appeared on the State Department’s list of nation’s that sponsor terrorism. Its longtime communist regime is renowned for committing atrocious human rights violations and openly offering refuge to criminals on the run from U.S. justice. Among them is a Black Liberation Army leader on the FBI’s most wanted list after a prison escape following a conviction for murdering a New Jersey State Trooper. More recently, Medicare fraud ringleaders have escaped to Cuba after fleecing the U.S. government out of tens of millions of dollars.

Nevertheless, in 2014 Obama announced he was charting a new course in Cuba by “normalizing relations with a country just 90 miles off our coast.” This has included opening an American embassy in Havana (inaugurated with a flag-raising ceremony led by Secretary of State John Kerry), easing travel and export sanctions, reestablishing direct mail and establishing a bunch of “bi-lateral” commissions to deal with everything from human rights to human trafficking to business ventures and other shared interests. On May 29, 2015, the Obama administration rescinded Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, calling it “another step forward toward a more normal and productive relationship between the United States and Cuba.” Kerry had the final word on that.

However, Cuba still appears prominently—along with radical groups like Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah—in the latest Terrorist Assets Report released by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). This is the 2015 report to Congress on assets in the U.S. relating to terrorist countries and international terrorism program designees. OFAC is the government’s lead office responsible for implementing sanctions with respect to assets of international terrorist organizations and terrorism-supporting countries. Its mission is to administer and enforce economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security goals, the report states.

This means it administers sanctions programs targeting international terrorists and terrorist organizations and their supporters as well as countries that have been designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. Cuba is the country with the second-largest amount ($243.2 million) of assets frozen by Uncle Sam in 2015. Iran is the highest with nearly $2 billion. Sudan and Syria have $30.9 million and $25.9 million respectively.

“Based on available information, Cuba and each of the current state sponsors of terrorism own diplomatic and consular real property in the United States,” the new Treasury report says. “Cuba owns six blocked properties located in New York and Washington, D.C. Syria owns four blocked properties located in New York and Washington, D.C. Sudan owns seven blocked properties located in New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Iran owns eleven blocked properties located in California, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Texas, and Washington, D.C.” The report also lists well-known terrorist groups whose assets have been frozen like Al Qaeda ($13,063,764), Hamas ($1,250,615) and Hezbollah ($8,277,178).

Weeks before this government document listing Cuba as a terrorist nation was released, the Obama administration let Cuban military and security officials access crucial U.S. military facilities in Florida. In April Cuban military agents, including the chief of investigations for the country’s National Revolutionary Police, were given a VIP tour of the U.S. Naval air base in Key West, Florida. A few days later four Cuban national security officials were paraded around the Joint Interagency Task Force South, which is charged with monitoring and intercepting illicit drug trafficking in a region that’s notorious for narcotics activity.

A mainstream newspaper editorial pointed out that the National Revolutionary Police chief “is not someone you’d expect to see as an honored guest of the U.S. military” because “he plays a key law enforcement role in a state where beating and arresting human rights activists is considered law enforcement.”

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Key Biscayne, Florida, saw fifteen Cuban migrants land last week. They made their passage from Cuba in a handmade sailboat. U.S. Customs and Border protection processed the immigrants and let them go. The practice is legal under the United States’ “wet-foot-dry-foot” policy. For Cuban immigrants, as long as they arrive in one piece, that is how they are allowed to stay.

The policy has been around for decades, but those men and women may be the last of their kind. The long overdue repeal is not coming from the fact that it should not be happening, but from improving relations with Cuba.

“Wet-Foot-Dry-Foot” began in 1966 under the Cuban Adjustment Act and also during the Cold War which is well over. It grants them immediate amnesty just for making it to U.S. soil. They are allowed to become permanent U.S. residence after they have occupied the country for a year and a day.

The practice stands as a living testament to what happens when policies go unchecked. While ISIS literally crucifies Christians and refugees try flee their oppressive and deadly presence with nowhere to run, Cubans are landing on U.S. soil and then, often after becoming residents travel back and forth from the country that they so “feared”.

The Obama administration is well behind other countries in accepting religious refugees from Iraq and Syria, and yet, it is as simple as placing a foot on an American beach for Cuban “refugees” to be granted amnesty.

The U.S. embassy in Cuba is even set to reopen as well as the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. Yet, there remains this troubling practice of those who can abuse a decades-old policy and be here legally simply because a meeting has not occurred and a signature not made on another piece of paper to close the loophole.

So when it comes to Christians needing refuge from those persecuting them, we do not have the resources, but for those from Cuba we magically do?

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Remember Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy was seized by immigration officials and forcibly sent back to Cuba in 2000?

After fifteen years back in Cuba, it turns out he still dreams of America.

In a recent interview with ABC News–his first in a decade–the now-21-year-old Gonzalez was asked: “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?”

His answer? The United States of America.

He said he’d love to see a baseball game, visit the museums in Washington, D.C., and–most importantly–thank the American people for everything they did for him.

“I want the time to give my love to the American people… We always have the desire to say to the American people, to say to each household our gratitude, appreciation, and love… [I wish] I could personally thank those people who helped us, who were there by our side. Because we’re so grateful for what they did.”

Gonzalez’s story first made headlines in 1999–when he was found on a raft from Cuba. His mother, who had drowned during the trip, ultimately gave her life to get her child a better one in America. Gonzalez was initially placed with relatives in Miami, until a U.S. court finally ruled that he would have to return to Cuba, where his father was waiting.

The gut-wrenching images that appeared in many newspapers and magazines–the U.S. immigration officers taking the crying six-year-old out of his relatives’ house at gunpoint in July 2000–represent the last time Gonzalez set foot on American soil.

Gonzalez is currently studying engineering and is engaged to a fellow student.

ABC News producers also helped Gonzalez and his fiancee take their first selfie–which he plans on uploading to Facebook, when his hometown gets strong enough internet to make a profile.


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