August 24, 2007

The Miami Herald

For Cubans, a movie title may be a reference to Americans

Posted on Fri, Aug. 24, 2007.

HAVANA -- (AP) -- It's not big or famous and it's certainly not close, but Yuma, an Arizona desert town near the borders with California and Mexico, is Cuba's most talked-about American locale.

''La Yuma'' is Cuban street lingo for the United States, and ''Yumas'' can be Americans or foreigners from any non-Spanish speaking country.

Many trace the term to 3:10 to Yuma the cowboy classic based on an Elmore Leonard short story that arrived here after it hit U.S. theaters in 1957. The slang should get a boost with the release of a remake of 3:10 to Yuma, starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, opening Sept. 7 in the United States.

''A new movie could mean Yuma is used more by young people who know nothing of the original,'' said Fernando Carr, who writes a column on language for the official magazine Bohemia.

Washington's embargo prohibits most U.S.-Cuba trade. But American films are commonly shown on state TV and in crumbling 1950s theaters where tickets cost less than a U.S. nickel. A thriving black market for pirated DVDs and videos also likely will ensure some Cubans see the 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma.

Cubans rarely use gringo, slang for Americans heard in Mexico and throughout Latin America. While some here refer to Americans as yanquis in a derogatory way, ''Yuma'' generally is not meant to be offensive.

Larry Nelson, mayor of Yuma, Ariz., said it was "hard to imagine Yuma as the entire country.''

''At least we're known internationally now,'' laughed Nelson, whose city of about 90,000 is some 2,400 miles northwest of Havana.

Carr said Cuban teenagers began using ''Yuma'' for the United States shortly after Fidel Castro took power in 1959. The term became widespread in 1980 when Cubans seeking asylum crashed a minibus through the Peruvian Embassy gates in Havana, and thousands more joined them.

'People said, 'I want to go to La Yuma,' and it became common,'' Carr said, adding that the term eventually expanded to include all non-Spanish speakers.

Some believe the slang comes from Cubans' heavily accented pronunciation of ''United States,'' roughly ''YOOH-nyh-head-STEHZ.'' Others insist its origin lies not with one, but dozens of popular U.S. westerns filmed in Yuma.

''Hey Yuma!'' Rafael, an artist who sells sketches of tourists in Old Havana bellowed, grinning at an American passerby. Like many Cubans, he was happy to chat but wary of letting a ''Yuma'' reporter publish his full name.

''Where'd it come from? You'd have to call a conference of all Cubans and ask each one what they think,'' he joked. "How long would that take?''

Finding Cubans who can find Yuma on a map can also take a while.

''It's an island out there somewhere. Near the United States,'' said a clerk selling fried ham sandwiches by Havana's coast.

Yomal, a bookseller in the leafy Plaza de Armas, said he didn't know Yuma was a city, either.

''Is it in the United States?'' he asked. "Spain?''

Bridget, a Minnesota native who flew to Havana through Mexico without U.S. government permission, said she visited Yuma as a child.

''It doesn't have much to do with Cuba,'' said the 20-year-old, asking that her last name not be published to avoid American fines. "Maybe Miami or somewhere close would be better.''

Anti-corruption laws toughened in Cuba

Acting leader Raúl Castro has ordered harsher penalties for public officials who break labor rules.

By Wilfredo Cancio Isla, , El Nuevo Herald. Posted on Fri, Aug. 24, 2007.

Ratcheting up his fight against corruption and mismanagement in Cuba, interim leader Raúl Castro has signed a decree requiring tough, swift and long-lasting punishment for public officials who violate labor rules.

Decree 25½007, published Wednesday in the Official Gazette, covers the enforcement of earlier decrees designed to counter official corruption and illegal but widespread workplace activities, including petty thievery of public supplies, 4-hour work days and hiring friends for good jobs.


The decree brands as ''a collaterally responsible'' any official whose job is on the same level as violators but doesn't punish them or report them to authorities, saying they are guilty of a ''lack of exigency'' or "negligent.''

Disciplinary measures also will be taken against any official who hires or promotes "subordinates or equals . . . for the mere reason of friendship or familial relationship or any other motivation other than social interest.''

Those who allow subordinates to do so will also will be disciplined. Administrators also will not be allowed to demote or accept the resignation of violators before the allegations against them are settled.

