August 28, 2007

The Miami Herald

Castro essay criticizes U.S. presidential hopefuls

Posted on Tue, Aug. 28, 2007

HAVANA -- (AP) -- A new essay signed by ailing leader Fidel Castro accused U.S. presidential candidates of "submission" to his exiled foes in Florida and offered a favorable assessment of only one of the 10 presidents he has known: Jimmy Carter.

Candidates for the U.S. presidential election in 2008 "are totally absorbed by the Florida adventure," Castro said in the column published Tuesday by the Communist Party newspaper Granma and other official media.

Castro said that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama 'feel the sacred duty to demand 'a democratic government in Cuba' " -- something Cuban officials insist already exists.

Obama last weekend called for loosening restrictions on how often Cuban Americans can visit family on the island and how much money they can send them.

"It can help make their families less dependent on Fidel Castro. That's the way to bring about real change in Cuba," Obama told more than 1,000 people in Little Havana.

Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, last week reiterated her support for current U.S. policy: "Until it is clear what type of policies might come with a new [Cuban] government, we cannot talk about changes in the U.S. policies toward Cuba."

The column -- the second published so far this week -- made no reference to recent rumors that Castro had died or was dying. Nor did it reveal any information about his exact ailment or condition. Castro has not been seen in public in the 13 months since he announced he had undergone intestinal surgery and temporarily ceded power to his younger brother Raúl.

Castro also described his relations with other U.S. presidents he had dealt with since 1959.

"I only knew one who for ethical-religious reasons was not complicit to the brutal terrorism against Cuba: James Carter," Tuesday's essay read -- though it noted that a law banning U.S. attempts to assassinate foreign leaders such as Castro took effect during President Gerald Ford's administration.

Castro noted that Carter opened the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and supported an agreement on maritime limits.

Despite his efforts, Castro said, "the circumstances of that time impeded him from going further."

Castro said former President Bill Clinton was "really friendly" during a brief encounter at a U.N. summit and said he was "intelligent in demanding that rule of law be followed" in the case of castaway boy Elián González, who was returned from the United States to Cuba in 2000 after an international custody battle.

He also acknowledged that Clinton apparently tried to stop flights by exile pilots who had enraged the communist government by repeatedly scattering anti-communist literature over Havana.

But he criticized Clinton for backing legislation to tighten the U.S. trade embargo after Cuban jet fighters shot down the civilian planes off the island's coast during a repeat visit in February 1996.

"It was an electoral year, and he took advantage of that," Castro said, noting that Clinton invited exile leaders to witness his signing of "the criminal law."

Killings spotlight Cuban migration via Mexico

By Alfonso Chardy, Posted on Tue, Aug. 28, 2007

CANCUN, Mexico -- Luis Lara arrived in Hialeah from Cuba five years ago and led a largely quiet life -- until he left last year for the city of Mérida on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula.

Lara's bullet-riddled body turned up four weeks ago in an isolated spot more than 15 miles from Cancún, the beach resort where gunmen had earlier kidnapped him and his wealthy Mexican girlfriend. Her body was discovered four days later, along with those of two Mexican men.

The four murders, believed linked to smuggling rings responsible for bringing growing numbers of Cubans to the Yucatán Peninsula, have shaken Cancún, an international beach resort normally associated with sand, sun and fun.

They have also cast a spotlight on the growing number of undocumented Cuban migrants detected by U.S. authorities. If current trends continue, the number of illegal departures from Cuba will have grown about 14 percent since about the time ailing Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raúl.

Members of the U.S. intelligence community say the increase is causing them concern about a potential mass exodus, but add that it's too early to speculate on what is behind the increase.

The four abductions and homicides have not altered the happy rhythms of beach partying along Cancún's glitzy hotel strip. Mexican officials insist they were isolated cases that do not compromise the security of foreign tourists.

"Tourists are safe," said María Antonieta Salmerón, spokeswoman for the state prosecutor's office in Cancún. "These episodes are likely the result of a settlement of accounts among criminal gang elements."