Sanctions include dismissal and a total ban on any official employment. Punishment will be meted out ''directly and with immediate effect,'' and authorities will track violators to ensure the punishments are being observed.

Penalties will be applied ''independently from any criminal process,'' and any appeals will not delay the start of the sanctions, the decree indicates.


The decree will take effect Sept. 1, six months after the enactment of a new resolution aimed at cracking down on some aspects of the notorious labor inefficiencies in Cuba's government-dominated economy: workers who show up late or leave early, who filch supplies from their jobs or accept bribes to help clients.

According to a government report, more than half of the 22,692 audits of state enterprises and service centers conducted between January and August 2006 unearthed problems and legal irregularities.

During his 13-month interim mandate, Raúl Castro has stepped up -- with fewer speeches and greater pragmatism -- the campaign against corruption launched by his brother Fidel in November 2005.


The government has acknowledged corruption to be a problem that could eventually undermine the revolution, but it has run into problems enforcing the new labor regulations.

Cubans have argued that they often cannot show up for work on time because of the broken public-transportation system, and that their extremely low salaries -- average of $16 a month -- force them into illegal activities to survive.

2 fathers speak out in Cuban child custody case

A 4-year-old Cuban girl's birth father, foster father and birth mother spoke publicly for the first time about her case.

By Carol Marbin Miller, Tere Figueras Negrete and Luisa Yanez, [email protected]

Two men, one a Coral Gables businessman, the other a farmer from central Cuba, squared off publicly for the first time Thursday to make their case why each should be the one to raise a 4-year-old girl.

On one side: Joe Cubas, 46, a nationally known sports agent, investor and real estate developer who is the girl's foster father.

On the other: Rafael Izquierdo, 32, a malanga and plantain farmer and sometime fisherman who is the girl's birth father.

In the middle is a precocious auburn-haired youngster with a fondness for ice cream, swimming and playing hide-and-seek.

Outside Miami-Dade's juvenile courthouse, Izquierdo said he was eager to bring his daughter back to Cabaiguán, the small village he calls home.

''Children belong with their parents, and parents belong with their children,'' said Izquierdo, whose current wife brought their 6-year-old daughter to the United States for the custody proceedings.

Cubas is equally determined that the girl should remain with him.

''There are two children who have been through thick and thin together, who have been through the most difficult times together,'' Cubas said. "They are in a safe, nurturing, loving home. They spend all their time together, and now they are faced with the possibility of separation.''

Cubas refers to the girl and her 13-year-old half-brother -- whom he has adopted -- as ''my children.'' The little girl calls him ''Papi'' and calls his wife, Maria, "Mami.''

Cubas' involvement in the dispute became widely known for the first time Thursday when he spoke openly with reporters. Though he says he no longer represents sports figures, Cubas earned admirers -- and some critics -- when he helped some of Cuba's finest baseball players defect to the United States.


The custody battle over the girl has raged before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen since March 2006, mostly behind closed doors. Thursday, the judge lifted a gag order that had barred all participants from discussing the case publicly.

Saying she had erred by granting the secrecy order in the first place, Cohen lifted it during a crowded 2 ½-hour hearing, the second this week.

''I was wrong; I didn't realize it. I don't have a lot of experience with this,'' Cohen said. The judge, who has been on the bench for 16 years, cited a 1997 legal ruling as the basis for her decision to lift the gag.

The judge said she wouldn't lift the order if she had a choice.

''I just work here,'' she said. "I have to follow the law. If I don't, I shouldn't be here.''

After ruling in Cubas' favor on the gag order, she told him: 'Once you start speaking to the press, it will be extremely difficult to keep the kids' identity a secret.''

To protect their privacy, The Miami Herald has not revealed the names of the children.

Ira Kurzban, Izquierdo's attorney, bitterly opposed the lifting of the gag order, saying it set the stage for a "free-for-all.''

He criticized Cubas for changing his mind and asking that the order be lifted after the Gables businessman a few weeks ago called it ''despicable'' to expose the children to press scrutiny.

''You'll see when he's allowed to go on Spanish- and English-language radio and enflame this community -- and we have seen it before,'' Kurzban told the judge. "There is a potential for this to turn into another Elián González case.''

Elián's saga created a political firestorm nearly eight years ago when he washed ashore in South Florida on an inner tube after his mother drowned crossing the Florida Straits from Cuba. Federal agents seized the boy from the home of Miami relatives after a prolonged custody dispute that sparked international headlines. He returned with his father to Cuba.

Also weighing in for the first time was Elena Perez, the girl's birth mother, whose suicide attempt in 2005 prompted state child-welfare officials to take custody of the children.

Perez, who relinquished her right to raise both of her children, supports her ex-boyfriend's wishes to gain custody of the girl and take her back to Cuba.

''If she can't be with me -- her own mother -- then she should be with her own father, who wants her,'' Perez, 35, who lives in Miami, said following the hearing.


Asked if she thought her daughter would have just as good a life on the island as in the United States, she replied: "Material things don't matter in life, but being raised and loved by your real parents does. You don't treat real parents like nothing; they are the most important thing.''

Izquierdo also made clear he would not stay in the United States.

''I want to go back to my homeland. I miss my family, I miss my mother. My wife misses her family,'' he said. "My other daughter misses her grandmother.''

He said he has a room ready for the 4-year-old at the rural home he shares with his parents.

''It's a big house, and she already has her own room, with her own little bed and toys,'' Izquierdo said.

Cubas said the little girl has made up her own mind and desperately wants to remain with her new family.

The girl's half-brother, Cubas said, acted as her caregiver and emotional anchor during their mother's emotional distress. ''He has been her father,'' Cubas said, describing the girl as "astute and bright.''

''She has made very clear what her wishes are, which are to stay with her brother and stay with us,'' Cubas said. ''The child is extremely happy and extremely bonded to her brother'' and her new family, he added.

The long-awaited trial over the birth father's fitness begins Monday, but the preliminary hearings have already offered a window into the bickering and legal wranglings that will come.

On Thursday, at the final pretrial hearing, lawyers on both sides were quick to pounce on the opposition's slightest turn of phrase -- at one point quibbling over how to characterize the physical relationship that produced the girl at the center of the dispute.

''They had sex,'' said the judge, raising her voice and momentarily silencing the courtroom full of lawyers. "We at least agree on that.''

Fidel Castro stays silent on health, but not U.S.

From Miami Herald Wire Services. Posted on Fri, Aug. 24, 2007

HAVANA -- A new newspaper column signed by Fidel Castro and published Thursday again attacks U.S. policies toward the island but does not address his health.

Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque told journalists in Brazil on Thursday that the 81-year-old Castro is determined to fully recover from intestinal surgery last year that forced him to cede power to his brother Raúl.

''Fidel is doing very well and is disciplined in his recovery process,'' Pérez Roque said.

Castro has not been seen in public since the emergency surgery in July 2006. The state of his health remains a ''state secret'' but has been the subject of repeated rumors and speculation.

The Thursday column signed by Castro said Washington's ''perfidy'' toward Cuba was in evidence in an Atlanta courtroom Monday when lawyers for five Cubans appealed their conviction on charges of spying for Havana and other crimes.

Cuba considers the five ''hero fighters against terrorism,'' claiming they were spying on South Florida's exile community, not the U.S. government, to avert terror attacks on the island.

It was the fourth of Castro's so-called ''reflections'' in newspapers in two weeks. The last time his image was seen in public was June 5.

The column made no mention of his health. His birthday on Aug. 13 passed without any sign of the man who ruled Cuba for 47 years. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez later said he had spoken with Castro on his birthday.

Hungary agrees to take in 29 Cubans

By Alfonso Chardy, [email protected] Posted on Thu, Aug. 23, 2007.

Twenty-nine of the 49 Cuban migrants held by the United States in a detention center at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo, Cuba, will be resettled in Hungary -- a move that elicited a sharp rebuke from the Cuban government and praise from some Cuban exiles in Miami.

Exile activist Ramón Saúl Sánchez, head of the Democracy Movement in Miami, said it could be several weeks for the Cubans to be sent to Hungary. One couple in Guantánamo refused the offer, he said, because they did not speak the language and the woman is pregnant.


Hungary's decision to take some of the Guantánamo Cubans came after 22 of the migrants began a hunger strike last month to protest what one former detainee called ''cruel'' treatment.