But longtime Cuban residents say they are now fearful -- and don't want to talk to journalists -- because of the rising stakes on the Cuban-smuggling route that ends in the Yucatán Peninsula.

The route -- which sidesteps U.S. Coast Guard patrols along the Florida Straits -- starts in parts of western Cuba like the province of Pinar del Río and the Isle of Youth, crosses the 135-mile-wide Yucatán Channel, and winds up in the Mexican ports of Isla Mujeres, Cancún and Cozumel.

Earlier this month, a report from Cuba said border guards were closing down some beaches on the Isle of Youth in an apparent effort to thwart landings by smugglers. It added that the guards were looking for one particularly fast boat -- outfitted with four outboard engines -- known as Reina del Caribe, or Queen of the Caribbean.

Last year, the Cuban coast guard shot one smuggler to death and captured another who Havana media reported had confessed to helping a Mexico-based smuggling ring that charged him $20,000 to arrange his wife and child's departure.


The head of the Mexican Immigration Institute's regional office in Cancún, Eusebio Romero Pérez, told The Miami Herald that the flow of undocumented Cubans to Mexico is clearly rising -- 413 in the first seven months of this year, compared with 339 in the same period last year.

"There is concern on the part of our service on how to deal with this new phenomenon," Romero said. He added that his agency had asked the navy to step up its patrols.

If the Cubans are intercepted at sea, Mexican authorities often return them to the communist island, Romero said. But if they land and are caught, they are released after paying a 10,000-peso fine (about $920), which essentially gives them 30 days to leave the country.

Dozens still waiting to pay the fine are now in detention at facilities in Cancún, Mexico City and Tapachula, on Mexico's southern border with Guatemala. Authorities did not allow The Miami Herald to interview some of them.

Ramón Saúl Sánchez, head of the Miami-based Cuban migrant advocacy group Democracy Movement, said he is getting an increasing number of calls from relatives of undocumented Cubans desperate to find out if they have arrived in Mexico.

"There is a silent exodus taking place from Cuba into any nearby country," Sánchez said. "People have lost hope, even if Fidel Castro is indeed fading from power."

Mexican officials familiar with the issue say smugglers are charging up to $10,000 a Cuban for their full service -- the boat ride from Cuba to the Yucatán Peninsula and then overland transit to the U.S. border.

How the slaying of 30-year-old Lara fits into the profitable but risky business is now under investigation in Mexico.

Mexican newspaper reports say Lara told friends that he had fled Cuba through the Yucatán Peninsula and then made his way to South Florida. But a woman who identified herself as the mother of Lara's wife, Alely Acosta, 31, said the couple arrived legally in Miami in 2002.

The couple have two young children, but it's not known if they were born in Cuba or South Florida. The woman who said she was Acosta's mother insisted that her daughter was Lara's "ex-wife" but declined to comment further.

Mexican media accounts said Acosta flew to Cancún soon after Lara was kidnapped to pick up the children, who had been staying with him, and flew back to Miami with them.


Lara was under investigation by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces U.S. economic sanctions on Cuba, according to a U.S. government official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the case.

Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise would not comment on Lara.

Lara left South Florida late last year for unknown reasons and headed to Mérida, the largest city on the Yucatán Peninsula, where he met María Elena Carrillo Saénz, a member of a prominent family. Her family owns the luxury El Conquistador hotel along the leafy Paseo de Montejo, one of the city's principal thoroughfares.

They began to date and eventually lived together. The Mérida newspaper Diario de Yucatán quoted one of Carrillo's relatives as saying that the family did not like Lara, but had no details.

Lara and Carrillo went to Cancún last month to vacation and stayed at a moderately priced hotel, Cancún police told Mexican reporters. On July 19 or 20, police said, they left the hotel ostensibly to go to a nearby supermarket and left Lara's children with a maid. When the couple did not return, the maid called authorities.

Lara's body was found July 30, dumped off the road to Mérida. Carrillo's body was found nearby Aug. 3, along with the bodies of two other Mexicans, Edwin Park and Jesús Aguilar. Police in Cancún told Mexican reporters that the two men were involved with migrant smugglers, but gave no details.