Sánchez praised the U.S. government and the migrants in Guantánamo who staged the hunger strike. ''It took a lot of courage for the protesters to carry out the 20-day hunger strike, but it also took a lot of courage for the United States, being the most powerful country in the world, to listen to those who do not have a voice,'' he said.

The Cuban government bristled at Hungary's invitation.

''The government of Hungary is acting like an accomplice of the empire,'' according to a Cuban foreign ministry statement published in the Cuban government-run newspaper Granma in Havana. "It insists, in a servile way, in showing the all-powerful and aggressive master that it can count on its abject loyalty.''

But Sánchez said those being sent to Hungary were ''activists'' in Cuba who ''would have faced persecution had they been repatriated to Cuba. We profoundly appreciate the offer of Hungary to take these Cuban refugees,'' he said.

Cuba's communist government disputes that the Cubans were activists and maintains that the transfer to Hungary would amount to a violation of the U.S.-Cuba migration accords from the mid-1990s because migrants interdicted at sea are generally to be repatriated to Cuba. Those who land on U.S. shores are generally allowed to stay.


However, since the agreements have been in effect, dozens of Cubans picked up at sea have been taken to Guantánamo and then given third-country asylum and Cuba has not objected. Cuban migrants who demonstrate a fear of persecution if repatriated are rerouted to Guantánamo and held there while the U.S. government negotiates with other countries to grant them asylum.

The Hungarian news agency MTI reported on its website that the Cubans would be admitted as refugees. Separately, the Voice of America -- the U.S. government's international broadcast service -- quoted the MTI dispatch.

''We cannot comment on resettlement to third countries,'' a U.S. government official said Wednesday.

Among complaints by the hunger-strikers was an alleged incident in which a 4-year-old girl was said to have been inappropriately touched during a search in front of her parents -- but that later proved false, officials said.

Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Wednesday that such an incident never happened. After a review of the allegation, officials established that it involved a 16-year-old who was searched with his parents' consent and in front of them. She said the search was done by a male officer.


The search was triggered by the discovery of knives, large scissors and pornography in the center, Gonzalez said. None of those items was found on the youth who was searched, she said.

''These random searches are conducted for the safety and security of all the protected migrants living at the base,'' she said.

Havana: Most Americans feel like Obama

By Vivian Sequera, Associated Press. Posted on Wed, Aug. 22, 2007.

BRASILIA -- U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama's criticisms of Washington's restrictions on travel and sending money to Cuba echo the sentiments of the majority of Americans, the Cuban foreign minister said Wednesday.

Felipe Pérez Roque said Obama's "declarations express a sentiment shared by the majority of people in the United States, that the draconian measures adopted by the government of President Bush violated the constitutional rights of North Americans and constitute an anachronism and barbaric act.''

Pérez Roque made his comments upon arriving at the Brazilian Foreign Ministry for a meeting of Latin American and East Asian officials.

In an article published Tuesday in The Miami Herald, Obama criticized tighter U.S. restrictions on travel to the island by relatives of Cubans and on their shipment of money to family members. He said he would reverse the measures.

''The primary means we have of encouraging positive change in Cuba today is to help the Cuban people become less dependent on the Castro regime in fundamental ways,'' the Illinois senator wrote.

''Unfortunately, the Bush administration has made grand gestures to that end while strategically blundering when it comes to actually advancing the cause of freedom and democracy in Cuba,'' he added.

While the U.S. embargo has limited travel, trade and money transfers with Cuba since the early 1960s, Bush's restrictions made visiting and shipping gifts to Cuba more difficult.

Cuban Americans can only visit the island once every three years and can only send quarterly remittances of up to $300 per household to immediate family members. Previously, they could visit once a year and send up to $3,000.

The United States also tightened restrictions on travel for educational and religious groups.

Cuba blasts Hungary over asylum for 29

Posted on Wed, Aug. 22, 2007.

HAVANA -- (AP) -- Cuba branded Hungary an ''imperial accomplice'' of Washington on Wednesday for granting political asylum to 29 Cubans who were held at the Guantánamo Bay naval base.

Those given Hungarian visas were among 44 Cubans picked up at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. Because authorities deemed them at risk of persecution if repatriated, the group was held at the base while officials sought a third country to take them. Many were dissidents, and some were at the base more than two years.

The Cubans at the Guantánamo base included 17 who staged a hunger strike to protest conditions at the base. That strike ended Friday when Hungary announced it would take 29 migrants.

A third country was expected to take seven more and five others were approved to go to the United States. One chose to return to Cuba for family reasons, and the status of a couple who were offered Hungarian visas but apparently refused them, was unclear.

Cuba's Foreign Ministry issued a statement that ''the government of Hungry acts as an accomplice to the empire,'' and said it would be later rewarded by the U.S. government.

It said that ''servile'' Hungary "insists on demonstrating to its powerful and aggressive master that it can count on its abject loyalty.''

The statement also accused U.S. officials of flouting international law by sending the migrants to Guantánamo and said that arranging asylum for them will encourage more unsafe sea voyages by Cubans leaving the island.

It accused the United States of failing to repatriate 16 percent of the Cuban migrants now intercepted at sea, even though American policy mandates that Cubans caught on the water are sent home while most making it to U.S. territory can stay.

By contrast, Cuba says, Washington is ''organizing armies to combat mass exodus'' off the island, a reference to U.S. authorities training for a possible onslaught of Cuban migrants trying to leave after Fidel Castro dies.

The 81-year-old Castro has not been seen in public since emergency intestinal surgery forced him to cede power to his younger brother more than a year ago, and his condition remains a state secret.

Green cards now easier for Cubans born abroad

By Alfonso Chardy, [email protected] Posted on Wed, Aug. 22, 2007.

A recent decision by federal immigration authorities will make it much easier for people born outside Cuba to obtain a U.S. green card if at least one of their parents was born in Cuba.

Under the decision, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will no longer require that those born outside Cuba file documents specifically saying they are Cuban citizens. Cuban consular papers saying they are children of at least one Cuban parent will be enough to prove Cuban citizenship.

The July 31 decision is likely to benefit thousands of foreign nationals born abroad of Cuban parents -- particularly Venezuelans whose parents fled Cuba shortly after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.

The Cuban expatriate community in Venezuela, numbering between 25,000 and 50,000 people, is one of the largest after the one in Miami.

Increasing numbers of Venezuelans are leaving their homeland as President Hugo Chávez steers the South American country toward socialism.

The new green card decision is based on a Miami case in which the application of a Venezuelan born of Cuban parents was rejected by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in May 2006 on the grounds he could not conclusively prove he was a Cuban citizen.

Venezuelan-born Armando Vázquez was elated at the decision.

''I've been waiting for this for a long time,'' said Vázquez, 42, who works in the construction industry. He and his wife arrived with their 8-month-old daughter in 1999, one year after Chávez was first elected.

His parents fled Cuba in 1961 and resettled eventually in Venezuela.

They have now left Venezuela and are living in South Florida, Vázquez said.

''I'm so happy this decision went in my favor because I don't want to go back to Venezuela the way things are going there,'' Vázquez said.

Vázquez's Miami immigration attorney, Larry Rifkin, appealed the government's denial in his client's case to the service's administrative appeals office -- and won.

''This decision will benefit thousands of people, mainly Venezuelans of Cuban ancestry, who desperately need this,'' Rifkin said.

He added that the effort to reverse the previous immigration service position was ''unnecessary'' because the Cuban Adjustment Act already contained language that enabled Cubans born abroad to qualify for U.S. green cards.

The Vázquez case reverses a June 2006 decision that restricted green cards to foreign nationals who could produce Cuban documents specifically saying they were Cuban citizens.

The 2006 case revolved around a green card application filed by Liliana Lozano Buschini, a Venezuelan whose mother had been born in Cuba. Buschini's application, however, was denied because she did not have a Cuban passport, birth certificate or government-issued certificate.

She had only certified letters from a Cuban consular official.

Buschini's attorney, Stephen Bander, appealed the denial to the immigration service's administrative appeals office and won, arguing a consular document saying the person was a Cuban citizen was sufficient to prove citizenship.

Rifkin, Vázquez's attorney, also appealed his client's case and won the July 31 decision, which eliminates the Buschini requirement.

Now all applicants need to show is a Cuban birth certificate, a passport or a consular paper saying they are the children of Cuban parents or at least one Cuban parent.

In the case of Vázquez, he had a Cuban birth certificate issued by a Cuban consulate in Venezuela -- but it did not say he was a Cuban citizen.