While Mexican authorities are continuing to investigate the four homicides, the migrant smuggling route that Lara is accused of fostering is continuing to make headlines.

The Cancún tabloid Périodico Quequi Quintana Roo carried a front-page story this month outlining the Cuba-Cancún route.

Lara's body, meanwhile, remains unclaimed in the Cancún morgue.

Miami Herald staff writers Pablo Bachelet in Washington and Casey Woods and Frances Robles in Miami, and researcher Monika Leal contributed. Joaquín Chan and Carlos Gebhardt of Diario de Yucatán also contributed.

Cuban father scores crucial victory in custody case

By Carol Marbin Miller. Posted on Tue, Aug. 28, 2007

A child welfare judge Monday threw out a key piece of the state's case against a Cuban father seeking to regain custody of his 4-year-old daughter: the claim that his desire to raise her constitutes child abuse because she has "bonded" with a foster family.

Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen, a 16-year veteran of the bench, tossed out the allegation against Rafael Izquierdo, the father of the auburn-haired youngster at the center of a contentious custody dispute spanning the Florida Straits.

'We often have situations like that. A parent says, 'I understand there may be some bonding, but I want my child. I love my child. I will fight for my child.' That's basically what you're [saying]: If a father does that, or a mother, it constitutes prospective abuse," the judge said. "I've never seen anything like this in all my years of doing dependency."

The judge's decision leaves two claims remaining in the state's dependency petition against Izquierdo, and the judge left little doubt she is not impressed by one of those -- that Izquierdo abandoned his daughter by allowing her to move to the United States and not sending her birthday cards or money after she arrived.

"With everything you have, even if you pull a rabbit out of a hat, I just don't see how" the state can prove Izquierdo intended to abandon his daughter, the judge told Department of Children and Families attorney Rebecca Kapusta.

"With everything I have seen so far, you do not have abandonment. I am telling you: I don't see it. It doesn't rise to what the courts need," Cohen said. "I don't think you meet the legal standard."

In the third count, the state is arguing that Izquierdo erred by allowing the girl's mother to take her to the United States even though he should have known she was mentally ill.

Signaling her frustration with DCF's legal team, Cohen urged the lawyers to take a second look at their entire case, a theme she has returned to frequently during weekly hearings. "You need to listen to what I'm telling you," she told Kapusta and the two other lawyers representing DCF.

"You need to be intellectually honest with yourselves. . . . Or are you just so locked into something because you are state employees and attorneys, and you can't see the forest for the trees?"

Cohen's suggestion that attorneys reconsider their case marked the second time Monday that the judge criticized the state for its handling of the case. Earlier in the day, Cohen scolded DCF for failing to notice, until the last minute, that they lacked a crucial court order.

The record, documenting the girl's mother's decision to give up custody, was not in the official court file of the case, which had disappeared months earlier. Cohen said she believes the state simply failed to get the order signed. "You need to take responsibility for that," she said.

The case concerns the fate of a girl who was taken into DCF custody in December 2005 after her mother, Elena Perez, called 911 in the throes of depression.

The trial was set to start Monday, but lawyers spent the day arguing motions.

Izquierdo's attorney, Ira Kurzban, argued that the DCF case, contained in a petition seeking to declare the father unfit, should be dismissed before the state even begins to present its evidence against the Cuban farmer and fisherman.

DCF attorney Kapusta strongly urged the judge to allow the state to proceed and make up her mind only after the state had presented its case.

"You have to hear the evidence in the case before you decide," Kapusta said. "We have a right to go forward with our case, your honor."

The judge's dismissal of the state's claim of "prospective abuse" gutted what was a cornerstone of DCF's theory of the case.

For months, DCF attorneys, a court-appointed guardian and two court-appointed therapists have dissected in minute detail a series of visits between Izquierdo and his daughter. The two therapists, Miguel Firpi and Julio Vigil, have warned several times that the girl has failed to attach to her father.

She now lives with Joe and Maria Cubas, the Coral Gables foster family that has cared for her the past 18 months. Joe Cubas has told Cohen he and his wife wish to raise the girl, a position DCF supports.

Firpi said the girl cried during much of a visit last week because Izquierdo refused to allow her to phone Cubas. Firpi said the girl also complained that Izquierdo used an ugly word to describe Cubas.

The state says the youngster enjoys an extremely good bond with the Cubas family. The girl, Kapusta said, "stands to suffer severe abuse if she is removed from this custodian, and from her brother. By all accounts, the [foster] parents are providing a loving, caring and nurturing place for this child."

Kurzban blasted the state for suggesting a father should lose his daughter because he wants to raise her.

"Seeking to reunify with a child cannot be prospective abuse," Kurzban said. "If so, it would end the dependency system entirely."

Kurzban dismissed the state's claim that Izquierdo abandoned the girl by failing to send her money in the United States.

The state, he said, claimed that Izquierdo had "$8,000 in the bank."

They really meant pesos, Kurzban said, which would be equivalent to $400 -- money he could not really send her, given Cuba's relationship with the United States.

Reacting to another of the state's claims, Kurzban said: "He failed to send birthday cards and presents. . . . Are they serious?"

DCF chief calls Cuban dad case 'unusual'

By Marc Caputo, Posted on Tue, Aug. 28, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- The head of Florida's child welfare agency said Tuesday that the agency's case to take away a child from a Cuban national is ''unusual'' and is the most expensive to occur on his watch.

Department of Children & Families chief Bob Butterworth made his statements to a reporter shortly after he appeared before a state legislative committee that is tasked with cutting his budget.

But despite a lack of cash and a tough time in court, Butterworth said he has no regrets over the estimated tens of thousands of dollars DCF has spent trying to keep Rafael Izquierdo from gaining custody of his 4-year-old daughter from a Coral Gables foster family.

''This is one case that I guess occurs every eight years,'' Butterworth said, referring to the world-watched Elián González case. "This case is now in trial. It will be over very, very shortly. Hopefully, the judge will make her decision. Hopefully, that will be it.''

Asked if that meant the state would drop any further action if a judge ruled against DCF, Butterworth said that the agency would ''have to assess'' that.

Castro signs political essay, sidesteps health questions

Without hinting about his health, Fidel Castro signed a new political essay that appeared in print on Sunday.

By Will Weissert, Associated Press. Posted on Mon, Aug. 27, 2007

HAVANA -- Fidel Castro signed a lengthy essay published Sunday saluting a Cuban political figure but giving no hint of how he is feeling, even amid rampant rumors of his death.

The 81-year-old Castro has not been seen in public in over a year and has not even appeared in official photographs or video footage since taping an interview with Cuban state television June 5.

The lack of images has fueled speculation among the Cuban exile community in Miami and elsewhere that Castro might have died. He announced on July 31, 2006, that he had undergone emergency intestinal surgery and was temporarily ceding power to his younger brother Raúl.

Officials in Havana have refused to speak about Castro's condition, but Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque told reporters in Brazil last week that ''Fidel is doing very well and is disciplined in his recovery process.'' He insisted the gray-bearded leader maintains ''permanent'' contact with top government officials.

Castro's essay, the latest in dozens of Reflections of the Commander in Chief columns he has published several times a week since late March, was signed Saturday evening and appeared in the Communist Youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde on Sunday.

Verbose but clearly stated and easy to follow, Castro wrote of Eduardo Chibas, the president of Cuba's Orthodox Party, who was born 100 years ago this month. Chibas campaigned against corruption that plagued Cuba's government before Castro toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959.

Tensions flare at Cuban custody trial

By Carol Marbin Miller, Posted on Mon, Aug. 27, 2007

The fireworks began immediately Monday morning on the first day of a trial that will help decide the fate of a 4-year-old girl caught in a tug of war between two families -- one from Cuba, one from Coral Gables -- seeking to raise her.