Candidates bring Cuba into race

One day after Democrat Barack Obama called for lifting limits on family travel to Cuba, rival Hillary Clinton expressed support for current restrictions.

By Beth Reinhard And Lesley Clark, [email protected] Posted on Wed, Aug. 22, 2007.

The leading Democratic presidential contenders Tuesday staked out contrasting positions on family travel to Cuba, injecting the island dear to hundreds of thousands of South Florida voters into a race mostly consumed by the war in Iraq.

In an opinion column in The Miami Herald, Sen. Barack Obama assailed President Bush's policy -- which restricts Cuban Americans to visiting relatives once every three years and sending only $100 per month -- as "strategic blundering when it comes to advancing the cause of freedom and democracy in Cuba.''

Rival Sen. Hillary Clinton said she would continue the Bush administration's hard-line stance, for the most part. Clinton's campaign said she agrees that exiles should be able to freely send money to their relatives but said she does not favor ''any wholesale, broad changes'' to the travel restrictions until Fidel Castro falls. Clinton did vote with Obama in 2005 -- unsuccessfully -- to ease restrictions on family travel in "humanitarian cases.''

''She supports the embargo and our current policy toward Cuba, and until it is clear what type of political winds may come with a new government -- if there is a new government -- we cannot talk about changes to U.S. policy,'' Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee said.

Two of the major Republican candidates, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, said Obama's proposal would bolster the Castro regime.

Cuba's prominence on the presidential agenda reflects Florida's newfound clout in the primary season, under a new law that bumped up the state's vote from March to January, right behind Iowa and New Hampshire. The dispute over travel to the island extends a foreign policy battle between the two leading Democrats that started last month when Obama said he would be willing to meet with leaders of Cuba and Venezuela.


Clinton seized on his comment to portray herself as more seasoned; Obama stood by what he characterized as openness to change.

The two senators also parted ways in 2005 on federal aid to TV Martí, with Clinton voting with the majority to preserve American broadcasts to the island. Obama spokesman Jen Psaki said he thinks that funding for TV Martí -- routinely jammed by the Castro regime -- would be better spent on other democratic ventures.

''Ultimately, this election is a choice between staying with the failed policies of the past and the Bush administration or turning the page and taking a new approach to global diplomacy,'' Psaki said.

The other major Democratic candidate, John Edwards, said in a statement Tuesday that promoting travel by family members to Cuba ''can help spread the promise of freedom and democracy within Cuba and strengthen families across the waters.'' He favors the cap on remittances to use as leverage against the regime.

In the past few months, Republican candidates addressing Cuban-American voters in Miami-Dade have embraced the GOP tradition of railing against Casto's repression. Obama's proposal to allow Cuban Americans ''unrestricted rights'' to visit relatives and send them money gave the Republicans another shot.

''Rudy Giuliani believes America must stand ready to help the Cuban people reclaim their freedom, but decreasing sanctions on Cuba will only serve to boost the Castro regime,'' said a campaign statement.

Romney's campaign said: "Unilateral concessions to a dictatorial regime are counterproductive, helping to secure a succession of power and repression instead of a transition to freedom.''

Hopes that the new Democratic majority in Congress would be willing to challenge U.S. policy toward Havana fell flat over the summer as Cuban-American lawmakers and their allies argued that U.S. policy shouldn't change until Cuba adopts democratic reforms. In June, the House rejected efforts to reverse a Bush administration plan to boost aid to Cuban opposition groups and declined to even allow amendment votes on travel restrictions.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, a director with the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, which lobbies Congress to keep U.S. sanctions against Cuba in place, suggested that Obama's strategy was a ''redo'' of 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry's endorsement of ''principled travel'' to Cuba.


''Here's what he's betting on: that somehow he can reach out and gain support from Cuban Americans who support the embargo but think family travel restrictions went too far,'' Claver-Carone said.

Some polls suggest that most Cuban Americans, weary of waiting for Castro's death, are frustrated with the current policy. But outspoken exile leaders say allowing Cuban Americans to support the island's economy would prop up the ailing dictator's authority.

Judge defends impartiality in Cuban-child custody case

Her reelection effort will play no part in her ruling, said the judge who will decide the fate of a 4-year-old Cuban girl caught in an international custody dispute.