Lawyers for the girl's birth parents contend that the girl's mother, Elena Perez, did not freely agree to give up custody of the girl in February 2006, shortly after child-welfare workers took the girl into state care.

The girl and her older half-brother were sheltered by the state after Perez called 911 in the throes of depression.

Though the transcript of a hearing read in court Monday morning by Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen shows Perez agreed to accept services from the state Department of Children & Families, the judge who was hearing the case at the time, Spencer Eig, did not sign an order declaring Perez unfit to raise the girl.

Eig later recused himself from the case because he had represented relatives of Elián González seven yaers ago in a case that was strikingly similar.

Cohen said Monday morning that Eig would sign a dependency order to document what occurred in court 18 months ago. That prompted a tense hourlong argument with lawyers for the girl's birth parents.

Cohen at first declined to discuss the missing documents.

''Can we be heard?'' asked Ira Kurzban, a lawyer for Rafael Izquierdo, the girl's birth father. "This is outrageous. This is Alice in Wonderland.''

Cohen read long passages from the transcript of the Feb. 21, 2006, hearing, in which Perez described in detail her struggles in the United States after she legally emigrated from Cuba with her two children.

''I was coming here with great ideas, thinking only positive things for me and my children,'' she said, according to the transcript.

But as soon as Perez arrived at Miami International Airport her husband, Jesus Melendres, abandoned her. ''My dream [was] to stay in the U.S.,'' Perez said. "His desire [was] to go back to Cuba.''

With the help of Catholic Charities, Perez said, she resettled in Houston, where she found a job at a shampoo factory. Months later, struggling for work and help with the children, she returned to Miami.

Perez said she called 911 because she desperately needed help.

''I did this looking for protection for my children,'' she said.

Both Kurzban and Greer Wallace, Perez's lawyer, said the transcript shows Perez did not give up custody voluntarily. For one thing, they said, Perez did not have a court interpreter. A relative of Perez's estranged husband, who may have had motives of his own, they said, translated.

The transcript shows Perez appeared confused: ''It's just that I don't understand,'' she said at one point.

Kurzban asked Cohen to stop the proceedings Monday morning to give him time to ask a Miami appeals court to overrule her decision to allow the missing record to be re-created.

Cohen refused to halt the trial, which is likely to begin Monday afternoon.

The pretrial proceedings Monday morning also became heated when two court-appointed therapists, Miguel Firpi and Julio Vigil, briefed Cohen on ongoing visits between Izquerido and his daughter.

Firpi said the girl cried during much of a recent visit because Izquierdo refused to allow her to phone her foster parents, Joe and Maria Cubas, the Cuban-American couple from Coral Gables.

Firpi said the girl also complained that Izquierdo had used an ugly word to describe Cubas.

''The father made a rather negative comment about Mr. Cubas. She said Mr. Cubas was her father, and he answered Joe Cubas was un mierda,'' -- a shit.

Castro death rumors crop up again

For the third week in a row, rumors of Fidel Castro's death spread across South Florida.

By Lydia Martin. Posted on Sat, Aug. 25, 2007.

The rumors heated up again Friday for the third week in a row: Fidel Castro's death would be announced, first at 2 p.m., then at 4, then at 5.

In the year since the Cuban government announced Castro had ceded power to brother Raúl following intestinal surgery, rumors he's on his deathbed keep boiling over and dying down, creating a roller coaster of emotion for exiles and islanders.

Tearful callers told Ninoska Pérez of Radio Mambí they were sure this was it, and Pérez, as usual, said, "The moment will come, but this is not the moment.''

At Aaction Home Health in Hialeah, office workers were abuzz because one heard that people in Havana were taking to the streets in anticipation of the news. At the University of Miami, media relations officers worked the phones in search of confirmation. And celebrity blogger Perez Hilton posted an entry insisting Castro was dead.


Friday's round of rumors, like those before them, didn't seem to be panning out.

Castro has written several recent newspaper columns, but he has not been seen in public in more than a year. For many, waiting for proof of his demise resembles the low-grade anxiety of bracing for a hurricane that may or may not hit. Even though it seems clear there won't be any real change on the island immediately after Castro's death, the exile community is preparing for something big nonetheless.

The rumors reached fever pitch last weekend. Calls flooded Miami Mayor Manny Diaz's office. UM's Cuba experts were on high alert. The community started rumbling anew, parents reaching out to children, friends calling friends.

''Last Friday, when the rumors started again, my phone rang off the hook,'' says Andy Gomez, senior fellow at UM's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "It was everybody. Friends, family, the State Department. People went nuts. ''

Another false alarm. Which, in an ironic way, was a relief to many who yearn for the end of Castro but know they'll have to put their lives on hold to deal with it.

'Every time I buy a plane ticket to go somewhere with my family, I always say, 'If Fidel doesn't die,' '' says Maria Elvira Salazar, host of WSBS-SBS 22's talk show Polos Opuestos (Opposite Poles).

"In a way, this is going to be like Hurricane Andrew times 10. We don't know what's going to happen, besides the idea that there will be a Pharaonic funeral. But we know when he dies, everything will revolve around his death. [Mega TV will] be on 24-7 for God knows how many days.''

Many South Florida Cubans jokingly say they hope Castro will make it through another weekend.

'I did say last week, 'If he's going to die, let him do it on a Monday,' '' says Bárbara Gutiérrez, a media relations officer at the University of Miami and former editor at El Nuevo Herald.

'When the new rumors started, I felt like, 'Oh no. Here we go.' Because when this happens, it won't be just dealing with work. It'll be dealing with my mother, who will want to go out and celebrate.

"It will be dealing with my own feelings. It will be dealing with the fact that in my family there are a lot of older people who we will have to be careful with, because the emotion of it all could make them sick.''

For now, though, the older generation in particular is coping, says Radio Mambí's Armando Perez Roura, a longtime Cuban radio personality who has been poised to break the news of Castro's demise for decades.

''This is definitely the calm before the storm,'' Perez Roura says.

After all, he says, it was a younger, more recently arrived Cuban crowd that jumped the gun and swarmed Calle Ocho to celebrate Castro's death when news of his ceding power broke at the end of July last year.

''The rest of us have spent a lot of years in this process,'' Perez Roura says. "Waiting for something to happen, hearing rumors that never turn out to be true. We're not going to react until we know for sure.''

''Both in Cuba and in exile, you can breathe a very tense calm,'' says Ramon Colas, who helped start Bibliotecas Independientes (Independent Libraries) in Cuba and left the island in 2001.

He now runs a Cuba race-relations project in Mississippi but still has regular exchanges with people on the island.


'Everybody is waiting to be able to say with certainty, 'El viejo se fue' [the old man is gone], but we know how much the Cuban government manipulates the truth. We know they can be the ones to launch rumors that he is dead in the first place, just to gauge our reaction. So we stay guarded.''

That emotional limbo can be damaging, says Dr. Julio Licinio, chairman of UM's psychiatry department.

"With Castro, there is nothing concrete. He keeps lingering. When something is unresolved, it makes you emotionally unsettled.''

Which is why Sonia del Corral was glad that her father, Victor del Corral, founder of the famed Victor's Café in New York, died when he did.

'It might seem weird to say, but my father was fine when he heard that Fidel was sick and had ceded power to Raúl. The next day he had a heart attack and slipped into a coma. So he died thinking Cuba was about to be free. He didn't have to stick around for another year of the waiting game and then maybe not outlive Castro. I'm happy that he was able to say to me, 'Ya, hija, ya.' '' (It's over, daughter, it's over.)

Oscar Haza, host of WJAN-America TeVe Channel 41's popular A Mano Limpia (The Gloves Are Off) hears the anxiety in the voices of viewers who call in to check on the rumors.

Knowing how desperate the Cuban exile community is for confirmation of Castro's death, Haza has tried to find a way to calm people whenever new rumors get them riled.

'I say, 'Don't pay attention to all the rumors. When you tune in and you hear me say 'Ya,' you will know that means 'Ya.' ''


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