By Carol Marbin Miller, [email protected] Posted on Tue, Aug. 21, 2007.

A week before she is to preside over one of the most controversial child-custody trials held at Miami's juvenile court, the judge at the center of the dispute vehemently defended herself Monday against allegations she might be susceptible to political pressure.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen, who has been on the bench since 1992 -- mostly in dependency court -- will decide whether a 4-year-old girl will return to Cuba to live with her birth father or be raised in the Coral Gables home of the foster parents who have cared for her the past 16 months.

Reacting to an e-mail sent last week to the attorney for the girl's birth father, the judge insisted in a hearing Monday that she would hear the case impartially, and would rebound and find a new legal challenge if the outcome of the case proved unpopular. Cohen is up for reelection in 2008.

''I am not worried about reelection; I am worried about doing the right thing for everybody involved,'' Cohen said. "Anyone who thinks I would make a decision based on an election doesn't know me.''

In the e-mail to attorney Ira Kurzban, Andrew Lagomasino, the father's therapist, suggested the father's legal team consider finding someone to write a letter to the editor to ''generate community support'' for the father's side.

''I have thought of some creative things to see if we can show the judge that she won't be defeated in the election if she sends [the girl] back to Cuba,'' Lagomasino wrote in his e-mail.

Jason Dimitris, the Department of Children & Families' chief of staff, who is spearheading the state's case against the father, gave Cohen a copy of the e-mail, calling it ''very disturbing to us.'' The DCF is seeking to prove the birth father is unfit to raise the girl.


Cohen immediately dismissed the e-mail and the notion that she was under any ''pressure'' to rule against the girl's father, a farmer and fisherman from Cabaiguán in central Cuba.

''The election plays no part in the way I rule in this job,'' Cohen said. "The only thing I have is my integrity. I am intellectually honest, and I have integrity. You all have to understand that.''

The curly-haired girl at the center of the battle made a surprise appearance of sorts Monday when Cohen agreed to play two short home movies videotaped during two overnight visits the girl had with her father. The birth father is in Miami with his wife and another daughter to fight for custody.

The first video, shot about two weeks ago, opens with the girl and her older half-sister playing with the camera. The video shows a white tile floor and two little girls' toes, and jerks wildly for a few minutes before an adult takes hold of the camera.

''Whoever shot this video better not quit their day job,'' the judge quipped.

In the next scene, the girl, dressed in a pink print shirt and shorts, is playing in a bedroom with her half-sister and father. ''What do you see?'' the father asks. ''I see you're chubby,'' she responds.

Later, the camera rolls as the father plays hide-and-seek with the two girls.


In the second video, taken during the girl's first overnight visit earlier this month, the two girls frolic in a pool with the birth father's wife, singing songs in Spanish and pushing each other repeatedly into the water.

The tape contrasted sharply with the testimony of two court-appointed psychologists, Miguel Firpi and Julio Vigil, who expressed some concerns last week that the girl appeared hostile to her father during an overnight visit. The girl had a cold, they said, and resisted attempts by the father to interact.

''The child did not come to the meeting in a good mood,'' Vigil said. The girl, he added, "was not pleasant. She said she didn't want to meet [her father]. She said she didn't love him. She said she didn't want to go to Cuba.''

Nevertheless, both of the therapists agreed that the visits, even the unsupervised sleepovers, should continue, because the girl needs to acclimate herself to her dad if they are to be reunited in the future.


In other developments Monday:

o Alan Mishael, the attorney for the girl's foster parents, filed a motion asking the judge to lift a gag order that prevents anyone involved in the case from speaking to reporters. He said the secrecy order violated constitutional protections of free speech and had resulted in ''manipulative'' coverage by The Miami Herald.

His request will be argued in court Thursday.

Mishael also thanked the judge for allowing his client -- the girl's foster father -- to be a party to the upcoming custody trial, which means Mishael will be able to take statements and cross-examine witnesses.

o Kurzban, the birth father's attorney, complained to Cohen that advocates for the child, including her foster-care caseworker, had failed to alert the judge when the girl showed up for a visitation with a ''hematoma'' on her head.

The caseworker, Maria Zamora, insisted in court that the injury was no more than a ''bump'' that resulted when she fell off a sofa and hit her head.


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